Feast

This Week’s Bit of String: A whole block of cheese

It’s Friday last lesson again, and the English teacher has wisely chosen to engage our bottom-set Year 10s through writing about food. First, they are to describe their dream meal. I scribe for one of our special needs students while he tells me about his family’s cottage pie.

“Do you put a bit of cheese on top?” I prompt.

“Not a bit of cheese—a whole block!”

He tells me how they melt a whole block of cheese, sprinkled with herbs, and then pour it over the mash. When we move into class discussion, I’m urging him, “Tell about the block of cheese! Tell about the block of cheese!”

The teacher gets it. Her eyes widen as she hears about this feat of culinary excellence, and she calls it life-changing. The other kids, often so derisive at age 14/ 15, are chiming in appreciatively and they listen to each other share, their respect generally unwavering whether it’s one girl talking about her Jamaican parents’ curried goat, or the boy who lives on a farm discuss his chickens, or someone else describe her German grandmother’s bratwurst and peppers soup.

Funnily, the previous night I’d helped host a Women Writers Network Twitter Chat on the topic of Women Writing about Food. Lots of creative women joined to talk about food in literature, about how to describe it and what it can signify. You wouldn’t have thought there was anything amiss in the Twitterverse; it was just people coming together for a lively, supportive discussion.

The Room Where It Happens

While food and eating can have strong associations with loss and self-esteem issues, it also brings us together. Many of us are privileged enough to have happy kitchen memories from somewhere, and we’ll go still and listen when someone else recounts theirs. Being from kind of a big family, when I was growing up we were a bit strapped for cash, but we almost always had supper together and meals were noisome and fun.

I wonder what stories unfold at a kitchen table like this… (Seen in a London shop window)

My original writing location was the family kitchen table, although it was just outside the kitchen at the time. My mom had a typewriter set up there for work, and when I was four, I used it to type my first story. We made Valentines and decorated Christmas cookies and Easter eggs all at that table.

Not everyone gets to have that, of course. One boy in our Year 10 class offered up KFC as his dream meal, and didn’t join in with any tales of lovingly home-cooked food. I worry it might have been hard for him listening to what others were able to discuss.

Sometimes, the longing to connect can make us eat irresponsibly. I related hard to Nikesh Shukla’s chapter on food in his memoir Brown Baby. He writes, “Food is home and home is what I yearn for.” As an immigrant now also dealing with an empty nest, I truly get that.

Present in Its Absence

Almost as significant as food itself is the lack of it. Hunger can motivate creativity as much as satiation can—perhaps more. My first published story, in the Bristol Prize Anthology in 2010, was about a Haitian girl whose mother sold mud pies (literally) for a living. It reflects the fact that there are people in the world so disadvantaged, they eat earth.

Eating also makes a great metaphor. In the Retreat West anthology, my story has a girl called April describing how her older sister was a rapacious learner. I’m still very fond of the opening to that one:

“My sister devoured all history, beginning in the summer vacation when she was six. The century soon ending was Tabitha’s starter. She told me barbed wire cut her lip and toxic fumes tainted everything. Some of it was outer-space-cold, some burning-rainforest-hot.”

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

I’m not sure I’ve written many stories that don’t at least mention food. My latest novel, currently in polishing stages, is about Eve and the creation myth, so it features the forbidden fruit (which I’ve decided was a peach, by the way. Who gives up paradise just for an apple?) and contrasts the bounty of Eden with the strife of exile. In this story, of course, food is the ultimate separator, as that peach causes all kinds of rifts beyond just banishment. But as Adam and Eve’s family grows, mealtimes are when everyone gets together, round the fire circle, and are often where tensions or alliances become more visible.

How does food feature in your writing? I hope the Thanksgiving feast (if you are of that persuasion) brings comfort, joy, inspiration, and maybe even a whole block of cheese.

Hitherto Unsung

This Week’s Bit of String: Bin day

I like to do an extra long hike early on Friday mornings before work. It amplifies the feeling of accomplishment for the week. Friday is Five Miler Day, but it’s also Bin Day, when the rubbish or recycling gets collected. Particularly now that it’s so dark and dreary, for stretches at a time it’s just me and the wheelie bins out there.

Sunrises and hoarfrosts aren’t exactly enhanced by eau de sanitation truck, or windblown cardboard recyclables. But flashing lorry lights reflected in dark windows, and the vehicle’s clanks and sighs, the passive-aggressive thumps of the bins back onto the pavement, say Friday to me. So I embrace the whole.

The things you find on bin day…

Sometimes I see a former student jogging alongside the bin lorry in his neon vest, grabbing the bins and lining them up to be emptied, and we exchange a wave. He had a great sense of humour in school and liked art and music. I hope that the other sanitation workers are a nice fellowship for him, and that his early waste collection shifts leave him time for creative pursuits. I worry that his duties might feel quite demoralising, though. I’m not sure I could handle it.

Hail the Workers

Perhaps inspired by this young man, I decided to write about a sanitation worker while experimenting in a workshop this week. Sarah Tinsley’s virtual Scribbles workshops are a fun hour of mixed exercises and sharing. We were looking at different ways of communicating what’s going on in a scene–different viewpoints, dialects… I tried a couple sentences in the voice of a young bin man, then a couple in the voice of an elderly man watching from his window.

Then, I had a go at narrating the scene in Homeric fashion, referencing “the rose-fingered dawn” that Homer so liked to mention in The Odyssey. I enjoyed this, so carried on with it. I feel we could enhance a lot of professional profiles by narrating them like ancient Greek epics. There are so many people in this world who go unsung.

“A rose-fingered dawn casts its light upon Ithaca Street, sentried on this fortuitous morn with firmly aligned ranks of fleet-wheeled waste receptacles…

“Sing, o Muse, of one who went valiantly forth and did battle on the field of GCSEs, was bested, and yea, battled them twice more in accordance with the law of the land…

“Sing how with utmost dexterity he wields the malodorous foes. One by one, before each dwelling place, he captures the rejected parcels and upends them into the belly of his vast, clanking barge. He leaves not a single receptacle correctly aligned, fearlessly conveying defiance to the very gods.”

Changing Voices

I think I’ll do more of this. It’s fun. One weekend at university, a bunch of us went on a conference and I decided to narrate the trip there. It was a good laugh. I’d narrated myself sometimes when I was younger, and once found that piping up, “Little did they know, but the girl was dying for some attention” was surprisingly effective. 

The rose-fingered dawn…

With social media now, we kind of narrate ourselves all the time. Remember when Facebook was young and naive and people put their statuses in third-person? Then it moved on to angsty first-person adolescence narration.

I think we should borrow styles more often. Try a bit of Dickensian impersonation, or David Attenborough. Brighten things up by narrating as Bob Ross. My kiddo just dressed up as him for Halloween. I threw in a brief bit of Shakespeare on election day: “Get thee to a voting booth, go!” Another example is sports commentator Andrew Cotter’s viral videos from lockdown, when he narrated his dogs as if they were engaged in sport. 

So, as we head into another busy week, let’s have a bit of fun sometimes and make each other feel epic. Lift up an unexpected character, who doesn’t usually get to play the hero; try on a different style. See what happens!



Engaging in Speculation

This Week’s Bit of String: Rainy day photos

It’s coming down hard outside. The school has a plastic, greenhousy roof and when it rains hard, it sounds through the whole building as if we’re barrelling down Niagara. On the bottom floor, in the Sixth Form Atrium, my student’s ears perk up. She wants to get some good, rainy pictures for Photography class, to convey the wrath of nature. So we leave behind the practice English paper I was scribing for her, and head for the doors. 

“If I drown, give my regards to my sister.” She’s off into the downpour. 

The wending row of young acers behind the school stand like candles in the dreary grey, their red leaves tapered to disappearing at the treetops. Paving stone puddles reflect the brightness, blurred by the pounding fury of more water.

As it calms down, I join my student taking pictures near the Music Block. The ground squelches beneath us and a budding saxophonist attempts “Mack the Knife” from the other side of the brick walls.

Later she asks me, “If photography didn’t exist, what would the world be like?” 

My own rainy photos

She means it rhetorically, a comment of pride in her work. But, as is often the case, I find myself reflecting on this later. There are times when photos, or the flagrant absence of them, have swayed the species enough to alter history. A Vietnamese girl running from a napalmed village; police bodycam footage. 

Beyond that, though, what would our society be like if we were not constantly confronted with extra images? If we didn’t have framed photos of the past, and we didn’t worry about how we looked when captured for posterity, I wonder if we’d be better at focusing on the present.

Considering the What-Ifs

This week I helped host the Women Writer’s Network Twitter chat on speculative fiction. We had some great conversations, which can be followed here. Margaret Atwood defines speculative fiction as “literature that deals with possibilities in a society which have not yet been enacted but are latent.” It can be science fiction, political thrillers, fantasy, multiverse… all sorts of things.

I like to think of it as entering parallel universes, branching off from a point, recent or historical, in the known timeline. I’m not fantastically imaginative, so most of my stories are written like this anyway, by rubbing at the edges of reality. I might consider people I’ve heard of and shade them into fiction, or in the novel I’m currently working on, I’m taking a well-known story and telling it from an alternative point of view.

Sometimes, what-ifs plague our personal lives and can make us anxious. It’s a relief to turn the tables on them and create our own hypotheticals from the past or present rather than cower under worries about the future.

Kids’ Questions

Our students, when they leave their this-is-boring, I-hate-school ruts, like to distract themselves by speculating about alternate realities. They’ll ponder how WWII would have gone down if Hitler were Jewish, or lament the lack of natural disasters like volcanoes and earthquakes in the UK (until I reminded them that those might be accompanied by loss of power and wi-fi).

Some almshouses built for the “deserving poor” would have been funded by the slave trade.

The other day when we learned the prime minister had resigned, my Sixth Form student said: “If the next prime minister is crap again, I’m going to march to Winston Churchill’s grave and find a way to bring him back to life so he can sort this out.” I’m pretty sure he’s not the inclusive, progressive leader we need right now, but I do like imagining past figures reappearing to witness the world today.

Imagine if James Madison came back to life just to stand in the front row while Lizzo played his flute. We’d see him swoon like a slaveholding snowflake, or maybe he’d applaud politely like a mature and intelligent human being and accept that he was wrong about certain things. Either way, I wouldn’t mind seeing it. 

I wrote a piece a few years ago about Edward Colston randomly coming to life on a Saturday night in the centre of Bristol. Colston contributed toward Bristol’s prosperity in the 17th and early 18th centuries (even though he lived out of Bristol for most of his life). Much of his wealth came from trafficking human beings, so his legacy is corrupted. I liked picturing his confusion at the noise, colour, diversity, and excess of a Bristol weekend.

Where have the What Ifs taken you lately? Is there a point you’d like to stray from on our timeline?

Literary Locations

This Week’s Bit of String: Under the patchwork quilt

My grandparents’ guest bedroom was one of my favourite places. A rocking chair in the corner, a handmade crazy quilt on the bed. Shelves of AMC magazines that my Grandpa kept, unwilling to throw away anything with portraits of cinema’s Golden Age stars. The nightstands, under the dropped eaves, were metal and wire 1970s pieces loaded with books.

The books would change, and I never delved into how or why. Was my Grammy exchanging them with her sisters? Did my older cousins swap them out? However it happened, rootling around in this bedroom was where I discovered Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.

This is the quilt from Grammy’s house, in a writing corner I briefly had here before some, erm, home “improvements” commenced

It was an abridged version, still hefty, a yellow hardcover with that plastic that peels off in satiny strands if you pick at it distractedly while you read. There were a few black and white illustrations, the sisters each given distinct appearances. 

I was 9 or 10 when I found the book and read a few pages while my siblings ran around. The opening image of Jo stubbornly tomboying, sticking her hands in her pockets and whistling, made me laugh and I read it to the others and we all mimicked the gesture.

Family Home

At that point, my grandparents had lived in their Vermont house for at least 50 years, raising 6 children there. A pastiche of wallpapers, AM radio, the smell of American chop suey or home-baked donuts, and all objects well-worn, softened at the edges. Keeping the same house for so long felt magical, as if the air we breathed there was different, the atmosphere more sustaining.

During my latest summer visit to New England, I took a trip with my two sisters down to Massachusetts to see Orchard House, where Louisa May Alcott lived with her family (after they’d moved dozens of times, due to financial struggles). It was a hundred degrees out, with a major heat warning cautioning everyone to stay inside. Fortunately for us, Orchard House is gently air conditioned, preserving the many artefacts within.

Recognise it?

We were amazed at how authentic the place still is. Nearly all furnishings were used or made by the Alcott family. Paintings by Louisa’s youngest sister May (aka Amy), doll clothes stitched by Lizzie (Beth), crocheted bedspreads and even the wedding dress of the oldest sister Anna (Meg). We were quite awestruck.

In the master bedroom, there was even a timetable devised by Mrs. Alcott (Marmee), allotting how many hours the girls ought to spend on learning, on chores, and on other types of enrichment. It reminded us of the chore charts our mother would create to encourage the three of us plus our brother to each do our share.

A Room of One’s Own

While my clever and crafty sisters took great interest in different crochet and knitted pieces, I geeked out over Louisa’s room. She had her own writing desk, a white, rounded table her father built her. It jutted out between two sunny windows. This was exceptionally rare, for a women to have a desk.

The desk was ornamented with a nautilus-shaped inkwell, very Transcendentalist, and pens given to Louisa by her mother. Mrs. Alcott had composed a little poem to go with them, a prayer that the Muse would keep Louisa’s creative fires burning. Such obvious support really moved me.

I’ve now read Little Women more than once, unabridged as well as that old abridged version, along with some of Alcott’s other works. If you’ve also read it, and/or watched the film adaptations (two of the more recent ones were filmed at the actual Orchard House so it is instantly recognisable), you’ll remember that Jo (aka Louisa) writes up in the garret, and stores her pages in a disused tin kitchen. However, Orchard House doesn’t have an accessible attic.

Schoolhouse behind Orchard House where the Alcotts and other Transcendentalists educated newly freed people from Missouri.

Much of Little Women is based on Louisa’s life, and I’m sure in the dozens of other places she lived while growing up, she did write in attics and in all kinds of nooks and crannies. I wonder if she looked back on those corners with the most nostalgia, and perhaps even found them more inspiring, despite the wonderful space she ended up with.

Certainly, creating a writing garret for the character of Jo was a brilliant authorial choice. Think of how many young, non-affluent readers Louisa made writing feel accessible to. You don’t need a desk, or a view, or a room of your own to write. Not according to Little Women, anyway.

That was something that I loved about the book growing up, and the Winona Ryder film version that came out when I was in high school. Thoughts of Jo, bundled up against the cold, writing through the night really motivated me to work harder. Whether it was under that quilt on my grandparents’ guest bed, or in a basement corner on a typewriter that cost $5 at a yard sale and that I later abandoned after finding a snake in it, or in countless notebooks on bumpy bus rides or squishy sofas or prickly theatre seats at dress rehearsals; whether it was with shouting children or my husband trumpeting upstairs; whether it was scribbling at a bar between taking orders from customers or in the back of a woodworking shop while my students were learning new skills on a field trip… Sometimes, the most unlikely writing places are the ones that stick with us. They yield the hard-earned words, they witness the flood of the ideas that simply will not be kept back.

After all, a main message of Little Women is how hard work makes life feel more meaningful. It was nice to see this backed up by the many loved, homemade objects in the Alcott house, just as I remember them being in my grandparents’ home.

What sorts of places have you written in, and who are the writers or characters that have inspired you to do so?

Weathering the Extremes

This Week’s Bit of String: Melting paint on a cemetery fence

After freshman year in high school, I got a state-funded job with other local teens to help out around the community. We were a bunch that had, shall we say, sometimes got in trouble, and this might keep us on the straight and narrow for the summer. There was a lot of volleyball in downtime, and trips to the corner store for Cool Ranch Doritos.

On the hottest summer day, we were in the sun repainting a cemetery fence. The metalwork was rusty and the old paint was peeling, but we went right over it. It was 103 Fahrenheit. The paint didn’t dry, it congealed, green and sticky. I remember the smell of it, and through the bars all the flowers wilted, perishing against the gravestones, cicadas strumming frantically like overstressed refrigerators. Our Doritos did not feel very cool.

Painting the fence: A seasons mural by my local lake back in New Hampshire

The following week we learned that a classmate died that day, of heat stroke at Easter Seals camp. Those memories are bundled together for me: that sweet boy, the stultifying heat, the sticky paint, the graves.

Whether accompanied by tragedy or not, extreme weather can serve as bookmarks in our memory’s manuscript. Can you quite easily recollect and recreate your most stifling or humid moments? And your iciest ones, or the ones when you got caught in downpours?

Literature to Cool Off By

You can probably name some great books that incorporate weather, too. Recently, I was thinking of The Siege by Helen Dunmore and how cold I felt reading that. Another chilling one is Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg, set in Greenland. Tales of Shackleton’s journey, the cold, miserable mud of the front in World War I that oozes in at the end of A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book.

Maybe you’re like my husband and you insist a hot cup of tea will cool you down. There are plenty of high-temperature reads, from the jungles in Louis de Berniere’s trilogy starting with The War of Don Emanuel’s Nether Parts, to the suffocating false politeness of small-town Missouri in Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects, to the powerful storms for which Zora Neale Hurston named her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God.

My kiddo with this excellent sign at Quechee Gorge Vermont State Park: “I’m glad it’s finally hot enough to complain about how hot it is.”

I find that weather helps to mark out stories in my writing, too. When working on short stories, imagery is such an integral part of the whole. Using particular climate and setting conditions can launch us into the mood of a piece. It’s easier to get creative describing something extreme than something ordinary, so if you had a bit of a rant or therapeutic scribble while you were hot this week, see if you can put it to use in a story one day.

My first published story, in the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology 2010, was about a little girl in Haiti, before and after the earthquake in January of that year. To invent the character and her life, I relied not only on research but also on memory from my own visits, seared into my mind by the heat. Dusty roads, cracked skin, ceiling fans powered by generators through rolling blackouts, springtime temperatures at least as hot as the July fence-painting ones in New England. Once it clouded over, but the rain seemed to shrink as it fell and evaporate before hitting the ground.

Braving It

Weather can inspire us beyond just prose development. It forces us to build resilience. I’ve started wearing shorts in public, and shedding even my lightest cardigans. If I can be brave enough to show my somewhat un-toned arms and un-tanned legs, what else can I find the courage to attempt?

During the hottest days this week, our parched British region very nearly reached 100 Fahrenheit, and the upper floor of the comprehensive secondary school where I work DEFINITELY reached it. We couldn’t cancel school because there is no county provision to do so. We relocated classes, cramming all our students into the lower 2/3 of the building. The administration generously allowed them to wear PE kits instead of full uniform if they wanted.

Parched. Driftwood sculpture at Miserden Gardens, Cotswolds.

There was little relief downstairs, though. I resigned myself to living in a constantly-replenishing fountain of sweat. There was no way to look my best around teenagers who can sometimes be harsh critics. I don’t think anyone cared, though. We were all in it together. They weren’t exactly looking or certainly smelling like roses, themselves.

At the end of each boiling schoolday, I walked home in the blazing sun, grateful that at least I was in open air. Then I parked myself in front of the fan, curtains firmly drawn, and compiled editing notes for my novel. Being all about Eve and taking place in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, it’s got some high-temperature prose, but I was listening to the Frozen soundtracks which I think helped.

In one of Sarah Tinsley’s Scribbles virtual workshops recently, the theme was Heat, and I reflected in my notebook on how our emergency procedures for hot days might match our methods for interacting with the world: Rise very early when it’s quiet, open all the windows and doors to let the cool air in. Then shut everything down as soon as the sun starts to get through. Complete all tasks in darkness. Don’t venture out in search of an oasis because if we were entitled to one, it surely would have appeared already.

But what’s the worst that could happen, if we let in the sun? We might slow down, lie motionless, expose what we deem undesirable. We’d risk being seen, and falling behind. If everyone else is just as hot and tired though, who is there to judge, or to pull ahead?

Just a thought. I hope you’re able to take these opportunities to, if not feel more brave and inspired, at least feel accepting of yourself. We’re all doing our best, sweating through it.

Make ‘Em Laugh

This Week’s Bit of String: Personification of ants

Our neediest Year 9s have been treated to a poet-in-residence course. The poet wears bright-patterned shirts and hipster glasses and leads the troop outside to find objects for personification practice. My dynamic duo choose an ant, and assign it a “he” pronoun. 

“A male ant,” I say. “That would be an uncle!”

It’s the last lesson of the day, and very hot. We are all tired. I start to chuckle at my own joke.

My student, who takes stairs three at a time and is so bouncy you could easily interchange him with Tigger (although the constant involuntary shouts and bird chirps might give him away), stills suddenly and gives me a stern look. “No.”

I’m not generally sadistic, but the poor reception of my pun makes me laugh even more. The kids are disgruntled, and that’s hilarious. I try to apologise, but I’m not very sorry.

In search of comedy crumbs…

A couple weeks ago I attended my first in-person workshop or course since before covid. It was about writing with humour, hosted for Evesham’s Festival of Words by Fran Hill, whose memoirs including Miss, What Does Incomprehensible Mean? are brilliant examples of warm humour and efficient prose. We went over different kinds of funny scenarios and set-ups, including wordplay like my awful hot-afternoon pun, and read and created lots of fun examples.

Because we don’t do this often enough, I thought I’d dedicate this post to comedy. So, in case you’re a bit tired and world-weary, here’s a little compendium of things I find really funny. Don’t worry, they’re higher quality than my ant joke.

Early Years

In my family we watched a lot of vintage comedy. My father passed his own father’s love of the Marx Brothers and Spike Jones down to us. The humour that often stays in my memory is musical. Here’s Chico Marx’s piano routine in Animal Crackers–and Groucho’s annoyance with it. “I can’t thinka the finish!” – “That’s strange, and I can’t think of anything else.”

Often what makes us laugh is an element of surprise. It’s characters who we expect to be straight-laced suddenly subverting stereotypes and doing something outrageous. Growing up (and this is still true for me), my siblings and I loved musicals and Disney animated films. I’ve got examples from both showing characters doing something hilariously unexpected: Fagin’s entrance in “I’d Do Anything for You” from Oliver!, and Kronk, the beefcake boytoy, creating his own theme music in The Emperor’s New Groove.

As we got older, we became fans of irony and understatement. We loved the Anguished English books, collecting the most egregious and uproarious written mistakes often from professional settings. We liked the absurd. Here’s a scene from the Beatles’ film Help, because Ringo’s flat-toned reaction to nearly having his finger bitten off in a vending machine tickled us: “I thought… y’know, I thought she was a sandwich.”

The Music Plays On

Given that the family I’ve raised is also quite musically inclined, I continue to enjoy that type of humour. Comedy increases its impact when it uses cultural references that people can further relate to. Bill Bailey is great at this. My husband and son and I love his Belgian jazz version of the Doctor Who (Docteur… Qui) theme song. Or, if you prefer, he also does a terrific reggae rendition of Downton Abbey.

Bath Carnival last weekend… get happy!

Talking of unlikely combinations, here’s a fabulous mashup my son created, of Beethoven’s Fur Elise, and the Tetris theme. How awesome is it when your own kids make you laugh?

I also love an ensemble piece. For me, that’s what makes shows from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to The Office to Stranger Things to The Good Place so fantastic. You adore and rely on every cast member. Here are prime examples of ensemble comedy from each side of the pond, that have me laughing more with each character adding to the piece: The Muppets covering “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and several incredible British actors and actresses attempting Hamlet’s soliloquy together. You’ll love both of these from the beginning… but the endings blow them out of the water.

In literature, Dickens’s descriptions of people make me laugh, and Louisa May Alcott’s quick action tags like saying a boy exited “with the graceful gait of a young giraffe.” An especially memorable (partly because I was on a bus full of dour commuters at the time) laugh-out-loud passage is from Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union:

“Reunited in their parents’ bed, the Shemets boys set up a whistling and rumbling and a blatting of inner valves that would shame the grand pipe organ of Temple Emanu-El. The boys execute a series of maneuvers, a kung fu of slumber, that drives Landsman to the very limits of the bed…”

Most of all in my reading and writing, I like to celebrate surprising alliances, to build little bands of misfits, so maybe that’s why I enjoy odd pairings in comedy too. My humorous short story “From Newcastle, With Love” appears in the Stroud Short Stories anthology, and you can hear me read it (and hear the audience laughing at just the right places, too).

What are some of your favourite funnies?

The Exams Rant

This Week’s Bit of String… More a tangle of tension

I despise the British system of exams. I’m not a fan of A-Levels (the exams kids take in formal education at 18), but GCSEs (the ones at age 16) are the worst, because they’re so inflexible and unavoidable.

Exams at my American high school were more like tests. Designed by your teacher for your specific class, they’re marked by your teacher, and in most cases they’re only part of your final grade. You’ll get credit for essays and projects and presentations, homework, unit tests, and even participation in classroom discussion.

None of that is true in the UK. I hate the system as a parent and I hate it even more now that I’m working in secondary education again. This week has been very stressful, as the main national exams began. Our Year 11 students, along with all the 15 and 16-year-olds across this Small Island, sat down at the same exact moment to work through papers which determine their grades for the last two years of learning.

“Learning” being a loose term when it comes to spending two years practising for a passing grade on a paper distributed and marked by a government-sanctioned external body. Because if you don’t pass, the venue you chose for your next level of vocational training or academic education might not accept you.

Coping with stress. One of the Year 11 students and I have been creating our own oil pastel versions of Van Gogh’s Starry Night and it’s been a lovely distraction.

The country has been brainwashed into believing that these exams are the only possible standard of achievement for teenagers. Even those of us who see the system’s flaws panic over what grades our students will get.

Binding the fates of every person in the whole nation to the same tests isn’t actually fair. I hate that every young human, regardless of need, interest, talent, or background, is forced to bow their head as one over a paper. Children are told they must come in even if ill. The student I’ve been working with most this year sat her first English paper on Wednesday doubled over with stomach cramps the whole time. Some go in streaming with hay fever, or fasting for Ramadan. Some go in having just been dumped by their boyfriend of over a year.

I hate seeing kids cry outside the exam hall every morning, or shake, or look miserable. I hate that the exams are so onerous, students joke about how great it would be to get a terminal illness so the exam board in their infinite mercy will tack an extra 5% on their scores. Other students are Googling, “If the Queen dies, will the next day’s exam be cancelled?”

Meanwhile, the 80% of the school’s students who aren’t exam age must spend a month being quiet at break times, moving to different classrooms, and even having their whole timetables changed in order to accommodate the national exams schedule. The teachers are all tense and terrified. They’re not trusted to assess their own students, of course.

There are special staff who monitor the students while taking exams. The invigilators. There are also “access arrangements” for students with special needs. Again, this is a loose term. A person with meticulously evidenced need may be granted access to someone who will read the questions for them, possibly scribe answers as dictated, or they may be granted rest breaks or extra time. Not super helpful for those with issues processing the questions or sitting still, and certainly nothing that helps the many students who struggle with anxiety.

More than half of our Year 11s have access arrangements. When a system must be modified for the majority of a population, maybe it’s time to assess them a different way?

I’m also making sure, no matter how drained I am, to get out at 5:45 for a good stomp in the fresh air to help me cope.

Because of the massive need for invigilating and access arrangements, I have to sit exams too. I sit quietly beside a student with only my bottle of water and my pencil case, just like her. I read her the questions and scribe her answers when asked. I can’t explain anything to her, and I can’t doodle or pick up a book and read. We’re both stuck there until the nationally mandated duration of the exam is up. I despise the sitting still, the stifling air. Students have been told that before entering the exam hall at 9 in the morning, they must decide whether or not to bring their jumpers with them. Because if they get hot in there with over 100 other people, they’re not allowed to take off their jumper and put it on the back of the chair. There could somehow be illicit information scrawled on these black uniform sweatshirts.

I hate that students spend 2 years studying just 2 books for English class, and a few poems. Blood Brothers, for example. I know it has a valid message, but using it to teach literature is like using a sledgehammer for brain surgery. Every student is taught to memorise the same quotes about being poor or rich. Every student memorises “sneer of cold command” from “Ozymandias” and “Be like the serpent under’t” from Macbeth. What a dull time grading those literature exams must be. If only students were encouraged to read widely, find what they love, and defend it.

I hate that for Science, kids are drilled on parts of the cell and the periodic table until their deduction and curiosity cease to exist. One of the questions on this week’s Biology paper was: “Why do you think there were no new cases of skin cancer among boys under age 15?” and our whole class was panicked about it after. “We never talked about boys with skin cancer in class. We didn’t go over that!”

I hate that when exams are finally done, students must wait 3 months to get their results, the anxiety hanging over them all summer as they wait to see if they’ll be able to move on in the direction they want to. I’ll be there that day late in August, telling them that whatever their marksheet says, they have tremendous value and the world still holds great things for them.

Did you do exams here in Britain and have you got any coping strategies or inspiring stories?

What Moves Us

This Week’s Bit of String: Possible planetary shift

“Miss, is it true that moving the earth even a centimetre out of orbit would basically destroy everything?” 

I’m not certain, Year 11 child who’s supposed to be completing a textbook-based cover lesson on greenhouse gases in the last period of the schoolday. 

If I’d thought critically about what an orbit is, and the way it represents the equilibrium of attraction between two planetary bodies, I would probably have confirmed the student’s query. A change in orbit could trigger sudden prolonged extreme temperatures or just cause the earth to plummet into the sun which, come to that, would be a particularly prolonged temperature change. 

But it’s hard to properly consider an extra theory when you still have remnants of covid brain from less than two weeks ago, and you’re trying to prepare teenagers for exams while fielding queries from cover teacher and students alike, such as: “Did you find Jacob?” and “Miss, what’s your opinion about amputees?” (Kids are just weird, ok?)

A perfect orbit

Anyway, once I was home and the dust of my thoughts settled, I channeled them into a new wormhole. I researched what would happen if the earth’s orbit skewed, if its tilt altered, and also looked into the calculations being done to check the feasibility of moving the earth further from the sun

All interesting and fairly unlikely, but what intrigued me was what, I suspect, intrigues a lot of us readers and writers. How a tiny change can make a big difference, how a slight tick of motion can catalyse vast movements.

Being Moved

My most recent (and utterly wonderful) read was Nicole Krauss’s The History of Love, in which a character mentions being “moved” by a book. “It moved me in a way one hopes to be moved each time one begins a book. What I mean is, in some way I’d find impossible to describe, it changed me.” 

I thought, couldn’t they have come up with a better verb for such a significant impact? “Move” is stretched wearily over many meanings. But as I reflected on our use of move, I warmed to the term. Sometimes having multiple uses is appropriate. It allows a word extra levels.

We talk about moving up or moving out. We move house and move away, dream of moving mountains and possibly moving the earth’s orbit. There are chess moves and symphonic movements and moves to proceed or to adjourn. Aristotle even came up with a theory referring to God as the Unmoved Mover.

A book (or other work of art) is an Unmoved Mover. It didn’t spring up out of nowhere, but by the time we hold it in our hands, it is standing on its own, detached from its maker. Its power is only what we can take from it, yet it gives so much.

Roots and Tongues

The oldest known version of the word move comes from the proto-Indo-European root meaning “to push away.” There are undoubtedly books that knock us slightly out of orbit. Our temperature heats up, and we proceed with a certain rawness. It’s often, as Krauss writes, impossible to point out a concrete change in our lives. Yet who can say what we notice, how we react, that comes down to our sensitivity being pricked by a book?

The challenge of capturing motion

While thinking about our use of this word in English, I consulted the gloriously warm and talented poet Elizabeth M Castillo. She is fluent in several languages, and let me know about the word “ému” in French, which is deeper and longer-lasting than “moved.” I suppose it’s a bit like our word emote, but in English that sounds sort of… clinical.

“Affect” or “inspire” are a bit vague, whereas I’ve come to like the physical, visceral implications of “move.” A story can be touching, but to say a book “touches” me feels uneasy.

In Spanish, Castillo says, there’s “conmovido,” which is different from their word for physical movement. It “implies something or someone is doing it to you… bringing you along into a feeling.” A bit like an Unmoved Mover, again.

Stories on the Move

I feel as if the best reads can be Unmoved Mover books that give you a shove, or companion books that move along with you, or paper boat books which do the moving for you. Elizabeth M Castillo’s poetry book Cajoncito is one of the latter. Reading her poems, I feel relieved, as if someone’s unlocked sentiments I hadn’t managed to untangle yet, and set them afloat. It’s on sale through Amazon, and honestly the first poem alone is worth the price. 

It’s not just books, of course. Would I have made it through my teen years without accompaniment from Tori Amos and the Les Miserables soundtrack? Have you ever had the lights go up from a live stage production and felt your life as you knew it is over; you’ve been elevated to a different plane and your trajectory has inevitably, if not definably, swerved? In the end, have you come up for a better word to describe the general experience than… “moving?”

Illuminating Literary Women

This Week’s Bit of Spring: Tears of a teenaged girl

Student J is crying. She’s had to stay after school for personal tuition as her GCSE exams approach. Her boyfriend, whose hoodie she carries with her and cuddles at every lesson, has gone to hang out with friends who happen to be girls. J is 16 and convinced this dooms her relationship of nearly a year.

I have another 16-year-old student who sometimes comes in exhausted, saying she can’t sleep because of anxiety that her boyfriend will cheat on her like an earlier boyfriend did. The doubts circle in her mind and she can’t shake them.

We tell the girls it’s fine, look how much he likes you, of course he doesn’t want someone else. Now let’s do a bit of coursework. But truthfully, it’s not likely these relationships will last. I’m not disparaging the feelings young people have for each other, I’m just not convinced these two particular guys are that great. The girls will find new opportunities as they get older and probably, hopefully, better partners to share them with, plus other possibilities to try along the way.

Should we, instead of just placating, be stealthily building up young ladies for themselves so they’re not utterly devastated if and when they’re on their own for a bit? Pondering this made me wonder if I do that enough in my writing.

A Woman, Herself

Many of us know now about the Bechdel test for movies. Are female characters integral and autonomous enough within the plot so there are two named ones who converse about anything other than men? Think about it—this is rare.

In fact, when I considered it, it felt so rare I worried my own stories don’t pass the Bechdel test. Does it count if a novel or short story is told first-person by a female character? That way, we’re hearing her thoughts which are definitely not just going to be about men. (Sorry guys, you’re not quite that all-consumingly important.)

Disopedience–Action–Liberation graffiti in Stroud

Books and short stories are different from films—we can’t use the same feminism test on them. That’s why there’s the slightly more complicated but really useful Johanson analysis. Named for the critic MaryAnn Johanson, who writes on the FlickFilosopher website, it measures books or films in 4 main areas to see if they adequately portray and represent a gender which makes up half the world’s population.

Does the story grant centrality to a female character? Does she have her own arc somewhat independent of the male characters?

Is she able to influence others or is she merely influenced by them? Are female figures given authority and is that at least partially shown in a positive light?

When introducing or describing female characters, is more attention given to their physical appearance than anything else?

Are women (and characters identifying as women) defined by more than tropes or family roles?

These are really good questions, which I think my work mostly satisfies. I’ll definitely be keeping them in mind during my rewrites though, particularly since checking characters’ trajectories and making sure they actually develop as humans is always high on my list.

Let’s Talk About Relationships

Feminism isn’t Fight Club, so far as I know. We’re allowed to talk about all sorts of things and view them from a feminist angle. That includes men and our relationships with them; after all humans do crave relationships whether we want to or not. Most guys I know talk about relationships a lot. It does not diminish their identities, and nor should wanting a partnership diminish women’s individuality.

Wedding Dresses through history display at a local church. Women’s history isn’t just marriage, but marriage is part of our history.

When we meet up with friends, don’t we spend a fair bit of time discussing our families? Or discussing work. (I think work is more dehumanising than marriage, for most of us.) Being a mum is the most important part of my identity, even more so than being a writer, and I don’t think that makes me backward or less feminist. That’s what drew me to the novel I’ve lately been working on, The Gospel of Eve. In a feminist way, it gives Eve a chance to tell her side of the legend, and as she’s sometimes referred to as the first mother, it’s also an opportunity to explore various relationships.

Obviously we don’t want art or literature in which supporting and talking about men is the sole purpose of a female’s inclusion. But penalising books about relationships would affect a lot of work, by female and male writers, and beloved by readers of all kinds.

If we discouraged the young people in our care from talking about their relationships because it’s unenlightened, we’d shut ourselves out of something really important. We would be unable to support them when they might need help. As educators, role models, guardians, and writers, we want to explore all things, from relationships to our core individual selves.

For further reading on feminism in literature, Roxane Gay wrote an excellent essay on it in Dissent Magazine. Here’s her guiding definition: “A feminist novel illuminates some aspect of the female condition and/ or offers some kind of imperative for change and/ or makes a bold or unapologetic political statement in the best interests of women.”

What literature has illuminated something for you? What bold statements have you found inspiring, and do you have thoughts on creating your own?

Book Review: The Shadows We Cast by Sarah Tinsley

Blazing a trail for literary women to get angry

New year, new literature: after an array of great reads in 2021, I kicked off 2022 with Sarah Tinsley’s debut novel The Shadows We Cast, available from SLR Publishing. This book made me realise how many frontiers are still available for literature to explore. Unflinching but nuanced, this dual narrative of a sexual assault feels powerful enough to start changing the world.

Sarah puts the content warning right in the blurb on the back of the brilliantly designed book jacket. Here’s what it says:

What if you couldn’t recognise the violence in others? Or in yourself?
Nina refuses to accept the role of passive victim after being sexually assaulted. She becomes obsessed with an online vendetta that risks her job, her friendships, and her sanity.
Eric thinks, if anything, he’s too nice. But when he takes advantage of a stranger he is forced to confront the kind of man he really is.
The Shadows We Cast is a dark novel about consent and control that unsettles ideas about victims and villains.

A fast-paced read with deeply drawn characters

Sarah is a friend of mine and has helped me a great deal with my own writing. (She can help with yours, too–check out her wonderful workshops here.) I was excited when she announced her book deal and what The Shadows We Cast is about, knowing she would give it deep, honest treatment. But I was a little scared too. Because of previous experiences, I find it hard to read about sexual assault. Nightmares come more readily, and I feel more exposed while paradoxically the world and my current life seem more distant from me.

Actually, it’s like this line from page 9 of Sarah’s novel. After being attacked the protagonist, Nina, experiences “dreams that made her feel blunt and smudged. She feels like an echo.”

This book doesn’t build up to the rape. As Sarah herself noted during her book launch, too often rape is used as a plot twist, or maybe a dramatic reveal in someone’s backstory. The Shadows We Cast has twists and wields dramatic irony deftly, but it’s very honest about sexual assault. That bit’s already happened. The whole book deals with the gritty aftermath—not just the aftermath for Nina the victim, but also for Eric, her assailant.

And here’s what I found really scary. While taking Nina through the utterly altered landscape of her life following this trauma, Sarah allowed her to get really angry, and to act on that anger.

Sarah invited us to bring cocktails for the virtual book launch, because as she rightly pointed out, honesty even about dark subjects deserves celebration.

How often, in literature, mythology, or even in real life do we allow women to do angry things? From Clytemestra to The Taming of the Shrew to Mrs. Rochester in her attic, no matter what befalls them women are meant to do no harm. The character arc of an angry woman will be that she learns to forgive; she’ll be subdued by love or she’ll face drastic punishment as the villain. Yet in this novel, Nina’s anger is quite powerful and drives her to be truly destructive.

It’s a bit worrying that reading about Nina’s rage disturbed me more than the unflinching catalogue of the injuries she sustained during the attack, or the blurred lines (see what I did there?) in Eric’s mind as he considers what he’s done. This aversion to anger must be a societal effect on me rather than just a personal issue, and now I wonder: have I been depriving my own characters, particularly the female ones, of the right to rage? Is our world ready to acknowledge this now?

I did some research after reading through The Shadows We Cast. It’s a real page-turner, and the ending was quite satisfying. I found an interview about angry women in Greek mythology, the differences between the domestic and political spheres. Thinking about Shakespeare’s heroines, I read this article about the newfound popularity of Measure for Measure, and to top it all off here’s a reading list featuring angry women, because after all this time, why not?

Of course, the reading list was produced before Sarah launched The Shadows We Cast. I definitely recommend checking that one out first, and you can purchase it here. Plus, you won’t want to miss reading more about Sarah and her other work on her site. Please let me know what you think, and whether you have tips on allowing characters to follow their rage. I might need a few of those!