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George Allan on His Literary Journey.

December 9, 2013
George's selection of books

George’s selection of books

In the last post Paul Kent talked about the issue of who has the right to comment on literature and made the point that the view of someone who has a passion for their subject is as valid as that of a trained scholar. George Allan (@thewhitespike) is someone whose passion for Shakespeare and literature is infectious.

Because of the way I was taught Shakespeare at school I would, until recently, be prepared to cross a motorway at rush hour, just to avoid being exposed to his work. Learning to look at words again through the lens of a creative writing degree had begun to change this viewpoint. Then I came across George on Twitter.

As George is keen to point out, he is not a scholar, but he had a passion for good writing and literature that makes you want to engage with writers you may have given up on.

He is also a wonderful reflective writer and an engaging Twitter friend.

Tell me about yourself.

I’m a Scottish lorry driver. I was born in a little village called Stoneyburn, in West Lothian. It’s was a mining town. My grandfather was a miner, so was my father, and we all thought we would be miners too. But then the mines closed down, so we had to look for other ways of earning a living. I’ve been involved in transport for about 35 years. I live with my wife Kathy and my two boys Tom and Jack, in Bathgate. It’s a town between Edinburgh and Glasgow, which is great because it means we’ve got easy access to city life with all the theatres and art galleries in both of those cities.

You began to blog a little while ago, but you weren’t initially blogging about Shakespeare.

Well, I did start with the Shakespeare blog first, which I started writing to help me make sense of what I was reading and watching. I started a kind of supplementary blog about American authors. The post is called, Doxology and you can find it on my Shakespeare blog. I wrote in the post, about the time when my dad used to read to me, particularly books like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. We had a copy in the house, but it was hard to get dad to read to me because he was very busy at the time, and working shifts.

He’d just finished reading one book to me and said ‘This is the next one I’m going to read to you’, and slapped the cover. It was Tom Sawyer, but he never did get round to it. So I realised that the only way I was going to be able to read it was to read it to myself. I’m not sure, but I think he might have done this on purpose to try and get me to start reading by myself. It took a while to learn to read, I really struggled and Dad knew this. I enjoyed Tom Sawyer so much, when I read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn a few years later it was wonderful being back into the world Mark Twain had created.

I think I do have a problem with dyslexia, especially with my spelling. I can spell a word right one day and not the next. Unfortunately dyslexia wasn’t recognised at that time, so I didn’t get any extra help with my reading and writing like you do now. This is why a blog for me took a bit of courage, because anyone reading it would realise I have a problem with spelling. I know people on Twitter can laugh at the typos people make when they tweet, but it’s not easy for me sometimes to spell things the right way and I get very embarrassed about it. You see, to me it’s not a typo, it’s a spelling mistake. One way I do get round this when I’m writing a blog post is to use the computer spell check to help me.

I love reading and do try and read whenever I can, but the problem I have, make me quite a slow reader. You can’t read when you’re driving and there isn’t much time when you stop for a break, but I do take my Kindle with me and read it whenever I can.

Despite your difficulty with reading and writing, you’re reading works such as The Faerie Queene, authors like Steinbeck and playwrights like Shakespeare. What gave you the passion to start reading these sorts of writing?

The first Shakespeare I saw was at the Edinburgh Festival. It was ‘King Lear’ the first day and then ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ the next. It was performed by Kenneth Branagh’s travelling company, when he was still married to Emma Thomson, I think. Richard Briers and Siobhan Redmond were also in it. This is going back about 30 years.

I was dying to see these productions because I loved Kenneth Branagh’s work even then. It was a great start, the cast was so good. I’d bought the complete works of Shakespeare and read the two plays before I went to see them, so I knew what was going on. It wasn’t easy to read the play and understand it on the page, but when I saw them on stage, it was just incredible. I loved it so much. I realised that by reading the plays beforehand meant I knew the story.

One of my big influences is Dainty Ballerina (@DaintyBallerina) who’s on Twitter. She is great and has a PhD on Jacobean Shakespeare and Early Modern History. So I’ve talked to her a lot. She’s really encouraged me. It was her idea for me to start my blog, and told me which books might interest me. She also told me to just put my own thoughts down and not to be academic. Obviously I’m not academic, so that wasn’t hard.

I do feel that not being an academic can be a problem with my blog writing, because I am a bit self-conscious and always worried I might have missed an important, and obvious, part of a play. People looking at the blog who don’t know me, might not realise it’s just my thoughts and may wonder what I’m talking about. I feel I have to keep explaining that I’m not an expert, and this is only how I feel about what I’ve read and seen, rather than the opinion of someone who is an expert on Shakespeare.

I do read a lot of Shakespeare, because I don’t get much chance to see the plays, hopefully when I do see one that I have I’ve read it’ll be stored in my memory banks. In the past year I’ve read, Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello and Richard III. I wasn’t too keen on Richard III, I don’t know the history very well and it’s complicated by people on Twitter, who point out that Shakespeare’s play is Tudor propaganda.

We did get taught about Macbeth at school, but it was a different version of Macbeth. We were taught about the real person, an old Scots King and told about the Shakespeare play too, which I am grateful for because, later on in my life, I was pulled into his world.

I ended up reading Spencer’s Faerie Queene because Dainty Ballerina suggested it to me. I haven’t read it all, but I enjoyed what I read. Once you get into the rhythm of how Spencer writes, I disappear into his world, it’s really very good and I do like it.

I’ve recently started reading a lot of poetry. I particularly like Federico Garcia Lorca. The book I’m reading at the moment has Spanish on one side of the page and English on the other. His poems are all about horses, deserts and haciendas. I love the imagery and having a go at saying it in Spanish. Garcia Lorca’s best known work, I think is The Gipsy Ballads. They are wonderful. He was executed by the Nationalists during the Spanish civil war. I was in Florida last year and bought a great big thick book of poetry by Allen Ginsberg. I’d heard of him, as one of the Beat Poets. His work can be quite funny and obviously a bit subversive. I love to dip into his book because you get a lot of surprises, especially when you look at the date that he wrote it. You think, how’d he get away with saying that? I also bought Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Another one of the Beats, but I’ve not really got into him yet.

Is there anything you’ve found particularly difficult to read.

The only thing I’ve really struggled with is Shakespeare’s Sonnets. I have a book with all the sonnets. Edited by Stanley Wells, it‘s a lovely edition. Paul Edmondson, from the Shakespeare birthplace trust wrote a good article about the sonnets. In it he says that you should take them one at a time, and spend a day or so on one sonnet. This is probably a good way to do it. When I read straight through a sonnet, without taking time to think about them, they just don’t make any sense to me.

It does seem that you are using social media to help you understand literature.

A lot of people are really helpful. I’ve learnt about all sorts of things.

I started to use Twitter because I got a new phone, which was a smart phone. I was just using it to make and take calls. A friend said to me ‘Don’t you know you can pick up your e-mail on it?’ So I started getting emails on my phone, which was useful because it’s hard to get near the computer as the boys are always using it.

Then I started playing with the phone and had a look at the Twitter app, they had been talking about it on the radio. I went on Twitter, and of course no one reads the first couple of tweets, but bit by bit I’ve built up a following and started having conversations with people. I’ve surprised myself sometimes though, because I’ve said something on Twitter and someone tells me they didn’t know that. So it’s quite a thrill to be able to contribute something and have these sorts of conversations.

You don’t just go to the theatre to see Shakespeare plays.

A couple of weeks ago I went to the cinema to see Macbeth, Kenneth Branagh’s production this time. It was a National Theatre production and filmed live from a deconsecrated church in Manchester, and shown all over the world. I took my eldest son, who’s eighteen. He loved it.

It’s great to be able to read Shakespeare’s plays and then go and see them live. Otherwise the cinema is the next best thing.

Different versions can be quite confusing because of the way they are directed. What do you do to unpick a production that doesn’t seem very straightforward?

That particular version was so fast paced that it made it a bit difficult to understand what was going on, because one scene seemed to overlap into the next. It did help that I already knew the story. As I said, I’d read Macbeth so I was ready for the movie. The next day I put on the Patrick Stewart DVD version, which is slower and longer. This meant I could remember the bits that had happened the night before at the cinema and think about them while I was watching. Macbeth is starting to become one of my favourites. I’m catching up with ‘Coriolanus’, my favourite at the moment.

Why do you like ‘Coriolanus’ so much?

It was the first play I read that I could actually see in my mind’s eye. I could imagine the streets of Rome, with the torches burning in the windows. One of the things I love about it is that it’s 300 years before Julius Caesar, which we don’t seem to hear a lot about. I hadn’t realised that 300 years before Caesar there was still a Roman Empire. So it really captured my imagination. In particular there’s a crowd scene at the start, where the citizens are angry because they can’t get any grain, and they blame Coriolanus. Coriolanus is a swine. He doesn’t like the people and starts of having a real go at them. He doesn’t like conforming and will not compromise. I quite liked him. They made a film with Ralph Fiennes, which I took my boy Tom to see. That version is all machine guns with an East European feel to it. It’s quite violent, but very effective, but even so I would like to see it done with the actors wearing ancient Roman dress, with the temples and Roman scenery.

The National Theatre is doing ‘Coriolanus’ early next year with Tom Hiddleston. This is going to be broadcast live at the cinema again, so I’ll take my son to see that as well. I Can’t wait.

It seems to me that when you read, you disappear into the world of the book you’re reading.

If It’s a good book or a good story, yes. I read Steinbeck’s three classic books, The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden and Of Mice and Men and his descriptions really got me into the landscape and the way people lived. I’ve begun reading Cannery Row, I’m not enjoying it as much, but the way the people talk to one another is the same and I’ll stick with it. I love the way they speak, I think that’s probably because I grew up watching westerns, and American films. The Grapes of Wrath and the Joad family, who get put out of their home because they can’t pay the rent on their farm and have to migrate to California to find a better life. They are dirt poor but a very strong and close family. It is a heart breaking story.

We weren’t as poor as the Joad’s but they did remind me of my family. We didn’t have a lot of money and neither mum nor my dad were able to drive, so we used to go for walks on summer evenings. Because we lived in a small town it was only two minutes until you were in the countryside. I remember after the walk we’d come back and mum would have soup ready for us. The Ma of the Joad family, and the way she looked after her family reminded me of the way my mum used to look after us. So I kind of connected with their family in the book.

You certainly do you seem to be someone who has to connect with what you’re reading, and you are a very visual reader. It seems that as you read you have a clear picture of what’s going on in the story.

I think that could be due to growing up and watching TV and going to the cinema every Saturday for the matinee. As a child, it’s probably one of the first ways that you follow a story. We were the first family on the street have a TV, which was before I was born. My father wasn’t only a miner he was also a pit engineer, so had a bit more money than other people on the street. So I grew up with the TV.

I did learn to write really quickly, but I couldn’t spell, even though I was able to recognise the letters. The English language, to me, is a very strange language when it’s written down. I probably didn’t start reading by myself until I was about twelve, which is quite late, so I think that’s why I’m such a visual person.

School had a lot to do with feeling alienated, because I was never intelligent, and I always admired people who were. I probably wasn’t the best pupil to teach, I remember teachers putting me down, saying I had a wild imagination. I was never really interested in what I was doing at school. Looking out the window was my favourite subject. I’ve moved on since then and I’m trying to make up for lost time. I love literature mostly fiction, historical fiction and of course plays.

Do you think that’s because you like the type of dialogue that leads to exploring relationships and the consequences of actions?

Definitely. It’s strange, but when I’m reading a Shakespeare play, there are times I think I’m not understanding it, but when I get to the end I know what’s happened in the story. I really do enjoy interactions between two people, for example Othello and Iago or Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, are so intense. There are all sorts of subtleties there. I told Dainty Ballerina that although I can’t get all the subtleties, I do manage to get an overall impression of what a conversation is about. But we agreed that everyone gets different meanings from the same reading of Shakespeare.

I do like films with a lot of dialogue and I do like plays that are been turned into films. Neil Simon who wrote ‘The Odd Couple’ and ‘The Apartment’, for example. I love those films. Woody Allen is fantastic too. I also used to like ‘MASH’ the TV series because there was a lot of witty dialogue, Alan Alda really fast talking.

It’s interesting that you’ve looked at so many different editions of Shakespeare.

I saw ‘Hamlet’ in a second-hand book shop, which was in modern day English. I wouldn’t dream of reading it that way and so, as a bit of a joke, I said on Twitter ‘I’ve seen Hamlet in modern day English should I buy it?’ It may have been Stanley Wells (@Stanley_wells )on Twitter, who replied by saying yes, but only if I wanted somebody else’s opinion.

The problem with translating Elizabethan Shakespeare into modern day English is that this is somebody’s opinion of what the original words really mean. I’d never thought of it like that before. I’ll always be an amateur as far as Shakespeare is concerned, but I don’t care because I love reading his plays and really enjoy going to see them.

I’ll think I’ve read quite a lot of Shakespeare and then someone will mention another play that I’ve completely forgotten about. I didn’t realise that he had written Henry VIII, although it is called ‘All is True’. I think it is about his time with Ann Boleyn. I think the film ‘Ann of a Thousand Days’ is based on this Shakespeare play. But I never realised that Shakespeare had probably written it with a guy called John Fletcher.

The History plays are not the easiest to read and I got bogged down for a while in them. I’m by no means a Scottish Nationalists but Shakespeare has written a great deal about English history and it would be great to have a bit more knowledge of this period. ‘Henry IV, Part I and II’, has Falstaff in it, so it’s quite funny in places. Hal who’s going to be Henry V is a bit of a drunken tearaway. I watched it when Sky showed it from the Globe and I could follow the parts I as it went along, because I have the book. That was great because the television play only jumped one or two small bits, so it wasn’t too difficult to follow.

Shakespeare didn’t actually write the history plays in order. He wrote Henry VI part I, II and III first and then the others afterwards. So I’m not sure in what order you supposed to read them. I think the history around that time was very complicated, because the Kings were changing all the time.

What are you looking forward to reading and which plays of Shakespeare are you going to see next?

I have just finished reading Antony and Cleopatra. I didn’t think I was going to like it but, I must say it‘s been a real treat. I think it is going to be a hard play to blog about. It is such a sprawling epic play. All these Roman plays have sparked an interest in me for Ancient history, so much so, I’ve downloaded the complete works of the classic writer Plutarch, to my Kindle. Shakespeare used his histories to write Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus. I think he used him for parts of Cymbeline too.

George Allan

George Allan

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3 Comments
  1. Just inspirational, George! Shakespeare’s audience didn’t study his plays to pass exams; they went to the theatre to watch and listen and they were very astute indeed. I love the theatre and Shakespeare’s plays spring to life there without the need for lesson after lesson learning one person’s interpretation for the purposes of answering stultifying exam questions. The best actors bring out the meaning clearly. I remember going to Stratford to see ‘Much Ado’, with Derek Jacobi as Benedick, and, even though he may have been way down there on the stage, he was so good with eye contact that I felt he was talking just to me. Every time I watch a play, the actors bring out by word or action something I haven’t quite grasped; it’s like a little internal explosion of understanding. I think I was better reading the plays slowly for myself, rather than just absorbing a teacher’s view. ‘Educating Rita’ is all about that: a fresh mind uncluttered by formal education… and about the devastating effect on teachers of doing everything to get students to jump through exam hoops, so that they themselves become cynical and tired in the job. Thank you so much, both of you, for this beacon of light that should be shone at Ministers of State for Education, who have fanciful notions about schooling and the ‘classics’.
    Why haven’t I been to your blog? I promise to visit.

    • Thank you very much Christina for your wonderful comments. I loved the way you describe how a little internal explosion of understanding went off in your head. I experience that too, sometimes. I love reading the plays, even though, for me they are very challenging. Reading them first, helps me to understand them better, when I’m fortunate enough to see them being performed. I am going to see Coriolanus at the cinema in January. Filmed live from the National Theatre. Can’t wait. Once again Chtistina, thank you for the comments. Thanks to Elaine, for giving me the opportunity to express myself!

  2. Literature should really be about enjoyment, shouldn’t it? Nothing beats the feeling when you discover some new piece that, for whatever reason, is thrilling to read (new to the individual reader that is; the piece itself can be hundreds of years old). It does make you wonder about education in the UK nowadays. A long, long time ago, I studied Henry IV Part One, but before we opened the text, we had seen our school’s production of the play, sword fights and all… And back in those days we also had ‘silent reading.’ You might suspect this was a way for teachers to have a bit of a skive, but if you trust teenagers to choose something, anything that looks even a tiny bit interesting (comic books were the only things excepted), then you have made reading into more than a chore or a way to get another grade ‘C’ or above.

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