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?
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 . . . ‘
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.
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.