Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Group 301-401 (Evening): The Language of Empire

We'll start this episode today and see how far we get. We'll see how English affected, and was changed by, the nations it encountered as the British Empire developed--particularly in India, Jamaica, Australia, and the First Nations of North America. This episode involves a LOT of discussion:

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Standing in the Shadows of Motown

Standing In The Shadows Of Motown from the Funky Soul story on Vimeo.

Many American slang words come from the world of music, as you'll hear in this film.

From Wikipedia:
Standing in the Shadows of Motown is a 2002 documentary film directed by Paul Justman. It recounts the story of The Funk Brothers, the uncredited and largely unheralded studio musicians who were the hand picked house band by Berry Gordy in 1959. They were the band who recorded and performed on Motowns' recordings from 1959 to 1972.

The film was inspired by the 1989 book Standing in the Shadows of Motown: The Life and Music of Legendary Bassist James Jamerson, a bass guitar instruction book by Allan Slutsky, which features the bass lines of James Jamerson. The film covers the Funk Brothers' career via interviews with surviving band members, archival footage and still photos, dramatized re-enactments, and narration by actor Andre Braugher. The film also features new live performances of several Motown hit songs, with the Funk Brothers backing up Gerald Levert, Me'shell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Ben Harper, Bootsy Collins, Chaka Khan, and Montell Jordan.

The impetus behind making the film was to bring these influential players out of anonymity. In addition to bassist James Jamerson, The Funk Brothers consisted of the following musicians: Jack Ashford (percussion); Bob Babbitt (bass); Joe Hunter (keyboards); Uriel Jones (drums); Joe Messina (guitar); Eddie Willis (guitar); "Pistol" Allen (drums); "Papa Zita" Benjamin (drums); "Bongo" Brown (percussion); Johnny Griffith (keyboards); Earl Van Dyke (keyboards); and Robert White (guitar). The Funk Brothers produced more hits than The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Beach Boys together. It was their sound, according to Mary Wilson (of The Supremes) that backed The Temptations, The Supremes, The Miracles, the Four Tops, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Mary Wells, amongst other noteworthy bands during their tenure from 1959 to 1973.
Here is a guide to some of the phrases we hear in this film:

I heard it through the grapevine: I found out about something through rumors passed from person to person

To dash all over: to run quickly, usually frantically, especially from task to task. “He was dashing all over, getting ready for the party.”

Between the two of us: together we are enough to get the task done—“Between the two us of us, we’ll finish by five.” Also, holding something confidential: “This is just between the two of us—nobody else should know.”

To run over to (somewhere – store, etc.): to go somewhere quickly. “I’ll just run over to the store to get some milk. I’ll be back in a minute.”

Traffic got tied up: a traffic jam started. “As usual, traffic got tied up at the exit ramp to I-95.”

(something was) holding up traffic: interrupting or interfering with the flow of traffic. “An accident was holding up traffic”

I was used to (doing something): I was accustomed to… “Russians are used to the cold.” Also, “get used to.” “After living in Russia, I got used to the cold.” Also used with verbs. “I got used to leaving my shoes at the front door when I lived in Russia.”

to find peace of mind: to come to terms with a emotional event, decision, etc. “I think he’s found some peace of mind now, after coming home from the war.”

his piece: his pistol

to wear a smirk: a derisive or sarcastic smile with one end of the lip curled up … “Wipe that smirk off your face! Listen to me when I talk!”

you do (me, him, them, etc) wrong: treat someone unethically , unfairly; “you did me wrong”

cocky: arrogant and careless, usually applies to youth

took on a life of its own: began to take on an existence, or began to circulate, independently of its creator—for example, an idea, song, text, saying, rumor

she’s getting down: “getting down” is doing something well and enthusiastically, especially in music, dance, etc.

doing our own thing: very American expression; finding what’s uniquely ours to do, what suits our personality and talents; “We didn’t like the way he told us to do it, so we did our own thing.”

you guys – in casual conversation, has almost become an informal plural in American English; it now applies to both men and women, especially among young people

you beat me to the punch: you scored a point (figuratively) by taking the initiative or anticipating what I might do

he kicked it off: when someone begins with the expectation that others will join in. In American football, the game begins with a kick-off.

work it out: in a conflict, means to come to an agreement – with a problem, to find a solution to a problem. “They worked it out so they could still work in the same office.” Or, “the computer crashed, so together they worked out a way to do it by hand.”

we couldn’t make a living: didn’t receive wages high enough to support a family. “I couldn’t make a living on a small farm anymore, so I took a job at the store.”

we ended up (doing, going, etc.): without planning, or through eventual lack of choice – “After getting lost a few times, we ended up going on the freeway.”

to stand a chance: have a possibility - “Thirty years ago, a black person didn’t stand a chance of being elected president of the U.S.”

gonna: short for “going to”; “The pilot radioed the control tower, ‘We’re gonna be in the Hudson’.”

lay the groundwork: prepare for a complex event, etc. “He laid the groundwork for the company’s move to Chicago.”

to raise Cain: a biblical reference to a child who grew up to kill his own brother; means to make a big, noisy fuss. “After the manager refused to pay their back wages, the workers sure raised Cain about it.”

to make up your mind: to decide. “He’s coming in ten minutes. Make up your mind what you’re going to wear.”

to become a permanent fixture: to be always present; “He came to the gym so often he was a permanent fixture.”

will see you through: to help you get through a difficult time. “I’ll stay with you in the hospital, to see you through your son’s surgery.”

my head’s in a haze: to be unable to think clearly, mostly because of an emotional event. “Ever since she left me, my head’s been in a haze.”

it gets to you: something that becomes upsetting after awhile. “Everyone was paid more than me. Being treated like that gets to you.”

to skip school: to be absent from school. “He skipped school so often he had to repeat eighth grade.” (However, to skip a grade in school means to advance or be promoted two grades higher rather than just one grade higher, usually owing to the student's ability to do schoolwork at a higher level than their current class level.)

what he was about: plans, interests, intentions, dreams for the future, etc. “He explained to me what he was about.”

to hang out with: spend time with. “I was just over at his house, hanging out with him and his brothers.” Has been shortened to “hangin’ or “hangin’ around.” “What you doin’ hangin’ with someone like him?”

to sit back: to relax, or to take yourself out of the general action; “We were discussing it – it really got heated, but the director just sat back and let us work it out.” Or, “sit back, enjoy the show…”

mainstream: the majority, or what the majority believes, does, etc. “We didn’t talk to the most conservative or the most liberal – just mainstream America.” When used negatively, its meaning is similar to “conventional”—that is, the opposite of “avant-garde.”

Stuff is a word we often use when we don’t want to be specific:
a whole lot of stuff
the instruments and stuff
stuff happens
Nonstandard or regional English usages:

he done learned (the word “done” becomes an intensifier or modal verb, something like a past-tense equivalent to “do” in the sentence “I do want you to finish that task”, or the “went and” construction in “he went and learned” ...)

it wasn’t never going to be happenin’

I didn’t have no full set of drums

that weren’t nothin’

hurry up, man! – the use of “man” is different from so-called “standard” English. Historically, “the man” sometimes meant “the white boss” or white people generally, or the authorities.

our people came north: refers to the migration of blacks from the southern states to work in the factories in the northern states after 1920 or so, and especially during World War II. Blacks often use the phrase “our people” to mean blacks. Low-income whites migrated, too.

the truck had a accident Use of article a before a word starting with a vowel, when standard English would use “an”.

Use of the double negative ("I didn't have no full set of drums") is characteristic of certain dialects and the youth slang influenced by them; it is not recommended for standard English or for university exams.

Here are some examples of language specific to music or musicians, especially jazz, blues, R & B, soul, rock, etc. … sometimes crossing over into general use:
cat: a musician (usually but not always a jazz musician); (sometimes) a musician one really admires
a take: one attempt to record a song, symphonic movement, etc., from beginning to end. “We recorded that song in one take.” Also refers to movie-making. “Filming that scene took 30 takes!”
to cut a track: to record a song (refers to the production process for gramophone records, in which record masters were actually cut with an electromechanical record cutter that cut a spiral groove into the master disk)
axe: musical instrument (often guitar or trumpet)
ivories: piano or piano keys (also 88’s)
harp: harmonica (also blues harp or Mississippi saxophone)
funky: originally, having a strong odor, and by extension “earthy”; having a strong syncopated, danceable beat, a groove driven by coordination between drums and bass and a rhythmic use of repeated musical phrases, sometimes with flattened notes and chords
gig: a performance, usually for pay (now sometimes used in non-musical contexts)
countoff: the signals (often by voice or drum) to coordinate the start of a song, typically “one two three four” or “one, two, one two three four”—or in Sam the Sham’s famous case, “Uno dos, one two tres quatro!” (“Wooly Bully”)
pickup: among other meanings, the opening drum flourish of a song
riff: a short musical phrase, often repeated or used as the basis for improvisation; as an opening theme that catches the listener’s attention, it is sometimes called the hook, as in Robert White’s opening guitar notes of “My Girl.”
bridge: typically a contrasting musical interlude between the two main parts of a song, or between parts two and three of a three-part song
groove: the emotionally satisfying sensation resulting from musicians playing in rhythmic cohesion (from the era of gramophone records, when the needle was literally in the groove of the record)

Domingo Samudio's countoff:

The Funk Brothers are the musicians behind this next classic. Note Robert White's hook and the drum pickup.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Charlie Musselwhite, "Rank Strangers to Me"

The gapfill exercise we used in class:

Words by Albert Brumley Sr. Transcription from Charlie Musselwhite's version:

I wandered alone to my home by the river
Where in youth's early dawn I was happy and free
I looked for my friends but I never could find them
I found they were all rank strangers to me

Everybody I met
Seemed to be a rank stranger
No mother or dad
Not a friend could I see
They knew not my name
And I knew not their faces
I found they were all
Rank strangers to me

"They've all moved away," said the voice of a stranger
"To a beautiful home by the bright crystal sea"
Some beautiful day I'll meet them in heaven
Where no one will be a stranger to me

Everybody I met
Seemed to be a rank stranger
No mother or dad
Not a friend could I see
They knew not my name
And I knew not their faces
I found they were all
Rank strangers to me

Note: "Rank" here means "complete" or "completely" ... see definition number 7 here.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Group 301-401 (Evening): Proper English

We began this episode on April 16, and will finish it today. In case you missed it in class, or would like to see it again, you can see the full episode here.

Here are the discussion questions we are using:

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Groups 201-204 Homework: Do you want to be famous?


Essay: Respond to the following questions--
When you imagine your future, do you sometimes think about what it would be like to become famous? Fame has its advantages, but on the other hand, fame isn't always easy to cope with. For you personally, what might be some of the pluses and minuses of fame?
This time, write in your own voice, replying directly to the questioner: "I think that...."

You may quote other people, including celebrities, journalists, commentators, and so on, but if you do, please please please give the name of the person you are quoting, put "quotation marks" around exact quotes, and tell us where you got the quotation. Do not copy answers from Internet homework sites and give them to me as your own work.

Johnny Depp told interviewer Larry King, "... There are moments in a man's life when you just kind of want to feel somewhat normal."(1)
[at bottom of essay: --------------------------------------------------------------------------------]

(1) Daily Mail,

Write 200-250 words, using something like the following plan.

1. title
2. introduction: how did you get interested in this topic, or why?
3. list the advantages of fame and give reasons/examples
4. list the disadvantages of fame and give reasons/examples
5. draw a conclusion (give your opinion or a balanced summary of the topic).

Bring your essay to our next class. Together we'll consider the advantages and disadvantages of being famous.

Exercise adapted from Olga Afanasyeva, Virginia Evans, Victoria Kopylova, Practice Exam Papers for the Russian State Exam, 2010 Revised Edition, Moscow: Express Publishing/Prosveshchenie Publishers.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Bill Jolliff, "Love All Around This World"


Words by Bill Jolliff:

Singing, sharing, that's what words are for
Loving, caring, that's what words are for
They let us know each other, they open lots of doors
There's love all around this world

Your skin, my skin, it looks about the same
Black skin, white skin, it looks about the same
It sparkles in the sunshine, it glistens in the rain
There's love all around this world

Your hand, my hand, fingers, palms and thumbs
Left hand, right hand, fingers, palms and thumbs
If we put our hands together, who knows what we'll get done
There's love all around this world

Your turn, my turn, that's the way we play
His turn, her turn, that's the way we play
We'll have lots more fun tomorrow, just like we did today
There's love all around this world

Your song, my song, I like the way we sing
Low song, high song, I like the way we sing
When our voices turn together, they make a golden ring
There's love all around this world
There's love all around this world
There's love all around this world

Here's a video of Bill Jolliff, not doing this song but a similar one. Enjoy! (On the mandolin is his son Jacob.)

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Groups 201-204 Homework: Use ten of these words or phrases...

"High Street" -- source.

Here are the fifteen words or phrases we're going to look at this week. Choose ten of them and use them in complete sentences. Remember--you don't have to write ten sentences; try using more than one of them in a sentence that still makes sense!

page 126
get on with
keep up with
is native to
on average
capture the interest

page 127
make this dream a reality
left behind
mankind (humanity)

page 128-9 (the shoe repair shop)
the high street
custom (uncountable)
dash off
give a hand
know when smb is beaten
takings (revenue)

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Group 301-401 (Evening): English comes to America

We saw most of this program last Wednesday; we'll finish it on April 16.

Here's the list of questions we're discussing after the video:

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Roger Miller, "King of the Road"

Here's a bit of Americana! Johnny Cash welcomes Roger Miller to his television program. They clearly enjoy each other's company, bouncing jokes off each other before they finally settle down enough to perform Roger Miller's "King of the Road."

Audio only:

Link to buy track from

Writer: Roger Miller

Trailers for sale or rent
Rooms to let, fifty cents.
No phone, no pool, no pets
I ain't got no cigarettes
Ah, but two hours of pushin' broom
Buys an eight by twelve four-bit room
I'm a man of means by no means
King of the road.

Third boxcar, midnight train
Destination Bangor, Maine.
Old worn out suits and shoes,
I don't pay no union dues,
I smoke old stogies I have found
Short, but not too big around
I'm a man of means by no means
King of the road.

I know every engineer on every train
All of their children, and all of their names
And every handout in every town
And every lock that ain't locked
When no one's around.

I sing,
Trailers for sale or rent
Rooms to let, fifty cents
No phone, no pool, no pets
I ain't got no cigarettes
Ah, but, two hours of pushin' broom
Buys an eight by twelve four-bit room
I'm a man of means by no means
King of the road.

Trailers for sale or rent... [to fade]

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Fray, "Uncertainty"

Fan video from concert in Portland, Oregon, USA.

Audio track link: unavailable

Uncertainty is killing me
And I'm certainly not asleep
Maybe I've gone far too deep
Maybe I'm just far too weak
And that's the last place I want to be, the last place

And there is so much we don't know
So we love and we hope that it holds

Thousands were lost and maybe more
The question remains, "What is this for?"
Maybe it came unexpected
Maybe I'm left unprotected
And that's the last place I want to be, the last place

And there is so much we don't know
So we love and we hope that it holds
And either we say or we show
So I'm going to fight for my own

I'm holding on until the last
I'm holding on until there's nothing left
I'm holding on until the last
I'm holding on until there's nothing left

(Isaac Slade, Joe King)

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Group 501: Memorial Day, Graduation ... and a perfect hamburger


Purchase link: Graduation Day”--Garrison Keillor, A Prairie Home Companion, 20th Anniversary Album vol. 4

  1. On Memorial Day, people went to the cemetery in the morning. What did they do in the afternoon?
  2. “Dead people have always supported the Democrats.” What does Keillor mean?
  3. Why did the graduating students (the “army in the blue gowns and mortarboard hats and the gold tassels”) all have gold tassels on their mortarboard hats?
  4. Why were the pairs of parading students arranged about 20 feet (about six meters) apart?
  5. Why do Midwesterners arrange for “dull and pretentious people to stand and speak at great length” at emotional events such as graduations?
  6. “The life of parents is nothing BUT prayer.” What does Keillor mean? Who stopped the practice of having invocations at schools?
  7. Clarence Bunson thought that nine out of ten men do not know how to do what?
  8. When can the meat finally be removed from the barbecue?
  9. Students may someday be lucky enough to come under whose instruction?
Brief definitions:
  • VFW: Veterans of Foreign Wars
  • Gettysburg Address: famous Civil War speech by Abraham Lincoln
  • “Taps”: a famous musical piece, sounded by the U.S. military nightly to indicate that it is “lights out,” and also during flag ceremonies and funerals, generally on bugle or trumpet. []
  • “Pomp and Circumstance”: the “Trio” section of Edward Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 in D, used almost universally as a graduation march in the USA.
  • forty-yard lines: the lines crossing the football field 40% of the distance from each end of the field.
  • invocation: a ceremonial prayer intended to ask for or invoke the presence of God.
  • vacuous: empty; without evidence of thinking or of intelligence
  • ragging on: criticizing, complaining about

J.K. Rowling speaks to graduates

. . . in perfect English! (See text below video.)

President Faust, members of the Harvard Corporation and the Board of Overseers, members of the faculty, proud parents, and, above all, graduates.

The first thing I would like to say is ‘thank you.’ Not only has Harvard given me an extraordinary honour, but the weeks of fear and nausea I have endured at the thought of giving this commencement address have made me lose weight. A win-win situation! Now all I have to do is take deep breaths, squint at the red banners and convince myself that I am at the world’s largest Gryffindor reunion.

Delivering a commencement address is a great responsibility; or so I thought until I cast my mind back to my own graduation. The commencement speaker that day was the distinguished British philosopher Baroness Mary Warnock. Reflecting on her speech has helped me enormously in writing this one, because it turns out that I can’t remember a single word she said. This liberating discovery enables me to proceed without any fear that I might inadvertently influence you to abandon promising careers in business, the law or politics for the giddy delights of becoming a gay wizard.

You see? If all you remember in years to come is the ‘gay wizard’ joke, I’ve come out ahead of Baroness Mary Warnock. Achievable goals: the first step to self improvement.

Actually, I have wracked my mind and heart for what I ought to say to you today. I have asked myself what I wish I had known at my own graduation, and what important lessons I have learned in the 21 years that have expired between that day and this.

I have come up with two answers. On this wonderful day when we are gathered together to celebrate your academic success, I have decided to talk to you about the benefits of failure. And as you stand on the threshold of what is sometimes called ‘real life’, I want to extol the crucial importance of imagination.

These may seem quixotic or paradoxical choices, but please bear with me.

Looking back at the 21-year-old that I was at graduation, is a slightly uncomfortable experience for the 42-year-old that she has become. Half my lifetime ago, I was striking an uneasy balance between the ambition I had for myself, and what those closest to me expected of me.

I was convinced that the only thing I wanted to do, ever, was to write novels. However, my parents, both of whom came from impoverished backgrounds and neither of whom had been to college, took the view that my overactive imagination was an amusing personal quirk that would never pay a mortgage, or secure a pension. I know that the irony strikes with the force of a cartoon anvil, now.

So they hoped that I would take a vocational degree; I wanted to study English Literature. A compromise was reached that in retrospect satisfied nobody, and I went up to study Modern Languages. Hardly had my parents’ car rounded the corner at the end of the road than I ditched German and scuttled off down the Classics corridor.

I cannot remember telling my parents that I was studying Classics; they might well have found out for the first time on graduation day. Of all the subjects on this planet, I think they would have been hard put to name one less useful than Greek mythology when it came to securing the keys to an executive bathroom.

I would like to make it clear, in parenthesis, that I do not blame my parents for their point of view. There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you. What is more, I cannot criticise my parents for hoping that I would never experience poverty. They had been poor themselves, and I have since been poor, and I quite agree with them that it is not an ennobling experience. Poverty entails fear, and stress, and sometimes depression; it means a thousand petty humiliations and hardships. Climbing out of poverty by your own efforts, that is indeed something on which to pride yourself, but poverty itself is romanticised only by fools.

What I feared most for myself at your age was not poverty, but failure.

At your age, in spite of a distinct lack of motivation at university, where I had spent far too long in the coffee bar writing stories, and far too little time at lectures, I had a knack for passing examinations, and that, for years, had been the measure of success in my life and that of my peers.

I am not dull enough to suppose that because you are young, gifted and well-educated, you have never known hardship or heartbreak. Talent and intelligence never yet inoculated anyone against the caprice of the Fates, and I do not for a moment suppose that everyone here has enjoyed an existence of unruffled privilege and contentment.

However, the fact that you are graduating from Harvard suggests that you are not very well-acquainted with failure. You might be driven by a fear of failure quite as much as a desire for success. Indeed, your conception of failure might not be too far from the average person’s idea of success, so high have you already flown.

Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. So I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.

Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea then how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.

Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.

The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.

So given a Time Turner, I would tell my 21-year-old self that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse the two. Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.

Now you might think that I chose my second theme, the importance of imagination, because of the part it played in rebuilding my life, but that is not wholly so. Though I personally will defend the value of bedtime stories to my last gasp, I have learned to value imagination in a much broader sense. Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.

One of the greatest formative experiences of my life preceded Harry Potter, though it informed much of what I subsequently wrote in those books. This revelation came in the form of one of my earliest day jobs. Though I was sloping off to write stories during my lunch hours, I paid the rent in my early 20s by working at the African research department at Amnesty International’s headquarters in London.

There in my little office I read hastily scribbled letters smuggled out of totalitarian regimes by men and women who were risking imprisonment to inform the outside world of what was happening to them. I saw photographs of those who had disappeared without trace, sent to Amnesty by their desperate families and friends. I read the testimony of torture victims and saw pictures of their injuries. I opened handwritten, eye-witness accounts of summary trials and executions, of kidnappings and rapes.

Many of my co-workers were ex-political prisoners, people who had been displaced from their homes, or fled into exile, because they had the temerity to speak against their governments. Visitors to our offices included those who had come to give information, or to try and find out what had happened to those they had left behind.

I shall never forget the African torture victim, a young man no older than I was at the time, who had become mentally ill after all he had endured in his homeland. He trembled uncontrollably as he spoke into a video camera about the brutality inflicted upon him. He was a foot taller than I was, and seemed as fragile as a child. I was given the job of escorting him back to the Underground Station afterwards, and this man whose life had been shattered by cruelty took my hand with exquisite courtesy, and wished me future happiness.

And as long as I live I shall remember walking along an empty corridor and suddenly hearing, from behind a closed door, a scream of pain and horror such as I have never heard since. The door opened, and the researcher poked out her head and told me to run and make a hot drink for the young man sitting with her. She had just had to give him the news that in retaliation for his own outspokenness against his country’s regime, his mother had been seized and executed.

Every day of my working week in my early 20s I was reminded how incredibly fortunate I was, to live in a country with a democratically elected government, where legal representation and a public trial were the rights of everyone.

Every day, I saw more evidence about the evils humankind will inflict on their fellow humans, to gain or maintain power. I began to have nightmares, literal nightmares, about some of the things I saw, heard, and read.

And yet I also learned more about human goodness at Amnesty International than I had ever known before.

Amnesty mobilises thousands of people who have never been tortured or imprisoned for their beliefs to act on behalf of those who have. The power of human empathy, leading to collective action, saves lives, and frees prisoners. Ordinary people, whose personal well-being and security are assured, join together in huge numbers to save people they do not know, and will never meet. My small participation in that process was one of the most humbling and inspiring experiences of my life.

Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s places.

Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate, or control, just as much as to understand or sympathise.

And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know.

I might be tempted to envy people who can live that way, except that I do not think they have any fewer nightmares than I do. Choosing to live in narrow spaces leads to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own terrors. I think the wilfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid.

What is more, those who choose not to empathise enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy.

One of the many things I learned at the end of that Classics corridor down which I ventured at the age of 18, in search of something I could not then define, was this, written by the Greek author Plutarch: What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.

That is an astonishing statement and yet proven a thousand times every day of our lives. It expresses, in part, our inescapable connection with the outside world, the fact that we touch other people’s lives simply by existing.

But how much more are you, Harvard graduates of 2008, likely to touch other people’s lives? Your intelligence, your capacity for hard work, the education you have earned and received, give you unique status, and unique responsibilities. Even your nationality sets you apart. The great majority of you belong to the world’s only remaining superpower. The way you vote, the way you live, the way you protest, the pressure you bring to bear on your government, has an impact way beyond your borders. That is your privilege, and your burden.

If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped change. We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.

I am nearly finished. I have one last hope for you, which is something that I already had at 21. The friends with whom I sat on graduation day have been my friends for life. They are my children’s godparents, the people to whom I’ve been able to turn in times of trouble, people who have been kind enough not to sue me when I took their names for Death Eaters. At our graduation we were bound by enormous affection, by our shared experience of a time that could never come again, and, of course, by the knowledge that we held certain photographic evidence that would be exceptionally valuable if any of us ran for Prime Minister.

So today, I wish you nothing better than similar friendships. And tomorrow, I hope that even if you remember not a single word of mine, you remember those of Seneca, another of those old Romans I met when I fled down the Classics corridor, in retreat from career ladders, in search of ancient wisdom:
As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.

I wish you all very good lives. Thank you very much.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Groups 201-204 Homework: Audrey writes from Hollywood (update)

Paramount's "fake New York." Source.

You have received a letter from your English-speaking pen friend Audrey, who writes:
Hello from Los Angeles. Yesterday we spent four hours at the Paramount Studio in Hollywood. Paramount is the last movie studio still operating in Hollywood. They make the Star Trek films. What do you think of Hollywood films? Do you have a favorite? Do you prefer seeing films at home or in a theater?

On Friday we leave for San Francisco.
Please answer Audrey's questions, and ask her three questions about her travels. Write from 100 to 140 words, and remember the rules of letter-writing. The assignment should take about 20 minutes.

Update: As promised, a fragment of Mystery Science Theater 3000 follows:

(You can find whole episodes on YouTube as well.)