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Another Grim Metaphor

In my ongoing attempts both to better myself and survive the tedium of lockdown, I watched two online lectures this week, each of which focused on English literature and language, which is just outside my comfort zone, where the best learning often takes place. 

The first was the Academic Enrichment Programme talk by Dr Neil Cocks about the use of the idea of the uncanny – that sense of normal and abnormal in the same moment that can so easily disconcert us – in gothic literature.  I confess that quite a lot of it passed me by, not least because my knowledge of the genre comes more from Hammer House of Horror than from reading the classics.  There was an interesting, if rather stretched I thought, analysis of an illustration from a Ladybird book of nursery rhymes where the farmer’s wife is chasing the three blind mice, though my tongue in cheek question on the chat forum about what Freud would have made of all this was judiciously overlooked. 

It all felt a bit like an episode from Inside Number 9, and I was waiting for the camera to cut back to an empty chair after Dr Cocks had used the idea of a stranger at the window of his isolated rural location to illustrate the point of uncanny feelings.  But it was certainly interesting and exactly the sort of experience to which our pupils should have more access if they are to develop their intellectual curiosity and ability to think more deeply. 

The second lecture came from Professor Don Paterson at the University of St Andrews, to which I was invited because, as many of you may know, my daughter is reading English there and they have a particularly impressive programme to involve parents, friends and alumni in some of their work.  Once again, quite a lot of Professor Paterson’s ideas were challenging, but the overall argument was compelling. 

His assertion was that we too often use the wrong metaphors to try to help our understanding of events, usually because we seek to simplify complicated arguments when we are too intellectually lazy to analyse situations more carefully.  He argued that we should stop talking about life being a journey because it created an artificial need to feel that we always have to be going somewhere or doing something significant to justify being productive.  As lockdown has shown us, there are times when calm and stillness can be beneficial – though perhaps not for quite so long! 

My favourite moment was when he gave his response to Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’, which I have referenced before in this blog.  Paterson argued that to try to resist the inevitability of death was ultimately futile, offering a different perspective: ‘Go gentle into that good night, for Death is handy in a fight.’ 

My level of expertise is limited with regard to similes, idioms and metaphors, so I am not sure how to categorise ‘another grim milestone’, which has been the phrase of the week in the media as the death toll from Covid-19 passed 100,000 in this country.  I know what a milestone is, of course, but I am not sure I quite understand whether they have personalities.  If some of them are grim, then presumably some of them are jolly?  Yet they are obviously all just pieces of stone.  Above, it all just felt like rather uninspired and clichéd reporting.    

While it was surely the right thing to do to remind people that each of these deaths was a beloved relative and friend, I fear we have become hardened to the personal stories and overwhelmed by numbers, as we so often are.  Try as I might, I found it hard not to think of Joseph Stalin’s comment that one death is a tragedy but a million deaths a statistic. 

It was Holocaust Memorial Day on Wednesday, but any commemorations this year have been low key, probably because we are understandably preoccupied more than ever with the here and now, and it feels hard to find the time and space to commemorate the past.  A conservative estimate of Jewish deaths in the Holocaust would be six million, which is about three times the number of global deaths so far from the pandemic, though it is still much too soon to know how the comparison will end.  When we teach the Holocaust, it is often easier to try to find one story – Anne Frank is the obvious example – because otherwise we just become overwhelmed.  It has been easier to teach about plagues in history in the light of the last twelve months, so it will be interesting to see if our perspective on past suffering is altered by our current experiences. 

This is not the time for inquiries, finger pointing and scapegoating, but I struggle to find apology convincing when it is accompanied by the assertion that no mistakes have been made.  When there are incidents at school that require apology, I always point out that I am pleased to hear that an errant pupil is sorry, but words are easy.  Elton John was as wrong as wrong could be when he sang that sorry seems to be the hardest word – it is the easiest.  But the proof of regret comes in the form of a genuine acceptance of an error of judgement and concrete evidence of improved behaviour.  To say you are sorry but at the same time to claim you did nothing wrong is not acceptable, from school children to prime ministers. 

In awful times, we must find solace where we can, so I offer this by way of trying to end on a happier note.  I complained last week about people who say things are funny before they have told them, so I will offer no prior comment on this cartoon from the latest edition of Private Eye, not least I imagine because it will only be amusing to those who have a peculiar crossover of knowledge about European history and 1960s television. 

Batman and Robin are looking at a map.  Batman says, ‘The criminal fiend is trying to establish a loose and complex feudal monarchy across territories in Central and Western Europe’.  To which Robin replies, ‘Holy Roman Empire!’ 

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