Mid-January news round-up

 

Here at Blood and Porridge I like to think I have my finger on the pulse, offering opinions on the big news stories the moment they happen.  Alas, I’ve been up to my eyes in work this last fortnight and haven’t been able to post much.  And meanwhile, during the same fortnight, the big news stories have come thick and fast.

 

To make amends, here’s a quick round-up of those recent news items as Blood and Porridge sees them.

 

Knobhead of 2017 found already

Only two-and-a-half weeks ago I named Nigel Farage as the biggest knobhead of 2016.  The reason why Farage won that title despite stiff opposition from US president-elect Donald Trump was because: “Trump is the equivalent of the loud malevolent playground bully who blighted your childhood.  But there was always one kid who was more detestably obnoxious than that – the slimy little sneak who grovelled before and sucked up to the bully, hoping to attain a smidgeon of his aura of cruel power.  And since it became clear that Trump was going to be the most powerful man on the planet, Farage has been doing a good impersonation of the slimy little sneak, scurrying across the Atlantic to do some major sucking up to the gruesome orange-skinned tycoon.”

 

Well, if that’s the criteria for making yourself the most loathsome and pustulent human being of the year, it looks like we already have a winner for 2017.

 

© The Daily Mirror

 

Michael Gove recently scuttled over to Trump Tower in New York to sychophantically interview Trump on behalf of the Times newspaper.  The resulting article was shocking even before Gove started the interview.  Describing the ascent in the Trump Tower’s infamous gold-plated lift, he wrote, “It was as though the Great Glass Elevator from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory had been restyled by Donatella Versace, then staffed by the casting director for Gone with the Wind.”  Gove felt moved to insert that Gone with the Wind reference because the lift had an “African-American attendant kitted out in frock coat and white cotton gloves.”  I wonder if the Trump organisation had forced him to pick the cotton that his gloves were made of.

 

Is Trump a Russian plant?

Speaking of Donald Trump, there’s been a kerfuffle lately about an intelligence dossier accusing Trump of being a puppet of Russian president Vladimir Putin.  The dossier alleges that those pesky Russkies spent more than five years cultivating Trump as a US presidential candidate with the intention of getting him into the White House and letting him wreak havoc on the Western world.  It also warns that they have “potentially compromising personal and financial information about him”, including saucy stuff involving prostitutes and what’s euphemistically known as ‘golden showers’.  Cue a million jokes on Twitter about Trump being the next Pee-OTUS and about him talking pish.  Oh, and ‘urine for a shock’ when he becomes president.

 

From talkingpointsmemo.com

 

Just before Trump’s lawyers get in touch with Blood and Porridge, I should say the dossier’s claims are so far unverified and their accuracy has been questioned in many quarters, not just by Trump’s supporters.  And the Orange One himself has strenuously denounced them as ‘fake news’ and ‘phony stuff’.

 

Still, this malarkey calls to mind certain works of fiction and celluloid – for example, Richard Conlon’s conspiracy thriller The Manchurian Candidate (1959), filmed in 1962 and 2004, about the Chinese and Russians using a brainwashed Korean War veteran to carry out a political assassination in the USA; and Robert Harris’s The Ghost (2007), filmed three years later by Roman Polanski, in which a very Tony Blair-esque former British prime minister turns out to have been a CIA plant.

 

My favourite entry in this sub-genre, though, is the Don Siegel-directed movie Telefon (1977), based on a 1975 novel by William Wager, in which mad Russian scientist Donald Pleasance tries to start World War III by activating a network of brainwashed sleeper-agents across the USA.  These agents develop a glazed look and lumber off and attack American military installations as soon as Pleasance gives them a ‘trigger’, which is the recital of certain lines of verse by Robert Frost: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep / But I have promises to keep / And miles to go before I sleep…

 

© MGM

 

Not that I think Trump would become glazed-eyed and trudge off zombie-like to attack a military installation if you recited Robert Frost at him.  Somehow, I doubt if poetry has much effect on him.  In fact, he probably he thinks Robert Frost was the guy who interviewed Nixon.

 

May rejects Europe, except for Bulgaria

January 17th saw British prime minister Theresa May give a historic speech about the nature of Britain’s ‘Brexit’ from the European Union at Lancaster House.  Guess what?  It’s going to be hard!

 

If there was one thing ghastlier than Ms May’s pronouncements – she even warned that if the EU didn’t accommodate Britain’s demands, she would “change the basis of Britain’s economic model”, i.e. slash taxes to lure businesses away from the EU even though this would leave next-to-no-money to pay for Britain’s public services – it was the head-to-toe blue tartan outfit she wore that day.

 

© The Daily Telegraph

 

It makes me wonder if someone somewhere is making a movie of the old British TV children’s series The Wombles and May fancies her chances of landing the role of the Wombles’ venerable patriarch, Great Uncle Bulgaria.

 

From Wombles Wiki

 

Trump’s inauguration still short of talent

Back to Donald Trump.  His presidential inauguration ceremony in Washington DC on January 20th has been beset by problems.  At least 50 Democrat lawmakers have announced they’ll be staying away.  The demand for hotel rooms has been low compared to previous inaugurations, with some Washington DC hotels reporting they’re only half-full.  And scalpers are struggling to offload tickets for the event.

 

On top of all that, there’s been a noticeable reluctance among the musical community to perform at the thing.  Everyone from Elton John to Celine Dion, Kiss and even Vince Neil of Motley Crüe have turned down invitations to sing / play and the names booked for the inauguration concerts aren’t exactly household ones, at least not in the Blood and Porridge household: Jackie Evancho, Three Doors Down, The Piano Guys, Toby Keith, Lee Greenwood, DJ Ravidrums and the Frontmen of Country.

 

Apparently, a group called the B Street Band, who do covers of songs by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, were on the line-up but recently cancelled.  They cited as their reason the ‘respect and gratitude we have for Bruce,’ who coincidentally hates Trump’s guts.  Maybe there’s another Springsteen tribute band that could be recruited?  The C Street Band?  The D Street Band?

 

But if Trump’s people are still hunting for a performer to enliven those inauguration day concerts, I could direct them to one famous artiste whom I’m sure would be only too happy to step in at the last minute.

 

He’s someone whose stomping, glitzy anthems capture both the brassy boldness that Donald Trump no doubt believes is one of his winning qualities and the shiny opulence of the Trump empire, gold-plated lifts and all.  Someone who was a legend in his time, but who’s been off the radar for a little while and would surely welcome the new exposure that playing the inauguration would bring.

 

Yes, I give you…

 

From blog.thecurrent.org

 

Will the new moronism strike again?

 

From paxonbothhouses.blogspot.com

 

At one point in James Cameron’s masterly 1986 movie Aliens, an exasperated Sigourney Weaver demands, “Did IQs just drop sharply while I was away?”  As someone who’s been out of the United Kingdom for a while, I often find myself asking the same question.

 

I’ve asked it during the last four-and-a-half months especially.  That’s since June 23rd, when a narrow majority of the UK electorate voted for Brexit, i.e. leaving the European Union.

 

It’s well-documented that many Brexit supporters came from areas and social classes that feel most disfranchised in modern-day Britain and feel most distant from the country’s centres of political, economic and cultural power (which are invariably in London).  So they followed the advice of the likes of Nigel Farage, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson and used the Brexit referendum as a means to raise a middle finger at the establishment.

 

Of course, there’s no way that Farage, Gove or Johnson could be described as members of the British establishment.  Oh no.  Not Nigel Farage, who was educated at Dulwich College and once worked as a commodity trader in the City of London; not Michael Gove, who was educated at Oxford University and served as a president of the Oxford Union and worked as a journalist with the Times and Spectator; and certainly not Boris Johnson, who was educated at Eton College and Oxford University and worked as a journalist with the Times, Spectator and Daily Telegraph.  Wot, establishment?  Not us, guvnor.

 

Often, the areas most strongly in favour of Brexit were the ones most economically dependent on the EU.  According to the Financial Times, East Yorkshire and Northern Lincolnshire sends a bigger proportion of its exports to the EU than anywhere else in Britain, yet in June 65% of its voters told the EU to go and get stuffed.  Similarly, many Brexit voters came from the poorer end of society, where food security is a constant worry.  With Britain having to import 40% of its food these days, and the pound weakening post-Brexit, and the likelihood of post-EU tariffs being added to many imports, the prices of things on the supermarket shelves can only rocket upwards.  So with Brexit likely to f**k up your local economy and f**k up your household budget, voting for it was probably, you know, stupid.

 

Still, I’m sure that such anti-establishment rebels as Nigel Farage (who’s worth about three million pounds according to www.the-net-worth.com) and Boris Johnson (who’s earned twice as much as the prime minister in the last two years according to the Daily Mail) will be sharing the pain with you.

 

From www.christopherfowler.co.uk

 

In another example of Brexit stupidity, Boris Johnson enthused at this year’s Conservative Party conference about Britain being a world leader in ‘soft’ power, i.e. diplomatic, cultural, economic and educational influence.  He spoke of “the vast and subtle and persuasive extension of British influence around the world that goes with having a language that was invented and perfected in this country, and now has more speakers than any other language on earth.”  He described the ‘gentle, kindly gunboats of British soft power’ going ‘up the creeks and inlets of every continent on earth’ captained by such British cultural icons as ‘Jeremy Clarkson’, ‘J.K. Rowling’ and ‘the BBC’.

 

Johnson got it wrong about English having the most speakers of any language – in 2015, 962 million people spoke English compared to the 1090 million who spoke Mandarin Chinese – but Britain has topped tables of countries ranked by their estimated soft power.  In July 2015, an article in the Economist cited as possible reasons for this Britain’s ‘chart-topping music albums’, the ‘foreign following of its football teams’, its universities ‘attracting vast numbers of foreign students’ and the country generally having a good ‘engagement’ with the world.

 

That was in 2015, mind you, a year before Brexit.  Now is it not just really, really, really stupid for Johnson to brag about Britain’s soft-power capacity when he’s championed the cause that’s f***ed that capacity up its arse?  The vote and the toxic shenanigans that followed – racists suddenly feeling entitled to verbally and physically assault foreigners on the streets, the obnoxious anti-European, anti-foreigner rhetoric displayed at the Tory Party conference – must have snookered Britain’s soft-power status.  No wonder that a fortnight ago it was reported that the number of European students applying to British universities has dropped by 9%.

 

Having soft power depends on people around the world liking and respecting you.  Brexit and its legacy have changed that for Britain, and not just in terms of how the rest of Europe views it – I can see attitudes changing too in southern Asia, where I live now.  Until very recently, Britain was regarded as being a bit starchy and old-fashioned, but cool – sort of like Colin Firth in Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014).  Now Britain is regarded as an international village idiot, gibbering and self-harming in its hovel somewhere beyond the outskirts of Europe.

 

Of course, just now, anyone daring to question the wisdom of Brexit is labelled a traitor by Brexit-crazy British politicians and Brexit-crazy British newspapers (shit-sheets like the Daily Mail, Daily Express, Sun and the increasingly crass Daily Telegraph).  Doubters, prevaricators and sceptics are accused of unpatriotically talking the country down.  Concerned economists are dismissed as untrustworthy ‘experts’ – as Michael Gove said memorably, the British “have had enough of experts.”  Fie on you, traitorous experts, for having the temerity to know stuff!

 

Meanwhile, any critic of Brexit with cultural leanings is damned as a ‘left-wing luvvie’.  This label has even been attached to the former England football-team captain Gary Lineker, who recently tweeted his discomfort at post-Brexit Britain and the hostility of attitudes towards children from the ‘Calais Jungle’ migrant camp in France.

 

Generally, being slightly less-than-enthusiastic about Brexit marks you out as a member of the ‘liberal metropolitan elite’ who voted to remain in the EU – a sneering minority accounting for a mere 48% of the votes cast.  That’s the derisive term used by Britain’s gloriously Brexiting Prime Minister Theresa May, who back in June had supported Britain remaining in the EU.

 

It feels like a new virus that turns people into morons is on the loose.  And it feels like Britain has succumbed to an epidemic of this new moronism.

 

From www.newscorpse.com

 

Alas, it seems that the same infection has taken hold in the United States too.  For today is when American voters go to the polls to elect the 45th president of the USA.  The choice ought to be simple.  They must decide between Hillary Clinton, an uninspiring, uncharismatic technocrat who carries too much political baggage for comfort, but who has plenty of government experience and who at least isn’t mad; and one Donald John Trump.

 

That’s the billionaire Donald Trump who’s suffered six bankruptcies (so far) in his hotel and casino businesses; who believes Mexicans to be rapists; who wants to ban Muslims from the USA; who’s endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan; who likes to grab women by the pussy; who dismisses climate change as a hoax; who’s flattened the environmentally-precious Balmedie Beach in Aberdeenshire in order to build a golf course that he promised would employ 6000 people (but by 2016 had employed only 200); who established an alleged educational institution that violated New York State law by calling itself a ‘university’; who managed to wangle his way out of paying taxes by claiming a loss of 916 million dollars in 1995; who’s hinted that gun-owners ought to shoot Clinton; who’s promised to lock Clinton up if he wins; who’s refused to accept the result if he loses; who has a man-crush on Vladimir Putin; who’s wondered aloud what the point is of having nuclear weapons if you can’t use them.

 

Donald Trump is a garrulous gob-shite, a bigoted bell-end, a maggoty skidmark on the boxer shorts of American politics.  Oh, and his suntan looks like radioactive slurry.  And his hairdo’s so hideous it may as well be the pubes of Satan.

 

Clinton or Trump?  It should be a no-brainer.  However, Trump is in with a shout of winning the presidency – a 35% probability according to polling supremo Nate Silver – which suggests that an awful lot of Americans have developed ‘no-brain syndrome’.

 

Will the new moronism that’s afflicted Britain strike again?  I guess this time tomorrow we’ll know.

 

© 20th Century Fox

 

The Great British horror show

 

(c) International Business Times

 

I’m a big fan of horror movies but I can’t say I’ve been enjoying this new horror movie that stars the entire population of Britain and that’s been playing endlessly since last Thursday morning.  What’s it called again?  I Know What EU Did Last SummerThe BrexorcistHalloween 4: The Return of Michael Gove?

 

Actually, these past days of epic-scale tragedy and farce, which have followed Britain’s decision in the referendum-vote of June 23rd to leave the European Union, put me in mind of several horror films.  These are the films I’m reminded of and why.

 

(c) Daily Telegraph

(c) British Lion Films

 

When I see Nigel Farage and his supporters in those rural provinces of the UK that voted to quit the EU despite them being heavily dependent on EU subsidies, I think of The Wicker Man (1973).  In this, a posh aristocrat convinces his simple-minded countryside followers that the bountifulness of their harvests and the richness of their coffers depends, not very logically, on them occasionally sacrificing a virgin.  In Farage’s case, he persuaded them to sacrifice their EU membership.  The film ends with the latest sacrifice, played by Edward Woodward, predicting that the next time the harvests fail and the coffers are empty, the countryside folk will be sticking the aristocrat himself into a wicker man and setting it alight.  So if this analogy holds, things may end unhappily for Nigel (but happily for the rest of us).

 

(c) Warner Brothers / Transatlantic Pictures

 

When I see Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, I think of Alfred’s Hitchcock’s dark psychological thriller Rope (1948).  This begins with two vain aesthetes, Brandon and Phillip, committing a murder to show their intellectual superiority.  Then they spend the rest of the film unravelling through guilt at what they’ve done and fear of being found out.  Since the referendum result, our very own Brandon and Philip have been looking increasingly sweaty and twitchy while, no doubt, the thought “Oh my God, what the f**k have we done?” grows ever shriller in their heads,

 

When I don’t see George Osbourne – he seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth since the vote, despite the fact that he’s Chancellor of the Exchequer and despite the fact that the pound and markets generally have gone into freefall – I obviously think of The Invisible Man (1933).

 

(c) Universal Pictures

 

When I see the Labour Party currently tearing itself apart over the issue of the leadership, or non-leadership, of Jeremy Corbyn during the referendum campaign – the last time I’d checked, there’d been eleven resignations from Corbyn’s shadow cabinet – I think of the virus in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) that instantly transforms its victims into red-eyed, slavering, vomiting, hyperactive and very bitey zombies.  Though if the somnolent Corbyn himself got infected he’d probably just dribble a little bit onto his cardigan.

 

When I see Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister and the only leader in the past few days to actually display qualities of leadership, I think of Sigourney Weaver in Aliens (1986).  From her base in Edinburgh, peering south towards the madness that’s engulfed Westminster, Sturgeon must feel like Weaver in her spaceship while it circles the space-colony planet where hideous and slimy things have happened.  (Though ‘nuking them from orbit’ isn’t an option here.)

 

When I see close-ups of Michael Gove’s face, I think of the baby in David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977).

 

(c) Daily Telegraph

(c) Libra Films International

 

Whereas when I see Boris Johnson, I think of the midget blonde monsters spawned by Samantha Eggar in David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1980).

 

(c) Evening Standard

(c) New World Pictures

 

Mind you, that’s when I’m not thinking of the creepy kids in Village of the Damned (1960).

 

(c) MGM

 

And when I see the whole sorry mess, with the triumphant leaders of the Brexit campaign now admitting that – duh! – they didn’t actually have a plan about what to do in the event of them winning, I think of the Final Destination series.  In those movies, it’s never quite clear what the final destination is.  But you have a pretty good idea that everyone involved is going to die horribly.

 

Gove tells Yankees to go home

 

From dailyshame.co.uk

 

During my years at high school I really wasn’t aware of this.  I thought the literary texts set for the English syllabus that my classmates and I had to read, study and, tiresomely, answer questions about in exams were reasonably interesting at best and downright boring at worst.  But I never imagined that they were controversial.  That they were, to use a vulgar idiom, hot stuff.

 

Back then, in fact, nothing could have seemed less controversial.  Those texts usually consisted of piles of scruffy, dog-eared and scribbled-on books with drab, faded covers that the English teacher lugged into the classroom at regular intervals during the school year.  He or she would then distribute them among us with a decided lack of decorum – chucking the decrepit books out from his or her table, to each of our desks, like a battle-hardened soldier neutralising a complex of enemy trenches by bunging hand-grenades into them.

 

Sorry though they were in appearance, what was in those set texts has over the years proved to be a hot potato: for parents, for teachers, for politicians and for various annoying people who’ve appointed themselves guardians of ‘public morality’.

 

For example, in the 1970s, while I was living in Northern Ireland, the Free Presbyterian parents in my district – followers of the Reverend Ian Paisley to a man and woman – withdrew their children from the mainstream education system and enrolled them in a denominational school they’d built themselves, just up the road from where my family had their house.  Establishing their own school meant that the parents, plus the Free Presbyterian church, could create a curriculum and ensure they had strict control over what their children were learning… and reading.

 

It wasn’t until a decade later that I read an interview with the Free Presbyterian clergyman who’d been one of the main movers in the founding of the school.  He cited two reasons why his congregation had no longer wanted their offspring to study in a mainstream school.  Firstly, because they were being made to learn about evolution in the science syllabus; and secondly, because they were being made to read J.D. Salinger’s A Catcher in the Rye in the English syllabus.

 

Regarding the second bone of Free Presbyterian contention, Salinger’s famous novel of juvenile delinquency, I couldn’t help but wonder.  If the Free Presbyterians found Holden Caulfield’s language too spicy – in the book, he used terrible words like ‘Goddamned’, ‘crap’, ‘Christ’s sake’ and ‘sexy’ – how on earth did they protect their children from hearing even worse cursing and swearing when they walked along the street normally?  (After all, cursing and swearing are things that most Irish people, north and south, are pretty good at.)  Did they send them outdoors with pieces of cloth stuffed into their ears?

 

Anyway, last week saw a much bigger kerfuffle about the books that high-school children should be expected to read in English classes.  This involved Michael Gove, David Cameron’s Secretary of State for Education in England.  Like those Free Presbyterians from 35 years ago, Gove isn’t a fan of some of the material that kids currently are being asked to read.  He isn’t objecting on religious grounds but I can’t help but detect faint echoes of those 1970s Free Presbyterians in his outlook.  They didn’t want their children coming into contact with English literature that might expose them to bad attitudes, bad behaviour and bad language.  Gove seemingly doesn’t want children to come into contact with English literature that hasn’t been written by English people.

 

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m not an admirer of the meerkat-faced Gove (whose writ, thankfully, doesn’t apply beyond England’s borders to Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales).  Gove seems to have acquired his half-baked ideas about what is good and proper for the school-pupils of 21st-century England from decades of cosy immersion in the Boys’ Own Paper, the Eagle comic, P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster stories and the old Ladybird series of children’s history books – each slim volume of which would tell the life-story of some fine, upstanding and Christian specimen of British manhood (Captain Cook, Admiral Nelson, David Livingstone, Clive of India) and occasional British womanhood (Queen Elizabeth I, Florence Nightingale) who helped Britain build its mighty empire and teach the world everything it needed to know about civilisation, cricket and the virtues of having a cold bath every morning.

 

Gove stands accused of trying to force American books like John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird out of the GCSE English literature curriculum in England.  Although Gove subsequently denied it, there were allegations by a member of the OCR, the body that sets examinations and qualifications for GCSE and A-levels in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, that Gove had been meddling with a view to removing American literature from England’s English classrooms.  In particular, Gove was said to ‘really’ dislike Of Mice and Men.

 

(c) Penguin Books

 

“I have not banned anything…” Gove retorted.  “All we are doing is asking exam boards to broaden – not narrow – the books young people study for GCSE.”

 

But people have argued that Gove’s way of making the GCSE book-list more accommodating has ended up making it less accommodating.  Richard Adams, the Guardian’s education editor, wrote the other day: “the new syllabus leaves less flexibility for studying modern authors from outside the British Isles…” So if Gove hasn’t actually cast To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men into the deepest pit of hell, he seems to have left them scrabbling at the edge of the abyss.  Actually, looking at the list of recommended authors, playwrights and poets, there isn’t much scope for studying literature from parts of the British Isles that aren’t England, i.e. works by Irish, Scottish and Welsh writers.  There are a couple of non-English poets, including Seamus Heaney, plus Robert Louis Stevenson, who’s represented by The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but that’s about it.  Here’s a link to Adams’ Guardian piece:

 

http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/may/27/michael-gove-denies-ban-of-american-novels-from-gcse

 

In early 1977 my family moved from Northern Ireland to Scotland and from then until 1982 I attended a Scottish high school.  Since reading about the Gove controversy, I’ve racked my brains to recall which writers I had to study during those five-and-a-half years.  These are the ones I can remember.

 

Authors: Thomas Hardy (Tess, Far from the Madding Crowd), Aldous Huxley (Brave New World), Jack London (The Call of the Wild), Lewis Grassic Gibbon (Sunset Song), Richard Wright (Black Boy), John Steinbeck (Of Mice and Men, The Pearl), George Orwell (Animal Farm), John Wyndham (The Kraken Wakes), D.R. Sherman (Old Mali and the Boy), Barry Hines (Kes).

 

Playwrights: William Shakespeare (Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth), Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman, The Crucible), Harold Pinter (The Birthday Party), Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot), J.B. Priestly (An Inspector Calls), Willis Hall (The Long, the Short and the Tall), Bill Naughton (Spring and Port Wine), Barry England (Conduct Unbecoming) and Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett’s stage adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank.

 

Poets: Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, W.H. Auden, John Betjeman, T.S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Lord Alfred Tennyson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

 

In addition, I was lucky enough to have a couple of English teachers who enjoyed reading aloud short stories to their classes.  So that way I got introduced to short fiction by the likes of Ernest Hemmingway, Ray Bradbury and Frank O’Connor.

 

Obviously, there are works of great merit on that list, but looking at it overall it seems pretty uninspired, grey and fusty.  I’m surprised by the amount of drama we covered, though I suppose doing a lot of plays in the classroom made life relatively simple for teachers.  They just needed to assign roles to individual students, make them read the play aloud and ensure that everybody else kept quiet and listened – and bang, they had another lesson prepared.  This approach meant, though, that I became familiar with Shakespeare, Miller, Pinter, etc. by hearing their work acted out, usually very badly, by youngsters with broad Scottish-Borders accents.  (I dreaded being assigned a role in those play-readings myself, because I’d say my character’s lines in a strong, rural Northern Irish accent, which my classmates found very amusing.  In other words, I couldn’t even read the play aloud in the same comically-inappropriate accent that everybody else had.)

 

The plays by Willis Hall, Bill Naughton and Barry England had been acclaimed when they were first performed in the late 1950s and 1960s, and by the late 1970s they’d been deemed ‘safe’ enough to be included on school syllabuses.  Ironically, they’re almost forgotten today, which shows the dangers of trying to jazz up a school reading list with contemporary (or relatively contemporary) works – you have no real idea of the works’ ‘staying power’.

 

We weren’t exposed to that much American literature, but I’m reasonably sure that the works by Steinbeck, London, Wright and Miller were among the more popular ones.  Their straightforward American vernacular made them accessible to us and we could understand many of their cultural references because we’d seen hundreds of American TV shows and Hollywood movies.  So generally, I think, they appealed to those classmates of mine who weren’t avid readers.  If they’d been expunged by from the syllabus then, as Gove seems to be doing directly or indirectly in England now, and the space left behind had been devoted to more Shakespeare or more material by the likes of J.B. Priestly, I suspect for many people English lessons would have seemed a lot duller.

 

One thing that struck me as being odd, even back then, was that we were studying literature at a Scottish school and yet we did almost zero Scottish literature.  I remember reading Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song, but that was it.  Indeed, it wasn’t until I enrolled for a Scottish literature course in my third year of college – out of curiosity – that I discovered that Scotland actually had some sort of literary culture and it was worth reading.

 

I know that in recent years the Scottish government, under the authority of the SNP, has promoted the teaching of more Scottish literature in Scottish schools, so that kids are expected to read works by George Mackay Brown, Iain Crichton Smith, Robin Jenkins, etc.  This has prompted at least one blogger to claim over the past week that what Gove is trying to achieve in England is exactly the same thing that Scottish Education Minister Mike Russell is trying to achieve in Scotland: http://bibliodaze.com/2014/05/michael-goves-imperialist-curriculum/.  Also, the arch-Tory Daily Telegraph has portrayed Russell’s policies as a sinister attempt at social engineering, steering Scottish schoolchildren away from the glories of ‘English’ English literature and turning them into nationalistic Little Scotlanders: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/scotland/9644205/Mike-Russell-overruled-experts-on-Scottish-books-in-English-curriculum.html.

 

I disagree.  For a start, the Telegraph’s assertions are annoyingly ignorant.  It claims that Scottish teachers “are being forced to abandon Shakespeare and Dickens in favour of ‘dire’ modern Scottish works,” a comment that anyone familiar with the writing of Mackay Brown, Crichton Smith, Jenkins and so on will find insulting.  And I defy anyone to find anything in, say, George Mackay Brown’s short stories that encourages readers to become small-minded ethnic nationalists.  Incidentally, the Jenkins novel on the new Scottish syllabus, The Cone Gatherers, is about the closest thing to Of Mice and Men – number one on Michael Gove’s hit-list of American books that he thinks are over-sexed, overpaid and over here – that the British Isles have produced.

 

More to the point, though, I think it’s fair enough that children in any country, studying novels, plays and poems written in their native language, should have to read a core group of titles representative of their country’s own literature.  Even the most left-wing and radical of Gove’s opponents wouldn’t expect him to impose a book-list that had no titles from England on it at all.  That would be crazy.  (Whereas, three-and-a-half decades ago, I found myself in the position of being an Irish pupil in a Scottish school and actually encountering more Irish writers on the school syllabus than I encountered Scottish ones.  With hindsight, that was crazy.)

 

What’s important is that there should also be plenty of scope to study works from further afield – from the British Isles (which, if you’re a pupil in Scotland, would include some classics by ‘Shakespeare and Dickens’, so important to the Daily Tory-graph) and from North America.  Gove’s Yankee-go-home mentality can go hang.  In addition there should be recognition of the fact that much great English-language literature has come too from Australia, Africa, India and elsewhere.  Recently, Robert McCrum gave some worthy suggestions at the end of an article he penned about this topic for the Guardian – V.S. Naipaul, Patrick White, Nadine Gordimer, J.M Coetzee, Michael Ondaatje, Doris Lessing, Peter Carey, Arundhati Roy and Vikram Seth.  Here’s McCrum’s full article:

 

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/may/29/set-texts-for-english-gcse-plumbs-new-depths-of-incoherence-robert-mccrum

 

But from the current evidence – and no matter how much Michael Gove may deny it, it’s happening under his watch and the indications are that his dead hand is at work – the direction the set texts seem to be heading in England’s schools is away from a culture of internationalism and inclusion and towards one of parochialism and introversion.  Which is unhealthy if you want to encourage kids to read and to become bold and adventurous readers.

 

But enough of the highbrow discussion.  Here’s a link to a web-page where you can buy a voodoo doll of Michael Gove to stick pins into:

 

https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/164759623/michael-gove-voodoo-pincushion?utm_source=google&utm_medium=sem&utm_term=michael-gove_e&utm_campaign=uk_Media_Michael_Gove&gclid=CL7wq8rF2r4CFU4sjgodDGIA_A

 

(c) The Guardian

From glogster.com

 

Bella, Edward and Jacob — not as rubbish as Michael Gove

 

(c) The Daily Telegraph

 

British Prime Minister David Cameron has been getting it in the neck recently for not being right-wing enough.  This has been particularly so after last week’s local election results in England, when Cameron’s Conservative Party didn’t do very well, but the further-to-the-right United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) did very well indeed.  To stop voters defecting to UKIP, claim many of his back-bench MPs, and commentators in the right-wing press like the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph and Spectator, Cameron needs to toughen his act.  For example, he should stop being nice to those ghastly foreigners who inhabit the European Community and he should stop promoting unspeakable leftie ideas like legalising gay marriage.

 

Ideally, its right-wing critics seem to think, the Conservative government should be restoring the country to the happy, blissful state it was in back in 1951, when Britons knew Europe only as a distant place on a map, like Antarctica, and homosexuals got put in prison; and it was okay to give your children lung cancer through passive smoking, and everyone still carried ration books as a glorious reminder of the Blitz spirit.

 

However, while Cameron gets castigated by right-wingers who believe that bringing back hanging, flogging and National Service would soon make Britain great again, those same critics look approvingly on his Education Minister, Michael Gove.  Gove speaks their language.  He’s spent his tenure in charge of England’s schools – his remit doesn’t cover those in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – crusading against loathsome modern teaching methods, such as encouraging creative thinking.  He’s striven to re-introduce common-sense notions into schooling, for example, that history consists of chronological sequences of battle-dates and kings and queens and it’s about proclaiming the greatness of Britain over those aforementioned ghastly foreigners; and that the English language is governed by a single set of never-changing grammatical rules that children need to learn like mathematics.  (Anyone using slang or a dialect is clearly an oik in Gove’s world.)

 

Anyway, I’ve noticed that Gove gave a speech on Thursday last week, in which he set his sights on a new target – young people’s reading material.  Addressing an audience at Brighton College, Gove said, “Too many children are only too happy to lose themselves in Stephenie Meyer…  There is a great tradition of English literature, a canon of transcendent works, and Breaking Dawn is not part of it…  You come home to find your 17-year-old daughter engrossed in a book.  Which would delight you more – Twilight or Middlemarch?”

 

(c) Little, Brown

(c) Penguin

 

Now I’ve said some cruel words about Ms Meyer in the past in this blog, and I would sooner drill a hole in my head than read a romantic story that featured wimpy spangly vampires as characters and propagated Mormon values like abstinence and the ‘traditional’ roles of females.  Though obviously, millions of readers around the world would disagree with me.  Nonetheless, I feel I must defend Ms Meyer here against the greater evil.  Michael Gove is a troll who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

 

Gove should know that kids reading anything – anything – is good.  From what I’ve seen in the past few years of teenage reading habits (or the lack of them), if I had a 17-year-old daughter, I think finding her engrossed in any book at all when I came home would delight me.  Far better that she was reading Twilight than playing a computer game or watching some dross on satellite TV.  (Computer games and satellite TV started seeping into homes and deadening children’s minds across the land in the 1980s, when Gove’s heroine Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister.  Why didn’t she do something to stop it?)  And once my daughter had developed her reading ability, and got fed up with the adventures of Bella, Edward, Jacob and co, maybe then she might graduate to reading something a little more, well, literary.

 

And much as I like George Eliot, if I found my teenage daughter reading the 900-page Middlemarch, I’d think that was just a little bit disturbing.  I’d wonder if she was like one of those creepy, supernaturally-precocious children who appeared in Village of the Damned and who intended to take over the world when they grew up.  Which was probably how Michael Gove came across when he was the same age.

 

For the record, I spent much of my boyhood reading juvenile crime novels like Alfred Hitchcock’s Three Investigators series, and Target Books’ novelisations of the Doctor Who adventures (usually written by the indefatigable Terrance Dicks), and a lot of comics – most avidly, Action Comic, which ended up being banned because of its graphic violence in 1977.  A little later, in my teens, I was reading stuff by war writers like the leave-nothing-to-the-imagination Sven Hassell and horror writers like James Herbert, Stephen King and even the monster-crab-obsessed Guy N. Smith.  I worked my way through the grisly contents of quite a few volumes of the Pan Book of Horror Stories too.  I suppose none of these were on the young Michael Gove’s reading list.

 

(c) Corgi

(c) Pan

From sevenpennydreadful.co.uk

(c) New English Library

 

I eventually got around to reading Middlemarch, when it turned up as a set text on a literature course I was doing in my early twenties.  Since then, I’ve become a big admirer of Ms Eliot and have read nearly all of her other novels: Silas Marner, The Mill on the Floss, Romola, Felix Holt and Adam Bede.  However, I haven’t read Daniel Deronda, although it’s sitting on a bookshelf in front of me even as I write this.  I keep telling myself that I’m going to read it soon.

 

I know, it’s terrible – I’m in my forties and I haven’t even read Daniel Deronda yet.  No doubt Michael Gove would put this failure down to my inadequate, trendy-leftie schooling.