Teaching Shakespeare

I don’t doubt that the way Shakespeare is taught in schools has changed somewhat since I was a teenager – and I think this is probably just as well, because my memory of it was enough to stop me reading the Bard for the best part of twenty five years. Let me explain.

Back in the day, my A Level set text for the Shakespeare paper was The Tempest, Shakespeare’s last play and one which I’d not heard of previously. I was familiar with “the greats” such as Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Richard III, but this was a new one. Unfortunately, I remember next to nothing about either the play or the teaching – although I must have read something, because I passed that paper. I do recall swearing never to read Shakespeare again, which went the way of the fairies when I caught a version of Henry V at the Old Vic. I was really only there to make up the numbers (free tickets are never refused) but suddenly, it all made sense. After that, I read and watched as much Shakespeare as I could get my hands on. But I still shied away from The Tempest until now – over thirty years since my A levels.

Now this is all but criminal, because the Tempest is a very clever, multi-layered and relevant play for these days. There are issues of colonisation, the use and abuse of power and the treatment of cultures unlike our own. I honestly don’t remember any of this being brought up in my studies, because I’m pretty darned sure if it had been I would have paid better attention. When Shakespeare was writing this, the Americas were just being colonised, there were issues between the colonists and the Native Americans and all of this would have made just as much sense then as now – and that’s before we get onto the subject of the old enemy, Spain, and it’s conquest of the Southern half of the continent.

I know teachers have plenty on their plate without the likes of me harping on; but this is really important. Shakespeare is our greatest playwright and poet and his works bring as much joy today as they ever did. If you don’t want to put a new generation of readers off for life, be careful how you teach him. Nobody cares about his use of arcane grammatical techniques – enjoy the plays and study what they are saying.


Manet – Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe

If you’re of a certain age, this painting will be incredibly familiar to you; in 1980, Malcolm McLaren stirred up a storm of publicity when he portrayed Annabella Lwin, the teenage singer of his new “project band”, Bow Wow Wow, naked alongside other band members in a recreation of the painting as the cover for their first single. It raised an awful lot of questions, not least ones about exploitation and censorship but like all such publicity stunts, it seemed to disappear into the mists of time without leaving much of a trace.

I remember that single well (not least because I played it to death at the time) and when I learned that it was a recreation of a “classic” painting, I went to look up the original. Aside from the outfits and the fact that one is a photograph, there is little to tell between them. Manet’s picture was highly controversial at the time (becoming the star of the 1863 Salon des Refuses) and the scandal was such that the Academy of Fine Arts refused to exhibit a number of his works for years to come.

The question still seems to be one of why the woman is nude and the men are not. A clue may be in the earlier working title for the painting, Le Bain (Bathing) – and you will note the pile of clothes on the grass next to the female figure. She’s been skinny dipping with her friend (who is still in the water to the rear of the picnicking figures) when their young men turn up out of the blue with a picnic. Rather than join the ladies, they lay out the cloth and the food and start chatting, with the girls joining in as and when they’re ready.

This may, of course, be an entirely simplistic answer and there are numerous feminist scholars who have taken issue with the fact that the men are clothed when the women are not. Certainly, this was the aspect that offended the Parisian viewers when they first saw the painting; it was not the nudity of the woman per se – nudes were common in art – but it is the conjunction of female nudity with male dress that caused bother; and did again, a hundred and twenty years later. It still raises questions of gender politics and will probably continue to do so. It certainly proved to be a picture nobody would forget in a hurry.

The Whisperer in the Dark

When I sat my first aid certificate refresher course recently, a discussion emerged during a coffee break about operations. Strange, discussing medical things at a first aid course, but there you are – we’re a morbid lot really. One of the attendees claimed that he’d read somewhere that an entire head transplant was proposed for later in the year. “It’s a massive operation,” he said. “It’s going to take two days. They’re going to do it in teams.”

I certainly didn’t believe him then, and I’m not sure I believe him now, but I don’t doubt that sooner or later, this will not only be achieved, but routinely possible. Just imagine – I really could end up looking like Morticia Addams! So can you imagine how such an idea must have sounded when Lovecraft wrote this late tale, in the early 1930s? Even in these days of modern medical and surgical wonders, the idea of transplants still seems like something out of science fiction. Okay, maybe we have got used to kidney and lung transplants, but heart transplants or multi-organ transplants are much more complicated – and that’s before we get onto such things as entire limbs or heads….

If I say anymore I really will give the game away.

It’s a really well written story. I think by this stage in his career, Lovecraft had got the idea as his later stories are well paced and genuinely creepy. The things that you think may happen don’t always – and what happens instead is often scarier. I’d not read this story for a long time and I’d actually forgotten just how clever it was. Even if you do work out the end, it’s pretty chilling so stick with it. It’s a good one.

Are the X-Men Modern Counterparts of Ancient Superstitions?

Many are the random thoughts that flit through my brain when I’m in the bath. Whoever said it was the ideal place for relaxing clearly never shared a house with me – it’s where I do all my best thinking and more often than not come up with ideas for this blog. And this entry is pretty standard fare, if I’m honest.

For some reason – I think I was trying to remember what I was dreaming about last night and I couldn’t – I suddenly realised that Rogue was, to all intents and purposes, a vampire; which made me wonder if Beast was a werewolf, Archangel an angel, Mystique a shapeshifter and Jean Grey a witch (I haven’t got to the bottom of where the undead fit in, but I’m working on it). Anyway, I started wondering if the popularity of the mutant theme over the years is essentially just a modernisation of old superstitions, with the mutants having parallels in ancient folklore.

Up to a point, Marvel Comics played up to this idea; Azrael was a teleporting demon who fathered Nightcrawler with Mystique, leading to Nightcrawler’s angst and religiosity in the comics (less so in the second movie), and the theme of mutants being victimised by “normal” humans often took the form of a medieval witch hunt. From being evolved humans with superpowers, the X-Men very quickly morphed into beings from other worlds, timelines or even gods.

The fact is, “monsters” have existed since man could think; the ancient Greeks had harpies, gorgons, satyrs and centaurs – mostly part human part something else. Seers and soothsayers communed with the gods, who were essentially humanlike but without the limitations. They have always been feared – but not always persecuted, which is the difference between ancient and modern mutants. Instead of having gods, we now have superheroes.

Whether or not you like superheroes (or comics, or superhero comics even) it strikes me as pretty clear that they fulfil a role in the global psyche. It strikes me that what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom isn’t our capacity to feel pain or emotion – it’s our capacity to create monsters. It’s not the best thing in the world to be remembered for.

Murder Most Banal

After reading Zola’s La Bete Humaine, I must admit that I’m really starting to wonder about this. Virtually all the main characters either consider or resort to murder at some point in the story as a solution to whichever problem is at the forefront of their mind at that moment. For example, Severine dislikes her husband (who has already murdered Gironcourt and got away with it) and wishes to marry Jacques, so she suggests that Jacques murder her husband as he is an obstacle to their happiness. Jacques’ aunt is murdered by her husband so he can steal her inheritance of 1,000 francs. Jacques’ cousin Flore murders scores of people by rigging a train crash because she is jealous of Jacques’ relationship with Severine and wants her out of the way so she can marry Jacques.

And so on. As the killer in Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem would note, there is no style to these murders. They are common and unartistic and beneath the serious killer. One would hope that Peter Ackroyd was being tongue in cheek there, because that’s quite a controversial mindset to promote.

I was struck as I finished the book at how easily everyone simply killed people who got in their way; although it’s very possible that there were elements of northern France in the late nineteenth century who really did behave in such a way, but it really didn’t feel realistic to me – although that said, I realise that it may be an all too realistic representation of life in somewhere like a favela in Rio, for example. In those environments life is all too cheap, so it doesn’t really do to get wrapped up about it.

I suppose reading this so close to finishing Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem has made me realise that in certain quarters, murder is (if you like) a craft, and there is a special satisfaction to creating a masterpiece; even if that masterpiece happens to be a corpse. My years of studying old issues of True Detective have taught me, if nothing else, that there are many serial killers who believe that they are artists and their murders are works of art; and we can see the same thought process in series such as Hannibal. You have those murderers who see value in their work and those who just view it as a means to an end.

Forensic psychology isn’t really my thing, but I did find this aspect interesting. I’m fairly sure there’s a thesis in here somewhere for someone much better placed than me to write it. What do you think?

A Mistranslated Title?

I’ve mentioned previously that I do like reading the novels of Emile Zola. This will be the fifth one I’ve read (not counting re-reads) and is, I think, one of his best known. However, because I can’t read French I have had to pick up a translation and the title has got me all confused. The novel I’m reading is La Bête Humaine, which my (Penguin) edition has translated as The Beast Within. This is entirely acceptable, and I’m sure there is no problem with it. It’s just that to me, the title translates as The Human Beast which, in the context of the story, seems to make more sense.

The crux of the story (about which I will probably write more later) is that of murder on the railways, and in particular, the mind of a murderer; but I would also like to explore other characters and their mindsets because I think it illustrates (my translation of) the title really very well.

Roubaud, a stationmaster, kills the man who molested his wife when she was younger in a fit of jealous rage. I’m not sure, actually, that it is jealousy – perhaps righteous anger, but still – and realising that he has means, motive and opportunity, arranges the murder. The victim, Galincourt, a wealthy company director and senior lawyer, is a well-known sexual predator whose crimes have effectively been covered up as a result of his position. Don’t be surprised if this sounds HORRIBLY familiar, because it did to me too. Unfortunately for Roubaud, the murder is witnessed by Jacques Lantier, a young engine driver who suffers from homicidal delusions and had just tried to rape and murder his godmother’s daughter (whose sister was raped and murdered by Galincourt).

Traditionally, it is Lantier who is considered the Beast of the title, but I think there are different meanings to the word which Zola plays with. Certainly Galincourt’s behaviour is beastly, and Lantier’s fits of mania hint at a lack of rational control which at the time was considered to (to quote an old friend) “separate us from the animals”. In the fullness of time, however, we see Lantier go on to kill his mistress, then his engineer and finally himself in a plot that twists and turns like a good 19th century classic – which, of course, this is.

I’m only about halfway through at the moment, and so far only Galincourt is dead, but the senior judiciary have already conspired to ensure that the case doesn’t go to trial to protect the deceased’s reputation. Zola was well known for his assertions against the State for injustice – he was a famous supporter of the accused in the Dreyfus affair – so this is hardly surprising. What surprises me is how prescient it feels in the light of more modern examples of Galincourt’s behaviour. Naming no names, because I refuse to give them publicity.

Looking at all the characters and the behaviour they illustrate, I can’t help but think my translation of the book is the right one. I’ll let you know when I’ve finished it.

An Ideal Dinner Party

Before my friends and family protest – I’m only imagining one. I don’t cook, I loathe cooking almost as much as I loathe having other people in my little sanctuary. So please view this in the spirit in which it is intended, as an entertaining thought experiment and not much more.

But – if I were to have a dinner party, who would I invite? Apparently, there are rules to these things; firstly, you must have equal numbers of men and women; secondly, all the invitees are to be fictional characters*; and thirdly, it is assumed that you’ve got an unlimited budget in terms of food, drink and catering generally. I don’t believe that a detailed menu is required, so I’m not providing one. They’ll get what they’re given and like it, as my gran used to say! So, here’s my list of dinner guests:-

1 – Miss Havisham, if she can be crowbarred away from her rotting wedding breakfast and enticed into polite company. She’s allowed to keep the wedding dress, mind.

2 – Jay Gatsby, because at least he knows how to throw a party. And besides, he’d probably know where to get some more booze if we run out.

3 – Morticia Addams, because it wouldn’t be a very good dinner party without her. She’s elegant, witty, intelligent and disarmingly funny.

4 – Gomez Addams, for the same reason I would invite his wife. Although in his case, he would probably be armed and funny.

5 – Brienne of Tarth (Game of Thrones) because she’s a wonderful character and I think a blooming good meal with great company would do her the world of good. And she can practice her swordplay with Gomez.

6 – Wolverine, because he’d bring his own cutlery and keep things from getting too boisterous.

7 – Alice, because I want to know if her wonderland is real. And besides, someone has to pair up with Gatsby…

8 – Count Dracula, assuming he actually eats and promises to leave the guests alone. In return, I promise not to use him as a target for archery practice.

And there you have it. Mind you, ask me again tomorrow and I’ll give you a completely different list…

* An alternative version has real people who are deceased. Nobody living is ever allowed.

The Hanging Stranger

Sometimes, Philip Dick wrote a short story that is quite good; occasionally, he wrote one that was excellent; and rarely, he wrote one that was simply breath-taking. I can’t quite decide which category this one fits into; I think it’s floating somewhere between excellent and breath-taking, but I love small town paranoia anyway. Dick did small towns and paranoia very well, but in this story the combination is a masterpiece of storytelling. Is Noyce going bonkers or is he really seeing what he’s seeing? In fact, if everyone tells you that you’re insane, how do you know that you’re not?

In terms of plot, this very closely resembles the 1956 movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where one man becomes increasingly convinced that the other occupants of his town have been taken over by strange insect-like creatures he sees descending from the sky. His reasoning is simple; none of them pay any attention to the man hanging from a lamp-post in the town square. The story is brilliantly told and although I did guess the twist at the end, it didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the story one jot. It’s delightfully creepy.

Exhibit Piece

I’m not sure if any of you have heard of those weird and wonderful people who take vintage to a whole new level? I saw a TV programme about some once; two couples, one who lived in the 1930s and another in the 1950s. They had each done their houses out to reflect their styles, with authentic furnishings and vehicles and so far as possible, employment. Not surprisingly, it was this last point where things seemed to fudge a little; Mrs 1930s worked in a call centre and Mrs 1950s was a civil servant, but I suspect neither of them could afford to be the housewives they would have been expected to be in the eras of their choice.

The reason why I mention this is that this story by Philip K Dick reminded me a lot of those couples; so invested in their chosen era that they have elected to live the life so far as possible. It’s a wonderful idea, and in Dick’s hands it turns into something a bit special. We are no longer in a museum exhibit – we have genuinely gone back in time, and compared to the life that he was living before, perhaps going back isn’t much of a temptation.

Dick often wrote about memory and nostalgia, and how the past can sometimes seem a little rose-tinted compared to the reality. I think this story really brings it home. A part of me would love to have lived in the 1940s, but perhaps without rationing, the bombing and the disease… thinking about it, I’ll stick with the here and now. It’s stressful enough.

The Hood Maker

Not that I usually give a fig about being in fashion, but it does feel a bit strange to see Philip K Dick, one of my favourite SF authors, being so popular again. His star seems to rise and wane with alarming regularity – popular in the eighties, less so in the nineties, barely remembered in the noughties, starting to come back in the tens. Much as I like his novels, it’s his short stories that I really admire because they often deal with ideas and theories that probably couldn’t carry a hundred thousand words without veering off into lunacy.

I really like The Hood Maker, the first of his stories to be broadcast as part of Channel 4’s Electric Dreams series, which gave me the idea of reading all the original stories in the order that they were shown – partly because I prefer reading to viewing but also because I have the collected stories somewhere and it seemed a great excuse to dig them out. So before anyone asks – no, I haven’t watched the series and I probably won’t either, so I’m not necessarily aware of any differences between the two.

The central conceit of The Hood Maker is that people’s thoughts are no longer their own; the state employs telepathic mutants (“teeps”) to scan one’s unconscious thoughts and report any disloyalty. The state’s justification is that if one has nothing to hide, one has nothing to worry about. But some people do feel that there are secrets worth keeping and it isn’t long before strange alloy headbands (the “hoods” of the title) are being received by notable government employees which prevent the teeps from reading their thoughts. The state, unsurprisingly, drafts legislation banning them, but the story ends before the keynote vote (and reveals how it will fare).

Dick was, I suppose, something of a typical Californian libertarian; he was also quite paranoid and so the idea of the government spying on him using telepaths was something he revisited regularly – I suppose the best known version is Minority Report, also originally a short story, where people are arrested for crimes before getting the chance to commit them by (essentially) thought police. It raises questions about whether or not people have the right to keep secrets and the level to which a state can erode civil liberties before it becomes totalitarian. Given that the overwhelming majority of governments run on secrets – otherwise intelligence services wouldn’t be required – you can see why they would be concerned about “disloyalty”, for example. Whether or not it’s ever likely to happen is anyone’s guess – I’m fairly sure that people who have lived through the whims of a totalitarian regime before the fall of Communism would be able to vouch for Dick’s veracity here.

It’s a clever story, and it doesn’t seem dated – a flaw which has befallen a few of his novels, if I’m honest. It has elements of science fiction and spy thriller, which makes me wonder if there is such a thing as spy-ence fiction. On which note, I’ll move on to the next story….