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Off to uni

November 12, 2022

I’m reminded that it’s now half a century since I applied to university. That is scary. And how different it all was way back then. You could make five choices from the 40 or so universities there were in the UK at the time, and support your application with a personal statement, much as students do today; your school wrote a reference and you waited. No change there then.

Universities rejected you if they didn’t want you; if they were interested, they usually interviewed you. Then you received offers or not. And you could accept a firm offer, as it was called, and retain a reserve offer if you didn’t get the grades for the firm offer. I applied to read Latin and French; I also applied to take a year out (it wasn’t called a gap year then; I was too young and also I wanted to earn a bit of money to keep myself once I got to uni). I had an offer from Leeds, and interviews and offers from Manchester and Liverpool. I fell in love with Liverpool as soon as I arrived at Lime Street Station, and they made me a ridiculous offer which I couldn’t not accept.

I remember very little about the actual business of A level exams; revision went smoothly as did the exams; I still haven’t forgotten the 36 sides of foolscap I covered in one day, having 3 hours of English Lit in the morning and another 3 hours of French Lit in the afternoon (or maybe it was the other way round?). Results day was a postcard from the headmaster with the comment ‘That should be good enough for Liverpool!’. It was, but having done well at English I was minded to write and ask if I could change to joint French and English. They said I could.

I managed all this at age 17 with no help from my parents, who had no idea what any of this might mean, and little advice but plenty of encouragement from my school. It felt a million miles away from the help, advice and support students needed and received when I was a sixth form tutor, and later, a head of sixth form.

The university experience was an eye-opener, with the expected helpings of sex, drugs and rock ’n roll. The first big shock was on the first day in the French department: jaws hit the desks when the Prof said casually, ‘of course, all our lectures and tutorials are in French…’ I don’t remember any greats in that department, but do remember from my studies of English Literature the wonderful lectures of Kenneth Muir, who could walk about the auditorium talking about any and all of Shakespeare’s plays as needed and the required quotations would trip effortlessly off his tongue. And the lectures of Hermione Lee, now well-known in academic and literary spheres, then in her first academic lecturing post (I think), introducing me to the hidden joys of Jane Austen.

My father, with the benefit of his meagre four winters’ schooling and the refusal of his father to let him take his education beyond primary level, had always encouraged me in learning, and told me that I should go to university one day: I did, although I was never sure he approved of what it did to me. It was a revelation, the beginning of a lifetime of study and teaching and commitment to literature. I’ve loved it and I’d do it all over again…

Reader, I gave up…

May 11, 2022

I’ve just given up on a book for the first time in quite a while, and have found myself wondering what it is that makes me do such a thing. I have a rule for myself that if a book isn’t satisfying me after sixty or so pages, then I stop. Partly it’s about feeling that, at my age, I don’t have what I call ‘eyeball time’ to waste, but there’s more to it than that, I’m sure.

I’m quite careful in my choices, and increasingly I will decide I’m not going to bother starting, especially if it’s a book someone has recommended, or lent me, or is for a book group: ie I haven’t chosen it myself because it fits into my current reading schedule.

I don’t like giving up on a book: partly I’ve already invested a certain amount of time, and so feel I should finish what I started, and partly through an (admittedly naive) belief that if something has reached print, then someone has deemed it worth reading. I often read something, and at the end realise I didn’t like or enjoy it; I don’t mind that as my training in and studies of literature have enabled me to read critically and evaluate.

Moving on to the book in question this time, All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews. This was someone’s choice for our book group. I was a tad dubious before beginning, but duty called. And before I got to page 100, I’d asked myself a couple of times, “Can I really be bothered?” The theme of the story is potentially interesting enough, two sisters, one of whom is seriously depressed and suicidal and the other’s attempts to help/save the sister she loves.

But it just didn’t work for me. I realised after a while it was monotonous: there was no change or variation in the tone of the narrative at all. It just went on, page after page, in the same fashion. Nor was there any variation in pace: the whole thing plodded along. No buildup of tension, then climax, then slowing down for a while, or shifting the narrative in another direction. And then I realised that it was pretty much entirely narrated in the present tense, which to me is a very lazy way of writing, extremely common nowadays, and one which primary school children were encouraged to move on from, or at least vary somewhat, in their early attempts at story.

Now someone might argue that there were deliberate authorial choices behind decisions to write in this manner. To me, however, it smacks of laziness of the kind that a decent editor should have addressed. Some readers might feel fine with such writing, some may never have remarked on it at all. I felt it was shoddy goods, quite honestly.

The sisters came from a Mennonite community in Canada. This background in itself might have added interest to the story and some insight into the characters, but it felt like just a wee bit of exotica thrown in without much of a thought. What finally ended my reading was realising that I didn’t actually give the proverbial monkey’s about any of the characters or what happened to any of them. Again, this may seem a little harsh given the serious subject-matter of the plot, but neither the characters nor their problems were presented in a convincing manner, to this reader at least. We are told one sister is depressed and suicidal, but I never encountered any real insight into these conditions.

I’m cross, really: misled by a book which I had hoped might be worthwhile, and wondering once again about the nature of modern mass-market fiction, especially that written in English: is there anything worth reading out there? British and American novels – says he, generalising wildly – disappeared up its own fundament long ago; interesting and thought-provoking writing is coming from other parts of the world. I’ve had enough of cheap eyeball candy.

Rant over.

Wordery just lost a customer…

December 23, 2021

I was happy when the online bookseller Wordery emerged a few years back, as I’ve always sought alternatives to the behemoth that is Amazon. They offered decent prices, though their deliveries always took a while longer. They have now lost me as a customer, for very poor customer service and penny-pinching.

How many of you read a book as soon as you’ve bought it? Most of the time I do, but by no means always. More importantly, if you aren’t going to read a book straight away, do you carefully examine every page for possible defects before it rests on your shelves? Because it seems that’s what Wordery expects you to do, so that you can take advantage of its “generous” three-month period for complaints, replacements and refunds… Sale of Goods Act? Merchantable quality?

So, my gripe is about one of the beautifully presented Everyman’s Library hardbacks, Selected Writings of Alexander von Humboldt, which weighs in at 800 pages. I bought it a couple of years back, and have only just begun reading it.

No, I hadn’t checked every page. So when it suddenly repeated a 32-page sequence of pages, and then omitted the next 32-page section, I realised I had a useless book on my hands. No sympathy from customer service at Wordery. Too long had gone by. Basically a p*** off and die response; no reply to a second e-mail, or from a director of the company to whom I also complained.

Now, I’m not going to cry about it, but a book isn’t the kind of thing where you’re immediately going to detect a flaw which renders it useless. It’s not like a garment with a hole, or an electronic device which won’t function. And I’ll mention a story from about 20 years ago. Then, I’d bought a heavyweight academic tome on religious history from a secondhand bookshop. If I’d bought it new, it would have been £25 or more. And that turned out to have a missing signature (section of printed pages). I enquired of the publisher whether there was any way they might be able to supply me with the text of the missing pages, pointing out I’d bought a used copy. And was genuinely astounded when the reply basically said, ‘Nonsense. Send your address and we’ll replace the book.’ And they did.

Ah well, caveat emptor, as they say. And I shall. No more of my money to Wordery, who actually might have stood to make rather more out of me next year, when Amazon rejects my Visa card in its spat with the banking world. The whole business leaves a rather nasty taste in my mouth.

Rant over, back to reading.

Liz Greene: Relating

September 14, 2021

     Most people who know me probably wouldn’t imagine I was interested in astrology. But I have been, since my student years, thanks to a couple of people who opened my eyes to its rather more serious side, its insights into personality, personal development and relationships with others, as opposed to the coffee-time vague predictions about the day to come to be found in various tabloid newspapers. And then there is the link with Jungian psychology, which has also fascinated me since I came across it, round about the same time in my life, some forty or so years ago.

I’m not very good at retaining all the details linked to planets and influences, and have mainly seen astrology as an aid to understanding things about myself and the ways in which I look at and interact with others and the world. It’s been filed away at the back of my awareness for a long time, but along with revisiting other things at this stage where I seem moved to be taking stock of various aspects of my life, I returned to this book which I first read so many years ago.

Liz Greene’s book is as useful to me now as a work of synthesis between the astrological, the spiritual and the psychological as it was all those years ago when I first encountered it. There was so much depth, yet also common sense in how she presents psychology and the potentials revealed in a person’s birth chart, and the planetary influences in that chart. Here are clues to assist the quest for self-knowledge and self-understanding, added to many other things… it’s a different approach, and a valid and useful one, I have found over time.

Looking back on my life as I re-read, I was able to make greater sense of various things that had happened to me, and also made enlightening connections between key events, decisions I made, and people who influenced me in different ways at particular points in my life. These realisations confirmed for me that there is a validity in this different paradigm; for someone as rational as I am, this was interesting. It also confirms, through, that an individual’s journey of self-discovery can be long, slow and hard.

And now, I have found myself wondering once more, where free will is in all this…

Sallie Tisdale: Advice For The Dying

April 6, 2021

     I came across a thoughtful review of this book a few months back; increasingly intrigued, I decided to buy and read it. Death, in particular contemplating the inevitability of my own, and that of those close to me, as we all gradually age, is not an easy topic to face; as a Quaker, I’m nevertheless exhorted to reflect on it by way of trying to be prepared for that moment, as well as to ensure that I do not leave complications behind for others to unravel. Sensible advice, but…

The writer is American; she is a nurse by profession and has spent much time with people who were dying, and with their close family and friends. She writes clearly and thoughtfully and covers pretty much every aspect of death and dying from the perspective of the person who is dying and those who are necessarily involved, participants and bystanders. It is interesting that the book’s title in the USA was ‘Advice for Future Corpses’ whereas in the UK it has been toned down to “Advice for the Dying’, which to me isn’t quite the same thing at all. She has ensured that the resources section in the UK edition is relevant to those of us on this side of the pond; only the chapter on hospices does not ring true for me, as the US version of a hospice death seems to be to get family and friends to do everything at home whilst absolving one’s medical insurance program of needing to do anything much at all; my experience of hospices in the UK is very different, and I have been very impressed with what they will do, if a space is available for the person at the time.

I was conscious of feeling somewhat nervous as I read, not quite skimming at times, but not reading too carefully either, not thinking too much about what I was reading. I was also matching what Tisdale was saying with my existing knowledge and understanding, and trying to feel reassured rather than alarmed. A fair amount of what she said I was familiar with, and felt like good common-sense. I also told myself to come back to the book and re-read it more carefully, soon…

Tisdale ranges widely, and her advice is carefully focused and practical; she deconstructs and reassures, covering every aspect of the lead-up to death, dying, burial or cremation (and some alternatives). She has been a lifelong practising Zen Buddhist, but does not forefront her beliefs, though they do allow her helpful reflections and observations at times. She also included a range of interesting quotations on the subject of death and dying, from a wide range of people through history. It felt like a helpful and compassionate book, definitely not an easy read, sobering as it must be, but also in various ways both helpful and empowering.

I can reassure any readers who may be wondering, that I am currently enjoying good health.

On a century of Owen’s poetry

December 3, 2020

This month offers another opportunity to write about one of my favourite poets, and still the war poet par excellence, in my opinion, as we reach the centenary of the first publication of his poetry – posthumous, of course.

In a sense, of course, Wilfred Owen’s reputation is frozen in time because of his untimely death in the final days of the Great War: he left behind his personal story of bravery at the front, his struggle with shell-shock and his time at Craiglockhart. There he met and was encouraged by Siegfried Sassoon, and out of it all came the small volume which is his complete poems. There is no more: would he have gone on to greater things had he survived the war, or would he have faded into obscurity, his best work written in his twenties?

Can you remember when you first encountered his verse, and the effect it had on you? Two poems stand out for me, at school when preparing for my O Levels: the explanation of how the sonnet Anthem for Doomed Youth works, and the sheer horror of the images in Dulce et Decorum Est. They were the two poems everyone knew in those long-gone days, the 1960s, when interest in the Great War was re-awakened by the fiftieth anniversary.

These two poems re-appeared when I was teaching, in anthologies of poetry devised by examination boards to meet various arcane criteria, and later on A Level English Literature offered a unit on Literature and the First World War and there was the opportunity to read much more widely. For me, the Owen poem I have always found most effective and most powerful in the classroom is Disabled (you can read my analysis of it here).

Disabled is about a boy who lied and said he was nineteen in order to join up. You are talking about the age of many of the (male) students in the classes I taught. Subtly, the implications of his horrendous injuries are made clear, and it’s the fact that his age is the age of awakening sexuality which shocks most: you don’t actually need to say anything…

Or you can consider Mental Cases, which has as much of the graphic detail as does Dulce et Decorum Est, but with the added nightmare quality of mental derangement, insanity on top of physical injury. And in the latter poem, the man dies, whereas the men in the former poem survive and have to live with their visions.

There are many other Great War poets, as powerful in their use of graphic detail or in their ability to make the reader think: Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Ivor Gurney to name several. What makes Owen stand out above the others? for he does, I am convinced. His bravery, his youth and his own tragic end are part of it. His astonishing use of the poetical power and expressive possibilities of the English language must not be overlooked: just read Exposure aloud, slowly and carefully. His stance on the war itself is also important. He was not unpatriotic or anti-British; he did not shirk his duty. He did not merely seek to horrify his readers through descriptions of atrocity. Like Sassoon, he wants his readers to feel very uncomfortable: Owen is writing, as he put it himself, about ‘the pity of war’. His poems say to his readers: these things are going on, these men are suffering and dying, in your name. Implied are such questions as ‘Why?’, ‘Do you approve?’, ‘Now that you know, what will you say?’.

A milestone

November 23, 2020

Just a very brief aside, to note for my readers who would otherwise not know it, that my previous post was, according to WordPress, who I’m sure know these things, my 1000th post! If I’ve written about 500 words in each one, and I suspect that’s probably the average, then that’s half a million words, several novels’ worth! Has it been worthwhile? You are probably better judges of that than I am. I write because I want to, and I enjoy it. I shall continue until I no longer want to…

On the meaning of it all…

November 21, 2020

Logically, life – being alive – cannot have a meaning or a purpose, because it is something that happens to us unrequested, as it were, through the volition (or not) of other people, with varying intentions or none. And then, here we are: get over it or get on with it, as they say. But, what to do with it remains a question that has vexed and perplexed minds over the ages. I’m no different.

Biologically, the purpose of life is to ensure that there is more life created; most of us ensure this happens, at which point our usefulness and purpose is over.

And we are here, and to make sense of it if we can. Many people pass through life, being and doing, without very much thought at all; it feel dismissive and patronising to observe that, and yet there are times when I briefly feel envious of them, until I recall Socrates’ point that the unexamined life is worthless. And I come back to what I feel is the most amazing part of me: my mind, my brain, my ability to perceive, reflect, think about myself and my time here. Whether it’s God-given or a product of millennia of evolution is neither here nor there, really: either way, it astonishes me.

I’ve always loved staring at the night sky and the stars and planets. I’m no astronomer: I can identify some of what I see up there. It’s the effect on my head of looking up, and realising the awesomeness of what is out there. I’ve read science fiction since I was a child, and this has enhanced my imagination: what might be out there, that we will never know about. How small we are, and our world. I’ve said before that the first moon landing was the most exciting day in my life; I’d love to live to see humans land on Mars; I’d love to be around when we make contact with an intelligence form another world. And that will never be – me being around, I mean.

So, there’s my infinitesimal space in the entire scheme of things, and my tiny allotted amount of time here: what to do with it all?

Much of that time fills itself with the mundanities of growing up, learning, living and working, raising a family, growing old; the time is used up without a lot of effort. Once I was young, had dreams, had fun; there was a lot of work and life and now I’m much older. Where did it all go?

But then there’s the reflection: what is the point? What makes it worthwhile? Back to meaning. Obviously, this is where deities and religions come in, as humans over the ages have striven to come to terms with the fact that it all does come to an end one day. We are the only species with a consciousness, an awareness of that, and for many of us, it drives our reflections and our desires. If we can believe – if we can have faith – then there is an anchor in the idea that there is something – maybe better – which comes after this life. It is harder if we cannot. We were once undistributed atoms in the cosmos and ultimately that is where we will return, but I have to say that so far I do not find that very much comfort.

To do something useful with our life may help; to live a good life, where we help our fellows, we serve our community, we help our world move gradually to ever better things. And yet, this is very vague. We do it, some may notice it, although that ought not to be our motivation, and then we are gone, with our efforts. One day, you will only be a story: make sure it is a good one, says the old Arabic proverb. I like this, it comforts me as much as anything else does or can: that people who remember me, for a generation or two, will have a good memory of me. I won’t know about it, and that will be that. I will have had my brief moment in the sun…

On curiosity

September 21, 2020

Yes, aphoristically it killed the cat, but I’ve always been a curious type; I notice things and want to know more, to ask questions and get answers. Why? For the sheer satisfaction of knowing, I think. And throughout my life I’ve always been a little surprised that not everyone is like me: there are so many people who just appear to plod on through life without ever wanting or needing to know why…

There are things I’ve always been interested in, and found relatively straightforward: reading and languages in particular. They helped turn me into a bit of a traveller, one that couldn’t help but be curious about all those different places, their habits, behaviours and customs, their food and drink…

Equally, I’ve always enjoyed talking about and discussing all sorts of subjects, arguing at times, too, although less of that as I’ve grown older and perhaps more reflective and more accepting of differences – or better at avoiding people with whom I’m not going to get on. As a student, many evenings and nights were spent ranging widely as we attempted to set the world to rights, far into the early hours.

There have been times when I surprised myself by doing something rather more adventurous, moving out of my comfort zone, as it were. Learning to drive was something I affected not to be interested in for a good while, but while still in my hippy days I decided I would learn; it was not easy or straightforward, but it was worthwhile and at the moment I have the confidence to take myself off on solo road trips all over Europe, visiting places I would otherwise never be able to get to.

I was dismissive of computers and IT as well, until they began to creep into the teaching profession, at which point I was incredibly fortunate in having a self-taught head of IT as a mentor in school; she encouraged me and assisted me in so many different ways, and I developed abilities and competences and explored far more widely than I needed to, and discovered I actually enjoyed playing with computers and the internet. I ended up teaching myself to use linux pretty competently when I got too frustrated with Windows… and was an IT volunteer at my local library for a while after I had retired from teaching. And I managed successfully, at the end of a telephone, to keep my mother of eighty-plus years happily online for a good few years: she got a lot of pleasure from the internet, too.

I never expected to become as interested in gardening as I now am. I started collecting and caring for houseplants as a student, moved on to cacti, and when we were finally able to afford homes with gardens, found calm and relaxation and satisfaction in weeding and tending the garden, fruit bushes and trees especially.

What is the point of it all? In the end I have a limited number of years on the planet, and will not be able to do everything I want to do, travel everywhere I’d like to see, or read everything I’d like to read, so I have grown used to making choices. And I have realised that curiosity has opened new doors at various points in my life, and given me new opportunities. I know that the incredibly complex bundle of biology and electricity that makes me tick will stop at some point, but until then I’ll chase whatever catches my eye. Asking ever more questions is the way to go, along with realising that there are no easy answers…

Giacomo Sartori: I Am God

January 5, 2020

91soT6cRFeL._AC_UY218_ML3_   I read about this recently, was intrigued and having put it on a wish list, received it for Christmas.

Attempting to visualise God and present him as the first person narrator of a novel is an engaging start. Here is a God who can (and does) boast about his powers and flaunt his capabilities before the reader, at the same time as realising he needs to scale himself down in order for humans to be able to comprehend him and understand (or be interested in) the story he wants to tell. He can also threaten at various points to use his superpowers to intervene in and affect the world and the humans he is interested in, and yet forbears to do so, for a whole range of almighty reasons… He’s consistently disparaging about a man who lived a couple of millennia ago and was allegedly his son.

He seems inordinately focused on the human race and our tiny corner of the universe and acknowledges his creation, but also realises that there’s not much else we are that interested in, so if he is to tell a story it will involve his interest in and interactions with us. He does reflect on other aspects of his creation, both in the universe generally, and also more specifically on his six days’ work designing this planet and its contents; and doesn’t seem particularly impressed by homo sapiens and our sense of self-importance. His tale is interspersed with sarcastic comments and derogatory footnotes on us, our insignificance and our stupidity.

However, in this tale God also seems unduly interested in a small group of misfits somewhere in Italy, and their workplace and sexual adventures – perhaps he’s entertaining himself with experiencing attraction or obsession. He’s a very male God – or that’s the way he presents himself to us in this story, and it’s evident pretty early on that the heroine will ultimately head down a lesbian path… at which point he allows his Old Testament side to show. But he’s a fair God and does not interfere.

It’s clever, and funny at times, an easy read with the occasional thought-provoking idea slipped in, almost as an aside.

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