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Word Magpie

Posted on: Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Two bookish snippets that are gnawing at me.

"This is one moment
But know that another
Shall pierce you with a sudden painful joy."

-T.S. Eliot

Which leads seamlessly into this one:

"So when people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle-classes, or that it shouldn't be read at school because it's irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and it splace in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language - and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers - a language powerful enough to say how it is. It isn't a hiding place. It is a finding place."

-Jeneatte Winterson, 'Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?'

I love these words and what they do to me. They make my heart beat a little bit faster. They fill me with conviction and remind me of ideals. Ah, man.

Recommended Reading: Jeffrey Euginides, 'The Virgin Suicides'

Posted on: Wednesday, 23 May 2012

In my recent job interview (err, moving to Brussels, not sure if I've mentioned it), the Head asked me three cracking questions (cracking? You can tell I've spent the weekend with a Brummie or two), saying she wanted a 'pretty quick' answer. They were:

1) What's the book you most enjoy teaching to students?
2) What's your desert island book?
3) What should I be reading?

!!!!!!!!!! went my brain.

Oh my. Oh, what uncommunicable joy. I was In My Element. And I talked so much I think she was sorry she'd asked.

I answered the first one (WH Auden, for AS Literature - I do love a bit of miserable early 20th century poetry, you know) and then for the second one I started gushing about Jeffrey Euginides. But which of his books to choose? The Marriage Plot, I babbled, easily the best book I'd read in the last three years, maybe even five years - but recent enough for me to not get bored with it, which is a definite Desert Island-scenario requirement - I mean, why would you want to take something you'd read a hundred times before...? I think I considered the question a little too literally.

And since then I've been meaning to write a Recommended Reading piece about the great J.E. but haven't gotten around to it - mainly out of fear of doing him a disservice. But now I'm on it. And I'm going to start with his first novel - the short but not-very-sweet Virgin Suicides.

Published in 1993, that makes Euginides 33 when he wrote it (does anyone else have this growing sense of panic as you realise your twenties are slipping away from them without a sniff of that level of success and achievement? Just me?) And this wee gem of a novel(la?) is really something. It should be recommended reading for all teenage girls. In fact, scratch that - it should be recommended reading for all teenage boys.

The premise is pretty simple - it's the tragic tale of the five Lisbon sisters. Each one is a very different mix of mischief and shyness and intellectualism and sex appeal and mysticism, but they're also each equally potent in their hold over the affections of the neighbourhood boys. After Cecilia Lisbon's suicide, the surviving sisters are imprisoned in the family home by their overprotective parents, and the boys become a faint lifeline to the outside world. It's no hyperbole to say that these nymphs are worshipped from afar, with the boys calling the house and playing records down the phone to bring them closer to their idols and shed some popular culture light on their solitude. Then each of the sisters kill themselves in some solemn unspoken pact with each other, choosing hanging, gas poisoning or sleeping pills depending on their whim. We're left, like the boys, completely numb at the pointlessness of it all, along with a grudging admiration that their deaths marked their refusal to remain passive in their terrible struggle to find their place in the world:

“They had killed themselves over our dying forests, over manatees maimed by propellers as they surfaced to drink from garden hoses; they had killed themselves at the sight of used tires stacked higher than the pyramids; they had killed themselves over the failure to find a love none of us could ever be. In the end, the tortures tearing the Lisbon girls pointed to a simple reasoned refusal to accept the world as it was handed down to them, so full of flaws.”  

One of the most mystifying aspects of Euginides writing is that, rather suprisingly for an adult American man of Greek descent, he really gets what it's like to be a teenage girl. He gets inside their heads and tells it like it is. And I suppose being a teenager is - well, difficult to put into words.

“Dr. Armonson stitched up her wrist wounds. Withen 5 minutes of the transfusion he declared her out of danger. Chucking her under the chin, he said, "What are you doing here, honey? You're not even old enough to know how bad life gets." And it was then Cecelia gave orally what was to be her only form of suicide note, and a useless one at that, because she was going to live: "Obviously, Doctor," she said, "you've never been a 13 year old girl.”  

Like, random digression here - how do writers do that? How the hell did Nabokov write Lolita, essentially getting inside the (actually unnervingly charismatic) mind of a pervert? How do you inhabit something so other? Or is the scary thing that we aren't actually that different after all - man, woman, child, adult, pervert or otherwise?   

Reading it, I remembered acutely the suffocation of teenage years; I wasn't too far away from them when I first read it. The cloying obsession of a crush, treasured scrapbook diaries, the all-eclipsing importance of a school dance (or, in our more British context, a birthday sleepover or a 6th form party, yeah?) Except, crucially, it's an American tale, told with landmarks that are unescapably Yankee - the ubiquitous school dance, furtive booze under the bleachers and a ride home in a car driven by a boy with shaking hands and a carnation in his lapel. And it's this - the style of Euginides sexy, deamy prose - that's the real strength of this book. By all means, it's a grabber of a story, but the real secret of its appeal is really in the writing. It's like the whole story is suffused in 1970s late-afternoon sunlight and filtered through a hazy lomo lens.

Beautiful. And I haven't even got started on Euginides more recent books - Middlesex or The Marriage Plot - yet.

What would you recommend a teenager read? 

Lahndahn Tahn.

Posted on: Sunday, 20 May 2012

Just when I think I might be OK with Bedders being in Brussels while I'm seeing out the school year in Leeds - you know, I have a wonderful weekend with a very lovely friend in our nation's capital and I drink some wine and sample a Peanutbutter KitKat Chunky for the first time and go to a yoga class and have a bit of a spiritual awakening (or at least a bit of a revelation that yoga could, like, Be My Thing) and reminisce about mental house parties and mental kids we've taught and about the Funniest Chat-Up Line of All Time (Do you have a boyfriend? You do? Would you like to upgrade to one who's seen a merekat?) and go to bed at 3am and realise that I am definitely, definitely getting too old for this but it was marvellous all the same - just when I'm thinking all of that, Bedders sends me this picture.

Accompanying message: Look at this amazing shop. Think it'll be pretty cool to get some stuff for the apartment here.

I think I might have to explode with excitement/stamp my feet in a bid to hurry up time.


Geordie Racer

Posted on: Monday, 7 May 2012

I've been trying - really, really trying - to rediscover my running mojo of late. And given that Bedders is now in Brussels, I really have no excuse. Not that he's anti-running. Oh no. But now I am Master Of My Own Destiny (and Master Of What Time I Eat My Tea).

I've been out on the mean streets of Kirkstall and Headingley (via West Park) four times last week. Prior to that I hadn't been for a while. It's fair to say that I'm not quite at the 'loving it' stage. More of the 'grit your teeth and hope against hope it'll be over soon' stage.

But anyways. I laced up my trainers and I procrastinated. I debated the virtues of one particular route over another. I stretched (I never stretch). Then I bit the bullet and Got The Hell On With It.

Cue the Rocky Theme tune. Grrr.  

The route I'd gone for involves a Massive Hill. Massive Hill really is a bugger. I was running for 6 months before I got the the top of it without stopping. It probably took me another six months to not stop dead at the top of it and mentally congratulate myself/treat myself to a little walk.

Today I ran past a gaggle of teenagers at the bottom of Massive Hill - two boys, two girls. They were about fourteen. The boys thought it'd be hilarious to start running alongside me.

So there we are. Running together. Me and two fourteen year old with ratty faces and bumfluff on their chins.

Oh, you twats, I thought.

"Lovely weather we're having!" said one in a falsetto.

"Indeed!" chirped the other.

Oh God. Cue the Benny Hill theme tune. It was like going back to a PE lesson circa 1996. The degradation. OK, so perhaps that's a strong word, but I did die a little inside.

I ran through my options. Stop? Nah. I'd become an immediate target for abuse. Cross the road? Similar. Tell them to piss off? Come on, I'm an adult.

"Careful, lads," I said. "This bit coming up's tough."

Ah, the always-reliable competitive nature of boys. No sooner had I uttered those magic words and they'd raced ahead of me, cackling to themselves. Pah! They spat in the face of my sloth!

And then they hit Massive Hill. 

And they kept racing. But they hadn't reckoned on the power of Massive Hill.

They slowed. Rat Face The Uglier's jeans were falling lower and and lower. He held onto them with one hand.

"Haway lads, pace it!" I cheered them on from behind.

Rat Face The Marginally Less Ugly was panting. He'd dropped his cig. Smart arse no longer, he stopped and bent double.

Rat Face the Uglier was fighting a losing battle with his jeans. He stopped too.

"I can't be arsed," he said in his normal voice.

"I did warn you!" I trilled, sailing past them. Then I waved.  

Running top, Nike via JJB, 15 quidish

Trainers, Saucony via a running shop in Lancaster, £85 quidish 2 and a half years ago (err, should maybe be getting some new ones)

Feeling of delicious triumph and righting the wrongs of a PE lesson 16 years ago? Priceless.

(and if you would like to read more about righting those PE lesson wrongs you probably should read this, written by a friend who I really hope ends up writing more). 

No more eggs or yoghurts, please.

Posted on: Thursday, 3 May 2012

Hello. Remember me? Jesus. That was a bit of a mental week and a half.

Tonight I left work 'early' - quarter to six - after arriving 'late'. That'd be quarter past seven. I've been doing similar for the last week. Then arriving home, eating a spartan/weird tea of oatcakes/blue cheese/Twirl Bites (Bedders has been away, hence any kind of food-regularity has gone out of the window) and marking like a machine. 

I've been begging Di, HR Manager and Queen Of The School (I Heart Di) for an hour's cover here and there for my non-exam classes (which amount to the princely sum of two hours a week) to sort out a myriad of issues it'd be wholly unprofessional to go into on here.

I've been gritting my teeth a lot, ignoring bellyaches and having Actual Dreams About Controlled Assessment. Scratch that - Nightmares. Oh dear.

But hey. Stuff is sorted. Ish.

All that, and I've rented out my house in Leeds, been to Newcastle, saw Don Williams (his voice is a total parody of a country singer's - like honey and cigarette smoke - "Sing it again, that's real purdy..."), been to Manchester to meet up with Richard and company (farmer by day, wedding chauffer by night), eaten a really, really bad Chinese and got a BUS back to Leeds instead of the train - I almost wept - had a medical for my new job (fighting fit, huzzah) and fretting about my total lack of inclination to go running. But tonight, though, I welcomed back some normality.

Hello, normal life. I've missed you.

I've been for a slightly better run. I've voted. OK, so I don't do it every day but it still makes me feel like me. I've read (yesterday's) paper and a bit of Private Eye. I've embraced my seventeen year old by spotifying some Skunk Anansie after hearing it on my new radio station of choice, Absolute90s ("She's a LESBIAN, you know," I remember people saying knowingly at school. Oh, the scandal). 

And Bedders if off to Brussels on Sunday while I see out the rest of the school year. Yikes.

I think I'm a bit fraught; I think he is too. I got upset over his note for the milkman this morning.

"Could you change the order to one pint of skimmed Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday? No more eggs or yoghurts, please."

A bloody note for the bloody milkman. Sob.

Anyway, I'm blethering. I was thinking about literary references to missing someone. I thought of Elizabeth Bishop. 

One Art

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster,

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three beloved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

-- Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) a disaster.

Ah, Bisto. Heavenly. I dug out my old lecture book to find the notes that accompanied it. Oo, Elizabeth Bishop - "sceptical and stoic" - "language increasingly restrained and emotional intensity behind it intensifies" - "Influenced by surrealism in Paris, but didn't succumb entirely to the dream world - too much of a New England Yankee-woman for that!" - "Philsophy in Bishop's writing ISN'T metaphysical - if it exists, it's empirical". You, like, learn stuff at University, don't you? And have time to think about stuff, hmm? I kind of wish I had hours to go through all of my old notes. Maybe I will. Maybe that'll be a Bedders-is-in-Brussels-and-I-live-on-my-own project. Along with making that wedding album, writing some stuff down, doing an online course on the iGCSE and IB and emptying the house of all my possessions...why aye. Not a bother.

I shall cheer up soon. I promise.

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