Shakespeare – The Rewrites

Shakespeare. The mere mention of the man’s name is enough to inspire awe in anyone with even the most passing interest in the canon of English Literature.

Sure you have other authors whose surname alone – Dickens, Austen – is sufficient to make them identifiable by just about everyone, but Shakespeare is generally regarded as pretty much the best writer to have ever walked this planet. Whether it’s Doctor Who considering him an intellectual equal or Alexandre Dumas saying that the only person who has created more than Shakespeare is God, the man from Stratford-upon-Avon is without equal in probably all of the Arts, and certainly in Literature.

Such lofty devotion means that Shakespeare has been revised and rewritten more than any other down the centuries, and we were all fortunate enough to be treated to a talk by Claire Jones, a Speech and Drama teacher at Surbiton, going through some of the high (and low) lights of creative re-imaginings of the Bard’s great works.


William Shakespeare, turning in his grave since 1616

As Claire explained, writers weren’t about to wait around for Shakespeare to shuffle off his mortal coil, with the first rewrites emerging while he was still alive. Things really took off in the Restoration period though, as people believed he needed to be ‘updated for the times’, as his plays had somewhat gone out of fashion at this point. It was here that cutting scenes, adding on bits, rewriting and borrowing parts from his other plays really began in earnest.

The bug was evidently caught, and as the 17th and 18th centuries progressed the rewrites continued to surface. Some of the more unusual efforts included Nahum Tate’s notorious reworking of King Lear, in which Shakespeare’s most harrowing of tragedies is given a happy ending, and Thomas Otway’s inexplicable decision to relocate Romeo and Juliet (‘the greatest love story ever told’ – discuss) to Ancient Rome and rename it The History and Fall of Caius Marius. Caius Marius being Romeo, you understand.


How Romeo might have looked in a toga

Why all these rewrites? Claire offered the explanation that the plays were modified to suit contemporary tastes. This, she added, should not necessarily be seen as a bad thing: not all offerings were as daft as Tate’s and Otway’s. It is testament to the genius of Shakespeare that his works can so easily be relocated to another time and place and still connect with an audience of the time.

Gradually, the original texts started to dominate the theatre in the 18th and 19th centuries, but rewrites and updates were still appearing. One noticeable trend emerging at this time was the rise of parody and travesty, which suggested Shakespeare was no longer a sacred cow.

As we enter the 20th Century, innovations and technological advances enabled producers to try new things that very much fitted in with what was going on at the time. Take Brecht for example, whose version of Richard III , it was argued, was not too different to his Nazi-lampooning piece The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. This trend very much continues to this day, as we can see in recent TV adaptations such as Shakespeare Retold and Hollywood movies ranging from Ten Things I Hate About You (The Taming of the Shrew) to O (Othello).


Another informative, entertaining Lit Soc then, enlivened by reading of extracts from these rewrites by Claire herself and several audience members. A big thank you to Claire for delivering the talk and for providing me with a copy of her notes, without which I would not have been able to write this blog piece; it goes without saying that I have only scratched the surface of what she discussed here!  

Song lyrics

How important are song lyrics?

How you answer that question is probably dependent on what you look to get out of music. Do you simply listen to it as a means of getting your foot tapping, your head nodding and the urge to sing along and dance? Or do you also look to songs to give you some meaning, some substance, and nourishment for the intellect and soul?

Recently, the great lyricist Pete Seeger sadly passed away, and to commemorate this we held a Lit Soc session on song lyrics, and more specifically our favourite examples.Pete Seeger himself is renowned for being the first (and last?) of the great protest singers, and musicians as diverse as Billy Bragg and Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello queued up to pay tribute to the great man, with the latter describing him as ‘…absolutely the best that humans can aspire to be. A courageous, kind, fearless soul.’


Why is Seeger held in such high regard? Well, it’s largely for the simple, powerful, beauty of his politicised lyrics. As Ms Huntley pointed out when discussing one of his many classics, Where Have All The Flowers Gonehe was unafraid to take on political controversies, in the case of this song the Vietnam War, in an unflinching manner. But whilst some would use anger to get their message across (such as London punk band The Clash, whose fierce Know Your Rights was Mrs Horwood’s choice), Seeger sang of change through peace, with the motto inscribed on his banjo – ‘This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender’ – perhaps best summarising what he was all about.

So what were everyone’s favourite song lyrics? I’m afraid I haven’t the space to cover everyone’s choices in the same detail. I will say that all had compelling reasons for choosing the songs they did, so if one of the video links included below strikes a chord with you, do catch up with the person in question and ask them why they love the lyric so much. Proof, indeed, that the best song lyrics can inspire us as much as the best poetry, prose and plays.

Ms Huntley – Pete Seeger: Where Have All The Flowers Gone? 

                            Peter Gabriel: Book of Love  

Mrs Horwood – The Clash: Know Your Rights 

Miss Bland – Foy Vance: Indiscriminate Act of Kindness  

Miss Phillips – Bob Dylan: Like A Rolling Stone, It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue

                               Johnny Nash: I Can See Clearly Now 

Miss Hansell – Counting Crows: Goodnight Elisabeth

                              The Beatles: I Am The Walrus

                              Kate Bush: Wuthering Heights

Miss Gladwyn – Dire Straits: Romeo and Juliet

Elizabeth Burrell – Pink: Dear Mr President

Mrs Spooner – Leonard Cohen: Suzanne 

Miss Sunda – Joni Mitchell: My Old Man

Mrs Rendle-Short – Joni Mitchell: Tin Angel

Miss Gilchrist – White Lies: Death

                                 Johnny Cash: Hurt  (this is a cover version of an original Nine Inch Nails song)

Mr Humphreys – Bruce Springsteen: The Ghost of Tom Joad

                                    Nirvana: Scentless Apprentice 

                                    Tom Waits: Tango Till They’re Sore 

T S Eliot Poetry Prize 2013 – A Night of Ten Stars!

A few staff Lit Soc members took a short trip to the Royal Festival Hall last night to join over 2,000 poetry fans enjoying readings by the T S Eliot Prize 2013 shortlisted poets.

Helen Mort, Maurice Riordan, Dannie Abse, Sinead Morrissey, Moniza Alvi, Daljit Nagra and friends, Michael Symmons Roberts, George Szirtes, Robin Robertson and Ruth Padel on behalf of Anne Carson, performed and talked about their nominated collections, keeping us spellbound for over two and a half hours.

Compared by the incomparable Ian McMillan, we had a fantastic evening and I, for one, am glad that I am not judging this amazing shortlist.  As Ian said, poetry comes in waves and at the moment we are at high water enjoying these gifted artists.  May this long continue.

Looking forward to the result later today and thanks to Stuart Bird for organizing us!



Some poems

A poem about a box that I’m building with off-cuts of floorboards, and the sense of satisfaction it brings when it fits together like a jigsaw. Although the jigsaw simile seems a little obvious here, which is why it didn’t make the cut.



I’m building a box.

Not flat-packed with a language-less diagram,

Not put together with a freebie Allen key,

But a pirate chest, an oak trunk,

With walnut grains that I’ve brought out with oil,

That runs and sets as if it were alive

Into the furrows and gullies of the wood

And my fingerprints.


Six slats of laser cut wood

Click together in clockwork alignment,

A beaming sense of satisfaction,

From a perfectly calculated tessellation.


Nails are driven below the surface;

Countersunk, hidden from sight,

As if the box were one piece

Moulded like putty.


The lid closes with a dull thunk,

Ensuring forgotten things

Remain forgotten. Continue reading “Some poems”

Murder in the Library!



Well OK, not really. You could probably say that was a shameless grab for attention.

But in a sense, this is what the post is about. Yes, last week’s Lit Soc saw the much awaited Humphreys-Gibbons double act, in which we discussed Crime Fiction. This is a genre that is and always has been wildly popular, but perhaps not always given the critical kudos the very best examples deserve.

I was up first, and was assigned the unenviable task of summing up the whole of the Crime Fiction genre in about twenty minutes. Attempting to do any genre in such a short space of time is nigh on impossible, but for a genre where the boundaries are decidedly blurred (crime features so heavily in many novels, it can be difficult to pinpoint where it ends and where it begins), and which has a rich literary history, the task of condensing is even more daunting…

I’m not going to rehash my whole presentation in this post (if you want to see it, you can find it here), but all the heavyweight names (Conan Doyle, Christie, Chandler, Larsson) were covered and every subgenre got at least a fleeting mention. My aim was to given an overview of the development of the genre, and hopefully this happened…


The talk concluded with an attempt to answer “why do we love crime fiction?”. Well, to me, because they are mystery stories, they are the best sort of stories. We all like to read books with plot twists, that surprise us, that pull the rug out from under our feet, and this is what the genre of Crime Fiction is all about. The best examples also can offer a critical lens on to contemporary society: and the American critic Leslie Fiedler agrees, whose influential call for a reexamination of the genre in Cross the Border Close The Gap did much to rehabilitate the genre’s reputation.

Above all, though, I think our fascination with the genre hinges on our obsession with the concept of ‘Evil’. To the German philosopher Hannah Arendt, we commit evil acts out of lapses in moral thinking and judgement, as opposed to a malevolent, moustache-twirling desire to be wicked. One of the classic staples of crime fiction is that the murderer must never be obvious: they must be as ordinary as you or I. When they get caught, they always have a rational explanation, or show remorse for their actions. So perhaps we read Crime Fiction to remind us of the need to be careful in exercising our own moral judgement…

So Mr Gibbons was up next, and unfortunately I’m not going to be able to do justice to his part of the talk. His renowned fear of ICT meant his notes were exclusively handwritten, so unfortunately I can’t post any of it here. But I can include one of the video clips he showed.

morse and lewis

Yes, his talk was on the cerebral, popular Inspector Morse series by Colin Dexter. Quite rightly, he used the TV series as no more than support aids to his interpretation of the books, which was the main focus of his talk. Being a Maths teacher, Mr Gibbons admitted that a great part of the appeal was the intricate puzzles that feature heavily in the plots: and while he didn’t have a multimedia presentation, he did have a handout with some fiendish Morse puzzles that we in the audience were quite flummoxed by…

He also discussed what the books mean to him on a personal level: his Grandfather introduced the books to him, and one of his cherished possessions is a copy of a Morse anthology signed by Colin Dexter himself, addressed to his Grandfather. After a very lively and entertaining reading of a Morse extract, and some discussion of the character of Morse himself (plus his relationship with long suffering sidekick Lewis), Mr Gibbons belied his self-created reputation for being not very well read by reading a poem to round things off. He’s a lot more literary than he pretends to be!

At the time of my writing this, Mr Russell’s talk on The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is less than an hour away. Spy fiction in itself is considered in many quarters to be a subgenre of Crime Fiction, so it will be fascinating to see what will be discussed in Mr Russell’s latest Surbiton High ‘swansong’.

An erudite evening: The Bible in Literature

On Thursday 7th November, a gloomy afternoon was considerably enlivened with a fascinating talk by Sarah Rendle Short, of the English Department.

A real pleasure to listen to and loads learnt by all participants, including how Disney frequently uses the Bible for story arcs and themes, how the English language has been so influenced by Wycliff and particularly Tyndale, two early translators of the Latin text into the vernacular when still forbidden by the Church and State, and how Shakespeare also drew upon the gospels to connect with his audience.

Many thanks, Sarah, for an amazing hour of erudition!

J. M. Barrie and Peter Pan – The Real Boys Who Never Grew Up

Before I formally begin, I think I should make it clear that it is not I who should be thanked for last week’s Lit Soc on J M Barrie and Peter Pan, but it is Johnny Depp who deserves the gratitude of the delightful audience. You see if it weren’t for Mr Depp, I should imagine my passion for the story of Peter Pan should never have been ignited. Aged 15, in possession of a typical school girl crush I decided that I needed to watch the entire filmography of Johnny Depp and it was through this obsession that I ended up watching Finding Neverland. And that was that. I was hooked…on the film that is. It wasn’t until around 6 years later that I truly became enthralled with the world of Peter Pan and his strange little Scottish creator. Enter Kingston University and their undergraduate module on Children’s literature. Within ten minutes of our first lecture on Peter Pan, the most commonly used words by our lecturer had been dangerous, scary, paedophile, damaged, repressed, immoral and disturbing. Not what I had been expecting. So, filled with intrigue and determination, I set about finding out as much as I could about J M Barrie and the supposedly damaging tale of The Boy Who Never Grew Up.

James Matthew Barrie was born in 1860 in Kirriemuir, Scotland. By age 6 he was described as being short, nothing special when it came to school and he was rather the runt of the Barrie family. Already lacking in confidence and stature, the events of January 1867 were to further damage Barrie’s mental and physical state. On the eve of his 14th birthday, Barrie’s oldest brother David was tragically killed in a skating accident, leaving their mother devastated. She would never recover from this tragedy, despite Barrie’s best efforts to get her to re-engage with her remaining sons. He recounted once entering her bedroom and standing at her bedside while dressed in his dead brothers clothes in an attempt to cheer his mother, this however had the opposite effect and continued to do so for many years; ‘while Barrie became an adult, his brother remained the boy who never grew up.’

Already we can begin to see where the seeds for Peter Pan began to germinate, but it wasn’t until he met the Llewelyn Davies family that Peter really began to sprout. A chance meeting in Kensington Gardens between one man and his dog, and three young boys in the care of their nurse maid was to change the lives of all involved. The boys were the children of one Arthur Llewelyn Davies, and his wife Sylvia (aunt to the great Daphne du Maurier), both of whom were known to Barrie after he had met their sons. Sooner rather than later, Barrie had become an overpowering presence in the family household, disliked by Arthur but loved by the boys. It reached a point where Barrie would even accompany the family on their holidays, in pursuit of childhood adventures. Barrie felt comfortable around these young boys, having never grown much since he was a teenager, he felt unthreatened by their presence and he enjoyed the excuse that they provided for him to regress and play those beloved childhood games of pirates, and cowboys and Indians. It was on one such holiday that the Boy Castaways were formed, an unlikely group of young (and not so young) adventurers, sailing the seven seas and stringing up bad guys. It was the collection of text and photographs documenting these adventures that was the blueprint for the first performances of Peter Pan. In a country house, in a make believe game between an odd little writer and five young boys, a legend had been born.

However the joy surrounding Barries ‘adopted’ family was short-lived. Arthur died in 1907, leaving Sylvia a widow with five young children. Then three years later, tragedy stuck once again, with Sylvia dying of Cancer in 1910. It was around this time that the oldest of the five boys were reaching the age at which they would leave home for school and university. Barrie, taking on the role of guardian in the absence of Arthur and Sylvia did not like this, as he wished that they could stay young forever, much like Peter. Try as he might he could not stop them from “[swinging] monkey-wise from branch to branch in the wood of make-believe, until [they] reached the tree of knowledge,” as the Llewelyn Davies boys and Barrie drifted apart. The next few years were full of sorrow for the little mis-fitted group of Barrie and his ‘lost boys’. The arrival of WWI saw George and Michael Llewelyn Davies sent off to fight in France, from which only one would return. Sadly, in 1915, George was killed in battle; the first of Barrie’s boys that was to grow no older. Barrie was distraught, and six years later further heartache was to come to him. In 1921, Michael was found drowned in a lake at one of the Oxford colleges, a suspected homosexual suicide pact; another boy that would never grow a second older. For Barrie, in the last years of his life following these tragic and heart breaking events, he lived as a man “with hell in his soul”; an incredibly disturbed and unhappy man, deeply affected by the events of his turbulent life. Just over 20 years after Barrie’s death, one final tragedy was to befall the three remaining Llewlyn Davies boys. In 1960, Peter (namesake to the famous Pan), calmly and quietly drank in a pub close to Sloane Square, before walking down to the tube and throwing himself in front of a train. The day of his death he had been sorting through family papers, and had just filed away all concerned with his brother Michael’s suicide.

Unfortunately, over the years since his death, many damaging accusations have been made towards Barrie and whispers have been heard about the nature of his relationship with the Llewelyn Davies boys; not helped by the tragic events that ensued in their adult lives. However Nico, the youngest of the five has maintained that Barrie “was an innocent” whom they all loved dearly, and that Barrie was only able to pen a tale such as Peter Pan through his childlike innocence; he never meant any harm.


Peter Pan itself has always been, and continues to be a roaring success in whichever form it chooses to take. With all proceeds donated to Great Ormond Street Hospital for as long as the text and the hospital exist, it is a text that ‘does good,’ at least in one sense. Many have read Peter Pan as it should be, a rip-roaring whale-of-a-time children’s adventure story set in a magical land far far away. Alternatively it can be seen as dark, damaging and prone to Barrie’s episodic rants. Barrie has perfected the art in which the author winks over the head of the children to the adults, with his cascades of anger directed at mothers very much going unnoticed by his younger audience. Likewise, the uncomfortable dialogue surrounding Tinkerbell, and the kiss between Wendy and Peter goes unnoticed. And who can ignore the presence of the ticking clock in the belly of the crocodile, Barrie’s reminder to us that we have limited time here and that it is constantly ticking away, chasing us down. Neverland is described as being a map of one’s mind, whatever a child may imagine is a reality in their Neverland and without a doubt, Peter Pan is a map of Barrie’s mind; his Neverland. He is a strong presence in his own narrative, digging up his unconscious mind to shape what he considers to be Peter’s Neverland.

There is no Death of the Author in Peter Pan, rarely has a writer been so present in his work, but I do not think that this needs to be a cause for concern. Yes, as I mentioned, there are dark episodes, uncomfortable sexual references and much more; and no, perhaps these should not be included in a work intended for children. But what Barrie did in his writing was to a degree unintentional, and therefore unharmful to the childhood reader. The only reason that I am able to identify these aspects as harmful is because I am reading it through adult eyes, with a knowledge of Barrie’s past and an understanding of the implications. However, a child, keen for fun and adventure will marvel in the world of the Lost Boys, will want to join in with the quest to capture Captain Hook and will above all clap their hands to save the fairies. For Peter Pan is magical and a wonderful creation from the mind of one of our best writers from The Golden Age of Literature, and the minds of those young Llewlyn Davies boys.


Although the word “beginnings” comes from the practical OE, the more metaphysical meaning derives from ME. Thus the opening words of the first book of Genesis have both meanings in mind – God set himself to create but also commenced creating the world…

Edward Said, although a somewhat controversial figure, wrote almost the last word in his book: “Beginnings: Intention and Method”. It seems impossible that it was written in 1975 since much of the literary theory he expounds on is still new to non-literature students.

Star Wars Episode IV must have (apart from Jaws which I don’t like as much) the most famous opening in film history. It grabs us, establishes the story, lets us know the Empire is evil because none of the troops’ faces can be seen and further (brilliantly) introduces us to the droids who are loveable because they don’t have pointy heads and one of them looks like a spin dryer on legs…. Pure magic. And then back to the sonorous voice of Richard Burton and Under Milk Wood: “To begin at the beginning..”

For a beginning to have “intentions” it must surely fulfil these criteria – hardly a definitive list but think of your own favourite beginning and see if it fits into this list…. Of course, then there are those who completely break the mould like Beethoven in his 7th Symphony, where it is the second movement that grabs one by the throat and doesn’t let one go. In the 5th he announces the doom from the beginning, here in the 7th the supposedly slow movement slowly burns to unbelievable power. Used in the film “The Fall” the music illustrates a story slowly growing darker and the intention of its teller becomes more sinister… Continue reading “Beginnings”

A brief introduction for the uninitiated

Lit Soc has really come on a long way since its inception at the beginning of the 2012-13 school year. From its humble beginnings, where more often than not we sat around the ‘Curiosity Corner’ table over a cup of tea and nattered about our favourite books and films, it has become a highly popular fixture in the school calendar and one of the weekly highlights for staff and students alike.

A brief introduction for the uninitiated: the aim of Lit Soc is to foster a lifelong love of literature through a series of discussions, talks and visits. Whilst it is aimed at sixth form students, everyone is welcome to attend, and we have frequently welcomed students from younger age groups. We meet every Thursday after school (coincidentally, the same day the ‘Inklings’ group frequented by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien met), to discuss, debate, argue over and share our passion for literature.

Last year’s programme was a great success. Lit Soc showcased three hugely engaging guest speakers: the manager of Foyles Bookshop on Charing Cross Road, Dr Anne Rowe from Kingston University discussing the newly opened Iris Murdoch archives, and author Robert Fowke telling us the exciting story of Simon Hatley, inspiration for Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s classic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Continue reading “A brief introduction for the uninitiated”