Jim Aitken is a regular contributor to Emancipation & Liberation. He has published several books of poetry. Here Mary McGregor, also a teacher of English, reviews Jim’s Last Calendar of Events, which covers his last year of teaching.
“And I gave them ideals
and have held on to then still
a youthful spirit unbroken.”
On finishing Jim Aiken’s The Last Calendar of Events, there is no doubt in my mind that Jim Aitkin is a “youthful spirit unbroken”. Political integrity is a rare commodity especially in politicians but Jim’s book oozes with integrity and commitment, which is inspirational in its honesty and emotion. This is far more than a diary of a final year’s teaching; reminiscing in a dewy eyed fashion about decades of struggle and achievements. Nor is it just a polemic against the bureaucracy and box ticking which has defined teaching in the last few years. It is something much more important. It is a book about the complex relationship between a man and his life’s work. It is a monument to the fact that despite the brutalisation and alienation that capitalism throws at us, human beings are capable, through the very essence of their humanity, of living a life imbued with justice and compassion and are capable of sharing that with those around them.
I don’t remember ever meeting Jim Aitkin; never had a conversation with him; never watched him teach. But I know. I know that he has changed the lives of so many young people and colleagues over the years. His daily acts of revolution – passing on e-mails to staff on the economic inequalities of 21st century Britain, bringing the relevance of the Arab Spring to disaffected school students, representing staff as a union rep, challenging trade union bureaucrats – show not only what needs to be done but what has to be done. I have spent a lot of my life with people who talk the socialist talk but Jim walks the walk. Through this diary, we have a tremendous insight into the ways so called “ordinary people” live and think and act in their daily lives in an unselfish and conscious way to try to improve the world we live in. That is part of the inspiration of this book, it shows that we can all further the cause of socialism in the here and now and we must not wait till the great revolution before we begin.
The style of the book is interesting. As a diary, we see the mundane juxtaposed against the huge geopolitical events of our time. We see the personal and the political inextricably intertwined. At times this could seem banal but instead, it makes the politics all the more profound and real. It is a style reminiscent in its power and application to Tom Leonard’s poetry.
The love that Jim feels for his family is palpable, particularly for his baby grandson Michael. Yet he links this love and concern to the need to maker a better world for them all. He dreads that education in its current form will knock the imagination and wonder out of Michael and process him like so many others: skills not imagination being the order of the day. This is no grey faced ranting lefty devoid of feeling and sentiment. This is a man who is not afraid to speak of love or his ill mum as well as speaking out against the Afghan war, the bombing of Libya or the trams in Edinburgh.
As he contemplates another union sell out, he still finds the joy of going out for a curry with his department and laughing and going to see a play. Thus, Jim’s humanity shines through. He does not lecture or scold – he is not that kind of a teacher – he gently allows us to form a picture of what is wrong with our society and how it can be put right.
There are great touches of humour in this book and I don’t think you have to be an English teacher to laugh out loud at his “lost scene from Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men”. I will be sharing this with colleagues and classes!
For me, the fact that he is so conflicted about his retirement is particularly relevant. I have only 5 years to go – if they don’t change the goalposts again! I recognise these mixed emotions, “Marx makes the distinction between working time and living time ……I should welcome the chance of living rather than working…. but my emotional part does not feel entirely like this.”
As teachers, we are very lucky that despite the undoubted ridiculous workload and educational nonsense imposed from on high, so many of us enjoy our jobs – the daily acts of rebellion when we can go off message and actually encourage young people to think! We have access to sensitive, sometimes damaged students who can with our intervention at times show creativity and insight, which defies the grey fog of capitalism. As the months progress, the retirement niggles then looms then eventually is embraced by Jim. But it is not a simple process. Sometimes on the left, we fail to recognise the complexity of our relationship with work. Jim talks about the work ethic that is so much part of his character. Rarely off sick, a sense of responsibility wanting to do the job well – so many of us have that schizophrenic relationship with a job that is often killing us. It will never be any different under capitalism which will squeeze every drop of productivity out of us but it is the wonderfully subversive act of remaining human which confounds the system completely and it is that which Jim exemplifies.
There is no doubt in my mind that with more time on his hands, we will see even more of Jim’s poetry and that his activism will continue in various forms. He just is that kind of man. He will not give up the fight. There are things that I disagree with Jim about particularly on the nature of young people now compared to back in the day. Maybe some time I will be lucky enough to have a blether with him about this. But until then, I will recommend his The Last Calendar of Events as a book, which shows what teaching should be about and what kind of future we should strive to create,
“Nothing short of changing the world,
was where I started and now end,
drying my face in the towel.”
See Emancipation & Liberation interview with Jim Aitken at:- Lyrical Delicacy and Political Toughness
Mr Aitken was my English teacher,so I will try not to let him down with my poor grammar,I’d just like to thank him for the influence he had in my life ,I went to Craigmount high and he is special ,all of my friends have the opinion he was the best teacher we had ,I’m from a single parent family where my dad brought up three kids on his own ,we were poor in the financial sense ,but attending his classes have left me rich in the sense of culture,He empowered me still to this day, as he opened avenues to myself that still to this day I cherish .He read us books such as of mice and men and explained the characters such as Lenny and stablebuck to us which enlightened me ,He taught us poems from Liz Lochead,and Seamus Heaney,It was not just me who he helped he championed and empowered other students whom Society would otherwise malign ,by showing us respect and giving us his full attention,Mr Aitken I’m a voice for the Palestinian cause in Edinburgh it is my life to educate the plight of the people of Palestine and the role Britain and in particular the Balfour treaty played in the struggle,It’s not about how rich we are financially to me it’s being rich in your heart,I read your work today and it’s no shock that you acknowledge the plight of the wee Guy ,Mr Aitken cause of you I read the classics and you made literature accessible to me ,and I can enjoy the brilliance of Hemingway and the meaning is not lost on me ,My Family problems are a by product of Thatchers rule ,I grew up in Burdiehouse in the 80s ,which was ground zero of the heroin and aids epidemic of the 80s ,and it haunts me still to this day as it claimed a family member,But I refuse to sink to those depths as I have my books ,and that’s down to you sir ,If all my teachers at school showed the faith you did ,then school would have been a productive experience unfortunately it wasn’t,I suppose the biggest thrill today is to read about your life and I find with championing the Palestinian cause and respect for Muslim’s ,and reading that your mother campaigned for a plaque to James Connolly is so inspiring as the Irish struggle is my struggle to ,Respect to you Mr Aitken Erin go bragh Love to you Rachid Benmoussa Mediouni Hibernian Edinburgh