Saturday, April 27, 2013

LAST DAYS OF THE CHEESY BANDIT KID: HOW BARD GOT OUT OF THE CLASSROOM


I’d think about it carefully. If you go to university you may never write a decent poem again – email from poet friend, March 2010.


I left university yesterday. I don’t know if I’ve left with a degree because my last exam was a bit of a disaster and I might have failed the module as a result. That particular lecturer chose to give the exam 50% of the credit toward our final grade, which is unfair but wholly indicative of the quiet, cowardly sadism of the man. And I messed it up. Well, I gave one good answer, but the second one was a complete car wreck. I hadn’t revised lyric poetry because you can only revise so much and I’d been thoroughly working over comic and tragic plays and the metaphysical poets. But although one question had to be about poetry, none of the questions allowed you to write about the metaphysical poets. Even now, when I don’t want to chew Dr. Kildare’s head off anymore, that strikes me as perverse, cruel and a deliberate trap for students. He knew everybody liked Donne and Marvell, with their pithy little poems about compasses, fleas and fucking.

I was tired. I’d been awake since 3 in the morning revising so by 10.30, when I looked at the question, I was ready for my afternoon nap. I couldn’t think of any lyrical poetry. Not one, at least specifically. So I answered a question, badly, about Edmund Spenser and John Milton, neither of whom had the Doc properly taught; nor could I remember a great deal about them, except that reading both was like walking through cold porridge. No matter. I subsequently realised that, having already written about Twelfth Night and The Duchess of Malfi, I wasn’t supposed to attempt their giant works anyway. “One answer MUST be about non-dramatic poetry,” said the arse-pinchingly tight directive at the top of the paper. (Pretty self-important for a bloke who eats a bag of Monster Munch a day.) In my sleep-fogged state I thought non-dramatic poetry referred to anything that wasn’t located in the text of a play. No, I realized as I was sitting in the park afterwards trying to wrap my brain around the idea that university was over.
                               
                                     John Milton: Cold Porridge Poet

So I don’t know if I have a degree; but I do know I’ve left because I’m not going back to repeat the module if I’ve failed. I can’t afford to, and I would rather perform surgery on myself with a rusty flick knife. It was an interesting experiment, going to uni, and a nice way of burying the ghosts of my breakdown 30 years ago, when I was supposed to come to what was then Nene College but ended up retreating to my bedroom for three years instead. But I was probably too old when I enrolled in 2010 to feel a part of what they like to call “the university experience” (I’ve never been sure what that was); if I went back at the end of this year I’d been more than half way to 50 by the time I finished, assuming I did. (Imagine being stuck endlessly repeating the same boring module over and over again forever.) I’ve never had the right attitude for university either. I’m too critical of authority. Too critical of received wisdom. And too stubborn. The more you tell me that something is indisputably so, the less I will believe it, even if I know, in the small hours of the night, that you are right and I am wrong. The two most depressing words in the world, as far as I’m concerned, are “peer review”. I couldn’t give a fuck what anybody else thinks really, but lordy how much some of these scholars care about their status.

Oh, I had some good lecturers. Mark Brown was wonderfully charming and a fabulous communicator. I loved his lectures, despite his highly dubious obsession with Paul Auster and his dismissal of Jack Kerouac as “hippie shit”. Unfortunately, the callous bastard abandoned the university because he wanted to live closer to his family. Sonya Andermahr scared and infuriated half of her students with her utter intolerance of anybody who didn’t share her taste in literature or her feminist orientation; but I agreed with her on politics even if we diverged on books and it was refreshing to be exposed, once a week, to someone with such a razor-sharp intellect. Course leader Phillippa Bennett was always unflappably calm and in control, and I never saw her embarrass a student who hadn’t quite understood a question that she’d asked. And tattooed, dreadlocked Jaz Shadrack electrified a post-colonial class in year two that had been made comatose by a departing lecturer. Some may not have appreciated her political digressions – one student took to calling her “Citizen Jaz” – but were they even digressions, when the module was centred on literature responding to political oppression? Can you divorce Brick Lane from the role of women in Islamic society, for example? Of course you can’t.

Naturally, the fact that I agreed with her helped. If I’d had to sit for two hours a week listening to someone glorifying the British Empire or the healing power of global capitalism, I might have quit the university last January. It was hard enough to stick around when I was being told week after week by another lecturer that Bill Wordsworth was the best thing since the electric cheese grater. Actually, he’s a windy bore (the poet). The great Japanese haiku writers could say what he said, and say it better, in three lines; he took thirty pages. (By the way, Doc, it isn’t funny to say that Welsh people have sex with sheep, French people are intolerable and all Americans are stupid. Knock it on the head next year, mate.)

                                           Bill Wordsworth after reading his own poetry.

 The best part of university for me, and almost everybody says it, but it’s true, was that I met some nice people and we had some fun times together. That doesn’t sound like much when bloody wars are being fought, when two million children a year are dying of malnutrition, but actually, it’s everything. See what you remember most when you’re lying on your death bed about to gurgle your last. The days I spent with Martyna Hatton, seeing her through her pregnancy, the birth of her beautiful daughter Leila (I wasn’t there, but someone should make a film about it), and her fabulous Goth marriage to Kenny at the Sunley conference centre on Park campus, will stay with me until my mind lapses into amnesia and hallucination (I have about six months); and I so admired the way she ploughed on through the difficulties of the last year, I couldn’t even tell her without being patronising.  I loved getting to know Kerry Wilkinson too, whose university trajectory was almost the polar opposite of mine (if I’m not mixing metaphors) in that she started off poorly and then worked her arse off until she became one of the best students of the 2010 intake. We were united, at first, by our difficulties with Charles Bennett, the Creative Writing lecturer, who used a tea pot to demonstrate the eccentricity he wanted you to believe defined him, and set his own book as the mandatory text for students to purchase in year one. I still think that was immoral. Kerry argued with Bennett, and I fought with him so bitterly it became something of a popular sport for students to come along to our Wednesday classes and wait for the moment when the cork popped. I still feel that the spectacle of two old grey-haired bitches fighting over poetry while teens looked on degraded both of us.

But there were many people I met at uni who made the time worthwhile. Robert Davies is the most disciplined and yet the most intellectually independent man I’ve ever met. I saw him walking on his own through a dense crowd of protestors at the tuition fee march in London in 2010, holding a placard high in the air and looking absolutely at peace with himself. At his age I was hiding under a blanket in my bedroom. And when I asked him what his motivation was for coming on the march he said, “I’m here for my younger sisters.” Lucia Madalena Conte has the best and readiest laugh I’ve ever heard other than Rachel Lovesy’s, and she graces any company she’s in with her intelligence, her perfect manners (if that doesn’t make me sound about 90) and her interest in you; Christine Horne (I hope she won’t mind me saying this!) grew from what Allen Ginsberg called “wallflower anxieties” to be unexpectedly self-confident at the oddest moments and the person I always asked when I wasn’t sure of something; James Goswell disappeared to form a band in year three but even his smart-alec desire always to have the last word (identical to my own) didn’t detract from his affable manner and keen wit . I didn’t know Charlotte Farrow too well before she left to have her baby, but speaking to her since on Facebook I’ve found someone who, growing out of the same soil as me, I like very much. And there were others. But since I hate the long lists of names in Greek poetry, I’ll spare you any more in this.

As for my poet friend’s assumption that university would blunt my ability to write truly, independently, free of the starch of received academic wisdom – I know what he meant, and there was a certain amount of truth in what he said. An English degree does present you with an incredibly narrow, uninformed literary canon and train you to believe that’s all there is; anything else is not serious. Why was there no d.a.levy on the American Lit module? You can’t teach American poetry after 1960 without mentioning levy. And why was Don Delillo presented as the last word in modern American writing and not Wild Bill Blackolive? Is a book only worthy of academic consideration if it comes from a major publishing house? How on earth could Laurence Marriott not have heard of John Fante, or Charles Bennett warn me to avoid Charles Bukowski and read somnambulant English drears like himself instead?

                                         Buk. Stay away from anyone you can actually read.

And yet, I’ve ridden in labourers’ vans in muddy boots watching men drool over women’s tits in newspapers. I’ve worked in McDonald’s with zitty, brain-dead and probably impotent boys in white shirts telling me what to do. After long days of hard physical work it’s just as easy to pull a case of beer from the fridge and veg out in front of the television as it is to write poetry. But I didn't. If you’re ready to write, you’ll write; it doesn’t matter where you are. And whether you’re pulling a root up in an old lady’s garden with the snow falling on your frozen hands, or sitting in a warm classroom watching the sixth beautiful, pampered, middle-class kid in two hours do a presentation on gender in Jeanette Winterson, the honesty and the style in what you produce will depend on the honesty and style in you. University may be the monkey-see/ monkey-do mechanism that ensures the continuation of the existing power structure, or it may be, as the Tibetans would say in a different context, the Great Liberation through Hearing. But you, ladies and gentlemen, are your own responsibility.

I take me, now, out into the big bad world I was seeking refuge from when I enrolled at the university in 2010. No more education for Bard, at least not in the classroom. I may or may not have a degree, time will tell. I don’t even care, really, other than in the sense that it would be nice to have something to show for the giant debt I’ll have hanging around my neck like a fat badger corpse for the next 25 years. But all things considered, and generally in all the wrong ways, it’s been enlightening. Now the Vice Chancellor can sing love songs to Chinese Communism and have nobody point out the screams of the dying in Llhasa.

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