Why Gove Shouldn’t Kill the Mockingbird

Seems to me this is something we should all think about, and this blog says what I feel so succinctly that it seems the best thing for me to do is re-blog it on my pages. Hope you find it as worthy a cause to shout about as I do.

Interesting Literature

Regular readers of this blog may know that we at Interesting Literature are rather fond of the following story about the genesis of To Kill a Mockingbird. The story goes that Harper Lee’s friends gave her a year’s wages for Christmas, on condition that she give up work and write. By any standard of measurement, she used the time off work wisely: she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. It was published in 1960 and remains her only novel. Harper Lee – or Nelle Harper Lee, to give her her full name – is now 88 years old, but her one novel has done enough by itself to secure her reputation. It has sold over 30 million copies.

This morning, it was reported that Michael Gove, the UK Education Secretary, has removed To Kill a Mockingbird and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men from the school GCSE syllabus. Gove…

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Elegance and humour – the romance of Regency.

georgette heyerOnce again I’m reaping the benefits of being a bookworm, as another relative, downsizing, discards a box of books my way.  This week sees me wallowing in nostalgia with some of Georgette Heyer’s regency novels.

Sometimes we need some self-indulgence.  Besides, truth is, they’re nicely written.  Okay, so they may seem a little dated, and no, I haven’t forgotten that they’re historical romances.  I mean that the (admittedly few) recently published historical romances I’ve read have a less ‘mannered’ approach to their telling.  Georgette Heyer’s opening sentence to her novel, Frederica is:

 Not more than five days after she had dispatched an urgent missive to her brother, the Most Honourable the Marquis of Alverstoke, requesting him to visit her at his earliest convenience, the widowed Lady Buxted was relieved to learn from her youngest daughter that Uncle Vernon had just driven up to the house, wearing a coat with dozens of capes, and looking as fine as fivepence.

Okay, it’s probably not authentic regency syntax.  But it’s not meant to be.  This is romance.  It’s escapism.

It’s not the easy, colloquial approach that’s commonly in use now, though.  Heyer leant towards being archaic: not so much that she’s a struggle to read, but there is formal feel to her writing.  The thing is, she didn’t allow that to slow her up.  Her stories are not bogged down by explanations.  These are ‘show don’t tell’ novels.  The story always moves forward smoothly.  What the language of her narration does is help me to keep me in the historical mode.

Heyer’s novels hold a special place in my heart.  They were my introduction to literature.  As a result of reading them, I was ready to move on to Jane Austen, Henry Fielding, Thackeray and the other great early novelists.  I don’t say I wouldn’t have got round to them without her, but I think I might have missed an important lesson in story-making.

I say that, because these stories seem to reflect Heyer’s love of literature.  I discovered moments of recognition, not only amongst the great novelists she had been influenced by, but also at the theatre.  I’m not suggesting plagiarism, or direct borrowing.  It seemed to me that what Heyer had done was to take characters or situations and set them into a new story.

There were a lot of other historical romance writers available when I was reading Heyer, and I read as many as came my way, but I never felt the need to collect those, as I did hers.  I don’t think I can have read even half of her fifty novels, but the ones that I did have access to, I reread regularly.  Why?  Well they are easy reads.  The characters are attractive, fun and busy.  There’s always something happening, and the narrator has a lovely wry sense of humour.

Interestingly, at the time I collected them I was earning pocket-money as a babysitter, and all the households who employed me had at least five or six Heyer’s on their shelves too.  With only three tv channels, it was the bookshelves that kept me entertained and awake on late-nights.

So I’m glad to find that even though there are still some of these softly aging old copies on the second-hand market, several of the titles are now available electronically too.  I hope, if you’ve got a wet afternoon, or a quiet evening, you too might be tempted to give one a try.







This week, a quote:

I was browsing through my old Mslexia diaries, in search of some notes, when I saw this, and thought it worth repeating.

Writing is a world.  It’s a place we inhabit entirely when we’re there – putting words down on the page, letting sentences connect and form on computer screens.  We can’t imagine, when we’re writing, that there’s any other reality than this.

Kirsty Gunn

I don’t know about you, but this, I think, is what I aim for.

DSCF4818 - Copy - CopyWhere is the world of writing?  It’s not only in my imagination, it’s all around me.  My imagination translates the reality I experience into words, and if you’ve not yet understood the value of practicing free-writing, then this seems to touch on what happens when we practice it.



I’d like to recommend, Rumer Godden

I chose this novel because it was slim, and bright yellow, not because I recognised the author.  I wanted something on a completely different track to the local author’s we’d been studying in the reading group.  Good as they were, I would need something different to unwind with.  Breakfast with the Nickolides looked exotic. breakfast-with-the-nikolides

I didn’t read the blurb on the back.  At some point I’d put this on my shelf, therefore, someone or something had suggested that it was worth reading.

It is.  Godden was a stylist.  Her writing, apparently simple and straightforward, is deftly organized.  Here’s the opening scene:

It was in the little agricultural town of Amorra, East Bengal, India.

In the night Emily Pool’s small black spaniel, Don, slipped down the stairs.  He ran into the garden and out through the gate into the College grounds where the lawns lay smoothly between the buildings and the trees and ended in grass beside the tank.  He ran with curious intentness, his head down, his wide ears brushing either side of his hot serious face, and very soon his ears were soaked with dew and stuck with twigs and ends of grass.

He was hot.  He lay down and panted; but in a moment, pricked with some intense discomfort, he was up to run again, round and round without any point or reason.  There was nothing he wanted, but he could not be still, he could not feel or behave like himself at all.

How easily my eye slipped down the page, the images building in my imagination.  The location is set in a sentence, but what is the significance of Emily Pool’s black spaniel?  Who is Emily Pool, and since we have her full name, why no description?  Why is the first short chapter (a bare page and a half long) focused on her dog, Don, and his odd behaviour?

In chapter two we get the first of the human characters introduced smoothly, with just enough back-story to give context.  Charles Pool, the man who set up the Government Farm at Amorra, with ‘its colonnaded buildings, it’s straight well-sanded roads with railings that led through model fields’, has a mission to modernize the traditional agriculture of India.  It’s through his achievements that we see countryside and its people as well as himself and his lifestyle.

Only Charles Pool knew how big it really was; he knew exactly, because he had made it.  He had pushed it out and across the plain, patch after patch, crop after crop; and it had not been easy…in eight years the Farm had become an Industrial and Research Centre, with an annual exhibition; it had a Stud Farm and a Veterinary Research Anex…and three hundred students who came from all parts of the province to study livestock, crop-husbandry, bacteriology, agricultural botany, mycology and entomology.

The essence of normality is conveyed even as the plot shifts forward, and we, and his neighbours discover that Charles has a secret.

One morning Charles went down to the jetty to meet the steamer; and on the steamer was his wife, and not only his wife – there were two children of perhaps eleven and eight.

This is the point where the careful process of revelations begin.

Where had this family come from?  It appeared that they had been driven out of Paris by the war, and escaped by Lisbon to the Canaries, where they had taken a ship round the Cape to Colombo, and another from Colombo to Calcutta

So that’s one question answered, but perhaps it’s not the whole explanation for where this family came from.  It leaves us with more questions, such as, ‘What were they doing there?’ and, ‘Why have they come back after eight years without Charles mentioning them?’

Mysteries, the small, domestic intricacies of marriage, the cultural chasms of that time and place, are revealed slowly, one layer at a time.  Don’t expect a comfortable read.  This is a novel of subtleties.  Godden didn’t take any easy ways out with this story, though there were plenty of opportunities when she could have.

There is violence at the heart of the story, but it’s implied, and arguably the more powerful for that.  This is an understated novel.  At one point, as I was reading it, I found myself wondering if it couldn’t have been reduced to a short story.  Only in the hours after I’d finished reading, when my subconscious was still processing the implications, did I realize that it could only have been a novel.  Changing one word might have spoiled the carefully drawn and balanced parallels.

This, I think, is writing to aspire to.




The guided-reading-group.

‘How does it work then?’ I was asked the other day.  ‘Do you all read at the same time, aloud?’

It was a timely question.  I’m hoping to start a guided-reading-group in a new area in September, and I’ve been wondering not just where to advertise, but how to do it.  Publicity not being my strong-suit, my usual system has been to describe the book that the course is based on, and hope to tempt or intrigue people who either already love the book, or have thought they might like to read it one day.  That blurb goes out in the WEA brochures, on it’s web-site, and here on my blog.  More locally, WEA branch volunteers and I put up posters.

I’m blushing here.  This demonstrates an abysmal failing in creativity and imagination.  I’ve been drifting along, putting in minimal time and thought to what is one of the keys to a successful course, recruitment.

In the past I concentrated on where to place publicity.  That’s been useful.  I’ve learned the value of visibility, and these days I’ve usually got cards, posters, fliers and brochures in pockets and bags, ready to hand around.  But let’s be brutally truthful, I had become complacent, even thinking of myself as efficient.

So, as I was explaining the format to my questioner, ‘The reading all happens at home, between classes,’ I was also thinking about how effective my publicity really was.

‘So then what do you do?’ he said, hitting the vital nail on the head.

Bee swarm

Bee swarm

‘Well,’ I said, ‘we discuss what we’ve read, and I bring along some questions that I think might add to the discussion, and some extra information that might affect the way we think about the writing, usually as a short presentation.  Then we compare our ideas about that.  I might give some background about the author, or consider how the book was written, or what was happening at the time, and how we think the book fits in with modern ideas and other stories.’  I paused.

How do you describe something that is meant to flex around the divergent interests of each group?

I’ve been guiding reading-groups for ten years now.  The class I started with was based on an anthology of short stories. I’ve delivered it to several groups since then.  It provides a lovely cross-section of writers and styles, and of story-writing principles and practices.

I can’t predict what will delight, interest, entertain, confuse, shock or repel a reader.  Each group takes each discussion in a new direction.  Some of the stories are difficult reads that raise questions about the functions of writing and reading.

Each reader brings a new slant to my understanding of what a story is saying and how it works.  Did they like it?  Why?  If not, why not?  Can I persuade them to read it differently, show them something intriguing about it?

Together we explore the how and why of each text.  For readers, it adds a new dimension to the way they think about books and writers.  For writers, it provides a better understanding of the endless flexibility of fiction.

Do we risk losing sight of the story when we start investigating it?  Shouldn’t reading be about losing yourself?  Shouldn’t it be just about the words on the page?

I would answer yes, in varying degrees, to all three questions.  Because, can’t reading sometimes also be about the spaces between the words, too?  And if they’re there, isn’t it good to be able to explore their possibilities in company of some other interested and curious readers?