Monday, 20 July 2015

To Kill a Mocking Bird (1993-2015) My Journey with the Novel

As part of my GCSE English Literature in 1993-1994 I had to read, and digest the American Novel "To Kill A Mockingbird".  There couldn't have been a worse choice for a detached reading topic to a teenage boy from inner city Nottingham in the early 90's ever made.  It was so alien.

Remember, 1993 was a time before the internet, I didn't even personally see the internet until 1996, we had no easy way to look up topics like "shining leather shoes with cold biscuits", what that meant to me was rubbing rich tea on a shoe, and was just ridiculous, but it's just as ridiculous to me now when I know an American biscuit is something like a scone, only more fatty... Why would a fat riddled cake be good at buffing leather shoes?...

From the rendition of the book we had, it was also heavily redacted, I found my copy of the novel last Friday, and over the weekend I've read it, and it's a good book, but from being 15 til now at 37 I've learned enough to make sense of the book, not least the themes of racism, anti-racism is common place now, but when I was a kid at school there was no such delineations, we didn't have division of the British Caribean pupils from ourselves, they mixed freely, the delineation was with the majority of the Pakistani kids.

The Muslim kids in our school kept themselves together and out the way, they whispered in corners and didn't mix.  One exception would have to be the sole Muslim from my class Zahid, he mixed, but he was a dick; I personally remember him and his cronies washing their heads under the science room tap and declaring themselves Mormon... Yes, they were that stupid.

The sole Sihk pupil, Gurpal, was also alright he mixed with me and my gang of cronies, not least skiving Physics, which I'm sure he'd never like to admit to, but then our physics lessons in the final year were more a war between the teacher and one particular trouble-maker, so we were learning little in class.

Back to literature though, from this background, and the lack of any depth to our looking up topics, reading Harper Lee's so called classic was hard going.

The school then took it's own redaction pen to the text, or perhaps the exam board did, and several chapters were wiped out, and I can see this in my own copy of the novel, where I had put crosses on page after page, and then made a note in the back cover: "Jem was made, with scout, to go read to Miss Dubouse for a month as she died, this made her a hero"... No explanation, no thought, not depth there... At 37 I look back at my writing and read the book and realise it's a sham of teacher, I was taught wrong, and one of the corner stone lessons from the text, one I myself learned for real very soon after was deprived of me.

We were apparently not allowed to know about heroin, in the early 90's, remember this is pre-release of the adaptation of Irvin Welsh's "Trainspotting", which brought the heroin subculture to the fore, we're in the  90's the time of the yuppies on cocaine and the hippies or afro's being on the weed, or highly strung people being on "Valium" in American shows.

Anti-depressants in the home were still not common, and if anyone were on them they were ancient 1950's developed tricylics and had names which didn't appear in film or TV, so the drug culture I grew up in was limited.  I suppose then to hear from a 1930's point of origin piece of literature there were Heroin addicts like Miss Doubouse would have blown my tiny mind!?!?!?

I add here, I was an avid reader of history at the time, and was well aware of Herman Goering having been a heroin addict, though I had no reference as to what Heroin was.  This redaction of the sub-plot in the book clearly robbed me of a frame of reference.

So what else did the younger me miss?... Well, the dialect of English being used, not only in the book is it colloquial, and hard for anyone as young as I was to picture, but it's hard to frame.  Later I saw the film adaptation and heard the accent, but in 1993, I'd no reference whatsoever for the southern accent.  I'd never watched the 'Dukes of Hazzard', 'Forest Gump' was a year from release and the Southern Accent was not common, the only southern Americans I'd ever heard were actors on 'Fletch Lives'.

No the English as spoken I grew up with was already a tainted version of English, it was a thickly accented Nottingham English.  People spoke fast and harsh, we used slang more than actual words, I'm sure compared to today with our mixing more widely through media, we sounded like proper Nottingham gutter snipes.  How anyone expected us to relate to the heat and repressive atmosphere of the Southern United States I don't know.

Least we forget, the English eye on history is that history is a long time, a very long time, we pretty much start to talk about Britain as a Stone Age state, ten thousand years ago, we follow Britain into the Bronze Age, our history classes taught us how two thousand years ago Britain was part of the Roman Empire, locally in Nottingham there was history of the Romans.  And then we had the Saxon settlements and Danelaw in Nottingham a thousand years ago, the Norman Invasion affected the town in 1066 and the Dooms day book has many records of Nottingham and it's outlying lands... So, to then find this book presented to us, with people hanging onto a past, a history, of the Confederate states just twenty years before as a "history" as a "past"... as the Finches being an "old" family was just strange.

Nothing in America was old, everything was new, everything was young.  Remember this is 90's England, this was before America itself had really a conscious acknowledgement of it's destruction of the Native American tribes, or the taking of their lands, so to think of anything in a country just two hundred and twenty years old as "old" was ridiculous, totally stupid, just not right at all... yet, we had to swallow this, because this was Harper Lee... One of the greatest American writers, up there with Twain, and our GCSE mark (I nearly said grade there) depended on it.

I mean, we were kids who played in woods where there were tree's older than America, there were paths with history going back to the 1300's, and the coaching lodges were older than that!

It was just so ridiculous.

Only now, can I appreciate the scale, and the turmoil of forgetting in that community, and only now having experienced more than 15 summers, and experienced the heat of North Africa, can I understand the repressive heat of the days as extolled by Harper as she takes us through the annuls of, what I presume, is her experience of the Souther Climate.

So, why did I re-read the book?  I read it because I knew I didn't understand the topics, I knew though I'd analysed this book for an exam, I knew nothing about that book.  I knew the rote given answers to who was who, when it was set, the court case, but I didn't know the details.  For example, I didn't know what happened to Jem & Scout at the end, I didn't know they were attacked by Bob Ewell, I certainly didn't pick up that the knife had made the glistening streak down the wire of Scouts costume.

Aunt Alexandra and most all the back story of Finches Landing was again redacted from my memory of the book, and I noted none of those sections had notes added to them by myself back when were analysed the text.

It really was a teacher steered analysis, not my own following of the text.  And probably not worth of the GCSE mark I eventually received, as I clearly missed the point of the story.

Having missed the point back then, I'd certainly not missed the recent news of the new book from Harper Lee "Go Set a Watchman", in which many fans of the original have expressed their distain for their finding out Atticus, the father and one of the main characters is actually a racist, unlike their recollection of him in the original.

Now, remember I'd never seen the film, and only just re-read the book, so I take Atticus at his base, as presented, and I can't see any specific mention of his not being a racist, he tries to not pass on his history with race relations to his kids.  This is partly, and mainly through his living apart from this family, whom clearly had their own and history with using Negro slaves and workers via the mentions of "Finches Landing".  It is clear the family have their own ideas, and that's reinforced by the comments clearly made by the rest of tha adults before their children that Attitus is a "nigger lover" in defending Tom Robinson.  This under plot can be ignored, but it's there, Attitus's sister says "this is not like your past" to Attitus about his defending a black man, about his roots, and his not indoctrinating his kids as anti-black.

But none of this ever meant Atticus was not racist, he's mindful of his not prejudicing the court of law, he's mindful to keep that frame of mind that the one place a man, white or black, should get a square deal is before a court of law, but none of it ever said Atticus was not racist in his past, present or future.

Atticus is a calm character, a cool none-knee jerk reactionary, which is seen when Ewell confronts him and of course while he is in court.  However, this never says he's not able to express his own back story.

And his back story stretches fifty or so years by the time he's raising his kids alone as a widower, you could read into his treating of Calpuria as a part of the family as his being an equal rights employer, but he's just than an employer, and despite his saying Calpurnia will not be let go when his sister arrived, Cal is never part of the family, she is a servant, almost like a dog as a member of the family, there to look after the kitchen and children, or to help as a conduit to let Attitus enter and communicate with Tom Robinsons then widow.  But she never emerges from her place, and when his children spend time with her as a human being rather than a servant; when they go to church; Atticus makes no effort to stop his sister from refraining Scout from wishing to take that further.  The children never spend time with Cal outside of their own white home, they have no mixing with Blacks other than with Cal, and their time in the court house; and those two mixing's are of the childrens', not parents, initiation.

So, how anyone from reading this can assume Atticus is a noble anti-racist campaigner or saint, whom in Watchmen is now falling, it just silly, it's their memory.  Or as I believe, it's their imposing on the Atticus whom Harper Lee wrote the ideals and all-round good guy image of Gregory Peck whom played Atticus in the film adaptation.

But for my re-reading I just can't see any anti-racist in the character, nor can I see any sense all these years on of it being part of my GCSE Literature, it's American English, we were studying British English, some of the tonal plots were redacted out, and we had so little exposure to "Southern US" culture as to make it almost impossible to engage with.

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