Isaac and I: A Life In Poetry

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This is an autobiography of Chris Searle, who was inspired by poetry, especially by the East End (of London) poet Isaac Rosenberg. More than that, he inspired children, teenagers and working class men and women to write and recite them.

His secondary schooling didn’t start smoothly because he needed several attempts to get into grammar school. He was encouraged by his English teacher, whose choice of exciting class readers like Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped and plays, including Shakespeare, “opened up the heart of language within me that I had to dive into!”

The Chief, as the pupils’ called their teacher, made it so “everything we read seemed to comment directly on how we lived now and what we could learn from it”. The Chief gave his pupils a good diet of literature, films and theatre. The Chief and Chris shared an enthusiasm in cricket.

As he was coming to the end of his course at Leeds University, he took up an offer to teach an English Literature course and was granted an “Ontario Scholarship” to study for a masters’ degree in English in Canada. His dissertation on Isaac Rosenberg’s poetry is very satisfying!

This also opened up opportunities to travel and indulge his passion for cricket, which took him to the Caribbean (including Jamaica and a trip on a working ship that went to all the islands). In the December prize giving there was the annual performance of a Shakespeare play.

Chris clearly thought it was absurd as he was aware there were Caribbean playwrights and suggested that they perform Moon on a Rainbow Shawl by Trinidadian actor and writer Errol John. It is a fascinating section of the book.

Back in England his first post was in Stepney — a school located in the same street where his hero once lived. Of course Chris was particularly keen to teach his students poetry.

He encouraged pupils to write about what they saw and the feelings they had. The school didn’t want to publish the poetry. In 1971 Chris published a book of his students’ poems titled Stepney Words. Shockingly, he was sacked for this! Chris asked a low stream class to write about themselves and how they saw their futures. There was a range of responses including the following entitled “Chris found this piece left on a desk”:

“I am just a boy/ With a lot of dreams/ But what’s the point/ I won’t get nowhere/ I’m just ordinary/ Nothing special just/ Ordinary/ Got no chance in this/ World unless you’re/ Clever/ Which I’m not.”

Chris has included a passage about Peter Blackman: “We do not pay attention to our exploration of the ordinary. You are ordinary, I am ordinary…and out of the ordinary we bring excellence, without elitism.”