An old one …

Sarah’s Diary 26th May 2006

Sarah Ledger awoke slowly.

An alarm clock was bleeping in the darkness – a tinny familiar bleep. Squinting at her surroundings she made out a duvet, an IKEA bookcase and an antique dog lying curled in a basket.

Where the hell am I?

The threadbare dressing gown on the bedstead bore a bleach stain.

Slowly the fog began to lift. She was at home, in Stanwix.

Her heart pounded as she took in the luminescent figures on the face of the clock; a bizarre message in shimmering shapes. The little hand was pointing to the six and the big hand was pointing to the nine. What the hell could this mean? Ledger had little doubt. Her extensive knowledge of telling the time had made her an expert on deciphering the cryptic messages on the dials of timepieces. It was morning. It was a quarter to seven. It was time to get up.

In the bathroom she gazed tiredly in the mirror. The woman staring back at her was a stranger – tousled and weary. You need some breakfast Sarah.

Descending the 13 stairs of her semi-detached house, she wondered if anyone else on her estate realised that thirteen was the exact number required by building regulations to get from upstairs to downstairs and that there was absolutely no sinister reason at all for this uncanny coincidence. She decided to keep the information to herself.

Having opened the door she stood inside the living room: her eyes stopped short on an unexpected object lying on the table. Quickly she picked it up. Scrawled across the paper in ballpoint pen was the message ‘Do you fancy going to see The Da Vinci Code? Ring 01228525586 to see if you can book tickets!’ Ledger had long been familiar with the ancient series of 26 runes – the alphabet – which could be transformed and rearranged into sequences – words – which, in the right hands could convey so much information. She often wondered if anyone realised that 26 was twice thirteen, twice the number of stairs in her house; twice the number in attendance at The Last Supper.

For a moment Ledger thought that the ringing in her ears was a sign of her incipient madness, but it slowly dawned upon her that it was the chimes of the doorbell. She turned and in a series of swift, deft movements unlocked the door and opened it. Before her stood a young man, a haunting certainty in his stance. Dressed casually he was attractive and looked to be about thirty. His thick hair fell to his shoulders; he radiated a striking personal confidence.

To Ledger’s surprise, the man extended a polite hand. ‘Bonjour Madame Ledger. I am Agent Pierre Neveu. I am to be your impossibly gorgeous Anglo-French sidekick for the remainder of the column. We will develop an unlikely tension sexuelle – sexual tension – and will leave your readers in a pleasing state of uncertainty as to whether or not we get it on after the column is finished. I will say things en francais – in French – for no specific reason and then I will unnecessarily translate what I have just said for the benefit of your readers.’

Ledger took his warm hand in hers and found herself momentarily fixed in his strong gaze. His eyes were olive-green – incisive and clear. ‘Please excuse the interruption,’ Pierre continued ‘but I have deciphered the numeric code.’

Ledger felt a pulse of excitement. He broke the code?

‘I wanted to warn you, Madame. It’s un plaisantaire numerique –  a numerical joke. This is the one of the most famous numerical sequences in Carlisle 0-1-2-2-8-5-2-5-5-8-6 it is the telephone number of the Londsale Cinema and everyone knows…’

‘…everyone knows …’ interjected Ledger nodding slowly, her shock thawing and the warmth of understanding flowing through her veins ‘that the Londsale closed at the end of March and the only remaining independent cinema in Carlisle is the City Cinema in Mary Street.’

Exactement – exactly.’ nodded Neveu in triumph. Ledger was already moving towards the thick yellow volume that lay on the windowsill. Skillfully thumbing through it, she wasted no time canning the finely printed pages to find the correct decryption. Moments later she punched them into the plastic keypad. The voice at the other end of the line sounded chillingly close; ‘City Cinema?’

When she had finished, she turned to Pierre, a knowing smile on her lips. ‘It is done. Our quest is at an end. I’ll be at the City Cinema at 7.30. There will be a spare seat next to me.’

‘Is that an invitation? You presume too much. Mme Ledger.’

She cringed at how it had sounded. ‘What I meant was ..’

‘I’d never go and see the Da Vinci Code. It’s bollocks.’


In 2007, I took my kids to their first proper gig. It was at Manchester Evening News Arena. Tom was 13 and Jessie was 11. In the autumn of 2006 we’d all simultaneously – and for separate reasons – fallen in love with Gerard Way and My Chemical Romance. Their monochrome take on Life, Death and the Universe – in the form of The Black Parade – had been resounding through our house for the previous six months. I’m Not Okay, from their second album Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge had practically become the theme tune to our own family soap opera and the spiky, relentless Our Lady of Sorrows is still played at between us when words fail or an apology isn’t enough.

The tickets were a Christmas present and my mum paid for a hotel for the three of us. I’m not sure who was more excited. I’ve got a picture of the two of them brandishing the tickets and making a forefinger/pinky finger rock salute. I’d post it, but they’d never forgive me. We were  clad from head to toe in our customary black with skull and crossbones, for once, a united family. (As it goes, we spent the next  decade in black – which along with an all-black sofa was something of a health and safety hazard as I had an unhappy tendency to throw myself heavily upon it without realising there was already a little Emo sitting there watching Dr Who.)

I can only  really recall details of that gig: GWay entering spot lit on a gurney; Frank – during Thank You For the Venom – hurling himself into a rapturous crowd, guitar and all, frantically thrashing out the solo; the incongruous scent of freshly washed hair at what was purportedly a rock concert – until then all the gigs I’d been to smelled of beer and sweat and balls – but the most memorable moment was during Give ‘Em Hell Kid where there’s a line ‘we are young and we don’t care – with your dreams and your hopeless hair’. Tom’s hair, as it happens, was particularly hopeless that day. It was going through that uncomfortable transition between smart big boy’s haircut and the shoulder length mop that was to obscure his face for most of his teens. As ‘hopeless hair’ echoed round the arena, Tom and I looked at each other and he smiled. In the movie version we’d have high fived or even hugged. In real life it was only a flicker but at the time when Tom’s emotional responses ranged from ungrateful to uncooperative, it was the most delightful connection.

At the merch stalls Tom fleeced me for forty quid’s worth of hoody. For years afterwards, everything they wore had MCR logos on;  swimming kit and homework was carted to and from school in bags  decorated with prancing top-hatted skeletons and whirling bats. I’ve still got My Chem T shirts at the bottom of the ironing pile.

I’m not good at family stuff. I fuck up birthdays, I don’t do Christmas, I piss everyone off on holiday, but this day I got it right. For Jess it was a rite of passage. I’d go as far as saying that it was the day she turned into the person she was going to become.

Last night J texted me from her new home in Manchester to tell me she was safe and not to worry. I texted back but she didn’t reply, so I scrolled through Twitter and saw that some absolute fucking cowardly bastard  had stood in the foyer next to the merch stalls in MEN and deliberately, calculatedly detonated a device that was designed to kill a bunch of kids: kids who were excited to go to their first proper gig; kids who had proudly, geekily brandished their tickets and posted the pictures online ; kids who’d washed their hair  specially so they’d look nice for the big occasion; kids who were on the brink of turning into the men and women they’d become.

I’d like to have a positive life-affirming conclusion to this, but I haven’t, so I’m going to leave this here just to say, like all of us, I’m sad, I’m sorry and I’m thinking of those parents whose kids did not come home last night.


#thingsthatarewrongwithmyhouse: The Bathroom

Last year, @heymisssmith came to stay at my house for a brief visit. Until then I hadn’t clocked that over the past decade or so, the only people who’ve stayed at my house overnight were either close relatives or close friends or friends of the kids. You know, the kind of people who are familiar enough with my ways to be unsurprised that nothing works and there are holes in things and that the washing machine will actively destroy all their possessions in a boil wash if they’re rash enough to lean against it while their delicates are on a spin cycle.

But suddenly, I had someone who had only my Twitter feed to go on and who might be forgiven for thinking that my tweets about domestic calamity were exaggerated for comic effect. I was brought up short. Christ. What would Jane make of me? Here she is thinking I’m competent and amusing, when in real life I live  in a  house inadequately held together with duct tape and a casual optimism regarding the finer points of  health and safety.

Before I go any further I need to add that Jane was a non-judgemental and delightful house guest. I needn’t have worried. Still, for my own sanity, I felt it necessary  to compile a list of #thingsthatarewrongwithmyhouse feeling that perhaps if I acknowledged my domestic shortcomings at least it looked as if I had standards even if they weren’t actually met.

The list was long. It began with the hole on the staircase where Tom tripped on the washing and fell right through the plasterboard, leaving a Desperate Dan sized hole; it ended with the kitchen floor, which, due to the further failings of the washing machine, no longer has the consistency of a conventional floor, more like that of a poorly drained swamp. I will deal with these items on the list in later blog posts.

Although the visit went well (and please, Jane, when my list is complete, come and stay again), the realisation that my house is teetering on the brink of dereliction, bothered me. I’ve watched enough episodes of Homes Under The Hammer to know it exactly how much it would take to sort out. I’d even agreed an imaginary contingency for myself in case I went over my imaginary budget and as I already had a very unimaginary debt on my hands, none of my plans seemed likely to happen. I was just working out how many years I had to go before I could approach the bank and request the necessary sum without them laughing in my face and slinging me onto the streets, when an unexpected thing happened. It turned out the bank was the solution all the time, but just as in all the best detective fiction, I was asking the wrong question: instead of ‘how much can you lend me?’ the question was ‘how much do you owe me?’ The answer was a lot. Enough for my Homes Under The Hammer budget and contingency.

I did not delay. I went through my list of #thingsthatrewrongwithmyhouse – on a fucking spreadsheet I’ll have you know, no blithering about round here – and made my plan. I’ve taken on the stern persona of Nigel – the project manager on Colin and Justin’s makeover show – and I’m on (another) mission. On Monday Mark is coming to tear out my old bathroom. My beige tiled bathroom with the non working shower (since 2001) with the cold tap that doesn’t work and the hot tap that only produces hot water when it’s turned to the thinnest trickle; with the lumpy window sill; with the plastic jug for washing hair; with the  pale sludge coloured bathroom suite (honestly, sometimes ‘neutral’ can go too far) and replacing it with a new one. At the end of last month, Peter installed a new combi boiler. The thin trickle from the bathroom tap has been replaced by a gush of steam. This is still tricky because the bath now fills up quickly and as I’ve been  using bath filling time to do other things – make breakfast, pop into town – there’s always the worry that I’ll forget and it’ll overflow. And as the cold tap still doesn’t work, I’ve had to juggle the balance of hot and cold via the medium of the plastic jug. But after next week, it’ll be a new, smart white porcelain, two working tap affair with non peeling vinyl silk paint and a fully functioning shower that runs off the combi boiler. I didn’t know such a luxury existed!

The new stuff for the bathroom is currently in my living room. (It’s a shame the kids have grown up because the idea of having a toilet in the front room would have been comedy GOLD!) Next time you see it, it will be where is should be and appropriately sealed.


I’ll tell you all about it then.





Number 37: Extend my tattoo

I had my mid-life crisis early. It began in 1996 when I was thirty-one and I had everything I ever thought I wanted: marriage, a house, a job and two healthy kids. But actually, it wasn’t what I wanted at all. It was around then I had my first tattoo. At the time I had no idea what was driving me. Tattoos weren’t even much of a thing then. I certainly didn’t know many other (any other) 30 year old English teacher mamas with tattoos (there are loads now) , but then I was living a very safe and suburban life.

I’m just going to break off here and have a word with myself before you get the idea that NOW, at 51, I’m living a very unsafe, unsuburban life. I’m not  writing this from a hammock on the deck of a pirate ship with a dagger clenched between my teeth. Far from it; I’m in the book lined  living room of my three bedroom semi in Stanwix  with a cup of tea cooling beside me. And honestly? I’m quite content to be safe and suburban; but back in 1996 I wanted a walk on the wild(ish) side. At the time, the greatest act of rebellion I could think of was to have a tattoo. My (then) husband disagreed, which was exactly the motivation I needed and on one Saturday when I was without kids and without a car, my friend Lyn and I set  out in search of tattooists.

I don’t know how we’d come to hear of Billy Bones in Chingford (I have a vague idea we just asked someone in the street) but it was a  good enough place to start and we found the address, got the bus and knocked on the door of a surprisingly innocuous looking villa up on Chingford Mount.

Inside, it was fucking terrifying. I remember black walls, the buzz of tattoo guns and the thunderous rage of death metal. Billy Bones – I’m pretty sure I haven’t imagined this – was wild haired  and wild eyed. He greeted us with piratical theatricality ‘Welcome pain lovers!’ and said something on the lines of ‘My my … you are a pretty thing and no mistake …’ to my friend Lyn. This was too far on the wild side for us.  Eye contact with Billy Bones was enough to send us scuttling out into the sunshine. Still, I’m proud to say we didn’t give up. We got in a taxi and headed off to … er … Hornchurch … in search of a  saner more salubrious tattoo parlour.

Why we didn’t head into Central London I don’t know. There must have been tattoo artists by the dozen in Soho but neither of us were ready for that. We were simply fleeing from one suburb to another. In any event, we ended up with Art Lewis – Master Tattooist (it rhymes!) and waited.

Art Lewis was not as scary as Billy Bones (indeed he chuckled when he heard we’d escaped the Bones establishment) but he was wild enough to for it to be an adventure. Lyn, having had some imaginative plans to have a daisy chain tattooed across her ankle, went green at the thought of the needles and bailed. A lad in the waiting room asked us if we were having matching ‘lesbian tattoos’ and Lyn – rather unflatteringly I thought – burst out laughing. Meanwhile, Art Lewis tattooed a seahorse on my left shoulder and it hurt so much I wept into a copy of The Sun that he’d kindly offered me as a distraction. Why a sea horse? So many reasons. It was small. I like the sea. I swam a lot. There was some tenuous Chinese/Zodiac link to both of my children and of course, sea horses are monogamous. So this was a rather half hearted attempt to acknowledge that I was still married and it might be best if I stayed that way. It was a heavy burden for a little marine creature.

Not long after, I went again, this time with my friend Amanda. My husband wanted to know why I wanted another tattoo. ‘Because she’s on a mission.’ Amanda told him; recognising an exit plan when she saw one – even if I didn’t know it myself. It was the first time I’d heard the expression ‘on a mission’ and it sounded so dashing, so daring, the second tattoo took on more significance. This time I had a carp. No real reason apart from I spent every spare minute I had swimming and it looked pretty. The fish’s scales became my scales. And not long afterwards, in spite of my tattooed promise of life long monogamy, I left my husband.

When I got married I kept my own name. I never considered this to be particularly controversial but my in-laws weren’t impressed. Once the children were born my husband made it clear that them having my name would be a step too far. To be honest, I wasn’t that bothered. ‘Ledger’ is a my dad’s name and I didn’t want a double barrelled name (where does that end? What will happen to our quadruple/sextuple barrelled great-grandchildren?) so long as Tom and Jessie had their own name that they never felt they needed to change, I didn’t mind. But it turned out that they minded. When Tom became a teenager – even though there are more Thomases in my family than Wolf Hall – he felt he needed ‘Ledger’ in his name to prove he was related to me. In the end, he didn’t change his name but when he reached eighteen he had his first tattoo. A carp. Like mine. It was an unexpected gesture of loyalty and love.  tom-tattooHe didn’t need to do it – anyone seeing us side by side knows immediately that we are mother and son but it was appreciated. Next, Jessie had her first tattoo – another carp, this time on her hip.


Jessie’s is not coloured in for a reason. She rang me from the tattoo parlour, ‘the lady says I have to stop crying and she’s not prepared to hold me down with one elbow any more.’ A further colouring session was cancelled.

Since then, Tom has had another carp …

second-fish… and on Tuesday, I had my newer, bigger carp – the grown up baby carp –  tattooed around the little carp, which is, of course,  the mama carp. It’s my tribute to their tribute.


It’s a big tattoo – but then I’m a big woman. It’s not finished. I’ve got another three hours or so of colouring to go: I’m still on a mission.

Nurture 16/17

We know the bad stuff about 2016 – here’s the good stuff that happened to me:

  1. We have a baby in the family again.

My niece Lottie had a lovely baby boy in November. He’s called Joseph and he’s still at the best stage of infancy – the one where he looks like a puzzled woodland creature and is not yet able to talk back. As I’m a crazy old maternal gorilla lady, there’s nothing I like more than a relaxed warm bundle in the crook of my arm – or even a screaming warm bundle slung over my shoulder. The best thing about Baby Joe is he’s one of millions  of babies born this year who have the potential to fill the gaps left by the talented individuals who’ve died in 2016. If no one died then no one could be born:  we pay back the joy of babies in mortality.

2.  I won tickets

Bear with me on this. In July I tore my hamstring. It was awful. If you want the full story, come  to Carlisle and buy this month’s edition of Carlisle Living where – in my column – I spare no details. Although I was in considerable pain and unable to stand up or sit down with emitting a strangled cry, I went ahead with my planned trip to London with my pal Sarah Simons. I cried almost all the way from Carlisle to Euston and hobbled sadly about Covent Garden being the least amusing holiday companion anyone could hope for. At one point I keeled over and thought I was going to die. ‘Finally,’ I thought ‘this is how it ends; outside a coffee bar in Seven Dials surrounded by gorgeous bearded waiters all of whom are waiting for their break in musical theatre.’ On reflection, it wasn’t the worst end I could’ve hoped for.

Sarah was magnificent and so were the  staff in St Thomas’s A&E. A fabulous Irish nurse reassured me it was highly unlikely I was having a stroke – ‘if you were having a stroke you’d have had it by now’ – and cheered us up with a story about an over-enthusiastic One Direction fan and a misplaced Niall Horan figurine. It turned out there was nothing wrong with me. Nothing at all. Being the idiot that I am, I was relieved but at the same time felt vaguely cheated. Meanwhile, Sarah had booked us tickets to see Jesus Christ Superstar in Regent’s Park that evening. Was I well enough to go? ‘You must go’ my Irish nurse insisted, ‘it’s incredible.’ So I limped sadly up to the cheap seats at the back of the amphitheatre. Both Sarah and I fretted about the capacity of our bladders and I put a brave face on it, determined to enjoy myself even though I knew I probably wouldn’t. I know. I’m a dick.

And then Tyrone Huntley began to sing. I’ve loved Jesus Christ Superstar since I was 12 when it was just about the only record my mum and dad owned. I knew all the words. I also love the film made in 1973 where the actors are really ugly but can really sing – if JCS was made as film today the actors would be really pretty but would all be rubbish autotuned singers (think Ewan & Nicole in  Moulin Rouge) – and I’ve never wanted to see it live in case the singing is crap. But Tyrone Huntley as Judas was astonishing. I almost fell out of my seat. And then Declan Bennett (a remarkably ripped Jesus) was even more brilliant. I forgot about my hamstring. It stopped hurting. If JCS wasn’t such an atheist text, I’d have assumed it was a miracle.

I went home uplifted. I told Jessie about it and she wanted to go too. But it was a short run and it was sold out. I thought no more of it. And then I saw a competition for two tickets on Twitter. I submitted my entry and spent the intervening weekend planning how we’d get there if we won: transport, hotels, weather, Jessie’s shifts … Jess was exasperated ‘You’ll only make yourself disappointed if you don’t win.’ And I would have been, but I did win. On Monday morning the bloke from Yamaha music rang to break the news and at 6am on Tuesday Jessie and I set off for London. By 7.30pm we were in the stalls at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. It was splendid. We’re going again next summer. It’s unlikely that it’ll be the same cast, but it’s a risk I’m prepared to take.

3. I got my PPI compensation

The only people I know who have success with PPI compensation are the kind of people who shift their gas & electricity providers regularly and who pay off their interest free credit cards in the six months before they’re charged 44% APR. I’m not one of those people – and neither is my brother. However, my brother told me he’d looked into it and had had some money back. He advised to ring my bank directly and ask about PPI. I did. It took half an hour. They responded swiftly. It turns out years of desperate and unwise borrowing might not – despite my mother’s dire warnings – be my downfall. I’m not saying much more, but my plans for 2017 involve sorting out a lot of things that have needed sorting for a while (see below).

And next year …

  1. #thingsthatarewrongwithmyhouse

In the summer, anxious at having a guest to stay who’s unused to my chaotic ways, I made a list of #thingsthatarewrongwithmyhouse to amuse Twitter. Lots of you responded with #thingsthatarewrongwithmyhouseand indeed @digitaldaisies’ oven door fell off during our convo. By next summer, I think I can mend all of the #thingsthatarewrongwithmyhouse (see above).

2. Find a decent running app

Foolishly, I deleted the  NHS Couch to 5k app on my phone to make way for something else that was immediately forgotten. Now the NHS Couch to 5K  is no longer available. Even though Laura – the fictitious app coach – drives me into a wild fury by saying ‘you’re doing great’ (ffs) it’s the best app I’ve used and the only one that lets me change my playlists without muting the volume on my phone. Stopping to skip Set Fire to the Rain in the dark in in the park and then not being able to hear whether I’ve got another 90 seconds to run without resetting the entire device is impeding my progress. If you know of a decent app that works then tell me (and don’t recommend BBC Inspire, because although the commentary is grammatically correct,  the music settings are all to fuck).

3. Don’t get my hopes up

That week after Brexit – the resignations (and I was daft enough to feel sorry for David Cameron when his lip trembled and his voice broke outside Downing Street), the collapse of leadership, the turmoil in the Labour Party and the breaking of every rule in politics – was unbelievable, but it was true. At each point when I thought I knew what might happen next – based on years of, well, not exactly expertise, but watching the news and reading the newspaper – something completely unexpected happened. I was convinced at one point that the whole shebang was an elaborate, interactive Dr Who Christmas special and that on Christmas Day, the skies above Westminster would open and David Bowie – flanked by Prince and Victoria Wood – would descend in a space ship  to do battle for the Universe.  I’d love to make predictions about 2017 but I genuinely have no idea what’s next. The only thing I can be sure of is it probably won’t be good. The best I can come up with is that at the Presidential Inauguration Ceremony , Scooby Doo will wrench the Donald Trump mask off the old man who runs the fairground (because it was him all along) and he’ll say ‘I’d have gotten away with it if it hadn’t been for those pesky kids …’ and then Mike Pence will be President and it’ll possibly be even worse.

With that cheery thought, I’ll leave you to your dreams of 2017.

Happy New Year





Isn’t it ironic?

Teaching Pride & Prejudice to Year 11

Back in the 80s, when I did my degree in English and American Literature, around about dissertation time, we were warned off Pride & Prejudice because ‘… middle class girls always just want to write about Jane Austen … ’ It might have been a fair point but it was pretty rich coming from a bunch of middle-aged blokes who always just wanted to give lectures about Ernest Hemingway. Although I knew in my heart it was bollocks, I was left with a faint sense of shame at liking Jane Austen and for the last 30 years I’ve steered clear of her in the classroom.

But last year – for one year only – I found myself teaching the AQA English Literature Certificate (the AQA version of iGCSE) and as my  embarrassing old pal Pride & Prejudice was on the syllabus, I thought I’d give it a bash. It will surprise no one that the basics were remarkably easy to teach. Lizzie, Darcy, Wickham, Jane, Lydia – and even that tiresome old mother-in-law joke in the making, Mrs Bennet – fizz off the page. Lady Catherine swanned in like the majestic panto villain she is and Mr Collins bumbled his way through a crowd of lovely girls until he ensnared poor desperate, sensible Charlotte.

Year 11 found the reading challenging and I set some chapters for homework with quizzes to check the reading had been done. I’m nothing if not a drama queen so I saved the best bits to read out loud in class. A high point was the audible gasp of astonishment when Mr Darcy blurted out his proposal to Lizzie. There was another highly satisfying moment during that lesson where the class furtively rustled back through the pages to reread Lizzie and Darcy’s scenes together to check for clues.

So far so good. Where I came unstuck was the language. One of the past papers from AQA had a question about Austen’s use of humour and that was very hard work. Teaching and being taught what makes a piece of writing funny is always tricky. You must have sat through lessons as a teenager while someone with no sense of humour  tries to convince you that Feste in Twelfth Night is the last word in side-splitting comedy, when it’s painfully obvious that he’s not. And the killer blow in a lesson like that is to be told ‘of course, you’d find it funny if only you understood it …’

As I genuinely believe that Austen is funny, I wanted to get to the heart of her wit without being patronising. It clearly wasn’t going be enough to gesture vaguely towards a power point with the word ‘Irony’ emblazoned across it. I started by asking my students what they found funny and got some interesting responses. One student told me ‘I know Mr Collins is supposed to be funny, but I don’t know why.’ and another asked ‘Is Mr Darcy sometimes being funny?’ to which of course the answer is yes, but it’s something that’s often overlooked when Darcy is being discussed (and is almost always disregarded in screen versions of Darcy. Why do filmmakers think that Lizzie would marry a man who has no sense of humour?). While I struggled with these thorny issues, I had a serendipitous exchange with Doug Lemov on Twitter. I’d read his blog post on using sensitivity analysis to teach satire and it seemed to be to be the key to teaching Austen’s use of irony.

I decided to use Lemov’s model – taking extracts from the text, rewriting them without the irony and structuring questions around the how the changes altered the meaning. As a lead in, I taught a lesson where students wrote in the style of Austen. This was terrifying. I’ve taught parody writing before, but soft bigot that I am, I imagined that parodying Austen would be too difficult. It wasn’t. I provided a vocabulary bank in the form of a Word Cloud made up of an extract from Chapter Three – the assembly at Meryton – and asked them to write about the arrival of a newcomer in the Year 11 Common Room. The students were advised to avoid the use of ‘was’, ‘is’ and present participles if they possibly could.Meryton

The results were impressive and the response was both eager and critical. The sense that students were tuning in to Austen’s language was evident. As one boy read his work aloud, he stopped and said ‘no, that doesn’t sound right’ and went back and with suggestions from the class, rewrote it. Observations were made about how Austen uses blushing and gesture to convey feelings. An interesting discussion followed about how much in the novel is unspoken and why no one can  just come and out and say what they actually mean.

Over the week, I used rewritten extracts for analysis. My first question was what if Austen opened the novel with

It is well-known that a wealthy single man needs a wife.

rather than

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife?

Why has Austen dragged the word ‘truth’ into the opening line? Why is she telling us we already agree with this? Why the fairy tale language of ‘good fortune’? What do we learn from the proximity of ‘possession’ and ‘wife’?

Of course the eagle-eyed readers among you will recognise that as far as humour goes, this is not the most hilarious moment in P&P. I moved on swiftly from good fortune to Mr Collins.

I rephrased lines in Mr Collins’ introductory letter to Mr Bennet, from

I was kept back by my own doubts, fearing lest it might seem disrespectful to his memory for me to be on good terms with any one, with whom it had always pleased him to be at variance.


I was kept back by my own doubts fearing lest it may seem disrespectful to be on good terms with one whom my father was at variance.

My questions were what does this tell us about Mr Collins senior? Why is he ‘pleased’ to be at variance with someone? Is this tactful way for the younger Mr Collins to introduce himself?

At this point, the questions were leading questions. We worked through a number of examples of rewritten passages with the questions becoming more open as we went along. There was a great deal of head scratching and a lot questions from the students until they became more confident at seeing what might be ironic and what might just be plain description.

At this point, I asked the class to consider the following passage and identify Austen’s use of ironic language.

If you should have no objection to receive me into your house, I propose myself the satisfaction of waiting on you and your family, Monday, November 18th, by four o’clock, and shall probably trespass on your hospitality till the Saturday se’nnight following, which I can do without any inconvenience, as Lady Catherine is far from objecting to my occasional absence on a Sunday, provided that some other clergyman is engaged to do the duty of the day.

They picked it out quickly. in fact I was quite pleased that there was a chuckle or two at ‘I propose myself the satisfaction’. Mr Collins, of course, is only interested in his own ‘satisfaction’ and his and Lady Catherine’s ‘convenience’. He uses the word ‘trespass’ because he suspects he’s not welcome, but, really,  he doesn’t care. He explains the obvious that he needs to sort out cover for his Sunday sermons and that Lady C is good enough to allow him a week off. One student pointed out that Austen uses similar language in Darcy’s initial proposal.

In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed.

She was right. These men put their own feelings before those of their host or intended bride.  An unexpected turn in the lesson was a discussion about how Austen ensures the reader understands how, in his first proposal, Darcy is unworthy. Does his language change towards the end, they asked me. To be honest, I wasn’t certain, but a quick flick through to Chapter 58, confirmed Darcy has changed as now he puts Lizzie’s feelings first.

If your feelings are still what they were last April, tell me so at once. My affections and wishes are unchanged, but one word from you will silence me on this subject for ever.

Finally, I invited the class to explore the use and effect of irony in Miss Bingley’s first letter to Jane.

If you are not so compassionate as to dine to-day with Louisa and me, we shall be in danger of hating each other for the rest of our lives, for a whole day’s tête-à-tête between two women can never end without a quarrel. Come as soon as you can on the receipt of this. My brother and the gentlemen are to dine with the officers.

Their writing focused on Miss Bingley’s passive-aggression: blaming Jane if the dinner does not go ahead, the words ‘danger’, ‘hate’ and ‘quarrel’ in what is supposed to be a friendly invitation, the absolute simple sentence clarity that Jane is not being invited to further her acquaintance with Bingley and Miss B’s use of French (‘she’s just showing off isn’t she?’).

There was no time before the exam to link these examples to explore Austen’s narrative voice throughout the novel. In his blogpost, Doug Lemov mentions the importance of a ‘wrap up’ question, which I now think might have been helpful. However, that’s for next year.



About four years ago, my son Tom (pictured above aged 15) was getting ready to leave home and I was feeling … well, it’s hard to say now exactly how I was feeling. He was only going 50 odd miles away (‘It’s time to cut loose,’ his sister muttered darkly ‘…even YOUR umbilical  cord won’t stretch that far.’) and he was more than ready to go. A gap year set aside for adventure and the remote chance his band might rehearse enough to make their mark on the local metalcore scene had turned into a gruelling stint on chicken side at McDonald’s and a gig at a Hell’s Angels’ wedding . He’d outgrown his tiny box room bedroom, my rules, the female household and extended all-girl family (‘even the pets are female,’ he complained once, ‘and when you finally get a male cat, you have his bollocks cut off.’). But despite all this, the truth is, I was sad, but, really, I didn’t feel I deserved to be sad. After all, what better for a healthy young man than to leave home and get on with his life?

A year before, friends of mine had lost their seventeen year old son in a senseless accident. And in the weeks before (my) Tom left, a student I’d taught, died suddenly. My colleague and I were asked to speak at his funeral and in that week in August we were in touch with other students and ex-students gathering anecdotes and stories to make a tribute. It was around then, I read an article on the Family page of The Guardian written by a woman who was ‘grief-stricken’ over her son’s tattoo.  She wrote as if he were dead and I was furious. How dare she? And then I felt how dare I? Suddenly, having a son who was alive and kicking (and arguing and doing what he bloody well felt like) seemed like an absolute luxury. Tom wasn’t dying: far from it. He was growing up. I collected my thoughts about all the things that drove me mad about living with a teenage boy and put them together in the only way I know how – with irony.

I submitted it to The Guardian Family page – as part of their ‘Letter to …’ series and it was duly printed. I was very proud of that piece of writing; it’s the closest I’ve ever come to writing a poem. Meanwhile, Tom left home and life was indeed more peaceful. I’ve often  imagined that a baboon would have made a more co operative and orderly house mate. But the growing up process has continued. He’s got a degree in English Literature, he’s just completed his  teacher training;  he plays American Football, he cooks healthy meals for not much money and he keeps his flat tidy.  He’s a man.

Hollywood Ledger

And then, a couple of weeks ago, I received an email from The Guardian, saying that ‘content supplied by you to GNM has been re-licensed by our Syndication team’ my letter to Tom was to be used in a revision work book for AQA English Language GCSE. I rang Tom and the first thing he said was ‘Is my name in it?’ Like me, he teaches  AQA English Language GCSE. Like me, he uses the series of Oxford University Press textbooks. What if he’s in a lesson and the foolishness of his youth suddenly confronts him via Activity 2 on page 17? I assured him  it was published anonymously. ‘Send me a copy,’ he demanded, ‘I can’t remember how much of an arsehole you made me out to be.’

I had my own misgivings. Suddenly, something I’ve written is to be scrutinised and analysed.  I’m an English teacher. I know the judgments that will be made. I’ve snorted furiously at the poor selections of semi-literate non-fiction texts on exam papers and sample papers. I’ve huffed with irritation at the self satisfied observations of middle-class family life (truthfully, that piece by Lorna Sage about her grandparents ENRAGES me). I know the kind of questions that will be asked. ‘What do you learn about the stereotype of a middle-class, white, left-handed teenage boy brought up by an indulgent single mother?’ ‘How does the writer use structural devices to indicate how pissed off the writer is with her son?’

And then there’s the mistakes. Why is my (over) use of semi colons  inconsistent? Why did I use ‘when’ three times in a sentence when I could have used ‘while’? There’s ‘split up’, pick up’ and ‘made up’ in the same paragraph. Can I pretend I did that on purpose? Should it be ‘chart the movements’ or ‘chart the movement’? And why did I use the word ‘walrus’ instead of that family favourite ‘warthog’? If you’ve looked at the text book and noticed  those things I need to tell you – I NOTICED TOO! Please don’t judge me.

The sample answer provided in the text book interprets Tom’s ‘selfish’  behaviour (I never said he was selfish … it never occurred to me he was selfish) as ‘the classic symptoms of a young person wanting to leave home’. The language of resentful domestic conflict is identified ‘bicker .. shouted … snorts’ but not the anaphora or the assonance or the change of meter in the final paragraph. I find I may have represented my family as a bunch of horrors.

Is this how Bill Bryson feels? When his playful prose is deconstructed in an inky scrawl? I had a sudden fleeting sympathy for Jane Austen (it was only for a second or two – don’t worry, I’m not getting above myself) when I read through a pile of essays examining the placement of Mr Collins’ first person pronouns and tortuous sentence construction, meanwhile missing that – above all else – Mr Collins is supposed to be funny. That actually, when I wrote my piece about Tom – when I write anything – all I wanted to do was turn my sadness, my irritation and my frustration into something recognisable, something amusing – yet the word ‘humour’ is not mentioned in the text book at all.

I’ve written about the kids a lot over the years. When I wrote for the CN, we were, locally famous. They got sick of hearing ‘It must be great fun living with your mum.’ They rarely answered but frequently wore an expression that said ‘You have no fucking IDEA …’  I was a hopeless mother of small children. Ask them. That could be the writing task: ‘Imagine you are the son or daughter of the writer. Write a letter of reply pointing out HER shortcomings.’

I have never submitted anything without their permission. Even when they were six and seven, they had the power of absolute veto. They get fed up with their family history being filtered through my lens: I understand that. But this week, Tom felt happy enough to use the ‘Letter to my son …’ in his lesson with Year 9. He pointed out the anaphora, the assonance, the change of meter and I was rather touched that the picture he used to illustrate his lesson was this …

Tom and Mama