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‘My Cultural Life’ – Mr A Smith

‘My Cultural Life’ – Mr A Smith

Mr Mark Zacharias, Head of English at Stamford High School, has started our latest lockdown project  – ‘My Cultural Life’. Inspired by the Times newspaper, amongst others: the Schools present interviews from individuals across our Stamford community, considering their cultural interests, loves and shortcomings.

We hope that these interviews help you to find inspiration during the unusual circumstances we find ourselves in, and that you enjoy learning a little more about us here at Stamford!

View all of our entries here.

 

Mr Alex Smith, Head of Classics at Stamford provides his take on our ‘My Cultural Life’ interview:

The box set I’m hooked on…

The Last Kingdom.  Currently I’d say it’s the latest series of The Last Kingdom at the top of the list; it’s based on the Bernard Cornwell novels about Uhtred, an Anglo Saxon warrior fighting the Vikings during Alfred the Great’s time.  It includes the character of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, daughter of King Alfred who helped re-conquer the Danelaw and create the Kingdom of England, a fascinating female ruler in a time dominated by male warriors. I switch between the Last Kingdom and The Vikings on Netflix – I do enjoy the “Dark Ages” and other periods of history, so I also watch a lot of BBC4 documentaries.  I also like comedy and I really enjoy Brooklyn Nine Nine, set in an NYPD precinct, which is very funny, well acted and written.

My favourite play…

Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Macbeth was my GCSE English set text and I still love (and sometimes recite!) some of the speeches.  There are several great film versions, too, e.g. Polanski’s.  Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 2 is also up there.  I’d recommend watching the series of those related history plays portrayed inThe Hollow Crown with Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal.  In terms of modern plays, Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead is a favourite which I first read when I was young, I saw it recently (well, in 2017) at the Old Vic starring Daniel Radcliffe as Rosencrantz; that was a very good performance.

My favourite author or book…

Homer’s Iliad, the first piece of literature in the Western tradition, an incredible tale of heroes, honour, life, death, family and loss, which really focusses on the people of Troy as much as the attacking Achaeans. It was first written down about 2,700 years ago and still resonates today.  It contains some of the most powerful scenes I have ever read, and I still cry when reading some lines. In terms of novels, it has to be J.R.R. Tolkien.  I have read pretty much everything and even have books on the Elvish language he created.  Out of all of his works, my favourite is probably the Silmarillion as it is more epic in style.  I know quite a lot about the History of Middle Earth!

The book I’m reading…

Several! I’m usually reading a few at once, mostly non-fiction with a mix of travel writing and historical fiction thrown in.  At the moment this includes a biography called Paddy Leigh Fermor – an Adventure, C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, Manitravels in the Southern Peloponnese by Leigh Fermor, Ovid the poet and his work by Holzberg (translated from German) and I have just started The January Man by C. Somerville.  Next novel will probably be Tribune of Rome by R. Fabbri, about the young Vespasian.

The book I wish I had written…

The Thought Gang (Tibor Fischer) Tough one! I’d like to have written many of the great novels, but I’d probably go for The Thought Gang, a story about a bunch of philosopher bank-robbers, which is very clever, and interspersed with humour and philosophical musings.

The book that saved me…

Zorba the Greek (Nikos Kazantzakis) A difficult choice… I can think of at least two which I read at times in my life when they seemed important, On the Road by Jack Kerouac was definitely influential just as I started my gap year, and Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis when I was in Crete, Homer’s Iliad when I was at University and ever since.  Also, the Thought Gang mentioned above, and Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being.  Plus all the work of Tolkien, of course! But ultimately, the sense of life and loss, the passion and zest for life, and the culture of Crete and the Aegean, are so powerful in Zorba the Greek – the film is good too.

The book I couldn’t finish…

James Joyce’s Ulysses. Ulysses, in fact most Joyce, is hard going.  The last chapter is one long sentence, a stream of consciousness which ends brilliantly (okay, yes, I skipped to the end!).  I keep telling myself I will try again when I’m old enough.

The book I’m ashamed I haven’t read…

Pride and Prejudice. I am sorry to say I have not read (yet) most of the great 19th century novels, including Austen, Hardy (even though I’ve read loads of his poetry!) and Eliot.

My favourite film…

Apocalypse Now. I was going to go for Withnail and I, but Mr Mills had that already!  He explained the film, and it is excellent.  There are many great moments, and a fantastic soundtrack.  I think I could recite the whole script! But as a film, Apocalypse Now is compelling from start to finish.  It is about the Vietnam War, and is based on the novel Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.  Some incredible performances and scenes from Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando, among many other great actors.  Robert Duvall as the crazy cavalry commander playing Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” during a helicopter napalm attack is rightly famous.

Other favourites of mine include the Godfather films of course, and Easy Rider, and the great epics, the Star Wars and the Lord of the Rings sagas.  There are also a number of French films I think are very powerful – La Haine, Jean de Florette, La Reine Margot.  There are some fantastic French actors and it is worth watching most of their films – Gérard Dépardieu, Emmanuelle Béart, Isabelle Adjani, Daniel Auteuil, and Juliette Binoche, to mention just a few.  Like with their chansons, French cinema can reach a powerful level of anguish and beauty.

My favourite TV series…

In terms of amount watched over recent years, QI is up there with Midsomer Murders! I very much enjoy quizzing and so also watch a lot of Only Connect and University Challenge – I get very competitive with Mrs Smith over the answers! Going back a while, Blackadder was a definite favourite and the Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin are up there.

My favourite piece of music…

The Marriage of Figaro, by Mozart. I guess this means Classical, and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro is just incredible, I have seen it live a few times, and I would recommend watching this opera at least once in your life.  It has several of the most beautiful arias you will ever hear.  This would be closely followed by a couple of other Mozart pieces, his Clarinet Concerto, some of the Piano Concertos, and Requiem. However, if we’re talking other genres, then there are lots of candidates.  I’d probably go for Nina Simone’s “I wish that I know how it feels to be free”.  But it really depends on my mood, of course.  I like music in a whole range of styles from the 1940’s onwards – swing (Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday), blues (John Lee Hooker), folk (Woody Guthrie, Dylan, Joan Baez), reggae (The Wailers/Toots and the Maytals), rock (Led Zeppelin), indie/grunge (Nirvana, Pixies, Cud, Wedding Present), French chansons (Trenet, Brel, Piaf, Aznavour), indefinable singers like Prince, all the groups/singers mentioned in number 13 below!

The last TV programme that made me cry…

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. It is an incredibly moving story of a little moment in the holocaust, and the innocence of children.  Adverts sometimes do it too, so I should also mention the 2014 M&S Advert, the one with the Penguin and song by Tom Odell!  I remember sobbing at the Sixth Sense too, many years ago.

The lyric I wish I’d written…

“J’avais l’œil du berger, mais le cœur de l’agneau” (Jacques Brel) There are many, many lyrics I wish I’d written.  I really think modern music lyrics can stand up there against the best literature.  I have word documents full of my favourites!  Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Pink Floyd, The Smiths and Talking Heads all have many brilliant lyrics I have enjoyed over the years, and more recently, Mumford & Sons, Bright Eyes and the 1975 are very good.

For English lyrics, I’d go for most of the words of Reel around the Fountain and many other songs by the Smiths, numerous songs by Leonard Cohen, for instance Famous Blue Raincoat and Bird on the Wire, or this one from Hallelujah “All I’ve ever learned from love was how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya”, the words to (Nothing but) Flowers by Talking Heads, Cyprus Avenue by Van Morrison, Brain Damage by Pink Floyd, The Beast in Me by Johnny Cash…. I could go on and on.  Recently, Change of Heart by the 1975 has some great lines, including a reference to Kerouac’s “On the Road”!

Of course, great music is the marriage of fantastic words, music, and often cultural history.  I love some of the folk traditions, such as the ballads about John Henry, the steel-driving man who kept laying out the railroad, in many American folk tunes such as Bruce Springsteen in the Seeger Sessions.  In the English tradition, there are some great songs the tale from the fair – such as “North Country Fair” in a beautiful song by Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, and of course “Scarborough Fair” by Simon & Garfunkel.

But one great love for me is French chansons, which are rarely rivalled for lyrical beauty.  Overall therefore I’ve picked something French; Mon enfance by Jacques Brel is one of the most moving and poetic songs ever written, and from that I’d go for the line “J’avais l’œil du berger, mais le cœur de l’agneau” describing Brel as an adolescent.

To my mind, the best song lyrics combine wit, humour and sadness.  Brel does that in so many songs.

My guiltiest cultural pleasure…

Watching Disney’s Frozen (and singing the songs), for sure! I must have watched it 20 times with my daughter when it came out, but I still think it’s brilliant.  Plus some other Disney films and the 2011 “Muppets” movie with Jason Segel and Amy Adams. ….

If I could own one painting…

Ecce Homo by Antonio Ciseri. I am lucky that I have quite a few paintings by my Grandad, Charles Smith, who loved sailing and painted a lot of marine scenes.  But in terms of famous works, I do love the pre-Raphaelites and they paint a lot of Classical scenes. Various works by John Everett Millais of Rossetti’s Proserpine are up there for me, but overall I’ve gone for Ecce Homo by Ciseri, a scene often painted, including by Hieronymus Bosch.  The scene is of Christ just before his crucifixion, and “Ecce Homo” is what Pilate says to the crowd.  I’m not sure I can fully explain why it’s so good – just take a look.

The instrument I wish I’d learnt…

Definitely the piano.  I really wish I had had the patience to practise, although I did manage the flute to Grade 6.  I have signed up to an on-line piano course during lockdown!

The music that cheers me up…

Well, some of my pupils will know this – it’s Life’s a Happy Song from the 2011 Muppets movie.  You can’t help but smile and sing along, and of course the lyrics are clever and funny.  I also enjoy Colours by Donovan, which is a great start to the morning! If you want something a bit edgier, Bigmouth Strikes Again by the Smiths, for Johnny Marr’s jubilant guitar playing and the witty lyrics.  Plus many reggae songs, like the Wailers’ Sun is Shining.

The place I feel happiest…

When I’m near mountains and the sea. First place therefore probably goes to swimming in the Aegean Sea or Corinthian gulf in Greece, somewhere in the Peloponnese or Crete, looking at the mountains.  On Carnedd Llewelyn above Nant Ffrancon in Snowdonia.  Thirdly, on Golden Cap in West Dorset, or swimming in the sea looking up at it!

The play I walked out of…

I can’t remember the name, but it was at the South Bank and it was largely a monologue about the writer climbing a mountain; I thought it’d be great but it was very self-indulgent and became increasingly unbearable.  The first half went on for ever and I had to leave.  I still feel bad about it.

I’m having a fantasy dinner party. I’ll invite these artists and authors…

You’d want some good raconteurs there, but Socrates would be too intense.  I’d invite Paddy Leigh Fermor; he is a hero of mine, a fascinating man, not only a poet and Classicist but aged 18 he walked through Europe to Constantinople in the 1930’s, then fought in the Battle of Crete and was a member of the SOE during WW2, running the resistance to the Germans.  He carried out an audacious plot to kidnap the German governor of Crete, along with another young officer and some Cretan friends.  He could tell some stories.

Then I’d add the Belgian chanteur Jacques Brel (see above!), who wrote so many great songs, both funny and sad.  Then I’d have Tolkien of course, to talk some Elvish with.  Thomas Hardy, whose poetry I love, but I would have to apologise for not reading many of his novels, although he would not mind as he thought of himself as a poet foremost.  If Hardy couldn’t make it from the Elysium Fields, then I’d ask A. E. Housman; in fact I’d try and squeeze them both in to talk about pastoral poetry.  Among the Classicists, it would be Horace or Ovid.  I need to ask Ovid a few questions about his exile, and his “Heroides” epistles.  Horace would always be entertaining at a Symposium.  This sounds like a bit of a masculine gathering so I would get Sappho in as well; Horace, Sappho and I could then talk about Alcaeus.

And I’ll put on this music…

With those dinner guests, including Brel, Sappho and Fermor we would make our own music, sing French, Cretan and ancient Ionian songs!  But I’d introduce them to the Smiths, Talking Heads, Bright Eyes and so on, all the music mentioned in No 11 and No 13 above, and more.

Underrated…

Obviously the game of fives, “the best sport you’ve never heard of”, unless you’ve met me (or anyone else who plays it).  What can be better than smashing a ball around the walls with your friends?  It is brilliant fun, the best combination of competitiveness and camaraderie.

Overrated…

TV Soap Operas.  If you want the real thing, watch Greek Tragedy.

Read all of our ‘My Cultural Life’ entries here. 

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