It lies rigged and fully masted in the harbour, the Ship of Fools, and soon it will be crewed by some of our favourite smarties. Is that Shami Chakrabarti charging down the gangway? It surely is. Those sharp elbows can be identified at a hundred paces. And is she being followed by Hanif Kureishi and Jeanette Winterson, eyes bulging like bulldog’s whatsits? Yes, they’re on parade too. Oh look, they’ve brought a chaplain, the Rev Giles Fraser. All shipshape and Bristol-fashion. Now they can cast off.
If a person may be judged by the quality of his enemies then Michael Gove currently rests only slightly lower than the angels. As hard as they try to paint him black the metropolitan progressives led by Chakrabarti and pals, who were invited by the ever-obliging Guardian to present a personal selection of set-book lists for GCSE pupils, merely reveal in their denunciations of the Education Secretary their own worst failings.
Should you require evidence of the shrill, hectoring nature of the modern liberal mind, Miss Chakrabarti supplies it in her estimation of To Kill a Mockingbird, the novel by Harper Lee that Gove has not, despite the contrived hoo-ha of the last month, banned from any classroom. The book, she writes with the moral fervour that has made her the nation’s sweetheart, ‘has inspired so many towards the cause of human rights, no wonder the government wants it off the syllabus’.
For Little Miss Bossy-Boots, Lee’s book is a shoe-in selection because it concerns ‘issues of gender, religious belief and bigotry’, a triple hit that sets the tone for what follows later from the Angry Brigade. Kureishi, an infant terrible who has not aged well, chooses a book of his own, which offers ‘an ideal introduction to our present concerns about religion and the limits of free speech’. When – if – he acquires a degree of modesty the world will become at once a sweeter place.
For self-regard, though, Winterson could probably give Hanif Bighead five yards and still breast the tape ahead of him. ‘Gove’, she believes, ‘should be prosecuted for depriving children of essential services. The Tories want a future where literature belongs to an elite’. This sort of drivel will surprise few who have heard Winterson on radio and television, where she is one of the BBC’s favourite pets. Why on earth is this censorious woman always in a frightful bate?
They are supported by a cast that includes ‘Will Self’, one of Craig Brown’s more fanciful creations, and somebody called Bernardine Evaristo, who has really scaled the heights: she is, apparently, a reader in creative writing at Brunel University, whence she shall judge the quick and the dead. O lucky Brunel students! All year long they get their groats-worth from a tutor who writes freely about ‘a western canon that privileges the select few over the many’.
Fortunately Hilary Mantel was on hand, to remind everybody that children are best served by ‘a love of reading, and the habit of it’. Which is what Gove wants for all children, irrespective of sex (not gender), age, class or ethnicity. If writers, who are supposed to value words, cannot understand that, what can they understand? Sadly, many of them are not prepared to give him a fair hearing. They would prefer to trot out their own prejudices. Rev Fraser, who has stepped enthusiastically into a media career completely unnerved by a lack of talent, felt bold enough in another part of the Guardian to denounce the Minister for his ‘religious extremism’. What extremism would that be, parson?
Dominant narratives. Inclusive stories. Political issues. All cultures, great and small. ‘Nightmare marriages of sex, death and technology’ (Self, who else?). Even Margaret Drabble threw in the four-pronged cliche of colonialism, racism, feminism and Thatcherism. Do these earnest folk not realize that children should be encouraged to read for pleasure, and by doing so learn to chart their own path through the literary forest?
That forest, contrary to what the dizzy Brunel lady imagines, is not restricted to a few men and women who have been admitted to the canon. It is a world that contains multitudes, as Gove appears to know rather better than those who rejoice in belittling him. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to read Of Mice and Men. It’s a fine novel by a great writer. But Steinbeck wrote better books, and so did many others.
A personal list of set books might include The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Housman’s Collected Poems, Orwell’s Inside The Whale and other essays, and Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark. Not a cliche in sight. But plenty of scope for liberation.