Berkhamsted School Christmas Reads… (2)

Welcome to part two of our Christmas Reads.  I have just heard from one of our wonderful Art Technicians, (a very accomplished artist in her own right), who read an intriguing biography during the Christmas break.  Mrs Murray read Sofka Zinovieff’s book The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother and me.  She writes:

“She [Zinovieff] tells the story of Lord Berners as he composes and carouses with her grandfather, Robert Heber-Percy, in fashionable upper class society between the wars: dying the doves rainbow colours, and horses drinking tea in the sitting room. Cecil Beaton and Evelyn Waugh all pop by regularly for weekend house parties…  So entertaining, and such a twist at the end… I do love a biography!”

And this one sounds gripping, one that I will definitely look out for in the bookshops or public library.  Rachel Cooke, writing for The Observer on Sunday 19th October 2014 says at the end of her article:

“The result is a book that is unputdownable and – thanks to her publisher – gloriously lavish, something fascinating to gaze at on every page…”  Ms Cooke clearly enjoyed the book as well, to read her thoughts on the book, click on the link to The Observer above.

mad boy, lord berners


Día europeo de las lenguas 2014 : Berkhamsted School

EDL_Logo1On Friday 26th September 2014, we celebrated European Day of Languages in School, and, I believe, to a resounding success!  This year, we decided to focus on our learning of Spanish and we worked with our excellent Spanish teachers to create some activities for classes for when they came into the libraries.  Some classes used iPads and computers to answer our quizzes as there were too many to visit us at some points during the day.

We devised quizzes promoting Spanish literature where the children had to match a picture of a Spanish-speaking author (from around the world) to their book cover, Spanish and South American artists to their work,  and the names of well-known Spanish celebrities from the worlds of sport and entertainment to their photographs.  One of our lovely teachers devised a quiz about the many varied and wonderful festivals celebrated in Spanish culture, so, all in all, in a twenty minute lesson, each class had an enlightening and fun learning experience.  Proudly displaying the Spanish flag, our catering staff enhanced the day by providing paella, filled tortillas and a delicious steamed seville orange pudding with chocolate sauce for lunch.

We also highlighted the language resources which we use in the library, from the Mary Glasgow magazines of  ¿Que Tal?, ahora and El Sol, to books (including fiction and travel guides), reference material and dvds of Spanish films.

We hope that on this day, our students from Years 7-9 renewed their enjoyment of language-learning, which will continue to be something they love throughout their lives.

Spanish table

Spanish display

Reading about reading…


Usually, in a book blog, we write about books which we have read, but today I wanted to write about books that I would like to read and which are already on my to-read pile…

The first of these is a book written by Philip Davis, Professor of Psychological Sciences at Liverpool University.  His book Reading and the Reader discusses how literary reading can influence our emotions and the way we see the world.  I first came across Professor Davis whilst watching a television programme on BBC1 a few years ago, when he was talking about the impact that reading classic literature has on the human brain with particular mention of the words used by William Shakespeare in his plays.  I remember how he was enthusiastic about the use of the word ‘godded’ and how its emphasis was far greater than more common usage of the English language at the time.  I next read his work whilst reading for my master’s dissertation about bibliotherapy and his involvement with The Reader Organisation, established by his wife, Dr Jane Davis, which has inspired me greatly in the years since writing for my MA in 2010.  I am keen to begin reading Professor Davis’s book…

Next on my list is Belinda Jack’s volume, The Woman Reader.  I am intrigued to discover more about the history of women’s reading and whether women’s reading habits really do differ from those attributed to men.  I would like to know how the reading experience differs between genders and whether it actually is different…  Following the reading of this book, it would be interesting to conduct a little research of my own amongst colleagues and students!

Finally, this has also been on my reading list for a little while; Book was there : reading in electronic times by Andrew Piper, a teacher of German and European Literature at McGill University.  In this book, he discusses how the act of reading is changing, and how new reading technologies are altering our relationship with reading.  I actually have in my possession a physical version of this book, so shall report back as soon as I have read it, and tell you exactly how we need to proceed with our reading in the future!

Shakespearean actor comes to School and makes us think…

On Monday 4th February, 2013, we welcomed Shakespearean actor and author, Ben Crystal, on his return to Berkhamsted.  Ben has visited us twice before and his talk to our Year 9 pupils never fails to disappoint.  This year, we arranged for him to speak with our girls first and then our boys, which was fascinating as both audiences reacted quite differently to what they heard.

Ben began by simply reading Hamlet‘s speech where he meets his father’s ghost without much expression and then, suddenly, he demonstrated the power of acting out Shakespeare’s words as compared with reading them straight out of the book.  He challenged his audience to think, for example, about the simple meaning of the word ‘Oh’!  We found that by differing expressions of this word through the use of various contexts and emotions, such a simple exclamation can have so much significance in so many ways.  This warmed up the audience and got them engaged!

Ben then asked his audience what they knew of William Shakespeare:  the man, his life, the period in which he lived and his theatre.  We established that the playwright was very much a man of his time, his writing was political and this was reflected in his plays, as well as his taking inspiration from his own experiences of life.  We also understood that there is a quality about Shakespeare’s writing that transcends his own age and how we could relate to his work today.  We thought about the typical theatre of his day, and considered how the Globe Theatre as it stands on the left bank of the river Thames today might be compared with the original.  Ben explained who would have sat where in the theatre and what they would have seen of the play, where was the best place to be seen if you wanted to be, and were able to pay the top ticket price, and the fact that the actors would have walked about in the yard, the place in front of the stage where those with the cheapest tickets would stand.  He also explained how the audience would have interacted directly with the actors, each performance would then by slightly different from the previous one.  Each member of the audience would have a different relationship with the character on-stage and audiences were more emotionally engaged than perhaps they are today.

Ben then went on to talk with our students about Macbeth, the play they are studying this year.  They quickly established the essence of the play:  the Scottish Warrior returns from battle, meets three witches who tell him he will kill the King and he must tell his wife, they will become King and Queen, they go mad and then die!   Again, we reflected how this was a play very much of its time – 80% of the audience would have been illiterate, many believed in witchcraft and the new King James I was a leader in the campaign to stop the European Witch Craze.  He felt too many were dying (60,000-120,000 died from being accused of being a witch).  This play was seen as a scary play with the three witches appearing in the first scene!  It was topical and nightmarish.  Ben reminded us that the subject, the killing of the King, was also a subject which filled the citizens with horror at the time, with the gunpowder plot against King James, political uncertainty led to much fear and confusion.

Finally we considered Shakespeare’s language.  We thought about the fact that he made up more than 1,000 words, words that we still use and understand today, as well as how these words were used to convey their meaning.  The children were able to discuss how his use of iambic pentameter reflects the pattern and rhythm of human speech.  Ben explained that this set Shakespeare apart from other poets and writers of the time.  By using very human-sounding poetry, Shakespeare explored what it is to be human.  He asks us the question:  What would we do in this situation/circumstance?

Ben concluded by telling us all about Original Pronunciation and about how the actors in Shakespeare’s times would have delivered their lines with a mixture of dialects and accents from all over the English-speaking world.  He demonstrated this wonderfully by reciting one speech twice: firstly as we are more accustomed to hear it today using our modern Received Pronunciation and secondly using Original Pronunciation.  Our students felt encouraged to compare the two and discuss how they felt about each.

All in all, we had a superb morning and I believe that all students thoroughly enjoyed themselves and left the halls feeling they now had a new perspective on an author they had previously thought of as tedious and difficult!  We should like to express our thanks to Ben, a superb actor!

Ben Crystal 1 Ben Crystal 2

Dark Tales from the Woods (Daniel Morden)

Grimm Brothers
Grimm Brothers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We were very excited to welcome back to school the great storytellers, Daniel Morden and Oliver Wilson-Dickson, on Monday 3rd December.  Daniel and Oli came to see us for the first time last year (check out this entry here), and because they wowed us then with their telling of the Brothers Grimm tale, The Lucky Child, we invited them back to tell us a story from Daniel’s collection of folk talesDark Tales from the Woods.  During the week preceding their visit, we visited the English classes of our Year 7 pupils, to remind them how storytelling is important for the passing down of knowledge, traditions, morals and language followed by a telling of another of Daniel’s stories: The King of the Herrings.  The children told us that they really enjoyed this story, which boded well for the day when the storytellers came…  Daniel warmed us all up by illustrating how telling stories can be similar to telling lies which were really outrageous, everyone laughed and then we were delighted with Oli’s contributions both to the story and by playing his violin to accompany the story and sing.  How easy is it to play the violin at the same time as singing, I wonder?  Such talented people!  After a fabulous morning, Daniel went on to prepare for a storytelling event at the Crick Crack Club, based at the Soho Theatre, Dean Street, London…

The Shipping News (E. Annie Proulx)


We have now returned to school and are back into the swing of things which means more writing for me!  At the end of my last entry, I wrote that I was reading The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx, and I am happy to say that I loved it!  I had watched the excellent film adaptation years ago and, having remembered enjoying that immensely, I decided to read the novel this summer.  The book is different in style from many novels and I found it a little unusual to begin with:  the sentences are very short but so descriptive that they are far more effective for the nature of this story. Each word is significant and each sentence conveys the difficulties that Quoyle and the extensive cast of characters face in their daily lives.

Early on we learn that Quoyle has been told that he’s no good at anything and he certainly seems to have grown into that way of thinking of himself.  He cannot believe it when something good happens to him, when he falls in love, he even accepts things when his wife rejects him for a host of casual relationships.  It is when tragedy strikes that he comes into contact with an aunt he hasn’t known previously, and the events that quickly unfold take him and his daughter, Bunny, to a new future, in Newfoundland, hundreds of miles north from New York State where the story begins.  This is when his life takes a turn for the better as the aunt takes him back to where his family came from and a completely new future is on his horizon.  Quoyle experiences friendships and people caring for him in a way that has been totally alien to him until now and he and his family are welcomed into the town.  He appears to be permanently surprised by this.  The description of  Newfoundland is so expertly written that the reader gets a real sense of place and we are touched by both the cruelty and the kindness of human nature.

I watched the film again last night and did enjoy it again but felt it a shame that some of the central characters crucial to Quoyle’s discovery that his life is worthwhile, valuable and meaningful are omitted.  The scenery and cinematography convey the sense of remoteness of the place, and how its inhabitants have come to care for one another through facing adversities and the harshness of the climate.  The acting was superb and each actor well-chosen for their particular role.


Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro)

It has just occurred to me that I hadn’t written a blog entry for quite some time, the end of term was so busy with many other things, and so I have decided to write a couple of entries with more time on my hands!  I hope that you enjoy them…

Our last reading group meeting of term took place on Thursday 22nd June, when we  met, principally, to discuss Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never let me go We had a very good insight from those of us who had managed to read it and, whilst we others couldn’t participate in discussion of the novel, I, for one, am now inspired to read it and consider it in the light of what was said.  For our readers of the book, it was an excellent read, though the subject matter was so harrowing and extremely sad.  The author is a superb writer and is truly a master of his craft so skilful that the harsh truth behind the story is made easier for us to bear by the astonishing contrast of the gentle descriptions of place and landscape and use of language, as if the author is trying to protect us from the reality of this story. We then went on to talk about how we’d enjoyed other novels by Ishiguro namely The Remains of the Day; A Pale View of Hills; An Artist of the Floating World.

Great House (Nicole Krauss)

Cover of "Great House: A Novel"
Cover of Great House: A Novel

At our Reading Group meeting on Tuesday 13th March, we discussed Nicole Krauss‘s latest novel Great House.

We had another lovely meeting  after school which, (I think!), was enjoyed by all.  I was the only person who confessed to liking the book which I have yet to finish, but we still had a lively debate about how each individual story tied in with all the others to make a whole.  We felt that we almost needed a notebook to hand during our reading of this book in order that we could record all the details as we went along and thereby remember and make the connections!  Even though most said that they didn’t like it, we still talked for a good amount of time about this book.  I had chosen it, having loved Krauss’s first book (The History of Love), as I’d wanted to read it a while ago, but I’ll open the floor for everyone to choose in the future!  Some of us felt that with this book and The Finkler Question from our first meeting,  we were on the outside looking in on this world that we do not belong to.  This said, there did seem to be a consensus that whilst the book appeared self-indulgent, it was well-written and the author has skilfully employed the English language to tell her story.

Krauss’s novel tells the tale of a desk, which passes through the homes of various people at different periods of the twentieth century.  It crosses continents as we follow its journey from Budapest to London, from there to Chile, then to New York and finally to Israel and in travelling this journey with the desk, we learn how the lives of those in whose care it lies, intertwine and connect. I feel that it is a great piece of writing but the wonderful thing about Reading Group meetings is the sharing of ideas and how we can each add to the discussion with our own interpretations.