Fictional Literary Crushes

One of the highlights of my week is hanging out with the 14-17 year olds in our Church youth group on Sunday evenings. The little glimpses I get into the world of young people today are worth their weight in platinum. For instance, I learned from them that it is entirely unnecessary to tie your shoelaces – you can just tuck the trailing ends into the shoe. I have also had the opportunity to familiarise myself with Harry Potter fan-fiction lingo (do you know for instance, what “headcanon accepted” means?).

someecards.com - I'm sorry, but I only date fictional characters. In my head.This week’s insight bore down on me on the back of a couple of comments, overheard. Here’s a fact: a significant number of teenagers have an agonising, unrequited crush on Mister Darcy. This is definitely headcanon non-accepted stuff but it is real enough to invoke quite strong emotions.

I remember it well.

Yes, before I was old enough to have real girlfriends (and for a while after that, too), I confess I had a few romantic attachments to literary characters -  never to more than one at a time, which suggests that these were fairly serious relationships. So this blog post is a tribute to those unreal beauties I loved between the ages of 9 and … er … about 17 if I’m honest!

Arrietty Clock

Cover of "The Borrowers"

Cover of The Borrowers

(from The Borrowers series by Mary Norton)

Wow, this must have been the first cut; it still smarts to think about it. Arrietty was about 14, brave, redheaded with plaits and freckles. She kept a diary, she was an avid reader. She drove her parents crazy but I admired her adventurous spirit and she wasn’t judgemental about people. We spent hours together. I think it was awfully handy that she was small enough to fit in my pocket and knowing she was there sometimes gave me the chutzpah to scare my own parents by being adventurous – although I think my headcanon made a magical allowance for me to shrink down to her size sometimes too. I actually hit it off quite well with her parents, which was just as well.

I’m not sure how any of these “ended”, or even who came next, but at some point my heart moved on to …

Kira

(From Jim Henson’s “Dark Crystal“)

Although not strictly a “literary” character, Kira deserves a mention. I grew up without television and we went to the cinema about once a year so I never saw the “Dark Crystal”. In fact, I met Kira in 3D, on a set of view-master slides (that’s a thing I’ll bet the youth group have never heard of). I fell for her pale complexion, rosy cheeks and elfish ears, and her sense of adventure. I watched the Dark Crystal for the first time a few years ago and was amazed to discover that my gelfling childhood sweetheart also had wings! She kept that a secret. In fact I think there was always a distance in our relationship. As much as I admired and adored her, the gelfling-human thing was never going to work out, and there was always that scruffy “Jen” lurking in the background.

Perhaps I grew up a little at this point and realised I needed to date more human girls. But I couldn’t resist at least a little magic. Perhaps that’s why I gave my heart to …

Dorrie the Witch

(from Dorrie the Little Witch series by Patricia Coombs)

She was a young witch, as vividly illustrated in the books, with a crooked hat and unmatched stockings. It was her endearing clumsiness that won me over. Dorrie and I hit it off because we were both misfits who always ended up doing things differently to everyone else. In fact, she was a proper disaster area! Being with her was so exciting, I never knew what was going to happen next. She always meant well but her spells hardly ever did what they were intended to. In spite of this she always came out on top of the day. I seem to remember she had a spell that made my bicycle fly, and she used to ride on the back of my bike with her cat, Gink. It was flipping romantic (headcanon non-accepted)!

We were pretty inseparable, but we must have grown apart eventually. I suppose, these literary characters never age with us so, at some point we outgrow them and find more age-appropriate sweethearts such as …

Polly

(from “The Dean’s Watch” by Elizabeth Gouge)

Polly was a humble maid who served Mrs Peabody, the wife of Mr Peabody, the watchmaker. I wanted, so very badly, to be Mr Peabody’s apprentice, “Job” and to whittle beautiful birds from scraps of wood to give to her as gifts. I wanted to sit in the pew across from her at church and catch her eye, like he did. I became extremely interested in horology and wood carving, and possibly even in going to church, on the strength of my fascination for Polly. She was brightly optimistic, in spite of Mrs Peabody being pretty harsh (as I recall) and she was simply kind in her thoughts towards those whom others were inclined to mock or ignore. There is no doubt that the time I spent with Polly made me a better person.

cider with rosie

The same probably couldn’t be said for …

Rosie

(from “Cider with Rosie” by Laurie Lee)

Yes, well, ahem … This was definitely one of those coming-of-age crushes. I don’t think anyone can read that scene with the cider and the kissing under the hay cart and not fall in love with Rosie. I guess she still haunts my summers, whenever the hedgerows are hot and fragrant and the beech woods are filled with secret green light and the chaff-dust of threshed wheat hangs in the air …

How about you? Did you give your heart away to someone you found in a book? Or is it just me?

One Big Story … Part I

This month, I have the joy of working with 300 year five and six pupils from Durham City schools  to turn their ideas into One Big Story: an epic and imaginative tale that will be published in paperback in October.

Scary? No, this is just my storytelling face (Photo: Robyn Trainer 2012)

This one of the most exciting things I have done for a while; it ticks about a hundred boxes for the things I love doing: creative writing, stimulating other people’s imaginations and helping them to realise their creative ideas, being able to say the magical word “story” about 50 times a day and share my passion for the written word.

I’m working as part of a team alongside Christina Maiden (Off The Page Drama) and Robyn Trainer (Floral Footsteps), running whole day workshops in primary schools, getting children to invent and develop ideas for stories and working collaboratively to forge them into a coherent narrative.

Remarkably, it turns out to be quite possible to take the ideas of 30-40 children at a time and guide them into creating a story together as long as you think on your feet and prepare yourself for almost anything to happen. Not to give too much away, but we are half way through the project already and have five out of ten chapters mapped out. The children have taken us beyond our own imaginations into their own world where there are a lot of fights involving food and an awful lot of ghoulish characters in which the malevolent and comedic are theatrically blended.

It has been very encouraging to see that literacy is alive and kicking in every school we have visited so far; I’m the one getting educated.

In less than a month, we will be holding the book in our hands and you, too, will be able to read what happens when children create the sort of story that they would like to read … watch this space …

Going Public with Thomas Carlyle: “Know Thy Work”

Thomas Carlyle

I like Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881). He’s one of my rugged 19th Century romantic existentialist individualists. I don’t buy the whole package of his thought (women never seem to get a mention, for instance), but he can be forgiven for being a man of his time as much as I will need to be if any of my thoughts survive me.

Apart from anything else, Carlyle wrote 21 volumes of the history of Freidrich II of Prussia; and he didn’t even have the Internet! This suggests that he had one thing nailed: he knew how to knuckle down and get on with his work – probably because he didn’t have the Internet.

So, as my contribution this week to the #GoingPublic audio project, here is an excerpt from Book III of  Carlyle’s “Past and Present” that gives us a clue about the root of his productivity, his attitude to work. It amuses me, the way he dismisses “Know Thyself” with a disdainful sweep of his hand and then goes on to expound “Know Thy Work” with increasingly dizzy conceits. But I also find it invigorating. How about you?

The full text is available here.

Check out a wealth of other great audio clips from the Going Public Project.

A Poem: For James

I have a folder with maybe an hundred poems in it; most of them were written between 1994 and 1999 and covered the span of time from GCSEs to my final year at University. In the last thirteen years my poetic productivity has died to a trickle. I have lost my way a bit. I feel embarrassed by the panting romanticism of the early stuff and the technicolour emotions and tangible intimations of immortality that fueled my late teens are not  as keenly felt as I approach my mid-thirties.

When I was at school, I was surrounded by poetry.  There were three of us in my A level English Literature class where poetry was inescapable, there was an annual poetry prize, there was even a Dead Poets Society and there was a library with a well stocked poetry section. With some friends and some support from the English department, I started a small literary magazine called “Apex”. These days I have to fight to make space in my life for reading poetry, let alone writing it, but there has been a modest output. Here’s one I wrote for a friend a few years ago:

For James
 
there’s a person i know i could be
theres a woodsman and a soldier in me
a weather beaten soul that’s rarely seen
i know he’s there because he’s been in my dreams
 
there’s a monk called brother somebody
who leaves his cell to cross the sea
he doesn’t fear and he doesn’t flee
but stands on the weatherdeck scorning the lee
 
i have felt his anger and desire to be free
his feelings and mine always agree
his indian name is strong-man-going-boldly
god’s breath must be in him or he couldn’t breathe
 
a strong man this woodsman must be
to fell the hulk of my family tree
a bold soldier too and armed to the teeth
gallantry and loyalty stirring beneath
 
his bayonet gouges mediocrity
and the monk steps out on a distant beach
salt on his lips that are burning to preach
and he speaks of my soul and who i could be

More poetry postings from this blog can be found here.

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More Books from my Recently Read List

A Dreamer's TalesA Dreamer’s Tales by Lord Dunsany

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This collection of tales by Lord Dunsany is romantic, fantastical and somewhat macabre, each having a fitful dreaming quality to them. The reader eavesdrops on conversations between souls and bodies at the point of death and travels to some very strangely named places. This was my first taste of the author’s work and has compelled me to explore further.


The Stars My DestinationThe Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A brutally visceral and mind-bending psychotic trip that nevertheless sounds a triumphant note for the common man or woman … or, dare I say, the 99%


ClarinetClarinet by Jack Brymer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a thorough book on the clarinet from a world class player and expert on the instrument. Brymer is excellent on the history of the clarinet and also very much focused on the technical side of note production. He very quickly encourages the reader/player to begin thinking acoustically about their instrument in terms of a tube of vibrating air and to move away from a mere inputs (covering holes and blowing) and outputs (notes) approach. In order to progress to mastery of the clarinet the very quirks and compromises that are inherent in its design must be mitigated throughout the registers. It covers every aspect of clarinet playing and technique from a specifically classical orchestral and soloist point of view (i.e. don’t expect much insight on jazz or other styles of playing).


Four QuartetsFour Quartets by T.S. Eliot

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I want so badly to understand the appeal of this “classic” work. I will return to it repeatedly in the hope that on some reading in the future it will break open for me and I’ll come to love it as so many do. Until now, however, I have found that its 36 pages of overblown metaphysicality leaves me cold and unstirred, with the notable exception of the closing lines of “Little Gidding”, which really do blow me away.


Collected Poems, 1978 1999Collected Poems, 1978 1999 by Craig Raine

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I first encountered Craig Raine’s poetry it was like a homecoming, one of the most exciting moments in my literary youth. Here was someone who seemed to write about the same world that I saw through my eyes – the most commonplace things having a breathless mystery about them. I have since discovered that his approach spawned an entire school of “Martian Poetry” that takes his “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home” as its point of departure into a tour of the most familiar things seen through alien eyes: “There are tiddlywinks / of light in the summer woods. /Play with them. The ironing-board / has permanent lumbago. Pity it.” In “Scrap”, “The [petrol] pump held a gun to its head an empty theatrical gesture”. “Enquiry into Two Inches of Ivory”, “A Cemetery in Co.Durham” and “The Behaviour of Dogs” are the poems that stand out the most for me from this collection and are always with me.


The Shangri-La Diet: The No Hunger Eat Anything Weight-Loss PlanThe Shangri-La Diet: The No Hunger Eat Anything Weight-Loss Plan by Seth Roberts

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Obviously there has been a buzz about this book on the back of Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. Like other reviewers I found it a very quick read and interesting enough to read in one sitting. Yes, the basics could fit on three pages but the “padding” is lightly engaging although repetitive at times. I did skim the chapter on the problems of global obesity because that’s not something I need convincing about. Like other reviewers I was impressed with Seth’s audacious self-experimentation and willingness to connect concepts in unorthodox ways.

So what about the “diet”? The concept at the core has this intuitive ring about it and resonates with some of the other bits and bobs that have crossed my radar recently, such as Michael Dowd‘s stuff on evolutionary psychology. The author is careful to include some examples of negative feedback he has had on the “diet” not working for some people. If it works for me, it will be astounding, and it could be the answer I’m looking for – but the proof will be in the eating …

It costs nothing to try and seems harmless so I’ll be giving it a go and reporting back.

View all my reviews

C.S. Lewis’ Advice on Writing

I’m currently reading C.S. Lewis’ Letters to Children – a collection of the personal letters he wrote in reply to numerous young fans who wrote to him between 1944 and 1963.  It’s an uncut little gem of a book. I’m struck by the trouble Lewis took over his correspondence. It was a daily discipline that took a few hours every morning after her rose at 7.15. The other thing that strikes me (with my copy editor’s hat on) is Lewis fast and loose approach to grammar. Of course, in letters, one is less careful of grammatical niceties, but these words to a young fan are revealing, too:

… Don’t take any notice of teachers and textbooks in such matters. Nor of logic. It is good to say “more than one passenger was hurt,” although more than one equals at least two and therefore logically the verb ought to be plural were not singular was! What really matters is:–

1. Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.

2. Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.

3. Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “More people died” don’t say “Mortality rose.”

4. In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please will you do my job for me.”

5. Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.

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