Shakespeare, the Kardashians and modern role models

Today, I WAS planning on writing a blogpost about why I love RuPaul’s Drag Race so much, but something else has caught my eye- a headteacher at a girls school asking girls to be more like Shakespeare’s Cleopatra than Kim Kardashian. She does also mention other characters- Beatrice, Rosalind and Viola- but it’s Cleo who really has captured the headlines.


I love Shakespeare, but have a few problems with this comparison. Firstly- yes, OK. Cleopatra is a ruler in her own right and is very powerful. But the story in the play revolves around her love affairs (and her power is somewhat tangled up in all of this) and she eventually kills herself as a result of her love for a man. So far, so feminist right?

Plus, I always find there’s an innate snobbery implied by suggesting that people turn to Shakespeare over modern media, as if it’s somehow better. As an English teacher, I know that Shakespeare is seen by the kids-and teachers of other subjects- as elitist, boring and unnecessarily difficult, that it’s not there to be enjoyed by everyone. Hell, I went to one of the worst schools in Leeds as a kid and could feel the antipathy radiating off my co-students whenever the name of Shakespeare was mentioned. (Also, it’s not just the kids who subscribe to this view. The one time I asked that we tried teaching Manga Shakespeare versions of Macbeth, I was looked at by some in my department like I’d grown three heads. Graphic novels also come under the ‘vulgar’ heading, apparently.) It drives me mad. Shakespeare writes about real life: feuds, scandal, romance, businesses gone awry, power-all of human life, in its devious and imperfect glory is there. Plus he could often be kind of a bit… sleazy. He would have loved the Kardashians.

Shakespeare would have been intrigued by today’s celebrities; imagine all the storylines he could have nicked off social media! I think he would also hate to have been seen as an either/or proposition; we kind of forget that he was a slightly shady character himself for much of his life and that acting and theatre owning wasn’t seen as a particularly illustrious career unless you got in with the royals, as he obviously did later on in his life. There was a reason that theatres were on the same side of the river as the bear bating pits and brothels.

Girls are not going to go out and change their behaviour because the head of a private school has created some lessons looking at how ‘inspirational’ some of Shakespeare’s women were (and let’s be honest- there’s scant pickings there. I think most of his women were weakly written, serving a purpose as a foil or a love interest. My favourites are Beatrice and Portia, and even they have issues.) However, I can’t dismiss any attempt to make Shakespeare’s work more accessible and enjoyable- I just wish we were more playful, more imaginative when it came to getting students to access the plays. I say this as someone who once got a bottom year 11 set to work out the issues in Macbeth for a speaking and listening exercise by performing a scene in which the characters were taking part in a Shakespearean version of Jeremy Kyle. It was… interesting, but they ended up doing pretty well in their coursework essays.

Would I choose Kim Kardashian as an ideal role model for young girls? Probably not. But then anyone I suggested as a role model would probably be viewed with suspicion because I’m seen as old, even though I’m a relatively young teacher. But here’s the thing- elders always recommend role models that they think are suitable because they see more ‘modern’ role models as ‘unsuitable’; it’s the old chestnut about the generation above despairing of the one below, forgetting that they too were once interested in people their parents disapproved of. And I bet they would have baulked at the suggestion that they go read Shakespeare instead of idolising whoever it was they had on their bedroom wall, too.


Happy birthday, Charlotte Bronte


Today it’s Charlotte Bronte’s 200th birthday. As a Yorkshire woman (despite being born in Wales and currently living in Brighton, I have my county written in my bones like Scarborough through a stick of rock) and a literature fan- as well as simply a reader- it feels important to mark this anniversary.

Despite Charlotte not being my favourite of the Brontes- in her letters, I find her to be sometimes maddening and I imagine that she might have been a high maintenance friend- without her, we wouldn’t know anything about her extraordinary family. After all, she was the one who discovered Emily’s cache of poems and overrode both Emily’s furious indignity and Anne’s reluctance to have the work published. She may have been stubborn (and maybe slightly overbearing to her younger sisters?), but she opened up the world of these three isolated women to the rest of us.

It’s because of this anniversary that I’m working my way through all of the Bronte material I can lay my hands on, as part of my self-set Bronte Challenge. I’m currently reading- and enjoying- Jane Eyre, a book I’ve never got on with before. This time, something has clicked, and I’m not sure what it is. Maybe it’s because of Jane’s determination to make the best of her life, despite her shortcomings, or the fact that as a woman in my early 30s, I get the mindset that Charlotte herself felt as she wrote the novel aged 31. I used to despair at Jane’s repeated reiteration of her plainness, but having read about Charlotte’s preoccupation with her health (bordering on hypochondria at times, although with siblings perishing around her, not wholly unwarranted) shortness and her teeth, I get where that came from. Maybe I just wasn’t ready for Jane Eyre when I was younger. Late to the party? Yes, I guess so. Most of my friends read the novel when they were younger. But I came to it with a more grown up view of the world and it worked for me.

So today, in honour of Miss Bronte, I’ll curl up somewhere with a cup of tea and my copy of Jane Eyre- and I’ll thank her for forcing her sisters to share their work with the world.




“‘Ave you seen ‘er?” On Victoria Wood

An Audience with Victoria Wood, Dec 1988

Growing up, I always knew about Victoria Wood. My mum had her videos and we had a couple of signed books, too. I remember feeling dead grown up, aged about 10, when I was allowed to watch some of her stand-up. Here was a lady, who wasn’t thin or glamorous- but she was funny. Even as a kid, I knew she was unusual.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve realised that she’s had a huge effect on me. As a northern, working-class kid, she talked about things I understood. I even own an orange raincoat (although not a fetching yellow hat to go with it.) My sister and I have been known to say “I’m looking for my friend, Kimberly. ‘Ave you seen ‘er?” to each other. We don’t know any Kimberlys.

In restaurants with slow service, it won’t take long for Benn or I to whisper to the other “Two soups?”

I’ve always felt a bit suspicious about prawns too, thanks to this sketch:

And I remember seeing her programme about tea. Of course.

The thing is, Victoria Wood’s humour was funny and warm; it was grounded in real life and it was never cruel, either. I’ll miss her.



A Birthday- Christina Rossetti

As it’s Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d avoid the usual gushy stuff and put another poem up. This time I chose Christina Rossetti, who wrote some astonishing poetry. I love the simple, joyful tone of this poem and the fact that it shows love as something lovely yet undramatic. The first line of this poem was stamped into a necklace I wore on my wedding day.

A Birthday

My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a water’d shoot;
My heart is like an apple-tree
Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit;
My heart is like a rainbow shell
That paddles in a halcyon sea;
My heart is gladder than all these
Because my love is come to me.

Raise me a dais of silk and down;
Hang it with vair and purple dyes;
Carve it in doves and pomegranates,
And peacocks with a hundred eyes;
Work it in gold and silver grapes,
In leaves and silver fleurs-de-lys;
Because the birthday of my life
Is come, my love is come to me.

File:Christina Rossetti 2.jpg

Christina Rossetti painted by her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Image: Wikipedia

A year on… Amy Winehouse

I know there will be a lot of posts today- the anniversary of Amy Winehouse’s death- but I felt compelled to write one of my own. Amy was probably the one celebrity whose death shocked and upset me the most. Yes, she was troubled and battled so many demons, but she was also amazing in her own right. I make no apologies for the fangirl-ness of this post. I was a fan.

I think the fact that she was exactly six months older than me had something to do with it; someone, my age, with so much talent and ability was an awe-inspiring thing. This wasn’t something she had to work at, it was something she already had. And while people will always say how she threw it away, ultimately it was something that could have saved her. This huge voice that came from such a tiny body was such a phenomenal force that it sometimes seemed unreal.

I remember working at the Leeds Guide when Frank came out. The arts reporter was duly sent to interview the then 19 year old singer, who didn’t really make an impact until she boldly declared, “I am jazz.” We didn’t know whether it was arrogance or humour, but since reading interviews with Amy, I suspect her tongue was firmly in her cheek. After having a laugh at the finished article, I think we mainly forgot about her for a couple of years- I probably couldn’t have picked her out in a lineup.

The first time I really remember seeing her was the Christmas of 2005. She was on Hootenanny with Jools Holland, sat tipsily on the lap of her then boyfriend (who would later be replaced, maybe even re-replaced, with Blake.) I vaguely recognised her- this was pre-Back to Black, which was going to be on sale later that year. She was clearly happy and excited and the start of that amazing style she cultivated was there.

When Rehab came out, I was training to be a teacher. I first heard it on my way to the school where I was doing my first placement, in deepest darkest rural East Sussex. I remember asking Anthony, the teacher who was giving me a lift, who it was- I was convinced it was some Phil Spector, 60s song I’d never heard of and couldn’t work out who was singing. And then it all clicked into place- this was Amy Winehouse! I fell into fandom there and then.

Her lyrics were heartfelt, destructive and honest- all wrapped up in a Wall of Sound box, so different from everything else that was around (hence the reason we then had a slew of copycats. It sold well.)  I honestly believe that she truly deserved the praise that Back to Black received, even though the acclaim seemed to further feed Amy’s destruction. Maybe she couldn’t cope with the attention, or the money opened avenues that would not have been otherwise available- but my word is that a cracking album.

I remember reading endless column inches about her destructive marriage and her battle with drugs and feeling angry. Angry that she could be wasting this talent and wishing that she would sort herself out, make more music. Which, of course, never really came to pass. To be honest, I found Lioness: Hidden Treasures a bit of a disappointment (also, Mark Ronson: I will never forgive you for ruining the sublime acoustic version of ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow‘ with those stupid drums. Travesty, I tell you.)

Most of all, I’m sad that the Amy Winehouse that seems to be present in her sober interviews- funny, talented and intelligent- is no longer able to fulfil her potential. And so, I’ll be listening to Frank  and Back to Black today rather loudly and, it has to be said, unashamedly. She will be missed for a very long time.