When I was at school and struggling with spelling, I could not spell complicated words such as ‘Armaggeddon’. This inability fed my young anxiety and I tried to cover it up so that others would not ridicule me. My RE teacher looked at my attempt and saw the concern upon my face.
“Don’t worry, Matthew, it’s not the end of the world.”
Little did she know that it was not only the end of it but the beginning of The End.
My love of all things apocalyptical was the springboard for my evolving religiosity and political beliefs. The end was a clean sheet, a time to wipe away and start again, a second chance. It was a world that had shed its cares and dreads. It was the real deal.
There is a book that I return to every five years or so and I have been doing this since I was in my late teens. The book is by Stephen King and is called The Stand and each time I set out on its adventure I am in a dual world of King’s post Captain Trips survivors and in the world of the novel’s soundtrack, the stuff I was listening to as I first read it: Murray Head, Pink Floyd, Kate Bush and Billy Joel. Okay, that took some balls to admit to Billy who appears to have been shorn of popular friendships since Uptown Girl. Nevertheless, the soundtrack is still playing as I remember the novel which I still hold as one of my favourite reads of all time.
I can see you.
I can see the pompous looks upon your faces as you read this. There may even be members of the dreaded English teaching fraternity amongst you and I know your type. Nothing is worth a jot if it is popular. Populism is the commercial root of all evil. It is an artistic sell-out, a supplication of one’s soul to the god of mammon and the masses.
I recently worked in a department full of such teachers whose sole purpose in life was the building of their own ivory towers and the belittling of all those who dared to disagree with their general elitist views of the world of academia. These were teachers in a secondary school that was careering out of orbit and towards special measures. Their world was one preserved in aspic and worshipped as the one and only truth. At a mere glance, they could gauge a person’s intellect or lack of it. And there was never a day when they would not all gaze collectively back to a golden age of learning within their department, although nobody knew the specific dates when this happened. In their world, King may never have existed. I felt like a heretic and finally sent myself into exile.
So, oh pompous ones, I like to read Stephen King. And I return to reading some of his books on a regular basis. I don’t read Jane Austen and I don’t think that Shakespeare is the pinnacle of all writers, thinkers and philosophers. I like Shakespeare but I couldn’t eat a whole one.
Just what is it about English teachers that makes my hackles rise?
Let’s say it is the worship of the written word. Literature is a subject for those of us who incline towards the cerebral. We like ideas and are eclectic in the way we harvest them. The world revolves around us. Indeed, the world revolves around those writers whom we choose to worship. We are rune readers, soothsayers, and keepers of knowledge. We have a way with codes and can break into a poem at will. We appear with books and disappear into them whenever we can. Occasionally we pen poetry or profound prose knowing that never will it be fit enough to publish. More than anything else, we establish the bar and measure our companions and colleagues against it. Words weigh us down so we struggle with exact meanings and interpretations. Conversations and meetings can last for eternities. Lastly, we tackle the most arduous of texts simply for the masochistic pride we gain from their completion.
Take Henry James for example:
The principal I have just mentioned as operating had been, with the most newly disembarked of the two men, wholly instinctive – the fruit of a sharp sense that, delightful as it would be to find himself looking, after so much separation, into his comrade’s face, his business would be a trifle bungled should he simply arrange for this countenance to present itself to the nearing steamer as the first ‘note’ of Europe.
This leaves me cold.
I am supposed to fall to my knees and revere such writing, but I am cold with indifference because I am a heathen, unclean and undereducated. It’s a test that is not meant to be read. It’s an A Level text for personal study that is intended to be used as a pathway to the better universities. Literature sometimes does not level; it does not attempt to speak to all but just a few who are in the know. And this is what I hated about the last English department that I was to manage. The words, ‘mad’ and ‘Fascist’ were frequently used by many outside of the faculty to describe the individuals that I worked with. I was employed to break their stranglehold on the school and to bring them into the twenty-first century.