Thursday, 29 May 2014

Literature and an outburst of modern hysteria

I'm faint with the shock of it all
In the middle of all the news, analysis and hand-wringing surrounding the European and local elections emerged a little story that came almost as light relief.

Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird are to be barred from school reading lists by secretary of state for education Michael Gove, it was reported late last week.

I don’t know about the reaction of any mockingbirds, but Twitter was alive with the sound of indignant tweeting.

One could quite easily have reached the conclusion that, deprived of the opportunity to read these works by John Steinbeck and Harper Lee, The Young People will fail in their studies, be put off reading for life and probably start injecting H.

Okay: I invented the last one.

Now it’s a lovely idea that what every child studies for a GCSE in English literature will have a direct impact on the national economy, but I’m going to call that one out as bollocks.
Actually, the reports were illustrative of the parlous state of substantial chunks of the UK media, as various organs picked up the story and ran with it uncritically.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, irrespective of Goves involvement in anything, some of the attitudes that have been revealed are hysterical – in more ways than one.
There is not a shred of evidence that any book has been banned.
One exam board has chosen to drop the novels from its preliminary syllabus (plus Arthur Miller’s The Crucible), with one anonymous individual from that board reportedly claiming that Gove’s personal dislike of Lee’s book is behind it – a claim that seems, at best, to be of dubious merit, although Gove has form on complaining that he thought ‘too many’ pupils were studying it. But that is not a synonym for hating the book himself.

The new English literature GCSE subject content was published last December and includes at least one play by Bill the Bard, something by the Romantic poets, a 19th Century novel, poetry since 1850 and a 20th Century novel or drama.

So pupils will still be able to study modern British works – the BBC reported that Meera Syal’s 1996 story of a British Punjabi girl in the Midlands, Anita and Me, and Dennis Kelly’s 2007 play about bullying, DNA, are among recent works that have been included in the same exam board’s draft syllabus.

Yet the Sunday Times reported Bethan Marshall, “a senior lecturer in English at King’s College, London”, as saying that it was a syllabus “straight out of the 1940s”, which would make schools “incredibly depressed” when they see it.

This is hyperbolic rubbish.

Frankenstein's monster. 19th Century. Still iconic
My secondary education came more than a generation later than the end of the 1940s and that’s pretty much what we studied for English literature – for our exam at 16.

Indeed, this is another point that seems to have passed over the heads of some.

This is about what pupils study for a particular GSCE – not for every English literature class for the duration of their secondary education up to and including taking that exam.

If Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird are so influential and important to the development of young people, then perhaps they should be taught in the first three years, as preparation for the eventual list of texts that are available to be studied for examination?

To go back to my own experience, in the five years up to O’ level, we studied a huge number of books – and at least two plays a year by Shakespeare (plus the odd one by Sheridan and Shaw).

Now, much as I like to highlight my own uniqueness, I rather doubt that I’m alone in observing, some decades later, that none of that old stuff wrecked my exam chances or put me off reading.

In some cases, I fell in love instantly with the works – in particular, all but one of the Shakespeare that we studied (I only disliked Romeo and Juliet) and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

At the time, I disliked Thomas Hardy, Charlotte Brönte and most certainly bloody, sodding Keats.

But then I also disliked William Golding’s Lord of the Flies – every bit a 20th Century novel – while I enjoyed Orwell’s Animal Farm.

As it happens, I have returned to most of these in the years since walking out of school for the last time. In most cases, I have enjoyed what I didn’t at the time and have explored further.

And my more recent literary peregrinations did not begin in isolation, but started as a result of my return to the literature I first encountered in class.

Ode to Autumn aside, however, Keats remains “bloody, sodding Keats”. Thankfully, our teacher also introduced us to a spot of Ted Hughes. And yes, I still read poetry too.

For clarity, I came from a home that was filled with books (mostly theology, non-fiction and light fiction), but have no memories of ever being read to or, once I’d passed beyond reading obviously children’s stories, being encouraged to read anything more demanding than Mary Stewart or Agatha Christie.

Vampires are still popular
So it was a case of mixed messages on the home front, leaving my introduction to literature entirely down to school (as was my introduction to art and music).

My first secondary school, which I attended until after taking my O’ levels, had a very mixed intake in terms of social background. It was a girls’ grammar school (we still had the 11 plus), but it was most certainly not ‘posh’.

My sister, who went to a local secondary school, was introduced to those dreadful ‘old’ books too – and has never ceased to be a reader or to love many older classics.

One of the problems with this sort of debate is that it is inherently patronising to children and young people.

It assumes that they need ‘easy’ texts and that ‘difficult’ – for which, often read ‘old’ – ones will be too hard and will turn them off their studies and even off reading in general.

Such things as computers, television and gaming are cited as being among the reasons that pupils will struggle to concentrate on anything that isn’t obviously ‘accessible’.

As I said: patronising.

Some complaints seem to think that not studying two particular classic 20th Century US texts for an exam will mean that pupils will be deprived – in other words, that they will never read them.

That is an assumption. There is nothing to stop anyone reading those – and other – books, either in their childhood or later. As I suggested earlier, there is nothing to stop a school using those books in earlier literature classes, before GCSE course work begins.

It also falls into the trap of assuming that the prime role of teaching literature to children is to create a life-long love of reading.

Now while hardly unpleasant, that’s far too simplistic an idea.

Few would apply the same idea to, say, the teaching of maths or of geography, so why treat reading differently?

Mind, much of this comes from the same camps that denounce ‘grammar nazis’ and proclaim that children should not be expected to learn to write correctly.

What they do in this – quite apart from revealing an utter lack of understanding of what a ‘nazi’ really was/is – is to reveal, among other things, that they do not comprehend the connection between a solid grammatical grounding in one’s own language properly and the ability to learn another language.

Let’s make it harder for children, shall we?

Every child – not just the ones whose parents can afford to send them to private schools – every child should have the right to the very best possible language education, in order that they have the very best chance to learn to make the most of the English language.

The clash between science and nature is no longer topical
That will not just help them in their future lives, but can be claimed to make a difference to the economic life of the nation as a whole.

And every child – not just the ones whose parents can afford to send them to private schools – every child should have the right to be introduced to the literary heritage of this country (and even Classical culture) and not just the ‘easy’ bits.

It’s the same, incidentally, with music and art – every child should have the right to be introduced to the very best that has been reached in those realms and not just what might be considered ‘easy’.

It’s not the role of education to make things comfortably easy, but to challenge the mind in order for that to develop.  Literature isn’t just about sitting down for a nice bit of a read, but about helping to develop critical skills.

To go down the route of education being ‘easy’ in such a way is not far from seeing education as essentially utilitarian – as merely a preparation for the workplace, which is what you get when the likes of the CBI bleats that school leavers lack “business and customer awareness” skills.

The idea has also been doing the rounds that pre-20th Century literature is also inherently reactionary – ‘misogynist’, was how one Twitter user characterised most of it.

First, as with reading history, it’s a cardinal error to attempt to impose modern mores on the past. You should not, as the Open University beautifully explains it, try to understand the Roman Colosseum through the prism of 21st Century Western attitudes to crime and punishment, religion or even animal rights (as though there’s only one Western attitude to any of those subjects anyway).

Similarly, you don’t try to understand any cultural ‘artifact’ by doing the same thing.

But none of this means that you have to introduce children to classic literature in a way that’s turgid.

Stop being terrified of the bawdiness of Chaucer.

And Shakespeare is full of power and politics, sex and violence.

Examine The Merchant of Venice in terms of anti-semitism and racism – and a proper examination, including the context in which it was written, does not produce the tired argument that is an inherently bigoted play, but rather, subtly the opposite.

Modern enough?

Look at Dickens for insights into 19th Century social issues. Austen was, first and foremost, a satirist – not a writer of rom-coms.

Read Mrs Gaskell’s Mary Barton if you want to see a representation of women and of class in the 19th Century industrial north.

Just want a damned good yarn? Try Conan Doyle or HG Wells – and with the latter, consider his ideas in terms of 21st Century scientific developments such as GM or cloning.

Now theres a thought: man tampering with nature. What about Mary Shelleys Frankenstein? Or Robert Louis StevensonStrange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

The fear of female sexuality and modernity? Try Bram Stokers Dracula.

Indeed, many of the above remain iconic figures on both the printed page and in film. With the latter, there comes the suggested opportunity to discuss changing attitudes toward women – and if you wanted, you could explore that by comparing Stokers tale with modern incarnations of vampires, including Selene in the Underworld film series.

19th Century English literature should not be seen as some sort of holy canon, but neither should it be damned and ignored, any more than anything from later – or earlier – or treated as though it were somehow so utterly out of date that is has no connection to human lives and experience in the 21st century.

Personally, I have no problem whatsoever with children reading To Kill a Mockingbird or Of Mice and Men, (I loved being introduced to Arthur Miller at A’ level), but I have no problem with them being introduced to older texts either.

The idea that seems to be floating around that somehow they’ll be damaged if they cannot study for examination the former novels, and damaged if they have to study for examination anything from before 1900, is patronising nonsense that does absolutely nothing to promote the best possible educational opportunities for every child.

And in protestations about ‘old’ literature and ‘accessibility’, the argument perversely turns out to be similar to Rupert Murdoch’s avowed anti-elitism. Do we need to detail how that has been used as an excuse to dumb down media – including but not limited to news media – and its impact on the UK’s public discourse?

If you need a reminder, then consider current attempts by the Times – once the paper of record – to smear Labour leader Ed Miliband because he looks a bit weird.

Another point: the clue is in the title – English literature. If you want to create a different course that covers global literature, then do so.

Literature in translation doesn’t count – although students of foreign languages will likely read relevant literature during their courses – so why should literature from the US?

After all, does anyone whine about a perceived lack of opportunity for pupils studying English literature to read, say, works by the rather excellent Australian author, Peter Carey?

And for brooding romance, Jane Eyre
Setting all that aside, is social mobility helped or increased by making education ‘easy’.

Ask yourself where the political leaders from the traditional working class are these days.

Is their absence down, in part, to the demise of the grammar schools that provided opportunities to gain the tools that enabled social mobility – including those that would and will always be available to those who have the fortune to be born to wealthy families.

Now this is not an argument that grammar schools are, per se, the ‘answer’. But the current situation is quite clearly not working – see that question about our politicians, and plenty of research that reveals social mobility to be reducing.

There are myriad reasons to criticise and damn Gove – his obsessive love of free schools and his actual record of trying to micromanage the curriculum (including some of his pronouncements on the teaching of history) are just two – but this non-issue really has the hallmarks of a dose of 19th century hysteria.

And caught in the middle, as always, are young people, being used – yet again – as a convenient political and ideological football.

So go on – won’t somebody actually think of the children for a change?

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

An epic, green fairy tale for the here and now

Illustration by Günter Grass
Just over a year ago, on my first trip to Lübeck, a little mystery confronted me on a visit to Günter Grass-Haus – why was one of Grass’s sculptures of a rat displayed alongside a trio of Smurfs?

As we prepared for this spring’s trip to Schleswig-Holstein, this question popped into view of the little grey cells once more.

Now I knew that Grass had penned a book called, simply The Rat – his art has frequenyl been directly connected to his writing – so I looked it up and, having found it to be out of print, bought myself a second-hand copy.

Thus it was that it accompanied me on the journey to Travemünde. And on the evening on 2 May, as we lounged in our railway cabin, heading from Paris to the German border, I let out a yelp.

For there in the pages of the novel were not only to be found plenty of Rattus rattus (not forgetting Rattus norvegicus and others), but myriad Smurfus smurfus too.

The Rat was first published in German in 1986, at around the time that Grass himself settled in Lübeck.

But while knowing this connection, I hadn’t realised that the book would itself be partly set in Lübeck and Travemünde, and encompassing the wider Baltic.

If last year’s trip had had, quite deliberately placed at its heart, Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, then it became clear that this year was going to have a literary theme too – whether I’d planned it that way or not.

Grass brings so many strands together into a coherent whole – he weaves together the Brothers Grimm and their fairy tale characters, the infamous German painter-forger Lothar Malskat, who repainted the frescoes of the Marienkirche in Lübeck after WWII, and industrialists and corrupt politicians and bishops.

We also get the chance to catch up with characters from his first novel, The Tin Drum, and from the later The Flounder – it helps to be familiar with at least the first of these.

The overarching theme here, though, is an environmental one – of humanity’s crazed destruction and despoliation of the planet.

Early on, he gives an idea of the scale of the garbage that humans leave behind them – the endless mountains of trash – but in this apocalyptic novel, what eventually kills of humankind is a nuclear accident.

And who would be the natural replacement for humans once the dust has died down?

Here, it is the rats, one of whom talks constantly to the author in his dreams, relating rat history as well as what has happened since “Doomadosh”, because the author is now only a figment of ratty imagination.

Or is he?

It’s rather easy to feel that, with the end of the Cold War, the nuclear threat has died away – although most of the missiles are still around and there are still plenty of  rogue states’ that might not be trusted not to use such a weapon. And that’s without mentioning the threat of chemical weaponary.

But even if readers falls into that camp, the environmental concerns are every single bit as relevant.

In the 1980s, Germans had just started to comprehend the scale of death that was visiting the country’s forests.

It was a vital wake-up call. And just a fortnight or so ago, on a cloudy Sunday, the country produced 74% of its energy needs from renewables in an illustration of how domestic policy has moved since then.

That rather makes a nonsense of the objections of those who oppose, say, the generation of wind power. But then one is reminded of Grass’s industrialists and their political and religious apologists in the novel.

The threat to the forests has not ceased, due to climate change, but action has helped to stabilise the situation.

And while the book only really touches on the pollution of seas and rivers, its references to the rubbish generated by human existence bring to mind recent reports about our trash being found in the deepest parts of the oceans, thousands of kilometers from land.

Yet the corporations that produce these poisons are reluctant to stop – evidence, were it needed, that just as Grass’s fictional industrialists are motivated only by short-sighted greed, so too are the non-fictional ones.

All is finally clear
In neither of these cases do you have to be a dyed-in-the-organic-wool eco warrior to see trouble ahead if such things are simply allowed to continue unabated.

So Grass’s novel continues to be every bit as topical as it was when written.

Quite apart from it being shameful, on the grounds of its continuing topicality, that it’s out of print (in at least some countries) it’s well near criminal on a literary basis too.

However gloomy it sounds, it somehow avoids that and is often funny and frequently endowed with a great warmth.

Yet however much control there is to the entire piece, it’s also a massive howl of rage against the prevailing insanity.

The frequent use of poetry within the text reminds one that Grass is not ‘just’ a novelist (and a sculptor and artist etc), while the tone, the language and the characterisation are simply first rate.

Even those blue and white smurfs play more than a passing role, as the book also explores the creation of religion, the death of fairy tales, rampant commercialism and the question of what is real and what is not.

For all the seriousness of its message, this is never dull or difficult, but rattles along at a cracking pace, and leaving you unsure of the eventual outcome until the very last.

In terms of scale, imagination, organisation and the sheer complexity of vision, The Rat is a staggering achievement, and one that illustrates, yet again, Grass’s genius in general, and more specifically, his command of magic realism and his gift as a storyteller.

Indeed, it’s a reminder of the power of stories too.

That I had not expected it to be directly related to the area we were visiting simply served to increase its impact.

That reading it also fell at a time of local and Europe-wide elections, where we saw widespread revealed large levels of dissatisfaction and a general misunderstanding of the key problems, while the same industrialists and their friends in big finance continue to fiddle, gave a further layer of significance to the experience.

Twenty-eight years on from its original publication, The Rat’s message is as clear and as important as ever. And in literary terms, it’s a reminder – were that needed – of the genius of Grass.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Singing the Blues (again) and why FFP has nothing to do with fairness

The god that is Vincent lifts the trophy
The domestic football season is almost over, but oh my goodness, what a season it’s been!

More open than any for years, with three teams in with a chance of claiming the Premier League title until only a matter of days before the concluding round of matches.

As a City fan of 40 years (this year!) and counting – I am, of course, utterly delighted: not just with a second title in two years, but a first ever double, having lifted the League Cup in March.

And I got to be there on both occasions and I screamed myself daft – great catharsis – and I’m still feeling the sheer joy. Hey – thats football for you.

Fortunately too, for health reasons, the final day of the season wasn’t as nerve-shreddingly tense as 2012.

The season was not just about City, though.

Goodness – how I wish I was a betting person and had thought to put money on a Madrid derby for the Champions League final.

And no look back at the domestic season would be complete without recognition of David Moyess achievement in finally getting Everton above Manchester United in the table.

 Chris Hughton
It was also good to see Arsenal win the FA Cup – not because I have any sort of issue with Hull or Steve Bruce (in my days as a pro sports hackette, I interviewed him, and he’s a decent bloke), but because it helped stuff some of his words back down José Mourinho’s over-sized gob.

Banter is one thing – the utter lack of respect he shows on a regular basis is quite another. And as for his “19th century football”, I’m no fan of Allardici’s style, but Chelsea can hardly claim to be an unrelenting a joy on the eye.

On the subject of respect and talking to managers, I would like to take this opportunity to apologise to all those I seem to have jinxed this term by taking their pictures.

After photographing an event at Westminster for Show Racism the Red Card early last December, Steve Lomas and Chris Hughton have lost their jobs, while Alan Pardew seemed to go into meltdown a short while later.

West Ham fans may – or may not – be interested to know that I also photographed Sam Allardyce.

I should add that, as far as that evening was concerned, all were completely charming, as were all the people I came into contact with.

Ashton-under-Lyne's very own Gordon Taylor
And a special mention for PFA boss Gordon Taylor. Back when I was a sports ed, he’d give me the time of the day and would take my calls, yet I’d never met him face to face. It was a pleasure.

Of course the season also ended with news of UEFA’s sanctions against those European clubs judged to have fallen foul of the new financial fair play (FFP) rules.

The two biggest clubs affected were City and Paris St-Germain – champions in their respective countries for this term just gone.

Now it is, I should point out, entirely coincidental that both clubs are currently owned by swarthy Middle Eastern types. After all, UEFA has frequently illustrated just how seriously it treats racism rearing its ugly head anywhere near the beautiful game.

Steve Lomas, Sir Trevor Brooking and Sam Allardyce
After all: that was about money. Or more importantly, about not upsetting big business when it sponsors the game.
Now the thing about FFP, in theory at least, is that it’s supposed to avoid any more cases of clubs living so far beyond their means that they go bust as a result.
Which is a perfectly laudable aim.
However, neither City nor PSG are living above their means.
You can object all you like to those clubs being owned by foreigners, to those foreigners being Middle Eastern, to owners being richer than Croesus, to the state of football in general or to the moon being made out of cheese, but it doesn’t change the simple fact that the owners of those clubs are wealthy enough that they’re not likely to go broke any time soon, no matter how much they spend, and certainly not as long as the oil is flowing.
Rachel Yankey
Indeed, in City’s case, the entire Etihad Campus project is seeing a massive regeneration of an area of Manchester that has been derelict since the massive deindustrialisation of the 1980s – and not just with facilities for the club, but also for local people, including housing.

And – hardly unimportant – a shed-load of new jobs, with a commitment that close to 100% will go to local people.

All that's without mentioning that it represents a long-term, sustainable model for the club, by creating a world-class academy along the lines of that at Barcelona.
None of this suggests that Sheikh Mansour is about to pull the plug and run away, leaving the club to die because he’s got bored.
The problem with FFP – and casting aside cynicism for a moment, let’s just say that it really was meant to stop another Portsmouth – what it actually does is go a long way to closing the door between an existing European elite and those who might aspire to join it.
It’s a little like the UK and US rabbiting on about protectionist policies – after using the very same approach to initially build their own economies.
Alan Pardew surprises SRTRCs own Ged Grebby
In terms of domestic UK football, there is not a single winner of the English title for a considerable length of time that has not had to buy players.

If you want to talk of ‘buying titles’, then Blackburn and Jack Walker are a perfect example.

Manchester United and Chelsea have spent considerable sums – as have Liverpool – including on wages (infographic here that might surprise you).

After the ‘golden generation’ of Fergie’s Fledglings, United have frequently brought new talent to the club – and broken the British transfer record in so doing.

And then there’s the idea that Arsenal don’t spend money – that they ‘do it right’ – a rather romantic perception that is actually rubbished by looking at the facts.

Having won the title in 1988-89 and 1990-91 under George Graham, the Gunners then endured a bit of a drought.

Arsène Wenger took over the managerial hot seat in 1996 after the 14-month reign of Bruce Rioch had been followed by the brief caretakerships of Stewart Houston and Pat Rice.

Speaker John Bercow, Rachel Yankey and Gordon Taylor
The previous year, under Rioch, the club had made the marquee signing of Denis Bergkamp for £7.5m. The following year, Patrick Vieira was brought in for £3.5m, and in 1997, Emmanuel Petit joined for £2.5m and Marc Overmars for £5.5.

Adjusting for inflation, that’s £12,581,338.70 for Bergkamp, £5,733,350.00 for Vieira, £3,972,000.00 for Petit and £8,738,400.00 for Overmars.

In 1995, the English record transfer fee was £7m – paid by Manchester United to Newcastle for Andy Cole – until that Bergkamp deal.

Arsenal went on to win the title in 1997-98, 2001-02 and 2003-04. They continued to be both a buying and a selling club in that period, including, in 1999, spending a new club record of £11m to bring Thierry Henry to north London from Juve.

It doesn’t, for instance, mention the £42m deal that brought Mesut Özil to Arsenal last summer – not least because the British record has been smashed out of sight by the fees paid to English clubs by Real for, first, Ronaldo and then Gareth Bale.

By 2000, Barça were willing to stump up £32m for Overmars and Petit combined, a week after Luis Figo had left the club for Real for £37.2m. At the time, other top fees in global terms were Hernan Crespo – Parma to Lazio for £36m – and Christian Vieri – £31m to move to  Inter from Lazio.

Those figures also illustrate just where the market was pushing up transfer fees most.

Now none of this is intended as a ‘dig’ at any club.

But it shows quite clearly that the reality is that no club that challenges for domestic titles in the UK – let alone wishes to challenge in European competition – is likely to do so without substantial spending.

It also illustrates one reason why Arsenal have failed to win another title for some years.

If one really wanted to look at financial issues, perhaps one should ask why UEFA has managed not a whisper as a club such as Manchester United was bought in a way that places it in greater risk.

One could, if one were so inclined, consider the role of agents in creating transfer inflation.

My solution to that would – in UK terms at least – to have PFA-appointed reps available to help any player needing help with any form of contract negotiations.

It would go a long way to cutting out the culture of agents shit stirring to make money for themselves off the back of the talents of any players in their stables.

But since that seems unlikely to happen in the near future, remember this: spending money that you have is worth a £50m fine.

Abusing young, black players because of the colour of their skins comes in at £8,270.