The poets light but Lamps –

The Poets light but Lamps –

Themselves – go out –

The Wicks they stimulate

If vital Light

 

Inhere as do the Suns –

Each Age a Lens

Disseminating their

Cicumference –

(Emily Dickinson 883)

In Extremis  The Life of War Correspondent Marie Colvin. Lindsey Hilsum (Chatto & Windus, 2018)

Becoming Michelle Obama (Viking, 2018)

 The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Faber and Faber 2016)

I recently heard poet and academic Ruth Padel interviewed on the radio, saying how she was clambering down some steep escarpment somewhere remote and scrabbling for a handhold,  when she had an epiphany about the dashes in Emily Dickinson’s work – as one does.  They are, she said, handholds, breathing points,  between scrambles for meaning.

At least this is what I understood her Emily Dickinson: Complete Poems (Book Center) by [Dickinson, Emily, Center, Book]to be saying, but I loved the idea of it.  This is the idea I’m sticking with now when I read Dickinson.   This inspiring writer of genius whose whole life was a struggle with God, with illness,  with the servitude of domestic life.  She kept struggling.  Although unrecognised during her lifetime – she knew her own worth.

If there is any common thread linking these three volumes (other than that they are all sitting on my bedside table)  it is about women knowing their own worth.  It is about lighting lamps – shining a light for future generations.  In very different ways, this idea epitomises the achievements of three very different female writers.

There is so much about Emily Dickinson that is beyond my comprehension.  I love that I could read her forever and still not understand her;   she who scrabbled for handholds among the ghosts and maelstroms of the soul, who rummaged amongst eternities and  in our concepts of divinity.  Dickinson the writer of genius who, in the later stages of her life, barely left her room.

A woman who conversely rarely stayed home was war correspondant Marie Colvin.  Colvin  was born into a conservative family in small town America in 1956,  there was nothing especially poor or deprived about her upbringing, but being a woman in the l950s was more usually a guarantee of becoming a housewife or a typist,  rather than a famous war correspondent.Marie Colvin.jpg

In 1974  Colvin was among the first few intakes of female to go to Yale and whilst there discovered a passion for both travel and journalism.  But she didn’t travel the way most of us travel, any more than Dickinson wrote poems like most of us write poems.

As a student at Yale, Colvin wrote for a travel piece for a journal based on ‘the real Mexico’ a country she had visited with another female student.

 “Arriving in Chihuahua, our first night in Mexico, we strolled jauntily out for a Mexican meal and a look at the nightlife.  Nervous glances began to get panicky after two blocks; men who passed turned to follow, catcalls came from corners and open doors, cars honked suggestively … there wasn’t another woman on the street … friends who had travelled to Mexico had returned with glowing stories about how warm and open the local people were.  They neglected to tell us all their friends had been male; we’d neglected to notice all the storytellers were male.”

Hilsum notes:  That was typical of Marie it never occurred to her not to do something that it might be unwise or dangerous, nor because as a woman she might face particular dangers.   Such adventures, she realised when she began to write, were rich seams like the silver ore in the rocks of Durango. An eye for detail, the ability to conjure a scene and scant regard for her own safety were to become trademarks of her journalism.

Colvin was killed in 2012 after she had herself smuggled into Homs, Syria, when everyone else was trying to get out.    All her life she had tried to shine a light on people’s suffering.

In her much lauded memoire Becoming Michelle Obama writes of her childhood in the East side of Chicago during the ‘tail end’ of the 1960s; she writes of teenage years spent returning home from outings with her doorkey pointing outward between clenched knuckles.  Growing up in a time and a place when the colour of your skin was enough to make you feel unsafe and certainly second rate.  In many places that is still the case.  In her book she shows a woman who has tried to strike a balance between retaining her own sense of identity and her life in the public sphere which at times has threatened to be overwhelming.

“I’ve been”  she writes  “a working class black student at a fancy mostly white college.  I’ve been the only woman, the only African American in all sorts of rooms.”

She has also been, it will come as no surprise to most people, a lawyer, a Chief Executive of a hospital trust, and First Lady of the United States of America.  This latter was not a position gifted solely as a result of being married to Barack.  She ran a stressful and exhausting, ultimately successful, campaign of her own to support him.

In the book Michelle writes movingly about a visit to the UK that she paid – shortly after becoming First Lady – to Elizabeth Garrett Anderson school in Islington,  a visit that she has recently repeated on being in London to promote her book. So why this school in particular?

More than 90% of the school’s 900 pupils were black or from an ethnic minority, a fifth of them were the children of immigrants of asylum seekers.  I was drawn to it because it was a diverse school with limited financial resources and yet had been deemed academically outstanding.

Watching them she said was like falling back into her own past.  She knew:

“These girls would need to work hard to be seen.  All the ways they’d be defined before they had a chance to define themselves.  They’d need to fight the invisibility that comes with being poor, female and of colour.”

Grace is a word that occurs quite often in Becoming.  The search for a precious commodity that can never be bought or acquired other than by pure hearted struggle.

The author writes:   ‘If there was a presumed grace assigned to my white predecessors I knew it wouldn’t be the same for me.  My grace would need to be earned.’

And so it has been.

Running backwards, passing the baton to no-one: A Review of Three Men on the Edge

 

Three Men on the Edge, Michael Loveday V. Press

This debut novella of poet Michael Loveday is filled with questions such as  ‘Where are the fragranced pillows, where are the flying horses?’   The answers unsurprisingly, are not always forthcoming.  Temporarily and sadly, the flying horses are not to be found no more the Spitfire key rings or the tiger print purses as protagonist Denholm rummaging through boxes in a old storeroom is an opportunity too good to pass up,  and we are soon drifting back through layers of time to coin box skulls and footballing pigs and remembrance of hated games of blind man’s buff.

This book is an investigation of the mindsets of its three protagonists, threaded through with evocations of the settings of Rickmansworth/Chorleywood/Hertfordshire ‘on the edge’ of London.  Such geographical placements – as is the case with many settings in literature and poetry –  are both physical and metaphorical,   for it is part of the human condition to feel on the edge of things, to experience this acute ‘edgeness’  as being alone.

But beyond the metaphor of the protagonists psyches, the landscape fulfils another role, that of a character in its own right. Second protagonist Gus seeks out the shadows and forms of the natural world which lap at the edges of our space:

‘there’s a veil between him and the world that will not lift and to tear it down seems like a betrayal.  Why is it still not consolation – witnessing these swans, these shadows, this sky?’

Amid the minutiae of everyday life including the afternoon TV show Homes under the Hammer and a visit to Watford’s ‘antiseptic shopping mall’,  Loveday renders this acute (even surgical) inspection of the lonely confusion of being 21st century human.  The landscape functions to remind us what we are losing, that we are the only animal on the planet that destroys its own habitat.

The author mocks the meaningless nonsense which modern culture forces on us in the interests of the safety elves and some insurance company somewhere.  For example,  ‘the small print’  consists of fourteen lines of  horrendous sounding symptoms, obviously taken from some prescription medication,  ending in a pinnacle of silliness:    ‘pins and needles, psoriasis, diarrhoea,  impotence, mental disturbance  … and (rarely) temporary thinning of the hair.

In the section entitled ‘Martyn – chewing glass’ I particularly like the way the author pinpoints the co-dependence of sexual relationships:

In Anja … he’s found the companion men surely crave; a guardian god of his secrets, magnifying mirror to his better self, and match for his lost mother’s perfections,’.

and,  the increasingly extravagant media-fed fantasies upon which we rely for a sense of identity;

To join the London Olympics as proxy hero, Martyn intends to complete two thousand and twelve laps of Bury Lake.  He’s not running for charity – it’s a piece of performance art, and he’ll be running backwards with a paintbrush as a baton that he’ll pass to nobody.

Another fantastic question:  What is a gateway but a history of exits?  How many have passed this way before?  What lives did they lead?

This book is a rummage through the storerooms of the human heart with all its fears, its passions, its yearnings, its failures, its betrayals.   Part of me suspects that  Three Men on the Edge is a series of prose poems with an interlinking narrative structure. But that is merely a quibble of naming.   That the prose is a feast of poesy is no accident, Loveday being a fine poet as well as, now, a fiction writer.

 

 

 

Stone. Bread. Salt: Poems by Norbert Hirschhorn (Holland Park Press)

 

I have owned so many identities – or had them given to me since day 1 on this planet: child, girl, girlchild, schoolgirl,  daughter, Jew,  niece,  adolescent, woman, female,  administrator, wife, mother, writer, poet, storyteller,  sister, oldie, second generation survivor.     What did I survive – I who have never been nearer to a concentration camp than peering at piles of hair and spectacles at Yad Vashem?

To be Jewish was something to be feared, the cause of the perpetration of nameless horrors upon my father and his family members most of whom were not around to explain and the ones that were, didn’t.   I was subscribed automatically upon birth to this club of suffering which could never be left, for to leave it would mean profoundly disrespecting the lives (and more importantly the deaths) of uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents.  A disease of belonging for which there is no cure even beyond the grave.

The poet Norbert Hirschhorn writes in the preface to his latest collection Stone. Bread. Salt. (Holland Park Press, 2018):

“In Judaism, the Hebrew word tshuva is a vital concept.  It means return but also repentance.  It is said that God first created repentance, then the universe.  Over the past decade I have made my own return, a journey to rediscover my Jewishness.”

Thus when I first picked up this volume of poems, when I shared a reading with Hirschorn at the Poetry Café in London, I thought I would have no vocabulary with which to offer a review; reviewing after all requires context. In the end that was only partially true.  The book has made me think about my own  relationship with an impossible status.

Some stages from my list of life’s identities were here:  ‘layette, baby clothes, bike, treadmill, bloodpressure cuff, wheelchair, shroud …’ . (Life Course Department Store)

My parents prayed I’d learn what it meant to be Jewish

The Rabbi discerned I lacked the mien to be Jewish

I hated shul, longed for pork

(Self-Portrait)

This I understood.   No Rabbi ever discerned that I lacked the mien to be Jewish because I was a female and so that was the be all and end all of my mien.  I wasn’t required to do much during any service except sit on a balcony and stare down at my patriarchal elders and betters.  I think I was about 8 years old when the Jewish faith and I parted company and the rest is, if not history, a history of guilt.   Whether or not I subscribe to the tenets of the Jewish faith – and I don’t – the essence of Jewishness was scorched into my psyche, so much so, that newly married I recall bursting into floods of tears at the sight of a printed row of numbers on the cork of a winebottle my poor bewildered husband had opened.  Although I realise now that I confused being Jewish with being tormented for being Jewish.  In my own mind, and probably in the minds of many others, the two have become inseparable.

I was in my 50s when a Rabbi refused to shake my hand at my mother’s funeral.  I should have known of course, should never have proffered the offending hand.  But I had forgotten so much during the intervening years, had forgotten my place.

A Rebbe and his young disciple were on pilgrimage … when they came across a stream in spate.  Near them was a young woman in long dress and head scarf afraid to cross. The Rebbe lifted her gently onto his back, strode into the stream and crossed …. The men walked silently for a while on the other side.  Thenthe disciple said Master pardon me but you shouldn’t have touched that woman. The Rebbe thought a moment and replied, I put her down some time ago.  Why are you still carrying her?

Stone, Bread, Salt, p.76

If I am Jewish, have always been Jewish,  what need is there to go looking for the substance of that Jewishness?  And if I am not Jewish,   what would be the point?  The very fact of my existence – I who was never intended to live – and the existence of my children who were never intended to be born –  this is the victory.

In Hirschhorn’s poem ‘Self-Portrait’ the narrator goes to a wise woman to ask what does it mean to be Jewish.  We’re a people with history. We’re your passport to the past.

Where to unlock a people’s history, other than through its cultural soul and where else to find that soul except in language, stories,  poetry, songs, music.  In Hirschorn’s last collection To Sing Away the Darkest Days he returned to Yiddish folksongs, the language of his grandparents and great grandparents.   Ah, the passport to the past.   And yet …

The past is not necessarily any kind of a passport.   Even if we could arrive there- at that other country where they do things differently – what would it avail us?   Being Jewish raises questions that our very history, condition, status, ideology – call it what you will –  renders unanswerable;   being Jewish is a condition impossible to describe without reference to shattered glass and yellow stars,  ergo it is impossible to describe.    I once wrote a poem (or tried to) about the Golem of Old Prague which had holocaust references in it.  I was gently reproved by a learned academic friend who read my piece – the holocaust was neither born nor thought of in 16th century Prague.  Maybe.   The golem was a creation metaphor, another insoluble problem.

Although I believe completely in holocaust education in the interests of it never happening again, I also believe too many of us are still wearing our yellow stars.  It is time to lay them down.  As Hirschorn says:

‘I trace my own ancestors to the earliest time of life on earth, and before that to the stars.  For this I stand in awe.’

That sense of shared humanity is a good starting point.  A good point of return.  So although this has not strictly been a book review, it is a statement of gratitude for making me think.  Perhaps that is the best review of all.

 

 

 

Teaching the unimaginable: the role of poetry in remembrance of the Holocaust

Recently attending a Remembrance Day service I was struck by the speech given by the local vicar who asked the gathering whether we thought we took our freedom for granted? Of course we take our freedom for granted if we are lucky enough to be free.   If we have never known what it is not to be free. Can we imagine soldiers coming to our homes, dragging members of our family away, looting and burning? No-one who has not directly experienced such things can really imagine it.

How then do we teach the unimaginable? For teach it we must.

An item which appeared in the Museums Journal (November 2017) refers to Holocaust remembrance and discusses the Museums of 21st century will interpret this subject. The article starts with a description of two televisions screens in the V&A in London relaying testimonies from Holocaust survivors:

“We always say never again, but it happens all the time. Not for nothing does one say that history repeats itself.”

Education is a vital part of breaking the chain of history repeating itself yet a report by the 2015 Holocaust Commission apparently concluded that teachers are confused about how to teach the holocaust with many schools avoiding the topic.

With the voices of the remaining holocaust survivors being stilled by time it is vital that we continue to find ways to educate and warn new generations of the horrors of genocide. Not only the Jews but Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, history’s whole list of Chamber of Horrors murderers that gained power in the 20th century and held on to it long enough to cause the deaths of millions of innocent people of whatever race or creed, all this has to continue to be taught.

One of the usual ways ‘into’ studying the history of genocide is to look at the political, economic and cultural factors that were in play at the time. In many ways these are incidental factors, not reasons at all. There are never any reasons, or rather there is only one reason, that such horrors can occur – it is the same reason that nuclear weapons continue to exist despite that many people alive today witnessed reporting of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is almost not enough to stop people killing each other although that would be a great start. The challenge is to stop them wanting to. We have not yet achieved that.

Yet we continue to try. Music art and poetry find a way into places that don’t seem accessible through purely intellectual means.

Holocaust poet Paul Celan (1920-1970) wrote probably the most famous poem to come out of the Holocaust – ‘Todesfugue’ – death and music combined. There were indeed orchestras in the death camps. Celan’s poem was apparently so shattering when read in his own voice (according to his biographer John Felstiner[1]) that even those with no German understood – not ‘the gist’ that oh so useless word – but the agonizing heart of it.

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Paul Celan (1920-1970)

 

In 21st century Britain do we think of poetry as decorative? Therapeutic? Inessential? Difficult? Perhaps all of those things to some extent. In Stalin’s Russia there were no such doubts. Reading Hope against Hope and Hope Abandoned by Nadezhda Mandelstam wife of the murdered poet Osip Mandelstam it is clear that poetry was a game played for the highest stakes.

The freedom of artists is the first thing to go in a dictatorship. In Russia, during Stalin’s era, the role of the poet was to tow the party line. Failure to do so was a deadly business. Russian poet Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938) effectively signed his own death warrant with a poem about Stalin. Twelve lines was all it took.

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Mandelstam was arrested, but was not executed immediately. He was sent into exile for years, accompanied by his wife Nadezhda; much of this time was spent in Voronezh. He continued to the end to be hounded for his failure to take ‘an official line’ in his poetry and eventually was rearrested, dying years later in a transit camp waiting to be shipped to the Siberian camp at Kolyma or some such hell on earth.

While Paul Celan survived the holocaust in terms of years he drowned himself in the Seine in 1970, a victim of ungovernable trauma in a mind which had witnessed too much that could never be unwitnessed. Poetry, Celan said, could retrieve the German language from the abuses of the Nazis:

Reachable, near and not lost, there remained amid the losses this one thing: language. It, the language remained, not lost yes in spite of everything. But it had to pass through its own answerlessness, pass through frightful muting, pass through the thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech.[2]

The poems of the holocaust are not just survivor or victim stories written in poetic form.

Teaching poetry fulfills the double function of filtering the unimaginable through language and the language of experience. Experiences evolve – we cannot showcase human experience only through artefacts in museums however horrific those artefacts may be.

It is difficult to freeze events in time. There is always a before and an after. A possibility of prevention and a possibility of re-enactment.  Of history repeating itself.  The best art drills down through time and concentrates intensity of lived experience, getting to its humanist core. The best poetry holds up a mirror and shows us ourselves stripped of political expedience and economic relativism.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] J. Felstiner. Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew. Yale University Press (New Haven and London: 2001)

[2] Introduction by J. Felstiner. Paul Celan, Nelly Sachs: Correspondence. Trans. Christopher Clark. Ed. Barbara Weidemann. The Sheep Meadow Press (New York, 1995)

The Lonely City

Olivia Laing, Canongate, 2016

“You can be lonely anywhere , but there is a particular flavor that comes from being lonely in a city”

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If this reads as an entrée into an examination of the work of American artist Edward Hopper (1882- 1967) – among other things, it is.    Looking at Hopper’s work it is hard to avoid a sympathetic response to the situation of his characters as people who are alone in their urban environments, with all the ensuing emotional cost that this involves. Although the artist himself did not like to admit to his paintings as studies of loneliness, Laing finds it hard to separate his work from this idea.

Laing also casts her compassionate eye over the life and work of Andy Warhol (1928-1987), David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992) and Henry Darger (1892-1973), the last to me completely unknown, but perhaps the most extreme in a literal realization of what it means for the personal of the artist to be physically and emotionally isolated, yet still create. Darger’s work was discovered posthumously writing and paintings of a Faustian world, containing scenes of both torment and paradise.

The essential isolation of the human condition! Considering there are so many of us – why is this?   As Laing points out, mere physical proximity is not enough to dispel these feelings, rather it exacerbates them, containing within itself the potential for voyeuristic opportunities to put the viewer in the situation of unauthorized observer of other lives, a situation which Hopper appears to explore in Night Windows.

Living in the country may sometimes be a lonely experience but surely it is harder to feel that sense of complete isolation when other beings are birds, insects, trees, grass. How do we know the pain of other lives? The difficulty … the joys? We don’t.   Those who are artists, painters, poets, musicians, writers of all ilk spend agonizing hours trying to find out. Or perhaps our lonely little planet spinning in its void is so much a part of us – as each of us is part of it – that it is inevitable we should share in the planetary sense of impending oblivion.  Is this what Plath meant when she wrote :

This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary
The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.
The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God

(The Moon and the Yew Tree)

If the grasses grieve that we must grieve too. Humanity is not god but it has behaved as an irrational god achieving dominion over its environment then destroying it. What, faced with this relentless destruction, can an individual do? The answer lies in re-establishing broken connections – not in a caustic business sense of networking – but in a sense of identifying life as a shared process. Olivia Laing’s book sheds light on the artworks she travelled to the US to examine, but in the process she found out about herself and it is these insights that enable the reader to connect, as much as the lives and times of the artists she writes about.

Knowledge is not wisdom

Knowledge is knowledge. Wisdom is something else entirely.

Where has knowledge got us? To a point of existential crisis. Technology has brought us medical advances and robotics. It has also brought the nuclear bomb. It has got us mass surveillance at levels of which the Stasi could have only dreamed, with all the ensuing oppression and threat to democratic structures.

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But technology itself is neutral. Super computers can do all sorts of things – they can do nothing on their own. Someone, somewhere has to understand the technology which is governing all our lives – technology over which many of us have only an infant level grasp. It is certainly true that we all need a far greater knowledge of this technology – its limits or lack of limits – than we seem to possess. That is what Edward Snowden risked his freedom and his very life to tell us.

The freedoms that we hopefully envisaged  would come with social networking have soured into commodification and entrapment. After publication of the book  The Satanic Verses brought down a fatwa upon his head, author Salman Rushdie spent half his life trying to outrun extremist attempts to assassinate him and others connected with publication of the work, (which in the case of at least one publisher, succeeded).  In his book Joseph Anton his autobiographical account of this time, Rushdie commented that he would not have stood a chance had the events taken place in the internet age. People are easier to find and easier to control.

We need knowledge but even more than that we need wisdom. Buddhist Philosopher, Daisaku Ikeda, says: “Simply put, knowledge corresponds to the past; it is technology. Wisdom is the future; it is philosophy.”

We need people educated to exhibit foresight and moral balance. Beyond the limits of the spreadsheet, the balance sheet, the nationalist rhetoric lies the still uncharted realm of the philosophy book.  Human beings are human beings. They are not fodder for giant corporates or a collection of data to be stored for some as yet unspecified future use. Unfortunately that is not the message that narrow political views with their shadowy vested interest backers are keen to put across at the moment.

What do massive tech companies want from their employees?   They want people who know how to run massive tech companies. They do not want balanced individuals who have been trained to question authority and think for themselves.   Aye there’s the rub! We are sandwiched in between our increasingly desperate need for people who understand the technologies with which we have so liberally laced our unfree world – a new Bletchley Park peopled with those who can see off alleged hackers and keep our little island safe from viral incursions (at least of the digital variety) – and our need to create a new societal model in which people can think long-term, think their way out of crises situations before they occur, rather than constantly fire-fighting.

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But where there is use, there is abuse. In her book Not for Profit (Princeton University Press, 2010) Martha C. Nussbaum says:

“Educators for economic growth will do more than ignore the arts. They will fear them. For a cultivated and developed sympathy is a particularly dangerous enemy of obtuseness, and moral obtuseness is necessary to carry out programs of economic development that ignore equality.”

A program of economic development that ignores equality is the agenda which got Donald Trump elected to the White House.  Proof, if proof were needed, of the dangers of the dehumanizing effects of modernity coupled with a complete inability to see others as we see ourselves.

When the actor Hugh Laurie accepted his Golden Globe award in January for a performance in the TV series The Night Manager “on behalf of psychopathic billionaires everywhere” we all felt the sharp end of the joke that wasn’t funny. The sociopath has no concept of ‘other’ except as something to be acquired, collected or used.

Here is another worrying thought from Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore:

“aggressive nationalism seeks to blunt the moral conscience, so it needs people who do not recognize the individual, who speak group-speak, who behave and see the world like docile bureaucrats.” (Nationalism, London, Macmillan 1917).

In short, the real crisis shortage of labour is in people who can tell right from wrong. The big votes in 2016 were Brexit and the US election. Did voters in either case exhibit a rounded ability to think about all the political issues affecting the nation, to reason and debate, to make decisions based on sound judgement ?  If our so-called leaders are not doing that …. ? Did voters exhibit the ability to recognize other people as individuals, fellow citizens, regardless of race, religion or gender?   Or were they swayed by any nationalist rhetoric regardless of how illogical?

There may be many and complex reasons for the things that happened in 2016 but top of my list would be the decades long narrowing of the focus of education away from the humanities. Music, poetry and the arts ask us to wonder about our world – they ask us to take time to look inside it and question what we see. It can be said that the sciences do this too but these are concerned more with evidence and proof, rather than spirit and possibility. Science, business, economics, technology are great subjects for knowing how the physical world works, but they are not great at developing empathy. They are not great at teaching us to transcend cultural barriers at recognizing ‘other’.

But as Nussbaum points out, in the UK, since the Thatcher era, humanities departments of Universities have increasingly been under pressure to ‘justify’ themselves in terms of profitability a measurable short-term ‘impact’ being required, over the idea of philosophical development. In fact the very word ‘impact’ raises the bureaucratic spectre of ‘measurable outcomes’. James Rebanks, author of A Shepherd’s Life would be the first to admit that his ‘measurable outcomes’ at school were insignificant.   This did not appear to stop him achieving a double first at Oxford and going on to write several best selling books.