It is a theory I have been fomenting for several years now: the direction of one’s life in adolescence, as well as in subsequent years, is entirely dependent on whether one first reads The Catcher in the Rye or The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4.
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.”
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.
Walking into “Bang Said the Gun”, “the poetry event for people who don’t like poetry”, you will uncover an atmosphere of raucous revelry unique in the world of spoken word. Music blasts, the crowd wave their shakers (or, milk bottles filled with rice) and the hosts weave through the room, chanting and ramping up the merry-making. The night has experienced a surge in popularity of late, aided by the success of its own Rob Auton at the Edinburgh Fringe last year, at which he won Dave’s funniest joke award. From the off, the night storms along under the guidance of Jack Rooke, a slightly chaotic and irresistibly energised compère. Co-founder Martin Galton is the first to be introduced, and he launches into “Rude Bastards”, a familiar crowd-pleaser that soon has the audience bellowing back at him.
Then comes Rob Auton, a man who increasingly resembles a character from a Tim Burton animation, and whose look of wide-eyed naivety and wonder is in perfect accordance with his whimsical, absurd humour. His new “Face Show” appreciates the often overlooked charm of faces great and small, and he creates a moment of tenderness amongst the audience as he encourages us to search for a face we have never before seen. There is something in his poetry of a child’s ability to create poignancy by observing the everyday with new eyes.
The main attraction of the night is the appearance of Howard Marks, notorious drug baron turned writer, who opens by lecturing the crowd on “the anarchy of the English Language” and why money is literally a replacement for shit – accompanied with a lengthy exposition of Freudian psychology. His declarations espouse liberation from materialism and desire to live every moment, but regrettably this energy is not matched by vast passages of his prose, which sound as if they were being read from a textbook. But the moment he moves away from didacticism into a whimsical nonsense poem his writing shines. Each listener is gleefully caught up in his vivid, hallucinatory vision of a universe formed by the “Big Bong”, which culminates in Sad Adam and Christmas Eve getting rat-arsed on reindeer piss.
Yet it is not all fun and games, and James Bunting and Maria Ferguson draw us back to the recognition of poetry as an art with an unparalleled ability to expose the most vulnerable and oft disguised realms of our psyche. They provide the emotional core of the night, both reluctantly admitting that they “can’t do funny” before launching into their fast-paced, witty and ultimately solemn poems. Bunting reminds you how it feels to be in love as well as the acute pain of loss, while Ferguson mixes tales of halcyon, hedonistic days with moments of depression that form a microscopically detailed human tragedy.
The night concludes with the “Raw Meat Stew”, an open mic competition of unerringly high standards, with the winner claiming the Golden Gun Award and a 10 –minute slot at next week’s show. And don’t forget to stick around – in the downstairs bar the night is young for poet and punter alike.
Bang Said the Gun is at the Roebuck, 50 Great Dover Street SE1, every Thursday at 8pm. Tickets on the door £7/£5 concessions.
When browsing pictures of Ernest Hemmingway, there is always one recurrent pose that seems to captivate the spectator: it’s the image of a man sat at his type writer, his eyes fixed on the page, and a glass of drink held carefully in one hand – as if pondering both with equal interest. In time we have come to accept an almost romantic image of the writer and his bottle of whiskey. The trials of excessive drinking and substance abuse have become strangely tangled with literature and the supposed bohemian lifestyle we associate with artists. Of course, Hemmingway isn’t the only person to have followed the mantra of “write drunk, edit sober”; for many writers the accumulation of some kind of vice has fuelled their lives and work, allegedly leading to some of their greatest achievements but also to their downfalls.
In a way it’s easy to understand how such a solitary profession as writing can lead to alcoholism. Trapped alone with your pen and your notes, sometimes a bottle of wine is welcome company. But it isn’t always the remedy of the lonely artist; Hemmingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald used to drink together, touring the cafés of Paris in the 1920s and generating ideas as they went. For Fitzgerald, it was a recourse from depression; his failed marriage to Zelda had left him unhappy and self-destructive. But for Hemmingway it was part of the inspiration, allowing him to make “other people more interesting” and cope with the pressures of writing. In her book The Trip to Echo Spring, Olivia Laing explores the alcohol problems of many famous American writers. The title is taken from a work of literature penned by another notorious drinker: Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Brick’s line “I’m taking a trip to Echo Spring” is a euphemism for his many trips to the liquor cabinet where the character drinks to cope with depression and anxiety, just as Williams did throughout his life.
It should be noted that drinking isn’t the only bad habit that has accompanied writers to their desks. As well as his alcoholism, Philip Larkin had a weakness for hard-core pornography. He even carefully filed and catalogued the magazines he collected throughout his life in a true librarian fashion. But perhaps the most common form of literary experimentation is the consumption of drugs. In the modern world, drug literature has become a genre in itself: novels such as Trainspotting and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas have taken the substance out of the writers’ lives and put it into the book’s content. Yet modern literature cannot be credited with introducing the topic of drugs into writing; if you consider the Lotus Fruit in Homer’s Odyssey to be a kind of narcotic then it’s a topic that’s fascinated writers for millennia, leading to a long tradition of addicts including S. T. Coleridge and Stephen King.
Besides these writers, there are one group that are consistently associated with drug culture: The Beat Generation. Marcus Brown’s book The Road of Excess tracks the history of drugs and literature and understandably reserves a large portion of the content to discussing Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. The Beats were different from their predecessors in that, rather than just taking drugs for the experience, they used them as a symbol of rebellion. It was a method of fleeing from America and finding a psychedelic utopia in its place. But that isn’t to say that drugs didn’t play an important part in their composition; Ginsberg claims Kerouac wrote On the Road with a coffee in one hand and a joint in the other, causing him to write the novel at an incredible speed. All through his career Ginsberg advocated the use of marijuana and even wrote an essay ‘First Manifesto to End the Bringdown’ where he defended it. Ultimately it was their lifestyle that led to the 1960s counterculture and the antics of Bob Dylan and The Beatles.
Although there’s no doubt that writers have catered for their addictions alongside their work, the question of whether it actually helped them produce great literature is questionable. Does it displace you from reality and allow you to harness your creativity, or does it simply give you the will and energy to write? From one angle it could even be considered cheating, like using steroids at the Olympics. When recounting his time studying at Oxford, Christopher Hitchens claims “one was positively expected to take wine during tutorials” – a tradition that in my experience has been sadly forgotten. I speculate as to whether the university would ever reinstate such a custom, and if so, I wonder if my essays would get any better.
You are reading a detective story. You have spent hours following the plot of a murder case, carefully solving the hints and clues that will point towards the killer until, when you have finally endured enough investigation, the answer is revealed – it was Professor Plum with a lead pipe in the dining room.
Of course, that was how crime fiction used to work, but the days of country house whodunits are mostly over and have left the gritty narrative of modern crime fiction in their place. With sales of over £90m a year in the UK alone, it has become one of the best-selling genres of book throughout the country, prompting numerous film and television adaptations, and leaving devoted admirers such as myself eager for more. So why is it that even with such rising popularity and a loyal fan base, I still feel the need to refer to crime fiction as my ‘guilty pleasure’?
To begin with, this is due to accusations of crime fiction being non-literary; as a mainstream genre it has sometimes struggled to convince readers of its ‘scholarly’ merit or depth of narrative. Yet this has never been a problem for Ian Rankin, one of the UK’s best-selling crime writers. His latest book Saints of the Shadow Bible released late last year is a perfect example of crime fiction’s ability to blend an engaging plot with wider social issues. The novel continues his popular series of Detective Rebus novels, and deals with the aftermath of a suspicious car crash whilst simultaneously examining the history and importance of the police force. It is alluring plots such as these that maintain crime fiction’s significance through their ability to weave multiple strands and characters together.
Another feature that the genre is celebrated for is the credible settings created by the author, whether that’s the dark underbelly of Rankin’s Edinburgh or the dreary Yorkshire of Peter Robinson’s novels. Robinson’s most recent book Children of the Revolution, deals with the death of a humiliated lecturer and the series of revelations that follow. As usual, however, despite the interesting plot, it is Robinson’s protagonist Alan Banks that remains the most captivating part of the novel. Perhaps the most appealing aspect of crime fiction has always been the detectives themselves, as we marvel at their skill to solve complex puzzles and delve into the realm of their private lives which, as the plot gradually progresses, become just as problematic as the mysteries they are trying to answer.
Any doubt as to the endurance of crime fiction was quickly assuaged recently with the emergence of Scandinavian fiction. Although it has been criticised for its depiction of graphic and bloody violence, many have contested that the novels reflect the brutal nature of actual crime. Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole thrillers fit into this category, and are now some of the most popular books to have been translated. His last novel Police concerns itself with a range of rather dark and disturbing topics which other genres very rarely touch upon. Arguably that is what we have come to expect from Scandinavian writing since Stieg Larsson’s classic The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, where the character Lisbeth Salander actually kidnaps and tattoos a man in order to seek her revenge – something Miss Marple could only ever dream of.
In a way, the reason it continues to attract readers is because they know exactly what they’re buying; each story still comes down to the same basic formula: crime, investigation, resolution. As closed as this paradigm might appear, writers have managed to create countless variations over the years, and with a good crime book I still run the risk of not going to bed until the final page has been turned. When writing his own defence of crime fiction, W. H. Auden said “the reading of detective stories is an addiction like tobacco or alcohol.” I think it’s time we acknowledged this addiction and stopped shunning crime fiction as trash novels or non-literary. They’re thought provoking, intelligent, and most of all entertaining. So I urge you to pick up a book, feel the satisfaction when loose ends get tied, and maybe you’ll get addicted too.