Christie Watson’s The Language of Kindness at The Exchange

christie watson

It’s always exciting when a colleague publishes a book. When a colleague publishes a book that leaps straight into the bestseller lists it’s time for particular celebration. That’s what happened with St Mary’s Senior Lecturer Christie Watson, whose third book – and first book of non-fiction – The Language of Kindness, has now spent three weeks in the Sunday Times Top Ten Bestseller list. Christie has been incredibly busy promoting the book, in the UK and abroad, at the end of her year’s sabbatical from teaching, but came back to St Mary’s to read from and discuss the book – and on the very day that it was announced she will be awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Letters by her alma mater, the University of East Anglia.

Francis Campbell, the university Vice-Chancellor, welcomed Christie to The Exchange, and a theatre-full of staff members, students past, present and future, and members of the public. Christie then read from the book, discussed it with her Creative and Professional Writing colleague Jonathan Gibbs (that’s me, writing this blog post!) and then answered questions from the audience. Here are a couple of my thoughts about the evening.

First up, I was surprised to hear Christie say that, although she has already done dozens of literary events around the book, this was the first time she had read from it. Usually, she said, she just takes to the stage, or the lectern, and talks about what’s inside it. ‘I know the whole book,’ she said, ‘so I just get up and talk.’ No mean feat when you’re giving a 45-minute keynote address to hundreds of nurses at the annual congress of the Royal College of Nurses, as she did earlier this month. (Last year Jeremy Corbyn gave a keynote, to give a sense of scale of the event.)

christie watson jonathan gibbs francis campbell

St Mary’s Vice-Chancellor Francis Campbell introducing Christie at the start of the event

But Christie did read, brilliantly, the section about an elderly patient, Gladys, suffering from dementia – and incontinence. Christie starts off talking about dignity, and the UN declaration of human rights, and ends with a discussion of the Bristol Stool Chart, and still manages to balance compassion with what can only be described as toilet humour.

There were some excellent questions from the floor and, as Francis Campbell pointed out afterwards, Christie was able to identify all the students she had taught, both postgrad and undergrad, by voice alone (the theatre lights meant we couldn’t see the audience) even though it had been over a year since she had taught any of them. One undergrad student, Jess, remembered the day in which Christie came into teach, and told the students that if she was perhaps a little distracted, it would most likely be because a dozen publishers were in the process of submitting sealed bids for her book at auction.

I was also struck by Christie’s response to a question about the similarities between nursing and writing. She remembered that she had still been working as a nurse when her first book, Tiny Sunbirds Far Away, was published, a journalist had commented how different the two jobs were. Christie answered then, and repeated it now, that she didn’t think of them as different at all. Both involve observation, both involve empathy and compassion, and both, in their own ways, involve telling stories.

language of kindness

Christie spoke, too, about the emails she was already receiving from nurses who had read her book, thanking her for putting into words what they wouldn’t have been able to. And about how her hopes for the television series that she is currently developing from the book are that it would be another opportunity for nurses’ voices to be heard, when as a profession it remains severely under-represented on the national and international stage.

Christie then finished off with another short reading from the book, and although it was a section I have read more than once, still I found myself moved, almost to tears. It was a fascinating evening, and we can’t wait to have Christie back on campus and teaching again.

Photos: Sarah McKenna-Ayres


Student recommendation: Pablo Páramo, by Juan Rulfo

How many times do have to be recommended a book, or a writer, to read before you give in and do what you’re told? Well, if you’re a student, and the recommendation comes from your lecturer, once should be enough – right? On the other hand, it took me three people telling me to read Juan Rulfo’s incredible Mexican novel Pedro Páramo before I finally got around to it.

I can’t remember who the first recommender was. I’m not even sure how long the book has been in on my shelves – in a cool-looking edition by edgy British independent Serpent’s Tail in 1994, though it first appeared in 1955. It wasn’t a review copy, doesn’t look like a charity shop lucky dip, and I don’t think would have been something I’d have bought first-hand unless nudged towards it. I remember trying it, and putting it down, un-hooked, a few pages in, despite its arresting opening:

I came to Comala because I had been told that my father, a man named Pedro Páramo, lived there. It was my mother who told me. And I had promised her that after she died I would go see him. I squeezed her hands as a sign I would do it.

The second nudge came from an unknown bookseller in Marfa, Texas, where my wife was attending a conference. She wanted a book to bring back for me and asked for something I’d not be likely to know. They suggested a different book by Rulfo, his earlier collection of short stories, The Plain in Flames. (The original Spanish title, El llano en llamas, is better – in fact it’s damn near perfect.) I read that book, and was pretty much pole-axed by it, for the violence and sparse beauty of its stories; afterwards, I tried Pedro Páramo again, and still couldn’t get on with it. Life’s too short, yeah?

Then just last week Juan, a Colombian second year student at St Mary’s, mentioned Rulfo’s name in conversation as a definite must-read of South American fiction. Okay, I told myself, third time lucky. This time I’ll definitely read it.

In truth, Pedro Páramo is a difficult book to read, especially considering it’s only 120 pages long. Partly this is down to the style – spare and indirect, and much of it told through dialogue – and partly it’s down to the structure, which jumps around all over the place. We don’t stay with that protagonist, who turns up in Comala, only to find that it’s a literal ghost town, with everyone in it dead. The novel also shifts back in time to Pedro Páramo’s childhood and adulthood, where we find out how he got the reputation he did. ‘“Do you know Pedro Páramo?”’ the narrator asks the man who guides him to the town. ‘”Who is he?”‘

‘“Living bile,” was his reply.’

Not much happens in the book’s 120 pages, but there are lots of stories of things happening, and most of those are bad: murder, rape, extortion. It’s a revenge story, a surreal Western bound up in the fevered religion of the region – if you’ve seen the weird Clint Eastwood film High Plains Drifter then you’re half way there. It’s so weird, in fact, that even on this final, successful reading attempt, I had to give up at page 60 and go back to the start. I’m glad I did, and I’m glad I got there in the end. I may even live to read it again.

Jonathan Gibbs is a Lecturer in Creative and Professional Writing at St Mary’s, Twickenham. He is always on the lookout for recommendations from students of books to read.

Library Finds: H(A)PPY by Nicola Barker

In today’s world, a person has to do a lot to stand out of the crowd if they want to get noticed. People have minimal attention span…oh, look! A talking parrot is trying to manipulate his way out of his cage! Oh sorry, guys. Now, turn to page 394 and let’s get this book review down in the books [bonus points to those who get the page 394 reference. I knew I could count on you].

Over Christmas break, I read a book called H(a)ppy by Nicola Barker. The setting takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where humans (as we know them) have ceased to exist and a new era of beings is born. Their world is a word of language that buzzes and glows.  The community of beings are called The Young, and was established out of the “floods, fires, plagues, and death cults” caused by the human race. The Young walk a new path called the Path of Light. They are taught to let go and move beyond God. They are given only minimal choices but “just enough choices” so that their minds will not again become overloaded and corrupted. The Altruistic Powers created the “Information Stream” which helps The Young balance their “chemicals” and “live in the moment.”

The story centres on a character called Mira A. (People are now gender neutral, and have no sexual organs.) The graph is hooked up to each individual to monitor their mind, will, and emotions. Mira A looks at a photograph on the information stream and starts to ask questions about the girl in their head which leads them on a downward spiral as they start to form “a narrative” in their mind – something that The Young are not supposed to do. They are supposed to always be at peace, clean and unencumbered and no longer to use their mind to have an individual life.

Words are highly significant in Barker’s book. She highlights words in different colors to help the reader understand the mindset of Mira A and their world. She also incorporates drawings, blank spaces, huge fonts, strange lettering and numbers within the book. She does a fantastic job of keeping the reader interested in her narrative as I have never seen anything like it before. Her style of writing and use of language is elegant, exciting, and refreshing, and her book made me think outside of the box. I highly encourage people to try H(A)PPY – I don’t think they will be disappointed.

(A)ri H(a)ines is a first year Creative and Professional Writing student.

Spring Reading 2018

Last night was the latest in our rolling programme of Creative and Professional Writing undergraduate readings, in the cosy back room of the very hospitable Prince of Wales pub. Despite a scheduling error that saw us double-booking with West London Varsity, the reading was very well attended, and we heard poems and story extracts from first years Beth and Jane, second year Alex, and third years Steph, Amie, Trish and Jess, as well as a couple of storming poems from postgrad Jo Harker, and even two short pieces from CPW lecturers Russell Schechter and Jonathan Gibbs – a treat not likely to be repeated any time soon! Well done to everyone who read, and roll on the next event, which will be towards the end of the semester, in May.

Congratulations to guest lecturer Eley Williams for literary win

Last night was the second annual award ceremony for the Republic of Consciousness Prize, a new literary prize intended to celebrate the best of the UK’s independent publishers. Despite a strong shortlist, the prize went to Influx Press and Eley Williams for her debut collection of stories, Attrib. This success will come as no surprise to first- and second-year Creative and Professional Writing students who had the benefit of being taught by Eley last semester. Eley taught the second year Writing London module, and contributed to the first year Voices in Contemporary Fiction.

Attrib. has been described as “acrobatic, edge-of-your-seat fiction” (The Telegraph) and “an emotionally delicate and tenderly introspective collection” (The New Statesman).

We also had the pleasure of welcoming Eley to our New Writing from Twickenham reading that took place at The Exchange last autumn as part of the Richmond Literature Festival. There she read two of the stories from this marvellous collection: ‘Alight at the Next’ and ‘Smote’. No one who has heard her read can doubt that she is not only one of the most exciting new voices in British writing, but that she is wonderful performer to boot.

So congrats again to Eley, and to the pioneering Influx Press. Long may they write, and publish, and here’s hoping it’s not too long before we have Eley back at St Mary’s.

Library Finds: First Love, by Gwendoline Riley

shaun dicks rileyFirst Love is a book written for the millennial. It tackles the modern day minefield that is love and life. It takes us through the story of Neve, a modern women who is struggling, all through her perspective. It is a very well-written book that is obviously carefully planned out. It keeps your attention and makes you want to find out how it ends up for Neve. The narrative itself leans to comedic relief in places. I highly recommend it. It’s resonates more than you think it can. This book is a must read for any millennial or millennial at heart.


Shaun Dicks is a first year Creative and Professional Writing student.

Review: Women and Power

Mary Beard’s Women and Power: A Manifesto brings a calm, logical voice to the argument of feminism and women in power. Far removed from angry chanting or bra-burning, it is not only a look at examples of women being treated as inferior in society and politics, but a look at why.

Using years of scholarly knowledge, Beard takes us on a walk through ancient Greece and Rome to show us female figures, real and mythological, and relates them back to our current situation. The book is split into two parts, “The Public Voice of Women” and “Women in Power.” It’s quite a wee book at about 115 pages, and its handy size ensures it can be slipped into a handbag or back pocket. Uninterrupted, you can blast through it in under two hours.

Women who have had anything mansplained to them or told they didn’t know what they were talking about (which is most women) will read passages with a nod or a loud “mmm-hmm”, and also have a feeling of kinship with the mistreated women that Beard tells us about. But the demographic who should really read this book are the men. It perfectly details the distress and uphill fight as a woman to not make a “grab” for power, but simply to be heard. It encourages empathy and change without being emotionally charged or irrational. At times, the voice can be slightly cold, but it is always factual.

The ending is somewhat underwhelming, but delightfully honest. In thinking about how to fix this rift, all Beard can do is shrug and say (paraphrasing) “hopefully we’ll figure it out.” Hopefully, we do.

Review by Stephanie Marquardt, a third year Creative and Professional Writing student.

Library Finds: White Teeth, by Zadie Smith

It’s a long book, for sure. Three generations, two families. One (multicultural) Britain.

This humorous book gives an amazing insight into what it’s like not to be middle-class, not to be white, not to have been born in this country. It is a book about the friendship between Samad and Archie, who bonded over a dangerous and not quite legal issue they plotted in the end of the second World War. It is also the story about Alsana and Clara, their wives, who also bond – over their marriage problems.

But maybe most of all, it is a story of twins who are so different that their father despairs about it. Samad becomes more and more obsessed with religion and the fact that his sons do not care about Allah as much as he does. He believes that growing up in Britain damages them. There is a decision to be made…

A book from the St Mary’s library collection, reviewed by Jane Kremer, first year English and Creative and Professional Writing student.

Library Finds: Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace

ellen willett infinite jestInfinite Jest is a collection of worldview-altering quotes. The plot tying it all together is the concept of an entertainment so addictive that its viewers will die of dehydration before turning it off. Across 1079 pages it traverses multiple genres such as hysterical realism, tragic comedy and postmodern satire. The plot follows the lives (mostly) of Hal Incandenza, a student at Enfield Tennis Academy, and Don Gately, a recovering drug addict at Ennet Recovery House. The novel explores addiction, withdrawal, recovery, family relationships, death, entertainment, linguistics and national identity. Set in the near future of dystopian America and spanning nine years, each subsidized by a specific corporate sponsor for tax revenue, Infinite Jest will teach you about consumerism, greed, social politics and the shallowness of pleasure. It moves you between characters and years so frequently you’ll give up on control, and in that is the magic reflection of daily life which Wallace aimed for; every scene demands to be read as an individual. Wallace’s language is effortlessly concise. Phrases such as ‘My chest bumps like a dryer with shoes in it’ are the real page-turners. Reading this novel feels like when you’re chasing something in a dream and you almost catch up to it but then you wake up, and that’s when the book ends. It’s irritating and inconclusive and I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s a like a virus.

A book from the St Mary’s library collection, reviewed by Ellen Willett, third year Creative and Professional Writing student.

Library Finds: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, by Jeanette Winterson

I first checked out “Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal” because I wanted to look at one of the books from the Voices in Contemporary Literature course and this one looked the most interesting.

Despite the title referencing when she moved out and her adoptive mother asking her the titular question “Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?” the book deals more so with Jeanette’s issues with the idea of being loved and wanted by those around her. This is shown particularly with the references to the fact her adoptive mother told her that “The Devil lead us to the wrong crib.” The idea of her being “The Wrong Crib.” Comes up often in the novel, whether it’s when she tried to behave “correctly” in the hopes of being acceptable and loved by the woman who adopted her, or later in life when talking about seeking her adoptive mother and being told she’d always been “wanted,” despite being given away for adoption.

Fittingly, as it is a book about her own life, “Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?” is not a set book where things go as they should in a ‘story’ the abusive adoptive mother is not entirely demonised as a monster and the book doesn’t end with a triumphant reunion with the birth mother making everything okay. Rather the book poses the question of nature vs nurture and how someone can love and be loved despite difficult circumstances.

I enjoyed this book and think that anyone else who enjoys learning about the lives of others also would enjoy it.

A book from the St Mary’s library collection, reviewed by Kirstin Richardson, first year English and Creative and Professional Writing student.