The Taming of The Shrew at Stratford

May 23, 2019

The Taming of the Shrew is not a play I know particularly well – I’ve never taught it – and I’ve only ever seen one (school) production previously, so perhaps this was not an ideal version as my first professional performance. The Christopher Sly induction was cut completely, although I can’t say this affected the play for me; some think there was a counterbalancing section, now lost, that originally closed the play, in which case I might have seen the point.

It’s a very problematic play, in terms of attitudes to women, creating real issues for contemporary productions of the play, much as The Merchant of Venice does in terms of anti-Jewishness in the text. So there was a very real challenge to the audience at Stratford in the director’s decision to reverse the gender of all the characters… For me, this didn’t get the play off to a very good start as the (admittedly stunning) costumes of the now female main characters dropped everything into what felt like a Restoration Comedy setting, and Shrew isn’t a Restoration Comedy. Shaking this incongruousness off eventually, I concentrated on enjoying the play; it made me think a lot, but overall didn’t leave a very positive impression.

Here’s why: above all there was a real imbalance in the performances of Petruchia and Kate (yes, his name wasn’t changed to a masculine version, for there isn’t one). Hers was a virtuoso one, his just faded into the background, he was a man basically being tormented and abused, and he was unable to show any sense of love – or any real feeling – developing for his partner. The crucial speech in the final scene felt like concession only, without any of the edge a skilful performance is capable of giving it. And this is where I decided, after ruminating overnight, was the major flaw in the director’s conception: although we may not like it, there is a well-known model for a shrewish female which we will ‘accept’ for the purpose of performance; there is no available male counterpart for this, which leaves the gender-swapped role merely hollowed-out and empty; possibilities for comedy are removed, and there is only suffering. The main character became a non-character.

The other side of this, for which the conception deserves credit, is just how awkward the entire gender-role reversal made this male member of the audience feel, and that is important in itself: the outrageousness of some attitudes and behaviours towards women was powerfully brought home.

However, the performance lacked coherence for me, and I cannot in the end get away from the feeling that what was obviously intended as a challenge to the audience was more of a gimmick than anything else.

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My travels – Luxembourg again

May 22, 2019

I’ve nicely got back from my annual walking holiday in Luxembourg, and while I was there tried to understand why I’m so fascinated with the place and why I like it so much. It’s small – about the size of Yorkshire, where I live, more or less. It’s full of hills, small mountains, rivers, brooks and forests, all of which combine to make beautiful walking terrain, and the country is networked with hundreds, if not thousands of generally well-waymarked and maintained trails, usually circular walks; parking is easy and free. Next year all public transport in the country will be free for everyone: there is an excellent network, and many of these walks are easily accessible by bus and train. Overall I have the impression of a nation that thinks its worthwhile spending money on public amenities, unlike somewhere else I know… Near Echternach I saw a newly-planted orchard which has been specifically established to preserve all the old, local varieties of apples and pears. There’s a bee sanctuary attached…

Not that many people live there, so it’s not crowded. About 40% of the population are of foreign origin, largely Portuguese and Italian. The standard of living is high, roads and public buildings are well-maintained, and they spend serious money on public amenities – there are wonderful children’s playgrounds wherever you go, seats and picnic tables abound along the walking trails, as do litter-bins, which are regularly emptied, and there are display boards with posters depicting the flora and fauna to inform the passing walker. It feels like a conservative (with a small ‘c’) country; it’s national motto translates as “We want to stay the way we are”. Yes, I know it’s a tax haven that makes a good deal of its wealth that way, and whilst I don’t approve of that, nor do I approve of countries like ours that make enormous amounts of money from flogging weapons of death to all and sundry around the world. I found myself feeling alternately angry and sad, that other countries can do all of these useful and sensible things I’ve mentioned, and ours can not.

Luxembourg has its own language – Letzburgetsch – a curious hybrid of elements of French, German and Dutch, and the natives are also fluent in either French or German (or both) according to whether they live in the east or west of the country. They are proud of their history, and wherever you go, there are museums and memorials to the suffering the country endured under the Nazi occupation, when it was formally annexed to the Reich, meaning that young men were conscripted into the Wehrmacht, and you see graves which commemorate locals who perished on the Eastern Front. Resistance and civil disobedience was ruthlessly crushed: a strike in the town of Wiltz saw several teachers from the local secondary school shot, among others. And then large parts of the country were flattened during the Battle of the Ardennes in late 1944 and early 1945, when the worst of the civilian suffering also happened.

On a personal note, I realised that I have many happy memories of holidays taken there when our children were young, and the walking and exploring we did then. I hope to be able to take my annual holiday there for many years to come: certainly there are plenty more walks awaiting…


Olga Tokarczuk: Flights

May 21, 2019

916mlDO1b2L._AC_UL436_  Olga Tokarczuk knows how to write a compelling and fascinating book: this one, although completely different in many ways, hooked me as quickly and completely as did Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead. It’s a book about travels and travelling, which is what initially attracted me to it, but it’s not travelling as we know it, Jim.

It’s easy to read, and yet oddly haunting, unsettling, even disturbing at times. Brief sections seem to reflect on her own movements, and these alternate with much lengthier fictional digressions very loosely classifiable under the idea of travel. There’s also quite a lot of biographical material about various people from the past and their travels. I can’t think of a genre to label it with! There are interesting musings on the English language, and also on islands and the people who live on them, which seemed particularly thought-provoking and relevant in our Brexit days. She also struck a chord with me writing about the idea of revisiting the cities and people of our younger days – something I find myself doing quite a lot at the moment – we cannot really go back. I was compelled to agree: the Provence of 2018 is not the Provence I visited in 1983. On the other hand, it’s still Provence and still gorgeous…

A major theme running through the book is anatomy and the exploration of the human body in past centuries, leading up to the current exhibitions of plastinated bodies and body parts, made famous by Gunther von Hagens and others in recent years.

She clearly has a thing about the importance of the animal kingdom, an idea that was central to her previous book, and it recurs differently in this one. And there is a clever trope about plastic bags travelling everywhere and taking over the planet. Another idea that recurs numerous times is the importance of motion per se, the need to keep moving so that one is never tied down, fixed to a place and thereby controlled.

I enjoyed the book and will be re-reading it. It wasn’t shocking or horrifying as much as continually disturbing, through Tokarczuk’s reflections on – and thereby getting me as reader to reflect personally on – life as a journey. She had me considering the value, significance and even necessity of my own travelling, what all that movement had brought me, and contrasting motion with stillness, or the lack of it. If you want to read a truly original twenty-first century writer, here she is.

I’ll have a moan about editors before I go: somewhat disappointed in Fitzcarraldo books production values when they can allow ‘bored of’ and ‘miniscule’ (for ‘minuscule’) to appear in a literary work!


On a poet laureate

May 20, 2019

Last autumn Carol Ann Duffy wrote a poem which reflected on the armistice which ended the Great War. The poem moved me greatly and I wrote a post about it; it has turned out to be the most popular post I’ve written in the last year.

The institution of Poet Laureate is a bizarre and curiously English one, and Duffy has just come to the end of her tenure of that office. I have followed her career as a poet, and also as our national laureate, with interest. She and I were students at the University of Liverpool at the same time in the mid-1970s. Our paths never crossed, however, because I read English and French and she read Philosophy. Her poetry featured heavily on GCSE English Literature specifications for many years when I was teaching – along with that of Simon Armitage, who has just been named as our next Poet Laureate – and I really enjoyed teaching it. She wrote with a voice that many students could tune into, and each year Duffy would appear at Poetry Days set up for GCSE students, to read and talk about her poetry. Sometimes she was clearly bored and doing it for the money, at others she came alive and brought her poems to life, engaging with the students who came away with an even deeper appreciation of her writing.

The Poet Laureate is an official, national poet who traditionally is expected to write poems for state occasions, royal occasions, significant national moments; over the years many of them wrote sycophantic tosh which has fortunately been long forgotten. Carol Ann Duffy has been different, I think. She has certainly written poems to coincide with the kind of occasions that you would have expected a Poet Laureate to mark or commemorate, but she has never been doting, grovelling or twee; she has always taken an interesting and thoughtful angle on whatever occasion she has marked. And this brings me back to the poem The Wound In Time, written for the centenary of the end of the First World War. No triumphalism, in the sense of ‘we were on the winning side’. No pride in our nation or our armed forces. Instead, a recognition of a world-wide calamity, acknowledging that it still affects our world today, and a calm and deep respect for the memory of the millions who were killed. Writing a poem to commemorate that event would have tasked any poet, and Duffy rose to the occasion.


R H Mottram: The Spanish Farm Trilogy

May 20, 2019

51m2b9ula+L._AC_UL436_  I came across this in a second-hand bookshop last year; I’d never heard of it or the author; now that I’ve read it, I really am not sure what to make of it…

Let’s start with a summary: according to Wikipedia, R H Mottram wrote dozens of novels, all of which seem to have disappeared without trace. He served in the Great War, and published this trilogy in 1929, so ten years after, like a good deal of the literature from those days. The novels are linked by place: the Spanish Farm, which lies more or less on the Belgian/ French border, and a few miles behind the British front lines in Flanders, around Ypres. The first book describes events from the perspective of a young Flemish woman, a farmer’s daughter, showing how she struggles to survive when troops are constantly passing through, being billeted, demanding to be fed, and helping themselves to whatever they fancy. She helps her father to keep the farm running and is also determined to track down the son of the local baron who actually owns the land, with whom she had an affair before he went off to war. And she also has a brief relationship with a French-speaking British captain who is billeted at the farm.

The second volume looks at the war from the same place, but this time from the perspective of the British officer, Skene: we see his war experience as well as the relationship that develops with Madeleine, the farmer’s daughter. The third part is from the viewpoint of yet another British officer, this time a behind-the-lines one who is charged with trying to resolve a growing scandal which is creating tensions between the British and French: a British solder vandalised a wayside shrine on the farm’s property and in due military form there must be an identifiable culprit, an arrest, an investigation and the payment of compensation… in the middle of the war. A satire worthy of Evelyn Waugh…

A good deal of the trilogy is actually pretty dull – the writing is lacklustre, the use of language run-of-the-mill, and yet it also rings true as a document of the times which could only have been written by someone who had been there. There is the grimness of the border territory – which anyone who has passed through the area will recognise – and the struggles of ordinary people to get on with their lives, their business, their survival. And the central female character is particularly feisty and determined and usually gets her way – a very interesting creation by a male writer in the late 1920s. Her sexual freedom is quite convincingly depicted, too, and I found myself reminded of some of the strong women who populate various parts of Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy.

The portrayal of the British army officers is also very enlightening. We see how family, background, schooling and career paths were considered so important. Ridiculous amounts of time are spent in bureaucracy and infighting between various sections with different axes to grind; I did get the impression of everything being ultimately on so colossal a scale that nothing was ever going to work as intended, and that therefore the ordinary soldier was randomly disposable.

All novelists who have set stories during the Great War seem clear about the general incompetence of the higher levels of command, and also the utter futility of trench warfare, and Mottram is no exception. The experience of leave is generally portrayed as surreal, and men are glad to get back to the reality and camaraderie of the front, even though death stares them in the face: those at home just do not get it…

So Mottram was there and experienced it all, understood the total pointlessness of the war, and at times comes across as powerfully as Barker, Faulks and others. He doesn’t pass over shell-shock, either. Upon reflection, what shocked me most was the laconic nature of his presentation of warfare: no gross or gruesome details; insanity as routine and accepted as a side-effect of warfare.

And then there was the cynicism, the bureaucracy, the class divide, the casual racism of the logistics corps behind the lines, low-risk jobs and a cushy number generally: a whole class of officers totally divorced from the reality of the war itself.

I said at the start of this post I was unsure what I felt: ultimately it’s a useful read, interesting at times but not all the time, a book that complements other reading but probably isn’t necessary unless you’re after completeness.


Ernest Callenbach: Ecotopia

May 5, 2019

51i-FvQSB0L._AC_UL320_    A1pKb0cRToL._AC_UL320_    I’ve often written about utopias in posts, and I finally re-read Ecotopia, the most recent one I know of, after a long time. Callenbach wrote the novel in the late ‘70s, setting it 1999, with his hero visiting a country which had seceded from the US in 1980; he is the first American reporter to visit Ecotopia (the two countries do not have diplomatic relations) and the book takes the form of reports he sends back to his New York newspaper, interwoven with a more personal diary of his stay in Ecotopia.

In structure and presentation it’s no different from many other utopias: the visitor travels around the country, meeting people and learning how the place works and how good it is, comparing it with his native land, gradually being convinced of its advantages; it’s no surprise at the end of this novel that our visitor elects to stay… What interests is how close many of the concerns of the novel are to those which today’s world needs to address, and I’m somewhat mystified as to why this novel seems so rapidly to have faded into relative obscurity. There was a prequel a few years later – Ecotopia Emerging – which I once had a copy of, but seem to have mislaid or disposed of.

Ecotopia is basically hippyland – I oversimplify grossly, but anyone who was around in the 1970s and 1980s will know what I mean. The social cost of everything is taken into account, which our traveller finds hard to understand: who is ultimately responsible for the problems, issues, illnesses and other socially harmful consequences of a product or an action, – its producer or consumer? A question surely very relevant today. The economy aims for steady state, not growth, the country is decentralised, recycling, re-use and repairability are at the forefront of all consumer products, and the inhabitants of the country are committed to living in balance with nature… the only contemporary issue missing is climate change.

The two different perspectives the reporter offers us: ‘official’ newspaper articles and a ‘personal’ diary, complement each other and we are able to see him unwillingly seduced into accepting the attractiveness of the alternative model. Ecotopians have gone a long way towards equalising gender roles (though there is absolutely no mention of homosexuality or gay rights, and interracial issues are sidelined by the idea of separate development and decentralisation) and I found myself perceiving some similarities between this society and that of Anarres in Ursula LeGuin’s better and rather better-known novel The Dispossessed. The main difference is that there is no outsider in the same way in her novel; rather the hero from the utopia visits the non-utopian outside, in a sort of reversal. Women played a major role in the original revolt which led to the independence of Ecotopia, and have a leading role in its government. Decisions are made through consensus.

It is still ‘America’ and so Ecotopians have not given up on guns… and with an American author and American setting, none of the solutions are socialist or communist: at the most there is vigorous state direction or control of some aspects of the economy, and this is explained and justified in American terms. But there is a national health service, though it’s not called that. There is a little background to the origin of the new nation and the transition to it, including the inevitable economic dislocation, although this material was clearly the subject matter for the prequel mentioned above.

Utopias, and indeed all SF novels set in the future, date quickly, and the most glaring example in this novel is the absence of the internet. I was also struck by the absence of what I would call ordinary people – we never meet any working-class Ecotopians, and ugly, elderly or uneducated ones, and I cannot believe that everyone in the nation was hippified, beautified and educated in only twenty years… it’s a lovely but very bourgeois, middle-class future society.

Most novels fade into well-deserved obscurity quite rapidly, but here is one that raises questions and issues still salient today, that chimes with many of the things being challenged at this moment, and yet it already in some ways appears as quaint as Edward Bellamy’s socialist utopia of 1887 set in the United States of the year 2000: Looking Backward. Perhaps every generation needs its utopia, in which case, what is today’s?


On the crisis in English schools

May 4, 2019

Every Easter, England’s teaching unions hold their conferences, and alarming stories and statistics emerge. This year once again, it was the numbers of teachers being bullied by management, suffering stress, enduring long working hours, planning to leave the profession quite soon, and large numbers of pupils ‘off-rolled’ by secondary schools. What has gone wrong? Here are some thoughts, not in any particular order…

Increasingly, schools are run by managers, often with little or no experience of the classroom. Having zero experience of your particular field may be an advantage in other areas of the economy, but it’s bad in terms of running schools. Furthermore, identikit ‘training’ of would-be headteachers standardises both bad and good practice and undervalues particular individual strengths, I think.

In a sense, the teaching profession has been de-skilled; it’s certainly not as well-trained as it used to be. When I trained, all teachers were trained in university-level institutions, receiving a serious grounding in child development and child psychology as well as specific training in how to teach their particular subject. Now, unless you were particularly interested, that study of development and psychology was often dry as dust and dull as ditch-water, but I believe it was also vitally necessary and vitally important to being a successful teacher; it was only as my career developed that I realised just how I was unconsciously using all that knowledge and understanding I had acquired.

Teacher training is very different now: ‘school-centred’ was deemed to be much better, and it gave schools access to the money! Now, precious little of that vital general training seems to take place: there’s plenty of practice and experience in ‘delivering’ a subject curriculum, but divorced from understanding the minds of the little pitchers into which it’s being poured. I speak with experience here, for I was involved in setting up the initial teacher training scheme in my school. In those days students had to experience teaching in least a couple of different schools and I was often horrified at the poor deal some of my final placement students had received in their first training school: it was clear that a school had decided to have lots of students because they brought in lots of money, but had offered them very little support and training. I’m not at all convinced the situation has improved. What’s clear is that it’s uneven across the country, across different academy chains: there’s no guaranteed, standardised training… and if the teachers who are supposed to be mentoring the students are stressed and overworked, the temptation to cut corners must be great.

The end result of this is both teachers lacking a complete training, as well as teachers trained to teach by numbers and deliver a subject, in other words de-skilled and disadvantaged compared with earlier generations of teachers, not grounded in a sense of their own personal skills, strengths, aptitude and above all, sense of professionalism: this last has been consistently weakened and attacked by successive governments and generations of managerial headteachers. And so we get a teacher writing the other day about how it’s necessary to have standardised national testing because otherwise teachers can’t know how their students are doing because teacher assessment is all subjective…

Information technology has a bigger part in the current chaos than many people realise. Because data collection and analysis is now possible, easy and a source of profit for companies that market software, it will be done: it’s unavoidable, it’s the norm and the clock will not be turned back. Whether data-tracking of students in such minute detail is necessary or desirable is not really the question any more. And so, the workload issues it generates for teachers cannot be made to go away. When I started teaching, none of that was possible, and I don’t really think my students suffered because of that lack.

It’s also the political – as opposed to the educational – use that’s made of all this number-crunching: it now means that schools can be forced to compete with each other, that teachers can be deemed to be ‘failing’ if their results or ‘progress indicators’ do not come up to certain norms. In other works, data has become a big stick to beat up both students and teachers. Ever since the dreadful Kenneth Baker in the 1980s, every education minister has had to prove her or himself in their rise to greater things by playing with the train-set that is education; the fact that many of them had never experienced a state school education is of course totally irrelevant…

There’s another thing: the great divide between state education and the private system (which all taxpayers subsidise through its charitable status). At one level it’s a sideline, but it’s a socially divisive one that this divided country could and should do without. And this is where we come on to what can be done to change things. Other countries do it quite differently, and their school students do not seem to be total numpties compared with all our Einsteins: the obvious and most interesting example is Finland, and plenty of information about their radically different system is available out there so I don’t need to duplicate it here. Suffice it to say it’s based on local schooling and a thoroughly professional and professionally-trained teaching corps.

If we had a system of students all going to their local school – primary or secondary – then all schools would need to be brought up to the same level of staffing and resourcing. And there would be no need for the endless, polluting school runs where streets are jammed by the diesel tractors of parents who deliver their children to what they think is the best or right school for their child…

It does all come down to money in the end: how much is a child’s future worth? How much do we want to invest in the future of our country? And, sadly, my impression of England is that we want education, as we want so many other things, on the cheap…


John Barton: A History of the Bible

April 27, 2019

A1tPCMSb+DL._AC_UL436_This is a fascinating and seriously academic book; the author is an Anglican priest, but writes from a very open-minded perspective, casting his net very widely. The book is very carefully structured and presented, right from his opening thesis in the introduction, and references and bibliography are excellent. He seeks to cover as much as possible in the history of the scriptures of two major religions of the book, Judaism and Christianity, explaining the complex relationship between the two faiths, as well as the complex interrelationship of their scriptures and how differently Jews and Christians regard and use the Old Testament. This last, coupled with the notion that Jews have no notion of original sin, I found very enlightening. Barton explains clearly, makes helpful connections and draws many quite disparate strands together.

The first eye-opener was the lack of evidence for so much of the Old Testament history of the Jewish people, and the haziness of the existence (or not) of so many of the characters familiar to us. The Old Testament comes across as a veritable mishmash, confusing and confused, not susceptible to unravelling for clarity or veracity: Israel is brought down to the small-sized nation it was, and almost nothing in this apparent ‘history’ can be corroborated from other sources.

Although Barton explains and clarifies as far as possible (not very far!), I must confess to still finding myself mystified by the purpose of much of the Old Testament. I’m drawn to the familiar names and stories I first encountered in my childhood, whether they are truth or legend, and I’m drawn to the wisdom books, though many regard these as apocryphal, but I still find the prophecies and many of the psalms rather empty.

Barton outlines very concisely and clearly the historical context of the New Testament; indeed contextual background and connections are one of the strongest aspects of the book for me. Again, he is clear about the lack of clarity and definitive knowledge about Paul, about the practices, observations and rituals of the early church, and therefore how much may be later accretions. Increasingly as I’ve read more widely about the beginnings of Christianity, I’ve become aware not only of how controversial a character Paul is, but also of recent much more careful interpretations and evaluations of some of his attitudes, especially towards women; it is a caricature to describe him simply as a misogynist, which many tend to do.

Barton’s willingness, as a Christian, to examine and question everything and admit to the absence of so much certainty I find very refreshing: he is not defensive about this, even when considering the balance between what may be true and what has probably been invented in the gospels. But very little emerges with any definiteness. He feels that the teachings of Jesus Christ have been overshadowed by the construction of a religion centred on him.

He surveys the changes in the Christian Bible over time, through Reformation and translation, noting that the more extreme reformers – Calvinists and Puritans – interpret the Bible in a more Jewish way, prescriptive and ritualistic.

It’s an excellent book if you are deeply interested in the subject and along with the writings of Geza Vermes, will probably complete my current reading on the topic for a while. I often found myself astonished when I recalled that it was an Anglican priest writing, until I realised that clearly all his research had not shaken his faith, which is clearly grounded elsewhere than in unquestioning acceptance of the contents of a book, despite the reformers’ insistence on sola scriptura….


On Shakespeare’s birthday

April 23, 2019

I don’t recall meeting any of Shakespeare’s plays until I got to the fourth form and began my O Level Eng Lit course: we studied The Merchant of Venice, with an inspirational English teacher who wasn’t afraid back then to explain everything, including the bawdy bits. I was fascinated to finally be reading this writer whose fame and reputation I’d heard so much about, and I came to love the moral complexities in that play. I can still reel off vast sections which I must have learnt by heart as I revised. It wasn’t until years later that I actually got to see it onstage, and the most memorable performance was one at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in the 1990s, where Portia was played as a woman who was old enough to be worried about being left an old maid, and Bassanio was clearly also no longer in the prime of youth and an evident gold-digger… Sadly, I only had a couple of opportunities to teach the play in my entire career.

A Level brought two tragedies, King Lear and Othello. The former still moves me to tears when I read it and I look forward one day to seeing a decent performance onstage; the only one I’ve seen so far was truly abysmal and best forgotten. Othello I loved, too, and have taught more times than I care to remember; I’ve seen a number of memorable performances including a couple at Stratford with the RSC, though I still like Willard White paired with Ian McKellen best of all, a TV performance I’ve watched countless times with students. Iago’s cold, calculating and incomprehensible evil comes across so powerfully as he struts in his corporal’s uniform, and you have to be really quick in the closing moments to see the brief and sinister darkening of the moustache…

I was lucky enough, at school, to have been taken to see plays at what was then the revolutionary – in more ways than one – new Nottingham Playhouse, where I was fortunate to see one of Ian McKellen’s first, if not his first, performances as Hamlet. In the end, however, that was a play that I never really warmed to, just as I always found Macbeth somehow unsatisfactory, although if you look up my post on the performance I saw at Stratford last year, you will see that I finally got to see a performance that transformed my appreciation of that play.

Although I enjoyed teaching Shakespeare enormously, it was always against the backdrop of examinations, especially with younger students whose enjoyment I feel was sometimes marred by the need to ‘get it right’ for an examiner. I particularly hated having to teach plays for the SATs at age 14 (now long gone, thank God) and felt constrained when Romeo and Juliet was up for testing as it was rather a challenge explaining all the obscenities to students that young… it’s a play much more suited to GCSE. But grinding thorough Julius Caesar or Macbeth with a 75-minute examination in view also felt like a bit of a chore, and at times I wondered how much of a love for the bard the students would end up with.

Obviously when students have chosen to study Eng Lit in the sixth form, it’s all rather different: there’s more time to do justice to a play, and students are more thoughtful and mature in their approach, and we could enjoy the language and the jokes, the wit and the vulgarity to the full. We could explore alternative possibilities and interpretations and this was positively encouraged by the syllabus at times. This is where I came to love two plays above all: Othello, and Antony and Cleopatra; ask me one day which is my ‘favourite’ Shakespeare play and it will be one of these two, depending on whether there is an ‘r’ in the month or which way the wind is blowing. Why? Othello for the evil of Iago, the innocence of Othello and the shock when everything that was perfect is turned to dust for him, and the feistiness of Desdemona, until she cannot understand what is happening to her and her husband any more… Antony and Cleopatra for the passion of age that is not youth, and the giving up of worlds for that passion… Both plays for the sublimity of the language.

Sometimes I engage briefly with the scholarly arguments about who wrote the plays; most of the time I do not care. Someone – William Shakespeare, most probably – wove and knitted words so magically some four centuries ago that they can take us to places, take us inside people, show us feelings that can take us far beyond ourselves, can entertain us, make us think, move us to tears. It’s all invention, and it’s all wonderful.


On children’s literature and children in literature

April 20, 2019

I’m more than a little surprised it hasn’t occurred to me to write on this theme before; perhaps it’s grandchildren that have turned my thoughts in that direction and prompted me. There are many marvellous classic children’s books out there that I’m hoping one day I will have the chance to share with the next generation: Winnie the Pooh, The Wind in the Willows, The Borrowers and The Phantom Tollbooth to name but a few. Wonderful new stories appear with each generation but the old favourites will endure too, I think.

However, it it books that feature children that I am particularly interested in here. I regularly introduced my classes to Mark Twain’s wonderful The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and I think most of them got something from it; it has a lot of those things that children fantasise about: skiving chores, school and duties, running away from home, finding treasure, as well as scarier things such as witnessing a murder and being lost in a dark cave. It may be set more than a century and a half ago, but the themes still appeal. Sadly, only a couple of opportunities arose to teach The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which is in some ways an even greater achievement, treating as it does the cusp of childhood to adolescence and adulthood, and showing us the learning that can take place at that time. Huck’s symbolic journey with Jim on the raft down the Mississippi is at times humorous, fantastical, true to life and very moving.

Elsewhere I’ve written about To Kill A Mockingbird, where once again two children have two grow up and grapple with adult issues rather earlier than they may have wished; I have no time for those who carp and cavil about this novel for whatever reason; Harper Lee creates people, time and place brilliantly to explore a whole range of ideas.

I’ve also waxed lyrical in many posts about Philip Pullman’s masterly achievement in the His Dark Materials trilogy, and also in the first volume of the new Book of Dust trilogy. There is something very refreshing as well as thought-provoking about having children as the central characters in such astonishing books, and the adults merely taking subordinate places. The process of growing up, the realisations and the learning that take place gradually or suddenly as we pass from innocence to experience are well worth contemplating again as adults; I can only wonder what the experience of reading these books first as a child, and then returning to them as a grown-up, might be like: I will never know, of course. Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines tetralogy – which I’m working up to re-reading – also has children as its central characters, although their adventures are not cosmos-changing in the way that Will and Lyra’s are in Pullman’s books.

It’s a truism that our childhood years form us and shape the adult that we eventually become; we don’t realise this is happening whilst it is actually happening, and we are perhaps rather more eager to leave childhood and childish things behind for the more exciting and ‘real’ world of adults. Only as we grow older do we realise the meaning of the true innocence of those childhood years which we can never have back. Perhaps it is the experience of raising our own children, and enjoying our grandchildren, that provoke us to contemplate what our past did to us; understanding and acceptance are all that we can acquire now, as time marches on…


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