My top ten favourite vampires…

I’ve started watching True Blood. A bit behind the times I know. One of my friends said it was shameful, but honestly I’m enjoying the series. It’s extremely entertaining low-brow nonsense.

One of the main complaints people make about vampires, fantasy, or any genre writing really, is that it’s always the same old tropes, over and over again. That seems pretty silly and reductive. After all, highbrow literature is just the same old stuff over and over again, and you don’t even get a plot with that. And with vampires, there’s endless possibilities to play with: plot, setting, characterisation and tone provide so much variety. Here are my top ten Vampire themed things. Just don’t mention Tw*l*ght.

Only Lovers Left Alive

This movie was directed by Jim Jarmusch and stars Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, two tall, thin pale people who look pretty vampiric in real life. They’re Adam and Eve and they’ve been alive for hundreds, or possibly thousands of years, and have spent most of that time noodling about reading, playing music and generally behaving like intellectual teenage goths, until they’re interrupted by Eve’s much more normal vampire sister. They prefer discreet arrangements with blood banks to actually killing people. It’s arch and fey, but humorous and self aware. If you’re going to have a triumph of style over substance, you might as well make it a proper triumph, like this.

Dracula by Bram Stoker

The original(ish) and still the best! I’ve written about my love for Dracula before, but it’s well worth revisiting. Dracula has a complex, epistolary style, and has great characters and some incredible scenes. Dracula’s enchantment of asylum inmate Renfield, who feeds on insects, is deeply unsettling. His dramatic arrival in Whitby during a storm, on a ghost ship, is amazing: only the dead captain is left strapped to the helm. Plus, in an unusual gender twist, it is Jonathan Harker, a man, who is trapped in a Transylvanian castle and menaced by sexually predatory female vampires. It doesn’t get any more goth than that.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

I watched this series – all 144 episodes – endlessly while I was at university. It was one of those cult things, that spread more slowly before the internet proper. We watched it on VHS! It was a cool postmodern mash-up of American High School drama, romance and horror, at a time when that still felt new. It was also pretty feminist. Cute little Buffy was super strong and beat up endless vampires and saved the world from destruction, with her crew of misfits and their English, tweed-clad librarian ‘watcher,’ more times than I can remember.

Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice

The ultimate in Southern Gothic. This is amazing writing, with complex characters, a strong plot and an eerie eye for detail. It’s not exactly scary, but properly macabre and twisted, with plenty of horrifying elements: the misery of eternal life, the perils of never growing up or old, existential suffering. Vampires have heightened senses and Rice really suggests what that might be like: one long, erotic, psychedelic trip to the dark side.

The Lost Boys

A teenage cult classic from the 80s, The Lost Boys is a comedy horror with an amazing soundtrack – it was probably the first time I ever heard The Doors. It also has some very cool 80s rocker teenage vampires, who live a hedonistic life hiding in a fun fair. Shades of Ray Bradbury, but then I probably hadn’t read anything by him when I first watched this. Definitely one for a nostalgia trip with a bucket of popcorn and a few drinks.

Let the Right One in

A Swedish horror film that’s properly nasty in a creepy, understated Scandinavian way, complete with some real shocks. It features a bullied, isolated young boy who is befriended and protected by a ‘teenage’ vampire girl. So much of what’s horrible about this is the tone and the implications, never spelt out. Our vampire girl is cared for by an adult man, who assists her with her extremely bloody kills – is he a paedophile, or was he once a lonely young boy as well? Who exactly is preying on whom? The Scandinavians just seem better at making things properly grim than other people.

Thirst

Then again, you could do vampires the Korean way. This film is just mad and disturbing. It features a Korean Catholic priest who becomes a vampire after volunteering for a medical experiment somewhere in Africa that gets a bit voodoo. He then begins a tempestuous affair with his friend’s wife, moving into his house and then killing him. The mother in law remains in the house, but is paralysed with shock. As you would be. He soon makes his girlfriend into a vampire too, and the two of them go on some crazy killing sprees and abuse the mother in law for fun. Meanwhile the police are catching up with them, and they have a terrifying love-hate relationship. Everything about this is bonkers and baffling and bloody.

The Historian (Elizabeth Kostova)

This book is a much more sedate affair. It’s a cerebral quest for the real Dracula that riffs on Bram Stoker but manages to add much more to vampire lore and the history of Vlad the Impaler. It’s a properly pseudo-Victorian style novel: long, slow-burning, and written in epistolary style. It’s eerie rather than horrifying. It has a lot to say about the nature of history and evil, the conflict between Christianity and Islam, and is as much about the joys of academic research as anything else.

Salem’s Lot (Stephen King)

King’s second novel is very King and very 70’s Americana. A writer returns home to the small town of Jerusalem’s Lot in Maine, only to find that the residents are becoming vampires. The writer and a group of locals, including a priest and a doctor, do battle against the forces of evil. The themes are of social disintegration and the death of the small town, and the carefully-drawn setting, social realism and perfect character development all blend seamlessly with the taut, exciting, scary plot. Nobody does this kind of thing better than King. It’s perfect.

Anno Dracula (Kim Newman)

I’ve reviewed this before, in my 2014 reading list, but I really enjoyed it so here it is again. It’s an alternative steampunk history, in which Queen Victoria has married Dracula and the Jack the Ripper killings are actually vampire slayings. It’s an amazing bit of intertextual postmodernism, or decent fanfiction, with references crammed in to pretty much every other vampire that’s ever been written about or filmed. In style it’s horror-action-thriller, and it would make a really good movie.

On my first month as an English language teacher

About three weeks ago I started my new job as an English teacher at a lovely language school in central London. It’s part time, and although I need more more hours because life in London is expensive, it’s been a lovely way to start off. A bit like gradually paddling into the water instead of simply jumping in the deep end.

When I finished the CELTA teachers course I had 6 hours of teaching experience, but I’ve got more than five times as much as that already.

I’ve discovered that really teaching is in fact much more enjoyable, easier, and less stressful than teaching practice lessons. The practice lessons were 40-60 minutes long, and during that time you had to create a lead-in or warming up exercise, then do a series of exercises of gradually increasing difficulty leading up to ‘freer’ practice at the end. For example, if the purpose of the lesson was grammar, you had to set a context for the grammar, so that the ‘target language’ would appear in a memorable sentence. Then you had to do the actual teaching bit, or ‘MFP’ – meaning, form and pronunciation. This is where you go through the sentence and draw out from what the grammar actually is, what it means, how to use it, what the rules are, and how to say it. Students then had to complete at least two related exercises, which you had to give feedback on, which might require going back to the teaching again if they hadn’t understood it. Then you might set up a speaking activity using the target language. Some lessons might have even more steps than this – maybe up to 12 different things to be gone through, in 60 minutes. In other words, it was a frantic rush. Plus, of course, the other trainee teachers were dutifully watching you to find out what not to do, and an experienced teacher was watching you and noting down all the things you’d done wrong.

My current lessons are either 2 hours (communication, speaking and vocabulary work) or four hours (traditional lessons featuring reading, listening and speaking, and always with a main grammar point). This doesn’t seem to mean that you need to prepare lots more – just that you can take your time over it. For example, my communication class is really chatty. You can give them a few questions to discuss and they’ll happily talk and talk, sometimes for half an hour. It’s incredible. While they do this, I listen in, help them out, and make notes of all the things they’ve said wrong and all the vocabulary they don’t know but that would really help them to answer the question. The we go over that together. All that can easily take an hour. It’s very relaxing compared to the teacher training. The morning classes are much more like the CELTA training classes, but again it’s just so nice to have enough time to explain things properly without rushing.

Not feeling quite so much like this anymore…

My students are a very diverse bunch, which makes things really interesting. I’ve learnt about drug busts in Saudi Arabia from a customs official, shopping in China, and the mysterious blunders of Korean politicians. I actually feel like I’m really teaching them something, and it’s nice to see people improve, even if only really slowly. I felt enormous pride after I taught my class that ‘the worsetest’ is not a word. The day every single one of them had remembered that it’s bad, worse than, the worst. It’s a small victory, but very satisfying to feel that you’re helping to facilitate people to reach their goals.

The things I need to work on are taking my time even more – I still feel the need to rush through some things in a slightly frenzied way sometimes, even though there’s usually no need. I also need to work on my grammar and my grammar teaching. I observed a more experienced teacher this week, and although I was happy that I’m on the right lines, her grammar teaching was just so much better than mine. I’m hoping that once I’ve been teaching for a year or so I will have covered all the main parts of grammar in at least one lesson, and that it’s just going to get easier, but in the mean time I’ll be reading up on the grammar points before each class. As long as I’m always one step ahead of the class it’ll be fine!

I never expected to be a teacher, but it’s definitely the most fun (not the funnest!) I’ve ever had while working. I imagine that the more hours I teach the more it’ll tip over from fun to tiring, but right now it’s brilliant, and I’m really glad I decided to do it.

Goodbye to a glorious work-free month

We live in interesting times my friends, and since my last post a month ago I’ve simultaneously done loads of different things, and a whole lot of nothing.

I applied for 6 different teaching jobs, five of which were on TEFL.com and one of which I applied for on spec. I heard back from three of them, but decided not to pursue one as the application process was very complicated. I had interviews for the two other jobs and got offered both of them. I turned one down and will be sticking with a job at a really great language school near Victoria, which offers a lot of training and pays you for it. It starts… tomorrow! I’ve prepared for my first class. More or less. Gulp. Still, you’ve got to start somewhere and it’s preparation for going to Portugal.

On that front, we’ve done some painting and decorating in preparation for letting out our flat, and systematically sorting through our things and taking stuff to charity shop, chucking things out, giving things away. One of my concerns is the sheer amount of weird experimental foodstuffs we have in the cupboards and the freezer. I know everyone ends up eating some weird meals before moving house, but ours are going to be much, much weirder than most, and probably consist of seaweed, sauerkraut and a bizarre assortment of pickle and spices.

I’ve also been learning Portuguese, using a book and recordings and an amazing online app that accompanies the book called ‘memrise’. This ‘gamifies’ the memorisation of vocabulary and phrases. Essentially it’s the same thing as using flashcards and repeating it over and over, but way more fun, as you get awarded points and can climb up a leaderboard according to which learner has done the best this week. Not that I’m competitive or anything, but I love it! Memrise is kind of like wasting your time playing a game, only it’s actually useful.

I’ve also been doing some writing. I’ve finished the first draft of a sort of gothic horror story, which is about 9,000 words long. Many of those words are pretty silly and will have to be removed or chopped and changed a lot, but I think it has shape and potential. I’ve joined a meetup group for writers, so I may get them to critique it once I’ve redrafted it. The meetup was wonderfully weird. Writers are interesting, erudite, imaginative, intellectual, passionate people, who are also socially awkward and obsessive over bizarre things. It was lovely to hang out with odd people I didn’t know, talking about books, plot structure, characterization, the devaluation of currency in Zimbabwe and the history of glue and eastern European television towers. I’m definitely going to go next month, and I’ll try to go to a couple of their weekend meetups as well, where everyone goes to a café and sits in silence for 2 hours doing their own writing before having a critiquing session. I never did these kinds of things before my Arvon week, but it’s very motivational to work with other people and to have something to aim for.

I’ve sent some pitches to several history magazines, suggesting articles I could for them on various subjects, but I haven’t heard back yet. I’ll chase them up and then I’ll bombard them with a new round of ideas of try different magazines. I think that getting articles published is a numbers game and you need to be persistent. Just like applying for a job, really!

I’ve also sort of drafted an essay on Aldous Huxley, which I intend to finish, polish and send to a literary magazine that I’ve recently discovered and really liked. I fear it may be setting my sights too high, but if they don’t want it someone else might, or perhaps it will just end up on this blog and have been at least at good writing exercise. But my sister has a cookery motto ‘If you’re not in, you can’t win!’, so I might as well give it my best shot. I’m not sure if ‘if you’re not in, you can’t win’ is in fact a great cookery motto – sometimes less is more. It probably depends on what you have in the cupboard, because putting Japanese fish flakes in your ratatouille does not, in fact, improve it. You can have that lifestyle tip from me for free.

I also went on a wonderful holiday to Northern Ireland with friends. It rained the whole time, but we had a very relaxing time, did some wonderful cooking and added some more odd ingredients to the store cupboard (are you sensing a theme here?). I also enjoyed a wonderful spa day with my sister, to celebrate our birthdays.

And now my glorious month of unemployment is drawing to an end. I think it’s going to be a terrible shock getting back to work! But I’m looking forward to it, and as it’s part-time, I should have time to continue with the writing and the Portuguese as well.

All change! Learning to teach English the CELTA way

My blog has been hibernating since Christmas because I’ve been far too busy to write anything, or to do anything much interesting enough to blog about. That’s because in the the first week of January I started an English language teaching course, and am now the proud owner of the Cambridge Certificate in English Teaching to Adults (CELTA).

For the last three months I’ve been going to classes for three hours on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, and four hours on Saturday mornings. The Saturday mornings were the worst. I’m not a morning person and I felt cruelly deprived of my customary Saturday snooze. It really was painful dragging myself off to class for 9.30 on a Saturday morning, every morning for 12 weeks. The course was very practical, and involved us observing experienced teachers, and teaching eight lessons ourselves, observed by an experienced teacher who then, along with all the students, pitched in to tell us where we went wrong.

A fresh crop of newly qualified teachers!

On top of this, there was a lot of homework. I completed four assignments, which I found relatively easy. They were only 1,000 words each, so once I’d done the research it took me no time at all to bash out the words. But the lesson planning was a different matter. I can’t imagine anyone ever actually plans a lesson in as much depth as we had to for the course, but it took me an average of 4 hours to plan for a 40 or 60 minute lesson. This seems crazy, but I think it really helped us rookie teachers to do such elaborate preparation before the classes. It’s all been a bit of a hard slog, and fairly stressful too, as you feel you stand or fall by the strength of each lesson. You really, really don’t want to spend 40 minutes or an hour each week humiliating yourself in front of a class of students, an experienced teacher, and your peers. So you’ve got to be prepared.

I found the course incredibly interesting. I’ve learnt a lot about about teaching methods but the key point for me is that you need to engage people’s attention and get them to do something active with what they’re learning. No one’s really sure what the best way to learn or teach a language is, so CELTA uses a mix and match of different techniques and ideas. But one thing is sure, standing in front of people and lecturing them for ages doesn’t teach them anything, or test what they know or don’t know, or help them remember anything. They’ve got to actually DO something, an exercise or activity that uses the language.

This is one of those things that is entirely obvious once it’s been pointed out to you, and that suddenly seems relevant to many areas of life. The idea was a revelation though, and I immediately applied it in my day job as an archivist and records manager. I redesigned our training session for new starters to begin with a competition to see who could build a flat-pack records box the fastest. Ice-breakers and competitions get people motivated. You’d be surprised how excited people got when promised a small prize for making a cardboard box. Then we did an exercise of getting the group to assess the contents of a box against a retention schedule, to decide what to keep and what to chuck out. Most people found this surprisingly difficult. This taught them something, but also taught us something too. Not only were these sessions far more effective for learning, they were also much more fun to teach.

Another surprising thing I learnt on the course was the theory of reading. We were taught to structure a reading lesson by giving students a short period of time to read a piece and answer a couple of quick general questions about it, to get the ‘gist’ of it. This is called ‘skimming’. Then they would have much longer to read and answer more specific questions, which is called ‘scanning’, in other words searching for specific information. At no point did they need to read every single word in the piece, read it out loud, or go through it with a dictionary. In other words, students learnt how to read a foreign language in a functional way, the way native speakers do when reading a newspaper or checking listings. They don’t learn to read in the way you might read a novel, because they’re not going to need to do that, at least not until they’re quite advanced. I found it very interesting to think about the different ways in which we read. It’s a much more complex activity than simply looking at one word at a time and understanding each of them. This will definitely change the way I attempt to read in a foreign language in the future. I’ll worry much less about understanding every single word, and just feel pleased if I can extract the information I really need.

So, why have I spent 120 hours of my free time, plus about 60 hours of homework (when I put it like that, I’m not surprised I’ve been tired), learning to be a teacher? Well, I’ve decided it’s time for a change. I’ve been working in archives for about 14 years now and I want to do something different for a while. My partner and I had talked about moving abroad before, but the problem always was, what would I do in another country? Teaching English was the obvious answer, and once we’d hit on the idea of moving to Lisbon for a while, it seemed like a good opportunity. Why Lisbon? Well, it’s hot, sunny, cheap, the food is good, there are nice beaches nearby, and I found the town impossibly romantic. It has a slightly Tom-Waits-esque air of decaying grandeur, melancholy beauty and cultural melting pot. What more could you want?

Lisbon – not bad, eh?

We plan to move to Lisbon in September, so I can get a job there at the start of the teaching year. In the meantime, I’ve actually quit my job, so I’m going to get a teaching job here in London as soon as I can. I’ll keep you updated on how it all goes!

I’m dreaming of a …. Dark Christmas

I recently watched an amazing Christmas movie. It’s called Rare Exports, and it’s in Finnish with subtitles. The film opens with some crazy Americans digging up a giant hill in Lapland, while two young boys spy on them. They’re opening up a grave. They’re looking for treasure. But the boys know who’s in that hill – it’s Santa Claus! The real Santa Claus that is. The evil one who beats children to death and boils them alive. Can they stop him from getting out and ruining Christmas?

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Death in the Archives

Here’s another piece I wrote during my Arvon creative writing week for history writers. I’ve taken some old research and done something new with it. The aim of this piece was to be present in the text as a character, talking about myself and reflecting on my own experiences. The other aims were to fill the piece with changes of ‘texture’, as our tutor called it. It seems an odd word, but it makes sense: a piece of writing needs changes of pace, tone, point of view, etc., otherwise the reader feels it’s all too samey and they get bored. A third aim was to try to include dialogue or reported speech, though I only made a token gesture at that.

Death in the Archives Continue reading

The Forgotten Memorial

As some of you may know, I went on a creative writing course for history writers last week. One of the exercises we were set was to write about the history of the nearby village of Clun. There weren’t any books about it, so we had to get creative: visiting the place, talking to the locals, or in some cases just making up a bit of fiction. Here’s my effort. As you can probably tell I was feeling a bit fed up that day, but honestly I have nothing against Clun, it’s quite a lovely place to visit in fact!

Clun castle

The worst thing about history is that there’s just so much of it. Take the little town of Clun, for instance, nestled snugly in the Shropshire hills. Clun has a seventeenth century alms house; an ex-water mill; an ex-smithy; an ex-cottage hospital; two Churches; a war memorial; and a ruined castle, dramatically silhouetted against the low winter sun. That’s an awful lot of history for a town with only 680 inhabitants. That’s almost more heritage than people.

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I’ve been expecting you: on James Bond

*Many, many spoilers alert*

On Wednesday I went to the very swish and very expensive PictureHouse central cinema and watched the new James Bond movie, Spectre. As a side note, the bar staff at PictureHouse didn’t know how to make a Martini, and had to look it up. The end result was predictably unpalatable. Poor effort. Everything else about the cinema is great.

PictureHouse Central cinema

Spectre starts with a terrific action sequence during the Day of the Dead parade in Mexico city. Blofeld is re-introduced, along with his fluffy white cat, in a new incarnation. There’s a car chase in Rome, and a winter snow chase, involving vehicles other than the usual skis. There’s both fighting and sex on a train, and an unstoppable henchman. Continue reading