Tuesday, March 30, 2010

English Literature

My favourite school subject. The only one I would have been sorry to have missed. 

Thank you Mr Buckle.

Mr Buckle took an innovative approach to Wilfred Owen and Macbeth, which were our syllabus.

We went to see productions of Macbeth:

One by professionals at the Crucible theatre, set in post-holocaust Sheffield with everyone dressed in sheepskins and carrying spears. At one point one of the wooferoonies whirled his spear so violently that the end flew off and landed in the audience. Some of us (not me) started heckling. I was ashamed. Mr Buckle said not to be, since the performance was so bad that if he'd been there in a private capacity he'd be heckling too.

I once started a fight in one of Mr Buckle's lessons. Over the question of whether it was morally acceptable to kill mayflies with rulers during English lessons. I was anti-. My father was called into the school over this. I'd always thought of my father as a deeply conformist man, but he let me know, without ever saying it, that he thought that my cause was worthy and that he was proud of me for standing up for life against cruelty.

One of the things I learned from Mr Buckle was that it's alright to ignore authority.

Another was that it's alright for an educated man to like EastEnders. Not that I actually do, but he gave me the freedom to like that sort of thing if I wanted. I do like Beyoncé and Britney Spears, which is the same, only more shameful.

Another production was by a rather more amateur group who came to our school (I assume they were paid to do the play in schools?), with just our little class watching. There were only three actors, two men and a woman, and they had a rack of period clothes which they wore interchangeably to indicate which character they were currently in. It was luminous. We were collectively enraptured. I can still remember parts of it. Whoever you were, thank you.

Mr Buckle showed us the ambiguity of Banquo, and the risk Shakespeare was taking in painting an ancestor of the King as less than a saint. Mr Buckle showed us how Macbeth is about clothes, and how they fit. He showed us how the porter's obscene good humour makes the horror of what has just happened, and of what is about to happen, sharper and more shocking.

In Wilfred Owen, the horror and the pity are just there for anyone to see. I still cry on Remembrance Day for the doomed cattle of the first war.

One of the things Mr Buckle taught us was how to see the erotic elements in it.  The lust for death and fellow man in 'Red lips are not so red as the stained stones kissed by the English dead... Love, your eyes lose lure when I behold eyes blinded in my stead' was not so obvious to me until he pointed it out. The shock when I realised that there can be more than one way to read the same words stayed with me. 

Although the lesson didn't stick so well. I was surprised when a classicist friend told me at college that my favourite Latin poem, Catullus' Passer mortuus est .. was about the poet's impotence. I was embarrassed and appalled at the time. Now I can't read any poem about birds at all without bursting into giggles. "No longer the mighty bustard strides, across the trackless fen". Fnarr. Thanks Susie! I am glad I read Ted Hughes before I met you.

By the time O-levels (fnarr) came round, I knew Macbeth and our bits of Wilfred Owen off by heart without any rote learning or drilling or even effort. It had just all been absorbed because all of it is so interesting and meaningful and clever and tragic. And I loved it. 

Both of them are still alive for me. Shining lights I can read over and over again.

English Literature remains the only exam I have ever failed. 

So did half the rest of my set. Most others got Cs. An O-level fail used to put you in the bottom half of the population. We were the brightest in my school. I was the brightest of them. According to the state I can barely read.

The lower sets did a lot better. Apparently Mr Buckle had been experimenting on us, trying to get us to see why he cared about literature. He managed that.

I was at the time, and remain, deeply grateful to an inspired teacher who was brave enough to try to teach his subject.

Thank you. I never knew your first name.

Thank you.

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