How to put young people off English A level: make them miserable.

It’s hard to remember amidst the NoDealBrexitShambles and the car crash that is the Conservative Party that there have been other news items in recent weeks.

But I’m jolly well going to try. Because one story that caught my eye is the reported 13% decline in the number of students choosing to study English Language and Literature at A level. Wh-a-a-a-t? English, the most popular (and therefore hardest to gain a place for) arts subject to study at university? What’s going on?

Well, according to several prominent writers and teachers, it’s all down to Michael Gove. His reformed English GCSEs have taken all the joy out of the subject, thereby deterring young people from continuing it in the Sixth Form.

downloadThe Power and Beauty in Words

That is quite a claim. It ignores other factors at play, most importantly the government’s push for more students to study STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects; any promotion of one subject has to be at the expense of another. That’s the price we pay in the UK for not following the Baccalaureate model. Still, the message is that English GCSEs aren’t as fun as they used to be. As an assistant headteacher put it, in the Guardian article referred to above: ‘GCSE English language is sucking the joy out of the study of how we communicate: the power and beauty in words.’

Now, my memory of English Language O level (antediluvian that I am) is that power and beauty played no part in it at all, except in the creative writing question (which also exists in today’s GCSE, so no change there). The rest of the exam was made up of a multiple-choice Comprehension and a tedious, difficult passage to Precis. Not a lot of fun. But presumably the point of an English Language qualification is not to test a student’s literary appreciation, but their ability to understand and use language in different ways;  Death of a Salesmanlooking at the 2 papers (Explorations in Creative Reading and Writing and Writers’ Viewpoints and Perspectives) that make up the current GCSE, I’d say they do just that, demonstrating the power and sometimes the beauty of words far better than in my day.

FrankensteinMisery Literature

Perhaps it’s GCSE English Literature that’s the problem? If so, I have news for the Gove critics: the rot set in long before his day, in fact, a good 20 years ago, when cramming the syllabus with misery literature became all the rage. The message could not have been clearer: reading books will make you miserable. Forced to study Death of a Salesman aged 12 and again later at GCSE, together with Heart of DarknessFrankenstein and Things Fall Apart, my youngest son had no desire to continue with English at A level. (He was at least spared The Mayor of Casterbridge and Of Mice and Men  which his sisters endured.)Heart of Darkness

Yes of course these are all great works. But how can an unrelenting diet of bleakness, failure, humiliation, cruelty, loss, loneliness and despair encourage anyone to feel that reading is fun? Throwing in the odd classic that has happy, lighter moments as well as sad ones – Jane EyreA Christmas CarolPride and Prejudice – would that have hurt so much? I can’t trace the pre 2017 list of texts now but am delighted to see all these given as options in the new GCSE, as well as the other books above.Pride and Prejudice

So if my son’s experience is anything to go by, the new English Literature GCSE looks more, not less, inviting.

Tick-box Marking

But there’s more to it than that. According to writer and poet Professor Michael Rosen the new exam is more “mechanical” and less creative: ‘The student’s own response is not seen as relevant.’ Again, I’ve looked at the papers and seen no evidence of this but that doesn’t mean to say it isn’t there, because this is a question of ‘tick-box’ marking, where examiners expect certain points to be made and not others.

And that problem, too, goes back at least a couple of decades, perhaps to the birth of GCSEs themselves in the 1980s. Given a poem to comment on for homework, my sons as teenagers both reacted in the same way: ‘What’s the point? Everything they want you to write is boring and obvious and if you think of something different to say, you lose marks.’

Which is why Professor Rosen and others seem to me to be going for the wrong target. If we really want English literature to fire young people’s imaginations – at GCSE and A Level – it’s not the new exams that need to be tackled, but the inflexible marking scheme.

Then the power and beauty of words might at last have a chance to speak.

(Adapted from an article first published on Authors Electric Blog)

 

 

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Jacob Rees-Mogg: he’s GOT a little list, whether he likes it or not.

Casting around for what to write about as we begin the Silly Season, my mind turns to the irritating grammatical errors indulged in by People What Ought To Know Better….and lo, that great Jim Lloyd* of politics, Jacob Rees-Mogg, has beaten me to it.

Rees mogg list

Jacob Rees-Mogg: like Ko-Ko in Gilbert and Sullivan’s
Mikado, he’s got a little list, he’s got a little list…

I’m not going to spell out the whole of the Mogg’s Little List, as in The Times on Saturday 27 July, but it did strike me as an odd collection of:

  1. Genuine grammatical mistakes
  2. An obsession with how to address an MP (4 rules apply to this alone)
  3. A personal dislike of well-established English words that go back – not just to Gilbert and Sullivan (see caption above) – but to Chaucer and beyond (got)
  4. A refusal to modernise beyond 1971 (Use imperial measurements).
baking-eggs-flour-46170

…and it’s the wooden spoon for anyone refusing to use imperial measurements.

To be fair, it’s not all bonkers. Some of the banned words and phrases make an ugly bunch of clichés: ongoingmeet withyourself (or presumably any kind of self used instead of the personal pronoun) and no longer fit for purpose. To that list I’d add I’ll take no lessons from the honourable gentleman/lady on x, which makes me want to hurl the radio across the room every time I hear it.

But some of the others… Er, what’s wrong with equal? Everything, probably. Not, perhaps, a word that has much currency in the world of Jacob Rees-Mogg, Esq., MP.

Finally, a grouse in which the Mogg is justified, if you take the view that language should never be allowed to evolve at all. (A thorny issue; many clunking grammatical errors take refuge under the overall ‘language is a living organism’ blanket. To my friend and I, for instance, is now so universal that anyone replacing the I with me is looked down on.) So to that much sneered-upon use of hopefully in the sense of it is to be hoped that (as opposed to doing something in a hopeful way) – banned, naturally, by Rees-Mogg.

440px-Portrait_of_Geoffrey_Chaucer_(4671380)_(cropped)_02

Tsk, back to school, Geoffrey Chaucer;  
your use of language fails the Rees-Mogg test.

But I think he’s missing a trick. Words can change in meaning, or gain new ones, if the need is there. Instead of saying, ‘I’ll pass my exams, at least I hope I do, and get a job,’ you can shorten that to ‘I’ll pass my exams, hopefully, and get a job.’ Why not? In this sense, hopefully corresponds exactly to the German hoffentlich, and I have – sorry, I’ve got – no problem with that. Moreover, it’s etymologically interesting, as the meaning probably arises from American English’s German roots, just like dumb (dumm) and enough already (genug schon).

So enough already of Rees-Mogg’s bêtes noires of the English language, now for mine – oh look, he’s taken up this entire post and there’s no space left.

Typical politician.

 

The archers*A reference to BBC Radio 4’s long-running soap opera, The Archers. Jim Lloyd is an annoying character who excels in quoting Latin, badly, at every opportunity.

 

(From an article first published on Authors Electric Blog)

How to be a 21st Century Nahum Tate

Photo by M N on Unsplash

 National Theatre 
Photo by M N on Unsplash

Half-way through last month, Rufus Norris, director of the National Theatre, made an announcement that sent my heart into freefall (The Times, 14th June). No longer would the NT put on “fairly straight adaptations” of European classics, as it seemed these only appealed to ‘theatre aficionados’ (people who go to the theatre?). Instead, well-known plays would be remodelled to appeal to a ‘broad audience’ (ie the general public) who apparently have demanded that  Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, for instance, should morph into David Hare’s Peter Gynt, while Sheridan’s The Rivals be rewritten by Oliver Chris and Richard Bean as Jack Absolute Flies Again.Jack Absolute (This last ‘fresh’ interpretation is particularly confusing as Jack Absolute is a series of books written by Chris Humphries 2003 – 2006.)

Really? The general public has demanded this? How does Norris know?

An Improvisation of Sandwiches

 

One Man 2 GuvnorsIt all started with the huge success of One Man Two Guv’nors (2011), a new version of Goldoni’s Servant to Two Masters, created by Richard Bean. The 1746 farce had to be rewritten as no one found its quickfire humour funny anymore (actually, they do), and slowing the pace to a standstill to allow James Corden’s character to ‘improvise’ ad nauseam about sandwiches was apparently much funnier (it wasn’t).Goldoni

But the production proved a hit, encouraging the NT to ‘update’ other classics: turning Jim Hawkins, the hero of Treasure Island, into a girl, and creating a Christmas show called The Light Princess which grudgingly credited the Victorian fairy tale writer George MacDonald for the original idea while producing a different story altogether.

The LIght Princess

The Light Princess  – a fairy tale by George MacDonald

Gradually, over the last few years, new season’s brochures began to describe more and more plays as ‘a reimagining of’ (a warning light if ever there was one). Meanwhile wonderful, traditional productions of ‘unimproved’ plays like Hedda Gabler, She Stoops to Conquer, Man and Superman and several by Terence Rattigan gave reassurance that, while a few might be earmarked for ‘updating’, the classics in general were safe with the National Theatre.

 

Classics no longer safe at NT

Not anymore. From now on, we can’t be sure that, for any famous theatre piece put on at the NT, the words spoken are actually what the playwright wrote. Norris has effectively given the NT leave to update all plays, taking into account the sensibilities of our current age.

To be fair, he’s not alone in this: for its 2018 Christmas Show, The Royal Shakespeare Company put on A Christmas Carol, ‘adapted’ by David Edgar; and in his current production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Bridge Theatre, Nick Hytner has swapped Titania’s and Oberon’s lines, thereby making Oberon lovesick for Bottom the Weaver. Ye gods.

Nahum Tate’s excruciating King Lear

Ntate By anonymous engraving c 1685 -

Nahum Tate (anon engraving 1685)

 

The funny thing is, we’ve been here before. Nahum Tate, anyone? The 17th century poet and dramatist is now chiefly remembered for his excruciating ‘improvement’ of Shakespeare’s King Lear.

King Lear

The Real Thing

Deeming the tragedy too harsh, he rewrote it to provide a happy ending, with Lear restored to life and health and Cordelia marrying Edgar, who exults that ‘truth and virtue shall at last succeed.’ We laugh about it now; but because Tate’s The History of King Lear (1681) suited the sentimental mood that blighted drama for much of the following century, it chased Shakespeare’s play off the stage for – wait for it – over 150 years. Not until 1845 was King Lear performed again in its original Shakespeare text.

The History of King Lear

Nahum Tate ‘improves’ King Lear

 

By chopping and changing plays written generations ago to suit the sensibilities of our age, these directors and writers are doing nothing new. Whether they’ll wish to go down in theatre history as so many 21st century’s Nahum Tates is another matter.

 

Did The Tiger Who Came to Tea tear Judith Kerr’s world apart?

MogLast month, in all the uproar surrounding the European elections and the government reeling from crisis to crisis, something happened that put other news in the shade: Judith Kerr died. One of the greatest and most loved children’s authors ever, she was responsible for The Tiger Who Came to Tea, Mog the Forgetful Cat and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit – classics which will never go out of print because, well, who can imagine a world without them?

When Hitler stoleTo be able to write and illustrate as brilliantly as Kerr did is a rare gift. I can think of only a handful of other authors who are in her league: Erics Carle and Hill with The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Where’s Spot respectively; John Burningham, Jill Murphy, Raymond Briggs and Babette Cole with numerous books apiece; and of course, the master of animal delineation, characterisation and humour, Beatrix Potter.

TigerBut for me Judith Kerr stands out because in The Tiger Who Came to Tea, she created the Picture Book of Picture Books.  Tapping into what matters most to young children – warmth, safety, excitement, surprise and mystery – she makes every word and every picture count. Taking a child’s every day experience – there’s someone at the door, who can it be? – she transforms it into a thrilling, magical world in which the visitor can turn out to be a great big furry tiger who sits down and makes himself at home, enjoying all the tea and cake Sophie and her mother can offer. What child can resist that? Mine are in their thirties and even now, if the doorbell goes unexpectedly, my daughter launches straight into, ‘It can’t be the milkman, because he’s been already. And it can’t be Daddy, because he’s got his keys…’

There’s another, special, reason for why the book means so much to me. Too old for it when first published in 1968, I first spotted The Tiger Who Came to Tea in a bookshop when browsing for my own children – and felt I’d come home. Something in those charming, happy illustrations took me straight back to my childhood in 1960s Germany, in a way no other English picture book had ever done. I’d thought the two countries differed markedly in their style of book illustration; now in my hands lay delightful proof that I was wrong, that artistic traditions in the two nationalities could overlap after all. (Sadly I have no picture books to show you what I mean; but look at the eyes in the fine line drawing of Gulliver by the wonderful German illustrator, Horst Lemke, below, and tell me you can’t see a bit of Kerr’s tiger there.)

Gulliver

From Erich Kastner’s retelling of Gulliver’s Travels,
illustrated by Horst Lemke

Only years later did I discover that the solidly British-sounding Judith Kerr was German by birth, and spent the first 9 years of her life growing up in Germany before Hitler’s rise to power forced her family into exile. Terrible as her country under the Nazis was, there’s something both touching and life-affirming in the way that happy influences of Judith’s early German childhood – books, pictures, stories, games – helped to mould her artistic style as an adult, even while her nationality itself changed.

In recent years Judith Kerr pronounced herself much amused by the clever theory from Michael Rosen and others that the Tiger is a metaphor for the Gestapo; the Daily Mail recalled that ‘in a 2013 BBC documentary, he pointed out that “she was no stranger, to the knock on the door, the monster tearing her world apart.”’

Er, Michael Rosen, have you actually read the book? The tiger is no monster; he’s soft, furry and cuddly. These are not adjectives usually applied to the Gestapo. For this crackpot idea to stick, there’d have to be a sense of menace about the creature but instead he allows Sophie to stroke and hug him while munching his way through the biscuit cupboard. As the Daily Mail article confirms, ‘Judith’s patient answer …was always the same. The tiger was just a tiger. It was hungry, and it wanted its tea.’

Ride with me

Ride with Me Through ABC by Horst Lemke

Of course it was. Kerr is much too good an author to weigh down her enchanting book with such a crass message. Far more interesting is the secret contained in the pictures themselves, of how Kerr’s artistic style can’t help but reveal her roots in the happy German childhood she enjoyed before the Nazis’ brutal regime destroyed everything.

 

(From an article first published on Authors Electric blog)

 

How to Tame a (male) Shrew

download shrewWhen did you last see a production of The Taming of the Shrew? Not recently, I’ll bet. A comedy whose title alone always made it tricky to negotiate has arguably no place at all in today’s postfeminist world. If so, we are the poorer for it. Shakespeare is Shakespeare after all, and to consign any work of his to oblivion is a huge loss.

Which is why I’m delighted that the play forms part of the RSC’S current season and have lost no time in seeing it. Admiring the company’s courage in tackling something so politically incorrect, I wondered how they’d get round the problem.

short_eared_elephant_shrews_mouse_animal 2

Dear little thing

Easy: reverse the roles. Make Italy a collection of cities ruled by matriarchs, with Petruchia wooing Baptista’s sullen son Katherine (I guess Katherino just doesn’t work), while Grumia and Hortensia vie with each other over the hand of Katherine’s charming younger brother, Bianco. As an ironic take on the patriarchy, it works brilliantly. More, by seeing so many powerful women on stage with only a brace of men, the paucity of female parts in plays by Shakespeare – as with countless other dramatists – is brought home in a way that never struck me before. I mean, I knew the imbalance was bad… but not that bad. The acting was extremely good, with much hilarity generated by this Vice Versa scheme, particularly in the case of the delicate, long-haired, pampered Bianco being fought over by his two lusty female suitors. The blatant sexism of the set up didn’t matter a bit anymore because, well, the boot was on the other foot, wasn’t it?

And yet.

Film bookI’ve always had a soft spot for The Taming of the Shrew. Some decades ago (ha, I’m not saying how many), I found myself on a school outing to the Young Vic, where I fell head over heels for Jim Dale’s mischievous Petruchio. The energy, wit and sheer magic of the play blew me away; I had no idea Shakespeare could be this much fun. Yes, Petruchio behaved abominably, but his sparring with Jane Lapotaire’s Katherine generated a chemistry that brought them together in what, at the time, felt a perfectly possible meeting of minds. The text doesn’t explicitly set Katherine up as an equal – in fact, her last speech does anything but – yet the clues are there. From the start she is the only character able to match Petruchio’s wit, giving back killer line for killer line as he tries – and fails – to trip her up. Hers is a much cleverer and more interesting personality than that of her insipid sister, Bianca, and if all Shakespeare was concerned about was keeping women in their place, why would he have bothered with Katherine’s character at all?

T of SAnd this is where the current Stratford production misses the point. So important is the idea that the male Katherine suffer total submission to the female Petruchia, as a faithful reversal of the supposed norm, that Katherine is never allowed to take Petruchia on in any way. No banter. No surface compliance while clearly running rings round her tyrannical wife. No mischievous spark in his eye that shows that he, too, can play the game; heavens, the poor chap is never allowed to raise his eyes from the ground in the whole play. Any hope of creating a genuine understanding between the two, let alone affection, is lost. At the end, Petruchia has achieved the enormous prize of an abject, characterless slave to do her bidding, not a desirable, feisty husband who is her intellectual equal. Chemistry? About as much as between a rattle snake and a, erm, shrew.

Still, it’s an original idea and a rollicking production and something had to be done to keep The Taming of the Shrew alive. Go and judge for yourself. You have till the end of August in Stratford, then it’s on tour, plus a live cinema broadcast on 5 June.

 

(From an article first published on Authors Electric Blog.)

Something for children to get their teeth into: World Book Week 2019

5803022F-E37C-41CF-922E-3D9A679688ECI’m always delighted to visit schools, whether or not it’s World Book Week (which it just has been, in March). Taking a group of 9 – 13 year-olds on an illustrated tour through Dante, Greek mythology and the First World War (Ante’s Inferno) or Doctor Faustus, demons and Elizabethan Magic (The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst), and seeing their eyes light up at the richness, complexity and sheer power of stories is hugely inspiring for a writer. But one of my school visits this year took a different form, one that gave me more than the usual butterflies as I wrote the date in my diary. Not just butterflies, in fact. Trepidation.B1BA6FB4-9FC8-40A5-9541-67A315DC616E

Stretham Primary is a lovely village school in a not particularly well-heeled part of Cambridgeshire, in which quite a number of children qualify for pupil premium. I’ve visited a couple of times before and been bowled over by the warmth of my reception and the eagerness with which the 9 – 11 year-olds lap up facts about Dante Alighieri, Christopher Marlowe, Elizabethan natural philosophy and the Faustian pact. It never ceases to sadden me how the book world generally underestimates young people, considering all these themes far too adult for them to understand. From my experience at Stretham, not only do children have no problem grasping them, they are also excited by stories that give them something to get their teeth into.5798B2EE-E72A-4CC2-A2DA-1507C388A9DF

So why the trepidation?

Well…. this time, the children were doing something for me.

As a writer you hope you’re on the right track, that what grabs you will grab your intended audience: but there’s nothing like being able to put this to the test. I needed to try out my latest work in progress, and ten 11 year-olds had bravely volunteered to read The Fall of a Sparrow and tell me what they thought. At 50,000 words this was quite a commitment. And scary for me… what if none of them got beyond the first chapter, the first PAGE?

Shortly before the day of the visit, I received a package in the post. Feedback …eek.

Taking a deep breath, I went through all the painstakingly written comments – and breathed out again.

07F08712-8B97-4318-8E31-2763BF32907FThe children had enjoyed the story. They got the characters, the situation, they felt with Eleanor – the heroine – in her predicament, as she delved deeper and deeper into family history, uncovering a tragedy that had never been confronted before. If some of the readers felt that occasionally, too much description held up things, they still all wanted to keep turning the pages, all the way to the end. And now they couldn’t wait for my visit so they could pepper me with questions – about the characters, the ideas, what it’s really like being at a boarding school (since that’s where the story is set) and most of all, how soon will The Fall of the Sparrow be published so they could ALL read it?

Ah, now that really is the question….

How to drive your audience crazy

Screenshot Art

Exhibit A: exquisite torment (the programme, not the play).

I am not a great user of Facebook.  If I post something and it gets a handful of likes and the odd comment, I’m doing well. So I was all the more surprised recently when something I put up sparked a whole host of likes, comments and discussion from a wide range of people, for whom I’d clearly touched a nerve.

What can it have been been – political?  No no, stay clear of all such, say I. The dreaded B word? As if. Enough misery about that as it is.

 

damien-petit-529866-unsplash

Stygian gloom of modern restaurants (Photo by Damien Petit on Unsplash

No. All I did was upload an example of a blight that has been seeping gradually into the printed world for the past few years, until now it affects every play, opera, concert and musical programme, magazine, brochure, exhibition text, restaurant menu and just about everything printed you can think of. Even websites aren’t immune. It is a kind of exquisite torment dreamt up by designers to tempt you with what looks like an interesting, important piece of writing – only to make it impossible for you to read it. Pale grey text on off-white paper. Small chunks of green writing set by themselves – presumably to highlight their meaning – in yellow background boxes. Items on menus printed in such tiny point sizes, diners need a pocket magnifying glass if they aren’t to go hungry (not helped by the fashion for restaurants to plunge their customers in Stygian gloom so no one can see the menu anyway). As a way to drive your audience crazy, it can’t be beaten.

 

ART

Art by Yasmina Reza at the Oxford Playhouse

Look, I know my Great Age is part of the problem. The majority of designers and editors, presumably under 40, are blithely unaware that lavender type on mauve paper is illegible for Oldies Like Me. But a heck of a lot of Oldies Like Me go to the theatre, restaurants and art exhibitions, and I can’t help feeling that if the directors of these have gone to all the trouble to commission articles from distinguished writers and experts, why wouldn’t they want a large proportion – who knows, perhaps even the majority – of their clientele to read them? What, for goodness sake, is wrong with black and white?

So back to exhibit A, above. I had never seen Yasmina Reza’s brilliantly witty, poignant play about the balance of power in longterm friendships, until it came to Oxford Playhouse last month. Intrigued, I badly wanted to read the interview with the playwright in the programme and was faced with not only pale type on pale paper but, ye gods, splashes of paint daubed across the text (a, you know, clever reference to the play’s title, Art). OK, so I managed eventually, the next day, with the aid of bright sunshine, but it was a slow process. Whereas if it had been black on white, like the article I’m writing here, I’d have skipped through it like a young fawn.

 

adorable animal animal photography animal portrait

Skipping through black and white print like…er… one of these.    Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Perhaps I should start a Campaign for Printing in Black and White, snappily known as CAMPBAW.

I could be on to something, you know.

 

 

 

 

(Adapted from an article originally published on Authors Electric Blog.)