A little bit more on My Name is Mina

Sorry for two posts on the run about the same book, but sometimes a book grabs you and doesn’t let go.

The thing about My Name Is Mina, is that it’s sort of a confluence of the two sides of my literary life. It’s a book that I didn’t realise I needed to happen until it happened. It’s my literary Damascene moment.

I’ve spoken before about my university. It was brave, bold, terrifying, and totally changed my attitude to and on writing. Before that I had spent my school life:

1. Being told (Year 6) that my story needed a beginning, a middle and an end, and when I couldn’t deliver this, being pulled up in front of the entire class and being yelled at.

2. Being asked (Year 12/13) whether my English essays were ‘all my own work’. They were.

3. Having said English essays then unmarked because they were of a ‘University level standard’, and not of an ‘A Level Standard’.

The thing about teaching is that sometimes the bad has much more impact than the good. And I did have good English teachers. I did have people who supported my writing more than they ever may realise.

But that all changed when I hit university. My writing career at University:

1. Learning about Shirin Neshat, Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer

2. Learning that what I do had meaning. And value. And worth.

3. Learning that left to right, black on white, wasn’t the be all and end all of language.

4. Learning that I control the words and the words don’t control me.

That’s what David Almond does so brilliantly in his book. It’s a book that I almost want to be on the curriculum. It’s one that I want to be on the course I did. Everything you get in this book is pure solid genius and it’s an education. I’d recommend it massively (and will be doing so) to those studying Performance Writing, Semiotics, Narratology, and so much more. Basically if you’re interested in the word, and what the word can do.

And now, I’m off to go and fangirl at it some more. I just can’t get this out of my head. Can we start the whole David Almond for next children’s laureate campaign now?


Daniel and Esther : Patrick Raymond

Daniel & EstherDaniel & Esther by Patrick Raymond

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Daniel & Esther is rather brilliant. I came across it after doing a post on children’s books set in and around Dartington Hall. I have a personal connection to this place (it’s where I attended university) and it was, in summary, amazing. Insular, rural, and obnoxiously creative, Dartington was another (wondrous, wondrous) world.

Daniel and Esther is a slim, strange, little novel. It’s understated, quiet, and it’s so very beautiful. It’s a story that, in a way, is about everything and nothing all at the same time. Set at Dartington Hall school, a progressive artistic unusual school, and in the time leading up to the second world war, it tells the story of Daniel and his love for Esther, a fellow pupil.

It’s underwritten. Beautifully, almost poetically, so. “Both of us had come to a stop. I let my shoulder fall another inch nearer and she did the same. A moment later our shoulders were just touching, as if they’d drifted together in a crowd. We stayed like that for a long time. Neither of us was frightened any more. The minutes crept past like giants on tiptoe until I lost count of time”.

And yet, even with this level of textual restraint, this nuanced near-mournful sense of the moment and love of the pastoral, Daniel and Esther has a curiously heavy impact. It is elegiac at points, and bitterly aware of the impending war. The idyllic warmth and innocence of Dartington cannot continue in such circumstances and, somewhat fittingly, Raymond resists the temptation of providing a neat and convenient ending.

This book, I fear, may haunt me. The love, the heat and the intense power of this near-illusory book combine to create an awkward, unsure narrative that punches deeper and harder than it seems to initially deliver.

View all my reviews

A most unusual place : Dartington Hall and its role in children’s literature

University wasn’t meant to be like this. I’d come to this place, possibly the furthest away place I could have chosen, and here I was in a room – a studio! – with thirty other individuals and I was creating a collaborative theatre piece.  Devising. Group. Theatre.

I was a most shell-shocked individual. My first week at university saw massive, immense periods of free time, coupled with breathless moments of incredulity. It was not easy to comprehend. I had come here (to write! I write! I do not contemplate my inner tree!) and I’d not come anywhere near a pen yet. I hadn’t even found anybody else who was doing my course!  It eventually turned out that there were others, mythical others, but I was the only one in my Halls of Residence.

This, then, was my university. This was Dartington College of Arts. Nestled in the greenest of Devonian hills, it was most definitely another world. I had come here for an interview (after finding the prospectus on the floor of my Careers room at school) and fallen in love. There was a Henry Moore statue in the gardens! There. Were. GARDENS. (A University? With GARDENS?) And a cinema on site! And listed buildings! And countryside – great swathes of lush countryside – that were perfect for a country mouse such as myself .

Dartington was, is, amazing. My time there proved to be life-changing. I have no bones about saying that, it truly was. I learnt confidence. I learnt that what I do can be good. I learnt about art, and the construction of words and language and I learnt how to master my talents and make them my own.  The university itself is now merged with Falmouth, and based there, but I’ll never forget my time at Dartington Hall.

I loved it. Is that obvious? I would go back there in a heartbeat. In a way, I search to replicate that feeling everyday.

But then I started to discover Dartington in children’s literature. The site itself has an illustrious history. Established as an artistic colony – a safe harbour – during World War Two by the Elmhirsts – Dartington Hall played host to some of the finest creative minds in history. The estate also included a school which was both revolutionary and incendiary (famous, for example, for mixed sex nude swimming). There’s an excellent, albeit somewhat romanticised, history of the estate available here and a fascinating account of Dartington Hall school here written by an ex-pupil.

The first book that most definitely features Dartington Hall school is Michelle Magorian’s “Back Home

Michelle Magorian, perhaps most widely known for ‘Goodnight Mister Tom‘, is one of the most outstanding writers for children that we have.  Her bibliography is not huge and the gap between these is lengthy, but the quality of her work speaks for itself.  ‘Back Home‘, based just after the Second World War, tells the story of Rusty who is returning to the UK after being evacuated to the USA during the war.

I won’t spoil what happens in the book, but Dartington Hall school makes a definite appearance. It’s identifiable through the local geographical data – Magorian mentions the Plymouth train, Staverton bridge, the river Dart and there’s a town which I’d suspect to be Totnes.

Magorian has a near tangible-competency about her which is a delight to read. She handles growth superbly and in particularly female growth, the way women and girls interact. Back Home could be defined simply as a school story but there’s a wealth of social commentary here. It is a quietly brilliant book.

Upon checking the details for this post, I was really pleased to see that there have been recent reissues of Magorian’s titles. If you’ve not read any of her titles, I can’t reccomend them enough.

The second book I discovered that mentioned Dartington was “The Dragonfly Pool” by Eva Ibbotson.

I miss Eva Ibbotson. I really do. She died last year and the more I discover of her books, the more it saddens me that I discovered them so late. ‘The Dragonfly Pool’ is a particularly magical book which follows Tallie from her experiences at Delderton Hall, a somewhat “alternative” school,  through to when she arrives in the Ruritanian-esque kingdom of Bergania as part of a folk dance competition.

Delderton is Dartington. Ibbotson attended it herself and although it appears under a pseudonym, the connection is clear. She speaks of it in her introduction to the book, drawing the parallels between this school and the one she herself attended, and concludes: “I soon realized this was a school like no other.”

The Dragonfly Pool is fantastical, as many of Ibbotson’s titles are, and requires a suspension of disbelief in order to make it work. But this, I think, is what makes it so beguiling. There’s a lot of love in this story and a lot of innocence. It is childlike and it is beautiful and yet, when it calls for it to be, it turns into sharp social commentary. Tallie herself is one of those, perhaps somewhat Pollyanna-ish, heroines who might irritate if met in real life but, when met in this context, this magical and fantastical and dreamy (un)reality, she works beautifully.

These are the two most notable examples I’ve found, but in the process of researching this post I came across another – “Daniel and Esther” by Patrick Raymond. The only cover image I’ve found is this fairly dated effort. I’m trying to track down a copy of this and will do a review of it when / if I find it. (Update 11/2/2012 – It’s found and reviewed here!)

What is interesting in both the Ibbotson and Magorian books, Dartington seems recognised and accepted because of its difference. This is what makes it work. It is presented as a home for those children who have, or would be unhappy, anywhere else. It is the anti-establishment for those children who are, though they’re unable to verbalise or even recognise it, distinctly ‘agin the government’.

I love that. I love how Dartington, a place which was replete with creativity and inspiration, has this second life which perpetuates the ethos and ideals of the place. It wasn’t perfect. Nowhere is. But what it was was a place for people to discover what they could do.

And to memorialise that in literature seems a peculiarly graceful form of tribute.

The Decorated School

Something a little different for today. I came across this blog called “The Decorated School”. It’s a group of academics who research murals and artwork in schools – artwork that is architecturally part of the building. This may mean a mural on the wall, a mosaic in a corner or a statue in the playground. One quote which resonated with me was this: “We are researching the relationships between architects, artists and educators through the art which became part of the fabric of school buildings and their immediate environments in the 20th century”.

I love that. So much. I was very lucky to study at one of , if not the, most unique contemporary art universities (Dartington College of Arts) in the world and know that art gets inside of you. It becomes part of the air you breath. Working around a Henry Moore statue, or walking through beautifully landscaped gardens, you begin to learn to look at things differently. I’ve taken that with me ever since. Look once, look twice and then look again.

Some of these pieces are genuinely stunning. You can view them on so many levels. An artwork.  A wall. A lesson. A moral. A play on the way the light comes through the window in morning assembly. Lovely.