On English Departments, Magic and Loss

It has been a difficult few months: my Norwegian friend, Werner, who, to me, was sunshine itself, and who was described by his uncle in the following accurate terms, “He was an easy boy to love” will not be playing music with us any more. A band that has played together for twenty years becomes a family (though fewer cross words are said), (of course) and his death hit the remaining four-of-us like an avalanche. He was profoundly loved, was the most talented person I have ever been in a dank rehearsal room with and a warm light has gone out. He was 40 years of age.


Leonard Cohen, the artist whose integrity and finely worked genius has so enriched my life that I named my eldest son after him, displayed characteristically impeccable politeness and timing, in that the extraction of (for me) the chief hero from the script would have been more keenly felt if he hadn’t merged with the masterpiece on the morning following my mum’s funeral.


“Things hurt” as Julian Barnes writes, “exactly as much as they’re worth”.


The morning after mum’s death I rose at 3.30am to get to a series of speeches and workshops I was presenting for the University of Buckingham, and having 350 eager faces looking up at me was a nice distraction … until such point as I realized that I would be sharing an unmarked exercise book of a former student of mine whose mother had died and who had written page after page of ignored grief about it. Having to read out the words emblazoned on a big screen, “My mum died, and it’s kind of hard at the moment” was, as my former student, has alluded to, a moment. But that is all life is - a series of the same. I paused, took in that moment and lived it in as profound a manner as I could. The speech went well, but it was a bit showy emotionally.


The next day, I rose at what my friend calls “alien time” again for a half-term study club at the academy I am teaching at this year, (which is by way of diverting into what this blog is really about). After a couple of years out of the game, during which no one seemed to think it would be worth getting me in front of a class regularly, I have spent the last term teaching. It’s only two days a week. But this year I have six class sets of KS4 books to keep on top of. The school is called Kettering Buccleugh Academy. On Wednesdays, I rise at 3.15 in order to be in school with a crawly chocolate croissant for the Head by 7.00 and, unless I have a CPD gig on the Friday, am home again by 21.00 the next day.


It’s not a shouty school: they are quietly doing the right things for the right reasons, and I buy their politics; I buy the project; I like working with the kids. An academy on a council estate in an initially unpromising town in the East Midlands is the right kind of place for me to be committing to something outside of the self. But the point of this blog is specifically to remark on the joy of being, again, amongst nice humans. 2016, in its mordant wisdom, has been hinting that it is yet to cease its harvesting, and I have had been awash with loss and have had to ask for the emotional support of people who barely know me. They have provided it unquestioningly and without a second thought. I do note that departmental staff rooms are getting increasingly smaller in new builds, but the rekindling of the memory that there are fewer kinder (or sillier) places than an English department workroom in a school on a Council Estate has been a highpoint of the latter parts of the year in which the best of us took a look ay what’s goin’ on  and checked out.


I depart this blog with the last section of my mum’s eulogy with profound thanks to everyone mentioned: the name and the unnamed.


On a blustery day, she would exclaim, “It’s a good day for drying.” And on a sunny day she’d say, “It’s a great day to be alive.” Our lives are merely a momentary blink in the tapestry of forever; we are but a tiny paper cut of light trying vainly to illuminate the darkness either side, and are little more than butterflies, trembling, caught somewhere on the turning point in the weather between a good day for drying and a great day to be alive. 

Blessings to those you love.

Added Mon, 12 Dec 2016 21:15

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