Informed

I

This morning, I was informed of her death.
Her life: a bud plucked before it bloomed.
She had cystic fibrosis. At school, when
I ate sweets, she took her pills at playtime.

II

Memories of light laughter stalking me
As I think of her corpse in the parlour.
A friend messaged me tonight, and told me
Her funeral date: Friday, St Mary’s.

III

Today, I saw her hollow empty grave
Next to a pile of soil, insects and grass.
On either side were crosses that belonged
To the elderly: a grave out-of-place.

IV

Beneath my bed I found the photograph
Of our first day at school: smiling faces
And pigtails. That was sixteen years ago;
She died before her time…

V

My slumber, uneasy last night: I
Dreamt rosiness on her grave that would
Slacken, like her body, and turn to dust.
I dreamed of dead, cruel, untimely nature.

VI

This morning, I went to her funeral:
The photographs placed on her coffin:
Bright tears sudden as a thought recalled.
I cried for the years stolen from us.


The Horn’s Tale

Music played a particularly poignant role during my formative, adolescent years. This was because at the well-off high school that I attended, there was an adjoining music school for gifted children, and all pupils (including those who were not members) were affected by it in some way – whether they suffered an intense dislike for the sound of classical music which flooded out into the corridors, or were inspired by it, as I was, to learn an instrument in my first years there. There was something magical, I thought, in the way that instruments could be brought to life, and used as tools to create music. The way that music was written also immediately appealed to me: the treble clefs at the beginning of each line, and the quavers which danced up and down the page were beautiful. At the age of twelve, I genuinely believed that I could do anything that I put my mind to (if I persevered), and when I saw others my age playing exceptionally well with instruments that I couldn’t even name, I wanted to become a part of it, and blend in.

It was September 2005, and after expressing my interest to a teacher, I found myself auditioning for the French horn. On reflection, I believe that it was the instrument’s appearance that appealed to me the most: it was grand, the horn’s tubing and bell were attractive, and I also liked the sound that it made – stringed instruments always sounded too squeaky for my liking. My petite size, however, was a problem at my first audition: I could animate the instrument well enough, but I struggled to hold it properly. The solution? I was to purchase some ribbon and use it to tie the instrument to my hand. Before I left, I was given a different French horn from the one I had auditioned with. It was ridiculous: the bell contained numerous dents, the tubing was rusty, and (much to my horror) the mouthpiece was covered in teeth marks. Regardless of this, I persevered, and quite literally dragged it home…

After all, it was nothing that a can of Mr Sheen couldn’t fix.

I can vividly remember my first lesson; I came prepared with my A Tune a Day book, and a piece of yellow, polka-dot ribbon to help support my hand – the ribbon had to be fancy; I even asked my teacher, Mr Pash, to tie it around the parts of the horn that were damaged to make it look a little better. On arrival, I found out that my lesson coincided with another girl’s who had been playing for years – a timetable mistake which did not occur again. I liked her, but we were rivals on the school’s cross-country running team. She always came first, and no matter how hard I tired, I was always second (at the time, I put it down to the fact that she had longer legs than me). During the lesson, her presence was daunting, as I had only just begun to learn, and I didn’t want to feel inferior to her in yet another area. This was made worse by the fact that her parents had clearly bought her an expensive trombone, and I felt ridiculous standing next to her with my dilapidated French horn…

Regardless of this, I persevered to learn my first few notes and scales.

Over the next few months, I went on to learn a plethora of Beatles’ songs including ‘Hey Jude’ and (my favourite song) ‘Yesterday’. Naturally, the neighbours hated my French horn: it was loud, and the errors which I made as I practiced meant that it wasn’t a pleasant sound to hear every evening – the noise which so many pupils hated now flooded out of my bedroom into the street instead of the corridors. Despite this, their disapproval did not stop me, and I persevered – finding a sense of enjoyment in recording myself on my camera, and playing it back to see how much I had progressed.

A year after I had begun to learn how to play, I joined the school’s junior orchestra. Shortly after arriving for my first rehearsal, I was handed a piece of sheet music by the conductor, Mr Evans, and assigned a seat in the brass section. Despite my achievement of becoming a part of this much superior group, musically, the feeling of inferiority which I had experienced during my first lesson returned with a vengeance: I could not rival their skill. I was not terrible, but I wasn’t gifted either; I recalled the lyrics to ‘Yesterday’ (all my troubles seemed so far away) as I was consumed by my own insecurity. This was made worse by my French horn’s appearance in comparison to the instruments which the other members had. To me, it was obvious that their expensive instruments would sound better than my dilapidated one, and I did not want to draw attention to myself by playing any notes that were less than perfect (failure to hit a note on the French horn had the potential to sound like flatulence). How should I quell this feeling of inadequacy?

I did what any other self-conscious teenager would do: I began to mime.

After all, I knew exactly what valves to press for each note, the positions to curl my lips into, and this made it easy to do convincingly. In spite of this, I knew that I could not do it for long without getting caught – after all, there were only four French horn players in the orchestra (a fear which proved unjustified; Mr Evans only seemed to care about how the string section sounded). Now, it seems like a ridiculous thing to have done, especially as I had to play in front of Mr Pash during my lessons, but during that first rehearsal, I simply couldn’t do it. The following week, I worked up the courage to play, but I only did so with a few of the simpler lines of music that I knew I could master, and remained silent for the majority of the rehearsal. This feeling of inadequacy marked a change from the self-belief which had prompted me to learn in the first place.

I was no longer the girl who could play in front of a rival, despite no previous experience.

This shameful act continued at each rehearsal; and for another year afterwards. Regardless my partial silence in orchestra, however, I continued to spend hours practicing for my lessons, and attempted to play more complicated pieces of music there – the only place where I felt comfortable enough to play, free from the eyes and ears of my talented peers. At the time, I concluded that even if I had played the complicated lines in orchestra, they would have still sounded terrible in an orchestra full of gifted players – especially when played on a dilapidated French horn. Plus, it would have been unlikely that I’d have been able to play them without hitting at least one flatulence-like note (an occurrence which happened regularly in my lessons). After a few months, I feared the other members, as I assumed that they knew how much of a fraud I was. I couldn’t even improve my horn’s appearance: my parents at least would never have given me £3,000 for a new one. This was made worse by the concert that my down-to-earth dad attended, and he jokingly said on the way home:

“I enjoyed watching you mime. That’s a real talent you’ve got there.”

My dad had seen through the act, but he then went on to say that he admired the fact that I still persevered with my lessons, even though I mimed in the orchestra – something which he agreed was understandable given how talented the other players were.

The hours of practice which I put in for my lessons, however, eventually meant that after two years of playing Mr Pash asked me to join the school’s concert band which he conducted. I agreed, as I had been miming the complicated lines for a year, and I knew that I could play the simpler lines of music without any problem. The band met each Thursday, and (despite my assumption that it would be similar to the orchestra) it proved to be a novice’s worst nightmare. Why? I was the only member of the brass section. In an instant, I knew that I would either have to leave or be forced to play in a group of talented musicians who all had better instruments than me. Before we had even begun, Mr Pash looked at me and uttered the following words (unlike Mr Evans, he wanted every section of the band to play perfectly):

“I want you to play the brass part on the first two pages; it’s mostly minor scales.”

I died internally when he said this, even though it was (luckily) a simple piece of music, as I had to play it alone in front of people who were on track to become professional musicians with a dilapidated French horn. I reluctantly pursed my lips, placed them on my mouthpiece and played. It wasn’t my best performance, but I had no choice. The shame of leaving the band for no apparent reason would have been greater than playing nothing at all. Therefore, I think it’s amusing that the insecurity which had stopped me from playing was the same insecurity that ultimately forced me to do it. I was overwhelmed by relief, as I knew that if I could play on my own in front of this group, then I would certainly be able to play as part of it – even if it meant occasionally being the creator of musical flatulence.

After I finally overcame my insecurity, I began to fully participate in the concert band and orchestra – taking the time to practice the complicated parts of the music, and no longer miming for prolonged periods of time. I continued to play for another two years, but stopped when I was in my fifth year of high school to concentrate on improving at the subjects which I needed to get into university. In my mind, this was a true achievement, especially as I persevered with my instrument despite its dilapidated appearance, and the knowledge that I would never be at the same level as my gifted peers. The experience of being a part of an orchestra (and managing to do so with a French horn that probably was only useful for scrap metal) has remained with me, as it was the first time that I overcame what felt like crippling insecurity – something which was a lot more degrading than the potential embarrassment of playing a few inaccurate, flatulent notes. For it taught me that my initial fear, and the strategies by which I masked it – like most fears and most strategies, I would learn in time – had been nothing more than the product of my own fantastical, chameleon mind.


Mary Herself

From an early age, I have always felt a strong connection to the past. This was prompted by my auntie Mary: she lived for eighty-two years, and from her birth until her death, she lived in the same house – St Michael’s. It was built in 1926, and it never changed throughout the time that she lived there. This was made all the more remarkable by the fact that she kept every object in our family from the 1920s and before within its walls – her grandfather’s silver medal for curling (won in 1886), for example, took pride of place on the sideboard alongside a golden trinket that he had bought back from the Yemen. Therefore, after her death, the process of clearing her house proved to be one of the most fascinating experiences of my life.

Initially, I found St Michael’s to be a little frightening after my aunt’s death. On entering, I recalled the last Christmas we had spent there. My sister and I were always assigned the task of decorating the tree, and we were allowed to adorn it with every decoration apart from one. It was exactly 100 years old, and it was very precious to Mary. That year, as she attempted to place it tastefully on one particular branch, it fell to the floor and smashed. My mother saw this happen, and on the way home, in her usual superstitious manner, said:

“I can’t believe the decoration smashed. I think it’s an omen; Mary is going to die this year.”

Sadly, my mother’s prediction came to pass, and as a result, I found Mary’s house incredibly eerie in the wake of her death; the floorboards seemed to creak and moan in an ominous fashion, and every room felt unnaturally cold. Unlike my mother, I am not a superstitious person; I was just a fan of horror stories, and they seemed almost to come to life within St Michael’s. Edgar Allen Poe would have liked her house: it contained an attic shrouded by dust; a kitchen full of dangerous looking knives; and even a grandfather clock complete with a pendulum.

St Michael’s eeriness was at its worst when my sister and I chose to investigate the objects within the attic or, as my father named it, the ‘glory hole’. I was a little over-enthusiastic, having heard my aunt talk of a doll that she had lost as a child, and thought that it might be inside the glory hole. It was because of this that I was the first to enter, using my iPod to light my path. My younger sister, however, decided that it would be very funny to lock me inside the glory hole. The first few seconds were not particularly frightening, as I assumed that she would quickly open the hatch – but she didn’t. My situation went from bad to worse when I tried to make my way out, and walked directly into a manikin which was wearing a samurai’s kimono that my aunt had been in the process of repairing for the Burrell Collection (where she had worked until her death, amongst all manner of objects), and for a moment, I was transported to a Feudal battlefield in Japan…

I have never screamed so heart-stoppingly in my entire life.

This incident, however, was quickly followed by sadness when the rest of her house was explored. Mary was a private person, and though St Michael’s was filled with objects that provided an insight into the past, others revealed truths about her life. When I had to empty her bedside drawer, for example, I made a heartbreaking discovery. I found two breast shaped pieces of plastic, and realised that the she must have undergone a mastectomy – it bothered me because she told no one. My mother noticed this, and with eyes full of tears said:

“She did not have to go through it on her own; she was too stubborn, and she suffered for it.”

Her words were true; Mary dealt with every ailment that she faced throughout her eighty-two years alone. This was also the case during her last few months, she knew that she was dying, and though my family offered to help her with everyday tasks, she refused. Though she died in hospital, before she was found by a neighbour, she had been lying unconscious in the hallway for an unknown amount of time. If she had accepted my family’s help, we would have visited her every day, and she would have not found herself in such a position.

Regardless of the sad truths which the objects revealed, they did provide an insight into my ancestor’s lives which, otherwise, I would have never had. The plethora of copies of The National Geographic Magazine from the 1950s, for example, were telling of my aunt’s interest in travelling, and I enjoyed looking at the advertisements within; the ads for coca-cola, food processors and good housekeeping guides were a far cry from the adverts which exist in today’s magazines for expensive mobile phones. My great-grandmother’s commonplace book was another object which I found to be particularly interesting:

Magistrate: “You say the defendant’s horse kicked you. Was it a powerful kick?”

Motor Enthusiast: “Powerful kick, very, sir.”

“Yes, but what power was there in it?”

“One horse power, I suppose.”

That comical piece was written in 1912, and it enabled me to imagine what kind of person my great-grandmother might have been. The book also contained a lot of sketches which depicted Glaswegians in an equally comical light – the women she drew had big noses, equally big bums and babies at their breasts. Her drawings of the cowardly Kaiser Wilhelm (running away from his responsibilities, of course) were also fantastic, and as I looked upon them, the man who I had learned about in my history class, for a moment, came to life. She had true talent, and it was wonderful to look upon her interpretation of the world.

The most interesting object that I found in St Michael’s, however, was one of the last – hidden beneath the floorboards in the attic. It was a small, red journal that contained an account of my aunt’s experience of being evacuated during World War Two, and I immediately knew that it was something special – after all, it could have been just as important as Anne Frank’s Diary, as she also wrote it when she was in her early teens. The first page of the journal contained the following two lines, and what I found continually frustrating was the fact that whatever Mary had begun to write, she had never finished:

‘To a child, these were like huge, black dragons belching smoke and steam, and making a loud roaring noise as they came along the track. A guard with either a red or a green flag stood out on the platform, and controlled the arrival and departure of these “beasts.”’

These lines were written after she had been evacuated, and as much as I wanted it to be a detailed account of her experience, it was not – she was no Anne Frank. Despite this, it inspired me to write a wartime story, and use what she had written to create a historically accurate piece of fiction. It also brought the past to life, as I was fifteen when I found it, the same age that she had been when she had written it. I felt like I was in a good position to finish what she had started. The journal didn’t just contain writing. Her identity tag from when she had been evacuated was placed within, alongside a few letters which she had received from her parents while away from home.

St Michael’s was eventually sold, and the majority of the objects which my family found inside were sent to an antique dealer (and yes, the kimono was returned to the Burrell Collection), but I managed to keep as many of them as possible, and they continue to serve as touchstones for inspiration. To this day, my sills and shelves are still filled with the solitary objects of Mary herself. My aunt’s ‘hoarding’ (as my mother so often put it), and the fact that she resided in the same house for eighty-two years, resulted in a very unique situation after her death. In a world where people move around a lot, and get rid of things from day to day, this is something which I doubt I will ever encounter again.


The Straps

The straps they used seemed to be hard edged, pressing into his flesh as though growing tighter; a serpent’s length winding around its unsuspecting victim. Edward’s skin had purpled from the pressure, and his entire body lay vulnerable – birdlike and slight. He struggled to open his eyes, and when his surroundings finally fell into focus, they were met by a clinical, white room. The pain caused by the straps had awakened his senses, and he was overwhelmed by panic. He prayed that he was lost in a nightmare, simply awaiting release.

Edward’s mind flooded with unanswered questions. Why was he bound to the bed? Where was, Anne, his daughter? After the death of his wife, with the exception of when he was working and she was at school, they spent every waking moment together – united in their grief. He attempted to free himself from the straps, but with each movement, the serpent tightened its grip. Frightened, he called out for help, and when there was no immediate answer, screamed. Minutes later, a doctor identifiable by the stethoscope around his neck entered the room.

“You need to calm down!” he ordered, wiping the sweat from his forehead.

“What’s happened to me?!” Edward exclaimed.

“You have been sectioned for your own safety.” he replied.

Edward cried, and though he regarded it a sign of weakness, in light of his current situation, thought it justified. He could not feel anger, though he thought that he had been unjustly hospitalised. He struggled to fathom what he could have done to end up sectioned – though his memory of the previous day was unclear. The last thing that he could remember was drinking whisky in his local pub…

The doctor then made his way over to Edward’s bed, clipboard in hand, and surveyed his form before writing down a few notes. In that moment, all he wanted was to feel Anne’s comforting embrace; until now, he had been a respectable businessman, and not the kind of degenerate person who would end up sectioned. He was a man who inspired respect amongst his colleagues, and prided himself on his dedication to his work.

“I am going to make you better.” the doctor declared, knowingly.

“How… how did I end up here?!” his distress and confusion revealed by his tone.

“You attempted suicide.”

Edward’s face turned pale. How could he have forgotten? These words cut him deeper than the straps ever could. Whisky always made him reflect upon his broken heart, and he had avoided it, but yesterday after work he felt obliged to join his manager for a drink. The doctor then filled a needle with a clear liquid, and injected it into his arm – he was given no choice in the matter. Edward could see darkness closing in from the corners of his eyes, and the white of the room faded to black.

Edward was awoken by the glow of bright lights, and the nauseating smell of rotting flesh. The same doctor who had sedated him earlier was standing at the opposite end of the room, next to a silver tray laden with various medical instruments and a strange machine. His hands remained bound by the serpent, and his skin was no longer purpled, but blackened – his blood supply cut off from his extremities. He shuddered with fear as he resisted the urge to scream.

The doctor made his way over to Edward as he put on a pair of thick gloves, and actively avoided meeting his gaze. He then brought over the silver tray, and began to rearrange the instruments on top of it, before altering the settings of the machine. This sight caused Edward to shake uncontrollably, and he could not hold his tongue for any longer:

“Why are you doing this to me?! …YOU BASTARD!” he cried, blinded by tears.

“I am going to make you better. You have a daughter. Had your suicide attempt been successful, she’d be an orphan by now.” the doctor replied, coldly.

“But, I…” his voice trailed off into a whimper.

There was nothing Edward could say; he had let down his daughter, the one person in the world who was entirely reliant upon him. He was a pathetic excuse for a father. Before his wife had died, she asked only one thing of him: she wanted him to take care of Anne, to provide a good and stable life for her – but he had failed.

Suddenly, after applying a white paste to either side of Edward’s face, the doctor told him that the procedure he was about to undergo was relatively painless. Edward’s attention was then stolen by the putrid smell of the room; what he had thought was rotting flesh was, in fact, burning flesh. He could not stop shaking, and he slurred the following sentence:

“The reason I… tried… to take my own life was because of alcohol… It won’t happen again! This is not necessary! PLEASE!”

The doctor dismissed these words, and gazed cruelly into his eyes before placing a plastic object inside his mouth, and a metal device on either side of his face – he had been dehumanised. Edward knew that to him he was just another patient. A few seconds later, he was struck by a short, sharp shock, and the pain he felt caused him to fall unconscious – his own flesh mixing with the aroma of the room.

The following afternoon, Edward awoke to find himself in a ward full of men with vacant expressions upon their faces, all dressed in hospital gowns, and who were, like him, restrained by serpents. He was once again struck by the room’s smell, it was sewer-like, and sick rose in his mouth in reaction to it. Unlike before, however, Edward did not have the energy to scream, and even if he had, he knew it was hopeless. This was no nightmare; he could find no release.

Eventually, the doctor who had operated on him appeared – clipboard again in hand. He walked over to the straps which had bound Edward’s flesh, and untied them, releasing his purpled limbs. The doctor then applied a soothing cream to the areas that were bruised, and did so with a sense of care which, until now, he had failed to show.

“You are recovering well.” he declared, smiling for the first time.

Edward could do nothing but nod, before the doctor added:

“I have arranged a surprise for you this afternoon.”

Edward did not reply. All he wanted was to return home, and sleep in the comfort of his own bed. He was disorientated, and found himself suffering from a pounding in his head. Distressed, he was the only patient in the ward unbound from the serpent.

After freeing his limbs and soothing his sores, the doctor left the room, and returned with a young, smiling girl by his side. She immediately ran over to Edward, and embraced him as she cried out in joy. The doctor watched on, but soon realised that something was very wrong when he saw Edward’s reaction. He looked confused; his eyes perturbed, and made no attempt to talk to the child, though he did not push her away from him.

“I am so happy to see you!” she exclaimed, as she continued to embrace him.

Edward’s expression grew uneasy in response to this affection. He began to writhe and squirm and pull away from her.

“Doctor! …There is something wrong with this girl!” he eventually cried out.

“NO!” she retorted, angrily.

“Don’t you recognise me?! It’s Anne!” she said, tears forming in her eyes, and her voice telling of her frustration.

“You’re my dad! Don’t you remember?!”

His breathing grew increasingly erratic with each word that she spoke.

“What?” Edward said, before addressing the doctor: “Who is she? …Is there something wrong with her?!” he uttered, his eyes filled with confusion.

After hearing this, the doctor finally intervened, and he led Anne away from her father’s bedside. Edward had forgotten his own daughter, the only light which existed in his otherwise bleak life. The girl who had meant the world to him was now a stranger. He could not keep his promise to his deceased wife; he had been damaged irrevocably. Though he was depressed when he attempted suicide, he still had something to live for – but not anymore.

The straps then returned: hard edged, and pressing into his flesh as though growing tighter; a serpent’s length winding around its unsuspecting victim.


Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451’ and George Orwell’s ‘1984′

Throughout the 20th century the science fiction genre has grown increasingly popular and developed into a tool which enables authors to explore many of the issues that concern and affect our world. Two of the issues which I have found frighteningly relevant to modern society are the dangers of censorship and the loss of what makes us human, both of which are present within George Orwell’s ‘1984’ and Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451’. It is through these issues that the authors invite the reader to consider two of the main themes of the novels; social isolation and rebellion. This is achieved by presenting the reader with terrifying dystopian societies where censorship leads to ignorance amongst the masses and through this ignorance the loss of the qualities essential to making us human. Indeed, both novels were written in the wake of WW2 and the influence of the Nazi regime has clearly been reflected by both authors, particularly in the use of propaganda in ‘1984’ and the burning of books in ‘Fahrenheit 451’. In 1949 Philip Rahr said in reference to Orwell’s ‘1984’ that:

“If it inspires dread above all, that is precisely because its materials are taken from the real world as we know it.”

Undeniably, the ideas presented within both novels have grown more relevant over time – such as Bradbury’s successful prediction of Seashells within people’s ears, which cut them off from each other, something which clearly resonates with today’s society and certain uses of technology. But on a more frightening level both novels have foretold the decreasing relevance of history and literature and enable the authors to emphasise that they provide something of value and are essential within any society. This illuminates the fact that without history and literature; there would be no exploration of ideas and imagination, something which directly leads to the impoverishment of humanity. In each instance both narrators also use highly evocative language throughout and this acts as another way of emphasising to the reader that language matters in society. Therefore by examining the dangers of censorship and the loss of what makes the individual human Orwell and Bradbury illustrate to the reader how these issues cause social isolation and rebellion and through this provide an eloquent warning in order to prevent such an ominous future.`

The negative impacts of censorship coupled with the loss of what makes the individual human lead to the social isolation of the protagonists – Winston Smith and Guy Montag. It is through these characters that the authors explore what causes social isolation, enabling the reader to see that censorship damages relationships, which leads to psychological implications for the individual. This is illustrated in ‘Fahrenheit 451’ where censorship is seen as the key to happiness; the reader is presented with a utilitarian world where individuals thrive on trivial information and where dangerous ideas such as those found within literature are oppressed through the burning of books. According to Captain Beatty the governing body aims to:

“Cram them full of non-combustible data, chock them so damned full of “facts” they feel stuffed, but absolutely “brilliant” with information.”

Montag’s chance meeting with Clarisse is crucial to his isolation from society and she influences him with her poetic outlook upon life and it here that he begins to feel different from those around him, with a similar detachment existing for Winston. It is this is utter alienation from society that prompts rebellion, yet the impulse is different for each character, either coming from within or from a wider issue. Although both characters rebel for similar reasons they do so in different ways and each rebellion is met by different repercussions. As a consequence of this Orwell and Bradbury emphasise the futile nature of rebellion as both characters are pushed into even more isolated positions. However Guy is not completely destroyed at the end of the novel and has achieved minor success, in comparison to Winston who has undergone a gruesome ordeal which destroys him both physically and psychologically.

From the outset, both texts serve as powerful warnings about the dangers of censorship as certain uses of propaganda and technology separate and destroy human connections. Ultimately, the negative effects of censorship lie at the root of each characters isolation and Winston recognises this from the beginning of the novel, as seen with the telescreen which he is aware of as always watching him for signs of unorthodox behaviour. On the other hand, Montag does not see the negative impacts of censorship at the start of the novel, nor does he recognise his isolation – he revels in his job of fireman and is part of censorship himself. It is only after he meets Clarisse, that the negative impacts of censorship and his own isolation become fully apparent to him. Indeed, throughout both novels it becomes increasingly apparent that it is easy to use technology to damage what is human and both authors establish a clear, inextricable link between society and the media and this is emphasised by the Party’s slogan in ‘1984’:

“Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past”

In this case, Winston’s alienation and uncertainty are developed through this lack of history, which at points causes him to question the validity of his own memory. This is notably apparent when he starts his diary and cannot contextualise the time, guessing that the year is ‘1984’. It is here that we see the derivative impacts of technology, particularly in ‘Fahrenheit 451’ where the living room walls have an almost life-like quality and are the preferred form of entertainment rather than physically communicating. This is exaggerated further by Bradbury’s paradoxical uses of language as he refers to the seashells in Mildred’s ears as:

“the thimble radios tamped right, and an electronic ocean of sound coming in on the shore of her unsleeping mind.”

Here Bradbury demonstrates that she is physically in the room yet her thoughts are elsewhere, further stressing technology’s negative effects. At this point Montag recognises that she should be spending time with him. Indeed, in both novels it is this disconnection which comes through censorship and the reduction of language that contributes to both character’s recognition that they are on their own and prompts them to realise that this is an isolation which is wrong. This alienation from the worlds around them is central to both characters and emphasises how these citizens are losing what makes them human – there are no emotions, free thoughts or choice. All human connections have been broken and it becomes apparent that it is only when people fully connect that they are able to live, rather than to simply exist. Therefore by presenting such oppressed worlds Orwell and Bradbury emphasise that without these connections human existence becomes desperately impoverished.

The censorship which exists in ‘1984’ reflects Orwell’s disapproval at the way in which we use language and this is evident in the censorship not only involving the erasing of the past but also the reduction of language to create what is known as ‘Newspeak’. Winston’s alienation from those around him is developed through this literary technique and he becomes even more disconnected through language. He doesn’t use ‘Newspeak’ and to an extent Winston finds comfort in not using this reduced form of language as it connects him to the past, but it is also one of the factors which makes him feel isolated from those around him. The purpose of ‘Newspeak’ is that without a large vocabulary the Party believes people will not have the ability to express any unorthodox thoughts or ideas. However, W.F Bolton challenges this issue by stating that:

“language and thought do not have a 1:1 relationship.”

‘Newspeak’ enables Orwell to distort language in a unique way; as seen in the Party slogan which reads the words “WAR IS PEACE, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY” . Indeed, throughout both novels contradictory uses of language are particularly prominent such as firemen, who start fires rather than the words traditional definition of extinguishing them. On the surface there appear to be many superficial similarities between both protagonists; however Winston recognises the power of language in a way which Guy doesn’t. Winston understands that the destruction of words has negative effect on society, whereas Guy seems to be less co-ordinated in his search for answers. He knows that books hold something of value, yet he struggles to identify exactly what this is. Throughout ‘1984’ Orwell communicates to the reader that language is a key part of humanity as it allows individuals to be properly connected with each other, something which is achieved through words. Ultimately, both authors use language to allow the reader to recognise the character feeling isolated, even though this is achieved in contrasting ways.

The negative effects of censorship are also used to damage relationships within both novels. This is illuminated by Winston and Guy’s recognition that the relationships which they both have with their wife’s are wrong and that true relationships should be based on love and affection. According James Schellenberg in ‘Fahrenheit 451’ “There is deep loneliness in this book, the lonely of heart and the lonely of mind.” This idea is furthered in ‘1984’ by the stoic characteristics of members of the Party and this is revealed through Winston’s wife, Katharine who refers to the sexual act as “our duty to the party” . This is a complete distortion of what it should represent, there is no passion within her and Winston uses strong images to describe being close to her, which to him was like:

“embracing a jointed wooden image”

This once again emphasises to the reader how isolated he is, but it is also interesting to note that he wouldn’t have these thoughts at the end of the novel; he is a more vibrant character at the beginning, which allows the reader to consider that once these characters recognise the injustice of the worlds in which they live they are more alive than when they live in ignorance. Winston is alone in a world where individuals no longer connect and because of this have lost the qualities which make them human and this is reflected in him describing them all as ‘ugly’. This contributes to his growing sense of alienation which he recognises through other people. A similar uniformity exists for the firemen of ‘Fahrenheit 451’ who all possess “black hair, black brows, a fiery face” and parallel also exists between the estranged relationship of Guy and Mildred, the image:

“on a winter island separated by an empty sea”

Is used to reflect the distant relationship which they have and much like Katharine, Mildred is equally emotionally impotent, with her outward adoration of the four walls reflecting her inner ignorant state. Indeed, both protagonists’ wives operate in a very simple way and this emphasises the notion that when creativity and imagination are killed off it causes an impoverishment of humanity. Both authors also establish a symbolic contrast between these cold characters and the female characters who oppose everything they stand for – Julia and Clarisse. It is with Julia, that Winston attempts to form a connection and through this restore a part of his humanity which the Party has destroyed. Julia is described by Winston as “a rebel from the waist downwards”, yet these words allow the reader to see that her rebellion is purely sexual, even she isn’t thinking. Perhaps part of his attraction to her lies in the unequivocal differences between her and his wife. However, although they are both rebels and isolated they are in many ways different. Julia cares only for her personal rebellion and not for society as a whole. This is seen when Winston reads parts of Goldstein’s book and Orwell uses her disinterest to reflect her ignorance. In many ways the differences between them contribute to Winston’s isolation, he is alone, even with a fellow rebel at his side. In comparison Clarisse is very much a dreamer, who is symbolic of all that literature represents and opens things up for Guy. As a consequence of this she acts as the catalyst which causes him to question the nature of his profession and through this recognise the isolation which exists between him and society.

The isolation presented in both novels has a variety of psychological effects and these are highlighted through the use of third person narration, which enables the reader to be sympathetic towards not only their isolation but also their rebellion. This is seen through the deprivation of factors necessary to be human. For example, in ‘1984’ it is freedom of thought makes the individual human, whereas in ‘Fahrenheit 451’ it is the immense power of literature. In ‘1984’ however Winston is aware of what he is deprived of living in such a society; Montag is less aware and doesn’t experience the same psychological frustration as Winston. However once Montag becomes aware of these flaws, it becomes psychologically draining for him and this is emphasised by the powerful imagery used throughout:

“Nobody knows anyone, Strangers come and violate you. Strangers come and cut your heart out. Strangers come and take your blood”

Here the alliteration of the word ‘strangers’ demonstrates Montag’s isolation, as well as establishing the breakdown of human connections. What is more is that these thoughts for Montag come rapidly after he meets Clarisse, illustrating the magnitude of the change which she has brought about within him which leads him to question his own logic. Did firemen always start fires? There seem to be many unanswered questions for Montag and part of his rebellion involves locating these answers. He is searching for the truth in a world of lies and distortion. Chris Przybyzewski states in his review that “it offers a story about a man seeking a truth” . Before he met Clarisse, Guy was sure of who he was and loved his job. Now he only superficially fits in to society and is more isolated than ever before. A similar ‘fitting in’ appears to be the case with Winston, who works hard at his job and appears to obey all of the Party’s rules, despite his growing hatred of all it stands for. Indeed, once alienated, it could be argued that these characters can no longer fit into the worlds around them, even if they desired to, as they now see the injustices of such an oppressed society. Fundamentally, these important glimpses into each characters minds enable the reader’s sympathy to be increased and one quote from ‘1984’ which I found to be frighteningly powerful in its simplicity is:

“If there is hope, wrote Winston, it lies in the proles.”

At this point Orwell presents a potential solution but does not develop it suggesting that there is no obvious way forward for this society. John Atkins comments by saying that the proles “alone were granted intellectual liberty because they have no intellect.” This emphasises the ironic observation that the Party members regard the proles as less than human when in reality they have retained the qualities essential to being human, they have free thoughts. However they lack the intelligence to channel them into any kind of rebellion; something which Winston realises and this contributes further to his isolation. They are alienated from their societies, from those they love and it is this state which causes their angst. Ultimately, both characters feel psychologically drained as a result of their isolation, particularly as they recognise that any efforts they may make to change their worlds are futile, however they each have an element of hope which in both cases acts as the driving force of their rebellion.

Under these isolated circumstances the very nature of humanity has been damaged and Orwell and Bradbury use this to demonstrate that when people no longer connect, it results in an isolation which completely cuts individuals off from each other. This is seen though the lack of value placed upon the fragility of the human condition, the individual is irrelevant and both protagonists recognise this. Moreover, both authors use the theme of isolation to explore the qualities that make us fulfilled humans and suggest that we must have a complex web of human connections achieved through literature, language and history. In addition to this we must also have the time to freely consider these links with other people, which when broken lead to social isolation and rebellion. This illuminates the fact that history is of vital importance in society and that the airbrushing of the past which exists in these worlds can not take place, as the past is only of value if the sources are unaltered. Therefore by presenting such oppressed worlds Orwell and Bradbury emphasise their messages in a frightening way, which is highlighted by the damage done. In ‘Fahrenheit 451’, for example, Montag reads out a poem to Mrs Phelps (Mildred’s friend) and she is deeply moved by it:

“Mrs Phelps was crying. The others in the middle of the desert watched her crying grow very loud as her face squeezed itself out of shape. They sat, not touching her, bewildered by her display.”

By using such an overwhelming torrent of emotion Bradbury demonstrates the immense power of literature, as well as using it to contribute to Montag’s alienation. This stresses to the reader that books provide more than just words, but are essential to the exploration of ideas and imagination, things which are particular human privileges. Yet in spite of this the others in the room take her reaction as additional evidence that books are evil. Montag however realises that the poem enables her to see the injustice of her own life. This event also emphasises the irony that in this societies search for happiness they are impoverishing human existence. This idea is supported by James Schellenberg who believes that one of the best arguments presented in ‘Fahrenheit 451’ is “in favour of the book as a keystone to intellectual freedom”.

It is this isolation from those around them which acts as the seed of rebellion for both Winston and Guy. Once isolated these characters have two options, they either accept the world as it is or they rebel in an attempt to change it. They recognise that something is wrong with society; however their stimuli are different, for Winston it is his own personal frustration whereas for Guy it is Clarisse enabling him to see the injustice of his world. This is emphasised by Winston consciously setting out against society, initially rebelling by thinking unorthodox thoughts, before consciously rebelling by writing these thoughts down. Eventually his rebellion leads to adultery with Julia and them both attempting to join ‘The Brotherhood’ which aims to overthrow the Party. Meanwhile, in Montag’s case he initially isn’t conscious of his rebellion and is merely looking for answers something which prompts him to steal a book. It is only once he has located some of these answers that Montag is unable to accept the systematic destroyal of literature and it becomes one of the determining factors in the development of his rebellion. Montag subsequently embarks on a journey to destroy society and hopes to achieve this by concealing books in the homes of firemen in the hope of causing public outrage. However a series of events then take place which result in Guy becoming a member of a group of men who memorise books in the hope that in the future they can be rewritten. It is here that the reader sees how important language is in the reformation of relationships as these men recognise that language is necessary in order to be fully alive. On the other hand, the significant female characters rebellions symbolically contrast that of the males. Clarisse is a dreamer; she goes against society without realising it. Julia, however knowingly goes against society and according to John Atkins:

“The Party members underwent an elaborate mental training which left few loopholes for rebellion or the idea of rebellion”

Which emphasises how unusual Winston’s and Julia’s rebellion is. Indeed, the rapid development of each characters rebellion is further emphasised through the structure of both novels, from the initial acts of Montag questioning his profession and Winston writing down on paper “Down with Big Brother” to the drastic attempts which both make to destroy the worlds in which they live. According to Brian Baker “there is no way to remake the system from within: flight or escape is the only alternative to oppression.” Ultimately, the only potential way that this society could be destroyed would be through many people, connected by a common desire for change. In both texts, once the protagonists have rebelled they are destroyed either physically or in other ways and Winston recognises that the only way to beat the Party is to stay human:

“If you can feel that staying human is worthwhile, even when it can’t have any result whatever, you’ve beaten them.”

Yet in spite of Winston’s noble attempts to undermine society, he is caught as he suspected he would be. The authorities then subject Winston and Julia to a monstrous ordeal to make them betray each other. This is done using the simplest human fears within ‘room 101’. In which lies worst thing in the world for that individual and in many ways this is more frightening than any torture technique, purely because it is personal to the individual and plays on their greatest human fear. At this point Winston’s failure is seen through his thoughts becoming frighteningly simple and the omniscient narrator is reflected in his choice of language when he says “Do it to Julia!” – A childlike phrase that emphasises his swamp of emotional feeling. Meanwhile Montag is forced to burn all of the books which he has illegally kept in his home, before running away, narrowly avoiding the authorities and becoming an outcast from society, which in comparison to Winston’s repercussions is not so great a price to pay.

It is these repercussions for Winston and Julia which strengthen Orwell’s message that there is no way out for this society. At the end of ‘1984’ Winston is completely broken and this is reflected in the poignant last line “He loved Big Brother”. These are terribly simple words which show to the reader that he has now lost his humanity. Meanwhile Guy is now part of some sort of community and his rebellion has enriched his life in many ways. He is now able to appreciate literature and this is seen through his thoughts becoming more eloquent toward the end of the novel:

“The river was very real; it held him comfortably and gave him the time at last, the leisure, to consider this month, this year, and a life-time of years.”

At the end of ‘Fahrenheit 451’ human connections have been reformed, something which strengthens their individual rebellions. Brian Baker effectively describes Montag crossing the river at the end of the novel into a more natural world as “a symbolic cleansing and baptism.” This accentuates the positive changes which have come from Montag’s rebellion. Meanwhile, Orwell’s views on the human condition are illuminated through Winston’s failure as he has made no change to society and this demonstrates how irrelevant the individual is. But this in turn seems to suggest that Orwell believes that happiness can only be achieved through conformity, rather than to question things and ending up completely broken. Ultimately, this utter destructiveness at the end of the novel involves the reader with Winston and emphasises that there is no way out for this society. In comparison Bradbury seems to hold a more hopeful view and this is reflected by the relative success of Montag. Even though he may not yet have made a significant change to society, he has improved his own life immeasurably.

Both texts serve as powerful and frightening visions of the future by taking a number of human fears and exposing them in their barest forms and this is exactly what makes them so terrifying. Through these novels Orwell and Bradbury provide a warning that this kind of society could arise if we are not careful with our use of censorship and lose the qualities that make us human. This could be interpreted as both a warning and a solution. The solution being to reform broken human connections and to have the complex power of words fully available to us as seen at the end of ‘Fahrenheit 451’ as the solution enabling humanity to recover. Indeed, this is a merely a suggestion, that reforming broken connections could be a way back, but this is not an easy way and will take a long time in order to enable humanity to recover. Although there is a positive ending to ‘Fahrenheit 451’ society is destroyed while there is hope for the individual. Yet in ‘1984’ the individual is destroyed and society thrives and this emphasises Orwell’s message that if this state arises there is no way back. Once there is social isolation, even rebellion is not a way out and as a result ‘1984’ is a more urgent warning than ‘Fahrenheit 451’. Moreover, both writers are clear that we need interconnections between people. As without history and literature we are stuck and the only way we can break through this isolation is by using history and literature in a truthful way. Although both novels take differing perspectives on their attitudes towards censorship, with Orwell focusing on the power of language and the destruction of words original meanings and Bradbury focusing on the power of literature and the way in which we use language. They share the common idea that excessive censorship and the exploitation of technology will destroy human connections, something which will lead to social isolation and rebellion.

In detailing the effects of censorship and the loss of what makes us human ‘1984’ and ‘Fahrenheit 451’ effectively convey disturbing warnings to future generations. However it is in ‘Fahrenheit 451’ that the ideas surrounding these issues are most explicit. This is seen in the last section of the novel where a clear solution to the recovery of humanity is presented, although it is a muted solution, it is there. There is lack of criticism available for ‘Fahrenheit 451’ in comparison to ‘1984’ something which mirrors the traditional views of these novels, yet in many ways ‘Fahrenheit 451’ deserves more recognition as it is stronger on ideas. Whereas in ‘1984’ Orwell presents a solution but does not develop it, something which makes it impossible for the reader to get away from the horror of the novel. Ultimately, both authors are determined to provide a warning about the dangers of censorship and the loss of the qualities that make us human. They use these ideas to illuminate other themes which emphasise the continued relevance of literature and history and it is through this that they achieve their greatest success as works of dystopian fiction.


A Return to Silence

This is an account of events which, until now, I have actively avoided writing about. I always knew that I would write about them, but only when the time was right. In short, I knew that I could only write about the time I spent working in a care home when I no longer worked there. Why? It’s simple: the only way that I was able to witness people die, and not let it affect me, was to attempt to completely detach myself from it. I am not heartless – if anything, I’m the kind of person who feels too much, and had I allowed myself to get too attached to the residents, their deaths would have affected me more than they did. After each shift, I did my best to not even consider what I had seen during it. This did not mean that I was not affected by what I saw; it affected me in a way that I never expected it to…

I started employment as an agnostic, and I left as an atheist.

Upon starting my first shift, I was given the task of feeding a woman who was dying. At the time, I felt like I had been thrown in at the deep end, and I still maintain that I was, having had no previous experience working in such an environment. Then seventeen, I had already witnessed death, and did not think myself naïve, having seen my grandfather’s corpse when I was only twelve. When he died, however, I did not see the process which befell him in the months leading up to his death – that was left to my Aunt, who is a nurse. Until that day, I had never seen another human being on the verge of death, clinging so desperately onto life.

“Don’t you ever get tired of feeding me?” She eventually enquired in a barely audible voice.

“Of course not, that’s what I am here for.” I replied, smiling.

She died the following afternoon. Her name was Charlotte Wood.

After learning of her death, I began to look for scientific evidence that proved there was an afterlife. The reason? I was brought up as a Catholic, and though I questioned it at an earlier age, the idea of there being a God was not something I could easily dismiss. God was a saviour constantly spoken about in my house, and it was not until I entered a non-denominational high school that I realised there was such a thing as atheism – and in discovering atheism, I discovered agnosticism. Throughout high school, agnosticism was compatible with my view of the world; I was open to faith and doubt, but not anymore. That day, I found an article that explained why people who had near-death experiences claimed to see a white light: it was simply the neurons in their brain dying. Why did he stay silent?

In November 2011, May arrived. She looked remarkable for her age: May was eighty-six, but her visage suggested that she was only in her early 60s. She was striking. Her face was always painted immaculately with make-up, and her hair was dyed blonde. In fact, it wasn’t until I spoke to her that I realised she was even a resident, having initially assumed that she was a friend of one of the people whose care I was charged with. The nurse eventually told me that her daughter (who she lived with) had recently died, but she did not know, and her family had decided that it was best she never found out because of her dementia. It was then that her age became apparent. She sat in the sitting room, screaming and complaining that she had been dumped by her daughter.

“When is Jeanette coming to get me?” She would ask incessantly.

“She is in hospital with jaundice; she will be out soon, and she will come to take you home.”

This tragic story served to confirm that there was no higher power – even then, I didn’t like using the word ‘God.’ She, like most of her generation, was religious; but she had not been abandoned by her daughter, rather the God she believed in. Was there anything really beyond this world? May had no life; she was just another person sitting in the waiting room for death. It would have been cruel to reveal the truth to her. May’s senility had affected her mind to the extent that there were days when she would ask for Jeanette, and before she had even finished the sentence, she would ask again. There were, however, also moments when I thought that she knew. I am not a mother, but I think that if I were, and I had lost a child, I would know that something was wrong. She did.

Another resident whose story had a poignant impact upon me was Nan. I do not remember her because of any tragedy, she liked the care home, but she stood out because of her fear of dying. From what she told me, she lived life to the full, but she never married, and this was something which caused her to be the subject of gossip amongst the other residents – her cousin took pleasure in informing them that throughout her ninety-two years, she had various lovers. Though Nan did not have dementia as extreme as May’s, she was affected by her age, and it was this which revealed her true fear. She was terrified of dying because she had engaged in sexual intercourse outside wedlock. That was her sin. At night, her dementia was always at its worst; one evening, I entered her room and she said:

“I am pregnant, will I go to Hell?” with eyes ablaze with fear.

Her age had brought forth her absurd fears of being judged. Nan never had any children, but she would have engaged in sexual intercourse in an age where birth control was less readily available. Now, she was simply recalling past fears about giving birth to an illegitimate child. Her fear perturbed me; particularly as in the church that I had attended until this point, it was regularly stated that God would come looking for those who did not abide by his rules. Nan was a good person; before she entered the nursing home, she gave all of the furniture in her house to a homeless shelter. The fact that she was tortured by a fear such as this pushed me closer to Atheism. To me, religion’s use of fear as a means of control was contradictory to the unconditional love which God was supposed to offer all. Nan was not destined for Hell.

My stance on religion grew further from agnosticism to atheism with each shift that I worked, but it was not always tragedy that prompted this shift; sometimes it was nothing more than simple observations. One of these observations was that many of the residents acted like children. These were the people who did not suffer as much as those who still had an awareness of their situation. What struck me about this was the fact that the other residents – some of whom did not even suffer from dementia – thought that those who acted like children were, indeed, children. A woman who frequently received such treatment was Evelyn. I can vividly recall another resident stroking her floral skirt and saying:

“Your mammy keeps you looking lovely hen.”

I had dressed her earlier that morning. She was old enough to be my great-grandmother, and yet she was treated like a toddler, despite her wrinkles. My mother often says that before an individual dies, they must become a child again, believing that the innocence which children possess is necessary in order to enter Heaven. Could that be true? At the time, seeing residents such as Evelyn did not foster faith within me, instead, it led to the growth of an acceptance of reality. Nature had done her a kindness; her dementia meant that she had a quality of life – she was happy to be given a new doll to play with. I came to see that atheism was more compatible with my view of the world, than one of absolute design. It was then that I knew that my answers lay outside the realm of religion; though it brought solace to some, it brought nothing to me. I believed in no God.

The time that I spent working in the care home has changed my view of the world in a positive way. It freed me from the cobwebs of my religious upbringing which, until that point, I had never quite been able to untangle myself from. I was born in 1993, years after some of the most horrific events in human history took place, and unlike many of the residents, I did not suffer during World War Two – I was here for none of it. Now, I view death as being a return to the silence in which I once belonged. The knowledge that this is the only time I have is a poignant realisation, and it has made me more determined to do something of worth with my life. I will not forget the time which I spent working in a care home; it affected me in a way that I never expected it to…

I started employment as an agnostic, and I left as an atheist.


Relatively Indigestible

All families are made up of disparate parts, and one of the things that makes them unique is their taste in food. My family is no exception. Each member loves different foods, but, more specifically, each member loves a food that I hate. If I were to enter room 101 (which, for anyone unfamiliar with 1984, contains the worst thing in the world for any particular person), I would almost certainly be force-fed these foods. The sight, smell, and taste of these foods is, to me, the stuff of nightmares.

For example, my younger sister’s love of Monster Munch has, from an early age, revolted me. These feet shaped, pickle-laden monstrosities resulted in many journeys in a car that was filled with their distinctive, nauseating smell. The crumbs would always get stuck to her seat, and even though I would open the window, it did nothing to lessen the smell of pickle. Aware of my disgust, my sister eventually stopped eating them around me, but whenever the opportunity arose, she (for her own amusement) would taunt me with the empty packet.

The smell of Monster Munch was something which I went on to successfully avoid for a number of years, until I started working in a nursing home. One of the residents suffered from a fungal foot infection, and the nurses conveniently failed to tell me about it.

“Hen, my slipper’s fallen off, can you fix it for me?” the old, wheelchair-bound man asked.

“Of course,” I replied.

I leaned down and fixed his slipper, and was greeted by the sight of black toenails, and cracked skin that looked like cheese. It was not until afterwards that I noticed that all too familiar smell of pickle. My hands stunk of it, and despite using medical standard sanitation products that were made for cleaning up wounds, it would not go away.

Though smell had returned, the snacks had not. Recently, however, these feet shaped, pickle-laden monstrosities made an impromptu return into my life. I was studying in a library when I was struck once more by their distinctive, nauseating smell. Disgusted, I turned around to see their origin, and witnessed a girl slowly caress these little feet with her tongue while reading a copy of Frankenstein. Appropriate, I thought. Who would want to eat anything that looks like feet? I immediately moved to a different seat.

Monster Munch, however, are not the only food that sickens me. I am equally disgusted by my mum’s love of trout. My dad likes to go fishing, and our kitchen sink regularly looks like an operating table: blood, flesh and innards. The sight of their frozen eyes always bothered me as a child (I did not like the idea of eating a dead animal), but not as much as their bones. Though I am now a vegetarian, my childhood memories of being served trout, and not being allowed to leave the table until my plate was cleared, haunt me to this day.

“Mum, this fish is full of bones. I can’t eat it,” I would complain.

“There are no bones in the fish,” my mum would declare.

Each time she said this, I would pause before locating a small, white bone with my tongue, and pulling it out of my mouth. I am amazed that I never choked.

“I must have missed that one,” she would say.

There was nothing I could do, and as I appreciated her cooking the meal, I forced myself to eat it. This involved employing a surgeon’s precision in attempting to remove the bones, before chewing and reluctantly swallowing the fish. This was made worse by the fish tank in the kitchen, as I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt as I devoured Bubbles and Nemo’s distant relations whilst they floated nearby. If I was in their place, I imagined, it would be like watching a horror show. I told my mum about my guilt, and, laughing, she simply said:

“If you want, I can cover the fish tank with a tea towel so that they don’t have to watch!”

That was a good idea, I thought, and she went on to cover the tank with a tea towel which appropriately said “Gone Fishing” on it whenever trout was on the menu.

With apologies to Jimmy Carter, I’ll conclude with my dad’s love of peanut butter, something which also inspires revulsion within me. My first experience with peanut butter was only a few years ago, and as I like peanuts and toast, I assumed that it would be pleasant. In fact, I was so confident that I would like peanut butter that I made no less than two slices of toast, (after all, it also looked delicious) and spread it generously over each. My dad sat at the opposite end of the table, smiling, as he enjoyed his two slices.

“You’ll love it Emma,” he said, looking up.

“I’m sure that I will,” I replied, as I picked up my first slice, and stared at the golden spread.

I took my first bite, and the dry taste was immediately overwhelming. It was a nutty disaster.

“You can even mix it with jam, or put Monster Munch and trout on top,” my dad added as he laughed at my expressions of disgust.

I spent the next few minutes attempting to swallow it, but despite my best efforts I could not. It was like trying to consume sand. I soon gave up, and as my dad had eaten, I threw the slices out onto the grass for the birds. To my amazement, the usually ravenous birds did not touch the peanut butter; they simply pecked away at the toast’s crust. Unlike me, the birds had realised that peanut butter was not a pleasant food to consume by its appearance.

My family is made up of disparate parts, and each member is made unique by their taste in food. Though I do not share the same taste as my mum, dad and sister, it is their knowledge of my intense dislike for the food that they love which has united us. Whenever we see a packet of Monster Munch or a jar of peanut butter in the supermarket, they stare at me and laugh, and when my dad brings home his latest catch, my mum puts a tea towel over the fish tank so that the fish do not have to witness the horror show.


Essential Read: Great Expectations

Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations is, in my opinion, the greatest coming-of-age novel of the 19th century, and is without question, essential reading. It is, like Dickens’s other novels, not only well written, but contains a sophisticated plot and characterisation. Great Expectations also reveals how childhood experiences can have a profound effect upon the individual, and through this, explores timeless issues, such as the corrupting power of wealth.

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The plot of Great Expectations is centred on Pip, a young orphan who lives with his older sister and her blacksmith husband, Joe Gargery. At the age of seven, whilst looking at his parent’s gravestones, Pip encounters an escaped convict. He asks Pip to bring him food and a file so that he can cut off his shackles, and, out of fear, Pip agrees. The convict is then caught, and claims to have stolen the items so that Pip does not get into trouble. One day, Pip’s uncle Pumblechook arrives at his home to tell him to go to Satis House, and play with the wealthy Miss Havisham’s adopted daughter, Estella. Pip begins to visit the house regularly, and soon falls in love with Estella. He then dreams of rising above his social class so that he can obtain Estella’s love, and he hopes that Miss Havisham will enable this to happen. After months of visits, Pip is disappointed when she provides him with just enough money to become Joe’s apprentice. After he is apprenticed, however, a lawyer, Mr. Jaggers, arrives at Pip’s home to tell him that he has an anonymous benefactor who has provided him with money so that he can be educated as a gentleman in London. The novel goes on to follow Pip’s journey as he attempts to achieve his ‘Great Expectations’, and the important lessons which it teaches him.

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In addition to its sophisticated plot, Great Expectations is essential reading because of Dickens’s use of characterisation. Miss Havisham, for example, is characterised as the archetype of the spurned woman whose entire life has been defined by her fiancé jilting her at the altar. She refuses to move on; continuing to wear her moth-eaten wedding dress in her dilapidated home. Her greatest aim in life is to break the hearts of men, and she uses Estella to do this. She encourages Pip to love Estella, but has no intentions of enabling him to be with her: “Love her, love her, love her!” This allows the reader to see her single-minded vengeance and ruthless self-interest. On the other hand Estella, Miss Havisham’s beautiful, young ward, is characterised as the archetype of an ice queen, and she has been raised as a tool to avenge Miss Havisham’s broken heart. Estella’s name means ‘star’, and as a result of her upbringing she becomes as distant, cold and unreachable as a star: “I have not bestowed my tenderness anywhere. I have never had any such thing.” Despite this, Dickens does not portray her as a completely unsympathetic character. She warns Pip that she has “no heart”, and this reveals that despite her cold demeanour, she does not want to hurt him.

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Moreover, Great Expectations reveals how childhood experiences can have a profound effect upon the individual. Pip’s childhood visits to Satis House prompt him to look at himself in a different way; Estella, for example, points out the coarseness of his hands: “I had never thought of being ashamed of my hands before.” It is this experience, coupled with his love of Estella, which instils a powerful desire in Pip to rise socially, and to have ‘Great Expectations’ about his future. It is through this that Dickens explores the corrupting influence of wealth, as once Pip is on the road to achieving his ‘Great Expectations’ he begins to look down upon his working-class upbringing. This can be seen through the following quotation: “I wished Joe had been rather more genteelly brought up,” which reveals that Pip looks down upon Joe because he never had the chance to be educated and learn the ways of high society, despite the fact that this was through no fault of his own.

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In summary, Dickens’s use of a sophisticated plot and characterisation coupled with his exploration a number of timeless issues are just some of the factors which make Great Expectations worth reading. It is a novel which, without giving too much away, stands out in its coming-of-age genre because of the important lessons which Pip learns on his journey from childhood to adulthood. Great Expectations is ultimately a complex novel which kept me compelled from the outset, and it is because of this that it is essential reading.


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