King Lear: comfort, bleakness and realism

In the final chapter of her book Teaching Literature, Elaine Showalter reflects on what it is to teach literature in dark times. Showalter asks: ‘What should teachers do in the classroom in times of crisis, disaster, tragedy, sorrow, and panic? Does teaching literature, rather than economics or physics, demand that we rise to these occasions, and if so, how?’ It’s a question that’s been very much on my mind this week, a week in which terrible events have been unfolding on the other side of Europe and students have come into school jittery and afraid. Should literature be able to offer some kind of consolation? Should it even try?

Many people have argued, over the years, that this is what literature is for. It offers lessons and meanings; it teaches us how to live. Matthew Arnold famously declared, in ‘The Study of Poetry’ (1880), that we ‘will discover that we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us’. For Arnold, this was because religion was crumbling, philosophy was too abstruse, and scientific knowledge was ever-changing and therefore unstable. Poetry offered an eternal store of what he had referred to in Culture and Anarchy (1869) as ‘the best which has been thought and said’. For many reasons, though, Arnold’s premise is a shaky one. Poetry doesn’t exist as an abstract entity, free from all material ties. It’s written by real people, with real allegiances and prejudices, situated in real and very specific contexts. It interprets life in partial ways, informed by particular experiences and world-views. It shows us life through a particular set of lenses, but these lenses can be distorting, and we need to alert students to this rather than treating it as a store of eternal truths.

Bleak. Flooded Fens, by Gary Heayes, at openphoto.net

And comfort, in any case, can often be a bit rubbish. Years ago, I trained as a volunteer for a particular helpline, and one of the first things we were told was that we should never offer comfort, because it didn’t make life any better for the people who used our service. Other people would give them platitudes: what we had to do was to be prepared to go to the depths with them, to face the worst, rather than pretending that the worst didn’t exist.

Ironically, in view of what I’ve just said about Matthew Arnold, one of the most bracing things I’ve ever read is another of Arnold’s works: his poem ‘Dover Beach’. This poem is full of uncertainty. It sets the ebb and flow of the waves against the confusion of human life, and concludes that in a world beset by pain, all we can do is ‘be true to one another’. I remember teaching it to a Year Thirteen class in a previous iteration of the A level course. We spent quite a long time exploring the poem’s final stanza, and especially the lines where Arnold ultimately rejects the idea that the world is a benign, comforting place:

… the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

‘Well, that’s bloody depressing’, one student declared, and most of the rest of the class agreed. But one student didn’t. Her mother had terminal cancer, and didn’t have long to live. This particular student squared her shoulders and paused before she spoke. ‘I think it’s quite realistic, actually’, she said.

I have been thinking about all of this because Year Twelve and I have been looking at the ending of King Lear this week. We’ve been listening to Emma Smith’s fantastic podcast on the different ways in which the ending of the play has been interpreted, and I’ve been impressed by how quickly the students have grasped the various critical perspectives that Smith outlines. We started by examining the idea of catharsis, and thinking about what the ending of Macbeth provides: a sense that the balance of things has been restored, that a world rocked on its axis has been set right by the death of Macbeth and the accession of Malcolm to the throne. Then we turned to Lear. All the bad people die – Cornwall and Edmund, Goneril and Regan – but so do Gloucester and Cordelia and Lear. Cordelia doesn’t need to die: Edmund, wanting to do some good in the last moments of his life, sends Edgar to reverse the order he has issued for Cordelia to be hanged. But Edgar is too late. And there isn’t the neat ending that Macbeth offers, with the rightful ruler back in place. We don’t know who’s going to rule. Strictly speaking, it should be Albany, as the most senior character left alive. But he offers the throne to Edgar and Kent. Nobody seems to want the job. I’m not sure I can blame them.

Smith’s podcast surveys responses to the ending of King Lear from Nahum Tate in 1681 to Jonathan Dollimore in 1984, placing these responses into four broad stages. First, represented by Tate and Samuel Johnson, is the view that the ending of King Lear is too shocking to give pleasure: too cruel and appalling, the deaths of Lear and Cordelia too unnecessary. Second, represented by Schlegel and the Romantics, is the view that the suffering within the play takes place on such a huge scale that it can be seen as an example of the sublime: its very vastness inspires us with a sense of awe. Third is the Christian interpretation offered by A.C. Bradley and G. Wilson Knight: that the ending offers a vision of redemption in which Lear’s suffering will be rewarded in heaven. Finally, there is a much darker view, represented by existentialist philosophy and the Theatre of the Absurd: that the play’s ending is just as shocking and brutal as Tate and Johnson felt, but that this is simply the way life is. We are, indeed, as flies to wanton boys: there is no deeper meaning, no higher purpose, no certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain. Dover, whether it’s Arnold’s version or in the absurdist interpretation of Shakespeare, is a pretty bleak place. All you can do is square your shoulders, take a deep breath, and keep going.

And we decided that actually, it was this interpretation of Lear that we liked best. It faces the brutality of the play head-on and does not try to offer some consolatory message that isn’t there. It’s raw and astringent. It was one of those lessons that goes way beyond A level, that is far more important than any discussion of assessment objectives or essay structure.

Auden’s poem ‘September 1, 1939’ has been mentioned several times this week, for obvious reasons. In Julian Barnes’ novel A History of the World in 10½ Chapters there’s a discussion of Auden’s line ‘We must love one another or die’. Auden famously changed this line to ‘We must love one another and die’, commenting that the original was ‘a damned lie’ because ‘we must die anyway’. Barnes’ narrator is sceptical – he argues that there are more persuasive ways of reading Auden’s first version – but I’m on Auden’s side. Face the bleakness, face the inevitability, and make the most of things while you can.

Meanwhile, spring has finally come to this particular corner of the world, at a time when things are so horrific elsewhere. I am thinking of Carol Rumens’ poem ‘The Emigrée’, of white streets and blue sky and an impression of sunlight, and hoping that things will change.

Digging

My dad left school when he was fifteen. It was the summer of 1952. He was a bright lad, and had done well at school: he’d passed his 11+, and had got a place at Wigan Grammar School, distinguishing himself by way of his neat handwriting and meticulous organisation. And then his dad – a coal miner, from a family of coal miners – developed pneumoconiosis, and died, leaving a wife and two sons. He was just 44. My dad left the Grammar School, and went down the pit himself, to support his mother and ten-year-old brother.

This wasn’t the end of his education. He enrolled at Wigan Technical College and completed qualifications, in geology, surveying, mining technology. Eventually, he was transferred to the brand-new, state-of-the-art Parkside Colliery, in Newton-le-Willows, and was appointed Safety Engineer. He helped to formulate the rules that were put in place across the country to make conditions safer for the men who worked underground. He was head of the colliery’s First Aid team, which he led to victory in competitions throughout the UK.

Parkside Colliery First Aid team, 1975. My dad is third from the right. My brother is on the right, with v trendy collar and tank top

And he was a digger. Earth was his element. He gardened, grew flowers and vegetables, kept an allotment. Appropriately, for a miner and a gardener, he believed in starting at the bottom and working your way up. He wasn’t keen on the idea of university. It enabled people to skip the first few rungs on the ladder, elevating book-learning over practical, hands-on experience. Going to university delayed the process of getting a job and earning a living, the process he’d started in his mid-teens. As for studying English – well, what was the point? It took a trip into school and a meeting with my English teacher to convince him that it wouldn’t be a waste of time.

So Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Digging’, with its division not just between the generations but between talents and ways of life, is a poem that has always resonated with me. Since I’ve had my own garden, I’ve recognised how much care and skill went into what he did. Nothing fancy – I don’t think anyone had heard of butternut squash or rainbow chard back then – but potatoes and leeks, onions and cabbages and tomatoes, enough for a family of six with plenty left over. He was a great believer in an honest job that was done well. The rasping sound of spade in soil, the clean smell of earth.

Extract from an article by my dad in the Parkside Colliery newsletter, 1986

And now my son, the Dude, is a digger, too. He’s decided that college isn’t for him, for now. He’s working for a landscape gardener, wielding a spade and heaving buckets of earth. He’s coming home filthy and tired, but it’s a good tiredness. College can wait. It won’t go away.

The last few months have brought home to me how little vocational education is valued in the UK, and how difficult life is for young people who don’t want to go down an academic route post-16. The past two years have meant that opportunities for work experience have been thin on the ground. Open days, college visits, induction sessions: the mechanisms that help teenagers to make big decisions about their futures have been unable to happen. And so choices have been made based on what seems easiest, on what has the security of the familiar. School and college seem safe. It’s hard to break away and do something completely new.

I am proud of the Dude, for doing the difficult thing. My dad never got to meet him, but he’d be proud of him too. Meanwhile, I’m poised between the two, with my own squat pen and a head full of books, doing my own digging.

King Lear: the personal and the political

I don’t think it’s any secret that I love teaching A level English. I think A level – especially Year Twelve – is a really important time, when students are starting to find out who they are intellectually now that they can focus on just three subjects. There are those lovely moments when someone becomes completely hooked on a topic they’d never heard of six months previously, and you can almost see an entire career starting to take shape before your eyes. Sometimes, you’ll suggest something that they could follow up, a bit of extra reading, and they’ll take the idea and run with it. I remember this phase of my own life very vividly, and the sense that there were spaces opening up inside my head, exciting and addictive and a little bit scary. Connections are firing and interpretations being made, and sometimes – even after twenty-six years – it is so bloody brilliant that I get to the end of a lesson and can’t believe I actually get paid to do all of this.

I had one of those moments the week before last, when Year Twelve were looking at the concept of anagnorisis. I know some people are sceptical about using Aristotelian concepts to analyse tragedy, and I do think they need careful handling: it’s not enough to simply get students to learn them and apply them, because that often leads to lots of over-schematic analysis. And anagnorisis is a case in point. Aristotle defines it as a change from ignorance to knowledge, which could involve the recognition of someone’s true identity – as when Lear recognises that he has trusted the wrong daughters – or an acknowledgement of one’s own tragic error. Students often want to find one single moment that they can label, but in King Lear, anagnorisis is more of a process. The first hint of it occurs as early as Act 1 Scene 5, just after the violent scene in which Lear curses Goneril. Lear and the Fool are on stage together, and there’s a sense that the Fool is, gently, trying to encourage the emotionally spent king to think about what he has done:

FOOL: Thou canst tell why one’s nose stands i’the middle on’s face?
KING LEAR: No.
FOOL: Why, to keep one’s eyes of either side’s nose; that what a man cannot smell out, he may spy into.
KING LEAR: I did her wrong –
FOOL: Canst tell how an oyster makes his shell?

Lear’s ‘I did her wrong – ’ is the first sign we get that he recognises the rashness of his actions. Tantalisingly, though, it’s broken off, interrupted by the Fool. It’s not until the end of this scene that Lear returns to the subject of himself, this time with an anguished plea for sanity:

O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven,
Keep me in temper: I would not be mad!

Next time we see him, in Act 2 Scene 4, Lear’s grasp on sanity has become even more precarious. It is in this scene that he recognises how Goneril and Regan have manipulated him. Crucially, he is also beginning to question the values that he has lived by. His daughters are trying to persuade him that he does not need his hundred knights, and in response, Lear utters his great, agonised speech on the nature of need, recalibrating his sense of what is really necessary. And then, in the scenes on the heath in Act 3, we see Lear’s recognition of the shortsighted way in which he has governed his country, ignoring the needs of the ‘poor naked wretches’, with their ‘houseless heads’ and ‘unfed sides’, who must bear the full force of the storm:

O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this!

This is where Year Twelve come in. One of them, considering Lear’s acknowledgement of the state of his country, asked: does anagnorisis have to be about personal faults? Can characters undergo a political anagnorisis as well? And we decided that this is certainly true of Lear. His anagnorisis certainly has a personal dimension, but I’d argue that it’s Lear’s political anagnorisis that makes this such an astonishing play, lifting it out of a purely domestic realm.

‘Off, off, you lendings–Come unbutton here,’ William Sharp, 1793. (Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Kiernan Ryan’s recent book Shakespearean Tragedy explores the political dimension of King Lear in detail. Ryan makes it clear that the staging of the play – at Whitehall, in front of King James I – could itself be seen as a profoundly transgressive act, confronting the king with ‘a mighty monarch, James’s legendary precursor on the throne of Albion, [who] is robbed not just of his royalty but the roof over his head, and forced to feel the deprivation, the biting cold and the despair that the hungry, homeless outcasts of his kingdom must endure’ (Ryan, 163). For Ryan, the most remarkable moment in the play is when Lear tears off his clothes – a moment when the king realises that ‘beneath his royal robes and a mad beggar’s rags shivers the same “poor, bare, forked animal”’ (194). As Lear strips himself of his ‘lendings’, he ‘enacts the understanding that the monarchy itself, and the unequal distribution of property, wealth and power it preserves, have no foundation in nature’ (195). This moment is made all the more remarkable by the fact that it would have been witnessed by King James itself, and that it took place at a time when the clothes that people were allowed to wear were governed by the sumptuary laws, meaning that one’s clothing gave a clear visual sign of one’s place in the social hierarchy. Ryan goes on to point out that this stripping-away of garments reveals not just the ‘physiological kinship’ of people of different ranks and classes, but also ‘the potential they share with their fellow human beings to be someone quite different from the person they became and believe themselves to be’ (196).

There are, of course, so many connections that can be drawn between Lear’s anagnorisis – his recognition of the corrupting power of wealth and status, of the different rules that apply to rich and poor – and our current political situation. Plate sin with Lulu Lytle wallpaper, and the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks … Pomp, as Lear urges, should ‘take physic’, and expose itself ‘to feel what wretches feel’. We are enjoying finding the parallels, whilst hoping that hubris will meet its inevitable counterpart. I’m not sure Shakespeare has ever seemed so relevant.

Northern

I knew it would happen. There’s Boris Johnson, presiding over a culture in 10 Downing Street where people were clearly allowed to believe that the rules didn’t apply to them. And there was Angela Rayner, being interviewed for Radio 4’s Today programme on Wednesday morning, discussing Johnson’s bluffing and obfuscation. ‘The Prime Minister could quite simply have answered the question: Was you there, was you not?’ British culture being what it is, it was inevitable that for some people, Rayner’s non-standard verb forms would be far more appalling than anything Johnson did or didn’t do. Twist the rules, lie to the public, spaff taxpayers’ money up the wall: just make sure you do it in RP.

A level English Language students are always fascinated by different perceptions of accents and dialects. One of the pieces of research we look at in Year 12 is Dixon, Mahoney and Cox’s 2002 matched guise study, which examined the effect of regional accent on perceptions of guilt. Participants were asked to listen to recordings of scripted interviews between a police inspector and a suspect, the latter played by a student who used a Birmingham accent in one set of interviews and an RP accent in another. The suspect was far more likely to be judged to be guilty when he spoke with a Birmingham accent – even though the words he spoke were exactly the same.

Students are frequently – and quite rightly – outraged by this, seeing it as an example of the ways in which people with strong regional accents are discriminated against. But there is, of course, another side to the experiment. You’re more likely to be considered guilty if you speak with a regional accent, but equally, you’re more likely to be considered not guilty if you speak RP. And this is one academic study, but how many people, over the decades, have managed to hide behind the smooth veneer of an accent so inextricably linked to wealth, power and the Establishment?

‘We apologise to viewers in the North. It must be awful for you.’ Susie Blake, as Victoria Wood’s continuity announcer

There are a number of poems that play around with issues of accent and prejudice. One of my favourites is Tony Harrison’s ‘Them & [uz]’, a pair of caudal sonnets based on the poet’s experience of being a pupil from a working-class background at the decidedly middle-class Leeds Grammar School. It uses phonemic symbols to distinguish between the younger Harrison’s accent – with its rounded [uz] – and that of his ‘nicely spoken’ teacher, with his RP [Ʌs]. In the first of the sonnets, Harrison is castigated for his accent and made to feel inferior, a ‘barbarian’. The poem is full of images of awkwardness – ‘gob full of pebbles’, ‘great lumps to hawk up and spit out’ – and ultimately, the teacher reduces Harrison to silence:

‘We say [Λs] not [uz], T.W.!’ That shut my trap.

The second sonnet shows Harrison fighting back. Gaining a defiant energy from somewhere, he vows ‘So right, ye buggers, then! We’ll occupy / Your lousy leasehold Poetry.’ He takes charge, drops ‘the initials I’d been harried as’ and uses ‘my name and own voice: [uz] [uz] [uz].’ It’s an immense two fingers to the authority of RP. The icing on the cake is Harrison’s decision to make the sonnet form his own, adapting it for his own purposes by adding those extra two lines. It’s audacious, disobedient, a refusal to conform. I love it.

I first encountered ‘Them & [uz]’ when I was a sixth former, at my comprehensive school in Newton-le-Willows, the same school that Andy Burnham attended, in the middle of the northern no-man’s-land between Manchester and Liverpool. I was preparing for my Oxford entrance exam and desperately self-conscious about sounding Northern. I next encountered it in my second year at university, in a tutorial for a unit called ‘The History, Use and Theory of the English Language’, a compulsory part of the course that nobody really wanted to do. We’d been farmed out to another college and our new tutor had given us the poem as a way of opening up a discussion about accents and prejudice. As the only Northerner in the group, I was asked to demonstrate a Northern [uz]. It didn’t do wonders for my self-esteem. But I was the only one in the group who’d seen the poem before, and could therefore explain exactly what it was that Harrison was saying.

So even though I could predict what one set of reactions to Angela Rayner’s interview would be, I was also cheering her on, a Northern-accented woman holding an RP-speaking man to account. And let’s hope that this is the beginning of the end for the accent of privilege.

28 years later

True story. It’s 23 December 1993, a Thursday. One of those grey midwinter days that never really seem to get light, when the world is shushed back to sleep almost as soon as it’s started to wake up. You’re 21, and kicking your heels. You’ve taken a year out of your degree course, for various non-specific, angsty, finding-yourself kind of reasons, and you’re doing voluntary work at a community centre in Liverpool, helping out on adult cookery courses and after-school clubs while you work out what you’re going to do next. Except today, you’re not at work, because it’s nearly Christmas. Your friend Dermot has suggested you meet up and go into Manchester, so that’s what you do. There’s a rail replacement bus from Eccles, and it threads its way through drizzly streets until it gets to Piccadilly, all Christmas lights and last-minute shoppers. The bus driver has his radio on, and the news is all about the death of Stefan Kiszko, wrongly convicted in 1976 of the murder of 11-year old Lesley Molseed. You think, in the abstract, of how awful it would be for something like that to happen so close to Christmas, but it’s the sort of thing that happens to other people, not to you.

Rain drops: winter dusk in Manchester, by Josh Graciano (licensed under Creative Commons 2.0)

The two of you want to avoid the crowds, so you head to Waterstones, which in 1993 is still just a bookshop, with none of the toys and gifts and jigsaws it becomes crammed with later. You spend a lot of your time in bookshops, in 1993, waiting in between trains or just killing time: News from Nowhere on Bold Street in Liverpool, the radical bookshop run by a workers’ co-operative; Bookland in Warrington, where you spent most of your pocket money as a sixth-former; Sherratt and Hughes on St Ann’s Square. You’re trying to keep up with your reading for university, and so today you buy Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, Ann Radcliffe’s A Sicilian Romance, Mary Wollstonecraft’s Political Writings. You wander back to the station, and head for home.

Your dad is grumpy. Your boots (cherry-red Doc Martens, eight holes) are muddy and he complains. Most of the things you do seem to annoy your dad, from reading too many books to spending too much time in your room. Your sister will be arriving any minute, with your nephews – one six, one nearly four – and you know you’ll be pressed into entertaining them. Your mum’s cooking. You can’t remember, now, what it is that she’s making, and wish you could.

An hour later. Your sister’s arrived, and you’re watching television with your nephews, who want to see the final advent candle being lit on Blue Peter. Your dad’s not feeling well – flu, your mum reckons – so your brother-in-law is going to take him to the GP to see if he can get a last-minute appointment. He’s gone into the front room to find his shoes, but he’s been gone for a while, and so your sister goes to see if she can help. That’s when there’s a shout – Christ, get an ambulance – and your life rattles over the points onto a different track entirely.

It was a massive heart attack, the post-mortem said. Chances are he wouldn’t have known anything about it. Not the worst way to go, by any means, except that he was only 57, six years into retirement and with lots of things still to look forward to. You are all silent, stunned, not knowing what to do. You know, now, that bad things can happen to anyone, even to you, and not just to other people. You remember that the last thing that he said was that he hoped you’d wiped your feet.

You change. How could you not? For a while, you feel at a distance from the rest of your life, from your friends, none of whom have experienced anything like this. You develop a steeliness, a core, a low tolerance for self-indulgence and excuses. You go back to university and intimidate people with how disciplined and focused you are. You work and work and are always a little bit scared of what might come from nowhere to throw life off balance again. You are not the person you would have become if this hadn’t happened to you, at 21.

You’ve spent longer without a father now – twenty-eight years – than you ever did with, but you are his daughter in more ways than he ever knew you’d be. You wonder, often, what he’d think of you if he could see you now, if you could have just one day.

On writing, aged 48

Years ago, I read a poem by Susan Bassnett, then Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Warwick, called ‘Goethe’s Desk’. The narrator sees Goethe’s desk in Goethe’s house, and muses on what she could have done if she’d had Goethe’s desk to work at, rather than having to do ‘a dozen servants’ jobs’. Here’s the poem:

I was reminded of ‘Goethe’s Desk’ last week, when the Women’s Prize for Fiction and Good Housekeeping magazine launched a new scheme for women novelists under 35. Joanna Walsh, who runs the Twitter feed @noentry_arts, wrote an open letter asking for the age limit to be removed, citing the many inequalities experienced by women: access to education and free time, an excess of caring responsibilities, and intersectional obstacles stemming from social class, ethnicity, disability and illness. Age-based prizes, the letter argued, favoured ‘those with the cultural confidence, time and money to commit to a writing career while young’. How do you achieve this conviction that the world is waiting to read what you have to say? How do you get your words out there, without the knowledge of how publishing works, the connections and advice and help up the ladder? And how do you silence the voice in your head that tells you there’s something else you should be doing?

The @noentry_arts campaign really resonated with me, as a woman writer in my late 40s. I don’t write fiction – my genre is narrative non-fiction – but my journey to becoming a writer has been shaped by many of the factors that Walsh cites in her letter. The most obvious of these is the lack of free time, stemming from juggling writing with childcare and full-time work. Behind this, though, there’s also a raft of issues to do with social class, a lack of the kind of cultural confidence and connectedness that Walsh refers to, and a hefty dose of the kind of impostor syndrome that I should really have outgrown by now, but haven’t. So here’s me, and here’s how I came to be a writer, at 48.

It all started when I was four. That was when I first read a book – a whole book – all on my own. It was Five Run Away Together – the third in the Famous Five series – and I didn’t even know if I should be reading it, because it wasn’t my book. It was a hardback, with a faded red cover, and I’d found it in the sideboard in our house. I knew it must belong to one of my siblings, but I didn’t know which one. All I knew was that I’d found a book and it looked interesting. The writer had a funny name, written in a way that made it look like ‘Gnid Blyton’. I knew it probably wasn’t Gnid – that was a silly name – but I didn’t know what else it might be, and anyway, I wanted to get on with the story. So I squeezed myself into the little space between the sofa and the wall, the place where I used to hide if I didn’t want anyone to know where I was, and settled down to read. I had no idea what I was letting myself in for.

Enid Blyton’s got a lot to answer for. I’m not talking about the sexism, xenophobia and disdain for the working classes. They’re appalling, of course they are, but I didn’t notice them when I was four. The thing that possessed me was the idea of adventure. I wanted a boat of my own, and a torch, and a little camping stove powered by a bottle of methylated spirits. I knew I was never going to have my own island with a ruined castle and an actual dungeon, but the rest seemed reasonable. Well, perhaps not the boat. I asked for the torch and camping stove for my fifth birthday. I got the torch, but not the stove. The torch was useful, up to a point, but there wasn’t really an awful lot that I could do with it. There was an acute shortage of the key ingredients of adventure in Newton-le-Willows in 1977: no smugglers or travelling circuses with escaped jewel thieves or rogue scientists trying to steal important blueprints. So I decided that if I couldn’t actually go on any adventures, then the next best thing might be to write about them. When my sixth birthday came around, I asked for a desk so that I could be a proper writer, and that’s really when it all started.

By the time I was halfway through my second year at primary school, my Famous Five obsession was so firmly embedded that the headmistress took my mum to one side. It was getting a bit much, she suggested. Every piece of writing I did was linked to the Famous Five in some way. I’d even managed to write an imaginary interview with Julian (though, sadly, I didn’t ask him anything about his massive superiority complex). I needed something else to be interested in. So I started to go for riding lessons, and horses quickly replaced junior sleuths as my main object of interest. Inevitably, like all horse-mad little girls, I wanted my own pony. And inevitably, like most horse-mad girls, I couldn’t have one. We had nowhere to keep a pony, and anyway, ponies were expensive. If I wanted a pony, I’d have to find some way of earning some money. How could I do that? The solution, to seven-year-old me, was obvious. I’d have to write a book.

I tried to write lots of books, over the years. To begin with, most of them featured ponies. I was good at drawing and decided that if I could illustrate my own books as well, I’d earn even more money to put towards a pony. The problem was that I didn’t have a lot of staying power. I’d come up with a good idea but didn’t know how to carry it through. I tried to write a book about British native pony breeds with pictures in biro of Shetlands and Exmoors and all the different sections of Welsh (there are four; I knew my stuff) but never managed to finish it. I spent the summer between primary and secondary school writing a book called One Jump Ahead, about a girl called Rebecca who gets a pony called King and turns him into a champion showjumper, and filled an entire Woolworths notebook which I’ve still got somewhere. As a teenager, I went through a phase of wanting to write scripts for soap operas, but had no idea how you’d actually get involved in that for real, so Brookside and EastEnders had to suffer my loss. And that, actually, was the problem. I spent a lot of time in my room, writing, or walking the streets, thinking of things to write about, but I didn’t have the first clue how you went about becoming an actual writer with your work published and your name in print. Pretty much all of my writing went completely unread by anyone except me: stored away meticulously, paper-clipped and treasury-tagged, then filed away for some mysterious day when Somebody would want to read it.

Story of my life. (Card by Rosie Made A Thing)

I was the first person in my family to go to university. I went to Oxford to do English, with vague ideas of staying on to do a doctorate and become an academic, fuelled by reading too much David Lodge. On my first day there, waiting in the porter’s lodge to get the key to my room, I had my first real-life encounter with a lacrosse stick, the first time I’d seen one outside the pages of Enid Blyton. On my second day, standing in the front quad, I talked to a boy on my course about the essay on nineteenth-century literature that we’d had to do over the summer. We’d been told to write about either the presentation of women or the presentation of the working class. ‘Well, I’m not a woman and I’m not working-class,’ he explained, all bright eyes and floppy hair. ‘I wasn’t sure which one I should do.’ I remembered earnest conversations in the sixth form common room when we’d tried to decide which social class we belonged to. We were, almost universally, the children of people who’d started at the bottom and worked their way up: my own parents had both left school at 14, and my friends’ parents were nurses and schoolteachers, skilled tradespeople and the owners of small businesses. Nobody – not even Catherine, whose mum and dad read the Guardian – was confident enough to plonk themselves wholeheartedly in with the middle classes. My floppy-haired new friend at Oxford had no doubts whatsoever. His uncle was a senior QC; his family was right up there at the heart of the Establishment. He himself aspired to be a barrister. To me, this spoke of a lack of commitment to English. It seemed disloyal. All I wanted to do, by that stage, was to spend my life reading books and writing about books and eventually – I hoped – end up writing books myself. I’d stopped riding by then, and given up on the idea of a pony, but getting my name in print was still there, hovering like a distant dream.

As it was, I didn’t apply to do postgraduate work immediately after my degree. I wasn’t sure I’d get the funding. I knew that my family wouldn’t be able to pay, and they certainly wouldn’t be able to help with my living expenses. I wouldn’t have asked them to: why should they, when my siblings had all supported themselves from leaving school? I also knew that jobs in academia were few and far between, and that I’d have to be prepared to move to wherever the jobs happened to be, scraping by on temporary contracts in the hope that I’d manage to get something permanent eventually. This was so far outside my family’s experience that I didn’t have the confidence to take the risk. I could have headed into journalism, but again, it was something I knew nothing about. I’d done a tiny bit of writing for student publications, but had been put off by the number of people who seemed to know exactly what they wanted to say and were absolutely confident that people would want to hear it. My elbows didn’t feel sharp enough. Instead, I played it safe, like so many first-generation university students from non-traditional backgrounds, and did a PGCE. I got a job at a school in south Lincolnshire, a part of the country I knew nothing about but that sounded nice, and that’s where I still am, twenty-five years later.

I did do a PhD eventually, but I did it a different way, part-time, while teaching full-time. I wrote a book – the snappily-titled Defining Literary Criticism: Scholarship, Authority and the Possession of Literary Knowledge 1880-2002 – and co-wrote two others. Then I became an adoptive parent, and started to think, a lot, about the ideas people have about adoption, the way adoption is depicted in the media and in popular culture, and how far removed these images are from the reality of adoption today. I wanted to explore these perceptions, to tell this story. And so I started to write, again.

It’s not easy, combining writing with working full-time – I’m now a Head of English – and being a parent. I write in whatever gaps I can open up around the rest of my life. There are frantic bursts during school holidays and then weeks during term-time when I can barely write at all. It takes a huge amount of self-discipline, and there’s always something else demanding my attention. But I wouldn’t be me, without it.

I need to be the age I am to write what I do. I couldn’t have written about adoption without becoming an adoptive parent, without living that particular reality and having to tackle the complexities that adoption brings. It took me a long time, and hours of redrafting, to get my work to the stage where I felt ready to submit it to an agent, and I had to give myself a stern talking-to before I pressed Send.

I don’t have any hopes of grandeur, but I do want to get my writing out there. I have an agent, but no publisher. I know it takes time. So I am working on an idea for another book, and being patient and trying to build a platform. The struggle with impostor syndrome is still there: that lurking, constant feeling that at some point, someone will give me a polite nudge and tell me to get back in my box. But maybe, one day, I’ll get lucky. And now that I’ve started horse riding again, maybe one day there will be a pony, after all.

Teacher Feature: Miss Honey

In the early weeks of my PGCE, on placement in a comprehensive school in the middle of one of the largest social housing estates in Europe, I attended a seminar on pastoral care. It was sobering, to say the least. Rows of eager trainees, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at the start of the day, grew increasingly silent and serious as we listened to what the teachers told us about the challenges their students faced. We heard about children who slept on bare mattresses and whose only square meal each day was their free school dinner. One teacher took several students’ uniforms home to be washed and dried, because she didn’t want them to be teased about having dirty clothes. Others spent their own money on supplies: not just pens and pencils, but sanitary towels, clean socks and snacks for breaktime. ‘These aren’t students who aren’t loved,’ one of the teachers cautioned. ‘It’s not that their parents don’t care about them. Often they’re doing all they can, but it’s just not enough.’

This was in 1995, and things haven’t got better. There are lots of children, in the UK and beyond, who are struggling, and who rely on their teachers to help them hold things together. Sometimes, as in the examples above, this is because of poverty. In 2019-20, there were 4.3 million children living in poverty in the UK, meaning that – in the words of the sociologist Peter Townsend – their families lacked the resources ‘to obtain the type of diet, participate in the activities and have the living conditions and amenities which are customary, or at least widely encouraged and approved, in the societies in which they belong.’ 4.3 million equates to 31% of all children, or, as the Child Poverty Action Group puts it, nine out of a class of 30. (Except that because that’s an average, they won’t be evenly distributed. Some classes will have fewer, others many more.) For other children, it won’t be poverty that’s the issue. It might, instead, be illness within the family, whether physical or mental, and some children will bear a great deal of responsibility for looking after those who are sick or disabled: it’s estimated that there are 700,000 young carers across the UK. There might be anxieties at home around finances or housing or any one of the many things that can crop up to throw life off balance. And for many children, these daily struggles will be the result of abuse, whether that’s physical, sexual, or emotional.

That’s where Miss Honey comes in. Miss Honey is, of course, the teacher of Matilda Wormwood, the star of Roald Dahl’s novel Matilda, and she brightens up Matilda’s sad little life in a way that is desperately needed. Matilda’s parents are truly ghastly. They do not lack material wealth – Mr Wormwood is an extremely dodgy secondhand car dealer – but they do lack warmth, and tenderness, and understanding. While Mr Wormwood is out at work, Mrs Wormwood is either glued to the television or out playing bingo. They treat Matilda as ‘nothing more than a scab.’ It is Miss Honey who recognises Matilda’s quicksilver mind and nurtures her brilliance. Lovely Miss Honey, we’re told, possesses ‘that rare gift for being adored by every small child under her care.’ She understands their fears, reassures them, and helps them to feel less bewildered. In the end, when the Wormwoods decide to do a bunk to Spain in order to avoid the law, she invites Matilda to go and live with her.

Miss Honey, from my ancient copy of Matilda

Miss Honey is a caricature, like all of Dahl’s adults, but there are real-life Miss Honeys and Mrs Honeys and Mr Honeys everywhere, and even the occasional Dr Honey, too. They help to make the lives of their charges a bit less lonely and a bit less desperate. If they’re in a primary school, they will probably be the one adult, outside a child’s immediate family, who has the most contact with them on a day-to-day basis, and who therefore has the biggest chance of making a difference. The role they play in keeping children safe is immeasurable. What they give these children is hard to describe, because it’s so multi-faceted. It could be the first smile they see in any particular day. It could be a banana and a cereal bar to make up for the breakfast they haven’t had. It could be a quiet place to sit at breaktime, when life is overwhelming. It could just be the knowledge that somebody understands, that they’re not on their own. The actual Miss Honeys are the teachers who sit and listen, keep an eye out for someone who’s having a tough time, pull strings behind the scenes to make sure that children can go on school trips that their parents might not be able to afford. They seek out helpline numbers and put families in touch with food banks. Sometimes, they change the whole direction of a life.

It’s not all sparkles and rainbows. It’s difficult, being a Miss Honey. Teacher burnout is a very real issue, especially in an educational environment where externally-imposed agendas and targets exert so much pressure and pay so little heed to the realities of students’ lives. There are days when the real-life Miss Honeys are so tired that they can barely speak. There are moments when they wonder if it’s all worth it, and think about all the easier careers they could have chosen instead.

How different would our education system be if those with the ability to make the big decisions – about policy, about funding and teacher pay, about the curriculum and how it’s assessed – had, in the past, been the pupils who’d needed the Miss Honeys themselves? It’s worth a thought. I’m not sure how it would ever happen, but I think it would be a much better place.

Running on empty

Of all the phases in the school year – back to school in stiff new uniforms in September, the exhausting long drag up to Christmas, freewheeling down to the end of term in July when all the exam groups have gone – the current one is always the toughest. In a normal year, it’s the final preparation for exams, cramming in as much practice as we can before the students go off on study leave. Teaching becomes less about genuine, mind-expanding education and more about making sure that everyone knows which boxes they’ll have to tick. Remember to quote at least three sources, cram in your buzzwords, apportion your time carefully … Nerves are frayed, minor irritations get magnified, and everyone just needs to go away and calm down.

This year, of course, it’s not a normal year at all. In the UK, grades for GCSE, A level and BTEC are being determined by teacher assessment. Last year – the first year of the pandemic – we had to forecast grades based on what we thought students would have been most likely to have achieved if the exams have gone ahead. Schools went into lockdown in March, when teaching for the exam courses was practically over: determining the grades was an administrative headache, but at least we didn’t have actual students to cope with as well. This year’s exam students have had to contend with two prolonged lockdowns plus innumerable periods of self-isolation. Individual schools and colleges have been free to determine how they’ll assess their students and what they’ll get them to cover, bearing in mind the level of disruption they’ve faced. We’ve had to put all of this in place in a relatively short space of time, and the last couple of months – in schools everywhere – have seen classrooms full of silent rows, heads down, scribbling frantically.

All this has generated a massive amount of marking, which has all had to be done by normal classroom teachers, with no extra time and for no extra pay. One English-teacher friend is a GCSE examiner: she reckons that if she’s been paid her normal examiner rates for the amount of marking she’s done over the last few weeks, she’d be pulling in at least £2500. Another friend has a colleague who is currently undergoing outpatient treatment: she’ll be spending a day marking while hooked up to a drip. A group of headteachers in England and Wales is campaigning for the exam boards to refund at least half of the £220 million charged for administering this summer’s exams, pointing out that individual schools are setting assessments, marking them, carrying out quality-assurance checks, processing results (which are being issued ten days earlier than they usually are, just to add an extra complication) and handling appeals. The exam boards promised to make assessment materials available for schools to use, but these materials were not released until just before Easter – and when they were released, they were also made available to the wider public, meaning that students could access not only question papers, but also mark schemes. It didn’t really matter, though, because none of the assessment materials were new. They were all past papers that we’d already worked with and used and discussed in class. We ended up having to produce our own.

Year Twelve, meanwhile, are currently looking at word-formation, and we’ve been talking about all the blends and compound words that can be used to describe something that’s an epic mess. Shitshow. Omnishambles. Clusterfuck. Call it what you like. What it means is that teachers everywhere are not just exhausted – sapped by that elemental tiredness that sets in at particular times of year – but battered, wanting to curl up in a corner until it all goes away.

So if you know any teachers, look after them, over the next few weeks. We’re helping students through a difficult stressy time and dealing with our own exhaustion as well. We’re good at caring – it’s why we do this job – but often we’re not good at giving ourselves a break.

I give my department chocolate every Friday, not because it changes anything but because it just gives everyone a bit of a lift. Let’s face it, who doesn’t need a Twirl at the end of the week? For the past few weeks, one of my lovely colleagues has given me chocolate in return, adorned with an appropriate sticker. One week, it was ‘Didn’t swear out loud today.’ Another, it was ‘Didn’t lose my shit.’ Because even though we’re running on empty, this is what we do: we take a deep breath, swear quietly to ourselves, and carry on.