Archive for the 'writing' Category

A Brief Epiphany

June 29, 2021

I took a book down from the shelf: The Engineer of Human Souls, by Josef Skvorecky. It’s my choice for next month’s book group discussion and I realised I’d need to re-read it myself, as well as inflicting it on my colleagues. That will be the sixth reading, according to my records. I don’t mind: obviously it’s one of my favourites, for many reasons, and yet it wasn’t on my ‘time to revisit’ list. Slight disconnect in my thinking, choosing it, perhaps.

But at the same time came a moment of sudden clarity, of revelation. How fortunate I am, have been, in that I have spent pretty much my entire life engaged in reading books, something I fell in love with as soon as I learned how to do it.

I don’t mean I haven’t done anything else: I’m happily married, I’ve fathered and helped raise a family, travelled Europe quite a lot, gardened, listened to music and so on. But my whole life is inseparable from reading, and it was wonderful to see it like that, all of a sudden.

I read my way through the school library, Stamford Public Library, studied literature for O Level, A Level, for a bachelor’s degree and researched for two master’s degrees. I taught English language and literature for my entire working life. I’ve written study guides about literary texts, and I’ve maintained this blog – about reading and literature – for over ten years. And now, happily retired, I have all the time I want to read, when I want, what I want. I am fortunate enough to be able to afford to buy any and all the books I want and need.

What more could a person ask for?

On being inarticulate

April 13, 2021


If you’re a regular visitor to this blog, you may feel that I can write reasonably clearly and in detail about literature and explain what it is I like or dislike when I’ve read a book. I’ve found myself provoked to think about why this is so much harder when it comes to art and music. On and off over a couple of days recently I slowly leafed through a hefty tome about Monet, which was copiously illustrated with reproductions of his paintings. I loved it. But why?

The simple answer to my question about art and music compared with literature is that I suppose I have some kind of expertise in the field of literature, as studying and teaching it has been pretty much my life’s work. So I can explain in detail what it is in a novel or poem, whether plot, character, themes and ideas, language or whatever, that I like or dislike; I understand and can explain how words and writers work Getting beyond the gut response ‘I like it!’ is much harder for me in other fields.

I really enjoy visiting art exhibitions, and some paintings I will happily sit and stare at for hours. I recall a Turner exhibition in Edinburgh about ten years ago; I fell in love with Modern Rome so much that I now have a copy of it on the wall at home. And an exhibition in Berlin a few years ago which juxtaposed impressionist and expressionist paintings took my breath away.

Thinking about Monet and Turner in particular, I realise that a great part of what attracts or fascinates me about many of their paintings is the attention they pay to light. Monet painted certain scenes – most famously, perhaps, the front of Rouen Cathedral – many times, at different times of day and at different seasons, presumably because he was so fascinated by the changes of lighting. Another thing that I find myself reflecting on is the difference between art and photography; to me it seems to have been liberating for artists not to feel obliged to focus on achieving some ‘realistic’ or recognisably ‘accurate’ reproduction of their subject. So the idea of impressionism speaks to me as an evocation of certain places or objects, with associated ideas and feelings, which are sketched out (wrong word, I know) for the viewer to fill out the gaps for her/himself as they choose; there’s an openness to interpretation I like about such art.

Music is even harder. J S Bach I can listen to for hours; I am in heaven. But how? Why? What does he do to me? I get headaches trying to understand anything about musical theory, and one of the regrets I do have is never learning an instrument. But without music, I don’t know where I’d be.

That’s as far as I get, and it doesn’t feel very far, compared with what I can say about literature. Is it because art (and music, for that matter) is rather more open, and rather more likely to affect one emotionally, whereas literature, though it can and does affect our emotions, is rather more analytical, rather more susceptible to analysis and deconstruction?

How I write

April 6, 2021

It took me quite a while to see myself as a writer of sorts. I spent years teaching students to write. And I managed to forget that I’d written countless essays as a student, then a dissertation and finally a thesis. Then, since I retired, I have written some study guides. And there are a thousand plus posts in this blog…

Once I started the blog, I decided I would write about every book I read, and I think I have managed to do this; if I skim a book rather than read it, then I don’t usually write a post about it. But the decision has sharpened up the way I read, now, which I’m quite pleased about: I’m more attentive, because I know I will be writing about the book, and I tend to think about other books that it reminds me of (quite often I get an idea for what to read next, which disrupts my original reading schedule).

I take a small (A6) piece of paper which I use as a bookmark, and I keep a pencil close by; every now and then I will jot down either a salient idea, or a new reflection, or an opinion. It’s a fairly scrappy process but I haven’t found a better way of doing it; some books will amass quite a few of these small slips as I read and reflect.

When I finish a book, I always note down the date I finished it, in pencil inside the back cover. This way I can keep track of how many times I’ve read a particular book, and it’s interesting to know when I last read it, if I come back to it. I’ve been doing this since I went off to university nearly half a century ago. I also log the book in my ledger, which is a record of all the books I read each year, so I can keep tabs on my habit; here I get my stats for the end-of-year blog posts on what I’ve read in a particular year.

I take my little note sheets and sit down at the laptop and write. The sentences do manage to come out with reasonable fluency. Posts have seemed to work out at somewhere in the 5-600 word region, although some books get longer pieces; I don’t set myself a limit deliberately. Often I’ll wait a day before I come back to proof-read and polish a piece, correcting all my errors and tidying up expression: I wasn’t an English teacher for 30 years for nothing… That delay often allows ideas to finish maturing in my mind and I frequently do end up finding a better way of saying something second-time around.

I tend to avoid telling the story: if my piece is interesting enough to a reader, I hope they’ll want to hunt down the book and read it themselves, so no spoilers intended, really. I’ll pick out what I think is important or interesting, and obviously I’ll always give my opinion. I’ll make links and connections or comparisons with other books or writers that occur to me. Finally I hunt down a thumbnail of the book’s cover if I can find one; I like to have one of the edition I possess if that’s possible, but given the age of some of the books in my library, that’s often not possible. A few tags to help the search engines, and I’m good to go.

Maryanne Wolf: Proust and the Squid

July 2, 2020

91T9T2C1FjL._AC_UY218_     Something prompted me to return to this fascinating book on what happens to the brain when we learn to read, or indeed, if for various reasons we have difficulties with the process, such as dyslexia. It probably never occurs to us that, although we are born with brains wired for us eventually to develop speech, this is not true of reading or writing, processes that every human needs to learn from scratch. The open architecture of the brain allowed the possibility of humans developing writing and reading…

And then we must take into account the transformative power of these last two achievements on humans and their societies, compared with those which are only oral.

Wolf explains pretty clearly – to this lay and unscientific reader – the astonishing complexity of the processes which take place in the human brain, first in the process of learning to read, and then, when we are readers, in the processing of the texts we read.

Initially, humans developed representative and repeatable signs which could be learned, and eventually derived more sophisticated alphabets where the complete array of sounds could be mapped onto signs or letters. It was fascinating to discover that the human brain functions differently if it has to process ideograms in languages like Chines or letters in languages like ours. Equally, the regularity of an alphabet in the way it maps sounds to writing can lead to earlier fluency in reading: English orthography does not help us here!

There are more interesting historical and philosophical questions for us to reflect on, too: did the alphabet, leading to reading and writing, liberate humans from the hard work involved in sustaining an oral tradition (remembering everything and ensuring it was all passed down accurately through the generations), and thereby allow more complex thought? It may be that writing changed the way we think…

Apparently Socrates was very wary of reading and the written word, feeling that it was dead (thoughts and ideas frozen by being committed to paper), inflexible (once written down it is canonised, in a way) and that it destroys memory (look, for instance, at how little we expect school students to memorise texts such as poems nowadays). And, ironically, Socrates’ thoughts only survive for us now over two millennia later because Plato wrote them down…

Wolf is also very interesting on problems with reading – those often grouped together conveniently under the general heading ‘dyslexia’ – again seeking to explain what happens differently, often much more slowly, in the brains of those faced with such difficulties. It becomes very technical, although to realise that there are differences in how dyslexia affects people according to their language I found very interesting, and I also realised how helpful some of this material would have been early on in my career as a teacher.

There are implications in all of this for our future, which Wolf does not neglect: what changes may be being wrought in the human brain at this very moment with the move from printed to digital text, and the different ways that text can now be used and consumed? She contrasts immediacy with critical effort, and I think that this is an important area for further reflection and consideration; there is a certain kind of ease in the use of digital text which makes me ‘uneasy’. I can recall being unnerved when students used to say to me – of an older generation used to remembering and recalling things at will – “Oh, I don’t need to learn/ know that, because I can look it up…” Where might that lead our species, eventually?

Can a novel be too long?

May 10, 2020

A brief exchange with a friend a propos of my previous post about the length of Neal Stephenson’s novels has had me thinking about the length of novels in general. Of course, there is the thing about their having to be a certain number of pages nowadays to fit in easily with the printing process, but that’s not what I mean. And let’s set Dickens to one side, as we know he wrote by the yard for serialisation and cash…

I suppose the real question is, does the novel really need all those words? And so one has to consider the writer’s purpose and intentions, and to recognise that those may be very different from our own expectations or demands. Tolstoy’s War and Peace is the longest novel I’ve read; I think I’ve read it three times, and enjoyed it each time. Some readers have questioned the need for the lengthy philosophical section with which Tolstoy concludes the novel; for me it is an intrinsic part and thought-provoking reflection on the story he has finished telling. And the novel itself is both a panorama of Russian society and a fictionalised history of one of the major episodes of Russian history. Shortened, it would not be the same thing at all, and I think the same might be said about Middlemarch, which may perhaps be seen as an English novel with a similar scope. In other words, these two novels need to be as long as they are for the reader to be fully immersed in the worlds fictionally created, and to be able to appreciate that the author is doing more than just story-telling.

I had to study the first volume of Marcel Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu when I was at university. I read it a couple of times; it was decent enough, and the narrative technique interesting enough to engage me at the time. I remember being astonished at the lengthy and perfectly-formed sentences and the effect they had on one’s consciousness as I worked my way through a page or so to the end of one of them. I was full of intention to read the rest of the sequence, bought and read the first half of volume two, and gave up, never to return to it (this was over 40 years ago now). Why? What went wrong? What was different? In the end I couldn’t make myself interested enough in Proust’s characters and their fates. He was presenting a much narrower section of society, of the world, and not one that I cared that much about. His scope was completely different from Tolstoy’s, for instance. But that doesn’t mean that the books were too long, and that I might have succeeded with a Reader’s Digest-style adaptation, a “condensed book”.

I’ve made myself read a fair amount of Thomas Pynchon. V was interesting enough, as was Gravity’s Rainbow; Mason & Dixon I liked and it’s been on my re-read pile for at least ten years; Against the Day was a useful gap-filler during a bout of pneumonia, but I don’t have the urge to revisit it. These are long novels, but also rather rambling and shapeless, and it is hard to avoid a feeling that the writer is indulging something, and I found it hard to be bothered to find out what. Is there somewhere an urge in American writers to have the size of their novels match the size of the country? Moby Dick was a passable read, once; Don De Lillo’s Underworld irritated the hell out of me for being so long and I was angry with myself for giving in to the blandishments of reviewers and wasting my money on it. It’s almost as if there’s a conscious effort to write the ‘Great American Novel’ rather than to write a good novel and for it to turn out to be judged great much later on. But once again, I’m not sure that editing would have improved any of these…

Fantasy and SF is a different kettle of fish, perhaps. Readers are looking to immerse themselves in a completely different world; pure escapism? And there is the marvel of a good writer’s imagination in play as well, here, for they are creating a world, a setting from scratch that must make us want to stay there and leave our humdrum ordinary world behind. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings saw me through a bad, three-day bout of the ‘flu some forty years and more ago. I really enjoyed it, but it’s never called me back. The doorstopper in the field that I have returned to several times is Austin Tappan Wright’s Islandia, a utopian novel of some 1000 pages which I have always found gripping, although I will admit to occasionally wishing the romance sections had been edited a little. Why does it grip me so much? Because here is a writer thinking at great length about how the world might be a much better place. A utopian novel doesn’t need to come in at a thousand pages, but this one works at that length for me.

I’m realising that I don’t know anywhere near enough about the process of editing and what an editor actually does when they work with an author on a novel. A novel has always appeared to me to be a writer’s personal creation, although obviously mediated by the country and society and times they lived in and numerous other factors too, and so I have maybe naively thought that there wasn’t a lot for an editor to do. Perhaps one of my readers can enlighten me? Once upon a time in a previous existence I did know an editor for one of the major UK publishers, but did not have this conversation with her…

In the end I feel OK about respecting an author’s creation as s/he allows it to emerge in final published form; I’ll read it and either like it or not, and on the basis of that will either feel called to read it again one day, or not. I’m back with what I used to say to my students: there’s no law that says you have to like a novel or a poem (or indeed any work of art). What you need to be able to do is articulate what it is you like or don’t like about it, and ideally support your view with evidence…

On the joys of teaching English

March 7, 2019

Every now and then, I remember I was a teacher once. When I meet up with former colleagues who are still working, I sigh with relief that I don’t have to return to school for training days, and listen to the ‘leadership team’ witter on about targets and initiatives and I don’t know what else, and I feel briefly sorry for those who still do have to… I also remember how different it was on the following day, when the students returned and the real work of a teacher began again – how much I loved it!

Things that I really enjoyed: reading books together in class. That was still possible in secondary school and we all loved it: reading around the class, sometimes everyone in turn, sometimes volunteers, sometimes me. We could and did pause to discuss all sorts of things: plot, character, language, how a writer tells a good story, why x happens and not y, why a writer does things a certain way and not another. All kinds of opportunities for different kinds of writing arose at various points in a novel. And everyone could express opinions about all sorts of things, practising listening and responding, learning to argue, and to support opinions with evidence…

Sometimes I would get students to present a book they had recently read to the class: a brief introduction and then read out a carefully chosen extract; explain what their opinion of the book was, and why, and finally take questions from their class-mates. Not everyone found this easy, but I felt, from a very early stage in my career as a teacher, that good speaking and listening skills were probably going to be of much greater use and importance to my students in the future than writing skills…

When we got on to individual talks to the class, we had a great time: choose your subject, and give an illustrated five-minute presentation to the class, then take questions. It was often an astonishing confidence-building exercise for students who were not very strong at English, as they used the opportunity to be experts in their own field in front of the class. As time went by, health and safety curtailed their choice of options somewhat, and having livestock in the classroom sometimes presented management issues… but I always learned lots, and I know the students did, too. I still think the best ever talk came from a GCSE student who was a keen fencer: she spoke confidently and demonstrated her skills effectively, using a male student whom she didn’t very much like as her opponent for the practical parts of her talk: he took it all in very good part. The talk filled an entire 40-minute lesson; nobody was bored, and she naturally received full marks for her efforts.

Discussions and also formal debates featured regularly, and I had an understanding with students that no topic was off-limits as long as they could approach it sensibly and maturely, and respect others’ different opinions and their right to express them: you were allowed to disagree as long as you did it respectfully and explained your reasons… I can only remember a couple of occasions in nearly thirty years when it was necessary to close down a discussion because some could not manage these rules.

Of course, students had to write, as well as speak and read. One of my favourite activities came out of reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer with Year 8 students (age 12-13). If you can make the book work, it’s a real challenge for them: nineteenth-century language and behaviour and dealing with issues of race, childhood, schooling and lots more. The book has everything: truanting, running away from home, a murder, romance, getting lost in a cave, finding a real fortune… and there is an amazing writing opportunity immediately after the murder: produce the front page of the town paper the day after that event. There’s writing the story, editing and improving it, working out how much the reporter can know and find out, compared with what Tom and Huck have seen, and then you can go into an IT suite and they can design and produce and print their front page.

The skills of essay-writing come to the fore as students approach public examinations, and over the years I evolved a tactic which they seemed to find effective and helpful: the whole class together would plan an essay. I’d take them through the entire process stage-by-stage, from analysing the title and working out what an examiner might expect, through brainstorming and then organising and sequencing their ideas, followed by selecting evidence, and then crafting an effective introduction and conclusion. It would all appear on the whiteboard, colour-coded with different pens; we could pause the process and discuss any aspect of it that anyone wanted to, and we could also time the different parts of the activity so that students could work out how they might effectively allocate their time in an exam room. We needed a good double lesson – 80 minutes – to do the whole thing, and if time allowed, the last thing was to practise and discuss a range of opening sentences. It was pretty exhausting for all or us: the class being attentive and working against the clock, and me, controlling and managing everything so it all came together in the allocated time.

I used to enjoy giving work back to students. I’ve read some unbelievable nonsense lately about re-marking and triple marking and written dialogue between teacher and student and thought to myself, ‘How can any of that be justified in terms of time?’. Although I wasn’t particularly proud of it, my semi-illegible handwriting did me favours; I regularly did write lengthy and detailed comments and advice on students’ work, and they often had to work quite hard to decipher my runes. They asked each other first and when that failed, called me over: they actually wanted to know what I’d written, and I could briefly expand and clarify. And, of course, there were extra oral comments as I gave work back, perhaps reading out particularly good bits before I hurled exercise books back across the room towards their owners…

A good deal of being a teacher – an English teacher, certainly – is about being an actor, as perhaps you have deduced from the above: confidence builds up over time, as does the very necessary ability to be reflective and critical of what happens in your classroom, and to adapt and modify when circumstances dictate.

I particularly loved working with sixth-formers, for they really kept me on my toes; even if I knew my stuff – and I did – I never knew from what angle their questions or comments might come. Keeping one step ahead of them was exhausting, as well as very satisfying. They got special treatment in some ways: we were a little less formal with each other, and we always set the room out in a circle to create a seminar-style atmosphere, as well as to emphasis equality, rather than use the serried ranks of desks or tables that larger classes required. There was tea and mince pies at Christmas, too. Practical criticism – working with unseen texts – was what I liked most of all, feeling more and more the enabler rather than the teacher as the two years of the course ticked away and they all in their different ways became more perceptive and confident as interpreters and critics of literature…

There is no better profession – and I think that word is so important, and so under-respected nowadays – than teaching. I have been very fortunate in my life’s work.

Back home

September 11, 2018

The blog has been quiet for the last two weeks because I have been on my travels, to the south of France. When I’m away, I usually hatch a few ideas for new posts, so the following topics are likely to appear over the coming weeks: thoughts about the Romans, and about their empire something on Latin; reflections on photography – I came back with about 600 pictures! Reading, teaching, travelling, good English, the internet, sex in literature, the joys of teaching… it’s good to get away but it’s also good to be home, and I’m looking forward to getting back to writing.

Watch this space.


On writing creatively…or not

May 23, 2018

It’s taken me a very long time to realise that I’m a writer. I spent years training students and teaching them the craft of writing, how to organise their ideas, how to choose their words carefully, how to spell and punctuate correctly to enhance communication, that I lost sight of the fact that I write too. I’ve written this blog for more than five years now and WordPress informs me I’ve written the equivalent of several novels’ worth of posts… I’ve written a couple of literature study guides and am completing a third. I used to review science fiction for an academic journal, and I used to write for the students’ union newspaper when I was at university. And I’ve written countless essays, a dissertation and a thesis… all a very long time ago.

What I’ve never done, at least not since I was at school, is write creatively, write a story or a descriptive piece. I’ve no desire to write poetry, it’s not something I aspire to, but lately I have started to wonder about trying to be creative and where I might start if I did pluck up the courage to dip my toe in the water. There are creative writing groups out there, but then I’d have to expose myself to others’ gaze, and I’m not sure I’m ready for that… How do I make a start, and how do I decide whether it’s worth it?

It strikes me that descriptive writing might possibly be an extension of some of the various travel pieces I’ve produced, and I’m aware that I’ve always liked taking photographs, often taking time and effort to get exactly the effect I want… maybe there’s a way in to writing there. But fiction? Years ago, I thought I was interested in trying to write some science fiction, having studied the genre for so long, but I never did: the ideas and the inspiration never came. Getting started on something new always seems difficult…

On blogging

May 22, 2018

I’ve been blogging seriously for over five years now, so I step back to take stock of what I’ve been up to and what I’ve actually achieved. Nearly seven hundred posts, enough words written for several novels. Posts about individual books, novels, plays and poems. Posts on more general topics, to do with aspects of literature and teaching. Posts about my travels, about the Great War, and lots more besides.

I’ve enjoyed writing them, otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered. And now I’ve got myself into a sort of routine, where I find I’m thinking more critically about a book as I read it, and often jotting down short notes about what I’ll write about. Sometimes an idea for a more general piece will pop into my mind as I read, or when I’m awake in the night, and I’ll start jotting down my thoughts; eventually it will be time to write it up, if there’s enough to say. So there’s a kind of mental discipline here, I feel: I read more carefully and critically, and make myself try and give coherent shape and form to my ideas. There is also the thought of all that complex electrical activity in my brain not going entirely to waste…

I write each piece using my notes, revise it carefully, and look for a picture of the book’s cover to illustrate it, if the post is about a particular book.

I have getting on for 300 followers, either via facebook or direct subscribers. Not that many, I think, but then I realise my subject-matter and my approach is a fairly serious one. I get upwards of a couple of thousand visitors a year; not that many really. Some posts get lots of readers, some only a couple, some none at all, I fear. I’m astonished at the ones visitors flock to – Theodore Kroger’s The Forgotten Village seems to head the list at the moment, closely followed by Derek Guiton’s A Man That Looks on Glass. The first is an obscure memoir set in revolutionary Russia, the second is part of a dialogue about the future direction of the Religious Society of Friends. Amazing what search engines will do…

I haven’t had that many comments on what I’ve written, and sometimes this saddens me; I wonder if it’s because I come across as too knowledgeable, or my reading and thoughts are too obscure, or the way I express my opinions tends to preclude comment or discussion. I’ve long wanted to engage in dialogue with more of my readers; I’m grateful for the comments that do develop into an exchange, and I like it when people disagree with me, take issue and argue – I think my former students would back me up here… Anyway, to those of you who do comment, whether to agree, disagree, or offer a different perspective on what I’ve said – thank you.

Philip Pullman: Daemon Voices

April 8, 2018


A writer writes about his craft, his inspirations, and how he works: fascinating, in the same way that Ursula Le Guin doing just that was fascinating. He doesn’t disappoint in the way he writes, either – there’s more of the fluent clear language and sentence-crafting that one experiences in his novels. Pullman is a very readable writer, accessible, communicating effectively. You may think, well, yes, he would, but that’s not always the case…

He’s very strong and forthright on a writer’s responsibilities, fascinating on how stories work, and challenges literary theorists. He writes about his experiences as a teacher and rages against the insanities and inanities of our ‘National Curriculum’. He’s forcefully and coherently atheist, anti-God; this I found quite challenging myself, and though I appreciated his stance, decided to continue to differ with him there…

Out of his atheism there arises a sense of wonder: for Pullman, the more we discover, the more wondrous the universe seems to be, an approach which chimes in with my own ever since my childhood excitement at looking at the skies and learning about other worlds.

Clearly I was looking for further understanding of the genesis of, and intentions behind, the Dark Materials trilogy, and I was not disappointed. There was a detailed personal response to Milton‘s Paradise Lost, and how the Fall story and his anti-religious stance worked together to create a story in which the Fall was a good thing: the loss of innocence and a knowledge of good and evil is what makes us human; that knowledge of evil does not imply that all humans therefore embrace it. There is a myth of the Fall in the world of the mulefa in The Amber Spyglass; it both resembles the one in our world and is very different from it, and Pullman’s clarification was very interesting.

Pullman is interesting on the craft of the writer, too, and open about his need and desire to make a decent living out of it. He’s scathing about Tolkien‘s trilogy, which he compares with Middlemarch (!) from the perspective of characterisation, and finds seriously wanting, and he has no time for C S LewisNarnia books either, because of their reactionary, anti-human, anti-life and pleasure content. I didn’t disagree with him there, either. Perhaps the most eye-opening section for me was a chapter on the nature of the narrator, where he raises a whole raft of issues with which I was familiar as a life-long student of literature, but to contemplate them from the perspective of a practising writer was really illuminating. He also takes issue with the current trend for people to write stories in the present tense and demonstrates clearly how limiting a choice this is.

Pullman shares a good deal of himself with his readers here. Most of the pieces in the collection were originally lectures or talks; a few are introductions he has written to various books. The whole is a book full of surprises; I found him reflecting on a wide range of books I had also known and loved in the past, and also came across a few recommendations for my to-read list. As an insight into the mind and art of one of our best living writers, it’s really good: challenging and thought-provoking.

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