Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover

Twelve years old. Library card. Fringe.

Sarah led an aggressively sheltered life in a green English village. Her parents, a self-consciously counter-culture older couple, had done everything they could to give their only daughter a childhood free from any harmful influences, even going as far as to request that she not take part in the Year 6 production of My Fair Lady – they feared that the themes of poverty and class struggle would upset her.

Sarah had, at age ten-and-a-half, watched the first ten minutes of a South Park episode, glued with rubbernecking horror to the screen. Her dad, half-dressed for his cycle commute to work, overheard the set and, one arm in his anorak and wearing a single clip-on bike shoe, lurched into the room and tackled the TV.  Standing over its mangled remains, all sparking wires and broken glass, he bellowed in uncharacteristic rage about stiff letters to the people responsible and cartoons these days.

From then on, Sarah was not permitted to watch television. She was allowed to watch any of the dusty pile of kids’ VHS tapes, collected from years of car boot sales, stacked behind the hastily repaired set, but, after a year and a half of heavy use, they were badly warped; the characters jolted through their storylines like badly wound clockwork automatons. Before very long, Sarah had stopped watching the tapes chronologically, and instead would use the remote to make the characters zoom backwards and forwards, creating her own stories as she jabbed at the slightly sticky buttons.

The highlight of her week was her visit to the local library, accompanied either by her obstinately greying mother or her father in his purple and green anorak. Each week Sarah would return a finished book and, once her choice had been approved by her censor, take a new one to the front desk, where the librarian, whom Sarah felt deeply attached to, without ever knowing her name, would stamp the front page with a new date.

As though forgetting the thousands of times Sarah had already stood before her, the librarian would always spend long minutes scrutinising Sarah’s library card as though she suspected her of some kind of fraud. Each detail, from the signature on the back to the logo on the front, would be surveyed in turn, and every few seconds Sarah herself would be gazed at with unconcealed suspicion. Whilst her papers were being checked, Sarah always found herself staring at the librarian’s cold sores, which festered at the corners of her lips. Some weeks they would glisten like open wounds; other weeks they would have scabbed over and look as if they were beginning to heal.

It was November when the library, desperate for more custom, launched a new system: two tables, one for adults and one for children, were piled high with books wrapped in anonymous brown paper. A handwritten sign on the wall read, “Don’t judge a book by a cover.” Sarah approached the children’s table; she saw that the librarian had painstakingly written a short, purposefully vague description of each tome on a star shaped gift label – “boy wizard’s adventures at school“; “a teenage spy faces his toughest challenge yet“.

Even though she suspected it contained The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Sarah selected the package labelled with “four siblings discover a snowy land“. Having read it twice before, she was in no hurry to tear off the brown wrapping when she got home; she spent some time watching the Peak District rain beating at her bedroom window. Finally she slipped her finger into the badly selotaped fold and slit open this week’s entertainment.

But the book that fell onto her woolly blanket was not the one she had expected. Rather than a vintage drawing of two girls riding on the back of a giant lion, she was faced with a blank green cover, on which were the words, JAMES BALDWIN; ANOTHER COUNTRY. Intrigued, she flipped the book and read the blurb:

Education is indoctrination if you’re white – subjugation if you’re black.

This was definitely not one of the Chronicles of Narnia.

Heart hammering, feeling as though she was committing some dreadful crime, Sarah opened the book and started to read –

He was facing Seventh Avenue, at Times Square. It was past midnight and he had been sitting in the movies since two o’clock in the afternoon. Twice he had been awakened by the violent accents of the Italian film, once the usher had awakened him, and twice he had been awakened by caterpillar fingers between his thighs…

Eyes wide open, she read on, savouring every new word and new idea. There were many words she didn’t know (blow job, wop, nigger), but she didn’t dare look them up in the family’s Oxford Dictionary, sensing somehow that her parents would not approve.

By the next morning, she had read the entire book, and, without pausing, she flipped back to the front and started all over again:

He was facing Seventh Avenue, at Times Square. It was past midnight and he had been sitting in the movies since two o’clock in the afternoon. Twice he had been awakened by the violent accents of the Italian film, once the usher had awakened him, and twice he had been awakened by caterpillar fingers between his thighs…

Surely, she thought later that evening, quietly sipping her soup at the kitchen table, there had been some mistake at the library: there was no way that was a kids’ book. But she needed more; she knew she would never again be content with a book from the children’s section, with its papier-mache rainbow and tiny chairs. She began to wonder how she could slip away from her parents and grab armfuls of forbidden tomes to gorge on in the privacy of her bedroom.

Fate seemed to be smiling at her: on Monday morning, her teacher, already familiar with Sarah’s parents’ peculiarities, took her aside and explained that the class would be starting their sexual education in their biology classes. “But you can just go to the school library,” said the teacher, trying to preempt an inevitable meeting with the girl’s abrasive family.

“The school library?” Sarah had not even known that her school, a grey, Northern comp, had a library.

Sarah had a window of an opportunity: for an hour every week for however long sex ed could last, she rushed from shelf to shelf, grabbing A-Level texts and checking them out. She would take them home and hide them under her mattress and read them only in the deep of night, curled up under her unbearably hot blanket with a torch.

UlyssesThe Naked Luncheverything by D.H. Lawrence and Sylvia Plath’s anthology.

Her parents noticed her panda eyes and exhaustion, but they attributed it to puberty and a lack of iron and bought her supplements, never suspecting that under her covers she had access to a thousand foreign worlds they could never dream of. Sarah’s childhood, as they defined it, was over.


The Church of Crying over Spilt Blood

(This is part of an ongoing series where I chat shit about landmarks in Petersburg.)

13th of March 1881. Alexander II, Russian tsar and moustache model, seemingly unaware that summer was still months away, was taking a stroll in the Summer Gardens. It was a beautiful Russian spring day, which meant that a mere few inches of snow had fallen and the tsar was snuggled up in only one furry jacket.

Alexander’s entourage, as usual, were pressuring him to be less autocratic. “Be less autocratic,” they were saying.

Whatever, he thought, ignoring them imperiously.

“The people are sick of constant censorship,” they moaned. “They want basic civil liberties.”

Alex was sick of the chat. “What are they gonna do, assassinate me and unintentionally precipitate a period of conservative politics, spearheaded by my orphaned son? Wait until my grandson is engaged in war on the world stage, seize the nation’s railways and storm the Winter Palace?” he scoffed. Shaking his head at the preposterousness of the suggestion, he got into his carriage and gestured for his driver to move on.

Just as the vehicle began to move away, his trusted advisor shouted through the window – “Be careful, tsar – the people’s will is more powerful than you might think.”

What a weird way to phrase that, thought Alex to himself, settling back into the plush seat.

The streets through which the carriage clippity-clopped were lined with people waving their handkerchiefs and yelling about right to assemble and political representation. Maybe I should look into this “constitution” idea, thought Alex idly.

Just as he was beginning to convince himself that a little political representation could go a long way, the carriage abruptly stopped. Sticking his head out of the window, hoping he still looked regal, the tsar saw that a man holding a white package was standing in front of the horses.

Shit, he thought, as the man exploded.

Alex was rushed to the Winter Palace, missing both legs and half of his tummy. As he died he reached out to his son, soon-to-be Tsar Alexander III, and whispered, “…Build me the biggest… goddamn church you can…”

Alex Jr took his father’s words to heart, and, on the very spot Alexander got exploded, he constructed the architectural marvel that is known today as the Church of Crying over Spilt Blood. No expense was spared. There’s gold leaf, mosaics, enamel domes, marble floors, icons on icons on icons. There’s even a stall outside selling corn on the cob, although I’m not sure that was constructed at the same time as the church itself.

Alex Jr is said to have painted the twinkle in Jesus’ eyes with his own hands – although this is disputed: the tsar was notoriously afraid of ladders.

Blurry ceiling ft. Jesus

Under the Soviets, famously not keen on religion or shit tonnes of gold that could be feeding the people being used to decorate big fancy churches, the cathedral fell into disrepair. It was briefly used to store posters, including the iconic There is No God cosmonaut one, but its doors were closed forever after the harassed janitor misplaced the keys.

Say what you like about the USSR, they didn’t mince words.

The church was painstakingly repaired following the fall of the Soviet Union. The restoration is said to have taken over a year in man hours; it was one gentleman’s job to paint the straps on the saints’ sandals, and he worked full time, Monday to Friday. That’s how many goddamn saints there are in the place.

These days, over forty tourists visit the church a year, paying homage to the assassinated tsar, and admiring the lengths his son went to to make people feel bad about it.


Walking home from the theatre, …

Last week’s grammar classes were spent puzzling over the intricacies of the gerund (the ‘ing’ form of the verb). As a homework intended to both stretch our linguistic ability and get the creative juices flowing, we were asked to write a story about walking home from the theatre using as many gerunds as possible.

I wouldn’t normally share my homework with you, but I must say I wrote an absolute banger and it’d be a travesty to commit it to my language folder unread. I live to serve the public.


By the way, our teachers here are obsessed with us going to the theatre. It’s really weird. Like, they’ll ask what we did at the weekend, and then when we’re done pretending we did anything other than sitting at home in our pants, they’ll be like, “And did anyone go to the theatre?”

We’ve got holidays coming up this month and they asked us about our plans: “Anyone doing anything fun? Going to the theatre, maybe?”

It’s like really confusing, pointless peer pressure.
Anyway, here’s my gerund practice.

Walking home from the theatre, I decided to take a detour along the canal. I crossed the street opposite Kazan Cathedral, looking both ways to see if any cars were coming, and, noticing it had started raining, I put my hood up and walked quickly.

Reaching the banks of the canal, I saw that there were ducks under the bridge. On the pavement stood a girl and her grandmother, throwing the ducks bread. Not wishing to stand in the rain, I hurried on and the pair feeding the ducks ran out of bread and went to the bus stop.

Having skipped tea because I was running late to the theatre, I was very hungry. Outside my house was a kiosk serving pancakes. Needing something to eat, I went to the window and asked for a pancake with cheese and tomatoes. The woman cooking the pancakes took my money and started making my dinner. I watched, stomach rumbling.

Holding the pancake, I went inside. Sitting at the table, I unwrapped the food and began to eat. That’s when I noticed: the woman, not hearing my order, had given me chicken and mushrooms. Being allergic to mushrooms, I immediately vomited and had to go to bed.


I shall cease weeping after we part only when my heart dries up.

 So I have said, more or less out loud, more or less sincerely, to no fewer than six boys and girls. My greatest shame is my last interaction with a lover I didn’t love that much:

Him: “It’s not working out.”

Me: “I shall cease weeping after we part only when my heart dries up.”

Then I went and had a pie with my good friend Kate. I almost forgot to tell her we had broken up and it was indeed a struggle to frown as if troubled or suffering from stomach ache. It was October at the time and my favourite thing about October is when you’re walking through the Ponderosa and one of the trees is so orange and red it looks like it’s on fire. I want to stand still and stare at the flaming boughs but I feel that would be a Faux Pas so I do my staring on the move, swivelling my head to maximise the looking. That said, though, my least favourite thing about October is when you’re walking through the Ponderosa and you see a tree where the leaves just turn brown and drop off with almost a thump. They don’t even have the good manners to decompose quickly (which would be my priority if I were such a leaf) and you dare not kick through them in triumphant childishness because you think there is probably a dog poo lurking within. I’m usually quite tolerant but I cross the road when I see a tree like that.


Excellent ways to name your pets: Volume VII

Here it is: the seventh in this pet-naming epic, soon to be adapted for film.

Excellent ways to name your pets.

Parts of London and Weather Types

This method is inspired by Brits’ well-documented obsession with weather.

Tip: Can also be used to name cocktails.

  • Islington Drizzle
  • Shoreditch Sunshine
  • Arkley Showers
  • Dartford Flurry
  • Orpington Gale
  • Chelsea Coldsnap

An Apology for the Life of Trudith Shaw

Trudith Shaw was born; for this she apologises.

She concedes that she was not involved in the decision – nor, indeed, was anyone: her mother has described her as “a happy mistake” – yet she takes full responsibility for her twenty years of life. Unable to pinpoint the exact moment she started “fucking everything up”, to quote a particularly blunt ex-boyfriend, Trudith is compelled to conclude that her entire existence is regrettable. She has taken this moment, having reached, as she believes, a new pinnacle of toxicity, to confess and repent for all the wrong she has done to herself, to others, and to the environment in general.

Miss Shaw has requested that her many indiscretions become a matter of public record, in the hopes that they may serve as a deterrent for others considering adopting such a heinous lifestyle as hers. It should be noted that the following anecdotes are intended to provide a brief sketch of Trudith’s life; by no means should they be considered an exhaustive compilation of her crimes.

In primary school, Trudith single-handedly lowered all her classmates’ quality of life by spilling a carton of milk all over her desk and her own skirt. It can only be assumed that this was done with malice aforethought, given that the carton in question had been specifically designed to resist spillage. Even worse, she then willfully undermined the very fabric of our great culture by crying all over the resultant puddle. Some children were so traumatised that they were later diagnosed with severe PTSD (although it is contested that Trudith is the sole cause of this – the three students in question were diagnosed following two tours of Iraq apiece); and the class teacher, until that moment a staunch leftie, was overheard muttering about how Thatcher might have had a point after all. Trudith, far from being punished, was given a clean skirt from lost and found and a second carton of milk.

As a teenager Trudith was almost chronically angsty, a condition she consciously aggravated by reading Dante’s ‘Inferno’ but shunning his ‘Paradiso’ and even ‘Purgatorio’. Furthermore, despite devouring Pushkin’s ‘Little Tragedies’, Trudith did not deign to make even a cursory search regarding his ‘Big Comedies’. To make matters worse, Trudith avoided contributing to either author’s estate by reading these hellish tales online for free.

It was at this time that Trudith confesses to dabbling with self-harm, a serious issue which she never fully committed to: despite learning through pop-culture the most effective ways to do damage to oneself, Trudith remained resolutely mild in her self-mutilation, never mustering up the courage to cut lengthways along the veins or even to cut where the skin is thinnest. Trudith, still recovering from her shamefully half-hearted addiction to razors, is left with a collection of scars on the side of her wrists that look much more serious than they ever were; and yet Trudith still collects governmental aid for depression, despite never making any serious attempt to do lasting damage to herself.

Miss Shaw has been overheard saying that this was a particularly reprehensible part of her life, and one can well see why: apart from the aforementioned literary deviance and her embarrassing delving into mental illness, she has actually admitted to drinking alcohol before her eighteenth birthday, and (still worse) to dancing in a disturbing manner while intoxicated. She extends her sincerest regret to the many victims of her senseless dancing, many of whom are expected never to fully recover from their trauma.

Trudith has lied; she has stolen from vending machines. She has refused to pay the 20p extra for fairtrade bananas and regularly pretended to have no cash in order to avoid the man selling the Big Issue. She has slept with people for the wrong reasons and consistently acted in her own self-interest, even when doing so was at the expense of others. She has wasted time – not minutes, but whole days down the drain. She tried a cigarette on her first day at university and pretended to like it. She has never put as much attention into sorting her rubbish as she should. She once pretended to know who all the members of the Shadow Cabinet were and then surreptitiously googled them to seem impressive; this failed to impress anyone. She has promised to do things and then not done them – worse, she has promised to do things knowing full well that she never would. In a world divided, we can all agree on one thing: the life of Trudith Shaw has been a mess, from start to finish.

Trudith’s decision to apologise for this litany of crimes is indeed a rare moment of selflessness in a life otherwise composed of hurt, anxiety, and nausea. One can only hope that the public learn from Trudith’s ill-advised life decisions and use this knowledge to be as different from her as they possibly can.