The Impact of Steve by Bill Kirton

This has nothing to do with the post but what the hell, I won an award.

It’s an anecdote I’ve aired before, but it sums up so much that I love about writing that I never tire of it. First, though, the wider context.

I was so lucky with my working life, getting paid as I was for sitting with intelligent, interested young people, mostly talking about books. OK, there was marking, exams, prose translations and stuff, but they, too, were all about words, language, thinking and having to articulate those thoughts as well as encourage others to do the same. Most of the texts were prescribed, but I could add my own choices, too. And, anyway, the set texts were always examples of the best from medieval times to the present. So the thread running through all of it was the exercise and encouragement of articulacy and literacy. The fact that I was in a French department and dealing with a ‘foreign’ literature with its own, different cultural drivers and conventions added to the magic of interpreting texts, searching beneath and beyond the words, finding not only meanings but implications, undreamed-of significance, sub-textual ‘truths’ and resonances that, paradoxically, defied articulation.

And, given that what we were studying  and ‘explicating’ together were works written by great men and women who all had their own ways of manipulating and extending language, nothing ever seemed stale or ordinary.

Today’s grotesque examples of ‘fake news’, the misuse of language, the gross deceptions being practised by illiterate half-wits with no moral, spiritual or any other sort of compass on which to base their mindless inanities are an insult to all of us in the Anglophone world, at least in the northern hemisphere. But let’s not stray into their territory. This is about the joy of language, its magic, its way of showing us that, yes, we may have invented a way of describing and untangling our worlds, but at the same time, its imaginative use also reminds us that, as with quantum physics and all those other disciplines that are far beyond my comprehension, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies.

What sort of objects, for example, are Yeats’s ‘silver apples of the moon’ [and] ‘golden apples of the sun’? And, setting aside its apparent gender bias, look how many worlds are opened by Hamlet’s ‘What a piece of work is a man’. Simple, ordinary, unpretentious words, but bulging with significance. And look at Browning’s genius when he writes ‘Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp’ then adds the brilliant ‘Or what’s a heaven for?’ And, just for the sake of balance, let’s not forget his wife’s:

‘Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

All those combinations carry much more than the mere meanings which each signifies. But, lest you think I’m being a bit selective with my examples, let’s get (at last) to my anecdote.

Several years ago, my wife taught in a primary school and, at one point, it organised a literacy week. I was invited in one day to do some story-telling workshops with a range of classes from really young pupils (of which my only memory was raising a laugh because my version of ‘I’m a little teapot, short and stout’ was significantly different from theirs) to the more senior pupils. The pattern was the same in each: I read them one of my children’s stories, then encouraged, prodded, cajoled them into creating one of their own as a class effort. They had to choose their cast of characters then get them interacting. Predictably, there were dragons, princesses, fairies, magicians and all the others you’d expect, but one class (of 7-8 year olds) chose to have a cave man, a shark and a fairy who was a siren (I think they’d been ‘doing’ sirens with their teacher), This was refreshingly different so, with genuine enthusiasm, I started asking the obvious questions and the story developed.

The cave man heard the siren singing and was drawn to the beach, where she was sitting on a rock. He was a bit shy so he didn’t approach her but, instead, started fishing. And he caught a shark!
‘Wow,’ I said. ‘So what did he say?’
At this point, 2 little girls in the class, sitting side by side, obviously friends, added their bit of narrative.
‘Nothing,’ said one, rather scornfully, ‘Cave men don’t talk. They just say “Ugg”.’
‘But,’ said her friend, ‘the shark came up the beach and said, “Hi, I’m Steve”.’

Unbeatable! Better than anything I could have come up with. No fireworks, thunderclaps, narrative enormities, just a simple event. But the impact of that ‘I’m Steve’ opened up possibilities way beyond my powers of interpretation or explication, and yet the words were so simple. That little girl’s magic was more powerful than that of any of the wizards inhabiting the other stories and I want to live in her world.


Rosalie Warren said…
Thank you, Bill, for reminding me of the magic and wonder of words, language and literature. And for sharing 'I'm Steve' - wonderful!
Bill Kirton said…
Thanks, Rosalie. I agree, especially when they're manipulated so deftly and with such uncomplicated ease by children.

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