I have been painting for 40 years but I have spent the last 4 seasons concentrating on the Coulissen landscape of the Achterhoek.
In the tradition of the impressionists, I venture out, often on my bike, to paint directly from nature.
I paint with a sense of urgency because I have to respond quickly without preparatory sketches, the whole process happens on the canvas. My paintings are a record of the passing of time as shown by the changes in light, the wind blowing and it can of course rain.
Observing from life is like listening to a story unfold into details I could have never imagined. The minute I start to observe it is as if the speed in which things change accelerates and the complexities increase. I become the camera capturing thousands of real time moments, every step to be decided by me.
This requires “craft” a word often frowned upon in certain circles of the art world, however craft to me is essential. I make marks to explain the space I am standing in and record the textures of the surfaces, temperature and light fall. The paint can act like the surfaces it is portraying by either absorbing or reflecting light. There is an element of constraint needed in getting the proportions right. The relationship between the objects and spaces I am viewing have to be right as I believe that it is essential in capturing the poetics of the space I am viewing.
However the physical truth of my paintings is a vehicle for other stories and interpretations to come to light, often found at locations where one might easily just pass by the ordinary but actually the extraordinary. By observing and recording, I feel I can lift the painted image to a different place which asks the viewer whether these are direct observations or rather stage sets revealing other possibilities.
Note from Gavin weightman: Jim Harris is my nephew whose art I admire. You can see more of Jim's art at http://jimharris.nl/
“The Noble Lady sent for me last April, and when I came, she told me she was now resolved to have her daughter inoculated…..having found proper matter I ingrafted it in both arms…Three learned Physicians of the College were admitted, one after another, to visit the young Lady… they saw Miss Wortley playing about the Room, cheerful and well, with the Small Pox rais'd upon her; and that in a few Days after she perfectly recover'd of them.” This is an account by a Scottish surgeon, Charles Maitland, of the first immunisation ever performed by a doctor in England in the Spring of 1721. In the midst of a smallpox epidemic Lady Mary Wortley Montagu boldly decided to get her three year old daughter “engrafted”. She knew there would be disapproval, as did her surgeon Maitland, but she believed fervently inoculation was the only way to save her child from disfigurement or death from smallpox. Lady Mary had lived in Constantinople where her husband had been posted as Ambassador. It was here that she was astonished to learn that engrafting of children with poisonous smallpox matter was routine. She had travelled to Turkey in 1716 with her young son and stayed until 1718 during which time her daughter was born. Maitland was with her and she managed to persuade him to investigate the local practice of engrafting with a view to protecting her son. It was a strange experience for a Scottish medic for he had to seek out one of the elderly Greek ladies who specialised in this treatment, keeping their supplies of infective smallpox matter collected from the pustules of sufferers in walnut shells. When the time came for the engrafting of Lady Mary’s son, Maitland recalled that the Greek inoculator was equipped only with a “ blunt and rusty” needle. He finished the job with his surgeon’s lancet. Maitland was naturally anxious about the rustic nature of the procedure, but in Constantinople he was far away from the prying eyes of the British medical profession. It was a much more worrying prospect for him to carry out the same engrafting in London. If Lady Mary had had her way she would have kept her daughter’s inoculation secret. But Maitland persuaded her that there should be observers to endorse this new prophylactic. The crudity of the smallpox inoculation three centuries ago is barely imaginable now. It was unadulterated virus itself which was injected into the arm, and sometimes arms and legs, of the patient. It is not surprising therefore that Lady Mary was vilified rather than congratulated on her brave experiment. However Royalty endorsed it when the King’s daughter Princess Caroline, fearing for the safety of her daughters,, sponsored a trial to test the safety of engrafting the smallpox. London’s notorious Newgate Gaol, where prisoners were manacled awaiting the gallows or transportation, was chosen as a convenient laboratory. Six Newgate inmates, three men and three women, were chosen as volunteers. If they agreed to be engrafted they would be pardoned and allowed to go free. None was a murderer: they were just petty thieves at a time when stealing anything worth more than £5 worth of goods carried the death penalty. Their chief qualification as volunteers was that they should not have had smallpox. Charles Maitland carried out the engrafting watched by a gathering of largely hostile physicians and surgeons who doubted the value of such a crude operation. To Maitland’s great satisfaction all the volunteers survived: five had quite severe reactions, one had none as he had lied about not having had smallpox. One of the volunteers was used to prove that the inoculation worked: she was made to lie in a bed with a boy suffering from smallpox. Released from her role as guinea pig she went back to stealing and was transported to the West Indies. There was one further trial in which orphans in Westminster were the guinea pigs was a success and the inoculation of the Princess Caroline’s daughters went ahead without mishap. However, take up of inoculation with smallpox was low. Many of the leading doctors opposed it. In a letter to a friend, William Wagstaffe, a physician at Barts Hospital in London wrote in 1722: “The country from whence we derived this Experiment, will have but very little influence on our faith, if we consider either the Nature of the Climate or the Capacity of the inhabitants, and Posterity perhaps will scarcely be brought to believe that an experiment practiced (sic) only by a few ignorant women (his italics) amongst an illiterate and unthinking people should, of a sudden, and upon slender experience, so far obtain in of the Politest Nations in the World, as to be received in the Royal Palace”. Those in the medical profession who practised it by engrafting ridiculously elaborate and more dangerous than it needed to be. After bleeding the patients and starving them the smallpox infection was introduced with a gash rather than a pinprick. For children it could be traumatic. Edward Jenner was inoculated in this old fashioned way when he was about eight years old in 1756-57. As he recalled years later he was bled and fed all kinds of horrible potions so that for the rest of his life he slept fitfully. It has been suggested that this experience influenced his search for a safer form of inoculation later in life, though Jenner never claimed that himself. It was about the time Jenner was inoculated that a revolution in the way in which the operation was offered and administered was begun in the rural practice of a surgeon in Suffolk. Robert Sutton had been shocked by the severe a reaction his grown up son, aged 24 and fit, had to inoculation. Already in his fifties and new to inoculation, Sutton set out to return the procedure to something closer to the Turkish original, with a minimal incision and less elaborate preparation. Very soon inoculating became a lucrative business. The surgeon would rent a house especially for inoculating the smallpox and advertise for patients who would pay an all found fee with meat and veg thrown in for the two or three weeks they would be treated. It was important to isolate them as it was known that after inoculation a patient was infectious for two or three weeks. Where a group of patients were inoculated together it did not matter as they were all protected. Sutton set up a kind of franchise where other surgeons would pay to use his name to indicate they were approved for best practice. He did well but he was soon out gunned by his second son, Daniel, who thought his father’s methods could be improved upon. Daniel cut down the time for inoculation and introduced a crucial innovation: while recovering from the side effects of the procedure his patients were encouraged to stay in the open air as much as possible which helped to reduce their fever. Daniel Sutton opened his own practice in the Essex village of Ingatestone in 1763 and within a few years had made a fortune. His reputation was founded on his ability to give his patients the mildest attack of smallpox which nevertheless gave immunity. He claimed never to have lost a patient, a claim that was often disputed but never shown to be false. Like his father he franchised his methods all over the country and soon his fame spread abroad. Requests were made for him to save the lives of nobility in Russia and Prussia. But for reasons which have never been explained, Sutton did not travel. Instead his technique was pirated, and others made their fortunes from what became known as the “Suttonian” or the “New method” of inoculation. English inoculators were regarded as the best in the world having far greater experience than their rivals abroad. Two profited handsomely from Sutton’s reputation and the export of his methods. In 1767 Thomas Dimsdale published a hugely influential pamphlet The current method of inoculating the smallpox which contained only an oblique reference to Sutton though it was put together from a quizzing of his patients. Dimsdale answered the call to inoculate Catherine the Great of Russia and her son for which he was rewarded with a fabulous income for life and given the title Baron. A Dutch inoculator Jan Ingen-Houz learned the technique in London and was similarly feted in Prussia. Towards the end of the century there was no reason to believe that anything might surpass the widely respected and successful Suttonian method of inoculation. There were many mass immunisations in which whole villages and towns were inoculated at once, the fees of the surgeons paid by the parish or wealthy patrons. There was even a proposal by the eminent doctor John Haygarth to create a national inoculating service which would eliminate the disease for ever. In 1796 Daniel Sutton published his only work, The Inoculator; or Suttonian system of inoculation, fully set forth in a plain and familiar manner. Two years later Edward Jenner, by then established as a country surgeon, published the results of his investigation into the relationship between smallpox and a disease of cattle in his native county of Gloucestershire. Jenner practised Suttonian inoculation extensively. This involved on a number occasions involvement in general inoculations of whole communities. These always threw up a puzzle: some individuals appeared to be immune though they had not had smallpox. Every inoculator, including Sutton, noticed this. Sutton thought they must have been infected as infants or they had simply forgotten. Jenner, who spent most of his life in his native Gloucestershire, thought he would have known if any of his patients had had smallpox. He recalled in his account of the origin of his investigations that those who had had smallpox were immune to a disease which occasionally infected cattle, known colloquially as “cowpox”. Any farmworkers, male or female, who milked cattle could catch cowpox which was not dangerous but unpleasant enough for them to be off work for a few days. When this happened those who had had smallpox were drafted in. Jenner was a great observer of nature and believed in a fundamental connection between humans and animals. Over time he considered the idea that cowpox might protect against smallpox. If it did then it could be substituted for smallpox itself. This, in theory, would be a safer form of inoculation. He began to collect case studies in which he would ask those who were immune if they had ever had cowpox. Most of them had, though it had never occurred to them that it might have made them immune. There is a fairy tale that Jenner got his inspiration from the observation that dairy maids never had their looks spoiled by smallpox. He makes no mention of this, and it would not make sense as cowpox appeared only intermittently. And as many men as women were immune to smallpox. In the end Jenner took the bold decision to test his theory. He waited for a case in which a woman had caught cowpox while milking. She developed pustules on her hands reminiscent of those caused by smallpox. He chose as his guinea pig a boy called James Phipps whose family he knew. Phipps had not had smallpox. Jenner took some cowpox matter from the infected hand of the woman and, using the Sutton method, used his lancet to introduce the infection. It took and the boy experienced the symptoms of cowpox. A few weeks later he had the boy inoculated with smallpox. It did not take. Eureka! When he came to write up his findings Jenner thought to give the rustic name cowpox a bit of Latin dignity. He invented the term variole vaccinae to mean literally “smallpox of the cow”. The Royal Society would not accept his paper on what soon became known as vaccination for lack of convincing evidence. So he published it privately. Very soon vaccination was greeted as a new wonder drug, a safer form of inoculation. And it turned out it was, in two respects. Firstly as a milder disease there would be fewer fatalities than with inoculation. Secondly, those vaccinated were not infectious. It was a miracle that it worked for there was absolutely no understanding at the time of the nature of viruses or of the human immune system. Jenner’s discovery did not come out of the blue. By the time he began to promote vaccination, the use of cowpox instead of smallpox, the public was used to the idea of injection with the surgeon’s lancet. He had learned Sutton’s technique of miniscule incisions. All he had to do was swap one infection for another. There were no inoculations for any of the other infectious diseases that plagued the eighteenth and most of the nineteenth century. Vaccination meant the use of cowpox to protect against smallpox. However in 1881 the French chemist Louis Pasteur who had discovered by chance a way of inoculating poultry against Chicken cholera proposed that all inoculations from then on should be called vaccinations in honour of Jenner. The heroic early years of inoculation, which were crucial for Jenner’s discovery of vaccination, were erased from medical history. In 2021, while waiting for our Covid Jab we might set the record straight with a cheer for Lady Mary and Daniel Sutton whose rustic talent turned her inspiration into a vital contribution to national health. Word count 2260
I was pleased to see that Google chose on Saturday 30 April to celebrate the birth of Claude Shannon, one of the forgotten geniuses of the age of the computer. His name was unknown to me until I studied the history of the personal computer for my book Eureka: how invention happens (Yale 2015). I had been writing about another genius from an earlier era, George Boole, inventor of "Boolean logic" when I discovered that it was Shannon who had made practical use of this to create the digital age. This is what I had to say about him: "It was a young American who realised that Boolean algebra could be used to process information electronically. Claude Shannon's thesis, written in 1937, had the unexciting title A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits but came to be regarded as the most influential paper of twentieth-century electronics. As with so much innovation at the time, it was a proposal for solving some serious problems with the telephone networks, which were becoming overloaded. Working for Bell Labs, Shannon used Boolean logic to devise a way of sending information in the form of pulses rather than waves. His revelation had come about because he had, most unusually, taken courses in both logic and electronics. In his history of the microprocessor, The Chip : How Two Americans Invented the Microchip and Launched a Revolution, T.R. Reid says of Shannon: 'If society allocated fame and fortune on the basis of intellectual merit, Claude Shannon would have been as rich and famous as any rock idol or football star.' Shannon was born in the small town of Gaylord , Michigan in 1916; his father was a judge and businessman and his mother the principal of the high school. He studied electrical engineering and mathematics at the University of Michigan, graduating in 1936. From there he went to MIT, where he had the opportunity to work with Vannevar Bush on a computer rather like a semi-electronic version of Babbage's Differential Engine. Shannon became intrigued by the work of the relays and wrote his thesis on A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits; in it he drew on the logic of George Boole. This work alone, which he completed when he was twenty-two, would have been sufficient to gain him a prominent place in the history of electronics for it showed how Boolean symbolic logic could be used to analyse complex systems such as the switching systems of a telephone exchange. Later, working at Bell Labs, he went on to propose a theory of communication in which all electronic information could be reduced to a common unit represented as a 1 or 0, what he called a "binary digit" soon shorted to "bit". This became the measure of a computer's memory: more bits, more memory. Though he did little to popularise his work, which is perhaps why he is not well known to the public (like a number of other prominent engineers he has no entry in the American Dictionary of Biography), Shannon is regarded as 'the father of the digital age'. He died aged eighty-four in 2001 after suffering from Alzheimer's for a number of years. His obituary in the London Times captured something of his eccentric character under the heading 'Playful genius who invented the bit, separated the medium from the message and laid the foundations for all digital communications'. [ex] To colleagues in the corridors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who used to warn each other about the unsteady advance of Shannon on his unicycle, it may have seemed improbable that he could remain serious for long enough to do any important work. Yet the unicycle was characteristic of his quirky thought processes, and became a topsy-turvy symbol of unorthodox progress towards unexpected theoretical insights …. Like Charles Babbage, Shannon was known by his contemporaries as 'the Irascible Genius'. When he returned to MIT in 1958, he continued to threaten corridor-walkers on his unicycle, sometimes augmenting the hazard by juggling. No one was ever sure whether these activities were part of some new breakthrough or whether he just found them amusing. He worked, for example, on a motorised pogo-stick, which he claimed would mean he could abandon the unicycle so feared by his colleagues …." It was Shannon's revolutionary information theory that provided the logic for the digital age.
While the imperialist Cecil Rhodes survived a recent campaign to have his statue removed from an Oxford University college, a little known bid to have the statue of an internationally renowned doctor returned to its rightful pedestal in London has been continuous for more than 150 years. Edward Jenner was the country surgeon who proposed in 1798 that a safer way of protecting against smallpox was to inoculate with a disease which affected cattle rather than the smallpox virus itself. Though the Royal Society refused to publish his proposal when it appeared as private paper it became an international sensation. Jenner called his miracle medicine variola vaccinae meaning literally "smallpox of the cow". Its use soon became known as vaccination. In Jenner's day it meant only inoculation against smallpox but was later applied to immunization against a great variety of infections in honour of his pioneering work. There were problems with vaccination as there was no scientific understanding of how it worked. Many doctors were opposed to it and Jenner's reputation rose and fell during his lifetime. When he died in 1823 friends and supporters asked for him to be interred in Westminster Abbey but the request was turned down. He was buried in the parish in Gloucestershire where his father had been a pastor and he had his medical practice. Nobody from London attended. From the earliest days of Jenner's promotion of vaccination his fame was far greater abroad, in Europe and America in particular, than in Britain. When in the 1850s the sculptor William Calder Marshall proposed to a group of doctors that he create a memorial to Jenner they were enthusiastic but had difficulty in raising the necessary funds. The money was not found until an appeal was made to the medical profession abroad. The United States, which had introduced vaccination for smallpox soon after Jenner's 1798 paper was published, made the largest donation, followed by Russia and in third place, Great Britain. When in 1858 it was learned in Parliament that permission had been given by Queen Victoria to provide a plinth for Jenner in Trafalgar Square there were immediate protests. In the Commons Thomas Slingsby Duncombe MP was reported as saying: "Cowpox was a very good thing in its proper place, but it had no business among the naval and military heroes of the country. Everybody who heard of the statue spoke of it with ridicule and disgust……he trusted that the House would pass a resolution calling upon them not to pollute or desecrate the ground by erecting a statue there to the promulgator or cowpox throughout the country." Clearly Duncombe was anti-vaccination, but the chief objection expounded in the newspapers was that Trafalgar Square was reserved for military heroes and Jenner had no right to be there. Jenner's statue, covered before its unveiling, had been placed next to that of Sir Charles James Napier an army officer, and a number of newspapers remarked on the incongruity of a mere benefactor of mankind being afforded the same status as a brave leader who risked his life for his country. " Why should Dr Jenner be found in such formidable society? " asked the Times. Nevertheless, the unveiling of Calder Marshall's statue went ahead in May 1858 with Prince Albert performing the inauguration ceremony. It remained there, despite many objections, until early in February 1862. The fact that Prince Albert had approved of the statue being in Trafalgar almost certainly extended Jenner's residence there: his removal would have been seen as a snub to Royalty. Albert died on 14 December 1861 and Queen Victoria went into mourning. Just a few weeks later there were reports of a mysterious appearance of a statue of Jenner on a new site to the west of Trafalgar Square. "During the last few days vistors to Kensington-gardens have been surprised by the appearance of the statue of Dr Jenner, of small-pox vaccination celebrity standing – or rather sitting– with its natural air of placidity on a new pedestal……This statue,it will be remembered, was some time ago, promoted to a distinguished position near the Nelson Column… but it has been furtively removed to Kensingon-gardens without any cause for its 'translation' being assigned". No fuss was made about this quiet act of demotion: most newspapers just remarked on the fact that Jenner gone from Trafalgar Square. The satirical magazine Punch could not resist publishing a few puns on "spots" including a little verse: England's ingratitude still blotsThe escutcheon of the brave and freeI saved you many million spots,And now you grudge one spot for me. For many years Jenner's statue was ignored. But his reputation has risen in recent years to perhaps its most illustrious level. The statue is smartened up and has a proper dedication on the plinth: Edward Jenner MD FRS1749-1823Country Doctor who benefited Mankind In Jenner's time smallpox was a dreaded disease worldwide and caused many deaths particularly of children. Survivors were left badly scarred and often blinded or deformed. In 1769 Jenner vaccinated James Phipps with cowpox and showed that the boy was immune to smallpox. He predicted the worldwide eradication of smallpox. This was finally achieved in 1980. So far efforts to have him re-installed in Trafalgar Square have failed despite the backing of the British Medical Journal and a culture in which a medical man with a world-wide reputation might be regarded by the public and in Parliament as a good deal more worthy of adulation than a military leader.
All the fuss about Jeremy Corbyn's image has brought to a mind an incident from long ago when smoking was quite acceptable in public and a puff on a pipe could be regarded as avuncular and reassuring. In the run-up to the general election in February 1974 I was given an assignment by the group of newspapers I worked for to follow Harold Wilson and his entourage in the hope of getting an interview. I sat with fellow reporters below a platform somewhere in south London ( Putney I think ) while Wilson complained bitterly about the political bias of the Press, stabbing the air with his pipe stem. He puffed away the whole evening so that by the time the meeting was closed the place was wreathed in smoke. I tried to get my interview backstage but a BBC Panorama crew got him into a car to drive back to his home in Lord North Street, Westminster. I managed to get a lift in the car behind with Mary, his wife. I recall her worrying about whether their son Giles would have a hot water bottle when they all went to Huddersfield, Wilson's constituency. It was February after all. When we got to Lord North Street Wilson had gone upstairs. I think it was his sister who came downstairs in a dressing gown. It was around midnight by then. There was excitement because the following days newspapers which had just been delivered headlined the fact that Enoch Powell was urging everyone to vote Labour. After a few minutes Wilson appeared and stood at the bottom of the stairs. He called across the room: "You can interview me if you don't mention this". It was a large Havana cigar, not yet lit, held between two fingers. Meekly, I nodded my consent to self-imposed censorship. I followed Wilson upstairs where he quizzed me about my politics and I rolled out my Labour credentials: chiefly the fact that, during elections, my grandmother in Northumberland provided the Party committee room in her little terraced house. We chatted briefly and inconsequentially and I have no memory of what I wrote but I am sure if I could find it again it would be banal. Wilson asked if I smoked and when I said I did he got his "bag carrier", a chap called Alf Richman, to cut a cigar for me. All his public life Wilson was a pipe smoker: the image of the cigar was too potent for a staunch Labour man. It has been said, too, that the pipe came in handy for interviews as he would relight it whenever he was asked a difficult questions giving himself time to consider his answer. Now, of course, the pipe would be banished. I wonder when was the last time a senior politician has been seen smoking in public.
One or two political commentators, ruminating on the remarkable emergence of Jeremy Corbyn from obscurity to national prominence, have called to mind the wonderful historical work of the late Norman Cohn entitled The Pursuit of the Millennium. At the time of the Crusades a great many movements arose, fired by an irrational belief in a utopian vision, and often putting their faith in an imaginary messiah. A tramp sleeping rough in the woods would be identified as a long lost hero of a crusade and carried shoulder high and quite bewildered into town to be crowned King. Lavished with all kinds of luxury for a few months, the imaginary messiah was invariably denounced as a charlatan and forced to flee. Of the many such tales Cohn related in his book, the one which has lodged itself in my memory is of the rise and fall of the messiah he called the "Pseudo-Baldwin." When the Crusaders captured Constantinople ( Istanbul ) in 1204 they made one of their number, Baldwin IX, Count of Flounders as Emperor of a large area around the city. In less than a year Bulgarians invaded and put him to death. Back in Flanders Baldwin’s daughter Joanna became Countess but she could not resist the power of Philip Augustus of France and the lands she hoped to rule were annexed by the French. This domination was resented and when Philip died in 1223 the scene was set for an uprising. " At this point, " Cohn wrote "the age-old phantasy of the Sleeping Emperor reappeared in a form adapted to the hour." In the popular imagination the slain Baldwin became superhuman "half demon half angel". A belief arose that he had not been killed at all but had been serving a penance imposed on him by the Pope for some terrible misdeed, living as a wandering beggar and hermit. Now he was close to expiation of that penance and would soon be back amongst his people. This belief grew when a stranger appeared announcing Baldwin’s imminent return. Sure enough a begging hermit appeared looking the part with his long hair and flowing beard. Tracked down to a hut he had made of branches in a forest in the region of Valenciennes, France, close to the border of what is now Belgium, he revealed that he was the long lost Baldwin and that he had a year to go on his penance. Cohn wrote: " Great crowds streamed out from Valenciennes to see him and in April 1225 brought him back to the town on horseback, clad in scarlet robe, amidst scenes of wild jubilation." Not everyone was convinced. Joanna, Baldwin's daughter, demanded to see the man who was said to be her father. But the Pseudo Baldwin refused her invitation and instead gathered an army together to take over her territories by force. By now a Christ-like figure people fought for a lock of his hair, a scrap of his clothing or a chance to sip his bathwater. He was crowned not only Count of Flanders and Hainaut but Emperor of Constantinople and Thessalonica.. The poor worshipped him believing he would bring them riches. He began to believe that he really was an Emperor and when King Louis VIII of France invited him to visit he accepted. This was his downfall. Louis had agreed a treaty of alliance with the banished Countess Joanna who knew very well this was not her father but an imposter. In conversation with the Pseudo Baldwin it soon became apparent that he could remember nothing about events that the real Count of Flanders would have known. He was, in reality, a serf by the name of Bertrand of Ray from Burgundy, who had gone on a Crusade as a minstrel and was a notorious imposter. At his audience with King Louis he realised he had been unmasked and he made a run for it. But the Pseudo Baldwin was no longer a wandering hermit but de-throned Emperor and he was soon captured and hung. This is just one of many such stories told in Cohn's book. Why should these medieval tales be evocative of the the elevation of humble Corbyn to the front rank of politics? He is not an imposter, of course, but there is something of the "Sleeping Emperor" about him, a long lost soul who has suddenly and miraculously come back to life. The belief that he might turn the clock back and create the kind of utopian Britain left-wingers dreamed of in the 1980s has a touch of the " pursuit of the millennium" about it. And there is a feeling that his celebrity will be short lived and it will not be long before he is denounced as a liability by his own followers and returned to his position as a recalcitrant, humble backbencher: "hung out to dry" as the saying goes.
My father John in party mood. He was a great raconteur and essayist During my time as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Queen Mary College, London I found that many students, and especially those who were diligent in their research, imagined that they could not start to write an essay before they had worked out in their head what it was they wanted to say. Yet whenever they began to write they found they were overwhelmed by the knowledge they had acquired and could not find a way into it. It is a familiar dilemma for anyone writing factual articles or books. Students would tell me they had been advised to map out their essay before they started writing, to follow the rules about referencing and to make sure they had a clear and firm conclusion. What they presented to me as a draft was, nevertheless, invariably a jumble of quotes and propositions which were barely intelligible. They would ask if I could help them with grammar and “writing style” as if that was the problem. Flicking through the pages they had presented to me and wondering how on earth I was going to help them in the brief hour of the tutorial I found myself relating something my father had said years earlier and which, if properly understood, could be a way to arrange their thoughts and lend their essay some coherence. What they needed was not a firm conclusion but a clear idea at the outset what their essay was about. If they could find that then everything else would fall into place. My father was an academic who had a reputation as a fine essayist and reviewer. The longest pieces he wrote were no more than three thousand words but he laboured at them for days and sometimes weeks. He made extensive hand written notes before he moved to his ancient portable typewriter to begin his first draft. I remember asking him how he decided what the opening paragraph of an essay should be. Had he worked it out in advance? He thought about it and said: "I usually discover what I want to say on page three. Everything before that is just dross which I have to get out of the way." This casual remark my father made years ago became for me a mantra in my writing tutorials. I liked the fact that it puzzled the students at first so that I needed to explain it. What it emphasized was the fact that whenever you begin to put down in writing the thoughts milling about in your head you start a dialogue with one part of your brain which has all the information and another part which is attempting put it into some kind of order. What was fluid is now there in black and white, solidified as it were. You can therefore examine it closely. In my experience those first attempts to get down what you think are always clumsy but I don’t throw them away: I keep going. I always find I am attempting to say the same thing over and over again in a slightly different way. Eventually I get a sense of what is not working and discard certain ideas and bring in new thoughts. It feels like a process of discovery which can only unfold because I emptying my thoughts onto the page. With luck, after many attempts, I will write a paragraph which gets at the essence of what I want to say. This is what I have come to think of as the "page three" revelation. With a number of students I was able to flick through their draft essay and to find, some way into their text, a “page three” paragraph. I was pleasantly surprised how often it worked. With the student sitting alongside I would take that paragraph and put it at the beginning of their essay jettisoning everything that went before. We could then work together to smarten up their opening paragraph confident that we were now "getting off on the right foot." A student of English Literature suggested that my father’s "secret of page three" was perhaps a bit like E. M. Forster’s much quoted "how do I know what I think until I see what I say?" The student believed Forster was describing his own approach to literary discovery and at first I thought it might be a witty way of encapsulating the belief in the my father’s belief in the revelations of page three. In fact, Forster was writing tongue in cheek, gently satirising an approach to creative fiction in his book Aspects of the Novel. When the French novelist Andre Gide said he would discover what his fiction was about in the process of writing he was no different from an anecdotal elderly lady, taunted by her nieces about the meaning of logic, who exclaimed "how do I know think until I see what I say." If that were to read: "how do I know what I think until I see what I have written" then I think I would go along with it. All writing, whether of fiction or factual books and articles ,involves a certain amount of "discovery". In the case of the non-fiction books I write it is about finding a way of encapsulating what you want to say in a creative way. The magic of page three says you cannot achieve that without finding out what you think by examining what you have written and throwing away the dross. This is not the same as editing, which comes at a later stage when you are happy with the structure of what you are writing and you are discarding text which you feel is irrelevant or re-working what you find clumsy or not as eloquent as you would like. I found I could not begin to edit student essays if it was obvious they had no idea what the whole thing was about. Vocabulary and grammar were irrelevant. What I looked for was always something that might serve as the “secret of page three” and if it was not there I would go looking for it by "interviewing" the student about what they had discovered in their research and what conclusions they had drawn. When you teach you rarely discover if you have been of any help but I like to think that somewhere a former student of mine at Queen Mary College has benefited from my father’s casual remark and looks to page three of their drafts to discover what it is they really want to say.