Category Archives: Authors

Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me by Kate Clanchy

When I finished reading this book, I let out a cry of exultation. For whilst this is an account of the author’s thirty year journey teaching in the UK, bursting with anecdotes – with all the rich tapestry of emotions that humanity yields – it is ultimately a revelatory celebration of all that is good and life-enhancing when teachers with the requisite skill, passion and flair for their subject are able to teach, and how they can have such a positive impact on their charges.

“Some Kids I Taught…” is written with a poet’s telling eye for observation and comparison. Kate Clanchy is a wonderful writer and what becomes apparent is that she is an equally wonderful teacher, with a gift for self-deprecation, as well as being able to see things that others perhaps don’t. There is a refreshing honesty and wit embedded in her insights. You feel that despite the politics in education and the various battlegrounds that have ensued as to how best deliver state education, the author firmly believes in the enabling and civilising influence that such education can provide when it is well-managed, well thought out, well-funded and teachers are provided the freedom to practise what they love doing, without short-sighted political interference.

Anyone who reads this will acquire a sharper and more enlightened understanding into the various challenges that teachers currently face in the UK and why it is a profession that gives anyone who has ever been a part of it, plenty of “wow” moments. Not only should every person involved in education read this, but every politician too – they may learn a thing or two and consider how best to create a 21st century state educational system in which students are best able to demonstrate their creative skills and flourish.

In the despairing world that is Brexit and Trump, where division has reared its head with purulent intent, it is uplifting to read a book that praises multiculturalism and diversity as beautiful ideals to embrace. In one scene, Clanchy describes looking around her classroom thus:

“I look around the room. It contains Muslims from five countries,
one Hindu, a Filipino fundamentalist, one transgender kid,
two mixed race girls of no faith, two white kids, a Pole,
and the rule range of human skin colour. Fabulous.”

Isn’t this what education, life, and this beautiful world of ours are all about?


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“Felicity” by Mary Oliver

Is there a book that you like to give away over and over? Is there a book that you turn to at regular intervals in your life? Is there a book that acts as a counsellor, a friend, a comfort, a consoler, a realist, an idealist, a bridge to empathy, a window of light? if there is, then this why books possess an indefinable magic and why, like all great loves, their spirit never truly dies.

“Felicity” by the American poet Mary Oliver is one such book for me. Mary Oliver, who died early 2019, was one of the great American poets of the latter part of the 20th Century and early 21st. Steeped in the transcendentalist vision of Emerson and Thoreau, the exuberance of Whitman, and the eager eye of Emily Dickinson, Mary Oliver wrote with brilliant perception about the physical world she immersed herself in, letting the natural world take centre stage and reminding her audience that there are other worlds and other dimensions to taste and relish besides the human one. Her philosophy is one of deep sensitivity, lucid empathy, and a life-affirming sense of expansion, that nothing is too small to be wondered about.

These qualities shine forth in “Felicity”, which examines that most fascinating of topics that interests us all: love. Some of the poems are only a few lines long, yet this is to suggest a disservice as to their merit. Within these parameters, Oliver conveys more sense and beauty that many lesser poets would strive to achieve in poems of greater length and opaqueness. “Felicity” can be read in a quick thirty minute burst from cover to cover but in order to savour the full magic of the writing, it is best to read slowly and fully appreciate each poem for the enriching morsels they are.

Oliver invites us along the journey with the great Persian poet, Rumi, acting as a guiding spirit, injecting the poems with pearls of wisdom, a credo for living and loving, threaded with compassionate humour. There are poems that you will want to declaim in recognition and commit to memory, for the sheer sense of exuberance and aliveness they contain. For example, in “Moments”, the central lines underscores one of the main themes of the collection:

Your heart is beating, isn’t it?
You’re not in chains, are you?

These nuggets of learning sit cheek by jowl with poems that more obviously speak of love. In “I Know Someone” , the poet compares kissing with a flower opening and, despite acknowledging a flower’s potent charm to captivate, concludes that ultimately it is humans who are the fortunate ones as we can kiss other humans and realise the supreme and tangible delight of connection.

There is a recurring sense in this collection of 38 poems, that love is the highest ideal that we can aspire to, “love is the one thing the heart craves”. Notwithstanding the pain and affliction that life will throw at us, from time to time, it is a force worth seeking out, worth embracing, and worth singing about. Mary Oliver may have departed from earth, but her poems transcend the mundane and will continue to blaze bright, long into the future. Seize the rich lens of attention, she advocates, and never lose your childlike sense of awe, your acceptance of mortality and, above all, your desire to love. Live while you can, have fun along the way, and wear the cloak of gratitude with unbounded joy.
To put it blithely, these poems capture perfectly why harbouring an open heart and an alert mind are fundamental qualities in a poet, besides a keen sense of the precision of language and an eye for the fitting image, “I don’t want to lose a single thread/ from the intricate brocade of this happiness”. Dive in, at any point, into this book and you will come swimming to the surface in a state of buoyancy – revitalised, refreshed, and reborn.


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Some Thoughts on Oscar Wilde, in response to Peter Hitchens

Oscar Wilde is one of the greatest writers who ever lived. It is a shame that Peter Hitchens appears to be conflating the genius that Oscar Wilde put into his life with only the talent that he put into his work (to paraphrase the great man himself). As others have hinted, part of the problem is because of the incredible drama of Wilde’s life. It is no surprise that people are fascinated by the story, which would explain, perhaps, why a new biography on Wilde comes out every few years. As Wilde prophetically  said, “to be great is to be misunderstood. Remain, as I do, incomprehensible.”

What is slightly baffling is how Hitchens seemingly belittles Wilde as a writer. The genius that Wilde disavowed is manifest in the writing. Wilde continues to appeal because his words are so fresh. The children’s stories, plays, essays (in particular, The Soul of Man Under Socialism and The Truth Of Masks),  critical dialogues (The Decay of Lying and The Critic as Artist), poems, letters, epigrams etc. fizz with myriad ideas that many writers would envy. Ironically, it was the words of his fellow countryman, George Bernard Shaw who summed up Wilde’s brilliance with great sagacity when he wrote after the success of one of Wilde’s plays: “It seems that I am the only person in London who is unable to write a Wilde play at the moment.”

Shaw’s point is that Wilde makes the “drawing-room” drama a seemingly effortless creation. Of course, it isn’t. Wilde’s gift for wordplay is unmatched. His genius for inveigling himself with the chattering classes whilst simultaneously mocking their pretensions is unparalleled. It is perhaps no wonder that Wilde remains one of the most popular writers amongst the young (“The old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything but the young know everything”) and not just those who loathe illiberalism and cant. Beneath the veneer of glittering wit, Wilde was a radical: interrogating and probing, without being preachy. Constant themes that spring up are: the quest for personal emancipation; social justice; questioning of gender stereotypes; the mutable nature of self; humanism/religious belief and the need for tolerance and kindness in a world that can be so inhospitable and festering with dissimulation.  He wrote passionately about the need for prison reform after his spell of incarceration, highlighting the vicious punitiveness of a system that could imprison a child and the terrible degradations inflicted on the human spirit. His last poem, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”, with its sorrowful theme exquisitely sublimated, is surely one of the greatest poems in the English language:

                                                 We were as men who through a fen

                                                  Of Filthy darkness grope:

                                                  We didn’t dare to breathe a prayer,

                                                  Or to give our anguish scope:

                                                   Something was dead in each of us,

                                                   And what was dead was hope


I get the impression that Hitchens, despite his deliberately provocative assertions has a sneaking admiration for Wilde. There’s a lot more I could say to attest to this towering giant of man’s genius. Suffice to say, if anyone hasn’t, please get a hold of the Collins Complete Works of Wilde: it is full of marvels (his output is much more comprehensive and varied than people give him credit for).Richard Ellman‘s biography of Wilde is one of the greatest literary biographies, if not the greatest. How can one not admire an author who not only wrote some of the greatest lines in English literature (memories of seeing Patricia Routledge play Lady Bracknell at the Royal Theatre in Bath some eleven years ago still brings tears to my eyes), had the ability to appeal (and still does) to people of all ages and inspired one of the greatest actors of modern times, Al Pacino, to make a fascinating programme about the deliciously decadent, Salome.  And just to throw in a final nugget of praise, Wilde’s essay, “The Portrait of Mr W.H” – investigating the identity of the inscrutable dedicatee of Shakespeare’s Sonnets is blessed with those qualities that make Wilde so appealing: a flair for provocation; playful with paradox; steeped in erudition and an insatiable command and love of the English language.

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A Compendium of Wildean Delights

Oscar Wilde once wrote, “I summed up all systems in a phrase and all existences in an epigram.” A bold claim to make, some may argue, yet when one dips into the magical kingdom of Wilde’s writings, what is impossible not to notice is how “right” he often is. Words for Wilde, were like pearls, to be played with, sparkling in their wit and pregnant with meaning in their durability.

Perhaps this is the most distinguishing facet of Wilde’s oeuvre – the manner in which it has lasted and will continue to endure, seemingly ageless in its appeal to each new generation. A large part of Wilde the legend is due to the fact that he had a more than eventful personal life: he defied traditional Victorian conventions, dared others to follow him, and bestrode the world like the “flamboyant high priest of aestheticism” he professed himself to be. Yet he also wrote in a variety of genres, dazzling his peers and astonishing his audiences with his fierce intellect, playful paradox and sheer love for the English language.

Wilde’s love of language for language’s sake shines through in this collection. Arranged in four chapters: Ironies & Paradoxes, A Duel Between the Sexes, Art for Art’s Sake & Beyond and The Artist as Philosopher, this is a compendium to treasure and chew upon, morsels of wisdom that provoke, entertain and enlighten in equal measure. Some of Wilde’s more famous sayings have entered the lexicon of the English language; there are several here which make you think, “nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul” and “women love us for our defects. If we have enough of them they forgive us everything, even our intellects” – to highlight just a couple. Whether it is poking fun at class, subverting gender stereotypes, mocking man’s vanities or exploring the sheer mystery of life, Wilde always proffers a gem, which makes us think afresh.

Once you have imbibed or perhaps devoured this exquisite potpourri of a book, you will want more. Get your hands on anything he wrote – plays, essays, poems, letters, novel, and children’s stories. He is one of the greatest writers who ever lived, constantly enchanting and forever illuminating. Wilde was not only blessed with that most precious of qualities – kindness – but also a piercing insight, who, through his sundry characters and essays, understood acutely the wellsprings from which laughter and unhappiness, joy and misery, altruism and selfishness sprang. He really did put genius into his work and not just his talent.




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The magic of Edward Lear

The 12th of May is the bicentenary of the eccentric genius, Edward Lear, who described himself as the laureate of nonsense. Appropriately, it has been designated as “International Owl and Pussycat Day”. Why the fuss? Well, it isn’t just because The Owl and The Pussycat happens to be one of the greatest poems in the English language. It is something more. Lear’s oeuvre is steeped in a childlike wonder of the universe; his humour is such that in order to appreciate and marvel at the fullness of life, we need, sometimes, to stand back and chortle at life’s absurdities. Perhaps we need this more than ever. As that other great purveyor of humour, Dr Seuss, once said:


“I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient

in living. It’s a way at looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope…that

enables you to laugh at life’s realities.”


Lear’s nonsense verse fulfils this; an intrepid voyager he takes us to new worlds, where imagination is boundless. What I think is most eminent about his writing is that it is written with verve, a keen painterly eye and, above all, is permeated with kindness, which shines bright. The Owl and the Pussycat going to sea might appear perfectly illogical but surely it is the most romantic of love poems and one can see why it is firmly ensconced as popular request at weddings etc. The conclusion of the poem never fails to bring a smile to my face as I imagine the incredible dance moves the protagonists execute “on the edge of the sand”.  And this surely is why Lear endures; his way with words always leaves the reader with a smile etched on their face. This isn’t to forget his sketches and paintings either, for he was an equally brilliant artist.

To mark Edward Lear’s 200th birthday, I will dive into his complete Nonsense and become reacquainted with old friends like The Pobble Who Has No Toes, The Quangle Wangle and The Dong with a Luminous Nose. It always feel like a veritable feast.  For your delectation, here’s my take on The Owl and the Pussycat; and, if you can tolerate, here are a few limericks about someone I know, fairly well:


There was a mad chap from Wales

who quite often tipped the scales

by donning his hats

trilbies and flat caps

a ridiculous sight in tails


There was a mad chap from Wales

who loved to walk out in gales

clad in a poncho

bearing a portmanteau

that peculiar chap from Wales


There was a mad chap from Wales

who laughed at minor details

the trifles of life

leavened with spice

means brio always prevails

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The genius of Philip Larkin and why The Mower is such a brilliant poem

I suspect that like most Larkin aficionados of my generation, I first came across Philip Larkin’s poetry when I was at school. Naturally, the poem that most struck a chord with any angst-ridden, rebellious teenager was “This Be The Verse”. Even committing this poem to memory felt like a delicious act of subversion. When I first heard Larkin’s unique laconic rendition of this poem, it all made sense. It was Larkin’s ironical detachment and ability to distil complex ideas with lucid language that proved to be appealing. It wasn’t poetry concocted in an ivory tower but poetry rooted in experience.

Sometimes, Larkin’s poetry didn’t always make an impact in the classroom, precisely because we were compelled to read it and butcher to death the various poetical tricks that Larkin’s deploys, where all that was crying out was for the language to be assimilated. It is only when I branched out and explored his poetry independently that I fully understood Larkin’s philosophy that poetry should “communicate and give pleasure to the reader”. For this is the genius of Larkin and why he has such timeless appeal – across generations, gender and background. He speaks to all of us about the sundry themes that constitute life and living, in an accessible way, which warrant re-reading throughout our lives.

To choose one poem from an incredible array of poems that Larkin produced is nigh on impossible. There are many that I love: “Wants”, “Toads”, “Spring”, “Days”, “Water”, “A Study of Reading Habits”, “The Trees”, “Aubade”, “Party Politics”. The list is pretty extensive. But if I were to choose one, it would be “The Mower”. All of Larkin’s virtuosity as a master of his craft is on display here. His command of language, acuity of observation, precision with punctuation and all-round technical brilliance. It is Larkin at his conversational best. Like all great poets he knows how to use language and how to get maximum power out of a word or a phrase.

Every time I read this poem, the words “killed” and “unmendably” hit me, exactly as Larkin intended. But perhaps what I love most about this poem is its concluding statement. Larkin, despite being cast as a melancholic chronicler on the vicissitudes of life was able to hit the heights of understated optimism and offer the occasional uplift to leaven his lugubriousness. Like the ending of “The Trees”, Larkin removes his ironical cloak and speaks with searing clarity. One of Larkin’s great gifts is for writing the appropriate phrase. The sentiment he expresses at the conclusion of “The Mower” is a worthy one to live up to, no matter how hard it might be to put into practice all of the time.



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