Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Where Do I Go From Here?

Those regular readers who clicked through to the refugee-related blog I put over on How I Learned to Sing to protect the poeliacs* amongst you will have noticed the blog included extracts from an essay I wrote in 2001 for the publication accompany artist Geoff Broadway's piece Where Do I Go From Here? This work was based on Geoff's spell as Artist-in-Residence at Durham Cathedral, and connected interviews with people who had taken asylum in the North East to the 12th century knocker still to be found at the Cathedral. You could knock on the door and take sanctuary for 40 days, apparently, no questions asked, be it debt collectors, angry cuckolds or oligarchs who were after you.

I only included extracts I found online as I couldn't put my hand on my version of the full essay, either in digital or hard copy, and the page had fallen off Geoff's site. Anyway, I've now got a copy of the whole thing and have uploaded it here.

It was interesting and not a little depressing reading the piece after so many years, although I was pleased that I thought it was actually a good piece of work - albeit not as powerful as Geoff's own work of course. There is something a little terrifying about reading work old enough for me to have forgotten it, or exactly what I said and how. This was a better such experience than many I've had.

The depressing thing was that there were so many sentences that could have been written in the last fortnight, and all of the quotations I used in the piece could also still be dropped into certain kinds of conversations all too comfortably. It's weird that the essay includes a number of quotations from Brecht, about whom I wrote apropos of something completely different recently, although he was, of course, a refugee himself: 'I’m like the man who took a brick to show/ How beautiful his house used once to be.' 

The most challenging of the things I wrote may be these sentences, as they address anyone, including me, tempted to a virtue-signalling gesture that inadvertently suggests this 'crisis' is a temporary thing solvable simply by being kind, rather than an ongoing phenomenon that requires kindness perhaps above all, but not alone, if we are to change any government behaviour:

'It is simplistic to think asylum is simply  a matter of compassion or otherwise. It is ruled by political and economic priorities. Why else would Canada accept, for instance, 82 % of applicants from Sri Lanka as refugees according to UN definitions, whilst Britain considers only 0.2% of applicants from Sri Lanka eligible.'

Anyway, you can read the whole thing here, it has a killer quote from Zadie Smith, I'm withholding to tempt you...

*Verse-aversion or intolerance

Monday, 7 September 2015

Back to school special


It’s a new year. I’m told that these days by the sounds through my office from the nearby school playground, rather than by my kids needing new shoes, bags, pencils, PE kit, or, in the university years, help with the rent. But I suspect most of us of any age and family situation in the UK always associate the September turn in the weather with a new school year. We might grow nostalgic for that new book, new protractor, fresh start feeling, or we might rejoice not to ever have to go back into a classroom, but there’s some kind of emotional twitch in most of us at this time of year. (I envy the French the word ‘la rentrĂ©e’, which sums those mixed emotions up brilliantly somehow, and not just for those in education.) 

 Arts provision in schools is a key area of argument and activity at the moment. Bob & Roberta Smith even stood for parliament against Michael Gove to raise the issue. The changes to the curriculum are making it harder and harder for schools to support arts activity. Even changes to the History curriculum are making it harder for the many ‘industrial’ museums. Can’t have children learning about the industrial revolution, they might hear about unions or health and safety or something dangerous like that, I suppose. 

 Although the government tries its best to spin it, asserting in typical black-is-white fashion that it values the thing it is reducing, most readings of the statistics suggest fewer young people are choosing to take most arts subjects at GCSE. The excellent Cultural Learning Alliance explore the figures in very clear fashion here. As mentioned there is also evidence that this trend is worse, in some subjects at least, amongst young people from more deprived areas. It seems also to be reinforcing the long-standing gender differences in take up of arts subjects at GCSE. 

Schools trips are also getting squeezed, be it by teacher nervousness or actual budgetary or curricular pressure. I saw some evidence recently that this is especially so in special schools which is worrying. 

 One rarely sees English Literature in the list of arts subjects, although I think it should be there. The upside of it being compulsory is that young people get introduced to some ‘great’ books, some of which are actually great. The downside of it being compulsory is that compulsory things are often horrible when you’re at school - for some, unlucky, people it’s a bore and serves to put them off novels, poetry and plays for life. I know we don’t like to admit this, but that was my observation at school and is what I’ve heard from many people since.

 So I’d like to apologise to any GCSE English students about to begin the AQA GCSE English Literature syllabus using the OUP student book for the bit in the next two years when you get to my poem, 'As luck would have it', if you don’t like it. I’m sharing the pictures here not for education purposes but simply as illustration - click them for larger versions. But if any regular readers want to answer in the comments section, please feel free… 

 I’m sorry I don’t have the resolve of my hero Adrian Mitchell to ban my poems from exam-related books. It wasn’t the money, I actually let my publisher keep that as I was feeling generous and grateful and a bit guilty for not being a better-selling poet, it was the excitement that maybe someone who enjoyed Eng. Lit as much as I did might found my work through the poem. It was that ego-serving moment we almost-unknown poets get when someone responds to the message in a bottle that is a book of poems. I was pleased you have to compare and contrast it with Siegried Sassoon, not that I've read him much since I was at school. I was even more pleased to be used in this way as I don’t even know the editors in real life.

 It is rather disorientating to see the questions posed, especially about something which is a reimagining of my own birth, and to read the example first sentences to answers. I’m not saying any of them are unhelpful, of course, it's just a bit odd. It was amusing though that a footnote was needed including the comical phrase, ‘the pop group The Beatles’. Tell me even 14 year olds know the Beatles were a pop group, please? And I’ll maybe tell you one day about the time I offended creative education guru Sir Ken Robinson (no relation) by admitting I really didn’t like the Beatles at all.

 I put it all down to a good bad education

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Just being here is glorious

I had been struck mute by the news, and reactions to it. But over on my poetry blog I've been thinking about an artwork, and sharing an essay I wrote for a brochure back in 2001 that quotes some newspaper headlines such as 'ASYLUM: WE ARE BEING INVADED'. So no surprises here at headlines now.

I've also shared a poem about refuge, on of the 'Dunno Elegies' from my book How I Learned to Sing. It uses the Rilke line 'Just being here is glorious' as an epigraph, as that is often the experience asylum seekers and refugees have expressed to me about being in England.

To avoid too much poetry on this blog, you can read it over here.