Trisha Yates, feminist icon

Oh, Trisha Yates. Trisha Yates, with your magnificent hair, the product of endless hours with curling tongs and Elnette hairspray. Trisha Yates, who could wither spotty schoolboys with a single glare. I am currently working my way through the first few series of Grange Hill on Britbox, the perfect nostalgia-fest while I’m cooking or ironing, and it’s reminding me not only of what a fabulous series this was, but why we need characters like Trisha Yates in our lives.

The hair. (Photo: grangehillfandom.com)

When Grange Hill first started, in February 1978, I was only five years old. It was something that people’s big brothers and sisters watched, rather than something children my age watched, and therefore I first became aware of it as a Bad Influence, with a boy called Tucker Jenkins and lots of moral panic about loutish behaviour. My friend Emma wasn’t allowed to watch it, because her mum disapproved. We played Grange Hill in the playground when we’d had enough of playing School or House or Horses, and while all the boys wanted to be Tucker, all the girls wanted to be this mysterious being called Trisha Yates. And when I eventually started watching Grange Hill, when I was about seven, I could see why. Trisha was a force of nature. She knew her own mind and didn’t let anyone push her around. It was heady stuff.

Watching Grange Hill now, over forty years (forty years!) since its launch, has been an interesting experience. I’d been expecting controversy – rioting schoolchildren, pulling hair and eating dirt – but there’s actually a deep underlying morality to the series that makes it feel rather like a succession of public information films. Here’s what you do if you’re being bullied. Here’s how you should act if a classmate is having problems. Bad behaviour leads to clear consequences, and doing the right thing (telling a teacher, helping someone who is worse off than you) is praised. True, there is mischief, but there are also serious nasties – in the first series, it’s Jackie Heron and her sidekicks – and it’s clear that they are not to be admired.

And then there’s Trisha. She’s a first-year in 1978, with a big sister called Carol and a mum who also played Kath Brownlow in Crossroads. The famous hair is only in its infancy, but the rebelliousness is there. Trisha rails against having to wear school uniform and not being allowed to wear earrings or nail varnish. She gets detention for wearing stripy socks and bunks off school as a result. But she’s steered back by the wise counsel of her form tutor, Mr Mitchell, and learns to channel her stroppiness more constructively.

Trisha, Year 7 version.

If you go looking for articles about Grange Hill, you’ll often see Trisha described as the ‘bad girl’. But there’s a good deal of tone-policing going on here, because actually, she’s not a bad girl at all. Trisha kicks against authority, but as the series develops, she actually does a great deal of good. She joins the school council and spearheads numerous campaigns – to abolish school uniform, to get a common room for lower school pupils to use at lunchtime. She speaks out about the fact that girls aren’t allowed to do technical drawing. Whenever there’s an injustice, she squares her shoulders, sets her jaw, and does whatever she can to combat it. If that’s what being a ‘bad girl’ is, then there’s a whole lot that’s wrong with how we judge teenage behaviour, and especially the behaviour of teenage girls. Trisha won’t blindly obey orders or put up with things for the sake of keeping the peace. She’s a one-person embodiment of The Style Council’s message in ‘Walls Come Tumbling Down’: You don’t have to take this crap! You don’t have to sit back and relax! You can actually try changing it! That’s admirable, not bad.

There’s something deeply independent about Trisha’s character. Unlike her friend Cathy, she resists peer pressure, and refuses to get involved with the real bad girl Madelin Tanner, who gets Cathy mixed up in shoplifting. She goes out very briefly with Cathy’s older brother Gary, but ditches him when it’s clear that he’s not happy with her having other male friends. I remember teenage magazines of this era – my older sisters’ weekly copy of Jackie, with its photo stories and advice about flirting and make-up – being all about making yourself attractive and getting a boyfriend, but Trisha’s having none of it. She doesn’t seem bothered.

Trisha bows out at the end of Series 5, in 1982. I remember her appearing in the final episode of the Grange Hill spin-off Tucker’s Luck, when we find that she’s working for the DHSS. Michelle Herbert, who played her, now lives in Dundee, runs a double-glazing business with her husband, and campaigns to raise awareness of the lesser-known symptoms of breast cancer. I don’t know what Trisha is doing now, but I’d like to think that she is also campaigning somewhere, being feisty and determined and showing us how to be.

Northern

I knew it would happen. There’s Boris Johnson, presiding over a culture in 10 Downing Street where people were clearly allowed to believe that the rules didn’t apply to them. And there was Angela Rayner, being interviewed for Radio 4’s Today programme on Wednesday morning, discussing Johnson’s bluffing and obfuscation. ‘The Prime Minister could quite simply have answered the question: Was you there, was you not?’ British culture being what it is, it was inevitable that for some people, Rayner’s non-standard verb forms would be far more appalling than anything Johnson did or didn’t do. Twist the rules, lie to the public, spaff taxpayers’ money up the wall: just make sure you do it in RP.

A level English Language students are always fascinated by different perceptions of accents and dialects. One of the pieces of research we look at in Year 12 is Dixon, Mahoney and Cox’s 2002 matched guise study, which examined the effect of regional accent on perceptions of guilt. Participants were asked to listen to recordings of scripted interviews between a police inspector and a suspect, the latter played by a student who used a Birmingham accent in one set of interviews and an RP accent in another. The suspect was far more likely to be judged to be guilty when he spoke with a Birmingham accent – even though the words he spoke were exactly the same.

Students are frequently – and quite rightly – outraged by this, seeing it as an example of the ways in which people with strong regional accents are discriminated against. But there is, of course, another side to the experiment. You’re more likely to be considered guilty if you speak with a regional accent, but equally, you’re more likely to be considered not guilty if you speak RP. And this is one academic study, but how many people, over the decades, have managed to hide behind the smooth veneer of an accent so inextricably linked to wealth, power and the Establishment?

‘We apologise to viewers in the North. It must be awful for you.’ Susie Blake, as Victoria Wood’s continuity announcer

There are a number of poems that play around with issues of accent and prejudice. One of my favourites is Tony Harrison’s ‘Them & [uz]’, a pair of caudal sonnets based on the poet’s experience of being a pupil from a working-class background at the decidedly middle-class Leeds Grammar School. It uses phonemic symbols to distinguish between the younger Harrison’s accent – with its rounded [uz] – and that of his ‘nicely spoken’ teacher, with his RP [Ʌs]. In the first of the sonnets, Harrison is castigated for his accent and made to feel inferior, a ‘barbarian’. The poem is full of images of awkwardness – ‘gob full of pebbles’, ‘great lumps to hawk up and spit out’ – and ultimately, the teacher reduces Harrison to silence:

‘We say [Λs] not [uz], T.W.!’ That shut my trap.

The second sonnet shows Harrison fighting back. Gaining a defiant energy from somewhere, he vows ‘So right, ye buggers, then! We’ll occupy / Your lousy leasehold Poetry.’ He takes charge, drops ‘the initials I’d been harried as’ and uses ‘my name and own voice: [uz] [uz] [uz].’ It’s an immense two fingers to the authority of RP. The icing on the cake is Harrison’s decision to make the sonnet form his own, adapting it for his own purposes by adding those extra two lines. It’s audacious, disobedient, a refusal to conform. I love it.

I first encountered ‘Them & [uz]’ when I was a sixth former, at my comprehensive school in Newton-le-Willows, the same school that Andy Burnham attended, in the middle of the northern no-man’s-land between Manchester and Liverpool. I was preparing for my Oxford entrance exam and desperately self-conscious about sounding Northern. I next encountered it in my second year at university, in a tutorial for a unit called ‘The History, Use and Theory of the English Language’, a compulsory part of the course that nobody really wanted to do. We’d been farmed out to another college and our new tutor had given us the poem as a way of opening up a discussion about accents and prejudice. As the only Northerner in the group, I was asked to demonstrate a Northern [uz]. It didn’t do wonders for my self-esteem. But I was the only one in the group who’d seen the poem before, and could therefore explain exactly what it was that Harrison was saying.

So even though I could predict what one set of reactions to Angela Rayner’s interview would be, I was also cheering her on, a Northern-accented woman holding an RP-speaking man to account. And let’s hope that this is the beginning of the end for the accent of privilege.

We need to talk about The Woman in Black

She’s scary, that woman. Look at her, standing there at the back of the church without a prayer book, or in the abandoned graveyard. Or, rather – don’t look at her. You never know what you might unleash. Keep your head down, keep walking, and carry on as if you never saw her in the first place.

If you’ve ever taught Susan Hill’s 1983 novel The Woman in Black, ever seen the stage play or the Daniel Radcliffe film or the 1989 ITV adaptation, you’ll know just how frightening Jennet Humfrye, the Woman in Black, actually is. Jennet, with her wasted face and malevolent gaze, haunts the lonely churchyard and marshes of the isolated town of Crythin Gifford, and casts an eerie spell over Arthur Kipps, the young solicitor who has been sent from London to sort out the papers of the mysterious Mrs Drablow after her death. Her fleeting appearances in the stage play have audience members shrieking in their seats.  In the television adaptation, scripted by Nigel Kneale of Quatermass fame, she swoops down like a grinning harpy over Kipps as he lies in his bed, and screeches in his face.

Me, confronted with another set of adoption stereotypes

The Woman in Black is incredibly popular in schools. It’s a set text for OCR and Eduqas at GCSE, and it’s also used widely in Key Stage 3, partly because it’s a brilliant introduction to the Gothic, but also because it’s a cracking novel in its own right. We do it at the beginning of Year Nine, and students enjoy it: they rise to the challenge of what is a relatively ‘adult’ novel, and are intrigued by the way Hill controls tension and builds atmosphere. Living as we do on the edge of the Fens, they also find Hill’s descriptions of misty, marshy landscapes extremely evocative. We spend time looking at the way she conveys the delicacy of the light, the weak winter sun and the calls of distant birds. Last year, one of my students showed me a photograph he’d taken during his journey to school one foggy morning. ‘Look, Miss’, he said, ‘it’s just like that bit we read where he’s on his way to Eel Marsh House.’ And it was.

But The Woman in Black is also problematic. Like Blood Brothers, which I wrote about last year, it’s a text whose plot turns on an adoption, and therefore, it has the potential to unleash some extremely complex feelings in students who are adopted or in care. It’s also a text whose representation of adoption – in particular, of the birth mother Jennet Humfrye – needs careful handling.

When she first appears, at the funeral of the reclusive widow Alice Drablow, Jennet Humfrye is a mysterious, brooding presence, dressed in black and bearing the traces of ‘some terrible wasting disease’. Arthur’s first impulse is to feel sorry for her. He wonders whether there’s anything he can do to help. As the novel unfolds, we discover that Jennet and Alice were sisters. We learn that Jennet had a relationship with a young man, became pregnant, and was coerced by her family into giving up her son Nathaniel so that he could be adopted by her sister and brought up in a ‘respectable’ household.

As such, Jennet can be read as an example of the Victorian ‘fallen woman’, and as a representative of the many thousands of women who have been coerced into relinquishing their children because of the stigma of illegitimacy. Arthur suspects that part of her fate is due to the fact that she is a ‘daughter of genteel parentage’: if she had been a servant, she ‘might perhaps have fared better’. As it is, she has been ‘coldly rejected’, her feelings ‘totally left out of the count’, in order to preserve her family’s reputation. Hill makes the agony of Jennet’s situation abundantly clear:

I felt sorry for J, as I read her short, emotional letters over again. Her passionate love for her child and her isolation with it, her anger and the way she at first fought bitterly against and, finally, gave despairingly in to the course proposed to her, filled me with sadness and sympathy.

The Woman in Black, p. 176

In class, Jennet’s plight can be used to open up multiple conversations about the treatment of women and children and the injustices that have been perpetrated in the name of ‘morality’ and ‘respectability’. Students are often horrified that Jennet’s relatives were allowed to do what they did, and even more horrified when they find that even nowadays, women are being coerced into giving up their babies so that they can be given a life that is supposedly better than the one they might have had otherwise. These experiences have been highlighted by the ongoing campaign for an official apology to the thousands of British women forced to hand over their newborn babies for adoption. It might be instructive to read The Woman in Black alongside some of their testimonies: accounts of being slapped, refused pain relief, forbidden to say goodbye. Jennet’s story belongs to living memory, not the distant past.

But. Here’s the difficult thing. Jennet, as everyone who has read or watched The Woman in Black will know, is not allowed to remain as the recipient of sympathy. She’s an avenging spirit who terrifies those who see her. Her loss has fuelled not just sadness, but a destructive rage, a ‘pent-up hatred and desire for revenge’ that leads her to ‘take away other women’s children because she had lost her own’. After the death of her son in a tragic accident, she goes ‘mad with grief and mad with anger’, roaming the streets of the small town of Crythin Gifford ‘like a walking skeleton – a living spectre’. In death, she haunts the isolated Eel Marsh House and the landscape around it. The sight of her reduces Mr Jerome to a state of abject terror. We learn that soon after she appears, a child will inevitably die, in ‘some violent or dreadful circumstance’. She’s an abomination, a monstrous Other, a bogeywoman. And that’s the problem.

It’s a problem for two significant reasons. The first is because if you have any adopted children in your class, their feelings about their birth parents will – inevitably – be incredibly complex ones. Some might have vivid and possibly traumatic memories of living with their birth parents. Some might have ongoing contact. Others will have had to rely on their adoptive parents for information about their birth families, and while all adoptive parents are taught, in their preparation, about how important it is for children to know their life stories, it’s clear that not all adoptive parents are assiduous in having these conversations. (‘Why do you talk to him about that stuff?’ one acquaintance asked me, about the Dude. ‘Does he really need to know?’ Yes, he does. Shut up.) There’ll be a tangle of emotions that – depending on circumstances – might include anger and fear and guilt but will also include grief and love. And having the figure of a birth mother presented as an object of terror could be extremely damaging.

And what about if you don’t have any adopted children in your class? The other reason why Jennet Humfrye is such a troubling figure is because she feeds into the general hoard of myths and stereotypes that exist around adoption. If you don’t have any experience of adoption in real life – and let’s face it, many people don’t – you will rely on fiction and the media to build your mental model. There are hundreds of examples of adopted and care-experienced people in fiction, and therefore also hundreds of examples of fictional birth parents, adoptive parents and foster carers. And many of these examples are hugely problematic.

What might be useful, then, if you’re teaching The Woman in Black, is to consider why it is that the figure of a birth mother – the victim of a terrible injustice – has been treated in this way. Whose interests does it serve, to demonise a woman who has already suffered? In what ways could we see Jennet Humfrye as part of the culture that would still prefer to forget that birth parents exist, to write them out of adopted children’s stories and see them as objects of a profound, atavistic fear?

Last year, I talked to Al Coates of The Adoption and Fostering Podcast about the ways in which adoption is represented in fiction and popular culture. One thing Al said was that what adoption needs is its own version of Cathy Come Home, a story that presents the reality: not the unicorns-and-rainbows fairytale of adoption recruitment campaigns, not the superhero wonder children and not the demons. Too many stories rely on adoption as an easy source of tropes and plot twists. The Woman in Black can open up some conversations about adoption, and can help to shed light on some of the injustices that have taken place. But the way it treats Jennet Humfrye should also make us feel profoundly uncomfortable, and if we’re teaching this novel, then we need to be aware of its flaws.  

Learwife, A Thousand Acres, and creative criticality

I spent the last few days of the Christmas holidays engrossed in J.R. Thorp’s debut novel, Learwife. As its title suggests, it offers an answer to the question students ask every year: what happened to King Lear’s wife? In Thorp’s novel, Lear’s wife has spent the past fifteen years in a convent. She has just heard that her husband and all three of her daughters have died, and is determined to go to Dover to find their bodies, to mourn them properly. We don’t know, initially, why she has ended up in the convent, but it’s clear that it wasn’t her choice. This enclosed world is evoked in detail – the rivalries between the nuns, the privations of winter, the upheaval caused by an outbreak of illness – and Lear’s wife observes all of this from a vantage point that is not entirely neutral: there’s a sly enjoyment in the way she notices other people’s disappointments, their reactions to slights.

What’s most interesting to me, as a confirmed King Lear fan, is Thorp’s depiction of Lear’s daughters, and their place in Lear’s world. In Thorp’s version, there’s a fifteen-year age gap between Cordelia and her older sisters. Goneril and Regan, two years apart, bicker and compete. Their relationship with each other is marked by petty vanities and minor displays of spite. Attempts to assert themselves – borrowing their mother’s combs, refusing to obey orders, wearing foreign gowns that show their arms – are met with slaps and rage and coldness. There are pinches and scratches, dozens of minor cruelties. Regan marries first. Cornwall, a vain peacock, is offended by Lear’s refusal to let Regan leave the royal household: they must stay there, Lear says, in the house of Regan’s birth, rather than setting up court elsewhere. Goneril, who wants to become a nun, is married off to Albany against her will: he is an older man, gentle and calm. At their wedding-feast, she turned away from him and ‘laughed indecorously with companions, passing musicians, any other person’.

All the time, what Lear is waiting for is a son. His wife has several miscarriages. There are discussions: should a baby boy be adopted, secretly? Might a holy relic help? Then Cordelia is born, sickly, not expected to survive. And three months later, her mother is taken one night, with just one servant, to the convent where she will spend the next fifteen years. We don’t know, at this stage, why this has happened, but her grief is palpable. She is still producing milk, still aching.

Lear’s wife is barely mentioned in the play itself, so her personality, and her story, are entirely open to interpretation. The only hint we get is in Act 2 Scene 4, when Lear, in an increasing rage at the way his daughters are treating him, refers to their ‘mother’s tomb’ as ‘sepulchring an adultress’. (In Learwife, we find out, eventually, where these suspicions of adultery come from). But Goneril and Regan are much more prominent, and so any fictional interpretation of them needs to ring true. Thorp’s does. You can see entirely, reading about the sisters in childhood and adolescence, how they become the characters they do as adults: where Regan’s malice comes from and why Goneril is so detached from Albany.

“King Lear,” Act I, Scene I, by Edwin Austen Abbey, Metropolitan Museum of New York (public domain)

The other great fictional adaptation of King Lear that I know of is Jane Smiley’s Pulitzer prizewinning novel A Thousand Acres, published in 1991. Smiley transplants the story of Lear and his three daughters to present-day Iowa, to a farm that is the elderly Larry Cook’s pride and joy, nurtured by him single-mindedly over decades. He wants to divide it between his three daughters, Ginny, Rose and Caroline. Ginny and Rose, whose husbands work on the farm, are startled, but accept. Caroline, a lawyer who has moved away to Des Moines, refuses. For this she is cut out. What follows is an exploration of the tensions within the family, the shifting patterns of loyalty and rancour and the things that aren’t mentioned in order to keep the peace. One of these is the fact – revealed by from Caroline – that Ginny and Rose had been sexually abused by Larry. Some might call this far-fetched, but a number of recent productions do build a sense of the complexity of the daughters’ relationships with their father. In the 2016 RSC production, Nia Gwynne’s Goneril cringes at Lear’s cruelty: there’s a sense that she has had to screw her courage to the sticking-place in order to deny him what he wants.

Writing back to Shakespeare, exploiting what Emma Smith describes as ‘the sheer, permissive gappiness’ of his plays and opening these gaps up to explore them, takes skill and sensitivity. It’s something, however, that students aren’t able to do within current GCSE and A level specifications, and that’s a real shame. Writing that blends the creative and the critical, and that also makes use of the affordances of different genres, allows students to find their own ways into Shakespeare. In a chapter for Pamela Bickley and Jenny Stevens’ forthcoming book Shakespeare, Education and Pedagogy: Representations, Interactions and Adaptations, I’ve written about getting my Year Elevens to consider Lady Macbeth’s social media habits as a way of building their confidence and re-engaging them with the character after the first lockdown of 2020. It enabled them to articulate some very subtle observations about character and motivation, drawing on their almost instinctive knowledge of how people behave on social media to manage and manipulate appearances and present a ‘false face’ to the world. Such work is much fresher than any over-scaffolded extract analysis.

The absence of creative rewriting from any of the current specifications is particularly ironic given that creative rewriting is, after all, what Shakespeare himself was doing. Whether it was Holinshed’s Chronicles, Plutarch’s Lives, the Gesta Danorum or Cinthio’s Gli Hecatommithi, Shakespeare himself was taking stories and finding in them spaces that could be opened up and characters who could be rendered more complex. There’s a wonderful moment early in Kiernan Ryan’s recent book Shakespearean Tragedy where Ryan describes Henry VI sitting on a molehill while the Battle of Towton rages, reflecting on his situation. As Ryan comments, ‘The soliloquy owes nothing to Shakespeare’s sources and everything to his fellow-feeling for this stranded royal misfit’. Imagination, sympathy, considering life from the perspective of someone who is not you: all these things might well be difficult to examine, but in the long run, they are far more valuable than any number of drilled paragraphs.

So: read Learwife, and read A Thousand Acres. And let’s push, if we can, for creativity to play a far bigger role in the literature curriculum than it currently does.

28 years later

True story. It’s 23 December 1993, a Thursday. One of those grey midwinter days that never really seem to get light, when the world is shushed back to sleep almost as soon as it’s started to wake up. You’re 21, and kicking your heels. You’ve taken a year out of your degree course, for various non-specific, angsty, finding-yourself kind of reasons, and you’re doing voluntary work at a community centre in Liverpool, helping out on adult cookery courses and after-school clubs while you work out what you’re going to do next. Except today, you’re not at work, because it’s nearly Christmas. Your friend Dermot has suggested you meet up and go into Manchester, so that’s what you do. There’s a rail replacement bus from Eccles, and it threads its way through drizzly streets until it gets to Piccadilly, all Christmas lights and last-minute shoppers. The bus driver has his radio on, and the news is all about the death of Stefan Kiszko, wrongly convicted in 1976 of the murder of 11-year old Lesley Molseed. You think, in the abstract, of how awful it would be for something like that to happen so close to Christmas, but it’s the sort of thing that happens to other people, not to you.

Rain drops: winter dusk in Manchester, by Josh Graciano (licensed under Creative Commons 2.0)

The two of you want to avoid the crowds, so you head to Waterstones, which in 1993 is still just a bookshop, with none of the toys and gifts and jigsaws it becomes crammed with later. You spend a lot of your time in bookshops, in 1993, waiting in between trains or just killing time: News from Nowhere on Bold Street in Liverpool, the radical bookshop run by a workers’ co-operative; Bookland in Warrington, where you spent most of your pocket money as a sixth-former; Sherratt and Hughes on St Ann’s Square. You’re trying to keep up with your reading for university, and so today you buy Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, Ann Radcliffe’s A Sicilian Romance, Mary Wollstonecraft’s Political Writings. You wander back to the station, and head for home.

Your dad is grumpy. Your boots (cherry-red Doc Martens, eight holes) are muddy and he complains. Most of the things you do seem to annoy your dad, from reading too many books to spending too much time in your room. Your sister will be arriving any minute, with your nephews – one six, one nearly four – and you know you’ll be pressed into entertaining them. Your mum’s cooking. You can’t remember, now, what it is that she’s making, and wish you could.

An hour later. Your sister’s arrived, and you’re watching television with your nephews, who want to see the final advent candle being lit on Blue Peter. Your dad’s not feeling well – flu, your mum reckons – so your brother-in-law is going to take him to the GP to see if he can get a last-minute appointment. He’s gone into the front room to find his shoes, but he’s been gone for a while, and so your sister goes to see if she can help. That’s when there’s a shout – Christ, get an ambulance – and your life rattles over the points onto a different track entirely.

It was a massive heart attack, the post-mortem said. Chances are he wouldn’t have known anything about it. Not the worst way to go, by any means, except that he was only 57, six years into retirement and with lots of things still to look forward to. You are all silent, stunned, not knowing what to do. You know, now, that bad things can happen to anyone, even to you, and not just to other people. You remember that the last thing that he said was that he hoped you’d wiped your feet.

You change. How could you not? For a while, you feel at a distance from the rest of your life, from your friends, none of whom have experienced anything like this. You develop a steeliness, a core, a low tolerance for self-indulgence and excuses. You go back to university and intimidate people with how disciplined and focused you are. You work and work and are always a little bit scared of what might come from nowhere to throw life off balance again. You are not the person you would have become if this hadn’t happened to you, at 21.

You’ve spent longer without a father now – twenty-eight years – than you ever did with, but you are his daughter in more ways than he ever knew you’d be. You wonder, often, what he’d think of you if he could see you now, if you could have just one day.

Rage, howl: knowledge, emotion, and teaching King Lear

Storms, eh? There’s been enough of them around recently, what with Arwen and Barra. We’ve reached the storm scenes in King Lear, and have spent a lot of time unpicking what the storm represents. And this storm certainly does a lot of symbolic work. It’s an external manifestation of Lear’s inner turmoil. It represents the divisions within the kingdom, both political – in terms of the growing division between Albany and Cornwall – and social, in the plight of the ‘poor naked wretches’ whose situation Lear has done far too little to alleviate. It’s also a huge, drenching, violent force, a ‘dreadful pudder’, a sign of how powerful the natural world can be. In Shakespeare’s plays, storms – like the one that blows down the chimneys on the night of Duncan’s murder in Macbeth – function as signs of a heavenly displeasure with events on earth, an indication that the balance of things has been disturbed and needs to be restored. Lear wants the storm to make the wretches tremble, for those whose crimes have so far gone unwhipped to be found out and punished. Hmm. Thoughts, anyone?

The storm scenes should be incredibly powerful to teach, but their force depends so much on the careful groundwork you’ll have been doing in your work on the play so far. Students need to understand what is going on in Lear’s mind, the combination of rage and guilt and pain and self-pity. They need to grasp the symbolic contrast between Lear at the beginning of the play, in his position of power and luxury, and Lear on the heath, the gates of Gloucester’s castle barred against him. As I said in my previous post, this contrast helps to mark out Lear’s peripeteia, the downward spiral that was set in motion at the beginning of the play. Crucially, they also need a sense of why it is that Lear addresses the storm in the way he does. At the beginning of Act 3 Scene 2, Lear dares the storm to do its worst, to shake the earth to its foundations and ‘strike flat the thick rotundity o’th’world.’ Students benefit from a visual representation of the violence of these words: I get them to imagine a ball of Play-Doh being squashed flat. Lear wants the storm to ‘crack Nature’s moulds’, break the patterns from which things are cast so they can be made anew. Depending on their own life experiences, some sixth formers will know what it is like to feel so desperate, at such a pitch, that you want to rage and howl and destroy. Others won’t. How can we help them to understand the overwhelming nature of Lear’s emotions, to inhabit them from inside?

King Lear and the Fool, by Felix O.C. Darley (1822-1888)

There’s a lot of discussion at the moment about knowledge in English, and the complex forms that this knowledge takes. Perhaps uniquely among subjects, learning in English depends on a complicated set of interactions between the teacher, the students, the text being taught, and the wider context within which this teaching takes place. Anyone who has taught English for more than a few years will recognise that you never teach the same text twice: students will bring different experiences to the text, come up with different interpretations, and interact with it in different ways. English is a profoundly generative subject in which learners construct meaning actively, drawing on their existing knowledge, understanding and experiences in order to make sense of what they read. These debates about knowledge in English have been reignited recently in response to discussions about the role of direct instruction, scripted lessons and mastery learning, but really they are nothing new. Paulo Freire’s 1968 book Pedagogy of the Oppressed outlined the difference between the ‘banking model’ of education, which treats learners as empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge that other people have deemed important and appropriate, and a dialogical approach that encourages the development of a critical consciousness. And while the 1989 National Curriculum probably does not loom large in people’s minds as a force for student empowerment, its main author Brian Cox – not the actor, nor the particle physicist, but the literary critic – argued that the curriculum should aim to make students ‘active makers of meaning’ rather than passive receivers.

These constructivist approaches to English – in which meanings are generated anew every time the text is taught, and in which new interpretations sometimes emerge between different encounters with the text – underpin good English teaching. They are, however, immensely demanding. We’ve probably all taught students who’d prefer to be told what to think, who’d be quite happy to be given a set of notes that they can learn off by heart and reproduce faithfully. And we’ve probably also taught students who do not yet have the emotional maturity to cope with certain aspects of the texts they are studying. Some texts require a lot from their readers. They want them to understand what it is to experience particular emotions. They need them to have a sense of what’s going on in the world, of different kinds of injustice and inequality. Such things can be taught about, but this kind of knowledge will remain awkward, like a pair of shoes worn on the wrong feet. You need to live inside it, to take hold of it, in order to make use of it.

King Lear, on the heath, is experiencing huge and violent emotions, and understanding these emotions – and how Shakespeare conveys them – takes careful handling. Let’s think about the situation Lear is in. He has lost just about everything – his daughters, his status, his knights, his dignity. He is in the process of losing his wits. He is starting to realise that he is not the king he thought he was. These feelings are huge and horrible and strike at the very core of his being. They are so painful that the storm, in comparison, is nothing. He wants it to do its worst, to pound and destroy and rinse everything clean. Students need to unpick all of this, and we need to know how to help them to do it.

One concept that helps to articulate what teachers of English Literature do in the classroom is that of pedagogic literary narration, a term coined by John Gordon. This refers, essentially, to the way teachers present and frame texts and shape their students’ encounters with them. In an article in Teaching English, Gordon describes the different forms that pedagogic literary narration can take, including checking comprehension during a reading of a text, choosing when to elicit students’ comments, making connections with prior reading, encouraging reflection and asking ‘big picture’ questions that point beyond individual texts and prompt wider thinking. Knowing how and when to make these interventions is an important part of an English teacher’s work, and as Gordon states, ‘It is important to acknowledge this dimension of subject expertise, to identify it and describe it. Doing so allows us to recognise expert practice, and can inform mentoring to guide new teachers of English rapidly towards these high-level skills’. I’d argue that there is also a strong emotional dimension to this process. Marcello Giovanelli and Megan Mansworth have written recently of the importance of emotion in the teaching of English, and nowhere is this more apparent than at those points in texts when characters are confronting experiences that students might find hard to understand.

These are big issues, not least because they might also touch on feelings that students might recognise all too well. We should never lose sight of our safeguarding role, and there are times when the texts we teach tread very close to experiences that might be extremely difficult. Anguish, rage, the nagging voice of conscience: all big feelings for Lesson 2 on a wet Tuesday morning in December. But this makes it all the more important that we understand what we do when we teach English Literature, and why it can never be reduced to the simple transmission of facts.

Teaching King Lear: changes, connections, and lessons in life

One thing that can often be difficult, if you’re studying a play as huge as King Lear, is to maintain a sense of the whole play in students’ minds. It can easily become atomised, chopped up: a scene here, a speech there, and the overall trajectory is lost. We reached the end of Act Two earlier this week, and I’ve been getting the students to revisit aspects of Lear’s tragic journey and looking at key overarching themes, so they don’t lose sight of the big picture.

Act Two Scene Four is a good place to pause and look back at the journey Lear is making, since it marks a number of significant changes since the beginning of the play. One of these is the final breakdown of his relationship with Goneril and Regan. In the love trial of Act One Scene One, both were very keen to profess their love for Lear, whose plan was to visit each of them for a month in turn, with his train of a hundred knights in tow. Later in Act One, Lear’s knights cause chaos in Goneril’s castle: when Goneril refuses to house more than fifty of his knights, Lear leaves in high dudgeon. By the end of Act Two, his daughters have questioned why he needs any knights to accompany him at all:

Goneril:
What need you five-and-twenty, ten, or five,
To follow in a house where twice so many
Have a command to tend you?
Regan:
What need one?

It’s a clear demonstration, in numerical form, of how far Lear has fallen since the beginning of the play, when he stated his determination to retain ‘The name and all th’ addition to a king’. The fact that his daughters are prepared to work so closely together to deprive him of his knights is a devastating moment for Lear. They told him that they loved him, and he believed them. And now, they won’t let him have what he wants. His ‘O reason not the need!’ speech shows very clearly that need, in Lear’s eyes, is irrelevant: he might not need any of his knights, but he certainly wants them, to convince himself that he is still as important as he once was. From here, there really is no way that his relationship with Goneril and Regan can be salvaged. (And let’s face it, if your father cursed you with sterility and called you a boil and an embossed carbuncle, I think you could be forgiven for crossing him off your Christmas card list).

Howl of anguish: Head VI, after Velasquez’s portrait of Innocent X, by Francis Bacon (1949)

There’s also a neat physical opposition between the start of the play and the end of Act Two. In Act One Scene One, Lear’s first entrance is a ceremonial one. His arrival is heralded by a sennet, and he is accompanied by Cornwall, Albany, Goneril, Regan, Cordelia and his attendants. On stage, this entrance is often used to heighten the king’s status, as in the 2016 RSC production when Anthony Sher’s Lear was borne aloft in a glass box in a quasi-religious ceremony, or the 2018 National Theatre production when Ian McKellen’s Lear was surrounded by deferential guards and took up his place in front of a giant portrait of himself. But by the end of Act Two Scene Four, he has been very unceremoniously shut out of Gloucester’s castle. He exits, in a rage as high as the winds, and his daughters and Cornwall decide that the gates should be barred, on a wild night with no shelter for miles around. So, another demonstration of Lear’s peripeteia: his fall from ‘high estate’ to ‘low degree’ could not be illustrated more clearly.

The third change that I want to talk about is a more subtle one. It concerns the breakdown of Lear’s speech and his increasing lack of fluency – ‘the ‘glib and oily art’ that Cordelia refers to in Act One Scene One when taking leave of her sisters. At the beginning of the play, Lear dominated not just in his physical and symbolic presence, but in his language. His first speech is long, measured, and gives the impression of having been carefully planned. He also directs the speech of others. Notice his use of imperative verbs: ‘know’, ‘tell’, ‘speak first’, ‘speak’, ‘speak’, ‘speak again’, ‘mend your speech a little’. But as Lear’s mental state begins to deteriorate, so too does his command of language. Sentences trail off, exclamations and self-contradictions become more frequent, and the King is sometimes reduced to an incoherent splutter, as when Gloucester informs him that Regan and Cornwall are refusing to speak to him:

“Fiery”? The “fiery” duke? Tell the hot duke that—
No, but not yet. Maybe he is not well.

The addressees of Lear’s speech also change. Within just one speech, he can jump from addressing another character on stage to speaking to the gods, himself, a different character, and various abstract entities: it’s as if the contents of his mind are becoming increasingly and messily exposed to us. This is particularly apparent in his final speech in Act Two Scene Four. Look at how Lear’s argument about need breaks down as he reflects on his growing inability to regulate his emotions. He swerves from speaking to his daughters, to pleading with the heavens. He asks the gods to make him angry, rather than letting him cry. He goes back to speaking to his daughters – the ‘unnatural hags’ – and issues the most impotent of threats. I get my students to put these lines into their own words. I’m going to do something really awful to get my own back on you. I don’t know what it is that I’m going to do, but it’s going to be really, really bad. He pauses, mid-line. Is he out of breath, choking back tears, gathering himself? And then he tells the Fool, his trusted companion, that he shall go mad. (This in itself is a change from Act One Scene Five, when pleads with the heavens: ‘Let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven, / Keep me in temper, I would not be mad!’ At that point, he was desperate to retain his sanity: by now, he senses that madness is increasingly inevitable.)

O reason not the need: our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous:
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s. Thou art a lady;
If only to go warm were gorgeous,
Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear’st,
Which scarcely keeps thee warm. But, for true need, –
You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need!
You see me here, you gods, a poor old man,
As full of grief as age; wretched in both!
If it be you that stir these daughters’ hearts
Against their father, fool me not so much
To bear it tamely; touch me with noble anger,
And let not women’s weapons, water-drops,
Stain my man’s cheeks! No, you unnatural hags,
I will have such revenges on you both,
That all the world shall – I will do such things, –
What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be
The terrors of the earth. You think I’ll weep
No, I’ll not weep:
I have full cause of weeping; but this heart
Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws,
Or ere I’ll weep. O fool! I shall go mad.

There are some further interesting discussions that you can have with students at this point. One is to use an analysis of Lear’s speech as a springboard to get students to think about each character’s relationship to language. Cordelia cannot ‘heave [her] heart into [her] mouth’; Goneril, Regan and Edmund use language to flatter, scheme and manipulate. Kent is known for his plainness of speech, and is put in the stocks for it. Edgar seems almost pitifully tongue-tied when he is on stage with Edmund. The Fool’s language is, of course, notoriously playful and slippery, but even he has to operate within certain limits, for fear of the whip. Another – at a point in the play where questions of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ are particularly acute – is to get them to consider which characters are insiders, which are outsiders, and which have changed their status, physically or metaphorically, since the beginning of the play. Lear was the most important insider at the beginning, but now he’s on the outside. Goneril and Regan are on the inside, as is Cornwall: Albany has expressed his doubts about what Goneril is doing, but hasn’t yet made his allegiances completely clear. Cordelia, Kent and Edgar were insiders, but now they’re on the outside. And Edmund, of course, was very definitely on the outside, but is now inside, as a result of his ability to dissemble.

A couple of years ago, one of my students pointed out that the insiders in the play are all those who can manipulate language to secure their own interests. The outsiders can’t. We paused, and another student said, ‘That’s like life, really, isn’t it?’ Never say that Shakespeare isn’t relevant, and that his plays don’t still have things to tell us.

Tragedy: knowledge, understanding and handling genre

It’s been quite a couple of weeks, here in the Flatlands, but here I am, and here’s my latest King Lear post.

Tragedy! When the feeling’s gone and you can’t go on … You get the picture. Today I’m writing about the T-word, everybody’s favourite big chunky genre, ripe for students to get their teeth into. Who doesn’t love teaching tragedy? I adore it. And King Lear is one of my favourite tragedies to teach, along with A View from the Bridge and The History Boys. (You thought The History Boys was a comedy? Try reading it again, using tragedy as a lens, and see what you make of it. But that’s another post entirely.)

Greek tragedy mask from the 4th century BCE, in the Archaeological Museum, Piraeus. Photo by
George E. Koronaios. Source: Wikimedia Commons

It’s easy to see why tragedy, as a genre, has been given a place on A level specifications. It has enormous cultural and historical significance. It has its roots in classical Greece, but has been adapted, updated and played around with by writers ever since. The central concepts of tragedy give us a tool to explore all manner of narratives, from Sophocles to the present day. Is the history of humanity itself just another tragic drama? Are we suffering the consequences of the hubris of previous generations? That’s one for your Year Thirteens to ponder. So tragedy is massive, and complex, and serious. Because of this, it also challenges all those accusations that studying literature is simply a matter of personal opinion – mere ‘chatter about Shelley’, as E. A. Freeman, Regius Professor of History at Oxford in the late nineteenth century, put it. Studying tragedy involves knowledge: knowledge about narrative arcs and character-types, literary history and key features. It involves terms and definitions. Just think of all those Greek words with their complicated spellings: the perfect material for a set of beautifully colour-coded flashcards, for any number of Do Now activities. What’s not to like?

There are complications, though, and it’s these complications that I want to examine here. The first of these is that it is easy to fall into the trap of designing a knowledge-based unit on tragedy that prioritises the learning of facts about literature over an understanding of literature. You could construct a fabulous knowledge organiser that summarises a range of information about the genre of tragedy, build in opportunities for spaced retrieval and low-stakes testing, and make sure students know their stuff inside out: the difference between peripeteia and anagnorisis, A. C. Bradley’s concept of the tragic flaw, the phases of classical tragedy, examples of tragedy through the ages and so on. In fact, you needn’t restrict this to A level: if your students are doing Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet, you could include it at GCSE as well. Make sure they know about goat songs and antistrophes and you can really feel you’ve ticked the cultural capital box. The problem, of course, is that all this knowledge doesn’t necessarily increase students’ understanding of tragedy. It’s easy to teach: of course it is, it’s factual. And it’s easy to test students’ retention of this kind of factual knowledge. But as Robert Coe points out in his Impact article, one of the dangers of an emphasis on retrieval is that too much classroom time can be devoted solely to factual recall rather than application and understanding. I’d go further than this, and argue that too much of students’ learning time can be devoted to retrieval practice – often because this kind of learning involves nice neat notes, Leitner boxes, Quizlet activities and the like, rather than the messy complicated process of diving into a text, getting your hands dirty, and emerging with the sense that it’s all a whole lot more complex that you initially thought it was. There’s a safety in knowing that you’ve learned something off by heart, and if you’re a stressed A level student, that kind of safety has a definite appeal.

So we need to make sure that when we teach students about the genre of tragedy, we treat this knowledge carefully, as a means to an end – where that end is an understanding of the text – rather than an end in itself. And even when we set aside the distractions of retrieval practice, this knowledge can still, sometimes, get in the way. Students can often get bogged down in concepts such as hamartia and anagnorisis, treating them as what AQA describes in its 2017 Examiners’ Report as ‘generic absolutes or templates which writers are always trying to model’ rather than ‘a loose set of conventions which are modified or reinforced with every text produced’. (That this is clearly an ongoing problem is indicated by the fact that AQA repeats this point in its 2018 Examiners’ Report.) AQA also emphasises that ‘the stories have to come first. There is no point writing about … ‘aspects’ of genre if students haven’t got inside the stories that the narrators are telling’ (Examiners’ Report, 2019). But students do need to know about the features of the genre, ‘how their texts connect with what might be regarded as traditional generic patterns’, and how they disconnect, ‘as seen when writers consciously play with and subvert genre’ (Examiners’ Report, 2019). How, then, do we ensure that this knowledge is handled sensitively, and that it illuminates students’ understanding of the play rather than obscuring it?

Over the years, I’ve experimented with various ways of introducing knowledge about the genre of tragedy. I used to front-load it, but that approach is almost guaranteed to encourage students to treat the idea of tragedy as a rigid framework. It might be possible to do a quick read of the whole play, then introduce the idea of tragedy, then go back and study the play in more detail, but that seems incredibly time-consuming, and given that the unit we’re studying is called ‘Aspects of Tragedy’, I think the concepts need to be introduced relatively early. But not too early. What I’ve started to do is to explore Act 1 Scene 1 – a scene where there’s a lot going on, in terms of establishing character and setting the plot in motion – and then to introduce the genre and its central concepts. I sketch it lightly, looking at the notion of tragedy as a fall from a position not just of high status but also of potential greatness. We talk about what might provoke that fall. This has been interpreted, variously, as an error of judgement (Aristotle’s hamartia) or as a fatal character flaw (A. C. Bradley’s concept, although many study guides on the internet conflate the two). I emphasise that despite these differences of opinion, the key thing students need to know is that the protagonist’s fall is prompted by something that he or she does – and that once this process has been set in motion, it cannot be halted. I also talk about the idea that the protagonist will, at some point, experience moments of insight into the consequences of their actions. I touch on the idea of catharsis, but don’t dwell on it too much at this point, largely because I think it’s more helpful to focus on catharsis once we get closer to the end of the play: it’s a difficult concept for students to grasp, bound up as it is with audience reaction, and I feel it’s something they need to experience from within rather than dealing with it as a purely abstract concept. (Several years ago, I took my A level group to see Death of a Salesman at the Royal Exchange in Manchester, an intense, harrowing production with Don Warrington as Willy Loman, and one of them remarked afterwards, ‘I never really understood what catharsis was all about before, but I do now’.) All of this, at this stage, is verbal. I talk through the concepts, and expect students to make notes, but I find that giving them a set of notes seems to encourage rigid thinking, as if everything they need to know about tragedy can be summarised on one sheet of paper. Getting them to make notes seems to help keep things provisional and tentative, and that’s how I want it to be at this stage.

We then talk about Macbeth. All of the students have done Macbeth at GCSE, and getting them to apply their new-found knowledge about tragedy to a play they know well helps them to see the conventions of the genre as tools to help them explore aspects of the text, rather than a rigid framework. We think about Macbeth as a tragic protagonist, and the image we get in Act 1 Scene 2 of a brave, loyal warrior. We think about what Macbeth’s tragic error might be, and examine several possible answers. And we identify potential moments of anagnorisis that occur in the play, those points when characters recognise the nature of their circumstances. I ask them, then, to try applying the conventions to other narratives they know, including examples from film and television. Playing around with the concepts in this way helps to increase the students’ familiarity with them, but it also enables them to see the conventions as malleable.

It’s at this point that they can start to use the conventions to explore King Lear. They can see that the love trial of Act 1 Scene 1 is a perfect example of hubris (and when you show them different stage interpretations, like the ones I refer to in this post, they can see how this can be emphasised by setting and direction). They’ve got several examples of Lear’s irascibility and rash decision-making, and they can also see how the foundations are laid for Lear’s downfall, in that conversation between Goneril and Regan at the end of the scene. It’s all starting to make sense, but it’s also set within the context of the play itself, rather than overpowering it.

There’s a lot more work that I’ll do to develop students’ understanding of tragedy, including modelling how to write about it in ways that maintain a sense of tentativeness, of weighing different interpretations, rather than simply cramming in terms. We’ll continue to make links with Macbeth, and later, we’ll look at different interpretations of the genre itself, using Emma Smith’s excellent lecture on King Lear for the University of Oxford’s Approaching Shakespeare series. But no quizzing, and no flashcards, because ultimately, they don’t help students to work productively with this fascinatingly complex genre.

On the road

It’s funny how certain stretches of road bring things back. Twenty years ago, I was doing a PhD, part-time, at the University of Nottingham, and every six weeks or so I’d leave school at the end of the day and set off in the opposite direction to home, up the A1 and then along the A52, negotiating roundabouts and lane changes and early evening city traffic. I’d park near the Trent Building with its shiny white Portland-stone surfaces, heave my lever arch folders out of the car, and make my way to my supervisor’s room with its bright posters and scratched wooden table. We’d talk for an hour, and then I’d go home with a head full of ideas, singing along to mixtapes made for me by my friend Dermot, all Kristin Hersh and Vic Chesnutt and REM, back in the day when mixtapes were still a thing. It was a good time.

Rainbow over Nottinghamshire. Taken from the A52, 30 October 2021

It seems a bit mad, now, to sign up for a part-time PhD alongside full-time teaching, but back then it made total sense. I’d always intended to do postgraduate work, but didn’t apply straight after graduating, partly because I was scared I wouldn’t get the funding and partly because I only had a vague idea of what I wanted to do. I did a PGCE instead, and told myself I’d teach for a couple of years and then go back to university. Then my mum died, very suddenly, at the beginning of my second year of teaching, and my immediate need was not to uproot myself and give up my job but to put a deposit down on a house. There was enough money left over for me to fund myself through part-time postgraduate work as long as I carried on teaching as well, so that’s what I decided to do.

I wanted to look at the history of English Literature as an academic discipline, and was very lucky in being able to find lots of archival material from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when universities in England were establishing their first degree courses in English Literature. I could talk about this for ages, but to simplify massively, there were lots of people in the late nineteenth century who didn’t think that English Literature should be studied at degree level. One group felt that it wasn’t difficult enough to be studied at university: reading imaginative literature and having opinions about it was what you did in your spare time, rather than something that could be examined with any kind of academic rigour. Another group, on the other hand, felt that literature was too special to be the object of academic study. One’s relationship with literature was personal, ineffable, and any attempt to turn it into an academic discipline would inevitably crush it.

If you’re spotting parallels here with current debates about the teaching of English, that’s interesting, because the other main element of my research centred on the discussions that were taking place about Curriculum 2000 and the teaching of English Literature at A level. What I was interested in – and what I would never have known about if I hadn’t spent a couple of years in the classroom – was the fact that the arguments that had circulated about the academic study of English Literature in the late nineteenth century had never really gone away. The early supporters of disciplinary English had to define the body of knowledge that was being taught and the way in which this knowledge would be assessed. Their initial attempts to do this often involved testing remembered facts, such as recalling the details of particular locations in Shakespeare’s history plays, or listing important national events that might have made an impression on Geoffrey Chaucer. Students had to define technical terms and offer plot summaries. My favourite question, set at King’s College London in 1882, was ‘Quote any passage from “Christabel”’.

Over the years, in a piecemeal manner, the universities started to develop ways of teaching English Literature that depended on interpretation and understanding, rather than the simple retrieval of knowledge. But the problem of English never really went away. In the early 2000s, just as I was grappling with my PhD thesis, teachers of English were navigating their way through the first few iterations of Curriculum 2000. A level English Literature now placed a greater emphasis on critical and contextual knowledge: some commentators argued that this was a way of making the subject easier to examine, and others contended that it jeopardised the delicate nature of the relationships that students were building with the study of English. A lot of work went into trying to steer a course through the new specifications, ensuring that the study of English was rigorous and challenging yet also maintaining a space for personal engagement (and protecting students, as much as we could, from the excesses of an exam-heavy curriculum). Knowledge, understanding, personal growth, the development of skills: the elements that we’re still wrestling with now, as we try to work out how best to foster our students’ relationships with this fabulous – and fabulously complex – subject.

There’s more that I could say about the study of English, but that’s for another post, because really this post is about places and times and why some phases of our lives matter so much. My PhD took me to a number of dusty university archives, and also other places, among them Duke Humfrey’s Library at Oxford, where I read the minutes of English faculty meetings in JRR Tolkien’s spiky handwriting. It led me to speak at conferences and meet lovely people and also write a book, Defining Literary Criticism, which is one of the best things I’ve ever done. But it also took me along the A52, more times than I can remember. In the second year of my doctorate, one of my colleagues started an MA, and we travelled up to Nottingham together and stopped off on the way home at the Little Chef near Holme Pierrepoint, loading up on coffee and carbs – chips and a burger for him, a toasted teacake for me – before facing the rest of the journey. Those hours on the road, thinking and talking and letting ideas percolate, were immensely important. It was a time of my life between one lot of difficult experiences and another, and it stands out as a block of time that was wholly joyful and unproblematic.

We drove along the A52 this morning, on our way back from a wedding in Derby, and it brought all those memories back. The Little Chef isn’t there any more, and there are some additional tricky junctions, which is the way life goes, I guess. But I still remember those journeys, and the feeling of having a head full of ideas, buzzing and eager, and remember it as one of the most important times of my life.

#youcanadopt, but that doesn’t mean you should

National Adoption Week begins in England, Wales and Northern Ireland on Monday 18 October. In the past, this week has largely taken the form of a recruitment drive for prospective adopters, and while this year’s event is giving more space to the voices of adopted adults and birth parents, the event’s web address – https://www.youcanadopt.co.uk/NAW/ – still places the emphasis on persuading people to make that initial contact and take the first steps on the road to becoming an adoptive parent. Photos of angelic-looking children, soft-focus film footage of happy families on the beach, the occasional celebrity wheeled on to talk about their experiences: it’s the starting-point for countless rescue fantasies, a sugar-coated vision of a beautiful, unproblematic future.

I did wonder, a few days ago, whether I should write about National Adoption Week at all. I am an adoptive parent, but National Adoption Week shouldn’t be about adoptive parents. How To Be Adopted has written very powerfully about what it’s like to experience National Adoption Week as an adopted person, and to realise that National Adoption Week isn’t actually about you at all. I am very aware of the feelings that many adopted people have about adoptive parents taking up more room than is really theirs in public discussions about adoption. Shut up, Atherton! Equally, though, I think it’s important to point out that we don’t all support the view that adoption is a beautiful way of providing children with loving families and seeing them all live happily ever after. There’s a stereotype of adoptive parents as starry-eyed and naïve, all in favour of closed adoption and perpetually threatened by the thought of our children’s birth families. I have no doubt whatsoever that many adopters fit this stereotype. But lots of us don’t, and I think it’s important that we stand up and shout about it, as an act of consciousness-raising for adopters who buy into the myth and to show our solidarity for adopted people. Is there an equivalent of ‘fogged’ and ‘unfogged’ for adoptive parents? There should be. Blimey, this is complicated.

In fact, complication is going to be the theme of this post. I’ve been involved in adoption for over seventeen years now, most of them as an adoptive parent but also, latterly, as a writer and researcher looking at the history of adoption in the UK and at the way adoption is portrayed in fiction and popular culture. One of the most important things I’ve learned is that adoption is not one simple thing. I’ve started dividing it into three broad areas. There’s the general concept of adoption, the placing of children into alternative families to whom they are not directly related, which has happened since time immemorial, often on an informal basis unregulated by any kind of legal framework. There are the individual adoption systems, often very different from each other, that exist and have existed in different countries around the world. Finally, there are the millions of adoptions that have taken place as a result of these systems, and the people affected by them: birth parents and extended families, adoptive parents, and most importantly, the children whose lives are changed irrevocably by what they experience.

Adoption is a murky business. I think all prospective adopters should know something about this, because it highlights our responsibility to be aware of the traumas that lie at the heart of adoption (and, depending on where we are in the world and what kind of system we’re adopting through, our complicity in perpetuating some of these traumas). Many of the adoption systems that have existed around the world have been grounded in practices that are corrupt and coercive, guilty of perpetrating widespread generational trauma and abuse. The thousands of Native American children placed with white adopters in the name of ‘assimilation’; the unmarried mothers pressurised into giving up their children in the so-called ‘baby scoop’ era; the babies who are trafficked, placed in orphanages and adopted by people in distant countries who think that they are giving them an unproblematic chance of a better life. In some countries, apologies have been issued to recognise the wrongs of the past. In February 2008, the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued an apology to the ‘Stolen Generation’, the children of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage removed from their families, although this came after a decade of resistance by the previous Australian government. The Irish Taoiseach Mícheál Martin apologised in January 2021 for the appalling treatment of unmarried women and their children in the country’s mother and baby homes between 1922 and 1998. In the UK, the Joint Committee on Human Rights has launched an inquiry into the experiences of unmarried women whose children were adopted between 1949 and 1976 in England and Wales. These injustices haven’t gone away. Many adopted people around the world are still denied access to the most basic of information about themselves: their original birth certificates and medical records, details of their life stories and birth families. And in some adoption systems, an awful lot of money changes hands. Researching this post, I googled ‘US Adoption Agency’ to see what came up. The first hit, for the private adoption agency American Adoptions, told me that a typical domestic adoption would cost between $60,000 and $70,000. (One agency offers ‘credit repair services’ for prospective adopters whose credit rating might be ‘below standard’, and invites people to get a ‘no-obligation quote’, as if they’re thinking about getting their double glazing replaced. Another offers helpful ideas for funding your adoption, like holding a bake sale or car wash, or starting a crowdfunder.)

The stigma and coercion that caused so many women to lose their babies to adoption is now, thankfully, a thing of the past in the UK, although I know that this is not the case elsewhere in the world. We are told, though, that forced adoptions still exist in this country, in the form of those children who are removed from their birth parents by order of the courts, because – under Section 31 of the 1989 Children Act – the child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm, as a result of the parents’ lack of care. ‘Significant’, in this case, is defined as ‘ill-treatment or the impairment of health or development, including, for example, impairment suffered from seeing or hearing the ill-treatment of another’.

I’m uncomfortable with using the term ‘forced adoption’ to describe this situation. There, I’ve said it. Yes, it involves the removal of a child against the birth parents’ wishes, and the permanent severing of the legal tie between parent and child. But there’s a world of difference between coercing a scared young woman into giving up her baby on the pretext that it’s the best solution for everyone, with the threat of family estrangement and ostracism in the background, and removing a child from a situation of neglect or abuse. If you go on BAILII, the website of the British and Irish Legal Information Institute, and browse the Family Court Decisions, you can see the records of cases where children have been removed, and where judges have decided that adoption is the most appropriate way forward. Sometimes, this is a straightforward decision. Think of the child protection cases we hear about in the news, when sadly, it’s too late. At other times, it’s much more complex. Judges have to balance the capacity of a parent to make necessary changes with the needs of a child for stability and security. Many cases involve birth parents whose own lives have been desperately difficult. The message we received when we did our prep course, almost seventeen years ago now, was that birth parents are, overwhelmingly, ‘sad, not bad’. But there will always be situations where it is not safe for children to remain with their families of origin. How do we give these children the nurturing and support and love they need, in order for them to grow and flourish? How do we, as a society, help them to heal?

There’s been a lot of discussion as to whether adoption is a proportionate response to situations like this. Of course the primary aim of any kind of intervention should be to preserve and support the family. This should go without saying. If this can’t happen, then of course social services should try to place the child within the extended family, or if not, with foster carers who will facilitate contact with birth parents until the child can return home. But what comes next? Some people point to long-term foster care as an option. That way, they argue, the legal bond between parent and child is still there, and there’s always the possibility that the child might be able to return if – in a few years’ time – the birth parents have been able to make the necessary changes to their lives. And that all sounds brilliant. But foster care is not permanent. Some children in foster care are able to stay in one long-term placement until they reach adulthood. But they’re in the minority. Placements break down, and children are moved elsewhere. Imagine being eight, and having to move on from your school and your friends, not just once in a year but potentially several times. Imagine it being October, and not being sure where you’ll be spending Christmas. Imagine not having any say in how your bedroom’s decorated, because you know that really it’s not your bedroom: living in a house where there are pets that you want to love but know you shouldn’t get too fond of, because you don’t know how long you’ll be staying. Think of a child you know well: your own child, maybe, or your niece or nephew. Is this the kind of life you’d want for them? Thought not. If they’re particularly unfortunate, they might be placed, at the age of 16, into an unregulated setting, dressed up under the guise of ‘a stepping stone to independence’. And then, once they turn 18, that’s it.

Adoption, then, is not a beautiful way of creating a new family, not unicorns and rainbows, but something that is needed in those cases where all other options have been explored and where children cannot remain within their birth family. It involves trauma and sadness and a whole lot of anger and grief. And none of these feelings go away. They might get buried, they might be hidden behind a mask of being ‘grateful’ or being told that you’re ‘lucky’, but they’re still there.

So. At the risk, now, of being accused of making this ‘all about the adoptive parents’, I’m going to list four things that I’d want to be a part of all adoptive parents’ preparation and support. Because if we want to support adopted people for the long term, we need to make sure that the people who adopt them as children are fully aware of the ramifications that adoption will have throughout their lives.

  1. An understanding of the ethical complexities involved in adoption, and of those times and places where adoption has involved appalling injustices. There are countless books, documentaries and websites that could help with this. My Name is Bridget by Alison O’Reilly, about the Tuam Mother and Baby Home in County Galway, is an absolute must-read.
  2. Training in and ongoing support with therapeutic parenting. Formal support stops, at the moment, when an adoption order is granted. Post-adoption support is patchily available and hard to access. But we need help. I am currently reading Dr Amber Elliott’s brilliant book Superparenting, which absolutely nails the difficulty of parenting a child who has experienced developmental trauma: ‘The stress of looking after a traumatized child who is defending against shame and suffering from the effects of toxic stress creates one of the most challenging environments for rational thinking there is’. Saying that we need help isn’t putting adoptive parents first: it’s recognising that if we want to help adopted people in the long term, we need to help adoptive parents.
  3. An understanding that adoption isn’t just about childhood. This should be obvious but I think there is a feeling amongst some adopters that their children will eventually forget that they’re adopted. It won’t dissolve into the mist. Organisations such as Adoptee Futures are doing a vitally important job in raising awareness of the lifelong consequences of being adopted and this is a drum that needs lots of banging.
  4. An understanding of the importance of heritage, keeping in touch with birth family, and the feelings involved in reunion. How To Be Adopted has written brilliantly about the fetishization of blood ties and genealogical links. There’s a lot of work to be done on maintaining links with wider birth family, and on supporting adopted young adults to negotiate the feelings involved in tracing and being reunited with birth relatives. As adopters, we need to recognise that our adopted children can maintain their relationship with us whilst also exploring and forming relationships with their birth family. It’s not an either/or.

I didn’t mean to write this much. I’ll shut up now. Deep breath, and let’s hope this week passes without too much stress.