O Times! O Custom of the Country!

Here’s a newspaper headline that caught my eye: ‘TV’s next Downton will be the American novel that inspired it.’ (The Times, 14th May 2020)

Any guesses?

The Custom of the Country

Intrigued, I read on to discover the novel in question is The Custom of the Country by one of my favourite authors, Edith Wharton. Now, this is a great book, but I would never in a million years have related its theme of unscrupulous social climbing to the golden atmosphere of benign overlordship that suffuses Downton Abbey. (Which isn’t meant to criticise Downton Abbey – I’ve basked in the cosy escapism provided by all 6 series.) Here, in all the plotlines featuring good or bad behaviour, whether among the upper or the servant classes, I can’t remember a single one in which a ruthless, ambitious, hard as nails nobody sets out to topple the ancient social order and succeeds.

Highclere Castle (aka Downton Abbey).

There are a couple of devious valets, one Irish nationalist chauffeur, some brave leftwing newspaper hacks and lots of scullery maids striving to better themselves, but not one of these ousts the kindly Lord Grantham from his place at the top of the hierarchy, nor would wish to.

Ambition, greed and desire

By contrast, Edith Wharton’s heroine, the gloriously named Undine Spragg, uses her beauty to carve her way to the top of American society, trashing ‘old’ aristocracy in New York and Europe alike, unfazed by the real human suffering she leaves in her wake. This is so opposite to the atmosphere and values of Downton Abbey that it’s hard to see how the one could arise from the other; yet here is Julian Fellowes speaking in 2013:

‘Undine has no values except ambition, greed and desire, and yet through the miracle of Wharton’s writing, you are on her side…. I want Downton to be a warm show and I hope I am kind to them in their weakness… I do feel it is a lesson I have learnt directly from the writing of Edith Wharton.’

An antiheroine in the tradition of Becky Sharp

This is splendid of Fellowes and also fascinating. Wharton’s writing is indeed miraculous, but I’m not sure it puts you on Undine’s side, any more than reading Vanity Fair makes you root unequivocally for the heartless Becky Sharp. Undine and Becky are both antiheroines, brilliantly drawn, sent by their creators as missiles to wreak havoc on traditional society, destroying good and bad aspects of it alike without a single moral qualm. Fellowes’s characters, by contrast, have their faults; but Downton Abbey’s great appeal lies in the unstated assurance of all romantic fiction, that everything will work out all right. The characters we get to know and love will all end up happy and fulfilled and – this is the crucial bit – will deserve to.

To redeem or not to redeem

Since The Custom of the Country is no more a romance than Vanity Fair, I’m not sure Fellowes’s endorsement will help Sofia Coppola in her task of adapting it for television. Audiences expecting a similar feelgood story to Downton Abbey will be disappointed. Several previous attempts in the last 30 years to turn the book into film have foundered and I can’t help wondering if this is to do with the difficulty of catering to this kind of audience expectation.

Beautiful, scheming, ice-cold survivor Undine Spragg will be a fabulous role to play and if Coppola’s screenplay stays faithful to the spirit of Edith Wharton, this could be a terrific film. Yet I fear she may feel pressurised to go down the same road as every adaptor of Thackeray’s masterpiece has done, and ultimately ‘redeem’ Undine, just as Becky Sharp is always ‘redeemed’ at the end of films of Vanity Fair.

We shall see. I hope not. But I’m not holding my breath.


(From an article originally published on Authors Electric)

Ipads and self-isolation: How did E M Forster know?

A Room with a ViewI never had E M Forster down as a reliable predictor of future inventions. He is remembered chiefly for novels in which nicely brought up English girls rebel against the class system that confines them, taking charge of their own lives and often causing havoc on the way.  When set against gorgeous backgrounds such as Tuscany, these stories make for ravishing films, most notably Merchant Ivory’s A Room With a View.


        Florence: a ravishing setting for a film        Photo by Maegan White from Pexels




But recently, as lockdown has forced us all into new patterns of (in)activity, each stuck inside our own Unit of Habitable Accommodation (I found this phrase once in a surveyor’s report and find it irresistible), my mind has kept going back to one of Forster’s short stories I read as a teenager, decades ago.

The Machine stopsThe Machine Stops

The Machine Stops is – as far as I know – Forster’s only venture into science fiction (happy to be proved wrong, let me know, dear reader). As such I wouldn’t expect it to be particularly prescient – Forster was generally more interested in going back in time in his stories, or rather sideways, into various kinds of neo-pagan fantasy worlds. But his imagining of a future where technology has advanced to such an extent that the natural world is no longer necessary, and where each person lives in their own single chamber underground, all their needs catered for by a central machine, and avoiding contact with other people, has some recognisable elements in it. Especially when you read that people communicate with each other across the world through a round plate they hold in their hands, that glows with ‘a faint, blue light’, and busy themselves with delivering 10 – minute lectures from the comfort of their chair, on subjects like ‘The Brisbane School of Art’ and ‘The Sea’.

greyscale photography of car engine

Photo by Mike on Pexels.com


These lectures can be heard and seen by anyone who wants to tune in, from the comfort of their own private cell, anywhere in the world. People have lost all muscular strength (no need for it) and despite having nothing to do, have no time for each other; they can – and frequently do – ‘self-isolate’ at the flick of a switch.  Concentration spans are no longer than 5 minutes and – almost laughably spooky – we’re told in an aside that the main character, Vashti, knows several thousand people.1984

Long before Brave New World

I don’t think I particularly rated The Machine Stops when I read it all those years ago. As a futuristic dystopia designed to make you think about the dangers of too much technology, it has nothing like the complexity of Brave New World or Nineteen Eighty Four. But now, looking at it again, I’m staggered. Ipads, internet, online learning, self-isolation, even the explosion in ‘friends’ created by social media… how did Forster KNOW? Even more extraordinary when you take into account that this story appeared as long ago as 1909, a whole 23 years before Brave New World.Brave new World

Impressive, eh.


(From an article first published on Authors Electric)

Let your heroines eat cake.

‘A very famous editor once said to me: “Barry, tell them what they eat.”’

pizza on brown wooden board

                        Food matters to children.                                 (Photo by Brett Jordan on Pexels.com)

This is one of the delightful pieces of advice given by Barry Cunningham on writing for children. He doesn’t say who the famous editor is – Kaye Webb? – but I love this nugget for its apparent triviality, actually giving an extremely important message.

Picnics, Parties and Midnight Feasts

Food matters to children. It’s a big part of their everyday lives and if you want them to get lost in your story, better make sure you don’t let the action go on too long without feeding your characters. Yes, you can have scene breaks, but every now and then your readers will want to know what your hungry hero will be having for supper; even more so, if supper happens to be a fabulous party, or a midnight feast planned in the dorm.Malory towers Enid Blyton totally got this: remember all those picnics enjoyed by the Famous Five, or the illicit night time snacks shared by boarding school girls in Malory Towers?

Bunbreak and Vicarious Scoffing

More recently J K Rowling began and ended many of the Harry Potter books with lavish feasts in which everyone ate their favourite dishes; and one of the brilliant downloaddetails Robin Stevens puts into her Murder Most Unladylike series is the crucial part Bunbreak plays in the lives of her characters, in which the total absence of buns is irrelevant; it’s the different biscuits offered, depending on the day, that matters.

The Lion the Witch and the WardrobeMuch as I’ve enjoyed all the vicarious scoffing kindly supplied by the authors above, for me one children’s author towers above all the rest: C S Lewis. His evocation of the sheer sensuous pleasure of food – the smell, touch, taste, texture – is enough to both whet the appetite and satisfy it at the same time. I challenge anyone reading the Narnia boThe Last Battleoks not to want to dive into the ‘very sweet and foamy and creamy’ hot drink the White Witch gives Edmund in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, or slake their thirst with the delectable fruit that refreshes the exhausted heroes at the end of The Last Battle (my inspiration for the feast in Elysium that Ante and her companions tuck into in Ante’s Inferno, as I wrote about here).



Not Just Children

So I’m absolutely with Barry Cunningham in this, except I’d say he doesn’t go far enough. It’s not just children whose mouths will water at descriptions of glorious nosh; it works for adults too. No one knew this better than Charles Dickens, whose books abound in depictions of food so tempting the reader can practically taste the ‘red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam.’ (A Christmas Carol). There’s a joyfulness in these lines, a delight in the simple pleasure of good things to eat, that makes the reader feel all’s well with the world. You know that at some point in the story, the characters will sit down and partake of all these yummy things.

baskets of oranges and apples

‘Cherry-cheeked apples and juicy oranges’ as in A Christmas Carol.  (Photo by Kira Schwarz on Pexels.com)

plum pudding

Adults need glorious nosh too

Do Jane Austen’s heroines live on air?

Which is why I felt so sorry for the heroine in Autumn de Wilde’s new film of Emma. (If you haven’t seen it, do – it is beautifully acted and directed and designed, costumes and set beyond praise.) Wonderful feasts are repeatedly laid out – for weddings, Christmas, social gatherings – with marvellous looking Regency meats, trifles, jellies, cakes and baskets of strawberries – and poor Emma is never allowed to taste a thing. All around her people tuck in with relish, while she never even picks up her cutlery. It is difficult, of course, to look elegant while eating, and certainly wading into such irresistible things as macaroons is used to comic effect with Miss Bates and Harriet Smith – but I can’t help feeling that is a mistake. Call me a killjoy, but the subliminal message is that only clumsy, unattractive women eat; luminously beautiful ones like Emma Woodhouse don’t. They live on… what, air?

butter cookie cake toppings with fruits

                                     Let poor Emma eat cake.                                              (Photo by Matheus Guimarães on Pexels.com)

Jane Austen would have had no time for such nonsense. Food for her was a serious, practical necessity, something her heroine had as much right to enjoy as anybody else. Indeed, Emma’s tactful ploys to get round her father’s instinctive fear of over- feeding his guests is a running joke in the story.

How ironic, then, that in de Wilde’s film, food appears to have no value for Emma herself; nor does it seem to have occurred to the director that starving the heroine might be a problem. But speaking as a devourer – in more ways than one – of great classic fiction, driven by real, flesh-and-blood characters – it is, believe me.

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


How to exercise your empathy muscle

My A level English teacher once began a lesson with a challenge: ‘Why should people read novels?’

Easy, we thought. ‘To find out about the world.’

‘Say I’m someone who works in an office, a bank, a business. I have my newspaper for that.’

person holding white and blue business paper

                        All literary needs answered here.                                 (Photo by nappy on Pexels.)

‘To find out about people, then; what makes them tick.’ ‘Feelings and emotions.’ ‘See what it’s like to go through something you haven’t experienced yourself.’

All of these answers – perfectly reasonable, we thought – he batted back like flies. ‘People! I know all about them, believe me. Work with people every day. What can a story someone has made up, all about characters they’ve also made up, tell me about life? That stuff’s just for kids. Pure entertainment. I don’t need to escape into fairy stories, thank you.’

Classic books

The footling entertainment of classics.

Playing Devil’s Advocate

It was a wind-up, of course. Boris, as we called him (I have no idea why – it wasn’t his name and this was decades before the rise of Another, More Famous than He) was passionate about literature, and introduced us to a wide variety of authors before focussing on the set texts. But that day I learnt something about complacency and naivety that has stayed with me. As an idealistic Eng Lit student, I took it for granted that the last thing the great writers – Dickens, Dostoevsky, the Brontes, Tolstoy, George Eliot – wrote for was something as footling as entertainment. Their purpose was to broaden our minds and sympathies, make us question moral prejudices, maybe even change the world. What Boris’s brief Devil’s Advocate performance taught me was that, while these may indeed be their aims, none of them is of the slightest use if the story doesn’t grab you from the start. So far from being the last, entertainment has to be the writer’s primary purpose. Stretching the reader’s understanding, leading us to feel the characters’ problems, joys, pain, tragedy and loss as if they are our own – all that falls into place along the way of a cracking good story. By scorning a novel’s entertainment value, Boris’s theoretical character missed out, not only on a lot of fun, but on the opportunity to practise empathy.

Fiction – a good exercise machine

It’s a funny thing, empathy. Do we enjoy reading stories because our sense of empathy is already strong, or does reading stories make it stronger? While there are lots of other triggers in our lives – not just books – to feeling empathy, I am beginning to think it’s like a muscle. Exercise it regularly or it’ll grow weak. And fiction – as some teachers and librarians, who guide children to books for their empathy value, understand – is a good exercise machine.

fitness power man person

                                 Like this, but with novels.                                                             (Photo by Binyamin Mellish on Pexels.com)

The Salt Path

Recently I lent a book I’d enjoyed to a friend who only reads non-fiction. It was a memoir (so in the right category for my friend) about a couple who, through some very foolish financial misjudgement, had managed to make themselves homeless, and on a whim, decided to escape their situation by going hiking. Cold, hunger, exhaustion and serious illness accompany them on their journey, along with flashes of humour and some hauntingly beautiful appreciation of the natural world.

The Salt pathNow, it’s always a risk to share an enthusiasm, but I was totally unprepared for how much my friend disliked this book. The reason? Since it was the couple’s own financial folly that set them off on their difficult journey, my friend had no sympathy with anything – good, bad, painful, sad, joyous – that happened to them on their way. If they were hungry, it was their own fault. Ditto, cold and wet. To be fair, the memoir, while being based on fact, had been shaped in a writerly way; the author had used the tools of fiction to give light and shade, glossing over details of the legal mess that begins the memoir, rounding off this self-imposed Pilgrim’s Progress with a satisfying conclusion. My friend, accustomed to hard facts and traditional historical narrative, clearly found this blending of genres suspicious and was therefore unable to enter into the world of the two main characters. Whereas I, more used to fiction, was happy to go with the flow, because it didn’t matter that the memoir wasn’t correct in every tiny detail; the vivid description of the couple’s journey, both physical and emotional, more than made up for that.

In other words, reading fiction appears to offer ways of exercising the empathy muscle that an exclusive diet of non-fiction doesn’t. Frankly, in an ideal world, I’d make reading fiction compulsory for all.

For a faithful adaptation of Dickens, The Muppet Christmas Carol still comes top

photo of christmas balls

               Tis the Season to be Jolly.                       Photo by Hert Niks on Pexels.co

And so draws to an end the first decade of the 21st Century. While all over social media, people are gratuitously summing up their achievements of the last 10 years, for me it’s the last 10 days that loom largest in my consciousness. Or perhaps, conscience. Because, dear reader, it appears that over this last Season To Be Jolly I’ve managed to upset quite a number of people on Twitter. One person even blocked me, hilariously, as he did it quickly before I could do something to deserve it. Rather like a small child in the playground running to teacher, just in case the child he’s just biffed thinks of  biffing him back.

The A Christmas Carol Question

So what did I do to inspire such fear and loathing? Er, well, I expressed an opinion. Like, you know, the other 330 million Twitter users. What about? Oh, just a TV programme. A mini-series. Well, a Classical Serialisation in fa – look, it’s not my fault that the A Christmas Carol Question raises its snowy head every year, is it?a christmas carol 2 Competition among theatre, film and TV companies, from the humblest to the loftiest in the land, as to who can make the biggest mess of Charles Dickens’s great 1843 novel has become a national sport. This time last year I cavilled at the liberties taken by the RSC in their production; I can now say these fade into the tiniest speck of candied fruit in Tiny Tim’s plum pudding compared to the monster served up by BBC 1 over three (three!) evenings in Christmas week.plum pudding

I was willing to give it a go. Honest. (Just as I gave Andrew Davies’s Sanditon a go, all the way to the end of Part 1, when an appalling piece of very unAusten writing and characterisation spared my enduring the next 7 episodes.) But the stretching of Dickens’s slim novella into 3 hours of television didn’t bode well.

Sweary, gloomy and with no narrative drive

Say what you like about Dickens, he knew how to write a cracking good story. The lessons that  mean old Scrooge has to learn never slow the pace of the action, while the reader is drawn into the worlds of Christmas joy and plenty, past regrets and sorrows and the very real poverty and want Scrooge has ignored all his life. In other words, narrative drive is what matters if you want your audience to stay with you, and this was exactly what Stephen Knight’s ‘adaptation’ (‘rewriting’, I’d call it) lacked. Tectonic plates move faster than Knight’s scene setting, and when the first 15 minutes established nothing more than a grumpy, sweary (oh yes, the F word. A lot. Why?) man chuntering around a bare office in Gloomy Victorian London, sniping at his clerk, I gave up. Where Dickens writes with crispness, a quick wit and a sense of mystery, this production steamrollered its way along, ponderous and boring beyond words.C Carol

Worse, Knight felt the need (like David Edgar) to add backstory and plot alterations to the original – only his additions were much sillier. It’s not enough, for instance, for Marley to haunt Scrooge as a warning: he has to be properly motivated. Enter the Roman Catholic doctrine of the afterlife: Marley’s motive for saving Scrooge is to spare his own soul years in Purgatory.

Dickens, a traditional Anglican living in highly Protestant Victorian England, would have been appalled at this solecism, and the fact that Knight could cheerfully shoehorn it into Dickens’s literary and religious world shows how little he cares about the original work.

Version 2

No room for Purgatory in the Anglican church



Back to Twitter. Well, The Sunday Times journalist India Knight (no relation I hope…. Gulp) happened to ask the Twitterati what they thought of the production and I – among many others – gave my view, adding that for a truly splendid adaptation, people should look no further than The Muppet Christmas Carol. While I’ve never received so many Likes for a tweet before, a few readers, as mentioned, took it badly. What baffled them – to the point where they could barely spit out their sarcasms – was that I should rate a film starring a bunch of puppets headed by a Green Frog, that faithfully told Dickens’s marvellous story, over a slow, turgid, foul-mouthed 21st century steampunk version, that didn’t.


                                    Perfectly able to portray Bob Cratchit                                    Photo by Глеб from Pexels

Personally I’d call that muppetist.








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


Can you spot the Long John Silvers of social media?

Voldemort mask

He Who Must Not Be Named (mask available on Amazon)

Here’s a challenge: who’s the most terrifying villain in literature?

Plenty of candidates to choose from. Voldemort in Harry Potter, Sauron in The Lord of the Rings, the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Cruella de Vil in One Hundred and One Dalmatians, Flashman in Tom Brown’s Schooldays, Moriarty in the Sherlock Holmes stories; Cruellaor going back further in the canon, Iago, Edmund, Richard III (as depicted by Shakespeare, I hasten to add, before any Ricardians take me apart), Mephistopheles… These are all splendidly evil figures. But not, to my mind, the most terrifying, for one big reason: we know what they are. The reader is in no doubt, from the word go, that each one of these is a Bad Lot, and how the ‘good side’ will or won’t overcome them becomes the central drama of the story.richard


The shock of betrayal

No. Far more frightening, for me, is the character who begins as a warm, kindly protector, a bit of a rough diamond perhaps, but whose charm, engaging wit and genuine interest in the hero has both hero and reader completely under his/her spell. When this character’s true motives emerge – often quite late on in the story – the shock of betrayal is all the greater because of the heartless calculation behind it. Willoughby, in Sense and Sensibility, comes into this category, as does Steerforth in David Copperfield (note the positive, reliable sounding names).

Long John SilverBut the leader in this field by a mile is… Long John Silver.

A likeable, fatherly figure

Which came to me as a complete surprise. Because – and here comes a confession – having never read Treasure Island as a child, but seeing plenty of illustrations and film stills of a ferocious-looking, one-legged pirate, I assumed that Silver’s wickedness was a given from the start. Like Captain Hook in Peter Pan, or Bill Sykes (OK, not a pirate but a violent criminal) in Oliver Twist. Whereas – as I discovered when I finally got round to reading the book a few years ago – the opposite is true. Long John Silver begins as a decent, likeable, fatherly figure with a delightful wit, who takes Jim Hawkins under his wing, protecting the boy from enemies and helping put together a crew to sail in search of the pirates’ treasure. Only when the ship is well on its way does his true, coldblooded nature emerge, and that only because Jim by chance overhears him plotting murder with the other crew members. An obviously evil villain is dangerous enough… but one who has led both hero and reader to like and trust him? That is truly chilling. And horribly realistic. Because, of course, in real life the most skilful villains don’t advertise their villainy openly. It works far better to get people’s trust first.


Feeding and spreading suspicion

Trolls aren’t always what you think

Nowhere is this truer than on social media. Up till now, I thought I knew what a troll was. Nasty, bitter, powerless people who use the freedom and easy access of social media sites to hurl vile abuse at total strangers, knowing they can get away with it. Yes, there are legions of these and they do a lot of damage. But far more insidious and dangerous are the accounts, according to this article on www.rollingstone.com, designed deliberately to destabilise whole countries and set people against each other.

How? Well, they’ll start with a few bright, feelgood posts/tweets that will gain them lots of followers and retweets, before gradually introducing divisive ‘truths’ (ie imaginary but convincing) that feed and spread people’s suspicions of each other.

An aggressive, foul-mouthed, bigoted troll is easily spotted and seen for what it is; but these nice, decent, humane Long John Silvers of the internet? Not so much.

And that is terrifying.


(From an article first published on Authors Electric)


Keeping up with the Joneses – and the Vines

A couple of months ago I set out to do a grammar grouse blog, but Jacob Rees-Mogg got in the way (let’s face it, he does that, a lot). So now, in the dark days of November, it seems a good moment to try again… and this time it’s Jeremy Vine who’s got me going. Not because I disagree with him. On the contrary, he put out a tweet recently that was music to my ears (or eyes? Eek, that doesn’t work either), all about our dear old friend, the apostrophe:

Grammar question. I have friends whose surname is Hobbs. I went to a function celebrating their anniversary. I have just emailed a friend I ran into there, and said it was “great to see you again at the Hobbses’ party.” Am I exactly correct in the way I wrote their surname?

YES, I replied, yes yes yes. Scrolling down, I realised I was pretty much the only one out of hundreds of replies. Everyone else was absolutely certain it should be the Hobbs’ or the Hobb’s party. So a party given either by a couple called Mr and Mrs Hobb, or a thing called a Hobb (short for a hobbit? Yes that, was suggested too).

I know, I should get out more. So perhaps should Jeremy Vine. That way perhaps we’d both be better at Keeping up with the Joneses. Oh sorry, should that be, Keeping Up with the Jones? What is a Jone, then? If we don’t allow names ending in ‘s’ to have their own plural form, the meaning isn’t clear. The same goes for the possessive apostrophe, whether singular or plural; its function is to show that something either belongs to somebody, or is named after them. People in Britain have had no trouble understanding this for the last few centuries; now, apparently, we can’t cope anymore and councils all over the country have done away with the apostrophe altogether. Five years ago, the ire of local residents armed with marker pens forced Cambridge City Council to cave in over its decision to abolish apostrophes from road signs. (It was thought that apostrophes can confuse emergency services – a calumny hotly denied by the emergency services themselves. Just because you’re a police/fire officer or paramedic doesn’t mean you didn’t go to school.)

St James' Park NE1Grammar and the use of English change over the years, I know. But speech patterns don’t. Have you tried saying, ‘this is Jane Morris book’? Or, ‘the Harris are coming to tea’? You can’t. The person you’re talking to will hear ‘this is Jane Morey’s book’ and ‘the Harrys (Prince and Potter?) are coming to tea.’ So why have one rule for the spoken word – which at least makes the meaning clear – and a different one for when the word is written down?


Enter a caption

Alas, judging by these signs, the battle is pretty much lost, except for the odd London underground station still holding strong.


And I bet everyone going for treatment at one of London’s most famous hospitals will refer to it as St Thomas’s, whatever it may call itself. st-thomas-430x321


Right, that was arguably my most nerdish post ever. And if you think I’m overreacting to a tinsy-winsy point of grammar, here’s a glorious recent tweet from that Giant of the Twittery and Literary world, Philip Ardagh, replying to a tweet that read:

‘Anyone else keep seeing a dog stood by the bush outside the tent? #GBBO’:

A dog STOOD’? ‘STOOD’?! It should be: ‘Anyone else keep seeing a dog STANDING by the bush…’ you bunch of halfwits. You should be HORSE-WHIPPED, I say. HORSEWHIPPED. Sob.’

adult beagle walking on grass field

Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Pexels.com

Wildly out of proportion but Philip, I know what you mean.


(From an item first published on Authors Electric Blog)

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)



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).


…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.


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.