The other night my son asked me if angels were real. He looked worried. No, I said. Then he looked relieved.
I said, well, there is no such thing as men and women flying around with wings. He smiled.
But, I went on, sometimes people use images of things to express the way they feel about stuff, the way stuff affects them. And so people might talk about angels because it’s a way of talking about good things or feelings that you find hard to describe.
I said, do you know who Winston Churchill is?
Winston Churchill was the prime minister of Great Britain during the Second World War. He used to have depression. Do you know what depression is?
Well, depression is when you feel really bad and anxious about things and you find it all overwhelming. Winston Churchill used to get depression, and he would call it the ‘black dog’. Of course the black dog didn’t exist. There wasn’t a black dog sitting in the room that made him feel depressed. (He laughed)
But it was a way of talking about things. Well sometimes when people talk about angels, that’s what they’re really doing.
Well people often use images to express things instead of just describing them, like in poems.
OK, let me show you. Here’s a poem that talks about angels. (I open a webpage showing Timothy Winters by Charles Causley. I start to remember the scene from some Jimmy McGovern TV drama where a character played by Christopher Eccleston gets worked up while explaining the poem to a class, banging out the rhythm of the lines on the table. I decide to play it cool. I start reading)
‘Timothy Winters comes to school
With eyes as wide as a football-pool’
-What’s a football-pool?
Do you know what football pools are?
Well, back before people played the lottery lots of people used to enter a competition every week. They’d get a list of all the football fixtures for the weekend, and they’d have to pick out score draws. If they picked out enough score draws they’d get a prize. It used to be that eight score draws would give you the biggest prize you could get.
-So you would be like Man Utd are going to draw against Arsenal?
-Why are his eyes like that then?
Well his eyes are wide. When are people’s eyes wide?
-Em, when they’ve got a big face?
Maybe, but not really. When you see someone with their eyes wide open, what does that say?
-Em, that they’re afraid?
Yeah, sometimes. But sometimes it can be because you’re looking at something really big and exciting and new.
-Yeah but he’s going to school.
That’s right. And you never know. Maybe the school is like a big shiny new building. Or maybe he’s never seen so many people in one place. Or maybe that’s just how he looks at the world.
-Why are they like a football pool then?
I don’t know, you tell me.
-Because he likes football? I mean, because he’s thinking about football?
Yeah it could be. But think about the football pools. You would fill out a form and it had the names of towns all throughout England. And all those towns were full of people-
-Was it just the Premier League?
They didn’t have the Premier League then. They just had Divisions One to Four.
-Was Stevenage in it?
I don’t know. Maybe they were in the Conference or whatever it was called.
-Was Bournemouth in it?
I think so. So anyway, when-
-Was Northampton in it?
-Maybe his eyes are big because he’s thinking about all the money he’s going to get.
Yes, could be.
I go on.
‘Ears like bombs and teeth like splinters’
-Ears like bombs.
What do you think of that?
-He has really big ears. They go all over the place, like bombs.
Could be. Or maybe he has heard bombs going off. Maybe they were very loud, and the noise stayed in his ears.
-No, I don’t think so.
What about teeth like splinters?
-They’re small and made out of wood, like cocktail sticks?
Could be. Well I don’t think they’re really made out of wood. They’re like splinters, but that doesn’t mean they *are* splinters.
-Maybe they’re broken.
‘A blitz of a boy is Timothy Winters’.
-What’s a blitz?
A blitz is a German word.
-Like the reindeer.
Yes, like Blitzen the reindeer. It comes from the same place. ‘Blitzen’ means flash, I think. And ‘blitz’ means lightning. But in the Second World War the blitz was the name people gave to the bombs that got dropped by the Germans on British towns and cities. They dropped them on Belfast and Dublin too.
-Was it like in Star Wars when they attack the village?
Yeah, it was, a bit. So what does that tell you about Timothy Winters?
-Em, that he runs around wrecking everything?
Maybe. But maybe it also says that he was around when the bombs were being dropped. During the war lots of children were moved from the big cities out into the country. But not all of them, some of them stayed with their parents.
-And did lots of people die?
Yeah they did.
We go on, line by line. Maybe the wind blows through his trousers because they are full of holes. Or maybe the wind actually blows between his legs because he has rickets. We figure that maybe he licks the pattern off his plate because he’s so hungry but also maybe because he likes the food. Maybe he has bloody feet because he walked on a nail on the way to school. Or maybe he has no shoes.
Maybe he lives on Suez Street because Suez is the name of a big canal that was built so goods could be shipped from South Asia to Europe and so the people who live on that street are a bit like the goods carried along the canal. Yes, maybe the bombardier Timothy’s mother ran off with is a bit like an X-wing fighter pilot. The Master is another name for a teacher, but a master could also be someone who owned you, like a slave.
And the Master talks as if he was the same as the rest of the children but he really wasn’t, not if they were like Timothy Winters. And ‘Amen!’ means ‘I agree’ but maybe Timothy Winters isn’t really agreeing but he’s really just shouting out because that’s what you’re supposed to say and he’s bored. But maybe he does agree and he thinks there are people who have it harder than him.
We get to the bit about the angels some twenty minutes after I planned. Why is the poem calling on the angels? -So that they look after Timothy Winters? Maybe. Or maybe he is picking a fight with them, planning to take them all on. Or maybe it’s children like Timothy Winters that angels should really be worried about.
Do you know what a verb is?
What is it?
-It’s a doing word.
That’s right. It’s words like jump or look.
Yeah. Well, look at the name Timothy Winters.
Look at the name.
‘Winters’, that could be a verb.
Winter. It isn’t just the name of a season. It’s also a verb. You sometimes read about people wintering somewhere. That means they spend the winter there. So ‘Timothy Winters.’ could be a sentence. Like ‘Timothy spends winter’.
-Yeah but where is he spending the winter?
I don’t know, wherever he is, I suppose. Maybe it’s always winter for him.
-Maybe there are storm troopers there, like in The Empire Strikes Back.