Russell Brand and Dizzee Rascal join Shakespeare and Brontë as A-level English set texts” was the horrified headline in yesterday’s Daily Mirror. “Meet your new English teacher: Brand joins the new English syllabus,” was the Guardian’s ironic front-page splash above a photograph of the comedian festooned in chains and crucifixes. “Russell Brand’s view on drugs to become must-read in radical A-level overhaul,” was our more restrained take on the education bombshell dropped on Tuesday by the OCR exam board.
If ever there were a news item intended to wind up the ambitious middle-class parents of smart children, it’s surely the suggestion that, in order to score well at A-level, the young scholars must not only read the vapourings of a stand-up comedian and former junkie, as well as the uncertain quasi-political ramblings of a young rapper – they must also take them seriously.
I’m trying to picture the scene when the OCR exam people met their partners in this initiative, the English and Media Centre, to devise the syllabus for the new A-level. Their brief was to bring something fresh to the study of English language and literature, by giving pupils “a better opportunity to analyse a range of texts – whether spoken or written, literary and non-literary”. It’s just an add-on thing. Pupils won’t cease to study the Bard and the Brontës – they will just be given other modes of language and expression to study alongside them. But devising a programme of contemporary “spoken or … non-literary” texts gave the syllabus-makers a great chance to scare Middle England.
Can’t you hear them saying: “How about getting some hip-hop into the syllabus? Some Jay-Z lyrics? Or – tell you what – why not Dizzee Rascal spouting off to Paxo about Obama on Newsnight? That’ll drive parents mad. And – who’s a youth spokesman who annoys bourgeois sensibilities? I know – Russell Brand talking to the select committee about drugs! We can stretch the concept of “spoken texts” that far, can’t we? And lots of parents hate Twitter so … I know! The tweets of Caitlin Moran! As an A-level text! And lots of them hate bloggers – so let’s have the kids study a blogger. Who shall it be? How about that Secret Footballer guy, so we can pretend that footie chit chat is worth close academic attention…”
I’ve seen this before, when the devisers of a syllabus try to appeal to students by giving them things to study that their parents disapprove of. Among the “texts for study” on AQA language and literature courses, for instance, are the prison poems of the IRA activist Bobby Sands and the speeches of Malcolm X. And it seems only yesterday that GCSE-taking children of 14 were given Tony Harrison’s poem “V”, ablaze with the C-word, to study.
Personally, I think the new A-level and its range of voices will amuse a lot of 17 to 18-year-olds and show them how to express themselves with spirit, economy and wit (sample tweet from Ms Moran: “Increasingly angry that all I would have had to do to get engaged to George Clooney is to become a hot trilingual human rights lawyer”) before going back to Othello and studying the language of jealousy and remorse at a much higher level.
A question nags at me, though. What will the essay questions for the A-level be like?
1) “I been keeping my eye on your movement/ I can’t see much room for improvement.” How does Dizzee Rascal’s ironic use of flattery and seduction in “Dance Wiv Me” compare with Andrew Marvell’s wooing technique in “To His Coy Mistress”?
2) “You know what I mean. It is what it is. Politicians say what they say.” Is Dizzee Rascal’s discourse with Jeremy Paxman a conscious echo of Samuel Beckett’s aesthetic of nihilism – the saying of nothing that subverts the urge to articulate?
3) Is Russell Brand a clueless, dandified nincompoop masquerading as an insightful, rhetorically skilled political savant, or is it the other way round?
4) How would you, as a member of the Commons Select Committee on Home Affairs, frame a question to Russell Brand that he couldn’t instantly take the piss out of?
5) Does Caitlin Moran’s repeated tweeting of a photograph showing a young Bruce Springsteen in a state of erectile disarray count as a “spoken text”? Or is it more a leitmotif?
6) How closely do the vicious-yet- oddly-intimate exchanges of insulting tweets between Caitlin Moran and the novelist John Niven resemble the flyting rituals of fifth-century Old Norse mythology?
Master of fiction’s latest oeuvre
Here’s a prospect for book lovers. Constance Briscoe, the well-known criminal lawyer, part-time judge and author of two misery memoirs, will “continue her literary career” while serving an 18-month sentence. According to her agent, she’s started a prison memoir.
Is this the Constance Briscoe who lied to police in a witness statement about the Huhne/Pryce imbroglio, and who later forged an altered version of her statement? It sure is. In a strong field, this lady is the nation’s Top Liar. As they used to say in Bosnia, she lies like an eye-witness. Her tongue is so forked, she could twirl spaghetti round it. Would you trust a word of her prison memoir?
Will it tell us that, as she came through the gates, the inmates cried: “We all know you’re innocent, Connie, gawd bless you!” and showered her with long-stemmed roses? Can’t wait.
How to make a boycott bite
Several Hollywood A-listers are protesting, quite rightly, against the Sultan of Brunei’s embrace of hardline sharia. Jay Leno and Ellen DeGeneres are at the forefront of those unhappy with the spectacle of one of the worldliest men in creation bringing in a penal code that would have gays and lesbians stoned to death. They, and increasing numbers of starry figures, are boycotting the Beverly Hills Hotel and other hotels owned by the Sultan.
I’m intrigued, though, by the city council of Beverly Hills. They followed the mayor, Lili Bosse, in passing a resolution to condemn the sultanate – but wouldn’t follow her in refusing to attend any more functions at the hotel. This is how I suspect they may work it in future, along with some celebrities. They’ll go to the hotel but not to the Palm Court, not wanting to be seen, you know, publicly endorsing its owner.
At the bar they’ll have only one martini and won’t leave a tip. In the restaurant, they’ll ignore the lobster carpaccio, boycott the 29-day-aged Hereford fore-rib of beef, and have only the vegetarian option. And they’ll order the Napa Valley Pinot Noir, but only by the glass. Hah! That’ll teach the Sultan he can’t push the radicals at Beverly Hills city council around. No sirree.