The View from the Great North Wood

Cultural musings from The Old Grey Owl…

The Secret Commonwealth    

 by   

Philip Pullman

This is the long-awaited second installment of Pullman’s trilogy, The Book of Dust, a sequence that revisits the fantasy parallel England of His Dark Materials. Anyone interested in children’s literature or the fantasy genre as a whole, will have been counting down the weeks until this release, such is the power of Pullman’s fictional world, and the impact that the original trilogy had when first published in 1995. Those original fans will soon be joined by a whole new group generated by the BBC adaptation of His Dark Materials which is set to air on Sunday November 3rd. The trailer certainly suggests that it will be a much more successful rendition than the ill-fated dog’s dinner that was the 2007 blockbuster starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. Not that that would be too difficult mind you.

So Pullman is hot stuff at the moment. But what about the book? Let’s just get a few things out of the way first. Pullman is A Great Writer. His Sally Lockhart novels are glorious confections of London Victorian adventure mysteries, with pea-soupers and coal stained brick warehouses on the banks of the filthy Thames. Those alone would guarantee his reputation. But it’s the first trilogy, His Dark Materials, that moves him into the ranks of the genuinely great. Engrossing, believable, moving, challenging, Pullman creates a parallel world that is both restrained and oddly familiar. He asks big questions about belief, orthodoxy, law and punishment and democracy. But perhaps his greatest achievement is the creation of his central protagonist, Lyra Belacqua, and his invention of the notion of the Daemon, an animal- like creature that everyone in this world has as a lifelong companion, a representation of the soul, the quintessence of the individual. Lyra is one the most memorable characters in children’s fiction. In all fiction. Appearing first as an eleven year old girl in a version of Oxford University, she is resilient, loyal, brave, intelligent, and without any trace of snobbery or prejudice about race, class or gender. And she is one half of one of the greatest love stories ever told.

Dafne Keen as Lyra Belacqua in His Dark Materials

The first instalment of The Book Of Dust, La Belle Sauvage, featured Lyra as an infant, rescued from the baddies by Malcolm Polstead, an eleven year old boy. The second book moves us on twenty years. Lyra is now an undergraduate at Jordan College. Malcolm, is a University Lecturer. They both become caught up in the struggle between the CDD, the repressive state police, responsible for rigorously enforcing religious orthodoxy, and the liberal resistance. The struggle centres around the control of the source of a mysteriously powerful species of rose oil that is grown in the Levant (the equivalent of Syria/Turkey) Pullman uses this to reflect upon contemporary struggles between the West and the Islamic world, on the issues of religious wars, refugees, terrorism, populism. It dies s through the vehicle of a journey eastwards from Oxford, to the Middle East. The journey has all the elements of the classic adventure story: the main protagonists are split up and are all on separate quests to find themselves and to find solutions to their separate problems. Their journeys allow Pullman to paint a vivid picture of exotic lands, full of bazaars, train stations, cafes and markets, serially escaping dangerous situations, only to fall into more dangerous situations. It’s exciting and mostly well told. Pullman can still knock out a page turner. Mostly.

But. This is not a children’s book. It’s complex, dealing with real world issues of politics and prejudice. It is quite adult at times, in its language and depiction of relationships. It’s very sophisticated in the way it handles the growing awareness of sexuality of Lyra, following on from The Amber Spyglass. The depiction of a near gang rape is genuinely disturbing. Pullman himself would I think be quite pleased with that verdict. He has been very reluctant himself to categorise his novels as being for children. And there is a strength in that, because it allows him to break free of the constraints imposed by genre. The worst crime Pullman commits, however, is that, at times it’s a little ….dull. The political wranglings of the Pullman equivalent of The Vatican are arcane and convoluted, and I’d be surprised if they held the attention of many children. Certainly not the ones I know nor the ones I have taught. And it suffers, above all else, from the curse of the established writer. It’s far too long.

Weighing in at over 700 pages, this is a book that wouldn’t have got past the first fence had he been an unknown. That first book has to be absolutely tightly- wrought, like a finely tuned piano. Not a spare word out of place, coming in at under 300 pages tops, the draconian guidelines of publishers and agents at least produce economy and crackle. They impose discipline as much as formulaic writing. Look what happens when you’ve made it. J K Rowling’s Harry Potter books just kept getting longer and longer as no-one would dare to suggest to the behemoth, Jo, maybe you need to rein it in a bit, love. One can only be grateful that she had only planned seven of them. If she had kept going, we would have been at over the thousand page mark by now, no question. The same applies here. And this, for all its strengths and joys, is a little flabby and baggy.

I’m sounding very negative. It’s still a wonderful book and he’s still a titanic writer. The return of the Great Love, at least in Lyra’s memory and regrets, and the beginnings of a new love to replace it, is fabulous. Even so, it’s only a four star member of his astonishing list of achievements. And when you’ve set the bar as high as he has, that’s a little disappointing. If you’re an English teacher, or you just love books, you still must read this. And hopefully, you’ll love it more than I did.

Helping children to plan their writing- 35 years of getting it wrong

Blake’s Newton, measuring the Universe

For much of my career I was a moderator for one of the big exam boards for GCSE English and part of the job every October was to chair a regional meeting of schools to go through a variety of agenda items to help schools to prepare their students to successfully navigate the exams and coursework (or controlled assessments) in the coming year. They were to learn the lessons of the cohort just gone and a key weapon in the battle to teach them those lessons was the Chief Examiner’s report, which distilled the main messages from the national data. It was a hugely useful process and was largely responsible for the year on year improvement in outcomes achieved by students. (I’ll draw a tactful veil over the canny manipulation of the marking tolerances and the blancmange-like rigour of the Speaking and Listening moderation that also played a part. That is, perhaps, for another blog, when I’m feeling stronger.)

Year after year the Chief Examiner banged on about the same issues. Every year he identified what he saw as the game changer as far as English Language results were concerned. Every year I reinforced this message in the regional meeting. Every year I strove to enact this pearl of wisdom in my own classroom. What was it, this Holy Grail of GCSE English teaching, this elusive crock of gold at the end of the rainbow?

Planning writing.

They look so simple, those two little words written down in black and white. Simplistic, even, as a panacea for underachievement in GCSE English. But behind those two little words lies struggle, pain, resistance, frustration, anger, resentment, incomprehension, stretching back years. If you are an English teacher who has ever tried to prepare a class for an upcoming English Language examination, you will surely recognise the following scenarios.

Put simply, I have never, in any of the last 35 years, introduced the concept of planning writing as a step to writing better, without it being greeted by students in the same way that every group of teachers in a training session respond to the prospect of Role Play. With horror. Without fail, the following questions are asked and points raised:

  • I can’t plan. I don’t know how to.
  • I never follow the plan, Miss, so what’s the point?
  • Do you get marks for the plan?

Of course, as a fully paid up member of the liberal metropolitan elite, I have consistently delivered the standard, honest answer to this last question. That is, I have explained in painstaking detail that no, actually, no marks are awarded for the plan, but that writing that has been planned is always better than writing that has not. I’ve supplemented this with reference to the Chief Examiner’s report, sometimes going to the trouble of distributing copies of it, or in latter years, displaying the relevant section on the Whiteboard. This often leads to classic teacher sarcasm: “Of course, (insert student’s name), if you think that you know better than both myself and the actual Chief Examiner, who have been doing this stuff for over thirty years whereas you are barely out of nappies and have done the GCSE , let me see how many times is it? Oh yes, you’ve never done it have you?  Then by all means go ahead and completely ignore our professional advice and just make it up as you go along and see what happens. This produces the following response, brutal in its logic:

So, I don’t really have to plan then?

On a couple of occasions, unable to bear this ridiculous exchange another time, I just lied, and said, without skipping a beat, “Oh Yes, of course you get marks for writing a plan.” Then I would put up with the liberal guilt about ethical behaviour as a teacher before eventually going back the original approach the following year, shamefaced.

Early doors, I used to be moved by the first of the examples above, the idea that no-one had taught them to plan, so of course they would be resistant. In this scenario, I could cast myself as the hero, who could save the disadvantaged from their own lack of cultural capital by actually opening the gate to the secret garden of middle-class academic knowledge and take them through the basic steps of planning. This would inevitably furnish them with the transferable skills that allowed them to structure their thinking and their writing in English and every other academic discipline. And so, I devised over time a series of imaginative approaches to planning, which resulted in this terrible and embarrassing flowchart of the planning sequence:

  • Spider diagrams.
  • Amending
  • Deleting
  • Synthesising
  • Sequencing
  • Numbering
  • Ticking off

It was surely only a matter of time before a lucrative book contract landed on my hallway floorboards to be followed by a regular series of training events based on a whizzy powerpoint presentation and a glossy ringbinder. Fame and fortune awaited.

I would spend a few lessons on this, only to find when I received the exam papers, that out of a class of thirty students, only three had written a plan. Did I dream that sequence of lessons? Was I actually in the room? Or was I just a shit teacher?

This pantomime carried on for years, surviving a range of different approaches, none of which had any discernible impact on the students’ practice. In the end, it was one of the many things that had ossified in my teaching, into another example of stuff that could be categorised as, “Oh well, that’s just the way it is in reality.” I kept on doing the same stuff, even though I knew it didn’t work. It was a tired recognition that teaching is a difficult process of alchemy, and that sometimes we have to acknowledge the limits of our influence. The best laid plans (no pun intended) and all of that.

And then, eventually, I retired, satisfied that, all things considered, I had done a pretty good job over the previous thirty-five years. Early in my retirement, I started to dabble with creative writing: short stories, poems, novels. I reasoned that the excuse of being too busy just didn’t hold water anymore, so I did a bit of internet research (a classic delaying tactic this) and then sat in front of my laptop staring at the screen, not allowing myself to get up and walk away until I had produced some writing. A paragraph or two, at least.

What did I have in my locker that persuaded me I might be able to write creatively? I had not joined a writers’ group, I had not done any kind of creative writing course. No, I was convinced by my thirty-five years of teaching children to write, my three years of studying English Literature at University and a lifetime of reading books of every type and genre. The craft of writing? Pah! Either you’re touched by the muse, or you’re not. Ah, the arrogance! I sat, staring at the laptop for a very long time.

Then it came to me. Of course! A plan! I had to write a plan before I could come up with anything even vaguely coherent. Wasn’t that what I’d been boring young people to death with for all those years? And if it was good practice for them as writers, then surely it would be good practice for me. I had read in the weekend papers many times, interviews with authors promoting their latest book who talked about their meticulous approach to planning. Index cards. Exercise books, colour coded for plot, character, theme. Every last thread spun and tied up neatly by the end. And it was clear that their planning process must work because they were proper writers, with books on the shelves and everything. And once this intense planning had been completed, with eyes closed and chin on finger tips, Sherlock Holmes style, then the writing could begin. And now, it would be a doddle, simply a matter of splurging all those great thoughts onto the paper, ticking off each subsequent element of the plan as it was completed, just like I advised my students to do.

And then, with the wet slap across the face of epiphany, I realised.

Planning doesn’t work. At least not the kind of planning I had been teaching for years.

Obviously, it didn’t work. Leaving aside for the moment the idiocy of testing creative writing via a 45 minute slot in an exam hall, even with unlimited thinking time you couldn’t easily plan every detail of, say, a short story. Or if you did, you would be planning out the magic that is produced by the act of writing itself. Functional, sequential planning has its place in producing transactional writing, when it is simply a matter of ordering and clarifying one’s thoughts, but creative writing is a very different process and does not bend to the same rules and regulations.

I’m with Philip Pulman on this. In a recent interview in The Guardian to promote his latest book, The Secret Commonwealth, he pleasingly berates the functionalists who are currently having a moment in the sun at the expense of school children across the UK. Their niggardly focus on the naming of parts and their slavish insistence that the main function of a piece of writing is to show off the writer’s grasp of the full range of punctuation is rightly blasted. But he is also very interesting on the notion of planning. It’s right at the end of the interview (link below). Have a look.

https://www.theguardian.com/global/2019/sep/29/philip-pullman-i-am-a-citizen-and-a-writer

What I’ve discovered over the past nearly three years is that the planning process for fiction does exist, but that it is bespoke to the writer. I’ll tell you what works for me. It might work for some kids and some other adults, but there’s no guarantee.

The impulse to write comes, for me, from a very strong image of a situation. It could be anything – an atmosphere, a dilemma, a relationship, a texture. From that a story emerges. First the characters and their relationships. Then the skeleton of the plot. Then the next layer of characters. In the course of that process, the story and the subplot start to take roots, but as gardeners everywhere will know, plants are unruly beasts and go where they want. So the vivid image of the starting point, (which may not end up as the start of the story at all) is accompanied by a strong sense of the end point. As a writer, I know where the thing is headed, I’m just open to the route we take. There may be a couple of other definite waypoints (or Vias as the SATNav would have it). Other vivid scenes that have to be navigated around. And no, despite the scornful reaction of some of my friends when discussing this, this is not just a pretentious version of making it up as you go along. It’s surrendering yourself to the process. The act of writing generates ideas that are generally better than those produced by the act of thinking.

When I started the process of trying to write fiction, I read a piece by D B C Pierre, the Canadian author, on starting to write. It was extremely helpful, particularly his metaphor of compost, of all things. Just write, he advised. Enjoy the sense of your growing wordcount. At some stage you will hit a critical point where, like compost heap, you will have accumulated enough copy for it to start to react, to spontaneously breakdown in a process of decomposition, producing something entirely other than that which you started with. And then eventually, when it seems as if you have written something that you are pleased with, that means something to you, that you would like to read, you can begin the real work, the hard work of turning all of that compost into something that somebody else might conceivably want to read as well.

And so it has proved. From a strong image, a sense of the resolution, and a couple more luminous scenes en route, fiction has emerged, almost without my agency, and certainly without detailed planning. And how I wish I could go back and rethink all of those well-meaning lessons on students  planning their writing. Because, unfortunately, they are still saddled with the insanity of having to produce some piece of “Creative” writing in about 45 minutes of exam silence. And that means English teachers have a moral responsibility to prepare them to do it as well they can.

So what practical lessons do I glean from this revelation? I still teach English, as well as writing myself, and I still desperately want my students to do well. I keep it much simpler now and focus on those key elements:

  • An arresting scene, full of texture and atmosphere. Often the opening paragraph.
  • Two or three characters, their relationships and potential conflict
  • A final resolution. Even a last paragraph to work towards, a pole star to help them steer the ship
  • A balance between description and dialogue.
  • Avoid back story
  • Show not Tell

And then, the last piece of advice to be ringing in their ears as they enter the exam hall: Let the writing take you where it will, as long as you reach that last paragraph. And it’s still a nonsense, to ask children to write creatively in these conditions, as a means of ranking them. It will produce a lot of stuff that wasn’t worth their bother: formulaic, trite, cliched. Perfectly suited to an exam devised on exactly the same lines. But at least they might enjoy it a little more and not be too worried about synthesis and sequencing.

And some of them might, just might, want to keep writing.