Turquoise shell suits, sunlight, David Icke

“Let yourself go. Pull out from the depths those thoughts that you do not understand, and spread them out in the sunlight and know the meaning of them.”

E.M. Forster, ‘A Room With A View’

I remember David Icke from his football journalism days. My Saturdays would be spent watching wrestling at lunchtime, football on the Saint and Greavsie show, followed by Grandstand in which Icke would pop up at various points reporting on the various sporting events that, at least in my eyes, Saturday afternoons seemed to revolve around. The world seemed much smaller then, constricted, as it was, by routine, by school, by the fact that everywhere we lived seemed like a copy of the last suburban avenue we’d lived on. Grandstand was a weekly ticket to somewhere different.

David Icke opened a window into another world. He’d pop up in different places. In 1988 he reported on the Olympic Games in Seoul, a place which seemed so impossibly far away that I would devour every last scrap of coverage that I could just to glimpse a setting that my limited imagination struggled to bring into focus. Images were scarce. When my weekly Beano arrived I would stare transfixed at the pictures and the colours in such a way that hours would pass before I’d come back to the realisation that I’d finished the comic hours ago and was now simply reading and rereading. It’s impossible to underestimate just how few images we had in the 80s. All of that sports coverage took me to the places I wanted to visit and to the people I wanted to be like.

Then he started wearing turquoise shell suits and the rest is history.

Except it isn’t.

These are bewildering times. We’re bombarded with images, data, facts, opinions, comments. Who knows? Where to turn? What to do other than stay put? Stay at home, save the NHS, save lives. 

I’m not a conspiracy theorist. History teaches us that we don’t need to be. People can already be messed up enough. Adding an additional story to the depravity that we can, at times, collectively sink to just seems like narrative overkill. Maybe it’s my own shocking lack of curiosity about the world we live in. Maybe it’s the fact that I don’t think that tin-foil hats are a good look. Maybe I just can’t be bothered to peep in to the rabbit holes that conspiracy theorists seem to love. It’s all of those things.

Of course, the David Ickes of the world are pumping out lots of theories about why COVID-19 has struck us at this point. It’s a Chinese plot; it’s the new 5G networks; it’s something to do with how vaccinations control us. Lizards are disguised as bankers. It sounds even better when voiced over an urgently thrumming baseline on a YouTube video. By better, I mean even more bonkers. If you gaze into the abyss…

A few years ago I taught E.M. Forster’s wonderful novel A Room With a View. It’s a coming of age story. At the centre of the novel lies the metaphor of the room. It’s about how we need constriction to frame our lives and about how without such constriction, there is no freedom. The one needs the other, both conceptually and literally. I’ve been thinking about it a lot while we’ve been homebound. Our freedoms seem curtailed, and yet we’re more free than ever to share what we like. What we choose to share should, in Forster’s words, be able to be spread out in the sunlight. It’s the light that we should be drawn to: the evidence, the objective, the science.

Icke now believes that a genetically modified human-hybrid race of reptiles called the ‘Babylonian Brotherhood’ controls us all by manipulating global events. Quite how that stands up to the scrutiny of the sunlight is beyond me. And yet amongst some conspiracy theorists his views have gone viral.

Interestingly, it would appear that the virus is destroyed by sunlight.

Beyond PEE

We read in order to probe ourselves, our world, our place within it.

Who is it that can tell me who I am?

King Lear’s plea is, perhaps, one of the most fundamental in all literature.

It’s also a deeply personal question for there is no mistaking that he is referencing himself; this is not a question about what it means to be human, but a question about the Lear-ness of Lear. We read for similar reasons: to find the us-ness of ourselves. We read in order to probe ourselves, our world, our place within it.

Of course, all literature has, ultimately, the aim of moving us, of subtly shifting our positions towards both the material we read and our own identities as we engage with the text. This is often at odds with the teaching of GCSE English Literature which often strives for an answer. In many cases teaching and learning is still indebted to the largely mechanical PEE paragraph or some other such framework. The issue that I have with this is that it fails to capture the struggle, the grasping for meaning, the essence of reading literature which (with regards to GCSE at least) is the quest for critical exploration. When viewed in this light, some of the most fundamental philosophical questions cannot be consistently reduced to point/evidence/explain. The clunky and static nature of responses framed in this way both denies students the exploratory joy of engaging with literature and precludes their access to higher grades.

I remember the birth of the PEE paragraph well. As a participant in a New Labour initiative called ‘Excellence in Cities’ back in the very early noughties, my department had no choice other than to follow the highly prescriptive National Literacy Strategy. This dictated both materials (anyone remember My Father was a Polar Bear?) and pedagogical approaches. The simplest of these such as the starter, plenary, the four part lesson, and of course, the PEE paragraph have stuck around not because of any tangible usefulness, but largely as testimony to just how conservative the profession can be. With a shiny white and yellow folder, and a new inspection regime to go alongside it, it’s clear that the teaching of English was happy to be told who it was, and literary exploration became something to be framed, to be somehow made to fit the needs of politicians, inspectors, and consultants.

The way beyond this is to remember three simple questions that should be asked endlessly of students:

What is the writer telling us about the character? (Or the setting? Or the theme?)

How is the writer using language to do this? (Or using structure? Or using form?)

Why is the writer doing this?

This approach will nearly always liberate the students from the unhelpful (and completely reductive) burden of attempting to make their thoughts about a work of art fit a redundant framework conceived in Whitehall in the late 1990s.

Writers create character and settings. The ways those characters and settings interact will reveal some underlying (or maybe explicit) theme. Those writers use language to do so, and exploring this will enable students to negotiate the text as literature. They can start with any of the questions. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the quality of thought about the text will almost immediately improve once the trap of the three part answer has been taken away. The questions also encourage students to have a series of thoughts, some of which may be in conflict with each other. This is the Holy Grail of literature teaching: students who can see the shades, students who can express the maybe, students who are comfortable with their own doubts about what they have read.

Remember, the PEE paragraph was born in a particular political context: that of the sound bite, that in which political communication strategy became a thing, and a time in which confidence in a young political movement was high. It’s no surprise that the three-part point/evidence/explain caught on so well, particularly when it could all be wrapped up so neatly in a paragraph.

Tony Blair may well have campaigned on Education, Education, Education. It still seems seductive. Resist. Teaching literature is both more complicated and much simpler than that.

Oliver Twist

It’s heartbreaking. This is the first time I’ve read Oliver Twist while I’ve had children of my own. Indeed, it’s the first time I’ve read it as a teacher. I struggled to read it out loud in class.

Last year I read Oliver Twist for the third time. It’s odd how a novel that you think you understand can turn on you and quietly insist that it is not really what you thought it was about.

Perhaps it was because I was using lots of extracts from it with a particularly interested Year 9 group. We pored over the beginning of chapter five with a keen eye for the gothic, noticing that state of mind that Dickens exploits so well in the novel: somewhere between dreaming and waking. He uses the same device elsewhere and it starts to lend the novel a nightmarish quality that has never been captured beyond the page. I’ve never seen an adaptation that is able to convey what Dickens does so well in his first novel proper: that existence for some of Victorian England’s most vulnerable was a literal nightmare. Yet Dickens is able to take this trope, and through his ironic narrative detachment (which, ironically, means that the reader can almost touch his passionate defence of the poor), he is able to propose a space in which little Oliver is both dead to the world, and at the same time very much suffering. As he sleeps in an undertaker’s shop:

‘he wished, as he crept into his narrow bed, that that were his coffin, and that he could be lain in a calm and lasting sleep in the churchyard ground, with the tall grass waving gently above his head, and the sound of the old deep bell to soothe him in his sleep’

It’s heartbreaking. This is the first time I’ve read Oliver Twist while I’ve had children of my own. Indeed, it’s the first time I’ve read it as a teacher. I struggled to read it out loud in class.

I think they understood.