Saturday, 30 November 2013

Two stories for St Andrew’s Day

And they came to the teacher and said: “Master, why is the Patron Saint of Scotland Saint Andrew?” And he replied: “Listen carefully and you will learn.”

The First Story

Once upon a time there was a man called Regulus. He lived in the very centre of the civilised world, at a place called Patras in Greece. Patras was one of the busiest places in the Roman Empire, on the Gulf of Corinth. In 2006 Patras was European Capital of Culture.

Regulus one night had a dream. He dreamed that he was to dig up the bones of Saint Andrew, Jesus’ friend and companion, who had been buried in Patras, and take the bones to the end of the world.

Stealing some of the bones was the easy part. He got three fingers, an arm bone, one kneecap and one tooth. But where was the end of the world? He set off west through the Mediterranean. Then he left his ship and set off north across the Alps. But the world did not end. He was still in the Roman Empire. So he took another ship and let the wind blow him north and west some more. One night a great storm arose and dashed the ship against a hostile coast. Regulus staggered ashore, all wet, with his precious box of bones under his arm. He looked around him at the rocks and the sand and the grey mist. He saw strange folk with blue tattoos coming to greet him. They were friendly enough, and their king, Angus, let him have a cave to live in.

“Well”, he thought, “if this is not the end of the world it is close to it.” So he left Saint Andrew’s bones there and, long after Regulus died, the town became known as Saint Andrew’s.

The Second Story.

Once upon a time there was a tough warrior king in Scotland. He fought the Vikings in the north and beat them. He fought the Angles to the south and beat them too. All his enemies were slaughtered.

But this king was not happy. He felt that no one loved him. He felt that something was missing. So he called his chief spin-doctor, a learned monk, and asked his advice.

“Well,” said the monk. “What your country needs is a patron saint. Then you can have a flag that everyone will recognise, a direct link with the Bible, and an excuse for parties. Tourists will come in droves and help you spend your way out of the recession. And I can give you a bigger and better patron saint than the English have got. This will give you and your country what we call “the feel-good factor.”

“Go on,” said the king. “Tell me more.”

 “Well,” said the monk. “In my monastery we’ve got a box containing three fingers, and arm bone, one kneecap and a tooth. The legend is that they used to be bits of Saint Andrew. Why don’t I get some of the monks to write up this legend, embroider it a bit, make it into a beautifully illuminated manuscript, and you can give us money to build a really grand church to keep the bones in.”

The king was a great warrior, a decisive man. “Right!” he said. “Do it at once.” And so Saint Andrew became Patron Saint of Scotland and, of course, because he was one of Jesus’ disciples, he is a much bigger and more important saint than George or Patrick or David. So on Saint Andrew’s Day we have the biggest parties.


Then they said: “Master, you have muddled us. Which of these stories is true?” And he replied: “I shouldn’t worry about truth. Just do your best like Regulus did and enjoy the parties as the great king would have wished.”

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

A poet draws inspiration from Mary Queen of Scots

“The Guidman’s Daughter” by Henry Marsh

Henry Marsh has just published his fifth major volume of poetry, “A Voyage to Babylon”. Its principal focus is on the Covenanters. His fourth volume, “The Hammer and the Fire” began with thinking about John Knox. I intend to review the new book – just published. But to whet your appetite I will post my reviews of Three and Four.

This is a review of his third volume. His friends and former pupils will not be surprised to hear that he is now regarded - by better informed judges than me - as one of the leading poets writing in Scotland today. One of the things that make him so highly regarded is that his poems are accessible as well as moving. If you have never read a poem since you sat Higher English, this book might get you back into the habit.

The poems are organised into sections which reflect the various themes. His reactions to paintings form one section – Titian, Rembrandt, Hopper, Kym Needle, Renoir. The Titian under discussion is “The Virgin and Child with St John” - and a lamb.
            The scene is pastoral, seemingly tranquil

But then, sixteen lines later, comes the shock:

                                    It has no comfort for her.
            She knows that lambs are for slaughter

Through Henry’s eyes we become very aware of the artists, and the models, and the subjects, as human beings, caught up in the creative artifice of picture-making. Why on earth, for example, does Rembrandt put such heavy armour on a half-grown boy? We can enjoy the poems, and be led ourselves to look deeper into paintings when next we are in a gallery.

Another section is inspired by his beloved South Uist. It takes just a handful of words to create a special place.

            A sea, deep blue, cavorting,
            running south…..


                                    From a doubt
            of sea or cloud the Atlantic
            resolves to milky green

There is passion here for the sailing fulmars and clues of machair flowers. But there is also wry wit at the local games:

            Grim, they are, in their wee shelter
            on the machair – the pibroch judges

and the poet has an eye for twenty-first century marauders:

                                                They hurtle
            past in cars. Their lager cans
            lie buckled in a ditch.

I hope you can get a glimpse, in these few quoted lines, of the sharp eye, the well-tempered, finely chosen words, and the deep humanity of the vision.

Other sections deal with his family, private moments of love laid out for us to wonder at, to sense the loveliness, and to share. Those of you who know Jackie Marsh will at once recognise the lady in blue of the opening section (and the dedication), with her insistent goodness. I guess that most people’s favourite verses will be the ones arising out of moments with his grand-daughter; I defy anyone who has ever loved a lively infant to be unmoved by them. We hear of her instinctive shiver under a massive pine tree, and her rapture at Tinker Bell. And it is impossible to believe that the description of her meeting with a toad will not end up as an anthologised classic.

            “Bonjour. Je m’appelle Emily….”
            Solemnly she’s addressing a toad
            in her one morsel of French.
There are eight sections altogether. Poems are sparked off by tunes – “McPherson’s Rant” – by spiders in the bath, by a summer holiday in France:

            Depths of sunlight where an eye might
            drown, flow in the cobbled fissures
            between shops and medieval houses.

The discovery of some of his own discarded manuscript blown off the recycling lorry under a hedge transports us in the twist of a line to the pages torn from the Sybiline books. Infant Emily plucking her first apple needs no words to set us thinking of how vulnerable is Eden. A chance encounter on a train produces one of the more moving poems, and a memory of the boyhood destruction of a garden syringe (used as a rocket launcher) one of the funniest.

Section Eight is devoted to the “Guidman’s Daughter” of the title: Mary Queen of Scots; and the final group of poems are reflections on her extraordinary career. Poets need historians, if they are to write with meaning about past (and John Guy is acknowledged in the introduction) but historians need poets too, to make sure that the individual and the personal, the human moments, the absurdities and the stresses and the tragedies and the fatigue are not ignored amongst the statistics, nor forgotten in the generalisations, nor trampled beneath insensitive analysis. Henry Marsh’s Mary is always a woman – a school leaver taking on an impossible country, a lover taken in by the beautiful boy who turned out to be the drunken, poxy Darnley, a mother, separated from her child, a victim of violent and selfish men. The mystery of her relationship with Bothwell remains a mystery:

            What desperate loyalty tied her
            after brutal nights, the anguish that reached
            the Maries through the bristling dark?

Then she was the prisoner:

            A spirit,
            is breaking her mind.

And finally condemned and executed:

            her dignity defiant, she wrested her meaning
            from a stubborn February dawn.

Superficially this is a book of three-score separate poems, each one a pleasure in its choice words, unexpected angles and precise observation. But the more they are read the more unifying themes emerge, and are brought together in Mary’s story.

                                    Was it just,
            in the end, she was a woman?
            You can see, any night, our
            crushing Scot’s brutalities,
            the blood and glass. And you hear
            the blast of that Trumpet – a woman’s
            rule is repugnant to nature,
            contrary to God

Poem after poem challenges – denies – the pessimism implicit in this question. Others deal with other subject matter altogether. But all the Scots who read this collection should not only have enjoyed a treat; they will also have been moved to think a little, laugh a little, ponder a little.

Monday, 25 November 2013

In defence of lecturing

There seems to be a campaign afoot on both sides of the Atlantic to blacken the reputation of the lecture as a method of teaching. Since I tweet under the name @historylecturer you will not be surprised to learn that I do not share this belief that lectures are inherently bad.

As a matter of fact when I was studying history at university I attended relatively few lectures in my first two years. I found that a ten-o’clock lecture was the enemy of study. One did not (as a student) get much done before ten, and then, with coffee afterwards, it was nearly time for lunch. I also discovered that many of the first-year lectures were not much different from chapters in text-books. My morning was far more productive if I got into a library by half-past nine, found a quiet corner and worked through till lunch. After lunch I might shift base to a different library. Looking back I think I got the balance slightly wrong; it would have been better to seek out a few of the really good lecture courses for the stimulation they offered. Doing my PGCE I attended a lot more lectures, some with profit, some without.

For there were some really good lectures, from which I gained a huge amount. I also discovered, as a class-room teacher, that lecturing – standing somewhere (not always at the front) – and telling the class things, was something I was quite good at. I have often had good reactions to my occasional public lectures and evening classes. I have heard some magnificent lectures in a whole range of venues. Taking all these experiences together I would argue that bad lectures are a waste of time and counter-productive, whereas good ones are an excellent part of an education.

So here are a few thoughts about the art of lecturing, what works and what doesn’t. I do not claim it is a comprehensive list.  Note well, though, that I am only talking about History Lectures. One of the more absurd phenomena in education is the attempt to make all disciplines the same.

  1. Are you handing out a set of photocopied notes that covers what was in the lecture? If so, why bother to give the lecture? Why not just post the notes to students? If the notes are as good as possible, what else does the lecture add? If the notes are inadequate, why issue them?

  1. Is all the information and explanations in the lecture clearly available to the pupils in the books that they can be reasonably expected to read for themselves? This applies at Primary 7, with chapters in children’s text-books. This applies at university. Obviously there is an important matter of judgment here.  What can your pupils be expected to read and understand for themselves? As far as class-room teaching is concerned, this varies from year to year. The good lecturer is flexible and responds to the needs of his audience.

  1. “Death by Power-point” is no joke. It is awful. If the words on the slides are more or less the same as the words coming from the lecturer’s mouth, never go back to that class. I have more than once attended lectures (on teacher Inservice training days) where the lecturer actually read out their own power-point slides. I’ve been to very good Inservice lectures, too. In good lectures the spoken words and the slides complement and support each other. My own method (and I found Power-point a wonderful thing during those last few years of my career when it was available) was to have statistics, graphs, quotations and pictures appear on the screen that would have an impact on the audience. I might or might not refer to them directly. Thanks to modern technology one can almost as easily have snatches of music or clips of film appear (though do make sure you have checked out strange venues well in advance! The technology is certain not to work first time).

  1. Do you merely read aloud a prepared text or do you speak more freely? If it is a prepared text we are back to point one. Why not simply post it out? But speaking freely allows for changes of pace, repetition where required, response to audience reaction and so on.

  1. If the lecture is to some sort of examination class (adult evening classes for general education may be a bit different), is it structured in such a way that it is clear, and easy to take notes?

  1. Is the lecture only one part of a programme of learning? Some adversarial writing on the subject seems to suggest that the alternatives are all lectures or no lectures. This is rubbish. Good lectures are integrated into a course and timed so as to fit with tutorials, seminars, research exercises, group-work, set reading, essays, making models out of cardboard (yes, I loved teaching Primary 7 as much as A-level) and so on.

So finally:

A good lecture is not merely a piece of writing read aloud. It is a performance art in which the sound of the lecturer’s voice, his body-language, and the visual materials used are part of the performance. The lecturer will use many rhetorical devices to enhance the performance, devices that are not available on the printed page. Because the spoken word is more ephemeral than the written, the lecturer can be bolder about throwing out ideas without a full apparatus of scholarship, and so challenge the listeners to think and debate. The good lecture will include time – not necessarily at the end – for questions and discussion, with an immediacy that is impossible in any other way. In a good lecture the lecturer will have some knowledge or expertise that the class does not have but which, by the end, they will have begun to share. In a good lecture all the members of the class will feel, up to a point, that the lecturer has been communicating with them personally.

Every teacher, at every level, should be self-critical at all times, and self-analytical. Keep an ear out for praise or criticism from pupils and be ready to adapt. Play to your strengths and use the teaching methods that you are good at. But if there are effective methods that do not come easily to you, do not cut them out of your lessons and do not go on doing them badly. Instead observe and listen to effective practitioners, go to training days – above all learn from your own mistakes.

My written pieces for Kindle, which I have called “Lectures” are not, of course, oral performances. Some of them are closely based on lectures I gave to senior pupils; others are not. I like to think that, as with good lectures, they can enable the interested party with a busy schedule to learn some new history fairly quickly, and be interested at the same time. They are listed here: