Saturday, 31 May 2008

And is there life after ....


Three years ago at half term we were in the north of Scotland. Chilly, mind, but with a great view over the bay and cliffs, in the village in which I spent my childhood. My husband couldn't get over the prolonged evening light: there was still rose in the sky at one a.m.

Two years ago, Cornwall. Guess what - a view of cliffs and the sea. I think you know where my tastes lie. Ironic that I live in Oxford and am therefore about as far from the sea as it's possible to be in this island kingdom.

This year? A view of the colour-coded chart on our fridge, with exam dates marked on it, and each passing day marked off with red stripes, designed to stimulate our son's sense of imminence so he will dash to his books - or to put it another way, to put the fear of God in him. Well, it probably does that, but fails to send him to the books - he prefers his well-honed ostrich technique. Just as If You Build It, They Will come, it is an article of faith with him that If You Ignore It, It Will Go Away.

Sadly, the god of Procrastination ignores his prayers.

His father and I are totally exhausted.

Still, after the run of five exams lined up this week, the worst will be over. Won't it?

And I can get back to blogging properly. Bear with me till then - and if any of you have exam-threatened children, good luck to them - and you. The little dears will thank us someday.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Laureates and Lolly

Time was that being Poet Laureate was a job for life - not anymore, as the job is up for grabs again after Andrew Motion's term of office. It seems that both Carol Ann Duffy and Simon Armitage are front runners: and it's a sure bet that neither of them will opt for the imperial bombast that was once obligatory, in the days of Tennyson and the like. (Here's an example of Tennyson at his worst: 'Hail, sea-king's daughter from over the sea! Alexandra!' - and no, I haven't checked the accuracy of this because elder son is up in the study doing a practice Maths paper and I don't want to disturb him.)

Ironically, I've just been analyzing poems from both Armitage and Duffy because my son had his GCSE English Literature paper yesterday (went better than I'd dreaded, thanks) - and I'd be quite happy to see either of these get the post. If you haven't read any of the poems in Duffy's Mean Time or The World's Wife - do. Her poem, Prayer, is one of my favourites (and yes, I know, I know I haven't been doing anything with PoemRelish, the other blog I set up, but I will, probably when the academic year is done and dusted and literary analysis is less of a busman's holiday). Simon Armitage's poetic translation of the medieval Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is superb.

I wasn't aware, by the way, before now, that the Laureateship pays less than £20,000 p.a. I wasn't aware it paid anything at all - er, can I apply?

Monday, 12 May 2008

Best of the Bookers?

The shortlist for the Best of the Bookers, the prizewinners from the past 40 years, has been announced. You may well feel that all they need to do is pick the most unreadable from 40 years of the unreadable - there are certainly possibilities there. 25 years ago, a similar vote appointed Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children and look, it features again. I remember reading it when it came out and being overwhelmed by it - but how much did I actually enjoy it? Are Bookers just Duty Reads? Books to lay out on coffee tables or put in prime positions so people will know how clever and relevant you are? I was ill a few weeks ago and had that desperate time (similar when you survey the contents of your brimming wardrobe and haven't a thing to wear, my dear), when I scanned my shelves - hundreds of books there and not a single damn thing I wanted to read. Too much hard work - I wanted a Comfort Read, not a literary, thought-provoking, enigmatic piece of exquisite prose. I wanted a Story, dammit, a humdinger of a gripping yarn, an Out of this Sickly Body experience.

Must do a proper post on Comfort Reads sometime - and I'll mention my all time favourite in that possibly undervalued genre.

Back to the Booker. Here's the shortlist: Midnight's Children as mentioned; Pat Barker's The Ghost Road; J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace; Nadine Gordimer's The Conservationist (no, I hadn't heard of it either); Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda - and one other.

The other is the one I'm going to vote for and would love to win: it's J.G. Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur, which won in 1973. If you haven't read this one, do, do, do. It's a superb satire of Victorian attitudes set during the time of the Indian Mutiny, sardonic, cruel, farcical, tense. Everybody should know about this book and quite possibly they don't, perhaps because J. G. Farrell was drowned off the coast of Ireland in 1979 - I recommend Lavinia Greacen's J.G. Farrell, The Making of a Writer (Bloomsbury 1999) about his life.

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Sink or Swim

Here's a quote to go with the John Donne one I posted recently: Doris Lessing, who has her 'royal flush' of literary awards and who at the age of 88 complains that all she does 'now is give interviews and spend time being photographed', says that her new book about her parents, 'Arthur and Emily' will probably be her last. She says, 'I have no time to write. I also don't have the energy any more. This is why I keep telling anyone younger than me, "Don't imagine you will have it for ever. Use it while you've got it. Because it will go. It's sliding away like water down a plughole."'

Not that I want to put pressure on any of you, you understand.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

GCSE hell

A brief message: simply this - elder son, GCSEs. I think I need say little more except apologies for not posting much this week. Abnormal service is likely to continue for the next few weeks. Those of you who have been through this with your offspring will understand only too well, I'm sure.

What I do know is that sixteen year old boys find it very hard to fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds' worth of distance run. And those unforgiving minutes are ticking away at a horrendous rate, and what was distant and abstract is becoming all too real. Ostrich behaviour kicks in.

I honestly can't recall how hard I worked for my O levels, way way back when. I was motivated, I know, by ambition and by pride. I'd been trained to see second best as nowhere. But I know also I did a fair amount of winging it - and was the sort of student able to bluff my way through if necessary. I was always at my best during the short sharp pressure of an exam. However, those were the days before the Era of the Visual, where knowledge comes in brief flurries of busy images, where teachers teach from extracts and photocopied sheets, so that students have no sense of the Gestalt of a book, cannot cope with long chunks of text, cannot extract information from such text, where to read a book logically from beginning to end, to - quite simply - stay with a task through the long haul, seems increasingly alien. An era where the dreaded Assessment Objectives, in all their windy glory, rule how an examiner marks and how a teacher teaches. I am currently marking A level coursework and have to fill in a grid on the cover sheet to prove that AOs 1, 3, 4 and 5ii have been covered. Stultifying, stultifying, stultifying. If the candidate says 'Shakespeare presents Othello as ...' that ticks the AO4 box, which has to do with different interpretations of the text - and that is how I have to advise my students to express themselves, rather than 'Othello is ...'

Now, boys and girls, this started as a brief post. But up galloped that old high horse and I jest couldn't resist getting into the saddle, yet again. Yee haw.