Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 December 2014

To kill a love of books would be Michael Gove's greatest mockery

Witch hunt: Winona Ryder in Arthur Miller's The Crucible
Witch hunt: Winona Ryder in Arthur Miller's The Crucible

You have to wonder if Michael Gove has read much in the way of classic literature? He can't possibly have read The Great Gatsby or To Kill A Mockingbird before he decided to limit bright young minds to learning from mainly British writers on their school syllabus.

He surely can't have sat riveted by an Arthur Miller play before he made such a mind-boggling rule. Because if he had, the London education secretary would never have dared encourage the removal of American writers from millions of schoolbags across the country.

I was never much of a fan of Shakespeare or John Webster. I'm still traumatised by being forced to read them and then forced to sweat my way through an exam on their themes and key quotes. I remember very little about any of the several Shakespeare plays a nun made me read at school. They slipped through my young mind completely unloved.

Now F Scott Fitzgerald, Miller and Harper Lee were an entirely different matter. They fired my young mind, made me dream of being a writer and each passed through my hands several times. Reading wasn't a chore, exams were easy and countless lines and quotes still linger now. I was as proud to have them in my schoolbag, as I was Seamus Heaney.

Imagine if your reading habits were limited to the talents of certain nationalities. Surely your understanding of the world would be limited too.

Lee may have set To Kill A Mockingbird in the American Deep South in the 1930s but its lessons resonate anywhere that prejudice and discrimination still exist. Whether you're sitting in Alabama, Accrington or Aghadowey, Lee's powerful message is sadly as pertinent today as it was when she wrote it in the 1960s. She shows us the danger of a society which is divided into first and second class citizens – where one group is seen as existing to carry out menial tasks for the other, perhaps, for example, going to the shops.

She shows us how outsiders, just because they might be a little bit different, are not dangerous.

Miller teaches us the destructive nature of irrational fear and suspicion in The Crucible. It may be set in New England in the 1690s – but again it reaches across all boundaries of time and geography. You don't need to be in Salem to see that extreme religious beliefs can be taken to the point of tragedy and destruction. Miller also shows us how figures in positions of authority and power must carry that responsibility carefully – as abuse can be highly offensive.

Gove's focus on British writers doesn't just rule out the Americans. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini is another compelling novel as it deals with ethnic cleansing in Afghanistan – and how some can struggle to adjust to a post-conflict life. Hosseini personally knows how it feels to have to flee a country in fear. He left Afghanistan for America ... the land of banned writers.

What can we learn from Alabama, Kabul and Salem here in Northern Ireland? Everything – as we've seen sharply in recent weeks. Every child in Northern Ireland should read these books, every child should be taught to think about how they apply to our own attitudes, prejudices and fears.

They are classic examples of how the written word is more powerful than spoken rhetoric and sermon. Of course, there aren't just lessons for young readers in them.

I know a couple of people long past school age who could do with a revision as well.

Got to admire his bear-faced cheek!

I love it when you come across a headline that does exactly what it says on the tin.

And 'Bear lies down in Florida hammock' didn't disappoint when I clicked through to find an article about ... a bear lying down on a hammock in Florida.

The black animal was caught on camera having a swing in someone's back garden. The homeowner said he climbed in and looked "very laidback, like a tourist or something".

The relaxed bear hung around for a while before dandering off to rummage in some bins.

Now there's a bear who gets the bear necessities of life.

I've ad enough of television breaks

Screenwriter Anthony Horowitz hit the nail on the head when he said ITV was ruining its dramas by chopping them up with too many ad breaks.

I hope the Foyle's War creator wasn't watching Saturday's tense finale of Cold War thriller The Americans, which was absolutely ruined for me because of a ridiculous amount of ads.

It felt like watching an never-ending infommercial with a little bit of drama chopped in now and then. I wouldn't mind, but there was one break made up entirely of ads for UTV/ITV products, which makes you wonder what's the point?

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