moving – small – dark – quick – moving thing quick – on table – not quick now – still – catch it – oh! – gone – on my arm – tickle! – catch it – quick – too quick – can’t – again – can’t – moving – too quick – small – quick – gone
Are babies boring? The article here makes no bones about it: yes. And it has to be said that once you’ve watched them twiddle the knobs on the First Steps Baby Walker 50 times, the novelty wears off. They’re also demanding. One reason I’ve not been getting much done recently is this little creature, who likes to get the same level of attention as Elizabeth Taylor on the set of Cleopatra.
That’s, right, Mrs. B and I are currently baby-sitting for our daughter, something I’ve not done since – well, not since the baby was our daughter. So I’d forgotten quite how little one manages to do when they’re awake. At the same time, though, they’re fascinating. I love imagining what goes on their minds as they discover the world around them. So the text above is not a portrayal of an avant-garde ballet but of Alice trying to catch a fly.
I’m displeased. No, make that seething. For several years now I’ve been collaborating with the University of Antsiranana in Madagascar, helping students with their English dissertations. It was voluntary and unofficial, so before I retired, I was keen to consolidate it through an official agreement between our two universities. So I put in a bid for 1000 euros from funds made available by the International Relations Department. This was to pay for a colleague to fly out, meet the partners in Antsiranana and settle the terms of the agreement. It was refused. Our university recently merged with two others to become a single mega-establishment, now the biggest university in France. And they can’t spare 1000 euros. Hey, come on! You’re kidding, right? Now, of course money’s tight and every little bit counts, but let’s just put this in perspective here.
The history of Britain, as any fule kno, begins in 1066 and stretches in a long, complicated, but strangely unbroken zigzag from Will the Conq to Liz the Second. Apart from kings’n’queens and a million battles, a few Things happened, such as Magna Carta or The Gunpowder Plot. Mr. Richards, our history teacher, made us learn all the dates well before we’d actually got there in the history book, so even though we were still on Richard II, we knew, for example, that Admiral Byng was shot for the loss of Minorca in 1757.
Other Things that happened were the South Sea Bubble (1720), a strange aquatic phenomenon involving a huge dome somewhere near Tahiti, and the Black Hole of Calcutta (1756), an uncovered manhole into which people fell and then spent the rest of their lives in a sewer. Although the peasants would sometimes revolt, there was no one in history apart from kings’n’queens, who generally did a couple of Things and fought a dozen battles before being murdered. One exception was Henry VII, who didn’t do much apart from end the War of the Roses, have Henry VIII (who did a lot) and be a Tudor. Kings’n’queens were either Good or Bad, and Henry VII was definitely Good, if a little boring.
Now, I’ve just finished Winter King by Thomas Penn. I’ve mentioned before that I didn’t expect to finish before 2018, so slow was my progress and so complicated the story. Here’s a representative passage: Philip of Burgundy’s unexpected death in September 1506 had got him thinking again about Catherine’s older sister Juana, whose pale, isolated beauty he had admired at Richmond the previous year, and who was now Philip’s widow. In recent years Henry had of course been pursuing Philip’s sister, Margaret of Savoy – rich, Hapsburg, and aunt to Philip and Juana’s son Charles of Castile, who was due to be betrothed to Henry’s daughter Mary. Well, after a while I stopped trying to figure out who was who and just went, “Yeah, OK,” like you do when you’re watching Mulholland Drive. And so, helped by a couple of plane flights, I managed not only to finish it but enjoy it. I’ve forgotten most of it already, but the lasting impression is of having to revise my view: Henry VII, apparently, was not just shifty, paranoid and avaricious, but a pioneer in the art of political spin. Now, if that makes you think of a recent British Prime Minister, you’re being very unfair. Because Henry, after all, didn’t take Britain into war. Tony Blair did.
Now I’m retired, I can officially claim to be ignorant, but there was a time when I laid a somewhat dubious claim to a field of expertise, namely Second Language Acquisition, and more specifically within that, vocabulary learning. I would eagerly give my students a foolproof method of learning new words. Simplifying somewhat, you write them on a slip of paper with the translation, and preferably a context sentence, on the other side. Test yourself regularly, putting the words you don’t know into a pile for testing again a little later. Every so often, test all the words to make sure you haven’t forgotten the ones you know.
This method works. It’s backed up by a body of research, and now there are apps that enable you to do it on your phone, tablet and bathroom mirror. So naturally, when I set out to learn Shimaoré, I did exactly that. Well, the first part anyway, cutting up bits of paper and writing the words. Unfortunately, I then failed to look at them. Research has also shown that doing the first part without the second is roughly as effective as putting clothes into a washing machine and then not switching it on.
The languages of the four islands of Comoros (assuming Mayotte to be one of them, which it was until recently) are all different but mutually comprehensible to a fair extent. The language of Anjouan, the closest island to Mayotte, is Shindzuani. Given my progress in Shimaoré, I think it unlikely that I’ll understand anything in Anjouan, but we’re going there anyway for a long weekend – so no more blog till Tuesday. So kwaheri (goodbye) till then, and have a great weekend! 🙂
– Now, Grosbisou, you’re perhaps the most famous of the Bisounours. But having heard of you only after I moved to France, I was under the impression you were French. That’s not the case, though.
-Pas du tout, non. I was sent here from America to represent Tenderheart Bear from the Care Bears. Bisounours isn’t a bad translation – ours means bear and bisou is the child’s term for kiss.
– Was it hard to adapt to France?
– Well, there were fears at first the French might be suspicious so we underwent a cultural awareness course before leaving, but as it turned out, we caught on straightaway. Toys, films, TV series – we were all over. And we’ve barely gone out of fashion ever since. Basically, our philosophy transcends national cultures.
– And what exactly is your philosophy?
– Spread love and friendship! If we all care enough, we can change the world!
– Do you think you’ve had much effect? You’ve been around for more than 30 years and I can’t see much improvement myself. Some might say that behind your ‘philosophy’ was just a cynical ploy to make money.
– Typical of a journalist, that! You’re so damn – I’m sorry… No, we Care Bears are utterly sincere, believe me.
– The French have a saying, On n’est pas au pays des Bisounours – We’re not in Care-a-Lot – meaning you live in a fantasy world with no relation to reality.
– Well, to quote T.S. Eliot, human kind cannot bear (no pun intended!) too much reality. And I do believe that little acts of kindness can indeed change the world.
– Yes, I’m not saying they can’t. But you have to admit it was all about the money, surely?
– There you go again. Look, you really press my cider, you do. Why don’t you just – Oh, I see my agent’s calling me. It was lovely to speak to you. Take care!
– Mr. Roberts, you were my first English teacher, or rather the first who showed me the joy to be had from reading. In fact, I see you as the sum of all the teachers who nurtured my love of reading. What made you choose that profession?
– The desire, simply, to transmit my own love of reading to my pupils. There are many, I know, who never responded as I hoped, but even if I succeeded with only a few, it was worth it.
– And where did your own love of books come from?
– A teacher, just as yours did. People can discover books on their own, but young minds benefit from guidance, and I was fortunate to have an excellent teacher myself. The first book to astound me, transport me to a world I knew nothing of, was The Grapes of Wrath. After which I devoured the whole of Steinbeck. Without a teacher, I might not have discovered it till much later. Teachers also introduced me to Hemingway, Henry James, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and on this side of the Atlantic, Aldous Huxley, E.M. Forster, and of course, George Orwell.
– And I remember you speaking to us about them. But the book you chose to draw us in with was The Catcher in the Rye.
– Of course! And it worked, didn’t it?
– I read everything Salinger wrote after that. Such a shame he didn’t publish more!
– It was a set text in schools the world over. But despite its phenomenal success, it’s come in for huge criticism too. Consider this from Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post:
Why is Holden Caulfield nearly universally seen as “a symbol of purity and sensitivity” (as The Oxford Companion to American Literature puts it) when he’s merely self-regarding and callow? Why do English teachers, whose responsibility is to teach good writing, repeatedly and reflexively require students to read a book as badly written as this one? That last question actually is easily answered: The Catcher in the Rye can be fobbed off on kids as a book about themselves. It is required reading as therapy, a way to encourage young people to bathe in the warm, soothing waters of resentment (all grown-ups are phonies) and self-pity without having to think a lucid thought. […] The Catcher in the Rye touches adolescents’ emotional buttons without putting their minds to work. It’s easy for them, which makes it easy for teacher.
– Harsh indeed. And what’s your answer to that?
– I stand by my choice. The book isn’t badly written – the voice captures the adolescent thought process brilliantly. And it didn’t make it easier for me, on the contrary. I tried to get you to look at Holden critically, not simply identify with him. And that was a challenge with boys your age.
– Yes, I’m not sure I managed the critical bit. But I’d like to thank you anyway, you and teachers of literature all over the world, for doing all you could to open our minds to other worlds and ways of seeing, to the power and the magic of stories. And not just from the English speaking world, of course. There’s a great initiative here that invites us to read a book from every continent in 2015.
– You’re most welcome. Long may the power of stories continue.
So off I went to the Boboka Primary School for my weekly Shimaoré class, thinking it would be the usual: a whirlwind of words held together by fiendish bits of grammar invented for the sole purpose of confusing me. But instead, our teacher, Gaucher – his nickname, French for left-handed, because he’s, well, left-handed – wrote the lyrics to Shakasha on the board.
Shakasha biyaya na shigoma, Ngoma zatru za zamani
Yilalihwa Mirereni ya Sufu Ali, Karibu na Malamani etc
Shakasha is a dance. So once he’d got us all singing the song, Gaucher took us out to the balcony and taught us how to do it. (i) Four steps forward, starting with left foot, (ii) Raise right foot, clap, (iii) Three steps back, clap. There you go – simple, isn’t it? Now you know the Shakasha.
As my wife will tell you, having been subjected many times to my valiant, eager, but ultimately sad attempts at le rock’n’roll, I am the world’s worst dancer. But even I could manage the Shakasha. Or so I thought.
Because then it got trickier. You go round in a circle doing the forward – back – clap bit, and two people, alternately spaced, break out of the circle to do the steps in the middle. Then, as they’re going back to their places, the next two do likewise. So everyone does it twice, once with a partner two places to the left, once with a partner two places to the right, with just enough time in between for the intervening couple to have their go.
The result, obviously, was a mess. A sort of Blind Man’s Buff with everyone wearing a blindfold. But Gaucher was very patient, and after an hour of this, we were drenched in sweat but had just about got the hang of it. Then came the announcement: ‘You’ll be performing this in the Baobab Stadium for National Language Day.’
Cue guffaws of incredulity all round. But no, I kid you not. Just two weeks to rehearse. The song, apparently, is an exhortation to preserve Mahorais traditions. I don’t know if Gaucher realises yet that what was once a beautiful dance will henceforth be known as The Shakasha Shambles.
– Headmaster, I was reading a recent review of Lindsay Anderson’s film If…, which said it was as relevant today as ever. Do you agree?
– One sees, of course, why If... struck a chord at the time, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and, indeed, became a cult film. The sixties. That general feeling of revolt in the air. But it was never a relevant film. It was a childish piece, in tune with the times, but Anderson was letting off steam, no more. Common sense has now reasserted itself.
– Oh, that’s reassuring. Common sense, you mean, as shown in this graph?
– I see you haven’t changed much, Bausse. Still a bit bolshy. But you never quite cut it as a rebel, even if you thought you had a cause.
– Ha, ha, very droll, Headmaster. Do you have a name, by the way?
– My name is unimportant. What counts is my function. I am The Headmaster.
– That’s a bit creepy, isn’t it? Like The Joker. The villain in Batman? All right, never mind. So what’s your function, then?
– In one word, to educate. From the Latin, educare, literally ‘to lead out’. And to encourage those qualities of leadership in the pupils who attend our schools.
– Leadership? As in ‘Let’s go and rule the British Empire’?
– If you can’t be serious, Bausse, I’m afraid I shall have to end this interview.
– All right, I’ll try. But just to be clear, when you say ‘our schools’, you mean Independent Schools, right? What used to be called Public Schools. Eton, and so on. Which are anything but public because they cost a fortune.
– It can indeed reach a substantial amount.
– An arm and a leg, you mean.
– Which makes our responsibility all the greater. We don’t succeed with everyone, of course.
– Are you referring to me, Headmaster?
– Well, you did go to a Public School, albeit a minor one.
– Yes, the very one Anderson went to, where he shot If... In fact, if you know exactly when and where to look, you can see me for a nanosecond. But you’re quite right, Headmaster, I should be up there with David Cameron and Boris Johnson, setting the country right. Can’t think why I’m not.
– Attitude, Bausse, attitude. A great shame. You had the capacity but you were stubborn. Never adopted the values we tried so hard to instill.
– Oh, well. Bit late to change now, I suppose. But I’d like to come back to If… I was wondering what you thought of the last scene. It must have been a dreadful way to go.
– Not at all! I was doing my duty and I acted as I thought fit. Demonstrating those exact qualities of leadership I’ve been talking about. And really, what happened to me was of no consequence whatever. Because there’ll always be someone to replace me. I’m The Headmaster.