The Stevie Smith School for Wayward Navigators

A guest post from Summer School 2017 participant, Polly Marshall

My attention is pulled in so many different directions that I tried to keep on track by organizing my time in a way suggested by the Edwardian education of a great English poet.

In January I was reading Francis Spalding’s Critical Biography of Stevie Smith, as part of a New Year’s resolution to complete my reading for the Relit Summer School. I’d ordered a big pile of books from Somerset library: Emily Dickinson’s poetry; Sylvia Plath’s Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, diaries, and poems; a book about diary-writing (I already had Sally’s), and Stevie Smith’s novels, poems, and the Spalding biog.

In eight months I hadn’t completed the reading due to distraction, busyness and business, though I read literary biography as a how-to-guide, always on the look out for clues to find my own elusive Writer’s Life. Oh and I’m curious as anything, which is a nice way of saying nosy.

Spalding got off to a slow start, dense with detail about Stevie’s Victorian grandparents, intricately leading— I had almost given up by this point — to the Smith family’s move to Palmers Green. Then the story picked up. Before World War One, Stevie was sent to the North London Collegiate School for girls in Camden, which had a world-changing reputation for churning out massively talented brainy women with super-productive careers in all fields. From Wikipedia I list many I admire and envy: Stevie’s contemporary Stella Gibbons the presiding deity of Cold Comfort Farm, Susie Orbach, Mary Stopes, Anna Wintour, Eleanor Bron, Fenella Fielding. All women who found their voice, and the world listened. Their founding mother, the world’s first headmistress Frances Mary Buss, was a pioneer in education listed by the Times as one of the top ten women of all time. She was unyielding in her discipline. Not cruel and harsh as the word sometimes indicates, but giving shape, form, limits — power! — to her young charges.

Her results were so spectacular that I thought, well, why not try it myself? Why not take Miss Buss’s patented method of developing the voice and talent of wayward girls, and apply it to myself, and see what happens. In a spirit of experiment, I lived the rest of the month according to the timetable of the North London Collegiate School for Girls, circa 1910.

I had at that juncture, and as usual, a bewildering amount of Stuff To Do. Oh happy she who has just Work and Life. I on the other hand have yet to learn to Say No. Tove Jansson, whose working imagination made the trolls visible again, declared in her diary: “Too many different kinds of jobs & it’s hard to get them done! Worried about things not getting finished.”

On 23rd December 2017 I wrote in my diary: “I shouldn’t go out two nights on the trot. It is too much like having ‘too many kinds of jobs’ and takes me away from Dickens. Away from my practice. So far away, I have forgotten what it is. What I should do is say yes to everything that is love or work, and no to everything else. I am Queen of the Rambling Bloody Notebook.”

Early in the month I took a Yachtmaster Theory Course and was beset with fiendish navigational exercises, involving plenty of Maths, my worst subject at school. That O Level grade E 1977, when I drew patterns all over my multiple choice paper and walked out an hour early, came back to taunt me.

At the same time, Rose Heawood of Runetree Books offered to publish my play Phoebe, the true story of a female warrior at Waterloo, and gave me to read her previous publication The Wuffings: A Play by Kevin Crossley-Holland and Ivan Cutting, about Radwald, King of East Anglia at the time of the Sutton Hoo burials in the Seventh Century CE. Not at all daunting really because Crossley-Holland is only described as “the master” by Neil Gaiman.[1]

Vying for my attention was the day job, running our music business Shooting Star Productions, and sister company Shooting Star Management. Consultants to Universal Music in London, we run the Other Stage at Glastonbury, produce tours for artists like Grace Jones, and manage a rock band, The Darkness. Our clients are stellar, but my duties are dull. For which I am grateful. Like Stevie Smith, I am happy with regular pay shuffling pieces of paper, keeping the books, scheduling media appearances for the band. I bet Stevie kept Lord Whatnot’s diary, and that’s pretty much the same thing but with less spandex. Once upon a time I got to fire the confetti canon for Björk in Mexico, but that is another story which can wait in the wings for now.

My sworn enemy — apart from the procrastination which diffidence will shove in my face at every opportunity I give it — is distraction. Oh diabolicallest distraction in hell’s armoury, thy name is Digital! Step One: delete Facebook Messages app from my phone and ask people to text me instead. Of course they ignored me. I kept my account, because I like being in contact with old friends and colleagues who would otherwise be ships passing in the night. But if you start on digital, before you know it you’re down a rabbit hole that leads to a wormhole that leads to Trump in no time. And you’re down there with the ugliest thing in the world for hours. Step Two: turn off all notifications on my phone. I used to pick it up, see there had been a text email what’s app or some bloody update the corporation wants to suck me into. The little red dots of validation, promising human contact, delivering robo-ads. These little buggers invariably led me down some primrose path of dalliance, away from the task in hand. So I deleted the lot, in settings. When I turn to them, it is in their allotted time, at my desk, focused, not reacting willy-nilly to the last message that came in.

Back to the North London Collegiate School for Girls, in its Edwardian heyday. An England where the sun always shone. Where rabbit holes were just places where rabbits lived, and the only person who had been down one was Lewis Carrol’s imaginary little girl. When things could be whole and made sense. Pre-war. This Edwardian utopia took a doughty self-discipline to create. And there it was, laid out by Miss Buss. Boiled down, it involved five lessons in the morning before lunch, two freeform in the afternoon, and homework in the evening. For each of the five lessons in the morning, I’d set the timer on my phone for 45 minutes, punctuated by five minute sessions on the rowing machine, which looks out of the window to where the little birds feed in the hedge, and offers a perfect opportunity to listen to audio books.

Online I found this beautiful timetable of Tove Jansson’s, which I printed off and fill in every week:

Tove timetable

A typical day — this is 17th January — would go like this:

06:45 – Alarm

06:55 – On rowing machine, Row 1 listening to 

07:00-08:30 – Writing diary

08:30 – Breakfast

08:50 – On rowing machine, Row 2 listening to

09:00-09:45 – 1. Navigation Theory

09:45-10:30 – 2. Writer’s Voice. Reading Stevie Smith.

10:30 – On rowing machine, Row 3 listening to

10:45-11:30 – 3. Book-keeping and filing

11:30-12:15 – 4. Drama. Reading The Wuffings. Editing Phoebe

12:30-13.15 – 5. Scheherazade Studies. Typing up notes, diaries, post-its stuck everywhere. Always taking notes, always finding that bit more to spin out the story

13:15-14:00 – Lunch

14:00-14:45 – I Dickens. A chapter a day keeps insanity at bay. Learn from the Master.

14:45-15:30 – II Website. Working on personal archives.

16:00 – Walk and breathe. Come back and read more. Read all evening if left to own devices.


My diary entry of 15th January:

“This week’s subjects: Spiritual Struggles of Anglo-Saxon Wolf Kings, Navigation Theory, Nicholas Nickleby, Stevie Smith. Website, books and filing, editing, typing.”

22nd January

         “Wolf Kings, Diana Piece draft 1, Nav, Double S.Plath.”  

25th January

         “1000 words a day.”


I found it helpful to inhabit different spaces for different subjects. A sofa for reading this book, a different chair for this one, my desk for book-keeping and editing.

The Diana Piece was a writing exercise that I set myself in the New Year. A story that I found in an old diary, about my Auntie Diana, who died in August 2017. Her daughter Emma is my favourite cousin, a Sydneysider who travels for her high-flying job, who would be in London at the beginning of February. So I resolved to make her a gift: to write a piece about a night with Auntie Diana on Circular Quay one tropical evening in March 2004. Writing this piece fitted easily into my Stevie Smith School timetable. I took my notebook from 2004, typed the relevant bits up using an electric typewriter I keep in the shed with Dickens, then put it on to my computer to fiddle about, with cutting and pasting and sucking my digital pencil over which word where, you know the drill.

Well, it worked. Writing a gift for someone I love felt less daunting than writing for publication, so slipped me easily into a state of readiness to take that terrifying step. And I did it, scrolled and tied up with a ribbon for Emma’s arrival. She was deeply moved, said it was the most beautiful thing she’d ever been given. I was happy that my skills had a moment in the daylight. A slow-life anti-consumerist gift.

A couple of weeks into my first term at Stevie Smith School for Wayward Navigators, I was firing on all cylinders, mopping up the reading I resolved to complete, progressing from Stevie Smith to Sylvia Plath, like a mental version of the small but noticeable amount of muscle with which my body rewarded me for time on the rowing machine. My secret for fitting in quite a lot of reading is the grid. I will look at the number of pages in a book. Say 300. I want to read it in a week. Divide 300 by 7 is 43. I will aim to read 43 pages a day and mark them off on my grid. Here is one from 22nd January:

Polly Marshall blog grid image

Unexpected Venn diagrams of meaning were thrown up, when for example in The Wuffings, Kevin Crossley-Holland’s pagan king Radwald learned Christianity would be more politic for him, so put aside his Nordic belief in wyrd-fate to share the power of Roman church. His spiritual struggles echoed Stevie Smith’s with Anglicanism, never quite turning her back on it, whilst believing in something else altogether.

I took the literature, umm, literally — and stepped through the looking glass into an Edwardian girl’s school life. It was successful in unlocking my productivity, as here I am typing my first commission in three years. It unlocked the wardrobe door, leading to a literary life of abundant reading and writing, through the seemingly impassable blockades of so-called real life, suggesting a series of strategies for dealing with the distracting bastards.

Which reminds me. Housework. Don’t do it. This is the J.K.Rowling method and look at her now. For four years she lived in squalor, wrote in cafés, and then boom! I’m a wretched thing who can’t abide mess, so I use my timer, and follow old rhythms of housekeeping — laundry on a Monday, cleaning on Friday, involving House Beautiful periods written into my timetable on those afternoons.[2]

All in all the Stevie Smith School for Wayward Navigators offers a sound strategy to keep Johnny Panic from the door, and cut off those head-in-the-oven propensities.



[1] Who in another life I interviewed for Penthouse; and Kevin is an alumnus and fellow of St Edmund Hall, and so my Aularian comrade.

[2] Old rhythms inherited in ancestral memory from my Granny, who in 1926 at fourteen entered service as a housemaid, while her brothers went to art school, in spite of her family’s deification of Dickens, her own passion for Russian literature, and the fact that she’d already been teaching the younger kids at her village school in rural Sussex. They were poor.

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