Monday, 30 June 2008

Bastard Headmaster

Having recently had my words (if not my name) printed in the august publication that is the Oxford Times Education Yearbook, I was keen to peruse those articles appearing alongside my own.

In which pursuit, I had the misfortune to encounter Michael St John Parker's piece 'Who do they think they are?'.

Here's a link to my photographed and pdfed copy of the article in question, if you want to read the whole shebang. I'm afraid it's a little less than premium-quality.

But no matter. As Ralph McTell might've put it: let me take you by the hand and lead you through the [Oxford Times Yearbook]. And we'll start with the first paragraph:
"A quarter to four in the afternoon, and the school bus stops outside my window to disgorge its load of feral youth, returned from their brief sojourn in the groves of academe – they lurch along the street, catcalling and throwing the odd plastic bottle, while their elders and better withdraw discreetly into shelter to avoid the possibility of a happy-slapping."
Ever feel as if you're being manipulated? "Disgorge". That's from old French: desgorger. To remove from the throat. Throw up. Thanks. I'm not going to point out the obvious linguistic hatchet-jobbery of phrases like 'feral youth', 'lurch' and 'elders and betters'. Here is a man who obviously has a balanced, moderate and affectionate view of the younger generation.

Shall we try a re-write?
"A quarter to four in the afternoon, and the school bus stops outside my window, to liberate its load of captives, released from their day's drudgery in the portakabins of academe – they stream down the street, whooping and throwing the odd plastic bottle, while their timid elders cower in their homes to avoid the possibility of confrontation with this terrifying ebullience."
Not to say that my version, there, is necessarily any the more truthful. But just to, y'know, prove a point. You can do an awful lot with language. Including ramming home your small-minded prejudices.

Parker's "argument"

The whole of Parker's argument is trash. Junk. He draws a link between Britain's lost imperialism and the fact that "Britain's youngsters [are] the unhappiest in the developed world" – that figures for alcohol and drug abuse are "indices of despair":
"How has this proudly self-confident imperial nation so quickly lost its pride and its self-confidence? Partly, no doubt, because of the loss of its empire."
Now, Mr Parker, let's think about this, shall we?

Is there one nation of the developed world that has maintained a kind of imperialism?

One nation of the developed world that has explicitly voiced its commitment to enforcing and promoting ideals beyond its own borders – through force if necessary?

Why, yes, there is one, isn't there? The good ol' US of A.

And, Mr Parker, what would you say about youth crime and disillusionment in America? Oh, sure, you don't get catcalls and plastic bottles a-flying in the land of the free. No, they're all well and truly buoyed up by the confident pseudo-imperialism of their motherland, aren't they?



How dare you – you pompous, bile-swollen, right-wing demagogue – how dare you class your nauseating rhetoric as the voice of reason, behind which to sweep the detritus of your irrational opinions? How dare you implicitly include me when you write:
"But who can doubt that this is, in general, a seriously disaffected, even alienated, generation of adolescents?"
"Who can doubt"? Who can doubt, indeed? Only those able to withstand the prejudicing effluential torrent emitted by those such as yourself.

Now, I do not object to Mr Parker's airing of his noxious views. Provided I am free to oppose them. But I do object to his dressing them as a moderate synthesis – as if he'd adequately represented both sides of an argument, and were simply drawing a moderate 'middle way' between them.

What he actually does: base his entire opening thesis on appearances – then include a single acknowledgment that "appearances may be deceptive", before returning to his opening thesis, in any case. That's not a balanced argument, Parker.

Parker's "conclusion"

As we read on, we find Parker acknowledging – in curious reversal of his "Who can doubt ...?" paragraph – the fact that "the youth of England have always ... been notorious for what we should now term feral tendencies". The difference nowadays, it seems, is that their "elders" are less "robust" in responding to said feral tendencies.

From this point, the focus of Parker's argument begins to dissolve, as he concentrates his full intellectual might upon the task of easing his shoehorn further into what's already an astonishingly ill-fitting (and shoddily cobbled) item of footwear.

As far as I'm able to find a section of the article that summarises his closing position, it is this:
"It may be too late to save the English, or even the British identity ...

"But if we are to give some sense of purpose, some system of values, to those feral youths ... we must have a vision, and prophets to proclaim it.

"Perhaps it is time for England to take education seriously at last. Could this be the cue for a rediscovery of those values which once reigned supreme in our schoolrooms ... namely the rigorous study of learning, the resolute inculcation of manners, and the unflinching pursuit of philosophical and religious truth?"
What a mendacious conclusion, in the context of the which has preceded it. How despicable, to round up a poisonous, hysterical rhetoric-fest with this semblance of a 'reasonable conclusion'. Like a man ranting his endorsement of capital punishment – before seguing into a lyrical appeal that his fellows should seek to take their children's welfare seriously, and to give them firm examples and role models to whom they may look up.

Retreating to a position of glib, platitudinous exhortation does not justify or prove his preceding bile.

And, for god's sake, he doesn't even do this well. Look at his words: "the resolute inculcation of manners".

Inculcate. That's from Latin - the verb calcare: to tread. So: to tread in. Forcibly to embed. Inculcate is a strong, and pretty uncompromising, violent, authoritarian word. Stronger, in this light, than 'indoctrinate' (from Latin 'docere', merely 'to teach').

Sounds so much more like the path of European liberalism that Parker has elsewhere elevated, doesn't it?

Oh, and some background ...

I was intrigued to discover, via the blessings of Wikipedia, that this Michael St John Parker is none other than the headmaster of Abingdon School about whom Radiohead wrote the song Bishops' Robes. Read the lyrics here. They obviously thought highly of him – and his enlightened European liberalism – too: "Children taught to kill / Tear themselves to bits on playing fields"; "Bastard headmaster".

Thursday, 26 June 2008

First drink of the day

Clearly, it is all about five daily portions of fruit & vegetable. Heck, this beverage was practically medicine.

At any rate, it was one of the nicest glasses of Pimms I've ever had the pleasure from which to quaff. And quaff, you may believe, I did.

Notice that I've photographed it against a rather nicely blue-stained wooden picnic-table. Complimentary colours, y'know.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Shakespeare Hated Hamlet

Ooh. Sensationalist headline! Intellectual Tabloidism!

What in God's name am I babbling about? Well, yesterday, a friend of mine was asked, 'Why does Hamlet stop soliloquising?' And - graciously - she posed that same question to me, later that day.

It's true: Hamlet does indeed dry up on the soliloquy front. And there are a good few potential explanations for this. I'm not going to go into most of them. Scholarly, ain't I?

You see, I'm only really interested in my sensationalist one: that, by the play's closing Act or so, Shakespeare falls out with his protagonist. They have a bust-up. A spat.

Guess who wins.


Coming as no surprise from an inspired magpie such as Billy Shakes, the plot of Hamlet is assembled from a motley array of sources. The tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, was not, in essence, a new story.

Hamlet's character had a very clear and specific role within drama of the time: the role of the revenger. There was a whole sub-genre: the Revenge Tragedy. The bloodthirsty, action-packed, minimal-introspection thriller of the age. A kind of Elizabethan Die Hard.

An Elizabethan would've known what to expect of a play about this Hamlet chap. Just as we'd know what to expect of a film called Vengeance: The Return, or something. A bit of background, some sketchy characterisation, maybe a bit of moral ambiguity (just enough to raise tension) -- and a walloping portion of chaotic violence, macho posturing and melodrama.

What did they get? Some weakass emo-kid of a hero who spends the best part of the play trying to work himself up into taking any kind of action. A hapless loser who, when he actually does take action, does so almost accidentally, and kills the wrong guy. Woody Allen standing in for Bruce Willis.

And so what's the audience's likely response to this useless failure of a Revenger? Disgust. We want our money back.

But what do people actually think of Shakespeare's Hamlet? He's a much-romanticised hero. Quite an Elizabethan babe-magnet. I doubt there's a dramatic hero with a higher profile than old Ham.

This is Shakespeare at his twisty best. Subverting audience's expectations, and - disappointing them - but actually giving them something they'll love even more.

And Shakespeare does this by moving the action and thrills into the psychological sphere. By internalising the conflict. And giving us, through Hamlet, a sequence of some of the most moving and psychologically complex soliloquies ever written. Blah blah.

The whole root of Hamlet's soliloquising? People commonly say it's his indecision, his inaction. Wrong. These qualities are symptoms, not causes. Hamlet's preoccupation is this: he doesn't actually feel as he thinks he ought to. He is not consumed by rage; his being is not eaten up by bloodlust. He's looking for these things. He's expecting them. But instead he senses in himself - with guilt, shame, horror - a kind of emptiness.

And so, terrified at this deficiency, he uses his words, his "Now could I drink hot blood" speeches, in an attempt to psych himself up. But it's empty rhetoric. Hamlet practising on himself. Trying to stir up his own emotions. Hamlet himself is well aware of the Revenger's role. Of what he should be feeling.

Jolly good, so far. This is interesting. This is realism. Strong emotions don't come out fully-formed, perfect, on demand. Feelings aren't pure, and those that say otherwise delude themselves. Romantic schmucks.

... O, from this time forth,
My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!
The above words conclude Hamlet's final soliloquy. This is the last we hear from the Prince's inner self, as opposed to his outer persona (that is, the lines he delivers in the presence of others). And it's a pretty significant final line in that respect: he's saying, from now on, I'm only interested in my Revenger's thoughts.

And Shakespeare's response?

"Sod that, mate."

Shakespeare's not interested in the Revenger. He's spent the whole of the play showing the audience that the revenge isn't the interesting thing. He's been knuckling down and busting cliches. So when Hamlet declares himself resolved in this new direction, he's no longer of any interest. Because it's the bloody thoughts that are "nothing worth", not the rest.

"You know what?" says Shakespeare (indulge me, dear reader). "If you're going to be like that, you're not getting any more soliloquies. Because they'll be boring, stale, rhetorical nonsense."

Shakespeare takes away Hamlet's soliloquies. He's not going to glamorise two-dimensionality. If Hamlet's going to make cardboard cutout resolutions, then a cardboard cutout is what Shakespeare is going to make him. Stand here, Hamlet. Jump in a grave, Hamlet. Rave a bit, Hamlet. Poison your blade, Hamlet.

Die, Hamlet.

And enjoy those lovely, Romantic flights of angels, won't you?

Monday, 23 June 2008


Even in the knowledge that so doing may mislead (legions of) first-time visitors into considering this a birdwatching blog – even in this knowledge – I wish to bring to your attention this pleasant young fellow.

Superb, non?

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Complimentary colours

Yesterday, this gold stitching was pleasing me very much.

May it please you too.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

The Dirt

This is a brilliant poem. I read it a good while ago, back in those mist-enwrapped undergraduate days - though didn't study it.

I rediscovered it, today (in, of all places, Zbigniew Herbert: Selected Poems. Who'd've thought, eh?) and it reminded me of the following lines from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:
No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two ...

Both poems are interested in the dirt. Indeed Herbert has Fortinbras proclaim:
Anyhow you had to perish Hamlet you were not for life
you believed in crystal notions not in human clay
Human clay. That's what it's about. The messy, maleable imperfection as opposed to the wrought, brittle ideal.

Eliot's Prufrock is rather less assertive. He has measured out his life in coffee spoons - has shied away, he supposes, from the real business of life. And pities himself as a result:
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.
Prufrock's rejection of the Hamlet mantle is horrified, self-deprecating. He has never acted, has never been a protagonist, a prophet an instigator. He has not been up to it.

But Fortinbras has it right:
[Hamlet] chose the easier part an elegant thrust
but what is heroic death compared with eternal watching
It is harder to accept the human clay than to shatter the crystal notions.

Thus, while Prufrock's closing words are beautiful yet Romantic and self-deluding (as Eliot is of course well aware) –
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
– Fortinbras' (also watery) are resolute, honest and have a beauty that rests in more than language alone:
It is not for us to greet each other or bid farewell we live on archipelagos
and that water these words what can they do what can they do prince

Monday, 16 June 2008

Saturday, 14 June 2008


Blue and gold and black
(Like Duracell)
Summer surprised us with latent weight
Its potential energy

And now, like crickets massed in dry grasses,
Prophecies whisper and rattle at every footfall
And some, no doubt, are crushed.

Most, no doubt, are crushed
Or spring away to live and die
Without relevance

But I could bend
(Or you could bend)
Stilled to a sudden attention
And, with cupped hands
Clam one as it sits

And change our course thereafter,
Walking back across the buzzing field.

Make Me Pop (Part 1)

Here's something to which I've been devoting a lot of thought, recently: the notion of feeling like oneself.

What does this mean?

I am an introverted hooligan, and – at one time in my (long and weary) life – I formed the belief that I could not possibly feel any more 'like myself' than when alone. The intrusion of other human beings, after all, causes one to make alterations (however small) to one's "natural" behaviour.

… And some human beings provoke alterations to one's behaviour that are immensely troubling. These are the people whom I would wish to avoid; whom I may, furthermore, consider myself to dislike. But, ultimately, it's perhaps not they whom I dislike. It's my own behaviour and the sensations I experience when in their presence.

But what about the rare human whose presence has the power to make one feel that one's behaviour and characteristics are improved, or thrown into a more flattering light (at least)? Like the perfect frame for a painting, the context given by these people's influence may illuminate and distinguish; may rouse that which is latent.

Designers use the word 'pop' to describe something like this. A colour such as magenta (in the rather arbitrarily googled image to the right) will seem that much bolder, more powerful and present against the right background. Here, black (I think you'll agree, whatever you think of the design itself) does the job admirably.

Pop is good, in design. People notice pop. Pop is, um, popular. And this principle is (to some degree, I suppose) what Andy Warhol et al were taking to its extreme.

A seasoned Art Director might look at the work of a junior designer, perhaps, and advise: "The image is okay, but that colour combination isn't strong enough. You need to look for a background that'll make it pop."

In life, then [he says, in the tone of one settling back into a sumptuously plumped-up metaphor], we're all designers. And we're looking for the people that will make us pop.

[Tune in soon for Part 2, in which the Intellectual Hooligan will Dazzle All and (quite possibly) Sundry with Quotations from Celebrated Poet-Critic Thomas Stearns Eliot! Be Amazed – Or Your Money Back In Full!]

Saturday, 7 June 2008


Um, actually ... no.

Student = biscuit. METAPHOR, DAMN YOU.

Having fairly recently started to work at a school (not, I should hastily add, as a teacher - I'd be awful), I've found myself somewhat intrigued by the vision I am afforded of life on the other side of the staff-room door.

(Just as, when working in a library, those years ago, I gained an appreciation of the Issue Desk barrier, and the manifold revelations on offer to those transcending it.)

When one is at school - as pupil (judging, at least, from my own experience), one tends to consider oneself pretty much as an item on the production line. Okay, so, in proud moments, I'd've been so bold as to imagine that, amongst all those other packets of digestives going through the factory that day, I might've turned out quite well (perhaps destined for the hallowed shelves of Waitrose or Marks & Spencer). But I was still (if you'll indulge me in my metaphor) just a stack of biscuits, at the end of it all.

But - working amongst teachers - one has the keys (as it were) to the factory foreman's office. And it's as if, on peering inside while the factory workers are all on their tea-break, one were to find row upon row of lovingly-framed biscuity portraits hanging on the wall. Individually named. Perhaps in Comic Sans. (Ow. What was that for?)

Of course, if I'd thought about it, as a nipper, I'd've realised: these teachers do actually care. Of course they do. But, somehow, from my youthful perspective, I'd never quite have made so audacious a presumption.

It's lovely - really, lovely - to hear teachers speak of their pupils with such affection and optimism - and respect.

A Note to Loyal Readers (les deux, les deux):
At some point, the Intellectual Hooligan may fully reacquaint himself with the entirely whimsical, facetious nonsense you have come to expect - nay, to crave. Until that point, however, he respectfully entreats you to have patience, while he dabbles ineffectually in his own peculiar and vaguely repellant brand of emo-philosophy. He'll pull through. Don't you worry. Just, y'know, keep on commenting, as before. It makes the Socratic inspiration flow that much more freely.

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