Monthly Archives: January 2021

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved is about slavery, slavery in the US. It is about the terrible things that were done to enslaved people. It is about the damage that was wrought on them before ‘emancipation’ (1863) and after. It is about physical damage, but also economic damage and psychic damage, damage to relationships and to communities. This was lasting harm, for individuals, their descendants and for American society, up to and including today. 

The harm done by slavery disrupts the narration of the story of Sethe and her family. It is mutilated, and so like all readers, like the characters in the story, I had to make some kind of sense from the turbulent events. It starts with the rage that was evident in the present time of the story (1873-4), returning later with the arrival of Beloved. The novel opens in rage:

124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims. The grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, and the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen years old – as soon as merely looking in a mirror shattered it (that was the signal for Buglar); as soon as two tiny hand prints appeared in the cake (that was it for Howard). (3)

After slavery ended (1873-4):

The novel is set in the time of the so-called reconstruction of the south following the Civil War. Eighteen years earlier Sethe had escaped from Sweet Home plantation in Kentucky (oh the irony of the name) over the river to Cincinnati to join her mother-in-law. Slave Catchers arrived to return Sethe to the plantation with her children. She killed her 2 year old child and was prevented from killing the other children. By the time the story starts only the now grown up new-born lives with Sethe: Denver, a recluse.

Things change when Paul D, a former slave also from Sweet Home, arrives at the house. He throws out the baby’s ghost and the three of them settle down to live together. Then another young woman arrives claiming to be Beloved, the name of the murdered child, and more chaos ensues.

I find myself asking how many ways can people be damaged? There is the physical damage. On Sethe’s back are the scars of whippings, which she calls her tree. There is the economic damage. None of the Black characters find it easy to get work. The psychic damage is revealed in Paul D’s case by the tobacco tin, sealed inside are his memories of which he cannot speak. And then there are the wild dreams of Beloved, dreams that evoke the terrors of the Middle Passage and routine rape of female slaves. There is damage to relationships, the most shocking of which is Sethe’s killing of her own baby. 

[Sethe knew] That anybody white would take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up. And though she and others lived through and got over it, she could never let it happen to her own. The best thing she was, was her children. Whites might dirty her all right, but not her best thing, her beautiful magical best thing – the part of her that was clean. No undreamable dreams about whether the headless, feetless torso hanging in the tree with a sign on it was her husband or Paul A; whether the bubbling-hot girls in the colored-school fire set by patriots included her daughter; whether a gang of whites invaded her daughter’s private parts, soiled her daughter’s thighs and threw her daughter out of the wagon. She might have to work in the slaughterhouse yard, but not her daughter. (295-6)

This is not an easy book to read. But the salvation, such that it is, will come from the community made by the neighbours in Cincinnati who look out for Sethe and her loved ones.

“They don’t know when to stop”: Publication 1987

Toni Morrison in 1998

When this book was published the US had been through yet more difficult times. In the previous decades the KKK still operated, Black children were still being killed in churches, Martin Luther King Jnr had been assassinated and Civil Rights Acts passed. I am reminded of the last words of Baby Suggs, Sethe’s mother whose freedom from slavery had been bought by her son’s labour.

Baby Suggs grew tired, went to bed and stayed there until her big old heart quit. Except for the occasional request for color she said practically nothing – until the afternoon of the last day of her life when she got out of bed, skipped slowly to the door of the keeping room and announced to  Sethe and Denver the lesson she had learned from her sixty years a slave and ten years free: that there was no bad luck in the world but whitepeople. “They don’t know when to stop,” she said, and returned to her bed, pulled up the quilt and left them to hold that thought forever. (122-3).

Toni Morrison was influenced by both the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement. In the Foreword to the Vintage edition she says that she had just decided to live off her earnings as a writer and given up her job when the idea of the book came to her:

I think now it was the shock of liberation that drew my thoughts to what “free” could possibly mean to women. (x)

While collecting material for The Black Book, Toni Morrison had come across the true story of Margaret Garner, who in 1856 killed her own child rather than allow it to return to slavery. She was drawn to this material.

The terrain, slavery, was formidable and pathless. To invite readers (and myself) into the repellent landscape (hidden, but not completely; deliberately buried, but not forgotten) was to pitch a tent in a cemetery inhabited by highly vocal ghosts. (xi)

And she writes of the need to reveal the vocal ghosts, to unsilence their voices and the memories of that awful time.

I hoped … that the order and quietude of everyday life would be violently disrupted by the chaos of the needy dead; that the herculean effort to forget would be threatened by memory desperate to stay alive. (xiii)

I find these statements powerful and attractive, full of good purpose and her intentions for the novel fulfilled.

The present day

Toni Morrison was born in 1931 and died in August 2019. She had been given countless awards and her writing remains highly regarded.  She wrote 11 novels for adults and some for children. Jazz (1992) and Paradise (1997) complete the trilogy begun with Beloved.

Beloved continues to be relevant today. The struggles in the US to accommodate their history continues, evident in both the Black Lives Matter campaign and in the attempted coup by a mob of white-supremacist Americans on the Capitol on 6th January 2021. 

And in the UK we have our own history of slavery and the slave trade to come to terms with. Do we need an equally powerful novel to help us see our history?

My thanks to Dr Kasia Boddy for her lecture on Beloved hosted by Literature Cambridge in January 2021.

Beloved by Toni Morrison, first published in 1987. I used the Vintage edition published in 2010. 324pp

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The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste

This book bowled me over. We chose it for the January meeting of our book group, and the next day I found it on the shelf at our new (yes NEW) bookshop, and began reading it immediately. The Shadow King tells a great story, especially of the women warriors who fought against Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia in 1935. Because I have visited Ethiopia and because the history of the first half of the twentieth century absorbs me I was predisposed to like this book. 

What I found was a novel, worthy of the shortlist for the 2020 Booker Prize, and all the critical acclaim it has garnered. In addition it is written by a woman of colour from Ethiopia. 

The Shadow King

The Shadow King tells a very good story, and all the better for being based in truth. It has some very appealing elements: such as the ultimate success of the underdogs. When Mussolini invaded, a latecomer to the European scramble to colonise Africa, he brought his mechanised army to defeat the Ethiopians. The Ethiopians had very little with which to prevent the invasion. They did have the memory of the successful campaign against the previous Italian invasion in the 1890s, as the weapons retained from that struggle. They also had a determination not to be conquered, inspired by their Emperor Haile Selassie. And they knew the terrain, and how to work with the people who lived there. 

The story begins in a very small and restricted setting. Hirut is a young girl, an orphan, who has been taken in by Kidane, who owed her parents. She lives in a tiny shed with the cook, and under the watchful and jealous eye of Aster, Kidane’s wife. 

Hirut hears Aster shouting her name, calling for her in a voice threatening to break from strain. Hirut looks up from the slow burning fire she is tending in a corner of the courtyard. She is hunched into a stool, next to a pile of onions waiting to be peeled. The cook is behind her in the kitchen, chopping meat for the evening meal. Aster should be drinking coffee in bed, tucked inside a soft blanket, perhaps looking out the window and gazing at her flowers. This should be a quiet morning. Hirut stiffens at the intrusion. (11)

The quiet morning is interrupted by more than Aster’s slightly deranged attempts to implicate Hirut in the theft of a missing necklace when Kidane returns from recruiting troops. He takes an old rifle from Hirut, the only thing she has from her father, because the Emperor needs all the weapons he can get. And we can see that her life, Aster’s, Kidane’s and even the cook’s will be upended and broadened by the campaign to drive back the Italians. 

Aster and Hirut join Kidane’s army to support their men by caring for the wounded and providing food. When things go badly and the Emperor leaves Ethiopia for exile in Bath, it is Hirut who suggests a way to provide the people with the inspiration of a shadow king. Hirut and Aster become his bodyguards and when needed take up arms with other women to fight the Italians. 

The story also is told from the point of view of a photographer in the Italian army. His commanding officer is known for his ferocity, and his cruelty is shown to the reader early in the story. But Ettore is Jewish and as anti-Semitism is promoted in Italy he becomes more and more detached from the official view and the actions of his commander, while powerless to refuse commands.

The climax of the story comes when Fucelli has captured Hirut and Aster, and waits for Kidane’s army to come to rescue them.

At times the novel is hard to read because of the atrocities committed. No one who survives comes out of the war without damage. Everyone has had to compromise themselves.

The telling of the story

While Hirut is the central character and the person we see gradually changing from that insignificant servant girl into a strong warrior, we also see the war from the perspectives of other people. What is clear is that the opposing sides have little understanding of each other. Here is Ettore looking at Hirut, who is in prison and refusing to respond to her captors.

That he has not managed to see more than a resolute and stubborn girl is proof of the Ethiopian native’s unfamiliarity with all that he finds commonplace. She has no reference points that intersect with his: no myths or fables, no ideas on science or philosophy. She is unlearned and unschooled, illiterate and limited. Unknowing and thus, unknowable. She lacks the imaginative capacity to consider an existence beyond her frames of reference: these mountains, her village, the hut where she was born. What rests behind that face and in that mind are sturdy, thick thoughts of survival and routine, and nothing else. (339)

Hirut has been stubbornly refusing to respond to Ettore, or any of the soldiers. She has been studying the enemy’s routines and waiting for signs of the rescue. She has her pride too.

Because this is one thing that neither the ascari [African soldiers in the Italian army] nor Fucelli nor this stupid soldato staring at her with a gaping mouth will ever know: she is Hirut, daughter of Fasil and Gerey, feared guard of the Shadow King, and she is no longer afraid of what men can do to women like her. (338) 

Many scenes are framed by the photographer, and in the final battle by a film crew. This device, showing us photographs, describing the way the light falls, what Ettore captured in his images, is powerful way of telling of the story. It reminds us of the fascist dictators’ love of images. But it also has the effect of putting a distance between us and the most difficult passages. Two photographs bookend the text, but while they are both of women it is not clear why they were chosen. The narrative based in Ethiopia is interrupted every now and again by sections on his meditations on leaving his country. The only section that I found jarring was a long vision by Haile Selassie towards the end of the novel.

For the most part, Maaza Mengiste’s narrative is skilful and even lyrical. Her prose has rhythm and pace, even littered with Amharic and Italian words. She manages to convey what matters to the characters, the stories of the Ethiopian characters, the conflicts of Ettore and even Fucelli’s fears. These are people living through the upheavals of the 1930s. 

The plotlines wind around each other, and details are revealed, small actions and major battles without reducing the tension: the action of spies, the cook, the ascari, Haile Selassie in exile, and Hirut’s part in the armed struggle. The themes are played out at an individual level, Hirut and Ettore, but also at macro level: Italy vs Ethiopia, evil against humaneness.

Maaza Mengiste  

The author published her first novel Beneath the Lion’s Gaze in 2010. She was born in Addis Ababa in 1974, but has lived most of her life outside Ethiopia, and now teaches in New York. Her own grandmothers were involved in the war and her researches were extensive as she revealed in this podcast from History Extra (link here. )

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste published in 2019 by Canongate. 429pp

Shortlisted for 2020 Booker Prize

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The Book of Old Ladies by Ruth O Saxton

This book fits right in with this blog’s series on older women in fiction. I am pleased to have had my attention brought to it. And I am pleased that Ruth Saxton has drawn attention to thirty-one works of fiction that challenge the stereotypes so common in literature, and in the beliefs of society at large about the lives of older women. Many of the novels and short stories have been featured on the blog: either in the list of suggestions or reviewed in the 50 posts published so far in the series on older women in fiction.

This is the 51st in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women in fiction more visible. You can find the complete list of 100+ suggested books with links to the reviews here.

So what is The Book of Old Ladies about?

The subtitle reveals some of Ruth Saxton’s purpose in writing this book: celebration. In this case the celebration of ‘strong characters and vital plots’ of older women, works of fiction that make older women their focus. 

She describes how her reading life in the US began with some good young female protagonists (Jo March, Elizabeth Bennett, Jane Eyre), but when she got to college there were no women writers on the literature syllabus. Even when women were allowed onto reading lists in academia, older women, she observed were ‘simply beside the point’. While women writers and women as protagonists have achieved a better status in recent decades yet there is still, she claims, a paucity of fiction about older women. This was important because

As I aged, my focus turned from the girl and the mother to the grandmother, or the woman my age, and I began to look for plots that might help me map a possible future beyond the familiar fairy tale where the old woman is stereotyped either as the wicked witch of the fairy godmother. … I kept running into the same old stories in which the older women are simply beside the point. (2-3) 

Early searches brought elderly female detectives to her attention, such as Miss Marple and Mrs Pollifax. She observed how they were able to detect because they were invisible. We might add that as outsiders they are able to see what the characters and perhaps the readers cannot. The Miss Marples of this world are no guide to aging and old age.

I wanted to read the novels in which fictional older women prepare for the journey of aging, inhabit the territory and become increasingly their truest selves. (4)

For Ruth Saxton this means finding examples of older women who do not behave as if their life is behind them, who challenge the notion that marriage and motherhood are the pinnacle of a woman’s life, that old age is all downhill. We need more women in fiction who are more than the wicked witch or fairy godmother; both stereotypes refer to how the older woman stands in relation to others. We need more old women who are characters in their own right.

Organising the examples

Her analysis divides the chosen texts into five categories:

  1. Romancing the past (the continuing story of marriage and romance for women, which will drive out creativity and artistic success);
  2. Sex after sixty;
  3. Alternate realities ( the older women consider their current situations without much attention to their pasts);
  4. Never too late; and 
  5. Defying expectation.

The discussion of thirty texts under these headings is an interesting approach, and with only a few pages to discuss each one inevitably makes the originals appear thin. But organisation into themes brings more depth.

She includes a novel that I also admire greatly: Margaret Drabble’s recent novel The Dark Flood Rises, and concludes with a personal note about how the book was influenced by a car accident. You can find my review of The Dark Flood Rises here.

Some reflection on vocabulary and the cover

Finding a suitable phrase to describe women over 60 can be problematic. When we were writing The New Age of Ageing we had long discussions about the language used about older people in English culture and how we should refer to older members of our communities. Every phrase brings with it a great deal of baggage. To call women ‘old’ is difficult, and over the years I (and fellow writers) have used the softer ‘older’. Even the word ‘women’ is experienced by some as less polite than ‘ladies’. And the combination of those two sets of words can be difficult. Try them (out loud)!

Old woman
Old lady
Older woman
Older lady

And the subtitle uses that coy expression ‘of a certain age’. We are afraid of age. Our society does not treat old people well. We find all kinds of ways of avoiding what is seen as a stigma or even a fault – being old

The cover is also intended, I suspect, to allay fears of too fierce an approach. It is pink, with silhouettes and the main title in elaborate, curly lettering  – a kind of Jane Austen appeal?

I am not sure enough of the nuances of American culture to know whether these observations apply across the Atlantic. 

Despite these reservations I am grateful to Ruth Saxton for drawing my attention to many texts previously unknown to me, and for offering some new perspectives on familiar books. Even on the occasions where I have taken a different slant on a text, I am still thrilled to find a writer who shares my ideas that books about older women are undervalued. 

I would make the same point about women in society in general – older women are undervalued. 

The Book of Old Ladies: celebrating women of a certain age in fiction by Ruth O Saxton, published in 2020 by She Writes Press. 295pp

Recent posts in the Older Women in Fiction Series

At the Jerusalem by Paul Bailey

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout.

Frangipani House by Beryl Gilroy

My full list of about 100 novels featuring older women can be found here.

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The Ungrateful Refugee by Dina Nayeri

Those of us who have never had to leave our country because of fear of torture or death might assume that that refugees should express gratitude to those who provide them with a place of safety. Is that right? This book by former refugee Dina Nayeri questions this assumption, turns it round even. Not what should our attitude to refugees be, but how should refugees view their new home? There is, she says, no debt to repay. And if we want to build better communities that include refugees, then we should pay attention to those things that help build communities and good relationships. 

The Ungrateful Refugee

In her previous books Dina Nayeri drew on her own life to write her fiction: Refuge and A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea. This book is not fiction. She tells the story of her escape with her mother and her brother from Iran when she was eight years old in 1988. They went first to Abu Dhabi as tourists and, when the visas ran out, to Italy where they were accommodated in a hotel, converted to a refugee camp, near Rome. Finally they were allowed to settle in Oklahoma. 

Her mother was a doctor, persecuted in Iran for her Christianity. Her father was a dentist, but arrested more than once for opium abuse. He did not accompany them, although he provided passports, money and contacts that enabled their flight. 

The difficulties of fitting into Oklahoma society were huge. Her mother’s medical credentials were never accepted. Her brother gained credibility because he played sports. Dina endured years of being an outsider in school, but became determined, fixated even, on going to Harvard, seeing it as the pathway to acceptance in the US. She has lived in other countries, recently moving from London to Paris. And has spent time in Amsterdam.

Her story is interwoven with more recent ones, often from men who found it harder than her family to escape to safety as more and more barriers are erected to keep refugees out. These men came from Syria or Afghanistan. She writes a great deal about immigration systems that make people wait, that try to catch out asylum seekers in minor inconsistencies. Often these people end up in detention with the threat of deportation unresolved. The effects of these policies, condemning good people to years of uncertainty and living on the margins, cannot be justified. Some do not survive. Others, by luck, manage to thrive.

The story of being saved

People in their new country want to hear refugees’ stories of escape, the stories of their gratitude. They act as if they are owed it. But they never ask about the life the family lived before they left Iran, the food, the family members, the family history and so on. The story is all about coming to the US, or Britain or the Netherlands.

Likewise, the assumption is that certain actions and behaviours by the immigrants will mean that refugees can fit right in. But coming to a new life is a relational thing: it requires a response. Those lucky enough to have been born in this place should shuffle up and welcome those who want to share their bounty; especially where they have been damaged, physically and/or mentally by their home country. Communities, new families, new relationships, social, economic, political connections, these will create a sense of having a place in the new country. 

We need each other to make a community – the immigrant can’t transform by sheer will.  … A lasting, progressive kind of assimilation requires reciprocation. It is mutual and humble and intertwined with multiculturalism, never at odds with it. It’s about allowing newcomers to affect you on your native soil, to change you.  (341-2)

Instead  of reciprocity, the onus has all been on the incomer, and made more difficult by an increase in hostility to refugees, in government policies and attitudes among some groups in some countries. I attended a lecture and discussion recently on refugee literature, for which this book was recommended reading. It was suggested that people who are hostile feel they are too close to becoming refugees themselves. 

I think that something darker is at work. Refugees are reminders to hostile people of the fragility of their lives; but more significantly refugees remind us of the shame and destruction inflicted by our countries’ foreign policies, that our countries have contributed to situations that the refugees are fleeing. Think of the refugees from Viet Nam, those who went to the US (see for example The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen, which we also discussed in that session. You can find my reaction to these brilliant short stories here.) 

Look at the chaos in those middle eastern countries in which the US and UK have been militarily involved: Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, Iraq … We can be ashamed too of our lack of generosity towards people in difficulties. And there is a strong thread of racism in all this. For these reasons, shame and racism in particular, the government in the UK perpetuates the hostile environment to keep refugees out. And sections of our society support that.

I was pleased to hear Dina Nayeri say in an interview that in her experience Londoners were responding positively to the changing population in the city, to the presence of refugees in their community. She said that she thought the people of London might be at odds with their government on this. (Interview on Perspectiveon breaking down misconceptions about immigrants, September 2019).

Thanks to Trudi Tate at Literature Cambridge for the on-line session on Refugee Literature. 

The Ungrateful Refugee: what immigrants never tell you by Dina Nayeri, published in 2019 by Canongate. 370pp

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Best Books for … the Long Haul

The virus mutates. And despite our fervent wishes and good news about vaccines, it is clear we are in for the long haul for yet awhile, for restrictions and lockdowns beyond the new year. No escape. Except perhaps into books.

To survive and even enjoy some aspects of the long haul I think we need a good combination of hope, persistence, resilience, patience and a long view. I have selected seven books that celebrate these qualities.

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn
Women Talking by Miriam Toews
Americanah by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
Middlemarch by George Eliot

These books are not all long, but they all feature some of those qualities we need at the moment. Personally, I am trying to hold on to a long view, and to remember that this too will pass.

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn 

Let’s start with a book that was a great success with my reading group and the post I wrote about it has been read many times in the last year. The author and her sick husband lose everything and decide to walk the South West coast path, requiring resilience in the face of bad fortune and hope that things will turn around for them. It is set in that liminal seashore zone; betrayal, illness, walking, wild camping, beautiful landscapes and wildlife. It is a true story. My book group liked it enough to decide to read the sequel later this year: The Wild Silence by Raynor Winn 

You can find my review here

Women Talking by Miriam Toews 

This novel was inspired by a real-life event, the repeated rape of drugged women and children in a Mennonite community in Bolivia. The women discover that the rapists were men of their own community. We follow the conversations of the women who meet to decide what to do while the men are away: will they leave or will they stay. Their manner of arriving at a solution is heart-warming and hopeful.

You can find my review here

Americanah by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie 

This novel follows the lives of Ifemelu and her childhood boyfriend Obinze from Nigeria, growing up in the time of military dictatorship. They both aspire to escape. Ifemelu goes to America where she stays for 17 years. Obinze does not get a visa, so goes to the UK and is deported. The couple meet again after many years when life has moved on for both.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn  by Betty Smith

This book was recommended by a friend whose reading choices I respect, and she said that I will enjoy this book about tenacity in Brooklyn in a family of extreme poverty in the early years of the 20th century. It is also about books. I should read it soon.

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

This book is from the Older Women in Fiction series here on Bookword. Moon Tiger features Claudia Hampton who is 76 years old and is dying. As  the doctor recognises, she was once someone. In fact she had a life full of action, research, important writing and love. The novel refutes the conventional narrative of what a woman should be and that the endpoint, the purpose of her life is marriage, and motherhood. The Booker Prize winning novel told the story of a long life fully lived. 

You can find my review here

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles 

This is a cheerful book that takes a long view. I recommend this story of a Russian Count Alexander Rostov, under house arrest in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel from 1920 until 1954. He sees his own situation change and Russian history rolling forwards outside the windows. He meets interesting people, makes good friends, helps many fellow Russians in that time and manages to make a decent life despite his confinement. It is charming, witty, funny and a good well-told story. There is a happy ending.

You can find my review here

Middlemarch by George Eliot

And finally, I recommend a book that has breadth, depth, integrity and a great heroine. I don’t recommend Mr Casubon’s method of passing the time: endless research for his book on the key to all mythologies. Rather we could emulate the many devoted and trusty citizens of Middlemarch, not least Dr Lydgate and his sponsor, Dorothea. Published in 1871, the town is thought to have been modelled on an earlier version of Coventry, close to Nuneaton where Mary Ann Evans (aka George Eliot) was born.

I hope that these final stages of the pandemic are not too hard on readers. And I hope fervently that we are in the final stages, dark times though they are.

Best Books for …

This was my fourth post in an ad hoc series which all begin The best book for …  Some other ideas are … reading in translation; … recommending to book groups; … taking on holiday; … when I am ill in bed; and so on. The first three were: 

The Best Books for … changing my life in December 2019

The Best Books for … giving in January 2020

The Best Books for … a lockdown in May 2020

Over to you

So what books would you add to a list of the best books for the long haul?

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Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me by Kate Clanchy

They are at it again. They are always at it. Teacher bashing! I spent nearly 50 years working in schools professionally (and another decade as a school child). They have always done it. Blamed teachers for: falling standards of morality; falling standards in exams; grade inflation; poor grammar; crime; teenage pregnancy; homosexuality; radical politics. And now blaming them for the pandemic, or for being cowards or not helping with the roll out of testing. Or for the rising rate of infections. Whatever it is it’s the teachers what done it.

I have way more experience of schools and teachers than any gavin-come-lately education minister. I know teachers who knew what it was to hold to a child steady between the chaos of home and their own selves. I have seen teachers feed and clothe children, not their own. I have known teachers coax necessary disclosures from young people. And teachers who have inspired youngsters with love of knowledge, of history, or geography or maths. Teachers who introduced young people to literature and to becoming readers for life. 

You know these people. You have met these people. They always have stories to tell. They always have experiences that are illuminating. They are adaptable inside the classroom or in the playgrounds and corridors to rapidly changing situations , and to governments and ministers who claim to know better what to do. (Governments and ministers easily fall into this trap as there is so little over which they have influence, especially, it seems, at the moment).

I found the experience, including as the headteacher of in inner London comprehensive, so draining, so exhausting that I have retired to the country and don’t involve myself very much at all with educational discourse. This book changed that.

Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me

I first came across the talent of Kate Clanchy when I discovered her tweets during the first lockdown, many of which contained poems by young people she was working with. That taster led me to Unmute, a collection of poems by young poets who met on-line during Lockdown. All thirteen had at one time or another attended her weekly poetry workshops when attending their Oxford secondary school. I obtained a copy and was very impressed and wrote a post on this blog about it. You can find it here.

A friend (yes from the world of education) told me about this year’s winner of the George Orwell Political Writing prize: Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me. She knew I would be interested in the writings of a teacher who respected the voice of students. It came to the top of my reading pile recently

The world of schools and teachers must seem a little exclusive to outsider. It is hard to understand the way it calls you, holds you, gives back almost imperceptibly the richness of the school community. But in her Introduction to Some Kids, Kate Clanchy has captured why so many people become entrapped and entranced.

Thirty years ago, just after I graduated, I started training to be a teacher. As far as I remember, it was because I wanted to change the world, and a state school seemed the best place to start. (1)

Most teachers I know began with the same desire. To those who belittle the profession, partly because it employs so many women, Kate Clanchy suggests more people should listen to teachers. Having considered and accepted the title Miss, she goes on:

I would like more people to understand what Miss means, and to listen to teachers. Parts of this book, therefore, are a kind of telling back: long-stewed accounts of how teachers actually do tackle the apostrophe; of how we exclude and include; of the place of religion in schools; of how the many political changes of the last decades have played out in the classroom; of what a demanding, intellectual, highly skilled profession teaching can be. These confident answer, though, are short and few, because mostly what I have found in school is not certainty, but more questions. Complex questions, very often, about identity, nationality, art, and money, but offered very personally; questions embodied in children. (4)

It is not the public perception that teaching is ‘a demanding, intellectual, highly skilled profession’ is it? But this book demonstrates exactly that.

And the perception that the questions raised in schools are ‘embodied in children’ is succinctly put. I remember Oddy (full name Odysseus) and the stolen koi carp, Boris (another wayward one) and the milk float, the child of the murderer, the refugee who did not know the fate of her parents, the child afraid he was homosexual, Carl who lied and lied and was not literate, the slow to read, to write, to understand. 

Kate Clanchy explores the questions raised by the young people she has met, and by some brilliant fellow teachers, much of it mediated through poetry. Here are some chapter headings:

About Love, Sex, and the Limits of Embarrassment,
About Exclusion
About Nations, Papers and Where We Belong
About Writing Secrets, and Being Foreign
About the Hijab
About Uniform
About Selection, Sets and Streaming
About What I think I am Doing.

Each chapter embodies its topic in young people’s stories and struggles. 

No wonder readers are suggesting that trainee teachers and would-be teachers read this as part of their preparation. 

I would have liked to  have worked with her. I would like to have had her teaching poetry in the London Comprehensive where I was headteacher in the early ‘90s) alongside the many brilliant teachers of Art, Drama, RE, English, PE and life. And all the brilliant work that we did with our students.

The Schoolyard by Cynthia Nugent. (That’s me on the right there, in the blue jumper, carrying some files.)

Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me by Kate Clanchy, published in 2019 by Picador. 269pp Winner of the Orwell Prize for political writing 2020

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