Fiction. Set in contemporary London, A MOMENT MORE SUBLIME: A NOVEL is the riveting story of Tom Phelps, a philosophy teacher and tennis buff, who finds himself unexpectedly embroiled in his union's struggle against a corrupt school administration and its plans to cut jobs under the pretense of modernization and fiscal austerity, just as he and his partner Sofia are getting ready to buy a home and start a family. What Tom thought would be a routine academic year teaching Aristotle's Ethics and playing tennis at their local club with Sofia on the weekends, turns out to be a year of professional turmoil and strained commitments.
"... thoughtful, suspenseful, and stunningly well written ..."—André Aciman
|Publisher:||Upper West Side Philosophers, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 7.60(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
Stephen Grant is a British philosopher, educator, and trade unionist. From 2010 to 2012, in his capacity as an elected representative of the University and Colleges Union at Richmond upon Thames College in London, he was one of the leaders in a labor dispute to prevent up to a quarter of the lecturing staff losing their jobs. A MOMENT MORE SUBLIME, his debut novel, was partly inspired by events from that period.
Read an Excerpt
A Moment More Sublime
By Stephen Grant
Upper West Side Philosophers, Inc.Copyright © 2014 Stephen Grant
All rights reserved.
"Consider this. Do all humans aim at happiness? Is happiness broadly similar for all humans? Must you read philosophy to be happy? Must you be morally good to be happy? To answer yes to these questions is to commit yourself to the ethics of Aristotle, and I hope this is what you will come to do." He looks up at them. "Who would answer yes?"
Inevitably, it is Maya who is the first to respond. "Would that mean that happiness is the same for one of us as it was for a twelfth-century monk?"
She starts in disbelief. "They were happy reading and praying, but no one here would be happy doing that."
"The easiest way to understand this would be to consider the terms we are using. 'Happiness' is the most common translation of the ancient Greek word 'eudaimonia'. Many now feel this is better translated as 'a flourishing life'. Aristotle believed that all humans shared a common nature, and we could describe, at least in outline, the flourishing life for all humans because in each case it would be fulfilling a range of natural capacities that we all have. He would have said that, although the monks may have believed they were leading a flourishing life, they would have been mistaken. Humans naturally appreciate pleasure, and the best life will include many of the pleasures that the monks refused. They therefore could not lead the best life."
Other hands are now raised, but Maya continues on the assumed right of follow-up questions. "Are you saying that you can't be happy if you don't read philosophy?"
Smiles all around. They sense that this is so improbable it's actually amusing that anyone should have made the claim at all. This in turn creates the opportunity for point- scoring against the philosophers. They have all studied Plato in their first year and find an arrogance in the idea of the ideal state as one ruled by philosophers, which they also detect in their teachers of the subject.
"At some stages Aristotle appears to go as far as suggesting that the best life is not simply one where you study philosophy but one where you focus purely on the most abstract areas such as the fundamentals of logic, mathematics, and physics. Even subjects such as ethics would no longer be a part of what one does. He suggests that the gods are pure conscious thought, and as the gods have the best possible existence and no practical concerns, the best possible existence must be one of pure thought for its own sake. He thinks abstract philosophy is like that."
"Does anyone believe that now?" Joe's first contribution of the year. He is looking down and drawing some sort of machine as he says it, pressing the pen down on the paper with excessive force. Aside from Maya, he is the only student of the five with mental health problems of which Tom is aware. The ever-present symptom is that he sits with his ankles clamped tight and moves his knees apart and together with metronomic regularity over the entire seventy minutes of every lesson. His concentration is so sporadic it is extraordinary that he has made his way this far through school, benefitting from only the short episodes of attention which punctuate the general, swirling storm of his mental energy. Tom takes this to be an indication of what Joe could have achieved if capable of focusing for more than a fraction of any class. This thought fights for supremacy over the extreme irritation Joe causes by constantly drifting into conversation with others around him, but Tom has never seriously considered having him withdrawn from the class.
In December of last year, there had been an inspection. The aging little Ofsted man with the shirt-splitting belly and the incongruous Paul Smith designer glasses was already sitting in the room when Tom entered two minutes late and saw him tick a box indicating the class had not started on time. Tom began by asking a series of questions based on the material covered in the previous session. Joe's hand shot up at the first question, and he answered using precisely the words Tom had used two days earlier. The same happened with the second question. Other students quickly understood that Joe had studied and memorised that entire lesson in preparation for a possible inspection. They also began to respond with unusual enthusiasm. The inspector commended the "positive learning environment" and awarded the lesson the second highest of the four possible grades. So Tom lets Joe sit there with his knees knocking and his bad drawing and his constant talking.
"No one who counts himself an Aristotelian today would accept this. There are differences of opinion over whether or not Aristotle himself really held this to be the case. Most believe that he was committed to the view that the best life for all of us would involve philosophy as a means of fulfilling the intellectual potential that all of us have. But he also stresses the value of developing the moral virtues, such as being charitable, and talks of the importance of friendship. It is better to think of the best life as one which involves developing a range of capacities, including our philosophical ones."
Tom now gives each of them an extract from Book I of Nicomachean Ethics accompanied by several questions, answers to which they must extract from Roger Crisp's new translation. This is not the one that the exam board specifies, but it is more readable than the Penguin version. This in turn makes it easier for Tom to sit down and daydream as the students try to decipher sentences which are longer than most paragraphs. It is many years since his expanding laziness overcame the professional obligation to circulate among the students, checking their progress and helping them. He now sits quietly as they get on with it and reflects on other matters. He calculates that, as he will provide the right answers at the end, it makes no sense to dilute their enthusiasm by correcting them as they go. Once he has gone through the text with them, he writes some notes on the whiteboard summarising key points. The board is still annoyingly stained down the right-hand side from where rainwater used to leak through the roof. The leak was fixed as part of a mass of decorating and repairs which preceded Ofsted's visit. Prior to that, on rainy days, he could use only the left side of the board because the constant drip of water would wash away anything written in its path.
After the lesson, Maya follows him to his office to pick up a list of secondary texts she has asked for, some of which he has read himself. Although she is in a second-year course, she is in her third year at the college. She arrived with eleven GCSEs, ten of them at A*, pretty much the best any British sixteen-year-old can do before progressing to two years of sixth form study, followed by university. She then took five AS courses in her first year instead of the usual four, picking up an A for each of them, as well as re-taking the eleventh GCSE to ensure the full set of perfect grades. In January of her second year, she re-sat an English lit paper in which she had scored only a B, despite getting an A overall. When the result came back as another B, she dropped out of the college and returned the following year. The email from Learning Support said she now had a better counsellor and better meds, but to monitor her carefully. Going on past experience, Tom judges it unlikely that she will suffer another breakdown if she fails to get the place at Cambridge which has been held over from the last year. He has taught many more fragile than her who have survived the grades they didn't want. He is theoretically required to consider whether she might be at risk of suicide, but he believes the likelihood of that to be vanishingly small. Then again, you never really know.
When she leaves, he sits in uncomfortable anticipation of what awaits him. He will have to wait fourteen minutes between switching on his computer and being able to use it. It will take another four minutes if he wishes to open his work emails, though he will have just about enough time to check his Hotmail before his mule of a machine fully revives for the day ahead. This is the unavoidable consequence of the college lacking the money to buy new equipment while having to upgrade the software without which attachments sent by anyone from first-year students to funding bodies cannot be read. In practice, this means that, if he wishes to prepare some work at home to print off for his first lesson, he needs to take an earlier train in order to have time to both print and copy it.
The irritation of waiting for the computer to finally kick into life each morning always needs to be balanced against reprieve from opening the emails he knows Barry has sent him. These are from either late the previous evening or at eight in the morning when Barry has arrived at his desk in the English department with a series of new ideas on which urgent action might be required. In a moment of breathtaking misjudgement, Tom had agreed to stand for the position of branch secretary for the Union of College Lecturers two years earlier. The thought of representing the staff's interests had figured somewhat less prominently in his reasons than the attraction of having four teaching sessions removed from his timetable to carry out his revolutionary responsibilities. He had anticipated meeting with management once a fortnight, helping to chair branch meetings twice a term, and plenty of general discussion about the uselessness of the college's senior managers.
What Tom had not understood was the Castro-like enthusiasm of Barry Egham, branch chair of fifteen years. Barry had approached him on the back of two questions raised in a branch meeting, asking him if he would be interested in "getting a bit more involved." It emerged that the then secretary would be leaving the college, and Barry decided that it would be good to enlist someone from outside the English department. The position of secretary carried little importance in itself but came with a much higher status because whoever took up this post also became a lead negotiator. This in turn meant engaging in hand-to-hand combat with management, which elevated the holder to the rank of local hero. Barry persuaded the only other person interested in standing for secretary to think instead of the great work to be done as health and safety officer, thereby neatly matching the available candidates to the range of posts and avoiding the need for elections.
Tom's relief at avoiding the possible humiliation of defeat dissipated when it became clear exactly what working with Barry was to be like. There would be meetings at eight- fifteen every Tuesday morning in which they would discuss all ongoing union-related issues with the other seven members of the branch executive committee. Tom's role included preparing the agenda for any meeting and recording all action points. In order to maintain branch unity and strength, the two of them would visit two of the college's programme areas each week to meet with their members for an hour. This allowed them to detect all rumblings in all areas of the college. Barry insisted that a newsletter must go out twice a term, and Tom was expected to draft at least two or three articles for each one. On top of this were the individual cases which periodically came his way, in which he might have to spend hours with a member who was accused of incompetence, or who was taking out a grievance against his manager for bullying. But Barry had further ways of extending the work beyond the official hours. He was also a member of the union's national and regional executives and thought it essential that Tom should find out where they stood in the context of the wider issues facing the sector. He would check his voicemail to hear, "Tom, it's Barry – there's a regional meeting on Saturday from ten till one, I'll see you in front of Boots at Kings Cross at nine-thirty"; or "Tom, it's Barry – there's a conference on strategy for defending pensions in a couple of weeks, I think we both need to be there, and I've sent our names to the national officer who's running it." Only once did Tom ever dare to refuse, claiming that he had a longstanding commitment to take his mother out for her birthday on the weekend of a demonstration to save a college in Essex from partial closure. This felt more justifiable than the real reason of having organised a key tennis match which he needed to win to avoid sinking into league three for the first time. Barry didn't like tennis.
The problem Tom found in dealing with Barry was not that he was fearsome or intimidating so much as that he was so enthusiastically committed that any refusal resulted in the sense of guilt one might have at disappointing a child. Barry wasn't naïve, but he had the belief normally associated with youthful idealism, and it was uncomfortable to know you were letting him down. It also generated an unpleasant self- awareness in Tom, a sense of the distance between his philosophical critique of policies which damage education and his readiness to oppose. He never quite knew which motive was the stronger, but every time he got up on Saturday morning to travel up the Northern Line for some excruciating trawl through the woes of London's secondary education system, he knew it wasn't virtue which lay behind it.
The eighteen minutes pass, and the second of his six new emails is from Barry.
Dickie wants to meete. Droop inot my office and lets hav a word.
Tom is relieved that his weekend remains intact, but he rolls his eyes at the thought of meeting with the principal in the first week of the academic year. Whenever Dickie asks to see them it is a bad sign. He has an unconcealed loathing for the union, which he must overcome for the regular fortnightly meetings. He never meets them more often unless he has to. Given all the jobs being cut elsewhere across London, Tom fears this may be the only reason he would summon them. Better to find out Barry's thoughts on this sooner rather than later, and he walks down the two flights of stairs to the English department.
Barry habitually sat in only two positions. The first was when he had his face four inches from his monitor as he belted out some message to the union members or a press notice so replete with misspellings that only a former journalist could have written it. The second was when the chair was in the reclining position as he marked the essays of his communications students or provided searing Marxist analysis of contemporary events. At sixty-two, he still retained hints of the physique of a former near-athlete who had failed a rugby league trial for his local professional team when he was seventeen. Now he never even mounted his exercise bike, but there was a smooth efficiency to his movements and no sagging excess visible on his face.
When Tom enters, he is playing with his reading glasses and smiling at the report he is reading on the BBC website about a Conservative donor caught by an undercover journalist advising her not only on how to set up an account in Cyprus but also offering to take her out for dinner to explain the details.
"Hi, right, let's go," says Barry in a Yorkshire accent uncorrupted by thirty years of life in west London.
Tom follows him out of the room, but instead of heading towards the union's office, they turn towards the management offices, and Tom stops him.
"We're going to see him now?"
"Why not? He said to come along for a quick chat just to sort out a couple of issues before term starts. Let's see what he wants."
"Since when is he this informal?"
"Never. That's why we need to see what's up."
They enter the outer office where four secretaries coordinate the meetings of the principal and the vice principal. This room is trying so desperately hard to look like a sophisticated office that it never does anything more than advertise its own cheapness. The unpleasant, hard-wearing carpets and the oak-effect furniture are home to four women whose dress sense is far more influenced by the casual indifference of the teachers than they realise. None of them ever achieves the business-like sharpness they seek.
Bella, Dickie's secretary, greets them and opens the door into the principal's office to tell him they have arrived. Tom can't hear the response, but she comes back out and has them sit down on the Ikea sofa for ten minutes before Dickie opens the door himself and asks them in. Tom isn't sure if this is a strategy to emphasise his power or if he just wants to give the impression of being busy. It never even occurs to Tom that there may be a genuine reason for the wait.
Dickie's expensive, tailored suit hangs remarkably well from the sloping shoulders of his five-foot-five-inch frame. Jacket and trousers taper neatly around the various bulges, almost hiding the improbably round potbelly. He asks them about their summer breaks and welcomes them back with all the conviction of someone who doesn't mean a word of what he says.
Excerpted from A Moment More Sublime by Stephen Grant. Copyright © 2014 Stephen Grant. Excerpted by permission of Upper West Side Philosophers, Inc..
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