Shakespeare and British poetry today


This 2012 video says about itself:

Shakespeare Sonnet 18 performed by 8 year old child actress Alexis Rosinsky.

From daily The Morning Star in Britain:

‘All of human life in a poetic instant’

Saturday 23rd April 2016

o mark the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s death, Hannah Crawforth and Elizabeth Scott-Baumann invited 30 leading contemporary poets to respond to Shakespeare’s sonnets in their own form, voice and style. The resulting book is, they say, a unique poetic celebration of a writer whose work ‘contains multitudes’.

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE died on April 23 1616, which may have been his birthday. That his life should seemingly end on the anniversary of the day it began is apt, for Shakespeare’s death represents the start of a long and vibrant afterlife for the poet’s works.

Shakespeare’s plays and poems have continued to be read and performed around the world, translated into every language imaginable, and reinterpreted in every possible way.

Our book seeks to continue the tradition of reinventing Shakespeare, while also serving to commemorate his writing in the year of the quatercentenary of his death.

The poems they produced appear alongside the sonnets with which they engage most closely. At times this engagement is detailed and sustained; at others a single word, phrase, metaphor or fleeting feeling prompted their imaginations to take flight. In all instances it is Shakespeare’s language, his verbal brilliance, the dazzling way that he crystallises all of human life into a poetic instant, which our poets respond to.

While such virtuosic qualities are on display throughout his works, they are perhaps most potently captured in his sonnets; 154 poems of 14 lines of interwoven rhyme, first published in 1609, that form a loose sequence.

Shakespeare’s sonnets are at once the apex of the form, representing the heights of what it can achieve, and also an afterword to a poetic tradition that had dominated literary fashion some 20 years earlier: the 1590s saw sonnet sequences by Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, Richard Barnfield, Samuel Daniel and others and it may have been during this period that Shakespeare first worked on his own poems.

An element of belatedness is central to our understanding of the sonnets, and to this book. Our poets, like Shakespeare himself, are returning to a form that is itself propelled by the logic of return, as its rhyme sounds constantly bring the reader back to preceding lines, making the past vividly present in the current moment.

One of the preoccupations of Shakespeare’s series is with how the poet and his lovers will be remembered after they are gone. As such, the sonnets make a particularly fitting place at which to pause and commemorate Shakespeare himself.

The themes of loss, grief, the passing of time, mortality, and posthumous remembrance that pervade the sequence have proved enduring. Our own poets frequently take them up and, like Shakespeare, explore such terrain as a way of thinking about what poetry itself can do.

When Shakespeare imagines his own poems as “the living record of your memory,” he speaks of each reader’s ability to bring life to his verse, as well as his verse’s ability to memorialise the beloved.

There is a knowing bravado there too and these new poems respond to the cynical competitiveness of the sonnet as well as its capacity for more reverent celebration. A concern with inheritance — the transmission of ideas, values and even words from one generation to another — often guides the writers assembled in the book, who look to the past and its literary riches as well as to the future and their own legacies.

This past is at once a source of inspiration and a shadow any writer must step out of. Shakespeare felt this acutely and now he himself casts perhaps the longest shadow of all.

The desire to emulate and surpass the writers of the past drove Shakespeare to new literary heights, while rivalry with his contemporaries prompted some of the most astonishing theatrical and poetic experiments ever known.

This potent combination of past tradition and individual innovation makes Shakespeare’s voice unique. His metaphors, in particular, deserve comment for their power, aptness and sheer unexpected beauty.

Shakespeare remakes the language afresh, and our poets in turn rework the imaginative landscape of poetry.

Sleep is figured as the sea, ebbing and flowing to its own rhythms. A fragile flower or plant comes to hold the weight of the universe. A storm summons up all the forces of nature and human invention. The sonnet form requires that each poem is often built around one such image — or conceit — exploring a metaphor by turning it inside out.

The “volta,” or turn, that comes in the latter lines of each sonnet gives this particular force, allowing a poet to radically rethink his or her own ideas within the security of a tightly constrained form.

Our contributors have seized this imperative and often borrow the logic of the Shakespearean sonnet, even where they do not choose to write in this form themselves.

The skeleton of such poems, which are usually structured in two units of eight and then six lines, but which retain a sense of quatrains and a couplet, prompts numerological play and allows a writer to create a counterpoint between the movement of a poem and the differing rhythms of the ideas it contains.

Again, Shakespeare does this to a superlative degree and our poets have internalised this aspect of his writing, giving it new life in their own verse.

The sonnet is at once the most compressed of literary forms and also one of the most expansive. Like Shakespeare, it contains multitudes.

We believe the poems in this collection do the same.

On Shakespeare’s Sonnets: A Poets’ Celebration, edited by Hannah Crawforth and Elizabeth Scott-Baumann, is published by Bloomsbury in association with the Royal Society of Literature and King’s College London, price £12.99.

Sonnet 116

William Shakespeare

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments; love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no, it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Magnetism

Gillian Clarke

Pull between earth and moon, or chemistry,
carries the swallow home from Africa
to perch again on his remembered tree,
the weeping birch by the pond. A star
will guide his mate home in a week, perhaps,
to the old nest in the barn, remade, mould
of spittle and pond-sludge in its cusp
as the new year in the mud-cup of the old.
Loss broke the swan on the river when winter
stole his mate when he wasn’t looking. Believing,
he waited, rebuilt the nest, all summer
holding their stretch of river, raging, grieving.
So would I wait for you, were we put apart.
Mind, magnetism, hunger of the heart.

Gillian Clarke, National Poet of Wales 2008-2016, was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry 2010 and the Wilfred Owen Award 2012. Her recent books include Ice, shortlisted for the TS Eliot Award 2012 and The Christmas Wren, 2014. She is currently working on a new collection Zoology and her New Selected Poems is to be published by Picador next month.

William Shakespeare, book republished


This video about William Shakespeare is called King Lear: The Fool.

By Gordon Parsons in Britain:

Of his, and our time

Thursday 21st April 2016

GORDON PARSONS reflects on the timely republication of a book on Shakespeare’s significance in his own period and today

Shakespeare: Poet and Citizen by Victor Kiernan (Zed Books, £14.99)

THERE are many Shakespeares.

There’s the Stratford lad whose private life, despite many biographies, remains relatively unknown. In consequence an inventive industry, questioning whether such a “nonentity” could possibly have been the playwright and poet whose achievement is recognised as the Everest of world literature, has spawned a mountain of publications.

There’s the writer whose texts are seen by the educational establishment as necessary examination fodder for generations of children who mostly will never again wish to read or even to see Shakespeare on stage, his natural and essential habitat.

Then there’s the national icon whose name can be employed to stir up patriotic spirits in time of need and the commercial “Shakesploitation,” whereby cigars are only one of the myriad products that use the Bard tag.

But both his huge and creative vocabulary and his poetry live in the bloodstream of the language.

They inform everyday conversation, so that Colonel Tim Collins can rouse his troops for battle in Kuwait with an extemporised version of Henry V’s “band of brothers” Agincourt speech and, less auspiciously, there’s the Royal Marine sergeant, unluckily videoed paraphrasing Hamlet. “Shuffle off this mortal coil, you cunt,” he told a wounded Afghan prisoner before shooting him in cold blood.

Undeniably, the plays have captured the imagination and spoken to the generations in the theatre and now on the screen over the 400 years since his death, the quatercenteneary of which is marked on Saturday.

Innumerable books have attempted to answer why this should be the case, literary specialists have analysed the poetry and the characters, while directors and actors have explored the stagecraft and thematic meaning in productions in every kind of venue from village halls to the Royal Shakespeare and National Theatre stages.

Whatever the works may have meant to previous ages — grotesquely adapted in the 17th century or played alongside pantomimes and circus acts in the 19th — they have engaged with our troubled modern world with a particular acuity.

Victor Kiernan, one of that outstanding group of Marxist historians, including Eric Hobsbawn and EP Thompson, spent nearly 50 years studying the 16th century, which shared with today the unnerving crisis of a fundamentally changing world. The movement from feudalism to early capitalism questioned every element of life as codes of behaviour, ethics, class and economic power were going through tectonic shifts.

Few would deny that our own world is undergoing momentous upheavals, from post-capitalism’s decay into an unknown future.

Kiernan’s exhaustive research led, at the age of 80, to the 1993 Shakespeare: Poet and Citizen, now republished.

His detailed knowledge of the plays and the period they emerged from give an enormous authority to his analysis of the forces at work in them. He covers the entire canon, including the sonnets and the comedies but his analysis of the histories is central.

As an historian, Kiernan was understandably more interested in Shakespeare the citizen than the poet, believing that “all good critics are historians” who cannot divorce literature from the socio-political world that spawned it.

If he believes that the sonnets would not be much read if they had been written by anyone other than Shakespeare, he finds them most interesting in their range of social and political implications. An example is “lease” in the line “Summer’s lease hath all too short a date,” which, according to Kiernan, reminds us that “short leases were weapons in the hands of landowners who were busy ejecting superfluous tenants.”

He maintains that “past politics fascinated Shakespeare from the beginning so obviously it is scarcely possible to think that he was not interested in the politics of his own time.”

Half of his plays, including the great tragedies — treated in depth by Kiernan in his later Eight Tragedies of Shakespeare — are set in historical times. His central analysis of the English history cycles, mapping the 14th and 15th centuries of civil turmoil from the reigns of Richard II to Richard III, captures the essence of Shakespeare’s instinctive understanding of the forces at play in power and personal politics, forces that emerge in all his works.

Here was a world, like both Shakespeare’s and our own, struggling to emerge from a crumbling system into a new world of hope and fear. His plays give “a human contour to impersonal tides of change.”

In the “feminine” world of the comedies, the heroines collectively demonstrate “the vision of a humanity not yet in being,” with an intelligence, strength and sensitivity greater than any of the male characters.

By comparison with the histories, the comedies centre on individuals, with the group “much less a microcosm of society.” Yet the comedies do mirror a society “permeated by money and money-making.”

Primarily, though, Shakespeare was and is an entertainer.

But, as Kiernan has it, “every genuine poet is a teacher” and for his contemporary audiences and those of today he reflects a dramatic image of the past “in order to understand the present better and what was needed to understand the future better than either.”

Birds and Harry Potter in Cornwall, video


THis video from Britain says about itself:

11 April 2016

Videos for Kids to Watch – Harry Potter and The Forest Birds

Video Produced by Paul Dinning – Wildlife in Cornwall

Lorraine Hansberry’s play on colonialism in Africa


This video from London, England says about itself:

What is Les Blancs?

24 March 2016

A breathtaking story of race and identity.

A family and a nation fall apart under the pressure to determine their own identity as this brave, illuminating and powerful play confronts the hope and tragedy of revolution.

Written eleven years after A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry’s final drama is an unknown masterpiece of the American stage and a highly theatrical search for the soul of post-colonial Africa.

Les Blancs marks the National Theatre debut of the multi-award-winning director Yaël Farber, whose productions include The Crucible (Old Vic) and the internationally-acclaimed Miss Julie and Nirbhaya.

Now playing at the Olivier Theatre, South Bank, until 4 June.

By John Green in Britain:

Liberating experience

Saturday 2nd April 2016

Lorraine Hansberry’s Les Blancs, a magnificent play on the post-war anti-colonial struggle in Africa, loses none of its relevance in our own times, says JOHN GREEN

Les Blancs
National Theatre, London SE1
5/5

LORRAINE Hansberry, born in 1930, was the first black woman to write a play performed on Broadway.

Strongly influenced by friends and mentors like Paul Robeson and WEB Du Bois, much of her work concerned the African struggle for liberation and the Nina Simone song To Be Young, Gifted and Black was inspired by her.

This music video from the USA says about itself:

“To Be Young, Gifted & Black” by Nina Simone (includes interview).

Recording session: Live at Morehouse College in Atlanta, June 1969.

The John Green article continues:

Hansberry died at the age of 34, shortly before Les Blancs (The Whites) — whose title references Jean Genet’s “clown show” play The Blacks — was finished and it was completed by her former husband Robert Nemiroff.

Written 11 years after A Raisin in the Sun, this final drama is her masterpiece and a highly theatrical search for the soul of post-colonial Africa.

That’s made explicit from the play’s opening. In the centre of the bare stage stands the skeletal frame of a building — the mission station where the white missionaries live and work, cared for by black servants.

Beyond its perimeter is the impenetrable darkness of Africa, unseen and unknown, out of which figures emerge to visit the mission station and disappear back into it.

The stage revolves continually, indicating change, instability and revolution, and around its perimeter a tall, almost naked, female figure (Sheila Atim) circles like a prowling cheetah.

Sometimes she drags a bowl of fire behind her. The spirit of Africa, unfathomable, is always present.

Les Blancs is set in an unnamed country — it could be Rhodesia, South Africa or Kenya — where those fighting for justice and independence are the “terrorists” who, in the end, have to be crushed by troops and fighter planes.

The “war on terror” is nothing new.

Hansberry shows a society teetering on the edge of insurgency as it prepares to drive out its colonial masters and claim an independent future.

Racial tensions boil over as Tshembe (Danny Sapani), a black intellectual living in Europe, returns to Africa for the funeral of his father, who had founded a resistance movement against colonial rule. He must decide whether to become involved in the insurgency.

But at the mission station he meets the white liberal US journalist Charlie Morris (Elliot Cowan), who has come to write a story about the intrepid, brave missionaries and their good work.

He is soon forced to re-evaluate his liberal concepts and Tshembe, too, is forced to make a choice — to continue down the pacifist road or embrace violence as the only way to achieve the liberation of his people.

Hansberry’s dialogue is fast-paced, witty and politically profound and this production is true total theatre, being simultaneously a Greek tragedy and an African village passion play which ends apocalyptically in a kind of ritual cleansing.

It’s riveting drama, directed with panache and precision by Yael Farber and with a vibrant, totally committed cast.

Although set in the past, it has strong resonances for today and that’s doubtless why the audience gave it a standing ovation on the first night.

Runs until June 2, box office: nationaltheatre.org.uk.

This video says about itself:

10 January 2011

Lorraine Hansberry (May 19, 1930[1] — January 12, 1965) was an African American playwright and author of political speeches, letters, and essays.[2] Her best known work, A Raisin in the Sun, was inspired by her family’s legal battle against racially segregated housing laws in the Washington Park Subdivision of the South Side of Chicago during her childhood.[3]

Hansberry attended the University of Wisconsin–Madison, but found college uninspiring and left in 1950 to pursue her career as a writer in New York City, where she attended The New School.[4] She worked on the staff of the black newspaper Freedom under the auspices of Paul Robeson, and worked with W. E. B. DuBois, whose office was in the same building.[4] A Raisin in the Sun was written at this time, and was a huge success. It was the first play written by an African-American woman to be produced on Broadway. At 29 years, she became the youngest American playwright and only the fifth woman to receive the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play.[5] While many of her other writings were published in her lifetime – essays, articles, and the text for the SNCC book The Movement, the only other play given a contemporary production was The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window.[6]

In 1961, Hansberry was set Vinnette Carroll as the director of the musical, Kicks and Co, after its try-out at Chicago’s McCormick Place. It was written by Oscar Brown, Jr. and featured an interracial cast including Lonnie Sattin, Nichelle Nichols, Vi Velasco, Al Freeman, Jr., Zabeth Wilde and Burgess Meredith in the title role of Mr. Kicks. A satire involving miscegenation, the $400,000 production was co-produced by her husband Robert Nemiroff; despite a warm reception in the Windy City, the show never made it to Broadway.[7]

After a long battle with pancreatic cancer[8] she died on January 12, 1965, at the age of 34.[6] According to James Baldwin, Hansberry was prescient about many of the increasingly troubling conditions in the world, and worked to remedy them with literature. Baldwin believed “it is not at all farfetched to suspect that what she saw contributed to the strain which killed her, for the effort to which Lorraine was dedicated is more than enough to kill a man.”[9] Hansberry’s funeral was held in Harlem on January 15, 1965. Paul Robeson gave her eulogy.

Source: here.

Argentinian poem on Falklands/Malvinas war


This music video by British anarchist punk rock band Crass says about itself:

Crass – Sheep Farming In The Falklands

28 jun. 2007

Some images and footage from the Falklands War… just as stupid and needless as the current Iraq war… Politicians take note… 1 2 3 4 We Don’t Want Your Fuckin’ War.

The lyrics of this song are here.

Poem by Argentinian Leo Boix, living in England:

Archipelago

Saturday 2nd April 2016

I was seven

when the teacher

unfurled the map

for us all to see:

“The Malvinas are Argentine.”

And I so little,

imagined those islets,

as savage beasts

as swimming dogs

facing that immensity,

of all the oceanic

blue.

So small

the lost islands,

a war

we watched as a family

on a 22 inch

Hitachi

television,

in full colour

illuminating the dining room

and the armchairs made of cane.

Little lead soldiers

in a frozen landscape,

bombs fell,

ships sunk,

we played

a battle

inanimate

of the opposing sides,

under the shadow of the flowerless

rubber trees.

“The Malvinas are Argentine,”and nearby

the neighbours

put together

a rag doll

of the Iron Lady,

filled with paper and dry straw,

with old high-heel shoes

and buttons sawn to the head.

She had a stitched

bag, and was tied to a stick

to keep her

so imposing.

But still

the fire

ended up consuming

rapidly

the effigy

Thatcher.

And we the children danced

in a circle singing

while the soldiers fell

on the road to Port Stanley,

flashes in the sky,

wounded,

the battle

Goose Green,

the general announcing: “We are winning.”

But the dead kept coming

upon us

as if unearthing shame.

And when the deceit

ended,

the screen announced

Argies go home.”

Nobody won,

we all lost,

and they did not come back from the South Atlantic.

It’s hard to believe,

I was seven

and still remember

that freezing April,

the box of chocolates

that we sent

to the islands,

so that the cold

wouldn’t end up

freezing

the apathy

of bewilderment.

British novelist Lydia Syson on history, fiction and young people


This video from Britain is called

By Lydia Syson from Britain:

Narratives should speak volumes about the past

Thursday 24th March 2016

The books we read as children are often the stories that stay with us for the rest of our lives, says novelist LYDIA SYSON, and that’s why good fiction is so important in sparking a lasting interest in history for young people

JUST as history has to be rewritten in every generation because the present always changes, so too does historical fiction for the young.

This truth came home to me when I realised how little my children’s generation knew about the anti-fascist struggles of the 1930s. I grew up with Jack and Moira Gaster, grandparents who talked to me about taking part in the Battle of Cable Street and of friends who died in Spain.

Moira encouraged me to learn poetry by heart in case I found myself in a prison cell without a book — that can happen after a protest, she explained.

But now there is nobody left alive in Britain who fought with the International Brigades. Aid for Spain is a distant memory and the Spanish civil war barely gets a mention in school history lessons.

So when I started work on A World Between Us, the story of a nurse, a journalist and a young communist East Ender who go to Spain in 1936, I felt a great sense of responsibility.

I hoped the book would spark a life-long interest but I knew it might be the only one many teenagers would ever read about Britain’s involvement in the Spanish civil war. I had to get my facts absolutely right. But I also had to keep those pages turning.

Twilight, the series of fantasy romance novels, was all the rage among young people just then. Any kind of history, let alone radical history, was a hard sell in the burgeoning young adult fiction market.

Faced with a readership obsessed with vampire love affairs, could I sweep them away into the heady, idealistic politics of interwar Europe? Could I convey how easy it is to fall as passionately in love with an idea as with a person?

Luckily for me, historians like Angela Jackson had begun to uncover two aspects of the Spanish civil war that are now getting even more attention — the history of women in the war and also the history of medicine.

As I read about the breakthroughs in blood collection and front-line transfusions, A World Between Us began to write itself. Throughout republican Spain, villagers, city-dwellers, nurses, doctors and ambulance drivers all rolled up their sleeves to give blood for the cause of democracy and progress.

What a powerful image, a gift to a novelist! The nurses whose accounts I plundered even spoke of themselves as vampires.

I already had my opening chapter, in which nurse Felix and wounded protester Nat Kaplan meet during the clash between demonstrators and police when Mosley’s blackshirts tried to march through the Jewish East End 80 years ago. The cry at Gardiner’s Corner was taken straight from the streets of Madrid: “No pasaran! They shall not pass!”

Felix pursues Nat to Spain, and her admirer George sets out to bring her home. But he cannot remain neutral in the face of the horrors he witnesses. Plotting my characters’ stories and emotions against the key events of the war — the siege of Madrid, the battle of Jarama, Guernica, Brunete, Teruel, the Ebro — I worked out a subplot of sabotage and thwarted hopes.

A World Between Us was published in 2012 by an innovative new publisher Hot Key Books. They were so enthusiastic about promoting the radical history behind the novel they even produced an enhanced iBook edition, available on iTunes, with interviews, archive material, photographs, maps and music.

One thing always leads to another. School students I talk to always recognise photographs of Hitler. Some manage Mussolini, and a few Franco, but I’ve yet to meet one who can identify Oswald Mosley, the charismatic leader of the British Union of Fascists.

They gasp when I show a picture of British crowds giving a fascist salute to a procession during the 1935 Royal Jubilee. It’s easy to forget that in the summer of 1940, when invasion threatened Britain, fears of fifth columnists and quislings — home-grown fascists who would welcome the enemy with open arms — were all too real.

Spy fever raged. Pacifists were abused. National unity could hardly be taken for granted. This is the atmosphere I tried to recreate in That Burning Summer, my second novel. It’s set on Romney Marsh in Kent during the Battle of Britain and its hero is a Polish pilot who has lost his nerve.

I returned to epic romance for my next book. When talking about A World Between Us a few years ago for a World Book Day school event, we sang the Internationale, the anthem which united international brigaders from 53 different countries.

The Internationale was written at the fall of the revolutionary Paris Commune of 1871, from which at least four brigade battalions took their names. Two commemorated the commune’s best-known heroine, Louise Michel.

It was obvious from the success of Les Miserables that love, revolution and barricades would always be an irresistible combination for teenagers. I had the germ of a new novel, Liberty’s Fire.

The eloquence of so many former volunteers for liberty made A World Between Us a relatively easy book to write. In taped interviews, letters and memoirs, women and men like Patience Darton, Penny Feiwel, Aileen Palmer, Reginald Saxton and James Neugass described their experiences in extraordinarily vivid and often poetic terms. Making the world of the Paris Commune live and breathe was a much harder task.

Between 10 and 20,000 communards were massacred on the streets of Paris in May 1871 when French government troops brutally invaded the capital.

The dead can’t tell their story. Many of the survivors, particularly working-class women, were illiterate or left no records. Imagining their voices sometimes felt an impossible challenge.

I also had to disentangle the confusing politics of the Franco-Prussian war and the Commune. And this for a young audience who perhaps knew a little about the 1789 French revolution but nothing at all of the four that followed.

Once again, my focus was on character and the detail of the everyday. I stared at photographs of women in prison accused of arson, the notorious — and probably mythical — “petroleuses.” I tramped the streets of Paris, eyeing up paving stones. I marvelled at how thoroughly and quickly the violence of the final days of the Commune was erased, its memory repressed.

Property speculation in London is now forcing ordinary workers ever further from the capital’s centre. Zero-hours contracts are the new norm. Women still don’t have equal pay for equal work and the arts remain dominated by an elite. Shades of Second-Empire Paris? The Commune’s social justice agenda continues to resonate and you can feel its spirit in movements like Occupy and the Indignados.

Some young readers will notice these echoes and ask questions. Others might have picked up the book in search of a love story. They’ll find that but also more, I hope.

Though I don’t write novels to provide lessons, but to sow seeds, seeds do take time to grow. In later life, my grandfather Jack said he was a romantic socialist before he was a political one.

Passion is essential to politics and if you want to understand how the two are connected, historical fiction seems to me a very good place to begin.

Lydia Syson will be discussing her work with archivist Meirian Jump at 7pm on March 31 at the the Marx Memorial Library, Clerkenwell Green, London EC1 as part of the library’s Children and Socialism series, details: marx-memorial-library.org www.lydiasyson.com @lydiasyson

Novel on Paris Commune, review


This August 2015 video from Britain is called Liberty’s Fire by Lydia Syson and The Quietness by Alison Rattle.

By John Green in Britain:

Days of the Commune come thrillingly to life

Thursday 24th March 2016

Liberty’s Fire
by Lydia Syson
(Hot Key Books, £7.99)

WRITING fiction for teenagers is a particularly difficult task. Pitching a story so that it does not come across as too childish, or reeks of the musty adult world, takes great skill.

The question becomes even more acute when the subject matter is historical. How can a writer bring history alive for a younger generation without over-simplifying or becoming bogged down in explanatory detail? And then there is the gender question — do you offer romance or swashbuckling action?

Lydia Syson manages to achieve a delicate balance between all those contending issues in this novel about the Paris Commune.

Liberty’s Fire may take a while to get off the ground but the reader is very soon swept up into the turmoil, drama and conflict during the siege of Paris in 1871 when the reactionary French government, led by Adolphe Thiers and supported by his erstwhile enemy the Prussians, crushed the popular take-over of the city.

The Commune was the first workers’ revolution with a radical, socialist agenda. It lasted for just over two months and was suppressed with the utmost brutality by the French ruling class. Between 20-35,000 people were killed, with 4,000 deported to the French colonies and many more imprisoned or driven into exile. Marx and Engels viewed the Commune both as an event that validated their theories and as an experience from which the working-class movement could learn.

Syson brings this pivotal episode of 19th-century history glowingly alive.

Through the eyes of the young violinist Anatole and the orphaned working-class girl Zephyrine, both recent arrivals in the city, we experience the refusal of Parisians to accept the French government’s servile capitulation.

Instead, they decide to run the city themselves.

The couple, meeting on the street in unusual circumstances, soon fall in love. Both are unwittingly sucked into the turmoil and soon become actively involved in the defence of the Commune.

With its defeat, Anatole manages to escape to exile to England via Geneva, while Zephyrine is transported to New Caledonia.

Romance is at the centre of a book which even so never becomes sentimental.

The love story is firmly embedded in the historic fabric of the events, with the reader learning about a historical process while following the riveting fate of the two protagonists.

There is a marked feminist element, with strong women playing central roles, not as mere decoration, and perhaps this may make it a novel which appeals more to girls than boys.

But, as the anniversary of the Commune is marked over the coming weeks, this is a great read for young people — and adults for that matter — irrespective of gender.

Lydia Syson will be discussing her work as part of the Children and Socialism series of events at the Marx Memorial Library, Clerkenwell Green, London EC1 on March 31, details: marxlibrary.org.uk.