Sunday, 24 April 2011

Promised Poetry

So, having broken radio silence, I feel compelled to actually blog about poetry, as promised.

1) (Going back three days later to find this article was quite difficult - the Guardian has had five articles about poetry since then. Impressive.) This Guardian review of two collections of poetry aimed, one each, at boys and girls, was much more balanced than it needed to be. It does beg the question whether poetry is gendered. My hunch would be that more women read - and write - poetry than men (and now is not the time to get into a deep discussion on the dominance of men among published poets), so perhaps there's a case to be made for a Boisterous Boys' Book of Verse to get them enthused. And I suppose if you're a publisher, it seemed like a good idea to include a companion for girls.
But I'm in wholehearted agreement with the reviewer that soppy verse with flowers and nature is not inherently girly, while many boys would view the Charge of the Light Brigade with equal disdain.

In the Good Old Days, which, I hasten to add, were actually before I was born, the gem in the UCLES (University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate, which eventually became OCR) crown was something called the Plain Texts Syllabus, which was all about letting people have actually responses to texts, and tended to involve setting examination questions like 'So, how do you respond to this poem?' Great for openness, less easy for quantifying Assessment Objectives. Famously this syllabus set Thomas Hardy's anti-war poem 'Drummer Hodge' the year after the Falkland War (entirely unintentionally) and then watched the fireworks, which were somewhat more spectacular than the gentle furore over Carol Ann Duffy's 'Education For Leisure'. The emphasis in teaching it was less on learning a set of points about the language of the poem, and more about experiencing and enjoying poetry. I can't say that I've ever felt any really good poem was gendered - I think Plain Texts might be more pointful than Great Poems for Specific Group. In fact I suspect that picking poems that speak to stereotypes of gender might well be counter-productive. I can imagine the response if I'd presented my all-girls' classes with something about lambs because it was 'great for girls'...
2) I've read two things recently from organisations in which I have a vague interest, both of which are serious mainstays of British poetry, lamenting the loss of their Arts Council funding and begging for support from anyone who might be interested, in order to keep them open and doing the good work that they do. One is the Poetry Book Society, who send members 4 poetry books a year, chosen from the pick of the crop, and give them a 25% discount on other orders (and who are doing a new, free student membership, which gives you access to the online version of their bulletin, and the discount, though sadly not the free books). The other is Salt Publishing, who are one of the biggest poetry publishers in the UK, and whose Just One Book campaign managed to keep them afloat - just - through the recession so far, but who are now faced with cutting back a lot of their intended work.
The Arts Council has a lot of demands on it, and has lost a lot of central funding. It's no surprise that it's had to make hard decisions about where to spend its remaining dosh. I'm quite sad that both these organisations, both of which make a substantial contribution to keeping the poetry scene in the UK live and vibrant - the printed one, anyway - didn't make the cut. Vast numbers of people in the UK write poetry, for their own private benefit, or with the intent to try and publish themselves. Nowhere near as many read it. Some people are afraid of it or think it's too intellectual, or too snobbish. There is a poem (and a poet) out there for everyone.
In the interests of saving an endangered species, can I make a plea that you consider buying someone in your life a book of poetry? Possibly not '100 Great Poems for Car-drivers', but Just One Book goes a long way.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Useful link

I've intended to blog several times in the past week - about gore in Shakespeare (Richard III with a chainsaw - and flying fleshy bits) or Poetry and also poetry funding from the Arts Council and even the changes to teacher training. And maybe I will do one of these days - almost certainly about poetry anyway, because it's important.


This is a useful link to a BBC page where you can listen to dozens of interviews with authors that have been on various Radio 4 programmes over the years. What a brilliant archive and brilliant thing to use the internet for. Good old BBC.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Oh just give her a slap and get over it

I'm writing notes on Wuthering Heights at the moment, for a certain well-known broadcaster's well-known revision website. I had them partly written and then someone broke into my house and stole my computer, so I had to get to work reconstructing them.

There's only one problem. I hate Wuthering Heights. With a passion. Probably a passion only matched by Heathcliff and Cathy's self-obsessed, self-regarding, entirely selfish and completely destructive passion for each other. And if writing about it the first time was hard enough, the second time it's purgatory.

At the same time I am drawn into a kind of grudging admiration for the book. Because in the past knee-jerk hatred has made me throw it across the room in a Becky-Sharpe-in-Vanity-Fair-throwing-the-dictionary-out-of-the-coach-window kind of way (Speech and Drama exam Grade 4) and that is not conducive to examining its finer points and therefore understanding the book or the characters any better. But teaching it last year and writing notes this year has forced me to re-read the wretched thing and - horrors - to think about it. So for the first time I'm realising that the fact that Hareton regards Heathcliff as his father makes more meaningful and precisely parallel the fact that his marriage to Catherine is the happy ending that was denied to the first Catherine and Heathcliff himself. I still don't see how anyone could love either Catherine and Heathcliff, who are both badly behaved and selfish people - especially Catherine - but I do see the careful crafting of the novel, and its thoughtful exploration of the Romantic ideal. (I still prefer the rather more sedate exploration in Austen's Sense and Sensibility, but I can bear to be in the same room as Wuthering Heights now).

There are two lessons to be taken from this. One is that even if you hate a book, author or character, there's no reason to reject it outright and not find something good about it. Even if you hate it, figure out why, and look at why the author has done that thing, because presumably they weren't aiming for their work to end up in your compost heap/ recycling bin. Especially because one day you might be able to make some money from tutoring someone about it or writing notes on it for a certain well-known broadcaster. And the second is that if there's one thing writing notes on GCSE texts makes me do, it's blog.

Friday, 8 April 2011

The BBC says it best: LOL's in the OED.

There's been a little concern over the last few days from various sources, both individuals I know, and internet articles such as this one from BBC News, about the fact that LOL has made it into the dictionary. Before I add my ha'penn'orth, the real reason I was moved to blog is this opening paragraph from the BBC article:

"OMG! LOL's in the OED. LMAO!"

If you find the above string of letters utterly unintelligible, you are clearly an internet "noob". Let me start again.

Golly gosh! The popular initialism LOL (laughing out loud) has been inducted into the canon of the English language, the Oxford English Dictionary. Blimey! What is going on?

What I find interesting is that they are happy to print 'OMG' but can't bring themselves to write it out in full, because that would be offensive. Presumably if you're young enough/ l33t enough to understand what OMG stands for, the thinking must go, you wouldn't be irritated by the blasphemy. Very strange.

Anyway, LOL. The Oxford English Dictionary is a record of all the words in the English language. In its full version it runs to twenty odd volumes, I believe. The Shorter OED is two vols. So there's plenty of room for a new word, which isn't even very long. It's a record of how we use language. And LOL gets used a lot (although when I used it on Skype to my trendy young sister the other day - well, okay, trendy from my point of view merely by virtue of being young - she thought it was hilarious that an old fogey was using the term). It's not as if the inclusion of LOL has meant that some other word has been forced out. The English language is not a nightclub. We are not operating a one-in-one-out door policy. Although it's a thought. Votes for what to get rid of so LOL can be used? I'll start you off: how about 'abaft'? It's not as though we use it much...

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Hope triumphing over experience

I've blogged before about adaptations of favourite books (here) so I won't rehearse those thoughts again. I'm quite surprised to discover that I haven't mentioned Lucy M. Boston, however.

The adaptation in question is From Time to Time, adapted by Julian Fellowes from The Chimneys of Green Knowe, which is the second book in the Green Knowe series.* A little history lesson follows: in 1988-9 I was in Group 2 at St John's College Choir School in Cambridge. Two things are pertinent: one is that Diana Boston was my history teacher and the second is that in my English exam I wrote a story about a child who made friends with an escaped leopard (I think - the details are sketchy). My form teacher, who taught us English among other things, was Mrs Cairns, a termagent of the first water and one of the two most inspirational teachers I've ever had (Mrs Gadd is the other one, and the reason I became an English teacher. If someone reminds me, I'll blog about the reasons why another time.). Mrs Cairns suggested that my story had been heavily influenced by a book called A Stranger At Green Knowe (the link is to the cover I remember - it's in print in a different edition); what book? I asked.

One week later I'd read all of the Green Knowe books, by Lucy M. Boston. They were magical, and whimsical, and best of all, they were written by a local author, whose daughter-in-law just happened to be my wonderful history teacher and the woman who ran the school stamp club. Mrs Cairns showed Mrs Boston my story. I was very unusual among John's pupils in not having heard of the Green Knowe books because Mrs Boston was one of the Transition teachers, and usually arranged for that year group to visit the Manor in Hemingford Grey, which was the house in the books. I joined the school too late for this privilege. So that summer, Mrs Boston very kindly arranged for me, and a child who'd missed the trip because of chicken pox, to make the visit just the two of us, instead of as a school trip.

It was one of the most magical experiences of my life. Lucy Boston was a tiny, white-haired, bent over old woman, with the brightest, most alive eyes you've ever seen. She was 97 when I met her, and died a year later, but she was incredible, as was her house and gardens. Diana Boston now keeps the house open to show Lucy's quilts as well the extraordinary objects of her collected life. I went back there last year, with my mother and sister, to see Diana, and revisit the house, and see if I remembered any of it correctly. You too can visit the house - check the website . Read the books first. Every object in them is also in the house.

This is Emily with the yew deer in the garden of the house.

This has all been a very long prelude for the fact that last week I watched the film. It was most odd seeing a story that I knew so well, so firmly located in a real place in my head, moved to a much larger and very different house. And then suddenly one would be transported back to the Fens, as Timothy Spall rounded a corner and walked past the statue of St Christopher which rests against the Manor wall.

This is my mother with that statue last summer. The film wasn't so bad, in fact it was pretty good, though it wasn't quite right. But very satisfactorily, Diana Boston was an extra, playing a dinner guest in a very spectacular feather, and escaping through the window, leading to shouts of 'there!' and then rapid pause and rewind of the DVD to let everyone get a look in. I do recommend the film, which features Dominic West as the dastardly butler, as well as Hugh Bonneville being lovely, and the wonderful Maggie Smith as Mrs Oldknowe, who in the books is clearly just a cipher for Lucy herself. Buy it from the Green Knowe shop (for that matter, buy the books from there too) and help keep this wonderful building, and its dual life of fiction and reality going.

* I am aware that I spend most of my time blogging about children's fiction. It happens to be the thing I like best. Deal.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

If anyone was a Chrestomanci, it was her.

A week ago, on March 26th, Diana Wynne Jones died. She was one of the best and most influential children's writers of the 20th century, and she will be sadly missed.

Diana Wynne Jones is probably my favourite writer, and certainly the author of my best book, Howl's Moving Castle. I thought I first discovered her aged about 18, but then as I read my way through her canon I kept finding books which had been treasured childhood favourites, that I'd never known were by her. Archer's Goon (also a brilliant BBC tv series that couldn't match the brilliance of the book); Dogsbody, in which Sirius, the dogstar, was confined to the body of a Labrador here on Earth (school bookfair purchase); The Magicians of Caprona (children trapped as Punch and Judy puppets, at one point - scary scary); and Fire and Hemlock - I'm not sure anyone has ever managed to figure out what was going out in that one. And of course, the wonderful, magical Howl's Moving Castle. And the ones which I hadn't read still felt like old friends - her writing had that quality that tickled some deep-hidden ur-fiction sense, tapping into the leylines of stories.

And there were more of them! And grown-up books! Deep Secret, so much a favourite that when I lent my copy to someone and they failed to return it in a few weeks, I had to buy a new copy. Neil Gaiman, who knew Diana Wynne Jones well, revealed in his blog this week that the breakfast scene with Nick in Deep Secret is based on him - a neat little in-joke that made me laugh while I cried at his memorial for her. It's odd to be upset when someone you don't know dies - but sometimes you feel like you know someone through their writing, and especially when it is writing that has been a companion for so long. On a purely selfish note, I'm sad that there will be no more new books to read. And I'm sad that there is a little less magic in the world, but so so glad that she wrote so much and created so much happiness in book form.

If you haven't, read her. If you have, reread. Buy the books for your children, your friends, your relations, for strangers on the bus. Give a little magic.