A microbrewery for book-lovers

Schools out. Berlin December 2009

On Friday I finished an 8 week block of German Language learning and with that my head for the first time in two months has begun to clear a little to formulate a few thoughts.

Last year when I began to try and learn the German language I looked at a few course introductions on the internet. Only one has remained in my mind. The name of the course, I have forgotten but the essential question it proffered I have not; first and foremost, ask yourself seriously why you want to learn this language.

I can’t hide the fact that somewhere in my imagination I had fancied myself sometime in the future at an elegant dinner table flitting effortlessly between English and Deutsch with a suave cosmopolitan air. This fantasy I imagine came from watching films and also from having observed in awe certain friends doing this. One year on however, I am still formulating my answer to the question and this may be playing a part in the slowness of my Learning. Before going any further I must state that I would dearly love to be able to speak German in order to communicate on a day to day level with people in Berlin. Apart from anything else this shows good manners while being a guest in another country. Indeed this may be as good a reason as any and the only one necessary to focus all my energies toward blinkered learning of German. But for another inescapable factor; I am an artist with an inbuilt sense to question.

So sitting in my class 5 days a week other thoughts and observations have been coming to the fore taking equal precedence to sentence structure and to determining the correct case of speech. Having my attentions divided in this way can on occasions make the subject of German language secondary; as a mature student, the classroom set up is of equal interest. For here I am being given a mini-re-run of my school days; you know the ones that hit you like a herd of stampeding cattle and spew you out badly trampled somewhere in your late teens. From my perspective with a 27 year gap, although learning in classroom has got no easier, I am occasionally able to stand back from what is going on and consider things that I hadn’t had the space or words for the first time around. This may have been typified the other day when the teacher (meine Lehrerin) noticed me struggling through yet another exercise and in a gentle conciliatorily tone said, you know this is not about the substance and interest of what you are trying to say, this is about getting the Grammar correct. What came first, the chicken or the egg?

I would like at some stage to broaden this out a little more and not just be me, me, me , but too many of the thoughts I have on this subject are based on personal experience so for now and with apology, here is more about me.

I have been both cursed and perhaps blessed throughout my life with being dyslexic; even as I write this blog I know that I will have to check and re-check it a thousand times, before then handing it over to a grammatically competent friend to make a final check. All this in order to make it readable, acceptable….. Normal. To me, it is not just about recognising the necessity of taking such steps but it is also important to stop and consider how much of the original thought one had in the head is shaped and compromised to achieve this…. normality.

So what does a dyslexic have in their head? The official response to what I had in my head whilst at Primary school was to remove me from the normal class and place me in a remedial class. ( although the term dyslexia appears to existed since the 1880s, in Britain in the late 60s, it seems, certainly in the state school sector to have been unknown.) The removal from my class came about from being found by the teaching staff to be a slow learner. The irony of this is that due to my slowness of grasping the foundations of accepted learning, this dyslexic learnt very quickly a multitude of ways to protect himself from being humiliated every day at school. I used a combination of fading into the background and going on the offensive. From this hostile and chaotic foundation my schooling continued; the commitment to self preservation used up most of my energy and left only a fraction of time to vaguely note there were other things called subjects that I should be paying some attention to. Learning through this makeshift filter forced me to develop a system of discovery which occasionally touched on the official syllabus but very often went off at a complete tangent. As a result I wonder if I use any other parts of the brain that that normal learning doesn’t require or if I am just hopping frantically around within the regular channels, which I am told represents a depressingly low percentage of the brains capacity. Whatever that may be, I would say that the effects of a rigidly enforced system of education that presented itself to me as completely illogical, pushed me into finding alternative ways of gathering information from the world.

A while ago, I spoke to a good friend, a retired University lecturer, who had for several years been helping invigilate exams at Edinburgh university. He told me that dyslexic students were now allowed half an hour extra to read through the paper. This I told him was missing the point; all they would get from these students is an average attempt at being normal and answering the questions in the way that was required, when if throughout their time at University they were allowed to expand in their own way they may come up with something truly unique and complimentary to the overall subject. He was very interested in these comments and said that at no time in all the academic planning meetings he’d attended had he ever heard this point muted. And such is the academic world, in which education is now a massive ever expanding industry funnelled through an ever narrowing gate, rigidly governed by statistics and percentages that in my opinion continue to ignore the potential for real learning and instead target the fool’s gold pinnacle of the well paid job.

It is little wonder then with these thoughts igniting in my head that my regurgitation of the endless tables of German prepositions are taking their time to spew forth. To try and make room for both I had to expand my waking day to fit around the class which ran from 9.30am till 1pm, five days a week. This would not only mean staring at and fiddling with incomprehensible homework exercises in the afternoon, evening and into the early hours, but also falling out of bed at 6am every morning to stare and fiddle some more before the next class. Around the 4th week I began to seek refuge from this cyclical madness and found some from the writing of A S Neill in his book Schoolhill and perhaps more surprisingly the electric and Chicago blues of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker. Both sources were well known to me; the chapters of A S Neill tolled an obviously comforting chime connecting directly to my difficulties with formal teaching, the solace found in the sound scape generated by the blues musicians was a little less obvious though.


Straying onto you tube one night from the online language translator I sometime use I found myself spellbound by a particular recording of Muddy Waters’ Hoochie Coochie man. From the early 1980’s when I first discovered this music I quickly moved on from condemning the songs as sexist crap; the lyrics soon become nothing, one must take in the whole abstraction of sound and performance to discover an uncompromising struggle for humility and dignity. The film of Muddy Waters does exactly this, encasing it in a muffled, bleeding; an inexplicable audio beauty of his Chicago electric Blues from that period.

Both of the Howlin’ Wolf performances are incredibly raw documents of an uneducated man who knows everything and nothing and whose vulnerability allows you to see it all. Why was I drawn to these performances? I would find that difficult to say exactly, but in the context of my current thoughts they illustrate how a human being without a recognised and accepted useful ability can find their own form to directly communicate and articulate something incredibly rich and complex about the world. I would strongly recommend you take a look at them yourself.

Man has always been quick to exploit the world of its resources and to a certain extent this may have become his be all and end all. I would ask (and I know I am far from being the first) why can man not take advantage of huge technological advances to begin to seriously look more closely at himself? The perpetuation of this destructive cycle stands little chance of being broken when the main generator of innovation and insight is inextricably linked with behaving correctly within a strict formal education. And I would venture to suggest that the so called, outsiders, misfits, freaks (not my terms but ones widely used) collectively present a natural resource through personal experience for our civilisation to consider other ways of being. Not to be just creamed off, colonised, enslaved, exploited and wasted within an already failing system, but to be learned from and to help to develop a wider all encompassing mind-rich civilisation with unheard of and un thought of possibilities.

Now where was I……

brechen (to break) – hat/ist gebrochen

fahren (to drive) – hat/ist gefahren

fliegen ( to fly) – hat/ist geflogen………………….

The function of the child is to live his own life – not the life his anxious parents think he should live, nor a life according to the purpose of the educator who thinks he knows what is best. All this interference and guidance on the part of adults only produces a generation of robots.

You cannot make children learn music or anything else without to some degree converting them into will-less adults. You fashion them into accepters of the status quo – a good thing for a society that needs obedient sitters at dreary desks, standers in shops, mechanical catchers of the 8:30 suburban train – a society, in short, that is carried on the shabby shoulders of the scared little man – the scared-to-death conformist.

Extract from A.S.Neill Summerhill ( a pelican book) 1962

One thought on “Schools out. Berlin December 2009

  • Peter
    January, 5, 2010 at 7:39 pm

    Aint no matter you got the blues
    If you can’t play the harp
    Listen to the riffs
    Or feel the angst in all those tiffs
    Whose gonna listen to your news?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *.

You may use these <abbr title="HyperText Markup Language">HTML</abbr> tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.