Shakespeare Week and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

This week I’m celebrating the work of Pupil Library Assistants, and also Shakespeare Week.

I am a member of the judging panel for the Pupil Library Assistant of the Year Award. The competition for the prize was very fierce and, sadly, not everyone could make it to the final seven. However, these pupils clearly all had a great passion for books and reading and took this beyond the walls of their schools. Almost all of the pupils not only worked in their school libraries, but they had also had the opportunity to take part in other schemes connected to books and literacy. One of the longlist nominees, Miranda, described a little about her volunteer work at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

I was so intrigued by this that I invited her to write a blog post in more detail so that she could explain what Shakespeare and the Birthplace Trust means to her and other pupils.  This is published here to take a closer look at the Birthplace Trust, and to encourage schools to sign up for Shakespeare Week. This runs from 16 -22 March 2015 and encourages everyone to take another look at the world’s most famous writer. So from a writer of the past…to a writer of the future!

My guest blogger is…..Miranda K. Gleaves – Alcester Grammar School

Shakespeare Week: the wonderful world of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

I’m lucky that I’m at a school where being a Pupil Librarian isn’t regarded as a bit bizarre.  Everyone accepts my love of books (I was the first ever Year 7 to get the school’s Gold Reading Challenge Award) and, definitely, my admiration of the playwright, William Shakespeare.

I was seven when I saw my first Shakespeare play (The Comedy of Errors) at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. My mum explained that I wouldn’t understand every word of it, but that it wouldn’t matter.  She was right – and had to shush me as I was laughing so loudly at the almost-pantomime on stage. No-one should think Shakespeare is incomprehensible, scary or “not for them”.

Thanks to our School Librarian, Mrs Beeson, I was invited, with the other Pupil Library Assistants, on a behind-the-scenes tour of the Shakespeare Birthplace archives and instantly felt that it was the most amazing place.

Since then, I have completed a week of formal Work Experience with the SBT and two weeks with them as a volunteer.  I’ve already arranged to go back!

I’ve helped with conservation work in the archives and at the Shakespeare Houses (having also volunteered with the National Trust for four years, my conservation cleaning experience came in very handy).  I learned how to use the SBT’s unique library system to carry out research, and this enabled me to create a display for the Public Reading Room.  I should also say that the SBT archives are vast – and aren’t just about Shakespeare.  They have masses of information on the local area and my display was on the arrival of Belgian refugees in Stratford at the start of WWI.

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My display.

I’m looking very carefully at the Wolf Hall adaptation on television at the moment, having spent time as a costumed interpreter at Mary Arden’s Farm, one of the Shakespeare Houses. Here, I dressed and behaved as a Tudor, helping to prepare authentic meals to eat in front of the public and discovering the customs of the time (for example, napkins are draped over the left shoulder, those wearing red are ranked more highly than those in blue, and all meals are eaten only with your personal spoon). So far, it looks as though Mark Rylance and his colleagues have got it about right.

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While immersed in Tudor life and language it was fascinating to see at first hand just how engaged visiting school children – also in SBT Tudor costumes – were by the whole experience and how much they learned from it.

I think that Shakespeare Week is a fantastic initiative, and I only wish that I could have participated back when I was at primary school. If I could say one thing to all the pupils and teachers involved, it would have to be “don’t be scared of Shakespeare – he tells great stories”!

With thanks to Miranda Gleaves and her librarian – Louise Beeson – from Alcester Grammar School

You can find out a lot more about the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust using this link.

Take part in Shakespeare Week too! Follow the link for more information and how to join in.

The winner of the 2015 Pupil Library Assistant Award will be announced by 4pm on Thursday 12th March.

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Why I will always be deeply Dippy.

I know that love at first sight exists, because it happened to me.

I grew up pretty poor and, by any standards, I had a tough childhood that was very much grounded in realities. We didn’t have a lot when I was a child, but I was lucky enough to live a bus ride from the Natural History Museum. It was a long way, but I could save up my meagre pocket money and gather enough together to buy myself a Red Bus Rover and head into London to spend a day hanging around in the free museums.

When I was very little Dippy lived in a side gallery at the museum and, the moment I saw her, I knew that I was in love. I looked up into that doleful skull and I knew with absolute certainty that I would love her forever.

I’m not alone.

In 1979, when I was twelve, she made her lumbering way into the main hall (known as the Hintze Hall) of the museum and I felt that my darling dinosaur had finally come to her perfect home. In this hall she could truly show off her magnificent size and her long long long tail. I could stand back and see exactly how big she was, and I could even walk up the stairs and see right down into every part of her skeleton.

I’ve remained faithful to my first love and, when I took my own toddler to the Natural History Museum, I got to watch my daughter fall in love with Dippy too. She is now twenty-one and she still loves that dusty old dinosaur.

Now the museum plans to remove Dippy and replace her with a whale skeleton. Lots has been said about how (ahem) “discreet” the plans to do this were, and as a regular visitor I certainly knew nothing about these plans until writer and illustrator James Mayhew drew it to our attention.

There have been arguments about how Dippy is a model and the whale is a real skeleton and so that makes it more important….

Let’s deal with that argument first. Yes, Dippy is a model. An accurately constructed model in perfect scale, but she’s a model and there is no denying it. But so is the T-Rex in the next room in case anyone hadn’t noticed (unless people believed that they actually have a large lifelike “real” T-Rex) and the museum is full of other models. Models are important for children as they help them to understand a creature that they can’t possibly see anymore. We can throw out the “it’s only a model” argument. Oh, and in case anyone is wondering….those dinosaurs in Jurassic Park? CGI.

The next argument is that the whale represents a species at risk and to display a real whale skeleton will be important for the promotion of species preservation.

Hmmm…sounds interesting and slightly more persuasive, but hold on, isn’t this the Natural History Museum? Surely it’s not the Natural Species Preservation Museum? The whale is already well displayed in the museum, and the Mammal Rooms are very impressive, and well loved by visitors. There is also the issue that the whale is nowhere near as at risk as it was a decade ago, and so do we really need to have a display that is there solely to preserve a species? Is the whole rest of the museum going to go over to displays that are entirely about species preservation? If so, there is a whole bunch of taxidermy that is heading for the dump!

I’m not against whales, I love whales, but I love dinosaurs more.

One of the other arguments is that the Hintze Hall has housed many exhibits since it opened in 1881 and that Dippy is just another one of those. Really? Nothing has been displayed as long, or regarded with such awe and positivity as Dippy, so why change it? In this 21st Century world of branding and marketing most organisations would sell their souls for something so iconic and easily identified with. Multinationals would pay millions to be able to have a uniquely emblematic image, and immediately identifiable object for their organisations. It certainly seems foolish for a charity to remove something that is such an incredibly successful part of their identity.

That’s not the key issue though, the key issue here is that the real people affected by removing Dippy have not been consulted. The plans (apparently) have been displayed in the side entrance (yes, I know that many of you will not even be aware that there is a side entrance) where academics and sponsors and the like enter the museum. They are not the REAL people who matter here. In 2013/14 the museum had over five million visitors – I kid you not! FIVE MILLION!! Those are impressive figures for any organisation, for a museum it is mind-blowing. That’s as many as the Science Museum and the Tower of London added together.

According to their own evaluation the vast majority of visitors come to see the dinosaurs. The dinosaur exhibits were, by a very long way, the most successful and popular exhibits at the museum. In fact the museum had to operate a timed queuing system for the exhibits due to extraordinary popularity. The dinosaurs have always been the most popular exhibits at the museum, right from the day the doors opened. In fact the creation of the museum itself was largely due to the new science of archaeology and a need to house larger exhibits.

Who are dinosaurs most popular with, and therefore who should be the most important visitors?

Children, that’s who. I have tried to find out exactly how many children use the museum each year but the figures are (apparently) “not broken down that way.” That is a great shame. Last year I was working on the sequel to my book, Brotherhood of Shades, and there is a long scene set in the Natural History Museum. Whilst I was working on it I went and sat for a whole day in the main hall and on the upper landings. I watched the visitors ebb and flow through the hall and I’d say around 70% of the visitors were young children.

It was absolutely wonderful watching the children enter and crane their necks up to look at Dippy. I saw children react with pure joy as they looked up at her. Small people with their arms outstretched and their mouths wide open with wonder. I saw children shaking with excitement and on the edge of tears with amazement. More importantly, I watched them fall in love with the possibilities of the natural world.

That is what has been missed here. Dippy and the awe that she inspires lays an indelible mark on the life of every child that sees her, and yet these are the only group that have not been asked about the change. Every child that sees Dippy becomes suddenly aware of the scale of something that once walked the earth, and of the infinite possibilities of our gloriously blue and green planet. Seeing Dippy is humbling, thanks to her location in the Hintze Hall of this remarkable building children feel small, and insignificant, and acutely aware of how much can change. Dippy allows us a glimpse into the past and therefore sets our feet firmly in the present – nothing exists like her anymore and nothing ever will.

Children are blown away by Dippy and you can see how profoundly she affects them, and yet no one has asked the children what they want.

Before you take Dippy away and erase that wonder from all of our lives, and the lives of future generations, ask them. Ask the children. Conduct a survey in every primary and infant school in the country and ask them what they would like to see in the Hintze Hall – a whale or a dinosaur.

I can guarantee you that I already know what the answer will be.

#savedippy

Sign the petition to save her here.

Tardis Destinations – Companion’s post by author Helen Grant

Helen Grant

Helen Grant

For this post we welcome aboard our Tardis YA author Helen Grant. Helen writes the most wonderfully scary and atmospheric books and her latest (Demons of Ghent) is due out today. It is the second book in her Forbidden Spaces trilogy, the first being Silent Saturday, and the latest in a rake of fabulously scary books. I am a great fan of Helen’s work and so am thrilled to read her choice for a Tardis Destination, and a tale of a delicious mystery…. over to Helen!

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Tardis Destinations from Helen Grant

 If I had a Tardis, I know exactly when and where I would go: the city of Ghent in Flanders (the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium), 1426.

 Although I spent every summer in Belgium as a teenager, I never visited Ghent until 2011, when we were living in Flanders. I fell in love with the city instantly. It has such a strong sense of times past: there are many beautiful old guild houses, magnificent churches and even castles. If you stand at the top of the keep of the Gravensteen castle, you can see the three famous towers of Sint-Baafs cathedral, the Sint-Niklaaskerk and the Belfort (city belfry).

Sint-Baafs from the Belfort

Sint-Baafs from the Belfort


It’s amazing to think that if you had stood there five centuries ago, you would have been able to see that same view.

 Ghent is also intersected with canals. There is one particularly beautiful waterfront area called the Graslei where the gorgeous old buildings are reflected in the glossy water.

Graslei, Ghent

Graslei, Ghent


Altogether, it is an enchanting city.

 When we visited it in 2011 I was working on the first of three books set in Flanders, and I decided there and then to set the second one in Ghent. It is hard to write convincingly about a place when you have only spent four hours there, so I went back for a week in December 2012, and spent days walking about, taking photographs, writing notes and asking questions.

 I loved everything I visited in Ghent, but the place that spoke to me most of all was Sint-Baafs Cathedral. Built in the 14th-16th centuries, it is a massive Gothic church with a huge square tower, a vaulted crypt and lots of interesting side chapels. Best of it, it houses the Ghent Altarpiece, the enormous panelled painting sometimes called ˝The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.“ It was largely this painting that convinced me that I wanted to set a book in Ghent, and indeed it features in my new thriller Demons of Ghent.

 
Demons of Ghent
I’d like to go back to Ghent in 1426 because I would love to satisfy my absolutely raging curiosity about the Ghent Altarpiece! There are so many unanswered questions about it. It is described as being by ˝Van Eyck“ but there were two Van Eyck brothers, Hubert and Jan, and nobody seems to know for certain who contributed what to its creation.

 Hubert Van Eyck was the elder brother and he is thought to have been commissioned to create the Altarpiece around 1420. However, he died in 1426 and the work was apparently taken over by his younger brother, Jan. It was evidently completed by 1432 because that year it was installed in the Vijdt chapel in Sint-Baafs.

 Over the years there have been many theories about who was responsible for what part of the painting. It has been made much harder by the fact that there is virtually no other surviving work by Hubert for comparison. He is thought to have started a painting called The Three Marys at the Tomb but someone else finished it – perhaps Jan. There is  a latin verse on the painting’s frame that praises Hubert and describes Jan as ˝second in art“, but this might be a piece of brotherly generosity. In the past, Hubert’s very existence has actually been questioned, because of the lack of evidence of his work.

 There is also a weird story that Hubert Van Eyck’s right arm – presumably his painting arm – was cut off after his death and preserved in a casket over the cathedral door. The rest of him is buried somewhere else in the cathedral. How strange is that?!

 I think writers, with our overactive imaginations, make great conspiracy theorists. I heard all of these disparate details – the confusion over who painted what, the death of Hubert before the painting was finished, the severed arm thing – and some truly wild explanations suggested themselves to me. Some of those ideas became the backdrop to Demons of Ghent.

 I’d love to travel back to 1426, just before Hubert Van Eyck died, and see what was happening. Did Hubert hand over the brushes and the pots of oil paint to Jan when 95% of the painting was finished, or did he leave his younger brother with little more than sketches? If I could ask Hubert about the rest of his now vanished oeuvre, what would he tell me – perhaps even show me? Did his contemporaries really think that Hubert was the greatest and Jan was second best – or was that a piece of humblebragging from Jan? Did they really cut Hubert’s arm off his cooling corpse and stick it in a box over the door, like a particularly grotesque bit of interior decor?

 Maybe Jan stood there watching while they sawed the arm off, thinking, “Ha, that will serve you right for leaving me with a handful of sketches and six years’ work on your blimmin’ design.”

 That’s the main reason I’d go back, to find out what really happened. But there’s one other thing about the Ghent Altarpiece that fascinates me.

 The central focus of the painting is the Mystic Lamb on its red-and-gold altar. On either side of it are crowds of saints, prophets, pilgrims, hermits and so on. In total the painting has 170 figures gazing into the central panel at the Lamb, or casting their eyes down, sometimes to read holy books. Amongst the red-robed clerics at on the right, a single bishop stares out of the painting at the viewer, his head inclined, a challenging expression in his eyes.

 When I first noticed this figure, I found him distinctly creepy. Are we, the viewers, meant to notice him? Why does he, alone, attempt to connect with us? Is there some significance to his challenging gaze? I’ve often wondered – all the figures must have had models, so was there something special about that one? Did Hubert, for example, put himself into the painting? Since the only portrait of Hubert I’ve been able to find was a woodcut made long after his death, there is no way to know now. Unless….I had a Tardis.

Useful links:

 http://closertovaneyck.kikirpa.be   A website showing the Ghent Altarpiece, with the ability to zoom in on any part of it.

 http://www.randomhouse.co.uk/editions/the-demons-of-ghent-forbidden-spaces-trilogy-book-two/9780552566766   Random House website entry for Demons of Ghent, including click function to read a sample of the book.

 http://www.helengrantbooks.com   My author website.

A magical gift

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November 25th is the start of Book Week Scotland, and the beginning of a week celebrating not only Scottish literature, but Scotland’s important position in the world literary scene. There are hundreds of events going on all over Scotland to celebrate books, reading and libraries, but one in particular caught my eye. Last year I […]

Shakespeare is not the only bookstore – Part Two

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My second offering for off-the-beaten-track bookstore heaven is the amazing San Francisco Bookstore, Paris. This is easily my favourite bookstore. It has all the elements that I require in a bookstore – in that it has towering shelves full of amazing items from rare collectables to modern classics, but it also appeals to me as […]

Shakespeare is not the only bookstore – Part One.

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When anyone mentions the bookshops of Paris, thoughts immediately turn to the Shakespeare Bookshop, and it’s not surprising. If you’ve never been, you really should because it is undeniably lovely. However, I offer up two other equally wonderful bookstores that are distinctly off the crammed tourist track. These two are enviously beautiful places and the […]

Tardis Destinations – Part Two

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Andre Beauchant – 1873-1958 – The Funerary Procession Of Alexander the Great. Tate Britain

In the second of my Tardis stops I’d like to take you to summer 321BC, but let’s not quibble over exact dates, she’ll find it. We are heading to Memphis to witness the funeral procession of Alexander the Great.

Alexander died, in failing breath and fever, in the ancient palace of Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon sometime in the night between June 10th and 11th 323 BC. The Macedonians wept publicly en masse, and it is reported that the Achaemenid people shaved their heads in grief.

As is befitting when a God passes, plans were set in place to fulfil his desire to be carried to a resting place suited to his status. Alexander wanted to go home to Macedonia – but this required preparation.
First his body needed to be prepared for the long journey and Plutarch wrote that the finest Egyptian embalmers were brought in to preserve the physical form of the Godly figure. After this Chaldean embalmers were summoned to “make the body sweet-smelling and incorruptible.” The body was dressed in golden armour and draped in jewels before being placed in a sarcophagus.

To transport Alexander the 3000 km home to Macedonia a vast catafalque, or funeral cart, was constructed. It took almost two years to build and was covered in beaten gold, silver and jewels. The cart rested on axles made from huge tree trunks carrying massive wheels. The whole cart carried carvings of great beasts and around the sides were carvings representing the most heroic moments of Alexander’s short life. The cart was almost ten metres high and was topped with winged Victories. It was pulled by a team of sixty-four mules, each one bred to be the strongest of its kind and dressed in splendour with golden harnesses.

The funeral cortège travelled along the banks of the Euphrates and then headed east. All along the route the road was prepared, and thousands of people came to witness the passing of the golden carriage. Behind it trailed thousands more – Alexander’s most devoted warriors and followers.

The procession continued to a point near the coast at Alexandria ad Issum (now Iskenderun in Turkey) and here is where we meet it. At this point there is a hinge moment in the story. It is unclear why the decision was made to wait, to delay the journey whilst they decided to travel on by sea or take the longer route by land.

Waiting was fatal to the progress to Macedonia. Ptolemy arrived with a vast army and met the funeral procession and seized the cart. He may have believed that it was Alexander’s wish to be buried at Siwa, and so he took over the funeral procession steering it south – overland to Egypt. He wanted to create his own Alexandria, the final resting place of the God amongst the Gods of his own kingdom.

A glorious ceremony was given as the cart arrived in Memphis where it remained for some years. A worshipped golden monument to the warrior’s past. The tomb was visited by many kings, and became a place of pilgrimage and a solid representation of Ptolemaic power. Eventually the reverence faded with the passage of time and, with the rise of Christianity, the tomb became more of a curiosity than a place of devotion. With Alexandria becoming a key Christian city, the old pagan temples in the city were sacked, and the body of Alexander lost. The golden jewelled carriage, and the body of the warrior king of Macedonia were lost, and has never been found. The resting place of Alexander remains lost.

But the moment that we travel to is that fateful day on the coast. The see the brilliant blue of the sea and sky against the dazzling opulence of the glittering golden carriage as it slowly rolled into Alexandria ad Issum. Surrounded by crowds eager to catch a glimpse of the already fabled procession of the body of Alexander. To see the funeral procession at its most swollen and the cart hauled slowly by jewelled mules harnessed in gold and red. The noise and music of the crowd as the procession set up camp on the shore, resting to allow the people to witness the glory of Alexander’s travelling tomb. To be there to see the arrival of the armies of Ptolemy as they marched from the desert to surround the carriage and lead it on, south to the great cities of Egypt and to Memphis.

That’s our moment.