Strangers in the night;Talkback

20th August 1999 at 01:00
Garry Burnett almost meets a literary legend.

We pulled into the town square and there it was: the clocktower of the courthouse Nelle Harper Lee used as a setting for key scenes in her only novel To Kill a Mockingbird. "We" were three Year 10 pupils from Hull's Malet Lambert comprehensive and me, their teacher. What were we doing in Monroeville, a prosperous cotton town in Alabama? Simply gathering video material for a multi-media study pack and to interview people who could give insight into some of the circumstances and characters which had inspired this reclusive woman's story.

One of the enduringly baffling and frustrating dilemmas for English teachers is the lack of social, cultural and historical background material on this most frequently "set-text" - mostly because of the author's distrust of a press which has at times suggested that she didn't write the book. Even while we were there, a television film crew set up cameras outside the Methodist church where she worships, in the vain hope of gaining arcane footage of her attending the morning service.

We'd established friendships with the townfolk through Internet links with the Courthouse Museum. A Monroeville theatre troup, the Mockingbird Players, directed by Kathy McCoy, performed their dramatic version of To Kill a Mockingbird at Hull's Truck Theatre last September.

Our visit and our access to people and places rested on these relationships and the unspoken understanding that we wouldn't attempt to harass Miss Lee. Our interviews uncovered mixed reactions to the novel's publication; many locals were convinced they had been written about. Real characters had acted as models for Harper Lee's fictional Maycomb counterparts - her father Amasa Lee, so closely identified with Atticus Finch that he signed copies of the novel "Atticus". Boo Radley was modelled on Sonny Beaulah, a local youth. We were particularly thrilled to meet Jennings Carter, who provided the model for Jem, who spent endless summers in scrapes with his cousins Nelle and Truman Capote.

It was an eerie feeling standing alone on the "coloured" balcony in the old courthouse and to gaze at the highly-polished courtroom, set up for a Mockingbird Players performance that evening. Seeing To Kill a Mockingbird acted out here was an unforgettable experience, its impact compounded by the realisation that what we were seeing had been possible, not real. Literary tourism is too often based on the assumption that the author is merely a social historian, or in this case, a "diarist" dispossessed of literary licence.

One particularly hot day, George Coker, a local black farmer, asked me to come along to the bank to meet a British friend of his. On the way, we passed three white-haired women. One of them said "Well Miss Alice...", and I realised that the two women with her were Alice and Nelle Harper Lee.

"Ah," whispered George, "that lady over there is..." But before he could finish I said "no". I didn't want to embarrass Harper Lee with an uncalled-for introduction. Miss Alice looked across quizzically, but her sister just kept staring grimly ahead.

When we were driving off that George said: "Actually, I have some important real estate business with Miss Alice, who is my attorney. Do you mind if we go back?" So, back we went.

George strolled casually into Miss Alice's air-conditioned office to discuss titles in a deal he was arranging. She sounded extremely frail. "Oh, by the way," he said to her as he finished, "I'd like to introduce you to a friend of mine from England." He turned and pointed my way.

She peered suspiciously over thick spectacles and offered me her hand. There was no sign of her younger sister - she had made another timely escape.

Garry Burnett is head of English at Malet Lambert School, Hull

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