Wednesday, 20 November 2013

the electric muse

I dreaded walking where there was no path
And pressed with cautious tread the meadow swath
And always turned to look with wary eye
And always feared the owner coming by;
Yet everything about where I had gone
Appeared so beautiful I ventured on
And when I gained the road where all are free
I fancied every stranger frowned at me
And every kinder look appeared to say
"You've been on trespass in your walk today."
I've often thought, the day appeared so fine,
How beautiful if such a place were mine;
But, having naught, I never feel alone
And cannot use another's as my own.

I can't quite remember when, but some time earlier in the week a thought came and lingered. Maybe it was because of a piece of music - it often is. I think, perhaps, that it was A Lincolnshire Posy, the Percy Grainger suite arranged and played by the Home Service on their Alright Jack album. Maybe it's the centenary celebrations for Benjamin Britten that fills our local papers.

Having done my teenage service in the early 1970s, I discovered music that really moved me and meant something to me somewhere around the 1969/70 meridian. The standing joke at school was that I was obsessed with the band Genesis, not long out of the cloistered realm of Charterhouse School themselves. And, truth to tell, I was. I'm not sure why - can any of us know why we become obsessed with any particular thing? Especially music. But there it was.

Somewhere around the tender age of some fifteen summers I went to see them in their early days - this was just after the release of Trespass but they had already brought in Steve Hackett and Phil Collins - at the New Resurrection Club in Hitchin. This was a weekly gig above a sewing shop a bus ride away from my home. It was cheap and cheerful but provided me with some wonderful memories. I could also get served at the bar and actually drink beer - this may have had something to do with my happy memories of the place, of course! But, what, I wondered (back in paragraph one) was it that lead me to my love of folk music? Was it something to do with the sounds I was hearing? Was it the mixture of acoustic and electric instruments that somehow fused rock music and the more pastoral atmosphere that 12 string guitars and flutes added to that overall mix?

For a while, the strange storytelling of Peter Gabriel, both lyrically and in between songs, held me spellbound and I saw the band many times live. After all, the 50p circuit allowed us access to many original bands - many of who became famous later. When Gabriel left the band my interest in them waned. Somehow my musical interests that had been awakened and had lead me to watch many "Progressive" Rock bands - and, of course, collect their albums - began to wane too. By now, of course, I was in my later teens and had been ignominiously asked to leave my alma mater. Whilst my interests in Prog bands dissipated somewhat, new music began to hold my interest.

I have no qualms about admitting that at this time in my life - 1973 - albums such as Tubular Bells held my interest. I know, I know, but we lived in much more impoverished times. But what really excited me was the discovery of The History of Fairport Convention. This was an album that looked fabulous - it seemed sepia and had a Pete Frame family tree for its cover! - and suddenly lit up my life more than anything since Trespass. Given that there were so few albums released compared to today, we tended to, in those days buy what we could afford when we could afford them. At the back of my pile of albums was a strange double lp that had been released by Island Records as a composite sampler of their acts. It held a strange charm over me. I thought that it was a some sort of message from another planet, to be honest. However, suddenly I realised that at least one of the songs on The History of Fairport Convention reminded me of Bumpers, the Island sampler. And there it was*. The discovery of the FC album allowed me into yet another whole new world, but not only that, the wonderful songs that had haunted me like arcane messages from elsewhere suddenly became more available - Nick Drake, Sandy Denny (via Fotheringay - ah! The Sea), Traffic et al. Acoustic/electric music that spoke to me in hushed whispers and drew me in to other worlds.

Now, when I listen to Vaughan Williams, Peter Warlock or say, the Grainger suite by the Home Service I can be easily transported back to those times. More innocent times, of course. But still, I wondered, what was it that drew me towards such sounds rather than the more obvious stuff that many of my contemporaries were drawn to?

Whilst the atmospheric sounds of acoustic 12 string guitars laying down a background for melodic overdriven guitars and the rise and fall of mellotrons and the woodier timbres of the cellos and violas mixed in with the irresistable pull of acoustic six-string guitars humming and buzzing somehow drew me in; something else was there. Ah! It was the story. Peter Gabriel's eccentric ramblings and quasi-Classical allusions (pretentious, I'm aware - it was the early 70s) gave way to the timeless stories of the old ways that folk song offered. By now I had read Thomas Hardy amongst all the Penguin Classics and felt drawn to the disappearing world that he, Lawrence and Flora Thompson spoke about.

Now as I hold my beautiful Fylde acoustic guitar or strum disconsolately my Fender Stratocaster and attempt to recall the glory days of youth when I could jot down wondrous stories with a semblance of a tune, I am reminded of how words, sounds and atmosphere excited me and made me want to create something of my own. I know there are some youngsters out there that are discovering wonderful music and stories that will drive them on. I'm sure they're out there.

Over the last few days I have been forced into a situation where I very much doubt that the sort of kids that are put in front of me have any such interests and seem unlikely to discover the worlds that require an effort to explore beyond quick flicking of their thumbs. I'm not finding it in their books or any dialogues I have with them. I sincerely hope that this is confined to the far eastern reaches of East Anglia and that some of these kids will discover that there are worlds out there to be discovered that don't demand digital equipment to conjure them - a song, poem, story or the sound of a few instruments will hopefully stir a few of them up.

Without even that, they're lost.  Some of the most enduring creations have come from simple tools - paper, pen, pencil etc. Maybe an acoustic guitar or squeezebox. As we face an uncertain future - one where even having access to regular electricity could become a class issue, then hopes, fears and storytelling are needed more than ever. The games industry isn't creating anything like what's needed.

In Mali, the desert blues of bands such as Tinariwen and Tamikrest developed out of adversity - a story for another day - but it will be a shame if it takes that amount of hardship to create a new era of storytelling that doesn't rely on thousands of pounds worth of computer development and a ready-created so-called "reality" to allow some begrudged suggestion of a possible storyline. The books I'm marking currently aren't really making me feel too optimistic at the moment.

* Walk Awhile by Fairport, if you must ask.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

blame it on the poppies

I see the barley moving as the mowers find their pace
I see the line advancing with a steady timeless grace
And there's passion in their eyes and there's honour in their face
As they scythe down the castles and the courts

Blame it on the fathers, blame it on the sons
Blame it on the poppies and the pain
Blame it on the generals, blame it on their guns
Blame it on the scarecrow in the rain

I smell the smoke of stubble when the harvest is brought down
I see the fire a-burning as it purges all around
And the field is turned to ashes and the only living sound
Are the skylarks as they try to reach the sun

Blame it on the fathers, blame it on the sons
Blame it on the poppies and the pain
Blame it on the generals, blame it on their guns
Blame it on the scarecrow in the rain

I see the barbed wire growing like a bramble on the land
I see a farm turned to a fortress and a future turned to sand
I see a meadow turn to mud and from it grows a hand
Like a scarecrow that is fallen in the rain
Blame it on the scarecrows...

I have always been quite ambivalent about the wearing of poppies at this time of year. I refused to wear one when I was young, much to the chagrin of my father. Robert Fisk's Comment article here makes no bones about his attitude. I have thought long and hard about this and think that the poem in question is not as ambiguous as others have said:

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

This is the third stanza of In Flanders Field. How ambiguous is it? Sure, he'd lost friends and colleagues but on the whole he does seem to be saying, "if you don't finish what we've started, we'll never rest."  It's a week or so since the curmudgeonly old sod Lou Reed died and the meaning of one of his most famous songs, Perfect Day is still hotly contested. In truth, it may have been written as a paean to heroin but has since risen to become a song celebrating a wonderful, personal moment in time.  The poppy image itself has become an icon that most people accept. Detractors like Fisk have a point but I still find it difficult to fully agree.

But . . . as a shorthand icon, we all seem to accept that it really symbolises those who gave the ultimate sacrifice. Well, I guess the jury's still out on that one. This year I bought a poppy but didn't get round to wearing it. However, tomorrow is actually Remembrance Day so will I wear the poppy or not? Alongside that, I also have the annual problem of teaching at precisely 11 o'clock - just as students come tumbling in to class from break. A two minute's silence? 

There's forty shillings on the drum
For those who volunteer to come
To list and fight the foe today
Over the hills and far away.

Monday, 4 November 2013

welcome to the machine

welcome to cyberspace, I'm lost in the fog
everything's digital I'm still analogue
when something goes wrong
I don't have a clue
some 10-year-old smart ass has to show me what to do
sign on with high speed you don't have to wait
sit there for days and vegetate
I access my email, read all my spam, I'm an analogue man.

the whole world's living in a digital dream
it's not really there
it's all on the screen
makes me forget who I am
I'm an analogue man . . . 
what's wrong with vinyl? I think it sounds great
LPs, 45s, 78s but that's just the way I am
I'm an analogue man

turn on the tube, watch until dawn
one hundred channels, nothing is on
endless commercials, endless commercials, endless commercials

I am aware of the recent arguments and disagreements with Spotify but I must admit that, although not a regular user, I occasionally enjoy the opportunity to listen to music on a whim. And I really do listen to music on a whim.

Tonight whilst "working" I have capriciously felt like listening to Ravel's Pavanne by Joe Walsh, Ralph Vaughan William's Lark Ascending and Tim Hart & Maddie Prior's Heyday. Okay, maybe not that eclectic but definitely "whimsical" in  choice. And they've got Peter Warlock stuff on there too! Perhaps tomorrow. All this stuff is there - I could spend hours lost there in Cyberspace looking for stuff to listen to. It's all free, too.

I have on many occasions spoken of myself as an "oik". By that I mean that I was born in Middle Row in Stevenage Old Town above a tailor's shop, raised in a council house, went to a Grammar School because of the falseness of the 11+ and worked in Country Houses, factories and Insurance Companies (excuse me whilst I spit). My father was a security guard (after being made redundant from a fairly good factory job fitting conveyor belts in car factories) and my mother was a life-long barmaid. Somehow, I guess, something approaching "culture" rubbed off on me. But I've always been an oik deep down. But I do listen to some Classical Music and I do know a little bit about Art and Literature. These things can be learnt.  I enjoy good food and I can tell a Malbec from a Merlot. Just about. But ask me about guitars and strings and things, then I really am your man. But I'm still an oik at heart. I still get caught out mis-pronouncing unfamiliar words and Latin names. But the internet is my personal teacher if I can just get used to sitting in front of it for hours and sift through the millions of pieces of information it offers.

The internet seems to be a great leveller. Self-educated oiks like me can continue our own education and interests despite not being well-schooled as such.  I can go and find out things easily and I can catch up with news stories, radio programmes and instantly get hold of information that would have been impossible when I were a lad. This is the crux of the matter - the internet is the Tower of Babel - in the Borgian sense perhaps. Everything is there. In his book, Why Do I Need A Teacher When I've Got Google?, Ian Gilbert realises that teachers are there to help us understand the World. Information is there but which is the right information? William Gibson has made a career on similar observations.

That's been my job, then. To try to help young people move through shark infested waters. Of course, the youth don't care - their's is the digital world. If it says so on the internet, it must be true. I've spent the last twenty or so years trying to give youngsters the benefit of my experience. But, as J. M. Barrie said, "I'm not young enough to know everything"*.

One day soon I'll accept this and just get on with finding out what I want to know.  And catch up on all sorts of music I've ignored over the past 50 years.

* No, it wasn't Oscar Wilde.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

and another thing

Time to lighten up.

everyone's a star

Have you seen the stars tonight?
Would you like to go up on A-deck and look at them with me?
Have you seen the stars tonight?
Would you like to go up for a stroll and keep me company?

We stood in a flapping tent built to house wine, food and an urn or two bubbling away to heat red wine. We huddled together to drive the cold Autumn away - the first real cold evening of this wonderful time of year. The fire about a hundred yards away roared and crackled and spat. I feared for our friends' house as the wind whipped up the cinders and flung them across as though a bully testing the resolve of a regular victim. 

No major problems, the threat of a fire died down. The fire itself died down. The awe of seeing a spectacular firework display died down. Speaking as someone who is not that impressed with the cordite-smell and spectacle of money going up in smoke, it was an impressive show. I turned to Mrs Dave and her friend and remarked that it wasn't like a traditional Firework display. Why? Because it wasn't raining. They smiled - another wasted breath.

I had a can or two of beer and tried to keep the circulation going in my extremities. Eventually, thankfully, we were moved indoors. A chance to warm up by their huge wood burner - at least three times the size of the poor excuse for one such in our tiny back room.  We moved about and shuffled from one acquaintance to another to catch up with the last few years. A lovely guy I'd met a few years ago on a skiing trip was there, he's a dentist and not having a great time of it under the current regime. Not a Tory, to be sure. However, as I'd recently been having a spat on Twitter with a local MP (Mr Privilege: possibly publicly force-fed BSE burgers by his father) the subject came up. He was quite gracious for someone who is being hung, drawn and quartered under that current regime. Okay, we're all human and we are all influenced by our parents - I'm talking politically here*. His wife has been forced to give up teaching due to the difference between what passes for education and what's in her heart. So, nobody seems to be doing well under this current regime. I'll use the term "regime" where plenty of public servants are using terms like "shit shower" on the various social networking sites as I don't like to use foul language on this blog. Anyway, my little contretemps with the local MP was probably of no significance to anyone but it did seem to ruffle a few feathers along the way. Perhaps he has had an Icarus moment here - flying quite close to the flame. There will be plenty of far more angry dealings for him to come.  Maybe the current Secretary of State for Education is the epitome of Bright Phoebus himself. But throughout the land there are teachers being burnt to the glory of the DfE in giant mortar-boarded structures made from old National Curriculum documents in the hope of driving up standards. Even without qualified "teachers" (an unqualified teacher is an instructor - what's an unqualified doctor, brain surgeon, pilot et al?). Still it's good to know that the future of education is safe in their hands . . . oh, it's not is it

I have been a teacher - sorry, for the sake of Gove and his acolytes, I'll rephrase that - I've been a Qualified Teacher - for over twenty years now. In that time I've seen plenty of bright kids (I haven't taught many as I've always been given second and third sets) pass through the gates of the schools I've taught in. Very few of those could give a flying one about Shakespeare, Keats or Dickens** - even less about excellent articles in our "Quality Press" - but somehow, they get through. However, when Mr Ofsted comes knocking - or for that matter, a member of SLT - we are judged on whether or not that child is showing interest. I remember once when a student came in to class whilst I was being observed and the only thing he cared about in his life was his moped. He had crashed it the night before. I didn't know how he "celebrated" that loss but I have a good idea. He came in to the classroom that morning looking awful and sunk his head in his hands and refused to give a toss about Shakespeare. I mean, how unreasonable. He should have left all his angst at the classroom door and fully engaged with The Tempest, for Chrissakes . . . and certainly not showed me up. Because, of course, when students come in to school with their own problems and issues, that's the teacher's fault. How uncivilized can you get? He was Caliban to my Prospero, of course.

A few years later, the same student, now a lad of some twenty summers, apologised deeply and with a heavy heart when he crashed an English Teachers' post-term meeting in a local hostelry. He bemoaned his own school behaviour and work ethos. All too late, for him and me. He had another chance (albeit with regrets) but I had to put up with the ignominy of being seen as a failure by the person who is now - a few years on - the Head of the school. Oops! I meant "Academy". At least I was able to offer some words of wisdom. You can guess the rest . . . 

In the meantime, I have recently been back in contact with one of my old teachers. Yep, that's a gob-smacking thing, isn't it? There were a few good guys there at my Alma Mater. It's great to actually "talk" (write) with someone who only knew me as a 14 year old oik but somehow through all of that still remembers me. I'll remember many of the youths that pass through my auspices. I was absolutely useless (laughably so) at Languages but he became my form tutor. And somehow, he believed in me. Me. I was out of my depth and such an airhead that I still, to this day, have no idea what the hell I was doing at that school. But here was a guy - not long out of school himself. He'd been at Uni with members of famous Jazz-Rock bands and became a great Careers Teacher. I'm sure I told him I wanted to be a shepherd or something. When he was my form tutor he leant me a copy of Titus Groan because it was the name of a band and I thought I would be a great intellect if I read it.  I never finished it (by god, I tried) and gave it back avoiding any conversation about it, too embarrassed. By the time I'd been ignominiously asked not to come back to the school (C'mon, how many of you had a personal FO from your Head Teacher?) it was a forgotten moment in the past. Yet I was troubled about that moment.

A few years later I was working at Knebworth Park. Much of what I had to do was meaningless. And boring. Somehow, I managed to struggle through Titus Groan and ultimately the rest of the Gormenghast Trilogy. I could also not only pronounce that but knew what it meant. A couple of years later I even managed to work through a redundancy by reading Daniel Martin by John Fowles in the loo at some rather long "toilet breaks"***. Serendipity, but the factory closing down - and later the thieves Insurance Company I worked for - worked out so well. I was able, finally, to go to a reasonable University even though I was in my late thirties.

Oh well, I won't go on about all of that, but, really, we all have shooting stars pass before us. We don't always realise that, of course.  What's the Wilde quote about we're all in the gutter but some of us are looking up at the stars? 

I see kids pass through my classes and I just wonder how I don't really seem to get all that experience I've gained across. I was walking through Debenhams about ten years ago and a lovely young lady bounded across to me and told me that I was Mr Leeke. I couldn't disagree. She was a manager at the store. "I can't ever have water running whilst I clean my teeth because of what you said!" 

"Er, why?"

"Because you told us about how much water we'd save if we didn't run it, I've never forgotten that." Oh dear, be careful what you say. Hopefully she turns the tv and computer off at night too.

I now have two colleagues at the school (Doh! Academy) I teach at that I taught Film Studies to. They both regularly mention things that I told them. And that, too, was years ago. Somewhere, along the way, something I said or did got through. Just like with my former French/Form teacher all those years ago. None of these are high flyers, bright stars. But they have gone off on their own course and been reasonably successful. Just like me. 

There must always be the hope of having made some sort of impact.

We miss those shooting stars. The fireworks were brilliant tonight, sparking out all over the sky. I noticed a few that nobody else seemed to. They were all looking at the obvious ones shooting off above us. Occasionally there were a few that quietly flew off at a tangent and presented their spectacle a long way off over to the left.  I wonder how many shooting stars have been missed over the last century because we were too busy looking at the pretty lights?

The stars out in the night-time country sky were also beautiful tonight, much as they were over Lyme Regis earlier this week. Later this week fireworks will cover your skies for the evening and maybe, too, you live in an area where there is so much light pollution that you'll wish yourself elsewhere. Just for an opportunity to look at the stars for short while. Just look sideways for a moment and maybe you'll catch sight of something wonderful that others may miss.

You can see all the stars as you walk down Hollywood Boulevard
Some that you recognize, some that you've hardly even heard of
People who worked and suffered and struggled for fame
Some who succeeded and some who suffered in vain

* My dad drove landing craft in WW2 and was involved in bringing home British servicemen from Japanese POWs. A life-long hatred of the "Japs" followed - amongst other non-British citizens. Growing up in that environment in the Peace-loving end of the sixties convinced me that sort of attitude is wrong. I still do.
** Oh how I hate Dickens - it's like ploughing through legal documents.
*** I was transported and often forgot the time. But, by god, was Daniel Martin difficult to hide down your trousers!