Literacy in the Library

One of the highlights of my week is when the Year 7 literacy class comes the library. Last year’s group learned about the non-fiction section, and about how the Dewey Decimal System can help them find books on the subjects they’re interested in. They used the music library and saw the range of music genres that we have on CD. They created library posters, designed their own book blurbs and wrote reviews of books and music. I led a project in which they created their own Zines. And best of all, they’ve been using the library more, both inside and out of class time. I’ve noticed they come up and talk to me more, they ask for books and I always try to buy their requests if we don’t have it already, and they have become far more confident library users, just in time for them to start needing the library more as they transition from the equivalent of primary school to secondary school.

So, I thought it would be fun to look back on the lessons where the library played a bigger role.

Where Dewey Start?

I cannot take credit for this literacy/library team-up. At the end of last year, the literacy teacher, Mr Wong, approached me for ideas about a one-off library lesson to introduce the Year 7s to the Dewey Decimal System. It was a fortunate coincidence that, when first starting in the role, I had looked into library lesson ideas and come across several library lesson packs on the website Twinkl – including one that specifically targeted Year 7s.

Guided by the ideas in the activity pack, and a bit of trial and error on how best to fit the lesson to our school library specifically, we’ve found that it works really well, and have now run this particular lesson six times. The students learn about the non-fiction library, and where they can find different books. I demonstrate the layout, making sure to point out anomalies (like the fact that they would find Fairytales in Social Science, Pets in Technology, or Computers in General Miscellaneous). This guides my development of the collection towards subjects that excite them (Dinosaurs!) and also lets them hear about the non-music subjects that we have books on, which is useful when over a quarter of the collection is classed under the 780s.

They then complete a worksheet that lets them explore the non-fiction collection further: they select books from each of the main 10 categories (i.e. the hundreds) and answer questions about them. They then work out where they would look to find the answers to a list of general knowledge questions. This helps them practice using the Dewey Decimal chart, and develops their study skills. For example, one of the students suggested that he could look in the biographies section to find out who discovered penicillin. While he’s not necessarily incorrect, this led to a discussion about how he might need to know the inventor’s name in order to find a biography, and it would rely on our having an Alexander Fleming biography in the collection. He agreed that the answer might be more likely to be mentioned in one of the books about Medicine, but insisted that if he needed to find out the answer he would ask Google (and, in this instance, quite right too!)

Reviewing the (book and music) Situation

Later in the year, the class went on to write music and book reviews. For the music reviews, I was able to direct them towards our magazine corner, where they could see examples of professionally published reviews in the music magazines the library carries. This highlighted to them that the magazines were there for them to use and also that they were learning skills that were useful in the real world. As Mr Wong pointed out, it is possible that this might actually be a viable career option for these musical students.

They also wrote book reviews, specifically of books that the library already carried. When they were completed and marked, I used Canva to uniformly style each of their reviews and set up the Reading Corner to be a more permanent “Year 7 Recommends” display. The reviews were also uploaded onto the library catalogue, which some of the students were very excited about.

The display was a success across the years. The Year 8 choristers (who have their Prep sessions in the library), had a lot of fun reading the reviews and talking about the books that had been recommended. There was also a noticeable surge in Rick Riordan issues among the Juniors after the Percy Jackson books had been put on display. I received multiple requests for the Magnus Chase and Heroes of Olympus series which now fill an entire shelf of our fiction collection!

Zine there, Done that

Towards the end of the school year, I suggested to Mr Wong that a good final project might be to make “Zines” – short magazines centered on a topic of interest, traditionally fan-made with a limited print run (if any). My idea was that each student could make their own Zine about a piece of media or hobby that they enjoyed. Then I would make copies of each of the Zines to add to the school library, and Chetham’s could have its own Zine collection.

I brought in a couple of example Zines that I had at home (including the Laser Girl one I made as a present for my sister when she got her PhD), and Mr Wong drew up a plan for how we would structure the lessons. The students spent several weeks planning and making their Zines. We taught the students the folding technique to make little 8-page booklets, and they planned out each page, and then worked on the Zines for a few weeks in the sessions before completing them for homework.

It was exciting to see the finished products, and we ended up with 23 Zines covering an eclectic range of topics:

  • movies (Star Wars; Marvel; genres)
  • books (Harry Potter; How to Train Your Dragon; the Evil Dentist; murder mysteries)
  • pets and animals (from dogs, cats and other pets to porcupines, ants and newts!)
  • hobbies (sewing; girl’s cricket; maths; music; Minecraft; different types of pens)
  • Taiwan
  • the Zodiac
  • Viruses

After the students were finished and the Zines had been graded, Mr Wong passed them to me and I began what turned out to be a far-too-long process of converting them to be useable in the library. I started by scanning each page, which made them quite faded. Not realising how many I would need to do (and how long each would take) I used software to boost their colour, and remove the awful grey tone of the paper background. My reasoning was that, since the library was benefitting from the students’ work, they shouldn’t be put on display in a condition that was worse than the students had given them to me in. Some of them had put in so much effort that I felt it would have been a shame to undermine that due to the technological limitations of our scanner.

As I went along, I developed methods of speeding up the process, but in retrospect, I spent far longer on them than I should have done (including working on them at home, while watching TV). If I hadn’t realised the enormity of the task when I did, I could have been there forever. 23 Zines of 8 pages each would have had me digitally enhancing 184 pages in total, which (if I’d spent as long as I was spending on some of the penciled pages) could have taken me up to 92 hours! In the end I kept all the work I’d already done, but I resorted to enhancing only the front and back pages (i.e. the outside covers), of the remaining Zines. We’re planning to do the Zines again this year, and this will be my new method, which will save me a lot of time. The actual process of printing, processing and covering them, then adding them to the library catalogue only took a couple of days (around my other library work).

The end results were very cool, and the Zines are a great addition to the library. I love finding ways to involve the kids, and I’m looking forward for them to see the display when they return after the October break.

Now, please enjoy some extracts from the student’s Zine project:

Duck egg blue traditional style bathroom suite from Victorian Plumbing Old London range.

We’re in!

Well, folks, we finally did it. Calum and I have finally completed the purchase of our first home – a lovely 1950s ex-council semidetached house with a utility room separate from the main kitchen and lots of storage for our tools and bikes. I think it feels quite cottage-like with built-in wooden cupboards, an adorable cubbyhole, and a rustic staircase that will be very pretty once it’s painted and recarpeted. My favourite part of our new house so far is our brand new bathroom, which we arranged to be fitted before we moved in.

When we purchased the house, the bathroom was actually two tiny rooms – a W.C. which contained just the toilet, and a bathroom containing the sink, bath and shower. Naturally, this was an entirely gross setup so we decided to prioritise getting the bathroom entirely remodelled. We hired an excellent plumber to tear down the wall between the two rooms, retile the surfaces and fit an entirely new set of sanitary wear.

Bathroom across two rooms – who invented this gross concept?

Initially Calum and I talked about getting an awesome gothic bathroom. We liked the look of an ornate black porcelain suite that I’d seen in a shop window in our local town centre, but it quickly became clear that the gothic dream would likely be out of our price range. So, I took my search online and came across the Old London traditional range at Victorian Plumbing.

Calum’s favourite colour is blue, and he was amenable when I suggested the full duck-egg blue set, with accompanying amenities in white and chrome. Although Victorian Plumbing was a little disappointing with delays, missed delivery days and lack of communication, the products themselves are great. I particularly like our set because the sink is part of a cabinet that we can use for towels, and there is more storage in the mirrored cabinet above the sink. We ordered a Victorian-style bath that looks like a rolltop, but is actually flat enough that we could get a shower door rather than needing to settle for a dirt-gathering curtain. I like the chrome griffin-like feet that Calum selected for the bath, but my favourite part of our bathroom appliances is the heated towel rail/radiator. It’s just so cosy!

Choosing tiles was quite difficult, since I was adamant that, although we would probably want blue on the walls, I didn’t want the room to look like either a swimming pool or a public bathroom. Our plumber suggested we might like linoleum flooring because it would be easy to clean and replace, but I was worried it might look a bit too 1970s.

I had found a reference photo online that showed a bathroom with wooden flooring, which I immediately loved but dismissed as impractical because I thought it would get damp and rotten too quickly. My mum came to the rescue and suggested that we might look at wood-effect tiles. In the end we settled on dark “Maddison Cherry” tiles for the floor, with simple white square wall tiles. But I also ordered some very thin, rustic, duck-egg blue rectangular tiles to create a border at the top of the white tiles. I think they’re very cute.

Look, no wall!!

After that we basically left our plumber to it. He was absolutely fantastic and finished the entire project in a couple of weeks. He knocked down the wall between the two rooms to make one proper-sized bathroom, and did a great job of the tiling and fitting. At all points he made sure he was working to our requirements: even if that meant using white polyfilla against his suggestion (he warns will yellow over time) and moving piping from inside to outside the house (even though it meant he needed to raise his original quote a little). He even went to B&Q on our behalf to purchase some shower equipment after we decided we wanted a new matching head rather than just keeping the original as we’d initially planned, and he got us a couple of taps for our radiator so that they would match the other taps in the bathroom, which was very sweet.

Honestly, I cannot recommend our plumber, Chris, enough – check out his Facebook site (Chrisdecor Home Improvements) if you’re looking for a reliable plumber in the Manchester area. We have him to thank for our beautiful bathroom and we’re so excited to start living in our beautiful new home.

The completed bathroom.

Alchemical Ink

Calum and I played a writing challenge this evening. We gave each other 4 prompts: a character, an item, a setting and a theme. Then we had to try to write a story based on that theme in 30 minutes. The time-dependent aspect got abandoned by the wayside, but we still wrote them within less than an hour (barring tidying for spelling and grammar).

Here is my result (and you can read Calum’s one here):


Character Prompt: An alchemist
Item Prompt: A jar of ink
Theme Prompt: Preservation
Setting Prompt: A haunted castle.


It wasn’t supposed to go like this. Normally, the ghosts were happy to be listened to. Were content to have their essence distilled down into a thick, ectoplasmic goop and mixed with the glowing pigment that would record their life story for it to be preserved for all times in the Sacred Archives. But as soon as the Alchemist crossed the drawbridge, leather satchel slung over her shoulder and incense at the ready, she could tell this time was different.

The slam of the portcullis, blocking her path, was her first clue. The second clue was the blood red writing on the courtyard wall – “you are not welcome here”. Then there was the unnatural cold and the angry howling.

The Alchemist took out a vial of acid and eroded through the portcullis bars, making a gap just big enough to squeeze through. Once she was inside, she reached back into her satchel and produced a bottle of lemon juice, which she mixed into a small ceramic bowl with the dust in the castle courtyard. Now she had her base concoction: it combined the substance of the place where the haunt dwelled, with the elusiveness of invisible ink. But it still required one more ingredient if she wanted to create a barrier to keep the ghost from escaping – part of the ghost itself.

The Alchemist’s eyes rested on the wall writing. Ghosts were mostly intangible, so to affect its physical surroundings, it had to mix its essence with the item it interacted with. Meaning the bleeding letters would be made of ghost? Careful not to get any on her hands, the Alchemist scraped some of the wall writing into the bowl with a tiny spatula. The substance was ready, but in this form it would not be nearly enough.

The Alchemist scanned the courtyard once more, searching, and she noticed a rusting water pump situated near a wall of ivy that shivered in the wind. The Alchemist started towards the pump, but as she walked, the courtyard’s cobbles protested. They wriggled and jostled, trying to get under her feet and trip her up. But the Alchemist lay on her side and rolled, so that each of the cobbles bumped her uncomfortably, but barely hindered her movement. With even the castle floor trying to keep her out, the alchemist did not trust the pump or ivy would be any more welcoming. Sure enough, as soon as the alchemist was in reach of the ivy, it lashed out and wrapped its angry vines around her legs, arms and neck, squeezing like a boa constrictor. But the Alchemist was prepared. From inside her sleeves, she produced a squishy bottle of vinegar, that she sprayed at the offending leaves, causing them to recoil. In her other fist she held a block of salt, that she rubbed on the ivy tendrils, drying them to the point where they had retreated back to the wall. Ivy defeated, the Alchemist held the salt rock under the spigot of the water pump, so that it purified whatever nasty concoction the ghost had added to the dirty brown liquid that emerged as the Alchemist pumped. Added to the lemon juice, courtyard dust and ghost extract, the resulting mixture wasn’t as pure as the alchemist would have liked, but it was now probably enough solution, so the diluted form would have to do. Bracing herself for further bruises, the Alchemist rolled back out to the portcullis and used a pastry brush to paint an X onto the bars. Now the ghost would be stuck here.

All that remained was to track the ghost down. The Alchemist moved through the castle, encountering and neutralising obstacle after obstacle that the ghost threw at her. In the kitchen, the Alchemist was attacked by flying knives; pouring ferromagnetic metals onto the floor attracted the knives downwards, so the ghost couldn’t lift them. A spark from her tinder box quickly cleared the huge stack of books that blocked her way in the study. In the great hall, the giant taxidermied stag heads animated and attacked, but were lulled to sleep by the funeral incense (myrrh) that the Alchemist burned. The Alchemist herself, being still alive, was not affected by the myrrh, but the ghost, well, it was dead, and its attacks became less forceful after that. As the Alchemist moved through each room, she crossed off the doors, so the ghost was shepherded until it had nowhere else to go.

Finally they got to the highest tower. The Alchemist, with sticky glue dripping from her shoes (which she had applied to climb the slope that had once been stairs), was puffing, frustrated and angry. By this point the ghostly howling had died down to a sullen sob. The Alchemist opened the final door, and there, curled in the corner watching her sulkily, was the ghost of a little servant boy.

The final inhabitant of the castle glared up at the Alchemist.

“It ain’t fair,” said the child. “I never got to live much. I should get to unlive without all you exorcisers comin’ to take me away.”

The Alchemist said nothing, but she settled down on the floor, pulled out her pen and glowing, ectoplasmic ink, and a small tea set. Over her Bunsen burner, the Alchemist boiled a pot of green tea and the tiny ghost accepted the teacup in his hardened ectoplasmic hand. Now that the ghost wasn’t haunting so large a space (only this small room), he was able to concentrate on holding better. The ghost told the Alchemist his story. He had worked in the castle as a stable boy. He had tended the horses and the dogs. Each evening he had sat by the castle stove and eaten his potato dinner. He had sent home a silver piece to his mother each month. And he had played in the snow with the other servant children when the adults weren’t looking. Then the plague had come and people started getting sick. To keep him well, the cook had hidden him behind the stove. But something had gone wrong. Maybe the cook had fled and forgotten to tell anyone about him. Maybe she had gotten too sick to retrieve him.

The boy had been stuck, trapped inside the wall, and when he awoke he was able to glide through the wall, but he was still trapped in the castle. And now he was all alone. He wanted his mother; he wanted his horses and dogs. He had cried for them. Howled for them. But the howling had alerted the village and the village had alerted the archive and the archive had sent the Alchemist. And as the story was told, the ink grew brighter. The child drank his tea, and the Alchemist picked up the quill and wrote the child’s story. As the Alchemist wrote, the child began to fade, particles of ectoplasm drifting towards the ink.

A smash of the teacup on the stone floor told the Alchemist the boy was gone. The Alchemist lifted the cracked china, the final dregs of tea not yet drunk. This was what the Alchemist needed. She dripped the tea, now combined with the boy’s spirit, into the ink, and the ink itself shimmered and bubbled in appreciation.

The archive wants to preserve people’s tales, but the story is not what the Alchemist wants. The life mixture, a thousand thousand souls combined and preserved in one little glowing bottle of inky gloop. That is true alchemy.

And now the boy’s story lies in the Sacred Archives. And the Alchemist moves onto another haunt, another story, and in her satchel, the ink glows a little brighter.

The Adventures of Laser Girl

Please indulge me a little with this nepotistic post about how awesome my sister is. Having passed her PhD in Physics (with a specialisation in Free Electron Lasers) last summer, Doctor Morgan has now got a job working on a FEL in California and has just moved out there this week. I’m super super proud of her, and to mark the occasion I want to share with you the comic I made for her last Christmas. As you can probably tell from the comic, I actually have very little idea what she does, to the point where I even misspell laser a couple of times. But she’s worked really hard and it’s such a fantastic achievement that I wanted to brag about it anyway. Well done, Jenny (and sorry for exposing your double life as a super hero)!

  • The Adventures of Laser Girl
  • Laser Girl! Laser Girl!
  • Travels all across the world
  • Goes for runs! Tortures Bond!
  • (This is a free electron!)
  • Published!
  • She's Doctor Laser Girl!
  • A series of crossing lasers, each with the onomatopoeic "PEW!" label.

Back to School reflection: What I did on my holiday

After a good amount of time off work over the summer holidays, I am happy (if a bit nervous!) to be returning to the school library tomorrow. I had a lot of plans for when I was off, and some of them I completed, some of them I at least started, and many of them I didn’t get around to. Either way, I thought it would be nice to reflect on the summer before the new school year washes all of it into oblivion.

School’s out for the students

The students finished their school year on Friday 9th of July, but I still had a lot to complete so I spent the following two weeks in the library most days working on four main tasks.

Firstly, I shelved almost all of the books and music that had been building on the Covid quarantine shelves. That was quite a lot of work, seeing as so much music was returned last-minute, and I’m still getting used to the layout of the chamber music library (where we have shelves and shelves of parts in brown envelopes). Full disclosure, there are a couple of items that have been left so that I can ask my ever-helpful evening staff where the music should go!

I catalogued and processed a huge pile of music. We had received a fantastic donation of beautifully bound full and miniature scores from a member of the public. They are in such good condition that I have decided to add all of them to the library stock (replacing tatty copies where possible), but with probably over a hundred items in total, getting through it all is quite a task. I made a dent, but never fear, there’s still plenty of cataloguing waiting for my return tomorrow!

I also did my best to spend the remaining library budget, having been advised if I don’t spend it I lose it. The students can look forward to a few more books, some replacement music for lost copies, and eight lovely new pairs of headphones – enough for every library computer. I don’t know where the previous pairs kept disappearing to, but I think it might be worth creating a headphone sign-out sheet, to make sure these new ones are always returned.

My biggest challenge in the weeks leading up to the end of term, and the two following weeks where I was in the library on my own, was creating lists of all of the music that was still out to school leavers and would need to be tracked down. This task was particularly difficult because, despite being a music school where ensemble music is in high demand, the library system software we use cannot track multiple borrowers. This means that every set of music is only ever out on one borrower’s account (regardless of how many parts there are). Although we try to keep a manual record of who has which part, with over a thousand outstanding items at the end of term, going through every single envelope to notify students of their unreturned music was a huge job – and certainly not one I want to have to do every single summer. I only just managed to get it all completed in time to send out final warning emails to all the students before I left for Scotland, but I’m going to have to work out a better system for future years, or I might have a nervous breakdown!

Four crates full of brown envelopes
All of the empty envelopes still waiting for parts to be returned to them!

Visiting my parents!

After all that stress, I was super excited to travel back to Scotland to visit my parents for a few weeks. It was so nice to see them again, and my sister, Jenny, was there too for part of my trip. On my first night, Jenny introduced me to the anime Assassination Classroom, which is about a group of school students trying to assassinate their evil yet adorable teacher: a betentacled alien that plans to destroy the world if his students don’t kill him first. It’s surprisingly good.

The weather was gorgeous every single day of my visit, so we did a lot of outdoor activities. One day we walked along the beach for a forest/water walk in Greenock and ate ice-cream and another day we went to a market in Helensburgh where we listened to Glaswegian busker Maryjane singing ‘Let It Go’ from Frozen (in the middle of a heatwave). My dad and I went for a 50km cycle along the River Clyde, which was super fun but also extremely tiring, and at one point I fell off my bike. Although I’m pretty sure I hated everything and everyone by the end of it, it was great to cycle with my dad again and we both really enjoyed it.

On another beautiful day we visited my aunt and uncle in Stirling where we walked around the King’s Knot and learned the story of the Stirling Wolf. Apparently, during a Viking raid, one of the raiders accidentally stepped on a wolf causing it to howl out and wake the sleeping Anglo-Saxon garrison. This gave the garrison time to prepare for the invasion and force the Vikings to retreat. And now the howling wolf emblem can be seen all over Stirling. How bizarre is that?!

What is property? Property is stress!

After my visit to my parents, I still had three weeks left of summer holiday, and in this time Calum and I wanted to make some headway into buying our first home. Calum took a week off work, so we set up a meeting with a mortgage broker and started looking at properties. In total, I was able to arrange eleven viewings although five of them cancelled on me before the viewing could take place. Calum and I attended three of the remaining viewings together, and I attended three on my own because Calum had to go back to work. Although it was quite frustrating and extremely stressful, there were still some good parts. On one extremely wet day, after a viewing, Calum and I visited Worsely Village, where we walked around the Tudor-style streets and along the canal in the rain. There were even some cute metal ducks!

Even with the support of my parents (who were great at sending me suitable houses that I might have missed), and Calum (who did everything he could while also working full time) and the mortgage broker (who’s invaluable advice was fantastic help), I found the entire process really grim. I looked at house websites for hours ever morning, calling up estate agents to try to arrange viewings only to be told the houses were already under offer, or they were no longer accepting viewings. Not to mention the palaver navigating the disgustingly stupid system of Freehold vs Leasehold housing (don’t even get me started).

But eventually, less than a week ago, we got an offer accepted. Hooray! It’s a nice house, in a pretty area, and well within our budget, which is fantastic. We will probably need to do some work on the bathroom, because for some reason quite a few houses in Manchester (including this one) have a toilet with no sink next door to the bathroom with the sink in it. This feels very disgusting to us, and we’ll need to get that changed, but otherwise the house is great. It has a lovely shed for our bikes, and a nice big living room, a pretty kitchen and a utility room where we can put our washer/dryer and install our first dishwasher (such luxury!). There are also two relatively big bedrooms. Calum’s has a wee cubby area where he will be able to set up his workspace, since he is planning to work from home more often, and mine has a huge built-in wardrobe and a cosy alcove where I think I’ll be able to fit my bed.

So that’s pretty exciting, and all we need to do now is meet with our mortgage broker again, set up our solicitor, get a survey from our mortgage provider and a homebuyer’s report, exchange contracts and keys, get a new bathroom, move all our stuff across to the new house, and move in. Easy-peasy.

SLA ‘New To School Libraries’ Webinar

Earlier this month, I attended an online webinar for new school librarians, hosted by the School Libraries Association (SLA). On the whole, I think it was pretty useful: it gave me cool ideas for how to use social media to promote the library; info on the different kinds of documents (policies, reports and plans) that a school library should have; suggestions for clubs and events the school library could run (I quite liked the sound of a graphic novels club); information on arranging the library layout (display spinners are your friend!); and advice on eBook providers, unions, stock weeding, and using book and publisher fairs to pick up library goodies like bookmarks and posters. But the flashiest idea I’ve worked into my library so far was inspired by a demonstration of how to make short showcase videos to let students and staff know what items the library has in its collection.

As a specialist music school, Chetham’s has a lot of international boarders and so the school celebrates Chinese New Year. About a month ago we were asked to see if we could do anything to contribute to the celebration, so I picked out a few China-themed books, with the intention of making a library display. However, since most of the students are studying from home at the moment, and haven’t seen the Burns display yet, I decided to instead make a video showcase that they could watch on Twitter. The webinar presenter suggested using the free software Animoto, but I used Movavi pro, which I already owned and which up to now I had mostly been using to make fan music videos for the Cats (1998) musical. Click on that link at your own risk(!).

We had plenty of relevant non-fiction books, but I was a little surprised by how few fiction books I could find set in or about China, or even just featuring Chinese characters. I think my difficulty can partly be attributed to my still being pretty unfamiliar with the library stock and partly to the shallow descriptions in our library catalogue entries (which I am slowly working to improve), so I am sure that I missed some potentially suitable items. But I still found it odd that the collection was so sparce, especially seeing as the school does have quite a lot of Chinese students.

I was doing a fiction shop anyway, because Scholastic had a sale of 10 My Story books for £6.99 (what a bargain, amirite?), so I purchased a few books to boost the China collection, including a very nice picture book about the Chinese Zodiac story. I added them to the Chinese-themed books, music and DVD that I had already set aside, and took photos of them dotted around the stacks. I then edited the photos into a slideshow with public domain music. I downloaded a Chinese New Year resource pack to make the video fancier and more coherent. I even edited the music a little because I only realised after I’d already created the jump-cut section with the non-fiction books that there should probably be some kind of introduction.

Overall, I’d say for my first library video the showcase worked out okay, and I had fun making it. It took roughly the same amount of time to create as a physical library display would, and it was more likely to be seen and enjoyed – particularly during the current lockdown. It received a fair amount of engagement, including some likes from teachers and students, which made me very happy. Although I probably won’t be creating videos a lot, they are a good tool to have in my kit to make everyone aware of the stock we carry. And I’m pretty excited to see what else I can do with them!

A Man[chester]’s a Man[chester] for a’ that

Earlier this week it was Burns Night – the first one Calum and I didn’t celebrate in Scotland. Manchester is only a 4-hour drive from my parents’ house in Glasgow but, I think like a lot of distances during the current pandemic, it sometimes feels a lot further. Don’t get me wrong, I am super grateful and happy to have my current head librarian role at Chetham’s School of Music – the kids are great, the staff is lovely, the work is fun and I’m in the very enviable position of having a permanent position in my dream job before I hit thirty.

But I miss Edinburgh. I miss my family and friends. I miss the comfort provided by first minister Nicola Sturgeon’s open explanations and conscientious decision-making. I miss uncrowded streets and parks, and generally better Covid compliance. I miss prevalent recycling bins and a proper pelican crossing system and standard bus fares that you can just contactless tap without needing to tell the driver where you’re going. I miss the security of knowing that most people around me will be anti-Brexit and have left-wing politics. I miss proper cycle lanes and conscientious drivers and being half an hour walk from the beach.

Nonetheless, Manchester has its good points. People are generally more friendly and helpful. We deliberately chose to live in Prestwich, which has a whole network of parks. And I did find what might be a cycle path the other day. The trams are fantastic and punctual. It has all sorts of Communist history (Calum and I went to see a statue of Engels’ Beard over the Christmas break, and the public library next door to my school has ties to Karl Marx). I’ve met lots of people in Manchester who are pretty left wing and anti-Brexit (and Manchester does have a Labour mayor) so I’m probably being a bit over-cautious about Mancunian politics. And, most importantly, it’s where Chetham’s School of Music is situated, and I’m super loving working there!

Although there were no Ceilidhs or parties with friends or public events, Calum and I decided to celebrate Burns Night anyway. I was working that day, so I wore my tartan pinafore, and I’d made a library display celebrating Burns Night. I lined the bookshelves with tartan fabric, and I used some of the remaining fabric along with some pipe cleaners and coloured tissue paper to make a highland dancer and thistles. I was surprised that the school library didn’t have any Burns poetry, so my mum donated one of her copies to the school, and in the same package she sent me her haggis piggybank that I put on the display as well. The lockdown has meant there aren’t many kids in the school right now, but I have still received three compliments on the display so far – which made me very happy.

When I got home from work Calum was wearing a suit and his tartan bowtie. We had haggis, neeps & tatties ready meals for dinner, and listened to Celidh music on Spotify while we waited for the microwave. We also danced a little – although neither of us could remember many of the steps. For dessert we made cranachan by layering Muesli, double cream, raspberries, and honey – Calum’s was prettier than mine, but they both tasted good.

Calum’s was way fancier than mine…

After dinner we browsed the internet for video games set in Scotland. I was excited (if a little bemused) to discover that there were three different video games based on Jeff Wayne’s musical version of The War of the Worlds (one set in Glasgow). Like, not merely the H. G. Wells book, but the 1978, synth-heavy, prog-rock opera concept album of the book. There’s a ZX Spectrum survival game, a real-time strategy game for PCs, and a vehicular combat third-person shooter for Playstation! Isn’t that utterly delightful? Don’t you feel the world is a little bit awesomer just knowing that these three separate, entirely different games exist?!

For some ungodly reason, none of these games were available to buy on Steam, so we watched the Disney Pixar Movie Brave instead. We’d both seen it before a few times, but it holds up to repeat viewing – I particularly enjoyed the mischievous baby princes, the cute will-o’-wisps, the crazy bear carpenter lady, and Patrick Doyle’s atmospheric score (although I do have to wonder why none of the characters sing – isn’t this supposed to be a princess movie, Disney?).

Overall, I enjoyed our Mancunian, indoors Burn’s Night (and day). It was quiet and a bit haphazard, but it was fun and reminded me of home. I am looking forward to being able to attend Ceilidhs again, though.

…Wait. Does Manchester even have Ceilidhs?!

[*Quick Google Search*.]

Turns out: yep!

You can’t really see it very well, but we’re both wearing dark tartan.

A is for Aïda (or how NOT to go about creating an online presence)

Back in 2013, when I was first getting used to this website creation malarkey, I had ambitious plans to create a bunch of websites, each dedicated to a different topic. This was complete madness – I didn’t understand how much work maintaining a single website could be and I wasn’t even prepared to really put in the work to do that. This was how we got: Kirsty Morgan Music, Kirsty Morgan Music Blog, Snark [music] Notes, Ethnomusicology: St Mary’s Singing Group, 50 Book Challenge, and my greatest non-starter, the website we’re going to talk about today, A-Z of Giuseppe Verdi (which I have just deleted).

2013 was the bi-centenary of Verdi’s birth, so having just started a music degree and seeing some of my classmates had their own music websites, I wanted to get involved. I decided to create an A-Z of Verdi operas, posted fortnightly (26 letters, 52 weeks of the year). Not a bad idea in theory (if I do say so myself), but I should have decided which operas to write about for each letter right from the start – or at the very least checked that there was an opera for each letter (spoilers: there isn’t).

On top of this, I was busy with university courses, and hanging out with friends, and I started having health problems. And the weeks slipped by. I might have been able to play catch-up but then I’d have to write 2, 3, 10 posts a week just to break even. It was a disaster. In the end, I wrote 1 post: A is for Aïda.

And…. it’s not the best post in the world. There’s no conclusion. I found out some stuff about the opera and wrote it down. Most of it contains a plot synopsis that can be found in better forms elsewhere. But I also kinda like it, in a weird nostalgic sort of way. So, in the interest of centralising everything onto the ONE blog (which, yes, I ought to have been doing from the start), here is my single blog post, that I’m posting today to commemorate the 120th anniversary of Verdi’s death.

A is for Aïda, Verdi’s twenty-fourth opera. It was composed very quickly, at the request of the Khedive Ismail Pacha of Egypt. When Verdi was offered the job, he was working as a farmer and had no desire to compose anything, especially not for an Egyptian (the horror!).

Fortunately for music lovers, Verdi’s nationalism was won over by the substantial payment offered – over 15,000 francs for the Egyptian performances alone (at a time when 10 francs were considered a large salary). After several delays caused by the 130-day siege on Paris by the Prussians, Aïda premièred in Cairo on Christmas Eve, 1871.

The première was hugely successful. Aïda’s Egyptian influences appealed to the native audience, as Italian critic, Filippi, explained, with all the tact befitting a nineteenth-century white guy:

“The Arabians, even the rich, do not love our shows… it is a true miracle to see a turban in a theatre in Cairo. [Yet] Sunday evening the opera house was crowded before the curtain rose.” 

Set against the backdrop of a bloody war between Egypt and Ethiopia, Aïda is a tragic story of the love between the Egyptian Pharaoh’s favourite soldier (Radamès) and a young Ethiopian slave-girl in the Pharaoh’s court (Aïda). The conflict between true love and patriotic loyalty (for both Aïda and Radamès) drives the plot.

Shortly before leaving for war, Radamès accidentally reveals his love for Aïda, slave-girl to the Pharaoh’s daughter (Amneris). Amneris, insanely jealous, tricks Aïda into admitting that she returns Radamès’s affections. The princess vows to make the slave-girl even more miserable than she already is.

Radamès returns from war victorious with a slew of Ethiopian prisoners, one of whom is Aïda’s father and king of Ethiopia (Amonasro). Amonasro is dragged to the Pharaoh’s dungeon in chains and Aïda’s grief at her father’s fate is exacerbated further when the Pharaoh announces that, as a reward for his valour in battle, Radamès is to marry Amneris, the princess.

On the eve of the wedding, Amneris prays at the temple of Isis that Radamès will love her. Taking advantage of the princess’s absence, Aïda meets her father outside the temple. Amonasro explains that the Ethiopians are ready to fight once more and suggests that Aïda convince Radamès to abandon Egypt and join her in Ethiopia. Radamès, however, has other plans. He knows that he will be sent to battle once more and, if he defeats the Ethiopians a second time, the Pharaoh will be hard pressed to refuse his requests to marry Aïda instead of the princess.

Aïda manages to persuade Radamès to run away with her but, when he realises that she is the daughter of the Ethiopian king, Radamès despairs, calling himself a traitor and a coward. The lovers are discovered and, as Aïda escapes with her father, Radamès gives himself up to the custody of the Pharaoh’s priests.

Refusing Amneris’s offer to help him, Radamès is brought to trial for his treachery and sentenced to be buried alive. Aïda hides in Radamès’s crypt, choosing to die at her lover’s side rather than live alone. She dies in Radamès’s arms and the opera ends: “Peace, peace, peace.”

Musical Analysis – Triumphal March
The Triumphal March, also known as the Grand March, has been described as “the most celebrated tune in the opera.” Its popularity out of context can overshadow the fact that Aïda, for all its showiness and glamour, is truly an intimate opera. Almost all of the music for the three principal characters – Aïda, Radamès and Amneris – is accompanied by minimal orchestration in order to focus the audience’s attention on the magnificent vocals. However, the spectacular march of Act II Scene 2 – celebrating Egypt’s victory over the Ethiopians – is a vivacious and highly enjoyable affair.

After twenty-four bars of lively (yet majestic) orchestral introduction, the chorus explodes into a splendid tune “Gloria all’ Egitto” which impressed the Khedive of Egypt so much he decided to make it the Egyptian National Anthem.

While writing Aïda, Verdi initially intended to use authentic Egyptian instruments. However, after examining an ancient Egyptian flute in a Florentine museum, he changed his mind, dismissing the flute (with all the tact befitting a nineteenth-century white guy) as “a reed with four holes in it like the ones our shepherds have.”

Instead, Verdi requested that six trumpets – three in A flat and three in B – be made to his specifications. These long, straight instruments were designed to emulate Verdi’s vision of Egyptian trumpets and were crafted in Milan then shipped to Egypt.

The trumpets in A flat play the march tune in unison before immediately being taken over by the remaining three trumpets which repeat the march in their key of B. This sudden key change is one of the most exciting and effective moments in the entire opera.

After a lively balletic movement, the chorus returns and builds to the climax – the triumphant entry of Radamès. “Gloria!”

Bacon, Mary Schell Hoke. Operas Every Child Should Know (New York, 1911)
Osborne, Charles. The Complete Operas of Verdi (New York, 1969)
Steen, Michael. Great Operas: A Guide to Twenty-Five of the World’s Finest Musical Experience (London, 2012)

Kirsty Morgan Music in sunny Manchester, outside Chetham's School of Music

Guess who’s the new librarian at Chetham’s School of Music?

Hey, guess who’s moving to England! Spoiler alert: it’s me! I’m going to be the new librarian (well, “Head of Learning Resources”) at Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester. And I’m super looking forward to it. Okay, sure, I’m a bit nervous, but I’m mostly excited. It will be a chance to combine my enjoyment of music librarianship with a person-facing role, which I think will be great.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve very much enjoyed working at the National Library on their Music Retroconversion Project. I’ve learned so much about music librarianship and cataloguing and libraries. And it’s been fun to work on a project that has a definite endpoint and final product. I was also given the opportunity to write three blog posts about the project for the National Library’s Blog – which was really cool. However, I did miss getting to interact with library patrons – they make every day different and I like helping people find what they’re looking for.

Moreover, working in a music school library has kinda been a background totally-never-gonna-happen-fantasy dream for me since university.

Tag Cloud Schema

When I was studying my ILS Masters at the University of Strathclyde, we were assigned to create “schema” (i.e. different models of organising knowledge) for a set of 10 items. I chose a collection of showtunes for solo voice with piano accompaniment, and arranged them in ways that would best suit a hypothetical Musical Theatre School Library. It was one of my favourite assignments because, aside from the obvious perk of working with showtunes for uni credits, I found it really interesting to think about what information would be needed by the school pupils if they were looking for audition pieces. I enjoyed the problem solving aspect of arranging my schemas to suit that. Things like key, range, time-signature, tempo, voice type, number of bars, etc. didn’t obviously fit into the standard bibliographic categories, so I chose models that gave me the freedom to customise.

This was the first spark that made me think it would be really cool to work in a music school library, but I didn’t seriously think that could happen, since there are very few such jobs in the country. Therefore, imagine my delight when JUST as my National Library contract was coming to an end, the position at Chetham’s School of Music was advertised!

Chetham’s Library

So, obviously I applied and was pleased when I progressed to the interview stage. I travelled to Manchester by train for the interview, and it was my first visit to Manchester ever. I was so excited. I went down the day before and stayed at a nearby Travelodge. That evening I had a sausage supper from the local chip shop, and the staff there were super friendly and wished me luck for my interview. I completed the interview while wearing a mask (which was definitely an experience). And the people at Chetham’s were all very lovely and the school was this really pretty castle-like building in the centre of Manchester. What’s more, the school shares a site with Chetham’s Library, the oldest free public reference library in the English-speaking world. I didn’t get the opportunity to visit it because it’s currently closed, but I will at some point because it looks just like something out of a fantasy story. I’m sure there’s all kinds of magical tomes and cursed writings and probably a ghost or ten hiding among the stacks!

Anyway, shortish story shorter, the people at Chetham’s School liked me and offered me the position and I start in November! How utterly, awesomely, amazingly super is that?!! Yay!

FRANZ SCHUBERT: Die Schöne Müllerin

[First published on Snark [music] Notes on 28/06/2016]

FRANZ SCHUBERT: Die Schöne Müllerin

The first of Schubert’s song cycles set to a text by Wilhelm Müller, Die Schöne Müllerin (1823) is a tragic story of love, death, and youthful stupidity.

[No. 1 – Das Wandern]

The youthful protagonist sings about how much he enjoys wandering and working at the mill.

Good for him. He’s a healthy, happy miller. And even if some of his singing includes tenuous metaphors about the equipment he works with, it’s a nice, cheerful song to begin the cycle with.

[No. 2 – Wohnin?]

The youthful protagonist sings to the millstream that he’s walking beside, wondering where it leads.

Okay. Singing directly to a river is a bit weird, but sure, youthful protagonist, you do you.

[No. 3 – Halt!]

The youthful protagonist sings to the mill that the stream has led him to, and is delighted by how friendly and inviting the mill looks.

Um, youthful protagonist? You do know the mill can’t hear you, right?
Like, Schubert makes the millstream a character in its own right, which is pretty awesome, but the mill is just a building. You’re literally talking to a brick wall, youthful protagonist!

[No. 4 – Danksagung an den Bach]

The youthful protagonist asks the stream whether it was the maiden who works at this mill who sent the stream to him.

Oh, oh, I know this! No. No, it wasn’t.
Look, youthful protagonist, I get that you’re supposed to be a free spirited lad or something of that ilk, but geez, c’mon, do you seriously believe this girl who lives at this mill sent the stream to you as some kind of coded message for… I’m gonna guess, love?
Pull yourself together, youthful protagonist. You’re better than this!

[No. 5 – Am Feierabend]

The youthful protagonist wishes he had a thousand arms so that he can work really quickly and, in so doing, win the maiden’s affections.

…Come again? Are you telling me that working quickly is your way of flirting, youthful protagonist? Cos, I don’t want to undermine your healthy work ethic or anything but… just don’t be surprised if the maiden doesn’t notice you, okay?

[No. 6 – Der Neugierige]

The youthful protagonist asks the millstream whether the maiden loves him.

Oh, yeah. Like water is going to be able to tell you that!

[No. 7 – Ungeduld]

The youthful protagonist sings about how he wants to send messages of love to the maiden using different aspects of nature: carving it into trees and stones, training birds to speak of his affections for her, and even getting the wind to let the maiden know that he has a crush on her.

Dude, just tell her already! Or, y’know, don’t tell her but stop agonising over it.

The youthful protagonist is perplexed as to why the maiden has not noticed that he loves her.

Oh, I don’t know, maybe because he’s not done anything to indicate that he would have feelings for her!

[No. 8 – Morgengruss]

The youthful protagonist greets the miller maiden in the morning.

Huzzah! He finally speaks to her!

But he does it from such a distance that she can’t possibly hear him.

Dangit! So close.

[No. 9 – Des Müllers Blumen]

The youthful protagonist picks some flowers and plants them underneath the maiden’s window. Obviously without letting her know it was him that did it.

It’s a nice gesture, I guess… Still utterly useless in the whole getting-her-to-love-you shtick if you don’t tell it her was you, though.

[No. 10 – Tränenregen]

The youthful protagonist is sitting with the maiden by the millstream.

So, are they talking now? Please tell me they’re talking now.

It begins to rain and the maiden excuses herself and goes inside.

Well, at least she’s talking. The jury’s still out on whether the youthful protagonist has said a single word within hearing distance of her, yet.

[No. 11 – Mein]

The youthful protagonist rushes through the forest singing about how the maiden is his.

Eh… Firstly, youthful protagonist, that’s creepily possessive. Not cool.
Secondly, are you sure that she’s aware of suddenly having become one of your belongings?

[No. 12 – Pause]

The youthful protagonist is unable to play music because he’s pining for the maiden.

I’m… gonna guess she hasn’t noticed you, then? (Deary me, this can only end badly.)

The youthful protagonist’s loss of music ability is symbolised in the music with the vocal line fighting against the piano part, trying to get it to do anything other than simple basic chord progressions.

Yes okay. In fairness, I really like that technique. Clearly, Schubert is considerably cleverer than the youthful protagonist of his song cycle. (That’s not saying much, EVERY SINGLE REAL LIFE PERSON is considerably cleverer than the youthful protagonist of this song cycle… I hope.)

[No. 13 – Mit Dem Grünen Lautenbande]

The youthful protagonist sees the maiden wearing a green hair ribbon and sings of his love of the colour green.

Okay, youthful protagonist, I understand you’re young but this is unbelievably obsessive… verging on stalker territory.

[No. 14 – Der Jäger]

The youthful protagonist spots a huntsman nearby and immediately decides that they are rivals in obtaining the maiden’s affection.

Although it turns out that this is the case, I’m not sure you had any real reason to believe the huntsman had any interest in the maiden at this point, youthful protagonist.
Also, you wouldn’t necessarily even have a rival for obtaining the maiden’s affections if you’d just let her know how you felt about her 9 songs ago… just sayin’.

[No. 15 – Eifersucht Und Stolz]

The youthful protagonist complains to the stream about the fact that the maiden seems to be more attracted to the huntsman than she is to him.

Well, that’s too bad, youthful protagonist. But she knows her own mind and is allowed to make decisions for herself. Also, you’ve still not given her any indication that you like her so, uh, this is in no way anyone’s fault but yours.

[No. 16 – Die Liebe Farbe]

The youthful protagonist wants to surround himself in green things, because the maiden likes the colour green.

You know what I said earlier about being creepily obsessive? Yeah, that.

[No. 17 – Die Böse Farbe]

The youthful protagonist now wants to avoid the colour green, because it reminds him of the girl whom he loves but can’t bring himself to confess his love to.

Geez, youthful protagonist, if you’ve GOT to be obsessive and stalkerish, at least try to be consistent about it!

[No. 18 – Trockne Blumen]

The youthful protagonist is upset because some flowers are withered.

THAT’S WHAT FLOWERS DO! (#MoriartyReference)

[No. 19 – Der Müller und der Bach]

The youthful protagonist realises his affections for the maiden are unrequited and so he jumps into the millstream to his death.

Wait, what?… Why would you-?!


[No. 20 – Des Baches Wiegenlied]

The millstream sings the youthful protagonist a lullaby as he drowns.

Schubert, I love you very much but not even you can reasonably romanticise
suicide and expect to get away with it.
That’s just super not okay. I don’t like that at all.

Moral of the story: a true and pure ideal love can only be satisfied in death.*

BETTER MORAL OF THE STORY: If the person you secretly have a crush on happens to fall in love with someone who isn’t you, don’t under any circumstances try to drown yourself in a millstream.

*source: John Reed, The Schubert Song Companion (New York, 1997)