Tayiba Sulaiman

The alternative life of Byron Wordsworth

This time last year, I was revising for my literature finals exams. At least, that was the idea. In reality, I’d sit down to revise and then swiftly begin planning everything I was going to do when said exams were over. I was going to learn a new language, trawl through every charity shop in the country, day-trip to the beach on a whim. I was ready to do anything and everything –– as long as it didn’t involve having to read all three editions of The Prelude.

I’d spent a morning trying to pull my second-year notes on the Romantic poets into order: a largely pointless pursuit. I’d studied that paper mid-pandemic, when you could only go into university libraries if you joined the mad rush to book a place in advance. (It probably wasn’t as difficult as I thought it was, but at the time it felt like trying to get tickets to see a very, very quiet Beyonce.) Despite a good tutor advising me to always use reliable editions, I’d abandoned actual books and turned to annotating Projekt Gutenberg ebooks instead. This strategy was perfect for searching a PDF of a novel for a specific quote and conveying total disregard for academic rigour. It was less ideal when revising, not least because every so often, the files corrupted so that every single character in the book was replaced by a random symbol. I put my head on the desk, then shut my laptop and went outside.

Alt text: A preview of a digital copy of James Fenimore Cooper’s 1826 novel, The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757. The text is corrupted: the title now reads “! "#$/&' ! 8()$*'#$ +, - ./ &0 ' $”.

A preview of a digital copy of James Fenimore Cooper’s 1826 novel, The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757. The text is corrupted: the title now reads “! “#$/&’ ! 8()$*’#$ +, – ./ &0 ‘ $”.

A good friend, Amy, was waiting for me in front of the library. She’d submitted her last piece of coursework earlier that day. We sat on Broad Street eating sandwiches in the sunshine, while I stared at the yellow triangles painted onto the tarmac and willed my brain to reboot. When she asked me what I’d been up to, I told her I’d been trying to revise the Romantic poets. “Coleridge, Byron, Wordsworth, them lot,” I said. 

“Oh Byron, like the TV presenter?” Amy said.

I blinked. “What?”

“You know, Byron Wordsworth,” she went.

“As in Lord Byron and William Wordsworth? They’re different people,” I said.

“Not them, I mean Byron Wordsworth,” she corrected me.

“Who’s Byron Wordsworth?” I asked, baffled.

“He used to have a children’s show. On CBeebies,” she replied. And then, just in case I wasn’t already feeling like I was in a fever dream, she added, ‘I’ve met him. He came to our house once to fit our bathroom floor.’

I burst out laughing and the conversation quickly derailed into chaos. With ten times the energy of that day’s library work, we began hunting for evidence that Amy hadn’t hallucinated the whole thing. A quick Google tells us that Byron Wordsworth was one of the storytellers on a children’s show called The Story Makers, filmed between 2002 and 2004. He was played by the actor Michael Offei, who also happens to have featured in Casino Royale. Before we know it, we’ve watched a whole episode. It features a segment about a blue cow (called Blue Cow) who travels to Athens to compete in the Olympic Games. She has cartoon limbs that defy the rules of anatomy and lips that would make a Bratz doll jealous.

Alt text: Blue Cow, a cartoon character from The Story Makers, taking part in an Olympic diving competition. She has a bright turquoise body and electric blue spots. Her face is electric blue and pink, and her lips are bright red. She is almost entirely vertical and her legs splay outwards at odd, alarming angles. In the background, you can see blurred spectators and the diving podium.
Blue Cow, a cartoon character from The Story Makers, taking part in an Olympic diving competition

As it turns out, all the show’s presenters were members of a fictional Wordsworth family who live in a library and come out at night to tell stories. The line-up included Milton, Byron, Shelley, Blake, Rossetti and Webster Wordsworth.

Byron had always been Amy’s favourite storyteller, and she’d watched the show all the time as a child. Fast-forward 10 or so years: her family had just moved and needed the flooring in their bathroom sorting out. An oddly familiar man appeared at their door to help out on the job. Their mum recognised him first. After a little while, she braved it, went up to where he was busy getting started, and asked him, “Excuse me, but are you Byron Wordsworth?”

Lo and behold: it was him after all. You have to hand it to him: that’s a diverse set of skills. I don’t think the real Byron or the real Wordsworth could have fit a bathroom floor, even if they’d worked together (which, considering all their textual sparring, seems unlikely). To Amy, Byron Wordsworth seemed to be a very nice man. She sent him home with some homemade fudge; he gave her his autograph.

While writing this blog, I played one of the videos at home, and my mum immediately recognised the theme tune, probably because twenty odd years ago, I’d watched the show too. When GCSE literature exam boards selected ‘She Walks in Beauty’ and a chunk of The Prelude for inclusion on their specifications, perhaps they thought they were introducing a generation to the English poetic greats. Little did they know they’d been pipped to the post by CBeebies, as this tweet demonstrates: 

A tweet by @coffeysweetener, which reads ‘Ngl I didn’t realise Wordsworth was an actual poet and every time an English teacher brought him up I honestly thought they were talking about that bloke from The Story Makers’, followed by a picture of Milton Wordsworth.

Of course, wherever classroom conversations assume prior knowledge of the literary canon, mix-ups like these ought to be expected; some people just happen to meet the adapted versions before the originals.

Amy and I are by no means the only ones to have met these Wordsworths before their namesakes. What I love most here is that a decade before Black and brown names appeared on exam curricula alongside more canonical literary figures, The Story Makers created a family of magical, non-white Wordsworths to keep kids entertained. Lord Byron (a writer whose fame was, after all, solidified through the exploration of non-white cultures in his self-fashioning and writing*) is reanimated as a Black storyteller, and became loved by a generation of tots. For good reason too.

Here, you can watch Byron make his entrance; he materialises out of thin air with all the glory of early 2000s special effects. The blue-tinted sunglasses, top hat, funky tie and gloves say it all. Librarians are cool enough already, but Offei presents Byron’s coolest alternative self yet. How can we dismiss a version of Byron who can produce stars from his fingertips? And anyway, why should we limit our curiosity to adaptations which aim for grave, adult importance? We can’t be self-serious all day long. Give me childrens’ telly which brings together two (wildly different) English poets to celebrate the heroic sporting achievements of a blue cow.

Unsurprisingly, discovering Byron Wordsworth didn’t transform my finals exams, nor my understanding of either of his namesakes. But the energy of that one lunchtime spent reliving a children’s show and reimagining the poets I’d been flattening into undergraduate exam essays lifted me out of a slump. I laughed so hard in that single hour that by the end of it, I felt like a different person myself.

There’s just one question I haven’t quite been able to answer: how did the show’s makers choose which names from the English canon to borrow? Did the actors have any part in picking an alias? I’m yet to find anything suggesting a connection between the show and the Lake District. I’ve been to the Lakes myself, but never spotted any clockwork librarians or neon puppets, not to mention colourful cattle. So if a friendly, sparky Londoner fitting the description of one Byron Wordsworth appears at your flat to fit your flooring, then I call upon you to join our research effort. Leave some daffodils lying about, watch closely, and let me know what happens next.

*For more on Byron and the Orient: Peter Cochran, Byron and Orientalism (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2006). Cantos II––IX of Don Juan also make for good (and entertaining) reading on this topic. There are many good editions of the poem, and a serious academic would recommend that you look at one of those. Between you and me, it is also on Project Gutenberg –– but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

About Tayiba Sulaiman

Tayiba Sulaiman is a writer and translator from Manchester. She joined the Writing Squad in 2020, won the Eugene Lee-Hamilton Poetry Prize in 2021, and has recently completed an Emerging Translators Mentorship with the National Centre for Writing. She has read her work at the 23rd Poesiefestival in Berlin.

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