'If that mockingbird don't sing' -- Peter Leyland

 If that mockingbird don’t sing…*


It was my birthday, and Sue and I went to see To Kill A Mockingbird at the Gielgud theatre in London. It has been rewritten for the stage from Harper Lee’s original novel by Aaron Sorkin and is directed by Bartlett Sher. You may know something of the story yourselves on account of the famous film starring Gregory Peck, where Atticus Finch defends Tom Robinson from a false rape charge, and you may even have read the book at school. Despite an excellent defence from Finch, Robinson is found guilty by an all-white jury and is later killed in a desperate escape attempt from the prison, where he is being held awaiting an appeal. There were a number of schoolboys in blazers and ties attending the performance and I surmised that To Kill a Mockingbird is likely to be a GCSE set text to be tested in the summer exams. I had read it myself as a teenager and as I watched it on stage the story took me back to my own boyhood and my first acquaintance with the racism that is the book’s central theme. 


When I was 15, I came across a book in my local library called Three Lives for Mississippi (1965) written by William Bradford Huie. In it I read about how three civil rights activists, – Chaney from Mississippi and Goodman and Schwerner from New York City – who were working on the Freedom Summer campaign to register African Americans to vote, were abducted, shot at close range and killed. Their murderers were a group which included local Ku Klux Klan members, the Neshoba County Sherriff’s Office and the Philadelphia police department of that city in Mississippi.


The book shocked and horrified me. I had not encountered racism before and was surprised that this could happen in The United States, which I had thought was the land of the free. I was at the time studying American History, but no teacher ever told us about what was really happening in the countries that they were telling us about. There was a syllabus to get through after all. I remember Mr Rogers raising his eyebrows at my school haversack which was heavily inked with the words Anti-Apartheid, Bob Dylan, and the peace symbol. Very interesting, he might have said.


I bought a programme at the Gielgud Theatre and inside was a timeline covering events in America, from 1607 when the first English colony was founded in Jamestown, Virginia, to 1960, the year when the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee was created and Harper Lee published her book. The timeline continued on to 1968 when Martin Luther King was assassinated by James Earl Ray in Memphis, Tennessee. Ray was later arrested in London and returned to America for trial. These were events that I remembered had affected me deeply when growing up. And yes of course racial discrimination was happening in my own country too, although I was not so aware of it then.


Life experience changed all that of course. There was the time when I was travelling on a London tube train and a group of white youths began harassing two Asian men, one swinging a two-footed kick at them. I stood and shouted, Stop! and to my surprise they did, telling me pleadingly that it wasn’t ‘racial’, and exiting at the next station. Meanwhile, the two men had quickly moved into another carriage. I was on my way back from a Dylan concert with my American friend, Arthur, who happened to be Jewish.


There were other such experiences but that was the most memorable, and In a long career I taught many children of different races. Later, when I joined the WEA, I taught a number of adult students originally from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh who were following a course called ‘Helping in Schools’, many of them going on with further training to become teachers or teaching assistants. At another WEA centre I began teaching literary fictional books to adult students and To Kill a Mockingbird was one of them. 

                                            My copy of the book, 20p in today's money

I had not read the book for some time and had never taught it. It was part of a larger course which I had called American Novels of the South, including books by William Faulkner, Carson McCullers and Toni Morrison. Looking at my notes I recorded that the class enjoyed To Kill a Mockingbird but that they didn’t like Harper Lee’s earlier version of the novel, Go Set a Watchman, which had been published controversially in 2016. I also noted that they did not know very much about the events surrounding the American Civil Rights Movement of 1955-68 and I had produced a timeline for them very much like the one in the theatre programme. It began with the death of Emmett Till **, continued with the murder of four black girls in the bombing of a church in Montgomery Alabama in 1963, and ended with King’s assassination. 


The play that we watched was absorbing. It was an evocative depiction of the Jim Crow segregation in the American South and the police brutality towards the black population. ‘Jim Crow’ were local and state laws which mandated the segregation of public schools, public transport, rest rooms, drinking fountains and restaurants for white and blacks. These laws were overruled by the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1965, but police brutality towards the black community has continued into the present, notably with recent murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Daunte Wright amongst others. In his adaptation of the book Sorkin enhances the character of Calpurnia, the Finch's maid. She adds a black woman’s perspective to the story and criticises Atticus for expecting her to be grateful for his doing what is obviously the right thing. It was a moving scene.


The character of Scout is portrayed as older than the original. In the book she grows from six to nine, but in the play she is a teenager and the theme of innocence is shown by the many humorous scenes between her, her brother Jem, and friend Dill. I think this humour would appeal to a teenage audience reading the book today. Players are Anna Munden, Sam Mitchell, making his professional debut, and Ellis Howard. 


All in all, it was a meaningful birthday event which Sue had organised for me. I came away thinking about the circular nature of time, of how we are able to revisit ourselves and the ideas, which were and which remain important to us, as we grow older. 


*From 'Mockingbird', sung by Dusty Springfield in 1965

**The story of Emmett Till has recently been filmed as Till (2022). it tells of a mother's relentless pursuit of justice for her 14 year old son.

My latest published article is 'An Adult Education Course on African Novels' in INSTED Vol. 25, No. 1(93), 2023. It began life as an Authors Electric blog, 'Turning the Page' (2/12/21) on this site.


Griselda Heppel said…
Thank you for this thought-provoking post. That was incredibly brave of you, years ago, to stand up against a group of racist thugs. One's instinct to keep one's head down is so strong, it takes real courage to overcome it and risk being beaten up oneself.

I notice you don't really review the adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, but overall you feel it was a good production. I will probably draw criticism for saying this, but I'm always uneasy when directors 'improve' texts to cater to what we expect now, not what audiences/readers would have expected at the time the work was written. I can see why Sorkin enhanced the character of Calpurnia but I wish he hadn't, especially for those students studying the book for GCSE. How many of them will reference the searing 'black woman's perspective' in their essays?

As anyone might guess from some of my posts, I do have a thing about bowdlerising classics to make them more palatable to present day audiences. Which is why I'm not continuing with BBC's Great Expectations after Part 1!
Peter Leyland said…
Thanks Griselda. You are right, it's not really a review but a retrospective memoir. Discussing the piece, Sue said that it was probably my teacher voice that sent the skinheads into child mode which I thought was incredibly perceptive. The ideas for it were spun out from my central theme about revisiting a once loved literary work.

Great Expectations is another one. We watched the second part last night and were shocked by its violence. Another much loved book. I said to her at the end that the men in the production have the legal and financial power, while the women have the social and sexual...

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