A tale of two journalists

14th July 2006 at 01:00
It is official: maths is going to be fun. Or at least what the creators of maths syllabuses think is fun, which may not necessarily be the same thing.

In an effort to make the subject more acceptable to today's youth, maths problems will in future reflect situations with which they are familiar. Thus Darren has 100 grams of herbal marijuana. As he is a precise lad, he wants his spliffs to contain exactly 15 grams each. So how many joints can he roll from his stash, and how many grams will be left over at the end?

For teachers of literature, of course, the concept of "relevance" is hardly new. Back in the 1980s, we threw out all the dead white males and replaced them with live black females. No syllabus was considered complete without at least two representatives from the holy trinity of Alice Walker, Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison.

My own classes at this time included large numbers of young female students whose parents had originated from the West Indies or West Africa, so there were a lot of pluses in giving them authors to study with whom they could identify.

It was never a precise fit though. The Color Purple might have a young black protagonist, but London life in the 80s had little in common with the Mississippi of the 30s. There was also the little matter of the many other cultures represented in the classes. And you might well argue that a young man from Afghanistan would find as much to identify with in Jane Austen as Maya Angelou.

Then we also have to think about what we actually want from our reading.

Stick with what you know and pretty soon the only town you'll be visiting is Dullsville.

I mean, do I really want to read exclusively about 50-something grumpies worrying about their bald spots and their pensions? For God's sake, you hear me cry, take me somewhere (anywhere) that isn't the corridors of an English FE college.

That tension between the known and the unknown, the familiar and the strange, was brought home to me recently when reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez's autobiographical Living to Tell the Tale, which deals with his early life in his native Colombia.

Like the great novelist, I too started my working life writing for a local daily newspaper. As with Marquez, this involved my leaving home to go and reside in a strange town where life was very different from what I was used to.

It is at this point, however, that the differences begin. Marquez took his first journalistic steps in the exotically named Cartegena de Indias, on the Colombian Caribbean coast. I went to work in Rotherham.

When the working day was over, Marquez and his colleagues would take themselves off to sit beneath the tamarind trees and bougainvillea at the Cafe Roma.

Often they would stay up all night, reading or talking about poetry, until the ocean breeze and the bellow of the ships at dawn sent them staggering off belatedly to their beds.

I cannot remember too much about the pubs we frequented in Rotherham town centre in 1970, except that it was that era when the breweries, in the spirit of Barry Bucknell, were junking all the old Victorian wood and brass in favour of wall-to-wall Formica.

All-night conversations about literature were not particularly flavour of the month in south Yorkshire journalistic circles either, though some did find a certain poetry in Geoffrey Boycott's repertoire of defensive prods down at Bramall Lane.

When he was not burning the candle at both ends at the Cafe Roma, Marquez would head for the edge of town in search of his recreation. Here were found the open-air brothels, where music played all night and the punters sang along in a sort of prototype Caribbean karaoke.

Each joint had its own dance floor where, beneath a canopy of vines, curlews and chickens would wander amid the gyrating couples.

Maybe Rotherham also boasted such venues, but I for one never managed to find them. In the lingering spirit of 19th century Calvinism, the town shut down every night at 10pm, or 10.30 at weekends if you were lucky.

There were clear differences in what we both did too. Marquez (at 21, dubbed "Maestro" by his contemporaries) was given his own regular spot in Cartegena's El Universal, where he expounded his deepest thoughts every day under a literary pseudonym.

As the most junior person in the office, I spent most of my days in the confines of the local magistrates' court, trying my best to spin tales from the sordid confessions of the town's drunks, punks, petty thieves and conmen. What my colleagues called me at that time is beyond recall, but I know for sure that it was not "maestro".

But never mind that my world seemed to have been cast in black and white, while his glowed with brilliant Technicolor. After all, haven't I had the last laugh with my 30-year career in FE and column in FE Focus?

All that Marquez has achieved in the meantime is 22 books and the Nobel Prize for Literature.

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