We should all resit our English Literature GCSEs at the age of 40

With Harper Lee frenzy taking hold, Grace has returned to To Kill a Mockingbird

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The Independent Online

Just like good looks and reliable knee joints, literature is squandered on the youthful. I'm not saying children shouldn't read. They clearly should. Reading keeps them gloriously quiet beside the hotel pool while I'm drinking martinis, but I realise now that all fiction read as a child should be re-read as an adult.

With Harper Lee frenzy taking hold, I just went back to To Kill a Mockingbird, which I'd trudged through aged 13, acknowledging its worthiness but writing it off as a long-winded tale of a tomboy in a town full of faceless, unilaterally racist, azalia-obsessed elders.

With no mention of lip gloss, Luke Goss, or whether toothpaste took the bruise out of a love bite, Mockingbird certainly wasn't Just 17 magazine, and to my mind its 285 pages were the poorer for it. I pick it up now to find myself pleasurably assaulted by an artillery of racial, gender and relationship-based themes. I'm struck by laddish Scout's counfoundment as Aunt Alexandra tries to shove her into a frock. Where Calpurnia was once a stuffy obstacle to fun, now she's a dry-humoured young-ish woman – why, only about my age – simmering with motherly love. The experience bolsters the Govian argument that English Literature GCSEs should be retaken aged 40, because only then do we see what the writer was going on about.

Thus, Lord of the Flies isn't, it turns out, a terrific tale of boyish derring-do with a weak allegory about mankind. It's a terrifyingly vivid examination of the murderous fug that envelops every office space and flatshare when someone doesn't wash up their coffee cups. Likewise, I've only recently grasped that Prince Hal in Henry V part I needs to get shot of that tubby, terminally unfunny spare wheel Falstaff. Why did I ever write GCSE essays defending Falstaff's wit and joie de vivre? Why did I equate his hanging about the boozer and favouring a slapdash approach to personal hygiene with being a stand-up guy?

 

Other great fictional constructs I missed completely. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ – which as a kid I read so repeatedly that its spine broke – is not a book about a nerd measuring his penis and trying to finger Sharon Bott. It is in fact a novel – told through Adrian's eyes – about his thirtysomething mother Pauline, who tires of domestic drudgery in 1980s Leicester, joins an anarcho-feminist group, and gets knocked up by the insurance salesman who lives next door. Only now can I see the relevance of Pauline's new friends – clad in boilersuits, with hairy armpits – and the drying up of Adrian's home-cooked dinners. Adrian Mole says more about women's emancipation than The Female Eunuch, which I also read, aged 13, and didn't understand, but carried earnestly around school just to show willing.

And Jane Eyre should never have got tangled up with that berk Rochester. The way he's treated poor "mad" first wife Bertha – locking her in an attic with a piss-head minder – bodes very badly. When I was a teen, Rochester seemed attractively brooding and sardonic – a bit like Matt Dillon in Rumble Fish – but with the passing of the years he's turned into a tedious mard-arse and zero fun to share a big fire-damaged house with in the middle of nowhere.

One book I'd remove from the school curriculum is The Great Gatsby, which is entirely lost on anyone who thinks house parties are the height of excitement, and will never understand why Jay Gatsby is getting such a raw deal for throwing awesome bashes full of drunken showgirls and free-flowing Krug. When you're an age at which a "party" is six people standing around a see-saw in a municipal park, burning pieces of litter and sharing a bottle of shoplifted Asti Spumante, it's hard to embrace F Scott Fitzgerald's sniffy attitude to decadence.

Also – and this went for most romance in classic novels – 13-year-old me simply could not comprehend why the action kept moving back to Gatsby's bloody boring neighbour Tom and his old lady mistress Myrtle, who is at least 34. It was vomit-making enough having to read about people as old as this snogging. But if you were as unhappily married as oldies like Tom and Daisy, then where was the drama anyway? You'd be dead soon so you might as well tough it out.

I have found one author's work, however, who stands up to multiple rereads. "When I pick up The Lord of the Rings today," a male friend says, "I look at hundreds of dense pages full of ornate language, sub-sub-plots, and a thousand different characters, and it really makes me think about my teen years." "How come?" I ask. "Well, it makes me think no wonder me and my friends never got shagged. There was just too much to read." "More Tolkien, less bonking," if you will. It seems that the only thing teens find more sexually off-putting than stories about lovelorn grown-ups is stories about hobbits, grey elves and orcs. This Christmas, all my nieces and nephews will be receiving book tokens.

@gracedent

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