When I was on another walk today, this time around Beecraigs Loch in West Lothian, I came across something that brought to mind a poem which I haven’t thought about in years. The item in question was a pea-green boat. Any ideas about the poem? Yes, you’re quite right:
The Owl and the Pussycat
by Edward Lear
The Owl and the Pussycat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
“O lovely Pussy! O Pussy, my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are, you are, you are,
What a beautiful Pussy you are.”
Pussy said to the Owl “You elegant fowl,
How charmingly sweet you sing.
O let us be married, too long we have tarried;
But what shall we do for a ring?”
They sailed away, for a year and a day,
To the land where the Bong-tree grows,
And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood
With a ring at the end of his nose, his nose, his nose,
With a ring at the end of his nose.
“Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling your ring?”
Said the Piggy, “I will”
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon.
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand.
They danced by the light of the moon, the moon, the moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.
Do you remember this poem from your childhood? It’s always been one of my favourites, despite the fact that it caused me no little consternation. I had no idea what ‘quince’ was or a ‘runcible spoon’. I was unsure as to whether we had any Bong trees growing in our garden. I was concerned that the newlyweds wouldn’t be able to spend a £5 note if it had honey all over it. But of course, this is the wonderful thing about nonsense poems, isn’t it? We don’t need to know what all the words mean; we can allow our selves to get caught up by the magic of a great imagination, until we too are adrift with the owl and the pussycat.
Was this one of your favourites poems too? What other poems did you enjoy as a child? What is it about nonsense poetry that makes us love it so?
Following on from my previous post, I want to share a little bit more about the book, Everyone Knows What A Dragon Looks Like.
It’s about a Chinese city which is under the threat of imminent invasion by the ‘wild horsemen of the North’, and whose leaders pray to the Great Cloud Dragon for deliverance. The following day, an old, fat balding man arrives at the city and is welcomed by Han, the young street-sweeper. He tells Han that he is a dragon and he has come to save the city. Han believes him, and takes him to the city leaders, who pour scorn on the fat old man, declaring that they know what a dragon looks like and it doesn’t look like him. The fat old man simply reasserts that he is a dragon, and he will save the city if he is shown hospitality. At this, the leaders throw him from the palace, and then go into hiding, terrified of the approaching horsemen. Han takes the old man back to his hut and humbly offers to share his meagre rations. After eating his bowl of rice and drinking his glass of water, the old man declares that because of Han’s hospitality he will save the city. With that he takes a deep breath and blows away all the fierce horsemen, thus rescuing the city inhabitants from certain death. He then shows Han what a dragon looks like, by transforming into a fierce, brightly coloured creature shimmering in the sky, before disappearing. Han then relates his story to the rest of the city and is handsomely rewarded for the generosity that induced the dragon to save them all.
As I wrote in my last post, this book was given to me as a leaving gift when I was 7 years old, and it included a message encouraging me to keep my ‘head out of the clouds’, so that someday I could write ‘my wonderful book’. Well, as you can tell from the plot summary, the content of the book does not directly relate to writing, authorship or the desire to become published. However, what I think it does do is highlight the need to look beyond the face value of people, places, ideas, life. Although Han was unable to see the true form of the dragon, he was willing to believe that there was more to the little old man than his appearance suggested. In that sense, he was open to an alteration of perception; he was open to the possibility of a life less ordinary. If I were to apply this message to writing, I would like to suggest that even the most ordinary, the most mundane, the most pedestrian, everyday subjects can be transformed into beautiful, translucent, iridescent prose, if we treat them with care and attention when inscribing them upon the page. And if this is the lesson I was to learn from the book, then I’m pleased to report that I’m still learning it, and I intend to continue learning it for a long time to come.
I am, however, perfectly prepared to listen to alternative interpretations, so if you have any ideas which differ from this reading, please do let me know! Also, I would love to hear if there was a book from your childhood which continues to have a profound effect on you. Do you still own it? Have you referred to it recently? Does it offer new interpretations at different points in your life? And if not from your childhood, is there a book you read recently which has influenced the direction of your life’s journey?
There’s a book on my shelf that’s not like any of the others. Beside my volumes of poetry, my tattered short story anthologies, and my well-thumbed novels is a picture book by Jay Williams, called Everyone Knows What a Dragon Looks Like. Today, I want to tell you about how I acquired this book, and why it still has a place in my library and in my heart.
When I was in primary 2 (age 6) I had an awful teacher; she was loud, angry, aggressive and controlling. I can still remember her voice shrieking at a little boy who dared to use the Scots word ‘ken’, instead of the accepted standard English, ‘know’. I can still remember her physically dragging a child out of the classroom to go to the higher power of the headmistress. And, I can still remember her anger directed at me following a particularly lacklustre effort at writing a story. I, too, was sent to the headmistress, but remembering the incident of the last child who objected to this directive, I went quietly.
The thing was that the headmistress, Mrs Faulds, was one of the most gentle, generous women I would ever meet, and she genuinely cared about the children under her charge. I can only assume her hands were tied in some way concerning the continuing employment of my class teacher! However, this being the first time I had been sent to her, I had no idea what to expect, or how to handle the situation, and, understandably, what with my experience of authority figures in school, I was, quite frankly, terrified. Trembling, I passed over the meager 3 sentence narrative scrawled in my jotter. She read it over and then looked at me with eyes filled with kindness, tinged with disappointment. She said, “I know you are capable of so much better than this. You have such an active imagination, but your daydreaming is interfering with your work. Maybe you could try writing down your imaginings and share them with everyone else? I’m sure we’d all love to read them.”
Now, I don’t know whether it was her interest in my dreams, her faith in my ability to communicate them, or just the sheer relief that she was so unlike the teacher that had sent me to her office, but her words lit a fire in me. I started to write epics… Ok, well 5 page stories, while my classmates struggled at 2. I began to be known for my stories and my writing. It felt good. It still does.
Anyway, the following year, my family and I moved away from the area. On my last day at school, I was once again called into Mrs Faulds office. This time, I went gladly, confidently. I sat down in front of her desk and she gave me a leaving gift; she gave me a beautiful picture book with an illustration of a small fat, old Chinese man, a village and a colourful dragon floating above the clouds. Later, when I opened the front cover, I discovered that she had written a message in silver ink:
It reads: “Dear Amy – just remember to keep your head out of the clouds and I’m sure someday you’ll write your wonderful book. M. Faulds”
This lovely lady’s encouraging words, first spoken and then, a year later, written, have stayed with me throughout my years as a child and then as an adult. I’ve still not written my ‘wonderful book’, although I remain convinced by Mrs Faulds’ certitude that ‘someday’ I will. In the meantime, I continue to write down my dreams, my experiences, my thoughts. I continue to feel joy in sharing my words. I continue to feel humbled by others’ appreciation of my writing. I continue to read Mrs Faulds’ message from over 20 years ago.
I continue my love affair with writing.
What childhood experience inspired you to go on to become the person you are today? Did you have a teacher who gave you the confidence to follow your dreams?
P.S. This is a post for Joanna Young’s group writing project, My Love Affair With Writing over at Confident Writing. You can still join in as the closing date for entries is the 28th Feb, and if you do, let me know and I’ll add a link to your entry here.
I saw a great piece on the news last night about a new pensioner’s playground which has been built next to the under 5s playpark. Basically, it’s designed to encourage the over 70s to participate in some gentle exercise, working on their hips, toning their legs and their upper body. However, the by-product of this ‘gentle exercise’ is laughter, and this to my mind is actually far more important. If you click on this link, it will take you to the BBC story where you can watch the news clip of elderly men and women trying out the equipment, and they look like they’re having an absolute ball!
It started me thinking though, that it seems like the only time in one’s life when it is appropriate to play is if you are under 5 or over 70. What about the 65 years in between! One of the (many) reasons why I home educate, is that I don’t think our education system emphasises enough the importance of free play for a child’s development once they’ve hit primary age (5+). There is a programme on CBBC at the moment dramatising the education department’s attempts to close the boarding school Summerhill, which is a very special place where the students devise their own curriculum and there’s no obligation to attend lessons. In other words if a child wants to spend the whole day at free play, then they are more than welcome to. This is exactly how I (un)structure my own children’s education. It is a child focussed approach with an emphasis on free-play. (More on this here)
However, I also believe in the value of playing for those who have left their childhood behind and made the move into the world of work and responsibility. There are so many ways to make room for playing in your life, and while you, or perhaps disapproving others, may think that it’s a ‘waste of time’, you may find that the resulting benefits render play anything but a ‘waste of time’. Just for starters, taking the time to play:
- Facilitates the learning of new skills.
- Develops a keen curiosity about a wide variety of topics.
- Encourages creativity and innovation.
- Increases productivity by aiding concentration.
- Creates new perspectives.
Some of the ways I like to play include taking photographs, brainstorming for new imaginary projects, making voice threads, drawing big colourful mind-maps, writing blog posts (!), colouring in, planting seeds, trying out new social media (Twitter, StumbleUpon, Facebook), making origami cranes, devising new recipes, winning at Cluedo, beachcombing for shells, thrifting through vintage clothes, going on the swings at the playpark, feeding the ducks, and foraging through the local woodland. For me, playing is all about discovery, innovation, and enlightenment. How could it possibly be a waste of time?
How do you play, and what benefits do you see from integrating play into your day to day life?
For more fun, follow me over to Tumblr.
According to my daily email from Encyclopedia Britannica, today is Virginia Woolf’s birthday, and I just couldn’t let the birthday of one of my favourite authors go unmentioned, despite the fact that I’m trying to write up a chapter for my thesis today. I suspect that those of you who write regularly are familiar with the agonies that I’m currently encountering. As I try to arrange words upon the screen, I find it comforting to note that Virginia understood all too well what I am going through.
“Anyone moderately familiar with the rigours of composition will not need to be told the story in detail; how he wrote and it seemed good; read it and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; put in; was in ecstasy; in despair; had his good nights and bad mornings; snatched at ideas and lost them; saw his book plain before him and it vanished; acted his people’s parts as he ate; mouthed them as he walked; now cried; now laughed; vacillated between this style and that; now preferred the heroic and pompous; next the plain and simple, now the vales of Tempe; then the fields of Kent or Cornwall; and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.” Orlando, Virgina Woolf
Only one who truly comprehended the torment involved for those intent on writing well, could write about it so eloquently. Do you experience this kind of seesawing from rapture to despair when you write?
Just a short post to let you all know that in honour of Burns’ Night, which is tomorrow (25th Jan), I’ve recorded another voice thread. See if you can guess which poem I’m reciting (hint: the clue is in the photo).
I cannot remember my first trip to a library, as it seems as though libraries have always formed a part of my consciousness. Such wonderful spaces filled with books of all sizes and colours for both the young and the not-so-young reader. As a teenager, especially, I spent many hours in my local public library. I would borrow my full quota of 12 books and then read and return them within the week. These days I spend most of my library time in the university, but I still hold a great affection for the public lending system. I think possibly the best public library I’ve been to in recent years was the new one in Kirkwall, Orkney. It has a truly phenomenal children’s section and their fiction collection seems quite literally endless. I would seriously consider moving to Orkney Mainland just to have that library as my local!
But, of course, libraries are not the domain of just books these days. Libraries are required to be at the forefront of knowledge transfer. They need to cater for the changing needs of those they serve, and they need to maintain their relevancy in a digital age. I’ve been thinking a lot about libraries today (see today’s Tumblr) after watching a great talk by Joshua Prince-Ramos, the architect behind the Seattle public library construction. He talks about the social role that libraries have, and how his design in Seattle accommodates this through its integration of a ‘living room’ area: a freely available communal space for conversation, rest or simply respite from the rain. He also talks about how the space within the library needs to be flexible in order to adapt to the changing and unforeseeable demands of the future. His observations concerning library use are incisive, and his solutions to some of the problems pertaining to flexible space are extremely innovative. I thoroughly recommend that you take the time to listen to it!
Do you use your public library? Do you think that libraries in general are keeping abreast of technological advances? What changes would you like to see effected in your local library?
As regular readers may recall, I recently posted a video clip called En Tus Brazos, which was an animated short about a tango dance between a husband and wife. One of the comments I received concerning that clip suggested that the short film would be improved if a real actor and actress had played the leading roles. I’ve turned this over in my mind more than a few times, and I’ve decided to post a short defence of animation.
I love all forms of animation. As a mother of 3, I watch a lot of animation with my kids. We have the full Disney collection on video. We watch The Nightmare Before Christmas every Halloween. We visited the Pixar exhibition more times that I can remember. We think Nick Park is a genius. I think it would be fair to say that I was raising my kids with an appreciation for the animated medium!
The various techniques used in animation absolutely fascinate me and I love to see what innovations animators are coming up with. From line-drawing to stop motion to computer generated, I just so admire those who have mastered the skills involved to produce an animation. But, you know, it’s so much more than the technological innovation that I love. It’s also the content, the messages, the stories that animation has the capacity to tell.
Animation can be powerful and political:
It can be surprising:
It can be thought provoking:
It can be educational:
And it can offer fresh interpretations of already known works:
What it is not, however, is a poor man’s substitute for acted drama.
Do you agree? Do you have a favourite clip that you would like to share? What was your favourite childhood animation?
If you have enjoyed these clips, why not head over to my Tumblr blog where I have posted some more animation which has touched me.
I have been extremely resistant to Twitter. In the past I have considered it a vehicle through which folk could share the minutiae of their everyday existences. In other words, utter dross. However, I’ve been reading quite a lot about how it can be utilised in a way that doesn’t make you want to run screaming for the (tech-free) hills. So, I’m giving it a shot. I’m just going to be experimenting with it for a while and see how it works out. If anyone wants to ‘follow’ me, you are more than welcome. I promise that I won’t bombard you with what I had for breakfast (cup of tea), what time I went to bed last night (too late to get up as early as I did this morning) or whether it’s stopped raining yet (it hasn’t). I want to use it more as a tool for microblogging, so I imagine that I’ll blog about much the same kind of thing that I do here, only in 140 characters or less.
If you twitter, let me know; I’d love to see how others are using it. Also if you have made the decision to twitter, or not to twitter, tell me why. I’m still very open-minded about the whole thing, so all opinions will be most welcome!
P.S. More links etc. Twitter-related can be found at today’s (21st Jan) Tumblog
Last year, I decided to join Cynthia’s Free Write Fling (her next one starts Feb 1st) and I began writing for 15 minutes every morning. I write a lot, but it is all formal and academic in style, and I thought that by participating in the fling, that I would free up my writing a little. It would help me to write more creatively. I’m ashamed to say that I only lasted about half the way through the programme, because I grew disillusioned with my own efforts. I realise now that this feeling was actually something I needed to push through, but instead I put the project to one side, feeling a little foolish for thinking that I could write creatively in the first place.
This morning, I read over for the first time, those little fiction vignettes I had written during that fortnight. And, do you know something, I don’t think they’re half as bad as I thought they were at the time. So, in the spirit of my focus word for this year, which is AUDACITY, I’ve decided to share one with you. I’m not going to try and explain it, as it is what it is. I have, however, included a YouTube clip after it which may help a little with some of the cultural references. I hope you like it, and if you’re interested in having a go at writing fiction yourself, check out my Tumblr blog today as the day’s theme is creative writing.
“Those hills are bare now. And autumn leaves lie thick and still.” These words ring out across the stadium. Voices swell with pride, and the intakes of the crisp, clear autumn air are unified. Side by side, the crowd stand. Shoulder pressed against shoulder. Knees close to the backs of those in the next row. A sea of blue, punctuated by the occasional white saltire. The Scots were, and still are, a proud race, and this is demonstrated with every match. The tartan army. The kilts with kebab sauce slittered down the front. The rugby strips with suspect stains. Aye, the party began long before they made it to the ground. Whisky fumes blend with the scent of stale chips. Red cheeked faces and full-throated singing.
Crammed amongst this throng, a small boy mouths the words, his voice too soft to be heard over the drunken clamour. He looks overwhelmed. It’s his first time to a game. He normally watched the match at home on the telly, his daddy by his side on the sofa. Safe and sound: waiting for the game to begin. Here, it is a different story altogether. He doesn’t feel so safe any more. This large crowd could easily engulf him. Swallow him whole. Then, he feels Daddy’s large, rough hand take his small, warm hand in his, and a feeling of security spreads to every cell of his body. Nothing could happen to him when he was with his daddy. Daddy would never let it. Safe in this knowledge, he belts out the last line as loud as his little lungs will allow. “And sent them homeward, Tae think again.”