Monthly Archives: May 2014

Bus Reads 1: Thoughts on E.M.Forster’s ‘Collected Short Stories’

forster-portrait-rogerfry

E.M.Forster by Roger Fry

Well this post has been a long time coming. I read this back in January, and have only now got around to posting anything on it. To be fair, the next few ‘Thoughts on…’ posts are similar, in that I’ve had them read for several months, but have just been so tardy in getting these posts written. Also, the labelling of this as a ‘Bus Read’ is because this was predominantly read on my way to and from work on the bus. As are the next few books, actually.

 


 

This isn’t the first time that I’ve read this book. I was leant it about 11 years ago by my family Vicar, and on the basis of it containing ‘The Machine Stops’, I bought a copy off ebay whilst at Oxford- only getting around to reading it at the start of this year. I have to say that this Wellsian tale is the real gem of the collection, and is perhaps the best short-story I have read- it is perfect in plot, style, message, pathos and irony. My favourite quote from this story has to be from when Vashti is taking an airship over the surface to visit her son Kuno, and refuses to look at the geography that is passing beneath her, just due to the irony and the way in which it pretty much sums up the view of Vashti as a character and the view of humanity in her time:

They were crossing a golden sea, in which lay many small islands and one peninsula. She repeated, ‘No ideas here,’ and hid Greece behind a metal blind.

The rest of the collection is not of the standard of ‘The Machine Stops’, but several of the stories are nevertheless quite noteworthy- and several are not. ‘The Celestial Omnibus’ is the title story of one of the parent volumes for this collection, and tells the tale of a young boy who finds an omnibus that takes him into Heaven, where he meets many mythical heroes. Later, the bus transports a middle-aged neighbour of the child’s, but he dies after falling from the carriage through the sky to the ground below. The story is a highly imaginative one that nicely portrays the imagination of children and the way in which this is closed to adults, as well as showing that children can often be telling the truth, despite the incredible nature of what they often say.

Indeed, my favourite stories in this book all revolve around Heaven or the afterlife (except the anomalous sci-fi tale): ‘The Celestial Omnibus’, ‘The Point of It’, and ‘Mr Andrews’. When it was first published, Forster states that his Bloomsbury friends asked of ‘The Point of It’, “What is the point of it?”, but personally I quite like this story, with its account of a life lived to the full by a man following the death of another young man who he believed was his friend, but who quickly faded from memory. We see the surviving character as he too dies and then reaches Heaven, and see him reassess the way his life played out. Even if the story doesn’t go anywhere particularly, I still like it for the droll manner of its writing, and in the almost Dante-esque descriptions of Heaven with its pillars and deserts of sand.

Similarly, ‘Mr Andrews’ tells of a man who dies and meets a Muslim man on his way into Heaven, where they compare and contrast lives and ideals to show that actually despite our cultural differences, everyone is fundamentally the same on the inside. A nice message, and very well put.

I’m not overly fussed with the other tales in the collection, to be honest, for the simple reason that they don’t seem to either go anywhere or leave any real lasting impression, but despite that I would certainly read this collection again (I have already read it twice, which sort-of vouches for that), with ‘The Machine Stops’ a must. However, I feel that this collection may be a bit like my experience with Fitzgerald. In his case, I adore ‘The Great Gatsby’, yet am not overly impressed with many of his short stories, whereas with Forster I really like many of his short stories, and so am worried that his novels may not live up to these. I shall have to hurry up and read some of his novels to find out!

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Ancient socks for sandals

I’ve just found this image on Facebook, and thought it worthy of a post on here. These are clearly a pair of interestingly-shaped socks. However, perhaps more interesting is the fact that they are Romano-Egyptian socks from 250-420 AD, excavated from Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, at the end of the 19th century. The strange toes come from the fact that these were made to be worn in sandals. I’m just staggered by the wonderful preservation of these items considering their age.

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After a quick Google search, this came up regarding these socks from the V&A (their current home):

The Romano-Egyptian socks were excavated in the burial grounds of ancient Oxyrhynchus, a Greek colony on the Nile in central Egypt at the end of the 19th century. They were given to the Museum in 1900 by Robert Taylor Esq., ‘Kytes,’ Watford. He was executor of the estate of the late Major Myers and these items were selected among others from a list of textiles as ‘a large number of very useful examples.’

And Emily Spivack, writing in the Smithsonian, adds:

Particularly intriguing about these “very useful examples” is the technique used to construct these red wool socks. Called nålbindning, or single-needle knitting, this time-consuming process required only a single thread. The technique was frequently used for close-fitting garments for the head, feet and hands because of its elastic qualities. Primarily from prehistoric times, nålbindning came before the two-needle knitting that’s standard today; each needle was crafted from wood or bone that was “flat, blunt and between 6-10 cm long, relatively large-eyed at one end or the eye is near the middle.”

We don’t know for sure whether these socks were for everyday use, worn with a pair of sandals to do the ancient Egyptian equivalent of running errands or heading to work—or if they were used as ceremonial offerings to the dead (they were found by burial grounds, after all).

This reminds me of a story I was told by a professional archaeologist friend about an exhumation he was carrying out at a local church. An elderly lady who had died in the 1960s was being carefully removed, and she was entirely skeletal. However, over her feet were a pair of intact, perfectly-preserved and almost knee-high socks.

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My Penguin Classics Collection Part 1

Penguin Classics

More book porn. I’ve meant to do this for a while, but haven’t really had enough of the black-spined Penguin Classics to warrant it until now. Personally, I quite enjoy searching through Google Images for pictures of other people’s Penguin Classics collections to get a feel for the thickness and physicality of certain volumes, and to generally foam over nice piles of pretty books, and so thought that I’d add to this be showing mine in case anyone is interested. Over the coming weeks, I will also do posts with my Penguin Popular Classics, Twentieth-Century Classics (the light-green spined ones), Modern Classics (both silver and white editions), and the older black and cream Penguin Classics.

Penguin Classics

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By Gove! I MUST apologise!

Following on from my post two days ago regarding Michael Gove and his horrendous idea for the GCSE English Literature syllabus, I must issue a correction and an apology. That great sociologist and educational reformer (cough) was not saying that American literature should be banned from the curriculum, but rather that there should be… well. I’ll quote from the DfE:

“It doesn’t ban any authors, books or genres. It does ensure pupils will learn about a wide range of literature, including at least one Shakespeare play, a 19th century novel written anywhere and post-1914 fiction or drama written in the British Isles.”

This new criteria also includes Romantic poetry, which is fine- but not a great vote-winner with teenagers, to be brutally honest. The Great Reformer (for it is he) has also said:

“I have not banned anything. Nor has anyone else. All we are doing is asking exam boards to broaden – not narrow – the books young people study for GCSE.”

Riiiight. So the possibility of studying a post-1914 US text still stands then, does it? Thought not. I can see their point that ‘Of Mice and Men’ is studied by the vast majority of schools, and that many students read this and no other novel whilst at school, with very few (around 1%) studying ‘Pride and Prejudice’, for example, but- I still don’t like the approach that has been taken.

Oh- wasn’t this meant to be an apology to someone who will never ever read or know of the existence of this blog? Okay- I’m sorry that I didn’t read all of the facts first. Big slap on the wrists for naughty little me. But everything I said in that previous post still stands. And I still think that Gove is a dick.

Image: stiffstiches.com

Image: stiffstiches.com

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Fordite / Motor Agate

Image: Flickr / nebbie

Image: Flickr / nebbie

Well I didn’t know that. This is Fordite, or Motor Agate, an entirely man-made material, formed in car factories from layers of old automobile paint that dripped onto the metal racks which transported cars through the paint shop and into the oven. The paint was hardened to a rock-like state by the intense heat, with some paint undergoing over 100 bakings, and eventually became too thick, requiring removal. The following images show just what beautiful patterns some of the layers of paint formed, and pieces are now polished like gemstones to produce stunning art objects and jewellery. Some of this can be found over at:

http://www.fordite.com/Jewelry_Gallery.php

It is also possible to date pieces of Fordite through the grouping and appearance of colours in the material, with some pieces having taken many decades to form.

Image: talyer jewelry

Image: talyer jewelry

Image: Flickr / m e sweeney

Image: Flickr / m e Sweeney

Image: Flickr / sue kershaw

Image: Flickr / sue Kershaw

Image: Flickr / m e sweeney

Image: Flickr / m e Sweeney

Image: Flickr / sue kershaw

Image: Flickr / sue kershaw

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The death of the Mockingbird (or ‘The best laid plans…’)

I dislike Michael Gove for a number of reasons. For one, he is a Tory. Also, as a member of staff in a secondary school, I can see first-hand just what an adverse effect some of his ideas and policies are having on the school, the teachers’ moral, and the students’ stress levels. However, as has been widely reported in the media over the last few days, he’s now decided that English Literature should be buggered about with. However, as with his views on the History syllabus several months back that got the country seething, this worries me due to its narrow, blinkered, and agenda-laden undercurrents.

It has long been part of the English GCSE syllabus taught in many English (state) schools that literature from other cultures and societies is compared and contrasted with that from our own. For example, when I was dong my GCSE’s, I studied a cluster of poems called ‘Poems from other Cultures’, which included works written by English speakers round the globe, and focussed upon issues that affected the society in which they wrote, such as apartheid, the Vietnam War (and its effects upon the Vietnamese people), superstition in an Indian village and homesickness when moving from the Caribbean. I also studied both modern and classic English/Irish poetry, John Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’, J.B.Priestley’s ‘An Inspector Calls’ and R.L.Stevenson’s ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’. It is perhaps clear from this little list that the focus of these texts was upon those written by English writers. Having just assisted several Y10 students through their GCSE English Literature papers, I can attest to the even greater focus upon English writers now, with the poetry not taking the form of two clusters, with one being foreign, but one cluster with predominantly English writers in it. The books studied are the same as those I studied, but again here the weighting is clearly 2:1 in favour of British writers (Stevenson being Scottish- he may class as foreign soon, I don’t know). However, Gove in his wisdom has decided that there is too much focus upon American texts such as ‘Of Mice and Men’, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and ‘The Crucible’, and these should be taken off the paper in favour of all English texts. Now- okay, I can sort of see his point: not enough students are interested in or know much about the English ‘greats’ such as Austen and Dickens, and they should learn about our own cultural heritage before concerning themselves with other people’s. However, this falls down for me in several ways. From the practical point of view, Dickens is loooonnnnngggggggg. Apart from the Christmas stories, Dickens wasn’t really known for writing concise works, due in part to their initial publication in serial form. This means that it would be impossible to study an entire text of Dickens at GCSE due to the other constraints of the course and the teaching schedules of schools, meaning that students would need to be taught key passages of chapters and have to fill in the blanks with brief summaries, or read the text in their own time (which many students wouldn’t bother doing). As such, it would not be possible for the overall feel of the text to be gleaned, or for themes, images and ideas to be traced effectively through the course of the text. ‘Of Mice and Men’, on the other hand, is a short text. It is easy enough to read in class, with a plot that can be held in the head amongst the million and one other exam topics that students have to memorise, and enough themes and literary devices to fill several exercise book of essays. It is a good text that easily grabs students attention, proves popular, and is a jewel to write about. However classic they may be, Dickens and Austen are not quite as student (and more importantly teen) friendly- pick the wrong text, and you could nurture a hatred of literature that could last a lifetime, rather than inspiring a love that lasts a lifetime.

However, the thing that bothers me more is the problems that such Anglo-centric teaching could cause. I also hold this view on the focusing of the History syllabus on the ‘Great’ in Great Britain, which brings this in nicely. It is a plain fact that Britain is a multi-cultural nation. There is no getting away from this, and is indeed something to be celebrated rather than derided, as some political parties seem to think. As a result, many children in our schools do not come from British backgrounds, and so by focussing the curriculum solely upon the British Isles, there is the very strong possibility of isolating a very big part of the school community. Do students whose families have come over to Britain following the outbreak of war in Afghanistan and Iraq wish to sit through a History lesson where theory hear how ‘Great’ Britain was when it had an Empire and ruled their homelands? Or would people wish to study world history that focusses upon the positives and negatives of a nation, period or event, rather than a biased victors tale? They say that history is written by those who win, but that does not mean to say that we should take this a Gospel. Good history involves the criticism of evidence and the balancing of facts. That is what history does. It is unbiased, and does not plug an agenda. If teachers now are unlikely to praise the leaders of Britain in the World Wars, it is not due to a lack of pride in the nation, but rather down to their ability to understand that what these great people may have done in the past was no always right. We can learn from the past and our mistakes. Should we teach that Hague was a good general who won the Battle of the Somme, and cover up the thousands of Allied and German dead, or should we assess how well he did his job, looking at both the positives and the negatives in order to make an informed decision? By removing this option from students through the glorification of our national past, we are doing our young people a disservice, and taking away from them an important life skill, of being able to critically interpret evidence and information to make their own interpretations and conclusions rather than blindly following one course and one message. Or is that what the Government want?

In Gove’s manifesto on History, he also claimed that we as a nation should be proud of the Empire that we once owned an the position that we held on the world stage. Well- I’m sure that UKIP and the BNP would love that view of our past, but it is incredibly naïve and somewhat foolish. It is difficult to read an anthropological ethnography such as Evans-Pritchard or Malinowski without finding the shadow of Colonialism looming omnipresent and yet unmentioned over the texts. Much 20th century anthropology is tinted with its effects or after-effects, and indeed many of the world problems are due to the repercussions independence has had on these countries. We would be blind to try and pretend that the time of Empire was one of fearless explorers claiming savage lands for Queen and country, rather than seeing it for the danger, violence, barbarity (on our part as colonial overlords) and cultural repression that it was. Read ‘Heart of Darkness’, ffs.

Another thing that Anthropology teaches us is that to understand ourselves as people and as a society, we need to first understand the world. This is where Gove and his removal of American literature from the syllabus falls flat. Yes, we need to learn about our own culture in order to appreciate it, of course we do- but we also need to understand and appreciate other cultures in a reciprocal manner, to learn and grow as people. We can learn lesson from American and German, Chinese and African literature that we never could from our own. We use the Greek and Roman Classics as the foundation stones to much or our culture an society- should we dispense with these too? The key thing that Gove seems to be missing out, is that English Literature is not the study of Literature that is English (if it was, then we couldn’t study Yeats, or Heaney, or Stevenson), but the study of Literature written or translated into English. We should embrace and value the diversity and colour of language and the written word, and foster this passion and love in our pupils and students and children, not whitewash it.

Just one last point. Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’ is set after a global economic recession, and focusses upon two itinerant farm workers on what are effectively zero-hour contracts, unable to move socially and unable to reach their goal and dream of owning their own property. The work suggests that dreams and ambitions are useless and futile, with circumstance being the cause of people’s misfortune rather than the desire and perseverance of the individual. Gove wants to drop this. Go figure.

Image: timeshighereducation.co.uk

Image: timeshighereducation.co.uk

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A busy time of year: Life Update #something-or-other

Hello. You haven’t heard from me in a while. I write the occasional blog post on this site, about literature or archaeology. I’ve been noticeably absent from the blogosphere (or whatever it’s called) for a few weeks now, and I can only blame this on work. Anyone reading this and living within the UK will know that this time of year is exam season, with the GCSE’s in full swing, and as such my days have been pretty hectic, trying to get as many 15- and 16-year-olds through their coursework and revision as possible. I’ve had every intention to stay up at night to blog, but after busy days of handling students and getting incredibly pissed off with public transport, sleep and the desire to recharge has often taken me by surprise, and left me groggy-eyed at half past four in a morning when I’ve been nudged awake, still fully-clothed and slobbering away where I sat. I haven’t forgotten those few of you who read this blog whenever I get around to posting things (I do appreciate it) and will endeavour to get a handful of posts up before this month is past. I’ve got book reviews to write up covering my reading from the past five months, as well as a life update or two, and a few images of my Penguin Classics collections that I feel I may as well share. Please bear with me- I am still here, and haven’t forgotten this blog. I’ll say hello again quite soon. Promise.

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New Books: April

As promised on my last book-purchases post, here are my new acquisitions from April (albeit a tad late):

 

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  • Geoffrey Berg- The Six Ways of Atheism: New Logical Disproofs of the Existence of God     10p
  • Patrick Moore- The Guinness Book of Astronomy     10p
  • Lesley and Roy Adkins- The Keys to Egypt: The Race to Read the Hieroglyphics     20p
  • Suetonius- The Twelve Caesars    99p
  • Caesar- The Conquest of Gaul     99p
  • The Paston Letters     10p

 

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  • Charles Dickens- Great Expectations     20p
  • E. W. Hornung- Raffles     20p
  • Penelope Lively- Moon Tiger     20p
  • Yevgeny Zamyatin- We     £2
  • Ralph Ellison- Invisible Man     £2
  • Leo Tolstoy- War and Peace     50p
  • Mary Shelley- Frankenstein     10p
  • Philip K. Dick- The Man in the High Castle     50p
  • Jonathan Swift- Poems Selected by Derek Mahon     Bought for me
  • William Shakespeare- Henry IV Part 2, The Taming of the Shrew, Twelfth Night     50p each

 

Also, I had these bought for me (which I’d asked for):

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  • Timothy Taylor- The Prehistory of Sex: Four Million Years of Human Sexual Culture
  • Evelyn Waugh- Brideshead Revisited
  • Hermann Hesse- Strange News from Another Star and Other Stories
  • Dante- The Divine Comedy Volume I: Inferno, The Divine Comedy II: Purgatory, The Divine Comedy III: Paradise (I translated by Mark Musa; II translated by Dorothy L. Sayers; III translated by Dorothy L. Sayers and Barbara Reynolds)

 

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