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The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Of Gove and Men

It doesn't surprise me that a Conservative Education Secretary would want to remove certain books from the school examination syllabi. It's more frightening that he is able to do so. It's also not so surprising that such a man would strongly dislike a book with the themes of loneliness, friendship and dreams. 

Like everyone  I read Of Mice and Men at school, but not for an examination merely in a third year English class taught by the inspired Mr Ritchie. It was the first book with genuinely adult themes that I  engaged with and it made me realize that novels were more than just stories you read in order to find out what happened. 

Mr Ritchie was a man with a mission. No doubt Of Mice and Men was the prescribed reading for the year, but after dispensing with that he took  the  decidedly nonliterary 14 year-olds  of 3L on an intellectual adventure. He decided we were mature enough to tackle King Lear (which at the time was an A level text). Boring? No. Because he also showed us clips from Jonathan Miller's 1975 BBC production with Michael Hordern in the lead so that we could see it as a play not just a text. 

Warming to his theme he decided that we should learn about the conventions of the renaissance revenge tragedy.  I remember sitting in the "stock cupboard" with several mates during an English lesson, reading Hamlet's "What a piece of work is a  man" speech  and then listening to the Hair version on an ancient record player. Brilliant, Shakespeare lives! I think the stock cupboard was sufficiently soundproof that the Cambridge trained Head of the English department wouldn't hear what we were up to.

Next up were the conventions of the gothic novel and the 18th century picaresque. He handed out to the class his own copies of The Castle of Otranto, The Mysteries of Udolpho, Dracula, Frankenstein, Vathek, Tom Jones, Tristram Shandy, Roderick Random and set us the task of writing a report showing how some of the conventions employed in these tales were still alive and kicking. Dry? Not at all, because we also had lessons in which he showed us clips from cheesy Hammer horror movies and from Monty Python sketches. Only connect.

I was given Tom Jones (I wonder if Mr Gove would approve of that?). I don't think I'd ever held a book that contained so many pages. I remember being disappointed because I wanted to read one of the gothic novels, but, with some reluctance I started to read it and to my surprise I found that it was   understandable, bawdy and quite hilarious.  By the time I had to give it back I must have read about 300 pages of a book that I would never have spontaneously chosen to open.

And then we were on to modern literature. Again Mr Ritchie distributed his own books. One of my friends got The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie  which I gathered was fun and I landed The Power and the Glory which was not. I think I found Greene's slim volume more of a challenge than Fielding. Since then I've changed my mind and despite failing to empathize with his Catholic sense of sin,  I've  read almost all his novels with pleasure and grown to admire his writing.

I suppose inspirational teachers like Mr Ritchie would be banned from today's classroom for not sticking to the prescribed texts. And look out if you point out to the Secretary of State that the subject is English literature not British literature. Patrick White, Naipaul, Joyce, Yeats, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner, Mansfield, Beckett, Synge away with you!  Far better if you to settle down for the night with a nice Trollope. Ooh, aah missus...

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