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It meant having a monopoly on truth. If this smacked more of divine than human authority, that was the point. To reinforce this blunt message, Sneferu adopted a new title, netjer nefer. Modern experience suggests that the titles are more about brainwashing and subjugation than the expression of popular acclaim. And yet, when it comes to ancient Egypt, scholars still balk at such an interpretation.
When the king also controls the written record, it is hardly surprising that accounts of repression or brutality are absent. Archaeology, however, reveals something more of the truth. Throughout the first three dynasties, Egyptian society retained much of its prehistoric character. The material culture was largely dominated by forms of pottery, stone vessels, even statuary derived from predynastic antecedents. The major regional centers were still those from the period of state formation, places such as Inerty, Nekheb, Tjeni, Nubt, and Nekhen.
Beyond the immediate confines of the royal court, society, too, seems to have been organized along ancient, traditional lines, dominated by family, regional, and perhaps tribal loyalties. All that seems to have changed at the beginning of the Fourth Dynasty. New styles of pottery and sculpture were promulgated by the court to be produced in state workshops. New towns were founded by the state to replace the earlier centers of power—Iunet modern Dendera displaced Tjeni as the regional administrative capital, Thebes grew at the expense of Nubt, and Djeba eclipsed Nekhen.
It is tempting to see these phenomena as parts of a deliberate and coordinated government policy designed to snuff out local autonomy and replace it with a new, absolute dependency on central authority. Anyone with any position whatsoever in the vast machinery of government now sought to be buried in the court cemetery, founded by the king and dominated by his own gigantic funerary monument, rather than being interred in their local burial ground, hallowed by age and ancestral ties.
The first of these new court cemeteries grew up at Meidum, a rather remote site near the entrance to the Fayum. The choice of location was significant in itself. By breaking with tradition and eschewing the existing royal burial grounds of Abdju and Saqqara, Sneferu was distancing himself from his ancestors, too. His was an avowedly forward-looking age, in which power would be independent of inheritance. As such, the age demanded a bold, new architectural statement. In a further break with tradition, the complex of buildings surrounding the Step Pyramid was abandoned in favor of an elongated plan, with the various architectural elements laid out along an axis.
This led eastward from the pyramid itself, via a small temple and a stone causeway to a valley temple on the edge of cultivation. After about a decade on the throne, with the Meidum pyramid all but complete, the king embarked upon an even more audacious project. Once again, he chose a virgin site modern Dahshur at the southern end of the great necropolis of Memphis.
The subtle solar symbolism of the Meidum complex would be replaced by the overt representation of a shaft of sunlight, rendered in stone on a monumental scale. The name of the Dahshur pyramid, Appearance, used the same word as the rising of the sun. A new age had truly dawned. An eight-and-a-half-acre site was cleared for construction, and the plans were for the most majestic pyramid yet, with sides rising at a steep angle of 60 degrees to a height of nearly five hundred feet.
Many of these new foundations were located in the wide expanses of the delta, and one of them, in the western delta, subsequently grew to a considerable size. Imu modern Kom el-Hisn demonstrates the extent to which government policy shaped the demography of Old Kingdom Egypt. Although cattle seem to have been reared in large numbers at the site, the local population did not enjoy the fruits of their labors.
Their diet was unusually low in beef and cattle products, suggesting that most of the livestock was sent straight to the royal palace and cult centers near Memphis, leaving the cattle keepers themselves to survive on more meager fare.
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Even the cereals grown at Imu seem to have been fed preferentially to the cattle rather than to their human attendants. Once again, we see the essentially self-interested nature of the ancient Egyptian monarchy. This was not so much enlightened despotism as despotism, pure and simple. While the extensive low-lying fields of the delta provided ideal grazing for vast herds of cattle, the royal estates in Upper Egypt concentrated on grain production.
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The staple crop was barley, which provided the basic ingredient for both bread and beer. As soon as the floodwaters receded, in early autumn, seed was broadcast over the newly irrigated and fertilized fields, and it germinated quickly. The main growing season coincided with the cooler months of winter, and this was followed by the onset of summer, which ripened the grain and allowed harvesting to take place in ideal conditions, before the inundation arrived to start the annual cycle over again. In such a favorable environment, it was relatively easy to produce a surplus; easy, too, for the state to siphon off a significant percentage of agricultural production, by way of taxation, to fund its own projects.
The end product of all this economic activity is illustrated in reliefs from the Dahshur valley temple. In a frieze around the walls, a line of female offering bearers, each personifying a different royal estate, is shown bringing supplies for the royal cult. The king was letting it be known that his pyramid was a national enterprise, involving the whole country—whether the populace liked it or not.
Sneferu may have been able to command his people and their livelihoods, but he could not control the forces of nature. As his massive pyramid at Dahshur reached the halfway point, geology rudely intervened. Cracks started appearing in the outer casing, the telltale signs of subsidence. The underlying sands and shales were simply not strong enough to support the vast weight of the growing pyramid, and the ground had begun to give way. As an emergency measure, extra blocks of stone were laid around the base of the pyramid, reducing the angle of the sides to 54 degrees, but it was too little, too late.
Fissures started to open up in the internal corridors and chambers.
The architects tried everything from plaster repairs to a new stone lining. They even used expensive imported logs to shore up the ceilings an entry on the Palermo Stone records the arrival of forty ships from Kebny, laden with coniferous timber , but to no avail. Finally in a desperate attempt to salvage the pyramid—and their own careers—from complete ruin, the architects implemented a radical change of plan.
For the upper half of the pyramid, the angle of incline was reduced still further, to 43 degrees. Smaller blocks of stone were employed, and they were laid in horizontal courses, rather than the inward-sloping courses used previously, which had unintentionally contributed to the stresses and strains at the base. The result would be a completed pyramid, but a seriously botched job. Work continued on the Bent Pyramid—although now useless, it nevertheless had to be completed.
An unfinished disaster would be the ultimate disgrace. Eventually the focus of attention and activity shifted toward preparations for a third great monument. This time, the lessons learned from bitter experience were rigorously applied.
A site was chosen with stable underlying geology; the monument was planned, from the outset, with a reduced angle of slope the same 43 degrees used for the upper part of the Bent Pyramid ; and the stone blocks would all be laid in horizontal courses. Resources and manpower were mobilized as never before, for the only commodity in short supply was time.
Sneferu had already been king for twenty years, and his monument for eternity had to be finished before he died. For a time, major construction work was taking place on three different monuments simultaneously, an unprecedented commitment of manpower and resources. The accelerating pace of construction was extraordinary. In the second decade, as the Bent Pyramid was taking shape, the rate was increased to , cubic yards per year. The extra effort involved in hauling blocks higher and higher up the pyramid was compensated for by the sharply reducing volume of the monument toward its apex.
By the time the builders laid the sixty-sixth course less than halfway up , they had accomplished 80 percent of the work by volume. In such a way, with an unrelenting pace and enormous effort, the Red Pyramid was finished in good time. The greatest pyramid builder in Egyptian history finally had a monument worthy of the name. Indeed, the name Appearance was transferred to the Red Pyramid while the Bent Pyramid was rather embarrassingly renamed Southern Appearance.
Not only was it perfect in outward form, but its interior chambers also showed a new sophistication of design, with elegantly corbeled roofs producing pyramid-shaped spaces to reflect the building as a whole. In death as in life, the king would be elevated above the mundane, closer to heaven than to earth. Virtually nothing is known about Khufu the man, and the events of his reign are sketchy.
The Great Pyramid at Giza marks the zenith not just of ancient Egyptian kingship but of the universal tendency for absolute power to project itself in grandiose architecture. At its most stark, the structure represents the untrammeled exercise of political and economic control; at its most inspirational, it represents a unique episode in human history.
From the outset, it was designed to set new standards that would remain unsurpassed. Khufu chose the site carefully, the Giza plateau like Dahshur being visible from Saqqara, yet virgin ground. The underlying geology—a strong seam of limestone called the Mokattam Formation—was ideally suited to bear the weight of a gigantic monument. The local availability of building material in vast quantities was a further advantage, and during the inundation, boats could reach the base of the plateau, facilitating deliveries to the construction site from all over Egypt.
The king also chose wisely when appointing the man who would oversee the entire project. For most of the Fourth Dynasty, the highest offices of state were reserved exclusively for senior male members of the royal family, in what seems to have been a deliberate policy to concentrate all power in the hands of the king. For the greatest undertaking of his reign, therefore, Khufu chose a trusted royal relative. In his prime, he held a combination of courtly, religious, and administrative offices, ranging from elder of the palace to high priest of Thoth the god of writing and wisdom.
With an aquiline nose and strong jaw, his facial features project an air of self-confidence and determination. The first—and in many ways the most crucial—stage of building a pyramid involved laying out and preparing the site. The extraordinary precision with which the Great Pyramid is aligned to the points of the compass indicates that a method of orientation involving the stars must have been used.
Solar methods are simply not accurate enough. The precise technique that the Egyptians used is not certain, but it may well have involved a pair of stars that circle the celestial north pole; when the two are in a direct vertical alignment easily checked with a simple plumb line , the line of sight toward them marks true north. We may imagine this alignment ceremony being carried out with great solemnity, in the presence of priests, with Hemiunu and perhaps the king himself looking on, for the efficacy of the pyramid as a means of resurrecting the king after his death depended on the accuracy of its orientation—as we shall see later.
Once the site had been laid out, and the ground cleared and leveled—probably by using channels cut into the surface of the rock and filled with water—it was time for the construction itself to begin. The ancient Egyptian approach to any large-scale undertaking was to divide it up into a series of more manageable units. When it came to pyramid building and the organization of a vast workforce, this proved both efficient and highly effective.
The basic unit of the workforce was probably a team of twenty men, each with its own team leader. This kind of organization would have produced a team spirit, and a sense of friendly rivalry between teams would have encouraged each to try and outdo the others. This was certainly the case with larger units of the workforce, as surviving inscriptions testify. The pyramid-shaped structure of the workforce reflected the monument itself.
Like the regiments, battalions, and companies of an army, the organizational arrangement engendered a strong sense of corporate identity and pride at different levels of the system. Team vied with team, phyle with phyle, and gang with gang to be the best and to win recognition. This structure was a simple and ingenious solution to a massive task, and it ensured that motivation was maintained. It needed to be.
Unlike some of his colleagues he was particularly interested in reaching and teaching the less able students, as well as the gifted ones who could bring him personal glory, and when he learned that a favourite former student, a wise, dreamy, motherly girl somewhat reminiscent of Luna Lovegood, had died of a heart condition, he locked himself into a room on his own and wept. When he became seriously ill, a local friend of his with the netnick Fyds commented online about the unfairness of such a good man having to die comparatively young, and described him as "one of those people you would always have total time for, life-affirming and generous in all things".
He was loving and compassionate and he thought very highly of Joanne Rowling, who often hung around the Science Department at break-time to be with her mother and therefore de facto hung around with John and with Shirley, who was first his senior lab. And yet judging from some of her comments about Snape and about the teachers on whom Snape was based, Rowling seems to see Snape, and therefore by implication John, as a sadist which he emphatically was not, especially in the sexual sense: he was revolted by any sexual imagery which suggested unhappiness or coercion , a bully and a cruel man.
This isn't actually as extreme as it sounds for Rowling also calls the Weasley twins, whom she clearly likes, "cruel" and she has admitted that she likes Snape even though she coupled this with saying that she wanted to slap him. There's no reason to think that when she says Snape is cruel she means anything worse by it than when she says that the twins are: she's stated that she does like Snape, even though she qualified it by saying she'd like to slap him, and she even said that she would hesitate to say that she loves him - which is tantamount to admitting that she does.
She clearly has a lot of affection for Snape, and therefore by implication probably for John. Nevertheless, she clearly saw John in a way very different from how his friends saw him or how he intended to come across, and was apparently unaware of his concern and affection for her. John could be verbally catty and like the twins he was a rebel, a non-conformist - but he wouldn't have done an eighth part of the callous things the twins do, and his non-conforming extended to not conforming to the destructive stereotype of what a non-conformist rebel should be.
I am told that some of the fen think it's wrong to discuss Rowling's attitude to John and the possible reasons for her ambiguous attitude to Snape, but by explicitly stating that Snape was written as an act of "revenge" against her male Chemistry teacher, and also saying that he contains elements of various bullying unpleasant teachers she met, she has both opened up her own feelings for public discussion and launched what could be interpreted as a public attack on John. This has had unpleasant consequences in both directions: on the one hand, it has caused some fen, including at least two heavyweight essayists whose work may be remembered, to assume that John must have been a dreadful person who did her some serious injury; on the other, it has caused many Snape fen to feel intense hatred for Rowling.
Neither of them deserves this, so it's important to look at how two decent people managed to end up at cross-purposes. In any case, these are books which will probably be read for centuries, even for thousands of years, just as we still read about Monkey and Don Quixote and Odysseus and Maeve of Connaught. A large part of Potter fandom is fiercely anti-intellectual and believes that it is a crime against nature for a woman to analyse and think about books instead of emoting and gushing, but there will be people seven hundred years from now who will want to understand why Rowling wrote what she did, just as we want to understand Chaucer.
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Speculation is going to happen anyway, and it will have a better chance of being accurate if it starts on the basis of recorded information from people like John who actually knew her. John was aware of himself as having been quite strict and "exacting" as a schoolmaster - he said that he had had to be, to prevent the students from blowing themselves up - and not always popular with his pupils, but even students who disliked him found him an excellent science teacher, clear, interesting and informative.
He was the best and brightest, full of colour and interest, but he did at times share some of Snape's more challenging characteristics. At the time that he was teaching Rowling, John was at the tail-end of a failing marriage and was suffering badly from stress and chronic insomnia, and he said himself that this had had a deleterious effect on his mood and temper: but even he was possibly not aware of how wild his behaviour had sometimes been "when he was Snape".
A near contemporary of Rowling's at Wyedean spoke of never knowing how John would react if spoken to at that time, as he might either stare blankly into space or, unpredictably, erupt like a volcano. Given John's own comments about the effects of protracted sleeplessness it's clear he was ill with exhaustion and was alternating between falling asleep with his eyes open and jerking awake without knowing he'd been asleep, and then screaming at people because he was disoriented and panicky.
It ought to have been obvious to any observant person that he was unwell rather than necessarily unpleasant, especially as one can see from the deckchair photograph that he was desperately thin and pale at that time and had dark circles under his eyes: but one of the themes in the Potter books is teenagers not realising that teachers are real people with feelings and sufferings of their own. Also, one didn't have to know John very long to realise that there was something a bit odd about his social skills.
He seemed to have no casual friends: no middle ground between mere acquaintances to whom he would barely speak, or close friends - of whom he had many - to whom he was exceptionally open and honest. The two, I have realised, went together: he couldn't be friends with someone at all unless he felt he could be close to them and really trust them, because his honesty and openness towards people he liked made him very vulnerable.
He said himself that "Unfortunately I tend to say exactly what I feel on any topic, I've got very little sense of reserve" and that he had never learned to dissemble, even though a colleague had advised him to do so. This inability to hide his true feelings was both symptom and cause of a ruthless honesty practised as a deliberate virtue: he commented that in the Potter books Rowling "shows how unpleasant behaviour is regarded as acceptable if its perpetrators are popular.
By email or post although he could when required be serious, analytical, an intellectual and political heavyweight, most of the time he came across as a bouncy-bouncy teenage fanboy: buoyant, eager, playful and witty. But his speaking manner was stiff and bitten-off, unless he knew you really well. It took two years of regular conversations on the 'phone with me for him to stop sounding as if he'd swallowed a poker, and he never did learn how to end a conversation gracefully but would just pull up in mid flow and say "Gotta go now, bye-ee!
A lifelong old-school socialist, he was for many years Chairman of the local Labour Party. He became Chairman of Caerwent Community Council in and was the many times re-elected town councillor for St Bride's Netherwent although I imagine he didn't take that last job on until after he retired from teaching. But he told me very early on in our friendship that he was handicapped in local politics because he was unable to tell from someone's manner whether they were friendly towards him or hostile. If somebody made a less-than-flattering comment about him, he had no way of knowing whether it was meant affectionately or nastily: indeed on at least one occasion he asked me to talk him through it, explaining what clues I could see which told me that a statement was hostile to him.
Because he was open and trusting and preferred to think the best of people, he assumed that all critical comments about himself were meant affectionately until otherwise proven, even when it was pretty clear they were intended as attacks. Sometimes this had the effect of disarming enemies and turning them into friends; sometimes it just annoyed the hell out of them. John aged eight, in the Cubs Sometimes he found to his distress that he had made an enemy without having any idea how he had done so; and since he didn't know what he had done to offend someone he was sometimes anxious that people might take offence over something quite anodyne.
Clever and curious, he had done well at school proper, although he hadn't been happy there until he reached the Sixth Form. At the local Anglican Sunday School, however, he was constantly being told-off and sent home early and in tears, with no idea what he'd done wrong. When he was eight he refused to go back to Sunday School and joined the Cubs instead, but that too was to turn sour.
Following a change of leadership, the Rover Scouts young men aged who now helped run the troop, whom he described as "conceited sadists", routinely beat him with a knotted rope, leaving him crouched sobbing in a corner and still with no idea what if anything he'd done wrong. Knowing him as I did, I suspected that what he'd done "wrong" was to fail to comply with implied orders he hadn't even noticed, as well as being pretty and not physically strong: if for example the group leader said "It's getting late now, boys", probably everyone else would understand " But nobody ever gave him a chance to explain and he didn't find happiness or acceptance as a child until he refused point-blank to go to Cubs again even after the man who ran it came round to the house to try to persuade him to return , joined the local Church Choir, and began to work on what would be a glorious singing voice.
That was vintage John really - both that he was brutally bullied and made miserable to punish quirky behaviour which was quite innocent in intention, and that he knew his own mind and had a steely, unshakeable determination to follow it. He also had other odd little quirks. His interests very easily became obsessions: if he wanted one or two Green Man images, for example, then he would want hundreds.
He also said himself that he was extremely visually-oriented: I wasn't quite sure how he meant this, but Temple Grandin has an interesting essay about visual thinking. Tamara and I along with duj and wynnleaf of The Sisterhood who both had a lot of experience of the condition were as sure as one can be that John had a borderline case of Asperger's syndrome.
This is a mild form of autism often associated with very high intelligence and analytical ability, along with a reduced ability to process fuzzy, contextual situations and some difficulty in understanding social cues and norms, especially sub-text and implied mood. John himself agreed with us: it was only giving a name to something he already knew about himself, and he had the sense to know that it was nothing to be embarrassed about, and that it was a label which bracketed him with Einstein and Newton and with a very high proportion of all scientists, lawyers, mathematicians, musicians, medical and surgical consultants, programmers, Talmudic scholars and chess players.
Personally I see Asperger's Syndrome, and autism generally, as the wetware equivalent of overclocking a computer. If it doesn't work out, you get a fried computer, someone too disabled to live independently; but if it turns out well you get a much faster system, albeit one which is often a little flaky, and if it does work well then the benefits generally outweigh the deficits. It's not a malformation, as such, but a minority neurological mode which, like the "Type A" personality type, has a particular set of advantages while increasing the risk of a particular set of problems.
It's not fundamentally different from me saying that I was top of the class at school in sciences and in my own language but abysmally bad at foreign languages, except that Asperger's represents a specific set of good-ats and bad-ats which tend to cluster together and to run in families. There is quite an active Aspie Pride movement, which promotes the advantages of Asperger's-style thinking in many academic and scientific fields. Also, a study The Journal of the American Medical Association : Neuron Number and Size in Prefrontal Cortex of Children With Autism indicates that autists have an unusually high amount of brain tissue dedicated to social skills, rather than a lack of it.
One of the marks of an intelligent creature - part of what makes a rat brighter than a shrew, a dog brighter than a hedgehog, a human brighter than a lemur - is that the more intelligent the animal, the more it tends to get its behaviours by learning them from its parents or deriving them from experience and observation, rather than depending mainly on instinct.
To be born with a set of instincts missing, then, is in some ways perhaps to be farther down the human road and away from the monkey-programme - even if it can cause difficulties with reading others or being read by them. It was this mild but immutable social oddity which explained how John could be such a kind and loving man and yet come across to some of his students as harsh or unfeeling. If he knew that somebody was suffering, that they needed help, he would be full of concern and generosity but he didn't do subtle hints or subtext: unless it was really glaringly obvious, he wouldn't know that somebody was upset unless they stood in front of him and said "I am upset.
But when he had to speak to somebody directly and interpret their tone of voice and body-language he was likely to get lost. A former student who disliked him said to me that as a teacher he was "insensitive and clueless" and I replied that that was literally the case: he lacked a sense, and as a result he perceived no social clues, but the problem was with his neurological wiring rather than his character or intentions, just as it is with somebody who is deaf. He wasn't one of the pastoral care staff, since he had the self-knowledge to know that he'd be no good at it, and when I look back at my own teachers at my own excellent girls' grammar school, I liked most of them immensely and I remember them with love and gratitude, but I can't offhand think of a single instance where I could clearly say that one of them had been sensitive.
Assuming this to be accurate, it sounds like a clear manifestation of his inability to form shallow connections. He was either deeply connected, or not connected at all, and he didn't know how to do the kind of casual relationships most people use to get by socially because he didn't know how to be friendly without baring his heart - but it may well have looked like favouritism to Jo Rowling. Also, of course, since he was unable to dissemble he would be unable - unlike most teachers - to pretend to like a student when he didn't: if he thought that a student was an annoying little tit, it would probably show.
Those with whom he had formed a connection, thought the world of him: one former Caldicot student liked John so much he provided him with a lifetime of free tech. But much more, I owe him all that I am career-wise - he was an inspiration and I hope that when I lecture I have at least some of his enthusiasm.
Conversations with John were never long enough, for however long he spoke for, he always left them wanting more. I could have spent a lifetime talking to John, about everything and nothing. A trawl through the online forums in which former Wyedean students reminisce about the school shows that "Stinger" was loved or disliked in about equal measure.
He had the reputation for being a great showman and extremely entertaining - usually on purpose, although the end-of-term raps about various aspects of chemistry which he used to put on to amuse the class got a mixed reception, and some students found them risible rather than witty. Exciting things happened during his experiments, possibly not all of them intentional, and many students found his lively, witty presentation and his boundless enthusiasm for his subject infectious. Even some students who were scared of him still remember his classes as full of laughter and excitement.
One ex-student of the period referred to "a lovely school full of very talented and inspirational teachers" with the sole exception of one bloke who was a groper: John was described by him as "quite chilling" because of his "ghostly white" skin which had led the speaker to imagine that he lived in the Science block and never came out - like Snape in his dungeon!
The forum conversations show that John could be as playful at Wyedean as he would be in later life, chatty and casual although possibly not as casual as the colleague who happily told his class that eating oranges always gave him an erection ; he told various students that he had damaged himself - one says, resulting in a nasal voice, another that he had killed off his nose-hairs - by sniffing bromine to cure a nasal infection.
Following his marriage to his second wife Shirley in the mid '80s, he apparently had a habit of greeting her by crying "Wifey! But according to these forum comments, and his own, he could also be hot-tempered, erratic and overly fond of handing out detentions, especially when he was addled by stress and lack of sleep, and his jet-black hair and extreme pallor caused some students to view him as a frightening and almost supernatural figure, like a troll under a bridge, without realising that this was at least to some extent a stage persona.
When one student drew a caricature of a sort of snarling gargoyle figure and excitedly announced "That's you, sir! Later, he would come to suspect that the boy had shown this drawing to Joanne and it had influenced her portrayal of Snape. He had, in any case, reasons to be hot-tempered. As a child he had suffered violence himself although not from his parents , and his very first paid teaching job had been six weeks at a Secondary Mod. John had become something of a hero to the children there because he was one of only two members of staff who didn't want to hit them, but when we discussed it he agreed that these experiences had to some extent re-set his internal thermostat.
Like Snape, he was probably less inclined to think that verbal snappishness and ill-temper to his students were of any significance in comparison with the extremes of physical bullying and abuse which he had witnessed and indeed suffered.
He started working as the Head of Science at Caldicot Comprehensive in and initially the climate of the school was quite civilised, but over the four years that John was there there was a gradual build-up of gang violence from the students towards the newer and more vulnerable staff, culminating in a close colleague of John's being punched in the eye, breaking his contact lens. When the Headmaster refused to take any action this colleague suffered a breakdown and never taught again. Two months later, in February , a delinquent pupil called the Domestic Science mistress a fucking old cow and John, in a well-intentioned but very slightly odd attempt to defuse the situation, intervened and said "Come on [name] she's not a fucking old cow".
He was felled, as he said, by a single blow to the face, knocked backwards into the staff room and then repeatedly kicked in the balls. John was a forgiving man but not a soft or a daft one: he went straight to the police as soon as he was fit to do so, and the boy ended up in jail for assault. At the same time he also suffered workplace bullying from his own managers because of his championing of child-centred learning, and attempts were made to freeze him out of his job because the County Council wanted an experienced grammar school teacher in the post in order to raise the perceived tone of the school, even though even those students who disliked John seem to be agreed that he was exceptionally good at conveying his subject in a clear and interesting way.
Even though he was Head of Department he was deliberately marginalised and prevented from making any decisions, and this progressive isolation caused him extreme stress. On the plus side, however, he had at Caldicot a small group of students who were both fond of, loyal to and supportive of him.
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At least one of these was so very fond of him that they remained good friends for the rest of John's life. Six months after suffering what must have been a highly traumatic criminal assault, he started work at the recently-opened Wyedean Comprehensive where he was to remain until his retirement in , but there, too, there was a high level of delinquency and the headmaster, an erudite man who may have been a partial model for Dumbledore's dreamy detachment, at first treated this with a sort of benign unconcern. Students in some of the classes were verbally abusive to John almost from the start, and in May he became the sixth Wyedean teacher that year to be physically attacked: a gang of six boys were hanging about in a classroom where he had a class coming in in ten minutes, and as he shooed them out of the room he put his hand on one boy's shoulder to steer him along and was punched in the face again, bending his glasses.
At this point, and following John's angry protests, the headmaster having initially done nothing now went to the other extreme, and re-introduced corporal punishment for students who were physically or verbally abusive to the staff. The headmaster and two deputies were allowed to cane students, and the heads of department, including John, were permitted to use a slipper on aggressive boys. Although he had originally been against corporal punishment, after the violence he had witnessed and suffered at Caldicot and Wyedean John now approved of this measure, as a last resort in order to regain and maintain order.
I did and do think that he was wrong, and in fact we had a serious fight about it: I know from my own circle of friends and a long-term interest in abuse issues that delinquent children very often turn out to be abuse victims of one sort or another, and I considered John's belief that he would necessarily be able to spot whether these children were emotionally disturbed or not, or that somebody higher up the academic chain would have identified them as such before they got to him if they were, was hopelessly naive.
On the other hand, the students in question were all ones who had attacked the staff either verbally or physically, and it could be argued that if you attack somebody you can't really complain if they hit you back. John maintained that this move did work and did restore order, but if so it was evidently temporary, or his memory was selective, because the conversations on the Wyedean forums show that by the s violence against the staff and especially against John himself was endemic, despite the severe canings handed out by a teacher called Mr Mooney really.
Part of my argument against corporal punishment was, precisely, that it doesn't work - and it evidently didn't. Former students on the forum talk about hearing that another pupil had thrown John out of a window in the Science Block: they weren't sure whether this was true or apocryphal but at the very least somebody had claimed to have thrown him out of a window, and other people had found this both funny and feasible.
Even a girl who had quite liked him and was marking his death with a sympathetic RIP admitted to having stuck a pin in his backside, and elsewhere she recalled another girl throwing a can of tuna at him. Another ex-student recalls one of their mates shouting "Stinger you mong! Another recounted an incident in which John had sat him on a trolley and then tossed a medicine ball to him in order to demonstrate conservation of momentum and had accidentally knocked him off: he had responded by deliberately throwing the ball at John with intent to injure, and then complained that it was unfair of John to demote him as a result.
Like Snape, John was fairly tolerant of behaviour few other teachers would put up with for five minutes, yet was blamed for trying to keep order at all. Another student boasted that John had had to be stopped from teaching her year because he was unable to get any control over them - all this during a period when, according to John, his situation was considerably better than it had been in his first year at Wyedean.
A student who was at Wyedean three years behind Rowling assured me that I was wrong, that if John said he had suffered violence there he was lying, that it was a peaceful well-behaved school and he had never heard of any aggression there - then admitted cheerfully that he too had heard that a fellow student had thrown John out of a window.
As with the scene where Harry and co. Because he was a resolutely sticky-out nail that wouldn't be hammered flat, he was regarded as fair game. He would probably have got on better, ironically, if he'd been more obviously disabled but because he was so intelligent and self-aware and made an effort to cope with his problems, most people didn't realise he had hardly any social instincts and was frantically making it up as he went along, so they didn't cut him any slack.
Instead of sympathy, he got mockery. All of this goes a long way to explaining why it was that somebody who when he was settled in himself was a most kind and patient man, could in the classroom be excitable enough to be instantly recognisable as Snape to just about everybody that knew him - and, by extension, why Snape is written the way he is.
John had been attacked so many times both at Wyedean and at Caldicot that he must have been constantly on the alert for where the next blow would come from, and being attacked and beaten for being odd had traumatic childhood associations, as well as being painful and frightening in itself. By the time he was teaching Rowling he was also in the midst of a divorce and sick with sleeplessness, as well as the usual high-octane stress associated with teaching itself, and he was being actively bullied by some of the students - so it wasn't surprising if he sometimes retaliated in an attempt to maintain order.
Stella, one of The Sisterhood, who herself is a primary school teacher in Italy, commented that "If you have some bullying students, sometimes you just have to show them that there is someone in charge and that he is better at bullying than them, in order to make them stop This was unprofessional but also understandable, for the guy in question is obviously a smug bully who likes to jeer at anybody he perceives as odd - he is still jeering at John's oddness and gloating over his distress more than twenty years later - and even he admitted that he had asked for it and that getting slapped was fair enough.
Aspie people do tend to get overloaded and overwrought more easily than others and then lash out in panic, and John's students would have tried even the most placid. A friend of mine who used to teach in Scotland in the s quit the profession after she snapped and lifted a particularly annoying pupil bodily off the floor by his hair.
She didn't leave because she got into trouble, either, because she didn't: she left because she was afraid that if she stayed, she might actually murder one of the little horrors. There are echoes, here - and probably not coincidental ones - of Severus magically striking James in the face when James has bullied him unbearably, and striking Harry when Harry calls him a coward. This same jeering ex-student recalls John tutting to himself almost constantly - something he never did in later life, that I'm aware of - and sees this obvious sign of extreme nervous strain as something still to be gloated over a quarter of a century later.
The Marauders with their taunting cruelty towards Severus really existed, but they were teenage louts mocking a struggling schoolmaster, not a fellow schoolboy, and it was perhaps only taking up with Shirley, who was first his senior lab. All of the comments about John behaving erratically seem to date from before his marriage to Shirley in the mid '80s: like the loving girl in the fanfics, she was the first person really to appreciate him in all his edgy, snarling glory, and saved him from drowning in his own wild distress.
One thing I didn't like in John - the only thing, really - was that he had a rigidly punitive attitude to wrongdoers, but that kind of simplistic thinking about social issues is quite common in Aspies, and in any case his anger towards offenders was powered by concern for their victims. He saw delinquent, violent students not just as a personal threat but as the malign force which had driven his friend at Caldicot Comprehensive into a breakdown and ruined his career, as well as making it harder for willing students to learn - and he cared very much about the students who wanted to learn, especially the less able ones who were struggling and couldn't cope well with distraction.
Nor could he really understand why some students were not willing to learn. Having been a manager myself I did try to explain the concept of getting people to want to do what you want them to do, with particular reference to recruiting more members to the Caerwent Historic Trust of which he was the secretary and main driving force, but insofar as he understood this at all he equated it with dishonesty.
When I suggested that he might get more members if he organised more social events such as club dinners, his response was a baffled "But people ought to be interested in local history" and that they shouldn't need extra inducements other than that "ought to". His reaction to unwilling students was the same: they ought to learn, because it might be important to their future careers, and because he was both sensible and dutiful himself and not entirely on the ball when it came to social matters, he didn't understand why people didn't always act in their own best interests, or why it might be necessary, or possible, The Wyedean Science Department circa , with Shirley at far left and John at far right to persuade them to do so.
And because he didn't really know how to be persuasive, he was sometimes abrasive. We see this clearly reflected in the Harry Potter books: Remus Lupin modifies Harry's behaviour far more effectively than Snape's bluster or McGonagall's detentions, because he is manipulative and emotionally blackmails Harry into feeling guilty about endangering the life his parents died to save. But like Snape John was too honest, too straightforward and too northern to be manipulative, and unlike Snape he didn't even know how to be.
Snape, of course, developed an abrasive teaching style in part because he began teaching when he was only twenty-one, with students some of whom were only a few years younger than him and had known him as the bullies' favourite target. John had a similar problem, in that even in his late thirties he looked about eighteen. A group photo' of the Science Department staff, taken in the mid to late s, shows John - the Head of Department - looking like a bespectacled schoolboy who has wandered into the shot and then tagged along with the grownups.
At heart he was as young as he looked, always. He once estimated himself to me as being about twelve but he was too hard on himself, for he in fact was eternally sixteen: innocent, enthusiastic, idealistic, playful, a little naive and simplistic at times but at the height of his considerable intellectual powers and full of passion and energy. It's a lovely age for a friend or a lover - but a difficult one from which to control a classroom full of students in what I'm told the Swedes call "the chair-throwing grades".
Years ago, long before Snape ever sprang to life on the page and yet years after JK Rowling had last seen him , John liked to dress up in his black teacher's gown and entertain his classes by singing about a Dark wizard and a burning gaze: With pointed hat and nails like claws And a terrible smile on his face, The wizard sits behind locked doors In his cell in a mountain place; Around the walls of his magic den, Laid out in endless line Are books of spells for him to cast And bottles of magic wine.
With horny hands he waves his wand And scatters upon the fire A powder which burns with ghostly light As the flames rise even higher; His lips recite a magic spell, The flames dance on the walls, And shadows deepen on his face As on his knees he falls. As I turn the page of the picture book The scenes change endlessly — Kings and queens and palaces And galleons on the sea; But whenever I look at the picture book, I linger at the place Where the wizard sits in his mountain cell With a terrible smile on his face, And books of magic spells to cast And bottles of magic wine; And all the time his wicked eyes Are gazing into mine.
He must have had that in mind when he posed for these photographs in He was so upright, such a pillar of the community and almost prim in some ways, disdainful of smoking or excessive swearing and unable to drink alcohol because it gave him hiccups: yet something in him fancied the idea of being a Power by candle-light, a mage and an alchemist; he wanted the hunt in the dark and the sweet voices lisping in the fire, and perhaps Rowling sensed in him that streak of Goth romanticism which led Severus to the Dark Arts.
In any case one of John's lecturers at Teacher Training College had actually told him that the best way to deal with badly behaved students was to "lose your temper". He gradually came to realise that this had been a bad lesson he should never have learned, but changing an established behaviour pattern is even harder for people with Asperger's than it is for the rest of us. A particular clique on the Harry Potter Network a strange sub-group who seem to have turned Rickman!
Snape into a quasi-religious cult figure almost totally unrelated to the Snape of the books have said that one shouldn't talk about the fact that John could be hot-tempered and excitable in the classroom or that he thought he was probably an Aspie, because it might damage the fen's respect for him. But the idea that fen of the canonical, book Snape might respect someone less the more they were shown to be like canon!
Snape is ridiculous - in fact the usual reaction is "Aww, sweet! Nor is a respect which is based on pretending that somebody is someone other than who they are worth the paper it isn't written on. Wynnleaf of The Sisterhood commented that "I notice you've taken some criticism for mentioning in public that you thought John had Aspergers. And some people apparently think this is too personal a thing to mention. Well, you know, I really wish Aspergers didn't have such a negative connotation. It seems to run rampant through my extended family and I feel like So What?
Most of the characteristics seem perfectly fine to me, even though they apparently seem odd to others. I have spent a lot of time talking with my daughter who is diagnosed with Aspergers trying to help her understand that it's not a Bad Thing, it is simply the way she is and many of the characteristics are more like gifts. So I dislike people acting like you shouldn't mention it because it's too personal.
Or worse, when people act like a person having Aspergers should be kept an embarrassing secret. It is NOT embarrassing. It is simply different from most people. His teaching style and eccentricities have already been discussed publicly on the net by former students, often in jeering tones by people who neither knew nor cared what was going on with him, and he deserves to be defended, and remembered, and loved, not as some bland plaster saint but as the lovely little firecracker he really was.
The fact that John had this slight social deficit also explains a lot about Snape. Rowling almost certainly didn't realise that John was hard-wired to miss social cues and in any case Snape cannot be an Aspie, because in order to be an effective quadruple agent he has to have an ability to both read and deceive others on the fly which no Aspie would have except possibly Dumbledore, who is a powerful mind-reader with over a century of practice at interpreting people - but that's another discussion for another day.
So she has written Snape with many of John's mannerisms and behaviours, but she has interpreted them as signs of spite or rage rather than of a failure to understand how his manner might come across to others, and she has shaped Snape's background in order to explain that spite and rage. It is noteworthy, however, that duj of The Sisterhood, who has three autistic sons, identified a kind of shadow of mild autism in Snape's behaviour long before she knew anything about John, even though Snape himself cannot be an autist.
The irony is that Rowling evidently thought of John as an intentional bully and rejected his attempts to get back in touch, yet she is close friends with former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, an obvious autist who has most of the same social problems as John plus some exciting new ones of his very own; who is widely if perhaps equally unfairly, since he probably can't help it also considered a bully; whose temper is so excitable that his ministers famously were said to be afraid to tell him any bad news and to have had to develop coping strategies to distract him before they did so; and who is reputed, rightly or wrongly, to have once punched a minister in the face just because he was in a bad mood.
If the stories about Brown's temper are true then Rowling appears to be condoning in one man what she condemns in another: if they are not true then she ought to understand how somebody can get a reputation for being a bully when they are just stressed to the gills and socially awkward. John in Temper or no temper, John put great thought and effort into making his lessons interesting and engaging and getting the students to try things out and discover things for themselves, and for most of them this method worked well although not for Rowling - of which more anon.
He also tried to engage with the students socially through humour, which worked in some cases and not in others. His chemical raps were a high spot of the school year to some students, even if they didn't otherwise like him, but were seen as ridiculous by others. It was a pity that he was never "discovered" by the media in his own right: he would have made a terrific eccentric popular-science presenter, and on telly his little raps would always have come across well because they could have been properly framed and wouldn't have run the risk of appearing awkward.
One of John's colleagues happily told his class that eating oranges always gave him an erection, which doesn't seem to have been seen as anything out of the ordinary, and one staff member was an actual groper. On the forums John, with his Gothic appearance and fierce manner, is held up as an example of a teacher who was only play-pretend sinister as opposed to the groper, who was genuinely sinister.
John by contrast was shocked and mortified when he first learned of the existence of fan-fictions and fan-art which paired Snape with Hermione: it was years before he could bring himself even to consider the idea, and then only if Hermione was clearly an adult. Not many people ever seem to have been neutral about John, just as few people are neutral about Snape: his intrinsic John-ness, dramatic hippy-Goth style and blazing beauty made sure of that.
And the contrast between his austerely sculptural good looks and his willingness to clown around subverted expectations and created a dislocating effect: rather like the recent Panasonic advert in which a beautiful, noble statue of greyhound-headed Anubis, god of the dead, suddenly jumps down from his plinth and starts chasing a stick.
It may have been the discontinuity between John's slight stature and almost delicate good looks and his robustly northern manner and speech - very much as in the famous Boddington's Bitter advert where the beautiful, elegant girl in the gondola swipes someone's beer and turns out to have a thick Manchester accent - which prompted Rowling to give Snape the doe Patronus. One bit of playfulness which seems to have gone down like a lead balloon has a complicated history.
Soon after John was identified as the main model for Snape, it was reported that at the time Rowling knew him he had had a habit of flicking students with the tip of a screwdriver. Tamara - who thought it was rather cute - asked John about it and he said he had no idea what this was about and that they must be conflating him with some other teacher.
Whenever it was mentioned on the net thereafter, Tamara and I would say that it was untrue, but in fact after John's death a former student came forward and insisted that at the time he knew him, in the late '70s and early to mid '80s, John had indeed flipped people on the back of the head with a screwdriver if they were being too slow at completing their written work. Black rabbit at Rose Cottage, 6 th June photographed by John I've no reason to doubt this, because other details of the conversation make it clear the guy did know John.
I've also no reason to think John was lying. I never knew him to tell a direct lie - if asked a question he would answer either honestly or not at all, not talk about something and provide false information. But I know for a fact that he did at times have a rotten memory, because on one occasion he told me about a wild black rabbit which had been visiting his garden, and we discussed it; and the next day he sent me a photograph of it, and we discussed it again; and then eight days later I asked him if he'd seen the authentic Welsh black bun lately and he didn't know what I was talking about.
Evidently the screwdriver and all its works had disappeared into the haze of exhaustion he had been struggling through at the time. Presumably this too was his idea of a joke, at the time: in the absence of being able to ask him I imagine he had it in his hands one day and it occurred to him that it would be funny to flip someone with it, and having done it once, and perhaps got an amused or amusing response, he saw no reason to stop. It is common for Aspies not only to fiddle constantly with things in their hands, especially when anxious, but also to think that if a joke was funny the first time it will necessarily be equally funny the two hundred and seventy-fifth time.
This was a way in which he was both like and unlike Snape. Flicking a student with a screwdriver would probably be seen as illegal now, but caning them definitely would be. If a severe caning is acceptable, a little flick or rap must surely be; and if a flick is unacceptable then a beating must be so much more so. Like Snape, John was blamed out of all proportion while others got a free ticket for much worse offences, because his slightly odd manner and striking appearance and his offbeat charisma made whatever he did disproportionately noticeable.
And this, mind you, was in a school where - according to the forums - the metalwork master routinely made the first years cry, and often picked them up by the scruff of the neck, like kittens. I wish that John had taught at my own highly eccentric school, Heriot's Wood in Stanmore, for we would have appreciated his wit, intelligence and enthusiasm, treated his raw nerves kindly and got him to perform his chemical raps for charity, and he would certainly have been no odder than most of the other staff.
But even at Wyedean, there were many people who appreciated him, even if there were also many who didn't: former student David Cole called him "Much maligned and misunderstood". He probably wouldn't be able to tell just from body-language. We know it was a minor offence not only because John was a good man, but because if he'd done anything too dreadful Rowling wouldn't have made his alter ego one of the main heroes of her story. Her grudge-bearing against John, in fact, is weirdly mixed with affection and admiration, for she gives Snape a moral seriousness and at times a grandeur which few of the other characters possess.
It is self-evident that she thought of Snape as one who behaves heroically while she was writing the books, or she wouldn't have had Harry say that Snape was probably the bravest man he ever knew. A friend of mine did some work with her in the early or mid '90s "before she was famous", when they were both earning pin-money by marking homework for creative writing courses at the Netherbow Arts Centre, and he reports that she was as odd and ambiguous about herself as she is about Snape, alternating between arrogance and random extreme self-criticism.
On the other hand, she may be ambiguous about Snape just because she was ambiguous about John - seeing him as somebody who was sometimes loving and sometimes hostile, rather than as an essentially loving man who was ratty because he was fuzzy-tired and had limited social skills, and didn't really understand how he was coming across. If, indeed, part of Snape comes from Rowling herself, then we the Snape fen ought to love her, because she is a part of Snape and Snape is a part of her, and because John loved her and wanted us to do so.
She was the daughter of one of his closest friends, as well as being a former student in whom he had taken an interest at the time whereas he never actually taught her sister Dianne , and he was immensely proud of her, and filled with protective rage and pity whenever anybody did anything to harm her. He grieved for her because throughout her teens, he said, she had been "hammered by her mother's illness, hammered by her mother's death, hammered by her lousy husband. I'm not sure whether this was a sign of meekness or of extreme self-containment.
There was a bit of a streak of Luna Lovegood in John, as well as of Severus Snape, and he didn't really care much what anybody thought of him except Shirley. That is to say, he minded very much if people thought things about him which were false or unfair, and was distressed if he found that someone disliked him for reasons he couldn't understand, but his own opinion of himself was not at all dependent on other people's opinion.
John in April , aged thirty-nine On 13 th December , three months less one day before his death, John gave what he knew would probably be his last ever interview. The interviewer was Nancy Cavill, the daughter of Ivor Cavill, a well-known senior lecturer in Haematology who was an old friend of John's. She reported that despite his terminal illness he was "still sharp, and keen to talk about his memories of his former pupil": he reported that he kept dropping off to sleep in mid sentence.
He had intended that the article should be illustrated by the never-before-published photograph of him looking poetic in cheesecloth, taken at the height of his Snapishness, but in the event it appeared after his death unillustrated, at least online, although it may have been illustrated when it appeared in Wales on Sunday which is an actual newspaper.
This very good interview, in which he spoke of his great pride in Joanne, was much more natural and informative than his previous newspaper interviews in which he had tended to come across as over-hearty: Nancy, of course, was the daughter of a friend and therefore somebody to whom he could unbend.
It contained some new information I hadn't heard from him in life. Although Rowling complained publicly about John giving her bad marks in Chemistry, and said that she had turned him into Snape to get revenge on him for it, John himself told me that "She obviously detested the subject though her marks were OK". It was actually surprising that she did as well as "OK" - for he said of her in this interview that "She seemed determined not to speak to me.
Nevertheless, she obviously does have some kind of grudge against John - although he reckoned that when she said "he deserved it" she meant that he deserved to be caricatured and lampooned, not that he deserved to be killed by a giant mutant viper, and he was probably right about that. I have wondered whether the "I see no difference" scene was drawn from life. In the book it's actually ambiguous whether Snape means "I see no difference between Hermione's teeth now and Hermione's teeth before" or "I see no difference between Malfoy hexing Granger and Potter hexing Goyle", but assuming that Rowling intended the former I wondered if her problem with John was that he had hurt her feelings with some similar comment.
He was capable at times of being spectacularly tactless, but if so he wouldn't have intended any harm - he would just have thought it was a funny line. I've also wondered whether she had a crush on John, which he would undoubtedly have failed even to notice. She pays more attention to writing Snape's physical presence - his gestures and appearance - than any other character's.
She has said that Hermione is a self-insert and Hermione at one point has a major crush on a teacher Lockhart ; and sour grapes would explain why she chose to make Snape ugly when John was so handsome. It would also explain why she was so tongue-tied in John's classes that she wouldn't even speak to him. He commented that out of all the students he had taught over the years, she was probably the least responsive.
It must be said that John thought the idea that Joanne might have had a crush on him was ridiculous. But then, he seldom noticed things like that, and was astonished when another student did turn out to have a definite crush on him. On the other hand, she was reported to have admitted to fancying Mel Gibson, so perhaps she just prefers chocolate box looks. She might just have been tongue-tied because she was unnerved by John, or by the subject itself. Ironically, neither of them seems to have realised that the other almost certainly had a hard-wired learning disability - in John's case, for reading social cues and in Rowling's for understanding numbers - so John assumed that this otherwise very bright girl would be able to understand chemistry and physics if he could only engage her attention, despite the amount of maths involved, and she seems to have assumed that his well-intentioned but probably rather clumsy attempts to draw her out of her shell were him "picking on her".
He said to me that "I believe in leaving pupils to be themselves and although I pressurised her with questions, I never complained about her unpreparedness to answer", but if she hated the subject and was panicked by the sums, I don't suppose she was alert to such fine distinctions. Pressure is pressure. Of course, Rowling's bad experience with Sylvia Morgan at primary school had probably left her primed to see aggression and humiliation where none was intended.
John in his raving-with-insomnia phase must have been fairly hard to take in any case, and she too must have been very stressed due to her mother's terminal illness. She probably thought that those teachers who left her alone were the ones that liked her, and that John disliked her and that was why he kept asking her questions in class: but according to John himself some of the other staff found Joanne's introverted and uncommunicative manner annoying even though she was, he said, "totally inoffensive" a description which I suspect she would not find as flattering as he intended it to be , and they disliked her and didn't want to be bothered to teach her, whereas he thought that she was worth the effort it would take to bring her out of her shell.
Even though he was probably wrong about her having scientific potential, because she was constitutionally unable to understand the maths involved.
Indeed we agreed that the reason the Astronomy mistress Aurora Sinistra is such a nonentity in the books was perhaps because Rowling didn't want to show Snape teaching Astronomy as well as Potions, yet couldn't visualise an Astronomy teacher as having any identity other than a Snape-ish one, so she left Sinistra blank. I'm not sure where Snape's sulkiness came from. John never sulked at me, much, but I wouldn't like to swear he never went off on a major strop at anybody else. Nor was he noticeably spiteful or petty, although he could certainly be catty and sour, with a side-order of snide.