Steve Lamacq asked listeners to his BBC Radio Six programme what books they studied in schooldays. The answers he received were familiar, the texts may still feature on some GCSE syllabuses. Among the responses were George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.
One listener said they had watched the film Kes: I couldn’t have imagined that our teachers would have allowed the film version of a novel would have counted as study.
My A level texts at Strode College are still easily recalled.
William Shakespeare occupied a large amount of the teaching time. In the first year we read Hamlet and in the second King Lear (and Macbeth was read to give extra insights, although it wasn’t examined). Why only tragedies? There was an overwhelming impression that Jacobean audiences liked unhappy endings, and that blood, lots and lots of blood, was a necessary part of the evening’s entertainment. The nadir of my experience of Jacobean tragedy came on a trip to Stratford-on-Avon to see a Royal Shakespeare Company production of John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, at the point where the lead character comes on stage bloodied and carrying what is meant to be a human heart (presumably it was offal from the local butcher), I fainted and had to be taken outside for fresh air.
The other drama included Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, the wisdom of which often returned to me in succeeding years, and Sean O’Casey’s Three Plays. O’Casey loses a lot of its power outside of Ireland, but during my days in Dublin his writing was as much social history as literature. A working class Protestant republican socialist, O’Casey stood opposed to all that the country became.
Poetry was less compelling than drama, the set texts were The Prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Gerard Manley Hopkins’, The Wreck of the Deutschland, and William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, none of which has been revisited in the years since. The best part of studying William Blake was that it gave grounds for a trip to London to see an exhibition of his paintings, images from which still remain
It was the novel that caused me most problems. I thought that nothing in the world could match Jane Austen’s Emma for boredom. I had no interest whatsoever in Regency manners, even if Austen was poking fun at the snobbery of her time, and I dreaded the lessons when we sat reading it.
The responses to Steve Lamacq suggests that the English literature syllabus made a deep impression upon listeners, possibly not always a favourable one.