“Tormento” by Benito Pérez Galdós

This post is intended as part of the celebration of Spanish Literature organised by the book blogs Caravana de Recuerdos, and Winstonsdad’s Blog. If you haven’t yet visited these two blogs, may I warmly recommend them both.

 

I’m not sure why translator Abigail Lee Six translates Tormento, the original Spanish title of the novel, as Inferno: there is no explanation given in the introduction, and there are no explanatory notes at the end. Even though I don’t speak Spanish, Torment would surely, it seems to me, have been a closer translation, and would have suited the content admirably.

However, I was not going to allow what I trust is a minor quibble to put me off this book. From what I have read so far, Benito Pérez Galdós is among the finest of 19th century European novelists, and his relative neglect outside the Spanish-speaking world seems to me inexplicable. Translations of his novels are hard to come by: even Fortunata and Jacinta, generally acknowledged to be his masterpiece, seems to go in and out of print. There have been translations also of a handful of his other novels, but they are not always very easy to get hold of, and so, whenever I find any translation in some second-hand shop, I tend to pick it up immediately without further thought. This one has been on my shelf for about a year or so now, and when Richard from Caravana de Recuerdos and Stu from Winstonsdad’s Blog suggested a Spanish literature month, it seemed an admirable opportunity to catch up on it.

055The novel Tormento (I might as well use the original title) was published in 1884, shortly before Fortunata and Jacinta. The scope is considerably narrower, but the social context is familiar – not merely from the other novels by Pérez Galdós, but from the works of virtually any 19th century European novelist you may care to mention.

The novel starts in the form of a play: two people bump into each other in the streets of Madrid, discover that they know each other, go together to a nearby café, and have a conversation about various other people. It’s these various other people the novel then focuses on, consigning the two people we meet in the opening chapter to the periphery of the action. I don’t think I have come across an opening gambit quite like this, and I must admit I am not sure of Pérez Galdós’ purpose in doing this.

Perhaps the intent was merely to provide a contrast to what follows – of leading us to expect a certain kind of novel and then confounding those expectations. For in that conversation in the opening chapter, we find that one of these two characters writes a popular serial in a journal: from what he says of it, what he writes is very sentimental and melodramatic. But, after that first scene, Pérez Galdós takes us into a very realistic milieu, far removed from any hint of melodrama or sentimentality. We are presented with a picture that we may expect perhaps from a Balzac novel: there’s a middle class family, shamelessly buttering up a wealthy cousin and happy to accept whatever droppings they can from his table; there’s that wealthy cousin himself, a businessman who has made his fortune abroad and who, despite his wealth, knows nothing of the niceties of Madrid society; and there are two other cousins, sisters, from a good family but now fallen on bad times; one of these sisters is obviously turning to prostitution, while the other, Amparo, is horribly exploited by her middle-class cousins, who treat her with a sort of baronial condescension.

All this is very well done, and presented with wonderful irony and psychological insight, and with a Balzacian awareness of how society is structured. However, I must confess that I, as a reader, found myself feeling somewhat detached from it all. Truth is, after a certain stage of novel-reading, one can easily get a sense of déjà vu with this sort of thing. Horrible, selfish and exploitative social climber; nouveau riche unaccustomed to the niceties of high society; people from good families down on their luck and struggling to keep their heads above the water … we’ve frankly seen them all before, And I suppose, speaking subjectively, I no longer find such things of any great overwhelming interest: all those things I know I should admire – awareness of the social and financial structures, detailed observation, social criticism – increasingly seem to me relatively minor matters, at least as far as the art of the novel is concerned. Perhaps I have just become blasé about these matters, but depiction merely of the surface of things, no matter how detailed in its observation and understanding, I nowadays find, frankly, a bit boring.

However, Pérez Galdós pulls the rug from under our feet once again, and this one I hadn’t been expecting. For the rich, unsophisticated cousin, much to the chagrin of the horrible middle-class social climber, falls in love with and proposes to one of the impoverished cousins. And at this comparatively late stage of the novel, the narrative takes a somewhat strange turn: for this impoverished cousin, Amparo, has a secret. This secret does not amount to much in our own times, but in the conservative Madrid society of the 1860s, it most certainly did: for Amparo is no virgin: she has, in the past, had an affair, and her former lover, now ill and also fallen on hard times, harbours for her still a violent passion that verges on insanity.

I can’t think of any other novel that changes tack so radically at so late a stage. This former lover is introduced when we are already some one third of the way into the novel, and the effect is like stepping from a novel by Balzac straight into Wuthering Heights. What follows is startlingly intense: at one point, the paintings of El Greco and of Goya are evoked, and the evocation did not seem out of place. And the narrative is unashamedly theatrical: the climactic scenes where Amparo visits her lover, though written in the form of prose narrative, are theatrical in a way the opening scene, written like a playscript, certainly was not.

Her former lover had called her Inferno during the affair, and calls her still by this name (although this name too, like the title of the novel, may have been Tormento in the original Spanish). He had been a priest – a Man of God who, he knows, has damned his soul by his passion. Yet, startlingly vivid though this character is, it is not he, but Amparo, whom Pérez Galdós places at the centre of the canvas: the “tormento” of the original title, or the “inferno” of the translation, is located inside Amparo’s mind. Having depicted the surface of things with such detail, Pérez Galdós takes us deep inside the mind of a woman at the end of her tether, a woman suffering the torments of hell itself, right up to the very point of attempted suicide.

After a series of quite seismic climactic scenes, Pérez Galdós expertly winds the tension down for the final pages. And he finishes again with a scene written, as with the opening chapter, in the form of a playscript. But the real drama at the centre of it all, the real “theatricals” of the piece, is written in the form of prose narrative. It seems curious that at a time when Ibsen was claiming for drama material more usually associated with the novel, Pérez Galdós was claiming for the novel material that is in its very nature theatrical.
***

For all its considerable merits, Tormento (or Inferno, as you will) is perhaps among Pérez Galdós’ lesser works: it lacks either the panoramic scope of Fortunata and Jacinta, or the visionary quality of Nazarin or of Misericordia. There are elements of it that still leave me puzzled: I am still not sure why Pérez Galdós should present it as a certain kind of novel before transporting us so abruptly into so radically different a fictional world. But the achievement remains considerable. Pérez Galdós is often described as the Spanish Balzac, or the Spanish Dickens; but his works stand up well enough on their own merits, I think. And yes, he most certainly deserves to be better known.

A guest post

I’d been asked by Fran Wilson, who writes the excellent music blog “The Cross-Eyed Pianist”, to write a guest post on how I relate to classical music. I naturally saw this as an opportunity to indulge in self-indulgent verbosity, but Fran very kindly put it up anyway on her blog. You may read it here.

“Tush, man, mortal men, mortal men…” The Henry IV plays at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 2014

It was in the summer of ’78, when I was still recovering from a particularly traumatic World Cup campaign, that I first visited Stratford-on-Avon. I went with a couple of friends, one of whom, I know, looks into this blog from time to time. It was, for me, a sort of pilgrimage, I suppose – sacred ground. We had tickets booked for Love’s Labour’s Lost. I wasn’t entirely happy with this, I remember: I would have preferred a better known play – Hamlet, maybe, or Richard III, or some such. I wasn’t to know that this particular production would be regarded in years to come as one of the great theatrical landmarks, and that, some thirty-six years later, I would be boasting – admittedly, to indifferent listeners – that yes, I was actually there. John Barton directed a splendid cast, featuring Michael Pennington and Jane Lapotaire as Berowne and Rosaline, Michael Hordern as Don Armado, and a supporting cast that included such future stars as Richard Griffith, Juliet Stevenson, and Alan Rickman. My first evening in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre was an evening of sheer perfection. While we were there we saw another play that, at the time, was new to me: Measure for Measure, featuring Michael Pennington as the Duke, Paola Dionisotti as Isabella, and Jonathan Pryce as Angelo. I remember sitting in the back row of the gallery, looking down from a great height on to the stage (I was an impecunious student, after all), and wondering why, despite regarding myself as a Shakespeare nut even then, I did not know a play so utterly spellbinding as this. All in all, that first visit was a huge success. I have been back to Stratford several times since, of course: it is, after all, a mere two hour drive up the motorway from where I now live, and the internet has made it much easier to book tickets. Over the years, I have seen there performances of Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, Othello, Antony and Cleopatra … and, on one glorious day back in ’91, both parts of Henry IV on a single day – Part One in the matinee show, and Part Two in the evening. There have been some changes, of course, to the place: the main theatre has been completely refurbished, with the old proscenium stage now replaced with an apron stage coming out into the auditorium. However, the centre of the town remains much as it was, with the riverside gardens stretching between the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and the Shakespeare memorial, the spire of the Holy Trinity Church, where Shakespeare is buried, visible down-river. The birthplace itself, in nearby Henley Street, has been maintained to look much as it has looked for centuries, I guess. There’s New Place, where Shakespeare, retired from London, lived in his later years; and there’s still that delightful walk through parks and fields to Anne Hathaway’s cottage. Neither is there, contrary to some reports I have heard, any great evidence of “tourist tack”. Of course, it caters for the many tourists who visit: it can hardly do otherwise. But I can find little that I would describe as “tacky”, or “schmaltzy”. In short, the whole place remains as delightful as when I had first visited.

I was there again a few weeks ago, and, once again, it was to see the Henry IV plays – Part One in the matinee show, and Part Two in the evening. Of course, comparisons with the productions of these same plays that I had seen there 23 years ago, or, rather, with the often unreliable memories of what I had seen there 23 years ago, are inevitable. Back then, Adrian Noble had directed, and Sir Robert Stephens had played Falstaff; this time, Greg Doran, currently artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, directs, and another Shakespearean knight, Sir Anthony Sher, plays Falstaff. And very different the interpretations are. But, whatever the interpretation, what a work this is! I have a pet theory that it was while writing this work that Will realised just how great a genius he was: he realised he had complete mastery of pacing and of form; he realised that there was nothing, absolutely nothing, that he could not express. Yes, he had already written Romeo and Juliet, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream; he had already created Shylock; but here, he cranks it up a few notches higher. In The Merchant of Venice, he had allowed the mighty figure of Shylock to overwhelm the rest of the drama, but he was not going to allow that here: no matter how great a figure Falstaff is, he is fully integrated into the drama. The Merchant of Venice without Shylock is a bore, but Henry IV, even when Falstaff is not present, is compelling. And in Part Two, Shakespeare pulls off one of his most stunning innovations: he dispenses with plot almost entirely, and keeps the whole thing more or less static. Even in Act Two, the part of the play where we would normally expect the dramatic momentum to develop, he introduces a long tavern scene peopled by drunks and half-wits who mouth mainly gibberish: there is no dramatic movement, simply because there is nowhere to move to. The whole play consists of people waiting for something to happen: and when it finally does happen – when King Henry dies, and Hal becomes Henry V – all expectations that everyone had harboured are shattered. But till then, in the rest of the play, all we see are characters filling in time as they wait. And, as they wait, they merely become older. Nay, they must be old: they cannot choose but be old. And they must face death. Antony, in a later play, declares that he will “have one more gaudy night, and mock the midnight bell”; but Falstaff, though aware of the chimes at midnight, cannot bear to face them:

Peace, good Doll! do not speak like a death’s-head; do not bid me remember mine end.

But face it he must. In the last scene, the one person he had loved, Hal, rejects him; and Hal, knowing Falstaff well, knows precisely what words to use in rejecting him:

                    the grave doth gape
For thee thrice wider than for other men.

This is not yet another joke about the size of Falstaff’s girth, although, I suppose, it could be taken as such: for a man such as Falstaff, who loves life, and who cannot bear to be reminded of his own end, the grave must necessarily gape open wider than for other men. We do not see Falstaff die, but, as with Shylock, there is, by the end, nothing else left for him to do: the waiting finally is over, and at the end of the wait, there is nothing. As Hotspur says in his own last moments:

And time, that takes survey of all the world,
Must have a stop.

Falstaff is obviously a very intelligent man, but in Anthony Sher’s performance, he appears utterly deluded on one vital point: he picks up not the slightest hint of the disappointment that is awaiting him. Possibly the love he has for Hal blinds him to what should really have been blindingly obvious. In the famous play-acting scene in Part One, Falstaff plays Hal while Hal plays his own father, and Falstaff, as Hal, pleads with Hal, as the king, not to banish Falstaff. “I do, I will,” replies Hal. I remember Robert Stephens as Falstaff realising during that play-acting scene that something wasn’t right – that this wasn’t quite play-acting any more: and his pleas not to be banished were genuine and heartfelt. But Sher’s Falstaff is utterly blind to any of this: right up to Hal’s devastating words, he is putting on a show. And when Hal’s words do come, he is not sure what to make of them: it is all too easy for him to think of them merely as part of the show they were putting on.

Anthony Sher putting on a show as Falstaff

Anthony Sher putting on a show as Falstaff

For Anthony Sher’s Falstaff is a showman. He knows full well that not only is he witty in himself, but the cause that wit is in others. Sher delivers his lines with the comic timing of a stand-up comedian. And indeed, as these plays progress, he often has to do what are, effectively, stand-up routines directed at the audience. They have to be directed at the audience because the one person who is capable of appreciating his wit, Hal, is not there: from the middle of Part One onwards, Hal, no doubt knowing what he ultimately has to do, keeps his distance. In Part Two, Hal does at one point visit his old haunt, and sees Falstaff again; but, almost immediately, message comes from the court, and Hal, now more aware of his responsibilities than he had previously been, leaves. And in Alex Hassell’s performance, it doesn’t cost Hal much effort to leave: in this interpretation, Hal has already accepted the immense responsibilities he knows are on his shoulders, and this visit to the Boar’s Head tavern but serves to confirm to him how far removed from all this he is now. In the 1991 production, Michael Maloney’s Hal had found the rejection of Falstaff a struggle: in rejecting Falstaff, he was, after all, rejecting a part of himself. But Hal here is made of sterner stuff: he has already outgrown Falstaff, and harbours no sentimentality about past friendship. But for Falstaff, his love of Hal is everything. It is not merely that he was expecting a position in court: more importantly, he was expecting Hal to return his love. But now, rejected, he must remember his own end: the grave does indeed gape for him three times wider than for other men. He tells Shallow – and, more to the point, he tells himself – that Hal will call for him shortly in private; but the man who used to spin the most outrageous of lies at the drop of a hat can no longer even lie convincingly even to himself. Shakespeare had made no attempt earlier to gloss over Falstaff’s predatory nature: we know Falstaff precisely for the deeply reprehensible person he is. And we know that Hal’s decision is, morally, perfectly correct. And yet, this scene, no matter how it is performed, no matter how it is interpreted, breaks the heart: we leave the theatre lamenting what we know is right. The chimes at midnight are mingled chimes.

At the heart of these plays, I think, are those scenes in Gloucestershire. There is little reason in terms of plot to have those scenes at all: they do not contribute to the plot, and neither do they have what we may describe as “dramatic tension”. But Shakespeare knew what he was doing: even at so early a stage in his career, he was writing a new kind of drama, which, even now, perhaps, defies analysis. And those scenes were superbly done here. Twenty-three years ago, I had seen Robert Stephens and David Bradley as Falstaff and Shallow; this time, the parts were taken by Anthony Sher and Oliver Ford Davies. Different, but equally wonderful. And Mistress Quickly now was played by Paola Dionisotti, whom I had seen in the same theatre on my first visit to Stratford some thirty-six years earlier, giving a thrilling performance as Isabella in Measure for Measure. It all seemed to add an extra layer of meaning to Falstaff’s and Shallow’s ruminations – poignant and farcical at the same time – on the passing of time. After Falstaff’s rejection in the final scene, which I knew would happen but which choked me up all the same, I came out of the theatre, and, before driving home, sat by the river for a while, trying to digest what I had seen. Heaven knows how many times I have experienced these plays – on the page, on stage, on television, on audio recordings; but each time, the experience really does knock the stuffing out of me. I suppose, if I were to go out of my way to be critical with this production, I could find one or two faults: I would question, for instance, the idea of presenting Hotspur as so charmless and boorish a character. Trevor White as Hotspur certainly had a fine stage presence, and projected a sort of manic energy; however, presenting Hotspur in such a manner did mean that we felt little sense of loss at his death, and those heart-stopping final words of his passed for very little. However, given the sheer magnificence of these productions, it is churlish to cavil. I could quite happily go back and live through these two plays all over again.

The World Cup: biased and unreliable memories of a Scotland fan

Note to the reader: This is a very nostalgic post written for my own pleasure, and, since there is nothing more tiresome that other peoples’ nostalgia, do please feel free to skip this one. I’ll be back to writing about Shakespeare and Tolstoy shortly.

I’ve been neglecting the blog of late, I’m afraid. It’s inevitable, really, with the World Cup now showing every day. The Football World Cup, if you need to be told. Or the Soccer World Cup, depending on where you live. I’m not usually the greatest sports fan in the world, but yes, I do enjoy my football, and the World Cup is special. I remember the 1966 World Cup being on television, but I was only 6 then, and didn’t really understand what was going on. It was the next World Cup competition, held in Mexico in 1970, that I first watched, and I have followed closely every World Cup competition since, and by my reckoning, the current World Cup is my twelfth. With each World Cup marking some stage of my life, a record of all my World Cup memories could easily read as a sort of potted autobiography – but please don’t be alarmed: I won’t attempt anything like that here. If, after this none-too-promising opening paragraph, you decide to read on, you will find only warm recollections, fond memories, and a few anecdotes, all supplied by the Ghost of World Cups Past. And also a few irrational biases, and prejudices. After all, if you can’t be a bit irrational and biased about football, what can you be irrational and biased about?

To lay my cards on the table at the outset, I am a Scotland fan. We are not in this particular World Cup, and it’s little consolation to think that we may well have been had Gordon Strachan been our manager from the start of the qualifying campaign, instead of being appointed when we were already more or less out of it. “If only…” These are the two words most frequently on the lips of any Scotland fan. Along with a few choice epithets regarding our more prestigious and favoured neighbour, England, but I will not sully this blog by repeating them, especially as I am now happily settled in this same England. But wherever I live, Scotland is my team: that’s where I grew up, and that’s where my footballing allegiances were formed.

Scotland had been in six of my twelve World Cups – not a bad record at all given the size of the country. In 1974 and 1976, Scotland qualified by putting out Czechoslovakia, the team that won the European Championships in between in 1976. And from 1974 onwards, for three World Cups in a row, we were knocked out only on goal difference. (Yes, I know, “If only…”) This was thanks partly to a string of outrageous bad luck stories, partly to the lack of an international class goalkeeper, and also partly, it must be said, because Scotland has a knack of repeatedly pushing the self-destruct button. We went to the 1978 World Cup in a state of jubilation, as if we had already won the thing: I was only 18 then, and was a student in Glasgow, and I bear still the psychological scars of that tournament – as does anyone else of my generation who remembers it. (Most prefer not to.) The night we were humbled 3-1 by Peru, I remember seeing my room-mate, who was very, very drunk, being spoken to in the street by a policeman. I went up to see if I could get my friend out of trouble by assuring the police officer that I would take him home and make sure he behaved himself, but as I approached, I heard the police officer saying, his voice choking with tears: “Aye – they should have played Derek Johnstone!”

In our last game in that competition, we put on a mighty show – even without Derek Johnstone – to beat Holland, the team that subsequently on to make their way to the final; and wee Archie Gemmill scored one of the great iconic goals of any World Cup. But it wasn’t enough: “If only…” If only Billy Bremner hadn’t missed from a couple of yards four years earlier when we actually outplayed the mighty Brazil, but could still only manage a draw! If only we had played our first two games in 1978 the way we played our third! If only…

England hadn’t qualified either for the 1974 or for the 1978 World Cups. They made it to the next one though, and, although they had failed to qualify for either of the previous two,  they were seeded in the top group, and were handed a fairly straight-forward draw. As for us, despite having qualified for the previous two World Cups, and having been put out on goal difference on both occasions, we were shoved into the third group in the seedings, and were drawn with a strong Russian team, and the best Brazil team since 1970. Oh, how the injustice of it hurt! And – would you believe it! – we went out on goal difference yet again. “Once again, Scotland prove they aren’t good enough” was the only consolation the English commentator on BBC had to offer.

Scotland qualified again in 1986, 1990, and 1998 – but in terms of quality, it was a steady decline. When we might have made a mark – in the 70s – we failed to do so, and I can’t see us getting back again in the foreseeable future to producing players of that quality. But let us not weep into our single malt whiskies: looking beyond Scotland, there has been some quite fabulous football from other countries. The first World Cup I saw, in 1970, was distinguished by the team many still consider the greatest ever – Brazil. And Pele, despite arguably being past his best, put on a show that even now is legendary. Four years later, West Germany won on home soil – that team captained by the magnificent Franz Beckenbauer simply was not going to lose! – but most of my memories of that tournament are of a flamboyant, free-flowing Holland, with Johann Cruyff leading from the front; and of Poland, the surprise package of the tournament, who astonished everyone by qualifying from the group stages with superb wins against Argentina and Italy. Sadly, they were in the same half of the draw as West Germany (to whom they lost by a single goal on what looked like a badly waterlogged pitch), and had to settle for third place.

Holland's Johann Cruyff and Germany's Franz Beckenbauer, two of the greatest players ever to grace the game

Holland’s Johann Cruyff and Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer, two of the greatest players ever to grace the game

Four years later, it was Argentina’s turn to win, deservedly, on home soil. But I have already dwelt on the Scottish trauma of that competition, so let us move on: it remains a sore point even 34 years later.

I was a schoolboy in 1974, an undergraduate in 1978, and a postgraduate student in 1982, working then in my own time; and I must admit, that work more or less stopped for the World Cup. It was simply the best World Cup I have seen. It was fabulous. Sure, there were a few dull patches: England, for instance, though favoured by the seeding committee (and no, I haven’t got over that yet!), were arse-numbingly dull: after qualifying from their group after three relatively easy matches, they went out after playing out two insipid goalless draws. But these few dull patches aside, the teams in 82 really put on a show. France, after a very dodgy start (losing to a mediocre England), changed their team line-up radically, and, with a midfield now consisting of Giresse, Tigana, Genghini, and the masterly Michel Platini, went on to play some of the exhilarating football I’ve seen. They got as far as the semi-finals, where they were put out by West Germany, with the German goalkeeper, Harald Schumacher committing on Patrick Battiston what can only be described as a horrific assault, which, if committed on the streets, would have led to police prosecution and possibly imprisonment; but the referee, absurdly, thought it an accidental collision of bodies, and didn’t take any disciplinary action. After extra time, the match ended 3-3 (with West Germany coming back from being 3-1 down), and was decided on a penalty shoot-out. France going out in that manner somehow put even Scotland’s grievances into perspective.

And Poland were resurgent in 82. After a slow start, they came to life spectacularly against Peru, with a fabulous 5-1 win. There’s little point embedding YouTube clips on here, as they come and go; but I would urge anyone interested to look up the YouTube clip of that match, as there were some terrific goals. Best of all was an intricate passing movement culminating in Zbigniew Boniek back-heeling the ball into Buncol’s path. In Poland’s next match, Boniek gave one of the very greatest individual performances I have seen in a World Cup match, scoring all three goals (and what goals they were!) against a rather good Belgian side, and controlling seemingly every aspect of the match. Boniek was suspended for the semi-final (against Italy), and once again, this fine Poland side had to settle for 3rd place.

But best of all were Brazil. Of all the World Cups I have seen, the memories I treasure most are those of that flamboyant, exuberant team strutting their stuff. Even their defenders looked world class when they came forward to join the attack. (Shame they couldn’t defend so well, though!) In their first game, they went 1-0 down to Russia, but then, in the second half, they turned it on: first Socrates made room for himself some 30 yards out, and then, as if casually, blasted the ball into the top corner; and then, Eder, from a similar distance, teed up the ball for himself and hit a volley so hard that you didn’t see it till it was hitting the net.

Socrates (with the beard) and Zico, setting the 1982 World Cup alight

Socrates (with the beard) and Zico, setting the 1982 World Cup alight

And then, they played us. Like Russia, we too took the lead against Brazil, with David Narey spectacularly rocketing his shot in from distance. We were exultant: this was a goal worthy even of the Brazilians! (Although sour-faced BBC presenter Jimmy Hill dismissed it at half-time as a “toe-poke”: well – do please see the Youtube clip and decide for yourself!) But it was our bad luck that Brazil turned it on against us a bit earlier than they had against Russia: first, Zico with a wonderful free-kick; then Oscar; and then, two quite magnificent goals from Eder and from Falcao. 4-1 it ended: we had been well and truly drubbed, by, admittedly, the best side I have ever seen us play against. Disappointed though I was, I was also exhilarated: my reaction was merely a somewhat inarticulate “Wow!”

Scotland's David Narey's famous toe-poke against Brazil

Scotland’s David Narey’s famous toe-poke against Brazil

Brazil went on to score a 4-0 win against New Zealand (featuring a spectacular goal from Zico with a “bicycle kick”), and then a 3-1 win against their rivals Argentina, featuring three of the best goals you could ever hope to see. And then, they met Italy, needing only a draw to progress to the next round. And here, their defensive frailties let them down: Italy’s Paolo Rossi scored three goals that no international defence should have let in. Brazil scored three goals as well – three great goals: they only knew how to score great goals – but the third goal, by Socrates, was wrongly ruled off-side. Well, these things happen, I guess. But I think I was more upset by Brazil being put out than I was even by Scotland being put out. By the time Italy played West Germany in the final, I think all neutrals, remembering the Schumacher-Battiston incident in the semi-final, were supporting Italy. They certainly delivered, winning the final 3-1. Brazil didn’t win, but sometimes, winning isn’t everything: their joyous, exuberant style of play left behind were the greatest World Cup memories I have.

By the 1986 World Cup, I was no longer a student: I was gainfully employed and was engaged. My future wife was from France, and that gave me a team to cheer on once Scotland (again drawn in the third group of seeds) had made their customary early exit. However, Brazil, though not quite so flamboyant as they had been four years earlier, were sufficiently brilliant to sway my newfound allegiance. It all culminated in a pulsating match between the two, with Brazil’s Zico, not fully fit and just on as substitute, missing a penalty. France ended up winning on penalties after the match had finished at 1-1.

Russia also had a great team that year: they started off by putting six goals past Hungary, and then played superbly to draw against France, before being put out by Belgium, thanks to what seemed to me to be some unfortunate refereeing decisions. England had a dodgy start – beaten by Portugal and drawing against Morocco, before Gary Lineker sparked them to life with a hat-trick against Poland, taking them through to the next round. Was I the only one thinking of the injustice of it all, I wonder? In ’78, we had lost to Peru and drawn with Iran, and a fabulous win against a great Holland team wasn’t enough to take us through; and we were deemed failures. In ’86, England lost to Portugal and drew with Morocco, but went through by beating a middling Poland team, and they were heroes. Life really isn’t fair sometimes!

(Scotland needed a win against Uruguay in their last group match in ‘86 to get through to the next round, but we only managed a 0-0 draw, after being kicked and hacked throughout the ninety minutes. In the recent England vs Uruguay match, many Scotland fans cheered on Uruguay, but I didn’t: I’m afraid I have a long memory, and I bear a grudge, even if it’s an unreasonable one)

Lineker scored a further two goals in a convincing 3-0 win against Paraguay. But then, came that notorious match against Argentina, dominated by possibly the best player I have ever seen – one Diego Maradona. Yes, it is true that Maradona took a lot of kicking in that match, with little protection from the referee; but his knocking the ball into the goal with his hand really was the most blatant piece of cheating I have seen in the World Cup. Soon afterwards, he scored the most fabulous solo goal imaginable. Both goals are now legendary, for very different reasons. Lineker got a late goal back for England, but this time, it was England’s turn to feel aggrieved. At the end, even a Scotland fan such as myself did not know whether to hero-worship Maradona for that extraordinary second goal, or to excoriate him for being a cheating bastard with the first.

Argentina went on to win that World Cup, with a team consisting of Maradona and ten others whom hardly anyone remembers. I am told that back in 1962, Garrincha virtually won the World Cup single-handedly for Brazil after Pele was injured, but I hadn’t seen that. I have, however, seen Maradona win the World Cup for Argentina virtually single-handedly – in more ways than one.

1990. I was now thirty, and, settled in London, was by this stage gently easing into middle age. But this World Cup was a damp squib. There were a few decent things in the group stages – Germany’s awe-inspiring 4-1 dismantling of Yugoslavia, Roberto Baggio’s terrific goal against Czechoslovakia – but by the time we got to the knock-out stage, most of the matches were unutterably dull, often ending in penalty shoot-outs. Germany, who had started so strongly, faded into the light of common day, and the final, where they scrambled a 1-0 win against Argentina thanks to a penalty, was, I think, the worst I have seen. The 1994 World Cup was much better, despite, once again, an unremarkable final, this time between Brazil and Italy (Brazil won on a penalty shoot-out). But earlier, we had seen some wonderful things: there were some fine performances from Brazil; the superb Roberto Baggio, though not fully fit, took Italy to the final virtually by himself; and there were some superb performances from the unfancied Romania and Bulgaria – the former led by the brilliant Gheorghe Hagi, and the latter by the equally brilliant Hristo Stoichkov. I don’t think I have ever seen a more entertaining and exciting match anywhere than the Romania vs Argentina game that year, which Romania won 3-2. Hagi , especially, became and remains one of my great World Cup heroes.

Gheorghe Hagi of Romania (in the yellow strip) in action against Argentina in a pulsating match in 1994

Gheorghe Hagi of Romania (in the yellow strip) in action against Argentina in a pulsating match in 1994

And so they kept on coming. Some, like J Alfred Prufrock, measure out their lives by coffee-spoons: I measure out mine by World Cups – another four years older, another World Cup. And, such are the strange workings of memory, the earlier World Cups are far more vivid in my mind than the later ones, which tend often to merge into one. There were still wonderful things, of course: who could forget Bergkamp’s miraculous goal for Holland against Argentina in ’98? Or Zinedine Zidane of France strutting through the match against Brazil in 2006? Zidane, of course, had won the World Cup eight years earlier, but many felt that France had beaten Brazil in the final only because Brazil’s star player Ronaldo had been seriously ill immediately before the match, and should not have played: I get the feeling that Zidane was out to show the world that he was as good as if not better than any Brazilian. Of course, as is well-known, Zidane ended his career in disgrace, sent off in the final that year (which France lost on penalties to Italy) for head-butting Marco Materazzi. How could such an experienced player lose his calm like this, everyone wondered, on the world’s greatest footballing stage? Some opined that Zidane may well have felt that nutting Materazzi was a splendid way of signing off his career.

France's Zinedine Zidane holding aloft the World Cup in 1998

France’s Zinedine Zidane holding aloft the World Cup in 1998

Brazil won the 2002 competition – somewhat inevitably, perhaps, given they boasted Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Rivaldo all playing for them. And the last World Cup saw Spain emerge as the world’s top footballing nation. Given that they also won the European Championships both two years earlier and two years afterwards, it is frankly difficult to argue against the assertion that they are the best international team Europe has ever produced: no other team has won these big competitions three times in succession. Their style of football – short passes to each other, with the emphasis on retaining possession – is known as “tiki-taka” football, and, although requiring immense technical skill, it did not please everyone; but I must admit that when Holland tried to kick and hack Spain out of the World Cup Final, helped on by an absurdly lenient referee, my allegiances switched very definitely towards the Spanish; and I remember cheering wildly when Iniesta scored that winning goal. I couldn’t help wondering, though, what the greats from former Holland sides – Cruyff, Neeskens, Gullitt, van Basten, Bergkamp, etc. – must have thought on seeing the colours they had once graced now being tainted with this kind of thuggery.

And now, another four years older, I am in the midst of the latest one – my twelfth. I’ve got used to Scotland not being there: it’s more relaxing that way – there’s no tension, no emotional rollercoaster, no sick feeling in the stomach, as we are placed – as we inevitably are – in the most difficult group of the tournament. One can only hope that the current revival under Gordon Strachan continues, but where the players will come from that can raise Scotland a few notches higher remains uncertain. But with Scotland not in the running, and with no particular allegiances apart from those that come naturally for teams that play the most exciting football, it’s easy just to sit back and enjoy. And when I’ll be yet another four years older – long past being a schoolboy, or a student, or a newly engaged young man, or even a middle-aged paterfamilias, but, rather, as someone in late middle age, staring into oncoming old age and decrepitude – what I am enjoying now will become yet more World Cup memories.

Makes you think, doesn’t it? Not quite sure about what, but it definitely makes you think.

O Scotland, Scotland!
– From “Macbeth” by English writer William Shakespeare, IV, iii

 

(Note: I haven’t littered this post with YouTube clips, but every goal or incident I have mentioned here may be found in YouTube quite easily.)

On epileptic pigeons, and other matters

I had always thought of Turgenev as an essentially lyrical writer. So, on reading “My Neighbour Radilov” from Sketches From a Hunter’s Album, I was bit surprised by the following passage, in which the narrator describes how difficult it is to engage his neighbour Radilov in conversation:

I was struck by the fact that I couldn’t find in him any passion for food or wine or hunting or Kursk nightingales or epileptic pigeons or Russian literature or trotting horses or Hungarian jackets or cards or billiards or going dancing in the evening or paying visits to the local town or the capital or paper and sugar-beet factories or brightly decorated gazebos or tea parties or trace-horses driven into bad ways or even fat coachmen with belts right up to their armpits , those magnificent coachmen whose every movement of their necks, God knows why, makes their eyes literally pop out of their heads…
– Translated by Richard Freeborn, Penguin Classics

I had to make sure I hadn’t picked up something by Gogol by mistake. It’s not just that the narrator is depicting lunacy: the narrator himself is lunatic.

Nothing in this list is glossed by an editorial note. Does anyone know if “epileptic pigeons” have some sort of significance in 19th century Russian culture that I don’t know about?

A night at the opera: “La Traviata” at Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

The best presents to give are those that one can enjoy oneself. So when my wife had a somewhat significant birthday recently, I had little problem choosing what to get her: tickets for an evening at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, of course. That’s tickets, in the plural, as, quite naturally, she wouldn’t want to go on her own now, would she?

And the show was Verdi’s La Traviata. Her favourite opera, Verdi’s Don Carlos, would I suppose have been even better, but one can’t very well expect Royal Opera to schedule their season just to please us: La Traviata was playing at the time, and that was more than good enough.

Ailyn Pérez and Simon Keenlyside as Violetta and Giogio Germont in La Traviata (picture courtesy Royal Opera, Covent Garden)

Ailyn Pérez and Simon Keenlyside as Violetta and Giogio Germont in La Traviata (picture courtesy Royal Opera, Covent Garden)

It’s one of those works known as a “warhorse” – i.e. a very popular work that has possibly been revived more often than is good for it – often at the expense of less popular works that deserve a greater exposure to the public. This has, perhaps understandably, incurred the wrath of many seasoned opera-lovers: not another tired old revival, they moan, when we could have been seeing …. or …. instead! (Opera lovers can easily fill in those blanks, I’m sure.) I sympathise. I agree also that putting on the same piece so frequently often results in performances that are stale, routine, and tired. However, we are far from regular visitors to Covent Garden: it’s not that it’s prohibitively expensive, as is often claimed – usually by those who spend much more going to rock concerts or to West End musicals – but it’s expensive enough to make a night at the opera a rare treat rather than a regular occurrence. So no, we haven’t been over-exposed to the work, and neither are we jaded. And what’s more, we both like Verdi.

I suppose admitting to liking Verdi places one in many people’s books as a diehard musical conservative; as someone whose idea of good music is no more than a nice, comfortable tune to hum along to; as someone who dislikes all that horrible tuneless cacophony that passes for music these days; and so on, and so forth. I plead “not guilty” to all such charges. But I still love Verdi. Oh, I can recognise weaknesses: it’s not blind idolatry on my part (I reserve my blind idolatry only for Shakespeare). But these weaknesses are like the character flaws of a good friend: even if they annoy you from time to time, you’re prepared to put up with them because … well, because you’re friends. And Verdi has been like a good friend to me for several decades now. Even in many of his weaker works, he makes me feel certain things that I don’t feel with any other composer. And yes, I know, he has his detractors – some of whom are so learned in matters of music that I wouldn’t even think of entering into dispute with them. But he has, and has had, many great admirers also: Stravinsky, for instance, and Britten. So if my love of Verdi is indeed a lapse of taste on my part, I am at least in supremely good company.

I haven’t read the novel – La Dame aux Camelias by Dumas fils – on which the opera is based, although, if the Royal Opera programme notes are to be trusted, Verdi’s opera is very, very different from Dumas’ somewhat misogynistic novel. I suppose modern audiences can no longer feel the shock that Verdi’s first audiences must have felt on seeing as protagonist a courtesan – effectively, a prostitute – and, further, seeing her endowed with a tragic and even with a moral dignity. But the shock effect is not central to our appreciation of the work, so not much is lost on that score. The charge of sentimentality is more difficult to answer, but then again, that charge is always difficult to answer, since there appears to be no commonly agreed definition of the term. Generally, the term is applied to works that we feel we are intended to find emotionally moving, but don’t. But since I find La Traviata very moving indeed, I obviously cannot see it as “sentimental” – although it is not possible to argue against those who do.

At the heart of this work is one of Verdi’s finest scenes: the soprano-baritone duet, between Violetta and Giorgio Germont. Violetta, formerly a prostitute in the Parisian demi-monde, has, unexpectedly, found happiness with the young Alfredo. However, while frequenting the demi-monde is not particularly frowned upon, setting up a relationship with someone from that half-world is. And as a consequence, Alfredo’s family is viewed as tainted, and his younger sister is unable to marry. Of course, by our modern moral standards (in the Western world, at least), this is bizarre: but it usually doesn’t, I feel, require too great a leap of the imagination to imagine ourselves living in societies with very different moral codes: if it did, it would have been unlikely for so many people to be able to engage so readily with this work.

So now, Alfredo’s father enters the scene: he has come not to plead with Violetta, but to order her, to leave her son alone. He is, after all, a respectable citizen she is a prostitute: he has every right to issue orders. But what happens when they meet is unexpected, and Verdi’s music – to my sensibilities, both beautiful and dramatically convincing – captures unerringly every facet of what passes between ex-prostitute and respectable citizen. First of all, she refuses to be browbeaten by him; and he, almost immediately, recognises in her a dignity of bearing that he had not expected. So instead of ordering her, he tries persuasion. He tells her of his beloved daughter, whose society marriage cannot go ahead because of her brother’s unfortunate attachment. Violetta’s immediate reaction is horror at the suggestion that she should leave Alfredo; but eventually, in music of the utmost poignancy, she agrees. I know that many see this as psychologically improbable: to me, however, it seems all too probable. She agrees to leave Alfredo not, I think, because Alfredo’s father convinces her: rather, it is because she convinces herself. He says nothing to her to add weight to his initial request: she, however, knowing what she has been, and, possibly, hating herself for having been so, feels increasingly unworthy to stand in the way of someone else’s happiness. Even without the music, this does not strike me either as improbable, or – as has also been claimed – as corny: and with that music, it is heart-rending. Does that make me a sentimental old sap? Fair enough – sentimental old sap I am.

The production, an old one directed by Richard Eyre, was traditional, but effective. I do not want to review the musical aspect, since I am not qualified to do so, but I could not wish it done better. Conductor Paul Wynne Jones paced the drama finely; and the supporting cast, including Stephen Costello as Alfredo and Simon Keenlyside as his father, was splendid. But this is really a soprano’s opera: it all stands or falls on the her performance. As Violetta, Ailyn Pérez was stunning. She looks the part, which always helps I suppose: she has movie star looks and a fine stage presence; and her singing and acting on the night left nothing to be desired. No doubt those who know this work more intimately than I do, and have seen and heard it in different performances, may find certain things to carp at: I can only say I didn’t. And neither did my wife, which, I suppose, is just as well: the tickets were a birthday treat, after all – even though I enjoyed her present every bit as much as she did. Just as well we both love Verdi!

The Mysterious Case of the Missing Mice and Men

I am not a morning person. I never have been. On weekends, I enjoy a lie-in. Not that I necessarily sleep through it: the advantages of a tablet include the luxury of lying comfortably in my warm bed, while others are no doubt savouring the beauties of the morn or something similar, and browsing through the various online newspapers, journals, and blogs. And yes, a bit of social media as well. And last Sunday morning, even before I was fully awake, I knew something very terrible had happened to our education system. Everywhere I looked it was the same story: Michael Gove! How terrible! How could he! Disgraceful! Disgusting! This man does not deserve even to be mentioned in polite society! He should be tarred and feathered and run out of town!

What has he done? I wondered. Has he been caught stealing from the church funds? Has he, perhaps, run off with the vicar’s wife? It wasn’t easy getting to the answer, as all this no doubt entirely justified indignation referred to an article in the Sunday Times, which, being beyond a paywall, I couldn’t access without getting out of bed and walking to the newsagents’. But, after ploughing through much outrage and invective, often obscenely expressed, I got to what I think was at the heart of it all: this heartless bastard, Gove, has, purely out of spite, dropped from the school GCSE curriculum John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, and has replaced them with other texts. Well, no wonder! The only three books in the world that are worth studying, and he has dropped them! What an act of sheer, wanton vandalism! I could not but agree with the various comments that this dangerous maniac had to be stopped: he was, single-handedly, wrecking the teaching of English in our schools.

Now, I do not take this at all lightly. Having closely followed what our children had studied for their GCSEs, if “studied” is indeed the word I am looking for here, I have rather regretfully come to the conclusion that the teaching of English in our schools is badly broken. And that someone could wreck what is already badly broken is, I must concede, a remarkable feat. Lest it be thought that I exaggerate, let me expand on that a bit. (And those who have already heard me expatiate on this matter may skip the next paragraph.)

As a parent rather concerned that our children should receive a good education, and, in particular, that they should acquire a good grasp of the English language, I could not help but notice, year after year, essays returned after marking with an encouraging remark, such as “well done”, or even “very well done”, or “keep up the good work”, written at the bottom, but without any of the often basic grammatical errors – errors of the kind any child is likely to make who hasn’t been taught – so much as pointed out, let alone corrected. As a parent who would love to communicate some of his love of English literature to my children, and who thought he would have an ally in the school’s English department, it was with some disappointment, to put it mildly, that I observed that up to a year before our daughter sat her English GCSE examinations, she had not been required to read a single book from cover to cover. This was, admittedly, rectified somewhat in that final year, but the only books she was required to read were Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck (a pretty good book but a very straightforward one and one she could easily have read several years earlier); An Inspector Calls by J. B. Priestley; and About a Boy by Nick Hornby. (I am not joking.) When it came to poetry, the view was even more dismal: I occasionally saw the odd sheet of paper containing what purported to be “poems” by writers of whom, despite my taking an active interest in poetry ancient and modern, I had never heard. The “poems” themselves – and I use the quotation marks here advisedly – were simple-minded, and looked as if they had been written by a sixth former. For all I knew, they probably were. All that we may consider to be the backbone of the English literary tradition – Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Wordsworth, Austen, Dickens, Hardy, Woolf, Forster, Yeats, Eliot, and so on – weren’t even touched. I was, frankly, worried. How could anyone pass GCSEs in English language and in English literature when they’ve been taught bugger all about either? But pass them she did, and with flying colours too. The school she attends receives glowing reports in reviews by OFSTED. And it is particularly proud of the high grades its pupils get in English.

Of course, the syllabus may vary from school to school, and some schools really may teach worthwhile works from the vast treasure-house of English literature; but the fact remains that it is indeed possible to pass these subjects with flying colours without really knowing or understanding them.

It’s not that I necessarily blame the schools. Schools are judged by their position on national league tables, and this position depends not on how much the children learn, or on how well they understand the subjects, but on how many grades they obtain. And since, as is rather obvious from our experience, one may get good GCSE grades in English (let’s just stick to English for now) without having to understand or even to learn it, we shouldn’t be too surprised if ensuring learning and understanding is not too high on many schools’ list of priorities.

And everyone is happy. The children, naturally, are happy: not necessarily about having to study About a Boy, which, despite the alleged direct relevance it has to their own experience, they dislike studying as much as they would have disliked studying more traditional texts; but they are, naturally, happy with the grades. Parents, who are wise enough to care about what grades their children obtain rather than what their children actually learn, are also happy. Schools that get the good grades are happy: they come high in the league tables, and what more could one ask for? Examination boards, who are in competition with each other, are happy, as the higher the grades obtained for their examinations, the better they can sell themselves to schools. Admittedly, some teachers may not be quite so happy (I’m guessing here) – especially the good ones who actually care about the subjects they teach; but their performance is appraised, as I understand it, on the grades obtained by the pupils in their charge, so they seem to have little choice in the matter. And while employers may moan (and they do) about people with GCSE passes in English Language and in Mathematics who are functionally illiterate and innumerate, even the most fastidious of employers is unlikely to complain about people with high grades in English literature not having sufficient understanding of Keats. So who’s not happy? A few oddballs like myself, I suppose, but we don’t count, and never have done.

So, to return to that wee rascal Gove, I was intrigued. That anyone could “wreck” a system already so badly broken seemed to me, quite simply, extraordinary. How did he do it?

Finding out from browsing the internet wasn’t easy. Everywhere I looked, I found the same thing: Gove is a bastard; Gove is a wanker; Gove is just horrible; and so on, all in a similar vein. (For any transatlantic reader who may be wondering what a “wanker” is, please do not ask: I try to keep this blog clean, and exclude from it anything that may, in the words of Podsnap, bring a blush to the cheek of a young person. Let us just say that the ideas a wanker is likely to have may well be – how shall I put it? – seminal. And let’s leave it there.)

And it seems that not only has Wanker Gove dropped from the curriculum these three absolutely indispensable titles, he has decreed that American literature must not be taught at all. Scottish, Welsh, and Irish are, as far as I could tell, still allowed; the status of the novels of Conrad, or of the later works of Henry James or T. S. Eliot (once they had settled in Britain, that is, but certainly not earlier), remains a bit doubtful; but anything written by those bloody foreigners – Emily Dickinson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Derek Walcott, R. K. Narayan, Wole Soyinka, Nadine Gordimer – are all most definitely out. And especially out are John Steinbeck, Harper Lee, and Arthur Miller, authors of the Only Three Books Worth Studying.

Of course, I was, as every right-thinking person should be, outraged. I suppose I should link to at least some of those reports that tell us that these specific books have been dropped; that American literature has been dropped; that it have been dropped specifically because Gove personally does not like it; and so on. But really, there’s little point. There are so many such articles and opinion pieces (and Facebook posts and tweets, etc. etc.) of this nature, that any interested reader can find them without too much trouble. And moreover, as I soon found out, they aren’t even true. Even by Sunday evening, some cracks in the original story were beginning to appear. It seems that the new proposed syllabus included the poems of Emily Dickinson. How could that be? Surely American literature was banned, and Emily Dickinson, the last time I looked into her biography, was just a bit trans-Atlantic.

On Monday, a response appeared penned by Gove himself. He protested that these specific books have not been dropped; and neither is American literature excluded. He’s back-pedalling, said many. But if we go to the primary source of this story, the original government guidance that caused this furore (and this I will link to, here), it backs up what Gove has said: American literature has not been excluded, and there is no specific reference to those Only Three Books Worth Studying.

To summarise, the proposals are as follows: there is a core that is compulsory, and must be studied. Admittedly, this core does not cover the Only Three Books Worth Studying, but clearly, not to deem something compulsory is not quite the same as excluding it: beyond this core – which is nowhere near so onerous as to take up all the study time available for GCSE courses – schools are free to set whatever text they wish. And the core itself seems to me unexceptionable:

- a whole Shakespeare play (i.e. not merely selected scenes);
– poetry from 1789;
– a 19th-century novel;
– some fiction or drama written in the British Isles since 1914.

I tried to think of various combinations that would meet these criteria. How about, say, Macbeth, “Ode to a Nightingale”, The Scarlet Letter, and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie? Or, say, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Persuasion, selected poems of Emily Dickinson, and The Plough and the Stars? I’d have been delighted if our daughter had been set texts such as these instead of what she had so disdainfully been fobbed off with. And if the school really feels that modern American novels are absolutely indispensable, there’s nothing to stop them teaching Of Mice and Men or To Kill a Mockingbird. But frankly, I’d rather they chose something else: there’s no shortage of good, and even great, modern American novels to choose from: why restrict ourselves endlessly only to these? For, amongst other things, the following passage in Gove’s article caught my eye:

In one year recently, 280,000 candidates studied just one novel for the AQA GCSE. The overwhelming majority of them (more than 190,000) studied Of Mice and Men. Most of the remaining AQA pupils studied other 20th-century texts including works such as Lord of the Flies. The numbers studying novels written before 1900 – Pride and Prejudice, Far from the Madding Crowd and Wuthering Heights – were tiny in comparison, around 1 per cent of the total. The situation is no different in drama, or when one looks at other exam boards.

Now, I’m not a statistician, but … well, actually, no: I am a statistician – but I haven’t had access to the raw data from which the above statistics have been derived. But I guess it doesn’t take a statistician to figure out that of pupils taking AQA GCSE who had studied a single novel, for over two-thirds of them, that single novel was Of Mice and Men. The other statistic that is frequently bandied about is that some 90% of all pupils, across all examination boards, study this same Of Mice and Men. I have no way of judging how accurate these figures are, but given that they are publicly stated by a government minister, and that, further, I have seen no-one, not even the most outspoken detractor, question these statistics, I have no reason to believe these figures false. And if they are true, that should be a matter of concern for anyone who feels strongly about literature. Even restricting ourselves to modern American novels, there is an extraordinary variety of books out there: is this unremitting focus on a single title an adequate response to such variety?

And, while I have nothing against Of Mice and Men (or To Kill a Mockingbird, or The Crucible); while I actually think highly of all three of these; let us not kid ourselves about the reason for their popularity as classroom texts: they are easy to read, easy to engage with, contain very clear and unambiguous moral messages, and, hence, are easy to teach. Yes, these are all compelling reasons for teaching them, but one can’t help feeling that it would be no bad thing to set, for the abler pupils at least, material that is both linguistically and morally more challenging.

But what I find particularly shocking about the paragraph by Gove quoted above is this bit:

The numbers studying novels written before 1900 – Pride and Prejudice, Far from the Madding Crowd and Wuthering Heights – were tiny in comparison, around 1 per cent of the total.

Now, I know there are those who are not shocked by this at all. There are those who think this is just as it should be. Bethan Marshall, for instance, senior lecturer in English at King’s College, London:

Kids will be put off doing A-level literature by this. Many teenagers will think that being made to read Dickens aged 16 is just tedious. This will just grind children down.

Whatever one may think of this, let us concede that this is a wonderfully innovative idea: let us, from now on, design all school curricula around what our children are unlikely to find “tedious”. Kids put off mathematics by having to learn all that tedious stuff about differentiation? Great – let’s drop calculus. Put off geography by having to learn all that tedious stuff about soil erosion? Put off biology by having to learn all that tedious stuff about cell structures? Drop ’em all, says I! Once we start building all the curricula around what kids won’t find tedious, we’ll soon get to a stage where they can all get their GCSEs without being taught anything at all. To judge from the English GCSEs, we’re virtually at this Utopia already.

Perhaps some of us are entitled, however, to find it just a tad depressing that a senior lecturer in English at a prestigious university should think that sixteen-year-olds are all a bunch of plebs utterly unable to appreciate one of our very greatest novelists. I think she is wrong. I speak as one who remembers being sixteen years old, and utterly in thrall to the works of novelists of the stature of Dickens. And since I am not arrogant enough to imagine that I exceeded all others in terms of intellect, or in terms of ability to appreciate; and since I personally know other people who are grateful to their schools for having introduced them to literature of such quality; I cannot but conclude that the good senior lecturer in English at King’s College, London, is mistaken. Many children will, no doubt, find Dickens “tedious”, but it is hard to think of any topic in any subject at all that most children don’t find tedious: the question “so bloody what?” rather comes to mind. If we are to pander in our syllabi merely to what children find “fun”, then, in the process, we will deny those whose lives may have been enriched by a proper teaching of literature. As mine certainly was. Being myself more of a Kirsanov than a Bazarov in this respect, I can’t help but find all of this profoundly depressing.

For let us be clear why we should be teaching works from what we tend rather airily to refer to as “our literary heritage”: our literary culture is a defining feature of our civilisation; and, if we value our civilisation and think it worth propagating to future generations, we should take care to propagate to future generations the values of our literary culture. That’s it. This, I think, is the sole reason for studying literature. If we do not believe this, there is no point in studying literature at all. But if we do believe this, we have no choice but to engage with what our literary heritage has to offer. To go through GCSE English without engaging with Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Austen, Dickens and the like, is a bit like going through GCSE physics without engaging with Newtonian mechanics. And we are in a sad state indeed if something so obvious needs actually to be spelt out.

However, much though I applaud this latest initiative, I remain pessimistic that it will do much good. Will Gove finally do away with league tables, and this unremitting obsession with grades? I doubt it, given that his political party introduced the school league tables in the first place, and remains ideologically committed to competition in all aspects of life. But in an environment where there seems so little to cheer, it is at least something, I think, to have a Minister of Education who actually recognises that something is very seriously wrong when only 1% of children studying English Literature GCSE engages with literature from before the 20th century. At the very least, merely posting “Gove is a wanker” on Twitter is not really an appropriate or an adequate response.

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