I'm with the Quendi

The 6th Largest Army

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How I came to fail English Lit 101 first time round
Okay, so I'm still doing the creative writing course and I am still sucking at it. Well, doing marginally better than sucking at it, but still I have my epic 2,500 short story to hand in at the end of May and I still don't have a clue what to write. Because 'college course' makes me think of my deeply unsuccessful attempts at being an Eng Lit student, plugging away at 'The American Novel' in an former East End Jewish geriatric asylum with a graveyard for the back garden. As it turns out, there was quite a lot I can't say to the exam markers, so I thought I'd dump it here. By quite a lot, I mean a lot.

So 253 Mile End Road, red front door, cracked marble doorstep two great soot covered slabs on the outer wall advising this was the Beth Holim hospital in English and Hebrew. The hospital had moved on, but the ceilings were still so high when my lightbulb gave out somewhere through autumn term it stayed blind because no-one had a step ladder. I studied by bus light, and the number 25 came by often enough, stopping so close I could wave to top deck passengers from my desk. It was a funny old place to be wading through the Bell Jar and Cuckoo's Nest and bloody Holden Caulfield, maybe it was American literature I was studying because I remember Anne Sexton showing up at one uncheering moment, rank as honeysuckle. I misremember. So great was my dedication to study I think I picked the course because it began with an A. I was a bit of an idiot at nineteen.

"Don’t worry," said our lecturer, "everyone finds the punctuation difficult with Faulkner."

Well I hadn't noticed. It was another seventeen years before I was finally going to get somesort of dyslexia diagnosis, although thinking about it getting through three hundred pages of high modernism without noticing something funky in the punctuation department should probably have given me a hint. It was the East End and High Modernism meant a sixteen floors of re-enforced concrete lifestyle not a literary movement. I was flunking college but learning London, working part time in the West End, skipping lectures to take the Number 8 past Buckingham Palace or the Hammersmith and City line high up over the floodlit legoland of Shephard's Bush.

It was February, it was a very sunny February that year, proto-spring, weather to be out in. And I was out, the hoardings had come down in Bishopsgate at last and I could watch the sunset over Norton Folgate illuminated in pink marble and glass. It was almost romantic, those bright walls blazing where the rail companies had sold the air rights to build above the Liverpool Street Lines.

I didn't talk to the other inmates at Beth Holim. I didn't really talk to anyone else on my course. I saved my conversation for the weekend where three hopelessly sophisticated Londoners had taught me how to blend eyeshadow and welcomed me into their band.

Only this time, it's weirdly difficult. Not having the benefit of sharing a house with the beautiful and the damned of the US angstridden -A (Dear country, it's tough at the top, signed your writers) Laura, our singer, the one with talent, falls over and over again for the lost boys of rock, she's got Sid in his skinnies and spikes on her wall, and her own copy of Joy Division's Ideal for Living EP, and once, when her mum disappeared on a bender with the electric meter key we pretended the only thing keeping the meter going was Kurt with his finger in the switch. And now she wants to know all about South Wales.

There is not much to tell about South Wales except it is green, pretty, and there's not much to do in the nights. It had produced no music scene and had no hip subculture. Prior to now, everyone else in the band had ignored my non-Londoness with nothing more than a few sheep jokes and some fashion tips. (Hint - the eighties are over.) And now it was all around me, spread out in news print in the NME and the Melody Maker and even some of the daily press, 'the valley sides rise as claustrophobic as concentration camp walls' was how one writer memorably put it, although Auschwitz had no half hourly bus service to Newport. Now Richey Manic had made his probable suicidal leap into rock greatness and Laura wants to know what South Wales was really like. I felt like an exhibit at a murder trial.

But I couldn't give an answer that suited them, because it was certainly boring, and I certainly wanted to escape more than I wanted to study Eng Lit, but it was not The Horror and it was not death camps. It was just poor, and defeated and mundane. It was where I grew up. To call it anything else was ridiculous. So I tossed about in the shiny blue sleeping bag on the floor and eventually I must have gone to sleep because I found myself back in my room at 253 with another student in rather outmoded dress who seemed to want to hug me. "Take care of yourself, you Southerner, you." he said.

And then I woke up and it was ridiculous, because of all people Quentin Compson isn't going to start quoting African novelists. It was ridiculous.

"More ridiculous than the idea that the best way a bright young person of Southerness can serve their country is offering themselves up to the great and glorious defeated dead as fishfood? Go on, read it, it's in the papers right there."

"Pardon me," I said, "but when we are talking about the lost cause, we're talking Socialism, not slavery. When we're talking about the defeated we are talking about striking miners not antiquated defenders of some deeply evil - We were the Good Guys. You Were Not."

"Alright." he said "Alright. But tell me this, when you imagined being a college breakdown did you ever figure it would involve so much public transport? Can you tell me you've not rolled your eyes when someone tries to work out where up north your accent is from?"

"Details," I said, "Details. And I am not a college breakdown even if I have started talking to my mid-term paper over breakfast instead of writing it. Pass the toast."

"I think defeat doesn't really care which side you were on. Functionally. Operationally. As in a Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Defeated Nation's Neuroses, right down to flag waving and idolising the beautiful boys who just had to stay true to the dream."

"I think everybody is reading a different book to me."

"That's post-modernism for you."

"No, seriously. You aren't -well you're not dying for the lost cause are you? To tell you the truth the way you were carrying on with your dissociation and your flashbacks and your weird uncontrolled laughing and your violence that what you have, I don't think it's got much to do with mythological Greek royalty or defeated nations. I'm not altogether convinced, although it may be too much Anne Sexton in the small hours, that you aren't lying about the incest and no I don't mean your sister. You certainly act a whole lot like an incest survivor, and even if it's not that I'm pretty sure hefty doses of parental neglect and emotional abuse have got more to do with it than the Appomattox Court House. You're just a fucked up college kid like every other one except you have got slightly worse baggage than a penchant for blusher and backcombing. And that's why you did it. That's why everybody does it. It's got nothing to do with defeated Grandfathers or anything."

He inspected the raspberry jam on his toast for a few moments. "But that's not the way it gets told, is it?"

"Hell, your Dad's probably glad you're dead so he's got an excuse to go on drinking."


"I can't really put this in an essay. Wait. They're glad - they're glad even though they're crying and wailing at how sad it all is, but deep down, they're glad because they can go on getting drunk and saying how hopeless it all is."


"The music press and - all of them."


"You can't write an essay like this. An essay is supposed to be objective criticism, how the hell can I be objective when you're telling me the story, when you're telling me I'm part of it?"

"Well - I flunked psychology."

"Yeah - because they were teaching you Freud. No, I remember Faulkner thought that the Pragmatist William James was still teaching, but he wasn't he had retired. Harvard had gone Freudian by 1910, so you would have been flunking 'The Interpretation of Dreams' And you would have flunked wouldn't you, because you knew the nightmare was real but how do you say that in an End Term exam? How do you say 'what if Dora was telling the truth?' You're subjective experience defied objective truth"

"You probably could use that last line you know."

"I tell you something else noone notices about you. You're really trying hard not kill yourself. Oh come on, all that business trying to drown your shadow, like you're looking for a substitute. You give a black man, who you know is literate, a sealed envelope telling him there's a present in it, believing that he is mendacious and crafty and frankly serves your drowned self right for being a racist fool and not working out that white folks aren't actually all that interesting to African Americans, they were just a job to them and it paid to act like they were hanging on to your every word, it was a survival mechanism,"

"No I did kind of get that."

"But you did think he'd read the letter."

He looked at his fingernails. "I'll tell you something else too. When Little Sister Death shows up, you run away from her. When your arseing around prettying yourself up for the final curtain, your constantly thinking about your room mate returning, and not worrying because that might have hurried you along, you are hoping. You were hoping that there was something any of them could do to stop it hurting and give you an alternative. You're not some existential genius, you were really - trying not to."


"And I think that goes -okay excluding Buddhist Monks and suicide bombers, for everyone who tries to kill themselves. All they really are is someone in terrible pain who would take any alternative if one presented itself."

"Has it ever occurred to you you might be in the wrong line of work?"

"Well no, I'm in a band and going to be famous."

"Okay, when you've quit that."

Quentin is misquoting Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga btw. How a Southern lost cause poster boy could end up doing that is another story. I've gone on long enough.

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Yes they probably are because you have to squash all your 'look at me I'm so clever ' into 2000 odd words. And creative writing course short stories are the worst because you have got to show all the fancy techniques the course taught you (like doing the exaggerated Mirrors, Signal Manouvre driving test driving) while also coming up with something that doesn't make your eyes bleed on reading it.

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