Posts Tagged ‘English language’

In a song called Beautiful Boy John Lennon once told us: ‘Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.’ If you look back on your life so far can you see a certain truth in this? I can. For most of us life has not been a nice linear progress, from great promise to great fulfilment.

For those of us living in the privileged parts of the world, when we are young everything seems possible. All options seem open. We weigh the various possibilities we have and we make decisions. We even make plans. I’ll take this job because after that I can move on to that. And ‘that’ will be great. But it doesn’t usually happen like that. Every single day of our lives we make decisions. We have to make decisions. Most of our decisions seem mundane; indeed they seem literally ‘everyday’. But they are not. Many years ago you might have been planning on a quiet night at home, but then a friend rings completely out of the blue and asks you to come with him/her to a concert or just for dinner. You had no intention or plan to do this, but after a bit of thought you think, ‘Why not?’ So off you go and just by ‘chance’ you met your future spouse, and because of that you are where you are now. If your friend hadn’t called you, or if you had said you’d rather stay at home as you had planned, you wouldn’t be where you are today. So much for plans! Every moment of every day we make seemingly trivial or innocuous decisions and every one of them (or almost) will blow our well-laid plans out of the water. If you doubt this just ask yourself the question: ‘Is where I am now, where I live, who I’m married to, what I am doing, how wealthy I am… was that my plan twenty years ago?’

So life is mostly chance. And sadly, as we get older, the sound of doors slamming shut behind us. This much I think we all know. But what about the chance of us having come into existence at all? From a probability point of view, when we consider it, the chance that we came to be at all is so infinitesably small it is almost zero. This doesn’t mean that we don’t exist. If you are reading this then you do. In fact the probability that you exist is one, or 100%. But the chance of you having ‘come in existence’ is a different thing.

You are a particular bundle of DNA. The first miracle is that if any one of you countless ancestors over the millennia had made slightly different decisions, you wouldn’t exist. Just take the case of your parents. If they hadn’t by chance met at a particular time and place, you wouldn’t exist. And what led them to be in the same place at the same time? What was the probability of that? If they hadn’t liked each other, then you wouldn’t exist. If they hadn’t got married, you wouldn’t exist. And so on. In fact your existence if not just dependent on all these things; it is also dependent on them deciding to make love on a particular night – possibly your mother might have had a headache! Yet there are millions and millions of sperm in every act of sexual intercourse, and just one of those millions made you. If it had been another sperm (or egg), then you wouldn’t be here. Somebody else might have been created but it wouldn’t be you!

And this is the case for every single one of your ancestors. The mathematics of this is fascinating. But for now I hope it’s pretty obvious that the chance of you or I coming into existence at all is so tiny it is indeed a miracle.

And what do we do with this miracle of life? As Shakespeare once put it in Macbeth:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Yes we strut and fret, and we busy ourselves with making other plans.

This isn’t just a thing that we have discovered recently or even that Shakespeare first told us. People have known this since homo sapiens have been able to think. That is what homo sapiens means – thinking people.

Back in the eighth century, the English monk the Venerable Bede told a story of the conversion to Christianity of the Anglo-Saxon King Edwin. The papal envoy Paulinus wanted to convert the pagan Edwin to Christianity. One of the king’s advisers told the king:

Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thegns and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside, the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing.

We, like all living beings, are like a sparrow passing through a warm and light hall. That is life. We don’t know what came before and we sure as heck have no idea what will come when we are gone. Or at least I don’t. But we enjoy the warmth of life while we are here. Unless, of course, we spend our time strutting and fretting and making lots of other plans.

This fleeting miracle of all life on earth; this sparrow passing through the hall from darkness to darkness, first expressed by so wonderfully by Bede, has been reworked in English literature ever since, from Wordsworth to Seamus Heaney.

That we exist at all is a miracle. That we strut and fret is just human. So what should we do before our dusty death? To be sure we must enjoy and value the warmth and light. But I think we should also do our utmost to make sure that other humans and other living creatures can do so as well – now and into the future. What right do we have to destroy the miracle of life for others?

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I once had a flying friend who had been a secondary school English teacher for thirty years. He looked and was very disillusioned. He told me that when he had first become a teacher he had been full of enthusiasm and idealism. But years spent in an inner-city London comprehensive school trying to educate hordes of  unruly and ungrateful adolescent gits, had, when coupled with having to deal with the ever-changing demands of Whitehall education bureaucrats,  finally worn him down. It wasn’t a very uplifting tale.  

It’s unfortunately true that the efforts and commitment of countless individual teachers do tend to go unacknowledged and are often under-appreciated.

In another short article I mentioned the fact that so many of us have a story to tell of a particular teacher we had – a story of care and inspiration, a story of a good teacher. This is mine. It is the story of how one of my English teachers, a Mr Rawlinson (for that was his name), inspired in me a love of English literature and language that abides with me to this day.

Before getting to Mr Rawlinson, I can’t resist mentioning one of my earlier English teachers in the Grammar school I attended. I don’t remember his real name because we called him ‘Drac’ – obviously short for Dracula. He must only have been in his fifties, though he looked much older. His stoop, his gangling gait, his wizened face and his ripped and paint spattered university gown spoke of a life of some hardship and experience. And experience he certainly had. Drac had been captured by the Japanese when Singapore fell in 1942. He had suffered three years of imprisonment, cruelty and torture in the hands of those gentle and enlightened Japanese. This had affected his mind; he’d gone slightly mad. He entered the class silently and rather spookily, like a sort of pale-faced but dark ghost.

I remember more than once moving my chair a little in class and accidently scraping it along the floor. Drac would instantly look up, spot who had made the sound, me, and launch into an exchange along the following lines:

‘Do you know where boys like you will end up Lewis?’

‘No Sir’ I would reply.

‘You’ll end up in Stafford prison Lewis, that’s where you’ll end up boy!’

It did no good at all to try to argue the toss, to argue that all you’d done was move your chair. No, Drac was off on his rant. I don’t know whether he really believed what he was saying or not; he was after all a bit unhinged.

Eventually Drac would decide that it was time to teach us a bit of English literature – usually Shakespeare. How to get out of that? The trick was for one of us to raise his hand (it was a boys’ grammar school).

‘Yes boy what is it?’ Drac would say.

‘Sir, did you see the cricket on Saturday?’

That was enough. Drac loved cricket and he was off. Stroke by stroke he’d give a detailed commentary on the latest test match. He loved it and so did we – because before he or we knew it the bell would go and the lesson was over. He was a sweet man. May God bless him wherever he is.

Our next English teacher was the Mr Rawlinson I want to talk about. He was a quite different character:  rotund, dressed immaculately in a three-piece suit yet still with the compulsory MA Oxon academic gown – though this time not ripped. Mr Rawlinson at first scared the living daylights out of us. For a few weeks we thought he was a mean bastard. He was strict and a real disciplinarian. The cricket trick didn’t work anymore. Even in the middle of the jocularity and laughter of his class, he only had to say ‘Quiet’ and even the most stroppy boys (and that included me) would sit up straight and pay attention. Yet once he had established his authority he was lovely and he played the fool with gusto and abandon. He would prance and ponce around at the front of the class, playing a comic Falstaff. He would read Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon with such tenderness and bitterness it even moved we cynical and ignorant adolescents, for whom the middle-ages and the First World War were equally remote and foreign countries. And then he made us read The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. We didn’t know then, but I know now, that this is one of the greatest evocations of the suffering and exploitation of the English working class that has ever been written. Mr Rawlinson surely knew this. Then there was To Kill a Mockingbird, Cider with Rosie, Nineteen Eighty- Four and On the Road. What was he thinking! More Shakespeare of course: the Scottish Play, both parts of Henry the fourth and even Hamlet. He strutted and fretted and we laughed. He was a clown but we loved him.

It’s not just that I can, if I try, still drag up long quotes from these books today; it’s more that he showed us that ‘literature’ wasn’t a dry thing, it was living, it had relevance, it had something of importance to teach us. And, in a few great hands, it could make the English language soar.

This is what a great English teacher taught and inspired in me.

There were and are many teachers like Mr Rawlinson. Let us be eternally grateful that despite their under-appreciation such talented and wonderful people still do become teachers.