John Patten's tarnished treasury of English dirge

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The Independent Online
THE National Curriculum Council's list of approved reading is a bit of a facer. I mean, pupils in Key Stage Four should have read at least one play by one of a list of dramatists which begins: Harold Brighouse. At least one play by Harold Brighouse] No wonder everyone has been reaching for Margaret Drabble's Oxford Companion to English Literature, which refers one to (oh, yes) Hobson's Choice, and thence to the Manchester School of drama, from which entry I deduce that I might do well to look at the works of Allan Monkhouse and W S Houghton, fellow luminaries of Miss Horniman's rep at the Gaiety Theatre, Manchester, 1907-14. The awful thing is, I think I've seen this particular play - I think I can name the theatre and some of the cast and maybe even the designer, but what I cannot remember is what Hobson's actual choice was. Or wasn't, if that was the point.

Another mystery, in a document which deals almost exclusively in material written originally in English, is how Ibsen and Solzhenitsyn find their way on to the list. It is as if they had wandered in through an oversight. Or maybe the council thought they were English, just as they thought A Child's Garden of Verse was edited by R L Stevenson (which is like saying Bleak House was edited by Dickens).

I know what John Patten, the Education Secretary, would say about all this - it's what he's said already about testing, that it took Germany and Japan a century to perfect their education systems, and we must not expect perfection overnight. But what were council members supposed to do? Were they supposed to make things clear, or were they supposed to indulge themselves with lists of old chestnuts, written on backs of envelopes and passed around the room?

Look at the list called 'Classic Poetry' in Key Stage Two. These are examples of recommended reading for seven to 11-year-olds, and here it goes: John Masefield ('Sea Fever'), H W Longfellow ('The Wreck of the Hesperus'), Edward Lear ('The Jumblies'), Walter de la Mare ('The Listeners'), Lewis Carroll ('You Are Old, Father William'), T S Eliot ('Macavity, the Mystery Cat'), Alfred Noyes ('The Highwayman'), Eleanor Farjeon ('It was Long Ago'), Hilaire Belloc ('Tarantella').

Now this recommendation is not by any means all the poetry that children of that age will be expected to read, because there is another section called 'Verse' (which looks distinctly more interesting), but it was clearly felt by the council that 'Classic Poetry' had to be highlighted in a particular way. This is the moment at which children would be introduced to the notion of high art in verse.

And look at it] Look at the fatheadedness of it, the unambitiousness of it, the this-is-what-I- was-brought-up-on-ness of it (and therefore this is what I expect to be inflicted on my children, is the implication). It is not borne of any thought for what is classic in poetry. I should suspect rather that it is borne of a hatred for poetry, which says to itself, 'Thus far and no further I am prepared to read'.

I have no quarrel with Longfellow - he wrote one completely original and worthwhile poem, Hiawatha. Good Longfellow is not poetry of the first rank, but 'The Wreck' is not even good Longfellow.

Alfred Noyes (1880-1959) is noted in Ms Drabble's useful compilation as having been known for his violently anti-Modernist views. I took the trouble to purchase a collection of his Ballads and Poems (1928) out of which fell a pamphlet bearing this recommendation from the Spectator of that year: 'There can be no question in our mind as to who is right. He upholds the great traditions of English poetry in high-spirited fashion against the puling of the Neo-Georgians. Mr Noyes has enriched our English verse with some of the jolliest and most rollicking lyrics ever sung. He has inspired the youth of the country with the glamour of imperishable deeds, and written greatly of great things.'

I can't say that I've read the whole volume (one falls back, so often, replete). There is much about elves:

In a glade of an elfin forest

When Sussex was Eden-new,

I came on an elvish painter

And watched as his picture grew.

A harebell nodded beside him.

He dipt his brush in its dew.

Yes, well, that's enough on elvish painters, I think. There is a great deal about the spirit of Olde England before the Puritans, a lot of larks and jinks and quaffing of ale at the Mermaid Tavern (where the poet imagines himself as Mine Host to the likes of Ben Jonson and Shakespeare) and jesters with inflated bladders thwacking one over the head.

At around the same period as Noyes, there was a mysterious fashion for 'Cardinal pictures', genre scenes in which plump monks were seen tucking into a brace of capons, or interiors of 18th-century inns in which periwigged aristocrats struck appropriate poses around a well- made fire. Often in these paintings there will be historically correct details which tell you the artist went to some pains, however contrived the result. Noyes's poems bear the same relation to poetry itself as these paintings bear to art.

'The Highwayman' of Noyes's ballad is betrayed before an assignation with Bess the landlord's daughter. Bess is gagged by King George's soldiers and tied up in a vertical position. Because the joke is that she has been made to stand to attention, a loaded musket is tied to her body. Bess manages to get a finger free so that, as the highwayman approaches, she fires the warning shot which (although the detail is only implied) blows her brains out. But the highwayman is caught anyway and hanged.

Now here's an amazing thing. 'The Wreck of the Hesperus' also has a girl being tied up and killed, this time by her father who, trying to save her, binds her to the mast of his ship before dying himself. In other words, someone on the National Curriculum Council is keen on tying up, torturing and killing little girls. I think whoever it is should be exposed.

Meanwhile, if John Patten will only listen, I will remove these two poems from the Key Stage Two Classic Poetry list and substitute two of the most obvious real classics. I've chosen a Shakespeare, 'When Icicles Hang by the Wall', and a Blake, 'The Tyger'. I would say, that these two poems set a standard that makes other items on the list look uncomfortable. Nothing would be easier than to continue with substitutions, if the list were designed to promote education in the classics of our poetry. But the list is not designed for this. It is designed for the suppression of education. Don't have anything to do with it.

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