“My grandfather told me there’d be times like these” and he was right. I wonder about his blue days, down there in the trenches, on the Somme, and on other fronts. He survived. He was a survivor. Sometimes that’s the only thing to be. So how do we survive? How do we ignore the snipers, the whizz-bangs, the star shells, the other things that go bump in the night?
There is no single answer. One of my best friends goes into hospital tomorrow, 6:00 am, buccal cancer. An operation. All may be well afterwards. I certainly hope so. I will be here for him, as my grandfather was there for me, as I have been there for others, as others have been there for me. I will not mention names. A blue, blue day indeed. But what shade of blue? If all goes well, the celestial blue of joy and hope, the blue of Mary’s robe when she crushes the serpent beneath her foot, the joy of the blue sky after the storm.
Not, we hope, the dark blue, almost purple, of the gathering storm, the blue of thunder clouds turning almost into black, the midnight blue of the last chance saloon with its overtones of tragedy and disaster. “I never felt more like singing the blues”… indeed I didn’t. But what shade of blue? And for me, it is always the blue of clearing skies, the blue of Mary’s robe, the blue of hope.
“And still I live in hopes to see, Swansea Town once more,” thus sang my father’s father during WWI. He was gassed, he was wounded, he was decorated, he was mentioned in dispatches, so many things happened to him. But he survived the snipers, Big Bertha, the star shells, the whizz-bangs, and he saw his beloved “Swansea Town once more.” As I hope I will, but my dream of a return to the blues of Swansea Bay may be fulfilled in a very different fashion.
Alas, my beloved Swansea Town is now a city. “And so I live in hopes to see, Swansea City once more.” It doesn’t sound the same, does it? It doesn’t have the same carry, the same rhythm, the same resonance. And what about Town Hill? Has it now been renamed City Hill? I am sure Town Hall, the old Brangwyn Hall where my father used to work, is now City Hall, which my father never entered. Enough, no more for “you can never walk in the same river twice” (Heraclitus).
Was that where my life went, a spent candle trailing dark studies among the packed lines of your poems?
And you, was your life gutted by that same guttering candle by whose light you scrawled your tight black spider rhymes?
Were they all meaningless, your insights and my words? So few now know who you were and what you represented and I, your scholar, a mere shadow of your shadow struggling in the straggling light of a far-off continent, far from content at knowing so much about you. Intent I was on spreading light and the word to a world that thinks the two of us absurd.
Our world is spinning on its edge, placed on the perimeter of space, and going nowhere. Specks of dust we sit and contemplate the vastness of what exactly: our fortunes, our spirits, our houses, our power, our lands? Out there, in the vastness that surrounds us, worlds without end will never know we existed.
Bleak and blank our names, our deeds, our status, the statues they raise in our praise. And what of our thoughts, those sparks of electricity that link us lip to ear and mind to action and each of our actions transformed by a dance performed by circling planets that shape our wills?
Who programs that universe now? Who plays what trivial games of snakes and ladders in which we are the dots and dashes, pinballs among a million trillion strings of flashing lights?
He was a good man, and a better friend. He came over to mow the lawn and stayed for a beer. “This is gonna sizzle!”
Some called him uneducated, no BA, no MA, no LLB, but he had a golden heart and a PhD in the school of life and hard knocks.
I met men like him in Wales, coal miners in bars, steel workers on rugby teams, sheep farmers from the hills in the big city for the game.
Humble, they were, honest, hard men, hard working, intolerant of pretension and fools. When I went to university, nineteen and full of ideals, they pulled me on one side.
“You’re one of us,” they said. “However high you rise, don’t lose the common touch.”
I met men like him in Spain, foot-soldiers from the Civil War, riflemen, dynamite throwers with their skills learned at coal face and quarry.
Machado wrote poems about them: “Donde hay vino, beben vino; donde no hay vino, beben agua de las fuentes.” Where there is wine, they drink wine. Where there is no wine, they drink water from the fountains.
A good man, an honest man, an uneducated man, some say, who taught me more about life and how to live it than any university professor.
Comment: I read the obituary of one of my best friends in the newspaper today. He moved away from the neighborhood and we lost touch. But I never forgot him. As I have never forgotten those who shaped me in Wales and Spain. I have forgotten many of their names. But I have never forgotten their faces, nor their words of wisdom.At first, his passing brought a shadow to my life. Then I realized that no, he would not have wanted that. I think now of the good times, the laughter, the joy and, instead of mourning for him, I rejoice in all the goodness he gave me. Rest in peace, my friend. I will forget-you-not.
Some of the worst educators I have been unfortunate enough to work with over my undergraduate and graduate years have come up with cliché after cliché in an effort to the sway students into believing that they really are getting an excellent education. One such phrase is the infamous: “We are teaching you to think outside the box.” So, what is their definition of ‘the box‘? Alas, I do not know. They deal in clichés and, by definition, a cliché is a phrase that both parties (teachers and taught) accept as being meaningful, even though it is often without meaning. It is also a conversation closer, as in ‘it is what it is’. It’s hard to argue with that or to reason your way around it. ‘But it doesn’t have to be!’ rarely cuts the mustard aka mouse-turd.
So, if these teachers are teaching their students how to think outside the box, how are they managing to do so? Why by building bigger boxes inside which each student can be safely taught to think, without asking questions, and without looking for independent answers.
Today’s cartoon has two titles: (1) Brave hearts escaping, finding meaning outside the bigger boxes and (2) can the true heart escape its coffin in a bigger box? I love the boxes within boxes and the drawers within each boxed segment into which the young, developing mind can be stuffed and crammed. How do we release those hearts? How do we develop those minds? Certainly not by confining them in bigger boxes. In the battle for hearts and minds, how do we set our students free?
It must be done on the student’s terms, each student, one by one, in co-operation with intelligent, meaningful teachers who step away from cliché and commonplace to enter the learner’s world and to themselves learn how to contact each learner at a mental, spiritual, and intellectual level. Only then will teacher and taught be able to speak of true intellectual freedom. Until that happens, be very careful when your child comes home and announces that today, of all days, that child has been taught to think outside the box. “Verily, I say unto you, open the cage door. Let in the sunshine and the light. Set those children free.” But remember, it must be on a case by case basis, with each individual weighed, assessed, understood, and released to find their own individual way of earning the things they specifically need to know. In true education, one size really doesn’t fit all.
Comment:Another Golden Oldie that suddenly surfaced and, on emerging from the depths, reminded me of another of my callings: that of a teacher of philosophy and a teacher with a philosophy. Retired now, I can no longer help young minds to create and shape themselves. This is doubly true with Covid-19 haunting us, waving at us from the shop-windows, supermarket aisles, and street corners, flapping its wings and trying to fly into our bodies. And remember to distinguish between clichés and things that are not clichés, like ‘Wear a mask’, ‘wash your hands’ (twenty seconds, with soap), and ‘keep a safe social distance’. Do this all the time and hopefully you will avoid thinking inside the bigger box of a six foot pine Covid-19 coffin.
I chose each book, held it in my hands for one last time, then placed it peacefully in its new resting place. Old friends, they were … I broke that friendship and set my friends free to fulfill their promised afterlife on another reader’s shelves.
Mind to mind, though they had lived five hundred years ago, I strove to engage them in lively conversation, Bakhtinian dialogs within our time and space, and that space my basement library.
I loved to hear their lilting speech, to listen to their wisdom with open eyes and mind. I answered them with words I quickly pencilled on each page.
One day, a man arrived from the university. He carried them away in a delivery truck and they were borne to a wider world.
If you see on, bless it, read it, cherish it. Blind now my eyes that devoured their words. Deaf now my ears that heard the dead, for I can listen no more.
Note:“Escucho con mis ojos a los Muertos / I listen with my eyes to the words of the dead.” Francisco de Quevedo (1580-1645)
With thanks to Nicholas Wermuth, who was kind enough to comment and help me revise and restructure this poem.
I sat in class, head in hands, avoiding eye contact. I hoped the priest wouldn’t point me out, call on me, nominate me with a finger, but to no avail. He called my name.
“You have sixty seconds to speak about,” he paused, then produced the rabbit from the hat. “Matches. Come along, stand up, sixty seconds, starting,” he watched the second hand go round on the classroom clock, then counted down: “5, 4, 3, 2, 1 …” waved his hand, and shouted: “Start now!”
Images flashed through my head: matches: cricket matches, boxing matches, rugby matches, soccer matches, chess matches, matches to light the burners on the gas stove, the oven, to light the fire in the fireplace … matches, matchsticks, Match Box toys, Dinky toys, toys for little boys, toys for big boys …
“Fifteen seconds have gone … you have forty-five remaining.”
“When I think about matches, I think about …”
… the first spring day in the bungalow, our summer home. The rooms are cold and damp after the winter and nobody has been here since last year. We lay a fire in the grate, but the wood is damp, as is the old newspaper we gather from our last visit. We search for sugar to aid the blaze that we hope to start, but the sugar bowl is empty. We go to the stove. Cold, winter ashes crowd the fire bowl. We scrape them together in a desperate search for charcoal remains … but we find nothing. We move to the oil-fired lamps and oil stoves. Matches dragged across soggy sandpaper fail to spark …
“Come along, boy. We haven’t got all day. You’ve got thirty seconds left.”
Silence fills the room. It is broken by the childhood sniggers and chuckles of long-forgotten classmates who never became friends My cheeks grow red. I start, stammer, and stop.
… we leave the bungalow. Go next door to where our neighbours winter over. We knock on the door. “Can you lend us a match?” we ask, holding out our hands. Mrs. Williams beams at us. “A match,” she says. “First time in after the winter?” We nod. “I thought so. Saw you arriving. Wondered why you hadn’t come earlier. The weather’s been nice. Here: I can do much better than a match.” She moves over to the fireplace, picks up the little coal shovel, scoops up a generous portion of her fire, heaps on another lump, then two, of fresh coal, and “Here you are,” she says. “Just put it in the fireplace and add some wood and coal. This can be your first fire. Here, you’d better have some matches too.” “Thank you, Mrs. Williams,” we say. “No problem,” she replies. “It’s good to see you back. It’s been lonely here this winter without you.”
“Time’s up,” the priest says. “That’s sixty seconds of silence and you can hardly find a word to say on a simple subject. Are you stupid or what?
My face turns red and I suffer the hot, burning cheeks of childhood shame.
Codes and Coding Where’s Home? (4) A continuing open letter to Jan Hull.
“Languages: they say that to learn another language is to gain another soul and another set of eyes through which to view the world.” I wrote these words on March 23, 2020, on the 22nd day of our Covid-19 lockdown. Why recall this article now? Because Jan Hull talks about Nova Scotian conversational language codes in her book Where’s Home? and her ideas rang a bell and tugged at my memories. CFA, for example, and CBC, and my own invention WAH. Then there are her coffee shop codes of Tim Horton’s and her Burger codes of MacDonald’s, and I mustn’t forget her other small town talking codes of former times and newly named places, must of which are bewildering to the outsider, aka CFA.
Why codes and coding? A rhetorical question, of course. But codes and coding are the basic elements through which language transfers thought, our thoughts. What is a code? Well, we know all about Morse Code and the elaborate codes through which spies from all countries communicate their needs. A code is a way of converting language, changing it, making it available to those initiated in the code and unavailable to those who have not received such initiation. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?
When I was travelling regularly to Spain for research in Spanish libraries, my first port of call was always the local barber shop. I did this for several reasons. In the first place, my Canadian haircut gave me away as a foreigner. This is the hairdresser’s code. The barber’s shop was always the centre of local gossip. Here, buzz words changed hands, politicians were discussed, all the local news was immediately available. Each of these items was a code, a code that made an insider (acceptable) versus an outsider (not to be spoken to). I remember, one summer in Madrid, not getting served in any bar or restaurant. Check haircut: okay. Check shoes: bought new Spanish pair. Check shirt, jacket, tie: all up to date. Inspect lucky customers who are being served … ah … they are all wearing a shiny brass pin showing the symbol of Madrid: El Oso y el Madroño, the bear and the strawberry tree, as seen in La Puerta del Sol.
The next bar I entered saw me sporting El Oso y el Madroño in my lapel. Qué quiere el señor? Immediate service and with a smile. These are social codes, the codes that include the winks and nudges of the upper class, the secret handshakes and foot positions, the names dropped so gently and quietly that they never shatter when they hit the floor. There are also language codes. Northrop Frye wrote The Great Code: The Bible and Literature, a study of the mythology and structure of the Bible, and it was published in 1982. In this wonderful study, Frye showed how themes and language from the bible have influenced the structure of Western Literature, particularly that written in English. Within this code, names, themes, miracles, parables, psalms form a body of common knowledge available to all readers who are christian and whose first language is English.
But there are other codes. Think Courtly Love. Think Petracharism. Petrarch’s poetry, originally written in Italian, was widely imitated throughout Europe. Italian literature, Spanish, French, English, all dip into that code, as does Shakespeare among so many others. Think the Great Chain of Being. Shakespeare is incomprehensible in places unless you unlock this particular code. Think Platonism, Neo–Platonism, Stoicism, Existentialism … okay, so all this is academic, and I do not want to lose you in a sea of academia. So think NFL, think NBA, think NHL, think baseball, think cricket, think rugby, think darts, think all of the things we manipulate on a daily basis in our lives and think how they include some people (those who know and share our codes) and exclude others (those who are unaware of them). LBW, c&b, c. A, b. B, st. A b. B, w, W, b, lb, lbw, dec., RSP … and think of the hand gestures that accompany them! You would have to be an ardent follower of the mysterious game of cricket, as I am, to immediately understand all those letters and signs.
This is a wonderful line of discussion. It follows along the lines of micro-language and macro-language. Macro-language is accessible to all who happen to speak that language. Micro-language in its multidinous forms incarnadine belongs ONLY to those who share the micro community, be it family, household, village, town, county, region … all that is closest and dearest to our micro-hearts.
When I was in Moncton (2015), at the Auberge Msgr. Henri Cormier, I spoke French on a daily basis. Being an academic and a linguist, I was fascinated by the levels of French that were spoken in that small community. Here are the levels I identified: (1) LFI, Le francais international, the central French language that I spoke and everyone understood. (2) Acadian, a beautiful language with regional variations, a different accent and rhythm, and some very different words and phrases. (3) Chiac, the mixed English-French used by the citizens of Moncton, whose wonderful poets are trying to get it established as a literary language. (4) Community French, five families from Paquetville were there and when they spoke among themselves about their home town, references, history, culture were all barriers to those who did not come from Paquetville. (5) Family Groups, and this is easy to understand, for all families have their in-jokes, their coded speech, their conversations that keep the outsider outside of the family group.
It is a fascinating study, that of coded languages, and I thank you, Jan, for re- opening it and reminding me of it.
After I delivered the lecture at London University, as it was back then, I caught the tube and descended at Paddington station. While waiting for the train back to Cardiff, I sat in the station bar and ordered a pint of beer and a Cornish pasty. An older man wearing a sweater and jeans asked if he could join me. I didn’t say ‘yes’ but he sat down anyway and straight away began to talk. I paid no attention to him until he rolled up his sleeve and showed me the collection of scars that ran crisscross, hard and welted, over his left wrist. “Failed attempts,” he said. “But I’ll get it right next time. “I wouldn’t want you to make the same mistakes I did. If you want to kill yourself, you must do it this way,” he reached across the table and picked up the knife I had used to cut my pasty. He pulled out a dirty hanky and wiped the knife in it. Then he laid the blade not cross-wise but parallel to the artery in his wrist. “And you must dig deep, first time, and at a slight angle.” “I’ve got to go,” I told him as a tinny voice came over the Tannoy. “That’s my train.” I stood up, leaving the remains of my pint and my pasty on the table. I got to the door of the station bar and looked back. Then I watched as my table companion finished my pasty and reached across the table to claim the remains of my beer. “Quite the lecture,” I thought. “Good job I didn’t spit in the glass.” Then I realized that both my day’s lectures had been effective, in one way or another.
When I was very young, a long time ago, in Swansea, many of our streets still had gas lamps. The lamp-lighter would appear in winter around three or three-thirty to light those lamps. I remember him walking up the street with his long pole over his shoulder, moving from lamp to lamp. We had one outside our front door. He would turn on the gas, then light the lamp from the lighted wick at the end of his pole. Sometimes he carried a ladder with him. Then, every so often, when the lamp needed tending, he would climb the ladder and adjust the wick. These gas lights were not very bright but they stood out like light houses between stretches of darkness and we would walk from pool to glowing pool, as if they were stepping stones leading us up the hill to home. We all knew the lamplighter and he would often wave to us as we sat in the front room window to watch him walk by. We rarely saw him in the mornings when he came back to turn off the lamps. We were all tucked safely into our beds. I remember that I wanted to be lamplighter. Later I realized that there are many ways to light a lamp and spread brightness through the world. When I grew up, I became teacher, a coach, a faculty adviser, a mentor, a creator, and those roles allowed me to establish myself as a lighter of a very different set of lamps.