Sunday, 8 June 2014

Where Angels Fear to Tread by Keren David

I took O Level English Literature at a girls' grammar school in 1979. We studied three texts: Flora Thompson's Lark Rise to Candleford; E M Forster's Where Angels Fear to Tread and A Midsummer's
Night's Dream.  A play by the ultimate English writer, and two texts connected only by their utter Englishness.
I found the detailed social history contained in Flora Thompson's memoir of life in rural England completely tedious. Forster's examination of Edwardian snobbery and xenophobia in Forster's novel was somewhat baffling, sixteen-year-old girls not being best placed to appreciate a story about a middle-aged* woman's lust for a younger man (Eeeuw, yuck, disgusting). Re-reading it, 35 years later I was surprised to find it laugh-out-loud funny.
 I didn't enjoy English Literature O level, but I was good at it, and that was why I continued on to A level, which I found much more rewarding, with its wider (but still 100% English...not even British) texts.
Around the same time my husband received a reading list from his school. It included 22 plays, including contemporary works (Arnold Wesker's Roots, Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey), four plays by George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, and Sophocles' Antigone.  For W Shakespeare the list read 'Any Play'.
The list for prose was longer -  44 books. They included plenty of nineteenth century novels: Jane Austen, Brontes C and E, two novels by Dickens and one by Hardy.
There were many twentieth century texts, British, American and translated : Anne Frank's Diary; Of Mice and Men (and another Steinbeck), To Kill a Mocking Bird. George Orwell's Animal Farm and 1984; Nevil Shute's A Town Like Alice and The Pied Piper, Graham Greene's Brighton Rock, D H Lawrence Sons and Lovers.
The list covered many genres -  science fiction (Day of the Triffids); romance (Pride and Prejudice); historical fiction (Rosemay Sutcliff's Warrior Scarlet); memoir( Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals), dystopian fiction (Fahrenheit 451); mystery (Josephine Tey's The Franchise Affair) a western (Shane by Jack Shaefer) and a thriller (Alistair McLean's The Guns of Navarone).  There were several true-life stories from the Second World War, one by a Polish writer, one by an Italian and Alan Burgess's novel A Small Woman about a British missionary in China.
This list was clearly designed to be as broad as possible, introducing pupils to classic works of literature and inviting them to find out what sort of book they enjoy. It was challenging, interesting, reflecting different social classes and nationalities, as well as ethnic minority groups.
Should schools find this extensive list too short, there was a note: 'Candidates from Schools whose extended lists have been approved by the Board may, of course, refer in addition to texts on these lists.'  My husband remembers that pupils were told to read at least five or six of the 66 texts on the list, but he read at least 20, some in class, some from the local library. The final examination at the end of the course asked generic questions such as: 'Write about strong characters in some of the books you have read.'
This list  fostered a love of  reading in my husband which eventually led him to read English Literature at Oxford University.
The really interesting thing is that he was taking CSE English at a Secondary Modern school, a school to which he had been condemned by failing the 11 plus. CSEs were widely seen as useless qualifications for thickies, but I would contend that anyone who was given that list and had a crack at reading six books on it, would find something  enjoyable and challenging to read which might inspire them to read more in the future.

Our daughter took GCSE English recently, studying anthologies of poetry and short stories, a few scenes from Macbeth and Of Mice and Men; a syllabus which seemed to be designed for kids with short concentration spans. Of Mice and Men was the only text she read that ran to any length at all - all 107 pages of it. I have nothing against Steinbeck's classic, and certainly nothing against Macbeth, I am sure that the anthologies contained good material, but I have to admit to a great deal of parental frustration as I watched my daughter thoroughly turned off by this thin fare, and irritated by being asked to compare World War One poetry with Macbeth, an exam question that she found pointless and off-putting. .
I am writing this, of course, because of the recent kerfuffle over GCSE English, a row in which facts got lost to prejudice (for and against Michael Gove, for and against American literature, for and against Dickens and other nineteenth century authors).
Depending on who you read, Gove had personally interfered to ban books, or had bravely intervened to widen the curriculum, or Gove had nothing to do with any of it. As the saying goes, fools rush in, where angels fear to tread: it seemed as though the way the changes to GCSE English were reported and discussed was designed to make everyone look foolish (a Machiavellian plot by Gove himself, perhaps?)
I watched the row develop with increasing frustration, as it had so little to do with the actual crisis facing British children's literacy. Libraries are closing! Schools are being designed without libraries! Reading is being re-defined as deciphering phonics! School library services are closing! Children are spending more and more time glued to screens and less and less time reading for pleasure! These are the real crises, not whether Of Mice and Men remains on the school syllabus.
 When I read that Bailey's Prize winner Eimear McBride wants to spend some of her £30,000 prize money buying copies of Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird to give free to teenagers, I want to scream. These books haven't been banned, Eimear! Schools have so many copies that they will, no doubt, find a way of using them, perhaps by teaching them to Y9 pupils.  Instead, please give your money to the Siobhan Dowd Trust which has the simple and essential aim of promoting the love of reading among disadvantaged children and young adults.
Yesterday the review section of The Guardian newspaper asked a select group of authors and academics to pick GCSE texts (no librarians, English teachers or children's writers among them). The choice that make me giggle the most was put forward by Linda Grant: Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth. And the one with which I agreed  whole-heartedly was Hilary Mantel:
Should we play the Gove game, by setting up opposing lists? Or should we ask, which Gradgrind thought up the idea of set texts in the first place? Why should students be condemned to thrash to death a novel or a corpus of poetry, week after week, month after month? No novel was ever penned to puzzle and punish the young. Plays are meant to be played at. Poetry is not written for Paxmanites. Literature is a creative discipline, not just for writer but for reader. Is the exam hall its correct context? We educate our children not as if we love them but as if we need to control and coerce them, bullying them over obstacles and drilling them like squaddies; and even the most inspired and loving teachers have to serve the system. We have laws against physical abuse. We can try to legislate against emotional abuse. So why do we think it's fine to abuse the imagination, and on an industrial scale? What would serve children is a love of reading, and the habit of it. I wonder if the present system creates either.

*As a 16 year old I definitely saw Lilia as middle-aged and her love for a 21-year-old made me queasy. On re-reading I discovered she was only 33.


catdownunder said...

I had to move schools in the middle of the year which would have been the equivalent age at which you did "O" level - and found that the new school was doing an entirely different set of texts. I think it says something for the low standard expected that I just accepted this, read the new texts and passed the necessary exam. Although I loved reading and was considered good at English I was actually advised not to study English at tertiary level if I wanted to write - the advice was to instead "read and ready widely". I took the advice and have never regretted it.

Stroppy Author said...

I did O level English in 1975 and the texts were: Romeo and Juliet, Journey's End (play set in the WW1 trenches by Sheriff, early 20th c)), Erewhon (satirical dystopian novel by Samuel Butler, 19th c), a poetry anthology, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Power and the Glory (Grahame Greene, 20th c), The Mill on the Floss (George Eliot, 19th c). We wrote coursework on 3 (?) and were examined on the remainder, so not too much to revise but a good spread 2xdrama, 2xpoetry, 2xnovel, 1xpropaganda/satire/politcal discourse. I can't see how they can spread three texts over a whole 18 months. My daughter did GCSE English a couple of years ago and she did 5 texts. I agree, Keren, that the CSE approach sounds much more liberating - but, presumably, the teachers needed to be able to cover any and all of those texts unless they then restricted the students to their choice rather than an exam board's choice? It would certainly be a better way to go if it could be made to work to the students' advantage

Susan Price said...

Hooray for Mantel! - Not at all surprised that she gave the most intelligent response.

Keren David said...

Stroppy The CSE exam was all generic questions which could apply to all the texts, so there was a wide choice for teachers and pupils. For once, I think, the experience of learning was more important than the exam at the end. Which exam board did you have for O level? You had so many texts...and we'd never heard of coursework!

Obat pelangsing alami said...

Nice Post, and i still wait the update

C.J.Busby said...

I also read the Hilary Mantel quote and cheered - and read about Eimear McBride's plan to give away Of Mice and Men and groaned! How fabulously liberating the CSE exam sounds - but you know why they won't do it? It requires properly qualified markers and a lot of moderation, because the exam boards can't write 'tick box' suggested answers for their underpaid, overworked, under-qualified markers and hence will not be able to make a profit.

C.J.Busby said...

I should say, rather, as much of a profit!

Ann Turnbull said...

Yes, hooray for Hilary Mantel! And thanks for a brilliant post, Keren.

I've read nearly all the books you mention on your husband's list - not all while I was at school, but many as a young working adult - and nearly always getting them from the public library. None of these set texts were written with children in mind - which doesn't mean they can't enjoy them; but often they don't, and reading a book too early can put you off it for life.

Keren David said...

I agree, Ann, but 16 is the cusp of adulthood, and I think the compilers of the CSE list had thought hard about what sort of books might engage young adults. I'd love to know more about how this list was drawn up.

Keren David said...

I agree, Ann, but 16 is the cusp of adulthood, and I think the compilers of the CSE list had thought hard about what sort of books might engage young adults. I'd love to know more about how this list was drawn up.

Ann Turnbull said...

Yes, it's a very interesting list. I too was at secondary modern school, and then, from age 13, at a technical school, in the late 1950s. I don't remember studying any book by a living writer - though I may be mistaken! When I changed schools at 13, we had a wonderful school library. And my husband (at a grammar school) and I both remember having a "library" period at least once a week when we simply went to the library and read anything we liked. I also remember that right up till GCE 'O' Level our English teacher used to simply read to us for one period a week, and I loved that; I remember Dickens, Shakespeare, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, among others (the whole book as a serial, I mean, not excerpts).

Piers Torday said...

Hear hear Keren, well said