Boy who preferred Shakespeare

ENCOURAGING schoolboys to enjoy their literary heritage has always been a vexing task. First, they used to prefer playing football. Then they started watching football. And now, they prefer reading football.

According to a straw poll of GCSE pupils at William Ellis, a north London boys' comprehensive, Thomas Hardy and George Eliot have no chance next to the England footballers Tony Adams and Ian Wright, both recent co-authors of their autobiographies.

Needless to say, Wrighty does not feature on GCSE reading lists, and many parents will prefer their children to be reading Turgenev and Dickens to Hoddle and Adams.

But there is no cause for despair, yet. Though the reading list was dismissed as archaic by several respondents, figures from Shakespeare through to J D Salinger and Harper Lee still figured as preferred reading by the 15 and 16-year-olds.

However, Steven Veal said of short stories and poems by Hardy, John Wyndham and Seamus Heaney, all of which feature on the reading list: "They are complicated, they are hard to understand and you can't see any connection to real life." But he is no philistine: asked what text he would choose given the freedom of a bookshop, he picked Julius Caesar: "Shakespeare is about jealousy and love and hate and violence, and people do exactly the same kind of thing today."

The "irrelevance" of some of the GCSE texts does not reflect a generation gap, then; it is more a considered opinion. "Studying some of these books would put some people off the idea of books full stop," said Steven. "I'm sure there are people who think, `Well, these are all boring so books are boring'."

The others agreed: the age of the GCSE texts was not a problem in itself, and they knew they were studying the literature as part of a learning process, not for enjoyment. "But I thought some of the short stories were meaningless," said Keir Kennedy " - not like Shakespeare, where everything's very realistic even if the language is difficult."

The school lists have not changed much over the decades: in 1976, Shakespeare, Chaucer and Hardy featured, much as they do now. Susan Hill and Stan Barstow are among the modern texts in today's exams.

But perhaps they aren't modern enough. Salim Amevor is a voracious reader of biographies of black political figures. Gustav Wood reads for more than an hour a night, but mainly chooses science fiction. And Keir, also 15 and an Arsenal fan, is reading Tony Adams's book, as are several of his classmates.