Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Celebrating Christmas

A place for wonder

One more mad week of term to go, and such a lot to do!
          Assignments to hand in, marking to hand back;
                    reports to be filed, revision to plan;
                              parties to dress up for, decorations to sort out;
                                        presents to think of, meals to anticipate;
                                                  expense to worry about, shops to stampede…

And now … breathe!

Why do we do it? Perhaps because there is an impulse in most of us to celebrate the wonder of giving and generosity, of anticipation and arrival, of light in the darkness; an impulse to recapture the joy we knew as children.

Lost hope

Of course now we know that gifts don’t actually come from a jolly man in red and many of us may be struggling to buy for extended family members in whose homes we’d rather not be over Christmas. We may have become cynical.

The English poet and novelist Thomas Hardy grew up going to church and clearly took on board the biblical account of Jesus’ birth in a stable and the later medieval legends that grew up around it. In The Oxen, he portrays the belief that the animals, in whose stall the newborn was laid, knelt in homage to the Christ-child, recognising that he was the son of God, and continued to commemorate his birth in this way ever afterwards.

But as Hardy grew older he became disillusioned with the practices of organised Christianity and the way in which so many Christians behaved. His later works are gloomy about there being any divine providence at work in the world, regarding such a belief as a ‘fancy’ unsustainable in ‘these years’.


Yet Christmas without hope is an empty celebration, at best merely a guzzle of materialism. Which is why Hardy’s poem still strikes a chord today – because he captures the longing within us all for a better way to live, a gentler, more loving way of relating; hopes which, according to Christians, are made possible by the arrival of that tiny baby in a stable far from home.

Thomas Hardy’s The Oxen

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
‘Now they are all on their knees,’
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
‘Come; see the oxen kneel,

‘In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,’
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

Merry Christmas everybody!

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

The art of studying short stories

Short stories are sometimes rather tricky to answer on in an exam.

With a novel or play you can:
  • Trace the development of characters
  • Work out how the plot is layered and structured
  • See how recurrent imagery develops themes the writer wants to convey.
Studying a collection of short stories is rather different, particularly if they do not contain recurring characters or settings.
  • As opposed to novels, short stories frequently start in the middle of events, rather than providing significant exposition of character and situation
  • Rather than showing the long term development of a protagonist, they capture a moment in a person’s life and/or a shift in awareness
  • Instead of the satisfaction of a ‘closed’ ending, short stories often leave the reader to suppose what might happen next and create their own resolution. 
A collection of short stories is inevitably a more multi-faceted way for an author to communicate their ideas. They can play with different perspectives, bring out contrasting nuances, experiment with different styles. Because of this, the student needs to engage in each individual episode, yet also be able to stand back and pick out key similarities and ideas which run throughout the collection.

A new text guide on James Joyce’s Dubliners

Launched today is a helpful, free student guide to help you get to grips with Dubliners, by James Joyce. Dubliners is a collection of fifteen short stories that depict the everyday lives of the inhabitants of early 1900s Dublin, Ireland.

Each story focuses on different characters, but the Dubliners text guide demonstrates how several themes recur throughout the book:
  • Religion
  • Politics
  • The backwardness of Ireland
  • The desire for escape
  • The passage from childhood to adulthood. 
The collection starts and ends with death - the passing of an aging priest and the loss of a young lover.

An alien culture

As the title suggests, all Joyce’s stories are linked by being set in one Irish city, which has its own distinctive culture. Because the Dublin slang and customs of the early 1900s may faze some readers, the Dubliners text guide provides clear and concise explanations of unfamiliar terms to help you navigate your way through the narratives.

Meanwhile, as a handy reference, you can also read each Dubliners story online.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Teaching Peter Shaffer’s Equus

Help when you need it most

We’re getting to that point in the term when energies are starting to run low and inspiration is drying up. That’s not just A Level Eng. Lit. students but their teachers too! Yet, before mocks kick off just before or after Christmas, exam texts need to be completed and revision undertaken.

Thank goodness help is at hand for anyone studying Peter Shaffer’s Equus. Launched this week are a series of Equus worksheets for teachers full of ideas for the classroom which get across to students the key aspects of the play. When you just can’t think what to do in your next lesson why not explore what’s on offer?

The free, downloadable pdf files cover subjects such as:
  • The way Shaffer has structured the drama
  • The impact of it’s opening and ending
  • How the play was originally staged
  • Analysing the effect of the influences on Alan, such as:
    • His parents
    • Religion and worship
  • The outworking of specific imagery through the play.
Not only are these resources brilliant for teachers, they’re also a great help for students who need to catch up missed work (after absence) or revise the play.

Clarity for the confused

There is already a helpful guide to Equus at, which offers scene synopses, commentary and in-depth analysis. As with all material, there is lots of help to explain the context of the text. For example:

  • On-site you’ll discover how the play shows the influence of Bertolt Brecht, as well as using symbolic and expressionist theatrical elements (see
  • The many pagan and biblical allusions (which are challenging for twenty-first century students and teachers) are all made clear, so that you can zip through each scene.

Although Equus was written in the 1970s, it has a lot to say about today’s culture, which can lead to thoughtful debate. May you have enough energy left to make the most of the play!

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Helpful productions of A Level syllabus Shakespeare

Book now!


  • ACS Random.  Park Theatre, London, 2 – 14 December (020 7870 6876). 
  • Sonia Friedman Productions.  Directed by Lyndsey Turner.  Benedict Cumberbatch as (Hamlet). Barbican, London, 5 August – 31 October 2015 (0845 120 7550)

Henry IV, pt.1

  • Royal Shakespeare Company. Directed by Gregory Doran. Antony Sher (Falstaff)
    • Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, 28 October - 1 November (01274 432 000)
    • Theatre Royal, Bath, 4 November -  8 November (01225 448 844)
    • Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury, 11 November - 15 November (01227 787 787)
    • Barbican Centre, London, 29 November - 24 January 2015 (0845 120 7550). [P]
  • Donmar Warehouse.  Directed by Phyllida Lloyd.  Harriet Walter (Henry IV).  Donmar Warehouse, London, 3 October – 29 November (0844 871 7624). [P]
  • Pleasance, Inner London. 26 Nov – 4 Dec. (0207 609 1800). [P]

King Lear


A Midsummer Night’s Dream

  • Questor’s Theatre, Ealing, London, 11 – 15 November (020 8567 5184). [P]


  • Frantic Assembly.  Directed by Scott Graham.  [P]
    • The Curve, Leicester, 28 October - 1 November (0116 242 3595)
    • CAST, Doncaster, 4 - 8 November (01302 303 959)
    • REP, Birmingham, 12 - 15 November (0121 236 4455)
    • The Lowry (Quays), Salford, 18 - 29 November (0843 208 6000)
    • Lyric Hammersmith, London, 13 January 2015 - 7 February 2015 (020 8741 6850).  
  • Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. Directed by Iqbal Khan. 4 June – 28 August 2015. (0870 609 1110) [P]

Richard III

  • Theatre Collection, Upstairs at the Lord Stanley, London. 10 October – 2 November.  [P]
  • Theatre Royal, Norwich. 11 – 13 December. (01603 630 000) [P]
  • The Cotswold Arcadians. Directed by David Sherratt. Hatherop Castle School, Gloucestershire, 20 - 25 July 2015. Open-air production. [A]

The Tempest

  • The Apollo Theatre, Newport, Isle of Wight, 15 – 23 May 2015 (01983 527 267).
  • This Last Tempest.  (adaptation) Uninvited Guests & Fuel.
    • Festival Theatre, Malvern, 4 – 5 November (01684 892 277)
    • Quarterhouse, Folkestone, 7 – 8 November (01303 858 500)
    • Cambridge Junction, Cambridge, 26 November (01223 511 511)
    • Lakeside Theatre, Colchester, 27 November (01206 873 261)
    • Theatre Royal, Margate, 28 – 29 November (0845 130 1786). 

Twelfth Night

  • English Touring Theatre (ETT). Directed by Jonathan Munby. 
    • Grand Theatre, Blackpool, 28 August – 1 November
    • Watford Palace Theatre, 4 – 8 November
    • Cambridge Arts Theatre, 11 – 15 November
    • Hall for Cornwall, 18 – 22 November
    • Richmond Theatre, London, 18 – 22 November (0870 060 6651)
    • Theatre Royal, Brighton, 25 – 29 November (08700 606 650). 
  • Watermill Young Company. Directed by Seamus Allen. Watermill Theatre, Newbury, 12 – 15 November (01635 46044).  [A]
  • Brighton Little Theatre,  

The Winter’s Tale

  • Lion and Unicorn Theatre, London, 9 December 2014 – 3 January 2015 (08444 771 000). [P]

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Here to help with Advanced English

Starting out

Welcome to all who are starting a new course in English at AS / A2 / Undergraduate Level! Many of you are sixth-formers, a month into your new course and probably already experiencing the significant change of academic rigour compared to your studies so far. It’s about this time that the first AS/A2 essays are being set and the rubber really hits the road!

To help you make the huge step up from GCSE, if you go to Successful study you will find lots of helpful guidance about getting to grips with different genres and advice about how to approach A Level standard essay writing.

You will also know by now what set texts you are studying and may find a range of them covered at Detailed text guides.

Here’s what one A level student wrote to a member of the Xref team this summer:
I remembered your email about Crossref-it and I just wanted to say a HUGE thank you for pointing me in that direction, it's been SUCH a huge help. I emailed my class and teacher saying how useful it had been, and that they might like to look at it, and they all emailed back saying it was a complete life saver. 
I used The White Devil and Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience. The context sections were AMAZING because they really related to the texts in a way that you could use the information to illustrate a point in the exam. Also, everything was so concise and well-worded that I didn't have to spend ages trying to figure out what in particular they were referring to and how that tied in with themes etc.
Sharing the good news is just what we like, so please be as generous as this student was in letting your mates know that they don’t have to struggle alone.

Going further

Meanwhile, many undergrads are just about recovering from Freshers’ Week and now engaging with their first lectures and seminars. Crossref-it material isn’t designed to sustain you as you develop your critical faculties at degree level, but for first year undergrads it can be a life saver!

Suddenly you are expected to make sense of texts in just one week rather than a term of teaching, and to have a grasp of a much wider literary scene. That’s when the Aspects of Literature and Writers in context sections really give you a head start.

As another student told us:
Great for studying. So much information. Wish I had discovered it earlier! Will continue to use it all throughout university. :)
We’re sure he won’t be the only one!

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Take a look at this new A Level Eng. Lit. site!

Super-slick and shiny

Throughout the summer the team at has been updating the design of the site so that the user experience is even better.

  • It’s even easier to find what you need to succeed with the demands of A Level English.
  • Beautiful clean lines and simplified pages make it a joy to use.
  • More effective content organisation echoes the premise behind the Cross Reference Project: that users can see how closely one text relates to another and to the context in which it was created.
  • Knowing how many students access via mobile or tablet, we’ve implemented responsive design across the technologies - any transition from mobile to laptop is so smooth that is almost unnoticeable. Whatever the size of your screen, Cross ref-it will adjust its display to suit.
  • It’s still as fast as ever.

But don’t take our word for it – have a look yourself!


Please visit the new and let us know what you think. Tell us what you appreciate and why. And if there’s something we’ve got wrong, just let us know ASAP and we’ll endeavour to put it right.

An improvement further

Probably most helpful of all, is still free!

We want as many of you to succeed with your studies as possible. Although we carry some minimal marketing, in the interests of your academic progress, we don’t want to distract you with endless adverts – unlike other free sites which rely on advertising for finance. But you will understand that nothing can be run on thin air.

So here’s one further benefit of the new site, both for you and the Cross Reference Project:

  • The clean interface can be even further enhanced by your generosity. If you could make a donation to the running of the website, we will disable all the advertising whenever you sign in to your account for the next twelve months as a little token of our appreciation.

That way, there’s mutual success:

  • we can continue to innovate and produce outstandingly helpful resources which
  • help you stand out from the crowd academically.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Villainy and vengeance

Taking the law into our own hands

Most people have been shocked at the images on the news last week about the summary execution of James Foley, just as they were by the murder of Lee Rigby in 2013. Both deaths were prepared for and carried out by people with a grievance – people wanting to ‘get their own back’, not on the victims themselves but on those the victims represented.

Vengeance is a powerful motive for crime. It is particularly associated with people who set a lot of store by status and the impression of power. When this is dented or removed, such people are impelled to restore their own honour, or that of the family or group they represent. Typically the vengeful will brood over the perceived wrongs that have been endured, until the thirst for retribution pushes aside any moral considerations they may have had and turns them into villains. They no longer trust that the law will deal appropriately with the object of their obsession. Although they may, like Hamlet, be conflicted over the idea that retribution should be left to God, rarely does this actually stop them, until it is too late.

Time to reflect

Revenge is sometimes hasty but more often delayed following the initial offence. And it is the means by which such vengeance is enacted that provides the plot for many a literary work. The time lapse allows for twists and turns of fate, for an examination of motive and character, for feelings to turn murderous and potentially worthy characters to tip over into villainy. From Chaucer to the twentieth century suspense thrillers of page and screen, via the revenge dramas of the Jacobean dramatists and the careful plotting of Dickens and Poe, audiences have been absorbed by humankind’s capacity to plan evil.

A Level exploration

It is a fertile field to explore for an individual or genre study. That’s why have provided some help along the way by giving you a guided tour across a variety of texts and genres of how villains operate and vengeance is enacted. Only connect: Villainy and vengeance also provides the source material which so many writers drew on – the murderous outcomes of classical myths and gritty retribution in biblical narratives.

There will be many more stories on this theme than you’ll find on site, but Only connect gives you a standing start on your way to academic success.