Talking 'bout my generation

30th September 2005 at 01:00
Hello Grandad. I'm not sure if this will actually reach you - it's been 20 years now since you got onto your bike for the last time and pedalled off to that great bike shed in the sky - but I'm going to try anyway.

All right, I know that we atheists aren't supposed to believe in an after-life (or a before-life for that matter), just a long list of question marks. But you were a bit that way inclined yourself if I remember rightly, from the hammering I saw you handing out once to that doorstep evangelist.

Very inventive use of a frying pan I thought at the time.

Still, I thought I'd try and get the news to you straight away, as I'm sure you'll be interested: I'm not an English teacher any more. That's right, though it's taken me almost 30 years to get round to it, I've accepted your advice at last.

It seems just like yesterday when I came round to tell you my great news about how I'd been offered a place at university to read English. You'll remember how I had missed out first time around, and it wasn't until I was well into my 20s that I finally took the plunge.

Your first instinct was to share the glad tidings, calling out to Grandma in the kitchen: "Can you hear me woman? Our Stevie says he's going to give up a good job to go back to school."

I suppose I should have noticed that your tone didn't exactly exude wholehearted approval.

"What does it mean anyway?" you asked, "this 'studying English'? I speak it, you speak it, what is there to study about that?"

"Ah well you see, that's where you're wrong." I was young then remember, and keen. "What I'll be studying is not the English language, but English literature."

"Hmm," you said. Or something like hmm. Your language, I recall, could be a bit salty when you were roused. "So what the hell do you do when you study English literature I'd like to know?"

"Er, well, I suppose you read books. Great books, Dr Leavis calls them. By great authors. And then you, er, well, you write about them."

"Oh ay." You pushed that old straw hat you used to wear in the summer to the back of your head. "So what you're saying is that you're giving up 20 quid a week to read story books and write about them?"

Then you got up from your chair and went out into the back garden. "Look."

You pointed out your marrows, tomatoes, the rows of waving potato tops.

"You can eat those. What exactly can you grow or make by reading books for three years?"

It was at that point, Grandad, that I began to realise that there was more dividing us than just a couple of generations. In those heady days - late 1960s, early 1970s - there was such a thing as social mobility. You had earned your living with a pick and shovel. Your son, my father, went one step better by learning a trade. But once I had managed to break the mould and scramble a place at the local grammar school, I was always heading for a distant land that neither of you would feel at home in.

That said, for all your lack of conventional education - was it at 12 or 13 you said you left school - you weren't daft. You might have been a navvy, but you were a navvy with savvy. And you saw to the heart of the matter straight away. "All you'll be fit for after reading all those books," you said, "is teaching other people to do the same. And everybody knows there's no money in that teaching lark."

Ah yes. That teaching lark. I'm afraid the bad news is Grandad, I haven't entirely packed it in. I may not have anything labelled "English" on my timetable any more, but a teacher nevertheless I still am.

What you would make of what I teach now I shudder to think. "English" was bad enough, but where shall I start with "study skills"? How about teaching people - some of whom have given up their jobs to take the course - how they can better read books and write about them once they've left me behind and gone onto better things at university? And then there's IT. Slipping away as you did in 1985, I don't think you were ever much troubled by the brave new world of information technology. If I remember rightly, even the telephone was a bit too new fangled to get houseroom in your humble home.

But Granddad, I have to tell you, things are not like they used to be down here. Hardly anyone in England grows or makes things any more. We pay people in far away countries to do that for us now. And quite a few of my students actually like what they learn in study skills and IT. Fingers crossed, some may even become socially mobile themselves because of it!

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