I recently finished reading A. A. Gill’s Pour Me: A Life. It’s a frank and funny memoir on his fragmented memories of years of alcoholism, and insightful musings on his childhood and post-alcohol rise to becoming a writer, critic and Sunday Times journalist. Not only
did I appreciate the carefully-selected words and the rhythm of the well-crafted sentences, but the book also made me consider many aspects of teaching and learning:
1. Teachers teach better when they walk in learners’ shoes. One way to do this is by learning a language. If not a foreign language, by learning your own a little better. While reading this, I learned many new English words. I kept a list of new vocab on my phone.
2. ‘I want to learn English’ is not a realistic aim (as mentioned before). Where unrealistic objectives lead, disappointment and abandonment can soon follow. As a new word created every 98 minutes, it’s practicality impossible to learn the language completely.
Dictionaries don’t police language, they chase along behind it. Grammar is whatever suits your design and need…it wasn’t made by a committee or a common room or a club, it was built by people like us, millions of them, not in classrooms or halls or palaces or churches, but in streets and fields, in trenches, at sea, in forests and tundras, in jungles and on top of mountains. In shops and stinking laboratories, in barracks and hovels and tents and gibbets and styles, in ditches and over garden walls, in cradles and in dreams. It is the only true, wholly democratic free and limitless thing we all own, it is yours.
3. Less (language) snobbery! A little more humility than the paper crown of ‘native speaker’ often allows for. Teacher or not, we are all still English learners.
Snobbery is an untenably vile web of power patronage, wholly unearned, undeserved and unfair privilege. It bears no relation to any of the human attributes, learned or inherited, that add to the good of the nation…Snobbery itself, of course, hasn’t gone. It is still essentially the mark of insecurity.
Snobbery is like peeing in your own pants. For a moment you feel relieved and a warmth, but everyone can see you’ve done it and you’re left feeling embarrassed and uncomfortable. It isn’t snobbery that’s particularly English, it is the uncertainty, the lack of self-confidence, of which snobbery is such an antisocial symptom.
4. You can only learn so much in a classroom. We can teach knowledge, but not cleverness or wisdom. Knowledge is the least valuable of the three.
Experience always trumps cleverness. There is no substitute for having been there and got it under your fingernails. I had just done, been and seen a lot more than most other young style writers and opinionators and not writing had made me talk, and talking had given me a more acute ear for rhythm.
Carrying around information in your head is as pointlessly antidiluvian as memorising every phone number you’ll ever need. It’s like dressing up and sounding like someone you’re not – the knowledge is off-the-peg, imitation wisdom. Knowledgeable is not a synonym for clever. Clever is not in the same bed as wise. In fact, knowledge might be an indicator of a lack of wisdom.
5. Getting to university isn’t ‘making it’, and no progress is made just by breathing the same air as other learners. Contrary to many people’s experience, being an undergraduate weren’t my favourite years of life so far. I met some great people, sure, but I didn’t enjoy being taught in such large numbers. Some peers’ attitudes and laziness also got to me. A. A. Gill’s mockery resonated:
It was chained to the next bike and that was attached to the next and the next – an unending metal scrum of bikes. I pulled and pushed them over the wall – they seemed such a perfect simile for undergraduates, chained together for safety and assurance, the implication the possibility of inquisitive forward movement, the reality a collective, comforting statis.
6. We should never give up on a learner, especially one with learning disabilities. Dyslexia, for example, is a highly-stigmatised reading disorder but doesn’t have to be a barrier to writing. A. A. Gill, a dyslexic, was a testament to this.
I was spectacularly stupid…Dyslexics aren’t born feeling stupid or failures. Their self-worth and optimism aren’t dented until they get to a classroom. Dyslexia is a personal, ingrate slight to everything teachers and teaching stand for.
Dyslexia is psycho-babble heresy to the orthodox belief in education., like IQ tests it undermines the doxology that if you do as I say you will prosper, that education is truly the meritorious road to culture, commerce and being a better person.
Away from the realm of teaching and learning, here are several eloquent insights into various aspects of life. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did:
Choosing our friends
The art of drawing and the art of life is the art of omission. What we leave out. Who we leave out.
Knowing what you are is of far more lasting value than wondering what you are. What you are is what’s left when you’ve cleared everything else away.
Sunday lunch with three generations of family was my grandfather’s quiet victory and memorial. I can still taste it, the warm bread, metallic with blood and salt, life and tears, like a slap in the mouth, a kiss on the lips. What I remember about him was the gentle unassuming dignity. The carving of the meat, the ritual of the box with the knife and fork, the stropping of the blade, steel on steel, the reverence for the flesh, the compliments to the gravy and being handed down the sop. A gift, a bond and acknowledgement from my grandfather to me. It was the first time I’d tasted the old altar-truth of the table that food is far more than what is on your plate.
Food is the metaphor and the simile and the parable of every important moment in our lives. It is also at the heart of every religious observance. We pay the tolls of our love with cakes and champagne, cups of tea and beans on toast.
So the worst thing, it turns out, is absence. Like the opposite of love not being hate but indifference. It turns out that the worst thing is not sadness, but the lack of a peg to hang any feeling or memory on. The saddest thing after all these years is not remembering.
I caught a ragged breath and sobbed. Verocchio’s Condottiere [below]. Huge, totalitarian, aggressive, elegantly fascist. Not on anyone’s top ten of beautiful objects – but it pulses with a superhuman, imperious energy. There’s nothing vulnerable or lost about this man. But he is the patron of the old truth that it is better that people ask why there is no statue to you than wonder why there is.
Criticism is like being able to unbake a cake. When people fatuously ask why I don’t write constructive criticism, I tell them there is no such thing. Critics do deconstructive criticism. If you want compliments, phone your mother.
Pour Me: A Life is available in all good bookstores (no I’m not on commission, but I definitely recommend it!)
Gill, A. A., 2015. Pour Me: A Life, London: W&N.