Category Archives: Education

My teacher, Mrs Christie

When Sophie Hannah was talking at Bloody Scotland about growing up with Agatha Christie, it was like hearing myself speak. Or it would have been if I could sound as intelligent and articulate as Sophie. And I wished I’d known this ‘sister’ back when I was twelve, except at the time her mother Adèle Geras was barely out of university herself, so Sophie and I were never destined to be the same age at the same time.

Also, we wouldn’t have had a language in common. It was more our behaviour and reading patterns that seem to have coincided. I’m pretty sure I didn’t go to school with children who read Agatha Christie at twelve. If I had I might not have felt like a freak.

And if there was a likeminded child at school, I’m reasonably certain they didn’t read Agatha in English. (This peculiar habit of reading in a foreign language really only took off with Harry Potter.) Mrs Christie was my English mentor/teacher. If not for her, I wouldn’t have tried. And I suppose I wouldn’t have attempted it if first I’d had to go to the library to check out their foreign langauges section. It helped that Mother-of-witch had a few Christies in the original; leftovers of her own attempts at educational improvement. So I could test drive them to see if it would work, and it did. Reasonably.

Agatha Christie, The Man in the Brown Suit

I was going to ask the rhetorical question of whether I’d be blogging right now, were it not for Agatha Christie. But my question has to go deeper than that. Not to be blogging wouldn’t be the end of the world (I mean, if I’d not started, I’d not know what I was missing). But would I have come to Britain to live? There would in all likelihood not have been a Resident IT Consultant. Or Offspring.

Perhaps Agatha wasn’t so much my English teacher, as my life designer. Not that she knew, but still.

It’s extraordinary what an early exposure to niblicks will do to a little girl.

Save our libraries

In this case, Liverpool’s libraries. If I’ve got it right, then the Mayor of Liverpool got himself elected saying how much he was in favour of supporting libraries. And now he wants to close 11 of 18 in the city.

In fairness (?) the government has taken away a lot of the money the council needs, for everything. But 11 libraries is a lot. It’s probably the future of Liverpool, and if you were to take this to more places, it might be the future of the country.

Alan Gibbons and Cathy Cassidy have thrown themselves into the fight to save their home city’s libraries. There is a facebook page for the planned action on November 8th. And I don’t know, but someone (who may be well informed, or a malicious lier) posted this the other day: ‘Despite Joe ‘Bonaparte’ Anderson’s claims that Liverpool City Council is teetering on bankruptcy due to cuts in funding of over £150,000,000 from central government, he still managed to find £173,249 to pay the council’s bill with ‘The Pickled Walnut’ – a luxury caterer.’

Save Liverpool's Libraries

Well, anyway, lots of authors have joined in and have written to Mayor Anderson, pleading for him to change his mind. If Liverpool was the only place under threat, I’d say this was good and perhaps the protest stands a good(ish) chance of succeeding. But Liverpool isn’t alone.

I was struck, too, by how many of the names are those of children’s authors. Could it be they are more aware than their ‘adult’ peers? Is it that their readers are more likely to need libraries to read at all? We are many who are ‘poor’ but children have less say in how to use whatever meagre sum of money which might be at people’s disposal. Or maybe children’s authors are yet again proving they are the best.

On a lighter note, librarians can also be angry. Sometimes literally. I used to read a blog written by one; Arga Bibliotekstanten (The Angry Librarian Lady). She shut up shop a while back and moved to facebook, where she took the persona Arga Bibliotekstanten. The other day facebook closed her account because no one can be called Arga. So she had to become Anna in order to continue entertaining us with her librarianly woes. How can anyone decide what is a name, and what isn’t? Some people have weird parents. Others simply have weird names.

And they had no problem with Bibliotekstanten. Apparently Library Lady must be a regular surname. Somewhere…

Collins English Dictionary

For once I find myself speechless on this blog. And considering it’s while we’re on the subject of a dictionary, this ought not to happen. Let me just say that the Resident IT Consultant has some – mostly – wise things to say about the dictionary I have permitted him to play with for a few days. Over to the man who can think to look up words like chi-squared:

“Who needs a dictionary in these days of instant access to infinite amounts of information? HarperCollins obviously believe somebody does, because it has just published a 12th edition of its Collins English Dictionary – CED – which now becomes the largest single-volume English dictionary in print with 722,000 ‘words, meanings and phrases’, including 50,000 new ones, spread over 2,300 pages.

Collins English Dictionary 12th edition

Despite its size CED is surprisingly easy to use. It’s slightly smaller than previous editions and weighs less (2.6kg). It’s attractively bound in black cloth, with no dust jacket to get torn. There’s a ‘virtual thumb index’ printed down the outermost edge of pages which makes it easy to navigate to the right section. And the typeface has been specially customised for the dictionary making the pages remarkably easy to read given the tremendous amount of information that has been crowded onto them.

But back to my question. What’s the point of a dictionary today? If you need to find the meaning of a word, why not simply look it up on the Internet, in one of the many crowd-sourced dictionaries such as Wiktionary, or in a commercially provided Internet dictionary (Collins, Oxford and Chambers all do one)? Alternatively you can simply Google the word and discover for yourself how it is used.

One answer is authority. If you need a quick and reliable answer to a question a dictionary may be best. For example, if I’m reading C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures and I quickly want to know what the second law of thermodynamics is, I can find an impressively clear and succinct definition in CED (so long as I know to look under ‘law’), written in only 32 words and understandable to a layman. I could get this information from the Internet, but it would take more effort, even if I went straight to Wikipedia.

I sometimes do a bit of proofreading and often find myself referring to a dictionary to check my understanding of correct UK English. Should it be ‘Internet’ or ‘internet’? ‘Inquire’ or ‘enquire’? ‘Sulphur’ or ‘sulfur’? If I were willing to place my trust totally in one dictionary, or to declare that this was what I was going to do, then CED would enable me to answer these questions quickly. Sometimes though, the answer is more complicated and I still need to research the reasons behind the differences on the Internet. And of course I could still look up the CED entries for these words on the online site, which is free (and seems to have the same content as this printed dictionary plus some extras such as more usage examples and usage trends).

I was impressed by CED’s coverage of scientific terms which clearly reflects its extensive list of specialist consultants. The entries for Bayesian, eigenvector, continuous, Taylor Series, Coriolis Force and chi-squared test were all models of clarity and succinctness. Scottish terms are reasonably covered. I can find bridie, bannock, clootie dumpling, neeps, tattie and tablet. Auld Reekie is there, but not the Granite City; the Mearns, but not the East Neuk. Wee Frees, but not the Highland Line.

I went hunting for words that I felt should be in the dictionary but weren’t, and the strongest contender I could find was descope; to change the scope of a project in response to an expected failure to meet budgetary or timescale constraints. Personally I’ve used this word since the late 1990s and you can find instances of its use from the BBC, the Guardian and Hansard from around 2000.

But I think the real strength of the physical dictionary over its electronic equivalents lies in the experience of using it to browse. There is something about the feel of the book and the ability to scan two pages of content at one glance that cannot be matched with a screen. For example, on looking up shellac (because I am currently painting something with shellac primer) I find, on the same pair of pages: 1) that while the word shemozzle comes from Yiddish, the origin of shenanigans is unknown (I had always assumed somehow that it was Irish); 2) an account of the differences between the role of a sheriff in the USA, England and Wales, Scotland, Australia and New Zealand and 3) a surprisingly concise and comprehensible definition of an electron shell.”

I just have to say this; I like the number 722 (with or without thousands). Not so sure about eigenvector… And it is a rather elegant looking volume.

To be more right than others

Honestly, I prepared last Wednesday’s blog post because I liked the list of books and its ethos, but basically I was being lazy. I imagined the list would pass silently by most of you.

But oh no. When you least expect it, trouble brews. And it brewed pretty stormily, too. Because two of the books celebrating diversity were ‘only spouting stereotyping.’ In this case of Native Americans (and I don’t know if this is the acceptable term, but it was used by my attackers), and no one could have been more surprised than I was.

The authors, on the other hand, were not. They have been the target for this kind of thing before.

As I said, I have not read Apache, so will leave it out for the moment. I have read and enjoyed Amazing Grace. My understanding of the diversity aspect of Grace is that it’s because she is a black girl in England. The fact that she spends a moment pretending to be a Native American is beside the point. There are many of us who have done so.

Now, you could (as an author or a publisher) consult specialists, to make sure you don’t go upsetting anyone. I understand this happens more often than you think. But experts can be ‘wrong,’ too, or not of quite the same persuasion as those who later complain or harass.

What’s more, the comments last week felt as if they were aimed at me. I didn’t compile the list and I didn’t write the books, although I wish I had. I am white, but that doesn’t automatically make me one of the people who have mistreated Native Americans. There are many white people who have also been – and still are – unfairly treated and discriminated against.

When you feel really strongly about something, there is a tendency to forget others. It’s ‘me, me, me’ all the way. It’s also easy to use a tone of voice that will generally not get you far. Even for serious matters, a sense of humour and a portion of intelligent conversation will get you more followers and better results.

Most children like pretending. It’s part of normal childhood. There is nothing wrong with that, unless you use violence or have access to an adult’s weapons (as is far too common in some places). As a dear friend of mine put it: ‘I don’t think little girls wearing head-dresses and sitting cross-legged is the cause of the tremendously awful situation of Indians, or if all these illustrations were wiped off the face of the earth, anything would change.’

When the young Witch played at being an Indian, it was from the perspective of admiring the people she saw in Westerns on television. They seemed exciting and they looked beautiful. To be told now that I was stereotyping, and effectively colluding in the awful treatment of these people in real life is upsetting, and also very useless. No one saw me. If they had, I’d have looked pitiful. It was on the inside of my mind that great things were taking place. I didn’t use books or obtain views of the world from the – apparently – bad British media. I only had Hollywood films.

I’m sure I am far more prejudiced than I would like to think. I don’t always have all the facts, or the totally correct, most recent facts. But I mean well, and any political correctness comes from my heart, not through clichés. It’s human to make mistakes. I’d like to think that any persecution of authors of children’s books are just that; human mistakes.

I make plenty of mistakes, all the time. And I’d prefer not be criticised for it, but I’d rather someone tells me off for the bad things I do, than for an author who has written a rather lovely book about a nice little girl who likes to play and use her imagination. Neither I, or the author or Grace have had anything to do with what mostly white Americans have done to the people who lived there first.

Nor do I believe that removing a couple of books from a list will make life better for Native Americans.

Down the close

Do you recall my meeting with the Plague Doctor five months ago? I was in Edinburgh, outside The Real Mary King’s Close, on my way to hear Philip Caveney frighten school children. So was the Plague Doctor; on his way to frighten school children.

Mary King's Close

In ‘real’ life the good doctor works for Mary King’s Close, and I said a few things about it. Like me not wanting to have a look round, because of the plague and also because I might not like the dark and narrow and steep passages. Naturally their publicist Caroline invited me to come and be walked round the place with her, before they open for plague business in the morning. I said yes – having been promised I could escape whenever I wanted. And then I was felled by migraine and couldn’t go. And then when I thought about it again, on the other side of moving house, I decided it’d be a bit forward of me to email and ask if I could come now.

Luckily, Caroline sensed this and emailed me to say it was high time we did this. (She did use more finesse than that in her choice of words.) I decided to face the plague there and then, so the resident IT Consultant and I got up really early one morning last week to get to MKC for nine.

(I, erm, went to the Ladies on arrival. The WC screams as you flush. Thought you might want to know. It’s a little disturbing.)

We set off down the first set of stairs and I paused a bit to see whether I wanted to freak out and panic a little, but came to the conclusion I might be all right. And I was. The hardest thing was how steep the actual close is, and you want to mind your head in places, even at my modest height.

View of Mary King's Close

It’s interesting to see how people used to live. So close together, in small rooms with low ceilings and extremely basic facilities. Cooking, sleeping, using the toilet, looking after cattle. No wonder the plague did well under such circumstances.

Usually visitors are taken round by guides, dressed as real people from those days. Caroline seemed to feel she wasn’t as good as the regular guides, but she did marvellously well. We could stop as and when we liked. MKC was home to people of all sorts. Not just the poor, but also to better-off people, some even with their own front door. (I liked the chap who was so proud of his toilet that it’s the room you see immediately from the street entrance.)

Mary King

We came upon a woman who’d just murdered her son-in-law (he had it coming). We met Mary King herself, and a couple of her neighbours. They could talk, so we found out a fair bit about them. And we saw the room with all the toys; beanie babies and Barbies and goodness knows what. It seems there was a sad ghost girl who’d lost her doll, and now she has something to play with again.

Annie's Shrine

People would hang their washing out, high above the close. And unlike when we were there, the close would be full of stalls and people shopping. We could hear them, but not see them. But the worst was seeing the people who were sick, and the Plague Doctor at work.

After our fantastic private tour, we had another look at the model of MKC in the shop, to see where we’d been. We looked at what else the shop had, including plenty of copies of Philip Caveney’s Crow Boy.

MKC also put on events, and as part of their Close Fest, which runs for a week from Halloween, there will be a sort of talk by Arran Johnston on November 6th at 19.30, A Close Encounter With Charles Edward Stuart. I think it might be in the cowshed…

Cowshed

Afterwards the Resident IT Consultant and I felt we needed elevenses, as we’d had such an early start, and we went to the St Giles Bar & Café just round the corner. We felt the name had a nice ring to it, somehow.

Lies We Tell Ourselves

For someone like me who gets nervous before even pretty ordinary events, reading Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley, about a group of the first black students to attend a white school in Virginia in 1959, was almost unbearably frightening. This is a work of fiction, but based on real people’s experiences, doing this very thing. Going to a school where they are not only not wanted, but stared at, shouted at, and generally attacked in ‘small’ ways every day. (And occasionally much bigger ways.) A place where the students count the minutes left of the school day, when they have to try and escape unhurt. The – ineffective – police were only present on the first morning. After that it was every student for themselves.

The topic is so incredibly interesting, because although most of us have read historical descriptions of the early black pioneers for integration in education, I don’t think we’ve really put ourselves in their places. Not stopped to think about what it really must have been like. Because we didn’t have to. Because many of us are white.

So, desegregation in schools would have been more than enough for one novel to deal with. I was a little surprised to find that Robin also added a relationship between a black girl and a white girl, making it an early lesbian issue, on top of everything else. I suspected this was more than would make sense.

But I was wrong. It is what makes Lies We Tell Ourselves a very special book. OK, I didn’t buy the instant attraction between them on the first day when Sarah, the black student, is already incredibly tense over the whole situation. But from then on, the reader can see the situation develop, from both sides.

Sarah is your ‘typical’ black role model; polite to all, intelligent, pretty, sings like an angel, and courageous. The same can be said about Linda, but she happens to be the daughter of a racist newspaperman, and she herself believes in the supremacy of white people and absolutely does not want black students in her school.

It’d be easy to expect a clichéd story about these two girls. But that’s not what Robin gives us. This is very, very good. And frightening. And I’m glad people like Sarah and her nine fellow black students did go through with this, or we’d probably still be looking at segregated schools.

I know. Things are still not right. But reading a book like this will tell you we are on the right path. Hopefully.

Even without the integration issues, this would count as an interesting ‘historical’ document, on how American teenagers lived fifty years ago. Yes, we see some of it in films, but this sets out the rules for dating and going steady and all those things we are only vaguely aware of. It’s fascinating!

Robin Talley, Lies We Tell Ourselves

Robin Talley, Lies We Tell Ourselves

I have added the US book cover on the right, because although the UK one is striking, its American counterpart really brings home the period and the way people looked. Makes it feel real.

A St Andrews bookshop crawl

I went to St Andrews the other day. It’s so much easier to pop over from the new Bookwitch Towers, because despite Facebook’s best attempts at putting it in England it is still in Scotland.

Monopoly mug

With a bit over an hour before my ‘assignation,’ I walked round the town in the rain. Looked in on the newly refurbished Students’ Union HQ. Fashionable seats in the new café. Small but serviceable Blackwell’s, which is where I encountered this half price Monopoly mug. The question was, half price of what? Half of the Old Kent Road at £60 or half Fleet Street, £220?

Monopoly mug

Went and pressed my nose to the shop window of the future Toppings. I found out they are opening a shop in St Andrews back in March, but still no open Toppings. Empty, but looks good. There was a light on in the back, so presumably Mr Topping was at work building shelves.

Waterstones was next. I browsed all their non-book stuff. Somehow I occasionally lose the will to look at more books, especially if I’m not buying. And the notebooks and mugs and everything looked really nice. I may not be an author, but I have the right instincts when it comes to notebooks. Rested briefly in one of their armchairs, before anyone worked out I wasn’t spending money.

At the end of town is a rather nice second hand bookshop. The rain was pouring down – as I said – so at least I had my answer to the question what they do about the pavement display of books. Do they quickly carry all the books in? No, they have a made-to-measure tarpaulin arrangement, which fits neatly over the whole book display.

After that I just may have looked in the shoeshop. It was an accident. They wanted to relieve me of my umbrella, so I didn’t linger. Quick accidental pause at the kitchenware shop that sells lots of things you want, but don’t need.

I hurried on to the next bookshop, with their beautiful window display of Advent calendars. Decided not to enquire how much they wanted for the second hand copy of Winifred Holtby’s South Riding. Suspect I don’t have the time. They had a whole load of crime in one window, including many by the almost local James Oswald.

On to Oxfam. They are primarily a bookshop, so do belong to my bookshop crawl. Doesn’t mean they don’t have attractive bric-a-brac, though… Hovered outside, afterwards, as my one hour+ was over, and I almost succumbed to the cheese shop and their bread, before remembering that I can bake.

Then it was time for tea and cake with Daughter. For some obscure reason I shifted a sofa cushion and found a couple of books, but no money. They were English books, so have clearly been overlooked, lost and forgotten by the previous flat dwellers. Daughter’s shelves looked nice enough. Plenty of excellent YA books there (but then she has access to the best).

I never read on the train as it crosses the Tay. Just to be on the safe side. In my mind I waved goodbye to James Oswald and Fife (anything to avoid thinking of McGonagall), before getting off the train in one piece, and finding the next train, on which I do read, every time.

I’ll tell you about that book soon.