Facts, facts, facts

Yesterday I found myself in a regrettable misunderstanding over an early day motion from 2004 signed by Jeremy Corbyn. It supported the assertion by John Pilger that the NATO intervention in Kosovo was based on a lie, that the Serbian forces had not perpetrated a genocide.

Initial Responses 

The language of the motion seemed intemperate, but I had no knowledge with which to judge it.My first responses were thus:

  • I wanted to find the facts, as a lifelong student of History. When I was 15, my history teacher, Michael Barlen, reinforced the need for “Facts, facts, facts. Who, why, what, where, when.” As an undergraduate, I was rarely content with secondary sources and would ferret out primary sources, even reacquainting myself with Latin so I wouldn’t have to depend on translations. In my brief spell as a research student, I was similarly obsessive in my pursuit of facts.
  • I question anything I read or hear in any media, as a former communications professional (PR executive and marketing manager).  I used to create some of the ‘spin’ so I look for it everywhere. I recognise my own tendency towards naivety, so I force myself to be sceptical.
  • I want my daughter to understand and guard against inhumanity. I took her to Oradour-sur-Glane to see the consequences of inhumanity for herself. 
  • I need to understand what leads us to war. As a Quaker, I am a pacifist. But as the child of a diplomat and grandchild of a decorated bomber pilot, as a former member of the TA and as the friend of a serving army officer, I tend to listen to and respect what members of the armed forces say, and I’ve done a lot of listening over the years.
  • I want to understand what makes humans perpetrate acts of evil time and again. As my friend served in a military-civilian liaison role in Bosnia, Basra and Kosovo, I have taken an interest in her work and saw a common thread of inhumanity.  We just seem to keep doing it: why?

Distrust of ‘Authorities’

As an A level history student, I attended a debate at the Cambridge Union. Magnus Pyke argued that ‘History is bunk’. The case for the defence of History was led by Geoffrey Elton, not yet Professor of Modern History. Assisting him in its defence was David Irving, an urbane man who was introduced to us as an historian. He impressed me; years later, I shuddered at the thought of having been taken in for event a moment by this holocaust denier. It gave me even greater reason to question ‘authorities’ and to challenge my own first impressions.

Sources of Information

I feel no closer to understanding what happened in Kosovo, except that thousands died, far more were displaced and there were inhumane acts on both sides. I still feel ignorant and am not sure I will ever know. I will certainly not take John Pilger’s word for it, nor any source that’s readily to hand on the Internet. I will ask my friend, as she was there in the aftermath of the war, tasked with helping the civilian population to recover. I doubt that she will have a definitive answer but I will listen to her and weigh up what she says.

Implications for my teaching

I try to bring my own approaches and responses, in an age-appropriate way, into my teaching.

  • I encourage pupils to search for evidence to back up any assertions they make.
  • I encourage them to be sceptical about what they see, hear or read, to ask questions about its validity and to seek other reputable sources.
  • I convene discussions about inhumanity and its causes, suitable for the Year 6 pupils I have taught. This has included a morning’s discussion with a holocaust survivor and, for others, a topic theme of refugees and asylum seekers.
  • I try to offer a balanced view of warfare, honouring the men and women who fought in the defence of Britain and asking how we can avoid any future loss of life.

Conclusions

Quakers are, as well as pacifists, seekers after truth. When I am feeling tired and cynical, I sometimes wonder if I will ever find it; for the rest of the time, I’m the same obsessive dog with a fact-seeking bone that I was as a child.

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On Metaphor

Derived from the Greek words meta (over or beyond) and fero (carry), metaphor is a powerful part of language. This morning, metaphor went beyond language.

I blundered into my Quaker meeting for worship a few minutes late. The usual three-rowed square of seats around a table had been replaced by a two-rowed circle. And there were children among the seated adults.

At the centre of the circle was a black cloth. Onto it, one of the adults laid out her story, about the universe, the Earth and our place on it. She surrounded Earth, a multi-coloured pile of cloth, with wooden figures.

The figures, small, simple, jigsaw-cut, lay flat. Another friend stood up and said she wish she knew how she could help to bring humanity to its feet. She felt small, she said, powerless to do anything. She sat down.

After a minute, a woman walked around to the figures. She knelt and began to bring the figures to their wooden feet. Another woman joined her, then I did. Then two children came to help. It was soon done.

One person’s statement of helplessness had provoked another’s action, which, in turn, had prompted us to act. Our actions, the actions of adults, had, in turn, prompted children to act. None of this was premeditated.

I sat down and breathed out heavily. I couldn’t have said this in any way that was as profound as the action, the image or the experience.  These words and my pictures are an inadequate substitute. 

   
 

Love Song

Thank God you’re back,
between the grubby sheets,
beneath the creased black covers.

Back this morning, whispering
in my empty ears, scribbling
secret notes across my thoughts.

Back beside me in this café window
watching London walk to work,
thick-thieved in conversation.

Back because I need you;
but when teaching stuffs my days
with doing, you’ll fall silent.

Four poems; one place

Poems…

I found myself, for the nth time, looking for the links to poems I wrote around a man. 

…about Stories

When I was about twelve, a teacher read us David Kossoff‘s Book of Witnesses. I loved it because it gave imagined humanity to dry biblical figures. Who doesn’t love a story? That was one of the joys of my history degree: imagining the people I read and write about. I especially loved the triangle of wild Henry II, cautious Gilbert Foliot and the incredibly irritating Thomas Beckett. Or the tragic clash between Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II and Pope Innocent III. Or comparing the odious Oswald Mosley to the overweeningly ambitious David Owen. No wonder Shakespeare looted Holinshed for every bit of Tudor propaganda: History is gripping!

…and Sculpture

  

After visiting Antony Gormley’s Event Horizon exhibition at the Hayward gallery, and seeing sculptures like this, I started thinking. He challenges us with questions. How about talking about the body as an energy center, not as a statue? Is there a way to go beyond the horizon? Can we use a body as an empty catalyst for a kind of empathy with the experience of space time? Gormley’s wire sculptures reveal the figure through a wild tangle of wire around an empty space. 

…and Jesus

The tomb is empty, Jesus has gone, but the stories remain and are retold, time and again. I wanted to create tangles of feeling, image and thought around that empty space, just as Kossoff had done. And the story of a man who could provoke such love and hatred had to be a good one. I used to think he was divine; I no longer do so. I would like to imagine that he represents consummate man: certainly, he has come to bear enormous symbolic significance for countless Christians. Forget the cross: that crushing metaphorical weight would have finished him off.

…and Judas

I wrote Judas first, at a time when I was in despair. I’ve long liked Judas and believed that despair was his chief failing. He did what his conscience, his extremist cause and Christ (there for its alliterative pleasure, not for any religious reason) dictated. Judas should have retired and had a family; instead, he killed himself.

…and Mary Magdalene

I wrote Mary Magdalene next. This came from three perspectives: Jesus as the object of physical desire; Mary as a human capable of intense feeling and the salted wound of loss; and a female figure onto whom every generation scrawls some (usually misogynist) graffiti. I like to think she loved Jesus and that he, being entirely human, had a physical relationship with her. Pure conjecture. My friend and one-time tutor, Professor Anthony Bale, told me about the physical, almost sexual fixation that some medieval believers had for Jesus, how they would kiss and caress his wounds – rather, their wooden and plaster facsimiles. I had at that stage only read the first three and the last chapters of Ulysses (with the help of my friend Toby Brothers and the comradeship of her literary salon, I’ve now completed it). Molly Bloom‘s post-coital soliloquy has always struck me as such a powerful text. It resists being pinned down and yet each reader can give it our own punctuation, read it in our own voice. Arrogantly, I copied Joyce’s tricks…

…and Mary, mother of Jesus

Mary, Jesus’s mother, came from my heart. I love my daughter so intensely that the thought of her predeceasing me fills me with panic. It always has done (what a morbid imagination!) and now that she drives, I worry even more. So I placed myself in Mary’s body and mind. With her dead son.  After he’d been tortured to death. Almost unbearable, which is why it came out so short and austere. Anything more felt wordy and self-indulgent. I saw Fiona Shaw perform Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary and was transfixed (what an apt word). He managed to maintain that unrelenting austerity of tone for hours: a literary magician. I was pleased that I’d managed to write my brief poem long before Tóibín had written his play as I’d never have bothered after seeing it.

…and Peter

I picked Peter first, though his voice came to me last. Infuriating, hot-headed, hypocritical, passionate, prone to saying stupid things: I felt most affinity with him. When he did eventually come, I saw him beside the fire, lying his arse off. So human. I had some fun with textual analysis and concordance, using the gospel writers’ words as a framework, discipline for my sloppy lines. Peter lived long enough to give himself a place in history, though he would have laughed his head off at the pomp he engendered, or cried bitterly at the millions who have suffered with the blessing of his ‘successors’. Peter’s story seems to unite all the others, so I devised the poem with hyperlinks to the other three. They appear in separate posts but can be read through this one.

Incidentally…

Oh, those dot, dot, dots made me think of music and space. I like John Cage’s 4’33, the musical equivalent of a Quaker meeting for worship, full of meaning. We wrap our own meaning around this space, but we can also let it talk to us. 

I also really like Nils Frahm’s response to 4’33, which I think is far from a joke and which brings me back to the stillness of Cage’s piece every time I listen to it.

Not His Rock

The murderous heat gave way
to deathly cold that night.
I found a place beside the fire
and warmed my trembling hands.

Three times? I shook my head.

The servant girl beside me
saw my firelit face and said,
“I’ve seen you with him.”
“You’re mistaken,” I replied.

It’s not my son who has to die.

Another woman, by the gate,
caught sight of me and shouted,
“He’s that madman’s friend,”
an accusation I denied.

I’ve never felt his gentle weight.

Then a man who’d seen me
cut his cousin’s ear off cried,
“You’re one of his disciples!”
“I’m no follower of his,” I lied.

I didn’t kiss him in the garden.

As the darkness crept away,
a stabbing shaft of sunlight
caused a cockerel thrice to crow
and I knew then, as now,

I’m not his rock; I’m only human.

Afterwards

Nothing prepares you for the cold stone
contours, crags, gashes, gullies, gouges
of a broken body. Empty sepulchre,

my son.

I lift him, drag him backwards,
wrap round him, make believe
my blood is running through him,
feel him come to life inside me.

Taste the bitterness of knowing.

Smell dead sweat.
Start to wash him.

Sweet Jesus

Sweet Jesus Christ

words worn to threads by men
who never knew his smell his taste
the touch of his hands the look
in his eyes the power of his arms
arms strong from aching
day in day out work

Oh Jesus wept

so he did
for me for stupid Peter
poor old Judas every
godforsaken one of us

Holy Mother

the press of his chest
the weight of him
his whipchord hardness
braced against my

God

I can’t believe
he’s gone for good

Last Words

High up here, with the wind’s whisper willing to me to fly
and no attendant angels there to catch me.
No hope of Heaven now with him,
whom they will say I simply sold for silver.

“One of you,” he said. I stood. Send me, I thought,
instead of him, the heavy-handed hot-head; instead of her,
who loves you most, who’s closest to your blood and body.
Let me be nearest to you at the end.

My end is here, hopeless, roped onto a shaking gallows tree.
I fail to see. I fall. I feel the branches break my. I –

A matter of philosophy

I would like, briefly, to shoot the breeze, starting with a summary of three very old and more or less pessimistic points of view about people.

  

In De Civitate Dei, St Augustine argued that authority exists to restrain what Hobbes would later call the “war of all against all.” People, in short, were usually up to no good and had to be policed.

  

Thomas Aquinas, by contrast, argued in Summa Theologiae that the first precept of natural law was that ‘good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided.’ So man, created to attain his end, naturally tends toward good.

  

In Defensor Pacis, his treatise of 1324, Marsiglio of Padua argued that men had to assemble together for this common good but were prone to conflict and therefore needed to be governed.

If we were to apply these to the assurance of quality in education, we might see a spectrum of approaches to inspection.

a) In an Augustinian model, schools need snap inspections, rigorously undertaken because, naturally, they will do whatever they can to avoid being considered inadequate and will do anything for ‘outstanding’.

b) In a Marsiglian model, schools want the best for their pupils, but are in competition with each other and need an impartial arbiter. Some you can trust, but some need policing.

c) If we pursue a Thomist view, however, schools can be trusted to improve themselves and each other, for the betterment of their pupils.

Inspection seems to have wavered somewhere between a) and b). I would like to imagine, with somewhat starry eyes, a situation where c) were possible, where schools would seek not merely to be above average but desire the overall improvement of education.

What if we could stop competing with each other as if education were a nationwide Hunger Game? What if we could take the best principles of peer working that have been adopted within schools and apply them to groups of schools? And what if we could look on, say, an annual review by peers from other schools as a supportive health check? It would require a huge change in our attitudes and perceptions.

I would like to imagine that one day all schools could benefit from peer reviews. I can see no reason why Ofsted-led assurance and peer-led improvement shouldn’t coexist, just as Church and State did for our three philosophers.

For the time being, I will watch and learn. I will give Andrew Morrish, someone far more experienced than I am, the final word, as our starter for ten…

  

“I very much see [peer review] as the way ahead for inspection, especially for those outstanding schools that are now exempt. As I see it, one of the many advantages … is that you feel as a headteacher that good has been very much done unto you. It is system-led and impact driven, focussing entirely on the core purposes of education. If we can avoid the pitfalls of the cosy-fireside-chat syndrome, then in terms of doing good, peer review is here to stay.”

On Nonsense

Stuart Lock got me thinking about PGCEs. I have one and, after twenty years of work in a cynical, pragmatic, highly political and often unimaginative environment, I needed the ‘head space’ in which I could dream of what I might become and the stimuli – however theoretical or fanciful – for developing my own practice.

And, because I’m so up my own fanciful backside, my response came out poetically (I must admit to having achieved a C grade in GCE General Studies for a response which was written in blank verse while I was quite hammered after a morning at the pub).

I set off for my
teaching practice,
pockets packed
with nonsense,
belly filled with froth
by Fellows far from
where I’ll find myself
this winter morning.
But, without these fancies,
what have I to feed
my daydreams?