Henry, who runs a wonderful tutoring website called The Tutor Pages emailed me one day saying he’d given my details to a student. He described it as ‘an interesting proposition’ and ‘an unusual situation’. The next day I received the first of many emails from Hiroshi Ishikawa.
|Dear Mr Christiaan,
I have read Harry Potter series volume 1 through 5 with the assistance of English Teachers in Malaysia and New Zealand. Now I’m planning to read the next in the series ‘Half-Blood Prince’, if possible in the same manner in the U.K.
I will work under the conditions below;
1. About me: I am 64, male, retiree living in Tokyo
Scheduled date of arrival at London August 31st.
2. Total Lesson Hours: 150 hours (3 hours/day, 5 days/week, 11 weeks incl. extra dates)
3. Morning lessons are desired (90 minute lesson, 10 minute break, 90 minute lesson)
Starting date of lessons September 1st.
4. How to proceed lessons: I read the whole story beforehand and prepare a list of questions. During the lesson I read the story again bit by bit and ask you questions, you correct pronunciation simultaneously and answer my questions.
5. Payment weekly advance in cash in UKP.
Have you enjoyed reading HP series? Your brief questions about the book if any. Can you help me find accommodation and meals in the neighbourhood? How long have you been teaching English?
Await your reply or further enquiries on your side.
I was interested primarily because it was a guaranteed three months work and I thought I could do it. On the debit side I hadn’t read any of the Harry Potter series and I found the fuss surrounding JK Rowling and the cultish adoration amongst adults for what was essentially a children’s series extremely off putting. It struck me, from what I had heard, that Rowling had spliced together the more effective elements of Narnia, Oz and Camelot, and the resulting publishing phenomenon had been marketed to death. It was selling childhood to the children. Put simply – nothing that is that popular can be any good.
|Dear Mr. Ishikawa,
Your email was forwarded to me personally by Henry and I read it with interest. I think I am in a position to help.
I have taught to both groups and individuals but your email interested me because I have always wanted to teach English in combination with fiction. I am a big fan of J.K. Rowling’s work and was present two weeks ago when she read excerpts from her work at the Royal Opera House. I admire the way in which Rowling has depicted the quaint serenity of an English school system and updated those same qualities for a modern audience. I recognize a lot of this from my own school days. I would enjoy the challenge of working on the text with you.
I am free for the whole of September and have enough contacts to help you find accommodation.
|Dear Mr. Nicholas Christiaan,
Thank you for your quick reply.
It would be appreciated if you could wait for a week for further action.
Exactly seven days later;
|Dear Mr. Nicholas Christiaan,
Please be advised that I have an intention to take lessons from you if accommodation and meals are available.
For your information:
1) My background – Accounting
2) Arrival at Heathrow August 31 but one night stay at Heathrow during stopover on August 11th. It is advisable that we meet then.
In the meantime I had a lot of reading to do. Rowling’s ambitions had grown with every volume of the series. The first two books I polished off easily enough but the third and fourth volume were well over 500 pages. The book Hiroshi and I were tackling was the ‘Half-Blood Prince’, the penultimate volume in the series and itself 768 pages. I spent the whole summer reading those books, all the time not entirely sure what we would be doing with them when he arrived. Meanwhile Hiroshi was threatening to call the whole trip off because of the worldwide flu pandemic. I contacted the World Health Organization to reassure him and the last email before his stopover he seemed to have calmed down;
|Dear Mr. Nicholas Christiaan,
With regard to the influenza, the information in the subject website seems to be helpful one to understand the situation of the disease.
You could infer from the data that the situation in the UK is not an uneasy one at present.
A meeting room at the Sheraton Hotel at Heathrow Airport had been booked for the 11th of August stopover. I wrote his name on a piece of card and stood at Arrivals with the taxi drivers and the corporate chauffeurs. He arrived in the midst of the occupants of a Japanese Airlines flight. I just stood with the sign to my chest and a grin on my face and there he was, lugging a huge roller-suitcase half his size. I certainly don’t believe he was over 5 foot and he was wearing a baseball cap. He looked like an enthusiastic pro-American millionaire just back from a golfing trip. At the Hotel, after a shower, he strode into the meeting room carrying a briefcase and ordered coffee for both of us. He explained that he had retired after a long career in accounting and had been leafing through a bookshop one day when he chanced upon the first volume of Potter. At this point Hiroshi opened his briefcase. I looked over his shoulder – there were several volumes of Potter bundled and taped together like notes of the same denomination in the case of a kidnapping bag man. He started to read me the first page of the first volume;
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.
Hiroshi had had an epiphany in that Tokyo bookshop. He knew what the words meant, but it was that final sub-clause – ‘thank you very much’ that threw him. He told me that he knew something was going on – that there was something about the context of the remark that wasn’t letting him in. He felt the frustration of being on the outside but he continued to read. He bought the book, polished it off and the next volume and the next and more and more. The world of Harry Potter intrigued him, put him under its spell, but simultaneous to this was the nagging feeling that he just did not ‘get’ the book. Gradually he hatched his plan – he needed to have these books explained.
Originally Hiroshi told me that his goal was to use J.K Rowling as a route to learning English properly. When I met him that first time his English was at a good standard, certainly better than the strange syntax of his emails had led me to believe. This motivation for the lessons seemed to dissipate over time and it became obvious that it was actually a total communion with Potter that drove him on. He was an extremist as I was to discover. He had spent the two years since retirement travelling the world and staying for three month periods in Malaysia, New Zealand and the Middle East. He had never been to the UK before, apart from Hotel stopovers and I tried interesting him in some of the attractions that London in autumn had to offer, but he just nodded benignly. As we said goodbye it was obvious he couldn’t wait for the sessions to start. He would return to the UK in two weeks; “I am looking forward to the fantasy to begin,” was almost his parting shot, smiling at me and checking to see I’d understood, that language hadn’t got in the way.
The sessions, as he had designed, began at 9.00 on Monday morning. We worked for 3 hours with a 10 minute break after 90 minutes. They would continue until 12.10 and I was paid for three hours of my time. Hiroshi and I sat side by side at the table each with a copy of ‘The Half Blood Prince’ and a note pad and pen. I would pile up next to me a dictionary, thesaurus, a book of Latin and Greek derivations (useful for Spells), and occasionally encyclopedias, maps or other reference books relevant to some minor point in the text. Hiroshi would begin reading. His reading voice was sharp, inflected with swallowed Japanese vowels and unsplit rotics. I would interrupt if a word was heavily mispronounced. His copy of the book would be annotated in red before the session. His prepared questions would fill a side of A4. We would read between 12 and 15 pages a day. Before arrival in the UK he had read the entire novel and before each session he would read a section to himself and make notes of questions to ask or passages that he needed elaboration or wider questions about the cultural context.
To his great surprise the Prime Minister felt a fleeting stab of pity for Fudge at this point.
A sentence like this would always leave Hiroshi nonplussed. If my explanation was not sufficiently enlightening I would have to pitch it a second or third time.
“Question: I know stab is to make incision and dictionary say ‘fleeting’ is passing quickly. How do these two factors coincide?”
“The Prime Minister is not literally stabbed. He merely feels the sort of pain akin to that of a stabbing and this feeling is temporary.”
“The feeling of a stabbing is in the form of pity”
“No, it is more that the feeling of pity takes the form of a feeling of being stabbed.”
At other times he struggled with English idioms;
“‘…the truth hit him with the force of a stampeding troll.'” Is this a common expression?”
It soon became apparent that any of J.K Rowling’s failings as a writer were immaterial. It really didn’t matter who was forming the writing as, analysed under the microscope of 13 pages a day, the text became pure abstraction. In fact, the subject areas explored by the Harry Potter novels, arcane and varied were often lit up by such microscopic treatment. It felt sometimes that no one, with the possible exception of Rowling herself had given these words such weight. Our deliberations were careful, considered and at times genuinely enlightening. Hiroshi wanted the text to come alive for him. I would attempt to enact the novel’s many onomatopoeia. If Harry was startled by a crashing and banging I would drop my teacup onto a saucer letting the teaspoon jump up. “What is pop?” He asked. We spent five minutes making popping noises with fingers in our cheeks.
Can’t be long now, it’d been a month
He read from his notes; “Pronoun omitted – straight to verb. Is this correct?”
Under this analysis ‘not really’ equalled ‘quite negative’. A typical Hiroshi construct was ‘delete detail’. When Hermione recalled that she was holding hands with Fred ‘and everything’ Hiroshi would shout triumphantly “delete detail”. It was hard to argue. It was the first of many of his codes which owed more to double-entry book keeping than literature. Any omission in the verbs construction, particularly a past tense verb, had to be located and entered into the ledger, the gerund or participle neatly annotated in red. The first use of parenthesis, on page 546 was another red letter day.
If bad grammar worried Hiroshi, any kind of figurative speech terrified him. He was quite unable to cope with gazing at the world in anything but a straight line. It made one wonder if his travails with Potter were some extended torture he had set himself, surely magic and fantasy would be guaranteed to tie him in knots. It often did.
There is a scene in the book where Professor Dumbledore uses the Pensieve (an object used to review his memory using siphoned off excess thoughts) to follow his younger self down the street. Our lesson was derailed completely by the temporal shifts necessary to pursue the action and the panic this induced in Hiroshi. Unfortunately for us both, this incident happened a day or two after I had painstakingly explained an extended metaphor, and with renewed diligence Hiroshi had his metaphorical antenna up.
“Dumbledore is examining himself using the Third Person.”
“Well often he is, Hiroshi, but in this case the chase is real”
“This is not figuration?”
“No – it is a conceit. Old Dumbledore is following young Dumbledore down the street.”
He looked up at me amazed. “But this is not possible!”
“Much of this book is not possible Hiroshi. There is a lot of magic in this book.”
It was never a good idea to overestimate Hiroshi. It was clear that he considered metaphorical incident witchcraft enough and plain magic an intriguing conspiracy of possibilities. These heightened levels, so innately alien to him, clashed regularly, he was a novice struggling with forces he had only just learned the existence of. One of the frustrations of Hiroshi the learner was how little his facility improved. One might have thought that questions would dry as we progressed through the book, but my marginalia actually increased as we went on. Page 494 is almost illegible, the text disfigured by biro. He seemed incapable of learning a rule, so much so that every rhetorical question would be itemized and explained and every omitted pronoun had to be reinserted. A sign of progress might be followed by a relapse. Unhelpfully, J.K Rowling introduced Fleur, a character whose demotic Frenchness was rendered phonetically and this required a new colour of ink in Hiroshi’s copy of the book;
Zere is not much to do ‘ere at ze moment. Enjoy your breakfast ‘Arry
I recall one session in which I laboured for 40 minutes to explain a joke that Ron, one of the characters, had made. Diagrams were drawn. Looking back at my comments in the margin of page 340 is the single sentence ‘This man has no sense of humour!’
This isn’t to say that the sessions weren’t immensely enjoyable. One of the most fascinating elements of our work together was the Japanese Tea Ritual. When it became apparent that Hiroshi couldn’t stand English Tea I went into Soho and bought some Japanese equivalent he had recommended. After taking a sip he suggested that it would always taste better brewed in a Japanese Tea Pot and served in finger bowls. Having bought the equipment he announced that it was perhaps the quality of water available in Japan that gave the tea its distinct flavour. Scouring Brewer Street for spring water from Mount Fuji I served it and wondered if he would notice. ‘No,’ he said, ‘it’s just not the same.’
Our ten minute breaks began to follow a pattern. Keen to change the subject from Rowling and Potter, Hiroshi suggested we follow an ancient Japanese ceremony. Alternating daily, the person serving the tea would bow and the receiver would talk. The rule was that the subject was of the speakers choosing, and would be uninterrupted for ten minutes. Architecture, love, airports, gardens, cooking, baseball, laundry, sex, marriage. When the time was up there would be a brief, muttered thank you and seamlessly we would return to Hogwarts. Somehow, this ritual infected the whole procedure, lending the three hours the consistency of a sacred rite. When examining the text I developed a reverence to the moment, as if it were a state I could deliberately switch on and off. The important idea seemed to be that it was a ‘process’, a process that the bare constructs of the text would generate afresh.
It was a craftsman’s technique – a workmanlike pleasure in dramatizing an extended passage, with ritualistic solemnity, the explanation, or to be clear, one possible explanation of it, an act of communion with the text. It is possible that I learned more from Hiroshi than he learned from me. He was the King of the Synonyms. ‘Incidentally’ was ‘side-subject’ ’embarrassing honesty’ became ‘excessive honesty’ and Hermione’s periodic ‘trilling’ was reworked as ‘modulating like a bee in a bottle’. He reminded me at times of Alexander Perchov, the Ukrainian translator in Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘Everything is Illuminated’ who learned his English from a thesaurus and was always visiting ‘famous nightclubs’. Often these abstractions were more interesting than the mapping of inner life or the explanations for the character’s actions that I was also forced to outline. ‘This is contempt and this is jealousy’; ‘Harry’s unconscious action is betraying him’; ‘Ron has low morale and low self-esteem’. As these specifications came and went I would wonder at what level Hiroshi was actually enjoying the novel. He looked engrossed, his face nodding several inches from the text, the layering of the books many imponderables took up his waking day.
A week before his departure I asked him what he had thought of London. He mumbled something about ‘grey skies’ and when I next spoke to his landlady she told me he had hardly left his room for the duration of the stay, but always arrived for breakfast punctually and was continually harassed by the family’s pet dog, which greatly amused her teenage children who had really taken to Hiroshi. She said that he was the perfect guest but perhaps he could do with a night off from his studies. I bought tickets to The Phantom of the Opera. Afterwards he said he had enjoyed it but unfortunately his poor English had not allowed him to adequately assess the situation on stage but that a second viewing would no doubt be enlightening.
I asked him where in the world he was considering going for the final book in the Harry Potter series; The Deathly Hallows. I was angling, not too subtly, for a return visit. He told me he was intrigued by Hawaii, that the climate in the UK had not been to his liking. I suggested that if he had difficulty finding an English teacher in Hawaii that I’d be happy to fly out. He didn’t laugh. At Christmas he sent me a photo of him and a friend on Mount Fuji and explained that his plans for the final book were on hold due to a recent health examination; ‘My body deteriorates.’ I looked closely at the photograph, both of them had notebooks in their gloved hands, wrapped up warm against the mountain snow and Hiroshi had a pen behind his ear, his glasses resting on his head, as if interrupted in the course of his analysis of the substance of what it means to be alive on a beautiful Japanese mountain.