Subjects for an essay

Did everyone face awkward questions in English lessons? The challenge to write a composition on a topic chosen from a list provided by the teacher. The list would include topics such as “plastic”, the intention, presumably to have provided an impetus for imaginative thinking.

The ink blots, spelling mistakes and deletions greatly outnumbered words that might have qualified as imaginative. The teacher’s task in marking the work must have been tedious in the extreme.

There were only three topics that really interested me, and they were not likely to have been on my English teacher’s list: football, pop music and girls.

Despite the best efforts of my teachers, I found that football might have been included in almost any answer. As a first year pupil at Elmhurst Grammar School in Street, I remember a geography question on London as a centre for service industry. I took it as license to write an answer that included the name of every London team in the football league: Arsenal, Brentford, Charlton Athletic, Chelsea, Crystal Palace, Fulham, Leyton Orient, Millwall, Queen’s Park Rangers, Tottenham Hotspur, West Ham United. The teacher was unimpressed by the effort and only allowed one mark for it, saying that the answer might simply have been “football clubs.”

Pop music was not a topic to which the teacher was readily amenable, probably a good thing, an investigation of the lyrics might have led to a banning of the playing of particular records. One boy at my school on Dartmoor had Roxy Music’s album Country Life, had any of the staff seen the album cover, it would have been confiscated. In retrospect, it is astonishing how many records escaped the attention of those who would have been strong adherents of the philosophy of “down with that sort of thing”. Any song where the singer switched from English to French was likely to have been suspect (Patti Labelle’s Lady Marmalade springs immediately to mind). Any singer who challenged gender identity was the subject of opprobrium, David Bowie was not favorably perceived.

To have attempted a composition on the opposite sex would have invited embarrassed guffaws from fellow members of the class. Girls were a source of constant fascination – and were entirely a mystery. An English clerical colleague once told me of an academic study that showed the potential psychological damage caused by single sex boarding schools, the damage being significantly greater among boys. It would be difficult to disagree with the assertion that living in an environment devoid of a civilising female influence is not a good thing. (Would William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies have been a credible story if the group had included girls as well as boys?) The presence of female company was always something desired, but no person in the class would have articulated such thoughts without fear of ridicule.

Without the three topics that most preoccupied thought, it is hard to know what topics might have been chosen when the teacher demanded compositions. It is harder still to know what reactions there might have been if the topic had been within the realm of the popular. All of us must have had “plastic,” times, what replies did we give?

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