Brothers

I assume that they were brothers. They sat beside each other in the church hall, biding their time while their mother waited to give blood.

I was to one side, close enough to see what was going on; but at an angle, so I could take in the whole scene. I can only imagine that their mother, lost in the columns of her magazine, was either oblivious or blind to what was going on.

The boys were, I’d estimate, around 10 and 13 years old. They were intent on their games, eyes fixed to the screens while their thumbs fidgeted on the glassy surface. Their seats were uncomfortably close, it seemed, as one boy nudged the other. The other said nothing, in fact did nothing for a minute. And then he silently turned to his brother and punched him on the arm. Not a light, reproving punch, a warning blow. This was punishingly hard. Saying nothing, he returned to his game. His brother didn’t look up; indeed, he seemed even more focused on his game. Then, without warning, he twisted round and hit his brother’s arm. Hard, at least as hard as the blow he’d received. His hand returned to the smart phone and his attention to the game.  Once again, neither brother said a word. Just looked down at their games and absorbed the pain and pent-up fury.

This bout continued for the ten minutes that they spent together in the waiting room. Neither speaking; neither, except for a furrowing of the brow and a twitch of the jaw, betraying any sign that the other had hurt him.

I’d love to know if the mother’s article was so engrossing as to render her sons’ silent combat invisible; or if she’d seen it too often to say a word.

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For the benefit of Mr Pink

There, in the circle of boys, I was alone with him. His eyes stared intently at me, waiting for my reaction to the fist that had just smashed into my nose. A slight grin betrayed his excitement. Some six inches shorter than me, he was enjoying this fight. Taking down the lanky boy. Blooding himself. 

I lunged back at him but missed my target. His smiling face dodged my fist. He was almost dancing now. The other boys cheered, jeered. There were only two ways out of this circle: tearful humiliation or a bloody, sweating fight to exhaustion. 

I’d seen enough of both. Our prep school boarding house routinely hosted fights like these, on hot Sunday afternoons when masters were somewhere else and boys were bored. The best fights were those where both combatants were well matched, their faces red with exertion, splattered with blood from their noses and lips, slowly slugging it out to a grudging stalemate.

I’d been humiliated often enough. Tallest in my year but not yet strong, I was an easy target. Too often I’d had to retire to the solitude of my bed, one in a dormitory of twenty, sobbing into my pillow. But not today.

Knowing my fists alone were of little use, I launched myself at him. We locked arms, knocked heads. My ear was suddenly hot as it rubbed against his scalp. With one arm, I grappled for a good grip, some way to keep him close enough and underneath me. With the other, I tried to jab punches at anything vulnerable: the side of his head, his groin, his stomach. He was doing to the same, though beneath me. His fist made contact, his shoulder pushed up at me, his fingers gripped at soft flesh somewhere. We were hardly standing, our legs locked in an effort to floor each other. Then we were on our bare knees, still in each other’s arms as we fought for an advantage. Somehow we struggled back to our feet.

And then I found myself with a leg free and his body bent in front of me, held there by my free arm. Without a thought, I drove my knee into his face. Once, then again and again. He stopped fighting. I felt his arms loosen. I’d hurt him badly.

He was crying, his face a mess of blood and snot as we disengaged. I helped him to his feet. The smiles around us had gone. I can’t remember what replaced them. All I remember is the relief, the sense of triumph; not over this boy who, on another day would have played games with me, but with my real enemy, the inner voice that told me that I was too weak ever to win.

That was forty years ago, in a different age, when boarding schools overlooked savagery. The lasting feeling I have is, perhaps strangely, one of joy. To have experienced the fear and pain of a fight and found respect, from my peers, for the boy beside me and for myself. There were a lot of things that I’d like to forget; this isn’t one of them.

Partitions

I have been hugely moved by a programme on BBC Radio 4, addressing the legacy of partition of India and Pakistan seventy years ago. So much so that I have listened to it twice today. You can hear it on iPlayer here, should you wish.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b090wg29

I recommend it.

Why does it matter? Firstly, because it is a momentous part of the history of many British citizens and yet most people in Britain know very little about it. Secondly because many in the generation most directly affected have felt reluctant to discuss it. And thirdly, because of the human stories it contains.

The last affected me most. A woman recounts holding her dying mother, now weighing little more than a child, and asking her what she wanted when she died. She wanted her ashes to return to Lahore, her home for the first seventeen years of her life. And she wanted this song playing at her funeral.

It is a ghazal, a classical Urdu poem that represents the culture of the Mughal Dynasty. The song was written by Maulana Hasrat Mohani, an activist in the Indian Independence Movement, one of the founders of the Communist Party of India, and a noted poet of the Urdu language. He chose to live in India rather than move to Pakistan after independence, to represent Muslims who remained.

The song is performed by Ghulam Ali, one of the best ghazal singers of his era. His unique style in singing ghazals blends Hindustani classical music with Urdu poetry. While he has performed in India on numerous occasions, Ghulam Ali has said that he won’t perform in India in the future. He said that he does not want to be used for political mileage.

So what? Why should this concern me? Apart from the reasons I have listed, this story, this ghazal, this music affects me because I lived as a child in Lahore, home of so many histories. And, while I doubt I will ever be able to return, something of me is still there, on a hot, starlit rooftop, listening to music like this.

Here are the lyrics, in English, Hindi and Urdu. Savour them as I have.

Chupke chupke raat din

I still remember shedding tears quietly and silently, all night and day

I still remember those days of love

I still remember shedding tears quietly and silently, all night and day

The pulling of the corner of my curtain suddenly

And the hiding of your face with the veil, I remember

I still remember those days of love

I still remember shedding tears quietly and silently, all night and dayIn the sunny afternoons for calling me

Coming into the house bare foot, I still remember

I still remember those days of love

I still remember shedding tears quietly and silently, all night and day

 

चुपके चुपके रात दिन आँसु बहाना याद है

हमको अब तक आशिकी का वो जमाना याद है

चुपके चुपके रात दिन आँसु बहाना याद है

खेंच लेना वो मेरा पर्दे का कोना दफ्फतन

और दुपट्टे से तेरा वो मुँह छुपाना याद है

हमको अब तक आशिकी का वो जमाना याद है

चुपके चुपके रात दिन आँसु बहाना याद है

दोपहर की धूप में मेरे बुलाने के लिये

वो तेरा कोठे पे नंगे पांव आना याद है

हमको अब तक आशिकी का वो जमाना याद है

चुपके चुपके रात दिन आँसु बहाना याद है

 

‎چپکے چپکے رات دن آنسو بہانا یاد ہے
‎ہم کو اب تک عاشقی کا وہ زمانہ یاد ہے

‎با ہزاراں اضطراب و صد ہزاراں اشتیاق
‎تجھ سے وہ پہلے پہل دل کا لگانا یاد ہے

‎بار بار اُٹھنا اسی جانب نگاہ ِ شوق کا
‎اور ترا غرفے سے وُہ آنکھیں لڑانا یاد ہے

‎تجھ سے کچھ ملتے ہی وہ بے باک ہو جانا مرا
‎اور ترا دانتوں میں وہ انگلی دبانا یاد ہے

‎کھینچ لینا وہ مرا پردے کا کونا دفعتاً
‎اور دوپٹے سے ترا وہ منہ چھپانا یاد ہے

‎جان کرسونا تجھے وہ قصد ِ پا بوسی مرا
‎اور ترا ٹھکرا کے سر، وہ مسکرانا یاد ہے

‎تجھ کو جب تنہا کبھی پانا تو ازراہِ لحاظ
‎حال ِ دل باتوں ہی باتوں میں جتانا یاد ہے

‎جب سوا میرے تمہارا کوئی دیوانہ نہ تھا
‎سچ کہو کچھ تم کو بھی وہ کارخانا یاد ہے

‎غیر کی نظروں سے بچ کر سب کی مرضی کے خلاف
‎وہ ترا چوری چھپے راتوں کو آنا یاد ہے

‎آ گیا گر وصل کی شب بھی کہیں ذکر ِ فراق
‎وہ ترا رو رو کے مجھ کو بھی رُلانا یاد ہے

‎دوپہر کی دھوپ میں میرے بُلانے کے لیے
‎وہ ترا کوٹھے پہ ننگے پاؤں آنا یاد ہے

‎آج تک نظروں میں ہے وہ صحبتِ راز و نیاز
‎اپنا جانا یاد ہے،تیرا بلانا یاد ہے

‎میٹھی میٹھی چھیڑ کر باتیں نرالی پیار کی
‎ذکر دشمن کا وہ باتوں میں اڑانا یاد ہے

‎دیکھنا مجھ کو جو برگشتہ تو سو سو ناز سے
‎جب منا لینا تو پھر خود روٹھ جانا یاد ہے

‎چوری چوری ہم سے تم آ کر ملے تھے جس جگہ
‎مدتیں گزریں،پر اب تک وہ ٹھکانہ یاد ہے

‎شوق میں مہندی کے وہ بے دست و پا ہونا ترا
‎اور مِرا وہ چھیڑنا، گُدگدانا یاد ہے

‎با وجودِ ادعائے اتّقا حسرت مجھے
‎آج تک عہدِ ہوس کا وہ فسانا یاد ہے

Speaking and Listening

They are sitting opposite me on the train. He has a soft Scots accent; hers is European, though I can’t tell where it is from. They’re reading a copy of Metro. He points to the article about the man who was beaten senseless before he was ejected from a plane. I can’t stop myself. “Have you seen the video?” They hadn’t; nor can they understand how it could happen.

So we start talking. First, about America and its paradoxical love of ‘freedom’ and ferocious observance of rules. I quickly drift into talking about Angie Thomas and the book I’m reading, The Hate U Give, about staying with my mum and dad in Washington DC and seeing, first hand, the day-to-day segregation that still exists. I mention that we – I – cannot conceive of being put into the situation of a young African American, scared of every encounter with a police officer, scared that they might die.

“Yes, we are lucky that we don’t have to put up with that,” the woman replies. I summon the courage to ask, “Where are you from?” “It’s complicated,” she says, “I’m very international.” I’ve already told her that I’m a diplomat’s brat, so I press on. She’s from Ukraine, though her family were Austrian Jews who’d fled from Poland. She’s lived in Zambia and, for many years, in Portugal. Before she retired, she worked with small groups of recently arrived immigrant children, helping to settle them into English schools. 

We talk about children. I describe the little Romanian boy, seven years old, who stood speechless and staring at the floor of his North London classroom while his Hungarian teacher screamed, “Why are you late?” at him time and again. How he’d been silent, without language, in September but had tugged on my sleeve in December to say, “I can speak English now” and to invite me to his house for Christmas.  I tell her about the three Polish girls in my Year 6 class: one fluent in English, one with a smattering of the language and the third, a tall, angry girl, subject to routine sexist and racist insults but unable to respond except with her strong fists.

She tells me about David, an Eastern European child of a similar age, who had appeared to ignore his teacher’s instructions and had been sent to the Head for his disobedience. “His name was Davv-eed,” she told me, “not Day-vid. The teacher couldn’t be bothered to learn how to say his name, so when she shouted out to him in a line, he didn’t recognise the word she used. I had to take him back into his classroom and teach his teacher how to say his name. The trouble is that they have no idea what it is like to have no language.” She describes how she staged a conversation with two Polish children in a class of English-speaking pupils. The three of them spoke only Polish: she asked them questions and they answered. Turning to the bemused English speakers, she said, “This is what it is like to come into a class with no English.” Though I can barely remember it, I recall being without Urdu in my Lahore classroom. 

Her name is Barbara.  I find this out because she describes how Russians call her Var-va-ra.  They are going to the Russian revolution exhibition at the Royal Academy. We talk about the upheavals of the twentieth century, how children today need to know how different it was. He is old enough to remember learning about the six and three minute warnings before nuclear attacks, finding out about the death of George VI at school. She mentions that her mother remembers when Stalin died. “A man was carrying a newspaper announcing his death, but he had it wrapped inside another magazine, in case anyone got the wrong idea about him.” She describes how she taught children about grammes and kilogrammes by showing them how little a bread, sugar or butter ration might have been. He mentions that he remembers rations as a child; Barbara laughs and adds that her mother, a survivor of Auschwitz, would kiss the bread before she ate it. That casual aside silences me.

We have an opportunity to learn from each other.  We have a duty to speak to and listen to each other.  If we don’t, young people will continue to be shot before they have a chance to explain themselves; children will grow up angry and speechless; and another generation of the elderly will raise their bread to silent lips.

Warren Street

This was an unexpected encounter, though I have a habit of talking to strangers.

He walked over from Warren Street station. I’d just finished my Big Mac and was ready to leave. The seats on the street were empty apart from mine.  He sat down next to me and made his large frame comfortable.

A tall man in his fifties, heavy-set. Shaven headed. Black leather boots, white-laced up to his knees, tight bleached jeans, a shiny green bomber jacket. I wanted to look away, to get away. He frightened me.

Then I glanced at the badges, the patches on his jacket.  A rainbow flag, an anti-racist slogan. I relaxed but it was still time to move on.  So I stood up and walked off towards my next appointment.  And then I stopped.  Why had I been scared? Why did I feel different now?  I walked back to him.

“Hello,” I said.  “I just wanted to say that a few minutes ago I was scared even to look at you because forty years ago a skinhead plastered my nose across my face with a head butt.” A ‘but’ hung in the air, waiting to be said. He smiled and replied, “But I’m a gay skinhead.”

Apart from his kind, smiling eyes, what struck me was the softness of his accent, the calm in his voice.  He started to tell me about the different kinds of skinhead, gay and straight, British and from other countries, how they all met up and had a grudging fraternal respect for one another. He’d been a city lawyer before he became too ill to work. Now his skinhead identity was full-time. He talked dismissively about the skinheads who’d turn up at clubs with their identities in their rucksacks.  He felt that he was authentic.  He felt that being yourself, being true to yourself was important.

Somewhere along the way through the story of his life, he told me about coming out in Ireland.  His mother and father had thrown him out and had never spoken to him again. Only his oldest sister had contacted him after he’d left; she had travelled to see him. “That meant so much.  She gets it.” His mother didn’t, even though she went out of her way to help a couple of gay men who lived locally.  Not her son. “The night of my mother’s funeral, someone threatened my life. Told me I’d brought shame on my family. Held a knife to me and threatened to push it right in.”  He gestured to his heart.  “I came straight back to England.” Then, on Millennium eve, he stood on one of central London’s bridges, watching the new year arrive along the Thames.  “And no one said Happy New Year. Not a single person.” He decided he didn’t want to be alone.

Soon after, he met his husband. “I met him seventeen years ago. He had the most gorgeous arse.” They shared the same interests and it just seemed right. “And then he told me he was HIV positive. I was devastated.  I spoke to my friends. They said I should listen to my heart and listen to my head and follow whichever seemed best. As you can guess, I listened to my heart. Back then, being HIV positive seemed hopeless.  His partner had died, riddled with cancer.” He smiled. “But I fed him back to health.  He was eating junk; now he’s been healthy for all these years.” The smile dropped a little. “They’ve found cancer.  He’s had a biopsy. He doesn’t want treatment because it’ll weaken his immune system. If he dies, it’ll break my heart,” he said. “It’ll break my heart.”

He had to go; I wanted the conversation to carry on indefinitely. “I have an appointment at the hospital,” he told me. He pulled out a small, slim case, opened it, then took out and lit a cigarette.

Just then, a stranger walked over from the station and stood beside us. “Excuse me,” he said, “but do I know you from somewhere?” The skinhead laughed, “Two meetings in one day.” The stranger had a long thick beard. His lower lip was tattooed and pierced. The sides of his head were shaved and tattooed. His ears were pierced in various places. He smiled. They went through all the different sites and scenes they might have shared – rubber, BDSM, Manchester, London pubs. “What do you do?” the skinhead asked. The stranger said he was a nurse, working in the community. Together, they narrowed it down to one place and one interest and accepted the likelihood that they had indeed met before. “What’s your name?” asked the skinhead. “Jeremy,” the stranger replied, “and what’s yours?” “I’m James,” said my companion.

I stood; James stood. I reached out my hand to shake his; he opened his arms to me and we hugged, a long, hard hug. “Goodbye. I hope I’ll see you again.”

Never again. Again and again.

I have been prompted to write this by Brendan O’Neill’s editorial in Spiked. O’Neill argues that the Shoah should not be used as an analogy for every state-sponsored act of mass murder; that Hitler should not be the go-to analogy for every murderous or authoritarian leader; and that the unique and particular aim of the Final Solution should not be obscured by the deaths and suffering of others alongside Jews.

As my fingers type and I re-read my paraphrase of O’Neill’s editorial, I realise how unable I am to hold these arguments in my head. As a student of history, I have read and – from the safe and vicarious distance of the TV screen – watched accounts of almost inconceivable acts of inhumanity over millennia.  The effect is numbing.

A DAY IN DECEMBER

I don’t mean that my sensibility is dulled by my attempts to make sense of these atrocities. Let me use an analogy.

In December 2000, I fell from a ladder. I felt something break, with significant force. As I attempted to stand, I noticed that my left kneecap was half way up my thigh. I tried to push it back but failed. No wonder, as the tendon that attached my quadriceps to my lower leg had snapped. 

If you try to imagine what it feels like to have four quivering muscles, freed of their attachment to bone, suddenly clenched in a tight knot at the top of your leg, you are likely to do one or more of three things. Firstly, you may shudder and say, “I can’t imagine how that felt.” Secondly, you might shrug and say, “At least it wasn’t any worse” or that it’s only like many similar injuries you’ve heard of. Thirdly, you could compare it to a trauma of your own and say that, actually, you can imagine how it felt. But here is the particular. Here is my unique experience: immediately after the patellar tendon snapped, my leg went numb.

For me, in that situation, my body’s reaction to severe pain was to shut it out. My consciousness of the situation was also dulled. I was able to lie on the ground and cheerily chat to my neighbour while waiting for the ambulance. And my memory of the trauma has dimmed, even though I repeated the injury twice more.

So what? For me, recounting my experience does three things. Firstly, it helps me to better understand how my body and brain deal with extremely unpleasant sensations. Secondly, it shows me how quickly I lapse into analogy. And thirdly, it suggests to me that only by looking at the uniqueness of an event, a person or an experience can I hope to make sense of it.

WHY WE NEED ANALOGY

If I may now generalise from my own experience, it seems that humans have the ability to zoom out from the particular to our sense of ‘the universal’, to what is similar and to what is comparable. It allows us to give meaning to whatever we sense or recall. It may also enable us to empathise with someone whose experience we have not shared.  And it becomes possible to exercise judgement about these experiences.  All are necessary because they allow us to respond rationally, to feel appropriately and to learn. 

Let me offer another analogy. Eight years ago, the car I was driving was hit by another car at around 40 miles an hour. My car was stationary, in the middle of the road, as I prepared to make a right turn. I saw the other car approaching in my rear view mirror and I responded. 

Firstly, I judged its speed and likely impact. By comparing its approach with other cars I had seen racing towards me in the past, I was able to determine that this was going to hit us with considerable but survivable force. I knew that I had no time to take evasive action.

Secondly, I decided how to respond. Having been shunted before, having heard of others’ experiences and having discussed what to do in situations like these, I said nothing to my twelve year-old daughter, who was sitting beside me. I reasoned that her chances of an injury would be reduced if she didn’t tense up before the impact. I weighed that up against the shock she would experience when the car hit us and decided that the physical risk was greater than any mental harm. 

Thirdly, after our car had been forced along and off the road by the impact, after I had checked that my daughter was physically fine, I left the car and responded to the driver of the other car. The front of his car was smashed in, far more significantly than the back of ours. His airbags had gone off.  A boy, younger than my daughter, was crying hysterically in his car. He was very emotional as he approached me. Imagining the guilt he would be feeling, the pain and shock he would have experienced on impact and the concern he would have for the boy, I put my hands up and said, “We’re okay. Go and look after your son.”

All of this was within a minute; my first response probably took no more than a second. Not only could I rationalise, judge and empathise; I could do it at alarming speed.

We can do this because humans are amazing. We take in everything, make sense of it and make use of it. We couldn’t do that if we didn’t recapitulate and reorder these experiences in our own terms. Each time we do this, we reorder every other recorded experience, so that the next experience is seen (if this isn’t too reductive a metaphor) with new eyes. 

Or perhaps not. What I describe may only be the case in laboratory conditions, where one doesn’t refuse to learn from experience, one doesn’t negate the feelings of others, one doesn’t exercise flawed judgement. Which, of course, one does. I do. We cannot escape from the subjective (any more than I can recount my car crash objectively). But I would argue that this is matter of quality: however faulty our judgement, we still make sense, and use, of experience.

In short, everything is analogised. 

WHY THE PARTICULAR IS MORE POWERFUL

The danger of relying on our ability to make sense of everything is that we miss meaning. Returning to Brendan O’Neill’s argument, if we try to compare everyone’s suffering, every act of unspeakable evil, every authoritarian leader, to one nationality, one ideology, one man, we risk negating both sides of the analogy: each loses its unique power.

Firstly, numbers matter. “One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”  I see validity in this statement; I do not need it to be incorrectly attributed to Josef Stalin (though it is interesting that people need a hook onto which to hang such an ugly observation). I cannot conceive of, say, the systematic starvation or mass execution of everyone in Chorleywood (all 11,286 of us), let alone hundreds of thousands or millions. Looking at the structure of my arguments, you will gather that I think in threes: after that, individual numbers seem to lose significance.

Secondly, meaning matters. Over history, each huge act of inhumanity has had its unique set of causes, even if the consequences may be similar and even if parallels may be drawn. In trying to understand why one of these acts occurred and to learn how not to repeat the act, there is a danger that we simply assimilate what we see, hear or read, in accordance with a set of preconceived ideas about such acts. History only repeats itself in our limited narratives; in fact, history is an endless set of unique sequels. All too often, those sequels feature a long-harboured grudge or suspicion from another time.

Thirdly, we matter. Each of us. That is perhaps the only universal truth in all of this. Faced with another human being, unless your view is distorted by prejudice, your sensibilities numbed by generalisation, your feelings overwhelmed by emotions not directly attributable to this person, you are likely to respond humanely.  In general, before we act inhumanly, we have to dehumanise the subject of our action.

So when I try to conceive of the Shoah, of what happened to innocent people in one specific period of history, I resort to the particular, as generalisation and imagination fail me. The film, Shoah, was a starting point, as it allowed the survivors to speak for themselves. Inviting Judy Benton into my class helped me better understand how a daughter responded to her humiliation at school, her parents’ arrest and deportation and to the risk to her own life. Listening to Zigi Shipper speak at a holocaust memorial event taught me how a man deals with his boyhood experiences of incarceration, forced labour, starvation, cruelty and ubiquitous death. 

Although it is the site of an act perpetrated against people who were not Jewish, a visit to Oradour-sur-Glâne showed me the impact on individual lives of one reprisal among tens of thousands. That wasn’t simply an act by a nation, according to an ideology or under the orders of a dictator; it was a series of acts by individual human beings who had lost sight of the humanity of their victims. Or, as I told my eight year-old daughter at the time, “This wasn’t just about the Germans or the Nazis. This was people forgetting that we need to love each other.”

Judge not lest you be judged? No: love one another

We cannot avoid making judgements. Returning to my car crash, things could have been different. I might have misjudged the speed of the oncoming car and the force of the impact, which might have caused us to career into opposing traffic. My daughter’s shock on impact might have caused her more distress than it did. The other driver might have seen the accident differently and come at me with a tyre iron or a lawsuit. There are times when we have to exercise judgement and we may not always get it right.

What I take from all this is that we need to treat each situation, each ideology, each authoritarian leader as unique. If we generalise or apply lessons from other situations, we should tread carefully, in case we misinterpret what we see.  And if we find ourselves called upon to judge and  respond to others, love and respect for the individual are probably good starting points.

In short, Trump is not Hitler (and Muslims aren’t terrorists).

Discovery Learning: two teachers in Denmark

I only seem to think coherently when I’m ill, so it is both fortuitous and fortunate that Tom Bennett’s blog post about Sweden should come out just as I’m stuck in bed and bored.

His analogy strikes a chord. I won’t argue with it; I will try to add to the polyphony by examining my Autumn half term trip to Copenhagen.

An ignorant beginning?

Nyhavn, the name of which I loudly and confidently mispronounced for most of our visit.


When we decided to go to Copenhagen, my knowledge of Denmark was limited to:

  • a cursory exploration in the European History aspects of my A level studies in 1980;
  • a little more while I was studying medieval History at university;
  • ‘Music and Silence’ by Rose Tremain, which took me far further in fiction than I had gone in facts;
  • my friend Mette, a Dane, who spoke to me a lot and told me very little;
  • her former husband Paul, whose rambling, drunken anecdotes about Danish life intrigued me;
  • one episode of The Bridge (my wife isn’t a fan of subtitles);
  • images and impressions from The Danish Girl;
  • a scattering of half-read stories and partially heard programmes about Denmark in the second world war.

On the one hand, that’s not much to use as the basis for exploring a major European city; on the other, it shows the difficulty of using one’s own, adult experience as an analogy for children’s learning. Like Tom, I may be ignorant but I am far from naïf.  When do we cease to be tabulae rasae?

I am fairly sure that I knew next to nothing about Copenhagen itself, except that there’s a big government building, a bridge, a lot of water and a statue of a little mermaid.  In that sense, I think I was a pretty EYFS urban explorer.

Step One: talk to someone who knows

Lunch with my friend Liz and her niece Nikki helped enormously. Nikki works in Malmo and weekends in Copenhagen, so she had a fairly good idea about the city. Her starting point with us was, “What do you want to know? What do you want to do?”  These questions challenged me to think about my own learning intentions (as an obsessive learner, no trip is simply a holiday). I told her that I wanted to understand Danish culture and history, and to relax, eat real Danish pastries and drink decent coffee. Only then did Nikki pull out her iPad and start showing us the map of the city. I will try to recall how she did this. On the one hand, she showed the locations of various areas – ‘proper’ shopping, interesting food, museums and buildings of note; on the other hand, she related these to her own preferences and experiences. She gave us a short list of places we should visit. We wrote none of this down but came away from lunch with a better sense of what we wanted and where we might find it, now based on a mental map of the city.

Deliciously Danish: we knew what we wanted.


What might I deduce from this? That it is helpful, as an adult at least, to have a teacher whose instruction is guided by what I want to learn – or what I want to do with that learning.  But also that it is uncomfortable being asked those questions because it forces me to think and to acknowledge gaps in my supposedly coherent rationale for life. Ultimately, once I overcame that discomfort, it was a relief to acknowledge my lack of knowledge and direction and to say, “Apart from that, I haven’t got a clue. Just tell us what you’d do.”  So directed learning was useful and made more purposeful by my teacher’s initial questions about my own learning intentions.

Step Two: read a book

I then bought the Lonely Planet guide to Copenhagen and pored over it while my wife slept. I’d say that this is typical: when the going gets interesting, I disappear into a book. Every now and then I’d nudge my wife and bring her reluctant attention to this area or that, to Plan A or Plan B. She loathes maps and likes details, so my interruptions to her sleep had to be brief and purposeful. I like to think through possibilities, build overlapping and inter-related mental maps with alternative worlds. In this case, one in which we wore ourselves out with every cultural experience possible, and a few others in which I accepted the inevitable and we had a mixture of culture, coffee and cake. The book was bewildering: too many possibilities, too much information to absorb without tangible experience of the city, so I had to accept that this would only ever be a sketch-map. But by the time we boarded the plane, I had a better sense of where we might go, what we might do and why (this last one being the compromise between my own desires and my wife’s wishes).

Worthwhile words, pictures, maps, opinions


Once again, what can I infer from this?  That I, as a learner, need time to reflect quietly, to absorb more information, to make sense of it for myself, to make further sense of my thoughts by articulating them and asking for another’s opinion.  And that I prefer possibilities, broad outlines and directions of travel to tightly tied-down facts and plans. Unlike my wife. The conclusion here seems obvious: we desire, think and learn differently. Why should this be different in the classroom?

Step Three: explore

I am comical in strange cities. While trying to apply my thoroughly thought-through mental maps and strategies, I ignore details such as the fact that we’re on the wrong side of Copenhagen railway station, that we have crossed the same road twice and that I’m dangerous when entrusted with a map. In short, it took me a little while to relate my vivid virtual world to the rainy reality of Copenhagen. We headed for one area, one street and one place: the nicest looking cafe, without any coherent sense of what we were doing. That first afternoon, before we booked into our hotel, we just wandered through the rain and made more sense of things. Photographs, maps and descriptions, written or spoken, only made sense when seen in context. Context such as how tired we were when walking around; how much less crowded and easy the streets were to negotiate than our go-to model of London; what other interesting and unexpected things we saw and wanted to know better; how disappointing some of our desired places now seemed; how connected and blurred the carefully demarcated areas of my mental map now became.

Kafe Kys, Læderstræde 7, worth a visit


So what? I think it showed me how fraught with misconceptions a purely mental and written construct can be. It showed me that that in exploring what was actually there, I not only adjusted and calibrated my conceptions but also found other things I wanted to learn about.

Step Four: reflect

This took longest and seemed to contain least thought and action. Back in our hotel room, tired and wet, we talked about the afternoon, looked once more at the map and guide book, leafed through the brochures we’d picked up and reconsidered our plans for the following two days. It was clear to us that all we had taken in so far still left us lacking a meaningful and coherent view of the city. But we had a better idea of what we did and didn’t like. And we were clear about the best place to eat that night and our first steps for the next morning.

Thinking space: clean and simple.


That discussion, honest and pragmatic, was important. Misdirected or intrinsically purposeless learning can be boring, frustrating and tiring. Just because it’s in the lesson plan, it doesn’t mean it’s the best way to learn.

Step Five: big picture time

I’m quite smug about this bit because we’d always planned to go to the National Museum of Denmark. After all, with only the sketchiest idea of Denmark’s history and society, we were blundering around its capital with little sense of what was relevant and why. We walked around the museum with a group and an English-speaking tour guide, a student of archaeology. Now, not only am I smug; I’m also the irritating one who monopolises the guide. As we walked around, I was able to make even more sense of what we were seeing and being told by comparing what I had learnt elsewhere and by probing more deeply. Whether she was being diplomatic or genuinely appreciated my curiosity, she was very forthcoming. We left with a far more coherent and detailed view of Denmark and Copenhagen.

Bronze Age sun deity: the farmer who found it thought that it was a nineteenth century toy.


I can only speak for myself: I need a ‘big picture’ view at some point in any substantial learning. I crave information and instruction. I learn best dialogically. And I acquire knowledge and understanding associatively. Does everyone?

Step Six: free flow

Armed with information, equipped with experience and clearer about what we wanted and could tolerate, we were able to be ruthless in selecting what we saw, confident that it would satisfy us both. We sped around the city for the next two days. The places we visited, the artefacts we saw, the behaviour we observed, even the food we ate had greater meaning and relevance. 

The throne room at Rosenborg Castle. Denmark’s three silver lions guard the thrones.


To be honest, of course, it is still a superficial and subjective understanding. But it made every experience taste delicious and it left me hungry for more. Shouldn’t all learning be like that? 

Conclusion

So, as Tom says, sometimes we just need to be told stuff. Sometimes wandering around aimlessly is tiring and confusing. Purposeful stuff, in context, is valuable and tasty. And we need to make sense of what we have learnt, to associate and compare it with other things we know. We may also, at times, just want to be left to explore. But it is vastly more meaningful when we’re armed with the stuff. You know, knowledge.

Endnote: don’t trust a word

The author, in all seriousness.


As carefully as I have tried to recall my thoughts, actions and experiences, I cannot escape from my own subjectivity. I have constructed this out of memory and desire: what I think happened and what I wanted it to mean. Any anecdote or analogy is little more than a story, from which you can construct your own meaning.

And then you went and did it.

divorce1I’m sick today.  Physically ill and heart-sick.  I wrote to my teaching colleague this morning to tell her that I was sorry that I wouldn’t be in and that I was sorry that my country had voted to treat her – a Polish citizen – as ‘not one of us’.

One of them

Because that’s the flip side of the referendum.  “We don’t want to be part of them” says something to them.  Like the boy who moved his chair as far away from the girl in the neighbouring place at a shared desk.  “How do you think it makes her feel?” I finally asked, in exasperation, as he resolutely refused to sit within two feet of her.

The thing is, I’m one of them.  I always have been (born in Iraq, lived in Dusseldorf, Malaysia and Pakistan before living for two years in Luton and then spending all my school holidays in Swaziland and Paris until I turned 18).  I have little recollection of Germany but know it felt good not to be confined to British affinities when I was in other countries.

Affinity

affinityAnd that word sums it up.  Affinity.  Its etymology derives from ad (meaning ‘to’) and finis (meaning ‘borders’).  If I find a border, I want to stray across it, explore it, absorb some of what it means, what it feels like to be from across that notional line.  It also derives from the concept of marriage.  We choose who we marry – thankfully, in civilised societies, regardless of gender identity and sexual preference.  We are different individuals but we seek – and find – common ground.

Foreigners

I’ve worked a little with people from other nationalities.  My most striking experience was running a series of training events for 3M Europe.  Most participants were German, though there was a scattering of French, Italian, Belgian and American citizens. I and my colleague, a South African of Afrikaaner heritage, found that we felt most affinity with the Germans.  We were struck by their collaborative approach, humbled by the way that they switched their conversation from German to English the moment we walked up and most closely identified with their ability to articulate both sides of arguments.  We laughed at the way in which, when we announced the end of the coffee break, the Germans were sitting ready to start and the French were waving from the door as they went to light up another cigarette.

The Americans, by contrast, seemed very different.  While we spoke the same language and had some common cultural experience, we were very different in the way we dealt with others.  The Americans (and a sample of two isn’t at all representative) always seemed to be right, always seemed to be condescendingly baffled by their European colleagues.  Graham and I concluded that we were Europeans, first and foremost. I found the same when working with American consortium partners in a major construction project. It is not an experience I would want to repeat.

Nor, I might say, would I want to see a repeat of an incident in which the British head of construction in one of our national utilities used an open-book alliancing arrangement to get one over on a much larger European engineering ‘partner’.  Rather than ‘British values’, or even ‘European values’, I’d like to work with people who espouse ‘respectful values’. I know people of many nationalities – not just European or American – who live by these values.

Respectful Values

I’m going to describe a situation I oversaw as it illustrates the very best and worst of behaviour.  I’ve been training adults and children since 1994, using a variety of team games to draw out lessons in collaboration and leadership.  I could pick many examples but this is about one group of young people. Their tasks were really tough: as individuals in the group, they stood little chance in achieving the stated goal.  Where they collaborated (and, of course, this was the point), success was entirely possible.  I mixed up the participants so that there was a good balance of genders and approaches.

In one group, a very intelligent and talented boy destroyed the cohesion of the team to such an extent that his fellow participants said they wanted to work in different teams. Individually brilliant, he became so angry when he wasn’t listened to that he separated himself from the group and, worse still, set out to sabotage what they were doing.

In another group, a girl took the lead, not by saying she wanted to be leader but by having the best idea and saying, “Hey guys, let’s do this.”  When they followed her lead, she encouraged and directed them.  When they suggested their ideas, she listened and, where it seemed to make sense, added her support to the idea.  When they complained, she told them to shut up, which they did.  That team succeeded: all the other members said they wanted to work with her again.

You could infer the nationalities of these two young people, and might possibly be correct, but that’s irrelevant because we can choose the way we behave towards others.

The Morning After

And last night Britain chose to behave like an aggrieved partner, a sulking child, a “my way or the the highway” kind of person.  So we’re looking at a divorce.

I feel like the unhappy child of those divorcing parents.  I know I’m made up of both of them, just as I am less directly related to all of humanity.  They’re going to be talking – in calm voices so they don’t upset the children – about how to divide up their belongings, their finances, their hitherto shared lives.  I don’t want to have to make a choice over which parent I live with, with which siblings I most want to associate.  I just wish our parents – and here the metaphor collapses in on itself and fails – I just wish we had been more grown-up and thought about our children’s futures. 

ps

It’s not just our children we’ve stuffed up. My parents who, as French residents, couldn’t vote, are paid their pension in sterling, that currency which just took a nose-dive. They are trying to sell their house so that they can end their days securely. Our desire to rid ourselves of migrants will now impoverish these migrants. My mum and dad. That’s one reason why I may not be talking to you.

pps

I heard back from my bright, hard-working Polish colleague. She is devastated.  Happy now?

DON’T VOTE #LEAVE

This week I urge you not to vote #LEAVE. I was going to offer high-minded reasons why, but I will leave it to David Mitchell and Lana Wachowski to explain:

To be is to be perceived. And so to know thyself is only possible through the eyes of the other. The nature of our immortal lives is in the consequences of our words and deeds, that go on and are pushing themselves throughout all time.

Our lives are not our own: from womb to tomb, we are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.

Sonmi 451, from ‘Cloud Atlas’

To vote #LEAVE is to fear The Other. Listen to the arguments: The Other is a European bureaucrat, a Romanian immigrant, a Muslim fanatic.  May as well be a young offender, a public sector worker or a homosexual.

The founders of such bureaucratic behemoths as the European Community and the United Nations knew that we must stop fearing and hating each other, because that will only perpetuate the wars that have plagued humanity.  If they have become unwieldy and ineffectual – or too powerful – such a muddle is better than the bloody alternative.

As a Quaker, I look for goodness – that of God – in others. I cannot ‘other’ them – us – because we are inextricably connected.  If you recognise another person’s humanity, it becomes difficult to treat them badly – and you don’t have to look far along the path of countless genocides to see how dehumanising one’s enemy is an early and essential step.

This planet is too small for us to ignore the other.  #LEAVE’s parochial insularity rides roughshod over the fact of our interconnectedness. 

My mum, aged 75 and an immigrant living in France, put it this way. “It’s like trying to go back to a country we lived in years ago. It’s never the same.” The Great Britain that #LEAVE harks back to was a nation that was coasting to a bumpy landing after a century and a half of gaining and exploiting an empire. 

If we want to return to our ‘true’ state, before looting the world, we’re more the nation of John Cabot (an Italian by the way).  A glance at the late fifteenth century economy would show you the importance of European trade and interconnectedness.  We’re a little group of islanders: we don’t produce as much as we consume; we buy more than we sell. That’s not sustainable.

By attempting to pull up the drawbridge, we trash the lives of others and the futures of our children. And that’s my 90 year-old father-in-law’s sentiment as much as mine.

If you are considering a vote for #LEAVE, be other-centred: think again and vote for someone else.