Tag Archives: Oscar Wilde

The Canterville Ghost

Soon after I’d started at my new secondary school, the school hall burned down. This was unfortunate, but certainly nothing to do with me. In fact, we were quite lucky, since it happened on sports day, when nearly everyone was out, and only [I think] the choir was there to practise. And the head teacher, who might have attempted to put the fire out.

The hall was almost brand new, so it was a shame, but the replacement hall was – probably – even better. I can barely remember what the unfortunate first hall was like.

Nor can I remember for how long we had to go without a hall while it was being rebuilt. We had assembly first thing every morning, which meant the school had to come up with alternatives. In effect this meant that the teacher who taught the first period got to ‘entertain’ the class for fifteen minutes before starting on the real stuff.

My Favourite Teacher ended up doing most of my assemblies, as I had him for two subjects, which managed to cover several mornings of the week. He very sensibly read to us, and his first choice was The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde.

Despite having him for English, our teacher read the story in Swedish. Perhaps it was just as well, since this way everyone in the class could enjoy it. And I believe learning to enjoy a good story rather than making it be too educational is the best way.

We had a lot of fun with the ghost and the Otis family. In actual fact, I still consider the name Otis to be a fun name, so I guess it’s just this happy memory.

After Canterville we had other books/stories to listen to and they were all excellent. But I can’t remember what they were. I was sad to return to the new assembly hall when the time came. Those assemblies were generally also fairly good, but not quite up to Canterville standards.

Oscar Wilde, The Canterville Ghost and other stories

(There’s a new Canterville Ghost out now, along with other Oscar Wilde stories. Enjoy some fresh blood stains for Halloween!)

The importance of culture

I couldn’t help noticing that The Importance of Being Earnest was on again at the weekend. Earnest has a special significance to me. He proved that my English was better than I thought.

This was while living with the G family and attending the University of Sussex for a year, back at the beginning of time. In our second term Oscar Wilde’s drama would be one of our set books, and when it was on at the university’s Gardner Arts Centre, during our first term, we were advised to go and see it. I probably would have anyway.

But I suspected I wouldn’t understand all of it; either not catch what they were saying, or not actually know all the words. I suppose I could have taken the executive decision to read the play before, but that idea didn’t seem to occur to me.

Mr G, when he heard of my plans, said ‘a handbag?’ in a funny sort of voice, the relevance of which escaped me. (I got it afterwards.) Personally I was pretty impressed that a university would have its own theatre on the premises, as it were.

Anyway, we went, we saw, we enjoyed. What’s more, I reckoned I could understand every word. (If I were to read the play now it could be I’d find a difficult word or two, but at least it seemed plain as daylight at the time.) I think in a way that’s when I stopped thinking of myself as a foreigner handicapped by limited vocabulary. These days I know there’s a lot I don’t know, but I don’t fret. In fact, there is more I don’t catch, or understand, when watching NCIS: Los Angeles, than that time with dear Earnest.

Since then I’ve been to lots more plays, and I’ve seen several more versions of what I consider ‘my drama debut.’ The famous film with Edith Evans’s handbag quote, and probably also this one that was just on television with Colin Firth, as well as other stage productions.

At least we had no problem knowing about the trains to Worthing, what with it being more or less next door to us in Brighton.

(PDF time travel back to 1977.)

The Nights Before Christmas

This gorgeous, large volume of collected Christmas classics, illustrated by Tony Ross, contains 24 stories, poems and extracts from wellknown books. As anyone can work out from that – apart from me, initially – you have one thing to read for every night through December. In other words; the best kind of advent calendar.

Tony Ross, The Nights Before Christmas

There’s material you will already know, and hopefully brand new reads as well. I used to read The Little Match-Seller over and over as a child. It’s so very sad. And then there are things I didn’t know at all, like the fact that Christina Rossetti wrote In the Bleak Midwinter. That was a revelation.

You get extracts from Little Women and A Christmas Carol, and there are many tales about Christmas trees in various forms, and shoemakers seem to be big, too. The Bible and the hymn book both feature, as do Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain.

I believe I always say this about anthologies and collections, but I do hope it will lead today’s children to investigate some of the classics. There is more to Christmas than farting santas. This is a beautiful book, suitably ‘modernised’ by Tony’s pictures.

Next year I will begin reading on December 1st and I will enjoy every step of the way.

Arty

Some picture books are artier than others. And when – to be honest – some are too cute or too childish (for me), I love it when I see pages filled with pictures I simply enjoy looking at. No matter what the story is, if there is one.

Red Sledge by Lita Judge is almost wordless, apart from expressions such as Eeeeee and Fluomp. It doesn’t need words.

Lita Judge, Red Sledge

The pictures are quite Christmassy, a little bit Nordic in their snowiness, and just nice. The small child who leaves the sledge outside has no idea what the wild animals nearby get up to at night. They all want a go at taking the sledge down the steep slope.

Gadung. Alley-oop.

David Weisner’s Mr Wuffles is delicious to look at. I don’t totally know what I’m looking at, and neither does the cat, Mr Wuffles. But he’s intrigued. And who wouldn’t be, when a miniature spaceship crewed by weird, but minute, aliens turns up right next to him.

David Weisner, Mr Wuffles

Being played with by a cat can make the bravest explorer travel sick. But they are at least as determined as Mr Wuffles.

Determination plays a big part in Anthony Browne’s What If…? where young Joe is going to his first party, and he and his Mum search the street for the right address. He’s scared, and who wouldn’t be when some of the houses are full of the wrong people?

Anthony Browne, What If…?

But when Joe finds his party, it looks just right. His Mum worries, the way Mums do. But ‘it’s only a party.’ Fantastic illustrations of the kind I’d happily put on my wall (if there was room).

Three of Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales have been reproduced in the volume Stories for Children, illustrated by Charles Robinson. It’s the original artwork from a hundred years ago, and it is dreamlike and beautiful.

Oscar Wilde & Charles Robinson, Stories for Children

This is the kind of book that will definitely appeal to grown-ups. I’m hoping young readers will also enjoy the illustrations, which are so different from what picture books today are like.

Some travelling thoughts

It’s travel time again. A quick dash north, and an equally quick one back. Or I hope it will be. I suppose I have jinxed the trains by saying/thinking this.

My bag isn’t full of things this time, so much as simply being a bag. OK, there are a couple of new reads for Daughter; Eleanor Updale and Marie-Louise Jensen. But I am primarily bringing the bag that ‘someone’ was unable to take last time. I’m the bag lady.

But you know, back in my childhood, who’d have thought you’d be able to sit looking at a small machine on your desk or kitchen table, checking if your train is running to time? (Or running at all.) On the other hand, back then who’d have thought there would be a need to? Trains ran. Often on time.

And, isn’t it slightly weird that I can slip the complete works of Sir Walter Scott and Rudyard Kipling, as well as the King James Bible into my pocket? The trains might run late, or encounter the wrong kind of snow, but that’s a lot of reading in one pocket. Trollope, Twain, Wilde. And so much else. (Don’t worry; I won’t Kiple or Scott too much. I’ve got other books I need to read. Even one ‘real’ book.)

I was excited to see that Sophie Hannah is doing an event in Dundee this evening. I’ll be close, but not close enough. After her event I’ll be freezing on the platform at Dundee, while she is no doubt warm in a hotel somewhere.

Too far away for Barry Hutchison’s launch of The Book of Doom in Aberdeen. Also tonight. It feels funny to be closer than usual, but still too far away. Maybe I should move to Scotland? There are things going on here.

Train to Scotland

(Decided I was allowed to borrow this photo, on account of bag lady duties, and the fact that the bag contains Lent buns, even if they are late Lent buns.)

The Selfish Giant

I rarely respond well to offers of books through my contact page. Usually people are either offering perfectly fine books, but not what fits in here. Or the books seem anything but perfectly fine.

This one however, being a fairy tale written by Oscar Wilde himself, sounded quite promising. And no, Oscar didn’t email me. Dan Goeller did. He’s an American composer, who has put music to Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant. Chris Beatrice made the new illustrations for the story, and then they roped Martin Jarvis in to read the audio version with music.

I thought the concept sounded OK, so said yes to the offer of a book. I read it and enjoyed it, which is hard not to with a tale featuring giants and ogres and sweet little children.

What makes this new book stand out, though, is the CD and the music. It is absolutely fantastic! I’m no expert, but the music (played by members of the Nashville Symphony) sounded just right. And I would guess that this could easily become a real favourite with young children. Parents may read bedtime stories the best, but I have to say that Martin Jarvis read this one even better.

If you’re looking for fairy tale entertainment, then The Selfish Giant is a good place to start.

Do teachers read?

I know it’s an inappropriate thought to have, but thank goodness our school hall burned down! When the witch was a 12-year-old witchlet, the new assembly hall at her school burned down. Looking back, I can see how lucky we were. It decided to burst into flames on a sports day when we were all somewhere else. And because it was ‘just’ the hall, the rest of the school could continue operating and we weren’t messed about with.

What it meant was that we couldn’t have full school assemblies every morning, so instead we had class assemblies in the classroom we were in for the first period of the day, with our teacher for that lesson. So a whole host of teachers suddenly had to come up with worthy ways of ‘entertaining’ us every morning.

My all time favourite teacher, Mr Nyström, read to us. First he read The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde. He was excellent at doing voices and must have been an actor at heart. He then went on to give us Three Men in a Boat, and I still can’t read it without hearing his voice.

I don’t remember how long the hall was out of circulation, so there may have been more books, or maybe Magister Nyström moved on to other entertainment. The point is that he gave us books that we would never have thought, or known, to read ourselves.

My Swedish teacher at the same school spent one lesson a week reading to us. Again, this bunch of 13-somethings would never have considered reading John Steinbeck, but we all enjoyed The Pearl. The trick here was that both teachers chose adult books, but easy ones. We had barely grown out of traditional children’s books, but were ready to discover other things, even if we didn’t know it.

So Alan Gibbons’ most recent newsletter for The Campaign for the Book which deals with all the teachers who don’t read, came as a timely reminder of what’s important. It shouldn’t be necessary to have something called ‘In defence of reading for pleasure’. He lists the results of a survey:

‘Teachers “never read a whole book”. One in eight teachers has never read a book to their class, research has revealed. Almost 600,000 children could be missing out on great stories and failing to develop a love of reading because of the use of book “extracts” in the classroom, it suggests.

The study, commissioned by educational published Heinemann to mark the launch of reading programme Literacy Evolve, highlights teachers and parents fears that a lack of whole book reading is affecting pupils academic performance. It found 12% of teachers say they have never read a whole book to their class, while the same proportion say they read just one book a year.

Almost eight in 10 teachers (78%) say the use of “bite-size” extracts reduces the thrill of reading, with half saying that they know of an occasion where a pupil lost the thread of a story because they were not read the full book. The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, by CS Lewis, Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson, Good Night Mr Tom, by Michelle Magorian, and a number of Roald Dahl books were cited as novels in which children failed to grasp the story.

Former Children’s Laureate Michal Rosen said book extracts deny pupils “the meat of the story.” He said: “The idea that children can’t manage whole stories or whole books is a nonsense. No extract in the world has the power of books.” ‘

Alan goes on to comment  ‘This report makes disturbing reading. Our education system has been moving ever more rapidly towards a functional approach. There is even an Orwellian strand called ‘functional English’ as if that has any meaning. Language is fundamental to human society. We do not interact in any sphere of life in a purely functional way. A good shop assistant swaps anecdotes with his or her customers. A good teacher engages his or her pupils with anecdotes. The best business people are as creative as a novelist, poet or journalist. To be successful in the modern world you have to be flexible, creative and literate. Interestingly a high proportion of truly original movers and shakers have got where they were without going to university or even having much of a formal education. Almost all of them developed a love of reading for pleasure. Schools don’t have to be test factories. They can become places of enquiry and broad cultural development. What better way to achieve this than by being immersed from a young age in great oral stories, poems and books?

Tragically, the world has been taken over by the latter day Bounderbys and Gradgrinds. Many children come into school with a significant literacy deficit. No amount of booster classes or remedial groups will address this without making the project of reading and writing fun. Every child should be read to at home and at school every single day. Anything less is a betrayal of a generation.’

There are teachers who manage to read, despite the dreaded National Curriculum hanging over their heads. So more teachers could do it.

The teacher at Daughter’s secondary school who started up a lunch break reading club quickly forgot it was extracurricular fun, unfortunately. So in the end it was more of a turn-off than enjoyable. I know there are many ‘horrible’ school children, but how about forgetting to tell pupils off some of the time?