Scrambling through Summer

Time to catch breath. It’s been one of the best and busiest summers for some time: a whirlwind of travel, incredible sights, jet lag and work. I’ve felt pressure to grab on to each moment and not let them pass me by: the new experiences, the sunshine, the time away from the daily grind. And it’s been exhausting.

Back in July, I went to Tanzania with my husband and my parents. For the most part, my brain is still trying to compute the extraordinary otherness of such a place: the wildlife, the landscape, the threatening city, the wild roads and the inescapable poverty. I’ve never travelled much – I was never a ‘gap year’ kid – and I am not a person who takes travel for granted. I left Europe for the first time in 2014, age 28. Until then, far-flung countries and felt as distant and untouchable as the Land of Oz, or travelling back in time. Going to Africa – and let’s face it, you can’t really get any different from my safe little pocket of England – is as big a culture shock as I’ll probably ever experience. To look back weeks later, I’m still overwhelmed by the scale of the difference. I could pick out small specific things: the sound of waking to the call to prayer at 5AM in Dar Es Salaam, the smell of fresh turmeric in the market, the smell of fresh fish under my nails after eating it with my bare hands. But there are so many little things. One day I’ll write it all down. Right now, I’m still reeling.

It took us twenty four hours to get back to Birmingham airport, and I went straight into teaching the next day. I signed up for a month’s work with a summer school again. One of the reasons that being a teacher is such a demanding job is the need to enthuse, to light up every word you say with perky inspiration – even when your head is pounding and all you want to do is sleep. You have to just keep going. These children had travelled from all across the world for a great experience in Oxford, and for so many of them, I had the responsibility of teaching their favourite thing – creative writing. Wow, these teenagers love writing. (They’re not all that good at it, but they love it). For four exhausting weeks, I had to find that energy, that enthusiasm. It was hard. By the end of it, I wasn’t sure I liked writing all that much anymore, which is weird. I’d taught the same sessions so many times, I’d become a teaching robot. I got bored, and the marking and report writing got me down. The students were lovely, and as much as I loved their company, the strain of the last month’s work was considerable. Still, it paid for the adventure in Tanzania, and life is about compromises.

Then, seeing two friends getting married in Prague. The bride was Czech, and the groom was Spanish. The ceremony was beside a lake with mountains and forests as a backdrop – a true fairytale setting. I loved that not only was the bride given away by her father, but the groom was given away by his mother. There was a perfect symmetry and equality to this. The Czech ceremony, translated into English, showed marriage as a practicality and legality. Both had to swear that they’d planned and thought of how their lives were coming together, how they would live, and treat each other fairly. There was no mention of God in this former Communist state: this was a legal binding rather than a spiritual one, which makes it sound unromantic, but it was the opposite. The rest of the day was peppered with fun, happy Czech traditions, and a superbly quirky disco compiled by the bride and groom.

I’ve scrambled through summer, and in two more weeks, I’ll be back at school, and normality will resume. I’m ready for it. This week has been the first week I’ve had to just tootle about and enjoy my own company, and while I’m enjoying the rest, I’m ready to get back into my usual routine. The house is clean. The washing is done. I’m almost caught up on my freelance work – almost – though I seem to have a bad habit of always leaving things until the last minute. All is calm.

 

13 Reasons Why

Image result for 13 reasons why bookI’ve just finished reading the YA novel, 13 Reasons Why. I’d heard about it before the much talked about Netflix series – in fact I’d bought a copy last summer, on recommendation from an American teenager who’d attended my summer school creative writing course.

I really liked the title. The premise seemed a bit gimmicky – I girl commits suicide, but leaves cassette tapes for the thirteen people she sees as responsible – but I was curious. There’s something about suicide as subject matter which is darkly compelling.

Overall, I really didn’t like the book. It was a page-turner, a sort of Girl on the Train for teenage girls. I read it all the way to the end, despite not liking it much, because there was something gripping about it. I suppose it was the idea of finding out who was going to be on the next tape – the cliffhangers – the unravelling ‘chain of events’ that reminded me of the death of Eva Smith in An Inspector Calls. It was a pacy read. A thriller. But no, I didn’t really like it.

The characters were flat and uninteresting, often relying on stereotypes – the fatuous popular girl, the sensitive guy, the teenage boy sexual predator. All of these concepts of characters could have been potentially interesting, but there was no depth or exploration. These stock characters were just positioned for plot purposes, like chess pieces. I was all too aware of the writer’s structuring of the plot, and rarely felt immersed.

Hannah Baker, the protagonist who commits suicide, didn’t feel real – and this was the main problem I had with this book. It felt so unlikely that anyone would kill themselves in such a measured, planned way. The narration switches between Clay, her one-time love interest, and the voice of Hannah on the tapes. While the idea of a voice speaking beyond death is appealing as an idea, this didn’t feel real. Hannah sounded too rational, too measured. Nobody on the brink of suicide could explain their feelings in such detail, surely? I’ve never had depression, and I’m not an expert on mental heath, so I’m not speaking from a point of experience of specialist knowledge here: all I know is, as a reader, I didn’t believe in this character’s breakdown. The series of events built and built, but I found myself feeling ever more distanced from them. I simply didn’t believe in the voice I was reading. Hannah Baker sounded like a literary construct.

I’ve just listened to the Woman’s Hour podcast about the Netflix series, and there were many differing opinions on whether this glossy American series is glamorising suicide, or actually getting young people talking about mental health in a useful way. I haven’t seen it, so I can’t comment on the TV series, but I thought Jane Garvey’s point was interesting: the way Hannah is still central to the story, and still speaking, is a worrying portrayal of suicide. The tragedy of someone taking their own life is that it is final. Their story stops. Central to the concept of 13 Reasons Why is that Hannah keeps on speaking. She dies, and yet keeps her voice. She gets to have her revenge, and that just doesn’t feel authentic.

13 Reasons Why portrays a suicidal state of mind as hopeless. Hannah essentially makes a list of all the people in her life that could have helped her, and didn’t. What sort of message is this? Don’t bother seeking help – it’s pointless. Well, that’s bleak. And dangerous, too.

All in all, I definitely won’t be recommending this book to the students I teach. I love the YA genre, the Holden Caulfield characters struggling to find their place in a strange, alienating world, but I prefer the optimism of writers like John Green. The Fault in Our Stars is about children with cancer, and while it’s sad and devastating, there’s a joy about life and an optimism that’s great for teenage readers. I expected a similar balance of emotions in 13 Reasons Why, but I was disappointed. It’s a page-turning thriller, and an unconvincing one at that.

Sleeping through a Very Strange Weekend

It’s been a weird one. After having travel vaccinations on Thursday, I’ve been in a slightly whoozy, flu-like state. I’ve spent today watching old musicals, and sleeping. I’ve wandered about the house with a blanket, like a toddler, complaining to the husband. He had the injections too, and he’s had headaches, but today he’s been fine.

We had to pay over £300 to feel like this. Our GP surgery is really struggling, and the Tories recently cut their requirement to give travel vaccines, so we had to get it done privately. It felt like a particularly expensive trip to the dentist, and what with the way the NHS is going, perhaps it’s a sign of things to come.

I don’t disagree with the principal of having to pay for travel vaccinations. If you’re going abroad, the chances are that you have the cash to pay for it. In theory, that is. Except I’ve also been a bit silly with money lately, and I’m now painfully far into my overdraft. I owe the husband for several big expenses – including our flights to Prague for a friend’s wedding in August. I know, I know: these are very middle class problems, as Twitter would say. Woe is me, scraping by with my two foreign holidays.

The other holiday is the big one. In July, we’re going to Tanzania. Hence the travel jabs. The travel pharmacist gave us a rather terrifying lowdown of all the diseases we could get in that part of Africa: yellow fever, tetanus, diphtheria, cholera, and of course malaria. It’s very likely we’ll get upset tummies while we’re there, because of water sanitation. It’s enough to put you off going. It’s all feeling a bit real and scary.

We’re going because my Dad met a nice lady on online Scrabble. Dad’s really good at Scrabble, and the lady wins prizes for it in Tanzania. I guess it’s unusual to find someone online who’s at that level, and they started playing regularly and sending each other messages, and family photos. This was three years ago. Now we’re going over there to meet her family, and it’s going to be a really exciting trip.

I’ve not travelled much – I never did the Gap Year thing, and my parents never took me on a foreign holiday as a kid. My first trip out of the UK was a sixth form trip to Paris, to go to the art galleries. That still feels like a huge eye-opening time in my life: my first trip to Europe, on my own, and with friends from my sixth form college that I only knew a little. I shared a room in a dodgy hotel with five other girls, and we drank wine and talked about boys into the early hours of the morning. Oh, it was so much fun.

My second trip abroad was to Italy with my PGCE cohort: another adventure with people I didn’t know too well, and it was a shame they preferred shopping to seeing the art of Florence. Oh Florence, I didn’t do you justice. I still need to go back.

I went to Paris again with the husband in 2011. Then, to China for our honeymoon. Our tour guide was my sister, who was living there with her boyfriend, who worked in Beijing. Even the journey blew my mind: from the plane I saw the Himilayas, the palm tree islands of Dubai, Asian paddy fields. I was 28 and I’d only been to Europe three times. This was my first long haul journey, and it was such a thrill.

Tanzania will be equally special. It’s the first time my parents will have been out of Europe. And, well, it’s Africa. I never thought I’d go anywhere like it. It’s worth having flu for the weekend, because it’s going to be brilliant.

 

The End of Term, the Brontës and Easy Spring Afternoons

IMG_2729It’s my second Spring in Oxford. It’s been a week of clear blue skies, with a slight chill in the air – but that’s how I like it. I’ve walked along the Thames, I’ve flitted from coffee shop to coffee shop. Alone, because it’s the first week of my Easter break. Part of me misses company and conversation during the day… but part of me loves it. Actually, it might just be the perfect detox to a busy, noisy term at school. I feel very relaxed, and as it’s not state school holidays yet, the city does, too. The streets are quiet. I walked into town yesterday, and didn’t see a soul for a good twenty minutes. I was even pleased when my Podcast cut out (low battery again), because then I noticed the birds singing. No traffic noises. Just wildflowers, buds on trees, perfect reflections on the water. The daffodils and blossom coloured in the grey spots where winter used to be.

I always thought I liked summer best, but perhaps that was the allure of the much needed six week break. Now work is easier, and it feels like this is the first Spring I’ve fully appreciated in years.

The end of term felt so different this time. I wasn’t exhausted. I wasn’t gasping for air. Instead, I still had the energy to enjoy the end of term rituals – a house music competition, poetry recitals, and short performances for the school by my drama classes (my directorial debut – and I was proud). I went into school on my day off to see the GCSE Drama performances – not out of obligation, but because I wanted to learn, and I felt I had the energy to do it. When school finished at 12 on Friday, I didn’t collapse in a heap on the sofa – I went to a talk on Volcanoes at the Bodliean Library. I still had the brain power to engage with this – and I even got a cool idea for a new YA series out of it (more on that later).

The_Brontë_Sisters_by_Patrick_Branwell_Brontë_restoredOn Saturday, I went to see my friend in a play about the Brontes. That was pretty wonderful. Performed in the reading room of St. Mary’s Church, there was a wonderful atmosphere. It was a wonderful script, a clever script – in fact you’d get a lot from it even if you’d never read Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre. What I took from it was a reflection on writing, on why we write. Those three women lived tragic lives, imprisoned by their position of as women, by their alcoholic brother, and by relative poverty. There must have been thousands of women like Jane, Emily and Anne, but we remember them because of their writing. They wrote as a survival mechanism, I think. It was an escape. Emily didn’t want her poetry to be published: she saw this as an intrusion. I can understand this entirely. Writing is a weirdly private thing. Yes, ironic, to say that on a public blog. Yet I still feel a bit weird when someone tells me they’ve read something of mine… even a blog post like this. Writing is a record of your thoughts, sometimes very private thoughts. Sometimes you don’t even realise what you’re revealing about yourself – and there’s a strange thrill in that.

It perhaps goes without saying that I left the play full of inspiration and ready to write. All in all, it’s been a rather perfect start to the holiday.

 

Time For Some Serious Dreaming #3

Read Part One here and Part Two here.

We continue down the towpath. My feet are getting sore in the wellies, though, and when we reach the common, I let Aristotle run around without a lead, and I sit on the stile for a while. I’d briefly forgotten about my exam, and now I’ve remembered, my stomach starts to flip about like a fish.

Why am I so nervous? It’s only an exam. My life doesn’t depend on it (no matter how much the teachers make us feel it does). I could not show up for it, and the world wouldn’t end.

Once the idea is in my head, it’s hard to shake it.

I could miss the exam. I could disappear for the day. Yes.

I have about half an hour before Dad and Clare will get up for work. I make a plan in my head: get dressed, find some money, and get a bus into town. I’ll hide for the day. I could find a quiet spot in the central library, and read. I could sit on the common all day. The sun’s shining. Come to think of it, a few hours of Vitamin D seems like a better use of my life than sweating it in an exam hall.

Yet Dad’s voice keeps shouting down these thoughts. Even in my wildest, silly moments, his voice is always there. He’d be saying something about sixth form entrance requirements, or UCAS, or my CV. All things that sound far too grown up to actually apply to me. It’s the tone of voice that gets my attention. The tone of disappointment.

So maybe I should take the stupid exam. It’s English Lit revision in the afternoon… I could also bunk that. After all, everyone needs their Vitamin D.

Yesterday

Today in the UK, I’m sure we all feel strange, slightly numb, a little scared. We read stories yesterday of a policeman killed, of a lock-down on Parliament, and security services on high alert.

I heard about what happened in Westminster via a colleague, a minute or so after my last lesson at school yesterday. We scrolled through BBC News together. A few minutes ago, I’d been making origami animals with Year 8 students, discussing 3D cinema, and the shape of the universe (yes, really). It had been a lovely afternoon until that point. It was a strange contrast – chatting away with children about nothing and everything, then to hear our capital city had suffered a serious attack.

I was shocked, but not necessarily surprised. Last year, the onslaught of horrible attacks in France made it feel like a day like yesterday was an inevitability. We’re all used to getting these tragic news updates on our phones. Strangely, I went straight from reading about the Westminster attacks to a training session that was partially on the government’s Prevent strategy. We are all aware. We know we live in strange, unsettling times.

Today is my day off, but I know that the children will be discussing it. They are very politically aware students at my tiny little liberal arts school. Even the eleven-year-olds read the news.

I was a teenager when 9/11 happened. I remember the conversations in tutor time at school the following day. We, the students, were all in a state of disbelief: we’d never known anything like it before. Our teachers didn’t know what to say to us.

Thankfully, yesterday’s atrocity was on a comparatively small scale. The fact that this assailant wasn’t able to cause more damage shows us that our country is relatively safe. The security forces were ready.

Before I’d heard this news, I’d been discussing the various forms of possible apocalypse with an incredibly clever little boy. He loves puzzles and origami, hence why he’d signed up to my paper crafts club. He reads The New Scientist cover-to-cover every week. He seemed to enjoy scaring me with stories of Bird Flu, and a modern day disaster akin to the Bubonic Plague. He then obsesses about the idea of a meteorite hitting the oceans and causing an almighty tsunami. Finally, he completes his little apocalypse spiel with the inevitability of the The Andromeda–Milky Way collision. There’s nothing like the scientific fascinations of a twelve-year-old to give you some perspective. I remember being twelve, and first discovering the vast scale of all life, of all the universe, of the possibility of the multiverse. I suppose I’m reaching for the idea that yesterday was horrible, but it wasn’t apocalyptic. We shouldn’t let it scare us.

Of course, this is of no comfort to the grieving families. One loved one’s death, particularly in such horrible circumstances, can feel as cataclysmic as two galaxies smashing a hole in time and space. The human experience of grief can be that devastating.

 

Time For Some Serious Dreaming // #2

(Read the first part of this narrative here.)

canal houseboat.PNG

I slip on Aristotle’s lead and he pulls me to the end of the crescent, then up the familiar snicket towards the water. The air smells of impending summer. Full of promise.

Aristotle took his usual route down the canal tow path, tail in the air, nose close to the ground. I followed him, passing the usual hotchpotch of houseboats. I noticed Greg already on his deck, smoking, eyes on a book. He’s wearing two jumpers, both with holes in them. He looks such a mess that I barely think about the fact that I’m in pyjamas.

Everyone on Moseley Crescent knows Greg. Dad pays him for maintaining our garden, and other odd jobs. He’s handy. There’s a sculpture on the roof of his houseboat, a fox; he made it himself out of scrap metal. It sits among troughs of homegrown veg: carrots, turnips, potatoes.

‘Morning, Miss Murphy,’ he says. I think he me calls this because he can’t remember my first name. ‘A bit early for dog walking, isn’t it?’

‘A bit early for reading, too,’ I say. ‘Hey! Aristotle! No – drop it!’

Aristotle is trying to eat a cigarette end he’s found on the tow path. I rush over and prise it out of his teeth.

‘Ugh. So disgusting. Is this you, leaving fag ends everywhere?’

Greg shrugs. ‘Sorry, Miss Murphy.’

I have no idea how old Greg is. He hides behind a beard and a layer of dirt. He could be in his twenties – he could be much older. Something about him makes me feel like he’s not a proper grown-up.

We continue down the towpath. My feet are getting sore in the wellies, though, and when we reach the common, I let Aristotle run around without a lead, and I sit on the stile for a while. I’d briefly forgotten about my exam, and now I’ve remembered, my stomach starts to flip about like a fish.