Category Archives: Learning

The Silence of Bystanders – Auschwitz

Auschwitz did not fall from the sky. [Marion Tunki, survivor]

Anyone who has visited Auschwitz-Birkenau must ask themselves, how was this allowed to happen? You view the piles of suitcases, shoes, hair, glasses, gas canisters and ask how could it happen that 1 million people died in this camp?

Anyone who follows the tweets of @AuschwitzMuseum sees family photographs of ordinary people, children, women, men, and reads the brief account of what happened to them. They too will wonder how it was possible. Here’s an example from Sunday 30th January 2022:

30 January 1937 | A French Jewish girl Nicole Blausztajn was born in Paris. She arrived at #Auschwitzon 19 August 1942 in a transport of 997 Jews deported from Drancy. She was murdered in a gas chamber together with 896 people.

Nicole Blausztajn

I asked such questions when I visited Auschwitz in September 2017. Similar questions are posed by Piotr Cywiński, the Director of the Auschwitz Museum, reported in an article in the Guardian on the 77th Holocaust Memorial Day on 27th January. You can read the article ‘The biggest task is to combat indifference’: Auschwitz Museum turns visitors’ eyes to current eventsby Shaun Walker by following the link.

Is the world becoming [more?] indifferent to the suffering of others, and the mass horrors imposed by regimes on minorities? In Yemen? The Uyghurs? LGBT+ peoples? People of Colour? Refugees? 

Auschwitz

The Silence of the Bystanders

I am a historian and seek to understand the events of the past. I was a history teacher, believing that it was my responsibility to help young people understand events in the past and be able to speak out about them as they should. I am a citizen of the world and of Europe and I believe that it is our duty as citizens to keep our mouths open (a maxim ascribed to both Aristotle and Gunter Grass).

One of the most poignant sights of the final months of the war was of local people, at Belsen-Bergen I think, being required to visit the camp, situated in Germany, unlike Auschwitz, and to bury the many, many corpses of those who had died there and been left unburied. At Belsen camp nurses were required to wash patients at the camp after it had been liberated. No doubt they were reluctant to carry out these tasks, but someone was thinking that they needed to know what had happened to the victims. Bystanders must confront their participation.

Doris Clare Zinkeisen 1945, Human Laundry IWM Art.LD5468

The BBC radio broadcast by Richard Dimbleby, his account of driving into Belsen with the Allied troops on 19th April 1945, is still powerful every time you hear it. You can still listen here.

I cannot remember when I first learned about the Holocaust. I grew up after the war, in fear of what men could do to other people, in the shadow of Hiroshima and the Holocaust. Our generation wanted to be sure such things would never happen again. ‘Lest we forget’ say the war memorials. But it appears that we do forget. Some of us forget.

Let us use whatever means we have to remind ourselves and others, to be sure that we do not allow bystanders to be silent or ignorant of such atrocities in the future. Some will respond to films, such as Schindler’s List, or Sophie’s Choice. I have read criticism of the Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and its use in schools because it distorts young people’s understanding of concentration camps and the reactions of local people to the camps.

Twitter accounts may capture the attention by featuring the individuals, the 6 million individuals who lost their lives.

Permanent memorials, as well as special days, can also draw attention to what must not be forgotten. I have visited the memorials in Vienna and in Berlin.

Vienna
Holocaust Memorial, Berlin, May 2014

And, of course, books.

And here are some non-fiction books. 

If this is a man by Primo Levi (1947). The Italian writer was a chemist, and this enabled him to survive the camp in Auschwitz, but he died in 1987, possibly by suicide.

Man’s search for meaning by Viktor Frankl (1959 English edition). Another survivor, a psychiatrist, who wrote about his response to being in the Auschwitz and other camps.

A Train in Winter: A story of Resistance, Friendship and Survival in Auschwitz by Caroline Moorehead (2011). 230 French women who were active against the German Occupation of France were sent to Auschwitz. Some of them survived, but many did not.

After such Knowledge by Eva Hoffman (2004). The daughter of survivors, a Jewish writer considers the effects on her contemporaries of the Holocaust.

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank (1952 English edition), which revealed a life so brutally cut short, a childhood in Amsterdam and hiding as a young woman.

On not being silent bystanders

Auschwitz did not fall out of the sky. Bergen-Belsen did not fall out of the sky. The Holocaust did not fall out of the sky. They were the ideas of people who believed that it was ok to kill off ‘othered’ ethnic groups. And people stood by, in silence, and allowed them to do this.

We must speak out, reject silence, even if that is all we can do when people are oppressed.

Related Posts

Judenplatz, Vienna (March 2013)

Tales from the Vienna Streets (The Hare with Amber Eyes) (July 2013)

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank (May 2018)

Bookword in Poland (Sept 2017)

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Writing in the time of Covid

Many people have reported finding it challenging to write in the time of the pandemic. I know this from my writing group, from twitter and from my own experience. Why this has been so is not entirely clear to me, but I have an idea about it.

Here are some writing achievements that I have managed during the pandemic.

136 posts on Bookword Blog

I have blogged consistently every 5 days (except over Christmas in 2021). On 20th March 2020 I blogged about sleep in fiction and136 posts later I am blogging about writing. Ten days ago, I blogged about books that help me when I can’t sleep. I suspect that not sleeping and not writing during the pandemic are connected.

So, I have been reading a great deal in order to provide material for these posts. I checked on my reading log and find that I have read 150 books since March 25th 2020. And yes, I do keep records of all this.

Co-editing More Gallimaufry 

One of my two greatest writing-related achievement has been as a member of the team co-editing our writing group’s anthology, More Gallimaufry. Technically I am the publisher of this fine volume. Some of the work involved was tedious, and some quite tricky, but overall it was an honour to be involved in the production of such a fine volume. Twenty-one writers from our group provided poems, short stories and memoirs for our project. Three of our writers, who are also visual artists, provided the cover and the internal illustrations. It has been selling well since I posted about it in mid-November. 

Writing a novel with my grandson

In December my grandson, aged 10, tested positive for Covid. We live in the same village so normally if he is ill and off school I am involved in his care. But he had to isolate, so I had to find some other ways of helping him endure the ten days in which he was restricted.

My daughter sent me a photograph of Josh with our dog. The dog is a beautiful cocker spaniel called Lupin and is devoted to all family members. The photo was taken on the first day of Josh’s isolation, and they both look a bit fed up with being indoors. The picture of the two of them sparked an idea. I found an empty notebook, printed the picture, glued it onto the cover and wrote chapter one of a story about a glum boy and his dog who had super-powers. I invited Josh to write the next section.

A couple of days later Josh rang me, read the continuation of the story that he had written, and which he had printed out and stuck into our book. Soon after I collected the notebook and completed chapter 3, and so it went on until Josh was freed from isolation and we had seven chapters in our book. Two chapters were written together during the Christmas holidays. After a walk with the dog during which we discussed some ideas, we went back to my house and completed the story. We gave it a title: Josh and Lupin’s Amazing Adventure. We made the rest of the family listen to our reading.

For me, this was the second of the two productive writing activities since the pandemic began. I especially enjoyed the creativity of the final two sessions when Josh and I wrote together. We bounced ideas of each other – a pitchfork, baddies who couldn’t swim, a host of dogs. Then we developed them and found amusing ways to weave them into our story. And, of course, we left the ending open for more adventures, which will be necessary if I have to isolate. [Sometimes I say when I have to isolate.]

LATE Update: Josh has Covid again, so it is possible there will be further adventures.

Writing in a time of Covid

Once again, I notice that writing together, collaborative projects are often the most enjoyable, and the most creative. These have been restricted as we have endured social distances over the last 22 months.

From this observation I learn that as we reclaim more flexibility, more opportunities, I can pursue more collaborative possibilities to continue to develop as a writer. 

I may be able to finish that short story about Phyllis with a bit of help. And perhaps even get someone to help me retrieve that novel from its drawer. And I haven’t mentioned the poems, a small number of poems, that I have written during this time. Perhaps there is more to explore there too? 

Related posts

More Gallimaufry: another achievement for the writing group (November 2021)

What I did during Lockdown – my Covid diary (June 2020)

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My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

I was seduced by scenes of Italy in sunshine and by the endless smiles of Richard E Grant on the BBC programme Write around the World. I think it should have been Read around Europe. I was seduced into giving My Brilliant Friend a second chance. Seeing the streets of Naples in the sun and the tunnel through which the girls try to escape and find the sea, seeing all that made me suspect I had missed something first time round when I read My Brilliant Friend back in 2015. My response to that first reading had not been very favourable and I had not continued with the Neapolitan Quartet.

My Brilliant Friend

My Brilliant Friend is the story of two girls growing up in the poorest district of Naples in the ‘50s. The novel is narrated by Elena, written many decades later. She is known familiarly as Lenu. She describes Lila, from the outset as mean, selfish and very spirited. She is also clever, and she and Lenú are connected from their first days in school. Everything in school seems to come easily to Lila, and Lenú looks up to her, sees her as her reference point. Their relationship is defined by their surroundings, including their families and the traditions of the neighbourhood and by their gender.

All the children in the neighbourhood are controlled through violence, and through a strong sense of hierarchy of the families. Lila’s father is a shoe repairer while Lenú’s is a porter in the city hall. Poverty is everywhere in post-war Italy. The novel is set against the background of the gradual economic improvement of the time.

The girls try to look beyond the neighbourhood, to speak in Italian as well as dialect, to learn Latin and Greek. Both hope for wealth and fame, at first through writing a novel together, and later they become more realistic: Lenu studies hard and successfully although there is little admiration for her success from her family or the neighbourhood. Lila takes her own path, giving up on school and eventually settling for the wealthy Stefano who appears to want to change the rules of the neighbourhood, to escape the domination of the Solara family.

We see the two girls growing apart. Lenú can see that Lila is imprisoned by the district, limited by it, defined by it. Lenú sees a life beyond for herself. Indeed, the novels in the quartet are framed to show that in her 60s Lila has erased herself, while Elena is living comfortably in Turin. 

So, this novel and the three novels that follow make up the Neapolitan Quartet and they have been very successful since they appeared in translation in 2012. Readers recommended them to each other and got lost in the unfolding story. Novelists of the calibre of Elizabeth Strout and Zadie Smith extol their virtues. 

I have wondered what the fuss is about. It was only when I came to the final scene, the wedding, that I understood what the detail of their lives had been building up to. It was hard work for not much gain. I suspect that the attraction is in part the attraction of soaps: family drama, struggle against circumstances, many characters, the development of the limited cast of characters, and several vivid and violent scenes.

It is a dense novel, and evocative of both its time and place. But even on a second reading I am not tempted to continue with the quartet. I would love to know what people have enjoyed about it to make it so successful. I am not alone in finding that My Brilliant Friend failed to live up to its reputation.

Who is Elena Ferrante?

And there is mystery surrounding the author. She has demanded anonymity and does not engage in speculation about her identity. Is this a publicity stunt? Of course, several people have taken it upon themselves to identify the writer, claiming a translator, and a professor and a male writer. 

I can’t think that it matters who Elena Ferrante is. I am reminded of the old joke about who wrote the plays of William Shakespeare. It is claimed that it was another writer of the same name.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, published in English in 2012 by Europa Editions. 331pp

Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

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More Gallimaufry: another achievement for the writing group

This week we celebrate the publication of More Gallimaufry by presenting a copy to Totnes Library. ‘We’ are the Totnes Library Writers Group. More Gallimaufry is the second published collection of our writing. Everything, even the editing, was collaborative. I asked my fellow editors to say something about their experiences 

Carole Ellis said

Delight came in many forms. There was the huge privilege of reading the work of so many talented writers. So much talent within our group! Being able to discuss the work and consider with them even a tiny part of their final contribution – the placing of a comma – was a true delight. There was also delight and privilege in working with my co-editors. We had a winning blend of determination and humour and it was great to discover how two people I really respect work. There was also the immense satisfaction of seeing an idea – “what about doing another book?” –  become an object of such beauty. Nothing beats holding your own book – fresh off the press. Such a magical moment.

Learning came with the realisation that hard choices had to be made. The whole Covid-19 outbreak gave us time to focus and decide what we wanted – whether we wanted to continue and that really honed our determination. I learned that there comes a point at which one has to say ‘enough’. But that point is moveable! Even with a sales team nipping at your ankles, changes may still be needed in pursuit of perfection but at the same time perfection is not possible. There will always be that one mistake that slips through – and you have to accept that. That’s a learning curve.

From Pat Fletcher

Editing Collaboration

The invitation to be part of the editing team was an open one to the whole group. To be honest, part of me thought the invitation wasn’t for me at all, but somewhere, entwined within was the allure of promise and possibility – and I’m a sucker for both!

The whole process was much more than I could have possibly imagined. The scariest bit though was the thought of editing other writers’ work. There’s me with no editing experience, other than my own work, reviewing, assessing and discussing their art! As it turned out, they were gorgeous and for the most part appreciated someone else taking time over their work. It was through this I was encouraged to contribute some work of my own. I love this group.

Covid hit during the early stages of the process, but we carried on writing. As keeper of the content, I gained early insight into the variety and quality of the work. I was well-impressed. Over six months in, and we decided to meet to assess where we were with it all and where to go from there. That we were going to continue became a no-brainer. The getting together in person sparked something else: requests for more content became more focussed. All systems were go and what had been eleven contributors soon rose to 21.

Then we came to the task of preparing the content for print. I volunteered to have a go at the design, quickly becoming unstuck due to lack of time (and experience) to do the hard yards of putting the content in order, typesetting and pagination. Caroline and Carole rallied round and the decision was made to outsource. Palpable relief! From then on it was all steam ahead as we strove for perfection. Just as one thing was resolved, something else came to the fore – all change! At one point I cringed at the thought of finding something else, but the job had to be done – and well. All anomalies and doubts were aired, shared and cleared – some more comfortably than others (she writes as she remembers both the cringy and sparky ones). The strangest experience happened when it came to sending the final format to the printers. Part of me just didn’t want to let it go! 

Collecting the copies was a dream come true. What began as an idea floated around the group was finally real. And now it’s over to the sales team. 

Printer’s Proof

Caroline writes

And I am very proud of More Gallimaufry for many different reasons.

The cover

The appearance of this collection is very attractive. More than one of our writers are artists. The cover is fittingly called Devon Landscape and is the work of Fiona Green. She also provided the cover for Gallimaufry our first volume. 

Covid-19, lockdowns and the writers’ group

Our group thrives on active participation, this mostly in our fortnightly meetings, some of which are workshops, other involve reading our writing to others for feedback, and sometimes we explore a theme, such as structure, or pick a topic to write on together. 

In September 2019 we had organised a day’s writing festival for writers in Totnes called WRITE NOW TOTNES! It had been very successful and we planned some more activities with the surplus funds we had. 

Lockdown in March 2020 stopped us in our tracks. We managed to get regular meetings going again on zoom after several months, but some writers were not able to join, or chose not to use this method of meeting. 

We had had a schedule planned for the anthology, and the three volunteer editors had started to collect submissions when it all stalled. When we managed to meet again in the autumn of 2020, outdoors, with masks and overlooking the beautiful Dart river we made an important decision.

We had lost more than six months, but by shifting our schedule on a year, replacing all those 2020 dates with 2021, we could still produce a good volume and in time for the Christmas market. 

And that’s what we did. It was a wonderful moment when Pat, who collected all the writing together, informed us that we had work from 21 writers. Not only had we survived lockdown with our regular workshops and meetings, but we had 21 people interested enough to provide short stories, memoir and poems for our second anthology.

Editing

Pat and Carole have described our labours as we edited More Gallimaufry. We got professional assistance with the design of the cover, proofreading and having already commissioned a designer to work on the cover, she relieved us of the difficulties of typesetting as well

And then we set about chasing the last mistake. It seemed that we were nearing the end when we decided that poems spread over two pages should start on an even page, so that they could be read without turning the page. This required a large amount of reordering, and yet another revision of the contents page. 

Eventually, through our collaborative efforts it was all done, and the printer received instructions to print 200 copies.

Collaboration

This has been a collaborative project: the decision to embark on a second collection; the title; the cover; none of this was the work of one person, and often involved discussion in the meetings. 

A few days ago we collected the boxes of copies from the printers and handed them over to the Sales and Promotion team. This group have arranged the launch at the library, a sales event in the High Street, and promoting and selling the book through many outlets.

For me, the delight has been in the buoyancy of the writers group despite the limitations of the last 20 months. And while I don’t want to read it all again for some time, it was a huge pleasure to participate in the creation of a beautiful volume of excellent writing.

Thanks to Pat and Carole for all the fun, creativity and tolerance and for their contribution to this blog.

Carole, Caroline and Pat, slightly hysterical at the printers

If you are interested in acquiring a copy please contact me by email (lodgecm@gmail.com) or find the details of how on the Totnes Library Writers Facebook page. ISBN: 978 1 9996286 1 11

You can read about our first published volume (2015) Gallimaufry here.

Our first collection

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Manifesto by Bernardine Evaristo

There were people who thought that Bernardine Evaristo had come from nowhere to win the Booker Prize in 2019 with Girl, Woman, Other. These people had not been paying attention for she has been writing and working in theatre, poetry and fiction for many years. She is also a professor of Creative Writing at Brunel University.

And how could any writer produce a work of such creative imagination and with so many characters, and with an assured innovative style from ‘nothing’. As Manifesto reveals, it takes years of writing, of experimenting, of wrestling with words, of making mistakes, of throwing away, of revising before a writer can create a masterpiece of that calibre. What did it take?

Pay attention to the subtitle: On Never Giving Up

Manifesto

Bernardine Evaristo was born with several apparent disadvantages: she comes from a working-class background; she is female; and she has parents of different ethnicities. Her family was large, and she was not indulged as a child. But she found books and then theatre and then knew that her life would be with words.

If you are imagining a pity-me type memoir, look elsewhere. Each of these possible disadvantages became sources of knowledge and strength as she grew up. She made her own way, beginning in a community theatre that she co-founded and continuing to write poetry and later fiction.

Being positive has been a significant part of her development as a writer, a choice she made. My favourite story in the book is this one:

When Lara was published [in 1997], I wrote an affirmation about winning the Booker Prize – a wild fantasy because I was as far away from winning it as a writer can be. Yet I’d seen how winning that prize could improve writers’ careers, bringing their work to mainstream attention, and because I was thinking big, it seemed obvious to envision winning it. (168)

In addition to her relentless positivity, Bernardine Evaristo has always encouraged others in their writing, and promoted work by people of colour. Currently she is curating Black Britain: Writing Back with Hamish Hamilton at Penguin UK. The series aims to ‘reintroduce into circulation overlooked books from the past that deserve a new readership’. (175) There are several books in the series that interest me, including Black Boy at Eton by Dilibe Onyaema and Without Prejudice by Nicola Williams.

I attended a day writing workshop at the British Museum about a decade ago. She is an excellent and encouraging teacher.

The Manifesto

Two sentences from the manifesto chimed with me:

Be wild, disobedient & daring with your creativity, take risks instead of following predictable routes; those who play it safe do not advance our culture or civilization. (189)

The two books by Bernardine Evaristo that I have enjoyed very much, Mr Loverman and Girl, Woman, Otherhave both been risky, and both have advanced our culture. 

Personal success is most meaningful when used to uplift communities otherwise left behind. We are all interconnected & must look after each other. (…) nobody gets anywhere on their own. (189-90)

This endorsement of fr community engagement in writing is very pertinent for me right now. Before lockdown my writing group organised a writing festival in our town, and we have just published our second collection of writing, a collaborative effort which I will write about in the next post.

Manifesto: On Never Giving Up by Bernardine Evaristo, published in 2021 by Hamish Hamilton.

Related posts on Bookword

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (May 2020)

Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo (August 2014)

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Beowulf – 1

The Anglo-Saxons have never left us: swear words, place names and the foundation of our language. We have some great archaeological Anglo-Saxon finds including several hoards containing jewellery, such as the Staffordshire and Lenborough Hoards – hidden and never reclaimed – and the magnificent Sutton Hoo ship burial in Suffolk. And there is Beowulf. Beowulf’s story has survived for about 1500 years, composed around the 6th or 7th centuries and written down in the 10th or 11th centuries. The manuscript is long, about 3000 lines in Old English, and is kept in the British Library and tells the story of the hero Beowulf and his battles with Grendel, Grendel’s mother and a dragon.

Beowulf, from the kingdom of the Geats, in present-day Sweden, brings his warriors to help the Danish king defend his beautiful great hall from Grendel. Grendel is a blood-thirsty monster who terrorises the hall at night. Beowulf kills Grendel by tearing his arm off. The monster’s mother wants vengeance and Beowulf follows her into a deep, dark lake where he kills her. Many years after his return to his homeland, Beowulf is made king and takes on a fire-breathing dragon in a battle to protect his people that is his last. His body is set alight in a funeral pyre and a barrow made in his honour, high on a cliff to warn ships of the rocks below.

Origially the story would probably have been told in three parts over three evenings, in a great hall, much like the one featured in the story. How and why the manuscript was created is not known. Who composed it is not known. Some of the There is no evidence that anyone called Beowulf ever existed. Except of course he does, in countless translations, adaptations and retellings.

When I taught history in Coventry, many moons ago, I used to love the unit on Anglo-Saxons as it enabled me to retell the story of Beowulf and Grendel, and to explore the Sutton Hoo Ship burial. After the tale of heroic actions, in which Beowulf’s arm was claimed to have the strength of thirty men, he survived almost a day under water and he died fighting a fire-breathing dragon, after retelling his adventures some child would always ask, ‘is it true? Did it really happen?’

The story of Beowulf has been retold many times, in translations, novels, films and other adaptations. In this and further posts I plan to look at the enduring appeal of the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf and its retelling in books. In this post I look at some of the straightforward renditions of the poem. In future posts I’ll consider some more imaginative versions and the attraction of the Anglo-Saxon tale.

Beowulf by Seamus Heaney 

This recent translation was the work of the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney. We get the whole poem including quite a bit of elaborated history, moments of glory, family events, repeated account of the heroic deeds, and interludes. Heaney has concentrated on telling the story, finding many synonyms for the characters and repeating the reminders that all this was done by God’s power.

In off the moors, down through the mist-band
God-cursed Grendel came greedily loping.
The bane of the race of men roamed forth,
hunting for a prey in the high hall.
Under the cloud murk he moved towards it
until it shone above him, a sheer keep
of fortified gold. (24)

Many of the characters are introduced by their reputation before we actually meet them: Beowulf, Grendel and his mother as well as some of the kings that Beowulf serves. The verse story confirms the two children’s versions I read.

Beowulf by Seamus Heaney, published by Faber in 1999106pp

Dragon Slayer: the story of Beowulf by Rosemary Sutcliff 

As you expect from this great writer, this retelling of the story is very accessible and full of the details for which she was famed. It is helped by Charles Keeping’s illustrations, which while being of their time add considerably to imagining this tale of impossible heroics. As in so many of her stories Rosemary Sutcliff stresses the loyalties that tied together the royal houses of the Danes and the Geats, respected by the kings, seafarers and warriors, as well as the debts that must be repaid when demanded. 

In the great hall of Hygelac, King of the Geats, supper was over and the mead horns going round. It was the time of evening, with dusk gathering beyond the firelight, when the warriors called for Angelm the king’s bard to wake his harp for their amusement; but tonight they had something else to listen to than the half-sung, half-told stories of ancient heroes that they knew by heart. Tonight there were strangers in their midst, seafarers with the salt still in their hair, from the first trading ship to reach them since the ice melted and the wild geese came North again. (8)

Illustrated by Charles Keeping

Dragon Slayer: the story of Beowulf by Rosemary Sutcliff, first published in 1961 and reissued by Puffin in 1966. 108pp

Beowulf by Michael Morpurgo 

This is a more recent version than Dragon Slayer, and is written for slightly younger readers. The story is faithfully told, but without all the genealogical detail of the original and its many diversions. I find the illustrations by Michael Foreman to add less to the retelling than those of Charles Keeping. In this retelling again the  emphasis is on loyalty, courage and indebtedness. 

Hear, and listen well, my friends, and I will tell you a tale that has been told for a thousand years and more. It may be an old story, yet, as you will discover, it troubles and terrifies us now as much as ever it did our ancestors, for we still fear the evil that stalks out there in the darkness and beyond. (13)

Michael Morpurgo notes his debt to other translated versions, including Rosemary Sutcliff, Seamus Heaney, Kevin Crossley-Holland and Michael Alexander. 

Beowulf by Michael Morpurgo, published in 2006 by Walker Books. 150pp

See also Beowulf, translated and introduced by Kevin Crossley Holland (1987) Phoebe editions

Beowulf  by Michael Alexander (1973) Penguin Classics

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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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My bookish Christmas list

Christmas is an opportunity to give bookish gifts to friends and loved ones, and to help make small but important changes in the world. Here’s how.

Books as Presents

I’m not rushing out to do any Christmas shopping this year, but I have chosen books for several people. It’s always a pleasure giving books one has enjoyed, or one can borrow later.

Book tokens

And if you don’t know or are not sure whether Aunty Ethel will like Girl, Woman, Other, for example, you can always give her a book token. Children in other families often grow up faster than one can believe, so you lose track of what they might like. Again a book token can be the answer.

Books from Bookshops

Help independent bookshops this year by buying your book presents from them. They need your help. Many of them deliver. And to avoid lining the pockets of the uber rich on-line delivery firms you can use good on-line alternatives. I have been using bookshop.org which supports local independent booksellers. We may not have much political power, but we do have some economic power, and so spending our money on important things in the good places is something we can do.

Book Trust Christmas Appeal

Some of us want to support those working to get all children to become readers. Book Trust exists to get children reading. For a donation of £10 Book Trust will send a book to a vulnerable child for Christmas. This year there are 14,250 vulnerable children and children in care (1,800 more than last year) who can benefit from this scheme. Books to be sent this year include:

The Gruffalo Sound Book,
Elmer: A Classic Collection,
Through the Animal Kingdom,
Our Planet
Wild Lives and 
Guinness World Records 2021
.

Book Aid International and Reverse Book Tokens

This an organisation that in 2019 sent 1.2 million books to 19.5 million people in 26 countries. New and carefully selected books went to libraries, schools, universities, refugee camps, prisons and hospitals around the world. They should be celebrated for innovative ideas, such as the creation of libraries from disused shipping containers, a project in Rwanda. 

Here’s where the books went:

Children and primary schools      493,209
Leisure                                               225,568
Medicine and health                        141,270
Reference and secondary schs      146,877
Higher education                              91,275
Vocational, technical education     45,599
Development                                       47,475
English language skills                    20,190
[Statistics from the Annual Review]

You can support Book Aid International by making a donation, and/or by buying a ‘reverse book token’.

These special Book Tokens are a great idea for presents to support Book Aid International: you pay the money and someone else gets the books. For only £6 Book Aid International can send out three books. So a Reverse Book Token makes an excellent present and it supports Book Aid International. You can also join the Reverse Book Club to send a regular donation to the charity. A reader will thank you.

Happy Christmas and good reading to you all!

Photo credit for book pile: KJGarbutt on VisualHunt.com / CC BY

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When reading leads to action

When I read Refugee Tales III I had a strong reaction: I cried a lot, and then I got angry and then I decided to do something. What I decided to do was to raise £400 to support GDWG in their work challenging the policy that allows detention and supporting detainees. I also decided to take part in the weekend events in early July in support of Refugee Tales.

Back in June I blogged about Refugee Tales III. This is the third volume of stories told by refugees and asylum seekers about their experiences in the UK. This volume focuses on those who have been held in indefinite detention. Since 2015 the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group (GDWG) have been making an annual walk and as they walk they tell their stories in the manner of the Canterbury Tales. These are collected and published, some refugees tell their own stories, some are retold by accomplished writers. 

My 25 bridges challenge

Over four weeks I crossed 25 different bridges in Devon. I was supported by other walkers, including my dog. Often I wore the distinctive and rather lovely blue T Shirt. I exceeded my target, thanks to the generosity of donors, raising £500 (+£75 Gift Aid) from 21 supporters.

The 25th Bridge

During a weekend of on-line activities I heard first-hand accounts of the experience of detention, some stories retold by writers, and you can find some of these on the Refugee Tales You Tube channel. I was especially moved by Ali Smith’s short piece Azure. (I think it was by her, but the programme is no longer on the website). I cried again, got angry again and then I decided to do more.

Words into action

So what now? 

It may have been Aristotle or Gunter Grass, but I like to repeat this phrase:

It’s the duty of the citizen to keep his [sic] mouth open.

It guides my further actions.

Read

I have two books that I want to follow up with: No Friend but the Mountains: writing from Manus Prison by Behrouz Boochani, translated from the Farsi by Omid Tofighani. Behrouz Boochani is a Kurdish-Iranian journalist, who was detained from 2013 – 2017 on Manus Island by the Australian government when he claimed asylum. This book describes what happened to the detainees on the island. The translator recommended the combination of poetry and prose used by Boochani. I am interested in his ideas about literature and all arts as tools for political resistance which he mentioned in the on-line event.. 

The other book also looks interesting, recommended by a friend: No Borders: the politics of immigration control and resistance by Natasha King. A discussion of the possibilities and challenges of a world without borders appeals to me greatly.

  • Donate more to Refugee Tales and GDWG
  • Speak about this topic to my friends
  • Write to my MP (again) on the subject
  • Imagine immigration without indefinite detention as encouraged by Refugee Tales
  • Join in further action: the Refugee Tales walk in 2021 is scheduled for 2-7th July. Perhaps I can walk alongside supporters rather than just sharing an on-line experience.
  • Share the stories.

Ali Smith is the patron of Refugee Tales, and on the web-site (link below) she reports the wisdom of John Berger. He was responding to a question about what we can do about the movement of peoples and the reactions of countries to this.

The telling of stories is an act of profound hospitality. It always has been; story is an ancient form of generosity, an ancient form that will tell us everything we need to know about the contemporary world. Story has always been a welcoming-in, is always one way or another a hospitable meeting of the needs of others, and a porous artform where sympathy and empathy are only the beginning of things. The individual selves we all are meet and transform in the telling into something open and communal.

I like the idea of story-telling as hospitality and that we meet to become more open and communal. 

And what can you do?

You can still donate to the Just Giving page here:

https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/caro-lodge

Anything from £1 to £100 will be welcome towards my target of £400

Other connected pages to read:

Refugee Tales III, Eds: David Herd & Anna Pincus (2019), published by Comma Press. 201pp. This is the post from June 2020

Refugee TalesEds: David Herd & Anna Pincus: a post in February 2017 on Bookword about the first collection of tales. I was raising money for Freedom from Torture at the time.

Refugee Tales 2, Eds: David Herd & Anna Pincus: a post in April 2018 on Bookword about the second collection. 

Refugee Tales

Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group

Any suggestions for further reading?

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What I did during Lockdown

One thing I have been doing in the Lockdown is keeping a daily diary, a journal of my experience of avoiding Covid-19. I have written something every day since Sunday 15th March, when I decided to isolate myself. At the time of writing I have done nearly 100 days.

So what is this diary for? 

Why did I start it? 

Why haven’t I stopped writing it? 

What does it contain? 

What have I learned from it?

My Covid Diary – thank you Sarah

What is this diary for? 

Here’s how it starts.

Sunday 15th March (Day 1)
Today the rumours began that people over 70 would soon be forced into self-isolation for 4 months.I find myself trembling with fear. It seems that there is some truth to these stories. And I wonder – with loneliness known to be the biggest killer of older people – how can this be contemplated.

Later that day I record that there were NO plans to ask over-70s to completely isolate themselves, only to reduce social contact. And I decide to limit my contacts from that day.

Monday 16th March (Day 2)
The Finnish PM – a woman- says we should not speak of social distancing/isolation but of physical distance/isolation. We must insure that social connections are kept.
New cases 330 Deaths 35

It is a record, a historical record. I hope we are not in for repeated lockdowns, although I fear that is a possibility. But this is our first and many things are strange and unusual. I planned to record some of them.

I note the announcement of the Lockdown.

Tuesday 24th March (Day 10)
New restrictions announced last night – for 3 weeks at least. Everyone to stay at home, only go out for exercise and with one member of your household. Cases 6650 Deaths 335

As it goes on I note what I observe about things closing, (GPs’ surgeries, schools, pubs, gyms, and so on) and how Michel Barnier, EU chief Brexit negotiator, had the virus, two news stories collide. I note too that it gets hard to remember what day it is, the need to keep exercising, the figures rising, how I long for a haircut and the UN’s 4 key qualities: being kind, generous, empathetic and sharing solidarity.

I make a note of bad nights, the events being cancelled, and the friends with whom I talk on the phone. At first it feels as if we are in some kind of hiatus, life suspended, frozen in time.

From the first day I record the figures of cases and deaths (once a researcher, always a researcher), although we now know that the totals were much higher because statistics we were given were only from those people who had been tested. 

As  historian I know that looking back at something has a different flavour from a record of reactions at the time, before one knows the outcomes. For example, war diaries are interesting, because they do not have hindsight, they were written before the outcome of hostilities was known.

I recorded many of the contradictions and tensions in the situation

Monday 30th March (Day 16)
Contradictions:Reassurances – it’s not that bad for 4 out of 5 people but terrible for those who suffer.The virus is global – we live locally and in very restricted waysWe are all in it together – but we must stay 2m apart. Cases 22,141 Deaths 1408

We are isolated physically but better connected than ever. (Day 43)

We are all in this together but some of the established fault-lines are visible: gender (men appear to die more than women), age (older people are 60% of the victims, ethnicity (BAME people are suffering more deaths). I expect there are class differences as it is harder to observe lockdown in a small overcrowded flat with children and no garden (Day 44)

And I had an obscure idea that if I was going to find the lockdown as difficult as I feared, then writing would be helpful in avoiding depression. It may have helped, it may still help. 

Sunday 12th April (Day 28)
Something must change. I don’t want to mope about anymore. More contact. More writing. First rule of lockdown life – be nice to yourself – food, activities, and above all no running yourself down.2nd rule – find and enjoy the small things. Cases 78,991 Deaths, 9895

A change of mood comes when I speak with friends. An important change came on Day 42. I decided that I needed to stop seeing Lockdown as a hiatus, and accept that this is life now and it still needs to be lived.

Friday 1st May (Day 47)
Are we nearly there yet? Cases 177,454 Deaths 27,510

I noted all the things we currently count: deaths, deaths of the over 60s, deaths of men vs women, cases, tests, days in lockdown. And that my friends were making fewer phone calls. And that Kier Starmer was asking – how has it come to this? VE Day, the new slogan Stay Alert replacing Stay Home, WHO warning that Covid-19 may never go away, the horror of the care home infections and deaths.

Sunday 17th May (Day 63 – 9 weeks)
I am a little haunted by two things. Is death by Covid-19 horrible? I imagine a kind of drowning as lungs fail, or suffocation as oxygen doesn’t reach the parts that need it. No-one has said.And what will the ‘new normal’ be like? For a start I imagine it will not be new, just emergent from what we have now. And normal – hardly. I look at my 8 friends on the Writers Group [zoom] meeting, and I wonder if we will ever be in the same room again, whether we can ever be together as we used to be. Cases 233,151 Deaths 34,636

And a few days later I note that the over 70s are being condescended to again, patronised, and that the advances since the late C20th against ageism are being rolled back and an intensification of ageism is emerging.

And then the mood everywhere changed with the Cummings debacle and then again with Black Lives Matter.

Monday 8th June (Day 85)
Shocking news that many people died at home, alone, often not found for 2 weeks. Possibly 700 in London. Cases 287,399 Deaths 40,599 No deaths in London or Scotland todsay

What have I learned from my diary?

One thing I learn is that reality is not the same as fears. I still think it is crazy to refer to social rather than physical distancing, but rarely make that point now. The purpose, to reduce contact, is most important. 

I learned that once I knew I would not run short of food, or even toilet paper, I could manage. I also needed contact with key people in my life, preferably when I can see them. But I still have bad nights.

I am horrified by the failures of the government in so many things, and that they spin their record to claim pride in it. They deny faults and hide the truth.

And some fairly random things: I prefer doing Pilates in the morning; I don’t have a good recipe for banana bread; I can live a boring life and survive; there are more adders around this year; too many government contracts have gone to private companies without due process; some grapes are pretty tasteless and not the first symptoms of the virus.

I’ll continue with my diary until I stop physically distancing myself. I don’t expect much to be ‘normal’ again, whatever that was.

How was your lockdown?

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