A response to my previous blog (When teachers can’t write) was posted on Facebook by a teacher. It makes the point that nurturing young minds and helping children to become well rounded adults is more important than knowing where to put an apostrophe. A fair point, of course. Here’s what the teacher said:
“There is a difference between spelling and writing. Not being able to spell doesn’t mean that you are not able to love, nurture, motivate, inspire, convey, supervise and entertain as well as TEACH and in my book those come a LOT higher on the list of priorities for what a teacher needs to be able to do than be the perfect apostrophe placer. Did I mention not verbally, mentally, sexually, and physically abusing children because people might want to think about what they REALLY want from their teachers when they look for professionals of perfect punctuation. There is a hell of a lot at stake in teaching and behind that badly placed apostrophe, you might be looking at someone who does amazing things for a larger number of children every year than the author even comes into contact with in a lifetime.”
Fair enough. But why should we make such a miserable compromise? The ability to spell words and punctuate sentences should be a prerequisite for being a teacher. Or, indeed, any kind of professional person. These skills should be acquired by the age of 10 or 12 and then practised regularly. By the age of 16, children should be able to write essays in history or biology in language that is as good as it would be in an English exam. Then, when would-be teachers arrive at university, their ability to use the language shouldn’t be an issue. They should be able to concentrate on developing the skills specific to teaching: those important, civilising skills mentioned in the quoted passage above.
But what if a school were blessed with an inspiring teacher who was a genius at mathematics or music but who was rubbish at spelling and grammar? Such teachers could be allowed to continue on the understanding that they didn’t write anything but equations and music notation. School reports and class handouts would all have to be sub-edited by someone else.
Seriously? Is grammar really that important?
Yes, seriously. Grammar really is that important. Clear thinking and clear writing go together and help each other. If you learn grammar and then read a well constructed sentence, you can appreciate the subtlety and the precision the writer intended. Then when you construct your own sentences, you have the ability to shift emphasis, make fine distinctions and so on. You can ask a question or make a statement in different ways, being subtle, forceful, tactful, enigmatic or whatever.
People who dislike or dismiss grammar tend to perceive it as a set of unnecessary rules observed by a self-appointed elite. They suspect its only purpose is to enable such ‘grammar Nazis’ to recognise each other. It’s silly to use the word Nazi in this context but grammar fanatics do exist and are widely disdained. It may surprise you to learn, dear reader, that I share this disdain. Grammar is not there simply to be learned and insisted upon. Its job is to bring clarity, precision and subtlety to a sequence of words. By teaching, learning and using grammar, we are giving civilisation a chance.
Our society is based on communication. Of course we can say nasty and abusive things as well as loving and constructive things but for civilisation to have a chance, we need clarity – clear thought, clear expression, clear understanding. The U.S. Republican, Todd Akin, suffered a self-inflicted blow to his career in August 2012 when he used the term legitimate rape. From the context, it was clear that he did not mean to suggest that rape could be acceptable or legally permissible. In fact, he said it was important to punish rapists but the content of his statement was utterly lost. First, he made the mistake of not thinking clearly which led to him not expressing himself clearly. What he meant to talk about was rape that is really rape – an act of penetration that uses violence or force. By using the word legitimate, he meant ‘criminal sexual penetration’ or ‘rape as it is legally defined’.
All over the world, badly educated activists pounced on the term legitimate rape and denounced the Congressman for suggesting that rape could be acceptable. But he never said that. What he actually said happened to be a load of gynecological bollocks* but no-one noticed. [* Yes, I know.]
Instead of considering a whole sentence and working out the meaning, the unthinking activists, fulminated against a single phrase. Their outraged outpourings were very similar to the angry exchanges you see in arguments on Facebook. People pick up one or two words or phrases from a piece of writing, leap to the wrong conclusion and then fire off an insulting reply. Compare the arguments in the letters pages of newspapers such as The Times with the drivel that drives much of Facebook and you’ll see what I mean. People who get letters published in quality newspapers are people who have learned to think clearly and express themselves clearly. If they are replying to a letter from another reader, they will have read and understood that letter first.
When a generation of teachers fails to teach grammar, the result is a generation of school leavers who are deficient in the skills of thinking, understanding and expressing themselves in their native language. To starve young minds of grammar is, in my view, a form of child abuse. And it’s bad news for civilisation.
For those readers who understand French, here is something to think about from La Peste by Albert Camus.
Le mal qui est dans le monde vient presque toujours de l’ignorance, et la bonne volonté peut faire autant de dégâts que la méchanceté, si elle n’est pas éclairée. Les hommes sont plutôt bons que mauvais, et en vérité ce n’est pas la question. Mais ils ignorent plus ou moins, et c’est ce qu’on appelle vertu ou vice, le vice le plus désespérant étant celui de l’ignorance qui croit tout savoir et qui autorise alors a tuer. L’ame du meurtrier est aveugle et il n’y a pas de vraie bonté ni de belle amour sans toute la clairvoyance possible.
And here’s an English translation:
The evil that is in the world almost always comes of ignorance, and good will can do as much harm as evil if it is not enlightened. On the whole, men are more good than bad and that is not really the question. But they are more-or-less ignorant and it is this that we call virtue or vice. The most incorrigible vice is the ignorance that believes it knows everything and then authorises itself to kill. The soul of the murderer is blind and there is no real kindness nor true love without the utmost clear-sightedness.
This smiling woman is evidently proud to call herself a teacher. But she cannot punctuate a sentence.
She wants this picture to be reproduced as as many times as possible in order to demonstrate the power of the Internet. Even though she is hoping that millions of people will read her message, she hasn’t bothered to write it properly. And she’s a teacher!
This woman is responsible for the education of children in ‘Year 7’ which means 12-year olds or what we would call Lower 4ths. So it’s quite alarming that her English is this bad. One would hope that, by the age of 12, most children would have learned how to use punctuation and be able to correct the efforts of this teacher.
I was by no means an exceptional scholar but I did go to a school where they took English seriously. By the age of nine, I could divide a sentence into subject and predicate and was familiar with nouns, verbs and adjectives. A year later, I could tell you about pronouns, adverbs, prepositions and conjunctions. I could construct sentences using main and subordinate clauses and I knew where to put apostrophes and commas.
Once we knew how to construct proper sentences, we moved on to ‘composition’. We read extracts of work by a variety of writers and learned about style. All this was before we went to ‘big school’. Many years later, working as a journalist, I realised that Mrs Tattersall’s ‘Blackboard English’ in my old prep school was the most valuable part of my education.
In a typical afternoon on a daily paper, I would write about 130 sentences. I didn’t need to stop and think about tenses, verb agreements or apostrophes; I knew them all intimately. I knew what they did and how they worked. If you watch a bricklayer building a wall, or an Italian baker making pizza dough, you see speed, fluidity and grace. You don’t notice the precision. But it’s there. If it wasn’t, the wall would collapse and so would the pizza. My sentences did not collapse. No-one had to correct the punctuation. My sentences didn’t flop, break or backfire.They were good and strong. Their meanings were clear. Thankyou Mrs Tattersall.
Now, why isn’t the teacher in the photograph like Mrs Tattersall? It may be that this modern-day teacher was taught to write but didn’t care. More likely, though, is that she had a poor education when it came to English. The rot began back in the Sixties when some teachers, who were well versed in grammar, decided not to teach it. They were idealists who believed that allowing children to express themselves was more important than teaching rules. This selfish decision was such a dereliction of responsibility that any surviving perpetrators should be tracked down and prosecuted for child abuse.
In any other field, such an irresponsible attitude by teachers would not be tolerated. Imagine if driving instructors adopted the same approach.
“Don’t worry about the rules. Push any buttons and pedals you like. Drive on the left or the right. Traffic lights are just decoration nowadays. Please yourself. Be free!”
For those of us who learned to drive properly, the rules are our friends. It’s by learning the rules and mastering the machine that one gains true motoring freedom. If I want to drive to Scotland, right now, I can do it. By learning the rules and acquiring the knowledge, I have gained the freedom to travel anywhere I please with speed, comfort and safety. Similarly, if I want to write a newspaper story, a magazine article, a sonnet, a limerick or this blog, I can do it.
Learning to write is great. It gives you the power and freedom you need to change your world. After all, the pen is mightier than the sword. But not by itself. A sword has no might until it is held by someone skilled in swordsmanship. The same principle applies to the pen. In the hand of an idiot, a writing tool won’t do anything more than update a Facebook status with some petty fact or observation such as ‘Them kitte’ns cute!’ or ‘All tory’s are b*st*rds’. But in the hand of a master, a pen can change the world.
The world we live in today was determined by both the pen and the sword. It was military might that crushed the Nazis and repelled fascism but our post-war civilisation is protected by the European Convention on Human Rights – a work of the pen. A greater work, in literary and political terms, is the Constitution of the United States. This splendid document, including the first ten amendments and the Bill of Rights, amounts to just 4,440 words. The fact that it is written in good, pithy English may have something to do with the fact that it’s still going strong – the oldest, working written constitution in the world.
So, in an attempt at pithiness and clarity, here is a modest proposal:
Anyone who wants to be a teacher should be required to learn to read and write. If they fail a literacy test (as our woman with the sign would), they should not be paid out of taxpayers’ money to educate our children.
I have never been so trained in my life.
The year began with learning how to make blogs like this. Then I was taught how to ride a motorcycle, then how to do Victim Support, then how to resolve conflict (the mediation training) and then how to write better poetry. Last week, I added Restorative Justice to the list. That’s a sort of upgrade from Victim Support where you bring offenders up close and personal with the victims of their crimes. It’s done in a safe environment (sometimes the offender’s prison) and by means of a guided conversation. It can result in remarkable benefits for both parties. It reduces re-offending rates better than pretty much anything else and it enables the victim to put a human face to what might previously have been the stuff of nightmares.
I have also been to Brittany on the Royal Enfield! My wife, Charlotte, and I have been to France several times but never on a motorcycle and certainly not in her 21-year-old Nissan Micra. So we took both. The little red Nissan got a GB sticker and a pair of beam-benders and I made a rather classic-looking bracket for the Enfield’s GB sticker.
Here it is – the only bike on the ferry.
So why take two vehicles? For the strenuous luxury of it. I ride 200+ miles on the motorbike but I ride light. All the luggage is in the support vehicle. When we get there, we can choose clothing suitable for the weather that day and go out sightseeing by motorcycle with Charlotte riding pillion.
The most enjoyable ride was the one we usually do by bicycle. That’s a steady uphill slog to Finisterre’s Mont St Michel. Right at the end, there’s a really steep bit. That last half mile would be difficult at the best of times but, at the end of a sweaty, breath-stealing cycle ride, it’s a killer. But not on a motorbike.
Ha ha! You get to the steep bit, drop a cog, twist the throttle and up you go. Magic.
In the picture, you can see James Bering-Harris, one of Charlotte’s creations who often travels on holiday with us.
In the next picture, we see Charlotte at Restaurant Aristide in Huelgoat. It’s a charming place, run by an artist bloke. It’s like the authentic version of that ‘French’ cafe chain, Cafe Rouge. Have you seen those? They’re quirky in ways thought up by a committee of accountants and marketing twerks. Non-matching lampshades and suchlike.
But Aristide is the real thing.
Right, there’s a BBC4 documentary about the song ‘Danny Boy’ starting soon so this will be where I sign off.
Just time to recall a joke told by the comedian Just Jones as part of his stage act.
Normally, when I finish my routine, I like to sing a song. Before I leave the stage, I like to sing ‘Danny Boy’.
[Audience goes ‘ooh’ and ”ahh’.]
And last week, I told the jokes, I sang ‘Danny Boy’ and there was an old boy in the front row of the audience crying his eyes out.
I said “Oh, I’m very sorry sir. You must be Irish.”
“No,” he said. “I’m a singer.”
The jobs I left behind – journalism and TV production – are well-known. They are not well understood and the general public are deeply ambivalent about them. Tell someone you’re a journalist and they often back away thinking ‘Oh God, what did I tell him?’ They say “Don’t quote me.” and “Please don’t put that in the paper.” They say this regardless of how dull and of little public relevance their comments might be. But when they have an indignant sense of some injustice having occurred, they say “Right, I’m going to the papers with this,” and they fully expect us to put it in.
When you tell people you’re a TV producer, they say “Can you get me on the telly? I want to be famous.” When you ask them what they want to be famous for, they reply that they don’t want to excel in any particular field. They just want to be famous. On the other hand, people have a deep distrust of ‘the media’ and believe we are part of a conspiracy to protect bankers, crush the proletariat or whatever.
I shall miss these standard responses to my work. Now I shall have to get used to the quizzical look and the raised eyebrow. “A mediator? What’s that then? Is it like meditation?” Or perhaps, at social gatherings, when I tell people what I do, their eyes will refocus and look over my shoulder in case there’s someone more interesting to talk to. Someone in the media, perhaps.
But yes, that’s what I’ve been up to. As well as getting a shed and learning to ride a motorcycle, I have been training to be a mediator – someone who helps to resolve conflicts before they blow up into court cases, employment tribunals, feuds, wars, you know the kind of thing. I’m still on the course so haven’t done any real mediations yet but I found my experience as an interviewer and as a union rep very helpful. More on that as it happens.
Another thing I’ve been doing is voluntary work for the Witness Service, a division of Victim Support. I’ve been working in Cardiff Magistrates’ court and will be in the crown court tomorrow.
And another thing – poetry.
Here I am, in the south of France, practising my iambic pentameter. More about this in a separate post, probably but here’s the thing: accepting redundancy has given me the chance to concentrate on the stuff that I believe in. Witnesses play a vital role in our criminal justice system and they deserve all the help and information they can get. Mediation is an all-round good thing in that it gets to the bottom of conflict, enables people to be happier with each other and saves the nation a fortune. And poetry is one of those precious things that make us human.
Of course, I don’t know for sure how any of this is going to work out but it certainly wouldn’t work if I never gave it a try. So, if you’re thinking about redundancy, don’t just think about the negatives. Consider the possibilities if you decide to take the money and run.
Getting a motorbike was one of the best things I’ve done. Every journey becomes an enjoyable adventure. And with the fabulous summer weather, I can enjoy the sunshine with a steady, cooling breeze and smell new-mown grass and fragrant oilseed rape as I thrumble along.
Last week, I went out for a ride with Pam Tod (pictured left) who inspired me to get a bike, and Chris Williams, the bloke who told me about the Enfield for sale. When it’s sunny, Wales is such a brilliant country for motorcycling.
Two milestones since the last blog have been:
1) Taking Charlotte as a pillion passenger on a proper trip. She got togged up in her very attractive black-and-olive outfit with black Arai helmet. We crossed the Severn and went to visit friends in Somerset. They didn’t know we had a motorbike so it was a surprise for them when we rumbled up their drive!
That was a great day and Charlotte enjoyed the ride. And there was that deeply satisfying moment when you get to the toll booth at the Severn bridge and you don’t have to pay!
2) The next big event was riding with my son, Joseph, over the Black Mountain to Llandovery and back, via the A40 and A470, to Bikers’ Corner at Storey Arms.
Lovely weather, wonderful ride, beautiful scenery and fabulous views from the mountain heights. If you have a son who can ride a motorbike, definitely do this!
Right, gotta dash!
Right then. After a thousand miles on the Enfield …time to carry a passenger.
From the start of this motorbike brainwave, my wife, Charlotte, has been remarkably supportive. She was pleased and interested to hear I was getting a motorbike and took no persuasion at all when it came to riding on the back. So I got the licence, then some experience of riding the Enfield, building skill and confidence. The next thing was to get Charlotte a helmet.
On Bank Holiday Monday, we went out in the Lotus and went for a walk along the dunes near Ogmore. Then it was off to Thunder Road in Bridgend. The parking area outside Thunder Road is like a bike show in itself. There are Harleys, Japanese superbikes, old British classics, all with their own distinctive sounds. If you park a car amongst that lot, it can’t be any old car. It has to be something that’s built for enjoyment rather than mere transport.
Inside, after walking past some gorgeous, gleaming machinery, we met a nice lady called Rhian who knew all about helmets. She looked at the shape and size of Charlotte’s head, noted that she wore glasses and came up with an all-black Arai that was, apparently, greatly reduced in price at ‘only’ £250. Despite this shock to her purse, Charlotte proceeded to look at biker jackets and trousers. She found a nice, figure-hugging jacket, some leather-and-fabric trousers and a nice pair of gloves. And it was a really beautiful, sunny day.
I could hardly wait to get back home and give it a whirl. Charlotte, though, is very practical and said we should wait until the Bank Holiday traffic jams had cleared. She was right, of course.
I pumped the tyres up an extra 2psi and checked the rear shock-absorber setting. As Charlotte straddled the bike, I told her the drill. Keep your feet on the footrests. Don’t get off until I tell you. Most of all, do lean with me and the bike; do not attempt to ‘correct’ the lean by remaining vertical.
I rode round the block first and then off to the north of Cardiff towards Radyr. Llandaff Fields were golden green in the late-afternoon sun. Pink cherry blossom was blowing like confetti across the deep blue sky. People walking dogs and pushing prams stopped and watched us go by.
At the Radyr roundabout, I turned round, pulled in at a lay-by and stopped the bike. I asked Charlotte if she wanted to go back now. I guessed this would be far enough for her first outing. But no. She was up for more. So on we went, up and down hills, around sweeping bends, the Enfield engine thrumbling and grumbling away.
Back home, safe and sound; Charlotte loved every minute of it. Now she’s planning a surprise visit to friends of hers who don’t yet know about the bike. Looks like this motorcycle lark could become a shared hobby.