Posts Tagged ‘Rant’

Appropriating culture

Recently, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, in front of one of the exhibits – a charming painting by Claude Monet of his wife dressed in a red kimono – visitors were invited to try on a similar kimono. I wasn’t entirely sure what the purpose of this was: it seemed, to say the least, a somewhat unorthodox approach to art appreciation. But since it seemed harmless enough, I didn’t think too much of it – although I couldn’t help reflecting that if the gallery were to adopt a similar approach to appreciating Rubens’ nudes, say, they may possibly be overstepping the mark. Beyond that, I didn’t really have any great thoughts on the matter.

However, I was surprised to find that this seemingly trivial matter had led to angry protests. It seemed to me a bit of an over-reaction, frankly: sure, trivialisation of arts seems constantly to be happening around us, and is something to be deplored, but, while one may approve of passion being displayed on behalf of the arts, it did seem to me too minor a matter to protest about. But I was very badly mistaken: the passions aroused had nothing to do with trivialisation of the arts, because, as we all know or should know by now, the arts are a trivial matter anyway, as they are really nothing more than signifiers of lifestyle choices. No – the passion was all about something called “cultural appropriation”. As one of the placards held by the protestors said: “It’s not racist if you looks cute & exotic in it besides the MFA supports this!” This may or may not be making a case against “cultural appropriation” – I wouldn’t presume to judge – but at least it does make the case – very eloquently, I think – for the importance of teaching grammar in schools.

Now, if I were indeed the cultural elitist I have frequently been accused of being, I would have dismissed all this with a derisive snort. However, my curiosity was aroused, and I made some effort to find out just what “cultural appropriation” is, and why it should be deemed so reprehensible. Seemingly, “cultural appropriation” is the adoption of elements from other cultures: that bit I am sure of. What I am not so sure of is why it should be considered reprehensible: in some of the sites I found in the course of my internet searches, this adoption is in and of itself a Bad Thing; in some other sites, it is considered bad because those elements of other cultures that are being adopted are being trivialised. But these objections to trivialisation were all, as far as I could see, in the context of popular celebrity culture, in which most things are pretty trivial anyway: I can’t say I understood this objection very well. If trivialisation is what is being objected to, then one might as well turn one’s guns on the entire edifice of popular celebrity culture! But that is clearly not feasible: quite apart from anything else, were it not for this culture, what would the Guardian newspaper fill its Arts pages with? As it is, they can’t even run a feature on Titian, and make the unexceptionable though obvious point that our modern concepts of feminine beauty are very different from what they used to be, without talking at length about Kim Kardashian’s arse.

The other element that recurred in the course of my admittedly not very exhaustive researches on this matter is what I suppose I should call – simply because everyone else is – “cultural hegemony”. It is seemingly wrong to adopt any aspect of a culture of people who are, or have been, or are perceived to be, oppressed. I couldn’t find any coherent justification of why this, in particular, should be wrong: it seems to be regarded as something so self-evident as to be axiomatic. Maybe if I had persevered a bit more I would have found a coherent argument on this matter, but, to be honest, I didn’t feel up to persevering, as much I had read in the course of my researches into this matter I could not really understand. Now, I like to flatter myself that I have, in my time, read, and what’s more, taken in some often very difficult prose – the late Henry James, for instance, or Virginia Woolf, or James Joyce; but something like this frankly defeats me. I grant it’s all my fault, and that if I were to persevere, I would be able to absorb and no doubt enrich my mind with all sorts of new ideas; but, having read this piece over a few times, and finding myself none the wiser and not even better informed, it seemed best simply to acknowledge my own limitations: some things are obviously just not for me.

Not having absorbed all that has been said and argued about “cultural appropriation”, what I am about to say may well be very naïve, but I’ll say it anyway as it is something I fervently believe. And it is this: cultures thrive by interacting with each other. Look back on any period in history, and we’ll find the same story: we can see how cross-currents between different cultures have enriched us all; we can see how medieval trade routes spanning China, India, Persia, the Arab world, and Europe, had resulted in intellectual and cultural exchanges to the immense benefit of all concerned; we can see how Indian cultures were sparked back into life after long stagnation by contact with the West; how van Gogh incorporated what he had learnt from Japanese prints into his own artistic vision, and how Picasso’s was shaped by what he saw of African masks; how Debussy and Britten had made use of Balinese gamelan music; how Gustav Holst had set to music hymns from the Rig Veda translated into English, and how Indian actors perform on Indian stages Shakespeare’s plays translated into Indian languages; and so on, and so forth. The entire cultural history of mankind is the story of cultures interacting with each other, borrowing from each other, or, if you like, appropriating from each other, and enriching each other in the process. Far from decrying this, it is all to be welcomed, and celebrated.

But all this does seem to me to be swimming against the tide: the contention that “cultural appropriation” is a Bad Thing – an entirely unexamined and unargued contention, as far as I can see – appears to be regarded as self-evident, and I suppose it’s only a matter of time before courses are offered at our universities on Cultural Appropriation Studies. Well, why not? We already have faculties of Gender and Media Studies, where it is seemingly possible to obtain a master’s degree by “perform[ing] Foucauldian readings of Japanese anime porn”.

In the meantime, I think it’s best for me to return to my library, and pull up the drawbridge. It’s not that I don’t want to interrogate and discourse with the outside world, but neither seems possible when there doesn’t exist at least some common ground.

A case of identity: literature and identity politics

This happened some twenty and more years ago now, but it sticks in my mind. I was at some social gathering, and a young lady to whom I had only been introduced a few minutes earlier asked me if I had been to see Bombay Dreams, a West End musical featuring Bollywood music that was, at the time, rather popular. There was no particular reason why she should ask me this, other than that, very obviously, my appearance indicated that I originated from somewhere in the Indian subcontinent. No, I replied politely. Was I planning to see it? No, I replied again, Bollywood isn’t really my kind of thing. She seemed a bit surprised, as I remember, but didn’t say anything. Much later in the evening, we bumped into each other again, and this time she asked me why I had turned my back on my own culture.

The first thing that bothered me about this was her assumption that she knew what my culture was. Actually, she didn’t: if “my culture” indicates the culture in which I had grown up, Bollywood films and Bollywood music weren’t part of “my culture” at all: these were most certainly not things I had grown up with, either at home or outside. But something else bothered me: it was the implication that, whatever my cultural background may or may not have been, it was somehow wrong for me to have moved away from it – that my identity was somehow pre-determined by the circumstances of my birth, and that for me to deviate from it was somehow reprehensible.

This was, as I say, a long time ago, and at the time, the term “identity politics” did not have quite the currency it has now. I think I was barely aware of it then. Now, of course, one can hardly get away from it: “identity” is one of those terms – like “political correctness”, or “multiculturalism”, and all those other things that people get so hot-under-the-collar about – that everyone seems to use, but no-one ever thinks of defining. This allows X to define “identity” and “identity politics” in one way, and argue for their reasonableness; while Y defines them another way, and rages against their unreasonableness. And given their respective definitions – implicitly assumed, though rarely stated – they are both right.

Even “trigger warnings” – a rather hot topic these days, one I ranted about here rather intemperately only quite recently, and which my more reasonable friend Mark Dietz then commented on with characteristically greater circumspection: despite the demands that were made for “trigger warnings”, both the nature of these desired warnings and the reasoning behind them seem to me curiously unclear. Three quite different things seem to me to be conflated in these demands. The first is simply a request that teachers guide their students sensitively through issues likely to prove distressing, or contentious, or difficult, or, indeed, any mixture of these three. Such a request does seem quite reasonable, I suppose, and if we are to take, as Prof. Aaron Hanlon does, the benign view that this is all that is being asked for, there is, I guess, little to complain about – although one may reasonably ask how a general reader, who does not have the benefit of a teacher’s guiding hand, can be expected to deal with the difficulties that the poor darling little rosebuds of students need so gently to be led through. Perhaps the underlying assumption is that these cornerstones of literary traditions are read only by those who have to, and that the rest of us, very sensibly, keep away from them; and that those of us who don’t really deserve all we get. Which is fair enough, I suppose. But, leaving that aside for now, if demands for “trigger warnings” go no further than this, I think we can all live with them.

The second aspect we may also view charitably: it concerns those students who have suffered some sort of trauma in the past, and are now suffering from PTSD – Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Now, I most certainly would not wish to belittle this issue, although I would insist that this is the provenance of the therapist rather than of the English teacher. The best we can do here is to ensure that the teacher is aware of this issue, and refer the student to an appropriate therapist should it raise its head. Certainly, in the incident cited by those demanding “trigger warnings” – of the lack of concern for a student who had previously been sexually assaulted – the teacher’s insensitivity is clearly unacceptable.

But there is a third interpretation of these demands, and it is this third interpretation that particularly troubles me. And this interpretation concerns “identity politics”. Since I have been censorious earlier in this post about discussing concepts without adequately defining them, let me, if not define, at least try to characterise what I understand by that term, based on my own observations.

I personally would characterise “identity politics” along the following lines:

“Identity politics” is a loose term describing a set of ideologies that views each individual’s identity in terms of such signifiers as race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, class, nationality, and so on. It further considers the feelings and emotions that are direct consequences of identity, as determined by such signifiers, to be of the utmost importance, and any attempt to deny the validity or importance of these feelings and emotions, or even any attempt to question or to challenge them, or to look beyond them, is perceived as oppressive. This is particularly the case when it comes to identities the possessors of which are, or have been, or are perceived to be, oppressed, disadvantaged, or discriminated against in some way. Protection of these feelings and emotions is then given the highest priority both in public policy, and in private interactions.

Now, this is merely how I, personally, understand “identity politics”: I would welcome other perspectives.

If this is, indeed, what “identity politics” is, then there are, I think, a number of very legitimate objections to be made against the concept. The first is that it subsumes personal identity to the identity of a group, thus denying, or at least refusing adequately to acknowledge, the variety of identities that inevitably exist within any given group. It further denies individuals within the group the freedom to dissent – the freedom to disagree with the core values of the group they have been born into, and also to the freedom to adopt values not belonging to the group: adherents of identity politics frown on such dissent. I have, personally, experienced such disapproval frequently, from all sorts of sources: that incident, though fairly harmless in itself, of that young lady insisting that I should, being of an Indian background, enjoy Bollywood music, was but a prelude to what has followed in the years since. The belief that one’s values should be determined by the accidental circumstances of one’s birth, and that to deviate from them is somehow a betrayal, though to my mind an invidious belief, is extraordinarily widespread: I have heard it expressed in various forms over the years, from the fairly innocuous to the downright malicious and nasty, from people of all ethnic backgrounds, and from right across the political spectrum. Those who follow these matters on social media will be more than familiar with such pejorative terms as “Uncle Tom” and “coconut” – terms referring people with dark skins who have, quite unaccountably, exercised their freedom of choice to choose for themselves values other than those that Identity Politicians insist have been pre-determined for them. Recently, in what purported to be an academic conference, a comfortable professor of media studies from a prestigious American university described as “native informants” those Muslims who no longer believe in the religion into which they were born. So much for freedom of thought.

(As an aside, if what applies to Muslims applies also to Hindus – and why should it not? – I think I too, going by the good professor’s formulation, and despite the disapprobation I am bound to attract for not identifying myself as an adherent of the religion of my forefathers, should declare myself to be a “native informant”. I’m not entirely sure, though, what I am meant to be informing on, to whom, or, for that matter, how much the job pays.)

There are, it seems to me, a great many attributes that combine to create any individual’s unique identity. Some of these may indeed be innate and immutable – such as race, or gender, or the religion practised by the family into which one is born; but there are also many that are acquired by choice – tastes, opinions, politics, religious beliefs (or the lack thereof), lifestyles, and so on. The ability to choose for oneself one’s identity may be limited – I cannot choose to be Chinese, for instance; nor can I choose to be, say, an operatic tenor, much though I’d love to – but all choices are necessarily limited to some extent or other: that in itself does not invalidate the fact that we have a choice. And, despite such obvious limits, the scope we have to determine our own identities is, it seems to me, actually very broad – far more so, I think, than is generally reckoned. And for all the attributes that combine to create an individual identity – whether innate or acquired – any individual is, or should be, at complete liberty to decide the weighting he or she chooses to give to each. To deny any individual this choice is to force the individual to accept an identity that has been pre-determined; and this seems to me at least as oppressive as any of the other oppressions that proponents of identity politics claim to oppose.

The pre-determined view also seems to me to see identity as something that is fixed rather than fluid, and, once again, this is surely erroneous. I am not, for instance, the person I was thirty years ago; or even twenty, or even ten years ago: my identity, as with so many other things, is something that has evolved over the years, and will surely go on evolving. Through experience, one’s perspective alters, one’s values change. Identity politics, by focussing on those attributes that are essentially immutable, seem to me not to recognise this fluidity: “finding one’s self” is seen as a process of discovering what one already is – or, rather, what Identity Politicians think one should be, given one’s background – rather than exploring the potentials of what one may become. Such a view of identity merely impoverishes us.

A final fatal flaw of “identity politics” – and one that makes identity politics inimical, I think, to the study of literature – is its implicit assumption that our feelings and emotions are triggered primarily, or even solely, by the nature of our identities. I strongly – indeed, passionately – believe this to be wrong. For me, perhaps the greatest gift we possess as humans is our ability to empathise – or, as Auden put it, our ability to “weep because another wept”; that, regardless of what our own background may be, regardless of our race or gender or sexuality or of any of these things, we can make a leap of the imagination, and enter into the minds of people whose identities are very different from our own. To deny this greatest of gifts is to deny all that is finest in humanity. It is to see the mass of humanity as but a multiplicity of tribes, each tribe enclosed within its own space, unable to communicate with any other. These enclosed spaces may be what Identity Politicians refer to as “safe spaces”, but one doesn’t go to literature merely to be enclosed in these “safe places”: study of literature requires us to venture into “dangerous spaces”.

Indeed, this venture into dangerous places is what literature demands. It puts before us perspectives other than our own; it urges us, challenges us, to absorb these different perspectives, and, in the process of so doing, broaden our own. Sometimes, these perspectives encountered are profound and original, and in such cases, absorbing these perspectives into our own enriches us to an extent far, far greater than I think I have the ability to articulate. But none of these wonders can happen if we were merely to cower within our pre-determined “safe spaces”, as Identity Politicians seem to demand we must.

So what exactly is being demanded by the Identity Politicians – those brave warriors who urge faculties of literature to issue trigger warnings because, as they put it, “identities matter”? That teachers should teach sensitive subjects sensitively, and be aware that some students may be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder? Or are these demands, as I suspect, going further – that we tailor the teaching of literature, or, indeed, choose the texts to be taught, in view of the identities, or the perceived identities, of the students? If so, that is simply the end of literature. Better not to teach literature at all than to teach it under such conditions. Such a demand implies a denial of literature itself.

It is not surprising that this demand to incorporate identity politics into teaching has reared its head so prominently in the teaching of literature. For literature is, it seems to me, more perhaps than any other branch of learning, a powerful denial of the basic underlying assumptions of identity politics. Literature tells us that we are not prisoners to the circumstances of our birth, that we are not stuck inside our pre-determined “safe spaces”. It broadens our mental horizons; it makes us realise that the world we inhabit is a big world, bigger than we’d ever imagined; it blows away all those putrid little tribalisms that so diminish us in the name, of all things, of freedom.

And no, I still haven’t seen Bombay Dreams. As I say, it’s just not my kind of thing.

“Meant to be seen, not read”

Yesterday, as well as being St George’s Day, was Shakespeare’s birthday. There were celebrations a-plenty, and quite rightly so: but what was very conspicuous by its absence – at least, if it was there, I missed it – was any encouragement actually to read his plays. One might have thought that the best way to honour any writer is to read what that writer has written, but somehow, when it comes to the writer widely claimed to be “our greatest”, reading does not seem very high on the agenda. Even otherwise well-read people appear not to have read much, if any, of his writing. And the unthinking mantra “Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be seen, not read” seems to be commonplace. Here, for instance, is Mark Rylance, one of our foremost Shakespearean actors, on the matter:

Shakespeare’s plays were supposed to be performed and reading them was “the last thing the author intended,” [Rylance] said.

There’s no point overwhelming this post with further links to illustrate my point: that these plays “were meant to be seen, not read” has now become, more or less, accepted wisdom, as even the most cursory Google search will testify.

There are, of course, several arguments to be presented against this contention that these plays were intended to be seen and not read. The most obvious is that it’s not a question of either one or the other – that one may do both, and that both are enriching in their different ways. One may point out that many good texts of these works – the Good Quartos – were published in Shakespeare’s own lifetime, and that it is unlikely that such publications could have appeared without the author’s own authorisation; and that if Shakespeare did indeed authorise these publications, as seems likely, then he clearly intended them to be read: after all, we know for a fact that a great many major dramatists in future eras (Ibsen, Shaw, etc.), and at least one dramatist from Shakespeare’s own time, certainly wanted their plays to be read as well as seen.

One may point out also that Shakespeare’s writing is rich and multi-layered – as one would expect from “our greatest writer” – and that the riches on offer are better absorbed when read and meditated upon in one’s own time in the study, rather than heard in the theatre at the speed of sound. One may question also how well one may get to know the plays if one were to rely only on performance: after all, how many Shakespeare plays do most of us get to see in performance? How often? Are they all good productions, that do justice to the plays? Further, is each performance not necessarily an interpretation, which, fine though it may be, highlights inevitably only certain aspects of the work at the expense of others? That only when one encounters these works oneself, free of the interpretations of others, can one appreciate its multi-facetedness, and arrive, as one does with other major works of literature, at one’s own interpretations?

One may go further, and argue that if reading these plays is an enriching experience – and I can personally vouch for it that it is – then it really doesn’t matter what the author had intended. The author had also intended Rosalind and Cleopatra to be played by boys, but we don’t, thankfully, turn our backs on actresses playing these roles.

I have put forward these arguments and others many a time, but I don’t think they have made much impact: at least, I don’t think I have encouraged many people, if indeed any at all, to read these plays. And that’s a shame. People need no encouragement to see the plays, after all: both the Globe Theatre, and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre get huge audiences: indeed, it is often quite difficult getting tickets for the latter, unless one books well in advance. It is the reading, not the seeing, that requires encouragement. And that mantra “meant to be seen, not read” is hardly conducive to encouraging anyone to read. Quite the contrary, I’d have thought.

So the next time I hear that mantra repeated, I think I will dispense with all my usual arguments, and merely counter with “How do you know?” That really is the only answer necessary. Whenever someone says that reading these plays was “the last thing the author intended”, the obvious riposte is surely: “How the hell do you know what went on in Shakespeare’s mind?”

In the meantime, we go on celebrating Shakespeare as “our greatest writer”, while even people who are otherwise well-read do not consider reading him. I must say I find that rather sad. For unless we read Shakespeare, celebrating him as “our greatest writer” is no more than lip service.

Trigger-happy readers

I try not to be too censorious on this blog. When I find myself disagreeing vehemently with any stated position, I do try – on the grounds that nothing in all this unintelligible world can ever be so clear cut as to preclude some trace at least of ambivalence – to see if there is anything, anything at all, that may be said for the other side. But it’s not always easy. When I read, for instance, that students of literature, people who have actually chosen to study the subject at university, and who, one might reasonably assume, had some idea of what they were letting themselves in for, request that works with potentially distressing themes be marked with a “trigger warning” to protect their delicate sensitivities, I find myself thinking hard whether there is anything at all that can be said for their viewpoint.

I tell myself that, after all, sensitivities are indeed fragile things, and I would not care to have them belittled. Those who have been on the receiving end of, say, racist abuse (or worse), may indeed find it mortifying to read the depiction of racism in Go Tell It on the Mountain. Those who have had suicidal tendencies may indeed find it traumatic to enter the suicidal mind of Septimus Warren Smith in Mrs Dalloway. Some may counter that what you may read of made-up characters isn’t really that big a deal, as it’s all “made up”, but we who value literature know better: we acknowledge, as these students do, that it is a big deal, that literature does have the power not only to affect us, but to affect us deeply, to our very core – in some cases, indeed, to traumatise us. So let us grant the students this: in our age, when anything of cultural worth appears systematically to be sidelined away from the mainstream under the pretence that it’s not really that important, it is good to have some acknowledgement at least of the often overwhelming power that books may exert upon the reader’s mind. Better surely to acknowledge the potentially traumatic impact of Mrs Dalloway than to pretend it is but a trifle, a bauble, to while away a few lazy hours when we have nothing more important to do.

So far, I think we’re agreed, and on the same side. It’s the next bit that I have problems with. For the students in question are requesting that books that have the potential to cause distress be marked with what is known as a “trigger warning” – something to let potential readers know that the book may cause distress, so these potential readers may then, should they choose, avoid the book. It is when we come to the word “avoid” that I have a problem. Of course, as a general principle, one is under no obligation to put oneself through something that one finds uncomfortable, let alone distressing or traumatic. But should this general principle extend also to those who have, of their own free will, chosen to study literature? Did they really not understand what they were letting themselves in for?

For literature is the least abstract of all the arts. It is unambiguously about life. Life isn’t, admittedly, all distressing and traumatic, but much of it is, and so, literature has no option but to depict those things that may distress or cause trauma. Literature may also present ways of looking at the world that are disturbing, ideas that may challenge, provoke, and, indeed, traumatise. Perhaps the requested trigger warning should apply to the entire range of literature rather than to just a few books; perhaps all literature faculties in all universities should have engraved over the gate: “Abandon all comfort ye who enter here.” Comfort is for the heritage-style costume-drama adaptations of the classics, not the classics themselves.

Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart – which, I guess, has been around long enough now to be regarded as a “classic” – may, we are told, “trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide, and more”. I am a bit unsure from the phrasing what exactly the book may “trigger”: thoughts? feelings? emotions? new ways of perceiving things? new perspectives? If so, are not these triggerings to be welcomed rather than avoided? Some of these triggerings may indeed be distressing, but in literature, as in life, distress is all too often the price one has to pay to experience the wonders on offer.

I also can’t help wondering: is Things Fall Apart likely to “trigger” only those who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide? (And more?) Can the rest of us not be triggered also by this book? Were we to be triggered only by what we have personally experienced, any individual book is unlikely to trigger much at all in any individual, given how minuscule any individual’s personal experience must be in comparison to the sum total of human experiences that literature encompasses. And I don’t know that it’s a good idea – at least for those who have voluntarily chosen to study literature – to avoid those books that trigger our mind into absorbing into our own perspectives the perspectives of others, distressing or even traumatic though they may be. The alternative is to close discourse, to close debate, to close, indeed, our very minds. We have the freedom as private citizens to close our minds, if that is what we really want to do, but perhaps that option should not be made available in institutions of learning.

So, while I am, up to a point, sympathetic with these students, I cannot say I am wholeheartedly in agreement. It’s not that I am asking them to “toughen up”: far from it: to experience literature, you have to hold on to your unhardened sensitivities. And I most certainly am not saying that the distress that literature can cause is but an affectation: it is very real indeed, far more so than is, perhaps, commonly recognised. What I am saying, I think, is that unless you are prepared to have your sensitivities battered, unless you are prepared to accept the distress and the trauma as a price to be paid for seeing the world in new and wondrous ways, then it’s best simply to steer clear of literature altogether. It makes as little sense for those who seek mere comfort to study literature as it does for those who are squeamish about handling animals to study veterinary science.

Some bleak thoughts on “Bleak House”

The barbarians are at the gates. They may well be inside already.

Yes, I know, this has been thought and said by just about every generation. People were thinking such things at least as far back as the classical age; indeed, it is from the classical age that this expression originates. But just because previous generations have also entertained this thought does not make the thought wrong: quite the contrary. The antiquity of this thought renders it respectable, and the frequency with which it has occurred across so great a span of time enhances the probability that it is, perhaps, true.

This thought, gloomy though it is, struck me quite forcefully this last Friday evening, when, ironically, I was enjoying a quite wonderful night out. I had gone to the Arts Centre in Hounslow to see a dramatisation of Dickens’ Bleak House, performed by a touring theatrical group called The Pantaloons, of whom I had not previously heard. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much. But what I saw was utterly joyous: I’d have been delighted to have seen a show as good as this even in London’s West End. A cast of only five actors brought to teeming life virtually the entire cast of Dickens’ vast novel: a few basic props to indicate character – a scarf for Mr Jarndyce, spectacles for Mr Tulkinghorn, and so on – a change of voice and diction, and of body language and facial expression – and, miraculously, in front of our very eyes, characters transform one into another at breathtaking pace. The innocent and naïve Ada Clare turns into the dignified and tragic Lady Dedlock; and then, the very next moment, into the glaring, small-minded and mean-spirited Judy Smallweed. The same actor convinces as the unworthy suitor Guppy one minute, and as the worthy suitor Allan Woodcourt the next. And so on. It would be invidious to single out any one of the five when all five were so spectacularly good.

It was, of course, a whistle-stop tour of this huge novel, and inevitably much of the material was thinned out (no Mr Skimpole, for example, or the Jellybys, or Chadband); but what surprised me was how much managed to survive. The whole evening fizzed with verve and wit and sparkle, and these mere five actors communicated the feel and the zest of a gloriously overcrowded Dickensian canvas, with not a single square inch of that canvas left untouched by the sheer fecundity of the man’s prodigious imagination. There was much audience interaction, as in pantomime, and a great many jokes reminding the audience that what they were seeing was indeed a modern production featuring modern actors, re-enacting a novel written some 160 years ago. The actor playing the odious blackmailer Smallweed particularly enjoyed himself with the audience, asking (in character) one member what he did for a living (I’m so glad I wasn’t asked that; “operational research analyst” wouldn’t have sounded right at all in the context!), and telling us all that we had all been “ripped off” for our theatre seats. I, too, I admit, played a small part in all this: before the show had started, the cast were personally greeting the audience as they were coming in, and speaking to them; and at one point, they asked if anyone had read the novel. As usual on these occasions, I tried to keep my head down, but as the actress playing Esther Summerson was looking straight at me at this point, and I had no option but to nod and say “yes”. Later in the show, they improvised some lines about not diverging too widely from the script, as “there is at least one person here who has read the book”. Well, I guess it was good to be part of the show, even in so small a way! (Just as well they hadn’t asked me if I have written a blog post about this book!)

The danger of this kind of thing is that the more serious aspects of the work could become drowned out by all the jokeyness, but that danger was well avoided here. It is one of the most marvellous thing about theatre that we, the audience, can be aware that what we are witnessing are but actors speaking their lines; that we may even be able to identify these actors as living in real life, outside the stage action; that we may admire the costume design, sets, and lighting; and yet, even while fully aware of the artifice of it all, we can find our heart-strings tugged at, and our minds entering the most rarefied realms of fancy and of imagination. So here, even as Dickens himself is wheeled on stage to be charged with engineering the absurd plot device of spontaneous combustion, we can find ourselves in awe of the spontaneous combustion itself, recognising it not merely as a theatrical plot device, but also as a metaphor hinting at realities too vaguely glimpsed to be explicitly stated. We recognise also the immense tragedy of Lady Dedlock, and the heart-rending, unmediated pathos of Little Jo, who, raging with fever, is “moved on” until he drops dead; we recognise the horror behind the grotesque – the terror underlying Miss Flite’s naming of the birds, the inadequacies of human laws indicating the inadequacy, should it exist, of a Higher Law. Through all the pantomime jokeyness and the sheer exuberant fun of it all, we are given a glimpse into the dark, elusive heart of this very great novel.

So why, despite a show that reminded me why I loved the novel so much, and which entertained me so royally all evening, was I visited with such gloomy thoughts of barbarians at the gates? The reason, I am sorry to say, is this: there were only twelve people in the audience. Yes, that’s right. Twelve. Including us. And it was hard not to imagine how dispiriting this must have been for the cast, giving so much to a virtually empty auditorium. Admittedly, if the small size of the audience bothered them, they didn’t show it: they gave a fully committed performance with a professionalism that, under the circumstances, bordered on the heroic. But it’s hard not to feel that something is not right. That something, indeed, is very, very wrong. After the show, as I waited for the bus back home from Hounslow town centre, I saw no shortage of people out that Friday night, in bars, in clubs – anywhere, indeed, but in the theatre; and the money they were spending was far, far more than what I had spent for my seat. The show itself, though by no means slight, made no great intellectual demand: it was joyous and exuberant throughout, and thoroughly entertaining. But the fact remained: twelve people – just twelve people. And it is hard to resist the conclusion that there is in our society an indifference bordering on hostility for anything perceived even remotely to be of cultural worth. We don’t need no educashun, and we certainly don’t need no kulcher either.

How all occasions do inform against our culture – against that which is of the greatest value. I have, for some years now, been chairman of a local music society, which has been going now for over sixty years. Each year, we organise nine concerts, mainly classical, bringing some wonderful musical talent right to our very doorsteps. Last month, we hosted pianist Jayson Gillham, who had been finalist in the Leeds International Piano Competition in 2012, and was last year was outright winner of Montreal International Music Competition. He has already performed with some of the most prestigious orchestras in the world, and in some of the most prestigious halls, and, given this background, one might have thought the good people of our locality would be fighting for tickets. We certainly did our best to publicise the concert – with mentions on various social media platforms, announcements on local radio, fliers, banners, and the like. And yet, we couldn’t even fill our modest church hall: to see this rising star of the world of classical music, only fifty or so turned up in a hall that could hold about eighty. Of course, that was a much larger audience than the one that turned up to see Bleak House, but I, as chairman, felt frankly embarrassed. Not, admittedly, that the small audience size seemed to bother Jayson Gillham any more than it had bothered the cast of Bleak House: he gave a superb recital, finishing with a quite electric performance of Chopin’s B minor sonata. But once again, I couldn’t help feeling that something isn’t right. One can bring a horse to water, as they say, but we were doing far more than that: we were bringing water to the horse. And still the horse seems reluctant to drink.

It’s the same story everywhere. Many similar music societies in the neighbourhood have already folded. There is absolutely no shortage of musical talent: merely a shortage of people prepared to appreciate it.

And no, I don’t buy the contention that ’twas ever thus. Our music club has been going for some sixty-five years now, and that would not have been possible if ’twas ever thus. That membership numbers and attendances are declining year on year is hardly, after all, a figment of my imagination. Neither is it a figment of my imagination that not so long ago, mainstream television channels would broadcast regularly, at peak viewing times, the London Symphony Orchestra playing classical music (Andre Previn’s Music Night); and that Andre Previn himself, then Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, could appear as guest on the hugely popular Morecambe and Wise Show without requiring any special introduction. Can anyone imagine the Principal Conductor of a major symphony orchestra even being invited on to a popular television show these days? It seems that what is referred to – usually sneeringly these days – as “high culture” is increasingly sidelined away from the mainstream, so that only those who have made the special effort to look out for it will ever find it.

I could go on with my jeremiad, citing further examples, but jeremiads, no matter how deeply felt, tend to get a bit boring: so let’s skip all that. But I am not prepared merely to sit back and let it all happen. I may not be able to turn back the tide, but I can have a damn good try at the very least! So, wherever you are, may I please encourage you to support your local arts events: once we lose these things, they’re gone for ever. And if you’re in the UK, may I recommend a look through The Pantaloons’ forthcoming shows: I’ll certainly be looking out for them in future. And finally, if you live anywhere within travelling distance of Egham, please do have a look at our list of concerts for the 2015-16 season, and do come along to a few of them. Tell you what – mention this blog to me at the concert, and I’ll get you a coffee during the interval. Now, I can’t say fairer than that!

My unfortunate partiality for “colonising texts”

When I first came under the spell of Shakespeare some forty and more years ago, I failed to realise that I was siding with a tool of colonial oppression. And now, it’s too late to do anything about it: I am too stuck in my ways.

I suppose it has much to do with my family background. One never escapes the cultural ambience one grows up in; even those elements we reject define us: they define us by the very fact that we have rejected them. And there are other elements that one rejects, but later comes back to. And, finally, there are those elements in one’s family background that, consciously or unconsciously, become integral parts of one’s very being. My love of Shakespeare belongs, I think, to the third category.

Not that my parents read Shakespeare: my late father, who loved and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of Bengali literature, often lamented to me that his English wasn’t good enough for him to read and appreciate Shakespeare’s plays. I think he was wrong in this: his English most certainly was good enough to enable appreciation to a significantly high degree, but, given the level to which he understood and appreciated Bengali poetry, the standards he set himself were high. He did love watching the plays though, and never spoke of Shakespeare with anything other than respect. As a man steeped in Bengali culture, and who had lived the first twenty-one years of his life under British rule, if there was any resentment to be felt about “cultural imperialism”, he was well placed to feel it: but he didn’t. Yes, it did distress him that the Bengali culture he loved and valued so much was so little known outside the Bengali-speaking world; but the idea that Shakespeare was a colonial imposition was something that never even had occurred to him.

And this, I think, is only to be expected from someone who was so steeped in Tagorean ethos as was my father. In the first decade of the twentieth century, when Indian nationalist sentiment, though in its infancy, was establishing itself as a potent force, Tagore wrote possibly the most startling of all patriotic poems. (It is No. 106 in the Bengali Gitanjali, for those who have access to it.) He does not here proclaim the greatness of India; and nor does he speak, as he was fully entitled to do, of India’s violation by foreign powers. Instead, he calls for people from all around the world, of all cultures and all backgrounds – even, quite explicitly, the imperialist rulers, the British – to bring to India their cultural riches, and thereby enrich the Indian mind and the Indian soul. The very concept of “cultural imperialism” was to Tagore utterly alien.

Looking back, that was the ethos in the household in which I grew up. My parents obviously thought it important that I, a five-year-old newly arrived in the country and unable to speak a word of English, should learn the language, but their motives were by no means purely utilitarian: even before I knew who Shakespeare was, I knew that this strange language I was to learn was “the language of Shakespeare”; and that if I learnt it well, I would have the privilege of being able to read the original works. This reverence – which, contrary to popular belief, does not preclude critical engagement – that was inculcated into me remains with me still. And, somewhat absurdly I suppose (since it reflects no credit on me personally), I find myself rather proud of this: my love of Shakespeare, far from being a foreign cultural imposition, is an aspect of my Bengali, Tagorean heritage.

And so, when I see an article in the arts pages of a prestigious newspapers that tells us, with obvious disapproval, that “in India and countries in Africa, Shakespeare’s works were made compulsory in schools, as they were seen as a mark of civilisation”, I struggle to understand what there can be in any of that that the author finds objectionable: does the author think these plays aren’t a mark of civilisation? And when the author then goes on to refer to these plays as “the master’s colonising texts”, something inside me, I confess, dies a little.

There are many other aspects of that article that I find – to put it politely – puzzling. The author, Preti Taneja, says of a recent Catalan film, Otel.lo, that it is “genuinely far more entertaining, political and provocative than many contemporary productions of Shakespeare in the UK”. Presumably, she is stating her own personal opinion here, and if so, that’s fair enough. There’s no arguing with personal opinion: de gustibus, and all that. But I can’t help wondering what the point of this comparison is. For one thing, comparing a Shakespeare play with a film in which a Shakespeare play is used as the basis for a new work of art is not a like-for-like comparison. And secondly, while I am sure that there are indeed productions of Shakespeare in the UK that are mediocre or worse – quality, after all, varies in all areas of human activity – the standard of Shakespearean performances in British theatres remains, despite the often desperate state of theatre finances, very high. Preti Taneja’s slur seems to me frankly gratuitous and churlish.

And there’s more. “It’s time to break this national monopoly on Shakespeare,” the headline proclaims. What “national monopoly”? The article itself tells us of the various productions and adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays from all around the world. Translating Shakespeare into other languages, adapting Shakespeare, seeing Shakespeare through different cultural prisms to arrive at new levels of meaning – this has all been going on for a few centuries now, and none of it requires special pleading. From Verdi’s Otello to Kurosawa’s Ran (Italy and Japan both countries in which Shakespeare looms large, despite the rather inconvenient fact that neither has ever been colonised by the British), the plays of Shakespeare have formed the basis of new works; and often (as is certainly the case with the works of Verdi and Kurosawa), these new works themselves are widely acclaimed as masterpieces in their own right. So, once again – what national monopoly? What, in short, is Ms Taneja complaining about?

Personally, I welcome new adaptations of Shakespeare. I can’t imagine any lover of Shakespeare who doesn’t. Otel.lo may no doubt be a very fine film, and I would be keen to see it. But it remains somewhat dispiriting that in order to praise new adaptations of Shakespeare’s work, Preti Taneja feels the need to disparage the very fine work that is going on in theatres all around Britain. And it is equally dispiriting to see these endlessly enriching works characterised as tools of colonial oppression.

As for me, I shall go on revering the plays of Shakespeare. I owe it to my Bengali heritage, after all.


As a young lad, I used to enjoy a film often shown those days on television – an adaptation from the early 60s of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine. It’s been a long time since I last saw that film, but one scene in particular stays in the mind. The protagonist, played by Rod Taylor, has, with his time machine, travelled into some far distant post-apocalyptic future, and the people he encounters there appear uncommunicative. Eventually, he asks if they have some books that would help him understand their culture. “Books?” says one. “Yes, we have books.” And the protagonist is led into a long-disused library in which vast shelves of books are crumbling into dust. Yes, he reflects bitterly to himself, that tells him all he needs to know about their culture.

Back in the present, our local library appears to have a policy of selling off books that have not been taken out  over a long period, and I have, over the years, bought from these sales some very fine hardback volumes, in often pristine condition. I have bought for the princely sum of two pounds each the Everyman editions of the Complete Essays of Montaigne (translated by Donald Frame) and George Thomson’s translation of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, the Collected Fictions of Borges (Andrew Hurley’s translation), and many others. These books had never been taken out of the library, the shelves of which are now are groaning with celebrity cookbooks, misery memoirs, and the like.

I wonder what this tells us about our culture.

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 his 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 literatures 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 has 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 onward;
– 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.

Reflections on a Facebook meme

Those of us who have Facebook accounts may have seen a meme currently doing the rounds that asks:

The BBC believes that most people will have read only 6 of the 100 books below. How many have you read?

Those of us with more time on our hands than sense to know how best to use it may even have completed the questionnaire, ticking off those titles we have read and checking our score against those of our Facebook friends. I know I have.

There is no indication of what, if anything, this list is intended to indicate. If it is intended as a measure of how well-read or badly-read we are, it does seem, to be sure, an odd selection of titles. Is there really anyone who has read, for instance, both Ulysses and The Da Vinci Code? Or would want to? It seems highly unlikely to me. After all, the former can only be enjoyed by readers who love language and delight in its usage, while the latter can only be enjoyed by those who do not care much if anything at all about language: it is hard to see where the two may intersect.  So what can a list containing both these titles possibly indicate? What could all these titles possibly have in common?

This is the point where I should have shrugged my shoulders, thought no more about such nonsense, and gone off to spend my time more wisely by … oh, I don’t know … by reading a good book, I suppose. But good sense never was among my strong points: I went to the BBC site to find the source of this list. I couldn’t find it.

The list contained in this Facebook meme seems remarkably similar to the results of the BBC Big Readers poll from some eleven years ago: I haven’t  made a detailed comparison between the two – I’m not that obsessed! – but it seems fair to infer that whoever put together that later list had based it on the earlier. In the Big Read poll, the BBC had asked the British public to nominate their favourite book. I cannot after all these years remember whether they had stipulated that the book nominated must be a work of prose fiction, but certainly, neither non-fiction, nor poetry, nor drama featured in the final results. The poll was quite a big thing at the time; and in case anyone should think celebrating books is elitist – a vile and unpardonable thing to be, of course, either then or now – an article in BBC’s in-house listings magazine, Radio Times, helpfully informed us, as I remember, that this poll was intended to discover what we really liked, rather than what critics tell us we should like. And thus the BBC’s democratic credentials remained unscathed.

Not that I look down on something like the Big Read. Far from it. Literature, as we all know or should know, isn’t a competitive sport, but most people realised, I think, that this poll was really no more than a bit of fun, and took it in that spirit. As a beneficial side effect, it spawned on the BBC site a discussion board, which very soon became a lively place with all sorts of people talking about whatever book they wanted to talk about, and at whatever level they were happy with: both inverted snobbery and right-way-up snobbery were conspicuous mainly by their absence. I made some very good friends on that board, many of whom remain friends still, long after the BBC decided, for reasons not entirely clear, to pull the plug on the board.

As for the poll itself – all those books we really like rather than the ones critics tell us we should like – it ended up a rather predictable mish-mash: mainly modern and contemporary novels, with a sprinkling of a number of titles from the nineteenth century and the earlier twentieth century that we think of as “classics”; many books we have grown up with, and continue to hold in affection; a few highbrow titles (which presumably we do really like), and, to get it right up the critics, a few lowbrow ones also; but most, it seems to me, unexceptionably from the middle range. As one might expect, I guess. Nothing really to complain about – except for their ascribing The Alchemist to some chappie called Paulo Coelho when everyone knows it was written by Ben Jonson – but, perhaps, nothing really to get too excited about either.

While this list is a reasonable measure of the reading tastes of the reading public, I’m not sure that counting up from that list the number of books we have read tells us much about how well-read we are. Perhaps, to get a representative list of books one should read in order to be considered “well-read” – a representative list, since a comprehensive list of this nature would be too vast even to contemplate – we should have asked the critics after all: for sometimes, even in our democratic age, it is no bad thing to be told what we should like by people who have spent much time and effort developing their understanding and their discernment. One may, of course, end up disagreeing with their choices, but such disagreement only carries weight when one can disagree from a comparable level of understanding and discernment. Otherwise, it’s rather meaningless.

What sort of list would we have had, I wonder, if we had asked the critics? There are many titles in the Big Read list as it is that could very easily have made this hypothetical List of the Cognoscenti: few, I imagine, would quarrel with the inclusion of Pride and Prejudice, say, or of War and Peace, or of Great Expectations, or of Ulysses, in any list of great books. But wouldn’t it have been good to have had a list which, rather than confirm back to us what we already know and like, encouraged us to try out, maybe, The Scarlet Letter? Or Clarissa? Or Fathers and Sons? Or The House of Mirth? Or, if we expanded the remit beyond prose fiction, to, say, The Oresteia? Or The Odyssey? Or Njal’s Saga? Or Paradise Lost? Or, if we expanded the remit even further to include works of non-fiction, to, say, the Dialogues of Plato? Or The Histories of Herodotus or The Peloponnesian War of Thucydides? Or the essays of Montaigne or the Ethics of Spinoza?

It’ll never happen, of course. It is not so much that we resent the idea of critics as such:  after all, in this age of the internet, we are all, myself included, quite happy to become critics ourselves. What we find ourselves resenting is the idea that certain people, by virtue of their having spent time and effort applying their intelligence and their analytic skills to the study of literature, have developed keener discernment and understanding than the rest of us.

And so, we end up merely repeating the same handful of titles over and over again, and we determine how well-read we are on the basis of how many of those titles in the list we may tick off. And we know – or, at least, I know – that the next time another such Facebook meme comes along, we’ll be falling for it all over again.

Oh, and by the way, I got 52/100 in that Facebook meme. Made me feel thoroughly inadequate when I looked at the score of some of my Facebook friends. Oh well … back to my Chaucer …

Fiction for adults young and old

No doubt my memory is failing me, but I can’t remember from my teenage years any category of fiction labelled “Young Adult”. Indeed, I cannot even remember the term “Young Adult”. I gather this term refers to teenagers, but why one cannot simply say “teenager” – which, as well as being more descriptive and less cumbersome, has the advantage of not sounding like something concocted by some faceless marketing department – I cannot imagine.

The reason I mention this is that in my peregrinations around the net, I frequently come across posts and articles fulminating on how absolutely ghastly those people are who look down on Young Adult Fiction. Now, I enjoy looking down on something as much as the next person, and if there really is anything in “Young Adult Fiction” that is worth looking down on, I wouldn’t want to miss out. But the problem is that I don’t know what “Young Adult Fiction” is in the first place.

Quite apart from the unwieldy nature of the term, I am a bit puzzled by its import. After one has matured mentally into adulthood – and that, of course, occurs at different ages for different people – there seems to me little point in classifying further in terms of age for the purpose merely of creating yet more literary ghettoes. If a book can be of value to an Old Adult, why can it not also be of value to a Young? Or, for that matter, vice versa ? If the adult population of readers is to be subdivided in terms of age, can we now look forward to “Middle-Aged Adult Fiction”, and “Mature Adult Fiction”, and, perhaps, “Geriatric Adult Fiction”?

In any case, what do Young Adults themselves – or teenagers, as a middle-aged fogey like myself prefers to call them – think of all this? Looking back on my own teenage years, I would have found it patronising to have been described as a “Young Adult”, and would have felt grossly insulted by the idea that some committee somewhere has met to determine which books are most suitable for my age. If teenagers feel no longer patronised and insulted by this sort of thing, the world has indeed changed over the last forty or so years – far more so than I had realised.