It’s not often you can say that zombies have been a blessing, but such are the strange turns of fate which shape our lives that such a statement was recently proved true.
Zombies – or more precisely, a recently released film entitled ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ – was reviewed in glowing terms by Samira Ahmed several months ago on Radio 4’s arts flagship programme ‘Front Row’ . After hearing the review, I tweeted her (very down with the kids) and she replied. This led in turn to a twitter conversation about our favourite adaptations of Jane Austen.
Eventually, I invited her to speak to the girls in the Sixth Form about the books she loves and with characteristic generosity, she accepted. Thus it was that last Monday we hosted the very wonderful Samira Ahmed at the school.
For those of us of a certain age, Samira Ahmed was for a number of years in the 1990’s the face of Channel 4 news. More recently she has moved across to arts broadcasting and reporting and now she hosts ‘Front Row’ and makes programmes for the World Service among other things. You may have heard her being interviewed about her teenage diaries as part of that series. Passionate, multi-faceted and polymathic in her knowledge of the arts, she swept all before her when she spoke to the girls and the staff. She was a breath of fresh air which invigorated us and left us wanting more.
The event kicked off with a free- wheeling Lit Lunch when Samira asked the girls what they were reading. For her, ‘Hamlet’ was the breakthrough text, and the question was, why do we tend to think of Hamlet as a moody teenager, rather than a grown adult? She moved on to ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and told us about ‘The Power’, a novel by Naomi Alderman (currently being serialised on Radio 4), about a world where women have control over men – they can ‘zap’ them with a strange form of power. In this alternative universe, it is men who feel physically vulnerable and women who wield the power of violence. Intriguing idea. A copy has been ordered for the Library.
We then decamped to the Mem Hall where the whole of the Sixth Form was waiting. The Lit Lunch was the hors d’oeuvre; this was the main course. Showing us a series of slides taken from the media, the US elections, magazine covers, Samira encouraged us to deconstruct images which have become so normalised as to seem innocuous. We take for granted that most political reporters are male; we take for granted the imagery of magazine which show women as vulnerable. She was at her most politically polemical when berating the results of the US election and the way Hillary has been unjustly traduced and how women’s rights are now under threat. She targeted the new Jane Austen bank note with its sentimentalised (and inaccurate) image of the author and pointed out how the quotation on it about loving reading actually is spoken, not by Austen herself, but by Caroline Bingley – not a great reader, but pretending to be to hook Darcy! The new book on Jane Austen by Helena Kennedy, ‘Jane Austen: The Secret Radical’, was singled out for praise. If all the men in ‘Sense and sensibility’ are inadequate or awed, perhaps Austen was making a surreptitiously radical point about the male sex...?
And so it went on. It was a rich, fertile presentation which left our minds humming with new thoughts and fresh ideas. At the end she was surrounded by girls wanting more. I do hope she comes back. In a couple of years I will ask her again. In the post- truth world of contemporary politics, we need people like her in the school more than ever.