… a response


Dear ——–, 

Great to hear from you – lovely surprise. And of course I remember who you are! We are a rare breed us long-suffering supporters of that accursed team. But I do remember you as quite a keen student, too. You’re going to scare me when you tell me how long ago it was that you were in —- but it feels like a year or two ago. Are you well? Where has life taken you since ————–? 

 It is indeed strange times. Difficult to grasp that a couple of months ago we were in our old routines and habits and totally oblivious to what was on its way. The total shut-down of the things we’ve become used to was shocking and swift, but I’m equally shocked by the way that we have all adapted and got used to it. We stand outside on the pavement now until we’re invited in to the shops so that to anyone driving past it looks like the zombie apocalypse with clueless and directionless people gently swaying in their 2 metre exclusion zone and avoiding eye-contact with anyone – as though this is a sure-fire way to catch the virus..! 

 I’ve got to be honest, ————: I’m loving it. I love the slower pace and the elimination of all the little bits of wasted time, like travel and chapel and duties. Now I can take my 6am walk over the fields, read the newspaper, have breakfast and walk to my study ready to teach online lessons before I’d normally be in school. It’s great. I also get to read and write a lot. I’m on book 16 for the year and write about 12 pages of the journal each day. 

 You’re right that reading needs to be enjoyable – otherwise it’s just school again. If you don’t get into a book after 50 pages or so then gently mark your page, close the book with a whispered apology and promise that you’ll be back and put it on the shelf for another time. The enjoyment of any particular book is dependent on a number of things, and the most important of those is your mood. I must have thirty books in my study that are waiting for me to return to them – and I will, but in my time.  

 The secret to effective reading is recognising that it’s a relationship between writer and reader. There’s an unwritten agreement that the writer will do the hard work to start with but that this is not the end of it: the reader has a job to do, too. And this is the magic of it because there is not a single meaning that is locked inside every book. Every reader will read something different based on their mood, experience, gender, race and all that. It is a very liberating thing to realise this because it means that we’re not searching for an elusive truth but building our own. 

 Most of all, though, you’ve got to enjoy it. Read books that you’re going to feel comfortable reading and that you have on the go all the time and gradually dip into more complex texts as and when you feel like it, knowing that there’s the trashy popular fiction to fall back on. For example – I’m teaching three Shakespeare texts, Virginia Woolf, Harper Lee and Thomas Hardy at the moment – all quite heavy texts. But open on my desk for when I want to drop back into a story is Stephen King’s Bag of Bones.  Trashy but story and an easy escape into literature. I also find that there are words I don’t get from time and I see this as a bit of an adventure – it’s always good to learn (and then use) new words: a kindle is great for this because it gives instant definitions. New concept are also part of the learning experience. I taught a book of short stories about the Vietnam War a couple of years ago and realised that I knew virtually nothing about the conflict. That led me to reading another 5 books about Vietnam. I have done the same with Africa and slavery; Australia; Prehistoric man; Sailing…simply because I want to know about them. That’s the beauty of it. 

 And as for journaling (hate that word), well this is one of my favourite topics that no one ever asks me about. It is absolutely fundamental to my days now and has been for years. I literally have hundreds of books that I have filled over the years. For what? I have no idea, although they have taken on a slightly different role in recent years, which I will come to later. The physical book is important. I use moleskin or similar (hardcover and with a pocket at the back) and I always write in black (fountain pen) ink. These details are very important. Usually they’re A5 but in these days I’ve been writing in A4 books. I tend to fill a book each month.  

 The date goes at the top of entry, so does the time – and at the moment I’m noting the Cd (Corona day). I usually start with the weather because I’m a proper Brit and then there are no real rules. Sometimes it’s close reflection as I try to unknot a particular issue or something that’s on my mind. Sometimes I’ll talk about a book I’m reading or a big issues that I’m chewing on, like the legitimacy of democracy or the possibility that 5G causes Corona. It’s all my own private conversation and I’m not putting it out in public, so I can say what the heck I want. 

 And then it steps up a level and my writing can become the day’s blog post or even the basis for a lesson at school. This is then shaped and tempered to suit the audience. More often, though, and here’s where I might return to a completed journal from the past, I will write first drafts of stories of chapters of longer fiction that I’m writing. These will always be written in blue (fountain pen) ink so that I can find it easier and I’ll usually pop a post-it note in there to make it even easier. This will then be typed up and edited in a second draft. 

 It sounds weird but I have found my journals to be the most trustworthy companion through some tough times. I have written from outside my tent in the African plains and next to the Zambezi river while crocs have splashed and hippos farted outside. I have written on the plane over America and in the woods of Ontario; from the mountains in Wales and on the floor at Gare Du Nord in Paris; ———————— library and ———————— School and my desk at home, the table outside, my bed. If I don’t have my current journal with me I’m lost. If I don’t have my pens and spare ink I’m like a smoker without a spare pack of fags. Might seem obsessive but it’s my thing and a lot cheaper and safer than drugs and drink. 

 It’s what you want it to be and you’ll get used to your own style and your own voice. The times that you don’t want to write are the times that you need to most. Start with a page a day – I call my first session the Morning Pages – and you’ll get into the groove before you know it. Keep it somewhere secret and safe so that you know you can write whatever you want. 

 I’ve probably written too much already. See what I mean – it carries you off. Maybe that has been of some help. I’d love to know how you get on with it. Get started right now and keep right on with it. It’s a long, long road and the journey is a story waiting to be told. 

 All the best, I look forward to hearing from you 


 Ps: I was never going to give you a detention. It was all bluff! 

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