Friday, August 31, 2007

Happy New Year

Here we are, at the beginning of another school year. For me it is a particularly momentous year because it marks my fourth year in my current job, the first job in mfmmxxxx years of working (sorry about that frog in my throat...). Yes. Never before have I stayed in a job for more than three years.

There were all the starter jobs where I had to move if I wanted a promotion and/or salary increase. Then I found a lovely job but when I later met the lovely man of my dreams, I had to make a choice between lovely job and lovely man because the latter was going to China. So I went to China too. This also involved retraining for a complete career change.

Then number one son appeared and that put work on hold for a little while (by the time he reached 18 months and was consequently admissable to most nurseries in our area, I was climbing the walls). Then I reverted to journalism, then back to teaching again, and then changed schools a couple of times, and it is only now at the grand old age of 40something that I have found a place where that sense of restlessness no longer assails me about two years into the job.

Of course, in one of life's kind ironies, my current job has a limited contract, so I'll be given the heave-ho in six or seven years' time and must work out what I am going to do for the rest of my working days, which I can tell you, will be long and many since I am one of those people without proper pension provision who is going to have to work until the age of 102 to maintain my standard of living.

But that seems a long way off and in the meantime, I am enjoying buying my mark book and organising my diary and getting new school bags for little boys and all the other tasks that need to be done before the prison gates close in on the growing child - except that now, school no longer seems like a prison, and honestly, I am looking forward to meeting my new classes and finding out how the old ones have passed the summer. If you had told me hundreds of years ago as a school child that I would look forward to September and all those fresh books and newly sharpened pencils, I would have given my special hollow laugh, but now, I am ready and dying to show off my new Spiderman 3 pencil case to my mates.

Somehow, September is a much kinder month with which to start the school year: January is cold and dark, and now we just have weather which is still warm but a little sharp so we don't fall asleep at our desks, the evenings are still light until quite late and there are things to look forward to like the leaves falling from the trees and getting sweaters out and going for crisp walks followed by steaming cups of mulled wine or hot chocolate. I love winter, and I love the sense of possibility that starting the school year in September offers - we'll all be better organised and more intelligent. It's kind of the system to offer us a second chance for resolutions and plans. There will be regular sports for some of us, and writing which can be slotted into a routine, not into a chaos of moving.... Yeah right...

Will I have written 15,000 words come October 1st? Check back and see in a month's time!

Wednesday, August 29, 2007


When I was at school and university, I could have been an Olympic splurger, and in my young free and single days, I could still work up a pretty good splurge, but since kids in particular came along, splurging has been a rare occurrence. Here are the instructions:

1 Wake up naturally, without the assistance of any mechanical aid e.g. alarm clock, teasmaid etc.
2 Lie in bed a bit.
3 Start reading.
4 After about an hour or so, answer the call of nature and return to bed with cup of tea/coffee and maybe a slice of toast or apple. Continue reading.
5 Continue reading.
6 Finish book.
7 Realise it is 2pm. Lie in bed and think a bit.
8 Get clean. Baths are good, you can start your next book in them.
9 Eat something, ideally something from three essential food groups. Frex, crumpets, chocolate, cake.
10 Continue reading. Maybe in a chair or lying on a sofa.
11 Eat something from a savoury essential food group - brie and baguette, or little nibbly cheese biscuits with some wine. And an apple.
12 Continue reading.
13 Go to bed.
14 Continue reading. Finish book.
15 Go to sleep.

Easy, once you know how. But it's the details that matter - you shouldn't plan for a splurge, they should be spontaneous events, but it is essential to have the correct ingredients in the kitchen for splurging. When I was a kid, it was easy, because other people did the shopping, although you couldn't always guarantee the correct ingredients for item 9 when leaving the shopping to my mother as she has a puritanical streak.

However, nowadays, I have minions who prevent me from splurging at all. And a husband who feels that splurging is a terrible indulgence and really people ought to get up and do things, like dust all the stuff that has settled now that we've had our beautiful parquet sanded and varnished. Or the washing up, or dressing the kids, or feeding them. I keep trying to train the minions to do things like dress and wash up and cook for themselves, but on this front, so far, I am a failure as a mother and they will insist on conversation and entertainment, and since I want to make sure they don't watch the tv all day, every day, I have to provide the entertainment.

So imagine my excitement when I managed to read 2 books in a day last week - without splurging. Ok, so one was a kid's book and the other a novella, but still, it was a faint echo to my glory days of reading Gone with the Wind on continuous loop.

Oh, the two books were Louis Sachar's follow-on to Holes - a cute read, but nowhere near its predecessor in terms of structural ingenuity and richness of plot, and Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which has gone to top of my list of decent fiction in 2007. It felt too short, but I am not sure that it could have been longer - the central conceit of the book being a dramatic monologue probably couldn't have been sustained for that much longer. I'd love to see the book performed....It was fascinating and beautifully written.

As an antidote, I'm reading Harry Thompson's amazing (and big fat thick) book This Thing of Darkness, an account of the life of Captain Fitzroy, the commander of the Beagle on its explorations of the South American coast. So far, it is brilliant - I only with I could go back to bed and splurge with it. Sigh.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The best book in the world

Rupert Sewell as Will Ladislaw

I finished re-reading Middlemarch today. It's my fourth or fifth re-read, but this time it matters because I'm teaching it for the first time, and I want my students to understand why it is the best book in the world.

First of all, it assumes a certain intelligence in the reader: the novel is narrated by an omniscient narrator who is clearly humane, compassionate and intelligent. The book is packed with allusions and quotations from Shakespeare (predictable enough) to Pascal and Bunyan. We are invited to contemplate major ideas, such as the nature of spirituality, the human condition, how relations between men and women evolve, cause and effect and the interplay between wealth and happiness. Eliot doesn't allow her readers to skim their way through the book. We are invited to contemplate and judge the characters, their actions and the ideas which fill the book. During this re-read, I tried to find instances where I disagreed with Eliot's fundamental stand, but I couldn't. She demands that we examine our own expectations of ourselves and of others. Which takes me to the next important aspect of the book: characterisation.

There is scarcely a major character who is not complex, interesting and engaging. She tilts the surface a little between those with whom she wants us to empathise and those whom she feels we may criticise, but she provides explorations and explanations for the behaviour of even the least sympathetic of characters that require us to judge flaws with understanding and the possibility of forgiveness. I think Eliot's genius emerges best when confronted with young women: she places before us in Middlemarch Dorothea Brooke, Rosamond Vincy and Mary Garth, three very different young woman, all aged between 18 and 24 during the course of the novel and examines their actions and reactions to the consequences of those actions. One of the things I find fascinating about the novel is how over the course of 800 pages, we start by somewhat sympathising with Dorothea's sister Celia, who is both a little in awe of her sister and somewhat dismissive of Dorothea's enthusiasms and emotions, but by the end of the novel, we come round to support Dorothea.

While Dorothea and Mary Garth are kindly delineated by the author, Rosamond Vincy is depicted very differently. With her blond plaits and her cold little hands, her swan-like neck and her delicate mouth, her stubborn streak and her utter self-centredness, Rosamond is perhaps the greatest villain in the novel. One of the features of the novel's greatness is that Rosamond is allowed to triumph over her husband, Lydgate, in dictating their modus vivendi so that all aspiration towards and opportunity for true, lasting achievement is suppressed. Rosamond captures her man much as his clerical friend Farebrother captures some insect, drains it of life and pins it to a board. While others in the novel (Dorothea and her Will, Mary Garth and Rosamond's initially feckless brother Fred) are allowed a happy ending, Lydgate suffers and dies early, his potential unfulfilled, his bitterness unvoiced, his love for Rosamond a hollow chimera. But Rosamond does not go unpunished, and her suffering is given equal weight to Lydgate's. That she recovers from it and continues, pretty much, as before, is the mark of a truly perceptive writer.

There are many other wonderful things about Middlemarch, but for me the real reason that I think it is the best book in the world is that it does not hesitate to confront the reader with truth: "We are all of us born in moral stupidity", writes Eliot when Dorothea is wrestling with the realisation that her first marriage to the desiccated solipsist and failed scholar Casaubon is an empty desert. She amplifies and explores the varieties and cures for this moral stupidity but that clarity of vision and the lucid, slightly convoluted prose she uses allows us to follow our own progression from moral stupidity to a greater sensitivity to our fellow humans and a greater awareness of our own flaws. Best of all, she brings us to these realisations with gentle irony, humour and mild mockery which finally allow us to close the novel not with a grim sense of how appalling we humans are, but with a warm sense of the possibility of becoming not perfect, but simply, better.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

The Perfect Hero & Seven League Boots

At last, I have a publication date for my next publication: October 2007, and The Perfect Hero will be available to download online from e-publishers New Concepts Publishing. I don't know anything much about e-publishing. I was hitting a blank selling The Perfect Hero because it is a Regency historical with shock, horror, no sex. There's some kissing, there's plenty of yearning and longing and passion, but the hero and heroine do not do the wild thing. And sadly, there's no market in the current publishing climate for a story with no sex. But NCP are willing to give this puppy a try, for which I am grateful, so I am happy to go along with e-publishing and see what gives.

I hope that I find some readers for it, because if enough people buy the e-book, then it shifts into a print copy, and that would be nice to go along with my four previous print books, but really, I don't mind. I now feel that The Perfect Hero is complete. So perhaps that clears the logjam in my brain that is keeping me from writing my next book.

Or that might be the research that I keep finding myself having to do to get into my world. Because when I write, it's like entering a world that I've created for myself - a bit Alice, a bit Narnia, a bit Wrinkle in Time in my own head, and then the world unfolds before me. So far, I've got lots of little sections of scenes all rolling around in my brain, but everytime I try and sew it all together into a seamless blend of plot, characterisation and something layered and interesting, bong, I bash into some totally minor detail that yanks me into the realisation that I don't know if my heroine could have done that... frex, if she was going to be sent off to a convent, how would it have happened, which has opened the doors on all sorts of arcane research. Another query was were tomatoes freely available in markets by 1595, or were they still a rarity? Imagine a time when a tomato was rarer than an egg or an apple, when it was served to nobles as a delicacy, a golden apple - the literal meaning of the Italian for tomato.

Then there was the whole business of how long it would take my heroine to travel from Bologna to Paris. A friend reminded me of Montaigne's Journal of his travels in Germany, Switzerland and Italy, which is the most marvellous account of travelling, and the first thing that struck me is that give or take, Montaigne and his friends and their servants and their luggage travelled pretty much 7 leagues a day. Sometimes they travelled a couple of leagues before dinner and then a full seven leagues after that, but mostly, it was a steady 7 leagues a day. Which reminded me of all the tales in which there are seven league boots, and they suddenly made sense to me. Imagine a boot that takes you in a single stride what it would normally take you a day to cover, no wonder these boots were so magical. BTW - a league is roughly 3.2-3.5 miles, or between 4 and 5 kilometres. A league is the distance covered by a man/horse walking for an hour, which is why it is a variable measure. So a day's travel is roughly 20-25 miles, or 30-35 kilometres. It would be a very long day in the saddle to get from Brussels to Antwerp, for example. Bologna to Milan is six days. Or six strides if you happen to have a pair of those boots.