Playing catch up

In this neck of the woods, anything from the middle of March onwards is countdown to exam season. This is where I spend several hours a day in the company of people half my age, and try to explain to them that it is in fact possible to revise for an English exam.

How? you might ask. I don't actually believe in memorising honking great chunks of The Great Gatsby, because quotations without context resemble the book like cellophane-wrapped Southern fried chicken strips resemble an actual chicken. And the examiner wants to know what you think about chickens. So if you happen to be revising for the type of English exams generally sat between the ages of 15 and 18, here are the things I think you should do to revise.

  • Read the texts again. All the way through. If they're novel-length or play-length, it'll remind you how everything fits together, and you'll be surprised how much you remember. If they're poetry, I often recommend learning them like you would do the script for a play you happened to be in - you don't need it word for word, but you do need to remember the order and the rhythm of it. (GCSE kids, pick ten anthology poems and do this. Higher kids, you have no excuse - learn the lot.)
  • Write a list of every linguistic, structural, poetic technique or piece of terminology you know. For each one, write down a definition, and a reason why a writer might bother using it. Sounds simple, but can you actually define "metaphor" or tell me what the point of alliteration is?
  • If you can possibly manage it (and I know not everyone can), take all your notes on character and setting and what have you using a pen and paper. This has the dual benefits of making them easier to remember, and preventing your hand from turning into The Claw when you have to sit and write constantly for two and a half hours.
  • Go and research the writers of all your texts. Think about what in their lives might have prompted them to write the things they did. (Why is Carol Ann Duffy so into her forgotten women of history? What might have prompted Robin Jenkins to associate nature with goodness, and technology with evil?) Take notes on them - they're all interesting ideas that'll give you something else to say if you get stuck.
  • Anything where you have to respond to an unseen text is about how quick you can be on your feet. Read a news article, summarise it in four lines, then write down what you think of it - do you agree with the author? Are they missing something? Have you heard anything else about the subject? Is it an interesting article? Why? That's one summary paragraph and one response paragraph. Rinse and repeat.

And those are my top tips for English revision over the next month. Bon chance, team.

I've not blogged for a month, so here you go, let's get mostly caught up.

51. *Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Read My Lips (album, 2001)
52. *Ricky Martin, Ricky Martin (album, 1991)
53. You Were Never Really Here (film, dir. Lynne Ramsay, 2017)
54. The Square (film, dir. Ruben Östlund, 2017)
55. Evelyn Waugh, A Handful of Dust (novel, 1934)
56. *John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men (novel, 1937)
57. The Nile Hilton Incident (film, dir. Tarik Saleh, 2017)
58. The International Style of Muriel Spark (exhibition, National Library of Scotland)
59. Isle of Dogs (film, dir. Wes Anderson, 2018)
60. Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (documentary, dir. Alexandra Dean, 2017)
61. Our Last Tango (documentary, dir. German Kral, 2016)

...Not quite up to date, but that's plenty for the time being. A few observations: in bad weather, I listen to Ricky Martin. That's a thing that happens. There may also have been some Enrique Iglesias. The Waugh and the Steinbeck are both things I'm teaching at the moment (see, students - if I have to reread them, you have to reread them). The Muriel Spark exhibition at the NLS is mostly brilliant for the number of handwritten letters it contains - I love other people' handwritten letters more than most other things.

And then it's been a month for cinema.

I watched You Were Never Really Here three times in the same evening, which while it would be socially awkward to do if you didn't actually work at a cinema, is exactly the right way to see it. Such rhythm. Such editing. Such atmosphere. Glorious. The Square was good fun but a little too long (two and a half hours! but it gets a pass because Claes Bang is very pretty), and The Nile Hilton Incident is superb and makes me want to track down director Tarik Saleh's back catalogue. The last twenty minutes turn the whole thing on its head, and I really appreciate that in a film. Isle of Dogs is, well, it's Wes Anderson, isn't it? Very watchable but it's not going to keep me up at night. Bombshell is a Hedy Lamarr biopic, and it's long overdue, and she's great and I had a great time. You should see it if you get the chance.

Our Last Tango is the biggest surprise here: it's billed as a story about the careers of tango dancers Juan Carlos Copes and María Nieves Rego. It's partly about tango, but it's also partly about two people with codependent, all-consuming careers, who spend at least two thirds of it unable to stand the sight of each other. It was part of IberoDocs Film Festival, and rightly popular. I wish it was easier to find so I could point it at people. An unexpected delight.