If I’m writing an editor’s letter in The Week, and want a lively response from readers, there’s one subject that never fails: the English language and how we use it. Sound off about the imminent danger of World War Three and you’ll draw a total blank, email-wise. Venture a thought or two about the pros and cons of the semi-colon and your inbox will rapidly start to fill (often, it has to be said, with readers pointing out your egregious errors). Well that’s my experience anyway. People have very decided views about grammar, punctuation and the subtleties of the written word. Mark Twain, for example, loathed proof readers who interfered with his copy. “First God created idiots,” he said. “But that was just for practice. Then he created proof readers.”
From the moment it premiered on American TV earlier this year, people have been drawing a parallel between the events depicted in Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale and Donald Trump’s presidency. In Margaret Atwood’s classic 1985 novel, America has been taken over by an autocratic, Christian fundamentalist regime, called Gilead, which hides its violent, repressive violations behind soft rhetoric about ‘a return to traditional values’. For a number of commentators, it has an eerie resonance. As Sam Wollaston wrote in his review of the first episode for the Guardian on Monday, ‘[t]here has been a lot of talk about new resonance for The Handmaid’s Tale since the election of You Know Who; fear of freedoms, rights and long-established orders disappearing overnight.’
Women are Gilead’s chief victims: as a result of plummeting fertility rates, they are valued (or not) only for their child-bearing capabilities. Those lucky few who remain fertile – whom Gilead calls ‘Handmaids’, a Biblical reference – are kept in isolation, forced to wear veils around their faces so that they have no peripheral vision, are no longer allowed to read or write, and are victims of ritualistic state-sanctioned rape.
Ian Jack's Guardian article 'So you want to write better sentences than Jane Austen? Take some lessons' references our new guide How to Write Well, by the professional Tim de Lisle. Read the article here...
Thanks to this newspaper’s belief in self-improvement and its need in these hard times to earn a bob or two, a reader can sign up to a Guardian Masterclass and learn how to be a columnist. Not only a columnist, of course: there are many other skills you can learn. Column writing, nonetheless, is the course to which I’m strangely drawn.
We’ve had wonderful feedback about the first Connell Guides “boot camp” a couple of weeks ago, and I’m not surprised. It was a hugely successful and enjoyable day, attended by more than 40 students and featuring sparkling lectures by Professor John Mullan and Jonny Patrick.
John Mullan gave us some fascinating insights into Shakespeare (as well as some very sensible practical advice, such as to pay no attention to critics who write badly). Jonny Patrick talked first about the novel, and then, as an experienced examiner, addressed the vital question of how to write an essay, debunking some hoary old myths and passing on plenty of invaluable practical tips. We had excellent tutors, too, who gave fascinating talks on literary theory...
John Mullan is my kind of academic. He’s forthright, original, and engaging. Take his recent highly entertaining book What Matters in Jane Austen? a mini treasure trove of detail about the author who the playwright Samuel Beckett, no less, called “the divine Jane” (As Mullan says, one looks forward to an academic tome on Austen’s influence on the Theatre of the Absurd.) In a chapter on what makes characters blush, for example, Mullan tells us that there are more blushes in Emma than in any other Austen novel, whiles the Austen character who actually blushes most is Fanny in Mansfield Park.
Mullan is very good on Jane Austen – if you don’t believe me take a look at the videos of him on our website. He has plenty to say about Shakespeare, too, so we’re delighted to have secured him as the keynote speaker for our first Connell Guides Revision Bootcamp in March.
Which way will you vote in the European referendum on June 23rd? Do you know? “I don’t think I’ll vote,” a clever friend of mine said this week. “I change my mind every five minutes. It depends who I’ve last talked to.”
In The Sunday Times, Harry Mount says that class comes into it, with Brexiteers tending to come from a lower social rung than the richer, more metropolitan remainers. The division is there in the Cabinet, he argues, with the Eurosceptics like Ian Duncan Smith and Chris Grayling being largely state-educated and the posher element (Cameron Osborne, Jeremy Hunt, etc) being mostly for ‘remain’. Class and power, says Mount...