The Book of Dust, Philip Pullman – *standing ovation*

lyra's oxford.jpgSo in spite of the very special new kind of pandemonium that Little Miss has introduced to our lives, I managed to read this latest adventure in the world of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials in just three days. This is not a brag about my reading speed but a measure of just how readable La Belle Sauvage is. If a book is so exciting that you, sleep-deprived and exhausted new Mum, are prepared to stay awake AFTER your three month old has gone to sleep in order to read it, I think it’s fair to say you’re onto something pretty special.

I was nervous about this read. I loved the original trilogy (so much so that Little Miss was very nearly Little Miss Lyra) and I couldn’t quite conceive of how Pullman was going to introduce new characters to Lyra’s Oxford capable of commanding the same affection (or indeed fear) as those we met in Northern Lights (The Golden Compass in the States). This nervousness was perhaps a mark of not having read any Pullman for an awfully long time. The opening pages slip you gently back into this world of daemons and Dust that you never realised you had forgotten. It’s not quite like putting on a pair of comfortable slippers – it’s a darn sight more exciting for a start – but it is reassuringly familiar.

The heroes of this tale Malcolm Polstead and Alice Parslow, residents and employees of The Trout Inn, offer gentle foreshadowings of Lyra (introduced as a baby in this book) and Will. There are guest appearances from other characters we already know too: Lord Asriel, Mrs Coulter and Father Coram pop up without any hint of that slavishness that can afflict fictional worlds revisited. Pullman draws new detail onto these characters rather than just thickening their outline. Similarly, we learn more about that mystical instrument, the alethiometer and are given insight into the conflicts and politics concerning Dust.

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The tone of the book is definitely more adult than the previous trilogy (see here for much predictable bleating over the swearing) and whilst that certainly helps it to appeal to his original child’s audience now in their twenties and thirties it also adds depth and seriousness to what could otherwise have been an entertaining kids’ caper. And that, of course, is what Pullman is so good at, telling stories that are accessible, exciting and adventurous against a backdrop of complex and provocative ideas. The original His Dark Materials trilogy was rich in philosophy and it is a point of great admiration for me that Pullman refuses to patronise his younger readers.

Religion, as you would expect, is a central concern and we encounter both its kindness and abominable cruelty in two very different sets of nuns as well as the sinister reach and power of the religious authority, The Magisterium and its enforcement arm, the Consistorial Court of Discipline. The action is driven by a flood of Biblical scale and consequence sweeping our heroes away from Oxford and through various other-worlds. The pages preceding the flood are saturated with dread as they are with rain and the climactic moment that the river bursts its banks is devastating.

It isn’t just the swearing that makes La Belle Sauvage a more adult read than its forebears. Its villain, Bonneville, is genuinely scary and his Hyena daemon an exercise in the grotesque. The coming of age aspect of His Dark Materials is revisited and disturbingly played out in this character’s pursuit of Malcolm, Alice and of course the baby Lyra. Sexual assault and abuse are explicitly touched upon and the supposed moral authority of those who oppose the Magisterium called into question in their willingness to exploit children in pursuit of their agenda.

The movement of the story does lose urgency towards the end and, as one might expect, we are left with an armful of questions and very few answers. Among other things, I can’t help but wonder how Pullman will square the notable absence of Malcolm and Alice from Lyra’s life in the originals with the fierceness of protection they showed her here. That said, if there is one thing I should have learnt from La Belle Sauvage it is to trust Philip Pullman and look forward to the next instalment with new confidence that it is likely to be just as magical and mysterious.

Brief side note: I have actually leant my copy to my sister and so can’t offer any pictures at the moment (will update soon!) but beneath the dustcover, the book itself is absolutely beautiful, embossed with copper flecks of dust itself.

 

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5 Reasons to Get Excited About Alias Grace on Netflix

A very fabulous Friday to one and all. As I feverishly try to finish reading the book, the adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace arrives on Netflix. It’s been on my TBR pile for yonks and was moved up the list when the release date was announced but alas, the awesome tiny person with whom I am spending most of my time at the moment is not entirely sympathetic to such ‘deadlines’ and so I am battling the temptation to binge watch before I have read the final pages. However, from where I’ve got to, I can see way more than five reasons to be excited about another Atwood adaptation but in the interests of brevity (as demanded by afore mentioned tiny person) I have exercised some self-restraint!

  1. Atwood translates brilliantly onto screen.

I have finally plucked up the emotional courage to finish watching the new and much lauded version of The Handmaid’s Tale. It strikes me that there is a reason it has become an icon for our times beyond the eerie prescience of the subject matter. Atwood has a knack for conveying the states of her characters visually: the clothes and costumes they wear are powerfully reflective not only of social position but of the political oppressions they are subject to in that position. Obviously the red habits of the Handmaids are the standout example of this but it pops up in lots of Atwood I’ve read; the MaddAddam Trilogy (currently in development by Darren Aronofsky and seeking a home) does it very well too, as does, Alias Grace.

2. Alias Grace is just as relevant as THMT. 

Without wanting to give anything away, Alias Grace is another study in the violence and oppression of patriarchy. Although it is a historical novel based on the story of a real woman who purportedly murdered her employers, it deals with many of the same themes as THMT. The disempowered female figure worked on by a brutalising patriarchal order might in this instance be set in the grime of the Victorian era but it’s a book that seethes with anger and outrage in the same way as the Handmaid’s dystopian future. The Weinstein revelations and continuing fallout in the era of “grab ’em by the pussy”, layers both books (and hopefully both adaptations) with more, very real urgency.

3. Atwood is consulting producer on the production

And we all trust Margaret, do we not?

I love the freedom she afforded the makers of THMT adaptation. She allowed it the capacity to be as pertinent as possible without compromising her world creation in any way. Indeed, as it has been confirmed that season two of THMT will move beyond the scope of the original book and an audiobook has been released with a new ending, there are rumours afoot that a fully fledged sequel may be in the offing. What is most exciting about this is the way in which Atwood sees the fluidity between media: just as her stories usually highlight ambiguity and subjectivity so she reflects this in the flexibility of her narrative modes. There is, of course, more than one way to tell a story and Atwood’s enthusiasm for this multiplicity only expands the reach and depth of her writing. Indeed, she’s been branching into another more visual medium with her graphic work Angel Catbird.

4. It’s a bloody good story. 

I have a bit of a weird thing with Atwood: I absolutely love her but I always struggle to get into her books to start with. This was no exception but, as is usually the way, once embroiled it’s a brilliant and clever thrill of a read. It won the Booker in 2000 so evidently I am not alone in thinking it rather good. And, once I’ve finished it, I will be very interested to have it retold from someone else’s imagination.

5. Well, would you check out this trailer? 

Should we ‘decolonise the canon’? What a ridiculous question: of course we should.

This is a subject that I feel very, very strongly about – as anyone I’ve ever taught will be able to attest. And, whilst I have often come at it from a feminist angle, purely because that is my ‘margin’ as it were (though it feels bonkers to refer to 50% of the world’s population as a margin of any kind) and it is the area about which I feel most knowledgeable. As it happens, I am on a deliberate mission to broaden my scope and to read more BAME authors, though again, this has been in some respects limited to contemporary work. The ‘row’ that has erupted/wasentirelymanufacturedbysomeappallingjournalismfromTheDailyTelegraph over an open letter from the English students at Cambridge is frankly a nonsense.

The dominant forces in the Western world have for time immemorial been patriarchal and white. It is therefore unsurprising that the educational traditions of said world reflect this exclusivity. The power systems of a society shape the imprint it leaves but that does not render such an imprint accurate. Just because the canon that we have come to accept culturally is overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male does not make this a true reflection of the breadth and quality of writing the world has to offer. Oh and by the way, anyone who dares to proffer the argument that there just aren’t as many women or BAME writers of the same quality is either stupendously arrogant, stupendously ignorant or some unholy combination of the two.

Whilst it may be true to point out that educational opportunity may have produced more work from white, male authors and indeed have denied the voices of many who fall outside that category (see Virginia Woolf on Shakespeare’s imaginary sister); this fact makes it incumbent on those who write the narrative, who shape the modern canon, to expand and recalibrate it. If you are a true lover of literature I can think of nothing more exciting! The more I read, the less well-read I feel because each book, play, poem leads to some other possibility. The joy of reading is in being humbled by how little you know and enthralled by how much there is to learn.

This of course all ties in to broader issues about representation and why it matters that we are exposed to diversity as well as  the white dudes we meet so routinely (NOTE: not necessarily instead of – calm down guys, we aren’t trying to eradicate you as so many of you seem to believe). There are plenty of people far better qualified than I to comment on this so I’ve linked to just a few bits on the topic below that have stuck with me – happy reading and please do link to other recommended reading on the topic in the comments…

Reading into Motherhood – Stay With Me, Ayòbàmi Adébàyò

As promised, this post will set out some thoughts on Ayòbámi Adébàyò’s startling novel of motherhood, marriage and masculinity. Also shortlisted for the Bailey’s prize, on the face of it, Stay With Me could not be more different from Naomi Alderman’s The Power which eventually won. Alderman’s novel is an audacious story of speculative fiction using key players to narrate large scale calamity; Adébàyò by contrast is intensely focused on the intimacy of the family. That said, both novels present clear challenges to societal assumptions about gender; one of the most interesting aspects of Stay With Me is the toxicity of expectation, not just of women and motherhood but of masculinity and what it is to be a son, a father, husband.

Set against the turbulent politics of 1980s Nigeria (about which I know precisely nothing and now wish to learn), Stay With Me unspools the story of Yejide and Akin who, after four years of marriage, are unable to conceive a child. Despite Yejide’s protestations, a second wife is provided for Akin by his family in the hope that children will follow. Aspects of the story are familiar: it is assumed that the “problem” is Yejide’s. It is she who seeks treatment, is subject to interrogations and humiliations at the hands of the family and she who feels the childlessness they share most acutely as hers. Adébàyò, though, offers dual first person narratives that work to reveal the complexity of familial pressure, not only on a childless woman, but on a man in this position. The desire to fulfil a powerful and oppressive version of masculinity leads Akin into terrible and unforgiveable manipulation of his wife. There is throughout a pervasive sense of entitlement to the female body and to its reproductive power which, in the context of the #metoo campaign just this week and the Harvey Weinstein revelations, feels especially pertinent.

There is great beauty in the writing too. The language is lyrical in its bell-like clarity. Adébàyó’s skill is not only in the creation of voice and character but in the distillation of emotion at its most complex. And in what context is feeling more complicated than within the family?

“If the burden is too much and stays too long, even love bends, cracks, comes close to breaking and sometimes does break. But when it’s in a thousand pieces around your feet, that doesn’t mean it’s no longer love.”

It is strange and unnerving to read a novel so focused on children and their absence at six and a half months pregnant. It is not too much of a spoiler to share that Yejide experiences a phantom pregnancy soon after wife number 2 appears. Sections of the novel left me holding my bump, a tightness in my chest when the little one hadn’t kicked for a while.

I came to the book completely blind and wonder if my emotional response would have been substantially different had I read the novel before I was pregnant or indeed after the little miss was born. I suspect it would have been. Adébàyò’s subject and her rendering of it are devastating in equal measure. Reading this book into motherhood with all the anxiety that entails I realise now that the title is a sort of mantra. During those first anxious weeks through the long nine (and a half in our case) months to the tiny little person currently asleep on my chest, the mother in me unconsciously whispers to her: stay with me.

Shall we dance? – Zadie Smith’s Swing Time

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So, the length of time between posts will have already demonstrated to you that I failed spectacularly at my own challenge to read and review the Bailey’s shortlist before the winner was announced. For what it’s worth, I did in fact read and make copious notes on Stay With Me which was a deserving nominee and I promise I will upload my thoughts in more detail soon (I can partially compensate for this half-baked effort by providing a link to the author, Ayobami Adebayo’s thoughts on the integral themes of infertility and marriage here). I did though, fall at the first fence (pun absolutely intended) in reading the rather hefty The Sport of Kings. I hauled my copy to France (and now back again) and promise to revisit and indeed to finish soon. In my paltry defence, I have in the interim produced a rather awesome brand new tiny person who has taken up rather a lot of time and energy and so I hope to be forgiven.

Failing as I was to get into The Sport of Kings, I was quite easily tempted away by Zadie Smith’s latest novel, Swing Time. It received rave reviews on publication last year with many declaring it to be her “masterpiece” or “finest novel yet” and it has earned Smith her second Booker nomination (the first being for On Beauty which I thoroughly enjoyed). What then, is all the fuss about?

The novel traces the diverging paths of two childhood friends from the same Willesden estate. Both girls have parents of different races: Tracy’s indulgent mother is white, her primarily absent and sinister father, black (the right “way round”, we are told); where the unnamed narrator’s mother, fierce in intelligence and opinion, is black and her father, hapless postman, is white. The girls share a love of dance and though Tracy is the one with the talent that seemingly offers a route off the estate, our narrator is the one who leaves for a life as personal assistant to Aimée a pop superstar.

To describe this novel as a coming of age story or about race or female relationships is to reduce it to its component parts. It is extraordinary in terms of its scope and construction: yes, it is absolutely about coming of age and race and female relationships but it is so multifarious, so carefully and thoroughly layered that it, fittingly, resists those labels. Identity is shown to be relative and unstable, absolutes are undermined and selfhood shown in perpetual fragility. Smith’s writing is intricate in its exploration of identity and its distillation of intersecting influences like race, class, gender. Dance, the central motif, is portrayed throughout as a leveller of these (and many other) factors symbolising possibility and connection.

 “a great dancer has no time, no generation, he moves eternally through the world, so that any dancer in any  age may recognize him”

It is though a strange read. I spent the first two thirds in appreciating how incredibly skilled Smith is and simultaneously feeling rather disappointed and let down by the story and a sense that this was perhaps stylish construction over substantial emotional depth. I had loved the outrageous audacity of the narrative voice in White Teeth and felt short-changed by the quieter, more controlled tenor of the narrator here, unsure how much I really cared about her. By the time I had finished though, I am pleased to say that I was, quite literally, moved to tears.

Post-pregnancy hormones? Sure. Also, the focus on maternal relationships in the closing pages – I lost my own mother three and a half years ago and had just given birth to our first child, a daughter of my own, when I read it. But, it is also Smith’s unerringly precise and incisive observation that hits those nerves so brilliantly. Swing Time is indeed, disciplined, mature and elaborately plotted but it is also rich and raw in its excavation of what it means to be human and how we truly relate to those arounds us.

The Baileys Shortlist: The Power, Naomi Alderman

51406888778__FED9AB04-D00F-4046-90AC-A94F31E7BFFA.JPGThis year I have set myself the challenge of reading The Baileys Prize Shortlist before the winner is announced on 7th June. This should be no mean feat except for the fact that, as per previous posts, I am a teacher and term time reading is often a luxury not to be taken for granted. Thus I undertake this task not only because there are some exciting titles on the shortlist but as an exercise in personal wellbeing. I once heard Neil Gaiman say that, “there’s time for everything in you make it”. I have made a sometimes sporadic effort to take these unsurprisingly wise words to heart. It is not always possible but I like the premise: if something matters enough, there will always be time for it in your day. I’m thinking of getting it inked across my forehead before the baby’s born.

It does help that this challenge seems likely to prove a thoroughly enjoyable one. Taking advantage of the Easter break to give myself a head start, I have just raced through Naomi Alderman’s, The PowerWhen I say there are exciting titles on the shortlist, this is exactly the kind of book I am talking about. I heard it reviewed on The Guardian Books Podcast and the premise had me hooked before I even owned it. Alderman’s depicts a world on the brink of global “cataclysm” ostensibly precipitated by a mysterious physiological development in the female anatomy. Women, much like electric eels, are born with a “skein” allowing them to deliver powerful shocks at will.

The consequences of this new twist in evolution are far-reaching. The power dynamics endemic to patriarchy are reversed. Revolution follows in Saudi Arabia. Conventional religions recalibrate with women at the centre. Boys are segregated for their own safety and the world crackles as new orders vie for primacy and what is left of the old resist. As you can imagine, all this is rather exciting. The novel is, among many other things, a fast-paced thriller. The other things though, are what make it such an important and exciting work that is earning deserving plaudits from across the literary world as well as the science fiction corner. A very good friend of mine once said that, “good science fiction is about ideas” and The Power is certainly that. Though it has a great storyline that romps through the intellectual long grass, Alderman’s book is also multifaceted and at times desperately uncomfortable in its resistance of any binary forces for good or evil. She uses her near-future vision to probe and interrogate the injustices and inequalities of our own time and in doing so, complicates notions of victim and perpetrator in ways that will make any reader squirm.

This multiplicity is in part afforded by the unfolding of the story through four parallel narratives. Alderman follows four central characters into this strange new world: Roxy, daughter of London’s organised crime royalty; Allie, abused foster child who reinvents herself as Mother Eve; Tunde a male Nigerian reporter and finally an American politician and opportunist, Margot Cleary, who manipulates the situation to her own advantage with outrageous self-interest.

As the conventional balance of physical power shifts from men to women, so too do the central institutions of power. Alderman uses each of these voices to illustrate the various ways this shift manifests and takes root in society through crime, religion, the press and of course politics. Within these grander societal pillars of narrative, Alderman explores the nuance and complexity of gendered power. Some of the most interesting and disturbing passages in the book deal with sexual violence perpetrated by women, simply “because they can”. This phrase echoes through the text. It takes no note of gender or faith, only strength and power precipitate evil action. There is no inherent tendency towards it but a dangerous cocktail of strength and desire that makes abuse possible and where such abuse is possible, abusers will emerge. In no passage is this more evident than when a refugee camp comes under attack late in the plot and atrocity after atrocity is perpetrated by women. Equally, there are those women for whom the skein does not function properly or who are born without one altogether. The term “pzit” for a woman who cannot shock taps into the current vocabulary of masculinity: “he’s a pussy”, “be a man”, “grow a pair”. Similarly, the creeping distrust of individuals with chromosomal abnormalities that renders their bodies spliced across gender expectations is all too familiar. As is the disempowerment, isolation and shame they are made to feel.

Alderman’s prose is confident and fluid. The dialogue is bold and her characters are drawn in effervescent technicolour. The acknowledgments cite a debt to Margaret Attwood who “believed in this book when it was only a glimmer”. That debt is clear, not only in the subject matter and speculative quality of the fiction but also in the framing academic structure. The story itself is interspersed with academic documents and diagrams put together by a Neil Adam Armon (spot the anagram) some thousands of years in the future. Neil has written to Naomi with deference and gratitude for her opinion on his work. Much as I hate to say it, the humility of his letter and the earnestness of his thanks are deliberately appropriating the propensity to undervalue and undersell themselves that women so often show in the workplace (cheers, thousands of years of patriarchy).

By the same token, Naomi’s voice assumes a confidence bordering on arrogance and in places offers patronising and sceptical responses to suggestions that undermine the status quo of power relations between the genders. The assumed voice manages to capture the worst of masculine academic attitudes and it works brilliantly. The initial confusion at the masculine organising voice only makes the realisation of what Alderman is doing at the end of the book all the more gleeful.

This reading holiday has been a joyful one. Following Attrib. it has been so gratifying to get excited about a totally different kind of book and, as I turn my attention to Stay With Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀̀, I have a feeling that this excitement is only going to grow.

As ever, I’d be very interested to hear anyone else’s thoughts. I wonder how different the reading experience is for a male reader? Postcards, carrier pigeons or comments below both welcomed and encouraged.

Attrib. and other stories, Eley Williams

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It has been a very long time since I woke up early to finish reading something. To put this in context, I am a teacher who is six months pregnant in the second week of the school holidays; early should not be in my vocabulary. It is then, testament to this stunning debut collection from Eley Williams that I was propped up in bed just after seven yesterday morning (awoken admittedly by husband, duly departing for his commute), tea in one hand, Attrib. and other stories in the other.

To my mind, this is all the more impressive given that it is a collection of stories rather than a singular page-turning narrative. There is a coherence and a commonality to these tales that make them compelling as a body. It is hard to identify stand-out stories because the texture of the book altogether is so fluent and careful in construction. The stories are patterned with images of colour, wildlife, sounds and an overarching concern with the difficulty and problems of language in communicating meaning and connection. They are at once unified and various.

The stories are in some ways very different, from a beached whale to the tussle of the tube to kissing (or failing to kiss) in an art gallery; Williams shifts time and place with a deftness that seems effortless. The fluidity of the prose makes these movements natural, they ripple into one another like the ebb and flow of the first person that dominates the majority of these stories. The ‘I’ ever-circling back to ‘you’ with unfazed depth of affection and feeling. To say it is a collection suffused with love feels cheap, it is suffused with love yes but with all that word connotes too, everything that goes with it: the joy and difficulty of relationships, the closeness and intimacy as well as the gaps and the near-misses.

There is much that is special about these stories, not least the confidence and clarity of Williams’ own voice. She is playful too, especially in her use and consideration of language. One of my favourite sections is in the opening story, ‘The Alphabet’ in which the narrator offers their own visual interpretation of each letter, as a child’s poster might, and:

U comes as a grin, grossly extended, or an empty jar – if there were forty we would be ready for fairyland thieves, and because you ruin things with beautiful practicality let’s line up an amphora with the lip smashed clean away by vandals: V. Two such amphorae: W. The next letter marks the spot, a kiss or something like the waiter’s brace-suspenders against his fresh white shirt-back: X

The opening story makes her concern with frustrated expression and interpretation explicit in exploring the dissociative effects of aphasia and the diminution of expressive power that such a loss of language leads to. I am not ashamed to say it made me cry (though the hormones may have lent a helping hand). The text is littered with unusual words and definitions that urge close examination of each, often very brief, moment of experience as she holds it up to the light.

All this makes it sound like hard work but it isn’t. It is clear and precise and, in being so, illustrates the limitations and frustrations of communication between people. Her characters are isolated but beautiful in their isolation and their efforts to break from it. Fittingly, to justly describe Williams’ prose is tricky: words like lyrical and poetic don’t seem to apply. They feel outdated. The fluency and rhythm they evoke have been updated to include paint swatches and sound effects; it feels fresh and expansive. It is tempting to use the word raw to convey emotional depth but this would suggest something unpolished where Williams is meticulous.

In the interests of full disclosure, I was at university with Eley briefly and though we have not stayed in touch with any regularity, I have always liked her (yup, she’s lovely and talented). I say this, not in some sad effort to claim paltry connection to a rising star but lest any of you realise this and think it’s just me bigging up an old friend. As such, I feel bound to point out that I am not the only one who thinks she has produced something rather wonderful. Attrib. and other stories was fabulously reviewed in The Guardian and has been shortlisted for Best Short Story Collection at the Saboteur Awards. Joanna Walsh wrote in Granta that, “There’s no one working in the UK quite like her.” As far as I can tell, she is right.

As I sit here, gushing away, I realise that reading this book is making me (well let’s face it, it’s probably a work in progress) a better writer. I do not want to put a word out of place here, nor ever again.

Bravo, Eley. Bravo.

 

An English Teacher’s Little Secret…

We’ve all got them. Dirty little secrets that we secretly enjoy being discovered. Discovery makes us look cool and trendy, bucking the canonical establishment in favour of edgier, more unconventional texts. Everyone has one, a pesky little classic; giant of the canon, permanent fixture on your reading list or at the bottom of your ever-increasing ‘to read’ pile.

In my experience, they tend to be novels of a very specific type: definitely ‘classics’ in the old school sense of the word. There is an unspoken expectation that you will have read them. Most likely, you will have studied them for GCSE, or at least resentfully watched the movie. Think, Lord of the Flies, Of Mice and Men, Pride and Prej.; that sort of thing, novels that you expect the general populous to have a reasonable understanding of in terms of plot and character.

As a teacher of literature, it is these books that those who ran screaming into the hills away from English once their GCSEs were secured, feel able to discuss with you. Often, it seems polite to at least try. These texts, it seems, occupy a literary space akin to the social space of parenting: everyone’s been parented, thus everyone has an opinion on how to parent. Everybody’s read Pride and Prejudice, or, if they haven’t they can make a good enough show of it by having watched the BBC mini-series or Bridget Jones.

The time has come then for me to air my dirty laundry in virtual public: until very, very recently, I had not read To Kill a Mockingbird. Don’t ask me why; I’ve always had a thing for American literature and, as it turns out, I now have a thing for To Kill a Mockingbird.

I decided to bite the Harper Lee bullet early before half term because it seemed like the best choice (by reputation) to teach to my delightful and curious GCSE class. Half term arrived, I embarked on a train travel odyssey to Kent (babysitting an errant Labrador), turned to the first page and, for the first time in years, I read a book in a single day. A masterpiece in escalating tension, the story is compelling from the start. The narrative voice of young Scout Finch frames the central plot through the eyes of children imbuing the injustice of racial hatred and violence with fresh rawness 56 years later.

A few years ago, I started writing in the front of my books the time and place I began reading. Apart from trying to keep some sort of record of my reading life, this habit quite accidentally highlighted the impossibility of dissociating the books you read from the personal and political context in which you read them. A dear friend of mine recently commented that across the western world the values of tolerance and difference upon which mature democracies are founded are being tested like never before. The rhetoric that surrounded the Brexit campaign is testament to this; as is, of course, the outright racism and misogyny that US president-elect (words I can hardly believe I’m writing) Donald Trump has somehow been able to spew without consequence. Again in the UK, the appalling media response to the admission of child refugees is indicative of a society in which fear of the other has crept further and further back into the mainstream consciousness. The well-documented rise in racially motivated hate crimes speaks to the mentality of the mob and if there is an undercurrent of violence to this UK dynamic; in the US, such violence continues to be institutionalised and explicitly raced in the “numbing regularity” of police shootings of unarmed black men.

In the context of all this, To Kill a Mockingbird is importantly uncomfortable reading. The same friend recalled coming to it as a teenager and realising for the first time that “injustice truly existed in the world”. Coming to it as a thirty-year old the realisation is more that this particular brand of injustice still exists. Such a revelation should not come as a shock, but, reading such an acute depiction of an ugliness that remains familiar over half a decade since its publication jolts one’s perspective on human progress. It is important to clarify: I am not equating the state of affairs now with the state of affairs in 1960s America, progress has been made, I think. What hits home at this moment, when it feels like fear and hatred are winning, is how far there is still to go.

Further to this, a contemporary reading renders elements of the novel problematic: this story of racial injustice is fundamentally centred around the heroism and brilliance of a white man. Tom Robinson’s voice feels absent and though the characters of Calpurnia and the Reverend go some way to filling this gap, the story is still focused on white people and their actions. From a different margin, in a current culture where allegations of sexual assault are more often than not greeted with scepticism and suspicion, Mayella’s treatment in the court scene does not make comfortable reading.  A reminder perhaps of the ways in which injustices intersect and complicate each other: Mayella can be seen as a racist young woman living in desperate poverty who is brutally beaten by her father as punishment for an act of sexual independence violating the racial codifications of her world. People are not one thing.

I felt both exhilarated and depressed at the end. There is a special energy that comes from the immersion of reading a novel in such a short time period, especially a novel so wrought with political and social significance. I cannot decide whether to risk reading Go Set a Watchman, the recently published sequel/prequel. There was a good deal of controversy preceding publication surrounding how much agency Harper Lee had in the decision to publish before she died. I’ve been doing some reading around it and I’m not sure, I don’t think I want to read an Atticus who is not steadfast in his principled tolerance. It makes me nervous. It may well take me another fifteen years to get around to it, and perhaps, in that time, we will have come even further in the combat of this particular mode of evil. Perhaps.

Lessons from Literature: What Would King Lear Do?

So, the actual EU Referendum is upon us and the opinion polls reveal nothing but that it is going to be very, very close. In considering all things political, my mind often wanders through powerful figures in literature musing on what angle say, Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell would be working. What would Jay Gatsby make of Boris Johnson’s hair? What might Madame Bovary think? How would the Mad Hatter vote? Would Voldemort have cared?

Unable to answer these questions as I am, there is one character I feel pretty certain would have been for Brexit and that is Shakespeare’s King Lear. King Lear, were he around today may well have rebranded himself King Leave. And no, as anyone who has not seen/read/has any knowledge of any kind of the play will know, that is not a reason to vote Leave. It really, really isn’t.

If you know the play you will be familiar with the plot in which a vain and volatile old King defies all conventional wisdom in choosing to divide his kingdom between his three daughters. He rejects not only wisdom but basic common sense at every turn, most notably of course in his decision to embrace division over unity. Rather than serve out his time as King of a united Albion, he decides he doesn’t really fancy the whole ruler thing anymore and on a whim comes up with the stellar plan to divide his kingdom between his three daughters, awarding the largest portion to the daughter who publicly flatters him the most. The decent daughter, Cordelia is understandably entirely fed up with her father’s nonsense and refuses to play ball. He banishes her, against the advice of just about everyone.

Unsurprisingly, this foolproof plan does not play out well for the idiot King and what follows is a series of escalating confrontations that allow the more unsavoury characters who deal in cruelty and violence a route to power. Lear, disenfranchised and running mad, ends up naked on a Heath shouting at the wind; another character removes another character’s eyes with his bare hands and pretty much everyone, including the decent daughter (who marries France, by the way), ends up dead.

There are some fun parallels to be drawn between King Lear and the Leave campaign, not least a self-interested preoccupation with ‘th’additions’ of Kingship (status, nice clothes, knights to order  around) rahter than actually doing the job itself. There’s also Vladimir Putin who, much like the play’s malcontent and literal bastard Edmund, is lingering in sinister manner praying for discord while lots of sensible people try to calm everyone down and encourage those spouting visceral unpleasantness to ‘see better’. A stable if problematic regime is replaced by chaos and violence.

Let’s learn from Lear and lead not leave. Otherwise, I fear, we too may find ourselves alone, locked out in the cold, stark-bollock naked, shouting at forces beyond our control who will not take a blind bit of notice.