Hermione Lee on Tom Stoppards' Early Childhood & Going to School in Darjeeling

Hermione Lee on Tom Stoppards' Early Childhood & Going to School in Darjeeling

Literary biographer Hermione Lee recounts the gripping story of Tom Stoppard’s escape with his family from his home country, Czechoslovakia.

Stoppard was born Tomas Straussler to Jewish parents in Zlin, a Post World War 1 city that developed along with the shoe manufacturing company Bata. Following the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, his family fled to Singapore like many others. Political turmoil, however, pursued them to their hiding place; and shortly after, Japan invaded Singapore, killing Stoppard’s father in the attack.

Displaced yet again, his mother took the two boys—Stoppard and his brother—to Nainital first and then to Darjeeling in Eastern India, where she set up and ran a Bata shoe shop. Life limped back to normal as the brothers went to the American Missionary School at the town. Here, they learned English as boarders and their mother eventually met an English man named Ken Stoppard, who took the family to England. ‘At the age of 8, I put on Englishness as a coat,’ he is quoted as saying.

Somewhere under the coat, however, memories from his Himalayan past still lingered. He revisited Darjeeling in the 1990s and even wrote an Indian play. Lee speaks of a particular moment from his visit to his school in Darjeeling, when walking down the corridor, Stoppard spotted the bevel on the wall and ran his finger along the edge. The floodgates to the past were swung open, and although reminded of painful memories of death, chaos and dislocation, Stoppard felt strangely at peace by the wall. Watch more of this session to discover the life and times of the inimitable playwright and screenwriter.