Recently I read – re-read – Maxim Gorky's 'My Childhood' (Penguin). It's a powerful and mesmerising account of boyhood, poverty and brutality in Tsarist Russia. Not a feel-good read, then: I suspect it's one of the volumes PG Wodehouse had in mind whenever he mentioned grim tragedies of Russian peasant life where, say, grandfather hangs himself in the barn during a wedding.
I say 're-read'; I last encountered the book in, I think, 1973, in an earlier Penguin edition, when we studied it in English class. Several of the incidents and images and sensations in the book – the frogs falling to their doom when the father's grave is being infilled, the vinegary smell of printing inks from grandfather – I remembered from 40-odd years before. But what really struck me was the sheer ambition
of my school and my teachers in setting such a challenging work for a class of second years (mostly 12 or 13 years old). Clearly, they had no sense that they wanted to keep things easy for this group of working-class west of Scotland youngsters. No need to keep what they study 'relevant'. Aim high. Test them, stretch
I didn't see it like that at the time, so this piece is partly my overdue, apologetic thank you note to my teachers. I didn't really appreciate what you gave to me at the time, but I value it immeasurably now.
Not every full-length prose work we were set was as unlikely as Gorky's. 'No Picnic on Mount Kenya' by Felice Benuzzi went down very well, especially with the boys in the class. In the early 1970s we were still very much a post-war generation, brought up on stiff-upper-lipped war films and comics that celebrated and remembranced the second world war. Benuzzi's true tale of escaping from a British POW camp in Kenya with two other mountaineers, attempting to climb the eponymous peak, and then reporting back to the camp in states of extreme exhaustion ticked so many boxes: war, escape, pursuit, adventure. How could it fail? It's another book that I've re-read in recent years.
In pursuit of 'relevance', we were introduced to the English working-class literature of the kitchen sink era. 'Joby' and 'A Kind of Loving' by Stan Barstow were set in worlds we recognised. Though from an earlier era, 'Sons and Lovers' communicated a lot to us; if we weren't in Nottinghamshire we were all the same in a former coal-mining town. I especially loved Keith Waterhouse's 'Billy Liar'. I re-read it often and have worn out two copies now. Recently I was reading Alan Sillitoe's short story collection 'The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner' when I was struck by a passage on the first page of the story 'The Disgrace of Jim Scarfedale'. The schoolboy narrator tells us:
Instead of doing arithmetic lessons at school I glue my eyes to the atlas under my desk, planning the way I'm going to take when the time comes (with the ripped-out map folded-up in my back pocket); bike to Derby, bus to Manchester, train to Glasgow, nicked car to Edinburgh and hitch-hiking down to London.
We'd studied the story in school, 30-odd years earlier. That wonderfully rhythmic escape route was memorable in itself but it had been refreshing to read about a working-class character not unlike ourselves who wasn't above nicking stuff. As they were intended to, these works stirred a taste for more in the same genre.
Of the poetry I remember being introduced to, Edwin Morgan's 'In the Snack-bar' stands out. He was one of our Glaswegian own, after all, and the percussive opening lines instantly paint a scene recognisable to anyone who drank bad coffee in a cheap Scottish café in the 1960s or 70s:
A cup capsizes along the formica,
slithering with a dull clatter.
Wole Soyinka's 'Telephone Conversation', with its funny but telling story of an African trying to rent accommodation from a casually racist landlady ('Are you light or very dark?') also sticks in the memory. I developed a taste for poetry though some of the works we studied – Lawrence's 'Bavarian Gentians' and 'Snake', for example – rather left me cold at the time. But I still remembered some of the images and phrases when I revisited the poems decades later.
We covered surprisingly little Dickens – just 'A Christmas Carol' and 'Oliver Twist' – but enough to whet my appetite so that I'd eventually read my way through the canon. However, I recall studying and reading at least five Shakespeare plays. I have been horrified to read of teaching approaches which avoid Shakespeare because his work isn't 'relevant' and 'has nothing to say' to young people from certain backgrounds.
Our teachers worked hard to recommend the Bard to us, ordinary working-class Kirkintilloch scallywags that we were, and if I learned anything it's that the person to whom Shakespeare has nothing to say hasn't been born. I see being introduced to Shakespeare as a right; if the pupil subsequently decides it's not for him or her, that they'd rather watch 'Made in Chelsea', fair enough. But the offer must be made, the opportunity given.
I was almost in tears on a recent visit to the birthplace in Stratford when one of the performers in the gardens delivered the 'All the world's a stage…' speech to an audience mostly made up of primary school children. At first they were sceptical, but her masterly delivery began to get through to them (they were delighted to learn that 'puking' was a Shakespearian word) and by the end they were captured.
After reading 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' in school we were taken to see a touring production at the King's Theatre in Glasgow. Titania was played by Linda Thorson, whom we knew as Tara King from 'The Avengers'. They had hooked us anyway with the prospect of a real live Avenger on stage, but I was captivated by the whole experience; the immediacy of theatre (more like being at a football match, I always think, than watching a film), the imaginative staging, the light and colour and, of course, the magic of the language. Shakespeare, I learned, was something to read and
something to watch. We learned Puck's 'I am that merry wanderer of the night' speech and I have it word-perfect still. Rote-learning has a bad name, but it's not all bad.
'Hamlet' I loved, though it didn't lead to a theatre trip: instead, we were shown Tony Richardson's stagey 1969 film, shot entirely in London's Roundhouse. It featured Nicol Williamson as the Dane, with a stunning cast that included Anthony Hopkins as an oddly young Claudius and Gordon Jackson as an oddly elderly Horatio. However, we did read a lot of work by other dramatists; Harley Granville-Barker's 'The Voysey Inheritance' and Ibsen's 'The Wild Duck' didn't do much for me, but Priestley's 'An Inspector Calls' was a favourite. I suppose it appealed to the Old Labour values most of us were imbibing at home.
I remember being disappointed 20 or so years ago by a West End revival of the play, but David Thewlis's brilliant performance as Inspector Goole in the 2015 BBC version re-awakened all the excitement and anger I remember arising from our reading of the play. Back in 1982, the BBC had produced another fine version with Bernard Hepton excellent as Goole.
We only studied the original novel of 'Billy Liar', not the play, but we were taken to see a production anyway. I found it disappointing – too much was lost from the book – but the 1963 film, directed by John Schlesinger and featuring Tom Courtenay and a rock solid company of British character actors, is a glorious joy, the equal of the book. I return to the DVD as often as I return to my current weary-looking copy of the novel.
I hope Ray Bradbury's short story 'A Sound of Thunder' is still read in schools. It had everything, everything
, a teenage Scottish lad in the 1970s could want: dinosaurs, shooting, time travel and cool American dialogue. For all its imaginative exoticism, the story is more relevant than ever; surely, during the 2016 US presidential election, someone, somewhere, travelled back to the era of the dinosaurs and trod on a prehistoric moth? 'An Outpost of Progress' by Conrad is another challenging short story that our teachers set for us. I also enjoyed 'The Wireless Set' by George Mackay Brown and it gave me a lifelong love of the writing of Orkney's word-magician.
Which brings me to a criticism I would make of my experience of English at school; besides some Mackay Brown short stories, the Morgan poem and a bit of Burns, I don't recall any other Scottish literature being showcased. No Scott, no Stevenson, no Buchan, no Spark. And mention of Muriel Spark raises another issue you'll have noticed; our mostly female teachers didn't highlight much work by female writers. In their defence, by hooking us on literature, by feeding our curiosity, they had given us the motivation and the skills to seek it out for ourselves.
So, Mrs Connell, Mrs Glascodine, Mr Keys, Mr McLanachan, Miss Currie, Mrs Pitcairn and any others I've forgotten, if you're still around, thank you for making us read, forcing us into literature, taking us to the theatre and for assuming that, unpromising material as we were, we could cope with challenging works that stretched our understanding. By sparking my reading addiction, you have enriched my life in ways, and to an extent, you could not possibly imagine.
And if you are an English teacher today; I know that you're constrained by targets and curricula and management. But don't be afraid to stretch your pupils. Challenge them, enthuse them about reading, but don't just go for easy, short, supposedly-relevant 'texts'. Some pupils you'll hook, and even if they never pass another exam, you'll give them something much more, something genuinely priceless. Teachers make readers, and enhance lives.