25 May 2014

Please, Mr Gove, listen to my story...

I was only thinking last night that it was time I wrote my next blog post. However, I was unsure of what to write as I sat here at  my very English desk and gazed out at my piles of unread books that surround me and marvelled at the wealth and breadth of them and the pleasure of immersing myself in them one by one. The fact that most  were written in the English language as I cope better with it, does not mean that they were necessarily written by British writers or originally in English, or set within this assembly of small islands, however varied.

But then, I woke up this morning to a storm on Twitter about Michael Gove's latest stupidity. I read it first in The Sunday Times but, as there's a pay-wall which prevents me from posting a link, I'm using the the Guardian. Here it is:

I will not splutter my enraged thoughts about the man and his idiot Government department but will repeat again how I very nearly didn't become an avid reader or a writer thanks to the outdated English, male, blinkered teacher who forced me to study the most appalling jingoist English novels throughout the 1960s from the age of eleven to eighteen which are, incidentally, exactly the kinds of books Michael Gove wants to impose on today's youngsters.

No wonder I am hardly able to type or compose a coherent blog post. Please forgive me as I list some of the novels that were rammed down my throat when I was a teenage girl.

The White Company by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Prester John by John Buchan.
King Solomon's Mines  by H Rider Haggard
The History of Mr Polly by H G Wells
Kipps by H G Wells

No explanation needed. Also we read a lot of poetry of the "the Assyrians came down like a wolf on the fold" variety, The Charge of the Light Brigade, The Lotus Eaters. Not that they were bad in the same way as the novels I read. I actually preferred the poetry because of the language but again, where were the women? Or the post-colonial world for that matter?

The first Thomas Hardy I read at school was 'The Trumpet Major'. Not one of his best or typical Hardy but I did enjoy it although I found it heavy going.

Things looked up when I entered the sixth form and we had a new teacher alongside the one whose nick-name was 'Chuck' and whose name I can no longer remember. But again, he was middle-aged, male and white. But at least, with him we studied James Joyce's 'A Portrait of A Young Man' (which I quickly grew to understand and adore because of the adult way we discussed it) and we listened to an LP of 'The Wasteland' which opened my eyes and so I began to study twentieth century poetry although it was still white-male dominated.

But the seeds had been sown and eventually, as I recounted in this previous blog post I began to read voraciously from books I had never read at school - and, listen, Mr Gove - many of them were American. I remember picking up John Steinbeck and was overwhelmed by his wonderful books such as: 'Of Mice and Men' which turned the corner and I went on to gobble my way through 'East of Eden' and 'The Grapes of Wrath.' I was off and never looked back...Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and onto Kurt Vonnegut's 'Slaughterhouse Five.' So I finally grew up.

The one good thing I discovered in the sixth-form was going to the theatre. Where we lived was within a coach-journey of Stratford upon Avon, Leicester, Nottingham and Coventry. At those venues I saw everything from Shakespeare to John Osborne and Joe Orton etc. I even saw plays by Jean Paul Sartre who was a passion of our class. (I did so love it when the different subjects I studied began to coalesce.  This continued when I studied English for my BA and enjoyed a weekly seminar which was called 'Great Works' in which we read and discussed European Literature of our choice including such non-English luminaries Dostoevsky, Gunter Grass and Flaubert.

I am still catching up. But Mr Gove would like me to remain in the dark-ages, blinkered and very reluctant to read.  I doubt he will ever read this but I hope someone else does and is prepared to say no to the silly man.

PS. This post is probably full of errors and typos. I blame my anger, my recent stroke and not ignorance. Please bear with me.


  1. Excellent post, Sally. I too found some of the early stiff I was made to read at school dry and boring but fortunately was introduced to Steinbeck and JD Salinger which opened up literature. I just had a quick look on my bookshelves and found I had books by authors of over 25 different nationalities.

  2. Just spotted my typo - should be 'early stuff...'

  3. Like you, I had to read Prester John - and I'm not sure I want to thank you for reminding me!!

    As for Gove ...

  4. How was the socialist,feminist,all-round progressive H G Wells 'an appalling jingoist'?

    1. Thank you for your comment. I actually wrote that phrase before I even mentioned H G Wells. (I said I was not thinking straight!) However, much as I have no real objections to some of his other writing, but the main reason I was put off Eng Lit at school included his novels, Kipps and The History of Mr Polly (which I take it you have read) because they were hardly the kind of novels a forteen year old girl would choose to read. However I admire him for his socialism and his part in the founding what was then called The British Diabetic Association (now Diabetes UK) as I have had to cope with Type One since 1976. His relationship with women was a also a little unsatisfactory.