Monday, April 23, 2018

My thanks to one Neil Cooper, a philosopher, for doing what we should all to: encourage each other. Mr - subsequently Professor - Cooper brought about a one-off minor miracle in my life. And if you read on, you will see why I must also apologise to the good man, and do so now again, publicly

NB I have a little gizmo at the bottom of this page - it shows about the last four entries - which tells me (in some browsers) when the most recent 10/12 visitors arrived and from where they were visiting. Most recently, someone from ‘Hartley, Kent’ has been a regular visitor, so I invite you to get in touch by leaving a comment of some kind. In fact, I should like to extend that invitation to all visitors. Writing in isolation can be odd at times and it is nice to hear from people. Who knows, if we get on and you at some point find yourself in my neck of the woods down her in sunny North Cornwall, I might even agree to allowing you to buy me a drink. And you would then get one in return.

. . .

I have what might be called a ‘nominal’ university degree, an Ordinary degree in - possibly - English and Philosophy, and let me explain that ‘possibly’. I sat for an Honours degree, failed that, but was awarded an Ordinary. The Honours would have been in English and Philosophy, but I believe no such distinction is made in Ordinary degrees. This is how it all came about.

I have previously confessed that after I failed all five of my first year foundation course exams at Dundee University, I stayed on in Dundee after the summer term ended and set about preparing myself for the resit exams before the start of the autumn term.

As it turned out, I went on to pass four of the five exams and was able to continue with what a cynic might refer to as ‘my academic life’. But it would be misleading, in fact, downright dishonest, to suggest that I was spurred on to spend the summer learning from scratch the course material of a year’s worth of tuition in history, political science, economics, methodology (which is what they called philosophy in the first year) and psychology by a passion for being able to continue my learning and deepen my acquaintance with the work of Adam Smith and the subtleties of the difference between knowledge and belief.

I simply wanted to make damn sure that come the autumn term I was still a student at Dundee University so that my bloody Oxford County Council grant cheque would arrive (and to the younger readers among you who are or were obliged to take out a £60,000 loan to fund their university education, all I can say is ‘tough’. Life is not fair, and if you haven’t yet worked that out, you shouldn’t have opted for a college education). I now know, of course, that another reason for my spurt of academic zeal was to put off for as long as possible the moment when I would have to join the real world and earn my living.

Prolonging my time at university by any means possible was why I realised a four-year ‘honours’ degree course rather than a three-year ‘ordinary’ degree course was preferable, but my performance in my first and second years was not stellar, to put it mildly, especially in English, and the chances of being allowed to join the English department Honours course were slim indeed. Note to would-be English degree course students: it helps if you actually read your set texts rather than base your knowledge of the notable themes, motifs, style and purposes of your course’s set texts on snippets you can scavenge from friends over coffee or beer in the Students’ Union. Well, it might work for you, but it didn’t work for me. But, dear reader, I managed it.

There was another oddity: whereas it seemed others hoping to be allowed to join an Honours course were invited for interview to outline why they thought they should be allowed to join, I wasn’t. I simply, one day, was presented with a form asking me what I would be studying in my third year: would I be taking the Ordinary degree course or the Honours? More in hope that with any confidence, I baldly stated that it would be ‘Honours - English and Philosophy’, and so it came about. To this day I have no idea why or how I carried it off, but carry it off I did and an extra year at college scrounging off the ratepayers of Oxfordshire was mine.

My performance in my third and fourth years was very much a carbon copy of that of my first and second years: not very good at all. I did read one or two set texts and did attend several lectures and tutorials, but rather fewer than I was expected to take. And although I did not read many of the set texts in philosophy, I did benefit from a gift of the gab of some kind. So although the essays I submitted to the English department were quite simply awful - a few years later I somehow came across one and could not believe that I had written such infantile crap - the work I did for the philosophers and my reasonably lively contributions to philosophy tutorials and seminars were not quite as embarrassing.

In the summer term of my final year, not having read any original texts by Sartre, Locke, Hume, Heidigger, Jaspers or, notably Aristotle, I spent long minutes in the university library in a desperate search for volumes of commentaries on the various works and their authors, any volume would do, and the slimmer the better. But, of course, I found few.

Those I did find were pretty useless because generally - apart from the fragmentary bits and bobs I had scavenged in one way or another - I had no framework of even rudimentary knowledge of the various philosophers’ works, so the commentaries were as much gobbledegook to me as the original works would have been had I bothered to try to read them.

I did, serendipitously, come up with one strategy. Dot Leitch, a pleasant student in my year from Berwick-on-Tweed was, like most of the female students, a great deal more conscientious in her studies and attendance at lectures than were generally we guys. Crucially, she had been to every lecture on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics given by an admirable man, Neil Cooper, later Professor Neil Cooper, and this man had been rather good to me in my second year when I began to get panic attacks and that kind of thing.

His lectures were all at - I think - 10am from Mondays to Fridays. The point was that after I had hauled myself out of my bed at some early hour to attend his first lecture of the year, I didn’t attend a single one until the very last, at some point in the spring term. And even for that lecture I turned up late. Bursting through the door at ten minutes after 10am, I apologised for being late. He said this:

‘You shouldn’t be apologising for being late, you should be apologising for your presence.’

And that stung. It stung because I liked and respected the man, and pretty much there and then I decided that however much of a pig’s ear I would most certainly be making of my other finals, I would do as well as I could in the exam on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. The trouble was, of course . . . well, I’m sure you are well ahead of me. This is were Dot Leitch comes in.

Since I was a lad I have always, for no good reason I can think of, liked banging away on typewriters. I’m still doing it now, except that we no longer use typewriters but desktop or laptop keyboards. And I possessed a typewriter, an old BBC typewriter my father (who worked for the BBC) had found for me. Being the practical sort, I hit upon and idea and did a deal with Dot: lend me your handwritten lecture notes on Ari’s great work, and I shall type them up and give you a copy.

Dot, like many young gals, had clear handwriting and here lecture notes were excellent. So I went through them line by line, expanding here and there where the thought was a little too syncopated, and thinking through what Aristotle had written. The second part of my strategy was equally simple: while I went through the notes and tried
to make head and tail of what the man was suggesting, I pretended that it wasn’t Aristotle’s system of ethics I was writing up, but mine: and I thought it through - obviously with the help of Dot’s notes - as though I had come up with the Nicomachean ethics. And, bugger me, it worked. The whole system made perfect sense to me and remained making sense until and while I took my that paper in my final exams.

By chance it was the first exam of all eight I was taking - four in English (and the good Lord knows what they were, but I can’t recall, except that I’m sure one was on Shakespeare) and four in philosophy - Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, aesthetics, existentialism and, I think, some kind of general paper. But the Aristotle came first, from 9am until noon.

Unlike pretty much everyone else who walked out of their finals and spent the next two hours discussing and analysing with others what they had written, I simply spent pretty much all of the time playing pinball in the Students’ Union.

For one thing it seemed so obviously pointless dissecting after the event what you had written and what you had forgotten to write or simply fucked up, for another I just couldn’t be arsed.

My attitude was what the hell, you can’t soak up spilled milk and put it back in the bottle, so why bother? Practically, of course, it relaxed me, although I now realise that was just luck. It was most certainly not the reason I spent close on one and a half hours playing pinball.

Crucially, on my way back to my next exam, I met Neil Cooper walking towards me on the Perth Road just outside the university. And he was delighted to see me, and burst out (though unlike above, here I must paraphrase): ‘Keep it up!’ It seemed he had already taken a look at our papers and - well, I can only report what he told me - I had done rather well, and most certainly better than expected. His ‘keep it up!’ worked a wonder on me.

I was under no illusion at all that I was some kind of genius but the combination of relaxing by playing pinball rather than bemoaning as all the others did where I had cocked up and Neil Cooper’s encouragement were a godsend. I can only remember one other paper, that on aesthetics and, if I recall rightly, it was about metaphor. (That does strike me, now writing this, as unusual if not rather unlikely, but that is my memory). And again I simply pitched in, stopped worrying about what was the ‘right’ answer and let rip.

I can’t remember quite how soon the results of our exams were posted and we were told what degree we were being awarded, but when I went to the board where that information had been tacked up, my name was missing. I had not been awarded an Honours degree. A little later I chased off to find out what was going on. And this is what happened: the English department, terminally fucked off with me for not having attended lectures, having bothered to attend very few seminars and tutorials, and for submitting risible essays and generally treating them all like shit, failed me outright.

The philosophy department, on the other hand - and I had attended all their seminars and tutorials, if not all their lectures - were rather chuffed (I was told) with my performance and insisted that it should somehow be rewarded. Finally, both departments came to a compromise: give Patrick Powell an Ordinary degree. So yet again I had scraped through (rather like surviving on the Daily Mail for more than 27 years after any number of dropped bollocks and temperamental outburst). Oh, and then, at the time, I understood, or thought I understood, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ehtics perfectly. Now, I haven’t a bloody clue and would struggle to say anything about it.

. . .

I began this post a day or two ago, left it for one reason or another, and am just about to finish it. Originally I intended to write about how I had just finished a novel by a Nobel Laureate, a novel regarded as, if not ‘his masterpiece’, at least ‘one of his masterpieces’, and I wanted to record how I was distinctly underwhelmed by it. In fact, I wanted to state clearly that I didn’t think it was very good at all.

I then intended to point out that if, on the one hand, it comes down to the literary judgment of the Nobel Prize committee who felt that this writer’s body of work over his liftetime was sufficiently excellent to warrant awarding him the prize, and, on the other, the literary judgment of a man who was not just relatively badly read (my scant knowledge of literature has been acquired following my habitual practice of scavenging) but whose ‘English degree’ was about as phoney as Donald Trump’s hair colour, it was a no-brainer: Nobel Prize committee 1 - Patrick Powell’s literary judgment 0.

Well, since beginning composing this entry and completing it, I have started to read the novel again. Immediately re-reading a novel after finishing it for the first time is something I have done once or twice before and I recommend it. I did it with Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier and I did it with John O’Hara’s Butterfield 8, and it is worth doing.

My point is that I shall hold fire on my attack on the Nobel Laureate’s novel in question until I have finished reading it. I must admit that it does hold together a little better on the second reading, though I must also admit that - especially given its apparent ‘theme’ - I am still to be persuaded that this is ‘great literature’. I promise that once I have finished it, I shall post the entry as planned, but what I have to say might - or might - not be the same.

I can’t, though, end before once again apologising to - now Professor - Neil Cooper and thanking him from the bottom of my heart for his help and, above all, his encouragement. And tomorrow, I shall ring Dundee University to find out whether he is still among us. After all I am now 68, he was then at least in his late 30s so . . . But if he is, I shall see if I can’t track him down and pay him a visit.

And now to bed and I shall wish you all a bon mot, with no hint, as yet, who the chap was. (What does that last bit mean? Ed)

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

I am honourably discharged from Her Majesty’s Press, am handed the traditional tin of Werther’s Originals and can look forward to many years of peace and tranquility (well, someone’s got to and it might very well not be you)

Well, there’s no way to sugar the pill: I am officially now a pensioner and after serving in Her Majesty’s Press for two months short of 44 years, an ex-hack. (I was, for one reason and another - for one very practical reason, I have to say, apart from other less practical reasons - casting my mind back to early June 1974 when I turned up on the Monday morning at the office of the Lincolnshire Chronicle. But far more on that in a future entry. I worked my last shift last

Wednesday, spent a fortune on Wednesday night entertaining friends, son and brother, and colleagues at The Britannia, Kensington, to the drink of their choice and a variety of nibbles, buggered off down here to Cornwall on the Thursday, and my life is now my own.

To be quite honest, I haven’t - unusually I imagine - got all that much to say about it. I have been planning for it for the past six months, so I am not ‘in shock’ anything, and, crucially, I am well aware of the goal I have set myself, and I shall be taking that super-seriously. But apart from that, the only discernible difference between life now and life until 6pm last Wednesday is a curious and very welcome feeling of not having to rush: before when I returned from London on Wednesday night, Thursday morning and had just three days at home, there was always a list of things to do - my stepmother’s shopping, sorting out this and that - and until a job was done, I always had this feeling it was hanging over me. That has now gone.

But these are early days. My send-off from work was rather touching: I was ‘banged out’ by pretty much the whole newsroom at the Mail (the whole newsroom because when one end of a newsroom hears a banging out has started, it joins in whether or not it actually knows who is being banged out). It is a tradition which started in the hot metal days of compositors etc and is not at all usual, so I was very touched. Very touched.

So that it is. As almost always happens when a hack retires, my colleagues designed a spoor front page and I shall post it here once I get hold of a pdf. So far I have ten printed copies, but not means with which to digitise them (they are A3 in size).

The timing has inadvertently become rather good in that my daughter is expecting her first child and it is due on Friday (April 13), though that is just a guide date. On Sunday I shall be up very early - in fact, I probably shan’t go to bed, to drive my son off to Heathrow airport to catch an early-morning flight to Madrid and then on to Panama, and then, after getting a few hours kip at my brother’s in Earls Court, it will be down to Deal in Kent to see a college friend. I actually met him a few months ago when the former drummer in a band he was in who eventually moved to America and the computer industry made his annual trip to Old Blighty with his wife, but until then I hadn’t seen him for about 37 years. He hadn’t changed a lot.

I shall be taking my electric guitar and a small amp, and what with that and the fact that he is an enthusiastic supporter of Jeremy Corbyn whereas I think Corbyn, the current Labour leader is a decent, but useless politician stuck in adolescent left-wingery, it might be a memorable trip. His wife is a painter and has her own studio, so I look forward to seeing her work.

In May, I am off to North-Western Germany for five days for my niece and goddaughter’s wedding, then in June and July there are two one-day trips - as in fly in and fly out the same day - trips to Bratislava for the work on my implanted front tooth to be completed. Around the end of July, I think there will also be my now annual trip to Bordeaux for the music festivals.

But that’s it, really, in November I shall be 69, and with luck, if I keep myself healthy in every way, I might have another 10 to 15 on Earth, so let’s see what the future brings. I must say that although my daughter’s pregnancy was unplanned, she is in a stable relationship with a nice guy, but more to the point I, who very much enjoys the company of children, rather feared that if, like many other women these days, she didn’t have her children until her late twenties or even early thirties, I would have popped my clogs rather earlier and would never has seen them. Well, now I shall see at least one.

. . .

On other matters, what with the various international spats and the discussions about whether World War III should be started this summer, or whether we should wait a while and first have several rounds of futile summit meetings followed by last-minute appeals from the Pope and other dignitaries to see sense before the killing stars, we shall, as the Chinese say, be living in ‘interesting times’. Talking of the Chinese, I don’t doubt that Emperor Xi Jinping is mightly pissed off with the latest turn of events in the Middle East as war is bad for business, unless that business is building weapons and the like.

There he is, attempting slowly but surely to create a world empire by peaceful means and the West rather tactlessly looks like fucking it up for him by getting all moral about a chemical weapons attack by the Syrian dictator Assad (and the Russians, who pull his strings) and threatening attacking Assad, when previously they had merely huffed, puffed and condemned like the best of them. Shouldn’t wonder if Emperor Xi doesn’t choose to take it on himself to act as a peacemaker to ensure business isn’t too badly affected.

But that’s it. Got a lot on today, so I shall wish you all the best.