Christine Drew

Back to School  
Passage from Jill, Philip Larkin, Faber and Faber, 1985:

'John Kemp sat in the corner of an empty compartment in a train travelling over the last stretch of line before Oxford. It was nearly four o’clock on a Thursday in the middle of October, and the air had begun to thicken as it always does before a dusk in autumn. The sky had become stiff with opaque clouds. When they were clear of gasometers, the wagons and blackened bridges of Banbury, he looked over the fields, noticing the clumps of trees that sped by, whose dying leaves each had an individual colour, from palest ochre to nearly purple, so that each tree stood out distinctly as in spring. The hedges were still green, but the leaves of the convolvuli threaded through them had turned sickly yellow, and from a distance looked like late flowers. Little arms of rivers twisted through the meadows, lined with willows that littered the surface with leaves.The waters were spanned by empty footbridges.' 

This is the first paragraph of Jill, the first novella and manuscript from Philip Larkin, very well known as a poet rather than a novelist. 

Two years ago, I knew nothing about Philip Larkin, had never heard his name. But at the same time of the year, on a train on the same line, my eyes were suddenly distracted by a clump of trees so characteristic of the Oxfordshire landscape. I came from Fontainebleau not from the North of England via Banbury. My compartment was deserted. It was the same time of the day; the landscape hasn’t changed and a few hours later, I was to enter into a classroom, in England, in Oxford University, to become a student again. My level of anxiety was close to John Kemp’s feelings. 

I travelled forward and backward every week for the first year, coming in on Thursday, leaving on Friday to go back home. I had no spare time to spend in the libraries or other facilities and the enjoyment of student life. I was just having my classes, trying to do my homework, to get honourable marks at my assignments and just follow the flow of the course. A main difficulty was that as soon as we were comfortable on a subject be it life-writing or plays we moved to another with another teacher and we started again from scratch or nearly. In between and after each set of courses assignments had to be delivered and marked by the University. 

I found myself in a group of eight other students, the second time in the history of the nearly thirty-year-old course that they had so little students; visa and jobs problems had delayed a few happy accepted people until the following year where there are now twenty-two, the normal average. We quickly understood our luck and despite our diversity of age and background we embraced each others as a group of musketeers, 'One for all and all for one'. Promptly a WhatsApp group was created. We got organised to go back to the station or our student room at night, covered and helped each other every time it was necessary and overall evolved with strength and humility as a group of apprentice writers. Such a coherence was sometimes frightening for tutors but they soon understood the advantage of it for their own work as we shared everything.

Some subjects like fiction or poetry deepened from the first year to the second one, some, like short stories were just discovered in the second year. It takes time to understand the devices of each category, even more time to try to replicate them until one day you just understand how each category feeds the other one, giving it its distinctive form and writing. 

Like any discipline, practice of course is the secret. The rhythm is so intense that you have no other choice than to write everyday if you want to survive your course and receive honourable marks. You discovered yourself to be a competitive student, much more than when you were a student a long time ago in your life.And slowly like any addiction like cigarettes, sport  or any other, it becomes a necessity and if you don’t start your day with it you feel guilty and worse you feel unwell until the next day when you start writing again.

Before I started my second year, my husband suggested  that it would be better to move to Oxford and he applied for a course in History where he was accepted. So we did and there we both led a student life, starting most of the day in libraries, having lectures and finishing most of the afternoon with public speeches. We heard and met many authors, politicians, and historians. We attended as many things as we could on every subject and there are still many pubs that we could not find time to visit!

This is how I discovered Philip Larkin. I browsed through poetry books and reviews before we started the second year poetry course. His poem 'The Tree' with the simplicity of its words and structure and universal meaning particularly attracted me. Philip Larkin helped me to understand better what I like in poetry and why I like it.He led me through many other 20th and 21th century poets, like Maura Doodley with her poem 'The Source' or Emilie Berry with ’Picnic'. Those who are familiar with Granta might know her.

Another major discovery was how much reading in another language has extended my knowledge. And if you want to increase your knowledge Oxford is the place for it. You have everything and everybody at hand within fifteen minutes walk. To read in English, the idea had occurred in the past but I had no need for it.So many books have been so well translated. But, of course, there are also some that are not. Just the one you want to read! I thought that I had been very lucky to be accepted on the Undergraduate Diploma in  Creative Writing in Continuing Education Oxford and that I was even more lucky to pass into the second year. 

So it was time to make an effort. I have always heard that if you read better you write better. The fact is to read in English takes me a lot of time. Unfortunately I cannot skip deliberately otherwise I miss major parts of the story. But being more focused, I read deeper and finally as I spend more time with the book it helps me to understand better the author and his techniques.

The same occurred for the writing. In your own language, especially if you like words, they might come too quickly before you notice them. As you mature, you develop habits, codes and many forms which restrain your possibilities. Of course writing in another language if you are not bilingual, imposed other forms of restrictions. You have to think much more of each word than you would do in your own language in order to achieve a simple and precise piece of writing as a poem of Larkin can be. It takes from you the ease, the speed, the flow but instead it gives you a distance, a necessary distance, which any author needs to find with his writing, with his narrator and with his characters. 

Now I have finished my two year course. I have discovered that there are no miracle recipes to write a good book. Did I think there were? Surely not! Most importantly I have learned how to help myself to improve my writing and my reading and how to organise my days to find room for it. I have valued the exchange through the reading group in Fontainebleau where I was before and shall come back to it more regularly.

A tutorial ahead on my portfolio, a graduation next March where our little class will be reunited for a day, a poetry workshop, a lot of writing to improve, a novel to finish that I shall carry on in English as a study case, poems to organise, a play to revise and a lot of projects. One of them, the most important maybe: to cross the bridge all the way back to French writing.


Popular Posts