I know exactly where I was forty years ago today. Monday, 4th June 1979 was the first day of the GCE A Level examinations. I spent the morning sat at desk in the sports hall of Strode College in Street. The first paper of the Northern Universities’ Joint Matriculation Board A Level examination season was English Paper I, from 9.30 am until 12.30 pm
English had been one of my favourite subjects when I had been at school. By the time I was at sixth form college, all the fun had gone out of it. English meant English Literature and English Literature meant the surgical dissection of texts. Nothing was read for enjoyment; it was for analysis.
The reading list was not exactly one to excite teenage boys, which was probably why the class was overwhelmingly female. Although even dullest of reading lists would not have been sufficiently conservative for the parents of one girl in the class whose parents withdrew her from the subject because they considered some of the reading material to be “immoral.” Looking back now, Chaucer was probably the writer who caused the problems, his medieval earthiness being too much for the evangelical Christian family.
Hamlet and King Lear were the Shakespearean element. I didn’t like Hamlet. It wasn’t that I didn’t like Hamlet the play (although five acts did seem overly long when most of the action could have been covered in a couple of scenes). It was Hamlet the person whom I didn’t like. King Lear had no light moments, it was just bleakly depressing.
Jane Austen’s Emma was the novel. I thought it was superlative, that nothing in the world could match it for boredom. I had no interest whatsoever in Regency manners or arrangements for balls
Poetry included Gerard Manley Hopkins and William Blake, (only years later did I discover that Blake hadn’t written the music for Jerusalem), and Chaucer.
The other drama included Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and Sean O’Casey’s Three Plays. Stoppard was probably a step too far for the rustics like myself and O’Casey loses a lot of its power outside of Ireland.
English Paper I was Shakespeare and Austen – it was a bleak start to the examinations. My tutor’s prediction of an ‘A’ grade ended up as an ‘E’, a bare pass, when the results came through the following August, and that was only after an appeal.
I retreated into the other subjects; economics had a beauty about it, a poetry of its own, while history was filled with a gritty reality.
English Paper I was a moment still fresh in the memory.