In Gratitude by Jenny Diski

So I’ve got cancer. I’m writing. (13)

I came to know Jenny Diski through the London Review of Books, in which her ‘cancer diaries’ appeared. I followed her as she published 17 articles, from September 2014 until earlier this year and admired the vividness and honesty of her writing.

276 In Grat

Here is a taste of her approach and style from the opening paragraph:

Diagnosis

The future flashed before my eyes in all its preordained banality. Embarrassment, at first, to the exclusion of all other feelings. But embarrassment curled at the edges with a weariness, the sort that comes over you when you are set on a track by something outside your control, and which, although it is not your experience, is so known in all its cultural forms that you could unscrew the cap of your pen in your hand and jot down in the notebook on your lap every single thing that will happen and everything that will be felt for the foreseeable future. Including the surprises. (1)

Rejection of Metaphors of fighting cancer

Her writing appealed to me because, in her first article, I read this statement.

One thing I state as soon as we are out of the door: ‘Under no circumstances is anyone to say that I lost a battle with cancer. Or that I bore it bravely. I am not fighting, losing, winning or bearing.’ I will not personify the cancer cells inside me in any form. I reject all metaphors of attack or enmity in the midst, and will have nothing whatever to do with any notion of desert, punishment, fairness or unfairness, or any kind of moral causality. (10)

Glynis in Lionel Shriver’s novel, So Much for That, makes a similar comment. The metaphor of fighting can blame the loser for losing – you didn’t fight hard enough! In the case of Glynis, she was fighting the US health insurance system, which decided that the rarity of her cancer made her uneconomic to research or treat.

‘Cancer Diaries’

276 J Diski

And despite the ‘preordained banality’ and the rejection of the metaphor of fighting cancer, Jenny Diski decided to write about her illness.

I’m a writer. I’ve got cancer. Am I going to write about it? How am I not? I pretended for a moment that I might not, but knew I had to, because writing is what I do and now cancer is what I do, too. (11)

Reading the cancer diaries

And so over the next months I read the diaries as they appeared in the LRB, and marvelled at the quality of the prose, how Jenny Diski used her skills to examine the experience of treatment and facing terminal illness. Of course I admired her bravery, but was mostly absorbed in her writing because it was taking me into an experience with which I had only a small amount of familiarity: the best kind of writing.

I also enjoyed her humour, not so much the graveyard kind as of a good companion who finds humour and humanity, life, even in cancer treatment. The ‘Onc Doc’ is an example. So is the description of the radiotherapy procedures. And when the articles were collected and put together in a book, published more or less as she died in April, I bought the book and read it all again.

Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing and Jenny Diski in 1963

Doris Lessing and Jenny Diski in 1963

And Doris Lessing came into the book a great deal. Jenny Diski had a very troubled adolescence, her mother and father seem to have been unable to parent her. After experiences in psychiatric wards and in care, she spent some time at St Christopher’s School, where Doris’s son Peter met her. Doris Lessing offered to take her into her home in London. It was a decisive change in her life, even if it was not altogether successful, not the end of Jenny Diski’s troubled youth.

I must admit that my admiration for Doris Lessing has somewhat reduced as a result of this account. But the gratitude of the title is in part for the generosity of the older woman. How it corresponds with the cancer diary aspect of this book is not clear to me. But it was fascinating. A unique story retold.

276 Doris Lessing

And …

Since I first read her articles a friend has also been diagnosed with, treated for and very recently died of cancer. I look back at the opening paragraph of In Gratitude. I too found the banality, embarrassment and weariness of cancer treatment and death. And everything that happened, everything that was felt, including the surprises, was lived again by another set of people.

In Gratitude by Jenny Diski (2016) published by Bloomsbury 250 pp.

Jenny Diski wrote many novels including:

Nothing Natural (1986)

Apology for the Woman Writing (2008)

… and non-fiction:

Skating to Antarctica (1997)

The Sixties (2009)

What I don’t know about Animals (2010)

 

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In a Summer Season by Elizabeth Taylor (again)

Restrictions in novels can produce interesting tensions and plot lines for the novelist to work with. Elizabeth Taylor took the restrictions of one English season, Summer, and showed us a number of characters, all in love, during that limited time. The restrictions of In a Summer Season, published in 1961, are not heavy handed or forced. It is the work of a writer coming into her own.

A version of this review was first published in November 2013 and has remained popular with visitors to this blog. This is a revised and reformatted version.

The themes

This is a novel about love of many kinds. It is also about love’s tendency to appear and disappear over time – indicated by the title. For all the characters in this novel, the summer season changes their experience of love and their path in life. Elizabeth Taylor knew what she was doing in this, her eighth novel. She manages a complex cast of characters and has the confidence to let her story unfold.

65 cover

The story

Kate Heron is the main character. She is around forty and has recently married for the second time after being widowed. As she is well off, her new husband Dermot is able to be unemployed for stretches of time, although he tries his hand at growing mushrooms and at entering a partnership in a travel company in London. Kate has a sixteen year-old daughter, Lou, back from boarding school for the holidays, and a son, Tom, who is working his way up in his grandfather’s business. At the start of the novel one feels that Kate and Dermot are doomed, but not for the traditional reasons which they separately suspect are harboured by Kate’s former friends: she married a younger man, and perhaps he married her for her money. Something more complex is implied to the reader.

The young girl and the chaplain

During the summer season Lou falls for the chaplain, a Father Blizzard. She hangs about places and undertakes parish chores, such as sorting shoes for the jumble sale, hoping to bump into him. One morning he asks her to help him buy a birthday present for his sister.

When they were sitting together in the bus, she felt completely happy, without knowing that to feel so is such a rare experience that it might never come to her again. The very knowledge would have made something else of it. This morning was something she recognised as having been waited for, but with wavering degrees of hope. As the miracle had come about she simply accepted it, but was taking it in little sips, blissfully restrained: for instance, she had not yet raised her eyes to look at his face. (56)

Elizabeth Taylor is able to capture such adolescent feelings without implying they are inferior to adult love. As autumn approaches Father Blizzard makes a decision to leave the village and join a Catholic monastery in France. Lou returns to school. I love the description of Waterloo station as mothers see off their children. I was catching trains to and from school at the same period (she was writing in the early ‘60s). She has captured the scene at the start of term.

All over Waterloo Station groups of schoolgirls flocked together – their cries, their movements birdlike, as was their way of keeping to their own kind. Other uniforms drew only glances of scorn. Schoolboys, returning too, were less gregarious. They stood alone at the bookstalls or thoughtfully put pennies into slot-machines, unimpressed by so much feminine gaiety. (206)

A young man’s first love

Tom is used to having girls at his beck and call, has become practised in letting them down gently as he moves on to the next one. But he is smitten with Araminta, when she returns with her father to the village. She is ruthless but cool with ambitions to become a model, vividly attractive and sexy, but able to control Tom through her unresponsiveness. The reader feels for him in his unsuccessful pursuit. She is a prototype for the anorexic size 0 models of our time.

65 Winifred cover

Love for an older woman

Dermot loves Kate, but he can’t quite live up to his own intentions for himself, preferring to allow the truth to be obscured so that he doesn’t appear smaller in her eyes and those of her friends. This leads him into a series of lies. He feels his inferiority; it is moral, educational, cultural and he resents it. This resentment is the catalyst for the tragic climax of the story.

One of the delights of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels is the references to other novels, in this case The Spoils of Poynton by Henry James, which Dermot does not recognise. I admit to not having yet read this book, which is about possessions and a widow’s battle to retain her spoils – antique furniture. As Susannah Clapp points out in her introduction, ‘piles of discarded, unused and unlovely objects are strewn throughout In a Summer Season. … They carry some force as reminders of the inhibitions and consolations of memory and habit’. The Spoils of Poynton was Kate’s first husband’s favourite novel, and links Kate to him and to her previous life in a way that Dermot resents. It’s a clever, quiet device that also shows up Dermot’s ignorance (and mine!).

Kate Heron

260 Elizabeth_Taylor_(novelist)Kate is more aware of each person, including herself, than any of the other characters and because she is central to the plot we often see people mediated through her sensitivities. She learns to manage her relationship to Dermot. Elizabeth Taylor lets us know, in this early scene, that Kate understands Dermot very well.

On the way home they quarrelled – or, rather, she listened to Dermot quarrelling with an imaginary Kate, who supplied him with imaginary retorts, against which he was able to build up his indignation. Then, when they were nearly home, he began to punish himself, and Kate realised that the more he basked in blame, the more it would turn out to be all hers; her friends, for close friends of hers they would become, would seem to have lined up to aggravate him, and her silence would be held to account for his lack of it. (34)

As readers we are encouraged to have some hope for the couple for the evening ends thus:

He ran his knuckles down her spine. ‘You taste of rain,’ he said, kissing her. ‘People say I married her for her money,’ he thought contentedly, and for the moment was full of the self-respect that loving her had given him. (40)

This is pure Elizabeth Taylor: the temporary relaxation of the tension, and the quiet revelation of Dermot’s character.

As summer ends …

It is Dermot’s lack of fibre (as they would say) that pushes the story to its conclusion. While there is tragedy, sudden and brutal, all does not end badly for Kate in a conclusion that does not satisfy all readers. We are unsure what kind of future Kate will have, but the final short chapter allows us to see where love leaves her and the other characters, a year on from that summer season.

As always in her novels there are some great comic moments (preparing for the jumble sale, watching tv, Dermot’s mother). Great tenderness is shown towards Lou’s ‘calf ’love and Tom’s hopeless infatuation with Araminta.

But the uncertainties of love are also revealed with tenderness: Kate’s dream about Charles, Dermot’s desire to do better by Kate leads him to lie and deceive; Lou’s growing up so that the departure of Father Blizzard is not such a blow; Lou crying about her mother and Dermot after he has accused Kate of being ‘bloody smug’; Charles’s comfort; Tom’s inability to recover from Araminta’s death.

275 In a Summer Season new cover

In a Summer Season by Elizabeth Taylor. First published in 1961 Republished by Virago Modern Classics. Quotations in this post are taken from 1983 edition 221pp

Related posts

Some other blog reviews of In a Summer Season:

Dovegreyreader

Of Books and Bicycles

All Elizabeth Taylor’s novels and her short stories have been reviewed on this blog. You can find them by clicking on the category button or on Elizabeth Taylor in the tag cloud.

 

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Marketing our Book

Writing a book is more than writing a book. It needs marketing. The three authors of The New Age of Ageing: how society needs to change visited the publisher’s offices in Bristol, Policy Press, last week. It was in part an excuse for a day out and for the three of us, Eileen Carnell, Marianne Coleman and me, to meet up for the first time in several months. We received a very warm welcome and continue to be impressed by the many creative young women who work in publishing. The meeting was productive and we are excited about preparing for Publication Day on 7th September. Our job now is to help the publisher get the book to the people who want to read it.

274 New Age

Why have a publisher?

Producing a book, we have learned in the past, is a joint project between writers and publisher. Writing the text of a book is only one step. Without a publisher we could never have reached so many readers for our previous books. And again we find a publisher who helped to improve the writing and will handle promotional activities, distribution to bookshops and report on sales.

145 old hands

We can’t do without them. The expertise of Policy Press led us through the following promotional areas at our meeting.

The book cover, including endorsements

Our meeting with Jess, the publicity and marketing person at Policy Press, began by revising our summary of the book, the blurb, as it appears on the back cover. We had a brief discussion about the word ‘prove’. The researcher in me balks at its use, but we decided it’s a good word to do some of the required work on the cover: Brought alive by the voices of people aged 50 to 90, it proves ageing is not passive decline but a process of learning, challenges and achievement.

We moved on to selecting the endorsements. We had suggested some people they might approach, and some of these people had come up with engaging quotes for the back cover and for inside the book. We are rather pleased with the selection, an eminent MP and a couple of professors and one or two other luminaries. They are all well known leaders in the field of policy, public discourse and research into ageing.

Their words make me blush: compelling case for radically different approach to later life, inspiring book, excellent and eminently readable, welcome light …We hope they will also encourage readers to open the book.

Pitching for articles and reviews

Eileen and Marianne discussing writing points for The New Age of Ageing

Eileen and Marianne discussing writing points for The New Age of Ageing

We plan to hook into some themes that are around at the time of publication, such as housing and suitable accommodation for everyone. We explored what will happen around that time and how to be invited into the discussions and add to the arguments. Our book challenges some widely-held assumptions, and raises issues that are often not heard, so we have to push to get our arguments across. This is where marketing and promotion gets interesting, because it is of course about engaging people in what we have laboured to write. This is not like selling baked beans, or offering quantity (BOGOF). We have something to say and we want to be heard. We believe in what we have written: the authors’ moral commitment is obvious, according to one testimonial.

We moved on to discussing where we would like to see the book reviewed: journals, current affairs, magazines, and so on

Social Media activities

Our twitter hashtag is developed, #newageofageing, and we plan to tweet like mad – well, those of us who have twitter accounts; and to promote the book on Facebook, Linked-In and through other connections. We talked about coverage on this blog, Bookword, and Policy Press’s blog and others we can get to. Any invitations? We would really like you to be involved.

Other activities

There are some other possibilities too: postcards, flyers, articles, bookshops, speaking events, radio shows … We each began compiling lists of possibilities.

During the meeting Jess mentioned that the book goes to the printers this week. Hard copies will be available soon. The approach of publication day is exciting. We are proud.

And in all this activity and excitement we found time for the three of us to discuss our next writing project. Watch this space!

Turning pages of a book by Mummelgrummel, February 2013 via WikiCommons

Turning pages of a book by Mummelgrummel, February 2013 via WikiCommons

The New Age of Ageing: how society needs to change, by Caroline Lodge, Eileen Carnell and Marianne Coleman will be published by Policy Press on 7th September 2016.

Copies of The New Age of Ageing will be available through the Policy Press website, at a 20% discount. It will cost £14.99 £11.99.

Related posts

A Little Rant about Marketing Books Like Cornflakes on this blog in November

We are writing monthly posts about the stages from bright ideas to publishing our book. Earlier posts include

Learning to be old by Eileen Carnell (July 2016)

Ageing: it is not ‘them and us’, it is all ‘us’ by Marianne Coleman (June)

Getting feedback to improve our writing (May)

First Catch Your Publisher (April)

One Book, Three Authors (March)

Writers’ Residential (February)

 

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Steps to improve your Writing

What if it were true that by going on walks you could improve your creativity? What if someone told you that by walking you would become a better writer? Would you walk more often, for longer, or in different places? Or just put it all down to some new age piffle? Well this idea does have legs. Many great writers are or were practitioners and research confirms it.

DSC01526.JPG

Writers who walked

Among the great writers of the past, who were also walkers, we can name Virginia Woolf, who frequently paced the streets of London as well as walking in the countryside around Monk’s House in Sussex. Several of her characters walk in London: Mrs Dalloway of course, and Helen at the start of The Voyage Out walks with her husband towards the Docks. Virginia Woolf published six articles in Good Housekeeping in 1932 called The London Scene.

273 VW London scene

Dickens was a great walker, again in the streets of London. WG Sebald walked in Europe and East Anglia. The Rings of Saturn (1995) is structured around a walk in Suffolk. Wordsworth was a great walker, yes wandering lonely as he did.

In 1878 Robert Louis Stevenson bought a donkey, Modestine, and together they walked in the Cevennes area of South France. He walked without purpose, although he was suffering from a broken heart. He explained his attitude in Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes:

For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather bed of civilisation, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints. Alas, as we get up in life, and are more preoccupied by our affairs, even a holiday is a thing that must be worked for. To hold a pack upon a pack-saddle against a gale out of the freezing north is no high industry, but it is one that serves to occupy and compose the mind. And when the present is so exacting, who can annoy himself about the future? (12)

Writers and the walking metaphor

To conjure up the process of writing the metaphor of a path, walking, a journey is frequently used. Annie Dillard, in A Writer’s Life is creative with her ideas.

When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a wood-carver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow or this time next year.

You make the path boldly and follow it fearfully. You go where the path leads. At the end of the path, you find a box canyon. You hammer out reports and dispatch bulletins. (3)

Annie Dillard’s observations of the natural world are breath-taking. If you enjoy that kind of thing read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), which the author describes as a non-fiction narrative. You can find her own website here. Her collection of essays, The Abundance (2016), is nearing the top of my tbr pile.

Robert Macfarlane’s in The Old Ways (2012) explores some similarities between writing and walking, likening the creation of a path to writing in the landscape. He follows the paths of animals in the snow, or ancient ways such as the Icknield Way and the footsteps of Edward Thomas and other walkers. The Wild Places (2007) he records other adventures in the British Isles. Another book nearing the top of my tbr pile is Landmarks (2015). I have given away several copies of Holloway (2013), which is a joy of a book.

273 Wanderlust

Rebecca Solnit has lived the connections between writing and walking. Writer, historian and activist she wrote Wanderlust: a history of walking (2001). Brain Pickings captures the explorations of this book in her beautifully observed blogpost: Wanderlust. And the title of In The Faraway Nearby (2014) describes what can happen with your imagination when you walk.

The Research

Stanford University researchers have published an article called Give your Ideas some Legs: the positive effects of walking on creative thinking. Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L Schwartz conducted several experiments from which they made their case, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

Walking opens up the free flow of ideas, and it is a simple and robust solution to the goals of increasing creativity and increasing physical activity. (1142)

And by the way, it’s worth knowing that you get the best effects from walking outside and that it wont help improve your creativity if you walk with your face in your Twitter stream or with earphones linking you to a stream of sound. I can’t imagine why you would want to accompany your walk with other than natural sounds anyway.

273 signpost

There may be a chemical explanation for the connection, or a psychological one, or simply a common-sense explanation that by walking your mind is freed of other considerations. Or perhaps it helps because walking organises the world around you, including any writing projects.

Walk on

So I walk on, hoping it encourages my writing. Walking certainly encourages my reading as you can see from this post. I am hoping to explore more writing-walking connections in the next few months, beginning with an account of my participation in a community walk/write project next month.

 

Related posts

Travels with Robert Louis Stevenson in the Cevennes in June on Bookword.

Why Walking Helps Us Think, by Ferris Jabr, in The New Yorker in September 2014.

The Slow Death of Purposeless Walking, by Finlo Rohrer, on the BBC news magazine in May 2014

On the Creative Penn blog, nine lessons learned about writing from walking 100km in a weekend. Makes sense.

Elizabeth Marro writes about walking and writing on Book by Women blog, step by step, word by word.

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The Door by Magda Szabo

The novel begins with the door, the narrator facing it in a dream. She is struggling to turn the lock. The door will not give way to her efforts and no one will come to help for although she is shouting she has lost the power of speech. This is a recurring nightmare from which the narrator, who is a writer, is wakened by her own screaming.

It’s a powerful opening scene, and it sets up the privacy and secrecy of the woman who lives behind the door, closed to the efforts of the narrator to create closer ties. The relationship of the two women lasted twenty years, was difficult and is the subject of The Door, a Hungarian novel.

272 The Door

This is the 22nd post in the Older Women in Fiction Series on this blog. Thank you Robin Dawson for the suggestion. It was chosen because August is Women in Translation month. The Door was translated by Len Rix.

The Story

Emerence came to clean for the writer who had moved with her husband into a bigger Budapest apartment. Having been disapproved of for some time, during the Stalinist era, the writer is now more successful and needs time and space for her work. She needs a cleaner and Emerence has been recommended. Emerence makes it clear that she interviews the couple not vice versa. Later she takes over their dog as well. For twenty years Emerence cleans for the couple and becomes a major presence in their lives. It is in an uneasy relationship, especially at first as Emerence dictated the terms of her employment.

The story is told in a series of scenes, each one illustrating how Emerence keeps the narrator at a distance, or indeed turns her back on her if she feels affronted. They fall out over Emerence’s present of a plaster dog. She will never accept a present from the narrator. The narrator asks her to return, even if the dog must stay. And Emerence does return to work for them, and she hurls the dog to the floor, lesson learned. In this uneasy way, gradually the writer and the older woman develop affection, although it does not prevent the writer from getting things wrong. The climax comes when Emerence falls ill and needs assistance but will not unlock her door. What are the ‘lady writer’ and the community to do?

272 NY The Door

The old woman

Emerence had a hard childhood, born into a rural area and rejected by her family and her lover, who also stole her savings. She came to Budapest with no ties, in the war, and it emerges that she helped other people survive, especially a Jewish family. She has done numerous favours for many people so that her nephew, the Lieutenant Colonel of the police and many others all look out for her interests and protect her from the worst of life in its intrusions, especially officialdom. Emerence allows no one into her house, except the narrator just once. She has immense pride, and immense strength.

She was tall, big-boned, powerfully built for a person of her age, muscular rather than fat, and she radiated strength like a Valkyrie. Even the scarf on her head seemed to jut forward like a warrior’s helmet. (6)

At the end of The Door Emerence falls ill and is confined to her house. Her absence reveals that the community has come to rely upon her. The narrator has to ask the local priest to provide a church funeral, for the benefit of the local community. He opposes the request because of her well-known and rigid opposition to the church.

‘She’s not asking for it,’ I replied. ‘I am. And so is every well-disposed person. It is appropriate, as a form of homage. She may have heaped expletives on the Church as institution, but I’ve known few devout believers who were as good Christians as this old woman. … This woman wasn’t one to practice Christianity in church between nine and ten on Sunday mornings, but she had lived by it all her life, in her own neighbourhood, with a pure love of humanity such as you find in the Bible, and if he didn’t believe that he must be blind, because he’d seen enough of it himself.’ (250-1)

And after death her influence lives on, she’s still solving problems for other people.

The Themes

The Door isn’t so much about the old woman as about the relationship between the narrator and Emerence. They reflect many of the themes, which are set up in tension or as opposites. Emerence stands firm for the value of manual labour, while the narrator is a writer, an intellectual. Emerence does favours for the whole community, keeps the streets clear of snow, cleans their houses, services the block of flats for which she is curator. Her selflessness means that she accepts no favours, no presents. The lady writer, on the other hand, thinks of herself and her own needs constantly, as if her sensibility were especially fragile. The writer’s Catholicism is important to her, but Emerence wants nothing to do with the Church and its rituals. And so on.

It is clear that the best of life is in the combination of these qualities, labour with intellectualism; selflessness and selfishness; faith and scepticism; privacy and public approval.

Magda Szabo

272 Szabo, Magda

The author lived between 1917 and 2007 in Hungary. According to sources on the internet, the novel draws upon her own life. Her work was not published during the Stalinist years. Ali Smith observed, I am not sure where, that Emerence was Hungary, a notion that came to me during my reading of the novel.

 

 

The Door by Magda Szabo, first published in 1987. Translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix and reissued by Vintage in 2005. 262 pp.

Winner of the Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize 2006.

Memorial Room of Magda Szabo

Memorial Room of Magda Szabo

Related Posts

Two reviews:

Claire Messud in the New York Times in February 2015, described the novel as a masterpiece and mesmerising and suggested it changed her way of understanding the world.

Cynthia Zarin in The New Yorker in April 2016, said ‘to read it is to feel turned inside out’, a ‘bone-shaking book’.

Two most recent posts in Older Women in Fiction series:

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine in April 2016

Olive Ketteridge by Elizabeth Strout in June 2016

 

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Exeter Station and a publishing revolution

What’s the connection between Exeter Station and a publishing revolution? Let’s be precise, it’s Exeter St David’s Station, there being other stations in Exeter. As I frequently pass through or catch a train to and from Exeter St David’s I was entranced to discover that it was the site where Penguin Books originated.

A book for the price of a packet of fags

The story goes that returning from a weekend with Agatha Christie, at Greenway above the River Dart, Allen Lane had to wait on the Exeter station platform. It was 1934. Already working for Bodley Head, frustrated by the shortage of cheap and portable books, and no doubt influenced by recent contact with a popular author he conceived the idea for the Penguin paperback. The paperback revolution began.

271 AllenLane

It was probably not so much the soft covers but the desire to produce books for the same price as a packet of cigarettes that contributed to the success of his idea. A note for younger readers: smoking was not at that time considered a danger to health or a socially unacceptable activity.

Not on our time

The idea was not immediately taken up enthusiastically by Allen Lane’s employers, Bodley Head. They did not think it would be successful, and required him to do the work for his publishing idea in his own time. Fortunately he had colleagues who did support the idea, including one who came up the idea of the slightly comic penguin that would become identified with the new format. One of the team was sent off to London Zoo to draw the penguin for the original colophon.

271 penguin

Later the format was expanded to Pelicans (non-fiction and blue) and Puffins (for children). The original orange covers of the Penguins later diversified into green for detective novels, black for classics, and other colours, such as purple for essays.

Democratic

Allen Lane’s intentions were anti-elitist. In All About Penguin Books in The Bookseller May 1935 he said the project would be a success if

these Penguins are the means of converting book borrowers in to book-buyers.

He was, he said, aiming at nothing less than

the popularisation of the bookshop and the increased sale of books.

The first titles

Penguins Books began with ten titles.

  • Agatha Christie The Mysterious Affair at Styles
  • Dorothy L. Sayers The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club
  • André Maurois Ariel
  • Ernest Hemingway A Farewell to Arms
  • Mary Webb Gone to Earth.

Other authors were Susan Ertz, Compton Mackenzie, Eric Linklater, Beverley Nichols and E.H. Young.

According to a story in History Today, one enthusiastic reader was responsible for Penguin books being selected by the Woolworth’s buyer: Mrs Prescott.

A key moment came when the book buyer for Woolworth’s, a man named Prescott, was approached. He did not like the sample he was shown, but his wife’s enthusiastic reaction changed his mind (or so Penguin legend has it) and he ordered 63,500 copies. That meant that at least the first Penguins would not make a loss. (Richard Cavendish, History Today)

Another note to younger readers: Woolworth’s was an early version of Poundland-type shops but with a shade more class. It went under in the great bankers’ crash of 2008, and I’m not going to remind you about that, because you should know.

271 Allen Lane and Lady Chat

The trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence in 1960 was one of Penguin Books finest hours. The battle to have the book declared obscene was lost despite the claim made by the chief prosecutor Mervyn Griffith-Jones that it was ‘not the kind of book you want your wife or servants to read’. Mrs Prescott probably turned in her grave.

Original Penguins Livery

You can still pick up early Penguins in second-hand shops. Most of mine have telltale pencil prices inside the cover, or addresses of previous owners, often institutions. The early editions are very attractive, irresistible even. I treasure mine. Don’t get excited about my copy of Ariel by Andre Maurois in the photograph. It’s a 1985 facsimile. The others are pre-war editions.

271 My penguins

Book sales at Exeter St David’s Station today

Allen Lane’s experiment was a success. For a time. Penguin Books has been swallowed up by the commercial publishing giant Random House. And at Exeter St David’s Station the only books sold today have to be tracked down in the dingy cave that is WH Smith’s. The book selection is at the far end of the shop, reached by squeezing through passengers buying magazines, sweets and fizzy drinks for their journey. The shop stocks best sellers, fiction and nonfiction. Nothing I was tempted to buy and I doubt whether Allen Lane would have thought much of the selection either.

271 ExStD

Ironically, at No 1 in the fiction shelves was Girl on a Train. I doubt I will ever read a book with ‘Girl’ in the title unless I am persuaded by someone whose judgement I trust.

Penguins I loved

My love of reading was fostered in the ‘50s and ‘60s by Puffins, and later by the Pelicans that no self-respecting teenager aspiring to be an intellectual would be without. I read Freud from them, and soon discovered ST Bindoff’s Tudor England. And on and on, through many adult novels, history books, polemics, art collections and suddenly here we are in 2016. Books, Penguin Books. And it all began at Exeter St David’s.

Related books and posts

JE Morpurgo Allen Lane, King Penguin.

Jeremy Lewis Penguin Special, The Life and Times of Allen Lane

Stephen Ware, ed Allen Lane and the Penguin Editors 1935-1970

Banning Books on this blog November 2015

Allen Lanes files are held at Bristol University Library

 

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That They May Face the Rising Sun by John McGahern

John McGahern is another great Irish writer. Or to put it another way – John McGahern is great writer. That They May Face the Rising Sun was his last novel, published in 2002. John McGahern (1934 – 2006) wrote 6 novels, numerous short stories and radio plays and a memoir, called Memoir. That They May Face the Rising Sun was the Irish Novel of the Year in 2003. Its title in the US is By The Lake.

If you haven’t yet read his novels I urge you to start now.

270 That they

The Story

In beautiful slow prose, That They May Face the Rising Sun follows a rural community over one year, through the farming activities and social lives of the small group of men and women. John McGahern once said that ‘the ordinary fascinates me’, and that ‘the ordinary is the most precious thing in life’. He writes about the ordinary in a way that is deeply moving.

Joe and Kate Ruttledge have come to live on a smallholding near the lake. They had met and married in London where they worked together in an advertising agency. Joe is connected to the place through his childhood and his uncle, the Shah. In a series of scenes the reader meets their neighbours. With Jamsie and his wife Mary they share a friendship and smallholding activities. Jamsie is very newsie (a gossip I guess). Bill Evans was badly treated as an orphan and more or less given into slavery, which he eventually escapes. He is traumatised and unable to manage any idea of the past or the future. The people who know him care for him and provide him with a limited number of smokes and drinks. Then there is John Quinn, who loves women, and is brazen about his conquests, and abusive too. Patrick Ryan is the ever-absent builder. The Shah despite being unable to read or write has made a fortune for himself. He never speaks to his manager, but sells the business to him when he retires, lending him the money to do it and carrying on working there. He is something of a wise uncle to Joe, but also depends upon his nephew to make sense of the world and his negotiations with it. There are cats and dogs and a heron

The narrative emerges through a number of scenes in the year. It opens with Jonny’s annual visit from England (where so many went in the 70s, including John McGahern), and concludes with his death the following year and a moving description of the community that assembles to do the right thing at his death. Throughout this novel neighbours share tasks, do favours, tell stories, drink together and eat sandwiches. It’s peaceable, atmospheric, slow and very moving.

270 j McGahern

The style

The nature writing is also wonderful, describing what you see in a rural setting as the year follows its cycle.

September and October were lovely months, the summer ended, winter not yet in. The cattle and sheep were still out on grass, the leaves turning.

The little vetch pods on the bank turned black. Along the shore a blue bloom came on the sloes. The blackberries moulded and went unpicked, the briar leaves changed into browns and reds and yellows in the low hedges, against which the pheasant could walk unnoticed. Plums and apples and pears were picked and stored or given around to neighbours or made into preserves in the big brass pot. Honey was taken from the hives, the bees fed melted sugar. For a few brilliant days the rowan berries were a shining red-orange in the light from the water, and then each tree became a noisy infestation of small birds as it trembled with greedy clamouring life until it was stripped clean. Jamsie arrived with sacks of vegetables and was given whatever he would take in return. (191)

I love the way the domestic activities of the inhabitants of the lakeshore are included in this description.

Many of the scenes are carried forward through the dialogue, which catches the humour and pain of the neighbours. Irish history is present through recollections of the characters, none so vivid as the ambush by the Tans of a group of republicans from Jamsie’s past. And so we learn on p255 the fearful origin of Jamsie’s characteristic greeting first heard on the opening page: ‘Hel-lo … hel-lo … hel-lo.’ Such details link the scenes over and over.

For a taste of the dialogue, here is an early excerpt, when Bill Evans, much abused and exploited on the farm where he lives, calls in hungry at the Ruttledge house. Joe tells him,

‘You’re welcome to anything in the house but there isn’t even bread. I was waiting till tonight to go to the village.’

‘Haven’t you spuds?’

‘Plenty.’ He hadn’t thought of them as an offering.

‘Quick, Joe. Put them on.’

A pot of water was set to boil. The potatoes were washed. ‘How many?’

‘More. More.’

His eyes glittered on the pot as he waited, willing them to a boil. Fourteen potatoes were put into the pot. He ate all of them, even the skins, with salt and butter, and emptied the large jug of milk. ‘God, I feel all roly-poly now,’ he said with deep contentment as he moved back to the ease of the white rocking chair. ‘Do you have any fags?’ (10)

That They May Face the Rising Sun by John McGahern, published by Faber & Faber in 2002. 314 pp

Here are two other recommended books by John McGahern: The Barracks (1963), Amongst Women (1990).

The Barracks by John McGahern

This is a much earlier novel, published in 1963. It is set in an Irish Garda Barracks just after the Second World War. Elizabeth is married to the sergeant, and the novel follows her decline through cancer into death, as she wonders about her life, its meaning purpose and pleasures. The novel ends as it began in the kitchen, with the stepchildren, but she is no longer with them.

There are some acute observations about how people behave in groups, how people relate badly to each other, how people live intimate lives without any connection. In common with That They May Face the Rising Sun, its sense of place is acute. He describes the seasons in the village, the people, their concerns, the rituals of the church with deep knowledge and affection.

The Barracks by John McGahern published by Faber & Faber in 1963.

Amongst Women by John McGahern (1990)

270 Amongs Women

Moran was once a feared IRA fighter in the 1920s, but the story concerns his attempt to defend himself in the 50s and 60s when Ireland and the troubles are history. His relationship with his family and the way in which he communicates with his daughters are the themes of this novel. Moran is a fierce and mistaken old man, proud, strict, with clear principles, but unsociable … what a character sketch. We have little of description, but as with The Barracks a small world is brilliantly evoked.

Amongst Women was no 97 on the Guardian’s 100 Best Novels list. It was published by Faber & Faber in 1990.

 

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Ways with Words and the Point of Literary Festivals

What is the point of a literary festival? It is an aspect of the business side of publishing books. It provides writers with a platform for their ideas and, if the author is lucky, a pot of jam or some such in payment. It provides revenue for the venue, and B&Bs in the area. And for the punters? What’s in it for them?

Queuing for Shirley Williams

Queuing for Shirley Williams

Ways with Words, a ‘festival of words and ideas’, is held annually in July, in Dartington Hall, Devon. I live less than 10 miles away so I can pick and choose my sessions without spending a fortune, and this year I picked three.

AL Kennedy, Serious Sweet and extending herself.

Extending yourself for others. This is how AL Kennedy described writing, and thereby claimed it as an act of love. She read from her new novel Serious Sweet, published in May. The reading was excellent, bringing alive both dialogue and inner monologue. It was also funny, witty, sharp, a bit sweary and very perceptive.

269 SeriousSweet cover

She was asked some questions, the kind one might anticipate. Who are your influences? Why are you AL Kennedy not Alison? Tell us how to write! Her answers reminded us that

  1. AL Kennedy is also a stand-up comedian with the ability to ad lib on a topic;
  2. She is very reflective and self-aware;
  3. She has a wonderful way with words.

The answer to how to write is to find a place of safety, do your best, ‘and the rest is grammar, which you can find in books’.

You can find her website here.

What is the point of literary festivals? To hear writers such as AL Kennedy, and be enthused all over again about the value of writing.

Katy Norris and Christopher Wood

Which came first, the exhibition or the book? This question was asked after Katy Norris had told us about the life and work of Christopher Wood. She is curator of Pallant House, Chichester, where there is an exhibition of his work. She told us of her enthusiasm for the research, looking at the many influences on his life, and the circles he moved in in the 1920s in Paris and England.

269 KNorrisCwood

The book and the exhibition had progressed together, a dynamic process whereby the one informed the other. Sounds like the best non-fiction writing process.

What is the point of literary festivals? To hear a new perspective on an art exhibition. Last year I learned about Eric Ravillous.

Christopher Wood, self-portrait, 1927, Kettle's Yard, Cambridge

Christopher Wood, self-portrait, 1927, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge

Richard Fortey in the Woods

The third presentation was my only celebrity event. Richard Fortey was scheduled against an even bigger celebrity, Shirley Williams, and still managed to fill the hall. He told us about a year in his woods, a 4-acre beech wood in the Chilterns. We learned how interconnected are the history, geology, biodiversity, changing economics, changing land use, and effects of different life forms from mountain bikers, to grey squirrels and a moth that infects trees. These last three can all cause damage, but Richard Fortey appears to be a force for good, which means biodiversity. He’s published a book called The Wood for the Trees: one man’s long view of nature.

269 Wood for the trees cover

What is the point of literary festivals? To learn from experts and enthusiasts, and about newly published books.

And finally …

101 RWA coverWhat is the point of literary festivals? Two years ago Eileen and I got our own moment in the spotlight when we shared a session called Growing Older with Angela Neustatter, grandstanding our previous book Retiring with Attitude. It’s about getting a platform and a pot of jam.

 

 

Related Posts

Ways with Words July 2014, in which we anticipated our presentation.

Ways with Words – part 2, in which we reflected on our presentation.

 

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Learning to be old

There are three authors of New Age of Ageing. I am one. I asked the other two to reflect on what writing the book meant to each of them. This month, on her return from holiday, Eileen writes about three important contradictions, conundrums and challenges about ageing.

  1. Performing old
  2. Covering the signs of ageing
  3. Not heading for the scrap heap.
Eileen on air at the BBC

Eileen on air at the BBC

This is what Eileen Carnell wrote for Bookword blog:

It has been an absolute joy to work with Caroline and Marianne over the last two years writing our new book The New Age of Ageing: How society needs to change. We interviewed fascinating people and carried out numerous searches. The most stimulating part of the process was the dialogue we had together creating new ways of understanding the issues and then finally creating our vision to conclude the book. The whole process was extremely challenging, fun and inspiring.

Reflecting now, just over a month before publication date, has been useful in highlighting some contradictions, conundrums and challenges about ageing that I have found particularly striking.

Performing old?

I was excited when I came across the idea that we learn to ‘perform’ or act old. As a feminist researcher I was aware of the concept of performing gender. Relating the idea to ageing was incredibly useful. I was amused by what Ruth said: ‘I am aware of changes, hearing myself making sitting down and standing up noises like an old person’. There are clear rules in our society about what old people should and shouldn’t do and wear and behave, just as there are clear expectations for women in our society.

Jenny’s remarks nicely illustrate the idea that we learn to perform old:

Me and my partner are experimenting with being old for a few days … he’s had a hernia repair, I pulled a muscle in my hip. … S’interesting the sorts of things that one might need to get ‘a young person’ in for eventually … changing the bed linen for starters.

I like the ironic tone of this message. Jenny knows the situation is temporary – a rehearsal. But beneath the message speaks truth – an agreed cultural understanding of performing ‘old’ and how relationships with family, friends and younger people change as a result. Those who fail to conform are criticised or ridiculed. When Mike was preparing for a triathlon, aged 70, friends said ‘You must be mad at your age, you crazy man of excess. Why don’t you just put your feet up?’ The dominant image of older people is of decline – take that road sign of bent old people with sticks for example.

230 road sign

A contradiction emerges. There is a powerful message in our society that it is our duty to age well and healthily. That means being super fit and active for as long as possible, regardless of social background, economic status or level of physical ability. A blame issue develops: ‘they should have looked after themselves’.

Reading the work of Lorna Warren and Amanda Clarke helped me make sense of this conundrum. They draw attention to the idea that in attempting to counterbalance the ubiquitous images of decline it is important not to create new unachievable oppressions of physically fit, creative, active, adventurous ageing (see note 1). When writing I recognised the temptation to overdo the positive aspects which gives weight to this new tyranny.

Covering signs of age?

Part of the tyranny is to hide signs of ageing – age denial. My sister Sheila, who was the prettiest of us three siblings, sent me a picture of her new face following Botox treatments. I was shocked and saddened, but in her 60s she was entitled to make this decision, although I felt it spoilt her looks, making her face looked ironed and her smile forced. But when I saw the headline: ‘Pageant Mom Gives Botox to 8-Year-Old’ that revealed the story of a mother administering Botox to hide her daughter’s wrinkles I was horrified (note 2). We three authors spent a long time considering our own attitudes towards the cover up. We agreed that this example of seeking perfection was an extreme form of cultural oppression. But where do you draw the line? Opinion is divided. Some see the use of cosmetics and treatments as empowering. It is clear that beauty ideals dominate many women’s lives and there is a growing belief that ageing is like a disease that can be cured. Subsequently the cosmetic business exploits women’s fears. I have come to the conclusion that if we persist as a society in hiding age then we will never re-educate ourselves to see beauty in the faces and spirits of older people.

Heading for the scrap heap?

Society does something strange to us as we age. We are no longer valued participants but seen as a burden, a problem or redundant. While many older people want to contribute they find it difficult to find ways to share their skills. Ray expressed his frustration after he retired from his role as a surgeon in a teaching hospital:

It’s such a waste. I could be a mentor or use my wisdom in other ways in an advisory capacity. I have so many transferable skills and it’s as if nothing I did in my professional life has any value any more. I feel I am on the scrap heap.

This is so sad. The challenge is to create structures and forums so that older people can share their wisdom and experience rather than leave it to chance.

I met an inspiring retiree, called Mo, who moved to a village in South Africa to set up a school. She said:

For me the way forward is clear – to tap into the global wisdom of so many who have reached retirement. There is immeasurable wisdom which could have a huge impact on so many in the world today.

I like the clear statement that old people need to be recognised as ‘assets rather than burdens … active contributors, not passive recipients’ (note 3).

Many older people, like Mo, do find ways to benefit society. We came across many who are still active in local, national or international politics and are vociferous in campaigning for a better world and in fighting ageism. The penultimate chapter of the book celebrates their contributions demonstrating there is no shortage of older radicals.

 

References

(1) Warren, L. and Clarke, A. (2009) ‘“Woo-hoo, what a ride!” Older people, life stories and active ageing’, in R. Edmondson and H.J. von Kondratowitz (eds) Valuing older people: A humanist approach to ageing, Bristol: Policy Press, p 244.

(2) ABC News (2011) Pageant Mom Gives Botox to 8-Year-Old Daughter: How Young Is Too Young? May 12, 2011. By Hagan, K., Kunin, S. & Ghebremmedhin. S. via GoodMorning America. (Accessed 23.06.15).

243 New Age cover(3) Roberts, Y. (2012) One Hundred Not Out: resilience and active ageing. London: The Young Foundation.

The New Age of Ageing: how society needs to change, by Caroline Lodge, Eileen Carnell and Marianne Coleman. To be published by Policy Press on 7th September 2016.

Related posts

We are writing monthly posts about the stages from bright ideas to publishing our book. Earlier posts include

Ageing: it is not ‘them and us’, it is all ‘us’ by Marianne Coleman (June 2016)

Getting feedback to improve our writing (May)

First Catch Your Publisher (April)

One Book, Three Authors (March)

Writers’ Residential (February)

 

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Writing Coach Pickings

One of the most enjoyable paid jobs I’ve had was as a writing coach for university academics. And for more than a decade my job in the university also included helping students to express themselves in writing for their Masters or Doctoral degree. The bit I really enjoyed was when they began to see their writing taking shape. And although this was coaching in ‘academic’ writing the issues and challenges were much the same as for any writing. What follows are some pickings from the coaching.

Time

267 clockFinding adequate time to write is a very difficult issue for busy professionals. My students were writing up the research they had undertaken, for examination or publication. They frequently underestimated the time taken for the processes of planning and researching, analysis, working out what to say and how, and revision.

Students and colleagues frequently gave precedence to other aspects of their professional lives. They often said writing felt like an indulgence or selfish to focus on their writing. To help them reassess the place and role of writing in professional lives I often used this matrix developed from The Seven Characteristics of Highly Effective People by R. Stephen Covey. He called it a time management matrix (p151).

267 matrix

It is a quick and effective way to show that writing is important but frequently does not get done because it is not urgent, until that deadline looms. By setting the urgency alongside the importance of a task, it is easy to see why writing gets short shrift. But as Covey points out, in the cell * (not urgent but important) are many activities that are necessary for success, including professional development, planning, relationship building, recreation and writing.

In coaching sessions we would discuss how to carve out uninterrupted time to pay attention to the writing, or how to spending an hour or two every weekend on writing activities from the start of their university course.

The myths of academic writing

267 graduation

Students, and to a lesser extent university lecturers, approach what they called academic writing with all kinds of myths: you should use long words, complicated sentence structure, make frequent references to other people’s writing, and – above all – never refer to yourself in the first person. It seemed as though they did not read consciously, or never brought their critical faculties to bear on what they were reading. Clarity is the most important quality. But it is reached after a number of redrafts.

Starting

249 blank pages

If a writer is stuck about where to start, the advice is start where you feel most confident. Or start anywhere. If it’s a research paper then you will have a proposal, or outline that you have submitted, and this can be the framework for the report. You might tell the story of how you came to do the research. The word-processing function of all computers means that cutting and pasting is easy, as is adding bits and all revisions. Start!

The first draft

267 1st drAnother myth is that some people find writing easy and only need to do one draft. I think it helped writers to regard the first draft as a way to work out what they have to say. This first draft is the place to think about content, shape, the purpose and audience for the writing. The focus is on the writing. Later you can think about the reading.

 

Put the important bits first

Clarity in non-fiction often means putting the important bits up front: in the introduction, in the opening paragraph of each section and in the opening sentence of each paragraph. A useful strategy is to read through the first sentences to check if you get a good idea of what the paper or report is about.

Long sentences

Long sentences, with lots of subordinate clauses are usually not as clear as short ones. Consider writing two sentences.

There are cultural differences in writing. An Italian student had me quite confused when I read her drafts until she told me that in Italy she was encouraged to use very long sentences and to reveal the conclusions at the end of the paper.

71 Manuscript-Editing4

Feedback

There are different ways with feedback and this is what my fellow writer Eileen Carnell said about them in a post called Getting feedback to improve our writing (May 2016) 255. She was writing about feedback we sought when we were writing our next book, The New Age of Ageing.

Everyday use of the term feedback (the dominant view) suggests the reader presents information to the writer – a one-way process. We describe this feedback as Gifts (see note). In other situations the nature of feedback has a social dimension, rather like Ping-Pong, where ideas are tossed back and forth and involve making connections. There are shared insights and new meanings established. Feedback here is a two-way process. The third example, our favoured kind, is what we define as Loops. Here there is an equal power dynamic in which new knowledge and concepts are created through dialogue.

I frequently used questions to help a novice writer think about their reader: What is the most important point in this section? Why are you telling us this? What else might cause the outcomes you are describing? And most often: SO WHAT? This last meant that the writer had implied the importance of what they were saying, but not yet shown how it connects to their main themes.

WIRMI

A very useful tool this, developed by my colleague and former co-author, Chris Watkins. WIRMI stands for What I Really Mean Is. It is used when the words are getting tangled, and it’s hard to sort out a sentence or a paragraph. You take your hands off the keyboard (or lay down your pen), sit back in your chair and say, ‘what I really mean is …’ and there they come: the words you need.

Taking Ownership

Many student writers feel apologetic, as though they should not really join the conversation with the elite. But I would encourage their confidence by reminding them that they knew more about their research focus than anyone else, they were in fact world experts. And I encouraged them to sit down and write a few sentences about why they are the best person to be writing this report.

Some pet hates

145 writing keyboard

Exclamation marks. These are often used to imply humour or irony, but without explanation.

Scare quotes. These are often used to imply a different voice, but can be misconstrued without the voice being named.

Capital letters for everything. British teachers often tend to give every school subject, the word school on all occasions, all roles within school and just about everything else a capital letter, as in The Senior Teacher from the Upper School was taking the History lesson.

Ending with a pithy quote from a respected writer instead of closing with their own voice.

Being asked how many references per page are required.

The best bit

On reflection I think there are two key aspects to being a writing coach:

  1. sitting next to the writer (figuratively perhaps) and helping them work out what they wanted to say and how,
  2. and acting as a reader, explaining my experience of reading their texts.

In practice these two aspects of the role are not distinguishable.

The best bit of being a writing coach was helping someone improve their writing and to see how to apply their learning to their future writing.

The next best thing was the learning I did, from figuring out how to help the writers. And I quite often sit back and say ‘What I really mean is …’

Related posts and books

Getting feedback to improve our writing on this blog in May 2016

10 things to do when you don’t know what to write in December 2013

Being a Writing Coach by Beth Miller on Women Writers, Women’s Books blog. She draws on the characteristics of coach in Cheers, is sympathetic and pragmatic and heading for the bar.

The Seven Characteristics of Highly Effective People (1992) by R. Stephen Covey, published by Simon & Schuster

Askew, S & Lodge, C (2000). Gifts, Ping-Pong and Loops – linking feedback and learning, in Askew, S. (Ed) Feedback for Learning. London: Routledge

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