Monday, 12 September 2011

Breaking the rules: Sue Purkiss


Many years ago, O Best Beloveds, when the world was young, sixth formers often used to do something called General Studies as an extra A-level. It was an opportunity for teachers to show their eccentric side, or to shyly brush off and dust down a special interest.
I can’t remember most of the things we studied, but for one term, we had a science teacher called Mr Spiby. He was small, with bright dark eyes and a mop of frizzy dark hair standing up around a prematurely receding hairline, like a sort of fuzzy tiara. And he was brilliant. Why? Because he made us think. And what he taught us has remained with me more than almost anything else I learned at school.
His method was this. He would come into the room and, for instance, scrape a ruler along the surface of the desk, so that it made a squeaky, scraping noise. Then he would look at us and grin. “Now,” he’d say. “What makes that noise?”
Blank looks.
He would lean forward confidentially. “It’s a race of tiny, tiny beings. When I scrape the ruler along the desk, it squashes them. Hurts them dreadfully. And so they squeal.”
From us, knowing laughter. From Mr Spiby, a raised eyebrow. “What? You don’t think that’s the case? Well then, prove it.”
We never could. Not even when he came in and announced that the world was flat and all this about it being round was sheer nonsense. We thought we were in with a chance on this one. “Astronauts have been up in space ships, and they’ve seen that it’s round,” we crowed.
He shook his head gravely. “No. The photographs are all faked. It’s not difficult to do, you know.” He had an answer for everything we could throw at him.
He was trying to teach us about the basis of scientific theory – to show us that you can assume nothing, that you must have evidence for everything. But in doing this, he also showed us how much we thought we knew – when really, we didn’t know it at all: we just believed what we’d been told. We thought ourselves so much cleverer than Galileo’s contemporaries, silly twits, who really did think the earth was flat – but actually, we were just the same: we believed what we’d been told, and we didn’t test the assertion for ourselves. (Or perhaps we were not the same: they believed the evidence of their own eyes – which perhaps makes more sense.)
Mr Spiby didn’t make me into a scientist. It was too late for that – maybe if he’d taught me further down the school, he might have managed it. But he did teach me to question: and he taught me that to prove something, you need evidence. It’s not enough just to make an assertion. So I’m very annoying in arguments: everything’s bouncing along in a delightfully fiery fashion, and then in comes me, with a little anxious frown and a: “But where’s your evidence?”
And I think this is one of the reasons – I can think of others – why, when I’m presented with a rule – or indeed, a regulation – I think: “But why? Where’s the evidence that this is the right thing to do?” So when someone admonishes: “Show, don’t tell,” or, “In a children’s book, the story must be seen through a child’s eyes,” or “Readers won’t put up with description” – I begin to frown. And I think it’s why, when I come across a book or a writer that cheerfully breaks all these rules, and yet still produces something that works wonderfully, I feel quite exhilarated.
Mal Peet’s latest book, Life: An Unexploded Diagram, breaks the rules. It’s been reviewed extensively, so I’m not going to review it again here. Suffice it to say that though the main character is a teenager, the adult characters are frequently a main concern; that he frequently has passages which are nothing much to do with moving the story on, but which the reader wouldn’t be without; that he has pages and pages of conversations in closed rooms between American politicians, which are of only tangential relevance to the main story – that he does all this, and the book is generally held to have succeeded magnificently. (Though for myself, I still think Keeper is his masterpiece.) Oh, and for evidence of that last point, just google reviews of the book. If it’s not on prize lists next year, then I’ve learned to like olives.
One last point about breaking the rules. Those of you who read my post for the ABBA Litfest will know that I’m on a mission to read Dickens, having avoided him all the way through an English degree and almost all the way through a fair few years as an English teacher. Dickens – who I think foreshadows a great deal in contemporary children’s writing (an assertion which – sighs sadly – I haven’t the space to back up here, but may come back to in the future) breaks the rules for a pastime. He spends ages on characters who are almost completely peripheral to the plot, he wallows in lengthy description just for the fun of it, and he leaps from one viewpoint to another.
And for evidence of all that, all you need to do is read the books!
Sue Purkiss

11 comments:

Malaika said...

Thanks, Sue. This is a wonderful post which resonated with me on so many levels and successfully banished my Monday morning blues. I grew up in care and it took me a long time to learn to question - let alone break - rules. And I hate olives!

Joan Lennon said...

Here's to those rare gems - the teachers who teach us to think!

Great post - thanks!

(Coincidentally, I've been reading Dickens lately too, and it is certainly the case that all Dickens is not created equal. Though it's kind of interesting seeing his earlier mistakes, and then him getting it triumphantly right in a later book ... )

Katherine Langrish said...

Mr Spiby sounds amazing, Sue! And I shall have to read the book...

karen said...

I loved my General Studies A-level. One teacher brought in tapes of Richard Burton narrating 'Under Milk Wood' and it was spellbinding. Brave, to just play tapes at us for a few lessons, but it really stuck with me. Lovely post. Good luck with the Dickens!

Lynda Waterhouse said...

Thank you for this post. I too loved my General Studies A-level and I think the teachers enjoyed it too. I recall a science teacher telling us about the Khmer Rouge. Mr Spiby sounds a tad Dickensian. Your post was very timely as I am currently enjoying 'going off piste'with my current story- having lots of viewpoints, developing minor characters etc

Book Maven said...

I love olives and Dickens. What does this mean?

Maybe I'm about to explode.

Sue Purkiss said...

It doesn't mean anything, Mary! I was just using me liking olives as an example of something that's really not likely to happen. Other people like them so much that I really WANT to like them. I try them at least once a year, but it's no use, I just can't bear them. And they look so lovely - all those different kinds, all glistening and luscious...

Lynda, it hadn't struck me, but you're right about Mr Spiby being Dickensian. He could have had a whole other career in costume dramas...

Emma Barnes said...

Every now and then I think I should read some Dickens. I've struggled my way through A Tale of Two Cities, A Christmas Carol and most of Dombey and Son...and I hated it all! Every now and then I think I should give it another go, but then I think maybe Dickens is just not for me.

I love Jane Austen, and Barchester Towers, so it's not that I can't abide the classics. It's partly those sickly sweet heroines that he goes in for, I think. And...I don't know...the Dickensianness of it. But who says we all have to like the same things?

Sue Purkiss said...

I don't like the soppy heroines, either. Estelle in Great Expectations isn't soppy at all, but Bleak House has its fair share of drips.

I do think that you come to different books at different times. Dickens is right for me now - but it's taken long enough!

adele said...

Lovely post Sue! And couldn't agree with you more about Mal Peet's book. I reviewed it on normblog and loved it to bits as it chimed in EXACTLY with my life experience. Mal Peet and I are almost the same age and I too was petrified in 1962, though I was in a very different place from his hero! And I loved General Studies too....still, like Mary H, I love Dickens and olives.

eleanorpatrick said...

I absolutely agree with all these views, Sue. Thanks for the post - sorry to get to it a tad late! And - do you know what? - I reckon one hour a week General Studies for all kids of all ages, taken by fab teachers or invited outsiders, would revolutionise the classroom. No tick boxes, no marking, no specific relevance to Nat Curric etc. After all, the, er, evidence is here in the comments that General Studies worked well!

I love olives...