Latest book reviews 2016

What with doing teacher training and starting my brand new teaching career, I’ve been pretty busy and not read as much as I would’ve liked this year. But still, I’ve managed a few good books so far. Here they are, in the order I’ve read them in. I’ve starred the most interesting ones. I now realise that so far this year I’ve mainly read non-fiction and fairly low-brow trash. Must try harder to get some proper literature in there! Let me know if you have any suggestions…

*Slouching towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion

Didion is a legendary figure in non-fiction writing and ‘new journalism’ – reporting that reads like a story. This is a collection of her journalism from the 1960s. I enjoyed the opening story, about a murder trial in California, but after that I went off the whole thing. Didion writes beautifully and her pieces are carefully constructed. There is much to admire and find instructive here, but I don’t like her point of view. Didion was an uber-privileged arch-WASP, and her feelings about things don’t resonate with me. Or rather, they seem baffling and completely irrelevant now. Still an essential read for anyone interested in writing though.

At home, Bill Bailey

Bill is a genial, avuncular companion of this random wander about, allegedly, the history of the home. Everything that he writes is full of enthusiasm and gentle mockery of history’s most eccentric characters, wackiest anecdotes, and most interesting little factoids. But Bill obviously has no interest at all in the history of domestic life. He doesn’t consider, ever, who lived in homes, how they lived in them, what they did there, how they felt about it. He’s much more interested in things like how the Eiffel tower was built, the history of canals and concrete, international exploration and plagues of locusts on American farms. These aren’t even digressions, really: they’re just the contents of the book. Some things, such as architecture, furniture design and a history of lighting are relevant to the topic, but most of feels totally irrelevant. It’s still a jolly read, but if you really want to know about the history of the home, as opposed to a totally random bunch of stuff, read Lucy Worsely’s book on the topic instead.

The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, Fay Weldon

It’s kind of depressing that Weldon’s comic novel is 33 years old yet still feels relevant and gleefully transgressive today. Women don’t seem to have moved forward very much. The book concerns Ruth, a downtrodden, 6 foot 3, ugly woman, whose husband leaves her for a petite, attractive romantic novelist. Ruth puts aside all notions of femininity, responsibility and morality to become a she-devil in her quest for revenge. This involves her tackling, one at a time, all the factors that keep women from the things they want. Caring duties for children and elderly parents must be palmed off on someone else. Homemaking must be abandoned. The patriarchal church, state and law must be bent to her will. Money must be made. Faithfulness, love and romance must be exchanged for promiscuity. But whilst it’s blindingly clear that all these factors stifle women as much as ever, this isn’t a totally feminist novel. Ruth moves in with a muesli-munching feminist commune at one point, and they are painted as a joyless and ridiculous bunch. She seeks revenge on other women as much as her husband. She certainly doesn’t attempt to level the playing field or improve the lot of women, but rather to manipulate things to her advantage. The tools she uses are sex, housekeeping, embezzlement and blackmail. And also plastic surgery, as she finally remakes herself to resemble her rival. This is an enormously entertaining, page-turning novel. But it also presents an uncomfortably bleak view of the power relations between the sexes.

 *Black Sea, Neal Ashershon

This book is about 90% history, 10% travel writing, and it describes the history of the black sea and its peoples. It’s quite rambling and free-form. Rather than having a linear structure through time or even a circular route around the sea, it wanders around thematically. It’s pretty intellectual, and I felt a bit out of my depth at times, as I really know nothing at all about this area. But it is wonderfully engaging and beautifully written. I have learnt all about the Cossacks, about the Pontic Greeks, Ghengis Khan’s golden horde, the birth of the tiny state Abkhazia, and about trade routes, religion, languages, archaeology, grave-robbing and what Herodotus got right and wrong. There’s lot of interesting speculation about the nature of nationalism, the good points of Empires, and about the nature of history writing itself. It’s challenging but really fascinating stuff, and it feels peculiarly relevant in the light of the whole EU debacle.

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Can you believe I’ve never read this classic Victorian horror story? In fact though, it’s easy to see why – it’s not very good! The concept, of a sensible, do-gooding Dr who transforms into his evil alter ego after consuming a potion, is everything. There’s little more to it than that. The story is told from the point of view of Dr Jekyll’s friend, a lawyer, who thinks mysterious things might be going on. He doesn’t really uncover these until he gets a series of letters explaining the situation though. Victorian sensibilities being what they were, we get a great deal of build-up, and a lot of talk about evil deeds! Horror! Sin! Temptation! But we never find out what Mr Hyde really gets up to, which is very disappointing. Top marks for the amazingly steam-punk description of the potion though, which goes through fizzing, frothing, steaming and multiple colour changes before being drunk.

 *Gut by Giulia Enders

This is a very jolly and readable account of the body’s most underrated organ – the gut! In fact, it takes in the whole digestive system, and lots of other bodily functions as well. It’s really fun and features great illustrations – not medically accurate, but little cartoons that just make it obvious what Enders is talking about. I now know what the appendix does (same as the tonsils – it’s part of the immune system), how salivary glands work, what the lymphatic system is, and how and why people develop allergies and food intolerances. I’ve also learnt useful stuff to incorporate into my diet: olive oil is really good for you, unless it’s heated, when it becomes really bad for you; sugar is turned quickly into fat, whereas fat isn’t turned into fat for a long time; cooked cold starched like potato salad are really good for your guts; and most people can’t digest a lot of fructose, so fruit juice, smoothies, and anything with ‘fructose syrup’ in it is best avoided, unless you want stomach ache and lots of farts, in which case juice away!

How to be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman

This book is a compendium of social history, telling you everything you could ever need to know about how real people, mostly the working and middle classes, lived their daily lives in the nineteenth century. It is structured around the daily routine and features washing, dressing, housework, work, school, childcare, leisure, sickness, food and sex. Each section talks about the different social classes and about the products available, the processes used, and a bit of historical context. What’s really interesting is that Goodman has done a lot of re-enactment work, so she can shed a lot of light on what things actually felt like. Wearing a corset while hand scything a field, the process of doing laundry, cooking on a Victorian stove, etc. are all covered in detail. One of the most interesting parts is the clothing. Ruth knows exactly how to make a set of clothes for a toddler, how long it took, how long it took to get the child dressed (at least 15 minutes), and how difficult it was to wash the stuff. The practicalities – or impracticalities – of daily life explain a lot about how the Victorians lives. I’ve always been baffled by boiled puddings, for example. But whilst it was fairly easy to boil a pan of water, you had to be upper middle class at least, or possibly a wealthy farmers wife to have access to an actual oven. So those who could afford a bit of fat and flour could boil up a savoury or sweet pudding, but a cake was out of the question for most until the twentieth century. Interesting stuff, and a very engaging, easy read.

Death by Chocolate: the serial poisoning of Victorian Brighton by Sophie Jackson

I picked this up because it concerns Christiana Edmunds, a serial poisoner who ended up in Broadmoor. I researched her and wrote a chapter about her when I did my (unpublished!) book on Broadmoor. I was never able to find any trial reports for her, which was odd, and so I wondered whether this author would have tracked them down, so that I could learn something new. It’s a bit a mystery, what’s happened to them. Unfortunately, there’s no mention of the reports here. It’s hard to imagine how something that’s therefore pretty thin on fact could be spun out to the length of a short book. Jackson does it by giving endless background information on poisoning and poisoners in general in the nineteenth century, food adulteration, forensics, the invention of chemical tests for poisoning, and background details on Christiana’s family and the families of those she poisoned and the police who investigated. In other words it all circles around the subject. It’s pretty poorly written though, low on general accuracy (e.g. ‘this is an echo of today’s health and safety culture’ – no! Today’s health and safety culture might be an echo of the Victorians, but not the other way around, because an echo never comes first, does it?) and low on historical nuance. Still, Jackson manages to spin things out into a narrative with a sense of mystery, which is more than I ever did. So, pretty poor but still better than I can do. A useful lesson.

Red Fortress by Catherine Merridale 

This book relates the history of the Kremlin, used as a focus through which to tell the whole of Russian history. There’s an awful lot of Russian history, and as I don’t really know anything about Russia, it was a lot to take in. I sometimes felt there was either too much information or not quite enough. Ivan the terrible turned out to be genuinely terrible. He was pretty much insane and had some kind of proto-Nazi death cult of mercenaries and they just rampaged about the countryside slaughtering everyone and burning everything indiscriminately for no real reason. Like something out of Mad Max. Peter the Great was also interesting, as were the more contemporary bits. But I think I would have got more out of this if I’d already known a bit about Russian history. So interesting, byt probably not a good read for total beginners in Russian history.

Wolf Borders by Sarah Hall

I’ve read a couple of her books before and enjoyed them, and was very disappointed by this. It concerns a women who is some kind of poorly defined wolf expert who helps a wealthy aristocrat reintroduce wolves on his Cumbrian estate. The wolves are terribly metaphorical of course, and there’s plenty of cringeworthily A-level discussion of social class and politics. But mainly the book is about a string of curiously boring and pointless family dramas, with very stereotyped characters, and at least 50% of it is descriptions of landscapes. Apparently there’s a lot of landscape in Cumbria. I wouldn’t know that of course, as I’m an elitist metropolitan Londoner, and we’re all idiots, according to Sarah Hall. Another thing I didn’t know was that there are seasons in Cumbria. Luckily Hall is on hand to tell me what seasons are, very thoroughly, for about 45 million pages. We don’t have seasons in London, so I had no idea. One of the boringly humdrum events of the plot is that the main character has a baby. Before she has a baby, like all childless women, her life is worthless and she’s a despicable person. Afterwards, she becomes a holy saint, and suddenly the world is meaningful. Honestly, as a childless Londoner I’m such a piece of worthless scum I should just be put down, for my own good. I can’t believe I actually finished this.

 *The Girl with all the Gifts by MR Carey

This is a zombie book with an interesting twist – it’s from the point of view of a sentient zombie. It’s a very readable, exciting thriller. Some of the characterisation is a bit clichéd, and the plot features all the elements you’d expect, but somehow that doesn’t matter. The plot feels driven naturally by the characters and the decisions they make so that it never feels contrived. The world building is beautifully done without straying too far into flowery descriptions, there are some good twists, and it adds to zombie mythology in some fantastic new ways. There are even a few moral conumdrums to ponder over. This would be a great holiday read.

 *Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

There are books that are desperately trying to cool, shocking and subversive, and then there are books that actually are cool, shocking and subversive – this is one of the latter. It’s about a family of travelling carney folk who decide to create their very freak show. The mother – Crystal Lil – dutifully plys herself with cocktails of drugs and radioactive substances throughout pregnancy to produce suitably disabled offspring. There’s a boy with no limbs, a pair of Siamese twins, a hunchbacked albino dwarf and one who appears perfectly normal but actually has telekinesis. The plot meanders around, but it’s beautifully written, with a strong flavour of Tom Waits about its descriptions of lonely, desperate stretches of the USA abandoned by normal people. There’s incest, rape, drugs, madness, bodily fluids galore and a pretty high body count. The limbless Arturo is truly a monster and he sets up his own cult, persuading people to gradually have their own limbs cut off so that they ultimately resemble him. The ‘freaks’ pity the normals and revel in their own weirdness. I wouldn’t say the book has any particular moral message, other than to cherish your own weirdness, but then perhaps that is a powerful message.

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.

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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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