Leslie Jamison on the hazards of empathy

Leslie Jamison on the hazards of empathy

“Nothing human is alien to me”: this is the epigraph of the essay collection The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison, and also a tattoo inked into the author’s forearm. It’s an apt summary of her philosophy as a writer, journalist, and thinker. She takes on central questions of the human condition such as “How do we understand and practice empathy?” or “How do we make our pain and suffering decipherable to the people we love?” and ventures forth to collect stories – from Texas and Connecticut to Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Mexico. This mass of humanity is then put into what can only be described as an arsenal of observation, the contents of which comprise The Empathy Exams. The resulting emotional power is a blow to any reader – in the best way possible. Curious to learn about her process as a writer and thinker, Stephanie Kelley interviewed Jamison for The Oxford Student. (more…)

The inimitable voice of Rebecca Mead

The inimitable voice of Rebecca Mead

Rebecca Mead’s versatility when writing about culture and contemporary literature is unmatched. Having written extensively about literature in multiple publications, she also published a book of her own in 2014 called The Road to Middlemarch, an elegant blend of memoir and literary criticism about George Eliot’s famous novel. Her accomplishments in the field of journalism and criticism are all too easy to envy: after graduating University College, Oxford with a degree in English Language and Literature in 1988, she moved to the United States and began climbing up the ladder at New York Magazine before beginning at The New Yorker in 1997.


A new way of reading

A new way of reading

Have you ever felt a creeping sense of dread when reading a book, wondering if maybe you’re doing it the wrong way? Have you ever wondered if there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to read? Do you sometimes feel an itch to reach for a pen and scribble vigorously in the margins, but stop yourself, because you’ve been told all your life that desecrating books is taboo? Many students today are tired of treating books like sacred, holy tomes, whatever their emotional and cultural power. (more…)

An Education In Canonisation

An Education In Canonisation

We’ll leave Old Rosie to teach her own lessons, and lend our ears to young Scout for this one…

Once upon a time, for the children of the late 20th century (that’s you and I) your literary education began with exactly that phrase, and read:

“Once upon a time, a very long time ago now, about last Friday, Winnie-the-Pooh lived in a forest all by himself under the name of Sanders.” ‘Winnie the Pooh’, by A A Milne (1926)

Or alternatively (depending which animal life your mini-me took fancy):

“Once upon a time there were four little Rabbits, and their names were- Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail, and Peter.” ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit’, by Beatrix Potter (1902)

[Brace yourself: I will now cruelly pull you back into reality, from that Eden, that Arcadia, the pastures of pastoral innocence of Hundred Acre Wood or Mr McGregor’s garden; although, like you, I would love to dwell there longer.]

You were loaded into the literary canon before you could even talk or walk, and your life’s education had begun. You were blasted toward an endless horizon of discovery.

Recent plans set out by the education secretary, Michael Gove, though, takes this analogy too far. His canon does not boost you, unfettered, to fly through the boundless skies of literary enlightenment, but through a theatre of war, in the midst of a time warp. The literary canon runs the risk of becoming destructively restrictive under the latest government proposals for changes to the GCSE syllabus, notably OCR’s. Following is an extract from the exam board’s reform summary, under the ironic subtitle ‘GCSEs going forward‘ (yeah, right):

“English Literature, which is no longer compulsory, focuses on four areas of ‘classic literature’…”

Of course, you have already been left in no doubt as to what subject I study. But you don’t have to be a student of English Literature in further education to have been immersed in the canonical troves from which Gove endeavours to thieve. The literary canon isn’t straightforwardly defined, and I refuse to become embroiled in the traumatic repetitiveness of the age-old debate ‘What is Literature?’ which had me and my fellow Englishites (Literarian? Why is there no name!) in knots. I mean, who will ever pinpoint (or care) what exactly the ‘chairness’ of a chair is‽  One useful, perhaps unsophisticated, but valid way to define the literary canon might be ‘the content prescribed for study in school and university courses called English Literature.’ There, on the first rung of this contentious ladder, as terrifyingly tall as the Beanstalk of our beloved Jack, I’ll tactically skirt the matter and leave you wanting more (ahem).

What I will do though, is demonstrate why, in my opinion, Gove is not only ‘shooting a mockingbird’ (the very tempting, fitting but predictable headline for an article on this topic – resisting was difficult) but committing a greater sin in foreshortening the life of a pedagogical and stimulating text. Harper Lee’s Pulitzer-prizewinning novel, written in 1960 (cue Gove and his gun), is not a ‘Boo’ of a book, but an ‘Atticus': it’s a difference-maker. Reading ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, at 15, was as much a coming-of-age story for myself as it was for Scout.

Gove’s choice to forefront pre-20th century texts (‘classic literature’) is far from reflective of my teenage taste at least, my own book shelf including a skim-read ‘Bleak House’, a once-read ‘Coming Up For Air’ and an over-read-to-ruin ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, soon replaced post-exam with “a celebratory edition to mark the fiftieth anniversary of this unforgettable classic.”

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Gove’s misconceived great expectations for his ‘new’ canon sends shrapnel flying. The proposed syllabus, to be first examined in June 2017, is set to be ‘increasingly challenging’ and ‘no longer compulsory’. Added difficulty could act as a 741 page long deterrent to all except the high-flying enthusiasts, with any anomalies rapidly rooted out by the comparable obscurity of Dickens and Eliot, and in a very long time from now (about next Friday) many less will know what it means for me to describe Gove as a caricature of his much cherished Mr Thomas Gradgrind. Far-fetched, I admit, but if his suggestions are to survive his successor, Nicky Morgan’s, term, ‘Gove’ could become a name brightly emblazoned with the responsibility for a significant decline in the nation’s passion for English Literature. Just as the Bible has fallen deep into a chasm of cultural loss, Dickens, Austen, Orwell and all that Gove endorses teeters on the cutting edge of hard times.

This canon is destructive. And equally restrictive, the phrase ‘pre-20th century’ implicates a parochial erection of a Union Jack which casts its bleak shadow over institutions of education. School gates should permit, rather than prohibit, the permeation of the cosmopolitan world. ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ engages with racial violence, rape and the social marginality of the depression-era deep south of the United States. Furthermore the novel, told in the uncertain voice of Scout, is a window flung open to just the kind of debate that makes teaching literature about ethics and politics as much as it is about language and form. Something that a syllabus of ‘Brit Lit’, of Dickens and Orwell, which harks back to the myth of a ‘pure’ origin of English Literature, uncontaminated by the unintended consequences of empire, and ignoring the multinational place that Britain is today, does not. ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ is the perfect comprehensible GCSE novel, in terms of its poignant characterization, momentous narrative structure and clear-cut themes. For it is about pertinent issues confronting, rather than evading, calls for greater social equality.  Violence towards women and racism are as real as ever and the value of Lee’s story lies in its openness, its accessibility and its relevance. It teaches lessons that have accompanied me until now and always.

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” – Atticus (And I’m not going to attribute this to Lee because this is no fictional voice, this is human morality talking.)


And it’s not just me. The unkempt diatribe you have just been subjected to grew from a tiny seed planted by a Mr Nigel Richardson, a man I doubt you know whom which I certainly don’t. But his article in the Telegraph a month ago quoted the exact same words in reference to the continuing civil rights protest in Alabama.

And so I realized that the Finch family were simply right in so many ways. And that they are still right, and as long as we can hold onto our multi-cultural United Kingdom, and refrain from regression into a pre-20th century, literary ‘island’ race, they will remain so.

So it’s not Rosie, but Michael (pity he wasn’t named Jim, would have been another subtle reference to the ol’ canon), who’s the toxic substance here. Attempting to poison the minds of the next generation with an outdated and exclusive ‘British’ fantasy far from our modern sense of the English identity, and worlds (rather than a North Atlantic Ocean) away from Scout, Jem, Atticus and Boo. A country unencumbered by racial and cultural difference; an unreal ideology intoxicating its students with insularity and intolerance.

That’s one small step for man in reversal of Scout’s giant empathetic leap for mankind.

P.S.  Ostensibly, I’m just asking for the whole ‘hypocrite’ critique- surprisingly it was marginally more difficult to borrow a pair of Michael Gove’s walking boots and take them for a hike than you might anticipate…

P.P.S. I’m sure he was doing his best and all.



Bang Said The Gun — stand up poetry

Bang Said The Gun — stand up poetry

Walking into “Bang Said the Gun”, “the poetry event for people who don’t like poetry”, you will uncover an atmosphere of raucous revelry unique in the world of spoken word. Music blasts, the crowd wave their shakers (or, milk bottles filled with rice) and the hosts weave through the room, chanting and ramping up the merry-making. The night has experienced a surge in popularity of late, aided by the success of its own Rob Auton at the Edinburgh Fringe last year, at which he won Dave’s funniest joke award. From the off, the night storms along under the guidance of Jack Rooke, a slightly chaotic and irresistibly energised compère. Co-founder Martin Galton is the first to be introduced, and he launches into “Rude Bastards”, a familiar crowd-pleaser that soon has the audience bellowing back at him. 

Then comes Rob Auton, a man who increasingly resembles a character from a Tim Burton animation, and whose look of wide-eyed naivety and wonder is in perfect accordance with his whimsical, absurd humour. His new “Face Show” appreciates the often overlooked charm of faces great and small, and he creates a moment of tenderness amongst the audience as he encourages us to search for a face we have never before seen. There is something in his poetry of a child’s ability to create poignancy by observing the everyday with new eyes.

The main attraction of the night is the appearance of Howard Marks, notorious drug baron turned writer, who opens by lecturing the crowd on “the anarchy of the English Language” and why money is literally a replacement for shit – accompanied with a lengthy exposition of Freudian psychology. His declarations espouse liberation from materialism and desire to live every moment, but regrettably this energy is not matched by vast passages of his prose, which sound as if they were being read from a textbook.  But the moment he moves away from didacticism into a whimsical nonsense poem his writing shines. Each listener is gleefully caught up in his vivid, hallucinatory vision of a universe formed by the “Big Bong”, which culminates in Sad Adam and Christmas Eve getting rat-arsed on reindeer piss.

Yet it is not all fun and games, and James Bunting and Maria Ferguson draw us back to the recognition of poetry as an art with an unparalleled ability to expose the most vulnerable and oft disguised realms of our psyche. They provide the emotional core of the night, both reluctantly admitting that they “can’t do funny” before launching into their fast-paced, witty and ultimately solemn poems. Bunting reminds you how it feels to be in love as well as the acute pain of loss, while Ferguson mixes tales of halcyon, hedonistic days with moments of depression that form a microscopically detailed human tragedy.

The night concludes with the “Raw Meat Stew”, an open mic competition of unerringly high standards, with the winner claiming the Golden Gun Award and a 10 –minute slot at next week’s show. And don’t forget to stick around – in the downstairs bar the night is young for poet and punter alike.

Bang Said the Gun is at the Roebuck, 50 Great Dover Street SE1, every Thursday at 8pm. Tickets on the door £7/£5 concessions.

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