Creativity benefits

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Amongst the good places to be in Britain, the National Theatre and the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon are up there.  What I see or do when in these places is almost secondary to being there.  Soaking it up in the National Gallery is a close second.

Why? Because being in places which celebrate the creative power of the human spirit heartens.  Knowing that this country once had the courage to provide the necessary subsidy to create a national theatre; it is daily fillip to see what a beacon our two great theatres are for work that makes us think about how we live.

This feeling is compromised by knowing what is going on in maintained schools at the moment.  Why are we squeezing creativity out of our schools?  Asks Director of the NT, Rufus Norris, in The Guardian.   I would add to Norris’ hard-nosed statistics about the benefit to the UK economy of the creative industries (which are of greater value to the UK economy each year than the automotive, oil, gas, aerospace and life sciences combined) the view that a major factor in keeping Brexit-sensitive highly paid jobs in London will be the strength of the capital’s cultural life, as well as the quality of its independent schools.

The practical benefits of the so-called creative industries in the world after school are mirrored in schools.  In thinking about what schools should offer, it is fun/scary to imagine a school stripped of something so central and life-enhancing that we currently do: so imagine a school with no music, art, dance, design or drama.  No bewitching glimpse yesterday of the forthcoming Dunhurst Blocks’ play (Curious Children) as the stage heaving with most of its 100+ actors brimmed with life; no Daniel Preece art master class on cityscapes; no stream of potential designers heading off to art and design schools;  no scholars’ concert; and no musical performances at assemblies and Jaws.  It’s a dystopian vision akin to imagining a school without Maths and Science.  In short, misery!

Here is Yeats to sum up:

Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul,
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.

O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

– W.B. Yeats Among School Children

Resolutions and challenges

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Never a fan of New Year’s resolutions, I find myself wondering why: simple, I like resolutions and challenges too much and don’t see why they should be simply for the year’s start.

So, what weremy Christmas holiday’s resolutions and challenges and, thinking more broadly, what might be some of this term’s?

Re-discover Wales: go to the Gower Peninsula, enjoy the restaurants of Mumbles, climb (most of) Pen-y-Fan,  traverse Rhossili beach’s splendour.

Remind myself of Dickens’ riches: re-read Little Dorritt.  Grapple imaginatively with something truly unpalatable,  the plight  women of the USSR  armed forces in the Great Patriotic War (The Unwomanly Face of War, Svetlana Alexievich).  Discover an author I haven’t properly appreciated – Helen Dunmore  (Talking to the Dead, Counting the Stars). Read someone I didn’t know existed – Elizabeth Taylor (Mrs Palfrey at the Claremonth). Wonderful.   Read a book that challenges my thinking: Money: the Unauthorised Biography, Felix Martin.

See another thoughtful musical (after Spring Awakening) – Sondheim’s Follies at the NT with its echoes of Death of a Salesman. See the RSC’s Imperium, six hours of drama based on Robert Harris’s account of Cicero’s life. Unexpected bonus here was finding OB Pierro Niel-Mee in two central roles – Clodius and Agrippa.

Chuck out a load of old stuff – de-clutter.  Happily seeing my family doesn’t involve the need for resolutions, at least so far.

But, much more importantly, what are the challenges thrown up by the start of the term?

Our first Wednesday notices brings some: knit something creative and try for the Jacob’s Sheep Society’s (JSS)  Lady Aldington Memorial Trophy. (Warning: if you flirt with the excellent JSS website, you could be gone for some time.  But at least read about the history of the breed, which is suitably romantic.)

Be there at the Junior or Senior Literary Society’s discussions of the books they have read over the holidays – The Talented Mr Ripley and The Hare with Amber Eyes on two evenings next week.

Come to the Classics’ Society’s revival meeting on Mythology (which underpins most things classical –ask Cicero) or hear Charles Hall’s Civics on Venice.

Most pressing in most students’ minds will be the imminence of mock exams (for Block 5 and 6.2) and the challenge of getting a great deal done in the mere ten weeks of term.

But by the close of Wednesday, quotidian concerns, vital though they be, are put into a different context by the first Jaw of 2018, given by Charterhouse’s chaplain, Clive Case, who talks arrestingly about the value to us all of  bringing into our lives more silence.

Hiraeth, hefting and hygge

DUN_Daffodils-1

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Soon to re-visit Trieste and woken early by owls, I am reading Jan Morris’ poignant slim volume Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere.  An extraordinary book about an extraordinary place, it introduces me to the Welsh word hiraeth which has no direct translation into English; she describes it in her introduction as “an unspecified yearning”.   Inklings of Spring bring hiraeth for some – perhaps most famously in T.S. Eliot’s opening to The Waste Land.   Here, whether it is through the Bedales Orchard’s return to pedestrian use (although please avoid the daffodils), the contented snuffling of Lucky’s new litter in the Black Barn, my first view of a red kite over the Orchard Building or the Dunannie Spring Festival, I find myself thinking more of the word used by Lake District shepherds to describe the way that their sheep become attached to a particular piece of ground – hefting.

The Dunannie Spring Festival combines dance, song, poetry and film.  We have strip the willow, owl and humming bird songs, touches of Oliver and Sound of Music and splendid haikus, the most striking being those in the voices of birds. Here is a sample – thanks to Sebbie, Tom, Oscar and Ted (see below).  The Festival ends with the film of a homemade Spring Watch episode, Dunannie-style, featuring daffodil girls, snow drop queens, pupil rabbits and spring poets, all surely hefted in their orchard.

Hiraeth and hefting are words which have a poignant twist for anyone lucky enough to be at The Middle East Society Civics given by William Sieghart on Tuesday evening. Having set up the Middle East Society after spending most of my sabbatical term in 2009 in that region – Cairo mainly, but Jordan and Syria afterwards – it is pleasing to witness an occasion like this when we have not only a wonderfully clear account of the problems facing the Israelis and the Palestinians but also such a clear sense of the broader responsibility that Europe has for what has happened there.  It is intriguing and humbling to hear about the work that William has been so closely involved with in helping community leaders from both sides gain a better understanding of each other and of the links between this region, Northern Ireland and South Africa. Attending a talk like this must whet your appetite to know more, I think, as the questions to William flow.  Lucky us to have this talk and lucky us to have the unusual blessing of a beautiful secure place to live in and a society whose discords do not threaten our lives.

Hygge is on my mind too: this Danish term, maybe a bit over bought in the Christmas hype, is the subject of an Extended Project (EP) that I am overseeing.  The EP folk – some 1/3 of the 6.1s – have the exhibition of their work in the Library this week and then are in over the weekend completing their pieces.   Here’s trusting that there will be communal hygge as they survey their work and reflect on how much they have learned about managing projects and the thrill that can accompany a single-minded pursuit of what intrigues you.

Albatross
By Sebbie

The albatross flies,

Viciously eats fish for life,

He shimmers the sky

 

Little Brown Owl
By Tom

Brown, silky feathers,

Illuminous eyes glowing

Scampering for prey

 

Tawny Owl
By Oscar

The glow in the sun

Shines on my feathery breast

Brown with speckled white

 

Sparrow Hawk
By Ted

Ready for action,

Dive with speed amazingly fast,

Sweet delicious prey

Dystopia revisited

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

A while back and in another school, I taught a sixth form General Studies course that was based on the idea of nightmare worlds; central to it were dystopian novels.  Unusually for such a course, the students seemed to have read most of the books on offer and when the course stopped after its one term’s duration, they seemed keen for more.  1984 (1948) and Brave New World (1932) were there of course, but it was Zamyatin’s We (1924), which arguably laid the imaginative foundation for 1984, that seemed to attract a good deal of the discussion.  Shortly after its publication, I taught Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), which gripped its teenage readers with its nightmarish world and was an intriguing text to be talking with teenagers about in the ’80s.  Over the holidays I returned to Attwood with her very readable The Heart Goes Last, as well as finding Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror as my annual box set.

More’s Utopia (1516), the book that coined the adjectives, is now 500 years old; each Spring, our Block 5s who are taking the much admired Philosophy, Religion and Ethics (PRE) Bedales Assessed Course (BAC) become caught up in creating their ideal worlds; so the idea of Utopia is very much a feature of our shared cultural life.  So, it is salutary – scary actually – to stop and think about how many dystopian echoes there are in the way that the world seems right now. Early Black Mirror, 15 Million Merits (2011) especially, where the game show and unintended consequences of an increasingly digitally based world combine to create a garish living nightmare, now seems spookily prescient.

Specific to the USA, Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004) is thought-provoking.  I’m told we should be reading Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here (1935).

But it is the masterly portrayal of totalitarian thought control in Orwell’s 1984 that seems to be capturing people’s interest.  I suspect that there will also be many more teachers who are encouraging their students to carry their reading of Orwell on into the essays, in particular Politics and the English Language with its memorable concluding thought:

“Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Lasting influence?

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Preparing an assembly on Politics’ effect on education, I find that my usual seasonal reflections on Charles Dickens (Christmas jollity and Scroogery etc) take me down a different channel and into his influence on education.

Dickens’ lifetime (1812-1870) spanned the creation of something that approached a rudimentary universal education system for England: the Elementary Education Act of 1870 which established the basis for English elementary education.  It is neat to connect this with what Dickens said in the early stages of his national popularity in a speech in Birmingham in 1844:

“If you would reward honesty, if you would give encouragement to good, if you would stimulate the idle, eradicate evil, or correct what is bad, education – comprehensive liberal education – is the one thing needful, and the one effective end.”

Given that the England of  Dickens’ birth was one where there was still a debate about whether there was any point educating large swathes of the population, it is unsurprising that so many of the downtrodden poor of his novels show such a strong desire to learn and to better themselves through education.  For me it is this profound sense of the moral value of each person and the right that he or she has to be something other than a workhorse or a young criminal – the encouragement to good and ultimately the right to be educated.  Through presenting all sorts of different models of what he saw as good and bad models of education in his novels, he both reinforced the public’s sense of moral feeling and established a tradition of dealing with education in novels.

More specifically, in Hard Times, he gave us one of the best images of the tension between the extremes of heartless utilitarian education and the education of the heart: a reading of the first chapter of that book captures that age-old tension as well as tomes of educational theory.

“NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!”

Technicolor worlds, bravely lit

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Wednesday was one of the highly flavoured days when I have a series of technicolor moments that animate life, even in November’s neutral tones, and make me feel very lucky to be doing the job I am.

Bedales Notices first thing not only includes adverts for the forthcoming Hunger Banquet, production of Medea and visit to Florence (please wear a coat too), but a Movember message from moustachioed men: the message from Boys’ Flat housemaster duo Chris Bott and Peter Thackrey is about men’s health – let’s talk about it, blokes – but it’s done with humour and humanity.

Over to Dunhurst now for my weekly lesson with Block 1 English and another short poem for us to explore. After reading short gems like Larkin’s Cut Grass and local lad Thomas’s Adlestrop, this week we are talking about Yeats’ Wild Swans at Coole. 

The Block 1’s initial insights are impressive and I think of an adage a recent interviewee slipped in (“Children can smell qualilty..”) as I move along the corridor to the packed hall where Dunannie’s production of The Tempest is about to begin.

The children have been engaged in the story both through their teachers and through a visiting story teller. It’s clear from the first moment that the Dunannie children have truly inhabited the story. The adaptation, wonderfully constructed by teachers Camilla Bell and Catherine Claasen, with music by Ben Harlan and Mea Wade, comprises twelve scenes that light the imagination.

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Anchored especially in my mind’s album are moments such as the Boatswains’ song with its great rhymes, the evil Duke’s wicked single black glove, Caliban’s green gloves and the meeting between Miranda (with her classy umbrella) and the marooned Prince Ferdinand.

There’s something magical about The Tempest, which is a dramatisation of a kind of fairy tale, being brought to life by such a young audience, with parents and grandparents looking on as this tale of greed and envy being redeemed by forgiveness and the hope of youth is played out.

Bravo, Dunannie!

Literature: adapting for today

Tempting though it might be to lob into the current debate on co-ed vs single sex education, I won’t. There are schools of all complexions and degrees of quality: the fit for your child and the quality of the school are far more important criteria for parental choice than gender mix.

More pressing in my mind is the business of reading and how the great literature of the past is adapted for a modern audience.

But first, to the topical.  A question I tend to ask of Bedales students on their return from holiday is: “Have you read or seen anything interesting?” Quite often they will choose to talk about what they have read – often their reading is different from mine, although,as an avid book review scanner, I tend to be aware of their books’ existence; often my reading is informed by what students are reading; occasionally the conversation dips into my talking about what I have been reading over the holidays.  I am always interested in what was the spur to their reading – a friend or a teacher, usually.  It is worth noting that by reading, I neither (of course) mean fiction nor sitting down with a printed volume – but I do think that students are increasingly aware that there is a qualitative difference between the browsing and article-scanning that internet-based research tends to involve and the in-depth, sustained concentration that reading a conventional book, whether on a kindle or on paper, requires.

I will return in a later blog to some of the choices that students are making in their own reading and to mine, but now to the link  between this and its adaptation for a modern audience.  Dickens, Shakespeare and Tolstoy – there you go, three big names we can scare ourselves with; but they are all pertinent to this debate and its central question: what license has the modern adapter to communicate these authors’ works to today’s audience?

Dickens is dear to my heart for reasons similar to why Orwell is – as an author whose writing had a significant effect in shaping our national consciousness and in reflecting back to us what was fair, decent and humane in the way in which we treat our fellow human beings.  Dickens should be read – or if not read, should be known about, so, although I return to Dickens every Christmas (Our Mutual Friend this one), I am as much interested in how he is brought alive for TV as anything; so it was good finally to see one of the current Dickens soap-opera Dickensian last night. Having been snooty about the idea (that you create a story out of a miscellany of Dickens characters), I thought it was cracking telly and engaged the audience with the delight and quirkiness of his characters.  It must also motivate people to read more of him.

The jury is out on how the views of the immensely talented Emma Rice, the new director of the Globe Theatre, will translate to that wonderful outdoor space, with its central role in advancing our Shakespearean heritage in this the year when we celebrate his  400th birthday.  I am all in favour of re-apportioning roles between the genders – to redress the fact that only 16% of lines in Shakespeare are allocated to women, but less confident that her approach to ironing out some of the difficulties in the language will do much else other than drain the richness out of his words.  Tom Sutcliffe’s piece in The Guardian is strong on this.

Finally, to Tolstoy and the good-looking new adaptation.  As a number of commentators have pointed out, it is trying to play the Downton trick: presenting us with a bewitchingly attractive world from the past that never existed and weaving a story out of it – good, escapist fun, but little to do with England or Russia respectively.  I doubt many people will pick up the mighty tome of War and Peace as a result of it – neither will they be alerted to the radical side of Tolstoy which made him such a controversial figure, as well, incidentally, as a big admirer of Bedales (yes, true..). I suspect that social historians in 30 years’ time will be discussing these shows for what they say about how we see ourselves now.

If that sounds curmudgeonly, let me end on a more upbeat note: the fact that the triple peaks of these three great authors are so much in the public eye is a feature of our national cultural life that most countries sadly lack and that we should be (of course, quietly) proud of.  Schools and teachers have no excuse not to be the beneficiaries.