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

 

Riding shotgun on an auto-rickshaw

Not promoted to co-pilot, but driven to desperate measures!

Not promoted to co-pilot, but driven to desperate measures!

 

There have been many volumes written about the epic voyages of lone sailors such as Francis Chichester and Helen MacArthur, countless books about the great polar explorers like Wally Herbert and Roald Amundsen. It is even possible to buy accounts of far less substantial journeys such as a ramble along the Pennine Way, or cyclists riding from Land’s End to John O’Groats. Why then are there no best sellers describing the adventures of the auto-rickshaw drivers of Bangalore?

Yesterday, I learned (alas too late) a most useful expression in Hinglish, that redoubtable hybrid comprising the butchered use of a combination of any Indian language and English. You can find Manglish spoken in Kerala, Tamlish in Chennai and Teleglish in Hyderabad, but Hinglish seems to be a collective term used to describe any linguistic marriage of the Indian vernacular and the old colonial tongue. “I should, ” I was informed use the expression “wrong roado;” definitely not “wrong roada?” which apparently is  a question directed only towards the most proficient auto rickshaw navigator, but specifically “wrong roado,” an assertive statement which translates roughly as “you are travelling in the wrong direction, you are clearly lost, where on earth are you going?”

Over the years I have experienced many adventures in these essentially Asian vehicles. I recall for example, my good friend and colleague Johnson advising me that an auto-rickshaw was undoubtedly the only advisable  mode of transport in which we should travel to a “local”special school in Kerala.  One and a half hours later, prising my battered form out of the cramped vehicle, having negotiated a thousand potholes, many muddy tracks and not a few hair raising manouvres in and out of traffic, I found myself wondering why a taxi would have proven a less efficient means of travel to this destination. By the time my body had re-established some form of equilibrium, several hours later, it was time to repeat the odyssey  in the other direction, an experience that I hardly relished throughout my visit to the school.

On another occasion, late at night, once again with Johnson (is there a pattern emerging here I wonder?), the auto in which we were travelling collided with a rather large dog. Sadly, the dog came out of this experience somewhat worse than ourselves and our driver appeared more concerned that we should recognise his skill in keeping the vehicle upright on the road than he was for the welfare of the poor beast. I could go on regaling you with tales of drivers who seemed to be auditioning for a stunt role in the latest Bond movie, or others who appeared to be a pale imitation of the racing driver Fangio. I could further bore you with recollections of vehicles that have broken down and others that have made stately progress whilst emitting a cloud of thick black oily smoke. But let me instead bring you up to date and explain why the expression “wrong roado” could have been particularly useful had I known it yesterday morning.

The journey from the hotel where we stay to the venue in which we teach is, theoretically straight forward. I have walked the route on numerous occasions and can usually complete my perambulation in less than half an hour. However, some mornings, with heavily loaded bags weighing us down, we choose to travel by auto-rickshaw. Yesterday was such a day, and having successfully hailed a passing pilot (not always as easy as it may sound) David and I climbed aboard bound for a day’s teaching. At first all was well, but then the driver took a turn down one of the narrow streets with which I am familiar  from my morning walks. In my naivety I assumed that perhaps road works or traffic difficulties had warranted a diversion. However, within moments it became clear that this was yet another example of a driver whose inbuilt satellite navigation system was dysfunctional. Very gently (at first) I suggested to him that we were not en-route for our desired destination. My lack of Kannada (or at this point, even the appropriate Hinglish) did not assist the situation. With an all too familiar head shake the driver ignored my comments and proceeded quite happily in what I knew to be totally the wrong direction. “Madhaven Park,” I politely suggested. “Madhaven Park,” the driver replied, this time nodding in affirmation, but still progressing away from the requested terminus.

Eventually we arrived at the gate of the Lal Bagh Botanical Gardens, a venue that under normal circumstances I would be delighted to visit, but on this occasion,  being  some considerable distance from our intended destination I was less than joyful. The time had come for affirmative action. Locating myself on the narrow front seat beside the driver I decided that sign language, and indeed using the boldest of gestures, was clearly justified. Thus it was that having gently pointed the driver in the right direction and indicating with a frantic waving of arms at each junction we finally arrived at the teaching venue. On arrival the  driver  appeared  even more relieved than ourselves. This may have been something to do with ridding himself of the Englishman who had elected to ride shotgun, though personally I was somewhat disappointed that he didn’t offer me a more permanent position riding as navigator to prevent other similar situations arising.

In truth, I am a great admirer of the auto-rickshaw drivers of Bangalore. They have a refined spatial awareness, generally display a cheery countenance, and are paid very little for offering an essential service. Incidentally my latest excursion was with a driver who knew exactly which route to take, avoided many of the potholes and all of the dogs and delivered us promptly and efficiently to the door. Polar explorers, lone sailors, mountaineers, intrepid all – but let’s not forget these warriors of the roads of Bangalore.

 

Broadening our minds

School displays demonstrate how children are gaining knowledge of history, geography and so much more. Model of the ill-fated Titanic from a primary school

School displays demonstrate how children are gaining knowledge of history, geography and so much more. Model of the ill-fated Titanic from a primary school

Whenever I visit schools I try to spend a little time looking at the colourful displays that usually adorn the walls and corridors. These often provide an opportunity to demonstrate the talents and learning of children, exhibiting works of art, writing or mathematical accomplishments and informing visitors about the learning and experiences of students. Teachers and other staff in schools invest time in ensuring that this work is carefully presented, and just like the students who have produced this work they take immense pride in the artefacts that decorate the school environment.

A couple of years ago I visited a primary school in Ireland and enjoyed a brief perusal of a colourful display depicting early Egyptian history. Carefully constructed collages of Egyptian murals with representations of the jackal-headed Anubis and bird headed Horus, and hand written hieroglyphs covered a wall, whilst models of the great pyramids and of the mummies of pharaohs were arranged and informatively labelled on a table. It was evident that the pupils who had constructed these offerings had been encouraged to use their imaginations whilst learning about a significant civilization through a study of history and geography. As is invariably the case, I found much to admire in the work of the children and the skills of those teachers and other school staff who had offered their support and guidance to these young learners. Similar displays depicting  history, geography, literature and much more from both near at home and distant lands is to be found in most schools.

When I was a child much of my learning about distant places and people was gained either through reading or television documentaries. I remember a phase of reading anything I could obtain that would inform me about the Romans and supplementing my understanding of their influence with visits to the city museum in Gloucester where there was a good collection of artefacts and information. My knowledge of ancient Egypt was largely garnered from similar sources, reinforced by television programmes that included an account of the life of Howard Carter and his discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, and an excellent series presented by the archaeologist John Romer. As a schoolboy  I could never have imagined that in the future I would visit countries other than my own, where I could stand within some of the finest examples of Roman architecture such as the Colosseum in Rome or the amphitheatre at Autun. International travel was, generally speaking not within the remit of school children from my area, and I believed, in common with most of my friends, that my knowledge and understanding of the wider world was always likely to be obtained through reading or the media.

It is partly through reflection upon my early second hand encounters with history and geography that I find myself thinking about how my life has changed, and the great privilege that I have experienced in being able to visit many countries around the world. Furthermore, often through my work, I have been able to meet people and make friends in these countries, and have worked closely with many valued colleagues whose cultural experiences of the world differ greatly from my own. A common factor in every country that I have visited is a patriotic pride that people have in their national heritage, landscape and history. They invariably take great pleasure in showing visitors the geographical, natural and architectural features of their localities, knowing that I am enthusiastic to learn about both the people of a country and the landscape and culture that has shaped their lives.  It is this enthusiasm and pride that has enabled me to wonder at sites such as the Qutb Minar in Delhi, the frozen landscapes of Lapland, the Caravaggio paintings in the cathedral at Valetta, the sulphur baths of Tbilisi and the botanical gardens of Singapore. It is also, in part, through these experiences that I have been eager to reciprocate this hospitality and ensure that visitors to England have similar experiences whilst they are here.

Whilst we can and must, continue to learn from reading and the use of various media, there is no substitute for first-hand experiences of places and people. Travel provides unique opportunities to engage with cultures, climate and religions that differ from our own. The traveller who is prepared to learn from such experiences has the chance to gain greater understanding of those conditions and beliefs that emphasise the ways in which we may differ from people elsewhere, but more especially those basic human characteristics that bind us together. There is a commonly held belief that travel broadens the mind. This is true only if we are prepared to open our minds and to travel respectfully and with a willingness to learn about the lives of those who live in the places we choose to visit.

As I write this today I am conscious of the fact that many of the opportunities for learning through travel that I had only ever dreamt of as a child, but which have at times become open to me, may now be closing for most people. Countries, including Egypt, Tunisia, Pakistan and Libya which are the cradle of many great civilizations, magnificent countryside and a rich cultural history are now seen as dangerous and off-limits to most travellers. As a result of this those people living in these countries who have become economically dependent upon tourism are suffering. Equally devastating is the fact that the inhabitants of those countries, and individuals from outside who would wish to visit, are deprived of an opportunity to learn from each other, to make friendships and to understand how much we all have in common.

It is, of course, in the interest of those who would wish to limit education, and to deny individuals the chance to engage in social, intellectual and cultural exchange of ideas, to create a situation where travel is restricted. I do believe, however, that such an attitude cannot prevail. It is too late for those who would wish to roll back the years. Friendships and professional associations have been made and are strong enough to endure. The desire to work and spend time together that has become a feature of internationalisation over the past half century has become embedded in the lives of many people. Artificial boundaries have been challenged, and I am sure that the desire to learn from others, to experience their cultures, to understand their beliefs and share their experiences will play an important role in the defeat of ignorance and insularity. I hope that it will not be too long before normal educational opportunities through travel and interaction are resumed.

 

 

Have you texted any good novels recently?

 

The modern art of conversation!

The modern art of conversation!

I was standing on Birmingham’s New Street station a couple of days ago on my way home from a teaching session with research colleagues at the University in that city. I have to say that the platforms at New Street are about as dingy and uninspiring as those of any railway station I have experienced anywhere in the world. I enjoy travelling by train; it usually provides an opportunity to catch up with reading or marking, and generally makes few demands upon the traveller. However, this journey was a little frustrating as the only announcements being made were informing passengers of delayed trains and late arrivals and departures.

As I stood on the crowded platform I became aware that my behaviour probably stood out from almost everyone around me. It did so not because of what I was doing, simply standing patiently in anticipation that I might, with any luck get home before dark, but rather for what I was not doing. As I looked around me I noticed that the six individuals in closest proximity were all engaged in sending messages over their mobile phones. So this, I thought, is what we mean by the digital age; an era in which our digits are used for communication more often than our voices.

Of course, I too send text messages via a mobile phone, but after ten minutes or more had elapsed I was surprised to note that, with still no sign of the much anticipated train, all but one of my fellow passengers was still busily tapping the tiny key board and seemingly oblivious to their immediate surroundings. Perhaps, I speculated, this is the way in which students write their essays today; maybe one of these highly focused individuals is writing a novel or some major work of history or philosophy. Can it be that the great magnum opus will in future be written on a mobile phone? Would it possibly necessitate major surgery to separate these individuals from their phones? These thoughts, I reflected are probably the result of two conditions, the first the effects of a simple ennui brought upon from this unappreciated period of waiting in the bowels of the world’s worst railway station, and the second could well be a Luddite tendency possibly related to my age!

At last the train arrived and slumping wearily, but with some relief into a seat I removed a book (an old fashioned object constructed from paper and board containing sheaves of paper called pages filled with text) from my bag, and settled down to enjoy forty five minutes of reading. Taking her seat beside me, a young lady still connected as if by an umbilicus to her smart phone, continued to exercise her fingers deftly across a tiny screen, a dextrous act that she maintained even whilst leaving the train twenty five minutes later in Coventry. Looking around the carriage I noted that her performance was mirrored with commendable concentration by several other passengers, whilst others listened through headphones, presumably to music or possibly stories, again through their phones, and others switched on electronic tablets to play games or even watch movies.

But then I spotted something reassuring. Having begun to think that I had become an endangered species, possibly at risk of attracting the attention of a passing anthropologist, or even David Attenborough in search of a new epic television programme opportunity, there sat quietly across the corridor of the train I noted was a young lady, possibly sixteen years old, certainly no more than eighteen with her gaze fixed intently upon the pages of a book. My curiosity was immediately raised, could this be the last of the dinosaurs or possibly the missing link? What could it be about this ancient technology that held her concentration so fixedly? My curiosity was soon followed by a feeling of unalloyed joy as she turned a page revealing the cover of her book. Women in Love, a D.H. Lawrence classic no less, I wanted to shout for joy, but being British and reserved restrained myself from so doing and returned to my own text with renewed enthusiasm, and an assured feeling that all was well with the world.

Just in case you may be thinking by now that I am resisting entry into the twenty first century, I will confess that I too occasionally listen to music from my phone. Furthermore, when travelling long distances, particularly by bicycle, I often make use of a digital reading device and celebrate the convenience that this brings (not actually whilst riding of course – but usually seated beside a tent in the evening!) And yes, you can download a copy of Women in Love, along with countless other Lawrence novels onto this wonderful machine at a very reasonable price, I’ve just checked. But I still think that from time to time when standing on a railway platform as uninspiring as that in Birmingham, it can be a pleasant, if somewhat arcane experience to engage in conversation with a fellow traveller. And whilst acknowledging the undoubted virtues  of the digital reader, there is something comfortably reassuring about the feel, the weight and even the smell of a good old fashioned book!

Bangalore beckons

 

Joining again with friends

Joining again with friends

I am sure that there are many people who when about to embark on a journey feel fully prepared and organised. As I pack my bags for India I am confident that I have everything needed for working when I get there, having spent many hours going back through presentations and materials that I will be using for teaching over the coming weeks. I am less confident that I will arrive with all the necessary items of clothing and other domestic requirements, which always appear to be packed in a hurry.

I prefer to travel with as little luggage as possible, and having made similar journeys to Bangalore over many years, I have learned to recognise those accoutrements that are surplus to requirements, and which on previous trips have stood idly by in a room until ready to be taken home. Even so, I usually find myself sitting on a plane wondering if I have all essential items packed.

I once flew to Mumbai seated next to a passenger who was visiting India as a tourist for a month and had everything he needed, or so he hoped, in a small holdall taken onto the flight as hand luggage. I remember being full of admiration for someone who could travel so light and with a sparse number of items. Though I also reflected that he could find himself most unpopular on a return flight had he been unable to change or wash his clothing after a month of wearing the same shirt in India’s dust and heat! – That is a somewhat disrespectful comment and I hope that the gentleman in question had a great time and returned to England with a suitcase full of good memories.

Over the past few days colleagues here at the university have asked me about what I am going to teach in India and about the challenges of preparing to deliver ideas about inclusive education, largely a western concept, within an Asian culture. They are quite right in seeing this as an important issue and one which needs to be approached with respect and an appreciation of local and national procedures and traditions. Fortunately, when working in Bangalore, I do so alongside long established Indian friends and colleagues whose experiences and perceptions have greatly influenced the ways in which I work.

I like to think  when working with colleagues in India that I have taken full consideration of the circumstances in which they teach, and have informed myself by spending time in local schools and working alongside colleagues in classrooms. However, I am always aware that when working alongside teachers I learn as much, or possibly more than I can convey through my teaching practices.

Keeping up to date with Indian research, legislation and literature is demanding, but affords many enjoyable learning experiences. Applying this learning with colleagues is something I look forward to as I prepare for this next expedition.

The coming days are sure to provide plenty of new learning opportunities and a chance to renew old acquaintances and make new friends. Above all, there will be times spent in debating the approaches we can develop and adopt to challenge exclusion and ensure that children who have been marginalised have new opportunities for learning and succeeding. The commitment of teachers in India is such that the education scene is changing quickly and dramatically. There is every reason to be confident that in the future schools will become far more inclusive than they have been in the recent past.

If I board the plane tomorrow minus an item or two of clothing, or without my toothpaste or a bar of soap I am sure I will overcome these omissions without too many difficulties. So long as I arrive with open eyes and a willingness to share in learning, I am convinced that all will be well. I look forward to reporting further after I settle once again into India’s Garden City. As Mark Twain informed us

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”

But only if we travel with an intention to learn and respect those who we meet along the way.

I could be anywhere in the world!

Heathrow, Birmingham, Rome, Dublin, Singapore, Hong Kong, Dubai - who knows?  This is simply corporate world!

Heathrow, Birmingham, Rome, Dublin, Singapore, Hong Kong, Dubai – who knows?
This is simply corporate world!

Little boxes on the hillside,

Little boxes made of ticky tacky,

Little boxes on the hillside,

Little boxes all the same.

There’s a green one and a pink one

And a blue one and a yellow one,

And they’re all made out of ticky tacky

And they all look just the same.

          Malvina Reynolds (1962)

Pete Seeger, the American political activist and singer with whom I most readily associate the song “Little Boxes” died last year at the age of ninety four. The song tells the story of an unimaginative approach to housing development, through which hundreds of poorly designed and constructed houses, built with low quality materials cover the country. These become indistinguishable from each other, as do the people who live within them. The song is a protest against poor design and the encroachment of corporate image.

You know how it is, suddenly a song comes into your head and you are unable to shake yourself free of this, until after a while it begins to iritate? Well, this morning I found myself humming the tune to this song as I meandered in a somewhat delirious, fatigued state through the airport at which I arrived in São Paulo, Brazil. Here was I, arriving in an airport at a place previously unvisited, that was oh so familiar. Looking at the immediate environment, this could easily have been Dubai, Bangalore, Singapore, Hong Kong, Dublin, or any one of the numerous airports I have visited in recent years, including terminal five of London’s Heathrow from which I had departed just twelve hours earlier. This is a curse of modern travel; the uniformity that has come to characterise airports around the globe, forbidding any true sense of national or local identity. If an unknowing individual was dropped into the midst of any of these locations, they would have little clue as to where in the world they might be.

Each destination appears to house the same ugly furnishings, completely ill at ease with themselves. The décor is bland and boring, almost clinical in its presentation. In recognition of the modern obsession with consumerism, the architects (if one can truly describe them as such) of these soulless places, guide the passenger through a mazy path between “designer” shops, with instantly recognisable labels, selling goods that you could never previously have known you needed, enticing you to part with whatever currency you choose in a frenzied display of shopper’s madness. The same familiar goods, sold from display cabinets of corporate uniformity, easily recognised from any other airport in the world, ensure that the only thing that you, the weary traveller knows for sure is that you are in yet another airport.

As many who know me well would tell you, I am not a great fan of shopping, and I must say that it is rare that anything within these cathedrals of consumer insanity would entice me off the path to a seat near my embarkation gate. I sometimes wonder if I was inoculated against the dangers of catching the shopping bug when I was a child. If so, this is doubtless yet another act for which I owe many thanks to my parents.

To be fair, a few airports have made the effort to reassert a more personal identity. I remember a few years ago in Schiphol airport, Amsterdam, that there were two particularly pleasing and thoughtful features. A small collection of paintings from the Rijksmuseum had been displayed in a quiet area, inviting the waiting traveller to browse and enjoy something of Dutch culture. In another part of the airport, a small library with books in many languages had been installed, tempting willing readers to turn the pages and relax with a work of literature. I was more than happy to respond positively to both of these allurements, a much more delectible means of addressing the tedium of a long wait. Even more creative, at Changi airport in Singapore, a butterfly garden was constructed with exotic plants and examples of these beautiful multi-coloured insects to raise the curiosity of the passenger in transit. Again, a pleasant half hour or more was spent during one of my visits, exploring this lovely area. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if more such innovation could be applied to these boring, non-descript edifices. Such creativity could certainly make the endless periods of waiting less tedious. Whilst functionality and efficiency must obviously dictate the ways in which airports operate, some effort to retain national identity would be most welcome.

I well recognise the symptoms associated with today’s blog. I am tired after a long period of travel by air and road, and a fruitless effort in trying to sleep in a cramped aircraft seat. I am sure that after a good night’s rest I will be restored and ready to learn with and from colleagues here in Brazil. Perhaps it is the lack of sleep that has made me view international airports in a less than favourable light – but I still can’t get that irritating tune out of my head, because basically

they’re all made out of ticky tacky

And they all look just the same.

From heat and dust to a warm log fire

Education has the potential to bring out the best in both the teacher and the learner.

Education has the potential to bring out the best in both the teacher and the learner.

Visiting India regularly to work with colleagues and students is one of the greatest privileges experienced in my career. I have been coming here for so many years now, that I feel that whilst working here I am always in the company of good companions. Each visit brings new learning and renewed acquaintance with friends and colleagues for whom I have a great respect, and because of this I look forward to these trips with anticipation and enthusiasm. This latest venture to Bangalore has been no different, with an opportunity to share ideas with teachers and students who are committed to their work and immensely creative in their daily lives.

Whilst India is a place where I feel comfortable and for which I hold more than a little affinity, it could never be home, and today I begin the long journey by road, air and rail to return to my family and the familiar surroundings of Northamptonshire. The wonders of modern technology do of course, mean that whilst here I can stay in touch by text, or email and better still by skype. These important daily contacts with home are anticipated with relish and on the odd occasions when communication systems fail this is a source of disappointment and frustration.

Travelling west tomorrow means that my departure and arrival will, unless there are delays, see me leave India and arrive home on the same day. I was thinking about this last night when reading an account of merchants from the East India company who reported that a hundred years ago in 1814, the voyage from England to India via the Cape of Good Hope took at least six months. I somehow don’t believe that the University of Northampton would tolerate a six month journey to do two weeks teaching, followed by six months return passage! How much different are conditions now from those days of travel under sail, and written letters that might take six months or longer to reach home?

Having arrived in India to teach and to learn from my students and colleagues, I can reflect on so much that is similar in our education systems and so much more that is different. But amidst all this, a shared purpose of working to improve the education of children who are so often excluded from learning opportunities, gives us common ground and a firm foundation upon which we can build.

I am at that point in my visit when I am counting down the hours to departure, not with any sorrow for the time I have spent here these last few weeks with such good friends and colleagues, but simply in anticipation of being in the company of my family where I belong. Last night my conversation with Sara focused partly upon the sub-zero temperatures and fall of snow that I can anticipate awaiting my arrival – a warm log fire and woolly jumper sounds like the order of the day.

So having packed my bags and as I await a taxi to the airport I must say goodbye and thank you, to all my friends who have afforded me such excellent hospitality here in Bangalore. I value your creativity and friendship and look forward to keeping in touch and to returning to enjoy your company in a few months time.

 

Leaving on a jet plane

The Marchioness of Ely aboard which Fanny Parkes made her journey to India in 1822

The Marchioness of Ely aboard which Fanny Parkes made her journey to India in 1822

I face the next twenty four hours with mixed emotions. On the one hand I am looking forward to arriving tomorrow evening in Bangalore ready to meet up with old friends and new. On the other, the thought of long cramped hours in an economy class aircraft seat trying to get some sleep and being away from my home and family is always a daunting prospect. To be fair, the cabin crew on Emirates flights are always friendly and considerate, and at least there is an opportunity to stretch legs at Dubai airport when breaking the journey. So, the prospects of passing the time reading and probably catching up with films I missed at the cinema should not be regarded with anything other than resignation.

Contemplating the journey ahead, last night I reached for the diary of a remarkable woman, Fanny Parkes who recorded her experiences in India in the first half of the nineteenth century. Unlike so many English ladies who ventured to India at this time, and indeed since, Fanny Parkes committed herself to understanding the country and its people, learning languages, playing the sitar and getting to grips with the traditions and religions of the land. Her journals, which lingered far too long in obscurity were revived by the writer and historian William Dalrymple and published in a collected edition in 2002*. For anyone who wants to gain insights into life in northern India during this period they make fascinating reading.

It was whilst contemplating my own journey over the next day or so that I decided to remind myself of Fanny Parkes’ departure from England aboard the Marchioness of Ely and her eventual arrival along the estuary of the Hoogly river into Calcutta. Fanny left the Kent coast of England on June 18th 1822 arriving in Calcutta on November 13th. In her journals she describes watching whales and turtles, catching a sea snake and enjoying magnificent seascapes and sunsets. She also writes of the time when the ship was becalmed for eighteen days and when the wind returned being blown at seven knots in the wrong direction.

Travel at the pace with which Fanny Parkes journeyed to India on the Marchioness of Ely, must have many positive aspects. Though I suspect that she endured many discomforts and inconveniences along the way. I suppose her experiences watching the natural fauna and the changing seascapes are the equivalent of today’s inflight entertainment systems. Whilst it would be enjoyable to travel to India in a leisurely manner, it would hardly be practical in terms of providing two weeks of teaching!

It is with such contemplation that I will pack the final few items in my luggage and head off to the airport in anticipation of renewing my acquaintance with the sights, sounds and smells of Bangalore. In a few days’ time I am sure that it will feel like I have never been away, as I share new learning experiences with long established friends and students and a new cohort joining the MA in Special and Inclusive Education. I have no doubt there will be much to report over the coming days and weeks.

* William Dalrymple (2002) Begums, Thugs and White Mughals. London: Eland

Travel to learn or not at all

How limited is our own learning and understanding when working in other cultures? Calligraphy - Shaoxing China

How limited is our own learning and understanding when working in other cultures?
Calligraphy – Shaoxing China

“I fear the Greeks, even when they offer gifts”

Virgil Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes – The Aeneid

Between 1822 and 1846 a most remarkable English woman named Fanny Parkes lived and travelled in India. The wife of an official responsible for ice making working within the strictures of the East India Company, Fanny Parkes arrived in India confident in the superiority of European culture and customs and prepared to live the life of a typical memsahib under the protection of the British Empire. Hers could so easily have become a familiar story of a woman living a sheltered existence under the British colonial authority  that dominated the Indian sub-continent at this time, but unlike so many of her counterparts, Fanny Parkes came to respect the history and culture of the country in which she was a guest (when so many others felt they were there by right). The Scottish historian and writer William Dalrymple has lovingly collated Fanny Parkes’ papers and diaries and published them under the title Begums, Thugs and White Mughals* and in doing so provides readers with her personal insights into life in India during the early nineteenth century.

The reason I am so fascinated by the account of Fanny Parkes’ life is that at a time of repressive imperialism when not only British officials, but others from across Europe thought that their own form of “civilization” and life style was superior to that of other nations, she recognised that by respecting the cultural traditions of others it was possible to learn and understand that alternative interpretations of the world had much to offer. During her time in India Fanny Parkes travelled widely – a particularly enjoyable part of the book is her account of a lengthy journey by boat along the Ganges, but she also learned languages, studied Indian music including the playing of the sitar, art and cuisine and developed an appreciation of the intricacies of both Hindu and Muslim religious practices and their texts. Dalrymple, who is surely one of the finest European chroniclers of Indian history presents us with a picture of a lady who by showing respect for local people found that this was reciprocated. Yet she was derided by many of her English contemporaries who saw her as eccentric and failing to uphold the dignified aloofness expected of a representative of empire.

Fanny Parkes lived during an era when the imposition of western ideas and beliefs upon the rest of the world had become the norm. Fortunately the twentieth century saw a diminishing of the power held by previous colonial powers as countries  across Asia and Africa gained their independence and began to take greater control of their own destinies. Many of us now look upon the writings of Fanny Parkes and others like her, with admiration for the stance she took in trying to bring to the attention of others, the great histories and culture of peoples who had been looked upon as subjects to be shaped into the mould of Europeans.

I would suggest that the lessons we can learn by reading the accounts provided by Fanny Parkes and others of like mind are relevant to those of us working in education today. Not only does she provide us with an example of someone who demonstrated the importance of respecting tradition and culture, but I believe she gives us food for thought about the ways in which we conduct ourselves as teachers working within international contexts. Increasingly today we find international collaborations between individuals and the institutions they represent, with academics, teachers and researchers travelling to visit unfamiliar circumstances in the name of educational advancement. These opportunities are to be welcomed so long as we are clear about what it is that motivates action and have well established principles that guide the way we  work.

Universities in particular have adopted the language and behaviours of businesses operating in an international market place. Sadly I often hear and read these days expressions such as, “China is a growing market for education”, or “Brazil offers rich opportunities for the expansion of university activities”. Whilst it is certainly true that universities need to keep themselves abreast of opportunities for the recruitment of students and the development of knowledge on an international scale, there are potential pitfalls that need to be considered. Not least of these are the motivations for the work to be undertaken. If universities focus solely upon economic gain they will most certainly find that after a relatively short time they will fall out of favour with the countries that they are currently wooing.  It is important to ensure that international partnerships are developed in which all involved are equal partners. The days of educational benefice should be confined to the past as we move forward with an intention of shared learning and understanding.

This shared learning is, for me, at the core of what we should be aiming to achieve. In my own field of special and inclusive education I have seen too many academics from western universities and other institutions travelling like colonial missionaries intent on bringing the good word of European, Australasian or North American education to those in need of enlightenment. Such retrograde behaviour must be rejected and confined to the annals of history.

The principles which should govern our international partnerships need to be expressed clearly by all involved. A partnership of equals needs to be established, but with host countries setting the agenda and inviting the participation of outsiders. It must be the educationists in the countries where work is to be undertaken who identify the needs which are to be addressed and the outcomes that they desire to see. There surely must be an obligation on those who visit countries for work to learn something of the history, culture and context of the places where they will operate. In this way respectful partnerships may be achieved and all involved will be able to learn and work together. Those who believe that western educational practices can simply be transferred to other contexts are both naïve and disrespectful to the rich educational heritage that has often existed in those countries far longer than those in our own lands.

In her lifetime Fanny Parkes failed to convince many of her contemporaries of the need to understand the people and culture of India and other countries that were under British subjugation. Even today there are individuals and organisations that believe themselves superior to those whose traditions, religions, or customs are different from their own. As teachers we should be committed to rise above these spurious notions and strive to achieve partnerships based upon respect and dignity.

Above all, when we travel to teach we should recognise that we have a unique opportunity, to learn from the people with whom we work. This will only happen if we see ourselves as neophytes and recognise our responsibilities as guests in the places that we visit. Those who travel in the belief that they are in some way superior would be best advised to stay at home.

*Begums, Thugs and White Mughals: The Journals of Fanny Parkes. (2002) Edited by William Dalrymple Published in London by Eland. ISBN: 978 090787188-0

Begums