The Prose (sic) and Cons of Zoom Workshops


Before Covid changed everything, I had run a good many poetry workshops live, and tutored for Arvon residential courses several times. I wasn’t as experienced as some, but I’d done my stint. Enough to develop methods and preferences.

Nonetheless, learning to do these things on Zoom has been a new learning opportunity. It’s mostly been a joy.

For example, I love the widened access. I like the way people can take part in a tutor-led writing session for a relatively low (or sometimes no) cost, from their own homes. So if they’re unwell, or disabled, they can still come. And they can do it from different countries, different time zones — whatever.

I don’t like that people without good broadband access and/or computer confidence are excluded. Shy folk and HSPs are also wary. So even though some are as comfortable in this new element as grasshoppers in grass, others are not.

This is something I ‘get’, not least because I participated as a student/learner/writer in several online workshops last year, enough to sample the highly varied way these things can be managed.

For me, being a poet is as much about reading poems as writing them. So my workshops are structured around a group of poems, and I like participants to see them on screen, not just hear me (or someone else) reading them aloud.

Of course, there are suggested writing tasks, too. I explain these out loud but I like to have the instructions typed up too, on pages that are screen-shared. Why? Because when I’m a participant (as opposed to the organiser), I easily get confused. Things distract me. I forget a) what the task is and b) how long we’re supposed to have to do it — unless it’s written down.

I like to read the discussion poems aloud to the group. I don’t ask participants to take a turn at reading. That’s because there are specific aspects I want to bring out.

My writing exercises (all of which are optional) are closely connected by a central theme or idea of some kind. The aim is to sow seeds, not harvest whole plants.

I do like a bit of readback/feedback, but not usually until the end of the workshop. And of course that’s optional.

However, I like people to feel they have to work. Work hard and think hard, and have a bit of fun. That’s what (to my mind) they’ve come for.

I like a bit of follow-up after the workshop, too, a chance for people to communicate something individually and privately. I usually send participants copies of the poems used in the workshop, and perhaps some links to follow up ideas.

Generally the Tricks of the Trade workshops have attracted people who look from their Zoom faces as though they’re over 40; and many are well over 60 (like me): the magnet effect. I’ve run some on Saturdays, because that way people who work through the week can come. I haven’t, so far as I know, attracted anybody under 24, though not because I didn’t want to. Nor have I, so far as I know, attracted anybody who’s hearing-impaired, though I do try to share text on screen for all tasks.

For one of my workshops, Giles Turnbull agreed to come along not just as a poet, but as a poet who is blind, so that I could ‘see’ how it worked for him. I gave him the shared pages in advance, so he could preview with his screen-reader. We thought it worked pretty well. It was certainly great having him there as a participant.

I ask for some evaluation from my groupies each time. That evaluation has changed the way I do things. It’s taught me stuff.

Like what?

I’ve learned that detailed advance communication is important. Clarity about content and timing is appreciated, with reminders near to the event.

Also people like to know at the workshop what’s likely to happen, how and when. In business they call this ‘managing expectations’. But I feel it is important. I’ve learned this the hard way when people told me they were disappointed by certain aspects.

Technical things can also go wrong. They sometimes go wrong with broadband connections. They go wrong with local gadgets (my Imac has more than once stopped processing audio-feed, for reasons unknown); luckily I have a laptop too so can always switch from one machine to another. Worse things happen at sea.

For me as organiser, online workshops are intense. I find they demand absolute concentration. In a virtual element, you can’t pick up the usual cues.

But that doesn’t mean cues aren’t there: in the faces, in the gestures, in the chat box. Then suddenly it’s the end and it all stops. Everyone has left the meeting. They all left it in precisely the same second. Weird.

I sit at my desk, surrounded by silent bits of paper. I put my head in my hands. The planet spins.

New Tricks of the Trade workshops:

Tuesday 6 July, 10.30–13.00


Saturday 17 July, 14.00–16.30

Theme: Serving a sentence (the role of sentence shapes and structures in poems)

Tutor: Helena Nelson

Numbers: Max. 10 participants.

 Cost: £30.00 (there’s one free place in each session, so if strapped for cash, say).

Email me to reserve a place. If you don’t have the email address already, please use the contact box.

These sessions will involve looking closely at other people’s poems, as well as various writing exercises. Any readback is optional. There will be follow-up in the form of optional interaction on one of your own poems.

More detailed information to be shared nearer the time.



Sometimes you don’t realise you’ve learned a word somehow wrong.      

Then someone, or some thing, pulls you up and makes you think about it.    

Like…. swashbuckling, for example.                          

There’s a lot of stuff these days about pirates. Kids love pirates. 

My understanding of pirates evolved long before Johnny Depp. Pirates for me were Long John Silver and Captain Hook.

So it’s a very long time since I first met the word ‘swashbuckling’. It must have come in somewhere back then, because I know it well, and like it as well as most people. Swashbuckling pops up whenever pirates are mentioned—for example, Ten of the most swashbuckling Puffin pirates.

I never looked ‘swashbuckling’up (I never looked anything up as a kid—my sister and I read voluminously and picked up the meanings of things as we went along). So somehow I developed the idea that ‘swashbuckling’ was something to do with the pirates’ giant buckles on their belts. At the same time, in my mind some of those belts were more like huge sashes (or ‘cummerbunds’, another word I like).

As a result, I sort of made swashbuckling into sashbuckling. I certainly had no idea what the word actually meant, though I knew it was fiercely piratish.

It was a cartoon that made me think long and hard. Cartoons work like poems, I find. Often they hinge on a single word combined with an image, and it creates an intense cluster of associations and meaning and fun and joy. 

This time it was Savage Chickens on September 13th: a chicken with an eye patch is applying for a job, and the interviewer is looking at his CV: ‘Hm… I see from your résumé that you’ve done a lot of swashbuckling’.

It made me laugh. And I started to think about swashbuckling and what it actually was. Had I myself ever done any?

I looked it up. And it’s not what I thought at all. Well, it is and it isn’t.

It means ‘acting in the manner of a swashbuckler’. Ha. What is a swashbuckler?

‘A swaggering or daring soldier or adventurer.’

Okay, yes, Swaggering, yes (I won’t go into how I’ve always visualised a swagger, but fortunately we all know what swag is.)

But still—buckling what! And why? And what is a swash?

It seems there is no swash. There is ‘to swash’, which is to strike something violently. And the ‘buckle’ is nothing to do with the belt. It’s a small, round shield.

A swashbuckler is someone who strikes his opponent’s small round shield violently. In battle. Or maybe while boarding his ship.

Or maybe via Twitter.

Swashbucklers are not subtle.

They are all boys. 

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Poetics and Drinking Parties

I love the word symposium. I don’t know why.

I think it’s because you can hear ‘posy’ in it. And because ‘symp’ starts sympathy and sympathise. And because I think the plural is ‘symposia’, a word I’d quite like to get into a rhyming poem, maybe with a nip or two of ‘ambrosia’.

Obviously it’s a bit of an upmarket, somewhat academic word too. I took part in the Scottish Women’s Poetry Symposium 2016 yesterday at the Scottish Poetry Library, run in collaboration with the University of Edinburgh. It was open, of course, to all genders and to many ideas and provocations. A fabulous event, wonderfully well organised in a building like no other, and free to all.

A symposium, to the Greeks at least, was a party, with stimulating flow of drink, food and ideas. We tend to use it these days to mean something more like a conference, with speakers and panels – a formal event. I’m glad to report the SWPS day combined the best of both, with food and drink that was a feast to the eye as well as the appetite. And a most convivial and welcoming atmosphere.

The word ‘poetics’ was in the air. It is, to me, an academic word, and poets who do degrees in writing use it cheerfully, whereas ordinary folk look a bit worried when the term pops up. (We create both divisions and alliances by our use of language.) But at the Scottish Poetry Library yesterday at no point did you have to feel dim for not grasping an academically technical term (though there were a good few – I have them in my notebook). Of course, it helps if you like language and find it interesting, which most people working with, in or around poetry do.

I was talking briefly on a small panel about my poetics. So I had to think again about what ‘poetics’ meant. It’s one of those plural words that’s really singular. That is to say, there isn’t a noun ‘poetic’. ‘Poetic’ is an adjective. But there is a noun ‘poetics’ and it takes a singular verb. So your poetics is probably different from mine.

I suppose Poetics must have a plural. Because if you and I get together and discuss both of our poetics, two sets of poetics are on the table: two poetics? or two poeticses? (I must not think like this. Red herring alert.)

Poetics usually means either a theory of poetry, of which there are many, or a way of working in poetry, exemplified by practice. So my ‘poetics’ is exemplified by what I do as an editor, publisher and selector of poetry. That is to say, I have preferences and they’re demonstrated publicly in the books I choose to bring out. I promote the work I like and find stimulating. What I like and what I can like turns into my poetics.

We talked about gate-keepers yesterday too, a more accessible term. Publishers, magazine editors and event organisers have something to do with what gets read or heard: they can open or close a gate to publication. My HappenStance gate is quite small. But these days there are many gates. It’s not so very hard to find one that will open, or even to make your own and invite people through it, especially if your gate opens without public funding.

It’s an exciting time for poetry. Confusing, bamboozling and bewildering too. Impossible to keep up with what’s going on amidst the glory of types and forms and outlets for poems. But there’s no need to keep up. Keeping on, is the thing. Keeping on, and making connections, and joyfully exploring the mystery and magic of language. Sharing. Yesterday’s event was very much about that. Both ideas and poems were shared. Some wonderful things were shared: new names, new ways to go, new things to like.

I ended my own party piece yesterday with my favourite definition of poetry, which is Tom Leonard’s, from his poem ‘100 differences between poetry and prose’ which doesn’t contain a hundred differences at all. But this is the one I like – yep, here’s a bit of poetics for you:

‘if you dribble past five defenders, it isn’t called sheer prose’


Colour photograph of a path through November woods in sunlight. The path is thickly covered in brown leaves, but the trees are golden with sunlight and also a fully yellow beech just about to drop its leaves.



Why Arvon Works

There is a recipe, and it works.

I’m just back from an Arvon week at the Hurst, in Shropshire—a week of practising poets, with Cliff Yates and me as tutors.

In my younger days of writing, Arvon existed and it was remote to me and something other people did, and those Other People were all (so far as I was concerned) rich, effete and almost certainly spoilt (I had no idea there were bursaries). My deeply left-wing side, the side that reacted with embarrassment to my parents running a private primary school (in which I was a pupil), was hopelessly biased against Arvon.

Poetry skill you could buy? No chance. I was in favour of garrets for poets.

And then, in the unfair way life sometimes returns rejected gifts to the refuser, I was invited to tutor on an Arvon Course.

Really, like Ben Zephaniah refusing an OBE, I should have declined. No hesitation. But I was too curious about what I’d been missing and, besides, my co-tutor was to be Michael Laskey. I would have gone to the ends of the earth to do a course with Laskey. If Michael was there, I knew I would learn. I love to learn. Almost more than anything, I love to learn.

So I accepted gratefully – and learn I did. And afterwards, and ever since, find it hard to believe I have had the privilege and honour and pleasure and delight of tutoring on one of these courses.

Last week’s Arvon was my fourth as tutor, and I have also done one as a paying tutor-student (it was an Arvon course for tutors to learn more about tutoring). Each time, part of me thinks it won’t (can’t) work again. But it does. It really does.

If you’ve done one yourself, you’ll know all this. But you might not have done. You might be me twenty, thirty, forty years ago. So here’s an Arvon day for you, just so you get a bit of an insight. You can even do the exercises if you like. If they don’t work, it doesn’t matter. They’re all bridges and footpaths designed to take you somewhere, but it’s the journey that counts. Destinations are over-rated.

First there’s the space. You’re in a building of light and shade and space and echoes. It will be an old building with history on the walls and photos of writers you’ve heard of, and books spilling off bookcases. You’ll hear voices in the corridors and they’ll be either whispering, or shouting and laughing.

Outside there will be a glorious landscape. You may find it breath-taking and have to go inside again and lie down.

There will be a place to lie down. At any time of day or night you can return to your own sleeping and writing space – a room – maybe small or maybe large – with a bed, and a desk, and a chair, and a place to put your clothes. You won’t be able to plug into the net and read this blog because you won’t have access to the net. You will have full access to books, paper and thinking space.

You can be a private person at Arvon or a public person. It suits introverts and extroverts. You can have breakfast with everybody or you can, like me, carry it away to your room.

But let’s get back to the day. You get up and the weather will either be gorgeous or terrible. It won’t matter. You’ll look through the window and the weather will feel right.

You’ll go to the kitchen and find your breakfast in the cupboard or fridge – you can cook bacon if you want, or eggs. Or have toast or cereal or the any of the other things people have in the morning. There will be masses of fruit. In Arvon kitchens, as food is consumed, more magically appears.

At a certain time – probably about half past nine – you’ll take yourself and your notebook, or whatever you like to write on, to the writing room. This will be a big room with a big table around which the writing people will sit, and there will be a place for you – anywhere you like, unless you arrive last and get the last space.

You might feel a little bit close to the other writing people. You might think, ‘I can’t write, not like this, with all these people around me’.

And there will be a tutor who is leading this workshop, or spaceship, or think-stop, or shipshape, and that’s a relief because it means there’s a structure and someone in charge whom you can trust, and they’ll tell you what to do (and that you don’t have to do it).

The tutor might start with some free writing to get you going.

And as the tutor starts to explain what’s happening the writers feel a tiny thrill of expectation and nerves like the start of a race. The tutor may say how great it is that you’re all there and then something about a warm-up so ‘here’s a line to run with’. And there’ll be a given line. O the given line!

Which might be ‘I knew I had to do it before it was too late so …’

You take the line, you write it down and you keep going until the tutor tells you to stop. You don’t take your pen off the paper you just keep going whatever nonsense is spilling out and if you find yourself drying up and running out of words you just keep writing the same thing the same thing the same nonsense the same thing until you get going again you can rant if you want to about how effing ridiculous it is to keep writing the same thing over and over and eventually just when you think your arm is about to drop up because writing continuously without lifting the pen from the paper is INCREDIBLY tiring the voice of the tutor will break in and say, ‘You can stop now’.

All the writers will look up in relief and smile and relax, and there will be creakings of chairs and also an expectancy because what is going to happen NEXT? There’s no knowing what will happen next. So MUCH could happen next. Almost anything could happen next.

But it might be that the tutor – because this could be day one – would ask you to look back at what you’d been writing (provided you could read your own handwriting) and find a word of phrase you liked – and take that word or phrase out and write it again separately from the rest. And he might ask some people whether they would share that word or phrase and some people – maybe even all the people – would want to throw their word or phrase into the room, and the tutor might say ‘If you like any of these, you can have them for later.’

Then the tutor might talk about ‘sticky’ words or phrases – how sometimes the mention of just one thing could call a whole world of associations into one’s head, things that are stuck to that phrase. And he might start passing round a poem called ’21 Things My Father Never Told Me’ by somebody famous or not, and once your copy had arrived he would read it out. Or it might be a dialogue poem: things someone used to say and what you used to say back, like Michael Rosen’s They said, I say. And then he might say to think of someone, close to you – could be your dad or mum, if you had one, could be your friend, your uncle, your teacher – and try something similar – X things Patsy Cline Never Told Me. Or Mum says, I say. And there might be rules this time. Like that you had to break the line before you reach the right hand edge of the paper (so it looks like most poems), and that you had to number the things. And you had 5 minutes starting NOW.

And before you know it everybody is writing so you’d better get writing so you start writing the things you would have liked your ex to have told you but she never did. Or you start writing the awful things your mum DID tell you. Or you start thinking about your nan and the things you never told her that you wish you had … and you start to write them down. And everybody around you is writing like at school, which could put you off, but actually weirdly it doesn’t put you off because this is easy, isn’t it? You get to thing number three and then you remember the accident, and you think you should have written the things Steph said to you before that accident so you ditch the first poem and start another, and you’re up to about 11 of Steph (but there’s more) and the tutor bangs on a huge cymbal (I made that up, it’s not true) and says ‘Stop Now.’ Or maybe ‘Get to the end of the point you’re on, and then stop’.

And people sit back and look round, with slight astonishment that the room’s still there, a bit of sheepish grinning, and already that tutor is on her feet and asking for some suggestions – she wants some abstract nouns please like ‘love’ and despair’, and she’s writing them down on a flipchart down the left hand side of the sheet. People are calling out. Anxiety! Hope!  Panic!  Patience!  Consternation!  Terror!  Doubt!  Grief!  Anticipation!  Logic! Blindness! Mathematics! Art!

Stop! There’s no more room. Now concrete nouns – she wants concrete nouns like table and chair – and an indefinite article, an ‘a’. Someone calls out A carrot! A pair of specs! An octopus! A necklace! A fifty pence piece! A condom! A shopping list! A recipe! A book! A pace-maker! A handbag! A teapot! A tealeaf! A panda!

Stop! There’s no more room. So here’s the task. Choose one of the abstract nouns from the left hand column – any of them, and one of the concrete ones from the right hand column. Fit your words into the following title:

  • Three Ways in which Grief is like a Shopping List.
  • Three ways in which X is like a Y.
  • Three Ways in which Logic is like a Teapot.

Choose your words. Write the poem. Three stanzas (obviously) for the three ways. You’ve got three minutes.

Quick, quick, what will you have which will you choose some people are already writing and two of them are chuckling quietly and the tutor’s saying it doesn’t matter what you choose because everything is like everything else just try it and you see.

So you do, and it’s sort of true and sort of not. But interesting. It’s interesting. She said three minutes but really she says STOP after at least five because the writers are writing. The writers are writing and that is the point.

Now the tutor’s asking you to write down something you read recently – it must be in the last week – or you could write down two or three things if you read a lot. You need the name of the author, that’s very important, the title of the book/poem/newspaper is less important. So everybody has a think and does that.

‘Now I want you to write down where you were when you were reading that book,’ he says. ‘If you read the book in several places, write down one place that you can see yourself reading that book in. And write down what that place was like, what you were sitting on, and what was going on round you.’ 

People start to scribble, and some of them look up and think, and try to remember, and tap their pens, and then start to scribble again. After a minute or so the tutor passes round a poem by Charles Wright called ‘After Reading Tu Fu I go outside to the Dwarf Orchard’. The writers settle comfortably into their seats as the rustling sheets go round, one for each person, and then the tutor reads the poem out loud. The poem is beautiful and sad and it calls quietness into the room. The space at the end of the poem opens right up and out and stretches up to the ceiling. You can hear people exhale. ‘Could somebody else read it, now?’ says the tutor. ‘It would be good to hear it in another voice.’ Immediately one of the female writers offers (not you) and you hear the poem a second time and this time it’s different. How interesting.

A little discussion emerges – people saying which are their favourite lines, and you hear yourself saying how your favourite line is ‘How deeper than elsewhere is the dusk in your own yard’. Mysteriously, round this table, people are able to say things without interrupting each other. One person says something and other people listen. And then another says something and people listen. And there’s a bit of discussion about the title too – the significance of reading inside and then going outside. But before you know it, the tutor interrupts.

‘I want you,’ he says, ‘to think back to where you were when you were reading the author you wrote down earlier’. You look back to your notes and what have you got? Oh yes, it was that new book by Charlotte Gann, Noir, and the weird poem about Mrs Coulter’s Scissors – what was THAT about? And you were reading it on the train on the way to your interview in Chester, so you were a bit nervous, which didn’t help the poem. Or maybe it did.

‘Here’s your next task,’ the tutor’s saying. Your title is ‘After Reading [substitute the name of the author that you wrote down earlier] I go outside to [substitute real place you know well]. And here are some rules: 

  1. You must write in the present tense.
  2. You must go outside in the poem.
  3. You must have a season in the first line and no verb (like Wright’s poem)
  4. The poem must include one line that is a question with a question mark at the end.
  5. Your lines must not be longer than 11 words max.
  6. Poem should have three stanzas.
  7. You can break any of these rules.

Right: you’ve got ten minutes.

Somebody looks a little confused and says ‘Do all the lines have to be 11 words long?’ and the tutor says no, they can be any length you like so long as they aren’t LONGER than eleven words long, and already people have started writing and one of them is you.

Some time later the tutor’s voice permeates your consciousness saying you’ve got another minute, so you start to tidy up the poem, although you haven’t finished, not really. Other people are bound to be better at this than you but by this stage that doesn’t matter much because it really was interesting how you remembered about that tree in the corner of the station and the shape in the bark that caught your attention because it was really like a pair of scissors.

And the tutor’s talking about ‘read back’. Read back? Help! Are you going to have to read something out loud? She’s saying to look over all the things you’ve written that morning to see whether there’s anything you’d like to share. It could be a whole poem. It could be just the title. It could be a few lines out of something but not the whole thing. Take a few minutes, have a look, see whether you want to tidy anything up or not. So you do, and you’re not sure about this, not sure at all, though you know what you think is the best bit of what you wrote this morning, the other things were bollocks.

And the tutor’s looking around the room expectantly – and somebody chirps up – ‘I’d like to read my Three Ways in which Death is like a Teapot’ – and the tutor looks round at the flip chair and says, ‘But death wasn’t on the list’ and the writer says ‘I know’, and then she starts to read, and her poem is really funny, and one person in the room has the most infectious laugh in the world, so you’re all falling about with laughter. Then somebody else reads some things their mum never told them, and it’s really sad. And so on, until everybody has read back something, and for some the ‘something’ is long and for others the ‘something’ is just three opening lines.

And it’s time for the teabreak. It’s eleven o-clock and you can’t believe it, it’s eleven o’clock and you spill out of the writing room and into the kitchen and there’s tea and coffee and juice and so on, and a plate of freshly-baked cake (you are RAVENOUS), and some thin slices of sweet potato spiced with smoked paprika, and the sun has come out and some people are in the garden talking, and one person has wandered off on his own to the apple tree, and others have stayed in the kitchen chatting. The plate with the cake on has turned into a plate of crumbs.




I was going to give you a whole day, but I can’t. This is already too long and I’ve only got you as far as half past eleven. But just briefly, there will be another session, not unlike the one I’ve just covered, before lunch. The lunch will be self-service and it will be delicious – the smell of soup will be filling the house during the whole of the last writing exercise. And after lunch, some people will have ‘tutorials’ with the tutors and bring some of the things they wrote in the morning and talk about them, and others will go for a walk, or disappear into their rooms to write or sleep. Four people will have signed up to cook that evening (the writers take it in turn, one evening each) and they will find all the ingredients and magic instructions and have a helper to guide them through. Everybody else will arrive at seven and devour the dinner in the lovely dining room (all the dining rooms are lovely). Some wine/beer will be around as well as lots of water. And after the dinner and the washing up, there’ll be another session from 8.30-9.30 when something will happen – maybe a reading from a guest poet – maybe something from the writers themselves.

And then some people will go to sleep, or go to their rooms and write, or a little group will go out for a walk in the dark and look at the stars. 

And the next day it will all happen again.

At the end of the week, you have a notebook book full of scribbling. So MUCH. So many starts and middles. You will have laughed till you cried. You may have cried till you laughed.

You will keep in touch with at least two people for a long time after the course, maybe even forever.

There is a recipe, and it works. The writers are the ingredients and they are different every time. They bring their pens and their lives.

This is the longest blog entry I have ever written because blogs should be short. It is far too long.

I want you to notice in particular that I haven’t used the word ‘amazing’, except now I have. 

And here is a film about Arvon, which is also true.


Photograph of the writing table at The Hurst in Shropshire. You see a huge round polished table that takes up nearly the whole room, which is a room with a big window opposite you with what look like trees outside -- a big window with lots os small white panes. And the ceiling in the room is high, with white lights suspended high up. Around the table 17 or 18 beautiful wooden chairs with high backs. There are no people in the picture. The table is waiting for them.








Reading. Why bother?

In my teens, watching University Challenge on TV, I howled at the idea of contestants from the University of Reading reading chemistry. Or philosophy. Or even English.

Reading strikes me as a good place to live for someone who enjoys reading. Such a person probably likes words too – their variations, their playfulness, their slipperiness. By ‘reading’, I mean the cognitive process of decoding symbols to derive meaning from text. But you knew that.

You probably also know about typoglycaemia (though perhaps not by that name) because of the jokey email or FaceBook postings that reveal how quickly and accurately we deduce meaning, even when words don’t look remotely like they’re supposed to. So another definition of ‘reading’ is: the way the eye moves rapidly to draw meaning from text. Very little is accurately ‘seen’ but you get it anyway.

Carl Spitzweg 'Der Bücherwurm'
Carl Spitzweg ‘Der Bücherwurm’

If you’re still with me, you’re doing it at this minute. Reading, I mean. You’ll be finding it more or less pleasant (physically) depending on how your browser displays this page. If the column appears too wide, with a long line for your eye to follow, reading will be harder. Typographers tell us that – for ease of making sense – the length of a line should be between 50-60 characters (that includes spaces). It will also help if the sentences aren’t too long, and if the words don’t have too many syllables (see Flesch-Kinkaid Readability Test).

(Actually the word ‘readability’ is reducing my readability, since it is polysyllabically rich, but not as polysyllabic as ‘polysyllabically’.)

But never mind. Reading is good for you. Reading is also good for me. That is to say if you read, it’s good for me. Because I sell books and pamphlets and – yes – I hope you will buy some of them and read them. Not, alas, Fiona Moore’s The Only Reason for Time, however, because although only published at the end of April, it has been selling like the proverbial hot cakes and we are down to the final copies.

In 2004, the National Endowment for the Arts in America did a survey about what they called ‘literary reading’. They called this Reading at Risk, which sums up their findings nicely. They discovered that – from young adulthood onwards – everybody was reading less (less ‘literature’, that is, though their definition of ‘literature’ was broad). The more education people had, the more they read, but all of them were reading significantly less than they used to.

I specially liked the way the NEAA survey suggested that people who did read literature were more likely to do other things too: they were more likely to do volunteer work, go to art galleries, concerts and films, and participate in and go to sporting events. The more you read, the richer your whole life. So forget the image of bookworms stuck at home with spectacles falling off the end of their noses.

Of course, I would like this, wouldn’t I? I sell bits of things to read and I believe reading is the answer to everything.

But I’m not alone. Here’s my favourite bit from the first volume of Stephen Fry’s autobiography, Moab is My Washpot. At this point in the book, Fry is at boarding school in Uppingham:

In my first year I had Fawcett as a friend, and later, a boy called Jo Wood, with whom I was to share a study in my second year. Jo Wood was sound, sound as a bell. Solid, cynical, amused and occasionally amusing, he did not appear to be very intelligent, and unlike Richard Fawcett and me, seemed uninterested in words, ideas and the world.

But one day he said to me: ‘I’ve got it now. It’s reading, isn’t it?’

‘I’m sorry?’

‘You read a lot, don’t you? That’s where it all comes from. Reading. Yeah, reading.’

The next time I saw him he had a Herman Hesse novel in his hands. I never saw him again without a book somewhere on his person. When I heard, some years later, that he had got into Cambridge I thought to myself, I know how that happened. He decided one day to read.



Acronyms have to be taken seriously. Acronyms mean business.

Acronyms have to be taken seriously. Acronyms mean business.

It used to be different. Acronyms were once discreet ways of referring to matters that weren’t talked about openly. ‘STs’, for instance, were sanitary towels (also known as ‘bunnies’). ‘MD’, spoken in a hushed tone, meant ‘mentally defective’. ‘FHB’, with a warning inflection, meant when there were guests to dinner, they got first option on seconds (also known as ‘secs’). It stood for Family Hold Back.

Then there was WC for water closet. There must be more strange terms for a toilet (which is in itself a strange term) than any other object in our lives. Some are short (WC, loo, bog), others lengthy. ‘Public Convenience’, for example, is such an elegant term. A notice on the door of one of the toilets in our local supermarket currently reads ‘Out of order. We are sorry for the inconvenience.’ So wonderfully apt.

But I’m wandering. I meant to start with CPD, which might stand for Continuous Poetic Divagation, Conservative Policy on Diarrhoea, or Chronic Psychotropic Disorder.

However, as all folk in the teaching profession know, it also clunks into place as Continuing Professional Development, which means spending a certain number of hours per year on training courses, later listed on a CPDR (Continuing Professional Development Record). The CPD acronym (rarely enunciated without a groan) has quickly acquired negative connotations.

Last week, in my college role, I was engaged in discussion with colleagues about (groan) CPD and how to make it more relevant. We were talking about teaching. Which experiences, training sessions, books had taught us how to teach?

My father died over a quarter of a century ago. He was 61 and I thought he was a good age. Now, at nearly 59 myself, I see he was incredibly young. On the stone tablet that marks the place where his ashes lie, he is described as a ‘schoolmaster’. He liked that word – he liked words in general.

When I was ten I was in his class at school. He was one of two head-teachers (they were partners in a private business) and the school was a huge Victorian mansion in which we also lived. It seemed normal at the time. In the holidays, when the children were away, my sister and I had a classroom as playroom, as well as the run of the huge garden and playing field at the back. When they wanted us in for tea, (we were unlikely to be visible) they rang the school bell.

When your parents are teachers (my mother started teaching later, in the same school), you imbibe certain things without knowing. There’s the matter of answering a question with a question, for example. Q: “Why do poems have short lines?” A: “Why do you think they have short lines?”

A college boss once told me I had a habit of answering a question with a question. He found it very annoying. Teachers use this response mechanism to get you to think. They also do it to give themselves time to think. I once had a fierce argument with the same boss. I told him I didn’t think you could be a good teacher without a sense of self-doubt. He believed, needless to say, the opposite.

I have a clear memory, accompanied by a warm glow of pleasure, of asking a question when I was in Form IV, my dad’s class. We were doing Hadrian’s Wall, which was more than 70 miles long and built of local stone. “How did they stick the stones together to make it?” I asked.

My father paused. “That’s a very good question,” he said.

To this day, I would rather be praised for a good question than a good answer. Of course, he may have been playing for time, while he worked out what to say. Or he might have been delighted by my question because he knew the answer. I can’t remember what happened next.

It was early CPD, nevertheless, although I still don’t like the acronym. My teacher-father communicated the idea that the question was enormously interesting, and so the answer would be a sort of discovery – an excavation. Without knowing it, I developed the same habit. I learned it at my father’s knee, and that must be why – although I did try to avoid the profession – when I returned to teaching, it came naturally. Continuing personal development, maybe. Teaching teaches you more about learning than anything else I know, and sometimes learning teaches you about teaching.

Teachers need to like learning, though. My father was curious about everything Roman, including Hadrian’s Wall, he was as curious as we were. And he knew how to find out stuff. When he was dying, after his second, and fatal, heart attack, they connected him to a heart monitor.

The day I visited, he was watching a graph of his heart activity on a screen. I asked how he was.

“Okay,” he said. “It’s all been enormously interesting.”