Teachers Remembered

Forty-four years after I left school, I still find myself thinking of some of my teachers and the things they said. I am tempted to say they don’t make them like that any more.

Some of them are certainly dead by now. Old George, who taught me history, had retired at least twice before he taught me. Some are certainly still alive, some being fresh out of university. (Quite obviously in a couple of cases.)

I was seven years at a 450 year old boys’ grammar school, now a sixth-form college. (Gasp! There are…… girls there!) Latin and optional Greek were taught, but there were good modern science facilities. It was formal (we wore uniform until we left at 18) but, despite rumour, I think there was no use of anything as archaic as the cane. Describing the school is however not the point. To the teachers.

I am still grateful to Mr Pilgrim. I hazard a guess that, like others, he had been in the army. He was a PE teacher. We hated him. He was nicknamed Bas, because it was felt he was a real Bas****. There was a biblical spoof about him that went: “In the beginning there was a piece of wood. Out of it I made the gym. My gym. And in my gym, all boys are equal. Except for my son Bruce, for he shall be more equal than others.”

I did very poorly in my second year maths exams, and ended up, to my horror, in a set taught by Mr Pilgrim. He was superb. He was calm and controlled. Best of all, his explanations were clear and understandable. I did really well, and ended up years later with half of my degree in mathematics. Mr P., I wish I had searched you out and thanked you.

Then there was the incredible rarity, a maths teacher, who told us to call him by his Christian name (but who nevertheless had complete control). He regarded triple maths A-level sessions last thing on a Friday afternoon as a cruel and unusual punishment, so we’d end up discussing apartheid (he was South African) and music.

Classroom control is a funny thing. Miss Old, a very old-school (and very good) English teacher had it, without ever raising her voice, or ever, as I remember, making an effort. You would just never have thought of messing her about. Others could shout, bluster and punish, but never gain respect.

Then there was Mr Martin, known rather unfairly as Spock, because of his ears. He taught English. He introduced me to Shakespeare, as well as Hardy, Browning and E. E. Cummings. OK, all but the last were set authors; but quietly he enthused me with a love I have never lost.

We did art lessons in a little hut, for some strange reason. The teacher was R.T Hull, known as Arty Hull…. get it? I enjoyed art, but the best gift he gave me was his part of some ‘Integrated Studies’ sixth form lectures, which introduced me to modern art, and especially Monet. (The same series also introduced Satie and philosophy.)

In chemistry Mr Arthur (for forgotten reasons known as Dan) has left me with words I still use to my children. “Sir, do we have to do…. (whatever task we thought unnecessary), Sir?” To which his answer was always: “Smith; you don’t have to do anything in this world.” The inference was clear. He also recommended a bucket of sewage as the very best fertiliser and made us jump off our stools when he left some unstable iodide compounds on a radiator. He had the greatest pair of eyebrows ever.

The nicknames were a very traditional phenomenon. Alliteration was a favourite, as in Percy Porlock. (From him comes another memory: “Smith, there was a dirty great trap waiting there for you, and you fell into it with both feet, didn’t you, Smith?”) Real or imagined first names were popular. Physical attributes were favoured, too, as in Spock, and also Hitler, a German teacher with a conveniently Hitler-like moustache. If all else failed, euphonious initials were good, like for Ras who taught PE with Bas. Sometimes the name itself worked, as for Mr O’Connor, known universally as Okie: who sadly died at the end of our second year.

Last I will mention Jim, the music teacher. He was very traditional in his material, but I’m still grateful for having to learn how to construct a scale. He played us music as well. He was apparently a very good jazz pianist as well as a church organist. Best of all, from his end of term free-for-alls he left me the life-long love of Django Reinhardt.

There are so many more I have left out or forgotten. Many of them- perhaps most of them- taught very well. A few were rubbish, some in the wrong job. One of the reasons I started teaching was that I thought I could do better. Fool.


Teachers Remembered

(The photograph is of Julius Axelrod. I know very little about him, but I recognise a benzene ring when I see one. Thanks, Dan)


It’s Obvious

Yes, I know it’s not Sunday. But this is too brief to hold back.

According to the Daily Mail (16th July 2018) lecturers at Bath University have been instructed not to use the term “as you know” to students, which could make students feel at fault for not knowing. This is seen as being an example of the fragility of the ‘snowflake generation’.

I do not feel qualified to comment on such language, coming as I do from more robust academic times. I do wonder if there is a basic body of knowledge that students should be expected to know, depending on context.

However, this does remind me of a very good old story about a mathematics tutor. He was giving a lecture one day, chalked something on the blackboard, then said:

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is obvious”.

He stopped and looked again at the equation.

At least, I think it’s obvious.”

He grabbed pencil and paper, then disappeared. After a short interval, he came back, beaming, and said:

Yes, it is obvious.”

This probably says more about mathematics than lecturers and students. But it has the ring of truth about it.

It's Obvious

For your pleasure, the caption to this non-copyright picture reads:

Here is more obvious that the boundary is the union of two Mö-bands along the two borders of the vertical annulus.”

Of course.

Four Funerals and a Wedding

To my amusement, I recently realised that since my retirement I have only worn ties for four funerals and a wedding.

This was a strange thought, as I used to wear a tie every working day as a teacher. I always felt that dressing up for work concentrated my mind better. I hated non-uniform days, which I always felt were counter-productive.

Four Funerals and a WeddingTies were at one point the only way an English gentleman (I cannot speak for gentlemen in other countries) could express any individuality in dress, especially formal dress. Traditionally, ladies (or perhaps traditional ladies) had to spend ages choosing an outfit. It was easy for us chaps. Get out the good suit, pick a colourful tie and maybe a new shirt, shine your shoes and off you go.

There has been a move away from ties in recent years. Former England cricket captain (and all-round Clever Chap) Mike Brearley was famously against ties, even in the hallowed precincts of the MCC.

I can see his point. They really are a thing of the past. They really are only a decoration. However a letter to the Times this week noted that ties were becoming unfashionable, but advocated them for older men to cover their ‘chicken-like’ necks.

No comment.

I have also just read that neurologists have discovered that wearing a tie for as little as 15 minutes restricts blood flow to the brain. (The male brain, the report said. Do women never wear ties?)

I shall probably pick a tie and go thus attired to the few remaining formal events there will be in my life. I have a huge number still. Reasonable hire or purchase options are available.

The Fashion Police reserve the right to comment.

Drop-Dead Serious

My ire has been roused. My cage has been rattled. I’ve tried to keep this blog positive, but I must have a rant. Much good will it do me.

Two recent related news items have started this off- or re-ignited it.

The first was about an atrocious incident in Eastleigh. Ambulance crews were called to a report of a 13-year-old girl having a cardiac arrest. On arrival, they were bombarded with bricks, chairs and other missiles. They were injured. Two girls of 13 and 14 were arrested. At the time of writing there was no further news.

Following this was the news that paramedics in England are to be equipped with body cameras, to help protect them from violent attacks. Assaults have risen by 34% in four years, according to the Sunday Times.

This is of some concern to me, as Miss Oblique #2 and her partner are paramedics. I cannot tell any of their stories, for reasons of confidentiality; nobody has attacked them, but the disrespect they are sometimes shown is breathtaking. (As is the time-wasting.)

What do I feel about this? Furious? Incandescent? Mildly peeved? To be honest, above all I feel utterly bemused, confused and uncomprehending.

Why would anybody want to attack people who are trying to help others? Why would anybody want to hurt them? Why would they want to stop patients from being treated? Surely self-interest should come into play. Surely nobody would want to hurt a paramedic who was trying to treat their loved ones- or themselves.

I have, obviously, no answers or solutions. There is no logic or reasoning I can see behind these acts. Is it idiocy? Madness? Total lack of empathy? Evil?

The biggest question of all is: what good does it do writing this? I don’t honestly think it will make things better. I can’t imagine anybody who might read this who would approve of such acts. I would love to know if anybody can explain them, or find a practical solution.


Ambient Music- A Personal View

As I said last week, labels for genres in music are a subject of huge disagreement, but can be useful (and fun to argue about).

It is perhaps debatable whether “ambient” music is music or not. The term was coined by Brian Eno. He was recovering from an accident; he put on an LP of harp music, then collapsed into bed. The volume was far to low and one channel was missing, but he found himself hearing the music in the context of all the sounds around. It was a different way of experiencing music, as sounds that we “hear but don’t hear” (David Toop). You might even say “listening but not listening” (Mark Oblique).

Ambient Music- Brian_Eno_(Prague,_2017) Brian Eno

Erik Satie, that very eccentric French composer, had the idea of ‘musique d’ameublement’ around the end of the 19th century. It was designed as music to fill the space in conversation, to dull the clatter of knives and forks. When he experimented with it he had to rush round to get people to carry on with their conversations rather than stop and listen. It was an idea before its time.

Ambient Music- Eric Satie by Suzanne Valadon Erik Satie

The background music called Muzak® was also written to be just that: a bland background, usually of strings, to make a softer ambience in shops, cafés and the like. Nowadays it seems to be replaced by pop music played at a very low volume.

But were Satie’s ‘musique d’ameublement’ and Muzak really ambient music? You were not meant to listen to them; in the case of Eno he was listening, which drew his attention to ambient sound. At its most basic, hearing or listening to ambient music could be thought of as just being aware of sounds in the environment. In that sense, would it really be music? Isn’t music created deliberately? Discuss. (10 marks)

Before the term ambient was used, John Cage wrote or conceived his piece 4′ 33”, in which the performer opens a piano lid and then closes it afer 4 minutes and 33 seconds to signal the end of the piece. Is it music? Or is it abstract art? Or is it a con? (10 marks. Use a pencil.)

However, the idea of ambience has given rise to the creation of a lot of interesting (but sometimes bland) music. There is a lot of music labelled as ambient which I feel is far from it. The label seems often to be another term for relaxed, minimalist and chillout music (see last week).

Having said that, the best work can be challenging, lovely or fun. There is a great sampler from the late lamented ‘St David’s Ambience Society’ of Exeter which has a whole range. (See footnote.)

Ambient Music001

At the other end from Eno and John Cage are Kraftwerk, whose track ‘Autobahn’ verges on ambience, incorporating sounds that evoke a late night motorway drive, down to the radio. I just wish somebody would do a very long mix of it, so that you could drive for hours with it on. (I don’t however feel that just adding a few sampled sounds to a track make it ambient, though that is not what Kraftwerk do.)

Ambient Music002

A book called ‘Ocean of Sound’, by David Toop, has an absorbing take on the whole subject of ambient sound and related ideas, with far more erudition and insight than I could ever attempt. I recommend it, although some passages now strike me as what used to be called “purple prose”.

Ambient Music003

I’m not going to attempt a definition of ambient music. I like it that any discussion of it inevitably leads to me listening to the sounds of the world. I used to play music low in the car and listen to the other sounds (tyre noise, engines, other car radios) that go on around it. I don’t think you can appreciate ambient music on headphones.

For fun, ambient sounds I have recently enjoyed include:

  • the hum of the refrigerator accompanied by the hum of my laptop

  • the roar of power tools, with the tapping of a cold chisel as a percussive coda

Oh, look what I did there, completely without thinking. I made constructs of the sounds, in the fashion of musical compositions. It reminds me of how as a teenager, unable to sleep, I’d listen out for the dawn chorus (surely louder then?) and imagine the sounds as a piece of music. Blackbirds, by the way, are sax soloists, repeating neat phrases with variations. But I’m rambling.

Maybe there is a continuum or spectrum involving ambience:

Ambient Music004

…and so on. Perhaps “music” occurs somewhere in between 3 and 4.

Enough of this. Theo Travis and Robert Fripp have a new album coming out which apparently could be labelled ambient. Go listen to that.

Footnote: The ‘St David’s Ambience Society’ were an offshoot of the Future Sound of Exeter, who put on some great gigs. The offshoot was often known as the SAS, which led to their two taglines: “Chill or Be Chilled” and “Mess with us and you’ll be going home in an ambience”. Both they and the FSOE now seem to be sadly defunct, and I don’t suppose you can get the sampler.

Photo of Eno by Jindřich Nosek (NoJin) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons