Category: memories

“Sir, what’s that on your arm?”

[TW: Suicide, self-harm]
On Friday, I got a new tattoo. It was a spur of the moment decision, made on Tuesday morning and booked in on Tuesday afternoon. The design for the tattoo was similarly put together over the course of an hour around Tuesday lunchtime.

After roughly 45 minutes work, by 6pm I had this on my right forearm:

Semicolon TatAlthough the decision to get it done on Friday was quick, I have wanted to get this type of tattoo done for a while now.

This will be my most visible tattoo. My other three are (largely) covered up day-to-day. But unless I start to wear long sleeves all the time (and even when I wear shirts these days, I tend to have the cuffs rolled back a few times), eventually students will see this tattoo, and inevitably one will ask me what it means.

The design is a semicolon, with a taijitu in place of the tittle. The taijitu represents my interest in Taoist philosophy, something I first discovered when I was 17.

Why a semicolon? Well, this is the part that requires the trigger warning at the start of the post. I first saw semicolons drawn or tattooed onto wrists a few months ago, associated with The Semicolon Project. A semicolon is where an author could have ended a sentence, but chose not to. So it has been adopted as a symbol by those who at one time came face to face with a moment when they could have ended their own sentences, but chose to let them continue.

The semicolon is a reminder to, and “My story is not finished” is a promise by, those who have self-harmed or attempted suicide in the past, that it is ok to reach out and seek help.

I first discovered Taoist philosophy when I was 17. 17 is also the age at which I can identify I had begun to suffer mental health problems. The two aren’t connected (although the philosophy has helped me to cope at times), but the coincidence is quite nice.

17 is when I first remember struggling with suicidal ideation. From that age, I have regularly struggled with it and there have been times when I have felt like succumbing to it. I have also recently come to realise that I also self-harm. When I am unhappy, when I feel I have done something bad, I punish myself to feel pain in a bid to atone for what I feel I have done wrong. It’s not healthy by any means, and the fact that it has taken me so long to recognise and name it as self-harm is frightening. But I recognise it now; saying it publicly, acknowledging this is something I do and have done, isn’t so that I can boast, or ask for sympathy and congratulations for my “bravery”.

I’m doing it because being open about my mental health problems is important to me as a teacher. In all the time I have worked in education, I have met scores of children with serious mental health problems. Maybe this was kept hidden when we were children, but I don’t recall mental health being an issue on the scale it is now. I have taught and counselled children with anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar, and students who self-harm or are suicidal.

Being open about the problems, saying “I have this too” is enormously liberating to students who would otherwise suffer in silence. I know students who come forward to members of staff and have said that they only reason they came forward was because that member of staff was open about mental health issues. Otherwise, these issues may remain hidden, ignored, slowly eroding a student’s potential to succeed, and potentially only becoming known in tragic circumstances.

It was one of the reasons I undertook ASIST training in 2013. Within three days of completing my training, I had to put it into use, helping a young person in Canada who reached out via Twitter. And I’ve had to use it since, with children and adults.

Suicide doesn’t go away if we keep quiet about it. Talking about it doesn’t “put the idea in someone’s head” or encourage people to attempt suicide, in fact, the opposite is the case. When someone is feeling suicidal, talking is the best thing for them. It takes the smallest thing to turn someone away from suicide, and in most cases that is all they will ever need.

Now I have a visible tattoo which marks me as someone who has faced suicide and self-harm. It is in a place that students will see. I hope that they will ask “Sir, what is that on your arm?”, so that I can tell them. I can explain to them what it means, and more importantly what it means to me. And I hope that if any student is struggling with these issues, they’ll be able to see that they don’t have to struggle alone; there are people they can talk to.

As long as we are talking, no story is truly finished.

Ominibus #Bookaday Post – the rest of June

The end of term was sort of busy for me. With my last day at work rapidly approaching there were a lot of loose ends to tie off, and one of the casualties was the series of Bookaday posts. I’m not happy leaving the series incomplete, so over a month after I last did it, here’s the remainder of June’s books.

June 18 – Bought on a recommendation and June 19 – Still can’t stop talking about it
House of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski was a book I’d never heard of until a friend recommended it to me. For those who haven’t read it, go out and find a copy. It is a book compiled by editors based on the text of a man who is reconstructing the text of someone who wrote a book about a film made about disappearances at a house. And if that sounds complicated, wait until you start reading the self-referential footnotes. The book freaked me out to read it, and that’s saying something. It is on an Inception level of brain-fuckery and I heartily recommend it.

GothicJune 20 – Favourite cover
Growing up the book cover that made the greatest impression on me was this terrifying vision, from A Treasury of Gothic and Supernatural edited by Peter Haining. Just look at that, and tell me that at age 6 you wouldn’t have been enthralled and traumatised at the same time!

June 21 – Summer read
Ernest Hemingway – The Collected Stories from Everyman’s Library Classics. Hemingway is insanely readable, and these short stories are perfect to dip into and out of during long, lazy summer days.

June 22 – Out of print
Rather than select a book which is out of print, I’d like to nominate something that ought to be out of print. The entire 50 Shades trilogy. It commits the grievous sins of being poorly-written fan fiction of a poorly-written book series. And has spawned a whole slew of imitators, with the risk that like a copy of a copy of a copy, they’ll have even poorer writing.

June 23 – Made to read at school
I spent the entire summer between my fifth and sixth years in high school reading Jane Austen as we would be studying her works in Sixth Year Studies English. First day back, our teacher had gone on sabbatical, and the teacher taking over decided we’d read some Thomas Hardy, starting with Tess of the d’Urbervilles. I read it, and it is one of the reasons I quite English that year!

June 24 – Hooked me into reading
The very first post in this series looked at the spooky book which was my childhood favourite. I then go on to mention Lovecraft, Jack the Ripper, The Night Watch and earlier in this post House of Leaves and A Treasury of Gothic and Supernatural. Needless to say, strange and eerie things interest me, and that had a lot to do with my parents buying strange and eerie books for us.

And not always intentionally. We had two books of fairy tales, Brothers Grimm Folk Tales and Hans Andersen’s Fairy Tales, both illustrated by Michael Foreman. The illustrations are striking. Grotesque. Horrific. Amusing. Compelling. They brought to life fairy tales which were not the sanitised Disney versions. Children were chopped to pieces. Heroes blinded and torn by thorns. Devils and Godfather Death stalked the land. The Little Mermaid dissolved into froth, the Wicked Stepmother danced to death in red-hot shoes, the old fisherman lived in a pisspot and made deals with chthonic deities, an early taste of the Lovecraftian. Fearsome beasts had eyes as big as dinner plates and illustrations to match. The pictures fascinated, helped me pay attention when the stories were read to me, and encouraged me to revisit the books over and over as I learned to read.

June 25 – Never finished it
With more books to read than time available, I’ve had to become ruthless. If a book doesn’t hook me by the fourth chapter then I stop reading it. Why force myself through books I’m simply not getting just to say that I’ve read them? Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen is the novel that caused me to institute that rule. I think I got half-way through when I realised I was reading it solely to finish reading it, and not out of any pleasure. I found it dull and struggled to keep my attention on it, until the desire to have it finished was overtaken by the pain of actually having to read it. Well done Northanger Abbey, you broke me!

June 26 – Should have sold more copies
If I may be so bold and uncouth as to slip some advertising in here? Chinese Whisperings: The Red Book should have sold way more… Hell, ALL the eMergent titles should have!

June 27 – Want to be one of the characters
I don’t want to be any one specific character from Sergei Lukyanenko’s The Night Watch, but I’d love to be in that world of using the gloom, of magic and science mixed together, the strange and shifting allegiances of two equally matched magical forces.

June 28 – Bought at my fave independent bookstore
Not so much an independent bookstore as an independent publisher. Through Salt Publishing I discovered Third Class Superhero by Charles Yu, a gem of a short story collection with a number of stories that I sorely wish I had written!

June 29 – The one I have reread most often
In the strange and twisting journey that took me from Catholicism to atheism I flirted with a number of thought systems and religions, becoming particularly fascinated by Easter religious philosophies like Taoism. And what great wise man from the Orient first introduced me to this? A Bear of Very Little Brain in the form of The Tao of Pooh & The Te of Piglet by Benjamin Hoff. Two books combined in one, this was the title that really kicked off the “all religions and philosophies explained via Winnie the Pooh” cottage industry which saw the characters from the Hundred Acre Woods move on to look at mysticism, philosophy and psychology.

June 30 – Would save if my house burned down
Without a shadow of a doubt The Great Works of Edgar Allan Poe from Chatham River Press, a gorgeous leather-bound edition of all of Poe’s stories and poems. This is the second copy of this particular volume I’ve owned, as the previous copy (and indeed all volumes of Poe I’ve ever had) mysteriously disappeared. So although I’d save it, I’m not 100% sure it wouldn’t also prove to be the source of the fire…

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#Bookaday – 17 June 2014

I’m reading a lot of classics at the moment. And it begs the question of how does something become a “classic”. Literary merit alone doesn’t guarantee it, nor does popularity. Many of the most popular texts of the past are forgotten now, and there will always be the little-read, but worthy novels that wait patiently in their obscurity.

And I would hope it wouldn’t be true now, lest we risk The DaVinci Code stand alongside Don Quixote and Twilight rub shoulders with Jayne Eyre in the literary canon.

Classics and canon have occupied my thoughts ever since I started teaching, and took notice of the arguments over the “literary canon” and the question of what books should children be required to read at school.

Claims were made of Michael Gove personally banning To Kill a Mockingbird and creating an approved list of books, narrow and prescriptive and denying students the freedom to explore literature.

The story was largely nonsense, and the truth is the texts studied in school are restricted, both in terms of syllabus and practicality. But the privileging of some books over others is a political act. Why decide students must have studied 18th Century Romantic poetry over Gothic, why is modern British writing more relevant than American in a globalised world? Dare I say it, why Shakespeare (or rather, why only Shakespeare)? The politics dictate the literature; let the literature speak for itself. Who profits by keeping the focus on only one shelf of the library? Not the students. Too many people I speak to have been put off reading through being forced to read books they didn’t like at school.

What’s a future classic? Who knows? But with a wealth of stories out there, we have no shortage of candidates. Explore and discover them for yourself.

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#Bookaday – 16 June 2014

When I first heard about a book featuring a group of good wizards battling a group of evil wizards and vampires, set in the modern day world where magic and technology are used equally, well… those who know my tastes know I wouldn’t pass up the chance to read that!

Sergei Lukyanenko’s The Night Watch is an urban fantasy series set in Moscow about two different groups, The Night Watch (light magic users who police those who use dark magic) and The Day Watch (dark magic users who police those who use light magic) to ensure that neither can gain supremacy and that a balance is maintained. It’s in parts a police procedural, a comedy and a fantasy.

Four more books follow (The Day Watch, The Twilight Watch, The Twilight Watch, The Last Watch and The New Watch follows the history and intriguings of these groups in Moscow and beyond, exploring the treaty that formed them and the dangers to both. Moscow is just one of many cities the Watches operate in and the books travel across the globe (and even into orbit) as both strive for the upper hand.

The main protagonist is Anton Gorodetsky, a fairly low-level light magic user and field agent for the Night Watch whose reasoning and creative thinking far exceed his magical abilities, and which cause him to get tangled up in magical threats of global significance and make him a powerful enemy in Zabulon, the head of Moscow’s Day Watch and a powerful Dark Mage. Over the course of the series, through chance and accident Anton’s powers are increased until he is one of the most powerful Light Mage’s on the planet.

The books are well known in Russia, and Lukyanenko is well-known in his native Russia, but not so well known in the English-speaking world – or at least not as well-known as they ought to be.

The books spawned two movies which are visually impressive, but took too many liberties with the plot for me to really like them.

The book is ripe for adaptation as a TV series. Each book is split into three complete but related stories, so each book could be it’s own series. Each story could be adapted into mythology episodes, and due to the nature of each Watch as a magical police force there are a wealth of stand-alone story episodes to fill the series to 12-13 hour-long episodes.

So if HBO is listening, here’s your next Game of Thrones. And if you want to avoid spoilers, go read the books now.

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#Bookaday – 15 June 2014

Children’s stories don’t often feature parents. It’s a common theme, that in order to have children as protagonists, you very often have to find a means of removing the parents. This means stories about orphans, foundlings and abandonment are common. Think Hansel & Gretel (abandoned in the woods), Luke Skywalker in Star Wars (orphan), or Harry Potter who has the double trope of being both an orphan and shipped off to a boarding school.

Fictional fathers are few in the books I read growing up, Atticus Finch being the only one that immediately springs to mind. But father figures abound. Teachers in an educative setting, wise old guides if the story is a hero’s quest and the like.

But one stands out as a father by necessity and honour, rather than biology. Jean Valjean, the hero of Victor Hugo’s epic Les Miserables. Valjean is a convict on a life licence who manages to forge a new identity as a businessman and mayor of his adopted town. When his true identity is exposed he flees, but not before promising a dying Fantine that he will find her daughter Cosette and look after her.

This he does, to the extent that he is the father she never knew. Valjean’s honour compels him to look after Cosette, but over the years he too views her as his own daughter. His rescue of Cosette, his promise to Fantine and his attempts to protect Cosette from his own past are the driving plots of the novel. If he were not one of the greatest fathers in fiction, this novel would not be what it is.

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