Thursday, October 27, 2016

Why I Read


I don’t know why some people like reading and others don’t, except somewhere along the line I think those who find reading boring haven’t been pointed in the right direction.  When I say ‘the right direction’ I don’t mean towards what is considered ‘good’ or high-brow literature, but what is enjoyable, what makes you sit immersed in another world for hour upon hour, hesitant to re-join reality.

As a child, I devoured books.  I remember reading so much, my mother worried about it.  I loved adventure and mystery; far-off lands where magical things happened. My first forays into literature were with school set texts: Animal Farm and The Mayor of Casterbridge, stories that have stayed with me for years, perhaps because I had to learn huge chunks of quotes!  Mrs Dalloway was one of the first literary books I chose to read myself.  I read it in the holidays before I left school.  It was August and I was working at a plant nursery.   The combination of Spring, the blossoming flowers and the exquisite beauty of the words had a lasting impression on me.

            It’s exactly that beauty, that power of the word, that I try to infuse my own writing with. It’s impossible to write anything new: love, death, war, loss (and the rest) are subjects that writers have grappled with since the beginning of time.  What is important is how we tell the story. Graham Greene once said that a writer writes from their subconscious, a place deeply influenced by experience. Part of this experience will, of course, be reading, which is not to suggest plagiarism; rather, that what one reads is an inspiration for one’s own writing. Is it even possible to be a writer if one doesn’t read?

            I have yet to meet someone who neither enjoys reading nor watching films or following a series on television.  Even those with no access to the printed word or technology will enjoy listening to someone telling them a story.  The worst form of torture must be to be locked in a room with nothing to read! The human need to escape into a different reality is very firmly entrenched in our being.  But it’s the written word that connects us to so much more than the passing moment.  It links us to culture, to history, to the world outside and the world within. I read because it’s part of who I am – and that’s no exaggeration.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Part 2 of Bryony Rheam’s Speech Night presentation

The Shrikes’ Call | March 2016

As promised, here is part 2 of Bryony Rheam’s Speech Night presentation.
“You don’t have to feel you need to go home and sell off the television set. What you do need to do, is monitor how much time your child spends in front of the TV and the content of what they are watching. Channels like CBeebies are great, channels like Cartoon Network aren’t so great, but whatever the channel – limit it. Make sure your child does not fall asleep in front of the television. And also make sure the TV is only on when someone is watching it. I have been to many homes, where the TV is on in the background from the time you wake up in the morning till the time you go to bed, even if no one is there. The danger with this is that it does not encourage listening skills and has been blamed for the increase in ADD and other behavioural difficulties. Children who are subjected to a lot of noise, learn to cut it out. And, believe you me, they include you in that noise! We personally don’t subscribe to DSTV because we believe it is a waste of time and money (apologies if there is anybody from DSTV here tonight!) We do watch dvds though, the benefit being that we are sitting down to watch a particular film; we are not just dipping in and out of a continuous loop which repeats itself so much that it doesn’t matter if you have not watched all of it the first, second or even ninth time. Do not be tempted to put a TV in your child’s room. Children need quiet time and a quiet room in which to sleep. They also need to wind down after a day’s activities, not be hyped up by TV which is very stimulating.
If you are an avid reader, share that love with your children; don’t take the ‘why don’t you read’ approach. Show them how to love reading. It is very important for boys especially to see their fathers read. And fathers should also be encouraged as much as possible to read to their children as well. Buy your children books. Make them feel books are special. Show them how to hold them and turn the pages. Don’t make them feel that books are second to television or a computer game.I’m so glad to see that Whitestone is still giving out books tonight as prizes rather than just a certificate which happens in so many other schools now. Some parents feel they have to buy all the classics for their children as this is ‘good’ reading matter. However, it’s more important that a child enjoys what is being read to them and doesn’t find it boring. Reading to your children must not be seen as a chore. You are teaching them to LOVE something!
Today our lives are faster, more hurried, more stressful than thirty years ago. Wasn’t life so much easier when we drank coffee rather than mocchacino? When you didn’t even think of leaving the country to go on holiday? When we only had one T.V. channel? Go home. Spend time with your children. Share your life with them, the life that as we all know goes by too fast. Put your children at the top of your list of priorities, not things. One day, you will be old, your children will have left home and have their own families. What will your children remember about you? Will they be glad that they always had an up to date phone, or will they recall the time you spent with them? Now is the time to think about that. Remember – they get to choose which nursing home you go into.”

Monday, February 1, 2016

Excerpts from my address to parents, staff and children of Whitestone School on Speech night

Our guest speaker at Speech Night last year was Bryony Rheam, an old girl of this school and in her own right, an author.  Her address on ‘Reading’ was so thought provoking that we have decided to reproduce the relevant sections in two parts in The Shrike’s Call.  The first of these follows : –

“John and I worked in Zambia for seven years at two international schools.   They are run very differently to Zimbabwean schools and are marked by a general laxity in manners and demeanour and an attitude of ‘if you don’t want to do it, you don’t have to do it.’  All this leads to, I’m afraid, is an atmosphere of boredom and apathy.  And, if the pupils are difficult to motivate, the parents are worse!  They can’t pick their children up after 3, they can’t help with play costumes and they feel that events like sports day should take place during school hours so they don’t have to give up a Saturday morning once a year. Personally,I’m tired of pandering to the particular whims of pupils and parents. So, no, I’m not here to inspire you at all.  I’m not here to make suggestions, I’m here to tell you what to do.

I’m primarily a secondary English teacher, but I also do a large amount of remedial work and this tends to be with younger children.  My first question to parents is always: ‘Does your child read?’  I don’t think I have ever received the answer, ‘Yes’.  The truth of the matter is that children who are readers are learners and children who are readers write well.  These things are inextricably linked.
I also have parents who tell me they don’t know why their son or daughter doesn’t read.  ‘We read,’ they say.  ‘We love reading.  We read all the time.’  I have had parents tell me they read the complete works of Shakespeare or Dickens at the age of 8 or how they read Dostoyevsky in the original Russian while on their Grade 7 school trip and they are therefore even more stumped as to why their beloved child prefers flicking through endless channels on television to following in their learned footsteps.

Many parents leave the education of their children up to other people.  I’m sure some of you are thinking: ‘Yes, isn’t that what we pay all these school fees for?’ Yet education begins at home, way before your child is of school going age and it continues into the after school hours of family life.  Ask yourself this – how much time do you spend together as a family?  Do you sit down to at least one meal together a day?  Do you talk to your children?  Do you ask them what sort of a day they’ve had?  Or do you sit in separate rooms, each on your device, your food on your lap? You will be amazed, shocked even, to discover how many children – and I’m talking about children at private schools – experience very little of family life.  Some children don’t even live with their parents, or even their relatives.  They are looked after by maids and gardeners, people to whom you pay the minimum wage.  Materially, even physically, your child may be adequately looked after – but what about emotionally?  What sort of intellectual input are they receiving?  More and more, teachers are under increasing pressure to make up for what is lacking at home.

What I find increasingly through my remedial work is that children with learning difficulties are often, but not always, suffering from some sort of emotional problem.  I’d even go as far as saying that the emotional difficulty is what is stopping them from progressing.  These children may be suffering from anything from not enjoying the school they are at, to experiencing bullying to a divorce or a death in the family.  However, sometimes the reason is as simple as parents not having enough time to share with their children.  They buy them things: toys, games, phones – but have no intention of sitting down and playing with them.  It’s very easy to put the TV on while you’re working or cooking or whatever you’re doing and lumping your child in front of it.  It’s the perfect babysitter.

Every parent wants to give their children the best and often we think the best is what we didn’t have in our own childhoods.  Particularly in Africa, with its growing middle class, this often means televisions or the latest gadget or phone.  We think that if we are able to provide our children with their OWN television set, then we must have really made it in life, because we never had that.  We are also sometimes worried about the amount of technology that our children are subjected to, but tend to think, what else can we do?  This is the world today.  If we take away the television set or the phone, my child will fall behind somehow in comparison to their peers.  So although we may not like something, we go along with it.

I consider myself very lucky in life for many reasons but I will share two in particular with you this evening. The first is ZBC.  Yes, you did hear me correctly. The Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation. When I was growing up, there was only ZBC.  Now I know what you’re thinking – how on earth could ZBC be a blessing?  Some of you here have probably never even watched ZBC!  However, I am sure there are those of you who can look back with fond memories on the days of Cheers!, The A Team, McGyver and Magnum P.I.  What about Dallas, Dynasty, Falcon Crest and Big League Soccer on a Sunday evening?  One TV channel. O.K., two for those in Harare.   My other blessing was that I had a mother who read to me.  Every single night my sisters and I had a story.  She either read to us from a book, or made up stories which we would also add to.  We went to the Book Centre with her and we would point out all the books on our wish list for birthdays and Christmas.  I remember them wrapped in shiny paper under the Christmas tree, the smell of the pages of the new books and the sense of brimming anticipation at the hours of reading ahead. Our house was full of books; we were taught to love and respect them.    Both my parents read and many of the books that were read to us were classics and favourites that they themselves had read as children.

Reading to your children creates a special bond.  Perhaps you’re in their bedroom, they’re ready for bed, winding down: the atmosphere is one of quiet and calm.  You look at pictures, you answer questions about the story, perhaps you predict what’s going to happen in the end.  There’s this shared experience which doesn’t happen with television which also tend to be very loud and noisy.  You’ll find children like to snuggle up to you; it’s not the same as sending them to bed to read by themselves.

One of the biggest mistakes is thinking that children won’t understand something.  Children understand far more of the world than we give them credit for.  It also surprises me that many parents will say that their child is too young for books, but will happily sit them down in front of the television to watch often highly inappropriate content matter. We all know how easily very young children imitate the adults around them.  I’m sure we’ve all experienced that awful moment when our two year old swears profanely at the cat in the front of Granny and Grandad using exactly the same words that we used when we kicked it out the back door the previous evening. Why is it that we think that books are meant for when children get older or when they themselves can read?

You can actually read to newborn babies; you can even read to a baby before it is born.    Obviously, they won’t understand a story, but they understand tone, the way you speak to them and they will feel comforted.  They will therefore associate reading with a sense of well-being and thus develop a positive attitude towards books.  Many children who don’t like reading are those who have been put off it, and this is usually because they see reading as a task.  They associate it with school.  Now if you’re not a strong reader and maybe you stutter and stumble a bit or find long words difficult to say, you’ll associate reading with a feeling of embarrassment from having to read aloud and having others laugh at you.  Class readers are often quite boring and predictable and don’t necessarily stimulate interest in reading for its own sake.

But if a child is read TO, those pressures disappear.  They can sit back and listen and enjoy the story.  Adults can use a range of tones in their telling of the story, or they might use different voices for different characters.  The atmosphere they create is generally far more exciting than that of the child who is just trying to get past the words, plodding along, and missing the story.

If you read to your children, they can develop their reading skills and their vocabulary.  You can obviously read them harder books than they can, so you are always pushing those boundaries for them, otherwise they will get stuck with only the books they can read and these tend to be very basic. They can ask what certain words mean and you’ll be surprised how easily they pick up and remember them.  By the time a child is five, they should be able to be introduced to books with chapters, where they have to wait for the next installment every night.  This improves their attention skills; they have to remember what happened the previous night and they come to realise that a story can go on and take various twists and turns.

This gives you the opportunity to talk about the story at other times, perhaps at a meal time or in the car on the way to school.  What do you think is going to happen next?  This helps develop a child’s imagination and create their own stories, which is something that TV doesn’t do.  It doesn’t allow you to imagine characters and plot differently to what is shown on the screen.  Everything is given to you and is therefore what is termed passive learning.

First and foremost, we must remember that the most important thing we can give our children is our time.  Children thrive when they know they are the centre of their parents’ lives.  When reading, you’re taking time out from your busy schedule and sitting down and saying, I have time for you.  Children love routine.  If you set a time to read together every day, they will look forward to this and learn to appreciate it.  As much as possible, don’t upset this routine once you’ve started it because it doesn’t work for you.  It’s like breaking a promise.  If your children are able to join a library, ask them what they are reading or go with them and make suggestions.  It means a lot to a child if you can pass on to them your love of a particular author or character.  Even with older children – and here I mean teenagers – read what they are reading.  Too often we assume the teenager’s world is one that we can’t share or that we will find nothing of interest in – but you can save yourself a lot of hassle with bad behaviour if you make an attempt to share that world.”

Part Two will be published in the next Shrike’s Call.
From The Shrikes' Call, the newsletter of Whitestone School

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Out of Africa Lifestyle Magazine: An Interview with Bryony Rheam


















Bryony was born in Kadoma, Zimbabwe, in 1974. She spent most of her childhood in and around Bulawayo, leaving in 1993 to go to the UK. She returned to Zimbabwe in 2001 where she spent the next eight years working as an English teacher.
In 2008, Bryony moved firstly to Ndola in Zambia and then to Solwezi. Bryony has had a number of short stories published in various anthologies of Zimbabwean writing, and in 2009, her first novel, This September Sun, was published in Zimbabwe by amaBooks. This September Sun won the Zimbabwe Publishers Best First Book Award in 2010 and was published in the UK in March 2012 by Parthian. In May 2012, it reached number 1 on Amazon Kindle sales. She lives with her partner, John, and their two daughters.
OOA: Where do you currently live?
BR: I recently moved back to Bulawayo after living in Zambia for seven years. Despite the economic situation here in Zimbabwe, Bulawayo is still a great place to live in.
OOA: Which writer(s) have influenced you most and why?
BR: I love F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night). His writing is so beautiful and moving. Each word seems to shimmer as you read it. I also love Virginia Woolf (Mrs Dalloway and The Waves) as she is able to transform every day moments into something wonderful. E.M. Forster wrote that ‘most of life is so dull that there is not much to say about it’, but Woolf proves him wrong! I am also a great Agatha Christie fan and love the puzzles in her books and how she presents them – the stories are very simple, yet it is almost impossible to work out whodunit and why.
OOA: Are the characters in your book inspired by real people?
BR: Someone said that a first book is almost always autobiographical and to a certain extent this is true of This September Sun. Both Ellie and Evelyn are very much like me in many ways – but not totally! One of the main characters is a man called Uncle Wally. My mum did have an Uncle Wally who was an architect and who lived for some years in Rhodesia in the 1950s. His wife was by all accounts a snob, which is where I got the idea from. However, the character and his actions are all fictional.
OOA: How has your childhood in Kadoma and Bulawayo influenced you?
BR: I was only born in Kadoma. My parents lived in Chakari at the time. We moved to Mhangura when I was about two or three. Bulawayo has had far more of an influence on me. It is a place I have both loved and hated which is perhaps why so much of my writing has centred on it. Its great failing is that it is such a cliquey place: not only do you need to have been born and raised there to be accepted, but at least three generations of ancestors need to have been as well! Life is often harsh, dominated by droughts and years of political isolation, but there is also a savage beauty to it. The history, too, is so interesting. Bulawayo is a mixture of the old and the new, whereas in Harare a lot of the old buildings have been pulled down. I like going to Harare for the occasional visit, but it lacks a heart – something is missing about it.
OOA: When did you first start writing?
BR: I remember writing when I was six years old. When I was eleven, my dad bought me a second-hand typewriter and I used to churn out stories and poems on it. My first published work was a children’s story in The Chronicle in 1988. I still have it.
OOA: Were you encouraged to write when you were young?
BR: My parents were always very supportive of me wanting to be a writer. Teachers also told me that I had a talent as did a lecturer when I was at university. Ironically, when I first began to think seriously about being a full time writer, that’s when I faced most opposition. How are you going to afford it? What are you going to live on? became common questions.
OOA: What schools did you attend in Kadoma and Bulawayo?
BR: The first school I went to in Bulawayo was Waterford. It was a government school and after a couple of terms, I moved to Whitestone which I did not enjoy as much. Everyone seemed to know each other and I felt very much on the outside of things. I then went to Girls’ College which I enjoyed.
OOA: What do you like to do when you are not writing, what are your hobbies?
BR: I enjoy gardening and reading, of course! I also enjoy looking for old furniture in second hand shops and at auctions.

OOA: You have successfully pursued a career in writing in Zimbabwe - how difficult has this been and what obstacles do Zimbabwean writers face?

BR: Zimbabwe has a very small reading population. Due to the price of locally produced books, many people cannot afford to buy them and borrow them instead. Therefore, sales are quite limited. One of the greatest challenges is being known outside of Zimbabwe and to get your work on the international market. Unfortunately, many people still expect a certain type of story from Zimbabwe – poverty, AIDS, farm invasions – and when you write something which does not include one of these themes, you are deemed to be dismissive of the problems facing the country, as though you are living in a bubble.

OOA: Where is your next novel set and what is the theme?

BR: My next novel, All Come to Dust, is a crime novel set in Bulawayo in the present day.

OOA: What words of advice can you give to aspiring (Zimbabwean) writers?

BR: Networking is very important. Get to know as many writers as possible and get yourself known. The days of being a recluse who does not go on the internet are over. You have to market yourself, which can be difficult if you are not that type of person. Saying that, you have to maintain a sense of perspective: just because you are popular in Zimbabwe, doesn’t mean you are the best in the world. Fame is also a short-lived experience. Don’t forget who you are and who your friends are. I have met a number of writers who are hesitant to help others or they forget their colleagues entirely. That’s not what it’s all about.
  

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Mad Dogs and Englishmen: The dangers and pitfalls of International Schools


Teaching is a great way of seeing the world and the proliferation of International schools in the last few years has served to offer a wide choice of exotic destinations in which to work.  There is certainly a considerable draw to a job in Phuket or Zanzibar and it is easy to imagine a relaxed working environment, well-behaved and friendly students and the opportunity to earn a decent salary – and save.  Many of these schools offer accommodation, medical cover, repatriation expenses and end of contract bonuses.  All this can sound very tempting when you are stuck doing supply work in East Dulwich, and these schools in turn are keen to employ young, dynamic teachers who are familiar with the British National curriculum.

                However, after a number of years of teaching in some of these institutions, my best advice is to exercise caution and research the place well before you sign any contract.  It’s best to stay well away from schools which advertise the same job vacancies every couple of months or those which offer vacancies in about twelve different subjects – because there’s a good chance their entire teaching staff has walked out en masse.  Most importantly perhaps, a job should never be too easy to get.  I applied once for a job in Uzbekistan and the next thing I knew was that I received an email, in broken English, asking me which flight I was arriving on and informing me that someone would be there to pick me up from the airport.  With my year’s worth of teaching behind me, they hoped that I would head their new English department and be able to train their local staff in my ‘spare time’.

                It may have been an easy thing to do, and not once did they ask for my credentials, but chances are I would have found myself stranded in Tashkent with no return ticket and 150kgs of luggage on its way, the school a washout, or maybe even non-existent.  It happened to a friend of mine who applied successfully for a job in Kampala, Uganda, and arrived to find that the school was yet to be built. The Head, however, was keen that he stay, but after a couple of weeks in a respectable hotel, he was then transferred to some flea-ridden place in the middle of the red light district.    Two days later he left.

                It’s not only teachers who find themselves on the receiving end of some rather dodgy job offers.  At a school  I worked at in Zambia, we had a teacher who claimed to have gone to Oxford, although no one had ever seen his certificates.  Insisting on the title ‘Dr’, he constantly name dropped and made  the odd comment in Latin – an obvious mark of an Oxford man, he thought – but really all he had behind him was the gift of the gab.  An incorrigible alcoholic, he was kept on because of the mistaken belief that he was really some sort of genius, despite spending more than half the term either at home drunk or in hospital drying out. At another school in a neighbouring town, the arrival of a new head teacher caused great excitement as he was apparently a Harvard man.  Numerous bad decisions that cost the school an absolute fortune, like employing teachers from Thailand, caused the Board to make some investigations into his background and it was soon discovered that the certificates were fake.
In Africa at least, and I am sure the same is true of South America and Asia, there is often an assumption that the best teachers are British. To be taught by a true Englishman (men are still valued more than women) means that you will be taught well and taught properly.  The number of schools around the world offering Cambridge qualifications and following the British National Curriculum is testimony to the faith in British education (despite the unhappiness with the system in Britain itself). I have been privileged to work with some really great teachers in my life and I do admire much about the British system of education, although I have reservations about others. 
However, some of the 'international' teaching staff I have worked with in Africa, and they haven't all been British, have been questionable.  Africa is still a place where one can run and hide from the world, perhaps even inventing a new self along the way.  When someone tells you they have travelled to over 100 countries and worked in 12, you don't necessarily doubt them. When someone tells you they went to a good school or they worked at a good school or they were headhunted for the head's position, we think that it is admirable.  We often believe what other people tell us about themselves - at least initially. The flaws in their stories are discovered later, in the way they behave, the comments they may make. Unfortunately, what happens then is that they usually move onto another place.  They either disappear in the middle of the night, like the school chaplin who took photos of boys in the shower for 'artistic' reasons did at one school I was at, or the board, embarrassed and hoping to get rid of them as soon as possible, pays them a considerable amount of money to leave - which they do - and they go onto another school with a glowing reference. 

                Unfortunately, many of the recent developments in technology, which should make it easier to check up on someone’s background, can also be used to disguise it.  It is very easy, for instance, for either an individual or a school to launch a website or blog in which they lay claim to various attributes.  Upload a few photographs – perhaps pupils working studiously away in a chemistry lab or battling it out on the hockey field – insert a few graphics and a motto in Latin, and you’re away.  The first school I worked at in Zambia claimed to have a sixth form college on their website and the profile of the alcoholic teacher states he rowed for Oxford and enjoys playing golf in the afternoons, nothing short of a downright lie.  The website of the second school I worked at in Zambia, shows boys in a scrum on a rugby field that in reality was non-existent. They also claimed to have the most recent technological devices in all the classrooms, yet the most the majority of teachers had access to was a whiteboard. 
 
                My first teaching job was in Singapore where I worked at a college which offered tuition for the University of London’s External Degree Programme.  I had been sent a glossy brochure and been told that I could initially stay in the halls of residence which were so comfortable and well-equipped that I probably wouldn’t want to leave.  ‘Most of our expat staff live there,’ I was told during my interview, so it was rather a shock to arrive at 9pm at a huge deserted building in a country I didn’t know and be told that I was the first ever occupant!  It was just the security guard and me in the great, big, echoing building.

                Secondly, I was given the nigh-impossible task of lecturing on every area of English Literature from Homer to Shakespeare to Virginia Woolf to Chinua Achebe.  It was only when I suffered a near nervous breakdown due to my incredible work load that I discovered why the previous lecturer had left.  He also had found the scope of the course far too dense for an individual to realistically cope with – and he had a PhD!  One day he didn’t come into work and investigations found that he had done a runner – leaving everything behind and with not a word to anyone.

                ‘International’ is a word which is bandied around a little too often these days without many people knowing really what it means.  It suggests a multi-cultural pool of students and the offering of internationally recognised qualifications.    However, in Africa at least, it’s almost on a par with adding ‘deluxe’ or ‘luxurious’ onto an advert for accommodation – and it’s usually as disappointing.  Hotels which really are deluxe don’t have to say so – and the same holds true of many ‘international schools’.  The advent of skype often means you don’t get to have a face to face interview for many jobs and you could find yourself whisked away to somewhere which is disappointingly unlike it promises.  Read the small print.  Supply teaching in East Dulwich might not be very interesting, but it’s sometimes far more safe.

               

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

'Moments of Stillness': A Review of This September Sun

'Long after I read it, there are moments of stillness when I begin to think about the book and how much of myself I see in it.'
Bryony Rheam

The day I finally finished reading Bryony Rheam's This September Sun, sometime in September, it was the one book I wondered about how I got to the end, why it ended, and why wasn’t I a little slower as I read it.

This September Sun is the most profound book I’ve read this year and for an author’s first book, I can only begin to think how this work can claim to be fiction. Long after I read it, there are moments of stillness when I begin to think about the book and how much of myself I see in it. Its ability to linger this long is an experience I’m learning to come to terms with.

I’ve read books: Enid Blyton’s Malory Tower series ensured I went to boarding school in a bid to relive the stories. I read another Enid Blyton book about a girl who was a gypsy, who lived in a caravan and was part of a travelling circus. I’m not even going to begin to state how, at one point, I thought my parents should sell the house we lived in, buy a caravan so we could travel and possibly join a circus too. Then there was Kaine Agary’s Yellow Yellow, from whose pages I got the name Binaebi and gave the name to my son when he was birthed. Some books leave a lasting impression. Some books will never be forgotten. This September Sun falls into that category.

The story revolves around two characters Ellie and her grandmother Evelyn. Ellie, an only child, is a loner who has more adult influences than shared experiences with children her age. Her grandmother Evelyn in this day and age, would be called a feminist. An independent woman who seeks to live her life according to her dictates. Amongst the profound things for me about this book are Ellie’s words as she tells her story. Here’s a passage from Chapter Two:

“Where do you start to put life together? The pieces don’t always fit. Many are missing, or borrowed. From other people’s lives, other people’s memories. Their own puzzles. Where is the beginning when you have only the end to start with? How many lies are told over the course of one lifetime?

What of all that is not said, merely hinted at, subsiding beneath the surface of action and words? All that is yearned for and never had?”

Even now, these lines leave me with a need of wanting to dig deep into life and uncover things I should know and do not know.

There were times when, as I read, I had the feeling the author had perhaps started a plot she did not conclude and had no intention of concluding and this was disappointing for me. Page 76, when Ellie found her grandmother naked in bed with Miles her lover. The next few pages made no mention of the incident and life continued and left me thinking what tha . . . a young girl sees her grandma naked in bed with her lover and the next thing pretends that nothing happened. Tsk, tsk. There I was a reader poking into nonexistent holes because pages into the middle, it pops up again, is mentioned and is laid to rest. That’s the sort of books TSS is, it’s unpredictable and while it doesn’t elicit a rush of adrenaline, it’s calm, it’s pulsing and holds you in a grip.

I’m a little of Evelyn, a little of Ellie, I’m in the book and I’m swept along in their struggles and as they come to terms with themselves. I love TSS. I will read it again. This time with a highlighter. I will mangle its pages, but not to uglify it but to bring out the beauty of its words so I can always take a look at them and sigh, and think.


I’ve never known a book to linger like this one
To hear echoes of its words long after I wistfully said goodbye.

To read a book as though the writer knew you and turned you outside in.
To read words and behold a mirror of your mind.

To reread it in your mind page for page.
To replay the scenes that wrenched your guts and made your eyes drip.

To think and maul.
To chew and not be able to swallow.

To wonder at how words were stringed.
To want to know what could have been going through this author’s mind.

To be afraid. Afraid. Not the sort that fear elicits, but the sort that goosebumps produce because you feel a book became a mirror and you could see a lot of yourself in it.

This September Sun began in August. Proceeded with a feverish grip in September. In its wake left thoughts and silence.

Not all fiction is truly fiction.

By irinajo. http://flittingbutterfly.com/2015/10/07/

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

In Search of Agatha Part 2: My trip to Greenway


About a month ago, I found myself trawling the narrow streets of Covent Garden in search of vintage clothing shops. The object of my search was an evening dress to wear to a dinner, but not just any dinner: I was one of the winners of a competition to write a chapter of an Agatha Christie novel.  The prize was dinner with Agatha Christie’s grandson at her home, Greenway, in Devon.  I was also planning to stay on another night for the vintage-themed opening cocktail party for the Agatha Christie Festival.

                Being in London was a slightly surreal experience for me as I had arrived from Zimbabwe the previous day.  The trip was the highlight of my year and one I had been looking forward to for months. It is perhaps a commonly held idea of someone from the third world that London is an abundant source of everything and nothing is particularly difficult to find. It was certainly a surprise to find that many shops didn’t open until eleven on a Sunday and that the shop I wanted to visit in particular, Blackout II, wasn’t open at all.

                The shop assistants I dealt with were in the main very friendly and keen to help me find a 1920s dress – not a real one of course, but one in the style of the age – but I was less than enamoured with the suggestions made, mostly because they did not look anything like an evening dress.  One man suggested a tweed skirt and jacket and long sleeve blouse and it was on the tip of my tongue to say that I was going to the dinner as myself, not in the guise of Miss Marple.

                It did not take me long to realise that ‘retro’ and ‘vintage’ really refer to 1970s and 80s clothing rather than anything much older and are often labels assigned pieces of clothing that in other shops would cost half the price.   I began to feel, too, that nothing was genuinely itself, rather a reproduction, and tried too hard to be something it wasn’t.

                I found the experience true also of ‘vintage’ teashops, of which the Internet has a plethora of suggestions.  Somehow the silver teapots, the cake stands and the rather kitsch d├ęcor all suggests wannabe aspirations.  The insistence that you enter and enjoy a ‘genuine vintage experience’ recalls substandard hotels in Africa optimistically named The Ritz or The Savoy with their promises of ‘deluxe’ or ‘executive’ accommodation. The bottom line is that if you have to say what you are, then you aren’t it.

                I suppose I sound rather down on the whole business, but I’m not.  I found the dress I was looking for at Mad Elizabeth at the Cornmarket building in Leeds.  It was a relief to say the least as, although I could’ve found more of a bargain on the Internet, as I was travelling around a bit, it would’ve been difficult to have had something delivered on time.  My next stop was the haberdasher’s to find a pair of long black gloves.  As I watched them being gently lifted out of their tissue wrapping, I couldn’t help feeling a thrill of excitement.  There was something so special about the experience, as though I had been allowed to a world only a select few have any knowledge of.  A pair of silk stockings completed the purchase and then I was able to focus on finding a string of black beads and a sequined headband with obligatory feather. 

                I arrived in Torquay at 3.15 on the day of the dinner – I half considered arriving on the 4.50 from Paddington – but I had little time to prepare as it was.  Feeling rather glamorous, I made my way opposite the station to the Grand Hotel where I checked into my room.  At a quarter past five, the prize winners congregated in the hotel lobby and introductions were made before the taxis arrived to take us to Greenway.

                 I often think there is a part of me that hasn’t quite grown up, a part that hasn’t stopped believing in magic.  As a child growing up in Africa, I lived in an Enid Blyton world.  I had an idea of England that was years out of date and, despite the eight years I spent living in the UK, I never quite despaired that one day I might find it. Arriving at Greenway is probably the closest I got to doing so.  As soon as the taxi left the main road and followed the narrow winding lane up to the house, I knew I was going somewhere special.

                The house is beautiful – much larger than the average person would live in today, but homely too.  On our tour round the house, I didn’t feel I was viewing a museum piece. Rather, there was sense that any minute a car would draw up, and Agatha Christie and Max Mallowan would step out, home after a long trip to Turkey or Syria.

                The dinner, of course, was the highlight of the trip.  It is not often that one sits next to Mathew Prichard, Agatha Christie’s grandson, and gets to ask him questions about his famous grandmother and her work!  We also got the opportunity to meet Agatha Christie’s publishers at HarperCollins.

                The next day, I walked the Agatha Christie Mile with my sister who had accompanied me on the trip and we sat on the terrace of The Imperial Hotel and drank Pimms. Walking through Torquay I had tried to imagine what life was like here a hundred years ago: the train station teeming with men going off to war; lovers walking arm in arm along the promenade. Now looking around the hotel which features in at least three of her novels, I caught a glimpse of Agatha’s world and the people who inhabited it.  I half expected an ageing actress to enter in a whirlwind of furs and pearls and order martinis while an overloaded bellboy struggled in behind her with a trolley of cases and trunks or a dandy in white flannels coming in from the tennis courts.

The previous evening, I had taken the opportunity to tell Mathew Pritchard  that I didn’t think the Miss Marple TV adaptations were very good in my opinion because they deviate from the plot quite a bit. His response was that a balance had to be maintained between being true to the story and attracting a younger audience. Although I agree to a certain extent, I also often wonder if the younger generation aren’t underestimated. At 41, I was one of the oldest of the competition winners; it was more than obvious to me that Agatha Christie is loved by all generations. We live in a world which has run out of ideas, one that reproduces fashions and tastes and tries to pass them off as new.  If young people search for anything it’s authenticity and perhaps that is why Agatha Christie maintains such a hold over our imaginations: we look for a world of which we only catch glimpses.