Archive for the 'rambling about reading' Category

On re-reading Ursula Le Guin

September 17, 2019

81yGpmCphML._AC_UY218_ML1_   We lost one of the greatest SF writers ever when Ursula Le Guin died earlier this year, and I promised myself I’d re-read some of her Hainish novels: I did this in a bit of a binge-read while I was on holiday in the Ardennes a week or so ago, and enjoyed Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, City of Illusions, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed all over again. They are very thought-provoking, and you can see the influence of her family background and personal interest in anthropology.

I found myself trying to decide just how good she was, and what exactly she had achieved. The Library of America publications of her works which have come out recently are helpful because they contain her introductions, and also some interesting notes on the novels. Even in the earliest works, Le Guin manages to create very powerful and very moving characters, which, as many critics have noted, does not often happen in science fiction.

The idea that various Earth-like planets were ‘seeded’ with humanoid life at some point in the very distant past, and left to develop, gave Le Guin scope to explore a range of different aspects of human potential and societal organisation: never didactic, she leaves her reader to make comparisons with our own particular world, and way of living, leaves us to make judgements, too, if we have eyes to see.

The last two books I listed are those that most people would recognise as her best, I think. The Left Hand of Darkness puts our human sexuality under the microscope in a way no other writer has done, through the creation of the Gethenians who are truly androgynous: in a work of fiction, a writer can explore and invite a reader to imagine, in way that no textbook or academic work can. I found this idea so interesting that an analysis of this novel formed a major part of an academic thesis I wrote over 35 years ago now; I found myself wondering if I would write the same way now as I had then…

I also wrote about The Dispossessed in that thesis. Coming back to the novel again, I was taken aback to see how much bleaker her anarchist society was than I had remembered, how much more complex, too. Le Guin’s vision of the future of planet Earth, seen through the eyes of its ambassador on Urras, is truly grim, and chillingly recognisable in where we find ourselves heading now – yet Le Guin wrote over forty years ago. Powerful stuff, indeed.

I have pretty much moved on from my fascination with science fiction of forty years ago. I’ve kept a small number of books that I have come to regard as classics of the genre. But I still stand by what I felt all those years ago when doing my academic research at the Science Fiction Foundation, that the genre can make us think deeply about our world, and perhaps lead us to make it a better one, and I still have Ursula Le Guin up there among the very best writers.

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Ten of the strangest books in my library – part one

August 15, 2019

Liber Usualis

This is a very thick and weighty tome, originally published, I think, for use in monasteries. It contains the music for the main services, in plainchant four-stave notation. I bought it many years ago, not for the music but for the texts of various now long-lost Latin services, and it’s supplemented by a copy of the Tridentine Missale Romanum with Latin rubrics, and also a copy of the Latin Vulgate Bible.

Adolf in Blunderland

This satire after the manner of Lewis Carroll, complete with Tenniel-style illustrations and reworkings of almost all of the songs from Alice, mocking the Nazis and their leaders, is from the mid 1930s, obviously in the days before the real dangers of the Nazi project were clear to many, and knockabout humour was thought sufficient. I bought it when I was still at school, with five shillings – a sizeable sum in those days – of my pocket money. Unfortunately, even though I’ve looked after it carefully, it is showing its age.

Zbior Nazwisk Szlachty

You wouldn’t have expected the Polish communist authorities to have allowed the publication of such a facsimile, of a book which originally appeared in 1805 and is an index of the names of the Polish nobility. It was a gift to my father, which I inherited – our family name is in the book, and it’s a genuine one rather than one from the days when everyone was scrambling to have a gentrified name; it also means we have a coat of arms. Before you all grovel at the thought of my greatness, I should point out two important details: firstly that the nobility was abolished in 1919, and secondly that it was the name that was important, not wealth or property. A peasant could have a noble name, which brought respect and standing along with it, just as it did to a rich man. If you were among the 25%+ of the nation with a name, you could theoretically take part on the election of the king. Yes, you read that right…

Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies (along with Pliny’s Natural History, Ibn Khaldun: The Muqaddimah, and The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition)

I’ve had a soft spot for Isidore for a long time, long before the Vatican named that early encyclopaedist patron saint of the internet. In that curious time known as the Dark Ages, after the disappearance of the Western Roman Empire, monks sought to preserve knowledge, and Isidore complied twenty brief books of etymologies in which he attempted a taxonomy and collation of everything that was known. He ranges widely through arts and sciences; everything looks to God, and the gaps are haunting and the naivete charming or amusing at different times. As we now know, Arab savants also preserved and built upon the knowledge of the ancients, and two of the other texts I mention offer knowledge from their perspective, from mediaeval times. In our days, when we think we know so much, and with such certainty, I find it humbling and refreshing to see the sum total of knowledge, and the picture of the world from the viewpoint of an ancient Roman, a seventh century Spanish monk, or an Arab scientist. Perhaps far in the future, others will look back at our days and our learning and interpretations in a similar way…

Edward Bellamy: Looking Backward (my edition)

I’ve written about the weirdness of this edition here. I commend the utopian vision to you as an interesting and curious read: the idea of a socialist United States is a marvellous one, but still as far off as it was back in 1887.

A tour of my library – concluded

August 14, 2019

There are quite a few ‘oddments’ shelves and sections where the books that don’t fit tidily into a category, or are too large or small to have a space on the appropriate shelf, are ranged.

It’s hard to write about the oddments collectively because they are oddments, objects that have caught my fancy over the years and have been added to my collection. One particular curiosity is Adolf in Blunderland, a satire from the 1930s in the style of Alice in Wonderland, with illustrations after the manner of Tenniel, mocking the German leader and his cronies. I bought it donkey’s years ago when still at school, with my hard-earner pocket money, because the concept amused me so much…

I have a number of outsize books that won’t fit on the appropriate shelves. Several of these are atlases, as well as books about maps and the history of maps, a subject which fascinates me. The largest is a colossal tome, an atlas published just after the First World War, with beautiful maps of all the new countries that came into being as a result of that conflict. I got it for a song at a bookfair many years ago. Its size dwarfs even the large Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World… There’s also a reproduction of parts of Joan Blaeu’s Atlas Maior of the 1660s, which is absolutely wonderful, and which I can spend hours staring at, mentally comparing how people saw the world then and how they see it now. Obviously these books tie in with my interests in travel and travel writing, and are often open alongside as I read about other people’s journeys. I like to follow these journeys on a map, which is why I often bemoan poor or absent maps in travel writing.

Our collection of cookery books lives in the hall, which is about as close as they can get to the kitchen. I’m one of those people who hates following recipes, so cookery books serve as inspiration rather than as step-by-step guides, although I do pay more careful attention to bread recipes when I’m trying out something new in that line…

I love my library, although sometimes I do feel a little oppressed by the sheer size of it, and the realisation that I do need to do some serious culling and focus on those books I really treasure and am going to want to re-read. I cannot imagine living in a house without books, and on the very rare occasion I’ve found myself in one, I have felt distinctly uncomfortable…

A tour of my library – part four

August 12, 2019

The travel writing section is the largest new one in my library, growing over the last fifteen or twenty years as my interest in travel writing has developed. It’s not systematic: there are areas I have deliberately explored and others I ignore completely. Deserts and the ancient Silk Roads both fascinate me. So, there is much on the Near East, the Middle East and Central Asia, lots on Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, but little on Africa unless it’s the Sahara, and very little on the United States. The colder parts of the world don’t figure much, either. And, as I have explained in other, more detailed posts on travel writing, I have by and large tended to avoid recent writing because travel has become tourism, too easy relatively speaking: I like to read about exploration and travel where rather more effort and difficulty is involved. For this reason, I have collected a fair number of accounts of travel from several centuries ago, and also accounts by non-Westerners, for their different perspective on the world. I think my most interesting discovery was probably Ibn Battutah, a traveller from the Arab world who travelled in the early fourteenth century and far more widely than did Marco Polo

I’m gradually disposing of my reference section, which, to put it bluntly, has pretty much been made redundant by the internet: there will be an article, invariably reliable, well-referenced and usually with numerous links, in Wikipedia. My local library now offers me the OED online for nothing. I have one or two literature reference books, and quite a few atlases, and they will now suffice. Maps on the internet do not cut the mustard for me. I have the large Times Comprehensive Atlas which I love, and various historical atlases and collections of old maps. I did, however, recently splash out on Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies translated into English. He was a seventh century encyclopaedist who put together and wrote down everything that was known in his time, and is now rightly the patron saint of the internet. It is fascinating to contemplate how others viewed the world and interpreted it in the past, and to realise that at some future date, our world-view may seem just as quaint to our successors.

Some readers of this blog will also know of my love of JS Bach’s music, and there is a small section of the library consisting of biographies, guides to his world and the places he lived and worked, and some reference books which I use when listening to his church cantatas. The most useful of these was the first book I ever acquired from Amazon in the days before it became the behemoth I now strive to avoid Melvyn Unger’s Handbook to Bach’s Sacred Cantata Texts. It contains texts of all the cantatas, in German, word-for-word translated and then a proper English version, set out in the manner of a classics ‘crib’ from many years ago. It also has all the relevant biblical readings to go with the texts, so that everything I need as I listen is on a single page.

There’s a sizeable religion and theology section, with bibles and other church service books, books on the history of religion, Christianity and Islam, which I have developed an interest in over the years; this joins up with my fascination with travel in those parts of the world. There’s also a reasonable number of books on Quakerism. The oddest book in the collection is probably a fine copy of the Liber Usualis which I acquired secondhand for a song when I was a student in Liverpool, and recently discovered was worth quite a lot. It’s basically a monastic service book with music, for the masses of every day of the church year; the music is four-stave plainchant, and the rubrics are all in church Latin too.

A tour of my library…

August 8, 2019

In previous summers, I’ve done something different in a series of posts; this year I have decided to take those of you who are interested on a tour of my library. This has been growing since I first acquired copies of The Wind in The Willows and Winnie the Pooh (which I still possess) when I was about six years old. It’s gone through a couple of incarnations, swelling enormously when I was an undergraduate and then shrinking again when I divested myself of an awful lot of books, and doing that again when I did my postgrad research. Since then it has grown gradually, reaching a peak of about two and a half thousand books; in recent years I have been trying to get to down to manageable size (!) and it’s now below the two-thousand mark…

The idea for these posts was sparked by a recent visit to Belsay Hall, a stately home in Northumberland, which has a Brideshead kind of history, as, after being commandeered for use during the Second World War and fairly comprehensively wrecked, it was given to English Heritage on condition that it wasn’t restored to its former glory, but that the shell be preserved to showcase its inner and outer architecture and design. So the library is a vast, empty room, with ranks of empty bookshelves lining its walls, and I found myself thinking, “My library could fill these shelves…”

Given that we live in a modest semi, my library is distributed around the house. There are books in the sitting room, in the hall, and in my study, as well as in crates and boxes in the loft. And there is also my other half’s library, and the books we share.

I do possess an (imperfect and incomplete) catalogue of my library. Some forty-five years ago I acquired a large bound daybook – the kind of thing financial transactions used to be logged in, in pre-computer days – and decided to use this to list all my books. Every one has an accession number, and I log the author, title, date I acquired the book, and whether it is new or second-hand. I’m approaching number 4000 in terms of accessions, so there have clearly been a lot of deletions, too; these are denoted by a pencil line through the details of any book I’ve disposed of, so there is actually a record of all the books I have ever owned, pretty much.

At some point in my early days of computer ownership I tried to teach myself how to use databases and failed abysmally, instead setting up a quite detailed and searchable spreadsheet of my library, from which titles are actually deleted when they leave my possession. A slimmed-down version of this is now on my phone with the aim of stopping me buying books twice over when I’m browsing second-hand bookshops… which does happen with increasing regularity.

The daybook which contains my hard copy also contains my reading log, which dates back to 1973, when I became an undergraduate. I log the author and title of every book I read, and the date on which I finish reading it; I also log the date in pencil on the final blank page of the actual book. So I do have some track of what I’ve read and when; a friend pointed out to me that if the reading log were put on a spreadsheet, all sorts of interesting information might be sorted and extracted: I can’t face the effort…

Anticipation: prequels and sequels…

July 24, 2019

I don’t often find myself eagerly awaiting the publication of a new novel, but this year is different. My last post, about Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad, is about one of three novels I’ve been eagerly awaiting this year; the other two – still to come – are Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments coming in September, and Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth, which is due to be published in October. When I realised that all three of these books were either prequels or sequels, that got me thinking more deeply.

81R94tAIV2L._AC_UY218_QL90_      91hoRkijvXL._AC_UY218_QL90_    Sometimes writers set out with the deliberate intention of writing a series of novels; more often, they don’t, and are perhaps moved by commercial pressure to write a follow-on to a best-seller. Philip Pullman set out with the aim of writing a trilogy with His Dark Materials, but then along came the idea for the second trilogy, The Book of Dust. The first volume of this, La Belle Sauvage, is a prequel of sorts as it deals with the adventures of Lyra when she is a baby; the next volume (The Secret Commonwealth) which I’m eagerly awaiting, takes us ten years beyond the ending of the first trilogy, so Pullman is going forward in time, too. I have not yet heard anything about the third volume, and I’m also aware that Pullman has done nothing with the characters from our world, in his second trilogy. With the science fiction element of the parallel universe, clearly Pullman gave himself a lot of scope for developing his ideas in different directions, if he wanted to.

918hxxj0DOL._AC_UY218_QL90_    71y9LsU0HVL._AC_UY218_QL90_   Margaret Atwood’s feminist dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale also has science fiction elements, but it had seemed a one-off, completed story until recently. Offred’s personal story came to an ending which was open in a way, but the novel was then concluded with a chapter entitled Historical Notes, which looked two centuries into the future, after the collapse of the Republic of Gilead. The recent television series, based on the book and with the author’s approval, seem to have changed the game somewhat. I can’t comment on the TV series as I haven’t watched it and don’t intend to, but I am very interested to see how Atwood will pick up the strands of the original story which she laid down some thirty years ago, and where she will go with it in the new novel.

61LxMjuBImL._AC_UY218_QL90_    81OFxzyHYsL._AC_UL436_  Vasily Grossman’s novels are a rather different kettle of fish, for a number of reasons. Life and Fate, a complete novel in itself – or so we thought – was smuggled out of the Soviet Union and published in the West some thirty years ago. It took a long time and a BBC Radio adaptation for people to wake up and realise that they were reading a true classic and worthy successor to Tolstoy’s War and Peace. What was almost unknown was that Grossman had written what is actually a precursor to the story in Life and Fate, and had various censored and bowdlerised versions published in the Soviet Union in the 1950s, as a novel called For the Good of the Cause, and it’s this novel which has been carefully reconstructed from nearly a dozen different versions by Robert Chandler, and published recently under the title Stalingrad. So in a sense we actually have a single story which develops through two lengthy volumes, using the same events and characters: the ‘prequel’ always existed as a part of the whole, and it was the byzantine censorship policies of Soviet times which concealed this from us western readers, it seems.

When you’ve known a particular novel for a long time, read and re-read it and appreciated it for all sorts of different reasons, it’s a challenge when something comes along which adds to or develops it; it may not fit in with the version of the novel which, over time, we have made ours. So, I enjoyed Stalingrad but don’t feel that it made anywhere near as powerful an impression on me as Life and Fate did, and this is perhaps not surprising. Equally, although I avidly awaited and eagerly devoured La Belle Sauvage and it was very good, I found it nowhere near as powerful as Pullman’s original trilogy.

On long novels

July 7, 2019

81OFxzyHYsL._AC_UL436_.jpg  I’ve finally made the plunge and picked up this doorstop of a Russian novel, the prequel to Life and Fate, which I’ve often raved about, and I’ve found myself thinking about long novels.

Russian literature immediately springs to mind: Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Kerenina. And most of Dostoyevsky’s novels, too. In the twentieth century there is Anatoly Rybakov’s Arbat Trilogy, each book of which is a weighty tome, the already mentioned Vassily Grossman, and some of Solzhenitsyn’s works are pretty hefty too. What is it about Russians and their novels: is it something as simple as the long, cold and dark winters meaning there was plenty of time for reading, or is it the inward-looking Russian soul? The vastness of the country being reflected in the length of its fiction? All of these seem incredibly trite and simplistic notions.

Dickens wrote by the yard in nineteenth century England, but I can’t be doing with him, so will refrain from any comment. But there are lengthy novels which I have read and enjoyed, such as George Eliot’s Middlemarch, and Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. The latter is a hearty picaresque romp, not exactly structured or realistic, but Eliot’s novel does succeed in portraying a vast cross-section of English society in the 1820s and 1830s in a fairly realistic and representative manner, combining fascinating characters with a breadth of social detail and comment; it wouldn’t have worked as a shorter book.

Anthony Powell attempts a sweeping canvas of a certain slice of British society in the early and mid-twentieth century in his twelve-volume series A Dance to the Music of Time, and I have promised myself I will return to this, although I suspect it may be a rerun of the TV adaptation instead…

And then there is James Joyce’s Ulysses, which I would like to go back to again. It’s hard work, and worthwhile, taking so much space to cover only a single day in the life of his characters, and presenting a kaleidoscope of different settings in a wide variety of different literary styles and forms.

When I turn my gaze to Europe, I’m aware of fewer long novels. There was Ernst Wiechert’s The Jeromin Children, a family epic covering several decades of life in former East Prussia. I have a copy of Manzoni’s The Betrothed awaiting eyeball time. And Jonathan Littell’s astonishing The Kindly Ones (English title of Les Bienveillantes, a novel that the American writer originally wrote in French, which is a remarkable achievement in itself, also awaits a re-visit.

In American literature, I suppose there’s obviously Moby Dick, which I had to read at university but which I’ve never been able to convince myself to open again, and more recently many of the novels of Thomas Pynchon, which again I have resisted re-reading, although I have enjoyed some of them immensely.

Long novels have the intention of portraying a wide panorama of a society, often over a lengthy period of time, in an attempt to capture the deeper essence of a country or an era; a writer needs all those pages to do justice to her/his subject matter, to draw in the reader and immerse them in a different world. Almost invariably the effort is rewarding, but at the same time it is quite daunting: you need to feel that you have the time to commit to get to the end, otherwise what will be the point? You have to wrestle with a huge number of characters: editors of Russian novels are often helpful in providing the reader with an index of the characters and their relationships with each other, along with all the possible variants on their names. Plot can fade into the background a little, and if story is what grabs you, well you may be disappointed. But I’ll mention here a revelation: The Cairo Trilogy, by Nobel prizewinner Naguib Mahfouz: yes, technically it’s three (500 page) novels rather than a single one, but after I’d got to the end, having been blown away by the world he depicted, I came away with a much clearer picture of Arab and Muslim society, how the people lived and what they believed, their hopes and fears, than I had ever imagined I would gain. That doorstop was worth every page, and I do hope to have time for another re-read…

On not reading fiction…

July 6, 2019

I think I posted on this topic a while back; I’m still not reading very much fiction at all, though I have been re-reading some science fiction, but that doesn’t count, really – what I’m referring to is that I’m not discovering any new fiction, because I don’t really seem to want to…

There was research published not so long ago that suggested that men are less likely to read fiction, and I’m coming across more evidence that this seems to be the case; casual evidence, if you like, rather than research: of the literature-related blogs that I follow regularly, those by men tend to write about non-fiction, those by women write about fiction.

Someone (who – Umberto Eco?) once said that the person who reads novels lives 5000 lives whereas the person who doesn’t, only lives one. That has left me thinking that I’ve participated in thousands of lives in my time, and now that I’m increasingly aware that my time is limited, perhaps I’m concentrating on living my one and only life? But that just feels like a cheap crack, a throw-away response to the issue.

If I look at my ‘pending’ shelf, there’s quite a bit of fiction there, waiting for my attention. What actually happens quite often is that I will finish a book, and head to the pending piles for the next one, and find myself totally unable to decide on what to tackle next.

There are a decent number of novels waiting for me to choose from, and yet although at the time I bought them, they called to me, they now no longer do, and I can’t really figure out what is going on. I look to books I want to re-read, as a kind of comfort read, rather than having the courage to embark on something new, a challenge. Often I will wander off, defeated, and take refuge in a magazine or a crossword.

Does anyone else out there have this kind of problem?

On my newspaper collection

May 29, 2019

I have collected newspapers since I was a child. I don’t know where the fascination came from, but I think my early exposure to foreign languages developed it. I loved to look at the different mastheads, comparing what information they showed, the colours they used, how modern or antiquated they looked. Friends and relatives found the idea just a little cracked, I think, but they humoured me, often bringing a paper back from their travels; teachers at school did the same.

Different countries and languages did things differently; there were newspapers that completely eschewed photographs – Le Monde until the 1970s being one of them – or carried advertisements on the front page instead of news – The Times did this until the mid 1960s. When we travelled to Poland for the first time in 1970, I was astonished by the newspapers of Eastern Europe. Most of them only had four very flimsy pages, with absolutely no advertising. They were all published by the central committee of the national or local communist party or equivalent, and almost all carried the slogan “Workers of the World, Unite!” in their respective languages as part of the masthead. I still find the notion of newspapers and magazines without advertising very attractive today, although they exist almost nowhere, now.

I gradually became more fascinated by two things: newspapers in different languages and different scripts than the Roman alphabet, and newspapers from the past. When I was a teacher, my students were always ready to bring back a paper from their travels or holidays. It took me a long time to get a school student to bring me back a newspaper in Maltese, which is the only Arabic language that uses the Roman alphabet, and I’m still hoping to get to know someone heading to Mongolia, for I’d love a newspaper in that script… Some of the alphabets and scripts from the Far East are absolutely beautiful. Of course, I can understand very few of the languages, but it’s amazing how much logic, photographs and knowledge of what a newspaper is for, will allow one to deduce. My copy of Al Ahram (from Cairo) came in very useful when we were studying poems from other culture and traditions, as part of GCSE English – it was a graphic prop to show the class how the language and news of another culture could be completely inaccessible to us Westerners, and brought a sense of perspective, reminding us that there were other worlds and cultures out there, which were not ours.

As time passed I became increasingly fascinated by newspapers from the past, how different they were, and how they presented events with immediacy, unlike reading about those events in a history book. I had a phase of scouring derelict buildings for old newspapers, and was once lucky enough to come across a huge pile of them from 1939, before and after the outbreak of war, in a shop that was being refitted: no doubt the builders thought I was crackers but they happily gave me them…

Equally I realised that newspapers recording major events were worth keeping – all those reporting the first moon landing, various royal weddings and deaths, 9/11 and the like. Also I kept first and last editions of various newspapers as they appeared in and disappeared from circulation.

So, I’ve indulged an oddball hobby for most of my life, and have several crates of newspapers of some value in the attic, though whether I can ever bear to part with them is another matter. Printed newspapers are slowly dying out in the internet age; even I no longer buy them in order to keep up with the news. I toyed with the idea of journalism as a career possibility, having worked on the students’ union newspaper at university, but ultimately decided against it as a less safe one than teaching, and I cannot say that I regret my decision.

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.

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