Cracked

‘Cracked. We’re cracked, Wilfred.’
Alan Bennett, ‘A Cream Cracker Under the Settee’

My plate is cracked, but, to quote Wendy Cope, I have decided not to make a big tragedy out of it. I am going to mark the occasion, though, because this plate has been mine for a long time. Internet shopping means we’ve lost the habit of remembering when and were we bought certain objects, how we chose them and how we saved for them, but this plate – one of a set of four – came into my life at a very particular time, as a result of a very particular set of circumstances. And so, while I may not be making a big tragedy out of it, I am going to write about it.

It’s December 1991. I’m nineteen and back from university for the first time. I’m a bit of a mess, partly because I’m exhausted from the intensity of my first term, but largely because the guy I’ve been going out with has decided to end things and it’s my first big, horrible, painful rejection. I am coping with the culture shock of being back in Newton-le-Willows after two months at Oxford and it’s every possible shade of weird. There are no doors I can knock on, nobody to meet for coffee or cake or a trip to the bar. I need something to do, to take my mind off things.

Therefore, I get a job. I’m in Warrington one day with my mum and I spot a poster in a shop window. The shop in question is Warrington’s only independent department store, a proud institution in a Georgian building on Bridge Street. They want extra assistants for the Christmas period. I go in to see if I can find out more, and ten minutes later I’m in an interview being asked about my GCSE grades and previous work experience.

I start two days later. I’m in Jewellery, to start off with. Jewellery is basically a huge white rack, fixed to a wall, on which I’m supposed to hang earrings. This is meant to take me all morning. The earrings are mostly plastic, in various colours. I decide to arrange them by colour, and work my way through from white at one end of the rack to black at the other, with a special section for silver and gold. It takes me about half an hour. I find my manager, a morose woman called Pauline with frizzy hair, and ask what I should do next. ‘Find something to do’, I’m told. ‘Just make sure you look busy.’

There’s a stand of books near Jewellery, an odd mixture of recipe books, road atlases, romantic fiction and children’s stories. I’m at home with books. I arrange the books, first by genre and then alphabetically within each genre. There aren’t many of them. I take them all out and rearrange them. Then I rearrange the earrings, starting with white at the top this time, and silver and gold at the bottom. I am more bored than I have possibly ever been before.

At about half-past eleven another assistant comes over with a cardboard box, and asks me to unpack whatever’s inside and arrange them on the shelves. What’s inside turns out to be a collection of fake bonsai trees, made of some kind of translucent resin, their leaves attached with wire. The wires have all been flattened and therefore they need to be twisted artfully to make them look as realistic as a fake resin bonsai tree can possibly look. I put a lot of effort into my artful twisting.

I have a forty-minute break for lunch. I eat my sandwich and slink off to Bookland, my favourite bookshop, to decide which books I’m going to buy with my wages. Then I go back to the shop, and try, again, to spin out whatever tasks I’m given so that I always look busy. I’m not allowed on Tills, because I haven’t been trained – ‘We don’t train temporary staff’ – and apart from helping occasional customers to find gloves or handkerchiefs, there isn’t much else to do.

I have a lot of time to think. This hadn’t been the intention. I need something that will take my mind off the Big Rejection and stop the ache that it has left me with. I keep replaying lines from our conversations, the we-can-still-be-friends ones, the it’s-not-you-it’s-me ones. I am probably not the bouncy, cheerful kind of staff that the store wants. There’s another student working there too, and when we’re working the same shifts we take it in turns to mix up each other’s displays so that we’ve got something to rearrange, her on Fancy Goods and me on Accessories. We joke that there should be a Leotards and Handbags department, in honour of Victoria Wood. But then Pauline gets wind of our alliance and puts us on different shifts, and I go back to trying to make a half-hour task last four times longer than it really needs to, tweaking and reorganising and keeping an eye out in case anyone tries to shoplift a fake bonsai tree.

Lunch breaks, and the half-hour between finishing work and catching the bus home, become the focus of my days. I spend a lot of time browsing in Bookland, and decide that if I can buy one book, every day, then working at the department store won’t seem quite so mind-numbingly awful. We’re doing the twentieth century next term, so I buy Woolf and Joyce, E.M. Forster and Dylan Thomas, books that still remind me of that Christmas holiday and the bookshop glowing like an oasis, the hush and smell of paper, the low lights and tactful quiet. And I decide, too, that I need some plates for university. I’d taken mugs, the previous term, but not plates. We were catered for, living in college, and I hadn’t thought I’d need them. But cooking with friends, in the tiny kitchen in our accommodation block, had become part of the glue that held life together. So I wanted my own plates, and in the Homewares department in the basement of the Co-op I found a set of four plates – deep, white plates, with a blue floral border – that, to my nineteen-year-old mind, seemed exactly right.

My dad’s reaction was predictable. ‘Why are you buying plates in Warrington and taking them all the way down to Oxford? Do they not sell plates anywhere in Oxford that you can buy?’ He had a point. But those were the plates I’d decided on. They came home with me, and eventually, when my four weeks at the department store were over, they came down to Oxford with me as well, wrapped carefully in tea towels and packed in a box.

They’ve survived a lot, those plates. A year in a shared house off the Cowley Road, another year back in college, and then four house moves. They’ve been our everyday plates for over twenty-five years. And then, a few days ago, one of them cracked.

It was on the worktop, next to the hob, and whether it suffered from some kind of sudden temperature change or not I don’t know. At least it wasn’t dropped, at least it’s still basically intact. But we’re not going to risk using it any more. It’s now got a safe place in the sideboard, with the proper dinner service we got as a wedding present. And there it will stay, a reminder of that holiday when I tried and failed to cope with the world’s dullest job whilst nursing a broken heart, and returned to university bruised, but with several new books and four blue-and-white plates.

The bookhood of books

Here’s one of the most important books I own:

On the face of it, it’s not particularly special. It’s a 1976 copy of the third edition of the Oxford School Atlas, a paperback edition with a cover that’s faded and softened with age. Its spine is peeling and it has a couple of suspicious stains. The edges of its pages have worn soft with years of handling. It contains countries that don’t exist any more, like Yugoslavia and the USSR, and doesn’t contain countries that do exist now, like Eritrea and North Macedonia and Namibia. (Macedonia’s marked out as a vague area spanning southern Serbia and northern Greece; Eritrea appears and disappears depending which page you’re on). Germany is divided; Czechia and Slovakia are united; Zimbabwe is still Rhodesia and St Petersburg is still Leningrad. But it’s a book that’s important to me for other, more personal reasons. It was issued to my sister when she was doing A level Geography back in the late 1970s. You can’t mistake it for anything other than a school book. Inside its front and back covers, and on several other pages, it bears the stamp of its original owner:

But for some reason, lost now in the mists of time, it never made its way back to St. Aelred’s High School, and has been in the family ever since. I’m not sure exactly when it became mine, but I have always loved maps and I must have spent hours poring over it, over the years, working out where different countries are and thinking about all the places I wanted to go to. There are pencilled annotations on some pages from when I did GCSE Geography between 1987 and 1989, and various asterisks showing where we spent family holidays. At some point, it travelled down with me to south Lincolnshire, and here it’s going to stay.

Less moisture, poor soils, short grass

I spend a lot of time thinking about books, not surprisingly, but this week I’ve been thinking a lot about the physicality of books, the bookness of books, thanks to Emma Smith’s fabulous book Portable Magic. Smith focuses on what she describes as ‘bookhood’, a ‘material combination of form and content’: our physical and sensory engagement with books, their smell and feel and heft. ‘If you think about the books that have been important to you’, writes Smith, ‘it may well be that their content is inseparable from the form in which you encountered them’. And so I’ve been looking at my shelves, tracing the spines of books I haven’t read for years but nevertheless consider an important part of my life. The Penguin copy of David Lodge’s Nice Work that kicked off my reading the summer after GCSEs. Old Faber poetry books with their distinctive coloured covers. The Armada Lions copy of Joan G. Robinson’s Charley that I borrowed from my sister’s bookshelf when I was about nine and loved it so much that I couldn’t bear to put it back. (I did buy her a replacement copy several years later, honest.)

Smith’s book is intriguing, exploring the physical form of books as diverse as the Gutenberg Bible, the various editions of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the Choose Your Own Adventure novels of the 1980s, and the paperbacks defaced – or upcycled – by Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell. In her opening chapter, Smith describes one of her school set texts:

‘The edition of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles we had at school was most remarkable for its transparent cover film that called irresistibly to be peeled back, leaving behind a washed-out still of Natassja Kinski wearing a straw hat from Roman Polanski’s 1979 film: later, weakened by these depredations, I think my copy had to be backed in wallpaper left over from our spare bedroom.’

I’m itching to peel that cover film off right now, although I’m less keen on the wallpaper: I remember backing my Maths textbook in Anaglypta, and never being able to close it properly afterwards.

The physicality of schoolbooks, set texts, is something that’s been on my mind for other reasons this week too, because it’s the week when we’ve been doing our budget requests and thinking about that eternal question of how to balance what we’d really like with what we strictly need. We’ve spent quite a lot on books over the past couple of years, updating worn-out stock and introducing new texts. For September, we need a whole new set of novels for Year Seven (we’ve decided on The Bone Sparrow) and also another complete set of A Christmas Carol (we use the English and Media Centre edition). And it’s going to cost. There are other sets of books that we’d like to replace, but we’re not sure if we’ll be able to. How many years can you make your texts last for? How long can a set of paperbacks survive?

I remember my own English set texts. For GCSE we had a hardback Players’ Shakespeare edition of Macbeth and I can remember the different layers of annotations it contained, several years’-worth of other people’s handwriting, mostly in pencil but some in illicit biro. ‘”Aroint thee, witch”, the rump-fed ronyon cried’ was glossed, with some relish, as ‘Get lost, you fat-bottomed slut’. This was the cash-strapped late 80s, and a lot of our school books were past their best, to say the least. We had to handle them gingerly, not just because they were fragile but also because they were, sometimes, grubby and musty. The narrator of U.A. Fanthorpe’s poem ‘Dear Mr Lee’ speaks of her beloved school copy of Cider with Rosie, ‘stained with Coke and Kitkat and when I had a cold’, and anyone who’s been near a set of school books will know how unhygienic some of them can look, especially once they’ve spent a few months sharing a schoolbag with the detritus of teenage life: discarded football socks, the remnants of several packets of crisps, sedimentary layers of packed lunch.

As a teacher, I’m obviously very conscious of the content of the books I expect my students to read, but I also think the physical form of these books is important, too. I’m definitely not advocating for a full sweep of new books every year, but I want my students to spend time reading their set books, poring over them and being absorbed in them and maybe even – gosh – enjoying them, and therefore I don’t think it’s fair to give a student a book that is fusty or tattered or unpleasant to touch, a book whose pages are swollen from the time when someone’s water bottle – or worse – leaked over it, or a book that’s falling apart. I think the condition of the books we hand out gives an important message to students not only about how much we value reading in general, but also about how much we value their particular experience of reading. There are many, many secondary school students up and down the country whose homes contain very few books. The books we give to them in school need to be attractive and cared-for, ones that we’d be happy to have on our own shelves. Books matter.

Making sure books get returned at the end of the year is another perennial headache, although given the provenance of my Oxford School Atlas, you could be forgiven for calling me a hypocrite. I don’t remember St. Aelred’s ever having a book amnesty during the time I was there, between 1984 and 1991, but even if they had, I’m not sure I’d have taken the atlas back. It was too much a part of the family by then, in the way some books are. St. Aelred’s doesn’t exist any more – it was amalgamated with another local school in 2011, and has now been demolished – and I don’t think St. Helens Education Committee would want it back now, outdated as it is. In any case, I’ve spent enough of my own money on school books and supplies over the years. I think I’ve made amends.

Classic fiction and adoption-related plots

I wasn’t sure what to write about this week. My brain isn’t in sonnet mode at the moment, and most of my attention has been focused on getting round the local 10k road race whilst trying not to swear too much (I managed it, got a PB, and am spending the rest of the weekend sitting down). But two threads on Twitter have been playing on my mind this weekend. One is about the classic fiction we’d recommend to younger readers, and how problematic these recommendations are. There’s a nostalgic rosy glow surrounding many of our childhood favourites, but when we go back to them, it’s not long before we start to see images and ideas that we really shouldn’t be passing on without any kind of health warning. The other was sparked by a tweet by a YA writer about her favourite adoption tropes. There were lots of OMGs from the writer about adopted children bringing joy to the hearts of adopters, lots of excitement about adopted people being rescued from error and misfortune – and lots of absolutely rightful pushback from adopted people pointing out that their lives shouldn’t be treated as a plot device. The writer of the original tweet subsequently posted that she hadn’t thought about it that way, and then deleted the whole thread, but really. How can anyone involved in the creative industries, in 2022, not recognise the problem of reducing a group of people to plot tropes, and tweet about it as if those people didn’t exist in the real world? Come on.

There’s a clear intersection between the two threads, because classic fiction is, of course, full of adoption-related plots. Lemn Sissay’s installation Superman was a Foundling lists some of the many, many fictional characters who are adopted, fostered, orphaned or abandoned, and is an eye-opening starting-point if you’d never realised just how widespread these particular themes are. Look more closely at some of these characters, and the tropes will hit you thick and fast. Bitter adopted child intent on destroying adoptive family: hello, Heathcliff. Adopted child helping to soften and humanise a misanthropic outcast: there’s Eppie from Silas Marner, and I guess we could even include William from Goodnight Mister Tom as well. There’s sour and surly Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden; there are the countless plucky orphans who populate Charles Dickens’ novels and the characters who – like Posy, Paulina and Petrova in Ballet Shoes – are collected like souvenirs and blaze through life like stars with never a thought for their families of origin. Adopted children who are resentful misfits; adopted children who are prodigiously talented; adopted children who make the sun shine and the birds sing because their main role in life is to make other people happy, like Pollyanna with her Glad Game. And that’s before we even get to that sodding boy wizard.

Extract from ‘Superman was a Foundling by Lemn Sissay, Foundling Museum, London. Photo taken by me in October 2017.

One novel that always comes up in recommendations for classic children’s fiction is L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, first published in 1908. Anne Shirley, adopted at the age of eleven by brother and sister Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, is probably one of fiction’s most famous adopted characters. To generations of readers, Anne of Green Gables is most memorable for the series of scrapes that Anne gets herself into. She gets her ‘bosom friend’ Diana Barry drunk on currant wine, thinking it’s raspberry cordial, and flavours a cake with liniment, believing it to be vanilla essence. She walks along the ridgepole of a roof for a dare, falls off, and breaks her ankle. She hits Gilbert Blythe over the head with her slate when he taunts her about her hair. She almost drowns when she and her friends try to dramatise the Arthurian legend of the Lily Maid of Astolat, and her boat springs a leak. She tries to dye her hair black, and ends up turning it green. Anne is a little girl with a vivid imagination, turning an avenue of apple trees into the White Way of Delight and the Barrys’ pond into the Lake of Shining Waters. The only thing she professes herself unable to imagine away is her red hair.

On the surface, Anne of Green Gables is a charming story. It has featured in numerous charts of the most popular novels of all time: it has been adapted for stage, film, radio and television, and every year thousands of people flock to Prince Edward Island to visit its settings. But there is a much more complex story underneath, one that needs to be viewed through the lens of adoption. There’s a reason why Anne needs such a vivid imagination, and it’s because her life has been singularly awful: difficult, lonely, and abusive. Orphaned at three months old, she has been taken in first by a Mrs Thomas, who has a drunken husband, and subsequently by a Mrs Hammond, who has eight children of her own, including three sets of twins. Her place in the Thomas and Hammond households was to be a domestic help, rather than a loved member of the family. When Mr Thomas is killed falling under a train, his mother offers Mrs Thomas and her children a home, ‘but she didn’t want me’. When Mr Hammond dies, his wife divides her children up amongst her relatives, but ‘I had to go to the asylum at Hopeton, because nobody would take me. They didn’t want me at the asylum, either; they said they were over-crowded as it was’. She has had to imagine companions for herself, imagining that her reflection in a bookcase is a little girl called Katie Maurice, and that the echo of her voice is another little girl called Violetta. And she is in danger of not being wanted again, as the Cuthberts wanted a boy to help on the farm, not a girl.

Adoption, in the novel, is surrounded by stigma. Mrs Rachel Lynde warns Marilla about adopted children who set fire to their adoptive families’ houses and burn them to a crisp in their beds, or alternatively poison them by putting strychnine down the well. Anne eventually becomes a much-loved member of the local community, but she has to earn this position. Marilla intends to train Anne to be ‘a useful little thing’, and Anne herself vows to ‘try to do and be anything you want me, if you’ll only keep me’. And she works hard, although the most important work she does is not physical but emotional, bringing joy to shy Matthew and softening the heart of flinty old Marilla. She’s not alone. Time and time again we see adopted children and orphans in literature carrying out this kind of emotional labour in the lives of their new families.

And significantly, Anne is not allowed to forget that being adopted makes her an outsider. Her place in the community is not a given: she has to make herself acceptable and is reminded that she must bow to convention. When she turns down an offer of marriage from Billy Andrews, his sister Jane warns her that she might live to regret the chance of joining an established Avonlea family, as she is ‘merely an adopted orphan, without kith or kin’. Later, when one of her stories is published in a local newspaper, a disapproving acquaintance tells her that ‘she was very sorry to hear she had taken to writing novels; nobody born and bred in Avonlea would do it; that was what came of adopting orphans from goodness knew where, with goodness knew what kind of parents’.

It’s important for us to be aware of these tropes and stereotypes. It’s important, because they still exist. As I’ve mentioned before, the Dude was once told by another child that ‘all adopted people end up in prison’. (The Dude, bless him, retorted by pointing out that actually, most superheroes were adopted, but he shouldn’t have to feel that he has to be a superhero: he shouldn’t have to be anything, apart from himself.) And it’s important because adoption-related storylines often fly under the radar. Another thread I’ve read over the past few days concerns text choices at GCSE: I’ve already written about Blood Brothers and the appalling doomed-adoptee trope that it plays around with, but here’s a reminder not to use that godawful Blood Brothers resource that asks students to imagine they’ve just found out they’re adopted. Teachers of English need to be just as careful when teaching adoption-related texts as they would be with any other texts that address sensitive issues. Being separated from your family of origin, whatever the circumstances, is trauma. Waiting lists for post-adoption support and therapeutic life story work are hideously long. Support for adopted adults is pretty much non-existent, although organisations like Adoptee Futures are working hard to change this situation.

And yet, adoption-related plotlines continue to roll around, earning millions for the entertainment industry. Hey, wouldn’t it be excellent if some of that was ploughed back into counselling and therapy? What if ‘apologetic writer sees the error of their ways and seeks to make amends’ became a trope? I won’t hold my breath.

Accents and dialects, sonnets, and Tony Harrison

When I was little, I had a friend whose mum was forever correcting the way we spoke. There was nothing particularly unusual about our use of language – we had the pretty generic Northern accent of the town we lived in, neither Liverpool nor Manchester and neither Wigan nor Warrington, but something in between – but as far as my friend’s mum was concerned, that wasn’t good enough. She’d grown up in Liverpool, and had been trying to lose her accent ever since. She hadn’t really managed it, but it had given her a hypersensitivity to speech, a sense of being perpetually on the alert for anything that was too regionally marked. Any vowel that was a bit too flat or too long, any hint of a glottal stop or dialect word, and she’d pounce. She taught at the primary school I went to, and that seemed to give her licence to monitor my speech, as well as that of her daughter. She probably thought she was doing me a favour, but all it did was to make me wary: afraid of opening my mouth in case I was jumped on, newly self-conscious about part of me that had never been a problem before.

Gerrout o’t’road, there’s lambs onnit. (Source: Alan Cleaver on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0)

School language policies didn’t exist back then, but if they had been around, I’d probably have been on the wrong side of them. At university, the only state-educated Northerner in a tutorial group of RP-speakers, I was asked to demonstrate Northern vowel sounds by a linguistics tutor who generally treated me as if I’d just escaped from a zoo. So it’s not really surprising that as an A level English Language teacher, regional variation – and, in particular, the ways in which schools try to police their students’ use of language – is one of my favourite topics. Over the last few years, a stream of schools have attempted to eliminate regional speech, arguing that they are giving their students the best chance possible of succeeding in the wider world. From Colley Lane Primary School in Halesowen and Sacred Heart Primary School in Middlesbrough to Ark All Saints Academy in Camberwell, pupils have been told not to use slang, dialect forms and regional pronunciations such as ‘woz’ instead of ‘was’ and ‘gonna’ instead of ‘going to’. Ofsted is all het up about regional speech too, as if it’s the only thing we’ve got to worry about in schools at the moment. An absolute must-read on this topic is Ian Cushing and Julia Snell’s fantastic essay ‘The (white) ears of Ofsted: a raciolinguistic perspective on the listening practices of the schools inspectorate’, which examines how Ofsted upholds the language of the white bourgeoisie, its judgements about non-standard language translating into ‘systems of sonic surveillance in which the nonstandardised language practices of students and teachers are heard as impoverished, deficient, and unsuitable for school.’ It’s a vital text for anyone concerned with diversity and social justice in schools: if your school is developing any kind of language policy, then you need to wave this article in the faces of whoever is responsible for drawing up the policy, and make sure they are absolutely aware of the implications of certain kinds of beliefs about language.

All of this is a very roundabout way of introducing a poem I have loved for years, Tony Harrison’s ‘Them & [uz]’. ‘Them & [uz]’ takes the form of a pair of caudate sonnets, drawing on an incident from the poet’s adolescence. Harrison, a working-class boy who found himself at the distinctly middle-class Leeds Grammar School, was pulled up for his regional speech in the middle of a lesson on ‘Ode to a Nightingale’:

4 words only of mi ‘art aches and … ‘Mine’s broken,
you barbarian, T.W.!’ He was nicely spoken.
‘Can’t have our glorious heritage done to death!’

The first of the poems is dominated by the voice of the teacher, asserting his superiority in the plummy accent of the elite: ‘We say [Λs] not [uz], T.W.!’ That shut my trap.’ There are images of awkwardness and inarticulacy, references to the ‘stutterer Demosthenes’ with his ‘gob full of pebbles’ and the narrator’s sense of his mouth being ‘all stuffed with glottals, great lumps to hawk up and spit out’. The use of Greek lettering and phonemic symbols adds to the feeling that there’s some kind of barrier you have to break through, a code that needs to be followed in order to make sense.

The second poem, however, is the perfect riposte to the power of RP. There’s a defiance that runs all the way through, from the opening lines – ‘So right, yer buggers, then! We’ll occupy / Your lousy leasehold Poetry’ – to the narrator’s determination to harness the power of his own regional speech. He tells us that he

dropped the initials I’d been harried as
and used my name and own voice: [uz] [uz] [uz],
ended sentences with by, with, from,
and spoke the language that I spoke at home.

Gone are the Northern stereotypes, the whippets and flat caps. Instead, there’s a reminder that regional speech is about identity, about loyalty. It’s a connection to where you’re from and the people to whom you’re most closely related. ‘[uz] can be loving as well as funny.’

The most brilliant thing about ‘Them & [uz]’, of course, is its take on the sonnet form. Both of its component poems are similar enough to a sonnet to have that sonnet feel. They have a regular rhyming pattern. The first is in rhyming couplets, and the second begins that way as well, though its final four lines have an alternating rhyme, a little twist at the end. (There’s something clever, though: Harrison’s rhyming of ‘from’ and ‘home’ only works as a full rhyme in certain Northern accents, where ‘home’ sounds more like ‘wom’. My dad, descended from generations of Lancashire miners, would, in full dialect mode, have pronounced ‘at home’ as ‘a’wom’.) But they don’t follow any of the typical sonnet patterns: they’re not Shakespearean, or Petrarchan, or Spenserian, or anything else other than themselves. There’s a fair amount of iambic pentameter in there, but not enough to make it completely regular. And, of course, the poems have sixteen lines each, not fourteen. It’s as if Harrison is sticking two fingers up to literary convention: Look. I know all about sonnets, all those rules and the things you’re supposed to do. But I’m not going to do what you tell me to do. I’m doing things my way. It’s a gorgeous, bolshy retort to all the language police out there, and I bloody love it.

Unseen poetry, sonnets, and important knowledge

Oooh, sonnets. I do love a sonnet. Partly it’s their compression, the tightness imposed by fourteen lines and the need to make every word earn its right to be included. When students say – as they do – ‘but did the poet mean it to be like that?’, the sonnet is the perfect riposte. Nobody writes a fourteen-line poem, in iambic pentameter and with a regular rhyming pattern, by accident: you don’t sit down one day and watch it flowing spontaneously from the end of your pen. But the main thing I love about sonnets – ironically, perhaps, for a form with such a strict underlying structure – is their flexibility. For me, the most interesting sonnets aren’t the ones that stick to convention. They’re the ones that play around with it, that bend the rules and do their own thing, with just enough of a nod to tradition that you can see exactly what they’re doing. This latter point is vital. We’ve got to have that little acknowledgement, the gesture that says yes, I know what I’m supposed to be doing, but I’m doing to do it like this instead. That conscious flouting, that archness, that audacity. It’s lovely.

My students have a number of encounters with sonnets over the years. The first is the Prologue in Romeo and Juliet, in Year Nine, when I introduce the idea of the sonnet as a poetic form. I do this not by frontloading information, but by examining the Prologue, getting students to count lines and syllables and work out the rhyming pattern, and then telling them that there is a type of poem called a sonnet that – in its most conventional form – has fourteen lines, a regular rhyming pattern and regular metre, and is about love. Students then have a homework task to find out five further pieces of information about sonnets, and we start the next lesson by sharing what they’ve discovered.

In this discussion, I focus much more on the purpose of the sonnet than on the different forms the sonnet can take. Students are apt to get bogged down in the differences between Petrarchan and Shakespearean, Spenserian and Miltonic, and want to know if they need to learn all the different rhyming patterns. But this is where I think we need to think about what kind of knowledge is genuinely useful to students at this stage. To me, one of the most important things that students need to know about sonnets is that they’re a form of poetic showing-off. Yes, they’re about expressing your love and praising the object of your affection, but they’re also about the manner in which you do this. You use an intricate rhyming pattern, an elaborate extended metaphor, an artful twist at the volta. A sonnet is as much about the describer as the described. It’s a strut, a peacock flaunting its tail. Imagine David Attenborough doing a commentary on some kind of courtship ritual, and you’ve got it.

Shake your poetic tail feather. (Photo: Paul Brennan, publicdomainpictures.net)

All of this means that students are primed for their next encounter with a sonnet, the one formed by Romeo and Juliet’s lines when they first meet. They can make some thoughtful points about the hint that this is going to be a relationship of equals, not the wooer and the wooed. In Year Ten, when we study ‘Ozymandias’, they can interpret Shelley’s use of an unconventional rhyming pattern as evidence of his dislike of authority, and can also see his use of the sonnet form as an ironic comment on Ozymandias’ self-love (although it’s worth remembering the circumstances in which the poem was composed: Shelley and his friends were in the habit of challenging each other to write sonnets on particular topics, and ‘Ozymandias’ was written in response to one of these challenges). And so last week, when Year Eleven looked at Simon Armitage’s sonnet ‘I am very bothered’ as part of their work on unseen poetry, they were ready.

A little bit about methodology. Students are often spooked by unseen poetry, so I like to give them a clear routine to work through. We do AQA, and it’s worth remembering that in a normal year, the unseen poetry questions come right at the end of the longest exam that students will sit in any subject, the last 45 minutes of a two-and-a-quarter-hour marathon. They’ll be tired and they need a bit of breathing space. So I want them to use ten minutes to read the first poem. They do this in two stages. First, they read to try to get a sense of the poem as a whole. What’s it about? What happens? Who is speaking? Then they read it again. What do they notice about language? Are there any significant images? Is the poem divided into stanzas, and does it have a particular rhyming pattern? And, most importantly, what does all of this contribute to the meaning of the poem? We do a lot of work with What How Why, and therefore the students have developed a range of questions that they can ask as they are reading. Then, in class, the students share their ideas with a partner before we discuss the poem in more detail. What we definitely don’t do is work through a mnemonic like SMILE or AFOREST or any of their variations, because this kind of approach encourages feature-spotting, and it’s only a short step from there to banal comments like ‘the alliteration makes you want to read on’ or ‘the similes help the poem flow’. Students need to work with meaning, and for this they need to be able to respond flexibly rather than imposing a framework.

‘I am very bothered’ is a brilliant poem for getting students to read closely. The basic story is simple, if nasty: the speaker is looking back at his 13-year-old self, heating a pair of scissors in the flame of a Bunsen burner in a science lesson, and then handing them over to a girl who is consequently scarred for life. At first, it seems like an apology. My students picked up on the feeling of regret introduced by the opening words, the fact that the speaker is addressing the person he hurt. But then they noticed the sense of enjoyment. One of them commented on the way the speaker dwells on the process of ‘playing’ the handles in the ‘naked lilac flame’ of the Bunsen burner, drawing out the description as if luxuriating in it. They explored the exclamatory ‘O’ at the beginning of the second stanza, and the note of relish in ‘the unrivalled stench of branded skin’, heightened by the poem’s only use of end-rhyme. We talked about the connotations of ownership in ‘branded’, the implications of being ‘marked … for eternity’. There’s a lot of scope to link the poem to ‘My Last Duchess’, to themes of male violence and the way some men try to brand women with their ownership.

The ending of the poem needs careful untangling. What seems to be an apology actually isn’t. The final lines seem to be presenting this act as ‘just my butterfingered way / Of asking you if you would marry me’. Except they’re not. The speaker is very clear about this: ‘Don’t believe me, please, if I say …’ I’m glad he does, because otherwise the poem would seem like a trite request for forgiveness, just one more I was only trying to get your attention-type excuse. As it is, it’s a snapshot of twistedness.

I’d be careful about what kind of group I used this poem with, and would definitely be aware of individual experiences and reasons why some students might find the content difficult. I know that there are some students who would see the speaker of the poem as a lad, a total legend. But my current Year Elevens knew exactly how he should be viewed. They didn’t spot the use of the sonnet form until right at the end, but when they did, they commented that it made the speaker seem even more horrible. Knowing about the sonnet tradition – not only the idea of praise, but also that of showing off – added an extra dimension to their interpretation of the poem. Because this sonnet isn’t about the object of the speaker’s affections at all. It’s all about him, and his male ego.

We didn’t get round to writing about this poem before the end of term, but we have been using _codexterous’s model introductions in our work on unseen poetry, and this has given students a real sense of security. They’re using their opening sentences to establish a sense of the big picture before looking at how this is created, and their writing is really gaining confidence.

Sonnets are where this blog’s going to be at for a little while. Next up: Tony Harrison.

On diversity: Gerard Manley Hopkins

Meet Woody.

The most excellent horse in the world

Woody is not mine, sadly, but he’s the horse I ride most weeks, when the Dude and I go off to the local riding school on a Friday evening for our lesson. I’ve been riding Woody for about two and a half years now, and he is excellent. He’s a great big chunk of a horse – just under seventeen hands high – and is very good-natured, which is fortunate, given that he’s such a unit. He tries very hard and does as he’s told, and in our last lesson he managed a beautiful floaty trot, head down and concentrating. There is something lovely about going riding on a Friday after school, doing something challenging and absorbing that’s completely different to what I’ve been doing all week, and then leaving Woody munching hay in his stable, all tucked up for the night in his rug. I am lucky.

What’s the connection between Woody and Gerard Manley Hopkins? Woody is the colour that used to be known as skewbald, but is now more correctly referred to as tobiano, big bold patches of dark brown and white. If he’d been black and white, he’d have been a piebald, his coat mapped out in continents. And patches – and dapples, and freckles, and spots – form part of Hopkins’ poem ‘Pied Beauty’, a poem that I’ll be doing with Year Twelve in a few weeks’ time. It’s a brilliant poem for exploring the richness that can be offered by different critical approaches, and I approach it by examining successive layers of interpretation, starting with the words on the page, adding in relevant biographical detail and then introducing elements of queer theory. If you don’t know ‘Pied Beauty’, here it is:

Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

The poem is, in part, a hymn to the great variety of the natural world. I introduce it through showing a series of images, and getting students to describe what they can see: a dapple-grey horse, a speckled roan cow, a goldfinch, an aerial view of a landscape looking like a patchwork quilt, a mackerel sky at sunset. We look at how Hopkins conjures such vivid images in just a few words. ‘Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls’: isn’t that brilliant? Could there ever be a better description of conkers straight from the shell, all bright and glowing, before they lose their gorgeous sheen?

In the final line of the opening sestet, Hopkins turns to the human world. What does he seem to be saying here? It’s a statement, as clear as anything, that there is room for everyone, of all pursuits and professions. And this continues into the next line: ‘All things counter, original, spare, strange’. I remind the students that counter can mean in opposition to, as in ‘counter-argument’ and ‘counter-cultural’, coming from the same Anglo-Norman root as contrast and contrary. There’s a place for you, no matter who or what you are.

At this point, we think about the references to God. God, the poem clearly indicates, is eternal and unchanging, while on earth things are full of diversity, patched and variegated and multifaceted. But this world, and the multitudes that it contains, are all part of God’s creation. So far, so simple. Does the poem need to be more complicated than that?

Well, yes, it does. Because up until now, I haven’t told the students anything about Hopkins himself. And it’s now that I introduce them to Hopkins’ complex Jesuit faith, the sense of unworthiness that plagued him throughout his life, and the self-loathing he experienced as a result of his attraction to men. Hopkins loved the natural world, and saw it as a manifestation of the power of his God, writing in one diary entry that ‘I do not think I have ever seen anything more beautiful than the bluebell I have been looking at. I know the beauty of our Lord by it’. Yet he was also haunted by the thought that the sensory pleasure he took in the natural world clashed with the austerity and self-denial demanded by his religion. He undertook self-imposed penances, such as the ‘penance of the eyes’, which involved keeping his eyes fixed on the ground as a means of repressing his passion for nature. He fell intensely in love with a young man called Digby Dolben, who he met at Oxford, and his journals have been described as showing ‘how absorbed he was in imperfectly suppressed erotic thoughts’ of Dolben. Hopkins does not appear to have experienced any kind of physical intimacy with another person, male or female. But a number of his poems – notably ‘Felix Randal’ – focus on the muscular beauty of male bodies, and Hopkins was also drawn to physical representations of Christ on the cross. The repetitions and exclamations in his poetry have been read as a reflection of the pent-up emotion that he had to suppress elsewhere in his life. And even the form of ‘Pied Beauty’ can be seen as subversive. It’s a curtal sonnet, ten and a half lines instead of the conventional fourteen, but with enough of a nod – in its sestet and quatrain – to the rules that it should be following. Because we also study Tony Harrison, another writer of unconventional sonnets, we can look at what is signalled by playing around with this most respectable of forms. I don’t have to do what I’m supposed to, it says. I’m going to make up my own rules.

So we can see ‘Pied Beauty’ not just as a hymn of praise, but also as a celebration of diversity. And students who might not have felt much potential for connection with a man who was about to be ordained into a strict Roman Catholic sect suddenly see the possibility of shared ground. Counter, original, spare, strange … ‘Pied Beauty’ offers a space for all of us, for those who find themselves ridiculous and those who feel they’ll never fit in. I only wish Hopkins had been able to believe his own message.

King Lear: comfort, bleakness and realism

In the final chapter of her book Teaching Literature, Elaine Showalter reflects on what it is to teach literature in dark times. Showalter asks: ‘What should teachers do in the classroom in times of crisis, disaster, tragedy, sorrow, and panic? Does teaching literature, rather than economics or physics, demand that we rise to these occasions, and if so, how?’ It’s a question that’s been very much on my mind this week, a week in which terrible events have been unfolding on the other side of Europe and students have come into school jittery and afraid. Should literature be able to offer some kind of consolation? Should it even try?

Many people have argued, over the years, that this is what literature is for. It offers lessons and meanings; it teaches us how to live. Matthew Arnold famously declared, in ‘The Study of Poetry’ (1880), that we ‘will discover that we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us’. For Arnold, this was because religion was crumbling, philosophy was too abstruse, and scientific knowledge was ever-changing and therefore unstable. Poetry offered an eternal store of what he had referred to in Culture and Anarchy (1869) as ‘the best which has been thought and said’. For many reasons, though, Arnold’s premise is a shaky one. Poetry doesn’t exist as an abstract entity, free from all material ties. It’s written by real people, with real allegiances and prejudices, situated in real and very specific contexts. It interprets life in partial ways, informed by particular experiences and world-views. It shows us life through a particular set of lenses, but these lenses can be distorting, and we need to alert students to this rather than treating it as a store of eternal truths.

Bleak. Flooded Fens, by Gary Heayes, at openphoto.net

And comfort, in any case, can often be a bit rubbish. Years ago, I trained as a volunteer for a particular helpline, and one of the first things we were told was that we should never offer comfort, because it didn’t make life any better for the people who used our service. Other people would give them platitudes: what we had to do was to be prepared to go to the depths with them, to face the worst, rather than pretending that the worst didn’t exist.

Ironically, in view of what I’ve just said about Matthew Arnold, one of the most bracing things I’ve ever read is another of Arnold’s works: his poem ‘Dover Beach’. This poem is full of uncertainty. It sets the ebb and flow of the waves against the confusion of human life, and concludes that in a world beset by pain, all we can do is ‘be true to one another’. I remember teaching it to a Year Thirteen class in a previous iteration of the A level course. We spent quite a long time exploring the poem’s final stanza, and especially the lines where Arnold ultimately rejects the idea that the world is a benign, comforting place:

… the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

‘Well, that’s bloody depressing’, one student declared, and most of the rest of the class agreed. But one student didn’t. Her mother had terminal cancer, and didn’t have long to live. This particular student squared her shoulders and paused before she spoke. ‘I think it’s quite realistic, actually’, she said.

I have been thinking about all of this because Year Twelve and I have been looking at the ending of King Lear this week. We’ve been listening to Emma Smith’s fantastic podcast on the different ways in which the ending of the play has been interpreted, and I’ve been impressed by how quickly the students have grasped the various critical perspectives that Smith outlines. We started by examining the idea of catharsis, and thinking about what the ending of Macbeth provides: a sense that the balance of things has been restored, that a world rocked on its axis has been set right by the death of Macbeth and the accession of Malcolm to the throne. Then we turned to Lear. All the bad people die – Cornwall and Edmund, Goneril and Regan – but so do Gloucester and Cordelia and Lear. Cordelia doesn’t need to die: Edmund, wanting to do some good in the last moments of his life, sends Edgar to reverse the order he has issued for Cordelia to be hanged. But Edgar is too late. And there isn’t the neat ending that Macbeth offers, with the rightful ruler back in place. We don’t know who’s going to rule. Strictly speaking, it should be Albany, as the most senior character left alive. But he offers the throne to Edgar and Kent. Nobody seems to want the job. I’m not sure I can blame them.

Smith’s podcast surveys responses to the ending of King Lear from Nahum Tate in 1681 to Jonathan Dollimore in 1984, placing these responses into four broad stages. First, represented by Tate and Samuel Johnson, is the view that the ending of King Lear is too shocking to give pleasure: too cruel and appalling, the deaths of Lear and Cordelia too unnecessary. Second, represented by Schlegel and the Romantics, is the view that the suffering within the play takes place on such a huge scale that it can be seen as an example of the sublime: its very vastness inspires us with a sense of awe. Third is the Christian interpretation offered by A.C. Bradley and G. Wilson Knight: that the ending offers a vision of redemption in which Lear’s suffering will be rewarded in heaven. Finally, there is a much darker view, represented by existentialist philosophy and the Theatre of the Absurd: that the play’s ending is just as shocking and brutal as Tate and Johnson felt, but that this is simply the way life is. We are, indeed, as flies to wanton boys: there is no deeper meaning, no higher purpose, no certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain. Dover, whether it’s Arnold’s version or in the absurdist interpretation of Shakespeare, is a pretty bleak place. All you can do is square your shoulders, take a deep breath, and keep going.

And we decided that actually, it was this interpretation of Lear that we liked best. It faces the brutality of the play head-on and does not try to offer some consolatory message that isn’t there. It’s raw and astringent. It was one of those lessons that goes way beyond A level, that is far more important than any discussion of assessment objectives or essay structure.

Auden’s poem ‘September 1, 1939’ has been mentioned several times this week, for obvious reasons. In Julian Barnes’ novel A History of the World in 10½ Chapters there’s a discussion of Auden’s line ‘We must love one another or die’. Auden famously changed this line to ‘We must love one another and die’, commenting that the original was ‘a damned lie’ because ‘we must die anyway’. Barnes’ narrator is sceptical – he argues that there are more persuasive ways of reading Auden’s first version – but I’m on Auden’s side. Face the bleakness, face the inevitability, and make the most of things while you can.

Meanwhile, spring has finally come to this particular corner of the world, at a time when things are so horrific elsewhere. I am thinking of Carol Rumens’ poem ‘The Emigrée’, of white streets and blue sky and an impression of sunlight, and hoping that things will change.

Digging

My dad left school when he was fifteen. It was the summer of 1952. He was a bright lad, and had done well at school: he’d passed his 11+, and had got a place at Wigan Grammar School, distinguishing himself by way of his neat handwriting and meticulous organisation. And then his dad – a coal miner, from a family of coal miners – developed pneumoconiosis, and died, leaving a wife and two sons. He was just 44. My dad left the Grammar School, and went down the pit himself, to support his mother and ten-year-old brother.

This wasn’t the end of his education. He enrolled at Wigan Technical College and completed qualifications, in geology, surveying, mining technology. Eventually, he was transferred to the brand-new, state-of-the-art Parkside Colliery, in Newton-le-Willows, and was appointed Safety Engineer. He helped to formulate the rules that were put in place across the country to make conditions safer for the men who worked underground. He was head of the colliery’s First Aid team, which he led to victory in competitions throughout the UK.

Parkside Colliery First Aid team, 1975. My dad is third from the right. My brother is on the right, with v trendy collar and tank top

And he was a digger. Earth was his element. He gardened, grew flowers and vegetables, kept an allotment. Appropriately, for a miner and a gardener, he believed in starting at the bottom and working your way up. He wasn’t keen on the idea of university. It enabled people to skip the first few rungs on the ladder, elevating book-learning over practical, hands-on experience. Going to university delayed the process of getting a job and earning a living, the process he’d started in his mid-teens. As for studying English – well, what was the point? It took a trip into school and a meeting with my English teacher to convince him that it wouldn’t be a waste of time.

So Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Digging’, with its division not just between the generations but between talents and ways of life, is a poem that has always resonated with me. Since I’ve had my own garden, I’ve recognised how much care and skill went into what he did. Nothing fancy – I don’t think anyone had heard of butternut squash or rainbow chard back then – but potatoes and leeks, onions and cabbages and tomatoes, enough for a family of six with plenty left over. He was a great believer in an honest job that was done well. The rasping sound of spade in soil, the clean smell of earth.

Extract from an article by my dad in the Parkside Colliery newsletter, 1986

And now my son, the Dude, is a digger, too. He’s decided that college isn’t for him, for now. He’s working for a landscape gardener, wielding a spade and heaving buckets of earth. He’s coming home filthy and tired, but it’s a good tiredness. College can wait. It won’t go away.

The last few months have brought home to me how little vocational education is valued in the UK, and how difficult life is for young people who don’t want to go down an academic route post-16. The past two years have meant that opportunities for work experience have been thin on the ground. Open days, college visits, induction sessions: the mechanisms that help teenagers to make big decisions about their futures have been unable to happen. And so choices have been made based on what seems easiest, on what has the security of the familiar. School and college seem safe. It’s hard to break away and do something completely new.

I am proud of the Dude, for doing the difficult thing. My dad never got to meet him, but he’d be proud of him too. Meanwhile, I’m poised between the two, with my own squat pen and a head full of books, doing my own digging.

King Lear: the personal and the political

I don’t think it’s any secret that I love teaching A level English. I think A level – especially Year Twelve – is a really important time, when students are starting to find out who they are intellectually now that they can focus on just three subjects. There are those lovely moments when someone becomes completely hooked on a topic they’d never heard of six months previously, and you can almost see an entire career starting to take shape before your eyes. Sometimes, you’ll suggest something that they could follow up, a bit of extra reading, and they’ll take the idea and run with it. I remember this phase of my own life very vividly, and the sense that there were spaces opening up inside my head, exciting and addictive and a little bit scary. Connections are firing and interpretations being made, and sometimes – even after twenty-six years – it is so bloody brilliant that I get to the end of a lesson and can’t believe I actually get paid to do all of this.

I had one of those moments the week before last, when Year Twelve were looking at the concept of anagnorisis. I know some people are sceptical about using Aristotelian concepts to analyse tragedy, and I do think they need careful handling: it’s not enough to simply get students to learn them and apply them, because that often leads to lots of over-schematic analysis. And anagnorisis is a case in point. Aristotle defines it as a change from ignorance to knowledge, which could involve the recognition of someone’s true identity – as when Lear recognises that he has trusted the wrong daughters – or an acknowledgement of one’s own tragic error. Students often want to find one single moment that they can label, but in King Lear, anagnorisis is more of a process. The first hint of it occurs as early as Act 1 Scene 5, just after the violent scene in which Lear curses Goneril. Lear and the Fool are on stage together, and there’s a sense that the Fool is, gently, trying to encourage the emotionally spent king to think about what he has done:

FOOL: Thou canst tell why one’s nose stands i’the middle on’s face?
KING LEAR: No.
FOOL: Why, to keep one’s eyes of either side’s nose; that what a man cannot smell out, he may spy into.
KING LEAR: I did her wrong –
FOOL: Canst tell how an oyster makes his shell?

Lear’s ‘I did her wrong – ’ is the first sign we get that he recognises the rashness of his actions. Tantalisingly, though, it’s broken off, interrupted by the Fool. It’s not until the end of this scene that Lear returns to the subject of himself, this time with an anguished plea for sanity:

O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven,
Keep me in temper: I would not be mad!

Next time we see him, in Act 2 Scene 4, Lear’s grasp on sanity has become even more precarious. It is in this scene that he recognises how Goneril and Regan have manipulated him. Crucially, he is also beginning to question the values that he has lived by. His daughters are trying to persuade him that he does not need his hundred knights, and in response, Lear utters his great, agonised speech on the nature of need, recalibrating his sense of what is really necessary. And then, in the scenes on the heath in Act 3, we see Lear’s recognition of the shortsighted way in which he has governed his country, ignoring the needs of the ‘poor naked wretches’, with their ‘houseless heads’ and ‘unfed sides’, who must bear the full force of the storm:

O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this!

This is where Year Twelve come in. One of them, considering Lear’s acknowledgement of the state of his country, asked: does anagnorisis have to be about personal faults? Can characters undergo a political anagnorisis as well? And we decided that this is certainly true of Lear. His anagnorisis certainly has a personal dimension, but I’d argue that it’s Lear’s political anagnorisis that makes this such an astonishing play, lifting it out of a purely domestic realm.

‘Off, off, you lendings–Come unbutton here,’ William Sharp, 1793. (Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Kiernan Ryan’s recent book Shakespearean Tragedy explores the political dimension of King Lear in detail. Ryan makes it clear that the staging of the play – at Whitehall, in front of King James I – could itself be seen as a profoundly transgressive act, confronting the king with ‘a mighty monarch, James’s legendary precursor on the throne of Albion, [who] is robbed not just of his royalty but the roof over his head, and forced to feel the deprivation, the biting cold and the despair that the hungry, homeless outcasts of his kingdom must endure’ (Ryan, 163). For Ryan, the most remarkable moment in the play is when Lear tears off his clothes – a moment when the king realises that ‘beneath his royal robes and a mad beggar’s rags shivers the same “poor, bare, forked animal”’ (194). As Lear strips himself of his ‘lendings’, he ‘enacts the understanding that the monarchy itself, and the unequal distribution of property, wealth and power it preserves, have no foundation in nature’ (195). This moment is made all the more remarkable by the fact that it would have been witnessed by King James itself, and that it took place at a time when the clothes that people were allowed to wear were governed by the sumptuary laws, meaning that one’s clothing gave a clear visual sign of one’s place in the social hierarchy. Ryan goes on to point out that this stripping-away of garments reveals not just the ‘physiological kinship’ of people of different ranks and classes, but also ‘the potential they share with their fellow human beings to be someone quite different from the person they became and believe themselves to be’ (196).

There are, of course, so many connections that can be drawn between Lear’s anagnorisis – his recognition of the corrupting power of wealth and status, of the different rules that apply to rich and poor – and our current political situation. Plate sin with Lulu Lytle wallpaper, and the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks … Pomp, as Lear urges, should ‘take physic’, and expose itself ‘to feel what wretches feel’. We are enjoying finding the parallels, whilst hoping that hubris will meet its inevitable counterpart. I’m not sure Shakespeare has ever seemed so relevant.

King Lear: Examining Albany

We’re now exploring Act 5, and one of the characters we’ve looked at recently is Albany. He’s a character I find interesting, because of the way he grows in stature during the play, and he’s also a useful character to use as the basis for an exploration of how the OpenSourceShakespeare website can be used to develop students’ understanding.

If you’ve never used OpenSourceShakespeare before, it’s brilliant. You can search Shakespeare’s whole canon for individual words – there are 307 references to horses in Shakespeare’s works, but no donkeys – or use the Advanced Search to look for particular words in one play. Thus you can find out that the word ‘nothing’ appears 34 times in King Lear, and that Lear himself uses it more than anyone else, 10 times in total. You can also search for all the speeches by a particular character, and that’s really useful if you want a quick way of looking at something like how a character’s lines are distributed throughout the play, or how many soliloquies are spoken by a particular character. It enables you to check hunches. You can even come up with some surprising observations, such as the fact that Goneril and Edmund only actually speak to each other in one scene, Act 4 Scene 2, where Edmund declares himself ‘Yours in the ranks of death’. Give it a go! But be prepared to waste hours of your time.

Costume design for the Duke of Albany, John Seymour Lucas, C19th. (Source: Creative Commons)

So, Albany. He’s a bit of an odd character, isn’t he? If you do an image search for ‘King Lear Albany’, you’ll get a real mess of characters, but none of them recognisably Albany. Nobody gets famous for playing Albany, in the way they get famous for playing Gloucester or Edmund or even the vile eye-gouging Cornwall. I doubt Albany’s a role that actors aspire to play. What does Albany actually do? For the first half of the play, he’s barely there, such an unsubstantial presence that it’s not surprising that Goneril treats him with such contempt. But he’s one of only three characters to survive at the end of the play, and in one version – the 1608 quarto – he speaks the final lines. How does he get there?

We first meet Albany in Act One Scene One, where he is mentioned in the very first line, ‘I thought the King had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall.’ James Shapiro points out that this line would have had a deeply contemporary resonance for Shakespeare’s audience: King James’s older son, Henry, was the current Duke of Cornwall, and his younger son, Charles, was Duke of Albany. But there’s no clear reason for Lear to favour Albany, whose role in this scene is essentially to be his wife’s silent partner. In production, he’s often presented as nervous, on edge. Richard Clothier, in Sam Mendes’ 2014 production for the National Theatre, plays him as hesitant and solicitous, gazing up at Goneril as she delivers her speech to Lear. Albany only speaks twelve lines altogether in Act 1, and none of his speeches is longer than two lines. His first two lines are ‘Dear sir, forbear!’ and ‘Pray, sir, be patient’, urging Lear to think more carefully as he denounces first Cordelia and then Goneril. In general, in this first act, he’s a bit bewildered, constantly wanting to know what’s happening and what’s wrong. He wants people to calm down and not get quite so worked up. It’s quite telling, I think, that he makes no comment whatsoever about Lear’s riotous knights. You’d think he’d be a bit hacked off.

It’s even more striking that Albany doesn’t appear at all during Acts 2 and 3. He is entirely absent from the scenes of conflict at Gloucester’s castle, including Act 2 Scene 4, when Goneril and Regan carry out their callous reduction of Lear’s right to his hundred knights, and when Cornwall – who has already put the disguised Kent in the stocks – insists on barring the gates of the castle, shutting Lear out in the storm. He doesn’t appear again, in fact, until Act 4 Scene 2, but when he does return, it’s with a line that is one of my favourite insults in the whole world:

O Goneril,
You are not worth the dust which the rude wind
Blows in your face.

Isn’t it brilliant? And he continues in the same vein. He might have been absent, but he knows exactly what’s been going on. There are two emotions that dominate his lines: contempt, and an appalled, visceral horror:

Wisdom and goodness to the vile seem vile;
Filths savour but themselves. What have you done?
Tigers, not daughters, what have you perform’d?

Goneril, now, is ‘most barbarous, most degenerate’, a ‘devil’, a ‘fiend’. Her actions against her father are such that if the heavens do not rain down punishment upon her, then there is surely no hope:

Humanity must perforce prey on itself,
Like monsters of the deep.

Goneril dismisses him as a ‘milk-liver’d man’, a ‘vain fool’, but by now, we’re firmly on Albany’s side. And when a gentleman arrives with the news of Cornwall’s death, Albany himself takes heart that the heavens are on his side too: ‘This shows that you are above, / You justicers.’

In Act 5, we see Albany increasingly acting like a statesman, rather than shuffling his feet on the sidelines. You can get students to track this as they read the play, but it’s interesting to get them to confirm it by looking at Albany’s lines on OpenSourceShakespeare. He is respectful, but assertive. He arrests Edmund on a charge of capital treason, orders the sick Regan to be taken to his tent, and takes charge when Edgar, in disguise, presents himself to challenge his brother. His scorn for Goneril continues to be abundantly clear: her refers to her as a ‘gilded serpent’, and orders her to ‘shut [her] mouth’. As the play reaches its end, he vows to resign his powers to Lear ‘during the life of this old Majesty’, ensuring that the frail and grief-stricken king receives a measure of the dignity to which he is entitled.

Then there are those last lines, speaking of sadness, honesty, and lessons hard learned. In the Quarto version, they’re spoken by Albany. In the Folio, they’re spoken by Edgar. Arguably, it’s more appropriate to give them to Albany, as the highest-ranking survivor. He’s grown enormously during the course of the play. Would we ever have expected it, from his behaviour in Act 1? Probably not.

An interesting observation. Apart from Act 1 Scene 1, Albany and Cornwall are never on stage together. Have they ever got along, these sons-in-law? Some productions cast actors who differ markedly in appearance and physique, playing on the difference between the characters. In the 2014 National Theatre production, Albany is neat and grey-suited, Cornwall broad-shouldered in a maroon shirt and flashy striped tie. You can imagine them at an awkward family party, Cornwall insisting on taking over the barbecue, Albany sipping wine and wanting to make an early getaway.

And an enormous irony. The real-life Duke of Albany, just six years old when King Lear was first performed, would later become Charles I. We’ll never know what he was doing on Boxing Day 1606, when his dramatic equivalent was finding his feet, standing up to his wife, and witnessing the death of his king. I’m imagining him watching through the banisters, wondering what was going on, with no idea of what the future had in store.