Posts Tagged ‘literature’

Just finished my first Harry Potter re-read in over 10 years. Wilfred has been providing the full, 4D Crookshanks experience throughout. ⚡📚

Last night, I had the tremendous joy and sadness of celebrating the life of Mrs Nora Bartlett at the School of English in St Andrews. The number of people in attendance, and the memories and passages read in her honour, were a testament to the love (and hilarity) she inspired in all of us. This is the story I shared:

I had the great privilege of studying under Nora for four years at St Andrews, though it wasn’t – ironically – until our first disagreement that I had the infinitely greater pleasure of becoming her friend. During an otherwise unassuming tutorial session, our group digressed from the subject of contemporary fiction to classical cinema – in particular, It’s a Wonderful Life: which you might know as the James Stewart Christmas movie classic, but might not know as one of my most hated films of all time. Well, I made the mistake of vocalising this opinion to the group; which caused Nora to stop dead in her tracks and tell me, in no uncertain terms, that I was “perfectly wrong” on the matter and required immediate edification. No sooner had I got home that evening than I checked my emails to discover a missive from Nora that began with the phrase “I hate to see such a clever person languishing in the outer darkness”, and followed with a lengthy critique of the movie in question; enumerating the myriad ways in which I’d misjudged the film and should revise my opinion immediately. (She also sent a follow-up email the next day which read, “Mark, just to check if I said anything manifestly insane about IAWL yesterday. I was getting ill and also trying to get it all down before I got interrupted; which perhaps explains what happens to commas and full stops in undergraduate work.”)

Now, it was a very compelling argument, and a valiant effort to make me see the error of my ways; though sadly unsuccessful because I confess that, to this day, I still find the movie saccharine to the point of cavity-inducing. But, whilst that was the one subject Nora and I were never able to agree on, it did have the happy side effect of leading to years of subsequent correspondence on the many other things we did share: chief among them our love of animals. Just to preface that, I have no greater life’s ambition than to become a crazy cat lady, and Nora had written, in her own words, “encyclopaedically”, about the passing of her cats over the years (including one named Lionel after the actor who played Mr Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life). Describing one visit to London, she told me that her greatest highlight was the discovery of a monument at the Animals in War Memorial depicting all the animals who have won the Dickin Medal (which is the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross): including 32 pigeons, 18 dogs, 3 horses, and – we both thought rather unfairly – just one cat.

We also continued to exchange our opinions of movies (she told me, for instance, that’s she’d learned of the “distressing existence” of a 1997 made-for-TV remake of It’s a Wonderful Life called Merry Christmas, Mr Bailey: and noted, “How I hate remakes. The cast list is like a horror movie in itself.”) and of course literature; where I learned that she used to hate Shakespeare’s sonnets until she taught them and afterwards liked them immensely: especially the rhyming. “I’m crazy about rhymes,” she said, “but you may be amused to know my sister considers the ability to produce or enjoy rhyme a form of brain damage.”

I also came to learn of her endlessly fascinating life prior to her teaching career, including her time as a salesgirl in a Jenners Department store, a social worker in Manchester, a travel agent, and such wonderfully non-sequitur biographical details as how she was taught to cook by a dwarf. Similarly, I now owe a great deal of my own more colourful CV-builders to Nora; like the years I spent in Japan as a teacher with the JET Programme, which I’d never have known about were it not for my mentioning my love of Japan to Nora who told me that her daughter, Penelope, had gone out there with JET, and helped me through the whole, year-long application process; providing advice and references throughout.

And, as invariably happens when you experience life alongside someone for long enough, we talked about loss. Nora told me she thought the loss of animals particularly terrible, because their lives are so brief and without guile; and because very few people outside the family get to know how monumental they are. And in that sense, I think it’s wonderful that her life was so abundant with stories, and that generations of people, ourselves included, were able to experience the gift of her company.

When I was notified of this event, I read Dr Jones’ request that we read a poem or passage that made us think of Nora. I’ve been thinking about it in the weeks since, and, in spite of everything, what I keep returning to is this quote from the movie which Nora so loved, and I so vehemently did not: It’s a Wonderful Life. In the words of the angel, Clarence:

“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”

These books were so much a part of my childhood, and the perfect way to celebrate what would have been Roald Dahl’s 100th birthday.

“So Matilda’s strong young mind continued to grow, nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world like ships on the sea. These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone.”

A return trip to my favourite place in Scotland.


I’ve mentioned before that my condition to myself on getting tattoos was that they had to represent significant milestones in my personal history. This particular one is dedicated to the four wonderful years I spent attaining my Master’s degree in English at the University of St Andrews, and my enduring love of the written word. It’s also inspired by the beautiful work of Austin Tott, whose (in his case, rather less permanent) design was the perfect symbol to represent those ideas.

And, on an equally belated note: a finished photo of the very first tattoo I got (almost a year ago already!). A dual inspiration, being my very favourite quote (and one you might very well recognise as the title of every blog I’ve ever run), in the handwriting of one of my very favourite people – the incomparable Audrey Hepburn:

Are not there little chapters in every body’s life, that seem to be nothing and yet affect all the rest of the history?

~ William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair

(All of my tattoos are by the very talented Gillian Turner.)

I’ve recently begun to re-read the Whitby trilogy by Robin Jarvis, and it’s probably quite telling that my childhood favourites had a George R. R. Martin-worthy death count.

One of the coolest aspects of living in the digital age, however, is being able to experience the books again whilst communicating with the actual author!


It was my birthday earlier this month, which I spent in the company of my fellow dinosaurs, and with a cocktail in both hands.