Tuesday, January 03, 2006

I said you’d better not have it when the big one comes

Been writing about schools and odd things that happen in them these last few days.

A formative thing: a parents’ evening at my sixth form, where I got to go along to get told what to do with my A-levels. Were I to get any. ‘I remember his brother,’ said the teachers one after another. ‘What’s he doing these days?’

And then one teacher beamed and said ‘Simon’s essays are a pleasure to read. Marking, I always save his and another boy’s till last.’

I sat there beaming and blinking, trying to remember if I’d ever made anyone enthuse before. ‘You see,’ said the teacher, ‘they’re not always any good, but they are usually different.’

That nice thing decided me on doing English rather than history. And it’s meant conscious effort for things written to be a bit… well, differenty. Twistish. More often than not, silly.

Not that this is necessarily what gets achieved, but that there’s intent at this end not to be dull. (Typing this now, Martin Amis’s War Against Cliché springs to mind. Not that I’ve read it, but I do like the title).

Which all sparked thoughts tonight, watching the History Boys at the National – a Christmas present from the cat, in lieu of in-binning his sick and his poos.

Without spoilering the very enjoyable play (nor the forthcoming film version), there’s a lot said about flashy writing, of taking a contrary point of view just to be noticed. And then rooting around for soundbites of quote to bolster this pre-formed j’accuse.

Think I get away with it inventing stories not history. And I agree with the distrust of people who speak reverently of “words”.

Less convinced that applying “history” to, say, the Holocaust – trying to understand how it came about – somehow makes it less awful. That attempting to answer why? softens the thing being examined.

Even leafed through Richard Dawkins’s A Devil’s Chaplain, looking for a quote about how doctors learning about cancer don’t like cancer any more for understanding it. Couldn’t find one. Bah.

Think the play would also have been less… glib about government, been more insightful of politics, if we’d had more about why the headmaster is so keen for better results and more places at Oxbridge. The education of the history boys is itself the product of history, of choices, of dictats from on-high.

And troubled that education might be played as pass-the-parcel, a hot potato handed on like Wilde’s good advice. Until what? Surely not until it’s found vulgar use. Seems nostalgic for a pre-curricular age, when teachers could fritter the years away wittering. Indulgently. About themselves.

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