Writing prompts

I’ve been ridiculously busy since leaving uni. It’s a good thing, because it means I’m not dwelling on the fact I’m unemployed, thousands of pounds in debt and living with my parents again. I’ve been commuting to and from my publishing work experience in London; I never get back before 7, and I have to go to bed early because I’m permanently knackered, so I barely have any time to myself in the evenings.

Strangely enough, though, I’ve been doing a lot of ‘self-improvement’-type things: reading, writing, planning my novel, playing the piano, catching up with friends. I think when you’re busy you somehow find more time to pack in meaningful activities, because you want to make the most of every spare moment. When you’re slobbing around all day, you don’t appreciate freedom. You think you’ve got endless amounts of time to tick off all the things on your formidable To Do list, so you end up watching TV all day and not actually doing any of those things.

Even if I just have an hour in the evenings, I manage to do a bit of writing. My mum bought me a book of writing prompts called The 3am Epiphany, after I complained that I always want to write but can’t think of a single thing to write about. In spite of its name, the book smashes the romantic perception of many wannabe writers that they have to wait for a flash of sudden inspiration before they can write: if you want to be a good writer you have to work hard it at, and it’s not always fun. So I’ve started forcing myself to write whenever I have time, taking one of the prompts from the book. It’s full of exercises designed to shake up the way you think about writing (for example, write a short story without using the letter ‘e’). Even if what you produce is utter crap, the author maintains, you learn by producing it. And you might reread what you’ve written a couple of weeks later and decide that, actually, there’s something there. That’s what I’m hoping anyway.

I’m going to start posting some of the things I write here, since this is supposed to be a writing blog. I’ve always been terrified of sharing my writing with anyone who knows me in real life, so this will be a good exercise for me (I finally linked this blog on my Facebook, so no more anonymity. Hello, stalkers). I’ll start with this one:

Exercise #2: Imperative

The task was to write a fragment of a story made up entirely of imperative commands.

When I felt stressed out by university, I had this romantic dream of ‘breaking free’ by skipping my seminars and getting on a train to a random destination instead. I also wrote an awful, flowery piece of prose called ‘Train Story’ about such a journey. Thinking about it now, it was a stupid idea and would have been a waste of time and money. I would inevitably have been disappointed by where I ended up. That’s the message of this piece – everyday life may be stressful, but we just have to get on with it.

In this piece I like the tension between the man’s journey as an attempt to ‘break free’ and the fact he is actually following the imperative commands of the narrator, who leads him into a miserable and inconvenient situation. There is tension between the hopes and expectations contained in the commands, and the reality that fails to live up to such hopes.  

When you get to the office, keep on walking. You will not go to work today. Do not object, do not try to phone in sick, and most importantly, do not worry. Take the next left: you’re going to the train station. Don’t ask where you’re going, it doesn’t matter. Look up and take in the kind of day it is. Notice what you didn’t when you left the house with your briefcase in one hand and a piece of toast in the other, your tired eyes screwed up against the early morning light: the pale, marbled clouds, their wispy peaks and ridges, the speckles of rain on the pavement. Take a deep breath. Feel the misty rain settle in miniscule beads on your eyelashes.

When you get to the station, do not buy a ticket. Go to the platform and sit in the waiting room with the commuters. Note the way they do not make eye contact with anyone else, but stare at the whitewashed wall or at their polished shoes or at the board of departures and arrivals. Watch them as they raise their coffee cups mechanically to their lips. Watch them intently until they feel uncomfortable and would rather stand on the platform in the rain. When the next train arrives, get up and leave your suitcase in the waiting room. Do not feel disappointed when the commuters give you puzzled looks but do not call after you – its contents do not matter. Get on the train. Do not look at its destination; it is the train to anywhere, and you will ride it until its final stop.

You will try to ride it until its final stop. When the guard asks to check your ticket, you will argue with him. Tell him that you must have dropped it, refuse to buy another one, throw outraged glances at the commuters who watch you with vacant expressions but turn their faces to the window when you look at them. Cause a scene when the guard tries to throw you off at the next stop, but do not scuffle with him. Accept that this is where you are supposed to get off. Exit the station and wander around the unknown town. Look for a park, a river, a water fountain, a museum. Ignore the now heavy rain. Don’t let the cold wind, the grey office blocks or the shabby convenience store with its display of bruised fruit make you miserable.

When your suit jacket is soaked through, look for somewhere to buy a cup of tea. Realise at the counter that you left your wallet in your briefcase. Realise that your phone is in there too, and that your wife will worry when your boss calls to find out where you are. Stand on a street corner and ask passers by for money. Try to make eye contact as they quicken their pace and block you out with their umbrellas. Feel humiliated. Wish you were at work where the tea is free.  When someone finally takes pity, return to the station. Look at the board and get on the train home. Listen to the man opposite call home to say he will be back soon and ask with a tired smile what’s for dinner. Decide that home is a better destination than anywhere.

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Much Ado About Nothing

The summer before I started my degree, I saw David Tennant as Hamlet for my ‘well done for getting into uni!’ treat. Yesterday, I went to see David as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing at Wyndham’s Theatre as my ‘well done for finishing uni!’ treat. David Tennant has thus framed my degree (something I meant to tell him when I waited at the stage door afterwards, except that I couldn’t get anywhere near the front and was far too polite to push – foiled by my own Englishness!).

Hamlet was amazing. I’d never seen or read the play before that point, and Tennant made me both laugh out loud and cry, two things I almost never do; I’d say his performance made me love Shakespeare.  I suppose I was expecting Much Ado to give me a similar reaction. I was probably expecting too much from a production that, as the sole emphasis on Tennant and his co-star Catherine Tate on all the advertisements exemplifies – pretends to be nothing more than populist Shakespeare for the Doctor Who-loving masses. And after all, what’s wrong with populist Shakespeare? Shakespeare was incredibly popular in his time, and he wrote his plays to earn a living, not to establish himself as a literary genius who would be on almost every school and university’s English syllabus in 400 years’ time. Josie Rourke’s production, set in Gibraltar in the 1980s, is colourful, vibrant, engaging and hilarious, and essentially that’s what Shakespeare’s comedies should be. It did entertain me, but I couldn’t help but feel disappointed by the sense of shallowness surrounding it all. One reviewer writes that Shakespeare purists will doubtless ‘baulk’ at this production. I don’t want to be the stiff-backed, snobbish Shakespeare purist who sits frowning and overanalysing every scene in the play while everyone around her simply laughs and enjoys it, but I can’t help it – that’s what three years of an English degree have done to me.

Let’s start with the positives, though. People who know little to nothing about Shakespeare and have simply come to see Tennant and Tate will walk away pleasantly surprised at how funny Shakespeare can be. I thought the play worked well in the 1980s Gibraltar setting: it’s an update of the carnivalesque setting Shakespeare so frequently includes in his plays, but one that is recognisable to modern audiences. The program describes the eighties as the decade in which ‘Britain began to remake itself as a more confident, dynamic, outward-looking, multi-racial and multicultural nation… [when] culture began often painfully to liberalise, open up and enlarge with new possibilities.’ The tacky disco music, cheesy dancing, garish costumes (tutus and puffball skirts, sequins and headbands, crisp white military uniforms, and even a bit of cross-dressing) combined with the bright and sunny set, and the fact that every character has either a drink or a cigarette in his or her hand almost constantly, all help to create this atmosphere of hedonism and fun. The men’s naval uniforms are a reminder that the characters do have responsibilities, but briefly in the the world of the play these are forgotten in favour of the heady and almost desperate pursuit of love. Hero’s supposed liaison with Borachio is rendered as a drunken hen-night shag against a pillar, which was quite effective. The only problem was that, in this tacky and supposedly morally liberal climate, the men’s outrage at Hero’s infidelity in the aborted marriage scene seems like a huge overreaction, and thus the scene felt rather disingenuous for me.

What I will call the ‘pillar scenes’, the two scenes in which Beatrice and Benedick hide behind pillars and hear the other characters loudly discussing Beatrice’s supposed love for Benedick and vice versa, were wonderfully choreographed and had the audience roaring with laughter. Rourke exploits the full comic potential of the scenes, with Tennant smearing paint all over his face and Tate dangling helplessly from a pulley. Shakespeare’s plays aren’t meant to be static words on a page – they’re meant to come to life through interpretation – and it’s good to see a director having so much fun with them, and not taking things too seriously. I couldn’t help but feel that the pillar scenes (and the play in general) were a bit too silly and slapstick, though, at the total expense of the language. Much Ado is a pretty prosaic play, and the language isn’t as beautiful or the rhetoric as clever as in some other of Shakespeare’s plays, but the farce here was so extreme that I doubt anyone listened to a word the characters were saying. The women could have been reciting the periodic table while Tate crawled across the stage under a dust sheet and I don’t think anyone would have noticed, myself included. In fact, in the interval I had to explain the plot to my mum because she didn’t quite understand what was going on, and I think Much Ado is a pretty simple play to follow. Don’t get me wrong, my mum’s very intelligent – she was just distracted by all the stage spectacle, and I don’t blame her.

Tennant pulls off his role better than Tate; he demonstrates his range, while she adopts the same character we’re used to seeing on The Catherine Tate Show, putting on silly voices and pulling silly faces to the level of sketch-show hyperbole (though in her defence, it’s exactly what most of the audience have paid to see, and she delivers). Tennant makes Benedick’s transition from rakish bachelor to love-struck gallant natural and believeable. Tate, on the other hand, jumps from being a blunt-tongued, bum-scratching ladette in dungarees to donning a girly dress and shrieking hysterically the moment she believes that Benedick loves her. If we’re meant to see their cross-dressing at a party scene as an empowering reversal of gender roles – Beatrice has bested Benedick with her wit – I think Tate destroys these nuances with her over-the-top performance. Although, the ‘darker side’ of Much Ado is that, for all its strong females, it’s not really that kind to women: taking the Shakespearean double-meaning of ‘nothing’ as a woman’s vagina, the play’s title is dismissive of female sexual power. Why do men get so worked up about something so worthless? And, as is comic convention, the play ends in the marriages of both Hero and Beatrice (sorry for the spoilers. I’d think it should be obvious). The former agrees to marry a man who’s displayed no trust in her and humiliated her at the altar; the latter breaks all her resolutions to remain single, realising that she is better off with a husband after all. Both women have their moment of wit and power, however, and I suppose that’s good enough by sixteenth-century standards.

One performance I’d like to quickly mention is Elliot Levey as Don John, who I thought was understated but brilliant. Don John is a cardboard cut-out villain, a walking plot device with no particular reason for being evil, but Levey really makes a proper character of him. I actually felt a bit sorry for him. He’s played as a socially awkward repressed homosexual, unable to break out of his rigid naval stance, who wants to be spoil everyone else’s fun because he feels unable to join in with it himself. He’s the outsider, totally out of place in the prurient island setting; this made him stand out in every scene he was in, even when he was silent and brooding in the background. Don John’s absence at the end of the play is telling to me. ‘We’ll deal with him later,’ Benedick basically says – a reminder that the fun has to end at some point.  This darker side is overshadowed by the production’s hyperactivity, but perhaps Rourke’s aim – an aim she certainly achieves – is to transport us away from the darker side of life for an evening. I’d give the production three stars.

My university journey

Well, that’s it – I’ve left university for good. I’m now the proud owner of a first class honours degree in English Literature from the University of Warwick. I am not just Emma Goode, I am Emma Goode BA (hons). I am now a proper person, or at least I will be once I don a silly hat and robes, shake a few hands, and receive a piece of paper that says so.

I’ve packed up my things, transported them all back home, and attempted to fit them into my bedroom, which my mum secretly redecorated for me as an end-of-university surprise (I screamed when I walked in.) Yesterday I spent twelve hours clearing out my room, ruthlessly discarding things I’ve had since I was about seven (including my sentimental childhood collection of those sticky-feet bugs people put on their car bonnets, which I bought every time I went on a school trip anywhere – that was difficult to part with). I made just about enough room to accommodate the towering mountains of crap I managed to accumulate over university. Now I’m the occupant of possibly the tidiest and most organised bedroom in England, and it feels brilliant – something fresh, rather than simply a return to the same-old-same-old of pre-university life. In fact, I’m so proud of it that I’d like to include a picture here. I’d show you a picture of my super-organised, compartmentalised wardrobe too, but feel that would be too much of an intrusion into my private life:

My new room is appropriate for a new start, since things have changed a lot in three years, and I’m not the same person anymore. Now, I’m not usually fan of all that ‘journey of self-discovery’ crap – you are whoever you are at any given point in time, and there isn’t a secret inner self you need to unlock – but I’m interested in looking at how I’ve changed over the three years of my degree. It’s been an epic journey (not quite an odyssey, but close), and an incredibly expensive one too, but it was worth every penny. There have been extreme highs and extreme lows, but even the lowest of my low moments has helped me to develop as a person, and I wouldn’t change a single moment. If you’re thinking of going to university, allow me to guide you through what you can expect. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

It begins the night before you move in for the first time. You’ve got a new haircut, possibly bought some new clothes, with the intention of ‘reinventing’ yourself, and you’re full of resolutions: I’m going to be more confident, I’m going to be more spontaneous, I’m going to take up six new hobbies, I’m going to learn to cook and do my own ironing, I’m going to fall in love. It’s a more extreme version of the start of every school year, when your mum buys you a new pair of Kickers shoes (with a slightly higher, more risqué heel), a new schoolbag (the shabby rucksack is discarded in favour of the cooler Nike drawstring bag, impractical and uncomfortable), and a new pencilcase full of freshly sharpened pencils and an array of scented gel pens. Now, because you’re moving away from home, you’ve naïvely purchased even more pointless junk you will never use, including an egg timer, a steamer, a recipe book, a colour-coordinated stationery set, a desk organiser, and most preposterously, a bottle of fabric conditioner and an iron (get real). It will only take about a week before you realise that students slouch around in clothes that look like crumpled paper bags and smell slightly damp, eat baked beans and pasta out of the saucepan (taking it in turns to use the kitchen’s only fork), and use no stationery other than the leaky biro lurking somewhere underneath the nest of unread handouts creating a wildlife habitat on their desks. Your unused purchases will eventually be sold for ten pence each at a car boot sale. Incidentally, guess what I’m doing next Sunday?

You don’t sleep the night before the big move, excited but also bed-wettingly terrified as you try to imagine what you’ll be doing this time tomorrow night. When your parents drive you up, dump you in your boxy new room with the psychadelic trippy carpet and vomit-coloured curtains, and then swan off home to have a glass of wine and celebrate the prospect of having to wash up one less plate every night, you possibly shed a few tears, in spite of all your resolutions to be grown up about it. You have to hide this from your new corridor friends, despite the fact they are all doing the same thing behind closed doors. Once all the parents are gone, you all mooch out into the shared kitchen or common room, and the embarrassed socialising begins. Oh, the embarrassed socialising. ‘What’s your name?’ ‘Where are you from?’ ‘What are you studying?’ are the three questions issued robotically from your mouth every time you meet anyone else, and you find yourself speaking in a ridiculously exaggerated version of your own accent in order to assert your national identity. Once this initial ground has been covered, you realise you have nothing left to talk about – so the freshers’ t-shirts are donned, the Tesco Value vodka comes out, and the first excruciatingly awkward night out in the union commences. Everyone says freshers’ week is the best week of student life, but it’s really not. It’s weird and surreal. You stand in a circle in a dark, sweaty room with a load of vritual strangers, many of whom you would never have chosen to befriend had you not been thrown together in a corridor, and you are suddenly painfullyaware of how bad your dance moves are. Everyone gets horribly drunk to convince themselves they are having fun; the barriers are broken down when you stumble home at 3am and someone projectile vomits all over the kitchen table. (In my freshers’ week it was a lot worse – someone two corridors below got so drunk he smeared his own poo all over the walls of the corridor. My innocent fresher self believed this was going to be a regular occurrence, and that living in student halls was going to be similar to living in a monkey enclosure. Luckily it was a one-off.)

Socialising is a very odd experience in freshers’ week. You meet more people than you can remember the names of, and for a few days you feel like the most popular person in the universe. The explosion of new adds on your Facebook page attests to this. You join almost every obscure student society going – windsurfing, juggling, mah jong, paintball, curry appreciation, improvised theatre, bell ringing – because ‘that sounds interesting’, and you’re convinced you’ll be able to maintain them all. You’ll maintain one if any, mainly because you discover you’re crap at almost everything, but also because anyone who founds and regularly attends a society based around a board game is, let’s face it, a bit sad and unlikely to become your best friend. Unfortunately, freshers’ week is not reality; you simply can’t sustain such a high level of social interaction. Some people you meet will go on to be your best friends, even friends for life (often, it’s the people you least expect – don’t trust first impressions). As for the others – give it a month and you will be averting your eyes as you shuffle past one another on campus, refusing to acknowledge that singular night when you drunkenly swapped shoes on a rooftop at 4am. After six months one of you will silently cull the other on Facebook, and you’ll both be glad not to have to read the other’s inane, irritating status updates anymore. Then, there’s the other downside of meeting so many strangers: the inevitable freshers’ flu. You simply don’t know where people have been. You suffer from an almost permanent sniffle throughout the year, which often escalates into a more full-blown illness, often conveniently when you have an essay deadline or a seminar you don’t fancy attending. The other kind of sickness is homesickness, which sets in once the craziness of freshers’ week has subsided into the more humdrum existence of life without your mum to bring you a cup of tea and a digestive whenever you get stressed. Hopefully, your hall friends will become your substitute family – but rather than cheering you up by letting you come to Sainsbury’s and use the bleepy scanner to buy posh food, they will distract you from your sadness with sheer silliness.

And the silliness is very, very silly. In first year, you forget that you are supposed to be a civilised human being who has come to university to receive an advanced education. You are too occupied with throwing each others’ mattresses out of top floor windows, having roly-poly races down the corridor, building giant fortresses in the kitchen, battering down the door while someone else is in the shower, and throwing eggs at one another whilst wearing kitchen utensils as armour (these are all things we did). Humour becomes incredibly puerile. On my first snow day at uni, I opened my curtains to see a giant penis artistically drawn in the snow on the tennis court below. It was beautiful. I was dared to put my foot in the toilet and flush it, and to lick mayonnaise off someone’s face. The boys got points for doing wees with the toilet door open and not getting caught, bonus points if they did it on another corridor, and points if they caught someone else in the act (‘danger weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!’). I look back on these things with nostalgia, but I’d never do them now – we’ve all grown up a lot since then, and penises no longer draw so much as a stifled titter from anyone. With all the silliness going on in halls, you forget that you’re supposed to be doing work, but it doesn’t matter because nothing counts in first year. If you get more than five books out of the library over the course of the entire year, you’re considered a sickening keeno; if your bedroom door is shut, it is assumed you are either out or dead, as it’s not possible that you could actually be writing an essay. Your marks are unfailingly mediocre, and you start to wonder if maybe you’re stupid and not cut out for university, especially when you compare yourself to the pretentious guy in the beret who has somehow managed to end up in all of your seminars and who accuses you of having a ‘bourgeois attitude’ whenever you make a placefiller comment to prove you’re not asleep. This guy is, luckily, an anomaly, and probably talking a load of rubbish. Later you’ll realise that you’re not stupid, and that you were simply a lazy arse in first year.

That’s why second year can come as a bit of a shock: you suddenly have to be a lot more responsible. The novelty of moving from the cushy world of halls into a rented student house wears off when it dawns on you that Maureen the cleaner isn’t there to clean up the broken eggs left all over the kitchen floor after last night’s rousing egg-throwing battle (I laugh as I write this. She was not happy about that, poor Maureen). You also realise that your student house, as ‘cute’ as it looks from the outside, is in fact on the verge of collapsing: it has a creepy slug-infested dungeon/basement where people were probably tortured in the past, the kitchen and bathroom are mouldy, you have to light the stove with a match, the cupboard door falls off in your hand every time you open it, and even if the heating had any effect, everyone is too stingy to want to turn it on. Instead, you wander around with a hot water bottle stuffed under your three jumpers, and sit hunched over your laptop attempting to write an essay in fingerless gloves and a hat as the freezing wind shakes the rotten window-frame (is this Soviet Russia or something?). If the boiler doesn’t explode, and the internet doesn’t go down after rats chew through the cable, the toaster will probably cause the entire electric system to blow, leaving you shivering in the dark like someone from a Second World War documentary. Still, there are many benefits to living in a house: house parties, for example. A spontaneous house party, where only the elite are invited, is always better than the student union’s pitiful attempts to organise fun – and if a dodgy song comes on, you simply change the track. Unfortunately, you can only have about two parties before the non-student neighbours despise you, post angry notes through your letter box, complain about the weeds in your front garden and glare at you from their window every time you walk past. The presence of neighbours reminds you that now you have to live in the real world.

Living in the real world also involves doing work, because now, things actually count towards your degree. You start to spend more and more time in the library, largely because it’s actually warm in there, but your finances are seriously run down by the fact you take about three coffee breaks an hour. In fact, the library is more of a social experience than a place of work. Coffee, lunch, afternoon tea, a quick walk around campus? Sure, why not! The essays and assignments do get finished, however, and when the marks come back you discover that when you put work into something, you’re actually quite clever. You now know things: very esoteric, course-specific things that have no practical use in the real world, true, but things nonetheless. When you go home and your relations ask you what you’ve been learning, you’re officially allowed to attempt to explain in baby language before giving up and concluding, ‘It’s a bit complicated for you, really,’ in a patronising voice. You slip words like dialogism and carnivalesque, orientalism and gnomic into your everyday conversation, seemingly unaware of the baffled looks you receive. You’ve become that guy with the beret in your seminar, but now the shoe is on the other foot you’re loving it. However clever you sound, however, by the time it gets to third term – the dreaded exam term – you suddenly realise that you know nothing, and sheer panic sets in. Exam term turns you into a monstrous stress beast: your skin breaks out from stress, your fridge contains nothing but pizza and microwave meals, you wander around with purple circles under your eyes making faint moaning noises like something that has just emerged from the grave. The lead falling out of your pencil is enough to trigger a fit of hysterical tears, and everything your housemates do makes you want to scream – but because everyone’s under the same pressure, no one actually falls out in earnest. Before you know it, exams are over, and if you’ve put in the work then you will probably do quite well. But you’re two-thirds of the way through your degree, and you have no idea how it went by so quickly; before you know it, summer has gone and you’re a finalist, the university equivalent of an old-age pensioner.

By the time you reach third year, you’ve grown up. You’ve realised who your true friends are, and it’s not just the people who have stuck by you since freshers’ week: you’ve made some surprising new friends too. That guy with the beret? He’s actually pretty cool once you get to know him. The things you did in first year seem like a senseless blur. Did you really stay up almost until dawn every night? Now, you’re in bed by ten o’ clock with a mug of hot milk, Classic FM and a nice book to send you to sleep; you just can’t hack more than the occasional crazy night out nowadays. Did you really throw eggs at your friends whilst wearing a colander on your head? Tsh, that would be a nightmare to get out of the upholstery. When did you find time to do work? Right now you’ve got two essays and a presentation to write. And how could you eat pasta and pesto for dinner almost every night? That doesn’t sound very nutritional. You’ve finally learnt how to cook, and you’re practically a michelin-starred chef now, wrapping chicken breasts in pancetta and oven-roasting sweet potato chips with a sprinkle of paprika and marinading a nice fillet of salmon in a bit of soy sauce with some ginger. In fact, you’re starting to wish you hadn’t sold that electric whisk for ten pence at a car boot sale last summer, because you really fancy whipping up a batch of orange and polenta muffins to take along to your next revision session.

Yes, revision sessions happen, because this is the year you have to pull it out of the bag. It’s the year in which you will probably want to find a graduate job or an MA course, and your results may very well determine whether you’ll succeed or not (you never thought about all this stuff when you were sticking your foot down the toilet and flushing it for giggles). You might as well take your duvet and toothbrush and some dry shampoo with you to the library, because you’ve basically become a permanent fixture in there. You make ‘library buddies’, people who you know because they sit in the same place in the library as you, all day, every day; you nod and smile at these people and exchange knowing looks with them (‘You again, eh? How’s the dissertation going?’) but the unspoken rule is that if you see them outside of the library you are not to acknowledge one another. What happens in the library stays in the library, and once you’re outside and blinking in the sunlight, you don’t want to see anything that reminds you of that awful place with its grey carpet, strip lighting and the fascist beady-eyed library stewards who constantly try and confiscate your coffee (even though you both know you’re going to keep drinking it anyway).

You’re old and wise now, and you like to adopt a cyncial, disillusioned air, referring to your own degree as ‘a joke’, making wisecracks about the avalanche of debt about to crash down on your head, and discarding all the university paraphernalia you bought in an exciteable frenzy during freshers’ week – the hoody, the t-shirt, the mug, the keyring, even (in the case of my university) the ‘undie-graduate’ thong – as all this stuff is now considered overenthusiastic and deeply uncool. While you were an intimidated mute in your first year seminars, you are now best mates with all your lecturers, calling them by their first names, possibly even going to the pub and attempting to get them drunk after seminars, at the same time as bitching about them behind their backs to your friends (be warned if you’re going to do this: the acoustics in those lecture theatres are far too good…). The lecturer’s word is no longer god, and you have started to form your own opinions on things, opinions that might even be valid. Exams come round again, and yes, they’re just as horrible as the last set, if not even more horrible, because if you screw up this time you won’t get a chance to rectify it. Third term before exams is pretty much a realisation of your very worst nightmare, but third term after exams – a period of sheer, unadulterated laziness, entire days in bed watching movies, basking in the sun in the park (sunlight! Fresh air! You forgot what that was like), meeting friends for breakfast, brunch, elevenses, lunch, tea, dinner, drinks and nights out – more than makes up for it. Until you open your purse and discover tumbleweed blowing across a desert wasteland, and you have to start eating odd combinations of tinned sweetcorn mixed with couscous and enough emergency frozen potato wedges to fill an American school canteen in order to use up your food before the end. Life without any structure is actually quite boring, and that’s when you start looking forward to the next stage of your life, whatever that may be.

Then it’s the emotional whirlwind that is graduation ball, results day, and the saying of all your final farewells. You repeatedly experience the awkward moment when you say ‘See you later then!’ knowing full well that you won’t see that person later. ‘Have a nice life,’ is too blunt; ‘See you at the ten-year reunion, when I’ll hopefully be richer, more successful and more youthful than you,’ too optimistic, and so you perform a happy little charade in which you both pretend you’re going to bump into each other in Tesco next Tuesday. But you’ll probably never see either that person or that Tesco again, because – what seems like five minutes after you first unpacked your egg-timer and colour-coordinated stationery in that boxy room with the vomit curtains and then hugged your parents goodbye – your parents have arrived to pick you up, and you’re desperately attempting to bundle all your stuff into the car, wondering whether you hadn’t better call up Eddie Stobart to come and pick up the contents of your wardrobe alone. And that brings you to where I am right now, sitting in my room at home, reminiscing about the amazing three years I’ve had and wondering what’s going to happen next. I’m not as sad about leaving as I thought I’d be; I’m ready to move on, and I’ve got living in London and doing my MA next year to be excited about. I’m a little envious of all those who have what I’ve just described here yet to come, but one day they’ll be in this position too. I’ve had my time. Now, it’s time for adult life to begin, and I’m looking forward to being independent and (hopefully) earning a living, maybe even writing a novel. In one final unnecessary literary simile before I give up my academic career (for now at least): Odysseus has returned to Ithaca, and it’s time to start killing those bloody suitors.

Coaxing out the muse

Now that I’m free from exams, I’ve tried to turn my attention to writing again. As I said in my last post, I feel that time is getting on – I’m twenty-one, which is practically twenty-five, which is practically thirty, which is practically dead – and I really need to write The Novel before the drudgery of nine-to-five work shrivels up my brain and I lose the ability to produce anything beautiful or meaningful. The Novel is like the holy grail, which will save me from the all-consuming black hole of arts graduate unemployment. It will save me from having to make endless cups of tea and tidy cupboards in a grovelling attempt to scrabble my way up the career ladder. The Novel will produce a ten-book deal, a movie franchise and a series of action dolls, and leave me richer than the Queen (though that probably doesn’t require much these days). The problem is that my muse simply refuses to come. Every time I sit down in front of my computer to write, I decide that ‘oh I’m a bit too tired actually’ and end up doing what I always do, which is clicking through recipes I am never going to cook on BBC Good Food and pretending in my head I am eating them. Inspiration simply refuses to come. Hunger, shame and self-doubt, yes, but not inspiration.

My muse is like my cat when he’s got a mouse. Weird simile, I know, but that’s how I imagine it. The cat is my muse, the half-dead mouse is The Novel. I can see him in front of me, the tail hanging out of his mouth, attempting to meow but just going MMMMMMRRROOOOOOOOOOOOOOHHHH like someone who’s just taken an overambitious mouthful of really hot soup, but every time I try to get close enough to extract the poor creature from his jaws he’ll growl and crawl backwards into a bush. Yep, my muse is hiding in a bush, and no matter how hard I shake a tub of Kitbits at it, I can’t get it to come out.

I think the problem is that the atmosphere in my room is all wrong. I need either a completely bare, whitewashed room in a dilapidated apartment somewhere in Victorian London, containing no furniture except a battered desk and chair because I’ve sold everything else to the pawnbroker to fuel my laudanum addiction, and where the wind whistling through the broken window pane exascerbates my rattling, consumptive cough – or else a cluttered, quirky independent coffee shop full of douchebaggy men in polo-neck jumpers pounding away at their netbooks to the sound of atmospheric jazz. There are lots of independent coffee shops here, but I don’t think they’d take too kindly to me squatting in their establishments without actually buying any coffee. Hey, I’m a student. We don’t buy things unless we have vouchers for them.

So I’ve been experimenting with different ways to create the perfect writing atmosphere, and I think I’m slowly starting to find what works for me. Every writer works differently, and everyone has his or her own little quirks that help to coax out that elusive muse. Here’s some of the factors I considered:

Music

Song with words tend to be distracting. I wouldn’t want to produce a beautiful sentence, only to later make the humiliating discovery that it was in fact penned by Lady Gaga (and let’s face it, her lyrics are beautiful – what is the name of this club? So the greatest philosophers have asked for centuries). There may be some situations in which lyrics might be useful, though. If I were writing a bleak, cynical novel about the debasement of modern culture and the death of civilisation but was feeling a bit too cheery, for example, I might turn on Capital FM and listen to the latest fifteen-year-old rap sensation telling me about them sexy bitches getting dirty on the dancefloor, or whoever is the current tweenage spawn of the Disney Channel singing in a nasally voice about how going to the Year Eleven prom with Chad made her feel like a beautiful sparkly princess. This would be enough to make me lose faith in humanity once more.

I used to write exclusively to movie soundtracks (mainly the three Lord of the Rings soundtracks, which are incredible), but I’m starting to find those offputting too. When I’m writing a pretty pedestrian scene about my main character driving down the M25 to visit her mum (not that my novel solely contains scenes of such crippling mundanity) I don’t want to listen to the swelling, screeching crescendo as Shelob chases Sam and Frodo through her cave. Oh, or that bit of music that comes just after Aragorn says ‘friends, you bow to no one‘ and then everyone kneels to the hobbits in the third movie, because then I start crying to myself and it reminds me how I really need to get a life. Classic FM tends to be a good middle ground, though I’ve recently discovered Dinner Jazz on Jazz FM, which somehow sounds even better when I turn out the lights and light a candle. That leads me onto my next category…

Lighting

I like low, romantic lighting when I’m writing: often just fairy lights and a flickering candle. It can’t be good for my eyes, and probably explains why I frequently try to pet the washing basket, eat my soup with a fork, and wave enthusiastically at people who have no idea who I am. It’s worth it for the mood that candlelight creates though – it feels magical and ethereal, as if anything could happen, which of course in the world of a novel it can. Incense and scented candles are very calming, too, and they make writing feel like a sacred ritual. For my room in London next year I’m going to buy an enormous scented Yankee Candle, which will also help with the fact my kitchenette is in the same room as my bed and desk, meaning everything is going to smell of salmon and garlic all the time. That can’t be inducive to creativity.

Food and drink

Caffeine is obviously a must; I am adamant if you don’t drink tea or coffee, you can’t be a writer, because there’s something horribly wrong about trying to produce a literary masterpiece while drinking a glass of squash. I usually lose count of how much tea I’ve drunk when I’m writing, but I try to stop before I start twitching/bouncing off the walls/rushing to the toilet every five minutes. Often, my obsessive caffeine consumption isn’t actually about keeping awake. It’s just comforting to see the mug sitting next to my laptop, emitting a friendly curl of steam to me know it’s there to comfort me if I ever feel the urge to faceplant my keyboard in despair. If I’m feeling particularly quaint, I’ll use proper tea leaves and a teapot, because tea tastes so much better when drunk from china (it’s science, innit).

Now, onto the important issue of food. If you’re an impoverished writer like Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment, starving is a necessary requirement, but since I don’t inhabit a nineteenth-century Russian novel, and am in fact middle-class enough that I can afford to snack on goji berries and organic oat biscuits from Waitrose, it would be silly not to eat. The problem with snacking while writing is that it can be quite dangerous. My fingers, when they fail to produce words, automatically reach for the 2-for-£4 tub of M&S extremely chocolately mini-bites to compensate. Once in my first year of uni I unwittingly ate an entire bag of Percy Pigs whilst trying to write an essay, and before I knew it I was running up and down the corridor like a seven-year-old who has just eaten the entire chocolate cake from Matilda, in the middle of Disneyland, before being informed by messenger owl that she will be attending Hogwarts next year. It took a long time to calm me down.

I would advise, then, that you avoid too much artificial sugar. Fruit and nut mix is brilliant. I remember our art teacher in year ten told us off for chewing gum in her lesson, and said we should carry around a bag of nuts in our pocket instead to ‘nibble on throughout the day’. We all thought she was weird at the time, and any kid who offered around a bag of nuts in the playground at my school would probably have got ‘beats’, but she did have a point. I recently had a few Graze boxes delivered to my house, which are expensive but very exciting, because you never know which healthy snacks they’re going to give you. I definitely get a kick from the element of surprise – that’s how exciting my life is.

Clothing

I believe it was Keats who said he had to get dressed up in his best shirt before he sat down to write. He also usually had to be off his face on drugs, but we won’t go there. Anyway, I understand why Keats had to get dressed up. When I spend an entire day in my dressing gown and slippers with greasy bush hair and yesterday’s makeup smeared all over my face (it doesn’t happen often, okay?) I don’t feel like a proper person. When I get up, get dressed and make an effort, I feel like my writing is work. Comfort is important too, however – I don’t want writing to feel too much like work, or it kills inspiration. I have a weird habit of wearing a hoody with the hood pulled up when I’m writing – it makes me feel cocooned in my own cosy little world where no one can disturb me. I’ve always wondered about themed clothing, too. Next time I’m writing a medieval fantasy action-adventure I might put on a pointy wizard’s hat or some elf ears and see if that helps me to feel fully immersed in my world, like the authorial version of method acting. Become the elf.

Writing materials

It’s the age-old debate: laptop or notepad? I won’t go into it here because it’s been done to death. I tend to opt for the laptop for speed and saving the trees and all that. I bought myself a notebook so that I can be a complete arse and sit alone with it and a latte in Starbucks, in a smarmy ‘I don’t need your company because I’m so absorbed in writing my novel’  kind of way (see the Family Guy ‘watch me type in public!’ sketch). I also cross out things a lot, so my notebooks end up looking very angry. Saying that, sometimes I do get an urge to write by hand – it does make you feel more writerly. In these cases, it is essential to find the perfect pen. A crappy biro that splutters ink all over the page and then runs out halfway through a vital sentence just won’t do. My personal preference is a black stainless steel Zebra pen: it feels sleek and smooth and fast, like an inky ninja in my hand. The perfect weapon for killing off a character…

If you’re writing by hand, getting the perfect notebook is also important. I’m a bit of a notebook hoarder – I buy them but then don’t want to ruin their lovely creamy pages with my second-rate writing. I’m a sucker for the Moleskine notebooks, which I know are a rip-off, but I don’t really care. I’m a mug, and the fact they whack ‘ERNEST HEMINGWAY AND PICASSO!!!’ on the packaging is enough to sell it to me. If I buy one, I’ll be a genius like them, right? Even if I just end up drawing smiley triangles wearing little bowler hats in the margins? Oh, and the lovely soft bendy leather covers… Is it weird that I want to stroke them? I wouldn’t go so far as saying that they turn me on, but, you know…

Writing outside

I thought it would be quite romantic to go out to the park, sit on a picnic blanket and write, but it was quite difficult when I tried. Firstly, I found myself needing the toilet after about five minutes, which meant I had to pack up all my stuff and trudge to the nearest manky public conveniences. Then, the wind picked up, making me regret my unfortunate choice of floaty skirt: it’s difficult to write with the pages blowing about everywhere, when one hand’s holding the pen and the other’s trying to prevent the exposure of my bum to the entire park. Then, I got molested by dogs and ducks, two types of animal I am convinced are pure evil (ever seen a group of ducks marching in  a perfect line with a disconcerting air of purpose? I bet you have. As for dogs, they’re just slobbery, gross, overenthusiastic and far too fond of each others’ excrement). Then, a mother and her screaming child set up camp next to me. The problem with public spaces is precisely the word public. Other people are simply awful, and I should know, because I’ve worked in retail.

It would be nice if I could sit down and write whenever, wherever, in whatever conditions, without having to perform a series of bizarre pointless rituals, but in reality it’s just not possible. Even Shakespeare himself couldn’t have written a hit play whilst at the bus stop in a torrential downpour, or in the middle of a nursery full of wailing children, or (in a more Elizabethan-appropriate situation) languishing from bubonic plague in a rat-infested back alley of London. In every case, a little bit of coaxing is required to get the angry growling muse to drop the mouse – and even if it is a bit mangled and saliva-coated, at least it’s a start.

The end of my academic career…

Yesterday, I did the final exam of my university career. I sat there in seat 048 writing a horrifically generic conclusion about why the French Revolution was totally important and stuff, and then I wrote the final sentence of my degree and ended it with an incredibly emphatic full stop. Then, I sat back and cracked my fingers in a smug manner, and thought, well that’s that phase of my life over and done with, and the crippling sense of anti-climax descended on me.

I’m not sure what to do with myself now. You’d think I’d be drunk right now, but I feel like I just can’t hack it anymore; all I want to do is crawl into bed with a cup of tea and watch the entire Blackadder box set (which is calling at me from my shelf this very moment).Yesterday I had a picnic in the park, followed by coffee and pastries, then The Apprentice and an early night. Today I spent all day reading in the park again, then went to the pub and left at half ten because it was too noisy and full of scary locals. I’m considering watching Doctor Who with a cup of tea instead. When I was in the park a guy came up to me with some flyers for a club night, but when I looked up at him he said, ‘Oh, sorry, I think you might be a bit too young to come,’ and walked off. Great. I’m twenty-one and I just finished my degree, but I look about twelve and I act like a seventy-year-old. Woohoo.

Term finishes on the 1st July and I’m starting a publishing internship on the 4th, and there are a lot of things I want to do before then. Things for me, not for my degree – things I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Some of those things are:

  • Start writing a serious novel. Or at least start planning it, and then do NaNoWriMo in November and rattle out a first draft then. I have an idea, I just need to turn it into something proper before I get bored of playing around with it in my head and relegate it to the dark place under the sofa with all the other plot bunnies of the past few years.
  • Read. I know I’ve just spent three years reading, but I want to read things that I want to read, and I want to read books without feeling like I need to underline key quotes and think of something clever to say about them in my next seminar. I’ve already almost finished rereading the His Dark Materials trilogy, which I loved when I was younger, so I’m having a nostalgic moment with them. I’ve also got A Suitable Boy and The Master and Margarita lined up on my shelf. A Suitable Boy is one of the longest novels in English so that one’s going to take me a bit longer than a weekend!
  • Start doing exercise again. I’ve been glued to my desk chair staring at my laptop for the past month. Now there is possibly a buttocks-shaped imprint in my chair, or a chair-shaped imprint in my buttocks. Today I tried to go for a run with the inevitable panting, wheezing, getting-overtaken-by-pensioners consequences. I also almost accidentally ran into the middle of a school sports day and joined in the egg-and-spoon race, where I probably would have been outrun by eight-year-olds too. Serious training is required… I may ease myself into it with country walks, as the countryside around here is beautiful.
  • Eat. I need to start running again to cancel out all the food I’m going to be eating. There are loads of independent restaurants and cafes here which we just don’t have at home in posh Surrey, probably because the rent is cheaper, and I want to try them all. There are also loads of lovely Warwickshire country pubs. Even if I’m not eating out, I have time to cook proper meals rather than bizarre whatever-is-in-the-cupboard-and-freezer creations (meatballs, pesto and frozen peas? Omelette on a bed of stir-fried vegetables? Yum…), and I want to bake lots too.
  • Write this blog, obviously. I ended up writing a lot of practise essays for my exams, which I was going to put up here in an attempt to make this ‘educational’ rather than me banging on pointlessly about my mundane life, but I can’t bear to look at them again. In fact, I may build a huge bonfire out of all my notes and essays on the weed-infested patio out back (it’s starting to look like something from Day of the Triffids out there, actually – no wonder the neighbours despise us and have just sold their house) and then dance around it chanting in a weirdly ecstatic post-exam ritual.
  • Spend an entire day watching movies in bed in my pajamas with a friend, only getting out of bed to answer the door to the takeaway. I know this seems counter-intuitive to my ‘make the most of my freedom!’ resolution, but I haven’t done anything as lazy and self-indulgent as this in years. I couldn’t have done it without being plagued by guilt. Now, I have no reason to feel guilty. I’m thinking of watching all three Lord of the Rings movies (special edition of course) as that’ll fill up at least ten hours.

That’s enough to be getting on with, isn’t it? I’ll make sure to take lots of photos of my adventures and put them up here. This summer is my final summer before I’m a grown-up in the big bad world of work, so I want it to be amazing, and I want to remember it. Hopefully, if I stick to my resolution of doing some writing, samples of that will be going up here too.

A Parisian Birthday

So, here begins my attempt to start this blog in earnest. I’ve decided that, although you probably care very little, I’d like to write a bit about myself and my day-to-day life here. Why? Because I like to look back and remember the things I’ve done myself, and typing it results in far less hand-cramp than writing in my diary (I have one of those too – I scrawl my worries in it before bed to help me sleep). Also, I think it’s more interesting to read something when you feel you know the writer. Of course, you can never really know me through a blog – but I can give you a horribly skewed and distorted impression of myself in which I am far more witty and interesting than I really am. You’ll have to make do with that.

I’m beginning with my twenty-first birthday, which was a week ago today. Yes, I have come of age. If I were Pip in Great Expectations I would now be in control of a vast sum of money. Sadly, I am not Pip from Great Expectations, and I don’t have any money because I am a student and I spend my pitiful allowance on unnecessary crap like pretty notebooks I never use, books I never have time to read and clothes I get bored of after a week. Nevertheless, I managed to scrape together enough money to celebrate my birthday in Paris this year, and it was wonderful. You should know, by the way, that I’m not really normal for a twenty-one-year-old. Usually this is because I act like a middle-aged housewife: I bake to get rid of stress, I get excited by novelty kitchen utensils, I like country walks, property shows and shopping in Waitrose, and my idea of a perfect evening in is lighting a scented candle, switching on Classic FM and reading a book. For my birthday, however, I went the other way and regressed to an eight-year-old. Instead of going to a club and getting merry like most twenty-one-year-olds… I went to DISNEYLAND!

Usually when you return somewhere you loved as a small child, you realise how unimpressive it actually is, and your memories are spoiled. Not so with Disneyland – I still had a great time. They create such a magical atmosphere there. I’m quite a cynical person, but even I was drawn in by the artificial fairytale world of happiness and sunshine, the cheery music being constantly pumped out of the sound system, the cartoon characters who bounced around signing autographs for hordes of starry-eyed children fuelled by a cocktail of e-numbers and sugar. It’s probably only fun for a day, though. I pity the poor people who have to take part in the Disney parade every day, blowing kisses, waving and bopping along to the tune of, “It’s just like we’re dreeeeeeeeaaaming!” on repeat when really they’re dying a bit inside. It’s a Small World was definitely a bit creepy, too. They should set a horror movie in there.

That was on Sunday. On Monday, we went into Paris and had a day of culture. The weather was beautiful: crisp if a little chilly, blindingly sunny, not a cloud in the sky. We got there around lunchtime, and sat on the grass in front of the Eiffel Tower to eat. We didn’t want to spend a lot of money, so we’d bought food from the supermarket near our hotel: fresh baguettes, cheese, strawberries and orange juice, simple but delicious. Sitting there eating our picnic, with the sun beating down on my face, I felt so happy and alive. I didn’t even think about the essays and revision for final-year exams that are now the dark, looming presence in my life (you should now realise why I am updating this blog – procrastination!). Apologies for bringing everything in my life back to books, but it reminded me of a passage in A.S. Byatt’s Possession, which I wrote an essay on last year. The main characters of the novel, Roland and Maud, are two stuffy academics who inhabit a dingy world of books and scholarship; they live for their research, not for themselves. As they begin to investigate a hidden love-affair between the two Victorian poets they are specialists in, their own love affair starts to flourish, and their lives unfold into colour. This awakening is best expressed when they go down to the coast to visit a spot where the lovers went together and have a picnic:

Something new, they had said. They had the perfect day for it. A day with the blue and good gold weather of anyone’s primitive childhood expectations, when the new, brief memory tells itself that this is what is, and therefore was, and therefore will be. A good day to see a new place.

They took a simple picnic. Fresh brown bread, white Wensleydale cheese, crimson radishes, yellow butter, scarlet tomatoes, round bright green Granny Smiths and a bottle of mineral water. They took no books.


Well, I had no Parisian love affair, but I felt the same sense of freedom. To everyone else, we were just sitting there having some lunch, but I like to read into things a bit more than is necessary.Now, I’m shut up in my room, in the gloom because my desk is nowhere near the window and it’s a grey, drizzly day, trying to write a depressing essay about literature of the Second World War, but looking back at these photos is giving me back a little bit of sunshine. I will be sad when I’ve graduated, but I can’t wait for the summer when I’ll be totally carefree. I can have a picnic in the sun every day (except that it’ll probably rain every day – this is England). Possession is a wonderful book, by the way. It’s a bit of a struggle to get through all the obtuse intellectual love-letters and made-up Victorian poetry, but once you have the novel really starts to come alive, just like the characters, and I was wowed by the final page.

We also went to the Louvre. It’s a huge museum, and there was no way we could have explored the whole place in the time we had, so we had to be selective. Like most of the other tourists there, we went for the Mona Lisa. I wasn’t that impressed, to be honest – my art-enthusiast friends tell me it’s a technically brilliant painting, but I don’t particularly notice things like that, and I didn’t understand why there was such a huge crowd around this one small painting when there was a huge, floor-to-ceiling painting on the opposite wall that most people were ignoring. It was quite stuffy in the Louvre, and we all began to feel sleepy, so we left and wandered around until we found a little cafe where we bought extortionately-priced espressos in tiny cups and revived ourselves with shots of unadulterated coffee.

Then, to Notre Dame, where we went into the cathedral and then pottered around Shakespeare and Company, an independent English-language bookstore. It’s been the gathering place of lots of famous writers – Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce and others according to Wikipedia – and there are beds upstairs so that young writers can live and work there, presumably while they ‘discover themselves’. It was quirky and interesting, but to be honest, everyone in there seemed to be either an obnoxious Beatnik-type in a beret or a bit of a toff. Personally, I prefer the second hand bookshops in London: they seem to be more about the books, and less about the pretentious literary culture surrounding it all. I certaintly feel more at home in London.

We had dinner in a lovely bistrot, then finished the day with an evening stroll up the Champs d’Elysses to the Arc de Triomphe. All the shops were lit up, and rising above it all was the Eiffel Tower, which is covered in lights so that it glitters in the darkness. It was all quite garish, really, but I’ve always thought that even the most urban cities look beautiful at night. This is when I’m walking around the safe areas, of course – my love of cities at night would probably change if I were to get mugged behind some dustbins in a shady alley somewhere.

The next day was my birthday, and I spent most of the day travelling, so I was pretty tired. When I got home, there was a big jam and buttercream cake, some cards and a little pile of presents waiting for me. I didn’t get a lot, but I loved all the things I did get: some clothes, a gold cameo ring my mum bought when she was a teenager, and two books. The first was a hefty baking book, and I’ve decided that I’m going to try and work my way through all of the (300+!) recipes, and document my success or failure here. The second was a guide to traditional shops and restaurants of London, which is going to see a lot of use when I live there next year (I’ll be studying for an MA). I’m also going to try and visit every place in the book and post my exploits here.

Surrounded by presents, cake and my family, I once again felt ridiculously happy. Now, though, it’s time for essay-writing and revision, and I just know I’m going to start feeling claustrophobic soon. I’ve decided that, as a means of revising, I’m going to write some (hopefully) entertaining mini essays on each of the novels/poems/plays I’m studying and put them up here, so that’s another thing you can look forward (or dread) to in the near future!

The Tempest – Cheek by Jowl

You can never be truly pretentious until you’ve watched a foreign language play/film and sat nodding profoundly throughout as if you have a clue what’s going on. That’s why I was quite excited to see Cheek by Jowl’s production of The Tempest in Russian (with subtitles, mind) last week.

When I was seventeen and was just starting out on my journey to pretentiousness, I went to see The Tempest with Patrick Stewart at the Novello, and thereafter decided that it was my favourite Shakespeare play. This was probably because I had yet to read or see Hamlet, or King Lear, or indeed almost all of Shakespeare’s other plays, but I think it was also because I loved the play’s elements of fantasy and magic. After all, I was going through my dreamy teenager phase, in which I attempted to escape the real world by writing cringe-inducing fantasy stories about ‘mages’ going on ‘quests’ to defeat the Evil Dark Lord and falling in love along the way. The production at the Novello (inexplicably set in the tundra) really played up the magic, and Ariel stole the show. I remember being both horrified and exhilarated when he burst out of a seal carcass with strings of gore caught between his claws. Lovely.

Anyway, I think one noteable aspect of Cheek by Jowl’s production was that it stripped the play of a lot of its fantastical elements. Obviously the magic is a vital plot point, but they didn’t make a big deal out of the island as a world of escapism: the set was utilitarian, Prospero didn’t march around in furs waving a big staff like Patrick Stuart did, Ariel was a soft-spoken guy in a simple black suit. Hearing the verse in Russian made it sound very prosaic, although still rhythmic and forceful. Towards the end of the play, Trinculo and Stephano whipped out their phones and started having a conversation (I can’t talk right now! – Why, are you in a theatre? Oh ho ho, meta-theatrics!) You would have thought I’d hate the production, and I was unsure at the beginning, but it grew on me and I actually really enjoyed it. I thought they did an especially good job considering the realisation I came to, which was that they didn’t have much to work with, because The Tempest really isn’t a great play.

Well, it’s still good, but definitely not one of Shakespeare’s best. The plot is very simplistic, and it all comes to a lovely unproblematic resolution, and few of the characters are actually likeable. I find Prospero and Miranda particularly dislikeable: he’s a control freak, she’s a bit of a wet blanket. Caliban’s sympathetic, but everyone always over-sentimentalises him and drools over his lovely little speech about music and dreams and not wanting to wake up. Naww. The play is often thought to be Shakespeare’s last solo effort, and I like to imagine that by this point he’d got tired of all that ambiguity and complexity in his later plays – too much intellectual strain – and so he sat down one day and decided, ‘Right, that’s it. I’m going to write a good, old-fashioned play. Problem, conflict, resolution, boom!’ And there’s nothing wrong with that, really, if we all have a lovely time watching it. Which I did.

So I’m just going to talk about a few of the things that stood out to me in this production. Firstly, I thought Miranda was great. As I said earlier, I think she’s pretty dull and pathetic as Shakespearean women go, so to make her interesting and not a complete pushover is a real achievement. People often think that, because she’s been confined on an island with no one but her father, a ‘monster’ (Caliban) and some invisible fairies for her whole life, she therefore has to be a complete sexual innocent. This Miranda was childish – at one point she took her top off and exposed her chest, which my friend thought wasn’t gratuitous because it showed her lack of self-consciousness over her body – but she was also very sexualised. Her first encounter with Ferdinand was charged with a carnal sexual desire; she giggled in an incongruously childlike way as he straddled her and started to undo his belt, and she was clearly quite willing to go along with it until Prospero pulled them apart. At the same time, I don’t think her sexuality was portrayed as animalistic, as if she were as ‘savage’ as Caliban – she was clearly emotionally intelligent too. Her character seemed to suggest to me that sexuality is a natural human quality.

At first, I thought Ariel was boring, but I think I was comparing him to the seal-carcass dwelling Ariel of the Patrick Stewart production, who made the stage freeze up with eerie blue light, mist and creepy howling wind every time he emerged in slow-motion from a random part of the set. When summoned by Prospero, this Ariel simply padded on barefoot with several replicas of himself, all in black suits: “All hail, great master,” in a calm and quiet voice. While the first Ariel threw himself into a cave with a whoop of joy and exploded when dismissed, this Ariel stood in desolate silence, looking out as if he had lost all sense of purpose. I think Ariel was purposefully understated; his character didn’t scream MAGICKKK!!! at me, and in fact I think he was humanised to an extent, but there was still something otherwordly about him that made him captivating. I particularly loved the use of live music, which was light and playful, whenever he performed his tricks.

Trinculo, as usual, was camp and effeminite. For once I’d like to see him portrayed as an oafish blockhead, but that role was given to Stephano. They were a good comic duo as always, but I didn’t see anything special in their performance. I wasn’t sure about the apparel scene, where Ariel tempts them away from their plan to murder Prospero by appearing ‘laden with glistening apparel‘: here it was figured as a plush shopping boutique, in which they had unlimited use of Prospero’s credit card. To me, it seemed like a bit of a gimmick done just for laughs, but I suppose there’s not much else you can do with those two. Another part I wasn’t sure about was the relationship between Caliban and Miranda, who were portrayed as best buddies. When Miranda was taken away by Ferdinand at the end, he had to drag her off kicking and screaming as she tried to get to Caliban, who wailed like a child whose favourite toy has just been taken away from him. They over-egged it a bit. I haven’t read the play in a while, but as I recall, near the beginning we learn he tried to rape her – shouldn’t that make their relationship a bit more ambiguous?

Overall, I really enjoyed the play, and I was surprised that having to constantly shift my attention between the subtitles and the actors didn’t detract from my experience of it. In fact, I’d often stop looking at the subtitles and just focus on the facial expressions and gestures of the actors – it was a very physical production, and often the way the characters touched or looked at one another was far more telling than the words on the screen. That goes to prove what my Shakespeare lecturers this year have been trying to show me: that Shakespeare wrote his plays not to lie static on a page, but to come to life on the stage.