Murphy’s Mockingbird

When Mr Gove decided that Harper Lee’s seminal novel To Kill A Mockingbird should be summarily dismissed from the National Curriculum, Sophie Murphy of 13T was one of many Surbiton High students to be affronted by this callous decision. In her own words, “it’s a novel that teaches so much to teenagers”.

In the light of these words, Sophie came to talk to us at Lit Soc on Thursday 21st January about one of her favourite texts. Her theme was the motif of the Mockingbird itself, and how it applies the principal characters of the book. Supplemented by readings from the book and clips from the classic movie starring Gregory Peck (the English department’s favourite actor), Sophie first explored the nature of the bird itself: apparently, it is known for parenting skills! And then went on to talk about Boo, Mayella, Mrs Dubose, Calpurnia and Jem, discussing how they embody the Mockingbird motif.

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It didn’t take long for discussions to break out across the table, as so many people had read and loved it: the controversy surrounding Mockingbird’s sequel Go Set A Watchman, our take on the recent dramatised version at Richmond Theatre, and how we now feel about it as adults compared to when we first encountered it in our younger days.

Many thanks to Sophie for a stimulating and informative session, and for reminding us “it’s a sin to kill a Mockingbird” (Mr Gove).

Meeting Margaret

Yet another leading literary light left the literary stage this week, when Hunter Davies announced the death of his wife Margaret Forster. Lit Soc could not this pass, given that her ouevre is beloved by Ms Haydon.

Even though Ms Haydon couldn’t join us, she passed on her thoughts on one of her favourite authors:

Very sad to hear about Margaret Forster as I must be one of her number one fans . I never go on holiday without one of her books . I was fortunate to meet her once at a Press event in London. She was an unassuming and humble lady .

 

Memory Box , Diary of an Ordinary Woman , Good Wives , Have the men had enough ? Private Papers , Shadow Babies … they are all on my bookshelf ! 

Interestingly , it was Liz Style , mum of Lydia Style who introduced me to Margaret Forster.

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Mr Humphreys was one of the only members of Lit Soc to have read Georgy Girl, her breakthrough novel, and to this day he regrets not having explored the rest of her novels. Ms Huntley, having searched high and low for Carr’s Water Biscuits – whose history Ms Forster had written – enjoyed talking about her non-fiction work. Daphne du Maurier (author of Rebecca), Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Bonnie Prince Charlie all benefited from her thorough research and accessible style.

Ms King gave Memory Box the page 69 test, which it passed with flying colours, intriguing us all with a description of a journey to the Lake District. We finished our discussion with a viewing of the titles of the classic film starring Lynn Redgrave, paying particular attention to the lyrics, which aptly described the eponymous heroine’s character.

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Paying tribute to The Thin White Duke

The sad news of the seminal David Bowie’s death earlier this week from cancer could not go unnoticed by Lit Soc. A last-minute change of plans resulted in Mrs Madeleine King leading a wonderful session on all things Ziggy.

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Clad in her souvenir T-shirt and lightning flash earrings, Mrs King treated us to a journey through her musical memories. Interspersing her anecdotes with tracks that spanned the entirety of his forty-plus year career, Mrs King shared her enthusiasm for the music, the lyrics and the five performances she was very fortunate to attend.

With staff choir in attendance as well, a party atmosphere – complete with ‘Let’s Party’ (sadly not ‘Let’s Dance’) cake – celebrated the Goblin King in fine style. And for those who think there was no literary input, see this list for Bowie’s top 100 must-read books.

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From Troy to Ithaka

Lit Soc began its New Year journey with a fascinating session led by Ms Deekes on Homer’s epic The Odyssey. We had a bumper turnout of curious staff and students, including members of the SHS Classics Department.

Focusing on the women in the story, as inspired by a chance viewing of Love Actually over the Christmas break, we heard about Penelope (translation “face of threads”), Calypso (“she that conceals”…keeping Odysseus in hiding for seven years!), Nausicca (“burner of ships”), grey-eyed Athena and her opposite Circe, and Eurycleia (“broad fame”). Ms Deekes explained how powerful these women are in a society which literally hid women from view. For example, only Hermes could defeat Calypso and Circe, whilst Penelope was strong enough to fend off her would-be suitors for the best part of ten years. Girl Power Rules!

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As the Baklava was heartily consumed along with the usual tea, the discussion turned to texts inspired by The Odyssey, such as Joyce’s arguably even-more-epic Ulysses, Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Eva Ibbotson’s Journey to the River Sea and the Booker Prize winning Life of Pi, all with the journey motif and the bildungsroman genre.

Thanks to Ms Deekes for a great start to the year and setting the bar high for the rest of the Lit Soc year, which will be as diverse as ever.

Here we are again!

Lit Soc is back, now in to its fourth year, and better than ever!

Beginning the year with our regular “what I read on my ‘oldiays”, we foregathered to share our summer reads. As well as the regulars, we welcomed some new bibliophiles in the shape of new staff Mr Conway and Mrs Rusholme, the very welcome return of Miss Handley, and doyen of the Maths department, Mr Gibbons, whom, for those of you who don’t know, is a wonderful writer as well as crime fiction expert.

Among our pupils in attendance, books read included Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver trilogy, a revisit of all the Harry Potter books, Pulitzer Prize winner All the Light We Cannot See and some of the latest YA dystopian reads. The staff, as ever, also enjoyed a diverse collection of both fiction and non-fiction, often immersing themselves in to the culture of places visited on their summer travels. For example, Mrs Richards enjoyed The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng during her trip to Borneo (and yes she did see the Orangutans!) whilst Miss Handley, on her extended Antipodean travels, read the Australian answer to To Kill A Mockingbird, Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey. Meanwhile, Mr Conway, who went to Cuba over the summer, was Our Man in Havana.

        

It was fascinating to hear about the reading habits of our new members. Mrs Rusholme threw herself in to YA fiction, enthusiastically recommending the likes of Eleanor and Park (“reminded me of Romeo & Juliet“) and All the Bright Places, and Mr Gibbons read espionage thrillers penned by his authorial friend. Among the Lit Soc stalwarts, we had reads ranging from Go Set A Watchman and The Sunday Philosopher’s Club to The Sense of an Ending and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. One of our allegedly most well-read members even found the time to revisit perennial childhood favourites: the Asterix series!

Our first session of the year is only the beginning of our further meanderings in the literary universe. Watch this space to find out more!

       

The MAN Booker Prize 2014

There are lots of literary highlights throughout the year, of course, but the Booker prize always stands out. Ask any British/Commonwealth novelist (it’s open to American fiction as well now…but we won’t go in to the rights and wrongs of that here) which book prize they want to win above all others and they’d say it’s this one; and not just because of the cash prize that awaits the winner either! Even if you don’t win, making the shortlist is a guarantee of greater exposure and increased novel sales, as love or hate your book, people are guaranteed to talk about it. But to be considered for the prize also does wonders for your reputation in the literary world.

The Booker stands tall above all other book awards because of its long and distinguished history. The judging panel is always made up of eminent names from the world of arts and culture, and for your book to get the seal of approval from them indicates that you have written a novel of exceptional quality: one that is both cerebral (aka Literary with a capital l) and tells a cracking story.

Yesterday’s Lit Soc gathered to discuss this year’s shortlist with its customary spread of books and tasty treats:

 

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As most of us had not read any of the current shortlist, we conducted a little experiment first devised by the author John Sutherland. It basically involves turning to page 69 of the book, and if you find you enjoy it, then it’s probably the book for you. Could be something you might want to try yourself next time you’re in the library, or in a bookshop.

Anyway, this resulted in some rather odd coincidences. For instance, Mr Sanders, randomly picked up Richard Flanagan’s The Random Road to the Deep North, a novel set in a Japanese Prisoner of War camp. His grandfather also spent time as a prisoner of war in a Japanese camp. Spooky. The ‘page 69’ experiment was most interesting, as several of the books on the shortlist certainly hooked us in, whilst one or two others, alas, did not.

The session ended with us placing our bets on who we thought would win, with We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler being the most popular choice. With less than three weeks to go until the winner is revealed, who do you think will win?

Summer Reads

Lit Soc is now three years old! It only feels like yesterday that Ms Huntley, myself and half a dozen or so Sixth form students sat around the ‘Curiosity Corner’ table in the upstairs area of the library, armed with tea and biscuits, a passion for books and only a vague idea of how we would take things forward. Looking back, none of us could have envisaged Lit Soc becoming the bastion of literary enrichment it is today. All who attend the talks, discussions and trips we run throughout the year have left inspired and enthused, ready to read something new and seek out the uniquely wonderful experiences that only a book, which can make you think and feel in ways you never have before, can provide.

Yesterday, we held our first Lit Soc meeting of the 2014-15 academic year, complete with cake, tea and other refreshments.

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Nourishment for the mind and the taste buds!

It was a storming first session and a lot of fun. We had a lively exchange of ideas, ranging from proposals for an odyssey to visit those Independent bookshops various people had visited over the summer (including a place recommended by Sacha in Year 10, who’d visited a place the rest of us had never heard of!) to designing a literary quilt for National Poetry/World Book Day. We were also fortunate enough to be visited by a girl who left us at the end of the last academic year, taking part in her last Lit Soc before she goes to Exeter University on Sunday. An excellent start to the 2014-15 programme!

So what did everyone read over the summer? Well, as you can see from the selection below it was a truly eclectic mix, which goes to show just how wide the gamut of literary tastes there is among Lit Soc’s members.

  Mr Bird               Ms Huntley

   Mr Humphreys      Miss Hansell

 Mrs Foster         Sacha, Yr 9

    Miss Gladwyn            Mrs Jones

  Miss Bland       Holly, Yr 13

   Liz, Ex-Pupil           Mrs Rendle-Short

    Miss Deeks        Miss Gilchrist

                                     Mrs Davies

 

Remember, whether you are staff or student, Year 7 to 13 or somewhere in between, everyone is welcome to attend. If you love reading and want to wax lyrical on your favourite books, or if you simply want to dabble with new colours in your reading palette by finding out more about books you’re not familiar with, then Lit Soc is the place to be. Watch this space for updates on Lit Soc’s talks throughout the year. Happy reading everyone!

Les Miserables

I was inspired to read the epic tome that is Les Miserables when the film of the musical came out at the beginning of 2013. Being me, I always need to read the book of the film first, as I firmly believe that the characters on the page should have the right to show their true personalities before Hollywood/West end producers start to tarnish their characters and simplify their storylines to make them more marketable.

Little did I know about the scale of the challenge I had set myself. I hadn’t quite realised that I would need to get through 1000 pages before the day I went to see the movie, and I am still flabbergasted at how I managed it!

Contrary to popular belief, Les Mis is not set during the French Revolution, which happened in 1789. The majority of the book is set in 1832, during the June revolution in Paris. France had been through political turmoil, and seen 6 different types of government in the 43 years between the 1789 Revolution and the uprising in 1832. The various political struggles of this time resulted in various schools of thought about how France should be governed emerging.

Les Mis focuses on the feelings of disenchantment people, especially the young and less well-off, had with the reign of Louis-Philippe I. Louis-Philippe’s moderation and middle-way policies disappointed those hoping for more from the self-styled ‘citizen king’, who had deposed the ultra-conservative Charles X in the July Revolution.

It was the death and funeral of the liberal General Lemarque which proved the catalyst for the 1832 revolution. Lemarque had been a leading critic of Louis-Philippe’s regime, and had been very outspoken about protecting human rights and liberties, and providing for the poor. It is in this context that the students in Les Mis stage their uprising (although I really have no sympathy for them – I think that they come across as very idealistic, selfish and out of touch).

Les Mis is, at heart a social commentary, and a book about Good vs Evil, and how the two inevitably overlap sometimes. We are exposed to characters from different walks of life: some deplorable, some for whom we sympathise, some whom we even envy. I also firmly believe that choices, as well as circumstance, are at the heart of the story.

The character of Jean Valjean is the epitome of this Good vs Evil struggle. Initially caught in a cycle of crime – which starts with stealing a loaf of bread in 1795 – he is ultimately transformed as a person by love and compassion, triggered by a Bishop who lets Valjean go with all of his silver. I think the musical does the book one of its many injustices in romanticising Valjean, who gets opportunities to better himself in ways the poor people of Paris do not; they generally starve because they are too noble to resort to the thievery Valjean commits. I do not want to completely condemn him though. Valjean uses the Bishop’s kindness to make life better for others, perhaps best displayed by him saving Cosette from the Thernardiers.

Les Mis is populated by a multitude of fascinating characters, which we won’t go in to here for reasons of space. Notably, a lot of the characters (Eponine, the Thernardiers) are very different from those in the musical version. But what I really want to do is change people’s opinions of Javert, the antagonist of the novel.

Javert sees no blurring of the line of good and evil. You are either law abiding, or you are a criminal. You are honest, or you are not. Our instinct is to condemn him for his lack of compassion. In some ways Hugo portrays him as inhuman, but I think his character has much more depth than the simple antagonist. He is the product of what society and the justice system has created, simply doing his job as a policeman, which is to uphold the law. Throughout the novel he is clearly the character with the highest integrity and discipline, making the choice to change his fortune (he was born a gypsy in a jail) and work for the establishment he so badly wants to be worthy of.

In short, we must not condemn the man, but the justice system which forces him to turn a blind eye to those poor creatures who sit between the lines of good and evil, and right and wrong.

Hopefully I have inspired you to at least think about reading this epic tome. I would go as far as to say that the book changed my view of literature. I probably particularly enjoyed it because of the historical reference as well, but I could not help but fall in love with the story and the characters. Even though the reader is forced through some substantial digressions from the storyline (e.g. the geography and blue prints of the Paris sewer network), this quickly became one of my most satisfying reads, and I foresee it remaining in my top 5 books of all time.

Miss Hansell

 

Opium in Literature

When someone mentions opium, you probably visualise smoky, dingy opium dens, depraved, sinister-looking addicts, Asian or Oriental decor… it has a strong hold on our imaginations and features in much popular culture – consider the ‘dream den’ in Christopher Nolan’s film ‘Inception’. Opium encapsulates the dark and uncontrollable in our natures… But opium’s first recorded usage is medicinal, and it is mentioned frequently as laudanum – a mixture of opium and alcohol. In Gaskell’s Mary Barton it is used to soothe starving children in industrial Manchester, and in Shelley’s Frankenstein it is a sedative for the agitated Victor. So how did come to represent human nature’s dark side?

For the Victorians, products from around the world were believed to have “cultural portability” (John Plotz) i.e. properties of their origin which could influence the identity of the place they ended up.  Charles Dickens, in ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’, uses the phrase “sensitive Constitution” to describe national identity: Britishness as a concept is political and physical, and both are delicate. Meanwhile, Thomas De Quincey refers to the Orient as “the cradle of the human race”, expressing an anxiety that we aren’t so ‘British’ after all. Additionally, by the early 19th Century, China, who had a monopoly on tea supply, wanted few commodities which Britain could supply, and therefore demanded payment for tea in silver – our love for tea began to cripple the British economy. The East India Company’s therefore exploited the lucrative opium market to finance British tea-drinking – opium was officially banned but widely consumed in China. They sold opium, grown in British Imperial India, for silver with which to buy tea from China. In effect – an illegal opium trade was financing British demand for tea. These pressures led to a growing unease: distinctions between tea’s domesticity and illegal, foreign opium became blurred.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge initially took opium to cure headaches, anxiety and insomnia, then he became increasingly addicted. References to opium in his letters and poetry refer to it as poison; he also used it to achieve “divine repose…a spot of enchantment…”. In ‘Kubla Khan’, famously a fragment after interruption by ‘a man from Porlock’, we see the fascinating but nightmarish Orient contrast with the domestic and frustratingly ‘real’ British intruder from Porlock. Listen to the reading of ‘Kubla Khan’ and see if you can identify a blurring of boundaries…

Thomas De Quincey, the self-styled ‘Opium-Eater’, was born in 1785 to a relatively wealthy family and was well-educated, often ill, but his later life was characterised by crippling debt. His famous ‘Confessions of an English Opium Eater’ (1821) was influential in highlighting both the medicinal and hallucinogenic properties of laudanum. Looking at how De Quincey refers to the drug in ‘Confessions’, you notice reverent language, reflective of opium’s power to enable deeper, spiritual experiences, but also a sense of De Quincey as a slave or worshipper of opium. The same paradox is seen in drug-taking today: while in other senses ‘abuse’ connotes dominance and exploitation, in drug contexts it implies addiction and dependence on the drug.

Robert Fortune (16 September 1812 – 13 April 1880) was a Scottish botanist, tasked in 1842 with collecting samples of tea in China and then transporting them to India – tea, safely grown inside the British Empire, was therefore no longer ‘foreign’ and dangerous. His account of these travels, A Journey to the Tea Countries of China, confirms and destabilises this presentation of tea and opium, and by association Britain and the Orient, as oppositional. He is quick to denounce a Chinese opium consumer as a ‘pitiable depraved specimen of man’, while remaining tellingly silent on British involvement in the opium trade.

The plots and ideas in The Moonstone and The Mystery of Edwin Drood are very similar: perhaps not accidentally, as Wilkie Collins was indebted to Charles Dickens’ inspiration and mentoring. By 1868, when The Moonstone was published to much acclaim, a competitive rift was emerging between the two friends. It is perhaps no coincidence that Dickens’ unfinished novel shares many elements with Collins’: a missing jewel, a mysterious ‘hybridised’ opium consumer who holds the key to the crime, a criminal who has a veneer of respectability and an Oriental threat which invades a British space. This threatening invasion is perhaps best illustrated in the opening of Edwin Drood: John Jasper’s opium dream infuses Oriental imagery with visions of the fictional Cloisterham cathedral. Here, the Orient is dangerous, with a sense of threat and disruption from the opening. Similarly, Frizinghall, the Yorkshire manor house of the Verinder family in The Moonstone, becomes ‘invaded’ by opium and the entry of the supernatural, Indian Diamond and the opium-induced theft leave the house “scattered, disunited, the very air of the place poisoned”.

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The opium consumers in the novels are strikingly similar: hybridised, part Oriental and part British – they are liminal figures whose place is nowhere. Princess Puffer in ‘Edwin Drood’ is nowhere denoted as old, but descriptions of her use lexis associated with age, and her “likeness of the Chinaman” implies liminality over national and gender borders. Jennings, Mr Candy’s assistant in ‘The Moonstone’ is similarly treated with suspicion by those around him, noticeably Betteredge the indomitably British butler: “his appearance is against him”. However, Dickens and Collins seem to deliberately present these figures as not entirely malignant or benign. Princess Puffer is pivotal to revealing the murderer of Edwin Drood, while Jennings decodes the mutterings of a delirious Mr Candy and establish the truth of what happened at Rachel’s birthday party. Clearly, these opium-consumers have the power to facilitate the restoration of order in British society.

The presentation of opium in literature is liminal: it is both medicinal and recreational, enables pleasure and pain, highlights dream and reality, and is both subversive and restorative. Above all, however, it proves that that “all cultures are involved in one another; none is single and pure, all are hybrid, heterogeneous, extraordinarily differentiated, and unmonolithic” (Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism).

 

Miss Gilchrist

The Genius of Neil Gaiman

When you’re a librarian, you have to put up with the common misconception that you’ve read everything. Nonetheless, you do try to read as many things as is humanly possible, and in so doing it can sometimes be difficult to cultivate ‘favourite’ authors, so to speak. All the same, I do try to make time for a select few, and one of these few is Neil Gaiman.

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Why is he so? Well I tried to answer the question in my Lit Soc talk yesterday, but trying to condense the literary genius of the man who is feted as a rock star and has nearly 2 million followers on Twitter in to a 40 minute talk (never mind a pithy blog post) was quite a task.

To me, Gaiman is a genius because he has a seamless ability to write for a diverse range of audiences in a variety of mediums. All too often, someone who is used to writing for adults flounders when they try to write for teenagers and young children, and vice versa. Just because you wrote an epic, sprawling 600+ page surreal take on the Great American novel (which Gaiman has), it doesn’t mean you can write a ‘comic strip for intellectuals’, to quote Norman Mailer’s description of The Sandman graphic novel series, which Gaiman also wrote. He can do it all with equal aplomb, from the children’s classic Coraline to the adult urban fantasy Neverwhere.

I’m loath to pigeonhole Gaiman, but he is undoubtedly a fantasy author. What he does, though, is deftly incorporate a rich vein of storytelling tradition from countless cultures in to his own remarkable tales. In his hands, seemingly inaccessible Ancient Greek tragedies and West African myths are brought from just beyond our reach in to a storytelling framework we can identify with. He makes us fall in love with the old tales and realise that, yes, they do still have relevance to our times. So these fantastical tales, which appeal to our sense of awe and wonder of the supernatural, are not as disconnected from our everyday reality as you may think.

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The Endless from the Sandman graphic novel series 

The beautiful thing is that you don’t have to be an expert in Ancient Greek tragedy, or Shakespeare, or Norse mythology, or Marvel Comics, or any of the other countless literary traditions Gaiman draws upon to enjoy his stories. Most fans of Stardust, for example, aren’t experts in Victorian fairy tales, and yet they still enjoy the book and/or movie. Because the ideas he has for his own stories are superb narratives in their own right, after all, and the countless allusions to other literature are there to enrich and awaken your curiosity. Ultimately, isn’t that we read stories for in the first place?