Learning from History – Herbart, Hayward and the Celebration Movement

ROSALIND RAWNSLEY recalls a visionary educationist

For centuries, a child’s mind was considered a tabula rasa on which the teacher would do his best to imprint a series of facts which with a bit of luck would give the pupil all the basic tools needed for him to make his future way in life – as the 19th/20th century English educationalist Professor Sir John Adams put it, dividing the ordinary consciousness from ‘mind within and the great world of facts outside’, 

…the teacher’s work is regarded as the shovelling in of as many of those outside facts as the mind can contain. The great shovel for this purpose is known as Observation; a word dear to the hearts of, ‘Teachers; Inspectors, School Superintendents; School Boards, Parents and Others interested.’1

In most cases, a basic grounding in the ‘3 Rs’, with, if they were lucky, a working knowledge of the Classics, was for centuries considered a sufficient education for those few boys who were fortunate enough to benefit from schooling of any kind. The vast majority of the population remained illiterate. 

Village School, by Jan Steen , circa 1670

As early as the early 17th century, there had been a few far-sighted philosophers with more advanced ideas on education. The best-known among them was the Czech, John Amos Comenius (1592-1670), who advocated among other innovations, pictorial textbooks written in native languages rather than only in Latin, teaching based on the introduction of gradual development from the simplest to more comprehensive concepts, lifelong-learning, focussing on logical thinking rather than rote learning, equal opportunities for poor children and education for women. 

With evident justification, Comenius is considered the father of modern education, but his was an exceptional voice crying in the wilderness.  It was not until the 18th century, with the dawn of the science of psychology, that educational innovation really began to gather pace in Europe, with the German States leading the way. But the child-centred, leisurely pace of education, first advocated by Pestalozzi and Froebel in the 18th century, and built upon by J.F. Herbart and his followers a century later, by which the child was guided by the teacher to uncover and develop his own innate understanding of the world and his place in it, could not last. With the exponential expansion of educational opportunities in the 21st century, with the invention of the microchip and the internet, space exploration and the vertiginous pace of advance in information technology in particular, this ‘Herbartian’ model has on the face of it had to be laid aside in favour of increasing specialisation. But Herbartianism, as applied through the work of the English educationalist, Frank Herbert Hayward has not been entirely superseded, and may still have a future.

J. F. Herbart, 1776-1841

Johann Friedrich Herbart (1776-1841) the German philosopher and early psychologist, is less well-known in the English-speaking world than Auguste Comte, his near contemporary, with whom he is sometimes compared. It is difficult to comprehend the reason for this neglect, given that for at least half a century after his death, as the founder of pedagogy as an academic discipline, Herbart’s philosophy of education was extremely influential.  It was widely studied and applied by prominent educationists not only in his native Germany, but also in England and in America where, as in Germany, Herbart Societies still flourish. 

Herbartianism, with all its faults, is a system; apparently the only educational system in existence which has at the same time a definite psychology; a vast and fairly coherent mass of literature, a considerable number of journals devoted to its cause; a series of great names – above all, the power of raising enthusiasm!2

Herbart’s philosophy of education can be perhaps labelled simplistically as idealist.  He begins with the concept of the mind or soul as a single, inert and homogeneous entity which becomes the battleground for the one set of forces which can have any effect upon it – the ideas. Ideas, once introduced to the soul, compete with each other for a place. 

John Adams, in his magisterial volume of essays The Herbartian Psychology Applied to Education, describes the Herbartian model of the soul as a dome, “the summit of which is the goal of the ambition of every self-respecting idea”3. The base of the dome marks the threshold between the conscious and the unconscious mind. Once an idea rises above that threshold, its first task, in order to consolidate its position in the dome, is to make useful acquaintances or connections, which together form what Herbart describes as an apperception mass. According to the Herbartian model, the whole of our intellectual life is spent in forming new apperception masses and in expanding old ones. Ideas which do not succeed in attracting others to form apperception masses, having for the time being lost the battle, will sink once again below the threshold of consciousness, where they will nonetheless remain until or unless called forth once again.

Herbart was born in Oldenburg in northern Germany in 1776.  Little is known about his early life, except that as a fragile child he was taught at home until the age of 12. Afterwards, he attended the local Gymnasium for six years, before going on to study under Fichte, who taught him to think logically, at the University of Jena. After Jena, Herbart moved to Switzerland as tutor to the children of the Governor of Interlaken.  Here he made the acquaintance of the Swiss educator Pestalozzi4 and through him became interested in educational reform.

This meeting, and his own experiences as a teacher, led Herbart during the following years to develop his own philosophy of education – first at the university of Göttingen, where he eventually became a lecturer, and later in Königsberg, where he moved in 1809 to take up the Chair of Philosophy earlier occupied by Kant. Here he established, and conducted for the next 24 years, an influential seminary of pedagogy. In 1833 he returned to Göttingen as Professor of Philosophy, where he remained in post until his death eight years later.

Herbart’s theories of education were taken up and developed in different ways by his followers, who likewise reinterpreted the philosophy of Herbart to suit their respective interpretations. ‘Herbartianism’ thus eventually became synonymous with a system of education, rather than with the original philosophy of Herbart himself. By the second half of the 19th century, Herbart’s doctrines had been so much changed that they would probably have been unrecognisable by their original author.

While Herbartianism had considerably less influence in England than in Germany and in America, it did nonetheless attract a following among influential English educationists following the 1870 Elementary Education Act. This established a framework for the compulsory education of children between the ages of five and twelve.  The direct result of this enactment was the construction and establishment countrywide of hundreds of new Elementary schools5 and it was not until the Education Act of 1891, the latest in a flurry of Education Acts passed during the twenty years after 1870,  that education was made free of charge to all pupils in Board and Church schools alike).

Among those educationists who took up the Herbartian torch were John Joseph Findlay6, John Adams7, and Catherine Dodd8 and Frank Herbert Hayward, all of whom were household names in the field of pedagogy well into the 1930s.

While students of the history of education would certainly be familiar with the first three, Hayward sank into obscurity very soon after his retirement and by the time of his death in 1954 he had more-or-less been forgotten. A pessimist by temperament, Hayward may not have forwarded his own cause as well as he might, had his personality been different; the title of his autobiography, An Educational Failure, published in 1938, encapsulated his self-doubt, and as is so often the case, he was taken at his own estimation. This neglect was nothing short of a tragedy in the field of moral education.

Frank Herbert Hayward was born in 1872 into a poor but industrious Nonconformist family in Wotton-under-Edge in Gloucestershire. Highly motivated and of a studious disposition, he was to become in early adulthood a man of formidable energy and mental ability, rising to become a prolific writer and a highly respected (though controversial) educationist.

He attended various schools, mainly in Bristol, becoming a Pupil Teacher at Barton Hill in 1887, where he seems to have remained on the staff until 1895, when he gained a scholarship to University College, Bristol. From Bristol he gained by private study a B.A. from London University and went on to study for a Teacher’s Diploma at the College of Preceptors, where he gained a Special Certificate of Ability to Teach in 1899. During his studies for this diploma, he appears simultaneously to have studied privately for a B.Sc. in chemistry and geology, and for an M.A. in philosophy and economics.

In 1900 he was admitted as an Advanced Student at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, whence the following year (at some point evidently having acquired a working knowledge of German) he was given a grant by his College to study education at the University of Jena. Here he wrote The Critics of Herbartianism (1903) in which he gives a detailed critique of some 14 German commentaries on Herbart.    

That same year, he gained a D.Litt. from London University, his thesis being entitled The Ethics and Philosophy of Sidgwick ((Henry Sidgwick,1838-1900) English utilitarian philosopher and economist.  Knightbridge Professor of Moral PhilosophyUniversity of Cambridge 1883-1900. Author of The Methods of Ethics. Co-founder (1875) of Newnham College, University of Cambridge for women)) published in book form as The Ethical Philosophy of Sidgwick (1901). Meanwhile, he gained the Moral Science prize and a B.A. from Cambridge. These studies in Germany and at Cambridge seem to have awakened his interest in moral education and the precepts of Herbartianism in this field, which was thereafter to remain the principal focus of his working life. 

In 1902 he became Organising Teacher for Mid-Devon, published lectures on Herbartianism in Cambridge, while that year and the years immediately following, he gave lectures in Marburg in Germany. Later, he was appointed Assistant Inspector of Schools for the London County Council, where, rising to become Chief Inspector, he remained until his retirement in 1937. 

During the next 35 years he gave lectures on moral education in various parts of the country, published innumerable pamphlets and some 30 books, not only on educational topics, but also on matters as diverse as ‘Temperance’ and the ‘Power of the Press’. Biographies of Oliver Cromwell, Marcus Aurelius and Alfred the Great were well received by the press. Perhaps his greatest and most original contribution to moral education, however, was the Celebration Movement.

In his biography of Marcus Aurelius (1935) Hayward wrote:

I have been hunting during thirty years for a solution of what has notoriously been regarded as a certain “difficulty” in schools, as well as of certain cultural and civic “difficulties” allied to it… In the spirit of Comte, and indeed under his direct influence, I am an advocate; in schools and out of schools of Celebrations of Great Men as well as of Great Ideas and Great Institutions, in the hope that such Assembly Methods, with their mass emotion and broad impressions and an occasional touch of splendour, will be of help in these times of spiritual unsettlement and distress…9

Hayward’s period of greatest activity was likewise a period of flux in educational thinking.  Moral education and education for citizenship became more important than ever during this time of profound upheaval in all aspects of life following the conclusion of the Great War. Education had already been high on the government agenda during the closing years of the 19th century, and, following the flurry of major Education Acts in the years following 187610 by the outbreak of war in 1914 Britain did already have a basic educational system.  Nonetheless, for most of the population this did not extend beyond the Elementary age limit of 12.  By the end of the war, it had become all too apparent that education was more important than ever, not just for the children, but for the improvement of national morale as the country attempted to rebuild the structure of society and to create a ‘land fit for heroes’ from the ashes of conflict.

Hayward did not claim originality for the idea of the Celebration, tracing it back to Plato in The Laws, but the worked-out development and application to educational purposes was entirely his own.

The notion of celebrating ‘Empire Day’, inaugurated in 1907, had set Hayward thinking. He considered it “scrappy, faddy and narrowly propagandist”.  However, he thought, if it were to be celebrated as one of a group of five annual festivities (the others being ‘Home’, ‘City’, ‘Nation’, and ‘League of Nations’), it could be an excellent idea. Alone, there was a danger of Empire Day being nothing but a display of jingoism. On the other hand, under intelligent guidance, the school celebration of Empire Day might include, “impressive references to the ancient empires of the world as well as to those of later times”. The significance of the modern (British) Empire would be enhanced by being set in context. Taken alone, Hayward thought, there was also the danger that children who associated the word ‘Empire’ with a local music hall or cinema, would completely miss the point:

No adult can conceive of the mix-up in many children’s minds as they gather at the annual event and are given a flag to wave about.

The Empire Day concept, he considered, was too good and too original to be lost, but the way in which it was marked was very unsatisfactory. As he thought of it, it required an entirely “new spiritual start”. If the notion of a Celebration of Empire or Commonwealth was legitimate and attractive, Celebrations of the other four concepts, he considered, should be given equal weight. Looking back over his life in An Educational Failure, he regretted that this logic had not appealed to others in authority. Before the First World War, Herbartianism had risen from almost complete obscurity to a position of some prestige, with astonishing rapidity, particularly in England. Yet in the wake of the 1918 Education Act it went, at least nominally, swiftly into decline.

During the War, Hayward, like many others, had been giving considerable thought to ways in which education might be advanced once hostilities were over. Towards the end of the War, he circulated to educational journals and influential individuals a 10,000-word pamphlet, The Religious Difficulty in Schools – A Solution of an ‘Insoluble’ Problem.  However, like an earlier, more academic pamphlet directed to various members of the clergy; supporters of the controversial Education Bill and others; this received a lukewarm response.

A few encouraging letters came, indeed; from teachers (mainly women) and one or two from people of the literary and artistic type; attracted by the idea of a National School Liturgy. Hardly any came from the champions of “religious education”, “freedom of the teachers from religious tests” and other catch phrases of the last decade or two.11

It may be, he continued sarcastically,

…that the majestic brains of these gentlemen are still silently absorbing my suggestions and preparing a scheme of incomparable grandeur.  Great minds need time… 

It was therefore useless to bandy reproaches.  Hayward evidently had grandiose hopes for his proposals: “I undertake”, he wrote:

…to make the British nation fundamentally cultured on matters of Bible, literature, and music if I can get a few collaborators and the moderate use of official notepaper and stamps of any responsible educational body such as the Board of Education or the National Union of Teachers”12

Evidently not lacking in self-assurance, Hayward had, he continued, indicated the way to a solution of,

…the very honest problem of religious, civic, and aesthetic education that has been raised during the past half century…  

As if this were not enough, a further problem, which to his mind educationists had not considered at all, and one which would equally be addressed by his scheme, was that of the didactic approach to the Bible, literature and even music. There was a need to rescue, he felt, “the ear from its bondage to the eye”; educationists imagining that the Bible and Shakespeare and music should be taught through the medium of print, rather than being heard in live reading or performance.13

While these pamphlets may have received a disappointing response, the second document led Hayward to make the acquaintance of Arnold Freeman. Freeman was a Fabian, a philosopher, an educationist, a playwright, an Anthroposophist and founder of the Rudolf Steiner Sheffield Settlement for adult education. Freeman was, according to Hayward,

…one of the few men actively on the look-out for an educational contribution to the very threatening contemporary situation

This meeting proved to be momentous: it led to the joint production of a much-reviewed ‘manifesto’, published in The Spiritual Foundations of Reconstruction (1919) in which was set out for the first time the concept of the Celebration as a means of moral and civic instruction. Hayward had evidently had the idea at the back of his mind for some time before meeting Arnold Freeman, and it now became a fully worked-out tool for teaching moral values.

Hayward considered that as a disinterested educational practitioner who was not susceptible to political whims, he could bring an independent mind to bear on the solution of great problems. His earlier idea for an Empire Day Celebration had been suspected of partisanship. But nobody, he maintained could discover partisanship in the Celebration itself.  “What we can discover”, he wrote,

…is sound pedagogy; and the only criticism that can be proffered is that it is a solitary Celebration instead of being, as it should be; one among fifty others, each designed to impress the child with the greatness and the weakness of man, and to convey to his mind the social heritage of the race.14

Education was seen as a key element in the creation of ‘a land fit for heroes’, to compensate for the horrors of war and the terrible wastage of life lost in the fields of Flanders, while at the same time acting as a means of offering some reparation to those who had given their lives, and even more, to those who had survived.  Education for peace, and social and spiritual reconstruction were high on the agenda before, and in the years following, the Armistice.

How was this to be achieved became a burning question for educationists. Hayward and Freeman had written in the opening words of The Spiritual Foundations of Reconstruction:

The people of Great Britain desire fervently that the coming peace may bring a League of Nations and an Industrial and Social Order based upon Co-operation… If we are to reconstruct with understanding and imagination, we must have an electorate possessed of an intelligent grasp of the truth of things – of the workings of nature; of man’s history upon this planet; of social evolution…  There must be developed for the appreciation of this environment a widely-diffused reverence for Beauty.  Year upon year, and perhaps decade upon decade of after-war disorder and conflict can be avoided only if the minds of the people are filled with such ideals of national and international Citizenship as will assure unity and co-operation.15

This was to be achieved, they thought, through the schools. The very fact that it had been thought necessary to institute a national celebration of Empire Day, was in their opinion a tacit admission by the authorities that the concept of patriotism had not adequately been conveyed to pupils in either denominational or non-denominational schools, on the pretext that religious instruction included moral and civic education. This notion had been proved in practice to be erroneous since,

…if patriotism had been adequately and impressively taught in scriptural or theological lessons, there would have been no need of these celebrations! 

Following the first Empire Day celebration in 1907, the Feast of St. David had been marked since 1915 and the birthday of William Shakespeare since 1916. What for Hayward and Freeman had been “the most pregnant feature” of these celebrations had been the entirely new conception of educational method to which they bore witness.

Whether or not their originators realized the principle underlying them does not concern us.  It is none the less revolutionary. In its bleakest and most absolute form the principle is that:  THE CLASS TEACHING OF THE BIBLE, LITERATURE, MUSIC, HISTORY, AND CERTAIN OTHER SUBJECTS SHOULD BE LARGELY ABOLISHED IN FAVOUR OF A LITURGICAL CEREMONIAL. OR CELEBRATIONAL TREATMENT.  THESE SUBJECTS ARE NOT SO MUCH LEARNED AS ‘IMBIBED’16

Here the Herbartian principle of ‘apperception’ is invoked. Herbart believed that the mind was the sum-total of all ideas which entered into one’s conscious life, which grouped themselves into “apperceptive masses”. By assimilation (or apperception) new ideas could enter the mind through association with ideas already present. This principle could be applied to almost any arts subject – History, Morals and Religion could better be taught through Celebrations than by formal didactic methods.

The ‘revolutionary Scheme’ which Hayward and Freeman now proposed had already in part been formulated by Hayward himself. Writing in 1912, in his controversial book on educational administration (The Psychology of Educational Administration and Criticism) which he had written as a rebuttal of Edmond Holmes’ notorious Circular attacking elementary school education17 Hayward argued that what was lacking from moral and religious lessons in particular was an understanding of the necessity for appreciation.

The formulary for this new approach consisted of four Proposals, which Hayward had earlier outlined in a jointly-written letter to The Times Educational Supplement, the first of which, based on his earlier ideas, was eventually to form the nucleus of the Celebration Movement under his sole aegis18.

PROPOSAL I [all capitals in original]


Day after day, the child would hear the best portions of the Bible read impressively, as well as other splendid passages of poetry and prose. He would be familiarized with several hundred of the choicest pieces of music; once a week (say) he would witness or take part in a Celebration, ceremonial, or piece of pageantry in honour of a great personage (St. Paul, Alfred the Great, Joan of Arc, St. Francis, George Washington) or a great idea (The League of Nations, France, Agriculture, Science, Freedom).



The teacher would be free to express personal opinions, but if they were controversial he would be expected to refer his pupils (particularly as they grew older) to pro and con documents provided for the purpose. These documents would be drawn up by a board of responsible educationists, every sect and party sending from time to time statements of its views.


SCIENTIFIC CHARTS OF TIME, SPACE, AND HISTORY SHOULD BE STATUTORILY HUNG ON THE WALLS OF EVERY SCHOOL so that false views about the age of the earth, the existence of a material and spatial heaven “above the skies,” etc., could not obtain a fixed lodgement in children’s minds, and so that a definite and true time and space scheme could, on the other hand, receive a very fixed lodgement indeed.



During the recent war, the sinister influence of propaganda had been acutely recognised as a danger to democracy. It was therefore of vital importance that children should be educated to recognise that few issues are clear-cut. Future citizens trained to see both sides of every important hygienic, ethical and political question would thereafter be able to think for themselves and know how to get at the facts. The time charts advocated would give children a framework of space-and-time relationships which would familiarise them with the general scheme of things.

The rationale of the proposal, that children should listen daily to the finest music and literature and take part regularly in some sort of pageantry or ceremonial, would, it was felt, go a long way to rendering every child aesthetically sensitive – a more effective way of appealing to a child’s appreciation of Beauty than the lessons, dealing primarily and laboriously with technique, currently given.

The grandiose plan for a national liturgy of Celebrations – a sort of precursor of the National Curriculum – through which every child in the land would be offered the same experiences, would, the authors hoped, create a network of common culture-memories. Such a network would in turn help to bind the members of the population together, thus in turn combating the loneliness and isolation of a nation of individuals, a feeling exacerbated by the effects of the recent conflict. If adopted by schools of all classes, Hayward and Freeman’s proposals would, they averred, “bind the nation together by a thousand bonds of sympathy”, while at the same not destroying but intensifying whatever is valuable in sectional and individual effort”19

Although The Spiritual Foundations of Reconstruction was very well received by the press, the response from the teaching profession to the invitation to contribute their own suggestions was distinctly tepid. Hayward was understandably disappointed. In a letter to F.J. Gould, a secular humanist, follower of Comte and prominent educationist, who had reviewed the book with enthusiasm, he expressed his disappointment, but said that nonetheless he hoped to publish a first Book of Celebrations in the course of the year.

This volume duly appeared in 1920. It was reviewed in Nature as “a sound idea”, the writer considering that the suggestions made were wise and well thought out, and he was convinced that the methods suggested, “would grip in a way that nothing except the teacher’s personal influence has hitherto done”.20 He noted that the subjects dealt with were Shakespeare, the League of Nations, Democracy and St. Paul. Celebrations which had already appeared in The Spiritual Foundations of Reconstruction; to which were added Celebrations of,

…bards and seers; world conquerors, Samson, eugenics, temperance, commerce, summer, flying, Chaucer and Spenser.21

By the time the book was published the Celebration movement was beginning to gather momentum, but mainly through Hayward’s own promotional efforts through the London County Council Education Committee.

A second book of Celebrations, published the same year, expanded on the themes of the first, with the virtues of Work and Toleration, individual great men from history and from the recent past: Alfred the Great, Pasteur and Lister, Sir Philip Sidney, the artists Turner and Watts, The Musician, national Celebrations of Poland and Ireland (the latter in an attempt to alleviate the crisis following the 1918 uprising), Military Conflicts in Palestine, a revised Celebration for Empire Day, and finally, Political Parties, and School Leaving Day

No indication is given as to whether any of these Celebrations had actually been performed. However, The Journal of Education, reporting on a Summer School of Civics at High Wycombe noted that,

Dr. Hayward organised two of his school Ceremonials, one in honour of the city and the other to commemorate the League of Nations. These were carried out by the staff of the Summer School and proved impressive Celebrations  ((Journal of Education; September 1920, p.586))

In an interview with the present writer, Dr. Hayward’s son Frank observed that although the whole gamut of Celebrations eventually covered a great variety of topics, many of the early Celebrations were of a biographical nature, celebrating the lives of great men.  This he saw not just as a reflection of his father’s Herbartianism, but also because he was a Victorian projected into the 20th century, carrying with him the very Victorian characteristic of admiration for the great figures of history.

In a bid further to disseminate the concept, in 1926 Dr. Hayward launched a new quarterly journal, The Celebration Bulletin, which ran to 16 issues. Each contained several fully worked-out complete Celebrations, which could be staged by subscribers. In 1928, despite the rather discouraging response, Hayward published A New Book of Celebrations, reviewed in the Journal of Education:

On former occasions we have directed attention to Dr. Hayward’s idea of Celebrations, and to his very suggestive helps towards carrying the idea into practice… It is not difficult to detect the note of disillusionment and disappointment in Dr. Hayward’s preface. He has worked hard, and has received messages of approval from men so far apart in some ways as H.G. Wells, Bernard Shaw, Dr. R.J. Campbell and Prof. J. Arthur Thomson. Yet his efforts, marked though they are by ability and sincerity, have so far not commanded wide success.22

Hayward had many other eminent admirers within the profession, including Sir John Adams.23 Yet Sir Michael Sadler24 who must have known of Hayward even if they were not personally acquainted, did not find it necessary to include his name in his 1927 encyclopaedic list of British educationists, pioneering teachers, educational philosophers and administrators, whose talents had made Great Britain the greatest exporter of educational ideas of the time25.

A fourth and final book of Celebrations was published in 1932, in which details were given of those which actually had been performed. Of the 28 listed, ranging from Old Testament figures, classical writers, Shakespeare, Schubert, Purcell, various European countries, and India; to The Nation (England), The Home and the virtues of Temperance and Work and Saving.  Of these, nine or ten had been performed once, Schubert twice and Virgil three times. 

Altogether, F.H. Hayward compiled around 100 Celebrations on different topics, putting a lifetime’s knowledge and expertise into their creation. It was extremely discouraging therefore for him that his radical ideas were never enthusiastically embraced by the teaching profession, or the world’s educational authorities and governments. The Celebration as a means of moral and spiritual education seemed to be ‘dead in the water’.

Or was it?

Hayward had unfortunately become obsessed with the Celebration as the most effective means of combining religious instruction, moral education, and the teaching of citizenship, and this may have been his ultimate undoing.  Teachers, war-weary, conservative in outlook and no doubt discouraged when the first post-Armistice euphoria gave way all too soon to the Great Depression, were perhaps not ready to embrace this revolutionary inter-disciplinary concept.

The claims of science, not least as advocated by Bertrand Russell26 to be pre-eminent in any educational system at the expense of the humanities, may have been a contributory factor in the decline of interest in overt Herbartianism and, in parallel, in F.H. Hayward. Pedagogy, largely under the influence of the advances in educational psychology, also moved on, gaining its own momentum.

Yet Herbartian ideas did not expire with the 1918 Education Act, but continued to permeate educational thinking, even perhaps to the present day. The sinking of overt Herbartianism below the level of consciousness in educational theory does not imply its extinction. In 1929, Cyril Norwood, Headmaster of Harrow School, though not specifically acknowledging the influence of Herbart, wrote that an education on which the cause of international peace could be most firmly based was “founded on practical Christianity, culture, and character”. 27.  Norwood was advocating, in other words, the cultivation of the Herbartian ‘circle of thought’ as the foundation of a moral education. 

Child-centred education has not been abandoned.  It was a key to teaching practices, particularly in the 1970s – developing children’s understanding of the world by investigating the outdoor environment through a cross-curricular approach28. It was only with the introduction of a more rigid structure through the ‘National Curriculum’ proposed by the 1988 Education Act that this Herbartian’ approach to curriculum planning had, at least nominally, to be laid aside.  Every Government, of whatever political affiliation, has ever since the introduction of a National Curriculum if not from 1870 onwards, felt it incumbent upon them to tinker with the methods and content of education, in a manner which would no doubt have been anathema to Hayward.

Nonetheless, Herbart’s ideas and Hayward’s practical suggestions and theories continue to underpin educational praxis to this day, even if no longer in formal curriculum planning. The present writer, in collaboration with the Head Teacher and staff of a Shropshire primary school, during the late 1980s and early 1990s directed a series of major thematic interactive Festivals of the Arts and Sciences for young people, outside school hours, which could be considered as natural developments of Hayward’s ‘Celebrations’, and there were other examples elsewhere.

There are few comparable events today in schools, and certain aspects of Hayward’s theories feel outdated – which is rather ironic, considering that he conceived them as liberating and modernising. In 2021, history is more often contested than celebrated, morals, sociology and even the hard sciences are in a state of flux, while the concept of ‘Great Men’ is at odds with modern ‘diversity’ and egalitarian preoccupations. Yet still there must be a place for a model of education that uplifts even as it informs, and at the same time provides all-round thematic understanding rather than partisanship or uninspiring specialisation. Hayward, like Comenius in his day, seems for the moment to have been a voice crying in the wilderness, but perhaps his time too is yet to come.

  1. John Adams, The Herbartian Psychology Applied to Education, 1897, p. 135 []
  2. F.H.Hayward, The Critics of Herbartianism, p.52 []
  3. John Adams, The Herbartian Psychology Applied to Education, 1897, p.50 []
  4. Johan Heinrich Pestalozzi, 1746-1827. Founded several educational institutions, in Germany and in the Francophone cantons of Switzerland, publishing several works on his principles, revolutionary at the time. Educational motto: ‘Learning by head, hand and heart.’ Through his work, illiteracy in 18th century Switzerland was almost completely overcome by 1830 []
  5. Education did not become compulsory for all children until 1880 []
  6. John Joseph Findlay 1860-1940 Scottish educationist, Sarah Fielden Professor of Education, Owens College, Manchester []
  7. Sir John Adams 1857-1934, First Principal of UCL Institute of Education; Professor of Education at University of Glasgow, knighted 1925 for services to education. Author of The Herbartian Psychology Applied to Education []
  8. Catherine Isabella Dodd 1860-1932 First woman on academic staff of Victoria University, Manchester as lecturer in Education. Principal of Cherwell Hall Teacher Training College, Oxford 1906. Author of several titles on education including Introduction to the Herbartian Principles of Teaching (1898) in England in the last years of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th []
  9. Preface to Marcus Aurelius – A Saviour of Men, (1935) p.9 []
  10. 1876 – Compulsory for all children to receive an education; 1880 – Attendance made compulsory from 5 – 10; 1891 – Elementary Education Act made primary education for all intents and purposes free, since the State would pay school fees up to 10s per head; 1893 – School leaving age raised to 11; 1899 – School leaving age raised to 12 and later to 13; 1902 – Balfour Act []
  11. The Religious Difficulty in Schools, A Solution of an Insoluble Problem, The Literary Guide, 1917, also a pamphlet,  p.1 []
  12. The Religious Difficulty in Schools, p.3 []
  13. Ibid. p.4 []
  14. The Psychology of Educational Administration and Criticism, p.504f. []
  15. The Spiritual Foundations of Reconstruction, p.3f. []
  16. Capitals in original []
  17. E.G.A. Holmes, Chief Inspector of Elementary Schools in England , had in 1910 circulated a memorandum, not intended for publication, in which in the light of reports received from H.M. Inspectors of Schools, he is highly critical of elementary school teachers and local elementary school inspectors.  The majority of these, including F.H. Hayward, came from a working-class elementary school background and were ex-elementary school teachers.  The only local Inspectors who were really able to bring ‘freshness and originality” to their work, Holmes maintained, came from a public school and Oxbridge background.  The memorandum was leaked, and not surprisingly caused a furore. []
  18. The Times Educational Supplement, August 1st 1916, p.104 []
  19. The Spiritual Foundations of Reconstruction, p.15 []
  20. Nature, Vol.CV No;2649, 5th August 1920, p.707 []
  21. Ibid. []
  22. Journal of Education & School World, May 1928, p.361 []
  23. “The more I consider you and your educational work the more I regard you as a figure in the history of education rubbing shoulders with and rousing the writer’s wonder at the inability of your contemporaries to appreciate the value of your contribution…  The time will come when light will break… and you will be raised to the pedestal which is being silently prepared for you”, Sir John Adams, letter to Frank Herbert Hayward, 18th May 1933, quoted in An Educational Failure, p.152 []
  24. Sir Michael Ernest Sadler, KCSI, CB, 1861 – 1943) English historian, educationalist and university administrator (Manchester) and Vice-Chancellor, University of Leeds []
  25. J.H. Higginson (ed.) ‘The Educational Outlook’ in Selections from Michael Sadler, Studies in World Citizenship, p.150 ff. M.E. Sadler’s Presidential Address to the 16th Conference of Educational Associations, 1927 []
  26. Vide B. Russell, On Education, p.27 ff. []
  27. C. Norwood, The English Tradition of Education, p.187 []
  28. Vide Colin Brown & John Turnock, Curriculum Design in the Two/Three Teacher School.  Curriculum, Vol.2 No.2 Autumn 1981 []

Something rotten in the state of education

Temple of Concordia and statue of Icarus, Agrigento, Sicily – SHUTTERSTOCK
ALLEGRA BYRON witnesses the winnowing of the Western curriculum

In the final scene of Hamlet, the Danish kingdom lays in ruins: a corrupt leader bleeds to death; a poisoned First Lady takes her last breath; a young nobleman dies by his own treachery; and a fatally wounded prince, desperately seeking Truth and Justice, urges his close friend to report the true nature of things. This outward carnage and chaos mirror the deep rot within.

As dramatic as this may sound, the crumbling Danish world metaphorically parallels the disappearing, Western kingdom. In particular, our education system, fundamental to the prosperity and progress of any society, lays bleeding on all sides. The dismantling and decay (and ‘decolonising’) of education directly affects the core participants – the pupils, the teachers, the parents – most of whom have become victims of the Conqueror Worm1. Often, they are too manipulated or confused or exhausted to see that the few hoarse voices protesting against the destruction of school curricula are not “mere madness” but urgently attempting to restore order from chaos, to weed out the cankers.

In most schools, two significant learning areas embedded in the curricula are English (language and literature) and history. Whilst each country offers various colours and flavours of these subjects, dependent evidently upon cultural contexts, governments, educational bodies and the public, would agree that our young people need to demonstrate competency and confidence in communicating; they need to read and write and speak and spell well. Admittedly, line-ups for ‘meet the history teacher’ cannot compete with the mad dash for the maths and English teachers’ tables at parent-teacher nights, yet most do place value on pupils knowing about their past and how that past affects their present and future. Australia, like other nations, has sought to standardise its education nationally, believing that this decision ensures equal access for all Australian children. Indeed, students deserve quality, academically rigorous, twenty-first century schools to shape them into life-long learners, allowing them to be active citizens. Noble aims. Important aims. Tragically, however, this hopeful national curriculum with all its virtuous pursuits is an “unweeded garden / That grows to seed”2

“Alas, poor Yorick – I knew him, Horatio”: the disappearing texts

One value in immersing young minds in classical literature, a luminous tapestry of novels, plays, short stories and poetry, is that these works present, as Mortimer Adler once suggested, the great enduring truths of the human experience3. Between the pages of ‘old books’ a reader discovers love, goodness, despair, forgiveness, longing, graciousness, evilness, beauty, honour, truth and justice. These discourses are offered through the windows of sophisticated, varied vocabulary, clever phrasing and fresh, figurative diction and mature syntax. C S Lewis believed strongly that

…the only palliative [to the blindness of our own century] is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books  ((Lewis, C S The Reading Life: The Joy of Seeing New Worlds Through Others’ Eyes, edited by David C Downing. William Collins Books, p.47)).

Given his ability to read just about everything and then remember everything he read, Lewis had something of value to say about reading choices. Shakespeare’s country grammar school days at King’s New School also valorised the classics. The schoolmasters instructed in spoken and written Latin. During the mornings and afternoons, the diligent pupils translated biblical texts from Greek into Latin and English. They were skilled in Butler’s Rhetorik, andthe boys also studied authors such as Terence, Virgil and Horace. At breaks, mucking about in the schoolyard, the lads were encouraged to speak in Latin (a space, perhaps, to craft his witty insults?). While the drudgery of Elizabethan schoolwork is self-evident in the well-known Romeo and Juliet simile, “Love goes toward love as schoolboys from their books, / But love from love, toward school with heavy looks”, 400 years later, contemporary audiences benefit from Shakespeare’s liberal education, clearly evident in his writings. Closer to our time, a Queensland school reader, given to 12 and 13-year olds, dating from the 1960s, aimed “to instil into the minds of pupils such a love of literature as will last beyond school-days and be an unfailing source of profit and delight”  ((The Department of Education. Queensland School Reader – Grade 7, Queensland Government Printer, 1967, p. iii)). The collections of accomplished visual artists, poets and short story writers selected for young Australian girls and boys were “compend[ia] of useful knowledge as well as a treasury of beautiful thoughts”  ((Ibid.)).

Today’s modern reading lists in many schools, au contraire, shy away from classical works. They are dropping off and disappearing. Instead, the-powers-that-be scramble to introduce newly published texts into the Australian classroom, replacing the tried and tested. English teachers’ organisations across the country will openly acknowledge the deliberate decision to highlight texts that reflect the myriad of (current) voices in Australia. These ‘new’ texts have morphed into supposed ‘tools of reconciliation’ for the silenced Australian voices. Books (and the odd poem) appear as vehicles of change: to dismantle the white or male (or both) cultural norms. Now, classical literature, part of the ‘best that has been thought and said’, when evident in teachers’ unit plans, is often reduced to a gender warfare or a platform to disrupt the ‘settler myth’ or colonial injustices. Teachers are repackaged as social engineers. For example, on the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) website, viewers are offered Year 9 sample student responses to an analytical essay on the ‘role of women’ in Macbeth ((https://australiancurriculum.edu.au/resources/work-samples/english-work-samples-portfolios/. Accessed 31 December 2020)). Thus, 14 and 15-year old students, still emerging writers, still wrestling with accurate written expression, are requested to uncover the alleged gender imbalance in an Elizabethan text. Rather than discover the beauty and craft of masterful language and storytelling, the teenagers must interrogate the play for its perpetuation or subversion of dominant power dynamics and ideologies. At Eton College – a school that dismissed a teacher for ‘gross misconduct’, that is, for daring to promote masculinity – the headmaster promised that

…the teaching of history, geography, religious studies, politics and English will change and that decolonisation will be incorporated into assemblies, religious services, tutorials and societies also”4.

Across the Atlantic, a recently formed American organisation called #DisruptTexts, “whose mission [is] to aid and develop teachers committed to anti-racist/anti-bias teaching pedagogy and practices”, claims that “white supremacy” in classrooms is real, and that teachers’ roles are to collapse the deeply embedded racism and “to create a more inclusive, representative, and equitable language arts curriculum that … students deserve”5. White supremacy is evident, so goes the tall tale, in our ‘worship’ of the word (rather than pictures). This angry mob of anti-Western canon protesters challenge their new comrades with the question: “Who determined that long words were the only words that could be considered complex?”6 Apparently, their placards proclaim, when we criticise these new ideologically-approved texts then we criticise the young people that read them.

Back on Australian soil,English teachers are trained how to present ‘culturally sensitive texts’, ones that could contain “community and/or family violence and abuse (sexual or other), alcohol and drug use, crime, explicit sex scenes” for their “literary merit”  ((Page, Phil and Shipp, Cara. “Teaching Culturally Sensitive Texts” AATE/IFTE ‘If’ 2020 Conference, 6 -10 July 2020, Sydney Grammar School. https://readingaustralia.com.au/2020/09/workshop-teaching-culturally-sensitive-texts/. Accessed 16 December 2020)). Wide reading lists in some schools for pubescent students will privilege homosexual and/or transgender ideology. If teachers contest the use of these texts, then these questions reveal teachers’ intolerance or ‘their lack of understanding’. Often any logical reasons offered against the use of these texts are considered right wing, fascism. Do Australian educators need to fear the Eton teacher’s fate? Some parents also are too afraid to make noise. One American writer and cultural critic has identified parents as ‘tyrants’. He moans, “parents’ [sic] is an oppressive class, like rich people or white people”7. It’s no wonder mums and dads feel silenced and disempowered.

Clearly, not all Australian voices are welcome in the carefully constructed, ‘progressive’ classrooms. And not all silenced, marginalised voices are being heard. Where has the treasury of beautiful thoughts disappeared? Will these new books become ‘sources of profit and delight’?

Yesterday’s battles, today

History in Australian schools has not been inoculated against the disease of rapid disruption. The outspoken Scottish history academic, Jill Stephenson, opened a recent article with these words: “No school subject lends itself more readily to political manipulation and propaganda than history”8.  The 2014 review of the Australian Curriculum identified an “undue emphasis” on the three cross-curriculum priorities: sustainability, the histories and cultures of Indigenous Australians and Australia’s engagement with Asia9. The post-modern pendulum swings heavily in favour of this three-pronged priority at the expense of a balanced presentation of Western civilisation and its Judeo-Christian heritage. Stephanie Forrest of the Sydney think-tank, Institute of Public Affairs, found that current, Australian Curriculum-approved, history textbooks were “factually incorrect”, made “outrageous statements” and in some places presented “an environmentalist, socialist and sometimes almost Marxist agenda”10. For the most part, however, the 21st century history class has textbook-styled lessons buried, and they now re-emerge as pseudo-scholarly fora, where eras and movements appear via primary sources. Teenaged students, still embryonic in seeing the broad sweep of history from its beginning, now must become historiographers, articulating academic, historical hypotheses and debating the usefulness and reliability of sources before they understand their world and its timeline. Instead of deep learning and time to ruminate, the students, too soon, must learn how to evaluate, analyse and assess the credibility of published authors. They become lost in piles of primary and secondary sources, pouring over visual and written artefacts constructed for an adult audience. In some cases, given that the standard for senior history subjects is so unattainable, the criteria just too difficult, these high school ‘scholars’ will be locked out of taking history courses in upper secondary if their grades are only ‘satisfactory’.

Further, the history units gallop at top speed. Some have one lesson on the Renaissance. The Reformation didn’t happen (apparently, as it’s not referenced in some schools). World War I can be taught in nine lessons. Capitalism is critiqued. Socialism is privileged. Teachers collide, breathlessly, in breeze-ways and hallways, quizzing their colleagues, “Have you finished — unit yet?”. They mark, meet and moderate (papers). And then they do it all again. And again.

But we need history. Despite the pundits arguing that history yawns with ‘drill-and-kill’, so many students continue to love the human stories that arise along the historical timeline. Young people lean in to hear about the ‘boy soldiers’, Trooper Harold Thomas Bell, for example, from the Australian Light Horse Regiment. He was a farmer lad from country Victoria. Although so long ago in a land far, far away, the students feel empathy upon hearing that Harry, like so many others, died from gunshot wounds after the charge against Beersheba on 31 October 1917. He was only 16. Pools of pupils will linger to talk to Teacher after class, bursting to tell her anecdotes about their Pop’s Pop or their Nan’s dad: the medals, the marches, the military. During a lesson (sacrificing the heavily prescribed curriculum requirements), the questions roll around the room, questions breed questions: why didn’t they care for the children in the factories? Did those soldiers really stop fighting on that Christmas Eve? Did Elizabeth the First have kids? Will there be another world war? How tall d’you reckon Alexander the Great was? The late NYU professor Neil Postman sighed knowing that children enter school as question marks and leave as periods. The reality? Quite simply, there isn’t the time for student-led curiosity.

Education today is a tragedy. Limping into a new year, the educational system lags with poisonous political ideologies; left-wing agendas purposefully massacre traditional values once treasured in good books and in a rich, balanced history curriculum. Recent research into educational trends confirmed that half of Australian educators believed that literacy and numeracy (and student behaviour) had declined in the last ten years11. Our schools, the children and the dedicated teachers and leaders that fill them, have been betrayed by those in positions of political and academic power, those granted the privilege to lead with wisdom and discernment. We wring our hands and hearts in dismay.

And yet …

If we circle back to the beginning, where we met a disorderly Danish kingdom, like all Shakespearean tragedies, there is always a quest for divine order after a catastrophe. A godly design for all matter (from rocks to celestial beings) governed the Renaissance world: everything had its rightful place. While the noble-hearted Hamlet dies in his desperate attempt to avenge the wrongs of his world, Horatio courageously tells the Prince of Norway, Fortinbras, of the “casual slaughters” and the “cunning and forced deaths” that took place in this pursuit. We too have Hamlet-types of our time. There have been (and are) brave men and women – brilliant professors, deeply committed school teachers and leaders, excellent medical doctors, just politicians, outspoken writers and journalists and many others from all walks of life – suffering the fatal blows of our nihilistic, culture wars. The casualties include a researcher from a tropical, north Queensland university fired for telling the truth; a New York Times writer finished for critiquing critical theory; a social commentator on gender issues lynched for advocating for young men’s rights on university campuses; and a Melbourne medical doctor, practicing for 15 years, ‘cancelled’ for having opinions. Each year, the casualty list multiplies.

Of course, in Shakespeare’s story, Fortinbras claims rights to the broken kingdom. Likewise, we identify a groundswell of opposition, a collective Fortinbras of sorts, all across our nations, some in secret and hidden spaces and places, now gaining momentum and traction to battle against the disruption and destruction of education and other. They claim their right to a better education. They seek a better way for the children. While the UK has academies like the Emmanuel Schools Foundation, an academically excellent group of schools established in economically depressed northern England and London’s ‘strictest’ school, Michaela College, led by Headmistress, Katharine Birbalsingh, America has pockets of charter and independent schools, some of which produce their own classically-based curriculum sold globally. In Australia, tucked away out the back of Brisbane, Queensland, is the newly established Charlotte Mason College, offering families respite from the turbulent curriculum wars; a place where children meet “a feast of living books, cultural artworks and ideas”12. This new Classical Liberal Arts school gently provides “an abundant life [for the boys and girls] that is good, true and beautiful”6  Travelling south, into Victoria, home to the controversial “Safe Schools” program, the Australian Classical Education Society, an organic collection of teachers, students, home schooling families and academics, commit to establishing Classical Education schools across the country. Thus, we have hope. We must look towards a bright future, believing that a restoration of rightful order to a disorderly Western kingdom will take place.

  1. Poe, Edgar Allan, “The Conqueror Worm”, 1843. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/48633/the-conqueror-worm. Accessed 31 December 2020 []
  2. Shakespeare, William. Hamlet: with Related Readings. The Global Shakespeare Series, edited by Dom Saliani et al., International Thomson Publishing, 1997, p.19 []
  3. Adler, Mortimer. How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading, Simon and Schuster, 1967 []
  4. Coke, Hope.“Eton to decolonise its curriculum following appeal from pupils and parents. Tatler, 26 June 2020, https://www.tatler.com/article/eton-school-decolonise-curriculum-parents-pupils-appeal. Accessed 20 December, 2020 []
  5. Erbavia, Tricia et. al. “#Disrupttexts Guides”. #Disrupttexts. https://disrupttexts.org/disrupttexts-guides/. Accessed 20 December, 2020 []
  6. Ibid. [] []
  7. @berlat (Noah Berlatsky). “parents are tyrants. “parent” is an oppressive class, like rich people or white people.” Twitter, Dec 15 2020, 6:49am., https://twitter.com/nberlat/status/1338586940157927427. Accessed 17 December, 2020 []
  8. Stephenson, Jill. “The subversion of history education in Scotland.” The Spectator (UK). 21 December, 2020. https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/the-subversion-of-history-education-in-scotland. Accessed 23 December, 2020 []
  9. Australian Government Department of Education. Review of the Australian Curriculum Final Report . Australian Government: Canberra, 2014. https://www.dese.gov.au/nci/resources/review-australian-curriculum-final-report-2014. Accessed 30 December, 2020 []
  10. Forrest, Stephanie. “National Curriculum’s Bogus History”. Quadrant. 2 May 2014 []
  11. McCrindle “Education Future 2018.” https://2qean3b1jjd1s87812ool5ji-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/infographics/Education-Future-Infographic-2018.pdf. Accessed 31 December, 2020 []
  12. http://cmc.qld.edu.au/about-us/#vision Accessed 6 January, 2021 []

Campus tragedy

MICHAEL WILDING surveys the sorry state of Australia’s universities

The systematic degradation of the universities has now been continuing for 40 years.

It began at the end of the 1970s, with the election of Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in the USA. Australia dutifully followed suit. The policies were a mixture of reprisals for the radical political activism of the 1960s and 70s, and the systematic replacement of public and state ownership by privatisation. Funding for the Arts – History, English, Philosophy, etc – was drastically reduced since it was perceived that the protests had developed from those areas. Vocational courses were introduced in keeping with the new market economy business model. Staff were pressured to take early retirement. Those who remained found that the safeguards of the traditional concept of academic freedom were being removed. Tenure was steadily abolished. New appointments and promotions began to be made for a fixed term contract. If you said or wrote something deemed to be unacceptable – and the list of the unacceptable has grown rapidly – you were likely to find yourself out of a job at the end of your contract.

Then it was decided that too few students went to university. In the 1950s and 1960s, 5% of the eligible population went to university. The new aim was to exceed 50%. This was easily achieved by deciding that colleges of advanced education, institutes of technology, teachers’ colleges, art schools, nursing colleges should all become universities, either by changing their name or by merging with existing universities. These institutions had been primarily vocational. Their staff were often drawn from people who had had experience in industry, marketing, media and so on, and could impart practical experience. They had a higher teaching load than university staff, but they were not expected to undertake research. These institutions had generally functioned well, and their students were engaged with the practical and vocational orientation of their courses.

But the more abstract and theoretical nature of university courses was not something that has engaged today’s vastly increased number of students – especially as most of them are struggling to hold down jobs, and to fit their courses into spaces in their employment schedule. As a result, the traditional university courses have been dumbed down and reoriented. Foreign language courses withered away and in many cases perished. The classics of ancient Greece and Rome were taught in translation, insofar as they were taught at all. The number of characters a student of Chinese was expected to learn was halved. Indian studies shifted from historical and cultural studies to a business studies orientation. English courses withered away; exposure to works of literature was drastically reduced, as critical theory, creative writing and other developments occupied the syllabus space, while communications and media studies, despite having little credibility in media industries, further drew away traditional students.

Other factors came into play. During the 1960s, there had been two federal funding bodies for academic research in Australia, one for the arts and one for sciences. The marked difference between them was that grants for the arts were modest. The arts researcher typically asked for no more than Aus$10,000 for some research assistance, for typing, for travel. The science grants were in the hundreds of thousands of dollars to support equipment and teams of research assistants. It was a system that functioned well. Then the two funding bodies were merged and funding became pretty well entirely on the scientific scale. Grants of hundreds of thousands of dollars were available for the arts; small grants were no longer the model. This was wasteful enough but worse was to follow. A new concept of ‘teaching relief’ was introduced, allowing grant recipients to use research funds to hire someone to do their teaching for them.

One justification for research funding in the arts was that the discoveries made during research fed back into teaching, ensuring teaching was of a high quality and at the cutting edge of knowledge. Now, to adapt the old saying, as for teaching, our servants shall do that for us. And these servants hired to do the teaching were all employed as part time, casual staff. They were paid around Aus$50 an hour during teaching term; during vacations they had to apply for welfare. While the grant recipients swanned around and never saw a student, let alone imparted any knowledge. The university administrators saw these research funds as a source of finance. They appointed further administrators, on high salaries, who coached academics in how to apply for research grants. People who had acquired funding were made into ‘distinguished research professors’ on five year contracts. They moved from campus to campus and grant to grant, doing no teaching.

And much of the time no research conclusions were ever published. The scandal of this has never been exposed, but thousands upon thousands of tax-payers’ dollars were handed out with nothing to show for it in return. The universities took their cut of the funds, the distinguished professors took their salaries, but all too often nothing was published. When a senior academic I knew tried to research into how the Australian Research Council awarded grants, he found it was impossible. All records of unsuccessful applications had been destroyed. There was no way of assessing the assessors and of examining the so-called peer-reviewing process. Nonetheless, the process continues. Publication used to be a mark of academic achievement. Now success in receiving funding is deemed more important. The emphasis has shifted from evidence of work produced to evidence of money received.

The universities have spent millions of dollars hiring management consultants to restructure them from their original religious and cultural foundations to corporatized machines for making money

This is part of the shift to a business model. The universities have spent millions of dollars hiring management consultants to restructure them from their original religious and cultural foundations to corporatized machines for making money. Vice-chancellors now call themselves CEOs and are given grotesquely large salaries –  Aus$1,800,00 a year plus bonuses at the University of Sydney. Bonuses! Gratifyingly, quite a few of them have been dismissed for plagiarism and other corrupt behaviour. And the number of administrators, paid far more than teaching staff, has proliferated absurdly. One of the consequences of the merger of universities with art schools, nursing colleges, agricultural colleges and the rest, was that the heads of those institutions were all given highly paid administrative titles in the expanded university. Where there used to be a vice-chancellor and a deputy, now there are a dozen or more deputy vice-chancellors. They all seem to get sabbatical leave, though rarely have any of them done any significant academic work. But this is just part of the insane growth of the administrative bureaucracies in the universities. When I first taught at the university of Sydney there used to be one administrator for every 12 members of the teaching staff. Now fewer than 50% of university staff are actually involved in teaching.

And now over 40% of students in Australia are foreign students. The universities have made themselves dependent on foreign students. They are now the economic base of the operation. Forget providing a cultural context and education for Australian students. The universities have become part of an immigration racket. Student visas allow residency, the opportunity to provide cut-price work, and the chance of citizenship. Some of the recruitment agencies that find overseas students not only receive a large finding fee but are also involved in the construction industry, building, renting and selling student apartments. This has nothing to do with education. And with the travel restrictions and health issues arising from Covid-19, this has proved a disastrous model, with Australian universities suffering a massive reduction in fees and consequent massive job cuts, as overseas students no longer enrol.

Indeed, it has been the antithesis of education. In order to cater for the influx of foreign students, standards have been dropped, indeed abandoned. Most of the top rank of foreign students go to the United States, United Kingdom or Europe. Australia caters for the generally less able ones – and caters for them by lowering, or abandoning, standards. There are endless, authenticated stories of academics being instructed not to fail foreign students: they have paid their fees, they must be passed. Academics who attempt to maintain standards are overruled and disciplined.

Back at the beginning of the century when I published my novel Academia Nuts, I felt I had recorded the university in decline. In a comic way, of course. Campus farce. “Unmistakeably the last waltz”, the Times Higher Educational Supplement called it. But “’tis not the end when we can say, this is the end”. The decline had a lot further to go. Now my portrait of an institution in decline looks quite idyllic compared with the current state of the universities.

The partition of Scotland

As the SNP again attempts to prise Scotland out of the UK, STUART MILLSON engages in a little counter-factual fantasy

Professor John Curtis of Strathclyde University, the country’s leading psephologist, had (within a few percentage points) been proved right. Ever since the announcement of a second independence referendum by Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, the polls consistently showed a reversal of the 55:45 result from 2014 – leading to the unthinkable, the secession of Scotland from the United Kingdom after more than 300 years of union.

And yet already a constitutional crisis of another and unexpected sort had engulfed the SNP, threatening to sour its victory. Despite the overall majority vote for Scotland to revert to its pre-1707 state, certain sections of the Scottish electorate had not moved from their 2014 position: with the Borders resolutely clinging to their 70 per cent support for the Union, and several conjoining areas of the Lowlands narrowly keeping the unionist vote just above 50%. The Orkney Islands had also voted to remain within the United Kingdom – the islands first declaring their loyalty to the UK during the 2014 referendum campaign, when a group emerged on social media, proclaiming that in the event of an SNP victory, a petition would be presented to the Government in Edinburgh to leave the new Scottish state and rejoin the United Kingdom. Scotland – to the dismay of the party which had long seen itself as representing the country incarnate – was split: a schism that could only be resolved by the creation of a new border, a situation not seen in the British Isles since the creation of Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State in 1922.

The SNP’s position on independence, or what was presented as independence, had suffered considerably following the successful implementation in 2021 of a UK-wide Covid vaccine – Boris Johnson’s one true achievement during the pandemic (the effects of which were still being felt after the Scottish referendum). The First Minister’s earlier enthusiasm for Scotland to take its place as an “independent nation within Europe” had been readjusted somewhat, following the clumsy attempt by the European Commission to nationalise and control the manufacture and supply of Covid vaccines. Even to confirmed ‘Europeans’ and romantic Remainers, the actions of Brussels emphasised how little member-states could expect independence – especially in a Europe, which following the conclusion of the UK’s Brexit settlement, now saw itself as a ‘sovereign equal’, a state in itself.

The anxiety felt across the pro-Union areas of Scotland soon translated into a refusal to accept wholesale incorporation into the new system and state. The quiet, conservative Borders soon resounded with the cry to withhold council tax to the Scottish authorities; foreign news-crews made camp along the villages and towns of the Tweed valley, eager to interview farmers and freeholders, and Anglo-Scottish families who could not countenance living under what some described as ‘the Sinn Féin of Scotland’. (Despite its earliest, Scottish baronial conservatism, the SNP of the middle-2020s had evolved a strongly metropolitan ideological core, with one element – muzzled during the second referendum – espousing curbs on speech and thought, the abolition of the monarchy and perhaps the dispossession of the Royal Family from Balmoral.) A visceral dislike of the other point of view overcame Scottish politics: a breakdown of all consensus, a negation of all that Tony Blair had hoped to achieve in 1999 with his policy of devolution and the revival of a Scottish Parliament.

Scottish and Whitehall civil servants began to meet in Holyrood – a strange echo of their predecessors’ meeting in 1707, when a new country and flag were sewn together. Now, a country was being re-created, but one in which a limb of the original Union of Great Britain would survive. Within months a Royal Commission and a Commission of the Scottish Parliament had sketched a new Scottish border, based as accurately as could be on the votes cast in the referendum – pleasing some, disappointing many, dismaying, no doubt, most of the majority of Scots who had hoped at all costs to avoid another bad-tempered plebiscite. Glasgow, Edinburgh, Stirling would, it was thought, form the central part of the new Scotland, but the capital itself proved an impossible factor in the constitutional equation. As in 2014, Edinburgh had narrowly voted for UK membership: an embarrassing problem for the legislators of Holyrood.

With part of Scotland still in the United Kingdom, and the Orkney Islands granted a form of UK semi-autonomy (an Isle of Man of the North Sea), the United Kingdom survived, in wounded, chastened form. Boris Johnson’s ministers appeared, each day, with Union flags furled on platforms and arranged on bookcases for their announcements via Zoom – the Government keen to remind Nicola Sturgeon of the thousands of Scots in England and Commonwealth countries who belonged to the British family of nations. The independent Scotland, scarred by partition, nevertheless celebrated its new existence, although the European Commission had still not considered whether it would be allowed to rejoin the European Union. For the time being, the Bank of Scotland issued Scottish pound-notes, an arrangement supported by the broad shoulders of the UK Treasury, keen to show its goodwill. Sir Sean Connery’s image – his familiar form adorned in Highland dress – adorned the new banknotes, although a vociferous campaign by supporters of Alex Salmond to include the charismatic First Minister who resigned in 2014 was still underway.

It is not known if a third referendum will ever be held, to confirm, or disconfirm what came to pass with the remaking of the map of Great Britain – and the unexpected partition of Scotland.

The resurrection and evolution of a metalhead

Jacek Karczmarczyk, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
WILLIAM STROOCK reforges an old musical allegiance

In 1987 this scrawny, disgruntled 14-year-old became a metalhead. It’s an old story. I hated school and life and everything, really. Metal was the best available outlet for expressing that. I stamped my feet and pumped my fist to drums and bass thumping like a British coal ring jack hammer. I wore all the black metal band T-shirts and grew a long, blond mullet that chicks told me was soft and lustrous. Whitesnake’s Slide It In was the first metal album I bought with my own money. But David Coverdale’s hair metal band was a gateway to the likes of Metallica, Led Zeppelin, Ozzy and other bands more ‘respectable’ within the metal community. With glee, I discovered that Ozzy had been in a band before his solo career. Who knew?

Grunge killed metal, so the cliché goes. In truth, by 1990 metal may not have been dead, but it was certainly dying. The hair metal bands had done just about the last thing one could with the genre. This was chick-friendly metal, and the hard-core fans hated it. The usual hair metal band formula was to release a party anthem, followed with a ballad. It worked for Extreme. Heavy metal collapsed under the weight of its own success and hair metal un-seriousness. As music progressed I progressed too. I grew up and out and lifted weights. Much to the delight of my parents, I cut my hair and put the black heavy metal t-shirts away. I listened to Grunge.

Grunge eschewed glitz and big hair for flannel and sneakers. The Seattle sound was serious. In college, I listened to Kurt Cobain’s stories and Eddie Vedder’s songs about suicide and depression. It seemed Grunge would dominate the 90s. But Kurt Cobain killed himself, and Pearl Jam moved away from the power chords and searing guitar riffs of their first two albums. They became something of a niche band with a cult following. Grunge’s second wave, led by the likes of Creed, was decidedly unmemorable. Dave Grohl soldiered on with the Foo Fighters. Grunge flared out faster than anyone could have imagined and rock was left with what?

In the early 2000s, the last true rock stars were probably Kid Rock, who fused hard rock with rap, and Cheryl Crowe. In Seven Nation Army, Jack White found the last great guitar riff. Rock and roll had run its course. After Grunge died, this former metalhead had abandoned rock entirely and spent years discovering classical music and jazz. By 1998 I was really into Tchaikovsky, not just The 1812 Overture, but pieces like the triumphant Marche Slave. I got into the big bands too. Duke Ellington can whack one over the head with thundering drums just as well as AC/DC. Tchaikovsky and Duke Ellington may not have been metal, but they were heavy. Ten years after I got into heavy metal I didn’t care about it at all.

My metal revival began in early 2003. The 90s were already a lost world of frivolities like the Clinton impeachment and the return of disco (it doesn’t suck, by the way), brought to an end by 9/11. I turned 30 and began writing my first novel. Back then, I liked listening to music while I wrote. I broke out the Led Zeppelin box set of ten CDs. I hadn’t listened to them in years.  But now I approached Zeppelin as a grown man, with an ear for music honed by a half decade of listening to classical and Big Band. Now I could pick out bits in a Led Zeppelin song I never would have when we were 15. That summer, I listened to Metallica’s Black for the first time in years. The controversial album, considered by some to be a departure from the band’s oeuvre, sounded as fresh and hard hitting in 2003 as it did upon release in 1991. Slam producer Bob Rock all you want for lightening up Metallica a bit, but Black is an utterly unique album and we’ll not see it’s like again.

During the winter of 2004, I picked up a guitar for the first time. After a gruelling year learning the basics, I taught myself hard rock songs like Free’s ‘Alright Now’, and the ethereal mist that obscured the likes of Jimmy Page slowly lifted. The mystery was gone. I could play Jimmy Page pretty well, and there was no more overrated bit of balderdash than his violin bow over a guitar. AC/DC’s Malcom Young liked simple chord progressions like Back in Black, but brother Angus’ leads were herky-jerky and violent and difficult to pick up. I’ve come to think of Page as more of a pioneer than a maestro and if asked the age-old rock question, believe the greatest guitar player is recently deceased Eddie Van Halen. He was classically trained but played manically like he wasn’t. In time, I could play. After a while, I could shred, nimbly picking strings and moving our fingers up and down the fretboard. I fired out notes frenetically, like a gunner on a quad .50 caliber anti-aircraft gun spitting tracers over the Pacific. Or so I told myself.

Iron Maiden’s Eddie

As I learned to play guitar, I noticed that heavy metal was creeping back into the culture. By then this former metalhead was a more or less permanent substitute teacher at a high school in suburban New Jersey. In the hallways, I saw some of the kids wearing reprints of black heavy metal shirts from the 1980s. I spotted the classic Ozzy Osbourne/Randy Rhodes Tribute T-shirt, Metallica’s ‘Master of Puppets’ cemetery album cover, and even the old Iron Maiden Eddie T-shirts. Eddie, the tattered skeleton that became the sixth member of Iron Maiden, was ubiquitous in the 1980s and now he’d returned. There was Eddie as a white-wigged English judge handing down a ten-year sentence. There he was again in the cockpit of a Spitfire. And most famously, Eddie carried the Union Jack into battle as The Trooper. I pointed out to these young Millennials that I had the same T-shirts, and they actually asked me about metal in the 1980s. With pleasure I recounted, but not too much; I didn’t want to overdo it like a Boomer who can’t shut the hell up about the 60s, man.

I then discovered Sam Dunn, a Canadian anthropologist, documentary film maker and lifetime metalhead. In 2005 Dunn released his first film, Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, a two-hour meditation on the history and meaning of heavy metal. He followed this up in 2008 with Iron Maiden: Flight 666, an inside look of Iron Maiden’s 2008 world tour. The author attended their shows at New Jersey’s Meadowlands and PNC Bank Arts Center.  On 11 November 2011 (the very date is a heavy metal inside joke), Dunn released Metal Evolution. This was an 11-part history of heavy metal, from the very earliest proto-metal bands like Jimmy Hendrix and Cream, right on through to the Nu Metal bands of the 90s. Dunn’s series is akin to the BBCs The World at War. There will never be a better documentary series about heavy metal.

As the metal revival grew, in 2008 VH1 launched That Metal Show. Heavy metal was back on the air, albeit on VH-1, which in the 1980s would have been a mark of shame. That Metal Show was hosted by radio DJ Eddie Trunk and his comedian sidekicks Don Jameson and Jim Florentine. The trio were children of the 70s and 80s, and lifelong metal fans; Trunk had been a record industry producer in the 80’s. That Metal Show was a platform for the discussion of all things hard rock and heavy metal, often hilariously so. Florentine bragged about seeing fellow Long Islanders Twisted Sister during their epic pre-MTV touring days. Jameson bragged about losing his virginity while wearing an Iron Maiden T-Shirt. Over the course of fourteen seasons That Metal Show added greatly to heavy metal’s historical record and taught us much I didn’t know.

Twenty years after I first joined the heavy metal scene, I was back, a better metalhead than I’d ever thought possible – and a better music lover too.

After the headrush

Rip It Up and Start Again: Post-Punk 1978-1984

Simon Reynolds, Faber & Faber, 2019, 608 pages

MARK GULLICK savours an appreciation of an excitingly original music scene

Punk rock in both its British and American incarnations is probably as thoroughly documented as any musical genre. Punk seen as a transition, stage or catalyst, however, and the loose, disparate and inspired genre it gave rise to, is relatively uncharted territory, which makes Simon Reynolds’ Rip it Up and Start Again necessary reading for those interested in some of the most innovative rock music to emerge from the Western world in the last century or this.

Post-punk had something which punk had only in larval form – variety. Punk simply could not pluck cards randomly from its deck and come up with a hand as musically diverse as Joy Division, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, XTC, Throbbing Gristle and Devo. The sheer range of styles is breath-taking when it is presented in the accurate and mannered style of Reynolds’s book, and this is a thrilling account of a time of invention and music as genuine art, one which I bemoaned the lack of until a music journalist friend alerted me to Rip It Up.

Punk did not simply stop, of course, allowing post-punk to clock in for its shift, although Reynolds does follow convention by marking the territorial division in the traditional way.  Thus, punk ends with the final Sex Pistols gig in America, and the post-punk period commences with John Lydon’s formation of Public Image Ltd. But, as Reynolds shows, there is another dividing line, not temporal but conceptual. Where punk was mostly visceral, post-punk was in large part cerebral.

Although the title of Reynolds’s book – the name of a song by Scottish band Orange Juice – suggests a year-zero reset for alternative music in Britain, there was of course a shading of one ‘movement’ into its successor. Punk had liberated rock music in two main ways, financial and formal. Pre-punk, you needed record company backing or well-off parents to buy equipment (undoubtedly one reason so many British rock bands of the 1960s and 1970s were so posh). APE (after the punk era), you could emulate The Cure’s Robert Smith, who recorded the band’s first albums with a £17 electric guitar from Woolworth. I saw the guitar played on several occasions, having known The Cure when they were starting out, and it always sounded good to me, becoming a trademark sound for Smith.

Robert Smith, with his Woolworth’s guitar

The formal liberation is less obvious, but punk stripped down the concept of the song to its bare components, and this demystification of music carried on into all the major post-punk bands. The Gang of Four’s Damaged Goods is about as far from Yes as it is possible to get. But this was not the denial of rock history, far from it. Among post-punk bands there was also an awareness of what went before them that had evolved from the semi-nihilist ramalama of punk rock into a type of working manifesto.

Gang of Four – not like Yes

Punk bands had their lineage in 60s garage rock, rockabilly, The Stooges, MC5 and more, and some were more rock-literate and aware of the provenance of their sound than others. But where punks had a vague inkling of what birthed them, post-punks knew to antiquarian detail which bands were their progenitors. And they were not just aware of musical artistic tradition. You were more likely to hear Sheffield industrial-synth duo Cabaret Voltaire (as their name would suggest) talking about Dada as The Damned.

Put simply, the musicians who followed the punks were several leagues more intelligent. Magazine’s Howard Devoto, all of Wire, XTC, even The Fall’s Mark E. Smith – given bouts of incoherence – were all thinkers. There is a delightful snippet in which Reynolds tells of The Ramones’ dumb amazement, while touring with Talking Heads, that David Byrne et al read books in their down time instead of raising hell. Rather sadly, the abiding iconic figure from punk ended up being Sid Vicious, as inarticulate and destructive a clod as you could find. Compare and contrast with Gareth Sager of visionary post-punk band The Pop Group;

In an NME feature, Gareth Sager argued that Western civilisations, being “based on cities”, were sick because they were cut off from “natural cycles”, unlike African tribes where repression simply didn’t exist

Whereas with punk there was a riot going on, post-punk sometimes felt like there was a seminar going on.

My own favourites from the period – Joy Division, Wire, The Fall, The Slits, Magazine and Killing Joke – receive the treatment you would expect as post-punk luminaries. I have a particular affection for Joy Division and Killing Joke, which stems from a wonderful 45-minute conversation about music with Joy Division’s tragic singer Ian Curtis a year before his suicide, and a drunken evening with Geordie Walker, Killing Joke’s phenomenal guitarist. He wouldn’t let me pay for any drinks, claiming that we were drinking the royalties from Love Like Blood, the band’s biggest hit.

Killing Joke

Reynolds is not Britcentric, however, but rather transatlantically exhaustive. He ranges across the herring pond with the ease of a practiced music journalist, showing an appreciation of sub-genre as well as genre.

Musically, punk is familiar territory. The Ramones, 1234, rolling eighths on the bass, total 4/4 drumming and what was habitually described in the music press of the time as ‘buzz-saw guitar’ (the go-to adjective for post-punk guitar sounds being ‘angular’). Post-punk was both more experimental and far more knowledgeable and expansive concerning its ancestry than punk. Its effects were also not limited to the music. Graphic design also benefitted from post-punk, and Rip It Up has occasional sleeve art which shows a much more advanced visual and graphic awareness about packaging – perfected by Scritti Politti’s use of famous branding to adorn their sleeves – doubtless a result of the link between post-punk and art college.

Much of the post-punk conversation tends back towards art and art rock, and various players have their say on the subject. Deciding what is art and what is not, of course, is akin to playing rock-scissors-paper in that the winner has not displayed any particular skill in the subject. But at the same time even the culturally tone-deaf can tell that there is a difference between Wire and Magazine on the one hand, and The Damned and Slaughter and the Dogs on the other. That said, the more trying aspects of the art-school approach are highlighted by a Wire gig at which, onstage,

…someone attacked a gas stove, while Zegk Hoop featured twelve people with newspaper head-dresses on playing percussion

Art, quite possibly, for art’s sake.

Any review of a cultural movement is now habitually viewed through the prism of the present, given the interesting times in which we live. To use the contemporary vernacular, Reynolds is pleasingly non-woke. It is a simple fact that, while punk took inspiration from black music, post-punk was almost entirely a white phenomenon. Then, of course, this might draw the occasional disinterested observation. Given that the one Reynolds includes, bemoaning the whiteness of the post-punk scene, comes from Lester Bangs, we would do well to remember that Bangs was a drunken drug addict best known for being Lou Reed’s court jester.

If post-punk had happened now, the whole movement, if such it was, would be under the Klieg lights of woke. Music is strictly patrolled by the commissars now, as is the whole entertainment industry. Post-punk took a studied view of politics rather than a coerced one. Reynolds makes an astute observation about post-punk bands and their rather more guarded approach than their forebears, not to race but to anti-racism, which feels very familiar today;

[W]hile most British post-punk groups participated in the Rock Against Racism tours and festivals of the era, they were wary of both RAR itself and its sister organisation, the Anti-Nazi League, suspecting them of being thinly disguised fronts for the militant, left-wing Socialist Workers Party (who valued music purely as a tool for radicalising and mobilising youth).

Today it is of course mandatory for musicians to keep their CV up to date concerning race. It is difficult to imagine XTC’s debut album, White Music, having a problem-free release just at the moment.


If you already enjoy the music of any of the bands covered by Reynolds, Rip It Up is a schoolroom of apocrypha. Personally, Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures remains very close to my heart and not least because of sound effects on two tracks, Insight and I Remember Nothing. They sounded, respectively, as though someone had recorded an old lift for the first song, and smashed bottles in the second. I had never heard music like it. How did they do that? The answer, of course, was hidden in plain sight, like Edgar Allan Poe’s purloined letter. The producer of Unknown Pleasures, Martin Hannett;

…loved the occasional extreme effect: On the debut Unknown Pleasures, he miked up the clanking of an antique lift for Insight and incorporated smashing glass on I Remember Nothing.

Reynolds achieves two pleasing results for a rock music writer in that he does not assume the role of central arbiter who decides what is good and what is not (he limits himself discreetly to assessing cultural value) while simultaneously being unable to disguise his favourite artists (he has an obvious soft spot for PiL and Scritti Politti). So it is as the enchanting hybrid of fan and researcher that he traces the many tributaries of the post-punk river, and the many cultural effects, not least in the media.

Punk did post-punk a great service by creating a highly significant, high-circulation, rock-literate music press. Reynolds estimates that, including the ‘knock-on’ rate of readership, where copies are read and passed on, the combined readership of the four big titles was around two million a week, figures the MSM would kill or die for now. And so post-punk was not left floundering around wasting its sweetness on the desert air because of mass media’s lack of interest. They had a dedicated press from the start.

They also had a figure who is sainted in any music biography covering the period he was alive, and rightly so: John Peel. Having championed punk and taken enthusiastically to its descendants (before an attack of musical malaise in the mid-1980s led him to claim that “I don’t even like the records I like”), Peel was as crucial as he had been and was to be in the promotion of what Reynolds calls “dissident music”, music produced outside the establishment industry channels:

Peel’s support of the marginal and maverick was all the more crucial because Radio One, before deregulation of the airwaves, enjoyed a near monopoly over pop music in the UK.

The production side of the music industry also underwent change due to post-punk. It is a common perception that while punk was about DIY records and musical autonomy, its demise represented the end of independence and the return of the big record companies and promoters. In fact – and Reynolds devotes a painstakingly researched chapter to this – the punk bands couldn’t wait to get famous and get on a major label, while the period covered in Rip It Up was notable for the fierce autonomy of some of the bands and labels. Of course, as The Clash’s Joe Strummer (somewhat hypocritically) had noted, record labels were always going to be “turning rebellion into money” and, as Mark E. Smith wryly noted, “all the English groups act like peasants with free milk, on a route to the loot”, but the post-punk era saw more determination about retaining creative and financial control.

But any movement is only what its defenders say it is. Post-punk, as Reynolds makes beautifully and caringly clear, was very far from monolithic. Ska, Goth, New Pop, synthpop, Industrial, post-punk’s territory is expansive and divulgent. Some was complete news to me, and I was what Mark E. Smith called a “printhead” at the time when it came to the New Musical Express and Melody Maker. I had never heard of (with the exception of The Residents) the subject bands of the chapter ‘Freak Scene: Cabaret Noir and Theatre of Cruelty in Post-punk San Francisco’. Reynolds is encyclopaedic.

He is also a good music writer. Elvis Costello once quipped that “writing about music is like dancing about writing”, which contains a point but does not tell the full tale. Many rock writers use the experience as a rite of passage to the ‘proper papers’, whereas with Reynolds, his love of his subject matter keeps the prose buoyant and the descriptions of the music – which can unseat music writers prone to exuberance – are concise and evocative. It feels as though, had you not heard one note produced by one band in Rip It Up, you would still find it an enjoyable read.

Rip it Up and Start Again is a wonderful book about an exciting and artistically fresh few years. Reynolds counts himself fortunate – after having been a slow starter with punk – to have been involved in the wonderful flat-pack Renaissance that was post-punk:

Young people have a biological right to be excited about the times in which they’re living. If you are very lucky, that hormonal urgency is matched by the insurgency of the era – your innate adolescent need for amazement and belief coincides with a period of objective abundance. The prime years of post punk… were like that: a fortune.

His good fortune is also ours.

50 years of Sticky Fingers

CHRISTOPHER SANDFORD recalls the shambolic genesis of the Stones’ masterpiece

At about eleven on the Monday morning of 9 March 1970, a somewhat distressed-looking olive green, midsized BMC lorry of the kind typically used to haul heavy goods around the country, crunched up the gravel driveway of a sprawling manor house located just outside the village of East Woodhay on the Hampshire-Berkshire border. The driver of the truck was a burly 31-year-old with the uncompromisingly Scots name of Ian Stewart, and he was there not to deliver industrial equipment but to help record a rock and roll album.

For the next several hours Stewart and two assistants threaded dozens of multicoloured cables through the home’s heavily studded front doors and into the entrance hall, in due course installing drum kits and guitar amplifiers, knocking together crudely fashioned isolation booths like the old sensory-deprivation chambers in TV’s Double Your Money, and plugging in a forest of microphones against a backdrop of musty chandeliers and ancestral portraits that stared down in silent reproach at the cast of shaggy-haired residents gradually emerging from all corners of the home, whose doll-like smallness gave them the air of elves curiously inspecting a room in an advancing state of preparation for a party.


The somewhat implausible name of the house was Stargroves, and at that time it was owned by Mick Jagger. Jagger and his band the Rolling Stones – for it was they – had elected to record in this manner in order to relieve themselves of the tedious 9-5 restrictions of a traditional commercial studio. By doing it their way the five band members and their auxiliary musicians could plug in whenever the mood took them, and the 8-track console installed in the back of the truck parked outside would capture the results.

It was a good idea, and it almost worked. Jagger himself, along with his colleagues Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts and Mick Taylor duly spent much of the next six weeks cutting the basic tracks for what became the group’s ninth British LP, and the first to be released on the band’s own label, and which, after toying with the likes of Sour Grapes and – for some compelling reason – The Vagina Album, they named Sticky Fingers. For his part, the Stones’s narcotically-inclined guitarist and on his day leading creative force Keith Richards sometimes made it to the recordings, and sometimes didn’t. If a session was called for, say, ten o’clock at night, Keith might stroll in around three in the morning accompanied by his entourage of spliff-wielding Rastafarians, waif-like young women and sundry other advisers and assistants notable for their heavy use of mascara and the leather satchels clutched in their arms.

Before long, certain other challenges inherent to the concept of a group of young rock musicians working without external supervision also asserted themselves. As the weeks wore on, there were frequent arguments and absences throughout the band. The rhythm section of Wyman and Watts were both married men with children, and more than once they expressed their distaste for working through the night in a colleague’s remote country estate located some 80 miles from their own suburban-London homes. Several witnesses later noted that even the consummately professional Jagger would periodically down tools, if the phrase weren’t so inappropriate, whenever one of his specially favoured female companions appeared at Stargroves. “Suddenly”, Ian Stewart once told me, “there were days when Mick disappeared upstairs”.

Perhaps all rock and roll albums should be made with comparatively primitive technology installed in the back of a truck parked outside the door, with creative differences being not so much aired as shouted out, because the result of the Rolling Stones’s labours, as buffed up by the band’s wunderkind producer Jimmy Miller at various locations over the course of the next twelve months, and formally released on 23 April 1971, remains arguably the masterpiece of their long career.

It would require a life of more than mere detachment from the whims of popular culture, and devoted instead to the most austere monastic seclusion, for the reader not to be on terms of at least passing familiarity with the album’s opening number ‘Brown Sugar’. A – or the – classic frothy Stones raveup, it had curious origins. In the summer of 1969, hard on the heels of events such as the firing and almost immediate death of the Stones’s founding genius Brian Jones, and the band’s perhaps ill-advised free concert in front of 300,000 fans in Hyde Park just two days later, Mick Jagger had flown to Australia with his girlfriend Marianne Faithfull to take the lead role in Tony Richardson’s film Ned Kelly – the idea presumably being that one rebel, no matter how slight his screen-acting experience, should play another. The production got off to a bad start when Jagger was forced to walk a gauntlet of protesters on arrival at Sydney airport, indignant that their nation’s 19th-century outlaw hero should be portrayed by, as one of the signs had it, a “pommy faggot”. Following that there was the near-fatal overdose of Jagger’s costar and travelling companion, which again saw the words ‘Stones’ and ‘drugs’ deployed in close proximity to one another in the world’s tabloid headlines. Tony Richardson promptly dropped Faithfull from the cast of Ned Kelly, which would go on to grace all the ‘Worst Movies in History’ lists following its limited release in June 1970. Adding injury to insult, Jagger was badly hurt when, once out on location, a prop pistol exploded in his hand. The unit nurse stitched him up and told him to keep his right arm immobile. Preferring to doctor himself, Mick instead picked up a guitar one afternoon and idly strummed a two-bar phrase around the C, G and F chords, then threw in some hurriedly improvised bondage-fantasy lyrics. This happy collision between boredom and physical therapy would be the best thing to come out of Ned Kelly. Once back in London, Jagger and Richards swiftly worked up the riff into ‘Brown Sugar’.

Next up on Sticky Fingers was a hidden gem called ‘Sway’, a solid if largely unremarkable reminder of the band’s blues roots until Mick Taylor suddenly swooped in with a bottleneck slide guitar during the bridge, and a dramatic, virtuoso outro solo that may represent the finest 30 seconds of his five-and-a-half year tenure as a Rolling Stone. Another swift gear change ushered in ‘Wild Horses’, a lovely ballad in its way even if Ian Stewart, doubling as the band’s primary roadie and occasional pianist, had pronounced himself unwilling to perform on any ‘Chinese shit’, as he termed music with minor chords, when called upon to accompany the track. Essentially a love song from Keith Richards to his partner Anita Pallenberg, Jagger rewrote the lyrics as a plea to Marianne Faithfull to rejoin him after she’d stepped out with one of Anita’s exs (all very fraternal were the Stones in those days), the painter Mario Schifano. It perhaps wouldn’t be hard to locate the names of certain rock and roll bands who over the years have embarrassed both their audiences and themselves by their misguided attempts at the romantic air – somehow I’m always reminded on these occasions of the baroque strains of Spinal Tap’s immortal ‘Lick My Love Pump’ – but what’s extraordinary here is that the Stones are at their most convincing when they aim at the sublime.

Next up: the gloriously eccentric ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’, a rock-guitar groove that swerved halfway through into a mariachi jam session. It was pronounced No. 25 on one of Rolling Stone magazine’s incessant lists of The 100 Greatest Rock Songs of All Time, but even without that particular bauble it would be hard for any normally sensate listener to remain wholly unmoved by Keith Richards’s shattering opening guitar bolt and the collective locomotion of his four colleagues and their sidemen – Bobby Keys on tenor sax to the fore – that followed. Side One, as such things were then designated, ended with the Stones’s somewhat frazzled take on Mississippi Fred McDowell’s classic spiritual ‘You Gotta Move’, which they’d initially cut in embryonic form at around three one morning in December 1969 while crouched around a microphone positioned in a toilet bowl (for that ‘shitty sound’, as Keith approvingly put it) at Muscle Shoals studio in rural Alabama.

Flip the disc over, and you had the horn-drenched blowout of ‘Bitch’, after which things calmed down with three songs – ‘I Got the Blues’, ‘Sister Morphine’ and ‘Dead Flowers’ – with seemingly little in common but their border-jumping from the world of roots rock and roll into those of country and soul, and back again, not to mention their assorted drug references and the basic premise of ‘Morphine’ itself, with its gory allusion to Marianne Faithfull’s recent miscarriage.

The whole thing wound down with the soporific ‘Moonlight Mile’, a weirdly insinuating slab of orchestral blues with lyrics one earnest American reviewer described as a “rare case of Mick Jagger letting go of his public persona, offering a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the weariness that accompanies the pressures of keeping up appearances as a sex-drugs-and-rock and roll star”, and another perhaps overextended himself by comparing to W.B. Yeats. The song had a curious and on the whole less exalted genesis. Keith Richards had first strummed the moody chords to ‘The Japanese Thing’, as the track was then known, while sitting on the kitchen floor, a bowl of cereal in his lap, late one night at Stargroves. Initially there had been something of a skeleton crew present at the moment of creation, with just Charlie Watts on drums and the trumpet player Jim Price improvising on piano. Mick Jagger was upstairs in his boudoir, Bill Wyman had also retired, and nobody knew exactly where Mick Taylor was after his co-guitarist had informed him, “Don’t bother to play on this – you’re too bloody loud”. Six months later, Keith was too stoned to make it to the final session for ‘Moonlight Mile’, which the two Micks put together in his absence. Taylor later expressed a certain surprise to see his name omitted from the song’s all-important writing credit, an early milestone down the road to his decision to defect from the band in December 1974.

Kali – unlikely inspiration for the Stones’ slavering lips and tongue logo

Even without the bulging Andy Warhol-designed crotch on the front cover, and the particularly lubricious advertising campaign that met its release, Sticky Fingers could be said to definitively capture the debauched essence of the Rolling Stones in all their strung-out 1970s glory. It was also the first product to feature the band’s iconic trademark, inspired, apparently, by the Thug goddess Kali, and actually drawn by a young Royal College of Art student named John Pasche. Pasche was paid his standard design fee, fifty guineas. That tongue and lips logo, slavering in a cunnilingual leer, would soon be recognisable to millions of people around the world who never bought a rock record or attended a concert: it remains today the ultimate pop-culture accessory.

The last sight that many Britons thought they would ever have of the Rolling Stones was of the band camping its way through ‘Brown Sugar’ on Top of the Pops. Mick Jagger vamped it up in a pink satin suit, Keith Richards’s chugging guitar drove the teenaged audience into a synchronised boogie, and the rest of the band mimed frantically away as best they could. By the time the clip aired on the evening of 15 April 1971, the Stones themselves were already safely ensconced in their new South of France domiciles, either victims of a merciless Establishment backlash, or, more prosaically, of the Inland Revenue’s attentions to their back earnings, depending on which version of events you prefer. Either way, the sessions for their next album moved from Mick Jagger’s relatively sedate Home Counties estate to the more ramshackle charms of Keith Richards’s digs on the Riviera, and the last of the band’s indisputably great albums would duly emerge under the title Exile on Main Street. But that’s another story.

Aeneas in tears

The Cumaean Sibyl, by Elihu Vedder, 1876

The Aeneid: A New Translation

Shadi Bartsch, Profile Books Ltd., 2020, 400 pages [Book VI only for this review]

Aeneid Book VI

Seamus Heaney, Faber and Faber, 2016, 53 pages

LESLEY SAUNDERS compares two notable translations of The Aeneid’s pivotal Book VI

It feels peculiarly apt, and particularly poignant, to be reading Book VI of the Aeneid now, as the death toll from the Covid-19 pandemic surpasses two million (in January 2021). The image of Aeneas trying in vain to embrace the shade of his father seems uncannily to foreshadow the thousands of people over the past year who have not been able to hold the hands of their dying relatives:


ter conatus ibi collo dare bracchia circum,

ter frustra comprensa manus effugit imago,

par levibus ventis volucrique simillima somno.

(lines 700 – 702, echoing exactly lines 792 – 794 of Aeneid Book II, when Aeneas tried to embrace the ghost of his wife Creusa as he escaped the burning city of Troy)


     …                               Three times he tried

to wrap his arms around his father’s neck; three times

his hands passed through the insubstantial shade, as if

it were the merest breeze, a fleeting dream.


Three times he tried to reach arms round that neck.

Three times the form, reached for in vain, escaped

Like a breeze between his hands, a dream on wings.

Clearly the two English versions are translations of the same original: on the basis of a mere three lines, could you say which you prefer, and why?

More broadly, supposing your bookshelves are already creaking with translations, in prose and poetry, of the Aeneid, how do you decide whether to try and squeeze in another one? Including Bartsch’s, six well-received English translations of the whole Aeneid (others are by Stanley Lombardo 2005, Frederick Ahl 2007, Robert Fagles 2008, Sarah Ruden 2009 and David Ferry 2017) have been published this century. This is not to mention the John Dryden, the C. Day Lewis, the Jackson Knight, the Robert Fitzgerald, the Allen Mandelbaum, of previous centuries. What makes a particular translation the one you end up keeping, the one you always take down from the shelf?

It is a truism – also true – that translation is always an act of interpretation; there can be no ‘carrying-across’ from one language to another without some additional baggage being smuggled or declared. Importation of cultural assumptions and/or of cultural critique is unavoidable in the case of Aeneid Book VI. The book encapsulates the whole epic, of which it is the centre and pivot. It is an encounter with both past and future, with ancestors and descendants; it is where the old world of Ilium meets the new world of Italia; it is a hymn to sorrow and the knowledge of loss; an extended meditation on the phrase sunt lacrimae rerum that appeared in Aeneid Book I; a vivid evocation of the wasteful horrors of war; a humane plea for compassion towards the dead and defeated; a nation’s foundational narrative; a triumphalist exposition of Rome’s destiny as a colonial power; a paean to the glorious achievements of Augustus Imperator; a moment of crisis in the arduous journey of a reluctant hero who must be persuaded of the rightness of his mission; a re-telling of the mythic descent into, and return from, the underworld in order to bring back more-than-ordinary knowledge.

The Golden Bough, by J. M. W. Turner

In a perceptive monograph, Evelyn W. Adkins contrasts the choice of vocabulary and its effect on the tone of voice in different translations – chosen from across five centuries – of the Aeneid by Gavin Douglas, Thomas Phaer, John Dryden, C. Day Lewis, Robert Fitzgerald, Allen Mandelbaum and Stanley Lombardo. Adkins is particularly interested in how translators see their own political concerns reflected in Book VI; as she shows, the translators’ emphases on the book’s complex and ambivalent themes may fall very differently depending on the way they translate specific phrases, with the effect of giving the text greater militaristic force, for example – or of stressing the literary linkage and lineage of the Aeneid from Homer to Dante.

I had already decided before reading Adkins to take a comparative look at Bartsch’s and Heaney’s translations of Book VI because they are each prefaced by thoughtful notes about their interpretative decisions. Heaney’s rationale is less explicit and systematic, more of a poet’s apologia, than Bartsch’s deliberative investigation, but both translators being conscious of the need to say something about the why and how, the personal investment each of them has made because of the lasting influence Virgil has had on them and their sensibilities.

Both bring autobiography to bear on their reasons; in her Translator’s Note, Bartsch writes that a large part of her motivation was:

… all translators bring a certain world view with them, and to date this view has mostly been a male, European-American point of view. Perhaps, then, it is not insignificant that I grew up as a foreigner in other people’s countries (including Indonesia, Iran and the Fiji Islands as well as Europe) … And I am a woman in a discipline that was still marked by gender imbalance when I was doing my studies.

And yet, she writes, ‘I don’t think the Aeneid brings those biases with it’ – the epic’s superficially dominant perspectives serve in effect to ‘undermine their own authority’. This viewpoint informs her approach to the interpretative labour of line by line translation; she sees her task as not so much revisionist as expository, revelatory.

In his Translator’s Note, Heaney tells us that his translation of Book VI is:

… more like classics homework, the result of a life-long desire to honour the memory of my Latin teacher at St Columb’s College, Father Michael McGlinchey… The set text for our A level exam in 1957 was Aeneid IX but McGlinchey was forever sighing ‘Och, boys, I wish it were Book VI.’

Heaney’s acquaintance with the Aeneid might therefore seem to sit squarely within the male-dominated Eurocentric tradition that Bartsch is concerned to question and relativise. But Heaney had deeply personal reasons for embarking on the journey that echo Aeneas’ own. The poet and critic Ruth Padel (in ’Beyond the Golden Bough with Seamus Heaney’) explains that Heaney had been working on translating Book VI from the 1980s until the month before he died, the work being brought into the fullness of being by two life events – the death of his father in 1986 and the birth of his first grandchild in 2006.

So we shall want to find out whether and how these different kinds of personal engagement play out in practice in the two translations. However, I probably ought first to say a little about poetics, by which I mean the specific mix of metre plus diction plus music/sonic effects that constitutes literary form and underlies the art and craft of translation. Aaron Poochigian bewails the lack of ‘loftiness’ in modern translations (Heaney’s had not appeared at the time of writing), and fears that

…free verse is incapable of sustaining a lofty tone because irregular rhythms break the incantatory spell and prosaic expressions undercut the elevation.

So another question we might ask is: ‘how do we, with our current poetics, translate a sublime but very formal poem?’

Bartsch’s approach is to try to “create a radically different reading experience by being attentive to the pace of Vergil’s epic” (original emphasis). She says she ‘compromised between the familiarity of Shakespearian blank verse and Vergil’s [quantitative] meter by allowing six, sometimes five, beats in my iambic lines.’ Bartsch’s explanation of her method is too long even to summarise here but is worth reading for its discussion of what she calls her “conscious philosophy of translation” – which foregrounds a commitment to the audience, whether classicists or general readers.

Padel contrasts “the long English line” Heaney used in his earlier poem ‘The Golden Bough’ (a translation of lines 98 – 148 of Book VI, published in Seeing Things, 1991) to represent Virgil’s 14-syllable hexameters with the “loose pentameters, generally 11-syllable lines of blank verse, which flow beautifully” of the finished book.

So what do these metres – the beats and the flow – look and sound like? Here are the extraordinary lines that describe the approach of Aeneas and the Sibyl to the Underworld:


Ibant obscuri sola sub nocte per umbram

perque domos Ditis vacuas et inania regna,

quale per incertam lunam sub luce maligna

est iter in silvis, ubi caelum condidit umbra

Iuppiter, et rebus nox abstulit atra colorem.

(lines 268 – 272)


They went, faded figures in the lonely night,

through the lifeless, empty realm of Dis,

as if through a wood under a clouded moon’s

thin light, when Jove has plunged the sky in shadow

and black night leaches color from the world.


On they went in darkness, through the lonely

Shadowing night, a nowhere of deserted dwellings,

Dim phantasmal reaches where Pluto is king –

Like following a forest path by the hovering light

Of a moon that clouds and unclouds at Jupiter’s whim,

While the colours of the world pall in gloom.

Let’s pause to consider that pair of transferred epithets in the first line: obscuri [dark] might normally be attached to the night, not to Aeneas and his eerie priestess companion; conversely, sola [alone] might be thought to belong not to the night but to Aeneas and the sense of abandonment he is feeling. The double transference serves, by the severing of the expected attachment between descriptor and described, to generate the absence that characterises, that indeed is, the domain of the dead. A literary convention has thereby been transformed into realised experience, present emotion; the sonorous metrical requirements of the epic form have been tempered by a tender lyric intuition. (I’m quoting myself, from my Axon article ‘Present absences and absent presences’.)

I think this might be another example of what David Wharton calls the productive ambiguity of Virgil’s poetry. As Wharton writes of ‘Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt’, “the line is sufficiently communicative at the level of implication without submitting to a definitive explicature… it disrupts the flow of our reading and draws us into explicit contemplation…”

How do the two translators address this grammatical ambiguity, and the way it opens up a psychological space? It is interesting in this context that Bartsch quotes Kate Kellaway in her praise for Heaney’s demonstration that “plain words are storm-proofed”. Whilst ‘plainness’ is a significant and valuable quality of Bartsch’s own translation, including in this instance, I’m not sure it accurately captures what Heaney accomplishes in, for example “the shadowing night”, “a nowhere of deserted dwellings” and a moon that “clouds and unclouds at Jupiter’s whim” – each of them an insight into, rather than a surface rendition of, the Latin words.

Book VI reaches its climax (in lines 757 – 859) with the parade of military heroes who will make prophecy come true and bring Rome’s great destiny to fruition. This is where we might expect Bartsch’s translation to bear the marks of her interpretative inclination not to “soften… features of antiquity that are unpleasant to us today”, perhaps even somehow to offer an alternative to the hegemonic / colonial perspective. Both translators have good reason to be suspicious of triumphalist narratives, but contrast Bartsch’s translation of lines 841 – 846, in which what she actually does is make good her intention to “maintain the tempo of the Latin”, so as to “reproduce… the excitement and immediacy of the poem”:

… Who’d omit great Cato, or you, Cossus?

Or the Gracchi and two Scipios, Libya’s

ruin, thunderbolts of war; Fabricius,

powerful though poor, Serranus sowing furrows?

You Fabii, why hurry? Maximus,

you’ll be the only one to save our land by lagging.

with Heaney’s:

Next, great Cato, you, who could not sing your praise

Or, Cossus, yours? Or the family of the Gracchi;

Or those two Scipios, two warrior thunderbolts

Who will strike down bellicose Carthage; or Fabricius,

The indomitable and frugal; or you, Serranus,

Sowing your furrowed fields? Nor is there a quick

Or easy way to scan the long line of the Fabii,

Down to the greatest, Fabius Maximus,

He who’ll contrive to stall and thereby save our state.

With these lines, which sound to my ear a bit too much like a translation, Heaney seems rather to have lost patience. In his Note, he says that this part of the poem is “something of a test for reader and translator alike”; indeed, by this point, “the translator is likely to have moved from inspiration to grim determination”. And it shows: the prolixity of Heaney’s version here (nine lines to Virgil’s, and Bartsch’s, six) does little to help our understanding of who these generals and heroes were or what they actually did. The play of words in “scan….  the long line” is entirely Heaney’s and feels more gratuitous than witty.

Nonetheless, it is to the parallel lives of man and epic hero that we owe Heaney’s determination (grim or otherwise) to finish this book, “for the sake of the little one whose ‘earthlight broke’ in late 2006”. And, even though he did not live to see it published, what an accomplishment it turned out to be! For what Heaney brought to this labour of love and duty was a lifetime of writing poetry himself. His gift for translation reveals itself through specific features which – for the sake of brevity – I’ll characterise with minimal explanation:

fluency: a feel for how one line (of thought), one fleeting image, one big idea (what James Rother calls a poet’s ‘rhythmus mentis’) links with the next – as Heaney’s translations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, of Buile Suibhne and of Beowulf had already attested …

lexis: a generosity of vocabulary, which happily draws now and again on unusual words: for example, “a vast scaresome cavern” (“scaresomely” also occurs in ‘Seeing Things’); ”an outlander groom”; “snaffles the sop it has been thrown; “slobbered corpses”; plus turns of phrase that sound like Irish English: for example, “a mad moment came”; “’Out from here’, the seeress is shouting”.

‘music’: one word we use for this in poetry is ‘prosody’, which John Colapinto says “comes from the ancient Greek: pros, meaning “toward”, and ody, meaning “song”. We speak toward song”. It is an instinct for the subtle relationship between vowels and consonants, stressed and unstressed syllables, soft and loud, high and low – everything that one might call the ‘mouth-feel’ of a given language, which becomes manifest when you read the text aloud. Try this:

Then when they came to the fuming gorge at Avernus

They swept up through clear air and back down

To their chosen perch, a tree that was two trees

In one, green-leafed yet refulgent with gold.

Like mistletoe shining in cold winter woods,

Gripping its tree but not yet grafted, always in leaf,

Its yellowy berries in sprays curled round the bole –

Those flickering gold tendrils lit up the dark

Overhang of the oak and chimed in the breeze.

(Heaney, lines 271 – 279)

Neither ‘plain’ nor ‘lofty’ but tuned to an inner humanity, Heaney’s singular and expressive gift rescues the golden bough from cliché, makes it – as it was for Aeneas – a thing of wonder, an emanation of the soulfulness of the living world.

But I can’t finish without acknowledging that Bartsch gives us something special too, a vigorous, deeply-felt and genuinely exciting version of the whole story. And so both books are here on my shelf to stay.

Rewriting the Middle Ages

LIAM GUILAR likes a radical reimagining of a venerable Welsh work

Isolated in Aber Cuawg

Harry Gilonis, Oystercatcher Press, 2020, 19 pages

‘Claf Abercuawg’ is a Welsh poem composed perhaps in the ninth century. Claf, as a noun, means a sick person, a patient or a leper1. Abercuawg is an area of north Wales. There is an ‘I’ who looks out at the landscape and speaks about it and his isolation.

This pamphlet contains an English translation of 32 three line stanzas, a short introductory essay, placed significantly after the poem, and some textual notes. The essay is a concise, necessary introduction to the differences between this poem and a modern English one. The pamphlet is visually attractive, robust enough to handle the rough usage it has received, and overall very good value for money.

The opening line announces the poem’s difference: “My mind’s requirement, to be sat atop a hill”.

In the 1970s, Glyn Williams translated this as “To sit high on a hill is the wish of my heart”2

Superficially, Williams sounds more natural, and perhaps immediately preferable. But the differences in word choice and order reveals the strength of Gilonis’ translation.

Generally3 the contemporary trend seems to be to assume that the people of the Middle Ages were modern people in funny clothes, suffering from bad ideologies and severe technological deprivation. The consequences of such assumptions are numerous and they are all bad. The logic runs that because these people are us, then their stories can be presented as we think they should have been written, or would have been written if the original composers weren’t so clumsy. And because they are ‘like us’ then they should have known better. Therefore, the things modern observers find reprehensible in medieval behaviour and ideals can be easily condemned and preferably erased, because both are easier than trying to understand the essential alterity of the period.

The most invidious and invisible form of this domestication is when a translator surreptitiously converts a medieval text so it operates to modern, post-Romantic assumptions of how poems should function, and how a modern person would behave or think in that situation.

Gilonis, to his credit, avoids these traps. Ironically, part of the effectiveness of this translation lies in what he hasn’t done. “My mind’s requirement” does not sound like modern English. But it’s grammatical and makes sense. He walks the fine line between respecting the alterity of the original and turning the poem into something that works in English. He does this without domesticating the original, or turning it into a museum piece.

The translation, as translation, can be compared with different translations. Here are three versions of the last verse; Gilonis’ is the third.  

The Leper was a squire; he was a bold warrior

In the court of the King

May God be kind to the outcast.

Jenny Rowland4

A youth was Leprous; once a bold leader

In the royal palace.

God be kind to the outcast.

Joseph P. Clancy5

Isolated, once a warrior, once a champion, daring

Once in the court of a king

May God be kind to the outcast.

I prefer Gilonis’ version, but the key objective difference is the disappearance of ‘leper’. While Jenny Rowlands goes to some length to show how the speaker of the poem is indeed a leper, she’s also aware that it is not the only option (pp.191-193). The original poem would not have excluded other interpretations. As she points out, the solitary figure in a hostile landscape, well-known to readers of Old English, is as much a symbol of life on earth (with or without God) as a literal character. But translating claf as ‘leper’ would be to choose one option and for the reader of the translation to limit those other interpretations. It also throws the poem into the distance.

Gilonis defends his decision not to translate claf as ‘leper’ in the notes. The poem isn’t distanced from the modern British or American reader and the other possible readings of the text remain open.

Obviously the idea of someone isolated due to illness has an immediate contemporary relevance. The temptation would be to push the point, the use of deliberate anachronisms being a popular technique. Gilonis writes: “The resonances, in 2020, don’t need ramming home” (p10).  In 2020, ‘isolated’ was such a loaded word it should resonate without ventilators or prayers for vaccines turning up in the translation.

One of the strangest features of this poem is that, as in Old English poetry at this period, the speaking ‘I’ is an empty space anyone one reading the poem can step into. It’s merely a subject position, not an historical or fictional character, nor the product of autobiography. This is emphatically not a dramatic monologue in the Browning/Tennyson tradition, nor an ‘I’ in the tradition of English poetry from Wyatt onwards. While some speakers in the ‘saga poems’ of medieval Wales are characters in a fuller story, the speaker in this one exists only in this poem.

Some early Welsh verse, like this, simply don’t operate to the rules we assume govern modern poetry in English. There’s no clearly developed progression from an opening to an ending. There’s no ‘internal coherence’. The poems operate to their own rules, and those rules, leaving aside the complicated metrics, simply aren’t post-Renaissance or classically inflected English. There is description of landscape, but whether it’s meant to evoke the speaker’s mood or describe a place is questionable, and whichever answer you pick in one instance will be undermined in another.

Description is jammed against statement: but the relation of the two seems marginal, and the statements, as in the second line below, might be gnomic wisdom or just statements of fact. Either way, their relevance is never obvious:

Bright are the tops of the valleys; long the small hours.

Expertise is always praised.

Am I not to be granted the sleep due to the ill?

Temporally the poem hops around, sometimes in the same stanza. The overall effect is that the poem is swirling, but the swirl isn’t spiralling to any conclusion, just to the last word, where the poem stops. Gwyn Williams only translated ten of the 32 verses, but the ’extraction’ (his term) doesn’t seem to damage the poem in any way.

For general readers of English poetry, the pragmatic value of early medieval poetry, treated honestly as it is here, lies in the challenge it makes to the learnt reading practices of the school room and the lecture hall. A poem like this one, that obviously works, but not to ‘our’ rules, is a confrontation with the limits of our reading practice, and our assumptions about what a poem is, does, and can be.

This difference between what worked for a medieval Welsh audience and what a modern reader of poems expects gives the translation another level of interest. The original might have been written over 1,000 years ago, but this translation wouldn’t be out of place in something like Harriet Tarlo’s 2011 anthology of ‘radical landscape poetry’6.  

As such, it’s a blunt reminder that any claims made by ‘avant garde’, ‘experimentalist’ or ‘postmodern’ poets in the 21st century for the ‘innovative’ or ‘ground breaking novelty’ of their work is undermined, if not flatly contradicted, by the history of poetry. Whatever ‘it’ is, ‘it’ has usually been done before. This should negate the familiar excuse for writing abstruse nonsense – ‘But it hasn’t been done before’ – and focus the question on ‘Was it worth doing?’

  1. http://geiriadur.ac.uk/gpc/gpc.html []
  2. Welsh Poems Sixth Century to 1600, Faber and Faber, 1973, p.23 []
  3. ‘Generally’ in terms of popular culture, films, books, and public discussions []
  4. Early Welsh Saga Poetry: a study and edition of the Englynion, D. Brewer 1990. p. 497. This is the essential encyclopaedic text, commentary, study and translation of these poems. Rowland makes no claim for her translations as ‘literature’ []
  5. The Earliest Welsh Poetry, Macmillan 1970. p.94. Clancy reverses the order of the last two verses so this is the penultimate in his translation []
  6. The Ground Aslant. An anthology of Radical Landscape Poetry, Shearsman, 2011 []

Four poems by Caroline Davies

CAROLINE DAVIES has an MA in Writing Poetry from the Poetry School and Newcastle University. Her books are Elements of Water (Green Bottle Press 2019), Convoy(2013) Voices from Stone and Bronze(2016) (Cinnamon Press).  She co-hosts the Ouse Muse poetry readings (Bedford) currently taking place online.  These poems are from her latest project, Strange Alchemy, poems inspired by the life and works of Paul Nash (1889-1946).

The Pencil Game

This baby was a mystery, a gentle swell

in my wife’s tummy like a wave waiting to break.

Now he gazes at us with his dark eyes

a thick shock of black hair.

I have stumbled into his childhood

without any thought of how to be a father.

I have invented a game with a pencil.

It has to be a red one, he has no interest in black.

As I move it towards him, his fingers open like a starfish

then close with the pencil tightly grasped.

Portrait of the Artist as a Student

In my bedsit the walls are restless with roses,

flowers and buds trail from ceiling to the floor

as if the briars hid a sleeping beauty.

They grow in my dreams,

reach out with bristling stems,

surround my bed with towers of thorns.

I cover the walls with paper of palest grey

and hang curtains of darkest blue,

a midnight shade, to screen the world outside.

The room falls silent, a glass of clear water.

Now I can begin.

I poured out my sovereigns amongst the teacups

Gold, pure gold and freshly-minted

as if the Carfax Gallery was the Bank of England,

with a clatter coins went for a spin and roll

across the table before they came to a rest.

Carrington’s hair gleamed a red-gold halo

lit by an inner flame above her pale shoulders.

I slipped down to the floor to sit, cross-legged,

beside her and she poured tea

into a mismatched cup and saucer,

all delicate bone-china,

the tea black with a smoky taste

not like the dust-grey canteen stuff,

the room warm and incandescent,

and for a moment I was in heaven.


This thin peace is like gruel.

England a dismal place,

I am unable to settle.

I feel exhausted all the time.

Days pass as if I am asleep.

All I can do is paint.

The movement of the brush

across the canvas

leaves a thick brown trail.

I must purge what is in my head:

blasted trees – blood red clouds.

Here, outside, the corn ripens in the fields.

All I can do is paint.

I must rob the war

of its last shred of glory.