Work

I don’t like work – no man does – but I like what is in the work,- the chance to find yourself. Your own reality – for yourself, not for others- what no other man can ever know. They can only see the mere show, and never can tell what it really means.

Joseph Conrad ‘Heart of Darkness’

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Happy birthday, Will Shakespeare!

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To thine own self be true

If there is one quotation etched upon my heart, it must be this one from ‘Hamlet’. How annoying, then, that’s it’s offered to Laertes by his pompous father, Polonius, and not by a cool character! Can something still be beautiful if uttered by a buffoon? If so, then I guess there’s hope for the rest of us yet! What’s your favourite Shakespeare quotation?

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The Reading Coach

ImageIt’s the hardest question a student can ask their English teacher because the answer you give can either start them on a journey of a lifetime or put them off for good. ‘What can I read?’ It was Lou, one of my A2 students with a place to read Geography at Oxford but with her heart increasingly consumed by a love of literature, who popped back into my classroom the other day and hurled me this question with a look of hope on her face. In the seconds that whirled before I could hazard an answer, my brain span through its repository of books read and loved, hoping to land on something it could confidently offer this young woman. ‘Classic or contemporary? Heavy or light?’ I asked. Give me a clue here! ‘What have you read?’ But Lou seemed as stumped as I was. So, I looked at her and saw a young woman about to leave home and move somewhere new, and I thought ‘Lucy Honeychurch’. Sweet, naive, wanting to please, but then she travels to Italy and starts to experience life away from her family, and her identity as a daughter, and she blossoms. ‘A Room with a View’ – a classic coming-of-age novel – what’s not to love? To balance the rosy-tinted, I threw in ‘Jude the Obscure’ as a reminder that not everyone’s talents are recognised or rewarded as they should be, and then, for fear of getting too ‘heavy’, plundered the current Women’s Fiction Prize authors who I’ve read – Zadie Smith, Barbara Bolsover, Kate Atkinson. By the time I’d finished, I’d emailed her a supplementary list, including Chimamanda Adichie’s ‘Purple Hibiscus’ and ‘One Half of a Yellow Sun’, which received a request that her mum might share the list with her Book Group that evening!
This is why I still love teaching. The ability to connect with people beyond the classroom and to pass on and share my own love of books and reading. If someone asked you what they should read, what would you say?

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Living in the moment

“I scarcely remember counting upon happiness—I look not for it if it be not in the present hour—nothing startles me beyond the moment. The setting sun will always set me to rights, or if a sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel.”

― John Keats

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Love the life you’re in

…as you get older…I just feel that you don’t have to judge your life by other people’s standards. It’s what you make of it. You just have to live the life you’re in, really.” Emily Watson, The Observer, 14th April, 2013

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April 14, 2013 · 10:17 am

Maggie, Elvis and Me

I bought one of those compilation CDs of Elvis Costello’s greatest hits last year, and found myself close to tears as I listened to ‘Tramp the Dirt Down’, the song he wrote in the 80s about stamping on Thatcher’s grave when she finally died. At the time, I would have done that, I believed. But my reaction to the news of her death on Monday took me by surprise. Instead of punching the air as I’d imagined I would, there was just a vacuum. The old lady who watered roses under police escort died lonely, in a society which she claimed does not exist. I had no desire to join the parties in Bristol or anywhere else springing up to celebrate her death, but equally it’s a bit rich to be told to ‘respect the dead’ when we appear not to be able to respect the living. On the day she died, the government introduced a raft of cuts to welfare and taxes which will penalise the poor, and put an extra £100,000 a year into the pockets of our millionaires. Gorgon-like, you cut off one head and more grow to take its place.

There’s a poem by Carol Ann Duffy from ‘The Other Country’ ( an anthology published in 1990 which offers a tapestry of voices of the different players of this era, some personal, some political but all reminding us that the two are inextricable) called ‘Making Money’. Duffy adopts the persona of a banker – he’s ruthless, heartless, amoral as he revels in the poverty of kids living in Indian slums, of women prostituting themselves to finance their next fix. Yet in the last verse there’s this sense that almost despite himself there is a creeping awareness of not just the destruction of others but the destruction of himself in the relentless pursuit of cash:

Palm Grease. Smackers. Greenbacks. Wads. I widen my eyes

at a fortune; a set of knives on black cloth, shining,

utterly beautiful. Weep. The economy booms

like a cannon, far out at sea on a lone ship. We leave

our places of work, tired, in the shortening hours, in the time

of night our town could be anywhere, and some of us pause

in the square, where a clown makes money swallowing fire.

Carol Ann Duffy, ‘Making Money’, from ‘Selected Poems’ (1994, Penguin, London)

It’s hard not to read this poem, 20 years on, and feel that – while the economy is far from booming – little else has changed.

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Never too old to play in the sand

All teenagers need family holidays. Cut through the verbal jousting, the strong-arm tactics, the sheer bloody-mindedness, they’re still really just big kids.
Yesterday was the most beautiful day. After a typically circuitous drive, crisscrossing the Pembrokeshire countryside to get there ‘as the crow flies’, the journey straining to the sounds of ‘I’m bored’, ‘How long IS this journey?’, ‘What are we even going to DO?’, we spent three delicious hours walking the coastal path from Manorbier to the beautifully-named Swanlake Bay. Well, most of those 3 hours, to be fair, were spent picnicking and playing on the beach after the bracing walk along the clifftops to get there. Number 1 boy threw sticks for the pup; Number 2 boy insisted we buried him in the sand. Finished off with a 99 icecream in the car park.
Just as term-time habits and routines build up, so can holiday ones that put everything back into balance. We’ve had this day many times before. It’s never planned as such, it just seems to happen, connecting us to each other, to our shared history. I smile as I recall them so much smaller, one striking out across rock pools, the other inventing games in the sand. Treasure these days.

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