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Mockingbirds and Rhododendrons

February 20, 2016

It was perfect.

I was six years old and had just moved to England. Next to our house, in rural Lancashire, was a wood, known as Bank Lane. “Bank” referred not to a financial institution but to the banks of the brook that ran through it. I see from maps that the brook was called Ransnap Brook, but we always knew it as ‘the brook’.

An earthen path made its way through the woods, a good walk where we often took our dog, who would roam about in the undergrowth. The trees may have been two hundred years old, and provided a dense cover in Autumn and Winter, with the patter of rain or the shifting, dappled light of the sun all around us.

At the end of the woodland a stile led on to an open rolling meadow with ancient single oak trees dotted about. Adults would often picnic in their shade, but for the children there were other attractions. Tarzan ropes hung from convenient branches, the ground below made bare and shining from the scuffing of hundreds of dangling shoes; damming the brook, with branches and stones and mud, was always enjoyable, especially with our parents’ dire warnings about “stagnant water” and “typhoid”.

However, the major attraction for us lay close to the entrance of the woods, across on the far side of the brook.

The banking there sloped quite steeply, the earth brown, thick and friable, and at the top was a plantation of rhododendrons.

They were ideal for our games, growing in stands and clumps, which proved good cover and natural dens for our manouevres. You could be hiding within feet of ‘the enemy’ and, assuming you didn’t move, cough or giggle, be completely undetectable.

We spent hours there, lost in our imaginings, as close to nature as we could have got, revelling in childhood – its fantasies, its possibilities and its sense of the immediate.

Best of all: it was “Old Joe’s Land”.

None of us knew who “Old Joe” was, or even, I suppose, if it was really his land. We had never seen him, knew nothing about him, nor had we heard any tales from folk who had come across him. However, of one thing we were certain, if he caught us on his land, it would be a disaster so great that we could not even begin to imagine it.

This ‘knowledge’, of course, made us tingle with excitement every time we crossed the brook. We would scan the bushes with eyes narrowed, commandos about to enter enemy territory, exchanging glances of bravado, seeking cover wherever we could find it.

As we got further into our game, there would be moments of forgetfulness, but, inevitably, sooner or later, someone would whisper-shout: “Old Joe’s coming!”

Panic would ensue as we hurtled out of our branch strewn hiding places, and ran, tripped, rolled, down the earthy slope to the brook, wet feet and socks no object, as we rushed to escape the terror.

Once safe, we would pause on the other side, and look back up the slope, half horrified at what we might see. We would be sure there was a rustling in the leaves, a movement in the branches. “There he is, I saw him!” someone would shout, and we would squeal our way out of the woods, relieved to have survived for another day.

It was the very definition of a secure childhood – where danger was invented and imagined rather than experienced, mock fear in the knowledge that everything would be alright – even though, in the real world, sometimes it would not be.

I remember going into the village Post Office with my mother. There was a man ahead of us at the counter, and, as he turned away after being served, he tipped his cap to my mother and, looking down at me, nodded and winked.

He seemed nice, and as we left the shop I asked who he was. The answer was: “Joe Beardsworth” – a common surname in the area.

I thought no more of it until I heard my mother tell someone we had seen “Old Joe Beardsworth” in the post office!

So this had been the horror lurking in the rhododendron bushes!

Once seen, our make believe was completely demolished for me. Even as recently as 2014, I paid a nostalgic visit to the village, and, noticing Joe’s grave in the churchyard, realised that, when he was “Old Joe”, he was, in fact, younger than I am now.

I thought of Joe and his rhododendrons when I heard of Harper Lee’s death yesterday. There are Mockingbirds in all our childhoods, and, if we are lucky, like Scout, we are cared for by adults who give us the strength to believe the truth rather than the exciting make believe, and to care for those who are seen as “different”. I don’t know if Joe was aware of his cult status amongst the village’s primary school children, but I like to think that his absence from the land when we were playing there suggests that, like Boo Radley, he enjoyed seeing us grow and play in those woods.

When a creative artist dies, tributes normally mix life and oeuvre, seeking to make the connection between the author and the work they created, matching its development to their own personal growth. So private was Nelle Harper Lee, and so minimal her output, that such an approach has not been possible. Indeed it seems we are mourning a book rather than an individual, which is maybe how she would have wanted it.

I must have taught “To kill a Mockingbird” to over twenty classes during my career as an English teacher. Each time I taught it, I gained a new insight – the best teaching involves learning, but it never failed to promote thought, reflection and engagement amongst the pupils.

In some ways, this was remarkable. It was set in a time and place theoretically difficult for them to understand; it is not brilliantly well written. For example, in retrospect, and to the adult mind, the long opening chapters, establishing the Finches in Maycomb County history, do much to explain the respect in which Atticus is held, and which enables him to be his own man. However, they were always a hard read for young people more accustomed to plot action, and increasingly detached from long, close, interlinked family histories.

And yet they stuck with it.

Harper Lee may have written about an unfamiliar place and time as far as my late twentieth century Scottish pupils were concerned – but what she wrote about was instantly recognisable to them. The closed world of the very young becoming slowly wider, the realisation that there is life beyond themselves and what they know, the consideration of evil and the acceptance of responsibility.

Pupils could feel Scout’s horror as, trapped by the ham costume, she heard her brother’s pain; they could clearly understand the injustice of the Robinson trial, and were frequently driven to anger by reading of his demise, and they could see in Atticus the reassurance and moral guidance of a much loved father – whether they had been fortunate enough to experience that for themselves, or not.

Mockingbird’s strength is that it captures the moments of childhood so accurately: the friendships, the sibling rivalry, the inexplicable idiosyncrasies of adults; the unknown fears converted into shadowy houses and twitching curtains, the cold ground in the shadow of the tree. In showing such insight, it leads the reader to trust in the more universal messages of the book, in particular Atticus’s exhortation that we should always walk around in the other person’s shoes, to see the world from all perspectives – surely the root of all positive life philosophies, be they religious or humanist.

Perhaps young people are affected by the book because they read it at a time where the natural optimism of childhood is being eroded by life experience. When Boo rescues Jem, when the Sheriff decides not to pursue the case, when Scout is able to climb on to her father’s lap, the message is given that sad and evil things happen, but there are people in the world who can give us the strength to withstand them. It is both comforting and life affirming, and provides a true rite of passage.

Ironically, particularly in the brouhooha over “Go set a Watchman” last year, Harper Lee eventually became a bit of a Mockingbird herself, talked about by many, known by few. Maybe the tomboy Scout, out of place as a “lady” in the genteel South, was written as a presentiment of Harper Lee’s own future – one who would understand the marginalized because she experienced the same treatment. Maybe it takes an “outsider” to highlight the flaws from which society may suffer.

Whatever the truth of the matter, we owe a debt to Harper Lee, for coming to the rescue of our Mockingbirds, and highlighting the strengths and sensibilities of the young,

No matter how many times I studied “Mockingbird” with classes, I always dreaded the final chapters of the book. It was always a struggle to read the scene where Scout steps on to Boo Radley’s porch and sees her childhood from his angle; tears were never far away, though I realized the pupils would need to live a few more years before they gained the perspective to be so affected themselves.

“Old Joe’s Land” is still there, untouched, and just as inviting, though now, in close proximity, is a newly built primary school.

This means that the cries and shouts of children playing still echo over the dense bushes of rhododendrons, and they echo down the years as well as down the slope and over the brook.

Which is as it should be.

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