It was late-September 1977 and our English A-Level class were an unprepossessing group of Sixth Form College students. Standing at the front of the room, Paul Selby, our tutor, must have felt it was going to be a challenging two years.
Being contrarian by nature, I remember thinking that the subject was one to be endured and lacked the substance or relevance of my other two A-level subjects, history and economics. Inclined to the hard Left in politics, I regarded the study of English Literature as bourgeois self-indulgence.
Paul Selby taught with passion and no more so than when he was teaching Shakespeare. Hamlet was our text for that autumn term and the teaching sought to engage us with the characters of Shakespeare’s tragedy.
‘Who cares about what was going on in Hamlet’s mind?’ I thought. I couldn’t understand why Paul Selby attempted to explore the psyche of someone who had never existed, what was the point?
I wasn’t interested in the affairs of the court at Elsinore. Were there a character with whom I identified, it was Fortinbras, the violent and hostile Norwegian monarch who sweeps away the renaissance values of the Danish court. Fortinbras was a man of action, Fortinbras would have made a revolutionary.
Paul Selby must have been annoyed at times with the lines of questioning I would pursue. Hamlet, for me, was a dithering narcissist.
Of course, I missed the point. I was trapped in a two-dimensional world more akin to the comic strips of the boys’ own comics than to any perspective that might have recognized the profound understanding of human nature that is expressed by Shakespeare in the play.
Perhaps Hamlet was annoying because it challenged those sat around the room to think about themselves. Perhaps it was annoying because it caused me to think.
Long after much else has been forgotten, those lessons linger in the memory. The gentle patience of Paul Selby with an obstreperous seventeen year old and the probing of the mind prompted by the lines of the play.
In a few lines in Snow Country, Sebastian Faulks identifies both the source of the discomfort caused by Hamlet and the reason for its endurance in the memory decades later.
‘He’s a case part isn’t he? My father had a theory that by having characters explain their thoughts and desires he made people aware for the first time in history that they all had minds of their own. Before that, they appeared to one another as two-dimensional. That woman was often angry. That man was often sad. He kept sheep, she made shoes. They gave each other names to signify these things.’
‘Are you saying he invented human nature?’
‘It’s what my father thought.’
‘So every play-goer standing in the mud thought himself a Hamlet?’
‘Once you’re awake to the possibility, it’s hard to forget. It’s a thought you can’t un-think. Like the moment the first man or woman achieved self-awareness. There was no going back, no return to what our ancestors might have been.’
Paul Selby didn’t just teach us English Literature, he introduced us to thoughts that could never be un-thought.
It shows an old view of mine; don’t teach what to think, teach how to think. Proper analysis of any current topic (Ukraine, climate change, Covid, etc.) may discover something undreamed of. ‘I believe him/her,’ ‘metoo,’ far left/right, conspiracy theorist, etc. are fluff. Think something unthinkable and follow Occam’s shaving kit. You may be closer to the truth than any mainstream media.
I fear I have become a complete cynic and my first reaction to any story is ‘cui bono?’
“ Being contrarian by nature, I remember thinking that …”
You speak my language, sir.
I think I may have been in the A level class you mentioned. My life was definitely shaped by those unforgettable lessons. I read English at university and Hamlet, one way or another, has never been far from my thinking.
Weirdly I came across this blog the very day I have been contacted by Strode College about returning ( for the first time in over 40 years) with a few friends for a visit and they hope to contact some old teachers. I hope Paul Selby and Barry Hulatt are there.
Charlotte, how wonderful! I remember you, always smiling.
The lessons must have been a unique experience. Much of the intervening time has been lost, but the hours in those English lessons remain fresh.
Absolutely! Those lessons determined my course in life. I can confirm that there are four of us returning for a tour of Strode on Thursday 18 th of May and we are heading for lunch in Glastonbury afterwards. You’d be most welcome. Having dipped into your blog I hadn’t realised you too come from a Somerset farming family. Although I was born in Liverpool and didn’t grow up on a farm the pull of the levels is so very deep. Not something my children feel, I have to say!
Charlotte, that would be lovely.
Unfortunately, it is term time and I shall have to spend the day in the classroom trying to teach secondary school students almost as dull as myself.