Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Set Texts - Andrew Strong

Without exception, all of the set texts I studied at school put me off reading literature for a very long time.

Dickens, Austen and Shakespeare: ‘Hard Times’, ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Hamlet’. Each of them rinsed, squeezed, hung up to dry, until there was nothing left but questions on the text, model answers, the dreary farce that is English literature for most school pupils.

As a child I read superhero comics. I loved all that stuff; the flawed hero, the ridiculous costumes: a perfect preparation for Jane Austen. After comics I read nothing at all. I don’t think I picked up a book for years.

Luckily, I found literature for myself through a curious route: pop music. Every evening, once I’d escaped school, raided the fridge, had a fight with my brother, kicked a ball against a wall for twenty minutes, I would retreat to my bedroom and lose myself in sound.
Music was more noise than anything else, a beautiful aural slush that obliterated the horrors of the day. When things were particularly unpleasant just a song title could whisk me off into a distant realm: John Cale’s ‘Paris 1919’; Nico’s ‘The Marble Index’.

And now and again a single phrase transported me from suburban south Wales into a parallel universe. There are lines from David Bowie’s songs that summoned up images that now, decades later, are still with me.

Millions weep a fountain, just in case of sunrise (‘Aladdin Sane’)

With snorting head he gazes to the shore
Where once had raged a sea that raged no more
(‘Drive-In Saturday’)

This isn’t Keats, but I’d had enough of Keats by the time I was fourteen. I needed to create my own world, and I couldn’t do that in the sweat and plimsoll stench of the classroom. At home, with Bowie, a few words would capture a thought and I’d be gone, lost.

These handful of images were a lifeline. I began writing songs, three or four chord constructions vamped on an old Bluthner in the front room. I grew to love the smell of that piano, the polish, the musty waft of the mechanism when I pulled off the panels to make the sound brighter.

And then, when all the exam revision was behind us, pupils were asked if we’d like to contribute something to the school magazine. I submitted some of my song lyrics, rewritten on Basildon Bond with an ancient fountain pen so my words looked like proper poetry, and every one of my efforts was selected for publication. To this day, it felt like the beginning of a new era. Someone was taking my writing seriously.

The meaningful texts of my youth were pop song lyrics. I don’t think of them as literature, but they did more to lead me to writing than ‘Pride and Prejudice’ or ‘Hamlet’. Decades later I’ve grown to love Austen and adore Shakespeare. I’d like to be able to say I’m fond of Dickens too. But two out of three isn’t bad.


Unknown said...

This is a great post, for a minute I was back in drone English counting down until breaktime and I was one of the few who loved the books.
Song lyrics have always been a source of inspiration to me.

Sue Purkiss said...

Really interesting, Andrew. My mind's gone blank now and I can't think of a single line - but I know there have been lots that have resonated... oh, wait, here's one: 'You're born into this world payin'/But it's into somebody else's purse...' - Bruce Springsteen. In a very deep gravelly voice. Great.

Hamlet survived school for me, but Hard Times didn't. Nor did Brighton Rock. But Donne did.

Am trying again with Dickens!

adele said...

It's not often that I disagree with someone writing on ABBA but I have to say if I'm being honest that studying texts at school did nothing but bring them to life for me. Often they were things I'd never have read on my own. I had brilliant English teachers and certainly Shakespeare came alive for me in a way that I don't think I'd have arrived at by myself. I loved all that close analysis too...and I can't think of a single book/play/poem that wasn't improved because I studied it. Which is not to say that Andrew has several good points....I don't know how effective studying a text would be in school if the child concerned wasn't somehow switched on to it at the start. In a great many schools I've seen teachers uncertain of how to teach poetry for's very hard to do well and not enough attention is paid to that kind of thing, perhaps, in teacher training colleges and universities. I do hope I've started a controversy!

adele said...

I meant: " not to say that Andrew DOESN'T have..." I mean, he's right about many things, like lyrics being a good way in for a lot of people, for instance, to poetry.

Anonymous said...

I agree with both! (Joni Mitchell for lyrics.) I listened to 'Emma' on CD recently and all the detail from my English A-Level came back to me and resonated. But that was 30 years ago in a different system and what concerns me about my son's GCSE curriculum now is that he seems to move through texts much more swiftly. About eight weeks on Of Mice and Men, a controlled assessment and that's it - now onto poetry. In my day we lived with the set texts for much longer, which did give you some chance to appreciate them even if you didn't like them much (Jonathan Swift) and in the end, you might end up loving them. And I had some fabulous English teachers too.

Liz Kessler said...

I think this is really interesting, and I'm on both sides of this. It took till I was 16 and had a wonderful English teacher for me to really love literature - and then I totally fell in love with it all, hook, line and sinker. But song lyrics have always been a big thing for me too.

I think the issue is that children all have different tastes and different styles, and that by trying to squeeze the entire population through a narrow band of what is considered to be 'literature' I think that a lot of them fall by the wayside. The key is to find creative and original ways to ignite a love of reading - or a love of anything else - in children. I believe that the outstanding teachers are the ones who manage to do this. And I'm so glad that one of those outstanding teachers came into my life in time!

Lynda Waterhouse said...

Funny how those 'set texts' resonate. I woke up the other day with the line 'I have seen my moment of greatness flicker' in my mind( oh the joys of middle aged angst!) which took me directly back to my A level set text of TS Eliot's The Wasteland and other poems. Its taken me a long time to understand that line. I too love song lyrics and am still working on my power ballad!

Abi Burlingham said...

Loved this post! I struggled with literature texts at school too and was a very slow reader, which didn't help. I also sought solace in music, and was (and still am) a huge David Bowie fan. My reading material consisted of the Asterix books, LP lyric sheets and the NME! Like you, I now feel I can cope, even enjoy, some of the texts that I used to find such hard work.

Sue Imgrund said...

Think I'll sit on the fence, too. In my early teens I knew both "Life on Mars" and "The Lovesong of J.Alfred Prucock" off by heart!

madwippitt said...

Ooooh yes, The Wasteland ... still as impenetrable and detested to me today as then. Why couldn't he have just stuck to Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, and I might have gained a better A level grade! Similarly F Scott Fitzgerald still leaves me cold ... yet I loved Chaucer and Shakespeare and Jonathan Swift and George Eliot - so much has to do with the way you are first introduced to these 'set' texts by your teachers.
I like the idea of doing a Shakespeare or Chaucer graphic novel though ... maybe that would help make it feel more approachable?

Katherine Langrish said...

Oh I adored 'The Wasteland' - still do, can quote most of it by heart - but then I never had it taught to me...

Linda Strachan said...

Great post.
I still cannot bear The Wind in the Willows since it was 'taught' at school, although Shakespeare was definitely more appreciated the more I learned about it from a great teacher.

But songs/ lyrics, yes, that wonderful combination of poetic phrases enhanced and emotionally charged by music.
Now that often sets off my imagination.