Tuesday, 21 March 2017

World Poetry Day

Ah, poetry.

I wandered lonely as a cloud... No?

The boy stood on the burning deck... No way!

She was only the vicar's daughter... Maybe?

People's impression of poetry varies enormously. Personally, I've always been a huge fan; I can recite chunks of it by heart. (Possibly the only thing Michael Gove ever got right as Education Secretary - possibly the only thing Michael Gove ever got right about anything! - was adding that to the curriculum.) But I've been challenged recently by a form of the art I'd not really taken seriously before.

My timetable this year involves teaching poetry - epic poetry. First, the Iliad; then the Aeneid. I was pleased to be able to 'forget' the war  for a while (as in the Great War, World War One, whose literary and historical battlefields I've been immersed in for the last five years while researching this, my book The Glorious Dead). But I was a little daunted by the length of both classical epics, as well as by their archaic literary mannerisms.

No more. Because not only have I discovered unexpected links between a 3000 year old Greek poem about the siege of Troy and my own recent research into World War One, I've also learned to appreciate the scope of the Iliad. Although it's old and packed with mythological detail the core of the poem is thought to be a folk memory of a real event. That's truly awesome!

What's also awesome is what I'd thought to be the least interesting passages. The famous 'Catalogue of Ships' in Book 2 turns out to be so much more than a 'name-check' of the many and varied Greek forces who have joined with Agamemnon on the famous expedition to lay waste to Troy (in revenge for the Trojans running off with Agamemnon's sister-in-law, the famous face-that-launched-a-thousand-ships, Helen). These are the villages from which the 'cannon fodder' of the Greek forces come from. And Homer's catalogue of ships is his homage to their memory. It's what the poem is for.

He does is personally, too. The first Greek to die (he's also the first to land) is Protesilaus. He's a name. A death. But he's also the man who will 'never return now to his half-built house' and whose wife 'tears her cheeks with grief'. Later, Axylos is killed by Diomedes. And Homer tells us he 'had a house by the road and was hospitable to all men... But none of them faced Diomedes for him and saved him from a miserable death.'

These little vignettes occur so often that I've come to think of them as integral to the poem. And the reason they're there, the reason for that long catalogue of ships - and the reason for the poem itself - is remembrance.

Yes, the Iliad is a war poem - probably the most famous war poem ever. But to quote another war poet its subject is not just war but the 'pity of war'. And the names and lists are Homer's own millenia old versions of our own memorials to the 'Glorious Dead'.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Their Lordships House

I've not traditionally been a big fan of the House of Lords. Unelected hereditary hoorahs and political has-beens hindering the democratic doings of the House of Commons, birthright over lawful mandate etc.

Except democracy - our version of it - really doesn't have much to recommend it at the moment, does it? The elected leader of the free world is a peach-faced loon with a candy-floss bouffant and a less-than-secure hold on reality. And our lot aren't much better.

And then there's Brexit. (Don't get me started!)

So it's been something of a revelation to be watching Meet the Lords (BBC Four) on a Monday evening without shouting at the television.

At times (such as when the Lords insisted on the Dubs amendment) I've even found myself gasping ever-so-quietly in admiration. And wondering how much better off we'd be if we could somehow orchestrate a rule by meritocracy, something akin to the 'Wise Men' or Witan that had a say in Anglo-Saxon England? (Just don't get me started on that awful 1066: A Year to Conquer England nonsense with Dan Snow!)

Would we be worse off? 

Perhaps. Democracy is undoubtedly a 'Good Thing'. But you can have too much of a good thing, after all. And just as Parliament has repeatedly refused all calls for a referendum on re-introducing hanging in the last fifty years (because it knows all too well what would be the outcome), perhaps the people should never have been trusted to 'decide' on whether we stayed in the EU.

But if not the people, then... who? MPs? Our 'elected' representatives? Those fine, upstanding members of the community who seem to find ways of adding all sorts of things to their already long expenses lists and talking for inordinate amounts of time in order to - get this! - prevent laws that might otherwise be passed. Here's one of the main culprits.

Well, maybe... just maybe... perhaps the House of Lords has survived this long for a very good reason?

If it didn't exist we might have to invent it. 

Thursday, 2 March 2017

World Book Day Giveaway

It's that time of year again, the time of year when normally calm and rational parents suddenly flip on being informed, minutes before the school run, that it's #WorldBookDay and that, this year, the school has decided everyone should dress up as a character from Homer. The Greek bard, not the Simpson's character.

(What do you mean you never saw that letter?)

Anyway, however yours have dressed today, I have something to mark the occasion that won't involve hours of sewing, extortionate expense (or any expense at all, actually) and only the very bare minimum of effort (namely, a comment beneath this post).

For I have not one, not two but THREE books to give away today as part of a special World Book Day, er... giveaway.

First, this. A 1970s family crisis saw car-obsessed Martin Gurdon sent to a vegetarian boarding school in rural Lancashire, from which he bunked off in order to make day trips to London, pretending to be a businessman in order to test drive new cars. His memoir Life on the Road is out on March 23rd but you can get hold of an advance copy right here!

Next, this. Now the days are getting longer it's time to start planning what to do with those lovely, long summer evenings we've been looking forward to all winter. And this is the perfect guide. The family Meek come up trumps again (that's 'trump' as in 'triumph', not the peach-faced POTUS with the candy-floss bouffant) with 50 simple and exciting ideas for spending time together out-of-doors during the working week.

And finally, this.

Yes, I know, I know. But none other than the legendary Reverend Richard Coles described it as a 'beautifully-angled novel about growing up and breaking down' and he should know. (Have you read his autobiography?) And just look what some of its other readers have said: 'I read this book in two sittings... so good is the writing that I physically experienced the panic a character was having and the relief when it passed.' 'A pleasure to read, it flows from the page.' And 'Writing Therapy blew me away!'

If you'd like it (or any of the other books on offer) to 'blow you away' this World Book Day, then leave a comment below (saying which one you'd like) between now and Sunday night.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Radio Gaga

Being on BBC Local Radio is a little bit like speed dating. Not that I've ever been speed-dating, but from what I gather, you know. From a friend. Of a friend.

Anyway, in spite of the fact that I've done it before and in spite of the fact that I imagine local radio having hours and hours of airtime and only limited scope for playing Abba back-to-back I always feel rushed. Best to get a couple of thoughts written down and leave the rest to them.

So when they rang (to ask if I'd contribute to their discussion of the teaching crisis) I did. Here they are:
  • teachers' lives will never improve until school data targets are driven by what individual pupils need and can achieve, rather than what makes schools look good;
  • and that would actually make most pupils a lot happier, too.  
Of course, I didn't get round to saying them. Because I was asked other things. And therefore said stuff in reply I hadn't really thought about.

You can hear me do it if you like.

Scroll to 27mins in.

Unless your taste is 30 year-old pop songs. (Have Human League re-formed. Again?)

Friday, 17 February 2017

The Doctor will see you now...

Any email that begins with the words 'I'm a big fan of your blog and have been reading it a lot!' is guaranteed to grab my attention. After all, the author is clearly someone of taste, discernment, wit, erudition and intelligence.

Certainly the latter, as this particular email comes from a PhD student at the University of Cambridge who is writing a dissertation on stay-at-home father families. She's interested in interviewing stay-at-home dads, their partners and children in order 'to get a full perspective of family life in these families, with a view to getting fathers' voices heard as they are often under-represented in comparison to mothers.'

Can you help? she asks. Well I can. And I will. But can you?

If you can, you can contact Kitty by phone on 01223 334513 or email her at cmj44@cam.ac.uk.

And there's a tenner in it if you do!

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