Romanian Summer Diary 2

17 July 2007–‘Fresh knickers!’ was the unilateral shout heard last night in Grill 66 as exultant girls flung aside their half-eaten pizzas to celebrate the arrival of their delayed luggage from Amsterdam, and with the prized sous-vetements came coloured card, felt tips, glitter paint, and lesson plans bristling with the latest in brainstorming. This morning, a hundred-odd (some very odd) children in the playground disappeared swiftly into classrooms and re-grouped around tables that had only been privy to the pains of history and maths tests. Some wanted to improve their English skills; others, I suspect, were wanted out of the house; some elder ones were evidently more interested in British flesh than British small-talk, while yet to discover that the latter can be a very useful route to the former. It was a suitably merry, enthusiastic, and slightly shambolic start.

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Over the past four days I have seen three sets of identical twins dressed in identical clothes. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but it makes me glad that that kind of thing still happens. Perhaps Romania just hasn’t learnt to be wary of clichés…

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One of the pitfalls of conversational Romanian – blessed are the Brits in their singleness of purpose – is the difference between the second person singular and plural forms. The French have tu and vous; the Romanians have four. Beware the wrath of the self-respecting young lady addressed as ­tu; beware also if she is a woman of the world and appalled by the stuffiness of dumneavoastra. Which ‘you’ does one use for one’s former teachers, or for an elderly newspaper seller? How does one address the waiter? What if it is a waitress? Worst, how can you explain treating your mother-in-law as a multiple entity? Over a good and substantial pint, some of the British contingent wanted to find out just that. Some upper-class French couples, we learnt, address each other as vous all their married life; the semantics that can cope with mothers-in-law has yet to be invented.

Cristina Pascu-Tulbure.

British-Romanian Connections has been operating in Romania since 1991, and each year Cristina organizes the summer schools staffed with young British volunteers. She says the fascination lies in watching British and Romanians alike teaching and learning, as well as seeing the yearly changes in attitudes, the vernacular, and the home-grown notion of what it is to have achieved the Romanian Dream. It’s a heady mix of old culture, second-hand Western ideals, slight embarrassment about one’s history, and variations on a theme of European unity. Cristina is in Romania with a party of girls from Wirral Grammar School.

Famous Poems as Limericks

Boing Boing, the self-styled “directory of wonderful things” posted a link yesterday to a collection of limericks based on famous poems. This kept us entertained for quite a while. Here’s my favourite:

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

There was an old father of Dylan
Who was seriously, mortally illin’
“I want,” Dylan said
“You to bitch till you’re dead.
“I’ll be cheesed if you kick it while chillin’.”

And here are two we prepared earlier:

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

There was an old man of the sea
Who stopped wedding guest number three
And told him a tale
Of a bird and no gale
That left the poor chap on his knees.

My Last Duchess

The ambassador said “Well, you know,
The Duke has put on quite a show,
But you look at her picture
And suddenly it hits yer:
She’s charming, but where did she go?”

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Romanian Summer Diary 1

Sunday 15th July – one whole hot afternoon and several minutes neatly taken down by my friends before the start of the sixteenth English summer school in Piatra-Neamt. The afternoon is made suddenly intriguing with news of luggage still in Amsterdam while the Wirral Grammar girls have touched down in Bucharest. Rumour has it they had been drawing lots on who’s to shower first; the prospect of drip-dry hair-shoulders-and-other-parts is interesting. The minutes are less so: cold rather than hot milk with cornflakes in the canteen in the morning; explain to the cook that vegetarians are not ‘get thee to a nunnery’ types; sufficiently pink and strong loo rolls; still or sparkling mineral water; is the night watchman to lock the girls in after midnight?

The town is in celebratory mood. Romania’s EU accession (assumption or ascension in local parlance) and the new mayor have let loose the winds of change from the Aeolian EU integration bag: new pavements nicely patterned and half finished; polished Teutonic cars with several more decibels’ worth of song; gypsies begging in a combination of traditional wear and second-hand evening dress; expensive fresh roses spilling out of corner shops; and stray dogs scratching with greater self-esteem than last year in the summer dust. The orphanage children got their volunteer Brits last night and are basking in the knowledge that tomorrow there will be ball games, hugs and the perpetual ‘what’s-your-name?-what’s-your-favourite-colour?’ volleys. The town’s sixteen-going-on-seventeens are milling by the school gates – ‘Have the girls arrived yet?’

Cristina Pascu-Tulbure.

British-Romanian Connections has been operating in Romania since 1991, and each year Cristina organizes the summer schools staffed with young British volunteers. She says the fascination lies in watching British and Romanians alike teaching and learning, as well as seeing the yearly changes in attitudes, the vernacular, and the home-grown notion of what it is to have achieved the Romanian Dream. It’s a heady mix of old culture, second-hand Western ideals, slight embarrassment about one’s history, and variations on a theme of European unity. Cristina is in Romania with a party of girls from Wirral Grammar School.

Recommended Reads: Poppy Shakespeare

Poppy Shakespeare bookI have just finished reading Poppy Shakespeare by Clare Allen. Set in a North London day hospital, Allen draws on her own experience as a patient in the psychiatric system. It focuses on the lives of two characters, N, who has been a patient at the hospital for thirteen years and Poppy Shakespeare, a newcomer who is certain she isn’t mentally ill and is desperate to return to the outside world. Clare Allen explains:

‘What interested me in writing Poppy Shakespeare was the idea of taking a ‘normal’ person and landing her bang in the middle of this ‘upside-down’ world.’

The ‘upside down’ world which Allen describes is a place where the attempt to get better becomes overshadowed by the need to conform.

‘In the common room to be ‘abnormal’ was normal. Which is to say our normality was more or less the opposite of what might be considered normal in the world outside…so long as conforming meant being mentally ill, it made it a very difficult place to get better.’

Allen’s frustration with the system that surrounds her characters is felt throughout the story. It reasserts itself at every point, effectively causing the reader to share in this emotion. The helplessness and desperation can draw you in and drag you down, but Allen is also interested in exploring the way in which words cope with extremes of emotion and experience.

Through my work reading with dementia patients as a project worker for Get Into Reading I have become particularly interested in the way in which words and stories connect on a deep level, even when individuals have lost sense of their own personal story. Allen echoes this notion in speaking of her own experience.

‘When I arrived at the day hospital… My life had shrunk to a series of seconds, each to be somehow survived. I got through by walking, constantly walking, reciting poetry over and over to keep the thoughts from my head.’

In reading this book I was struck by the resilience of individuals, whose experiences seem unimaginable and impossible to survive. That they do survive and keep going despite this is a stark reminder of human strength, our ability to endure. That it stands so close to the contrasting frailty of a system which threatens to destroy this resilience once and for all is strangely paradoxical. And this in itself helps create the sense of claustrophobia which dominates the novel.

Get Into Reading Gets Into TV

Book Quiz

Get Into Reading‘s Ridgeway Library group will be appearing on BBC 4 tonight in a brand new literary show.

The Book Quiz is hosted by David Baddiel. Tonight he oversees as Joan Bakewell and Richard Herring face John Simpson and India Knight in a battle to see whose literary knowledge reigns supreme.

You can catch the reading group members at 11pm tonight, or when the show is repeated on BBC 4 on 7th August at 8pm. For more details click here.

Issue 26 of The Reader magazine out now


Issue 26 highlights include:

• New poetry by Connie Bensley, Angela Leighton, Howard Wright, Mark Leech, Mike Hoy, Nicola Daly and Carrie Etter; plus the continuation of our innovative new poetry feature, ‘The Poet on his Work’ (or her Work) in which poets give us a rare glimpse of the complex skeins of thought and words underneath the neatly woven surface of a finished poem. Neil Curry writes on his poem ‘Among the Ruins’ and you can read his piece online now.

• Fiction by Roy Kesey

Michael Symmons Roberts, ‘An Accidental Career’, an insight into the life of a librettist.

• Adam Piette answers a reader’s question on a poem by George Herbert

• The conclusion of Phil Davis’s conversation with Jonathan Bate about Shakespeare at the RSC

• A short interview with Edward Hardwicke who played Dr Watson opposite Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes in the outstanding Granada TV adaptation of the Conan Doyle books.

• Readers Connect looks at Shirley , one of Charlotte Brontë’s lesser-known novels

• Plus recommendations of Peter Taylor, Susanna Clarke, Antony and Cleopatra and Raymond Chandler and all our usual features.

To subscribe or order your copy today, click here

First Annual Troubadour Poetry Prize

Angela Macmillan has drawn my attention to the first annual Troubadour Poetry Prize, judged by Helen Dunmore and David Constantine.

1st prize £1000, 2nd £500, 3rd £250 plus 20 commendations @ £20 each, plus a coffee-house poetry reading for all prizewinning and commended poets with Helen Dunmore and David Constantine on 3 December 2007. The deadline for submissions in English only is 30 September 2007 and they can be submitted by old-fashioned post or by email. For more information, competition rules and full submission instructions contact CoffPoetry[AT]aol.com (replace [AT] with @) or Troubadour Poetry Prize, Coffee-House Poetry, PO Box 16210, LONDON, W4 1ZP.

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Harry Potter and the Double-Edged Sword

The release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows on July 21st concludes one of the best-selling and most controversial children’s book series. After the first book appeared in 1997 “Pottermania” spread rapidly around the world. Reading became cool, children’s literature spread to adult commuters, booksellers rejoiced, and Bloomsbury, the publisher that stands to make around £7 million from HP7, became very rich indeed. The author J.K. Rowling went almost overnight from a penniless single mother to a millionaire celebrity.

With the hype machine only just beginning to churn for the seventh installment, curmudgeons everywhere are looking forward to a bumper summer of fun. Ali Karim at January Magazine claims never to have been impressed by the books and wrote an enjoyable and withering piece about the series:

I have taken cursory glances at the Harry Potter books, and found J. K. Rowling’s work not to my taste. I also find the sight of adults reading these works on packed commuter trains bemusing, worrying and, contrary to popular opinion, I feel these books do more harm than good for the book trade.

He’s right of course. But looking back to those heady days when Harry Potter was just a cute kid with an owl who seemed to be single-handedly raising a generation of readers, it all seemed harmless enough. In 1999 I even felt inspired to write about the series. I praised it for the way it celebrated mystery in ordinary life, and challenged the establishment. In truth there seemed a lot to be optimistic about.

But now the fear of Harry Potter runs very deep indeed. The Bookseller reported earlier this month that publishers are worried that a market in which a small number of blockbusters sold at heavy discounts by the supermarkets is sucking the life out of highstreet bookshops. Smaller independent bookshops in particular are dreading the release of HP7 because they will have to sell it at a loss, but even Waterstones and Borders are having trouble competing. And publishers and writers are also unhappy because competing books will be hidden by the piles of loss-leader Harry Potters out front. British Conservative MP Charles Walker is calling for an investigation by the Office of Fair Trading. The Evening Standard reported:

Mr Walker, MP for Broxbourne, added: ‘They do not care about the book or the effects of their pricing strategy on small retailers. It’s all about getting people through the door. Unfortunately, the essence of Harry Potter and the magic of the book is lost on some people who are just desperate to make a fast buck.’

When even a Conservative MP is complaining about market forces, you know something must be very wrong indeed. What started out as the saviour of the British publishing industry has turned into a Lambton Worm, poisoning the local well, terrorising villagers and eating their sheep.

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The Rushdie Knighthood

Over at the Kenyon Review blog Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky has written a provocative post reflecting on the implications of Salman Rushdie’s knighthood and the revival of the fatwah. The reluctance of British conservatives to defend Rushdie is, he thinks, in part a reflection of the desire to make challenging literature safe:

It’s always been my feeling that the most important literature is that which challenges those “home truths,” and in so doing forces us to step outside the ideology of a particular cultural moment to see what lies beyond those self-imposed boundaries of belief and literary form that the theorist Hans Robert Jauss has termed our “horizon of expectation.” It’s hard to imagine a writer who has done that more successfully than Rushdie, particularly in a novel like The Satanic Verses, which recasts the opening scene of Milton’s Paradise Lost – that beautiful line about Satan “hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky” – with his illegal immigrant angel, Gibreel, and “buttony, pursed” devil, Saladin Chamcha, an East-Englishman whose soul is a monstrous hybrid of Indian memory and English aspirations, as shattered by its conflicting desires as the airplane from which he tumbles to earth after a terrorist bombing.

Here’s the link.

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The Patron Saint of Bloggers

It was probably inevitable that Samuel Pepys, the most famous diarist in history, should have a blog dedicated to him. Run by Phil Gyford, an actor, writer, and graphic designer, The Diary of Samuel Pepys presents the diary one entry at a time, complete with an RSS feed. Pepys was writing in one of the most turbulent periods in British history. The Civil War was a recent memory and the power struggle between republicans and royalists continued to rage. Pepys was right there in the midst of it all and many of his diary entries concern politics and major events as well as the trivia of everyday life in the seventeenth century. Gyford’s excellent site includes a Pepys encyclopedia, articles and links. There is even a Pepys discussion group.

Here’s the link to Pepys’s diary.

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