In my grandmother’s footsteps

I am not a particularly sentimental person, and neither am I a royalist. But I am not ashamed to say I had a cry yesterday when the news of the Queen’s death was announced. I may not agree with the concept of a monarch, but I have always had the utmost respect for the Queen’s dedication to what she believed was her duty to this country. To give your life – to lay down your own hopes and dreams and desires – to do something you believe in absolutely is a true act of sacrifice. She was a symbol of a vanished age, of a generation who knew what it was to give their lives for their country, and amidst so much flux, she was the constant calm, collected cornerstone holding the nation together. I’ve never been one for watching the Christmas speech, or going in for the pomp and glory around Jubilees and so on – but the Queen’s devotion to duty gave her words and actions a meaning no other influential figure could command. Her constant presence was benignly reassuring. I always felt, rather childishly, that the Queen wouldn’t let anything bad happen to us. It feels impossible that she can be gone.

Her death has caused the rather strange phenomenon of reawakening personal grief at the loss of a family member from the same generation. As I cried into my cup of tea last night, I realised that what I was really crying for was a world that was gone, and the people who had gone with it, and mostly my grandmother who was a little bit older than the Queen, and who died a few years ago at the grand old age of 95, without me having had the chance to say goodbye. It dawned on me yesterday that I had never really dealt with the complex and complicated feelings I had around her death, and the Queen’s death caused me to feel like my grandmother had died all over again.

Today I woke up and felt very strongly that I wanted to do something to feel close to my grandmother and say a proper goodbye. As it happens I’m currently staying in Devon for a few weeks for a change of scene – taking advantage of being temporarily unemployed! – and so I’m not too far from where my grandmother grew up, in Dorset. I drove to Corfe Castle through lanes offering amazing panoramic views across the undulating patchwork of countryside that rolled down to the sea. I parked up in the National Trust car park – Corfe Castle is a thousand-ish year old ruined castle on top of a hill, with its ancient village – where my grandmother was born and spent her childhood and young adulthood – nestled at its foot – and walked up the footpath that led beneath the castle and into the centre of the village. As I walked, a steam train whistled past, sending up an atmospheric puff of smoke that billowed across the horizon. It could have been 1920 again, the year of my grandmother’s birth.

Corfe Castle village is so ridiculously beautiful, so quintessentially chocolate-box English, that it could quite easily be mistaken for a film set. Its honey-coloured thatched cottages are strung along two streets – East Street and West Street – that fan out in a V formation from the main square, where a handful of shops and pubs are clustered around the impressive towering presence of the church. Behind the square rises the hill formation on which the ruined castle sits; all around the village, the unspoiled countryside ripples down in folds to the sea, sparkling in the distance. It is a little bit of heaven, even on a rainy day, but my grandmother hated it with a passion so intense she never set foot in the village again after she left it to join the WAAF during WWII. Now the village is highly sought after; the cottages are beautifully kept, the gardens and windows filled with flowers, and many are holiday lets. However, when my grandmother was a child, it was a place where many, she and her family included, lived in abject poverty. Her parents lived in a tumble down cottage that was running with damp, and her father, the village blacksmith, was struggling to make ends meet as people increasingly moved away from horses to engines. For a while my grandmother was sent off to live with her grandparents, as her parents couldn’t afford to keep her. While she often spoke of the close community, of the fun she’d had with her friends in the village, and the school she had loved, she said life in the country for the poor was nothing but hard work, hunger and misery, and if people knew what it had taken to keep a cottage sitting on a damp, muddy lane with only one smoking fireplace clean and warm, they’d never want to set foot in the countryside again.

Walking down that same road today, lined with pretty cottages, it was hard to imagine the world my grandmother would have inhabited. Arriving outside her old home, I was surprised to see a for sale sign; a quick google told me it would cost almost £700,000 to own. How times change. I went into the church, wondering what sorts of services and events my grandmother would have attended as a child. I saw her brother’s name on the war memorial; he was one of several men from the village who never made it home. A walk up the lane and to the cemetery took me to his commonwealth war grave; standing alone, with no family resting nearby, I quickly picked some wildflowers to place at his feet. My nan had been devastated at his death; he was only 25. I can’t imagine waving my brother off and never seeing him again.

I wandered back through the village and up to the castle, enjoying the panoramic views across the countryside and wondering whether this was the place where the youth of the village used to come and hang out back in my grandmother’s day. I liked to imagine her up here with her girlfriends, gossiping, or maybe with a young sweetheart. But as much as I found it a beautiful spot, I could also understand how isolating, how restrictive, it must have felt to a woman of my grandmother’s ambition and intelligence. She wanted more than two streets and a weekly bus to the local market town. She wanted the bright lights of a big city, and to be anonymous in a crowd.

So much of the village is exactly the same as it was in my grandmother’s childhood, due to the fact that it is protected by the National Trust. Of course subtle changes have happened over time – the everyday grocers, bakers, and butcher shops my grandmother remembered are now tea rooms and gift shops, the tiny school she attended has doubled in size, and there is a general air of cleanliness and prosperity that certainly doesn’t marry with my grandmother’s description of village life. Ultimately, however, it is still what it always was – a sleepy little slice of the English countryside. As I walked its streets today, I felt I truly was walking in my grandmother’s footsteps, and it made me feel immensely comforted. Thinking of how the Queen’s death had brought me to this place to remember an entirely different woman, the closing lines of Middlemarch came to me; “for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” As Eliot so wisely put it, both historic and unhistoric lives have an equal role to play in the shaping of our own, and to both those lives I am grateful, and both will be much missed.

J B Priestley

Nowadays J B Priestley’s literary legacy largely rests on his play An Inspector Calls. A perennial favourite in the UK, it’s on the school curriculum and frequently revived. While it’s certainly not subtle, it’s very entertaining with a brilliant final twist that never fails to send shock waves through a classroom (I used to love teaching it, waiting for the penny to drop on the kids’ faces as they realised what had just happened). Priestley was a prolific dramatist, and though some of his plays are definitely what I would classify as period pieces that don’t have a huge amount to offer to audiences today, there are several that have stood the test of time and demonstrate Priestley’s passionate belief in socialism and the importance of community.

I hadn’t really registered that Priestley was also a novelist until a couple of years ago, when I picked up Festival at Farbridge in a second hand book shop, mainly for its gorgeous dust jacket rather than its content, I must confess. It took me a while to get to it, but when I did, I was surprised by how utterly immersed I became in its world of small town politics. Set at the time of the Festival of Britain in 1951, a nationwide attempt to raise the spirits of a beleaguered post-war nation, it tells the story of a group of disparate people, all down on their luck in some way, who get involved in the organisation of a Festival event in the small Midlands town of Farbridge. Through many trials and tribulations, personal and political, this motley crew of men and women, young and old, successfully pull off their own Festival, transforming not only the town, but themselves in the process.

Priestley’s message, as in An Inspector Calls, might not be subtle, and there may be plenty of sentiment, but his ability to bring characters to life is extraordinary, weaving a rich tapestry of living and breathing individuals whom a reader cannot help but fall in love with. His postwar world of smoky pubs, dilapidated Victorian boarding houses, dingy offices filled with clacking typewriters and steamy tea rooms is rich with period detail, and yet the humanity of his characters feels as fresh, real and relatable as the day they were written. Festival at Farbridge is an absolute joy of a novel, and despite being a little baggy around the edges, with plenty of extraneous detail, I loved every minute. They just don’t write them like this anymore.

A few weeks ago, I took myself off on my first ever solo holiday, to a little cabin in a fern filled valley by the sea in North Devon. I wanted isolation and relaxation, and I got both in abundance. I took a selection of long books with me that I knew I would never read if I were at home and surrounded by the endless distractions of my day to day life, and amongst them was Priestley’s The Good Companions, his most celebrated book during his lifetime. I bought this copy – a lovely old 1960s Penguin papberback – because a previous owner had written ‘heavenly’ in capital letters across the back of the book, and I thought there could be no better recommendation than that. I am pleased to report that this person was absolutely right in their choice of adjective, and I was similarly transported to celestial plains while reading it. It just so happened to be one of those brilliantly serendipitous reading moments when a book falls into your hands at exactly the right moment you need it. As I was sitting by the sea, contemplating making a big change in my life, feeling at a crossroads, not sure where to turn, and thinking about whether working in a theatre would be the right path for me, here came, as in Festival at Farbridge, a motley crew of people, all at a crossroads in life, looking for change, not knowing where to turn, and finding themselves joining forces with a travelling theatre. The Book Gods certainly knew what they were doing when they prompted me to take The Good Companions on holiday!

I honestly don’t have enough superlatives to describe how much I absolutely loved this book. When I finished, I felt bereft. Everything that I loved in Festival at Farbridge was here, yet even better – the structure is very similar in using alternating chapters to give each of the main characters’ perspectives, but it being an earlier book – written in the mid twenties – gives it a greater sense of hopefulness and joy in its tone. Nowhere but in a novel by Priestley could Jess Oakroyd, a factory worker from a grim Northern town in late middle age, dissatisfied in his work and his marriage, Elizabeth Trant, a thirty something well to do spinster recently liberated from life long caring duties upon her fathers’ death, and Inigo Jollifant, a mediocre public school teacher fresh out of university with a hidden genius at the piano, cross paths on the same day that they all decide to chuck in their lives and go on the road. Also, nowhere but in a J B Priestley novel could they all end up in the same café as a travelling theatre troupe whose manager has just run away with their main attraction, leaving them rudderless and in debt. The three wandering travellers naturally decide to join forces with the troupe and give the theatrical life a go, with Elizabeth using the inheritance money she has just had land in her lap to revive their fortunes, and Inigo using his skills at the piano to make them a roaring success. As they travel around the country, they have enormous highs and crashing lows, and gradually all of their priorities change and their time together will come to an end, but not without all being transformed and finding the confidence to seek the lives they truly want.

As with Festival at Farbridge, each character is exquisitely drawn, and despite plenty of meandering around the main story, none of it feels superfluous, because this world is such a wonderful place in which to dwell. I could have kept reading this book forever, so delighted was I by every word. I think what I love the most about Priestley’s writing is how strongly his love for humanity and its potentialities comes through his words; his vision of how people can be enabled to be their best selves when they feel they are a productive part of a community is so powerful and still so true. All of the characters only truly blossom when they feel purposeful to others – when they feel that they belong to something bigger than themselves. In a world of increasing insularity and division, I really do think a dose of Priestley is what we all need to remind us of what really matters.

Thankfully there is a small press that has kept Priestley in print, and most of his novels are available on kindle if they’re not in paperback. In the UK at least, his novels are very easy to find in charity and second hand book shops, too, so there’s no excuse not to give him a go. If you have any recommendations of what I should read next from Priestley’s backlist, please do let me know!

Better Late than Never

It’s strange to think it’s a year since I last wrote a blog post – it feels like the time has gone in the blink of an eye. I didn’t mean to disappear for so long, but somehow, I felt like I didn’t have anything worthwhile to say. Studying seems to have that effect on me – the more I learn and the more I am immersed in other people’s words, the less I feel I have to contribute.

I’ve spent the past year writing and creating works for performance, hanging out with people mostly a decade younger than me, and generally living a life that is about as far away from my old one as possible. Walking away from the path of ‘supposed to’ has been incredibly freeing, exciting and not a little bit unsettling. My peers all have big and important jobs, and impressive salaries. They’re all moving out of London, buying houses, getting married, having babies. We’re in our late thirties now – the time for experimentation is supposed to be over. While I’ve chucked in my secure job and gone down a path of uncertainty and precarity, everyone else I know is settling into security. It’s been hard, sometimes, to be so out of step with everyone else. Going against the grain isn’t easy. But I can’t deny it’s also a lot of fun!

So here I am, embracing the artistic life, and totally uncertain about what the next year will bring. But one thing I do know – I’ll be back in this space, documenting my thoughts, discoveries and adventures – and I’m looking forward to sharing them all with you. Thank you for waiting for me.

All Good Things

Summer flowers, St James’ Park

I am sitting down to write this whilst looking out at blue skies and hearing the usual hubbub of a London summer on the street below my flat. Several groups of friends are sitting outside the pub at the end of the road, watching the Olympics in the sunshine. Kids are playing football. Dog walkers are stopping for a chat. People laden with shopping are meandering their way home from the supermarket. It’s been a long year and a half, but it feels like things are finally almost back to how they used to be.

But going back to how things were is not always something that’s possible, or desirable, after a period of change. For me, the pandemic has permanently altered my relationship with myself and the world around me, and I’m no longer the same person I was a year and a half ago. I don’t want to go back to who I was or what I was doing before. Seeing the world fall apart around me made me realise that nothing is certain and that nothing can be taken for granted. I had my eyes opened to the fact that I had been coasting along for years, putting off pursuing many of my dreams and desires until a later date, waiting for this, or that, before I would give myself permission to disrupt my life. When the pandemic came and disrupted it instead, I gradually came to see this as an opportunity rather than a disaster; the impetus to start treading a different path.

I’d been struggling with ennui for a long time before coronavirus hit, but I wasn’t unhappy enough to really change anything. I had no real reason to complain; I know that I’m enormously privileged. I have wonderful friends and family, a lovely home, a good job, plenty of hobbies and more than enough money to meet my needs. I also live in one of the most exciting and dynamic cities in the world. But still, deep down, I wasn’t happy. My work no longer satisfied me; with more responsibility came less time in the classroom, and with my mind always full of school related problems, headspace for anything else was frustratingly limited. I felt that my work was creeping into every area of my life, leaving me with no space for myself and no outlet for any kind of creativity. I was always tired, always grumpy, always waiting for the next holiday when I’d finally have time to read a book, or catch up with a friend, or leave London for the weekend. I kept going, partly because I loved my students so much that I couldn’t bear to leave them, but also because I didn’t know what else I could do. The question haunted me constantly. Teaching had become so central to my identity, that I couldn’t imagine myself as anything else. I felt utterly trapped.

While teaching from home last year, however, my thinking started to shift. Not being in a school building all day helped me to start seeing myself as separate from my work. Rather than being tired all the time due to the non stop nature of the school day, I was invigorated by having time to work in peace and quiet, time to read and reflect, and time to be creative. I went back to writing regularly; something I had given up years ago. I began reading more widely and experimentally. I walked the streets of London for hours, really paying attention to what I was looking at, and being amazed at how much I’ve been missing. I engaged with political causes I’d long been passionate about, but not had time to properly research or pursue. I realised that there was so much more to me, and so much more to my life, than teaching.

Going back to work in September was initially exciting, after so long away, but soon the ennui crept back in. Coupled with everything the pandemic was throwing at us inside and outside of school, I felt myself slipping away. Every morning it became more difficult to drag myself out of bed. I was utterly exhausted from putting on a cheerful, enthusiastic persona for the children and my colleagues all day, desperate for them not to see how unhappy I was. As soon as I got home, I crumbled. I could barely muster the energy to cook dinner. When we locked down again in January, I cried with relief at being able to stay at home for another few weeks. It was at that moment that I truly acknowledged that teaching – the career I had always seen as my labour of love – was destroying me.

So, three weeks ago, after nine years of teaching, I said goodbye to my beloved pupils and closed the door of my classroom for the last time. Mingled with the sadness – and there was plenty of that, and plenty of tears, too – was also profound relief at being free to tread a new path.

I’m going back to university full time in September, to do an MA in Playwriting. I don’t know where it will lead me, or even if I’ll be any good at it, but I don’t care; I’m doing it because it’s what I love doing, and I want to spend all my time doing it. I’m giving myself permission to just enjoy myself, experimenting and learning and being creative for a year, and to be open to whatever opportunities and possibilities come my way. It’s what I need, at this point in my life; I am giving myself the gift of time and space to write, because without that, I now understand that I can’t be happy.

I know the pandemic is far from over. But today, at least, the sun is shining, there is music playing in a distant garden, I can smell the sweet smoke from next door’s BBQ, and there’s a new book waiting for me to curl up and read. For the first time in a long time, life feels good again.

You are what you read

If you believe the above maxim, as I do, then I hope you may be interested in volunteering some of your time to contribute to a research project that I’m a part of. A group of other professionals and I have got together to research the curriculum content of what children are taught to see how gender stereotypes play out in the classroom. We are starting with finding out what novels and plays children are taught in secondary school English lessons in the UK, to see what balance of male and female voices are being taught. We suspected that there would be an imbalance, but from the research carried out so far, the results have been pretty shocking (you can see the results so far here). In some schools, between the ages of 11 and 16, children don’t read any whole text written by a woman. Out of the 70 or so schools we’ve researched, we haven’t found a single female playwright being taught in any year group. A lack of female voices, a lack of female perspectives, and a lack of female characters, all contribute to the perpetuation of the message that women are less important, their stories and experiences not worth hearing, and their talent less valued. Our curriculum in the UK is flexible, and many texts can be freely chosen by individual schools. The fact that most still choose to follow a narrow curriculum of largely white male authors suggests that there is a lot of work to do. But without the evidence, we can’t prove this is happening, and without being able to prove it’s happening, we can’t do anything about it.

There is a lot of talk at the moment about sexual harassment in schools and the need to tackle this through better sex and relationships education. But sexual harassment isn’t going to be solved by a few lessons on consent; sexual harassment is the symptom of a much deeper disease of misogyny and patriarchy that is deeply rooted in our societies. We can only begin to unpick and reconstruct attitudes towards gender if we rebuild what we learn about gender in the first place. Our eventual aim is to research every subject taught in schools, gather a group of subject specialists to look at redressing the gender balance in each subject area, and create new curriculum materials to enable a radical shakeup of the way in which children learn about men and women and their roles in the world around them.

But for now, we’re starting small, with English, as it’s much more measurable than other types of data and changing the texts being taught in the classroom is a quicker fix than changing the content of other subjects. In order to gather enough data for us to be able to prove (or indeed disprove!) our thesis, however, we need volunteers, and lots of them. There are over 3000 secondary schools in England, and we’d like to try and research the English curriculum in at least one third of them so that we have a statistically relevant sample. Researching a school only takes about ten minutes, so you don’t need to dedicate lots of time. If you believe that women’s voices need to be heard more prominently in schools, and that we need to break away from teaching the same old narrow field of male texts that perpetuate stereotypical patriarchal attitudes, then please do sign up to help us with our project. The website is here, where you can find out more and sign up. I’d be so grateful for your support!