Substitutes for Literature

Do look, if you haven’t already, at Tim Kendall’s excellent blog post on the dispiriting choice of poetry in the new AQA GCSE anthology  – which, if it stays in circulation as long as the previous anthology, will be the only poetry that millions of British teenagers are ever asked to examine seriously.
Tim K is devastating, especially on a hopelessly drippy poem called ‛Poppies’ by Jane Weir. This is a sentimental and thin poem about Remembrance – but above all, as Tim K demonstrates, very badly written. Maybe the compilers of the anthology took the attitude ‛Never mind the quality, feel the compassion.’
The AQA poetry anthology has the woozy title ‛Moon on the Tides’, and many of its choices are questionable. I’d like to draw attention now, though, to a piece in its sister publication, the new prose anthology, ‛Sunlight on the Grass’ (I think they must have recruited Madeline Bassett to think up these titles – she’s the P.G.Wodehouse character who frequently tells Bertie Wooster that the stars are God’s daisy-chain).
This prose anthology includes ‛The Darkness Out There’ by Penelope Lively, which is an AQA favourite familiar from previous anthologies. (One of the ways that AQA  keeps its teacher customers sweet is to make sure that any re-jigging of the syllabus contains nicely familiar material, so that they won’t have to do too much new preparation. I think that this must be the reason why so much Simon Armitage and Carol Ann Duffy has survived into the new poetry selection).
‛The Darkness Out There’ is a story from the sixties. Two teenagers, Sandra and Kerry belong to a community service club. One Saturday they go to the house of an old lady, Mrs, Rutter. She tells them about something that happened during WW2, after the death of her husband in Belgium, early in the war.
A German aeroplane was shot down and crashed in the wood. Mrs. Rutter and her sister ran to the scene and saw that one of the crew was still alive, but trapped in the aircraft. They left him to die slowly, in agony. Mrs. Rutter is not ashamed of what she did, and considers that she took just revenge for the death of her husband.
The teenagers leave the house, and express their horror at Mrs Rutter’s behaviour, and sympathy for the German.
Not a bad story, though not a particularly distinguished one. But anyone familiar with English Literature will see at once that it is a watered-down version of a far better short story – Kipling’s ‛Mary Postgate’. It is Mary Postgate with all the ambiguity taken out. In Lively’s story the reader is anchored in a firm point of view, and the teenagers’ moralistic comments at the end tells him or her exactly what to think about Mrs. Rutter’s actions. Conventional sentimentalities are unchallenged.
Kipling’s story gives  no such easy option. We can’t help identifying with Mary Postgate, even though her behaviour is clearly excessive. Kipling seems to be working through the conflict between his own desire for revenge on the Germans, and his sense of what is proper. It is a daunting, disturbing work, one of Kipling’s masterpieces. So why is it that a far weaker imitation is on the English Literature syllabus?
The AQA policy seems to be that teenagers should be protected from difficult, troubling literature. So they get Lively instead of Kipling, and they get Jane Weir and Owen Sheers instead of Rosenberg and Sassoon. Sad.


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