Thomas Thurman

An author of magical realism and a formalist poet. When he was a child, his ambition was to write storybooks. Many other things got in the way, including owning various cats, ringing tower bells, writing sonnets, moving to Cambridge, unexpectedly emigrating to Pennsylvania, learning to make fudge, maintaining interesting but obscure parts of computer systems and unexpectedly moving back to England. Nevertheless, he is still writing.

This is where I take the ice bucket challenge… or perhaps not.

Me and Special Needs

Because I’ve started counselling again, I’m rereading the notes I made during counselling in 2010. Most of them are far too private to post, but these bits (of two different entries) are shareable, and I’m interested to know what some of you think.

* * *

…between 1986 and 1988 the Special Needs department at school took a special interest in me, and the head of Special Needs, Mr Hutchinson, wrote down everything in a file. I expect that file has now been destroyed, but I’m still wondering what it might have said. I might contact the school and ask whether it still exists. Eventually after several years Mr Hutchinson took me down to the school dining room, told me I had been wasting his time, asked me who the hell I thought I was, and left me there crying. I don’t think we ever spoke to one another again.

* * *

Funnily enough, this whole Mr Hutchinson business is another thing I find it difficult to think about: I get tense, and breathe shallowly, and tremble. So this was a difficult post to write. I hadn’t really thought about it much before now.

Mr Hutchinson was the head of Special Needs at my secondary school. I don’t remember his first name. Cecil? Cyril? He was Australian, Cantabrigian, in his forties, wore a tweed jacket everywhere, and smoked a pipe. He write everything in fountain pen using brown ink. When once I mentioned to my mother that I was particularly annoyed with him, she told me to imagine the ink being his tobacco-laced saliva.

I was only once in an actual lesson of his, because he was substituting; he told us that he always ended lessons with stories of hunting strange animals in the Australian bush, and did so.

Every child in our school was required to take some tests. I believe they were fairly standard IQ tests, and I think they were something specific to our school: Mr Hutchinson’s pet project. I remember him invigilating them, and telling us how to fill in the forms for the sample question, which he slowly and carefully said was “question treble zero”.

After the IQ tests, and perhaps because of them, I became a sort of project of the Special Needs department, or perhaps of Mr Hutchinson’s. He would take me out of lessons; one of the other children said to their classmate, “He has to have special lessons because he’s so clever”. Mr Hutchinson would take me down to his office, which was room X1, and sit and talk to me for hours.

There was a manila folder with my name in the front, and pages and pages of notes in brown ink. I gave him a copy of the newspaper I used to produce, the Thurman Times, and he asked permission to photocopy it and add it to the file. Yesterday (Friday), I emailed the school to ask whether this file still exists.

On the first of these interviews, I remember Mr Hutchinson saying I was giving “diplomatic” answers and that he would prefer if I answered honestly. He asked me how I felt about the change to the new school, and I told him that I had been told everything would feel strange, but it hadn’t, really. He said, “So you were all set up to feel strange, and then you didn’t?” This wasn’t actually true: I had told my mother on the verge of tears that I didn’t see why all education couldn’t be like primary education, and if it couldn’t be, I would rather have never had the experience of primary education so that I wasn’t able to look back on it (in despair). This was the Alpha/Beta thing rearing its head again.

When I went home and told my mother about the first interview, she asked what he had said. I answered, “I don’t remember.” She said, “Did he tell you not to remember?” I said he hadn’t, but I didn’t tell her any more about the discussion.

Later, Mr Hutchinson said I was being like a rabbit only eating the lettuce it was given, and that I should try to seek out my own lettuce. He used to follow me into lessons sometimes and sit among the children, and ask questions (presumably the sort of questions he thought I should be asking). Sometimes I would get my work back from other teachers with scribbles on it in brown ink such as “To see HCN” (HCN was the staff code for Hutchinson), and sometimes he would comment on work I hadn’t shown him. So I assume he was actually reading all my work. This is cross-referenced in my head to the part in Nineteen Eighty-Four where O’Brien shows Winston the photograph that Winston had thrown away; I can’t tell whether this connection is one I’m making now or one I made at the time.

Once the timetable changed and he asked me the next week what my next lesson was, and I said I didn’t know. He shouted at me, “You should know. It’s your lessons and your timetable.” I faltered, “But it only changed last week…” He said, “Oh. Yes. So it did. I apologise.”

One time there was an incident I now forget where he gave me a long talking-to in front of the class. My mother wrote him a letter of complaint, and he replied with another letter saying, “You claim that public humiliation is one of the techniques I am using with Thomas. You are wrong. Given [three things he didn’t like about me], this is the only way it’s possible to deal with him”. I remember this only because I was reading it out loud to my mother, and the secretary had used full stops to separate the three things rather than commas, which caused me to backtrack. I don’t remember what the three things were.

When I was much younger child, I had had a dream of studying at Cambridge University. My parents encouraged this hope. I assume they must have been having private discussions with Mr Hutchinson, because one day he said to me, “Your parents tell me that you said you wanted to study at my university, Cambridge.”

I said, “That’s not exactly what I said.”

He said, “Oh? What did you say?”

I tried rapidly to think of an appropriate lie. “I said… that… if I was going to go to a university, then Cambridge would be a good one to go to.” As soon as it was said I realised I hadn’t helped myself out of this hole at all.

He said, “The way you’re going now, you don’t have a hope in hell of going to Cambridge.” He was probably right, all told. But when I did in fact matriculate at Cambridge, I spent a good few minutes considering sending him a letter on college notepaper. I decided that this would be petty.

Later, he put me into permanent detention. At least, I assume it was his doing, but the detention would be given for a particular reason, by a teacher whose class I was actually attending that day, every single day. It was very well orchestrated.

After several months of all this, he asked me to come down into the dining room, which was empty, and gave me a long, long speech about how I had been wasting his time. I forget most of it, but it ended up with him looking straight at me, and saying, “Thomas Thurman… who the hell do you think you are?”. With that, he left. I stayed in the dining room, crying. I don’t remember ever speaking to him again.

The aftermath had three parts.

Firstly, a friendly English teacher called Mr Mulder, who was tall, with a heavy Dutch accent, and of whom I was slightly afraid, called me into his room to talk to me for an hour. I forget everything about it, except that he ended with, “You will come back to talk to me?” I said I would. “And that’s a promise?” I nodded. But I came back the next day and something else was happening in the room, and I never got to have another conversation with him. I would like to write to him and apologise, but he’s dead now. (There’s also something separate I’d like to thank him for, but that’s another story.)

Secondly, I was picked up by something called The Unit. It was a little piece of heaven of which I hadn’t previously been aware, a side room in the school where a very few other children spent their days. I don’t know what it took to get into The Unit. It was presided over by an old, motherly woman named Mrs Price. We spent the whole day playing Scrabble, writing poetry, and painting. I felt I’d regressed to nursery school, but it was so wonderful. But I didn’t know when I should go back after that day, and Mrs Price retired the next term and the Unit was turned into something I think might have been called a multimedia room.

Thirdly, the deputy head, Mrs Saville, told me to stop going to games lessons entirely. This was wonderful, because I hated them: they involved being cold, getting mud on my hands, and having to get naked with other kids who hated me. Mrs Saville told me that instead I should come to her office during that double period (the last hour on Fridays) and talk to her. This lasted for two or three years.

I have very little memory of what we talked about, except that it was almost everything: we discussed classical civilisation one time, and second-hand bookshops the next. (To the best of my memory, though, we never discussed issues of sexuality.) Why she decided to spend all this time talking to me, I don’t know, but it kept me somewhat sane for several years. Without Mrs Saville, I think I might well have killed myself.

When I first started seeing her, she lent me an old book (from the 1950s or 1960s). Looking up the phrases I remember from the book in Google shows me it was Understanding Yourself by William Claire Menninger, sometimes published as How to Be a Successful Teenager. I have just bought a copy of this book on ebay, so I can see what I was actually reading at the time. When I got into Cambridge, I did phone Mrs Saville, who had retired by that time: she said, “This makes me so glad. You deserve Cambridge, and Cambridge deserves you.”

(Update: There were times the county council sent in psychologists to talk to me as well. One time I remember deliberately lying on a form they gave me to fill in, by answering “no” to the question “I would like to be a girl”. I worried what the results would be if I answered “yes”.)

"You have probably heard the joke about making a sculpture of an elephant: find a big rock and then chip away all the bits that don’t look like an elephant. Telling a story is like that, so as well as finding your rock, you have to know what an elephant looks like. You can do that by having read lots of stories until you have an ear for what works; or you can do that by reading books on plot structure etc; or you can do a bit of both. But make sure you know what an elephant looks like or you’ll just end up with a funny-shaped rock."

— me, on writing, comment in a friend’s locked post

Gentle Readers: to cut a cabbage leaf

Gentle Readers
a newsletter made for sharing
volume 1, number 19
21st August 2014: to cut a cabbage leaf
What I’ve been up to

I’ve been looking into PhD possibilities. But more of that later.

And we visited the John Rylands Library for the first time, a beautiful place in Victorian Gothic made as a memorial to a local industrialist. (The law students among you may know him as a party to Rylands v Fletcher.) It has an impressive collection of books and manuscripts, including the oldest known fragment of the New Testament, part of John’s gospel copied only a few decades after the book was written.

As if that weren’t enough, the building is quite breathtakingly beautiful. Here’s part of the reading room:

http://thomasthurman.org/pics/rylands-1

The library also contains a dragon named Grumbold. Regular readers who remember Not Ordinarily Borrowable, a story of mine largely about dragons and libraries, may judge of my surprise to discover it coming true.

A poem of mine

STORYTELLING, PART II (T80)

When Merlin looked upon this land,
he knew by magic arts
the anger in the acts of men,
the hatred in their hearts:
he saw despair and deadly things,
and knew our hope must be
the magic when the kettle sings
to make a pot of tea.

When Galahad applied to sit
in splendour at the Table,
he swore an oath to fight for good
as far as he was able.
But Arthur put the kettle on,
and bade him sit and see
the goodness that is brought anon
by making pots of tea.

When Arthur someday shall return
in glory, with his knights,
he’ll rout our foes and bless the poor
and put the land to rights.
And shall we drink his health in ale?
Not so! It seems to me
he’ll meet us in the final tale
and share a pot of tea.

A picture

http://gentlereaders.uk/pics/caught-the-sun

I was out fishing all day,
and I seem to have caught the sun

Something wonderful

Suppose I asked you to name the world’s great heroes? (For example, as you may recall, some talk of Alexander.) Well, in the Middle Ages, a fair amount of thought went into the list. Who was an example of virtue and valour; whose chivalry was worth emulating?

One such list is known in English as the Nine Worthies. It was drawn up in the early 1300s, and remained a popular theme in art for centuries after. Here they are in 1460, looking for all the world like a medieval pack of Top Trumps:

http://gentlereaders.uk/pics/nine-worthies

Even though some of these men had lived (or were supposed to have lived) millennia earlier, they are all drawn wearing armour of the time, and bearing their own coat of arms, as if they lived in that very moment. This is because they are deliberately idealised— after all, as a careful perusal of the Old Testament will show, not all of them were in fact models of chivalry.

They are divided into three groups of three: three Jewish heroes, three Christian heroes, and three pagan heroes— that is, pagan in the old sense of not following an Abrahamic religion.

The Jewish heroes are: Joshua the son of Nun, who led the invasion of Canaan; David the son of Jesse, who became king and wrote psalms; and Judas Maccabeus, who led the revolt against the Syrians now commemorated by Hanukkah. (Don’t confuse Judas Maccabeus with Judas Iscariot.)

The pagan heroes are: Hector of Troy, a great warrior of the Trojan War; Julius Caesar, the first emperor of Rome; and Alexander the Great.

The Christian heroes are: Arthur, the hero of the Matter of Britain; Charles the Great, also called Charlemagne, the first emperor of the Holy Roman Empire; and Godfrey of Bouillon, who became the first crusader king of Jerusalem but disclaimed the title.

I am particularly interested by the heraldry. How did they make up new and unique coats of arms for people who had been dead for three thousand years? David has a harp because he composed psalms (and not because he was king of Ireland). Julius has an eagle rather like the one on the Roman standard; Charles has the same, appropriately for someone who was also trying to become Emperor of Rome, but combined with the lily pattern known as “France Ancient”. Others of them are baffling to me: what is Joshua bearing, for example? I did find a reference to the arms they made up for Alexander in a book, but frustratingly I ran out of time to research this.

I am glad to report that there were also nine female Worthies to balance out the nine men. Unfortunately none of the writers seem to agree about which nine women they were.

Something from someone else

When a certain Charles Macklin claimed he could repeat any sentence he heard, no matter how complex, Samuel Foote allegedly composed this sentence impromptu:

THE GREAT PANJANDRUM
by Samuel Foote

So she went into the garden
to cut a cabbage-leaf
to make an apple-pie;
and at the same time
a great she-bear, coming down the street,
pops its head into the shop.
What! no soap?
So he died,
and she very imprudently married the Barber:
and there were present
the Picninnies,
and the Joblillies,
and the Garyulies,
and the great Panjandrum himself,
with the little round button at top;
and they all fell to playing the game of catch-as-catch-can,
till the gunpowder ran out at the heels of their boots

Colophon
Gentle Readers is published on Mondays and Thursdays, and I want you to share it. The archives are at http://gentlereaders.uk/ , and so is a form to get on the mailing list. If you have anything to say or reply, or you want to be added or removed from the mailing list, I’m at thomas@thurman.org.uk and I’d love to hear from you. The newsletter is reader-supported; please pledge something if you can afford to, and please don’t if you can’t. Love and peace to you all.

Is there a decent Manchester bus times app or do I have to write my own? I don’t even need realtime, just where I should go to get to place P given the bus timetables.

And what’s the copyright/licencing status of bus timetables anyway?

Gentle Readers: a famous victory

What I’ve been up to

It’s been a windy week in Salford, as the fading Hurricane Bertha takes out her wrath on the northwest. Yesterday we attended a Sunday service at the nearby church for the first time. On our way out of the building, we met a group of walkers, who told us that they were going to a commemoration of the Peterloo massacre. Of course, we grabbed a placard and joined them. You can see my subtitled video of the event here.

I have made a new website for Gentle Readers! You can see it at gentlereaders.uk. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

And I’m also trying out putting Gentle Readers on the Kindle. You can get it delivered to your device automatically, for about a pound or a couple of dollars a month; I get a cut of that. Here is the UK page and here is the US page in case you’d like to try it. I don’t think it’s available in other countries yet.

A poem of mine

ACQUAINTED WITH THE DAWN (T118)

I have become acquainted with the dawn.
I have observed the evening as it fell.
I closed the careless curtain that had drawn
the charcoal-shaded cityscapes of hell.
I have indwelt a ditch a fathom deep.
I have withdrawn within a concrete shell.
I have grown late to rise and late to sleep.
I have cajoled the air on bended knee
and filled a lack of hunger lest I weep.
I have abandoned hope again, to see
my own cadaver naked and reborn.
Against the sky, the outline of a tree.
One drowsy-lidded daisy on the lawn.
I have become acquainted with the dawn.

(The form and subject were loosely inspired by Robert Frost’s poem Acquainted with the Night.)

A picture



“‘Tis the bottom of the sea!”

Something from someone else

AFTER BLENHEIM
by Robert Southey (1774-1843)

It was a summer evening,
Old Kaspar’s work was done,
And he before his cottage door
Was sitting in the sun;
And by him sported on the green
His little grandchild Wilhelmine.

She saw her brother Peterkin
Roll something large and round,
Which he beside the rivulet
In playing there had found;
He came to ask what he had found
That was so large, and smooth, and round.

Old Kaspar took it from the boy,
Who stood expectant by;
And then the old man shook his head,
And with a natural sigh—
“‘Tis some poor fellow’s skull,” said he,
“Who fell in the great victory.

“I find them in the garden,
For there’s many here about;
And often when I go to plough
The ploughshare turns them out.
For many thousand men,” said he,
“Were slain in that great victory.”

“Now tell us what ‘twas all about,”
Young Peterkin he cries;
And little Wilhelmine looks up
With wonder-waiting eyes;
“Now tell us all about the war,
And what they fought each other for.”

“It was the English,” Kaspar cried,
“Who put the French to rout;
But what they fought each other for,
I could not well make out.
But everybody said,” quoth he,
“That ‘twas a famous victory.

“My father lived at Blenheim then,
Yon little stream hard by;
They burnt his dwelling to the ground,
And he was forced to fly:
So with his wife and child he fled,
Nor had he where to rest his head.

“With fire and sword the country round
Was wasted far and wide,
And many a childing mother then
And newborn baby died:
But things like that, you know, must be
At every famous victory.

“They say it was a shocking sight
After the field was won,
For many thousand bodies here
Lay rotting in the sun;
But things like that, you know, must be
After a famous victory.

“Great praise the Duke of Marlbro’ won,
And our good Prince Eugene.”
“Why, ‘twas a very wicked thing!”
Said little Wilhelmine.
“Nay, nay, my little girl,” quoth he,
“It was a famous victory.

“And everybody praised the Duke
Who this great fight did win.”
“But what good came of it at last?”
Quoth little Peterkin.
“Why that I cannot tell,” said he,
“But ‘twas a famous victory.”

Colophon

Gentle Readers is published on Mondays and Thursdays, and I want you to share it. The archives are at http://gentlereaders.uk, and so is a form to get on the mailing list. If you have anything to say or reply, or you want to be added or removed from the mailing list, I’m at thomas@thurman.org.uk and I’d love to hear from you. The newsletter is reader-supported; please pledge something if you can afford to, and please don’t if you can’t. Love and peace to you all.

I was thinking about making a set of readings of poems. So I made a pilot episode for “Ozymandias”; what do you think? Should I do more? Suggestions?

Takei’s “miracle in the alcohol aisle”, etc

…whether it’s funny is orthogonal to the problem with Takei’s "miracle in the alcohol aisle" joke— that it reinforces a false idea people believe uncritically, which causes them to hurt vulnerable people.

Here’s a parallel: I have a large number of books of jokes going back well over a hundred years. Some of them contain, for example, Jewish jokes (iirc there’s a section called "Told Against Our Friend The Jew", which shows they already knew about the problem and printed them anyway). Some of these jokes may well be pants-wettingly hilarious for all I care; antisemitism still flourishes, and I’m still not using that material. It’s the punching up vs punching down distinction.

[a comment I have left in more than one discussion today; I am starting to think of it as "Told Against Our Friend The Jew" for short.]

Salford Royal is not a cheese shop

I had to pick something up at Salford Royal’s main reception desk. I walk for quite a way following signs. I reach a desk.

"Is this the main reception?"
“No, you want to go that way.”

I go that way, and find a sign saying “Main Reception” pointing back the way I’d come. So I go back, and go to WHSmith’s and ask for directions to the main reception, and a description of it. It is in fact the desk I found first. I return.

"Sorry," I say, "I mean I get confused easily, but people tell me this is the main reception."
“Oh no, this is car parking.”
“So.. that sign behind you saying RECEPTION, that’s not true?”
“Look, I told you, go that way and then down the stairs.”
“Isn’t that the way to Outpatients?”
“That’s what you want, isn’t it?
“No, I want the main reception.”

But he sends me to Outpatients. Outpatients say, “Oh no, we’re not the main reception, we’re Outpatients.”

"But the man on the main reception desk, who claimed it wasn’t the main reception desk, said it was you instead."

"Oh, he’s always doing that."

MAYBE HE USED TO RUN A CHEESE SHOP

For the anniversary of WWI

SUICIDE IN THE TRENCHES
by Siegfried Sassoon

I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.

In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.