Samuel Beckett, Virginia Woolf and the triple-decker egg-and-bacon sandwich.

Funny the ways in which school students remember their teachers, aeons on; funny if they remember them at all. I was buying a pair of jeans in one of those boutiquey men’s clothing stores in the centre of Nottingham, when one of the salesmen said he knew me from school – Heanor-Aldercar Secondary School in Langley Mill.
“One thing I’ve always remembered – you coming into our English lesson with the record player and an LP, saying, ‘Right now. You’ve all got to listen to this.’ And you played Sergeant Pepper all the way through.”
Worst things to be remembered for.

Four or five years ago, quite by chance, I bumped into someone I’d taught at Stevenage Girls’ School when she would have been twelve or thirteen: getting on for 45 years before. I didn’t recognise her, but she knew me right off.
“Triple-decker egg-and-bacon sandwich!” she said and laughed.
I’d used it in some way I can’t exactly recall as a metaphoric way of explaining a complex sentence; I think the middle slice, between the bacon and the egg, might have been a semi-colon.

Following my recent post about teaching at the Girls’ School in Stevenage, Pam Smith, one of the sixth form students taking the Modern paper in A Level English – Beckett, Virginia Woolf and, I think, Eliot – got in touch via a friend. What it seems she remembers most clearly was the lesson in which, reading from Malone Dies, I laughed so helplessly that I slid under the desk and onto the floor. [Whatever it takes … ]

A quick search along the shelves at home soon came up with my teaching copies of both Malone Dies and To The Lighthouse.

Pam went on to take a degree at the University of Nottingham and it was her enthusiasm for the Department of American Studies that led directly to my applying there to do an MA, making many new friends and renewing my acquaintanceship with what is surely the queen of cities.

Some Pigeon, Some Existence …


In the pre-credit sequence of Roy Andersson’s new film, A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting on Existence, a man examines stuffed birds in a museum, while his wife stands off to one side, waiting. What the film then does is reverse the procedure, as Andersson presents us with a succession of mostly short scenes in which human behaviour is displayed for examination. The scenes, mostly played out in drab rooms with pale grey walls – this is not a film that admits to the existence of bright colour – come across as sketches, some featuring characters that reappear, some there for a matter of minutes and then gone, never to be glimpsed again. It’s as some enterprising producer had turned the Morecambe and Wise Show over to Samuel Beckett for a rewrite.

The two central characters who thread their way, with increasing moroseness, through the film – more Laurel and Hardy, perhaps, than Eric and Ernie – are a pair of besuited, drab and humourless middle age salesmen, improbably peddling cheapjack novelties like vampire teeth, laughing balloons and grotesque masks. They want to bring fun into people’s lives.

If you came to the film on the basis of the trailer alone, you’d be expecting some kind of droll eccentric comedy, and, as such, you wouldn’t be entirely disappointed. Droll, yes. Funny, yes. But Andersson has more on his mind than bringing fun into people’s lives.

Take three scenes. One, early on, shows siblings quarrelling either side of their dying mother’s  bed; struggling, one against the other, to pull the old lady’s handbag, containing her jewellery and the cash raised from selling her car, out of her grasp. In another, later, an assistant in a laboratory which conducts experiments on animals, leans against a window speaking into the telephone, assuring the person at the other end of the line she’s pleased she’s fine, and totally ignoring the screams of a monkey wired up to a electric device which sends the current intermittently through its body.

In the third scene, which comes almost at the end of the movie, a group of colonial soldiers is seen using whips on a line of  black slaves, including a mother and baby, driving them into a huge copper drum, then setting light to a fire at the drum’s base so that the heat gradually causes it to revolve. This is then revealed as a spectacle being presented for the passive approval by a group of ageing white patrician figures, men and women, in formal dress sipping champagne.

In the scene following this, when one of the salesmen asks his increasingly distraught colleague what on earth is wrong with him, his answer is that we never asked for forgiveness.

The sins of the fathers, Andersson seems to be suggesting, however hidden, however unacknowledged, remain a blight on our lives, a blight on our existence.

Fun, anyone?

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Writers & writing: books, movies, art & music - the bits & pieces of a (retiring) writer's life