Below we reproduce the speech given by Hazel Waters on the publication of a special issue of Race & Class, honouring the work of educationalist, Chris Searle.
It’s fallen to me, as advisory editor on Race & Class – or rather, I seized the chance from the journal’s founding editor, Sivanandan – to present Chris, our most important and unsung educator with this special issue. But before I do so, I wanted to just speak a little more personally about what working on it has provoked in me, some of the thoughts that arise in me.
There’s a phrase that comes to me often, at times of emotion, from Shakespeare - Lear actually - which I, like Chris on the other side of London (He was East, I was South east) studied for A level. And we both saw, and still remember, Paul Schofield’s electrifying performance at the National Theatre. It’s spoken by Cordelia - ‘Unhappy that I am I cannot heave my heart into my mouth.’ It’s a beautiful line – that delicate falling chime of the ‘a’ sound – unhappy, am, that, cannot, then all the weight and depth of the line falls on ‘heave’, the sound turns round from the short ‘a’ to the long ‘ee’ , with ‘v’ the only voiced consonant in the line, then from heave the line comes up from the depths with heart, a lighter sound but connected by that unobtrusive alliteration of the ‘h’ , linking the three crucial words, happy, heave, heart, then the whole ending with the opening and closing sound of the word ‘mouth’. So simple, so rich.
That was what we used to call ‘critical appreciation’ – part of the education I had from one of the most critically acute and inspiring teachers at my grammar school, Miss Carpenter. What a revelation those years were – Austen and Dickens, Keats, Milton, Chaucer, even Addison and Steele, even Euphues! and Orwell, Joyce and Eliot. Ruskin and Gawain and the Green Knight, I discovered for myself.
That I got to Mary Datchelor at all was testimony to my junior school teacher, T.J. Williams, a thin fierce Welshman, teaching a class of 45 children in a run-down school, in Catford, Lewisham. We were the children described by Viscountess Legge, Lady Lewisham, as the ‘dirty little Labour children, playing in the gutters’. Except, of course, despite no mod cons, we were for the most part clean and anyway we played in our gardens or on the bomb-site, not the gutters. It was T.J. who, when I took the 11 plus, walked around, surreptitiously pointing out to me the correct answers for those weird, and never before seen, IQ-type questions. I still find it hard to get anything above average on those things … Years afterwards, when I met him by chance, he said how he had enjoyed reading my weekly compositions.
And that really is my point. For with all the gain of all that astounding, never even dreamed of literature that I was exposed to, all that wonder, came a loss. In awe and bowing before the giants of creation, what little spark of my own creativity there may have been was utterly subdued. I mean – how could it even be thought of, such presumption! Unhappy that I was – though not realising it till many, many years later, till, indeed, I came to work with another great teacher, Sivanandan – I could not heave my heart into my mouth.
And that is what makes Chris such a giant. For, among all his many talents and gifts to whatever world he has found himself in, is the gift to countless of his students of their own voices; the ability to comprehend, relate and recreate their own experience, not in any solipsistic way but through community, empathy and a shared historical understanding. This is as crucial as it is rare.
My path didn’t cross with Chris’s when we were both drinking deep of the ‘Pierian spring’, when we saw that performance of Lear, or again when I got turned down for Leeds and he got accepted. But, it has been a privilege to know him for many many years as a colleague on the Race & Class Editorial Working committee, and even more to serve as an editor on the always illuminating and inspiring articles with which Chris, our most stalwart contributor, has enriched the journal.
Chris, this special issue, rich as it is, only scratches the surface of what your life and work have and do mean to so many people. But it is an honour to present it to you.
See what’s in Chris Searle: the great includer