HE always took the time to scan every single line of a poem with us, didn’t matter if it was Owen or Larkin. He always explained too, without judgment or condescension, words we were expected to know, such as “ejaculation”—we all did, except one of our classmates: What’s with you, M.G.? Where’ve you been? No, he didn’t sneer at her like we did; he just gave her a blow-by-blow account of what happens in the male anatomy, amid titters, so that she eventually understood what the “wet spark” in Philip Larkin’s Dry Point meant, and how, when it came, “the bright blown walls collapse” and everything after was just “sad scapes,” “ashen hills!” and “salted, shrunken lakes!”
Don’t know what “bollocks” means? Yes, he’d explain. Don’t know how to describe someone who’s temperamental and unpredictable, he’d supply the word: mercurial. Don’t know how to portray words that have an edge and a bite? He’d tell you: astringent, just like the facial toners with the acidic sting of lemons, you know, the ones that help to soothe the skin and close up the pores? That set me thinking how he too could unclog those pores on his face, particularly that nose, so bulbous and distinctive, he could well have been a character straight out of a Dickensian novel.
Now, I could unearth so many words in my vocabulary that can be traced back to Mr. Dore. There’s colloquial, for instance, casual and conversational; and in the wry family, there’s sardonic, ironic, jocular; and then, there’s that special group of words that seemed to sum up, for me, the very spirit of Larkin—“Larkinesque” as Mr. Dore would have called it: cynical, self-mocking, self-effacing, self-deprecating. All these words were just the kind we could call upon for astute commentaries on a poet’s use of language, say, or diction and tone of voice. That’s manna from heaven for most of us Literature students, because we all know too well that dull, lousy feeling when our pen charges hopelessly forward in a sputter, narrating, then paraphrasing, then narrating again, without any real insight or observation. And then, we know, we’re done for.
But we’re lucky: We’ve got Mr. Dore, the English man with Caesar’s curls and the broad, boxy Caesar shoulders, the Literature teacher whose only teaching materials in class were his texts—bound xeroxed copies with a textured white cover, for Owen, for Larkin, the same copies the school had made for all of us. (A sin and a violation, I know! Thank goodness, our Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man was the real deal, a Grafton Books 1986 paperback).
Mr. Dore never ever rattled off from notes, which only elevated his standing in our eyes. And you’d hardly find his bum on the teacher’s desk or chair, for he was big on pacing, having for his stage that small strip of real estate in our tiny tutorial room between the teacher’s desk and the fifteen or so desk-attached chairs jostling with each other.
He’d walk the room back and forth as he stretched his vowels, rumbled his gutturals, and half-spat his plosives—which didn’t bode well for those in the front row, who also had to contend with his intense gaze as he moved from one face to the next, coming up so close as he leaned forward you could see the translucent grey of his pupils through his wire-rimmed glasses. You could even detect a speck of chili in between his teeth (that’s from laksa at recess), sometimes even a curry stain on his light-colored, logo-less polo shirt. Or you could catch a whiff of his warm breath, and a hint of sweat, as you tried to avert his eyes by looking down, scribbling something, anything.
“Who cares if I don’t smell nice,” you can imagine him saying, or “Bollocks to unclogged pores!” He couldn’t have given a damn if his nose were pockmarked with blackheads. He would still have walked with that swagger, his chest always ample with breath and pride. And that was his other gift to us, I think: Just be yourself. That, and get out and enjoy the fresh air—which he did.
Written in September 2015, this five-part essay is a toast to Timothy Dore, the Literature teacher who taught Philip Larkin’s The Less Deceived, Wilfred Owen’s war poems, James Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, and the million mysteries and joys of Literature to the class of 1986/87 in Raffles Junior College.
Look out for Part IV next Wednesday, 13 April 2016.