Tuesday, 29 November 2011

In praise of David Holbrook

I have been pursued by the BBC today. A news story is breaking that there have been more vacancies for English teachers in the UK advertised in the past few months than for any other subject. Someone wants to interview me about this. What should I say?

Well, for a start, I should ask, does this actually mean there is a shortage of English teachers? Presumably not, if all the vacancies are filled. I’d like to know how many of these posts had to be re-advertised – that would be revealing. If, indeed, the large number of vacancies means that young teachers of English get disillusioned and leave the profession then, yes, I am disappointed but not surprised.

I meet, and work with, many teachers of English and I'm full of admiration for the passion they bring to their role - teaching involves an element of performance: you've got be able to hold your audience, after all. And they must be doing something right: English degrees have been among the most sought after and oversubscribed in UK universities for many years, and remain so even now. This wouldn’t happen if there were no good teachers around to enthuse their students in the first place.

But English is a subject that can easily be made deadly dull, and it’s not a subject that takes kindly to over-prescription. When Curriculum 2000 was introduced by the now thankfully defunct Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, English at A level was encumbered with more Assessment Objectives, with weightings more strictly defined, than any other subject. It was a nightmare – for teachers, for their students and (believe it or not) for the people like me who had the job of creating specifications, setting papers, devising mark schemes and training examiners.

I'm old-fashioned enough still to believe that teaching is a vocation. I'm also old-fashioned enough to believe that English teaching is about fostering creativity, about teaching students of whatever age to be creative writers and critical readers, to use (forgive me for repeating a phrase I've used before, in an earlier post) the imagination with precision. It's about helping every student to develop his or her consciousness of being conscious. Fifty year ago this year, in his book English for Maturity (1961), David Holbrook wrote:

We need not suppose that poetry, however well taught, will make all our pupils, or even the best, into mature and balanced 'whole' men and women. It is rather that without access to English poetry they are deprived of one form of sustenance, one positive aid to living. All our wrestling with life, if it is to have any substance or courage, needs to draw on the power of the word, the metaphorical power which makes the flux of experience that much more tractable .... Poetry can help give 'the very culture of the feelings' and a grasp on life in terms of the whole sensibility: poetry is a civilization's positive hold on life. (p.87)

Does any student teacher today have the chance to debate such ideas - or to read them? Rarely, I suspect. I have searched the reading lists given to students taking a PGCE in English. Nothing remotely like Holbrook’s book (which used to be required reading for all such students) even scrapes onto the bottom of any list I have seen.

One of the things I admire about Holbrook, who died earlier this year and whose books I have been reading or re-reading in the past few months, is that he sees the job of teaching English as fundamentally the same whether one is teaching undergraduates or bottom stream children in a secondary modern school. In the Introduction to English for Maturity he wrote:

This book is offered to those who profess to teach English … to help them consider their work as part of all English teaching – whether in the university, in the grammar school, primary school or secondary modern school – and as of equal value. (p.7)

He was one of those lucky people who at different times in his career taught in schools, in adult education and in universities and he taught teachers too, so he knew the job of English teaching from every angle. In all his books up to and including his last (English in a University Education, 2006 – published forty five years after his first) he insisted that English matters because it is ‘a discipline which attends to the imaginative exploration of human experience’. One of his most telling titles was English for the Rejected (1964) and in that book he talked about the importance of making such children believe their imaginative writing mattered:

Read their pieces as you would [Molly] Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of Ulysses, or Finnegans Wake or the poetry of e.e. cummings, or the rich wild prose of Dekker, or Nashe. Listen to its rhythm and voice …. Encourage them to struggle with the reality of experience, and don’t substitute for this the struggle with mere problems of graphic layout. (pp.208-9)

You see, for Holbrook a teacher’s ability to teach effectively was directly connected to the passion that teacher still had for the literature they had read at university and continued to read afterwards. So, when I speak to the BBC, and I’m asked why there is a shortage of English teachers, I shall say maybe it’s because there is a shortage of teachers teaching teachers to teach with the same passion for, and belief in, the subject that David Holbrook had.

[illustration: the cover of the second edition of David Holbrook’s first and most influential book, English for Maturity (1961)

postscript: I have been duly interviewed by the BBC, in my capacity as Chair of the English Association, about the apparent shortage of teachers of English. The story, if it appears, will be on the BBC News webpage: www.bbc.co.uk/news/education

Sunday, 6 November 2011

What is (or was) Cambridge English?

On a late autumn afternoon in Cambridge I am with a group of cheerful Chinese visitors who are enjoying the sun and the views along the Backs. They pose for photographs next to the smiling statue of Confucius in Clare gardens. From their shoulders hang tote bags emblazoned with the words ‘Cambridge English’ and, underneath, the strapline The most valuable English qualifications in the world.

Google ‘Cambridge English’ and you’ll reach the website of Cambridge ESOL which is a division of Cambridge Assessment, the ‘trading name’ of the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate, which is in its turn a non-teaching department of the University. Cambridge ESOL uses the label ‘Cambridge English’ as an umbrella for all the qualifications it offers in English for Speakers of Other Languages.  It defines ‘Cambridge English’ like this:
  •             an international language including the world’s major varieties of English        
  •       English that is understood and used globally for business, study and everyday living
  •             the English spoken in the real world – not just in the classroom.
So, 'Cambridge English' is at once a brand (‘Cambridge’ itself is a powerful international brand), a set of language qualifications and an all-embracing variety of English. Behind those inclusive words ‘international’, ‘globally’ and ‘real world’ lurks mischievously another definition of ‘Cambridge English’ – that it is everything ‘Oxford English’ isn’t.  ‘Oxford English’ is the English of Brideshead Revisited or – for current viewers – the English spoken upstairs at Downton Abbey. It belongs, so the stereotypes suggest, to a narrow and out-dated world, time-bound, class-bound, exclusive,

And oh, so seductively superior, so seductively
                   superior. —

We wouldn't insist on it for a moment
                   but we are
                      we are
                   you admit we are
                      superior. —

Thus D H Lawrence scathingly in his poem ‘The Oxford Voice’. By contrast 'Cambridge English', at least as offered by Cambridge ESOL, presents itself as class-neutral, country and culture-neutral.

Cambridge English (this time without inverted commas) means something else, too. For much of the past century it has signified a philosophical approach to English as a discipline centred on the study of literature rather than language, and on the principles of close reading and practical criticism rather than historical, cultural or critical theory. When Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (by training an Oxford classicist) delivered his inaugural lecture as King Edward VII Professor of English Literature at Cambridge (29th January 1913) he reminded his audience that the University Ordinance establishing this Chair had included the following statement:

It shall be the duty of the Professor to deliver courses of lectures on English Literature from the age of Chaucer onwards, and otherwise to promote, so far as may be in his power, the study in the University of the subject of English Literature. The Professor shall treat this subject on literary and critical rather than on philological and linguistic lines.

This definition at once distinguished Cambridge from Oxford English: at Oxford the study of English was decidedly linguistic and philological, beginning with Beowulf and Anglo-Saxon poetry, some five hundred years before the age of Chaucer. At Cambridge to this day, Old English is taught not by members of the English Faculty but within the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic.

These differences between Oxford and Cambridge approaches to English are, in the twenty-first century, in most respects more apparent than real. But if you look at the Cambridge English Faculty’s website, you will see prime acknowledgement given to I A Richards for his defining contribution to English Studies – practical criticism; by comparison, F R Leavis gets only a passing mention. Yet for many people, even today, it is Leavis rather than Richards who embodies Cambridge English at its most influential and controversial.  Leavis himself believed this: “We were and knew we were Cambridge – the essential Cambridge, in spite of Cambridge,” he was fond of saying about himself, his wife and their Scrutiny circle.

Leavis himself was acutely conscious that Cambridge English and its Oxford counterpart were worlds apart. Late in his career at Cambridge he wrote to his old friend Tom Henn, who taught English at St. Catharine’s, about the new generation of people being appointed to teach English at Cambridge:

All I can see any point in saying further about Appointments is that we must stop the movement in of Oxford (all the Oxford men hate the Tripos) and the recruitment of alleged specialists in this or that period or subject: we desperately need men genuinely interested in literature, & intelligent about it in such ways as make them good teachers of intelligent undergraduates, and good examiners.

I came across this revealing letter, written in Leavis’s characteristic anguished hand, just the other day in the University Library Manuscript Room (UL/ENGL 2/13). I don't believe it has been published before. I found it unexpectedly while doing some research of my own into  teaching as the heart of Cambridge English from Quiller-Couch to David Holbrook. I mentioned Holbrook recently in The Singer and the Song, and I shall write more fully about him again before long because his key book, English for Maturity, is fifty years old this year – an anniversary no one seems to have noticed. As for Leavis’s letter, it too has an anniversary: it was written on 7th November 1961, fifty years ago today.

[photo: King's College Chapel from the Backs, 3.30pm Tuesday 1st November 2011

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Twelfth Night: counting on Olivia

I have been asked how to scan the following line from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night:

Yet I suppose him virtuous, know him noble. (1.v.244)

I thought it would be easy, but it isn’t.

It always helps to look at a line in the context of the speech and of the scene in which it appears. Viola, disguised as Cesario, has come to woo the Countess Olivia on the Duke Orsino’s behalf. It’s an awkward encounter: Viola has already fallen for Orsino, though can’t admit it since he thinks she is a man, and now has to try to persuade Olivia that she should accept Orsino as her husband – a man in whom Olivia has no interest. This awkwardness shows itself plainly in the staccato forms and fractured rhythms of their conversation. After the preliminaries have been conducted in prose (V: ‘Are you the lady of the house?’ O: ‘If I do not usurp myself, I am.’ V: ‘Most certain if you are she you do usurp yourself’ etc.) Viola switches to blank verse:

Lady, you are the cruell’st she alive
If you will lead these graces to the grave
And leave the world no copy.

But Olivia will not join in, and answers still in prose: ‘O sir, I will not be so hard-hearted.’ She mocks Viola and Orsino by giving an account of her own beauty which, like Shakespeare’s sonnet 130 (‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’) is a spoof on conventional poetic praise of women’s beauty:
I will give out divers schedules of my beauty. It shall be inventoried and every particle and utensil labelled to my will, as, item, two lips, indifferent red; item, two grey eyes, with lids to them; item, one neck, one chin and so forth.

Viola is not in the mood to be mocked and replies, rather more forthrightly than she ought:

I see you what you are, you are too proud,
But if you were the devil, you are fair.

Recovering herself, however, she gets back to the job she is meant to be doing:

My lord and master loves you. O, such love
Could be but recompensed though you were crowned
The nonpareil of beauty …

and it is only at this moment that Olivia too switches to blank verse. She completes Viola’s half line by asking (impatiently? quizzically? sarcastically?)

                                                            How does he love me?

But now there are twelve syllables in the line, not the conventional ten, and the underlying iambic rhythm is disrupted by the dominant stress on ‘How’ for Olivia’s question follows the rhythmic formula DUM-diddy dum-di. (cf Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet 43: ‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways’). Viola tries one last time to keep to Orsino's instructions  (‘O then unfold the passion of my love, / Surprise her with discourse of my dear faith.’ 1.iv.24-5) by telling Olivia he loves her

With adorations, fertile tears,
With groans that thunder love, with sighs of fire.

But this is finally too much for Olivia, who snaps:

Your lord does know my mind, I cannot love him.

On its own this eleven-syllable line shows little sign of being blank verse. Politeness, however, demands she should not be quite so abrupt, so she begins another inventory, this time itemising Orsino’s good qualities and looks, and this time in verse:

Yet I suppose him virtuous, know him noble,
Of great estate, of fresh and stainless youth,
In voices well divulged, free, learn’d, and valiant,
And in dimension and the shape of nature
A gracious person; but yet I cannot love him.
He might have took his answer long ago.            

But of this speech only two lines are conventional iambic pentameters. Every other line is stretched or distorted in some way as Olivia struggles to contain her annoyance and frustration behind a mask of good manners. Indeed, it’s best not to try to squeeze the lines into a shape they so clearly resist, but to be guided by pause and emphasis. I offer the following suggested scansion:

       ⁄    ˇ
Your lord
does know
my mind,
(I) cannot
love him.

   ⁄  ˇ    ˇ      
    ⁄      ˇ

  ⁄    ˇ    ˇ

  ⁄    ˇ

Yet I sup-
pose him
know him




Of great
of fresh
and stain-
less youth,

  ˇ     ⁄

      ⁄     ˇ ˇ

In voi-
ces well
free, learn’d
(&) valiant,

   ⁄    ˇ    ˇ
   ⁄     ˇ
   ⁄     ˇ
   ⁄        ˇ
   ⁄   ˇ

And in di-
and the
shape of

          ⁄   ˇ  ˇ

  ⁄      ˇ
  ˇ     ˇ     
    ⁄    ˇ  
  ⁄       ˇ

(A) gracious
but yet I
love him.

 ⁄       ˇ           ˇ
⁄   ˇ 
⁄     ˇ
      ⁄    ˇ  ˇ

He might have
took his
 long ago.


I’ve set myself two rules here. First, to try to find five stresses for each line, which, even introducing trisyllabic feet (e.g. in line 6) is not too difficult since so many of the lines have more than ten syllables.  Second, to follow the classical principle that you cannot have a pause – a caesura – in the middle of a metrical foot: if I had scanned line 2 in standard iambics, the pause would have come in the middle of the fourth foot (‘-uous, II know’) which wouldn’t do.

Not everyone will be happy with my stressing the two ‘ands’ in line 5, nor with the way I have scanned the second half of line 6. But the fact that Olivia uses the statement ‘I cannot love him’ twice in seven lines invites variation; and dramatically I think an actresss and an audience might get more out of this speech by emphasizing the contrast between her feelings and Orsino’s in the last two lines.

I'm grateful to the student who asked my advice about this speech. I've known Twelfth Night almost all my life, and it was the first Shakespeare play in which I ever acted, but I have never had to think so hard before about how a line should actually be spoken. Better late than never, I suppose!