Friday, 8 September 2017

Statement from Minister for Telling Everyone That Things Are OK Really.

As Minister for Telling Everyone That Things Are OK Really, I'd like to repeat that inequality is not really a problem. Apart from anything else, it's clear that income inequality is coming down. This means that we don't take into consideration such things as tax avoidance, wealth acquired through rent, sale of assets and dividends from shares which has enabled people to become extraordinarily wealthy. But then we don't want people to focus on that sort of thing because it breeds envy. In the meantime I'm going to keep going on about how inequality is coming down, and life is getting better for all. Thank you.

My tour dates for 'So They Call You Pisher! A Memoir'

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Thinking about helping students to write?

Thinking about helping kids to write? 
(If you already do this, know this, just ignore what follows!) 

Hollywood have just produced a 'Lord of the Flies' with girls instead of boys. Forget whether it might be good/bad or not. It's a great way to get school students of all ages to write: just 'flip' or 'switch' an element of a story: e.g. one character/some characters/ all of the characters/one aspect of the setting/the whole setting...switch from animals to humans/vice versa - switch setting from e.g. earth to space, from one country to another....

This way you keep the 'syntax' of the story, while changing one or more of the 'paradigms'. You are doing the equivalent of changing 'The cat sat on the mat' to e.g. 'The dog sat on the mat' or e.g. 'The cat sat on the cat'....and seeing what happens.

It relieves kids from 'plotting' a story, it takes them into the idea that writing is partly about 'play', playing with the ideas, thoughts and texts that already exist and when you switch or flip, new thoughts, ideas and texts come to mind. They may well create new plots without even knowing they are, as they play with the paradigms.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Nick Gibb is going to stamp out verbal homophobic bullying

Nick Gibb says in the Mail that he's going to stamp out homophobic bullying including the discriminatory use of the word 'gay'. He wants to do that in schools. To do that he'll need to enlist the support of teachers.

1. This assumes that teachers don't do their best to discuss and eliminate discriminatory language.
2. It overlooks the fact that Labour councils and the NUT have over the years tried to take up issues of discriminatory language across the board. For this they got abuse and mockery from the Tory press and Tory MPs. This was part of the Equal Opportunities programme which was in the end ditched, I believe, thanks to the attacks.
3. Why has Gibb picked out one word 'gay' from the raft of discriminatory language? There are many words which are used to hurt and abuse and help construct a hierarchy of power of the so-called 'normal' over others e.g. 'lame' and many racist words.
4. I suspect another agenda here: cosmetic work by the Tories on their 'image' in the face of Corbyn.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Imagine a government commission on writing...

Imagine a government setting up a commission to discuss 'writing in primary schools'. 

Surveying the scene at present it would see that a key factor in writing were the SATs and in particular the GPS (formerly the SPaG tests at KS1 and KS2). (Translating the jargon here: the spelling, punctuation and grammar tests  for 6/7 year olds and for 10/11 year olds.)

These are a key factor because teachers have to prove that children reach 'expected levels'. These expected levels require teachers to teach aspects of the spelling, punctuation and grammar as part of what equals 'good writing'. To take some examples: teachers have to show that good writing includes using 'expanded noun phrases', 'fronted adverbials' and embedded 'relative clauses'. 

To be quite clear: anyone using these features is not necessarily a good writer. Practising how to use them doesn't necessarily lead to good writing.  

There is a long reason why we have reached this point and it has very little to do with grammar or 'good writing'. It stems from the fact that the government wanted to have what they thought was a foolproof system of assessing teachers and schools. To do that, they wanted a test which only had 'right/wrong answers'. The teachers would teach to the test. The teachers who succeeded in getting their children to pass that test would be 'good'. Those who didn't would be 'bad'. On that basis a school would be marked as not good enough (depending on the jargon of the moment) and could be turned from being a Local Authority school to an academy , or from an academy academy.

All this was put into writing between April and June of the year that Lord Bew chaired the production of the Bew Report on Assessment. Note it was 'assessment' not on writing! That tells all. It was that report which implemented the present regime of testing grammar which has led to these requirements in children's writing.

Clearly, if you create some key features in writing, which could be seen as crucial, then these can be ticked and marked and aggregated as marks of quality or failure. That's what all this talk of fronted adverbials, expanded noun phrases and embedded relative clauses is all about. It's simply about grabbing a bit of supposedly 'robust' or 'fixed' knowledge, applying it, so that it can be marked as right/wrong. 

But...the key thing here is that this 'knowledge' - grammar - is nowhere near as fixed as GPS testing makes out. You only have to read the last few pages of David Crystal's latest book, 'Making Sense, The Glamorous Story of English Grammar' to see how un-fixed a good deal of it is. And if Crystal had had the time to widen his perspective even more, he could have, say, incorporated the work of M.A.K. Halliday which poses even more problems for the definition of 'grammar' being applied with the GPS. (Halliday was keen to come up with a system of grammar that tried to explain why we say or write things and so wanted to include the 'social function' of language-use with his use of 'field', 'tenor' and 'mode'. It doesn't matter immediately here whether it was successful or not. What matters is that he raised the question of grammar being a result of social function and not, as some suggest simply and purely a system of rules and structures, in some kind of self-governing, self-ruling system.) 

So back to my imagined situation of a commission on writing. And let's say that it could be freed from any considerations of summative assessment but could and should include considerations of formative assessment. 

If it was truly open it would include experienced classroom teachers who were themselves still in a position to research classroom practice; teacher-trainers; people engaged in 'action research' either as teachers of teachers (declared self-interest here, that's me!), or as the researchers themselves; linguists, applied linguists, literary theorists, writing theorists...and writers (!) both for children and for adults. 

Over the last 40 years I've been engaged in several ways in these various fields and seen people from all these fields getting involved in how to help children write well. There's been hardly a week of school terms in that time I  haven't been involved in it myself, whether through trying to find ways of writing or performing for children, running writing workshops with children, writing about writing, writing about teaching writing, working with teachers getting them to write, running workshops with them on their teaching of writing, supervising students researching their own teaching to write/respond to writing...and so on. On the side, I've tried to keep up with trends in linguistics partly through the programme I present on radio 'Word of Mouth' and/or through reading books and research. 

This represents, then,  a mix of practical and theoretical approaches none of which I would claim as final or definitive or require applying universally. The teaching of writing has to take into considerations the strengths, experience and cultures of those participating in that moment - in short the teacher(s) and the children in that moment. 

That said, one immediate thing strikes me. There is a body of theory which hardly gets any mention when it comes to talking about teaching writing, and yet to my mind and in my experience can, if broken down into usable methods, contribute greatly. The areas go by the awkward terms like 'narratology',  'intertextuality', 'rhetoric', 'structuralism', 'figuration', 'pragmatics'  and the like. 

Narratology is the study of how writing is narrated or 'told'. It suggests that every piece of writing is not simply telling a 'what' but  has hundreds of strategies for telling it 'how'. If I use a term like 'flashback', that is 'narratological' as it describes that there is a moment in the writing where we go back to collect some information which the writer thought necessary or desirable. If I make a comment about the introduction of 'direct speech', 'indirect speech', what the protagonist was thinking at this point' - again that would be 'narratological'. If I draw attention to a 'digression' or a 'red herring', or how the introduction of a detail both 'reveals and conceals' at the same time, or whether there is 'first person' or 'third person' narration; whether I talk about the 'focaliser' of any given moment (ie through whose eyes do we see this event?) and so on and so on, these are all narratological questions.  Though the theorists of narratology have a gamut of terms to explain what is going on, nearly all of them can be explained by specific example, modelling and imitation. 

Intertextuality is the process by which what we say and write is based on, derived from and grows from previous texts. In the worlds of Roland Barthes, we write with the 'already written'. Again, this isn't just the 'what', it's also the 'how'. Everything we write derives from bits of what has already been written, we assemble writing out of the 'already-written'. It flows from this that learning how to write can indeed involve the enjoyment and close observation of the 'already written' - the jokes, the motifs, the openings, the closings, the narratology, the grammar - anything and everything. For this to be productive, I would suggest that it calls for an open-ended critical approach, inspired by trigger questions and themes as suggested in my earlier blogs here and by writers such as Aidan Chambers in his 'Tell Me' book. 

Rhetoric is the ancient study of phrases and figures of speech which are deemed to have a certain 'effect'. Whether they definitely do have that effect is much open to debate and indeed the teaching of rhetoric is best done where that debate is part of the process. There are books of rhetoric going back to classical times and there have been attempts to update them. One is by Sam Leith who is a journalist. The great fun with rhetoric is that it is very good for revealing the invisible intertextual nature of a good deal of public writing and speaking. 

Structuralism when applied to writing is the study of how different kinds of writing follow structural patterns. One of the most famous of these was by Propp who studied the structure of folktales. Another is Christopher Booker's book on the world's favourite plot structures and motifs. These become in effect a study of story 'syntax'. Given that 'syntax' is used almost in the same way as people use the word 'grammar', it's quite ironic that we've had the last few years been stuffed full of grammar at the sentence and paragraph level but people are rather reluctant to apply grammar or syntax to story, speechifying, argument, advertising, texting, tweeting and so on. What is clear is that every piece of writing has some structure or structures and/or syntax. These come from the 'already written'. When we write we use these structures, sometimes very rigidly (e.g. when writing up a scientific experiment) sometimes much more loosely (e.g. when writing an investigative feature for a newspaper where we might mix 'genres' of personal testimony, dialogue, imaginative invocations of the 'future', polemic, political reportage and so on). 

Figuration is the production of 'figurative language' - that is metaphor, simile, symbol, representative figures. This spans nearly all writing and is something we do as part of our daily use of idioms, cliches, proverbs and hidden metaphors. We can also do it as a studied way to make writing interesting, exciting, appealing, tense, disturbing...etc. Or we might do it as part of an ideological way of influencing people by invoking images from bodies of ideology from e.g. sacred or political texts of the past. 

Pragmatics includes the study of why we say things. This crucially involves questions of audience. This piece of writing you're reading now (this blog) is written in a particular kind of way because I'm anticipating that you're someone who is interested in the teaching of writing. That's because I've invented you in my mind as a teacher, a teacher-trainer, an ex-teacher, a teacher of writing in higher education, a writer who runs workshops in writing for adults or children. I have met hundreds, perhaps thousands of  you! You have been my company on and off for the last 40 years. As I'm writing this, I'm imagining you into my text. I'm imagining you reading this. This is causing me to make choices about the kinds of words I'm using, the kinds of sentences I'm constructing, the kinds of themes I'm raising and how I'm talking about them. We all do this kind of 'internalising' of the audience every minute of our lives when we're in the company of others, but also when we imagine how we might talk or write. In fact it's impossible to think of language without an audience because - this is crucial - the 'audience' (sometimes called the 'implied reader') is 'inscribed' on every word, phrase, sequence of words that we use or are going to use. This is, as I say, crucial. One of the farcical, nonsensical bits of writing-teaching that goes on implies that there is 'writing' which exists as a kind of stand-alone phenomenon, bearing no signs of audience. Pragmatics theory maintains that no such thing exists: the signs of audience are part of every thing we say and write. Some of this is historical in that virtually every word and expression we use, comes from a tradition which has had thousands of audiences' responses written into it. Some of it is directly of the moment in that it's about who is being borne in mind by the speaker or writer and who is envisaged by the speaker or writer as being of a particular psychological or social type. 

Taking these bodies of theory together, we can see that they are at least as important as 'grammar'. They can each be broken down into usable methods and questions and suggestions that teachers of writing and speaking can use. Many of us do exactly that. When a three year old asks me about the bear on the last page of 'We're Going on a Bear Hunt' I often say, what do you think it's thinking?' Mostly they answer in the third person: 'he' or 'she' or 'it'. I will sometimes say (if I'm in a school), 'let's pretend to be the bear and come up with things it's thinking...' Then we start to speak with 'I'. With no mention of 'first' and 'third' person we enact right there and then a crucial bit of narratology: what's the difference between first and third person narration. Even with three year olds we can talk about how doing that pretending was fun or interesting. And once tried, it can be done again and again. Narratology as 'writing/talking' for three year olds. (I'm not pretending that this anything new. Teachers usually call it 'hot-seating' and I've learned from teachers how effective this is as a way of generating e.g. 'dramatic monologues' as a way of writing poetry or mini-dramas. )

Anyway, back to my imagined writing commission. If I was there, I would put these various ideas forwards as ways of helping us all help children write in interesting and effective ways. 

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Imaginary TV programme to explain the hoax of money, deficit and low wages.

This is an imaginary TV programme.

First of all, they show national economics and financing as politicians and commentators describe it:
'balancing the books'; 'not spending beyond our means' and all that.

Perhaps this could be done with person sitting in a room doing his or her accounts and then going off to the shops and saying, "Oh no, I can't afford that...' 

Then it would show the 'Exchequer' - also as a room - and the Chancellor doing the nation's accounts. 

Now this would be quite different. 

1. To borrow money, the Chancellor would be seen to 'issue bonds' which people would come and buy off him. This appears on his accounts as 'debts' and 'deficit' (if it was the so-called gap between this year's expenditure and income). He needs to borrow money, he says, because a few years ago, the banks got in such difficulties issuing their bonds and lending money that they were all about to go bust. ( He purses his lips and tuts.) To help them out, the government agreed to take them over but this required him and his predecessor to 'issue bonds'. He doesn't like saying 'issue bonds'. He much prefers to say, 'borrow money' as this make him sound more like a household, and as we're all stupid, it's the only thing we can understand. 

2. In the next door room, the boss of the Bank of England would shout through to say that hey, good news, he was buying these bonds off the people who had bought them. We would hear that he was buying them for more than what the previous buyers spent, but hey, who cares? (Laughter all round.) We would see that he was buying them with money he was creating with his money-making machine (or by shaking the magic money tree, perhaps). He would announce that he's got the bonds now and this was great because there was now more money 'in circulation' which will really help people want to 'invest' in business. 'Win-win,' he shouts, though this particular part of his wish-list doesn't actually materialise. All that happens is that some extremely rich people get richer. In reality, the government is now in debt to itself. Really? Well, yes,  because the Bank of England isn't really as independent as people make out. They just juggle sums between them and 'the market' - the people 'out there' who are willing to buy bonds. If this looks like conjuring, that's because it is but we all like a good conjuring show. The TV show we are watching shows the Chancellor, the boss of the Bank of England and some people from 'business' juggling money, while the magic money making machine pumps more and more money into the juggling act. We love this. More, more, we shout, especially those of us carrying 'Vote Conservative' flags and Lord Mandelson. He likes this too.  

3. Some stern very rich people would now come in and tell the Chancellor that they needed two things from him: low wages and a small public sector, otherwise they won't be able to go on making business work.  It really doesn't matter if this is true or not. The point is, it's what these people always say. The Chancellor behaves as if these people are the Krays. In fact they are people like Sir Greville de Greville Greville from Greville, Greville and Greville, which owns Africa. 

4. The Chancellor would say 'And this will bring down the deficit?' Yes, say the stern, rich people but in truth they don't give a damn and anyway, the deficit is just a projection or invention or both. It's a bit like the Cheshire Cat in reverse. The Cat Cheshire, in fact.  It's there but not there. When it's supposedly there, people come on TV and say it's there. But when the Chancellor looks, it's not there yet. In a few years time, people look back and say, 'it was there' even though it wasn't really there then. The people on  radio, TV and in the papers, though pretend they are very afraid of the Cat Cheshire. They treat it as if it's real and that if we don't all treat it as real, Sir Greville de Greville Greville will come in and we will all be ruined, especially poor people. This is not about rich people saving their own skins. Oh no oh no. This is about poor people who need rich people to give them jobs. Otherwise they wouldn't know what to make. 

5. The Chancellor now goes on TV and says that he's been 'balancing the books' and 'we can't spend more than we earn' so people on low incomes must be on lower incomes. More flag waving from the flag-wavers and Lord Mandelson who seems to spend a lot of time in TV studios these days.  If people on low incomes don't go to lower incomes, there would be chaos and hell and armageddon. A lot of radio and TV and newspaper journalists write down, 'hell and chaos and armageddon' and promise to keep saying this, whenever the word 'government deficit' is mentioned. They get pay rises and offers of a seat in parliament or jobs as the Prime Minister's press secretary. Some revolving doors start to revolve. 

6. In the background the stern rich men nod and give thumbs up and go back to Africa where several countries are on the verge of bankruptcy whilst delivering $40 trillions-worth of precious metals, diamonds and oil to Greville, Greville and Greville.  

7. At the end of the TV programme, a grizzled bearded bloke and a keen woman from a think tank are asked to agree that this is all for the good. They don't agree with this at all. They try to say, (though they are interrupted with comments about the fact that the grizzled bloke is wearing an old jumper and why they are both in favour of violence) that if the government and the Bank of England can do this juggling to borrow money, why not spend that money on things that people need, like: wages, the NHS, schools, and the making of useful things like alternative energy systems? This would then not be 'lost' in the way that the bond issue and Bank of England magic money tree juggling system had done, but would increase the wealth and well-being of all. In fact, when people saw, say,  how these alternative energy systems were run with the people owning and controlling what was made (and how) people would start to ask questions about everything else...and how it's owned and controlled...and who for? Who do these systems of banking and manufacture benefit? And why?

8. Someone pulls the plug on the TV programme and normal service is resumed with a very experienced TV presenter explaining why running the economy is just the same as running a household  budget. Lord Mandelson agrees and says that the greatest danger facing this country today is the grizzled bearded bloke and the keen woman. 

Thursday, 22 June 2017

'Why Writing Matters'

[This is the talk I gave for the Royal Society of Literature and the British Library to celebrate the first National Writing Day, June 21, 2017.]

[You may use any part of the speech so long as you credit me! If you wish to reproduce the whole speech, please get in touch with me through my agent or )

We cannot know everything. We cannot remember everything. Each of us cannot know everything there is to know about ourselves. Each of us cannot know everything there is to know about everyone else.

For much of the time, this doesn’t matter. We’re not bothered by it. When there are things we don’t know, we can ask other people. Or we can go to the internet, or a book, or a bit of paper with something written on it. Same goes for things we don’t remember: what’s the name of that trombone player who played in Jules Holland’s Orchestra? I say to my wife. If she knows, fine. If not, use a search engine.

Writing, then, has the function of storing up stuff, partly or perhaps mostly because we can’t store it in our heads: we can’t know everything. We use writing to compensate for our own deficiencies. I like that. Writing helps us. Writing is our prop.

But what if it’s something we want to know about

Why am I sad?

Or: What would I do if I was told that soldiers were coming to take me and my family away?

Or: What if I realised that a moment in a hospital when a doctor said to me, in his American accent: ‘Technically, you’re dead’, was so absurd, yet so truthful and turned the previous 15 years on their head and created a new life for the next 35?

Take any or all of these what-ifs: might I not look for some way of grappling with them so that I could investigate them, understand them, remember them and reflect on them so that I can find out what they were for, what did they mean, and where do they fit in with everything else?

I think I might.

And one way - (and it is only one way, there are many others) - might be to join something that the writer Emile Zola called (I don’t think he was the first) ‘the republic of letters’? The reading-writing community: the great gang of people across the globe and back through history who read and write; write and read; read, write, and talk, - in any combination of these.

Let’s go back to those questions. The first was:

‘Why am I sad?’

If you don’t know me, the only way you can help me with this question is to ask me questions. If you’re not there to do that, I might try reading what others have written about being sad. These might be memoirs, biographies, or poems, or great epics, absurd stories, jokes - writings about people who were sad and what they did about it. In which case I’ll be pleased that others thought that they wanted to write about such things. I may well find that what they wrote was enlightening or helpful. That’s another way in which writing is useful. I can use what others write.

On the other hand, I might take a piece of paper and write at the top, ‘Why am I sad?’ And underneath that I could try to answer that question. I could try to do that by describing this sadness: what does it feel like?

Or I could try to think of the things that make me sad and simply write them down.

If I didn’t want to feel sad quite so often or quite so much, I might write down some things that make me less sad, or make me happy, or would make me less sad if such things were to happen.

At the end of all this, the thing that was quite unmanageable and at times mysterious, inaccessible and overwhelming might at the very least be less mysterious. Something swirling and formless and undefined - even menacing - might become rather plain and ordered, even enumerated as if it was a shopping list.

And there’s nothing wrong with shopping lists. Far from it. I love shopping lists. I’d be lost without shopping lists. Thanks to all in my life who’ve given me shopping lists.

Back to the sad list.

If I had done as I said and written it on a piece of paper, I could fold it up and put it in my pocket and when I got the train to work, I could take it out, and look at it and ask myself whether that was me on that bit of folded paper? Did I get ‘me’ right? What did I miss out? What did I exaggerate? What did I minimise? If I did that, I would, in some bizarre way, be comparing myself with myself; this is what I would call ‘investigating myself’. If I so chose, I could show someone else. I could say, ‘I wrote this about my being sad.’

All sorts of things might happen now: that person - or it might be a group of people - might get to work on it: they might check whether I was telling the truth: did that really happen? They might say that they were moved.

People often say that.

They were ‘moved’. We can take that metaphor at face value: they were in one place - in one mood, if you like - before they read something - then they were moved to another place, to another mood. Something else that writing can do.

Or: they might respond by telling me a story. If I’m feeling particularly egotistical, this might irritate me. If I’m feeling more rational, I might listen carefully to that story and think about how or why it’s similar to, or different from mine. It might remind me of a story of my own that I didn’t put on the original bit of paper and I might tell that too, making a note to myself that I must write that one down later. We are then riffing on sadness. Finding the bones of sadness, creating maps of sadness. The hollow husk-like word ‘sadness’ becomes fleshy: full of talking pictures, sounds and smells. I will also discover that the sadness that I called mine, the sadness I may well have hugged to myself (even though I said to myself it was unwanted), bears a family resemblance to other people’s sadnesses. Together we will be giving shape to sadness, or, if you prefer, redefining it.

This is the republic of letters: reading, writing; writing-reading; talking, writing...

My next question was very different: it was a ‘what would I?’ question. “What would I do if I was told that soldiers were coming to take me and my family away?” I often wonder what percentage of our life we spend absorbed by the kinds of mental activity which draw us into wondering things like: what would I do if I was in a given situation? what would I do if I was that kind of person? in that state of mind, in that place, with those people, with those challenges, with those events...? The main word we have for this is ‘reading’ - though it can be watching and listening or spectating - or even acting, as in taking on a role, role-playing.

So I asked a question about soldiers coming. I guess anyone listening to me has read books, or seen movies about such things. There may well be people listening for whom such things have happened, they’ve lived through them. And for others - and this is my situation - it’s happened to people in my family, in the past. Usually, we are appalled and horrified by such things. We might wonder whether we have the resources and strength to cope, whether we would know how to both help ourselves and help others. And if this feeling of “wondering what we would do”, mattered a good deal to us, if we are really bothered about it, either because we’ve met people or know people in such situations, it might become urgent enough to feel summoned to write about it.

Let’s think about that: an urgency to feel summoned to write about it.

It’s hard to express this urgency. It is not simply a matter of the thing itself: the incident or the idea demanding to be written - though I have to say that those of us who write are a bit inclined to express it that way. Less glamorous, is the matter of knowing how to be summoned. Put it this way, when you read a lot, certain kinds of experiences, certain moments, certain angles on life, certain views of people’s faces, hillsides, arguments, jokes, proverbs, streets, boats, armchairs, Friday night take-aways...appear to you as things we might call ‘writeable-about’. They come wrapped within stories and poems that unfold in ways that have been folded that way before. Or, you might find a seemingly new experience threaded through with something you’ve already read. It’s what Roland Barthes called “writing with the ‘already written’.” Not very glamorous but in its own way quite comforting, even exciting: the world is full of millions of stories waiting to be taken by you or me as the ‘already written’. Or, at the very least we can compare the already written ones with the ones we think of as so personal, so unique. No harm in that.

My third question was:

What if I realised that a moment in a hospital when a doctor said to me, in his American accent: ‘Technically, you’re dead’, was so absurd, yet so truthful and turned the previous 15 years on their head and created a new life for the next 35?

This happened to me. I’ve told it. I tell it quite often, I’ve written about it. I’m going to write about it again. In one sense, I do this in a fairly unreflective way. I don’t keep saying to myself: why am I telling this story? I enjoy the self-evidently absurd quality of a doctor telling me I’m dead even though I am standing in front of him. A doctor of all people. Don’t they know the difference between life and death? What was all that training for if they don’t know the difference? There’s another added absurdity in the story in that before he told me that I was dead, he told me that his name was Gesundheit. It’s a German word meaning good health and it’s what some Germans say to you when you sneeze: ‘Gesundheit!’. Dr Gesundheit was telling me I was dead.

That’s the story. Or part of it.

No need to reflect on it. A story like that does some kind of job all on its own. If you’re a writer, you hope and pray that a Dr Gesundheit will come along every day and do things like tell you you’re dead. The great fear for all of us who write is that nothing will happen. We’ll be in a room of nothingness in which nothing does anything. Hour after hour. Day after day. There won’t even be any ‘already-written’ lying about or in our heads to feed off. Just anti-Roland-Barthes, one long nothing-already.

But let’s say I do choose to reflect on this story. Why do I tell this story and keep writing about it? I’ll try to answer that. The story involves a transformation and we all like a good transformation. We often think of our lives as being mostly so even-steven that a bit of transformation is a wonder. Even going bald is a wonder. My transformation was from someone who walked about cold, swollen, slow, almost inert, to someone jumping about like a firecracker. However, the Jumping Jack was a replica of the person who had existed before the swollen, slow, almost inert one came into existence. That’s three stages in a life, three ways of being. I was the Third Man.

Oh Ovid, writer of the ‘Metamorphoses’, you should have been there to see it.

(There I go again, back with the already-written.)

Now the cause of these transformations in this story were chemical. The uncomfortable truth about our lives, about our very being is that ultimately our bodies are chunks of matter in which, and on the surface of which, trillions of chemical reactions take place. In my case one part of me chose to eat another part, the part that is called the thyroid gland. That something so chemical should have resulted in something so much to do with that mystical thing we call our ‘personality’ was a rude awakening. How dare I be reduced to chemical equations, me with all my individuality? It was in its own way a wonder, and wonders interest us to write about or read. If you know of a wonder, write about it. If you know of a transformation, write about it. People will want to read about that. Even going bald.

My state of mind as the Third Man was itself problematic. In all the time I was the Second Man how much did I miss out on? That is, if I hadn’t started to eat myself, and had stayed being the First Man? Unanswerable. But surely I had lost something, hadn’t I? And was the Third Man the same as what the First Man would have been? Surely not. There is no such thing as an experience that hasn’t happened. By definition, an experience has happened and somewhere inside the Third Man was the Second Man, no matter how inert that Second Man had become. Knots like these, especially unanswerable ones are good for writing about. We are interested in knots. The psychiatrist R.D. Laing once wrote a book full of them. He called it ‘Knots’.

Myth is a way of exaggerating things. Or it can also be a way of turning things into their essence. It can, say, take fear or dread and turn it into a scenario in which if you look into a creature’s eyes, you’ll turn into stone. You probably know that one. The dread we feel, or even create for ourselves, is put onto the powers of a mythical creature who makes you petrified - which actually means turned to stone.

If I do reflect on my Third Man experience, it is in its own way mythic. We all have stages: we are all second, third, fourth, fifth people. We move through phases and transformations in our lives. It’s just I had one that was more extreme, more exaggerated, more essential than most. It can then stand for , or represent something other than itself: it can stand for what others feel. Possibly. If I write it, and someone else reads what I wrote. Perhaps it’s mythic.

To know this about what you write, or at the very least, hope that it might, is to widen the purpose of writing into something to do with humanity and not just me, me,me. That is: what I write may be about more than what I’ve written. It represents much more, it stands for much more.


Now, a question: how do we understand what writing does for those that read it?

I co-teach an MA in Children’s Literature at Goldsmiths, University of London. In one part of the course we ask our students, most of whom are themselves teachers, to devise a research project. They can come up with any proposal which will involve taking literature to children and young people - (and let’s not forget, literature is not some kind of abstract quality that floats around on Mount Olympus - but is stuff that real people, living in the world, have written). The students investigate what appears to interest them, or take them towards new understandings about what writing is for, what it can do.

We encourage them to record the children, to transcribe what the children say and do and then to analyse these transcripts. What do the children say to each other? How are they affected by the kinds of questions they are asked by adults? What kinds of questions do the children themselves come up with ? Are there indications in how they respond that tell us about the kinds of thinking they are capable of? What do they select from the books and why?

There are countless books about what is called ‘comprehension’. There is a whole raft of tests which supposedly tell us how children ‘comprehend’, but when you come face to face with the actual things that children say, you cannot fail to realise just how complex the matter of reading and talking about reading is. Yet, this is the very point at which writing is doing its work. This is where writing matters.

The academic and researcher, Carol Fox, says this: ‘We need to remember that before children have the conventions of different discourses mediated to them through school subjects, narrative must “do for all”. Until the non-narrative genres have been learned, children use story to sort out their own knowledge and ideas.’

I understand that this is an academic language so I’ll translate: We need to remember that before children get to know that there are ways in which we chop up the world into ‘subjects’ like geography, chemistry or philosophy, each with their own way of describing and investigating the world, telling stories has to cover or include all these subjects and ways of thinking. Children use stories to sort out what they know and what they think - and even how they think.

Earlier in this passage, Carol Fox says that the children in her research project, used storying to work out their own ‘classificatory systems, their forms of reasoning and argument, their observations of natural and physical laws, their concepts of number, size, shape and so on, even their awareness of moral and metaphysical possibilities’.

That’s a lot to carry. Put another way: writing has a lot to do.

I’ll start with 2 and 3 year olds who more often than not come to writing accompanied by pictures. I say ‘accompanied by’ but in truth the words and the pictures twine around each other, affecting each other. These two and three year olds are talking about the first picture in ‘Where the Wild Things Are’. You may know it. The student is researching the idea of showing a few pictures of a book before reading it to them, in order to see if this will hook the children more into the whole book than by simply reading it to them. So, in this first stage, the children see in the picture that there is a a child dressed in some kind of animal suit; he’s coming downstairs after a dog; there is a washing line; and hanging from it is a long white strip of some sort; and a teddy bear is hanging from the line.

The children are interested in the white strip hanging from the line. They think it might be a slide. Then one of them reckons it’s a towel. He thinks that it’s a towel because it’s hanging on a line. Causation. Causation is so much part of our adult lives, we forget that 2 year olds have to learn it. Explaining what’s going on in a book, is one way to learn causation. One boy starts to rub his hair and says ‘Wet’. The children swap instances of being wet: wet hair, going out and getting wet, wet clothes and wet towels. The book is a spur to rediscovering something going on in the material world. They seem to agree that that’s what the line is there for, to put wet things on like towels. But the teddy poses a problem. If he’s hanging on the line it must be because he’s wet. How did he get wet? Why is he wet? Maybe, one suggests that he’s been magicked outside, got wet and is on the line now to get dry. Cause and effect. Then their attention turns to the boy in the story and one says that he’s got pointy feet and the pointy feet are going to hurt the dog. One boy leaps to his feet and acts out being the boy, the others copy him. The children are concerned the boy in the picture may hurt the dog. Acting it out is a way of living the story, finding out what it feels like to be the protagonist. Yet another important function of writing: giving us an opportunity to try out other ways of being, exploring possibilities in life.

As my student suggests, the children’s level of engagement will be a fertile ground on which to read the story as Maurice Sendak has written it. They have engaged with the material world of the story very closely, but with this pointy feet thing, they have also spotted something edgy, difficult and not too pleasant. The pointy feet might hurt the dog. They are concerned. They start to wonder what it would feel like, if you were the dog. Empathy.

But there’s something else going on. There is an atmosphere surrounding the book in this room full of two and three year olds which says that a piece of writing is not something closed-ended and fixed but that it is something you can debate and discuss. There might be alternative interpretations, varying feasible views. Just because it’s a published book and it’s in the hands of a significant and important person - a teacher - it doesn’t mean that you can’t explore it in the same way as you might explore a beach. Writing is territory laid out for us, with a label attached, saying, ‘Please explore.’

There is a story called ‘Awkward Aardvark’ by Mwalimu illustrated by Adrienne Kennaway, which tells of an Aardvark who keeps the other animals, (the mongoose, the monkeys, the lion, and the rhino), keeps them awake at night by snoring and nothing the animals can do will get him to stop. In the end some termites eat away at the bottom of his tree, Aardvark falls out of the tree, gets very angry and eats the termites, before the ones that survive scurry away into their holes. From that day till now, Aardvark has switched. He sleeps by day and comes out at night to eat termites.

Two girls aged 6 talked about this story using three strategies: Does this story remind you of anything that has ever happened to you?Does this story remind you of anything you’ve ever read before? Do you have any questions to ask anyone in the story? or the author? Heather Rose asked Shireen did the Aardvark story remind her of anything that had ever happened to her or that she had heard about? Shireen said her dad snored so her mum made a plan to stop him snoring. She took a video of him in the night of him snoring and he stopped snoring.

Heather Rose tells some stories about how she annoyed her parents and spins a tale about being told to leave home.

Traditional criticism of literature would rule all this out as irrelevant. It would say that it’s not explaining how the writing works, it doesn’t explain how ‘effective’ it is and therefore is not engaging with the writing. (You’ll know that routine: first we tell children a bit of writing is ‘effective’ then we ask them to say why it’s ‘effective’ even if the children don’t think it is ‘effective’.)

Now, consider what we do at any time in our life, in hundreds of different circumstances. I tell you a story and you tell me one in reply. This is what has happened here. Shireen has replied to the Awkward Aardvark story with one of her own. As part of doing that, she has selected an element from the Aardvark story and matched it to one in her own life. It is in its own way a form of generalisation through analogy. In this case, it’s: ‘snoring and how to stop it’. This is part of the process by which writing helps to produce wisdom. Not simply as pre-packaged messages, but as motifs and scenarios which we compare to others.

Later in the conversation, the two six year olds reverse roles and Shireen quizzes Heather Rose and Heather Rose says that the Aardvark story reminds her of another story called ‘The slimy slowly slow sloth’. Note: this appears to be her invention, or we might say, a new bit of writing. It’s partly based on a character in an Eric Carle story. In other words, she uses that character, to make up a new story. Shireen now asks her: What happened in that book that was the same in the other book?

Heather Rose says, ‘Well it wasn’t an Aardvark, it was a sloth. The sloth kept snoring, and woke all the other animals up at night.

Shireen says, ‘Did it have a big nose like the Aardvark?’

and a bit later, ‘What did they do to stop the sloth snoring?’

What’s going on here is that without a teacher asking these children to retell the plot of Awkward Aardvark, without asking them to pick out ‘significant’ or ‘effective’ parts, through storying we can hear Shireen selecting and using key motifs of the Aardvark story in order to compose her questions for Heather Rose. In the jargon, she has ‘internalised the strategies and structures of the story’ and turned them into questions. Sure enough, on cue, Heather Rose then comes on strong: ‘All the animals decided to make a plan and it was quite a good one and they tricked the sloth that she was going to have a baby and she had to go to the vet....[there ‘s a bit of a digression at this point...] and then the animals made a trap and the ants ate him.’

‘That’s really sad,’ says Shireen.

Again, you can see that Heather Rose has taken a motif from the Aardvark story - ants eating away at things - reversed the original motif - and ends up with a new story.

At the heart of all this there is something going on about morality: various kinds of ideas about tit-for-tat justice. These are based at least in part on some real-life experiences that she had recounted earlier in the conversation about annoying her parents.

So, as Carol Fox says, reading and telling stories involve a lot more than meets the eye. Knowledge of the material world: - such as termites or ants nibbling away at things; knowledge of human behaviour: - the fact of snoring, and the fact that many of us are irritated by others snoring, the difficulty of knowing how to get people to stop, the use of tricks to get your own way, the tendency for us to do tit for tat ways of settling things and so on. These two six year olds have explored these matters mixing writing, reading and talking as a way of investigating, and ordering the world around them.

When we open the doors to our own experiences, swapping stories as a way of unpacking the ideas and motifs at the heart of, say, a written story, even the youngest children will select and generalise through analogy. It may not always look like it, but analogy is in its own way a form of abstract thought. The people doing it, (in this case very young children) are finding common ground and differences between specific instances. Conclusions can be drawn. Writing is doing its work.

By the way, think back to Heather Rose saying that her story is about a ‘slimy slowly slow sloth’. Eric Carle’s story is called, “‘Slowly, slowly, slowly,’ said the sloth.” Heather Rose has clipped the ‘sloth’ and the ‘slowly’ and attached her own arrangement of words to fit it: ‘slimy slowly slow’. This process of clipping and rearranging is a great way to start writing. It’s what writers do in their notebooks or on their walls. One of the places where a lot of writing goes on where there is hardly ever this kind of clipping and rearranging is on classroom walls. Instead, you’ll see advice about ‘wow words’ and advice about ‘fronted adverbials’. No fault of teachers. This advice comes from what is laughingly known as the ‘expected levels’ of writing deep in the heart of the government’s notion of what is good writing. Interestingly, when people in government decide what good writing is, they don’t consult writers.

You may know this poem:

I, Too

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.

They send me to eat in the kitchen

When company comes,

But I laugh,

And eat well,

And grow strong.


I’ll be at the table

When company comes.

Nobody’ll dare

Say to me,

“Eat in the kitchen,”



They’ll see how beautiful I am

And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

Langston Hughes

I invited a group of 13 and 14 year old London school students to read it and talk about it using my three facilitating questions: Does it remind you of anything from your life? Does it remind you of any other stories, poems, plays and the like? Do you have any questions to ask of someone in the story or the writer him or herself? Their first reaction was to recount some irritating events in their own lives when their parents had invited friends over and told them that they had to eat somewhere else. This was annoying and unfair, they said. They spent some time on this irritating fact. It really annoyed them. In other circumstances, any of us might have said, yes, yes, yes but let’s get back to the poem. The poem’s not about teenagers feeling miffed that they miss out when their parents invite their mates over. But I didn’t say that. My attitude was that they, as white school students had found common ground with a poem that speaks of the ‘darker brother’: they were making analogies, finding their own ways to arrive at a concept to do with exclusion and the unfairness of that. Then, they moved on to the second question about whether it reminded them of any other texts and to start off with. Not a lot. No, there was nothing they could think of. But then one boy called out - I seem to remember, he stood up - and said, ‘I’ve got it. This is Martin Luther King. And the “I had a dream’ speech”.’

The others were impressed. They looked back at the poem and discussed why this boy might be right - or not. They agreed that there were similarities in what was being said.

In this case, these older students have seen that writing can tell stories that are at one level about itself, that is: about the events, people, images of the story itself, but at another level, these events, people and images can represent something bigger than itself. It carries ideas in what it tells. I haven’t told these school students that. They’ve discovered it through accessing other writings in their heads. And it’s not as if Martin Luther King is the model for the poem. Langston Hughes wrote the poem before Luther King made his ‘I had a dream speech’. What does this tell us? It reminds us that writing can escape from the limits of time. In our conversations and thoughts, writing can criss-cross time.

When I work with people to encourage them to write, one thing I say is that when you read something, say to yourself, ‘I could write something like that.’ That ‘something like that’ conceals a lot. It can mean: ‘something that sounds like that’, or ‘something with that kind of shape’, ‘something with that kind of plot’, ‘something with that kind of person or creature in it’, ‘something with that kind of scene’ ,‘something with that kind of outcome’, or indeed ‘anything that comes to mind while I was reading’ or ‘anything that comes to mind when I sit and think about what was written there’.

It’s one of the most powerful triggers for writing. It’s like that bit of apparatus I remember from the physics lab in my school: a spark leaps from one pole to another. Find the spark. Let the spark happen.

If you can’t immediately think how to write, I’ll say this: talk with your pen. Just write what you would say. Use your spoken voice and turn it into writing. Talk with your pen.

I’ll finish by telling you about that I wrote:


The rain has died

My shoes have died

The sun has died

My coat has died

The earth has died


One day

The rain will flower

My shoes will laugh

The sun will sing

My coat will fly

The earth will dance

One day.

I am very fond of this poem. It started out inspired by two things, a photo of a couple of people looking up at a tree. They are in what is known as a ‘ghetto’. The Nazis put the Jews in the countries they occupied, into parts of towns where they couldn’t leave. They were like huge open-air prisons. There was hardly any work, hardly any food and bit by bit thousands of people died.

My thought at looking at the photo with some children was that this photo - and some others needed a kind of extreme writing that I called ‘impossible writing’. Here impossible things would happen.

The people in the photo are full of joy. And yet, because I knew it was taken in the ghetto, it’s a sad photo.

I wanted to express all these things in a short poem. I thought of the weather, the trees, and because of some other well-known photos coming from this time, I thought of coats and shoes. I thought of despair and hope; hope and despair. Which way round shall I put it? In some ways, these stories from this time are full of despair. But we can’t live on despair. We have to have hope or there is no point in going on, so I decided to do despair then hope.

Today would be despair, because, I figured, these people would know of people dying around them - or, even worse - being taken off on railway trains never to be seen again. In fact we looked at photos of those too. Tomorrow would be hope. The people in the photo looked happy and hopeful. There was fruit on the trees.

So with all these different elements, I wrote the poem. As you can see, it’s made up almost entirely of ‘impossible writing’. Also tucked away in the back of my mind are the paintings of someone called Marc Chagall. He painted scenes from his childhood from a time when millions of Jews like him lived in the Russian and Polish countryside in small farms and villages. In his pictures, happy people fly, and the colours suggest a thriving, vibrant life. My own great-grandparents came from the places that Chagall painted, and others ended up in ghettos like the one in the pictures.

In the back of my mind I think I wanted to suggest some of this. These are worlds that I never had, was never part of, being safe and sound in London born after the second world war was over. It’s somehow on the other side, in some kind of dream-nightmare world.

That’s why it’s ‘my’ shoes and ‘my’ coat that have ‘died’.

But, I always think, the world doesn’t have to be like that, In fact, it must never again be like that, for anyone anywhere. By saying ‘the earth will dance’, I’m saying just that. It’s not just me, or my coat and shoes that will laugh and fly but that the whole world will dance.

When I look back at a poem like this, I know that many people reading it won’t get from it, what I’ve put into it. How could they? They might not have seen the photos I’m talking about, they won’t know my personal family history, they might not know Chagall’s pictures - or if they do - they might not connect them to the poem or me.

So, do I think the poem is pointless? No. I think instead that if you write mysterious poems, that have impossible writing in them, people make meanings out of them that are similar or related to my meanings. Maybe they will pick up on the contrast between despair and hope. Maybe they will see that there are ordinary things like coats and shoes alongside universal things like the sun and the earth and they will see that this is about people and the world. Maybe all sorts of other pictures will come to their minds of, say, street carnivals, or music festivals, or famine followed by plenty.

That’s all OK by me. Poems are always a mid-way point between poets and readers. The poet pours in his or her meanings. The reader picks up the poem and put in his or her meanings and the two sets of meanings intermingle. That’s what a ‘reading of a poem’ is. It’s the intermingling of two sets of thoughts: the poet’s and the reader’s.