Bin them! Ban them! decrees the Gove to all exam boards. Eh? Is this Private Eye? Or his usual whimsical malice? Or is he branching out into stand up? Who knows? Certainly not English teachers, who were, of course, never consulted. Perhaps these texts are just too enjoyable or liberal– or insufficiently difficult or punitive.
I taught Of Mice and Men so many times, I knew whole chunks by heart. I could wander round the classroom without the book and dazzle the inmates with some cheap Deep South histrionics.
“Why you speakin’ Welsh, sir?”
I still meet alumni, who quote bits at me in Ladbroke Grove. “I like beans with ketchup, sir!”
Or perhaps it’s the content? Both novels deal with the disenfranchised, racism, illiteracy, poverty and broken dreams.
Or are they just too popular? Their emotional frequency is perfect, their speech rhythms and vocabulary work a treat.
Or are they not as “good” as, say, David Copperfield or Huckleberry Finn? Well, perhaps not the latter, what with it being foreign and replete with American demotic. That seems to be the reason. The Gove wants to go back to British, with several hits of Dickens, Dryden and any old Trollope. With 16-year-olds?
The usual literati, who’ve not been near a classroom, are invited to choose their own. Some are fine. Most are crackers. Hanif Kureshi recommends Hanif Kureshi. Andrew Motion Wordsworth’s Prelude, a fantastic poem, but surely a bit of a jump for Dave Mania, after Kung Fu Head Crusher. And Blake Morrison Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, the best thing I’ve ever seen on a stage. If I taught it I’d get sacked. As for Linda Grant’s Portnoy’s Complaint, I don’t think we’d get much past the opening chapter in which our hero has sexual relations “with a big, purplish piece of raw liver”.
With pupils like Decibelle and Ronald Crumlin? “I fucked my own family’s dinner.” This may resonate rather well with teenage boys, but might resonate much less well with Middle England or the more fundamentalist religions.
Only Hilary Mantel gets it right. There should be no set books. Exams kill literature. Many teachers would agree, but even she needs to get real. The mites must be measured.
Meanwhile, couldn’t teachers just be trusted to create, control the exam and choose their own set texts to fit their own class, stream and catchment area? As if.
Ian Whitwham is a former inner city London teacher.