The great Amazon dinner party

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It’s time to test the water in The Infinity Pool  (seen above taking its annual holiday in its spiritual home). The paperback was published twelve months ago tomorrow, preceded two weeks earlier by the ebook. Why the hiatus? Who knows, but it gives me an excuse for two birthdays, like the queen. Although at the time I remember being dizzy with impatience to hold the printed object in my hand and turn some real pages, nowScreenshot 2 I’m glad because between anniversaries I had a major boost in the Amazon rankings – by over 100,000 places! It’s been fascinating to see who I’m sandwiched between from one day to the next. This week I’ve been in proximity to Margery Allingham, Val McDermid, Jodi Picoult, Kate Morton… honoured, I’m sure. It’s like being a last-minute reserve guest at a stellar dinner party – someone must have dropped out and the hostess knew I wouldn’t be doing anything I couldn’t cancel for the sake of such a night. Three dinner parties simultaneously in fact, because of the different categories we all feature in.

My major boost came about 13872752_10153663698687231_3085885263817280783_nbecause a dear friend, who took the cover photo, returned last month to the island where I’d been inspired to write the book. He took a paperback with him and gave my Pool a plug. The guests there must all have Amazon Prime, so I haven’t made many actual sales from it, but the “pages read” on Kindle Unlimited have zoomed into the stratosphere, burning my ears and returning me to the unhealthy habit of inspecting my Amazon rankings whenever they’re updated (once an hour). That’s how I know that seated to my left is the eminent French crime writer, Georges Simenon (creator of Maigret) and I’m the bulwark protecting him from having to converse with Jeffrey Archer on my right. I have my uses, after all. But it’s one of those dinner parties where guests change places between courses, or even between bites – I may have quite different neighbours by the time I post this. I may even be back where I belong, chopping onions in the kitchen (there’s more than one way to produce a tear-jerker).

Meanwhile I haven’t dined so well chez Amazon since September, when The Infinity Pool shot to no 1 in Australia. I think it was because of Stuart’s cover and the temporary promotional price – 99¢. I’m told books are very expensive in Australia so here was a bargain indeed. Amazon put me into the Crime category, and although the Australians downloaded me until they cracked their computers (I imagine), they didn’t like me much. Not enough blood! Hardly a murder! Where’s the incest and why’s the rape offstage? Boring boring boring, declaimed the worst three word, one star review. We changed the category to Literary Fiction where the expectations are more, well, literary, and I was comforted by sharing a table with Harper Lee, shunting The Girl on the Train briefly into a siding (she’s back now), rocketing past the Martian and bidding ciao to Elena Ferrante.  (No wonder Elena Ferrante’s a recluse, having to sit next to the Martian at the Amazon dinner party).

Screenshot 4Back in UK Mysteries, Thrillers and Suspense, I’m rubbing shoulders with John le Carré and Irvine Welsh. Meanwhile Sylvia Plath has not unreasonably chosen to shelter in Psychological Fiction but found herself next to me. I do hope she’s not feeling too conflicted to chat today, and I think as a grown up I could hold my own. Not like the day when, in my teens, I was introduced to Margaret Drabble at a party given by some friends of my parents. I adored, read and reread her books, identified with the heroines, tried to understand the points she was making (I didn’t attempt her sister AS Byatt). And that’s more or less what I gabbled, blushing and stuttering my generalised admiration. She smiled graciously and moved on to consort with more stimulating fellow guests.

Perhaps the memory of that toe curling embarrassment was what stopped me taking advantage of an even more impressive opportunity a few years later. I was living in Paris as part of my degree, and mentioned to my landlady that I was writing my year abroad dissertation on Simone de Beauvoir. “Tiens!” said Madame. It turned out she was distantly related to or had been distantly befriended by or was an old schoolmate, or something, of “Simone”. Would I like to meet ‘er? I could per’aps interview ‘er for my studeez? I shivered. No no, I was busy that day/week/month/year. I regretted it deeply, but it would never be convenient for me to meet the greatest feminist philosopher and writer of her day, who still intimidates me now. What a dissertation chapter that might have been! What a coup over the academics of Sussex University French department!

Famous writers seemed to be two a centime in Paris. The very first day there, gawping the wrong way at the traffic as I crossed the road, I literally bumped into a monsieur who set my shoulders back in the right direction with a polite “excusez-moi, mademoiselle”. But it was the friend accompanying me who had to be picked up off the pavement. “You just jostled Samuel Beckett!” he hissed. Merde alors. Another unsuccessful encounter with a literary giant.

Maybe that’s why I prefer the Amazon dinner party. You can imagine the conversation instead of actually having to hold it, name dropping and star spotting to your hearts content. Now please excuse me: it’s time for virtual coffee and chocolat with Joanne Harris before I slide back down the rankings and lose the opportunity.

Amazon dinner party

© Jessica Norrie 2016

 

 

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All human life is there

I’m a writer now but this is my prologue. I’ve just retired: Thursday was my last day in school. Thirty four years have included teaching in Paris, Dijon, Sheffield, and various London boroughs, moving backwards from adults down to Early Years. Although “trained” (in inverted commas because the training of the time was frankly inadequate and mostly irrelevant) to teach English as an Additional Language, I’ve taught right across the curriculum, from design and technology (badly) to French (well).

leaving 1

When I started, children with EAL were often taught separately, in a mobile on the playing field, down the road, or in some dilapidated annexe no one else knew existed. In theory, when their English was good enough, they’d “enter the mainstream”. But many staff were less than welcoming and anyway mainstream lessons didn’t stay still for them to catch up, so many never made the transition. Therefore they never saw specialist laboratories or technology rooms, rousing (or not) assemblies or school performances. Quite rightly,  the then Commission for Racial Equality challenged so called “withdrawal”, and an in-class support model developed instead.

Sometimes it worked. EAL pupils were inspired by subject specialist teaching, we differentiated materials and used any means we could to help them access information, they were surrounded by stimulating, varied models of peer and teacher English and many left school with good results. Sometimes it was difficult: one needlework teacher set the whole class to embroider “church kneelers” and from a junior and younger position I had to mediate on behalf of the 90% of the class who were not Christian. Sometimes it was ridiculous. My most embarrassing moment? “Supporting” a newly arrived 14 year old Bengali boy in a Biology lesson on STDs (at a time when I was heavily pregnant). I decided discretion was the better part of teaching that day, chickening out of trying to explain the diagrams of genitalia; his vague, accepting beam suggested he hadn’t really picked up the finer (if any) points of syphilis.

There was very little prescription when I started. For second year (now Year 8) English, the only class set of books I found in the stock cupboard was “The Nigger of the Narcissus” by Joseph Conrad. Historical context notwithstanding, I thought I’d be better off making up my own anthology of materials. The hapless head of English had 25 other random staff to deploy, of varying enthusiasms. One, technically  a geographer but the Geography department had jettisoned her, based all her lessons on dogs. (She liked dogs.) So I wasn’t against the National Curriculum when it arrived. There was still room for interpretation; you could teach didactically or collaboratively or it could be pupil centered or mixed ability or cross curricular or delivered through practical activities, but there was at least some general guidance which was quite welcome after the dogs and Joseph Conrad. But now there is far too much prescription. Teachers are becoming deskilled. They fear using their initiative, developing their own approaches, trusting their own judgement, and that has a narrowing effect on everything. Potential exploration and enjoyment is reduced, creativity  stifled, enquiry and dexterity and empathy discouraged in favour of facts and measurable outcomes. Of course schools should be accountable, but whatever happened to individualised learning?

Later I taught infants, and at the same time I taught French and Spanish at evening classes. The government introduced modern foreign languages to primary schools and I delivered training on how to teach it, often to staff who had no modern language qualifications and a deep fear of making fools of themselves. But any kind of teaching, or training, is the same. You find out where someone or a group stands in terms of their knowledge and ability, and you make progress by building on from there.You achieve this through humour, sensitivity, flexibility, and a range of varied activities. Failure shouldn’t be in your vocabulary if you are a teacher, of any age group, in any subject. Instead, you cajole, you encourage, you reframe, you adapt, you repeat, you reinforce, you inspire. It can be emotionally exhausting as you process everyone’s fears and transform them into attainment. I think teachers could often do with the sort of regular debriefing and counselling that therapists get, for it’s not so different from therapy, except with thirty subjects at once. Everyone remembers their best teachers, but why when you tell people what you do, do so many people love recounting stories of the teachers they reduced to tears, the paper darts thrown and lesson objectives derailed? Is it because deep down (or not so deep down) we all want revenge for years of boring assemblies, ugly uniforms, and perhaps patronising treatment? I think that will get worse in future, as ever younger children encounter stress. Teachers and pupils alike are human beings, with good days and bad, flailing about under constantly changing, increasingly idiotic government initiatives and fads, with a scandalously variable quality of management and all in an environment which would give a germ warfare researcher new ideas. The successes teachers achieve in the face of this are akin to those of overworked doctors steering patients through treatment or social workers (the ones we don’t hear about) providing comfort and reducing abuse.

I also remember pupils who didn’t make it. The two brothers with Duchenne’s whose condition deteriorated as they moved up the school and whose mother was one of the strongest people I’ve ever met, the nursery boy killed in a house fire, the 9 year old shot by his own father and the teenager who came off his motorbike. Also A. who died suddenly in her sleep aged six and Y. whose brave, generous parents provided funds for an entertainer for the whole school on what would have been his fifth birthday. There must be others I don’t know about.

Ayushi's garden 2 Rest in peace.

I wouldn’t have stayed in it this long if it was all doom and gloom. Thank you, children, teenagers, students and colleagues for your support, your thanks and your warmth. Thank you for your interest in what I had to say; thank you for making it clear when I’d said enough; thank you for your hiccups and your successes and your languages and your cultures. Thank you for showing me parts of society I’d never have encountered and for teaching me more than I taught you – all human life is truly there, in a school, and most human beings do not enjoy the privileged access teachers have. I wasn’t the most patient of teachers, I wasn’t a conscientious marker, I didn’t much like helping with extra curricular activities or going on outings, and I have a bad temper. But even though you were a captive audience you always did me the favour of laughing at my jokes, and that’s one of the best ways to reinforce someone’s ego that I know. Long may the humour and humanity continue in education, for even the current regime can’t, I think, snuff it out completely.

thank you

 

copyright Jessica Norrie 2016

Peace

This was the week for writing about leaving teaching but events have pushed such individual concerns into the background. Does my personal response matter, in a world of violence, war, hatred, prejudice: all the man-made disasters we add to the natural ones, as if floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes and storms weren’t enough?

friður  síocháin  мир  pace

Yes it does. It matters because a personal response is what makes us human beings. What happened in Nice last night was horrific. What has been happening in Syria is appalling. And in Afghanistan, China, the US – almost every country in the world hosts something to be ashamed of in terms of one group suppressing the freedoms and happiness of another.

平和  امن  শান্তি  taika  פרידן

This week I watched the extraordinary BBC 2 series, “Exodus“, which followed the journey of individuals and families from Syria and Afghanistan to the UK, Finland and Germany. The minutiae were revealing – you can actually increase your risk of drowning if you buy the fake life jackets for sale in the markets of Izmir, along with the waterproof covers for phones that mean a message may at least get to your family. I was humbled by the courage of refugees stuck on the side of the road, putting on acrobatic displays to entertain each other and rigging up extra tarpaulins to protect a disabled child. Just consider their touching, often unfounded faith in the eventual goodwill of Europeans, despite having been bombed and betrayed and abandoned and moved on.

pokój  pau  paix Frieden

I’ve known similar stories all my life, but with the luck to live alongside rather than inside them. Almost none of the children in my Finchley primary school class had grandparents. Their mothers and fathers had come over in the Kindertransport. My class also had a few middle class Indian and African origin children, whose parents were doctors or chemists, and some Irish children, whose families had emigrated to find work. My own grandfather was Scottish. He was, ironically,  an immigrant to Dover from the north, after failing to get a job on the Titanic. There were Greek Cypriots, and Turkish children and a boy from Italy and one or two who were then known as West Indians. I wouldn’t say it was perfect. The black children seemed to be in trouble more than anyone else; the Jewish children (about half the school) had a separate assembly; we shunned and were shunned by those who we thought were Travellers (I don’t know if they were, but we called them Gypsies). We played English vs Germans in the playground. But we muddled along. As a child I was not (didn’t have to be) aware of racial tensions and with my parents’ blessing, I enjoyed the exposure to different languages and backgrounds. Whether everyone had it so easy, I don’t know.

ειρήνη fred խաղաղություն සාම

 

I studied in France and taught, mainly white classes in much more segregated areas. I made friends, and also had inklings of xenophobia at times. It didn’t feel pleasant, but it was hardly threatening  if you were white skinned and middle class. I enjoyed it, but wanted to make a more politically engaged contribution, and went to Sheffield to train as a teacher of what was then called “ESL” (English as a Second Language).

មានសន្ដិភាព സമാധാനം .سلام

My first teaching post was in Elephant and Castle, South London. I’m not sure we knew the word regeneration, and it wasn’t a smart postcode at all. 80% of the pupils were from Bengali families, mostly recent arrivals. There was a dark, cramped and gardenless estate in the same road and the density was high so very few pupils lived anywhere else. We had some Vietnamese children, (remember the “boat people”?) and a Chinese boy was inseparable from his Turkish friend. Neither spoke any English for months. I attempted Bengali and the deputy head taunted the middle class staff by bringing jellied eels to the staff parties. Those pupils must have grown up children themselves now, graduates and taxpayers and artists and engineers and health workers, some still at the Elephant and others moved away.

But at the time, the families were poor. We took small groups of them to the West End, only three miles away, to see the Christmas lights. Transfixed by Hamleys window display, they marvelled even more when a little boy with a posh voice standing next to us said: “Grandpa, may we go in now, and would you buy me a toy?”

hòa bình שלום zaman lafiya

I returned to Sheffield in the year of the miners’ strike, with the steelworkers’ strike still stinging in local memory. My pupils now were mostly from Pakistan, again recently arrived. Their dads drove the corporation buses, and when we did home visits we sat on bus seats in their living rooms, drinking sweet tea with condensed milk while the girls whipped out shalwar kameez and demonstrated how to iron them on the floor. I learned the names of Imran Khan’s excellent cricket side, which helped me build a rapport with the boys. The first Somali children began to arrive. Those pupils too will be well into middle age by now, living different lives in many different places.

صلح vrede சமாதானம் udo

Back in outer London, I taught a longer established community, the children of Ugandan Asians expelled by Idi Amin. High achievers, serious workers, with ambitions to be lawyers and doctors. I learned about the Punjab and experienced Sikh hospitality.

amani მშვიდობა kapayapaan

I had children, and when they were little I went to work in the infant school I’m now retiring from, three miles from the one they attended. At both schools there are usually at least twenty languages spoken, with some recent arrivals and some families who have been established here for generations. My children, now grown up,  take it all for granted, and are a bit disconcerted if they find themselves in a community that seems monocultural or monolingual. Their experiences will differ from mine but probably feel even more natural.

At this school I’ve discovered the delicious cake that Lithuanians make for celebrations, and become quite adept at reeling off long Tamil names. I’ve feasted on spicy samosas and pistachio sweets for Eid and Diwali. I’ve been taught to make mehndi patterns on my hands and had presents from trips back home to Turkey and Thailand. I’ve had an Indian head massage when I seemed stressed and I’ve translated from French and Spanish and I’ve attempted Chinese and Arabic calligraphy which must look truly terrible to my tactful child teachers.

lapè  mir  和平  

These are my neighbours, my friends, and my colleagues. They drive every bus I travel on, they take my blood when I donate it or it needs testing, they check my teeth, they serve me in Sainsbury’s, they did the conveyancing when I sold my house, and in a very welcome first, this year my garden was landscaped by Moldovans. From the safety of my white skin and mother tongue English, I fear the reactions they may suffer following the Brexit vote and the latest atrocities in Nice, which have shocked them as much as everybody else. I am glad and proud and fascinated to have worked and lived among them all my life so far, for they have given me more than I ever gave them. And if this post is less edited than the previous ones, please bear with me: despite the call for peace, raw anger doesn’t sit well with polished prose.

pacem

Peace 3

 

 

© Jessica Norrie 2016

 

 

 

 

Teaching it write

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Two weeks ago I wrote a highly critical post about how, currently, we teach young children to write, and promised the next time I blogged on this subject it would be a “how to” rather than a “how not to” post. Surprisingly, despite a lifelong career of teaching writing to age groups from 4 to adult, I’m now humbled by finding it much harder to pull together a positive post than to churn out a moan. But that’s for a good reason. As I explore what I want to say, I keep getting diverted down multiple byways (which will all make excellent subjects for future articles: there’s just too much brilliant stuff around to sum it up in one blog post). Yet the essentials that keep recurring in my mind are both grander, and vaguer.

They are: imagination, and empathy. All the rest is incidental.

nursery familyOf course, we must teach the actual physical craft of writing, tone those hand and wrist muscles, get familiar with that keyboard, teach making marks on paper that show up and that subscribe to a universally understood code. For that you need the pre skills to tone the muscles (eg: playing with sand and rolling out dough, squeezing plasticine and grasping objects). You must provide opportunities for enjoyment, sharing, the experiences of disappointment and achievement, the pleasure and frustration of encountering something new. You have to talk about what you’re doing, make models, conceive shapes and ideas and try to express them through role play or making a model or painting or dancing or rolling down a hillside or whizzing down a slide. Bump! Giggle! Extend horizons and keep an open mind in yourself as well as promoting one in any children you care for.

These things will develop imagination and empathy.

Yes, we must teach a certain amount of spelling and grammar, but a rich listening and reading experience supplies much of that by verbal osmosis. Yes, we must teach craft: plotting, structure, style. I refer you back to the rich reading experience. Read prose and poetry, fiction and non fiction, jingles and exposition and comedy and polemic. Read from different cultures, and in different languages if you can. Read from the past and the present and read all the genres you can lay your hands on.

Discuss the mundane and the extraordinary. Point out similarities and contradictions. Celebrate and wonder and commiserate and express your shock and anger and confusion and relief and hilarity. What’s random? What’s linked? What matters? Go on doing this all your life. These things develop imagination and empathy too.

A few years ago we hardened old infant schoolmarms were taught a great writing lesson by some student teachers who were on placement together in our school. They made an enormous papier mâché egg. Vast, huge, massive, colossal, it was. It appeared in the foyer before school opened in the morning, with no explanation, and at first not everyone noticed it.

But then – the school buzzed! Where had it come from? Who had laid it? What was inside? For a few days nothing happened. Then one morning, we found it broken. Pieces of “shell” lay scattered about. It had hatched!

Of course, what really hatched was conversation, conjecture, prediction, description, fear, amazement, art work, group work, drama and some wonderful writing from all age groups. Nursery pupils dictated a sentence to be scribed for them. Older pupils wrote so much we ran out of exercise books.I wish I’d kept some of it, but it was part of a process. No one was marking it or giving it a level. (Authors! Think how it feels when you get a rotten review carping away about what you could have done better. We do this to children every time they write anything at all. It’s a wonder any of them have any confidence left.)

Do we always have to write in English, by the way? Translation is a wonderful craft and parents are an equally wonderful resource. A family I work with sent this in to school:

Turkish poem

Why write alone? Adults have writing groups, for support, so why not children? Here’s a group activity: collect words, no need to be clever, just brainstorm all sorts of single words and note them on small bits of card. You’ll find they fit in groups, so put them together on a large coloured base – paper or a table top. Read them out. How do they sound best? Do you need to rearrange them / delete some / bind them together somehow? Do they need a special voice or voices? You’ve made a poem, so stick the cards down to celebrate your final version. Go and recite it to another group, and listen to theirs. If it didn’t result in anything worthwhile, scrap it – you have permission! – but it almost always does.

As a young English teacher with a class of 14 year olds, I collected 22 yellow,  8 blue, and 2 orange counters which the students took at random as they came in. I then gave out Monopoly notes according to which colour they’d taken. The £5 (blue) people could devise 5 rules that the £1 (yellow) people must obey, and the £10 (orange) people could make up 10 rules for everyone. It could have been chaotic, but they were fascinated. The writing about their feelings, their reactions, their suggestions for what could happen next was the best they ever did, expressive, individually voiced, aware of their audience and exploratory. I expect it would come under PHSE now, not English, if you were allowed to do it at all, but in those days there was very little curriculum planning.

Later, in a class of English for adults, I helped students write about coming to live in England. Whether from Romania, Sri Lanka, Egypt or Thailand, they discovered shared experiences and hopes. Every lesson we did some grammar, but it was their free flowing work that kept them coming.

One mantra for aspiring professional writers is: “Write about what you know”. Well then, make sure you’re open to expanding what you know. Then, your work will have imagination and empathy, and all the rest can follow. I really do think this applies equally whether you are 3 or 99, whether you’re just starting out or even if you’re a bestselling author. But that may be a discussion for another day.

Author questions

© Jessica Norrie 2016

 

“Exposure” by Helen Dunmore

Exposure
I’ve admired Helen Dunmore for a long time, for the lucidity and fluency of her writing. Her deceptively simple style can be read so easily that the story seeps effortlessly into your mind and you gather detail about the characters and settings almost incidentally. Then a particularly beautiful sentence stops you in your tracks and you begin to appreciate the poetry of what you are reading as well. “Each time the wind slams against the glass, her nerves crisp, but she works on calmly.” We’ve all experienced wind slamming and our nerves crisping at a sudden noise, but few of us can express it so economically. Only once in the whole book does she(or her editor) go wrong and the reason this jars so much is because of the overall perfection: “Julian Clowde’s eyes were like lizard’s.”
This story resonated for me because I am the age of the youngest child in the story; I too grew up in North London; my friends were the children of Jewish refugees, and the Cold War hung threatening in the background. We played English vs Germans in the school playground; my parents had been on CND marches; there was talk on the news and in the fiction I read later of spies, references that I didn’t understand (and still usually don’t) and that at the time were menacing and sinister. As the years pass those stories have become cartoonish, but in the 1960s spy activity represented the interface between civilisation and the Eastern Bloc, with nuclear annihilation the penalty if the delicate balance were to be disturbed.
Helen Dunmore writes of spies and suspicion, but without bringing in too much minutiae. The document and photographs to which the characters’ fate is hooked are not described in detail. Their bearing on world events, if any, is not clarified at all. That fits too, with my general incomprehension of espionage. What is clear is the effect on ordinary lives when they happen to become caught up: domesticity, not the world stage, is under threat here: home comforts, personal security, well being. Any child of the 60s can relate to inadequate heating in a Victorian villa and then a seaside cottage, a temperamental coal boiler and single glazing that rattles. More positively, any teacher (as I now am and as Lily is in the book) can dream with nostalgia of paperwork which went no further than a pile of marking, and of a time when junior school children walked home from school in sole charge of their younger siblings. This book abounds with such details that pinpoint an era as definitively as any set of dates.
Exposure is a clever title, for the exposure here gives another clear glimpse of the period, a time when homosexuality was as disgraceful, or more so, than betraying your country. Youthful sexual experiment that can now shrugged off even by top politicians, was then a criminal offence, individuals, households, governments could be brought down by the scandal. My parents had gay friends who lived openly together: it took many years for me to understand how brave that was. Helen Dunmore and her characters quote Oscar Wilde to haunting effect, before some of them are exposed in a different sense, on the freezing North Kent coast, scrabbling for sea coal at low tide. Throughout the book, objects, feelings, and facts are buried, consciously or subconsciously, for mistaken or sensible reasons, and the fear is that they will be exposed like the roll of film on the crucial Minox camera. None of this would be so necessary in a different society or a different story.
Dunmore references “The Railway Children” too, in an unlikely literary juxtaposition that works brilliantly. This time the children know a little more, the country dwelling and the train are not so friendly, the mother seen as more vulnerable and not always right. But the repeated reminder of a children’s book (in fact two because Dunmore also refers to another classic that I loved as a child, “The Children who lived in a Barn” by Eleanor Graham) is comforting for the reader: children’s stories involve passing through trials to a happy ending, so maybe everything will turn out fine for the Callington family too. After all, “No one will come at this hour, and those are only shadows under the lamp posts.”
It’s for the reader to judge the happiness, actual, potential, fragile or disguised of the ending, or whether a sequel would spell doom. This is real life in the way that only a cleverly constructed fiction can present it, and the consequences of hidden events may not be so simple as they were for the original Railway Children.

copyright Jessica Norrie 2016

Serving a narrative ace

Some writers are fascinated by football (Albert Camus, Julian Barnes, Nick Hornby). For others the temptation is tennis (Vladimir Nabokov, Martin Amis, David Foster Wallace – described here in the Guardian). I’m an unseeded member of the second group. The grass court tennis season is underway! And each match tells a story.

Tennis ball

Where Foster Wallace loved the geometry of the court, and could manipulate intelligent victories through mathematical strategies, as a very poor player and mathematician I’m more attracted by the structure of the narrative. Even the language is the same – where writers have three act or five act structures, in tennis three or five sets build from an introductory warm up through a steady start to maximum tension at the finale of each. A perfectly crafted two set victory is  a short story, polished in itself but with glimpses of many layered possibilities. A five set titanic battle is the War and Peace of the court: adversaries counter, bludgeon, outwit each other, decimate lovingly nurtured territory with their scurries and stampedes, proceed fast or painfully to the final match point and strut the grass in triumphant panache. The boundaries of the court contain the action within strict conventions which players must find ever new ways to exploit. Our short or long chapters translate into their love games or those with multiple deuces; the tie-break’s a mid point climax, and the final set swift and clinical or an epic struggle with an abrupt denouement. The scoring system is in itself an attractive narrative structure: what spectator hasn’t played with the maths of games won and lost, as a reader doodles in the margin?

tennis player 2Tennis has character arcs too. Whether grumpy, cheerful, languorous, spoilt, gay, straight, multilingual, corrupt or joyous, players all start a match wanting to win (we assume). They deploy their individual armouries – a thumping serve, backspin and topspin, devious lobs or an emphatic smash – to gain the upper hand. They may start at a  disadvantage or pride may come before a fall. The exhilaration of an ace swerves into a spate of double faults: they crow and they mope and they skid and recover. Sometimes they understand what’s happening to them, or they’re disbelieving, of the umpire, of the gods, of themselves. Through their moments of inspiration, exhaustion, disillusionment, calm, the spectators greedily lament their weaknesses and salute their highs, agog to read the next episode.

What a cast! There are stars and character actors, heavyweights and also-rans, newcomers and clowns, the modish and classic, the familiar and outlandish. Each has a back story to guess at and dig out. Some become more fascinating and complex with time; others should have been cut from the plot long ago. The post match interviews aren’t very illuminating (bland platitudes, massive overuse of the word “unbelievable”) but then that’s not what the players are there for. Their gifts are physical, mathematical, strategic and emotional and they tell their stories not through words but actions: tics, triumphs and all.

I got a bit stuck myself here. But – C’mon! Regroup, and off we go again:

Tennis ballTennis makes clever use of the apparently trivial the same way writers use small details to embellish their stories. Check out the perfect manicures and classy French plaits. The number of variations on a simple white tennis dress fashion designers can achieve is nothing short of remarkable (almost nothing and short being the operative words). This year graceful diaphanous tunics, half Greek goddess, half baby doll pyjama are a foil to the toned muscular aggression they just about cover.  How do some of these structures stay in place? In this context, the woman who wears shorts is making a massive statement. The men too have achieved multiple variations on a simple outfit, from the wincingly tight tailoring of the 1970s through Rafa’s early pirate style to the drawstring comfort of today. Who needs adjectives when you can delineate a character just by dressing her in Ginny Hilfiger?

The umpire is the main supporting cast member, with the ball boys and girls more appealing extras than the portly line judges whose insignificant looks belie the influence of their decisions. Recently Hawkeye has taken on increasing importance, capricious Zeus of the mortal world. The coaches chew and mouth intensities. And of course the crowd can take over with a Mexican wave or the spotlight may fall on a dexterous individual catching a wayward ball. But what of the matches with no crowd, no Hawkeye, no ball girls? Our heroes and heroines struggle on with or without us, circumnavigating the globe, accruing debt and displacement, age, injuries and disappointment. There’s an epic novel in that alone.

tennis ilouettes 2

 

Before I leave the court, I’ll add that I’ve been experimenting with ways to illustrate my blog posts. Unseeded as a writer, I’m even further down the rankings as an illustrator, so I’ll award a (notional) trophy to anyone who can identify the subject of my silhouettes and drawing. Meanwhile if you want to see another match, Trip Fiction has a pretty good list of tennis related novels. Thank you for watching.

© Jessica Norrie 2016