Cynthia Chiu and Beth Seaman interviewing Mr Williams, English Teacher new this year:
Cynthia: How did you become an English teacher and why did you choose this profession?
TRW: Well, teaching English combined two of my loves, really; the sound of my own voice and instructing people, telling other people what to do, and unfortunately, it also combined with these loves my one strong hatred: English literature.
TRW: No no no no no, I don’t know, I love English, I loved studying it at school, I love talking about it a lot, I love seeing people engage with it in quite a rambunctious and, sort of, not self consciously, um, clever way…that sounds bad. I don’t know, I like getting in the ring and boxing with books and the classroom is a good place to do that.
Cynthia: Do you find teaching fulfilling?
TRW: I find the dialogue in teaching, well it is a dialogue, it goes both ways, so it’s not just instruction. What I like about it is I find interaction with students quite provoking, forces me to rethink my own approaches to literature, forces me to rethink my own reading, so yeah, I like providing that provocation. My favourite quotation about teaching is from Ralph Waldo Emerson when he says, ‘What I get from another is not education, but provocation’ and I feel like I provide that and also get it back. To that extent it is satisfying, but not a kind of complacent satisfaction, it’s a deeply troubling satisfaction, I would say.
Beth: So do you have a best moment that has happened so far here?
TRW: Um…*pause* I found Nina Hurst’s passionate defence of Hamlet against T.S Eliot’s charge that it was an artistic failure to be one of the most stirring and rewarding moments, not just of my teaching career but my life.
Cynthia: So what’s your favourite book or novel?
TRW: Ahh I have a few, I remember having a few, like fake favourites, favourite books that during my university degree I thought had to be your favourites because everybody loved them and they were very mannered and they were quite boring, but I supposed they were my fake favourites for a while. But my real favourite came through, I remember, the summer I graduated I read a book called ‘Mason and Dixon’ by Thomas Pynchon and it sort of lit a fire under everything that I thought a book should be, and it’s quite a badly behaved book, it’s quite funny, it’s rambunctious again. And if not Mason and Dixon, then definitely Saul Bellow’s Adventures of Augie Marsh, I think it’s a phenomenal book, those two books, they really changed my idea of what literature could do and how badly behaved actually literature could be
Beth : What’s your favourite quote?
TRW: What’s my favourite quote? *chuckles* I always write quotes on the board…I have two favourite quotes. One is from…I think a twelfth-century rabbi, which goes “You are not required to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from the work.”. That is an astonishing parallelism I think. I also like eh, one of Wallace Steven’s. I think this is from his poem ‘An Ordinary Evening in New Haven’ when he said :
“The poem is the cry of its occasion
Part of the res itself and not about it.”
It’s phenomenal again I think. And I also like Emerson again when he says ‘I hate quotation. Tell me what you know.’ I think it would be very good if the Perse Girls stopped quoting things and told me what they knew.
Cynthia: Do you think they are relatable to your life?
TRW: I remember Walt Whitman, great poet Walt Whitman, who said that after reading Ralph Waldo Emerson he was ‘simmering, simmering, simmering and then Emerson brought me too a boil’ definitely that sense in Emerson of the sort of ruggedly individualistic and passionately self reliant is something that I try not to imitate but to incorporate in my own life. I’m not a twelfth century rabbi, neither do I aspire to be one, but that’s an astonishing parallelism. I take comfort from it, yes, yes.
Cynthia: You mentioned to us that your favourite poets are Geoffrey Hill and John Ashbery, is there a particular reason for this?
TRW: It’s interesting, poetry is kinda like a horseshoe, there are the deeply unserious poets who seem to write nonsense and whatever they think of at the top of the horseshoe, and then there are the deeply serious and learned poets who seem to write deeply serious and learned verse, but the two ends of a horseshoe are close, and Geoffrey Hill and John Ashbery are two very different poets who write extremely rebarbative and difficult poetry you feel very clever liking, so yes, I feel very clever liking those two poets.
Beth: How and when did you start developing your passionate commitment for Diet Cokes?
TRW: This is a very interesting question. Um, when I was in university I was a one Coke a month man, much has changed since then. I’m a terrible procrastinator, and in no sense a model student. Most of my essays and scholarly work that I did was between the hours of midnight and 5am. So I needed fuel, and originally it was coffee, but it was hard to make and I didn’t like putting so much warm stuff in my body and I would occasionally burn myself in the making of it, so I needed something cooler. I went for full sugar Coke, but after dental advice, I abstained from that habit. Diet Coke I find is brilliant, it’s guilt free, it looks cool and it tastes nice. At my height I would say I was about a 12 Diet Cokes a day man, I am now coming down from that now slightly, I have had 5 Diet Cokes today [this interview took place at lunchtime]. I find it helps sustain my teaching as well, I’m a very active presence in the classroom, and I feel the more Diet Cokes I have the better you learn.
Cynthia: If someone hasn’t started drinking any caffeinated drinks yet, what what your advice be, like what to do and not to do?
TRW: This is really tough, it’s a really tough question. You’re going to have to change your toothbrush, I would say about 3 times a month. You’re going to want to look into brands of toothpaste, I go Colgate, whatever works for you, but keep it consistent. You’re going to want to invest in mouthwash also, because a lot of caffeinated drinks can lead to ulcers in the mouth, and that is very uncomfortable. So start gradually and invest in the right dental equipment to mitigate any unfortunate side effects of a caffeine habit.
Cynthia: How would you describe your sense of style?
TRW: My sense of style? Like ‘impoverished father’. Somebody once told me I was very ‘normcore’, and for a long time I didn’t understand what that meant and then I looked it up and apparently it just means you dress like a middle aged man.
Beth: What is the biggest challenge you have overcome?
TRW: I found university quite tough, I was the first person in my family to go to university and it was a very different environment to the one I had grown up in and the one I had gone to school in. I went to a normal, tiny, state comprehensive school in South Wales, and then I ended up in Oxford and that was a big difference, that took a lot of surmounting, I suppose and bridging between those two cultures, but I made it and I became the coolest dude in Oxford in under three years.
Cynthia: How would you describe your music taste?
TRW: Alright so what have I been listening to lately? I’ve been listening to a lot of Joni Mitchell, a lot of of Tony Bennett, and Bruce Springsteen, ‘I was simmering, simmering, simmering and Bruce Springsteen brought me to a boil’, I listen to Bruce Springsteen, all the time he’s my favourite. I don’t like classical music, it bores me. I like catchy pop tunes they give me a three minute hit, I have a very short attention span so I need something catchy and quick and easy. So catchy and quick and easy is how I would describe it.
Beth: Do you have any secret talents?
TRW: No, all my talents are very evident. I think anyone who meets me is straight away aware of my talents. No I never learned to play a musical instrument, I can’t juggle, I can barely swim.
Beth: Do you have any advice – more for the upper-sixth- on university or university life?
TRW: Okay, what you need to do is, on the first day, pop your collar and put on a pair of shades. Establish some… No. Um I would say, study hard, but be realistic. Don’t do too much, keep in good contact with home, read deeply and widely and just work out how your study habits are and just be honest with yourself you know. If you’re the type of person who does last-minute essaying all the time… just, try to change that I suppose? *laughs* But no, try to stay healthy, eat lots of fruit, get good sleeping hours and yeah. And don’t do all the extracurricular stuff. Do some of it, not all of it.
Cynthia: Do you have any encouraging words to say to the sixth-formers? Any motivational things?
TRW: Motivation in what respect?
Cynthia: Academic wise.
TRW: I have to go back to – “You are not required to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from the work.” The only way out is through.