Facebooked wishes

Even the casual birthday greeting from someone I didn’t really know meant something. That tiny effort to respond to a prompt from an algorithm made to create data-for-sale punches through the discomfiting medium and strikes at something worthwhile within. I hear the shouldered voices: they don’t even know you, what’s the point?, they’re only making themselves feel/look good, and am momentarily cowed, and I look again. Indeed: Happy Birthday mate. The ones who called me mate aren’t ‘mates’. Not sure they ever were. But they use the word. Choose it (however) casually. Because it’s matey.

And that can surely be no bad thing?

The cards on my mantelpiece are fewer, but are they the more sincere for being in(k)scribed and en-veloped? Even a small effort is an effort. It’s the thought that counts, when you know, however you know, that the thought’s been thought.

(So thank you, thinkers

It isn’t all it seems at seventeen

So, farewell then, McAuley.

Thanks to my lovely, inspirational English colleagues and friends, past and present, (and a stray Geographer!) for yesterday’s goodbye meal, and for their support and kindness over many years and especially these recent difficult weeks.

on tenuous thread my lodestone lurched
and wavered, tracing black intents,
it felt your field, when I felt failed
(inflected new my future tense

Gordon ‘Delme’ Thomas

At the weekend I heard the sad news that my favourite English teacher, ‘Delme’ Thomas died in August. I felt saddened because it is sad news in itself, and 72 has long since stopped seeming like a ‘ripe old age’, but also at my own failure in leaving it too late to get in touch with him again. I’d intended to several times over the years, but never quite got round to it. Not long before the summer holidays I googled him to see if I could find an email address, and found one, but waited until I had time to sit down properly and think what to write. Well, of course I didn’t carve out that time. It’s too late for him to see it now, but I have taken the time to think about the teacher of mine that I most owe my being an English teacher to, and the one I have most wanted to emulate. Sometimes (it doesn’t happen often), when a lesson has gone well and the students leave the room bubbling with enthusiasm, I think, “that’s how Delme would have done it”:

His spittle-flecked enthusiasm drew us in
To 1984 in ’84.
Round shoved-together tables, clustered lads,
Set free from deadening dictatorial rows,
We mapped the tension, characters and plot
With sugar paper, coloured pens galore.
The whirling-limbed and laughter filled approach
Of those thin lips, eye-beams, that signpost nose;
The floppy fringe flicked back Fred Trueman-like
As he threw back his head with a guffaw,
Then bent, nicotined-breathed, to chat with us
As though we mattered, since, to him, we did.
He led us then down the glass corridor
To watch Dench and McKellen in Macbeth
On huge en-cabinned screen, on video.
(He made the ‘d’ alone last half that word!)
In that melodious South Walian lilt
He spoke of cinema, scarce drawing breath,
Yet somehow no superfluous words were spilt.
We went to Harrogate theatre: Oscar Wilde’s
Coruscating wit seemed no more sharp
Than what we heard each day in Delme’s class,
Addressing politics, Pontypridd or Pope,
Cynddylan on a Tractor, Evelyn Waugh,
A Neath fly-half, or Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Rope’.
That he was younger then than I am now
Seems quite absurd; he had such gravitas –
Yet leavened with a levity of touch.
I wish I’d written, got to see once more
My English teacher, whom I owe so much.

Donations in his memory can be made at: https://www.justgiving.com/GordonDelmeThomas/, and those who knew him can leave tributes at: http://gordondelmethomas.co.uk/

Exam season

Rooting around, looking for an envelope to send coursework mark sheets to the exam board, I came across a couple of sheets of supplementary exam stationery from many years ago, in the days when teachers did the invigilation of exams. It was a peculiarly tedious task, and on a couple of occasions I clearly wiled away the time writing sonnets (not being very vigilant, clearly.

Mothers’ Day

A while back, folded in the inside pocket of a jacket I rarely wear any more, I came across a couple of sheets of paper covered in my pencilled scrawl.


Some considerable time before, I’d been looking at the film Whale Rider with my year 8 class at the time. In one of the most moving scenes in the film, the central character, a young girl named Paikea gives a speech in honour of her grandfather at a public speaking competition, beginning: “This speech is a token of my deep love and respect…”. I asked my students to write a similar speech, and got some wonderful pieces of oratory from many of them. As they were working I wrote my own speech, too. I thought it only fair that if I were asking them to pour their heart and soul into their writing, as Paikea had done in the film, that I should be prepared to do likewise.

Here, for mothers’ day, is the speech that I wrote some seven years or so ago.

This speech is a token of my deep love and respect for Jean Muriel Heald: my mother, and the mother of my six brothers and sisters.

It will be four years this September since she died, but she is every bit as real to me now as she was when I lay my head on her chest with her cancer-ravaged arms around me, her youngest child, and I sobbed my goodbyes to her for the last time.

My mum was proud of me, and loved me, from before I was even born, and I knew that pride and love throughout my life. So did my brothers and sisters; we knew it, and are privileged to share it still, along with the thousands of children that passed through the playgroup she ran, each one of them loved too (she ran that playgroup for love and never made much real money from it). Many of those children, now grown up, came to her funeral or sent tributes. A few of them were not fortunate enough to know much love at home, and so my mum became for them the model of love that she is for us, her own children.

My mum was proud of me for my vocation, for my becoming a teacher, and I look to her for inspiration, as she was my first teacher. If I can pass on even the tiniest fraction of what I learned from my mum, and that she in turn learned at the knee of my granny that I never knew except through mum’s words, and whose wedding ring I now wear, and my grandad who is a shady memory of a kindly man sitting me on his knee, giving me sweets from his bottom drawer; if I can pass on a fraction of that ancient river of love to some of my students, then my life will have been worth something.

It is not so easy to pass on love to adolescent children for whom that word is so easily turned into a joke rather than a precious treasure to be nurtured at all costs. But if I am going to be true to the legacy passed on from my mum, it is my duty to try, even when I fall short, even when I fail, even when the love and care and concern I want to show is rejected or mocked or ignored.

And I will hold to those moments that allow me to think that sometimes my mum’s dedication has, however imperfectly, flowed through me. As she treasured every card and gift from her own children and those in her care, I will treasure those far more rare tokens that come to me. The pen bought by the A-level group delivered by the student who came to the staff room to say, “Sir, you’re a better teacher than you think you are.” The card from the student who said, “Thank you for believing in me when no-one else would.” Even, the smiles in the corridor, and the “thank you sir”s by the classroom door. For each of these is a reflection of the love we are all capable of, and which I learned first from Jean Muriel Heald, who died on September 22nd 2002, and whose love – to me – can never die.

The Cultivation of Christmas Trees

In the very small hours of Christmas Day I sent an email to my students. Copying it below gives me a chance to share a T S Eliot poem that had somehow slipped my mind, if it ever lodged there in the first place. I am familiar enough with the other Ariel poems, but this ‘addendum’ to the series, sent out, I understand, as a Christmas greeting from Faber’s, the publisher where Eliot worked at the time, seemed strikingly apposite.

I have assembled my daughter’s new bike and brought it inside; the presents have been put under and around the tree; I have bitten off the stalk end of a carrot; eaten a mince pie, taking care to leave plenty of crumbs; and written a letter from Father Christmas in a painstakingly shaky hand, sealed with red sealing wax.

I can now go to bed, not with the same excitement as my daughter did several hours ago, but with perhaps a stronger sense of waiting, because I know my waiting is for something far greater, far further off, and far less certain than the wait to open a few presents in the morning.

Many of you too will be thinking towards your future, and back to simpler childhood times, amidst one of the last festive seasons before you face a fully adult Christmas. My favourite poet, T S Eliot, knew about this, so you I offer you his poem on the subject as my Christmas greeting to you.

Merry Christmas, and all best wishes for a happy and successful 2013, and beyond.

Mr Heald

The Cultivation of Christmas Trees by TS Eliot.

There are several attitudes towards Christmas,
Some of which we may disregard:
The social, the torpid, the patently commercial,
The rowdy (the pubs being open till midnight),
And the childish – which is not that of the child
For whom the candle is a star, and the gilded angel
Spreading its wings at the summit of the tree
Is not only a decoration, but an angel.

The child wonders at the Christmas Tree:
Let him continue in the spirit of wonder
At the Feast as an event not accepted as a pretext;
So that the glittering rapture, the amazement
Of the first-remembered Christmas Tree,
So that the surprises, delight in new possessions
(Each one with its peculiar and exciting smell),
The expectation of the goose or turkey
And the expected awe on its appearance,

So that the reverence and the gaiety
May not be forgotten in later experience,
In the bored habituation, the fatigue, the tedium,
The awareness of death, the consciousness of failure,
Or in the piety of the convert
Which may be tainted with a self-conceit
Displeasing to God and disrespectful to children
(And here I remember also with gratitude
St.Lucy, her carol, and her crown of fire):

So that before the end, the eightieth Christmas
(By “eightieth” meaning whichever is last)
The accumulated memories of annual emotion
May be concentrated into a great joy
Which shall be also a great fear, as on the occasion
When fear came upon every soul:
Because the beginning shall remind us of the end
And the first coming of the second coming.

Eyes the color/colour of warm whiskey/whisky

On the English Language teachers’ email list last week someone asked:

Subject: Quick question on rhetoric

“Eyes the colour of warm whiskey”

What figurative language is being used here, if any?

and within a few minutes they got the response:

None as it’s a literal description. The intended connotations, however, given a particular literary context, might suggest some use of metonymy.

Hmm – quick question yes, with a quick answer, but I couldn’t accept it was that simple, and responded to that effect.

I think this is the kind of issue where the desire to pin a specific label (and I love labels and classifying and categorising more than most) can get in the way.

I imagine that what triggered the question is the fact that the expression somehow feels figurative, but “eyes the colour of warm whiskey” seems not be a simile (as it doesn’t us ‘like’ or ‘as’), and it doesn’t quite seem to be a metaphor, because the eyes aren’t being described as if they in some sense ‘are’ warm whiskey. Those are the two simple tests that I think most of us probably teach our students to use to recognise the difference.

However, I can’t accept that there is no figurative language here. It seems to me much more figurative, than, say, a straightforward simile such as “the moon is like a big ball” or even a metaphor like “the moon’s a balloon”. I would certainly want to say that “eyes the colour of warm whiskey” is metaphorical (even if we might not want to say that it is a metaphor.)

I think I can see what is meant by suggesting that there might be a hint of metonymy, in that the eyes could be seen as a signifier of the whole person, but I think that could be true more-or-less regardless of what is actually said about the eyes (it is an established convention that we think that we can tell important things about a person from their eyes; that the eyes can be used as a kind of metonym of the person).

Here, I think that the description of the eyes is much more figurative than literal, and I think it’s important to see literal and figurative not as simple alternatives, but as ends of a spectrum, or perhaps (better) as overlaid fields of varying prominence or transparency. At the literal level, so long as we have an idea of the colour of whiskey, then it can ‘simply’ tell us the colour of the eyes. However, if the writer wanted to describe the colour of the eyes literally, then the approach to take to ensure that it was taken merely literally would be to use colour terminology (‘light brown’, perhaps, or if greater precision were required, a term that is conventionally used for colour – especially colour of the eyes – such as ‘hazel’ or ‘amber’ – though even these have at least the potential to convey connotations that go beyond the literal, particularly if they are being used in a literary context rather than the wikipedia entry on eye colour.

However, “eyes the colour of warm whiskey” goes beyond that. Whiskey is not conventionally used as an identifier of eye colour (although it is more common in US English). See this ngram for an interesting comparison of hazel, amber and whisky/whiskey in a position of syntactical dependency to ‘eyes’. Use the drop down menu to switch between overall English, British English, American English, and English fiction for some interesting comparisons.

So describing eyes as being the “colour of whiskey” positively invites a figurative interpretation that we are likely to apply to the owner of the eyes. It might suggest drunkenness, a sense of fun, a hard-bitten cynicism, a sultry sexiness, or a number of other qualities depending on context, and the audience’s experience of and attitude toward the drink.

But it goes further even than that. The eyes are described as “the colour of warm whiskey”. Now, as it is my day off today, I have been able to experiment with a bottle of pleasantly peated Ardmore single malt, and I can confirm that it is exactly the same colour (at least to the naked eye) at a range of temperatures between 6C – which is definitely cold and 45C – which is definitely warm — well, quite hot, actually.

So this cannot be simply a literal description. The adjective ‘warm’ modifies not the eye colour, nor even just the whiskey (even though that is the word it modifies syntactically) but the whole figurative (metaphorical? symbolic? semiotic? I think any and all of these apply) qualities of the eye colour. As a colour is being described, in part, in terms of something that it is not (ie. heat) then the expression is clearly, at least in part, metaphorical. The fact that it is ‘warm whiskey’ knocks out, for me, the possibility that it is meant to convey negative connotations of alcoholism, or cynicism. No: warm whiskey is comforting; warmed in the glass with the hand it is sociable, even sensuous. Warmed to a higher temperature yet, it is restorative, reviving, even curative (the hot-toddy).

The possessor of these eyes the colour of warm whiskey is someone I want to get to know, and who is open enough (after all, the eye contact is clear enough for me to see the colour so clearly) to want to get to know me, as the dusky aroma of the whiskey, swirled in the glass, envelops us. Not only that, but because the spelling is ‘colour’ rather than ‘color’, the encounter is taking place on this side of the Atlantic (in a convivial and rather old-fashioned pub, with pitted dark oak tables and an open fire), but as the spelling is ‘whiskey’ rather than ‘whisky’ then she must surely be Irish. I say ‘she’ of course, because I am a heterosexual male, so with no other contextual information to go on, it makes sense for her to be female. And Irish. And a whiskey drinker.

(Perhaps my ‘experiments’ are getting the better of me, but, whatever it is, “Eyes the colour of warm whiskey” is not mere literal description.


Today has been my wife’s birthday.

I scrawled and scribbled but the words would not come;
Each scratched phrase failed to catch
My sense of you. Then a sigh,
A stirring of the bedclothes,
The imprint of your cwtch against my back,
The graze of a toenail, a half-eyed gaze
At your dim form fringed with sleep,
Reminded me of the words, the only words
We ever uttered that really mattered:
’I do’ and ’till death us do part.’

It’s autumn

Katie made this collage:

And I wrote this:

O God of moving air we adore you
In the breath that fills our lungs, that gives us life,
In the mutter and murmur of words barely spoken,
In thrumming of larynx, in strumming of sitar,
In sounds of every harmony and timbre,
From whisper to whistle to fiddle and foghorn.
O atmospheric God, we detect you
In nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide,
Shifting in current and vortex and eddy,
In every loving phrase we utter,
In every flutter of leaf on tree,
In every billow of washing on line,
In every bellow. In every kind
Of flurry and hurry of breeze and blow,
In blast of tempest, in motion of mistral,
In distant rumble of lightning storm’s thunder,
In blunder of typhoon, in twist of tornado,
In whirlwind and cyclone, in chinook and zephyr.
O God of hurricane and vapour,
Of respiration and inspiration,
Speak to us in the turbulence,
And in the small, still, silent,
Sweet voice of calm.

It’s Boyling on the Costa Brava

The Olympics weren’t on our mind when, just under a year ago, we looked around the camping parc (yes, that’s euro style parc, with a ‘c’, and camping with a static van, decking and air-con), and decided we’d like to come back the following year.

On Friday night, watching the opening ceremony on a biggish screen, surrounded by mainly Dutch fellow holidaymakers in a Catalan resort, to the backdrop of europop karaoke, the decision to be here rather than at home was ambiguous: cheering Wiggo as he rang the bell alongside people who understood more than most Brits the magnitude of his achievement was a special moment. Having the coverage turned off and being turfed out of the bar during the M’s of the athletes parade was disappointing. I thought ‘it’s the rules’ was a peculiarly British excuse for failing to give the customers what they want, but of course with shifts to finish and homes to get to I guess employees anywhere would take the same approach. We’re ‘guests’ in name only.

We did see the majority of Danny Boyle’s hectic ‘magic eye’ vision of England. If you scrutinised it too closely, as at least one of my Facebook friends seemed to do (apparently removing the lengthiest of his posts overnight in an Aidan Burley style retreat) then I guess you could see it as a preposterously overblown Spinal Tap vision of Britain; a glamorisation of the environmental brutality and inhuman exploitation of the industrial revolution; a magnification of the trivial and superficial . But it wasn’t a story designed for scrutiny: unfocus your eyes and look straight through the bewildering blur of one those magic eye autostereogram pictures and an admittedly sketchy but starkly clear image pops suddenly – sometimes fleetingly – into vision. Others can’t see it, but find other pictures in the chaos (is it an ice-cream van? A duck smoking a cigar? – look, there’s the smoke!).

That’s what Boyle’s pageant was like for me. The moment of clarity, the popping into focus, came around the time that my son said “why does it say ‘gosh’?” and the Great Ormond Street Hospital / NHS sequence kicked in. The bucolic green and pleasant land was simultaneous nostalgic myth of Albion and satirical caricature. The belching chimneys and Test Department drumming yes, glorified and glamorised the workers’ sweat, but the smug top hatted industrial barons kneeling to mark out and carve up the sward, shaking hands on the deals that would rip it apart, reminded us – along with the Jarrow marchers and the Grimethorpe colliery band – that Britain’s historical industrial might was not an unalloyed march of glorious progress. Those complaining that our imperial plunder was ignored perhaps have a point, but one dulled by the fact that Aidan Burley’s complaint that this was ’multicultural crap’ showed that those who yearn for the glories of Empire found the Britain portrayed by Boyle anathema, while the MV Windrush reference recalled – albeit obliquely – the African roots our nation ripped up, and how,replanted, they have become part of us.

This was a Britain at once proud and self-deprecating, like a hybrid of Narcissus and Janus, looking at once backwards, forwards, and inwards. Believing in nothing, and in six impossible things before breakfast.

I was able to follow reaction on Twitter while watching the event; my favourite tweet epitomised the irreverent playful, sometimes subversive inventiveness of the thing (and of course it required an earthy ’Anglo-Saxon’ epithet to do so, so look away now if easily offended) : The world right now is thinking, “What? What the fuck?” and Britain says, “This! This the fuck!”