The best ideas live on

2nd May 2003 at 01:00
WHEN I tire of reading Arrangements for Higher English I turn to King Lear, that great text on unnecessary suffering. A text on love and forgiveness that is, I would argue, the first ringing expression of socialism in English literature.

At university, while the Sorbonne boiled and Sergeant Pepper gathered his lonely hearts club band, I studied King Lear. This was supposed to be accomplished in a fortnight, and an essay submitted. I took four months.

Unit expanded to universe: every plot twist, every image, every ring-marked footnote in the Signet edition, came at me like a passion.

If literature does not change your life, then what is it for? I carried Lear on a rough pilgrimage. It was my pillow as I camped on the dunes near Aberdeen, my dirty thumb-book on a hospital building site in Shepherds Bush, my talisman in the Festival Hall, where craggy Auden and Ginsberg read and sang.

I made many imperfect essays, many botched attempts. What could a poor prosesmith say that was adequate to the experience of King Lear? "Poor naked wretches, wheresoe'er you be, That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm." I should have been thrown off the course, nay would be now. But eventually I submitted.

Thirty-five years later I started teaching Lear to Higher students, for the first time, to a massive resistance. "It's too political." "Can we not do Romeo and Juliet?" The early days were wilful, tough.

But then cool brave Cordelia entered the heart. That pure bastard, Edmund, excited empathy. And Mad Tom's surreal rants made pregnant their own imaginings. The thing was good after all.

Well there are many fierce scenes in Lear, none fiercer than when frail Gloucester has his eyes torn out. How could you stage that? There was a lot of talk of red jelly and ping-pong balls, flung in an ugly curve. Towards the audience? Surely not!

And so when I popped back last week, in the middle of parliamentary election leave, there were a few keen chuckles. A correspondent to the Orcadian had taken a spitting distaste to my anti-war views. He said that if I had dared express such views in Iraq, I would have received "torture (eye-gouging)". And so? Sadism's logic escaped us, but the serendipity pleased the class.

As you read this, the Scottish election count will just be finished.

Leaflets will fly in the bin, as permanent as Arrangements for Higher English. Yet just like King Lear, the best ideas will live on.

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