REVIEW: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

There is something about a sumptuous historical novel you can get lost in; recently, I finished Hamnet and can’t wait to go back to Stratford

Hamnet is the first hardback I have read for years. I found a copy in a charity shop earlier in the year and coveted it alongside the other blue books that sat so prettily in a to be read pile alongside my bed, wondering when it was going to be read.

The novel is the story of Hamnet’s mother Agnes in the lead up to her child’s death. A “tragedie” of Shakespearean proportions but one where he is “one of it’s many players” – a man whose shadow haunts the house Agnes is left in, abutted to house of William Shakespeare’s family. We learn about is abusive father, the glove-maker but mainly we spend time with the women of the family. A feminist tale of what it was to be in the world of Shakespeare – the one that has been erased just he himself left that world behind. The details of their world, gaining that extra texture if you have been around Shakespeare’s house in Stratford – so many people in the world visit this place.

Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford

The novel runs on two parallel timelines. We learn how Agnes (pronounced Annes) met Will, the presumptuous Latin master who teaches her brother. We also follow Hamnet as he tries to get help for his twin sister Judith who is very ill on their shared pallet. We learn too the history of how Will escapes his abusive father and why he ends up in London and at the playhouses. But just as the author obfuscates his name, we remain firmly with Agnes and her perspective. A feminist retelling that brings Agnes out of obscurity and recognises her skills but also her sacrifices. We even learn why she got only the second best bed! As an historical account it a satisfying depiction of all the details we try to grasp when we are compelled to visit the great playwright’s home.

I really loved the details in the novel, the liveness of detail of the people, particularly the internal perspectives of Agnes. I think a trip up to Stratford soon is needed to picture her in her herb garden and appreciate her story that has been lost in the myth of the man.

The ending of the book, where we feel the depths of pain of losing Hamnet and their very different reaction to the loss, is so moving. Writing back to the history of one of the world’s most famous men is an audacious act, and only a talent such as Maggie O’Farrell could have made it so real. She changes our perspective, turns our faces away from the stage.

The Accidental Home School

How we are coping with a new school set up…

Despite the title of my blog referring to my motherhood, I have become more cautious about sharing about my son’s life. He is having a tricky time but the last thing I want to do is make the future tough for him by sharing too much. So to put it simply, he is currently not in school and at home with me. I never intended to become a homeschooling parent but this is the tale of my accidental homeschool and what I would have done differently.

As 2022 drew to an end, I reflected on the confusion of the last couple of school terms

At first I thought we would get to the bottom of the upset and get my son back to school at least part time…it didn’t happen.

Then I thought I should finish work set by school – fighting through my fatigue to meet their requirements and motivate him. Not a chance!

Me and my constant companion

Then I thought I would get a load of books for him to work through at his own pace and then I signed up for online classes… This was the most ridiculous thought of all. Had I forgotten how little he did all that time in lockdown?

None of this worked. If it still looks like school, it is too much. Now he does low demand activities with a tutor once a day and I try my best the rest of the time. The hope is we will not stay in this limbo, waiting for a specialist school placement, for too long. But while wait I have done what I can to look after myself.

How I have coped

Evening walks so I always get outside alone

Taking him to the park and stopping myself feeling guilty as school isn’t the right space for him right now

Ear phones in and lots of brilliant podcasts and audiobooks

Building up my reading muscle again so I can read more physical books in short chunks each day

Quiet time in the afternoon while he plays in his room

Asking the local authority for a tutor so he is not missing out as much

Acknowledging that I do not want to be his teacher but I can help him

And finally, though it means doing less creative work, volunteering my time to help other parents. This has helped me make connection with the adult world a little.

By sharing this part of my journey, I am hoping to explain why I have been less dedicated to my blog. But also take the time to explain that we do what life calls us to do. Life is what happens when we are busy making other plans I have explained before.

I hope that as I reflect on my accidental “homeschool” I can start to add more in again that also makes my life more creative, fun and interesting. And for both of us I hope we find the place where he can be his happy self.

Review: A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark

Muriel Spark’s novel about post-war Britain packs a comic punch all these years later; both urbane and absurd at the same time.

My advice to any woman who earns the reputation of being capable, is not to demonstrate her ability too much

Mrs Hawkins, the indomitable protagonist of Muriel Spark’s novel “A Far Cry from Kensington” remembers life in her shabby bedsit in 1950s Kensington. The war widow has settled in her comfortable plumpness as a capable advisor of people around her. This comic cast constantly call her on the hallway telephone or get them to join them in their upscale dining to prime her for information, ask for his help. She recalls the absurd characters living alongside her as well as the vivid people she works alongside the publishing industry.

I particularly enjoyed that the gloss of the publishing world is written with a comic tilt of an eyebrow. Surrounded by “egocentricity” and vanity projects, Agnes Hawkins continues to work stolidly through her duties, often sneering at her odd or crooked employers. As a veteran of the literary publishing industry, Spark surely writes with a knowing wit about those who dominated the apparently glamorous industry. Mrs Hawkins quips about her first crooked employer “Publishers…attempt to make friends with their authors; Martin York tried to make authors of his friends. ” I came away from this novel thinking that it was gently satirical of a world she knew well. I found a great article that explains more about her connections to London and the literary world on this site.

Perhaps better suited to the particularly viscious world of post-war publishing was Mr Lederer’s flighty daughter Isobel. She fancies working in the “classier” world of publishing, perhaps like the wannabe influencer of today she imagines it will be easy and glamorous. Mrs Hawkins arch nemesis Hector makes the point even more strongly. Agnes gets in serious trouble for several times calling him the “pisseur de copie” – the phony. But somehow it is he who manags to rise through his devious coat-tailing of talent.

As well as the commentary on the publishing industry, Mrs Hawkins also has advice for writers. Not only does she suggest that you should write as if you are writing a long letter to a friend but also you should get a cat so you have something to focus on. I do feel the author’s presence throughout and rather like reading Austen, we enjoy being let in on the joke. Though far more absurd, Spark certainly has a marvellous narrative voice to – we are acutely with her throughout – I rather enjoyed the letter.

Muriel Spark’s novels have a brevity and sharpness that make them the absolute perfect thing to get out of a reading slump. I have struggled to put pen to paper and to make my way through physical books for a while but I couldn’t stop reading “A Far Cry for Kensington”. It helps of course that central to the novel is a mystery. Her neighbour unravelling offered a dark twist that I will not spoil. Although in many ways the novel is a series of vignettes, this little mystery that starts with a sinister letter is enough to drive the plot.

I would highly recommend this book as a good one to consume in one weekend like I did.

Is there another short book I should get my teeth into this weekend?

Improv and the art of creating characters

How my nerdy side helps me be more creative

I have a confession, I was part of an improv troupe in college (uni) – personally I think it’s the coolest thing I have ever done but apparently making a fool of yourself and throwing yourself around with enthusiasm – I understand a lot of people consider it the nerdiest comedy. In later drama classes as an adult, I realised this was because it requires unadulterated enthusiasm which afterall is a sign you’re not that chill about things. I found others would stand self-conscious, I could still I flail around in the name of comedy quite happily. I think that’s called committing to the bit.

A self-confessed theatre-kid, who doesn’t get to indulge this side of myself anymore (see numerous post about how little time I have) I do actually get to use these skills all the time. A few of my favourite exercises in developing an idea, rely on my brains ability to lurch for that idea that’s just a bit different. As I wrote about before sometimes you have to avoid the cliché, even if they sit in your draft for a while, developing a character is about getting to know their quirks.

Here are a few ways I use my improv skills still to get to the depth of the character

Pick something at random is a great way to get a scene going. Taking my surroundings and turning them into a scene is something I have done many times. It is useful if you get stuck, to just start writing. I have sat in a coffee shop before and stared at a clock and wrote about the clock on the mantelpiece in the main character’s cottage. I have sat at a wobbly table at the bottom of the garden and translated into the gloomy teenager moping at his grandmother’s funeral. Of course this is a way of using your imagination that is valid and may even end up in a scene. But it is also playing the game put a character (yours) in a random scenario/ with a random object and create.

Ask more questions can trick your brain down a path that is further away than the first idea. If you ever played a game where you have to answer a question with a question, you know the comedy is in the absurdity. Words lose their meaning as you try and interrogate each other. Well instead of necessarily losing meaning, thinking about the barrage of questions or even drilling deeper on their why, can flesh out your character in your head. There is a theory in comedy that the tenth idea is your best one. Well what if that was the rough rule for all creative endeavours, asking relentless questions is a great way to get there.

Swap characters is a fiendish game because you have to really concentrate on what the other persons mannerisms are so when you are called to swap, you can carry on the scene. If I remember correctly, often someone puts on a weird accent or has something else obvious for you to copy. But in writing this can just be the game you play to understand your antagonist. Even if you are writing a first person narrator, knowing more about what the other person is a scene is thinking and doing has to help you develop and enrich them.

Be flexible is just general advice that you learn week one of improv. You need to yes and your writing. If another character begins to dominate the story, perhaps there story is a more interesting one to tell
Though improv games are there just to entertain, it doesn’t mean it can’t expand your brain. There is no reason either that it can’t expand your art.

What’s your secret hobby that’s helped you be more creative?

Take Micro Me Time

Time poor but determined to take care of yourself? Time for a microbreak

It is the half term break where we are right now so I am seeing lots of parent content about kids driving them to distraction this week. Well as someone whose son is out of school whilst we find the right special school, I know a little something about having someone around the whole time. As it’s six months now, I no longer chafe against the irritation – instead I try and find time to be me.

Here are some ideas to help take just a little me time whenever you can:

Of course I have to say get up early – what mum blogger is not going to tell you to get up early? But for me that does not mean before my child. He wakes anytime between 3am and 6am daily and needs far less sleep than me. So realistically that means get up with my child and supervise him. But each morning I make coffee in a special mug. Once he is happily on Roblox or YouTube and sit down and smell the coffee – a mindful moment can just get you appreciating life a bit more.

Obviously some parts of my morning routine like writing morning pages have become habits. Though they do not always happen and are usually interrupted -in fact the practice of writing three pages of stream of consciousness means my pages are often about the distractions I face. Irritation is a great tool to bring you back to your body – its usually a sign that I am not meeting a need. I may need the coffee, time to write or even – and this is tricky – enough quiet to think straight.

Having my headphones in is another great way to take a break even if it is not quiet. As well as listening to podcasts and audiobooks, I use binaural music which is soothing. Like a background track to daily life it helps me in those frantic moments. I may not be getting him out the door for school, but I still having to chivvy my child along particularly as getting dressed is harder for him than others his age. Accompanying my life with something which works well to soothe my mind and keep my relaxed has helped me greatly cope with life.

Savasana is the best bit

Take some time out on the mat. My yoga mat sits out to remind me to use it and does occasionally gather dust. I have got used to squeezing it between my bed and wardrobe or kicking aside the rug downstairs. And similarly I have got used to fitting in yoga when I can. By doing simple beginners routines online for just 10 minutes where I can. It’s amazing to me everytime that I stretch just how much tension there is in my muscles. We can become so used to holding it all together. I love this yoga from Yoga with Adrienne for neck pain if you also carry around your burdens on your shoulders, like me.

Quick browse in a bookshop

Finally, I take sneaky microbreaks when we are out and about as a family. Leaving my family whilst I do an errand and grabbing a coffee is not revolutionary idea but that treat can be a reminder you have a right to look after yourself. If my son is engaged I may shut my eyes for a few minutes to take a break or just enjoy being in the other room. I took a longer break this week by browsing in a secondhand book shop while my family enjoyed ice creams in the car.

Sometimes just taking ten minutes doing something you enjoy can be enough to set you up. You can be ready to fill your child’s cup with attention again. It’s not easy having my child with me all the time, I must be honest. But like all life’s challenges, it’s a lot easier if I take time to take care of me.