Tag Archives: OCR new A level

HoDs need to talk. The value of support groups.

When was the last time you sat with a group of 15 HODs and had a day devoted to you? Today?

At this point  I will come clean. As a HOD in a private school I am a member of a group designed to support each other and to offer advice and a listening ear.

To some this will smack of a Masonic Self-Help group to sustain the monopoly of the elite, but it is not. Truly.

We meet once a year and otherwise, share the occasional email asking for comment about assessment of the new A levels or ideas about approaching teaching Linear A levels in a school dominated by non-reformed subjects.

We could all benefit from this and I wonder how many HODs have the chance?

As English Teachers we are lucky. The staggeringly brilliant @team_English and a variety of # groups give support and solace. But there is something about being in the one room and relaxed…. I’m all for it and will willingly work with any HODs in my area to set something up. 4 or 5 of us had an OCR A level group which ran for a while, but it is tricky. Surely senior managers can realise how beneficial this can be – a day off for each HOD in the summer? It won’t break the school and there will be undoubted benefits.

This year we met at Aldenham School, and many thanks for the impeccable hosting!

We had 2 CPD sessions in the morning:

Andrew Green (Senior Lecturer Education Brunel University)

Paul Clayton (Director of NATE)

Andrew drew focus on the fundamental reasons for study of literature at A level. This was not board focused and was a general discussion which prompted me to consider how I am serving A level students in terms of skills needed for University study.

The A level is a Linear study and has been devised as such by all boards. We should remember that and allow time to develop – the linear model was praised by all HoD’s present who have the chance to run it. The AS was an afterthought and in our later discussions we all commented on feedback from the boards who seemed disappointed that schools are teaching it.

Andrew posed 2 questions:

Why study literature?

What is literature actually about?

… and focused on the new Assessment objectives:


The very open wording, moving away from Language Structure and Form gives a much a broader scope than old objective. Students are, instead, asked how writers’ shape texts’.  Thus personal contexts will shape texts, meaning that AO2&3 are linked inextricably. AOs 1&4 link and suggest an awareness of how writers themselves write about linked texts.

Now there are worries: this is great in theory and from an academic in Further Education but we have a different master – our results. It is hard to see how an examiner of the A level this summer can award AO2 and 3 simultaneously or how a piece of writing can afford not to carry the ghost of the old AOs in it. But it started the thought process, and that is what meetings are for.

Note that set texts in this world become examples of a genre rather than as individuals. That is to say that all the boards require students to extend their awareness of other texts in similar genres – for me on OCR, my students are reading 1984 and Handmaid, but considering as much Dystopian literature and film (is film Literature? is another question) as a requirement in the new Unseen questions. Likewise the need to be aware of contexts of all sorts – socio historical and literary is vital for the Doll’s House/Chaucer pair of texts.  Suddenly my students really need to understand the eras in which works are produced.  IN my selection 1399-1845 is quite a span.

Is it time to reevaluate delivery in light of 2years of a new syllabus?


Remember that A level is intended to have a much closer link to the requirements of further education than hitherto. We must move beyond the syllabus in order to achieve well, especially into a range of contexts to present the knowledge required for success This can be built into 2 year delivery.

5 steps to Heaven:

1 We need to understand the history and development of language and establish links between the texts being read across this course.

2 How do we develop awareness of the mechanics of creating a text?

3 How to balance the personal contexts of the reader with the texts being read? Do we really explore and ‘play’ with the texts?

4 How to harness the new worlds of social media in order to engage with studies?

5 How do we enable students to read and respond to critique and to evaluate worth and quality?

Teaching Literature at A level.pptx (002)

In this activity get the students to build up their own contexts which affect their perception of a text, then discuss.

Andrew then posed questions to stimulate and raise awareness of breadth of course.  Required consideration for excellence and high UCAS?

I can imagine a lunchtime cours eof classes for U6 university hopefuls each looking at this list:

Define literature?

Is film literature ?

Is soap opera literature ?

What is the point of studying literature ?

Is it more important to study old rather than new?

How do we  evaluate quality?

Can we still call a Text ‘good’ if we dislike it?

Should a good text equate with difficulty?

Who decides what literature is good?

Canon work:

Create and defend choices of canon?

Can we ignore the writing which ‘came before’?

Placing texts in rank order?

This seems to me to be material at the heart of the study of Literature and vital for discussion. To avoid it seems to restrict the awareness of our students too far. I am enthused.

He explored Criticism and Theory:

Students should address this but it turns into contexts in reality since critical reading is a context for reception. How early should we begin to embed critical theory? (I wrote a module a while ago to reinforce feminism in y8 poetry through study of homer and various more recent interpretations of the Odyssey in poetic form).

Are students ‘natural theorists’ (Eagleston)? Possibly. We need to tap into the body of theory which can be used and to develop awareness of how best to use it.  Something else to get my teeth into.

theory out

 theory in

These are not ideas beyond the scope of students in KS3 let alone KS4 – let’s use them.

Finally, via Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies we approached seeking critical lenses and replying whenever required to stimulate thought. Copies of ‘critical lens statements were provided.  What others may be needed?  Critical lenses

Andrew has shared his materials with us for use in our schools. This is his work and please give him all credit should you use it.

Using art to encourage personal engagement and contextualisation:

Getting students to develop titles. How do titles alter our perception of a work of literature? Do we look for a manifestation of the title? He went on to show how he used art work – usually highly abstract to engage discussion. This leads naturally to a discussion around Barthes:  Do writers ‘own’ meaning? – which helps to develop awareness of taste, to discuss nature of ambiguity; to look at the role of reader in interpretation; to consider the motivation and craft of the writer; to inquire what authority a teacher might have and to explore the significance of titles.

WOW. It was only 11.15.

It feel wrong to have so little to say now about Paul’s session – excellent and focused on GCSE unseen texts. The main reason is that  much of this was interactive – we explored a wide range of activities designed to help younger students tease out the finer points of unseen analysis in a world in which all GCSE/IGCSE exams now have an unseen quotient.

Paul’s powerpoint is here: 10th May 2017 please credit him if you use this.

It is a mine of useful information and activities. I particularly enjoyed the sentence combining exercise on Utterson!

In the afternoon we have the Business of the Day and discuss the last exam series.  I will not break ranks and share too much, apart from saying how good it is to hear colleagues being so frank and open about their respective results, cohorts and interaction with the exam boards. One point of general interest was that most schools are now teaching A level straight through, having started by offering AS and finding this unsatisfactory. There was a split regarding the schools’ practice for unreformed subjects. One or two schools had moved all subjects ot straight through delivery , even if unreformed and others were stiull offering study leave and similar gaps for all students which, it was felt, seriously undermined the attempts to deliver the straight-through courses.

Eventually it will all come out with the wash. Or so they say.  Probably just in time for the next curriculum change!

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Unseen: Station Eleven for OCR A level

This passage is taken from the 2014 novel Station Eleven by Emily Mandel.

station 11 extract.

From the outset of the passage the reader is given information about the setting which establishes mood and location. The passage is set ‘twenty years after the end of air travel’. A reader immediately recognises a common trope of Dystopian Literature in that the passage is clearly set in the future, but a future in which the conditions in which people live have been reduced with a subsequent loss of  technological knowledge. This is reminiscent of a number of Dystopias such as Mac Carthy’s The Road, Hoban’s Riddley Walker and Wyndham’s The Chrysalids to name three. The description of ‘caravans’ and the ‘symphony’ are perhaps reminiscent of the world of Riddley Walker, with itinerant players reproducing the Punch and Judy plays as a means of connection with the lost world.

The conditions in which the travelers are living are harsh and hostile: The heat is described both as metaphorically ‘white-hot’ and then again in a more prosaic yet equally alarming clarity as ‘106 Fahrenheit, 41 Celsius. We note that the thermometer is ‘twenty-five-year old’ suggesting a date for the event which plunged the society back into this un-technological state.  Within this world, the travelers are surrounded by trees which ‘pressed in close’ suggesting further stifling actions and which also are seen to have ‘erupted’ through the pavement.  Nature is reclaiming the manmade world and doing so in a violent fashion – the verb suggesting speed and violence in equal measure. Just as in The Road, where we see the manmade infrastructure of modern USA returning to the wilderness, so here, the same action is evidently taking place. However there is contrast – trees provide shade and the leaves are described as’ soft’ as they are ‘brushing’ the legs of horses and Symphony alike’. This gentle description of the emerging foliage possibly suggests that there is hope for the future and that some succour will be found in time as nature reclaims the land. At this point, though, the landscape is seen as dangerous – or in the typically understated tone of this narrative as ‘questionnable territory’.

Perhaps for this reason the group contains scouts who carry ‘weapons’ and there is a recognition that this group serve to protect the ‘Symphony’ – a group of travelling players, it seems- named after the prime artistic endeavour of the 19th century – the musical whole- who seem to be made up both of musicians and actors. Names are shared and the passage focuses on and elderly ‘director’: Gil, aged 72, and two other players: Kirsten and August. The latter name conferring a level of respect on the character with its meaning of reverence and carrying its root back to the Roman emperor Augustus. This man is seen as both a musician and an actor and also as a ‘secret poet’, an interesting designation. This is a time in which to be a poet was thing to be kept hidden, possibly because of the overt exploration of private emotion to be found in that art form. The narrator is not named – a third person narrator, seemingly omniscient tells of this unusual group of artists trekking slowly across America in the past tense. Presumably their fate is known to the narrator and the reader is engaged in finding out what will happen to the group. In many Dystopian novels the narrators or the protagonists are deliberately ordinary citizens, working in ordinary jobs – Winston Smith, for example. Here the characters are far from ordinary, and seem also to have lost an element of their identity – not only are there no surnames, but another character is referenced solely as the ‘seventh guitar’ – no name, no identification, only a job.

The characters are suffering a degree of deprivation – their shoes made from ‘automotive tyre’ which helps to explain the condition of the vehicles in which they travel. These wagons, the caravans of the Symphony, are made from functional 21st Century vehicles, such as ‘pick-up trucks’, chosen for their capacity rather than for their comfort. They have been stripped back to the basic level of function and now resemble the covered-wagons in which the American pioneers crossed the continent in the 19th Century. We learn that gasoline has come to an end, recalling again The Road and also that the trucks are pulled by horses, much as John Wyndham writes in his novel ‘The Chrysalids’. Practicality is evident in that despite the stripping-out of weight, the toughened glass remains as protection against an unnamed potential foe. As in  so many tales of a ‘fallen world’, danger lies everywhere.

Kirsten and August pass time by running lines from their production: King Lear. Again a layer is added to the intertextual subtext here as we recall a banished King wandering on the heath and slowly losing his wits as a medium for recognising the fragility and vanity of the world he has lost – the ‘pomp’ of the royal court. We assume that the message here is not dissimilar and that the Symphony are recognising the overblown and empty grandeur of the mechanised 21st century world, now ‘rendered useless’.

Their journey is laborious and dangerous. The heat is ‘relentless’ and they need to rest the horses ‘more frequently than anyone would have liked’ suggesting a compulsion both of time and also of potential danger on their journey. We know they are at Lake Michigan, but we know no end-point for the journey in this section of text, and we recall that for many, the end point is not known. For The Man and The Boy in The Road, the West Coast is a potential destination which takes on great spiritual significance. In this passage, the Symphony just walk, ‘weapons in hand’. They talk little. The only direct speech is in the form of the lines from Lear and a statement from Gil relating the action of their walking to performing on stage. There is  a sense of a world with the comfort removed – the ‘tarps’ have been painted ‘gunmetal grey’ a far-cry from the painted caravans of a travelling circus or the groups in Riddley Walker, and the vehicles have lost their comfort: the glass is a necessity and the seats removed, replaced by a bench on the roof. The name of the group – printed in capitals for emphasis – acts almost in the same way as a red cross sign – a request to leave them unmolested since they come in peace.

The passage is written in an understated manner though in no way similar to the terseness which categorises MacCarthy’s writing. There is little figurative language, and moments are often undercut by the choice of language, possibly as euphemism, to avoid unnecessary fear developing. To this end, the danger of the ‘questionable territory’ is described also as ‘fraught’ and the glass is left because it is ‘nice to have somewhere relatively safe to put the children’. In this phrase the weak adverb ‘nice’ is further reduced in impact by the adjective ‘relatively’ before the sentence reaches its true purpose by the arrival of the noun ‘children’ -the only mention of the children in the passage which has focused solely on adults of indeterminate age to this point. It is as though the passage is narrated in a tone designed to reduce the potential anxiety of the actual situation. The sentence length increases with added subordination in the fifth paragraph as the narrator seeks to give explanations for some of the changes being made -the reader becomes increasing complicit, therefore as he understands and accepts the rationales behind the vehicles being described.

The passage considers the difficulty found in surviving in post-apocalyptic world. The passage gains more interest in that the survivors focused upon carry the cultural capital of society with them. In this they resemble Riddley Walker himself – often ignorant of the heritage of the culture he carries yet driven to defend it. There is no overt Christian message or sense of a coming redemption here, just a struggle for survival of a culture, the current enemy of which is Nature itself.


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Filed under OCR A level, OCR English Literature, OCR NEW English Literature

Jerusalem (Butterworth): An introduction for students and teachers. Completed draft

PDF: Jerusalem study guide draft 1 JWP (2)

I have been putting together an introduction to Butterworth’s play. This is my draft complete copy. It is definitely work in progress, but I welcome feedback.
The play appears on the OCR set text list for AS and can be used, therefore for the coursework element at A level, yet there is no published material on the play and OCR have not produced one of their useful guides to give us a hint at what areas of a splendidly rich text they will be focused upon.
I hope some who read this will get in touch with suggestions and corrections… I am still working on it as you can see.

WORD: Jerusalem study guide draft 1 JWP (2)

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Filed under OCR A level, OCR English Literature, OCR NEW English Literature, Uncategorized

OCR A Level Unseen: Wyndham -The Chrysalids

Once again, an essay for discussion. There is no such thing as a perfect unseen, especially in 45 minutes!  A sound file and discussion is below.

The Chrysalids (1955)

The passage, written by a first person narrator, and therefore fundamentally unreliable in terms of the implications of such a narrative voice, is set in a world which seems to be lacking in advanced technology and in which there is a underlying threat of a society in which even thought can be intercepted and studied.

The opening description of the dream world is one of beauty and freedom. Although set in a city ‘clustered’ around the ‘big blue bay’, the freedom of the alliterative description of the bay counteracts the tight structure of the city. Indeed the verb ‘clustered’ could suggest a city which is deliberately gathered together precisely because of the opportunity offered by the bay itself. The sea is often used to symbolise the possibility of freedom and escape, being a liminal marker that is both obstructive and crossable. A similar idea is explored in Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go when the clones visit Cromer or Dover and recognise that there is a life beyond the one set out for them, if they might cross it. In this extract, the dream scenario is countered by the recognition that the real world is landlocked – the narrator has never ‘seen the sea, or a boat…’ The ellipsis suggests a thought process cut off in mid-stream as though too upsetting to pursue.

In the dream world the innocent mind from the future sees vehicles redolent of the time of writing – ‘carts running with no horses and fish-shaped things in the sky’. Again his wonder at ordinary 20th century sights suggests a world which has regressed in time, somewhat as England has in Riddley Walker, by Russel Hoban. This similarity is enhanced by the mention of the ‘Tribulation’ wrought by God – not necessarily a Christian God – which possibly relates to some form of Nuclear disaster, a very common fear in the 1950s when this book was written. A world devastated by an unexpressed apocalyptic event is a common Dystopian trope of the later 20th century.

The narrator dreams this view both by day and night – the night is not threatening – the light lying like ‘strings of glow-worms’ suggests a peace and beauty to the scene. One in which man and nature seem to happily coincide.

The narrator is young, though has developed beyond his innocent days – ‘when I was quite small’. He is able to refer to a time ‘when I was still young enough to know no better’ and to the need to ask an older sibling for advice. There are no parents in this narrative. He is aware enough to see the dream as ‘beautiful and fascinating’ but also readily aware that as he gets older and his state of innocence drops away, his visions also fall away at the same time.  This path from innocence to experience with a similar reduction of freedom and thought is reminiscent of the children in Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights Trilogy, who gradually lose their freedom to adapt as their Daemons become fixed.  His sister Mary seems to be knowledgeable and understanding although worried – she warns him ‘seriously’, the adverb intensifying the nature of the warning, and refers to a ‘time before’ when the Old People – the capitalisation suggesting a proper noun – a term used of the ancestors as though as part of a folk memory – a very common trope seen in Zamyatin’s We or Orwell’s 1984. She also establishes how unusual he is in having these ‘pictures’ in his head and establishing him as an outsider – a typical narrator in such novels.  His cousin Rosalind, however seems to share the gift of sight.  He and she have a ‘curious understanding’, possibly hinting at a psychic link of some sort which is no doubt explored in the novel.  The name Rosalind is chosen to echo Shakespeare’s Rosalind in As You Like It – a girl of great resource  and an outcast who will find love and understanding when banished to the  forest. Possibly this storyline will be followed.

There is also an unsettling comment in that the narrator is already marked out for observation due to his left handedness.  This ‘sinister’ aspect to his character will no doubt be explored in the novel.

The narrator realises the need for silence and his prepared to bide his time.  We are told that he and Rosalind keep quiet about their gift ‘at that time’. Clearly the passage is from the beginning of the novel and much is being set up for future reference. He ‘did not feel unusual’ he says, possibly suggesting that his older self certainly does.

The passage explores the ideas of a ruined world and establishes the idea of a young man who has visions – not unlike the Father in Mcarthy’s The Road,  – of a better past. He is fascinated, just as Riddley Walker is  by these manifestations of a time before and establishes a hook in the relationship between him and his equally different cousin.

Write a commentary on this passage from a novel published in 1955. Relate your response to the study of Dystopian literature.  Time: 1 hour.

When I was quite small I would sometimes dream of a city – which was strange because it began before I even knew what a city was. But this city, clustered on the curve of a big blue bay, would come into my mind. I could see the streets, and the buildings that lined them, the waterfront, even boats in the harbour; yet, waking, I had never seen the sea, or a boat . . .

And the buildings were quite unlike any I knew. The traffic in the streets was strange, carts running with no horses to pull them; and sometimes there were things in the sky, shiny fish-shaped things that certainly were not birds.

Most often I would see this wonderful place by daylight, but occasionally it was by night when the light lay like strings of glow-worms along the shore, and a few of them seemed to be sparks drifting on the water, or in the air.

It was a beautiful, fascinating place, and once, when I was still young enough to know no better, I asked my eldest sister, Mary, where this lovely city could be.

She shook her head, and told me there was no such place – not now. But, perhaps, she suggested, I could somehow be dreaming about times long ago. Dreams were funny things, and there was no accounting for them; so it might be that what I was seeing was a bit of the world as it had been once upon a time – the wonderful world that the Old People had lived in; as it had been before God sent Tribulation.

But after that she went on to warn me very seriously not to mention it to anyone else; other people as far as she knew, did not have such pictures in their heads, either sleeping or waking, so it would be unwise to mention them.

That was good advice, and luckily I had the sense to take it. People in our district had a very sharp eye for the odd, the unusual, so that even my left-handedness caused slight disapproval. So, at that time, and for some years afterwards, I did not mention it to anyone – indeed, I almost forgot about it, for as I grew older, the dream came less frequently, and then very rarely.

But the advice stuck. Without it I might have mentioned the curious understanding I had with my cousin Rosalind, and that would certainly have led us both into very grave trouble – if anyone had happened to believe me. Neither I nor she, I think, paid much attention to it at that time: we simply had the habit of caution. I certainly did not feel unusual. I was a normal little boy, growing up in a normal way, taking the ways of the world about me for granted.

John Wyndham, The Chrysalids (1955)


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Filed under OCR A level, OCR English Literature, OCR NEW English Literature, Uncategorized

A level unseen: OCR. Never Let Me Go

The passage under consideration is taken from Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go, which is a study of dystopian society in which human clones are produced for the purpose of providing organs for their human counterparts.

The passage is set in a recognisably contemporary wold, one in which a driver has to ‘consult the map a number of times’ when trying to locate the destination at the end of the journey. The lack of electronic navigation suggests a period prior to the present day, and even slightly in the past when considered against the 2005 date of writing. In this it is comparatively unusual in that many of the best known Dystopian texts tend to be set either in a distant future or a distant past to enable a direct comparison with the present day. A novel such as John Wyndham’s ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’ has a similar relationship to the contemporary society which is depicted and both gain from the apparent normality of all that is described.

The first person narrator tells the reader plenty about the setting of the passage – she often repeats herself and seems to be striving to add details in the long sentences, as though trying to compensate for the inherent unreliability of the first person voice. The setting of ‘The Kingsfield’, a name suggesting grandeur and freedom, is unsettling. It seems to be both secluded, being ‘out of the way’ and ‘awkward’ to find, yet it is not a place of peace: ‘You can always hear traffic on the main roads…’ says the narrator, as though speaking to a friend – the drop into the second person seeming to confer a relationship between the reader and the narrator. Not only is ‘recovery centre’ confusing as a general location, the description of the micro-settings are equally strange. A recovery centre suggests a convalescent environment, yet here the rooms are ‘too stuffy or too draughty’ they cannot allow wheelchair access and the bathrooms – ‘hard to keep clean’- suggest a lack of basic hygiene, let alone the hygiene expected of a medical institution. Indeed this down at hell feeling is more akin to the ‘old world’ elements of a narrative such as Zamyatin’s ‘We’, in which the old cottage stands as a contrast to the crisp new dwellings and apartments, much as this centre is compared with Ruth’s centre with ‘gleaming tiles and double glazed windows’. Even in that description there is no sense of care, however.

The narrator also explores the contrast between the function of the buildings in the past and their current use. Once a ‘holiday camp’, the centre is now in a dilapidated and ‘unfinished’ centre, yet it is described as ‘precious’ conferring some emotional attachment, here unexplained.  This is reminiscent of the scenes in Orwell’s 1984 in which the protagonists find comfort in the dilapidated old room above the shop and believe that they have escaped from Big Brother, only to be caught out in the end. In this passage it is interesting that the narrator comments that the camp was intended for ‘ordinary families’. The suggestion is that the narrator is not from that background. No further information is given but there is a sense that the narrator and those like him/her are not worth the effort of completing the building alterations and are a devalued segment of society. This is heightened in the description of the pool and the diving board in particular. This last image seems to stand, regardless of any danger it might pose, and act as a magnet for the kind of thoughts expressed near the end of the passage: ‘taking a dive… only to crash…’. I tis as though it is a temptation to those inmates wishing to gain a sensation of freedom only to end up in pain or suffering a swift early death.

The narrator is not travelling alone.  ‘Ruth’ is mentioned but seems to be little help. The narrative does not suggest she speaks and does not suggest she engages with the narrator. Indeed, we can surmise that the pair do not travel widely. Although the sound of the ‘big roads’ is clearly audible, the map has to be used to locate the centre. It is the narrator who has to ‘consult the map a number of times’ suggesting not only that he/she is in control of the journey but also that he/she is not a strong navigator. It is also unclear what the relationship is between the narrator and Tommy – the boy they are travelling to meet. One assumes he is a ‘donor’ since he seems to be an inmate, yet Ishiguro uses this term without offering any explanation. In this case, rather as with terms such as ‘recovery centre’ ordinary’ the reader sense a meaning which is hidden from us, but of which the narrator expects us to be aware.  Whilst it is not unusual for Dystopian texts to be narrated by an everyman figure, this figure often seems to be a character of marked intelligence or scientific ability, such as H.G. Wells’ narrator in ‘The Time Machine’ or the protagonist of Zamyatin’s ‘We’. Even Winston Smith, who in many ways is a deeply unheroic figure, has a job of some responsibility and importance in ‘1984’. The narrator here seems to be garrulous and pleasant, but in no way a character of special note.

The language used is plain and matter of fact. Sentences are often extended by significant subordination and the addition of simple clauses after a dash to impart extra information: ‘the Square- the place where you drive in when you first arrive…- an example of this unfinished atmosphere-‘.  In this example there is also the use of the second person as though to address the reader which helps to make the reader complicit in the narrative. Elsewhere the vocabulary is simple, sometimes deceptively so as discussed earlier, but usually suggesting a lack of range in the narrative style of the narrator. There is an informality in the contractions : ‘it’s’ , ‘can’t’ which also suggests that the narrator sees the reader as an equal and helps to build up the conversational tone of the piece.

Overall the atmosphere created on the ominously ‘overcast and chilly’ day is one of threat. Although the passage begins quite easily, the effect of the ‘shadowy’ figures, suggesting both threatening gangs of anonymous youths and even a slightly ghostly aspect, as though the former holiday makers are somehow reimagined in the new setting, it to create unease. When Tommy emerges, his clothes are old and ‘faded’ and he has put on significant weight. The two images together suggest ill health rather than health.  This added to the highlighted difficulty in finding the centre helps to present a society which has been deliberately cut off from the mainstream or ‘ordinary’ families alluded to in the passage. Whereas in Brave New World or A Handmaid’s Tale, the centres for reproduction and other scientific advances are places of awe and fear, the emotion here is lesser. It is sadder, somehow. It suggests more neglect than ‘recovery’.

The passage in question: never-let-me-go-ch19


Filed under OCR English Literature, OCR NEW English Literature, Paedagogy, Uncategorized

Unseen prep: OCR A level

This is my response to a passage from Lauren Oliver’s 2011 novel Delirium. The passage is found below the unseen.

The sound file of the lesson today in which we discussed the passage is included due top absences from the class.  It helps my Year 13 to keep up.

The passage is drawn from a 21st century novel aimed at Young Adults. Dystopia has proven to be a common genre for such writing with the exploration of totalitarian states in works such as The Hunger Games providing material for Hollywood blockbusters.

In this passage the contextual settings of era and the condition under which life is lived is clear and typical of the genre. The piece is set in a future world, one run by scientists and doctors who strive to control the emotions and feelings of the people. Such control has been a staple of this genre since works such as Zamyatin’s  We and Huxley’s Brave New World.  The passage opens with a clear statement that love has been “identified as a disease” by a ruling elite. Time is evidently important to the narrator –a teenage girl- and we are given information about the passage of “sixty four” years and also the countdown to the “ninety five days” before her maturity and the “operation”.  This narrative device – introducing a countdown to an important, yet unspecified event – is a key device in Patrick Ness’ novel The Knife of never letting go, in which the male protagonist is on the run in the days leading up to his birthday and entry to adulthood. Another typical device is the reference to the past as the “dark days”. In a Dystopian novel it is necessary for the “now” to be officially portrayed as the good times and for the “past” to be seen in a negative light.  We see this clearly in works such as Logan’s Run or Brave New World and here the narrator – a girl still in education seems to accept the official notion of a “dark” time which she is lucky to live outside. Her acceptance of the regime is signalled by her choice of “of course” as she opens paragraph Seven by seeming to accept the need for the operations to continue.

Her acceptance is, however , challenged by the two single sentence e paragraphs earlier in the passage. In the first she tells us that the sight of “uncureds” (reminiscent of Orwell’s manipulation of language) remind he of her “mother” and in the second that her life, however good, is marred by “pain”, whether physical or emotional is not clear,  and a possible lack of safety.  The narrator, a girl –a feature of 21st century and especially Young Adult Writing and a break from the stereotypically male protagonists in this genre from HG Wells until the emergence of writers such as Malorie Blackman in Noughts and Crosses made a conscious effort to engage a female readership, is clear in her opening statement. She presents information without embellishment and in a direct manner. Her sentences are simple and straightforward: “ Everyone else in my family has had the procedure already”. The lack of a proper noun for the “procedure” suggests the normality of the action and the level of acceptance  into everyday discourse, much as the clones in Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go refer ot element s of their treatment as ‘donations’ or ‘carers’. The build-up of the unexplained adoption of everyday terms is unsettling and helps to convey the sense of threat found in the new society. She is clear that ‘scientists’ have found a ‘cure’ for the disease ‘amor deliria nervosa’ and the language develops to present love – one of the finest and fullest emotions of a ‘normal’ contemporary world, as something to be feared and shunned.  Again, the idea of controlling emotion to ensure loyalty to a state is a feature of many texts such as 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale, Brave New World and so forth.

As she tells the reader about the process in the first paragraph her language becomes more descriptive and emotive: the list of 3 illnesses which can result and the use of a verb such as “writhing” to describe the sensation of love she currently feels suggest an emotional response which is not evident as she begins her narrative.  The descriptions of those who are diseased are graphic and unpleasant – ‘dragging their nails… their mouths dripping spit’. The reader notices first that it is only girls who are seen to be behaving in this way and may also infer that far from being uncured, these are the victims of some unspecified operation devised by ‘scientists’ devoid of feeling and emotion which has itself left the victims in this parlous state. It is reminiscent of the state in which Alex is left following his ‘cure’ in Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange.

Love is ‘cured’ and the narrator looks forward to being ‘paired with a boy’ in a world in which presumably pairing is needed for procreation but little else. She is supported by an older sister and an aunt – both given names- who seem to have convinced her that the process is a good thing. Her wedding dreams are another common convention – dreams tend to display a view of reality and the subconscious as seen in McCarthy’s The Road  – and the ‘blurs’ of the face of her husband hints at the lack of closeness that will be found between the couple.  This is accentuated by the onomatopoeic heart beat: ‘womp, womp, womp’ suggesting that there is no increase in emotion between the couple. Indeed the narrator seems proud of this fact, suggesting that he rheart does not ‘skip or jump or swirl or go faster’ – a list suggestive of happiness and freedom. This has no place in her new world.

An interesting feature of the passage is that the school system still teaches elements of the ‘old ways’.  The symbolism of the ‘dark days’ is clear – a time of threat and  a lack of clear vision, yet the narrator is aware that there was a time when love was viewed as ‘something to be celebrated or pursued’.  She drops into a second person narrative, speaking directly to the reader as though to a friend or confidant (‘It affects your mind…) and explores the problems which are contained in the ‘Book of SHHH’ and acronym derived from the tricolon title of the book outlining the rules and structure of the new world order, which suggests from its name that this is an area to be kept silent and not to be discussed.  The full title of the book, linking ‘safety’ with ‘happiness’, suggests a euphemistic approach to controlling the thought processes and practices of this society.

There are moments of the text in which the writer presents a surprising normality. I find it jarring to read of the United States, as though the geo-political order has not changed. Whilst Orwell or Zamyatin are at pains to remove the continental nomenclature familiar to their readers, writers such as Ishiguro or Steven King make no attempt to hide the location of their texts from their readers. Not only has the geopolitical system not changed, but neither has the counting of the months and years – the narrator has a birthday on ‘September 3’.  This tangible link to the world of the reader helps to make the narrative more accessible, perhaps, and creates a heightened horror when reading of the ‘invisible, sweeping tentacles’ with which a personified love is said to be ‘choking us’.  The writer uses the easily recognisable feelings associated with love: heart in the mouth, shortness of breath and so forth in a way to accentuate the negativity that has been gathered around the emotion in this passage. The descriptions of suicides – from the hyperbolic and graphic “tear their eyes out or try to impale themselves on the barbed –wire fences” ( the addition of the adjective “barbed” here raising the emotion significantly) to the girl who “dropped quickly” serve to intensify the feeling of entrapment felt by some members of this society.

It is clear that this society, whilst using television to ensure that the deaths are seen as a warning for all, cannot prevent people from taking the ultimate sanction. The feeling of being trapped in an unfeeling system is clear throughout the passage from the clinical descriptions of the ‘cure’ and the scientists by whom it will be delivered. Only at the end of the passage do we get under the cover of the emotions presented by the narrator. Her sentences become short and direct, almost desperate – ‘I’m nervous of course. … I want to get it over with’ both suggest the impending cure as a rite of passage which heralds adulthood.  Ultimately the narrator used an extremely short paragraph to draw attention to her feelings: ‘the deadliest of all deadly things: it kills you both when you have it and when you don’t’ suggests recognition of the cognitive dissonance of her situation.  She seems to crave love and yet also to crave its removal. The suggestion is of a lose/lose situation –an ideal choice for a dystopia.


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Symbolism in A Doll’s House and The Merchant’s Tale

A resource for my Year 13 to download – created during  a class discussion.


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The Forest: Butterworth’s setting for Jerusalem or “What the fuck do you think an English forest is for?”

The Forest: Butterworth’s setting for Jerusalem or “What the fuck do you think an English forest is for?”

To Shakespeare, the forest is a place of opposites and a location for clandestine activities. In his plays Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like it, the forest can be seen as an antidote to the “new world” of a harsher time. The fairies operate beyond the human sphere and are linked to mischief and to nature, without any of the restrictions – moral or temporal – placed upon Theseus or the lovers. Puck can defy time and space and the fairy world will survive its invasion after playing with the interlopers, who might leave a little wiser than before. In As You Like It, the forest of Arden hearks back to a “time before” – a better time in which a wiser ruler has returned to nature with his court as an echo of the brash modernism of his brother’s urban court.
Butterworth’s play seems to be a natural descendant of these forests. We have a forest clearing, which is threatened by the forces of urbanization and modernism. However, the water is muddied because of the spectacularly ambivalent reaction of an audience to Johnny, whose domain this is – the Oberon of North Wiltshire. However much one wishes to sympathise with Johnny, one is equally appalled and can understand the wish of the council to move on a drug dealer/potential paedophile. That said, ultimately Johnny wins over the audience – his personality is simply too huge and his ultimate fate at the hands of Troy is too grotesque for us to harbour hatred for the character.

The play opens with a fairy in a forest as Phaedra sings Blake’s poem, which gives the play its name (and Johnny his only weak moment when playing Trivial Pursuits). Blake’s poem is a poem of questions and a poem, which clearly locates the play in England (where the poem has become an unofficial National Anthem) and in a world which is reflecting on the past. As the word “Satanic” is sung, the hymn is replaced with thumping music and the curtain opens to reveal “Waterloo” – an old caravan in a clearing. There is some form of rave taking place, which continues until peace settles on the scene and nature establishes itself in the form of birdsong. Into this world come two outsiders who are on a mission to purify the forest and rid it of the demon who lives there. Fawcett and Parsons are apt names for these moral cleansers. The illusion of timelessness in this opening which moves seamlessly through the passage of one night is shattered by the first words uttered: “Time” (Fawcett) which establishes the opposites at work. In the forest time is not important, but to the outside world it is the measure of all things.

Which came first, Rooster or the wood?

Johnny is a figure of power in this wood, he pulls the youth of Flintock to his call and also has enthralled Ginger – old enough to know better as a lieutenant – though one who seems perpetually to be let down and who will eventually have to be pushed away before Johnny’s final destructive clash with the world. In his Wood, outside power does not exist, but throughout the play the reminders of the council and the waiting forces of the police are a threat which never lifts despite his braggadocio.
The play is set on 23rd April, St George’s Day and Shakespeare’s Birth/Death day and both readings are clearly relevant in an England which can turn a “rural display” into slaughter in the car park or couple floats representing the myth of St George with others reflecting the invented fantasy world of Lord of the Rings or the rush for meaningless celebrity embodied in the X factor.
In the wood, none of this exists. It is all discussed and shown for the tawdry money making operation that it is: Wesley, when discussing his role of the “Barley Sword Bearer” is embarrassed by Johnny (“something is deeply wrong”) and hides behind the excuse that this is a “Swindon level decision”, thus evoking a larger urban authority than the parish council. In the face of such power, it is suggested, we are helpless.

But Johnny belongs to a different world. He has taken over this corner of Wiltshire and squatted in the wood for 27 years. Even his piss seems to be a marking of territory like that of some great feral beast and some form of libation to the Gods of the past (it is greeted by a choir singing off stage). His world is inhabited by losers and dropouts and by those for whom the urban world does not offer enough. He works as a force of nature and has clearly worked his way through many of the bedrooms of the town and is clearly selling drugs and alcohol to the underage children who sit on his doorstep. In a curious way he is also protecting them: the mysterious Phaedra is evidently safer with him (whatever that means) than with her predatory step-father and the others are given a chance to experiment and taste life in a relatively controlled environment. It is not Johnny who has caused Tanya Cawley to drink, but he has provided the means. He and Wesley reminisce in Act 1 saying “Of course they’re bloody drinking” when reminded of the age of the children and recalling the days when a less puritanical attitude ruled the country and the Flintock fair of 1969 was a scene of sexual license and debauchery. The suggestion is that the Puritanical outlook of the modern world has resulted in kids “sit[ting] in bus shelters, freezing their bollocks off” or being barred form Wesley’s pub or visiting Johnny as a place of safety. Nature, says Johnny, will always have its way even when outsiders try to impose a new order upon it.

Rooster’s Wood is to be bulldozed to make way for homes. Many have been built recently and the incomers are complaining about Johnny (despite or because of his effectiveness as a handy man). In the 21st century so many villages within 100 miles of London have become dormitory villages for commuters the soul of the rural life is being destroyed. The reality is that village shops close, pubs lack regulars, petrol prices make it hard for the villagers to travel around and employment is almost non-existent in many cases. In the wood, time has not moved on and Johnny is still ruler of misrule over a group of outsiders whose village is being taken over by puritanical forces who wish there to be nothing to represent nature to the natural in their new environment. The “green and pleasant land” is both less green and considerably lass pleasant in this new version.

“What the fuck do you think an English Forest is for?”

In Act 3 Johnny poses this question to Fawcett and Parsons. His time is running out and he has heard the litany of names who have signed the petition to be rid of him. He has had to stop Fawcett from reading the list. His only defense is the one cited earlier that the forest is a place of refuge and that many are safer here than at home. He cries “Bang your gavels. Bring your warrants. You can’t make the wind blow”. The suggestion is both that the law is transitory in the face of nature and also that perhaps he can do this. Indeed the end of the play with its majestic chant and curse over the giant’s drum certainly suggests forces of a higher level than Kennet and Avon Council being summoned into battle. Johnny might be delusional, but there is a clear suggestion that we should not meddle with forces we do not understand. The forest allows Johnny to be such a force. He is the product of a spectacularly mythological insemination and carries hugely rare blood (or so he says). Throughout the play the forest has been a place where fantastical stories can told as though they are truths and where a man can live who has already died twice as a result of his Dare Devil riding. Might it not survive this latest setback?

However, we should not overlook the Forest as a place of potential evil. Though Shakespeare uses his forest as a critique of an overly Puritanical world, the 19th Century German forest is a place of nightmares and terrors as explored in much Gothic literature and true fairy tales. Nothing good ever comes from a visit to the hut in the woods! If Johnny is the Wolf, is he also a dragon? At the end of Act 2 the professor is left alone on stage to recount the tale of St George. The dragon lives in a “swamp” on the edge of a city and St George is serving all by clearing the city of this nuisance. Again, should we see Johnny as a dragon polluting the charm of the rural idyll? Certainly his drug taking and drinking have little to do with a pure nature which might refer back to the nymphs and shepherds of Virgil’s Eclogues. However isn’t it the case that the Forest and nature is always sanitized for the comfort of the urban elite? Real rural poverty offends – look at Tess of the D”Urbervilles – and the idea that rural dwellers are all somehow pure and fairy-like is an utter nonsense.

The forest tells us that Nature was here long before the modern obsession with the urbanization of the country seen in building projects and a need to reflect a “time before” in all celebrations of Englishness. Does anyone take Morris Dancing seriously as a link to heritage? Does anyone pause to consider what life was like in the 1940s when a Spitfire sweeps above our heads? The message I take from this play is that we have lost touch with our heritage and that the Forest setting represents an exploration of the difference between us and them – they might be uncomfortable to recognize as a rawer version of ourselves, but we need to be aware of the existence of a less sanitized and potentially less safe world that has existed and will exist again.

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