Stan Tottman was one of the finest teachers I ever met. He was the Head of the English Faculty at Goldsmith’s College of the University of London when I did my English degree there in the mid 1980s. It worked out that I think I was only ever in one set of seminars led by Stan, and they were about the poet, Gerard Manley-Hopkins. With other lecturers you could go in feeling rough, and just coast through the session. Not Stan. He told you beforehand exactly what you were going o be covering in the session, and if you hadn’t done the pre-reading them you would be sunk, and would get nothing from the sessions. If you tried to sit back and let everyone else do the work he would be on your case. Yet if you did prepare properly, and did share your ideas and opinions, then he would challenge you, cajole you, and basically stage manage the whole group so that he wasn’t teaching you, you were teaching each other. Only gifted teachers can do that. By the end of the seminars you would come out feeling mentally drained, and yet energised all at the same time.
However, after this, I could never bring myself to try to answer the Manley Hopkins questions in the end of year exam, or my finals , always opting for something else.
You see, I thought that I had been given so much by these sessions, the process of trying to cut it all down, to condense it enough to make a coherent essay was just too reductive. So either Stan’s seminars had been a failure, since I felt unable to write about Hopkins in the exams, or as I prefer to think, they were a glorious success.
What has this to do with the price of tea ? Don’t worry , bear with me and I’ll get there.
Last Monday I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. No, please, I’m not asking for sympathy. I’m OK, and as long as I have the sense to listen to my doctor and the Practice nurse, and to stick to their advice I’m sure I’ll continue to be OK. But it is going to mean some changes of lifestyle. One of the changes is that I’m trying to just get out of the house for a decent walk everyday, or as many days as I can manage it. Yesterday I went to a local nature reserve called Kenfig Pool. You see, I like butterflies. It all started about 10 years ago, when my twins were 5 or 6. Close to our old home we saw a beautiful looking butterfly with round eye patterns on its wings. They asked me what it was called, and I had no idea. So the next day we took a book out of the library and found out. So then we started looking out for all the other different types we could find. The girls stayed interested for a few years, but I’ve kept up my interest ever since.
So, as I say, yesterday I went for a walk in Kenfig Pool, and my youngest daughter came along to keep me company. We didn’t see many butterflies, to be honest, a small white, a speckled wood, and an female orange tip. When we saw this one I went off on a lecture about how the female looked very like a small white, because it lacks the distinctive orange tip to its wing that the male has that gives the species its name. Jess then asked me why I never took British butterflies as a specialist subject in Mastermind. I had to think for a minute because actually it would fulfil pretty much all of the criteria I’ve ever used to select a specialist subject. Its finite – there are about 60 species of butterfly regularly seen in the UK – I already have a halfway decent knowledge of the subject – I already own a number of books on the subject, so it wouldn’t break the bank. The only meaningful answer I could give was pretty much the same reason why I couldn’t write essays about Gerard Manley Hopkins – I would find it too reductive a process for something so special to me. Not that I’m saying that any of the other subjects I’ve learned in my time weren’t special, but not in the same way.
As an aside, by way of coincidence, a good quizzer called Jane Anne Liston, whom I met in the Brain of Britain semi-final last year, did actually take British butterflies as a specialist subject in the semi final of the 2007 SOBM of Mastermind. Very well she did too, as I recall.
Of all the reasons we might have for rejecting potential Mastermind subjects – because the subject is too wide, because its too hard, because its too boring, because its too unusual, because its too popular , for example, I wonder how many of us have ended up rejecting potential subjects because they are too important and mean too much to us ?