And breathe. So. Yesterday I had an interview. For a job I really want. Teaching English, in a really lovely school with lovely kids and lovely staff and a really lovely head who didn’t just laugh me out of the room as has happened to me oh so many times before because of my utterly shambolic CV. I haven’t had an interview for a long time, and I have never actually taught English before, so I was understandably terrified. Fortunately I had very little notice so only had the weekend to agonise about what I would teach in my 30 minute lesson (and try to get to grips with the entire GCSE and A Level syllabuses). Being a dithering perfectionist I wasted hours trying to second-guess what would be the absolute pinnacle of a Yr 10 lesson, and even at 1am on Monday morning still had a choice of three.
It went okay. For a first ever English lesson. As did my interview with the pupils, my interview with the Head and my interview with the Head of Department. Until the killer question. I can’t bear to think about it, even though I have been thinking only about it for the past twenty-two and three quarter hours.
‘So, talk to me about favourite books.’
Oh my god. HOW could I not have anticipated this? It is a blindingly obvious question. Everyone has a favourite book. Particularly if they are an English teacher, or somebody trying to convince somebody that they have the wherewithal to become an English teacher.
Oh god oh god oh god oh god, think of a book.
‘Gosh. Favourite books. Gosh.’
Not one single book. Last time we moved house we nearly divorced over the fact that more than half of our possessions are books. There are currently thirteen large, crammed bookcases in our house and another thirteen’s worth at least still in boxes. On my side of the bed there are piles of them. In the loo another pile. There are books in the car (I get car sick if I try to read en route, but there’s always five minutes in the dentist’s waiting room, or at the school gates), in my bag, all over the kitchen table, on the stairs. I can’t leave the house without a book – and it’s got to be a real book, not an ebook, although I have a fair few of those too. My life is full of books, and always has been. They are my best friends, and I love them.
And here I am sitting in an interview for a job where I get paid to read books and talk about books all day long, and I cannot call to mind a single book. All I can think about is how I am a ludicrous fraud and of course they won’t give me the job, and how I would very much like to be able to say look, I’m sorry, I have filled my head so full of the exam board specifications and the very many possible ways to deliver a half hour lesson on a not very inspiring, adverb-laden piece of autobiography that I have temporarily closed off my normal brain. I have been to the loo so many times that I have literally nothing left inside me. I am an intelligent perfectionist with self-esteem issues and a tendency to over-analyse, and my lack of sleep combined with extreme nerves and bastard hormones have temporarily turned me into an idiot.
After I’ve said all that I would like to take a deep breath and start again. I would like to tell the very nice man about the Flora McFlimseys and the Winnie the Poohs that my Dad brought me back from his travels, that made me swell with pleasure even before I’d got past the delights of the cover and into the Easter bonnets and the tiddley poms. I’d like to tell him about Saturdays at the library with my magical orange cardboard tickets that could be swapped for Tintins and Asterixes and Three Investigators, for Willard Prices and Anne of Green Gables and Little Women and Huckleberry Finn and Hans Christian Anderson and Little House on the Prairie and Emil and the Detectives – all wonderful, exciting, vibrant alternative lives to my cold, friendless one in 1970s Aberdeen. And about summer holidays that left me tanned from the knees down, because the rest of me was underneath a towel on the beach reading Heidi and The Little Princess and The Secret Garden, and then Catherine Cookson and Jean Plaidy and – in desperation when it was the only thing left on the bookshelf in our holiday villa – a very graphic yet dull biography of Elvis Presley. After that I’d tell him about my teenage discoveries: Austen and Hardy, Dickens and Wodehouse, Brontes and Eliots TS and George, Larkin and Donne and Virgil and Homer and and and and… I’d tell him how often I think of poor Pip and Joe Gargery, of Mrs Sparsit eating sweetbreads in her gloves, of tortured Heathcliff and silly Cathy and the wild, unforgiving moor, of Angel Clare and Dido and ingenious Penelope, of ridiculous Cold Comfort Farm and joyous Wooster and clever, funny, difficult Emma. Of the huge, deep, tortured fury and passion of Donne and of Larkin’s excruciating, exquisite ordinariness of suburbia; of widening gyres and rhetorical questions and musings and rants and wry observations about life and love and everything.
And that’s before we get onto Julian Barnes and AS Byatt and Kate Atkinson and Ian McEwan, Pat Barker and Carol Shields and John Banville and Anne Tyler, and on and on it goes. I want to talk about how I got sacked because I stood in Regent’s Park tube finishing Madame Bovary instead of going to work, how furious I was at the tears that meant I couldn’t see to read the end of Birdsong, how Tulip Fever has the funniest scene I can ever remember reading in a novel ever, how I lay traps of carefully chosen books around the house for my children and watch as they fall, at first sceptical and then delightedly, into them, and how Rebus is my guilty pleasure, like a takeaway pizza when you know it’ll make you feel slightly sick afterwards and that homemade is better, but it’s still bloody lovely at the time.
All of that and more. We haven’t even touched on drama, or Shakespeare, delicious observer,entertainer, lover and torturer that he is. In the end he came to my rescue, sort of. After an awkward few minutes when, for some reason, rather than offer a favourite book I decided to explain why I hadn’t specially enjoyed McEwan’s The Children Act (oddly empty, like a particular painting by the Scottish colourist JD Fergusson). The very nice man listened to this random rambling about a quite ordinary book until he could bear it no longer. Even I, in my state of utter gormlessness, noticed his politely disguised disdain and managed to dredge the Bard from somewhere.
‘Macbeth!’ I shouted.
And I was off again, garbling about my recent obsession with wise women and how they’ve been ignored, suppressed or branded as witches by the patriarchy. Just embarrassing. Especially as it must have looked like after five minutes of thinking, the only author I could come up with as a potential favourite was the best known author in the world, ever. I can’t tell you the number of times as I’m writing this I’ve had to close my eyes in horror at myself (well I can – at least 17 and I’m doing it again now). The only reason I’m reliving it, again, is because I feel so very very bad for all the books I’ve let down by not trumpeting them from the rooftops. And the only excuse I have, apart from the nerves and no sleep and all of that, is that they are all so much a part of me that I had not paid any attention to them in the way that I often don’t pay any attention, for instance, to my legs. Not because I don’t need them and love them and appreciate them and wonder at the mechanics of them and the things they do for me, but because they’re there and are so much the fabric of my life, of me, that for a brief and unfortunately vitally important moment I had forgotten all about them.
So. It’s now twenty four hours since I left the building, with the hideous realisation that, like Othello, I had thrown away my pearl. I haven’t heard anything.