Archive for ‘education’

August 14, 2013

Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night

An excess of feelings in this weekend’s column.



There’s an episode towards the end of Antonia Forest’s The Ready-Made Family where her protagonist, the teenaged Nicola Marlow, travels alone to Oxford. She has never been to the city, but she has read of it; her first experiences of Oxford are filtered through the lens of one who has read Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey books; particularly Gaudy Night, which is set entirely in Oxford. Nicola is not the only one to love those books—a mention of “Wimsey of Balliol” soon after sparks a friendship between her and her new brother-in-law.

But Gaudy Night is one of those books that can feel like admission to some sort of special club, because so many people love it so much. There’s no reason to think of it as obscure—if its status as a mystery novel hinders its being considered a true Classic it still shows up regularly on “best detective story of all time” type lists. Antonia Forest can assume her readers know it; so can Connie Willis who alludes to it in To Say Nothing Of The Dog. It’s not obscurity that leads readers to want to reach out to other people who have loved it with that “you too?”; it must be something else.

Gaudy Night sees Harriet Vane return to Oxford, where she spent her student years, to investigate a crime under the pretext of doing some research on Sheridan Le Fanu. Members of the fictional Shrewsbury College are receiving cruel anonymous letters, and it seems likely that the perpetrator is a member of the Senior Common Room.

This isn’t really a Peter Wimsey book; it’s a Harriet Vane book, and perhaps part of the reason people feel so strongly for it is that it is such a personal, interior work. A return to her old college also means a revisiting of her own past. A large part of the book is the working out of her feelings about Wimsey, and the possibilities that that relationship holds. And while their romance exists in very specific circumstances (in an earlier book he saved her from being convicted for the murder of her former lover) it’s also strongly tied up in the gender politics of its own time—what forms will relationships take in a world where women as well as men are educated, and acknowledged to be as capable of intellectual achievement, as well as of vocations to which they can be completely dedicated? This is also where the “romance” plot (if you can call it that) intersects with the crime plot. There may be no brutal murders, but the ramifications of the college coming into disrepute are far wider than the individual careers of its academics; this is all part of a struggle for women’s education, a struggle in which, historically, Sayers herself was deeply involved. The Author’s Note at the beginning of the book contains a barbed “apology” to Oxford as a whole for perhaps including more women than the regulations of the time permitted, and even the college’s name, Shrewsbury, has a gendered (Shakespeare, but with less “taming”?) feel to it. As a result the whole thing becomes a meditation on gender roles in a changing world; one that is both intensely political and deeply personal. Women often still struggle, nearly eighty years later, to have our intellectual and academic pursuits prioritised to the same extent. If Gaudy Night feels personal to us it’s because its subject still is.

And so it’s important that Peter and Harriet both have Masters degrees, it’s important that at one point he accidentally puts on her scholar’s robes and they fit him (as his would fit her); it’s important that his final proposal to her is in Latin, explicitly refers to her education and comes with a symbolic offering of all of Oxford and what it means to both of them. A partnership of equals, an implicit promise that she should never subsume herself in him, an unending right to a life of the mind. It’s far more touching than a single phrase in a dead language has any right to be.



March 26, 2010

More F words

Earlier today Adam Roberts mentioned on twitter that he was at a primary school production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. He said that the school had chosen to change some of the lyrics in the Potiphar song – instead of inviting Joseph to “come and lie with me, love”, Potiphar’s wife now desired him to “come and have some tea, love”.

My own primary school changed the line to “come and BE with me love”, but did this merely by crossing out the word “lie” and substituting “be” on the sheets of lyrics. Amazingly, we caught on, but beyond a few giggles and some puzzlement there was nothing.

However, a year or so later I was in a choir doing Oliver! and whoever was in charge decided to modify the song “I’d do anything“. In the song (skip this bit if you know anything at all about musicals) the Artful Dodger is claiming that he would, in fact, do anything for Nancy, and she is giving him lists of specific tasks to see if this is the case. So at one point, she asks him if he would “Even fight my Bill?” to which he replies “What, fisticuffs?”

Unfortunately, whichever adult it was who decided this sort of thing thought that “fisticuffs” was not a word s/he wanted a bunch of kids to sing. I don’t know whether it was considered to be too difficult a word, whether the implication of violence was the problem (surely not) – but we were condemned to sing that line as “what? … *empty space, filled up by some la la laing*” for no discernable reason.

Result: for many years I thought that “fisticuffs” was a dirty word and have never been quite able to rid myself of the association.

Fisticuffs. Giggle.

December 31, 2009


I began this year with a picture of an inflatable giraffe.

Things I did this year:
- Wrote a thesis.
- Obtained a new degree.
- Obtained paid full time employment.
- Visited three countries in one day.
- Accumulated five crates of books (Dublin) and …some more books (Delhi).
I also discovered:
- The romance novel.
- That Dublin is full of amazing people
- …and so is Delhi.
And in conclusion:
Baby donkeys are ridiculously adorable.
(from here)
I hope that everyone reading this has a good time tonight and a wonderful 2010.
November 25, 2009

Yes, this.

From Green Light Dhaba, a couple of weeks ago

When my child was in fifth, he was told he needed to improve in three very important writing genres: application for leave; telegraph writing; and notice writing. When I asked his teacher why these genres were important for 11 year olds to master, I was told, “Ah, but they need to learn them for the tenth boards.” I smiled and nodded. What else could I do? But the truth is, if our children spend five years learning how to write a proper telegraph, then we are in deep trouble, indeed. We need to teach children to write things that actually matter to them, because that’s what good writers do. (Future employers, relax: if you ask a good writer to write a notice or a telegraph in real life, she will figure out how to do it properly in no time.)

And from John Dougherty, today.

But, she went on, she can’t do that often. Instead, she has to spend precious time telling her class the meaning of phrases such as ‘subordinate clause’ – not because she believes that at 10 they need to know what a subordinate clause is, but because their writing has to use subordinate clauses to be marked at Level 5 in their SATS, and the only way to ensure they do this is to tell them (a) what a subordinate clause is and (b) that if they don’t use them they won’t get a Level 5.

There are not words to describe how furious, how utterly, impotently enraged I am that good teachers are forced to reduce the beauteous thing that is language to a series of components that, if assembled according to the Official Plan, will tick the correct box on some faceless, brainless imbecile’s clipboard. This is wrong. It’s stupid. It’s the same thinking that is now leading culture-free, drivellingly anti-intellectual philistines to suggest that it’s possible and even desirable to programme a mindless, soulless, heartless, garbage-in-garbage-out computer to recognise and mark good writing.

September 24, 2009

See also

From the index of A Social History of Education in England by John Lawson and Harold Silver:

Women: education of (later medieval), 65; forbidden to read the Bible (1543), 85; teach petty schools, 113; literacy of, 193, 259; entitled to vote and stand for election for school boards, 318; percentage of, among elementary school teachers, 388; degrees for, 343, 403; votes for, 404; see also nunneries

June 29, 2009

Nothing but praise for you, my dear

Shristi publishers continue to bring out cutting edge works by young Indian writers. Other books from them that I’ve read include Tuhin Sinha’s That Thing Called LOVE, and Novoneel Chakraborty’s A Thing Beyond Forever (which I saw in a bookshop yesterday in a new edition and with a new cover. This proves that I was wrong in saying that the language of the book might be too dense for the average reader. My faith in readers is thus re-established). Yesterday I found myself buying four new books that have come out since I left the country, and last night I read Arpit Dugar’s Nothing For You My Dear: Still I Love You….!
Arpit Dugar is a very young writer indeed – he’s 22. Impressively, he chooses to write from the point of view of a character older than himself, 26 year old Avinash Jain. The parallels between Dugar and Avinash are obvious – they both (from the information about the author given on the book’s inner front cover) have attended the same educational institutions, and are both from Jain families. At one point, due to a minor blip in editing, perhaps, a character even addresses Avinash as “Arpit”. With so strong an identification, it is impressive that Dugar manages to view his protagonist in a detached and critical way. Here he is describing Avinash on the first page of the book, where he admits straight off that his character isn’t perfect:

Avinash was the kind of guy who actually got on your nerves in the very first meeting. His physical appearance was no less than that of a super-model, his way of dressing, his smartness and of course his intelligence attracted everyone around him.

The book is structurally complex, with its story within a story. Avinash Jain’s parents are forcing him to marry Neha Bhandari, and as a dutiful son he cannot deny them their wish. He therefore begs Neha to reject him instead, and when Neha (who has fallen in love with him through the photos she’s seen) demurs, tells her the story of his relationship with Lisha, the girl he hoped to marry. The bulk of the book consists of Avinash’s narration of the story of his life and love.

You or I might tell such a story in a couple of lines. But Dugar’s narrator has clearly been bottling things up and needs to talk about it. As a result we are presented with a number of tiny details that make the whole thing real and add poignance to our understanding of the tale. Details such as this, when Avinash describes his hostel bedroom:

Then there were my gadgets, a personal desktop computer with almost all the gadgets loaded. There were two keyboards, I remember, one was of the normal style and the other was the folding one. There were two mouses even, one was Microsoft’s wireless optical mouse and the other one was the touch pad one. All the eight USB ports of my board remain occupied. Two of them were used by the wireless mouse connector and the folding keyboard. The third was used by the TATA Indicom internet card. The fourth was for the web camera. The fifth port was for the printer, which most of the time remained out of cartridge. The sixth port was an external hard drive, 500 gigabytes. And the seventh and eighth were left open for any extra peripherals to be used. Generally pen drives took hold on them.

A number of people have commented on the “student” flavour of recent novels, many of which seem to be set at least partly in an educational institution, possibly because the bulk of the readership are students or people who were very recently students. So you have Chetan Bhagat and Tushar Raheja writing about IIT life, Ravi Subramanian and Harshdeep Jolly tackling the IIMs, and Soma Das doing her bit for JNU. But the above is about as authentic a picture of student life as I have ever seen. While the references to Tata and Microsoft may seem like product placement, they actually function as a commentary on the importance of brands in daily life, as well as giving the reader a strong sense of context. Dugar is clearly aware of this, as he begins the book with a list of brands, so that we know all about Avinash almost before we know who he is. It’s a satirical take on consumer culture that is done in a startlingly subtle way for a young author and a first novel. In fact, the care with which this book has been written and edited gives the lie to Avinash’s claim that he’s not good with grammar and vocabulary, “I find grammar is some bullshit for crammers”. He has, among other gifts, a positive genius for metaphor.

I felt excitement spreading in my chest like a pleasant cactus.

One of the things that fascinated me about the book is how Dugar negotiates the gender issue. Many of Avinash’s close friends (Lenika, Akanksha, Ria, Tia) are female, for example, so he clearly values what the women around him bring to his life. He is also aware that men and women are fundamentally different, something that feminists have tried to make us forget. Thus his pronouncements on women are hesitant, as if he knows he may be giving offense and is afraid to claim authority. And yet he clearly speaks from experience Some examples:

I don’t know why girls only tell half the story. Don’t mind Neha but most of them love playing mind games and it is truly said that even the one who made them cannot judge what’s going on in their minds. And I believe that is the thing which we guys are so crazy about. Girls are so innocent and beautiful in their own ways.

I had heard from my friends that girls call boys sweetie, honey, cheeku-pie, hubby-dubby when they are in love with them.

The girls are in true sense the gamblers. They actually know the techniques to control us.

When you see a beautiful girl you actually fprget everything. Even Einstein in his theory of relativity mentioned that “Time is relative. When you are with a beautiful girl, the whole day will pass like a few seconds. On the other hand, when you are with a fat ugly lady, you will find a few seconds like years passing out”.

She came late to the college on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Maybe because we are allowed to wear casuals on those days and don’t mind but girls take hell lot of time in getting ready, choosing the best outfits and wearing the make-up.

Some of my friend once told me that staring is half the victory in love.

Understanding that women are fundamentally purer and more innocent than men, Avinash shows a wonderfully tender protective streak. He takes chivalry seriously.

I knew it had created a bad impression of my attitude but I never like attending booze sessions. It depresses me, so I avoid it. I am not against it, but I don’t support it in presence of girls and women even. It is something against my ethics.

And after all, what girl can resist being cared for?

The book is not without its flaws, however, and both of the things which spoilt it for me were factual errors. The first was a mere question of haircare. Lisha, at the point when Avinash meets her, has hair that is “cut in steps”, something that Avinash could probably not have recognised were it not straight. Additionally, he later describes her hair as straight. Yet at that first meeting, she also has “a curl carelessly on her forehead”. It seems extremely unlikely, though with curlers and straighteners freely available on the market anything is possible. And anyway, as has been discussed before on this blog, authors are frequently ignorant of the differences between straight and curly hair.

The second problem is one of timing. Towards the end of the book, Avinash waits for Lisha at the Ansal Plaza. Lisha telephones (half an hour late) from Sarojini Nagar, to say she’ll be fifteen minutes. Now, we’re told that Lisha is always late, but no reader could seriously believe that either of them think the journey even possible in fifteen minutes. What about the South Extension bottleneck? Unless we assume that Lisha also has no sense of direction as well as no sense of time, it is hardly feasible.

But it is possible that these minor criticisms arise out of bitterness and jealously from a critic who has never had a book published, yet is almost 24. All in all, a fine effort.

April 5, 2009

Exciting things that I have learnt in Dublin

There are many seagulls in this place. They spend inordinate amounts of time hanging around college, much as the pigeons used to do at school and at my former college (except without the loud pigeon sex and the phenomenal amounts of excreta). Occasionally they walk about on the lawns.

It was only a few months ago that I realised that they rarely stand still. Throughout the winter (I wondered if their feet were cold, but they’re still doing it) whenever they were on the ground they were constantly moving their feet so that one was always in the air. I don’t know why this is (and I hope someone who understands seagulls will tell me in the comments) but they look like they’re tapdancing. Are they? What gives, feathered tribe?

February 23, 2009

Cyclical patterns in history (or, the mental incapacity of Geoffrey Chaucer)

Context: Fourteen year old characters in an Angela Brazil book (The Princess of the School, 1920) encounter Theocritus in translation.

“It’s exactly like anybody going out to-day!” commented Carmel, as Miss Adams came to a pause.

“Why does it seem so modern?” asked Dulcie.

“Because it was written during the zenith of Greece’s history, and one great civilization always resembles another. England of to-day is far more in touch with the times of ancient Egypt, Babylon, Greece and Rome, than with the Middle Ages. Read Chaucer, and you find his mental outlook is that of a child of seven. In the days of the Plantagenets grown men and women enjoyed stories of a crude simplicity that now only[97] appeals to children. The human race is always progressing in great successive waves of civilization; after each wave breaks, a time of barbarism prevails, till man is again educated to a higher growth. We’re living at the top of a wave at present!”

September 6, 2008

Relevant Political Question

DUSU elections are occurring, and there are NSUI and ABVP posters all over the city featuring attractive, smiling and usually fair-skinned men and women.

Not having ever taken part in the DUSU elections, I’m not sure how they work. But I assume that (and feel free to educate me) either the various parties choose their candidates based at least partly on their looks, or their pictures on the posters are manipulated rather a lot. Or a combination of the two. It’s possible that everyone in DU who enters into campus politics is just unusually conventionally attractive, but I don’t think we need seriously consider that possibility.

At the national level I can think of five or six reasonably good looking politicians at most.

What I wonder is this – if the candidate’s looks are such a major factor in the DUSU elections, is it different at the national level? If so, why? If not, why don’t we have more attractive politicians? Teach me, O internets.

August 15, 2008

Ceci n’est pas une

Seen in GK 1′s M-block market, along the little path through the middle of the park. We think it’s supposed to be educational.