Burning the heather

I’m no longer consumed by dark nights in which I’d wake sweating in panic while wondering where it’s all going. Words help.

I am at the Doctor’s surgery. It’s full. Monday morning full.

I’m not here for myself, though. I’m here with my youngest who has a raging temperature, a rash, and most worryingly, is periodically struggling to breathe properly. He needs an inhaler to help him. He needs something stronger than Calpol to bring his temperature down, and I need to know he’s OK.

He rocks gently to and fro on his chair. A much older man is seated to my right. He too sounds like he needs help with his breathing: he rasps noisily and I repeatedly suppress the urge to cough on his behalf. Sat in the order that we are we look like a living, breathing, aching, wheezing timeline. Stuck as I am in the middle, I can’t help but think to myself that I’m not as young as I once was, nor as old as I could be. I’m immediately embarrassed by the banality of what I’m thinking.

Perhaps it’s all the fault of the Pet Shop Boys that I’m being overly reflective. They have a new album out in January and, by the sound of their newly released track ‘Burning the heather’ they could well be back to their lyrically mature and sombre best. Suede’s Bernard Butler plays guitar and Stuart Price’s production is subtle, almost muted. It’s certainly lacks the banging quality of the last two albums, which if I’m honest, is no bad thing. I’ve always wallowed in the beautifully engineered tracks of 1990’s Behaviour, while 2012’s Elysium saw me stop more than once while driving to cry with the sheer unbearable weight of grief.

My life isn’t shot through with the pain of loss anymore. I’ve accepted the fact that ‘autumn is here and time’s moving along’. I’m no longer consumed by dark nights in which I’d wake sweating in panic while wondering where it’s all going. Words help. The persona in the coda of the song finds that he’ll ‘consider staying’. I’m glad that I did too.

Pure shores

Predictably enough, I read Alex Garland’s novel The Beach in Greece some 22 years ago. When Danny Boyle’s adaptation hit the screens any excitement I had at watching it soon disappeared that wet Sunday afternoon in Bolton. Even Virginie Ledoyen couldn’t really warm it up. Where the novel sweltered its way towards the secret mythical beach, the film seemed stilted and contrived.

The soundtrack is a different matter. It’s an eclectic mix of early naughties: from Moby to Blur via Richard Ashcroft. Brian Eno and Angelo Badalamenti feature along the way. The highlight is All Saints’ track ‘Pure Shores’. With William Orbit arranging the vocals, the harmonies journey through deserts and along shores ‘to a place I can call mine’. Lovely.

A constant theme of pop music is the escaping from an urban environment. ‘Pure Shores’ reminds us that when pop does it well, we travel through sonic landscapes as moving as their physical counterparts.

Oliver Twist

It’s heartbreaking. This is the first time I’ve read Oliver Twist while I’ve had children of my own. Indeed, it’s the first time I’ve read it as a teacher. I struggled to read it out loud in class.

Last year I read Oliver Twist for the third time. It’s odd how a novel that you think you understand can turn on you and quietly insist that it is not really what you thought it was about.

Perhaps it was because I was using lots of extracts from it with a particularly interested Year 9 group. We pored over the beginning of chapter five with a keen eye for the gothic, noticing that state of mind that Dickens exploits so well in the novel: somewhere between dreaming and waking. He uses the same device elsewhere and it starts to lend the novel a nightmarish quality that has never been captured beyond the page. I’ve never seen an adaptation that is able to convey what Dickens does so well in his first novel proper: that existence for some of Victorian England’s most vulnerable was a literal nightmare. Yet Dickens is able to take this trope, and through his ironic narrative detachment (which, ironically, means that the reader can almost touch his passionate defence of the poor), he is able to propose a space in which little Oliver is both dead to the world, and at the same time very much suffering. As he sleeps in an undertaker’s shop:

‘he wished, as he crept into his narrow bed, that that were his coffin, and that he could be lain in a calm and lasting sleep in the churchyard ground, with the tall grass waving gently above his head, and the sound of the old deep bell to soothe him in his sleep’

It’s heartbreaking. This is the first time I’ve read Oliver Twist while I’ve had children of my own. Indeed, it’s the first time I’ve read it as a teacher. I struggled to read it out loud in class.

I think they understood.