Archive for May, 2016

Synchronicity – endings and beginnings

May 28, 2016

Synchronicity

Another end of term, another section of life completed, compartmentalized and put away. This time a good term, a successful chunk of time. Which led me to this end of term three years ago, which was anything but the end of a good time. It was a miserable rainy cold day, an appropriate bit of pathetic fallacy as the storm clouds had been fierce and intense for some time at that particular vile and vituperous work place. It was a good place to be out of, and the over-whelming feeling was one of profound relief.

It was an odd time, a very strange weekend, for literally had I stepped away from that pit of vultures, removed that poison from my life, than my father died. Yes, literally the next day. On the other side of the world he had a heart attack while driving and hit a telegraph pole, wiping out the power in the area for some time, and killing himself. It was interesting timing on many levels, as it was also my long dead, much missed mother’s birthday.

Farm1

You cannot ignore such coincidences, such synchronicity in the universe. It does seem as if there is a higher presence of some sort, a game master playing with us, making us stop and think, stop and wonder. Indeed it made me think as I winged my way home across the hours and miles to bury a father I’d not always loved, not always found easy. In the aftermath of his death there was another curious moment of synchronicity – only known to a few but spotted by one such person and relayed to me. My father’s accident was reported on the local news, as you might expect. But it followed an item about the demolition of a hotel in the middle of Hobart, where a woman had fallen to her death in the late 70’s. Yes, that woman was my mother. The news people would never in a million years have known the connection between the two accidents, but there it was. Both parents died in accidents many years apart, but there they were abutting each other in death in a news bulletin.

And now there is some peace in the world. After three years I only think fondly of my father, but fortunately at the time I was able, along with my brother, to bid him farewell in our own way. We went to his house, stood on his river bank, drank his champagne, ate party pies and as an eagle soared above us in the fading light, said our farewells.

farm night

My beloved eldest daughter was with me during the whole Tasmanian death days. It was appropriate: she was the grandchild most fond of John, most able to dote on him and make him laugh, able to call him ‘foolish’ without a storm front moving in. She helped clean and sort the detritus of a long life, a life of hoarding and not a lot of order. Oh my, did we find a lot of wine, pills and bullets! When we left we thought it was the end, the house, after being in the family for 50 years, would be sold and an important part of my life would be incontrovertibly over.

But the universe has stepped in again and now my daughter lives there: yes, the one who came to help, who perhaps felt the same love for the place I have always had. My tall blonde, fierce, Amazon daughter has settled there on the river bank with her fiancé: her English man, who is ten years older than her, a man who can turn his hand to all sorts of things, a remarkably useful fellow, who is devoted to her. What synchronicity is here, I hear you ask? Well, her mother met an Englishman, who was ten years older than her, remarkably useful in an intelligent and handy sort of way, and settled in a house on a riverbank in Tasmania many years ago.

P&T - dec 2015

I sit here this morning a world away from my own riverbank, from John’s and Phoenix’s riverbank and marvel at how the world turns out. Three years ago the world spun off its axis for me. Things shifted and changed and although I could not see it at the time, it has turned out to be very much for the better. I am in a much better work-place: one where I am valued and appreciated by students and staff. One of my lovely year 11s yesterday brought me chocolates and a card and thanked me, telling me I had rescued them. It was one of those sweet moments in a teacher’s life.

Farm-July13

My father’s house, which had been my grandfather’s house is now my daughter’s house. And I can only be pleased with that. We live, we die and others move the world on and so the house that Hector bought is the house that Phoenix will take to the next level and sooner or later fill it with more than baby chickens and German Shepherd puppies. A house that was the happiest place I ever spent with my father will now be a happy place to spend time with my darling daughter (when I eventually get back to my own river bank…) (Pix from Private Collection)

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An English Teacher’s Lament

May 21, 2016

An English Teacher’s Lament

Tis but a little poem today

Because most of my words have flown away

No words

 

This morning I have not enough words

For although the world remains absurd

Nothing startling has fallen from the bough

To urge me to write just now…

 

Instead, in land of exams and data and marking do I dwell,

I must admit it is a living hell

No time or space to set the imagination free,

For the kiddies or for me…

 

There is no time to think, no time to rest

Must teach to that fucking stupid test

Make sure we all do our best

To avoid the ire of the Ofsted pest,

Before the exam boards do their thing

And shift the ground boundaries again.

 

Swiftie globe

Perhaps there is finally nothing left to say on a dull or cheery Saturday

Or is it this just a temporary stay? (Images from private collection)

English Summer-time and the Weather is Stupid

May 14, 2016

English Summer-time and the Weather is Stupid!

Last week we had several days of wonderful sunshine, in fact several days where it got progressively warmer and we had a BBQ-worthy weekend. And as Aussies abroad that was what we did – burnt some snags on a patio sized Webber. And enjoyed them very much. It wasn’t quite home, it wasn’t thin beef BBQ sausages, there wasn’t a keg of Cascade somewhere with blokes gathered around it, but there was tomato sauce and salad and fresh rolls and the odd drink (Pimm’s I confess: something British that I do quite like).

BBQ

This week we’ve had temper tantrums from the Gods of weather – sunshine and rain, heavy cooling rain. It’s just like growing up in Hobart: you never know what to wear, you need your brolly with you every day; you’re too hot or too cold, never, like Goldilocks porridge, just right. It was one of the best things about living in the NT for so many years, the utter reliability of the weather. Hot and dry for half the year, hot and wet for the other half. Brilliant.

Does the warm weather cheer people up, does it make you feel better? The moment the sun pops out for an extended period here people descend on the parks and beaches in droves and yes, they do parade their whiter than white, paler than pale flesh far too early and so suffer the ensuing pinkness for several days. Picnics in the parks are one thing, but bathers and exposed sun-scared flesh as well? Really…

The sunshine here reminds me of the stereo-typical trope of the English and their mania for talking about the weather. Indeed the man at my local shop where I buy my weekend papers and croissants engaged me on the weather this morning. It’s a step up from nodding acknowledgement, to ‘good mornings’ to today’s: ‘it’s a bit odd this weather we’re having’. Face-book fills up with comments about the warmth, just as it does about the rain and the snow when it happens. It is true, the English do love a chat about the weather, about as much as they love a queue.

sunshine

The sunshine and warmth does not cheer up the kiddies. Oh, no: it simply gives them another reason to moan and complain about life, and then if it’s Friday afternoon and you’re fed up and know you’re going to fail your GCSE’s it gives you an even better excuse to sleep. They sit in class, sweating, fanning themselves with hand-fashioned paper fans, guzzling their water, moaning – we can’t work, it’s too hot, open the windows, Miss, how can you stand it? I look at them with amusement and faint pity and think, and sometimes say: Well, my dears, twenty years in the tropics gives you a sort of immunity – a tolerance for heat, no, in fact it gives you a love of heat and warmth, and anyway, this is NOT hot. And indeed it is not, it is only 23 degrees, hardly heat-wave, hardly fainting in the street from heat-exhaustion. But the English, especially the teenage English, love a good moan.

I have mixed feelings on the sunshine, on summer creeping in, on the longer days. It is lovely when it warms, when the evil icy tendrils of winter recede, when the short days lengthen and the darkness evaporates. It’s nice to go to work and come home in the light. It does lighten one’s spirit.

picnic

Summer is lovely. It’s wonderful in our old farmer’s cottage in France, where it really warms up and the countryside hums with the sounds of summer, of crickets and cows and weekend markets and street cafes for lunch; where I can spend all day in our walled garden reading in the sun, doing virtually nothing for as long as I want. Summer is a good way to end the school year as the weather warms and even returning to the fray as summer fades is fine too – you begin in a happy place – provided your exam results were good enough!

country

But, oh does the warm weather make me homesick! Indeed, ironically, far more than the winter. Come summer and I just want to go home, to be in my house, on my river-bank, having BBQ’s on my verandah, gazing on the water, appreciating our gardens, enjoying the fading light of the long summer day sparkle on the river; visiting my daughter on the Huon. Yes, summer does my head in – it’s always been my favourite season and now it is the season that tortures my soul, bringing joy as the light and warm fill my spirit, but a wistful sadness that I am not where I want to be, that I am not at home.(Images from Private Collection)

Shakespeare the Immortal: But is He Really God of English?

May 7, 2016

Shakespeare the Immortal: But is He Really God of English?

If you live in the English speaking world there are a couple of things you cannot escape at the moment – one is the US juggernaut that is Donald Trump, the other that it is 400 years since William Shakespeare popped his clogs. The differences are startling – one was the master of words, the other mangles them on most outings. One lives forever in the heart of poets and romantics, and perhaps one could venture that the Donald has an equally romantic impact on some Americans who long for some version of the US that isn’t the current one.

Today I will spend time with the Bard. The truth is I spent a great deal of my working life with the Bard – as a secondary English teacher you have no choice, especially in the UK. He is everywhere; he is God of English; the truth, the light and the way. Indeed I exaggerate dear reader, but despite all sorts of anguished cries from the young ones in schools across the world, it is impossible to deny his importance on language, on how we speak today and how we make sense of our world.

SS1

Is he loved and enjoyed by the kinder in the classroom: well, on the whole not a lot. He seems rather to be endured that enjoyed and sadly that makes teaching any sort of Shakespeare a bit of a challenge. Over the years I have grown to hate, loathe and detest Romeo and Juliet. It is not a text for 13 and 14 year olds in year 9, yet persistently that is where they first encounter it.

Students notoriously cannot cope with the language; they lose the plot and story in the jungle of words that make no sense. Stopping to read the annotations and explain everything does take the pleasure out of reading the text. There are a couple of traps there – one is that you do not need to know the meaning of every word to understand what is going on and the other, most significant point is that Shakespeare’s plays should not be read by semi-illiterate, resistant students in freezing or stuffy classrooms. No, they should be watching a performance, seeing it live, experiencing the Bard that way.

Several years ago I had one of my many desperate bottom set year 9s – we were doing Macbeth, which was some relief from the tedium of R&J but still, as you can image, it was a trial. But my school was a stroll from the Globe Theatre on Southbank, so we took the whole of year 9 off to the theatre for a schools session. It was remarkable – the players were much more than merely players strutting and fretting their stuff upon the stage signifying nothing. They did their job: they brought the whole thing alive and on returning to the classroom we were able to have the sort of discussions about the play that helped them understand it and appreciate it. The significance of live performances, of action befitting words, of words made meaningful by actors who understand the nuance and wit of Shakespeare cannot be under-estimated.

SS3

Today with the new changes to the curriculum the students are expected to read whole texts again, instead of the key scenes nonsense. And while I agree with the whole text being important, the point about drama is still missed and the opportunities to get students to performances is limited – mainly by schools constrained by budgets that cannot afford such luxuries, either to go out to the theatre or have troupes come in.

Students need live performances to get what’s going on: their unworldly vocabularies, coupled with their limited reading skills simply mangle Shakespeare and deny the magnificence of the writing and the action.

I thank the many and wonderful film makers who have done their best to bring the wonders of the Bard to the screen so we can at least give some feel for how the stories really do go along. You cannot go past either Lurhmann or Zeferrelli for Romeo and Juliet; Polanski’s Macbeth may be a bit dated but it remains one of the best; The Tempest with Helen Mirren is brilliant; A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Kevin Kline and Calista Flockhart is wonderful, as is Much Ado About Nothing with Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson. You can’t go past the Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor version of Taming of the Shrew and you should compare that to the wonderful 10 Things I Hate About You, with the lovely late Heath Ledger.

This brings me neatly to my next point, about the enduring nature of Shakespeare. His plays are continuously produced and performed across the world; his stories are made into modern films, accessible to a younger audience; his stories are remade for modern times. Look up the different versions of Macbeth – Japanese, set in a kitchen, on a rubbish dump. And of course Romeo and Juliet is West Side Story. Jane Smiley’s One Thousand Acres is a reimagining of King Lear.

Why is this? His stories resonate because despite being mostly about noble people – or as my university lecturer famously said about Antony and Cleopatra; ‘it is a great play, about great people, doing great things, in great places’ (the 1963 film Cleopatra owes a great deal to the Shakespearean play A&C) – they are stories about human nature: greed, ambition, desire, pride, foolishness, deception, lust, love. We recognise these things when we see them on stage, we see ourselves or people we know. We watch with horror as characters cannot escape who they are. We watch with joy as problems are solved and everyone lives happily ever after.

SS-folio

And the language is wonderful. He did have a wonderful ear and as we know was quite inventive. His words and phrases are part of our everyday speech, our idioms come from him; our expectations about romance come from him; Freud looked at his plays as a basis for his theories.

It is well to remember as we celebrate and laud this man, who has stood the test of time, that he was writing for the common man and woman. The theatre was the television of his day and he wrote the equivalent of dramas and soap operas – he catered to the masses. Perhaps that’s part of the secret of his immortality – he spoke to the ordinary man, he wrote the sorts of things that they were interested in. His sonnets are things of beauty and cover all manner of topics too.

So, is William Shakespeare God of English, should he hold such a prized place at the heart of English school curriculums?

R&J

You cannot dispute his influence on theatre, on language, on literature. He is not the only immortal we have (Chaucer, Marlowe, etc), but he is one of the most significant. He should be taught in schools, but perhaps we need to reconsider when and why. This year I have finally enjoyed Romeo and Juliet. Why? – I hear you ask. Simple: it was with A level students who can talk about the text, interrogate it, appreciate it, read it with meaning and nuance, find new things in it. My girls weren’t just getting through it, or reading it for exams. Wonderfully and reassuringly they were enjoying it. And with their enjoyment so came new insights and a new appreciation of the text and of good old William himself.

Shakespeare is our Titan of literature but we do him and the hapless kiddies no good by forcing him down their throats before they are ready for him. Yes, it’s that old educational concept of ‘readiness’ – when the student is ready the learning is good, and easy and fun and lasting. My fear for Shakespeare is that too many are turned off him because they meet him too soon and never find the joy and magic in his considerable works. (Images from Private Collection)