Chaucer: An introduction to the Merchant’s Tale

This powerpoint and screencast link offer an introduction to Chaucer to provide context for reading The Merchant’s Tale as part of the new OCR A level.

chaucer intro

The screencast is on the John Lyon English Department You Tube Channel:

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Go set a watchman: thoughts

Since I am still teaching in an IGCSE centre, To Kill a Mockingbird remains one of my set texts. Even if it had been dropped by the board, I suspect I would be teaching it anyway, probably in Year 9, as I am with Of Mice and Men. Because of this I want to write a few thoughts about Harper Lee’s “new” novel: Go set a watchman.

First, let’s be clear. This is not a new novel. It is published as “a landmark new novel” on the sleeve notes. It is referred to regularly as a “sequel” to TKAM because in this book Scout is an adult, visiting Maycomb in the 1950s. The excitement generated by the idea that Lee – a notorious recluse- had written further thoughts on the racist bigotry of her home town has built expectation beyond belief. TKAM has such impact and such a following, that many seem to have forgotten that it is a work of fiction. It bears the same relationship to truth as a novel such as Copperfield – largely built on Dickens’ childhood experiences, but viewed through a lens. Because of this lack of perspective, Atticus Finch has emerged as a saintly figure: a bastion of decency and colour blindness standing firm against an army of racism and hatred. To discover that this might not be the “truth” has caused some concern and upset. It should not.

Every now and then a morsel of Bach or Mozart or Beethoven is unearthed in a cupboard. Great excitement fills the musical world since this undiscovered gem might shed light on the creative process of a genius. The work is dissected and recorded before,often, slipping back into obscurity. Likewise, whilst early versions of operas or symphonies exist, they are rarely performed in place of the accepted later, final, versions. The reason is simple – often the later version has benefitted from criticism and revision. Often the music has gained subtlety and lost a degree of rawness and naivety evident in the early version. We can still hear the developing voice of the composer, but it comes in snatches and in pre-echoes and our ears are always carrying our “knowledge” of the later version. Ultimately, with the two CDs side by side on our shelves, the younger voice is rarely listened to out of choice, other than to play the odd extract to illustrate how the composer’s ideas changed over the years as he developed.

So it is with this novel. Please be clear. This is no sequel in any sense. It was written well before TKAM and rejected, apparently with the publisher suggesting that Lee re-work the novel to focus on the young Scout and her memories. This is hardly surprising. The adult Scout is simply not interesting to read. In the 1950s, few would be interested in the meandering memoirs of a twenty-something unknown New York woman writing about a visit to her hometown in Alabama and her subsequent mortification on discovering that the whole town, including her father, were complicit in some way with the racial hatred of the day. The writing is direct, to a fault, rarely engaging the reader with any of the characters and Lee hurries through episodes that might have real resonance if explored in-depth whilst wearing her learning and erudition like a clumsy headlamp as she references authors such as Browning and Wordsworth to help to explore her feelings. They are as out-of-place in the novel as her liberal Northern views are at a meeting of the Klan.

This is a draft that should not have been seen, unless issued with a clear statement to the fact that it is the first attempt at delivering the work of greatness which followed. It has no real central thread beyond her upset that a 70-year-old should hold dearly the attitudes with which he was brought up. Atticus is a racist in this novel, seen through the lens of the late 20th century and especially when set against the fiction of TKAM. Many are saddened by this, but I think the realism is more believable than the character we love from the later work. It is clear that his driving motive for defending Tom Robinson is not a sense of bruised racial equality but a driving respect for the law, regardless of the colour of the defendant. This is not the action of a committed racist. The discussion around the Klan suggests that Atticus joined the group in his youth to see who it contained – to “know your enemy”. This sounds weak, but is plausible. Possibly the klan was as innocent in this area as a Masonic Lodge, as is suggested. Certainly, it is hard to see anyone obviously opposed to the racist views of the South attaining the professional success that Atticus obviously attained. This is human behaviour – we may not like his faults but we can acknowledge the complexity hidden within him. Sadly, the novel reveals little of this complexity. The dialogue between Scout and her father is clumsy and lacks any spark of warmth or humour. Lee writes this relationship so much more effectively when writing of the relationship of an innocent child trying to piece together the world in which she lives.

In this book Lee knows her mind and that is one of the problems. One of the joys of TKAM is the mixture of waspish asides as Lee shows her mind in conjunction with the youthful narrative of her 8-year-old self. Here there is none. All is in the open and the passages where Lee intersperses her thoughts against the real-time dialogues of coffee parties and social events are utterly lacking in subtlety, though we can see the writing of TKAM beginning to emerge.

The loss of an innocent narrator is a real problem in this book because there is no sense of experience emerging from the innocent. Both Jem and Scout allow this to be a consistent thread of TKAM. In this book Jem is already dead – Lee is writing in a clear autobiographical manner – and his replacement as Scout’s friend and guide in Maycomb is Hank. He is really rather dull and rarely does Lee invest their time together with any great charm. No wonder he was dropped for the final version. He would simply be in the way.

The events of the trial – the events which created TKAM as a world-beater and propelled Lee to international fame and fortune – exist in this book but are so prosaic as to be overlooked in the narrative of post-teenage anger and frustration with one’s roots. The trial is referenced in its, presumably, factual version. No time is spent on it and it is used to show Atticus acting from a love of law. No attempt is made to explore the event as a catalyst for Scout’s and the reader’s growth. This is partly because Robinson was acquitted in the trial. With no evident miscarriage of justice, there is little sense of anger, frustration and injustice to propel the reader. In TKAM, Atticus is fictionalised as a champion – half blind and wearing his years heavily – and given a closing speech into which Lee pours all her passion and belief. It works. It worked so well that Gregory Peck ensured that the film version of TKAM focused simply on his role as the champion of racial justice. A great novel was born which chimed precisely with the zeitgeist and which has allowed generations of school children to explore the issues of racism in a context which allows ideas to unfold naturally as we read. Lee holds a mirror to her society by pitting the “lowest” elements – the poor blacks – against the lowest elements – the white trash of Old Sarum – and allowing the referee to be the elderly white man appointed as defence attorney. Throughout the novel the black community is dignified, proud and hard-working; the white trash are slovenly, immoral and a burden on society. Scout has been protected form reality until she starts school and her lessons in life begin as soon as she stands up for the Cunningham boy in the issue over lunches. She learns and we learn along with her. All emerge wiser.

Not so in Watchman. We emerge with an understanding that a young adult has learned the “truth” about her father, her family and her hometown. She is angry and chippy. It is all so mundane in the telling. Give me the fictionalised version any day.

What we have is a draft or a sketch of a great masterpiece. I am happy to have read it, but am unlikely to return to it beyond possibly using sections to teach about drafting and the importance of getting narrative voice “right”. To call it a new novel or sequel is wrong and is misleading. No doubt many of the readers who queued all night for the first publication will have been hoping for a gem. They have received nothing of the sort. It is not even costume jewellery – it was never meant to be. The claims for the novel are unfair to Lee as well as to her readers. Sell this book as what it is, and read it in the same light.

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Jerusalem 6: Dragons and Dragonslayers

Here is a PowerPoint in which we explore the St George element of the play.  I want to explore the idea that the dragon is the hypocritical town council and to begin discussion of the nature of the pagan/Christian transition and hence, the very idea of Englishness…

Jerusalem 6

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Jerusalem 5: Into the woods

This powerpoint takes as its starting point Rooster’s great question about the purpose of an English forest and explores ideas around it from Shakespeare, via Jungian archetypes to Sondheim.

Jerusalem 5

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Jerusalem 4: Introducing Carnival

In this Powerpoint I am introducing the concept of Carnival and the spirit of misrule. I grew up in Marlborough and the lure of the Pewsey (Flintock) carnival was tangible. It was renowned for 6X driven debauchery and revelry. All things change. I hope I have begun to present useful ideas here.

Jerusalem 4

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On Contexts and Jerusalem

Whilst thinking about the heightened AO3 in the new A level syllabi, I thought a few comments would be appropriate regarding Jerusalem, by Jez Butterworth.

This should take you to a BBC interview with Butterworth, who joins the conversation around 11.40 into the programme.

Contexts Power Point:

Jerusalem 3

This is designed as a brief introduction to the contexts of the play.

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Andrew Marr reviews Jerusalem: Contexts

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Evictions, protests, unrest – how Jerusalem saw them coming

By Andrew MarrBBC News

  • 24 October 2011
  • From the sectionMagazine


Jerusalem has returned from Broadway to the West End, but how does the tale about a drug-dealing, drunkard rebel in the English countryside capture today’s political mood?

Some call it luck, others might say it’s the flash of literary genius – the moment when a work of art predicts what is coming next. HG Wells reported on World War I before it had actually started.

At a rather less apocalyptic level, Jez Butterworth’s now-famous play Jerusalem describes the Britain of right now, with her financial hangover and confrontations with travellers, even though it was written more than three years ago.

“Genius” is a slippery, over-used word. I think it’s less that the artist is “the antenna of the race” (Ezra Pound), rather that a good writer, film-maker or painter, is looking around so intently that they are sometimes able to see things before the rest of us. Art may not change anything, but it can peel back the skin.
Byron is a modern-day Pied-Piper to a chaotic band of hangers-on

I saw Jerusalem right at the start of its first run at London’s Royal Court and felt immediately that this was something special. And not only because the main character, the low-life aristocrat of drug dealing and binge drinking, Johnny “Rooster” Byron is played by Mark Rylance in a performance of stomping brilliance.

I went about begging friends to go and see it because it was funny, desperately sad, verbally astonishing – and because it depicted a rural England we all know is all around us, but hardly see on the stage.

It’s set in Wiltshire, but the officious council bureaucracy, the under-age drinking and drug culture, the emasculated local festivals, corporate pubs and the smashed-up families can be found pretty much everywhere.

It’s the difference between the idealised rural England (slivers of tour-bus Oxfordshire) and the real countryside of bungalow-sprawl, derelict factory units, impromptu rubbish tips in woodland glades, sinister hamburger-tossers in laybys, empurpled stand-offs over travellers’ sites and local people who find themselves stranded by everyone from bus companies to banks.

Add to this the stuck, cyclical nature of Butterworth’s camp and village of derelicts and deadbeats and you might expect a deeply depressing evening. But Butterworth’s England is also soaked in the fiery poetry of myths of revolt – “and behind them bay the devil’s army, and we are numberless”.

Find out more

  • Jez Butterworth joins Andrew Marr in Start the Week on Monday 24 October on Radio 4 at 21:00 BST
  • You can listen to Start the Week again via the BBC iPlayer

It’s the England of tall stories and outbreaks of anarchy, the country of rural dissent which is audible in good folk music, such as Show of Hands or PJ Harvey’s songs, and visible on the inside pages of the last surviving proper local papers – but sadly invisible across most television, drama or radio.

“Rooster” is hardly a hero. He’s a drug dealer, rotten father and a maniacal drinker with a tendency to violence.

Yet there’s something huge about his imagination and defiance that recalls a Shakespearean protagonist, in a play which is partly a grimy contemporary Midsummer Night’s Dream. I think anyone who has seen him will dream about him.

Since, almost self-evidently, things are going to get harder in this country in the years ahead, and since, entirely self-evidently, we have meanwhile become a largely infantilised culture (babyish entertainments, babyish architecture, babyish language) a serious play like this, with its sadness, obscenities, anger and humour, comes like rain after a drought.

There is no simple political “position”. It mocks the rules ‘n’ regulations mentality as vividly as any right-wing columnist, and it’s as relaxed about under-age boozing as the most laid-back Islingtonian liberal. It just kicks pretty hard.
The attempt to evict Johnny “Rooster” Byron echoes the recent Dale Farm evictions

As I’ve already mentioned, there are tough times coming and the ceaseless debate about Englishness – what’s essential to it and what threatens it – is rising in volume again. Whether we are talking about arguments over traveller encampments, Europe or the City, there is a stroppier mood about.

The news coverage remains, inevitably, headline-shallow, but there are deeper waters too.

The nostalgic equation between Englishness and the countryside has been going on for so long I imagine Alfred the Great writing to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: “Dear Sir, can I associate myself with Simon Jenkins and protest at recent Danish house building, utterly insensitive to local traditions.”

A sense that English freedoms are being thieved by continental upstarts and their local lackeys goes back almost as far. Time for an update?

I hope that the majority of people who haven’t had the chance to see Jerusalem might get enough of a dim, distant echo to perhaps go out and read the play.

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Jerusalem 2: Satyr Play

In this Power Point I look at the Satyr Play and explore the links of this genre with Butterworth’s Jerusalem.  The lesson would explore the role of the supporting cast of “satyrs” as well as introducing one idea to begin exploration of Ginger – that of Old Silenus.  Since the central character of a Satyr Play requires Tragic form, I begin to introduce this idea in relation to Johnny.

Jerusalem 2

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Jerusalem 1: the Pastoral

This is an introductory Power Point to engage with the Pastoral and Butterworth’s Jerusalem. It covers Pastoral, anti-Pastoral and post-Pastoral in brief and leads to a discussion of the play as a Satyr Play and the role of Johnny as representing Pan, which will be a second Power Point.

Jerusalem 1

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Year 1.

Reflections on my first year as HOD can be found here. I always tell students to reflect on their work. Why shouldn’t we be expected to do the same?

There is a brilliant post on the issues around data here: on the issues of data  Please take the time to read it because it explains in far greater detail than i ever could precisely why I do not believe that teachers should be judged solely on results attained.

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