For Philip Larkin, life began to change in a rather major way around 1963. I’d put it a bit later than that for provincial Ireland, and of course things were regionally differentiated in Britain too, with those particularly anxious to lead lives with –in our elders’ phrase– “no morals” heading for London as fast as they could. By the mid- to late sixties we’d all heard of the Liverpool scene, and of course there’d also been, a few years earlier, laying down a new socio-cultural background, the appearance of a new kind of film and drama, social realism, some called it; others kitchen sink drama. We had Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) with Albert Finney, A Taste of Honey (1961), with Rita Tushingham and Dora Bryan, and Billy Liar (1963), with Tom Courtenay, among others.
John Mills, Kenneth More, even Dirk Bogarde, the stars who filled the picture houses during the 1950s, all talked in a certain way – the same way, that is, that David Niven and Trevor Howard had talked a generation earlier: properly. Finney (born Salford), Courtenay (born Hull), and Tushingham and Bryan (Lancashire lassies both) didn’t, sticking, for the most part, to the local accents of where they’d been brought up. Soon a handful of talented and hungry types from the English North began to make it in London medialand, a phenomenon which was only to gather pace over the next twenty years. The hugely successful Michael Parkinson (born near Barnsley) first appeared on television in 1971, but for a good few years before this a variety of lads and lasses who wouldn’t have got past the door of Broadcasting House in 1959 had been softening up the southern audiences. Mind you, a bit of eeh ba gum had always been all right in its place: didn’t everyone love George Formby? But quite soon it was OK out of its place too, even, in due course, in the upper middlebrow sphere of arts programming, with the arrival of the Cumbrian working class grammar school lad Melvyn Bragg, now Baron Bragg of Wigton.
It was in the middle of this period of great cultural change that my secondary school hit on the bright idea of teaching us how to speak proper. And since no one on the staff of the school at the time had any expertise in this difficult skill, someone was brought in. Bridget Keenan was a remarkable woman. She stood at around five feet, arrived each day in a Morris Minor, which she parked not in the teachers’ car park but in the place most convenient to her and nearest to where her classroom might be. She could frequently be seen between classes standing beside the car, left hand on hips and a cigarette in the right, puffing away, presumably to calm her nerves. We never actually saw those nerves in class: I am just guessing from the hugely intimidating nature of the task that she faced that she had them. She was the only female teacher out of a staff of about forty, and she was part-time, also putting in some hours in the equivalent Catholic girls’ grammar school, Thornhill College.
She came from somewhere in north Down, a prosperous part of Northern Ireland (“the Gold Coast”) that provides one of the few secure electoral homes for liberal unionism. As her name suggests, however, she was a Catholic – otherwise she wouldn’t have been teaching in our school. But she may well not have been a nationalist: that bit wasn’t compulsory.
With Miss Keenan’s help we learned to enunciate our vowels clearly and unashamedly:
Yeast, black treacle and wheatmeal are rich in vitamin B.
And to keep a tight rein on our consonants, even in the most difficult circumstances.
Are you copperbottoming those pots, my man?
No, I’m aluminiuming ’em, mum.
But did some of the exercises contain a hidden social justice, even Marxian, message?
‘The early bird catches the worm.’
This proverb always makes me squirm.
The early earthworm, stirring first,
Does not deserve to be so curst.
My favourite, however, was the following, an exercise to strengthen the proper enunciation of the long ‘a’ vowel. It has stood to me since at many a diplomatic party.
Father’s car is a Jaguar,
And Pa drives rather fast.
Castles, farms and draughty barns,
We go charging past.
Arthur’s cart is far less smart
And can’t go half as far.
But I’d rather ride in Arthur’s cart
Than in my Papa’s fast car.
What was the purpose of all these exercises? Were we actually supposed to start speaking like this (“like a fuckin’ Englishman”, as we might have said)? Well perhaps not. Such a radical change could not be expected. What Miss Keenan – and, one must assume, those who employed her, the reverend fathers of St Columb’s College – hoped for was that a little bit of it would rub off and that we might be not quite as uncouth as before. She also allowed us to act (speak) Shakespeare at considerable length, to test out our cocksure ideas on an audience of each other, to mimic the procedures of (BBC) radio and television discussion programmes, to speak out our opinions, which she seemed to think were valuable: at least she treated them as such. That she always looked just slightly amused was something we did not take offence at.
I have said that she may not have been a nationalist. This was a curious time, the (Terence) O’Neill era: the good captain, who was reaching a very tentative hand out towards Catholics, was about the only politician in Northern Ireland who himself spoke proper. Republicanism, in Derry at any rate, had no very large following and the early civil rights movement, which was to come along just a couple of years later, made great play initially with the slogan of “British rights for British citizens”, which was always roundly cheered at demonstrations. But that is to jump ahead a little.
Miss Keenan found herself frequently the butt of our self-righteous teenage anger, sometimes laced with a bit of class animus (and no doubt sexism too), particularly when she seemed to suggest that, if we (Catholics, that is) were to behave just a little bit better, be a little more civilised, they might see fit to admit us into their tennis clubs. I have no difficulty to this day grasping the disbelief and outrage with which this was greeted. Tennis clubs and the world of Miss Joan Hunter Dunn were indeed very far from our minds, but the idea that we might, if we were very good, be admitted there on sufferance was offensive. Yet I doubt if Miss Keenan was actually disliked by anyone. Her silly but engaging rhymes did not induce us to speak with posh accents, but we mimicked that accent endlessly, as young people do, to our own huge amusement, and as you can see, the words have stuck. She also contributed splendidly to that “bringing one out of oneself” thing that is so necessary for adolescents and whose effects are sometimes not felt until a little later on.
Most people, but perhaps particularly those who do a little writing later in life, remember a particular teacher fondly. Often it is an English teacher. I had one of those too, the late Peter Mullan, who came to us fairly fresh from Queen’s University and introduced us, aged seventeen, to twentieth century fiction by organising the mass buying of Penguin novels. He also, being a member of one of the organising bodies, the Derry Labour Party, rather gingerly invited a few of us to participate in a civil rights march on Saturday, October 5th, 1968. That march was batoned by the RUC in front of British television cameras and the footage shown an hour or so later on the six o’clock news, thus beginning the slow process of realisation in London that the rotten borough of Unionist-dominated Northern Ireland could not be allowed to remain unchanged. I do indeed have a great fondness for the memory of Peter Mullan, and a few others, but for me the school laurels must go to Bridget Keenan, the most engaging, surprising, freshest and bravest teacher I ever had.
Space to Think, an anthology bringing together more than fifty of the best pieces to have appeared in the Dublin Review of Books since its foundation ten years ago, will be published this month. Selling in the shops at €25, it is available now for pre-order at a special price of €20 (to collect in Dublin) or €20 + post and packing charges as appropriate for shipping to addresses in Ireland and internationally. To buy online, follow the steps from the home page of our website. One piece featured in Space to Think is this blog post from 2013 on the place of the ball in the world of Jane Austen. Here is an extract:
John Mullan, author of the splendid What Matters in Jane Austen, writes in The Guardian (May 4th) on the significance in her novels of dancing and balls in a piece written to link to a forthcoming BBC2 programme, Pride And Prejudice: Having a Ball.
“The ball,” he writes, “was the occasion for a couple to perform together in front of others. It was their opportunity for physical intimacy.” These things of course being relative: “They could not clinch each other or even touch each other’s flesh, yet they were brought closer than they could be on any other occasion.”
Of course the dance has long been a metaphor for sexual coupling, and not just the act itself but, in its elaborate rituals, its comings and goings, approaches and withdrawals, ins and outs, the prelude to the act (though of course at the time one doesn’t quite know, one cannot be quite sure, that one is engaged in the prelude to anything). Miss Austen was a great believer in what she calls “the felicities of rapid motion”. The main purpose of the dance, of course, was to pair off, not just for the evening ‑ still less for a quick snog round the back of the coachhouse ‑ but for life. This Jane did not succeed in doing, but that was down to bad luck rather than any lack of inclination. Still, as she was to find, if you are not to be a full participant in the business of courting, and marrying, and mothering, there are always the pleasures of the observer, and some of them can be enjoyed at the ball too.