Saturday, November 17, 2012

Plotless novel of the religious life

My mother gave me a copy of Sylvia Townsend Warner's novel The Corner That Held Them for Christmas in 1992. I read it at the time with moderate enjoyment; I have a feeling that my life then meant I only read in bed, for I failed to be properly engaged with this, a story of which the heroine is a convent, a story which has no real plot. Perhaps it's necessary to read it in a shorter time, to give it due attention. The convent of Oby, in a hidden corner of Norfolk, was founded in the twelfth century by Brian de Retteville in memory of his wife, Alianor, who had once dishonoured and always despised him. The story opens thus: Alianor de Retteville lay on her bed and looked at Giles who was her lover. Ok, you think, she's going to end up a nun...and we'll follow her story. Great. But it doesn't work like that.

As the back cover of my edition tells us: A good convent should have no history. Its life is held with Christ who is above. History is of the world, costly and deadly ... Yet the events of history carry a certain exhilaration with them. This book is rather like that ideal convent; only it has history instead of heroes. The nuns are human, but they have their eyes on heaven - some of the time. The priest who comes to them as a gift from heaven during the Black Death - is he all that he seems? But soon he is subsumed into the life of the convent; Prioresses come and go; the tower is completed and collapses; nuns die, are disgraced, disappear; the Bishop makes a visitation.

At my second reading - when to be honest I could remember only the beginning from twenty years ago - I loved it. I was completely hooked, finishing it in a rush before heading off on holiday, unwilling to let it wait till I came home. It's like a window into a religious community, one of which you see the start but which will live on once you shut the window again; a walk alongside the often worldly sisters who in their ambitions, squabbles, jealousies and pleasures seem fit inhabitants of this Benedictine convent which was established for such chequered motives.

The period is depicted convincingly, with all its miseries and fears, its discomfort and instability, and the language is convincing without being in any way archaic. "We were interrupted, were we not?" says the prior of another religious house to the prioress of Oby. "By the way, what became of your mad priest?"

I shan't tell you. But if you can get hold of this excellent book, do.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Teacher training - some questions

I keep getting into conversations about education these days. What's the matter with me? I've obviously fallen into lassitude to be so easily dragged back to my former self. Today's was about the people who teach the teachers - those aspirants who've gone through the selection process and made it to training college. Now, I'm basing some of what I'm about to say on the assumption that the government don't think the current selection process is sufficiently rigorous, and the rest on my own memory of my year at college. And that, best beloved, was not yesterday, nor even last year. I actually know nothing at all about the people who teach the teachers these days, and nothing at all about how they got their jobs in the first place. But I'm going to toss a few thoughts around nonetheless - and perhaps some gentle reader will be able to lighten my darkness.

I'm going to start with a few questions:
What makes someone go for a job in a College of Education? Presumably they start off in schools. Are college staff significantly better paid? Or do they prefer to work in a less challenging environment?

How are they selected? Are they required to demonstrate mastery of their academic subject? To show how well they teach a class? To talk a storm at an interview? Is there any written examination or practical test (maybe like preaching to a congregation who are looking for a new minister?)

Having got the job, what is their primary aim? To demonstrate how to do the same job as the teachers the students experienced perhaps 4 years ago? To show how to put a lesson across? To discuss new techniques and new media? (I know of at least one lecturer who might well answer in the affirmative to that). To ensure that their students actually like children before they start?

Do they spend much time teaching in classrooms as a CPD exercise?

And I'm going to reflect:
When I was at college, I loathed it. After a 3 year MA course I found it at once restrictive and vague. Quite apart from having to be there from 9-4 and wear a skirt (both, presumably, easing us back into required behaviour for the job) I actually had no idea what I was learning about. This was especially true in my two subject areas. In English, I learned nothing at all. Nothing. In Latin, the nice little man who taught us (a class of 4 students) had such a boring delivery that I routinely fell asleep. It's embarrassing when your head actually hits the desk, in a class of 4.

There were classes in Educational Psychology - which is where I think I heard the instruction that when confronted by an unruly class we were to "exhaust the response". And classes in Drama, which I loathed - I can't remember why, but the lecturer kept coming to look for us in the cafeteria at the start of the afternoon, so we were obviously not keen. And were there discrete classes in Methods, or was that in the subject classes?

In all that time, no-one ever told us that it was essential not to be boring. Mind you, if they had, we might have laughed in their faces; I have never been so bored so consistently for so long. And no-one ever suggested that we had to be passionate about our subject and about communicating that passion. Naturally, no-one ever gave us practical work in demonstrating how we might do that.

Yes, I learned something in that year at college. But I learned it in the three schools where I was sent on teaching practice - by watching some excellent teaching, by talking to the people I'd been watching, by making mistakes and suffering the slow death of the period when you've run out of material and don't have anything to put in its place.

And 30 years later, I'd say I was still learning. But I always knew that there were still people out there living behind a barrier of worksheets, boring their pupils to death, sending them to sleep in the period after lunch.

So, if you're out there, the person who knows the answers to the above, gonnae put me out of my misery?

Monday, November 12, 2012

Testing the teacher

Staving off the tedium of cough-recovery inactivity, I was ploughing through yesterday's Sunday Times when I came across a piece about the proposal to raise entry standards for wannabe primary teachers. (Actually I'm not certain about that last qualification - the paper was certainly talking about primary teachers, but there was a lack of clarity ...) Anyway, I had a flashback to my own primary education, during which I was taught by two men and five women, six of whom were Glasgow MA graduates and one a BSc. They all wore their hoods to prizegiving. They were fiercely proud of their work and of the school, and some of them were also pretty fierce, in a respect-inducing sort of way. The only time I ever saw one of them at a loss was the hapless BSc who taught us in P7, for he became entangled in the thickets of English grammar and had to appeal, in a note home via me, to my father for assistance. Less strange than you might think - they were old buddies, and when I came in with homework that was different from that of the other 39 in my class, he realised he was in unsuspected deep water. (He might not have noticed the juxtaposition of metaphors in that story, but the formidable Miss Campbell would not have liked it).

When I was a secondary teacher, I never felt out of my depth in my own subject. Had I had to teach P7 maths, it might have been another story - though I can still do long division, for what it's worth. Perhaps  a subject-based degree is not such a useful qualification for a Primary teacher - but its possession at least shows a level of study and competence without which an underlying confidence might well be lacking. I still tend to rate people by their ability to write competent and properly-spelled English as an indicator of basic education, and I still expect teachers not to come out with such expressions as "I seen" and "I done" - or, worse still, "Ah seen" and "Ah done". It's even worse when this is a common feature of the speech of the English teacher of one's own child - and when the same teacher, who is also a colleague, tells you "But you're posh".

Posh I am not. But I was well taught, fairly rigorously tested, and instilled with a passion for language that has grown with the years. I cannot say that the similarly good teaching managed to get me beyond the basic competence needed for Higher Maths and Higher Science (remember, if you're older than I am, that that was awarded after a single paper in both Physics and Chemistry; they split the two, if I'm correct, in the early 1960s) - but the MAs who taught me were bright enough to do the biz in Primary and my teachers after S3 had a real uphill struggle against orchestra practices and other distractions.

So: how on earth do you get accepted for teacher training without demonstrating enough ability and education to have room for manoeuvre? And whom does a lack of rigour help? Not the teacher - horrid to find yourself the butt of sneers from a ten-year-old who knows the answer you don't; not the pupils, who have perfectly correctly spelled words marked wrong by the ignoramus charged with their education. No: there are no winners. There don't seem to be teacher shortages either, not right now.

Seems pretty bloody obvious to me.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Pitfalls for travelling minstrels ...

Not long after our return from Russia we found ourselves once more hosting a visit to Dunoon from the vocal ensemble Voskresenije from St Petersburg. Having done this annually for several years, the vestry of Holy Trinity decided that it was too difficult to attract a capacity audience every year, and we switched to hosting a concert every two years. Because of new regulations governing the use of buildings for concerts and so on, we were moved by the looless state* of HT and the cost of hiring portaloos to use the Burgh Hall. This itself is very much a work in progress, but is a building well-provided with loos and rooms in which choristers can eat and change, and on this occasion was able to offer a bar at the back of the hall. All seemed set for an interesting evening; the hospitality for the night after the gig was all set up; the posters had been printed. I should have known better.

It has got around that I have been organising Voskresenije's concerts here - and elsewhere, at times - for quite a time. And so it came about that, the evening after our return from Moscow, I had a phone call from the organiser of the concert the night before the choir were due to come here. To cut a long and tortuous story short, he'd had to cancel - and the choir were already on tour. This is catastrophic for them - it amounts to about £1000 out of pocket for them, what with finding alternative accommodation (for that too hadn't materialised) and losing income from a gig. I was appalled, and I was furious. I found myself saying "send them here." I didn't know how my hosts were going to react, and for two days I sat on the news, plucking up the courage to ask them if they could cope.

They coped, magnificently. To a man and a woman they were horrified at the behaviour of the church that had treated "our" Russians so cavalierly. They met the minibus in a dark car-park, were allocated their guests by Jurij (the MD) and set off into the night. It could all have gone so wrong, but despite the odd tremor about a dog or two, it ended up going swimmingly. Or singingly. Laundry was done, singers went for dog-walks in the dark along the shore, my friends Michael and Charlie decided they could speak Russian after downloading Google Translate and finding it worked. The concert was a joyful sell-out, and though HT has a better acoustic and more atmosphere, people on the whole appreciated the convenience(s) and the bar.

As you can see from the photo above, they left in great good humour. That's Jurij between me and Mr B, with a young tenor/counter-tenor and one of the hosts - who memorably opined that we should have them for two nights every time as it gave us time for chat. And despite the fact that I was dying from a cold I felt exhilarated as well as exhausted. What seemed like a mountain to climb had once again become a dawdle.

But there's a moral to this tale. Hosting a choir like this is rewarding in all sorts of ways, and I would commend it to any community (it's usually churches who do it). But if you decide it's something you'd like to happen, you have to make it work. If you're uncertain or unwilling to meet the challenges the organisation can throw up, don't embark on it. That church - about an hour's journey away, on the other side of the Clyde, solid, middle-class - behaved abysmally. I'd hate to think of it ever happening again.

Holy Trinity Dunoon, on the other hand ...

*HT may not remain looless for ever. There are plans afoot - or abottom, if you like.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Do not forget Russia

On a trip such as our Russian one, people become pretty important. Our first night on board we realised at dinner that we were surrounded by Australian voices. Not surprising: APT is an Aussie company. Later we discovered Kiwis, a Dutch/German couple, an Italian couple - and a Scottish couple, she from Millport and he from Glasgow and a former pupil of my uncle more years ago than he cared to recall. All this on a Russian ship in the north of Russia. Amazing. But the people in the first pic were also important. The musicians, in national dress, entertained us every evening, helped the Russian class to sing "Kalinka" and sang "Happy Birthday" to several

guests during the cruise, me included. It turned out that the soprano knew our friend Jurij, who in turn told me that she had toured with Voskresenije. In the same pic you can see the captain (just - on the left), the doctor (who rather alarmingly told one woman who was suffering from an allergy to avoid red foods), two senior officers and the chefs.

The pic on the right shows our guide in St Petersburg - a very interesting and articulate woman who would have engaged the most rebellious class and who made some interesting political and social observations. She was typical of the guides on this trip - a very professional lot.

On the left we are visiting the house of a couple in Svirstroy - a retired midwife (in the stripy jersey) and her retired engineer husband. She told us about life in this small riverside town - growing vegetables, storing them in the basement below the kitchen, clearing snow, making pickles - and I've never seen anyone more serene and apparently content with what seemed a difficult and fairly arduous existence. The lovely girl in the  jeans was one of the onboard interpreters - they were an impressive lot, these language students, and utterly charming.

The girl in 19th century dress on the right was also charming, as Mr B found as a result of serious research - she was one of three guides who showed us round the Governor's House in Yaroslavl, in the personae of the Governor's daughters, and when it came to walzing in the first-floor salon, she asked him to dance with her. Turned out she was a language student on a holiday job, and they chatted away quite the thing while Mr B expired gently with the exertion of doing and old-fashioned walz in a pair of Brasher walking shoes, fleece-line Rohan trousers and a fleece pullover. While open-air Yaroslavl was chilly and windy, the Governor's House was, like every other interior we visited, boiling. All that centrally provided hot water ...

The little girl in the pic below was the person we thought of as "our" on board guide. Julia is Kalmyk, a Buddhist of Mongolian origin,  from one of the primarily Muslim states to the east of the Caspian Sea, and was fluent in
English and French as well as piano playing. She told us that

so many people wouldn't believe that she was Russian, because she didn't look like a Russian, and that she always told them "but I have a Russian soul". Perhaps a Russian soul is what makes the Russians we met such a serious group of people. All of them seemed devoid of flippancy, they seemed dedicated to doing their jobs well and to making us happy, and they seemed immensely well educated. The guide in the picture taken in the Moscow metro (below), holding a blue "lollipop) was the daughter of two doctors, and had a degree from the Moscow State University. Her parents, she said, had given up a great deal to send her there, and she had loved it.

Because the Russian language and the Cyrillic alphabet are so dauntingly unfamiliar, it is easy to succumb to the temptation to stick with other tourists, to avoid even attempting to interact with the people. But when we did get into conversations with our Russian contacts, the two of us loved their seriousness, their culture, their clear-sighted comments. It was from them that we learned that most Russian couples will have only one child; that they all live in flats in the cities; that no-one can get a worthwhile job unless they live in a city; that Russian society is still in a sort of 1950s timewarp.

And when we left, when we said "goodbye" to the people we had met, they all, without exception, said the same thing: "Do not forget Russia."

I don't think I ever will.