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This Is Interesting

Horizons, ambitions and the usual sources of pleasure may have narrowed for most of us in the last few months, but among all the frustrations there have also been some additional opportunities, which for me usually means the chance to read another book.  I cannot quite explain why, but I seem to be increasingly interested by new knowledge and ideas, as opposed to thinking I have nothing to learn now that I am nearer to sixty than fifty. 

The pupils probably rolled their eyes this week as I delivered another assembly to them about some of what I have found interesting in recent weeks, and to a point I can feel their pain.  My default response to someone who starts to tell me something by saying, ‘This is interesting!’ is to ask them just to tell me what they want to say and to let me be the judge of whether I find it interesting.  It is the same with jokes.  I always prefer someone to tell me a story and let me decide whether I want to laugh or not, rather than starting by telling me that I am bound to find what they say funny.  

However, there have to be some perks to being the boss, so this is a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black.  I think this is interesting, so I am going to share it with you.  I know, of course, that much of what I say will simply flutter by unnoticed and unremarked upon, like the biblical parable of the sower, many of whose seeds fell on stony ground or among the thorns.  But you have to be an optimist to be a good teacher, so I live with the hope that some of what I say will land on fertile soil, in this case receptive minds, and make a difference somewhere. 

When I was starting out in the teaching profession, I used to say that all I wanted was for there to be a dinner party somewhere in the future where people were talking about the teachers they had at school, and where one of the guests would mention my name as a source of inspiration or joy.  This has always seemed to me to be a better legacy than a painting, a statue or a building with my name on it…though come to think of it…! 

Anyway, this week’s first offering to the pupils came from Mark Forsyth’s ‘The Etymologicon’, which has featured before in these blogs.  What fascinates me is the way he manages to link ideas together, for example it is reckoned that the first record of the word ‘gun’ in history was a cannon in Windsor Castle mentioned in an early fourteenth century document as being called Queen Gunhilda, the shortened form of which is ‘Gunna’.  As far as anyone can tell, Forsyth tells us, all guns are named after her.   

In itself, I think that would be interesting enough, but the story goes on that Gunhilda was the Queen of Denmark and mother of King Canute.  You may remember him as the chap who tried to hold back the waves as the tide came in, an act which has often been misinterpreted as the arrogance of an all-powerful monarch, but which was in fact an act of humility, making the point that not even a king can command the forces of nature.   

Her father-in-law was King Harald I of Denmark, who is alleged to have had blue teeth, though no one is quite sure why.  When the computer engineer Jim Kardach was getting machines to talk to each other, to unite the warring provinces of technology as he saw it, he was looking for a name for his product. ‘Pan’ was already taken, so he settled on ‘Bluetooth’, simply because he had been reading a book about Vikings set in the reign of Harald Bluetooth and he liked the name.  From a gun to a smart speaker, all the links are through ancient Scandinavians.  

My next offering was Bill Bryson’s ‘Shakespeare’, which concludes that we actually know hardly anything about the man, so we have settled on a popularly acceptable version that allows us to get on with our lives without troubling ourselves too much.  We do this a lot, when you think about it.  Bryson points out that many of Shakespeare’s plays were based on other people’s stories, which gives me great hope because most of what I say and write comes from others.  I think I may have had an original idea once upon a time, but that was long ago, faraway and best forgotten now. 

The book concludes by saying that when we reflect upon the works of William Shakespeare, it is of course an amazement to consider that one man could have produced such a sumptuous, wise, varied, thrilling, ever-delighting body of work, but that is of course the hallmark of genius.  Only one man had the circumstances and gifts to give us such incomparable works, and William Shakespeare of Stratford was unquestionably that man – whoever he was. 

If that is somehow an unsatisfactory end point, then how about this simple fact?  The entrance money that people paid to attend a Shakespearean theatre was dropped in a box, which was taken to a special room for safekeeping – the box office – which is the origin of the phrase we use today, even if many of us can no longer remember what happens when we go to the theatre or the cinema. 

The final slide of my assembly came from the book I mentioned last week, Rutger Bregman’s ‘Humankind: A Hopeful History’, starting with this story: An old man says to his grandson, ‘There’s a fight going on inside me.  It’s a terrible fight between two wolves.  One is evil – angry, greedy, jealous, arrogant and cowardly.  The other is good – peaceful, loving, modest, generous, honest and trustworthy.  These two wolves are also fighting within you, and inside every other person too.’  After a moment, the boy asks, ‘Which wolf will win?’  The old man smiles.  ‘The one you feed.’ 

The book concludes with Bregman’s ‘Ten Rules to Live By’, which will require further explanation in a later blog, but which I share here as food for thought to help sustain us through the current storms: 

  • When in doubt, assume the best 
  • Think in win-win scenarios 
  • Ask more questions 
  • Temper your empathy, train your compassion 
  • Try to understand the other, even if you don’t get where they are coming from 
  • Love your own as others love their own 
  • Avoid the news 
  • Don’t punch people 
  • Don’t be ashamed to do good 
  • Be realistic. 

All of which I think is very interesting, even if you may not agree. 

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