Monday, 13 December 2010

Hungry Caterpillars

Like many families we filmed our children opening presents on Christmas Day. Amidst the Batman suits and Action Men there were books being unwrapped unselfconsciously and handled as toys, the covers opening to familiar characters, farmyards and hedgerows of anthropomorphised characters. There were treasures to discover such as Eric Carle’s humorous and apparently simple The Very Hungry Caterpillar, a story so perfectly crafted it ebbs with rhythms of the days of the week, numbers and colours. Most importantly, it deals with the change of a tiny creature, a caterpillar, into something amazing and beautiful, a butterfly, like children themselves.

I’m pretty sure Eric Carle just wrote a charming children’s story, but I’m going to attach a symbolism to it he probably didn’t intend. All children are like the little caterpillar in that they if encouraged, are hungry for books and will munch through a whole variety of material that feeds their imagination and their minds if put their way. What they consume is vital to their metamorphosis into happy and caring adults.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Sharing stories

Being civilised for some people means using knives and forks, sleeping in beds, having electricity, running water and flushing toilets. Much as I enjoy having these, I believe what makes humans truly civilised is sharing stories. The society that comes together in the dark round the fire to share stories, even though they sleep beneath the stars and wash in streams, is more civilised than a society that has lost that closeness. I worry that as we advance into a new technological age, that simple sharing of stories through physical closeness and voice will diminish our civilisation. I fear, as Wilfred Owen writes in his poem Strange Meeting that “nations trek from progress”.

Don’t get me wrong, domestic technology is a wonderful thing. It enables us to store food at safe temperatures, clean our homes and clothes, bring us light and music and the spoken word. Yet it is only as wonderful as the humans who use it. The tendency in some homes to fill children’s bedrooms with technology has a worrying downside. It is the electronic parent, the DVD player whose flickering images lull the child to sleep. Can the robotic light and truncated sounds of television help children to understand how language works as effectively as spoken stories can?

A story parallels reality but is not reality. It shapes itself to lay a scene, pose a problem, offer hope. The language engages the soul and strains every nerve and muscle of the listener. For thousands of years civilisation existed in its highest form in all our continents, in Asia, Africa, the Americas, Aboriginal Australia and Europe, in stories handed down from memory, elaborated on, crafted by those whose gifts were to hew the roughness of raw words into a shape and sound. The voice of crafted language was listened to, absorbed, remembered by those who could not decipher the written word. Those great stories were eventually written and codes invented to reflect how something should be said. Our punctuation system began its life on warm Greek hillsides several thousand years ago as signals to actors how to breathe out the words, so the words would rise into the sun-filled air of those great amphitheatres to penetrate the ears, those gates to the soul, of the enthralled audiences. Although few could read, they were literate in their heads as those great tragedies unrolled themselves amongst rolling hills as therapy and warnings and a way to respect the frailty of the human condition.

What this comes down to is the importance of reading to your child. The mechanics of books begin as soon as the baby can focus and sit up in your arms. This book you hold is a thing of fascination, you touch it, you see it and a person you love brings it alive in their voice and it helps us in turn to internalise language. Young memories hunger after rhythms and repetitions, imbibed through nursery rhymes and fairy stories. The old-fashioned way of learning poetry by rote was no bad thing, a good one rather. Sadly, this has been forgotten for at least half a century. I always envy older relatives who, at a mere prompting, can recite word-perfect Shakespearean speeches or lengthy poems. What a resource to carry in your head! I remember trying to learn speeches for A level and being relatively successful, but how much better would I have been had I been taught to recite texts from memory at an earlier age?

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Books are a great invention.

Books are a great invention. Their mechanism is simple to use once you know how. A child sees how it is held, how the pictures relate to the story, how the pages turn for the next part, how chapters always end just as it gets to the exciting bit. The child hears how the voice alters in tone, how it pauses, or stops, how speech is separated from narrative, how the voice changes to ask a question or becomes louder to make an exclamation. Children learn that those little black dots on the page all mean something and a reader makes sense of them to turn them into a wonderful story that comes to live forever in your imagination.

All this is stored in the reading brain until the child picks up the book for herself. She knows there will be signs in there telling her exactly how it should sound. She knows the language of stories has a completely different structure to everyday speech and that you really shouldn’t interrupt too much, even if it is to ask a really brilliant question. A child who has regularly been read to learns how to be the Grand-Prix driver of a book. When children begin to decode a book independently they have a wealth of sounds in their heads to transpose onto the new structure.

One of the greatest joys of being a parent is that of being physically close and comfortable with your child at the end of the long day and reading to them. One of the greatest joys of being a child is feeling comfortable and warm, with a parent, grandparent or carer reading to you.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Apologies to faithful readers

Thank you to all of you who have been reading this and have become impatient for the next bit. What I write here are really edited parts of a biographical novel. The book follows the course of a day whereas here I'm trying to put up extracts that are somehow linked to the season. So, if you're thinking about buying books as gifts for Christmas, here's a few reasons why you should go ahead!

The Bed-time story

A five year old child sits in the classroom at a small desk. A closed book is on the desk and her head is resting on the book.
“Sophie! Wake up! What are you doing sleeping on the book?”
“I’m not asleep, miss.”
“Well then, what are you doing with your head on the book, then?”
“I’m trying to find out what the book is saying.”
“What do you mean?”
“You said to find out what the book says. I’m just doing what you said.”

Sophie’s wisdom is evident. Books do speak to us. They can speak to us in infancy and be a voice in our heads until the day we die. But we need to, as Magwitch says to Pip in the graveyard, “Give it mouth.” We give books mouth by reading them. A good reader can bring to life whole nations of characters through that simple hand-eye contact. I have always believed that we can only “hear” books as readers, if we know how to hear them. Being read to as a child is one of the most vital stages of reading. If there is ever such a thing as a Children’s Charter, and perhaps there should be one, up there after a child’s right to love, nourishing food and drink and a safe environment in which to live, should be the right to be read and sung to. It’s no co-incidence that the world’s prisons are predominantly populated by the life-long sufferers of literacy malnutrition. If we really want to create a better society we must give children equality of access to books from the earliest age.

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In the children’s story of The Sleeping Beauty the fairy godmothers bestow gifts at the child’s birth. The most precious gifts newborns receive are not gold or silver-plated egg-cups, plates or bracelets which will tarnish or be preserved sentimentally at the back of a cupboard, but something much less glittery, a baby book. But giving a child a book, or books, is not enough in itself. In our material world books there are a-plenty. You would not give a seventeen-year-old a car without teaching her or him how to drive. They need to know to slip the gears into neutral, turn the ignition key and unlock the steering wheel. They need to engage the clutch and first gear, check the mirrors and establish a safe procedure before moving off. Learners are sensible to drive slowly. We need to teach children how a book goes, how to work it and how to get the best from it. This vital task first falls not to teachers but to parents, grandparents and carers.

A book, if used properly, will be a life-long gift. It may be made of brown cardboard, or “rag” it may be chewed to oblivion and covered in custard before the child reaches his or her first birthday, but if the child is taught to hold it to turn the pages, to see the pictures and to hear what the book says through the voices of those who read it, the gift of literacy has begun to work its magic. Here they are in the driving seat, understanding the gears and we have ignition!

Monday, 15 November 2010

No noise and cabbage soup

People tend to find it hard to agree on what young people should read. For me, I would advocate they read at least part of Anne Frank’s diary to understand the impact of genocide on a person of their age. If ever they think their teenage years are unfair, they may feel a little chastened to think that this often-exciting part of their lives was to be spent in an attic smelling of cabbage soup and where they could make no noise.

Powerful narratives, like Anne Frank’s, are gifts of truths. Over years we gradually unwrap them until we can get a fuller sense of what is inside. It is a gift, not wrapped in pretty, colourful paper but onion-like, with its dull brown paper skin. As we peel it, its stinging, bitter juice spurts into our eyes. Blinded at first, we wipe away the pain to possess a clearer vision. Just an English teacher and not an historian, the terrible truth of the century I was born in was handed to me in a book belonging to an adolescent Dutch girl. Forty five years after Anne put her pen down for the last time, another adolescent girl handed me a book of similar impact.

”I think you should read this, miss. I have just finished reading it. It’s incredible.”

Over the coming months I turned the pages of Mary’s recommendation: Primo Levi’s If This is a Man and The Truce. Each page was an onion unwrapping of bitterness, the most painful barbarity of the holocaust, or Shoah, revealing how, on the one hand, the intelligence of the human brain could engineer the organised destruction of millions of lives and how, on the other, its intelligence and innate will could combine in sheer self-preservation.

Naively, I had always thought the war was won by the allies, the Nazis were defeated and everything was suddenly alright. Primo Levi’s experiences as a survivor showed that having managed to stay alive through the daily culls of the labour camps, death still stalked the starved and sick. Liberation meant only further misery and fear in the ensuing chaos that was Europe in 1945.

The ghosts of millions hang silently onto the words of Frank and Levi. When teachers give voice to their words in English and History lessons, those lost spirits are given some purpose, that even if their flesh was burned in the mass incinerations of Auschwitz, something has not been lost. Something may live again in the hearts and minds of new generations as a warning of the human capacity for inhumanity.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Two World Wars: suffer the children.

On the paths of the graveyard the two wars converge, linking these little histories like a web. Close to the graves of World War One soldiers are those of the single civilians who fell victim in this riverside area so heavily bombed in the Second World War. From the deaths of many I pass the smallness of war’s pity, the grave of four-year-old John, “killed by enemy action” in an air-raid on 12 March 1941.

My own son, John, was about four when I first saw this grave. The little headstone tells us bombs were indiscriminate, killing the old and very young, perhaps those who couldn’t reach the air-raid shelters in time. It is a reminder of how different the two wars were. Whereas young men died in their millions between 1914 and 1918, the Second World War took the youngest, oldest and weakest as well as those in their prime. Nowhere was this more so than in the persecution perpetrated by Nazism.

Having your own children helps you to see the link between Literature and History differently. When I read Thomas Keneally’s book Schindler’s Ark I was childless. After seeing Spielberg’s film, Schindler’s List at the cinema, I came home and saw my baby sleeping peacefully in his cot. The shadow of the past hovered around the sleeping infant. How many families living peaceful and productive lives similar to mine must have felt that same bliss in early nineteen thirties Europe? They were not yet to know that only a few years later they would feel their children ripped from their arms in systematic annihilation.

The film sparked the teacher’s desire to explore this terrible time in history through its literature. It wasn’t, however, a rich and famous film director who was responsible for the route into the classroom. It was a young girl anonymous in her life whose singular achievement was writing her ordinary thoughts and limited activities in a diary. A young woman who did not choose to be extraordinary, but whose writings in terrible circumstances turned her into a literary heroine.

I first met her when I was on honeymoon. That’s how it is, just as you think you’re as far away from the classroom as you can be, you discover something to take you back to it.

The Amsterdam streets were terrorised by a near-hurricane which vandalised signs and blew grit in our eyes. We were glad to discover somewhere warm as refuge, a tall house whose top floors had been the refuge of Anne Frank. We went in nervously and climbed the stairs behind the other visitors.

Looking out of the third floor window onto the busy canals and streets below, enjoying the warmth and peace, glad to be free of the raging gale, I thought of the girl who did not feel fresh air on her face for years nor feel the tiredness of walking around the city, the girl who was cooped in the confines of the Amsterdam loft, whose intimate record of the physical and emotional changes of her teenage years were found here, in the place I was standing. Touching the bookcase that disguised the secret staircase to their hiding place brought home the pathos of Anne Frank’s diary. I stood staring at its ordinary wood and ordinary paint which hid far from ordinary lives.

I returned home, determined to read her diary with students of a similar age to Anne Frank whose only intended audience was “Kitty”, the invented friend she narrated her life to.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Remembrance Day: Teaching War Poetry

The cemetery is well-placed next to the public library. The library’s stories lie in logical, alphabetical order, but here in the cemetery there’s less logic, just a vague chronology with brief information on the headstone: the names of the dead, dates of life and an epitaph. These are the stories which write themselves in my imagination.

These are the saddest stories: in January 1915 William Akers, who had joined the Cheshire Regiment aged just 16, died in training. What would that mean? Killed by your friends? Killed by what the late twentieth century with its penchant for military euphemisms would call “friendly fire”? In the same year, in August, his twenty-two year-old brother of the Lancashire regiment was killed in France. Seven years later their father died, leaving a grieving widow who had lost two sons and a husband. What strength kept her going for another thirty five years?

From these graves I call up the ghosts of young soldiers to speak to my classes of fifteen-year-old boys. They rest their heads on blazers folded on desks, close their eyes and feel the warm sun shining on their faces through the classroom window.

“Imagine you are out with your friends and the recruiting officer comes to town.
You’re not sure you really want to join up but your friends seem keen and there’s this girl you really fancy watching you. She’ll think you’re a hero if you get the uniform. There’s some talk of girls thinking lads are cowards for not joining up.

“If they give you a white feather it means you’re a coward.” says one of the lads.

You’re not a coward, you think to yourself. What will your mum say if you tell her you’ve joined? What the hell, let’s all join up together! But you’re not yet sixteen? No matter, just lie, they’ll believe you.

I want you to imagine what our town was like in 1915. Most of the houses were built after the First World War. There were lots of fields here then, so you would probably already be working as a farm labourer, or an apprentice to someone, having left school when you were twelve or thirteen. You certainly wouldn’t be in school doing GCSE poetry. (Some murmurings here, thinking life might have been better then).

A lot of the roads didn’t exist, they would just be narrow lanes. Roads less travelled.

Here I interweave the language of the poems into my monologue, beginning with Wilfred Owen’s poem, The Send-Off:
Down the close darkening lanes you sing your way. Keeping your eyes closed and remembering it is May 1915, today is the day you go off to war, you, your mates and a few others. There are bands playing and a

beating of great bells… and drums and yells.

Girls, with wild flowers picked from the hedges, have pushed them in to your pockets and button holes and you are going to the station. What a Send-Off! You are excited and feel so grown up. It’s like being famous; everyone is cheering you and telling you how brave you are. You don’t feel quite brave, but their shouts do help.

You are now on the train. The bands have gone and the train shuffles off to somewhere you have never been before. You remember the sweetness of your girlfriend’s smiles and your last time together (here the inevitable giggles)

You remember your mother’s sad eyes as you told her you’d joined and how especially kind she had been to you in these last weeks. Had you let her down? Guilt lies in your belly and you begin to feel slightly sick as your mind turns to what might lie ahead. The talk and shouting in your carriage has died down. Like you, these other young men are beginning to reflect on what they left behind and what is to come.
You think too of your mothers, silently grieving in the slow warmth of their kitchens…

I remind them that Wilfred Owen was educated in a school not far from here. From his “close darkening lanes”, he is now immortalised in a neat row of semis on Wilfred Owen Close. Like the lives of the young soldiers Owen wrote about, fate’s wonderful irony is that these modern streets are also dead ends, (or better known by the language of the place where Wilfred Owen died: “cul-de-sac”).

The monologue continues into other poems, into the real lives of those young men who left their homes here. In soldiers’ boots our feet have “marched asleep” and, having lost our boots, have “limped on, bloodshod” through Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est.


I studied Owen’s poetry at O and A Level. His language dug itself into my brain in my own teenage years and remained entrenched there, not dead, but waiting through a false peace until I came to teach his work to the young people before me now.

In France, fourteen million men gave their youth to bullets, mud and gas. They were, as Owen puts it in The Send-Off, “like wrongs hushed-up”. The governments of the day sent Europe’s youth to be gassed and gunned down as a ghastly premonition for the next war. In his poem Strange Meeting Owen dreams he “stood in Hell” facing the soldier he killed. The dead soldier speaks of how, had he lived to return from war, he could have warned others of its horrors and how the silence of his untold story, he believes, will lead to more wars:

They will be swift with the swiftness of the tigress,
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.

Although the notion of nations trekking from progress is a universal, timeless one as weapons but not people become more sophisticated, the lines seem date-specific, appearing to carry the dark prophecy of Nazism. “Nations trek from progress” is an eternal truth: if we do not speak of the pity of war, nations will choose war again.