On Shakespeare worship

May 23, 2018

Is Shakespeare that good? How good is he?

I’ve recently come back from my annual week with a group of a couple of dozen like-minded folk where we’ve sat and studied and explored Shakespeare and been to Stratford to see a couple of his plays at the RSCRomeo & Juliet and Macbeth this year. The first performance was not bad, the second was brilliant. And at some point we find ourselves sitting in a room all saying in different ways how wonderful Shakespeare was… and sometimes I find myself feeling uneasy.

Can we step back and judge the man objectively any more, or has he been canonised in such a way that it’s impossible to be critical? Or is he clearly brilliant every which way and that’s that?

His language is wonderful: it’s hard to challenge that, particularly in his plays. I was particularly aware of this first re-reading and then watching Macbeth in performance. But when I’m reading or listening to his sonnets, wonderful as they are, I’m always reminded of his contemporary John Donne, whose poetry I’ve always preferred, who breaks out of the restricted and constraining sonnet form when he feels like it (quite often), who often writes as he would speak, with great power and freshness, contrasted with which Shakespeare can seem a bit trite, and same-y – all those sonnets! But when I read or see plays, yes Marlowe occasionally matches Shakespeare’s language in range and scope, as does Webster too, at times… but Shakespeare just does it so well, so consistently, so effortlessly, time and again.

Many people pay tribute to the way Shakespeare contributed to the development of our language, his coining of new words to suit divers occasions and situations; it’s true. But so did Milton, just as much and as powerfully, but people don’t read Paradise Lost any more, and so they never see or hear Shakespeare’s equal in this field.

We are fortunate that so much of Shakespeare’s oeuvre has survived – a couple of plays are known to be missing – and perhaps many plays by rivals did not. Shakespeare wrote in all the genres – historical plays, comedies, tragedies and romances, so there is a breadth to his work we do not have in his rivals. His themes are the same as those used by everyone else, and the judgement seems to be that he just outdid the rest.

I have never really been interested in any of the so-called controversies about Shakespeare’s identity, or his authorship of the plays or not: I don’t think it will ever be possible to have incontrovertible proof of anything that happened four centuries ago, and every generation produces its crop of theories. It would be good to have more information about the man and the gaps in his biography, but then, it would be good to have a lot of things…

Shakespeare is ‘for all time’, said friend and rival Ben Jonson. This may well mean the subject-matter of his plays and how he develops his ideas and characters. Writers are always going to write about the same issues – love, hate, jealousy, rivalry, death, ambition, friendship… but does Shakespeare inevitably have the last or the best word on all these topics? Maybe he enjoys an advantage as a dramatist, in that he brings it all to life, in front of us onstage: there is an immediacy and an intensity that few novelists are able to achieve in what is a totally different literary form.

What do you think?

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On writing creatively…or not

May 23, 2018

It’s taken me a very long time to realise that I’m a writer. I spent years training students and teaching them the craft of writing, how to organise their ideas, how to choose their words carefully, how to spell and punctuate correctly to enhance communication, that I lost sight of the fact that I write too. I’ve written this blog for more than five years now and WordPress informs me I’ve written the equivalent of several novels’ worth of posts… I’ve written a couple of literature study guides and am completing a third. I used to review science fiction for an academic journal, and I used to write for the students’ union newspaper when I was at university. And I’ve written countless essays, a dissertation and a thesis… all a very long time ago.

What I’ve never done, at least not since I was at school, is write creatively, write a story or a descriptive piece. I’ve no desire to write poetry, it’s not something I aspire to, but lately I have started to wonder about trying to be creative and where I might start if I did pluck up the courage to dip my toe in the water. There are creative writing groups out there, but then I’d have to expose myself to others’ gaze, and I’m not sure I’m ready for that… How do I make a start, and how do I decide whether it’s worth it?

It strikes me that descriptive writing might possibly be an extension of some of the various travel pieces I’ve produced, and I’m aware that I’ve always liked taking photographs, often taking time and effort to get exactly the effect I want… maybe there’s a way in to writing there. But fiction? Years ago, I thought I was interested in trying to write some science fiction, having studied the genre for so long, but I never did: the ideas and the inspiration never came. Getting started on something new always seems difficult…


On blogging

May 22, 2018

I’ve been blogging seriously for over five years now, so I step back to take stock of what I’ve been up to and what I’ve actually achieved. Nearly seven hundred posts, enough words written for several novels. Posts about individual books, novels, plays and poems. Posts on more general topics, to do with aspects of literature and teaching. Posts about my travels, about the Great War, and lots more besides.

I’ve enjoyed writing them, otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered. And now I’ve got myself into a sort of routine, where I find I’m thinking more critically about a book as I read it, and often jotting down short notes about what I’ll write about. Sometimes an idea for a more general piece will pop into my mind as I read, or when I’m awake in the night, and I’ll start jotting down my thoughts; eventually it will be time to write it up, if there’s enough to say. So there’s a kind of mental discipline here, I feel: I read more carefully and critically, and make myself try and give coherent shape and form to my ideas. There is also the thought of all that complex electrical activity in my brain not going entirely to waste…

I write each piece using my notes, revise it carefully, and look for a picture of the book’s cover to illustrate it, if the post is about a particular book.

I have getting on for 300 followers, either via facebook or direct subscribers. Not that many, I think, but then I realise my subject-matter and my approach is a fairly serious one. I get upwards of a couple of thousand visitors a year; not that many really. Some posts get lots of readers, some only a couple, some none at all, I fear. I’m astonished at the ones visitors flock to – Theodore Kroger’s The Forgotten Village seems to head the list at the moment, closely followed by Derek Guiton’s A Man That Looks on Glass. The first is an obscure memoir set in revolutionary Russia, the second is part of a dialogue about the future direction of the Religious Society of Friends. Amazing what search engines will do…

I haven’t had that many comments on what I’ve written, and sometimes this saddens me; I wonder if it’s because I come across as too knowledgeable, or my reading and thoughts are too obscure, or the way I express my opinions tends to preclude comment or discussion. I’ve long wanted to engage in dialogue with more of my readers; I’m grateful for the comments that do develop into an exchange, and I like it when people disagree with me, take issue and argue – I think my former students would back me up here… Anyway, to those of you who do comment, whether to agree, disagree, or offer a different perspective on what I’ve said – thank you.


Romeo & Juliet at the RSC

May 21, 2018

I was rather disappointed by this production, having expected rather better from the RSC

The two main issues were the two main characters who, whilst each convincing enough as individuals – Romeo especially – never managed to come across as a pair, a couple head-over-heels in love with each other. Added to this was a tendency to deliver their lines rather too quickly, slipping into a gabble occasionally, which is no substitute for making an audience feel the urgency of their passion, and you have quite marked flaws in a production. This, of course, raises a more general, and perhaps insuperable issue for this play: you need young actors in many of the roles for them to be credible, and young means (relatively) inexperienced, therefore unable to do what is required to make the role work…

It can be done, however: I went to this performance with two first-rate productions in mind that I had seen over the years, an excellent one at the West Yorkshire Playhouse a good many years ago now, where the entire stage was centred on a gigantic double bed, and an equally good and more intimate production at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. The RSC didn’t come up to either.

There were interesting touches. Sometimes gender-role changes are gratuitous, but here the female Mercutio managed the difficult task of making the Queen Mab speech work well, although she wasn’t consistently good throughout. Benvolio and Capulet were good: for me the touchstone is how Capulet carries off the scene where he loses his temper after Juliet has declined to marry Paris, and here he was superb. For most of the group, though, it was the outstanding performance of the Nurse – a role that can be really tiresome if played wrong – that won the day.

The fight scenes, usually made much of, were here underplayed, and I could not see how the casting of Tybalt, who is supposed to be ‘the prince of cats’ was supposed to work. And the idea of bringing all the dead back to life to walk around the stage at various points contributed nothing, other than cluttering the stage. In the end, I think, the director had too many ideas to try and impose on the text and they got in the way rather than enhanced the performance. The set was brilliant, though…


Macbeth at the RSC

May 20, 2018

I taught the Scottish play more times than I care to remember at school, and had to take school parties to see a number of mediocre performances usually specifically produced for school audiences. Certainly none of these was memorable, and I had come to not really like the play; I’d never had any feeling of its end being tragic. And so when it appeared on the programme to my Shakespeare week this year I was in two minds: a play I wasn’t really enamoured of, but also the possibility that a performance at Stratford by the RSC would be a good and memorable one and therefore perhaps bring about a change in my response…

Re-reading the play before the performance, for the first time in a number of years, I was struck particularly by the density of the language, and its stunning poetry. Yes, I’d been aware of it, but it’s not possible to make too much of it teaching to teenagers, and so I suppose I had backgrounded it.

The performance was stunning and I was gripped from the start and throughout. Christopher Ecclestone played Macbeth brilliantly, and there was a real sense of rapport between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, which there absolutely must be for the play to hold you, since it lacks any other strong characters, and the degeneration of the relationship over time was evident, as was the sense of Macbeth gradually losing interest in life and everything he had won through association with the powers of evil.

It was a modern dress production, and this did not intrude on my appreciation. The weird sisters were played by children, young girls in pyjamas holding dolls, and this was a very effective approach. I’ve always felt that the witches are very difficult to do convincingly for a modern audience, and the over-playing of wizened hags with daft voices dancing around cauldrons has always left me cold. Here, there was simply mist, a slight edginess to the girls’ voices through some technical trick, and a spookiness through the use of dolls: the whole trope of children and childlessness that permeates the play was thus foregrounded.

Another enhancement, or directorial decision, if you like, involved the development of the role of the porter, who was dressed like a school caretaker, and who, after his speech – another that is difficult to pull of well – lurked sinisterly at the side of the stage for the rest of the play, almost a chorus figure, doing various small things that commented or reinforced the action of the drama, at times appearing almost Brechtian.

The banquet scene worked well, the long table used effectively for a number of scenes, and even the dreary scene between Malcolm and Macduff in England was given a pace and focus that made it work. Macduff receiving the news of the deaths of his family was a very powerful tragic moment.

Macbeth is a relatively short play, and the pace and coherence of the production made it powerful and effective, and I left the theatre glad that I had finally seen a performance worth seeing and that had done justice to the play.


Bernard Ollivier: Longue Marche – suite et fin

May 19, 2018

I was fascinated by Bernard Ollivier‘s account of his three-year endeavour to walk the 12,000kms of the Silk Route, from Istanbul to Beijing, a project he undertook around the turn of the century, after he had retired, and lost his wife. It wasn’t exploration, but it was genuine travel, as he engaged with all sorts of people he met on his journey, and grappled with many problems. There are three volumes in his account (1,2,3).

He met and settled with a new partner and lives in Normandy: she asked why he had started from Istanbul rather than from France, as Lyons was where silk manufacture and trade had developed in France from the Middle Ages. Then she suggested they walk that final stretch of the journey together. Ollivier was faced with two challenges: walking with someone else, whereas he had always walked alone, from preference, and covering a further couple of thousand kilometres at the age of seventy-three. I can only admire him and hope that I have a small portion of such energy and the desire to live adventurously if I reach that age…

He is less rigid about scrupulously covering every kilometre on foot this time; there are occasional short bus and taxi journeys when these are necessary to avoid difficulties. He is older and more crook than previously and he lets us know this. Encounters with locals in places they pass through are markedly more difficult and rarer when there are two of them, though people still do marvel at the craziness of the exploit when they learn what the couple’s goal is.

It’s Europe, so feels more familiar than the earlier walking, but for me the real eye-opener was his account of their journey through the Balkans. He passes through all the countries that were rent by the horrific civil wars and massacres in the years around the turn of the century, conflicts that we lived through and heard about at the time and were appalled by, but which, of course, we have now more or less forgotten. Their impressions of the aftermath of the war: the destruction still apparent; the cemeteries which dot the landscape as those of the Somme battlefields do; the suspicions and latent hatreds still smouldering between communities and nations, the issues unresolved; the footpaths they cannot walk along because of the uncleared mines… it was a chilling picture, presented through the eyes of a couple with whom I could identify because of their ages and their love of walking and encountering people.

The book rounds off and closes the epic adventure, I suppose. Ollivier is a kind of hero for me, or at least someone I can admire for his spirit of adventure at his age, knowing that he has done something I might aspire to but will never do…


Guidère: Au Commencement était le Coran

May 8, 2018

61lnfOoUoKL._AC_US218_This is a very useful little book, and it’s a shame that things such as this don’t seem to get written in English. I’ve been interested in Islam for a long time, and have read fairly widely in what is available, and up until now Karen Armstrong‘s book Islam: A Short History has been the best thing I’ve come across.

This book is written by a Western expert; it’s very clearly written, and carefully balanced, taking no sides, but clarifying much that might seem obscure and mysterious to the ordinary (non-Muslim) person who tries to keep up and understand, without offending – I hope – anyone in the process. There’s a very wide scope: various schisms in Islam are explained, as are the various different versions of the Qur’an, its history, and various changes and alterations which have occurred. I even understood fully the controversy about the Satanic Verses for the first time (I did read the novel, and found it unremittingly tedious, I’m afraid).

Guidère explains the different currents in Islam and in Islamic jurisprudence; he clarifies the past and shows how it operates in and affects the world today. The complexity of the various rules (and various interpretations of them) regarding sexual behaviour, and the covering of women’s bodies, are examined.

He also points out that much of the knowledge which he is sharing is not widely known in the Muslim world, and it is very clear that there are real dangers for Muslims who would like to read, explore, analyse and challenge; to a considerable extent the Qur’an is a book imprisoned in its past, and he finds this sad.

For me, the most interesting thing I learned about was the concept of abrogation or annulment. This was new to me, the idea that one injunction that had been divinely revealed in one place in the book was annulled and superseded by another one that was revealed later. There’s a certain (human) logic to this, but then by the time Guidère explains the concept and exemplifies it, he has already made clear how much is unknown and uncertain about the compilation of the Qur’an, including when various parts of it were given to Muhammad. So, in short, what supersedes what?

Developing greater understanding of the complex issues that shape and trouble our world is a necessary and valuable enterprise: this book helps do that.


Ernst Wiechert: The Jeromin Children

May 5, 2018

51n8In4582L._AC_US218_It’s been quiet lately on this blog because I took an 1100-page novel away on holiday and have only just finished it… a long book, which will end up with a long review.

I’ve read and loved Ernst Wiechert’s The Simple Life several times; it’s a hauntingly lovely novel, one of my all-time favourites. The Jeromin Children is nearly as good. Wiechert wrote in the 1930s and 40s and fell foul of the Nazis; after a few months in a concentration camp he was let out but threatened with ‘physical annihilation’ if he put another foot wrong. He didn’t. This novel appeared after the Second World War, when its subject-matter had gone forever.

It’s a family saga, set in a village in the middle of nowhere, deep in the forest lakeland of East Prussia. It’s a lost world – East Prussia ceased to exist as a result of the Second World War and its German inhabitants were expelled, the land divided between Poland and the Soviet Union. As a family saga, at times it reminded me of Naguib MahfouzThe Cairo Trilogy, but it also belongs to a subset of post-Great War novels where writers, so horrified at the events they had experienced, sought mental and spiritual refuge in flight from cities and ‘civilisation’ in the timeless values and lives of simple rural folk; Jean Giono is a prime French example of such a writer.

It’s also a bildungsroman, of a very German kind. There are seven children born to the family, and although we do learn of the lives of them all (and the deaths of some of them), the hero is clearly Jons, the youngest, whose story we are most intimately concerned with. But all seven of them have different and significant stories which Wiechert uses to bring out meanings in various ways. And he skilfully brings out the timelessness of the place, the meaning of existence for its inhabitants, the complex interaction of characters, thoughts and feelings, locating all in a powerful sense of eternity and continuity.

To break out of such a village, to leave and to make one’s way in the big wide world is a huge and frightening undertaking. To leave the peasantry and the poverty and to hope for more – I can see my own father’s story in much of this. Will Jons lose the village and the people, and his soul? For he has gifts, talents, and various people in the village make enormous sacrifices so that he can go to school, and then to university, where he will train to become a doctor…

The village is overwhelmed by the Great War on the Eastern Front, and though burnt to the ground, it is rebuilt. The utter insanity, the meaninglessness, futility and sheer evil of the war is briefly but powerfully portrayed, almost through the absence of detail; the good and the bad die, and the scene where one of Jons’ mentors, the student Jumbo, dies, is heart-rending in its pointlessness.

Mentors are obviously of significance in a bildungsroman, and I was inevitably led to reflect on the importance of those who clearly influenced me in my younger days – teachers, student friends, professional colleagues all play their part. In a similar way, Wiechert had me thinking about the differences between generations, how we change and yet how in so many ways we remain just the same as those who went before us.

His studies interrupted by his military service in the war, Jons returns and eventually qualifies as a doctor, and returns to his village to be a doctor for the poor; despite his evident talents and much brighter prospects, this shapes up as his deliberate and the right choice. The unspeakable horrors are left behind, and idyllic peacetime village life continues, except that as readers we know that this cannot last.

The novel is very long; at times it palls and feels didactic and verbose. The view of village life is surely romanticised, though the paeans to the physical beauty of the regional landscape are true to life. It seems utopian, powerful and seductive at times, and we must remind ourselves whence it sprang; it’s comforting, in the same way that the life of the hero of The Simple Life attracts us. And yet, like all utopias, it cannot be. The insidious creep of Nazism is only vaguely hinted at, and seems all the more sinister for this way of portraying; its true horrors and darkness visit the village chillingly in the death of a Jewish doctor who is Jons’ friend and professional mentor, and in the senseless cruelty the regime inflicts on a couple of the villagers. In some ways the ending of the novel is unsatisfactory, for Wiechert leaves it hanging, as I suppose he had to. The Nazis have invaded the Soviet Union; anyone can see that it will all end horrifically. And Wiechert, in a brief afterword, reminds us that this did happen, and tells us that we must invent for ourselves what happened to the villagers and Jons…

It’s not War and Peace, it’s not Life and Fate. It’s clearly flawed. But it’s also a work of love, a call from a generation scarred by the Great War, realising that civilisation is not what it says; it’s a book to take you away from yourself, to make you think, and at times to make you weep. Sadly, the only English version, published over sixty years ago as The Earth is Our Heritage, must have been a bowdlerised version as it’s only a third the length of Wiechert’s novel; I read the French translation which was published last year.


Other Voices of the Great War

April 29, 2018

You don’t need to look far on this blog to be aware of my interest in the First World War. I’ve read many of the great works of literature – poetry, prose and drama – that came out of those tragic years, and I’ve explored some of the sites of the conflict, on the western front at least.

What I’m gradually discovering are the other, smaller voices from those years, that have fallen into obscurity, but that are nevertheless interesting and powerful documents, often with an unexpected immediacy. It wasn’t just combatants from the warring nations who wrote, but civilians, nurses, volunteers: all sorts of people from all walks of life, and their voices are filling out for me the impression of its having been a world war in the sense of involving everyone.

Some of these texts are available in print, some exist online in archives such as Project Gutenberg or the Internet Archive, and others have been carefully recorded by the volunteers at Librivox, so it’s clearly not just me who is interested in, and has been moved by, these accounts.

The Martyrdom of Belgium (librivox) is quite a shocking document. Both sides produced a fair amount of ‘atrocity propaganda’ at various times, but this was the report of a commission set up to investigate and document various deeds committed by the Germans as they swept through neutral Belgium in the early days of the war, and it’s the names, places, streets, villages and towns, along with the precise numbers of murdered civilians that appalled me. Obviously the events described pale into insignificance compared with what came later, but there is clear evidence of deliberate targeting of civilians in a bid to terrorise the local population.

The American writer Edith Wharton‘s account of the early days of the war from Paris and her visits to the front lines is fascinating, replete with a sense of immediacy. I’ve written about it before, here.

Nurses were often horrified by what they saw and experienced; Vera Brittain‘s accounts are well-known, but the anonymous Diary of a Nursing Sister on the Western Front is just as powerful, as is Ward Muir‘s Observations of an Orderly (both on librivox).

While I was travelling recently, I listened to E W Hornung‘s Notes of A Camp Follower on the Western Front. He was a civilian volunteer with the YMCA, who attempted to provide comforts for the troops when they were sent behind the lines for rest and recuperation; he spent a lot of time making tea and cocoa, and putting together and running a small lending library for the troops, as well as watching, and having many conversations with men, many of whom he never saw again, because they did not survive. I was reminded of the vital role of people like him when I visited Talbot House in Poperinghe.

Accounts such as most of these I’ve mentioned are often effective because they do not benefit from the distance, the passage of time and the hindsight that other, more well-know accounts have: we are reading or listening to accounts where the final outcome is not known, where the writer and their initial readers did not know what was still to come: responses and judgements may have been rendered erroneous or inaccurate by today, but that does not matter: we have a real document from the time, which can still speak to us powerfully, across a whole century…


My travels: L is for Luxembourg

April 28, 2018

I fell in love with Luxembourg years ago. I don’t mean the capital city, which is small, and has a couple of good bookshops and some astonishing eighteenth century fortifications, as well as a stunning site, to recommend it; I mean the countryside – the forests and hills of the Ardennes and its stunning walking. Now I seem to go back each spring for what has become a combination of a walking holiday and a retreat, a couple of weeks of peace and quiet in the hills.

I have to admit, of course, that my picture of the country is a romanticised one. It’s small – perhaps the size of Greater London, roughly; a lot smaller than Yorkshire, which I call home. Some friends remind me that it’s home to a huge tax-avoidance economy; this is true, and yet, as far as I know, Luxembourg hasn’t bombed Syria or invaded Iraq or Afghanistan recently… the country’s motto is ‘we want to stay the way we are’, conservative with a small ‘c’, and when I fantasise about living there and being able to do all the wonderful walks all year round, I remind myself of what living in such a small, catholic, conservative and conformist society might be like. There doesn’t seem to be very much for young people to do, and only the capital and a couple of other towns would seem to offer much in the way of cultural attractions. It would probably be both dull and stifling. But the public transport is stunning – a four-euro ticket takes you anywhere in the country, on bus or train, for a whole day!

But, the walking is stunning, and seemingly unknown to us English; in season the place fills up with the Dutch heading for the nearest hills to home. What I like is the fact that the hills are relatively gentle – although that doesn’t exclude some gruesomely steep ascents, particularly at the start of walks – and also largely wooded, which I find particularly attractive because it means that I often come across surprise views after turning a corner: suddenly an unexpected panorama opens up. And then there are the colours, so many varieties of greens and browns at the time of year when everything is just bursting into life after winter. There are the streams and rivers winding through the valleys, and occasional glimpses of wildlife – deer, wild cattle, wolves even – and the birds.

It’s so peaceful, too, at the time of year when I go. I can park the car, put my boots on and in five minutes be far away from the village or town, up in the hills where the only sounds are the birds and the crunch of my feet on the path. I’m away with my thoughts and the wonders of nature, at peace.

The country is a maze of way-marked paths, some maintained by the Ministry of the Economy (!) and so pretty clear, others maintained by localities and so rather more variably signposted – so my map-reading and compass skills have improved over the years. And for such a small place, there’s a good bit of variety, too – steep and more rugged further east, along the German border, with rather narrower tracks, and large areas along the western border with Belgium that are being gradually allowed and encouraged to revert to more primeval forest.

It’s as European a place as one can find, which I also find attractive, being small and on so many borders and crossing points; a third of its population are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants; the inhabitants speak their own language and usually French and German too, if not English as well. I feel comfortable there; I can escape the hecticness of Britain, its woes and insanities, for a few days; I feel calmer and rested even after walking dozens of miles in a weeks or so. I hope I can manage many more spring holidays there…


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