Authors have testing time with the Bard: Colin Hughes reports on how three writers fared when they sat two English papers which 600,000 14-year-old pupils should have taken yesterday
Thursday 10 June 1993
Of the three writers invited by the Independent to sit the papers, the 1979 Booker Prize winner proved an invigilator's nightmare. Will Self, author of Cock and Bull and one of the 20 best young British authors listed by Granta, studiously reprimanded her for being disruptive. 'No I'm not,' Fitzgerald retorted: 'Disrupting it would be not doing it all.'
Along with Amanda Craig, also a new young novelist and author of Foreign Bodies, the writers were tested on the controversial anthology distributed to schools earlier this year.
At the end of a brief ordeal (half- completing in 50 minutes two papers to which the brightest 14-year-olds would have devoted two and a half hours) feelings were mixed. 'It seemed very familiar,' Self said. 'I had an acute sense of deja vu.' He balked at the 'compare and contrast' tone of the anthology questions, but added: 'I cannot honestly object to the Shakespeare paper. It's just an exaggerated comprehension test really, but it provides a reasonable way of quantifying and marking.
'Literature is taught as a kind of join-the-dots exercise, but then I think anyone who is going to develop a love of literature is going to do it in an extra-curricular way.'
Along with the others, he scorned the anthology itself. 'It's just another example of the biscuit-tin-isation of England - and I mean England, advisedly. It's to do with a kind of political correctness, a sort of genteel nationalist revanchism.'
For him, the inclusion of Derek Walcott, from the Caribbean, who won the 1992 Nobel Prize for Literature, merely underlined the point: 'He's the token black.'
The poem on which the most able children should have been tested, Hard Frost by Andrew Young, was dismissed as downright shoddy. 'It's a bad poem,' Craig said. 'In fact, it's the sort of thing you would expect a 14-year-old to write.'
Craig thought it 'wasn't a bad idea for children to be tested regularly' because parents want some sort of standard. 'A lot of children quite like taking tests . . . I'm quite in favour of written exams. Continuous assessment always assumes that the teacher is perfectly impartial, but we all know that's not the case.'
The anthology, however, was 'a bit of a TV dinner . . . It's got a bit of nature naturing, people getting older, lots about the seasons. I don't think 14-year-olds want to read about that. They want sex and drugs.'
Fitzgerald thought that 'anthologies are wrong' and she disliked the idea of taking extracts from plays and novels. Self said of Hard Frost: 'I hate it. I never read poetry any more.'
Predictably, the authors were too clever for the marking scheme issued to teachers: their answers were more elaborate than the average 14-year-old was expected to produce.
On the Shakespeare papers, pupils could choose to answer questions on Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night's Dream or Julius Caesar (both women dismissed the latter as 'a boy's play, really'). The first section quoted a passage and asked questions about its meaning and language; the second asked an open question about the play as a whole. Fitzgerald might have gained the equivalent of an A grade at GCSE had she finished the paper: her answers were probably the closest to the top- graded replies offered as model answers.
Craig's A Midsummer Night's Dream paper was the most responsible: she crossed out 'Demetrius is giving Helena the heave-ho' and conscientiously replaced it with 'rejecting Helena, whom he formerly loved'. And her answers were meticulously related to the text - so, a good grade, more A-level in style.
Self's response to the open-ended question on Romeo and Juliet might have been notes for a finals paper at an American university. He described Friar Lawrence's role in Romeo and Juliet as providing a 'communication hotline' - a 'primum mobile' who functions as 'the author of tragedy' and ends up trying to 'engineer an out' for Romeo and Juliet 'by fooling around with drugs'.
Friar Lawrence, Self added, 'seems to imagine, like some proto- Wilhelm Reich (the Austrian psychologist who advocated sexual freedom), that orgasms will make everyone feel better'. Not exactly the kind of response most 14-year-olds would have written - but then, as he admitted, it would have taken some time for the examiner to decipher his barely legible script.
Poet's view of winter excites conflicting reactions
Frost called to water 'Halt]'
And crusted the moist snow with sparkling salt;
Brooks, their own bridges, stop,
And icicles in long stalactites drop.
And tench in water-holes
Lurk under gluey glass like fish in bowls.
In the hard-rutted lane
At every footstep breaks a brittle pane,
And tinkling trees ice-bound,
Changed into weeping willows, sweep the ground;
Dead boughs take root in ponds
And ferns on windows shoot their ghostly fronds.
But vainly the fierce frost
Interns poor fish, ranks trees in an armed host,
Hangs daggers from house-eaves
And on the windows ferny ambush weaves;
In the long war grown warmer
The sun will strike him dead and strip his armour.
Andrew Young (1885-1971)
What picture of winter is presented in the poem?
Amanda: 'Winter is portrayed as an unpleasant type of military policeman, such as those found in most places of the world, but not (of course) Britain.' Will: 'Largely a visual one - albeit at a metaphysical level, and underneath it an image of a sort of conflict or war between, what? the sun and the frost, winter and spring - something like that.'
Penelope: 'Winter is not stormy, but static and magically still, as it is in Coleridge's Frost at Midnight. Its power seems universal, but the poem takes a turn in the last verse, looking forward to its defeat by summer.
How does the poet develop his picture of winter through his choice of images in the first two stanzas?
Amanda: 'The first stanza has frost acting as a species of traffic policeman, bringing water and watery life to a 'halt'. The tench, perhaps being of criminal intent, lurk, but everything else is obedient. . . The trees are ice-bound, and sweep the ground, like prisoners. The last line of the second stanza suggests death in custody.'
Will: 'I suppose you could make a case for 'dead boughs take root in ponds'. . . but the rest reduces winter, rather than enhancing it: 'tinkling, brittle, weeping', all such banal words. . .'
Penelope: 'The poet starts out with a bold personification as Frost calls out its orders to water. . . House and scenery are confounded. The fish seem to be in bowls, the frozen puddles are window panes, and dead things have a suggestion of magic life. I am not sure about the effect of the very strong alliteration and the assonance (gluey glass, sparkling salt, twinkling trees, weeping. . .sweep, ferns/fronds). There is a suggestion of Ted Hughes' early poems, based on the alliteration of Anglo-Saxon riddles. But the neat construction of the poem is Georgian.'
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