An Education In Canonisation

We’ll leave Old Rosie to teach her own lessons, and lend our ears to young Scout for this one…

Once upon a time, for the children of the late 20th century (that’s you and I) your literary education began with exactly that phrase, and read:

“Once upon a time, a very long time ago now, about last Friday, Winnie-the-Pooh lived in a forest all by himself under the name of Sanders.” ‘Winnie the Pooh’, by A A Milne (1926)

Or alternatively (depending which animal life your mini-me took fancy):

“Once upon a time there were four little Rabbits, and their names were- Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail, and Peter.” ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit’, by Beatrix Potter (1902)

[Brace yourself: I will now cruelly pull you back into reality, from that Eden, that Arcadia, the pastures of pastoral innocence of Hundred Acre Wood or Mr McGregor’s garden; although, like you, I would love to dwell there longer.]

You were loaded into the literary canon before you could even talk or walk, and your life’s education had begun. You were blasted toward an endless horizon of discovery.

Recent plans set out by the education secretary, Michael Gove, though, takes this analogy too far. His canon does not boost you, unfettered, to fly through the boundless skies of literary enlightenment, but through a theatre of war, in the midst of a time warp. The literary canon runs the risk of becoming destructively restrictive under the latest government proposals for changes to the GCSE syllabus, notably OCR’s. Following is an extract from the exam board’s reform summary, under the ironic subtitle ‘GCSEs going forward‘ (yeah, right):

“English Literature, which is no longer compulsory, focuses on four areas of ‘classic literature’…”

Of course, you have already been left in no doubt as to what subject I study. But you don’t have to be a student of English Literature in further education to have been immersed in the canonical troves from which Gove endeavours to thieve. The literary canon isn’t straightforwardly defined, and I refuse to become embroiled in the traumatic repetitiveness of the age-old debate ‘What is Literature?’ which had me and my fellow Englishites (Literarian? Why is there no name!) in knots. I mean, who will ever pinpoint (or care) what exactly the ‘chairness’ of a chair is‽  One useful, perhaps unsophisticated, but valid way to define the literary canon might be ‘the content prescribed for study in school and university courses called English Literature.’ There, on the first rung of this contentious ladder, as terrifyingly tall as the Beanstalk of our beloved Jack, I’ll tactically skirt the matter and leave you wanting more (ahem).

What I will do though, is demonstrate why, in my opinion, Gove is not only ‘shooting a mockingbird’ (the very tempting, fitting but predictable headline for an article on this topic – resisting was difficult) but committing a greater sin in foreshortening the life of a pedagogical and stimulating text. Harper Lee’s Pulitzer-prizewinning novel, written in 1960 (cue Gove and his gun), is not a ‘Boo’ of a book, but an ‘Atticus': it’s a difference-maker. Reading ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, at 15, was as much a coming-of-age story for myself as it was for Scout.

Gove’s choice to forefront pre-20th century texts (‘classic literature’) is far from reflective of my teenage taste at least, my own book shelf including a skim-read ‘Bleak House’, a once-read ‘Coming Up For Air’ and an over-read-to-ruin ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, soon replaced post-exam with “a celebratory edition to mark the fiftieth anniversary of this unforgettable classic.”

bookspic 2

Gove’s misconceived great expectations for his ‘new’ canon sends shrapnel flying. The proposed syllabus, to be first examined in June 2017, is set to be ‘increasingly challenging’ and ‘no longer compulsory’. Added difficulty could act as a 741 page long deterrent to all except the high-flying enthusiasts, with any anomalies rapidly rooted out by the comparable obscurity of Dickens and Eliot, and in a very long time from now (about next Friday) many less will know what it means for me to describe Gove as a caricature of his much cherished Mr Thomas Gradgrind. Far-fetched, I admit, but if his suggestions are to survive his successor, Nicky Morgan’s, term, ‘Gove’ could become a name brightly emblazoned with the responsibility for a significant decline in the nation’s passion for English Literature. Just as the Bible has fallen deep into a chasm of cultural loss, Dickens, Austen, Orwell and all that Gove endorses teeters on the cutting edge of hard times.

This canon is destructive. And equally restrictive, the phrase ‘pre-20th century’ implicates a parochial erection of a Union Jack which casts its bleak shadow over institutions of education. School gates should permit, rather than prohibit, the permeation of the cosmopolitan world. ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ engages with racial violence, rape and the social marginality of the depression-era deep south of the United States. Furthermore the novel, told in the uncertain voice of Scout, is a window flung open to just the kind of debate that makes teaching literature about ethics and politics as much as it is about language and form. Something that a syllabus of ‘Brit Lit’, of Dickens and Orwell, which harks back to the myth of a ‘pure’ origin of English Literature, uncontaminated by the unintended consequences of empire, and ignoring the multinational place that Britain is today, does not. ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ is the perfect comprehensible GCSE novel, in terms of its poignant characterization, momentous narrative structure and clear-cut themes. For it is about pertinent issues confronting, rather than evading, calls for greater social equality.  Violence towards women and racism are as real as ever and the value of Lee’s story lies in its openness, its accessibility and its relevance. It teaches lessons that have accompanied me until now and always.

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” – Atticus (And I’m not going to attribute this to Lee because this is no fictional voice, this is human morality talking.)


And it’s not just me. The unkempt diatribe you have just been subjected to grew from a tiny seed planted by a Mr Nigel Richardson, a man I doubt you know whom which I certainly don’t. But his article in the Telegraph a month ago quoted the exact same words in reference to the continuing civil rights protest in Alabama.

And so I realized that the Finch family were simply right in so many ways. And that they are still right, and as long as we can hold onto our multi-cultural United Kingdom, and refrain from regression into a pre-20th century, literary ‘island’ race, they will remain so.

So it’s not Rosie, but Michael (pity he wasn’t named Jim, would have been another subtle reference to the ol’ canon), who’s the toxic substance here. Attempting to poison the minds of the next generation with an outdated and exclusive ‘British’ fantasy far from our modern sense of the English identity, and worlds (rather than a North Atlantic Ocean) away from Scout, Jem, Atticus and Boo. A country unencumbered by racial and cultural difference; an unreal ideology intoxicating its students with insularity and intolerance.

That’s one small step for man in reversal of Scout’s giant empathetic leap for mankind.

P.S.  Ostensibly, I’m just asking for the whole ‘hypocrite’ critique- surprisingly it was marginally more difficult to borrow a pair of Michael Gove’s walking boots and take them for a hike than you might anticipate…

P.P.S. I’m sure he was doing his best and all.



Illustration for 'The Elements' in Antoine de Saint-Exupery's 'Wind, Sand and Stars'.

OxStu’s top 10 travel reads

To travel is to submit to a multitude of diverse and fantastic sensations. Whether it is the quiet contemplation of moving over sun-dappled water, the intense consciousness of our smallness that flight inspires, or the existential perspicacity that comes with being sick on a bartender in Ibiza,  travelling affects us about as powerfully as anything we can do as human beings. This is to say nothing of the destinations, the foreign, alien and uncanny cultures that render us vulnerable and powerfully anonymous in equal measure. In travelling, we escape ourselves, and sometimes find ourselves a little lost. Though not all strictly travel writing, these ten books (in no particular order) each have qualities that render them impeccable travel companions. These are books with the power to capture something of what it means to travel and see strange new things, and (more impressively) to set an odds-defyingly romantic tone for an otherwise torturous twelve hour train journey. So, if only for a few hundred pages, ditch the vac reading list; freshers-to-be, put down thy Norton Anthology and indulge in one of these delights.

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1. Wind, Sand and Stars – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry 

Aristocrat, writer, poet, pioneering aviator, Air Force hero, author of The Little Prince…forget Kerouac, if you want a real fearless adventurer, Saint-Ex is your (Renaissance) man. Perhaps not ideal in-flight reading for those who fear flying, but if you can handle Saint-Ex’s bafflingly stoical discourses upon the extreme hazards of flying over the Alps for French Aéropostale, the pay-off is a beautifully meditative monologue on our existence sandwiched between earth and sky. Plus, if you can find the Folio Society edition, Linda Kitson’s sparse, spidery ink illustrations (top) perfectly capture the dog-eared, adventurous eloquence of St-Ex’s prose.

2. Lonesome Traveler – Jack Kerouac

…well, maybe don’t forget Kerouac entirely, but, wonderful as it is, do try to resist the temptation of diving straight into On the Road, the travel equivalent of wearing a straw trilby abroad: ubiquitous, predictable and trying just a little too hard. Besides, Lonesome Traveler is arguably the better piece of travel writing, comprised of short, disconnected ‘sketches’, allowing Kerouac to whip from oily docklands, to dusty railway tracks, to desolate mountain top. The latter is a particular highlight, channelling Thoreau to sculpt a beautifully contemplative core to an otherwise idiosyncratically hectic, electric, Kerouacian rampage of a book.

3. Island – Aldous Huxley

Part-shipwreck-yarn, part-diplomatic-subterfuge, part-essay-on-Tantrik-Buddhism, part-utopian-mope, all entirely a work of genius. This is the kind of novel that only Huxley could write, and whilst it lacks the futuristic dazzle of BNWIsland is, for my money, the better novel. Rather than inventing new technologies, here Huxley employs his mighty imagination in melding Eastern and Western philosophies, sciences and beliefs into a stunningly coherent social vision. This is the quintessential primer for a vacation spent watching, pondering and exploring.

4. Good Morning Midnight – Jean Rhys

Stumble around Paris with the best, worst, drunkest flâneur ever committed to paper. Rhys’s trademark gloominess is here frequently alleviated by inspired touches of wry and absurd humour. This is unquestionably a depressing and lonely novel, but Rhys’ tragicomic vignettes of women in ridiculous hats and sinister figures lurking behind Pernods are insidiously fascinating, and draw you through the gloamy labyrinth of Paris like a bipolar Baedeker.

5. Tropic of Cancer – Henry Miller

Another alcohol-fuelled international stumble-fest, but one that makes for an interesting contrast with Rhys’. Whereas the latter trades on cynical humour and frank loneliness, Tropic of Cancer is full of generous spirit, reckless abandon and optimism. Miller revels, in page long sentences, in the sensual pleasure of food, drink, and beauty, both bodily and ambient. Miller’s proto-Beat zeal is a perfect catalyst for enjoying the atmosphere of one’s own surroundings when travelling.

6. The Cabala – Thornton Wilder

Get lost among the hazy, crumbling ruins of 1920’s Rome, and discover the enigmatic and faintly ridiculous Cabala, a secret society of intellectual aristocrats with some seriously twisted ulterior motives. Wilder layers Greek mythology, Roman legend, transatlantic intrigue and modern afflictions of the heart in a complex and satisfying vintage of a novel. A period piece certainly, and one that shows its age here and there, but the evocative portrait of Rome that is whipped up is surely timeless, and the absurdly tragic ensemble of Cabalists who, one by one, fall to pieces before our intrepid protagonist, are as memorable and entertaining as anything created by his more celebrated contemporaries of the Jazz Age.

7. Death in the Afternoon – Ernest Hemingway

A contentious book since its publication, Death in the Afternoon is a gruesome, poetic exploration of Spanish bullfighting. Though showing its age in Hemingway’s predictably hot-blooded celebration of the ‘magnificence’ of the sport, the book contemplates far more than merely the morality of bullfighting. After a somewhat repulsive initial hundred or so pages of goring and blood-soaked sand, Death in the Afternoon begins to evolve into a bizarre, sanguinary meditation on the bounds of human physical and mental endurance. This is a book that requires some tolerance and distance, but is ultimately a deeply rewarding exploration of the traditions that separate cultures, and the underlying human experience that unites them. An edition that includes Hemingway’s original black and white photographs is essential.

8. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon – Rebecca West

Dame Rebecca’s guide to Yugoslavia is, to paraphrase a great many critics, a really, really, really bloody long book. This is something that even its author readily admitted, writing that “in 1936 [I was moved] to devote five years of my life, at great financial sacrifice and to the utter exhaustion of my mind and body, to take an inventory of a country down to its last vest-button, in a form insane from any ordinary artistic or commercial point of view”. Perhaps not the most encouraging of prefaces, but one that does nothing to alter the fact that Black Lamb is one of the most underrated works of the 20th century. What began as an ‘inventory’ of a country expanded not only to brilliantly capture Europe shadowed by war, but also into a compelling portrait of one of the greatest minds of the 20th century.

 9. The Rum Diary – Hunter S. Thompson

Ignore the lacklustre Johnny Depp film, Hunter S. Thompson’s early work is a masterclass in rum-soaked debauchery and existential dread. Thompson’s evocative portrait of Puerto Rico is characteristically sweaty, seedy and sexy, oscillating between derelict apartments and private islands with a deftness of touch that outstrips even Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas for sheer sun-spotted ferocity. A good one to vicariously inject a bit of devil-may-care into an otherwise tame poolside escape, without actually having to take enormous quantities of LSD and kidnap a mentally disturbed painter with a penchant for Barbara Streisand. What’s not to love?

10. Zuleika Dobson (An Oxford Love Story) – Max Beerbohm

Missing the dreaming spires already? Beerbohm has you covered. This is a riotously funny little book that squiggles and squirms along, and despite celebrating its centenary in 2011, still feels exceptionally fresh and vibrant. When the eponymous Zuleika arrives in Oxford, love-struck undergraduates begin to drop like flies. Zuleika is all the funnier for the fact that, beneath the archly comic melodrama, lies a surprisingly accurate (and almost accidentally beautiful) portrayal of what it feels like to live and love (with varying degrees of success) in our strange little city.  Beerbohm was the caricaturist par excellence of the early 20th century, and this book, interspersed with his own illustrations, showcases his eye at its keenest and his wit at its sharpest. This is the man that took the piss out of Oscar Wilde and lived to tell the tale, prepare for a tour-de-force in tongue-in-cheek.

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London’s Young Adult Literature Convention


The weekend of the 12th-13th July the first annual Young Adult Literature Convention came to Earls Court. On offer was a wide range of panels, workshops, and author signings, as well as several publisher and book tables where you could browse the top Young Adult books of the moment. Sharing a venue with the London Film and Comic Convention made things both exciting, with the many amazing and complicated costumes, and hectic, with Earls Court seeing its worst ever queues on the Saturday (no doubt due, in part, to the presence of Stan Lee!). There were definitely some kinks to be worked out in terms of space and organisation, but on the whole Malorie Blackman, the current Children’s Laureate and organiser of the event, and the YALC team should be proud of a very successful convention.


The panels included author discussions on young adult literature concerning the appeal of dystopian fiction and fantasy novels, gender and heroines, and the appropriate presence or absence of sex in books for a young adult readership. Many of these prompted thought-provoking discussions and were attended by an audience consisting of a wide age range, opening up issues and questions as a variety of people saw them. Discussions on dystopia included a comment from Malorie Blackman (who was also fantastically dressed up for the comic con occasion!) that the genre was about “the power of the individual to effect change” and that, in a society and period of their lives where young adults may feel like they are not being listened to, this notion of individual agency really speaks to them. A particularly astute part of the discussion and an extremely interesting consideration came from Patrick Ness on the very nature of the dystopia, making the point that if many dystopian novels are about “how do you survive when the worst thing happens” then The Fault in Our Stars, in its own way, could be considered as a kind of individual or microcosmic dystopia. It’s “about the world ending and how you’re handling it”.


The panel on sex and sexuality in young adult fiction was one of the best with an extremely sharp and charismatic chair in James Dawson, the recently crowned Queen of Teen for 2014, who began with his introduction of the authors and their use of “sexy-funtime” which set the entertaining tone for the hour. The general and valid consensus was that many young adults are having sex, even if their parents do not want to think that they are, and that the fiction they are reading should reflect that, as well as the issues that can arise from being sexually active. In many ways reading fiction is an accessible and non-judgmental way for young adults to explore their questions on sex and sexuality without leaving them to the “mercy of the internet and Google”. Another topic that kept coming up was the concept of “gate-keepers” (teachers, parents, librarians, editors etc.) who may possibly stand between a young adult and a new book. The selection of authors on the panel, however, illustrate that it is possible to address sex without upsetting the “gate-keepers” because these issues can be addressed to varying degrees. Examples range from Beth Reekles’ “fade to black” sex scene for younger readers in contrast to Cat Clarke’s more graphic book in which sex is used as a weapon. While parents may want to censor their children’s reading to some extent, this can be done without skirting round the issue of sex completely.


The panels also included questions for aspiring authors of various young adult genres which was one of the most successful parts of the convention; these panels were directed towards a range of interests and topics, addressing questions on the genre generally but also the processes that the authors went through to write their novels. One question, for example, from James Dawson was on the process of writing a sex scene and getting in the mood: “Do you buy yourself a flower? Do you run yourself a lovely bath?” Some less romantic responses included Non Pratt’s method of just trying to “hammer it out” (expanded, after the laughter had died down, to her process of writing her favourite scenes first), but other suggestions came through as well, like Clarke’s “sexy-time playlist” full of ideas from her Twitter followers. While these anecdotes are amusing, the point being made here is how helpful these questions are to aspiring authors who may not know exactly how to approach their writing and just need a bit of guidance to see how others do it. The other panels were just as interesting and the vast majority of authors chosen to speak were compelling and engaging, but for the sake of space they cannot all be covered here.


The workshops provided a more intimate venue for sessions on ‘Writing Historical Fiction’, ‘Finding your Writing Voice’, and ‘Speed-pitching to Agents’ among others. The workshops illustrated some of the kinks that need to be addressed for next year because in the very loud Earls Court any speaker without a microphone had to scream to be heard, something to which the hoarse throats of the speakers by the end would probably attest. From the parts that could be heard, however, the workshops were extremely useful to aspiring authors and gave them an opportunity as well to practice their own writing under the watchful eye of an experienced writer. ‘Speed-pitching to Agents’ was an invaluable opportunity to quiz agents about the writing industry, invaluable because they are in such high demand now that it is almost impossible to get a publishing deal without one.


Looking at both the panels and the workshops, there was an excellent range catering to all interests, and the speakers were well chosen for their particular sessions. After buying a ticket to the venue, all of the events (though ticketed) were free and, in contrast to comic con, the signings were all free of charge as well. That is, as long as you were willing to queue, which resulted in quite a few clashes between the YALC queues and the people lining up for photos with Mr Lee! This leads on to one of the only problems with the convention: space. As it was the first time this event had ever been held, the level of attendance had clearly been underestimated. It is quite possible that the YALC could have worked as a stand-alone event even in its first year, but that is something that can easily be worked out for future years. Overall, for a brand new event, the organisation was very good and the convention provided an extremely interesting weekend.


Definitely keep a lookout for the Young Adult Literature Convention in coming years!


PHOTO/ Amber Tallon


100 years of magnitude: Marquez’s enduring legacy

It takes something special to start a new genre, and there is no doubt that Gabriel Garcia Marquez – known affectionately in his homeland of Colombia as Gabo – was very special indeed. His novels, including One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera, helped to put Latin American literature on the map. Alongside other authors such as Jorge Luis Borges, he helped forge the genre of magical realism, setting the path for authors such as Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy to bring the fantastic, spiritual, and superstitious into direct contact with the mundane and quotidian.

Although consensus on the exact parameters of magical realism remains disputed, the ethereal beauty of Marquez’s writing is clear. One Hundred Years of Solitude, the best known of his works and the first to garner global critical acclaim, follows the founding of the Colombian village of Macondo and its subsequent fortunes, tied closely to the Buendia family. Marquez fused magic, history and politics with such understated grace that it is hard to tell where each begins and ends. The result is a story which moves fluidly between poignant sorrow, vibrant comedy, and the quiet pensiveness in between.

Macondo, at first isolated in the heart of the jungle, grows and swells as the generations of Buendias pass by. Aureliano Buendia, the first child born in Macondo, has premonitions, becomes a comically incompetent colonel, fathers 17 sons by different women, and ends up “an artisan without memories, whose only dream was to die of fatigue in the oblivion and misery of his little gold fishes”. His great-niece Remedios unintentionally causes the deaths of many would-be lovers through her sheer beauty, before ascending into the sky one day whilst folding sheets. Gypsies bring magic carpets and daguerrotypes, rendered as faithfully as a harrowing account of the 1928 Banana Massacre. Conventional, it is not. Brilliant, it most certainly is.

One accusation leveled against Marquez is that he is too difficult to understand. Certainly, One Hundred Years of Solitude in particular is a complex series of interwoven narratives and repeated names – but that does not make it poor writing. It is certainly easier going than the works which it inspired, such as Midnight’s Children, and Marquez never seems so arrogant.

The novel’s saturation with folk myths and history means that each re-reading unveils facts which you missed before, new images which must be teased out – it is not a work to be rushed through. Marquez was not content with sticking to a formula either, and although his characteristic humour runs throughout his novels, he experimented widely. From the nameless characters of No One Writes to the Colonel through the ostensibly orthodox romance of Love in the Time of Cholera, he constantly innovated with a plethora of different styles.
For me, the legacy that Gabriel Garcia Marquez leaves to the world is in the incredibly personal touch of his books. Magical realism may be practiced for hundreds of years hence, but it will take another truly unique author to craft works of such exquisite beauty, which speak to the reader no matter their nationality. His writing is as ageless, beautiful, and indefinable as the lives of those he describes.



You’ve been reading … Charles Finch’s The Last Enchantments

“So what’s it actually like, studying at Oxford?”

After the awkward cough and shuffle that accompanies any admission of our alma mater, I am sure it is a question we have all been asked. My next step is always a brief exposition of the college system (that is both incomplete and inaccurate) and a poor joke about drunkenly stumbling on cobbles before I feebly trail out with the old lie: “It’s just like any other uni really…”

It is rare, then, to find fiction that perfectly encapsulates the contemporary Oxford experience. Brideshead Revisited may still be a handbook for students of Christ Church, but it is about as far from most of our lives asTrainspotting is. The Last Enchantments, however, manages to do just this, grippingly and with heart-wrenching pathos. There are gems of Oxford life within Finch’s first foray into a genre other than crime fiction: the frequent trips to Purple Turtle, the permanent backdrop of intellectual struggle and a cameo appearance at Hassan’s kebab van struck a particularly fond chord within me. Beyond the small jumps of excitement that come from reading about places that also form the background to one’s own life, Finch captures themes that resonate with Oxford students and then reflects them with a maturity, eloquence and sparkling humour that is both uncommon and addictive. In particular, the daily littleness of life amongst the dreaming spires, the feeling of unreality that occurs both when reflecting on home life from Oxford and thinking of Oxford from the shires, and the frequent meaningless romances that emerge from College life are expounded in light, beautiful prose; profound and yet not pretentious.

The Last Enchantments is a novel about youth and its loss, about love, about life. The protagonist, Will Baker (whom one can’t help but suspect is an image of Finch himself), is an American graduate student standing on the threshold of adulthood and placed before decisions about romance, career and nation that will profoundly shape his life. The choices are ones that are familiar and yet intensely moving: his long term and dependable partner Alison, left at home in the states, is placed in contrast to his British love, the beautiful and enigmatic Sophie and Baker’s lucrative career with a family friend in the city, the passion and excitement of the campaign trail and the ethereal promise of an academic grant pull him in different directions that cross oceans. Most of all, the novel presents the foreboding sense that, in one’s early 20s, one’s decisions begin to have serious and long term ramifications. Oxford is almost the perfect setting for this regretful leaving behind of youth: One line particularly resonates, when the university is given its perfect epitaph: “so much of being at Oxford is the stretch of days behind and before you, the feeling of shelter inside that great mammoth body, the security of it”. It is no coincidence that Le Grand Meaulnes is referenced early on in the novel; The Last Enchantments contains precisely the same sense of nostalgia and the fitful end of adolescence.  The sense of contemplative melancholy at the end is overpoweringly sad, and a fitting end to a novel that not only perfectly encapsulates being a student of Oxford, but also beautifully expresses the feeling of no longer being young.

The Oxford Student

One Step Ahead Since 1991