Graham Higgins Illustration - Literate Graffiti Dept.

Archive for September, 2011


September 30, 2011

Living History 30-9-11

One late night in my teens, when John Peel’s Top Gear radio programme featured, amongst the Captain Beefheart, Third Ear Band and Principal Edwards’ Magic Theatre, readings by poets, I have a tissuey memory of Roger McGough reading one of his about some future in which England would have little to trade on but our history and pantomime tradition and so would become a living heritage centre with Brits playing themselves for the entertainment of tourists.
As I wrote that paragraph it occurred to me that ‘the late 60’s of the 20th Century’ is already a distant bygone era. The Swinging 60’s – mod dandyism, Motown, Op-art, miniskirts and cute Courreges boots – was giving way to hippy boho-style, psychedelia, mystical knick-knacks, tuning in turning on and dropping out.
In theory.
Schoolchildren researching the social history of that decade of radical politics and social revolution will find it surprisingly staid. The Late 60’s Underground culture had its own nostalgia drawing from fin de siecle Art Nouveau and Victorian Imperial formality, which in turn had replaced a previous vogue for the 1920’s  – ‘Thouroughly Modern Millie’ and  ‘The Boyfriend’ at the movies; The New Vaudeville Band in the charts. By the time I’d arrived in Birmingham as a student, the 1930’s had become the reference point. By the time I graduated it was all Country Diary Of An Edwardian Lady and William Morris filtered through Laura Ashley, The Albion Band and Steeleye Span.
Nostalgia for this – our – decade will include an unaccountable – the more forgiving will prefer ‘ironic’ – regard for the pre-punk glitterball Disco 70’s. In the current collapse of faith in the belief-system of Global Economics, my money’s on a replay of the 80’s fling with Weimar fashion, filme noir and kohl-eyed German Expressionist Cinema; decadent chic. As a place-bet I’ll put a fiver on make-do-and-mend Blitz spirit and Ration Book austerity. The Keep Calm And Carry On brand has clearly struck some awf’ly English chord of stiff-upper-lip stoicism.
So… no surprise to discover some of the Keep Calm merchandise in the Black Country Museum Gift Shop on a reconnaissance visit for a school trip.
The Museum is a small cluster of buildings from around the area meticulously relocated and rebuilt, staffed by guides in Victorian costume, though not Victorian clothing, which for most was a durable one-set-of-everything, laundered once a week in the more fastidious households.
Try to banish even the aspiration to have a choice of clothes to suit the day and the weather. Try to unimagine our own distaste for the undeodorised body and its maturing residue in clothing. What if a daily squirt of gently-fragranced 24-Hour Dry Protection Mist wasn’t pretty much the unofficial law?
For £20 you can climb into clip-on costume to have your own sepia-tint portrait as if… as if what,exactly..? (I’ve paused there for several minutes trying to think of a snappy answer. What Derridalical ley-lines of disauthored intertextual dialectic converge in a digital photograph fed through a Photoshop filter and a laser printer that resurrects the souls of our ancestors: pipl dem b’long faraway time.)
A very good son-et-lumiere presentation of the workings of a Black Country drift-mine, with crouching figures given voice by recorded actors, can’t erase the visitor’s knowledge of a working world reshaped by the intervening century, nor replace it with the experience of an unrelieved conveyor-belt of days confined between home and coal-seam, with its fatalist resignation to sudden mortality, disabling injury and meagre diet.
What always strikes me about preserved historic sites is the many ways they remind you that you can’t imagine life as it was lived, even decades ago. Equally, as you return to the Black Country Living Museum car-park via the Gift Shop the airy glass-walled entrance it’s hard to imagine how of-its-time this ascetic turn-of-the century vogue for plate-glass and exposed structural components will look in even another 50 years and who will be looking.

One of the features I really enjoy is collecting Favourites, a scrapbook of other Flickrists’ posted images. Some really need no explanation; some give me quick links to on-line archives of artwork, printed ephemera and found photographs; a few are bookmarked because I’d paused to work out why they made me hesitate.
Like the fashion for Magic Eye 3D(ish) posters, there was a brief blossoming of those composite photographic images created with a patchwork of tiny photographs. The Favourites collection must form some kind of composite mind-map, including characteristic head-scratching moments.
I keep meaning to write occasional footnotes here, so while I’m on the subject of history that makes you go ‘wha…?’, here’s Eadweard Muybridge mechanically recording the kinetic procedure of slapstick.


September 15, 2011


Pea-Brains 12-10-11

Ah, the life of Supply Teaching. Here’s a thing. Quite an old thing, from last term, long enough for the simmering ‘Wha…? Wha…? Tuh!’ and worse – oh, pay no mind to my coarse mariner’s oaths, rough as a plug o’ Navy Shag me, lor luv yer, ma’am – to subside.
Left with a Literacy Learning Objective to experiment with story introductions other than ‘once upon a time…’ I remembered I had Andy Stanton’s “Mr. Gum And The Cherry Tree” in my briefcase, opening line: “Yes! No! Maybe? What! Hello.”
Mr. Stanton’s ouevre is jolly good fun to read aloud so long as you can more or less keep track of the voices in his jostling cast of cartoon characters.
To prime my Yr.3 class in adventurous writing and share my admiration for Mr. Stanton’s Puckoonish style, I read on and by the time I thought we’d all heard enough and had some serious writing to do there was clamour in the auditorium and demands for more. Firm but fair, I denied Year 3 further guffaws and told them to write their own, the kind of writing they’d like to read.
Job done, I thought; the primed class set to work and there was enough time to read out some of the results before the end of the lesson.
Next day – now here is The Thing in question, sorry to keep you waiting – I had a call on the class phone from the Deputy Head, telling me that she’d had a call from the mother of  ‘one of our more sensitive children’, complaining that I’d called the class ‘pea-brains’.
I suppose I should look up exactly what a flummox is but for a second or two I was definitively flummoxed. You don’t need etymology to know you’ve experienced the woozy felt-mallet concussion of a sudden flummox.
‘Pea-brain’ when I first heard it as a child was certainly one of my favourite funny phrases and as a sensitive child myself, far preferable to cretin, moron, numbskull and worse (yes there were worse insults to the intelligence which I won’t repeat here even as social history. Political Correctness is often only a particularly puritan relabelling of Common Decency).
However, colourful and pithy as ‘pea-brain’ may be, it hasn’t been in my vocabulary for decades.  ‘Pea-brain’ seems even to me as dated as ‘oh, capital!’ for approbation ; the yout’ today routinely use ‘sick!’ as a term of approval. I don’t, though even I know that when adults these days imagine that pronouncing their services, products or educational materials ‘cool!’ they may as well be saying ‘with-it’ or ‘all the rage’. Cool. Yeah, right.
Disentangling myself from the flummox (how does one unflummox, or is that deflummox? In short I was in recovery from a condition of flummoxedness. I’m sorely tempted to claim that I achieved aflummoxia ‘in a trice’ if only I was clear about the span of a trice, so it may have been two) I had two questions: first (note to self) was ‘pea-brain’ sufficient to unsettle even a sensitive child? And second (official report) when had that salty curse occurred?
I remembered our Mr. Gum exerpt. There wasn’t time to haul out the book and read it over the phone to the Deputy Head, but here’s Exhibit A – apologies to Mr. Stanton for the possible copyright infringement (it’s page 2, so you can check this in any book shop worth the name):-

“… And what a freshial, special morning it was in the town of Lamonic Bibber, my friends! The sun was shining, the birds were playing Quidditch in the treetops and the ground was sort of just lying there letting people walk all over it. It was a glorious, give-me-morious, start-of-the-storious sort of a Spring morning. And as you can imagine with your tiny little brains, everyone was looking forward to it like a rascal.”

“Tiny Little Brains”, uprooted from its native text and relayed via child to parent to school and back to me loses something in translation. I only found out that there’d been a final stage in the relay when I asked the teaching agency if they’d  heard from the school at all recently, because I liked it there and had looked forward to visiting it again, only to be told that the folklore had taken root. I’d called a class ‘pea-brains’.
Supply teachers are an expendable resource, so it was probably easier to drop the teacher than explain to the parent that she or the child had probably not been using appropriate skill and judgement, or, perhaps even responded with the  cerebral finesse of a small legume.
I reserve the right to feel less than sanguine about losing paid work because of this whisper-down-the-alley (an acceptable neologism I’ve discovered recently as a culturally neutral substitute for ‘Chinese Whispers’ – a parlour-game, young’uns, from a bygone time when houses had parlours and we were driven to make our own entertainment). However, when educators stroke their chins and wonder why teaching fails to attract graduates, here’s a possibility. Working in a classroom is not made any easier when you have to watch out for concealed tripwires of etiquette while keeping an eye over your shoulder and an ear to the ground for the approaching grumble of disgruntled parents. Good heavens, this example is the very least sinister of the range of accusations that a teacher might have to account for.
(Are we allowed to say ‘sinister’ or am I being gauche? There may be activists in some cadre of the left-handed lobby who might take up ergonomically modified cudgels on my kack-handed behalf. I’m allowed to use The K Word, see? First elect yourself into an oppressed minority, then you’re allowed to identify with its marginalised constituency, patrol its borders for trepassers and ‘reclaim’ its insulting signifiers as your own, K?.)
To the concerned parent I’d wish that she could read this and take righteous satisfaction that as a result of her prompt action the offending teacher has been summarily dismissed from the premises and her sensitive child has been spared exposure to the perils of ambush by literature. I’m still a fan of Mr. Gum and – call me reckless – I look forward to using his disgraceful example again in Literacy.