Poetry with a hint of Eastern promise

"It's certainly difficult to think of a better symbol of civilization" Philip Larkin - On Books

“It’s certainly difficult to think of a better symbol of civilization”
Philip Larkin – On Books

I have just returned from the far east. You need to understand, that in making this statement I am not referring to an exotic far away location such as Myanmar or Indonesia, countries often referred to as eastern lands. No, the place to which I refer is still within the bounds of the UK, though the convoluted route to attain this far flung destination makes one feel that it could be far removed from here.

Having thought about this recent journey I realised that the time taken to travel from my Northamptonshire home by train to Hull, on the eastern coast of England, was marginally longer than a recent flight I made to Istanbul. It is hard to find similarities between the magnificent former stronghold of Constantinople that so elegantly forms a link between Europe and Asia, and a far flung English city which takes its name from the river upon which it is located near the mouth of the river Humber. Nevertheless, Hull was my destination and one of the great advantages of spending several hours on a train is the time that can be devoted to working and reading.

Hull and back in a day would normally be a prospect that would fall some way short of filling me with joy. As it happens, on this occasion I was delighted to make the journey to examine a PhD written by an enthusiastic, articulate and interesting young lady from Saudi Arabia, who had conducted an interesting piece of research. The satisfaction of seeing her leave the viva voce examination with a beaming smile and dashing off to telephone her husband and children ensured that I began my return journey in good humour.

I do, however, have to make one small confession about my visit to the University of Hull. This is not an institution with which I am particularly familiar, and one that I am not likely to visit on a regular basis, but having been invited to undertake this particular task, I was eager to arrive early. Thus it was that for a 12.00 pre viva meeting, I arrived at 11.00am in order to fulfil a particular mission.

My interest was not specific to the university building, though if ever the term red brick could be applied to a university, Hull would certainly provide the finest example. I was in fact drawn to the university campus inspired by probably its most celebrated previous member of staff. I refer here not to an eminent researcher or academic, but rather its famous longstanding librarian. Philip Larkin, one of the most respected English poets of the twentieth century was appointed librarian at the University of Hull in 1955 and remained in the city until his death in 1985. Whilst the library at Hull is named after a former Vice Chancellor of the university, there is now a Larkin building on the campus.

So it was that on reaching the university my innate curiosity led me straight to the library where Larkin worked for so many years. In all honesty it does not differ greatly from university libraries elsewhere around the world, but there is something about writers and their locations that I cannot resist. This after all is a place where Larkin looked for and found so much inspiration. He was reputedly a somewhat curmudgeonly man, but surely anyone who loved words and books must also have had a gentler side to his soul. Whilst much of his slightly irreverent poetry captures images of people and events, I could not avoid thinking about his Whitsun Weddings collection and the journey that he commenced and describes so vividly from Hull railway station. It is then fitting that on this station today thirty one years after his death, there is a statue (shown at the head of this posting) of Larkin which sees passengers away from Hull just as he departed from that platform so many years ago.

It may be a pointless and rather trivial occupation, visiting places associated with writers, but perhaps there is something in all of us who love words that inspires a nugatory hope that such time frittered away may result in a modicum of talent rubbing off on ourselves. The Indian writer and diplomat Navtej Sarna in his amusing book Second Thoughts: On Books, Authors and the Writerly Life, describes how a “desire to understand the mind of the writer and the process of literary creation” has driven him to search for the grave of Boris Pasternak, drink in a favoured haunt of Dylan Thomas, seek out a café in which Naguib Mafhouz regularly passed his mornings and see the words from Ruskin Bond’s Landour Days etched in the landscape of Musoorie

I now discover that a much earlier poet, Andrew Marvell (1621 – 1678) also lived and spent his school years in Hull. Perhaps there is more of the exotic about this far flung corner of the land than I had previously realised.

Philip Larkin, Librarian and Poet

Philip Larkin, Librarian and Poet

Click on the link to hear Philip Larkin Reading The Whitsun Weddings

 

Children: victims in a war not of their making

Will a whole generation of children miss an education in Syria?

Will a whole generation of children miss an education in Syria?

A Report just issued by the charitable organisation Save the Children, which draws upon research evidence from several reputable international agencies, highlights the devastation caused by the current conflict in Syria. The report, titled, The cost of war: Calculating the Impact of the Collapse of Syria’s Education System on the Country’s Future, documents the disaster for children caused by the appalling conflict that has been a regular feature of news programmes on our television schools for the past four years. It makes for harrowing reading and says much about the lack of care given to protect the innocent during times of conflict.

The report states that before the start of the war, the majority of Syria’s children were enrolled in primary school, and there was a significant commitment to education on the part of the government and families. Literacy rates at this time were at 95% for 15–24-year-olds. Today, almost 3 million children are out of school and the country has one of the lowest enrolment rates in the world. The example of the city of Aleppo is given where the enrolment rate is shockingly low at around 6%. Furthermore, half of the Syrian children currently in refugee camps are not receiving formal access to school. The report estimates that the cost of replacing damaged, destroyed or occupied schools and lost equipment could be as high as £2 billion ($3 billion). Many of the country’s teachers have been killed or are directly involved in the conflict, and even if peace returns soon, it will take many years to restore education provision to more than a minimal level within Syria. The danger is that there will be a lost generation who have not had the benefit of formal schooling.

Syria is a nation renowned for its literature. I recently read Rafik Schami’s excellent and moving novel The Dark Side of Love, and I similarly enjoyed Fragments of Memory: A Story of a Syrian Family by Hanna Mina. These writers are articulate and educated individuals who drew attention to Syria for the most noble of reasons. They represent a rich and proud artistic heritage and provide insights into the emotions and passions of an educated and cultured Syrian people. One wonders from where the next generation of Syrian writers, artists, scientists and engineers may emerge. Probably not from a land where the infrastructure, and in many instances the will of the people has been so clearly destroyed.

All sides in the Syrian conflict make claims about fighting for justice and freedom, yet what they have currently caused is chaos and hatred. In the midst of all this, as in all conflicts, there are children who are powerless to effect change, who are denied an opportunity to receive even the most basic education. If as the United States senator Hiram W. Johnson, stated in 1918, “the first casualty of war is truth,” then the second is surely those women and children who will be expected to rebuild families and homes when the conflict is over.

The Syrian writer Maram al-Massri sums this up well in her poem Women like me, where she describes the disenfranchised nature of the innocents amidst conflict.

 

Women like me

do not know how to speak.

A word remains in their throats

like a thorn

they choose to swallow.

Women like me

know nothing except weeping,

impossible weeping

suddenly

pouring

like a severed artery.

Women like me

receive blows

and do not dare return them.

They shake with anger,

they subdue it.

Like lions in cages,

women like me

dream . . .

of freedom . . .

Maram al-Massri

 

The Save the Children Report: The cost of war: Calculating the Impact of the Collapse of Syria’s Education System on the Country’s Future can be found at: Save The Children 2015

 

Everyone remembers

Opportunities to learn exist in every interaction.

Opportunities to learn exist in every interaction.

A couple of days ago I had a conversation with a colleague about why we originally entered the teaching profession. Not surprisingly, we found that there were a number of common factors that had shaped our choices and led us along this pathway during our formative years. Both of us had experiences as teenagers of working with various youth groups in which we had taken leadership or instruction roles. Similarly, we had both seen the teaching profession as providing an opportunity to participate in a worthwhile activity that could prove beneficial to others, whilst enabling us to continue our own learning. As I feel sure is common, amongst teachers who come together to discuss teaching issues at any time, we expressed our dissatisfaction with various developments in educational policy and its management, but both of us agreed that we would not have chosen any other profession, and that we continued to enjoy our respective roles.

Whilst we were able to find parallels in our earlier lives that had led us to select teaching over other professional pathways, the factor that had probably had a greater impact upon us than any other, was the influence of specific teachers who had shaped our thinking and inspired us to learn. Much of our reminiscence centred upon individuals who had galvanized our interest in their subject and motivated us to ever greater enthusiasm for exploring opportunities for learning. Both of us felt that the decisions we had made to become teachers were heavily influenced by our experiences in the lessons conducted by these individuals, and that to some extent our own approaches in the classroom had been guided by their example.

Two particular teachers often come to mind when I recall the best experiences I had at school. I am sure that it is no coincidence that my love of literature and a continuing passion for history were both shaped by teachers for whom I had the greatest respect. What interests me greatly as I recall these two characters however, is that they were in many ways distinctly different in their approach and in the way in which we regarded them as students.

The English teacher who instilled in me an insatiable appetite for reading and taught me to appreciate some of the world’s great literature, could be unpredictable in his moods and was certainly perceived as a hard taskmaster. His interpretation of our work could often appear hyper-critical, and his standards were always high. However, he gave us considerable freedom to express our ideas, to argue our point of view and to challenge the perceived wisdom of the day. I cannot recall him ever telling us the meaning of a passage of prose, a poem or a section from a play, this was not his style. He expected us to question everything, make up our own minds and then defend our position and interpretation of a text. This was not an approach appreciated by everyone, and I am sure that other students have a less than fond memory of his lessons. From my own perspective, this was an ideal way to learn. It taught me to think critically, to question everything and to have the conviction to express my own ideas. As a result of this teacher’s influence I cannot imagine ever travelling without a book, and it is thanks to him that I have explored and continue to seek out the literature produced by great writers from all around the world, and find in their words the inspiration for much of what I do in life.

By contrast, but equally important was a history teacher who clearly believed that simply teaching to the requirements  of the examination was an affront to his professionalism. Officially for our A levels we studied British social and economic history from 1800 – 1939, but in reality we were given an eclectic range of opportunities and explored a much more varied historical diet. Studying history, he told us, was about understanding the present, through our appreciation of the events and actions of the past that have shaped our society. He therefore encouraged us to read well beyond the limited textbooks provided for our course. His lessons often appeared tangential to the syllabus, and should any one of his students show the least interest in a topic, no matter how far from the central theme of the set curriculum, he would feed this enthusiasm and facilitate opportunities for learning. I recall that some of my schoolmates were horrified that we wandered so often from the examination pathway. Yet despite this aberration (or possibly because of it) we succeeded in passing with good grades and many of us with an enduring enthusiasm for the subject.

A few years ago, because of a shortage of teacher availability in English schools, a government advertising campaign was organised under the slogan – “everyone remembers a good teacher!” (I know that you can probably recall a few who were less than good as well- but hopefully these were a minority). My colleague and I certainly owe much to teachers who inspired us. I believe they did so not only through their commitment to their subject, but also because they wanted to create independent learners who would have the ability to relate to others and to engage in a critical analysis of their world. I suspect that if you take a moment to reflect, that you too will remember teachers whose actions may have influenced not only your interest in a subject, but also your approach to life.

 

Celebrating with Pen and Palette

Sunset on the Hills. The cover of the book Pen and Palette painted by Aine Lawlor

Sunset on the Hills. The cover of the book Pen and Palette painted by Aine Lawlor

There is something special about being given the gift of a book. The written word is something I treasure for the access it provides to pleasure and information, and the challenges to thought that are often contained on the pages of books. Today in Dublin my good friend and colleague Michael Shevlin gave me a book that is a visual treat and full of words that provoke thought. The book, titled Pen and Palette contains a selection of poetry and paintings by students at the National Institute for Intellectual Disability (NIID) that is based at Trinity College Dublin.

NIID is committed to enabling young people with learning disabilities to fulfil their educational dreams and has developed a unique Certificate in Contemporary Living which provides support through taught sessions, careers advice, work placements and personal planning to enable individuals to gain in independence and receive recognition for their achievements. In 2008 the first 19 students to achieve the award graduated and since then around 90 further successful graduations have been recorded. The work of NIID has been recognised nationally and is beginning to gain international recognition for its innovative commitment to inclusion.

Pen and Palette is a beautifully produced book. Each page containing a poem written by a student with a learning disability is located opposite a piece of artwork produced by another student. Many of the poems reflect a degree of sadness in the lives of individuals who have been marginalised and have struggled to gain recognition because of their special educational need. Others reflect a joyous release as independence and confidence have been achieved. Reading through the poetry as I sat in the airport awaiting my flight home today, I was moved by their sentiments and the authority with which individual students have been enabled and encouraged to express their thoughts. Any one of the works could have been selected to represent the ideas expressed in the book, but I have chosen one written by John Power that I felt summed up a theme running through the text.

I hope that you too will enjoy this brief poem and may be moved to seek out the book for yourself.

Include Me

By John Power

To be part of a community

Means that I have loads of opportunities

I like to be valued and wanted

Not to be tormented and taunted

I like to help others out,

I don’t like when teenagers shout

Calling names and won’t let me be

Don’t discriminate against me

What goes around comes around you’ll see

You never know, one day you might need me.

 

John not only reports his own feelings but also I feel, issues a challenge to all of us to consider the implications of creating a society that fails to be inclusive.

Thank you John Power and all the poets and artists in Pen and Palette and to NIID and Trinity College for this joyful initiative.

Remembering Seamus Heaney

“Out of the Marvellous” a tapestry designed by the Czech artist Peter Sis to commemorate the great poet Seamus Healey and now located at Terminal 2 Dublin Airport

“Out of the Marvellous” a tapestry designed by the Czech artist Peter Sis to commemorate the great poet Seamus Healey and now located at Terminal 2 Dublin Airport

It must have been 1973 or 1974 when I was a student training to be a teacher and studying English literature, that one of our tutors Eddie Wainwright brought to Bristol a poet who at the time was highly regarded, but only later became appreciated for his unique genius. I suppose that none of us present that day, not even Eddie Wainwright, himself a well-respected poet, could have imagined that we were in the company of a man who years later would win the Nobel Prize for Literature. This was just a few years after the acclaimed anthology, Death of a Naturalist had been published and before us stood Seamus Heaney, slightly tousled and sparkling eyed from Derry in Northern Ireland.

From the moment he began to read I was transfixed. His words, delivered softly with a lyrical brogue drifted like musical notation across the room. Between reciting his poems he told us of his inspirations growing up on a farm in Northern Ireland, a hard existence on land shaped by his father, who was clearly held in great affection. Heaney has written of his father’s labours, toiling with a spade, and of the choice that he made for his own living, to substitute the spade with a pen. There are such juxtapositions in much of his work.

I am recalling this now, because a couple of days ago I arrived in Dublin airport on the day that a memorial tapestry titled “Out of the Marvellous” designed by the Czech artist Peter Sis, celebrating the life of Heaney was to be unveiled by his friend, the American singer songwriter Paul Simon. On the same evening there was a memorial event at the National Concert Hall where Paul Simon performed some of Seamus Heaney’s poetry set to music, and readings were given by a number of Irelands leading poets. These included Michael D Higgins, the President of Ireland who is also highly regarded as a poet. (I wonder if the world would be a better place if all leaders were poets?) Sadly I wasn’t expecting to be in Dublin and tickets for the event were sold out almost as soon as they were issued and long before I arrived.

The day after the unveiling of the tapestry and the event at the National Concert Hall the Irish national newspapers gave several pages of celebratory coverage to the memory of Seamus Heaney who died last year. I found myself wondering whether, had he been an English poet he would have receive such tributes in my own country? It is not so long ago that the English playwright and also a Nobel Prize winner, Harold Pinter died, an occasion announced with a somewhat muted response in much of the English media.

Ireland has always lauded its writers and held them in an esteem apparently reserved for footballers and film stars in many other parts of Europe. We live in an age of “celebrity” rather than accomplishment. There is, of course, a fine history of literature in Ireland – Jonathan Swift, Samuel Beckett, Patrick Kavanagh, Lady Gregory, Sean O’Casey, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, George Bernard Shaw, W.B. Yeats, Edna O’Brien and of course the finest of them all (in my humble opinion) James Joyce, are just a few of the great writers to hail from this relatively small Island.

The arts continue to be valued here and within the arts it would seem the written word above others. The pride a nation takes in its artists and authors is evident in schools as much as in the theatres and concert halls of Dublin and other Irish cities. The next generation of Irish children are growing up surrounded by the acclamation of creative genius. This must bode well for the development of Ireland’s future artists.

Of the poems read by Seamus Heaney when he came to visit us in Bristol that day forty or so years ago, I remember in particular one that evoked some of my own happy memories of childhood and post it here for you to enjoy.

Personal Helicon (from Death of a Naturalist 1966)

I loved the fork of a beech tree

At the head of our lane,

The close thicket of a boxwood hedge at the front,

The soft, collapsing pile of hay

In a back corner of the byre.

But especially, I spent time in the throat

Of an old willow tree

At the end of the farmyard,

A hollow tree, with gnarled, spreading roots,

A soft, perishing bark

And a pithy inside.

Its mouth was like

The fat and solid opening

In a horse’s collar,

And once you squeezed in through it,

You were at the heart

Of a different life.

Above your head,

The living tree flourished

And breathed,

You shouldered the slightly vibrant bole,

And you put your forehead

To the rough pith

You felt the whole lithe

And whispering crown

Of willow moving

In the sky above you.

Seamus Heaney

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