Tag Archives: Culture

Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me by Kate Clanchy

When I finished reading this book, I let out a cry of exultation. For whilst this is an account of the author’s thirty year journey teaching in the UK, bursting with anecdotes – with all the rich tapestry of emotions that humanity yields – it is ultimately a revelatory celebration of all that is good and life-enhancing when teachers with the requisite skill, passion and flair for their subject are able to teach, and how they can have such a positive impact on their charges.

“Some Kids I Taught…” is written with a poet’s telling eye for observation and comparison. Kate Clanchy is a wonderful writer and what becomes apparent is that she is an equally wonderful teacher, with a gift for self-deprecation, as well as being able to see things that others perhaps don’t. There is a refreshing honesty and wit embedded in her insights. You feel that despite the politics in education and the various battlegrounds that have ensued as to how best deliver state education, the author firmly believes in the enabling and civilising influence that such education can provide when it is well-managed, well thought out, well-funded and teachers are provided the freedom to practise what they love doing, without short-sighted political interference.

Anyone who reads this will acquire a sharper and more enlightened understanding into the various challenges that teachers currently face in the UK and why it is a profession that gives anyone who has ever been a part of it, plenty of “wow” moments. Not only should every person involved in education read this, but every politician too – they may learn a thing or two and consider how best to create a 21st century state educational system in which students are best able to demonstrate their creative skills and flourish.

In the despairing world that is Brexit and Trump, where division has reared its head with purulent intent, it is uplifting to read a book that praises multiculturalism and diversity as beautiful ideals to embrace. In one scene, Clanchy describes looking around her classroom thus:

“I look around the room. It contains Muslims from five countries,
one Hindu, a Filipino fundamentalist, one transgender kid,
two mixed race girls of no faith, two white kids, a Pole,
and the rule range of human skin colour. Fabulous.”

Isn’t this what education, life, and this beautiful world of ours are all about?

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Je Suis

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You may kill
With craven
Bullets,
But ideas dance
Forever free.

You may tear
The unarmed
Flesh,
But thought burns,
Impregnable.

You may act
For a twisted
Cause,
But you will wail
In the cold.

You may quash
What you believe
Offends,
But this is life,
Terror can’t rend.

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Leonard Cohen: He’s Your Man

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Listening to a song by Leonard Cohen or reading a line of his verse is a deeply immersive experience – enchanting and enlightening in equal measure – suffused with wisdom and grace, witty and subversive. This biography has a similar feel. Sylvie Simmons’ thoroughly-researched paean to the “Bard of Montreal” is steeped in admiration for her subject; the writing flows effortlessly and the reader will quickly become absorbed in the diverse tapestry of Cohen’s life; the rich Jewish-Canadian/Russian/Lithuanian heritage, the influences, the environment etc. There are plenty of revelations – so much so that as I read, not only did I think Cohen’s place as one of the most compelling figures of culture, music and poetry of the 20th/21st centuries is lucidly re-affirmed but his life brings to mind a line by Albert Camus, on the nature of personality and self, “We continuously shape our personality all our lives.”

Simmons is especially good at highlighting the themes that run like constant refrains in the fabric of Cohen’s life and work; sex, love, relationships, religion, depression, power, compassion etc. whilst accentuating what is, perhaps, his most salient trait: his resilience, “Leonard was a lover, but when it comes to survival he was also a fighter.” At times, it feels like there is a sense of destiny to Cohen’s actions, a knowingness laced with humility; anyone who has had the fortune to see Cohen perform live will testify to this. The blend of intelligence and humour is palpable, the mix of power and vulnerability hugely magnetic. Somehow, it feels no surprise that the flaneur who walked the streets of Montreal as a young man, questing for knowledge and fresh experiences would always end up as a legendary troubadour, displaying his gifts of observation and insights – about the great issues of life – to the world. His avenue? The open road of the globe.

The infectiousness that Sylvie Simmons has for Cohen shines out so much that one wonders whether she hasn’t been mesmerised by his fabled hypnotic powers. She is equally good at showing what makes Cohen tick as a man and as an artist. Yes, she is a fan but she writes with great skill and sensibility, “the great songs, the ones that keep drawing us back again and again are mysteries.” In many ways, Cohen’s output can best be described as a type of “assisted living”. Like Samuel Johnson’s perceptive quote on writing that it “enable[s] the reader better to enjoy life, or better to endure”, Cohen’s songs have a similar pull. Or, as a fan from Cohen’s tour in 1974 starkly puts it, “I was suicidal and I put on one of your records and you saved me.”

For many, this book will just confirm what Leonard Cohen already is in their eyes: a man blessed with a singular talent for poetry, lyricism and songwriting. The eloquence and compassion – central elements of his character- are manifest. As ex-lover and fiancée Rebecca de Mornay articulates, “he is so fully present, with compassion for the underdog, as well as genuine compassion for the enemy – which is very hard to do and hard-won.” Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of this terrific biography is that Simmons has unshackled Cohen from “banal” stereotypes that have attached themselves to Cohen over the years, like hackneyed labels which have become threadbare through repetition, and presented a rounded portrait of a highly sensitive, charismatic and intelligent man, whose greatest gifts have been for language and distilling experiences with a finesse of expression. In a nutshell, the opening line of this biography captures the essence of the man perfectly, “He is a courtly man, elegant, with old-world manners.” This is the kind of the book that will make readers want to rush out and grab some of Leonard Cohen’s books or listen to the albums. There can be no greater tribute.

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