The Student Experience

There has been much attention given to university students in recent weeks. Most people seem sympathetic to their plight – forced as they were to return to their studies despite Covid-19, many of them suffering quarantine, some of them in uncomfortable lodgings and residencies, a few left short of rations, all expected to forego the joys of restaurants and pubs.

Conditions have proved unpopular with them, especially for those entering their first year. No freshers’ week, limited opportunities to socialise, little contact with lecturers. There have been calls from student representatives and from parents to allow resident students to return home. The universities have not been keen, whether for financial reasons or in order to stop the spreading of the virus.

There have also been some less kind comments in the press and social media suggesting that the young people are responsible for their own problems (boozing and cosying up when they were told not to) and telling them to ‘grow up’ like their hardy forebears had to do.

It has all caused me to recall my first term at Glasgow University back in 1966, and to wish the students of 2020 all the very best in putting up with the fix within which they find themselves.

No one in my family had ever gone to university. At the end of my secondary education I could only think of one job that I wished to do – to teach English. This required a university degree, and so, having received no advice from anyone on the school staff, I applied to study English at Glasgow (nowhere else). Unfortunately, I was part of the ‘post-war bulge’, all of whom seemed to have decided to do the same thing. My application was rejected, and I set off to look for a job.

I was about to begin work (reluctantly) at the Caterpillar factory in Uddingston when I received a letter from Glasgow, offering me a place in the Faculty of Engineering. Apparently, as I had mediocre passes in maths and science, I could just meet their entrance requirements.

An innocent abroad, I went back to my secondary school to ask for advice. Would I be wise to accept this place? A member of staff, who had probably attended university 40 years earlier, assured me that, ‘Once you are in, you can change your course to something else, as long as you don’t fail exams.’ He was completely wrong, but I didn’t find that out until later.

There can never have been anyone less prepared or worse advised for starting university than I was. I had studied no engineering at any point in my schooling. Not only did I struggle with mathematics, but I loathed it. I could just about cope with rudimentary physics, but chemistry was pretty much beyond me. I remember vividly an introductory lecture on Vector Analysis. I did not know what a Vector was, and the professor did not feel it necessary to start with such basic explanations. I had no idea how to use The University Library, and only went to The Reading Room in order to ogle haughty girls from fee-paying schools.

When, after the Christmas break, I went to see someone called The Adviser of Studies, to ask what I should do about my course, having crashed in all but one of my first term exams, he said ‘My advice to you, son, is to leave.’ So I did.

There were jobs in those days, and I quickly became a Commercial Apprentice (i.e. Trainee Clerk) with The British Steel Corporation. I stuck that for two years, licking my wounds, until the boredom got to me, and I set off to College of Education to train as a primary school teacher. Only then did I learn how to survive in higher education, and when I was qualified, I started further study with the newly formed Open University.

I can only hope that there is more preparation and support available to the new students of today than existed back in October 1966, but even if some of them struggle, as I did, to make sense of their experiences, I would reassure them that there are always ways forward, even after initial disasters.

Acting My Age

It was only when I began to commit time to writing, after my retirement, that I realised just how many other people there are similarly engaged. As I became increasingly familiar with the world of small magazines, e-zines and writers’ organisations, I couldn’t help but notice that much of the published work I saw, and a large proportion of editors and organisers, came from the same generation as myself.

Now, although I am an enthusiastic writer, and ambitious to have work published, whether online or on paper, I have tried not to set myself goals unlikely to be achievable. I don’t expect to be the next Rowling (!). I do, however, work hard at my writing, and seek advice and support wherever I can, as much as age and mobility difficulties permit.

Therefore when I came across a Facebook site called ‘Autumn Voices‘ which stated itself to be ‘a community forum for anyone interested in creativity in later life, interested in posts about events, initiatives, topics of interest, photos, quotes, books and reviews that can be shared among later creatives,’ I was immediately interested.

The organisation runs free writing competitions, offers opportunities on its website to showcase creative work, enables one-to-one links between subscribers, and supports many other activities aimed at sustaining a community discussing and promoting creativity in later life.

If, like me, you feel that Autumn Voices is likely to be of interest and value to you, why not check out their website at: https://autumnvoices.co.uk/

I signed up (for free) a few weeks ago, and have already submitted a short memoir that was published online as part of a current Flash Memories Project. You can read my contribution by clicking below.

Anthems For Doomed Union?

After intervention by PM Boris and probably by the BBC’s new director-general, Land of Hope and Glory and Rule Britannia will be sung as well as played at the last night of the Proms this year. Traditionalists, including many Tory backbenchers, were outraged when it was suggested that the singing of these ‘patriotic songs’ should be cancelled to avoid possible spreading of virus by flying saliva. Some seemed to think it was really a vile plot by political malcontents to detract from the celebration of Britain’s glorious imperial past.

As someone who, despite enjoying classical music, cringes at the annual community singing fest of English self-glorification, (let us not be kidded by the presence of a few saltires, when they sing of Britannia, we know what they really mean), I would have been quite happy to experience the melodies without the flag-waving. At least this year’s performance will be delivered by a limited number of professional singers, or so we are promised.

This does not mean that I am hostile towards my southern neighbours, but only that there is a certain kind of nostalgic yearning for the days of Empire that goes along with a narrow minded refusal to accept the facts about Britain’s Imperial past. Sir Edward Elgar himself was said to have loathed the lyrics that were written in 1902 for his Pomp and Circumstance March No.1 byA.C. Benson. In 2020, who can still reasonably foster the hope that ‘God who made thee mighty’ will ‘make thee mightier yet’?

It may be, of course, that establishment voices wished the songs to be performed as part of the current campaign to convince the dissatisfied among the population of the value of remaining in a United Kingdom. If this is so, it demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of why the majority of Scots have indicated that they would, in any future referendum, vote for Scottish independence. It is not for dislike of the English, but rather showing realisation of the unbalanced nature of political power wielded at Westminster, and in particular the glaring incompetence of the government currently in charge there.

Keeping Active

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Like many others, having retired from paid occupation, I am constantly alert to the possibility of sinking into mental decline, now that the daily delight of working for a living has been removed from me. Momentary lapses, such as forgetting the name of a politician, or being unable to provide the answer to a question on a TV quiz, can send me into a panic.

In an effort to ward off such anxieties, I have for several years now made use of FutureLearn and Coursera, online organisations giving free access to short courses at universities around the world. These courses are clearly designed to provide ‘tasters’ to attract paying students, but for an old buffer like me, they offer up-to-date information, either in familiar subject areas, or in new fields. I am convinced that the study will do my brain the world of good.

My other retirement project has been to engage in writing for publication, and so the courses I have chosen to study over the past 10 years have tended to be literature or arts based, including some designed to assist aspiring writers to develop their skills. Such writing courses, I have discovered, also refresh the enthusiasm when it flags, as may happen at times of fatigue, pandemic or paucity of ideas.

A couple of years ago, I took part in one such online writing workshop in which participants were encouraged to seek images from nature and use them metaphorically in a poem, exploring an aspect of the human condition. I had a bash at the task and filed away the end product. From time to time, looking over unpublished work, I revisited the poem, tweaking a phrase here and there, adjusting lines to alter their rhythm, cutting out what did not ring true. I did not seek publication.

Then,earlier this year, I noticed on social media a call for submissions from the magazine Here Comes Everyone, which publishes both in print and online. They were looking for writing on the theme Green (to be interpreted in whichever way the writer chose). I remembered my workshop piece, and sent it off.

I was delighted when the poem was accepted for publication online, on the magazine’s website. You can read it by clicking on the address below.

https://hcemagazine.com/near-sleep-within-his-arms-gordon-gibson/

A Discovery: Elizabeth Bishop

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Bishop, when at University

 

One day last week, on my morning gallop through Facebook, my attention was caught by a post from John McCullough, an academic and writer. Expressing his admiration for poet Elizabeth Bishop, he wrote:

When asked the nightmarish question of what one quality every poem should have, she replied: ‘Surprise. The subject and the language which conveys it should surprise you. You should be surprised at seeing something new and strangely alive.’ I’ve kept those words close to me for many years.

I was intrigued by this quote, and found Bishop’s name vaguely familiar, but knew nothing about her. As on many previous occasions, I had to acknowledge to myself the vast extent of my own ignorance, and set off to do some research. I was even more embarrassed to discover how highly regarded this American poet was.

Elizabeth Bishop (1911 – 1979) served a term as Poet Laureate of the USA, won a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award and gained great critical acclaim.

Her childhood was spent with various relatives after her father’s death and her mother’s mental illness. A successful academic career followed, but she abandoned her original intention to be a musician, and instead focused on literature.

Financially independent by dint of an inheritance, she was able to travel widely, and lived for periods in France and Brazil as well as America. Although friendly with poet Robert Lowell and his contemporaries John Berryman and Ann Sexton, she did not adopt the ‘confessional’ approach to poetry for which they gained notoriety. Her poetry tended to look outward, with detailed and objective description, and use of formal constraint, making only veiled references to her private life.

Her reticence was understandable. Her childhood was unhappy, and she suffered abuse by an uncle. Her physical health was never strong, nor was her mental health. Throughout her adult life she battled with alcoholism, writer’s block and depression, and experienced only relatively brief periods of happiness in her relationships with other women. In a letter to Lowell, she wrote, ‘When you write my epitaph you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.’

Bishop was not a prolific poet, publishing only 101 poems between 1927 and 1979. Of these, 72 can be read at https://www.poemhunter.com/elizabeth-bishop/poems/

I have gained great pleasure from reading these (for me) newly discovered works. If she is new to you, give them a try and send me your comments.

Professor Douglas Gifford

D.G.

 

It was with great sadness that, at the end of June, I learned of the death of Professor Douglas Gifford.

A fine obituary by Professor Alan Riach in The Herald newspaper gives a full and accurate account of his many-faceted academic career, and his significance in the development of the study of Scottish literature.( https://www.heraldscotland.com/opinion/18560623.obituary-professor-douglas-gifford-re-defined-world-modern-scottish-literature/)

I was fortunate enough to meet and get to know Douglas in the early 1990s, when I worked in the same department as his wife, Anne, at Craigie College of Education. I was at that time trying to extend my grasp of Scottish literature, and was so impressed by his knowledge and charismatic enthusiasm that I signed up to study for a part-time MPhil, a course which he directed at Glasgow University.

For the next three years, I experienced not only his inspirational teaching at the regular study days, and the superb distance-learning materials he provided, but also the encouragement, help and kindness of the man. I know that I speak for very many others, at Strathclyde University and at Glasgow, when I say that he had that rare capacity to make students feel that they were sharing in a wider project, to give the literature of Scotland its rightful place in the academic world.

He combined these qualities with a wit and good humour that made involvement in his classes always a pleasure.

He will be much missed.

In Other Words . . .

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Since the start of the pandemic I have listened to so much broadcast news that I feel guilty. I should make better use of my time. After all, the news comes so regularly that, were I to skip the bulk of the day’s output, it would be easy to catch up. However, it is not only events that grip my attention, but also the language used to relate them.

We have had to acquire new vocabulary in order to follow the progress of the virus: its name, the discourse of virology, descriptive terms for medical procedures; but just as interesting has been the rise in frequency of use, and the shift in meanings, of other terms not previously associated with public health.

I cannot help being drawn to signs of linguistic change in action, and am much taken up at present with the repeated and conspicuous use of ‘nuanced’ and ‘mitigated’ in the utterances of politicians, commentators and news presenters. These are not neologisms. But the contexts and shades of meaning when they are used seem to be shifting. The words seem to be somehow more fashionable, when in the past simpler vocabulary might have been chosen to say the same things.

We are perhaps most familiar with ‘mitigated’ in the context of criminality, where excuses are made to reduce severe judgement on the perpetrators of unacceptable behaviour (‘in mitigation’). Now it is being more commonly used to describe where steps have been taken to reduce the harm caused by the virus.

‘Nuanced’ has usually been applied to descriptions, explanations or performances, indicating where a fuller or more sophisticated version has been offered for a topic elsewhere regarded as simple or straightforward (‘a more nuanced account’).

These less familiar usages caught my attention, and made me wonder why those communicating to a wide audience were choosing to abandon simpler, more common structures. Did they feel that the words had connotations of more serious thought and understanding? Did speakers and writers using them think they thereby sounded more knowledgeable or more believable to the general public? Or was it simply a case of linguistic fashion – that these words sounded, in some way ‘better’ and therefore had caught on?

For all the attention I gave whenever I heard the terms in the media, I could not identify any particular advantage. ‘Nuanced’ was most often used as a term of approval, indicating where the complexity of an issue was being granted appropriate consideration.’Mitigation’ was most often used as an explanation (or excuse) for some action by the authorities that was being questioned. Neither had become a ‘dog whistle’ term, attracting hostility; neither had become a politician’s cliche indicating the superiority of their own party. Neither aided the avoidance of truth.

However, once language starts to change, nobody knows where it will end up. I am keeping my eye on these words in their increasingly common currency. If you notice them acquiring further new shades of meaning, let me know.

Rage and Retrospect

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For those of us interested in politics, keeping up with the current state of things, through the prism of 24 hour news can become obsessional. In an attempt to find something else on TV to distract my attention, I stumbled across an episode of Andrew Marr’s History of Modern Britain.

I have mixed feelings about Marr’s work. In interviews, he can make life awkward for dissembling politicians, and his Start The Week on BBC radio 4 sometimes brings together groups of experts who can not only speak eloquently on their own subjects, but can interact in a way that enhances all contributions. (At other times, the show can be a demonstration of the chattering classes at their worst.)

However, it was not so much Marr’s presence on the screen that held my attention during the TV episode, but the cavalcade of clips from the past that he had assembled to demonstrate events dominating news in Britain between the televising of Up The Junction in 1965 and the end of Edward Heath’s leadership of the Conservative Party in 1975. I know, it was still politics; but being so far in the past, it almost counted as nostalgia.

At the present, with the entire world in turmoil, and Britain seemingly drifting towards economic and governmental chaos, it was almost reassuring to be reminded that we managed to survive a decade that took us from post-war gloom, through the optimism and growing liberalism of Harold Wilson’s first government to the industrial collapse that opened the way for the Thatcher years.

I was still a schoolboy in 1965. By 1975 I was married with a family and working in a primary school. Over the decade I had attended, and been thrown out of, Glasgow University, worked in the crumbling British Steel Corporation, qualified as a primary school teacher, started degree studies with The Open University and been thoroughly politicised.

Those were the years of the Vietnam War, the devaluation of the pound, the three-day week, conflict over joining The Common Market, and a gradual drift to the right by a large proportion of the electorate. Wages were low and The Trades Unions battled with employers and governments of both persuasions. Political debates became poisonous.

Watching the TV footage after all these years brought back memories which ought to have been depressing, but in retrospect, events did not enrage me as much as they did at the time. I found myself wondering whether 10 weeks indoors had deadened my critical responses, but the late night news and newspaper reviews had me, once again, swearing at the ineptitude of The Westminster Government, and the glaring bias of the British press. Clearly the passage of 50-odd years had merely taken the edge off old anger.

Could it be that today’s youth will be able to look back in 50 years time with a philosophical eye on the events of 2020? It may be an old man’s pessimism, but I fear it is unlikely.

Misuse of Metaphor

My blood pressure must be rocketing up.

I know that English is overflowing with everyday metaphors – they are part of its richness, and serve to increase its potential for the transmission of meaning – but I have become more and more irritated as I listen to politicians and pundits who pepper their pronouncements with metaphors which are either exhausted or inappropriate.

Long ago, an English teacher explained to me that a metaphor is a lie which reveals a truth: the soldier was not really a lion in the battle, but to say that he was reveals more vividly the extent of his courage. Fine. But what the teacher did not mention was the capacity of metaphor to help with the construction of false narratives, what we now might call ‘nudging’ or ‘spin’.

When the phrase ‘ramping up’ began to appear in every press conference from Downing Street, I started to wonder why this verb was being chosen instead of the more straightforward ‘increase’ (e.g. for available quantity of protective equipment, number of tests etc). Was it believed to imply a greater urgency, or to provide connotations of a well-oiled machine in action?

I told myself my suspicion of the Westminster government was making me over-cynical about their intentions, but close attention to their utterances gave me more cause for scepticism.

A series of statements seemed to suggest that coping with the virus could be understood in the context of road travel. Actions requiring to be carried out quickly would be done by ‘pressing the accelerator to the floor’. Happenings that had to be eliminated would bring about ‘a foot firmly on the brake’. The ‘journey’ out of the crisis would be made clear in ‘a roadmap’. Weary metaphor was having the effect of obscuring what would actually be done.

But even more worrying was the relentless use of the discourse of wartime to create an analogy between the coronavirus pandemic and WW II, and to encourage the population to accept the government’s presentation of events in the light of this. There was ‘an enemy’ with whom we had to ‘battle’, showing ‘The Dunkirk Spirit’, and marching in ‘lock-step’ to overtake desired outcomes.

It seemed to me that this analogy was not appropriate, given that some medical opinion speaks out against the language of battle and struggle being used in relation to illness. This is not to deny the courage and effort shown by people either during WW II or during the present crisis. It is simply to suggest that they are not the same, and the encouragement by politicians for us to see them as equivalent perhaps disguises political motives, seeking to draw attention away from other issues.

This morning, on BBC radio four’s ‘More or Less‘, statisticians examined the figures given in Downing Street press conferences for numbers of tests carried out. They identified how the figures had been manipulated to allow a claim of ‘100,000 tests in a day’ to be made falsely, by counting tests sent out by post to be counted as tests actually carried out on patients and workers.

The media tell us that trust in the government is a crucial element in bringing back some kind of normality to daily life. I fear that the evidence coming from Westminster does little to inspire my trust in the capability or trustworthiness of the current UK government. I shall continue to keep a watchful eye on their actions . . . and metaphors.

Housebound Haiku

I had never heard the phrase ‘creative writing’ until I became a student in the late 1960s. For one hour per week during my first year as a student teacher, a fascinating woman called Kate McQueen endeavoured to engage a group of more than 20 assorted males, ranging in ages from 17 to approximately 50 (one wouldn’t I admit to his actual age) in writing in a variety of literary genres.

Those were the days when the popular press would have had you believe that ‘Proper English’ was no longer being taught in Britain’s schools. In fact, what was happening was an attempt by the Colleges of Education to encourage teachers to be less obsessional about spelling, punctuation and grammar, and give a little more attention to the style and content of what pupils were being asked to write.

Miss McQueen had her work cut out. Many of her class had already been indoctrinated in the belief that the essential quality in a writer was the ability to correctly position an apostrophe. Some of her older students had, during the years of Scottish teacher shortages, been working uncertificated. They were being forced to gain teaching qualifications by the newly-formed General Teaching Council and attended under protest. Some secretly believed that they already knew more about how to teach than those lecturing them. They were not always biddable.

We were asked, at the start, to produce short descriptive pieces. We were moved gently on to character sketches from memory, and then from imagination. We built up to the construction of stories. So far, there was compliance. However, rumblings of discontent began to be heard when we were invited to consider poetry: not manly, robust poetry in the style of the Burns Supper, or even the rhythmic, rhyming verse of the Secondary School anthologies. Dear me, no! We were invited to write Haiku.

None of us had any knowledge of Japanese poetry, even in translation. Our lecturer explained the conventions of the form – a short, poetic ‘snapshot’, usually depicting a scene from nature, in three lines of 5, 7 and 5 syllables, not required to rhyme.

She intended, I think, to force us to put aside our existing notions about poetry, and to go boldly where most of the group had not previously ventured. My recollection is that some would not participate at all, some drafted jokey or ribald responses, and a few of the more sensitive souls produced pastiches of extracts from Bob Dylan songs.

The episode came to my mind recently while I was searching online for something to occupy me during the present period of National Confinement. I came across, and joined a 1000-strong Facebook group called The Daily Haiku, which invites members to submit short poems in the Japanese form, on any subject. These are sent to all other members without any editorial comment or interference. As is to be expected, the quality of submissions can prove variable, but are fascinating for all that. And my sense of competitiveness drove me to join in.

I spent some time finding out about the history of Haiku, reading original Japanese examples in translation, and looking at English-language versions, (there is a good introduction at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/learn/glossary-terms/haiku-or-hokku), and then tried my hand.

You can read my initial efforts at: https://ragmansbugle.wordpress.com/april-2020/