A codpiece and LSD experience

Michael McMahonfears that films are giving children the wrong idea about Shakespeare

Poor old Shakespeare. His creative urge has deserted him. He's got to write a love story and he's forgotten what love is like. He hasn't dipped his quill in weeks. He is suffering - you guessed it - from that most distressing of conditions: writer's cock.

The idea on which the exhilarating Shakespeare in Love is predicated may not be good history, but it is a pretty good metaphor for the cultural condition of contemporary Britain, which is labouring under a double dose of literary impotence. Too many of our children won't read and can't write - and too few do either for pleasure. But they do watch films. So the appearance of one about Shakespeare, however fanciful, has been seized on by the organisers of our National Year of Reading as an opportunity to inject their drive for literacy with a shot of - well, sexiness.

For all the fuss that has been made, you would think that encouraging an interest in literature through films - and "sexy" ones, at that - was something new. In fact, for years now, virtually every 15 year old in the land has been shown the "Playboy production" of Macbeth, produced by Hugh Hefner and disturbingly directed by Roman Polanski.

The film is perverse, bloody and violent enough to capture the attention of even the most savage of our adolescents. What they remember, though, is not the all-important soliloquies ("Can we fast-forward this bit, sir?"), but the gratuitous violence ("Go on, sir, rewind it to the bit where he gets the arrow in his head!"). And, of course, the nudity. The witches get their kit off for Act IV, scene i, and Francesca Annis walks naked in her sleep.

Flesh is also exposed, and to a younger age group, in what was until recently the de facto schools version of Romeo and Juliet: a topless Olivia Hussey and a view, a tergo, of the unclothed Leonard Whiting. Romeo and Juliet might be only one of the three choices for the tests that children take at 13, but it has been the most popular - largely because of the availability of the heavily codpieced Zeffirelli film.

Until last year, that is. Then, the brilliant, glitzy, drug-culture-futuristic, US-set version came on the scene. No nudity, but the first glimpse of the sultry-sweet Leonardo di Caprio sets the girls' hormones racing as surely as a dropped match will ignite spilt petrol - which is precisely what happens in the "exploding gas-station scene" which begins the film, thus assuring the boys' attention, too. Now there's "sexiness" for you. And in their tests, the less gifted kids write things like "Mercutio wears ladies' underwear, and gives Romeo some LSD before the Capulets' party" and "Juliet is very sad when she wakes up to find Romeo dead, so she shoots herself." Which, in the film, they do. "Confusion," as Macduff might say if he were to mark their scripts, "now hath made his masterpiece."

Even a confused appreciation of a masterpiece is better than no appreciation, though, and these films do at least sugar the pill of literature for unletterly children. But when the government last week funded free showings for schools of Shakespeare in Love it was handing out a pill which is, educationally, sugar much of the way through. Yes, it's brilliant, witty, comic and affecting by turns; and at its heart lies an exultant love of language. As for sex, it knocks Polanski's Macbeth and both versions of Romeo and Juliet into a writer's cocked hat. There are unambiguous couplings aplenty, seen from (and practised at) all angles. It will be interesting to see how the less gifted kids express their memories of the film.

But perhaps we shouldn't be too cynical. After all, a good film is worth watching for its own sake. A few years ago, I showed one to some of my least able pupils. A colleague's description of a child's behaviour as "feral" had put me in mind of Francois Truffaut's L'Enfant Sauvage. It is the true story of the Wild Boy of Aveyron, found abandoned in the forest and experimented on by experts who wanted to see if they could make him read and write - and, indeed, speak.

My own experiment had interesting results. After some initial resistance, in which the cries of "Oh, sir, it's in black and white!" were quickly drowned by complaints that it was "in foreign", they were captivated. They watched it - an old, monochrome film in French, with subtitles and a relentless Vivaldi score - for the whole hour. There wasn't an interruption or a murmur - except for one of outrage when it is revealed that the boy's throat had been cut before he had been left for dead in the forest. They were hooked. When the bell rang, they complained that they would have to wait until the following week before seeing the end of it. "Does he learn to speak, sir? Does he get normal?"

I wondered why they had been so rapt. Perhaps it wasn't so strange. Some of their lives weren't so very different from the Wild Boy's. They all had difficulties with language, and several of them, from time to time, had lived rough. And when the Wild Boy threw down the wooden letters that he couldn't make into the words that he didn't understand, they knew what he was feeling. They were watching a free spirit being forced to fail at tasks in which he could see no purpose. They know how that feels.

The chances of my experiment being repeated on a national scale are not great. L'Enfant Sauvage might be, in a way, the film about literacy, but it is just not "sexy" enough for our image-conscious government. More to the point, when it touchingly invites us to question whether education is the most important thing in life, it suggests an answer that our political masters would not want to hear.

The writer teaches in a secondary school

This article first appeared in the 05 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Think, think and think again

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The war on poaching

More than 1,100 rhinos were killed for their horns in Africa in 2016. Quasi-military conservation units are trying to stop the slaughter.

The Savé Valley Conservancy, 900 square miles of pristine wilderness in the Lowveld of south-eastern Zimbabwe, seems like a paradise.

Drive along its dirt tracks, past flat-topped acacias and vast-trunked baobab trees, and you scatter zebras and warthogs, impalas and wildebeest, kudus and waterbuck. Elephants lumber through the bush, leaving destruction in their wake. Giraffes placidly return your stares. Baboons cavort in the trees. A crowned eagle flies overhead with a rock rabbit in its talons. A pack of exquisitely patterned wild dogs lie on the warm red earth. There are lions and leopards, too, but out of sight.

My guide and I meet Bryce Clemence, the stocky, bearded outdoorsman who heads the conservancy’s Special Species Protection Unit (SSPU), by a muddy waterhole so that he can show us the most special of those species. He and a couple of his armed men lead us a few hundred yards into the bush before silently motioning us to stop. We wait, move on, stop again. Clemence points. Thirty yards away stands a two-tonne rhinoceros, a 15-year-old bull. It cannot see us, for rhinos have poor eyesight. It cannot smell us because we are downwind. But it senses our presence. Its ears revolve like miniature satellite dishes.

As we study this magnificent, primeval beast through our binoculars, one thing quickly becomes apparent. It has no horns. Normally it would have two, weighing seven kilos or more, but they have been removed in an effort to protect it. Rhino horn fetches around $60,000 a kilo in China and other east Asian countries, where it is considered an aphrodisiac and a cure for diverse ailments. This animal’s horns would have been worth more than $400,000 – a fortune in Zimbabwe, where the average household income is $62 a month and unemployment exceeds 90 per cent.

Sadly, not even de-horning works. Poachers will kill de-horned rhinos for any residual horn. In February 2015 they shot a six-month-old calf for just 30 grams of horn, Clemence tells me.

Savé Valley may look idyllic, but it is a front line in a war against rhino-poaching. More than 1,100 of the animals were killed across Africa in 2016, leaving barely 20,000 white rhinos, classified as “near threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and 5,000 “critically endangered” black rhinos. What distinguishes Savé Valley is that it has begun to turn the tide, but only because it has access to the sort of funding that most African national parks can only dream of.

Clemence’s quasi-military operation consists of 35 highly trained men, all expert trackers, supremely fit and equipped with semi-automatic rifles and radios. Working in pairs, they do ten-day stints in the bush, monitoring the conservancy’s 168 rhinos from dawn to dark and endlessly searching for human tracks – or “spoor”.

They are supported by a canine unit whose two Belgian Malinois dogs can track at night and over rocks; a substantial network of paid informants in the surrounding communities and beyond; four 4x4 vehicles and 12 motorbikes; and nearly 100 armed scouts employed by the two-dozen private ranches that make up the conservancy.

Even that force is insufficient, Clemence says. The poaching gangs are growing more sophisticated. They now use high-powered hunting rifles with silencers to shoot the rhinos, and AK-47s to ward off the rangers. Sometimes the poachers use AK-47s against rhinos too: in 2014 one was hit 23 times.

They have begun using poison. One poacher was caught after laying oranges and cabbages laced with the pesticide Temik in the path of a rhino – Temik is nicknamed “Two-step” because that is how many steps an animal takes before dying. Another poacher planned to poison a waterhole, but was thwarted by an informer. “Poisoning is disgusting because it’s totally indiscriminate and has the potential to do massive harm,” Clemence says.

He has also caught poachers preparing to use the sedatives ketamine and xylazine. Having darted a rhino, they would then hack off its horns before it woke. They once hacked off the horns of a rhino that had been knocked out by a bullet and it woke with half its head missing. The creature survived for a week before Clemence’s unit found it. Vets had to put it down. “When you catch a poacher you want to beat him to death with a pick handle and very slowly break his bones, but you have to be professional,” says David Goosen, manager of the 230-square-mile Sango ranch, which forms part of the conservancy.

The odds are stacked against the SSPU in other ways, too. The poachers are paid well by the syndicates that run them – perhaps $5,000 each for a kilo of rhino horn. And even if caught, their chances of escaping punishment are high. Thanks to bribery or incompetence, just 3 per cent of prosecutions for rhino poaching in Zimbabwe end in convictions.

“You have to virtually catch them in the field red-handed, and even then they often get away with it,” Goosen says. “As soon as they get to the police station, a well-connected lawyer turns up, which means someone higher up is looking after their interests.” The maximum sentence for intent to kill a rhino is nine years for a first offence – less than for stealing cattle.

The SSPU is prevailing nonetheless. In the first three months of 2012, when Clemence arrived, the conservancy lost 14 rhinos. In 2015 it lost 12, last year three. It has also defeated Zimbabwe’s most notorious rhino-poaching gang.

Tavengwa Mazhongwe learned his craft from his older brother, “Big Sam”, who was killed poaching in 2009. Mazhongwe was responsible for at least 150 rhino killings, including many in Savé Valley. In December 2015 Clemence learned he was planning another attack and put his rangers on alert.

They found the gang’s spoor at 6.30 one morning, and tracked the four armed men in intense heat for nine hours. The gang took great care to cover their tracks, but late in the afternoon the rangers found them resting in a river bed. The rangers opened fire, killing one and seriously wounding a second. Mazhongwe and one other man escaped, but he was arrested near Harare two weeks later and given a record 35-year sentence for multiple offences. A judge had to acquit an officer in Zimbabwe’s Central Intelligence Organisation who drove the gang to the conservancy in a government vehicle because, he complained, the police did not dare investigate govenment officials. The rangers recovered an AK-47, a Mauser rifle with silencer, an axe, rubber gloves, a medical kit, tinned food and a phone-charger pack.

“You’ll never get to where you say ‘we’ve won’, but we have won in the sense that we’ve brought poaching down to a manageable level,” Clemence says. “We’ve taken out some of the most notorious syndicates. Victory will simply be breeding more than we’re losing and having sustainable numbers to pass to the next generation.” He hopes that the conservancy’s rhino population will reach 200 within two years, enabling it to relocate some animals to other parts of Zimbabwe where the battle is going less well.

The SSPU’s success comes down to skill, motivation, organisation and – above all – resources. The unit costs $400,000 a year, and is funded mainly by foreign NGOs such as Britain’s Tusk Trust. It receives practical support from the conservancy’s private ranches, some of whom – given the dearth of tourism – have to generate the necessary funds by permitting limited elephant and lion hunting for $20,000 an animal.

Zimbabwe’s national parks have no such resources. That is why private conservancies have 80 per cent of the country’s rhinos but 1.5 per cent of its land, while the parks have 15 per cent of the land but 20 per cent of the rhinos. Within a few years most of those parks will have no rhinos at all.

Martin Fletcher’s assignment in Zimbabwe was financed by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

This article first appeared in the 05 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Think, think and think again