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Those who can teach

After the death of the wonderful Richard Griffiths last Thursday, Saturday night was enjoyably spent watching his exuberant performance as Uncle Monty in Withnail and I (1986), followed on Sunday by The History Boys (2006), where he plays the inspirational grammar school teacher “Hector” (it’s a nickname), a figure one American academic critic (who liked the film) has strangely described as “a self-pitying, obese pedophile”. Which of the three, one wonders, is the greatest sin. America!

Many would agree that the most touching scene in The History Boys is that in the otherwise empty classroom between Hector and the sensitive and musically talented Posner (“I'm a Jew ... I'm small ... I'm homosexual ... and I live in Sheffield ... I'm fucked.”) when Posner recites and then the two discuss a poem by Hardy.

“The best moments in reading,” says Hector, “are when you come across something (a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things) that you'd thought special, particular to you ... and here it is!, set down by someone else, a person you've never met. Maybe even someone long dead. And it's as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”

And on Hardy: “A saddish life, though not unappreciated. 'Uncoffined' is a typical Hardy usage. It's a compound adjective, formed by putting 'un' in front of the noun. Or verb, of course. 'Unkissed', 'unrejoicing', 'unconfessed', 'unembraced'. It's a turn of phrase that brings with it a sense of not-sharing, being out of it, whether because of diffidence or shyness, but a holding-back: not being in the swim. Can you see that?”

All of this action – or talk if that is all it is ‑ is conducted just in front of Hector’s classroom wall-mounted collage of prints, illustrations and photographs, an assemblage, one assumes, intended to inspire his young pupils. The most prominent and recognisable face is that of George Orwell, a very suitable hero for an adolescent, or even a teacher, but one whose ear was perhaps less attuned to subtlety than Hardy’s: one thinks of his somewhat bullying tirade against the use of the locution “not un***” in “Politics and the English Language”; as if “usual” and “not unusual” or “common” and “not uncommon” carried exactly the same semantic charge (“You’ve got Tom Jones Disease – it’s not unusual.”)

Drummer Hodge

They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest
Uncoffined ‑ just as found:
His landmark is a kopje-crest
That breaks the veldt around:
And foreign constellations west
Each night above his mound.

Young Hodge the drummer never knew ‑
Fresh from his Wessex home ‑
The meaning of the broad Karoo,
The Bush, the dusty loam,
And why uprose to nightly view
Strange stars amid the gloam.

Yet portion of that unknown plain
Will Hodge for ever be;
His homely Northern breast and brain
Grow to some Southern tree,
And strange-eyed constellations reign
His stars eternally.