(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
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) 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.