Maya Angelou – a great human voice

Maya Angelou








In the summer of 1972, I was working in the Merit Distribution Warehouse as a general dogsbody / janitor.  The warehouse had a low concrete profile at the heart of a web of railways, trunk roads and skyways heading into, and out of, Manhattan island.  I remember clearly leaning on my yard brush and the steamy summer sun glinting off the windscreens of the cars queuing on the Pulaski Skyway – even then it looked as if it had been assembled from someone’s giant Meccano set, striding across the edgeland of factories, warehouses and urban decay from which New Joisey’s  people serviced the needs of New York City.

At school in the late 60s and as a student in the early 70s I had devoured many of the civil rights authors.  Now, while living and working in the US that summer, staying with my Uncle John and his family, I was taking the chance whenever I could get it to read some more, to soak myself in the strange reality of American life.  Employment in the warehouse was strictly along ethnic lines – Jewish owners, white admin staff, Italian foremen in charge of the loading deck, mostly white fork lift drivers – every one of which knew their European identity.  Banter around the stereotyped characteristics, of the Polaks or Ruskies or whoever, was a major part of the conversation.   There was a Spanish motor mechanic worked on the lorries, and most of the lorry drivers bringing in the goods, or taking them away, were black.  It was hot sweaty work.  Dragonflies the size of blackbirds patrolled the skies.  I learned a lot that summer about how America worked but almost nothing about how America played – we lived and worked together but then went back to our very separate lives.   There were some other, American, students working there – Joey Brignola  Frankie something, one of the bosses sons as well.  They got to unload the Samsonite wagons off the railway siding at the back of the warehouse – an easier job.   In the weekends, they headed up to the Poconos to their family summerhomes, smoked weed and partied.  I read the  American press – McGovern’s campaign, Vietnam, Tricky Dicky.  I also read Maya Angelou for the first time and, like so many others, I was entranced from the beginning.

I know why the caged bird sings sang to me.   Eldridge Cleaver or Huey Newton or Malcolm X – they all had something to say, something to learn from.  But Maya Angelou spoke to the heart as well as the head.   In the 42 years since then, she has cemented her place in the hearts of millions throughout the globe who love her use of language, who have cried with her in her adversity,who have learned from her the true meaning of wisdom and respect.

I mourn her passing and celebrate the rich gift of her life, her writing and her teaching.

Some other links for Maya Angelou – go on, treat yourself.

Gary Younge’s 2009 interview

Reading her poems….

If you’ve never read I know why the caged bird sings, you should.



So It Is

Liam Bell’s first novel, So It Is, is set in a Belfast scarred by war.  Its central character is a clever, damaged, young Catholic girl Aoife. Two parallel narratives run through ‘Book 1’:  one, a third person account of a young girl, Aoife, whose growing is marred by family troubles and the dilemmas posed to her and to those she loves by the circumstances of life in Belfast in the 80s and 90s; the other, the first person internal voice of a hardened young woman, Cassie, who seeks out terrorists from the other community for a grisly revenge.  As the story of Aoife progresses through her teenage years, we understand how Aoife has turned or been turned into Cassie.   It is a sympathetic evocation of growing up in the midst of that strange civil war that was ‘The Troubles’.


Book 2 focuses on Cassie and her increasingly systematic approach to revenge, tutored and supported by her ex-provo psychopath lover, Baldy.  Here the novel really takes off and develops a dark insight into deeper themes.   The structure of Book 2, one chapter for each of the ten killlers on Baldy’s revenge ‘hit list’, racks up the tension – with each new story, another name is scored off the list.    The conversations between the characters explore the moral challenges of peace and reconciliation for those scarred by nihilistic violence.  Baldy and Cassie pursue their grim task against a backdrop of the Good Friday agreement and steps towards power-sharing.  Ciáran, the young lad down the street whom Aoife might have fallen in love with and married in earlier more peaceful times, has learned to move into the new era and reaches out to Cassie, trying to revive Aoife, to bring her back.  But it is Aaron, an ex-UDA man on Baldy’s list, who reaches deepest into Cassie to find Aoife again.  In the novel’s surprising ending, peace and pain are reconciled – both hopeful and tragic.

Marx the Journalist

During after dinner chat last night, we got onto talking about how well Karl Marx, the journalist, wrote.  We had been looking for his quote on historical events repeating themselves, and I went back to my much abused copy of ‘Basic Writings’ to look up his take on the 1848 revolution in France… I was sure it was in there somewhere.  Eventually, this morning, I found it at the beginning of his extensive essay ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon’ – a fabulous piece of sustained journalistic polemic.


Marx was so much better as a journalist than he was as an economist, his incisive analytical commentaries on the key events of the day based directly on his deeper philosophical writings, but not weighed down with the ponderous prose of economic theory.  Racy, exciting, opinionated but often right on the button.  Here are some sample quotes: the first is the one I was looking up, from the start of his essay on the seizure of power by Louis Napoleon, mimicking his uncle’s seizure of power in the 1790s:

“Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice.  He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.  Caussidiere for Danton, Louis Blanc for Robespierre, the ‘Montagne’ of 1848-1851 for the ‘Montagne’ of 1793-1795, the nephew for the uncle.”

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please.. but under circumstances encountered, given and transmitted from the past.  The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living..”

“It is not enough to say, as the French do that their nation was taken unawares…  It remains to be explained how a nation of thirty-six million can be surprised and delivered unresisting into captivity by three swindlers.”

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”

Pure political and philosophical gold.

“Dilemmas” Reviewed

Very gratifying to find a good review of ‘Dilemmas’ in the latest EMAL journal.   Full text in Educational Management Administration & Leadership, March 2014, 42: 314-315, but some key extracts of the review below….

If this whets your appetite, search this blog on ‘dilemmas’ and you’ll get some extracts.

Book Review: Professional School Leadership: Dealing with Dilemmas (2nd edition) Edinburgh: Dunedin Academic Press, 2013; 176 pp.: ISBN 978-1-78046-018-5 (pbk).   Reviewed by: Karen Stephens, University of Leicester, UK

Murphy’s second edition develops previous insights into how teachers and school leaders perceive and approach the tensions and dilemmas encountered in the daily life of modern schools….  he paints a clear picture of the expectations, aspirations and practicalities that compete for attention, thereby producing potential experiences of dilemma…….

The book is divided into two clear sections, the first dealing in detail with the theory underpinning Murphy’s model followed by a practical application of this model. …… A range of vignettes, taken from the real life experiences of school leaders in a variety of schools and career stages…….help illustrate and …. provide examples for further discussion and reflection……

 Murphy emphasises the evolving, developing nature of wisdom and insight that leaders accumulate as they engage with dilemmas, making the structure of the book useful both as an initial training resource and as a continuing guide…..

I found this book very interesting and inspiring ….. School leaders, especially those finding themselves grappling with dilemmas, would find may useful insights here……

The book makes a timely and useful contribution to the profession at a time when schools and school leaders face huge change and challenges.

12 years a slave

Joan and I watched this film at a crowded Cinema 3 in Glasgow’s Renfrew Street Cineworld on Sunday evening.  I have added Solomon Northrop’s account of his captivity, subjugation and eventual escape (click here to read online) to my ever expanding list of ‘must reads’.

12 years

The film was compelling viewing with script, cinematography, music and actors combining to deliver a moving personal story in the most powerful medium.   Like the story of Kunta Kinte (here), the hero of Alex Haley’s 1970s novel ‘Roots’, it brought the worst reality of the slave trade straight to the heart.

Of course, as a onetime student of History, I think I know a great deal about the Atlantic slave trade, and its many parallels in other parts of the world and other eras such as the Muslim Indian Ocean equivalent (less publicised and active much longer).  But  the emotionally engaging technology of a well-made full size film touches the heart in quite a different way.

As a onetime teacher of History, I can only envy the capacity of the film maker to spin the story of the past, whether evidenced or imagined or a mixture of both, to tell an important truth about humanity in such a powerful and affecting way.  The proper study of history, with due attention to evidence, is a necessary part of the truth of the past, ensuring that those with access to the most powerful media do not distort the story for their own ends.   Yet film can communicate in a way that a history book never can.

I like to believe that had I been a Scottish or Irish gentleman of the 18th or 19th Century, forced to seek my fortune elsewhere by family poverty, I would have avoided the southern states or the West Indies and gone for the clean living honest labour of the frontier, like John Muir, though I acknowledge that even he had the advantage of being able to follow a peaceful path across the continent, as his predecessors had already eliminated most of the original inhabitants!

In fact, I have my own ancestral ‘get-out’ clause, an easy route to an easier conscience.  When Solomon Northrop was labouring as a cotton picker on the Louisiana plantation where much of the action is set, many of my ancestors were starving in the Irish potato famine, or fleeing Ireland to settle in the worst slums of Victorian Edinburgh.   Yet I still feel a strong sense of ‘guilt by association’, as a child of a country that profited more than most from the slave trade.  This is not about race.  It is important to recognise the conceptual trickery by which a false, ‘white’ identity can be assumed. I completely reject such a ‘white’ identity.  I equally dislike the false prison of ‘national’ identity, one of the reasons I am uncomfortable with the nationalist undertones of ‘Scottish independence’.  I assert a human identity.  Pale skin cannot make me responsible for the crimes of the 19th Century slavers.

However there is some responsibility.  The wealth of contemporary Scotland was built not just on the labour of the cotton factories or coal mines, or the Irish navigators who built the railways and canals, but  also in part on the backs of the sugar and tobacco plantations of the New World.   My current wealth and ease is built on the stories of the past.

We, who live today in comfort, must acknowledge the harm that was done, empathise with the sense of loss and injustice of those who share a slave heritage and ensure that the future is built on stronger foundations of human dignity and rights, our shared humanity and our shared responsibility for each other.

I commend both the film and the book.  I want now to read his story, to hear Solomon Northrop speak to me down the ages; to hear him speak for himself.   The following extract from the book, faithfully portrayed in Steve McQueen ‘s film, finds Solomon at the point when he has been kidnapped into captivity and refuses to accept the demands of the slave trader, Burch, that he should acknowledge his new identity as a slave:

As soon as these formidable whips appeared, I was seized by both of them, and roughly divested of my clothing. My feet, as has been stated, were fastened to the floor. Drawing me over the bench, face down-wards, Kadbum placed his heavy foot upon the fetters, between my wrists, holding them painfully to the floor. With the paddle, Burch commenced beating me. Blow after blow was inflicted upon my naked body. When his unrelenting arm grew tired, he stopped and asked if I still insisted I was a free man. I did insist upon it, and then the blows were renewed, faster and more energetically, if possible, than before. When again tired, he would repeat the same question, and receiving the same answer, continue his labor. All this time, the incarnate devil was uttering most fiendish oaths. At length the paddle broke, leaving the useless handle in his hand. Still I would not yield. All his brutal blows could not force from my lips that I was a slave. Casting madly on the floor the handle of the broken paddle, he seized the rope. This was far more painful than the other. I struggled with all my power, but it was in vain. I prayed for mercy, but my prayer was only answered with imprecations and with stripes. I thought I must die beneath the lashes of the accursed brute. Even now the flesh crawls upon my bones, as I recall the scene. I was all on fire. My sufferings I can compare to nothing else than the burning agonies of hell!


At last I became silent to his repeated questions. I would make no reply. In fact, I was becoming almost unable to speak. Still he plied the lash without stint upon my poor body, until it seemed that the lacerated flesh was stripped from my bones at every stroke. A man with a particle of mercy in his soul would not have beaten even a dog so cruelly. At length Eadbum said that it was useless to whip me any more — that I would be sore enough. Thereupon, Burch desisted, saying, with an admonitory fist in my face, and hissing the words through his firm-set teeth, that if ever I dared to utter again that I was entitled to my freedom, that I had been kidnapped, or any thing whatever of the kind, the castigation I had just received was nothing in comparison with what might follow. He swore that he would either conquer or kill me.

Chris and Bessie…. to a letter….

In e.mail correspondence with Bernard Barker, a friend and education colleague today, he told me that much to his surprise, his father’s wartime letters to his mother have gained recent literary success.  He told me that after his father’s death, he had …

“… deposited 500 letters (fully archived) at Mass Observation – they have been found and published in Simon Garfield’s To The Letter (see here ); and promoted assiduously in various ways. The reviews, from the Washington Post to the Guardian have celebrated my parents as wonderful writers and now there is talk of a freestanding book and an audio version with Benedict and Kerry Fox. I had envisaged the letters providing verite for second world war historians in years to come, the odd footnote; I had not anticipated a sensation. The experience is surreal but very exciting and enjoyable…..”

Here is Benedict Cumberbatch reading from one of the letters:

Here is a link to the reviews:


Washington Post

While there’s inevitably a slightly intrusive feeling about listening in on intimate conversation (unless it’s a publicity seeking celebrity), there is something about this intimacy that warms the spirit – it is a gift from those who have passed away to us who still live.

Thank you Bessie and Chris and and thank you Bernard.  Your sharing has enriched us all.