Harper on the Humber

30th April 2004 at 01:00
A week-long series of events is bringing the racially segregated Deep South of the 1930s to life for students in England's north-east, thanks to one teacher's passion for a pivotal portrayal of small-town bigotry. Elaine Williams reports on Hull's Mockingbird festival That night, when the Ku Klux Klan paid a visit, when they rode around AB Blass's house and daubed "nigger lover" on his walls, he stood in the doorway with a gun thinking he might just have to shoot someone. The memory of that night, half a century ago, still brings tears to his eyes. His voice breaks for a few seconds, leaving an intense silence in the lecture theatre where students from Hull secondary schools are hanging on every syllable.

Mr Blass, a retired grocer from Monroeville, Alabama, is describing the effects of racial segregation in his town, a town immortalised as Maycomb in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. He is not alone: the 78-year-old is one of more than 50 Monroeville residents who have come to Hull to take part in a week-long Mockingbird festival aimed at Hull's gifted and talented pupils.

AB Blass describes how he grew up with Harper Lee, still a resident of the small southern town, and knew many of the characters on which the book is based. In the novel, young Scout Finch tells of events leading up to the trial of a black man accused of raping a white woman. Her father, Atticus, defends the man, confronting a town steeped in racial hatred.

To Kill a Mockingbird was set in the 1930s but published in the US in 1960, when the civil rights movement was at its height. Nelle Harper Lee never wrote another book and has become reclusive, but Mockingbird has had a huge impact, hailed by a contemporary reading public as one of the greatest literary works. In Britain, it has been an examination set-text for decades.

But it is one thing to study a book, dissecting its literary framework and language; it is quite another to bring it alive in the fashion that Mockingbird has come alive for Hull. Mr Blass's workshops run alongside concerts by the Monroe county interdenominational gospel choir; seminars led by Mary Badham and Philip Alford, the former child stars who played Scout and Jem to Gregory Peck's Atticus in the academy award-winning film of the novel; music workshops on the history of the blues by Monroeville blues player Jerry Daniel; cookery lessons on Deep South cuisine and performances of the Mockingbird play by Monroeville residents in Hull's New Theatre.

Garry Burnett, an English teacher from Hull's Malet Lambert secondary school, who has masterminded the whole jamboree with Excellence in Cities funding, is passionate about his subject and will go to great lengths to make it buzz for his pupils. But isn't this a little excessive? After all, bringing Monroeville to Hull would test the logistical savvy of a seasoned military campaigner. He hasn't had more than three hours' sleep a night for weeks. As he scoops up yet another parking ticket for having to shift groups of Alabamans into the wrong place at the wrong time (as far as Hull's traffic controllers are concerned), he remains impressively philosophical. "What am I in this job for? It's easy to get cynical about teaching but teachers are in a position to make a difference to people's lives.

"To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the great moral works of the 20th century, a pivotal social text, a novel about forgiveness and grace and what it means to love. If you have a real love of your subject, you have to be prepared to do extraordinary things. You are a long time dead."

Actually, Mr Burnett, an advanced skills teacher, is on a quest. Ever since the first of the many times he has read the book, aged 22 (he is now 44), and every time he teaches it as an exam text - practically every year - he wants to know more about the context and its author. But he is always frustrated by the lack of social, cultural and historical background material, mostly because of the author's distrust of publicity.

This quest started when he read a national newspaper article on Monroeville in 1997, which he considered too dismissive of the town and its inhabitants. He wrote to Judge Biggs, a local dignitary who was lampooned in the piece, seeking a more balanced view. Mr Biggs put him in touch with Kathy McCoy, executive director of the Monroe County Heritage Museums. Ms McCoy happened to be in Bournemouth in the winter of 1998 promoting Alabama ("to show there's more to Alabama than lynching black people") and decided to visit Mr Burnett in Hull.

Despite the tortuous journey, their meeting was a resounding success. Ms McCoy spent eight hours with Mr Burnett and his wife, Louise, a Hull languages teacher, during which it became evident they shared a deep passion for Harper Lee's novel. In 1991 Ms McCoy had set up the Mockingbird Players, an amateur troupe of Monroeville residents, who perform the play - written by Christopher Sergel - every year in the town in honour of the novelist. By the summer of 1998, the Mockingbird Players were in Hull, performing at the Hull Truck Theatre and holding workshops for Malet Lambert pupils. The following year, Mr Burnett took some pupils to Monroeville, a town of no more than 7,000 residents, on the unspoken understanding that they would not attempt to harass Miss Lee.

They succeeded in meeting AB, who had grown up with Harper Lee and who knew many of the characters behind her fictional Maycomb counterparts - people like her father, Amasa Lee, a lawyer so closely identified with Atticus Finch that he signed copies of the novel Atticus, and Sonny Beaulah, a local youth who became the cloistered Boo Radley. They also met Jennings Carter, the model for Jem, who spent endless summers playing with Nelle Harper Lee and Truman Capote (who also spent time in Monroeville and was the model for Dill).

In all of these connections and conversations, Mr Burnett found echoes from the novel. AB, who caddied as a boy for Amasa Lee, tells how the lawyer would talk to him during rounds of golf about the beauty of mockingbirds; how he assured the boy after his nightmare visitation from the Klan that he did "the right thing" just as Atticus was praised for doing "the right thing" after the trial. Mr Burnett became ever more convinced that this living archive was a gift to teaching.

A project leader for the Campaign for Learning, he is concerned with theories of multiple intelligence and thinking skills. Bringing books alive, he believes, is a powerful way of igniting the learning process. He has approached other works similarly. One summer he took a school group to Dorset in search of Thomas Hardy's landscape, including a detective trail through Beaminster looking for Angel Clare's cottage from Tess of the D'Urbervilles. In the course of this exercise, one of his pupils came across Gertrude Bugler, when he knocked on the door of her house. In her youth, Miss Bugler bore a startling resemblance to the Tess of Hardy's imagination, and the author had chosen her to play Tess on the stage.

"This student had been gone for some time," says Mr Burnett, "and I was beginning to get worried when he came haring round the corner saying he'd found Tess and we must talk to her."

He has also taken Year 10 pupils studying Victor Hugo's Les Miserables to Paris in search of landmarks from the novel. And his students never study Shakespeare without seeing it performed. Several trips to Stratford-upon-Avon are made every year. But the Mockingbird initiative has gone further. The Burnetts have become good friends with Kathy McCoy and her husband, Jerry Daniel, the blues musician, and their exchange visits have continued. On one visit, when Mr Burnett was watching a performance by the Mockingbird Players, he was introduced to Mary Badham, who was also visiting Monroeville, having rekindled her interest in the book. Mr Burnett could not believe his luck. Ms Badham was swiftly enlisted to his mission to make the book resonate with living references.

Ms Badham shares the teacher's zeal for Mockingbird and gladly made the trip to Hull. Starring in the film, she says, has shaped her life, and in her middle age she willingly promotes the novel's message of tolerance and love. "It's not just the blackwhite issue. This book speaks about poverty, gender, bigotry of all kinds, as well as racism everywhere. No matter where you go, there's a Monroeville. That's what keeps me on the road."

The message is not lost on pupils. Gillian Burt, Georgia O'Connor and Maria Pipkin in Years 10 and 11 at St Mary's College, Hull, who are attending AB Blass's workshop, are struck by how events in such a small town can be made "to have such an effect on the whole world". "It makes you think: that something that happened here could have such an effect," says Maria.

Next year, Mr Burnett hopes to return to Monroeville with Malet Lambert pupils to make a film, In Search of Harper Lee. In 2006 he plans a national Mockingbird festival. Maybe, just maybe, he could get Harper Lee involved.

If she knew "what the book means to us in Britain" he just may persuade her to speak. He travels hopefully.

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