A book you haven’t read since High School: Far from the Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy

It makes me a little nervous to say: I first read this book over 20 years ago. Ouch. I’m pretty sure it was a GCSE text and, after devouring it and loving the curious language, I went on to read as many Thomas Hardy books as I could find. Does anyone else remember those ‘Classics’ you could buy for £1 in The Works? I lived off them as a teenager.

‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ doesn’t fail to excite and amuse as it did on the first read (perhaps one of the perks of a terrible memory). I do wonder, however, how much of it I could have really understood as a 15 year old. The story, sure, but some of the comments about men, women, and the torture of unrequited love I probably only imagined I had experienced.

I highlighted a whole bunch of quotes this time round, with the intention of producing them at dinner parties when an appropriate time arose. This is the sort of thing a good book does: makes you imagine you go to dinner parties where someone might appreciate you quoting classic literature (when you know you’d be better off learning lines for Anchorman). So I’ll reproduce a couple here… they’d make good Marriage Advice, perhaps.

“Perhaps in no minor point does a woman astonish her helpmate more than in the strange power she possesses of believing cajoleries that she knows to be false – except, indeed, in that of being utterly sceptical on strictures that she knows to be true” (p.149)

“It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in a language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs” (p.276)

And this (which I like to think is a description of why The Husband and I have such a good relationship, after being housemates first): “Theirs was that substantial affection which arises (if any arises at all) when the two who are thrown together begin first by knowing the rougher sides of each other’s character, and not the best until further on, the romance growing up in the interstices of a mass of hard prosaic reality… Where… the compound feeling proves itself to be the only love which is strong as death” (p.310)


YA Bestseller: The Fault in our Stars – John Green

The next book on my reading challenge was a Young Adult Bestseller. “Hurrah!”, thought I, “This will be a nice, gentle book – a real treat after Sophie’s Choice”.

Of course, I was falling into that trap that adults create for themselves, the one I wrote about in this book. Adults lie about childhood, or else they’ve forgotten. Being a young adult is far from nice and gentle. Especially when you have cancer.

I’ve not seen the film (she says, again… I wonder if this will be a pattern in my reading challenge?), but I imagine it’s quite a tear-jerker. It’s a great book, full of reminders about how we should be living our lives, given none of us really know how long we’ve got. And a beautiful glimpse into that all-consuming first love of adolescence, the sort that gives you goosebumps, and makes you believe that there has to be an afterlife, because when someone so young, so beautiful, dies they can’t simply cease to exist.

My first love died young. He wasn’t quite as romantic, or intellectual, as Augustus, but (to me) he was perfect. And there’s no way he isn’t still around somewhere.

Sophie’s Choice – William Styron

The second book in my reading challenge was written in the year of my birth, and won the National Book Award the following year, 1980. I should start by saying that I’ve never (to my knowledge) seen the film but somehow, perhaps through that strange way that the fact of having lived for a while gives you, I already knew what Sophie’s terrible choice had been. But this book is about so much more than that one moment… it would have to be: it’s nearly 600 pages long.

The beauty of an eBook is that you can carry it around with you without worrying about how heavy the book is. The danger is that you can start a book without really knowing how long it will take you to read. My eBook kindly pointed out, as I started page 1, that the average reading time for this book was nearly 13 hours. I haven’t timed how long it actually took, but there were at least two day-long reading marathons, where I forgot to eat.

It’s not an easy read. The characters, whilst magnetic and seductive, aren’t really very likeable. The writing is dense, and sometimes veers off into pages of historical non-fiction that is depressing and dark. In one chapter, alone, I noted down all the words I didn’t recognise, or couldn’t quite place: mucilaginous, vermiform, badinage, coprolalia, probity, … not to mention a reference to a “doughty love-muscle”. At 34% into the book, my Kindle tells me I still have nine hours to go…

It’s worth it, though. A fantastic insight into the North-South divide in America, the social situation in the 194os (particularly in regard to what one should or shouldn’t say in front of the ladies), the universal, timeless horror of what humans can do to people they see as different, and therefore inferior. It’s also beautifully evocative of what it is to be young, in a new city, with dreams of becoming a writer while you realise you really know nothing about the world at all.

A book based on a fairytale: The Robber Bride – Margaret Atwood

The first book in my 2016 reading challenge turns out to be one I have read before. I suppose it isn’t surprising that, having read as much as I have, and having such a poor memory, I would end up rereading some books. I don’t regret it: this one’s worth reading again.

The Robber Bridegroom is a fairytale I wasn’t really aware of, collected by the Brothers Grimm. I’ll confess I’ve only read the wiki page, but maybe I’ll scout it out later this year. How much Atwood’s book is ‘based on’ this fairytale, I’m not sure. But it’s still a damn good read.

I don’t intend to write book reports on all of these – it feels too much like holiday homework… but I want to jot down a few things that I learned. Firstly, all those ‘How to Write’ books I’ve read are wrong when they lay out how a story should be plotted. As Atwood proves time and time again with her books. Second, I’d like to grow old with a small group of women around me, who have held me though some tough times, and who I know how to laugh with. (Maybe my NY resolution should be to cultivate the relationships I already have to this end). Thirdly, I want to grow old and dotty and have chickens, and believe in crystals and all that stuff The Husband hates. I went to yoga for the first time this morning and, already, I can feel my aura growing stronger and all that.

I’ve read a few of Margaret Atwood’s books and I recommend them all. Along with Doris Lessing and Iris Murdoch, she makes me prouder to be a woman… and more intent on writing one day.

2016 Book Challenge

I hate New Year’s resolutions. I find it almost impossible to believe I can make lasting change (especially when I wake with a pretty nasty hangover) just by writing down a few well-intentioned cliches. That said, I do have a few – though I’m not going to share them here.

One thing I do intend to do in 2016, however, is to read more. So, I’ve signed up to Goodreads and printed off a copy of the popsugar reading challenge. Perhaps I’ll add a few book reports here on my blog.

Any recommendations for books that relate to ideas on the list will be most welcome!

Happy New Year, all.

Hello, Darkness, my old friend…

I’m standing in front of the mirror doing my make-up before meeting friends for dinner. So far, I have only scrubbed my face clean and started again once. I notice this because, when I’m well it isn’t an issue. When I’m well, I barely spend 5 minutes getting myself ready to leave the house. But, when I’m not doing so well, it’s harder. Noticing it tonight reminds me of the times in my life when I have spent over an hour trying to make my face seem presentable to the outside world. I am reminded of the times I have nearly rubbed my face raw, starting again, trying to make it look right.

There is a voice, inside, giving a running commentary as I apply my make up. Are you serious? You can’t possibly leave the house looking like that. You are fat, you are ugly, you are repulsive. People will stare at you in the street; you are that much of a freak.

But tonight it is different.

Later, sitting at a table with my closest friends, I hear that voice again. This time, it is telling me how stupid I am. One moment, I am stupid for not entirely understanding the conversation (how have I come this far and not fully understood tax situations when it comes to housing?) The next, it is telling me that I am stupid for not quite hearing the waitress, or for being self-absorbed and talking over someone else. What kind of horrific person are you that you just interrupted someone else to make a joke that wasn’t even funny? Do you see the way they’re looking at you now? All of them? That pity? That scorn? They are embarrassed for you, embarrassed to be near you. Wow. You’re stupid. 

But tonight, something is different.

There is little doubt in my head that I am suffering depression again. I struggle to leave the house, I can’t find joy in anything, and I am followed around by that voice everywhere I go. It is dark and lonely and exhausting.

But this time is different.

This time, I hear the voice and I see it for what it is. I listen to it, I am momentarily thrown by it, but I am a little more able to ignore it. I am a little more able to say You know what? You’re not telling me the truth. You’re a big old idiot. 

This time, although I recognise the signs of depression I know I’ll survive. This time, I don’t think Alright, we’re here again, things will never change, there’s no hope for me, I might as well jack it all in. This time I think Ok, it’s probably entirely reasonable that you’re depressed, given all the change, and loss, in your life right now. And that voice is really annoying. But, you know things will change again. You know you can win this. It’s a little like flu right now: you’re ill, you’ll recover, you’ll see the sun again. 

This time is different.

To Strike, or not to Strike…

In three working days I will no longer be a teacher.

Today, many teachers are on strike and – whilst I’m not out in the rain with a placard – I am not in school either. I am on strike.

I nearly didn’t strike. I nearly went in to teach, and get the pay cheque that I will so desperately need when I am out of work next month. My school will find a way to cover my lessons while I am not there. There are very few NUT members at the school, so the idea of Collective Action feels pretty meaningless. The school will continue to run, and no one will really miss me. The school gates will still be open. It would have been easy to go in. It’s the penultimate week of term, so I could have had some fun with the pupils I love. I could have been paid today.

But I am on strike.

Let’s be clear. If teachers have to work 60 hours a week, it no longer affects me. I will not be a teacher at the end of the month.

If teachers won’t be able to retire until they’re far too old to be dealing with the workload, it no longer affects me. I’m effectively retiring from teaching in my 30s.

If teachers have terrible pensions, if they can’t get on the property ladder, if they never find a work-life balance, if they go home (as some of them tell me) and cry through hours of marking and paperwork, if they hate every moment of the job that takes them away from the students they love, it no longer affects me. I am not affected any longer by the constant shifting of goalposts, the endless data input, the patronising hoop-jumping, the Threat of OFSTED. Not anymore. I’m out of there!

In three working days I will no longer be a teacher.

I am an excellent teacher. I have taught whole families. I have achieved outstanding GCSE results. I have run two departments. I have touched the lives of thousands of students. I have laughed, and I have loved it… and I have hated every second for the last 2 years.

I am striking today, for the teachers who I love. Most of those teachers are at school, teaching, while I write this. There are many reasons why they are at school, rather than on strike. You’d have to talk to them about that, and I don’t intend to berate them for making that decision. But I do want them to know that I am striking for them. None of this effects me anymore. I am doing it for YOU, teachers!

I am on strike for the children who have become statistics. I am on strike for the teachers who have become hardened and robotic. I am on strike because your teenage years aren’t all about exam results, actually, and we shouldn’t forget that. I am on strike to ask the government to back off and let us do our job – we’re the experts, after all. I am on strike today, because it is the last (albeit tiny) way I can raise my voice in defence of the occupation that was once my calling.

I am on strike because teaching is unrecognisable to me now.


Mormon Up!

We went to see The Book of Mormon recently. I loved it.

I love a good musical, anyway, but I was worried about this one. I saw Jerry Springer, The Opera, and struggled to see the funny side of what felt a little too much like some sort of blasphemy (Jesus as a baby in a nappy? Am I remembering wrong?). Regardless of where I might be in my own spiritual path, I still struggle with anything that ridicules my very honest upbringing.

So when my “godless” husband bought tickets for the show, I was intrigued (I love a good musical!)… but nervous. And then I read somewhere that Book of Mormon had been referred to as “a love letter from an atheist to religion”.  And I wanted to go even more. Because there’s nothing I love more than love between different world-beliefs (if we did this more, we’d all be better off).

And I was ready to be offended… and to laugh… and to wince at how close it came to being difficult (and how funny that can be too).

But I wasn’t ready to come away feeling like I’d learned something important for my life.

My daddy asked if he’d like it. I have no idea. Some of the AIDS jokes, the giant penises and the coarseness make me want to protect him and say “No!” (though I know he wasn’t always a vicar…), but some of me hopes he’ll see what I saw in this song.

Because this song – coming as it did at a time when I was reverting to some child-like belief about the world (Why is God doing this to me??!!) – changed how I deal with the world.

It comes at a time in the show where the main-Mormon has jacked it all in (can’t deal with a difficult mission in Uganda) and leaves his (slightly dopey) mission buddy to deal with it all. The bit where the main-Mormon jumps in about Orlando… that’s where I burst into tears and realised what an idiot, spoilt brat I am…

Listen… imagine you have first-world problems… ignore the slightly blasphemous bits…

If you’re Christian, think about the smirk God would have on his face that this is how he got a very useful message to me. If you aren’t religious… enjoy the very silly song.

Reasons to be grateful

I’ve been struggling a bit. Overall, I’m stronger, better, but somedays it’s so easy to revert to old habits, and I find myself stuck; back in the dark. So this post is a bookmark for me, of all the things I should be celebrating everyday.

A list of reasons to be grateful:

1. I am married to my best friend. He is supportive, he is silly, he challenges me. He deals with the things I can’t, or won’t, and his endless drive is an inspiration. We laugh a lot more than I remember to remember, and he has a wonderful family who help me love life, too.

2. This year, I have been studying again. It speaks to me, this learning. Freud has made me laugh – his writing style is so grandiose, so pompous. His ideas range from genius to utterly insane. The people on my course have enriched my life – watching them change throughout the first term has been a wonder. I have changed, too, and I like the new direction in which it is taking me. There are moments of enlightenment, moments of confusion, times when I am frustrated, times when I should celebrate (I am *good* at this!). Life should be full of moments like that. It says a lot that these moments feel new… I have been stagnant too long.

3. I have a job which – despite the Ofsted-related craziness of this first term – is one where I am constantly surprised. A conversation about the immigration of Romanians with two teenage boys in the playground; year 7s writing Christmas raps and performing them with aplomb; every day there are little things I should be allowing myself to smile about. I could swap all this for a job in an office somewhere… and I’d be dead of boredom in a day.

4. I have a home, a safe place. Maybe it hasn’t been big enough, or in the right place for sometime… but it has always been there. This year, we move into a house that is somewhere we can love, somewhere we will grow. We are looking forward to being able to invite friends over again, to sit more than 4 people in our kitchen.. to feed them, to laugh with them. It is in an area where I think both the Husband and I will find the kind of community, and diversity we need. Exciting times.

5. I have a group of friends who constantly challenge me. Who I trust I can tell anything. They are strange and wonderful and many of them are more like siblings than friends, given how long I have known them. This year, two of my friends are marrying one another. They have asked me to take an important role in their wedding and (though if I’m honest I’m terrified) I can’t put into words how honoured I feel to take on this part. They are an inspirational couple, and two of my favourite people to be around, and I look forward to watching them grow together.

6. This year, I have 5 nieces and counting. There’s something pretty wonderful about being an Aunt. All the joy and pride associated with seeing these girls grow up… none of the responsibility. Whilst their presence means I see my siblings less (it’s hard to have a meaningful chat with a two-year-old climbing all over you, I suppose), I wouldn’t change them for the world. This year will see the birth of another… and I have it on good authority it’ll be a boy. Poor kid.

I’m sure I could add to this list, and maybe that’s something I’ll do when I’m next feeling down. But for now, Happy New Year… this one’s going to be a good one!

Facebook 2013

An app tells me my most-used words of 2013. I don’t believe them, but I turned them into a poem nonetheless:

Essay, People!

Very, *really*, Thou.
Being [at] work, tomorrow…
Might things last?
Feeling baby-making:
Time, anyone?
Also, amazing reading.
Feel: college;
Home, need.
Say “Hate”: Looking dark,
Never those, [you] love, actually: Death,
Write, Thought, Think.
These yesterday, bit-years…
Lovely times;
House- thing,
Something wrong:
Freud [in my] head,
Thee, having = Possible.
Such (K)new Year.
Kids… surrounded: Stressed,
Early sleepe…
Bad. Please! ever-fail.
Okay. Lucky reason –
Teaching, Once,
Any night, everything moves,
Marking (for) hours,
Least, Stuff,
God? Watch week, world, months, few, lots,
Why? Moaning…
Life, Observed,
Find, Bless…
Phrase, Better.