~ Posted by Maggie Fergusson, August 24th 2012

In our current issue, Victoria Glendinning offers us several versions of Tom Stoppard—playwright, screenwriter, Chelsea conservative, campaigner, patriarch. I’d like to offer one more.

Earlier this summer, Stoppard visited teenagers at George Green’s School on the Isle of Dogs. It was July, and warm, so his arrival cocooned in a long brown overcoat suggested he was nervous. The expressions of his audience, many half-hidden in hoods and hijabs, were difficult to read. The atmosphere was tense.

Then Stoppard seized the initiative. “I’m Tom,” he said, and lifting the microphone from its stand he went wandering among the pupils. What books had they been studying; and what did they think of them? He wanted the truth. If nothing else, he was determined to convince them that their reactions to literature were valid, and valuable.

Never think of “writers with a capital ‘W’,” he told them. Never be “dazzled” by texts just because they’ve made it into print. Above all, never imagine that an author knows what a book is about, and that the reader’s task is to crack his secrets: “You are entitled to find your own metaphors.”

Often, Stoppard confessed, when he reads reviews of his own plays, he is astonished by what critics have discovered in them. He feels like a traveller hauled over by customs officials, who pull extraordinary, exotic items out of his luggage. “And I have to say, ‘Yup. I agree it’s there. I just don’t remember packing it.’”

He wanted the pupils to feel confident about writing, too. Forget long words and tricky syntax; all that really mattered was “the detonating effect of simple language in the right context”. At about their age, he’d been to see “The Tempest” in an Oxford college garden. As darkness fell, “Ariel ran away from us across a lawn, and then across a lake, and finally as he reached the further shore and was engulfed in shadows, a rocket was let off—whoosh—into the sky.” All this magic from a two-word stage direction, "Exit Ariel".

Very quickly, Stoppard had the teenagers wrapt, and bursting with questions. Did he re-work his plays as they moved from page to stage? Yes. He often tweaked a play when he saw where it was going to be performed—“if I was staging something in this room, for example, I’d be immediately excited by the fact that it has four exits.” A down-at-heel school hall was suddenly filled with possibility.

Finally, holding the microphone very close, and looking hard into their eyes, he left his young audience with a poem by Christopher Logue—a bracing invitation to be brave, to take risks, to believe in themselves:

Come to the edge.
We might fall.
Come to the edge.
It’s too high!
And they came,
And he pushed,
And they flew.

Tom Stoppard's visit to George Green's School was part of a joint initiative by the Royal Society of Literature and the charity First Story.

"Parade's End", Stoppard's adaptation of Ford Madox Ford's novels, is on BBC2 on Fridays at 9pm until September 21st

Maggie Fergusson is literary editor of Intelligent Life and director of the Royal Society of Literature