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The Moya Green Collection

The Perils of Literature

The Perils of Literature

There has been a great deal of controversy lately about the new GCSE English Literature syllabus. Apparently the old one was not English enough; it even included books written by Americans. Pupils might work their way through the whole course without reading anything published before 1901. Or at least, that was the impression one got from the newspapers. This would not do. ‘Of Mice and Men’ and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ must be turfed out to make way for ‘Middlemarch’ or similar.
            Academics and educationalist alike were outraged. Who was the Secretary of State to tell children what they should read, or teachers what they should teach? The Arts pages of the broadsheets filled with experts offering their own suggestions for what a reading list should contain, all different. The only thing everyone agreed on was that Literature should be taught.
            Is that necessarily so? Of course the opportunity to learn about literature should be available to all who want it. The love of good books should be nurtured – but is a formal course of study, based round arbitrarily chosen texts, with an exam at the end, the best way to achieve this? The response of readers to books is a very personal thing, influenced by the interests, the experience and the maturity they bring to them. A one-size-fits-all approach is likely to be counter-productive. This is particularly so in adolescence, with its rapid physical and mental development. Being introduced to a ‘classic’ when one is too young to appreciate it does a disservice to both reader and book.
            I can remember ‘doing’ books in school. We read ‘Treasure Island’ aloud, taking it paragraph by paragraph in turn round the class, for an entire year. Before we were a quarter of the way through, I was so bored I wanted to scream. I closed the book at the end with relief and have never reopened it. Yet ‘Treasure Island’ is an exciting story, which left to myself I would have loved. Further up the school there were interminable afternoons with a teacher droning on about ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’, which left me with a lasting distaste for the works of Thomas Hardy. I was a child who liked reading, so I only learned to hate the set books. If I had been a reluctant reader, the experience might have frightened me off books for life.
            So should we teach literature at all? Grammar, certainly, and spelling, even creative writing if they are really keen. Everyone needs to be able to communicate. But one could get through life perfectly adequately without reading a word of Scott or Dickens. Those who were interested would find them, and the others would never miss them. Maybe it would be better to plonk the kids in a library and let them get on with it. Yet that could be intimidating too. Some sort of guidance is necessary, but it should be guidance, not coercion. Reading is supposed to be enjoyable, but you cannot force people to like something. You can make them study it, analyse it, even memorize it, but you cannot make them love it. In fact, you are more likely to kill any love there was in the first place.
           Perhaps this is the answer: yes, try to pass on the appreciation of English Literature, (that is, of literature in English). But do not have a list of set texts, which everyone must follow; allow pupils a free choice of anything which interests them. Let them follow their own likes and dislikes. And definitely, no exams. A looming exam takes away all the fun. There should be no rewards or penalties: reading a good book is a reward in itself.
            Or maybe we should go one step further. The one D H Lawrence novel I really wanted to get my hands on when I was at school was ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’, and that was only because my mother confiscated my copy. The easiest way to make people want something is to tell them they can’t have it. So instead of presenting schoolchildren with a list of books they must study, why not draw up a list of forbidden works? If the classics of English literature were labelled ‘Adult Material – 18+ only’ perhaps they would become ‘cool’. Kids would spend their pocket money on smuggled copies of Shakespeare, and ‘David Copperfield’ in plain covers would be read surreptitiously behind the bike shed. Surely, if all else fails, it’s worth a try?

Spoilt for Choice

Spoilt for Choice

In the supermarket the other day, I wanted some cheese, so I went to the cheese shelf.  There were packets of the stuff, piled high, various brands, various prices, mild, mature, English, French – and they were all Cheddar. I was flummoxed. Which, out of all those on offer, was the one I would really like? Should I go for the most expensive, or the most heavily advertised, or the patriotic one with the Union flag on the wrapper? Why did they think I needed fifteen or twenty separate varieties of Cheddar anyway? In the end I gave up and bought Cheshire instead.
That is the trouble with choice. We are told it is a Good Thing. Every time the government decides to ‘reform’ something, we are told it is to give us more choice. When people are asked if they want more choice, they never answer ‘no’. So why is exercising that choice so stressful? And it is stressful. Even deciding what clothes to wear can raise one’s anxiety levels, and the more important the choice, the more frightening it becomes. Of course it is nice to have a choice, it makes us feel grown-up and in control – but what if we choose wrong? Choose the wrong outfit for the weather and you might be a bit uncomfortable; choose the wrong surgeon for your operation and you could end up dead.
The sheer number of possibilities can be overwhelming. We need some way of limiting our choices to make them more manageable. There are several ways to do this:
You can make your choice once, and stick with it. For example: ‘I don’t eat liver’ or ‘I will always vote Conservative’. The matter is settled, you never need think about it again. The drawback to this strategy is that it takes no account of changing circumstances, and may become increasingly obsolete. The style that you know suits you goes out of date, or the brand you like mysteriously disappears from the supermarket shelf. Then you are back where you started, the problem still unresolved.
You can get someone else to choose for you – parents, teachers, experts etc. Let the school decide what you should study, your mother decide on your career, your religion define your moral code. Why insist on doing everything yourself? Also, it gives you someone to blame when it all goes wrong. But it only works as long as the ‘someone else’ knows more about what you want than you do.
You can delay choosing as long as possible – also known as ‘keeping your options open’ or ‘dithering’. This has the advantage of flexibility, but it is the most time consuming. It can also result, if kept up for too long, in there being no choice left at all. If you leave buying that dress until you are absolutely sure you won’t find anything better, you might go back to the shop to find it gone.
I have to admit I sometimes feel nostalgic for the days when there were only two kinds of cheese on offer, and you could have whatever cold meat you wanted as long as it was boiled ham. Shopping may not have been as interesting, but it was quicker.  All this decision- making is tiring, not to mention tedious. No wonder comparison websites have proliferated; we are all hungry for advice and guidance. The seriously rich can even pay people to do their choosing for them – what luxury.
At the same time, this deluge of choice is in many ways an illusion. The really important things in life happen to us whether we want them or not. We can choose our doctor and our hospital, and whether to rely on the NHS or go private – but not whether, or when, to be ill. We do not choose our parents, or which country to be born in. If we have a religion, it tends to be the one in which we were brought up. We can, if we wish, choose to have children, but not (yet) their sex, or their personalities. Even when the choice is real, it is limited by what is on offer; how we cast our vote is up to us, for instance, but the political system is a given. And when the two main parties are practically indistinguishable, why bother? Hardly surprising that so many choose not to vote.
This is the attraction of dictatorship – the allure of the all knowing father/mother figure who will look after us and tell us what to do, what to think.  We need never worry about bad choices, ever again. It is comforting and relaxing – and utterly wrong. Exercising choice, discrimination, is a vital part is being an autonomous being, it helps to keep us alive. However stressed it makes us feel, it must never be surrendered. 
And now I have to choose where to end this article. I could go on for another hundred words or more, but I suspect I have run out of things to say. So – no choice at all, really. 

Doing the Pyramids



You can’t visit Cairo without going to see the Pyramids . . .




The main gate is surrounded by a gaggle of souvenir shops and ‘Papyrus Museums’.  When you go in the first thing you see is the Sphinx, looking very Sphinx-like. Actually that’s not quite true: the first thing you see is a man who tries to sell you a T-shirt. Then you notice the Sphinx. You can hardly miss it; it sits there, a gigantic Cairo street cat, waiting for its prey (the tourists) to come within reach of its claws. You can’t go right up to it (perhaps they are afraid people will chip bits off for souvenirs) but there is a ramp by the side which gives a good view. We took our photos, then set off up the hill to the pyramids themselves.

            It was a long, hot climb. Tourist in air-conditioned buses (jammy beggars) passed us on their way to the top. So did dozens of horse-drawn buggies, the poor horses labouring with their hooves slipping on the road surface; bad enough on the way up, but even worse on the way down, as the carriages had no breaking system (except the weight of the horse) to stop them careering down the hill.

            The whole place swarmed with police on white camels. People everywhere: offering camel rides, queuing for camel rides, taking photos, posing for photos, or just wandering around. Most were selling things - you can’t walk ten yards without someone popping up trying to flog postcards, pyramid paperweights, Arab head-dresses, sphinx pencil-sharpeners, statuettes of Pharoahs . . . some of their techniques are very sophisticated. There was the one who said he was a ticket inspector, for instance.

            ‘No, no, I not guide, I official, come this way . . . ‘

            We didn’t.

            One personable young man had a spiel which went: ‘You Egyptian? You look like Egyptian’ (anyone less like Egyptians than us it would be hard to find) ‘Where you from? Do you like Egypt? I give you present, as you lovely people.’ He thrust package into Geoff’s hand, ‘And you too.’ Did the same to me, then took out an ‘arab’ head-dress and arranged it on Geoff’s head. ‘No, no. No pay. I give. Now take photo?’

            Geoff shook his head. ‘No film.’

            ‘Right, I give you present’ He now opened my package, which contained another head-dress and three plastic pyramids. ‘I give you, you give me £E50?

            Geoff, firmly: ‘La. La baksheesh.’

            Pause. ‘Okay. Welcome to Egypt.’ Then he took back the headdresses, pyramids etc and went of to look for another sucker.

            One can’t blame them for trying, it’s their living after all, and that one at least had a certain charm. Also they don’t seem to hold it against you when you don’t bite. No doubt they know there’ll be another along in a minute. There must be plenty who do fall for it. After all, we did on our first day.

            Later I was having a sit down on a rock when a young man rode up on a camel. First he presented me with some miniature scarabs, and introduced us to his camel, whose name was Daisy. Then, striking a heroic pose, ‘You take photo?’

            ‘No film,’ we said. ‘No baksheesh.’

            So he took the scarabs back and cantered off.

            Oh yes, we did see the pyramids. They look just like their photos – only bigger, of course. To be honest, I thought they looked more romantic glimpsed in the distance. Nowadays one is so familiar with all the major ‘sights’ through television that it is impossible to recapture the excitement that earlier visitors must have felt, Sad, really.

            The Solar Boat was good, though. This was one of the funerary boats buried in ‘boat pits’ around Khufu’s pyramid. It has been excavated and reassembled in it’s own Museum next to the Great Pyramid. It costs extra to go in, but worth it, because the museum is air-conditioned and it has a loo! One drawback in all Egyptian tourist attractions I found was the lack of public conveniences. I spent much of my time with only half my attention on the ‘sight’ while the other half was scanning for the magic sign ‘WC’, and wondering how the touts and guides managed. (Later, while investigating a tomb, Geoff found the answer to that).

            And the boat was beautiful. Graceful, sweeping lines, looking as if she had been built yesterday. She was housed in a long room with walkways at various levels so you could get a really good look. The scent of cedar wood filled the whole gallery. It seemed incredible that after five thousand years you could still smell her. Only one thing marred the experience – one of the museum attendants, a young lad, insisted on following us around and trying to practice his English – but all he could talk about was football. So while we marvelled over the boat, and tried to work out how they could have sailed her (not that she had ever floated on a real river), all the time in the background there was this little voice going: ‘Manchester United – you like? David Beckham, very good!’ There was no harm in him, but he was like a mosquito, very irritating.

            As we made our way back to the main gate, an old bloke on a camel, in his full ‘Sheikh of Araby’ outfit, called out ‘Helloa!’ as he trotted past, in a perfect, cut-glass, Home Counties accent, which startled us somewhat. (Geoff later read somewhere, that some of the older guides had learned their English from British officers during the war.) Then it was time for a last shot of the sun setting behind the Sphinx, and we were out. We had ‘done’ the pyramids.





Why can't I swear?


It must be such a satisfying thing to do, especially when a heavy weight lands on my toe, or I catch my finger in the door jamb. Everyone else does it. You can’t turn the telly on nowadays without hearing shit bugger fuck bollocks. I blame my upbringing. My dad never swore, he had a real horror of ‘bad language’. I don’t know how he managed in the army. I remember I once said ‘bum’ in his hearing, and the telling off I got – I didn’t dare so much as think the dreadful word for years.

Of course, in those days even ‘bottom’ was a bit rude. You referred to your ‘behind’ or better still, your ‘derriere’. (These things always sounded more tasteful in French.) Crap or shit, if you absolutely had the mention it, was always ‘Number 2’s’, and you never ever went for a piss, or even a pee – ‘you ‘tinkled’ or ‘spent a penny’. This could lead to a certain amount of confusion, when I grew old enough to read the Sunday papers. I asked my mother once, what was this mysterious ‘intercourse’ which was always taking place?  I thing she said it was when a man and woman went off by themselves to talk, though she did not explain why this was grounds for divorce.

The swearing ban spawned a host of pseudo-swearwords: What the Dickens! and Great Scott!; drat and blast and ruddy and flipping heck. For years I thought that flip was a terribly rude word – which lent a certain frisson to instructions like ‘Flip the pancake . . . ‘.  The strange thing is that when I encountered the real word for the first time (scrawled on a lavatory wall), I knew immediately what it meant.

Now we find profanity and obscenity everywhere. The F word is hurled across the infant school playground with merry abandon. But I simply can’t take to it, and for a writer that is a grave handicap. One cannot be a serious exponent of modern literature while refusing to employ the language’s most common adjective. I try to correct my deficiencies: I watch as much late night TV as I can stomach, and I make a point of dropping the odd expression into my ordinary conversation, but I’m still not sure I’ve grasped the subtleties.. Only the other day I was crossing the road when there was this scream of brakes and a car stopped very suddenly just inches from me. The driver got very excited and started shouting, I couldn’t quite hear what.

‘Bollards!’ I shouted back.

Somehow it didn’t sound right.


How to ... procrastinate


I really should try and produce something for the writers’ group … haven’t written anything for ages. One ought to make an effort. What’s next weeks theme? An article on ‘How to … something.’ Well that can’t so difficult. Just think of something I know how to do, then write about it. The question is - what? Has to be something I can be witty and amusing about. Unfortunately nothing comes immediately to mind. Plenty of time, though.  I’ll just mull it over for a day or so.
How to, how to - what? Can’t think of anything I know how to do. Not that everyone else doesn’t, anyway.  Cooking ? Boring. Cleaning? Done that.  Weeding the garden? I’m hardly the expert. Avoiding weeding the garden?  That sounds more promising, but can I get a couple of hundred words out of it? Must give it some more thought.

Oh dear, I really meant to get down to some writing today, but Brian found some nasty spy thingy on the PC, and he’s been on all day trying to get rid of it. By the time he’d finished it was time to get dinner, and its hopeless trying to do any work in the evening, the old brain just isn’t up to it. Never mind, there’s still tomorrow.

Only of course by now it’s the weekend. Saturday morning’s for shopping in town. I know I do my main shop at the supermarket during the week, but you always need fresh veg and stuff, don’t you? Then Brian says, fancy going to the Fox for lunch, and naturally I did, so after lunch and a couple of pints, we got home about four and that was the afternoon gone. As for Sunday - well, you never get anything done on a Sunday, do you? I blame the Sunday papers. They shouldn’t make them so big.

Today I must concentrate.  Time is getting short, and I’ve still not decided what I’m going to write about.  Yesterday was a dead loss as far as writing went, as we had to go and visit Brian’s mum. She was very perky, considering, though the conversation did tend to go round in circles. She always asks, ‘Are you still going to your writing class?’ Makes it sound like Adult Literacy. Mind you, she’s marvellous for her age
I’ll just finish the chores, and have a cup of coffee.  And a quick look at the paper.  There now, I’m sitting down at the computer. Better check my e-mails before I start. That’s nice, someone on UKAuthors has commented on my latest post. I must see what they said.. Oh, how kind, I’d better send them a message to say thanks.  And take a look at their latest, I mean if someone takes the trouble to read and comment on your work, it’s only fair to do the same for them. And while I’m here, I may as well see if there are any interesting messages on the Forums … Good Lord, is it lunch time already? Where has the morning gone? And I’m supposed to be going out this afternoon. Oh well. I’ll have to do it tomorrow morning.


So here I am again, staring at a blank screen. And I still don’t know what to write about. Surely I must be good at  something?
Maybe I could do it for
next week.


            The Wonderful World of Spam

It's a marvellous thing, e-mail.  I hardly ever used to get letters, but since I got myself an e-mail address, I've become so popular you wouldn't believe.  In the last fortnight alone I got over a hundred and seventy communications,  all from complete strangers!  And a large proportion of them want to lend me money.  I am a bit short, as it happens, but how did they know?
        If they aren't wanting to lend me money, they are trying to give it me.  Or at least, show me how to induce other people to give it me.  Apparently if you send off $5 for a report - or make a report (I didn't quite follow the details) - but anyway you send it off to five different addresses and after a week or so sackfuls of money will start arriving through your letter box.  All in dollars, of course, but I suppose I could live with that.  It's all perfectly legal, they said so, and eight people have sent me exactly the same e-mail about it, so it must be all right.  There was another scheme, a bit similar, where you have to give them the names of three people, then those three give them the names of another three . . . and when they've got a hundred and twenty names they give you a car.  But I don't know.  They might want me to collect it, and America's a bit far.  I think I'll give that one a miss.
        Then there's the business opportunities.  Marvellous products and services that you can market online, and make a fortune!  They're a little coy about what these actually are (until you've signed up).  In some cases I'm not sure if there is a product, but the money is guaranteed to come rolling in.
        Really friendly, some of these e-mails are.  Like the one I had the other day from a young lady called Krystal.  She seemed to think she knew me, "Hi" she started off "how are you doing?  Why don't you drop by my website, I've got some new photos."  So I did, but I still couldn't place her.  Looked a nice girl though, as far as I could see (and too be honest, I could see more that I thought strictly necessary).
        One thing which fascinates me about these people who send me emails are their names.  They have such weird names, I can't help wondering what they are like.  I see Odessa Crowe as a tall, untidy female dressed always in black, while Pearlie Brantley must be small and round and should really be flogging tooth whitener.  Ofelia Downs sounds, well, a bit wet, while Napoleon Doty undoubtedly has world conquering ambitions.  As for Delmar Vogel - obviously a villain of the deepest dye.  Now I think about it, he was one of the gentlemen offering to sort out my septic tank.  Well. even if I possessed such an article, I wouldn't let him anywhere near it.  With a name like that, there's no telling what might end up there.
        Sometimes you open an interesting sounding e-mail, e.g. subject: secret of eternal life, only to find it starts nazzrimbo usg yd xadmuz . . .  this is very frustrating.  A surprisingly large proportion of spam emails consist of streams of gibberish, or turn out to be blank.  One wonders why the senders bothered.  One also suspects that they are the ones which actually do contain the secret of eternal life.
        And of course, if that is what you require, the Internet can supply it - or at least eternal health, youth and potency.  One gentleman even offered a miracle - though as he appeared to be functionally illiterate it was difficult to tell exactly what he was selling or how much he charged - but for a genuine miracle one must not quibble over price.  Some of the senders seem to have got their lines crossed a little - why do they imagine I need Viagra or penis enlargement? - but weight loss without the trouble of dieting sounds too good to be true (and undoubtedly is).  And I probably would prefer to have my colon irrigated in the privacy of my own home - but 'extreme cleansing'?  Sounds a bit drastic.  No, I don't think I'll bother. 
        But what have we here?  ''Improve memory, eradicate wrinkles and grey hair, lose weight while you sleep, strengthen bones and have more energy - send for free sample'?  Ah yes, I'll have a bucket of that!