Teaching King Lear: Introducing Edmund

We’re nearly at the end of Act One of King Lear! There are lots of things I could blog about – Goneril and riotous knights and the concept of tragedy among them – but today I’m going to focus on Edmund.

Where do we start? Edmund is there right at the beginning of the play, in the conversation that takes place before the entrance of Lear and the spectacle of the love trial. His father, Gloucester, introduces him to Kent, and makes a crass remark about what ‘good sport’ there was ‘at his making’. He also informs Kent that Edmond is illegitimate, referring to him as a ‘whoreson’. Edmund, in response, says very little. It’s easy to skim over this brief conversation on the way to the main part of the action, but I’d argue that students need to go back to it, once they’ve studied Act 1 Scene 2, and imagine what Edmund is thinking while his father is engaging in tactless banter about his conception. How does he react? Is there an eye-roll, a grimace? Does he play along? Has he heard it all before?

Thou, Nature, art my goddess: Daniel Schroeder as Edmund (Source: YouTube)

If Edmund’s behaviour in Act 1 Scene 1 is somewhat inscrutable, Act 1 Scene 2 leaves us under no illusions whatsoever as to how he actually feels about his situation. His soliloquy at the beginning of Act 1 Scene 2 reveals him as charismatic, persuasive, and deeply resentful. Note that it’s the first soliloquy spoken in the whole play. I draw students’ attention to this, as it’s a good point to make about Shakespeare’s methods, and encourages them to think about dramatic method on a much broader level than the picky micro analysis that GCSE often seems to encourage. (I get them to think of Shakespeare as the puppeteer, pulling the strings: why does he make this character, whichever character it might be, do this at this particular point in the play?)

Soliloquies are a funny thing. They can be played simply as the revelation of a character’s thoughts, allowing the audience access to feelings and motivations that do not – for whatever reason – emerge in conversation. In this type of soliloquy, it’s as though we, as the audience, are not actually there: we’re simply witnessing the private unfolding of the workings of a character’s mind. A good example of this kind of soliloquy is Macbeth’s ‘Is this a dagger I see before me?’ in Act 2 Scene 1, immediately before the murder of Duncan. But some of Shakespeare’s soliloquies can equally be played as monologues, spoken directly to the audience. Edmund’s soliloquies fall into this category. Yes, he could be speaking just to himself, voicing the grudges that have been burning within him ever since he learned of his inferior status. However, I’d argue that his solo speeches are much more effective when used as a way of building a relationship with the audience, breaking the fourth wall and inviting us to share in the injustice of his situation. One excellent example of this is Paapa Essiedu’s performance for the 2016 RSC production, available on Digital Theatre: Essiedu’s facial expressions beckon the audience to join in with his disdain and present Edmund – after the mannered speeches of Gonerill and Regan – as perfectly plausible and sympathetic. Two very good short film examples are Daniel Schroeder’s and Riz Ahmed’s for the Guardian’s Shakespeare Solos series, both of which are delivered straight to camera. After all, to a 21st century audience, Edmund’s objections to his treatment are perfectly reasonable. Why should he be branded with baseness, purely because of his illegitimacy?

There’s also the language that Edmund uses. I get students to count the number of questions in his first soliloquy. There are nine in the first fifteen lines: not only questioning, but almost hectoring. Who is he addressing? There’s Nature, first of all, who he addresses as ‘my goddess’, although note that he uses the familiar ‘thou’. There’s Edgar, who we have not yet seen, and who looms in Edmund’s mind as an object of hatred. And there are the gods, the object of Edmund’s final command: ‘Now, gods, stand up for bastards!’ (An interesting exercise you can get students to do is to look at how many times characters in King Lear try to command the gods, as opposed to making requests of them: they’ve not yet learned to ask politely.) Students can also examine the way Edmund plays around with the words that taunt him, spitting out the plosives in ‘bastardy’ and ‘base’ and holding the syllables of ‘legitimate’ up for inspection. Get them to experiment with different ways of emphasising these words, or demonstrate yourself.

I wanted to find out how many soliloquies Edmund actually speaks, so I consulted Open Source Shakespeare and did some counting. (Open Source Shakespeare is brilliant: I found out that the word ‘nothing’ appears more times in King Lear than in any other of Shakespeare’s plays, which is a useful thing for your students to know.) Edmund has more soliloquies than any other character in King Lear – six in total – and his soliloquies make up almost a quarter of his lines. After him, the character given the most opportunities of speaking to the audience is Edgar. An interesting point to note is that Lear – alone of the four great tragic protagonists – has no soliloquies at all, although there are some well-known study websites that claim he has a number of soliloquies, including his ‘O reason not the need!’ speech in Act 2 Scene 4 (spoken in front of both his daughters, Cornwall, Kent, the Fool, and various servants) and his apostrophising of the storm in Act 3 Scene 2 (spoken in front of the Fool). A useful point to make to your students: don’t trust everything you read online.

For a very different Edmund – Robert Lindsay, dripping with hatred – see the 1983 Granada TV production, about 20 minutes in. And see also my article for the British Library’s Discovering Literature series on Edmund, Goneril and Regan, which explores Edmund as an example of Machiavellian duplicity.  

Original writing: Edward Hopper’s Automat

Year 11 are working on the Original Writing task for GCSE Paper 1 at the moment, and we spent today’s lesson looking at how to explore an image. There are dozens of ways you can approach this task, and I’m sure people have their favourite methods, but I thought I’d write about this lesson because it’s a lovely way of getting students to generate ideas.

A couple of days ago, I read codexterous’s blog post on creative writing icebergs, and thought that this was a brilliant way of getting students to think about an image that I’ve used for years as a creative writing prompt, Edward Hopper’s 1927 painting Automat. So the Do Now task for today’s lesson was the following slide:

The students very quickly came up with the idea of isolation, and the idea that both images conveyed a sense of cold, whether physical or metaphorical. I prompted them to think of what they knew about icebergs, and from then it was an easy jump to the idea of surfaces and what lies beneath: the fact that you can look at Hopper’s image and have no idea what’s going on in the woman’s mind, or in her life, to bring her to this lonely café.

We then started to look at the painting in more depth. I asked the students to spend a couple of minutes simply writing down what they could see. It was fascinating to see how closely they read the image. They began with obvious points: a woman wearing a green coat and a yellow hat, sitting alone at a table in a café, with a window behind her in which two rows of lights are reflected in the darkness. Then they started to focus on particular details. One of them pointed out that the warmth of the colours: the reds, oranges and yellows. Another picked up on the empty chair opposite the woman. There was a lot of discussion of her clothes. Her coat looks expensive, with a fur collar and cuffs. Her dress is short and low-cut: she looks as if she’s dressed for a night out. She doesn’t have a bag with her. She’s wearing only one glove. She’s looking into her cup of coffee with a downcast expression on her face, emphasised by downward curve of the brim of her hat. I get students to think even further, about the things they can’t see: how much coffee is left in her cup, what time it might be, whether the table is clean or a little bit sticky.

Edward Hopper, ‘Automat’, 1927

From this point, questions abound. Why is she there? Is she on her way to somewhere, or is she going home? If she’s on her way somewhere, does she know where she’s going? How long has she been there? Was there someone sitting opposite her earlier? Has there ever been someone sitting opposite her? Is she running away from something? Why is she so dressed up? Has the person behind the counter noticed she’s there? Are they keeping an eye on her, concerned, wondering whether they should ask if everything’s okay?

We’re going to spend more time developing this piece of writing next week, but today we finished by focusing on that cup of coffee. I asked the students to imagine that they were looking at it, from the woman’s point of view, and to describe it. We shared our ideas, and one student came up with the brilliant idea that it had originally had a heart drawn in the foam on top, but that now the heart had disintegrated, leaving the woman with nothing but the dregs. We talked about what kinds of sentence structures might help us to create a sense of bleakness and despair, and decided that some single-words sentences, and short simple sentences, might be useful. Then we had five minutes to write a description, and I wrote alongside the students. Here’s what I came up with:

There wasn’t time for us to share our work, but that will be the starting point for next lesson. We’ll then think about how to structure a longer piece of writing, using drop-zoom-flash-end as a scaffold. Lots of thinking, lots of rich discussion and hard imaginative work, but the kind of lesson that passed by very quickly.

This post is featured by Twinkl in their ‘Teaching Writing’ blog

Teaching King Lear: practices and processes

We’re now three weeks into term, and my Year Twelves are up to Act 1 Scene 4 of King Lear. We haven’t met the Fool yet – he’s waiting until next lesson – but we’re thoroughly immersed, and I’m remembering what a fantastic play this is to teach.

Over the years I’ve witnessed lots of discussions about the teaching of Shakespeare: whether you approach a play through a cold read or a warm read, when to introduce contextual and critical reading, whether to watch a production of the whole play first and so on. My approach varies a little depending on the nature of the group I have in front of me, but I begin by scaffolding students’ reading very heavily. In a typical lesson, I’ll give them a brief overview of whichever scene we’re focusing on – not a plot summary, but a sense of its significance within the play and any major characters we meet. We’ll then read the scene out loud, sometimes splitting it into sections. At the start of the course I ask for volunteers to read, as the start of an A level course can be intimidating not just academically but also interpersonally, especially if you’ve come from a different school or if you’ve spent much of your school career in middle sets and have suddenly found yourself in a group with people who are much more able and confident than you. I don’t want to expose anyone. Once the students are more comfortable with each other, and once I’ve got to know them, I’ll start to allocate parts.

I know some people are sceptical about getting students to read Shakespeare out loud, with memories of stumbling over words and taking ages to get through the play. I think the stumbling is an important part of the learning process and use it as a way of exploring unfamiliar vocabulary. Lots of reassurance also helps to build a sense of your classroom as a safe space where struggling is accepted. I will intervene at points when we’re reading aloud to question and check understanding, drawing in especially those students who aren’t reading and anyone who I suspect might be struggling but not want to admit it. Yes, I could show a professional production of the play, but the exploratory talk is really valuable and part of helping the group to coalesce and learn to trust each other (and me) at this early stage.

That didn’t go to plan. Cordelia’s Portion, by Ford Madox Brown

Once we’ve finished a particular part of the scene, I’ll display a set of questions designed to make sure students’ understanding is secure and get them to make some observations about aspects of language, character and theme. At this stage, these are fairly simple: I emphasise that our study of the play will be an iterative process and that we’ll add layers of detail and complexity as we go along. Students discuss these questions in pairs or small groups and make notes. We then discuss as a whole class, and I’ll build in further layers of questioning to probe, secure, extend – whatever’s needed at this stage.

We encourage students to use the Cornell method of notemaking, but for our read-through of the play I’ve introduced a slightly modified version in which students split the main part of their page into two equal columns rather than having a narrower left-hand column. Their initial responses to questions go on the left, and then they use the right-hand column to add detail during our discussion. The section at the bottom of the page is used to summarise key points when they revisit their notes.

What about introducing productions? I do this in a number of ways: showing clips of different versions to highlight different interpretations, showing the play act by act so students can consolidate their understanding, and showing the whole play so they get a sense of the overall arc of the tragedy. We’ll go and see a production if one is accessible, but there are a number of fantastic films of stage productions available and these are really useful for focusing on particular scenes. I introduce these once we’ve read the love trial in Act 1 Scene 1. I want students to be able to grasp a number of things about this scene. One is its ceremonial nature. The lack of stage directions in Shakespeare’s plays means that students often skim over the stage directions that are there, but I think it’s really important that they look at the transition from the conversation between Kent, Gloucester and Edmond and the formal, orchestrated quality of the love trial. So we pick up on the sennet that heralds Lear’s entrance, the procession onto the stage of Lear, his daughters, Albany and Cornwall, and the attendants. Those attendants are another thing: we don’t know how many, or what they do, but I want students to think about how they could be used to draw attention to the formality of the scene. Another is the difference between Goneril and Regan: it’s easy to lump them in together, but I want students to be able to pick up on the subtle differences between them. And then there’s the way everything starts to disintegrate, once Cordelia refuses to play the part that Lear has given her. (Because we do Macbeth at GCSE, we draw parallels with the banquet, another scene that starts with a formal entrance and disintegrates into chaos.)

In order to explore these ideas further, I show them clips of two different productions. The first is the 2014 National Theatre production, directed by Sam Mendes, starring Simon Russell Beale as a pugnacious, dictatorial Lear. In this, Lear’s daughters sit at a long table, with Albany and Cornwall, in sombre business suits, beside their wives. Lear sits at a distance on a plain wooden throne, and gets up to pace around as his daughters deliver their speeches. Kate Fleetwood as Goneril is hesitant and careful with her words: Anna Maxwell Martin as Regan is a flirtatious daddy’s girl who gets up to sit on her father’s knee. The tension is heightened by Lear’s close scrutiny of his daughters, and his air of teetering already on the edge of irrationality: Michael Billington, in the Guardian, commented that ‘he has all the aspects of a Stalinesque tyrant and struts around with his massive head thrust forward as if about to devour anyone who crosses him’. There’s also the presence of those attendants, several rows of them in dark military uniforms, who encircle the group on stage. When Cordelia (Olivia Vinall) refuses to play along with her father’s wishes, the enraged Lear upturns the tables and sends his daughters shrinking in fear.

The second clip we watch is from Greg Doran’s 2016 RSC production with Anthony Sher as a very different Lear, dressed in furs and borne onstage by his attendants on a throne enclosed in a transparent case. Again, there’s a sense of distance, created this time by the fact that Lear sits on high, a huge gold disc in the background reflecting the play’s astrological theme. The performative nature of the love trial is emphasised by the fact that Nia Gwynne and Kelly Williams, as Goneril and Regan, speak to the assembled company, their backs to Lear, when delivering their speeches. Sher’s Lear is more godlike than Russell Beale’s, and raises his hand as if channelling some higher power when he banishes Mimi Ndiweni’s Cordelia. Those on stage bow or cower, terrified of what he might unleash.

What’s clear from both these productions is that the trial, of course, isn’t a trial at all. Lear has already decided how he will divide his kingdom, and who will get which portion. Students can see the tension on stage, the power imbalances at play, and recognise the coercive nature of this situation. It’s the perfect example of hubris, and from this point, they’re ready to see Lear’s tenuous grasp on sanity weaken further.

Busy times at work at the moment, but my next King Lear post will focus on the character of Edmond. The clip of Simon Russell Beale’s Lear is here; further clips and interviews are available here. An extract from Anthony Sher’s performance is here; the whole production is available on DVD and Blu-ray from the RSC and can also be streamed from Digital Theatre if you’ve got a subscription.

Teacher Feature: Simon Casey

If you’re a teacher, you’ll know what it’s like when television drama decides to turn its attention to schools. Everyone who’s not a teacher will assume that your working life is just like that of the teachers depicted on Grange Hill or Waterloo Road or whatever the current favourite might be. When I was a fairly new entrant to the profession, the series everyone was watching was Teachers on Channel 4, and my then Year Tens were obsessed with the idea that all of their teachers spent every evening in the pub and every breaktime crammed into a toilet cubicle, discussing their sex lives and enjoying a crafty cigarette. According to Teachers, we were all hopping in and out of each other’s beds: it was amazing we had time to do any marking. Teaching must be a brilliant job. And the kids on Teachers could call their teachers by their first names, so why couldn’t they?

Simon, Susan, Kurt and Brian (Source: thetvdb.com)

Teachers doesn’t feel like a particularly old series, but it made its screen debut on Channel 4 in the spring of 2001. That’s twenty years ago, and twenty years before that the TV shows that made their debut in the UK included Juliet Bravo, Bergerac and something called Only Fools and Horses. Channel 4 didn’t even exist, back in 1981. Now I’m starting to feel ancient.

I’m watching Teachers again on All 4, and it’s all so familiar. The bouncy Belle and Sebastian theme tune, the random donkeys appearing in the background, the days of the week appearing on road signs or adverts. The first couple of series focus on Simon Casey, played by Andrew Lincoln, fresh from the iconic 90s drama series This Life. Simon is a newly-qualified English teacher, but there never seems to be a huge amount of English teaching going on in his lessons: there are a few cursory references to The Crucible, a random GCSE coursework task on Shakespeare’s sonnets, and after that he seems to get bored and give up. One of his students, played by a very young James Corden, is worried about whether they’ve covered everything they need to, but Simon doesn’t care. Off to the pub for another few pints, and he’s back again tomorrow for another desultory day at the chalk face. He does use chalk, too: it’s another world.

Simon has his sidekicks: there’s IT teacher Kurt and PE specialist Brian, plus Susan, who teaches Psychology and spends far too much of her time listening to everyone’s relationship woes. He has his nemesis too, in his fellow English teacher Jenny, who he both hates and fancies. In Series Two, they’re joined by a fresh-faces Shaun Evans with long hair and a Scouse accent as JP the Modern Languages teacher. Simon, Kurt and Brian spend a lot of time playing would-you-rather games focusing on who they’d rather have sex with (Clare, the headteacher, or Carol, the dopey secretary? Jenny with Clare’s head or Clare with Jenny’s head?) and it’s all a bit Neanderthal and unreconstructed.

Simon is essentially the kind of man-child who you wouldn’t want near your department in a million years. He gets through his NQT assessment by the skin of his teeth, and my blood pressure is rocketing as I imagine chasing him up about schemes of work or student data. I know exactly how he’d react, too: he’d shrug, his lip would curl, and he’d sneak off behind the boiler room to smoke an illicit ciggie and whinge about me to a passing Year Eleven. Eventually, he gets bored with playing at being an adult, and decides to go off travelling. It’s probably a relief for everyone concerned.

Where would Simon be now, twenty years later? Working in a pub specialising in craft beers, I reckon, or running a website dedicated to obscure pieces of football trivia. I don’t think he’d still be teaching. You don’t get much of a sense of him being dedicated either to his profession or to his subject, and that’s sad. It’s clear that teaching is something he’s fallen into, without really knowing why. But at least he does the decent thing, and leaves. And maybe, at some point, he learns how to be the grown-up in the room.

On setting out to teach King Lear once again

So. It’s the start of term, I’m back in my own classroom after a year of carting my stuff around six different teaching zones, and I have an A level English Literature group after two years of focusing on English Language. Teaching A level English Literature is – as you might expect – one of my favourite things about my job, and I’ll be starting the year with King Lear, which is just about my favourite text to teach. Wahey! So, as a new-school-year resolution, I’m going to try to blog my way through teaching King Lear, partly as a record of the whole unfolding teaching process, and partly to help anyone who’s teaching it for the first time and could do with a hand.

A word first about the start of the A level course. I know A level English Literature isn’t simply a list of set texts, and that the course should involve a wider exploration of what the study of literature actually involves. In the past, I’ve begun the course by getting students to think about what literature is, why we read the kinds of books we do, how our interpretations are shaped by our own particular contexts, and so on. But I was never convinced that the students were ready for that kind of philosophical reflection at that point in their A level experience. Students are often too nervous to open up in front of peers who they might have only just met, and they can get hung up on not wanting to say the wrong thing. A few years ago, I decided to go straight into the first set text, and start to feed in wider critical concepts once students had found their feet and relaxed a bit. It worked much more effectively, and I’ve never been tempted to go back.

Michael Perry’s King Lear poster design. Source: Pinterest

We do the AQA B specification, and study Aspects of Tragedy and Elements of Political and Social Protest Writing, two big chunky genres that students enjoy. Most of our students have done Macbeth at GCSE, so should know something about tragedy already, and in many ways Macbeth is the perfect preparation for King Lear, raising similar questions about tragic protagonists and the errors that set their downfalls in motion, as well as the nature of kingship. But before we even start to think about tragedy, I put the students into groups, and give them a series of images to explore. I also give them a number of prompts:

  • What clues do these images give you as to the play’s central characters and themes?
  • What kinds of locations are featured?
  • What kinds of emotions are conveyed?
  • What do you notice about eyes?
  • What do you notice about crowns?
  • What do you notice about the number three?

The images I chose are all examples of art inspired by King Lear: theatrical posters, cover designs and illustrations. Pinterest is a great source of suitable images, and students can then, as a follow-up, be asked to find their own images and save them to a shared class Pinterest board. My King Lear Pinterest board is here, and you’ll also find some examples on Michele Walfred’s ‘King Lear Theatrical Posters’ website, which provides a fascinating commentary on some of these images. I chose these images to highlight particular aspects of the play and give students a context for their reading, but it’s important to note that the discussion generated also helps the students to get to know each other and establishes a culture in which they are allowed to be tentative and exploratory, sharing ideas and building on each other’s contributions.

Students then summarise the outcomes of their discussion. It’s interesting to see how much of the play’s plot and themes they can piece together. There are obvious points about tensions and rivalries within families, about the precariousness of the crown and the idea of division. Stefano Imbert’s poster for the Boomerang Theatre Company’s 2006 production depicts a man literally split into three, alone on a hilltop in a bleak landscape. Wieslaw Walkulski’s poster for the 1992 production of Król Lear at the Teatr Nowy in Poznan shows the king’s crown disintegrating and obscuring his vision. Istvan Orosz’s striking poster for the 1999 production of Lear Király at the Petrofi Theatre in Hungary, meanwhile, shows the crown entangled in the bare branches of the king’s mind. Other images – including Clare Van Vliet’s woodcut illustration for The Tragedie of King Lear and the stark poster produced for the Wharton Center’s 2011 production of the play – focus on the threat posed by the elements, while chess pieces and grasping hands also feature.

I then introduce some quotations from the play:

  • Meantime we shall express our darker purpose.
  • Come not between the dragon and his wrath!
  • He hath ever but slenderly known himself.
  • Now gods, stand up for bastards!
  • The king falls from bias of nature, there’s father against child.
  • Who is it that can tell me who I am?
  • How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!
  • Thou would’st make a good fool.
  • I pray you, father, being weak, seem so.
  • I prithee, daughter, do not make me mad.
  • You heavens, give me patience, patience I need!
  • I will do such things – what they are, yet I know not, but they shall be the terrors of the earth.
  • I am a man more sinned against than sinning.
  • The younger rises as the old doth fall.
  • Then let them anatomise Regan; see what breeds about her heart.
  • The worst is not, so long as we can say ‘This is the worst’.
  • As flies to wanton boys are we to th’gods; they kill us for their sport.
  • ‘Tis the time’s plague when madmen lead the blind.
  • Through tattered clothes great vices do appear: robes and furred gowns hide all.
  • You ever gentle gods, take my breath from me.
  • I fear I am not in my perfect mind.
  • O fool! I shall go mad.
  • I am a very foolish, fond old man.
  • The gods are just.
  • The wheel has come full circle.
  • Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life, and thou no breath at all?

Students are asked to look for further examples of the themes they’ve identified, and to make connections between quotations. Again, it’s surprising how far students can get in these initial explorations. This week, for instance, my new Year Twelves observed that a number of the quotations make requests of the gods – from Edmond’s ‘Now, gods, stand up for bastards!’ to Gloucester’s ‘You ever gentle gods, take my breath from me’. However, they also spotted that the gods do not necessarily assent to these requests: ‘As flies to wanton boys, are we to th’gods; They kill us for their sport’. They linked this quotation to the recurring images of chess pieces, and the idea that while characters might think they can command the gods, they learn eventually that they are little more than pawns in an indifferent universe.

That was a long way to go in just our first two lessons, accompanied by incredibly rich discussions. Students drew on their knowledge of other plays, and working in groups meant that they were able to build relationships with their new classmates, as well as giving me the chance to observe how they interacted and gauge how confident they were in handling Shakespeare’s language. Their homework for the next lesson was to research the features of tragedy, which is the kind of flipped learning we’ve been doing in English for years without making a fuss about it 🙂

Adopting is hard

Oh, come on, world. There I was, all ready to blog about teaching King Lear and then go off and pick blackberries, and you had to bowl me an article about adoption to respond to, didn’t you? Cheers. King Lear will have to wait, bless him: he’s over there grumping in a corner with the Fool, right now.

Here’s the article in question, if you haven’t already seen it: My wife and I were desperate to adopt, but the application process was so gruelling we gave up. The writer, John Rutter, runs through a number of well-worn complaints. The assessment process – the ‘home study’ – is long and intrusive. Friends, family and employers are all involved. Your medical and financial history are explored. You have to talk about your past relationships, and former partners might be interviewed. Your home has to be assessed for potential health and safety hazards. And so on. It took Rutter and his wife over eighteen months to be approved, and they eventually withdrew from the process a few months after their approval, because they didn’t think they’d ever have a child placed with them.

The adoption home study: yes, it’s hard. (Source: “Maze” by SanguineSeas, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

I have a whole ton of things to say about this, as you might expect. Here’s the first thing. Rutter says that he and his wife turned to adoption after trying to have a child, and failing. Infertility is one of the most horribly isolating experiences imaginable. I’m not going to go into, now, just how awful it is, because that’s for another post. We were luckier than most, if you can put it like that, because we didn’t spend years going through exhausting rounds of treatment. We found out pretty early on that my eggs were so catastrophically rubbish that there was basically no point. Once we made the decision that we weren’t going to go ahead with any more investigations, the sense of relief was immense. So I can imagine how hopeful the Rutters were when they embarked on their adoption journey, because we were too. It was a new start, the chance to actually succeed after a pretty miserable few years. And I can imagine how it must have felt to pull out, to decide to build a life for themselves that didn’t involve parenthood. People who haven’t experienced involuntary childlessness can be very glib about the situations of those who have: witness all the comments about children being a privilege and not a right, the availability of NHS funding for IVF, etc etc. The conversations that led to that decision must have been pretty bleak. I genuinely hope that the Rutters have been able to make peace with their decision, and that they are finding a way forwards.

The issue I have is with the widespread idea that the adoption process should be made easier, and that it should be made easier to speed things up for adopters. There’s a popular belief that the adoption process is deliberately complicated. It’s one of those things that everyone seems to know about adoption, including people who’ve got no connection to adoption whatsoever. Often, these people go on to complain about how unfair this is. If you want to give a home to a child in need, the social workers should welcome you with open arms, rather than asking you lots of difficult questions. Just think of all those people who have babies after one-night stands, they’ll say: they never have to jump through all those hoops, do they?

The process isn’t designed to put people off at all, but one thing that prospective adopters have to learn very quickly is that adoption isn’t about supplying them with the perfect baby to replace the one they couldn’t have. Instead, it’s about finding homes for children whose early lives have been unbearably traumatic. The decisions that are made about these children – where they live, and with whom – need to be made with real care. And when you first start to find out about adoption, it’s extremely sobering to discover what kinds of experiences some children have had, and to think about how these experiences might affect them.

Another thing that prospective adopters need to learn is that adoption is lifelong. It doesn’t dissolve after a few years; it doesn’t cease to matter. Adopted children become adopted adults and their feelings about being adopted will affect them in different ways at different points in their lives. Their feelings about you as their adoptive parent will change, too. You will have to be prepared to do many things as they grow up, including becoming an expert in the long-term effects of early trauma, advocating for your child through nursery and school and even into the world of work, and helping them to negotiate their relationships with members of their birth family. There will be times when you are exhausted beyond belief by trying to negotiate support packages and explain your child’s needs to people – including professionals – who just don’t get it. There will be times when you will feel rejected but have to put your feelings to one side because you’re not the important one in all of this. Adopters are sometimes portrayed as having saviour complexes – look at me, doing all of this for a poor neglected child! – or as exaggerating the difficulties to paint themselves as heroic, but the reality is that it is really bloody hard. I’ve lost count of the number of adopters I know who’ve needed counselling, or been prescribed antidepressants, to cope with a day-to-day reality whose pressures can be relentless.

(As a side note, I’ve also lost count of the number of times I’ve read about how important it is to centre adopted people, and not adoptive parents, in these discussions, but there’s a point where it’s not as simple as that. The reality is that adoptive parents need support in order to be able to centre their adopted children. We all need help here.)

The result of all of this is that anything that sheds light on your capacity to parent a vulnerable child needs to be viewed as fair game. It’s the needs of that child – rather than your squeamishness about your personal life – that must come first. Talking about your previous relationships will illuminate how you deal with rejection. Talking about bereavement gives your social worker an insight into how you’ve coped with loss, and therefore how you might support a child who is grieving the losses they’ve suffered in being removed from their birth family. Interviewing your boss: how driven are you, how addicted to your job, and how hard would you find it if you had to go part-time or give up work altogether in order to support your child? Interviewing your wider family: how do they view adoption, and will they welcome your child wholeheartedly or make them feel as if they don’t really belong? Having a medical, being open about your finances: is there anything at all in your life that might have an impact on your ability to provide an adopted child with a safe, secure and stable home, not just now but well into the future?

The health and safety stuff, by the way, should be obvious. When a child is placed with you, the state is still the child’s corporate parent, and responsible for what happens to them, so of course they’ve got a duty of care to check. And quite frankly, if you’ve got a garden that children are going to be playing in, you should be checking for poisonous plants and covering up any ponds anyway.

So yes, it’s difficult, and yes, it might seem unfair. But it’s difficult for a reason, and given what the reality of adoptive parenting is like, it’s absolutely right that it’s all so hard.

Teacher Feature: Miss Caroline


We’ll get to Miss Caroline eventually. First, here’s Lola:

Lola, from I Am Too Absolutely Small for School by Lauren Child

I have a lot in common with Lola, at this stage in the school holidays. I had a lot in common with Lola when I was four, too. School was looming on the horizon and I couldn’t see why I needed to go. I had lots of important things to do and school was going to get in the way. I could read, thanks to a combination of my mum, Enid Blyton, and Twinkle, the picture paper specially for little girls, which I pounced on as soon as it dropped through the door and pored over endlessly. I was competent at writing, especially now my big sister Julie had taught me how to do a capital N the right way up. And I could occupy myself for hours on end. I’d recently discovered that I could create my own horse by putting two dining chairs together and making a bridle and stirrups out of leftover knitting wool. I had Lego and plasticine and any number of things to do. Life was pretty good, thank you. I was a busy little person with a busy little mind, and I didn’t want school to get in the way.

The morning of 3 September 1977 saw me scrubbed and defiant. My school didn’t have a uniform, but I’d been put in a dress – outrage – and was standing in the hall waiting for my mum. I had a drawstring bag with my new black plimsolls in it, ready for PE, and I was swinging the bag backwards and forwards. My anger gave power to my swinging and before long my drawstring bag was flying up in the air in a steady arc. Back and forth, back and forth – and then, with a final furious swing, it smacked me square in the face.

My nose started to bleed. Handkerchiefs were deployed. It wouldn’t stop. My mum tutted and admonished and replaced one handkerchief with another and then yet another, and at some point the decision was made that I wouldn’t be going to school that day. Result! ‘Don’t you dare try that again tomorrow’, I was told. I hadn’t been trying at all, but I’d got one more day of freedom to enjoy.

So when I finally started school, I was a bit of an oddity. I was even more of an oddity because I had a book with me. It was In the Fifth at Malory Towers and it was a new world. Reading about school – especially a school with midnight feasts and lacrosse matches – was fun; it was the reality I didn’t like. My mum figured that if I took the book with me, it might make things easier. So when we got there, and while my mum talked to the teacher about why I hadn’t been in the previous day, I sat down and started to read.

The teacher’s name was Mrs Woods. She was old, like a grandma, and dressed all in brown. ‘What’s she doing?’ she asked. ‘Is she just looking at the words?’

‘No, she’s reading.’

‘Really? Can she read out loud?’

I gave a demonstration. The headmistress, the redoubtable Miss Spelman, was summoned. It was established that I could write, as well, and I was asked if I could write a story. So I did. I can’t remember what it was about, but Miss Spelman was very impressed that I could use speech marks. I was put in Class Two for Reading, rather than staying in Reception with everyone else, and went to sit with the big boys and girls every morning while flash cards were held up and we chanted the words that the teacher pointed to. Differentiation, 1970s style.

I started to see the point of school, after a while, but it’s a good job I didn’t have Miss Caroline. Miss Caroline is Scout’s first teacher in To Kill a Mockingbird, and the fact that Scout can already read when she starts school does not impress her one little bit. Miss Caroline tells Scout that her father must not try to teach her any more; that she will have to ‘undo the damage’. She tells Scout that she must not write until she is in the third grade: ‘We don’t write in the first grade, we print’. Miss Caroline, with all the wisdom of her twenty-one years behind her, has firm ideas about how children should learn, and will not be swayed from them.

It’s clear that Miss Caroline herself has a lot to learn. She learns about cooties; she learns not to lend anything to a Cunningham – the Cunninghams never take anything they can’t pay back – and not to expect a Ewell to turn up to school for more than the first day of each school year. She finds out that there are children who don’t fit her fixed notions of what should be learned and when. She has to face, in short, the knowledge that all her training, all her years in college, can only go so far towards preparing her for the reality of being a teacher. The most important part – understanding where her pupils come from and having a sense of the reality of their lives beyond the classroom – is something that can only be learned on the job.

I was lucky to have Mrs Woods and Miss Spelman, at the start of my formal education, who responded to what I could already do by helping me to do more, rather than telling me (and my mum) that I shouldn’t have been able to do it in the first place. Miss Caroline makes Scout feel guilty for not sticking to a schedule that she never knew about in the first place. You’d hope, in time, that she will let go of her certainties about the way young people should learn; that the years will soften her corners and teach her which battles are worth fighting and which can be abandoned. You’d hope that she gets to spend less time sobbing on a desk in an empty classroom and more being astonished by what her pupils are capable of.

It’s twenty-five years now since I was an NQT; it’s forty-four years – bloody hell – since I finally made it into Mrs Woods’ classroom with my dog-eared copy of In the Fifth at Malory Towers. Not all newly-qualified teachers are as sure of themselves as Miss Caroline, and not all four-year-olds arrive at school able to read and write and do speech marks. But all NQTs, and all four-year-olds, have a lot of learning ahead of them. Good luck to all of them, and let’s hope, for all our sakes, that this year is calmer than the last two have been.

On writing, aged 48

Years ago, I read a poem by Susan Bassnett, then Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Warwick, called ‘Goethe’s Desk’. The narrator sees Goethe’s desk in Goethe’s house, and muses on what she could have done if she’d had Goethe’s desk to work at, rather than having to do ‘a dozen servants’ jobs’. Here’s the poem:

I was reminded of ‘Goethe’s Desk’ last week, when the Women’s Prize for Fiction and Good Housekeeping magazine launched a new scheme for women novelists under 35. Joanna Walsh, who runs the Twitter feed @noentry_arts, wrote an open letter asking for the age limit to be removed, citing the many inequalities experienced by women: access to education and free time, an excess of caring responsibilities, and intersectional obstacles stemming from social class, ethnicity, disability and illness. Age-based prizes, the letter argued, favoured ‘those with the cultural confidence, time and money to commit to a writing career while young’. How do you achieve this conviction that the world is waiting to read what you have to say? How do you get your words out there, without the knowledge of how publishing works, the connections and advice and help up the ladder? And how do you silence the voice in your head that tells you there’s something else you should be doing?

The @noentry_arts campaign really resonated with me, as a woman writer in my late 40s. I don’t write fiction – my genre is narrative non-fiction – but my journey to becoming a writer has been shaped by many of the factors that Walsh cites in her letter. The most obvious of these is the lack of free time, stemming from juggling writing with childcare and full-time work. Behind this, though, there’s also a raft of issues to do with social class, a lack of the kind of cultural confidence and connectedness that Walsh refers to, and a hefty dose of the kind of impostor syndrome that I should really have outgrown by now, but haven’t. So here’s me, and here’s how I came to be a writer, at 48.

It all started when I was four. That was when I first read a book – a whole book – all on my own. It was Five Run Away Together – the third in the Famous Five series – and I didn’t even know if I should be reading it, because it wasn’t my book. It was a hardback, with a faded red cover, and I’d found it in the sideboard in our house. I knew it must belong to one of my siblings, but I didn’t know which one. All I knew was that I’d found a book and it looked interesting. The writer had a funny name, written in a way that made it look like ‘Gnid Blyton’. I knew it probably wasn’t Gnid – that was a silly name – but I didn’t know what else it might be, and anyway, I wanted to get on with the story. So I squeezed myself into the little space between the sofa and the wall, the place where I used to hide if I didn’t want anyone to know where I was, and settled down to read. I had no idea what I was letting myself in for.

Enid Blyton’s got a lot to answer for. I’m not talking about the sexism, xenophobia and disdain for the working classes. They’re appalling, of course they are, but I didn’t notice them when I was four. The thing that possessed me was the idea of adventure. I wanted a boat of my own, and a torch, and a little camping stove powered by a bottle of methylated spirits. I knew I was never going to have my own island with a ruined castle and an actual dungeon, but the rest seemed reasonable. Well, perhaps not the boat. I asked for the torch and camping stove for my fifth birthday. I got the torch, but not the stove. The torch was useful, up to a point, but there wasn’t really an awful lot that I could do with it. There was an acute shortage of the key ingredients of adventure in Newton-le-Willows in 1977: no smugglers or travelling circuses with escaped jewel thieves or rogue scientists trying to steal important blueprints. So I decided that if I couldn’t actually go on any adventures, then the next best thing might be to write about them. When my sixth birthday came around, I asked for a desk so that I could be a proper writer, and that’s really when it all started.

By the time I was halfway through my second year at primary school, my Famous Five obsession was so firmly embedded that the headmistress took my mum to one side. It was getting a bit much, she suggested. Every piece of writing I did was linked to the Famous Five in some way. I’d even managed to write an imaginary interview with Julian (though, sadly, I didn’t ask him anything about his massive superiority complex). I needed something else to be interested in. So I started to go for riding lessons, and horses quickly replaced junior sleuths as my main object of interest. Inevitably, like all horse-mad little girls, I wanted my own pony. And inevitably, like most horse-mad girls, I couldn’t have one. We had nowhere to keep a pony, and anyway, ponies were expensive. If I wanted a pony, I’d have to find some way of earning some money. How could I do that? The solution, to seven-year-old me, was obvious. I’d have to write a book.

I tried to write lots of books, over the years. To begin with, most of them featured ponies. I was good at drawing and decided that if I could illustrate my own books as well, I’d earn even more money to put towards a pony. The problem was that I didn’t have a lot of staying power. I’d come up with a good idea but didn’t know how to carry it through. I tried to write a book about British native pony breeds with pictures in biro of Shetlands and Exmoors and all the different sections of Welsh (there are four; I knew my stuff) but never managed to finish it. I spent the summer between primary and secondary school writing a book called One Jump Ahead, about a girl called Rebecca who gets a pony called King and turns him into a champion showjumper, and filled an entire Woolworths notebook which I’ve still got somewhere. As a teenager, I went through a phase of wanting to write scripts for soap operas, but had no idea how you’d actually get involved in that for real, so Brookside and EastEnders had to suffer my loss. And that, actually, was the problem. I spent a lot of time in my room, writing, or walking the streets, thinking of things to write about, but I didn’t have the first clue how you went about becoming an actual writer with your work published and your name in print. Pretty much all of my writing went completely unread by anyone except me: stored away meticulously, paper-clipped and treasury-tagged, then filed away for some mysterious day when Somebody would want to read it.

Story of my life. (Card by Rosie Made A Thing)

I was the first person in my family to go to university. I went to Oxford to do English, with vague ideas of staying on to do a doctorate and become an academic, fuelled by reading too much David Lodge. On my first day there, waiting in the porter’s lodge to get the key to my room, I had my first real-life encounter with a lacrosse stick, the first time I’d seen one outside the pages of Enid Blyton. On my second day, standing in the front quad, I talked to a boy on my course about the essay on nineteenth-century literature that we’d had to do over the summer. We’d been told to write about either the presentation of women or the presentation of the working class. ‘Well, I’m not a woman and I’m not working-class,’ he explained, all bright eyes and floppy hair. ‘I wasn’t sure which one I should do.’ I remembered earnest conversations in the sixth form common room when we’d tried to decide which social class we belonged to. We were, almost universally, the children of people who’d started at the bottom and worked their way up: my own parents had both left school at 14, and my friends’ parents were nurses and schoolteachers, skilled tradespeople and the owners of small businesses. Nobody – not even Catherine, whose mum and dad read the Guardian – was confident enough to plonk themselves wholeheartedly in with the middle classes. My floppy-haired new friend at Oxford had no doubts whatsoever. His uncle was a senior QC; his family was right up there at the heart of the Establishment. He himself aspired to be a barrister. To me, this spoke of a lack of commitment to English. It seemed disloyal. All I wanted to do, by that stage, was to spend my life reading books and writing about books and eventually – I hoped – end up writing books myself. I’d stopped riding by then, and given up on the idea of a pony, but getting my name in print was still there, hovering like a distant dream.

As it was, I didn’t apply to do postgraduate work immediately after my degree. I wasn’t sure I’d get the funding. I knew that my family wouldn’t be able to pay, and they certainly wouldn’t be able to help with my living expenses. I wouldn’t have asked them to: why should they, when my siblings had all supported themselves from leaving school? I also knew that jobs in academia were few and far between, and that I’d have to be prepared to move to wherever the jobs happened to be, scraping by on temporary contracts in the hope that I’d manage to get something permanent eventually. This was so far outside my family’s experience that I didn’t have the confidence to take the risk. I could have headed into journalism, but again, it was something I knew nothing about. I’d done a tiny bit of writing for student publications, but had been put off by the number of people who seemed to know exactly what they wanted to say and were absolutely confident that people would want to hear it. My elbows didn’t feel sharp enough. Instead, I played it safe, like so many first-generation university students from non-traditional backgrounds, and did a PGCE. I got a job at a school in south Lincolnshire, a part of the country I knew nothing about but that sounded nice, and that’s where I still am, twenty-five years later.

I did do a PhD eventually, but I did it a different way, part-time, while teaching full-time. I wrote a book – the snappily-titled Defining Literary Criticism: Scholarship, Authority and the Possession of Literary Knowledge 1880-2002 – and co-wrote two others. Then I became an adoptive parent, and started to think, a lot, about the ideas people have about adoption, the way adoption is depicted in the media and in popular culture, and how far removed these images are from the reality of adoption today. I wanted to explore these perceptions, to tell this story. And so I started to write, again.

It’s not easy, combining writing with working full-time – I’m now a Head of English – and being a parent. I write in whatever gaps I can open up around the rest of my life. There are frantic bursts during school holidays and then weeks during term-time when I can barely write at all. It takes a huge amount of self-discipline, and there’s always something else demanding my attention. But I wouldn’t be me, without it.

I need to be the age I am to write what I do. I couldn’t have written about adoption without becoming an adoptive parent, without living that particular reality and having to tackle the complexities that adoption brings. It took me a long time, and hours of redrafting, to get my work to the stage where I felt ready to submit it to an agent, and I had to give myself a stern talking-to before I pressed Send.

I don’t have any hopes of grandeur, but I do want to get my writing out there. I have an agent, but no publisher. I know it takes time. So I am working on an idea for another book, and being patient and trying to build a platform. The struggle with impostor syndrome is still there: that lurking, constant feeling that at some point, someone will give me a polite nudge and tell me to get back in my box. But maybe, one day, I’ll get lucky. And now that I’ve started horse riding again, maybe one day there will be a pony, after all.

We need to talk about Blood Brothers

Yay! It’s another adoption post.

One thing I bang on about a lot is the number of adoption-related texts there are across the various GCSE English Literature specifications. I’ve written about this in my article ‘Images of Adoption: Adoption in Literature and in the English Classroom’ (in Teaching English, issue 16) and I’ve spoken about it on the Loco Parentis podcast and for a forthcoming edition of the Adoption & Fostering Podcast. Of all of these texts, the one that crops up most frequently is Willy Russell’s 1983 play Blood Brothers, which you can study for GCSE English Literature with AQA, Edexcel, Eduqas and CCEA. It’s one of the most popular texts with all of these boards, coming second only to the classroom stalwart An Inspector Calls. It also appears as a text for study in GCSE Drama with AQA, OCR and CCEA, where it’s consistently the most frequently-studied play. In theory, you could end up doing Blood Brothers for both GCSE English Literature and GCSE Drama. You’d hope that English and Drama departments would coordinate things so that students weren’t doing the same play for two different subjects, but then again, some English departments introduce texts at KS3 and then teach them again at GCSE, so nothing would surprise me.

Thicker than water? (Source: Creative Commons)

I’ve been meaning to write about Blood Brothers again for a while now, largely because I continue to be astonished by how many schools teach it and how unproblematically it’s viewed. Recently, in response to the discussion about Kate Clanchy’s book Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, Alex Wright tweeted that ‘If one reads a depiction of another, who, for whatever aspect of their personhood is depicted in a way that lessens them, one can and will internalise these depictions. If one has no narrative to the contrary, these internalisations take root.’ This really nailed what’s at the heart of my discomfort with Blood Brothers. It’s a play about social class, inequality and injustice, and all of these are important themes to explore. But at the heart of all of this is the adoption of a child, and it’s the use of adoption as a plot device – and the simplistic way in which it’s treated – that, for me, makes Blood Brothers a really troubling text.

The plot of Blood Brothers is simple. Mrs Lyons is unable to have children: her cleaner, Mrs Johnstone, has found herself pregnant with twins even though she already has ‘seven hungry mouths to feed’. Mrs Lyons persuades Mrs Johnstone to give one of one of the twins to her, but insists that this has to remain a secret, as twins who are secretly parted must never learn the truth: ‘If either twin learns that he was once a pair, they shall both immediately die.’ The two boys – Mrs Johnstone’s son Mickey, and Mrs Lyons’ son Edward – grow up in different households, with different opportunities and expectations. Nevertheless, the two become friends, each unaware of the relationship between them. Together with Mickey’s neighbour Linda, they form a trio who play together, roam the streets and get into trouble with the police, who treat Mickey and Edward very differently. Edward does not know that he is adopted, but – like the vast majority of adopted people – he struggles with his sense of identity, and feels much more drawn to Mickey and Mrs Johnstone. Later, Edward goes to university; Mickey and Linda get married. Mickey loses his job in a factory and goes to prison for his role in an armed robbery. On his release, he is depressed, unable to cope without antidepressants. An exhausted Linda turns to Edward for comfort, and Mickey confronts him with a gun. Mrs Johnstone appears, and tells Mickey that he and Edward are twins, but the inevitable happens: Mickey’s gun goes off by accident, killing Edward, and Mickey is then shot dead by armed police.

It’s easy to see why Blood Brothers became so popular with schools. It’s a play that works on uncomplicated stereotypes about social class and privilege, with plenty of opportunities for students to compare and contrast the presentation of Mickey and Edward, Mrs Johnstone and Mrs Lyons, and the ways in which life has treated them. Take the incident where the children are apprehended by a policeman for throwing stones. Mrs Johnstone is told that Mickey was ‘about to commit a serious crime’; Mrs Lyons is reassured that ‘it was more of a prank’. Or the conversation between Mickey and Edward when Edward returns after his first term at university: Edward has had a fantastic time, and is looking for parties and a chance to celebrate: Mickey has just been made unemployed. Edward tells him that ‘if I couldn’t get a job I’d just say, sod it and draw the dole, live like a bohemian, tilt my hat to the world and say “screw you”’. Edward doesn’t have a clue. But on a more complex level, the play offers scope for the exploration of political theatre and classical tragedy. The disturbing figure of the Narrator, for instance, breaks the fourth wall at crucial points to underline the theme of superstition and fate that runs through the play, reminding both Mrs Johnstone and Mrs Lyons of the consequences of their actions. The message the Narrator offers is clear: the separation of the twins has disrupted the order of the universe, and the balance will only be restored with their inevitable deaths.

We studied Blood Brothers in GCSE Drama when I was fifteen, back in 1988, when the play was still relatively fresh. I have a vague memory of playing Mrs Lyons in the scene where she persuades Mrs Johnstone to give up one of her twins, doing my best to put on an RP accent and holding a cushion up to my front, pretending to be pregnant, Oh, the irony. We loved Mrs Johnstone – salt of the earth, of course we did – and hated Mrs Lyons, with all her middle-class selfishness. We were teenagers, and this was Merseyside in the 1980s, and our sympathy was always going to be with the underdog. Of course Edward was really Mrs Johnstone’s son: of course Mrs Lyons was possessive, grasping, wanting what she couldn’t have and using all the force of her social and economic privilege to get it. What’s the problem?

This is where I go back to Alex’s words. ‘If one reads a depiction of another, who, for whatever aspect of their personhood is depicted in a way that lessens them, one can and will internalise these depictions. If one has no narrative to the contrary, these internalisations take root.’

Adoption as a whole, and adopted people in particular, aren’t served well by popular culture. There are so many hackneyed tropes, so many predictable storylines. Adopted people threaten the natural order of things. They’re cuckoos in the nest. Think of Mrs Rachel Lynde in Anne of Green Gables, warning Marilla Cuthbert of the horrors that await her if she adopts a child, telling her of adopted children who put strychnine in the well and set fire to the house while their adoptive families were asleep. Think of Heathcliff and Edward Cullen. Adoption might bring material advantages, but it also means that – like Edward in Blood Brothers – you’ll never really fit in. And as for adoptive parents – well, they’re just weird. There are very few positive representations of adoptive parents in contemporary fiction and drama. The Brinks in Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs, the appalling Averys in John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies, the Donaldsons in Anne Tyler’s Digging to America: adopters are naïve and selfish at best, loveless monsters at worst. No wonder they couldn’t have children of their own, you can imagine people saying. When you look at Mr and Mrs Lyons, it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that they were never really meant to be parents in the first place.

Blood Brothers does not make any claims to realism, and the Lyons family is – obviously – light-years away from the average adoptive family in the UK today. Edward’s adoption is both unofficial and illegal, and Mr and Mrs Lyons escape the lengthy process of assessment and approval that all prospective adopters in the UK have to undergo. Nevertheless, the fact remains that this play represents the most significant fictional model of adoption that many of our students will have encountered at this point in their lives. If one has no narrative to the contrary, these internalisations take root. Many teaching resources choose to focus on the play’s adoption theme and hold it up as an oddity, something outside students’ own lives. One resource on Teachit asks ‘Do you think that it is ok for women to give up their babies for adoption? What reasons do women have for doing this?’ Another asks students to ‘create a short improvisation in which a teenager discovers that he/she was given up for adoption at 1 week old. He or she only discovers the truth when going through an old shoe box kept in the loft. How do you feel when you are told that your mum and dad are not your real parents?’ Imagine being an adopted teenager in this classroom, faced with this activity: lives like yours reduced to outdated stereotypes, painful family histories turned into an exercise for open discussion. Adoption, and families formed by adoption, are persistently othered: adoptive families are weird. (Adopted children are actually told this, by the way, by other children. The Dude certainly was. I have no idea where the other kid got it from, but it must have been from somewhere. Another kid told him that all adopted people end up in prison. That kid must have got that from somewhere, too. I have lost count of how many misconceptions I had to correct during the Dude’s school career.)

And adopted children have quite enough to cope with already, thank you. All adoption is rooted in trauma, and this is particularly the case in the UK nowadays, when the vast majority of adoptions involve children who have been taken into care because their birth parents were unable to keep them safe. The effects of this trauma can be lifelong. Some children will have very vivid memories of the events that led to their removal from their birth parents’ care. Others will have been very young, but early trauma – including that which is experienced prenatally – leaves its mark on the developing brain.

And yet, even now, adoption provides a seemingly endless set of tropes for entertainment. Just this week, a post shared on my Twitter timeline spoke of social media posts by parents joking about coping with their children during the long summer holiday, and how they were tempted to ‘have them adopted’. There’s a children’s novel called The Unadoptables, a supposedly ‘joyful’ Gothic romp about a group of orphans in nineteenth-century Amsterdam who are rejected by prospective adopters for a variety of reasons: one has big ears, one is south Asian, one has twelve fingers, one is mute and one is a girl who happens to be feisty and outspoken. Memes and jokes and plot devices, all riffing off a topic that is hugely complex, with no idea of the ramifications involved. (The Unadoptables was widely criticised by adopted people, adoptive parents and child welfare professionals when it was published in 2020: this Twitter thread, by Nicole Chung, will give you a sense of the debate. It was, nevertheless, bought by Penguin Random House for a ‘significant’ six-figure sum that would have paid for many hours of post-adoption support.) How long will we have to put up with this kind of thing?

So, as we approach the new school year, a favour. If you’re going to be teaching Blood Brothers, please think really carefully about how you’re going to handle the adoption-related elements of the plot, whether you have adopted or care-experienced students in your class or not. Pay these parts of the story the same kind of attention that I hope you’re paying to problematic depictions of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability – anything, in fact, that might cause students to feel less valued and less important, singled out because of their difference. If one has no narrative to the contrary, these internalisations take root. For many of our children, the education system is difficult to negotiate. Texts like Blood Brothers make it a whole lot harder.

From edge to edge: walking Wainwright’s Coast to Coast

I’ve been for a walk.

Route map, Robin Hood’s Bay

A long walk: the Coast to Coast. Opinions vary as to its actual length, because it isn’t an official National Trail. It’s a network of footpaths and rights of way, stretching across northern England from St Bees in Cumbria to Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire, developed by Alfred Wainwright in 1973. The routes you can take vary depending on a number of things – whether you choose high-level or low-level options, what time of year it is, how far off the trail you happen to be staying on particular nights – and so, while most estimates put the trail at about 190 miles, we actually walked about 215.

We’ve been thinking about doing the Coast to Coast for a few years now. Back in 2014, we did the Hadrian’s Wall long-distance path, and the Coast to Coast seemed the next logical step. We’d heard that it was a lot tougher than Hadrian’s Wall – it’s much longer, and across wilder countryside – so decided to leave it until the Dude was a bit older. Then this year, with the lockdown making travel outside the UK complicated and increasing demand for holidays within the UK as a result, we decided the time was right. After all, we reasoned, we’d spent so much time cooped up in south Lincolnshire that we needed to get out. And given that we couldn’t decide on just one destination, why not walk across the whole country?

Why not, indeed? It’s only a walk. Wainwright himself described it as ‘a country walk of the sort that enthusiasts for the hills and open spaces indulge in every weekend’, although he did add that ‘It’s a bit longer than most, that’s all.’ You dip your boots in the sea at St Bees, then put one foot in front of the other – many times – and before you know it you’re celebrating at Robin Hood’s Bay with the sea surging round your ankles. Easy!

Boots in the sea, St Bees

The Coast to Coast crosses three national parks – the Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors – and has a total ascent of just under seven thousand metres. The quickest crossing on record was made by Damian Hall in 39 hours, 18 minutes and 40 seconds, in May this year. Most people take between twelve and sixteen days, but at one point, we met a woman who was doing the crossing with her two children – both under ten – in stages of about five miles a day, fitting the stages into weekends and school holidays whenever the lockdown had allowed. They’d started in January, she said, and expected to be finished by October.

Ennerdale Water

Our walk took us fifteen days, including a rest day in Richmond, the biggest town on the route. We stayed in B&Bs, youth hostels and pubs, and had our luggage transferred from place to place by the fabulous Sherpa Van Company, who I would highly recommend. We could have camped, and carried our own stuff, but given that we’ve just emerged from the toughest school year on record, the lure of proper beds and dry socks was far too great.

Climbing Loft Beck

The received wisdom about the Coast to Coast is that if you can make it through the first five days, you’ll be fine. The first five days take you through the Lake District, and contain the biggest hills, breaking you in gently on the first day with Dent Fell at 352m and culminating four days later with Kidsty Pike at 780m. This period coincided with the hottest weather of our crossing and the climbing was exhausting. We started out with three litres of water each, but had to ration our drinks carefully, as there were very few places to stop and refuel: nowhere until we got to Ennerdale Bridge on the first day, and only one place – the snack bar at Honister Slate Mine – late on the second. Honister came just after the climb up Loft Beck, which runs up between Brandreth and Great Gable, and by then all three of us were hot, exhausted and desperate for a drink.

Heading into Patterdale

And then there’s the pain, especially in the first few days. Pain in your calves as you drive yourself uphill, every fibre screaming. Pain in your knees and hips on the downhill stretches. And most of all, pain in your toes, which seems to happen no matter how well-worn your boots are and how much extra room you’ve allowed. You imagine them in the dark like squashed eyeless creatures desperate for air, every step hurting. You are caught between being desperate to take your boots off and dreading what you’re going to find when you finally peel off your socks. We had to make an emergency purchase of new walking boots for the Dude, who split the sole of one of his boots on the second day, and there were many Compeed stops and necessary breaks to paddle in streams.

The Swale

The pain is worth it. Miles and miles of hills, stretching off in every direction, green shading into distant blue. Curious sheep and silent water. Skylarks and swallows. By the fourth day the ascents were getting easier and I was settling into the rhythm of what Rebecca Solnit describes in her book Wanderlust as ‘the mind at three miles an hour’.

Above Osmotherley

There are tough bits. Some of these you anticipate, like the big climbs, and the endless walk along Haweswater, and negotiating the way down from Hartley Fell, which is notoriously boggy. Some are unexpected: the switchback of the North York Moors, the driving rain that hit us on our penultimate day, and the tangle of footpaths in the Vale of Mowbray. On longer days (our longest day was 25 miles) the last few miles are agonising, especially, if they’re on the road. Wainwright describes the last quarter of a mile along the road into Keld as ‘the longest quarter of a mile in England’. He’s only partly right. There are many long quarter-miles as you go along.

Scarth Moor

There are also landmarks. Crossing the M6, and leaving the Lake District for the gentler hills of Yorkshire. Climbing up to the mysterious Nine Standards, a series of cairns that mark the Pennine watershed. Reaching Keld, the halfway point. Passing into the Vale of Mowbray, going under the A1, and emerging onto the North York Moors. And then seeing the sea, in the distance at Whitby, for the first time since we left St Bees all those miles ago.

The Nine Standards, Hartley Fell

And there are all the chance encounters along the way: the people you chat to, the places you stop at, the things you see. The sound of Bob Dylan playing from someone’s stereo in Moor Row on the first day, giving us a lift just when we needed it. A group of eager young people near Grisedale Tarn, all wearing matching crocheted frog hats. Bolshy sheep and keen-eyed collies. The very welcome tuck shop at Danby Wiske and the excellent Joiners Shop cafe at Ingleby Cross. Jo the tame crow at Graculus Sculptures in Reeth, and Bob the sheepdog and his owner, who accompanied us between Richmond and Brompton-on-Swale. All the brilliant hosts at the places we stayed at, including those who washed our clothes and brought us coffee and reassured us that the next day would be easier.

The tuck shop at Church Holme campsite, Danby Wiske

The last day gives you a bit of everything: rolling moors, woodland paths, waterfalls, steam trains at Grosmont, the first glimpse of Whitby Abbey. You feel like stout Cortez, standing on a peak in Darien and looking out at the Pacific. Little knots of walkers are drawn together, like iron filings to a magnet, as they approach the coast. You reach the cliffs above Robin Hood’s Bay, and then it’s the last few miles: through the fields, past allotments, into streets of solid Victorian guesthouses, and down the hill, passing holidaymakers and ice-cream shops and overflowing pubs, to the slipway, where you dip your boots in the sea again, elated, hardly believing you’ve made it.

Boots in the sea, Robin Hood’s Bay

It’s a hard walk. This is partly because of its unofficial status: there are some points where navigation is tricky, and where landowners haven’t bothered to maintain footpaths properly. But mostly, it’s because of the distances involved and the fact that there aren’t always convenient places to stop for a break, particularly in the early stages in the Lake District and when you’re crossing the North York Moors. There are some ascents where you need to scramble, and while I like a scramble, I know not everyone does. There’s also the relentlessness of knowing, each morning, that you have to get up and walk: the demands are mental, as well as physical. If you’re new to multi-day, long-distance walking, I’d recommend Hadrian’s Wall, or the Pembrokeshire Coast, both of which feel less remote and better supported. On the way back to Whitby, where we stayed for our final night, our taxi driver told us about people she’d picked up who’d tried, done a few days, and found they couldn’t cope.

Mist at the Wainstones, North York Moors

But: it’s brilliant. There’s that sense of testing yourself against the landscape, of digging in and pushing yourself on, and the feeling of proper physical tiredness, as opposed to the brain-fogged exhaustion of the last year. We made it, the Husband and the Dude and me, and now we’re at home washing socks and trying to decide where the next adventure will be.