Whole lotta shakin’ … not going on

Time is a strange beast. Sometimes a straight line plummetting down into the depths, dragging us down as it goes, sometimes a great circle and we sit on the circumference watching our present, our past, and our future whizz by, just out of reach. Ok, maybe it’s a spiral. The fact is, that every so often we revisit our past. Past girlfriends, past places, past lives. We know that everything will be different, yet we still strangely expect it to be the same.

Yesterday I bumped into my past, my present and my future simultaneously. And it was strange. What made it particularly strange is that while said bumping was in occurrence, I noticed that the strangeness had been noted on facebook. ‘Waiting for Jedi’, read the status report.

I suppose I ought to explain. Yesterday, I popped out of the ‘office’ to visit a friend and old student. Make no mistake, this gentleman is a highly accomplished guitarist. Like me, he has trod the publishing boards, producing articles, columns and cds for various publications. Now, I don’t mind admitting that I was somewhat nervous. After all, when I was teaching him, I was uber-guitarist (rock), and my every note was hung upon by students such as he. I was worried that he would dazzle me into some humility – is that it? I’m unsure.

No. I wanted to be dazzled. And I wasn’t disappointed. While by his own admission a little rusty, he showed a maturity in his playing which was very impressive.

I was worried that he would think I sucked. That he would re-consider his opinion of me. That would hurt.

So, I’m explaining the parky’s and showing how frigid and rigid my left hand is (and yesterday, for some reason – tension? – it really was pitiful) and then picked up a guitar. Yes, I could barely string two notes together, but there were flashes of what my fingers could once do. I explained that so far as I can see, actions burnt into one’s muscle memory are less affected than those which require active nerve impulses. It’s the will which is denied by this disease. All the same, my fingers were less than impressive.

He fired up his amp, stuck on a backing track, and began to wail, as they say. I won’t lie, I was itching to have a go, but really rather scared at the possible outcome. After all, I have hardly picked up an electric guitar in the last ten years – I’ve probably spent as long playing an electric in that time as I used to spend in a day practising. And to add to that, I couldn’t remember the last time I played with an amplifier. It must be four or five years.

So. The track finishes. He hands me his guitar as naturally as can be, and I begin. It’s faltering at first, but my fingers begin to loosen up just a little, and every so often a nice little phrase pops out, or a burning little run flies from the speakers … in parts, it’s not bad.

He is very kind about my playing – overly so, but in some ways he’s right. There is some stuff still there. Some glimpses of what I used to be capable of.

But there is a caveat.

Every time I get to the end of a phrase – no matter whether it’s been any good or not – my fingers simply stop. Phrasing on a guitar is so dependent on that note, because it’s the pay-off … the note which you stamp with your personality. The note which you vibrato.

I discover something about vibrato. It doesn’t live in the muscle memory. It’s an instruction. You actively make the note sing.

I. Have. No. Vibrato.

This is shocking. Vibrato is one of the great leveller in guitaristic circles, and it’s one of the things parkinson’s has taken away. Ironic, really. A good, good friend said on hearing of my diagnosis that I ought to get a lap steel guitar, because ‘you’ll have the best vibrato’. The shaking palsy, however, seems to be preventing me from shaking notes. That, children, is the true definition of irony.

Now, I know that this disease, and the therapy which accompanies it, has changed me, in some ways quite fundamentally. As a guitarist, however, it has robbed me of my identity. Bastard.

Please stop teaching them Shakespeare

Shakespeare. Let’s say it again. Shakespeare. A word which strikes fear into the average schoolchild, and eye-rolling boredom in the average adult. But why? Received wisdom says that Shakespeare is the great genius of literature, so far ahead of the pack that many refuse to believe he even existed, putting his plays down to a ‘tortured genius’ like Marlowe, a simple genius like Bacon, a toff like the Earl of Oxford, or some sort of literary conspiracy.

All nonsense, of course, but it reflects the fact that Shakespeare is more than simply the playwright. He’s an industry, an icon of Englishness, the cultural glue that binds. His legacy amounts to something more than the sum of the parts, the plays, the hundreds of phrases he introduced, or the slightly misleading truism that the OED lists more words as having their first outing in Shakespeare than in any other writer’s work. For some, Shakespeare practically created the English language, and if you believe Harold Bloom, he invented the human being. This, I presume, is why the government recently decided that children as young as five ought to be studying Shakespeare. As schools minister Jim Knight put it in these pages a mere brace of weeks past, “Shakespeare is the most famous playwright of all time. One of our great Britons, his work is studied all over the world. It is fitting then that his work is a protected part of the curriculum in the country he came from.” It’s certainly true that, as one of my MA students recently observed, Shakespeare “straddles high and low culture”, as he’s simultaneously the autocthenous bard of bawdy ribaldy and testy insults, whose characters swear, drink and fornicate, and the absolute of high culture. Name a character ruder than Falstaff, a work of art held in higher esteem than Hamlet. I dare you.

Ay, there’s the point. So why is it that when undergraduates are presented with the choice of a course on Shakespeare, they tend to skip it? Why do so few of them go to see his plays? The answer, I’m afraid, is simple. They don’t get Shakespeare. They don’t appreciate it. They don’t like Shakespeare. This is something of a problem, as the government, the school system, the Shakespeare industry and the media are constantly banging the “Shakespeare is the great cultural pillar on which our country’s character is based” drum. If we ignore the slight whiff of propaganda and brain-washing this pushing of Shakespeare onto our youth resembles, then there’s a real problem. We’re making our youth dislike the very thing we tell them is both the great unifying experience of Englishness, and the acme of high culture. Personally, I’m not convinced that this is a good thing.

Mr Knight was quoted in The Times as saying that “even very young children can become gripped by Shakespeare’s stories and characters,” and unsurprisingly, they’re going to be indulging in pastimes such as “using puppets and masks to retell their own versions of Shakespearean stories.” I suppose they can be gripped by these stories, and perhaps one or two of the characters, but there’s a problem here. As we all know, if you boil Shakespeare down to the plots he’s neither particularly good nor remotely original. In a very real sense, there are no Shakespearean stories. They’re all nicked. Every last jack one of ‘em. His manipulation of these second-hand plots is interesting, and worthy of study, but what school is going to make their children read The Iliad and Chaucer and Lydgate’s medieval treatments of the Troilus story before getting onto Troilus and Cressida? None. So instead we feed our children Bowdlerised versions of the least interesting parts of Shakespeare, while society tells them that when it comes to writing, he’s the one. And “one of the greatest Britons ever”, to boot. No wonder they’re disillusioned. Macbeth reduced to three scabby witches brewing newt soup is high culture? This was produced by a great Briton? Yes, they might love Romeo and Juliet, but that’s because of Leonardo di Caprio, not Shakespeare.

The genius of Shakespeare lies in the language, not the stories. Of course, the plots help frame and direct the language, but what Shakespeare did better than anyone else is writing. Why, then, must we insist on force-feeding our schoolchildren these great plays of western civilisation, and yet ignore the very essence of their greatness?.

But here’s the rub. Shakespeare’s language is difficult. Far too difficult for the majority of schoolchildren. And eventually they’ll have to put down their puppets and confront it. But it seems that making them struggle through it just because Shakespeare is this great, shining cultural edifice simply alienates them, makes them hate the man, hate the plays, while giving them the sneaking suspicion that high culture, and for that matter Englishness, excludes them. The government is perhaps right to note that Shakespeare isn’t embedded in the hearts and minds of our youth, but rather than trying to make it accessible by reducing it to a bundle of specious ‘universal themes’, we might do better to accept and embrace the fact that Shakespeare is tough. Accept the fact that it’s too difficult for most, if not all, schoolchildren (and I use the term so we don’t get confused with university students). So let’s not teach it to them until they get to university.

Yes, you read right. Of course, some will say that this simply puts Shakespeare back in the hands of the university elite, but it never really left, did it? It’s true that teaching Shakespeare at school just might turn on a couple of kids onto Shakespeare who’ll never go into higher education, but it’s already turning off far more than that amongst those who are going into University. Don’t ban them from reading Shakespeare, just don’t force them to.

In my experience, and I’m not alone, undergraduates arrive at University neither equipped to deal with Shakespeare, nor much liking it. The nature of A level study encourages them to spit out impressive-sounding but empty phrases and concepts they’ve learnt practically by rote rather than indulge in considered analysis. This is both because of the need to get A grades, and because Shakespeare is too difficult for them. The result is that we get some students who can barely string a coherent sentence together, let alone construct an argument of any kind. Re-training them is difficult when they’re already sick of the texts we admire so much.

But they aren’t ill-equipped because they are stupid, or because their teachers are rubbish: it’s simply that they’re ill-served by this Shakespeare obsession. The time they spend ‘reading’ something they really can’t get is wasted time, the net result of which is that when they read Shakespeare, they see ink, not poetry. First-year undergraduate essays on Shakespeare are too often Cocteau meets Larkin: they have a beginning, a muddle, and an end, just not necessarily in that order.

We can’t teach English without literature, of course, but let’s give them works they can access, appreciate, even if they have to be ‘classics’: literature which they can read without having to translate it first. The literary minded A level student is more likely to see themselves as a type of Byron or Bronte, a Coleridge or a Camus than a playwright like Shakespeare – unless you consider Joe Fiennes in Shakespeare in Love. But Joe played Shakespeare as a Byronic or Keatsian hero. It’s the romantics and the existentialists who provide perfect reading for the angst-ridden years. So, let’s take the Lyrical Ballads as a starting-point, throw in Wuthering Heights, perhaps some Wilkie Collins. Give them Keats, Hemingway, Hunter S Thompson. Stuff that inspires, not confuses. Give them writers they’ll want to quote, writers they’ll want to steal lines from. Compare Churchill with George Bush, not with Henry V. When they get to University they can study the difficult stuff like Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and Spenser.

Dropping Shakespeare from the school curriculum is not sacrilege, it’s wisdom. Sacrilege is making them hate Shakespeare by forcing them to read it at school as a result of misguided cultural arrogance. A student will only read the difficult, truly rewarding stuff if they want to. If they’ve read Pullman, for example, by the time they’re given Paradise Lost they might actually want to read it, and not give up after ploughing through the argument. Read enough, and you soon notice that Shakespeare turns up everywhere. It isn’t long before you want to go direct to source.

Let’s do a thought experiment. You’re a thoughtful, skillful and accomplished reader, because you’ve been shown how to read properly at school. And you still read books. You keep bumping into Shakespeare in other works, so you decide to read some, because he must have something going on, right? Everyone talks about him, after all. You pick up Richard III. Imagine reading his opening soliloquy for the first time. Imagine reaching the passage where Richard meets Anne with the corpse of her almost father-in-law (killed by Richard) and practically seduces her, before making off with the body. Now that’s the power of words. It would blow your mind. Show it to a kid and they’ll go ‘whatever’. And rightly so.

So. To sum up. Leave Shakespeare until university. At school, teach children to read confidently and write clearly. Equip them with the tools they need to read the difficult stuff themselves, later on, should they choose to. Then when they get to University, or pick it up through choice, they’ll meet this great literature and it will be fresh and new and it will amaze and entrance them, not bore them. And we’ll produce graduates who really can read, who really can write, and not just churn out stock phrases and arguments without understanding them. And, more to the point, I won’t have to mark any more essays which use words like ‘widespreadily’, suggest that things were done ‘in a plotish way’, tell me that Spenser finishes his stanzas with an ‘alexandrian’, or write sentences such as ‘it is consciously self-aware of itself as a new self-reflexive style’. Oh, hang on, that last one was Derrida, wasn’t it?

© Pete Langman 2008

To see what chapped my hide so much, just go here:


Performance Anxiety II

[December 2009]

Now, there are several types of anxiety from which a performer can suffer from. While I don’t play the guitar any more, and certainly not in public (and when pointing this out to someone recently I was interrupted by my companion who said something along the lines of ‘what you played for me was beautiful’, and it was all I could do to prevent myself from saying something incredibly rude about her musical taste and discernment), I do perform. Every lecture, every seminar, every tutorial – each one a performance.

So, for reasons best known to myself, I suggest to my first-year poetry class that we visit the sea, and talk about sea poetry. Of two seminars, I get eight students. My best efforts to say ‘turn up early’ fall on deaf ears. One can’t afford it, another is late. I stay behind to chaparone. But the train is ok, I hand back essays. I talk about stuff. It starts to rain. Cheers, world. One student (the late one) hasn’t brought a coat … typical. We walk to the windswept palace pier and get buffeted and rained upon, rained at, rained over … then head west. Every step is painful as I think i’ve utterly fucked up and they’re miserable. I order mulled wine at the pub we’re travelling to. A wise move.

We arrive, and my poet arrives. The students self-consciously read their selections, Naomi reads from her forthcoming collection, and performs a published poem. I can’t decide whether they like it, or hate it. They are more chatty than usual, but it’s still a little like pulling teeth. Have I simply lost them? Surely not … or they wouldn’t have come. But the arrogant ones from the second group simply didn’t show. Well, they’ll regret it come exam time – and they’ll blame me.

You see, this is me. I’m sat somewhere above the north atlantic, on my way to a relaxing holiday in Northern California, and I’m worried about my students. Jesus.

I really ought to be concerned that I’m visiting a friend I haven’t seen for sixteen years. It could be an utter disaster. Really. Who knows? Last time I saw her eldest son he was eighteen months old – now he’s eighteen and at college. And what have I done? Well, that’s a good question. Let’s make a list. The years they fly by, it’s true (and this plane smells faintly of urine), but when we say ‘what have I done? Where’s it gone? Are we just kidding ourselves, or perhaps being total fuckwits?

so. in no particular order:

Bought and renovated one flat, renovated one house, bought and renovated another.

Written two novels, one kids’ book, fifteen short stories, about sixty songs, around sixty magazine articles on guitar playing, and some ten interviews. Two letters in the guardian, two independent interviews, one article for the independent, one for Prospect. Achieved BA, Mres and PhD. Published one essay in a collection, edited one collection, provided another.

Married, divorced. Oh, hell, slept with several women. Ok, didn’t sleep that much.

Become a cricketer and level one cricket coach, brown belt at karate, learnt to climb and almost snowboard.

Learnt the hard way how to be a sound engineer in the theatre.

Been a tour guide.

Made educational videos.

Performed heaven knows how many gigs.

Built a recording studio and recorded lots and lots of music.

Became a guitar virtuoso.

Taught christ knows how many students the guitar (including one rich one) and various types of english lit.

Made friends, lost friends. Buried one cat.

Been best man at one wedding.

[lacuna to be filled]

Developed an interesting disease which is trying to define me.

Been to America twice (three times in a few hours), Zanzibar, Spain, Morocco, Florence, Rome, Paris, Nice, the Isle of Wight, Germany, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Slough …

Taught at four different universities, one music school.

Now, I’m wondering whether that’s a lot, or not much. Sixteen years. Where does one draw the line at interesting things to do or have done?

I don’t know, either. If I had time, I’d have a mid-life crisis. But that can wait until August, when I’ll be unemployed again. Probably. Possibly.

© Pete Langman 2009