Sunday Salon: Books and school

The Sunday Salon

I was going to do one of my “what I’ve been up to lately” posts today but then Michael Gove’s comments about the new GCSE curriculum were all over Twitter and I had to respond. I know that what Gove said (or is quoted as saying) does not accurately reflect the content of the new GCSE curriculum, it was just his own bizarre prejudices and ideas, but the man is the education secretary and sadly his words have consequence. So this is a riposte to him, not necessarily the curriculum.

I went to secondary school already loving books. Whether that was something innate in me or the influence of my parents and some or all of my primary school teachers I don’t know. But that’s why I survived five years of indifferent teaching of English lit and came out the other end as a lover of books. I would not be surprised if a lot of my former classmates don’t read as adults. We were not inspired to.

I should add for the record that my secondary school did have some great teachers – in history, maths and French I was very well served. And English language was handled well – I learned to debate, to write in different forms, especially creatively. But that cornerstone of education – reading books – was not handled in a way that inspired.

It can’t have all been about the choice of books. Because we did read some great books – Goodnight Mister Tom, Romeo and Juliet, Uncle Tom’s Cabin – but I can remember six books or plays that I studied in five years. That’s pretty poor. Is that the way the books were taught or the choice of books? I don’t know but I suspect it’s both.

Again, I was already a lover of books. My home was filled with books and I was encouraged to visit the library for more. My parents read and would recommend titles to me. I was given books and book vouchers for birthdays and Christmas. I was lucky. Many people don’t have that luck. For far too many children school represents all of their access to books, and that makes the books that are chosen to be taught – and the way they are taught – really really important.

At GCSE I studied A View from the Bridge, The Merchant of Venice, To Kill a Mockingbird, big cat poetry (including “Tyger, tyger, burning bright” and something about a caged animal in a zoo)…and that’s almost all I can tell you. There might have been a couple more novels, I’m not sure. I remember basically nothing about the first or last items on that list. We didn’t see A View from the Bridge or The Merchant of Venice performed, even on film. We did watch the film of To Kill a Mockingbird. In fact I remember the assignment was to compare and contrast book and film. Which was interesting and different but didn’t really touch on any of the key themes of that amazing book. I was convinced until I studied Shakespeare again at university that The Merchant of Venice was the dullest of all his plays.

Even at 15/16 it broke my heart that my English teacher was not inspiring me or my class, that I was not in love with each and every one of the books we studied. I know some people say that they learned to hate every book they studied at school but I maintain that’s not a natural outcome, it’s a result of the teacher and the choice of book. I would see friends in another English class with a different teacher filled with enthusiasm about their texts. I don’t know what limits were placed on the curriculum for my school in the 1990s and maybe my perception of that other class was wrong – perhaps all English teaching was constrained back then in just the way people fear it’s about to be again.

The thing I take from this is that teaching is hard and putting ill-thought-through reactionary limits on the books that can be taught to children at that crucial age is unhelpful. Declaring that all the books must be British is ridiculous – teenagers need to learn about the rest of the world too, if only to learn that it’s not all that different from the life we know, even when at first glance it’s completely different. And limiting the curriculum to pre-1900 is more than just ridiculous. When are we most sneering about boring old stuff? When do we most need to feel a connection to a world that is increasingly scary and full of big life-changing decisions? And yet when are we most receptive to big new ideas? This is when we should be exposed to science fiction, foreign fiction, the politics of gender, race and, well, politics in general.

So what saved my love of reading? I left that school and went elsewhere for my A-levels. It was a great decision because it led me to a great teacher. Linda picked a varied reading list for us but equally importantly she overflowed with enthusiasm for those books. (In fact, sometimes we mocked her a little for her exuberance but we loved her for it really.)

Frankenstein
My A-level copy of Frankenstein. Click to enlarge if you want to read my notes!

Not only can I tell you what books I read for A-level but I still have my copies of all of them and I can remember what they were about and what they taught me. We went to see both plays we studied – Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and David Hare’s Murmuring Judges – performed on stage (Linda had made sure this would be possible before picking them for us), which showed me that sometimes humour needs to be spoken aloud to be funny. Penelope Lively’s memoir Oleander Jacaranda made me yearn to go to Egypt, even though I knew I would, like Lively, never know what it was to be Egyptian. (In fact, my first foreign holiday that I paid for and arranged by myself was indeed to Egypt.) Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein filled my passionate heart with dramatic images of snowy mountains and Arctic tundra and also, in Shelley, gave me a heroine to admire. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart showed me a completely alien yet still relatable way of life and taught me to question colonialism and Christianity. But in some ways Henry James’s Washington Square was the real turnaround. I did not like that book, I found it tedious, but Linda still taught me to appreciate it. She used it to teach us about irony and sarcasm, and about the changing role of women in society.

I owe Linda so much. If I had continued with those teachers and book lists I’d had at secondary school I probably wouldn’t have studied English at university. I might not have continued to love reading at all (though I think – hope – that that’s unlikely). Reading is a huge and joyous part of my life still now, 17 years after I left that school, 15 years after Linda hugged me goodbye on A-level results day.

So I want to say thank you to the teachers who are putting their all into encouraging children to not only read, but to enjoy reading, to appreciate books. And to those teachers who aren’t inspired or inspiring? Please don’t give up or become complacent. Please keep trying. What you do is SO important. And definitely ignore that Mr Gove. He’s an idiot. But you knew that.

I am merely bored, not a defiant brat

The Chocolate Money
by Ashley Prentice Norton

Does a compelling story outweigh all the other elements of a book being less than compelling? For me, no, but for a lot of other people I suspect it would. So I recommend you keep that in mind while reading my not-so-glowing opinions below.

I was sent this book unsolicited but the premise was vague enough and the straplines on the cover intriguing enough that I gave it a chance. After this I am definitely going back to books I have bought for myself for a while.

The story is that of Bettina, raised by her single-parent chocolate heiress mother Babs. Babs is a slightly brattish partier who loves her daughter but isn’t going to change her life for her. We follow Bettina from the age of 10 to 16 (plus a brief flash forward at the end), dipping into her life at times that I think were supposed to have been picked out for their significance (there is a slightly heavy handed mention of Bettina’s class assignments for an English teacher including her writing about many of the events from the start of the book). The problem is that, while they might be significant (but not out of the ordinary) for the average kid, from a story about a millionaire I sort-of expect more. Or at least different.

Let’s take those cover straplines that I find completely misleading. First, “When you have everything, trust no-one”. That implies a thriller, or at least lots of betrayal and distrust. As far as I can tell the one doing most of the betraying in this book is Bettina. She doesn’t make friends. Though she wants to, she picks the wrong role models and then blames it all on her mother when it goes wrong. And that is the sort of book this is, it’s about a tween/teen’s privileged but oh-so-traumatic life. Not my cup of tea.

And the other strapline? “An adorable child. A phenomenal fortune. A mother like no other.” I did not find Bettina adorable. As far as I can tell none of the other characters did so why should I? The fortune bit is true but Bettina seems strangely clueless about spending it. For instance, when she arrives at boarding school with one small duffel of clothes and sees that all the other girls brought bedding and other home comforts why doesn’t she call some expensive shop in Boston or New York and get a bunch of stuff delivered? It makes no sense.

As for her mother, I felt a lot of the time that I was supposed to be disapproving of Babs and yes, she’s not the ideal mother figure but she’s not that bad either. She isn’t absent, she includes Bettina in her life despite her having a full-time nanny. There is one occasion when she slaps Bettina across the cheek that Bettina is still obsessing about years later, suggesting it was a one-off. And there is one scene when Bettina gets drunk when she’s only 12, which I think was supposed to be shocking, but she does it at a big party at her house so help is immediately at hand and we later learn that afterward her mother teaches her about drinking alcohol. How many millionaire kids have far far worse stories to tell?

Babs does talk coarsely, that is true. I am all in favour of talking to children about sex and relationships but minus the personal element that Babs favours. Also, her refusal to tell Bettina who her father is doesn’t strike me as unreasonable and felt a lot like a contrivance to generate a guessing game for the reader.

Plot holes aside (and there’s a few – she hero worships her mother so why does she want to “escape” her? who does she stay with in Paris every summer?), I did find the story drew me in. Certainly, the middle section, where Bettina is at boarding school, kept me reading late at night and first thing in the morning. It’s an easy writing style and I have always liked school-based/coming-of-age plots. Plus this section had a decent range of characters with different agendas.

I guess my problem is that the writing had nothing going for it other than ease of absorption. It didn’t feel like an authentic child’s voice at all but it wasn’t a knowledgeable “future me looking back” angle either. It does that thing that annoys me of detailing clothes and make-up minutely, but it doesn’t do this consistently, in fact mostly only for Babs. It’s a first-person narration, so shouldn’t Bettina notice everyone in the same way? At least to compare them with her mother?

I struggled to pick out any stand-out quotes so I will just give you the opening line, which is a reasonable example of the whole flavour of the book:

“The day I cut my hair and completely fuck up the Christmas Card, I am merely bored, not a defiant brat like Babs tells all her friends.”

This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Published 2012 by Bantam Press, an imprint of Transworld Publishers.

Memorised

One thing I envy my parents’ and grandparents’ generations is that they were taught, in fact required, to memorise poetry. For me, in the 1980s and 90s, we barely touched poetry at school.

There was one supply teacher who did the scissors poem from Please Mrs Butler by Allan Ahlberg (a collection I still love) and I have a vague memory of there being a “big cat poetry” element to my GCSE English course…and that’s it. Aside from on posters on the classroom walls (which, incidentally, is where I discovered this love of mine) and being encouraged to write our own, poetry was strangely absent.

I am lucky that my family spotted my interest and bought me plenty of poetry books to read at home, but I feel that I somehow lack something by not being able to reel off a dozen of my favourite poems by heart. I know bits of poems – from Night Mail by W H Auden (incidentally, I recently discovered you can buy that film from the BFI), The Second Coming by W B Yeats and the aforementioned Please Mrs Butler – and I think I was once able to recite Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll and Leisure by W H Davies (which I was reminded of yesterday by this amazing piece in the Washington Post), but now in both cases I get lost.

Of course, I could remediate this; it’s hardly too late. I have all the books. And I should perhaps be grateful that I instead came out of school with computer skills and some knowledge of books written outside the UK (I discovered the Yeats poem mentioned above when I studied Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart at A level). I think I need to go read some poetry now.

The trials of being above the rest

Claudine at School
by Colette
translated from French by Antonia White

This was the first novel written by Sidonie Gabrielle Colette, the result of her entertaining her first husband with stories of her own schooldays. It is a thoroughly charming read that I was reluctant to put down yet wanted to linger over.

Perfect breakfast

Claudine is sassy, bitchy, talented, beautiful and entitled. She attends the local day school because she refused to be sent to a boarding school, with the result that she’s a rich girl surrounded by the daughters of farmers and shopkeepers. She doesn’t need to do well at school but she takes pleasure in achieving more than the other girls whose future livelihoods depend on their test scores. Really, she should be completely unlikeable. But she’s not. She also has a very sweet relationship with her doting but distracted father.

The book takes the form of Claudine’s diary. She confides her own bitchy actions, with the full awareness that she has acted badly. She also confides all the gossip she has learned and her own intimate thoughts. I mean, this isn’t Judy Blume, no-one’s going to learn how to deal with periods or ill-fitting bras from this book, but she does admit to her crushes and flirtations.

The thing that will stand out for a lot of people about this book is the lesbianism. It’s pretty rife. Claudine herself, as well as the headmistress of the school, know how to gain advantage from flirtation and suggestion with men but are only really interested in women. This is never stated outright, but gradually becomes apparent from the actions of both characters. It’s also never clear if this is accepted by the people around them (or indeed known in Claudine’s case). One character does come under criticism for her lesbian relationship but the criticism is based on the fact that she’s engaged to a man at the time. Which is a fair point.

Claudine is aged 16 and 17 in this novel and it feels like a very realistic portrait of being that age. She is confident and brassy around others but alone she experiences doubts and insecurities about her future, her looks and her love life. This may be partly because she has not fully acknowledged that she is gay, or at least bisexual. She talks vaguely about how one day she will do this, that or the other with a man, without any enthusiasm or interest. She does show great interest in her friend Claire’s string of boyfriends but she vacillates between admiration and disapproval of such an active (and yet virtuous) love life. She pretends to know better how to keep hold of a man, and yet admits to never having been in a situation to put her knowledge to the test.

Looking back, very little actually happens in this book. And in many ways that is the point. Claudine can be obsessively excited by, and then deeply bored by, the day-to-day minutiae of school life. Which is precisely how I remember school being. She views herself as worldly and cosmopolitan but actually lives in a small country village where very little happens. Which I suspect leads to all kinds of fun in the next book in the series, Claudine in Paris.

This book was so much fun. It’s the schoolgirl book I wish I had read when I was a teenager instead of all those sappy American ones. I’m so entranced I fully intend to read all of the Claudine sequels.

Claudine à l’école first published in 1900 by Paul Ollendorff, attributed to Willy (Colette’s first husband)
This translation first published 1956 by Secker and Warburg

Sometimes you shouldn’t probe too deep

Rupture
by Simon Lelic

This was another book club read and it certainly generated a lot of discussion, even if part of that was our cynical reaction to the marketing surrounding this book – a lot of review copies were sent out and the book includes “book club” style questions at the back. I mean, it worked, we all read it!

I really enjoyed this book but I didn’t note down my thoughts on finishing it, as I usually would, because I suspected it wouldn’t stand up to intense criticism. Turns out I was right. The more questions asked around the table, the more I realised that this was a guilty pleasure rather than a class act.

The story follows policewoman Lucia May’s investigation into a school shooting. It seems to be a cut-and-dried case – teacher walked into assembly, shot and killed five people including himself – and May’s superiors urge her to wind up the investigation quickly so that the community can move on. But May wants to know not just what happened but also why, and that’s a complex question.

Lelic certainly has some skill. I was gripped by the story even though most of the facts are revealed early on. Every other chapter is a transcript of an interview from shortly after the shooting, allowing a lot of characters’ voices to be heard. Certain details are revealed in these chapters that you realise Lucia has known all along (because she conducted all the interviews) while we as readers had to wait to get to that interview, which is the opposite way round to how information in a novel usually works, and I liked that.

Without wanting to give too much away, the key theme of this book is bullying, and it wears its mission statement so plainly that the message can get heavy handed at times. Yes, bullying happens among adults as well as children and I think it’s important to acknowledge that, but I’m not sure that this book gave the most accurate portrayal. I’m also not sure how accurate Lelic’s portrayal of the police is (I’m guessing not very) though I did find the school convincing. Our discussion revealed a number of plot holes, many more than I would ever have spotted alone.

I was glad to find I was not alone in considering the killer, Samuel Szajkowski, to be the most compelling character in this book. Even though he is dead before the book begins, and there are no flashbacks, we get to know a little of him through other people and what emerges is a believable, complex man. It’s a shame that no other characters are quite so fully rounded, but then you could argue that the book is really about Szajkowski even though it follows Lucia’s daily life.

It was suggested that there is a certain element of doggedly following writing guidelines evident in this book, which is Lelic’s first novel. But while reading it I was able to completely suspend disbelief and enjoy the ride. Which is no bad thing, let’s face it.

First published 2010 by Picador.
Finalist for the Crime Writers Association John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger Award 2010.

Questionable influence

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
by Muriel Spark

This book was sent to me by Marie of Little Interpretations as part of World Book Night. In one night a million books were given away for free, with the simple request that they continue to be passed on from reader to reader to spread the joy of reading. I passed on my copy to family while on holiday in the USA so hopefully it’s had a good start at travelling around the world!

Swag!

I have wanted to read this book for a while and I loved the film starring Maggie Smith but I have to say I did not love the book. It’s an odd little book and not exactly what I had expected. I am grateful for having had the chance to read it, and it’s good, smart and funny, but I didn’t fall in love with it.

Miss Jean Brodie is a schoolmistress at an all-girls school in Edinburgh in the 1930s. She claims that she is a spinster because, following the dramatic loss of her fiance to the Great War, she has chosen to dedicate the prime of her life to the girls she teaches.

Spark only occasionally writes in dialect (the girls are no doubt too well bred to have strong accents anyway) but it is somehow hard not to hear Miss Brodie’s speeches (and she is fond of speeches) in anything but a Scottish brogue, proud and strong.

Miss Brodie teaches in the junior half of the school. Her lessons tend to consist of her recounting her personal life and summer holidays, dictating her own taste in art, literature and politics, and a great deal of snobbery. The other teachers suspect that she is not teaching the curriculum but cannot quite manage to catch her out.

Every couple of years Miss Brodie picks a group of girls to become her “set”, and favours them with walks, theatre visits, tea at her house and gossipy confidences long after they move on from her class. The book concentrates on one particular “Brodie set”, one of the last in fact, because we learn early on that one of this set betrays her in some way, leading to her dismissal from the school.

Spark dripfeeds information about certain key events while summarily revealing other facts in a manner that can be disconcerting, a jolt even. Time jumps around so that we meet the girls aged 17, jump back to them aged 11 onwards and forward to meet some of them as adults.

Miss Brodie is a fascinating character, both attractive and repulsive. The way she treats her girls as adults capable of understanding the adult world is likeable but her abrasive dismissal of anything she doesn’t approve of is distinctly unlikeable. She is a modern woman, considering herself “European” more than Scottish and certainly confident in her independence. Yet she clings to classical knowledge of art and Latin. She encourages the girls to obsess over romantic love and sexual intrigue. She often seems to be using her girls to live vicariously, encouraging them to more questionable or exciting relationships than she dares enter; or even just pushing them to learn Ancient Greek, which she wishes she knew but doesn’t.

The book is ostensibly a comedy and it certainly has its comic moments, as well as the horror watching a glamorous teacher use her influence to cajole and manipulate young girls. But it is also tragic, because Brodie’s ideas and influence are not benign.

I expected to enjoy this more than I did. There’s a certain staccato and brevity and even coldness to Spark’s style of writing that I found a little difficult to get on with. It’s a clever, absorbing story but one I couldn’t warm to.

First published in the USA by the New Yorker in 1961.

A reader reads

Inspired by Wallace of Unputdownables‘ lovely post about how her mum was her biggest reading influence, I got thinking about people who were important to me in that respect. One of my big reading influences was my third-year infants teacher, Mrs Barkley.

She quickly cottoned on to the fact that I was not only way ahead in reading the official school reading scheme books, but I was bored and unchallenged by them. So she introduced me to her special book cupboard. That place was amazing! A lifetime’s worth of children’s books, mostly suitable for kids in exactly my situation. That’s where I discovered Mrs Pepperpot and Supergran and countless others.

She retired at the end of that year and we held a special assembly for her, with lots of ragtime classics, including “Any old iron”, “She’s a lassie from Lancashire” and the specially written masterpiece “Knees up Mrs Barkley” (to the tune of “Knees up Mrs Brown”, if you didn’t get that). I remember that for “Here am I waiting at the church” we dressed up in bridesmaid dresses (or the closest equivalent we had) and I discovered to my horror on returning to the classroom to change for the next number that I’d gone out on stage with my ordinary dress unzipped and hanging around my waist, underneath the frilly frock. I was lifted by the success of playing Jennifer Eccles in “Lily the Pink”, particularly because I was deemed not freckly enough and had huge freckles drawn on my face. (At the age of seven I was a little self-conscious of my freckles.) But the highlight was when we sang Mrs Barkley’s favourite song “When you’re smiling” and she cried. It may have been the first time I saw someone cry with happiness.

My parents also, of course, had their part in my love of reading. I am fairly certain I could read before I started school, which must have been down to them, mostly my Mum, but I also fondly remember Dad reading us to sleep (for some reason the only title I remember specifically being read to us is Danny the Champion of the World). They also read for themselves, though not voraciously, and there were always lots of books in our house. In later years I took to reading to my older sister when we went to bed, because I wanted to share my favourite books with her. I have no idea if she actually liked this or was just indulging her little sister.

In fact, my whole family reads. But there is a definite step change between them and me. I was always the bookish one, even if everyone had a book on the go. I would read while walking to school, while eating my meals, with a torch under the bedcovers after lights out. I would read the same book a dozen times and make a diagram of the characters’ relationships or a timeline of events. And for some reason I attribute this extra level of obsessiveness, this need to devour every book in sight, to my favourite primary school teacher. So thank you Mrs Barkley!