Monday, 25 March 2013

Fruitless Fiction

Although I've always been a keen reader, I appreciate not everyone is like me. As a kid my parents tried to encourage me to read the classics and repeatedly suggested I try Paul Gallico's novella, The Snow Goose – a book I've still never made it through (as someone who seriously dislikes snow, I'm blaming the inclusion of the word in the title for its lack of appeal).

There are so many books released every year and a huge back catalogue of literary greats, making it virtually impossible to read all the so-called “classics”, keep up with my favourite authors and check out any new talent. I generally punish myself by reading weighty books I “should” and then treat myself afterwards by tucking into a novel whose blurb genuinely excites me. More often than not, I end up enjoying the more hard-going scholarly fiction just as much as the more contemporary works but every now and again, I battle through a book that has little or no appeal. Casting my memory back over the 33 years I've been an avid reader, I can only name two books that have defeated me and remain unfinished - Dickens' Tale Of Two Cities and Benjamin Disraeli's Sybil. I'd like to think that as an A-level student, I was perhaps too young to understand either and stubbornly intend on reading both books in their entirety one day.

Since first starting teaching over a decade ago, I've come across many students who hate reading lessons and can't seem to engage with works of fiction. Even during independent reading sessions when pupils are allowed to bring in their own material or choose from school library stock, many struggle to find a book that doesn't “bore” them. Having regularly noted this rather depressing trend, I'm of the belief that any time spent reading should be encouraged, however non-literary the material (magazines, newspapers, websites...).

A spokeswoman for the website, seemed to echo my belief in a recent Metro “story” but I was pretty disgusted by the results of the survey summarised in the article. After trawling through literary forums and websites, researchers put together a list of 100 “essential” books from their findings. Some of the usual suspects make up the list (Tolkien's The Hobbit, Orwell's 1984, Dickens' Great Expectations, Stoker's Dracula, Alcott's Little Women...) and there are also some more contemporary entries that truly deserve their inclusion (Yann Martel's Life of Pi, Audrey Niffenegger's Time Traveller's Wife, Alice Sebold's Lovely Bones...). Alongside the worthy, are some frankly shocking titles, including Tulisa Contostavlos' Honest: My Story So Far, Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, Piers Morgan's The Inside and Sophie Kinsella's Confessions of a Shopaholic.

Undoubtedly pre-empting a backlash, a representative of bookmarkyourlibrary commented on the results; Elisabeth Robinson said: “No doubt literary aficionados will object to the likes of titles by Katie Price and Russell Brand appearing in the list. But our view is that as long as people are picking up books and reading that has to be a positive thing.” As previously stated, I of course agree with this sentiment but what angers me about the list is the way it has been marketed as “essential”. Definitions of “essential” include “absolutely necessary” and “extremely important” - certainly not words I'd ever use to describe Fifty Shades of Grey and Jamie's Fifteen Minute Meals!

In my absence over the next week and a half, I'll leave you with the link to this “essential” list to peruse:

Friday, 15 March 2013

Far From Being A Taboo

Whenever something has been hyped by friends or in the media, expectations are so high that I'm generally disappointed. Several months ago, I was pleased to see the return of a musical I watched almost ten years ago. I went along to the Grand in Leeds knowing nothing about the production and was absolutely blown away by it.

Mark Davies Markham's Taboo would undoubtedly appear in my top 5 theatre experiences if anyone challenged me to choose. Having seen it all those years ago I have often wondered why, after its initial tour, it seemed to disappear, rather than become a regular fixture in a West End Theatre – perhaps all the more surprising considering its Olivier Award win.

Co-written by the man himself, Taboo loosely follows Boy George's rise to fame. Markham's lively songs are both witty and moving, successfully reflecting the social upheaval of the time and shocking homophobia experienced by George and other New Romantic contemporaries. The script is cleverly packed with amusing innuendos and flamboyant characters while colourful costumes and sets reflect daring 80s' fashions.

I first saw Taboo being performed on a conventional proscenium stage that allows audiences to see the whole picture from as near or as far as seat prices and availability permit. The cast were faultless and the show had the added attraction of having Mark Little (Joe Mangel in Neighbours) playing Leigh Bowery. Normally seeing the good and bad in everything, I wouldn't call myself a hypercritical person but after Taboo couldn't think of a single criticism. I remember being inspired by the power of theatre and feeling energised.

Last weekend, I arrived at The Brixton Clubhouse feeling nervous. Having showered the show with praise for the last few months, I was anxious not to disappoint my companion. The cat-walk style stage only added to my nerves, making me fearful of audience participation. Sitting beside the edge of the stage, we both grew increasingly apprehensive as vibrantly dressed cast members walked around the bar area, pausing in menacing stances.

Although the experience was a completely different one, I'm relieved to say the revived production was just as worthy of the high praise its predecessor received. As Taboo is named after Leigh Bowery's legendary 80s' nightclub, its current performance space (a club venue above The Prince Albert pub) seems particularly apt. Lamp-lit tables and rows of chairs are dotted around a snaking cat-walk with the cast making use of the stage, table tops, bar surface and surrounding space. This set-up leaves little room for error and makes for a much more unique experience, ensuring every member of the audience sees the action from a different perspective.

Watching Paul Baker make a return to his role as Philip Sallon was an intensely personal experience as he paused inches away from my seat, facing my direction to sing one of the most emotionally raw numbers and caught my eye in the process. Final scenes following Leigh Bowery's life involved Samuel Buttery almost completely stripping off in a prolonged statuesque pose for the duration of a song; Those sitting nearest the club entrance would have had a direct view of his arse crack – I'm glad I wasn't sitting there!

The Verdict?

Even though vocals occasionally needed amplifying, Taboo's 2013 cast had no weak links with faultless performances from all. The Brixton Clubhouse venue provided a unique setting and approach to the musical, resulting in a memorable and exhilarating evening without disappointment.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Better The Devil You know

Time has flown and it has now (rather amazingly) been over three years since I completed my NCTJ in Harlow and I still haven't found permanent writing work in or around Leeds. Although I've done a fair bit of freelance writing over the last few years, money from English supply teaching has predominantly kept me afloat. 

This week, as a large chunk of the population continue their struggle to find employment, I found myself having to choose between two temporary jobs. I've never been so in demand but felt miserable. A school I recently left, wanted me to return after the Easter holidays to cover a part-time contract. Having calculated the difference in earnings between full-time and part-time work, I had to decline their offer, despite desperately wanting to return.

A day later, in response to my decision the school proposed a slight increase on the part-time rate but I'd already been offered full-time work elsewhere for the same duration. Two hours after verbally accepting the new offer, I received a text message from the first school saying they could indeed match their offer. You might think I'd feel victorious - I didn't.

I've never been someone to back down on an agreement, often to the detriment of my health and extreme annoyance of less reliables. I knew in my heart I wanted to return to school number one but that morally and professional this was the wrong decision. Experiences at school number one reignited my passion for teaching and after two terms, working there felt right but school number two had its own strengths and the additional lure of future job prospects. So what did I do?

Having discussed my predicament with a few other teachers soon to leave school number two, the idiom “better the devil you know” seemed to best summarise my situation. My first instinct was to ring the teaching supply agency who were clearly angry with school number one's unprofessional conduct and suggested it would be inadvisable to back-out of the new job offer. We agreed I'd sleep on it and let them know my decision the next morning.

My next phone call to my old Head Of Department revealed tears had been shed and a letter of complaint written to the school's governors as a result of the poor management of the situation. Like me, my dad seemed to pendulum between the two offers, initially telling me to go back to school number one who had clearly fought with “the powers that be” to secure my return and to follow my heart before advising me to make the most professional decision and perhaps go with school number two.

Returning home, I explained the situation in full to The Boy who then briefly experienced the hideous torrent of thoughts spinning around my head. Having listed the pros and cons of each job, I was still unable to resolve my dilemma. The solution unexpectedly came to me during my nightly pilates session.

This morning, I managed to nab my current Head Of Department in school number two and very transparently explained the headache-inducing internal conflict I was experiencing. She spoke to me both personally and professionally, thanking me for my honesty and perceptively saying I'd clearly already made a decision that was completely understandable.

After her blessing, my conscience cleared and I was finally able to go with my gut instinct - only wishing I'd followed it earlier when I'd first contemplating stalling my answer to the second school's job offer. I'm sure many people out there would be able to make this decision in seconds, viewing it as a no-brainer but, to me, going back on your word is a definite no-no. This whole experience seems to only reaffirm my enduring belief honesty is always the best policy - let's just hope, unlike my brain, my gut has my best interests in mind (or stomach?).  

Friday, 1 March 2013

The Thin End of The Wedge


Teaching certain English set texts often involves discussing and touching upon subjects that wouldn't be out of place in PSHE lessons. In the last term I've had a series of memorable lessons, involving sexual content. When lessons have taken an unexpected turn, students have asked if I'm embarrassed and as I'm pretty desensitised these days and used to be the only girl in an otherwise all-male house, the answer is always “No”.

The first unforgettable discussion during a lesson came about after I asked students what Curley wearing a glove full of Vaseline on one hand might reveal about his character (Steinbeck's Of Mice And Men). I'd expected answers involving Curley having rough hands from manual labour or that he cares about his wife but instead was met with the response: “His wife has a dry vagina.” After that lesson, I dreaded marking the books to find student had all added this piece of information to their notes – thankfully, they hadn't!

Several weeks later, I was reading Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go with a top set year nine class. I own the book and had never got round to reading it but knew what to expect from seeing the film. Unfortunately I managed to overlook the fact things may well get a bit racy and read a chapter to the group that described certain characters masturbating and getting “wet”. During my reading, I could hear a lot of embarrassed giggles and after I'd finished the section, a certain male student raised his hand. Looking genuinely quite confused, he asked me how that was possible, referring in particular to the female protagonist.

Now teaching in a different school, I am doing Shakespeare's Twelfth Night with an all male group and suffering from a lack of play texts. As students have to share copies of the book, I was planning on letting them read through certain scenes together to afterwards deduce word meanings from the glossary at the back. Testing the usefulness of the glossary, I came across a rather shocking explanation quoted below:

“Cut’: (a) a docked horse; (b) a gelding; c) cunt (vulgar slang for the vulva)"

(Taken from Act 2, Scene 4 of the 2001 edition)

While the C-word doesn't offend me, I am honestly pretty shocked Wordsworth Classics deem its inclusion acceptable and were unable to find a less offensive suitable alternative. Their most inconsiderate choice of explanatory vocabulary means I am now going to have to include a mini-lesson about the etymology of this controversial word: