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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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Sometimes

Sometimes it’s nice

Just to sit down

With a good book

And a cup of tea

But how much nicer

It would be

To sit down with

You and a cup of tea

Or maybe not even

With a cup of tea

Just you, the moon

And the daffodils.

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On Bookshops

In a world where the emphasis seems to be on speed, instant communication and rapid gratification, thank God for the tranquil presence of independent bookshops. It is a funny thing really but maybe the beauty of bookshops is enhanced even more in the electronic age. Of course, ebooks are an amazing invention. I have an ereader myself and as someone who has luxuriated and revelled in the beauty of books and the written word, ebooks offer an amazing platform in which to spread the sheer wonder of stories, imagination and information. Yet a well-furnished bookshop with enthusiastic staff, exuding mellowness and charm aplenty will always captivate me. If you wander the streets of Hay-on-Wye or visit Montmorillon in France, there is something indescribably soothing that permeates the soul. For some people, bookshops are viewed at best with a sense of disdain, at worst with a “Why bother” outlook, when all the world is available at one’s fingertips. With all the books you could possibly want readily available with a few judicious mouse clicks, why on earth would you want to avail yourself of browsing in a real-life bookshop?

Ah, more fool them. For what bricks and mortar shops offer that the internet never can – no matter how sophisticated the latter becomes – is a 3D experience as lived through the senses. Yes, the senses. What a wondrous thing, the sensory world is, when we seem to be living in an environment that bleeps “Now, Now, Now”! Oh I love the ease, the beauty, the sleekness, the convenience, the sophistication, the sheer capaciousness of what technology can provide but there is a lack. This lack can best be summed up when you while away a delicious half-hour or two in a well-stocked bookshop. Bookshops provide nourishment for the mind but, and this is the crucial part, they also offer sustenance for the soul. Yep, bookshops have got soul and more. And this, I believe, is what sets the best apart. They are places that engage in social and cultural capital and, moreover, are places just to be.

The outstanding bookshops ooze an exquisite ambience, that not only allow you to cherish the written word but also give you space in which to think, be yourself, create, ponder, wonder, laugh, love (bookshops fizz with romance,no?) maybe even pen a few thoughts. For surely, what could be more conducive to feeling that urge to scribble than being encompassed by an atmopshere that seduces the mind, heart and soul? Again, the naysayers will argue that bookshops are becomingly increasingly obsolete, especially when you can buy everything online. Well, you can’t buy atmosphere online. Not the last time I checked, anyhow. The bookshops that thrive are those that provide bags of atmosphere, offer nourishment for the body as well as the mind and go that extra step in becoming the cultural heartbeat of the communities they serve. Two such bibliophilic heavens – which I heartily recommend – are The Hours Café and Bookshop in Brecon and Richard Booth’s Bookshop and Café in Hay. You will get a flavour here but if you really want to savour and digest their full beauty, you really must pay them a visit. They’ve got character. In abundance.

 

“A bookstore is one of the only pieces of evidence we have that people are still thinking” (Jerry Seinfeld)

 

“What I say is, a town isn’t a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it’s got a bookstore it knows it’s not fooling a soul.” (Neil Gaiman, American Gods)

 

“My favourite place in the whole city was the Sempere & Sons bookshop on Calle Santa Anna. It smelled of old paper and dust and it was my sanctuary, my refuge.” (Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Angel’s Game)

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Celebrating World Book Night

World Book Night is happening this year on April the 23rd, designated by UNESCO as the international day of the book. This day is most befitting as not only is it the death dates of two of the world’s most celebrated writers – William Shakespeare (whose birthday it also happens to be) and Miguel Cervantes – but it is also known in Spain (specifically Catalonia) as “The Day of the Book” where traditionally men give women roses and women give men books. I know who gets the better deal here. For is there a greater gift that one can give to a beloved, family member, close friend, colleague than a book? Books divert, surprise, charm, amaze, astound, instruct, perplex ,enthuse, engage in equal measure. Books can reflect as much as they can inspire. I have always thought that our bookshelves reveal a lot about us as individuals – our likes and dislikes, interests and passions, what it is that makes us human. We are as much as what we read as what we eat. Or think for that matter.

The book itself as an object is a supreme feat of craftsmanship. Perhaps it is becoming even more cherished in the electronic age? (but that’s for another debate) World Book Night is all about celebrating the written word, spreading a love of reading per se, which is why I am delighted to have been chosen as one of several thousand booklovers who will be gifting books in their communities to mark this year’s book-giving jamboree. I have always thought that “a pint and a book” go hand-in-hand. Therefore, on the evening of Monday April 23rd I shall be frequenting a local pub in Brecon, giving away 24 copies of a collection of short stories by that most supreme of storytellers – Roald Dahl – to strangers and drinkers, locals and visitors – perhaps even acquaintances. (Am sure the great Dylan Thomas would approve).

Why not mark this fiesta of book-giving by giving a loved one a book? Am sure that he/she will be delighted. Or, give a stranger a book. You might just change someone’s life. The power of books is endless; I suppose this is their intrinsic beauty. They can stir up imaginative possibilities, console the sorrows of existence and open up the pathways of our hearts. So, go forth and spread the wonder of words. Happy World Book Night.

“We read to know we are not alone” (C.S.Lewis)

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