Last week I couldn’t be bloggered so must post now… Scrabbling for inspiration I see my blogger colleague (bloggeague?) Robbie Cheadle has a nice post on nursery rhymes where she quotes Lewis Carroll changing the words of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Any wordplay good enough for Alice in Wonderland is good enough for me too! I’m always changing the words of songs and do it almost automatically in response to feelings and events. As do others – here’s one doing the social media rounds, origin unknown. If we all sing along maybe he’ll get the hint:
Donald the President packed his Trump,
And said goodbye to the White House
As Robbie says, learning and adapting song lyrics is part of language and creativity development for young children (at the other end of the scale there are important benefits for the memory and well-being of dementia patients). Children often make endearing mistakes, which I learn from a fascinating article are called Mondegreens. In my childhood all primary schools whether denominational or not had a Christian hymn at daily assembly and misinterpretations were common among the pre-readers. A more recent one suitable for Covid hoarders is “Come, come ye saints! No toilet paper here!” I found the child who sang that here. I wonder if like many children she follows it with:
Our Father who art in Heaven. Harold be thy name…
Also hooray for the deliberate adaptions! We all know the shepherds were much too busy washing their socks to keep an eye on any sheep. My family left carols alone but they’d roar round the table at Christmas:
Hitler – has only got one ball
The other is in the Albert Hall
Himmler – has something similar
But poor old Goebbels has no balls at all!
You can find many versions of this surreal take on Captain Bogey’s March in an informative but completely po-faced Wikipedia article that describes this as “a World War II British song that mocks Nazi leaders using blue comedy in reference to their testicles…” I’ve searched for the copyright owner but found only: “There is no known attempt by anyone to claim or enforce a copyright on the lyrics.” Writers should always take care quoting song lyrics.
As a teacher, I used song a lot: as a memory or pronunciation aide, to explain simple concepts and just for good old fun. About ten years ago I had the job of teaching teachers who only spoke English to teach French (which I speak fluently) or Spanish (which I have a basic grasp of) or German and Modern Hebrew (which I don’t speak at all) to their classes – do keep up at the back. That tells you all you need to know about investment in expertise for British state education, except that it’s even worse now. It was uphill but entertaining work. One exercise was to get the teachers in groups to set some key vocabulary/phrases to a well-known tune – at the most basic level this might be the numbers 1-5 or a bit later on, classroom objects to the tune of Y Viva España. The first line was:
La regla, el lápiz, el libro y el papel
Ironically I’ve forgotten the rest but the end of each verse was great fun as we went emphatically down the scale:
I was on safer ground with French, so cocky I got my knuckles rapped by senior management when I jazzed up the boring compulsory housekeeping announcements at the beginning of each training session. To the tune of Tea for Two:
En cas de feu, vous descendez
Dans le parking, vous rassemblez
Les WC*, vous trouverez
Many resource producers were more adept than me and I’ll be forever grateful to the authors of Français, français for setting an action song about body parts to the Match of the Day theme tune. Even the stroppiest kids took notice when they heard that introduction.
Back to messing about with English. If cheerful songs lend themselves particularly well to pastiche (I’m forever blowing bubbles; Yellow Submarine) so do the most respectable of poems. The first lines of To be or not to be, that is the question… must have been casually adapted by most people at some stage in their lives, with or without apologies to Shakespeare. Browning did us all a favour when he wrote, O to be in England, now that April’s here.. It’s a great leveller when we commoners seize ownership of such classics. Wikipedia may not crack a smile but the rest of us have fun.
Blogger time, and the writing is easy
Words are flowing, and I’m seizing the day
I don’t earn much, and I’m hardly good-looking
But hush little blogger, it’s all okay!
I didn’t have a post but now I’ve winged it, albeit to a fairly random audience which could include writers, readers, singers, teachers, and humans. Also I just uploaded two illustrations from the free selection rather than adding lots of my own (but that may be a good thing). All those silly songs have released something in me and I think I’ll enter some writing competitions next. Which songs and poems get your creative juices going?
I do have some news this week, but first I have a question for you:
Did you ever go to school?
As many of you know, I was a teacher for 33 years. I posted a lot about it when I started this blog, because I was still in harness. Then I retired and with gratitude in my heart for a fascinating career that at last I was leaving (when I started I only intended to stay a few years), I blogged a farewell.
Four years later, what a lot of crap we’ve seen, and even more this week. Nurses, porters, paramedics and hospital cleaners have been refused a pay rise. They’re supposed to live on clapping and rainbows, I suppose. Teachers did get one (from existing money, so something else will have to go), and immediately teachers are blamed for it. Why have they got a pay rise? They haven’t even been in school! Lazy, workshy – and so on.
Right then, today the class task is 5 minutes silent reading which you’ll find here. It’s a heartfelt plea from a practising English teacher. Authors who read this: we need English teachers. They read our books and teach the readers of tomorrow! So head over and read her POV, please, and I want to see you back in here as soon as you’ve finished.
Now spend 5 minutes writing your answer to Susan English. How are you going to help put things right for this teacher and her colleagues? (You at the back – if we don’t get this done today we’ll all be staying in until we do.)
This possible model answer is more or less what I commented on her blog:
I do so sympathise. I taught all age groups and some teacher training/school improvement. In my NQT year (then called “probation”) I went to a family party at my new partner’s home in a county where they love to tell you they’re “proud to call a spade a spade”.
“What do you do?” asked an aunt/cousin/bad-fairy-at-the-wedding. “I’m a teacher,” I said. “Teachers? I wouldn’t give you the time of day for ’em!” she retorted. And so it went on… party after party, all my teaching life:
“What do you do?” / “I’m a teacher…” “Teachers? Ever heard that saying: ‘those who can, do; those who can’t, teach’. Ha ha ha! Oh I remember Mr X/ Ms Y. We used to love winding him up! And we made her cry! Yes, she used to run out the room weeping! Those were the days!”
These otherwise pleasant people somehow became bigoted monsters the moment you said you were a teacher. I can only think each of them had been damaged at an early age by one of the very few colleagues who doesn’t have pupils’ welfare etched deeply in their hearts.
Nowadays I go to parties (currently only on Zoom, of course) and when people say “What do you do?” I say, “I’m a writer!” “WOW!” they answer. “That’s so impressive! I could never do THAT! You must be so brainy, have such focus, work so hard, have such imagination and empathy…” “Yup,” I say. “I developed all those when I was teaching, and I did my best to develop them in your children too.” “You were a teacher? Oh we had this teacher and we used to make her cry…” etc.
When you leave, write a novel about it. Or start one now. Writing The Magic Carpet was as good as therapy and it really boosted my morale. Yes, I HAD done a good job, yes I HAD worked hard, and I know you do too. Even if no-one else does, I’m saying, “You’re a teacher? Well DONE!”
(A* for the blog post too.)
What other news do I have? It’s BIG news, it deserves a post to itself and next time I’ll have one. The French version of The Infinity Pool was published this week. It’s called Infinitude. Are you French? Do you know French people? (Could be because a French teacher started you off…) Soon I’ll be interviewing Isabelle the hard working translator but for now here’s the book cover, the link’s above, and here’s some bon vin français to drink a toast. Now please find someone to buy it, and/or Der Infinity-Pool which is the German version because guess what? Teachers DO mostly earn more than authors or translators. Except in respect.
I started jotting down ideas for The Magic Carpet during my last few years of teaching. After retirement, it became therapy, to get teaching out of my system – the lessons I’d learnt, the people I’d met, the “all human life is there” reality of any school community. It threatened to be heavy going for its future readers, as it turned into a teacher’s sour rant against the government.
Fortunately, the words of a wise headteacher came to mind: “Jessica, always remember the only people with an unarguable right to be in this school are the children. Not the head, the staff or the caretaker, not the parents – just the children.” She was right, so I decided to tell my story – of diversity and language, of education gone wrong and going right, of friendships, tiffs and damaged and happy families surviving, imploding or just plodding on in an increasingly intolerant London – through the eyes of the children.
The Magic Carpet starts in September with a new Year Three class (pupils between seven and eight years old). I’ve worked with learners from three to adult in my career, but my most recent classes were Year 2 up to July, the very same age group. I wasn’t just familiar with the voice, I’d been surrounded by thirty examples of it daily. Up shot several imaginary hands: “Miss! Choose me!” I imagined thirty children, sitting cross-legged on an imaginary carpet in front of me as I took an imaginary register. “I can only choose – let me see – five at most,” I said. The hands stretched higher; the pleading volunteer groans got louder: “Me! No, choose me! I’ll be really good!”
My story involves the relationship between home and school. I was looking for a quiet, perceptive, articulate narrator, who’d know when to stand back and observe and when to express their feelings. Alka and Nathan, a girl and a boy, fitted the bill. Then someone a bit clumsy to add humour, like in a pantomime. That was Sky. As I wrote this self-centred child I softened towards her; she had her own problems. Remember the class excitement when a new pupil arrived? I’d introduce Xoriyo. She’d see what was really going on and be an agent for change. Finally, I chose Mandeep, for likeability. Teachers shouldn’t have favourites but in retirement with a fictional class, you can do as you like.
Now I found a new problem. I’d describe something, then realise even the brightest Year Three child wouldn’t know that concept or vocabulary. Nathan’s father goes online dating, but Nathan would hardly be tagging along, reporting back. Sky’s mother, despite her self-doubt, is a good mother, and would hide her mild depression from Sky. Several elements of my story took place after the children’s bedtimes, or in areas of experience they wouldn’t yet have. But after I’d simplified the language and ideas to account for all that, the voices of Alka, Nathan, Sky, Xoriyo and Mandeep sounded indistinguishable.
A more sensible writer would therefore concentrate on one child narrator, as in Stephen Kelman’s brilliant Pigeon English or Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. But I wanted to reflect the variety of personalities, backgrounds, and abilities in a typical class. When I’d nearly finished The Magic Carpet, Guy Gunaratne published In Our Mad and Furious City, also juggling five diverse points of view. He does it very well, but his youngest narrator is already a streetwise teenager, out and about by himself. If my seven-year-olds did that, they’d come to the attention of social services – or not – and I’d be back to ranting.
The narrator in this brilliant novel loosely based on the story of Damilola Taylor is aged 11…narrator aged 11
Five narrators, teenagers to pensioners
A famous teenage narrator
Five narrators, aged seven to sixty
Mid dilemma, the children took over again. Xoriyo opted for a silent protest – a period of selective mutism, not uncommon when a child wants to stay in control of things. Mandeep ran off to play football; Nathan was absorbed in computer games and Sky was moody. That left Alka, a beautiful, bright, shy child who is bewildered and distressed when her secure world is turned upside down by an incident at home. With just one child voice, it became simpler. If she doesn’t know the name of something, I make an adult tell her – “Mum says that plant’s a buddleia.” If she overhears part of a phone conversation, she interprets what she hears literally. She tries to make sense of events in her life by drawing parallels with fairy stories, as all children do (which is why traditional stories remain universally popular). She thinks of law enforcement in terms of school rules. Parents keep her quiet by telling her off or other children bully her or once literally gag her. Once, she tries screaming to get her way. Sometimes she thinks problems through to terrifying logical conclusions because her seven-year-old self can’t get them in proportion.
With Alka in place, four adult narrators flocked to stand guard. Sky’s mother, downbeat but dogged; Nathan’s father, gradually remembering the power of the imagination; Xoriyo’s mother, speaking on her daughter’s behalf for as long as necessary, and Mandeep’s grandmother who has never lost her original childish joy. I hope you enjoy meeting them all in The Magic Carpet – as one Amazon review says: “It is a lovely novel and will resonate with all parents and teachers. Recommended.”
My so far unpublished novel The Magic Carpet involves the demands schools make on families. I was pleased to see my themes reinforced this week by Andria Zafirakou who’s been named “the world’s best teacher”. Ms Zafirakou is one of so many committed, imaginative colleagues who deserve awards, and interestingly, she works in ways this government may barely regard as teaching. With characteristic goodwill she’s now using the prize and publicity to reinforce the same messages I believe in.
Ms Zafirakou teaches creative subjects, art and textiles – yes, they do matter, Mr Gove and successors! She provides breakfast because hungry pupils can’t learn – take note, ministers who proposed abolishing free school meals for over a million children this week? She knows their housing conditions because she makes home visits, unlike the council leader who’d never entered a tower block before Grenfell burned down. She sees children onto the bus at night to protect them from gang violence. (How sad – senior staff were doing that when I was on teaching practice in 1983.) She greets them in their home languages and shows them art from their own cultures before asking them to appreciate “our” Renaissance.
I got burnt out after far smaller efforts than Ms Zafirakou makes. When you leave teaching to be a writer, you swap wielding a red pen over other people’s work to being marked yourself, first during the writing process and then at the final exam. It’s a salutary lesson. I’ve been working out level descriptors and grade boundaries for The Magic Carpet since my agent began submitting it.
A* – I thoroughly enjoyed reading it / absolutely loved this / a great cast of characters / Jessica is a very accomplished writer/ it was such a topical read / engagement in such a wide range of contemporary issues
A – a clever idea / certainly timely and thought-provoking / an enjoyable read / really authentically written / I thought that was a really nice touch and something quite different
B– a nice premise / it’s a lovely novel and I wish you lots of luck placing it elsewhere / well written
C – I couldn’t quite see how we would position it on our list and it is for this reason that I’m going to have to pass / I wish you the best of luck in finding the right home for it / We were a little conflicted on this one
D – concept a little contrived / the pace suffered a bit / this didn’t quite grab me enough to take forward / voice not distinctive enough
E – difficult for me to invest in the characters / a bit confusing due to the amount of characters and the contrast between children’s and adult voices / too many changing viewpoints so the narrative didn’t quite have that flow
Fail – I may have been a little over generous to myself with these grade boundaries, as none of the (real) remarks above have led to a bidding war or indeed a single offer, so in a sense they’re all fails.
What to do? I could move on – my sardonic mother would say: “If at first you don’t succeed, give up!” I could revert to teaching. Or I could learn from the grade E lesson – too many viewpoints.
You can put children in uniform
but you can’t make them all the same.
One theme of The Magic Carpet is how differently people experience the same intended provision. My story shows diverse pupils in a typical London school, the contrasting ways their families support them (or don’t/can’t) through one school demand, and the implications for their futures. The story theme and structure involve multiple experiences stemming from the same request, so I’ve written several viewpoints. But I did whittle them down from the standard thirty in a class to five, and each voice does have discrete chapters. In real life they’d all be clamouring at once! I also focussed on a single homework project, whereas as any parent knows, schools often make simultaneous demands: uniform, outings, payments, charity events, sports, closures, exams…
Although the disparate audience is any teacher’s everyday reality, successive governments have proved increasingly dense in their pursuit of a one size educational model for all. (Stay with me: it’s a novel, not a political discussion paper.)
Families don’t have a simple, single point of view. I chose the voices of two mothers, a father, and a grandmother who provides daily childcare. Also one child, because too much discussion of schools doesn’t allow children to speak. They’re from different ethnic backgrounds, because around 37% of Londoners were born outside the UK. Readers need to get their heads round these five viewpoints, which are initially separate but link as the story progresses. By comparison, a teacher seeing infants off at the end of the day routinely receives random information from up to thirty carers of any gender, orientation, religion, mother tongue, ability or class (potentially involving housing, health, safeguarding, relationships, finance, tuition, leisure, progress, immigration status…) I wanted to get a flavour of that onslaught, without leaving anyone as overwhelmed as teachers often are.
But the E grade editors tell me it’s confusing. A simple aid, discussed by Book Connectors recently, would be to insert a list of characters by household at the beginning. I prefer that to radical surgery. Cutting the viewpoints would weaken the point: the mix of generations, heritages, preoccupations and capacities sharing the same space.
On a lighter, equally important note, The Magic Carpet is about stories, creativity and drama, learning through fun and allowing children a childhood.
Red Nose Day at my son’s school, 2000?
Chinese New Year, 2000
I’d love this quote from Ms Zafirakou on the cover of The Magic Carpet: “It’s great to say every child should have the same potential, but you need to know the personal background and the lives of your children, and how different and complex they are.” I hope she’d approve of my fictional children who in their creative storytelling are, as she advises, “communicating… building up social skills, talking about and breaking down role play… life skills that every child needs.” They’re being entertained and entertaining too, as my readers will be if/when the magic carpet makes its maiden voyage and lands on the booksellers’ tables.
So I’ve decided neither to give up or cut viewpoints for now (unless a publisher offers to guide me). I’ll maintain faith in my product, and wait for one of the people who “absolutely loves this” to be Chair of the Board and override everyone else. I’ll continue to advocate for children, through writing, not teaching. Meanwhile congratulations, Andria Zafirakou and all the teachers and assistants like you.
Sadly, the fronted adverbial raised its ugly head again this week, and prompts me to blog again about teachingchildren to use language. Cathartically, I imagine the fronted adverbial as a long necked carnivorous dinosaur, head waving from the primordial swamps in search of food. Entertainingly, it bobbed up on Michael Rosen’s Facebook page. Angrily, I read the rotten saga. Happily, I remembered I’m no longer a teacher. Crossly, I empathized with those who are. Achingly, I sympathized with the children.
Do you now know what a fronted adverbial is? Certainly, now I’ve modelled it ad nauseam, and you didn’t need to know the term for it anyway, because you’re not linguistics professors. Neither do children in junior school.
To be fair, I believe there’s some confusion over whether children themselves are supposed to know the term or just their teachers. I’m not churning through pages of Dfe* bumf to find out, but I can tell you enough people seem to think children need to know it for the 87,700 results of my Google search today to start like this:
(I’m not knocking my colleagues who produce these although I do think the one Rosen showcases needs to chill. You teach what you’re told to teach as best you can, and teachers are wonderful at sharing resources and ideas – the less prepossessing the subject, the more they rise to the challenge.)
A lesser relation of the fronted adverbial, the irregular past participle is another busy little pest that scuttles about causing mayhem to even younger children. Once it infested my classroom. The previous week, I’d teached regular past participles (a benign member of the same genus). We called them Ed. We walkEd about and talkEd about them, lookEd for them, hookEd some from the pages of our books, took – oh dear! and shook – gadzooks! – some into our writing and I releasEd the children into the playground where they shoutEd and playEd and exercisEd their dear little limbs in the satisfaction of knowledge learnEd (t?!) and a past tense story inventEd. Hooray!
For the more literal minded of you, I didn’t teach the …ed suffix with a capital letter. I’m just banging home the point here. I did teach “…suffix ed” (yes, 6 year olds have to know the term suffix) with ellipses (I’m not sure they have to know ellipses but see comment on government documents above) and I telled them “Poor …ed. It isn’t a full name, it can’t go out on its own, it’s just the last part of another word, so it never has a capital letter.” “My name’s Ed and it does!” saided a boy. “Couldn’t your mummy have taken you on an unauthorised holiday today?” I spat through grat teeth.
I’m not against teaching grammar. I remember starting French, discovering verbs, nouns and adjectives and thinking this is jolly useful. A rule to apply. An apparatus to climb. A tool for cobbling together sentences. I wonder if you can do it in English too? Ah, yes… Why didn’t they tell me at junior school? The 1970s approach needed and the current approach needs to consider what’s age appropriate, from either end of the spectrum.
The advantage of grammar is government can test it, (like testing scales or memorising the periodic table. But would anyone teach those before playing tunes or lighting a bunsen burner?) The advantage of test results is government can judge the test takers and test teachers easily, categorise a school as in “special measures” (ie more tests), and solve the problem with an academy that makes money for shareholders. I first heard that from an Ofsted inspector and suspected her of conspiracy theories. But fast forward six years and these tweets make the same point:
Oops. That’s what happens when I don’t plan a post strictly enough – someone else takes over the rant. Where was I?
Teaching grammar can be fun. I invented the “Full stop police” and the children begged to play again. One child reads aloud and the “police” clap where the full stops should be. “Pass the full stop” requires a satsuma, representing a full stop. It’s passed around and the child holding it when the narrative comes to a full stop gets a segment. Or throw a black foam rubber ball… etc. There’s pleasure in finding patterns and rules in every subject. Nothing wrong with that, but do it at the right age. Infant children should be playing snap, not bridge. They should absorb the harder rules by exposure to good and varied writing, and have more time to read and listen to stories.
Teaching grammar can also be profitable. Here’s an article about what grammar schools earn from publishing mock tests for their entrance exams. They’re expensive to a parent on a low income, at between £28 and £60, as are the tutors to mediate them. Do I detect another conspiracy theory?
Let’s return to my 6 and 7 years olds, in their second week of past participles:
Me: Hallo children. Today we’re going to write another story. (Some smile, some groan. Children can be irregular too.) Another story set in the past.
Child (sounds pleased): With Ed!
Me: Do not call out, Jason. No, …ed will not be in this story.
Children (chorus): We likEd Ed.
Me: This week, children, we’re going to meet the irregular past participle. Soliloquy:Irregular PP is to PP as the hornet to the honeybee. He stings big time, repeatedly. A single attack can be enough to kill a child’s interest in writing for life, without expert treatment. You are only 7 – many of you are only 6. There is no known vaccine. So tread carefully, my dears.Better staff than I have lookEd at their year 2s and quailEd. Time for the dreary trudge of exposition.
Me: Any suggestions from you? Hands up! Readed? No, sorry. Eated? No. Buyed? Wented? No. Ringed? Like “the bell ringed?” No. Singed …now, you heard what I said about “ringed” so don’t push it…
Child: (piping voice, shellshocked tone)We’d be safer if we just didn’t use verbs at all.
Little Amaara: (weeping)We won’t be able to write anything without getting it wrong! And I was looking forward to finishing my story from last week with Ed. (Puts head in hands.)
I remember when there were few government teaching guidelines. Poor or nonexistent guidelines, poor planning (including mine), inadequate resources, firebells, abusive behaviour – all these cause difficulties and part of a teaching career (not the part they show in the recruitment ads) is learning to overcome them.
I “helped” children sew when I was sew untrained myself I sewed trouser legs together (that’s another story). I was tasked with explaining STDs to embarrassed teenage boys who spoke no English. I attempted painting when the only paint in the stock room was brown, and gluing with Pritt Sticks that dried up before the pupils were born. I triumphed over an interactive (huh!) white board that wouldn’t be reorientated no matter WHAT so the pen never connected with the surface. I taught forces with magnets that didn’t work due to badly designed storage. I’ve written poems about snow with children who weren’t allowed (health and safety) to play in it.
But when the irregular past participle came buzzing along for the 6 and 7 year olds and nouns became noun phrases and verbs became present progressives and exclamations had to start with What (How ridiculous!) I wented home and choosed a fortifying drink and after 32 years I writed an email with my resignation.
Mischievously, here’s a possible slice of revenge. On many Government web pages, there’s a bit at the bottom that says:
Have fun! But remember not to include financial information, duh.
Sorry about the rant. Will be back to posting about books, next week, via Smorgasbord,
I always thought the title “City of Books” belonged to Paris or Dublin, but now I’ve visited Lisbon. In four days I only scanned the first page but I sense volumes more beneath. Let me set the scene:
This is a city where the first time tourist needs a 3D map. Maybe our sense of direction is poor, or our orienteering skills have faded with satnavs and Google maps. Whatever the reason, we were pretty useless for the first two days, until we realised the roads we saw on the map as a simple left turn or clear right angle were just as likely to be a flight of steps, an alleyway, even an outdoor lift or funicular, possibly right above our heads or below our feet as they slithered on the shiny cobbles. “I’m sure we’ve already walked along here,” we heard a plaintive English voice say, and chuckled knowingly until our target eluded us yet again and we ceased to see the joke.
Elevador da Bica
Elevador da Gloria
We climbed and we slipped, we clung by our fingernails to the back windowsills of trams with our belongings squeezed against our tummies to deter pickpockets, we gasped at stunning views, admired skilled graffiti and deplored senseless scrawls. We stepped over endless building sites and began to take Roman stones for granted. We encountered skilful fado buskers on anarchic exhibition sites.
We stood in queues for elevators where turning a simple corner would have brought us to the same spot, and we abandoned the laws of physics for we couldn’t understand how that could be.
Elevador do Santa Justa
Strange priests greeted us silently from behind closed grilles, next to ordinary homes selling cherry liqueur (ginjinha) for one euro a glass. A fierce and friendly lady gave us an impromptu but demanding Portuguese lesson for the full half hour of the tram out to see the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos at Belém (which means Bethlehem – it’s in Lisbon too) and when we arrived who was there but the archangel Gabriel himself/ herself/ theirself/ itself.
On the way back from meeting the archangel we failed to visit the main Art Gallery because although we succeeded in identifying the nameless bus stop from inside a bus with no route maps, the doors were broken and no passengers could disembark until the terminus.
I knew nothing of Portuguese literature so as always I turned to trusty TripFiction to help me, with their list of “Books set in Lisbon”. More confusion! The first two books to catch my eye had the same title: Night Train to Lisbon, and neither is by a Portuguese author. The one that intrigued me was by Swiss author Pascal Mercier.
Goodness, it’s a clever book. I thought it might be a bit pretentious, but translations, however well done, often have a slightly pompous tone, and European literary fiction always pins its intellectual colours to the mast more confidently than the diffident English. The book has many compensating qualities. The hero, Gregorius to the author, is a dry Swiss teacher, nicknamed Mundus by his pupils. He has an encyclopedic command of classical Greek, Latin and Hebrew, German mother tongue, and can quickly learn other languages. Suddenly throwing away the prudent habits of a lifetime when he’s entranced by the sibilant murmurings of a Portuguese lady he has possibly saved from jumping off a bridge, he sets off for Lisbon from Bern after coming across a strange book of musings and memories privately and posthumously published by a Portuguese doctor thirty years before. In a second hand bookshop. You know, as you do.
The attraction was that the unknown Portuguese woman’s vowels “came together in a melody that sounded much longer than it really was, and that he could have listened to all day long“. I’m a Spanish speaker, but I certainly preferred the sound of Portuguese. Gregorius/Mundus sets about learning it: “Before, it had possessed the magic of a jewel from a distant, inaccessible land, and now it was like one of a thousand gems in a palace whose door he had just pushed open.” He’s a natural linguist but even he has setbacks, days when the language won’t work for him and he can’t communicate. That, of course, has implications beyond the simple physical fact of hearing and forming the correct words.
In Lisbon Gregorius, “about to take his life into his own hands for the first time” (and always wondering what would have happened had he taken other paths earlier) sets about hunting down the surviving siblings of the author, Amadeu de Prado, and his friends, his colleagues, his patients… Amadeu was a popular doctor, “a dreamer and a poet…but at the the same time, someone who could resolutely direct a weapon or a scalpel.” But he made one mistake, which wasn’t a mistake. He followed the Hippocratic Oath and treated a hated servant of the dictator Salazar, thereby saving his life and enabling him to continue torturing hundreds of others. For this his local patients hounded and loathed him, so he tried to make up for it by working for the resistance.
When Amadeu reads, “the books seemed to disappear inside him, leaving empty husks on the shelf afterwards” and when he writes, his book is a series of philosophical ramblings, justifications, enquiries and self doubt. It resonates with Gregorius as he traipses or takes trains and trams about the city hunting down clues to Amadeu’s real state of mind. In the process Gregorius breaks his glasses, leading to much clear/blurred new/old vision related imagery, plays a lot of chess, stares at the outside of old houses and gently breaks into Amadeo’s old, now abandoned school to set up a temporary HQ.
Gregorius’ many train trips, like those of the man he seeks, enable comparisons between stations and the stages of life, views rushing past, unscheduled halts, fellow passengers and so on. He tracks down Amadeu’s contemporaries – and how lovely to read a book with so many elderly characters who are not defined simply by being old, but have individual traits, personalities and plot functions. On his journey Gregorius/Mundus learns to make friends, attempts to square the circle of Amadeu’s judge father who administered the law he hated under the dictatorship, and liberates Amadeu’s sisters from their memories – or does he?
For all Amadeu’s intellect, “there was only one thing he couldn’t do: celebrate, play, let himself go”. The key may be held by a woman he admired, perhaps loved, who is not intellectual but calm and reassuring: ‘ “Not everything can be important, and not always,” (Maria João) said. “That would be awful.” ‘ You’d have to read the book to find out whether Amadeu, and thus Gregorius, sort out the meaning of life to their satisfaction or achieve “the calm of someone who always seemed to know who he was and where he belonged“. But if you’re on a trip to Lisbon it will be a good companion, with each location carefully namechecked and described. Maybe the Tourist Office provides Night Train to Lisbon walks. (Just make sure you get on the right one!)
Gregorius finds the Portuguese people he meets warmly receptive to his needs and requirements. They go the extra mile to make him comfortable and guide him in their confusing, stimulating city. We found this too. Perhaps the Portuguese have a natural inclination (like their city) to ramblings and questions, to wondering why things and others are what they seem, and whether they can be trusted or, in another light, reveal themselves as something else entirely? What is a human being – or more exactly, who is a human being? What they think themselves to be, or what others think of them? And what of change, in different lights, at different times, from one age to another, in different states of health and solitary or befriended? What of age (Gregorius is fifty-seven): how does that enable or confuse self knowledge and how does our awareness of death affect us as we grow older? Gregorius dreads death but in Lisbon takes up smoking for the first time. It is not always the young or uneducated who act most foolishly.
Here’s a piece of good advice from Gregorius’ one close friend (a Greek optician) back home in Switzerland: ‘ “Talk to the doctors in your mother tongue. Fear and foreign languages don’t go well together.” ‘ He’s caught the Portuguese aphorisms bug: they turned up in restaurant menus, on walls and café toilets. And they seem to be something of a literary tradition.
Night Train to Lisbon – if you’re still on board, we’re approaching the final stop – is not all philosophy: it has a plot, dialogue and love interest too. It’s a book for book lovers, for linguists, teachers, doctors and patients, puzzle solvers and chess players, travellers, poets, those with a conscience, who have lost or retained religious faith or who have something to celebrate or regret. The fictitious book (Amadeu’s) that this fictitious hero (Gregorius/Mundus) is almost literally tracking down mirrors (and quotes) another, real book, O Livro do Desassossego (listen to those sibilants) by Fernando Pessoa (although Pessoa’s conceit was to claim other characters had written it, in typical multi layered Portuguese fashion). In English The Book of Disquiet, it’s a source of great pride to Lisboetas and Mercier quotes it in his prologue: “Each of us is several, is many, is a profusion of selves. So the self who disdains his surroundings is not the same as the self who suffers or takes joy in them. In the vast colony of our being there are many species of people who think and feel in different ways.”
I’ll write about The Book of Disquietnext week, as I’m still lost somewhere in the first 100 pages, and I hope to write about Saramago, Portuguese Nobel Literature Prize winner. There’s no need for a health warning: from what I’ve read so far the heavyweights are not too impenetrable – they check themselves from time to time with self deprecation and humour. I’d rather Pessoa than Henry James. But that’s for another journey.
Inexcusably, the only book I bought in Lisbon’s oldest bookshop (it’s a city of old fashioned bookshops, music shops, haberdashers and hat shops: use them while you can) was for my translator daughter who likes to teach herself new languages by reading Harry Potter. But back home it turned out she already had it and would have preferred a different volume, in German.
Meanwhile I wonder which city others would call the City of Books?
When I studied European Literature (Sussex, 1981), our only sources of criticism and commentary were lectures and the library. If you were studying an obscure text, there wasn’t much to go on. For example, for one assessment I compared versions of Troilus and Cressida. I found plenty about the Shakespeare play and lots on Chaucer’sTroilus and Criseyde, a few books about their source which was probably Boccacio‘s Il Filostrato, and one short chapter on a Scottish poet called Henryson. His narrative poemThe Testament of Cresseid featured Cressida punished for her love affair by contracting leprosy. I took as gospel everything the critic said about Henryson, because who else was there to consult? And Henryson took a starring role in my essay, to gain me marks for originality.
Henryson’s poems edited by Hugh McDiarmid
Undergraduates often depend too much on second hand opinions partly because they respect more senior researchers (good) and partly because they lack confidence in their own views (bad). Thus, at feedback for my essay on Crime and Punishment, the eminent Professor Thorlby greeted me: “I didn’t know you were a lapsed Catholic.” I’d had no idea, dependent as I was on discussing the words of the only Russian critic I could find translated into comprehensible English, that was the impression I’d given. I thought my essay was contrasting individualism with social responsibility. (I did know enough to know I liked criticism to be rooted in a social and economic context as well as discussing language and style. So with one confused eye on the semiotics and structuralism then still shunned at Cambridge but a big deal at trendy Sussex, the critics I favoured tended to be Marxist, which also made them easier to read.)
As an exchange postgraduate in France, I had to teach Hamlet to students older and more qualified than myself. I fled back to England, to the Sussex library and in horror found over a dozen shelves in the “stacks”, of Hamlet criticism alone. How to sort out the brilliance from the dead wood? And how much worse this dilemma must be now. I just Googled “Hamlet – critical articles” and found 21,600,000 results.
Just one of Barthes’ impressive works – his theories are difficult but do repay close reading.
Eagleton has written much more since then, including hilarious criticism of the 2016 Conservative manifesto, but this is what we would have read at Sussex in the late 1970s
Since that eye opening Sussex foundation, with more decades of reading and some writing of my own, I’m less blinded by academic credentials and more able to judge whether a critical study is telling me something new. One such is Jane Austen: The Secret Radical by Helena Kelly. Now Austen is an author I thought I knew well.But – “Forget the Jane Austen you think you know. Forget the biographies, forget the pretty adaptations. Ignore the banknote. Read Jane’s novels,” says Kelly (p.311). Well, I’ve done that, several times. I studied Persuasion for A level (Don’t knock A levels. A good teacher leading on a great book, covering the solid old style A level syllabus, can provide a key to thinking about literature that’s equal to anything on Google or mouldering in the library stacks.) My Economic History A level covered the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions in the UK, and I studied the French Revolution at university, as well as Mary Wollstonecraft, Marx, and Freud. So I was prepared for much of Kelly’s thinking, and I’d never dismissed Austen’s novels as pretty drawing room dramas. I agree with Kelly that if you “…understand what serious subject marriage was then…all of a sudden courtship plots start to seem like a more suitable vehicle for discussing other serious things.” (p.31) Even so – take a deep breath.
Northanger Abbey, is not as I thought about a young girl carried away into silly fantasies by reading Gothic novels. Kelly points out, in this novel about reading, how little reading actually gets done. But there does seem to be female masturbation, thinly veiled as unlocking a door: “Jane’s society viewed it as common knowledge that girls, as well as boys, indulged in the ‘secret and destructive vice’.” (p.66) There are a number of footnotes and a short bibliography, but this particular assertion is not backed up though Freud must be drooling in his grave. I found the claims that death through sex and childbirth was a major theme, both overt and coded, more convincingly argued through the sad statistics of social history.
Sense and Sensibility is, to Kelly, about “brass” (money). She points out the imagery of metals, money and jewellery, and how this novel, like Pride and Prejudice, highlights unfair inheritance laws and primogeniture. The money references are given so precisely in Sense and Sensibility, the 21st century reader can calculate the exact incomes of various grades of clergy, army personnel, landowners and their dependents, and understand how patronage makes or ruins them. But here’s Freud again: Kelly highlights sexual symbolism, hinting at abuse, and her delving into the moral character of even apparently worthy suitors raise few hopes for the marriages contracted. If Kelly’s reading is correct, Austen is cynically pessimistic about the future for the Dashwood brides.
Most of us are most familiar with Pride and Prejudice. But here’s a less chintzy angle. Kelly is into her stride now, and highlights
how “the presence of the militia in the novel …introduces layer upon layer of anxiety…Invasions..naval mutinies…food riots…They’re in the background, but they’re there.” (p 128). She situates the novel amid precise historical events through indicators like the style of Elizabeth’s petticoat – not a petticoat at all but a fashion that was definitely old fashioned by the mid 1790s. She also explains the extra resonance in the word “prejudice” for contemporary readers – a strength of Kelly’s book is her ability to decode references that would have been much more obvious to Austen’s immediate audience than they are to us. One thing we’d have to be blind to miss is the criticism of the clergy, represented by the absurd Mr Collins, but Kelly is none too impressed by Mr Darcy’s aristocrat either, even after the proud and prejudiced scales have fallen from his eyes. Whoops – here’s another marriage auguring well but, Kelly implies, too much of a fairy tale to ring true.
It’s always gratifying when an expert echoes one’s own thoughts. For Kelly as for me, Mansfield Park was Austen’s most radical and daring novel, and she is moving on Austen’s disappointment at the lack of reviews. Perhaps, says Kelly – the word perhaps appears often in JA:The Secret Radical: not all Kelly’s ideas are fully substantiated – this isn’t surprising. Mansfield Park is a barely coded attack on slavery. Although the abolitionist cause had much public support by Austen’s time, much wealth was still enmeshed with slavery, from her own family to great landowners and the Church of England. It reflected well on the enlightened British to support abolishing slavery in the Caribbean, but at home nobody wanted to see their standard of living fall, or run short of sugar. Kelly finds child abuse and sadism in the novel, as well as fortunes built on slavery and ecclesiastical hypocrisy. “(Mansfield Park) is filled with infidelities, not-so-genteel-poverty, with bullying and threats of violence.” (p. 168). She points out how the names Mansfield, Norris, Madeira (as in wine) and Moor Park (the type of apricot tree planted at Mansfield Parsonage) would have resonated with contemporary readers, who’d recognise the names of players in the slavery debate; she counts many instances of the words “plantation, slave, chains”. She shows how daring it was for a clergyman’s daughter to write a novel so critical of the Church. No wonder it wasn’t reviewed.
I said in my previous post on Jane Austen that I found the story and character of Emmaleast interesting of all the novels. Kelly lends more meaning to the story, explaining how the plot reflects the enclosures movement. “Enclosing” covered any kind of fencing, walling, hedging or barring access to common and waste ground. It was at its height when Emma was written. It challenged the poor, who had previously been able to supplement their meagre incomes grazing livestock, growing vegetables, gathering firewood and foraging on such land. Without access, the numbers of destitute people swelled, and there was high population growth too. Kelly shows the landscape of Emma emphasising enclosures, “respectable” people reduced to begging for parish relief, gypsies forced off their traditional sites, and the better off feeling vulnerable too. Mr Knightly is not the kind, urbane gentleman he appears, with his enclosure projects; Mr Woodhouse is perhaps justified in being querulous; the gypsies are not threatening but threatened, in Kelly’s reading. Birth advantages can be taken away; illegitimate children cosseted or cast off at whim; the domestic world of Emma is as threatening as the warring background to Pride and Prejudice or Persuasion.
Kelly is least sure of herself talking about Persuasion. She is interesting, but perhaps not original (I don’t know enough about Austen scholarship to say) on the theme of fossils and old certainties giving way to Darwinism, conjecturing Austen may have come across the child Mary Anning on the beach at Lyme Regis. She’s amusing about the idea of marrying to regain an ancestral home and on snobbery – but Austen does that all so well herself with her portrait of Sir Walter Elliot, it barely needs repeating. I felt her writing about Persuasion was like history in the novel: “… disrupted, random, chaotic…You can’t escape the tide of history; you can’t stay firm against that kind of pressure; you have to give way and let yourself be carried, if you want any hope of surviving.” (p 289).
I may give the impression, wrongly, that Kelly discusses only the six principal novels. But she does so in the context of Jane Austen’s letters, of imagined scenes from her life, historical events, her comic verse and fragments of writing, memoirs by the Austen family, contemporary novels and polemic, and the scholarship of others. There are snippets of social history; daring, forthright opinions, and there’s quite a lot of “perhaps” along with a few “undoubtedly”s. It’ s a long time since I’ve been fascinated enough to review a secondary source. I may even go and study literature again.
A few days ago I added my own novel to a new Facebook page, Books for Older Readers. It says it’s “for readers over 50 and writers who write books which appeal to this age group. Please join if you write, read, blog or recommend books for the over 50s.”
(Digression #1 – we oldies are allowed to ramble – coincidentally I had an email today from Jackdaws with a singing course for the over 50s. I went on an all ages course there once and it thoroughly rejuvenated my voice! Recommended.)
I’m broadly in agreement with the aims of Clare Baldry, the retired headteacher and author who set the page up. Of course it raises all sorts of questions, not least: what is “older”? I’m still in my 50s, and never took much trouble to keep very fit, but I’m disconcerted (and worse) to find several university peers already dead, and myself and others beset by serious eyesight problems, cancers, arthritis and so on. The recent death at 51 of comedian Sean Hughes banged another nail in our collective coffin. And yet…many of us have started new careers and hobbies and the if UK Old Age Pension isn’t now going to start for me until I’m 66 or 67, how can I be “old” before that? Baldry’s 50+ is a wide age group in a country where average life expectancy is now 79 for men and 83 for women. But my local community centre stubbornly continues to offer services for older people from age 55, and many sheltered housing complexes offer flats to anyone over the same age (a complex is what I’d have if I bought one now).
However, we probably do read different books, or at least in a different way. Everyone’s experienced returning to a book they adored as a young adult to find it either still wonderful, or a bit quaint, or boring, or completely discordant. Fashions in writing style and content change. It seems to me the books I read when younger were wordier, quieter, more thoughtful. Sentences were longer; interior monologues and third person narration and omniscient narrators and multiple points of view and extended scenes and assumptions of background knowledge and intense concentration on the reader’s part were taken for granted. The short sentences, staccato scenes and gasping plots of today’s girls on trains and the extreme violence of some contemporary crime novels are just too shallow and voyeuristic for me, while “cosy crime” is too silly. But a good well written thriller is always fun to read.
(Digression #2: Specific annoyances for a mid 50s woman standing up on a rush hour tube. i) Everyone sitting down is much younger than I am. ii) If they stand up for me it must be because they think I look really old. iii) None of them stands up for me.)
Of course, most over 50s once had access to good bookshops and/or libraries. We are more familiar with leisurely browsing through hardbacks and paperbacks, not the spurious “look inside” you get on Amazon or the tiny selection of middle and low brow bestsellers and celebrity publications in the local supermarket. We either still do, or once had, better concentration.
Digression #3. It would bore you, and me, if I researched any evidence for that last statement. (Or would it?)
As an ex teacher, I dislike sweeping generalisations about literacy levels (which are influenced by so many complexities it should be illegal to make them), but many of us were educated (or at least went to school) at a time when vocabulary and style were seen as just as important as phonics and genre, when we wrote “compositions” ourselves and when adverbs were not seen as a disease to be stamped out. My vintage is no doubt betrayed by the length of my sentences and my use of the passive voice. What we read influenced how we wrote as children; how we wrote as children influences how we write now. The editors to whom agents submit are in their late 20s and early 30s now: “whom” just makes them say “what?” and they chuck the (virtual) manuscript straight onto the (virtual) slush pile with a brief “Sorry, I just didn’t love it enough” to the agent,or worse, an out of office reply they’re on maternity leave..
After a while, however perceptive your browsing, you do find you’ve read the same thing rather too often. No more inner thoughts at dinner parties for me! I’m also done with the first and second world wars (with an exception for A God in Ruins), the Holocaust, the Dustbowl and Depression, most dystopias (I stopped at Aldous Huxley, George Orwell and John Wyndham), university novels, early mid life crises (“…at nearly 40, X worries her life is running away with her…”). The Child in Time by Ian McEwan did child abduction in exemplary fashion years ago and needs no revisit. I don’t think I want to read about the miseries of old age either. As a student I admired and was moved by Simone de Beauvoir’s “A Very Easy Death“. But as a student, I hadn’t yet experienced the death of my own parents, and my back didn’t hurt, I didn’t have to laugh off “senior moments” (how that grates!) and hadn’t started to dislike snow and wet leaves on the pavement.
Matthew Thomas’ We Are Not Ourselves was brilliantly written but grimmer than grim, especially describing dementia that started in middle age. Unadulterated old age is tedious: I began to read Margaret Drabble as a teenager and followed her heroines through youth and middle age as we all matured, but she’s twenty years ahead of me. Last year’s The Dark Flood Rises has too much banal details of food spilling, not being able to run for buses, and too much reflected loss of confidence. Her writing, like our skins, is less fresh, less taut. It disappointed me. (I feel guilty, writing that. A book entirely full of old people: how dare they be so visible? They are not so in the street, in public, on the tube. How inconsiderate of them and their elderly author. And my own confidence takes a further tumble. If Drabble, with her stellar career, is past it, perhaps I should stop submitting to publishers much sooner.)
But my rules are made to be broken! The Oxfam shop supplied me with The Lie this morning. It’s about the First World War, but it has the quality mark of Helen Dunmore who sadly, has not lived to be old. I romped through Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey, perhaps because the humour and the detective element leaven the awfulness of the heroine’s confusion. Doris Lessing’s readable, poignant, funny, informative memoir Alfred and Emily was published when she was 89, five years before she died. At nearly 100, Diana Athill published an elegant, witty memoir from her retirement home, Alive, Alive Oh!
Good or bad, we can’t only read about old, and much older age. Well written books whose characters and concerns span several generations work well for older readers too, and may be more cheerful, with their cyclical sense of renewal. Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet novels, Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life, Maggie O’Farrells This Must Be The Place are in the same tradition, and we love them because we have experience of all the age groups.
Whoops, another rule broken: as a child I devoured the Jalna books. Mazo de la Roche’s now forgotten series based on a family in the Southern States of the USA fascinated me, and I loved the hero Renny Whiteoak, even though he was already twice my age when I read the beginning of his story in my grandmother’s spare bedroom and and 60 years older when I finished it.
I just noticed most of the books I’ve praised here for older readers are by women. Coincidence or is it that I find them warmer? I’m straying on to dangerous ground here (or another blog post) and will redress the balance. If you haven’t read (or rather, viewed) the memoir by Raymond Briggs of his parents Ethel and Ernest, you have a treat in store.
Perhaps older readers just want high quality writing with beauty and style, originality, subjects that will interest and intrigue them, escape… The same as younger readers maybe. In some ways it’s easier to achieve because older readers do I think have a more established reading habit, and in some ways harder because, inevitably, they have less sense of wonder at the world. I’ll be curious to see what Books for Older Readers recommends and wish it many happy anniversaries to come.
How do you write your blogs? Are your subjects meticulously planned out weeks in advance? Book reviewers structure posts by publication date or genre, gardeners by season, travellers by route. Mine are more random, with the proviso to involve words, reading, writing, language. When I taught, we defined four language skills in order of acquisition: listening which comes long before speaking (think of a baby absorbing and imitating sounds), much later reading and a little after that or concurrently, writing. For an adult, those skills may be conflated or even reversed – most adults feel more comfortable reading than trying to speak, although the phonetic way they do it plays havoc with their pronunciation. And many adults can’t listen.
Anyway, recently, I can’t do any of those. I can’t listen to words or music, because of noise from masonry drills and other power tools. A masonry drill works at between 110-147 decibels, depending whose health and safety advice you read (this is from New Zealand, but we have the same anatomy). A builder using such drills should wear ear protection to reduce (not completely prevent) sudden and irreversible hearing loss. A neighbour of a house which is having its chimney breasts removed has no such protection. She can shut the windows but since the house next door now has no back wall, she’s shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted (noise can confuse a writer: there isn’t now and never was a stable).
I can’t speak because there’s no one else here. My daughter who works from home as a translator has gone to head office in despair. If I phone anyone up they go “What? Pardon? Wh…? You’ll have to speak up! Who?”
I can’t read because although I’m in the middle of the delightful Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes Hallett, it’s hard to concentrate on the construction of a landscape garden in the 17th century when the china is rattling in the cabinet and it feels like tanks are about to roll onto the sofa. Of course, works then must have been just as disruptive to the locals: a right of way was threatened, bogs were turned into lakes, statues rolled in from Italy on rumbling carts with outwalkers to check the axles didn’t collapse. There were no masonry drills but gunpowder may have been used.
I can’t write. Well, yes, I can. I can write objections to planning applications, requests (unanswered) for notice of dates of especially loud work or the erection of scaffolding next to my bedroom window (which was, to be fair, taken down reasonably promptly), and this moan of a blog post.
I had builders when I moved here. The project expanded, because the house was in a worse state, underneath the pebble dash, than the survey had shown.
But we were not extending beyond or above the existing building line. My builders were jocular, working from about 9.30 to 4pm with lunch breaks. One reason they took over a year was because while I was at work they did other jobs for my new neighbours up and down the road. At weekends they gave us all a break. I lived in the house as the work dragged on, available morning and evening to be complained to, but I didn’t have one complaint. Could be I’m complacent, of course. Could be the households around were all full of wax models of me, and their occupants were busy sticking in pins.
I’m afraid I’m intolerant too. I’ve complained about the new toilet and washing machine and dryer that will rumble against a party wall with my living room. I’ve objected to losing light from my ground floor, views from my kitchen and garden, sunlight for my plants. I’ve objected to the building line of the whole terrace being disrupted by an extension pushing into what was coherent green space (we border a conservation area). A new loft will also disrupt the terrace roof line and three new RSJs will bore into my party wall. I have no formal right to object to this or even to refuse access to my land so the building work can be done. (Many other houses already have standard dormer designs. When those lofts were converted there were appropriate planning regulations keeping them to scale and protecting the environment and neighbours. Such guidelines have now been relaxed so permission is automatic.)
There are an increasing number of policy makers who would simply say, “Well, it’s property development.” Those who would build on green belt land are among them. Property development is, for some, a virtue in itself and any wound to the environment, to local relationships, to neighbours’ health and homes is simply collateral damage. (Oh, there’s that war metaphor again.) Only time will tell whether the objections of people in the firing line were over-reactions.
The planning application for the ground floor extension was rejected, on the grounds of my objections. Hooray! Now it’s been resubmitted. It will stick out 80cm less, otherwise it’s identical. The time consuming stressful rigmarole of objecting begins again. Sooner or later, one of us will lose. I don’t say one of us will win. Relations are sour. My new novel is, broadly speaking, about communities getting on well. I can’t do any revisions in these circumstances and anyway, I’m inclined to think: sod that. Maybe I’ll turn it into a war novel, immersing myself in ambient bangs, booms and thuds while I have the chance.
Ah me, silence is golden. I wrote about it once. Meanwhile I’ll try watching Wimbledon. As an English (wo)man whose castle (house) is under siege, my assaulted brain can only think in clichés: every cloud has a silver lining. The power tools are very loud, but at least they drown out John Inverdale.
In my post last week on beautiful writing, I said I’d go on to talk about the spaces between words. Now I’m wondering if that was pretentious! However, spaces are the glue that holds words together and deserve attention. We wouldn’t know what cold felt like had we never been warm; we wouldn’t experience joy if we didn’t know sadness: for the contrast between words and spaces it’s likewise. I apologise if this post seems muddled – silence is hard to grasp. But here are some points to consider. (A pause for thought.)
The English language is full of references to the spaces in language, and to the silence they offer among the usual blather. Think of expressions like: “between the lines” “behind the words”, “words left unspoken”, “the subtext”, “hidden meanings”, “understatement”, “less is more”, “silence is golden” and “the calm before the storm”.
Is there a parallel with music? In quiet, reflective music such as a Chopin Noctune, or a Satie Gymopédie, each single note is precious. If it was part of a chord, or backed by an orchestra, it would have a different effect on the listener. (If you’re not familiar with these you can look them up on YouTube, where you’ll probably find you do recognize them from meaningful moments in the cinema.) Or from different musical genres, think of syncopation, or tango. Without that tiny pause before the upbeat, the message would be entirely different. Personally, I don’t like rap music or poetry much, although they’re very clever. I think it’s because there aren’t enough spaces in which my brain can process what I’ve heard, so I feel rather battered. (I could just be too old.)
Think how, in music of any genre, the pauses (over notes or silences) and silent beats are written in. It’s no coincidence they’re called “rests”. They have concrete form so musicians can locate and acknowledge them, and the symbols themselves are beautiful calligraphy.
Somewhere between music and prose lies poetry. Here are some lines, as printed, from “[in Just-]” by e. e. cummings:
I rest my case.
But now, prose. I remember from my teaching days how infant children just learning to write usually don’t leave spaces between their words. (They don’t pause between words when they’re first learning to read, either.) One method of teaching them is to have them put their finger at the end of the word they’ve just written and start the next word on the other side of it – a physical “finger space”. Some pick it up quickly and the fingers are no longer needed. Others take a couple of years.
Unless they have a specific learning difficulty or have been abused or neglected, children learn to use separate words orally in a phenomenal number of different combinations according to need, by the time they start school. Yet they don’t naturally “hear” the spaces on the page without being taught. They understand individual words have meaning (we know this because they ask, “What does that word mean?”) but not, it seems, that groups of words without spaces have none. If you ask a child to read back their unspaced writing, they can’t, and if you allow them to continue reading a printed story without stopping for spaces and punctuation (as apparently fluent young readers do naturally), they can’t tell you what happened in it.
As we grow up, we grasp all this. However, there are still many adults who don’t paragraph, which is related. And I’m shocked at the moment, as I wade through Fay Weldon’s “Death of A She-Devil“, to find the dialogue neither indented nor spaced horizontally. Presumably this was an editorial – or the author’s – decision, but, as an aging visually challenged she devil myself, it makes it very hard to tell who’s saying what or to want to continue reading much longer (other factors may be at work there too). Goodness knows how it appears on Kindle. Speaking of which, there is now evidence that readers (adult and child) retain less of what they read on screens than in print and paper books, and it’s thought that may be partly to do with left/right eye movements across the page (or the opposite in certain scripts), and with physical positioning and layout on the page. Anyone who has tried scrolling back through an ebook for something they could easily have located in the print version will support that theory.
My post seems to have turned into one about punctuation or formatting, rather than the airier theme I started with. But I think they are related. As an author, I read aloud what I’ve written to see how it sounds, and I care deeply about how it presents on the page, because that’s part of the composition. There’s a certain kind of florid, vocabulary strewn writing that done well can be wonderful (think Dickens, Balzac) but those of us with a lesser grasp of our craft are rightly advised to aim for economy, clean, clear prose, no wasted words, tautology or irrelevance, plain punctuation and sentence structure. Stage writing, which has to get its point across immediately, without a second chance, each speech leading on from the one before and clearing the way for what will follow, is often a good model, and you can see the spaces more clearly: they’re when a character turns round, paces up and down, pours a drink, or makes a face.
Chekhov was a master. When I was about 10 I asked my parents what they’d seen at the theatre while we had the indignity of a “babysitter”, and I remember our dialogue, perhaps because it was so spare.
“We saw a play about three sisters who live in the country,” my mother said.
“What happens to them?”
“Not very much. They want to go to Moscow.”
“Do they get there?”
I understood why this non situation made The Three Sisters (first published 1900) great drama on seeing it when I was older. Through spare statements and laconic answers, a simple drawing room staging and quiet costumes and gestures, Chekhov transmits social history, universal emotions of love and grief and boredom and disappointment, the position of women and that of the impoverished landed gentry in a Russia that was about to explode. His plays still command full houses around the world.
A comment last week suggested Dorothy Parker as a source of beautiful prose. Her satire is clipped, funny, and not a word longer than necessary, but it’s a more serious short story that I’m unable to forget. In “Soldiers of the Republic”, she’s in a Spanish cafe with a group of friends when they get talking with some soldiers who are fighting in the Civil War. They discuss hardship, poverty, violence, tragedy, and how the men miss their families. When they get up to leave after a long session in the cafe, they signal the waiter for the bill. “He came, but he only shook his head and his hand, and moved away.” The last line, stark in its own paragraph, reads simply: “The soldiers had paid for our drinks.”
The 1965 novel “Stoner” was rediscovered in 2006 and fêted for its spare prose. It simply tells a story, a simple story of a man to whom very little happens beyond the ordinary setbacks and irritations of everyday middle class, middle income life. (Greetings, Chekhov). I couldn’t put it down. Some reviewers see quietness as a lack of intensity and think at first they can take it or leave it, until the subtleties intrigue them and they’re hooked: see this recent blog post on the work of Olivia Manning. I must return to her…and I must also return to a metaphorical exploration in a more exciting story: the Rose Tremain novel of 2001,”Music and Silence“. Yet how laden with verbosity this brilliant novel is, compared to her masterpiece of last year, The Gustav Sonata.
“Erich would like to teach history – to get to the truth of things.” Tremain tells us nothing more about how, why, when Erich would like to teach history. She just tells us he thinks it will lead to the truth of things. She knows, and we know, in post-truth 2017, it will only at best lead to the subjective truth of whoever has chosen or been coerced into recording and interpreting history, and because we know that, we also know that it’s a misguided wish made by a person who won’t have the knowledge or the means to achieve it. All that can be read into the spaces between and the silence behind the simple, clear words.
So as well as the words themselves, space, and silence – the spaces between words, the silence between the notes – are what make these works so special. The principle applies whatever the medium: The Crown (Netflix) was such a success not in spite of but because of its slowness, the unfashionably long duration of its scenes, allowing the watcher to appreciate the quality of the acting and digest and react to what was happening (providing time for wonder too: it’s got to be good acting if I can sympathise with Prince Philip and want the series to continue so I can “see what happens next” even though, of course, I know). Recently I re-watched the 1960s BBC Forsyte Saga on DVD: as a colleague commented, “It was so slow you could hear Irene’s dress rustling when she turned around.” And that gave you time to reflect on what had brought Irene to the scene and to anticipate what might follow. Nowadays all the thinking work is done for you, by the directors, the stylists, the camera crew. The 2002 version with Gina McKee and Damian Lewis wasn’t bad. If they remake it this decade it will probably be interactive. But will the dress rustle as Irene keeps her counsel?
I was fortunate last month to see Madame Butterfly at Covent Garden, with Ermenela Jaho. Forget Callas, she was too feisty. Jaho sings Butterfly so quietly, with such care. Even the highest notes are discreet, as though she’s already left us, but perfect. The rapt audience drinks in every resigned gesture accompanying the pure sound. The recording included in the link above doesn’t do Jaho justice: you needed to be in a huge, fully booked theatre craning forward in communal silence to witness her subdued desperation. It takes years of technique to make so little noise so perfectly, and I would say the same of O’Brien’s writing and that of Ishiguro, Kate Atkinson, Hilary Mantel and the other writers I’ve cited above. Turn off social media, close the curtains, and immerse yourself. When you have fully rested, please let me know what you chose.