Sunday, 28 December 2014

John Cleese...

I have always enjoyed Fawlty Towers, partly because I see in Basil some of my own less admirable traits; you might say his unwarranted air of superiority. I would have said suppressed anger which is, of course, what makes him so funny.

So anyway...my mother bought me John Cleese' autobiography for Christmass. So far, apart from one or two sideswipes at organised religion (which is forgivable given his woefully bad religious instruction), and a liberal-minded apology for using exclusively masculine personal pronouns to describe farcical comedians, it is very funny. I am on p.85. This is my favourite so far:

"There was one master who quite liked me, no doubt in part because I quite liked him. Nobody else liked him, though - perhaps because he was physically unattractive. Actually that's not true. I was being polite. He was ugly. God, was he ugly. He could have won competitions without taking his teeth out. Rather surprisingly - and endearingly - he was also a bit vain: always fussing about his hair and glancing in the mirror. It was strangely touching to see him battle on in this way against insuperable odds - rather like Quasimodo using eyeliner, or the Elephant Man wearing a toupee."

I have to say I laughed out loud. Elsewhere he derides the gross imbalance of his education and I can't help but feel rather put out by this. Surely his education was better than mine? I take it as axiomatic that people of my generation are, for the most part, illiterate compared with my parents' and grandparents' generation. I remember my tutor coming into the Copleston Room at Heythrop some time into Michaelmass Term in my first year and complaining that us stupid teenagers were never taught how to structure an essay...as I was the only teenager on the Bachelor of Divinity course I took that as referring to the worldly BA students; nevertheless they were my contemporaries. Certainly I learned nothing at school, and consider the time I spent there ill-used. My writing style was largely based on Tolkien but I don't recall ever being taught how to structure an essay at school, except the cursory "in this essay, I intend to prove..." and then following that banal, sausage factory structure. Hardly in the class of Dr Johnson, is it?

My tutor went to public school, so I envy him for that. My uncles all went to grammar school, so I despise them for that. I went to a Roman Catholic comprehensive school and came away as stupid and ill-equipped for the rigours of indolence as when I first went thither. Latin was phased out in my second year and so I was the last year to undertake examinations. Our English teachers managed to stretch Romeo & Juliet and Macbeth out over the five years of my sojourn there, augmented by trashy modern poetry (ironically one of these modern poems referred to the Battle of Marston Moor; not that we learned anything about the Civil War in history). My mother later told me that when she was at school she had had to read three Shakespeare plays per annum! Music was a cultural vacuum. Art was about "self expression." Dear God! I learned nothing remotely useful; I wasn't even encouraged by teachers to do anything extra-curricular, like go to an exhibition or to a museum. Nothing about trees, plants, birds; nothing about British history beyond the Suffragettes (and you can guess why those harridans were in the National Curriculum!); in short, absolutely nothing. I wouldn't have minded all the detentions for being constantly absent (in the woods mostly, or the library) if the school had provided some discipline and structure; just the tonic when one isn't remotely interested. Even so, in my case I think I'd have been considerably worse off. At least I was always myself enough to disregard school. Everything I know to-day I taught myself and I have to say that I am resentful of the comparative inferiority of my education.

I could go on but my education wasn't the original impetus for this post. I won't recommend Cleese' autobiography.

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