Monday, August 18, 2014

Page spreads from the Jarman & the Dickinson respectively.

Further additions to the library ...

1000 Sonnets & Petrarch by Tim Atkins
Echo's Bones by Samuel Beckett
Pataphysical Essays by Rene Daumal

The Gorgeous Nothings (Emily Dickinson fragments)
Not Nothing (Ray Johnson Selected Writings)
Sketchbooks by Derek Jarman

Sunday, August 17, 2014

We continue down to Folkestone, chuckling at the thought of all those zombies wandering aimlessly around the Eurotunnel terminal (just how fascinating can Duty Free & WH Smith be?), & head for the parking lot near the harbour. There's a stiff wind blowing but we're in luck. Bob's mate has been out in his boat & lugged home some mighty fine lobsters (two of which ended up with us to Brussels). A bottle of Sancerre, salad, some bread & Mme Waffle's dressing ... hits the spot.

Why, I wonder, doesn't Bob place a sign on the motorway just before the Tunnel exit? Then again, if he did, there might be fewer lobsters for us. So best to keep it a secret between ourselves, right?

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Oddly enough Robin Williams had been on my mind yesterday while formulating ideas about my old English teacher. Dead Poets Society is that key Williams film & one I have refused to see - too many times I've been told "oh you must see it, you're an English teacher!" & worry that it will somehow cramp my style. Which might be why I don't feel today's news quite so keenly. Robin Williams, for me, has always been one of those litmus tests for US vs British humour (Jerry Lewis another). Perhaps I've never seen his best work & it's unfair to be prejudiced by obvious only-in-it-for-the-money link man jobs or - worse - the many students & colleagues who think they can 'do' Robin Williams (how it grates). No doubt people have winced as I have done Peter Cook or Python routines. Fair do's.

However, it is always sad when a clown passes. We need these Ambassadors of Mirth (now perhaps more than ever). In my version of an Enlightened society the statues in public places would be of famous clowns & comedians rather than the politicians, statesmen & war mongers. So over breakfast I drew up a Michael Lallyesque list of those artists of the funny bone - knowing that I'm blurring categories & bending the rules in places. Here goes, see what you think:

1. Stan Laurel (the greatest?)
2. Oliver Hardy (master of the double take)
3. Jacques Tati (that walk)
4. Chaplin (when not being maudlin)
5. Buster Keaton (up there with Stan)
6. Harold Lloyd (if only for the clock sequence)
7. WC Fields (of course)
8. Mae West (now & again - would she want it any other way?)
9. Groucho, Chico & Harpo (Groucho gets the accolades but he's in a lower gear without the others)
10. Peter Sellers (of the 1950s & Goon Shows after which things go downhill)
11. Spike Milligan (the Goon Shows alone confirm his genius)
12. Ken Dodd (for himself & everything he embodies of the British music hall tradition)
13. Tommy Cooper (he simply needed to walk on stage)
14. Philippe Noiret (master of the doleful expression)
15. Steve Wright (at times sublime)
16. Les Dawson (another master of knowing when not to do anything)
17. Martin Clunes (the name marks out his destiny - a man who seems to chuckle through life)
18. Max Wall (the little I have managed to see)
19. Frank Zappa (for the Dada spirit at the heart of his music)
20. Billy Jenkins (Tommy Cooper with guitar)
21. Woody Allen (the stand up years & up to the departure of Diane Keaton. After that ... the less said the better)
22. Anna Karina (in the early JLG films - utter joy & such beauty)
23. Giuletta Masina (La Strada)
24. Garbo (the face I see behind Stan Laurel's?)
25. Tony Hancock (that great put upon voice of 1950's Britain)

Hancock also killed himself - "too many things went wrong too many times" (or words to that effect) - in a hotel room in Australia. The story usually goes that he couldn't break into the big time like Sellers & was resentful of his co-stars (Sid James, Kenneth Williams) beginning to outshine him. Yet it's clear that Hancock had his personal demons & there's that joke that he held

especially dear:

A man goes into the doctor's and tells him that he has nothing to live for, his life has fallen apart. If the doctor can't help him, he'll take his own life.

No worries, says the doctor, there's the perfect solution to our problems. This week the circus has come into town. Grock, the greatest & funniest clown of them all, will perform every night. If you go along & see Grock you will laugh so hard you'll forget all your troubles.

To which the man replies: "Thank you doctor for your advice - but I am Grock".

Which might just be what Robin Williams was thinking.

Monday, August 11, 2014

To mark the day, here is one of my Dad's favourite jokes:

The phone rings in an art gallery.

The guard answers and hears a voice at the other end: "Statue?"


(It's the way you tell 'em of course)


In my slow but sure metamorphosis into Ed Reardon I have just succumbed to the temptation of the Guardian Comment feed. Nick Lezard (old Wet a year or two before me) had posted an article on Waiting for Godot as the book that changed his life. In the piece he mentions his - my/our - old English teacher who was surely responsible for generations of impressionable sixth formers catching the Beckett bug. I can still remember his reading of - performing would be a better word - the closing pages of Molloy on a Saturday morning class after which, overcome with emotion, he simply walked out the door leaving us to digest the writing. What more need be said - if, of course, you were receptive (as many of us were).

My reason for adding my two penn'orth initially was to share this memory and to point out how little this style of teaching had to do with Learning Outcomes and other quantifying & commodifying tendencies in current education. Instead it was closer to what Robert Duncan has described in the early pages of The H.D. Book: a sharing of a secret, a passing on of the torch, an initiation of sorts. Literature was so much more than a list of prescribed texts - that was made clear from the start. Yes, we had to write essays but these, too, showed no evidence of marking criteria or other dreary grey (seeming) objectivity. Instead there were effusive red Pentel comments scribbled at all angles ("Bull's eye!" was a favourite) plus blots where a glass of wine has left its mark (sometimes these were circled & identified by grape, producer & year).

Would such teaching comply with Ofsted standards today? I doubt it. Would such a teacher even be teaching today - the inspiration & eccentricity drummed out of him long ago in favour of predictable vanilla sameness. It's terribly sad & a thought that haunts me as I prepare for another year at the chalk face (the 19th here in Belgium, the 26th or so going right back to the first tutorials). All the more reason then to try & keep that dissident tradition going. Thirty-four years on & so many of those classes remain crystal clear - the Emily Dickinson 'plank' poem, the chapter-by-chapter analysis of Emma, another classic performance - this time of Swift's 'A Modest Proposal' ... plus the walks to the Tate to see the Bacons, the encouragement to listen to late Beethoven Quartets, not to mention the after prep conversations over a glass of Chateauneuf du Pape (surely, these days, enough to be struck off?).

Enormous privilege, of course, & it comes at a cost. My fear, though, is that in the ever wider dissemination of professional standards & 'best practice' something really precious is being lost (like looking at a rainbow & noticing a colour has faded from view). If my own students will have anything approaching such fond memories of our work together I'll be ... well, really chuffed. In many cases it will be despite the prevailing winds ...

Saturday, August 09, 2014

You'll have heard it before but it's new to me ... listening (a second time this evening) to Shaker Loops - right now, 9:45 pm - as the light fades from the sky & the houses settle down into darkness.

Certainly one of my favourite John Adams pieces.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Here's a link to one of their songs. I see there's also a full live set at Montreux up on Youtube.

Browsing in Fnac today for John Cage CDs (not much luck) I'm gradually aware of something familiar coming from the Rock section ... Kevin Ayers ... Kinks ... King Crimson ...?

In fact it's ...

... The Temples a young British band from Kettering. They've put together a sound that immediately suggests 60s psychedelia (for me late Beatles, early Floyd, although they cite the Byrds as more of an influence). Vocals have that well-brought up Syd Barrett or Kevin Ayers enunciation given plenty of echo. The drumming has a fat splat Ringo thing going but the driven pulse of Jimmy Carl Black. First impressions are in fact misleading. Listen more attentively & it's clear that this is not simple pastiche. Notes are held deliberately a bit longer to subvert any easy catchiness. Rhythms shift unexpectedly. There's a lush quality to the mix which veers towards Martin Denny exotica. It's interesting music. Not the John Cage I set out to find this morning but very welcome all the same. & isn't that what Cage is about anyway - keeping the ears & mind open?