All’s Well?

 

Image: Ellora Torchia (Helena) and Will Merrick (Bertram) in All’s Well That Ends Well, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London, 2018

All’s Well That Ends Well, one of Shakespeare’s tricky mid-career plays, is performed less frequently than the crowd-pleasing As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing. Despite its upbeat title and just-about-happy ending, it’s one of the Bard’s most cynical takes on romantic relationships.

I saw it last week in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, the Globe’s recreated Jacobean indoor theatre. It’s tiny, you feel you’re almost sitting on the stage, and completely candlelit. Here, language is forced to do the heavy lifting. It’s hard to be naturalistic when you’re carrying around a candelabra to light your own face. Elaborate 17th Century costumes add a further layer of formality. Watching a performance in these surrounding is making a journey into the past – if done well, it unlocks some remarkable new insights into Shakespeare’s craft.

The play takes place, nominally at least, at the court of France, which is at war with Florence and filled with young bloods eager to prove themselves on the battlefield. Shakespeare does not hold back in his lampooning of male bravado, particularly through the ridiculous braggart Parolles, who is a comic creation almost the equal of Falstaff.

There are certainly strong women in All’s Well. But for feminists, there’s a problem. What on earth does Helena see in Bertram, surely one of Shakespeare’s least likeable leads? Unlike Hero in Much Ado, who’s basically set up by the patriarchy to wed the nasty Claudio, Helena has as much agency, wit and cunning as Rosalind. Is she just interested in upward social mobility? There’s clear evidence in the text that she’s besotted by Bertram, who treats her appallingly. And she goes to extreme lengths to get him back. This is no Mariana moping in her moated grange. This woman goes on a dangerous pilgrimage into a war zone and schemes with the locals to claim her conjugal rights.

A candlelit space is by its very nature intimate. It’s very likely that these very constraints, plus the opportunity to create sophisticated special effects, led to the spectacular other-worldly quality of the late romances. I’ve seen two of these, The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale, at the Wanamaker, and in both cases the indoor world was powerfully evoked. Imagining the contrasting outdoor one was more of a stretch. Probably the Jacobean audience were more accepting of the limitations of the venue. Naturalistic acting wasn’t a familiar concept – they went to the theatre to be wowed by poety pyrotechnics. In those days, hearing a good sermon was a day out.

This production seemed to approach the challenge of All’s Well by classing it as an early draft of these late plays, and staging it accordingly. There is much use of ritual and incantation, and a twist at the end that pushes the envelope of familiar Shakespearian improbability into something resembling magical realism. The shadowy theatre becomes a womb-like space, not simply because Helena ultimately gives birth but through repeated use of bathing, candlelight and deeply feminine ritual. It is no coincidence that the dominant colour of the women’s costumes changes to a bright red as the play draws to its close.

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Michelle Terry as Helena and Oliver Ford Davies as the King in the 2009 National Theatre production

Michelle Terry’s Helena at the National a few years ago was more clearly a traditional fairy-tale heroine, with her basket and red cloak. And the Tobacco Factory production I saw last year at the Lowry really revelled in the broad comedy of the Parolles plot, providing another manifestation of toxic masculinity that enriched the main story line. In the Wanamaker production, Imogen Doel makes a fine job of playing Parolles, bringing out the pathos of his humiliation, but I wasn’t sure that making him effeminate was the right approach, at least all the way through. Parolles isn’t a drag queen relishing his gender fluidity. He desperately wants to be one of the boys. A bit more swagger in the early acts would have made his exposure later on more interesting.

In the final scene, Bertram apparently is moved to accept Helena as his mate by the sight of their child. Is this a happy ending? Shakespeare leaves that to the audience, or perhaps the director. Is it enough that Helena decides what she wants, and grabs it, and succeeds against all the odds? Would the fact that she makes a marriage into the nobility be considered as a happy ending by a Jacobean audience? If there was any clear takeaway from this production, it was that we’ve left ordinary life behind by now and we’re operating on an archetypal level, with Helena as the Goddess in control, empowered through childbearing. We, and Bertram, can only look and marvel. As Paulina says at the end of The Winter’s Tale, “It is required you do awake your faith.”

Review of this production, The Stage

 

 

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Why I Love Manchester

manchester-vigil-9-1495564396I am Manchester born and bred. My ties with this amazing place go back several generations and I have always been deeply proud of them. The way Manchester people have responded to the appalling events of this week has made me even more so. Briefly, since so much has been said elsewhere on this theme, I’d like to mention a few reasons why:

  • Community. Guy Garvey said once that we have it in our DNA. It really does feel that way. No big city is perfect, and it would be wrong to idealise, but there is a reason why Manchester people are known for their down-to-earth, practical kindness.
  • Diversity. It’s nothing new in Manchester. Elizabeth Gaskell was writing about globalisation in her novel North and South in the 1850s. We have established, flourishing, tolerated communities from all over the world. When my kids both lived at home it was like the United Nations on a Saturday afternoon in this house. We learned so much together. We continue to do so.
  • Solidarity. It boils down to a healthy defiance. Tony Walsh got it exactly right in his wonderful poem: We won’t take defeat and we don’t want your pity. Manchester people don’t expect life to be a walk in the park. Our city was forged in an ethic of hard work. We recognise oppression and injustice and there’s a radicalism that fights back. In the American Civil War cotton workers here went hungry in solidarity with slaves.
  • Scepticism. Throw as much mud as you like, Westminster bubble – we know a thing or two about terrorism up here. The IRA blew up our city centre. Nobody condones that, but we’ve had a strong Irish community here since the 1840s so we’ve had to listen to both sides of that argument. It’s never simple. You can try to reduce it to slogans, but up here we have built-in shit detectors.

And finally, perhaps most important of all:

  • Culture.  Here in Manchester, a new entrepreneurial class forged the Industrial Revolution. They worked bloody hard and many of them came from humble origins. They took on the Establishment and looked them in the eye as equals. And they wanted the things that had been the preserve of the elite – a world-class  university, fine libraries, an international orchestra, culture. So they didn’t whine and say people had had enough of experts. They moved, and shook, and built those things. Today when you walk down Deansgate you see the neo-Gothic splendour of the John Rylands Library. Five minutes walk away from the Arena is the oldest public library in Britain. Manchester has always valued culture. We know the value of poetry, of music, of things that make the soul sing, whether it’s a great goal or Wonderwall.

Hate will not tear us apart. We’ve not idiots, and you can shut up now, Mrs May, because you’re wasting your breath.

 

 

 

 

 

My tiny heart is frozen – La Bohème Revisited in middle age

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Vitalii Liskovetskyi and Alyona Kistenyova in Ellen Kent’s production of Puccini’s La Bohème

If it’s possible to be formed by the music you hear in your mother’s womb, I’ve been formed by Puccini’s La Bohème. Out of the blue, my father died at the age of 34 in my mother’s first weeks of pregnancy, and she got through it by wearing out her LPs of Puccini’s glorious opera. By the time I started school, I was already humming Che Gelida Manina. By the time I reached college, I knew whole arias word for word and I’m sure it was one of the reasons I taught myself Italian in later life.

So Bohème is probably the only opera I’d actually pay to see, and in fact I’ve seen two productions, spaced by 35 years or so. Last night I realised I’d changed more than the opera had.

I can still listen to Mimi’s farewell on Spotify while doing the ironing and find myself in tears. But seeing it staged seems to sharpen my critical faculties. No matter how glorious the singing (and last night’s Ellen Kent production was well sung, if a little scrappily staged), I can’t shake off the thought that this is basically the story of a dying woman and her abusive, controlling boyfriend trying, and failing, to break up. In fact, misogyny runs through the whole piece. Women are decorative, fickle, the source of moody male tantrums and broken hearts. They are also a tradeable and disposable commodity, guarded and policed by their possessive boyfriends who watch hawk-like for the revealing of a female ankle in public.

Oh, how can you, people will cry? The music’s gorgeous. Puccini was only reflecting the social mores of the period. Actually, Puccini’s philandering caused emotional carnage in his lifetime and led to at least one young woman’s suicide, but nobody said you had to be perfect to write wonderful music. Besides, the more well-informed will argue, in Muger’s original La Vie de Bohéme, Mimi’s a nasty little tart on the make, and Puccini remodelled her as an innocent victim. But I don’t think that feminist argument convinces. The view of women in La Bohéme swings between cynicism and sentimentality; both are the breeding ground of abuse.

I’m probably just getting on a bit. I’m old enough to be irritated by people who text in the stalls, who leave so rapidly after Act I that they forget to take their fags with them, who grumble that it’s not in English. I’m old enough to think that when Colline, looking every inch the hipster in this production, sings an ode to the greatcoat he’s about to pawn to buy Mimi a muff for her cold hands, he might as well wrap her hands in the coat and hang on, she’s going to be dead and gone in five minutes. The Who hoped they’d die before they got old, and maybe they had a point.

Or it may just be that yesterday Downing Street played host to more operatic drama than even the stage of the Palace Theatre, Manchester could manage. I really wish I could stop deconstructing things, but that’s a baby boomer English graduate for you.

I think I’ll stick to Spotify in future. It’s cheaper, anyway.

 

The Divine Leader Does Cornwall

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Even by contemporary (ie, post-2016) standards there is something very worrying about the blatant stage-management of Teresa May’s election campaign. Journalists shut out, forbidden even to film her entering or leaving buildings, get-togethers filled with the Party faithful shamelessly promoted as meet-and-greet sessions, photographs of her surrounded by dead-eyed workers, their expressions a study in guarded neutrality more familiar from pictures of North Korea than beloved Blighty.

Is all this simple control-freakery? I think it’s even worse. I read it as a provocative statement of indifference, even contempt for, the democratic process. I can do what I bloody well like, it says, and you’ll still vote for me because all the other tossers out there are even worse. Go on, grumble about it. It won’t matter a hoot. I can be who I want, say what I like, treat you like utter shit but you’ll come crawling back for more.

And increasingly, even the party affiliation is being airbrushed out – this campaign is about May, it’s a dictatorship in waiting. She is merely the least incompetent option on offer. And our national indifference to our duties as engaged, democratic citizens, has brought us to this. Politics is left to the extremists and those on the make.

I have donated to More United. I hope they manage to make some kind of impact. I suspect that they won’t be able to dramatically change the outcome of this little lot, though I’d love to be proved wrong, but we must keep the flame of resistance alive, the hope of a better way. I know many people out there who are hungering for it. I may not live to see it (I’m 58 and these things can take a long time). But mine was the blessed generation, and anything I can offer to those after it is worth the investment.

Above all, we must not give up hope. People lived through the Holocaust, Stalinism, the Cultural Revolution, the Killing Fields, and that in the 20th century alone. Not all of them, but enough to rebuild, and not to lose hope.

 

MLS and the Capita connection

I visited Peters Educational Booksellers at their huge warehouse in Birmingham yesterday – an absolute feast for anyone who loves to be let loose in what may well be the country’s largest children’s bookshop. I was interested and impressed to talk to them about the ways that they are increasingly taking the burden of book selection and processing off the shoulders of school staff, which can only be a good business move in these days of vanishing school librarians. They employ ten librarians who read and review every single book that comes in. I think they’re doing a great job at a reasonable price, and they’re nice, helpful people too.

I did, however, pick up one piece of information that worried me. For some time I’ve noticed a decline in the quality of service and technical support offered by Micro Librarian Systems. It’s still a good product of its type, probably the national brand leader, but they seem far more interested in flogging Reading Cloud to me, which would bump our sub up to an unaffordable £700 p.a. per site, than providing reliable day-to-day support on anything that isn’t sales-focussed.

Last year it took us literally months to import student data onto our system via SIMS, which should have been a straightforward process, and one we were paying a fee for. I also hit a brick wall when I tried to negotiate a joined-up cataloguing solution across our three school sites. I appreciate that in the case of pupil data there are safeguarding issues, so fair enough, but an integrated book catalogue would have saved us considerable amounts of time and money.

If MLS move to Reading Cloud being their default offering – something they publicly deny but which seems increasingly likely, my Trust will be faced with a formidable annual subscription of around £2K . I do not see how that can be sustainable in the current political climate.

I mentioned all this to a well-informed person in the industry who told me that Capita have recently taken over MLS, and suddenly a lot of things made sense.

Frankly, I wouldn’t want Capita anywhere near my organisation. They have a worrying record of screwing up outsourced data management contracts. Beloved by Tory state-shrinkers everywhere, their record over the last few years has included NHS IT disasters, the notorious outsourcing Barnet Council and links with ATOS. They already control the SIMS system used by many schools to manage their pupil data, and they are involved with Home Office deportations.

Some time ago it was reported that the Home Office were putting pressure on schools to inform on pupils whose parents might be illegal immigrants. Many parents refused to co-operate. If Capita are already running SIMS, whether the parents or teachers are on board is a moot point.

So information on the books borrowed by the children at the three diverse schools where I work is now directly linked to a company that helps to implement illegal and inhumane deportation policies, sometimes affecting people who have built productive lives and family relationships here lasting decades, and find themselves plonked in Singapore without a penny to their name. No doubt their “management solutions” also facilitate the decimation of public libraries in Barnet and elsewhere.

I don’t think I feel particularly comfortable with that. At the moment, short of recruiting an army of volunteers filling in index cards, I don’t see what option I have other than to continue with MLS until we decide they are unaffordable. But I can’t help hoping another serious player in school library hosting comes on the scene soon, and that hopefully they have a better track record on ethics.

Perhaps Peters could look into it.

Life in the kid-lit bubble

Every now and then someone will bemoan the difficulty of getting published if you happen not to be a celebrity. This week The Guardian have pointed out their proliferation in the field of children’s books, and lamented the way it restricts opportunities for talented mere mortals to get a look-in.

There is certainly some justification for this complaint, although I doubt very much whether the 1950s or 1960s were a golden age completely devoid of this kind of thing. Children have always loved long, crushingly formulaic series of books and seem to need such repetition to build up reading stamina. We may not have called Enid Blyton or The Chalet School brands, but undoubtedly that’s what they were.

There’s also the point that some celebrity writers are genuinely talented people; if you are already a famous stand-up comedian you’re likely to be extravert, good with words, and in tune with children’s sense of humour. So good luck to David Walliams. Some people are just good at more than one thing. Annoying if you’re plugging away at the day job, but undoubtedly true. I draw the line at George Galloway, however.

In fact, the marketing of children’s books is becoming ever more inventive (some would say desperate). This week I received 100 sample chapters of a new book for KS2, and the offer of a possible free copy if I agreed to post pictures of “happy children receiving the books” on social media. Chatterbooks is colonised by publishers offering creative craft kits for school and library book groups, and if you don’t tweet your pictures and appreciation you will probably be overlooked next time around. Whether we like such strategies or find them exploitative and creepy, there is undoubtedly a thriving and growing market in children’s books and a vast selection of beautiful ones around.

So all is well. Not quite. If all you ever do is follow the feeds of leading lights in children’s literature, you may get that impression. Anyone can be sucked into an online bubble and such bubbles soon inflate with indignation at the thought of their denizens’ ideals not being universally accepted. Some people would call such communities elites. Elites are not necessarily defined by vast wealth and sojourns at Davos. They can be driven by idealism, creativity and education. That doesn’t make them bad. But it does make them risky.

So I welcomed it when bookseller Leilah Skelton weighed into the kid-lit celebrity debate, pointing out the reality of book availability, selection and purchase opportunities for the majority of children in Britain today and their parents. “Can you imagine the only access to physical books being a Tesco chart?” she tweeted. “That’s a reality in more places than you’d think.” No wonder parents fall back on the known quantity of celebrity. Children devour books fast if they like them, and for many people £6.99 is not a trivial amount of money.

If we care at all about children’s reading opportunities we already know about the decline of libraries, book reviews in the press and trained librarians even where libraries for children exist. Leilah is absolutely right to identify these as the cultural changes feeding into the celebrity fixation. In fact, she doesn’t go far enough. Even in school libraries, there’s little money for anything other than donations and of course this only entrenches social inequality. Even if, as happened with one of my schools, you manage to stock a library with high quality titles, it will be a long time before Star Wars and Disney stop dominating your children’s book choices. Because that’s what entertainment means to them. They recognise what they see on screens.

Is the solution to ban the cheap and cheerful stuff? That’s likely to leave many of your children unmoored and overwhelmed with choice. The older they get, the more likely they are to walk out of the library completely rather than try to navigate it. That’s not because they are stupid, it’s because it’s not a place they are used to being in. If you put me in a shop filled with fishing tackle or motorcycle accessories I’d feel the same way. Over time, if you get the chance to work with them in small groups and resist the continual drip-drip encroachment of musical instrument storage, intervention groups, Y3 forgetting to tell you they’re out doing the Romans this week and losing Y5 and Y6 to SATS cramming for half the year, you will build up the trust to the point where they might try something unfamiliar. Opening the library is a great start. Eternal vigilance and a thick skin is useful if you want it to survive for long enough to make a meaningful impact on reading culture in the school.

There will probably always be wonderful children’s books around for those lucky enough to have access to them. But they are the tip of a huge iceberg of deprivation. In our little ivory towers we mustn’t lose sight of that. And we mustn’t despair either.

 

The importance of analytical reading

We all know how important it is to read to kids, and to start young. But the way we read is important, and more subtle than we might think, argues Bill Murphy in this excellent article. They are not just passive containers for stories. They need to engage in dialogue with adults about them, and that is how they learn.

If pushed, I think most of us would agree that such close shared reading builds empathy. Kids need to be able to imagine a situation from another person’s point of view, to walk in the skin of someone unlike themselves. Incidentally, we don’t grow out of this and it’s tempting not to move out of our comfort zones, as I recently discovered when I went to see Moonlight. Realising how unmoored I felt by an all-black cast gave me new insight into the importance of diversity in children’s books – how does a four-year old black girl feel when she’s confronted with the overwhelmingly white world of Princess Poppy?

Empathy has to be good, right? Well, yes and no. How many of the people who were moved by the photograph of little Aylan Kurdi washed up dead on shore went on to vote for politicians who denied asylum to unaccompanied Syrian child refugees? Emotional intelligence is rather different. It includes analytical skills, looking at the whole picture, at evidence, possible strategies, problems and outcomes. It means asking not just, “Do you think the duck feels sad?” but also, “The fox seems nice. Do you think the duck should believe him? Why not?”

In my work in school libraries, I involve children in these conversations all the time and their perceptiveness frequently surprises me. A good story is full of fork-in-the-road moments, all of which have consequences. And picture books abound in clues that, if decoded, yield vital background information. When we read to a child, we are inviting them to decode that information and theorise about where it could be taking us. Yes, empathy is involved; we can all feel sorry for the little ladybird that doesn’t fit in because she has no spots, or the little girl desperate for a kitten who ends up taking home a gorilla from the zoo. But why doesn’t it work out to keep the gorilla as a pet? Seeing the way he trashes a suburban kitchen, and why the gorilla isn’t happy, carries highly significant life lessons.

It seems that at the moment we are confronted daily with the awful consequences of people determined to maintain a coherent ideological position in face of all reasonable evidence. Too much reliance on feelings can lead into dark places, and the idea that you only have to believe something badly enough and find others who feel likewise to construct your own perfectly valid reality. I wonder if the large numbers of young children who don’t get exposed regularly to language and conceptual development through reading are contributing to the problem.

There is far too much passive consumption of entertainment. Cinema and TV can be wonderful but the emotional beats are frequently heightened and signposted in letters a hundred feet high. Ambiguity is rare, and far too many children are watching without any accompanying person to help them interpret what they are seeing through loving, open-ended discussion. The school day is crammed and even schools with libraries struggle to fit in every class for even one story time a week. After years of austerity, the effect of neglected maintenance is becoming all to apparent in the decline of roads and the built environment around us. The neglect of our children’s inner world and analytical faculties may not show up right away, but we ignore it at our own risk.