Thursday, 25 September 2008

AQA's Unkindest Cut

My elder son, as loyal readers will know, sat his GCSEs a few months ago (and yes, in spite of all the angst, he did well, especially in the subjects which he is now pursuing with great enjoyment at AS level). One of the subjects he dropped, alas, was English. I felt like Cnut trying to stop the tide. If you want your children to read, they say, surround them with books. I certainly did that. From babyhood I read to him. He saw me writing. He lives in a house wall-to-wall with books. He laughed at the jokes in the children's book I wrote. He loves a good story and he can memorise favourite lines with the greatest of ease. He just doesn't actually want to read - although having said that, he has just avidly read his way through the filmscript of The Shawshank Redemption, currently his favourite film. It's the only reading matter I've ever actually seen him 'lost' in, in the way that we traditionalists (reactionaries?) lose ourselves in novels. So that's a comfort.

All of this is by way of a preamble to the actual topic of this post. For his GCSE, he had to study a selection of poems from an anthology provided by the AQA exam board. It was a good selection, on the whole, veering very much towards the multi-cultural politically correct, as you'd expect. He enjoyed discussing some of the issues raised by the poems and was particularly struck by - and wrote about in the exam - a poem by Carol Ann Duffy called 'Education for Leisure' in which a directionless trainee psychopath, whose life is utterly empty, baldly states with an utter lack of potential empathy that 'Today I am going to kill something.' The chilling resume of the victims of idle violence - squashing a fly, wanting to torment a cat - are familiar motifs from the careers of serial killers who start with creatures lower on the great chain of being and work their way up to murdering fellow human beings. The style is stark and casual, every line a threat - although we are not shown an actual killing. Instead there is the ghastly imminence of the final line: 'The pavements glitter suddenly. I touch your arm.'

Given that a couple of days ago a young Finnish killer posted a video on YouTube showing him getting his hand in, and finishing with a close up on him saying something like 'You next', there is something so prophetic about Duffy's killer saying things like 'I could be anything at all' and 'today I am going to change the world'. It sums up all those hollow-hearted, empty-lived, morally-adrift adolescents who grab at fame by any means, fame for its own sake, fame however brief and shallow.

So, it's a poem with relevance, a poem that stimulates valuable discussion amongst a generation familiar with gun-crime, knife-crime, brutality of language, coarsening of attitudes, where strutting kids posture threats and vent aggression at the slightest - I almost said trigger. Technically, it's a good poem, morally a sound poem.

Ironic then, isn't it, that the AQA has issued a directive to teachers ordering them not to teach this poem anymore? Apparently they'd received a couple of complaints about its subject matter and took a yellow-bellied lily-livered abject course of action about it. This makes me so angry. They've completely missed the point, interpreting it as a glamorisation of violence when that's the very thing it's not! How absurd, also, to think that sixteen year olds can't handle the poem - the very sixteen year olds who have access to extreme violence and sexual content on the social networking sites, who watch films like 'Hostel' and 'Saw' in the delightfully named 'torture porn' genre, and who even on terrestrial TV are inured to scenes in dramas where violence of action and language is the norm. Aren't these the very kids who NEED to read Duffy's poem?

A double irony, too, that this year's Guardian Children's Fiction prize has gone to Patrick Ness's 'The Knife of Letting Go', and the list also included Anthony McGowan's 'The Knife That Killed Me'. These are books which apparently explore the pressures on kids and the effects and consequences of wielding a knife.

God knows, I'd love it if children's fiction - and children's lives - could float on a warm bath of Swallows and Amazons and Five Go to Kirrin Island adventures - but that's not how it is these days for so many of those pesky kids, so stories and poems that help them to make sense of challenging issues, non gratuitiously, are to be welcomed.

Shame on you, AQA, shame on you.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

To e or not to e

This is a topic I've been meaning to blog about for ages - but it's also a topic the world and his wife have already spoken about. I've been collecting articles on the net and in print about it - but I'm deliberately not digging them out again because I just want to give my own opinions, even though my opinions are bound to echo those expressed in said articles. The question is: what do we think of e-readers?

My gut instinct is a Luddite one, and when I saw pictures of Amazon's Kindle machine my baseline hostility had aesthetic revolt added to it. The thing looks ghastly. Why do gadget producers think white is a practical colour for a gizmo they hope will be in daily use (cf Apple products)? That pristine science fiction purity will not last - the thing will end up fingerprint-tainted and smeary. Yich. The Kindle's whiteness just looks cheap to me and the design is pug-ugly and clumsy. It reminded me of gadgets sold in the Seventies with cheesy tacky adverts - do you remember K-Tel? Did you buy a pantograph, perchance?

So, absolutely no temptation factor. A few months ago Borders in Oxford started stocking the iLiad - when I looked at the picture of it on the box, I felt faint stirrings of desire, because at least this one had something I think is an absolute necessity if we're to rush out and buy the things - gadgets like this need to be sexy. They need to be sleek, seductive, beautiful. They need to make us want to reach out and touch. Unfortunately all I had in my hand was an empty box - notices advised customers that a member of staff would demonstrate the iLiad if we asked. No way. I didn't want to be subjected to the hard sell which I assume would be an inevitable component of the demo and would take the fun and intrigue right out of it. Plus it costs £399 - way too much for me to want to take the plunge.

Now along comes Waterstone's, arm in arm with Sony. They've very cleverly gone a step further: they have a Sony e-reader on display and you can touch its buttons, feel its force. You can, in short, play with the thing. It's slim and sleek - it's not perfect, but it has that sexy edge that appeals. It actually seems to be user-friendly and easy to get on with. It's also cheaper: £199 - although I still think that's too high. I feel these things need to be under the £100 mark to really take off. However, when I asked a member of staff in my local Waterstone's, he said they'd sold out and were waiting for new supplies.

So, perhaps, after all the advance notices, the e-reader's moment really has come. This leads to all sorts of alarmist headlines about the death of the book, bleh, bleh, bleh. Nah. Not going to happen. What will happen is that we'll have two complementary technologies, each of which has its own advantages, but neither of which is so perfect as to signal the death of the other.

If I were to buy an e-reader it would be for two main reasons: to store reference books which are vast and unwieldy, and for its portability. This is an area where I feel it could really come into its own: when I'm travelling I'm weighed down by books and, as I noted when discussing my recent holiday, worried that I'm going to run out of reading material (fate worse than death). So a nifty little slice of silver sleekness, loaded with books to suit whatever mood I'm in - brilliant! Downsides? Batteries - what if I run out of power at the most gripping point of the story? Fear of theft - that's a big investment to lose.

Books, now. Ah, books ... I sniff at my new books like a Bisto kid. I stroke their spot-laminated covers. I browse in bookshops and buy books by happenstance - e-tailing and downloading is fine if you already know what you're looking for. I find old books I never knew existed and read notes and signatures written by people long dead who also cherished these words. I pick up a book, I put it down, I pick it up again - it is still there for me, patient and loyal, ready to give up ideas, knowledge and felicitous phrases whenever I want. It does not run out of charge. If I lose my place or want to find a previous reference, I flick. I don't scroll. I can find my way about it with ease and there is a democracy of pages at work. I don't have to jab buttons. In my house, books teeter in piles and are crammed on shelves, their spines a display of colour, of changing fashions in jacket copy, an instant reminder, each one, of when and why I bought it, an instant trigger to feelings I had on reading it, what was going on in my life during that first literary encounter. Some are tucked away, shamefast, like old boyfriends you cannot for the life of you understand once had an appeal for you. Some evoke the safety of childhood. Some scream youthful pretentiousness at you - how embarrassing ... Some are comforts in the darkest night. Some have stretched your horizons. Some make your heart race. Some lull you with the most beautiful of rhythms, the most beloved of words. Some make you cry. And they're all there, eternally waiting without reproach, just for you.

So if someone wants to give me an e-reader for Christmas, well, yippee. It'll be fun. It'll be a frolic. But the love of books, real paper books, tried and trusted (bless you Gutenberg) solid enduring instant-access books - that love is in the marrow of my bones.

Friday, 12 September 2008

Did you miss me?

Well, it's been a while - and I apologise for being away from this blog for so long! Initially the hiatus was caused by being on holiday - we went to the south of France and had a totally gorgeous time there (somewhat marred by the mosquitoes - my younger son woke up one morning with no fewer than 28 bites on him!). Since our return we've had the exhausting task of clearing my late mother-in-law's house, to a deadline, because it had at last sold. I could have written a blog just about that - the enormous amount of 'stuff' was unbelievable and it has made me determined not to leave my own sons such a trial in the future. (How? Think of all the stuff you own, Lorna ... Maybe a little light arson would do the trick ...)

Plus, there's the start of term both for my boys and for myself as a teacher of English at A level. So, I've been distracted, in every sense of the word.

This means there's a shedload of things I want to talk about, including topics that have sent my blood pressure soaring. It'll take a few posts to catch up with myself - and I do hope some of you are still out there listening. I've been doing a lot of taking stock (the kind of thing I do when the academic year starts and I'm still teaching, not celebrating winning the Booker and a Hollywood script deal. Strange how waiting for literary success bears a strong resemblance to being a tramp waiting for Godot. And we all know how prompt HE was.) I may be branching out in new directions - so watch this space.

Before I left I posted about the holiday reading I was taking with me. I always have a panic about whether the books I've taken will see me through the trip - this is because, if I'm left to myself without interruptions, I read very quickly indeed. During the holiday there were blissful sessions reading by the pool - the joy of hours passing, pages turning ... However, the villa we'd rented (and if I can ever figure out how to get photos I've taken onto this blog, I'll show you it) was owned by a Dutch company. Loads of books there, in Dutch - interesting to see how familiar English authors were translated - but also English, so my book bank was bigger than I'd expected. Of the villa books, I enjoyed Steven Saylor's 'A Mist of Prophecies' - I'd read one of his before, 'Roman Blood', and I think he's very good: he writes mysteries set in ancient Rome, at the time of Cicero, Caesar and Antony. They're very well researched with convincing characters and a nice ironic tone. Also read Martin Cruz Smith's 'Stalin's Ghost' - already I can't remember anything about it. Honestly. He's good at the melancholy of Russian life, though, and I do recommend the earlier 'Gorky Park' and 'Polar Star', which also his investigator Arkady Renko. Of the books I took with me, I read Sophie King's 'Second Time Lucky' - an excellent holiday read of the light and heart-warming variety, written with great energy, humour and at times pathos - expecially near the beginning when the break-up of a marriage is powerfully described in its practical and emotional consequences. I met Sophie, whose real name is Jane Bidder, at the Writers' Conference at Winchester in June, so was delighted to read one of her books.

Also read Joseph O'Connor's 'Redemption Falls'. Now, I absolutely loved and often recommend his previous novel, 'Star of the Sea', so I had been saving this one up for a good wallow. Ended up not waving but drowning. It was not a good choice for a holiday read - it's beautifully written, but it's heavy duty. I think it's just overloaded, clotted with fine writing, and for most of it I couldn't figure out what the point of it all was. He's done an enormous amount of research on the American Civil War and its aftermath. I'm all for research. As a reader I need to believe in what the writer's telling me - but the danger is that it overwhelms the story - and I felt it did that here.

First prize in the holiday reading stakes goes to C.J. Sansom's 'Sovereign', which I'd also been storing up with relish and anticipation. This one didn't disappoint - this is the best of his Tudor mysteries yet - especially the terrifying episode in the Tower of London. I'll say no more - just read it.

Finally I've been meaning for ages to mention a short story competition run by The Yellow Room magazine - the closing date is 30th September, if you're interested. The editor of the magazine, Jo Good as was, now Jo Derrick, used to edit QWF (Quality Women's Fiction) Magazine, which she eventually sold as the pressure on her time was too much. But you can't keep a warm, encouraging, lively writer/editor down, and she's back again. Years ago, I gave a workshop in Rugby as part of the QWF conventions that used to run and had a great time there. Go to and also to read more. And wish all success to Jo's new enterprise.

And I promise I'll be back soon!