Today’s Much Love Monday is sponsored by Joey Ramone with a classic – It’s a Wonderful World. Sorry if you’re a Louis Armstrong fan, but Joey’s punk rock edge just gives this song a little something I like. Mondays sometimes need a little punk rock.
I love a bit of classic Ramones, Sheena is a Punk Rocker, Beat on the Brat and the ever beautiful I wanna be your boyfriend. They remind me of my first year in Sheffield, where I lived in a small student complex. It was a hard year in many ways, but the year I first found confidence in myself. It was hard being away from all those friends I mentioned last week, the people who let me play out with them. I missed them massively.
I’m babysitting right now for a friend, and very much enjoying her parrots’ random conversation; not only can the parrots call Tilly, my American spaniel, but they just said “bloody hell” in a right Northern accent. They are chatty beasts. In fact, these parrots are the reason for our dogs’ names. As the parrots generally pick up on dogs’ names very quickly, Mme V’s husband decided that he could take a shortcut to teaching them to shout his favourite football team, Charlton. Ironically, they haven’t picked it up yet. He really wanted them to be able to say Charlton and in reality, if they ever say it, they will probably say “Charlton… OFF!” since he likes to climb on the couch and is subsequently reprimanded, or they will say “Charlton… NO!”. Not exactly what he’d want them to say. Right now the parrots are blowing me kisses and saying “Yoohoo!” and “Hello!” which is kind of cute.
Charlton and Heston have not managed to destroy anything, nobody has peed on the floor (including me) and they are all being wonderful. Not easy with six dogs, four cats, two children, two parrots and me. I don’t know how Mme V does it.
A friend on Facebook posted the following video, with the question “What would you like to do if money were no object?”
It’s funny because my first response would be ‘to write’. And then ‘to paint’. And then ‘to spend all year in the garden’. I think that covers it. The first two are responses I would definitely have put way back in my youth, perhaps even before the Ramones. I totally had my stuffing knocked out of me by a teacher who I know one of my friends really rated. I went from the cocooned world of primary, where I had been one of maybe seven or eight children who were really ‘bright’, but never feeling top or bottom – never feeling ‘placed’ at all. I didn’t know if I were clever or not, and I didn’t feel like it mattered. I never knew if I were brighter than those other six or eight, or less bright. It was a golden world where, bar a crazy psychopath of a year 5 teacher when I was 9, all my teachers were gentle and protective and keen. I sat two entrance exams for two independent private schools and passed both – no doubt with a lot of coaching on both my maths and English. I got to pick which one I went to.
And when I got there, my first year Secondary English teacher was a real bitch. Her first job was to shout at the whole class and berate us for not having a representative standing at the door to open it for her. Her second job was to give us a translation of The Odyssey to read by ourselves. Our first homework, I got 7.5 out of 20 and the girl next to me got 20. She turned out to be a great student, but that always stuck in my head. And I had this teacher for 2 full years in which nothing I could ever do would ever please her. She would cross through everything with a red pen and tell me my ideas were stupid. She asked us once, at the age of 11, to find a song lyric to bring in. 11 year olds are not great afficionados of music. My parents had some Abba albums and some Carpenters albums. My dad put on an orchestral version of rock classics on a Sunday morning. He loves music, but we just weren’t really a musical house. On New Year’s Eve, we would have some great disco tunes at my Nana’s, but I have no idea what they really liked to listen to.
Anyway, I’d had a penchant for Adam Ant, but thought he was a bit passé. This was 1984 (!) however. (I’ve just realised the significance of that date…) and so I dutifully copied out the lyrics of Nik Kershaw’s most celebrated hit, I won’t let the sun go down on me which is about nuclear war. I loved the line “old men in stripey trousers rule the world with plastic smiles” – I was always very moved by the thought of nuclear war, especially when the creepy Year 5 teacher showed us “Threads” – a film about nuclear war. I’d also read Brother In the Land by Robert Swindells, which still makes me cry. It was something very much in my psyche. So I thought this was a good choice. No. Red pen through it and a comment “This is meaningless.” I’ve still got it.
Ironically, this was in response to the Pete Seeger “classic” of Little Boxes which is kind of trite, but also a similar theme to the “paper houses” of Nik Kershaw’s epic. I don’t doubt that it was a weak choice (and what would I pick now, I wonder, to offer her?) and that she really wanted me to pick some 1960s or 70s classic and show some musical integrity. I wish she’d asked me the year after when I discovered David Bowie and Talking Heads. But she didn’t. She just made me feel about an inch tall.
Luckily, I got a different teacher from 13-16 – a lady who nourished my dreams, twice copied me out poems by hand that she thought I would like and lent me poetry books with her own name written on the inside cover which I treasured with an almost semi-fanatic reverence. She inspired in me a love for The Go-Between and Maurice and for John Clare’s poetry, and for Spike Milligan’s verse. I owe her my As. I even owe her my choice of A level option; I hoped I’d have her as well.
You know what happened. I got the red line teacher. I got several Ds and Cs and never anything complimentary. Her general comment on my work was “sweeping statement” in bright red, thick ink. She never taught me how not to make such a statement, how to root it in the text. She adored Jane Austen’s sharpness and hated Wilfed Owen because of his adoration of Siegfried Sassoon. I love Jane Austen’s gentle fun and Wilfred Owen still moves me to tears. She taught me I was not good enough to be an English scholar, which had always been my dream. I didn’t apply for one single English course, though I wanted to. I applied for lots of mixed courses and combinations, not knowing where I wanted to be once the rug had been pulled out from underneath me. I desperately wanted to be good enough. I wrote naive stories about Viet Nam and chemical warfare and got them sent right back. When she asked us to hand in the same assignment of picking a song lyric, I gave her Motorhead’s Ace of Spades and let her chew on that. She had nothing at all to say about it and I got it back without a comment. I got a B in the end. Despite her predictions.
Luckily, I picked some English courses, and the fabulously buxom, gloriously Renaissance Professor Lisa Hopkins, her mousy husband Chris, Jill LeBihan who was the first person who ever really understood where I was coming from, the divine Dr Robert Miles who instilled a love in me for English that is so deep I have never been able to remove it… they reawakened and nurtured an old love. God I loved that place… the English building in Sheffield. Set back in acres of leafy woodland, a Victorian house with a rabbit warren inside… it was where I found that joy again, enough to want to share it. It took me several more years to refind my move of writing, though. I was still so uncertain of my own talents – had I any.
Lisa Hopkins was my favourite first year teacher. She made Shakespeare real. She taught me about how rude he was and how funny, how clever, how his real talent was in knowing the human condition. She was incredibly clever, yet utterly approachable. Her classes were always fun.
Anyway, it is thanks to them that I have any faith in my own writing and I love the fact that ALL days I get to do some writing that pays. A lot of writers can’t say that.
Much Love to all of those teachers who take a child and allow them to grow in interesting and unexpected ways, who show them what they are capable of and who they can be. Even Much Love to my bete-noir English teacher. I sent her a signed copy of my first English text book. I secretly hope it really pissed her off; in reality, I know she probably had forgotten who I was. She never had a text-book published though, and that’s all I care about. Revenge is a dish best served stone-cold, festering and stinking after 15 years, I find.
Anyway, see the positives in all the crap. She made me want to prove her wrong and I got a career out of it, even though she almost sent me into the wilderness.