A testing time with the writers that nobody knows: Rachel Borrill finds a puzzle amid the new compulsory texts for 14-year-olds

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Cottonwool clouds loiter.

A lawnmower, very far,

Birrs. Then a bee comes

To a crimson rose and softly,

Deftly and fatly crams

A velvet body in.

from: A Hot Day

A S J Tessimond


It seems only yesterday

I balanced a tiny foot

on my palm

and marvelled

that anything

so perfect

could be so small.

Now I can fit my hand in

when I clean your shoes.

from: Yesterday

Patricia Pogson

(b. 1944)

The time when the rains didn't come for three months and the sun was a yellow furnace in the sky was known as the Great Drought in Trinidad. It happened when everyone was expecting the sky to burst open with rain to fill the dry streams and water and parched earth.

from: A Drink of Water

Sam Selvon (b. 1923)

IT IS a list of authors that will test the nation's 14-year-olds on their knowledge of English next June. It spans the pantheon of great English literature - Chaucer, Shakespeare, Keats, Dickens. Nor does it neglect modern writing: Dylan Thomas, Laurie Lee, Patricia Pogson, A S J Tessimond, Samuel Selvon . . .

Baffled by those last three names in the anthology of compulsory literary texts on which 14- year-olds will be tested next June? Well, you are not alone. Not one is mentioned in The Oxford Companion to English Literature, and even the School Examinations and Assessment Council, which sent out the 46-page anthology of compulsory texts to schools last week, took several hours to find basic details, such as whether the writers were dead or alive. The trio were, SEAC admitted, 'relatively obscure'. A spokesman said: 'We were looking at their work, not how important or eminent they are, so therefore some of the choices may be surprising.'

So who are Tessimond, Selvon and Pogson? Well, Arthur Seymour John Tessimond was a poet from Birkenhead who died in 1962. Selvon, a novelist from Trinidad who lives in Canada, and Pogson are both still alive. Indeed, Pogson is something of a torch-bearer for the younger generation. She is the only writer on the entire list born after 1930.

A Scot and a trained teacher who lives in Cumbria with her husband, another poet, Geoffrey Holloway, she at least was not surprised at rubbing shoulders with Keats, Wordsworth and Browning. 'What surprised me was the fuss. Nobody seemed to know who I was. It was like I had never existed.'

She believes the selected poem Yesterday, which she wrote in 1976 after the breakdown of her first marriage, will be relevant to a 14- year-old. 'It is simple love lyrics to a child - extremely easy to understand,' she said.

Ms Pogson, 48, believes it is important that newer writers are being recognised by the education establishment. 'There are a lot of old chestnuts on the list. Shakespeare and Browning should be studied but there should also be a balance between the ancient and the new,' she said.

That is not a view shared by many people we spoke to. Most were forced to admit that they had not read or even heard of Tessimond, Selvon or Pogson.

The fact that half of the 27 extracts in the anthology are by 20th-century writers drew stinging criticism from one Conservative educationalist. 'They seem to be leaning over backwards to put second-rate modern authors in the list. They are trying to pretend that the 20th century is literally groaning with talent, yet this is a lie. So you end up with children studying works that aren't even remotely good.'

Sheila Lawlor, the education adviser for the right-wing Centre for Policy Studies - whose husband was on the SEAC panel that chose the anthology - refused to feel ashamed that she could identify none of the trio. 'I think the emphasis on new writers is completely wrong,' she said. 'Children should learn about names from the past. If they don't read them at school they probably never will.'

Malcolm Bradbury, novelist and university professor, knew all three names, but even he described the list as 'weird' and said he could not understand the choice.

'The establishment seem to have attempted to satisfy notions of multiculturism and populism. They have gone for an illusion rather than for good writers.'

George Walden, Tory MP for Buckingham and a former education minister, blamed English teachers for the 'artificial list with artificial names'. Such an anthology would not be necessary if teachers could be trusted to teach English literature properly, he claimed.

He added: 'That goes for private schools too.'

Margaret Maden, Warwickshire's chief education officer, knew Selvon but not the others. But she made a virtue of this. 'It may be a very good sign that people of my age have not heard of these people. I think it is important for young people to be ahead, and interested in new and different writers.'

However, the novelist Martin Amis, another who recognised none of his three fellow modern writers, believes that we may have missed the main surprise.

'We should all be thankful that Shakespeare is still on the list,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)