Well, that was interesting. And, if truth be told, more than a little traumatic. For a club that, under Ferguson, traditionally did its business early on in the transfer window, Monday was an exceptionally frenetic day: Blind confirmed, Falcao (!) brought in on loan, Hernandez loaned to Real and Welbeck shuffled off to Arsenal. Factor in the offloading of Kagawa at the weekend and the (very) late loaning of Cleverley the morning after the transfer window officially closed (no, I don’t understand it either, but apparently you can bend the rules a bit if you ask the FA very very nicely) and you’ve got a ridiculous amount of transfer activity. Oh, and I forgot to mention Powell and Lawrence to Leicester, too! Craaaazy!
There has, predictably, been a lot of speculation and comment about United’s business in the transfer season, some of it considered and thoughtful and some of it downright silly. Below, I look at some of the more prominent comments and offer some thoughts of my own…
“United don’t need Falcao.”
This is a slightly more complicated statement than first appears. It implies a couple of things – firstly, that what United need more urgently is something else (a decent centre back and a box-to-box or holding midfielder, depending on who you listen to) and secondly, that United have a wealth of attacking talent at their disposal. While the first is arguably true, the second is most definitely not. Anyone who’s seen United in the league this season will readily admit that the team is lacking something up front. This seems absurd given that we’ve been playing with RVP, Rooney and Mata as our attacking spearhead but none of them, the two goals shared between them notwithstanding, have looked particularly threatening, nor have any of them displayed the ability to carve defences open and truly terrorize the opposition in the same way that, say, Diego Costa has done for Chelsea. In that sense, the loan signing of Falcao makes a great deal of sense. He likes to score does our Radamel. (And he is ours – at least for the next nine months or so.)
This doesn’t mean that all’s fine in other areas of the pitch. But the acquisitions of Blind, Rojo, Herrera and Shaw mean that we’ve got more quality and depth in defence and midfield and there are strong indications that the club will strengthen again in the January window, particularly if Strootman recovers well from his knee injury.
“United’s identity is broken”
This rather odd statement from Mike Phelan about Welbeck’s transfer to Arsenal made me smile, to be honest. The argument is that, in ditching Welbeck and embracing Falcao, United are somehow betraying a core value of the club and are dispensing with a commitment to youth which distinguishes United from other, more mercenary, clubs. To which I have only two words to say, really: Garry. Birtles.
Oh, alright, then. Here’s a more considered response…
United have never been averse to splashing considerable amounts of cash around (sometimes to dramatic and at other times to comedic effect) and it’s stupid to pretend otherwise. The notion that United have this unending conveyor belt of talent is one of those nice myths United fans used to tell themselves in the 90s when the class of ’92 was strutting its stuff on football pitches up and down the country. But, even then, United were spending – £6 million plus Keith Gillespie for Andy Cole, £12.6 million for Dwight Yorke, £3.5 million for (gulp!) Karel Poborsky to name just three. Yes, Welbeck is a Mancunian and a United fan, but the club doesn’t owe him anything and his departure to Arsenal is no more than business as usual for a club who offloads its academy graduates far more regularly than it keeps them. (Two of them were playing for Burnley on Saturday afternoon.) Some net reports speculate that Welbeck had been told that, with the addition of Falcao, he would effectively be United’s fifth choice striker behind RVP, Rooney, Falcao and promising youngster James Wilson. If that’s true, Phelan moaning that 23 year old Welbeck being replaced by 19 year old Wilson becomes, well, just a bit ironic, really.
“Where does Falcao fit?”
There’s no getting away from the fact that LVG has just bought (sorry, ‘loaned’) himself a selection headache. Rooney being captain complicates things a little. He could drop into midfield but his less than wonderful passing suggests that wouldn’t help the team, particularly when Herrera, Blind and possibly Di Maria are better options. More likely he’ll either stay up front with the new boy (and RVP will end up on the bench) or he’ll play behind the front two and Mata will make way for him. Whatever happens, there’ll be some expensive talent left simmering on the bench. (I’m assuming here that LVG will stick with his 5-3-2 formation.) That said, there are a handful of managers in the world who are quite prepared to drop a star player for the good of the team and I’d imagine LVG is one of them. Whatever happens, this season is going to be very interesting. (Chelsea, though, will still win the title.)
As I write, Argentina has just beaten world champions Germany 4-2 on their home soil. Angel Di Maria took a hand in creating three of the goals and scored the fourth. Lovely. :) (Oh, and Rooney scored a penalty for England against Norway. It was a very nice penalty, too. Apparently.)
I’m not entirely sure what Angel Di Maria is thinking at the moment, but, if his open letter to Real Madrid fans is any indication, he’s currently got at least half an eye on a return to the Bernabeu if his Manchester adventure doesn’t work out. And who can blame him? In the context of yesterday’s English record (£59.7 million) signing of Di Maria, last night’s 4-0 thrashing from the M K Dons takes on a distinctly surreal, almost perverse, air.
There’s plenty of reaction on the internet today about the result so I thought I’d offer my perspective as a lifelong United fan who’s generally been feeling very positive about the appointment of Louis van Gaal as United manager and yet been feeling equally frustrated with our failure so far to address the glaring problems in defence and central midfield, more of which in a moment.
“It’s only the League Cup.”
I’ve seen a fair bit of comment this morning pointing out that last night’s result doesn’t matter all that much in the grand scheme of things as the League Cup is the least of the domestic trophies United are capable of winning. In that sense, van Gaal’s fielding of an under-strength team is carrying on a tradition established by SAF in the 90s and we shouldn’t be too bothered about last night’s result. Well, the disdain shown to the League Cup over the years has never struck me as particularly clever and it makes even less sense now that United don’t have European competition to preoccupy them. This is a competition that last year David Moyes took seriously enough to earn a semi-final place against Sunderland. Would he still have been sacked if he’d successfully negotiated that tie and the final that followed it? I don’t know but it would surely have bought him more time and, perhaps more importantly, it would have provided some impetus to an under-performing team. There is a strong case to be made that LVG should have put out the strongest team possible. A win is a win at the end of the day (whereas a loss – particularly like this one – is a humiliation). That said, LVG’s post-match comments suggest he had concerns about fielding a substantially similar side to the one that drew against Sunderland just 48 hours after that game. Fair enough, I guess – and it’s also important to remember that…
“They were only kids.”
Well, no, they weren’t, were they? That was our first choice goalkeeper the Dons put four goals past. There was a first team regular ‘marshalling’ our defence. There were three World Cup players up front. Admittedly, Anderson is never going to set the world on fire, but he was a part of the team that thrashed Arsenal 8-2 three years ago. Van Gaal’s selection was not a team of callow youth. The injury to Kagawa was unfortunate (and Januzaj as a replacement was not ideal), but the team should have had enough quality to see off a League One side, albeit one who were very much up for the fight.
“LVG knew what he was doing.”
Yeah, I think he did. Although what you think he knew he was doing and what I think he knew he was doing may be two different things. Some comments I’ve seen have suggested that last night’s match was a deliberate attempt to send a ‘message’ to the board and chief executive Ed Woodward that, even after the capture of Di Maria, the team needs strengthening in key areas. This strikes me as unpersuasive for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the United hierarchy already know where they need to strengthen and, as the signing of Di Maria demonstrates, they’re not afraid of splashing some cash around. Secondly, LVG just doesn’t strike me as the kind of manager to effectively throw a game just to prove a point. Rather, when he says that he wants to be fair to the existing players, I believe he’s being scrupulously (painfully) honest – even if that means giving a start to (gulp!) Anderson. Well, if he wants to see who will fit into his ‘philosophy’, last night hasn’t been a total loss. It’s difficult to believe that Anderson will start a game for United again and Hernandez is looking increasingly surplus to requirements, for a start. (If last night also puts paid to the notion that Januzaj can act as a central midfielder, then that will also be an admittedly very thin silver lining.) But these are the most meagre of consolations.
“The confidence has eroded…”
Well, quite. One of the notable things about both last night and the Sunderland game was that, in both games, there were some very pleasing passages of fluid and quick passing, but, once the opposition scored, that fluidity vanished like mist before the morning sun. Last night was particularly poor. There was no leadership on the pitch, but then, when your captain’s responsible for your opponents’ first goal, that’s perhaps not surprising. One thing that was revealed last night is that, not only do we need players of skill, creativity and pace, but we also need players with commitment, passion and leadership. Great.
All of this shouldn’t take away from M K Dons’ performance which was committed, skilful and fast-paced – all of the things that United weren’t. They were good value for their win and, Dave Martin’s late saves notwithstanding, we simply weren’t good enough to merit even a consolation goal.
So where does this leave Louis van Gaal and his philosophical project? Well, right back where we were on Sunday afternoon, really. He’s devised a system to get the best out of a ‘superstar’ forward three of Rooney, RVP and Mata but, with injuries to Carrick and Herrera (and the understandable, but nevertheless worrying, decline of Fletcher), there’s no creativity or incisiveness to supply the front lines. Add to that a threadbare back five and you end up with a result like an unsatisfactory draw against Sunderland or here, without the class of Rooney et al, a hideously embarrassing performance against lower league opposition. Am I happy? Crikey, no! Am I ready to panic? Not just yet. And not for a while, to be honest.
And, unlike Steve Claridge, I’m also not too bothered by LVG signing autographs at the end of the match. That’s not being arrogant; it’s just not being a dick to people who’ve asked you for your autograph. Mind you, his claim that he wasn’t shocked by the result is somewhat belied by this image (thank you, Daily Telegraph) …
Clearly, United still need to adjust to a new way of playing. The acquisition of a genuinely quick and skilful midfielder in Di Maria is exciting, but we also need to buy some quality in defence and midfield. Vidal and Blind would do nicely, but whoever comes in, they’ll need to show the kind of commitment and passion that was glaringly absent last night.
Ever wondered how many bad teachers there are in the UK’s state schools? Well, wonder no more, because no less a personage than the Secretary of State for Education himself has given a definitive answer – and it might be a few more than you think.
The moment of revelation came during a Newsnight interview last night (Wednesday 9th July – it’s still up on the BBC iPlayer at time of writing; the interview in question is about 25 minutes in) when, in the context of a piece on today’s strike action by NUT, Unite, GMB and other union members, the interviewer pointed out that, according to a recent poll, just 16% of teachers supported Gove’s reforms of the education system. Gove’s riposte after spluttering that he wasn’t sure about the accuracy of the poll (ironic really considering what he was about to say) was to point out that actually ‘outstanding teachers and head teachers’ supported his reforms. The reporter asked if that meant that only ‘bad teachers’ opposed them, to which Gove responded unequivocally (unusually for a politician) ‘yes’.
So there you have it. If you support Gove’s wholesale dismantling of the state education system, you’re good. If you oppose it, you’re bad. Nice to see such a nuanced, thoughtful response from a man with such massive responsibility. If Gove is right and those 84% of teachers who don’t support him are the bad ones, then the number of bad teachers in Britain’s schools is approximately 367,920 (based on the latest figures available from the DoE that say, as of November 2011 there are 438,000 full time teachers in the nation’s schools). That’s a lot of capability proceedings right there. Good job I’m in a union, eh?
It’s been a while since I’ve blogged comics and I’ve been reading a few over half-term. Here are some thoughts on 1963’s Amazing Spider-Man #4…
Spider-man is, undoubtedly, a cool character. Web-slinging, enhanced agility, enhanced strength, a handy early warning system – that’s an impressive power set right there. But, the genius of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s creation is not so much the superpowers, but the character of Peter Parker himself. Handing all that power to an admittedly clever but still inexperienced teenager is Lee’s masterstroke and issue 4 is a rather wonderful example of that. Having defeated the Chameleon, Doctor Octopus, the Vulture and the Tinkerer in previous issues, this issue sees the introduction of the Sandman and the pressure on poor Peter is ramped up several notches.
The first thing to note is that cover. Unusually, it’s divided up into four main images which sort of ‘spoil’ the first encounter between Sandman and Spidey. Spidey tries to hit Sandman and can’t because, well, he’s made of sand and he can vary the way his sand particles stick together to make them looser or more densely packed. Together with his shape-changing powers, this makes Sandman a pretty impressive opponent.
Readers who want to get straight to the Spidey v Sandman action will have to wait a couple of pages, though, because first we get an interesting little encounter between Spider-man and a group of low-life thugs who are about to rob a jewellery store. The key phrase there being ‘about to’. Because the crooks haven’t actually entered the store when Spidey catches them, they’ve not technically committed a crime and Spidey is… ahem… amazed when it is they who are first to call for the cops. While the cop is largely sympathetic to Spidey, he can’t arrest them and Spidey has to make good his escape. On the way home, he calls into J Jonah Jameson’s empty office and leaves a sticky ‘present’ for him in his office before spotting some police cars speeding to the scene of a crime and deciding to follow them.
There’s a couple of things to say here. The first is that Lee and Ditko are determined not to make this superhero lark plain sailing for Spidey. These stories are light years away from, say, what Lee and Kirby do on Fantastic Four. In Fantastic Four the super group enjoys a certain celebrity status with the public and the team’s adventures may well involve interstellar travel or journeys into the past. Spider-man occupies a much more ambiguous middle ground in public opinion and his adventures are rooted much more firmly in the New York of the early 60s. To show villains knowing the law better than the superhero whose name adorns the front of the comic is relatively bold stuff from Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Similarly Spidey’s fairly petty reaction to J Jonah Jameson is perfectly understandable and, while it does lead to one of the issue’s (intentionally) funnier moments, it also highlights Spidey’s fallibility and frustration. It’s that very human reaction to the pressures he’s under that made the comic so successful in the 60s and contributes to the character’s ongoing appeal today.
The encounter with the would-be jewellery thieves is small beer, however, compared to the threat posed by the Sandman himself. The first encounter plays out pretty much as trailed by the cover. Sandman can’t be hit or captured and his ‘waist punch’ is enough to send Spidey flying and, somehow, tear his mask rendering his secret identity not so secret. (It is possible, I suppose, that, having been subject to one of the most bizarre special attacks in comics history, Spidey clawed his mask off his face all by himself in shame or horror.) In any event, there then follows probably the most pathetic sequence of events I’ve ever seen in a Spidey book. While the TV news anchorman handily fills the reader in with details about Sandman’s origin, Peter Parker has to sew his own mask while deflecting interest in his general well-being from Aunt May. I’ve said ‘pathetic’, but, from another perspective, this section is comics gold. You can’t, after all, get much more down to earth than a superhero having to stay in his bedroom pretending to be ill, while his nemesis du jour gets away with robbing a bank, can you?
The comic’s denouement is sheer demented genius. Desperate to get away from the pursuing cops, Sandman takes refuge in Peter’s high school. There’s a lot going on in these pages. Peter has time to upset Liz by breaking off his date with her and then get saddled with the onerous job of taking old lab bottles down to the basement where he has a brief but significant conversation with the high school janitor. (The rather large vacuum cleaner used by the janitor features prominently in that panel. We shall be seeing this object again, methinks.) Sandman even sees the back of Peter Parker before ducking into a nearby classroom, in which the high school principal is addressing a class. Now, Lee’s portrayal of the principal here is quite interesting. When Sandman decides he wants a high school diploma (why!?!?), the principal hotly declares, “Nothing could make me do that! A diploma must be earned! Your threats can’t make me violate my trust or my duties!” He follows that by urging the students to run while he holds the Sandman off. The heroic teacher figure isn’t exactly a recurring one in comics and it’s nice to see it here. Spider-man, of course, comes in at just the right time to prevent the principal from being clobbered and there follows a fight whose intensity is signposted by the disruption of the usual 3×3 panel grid.
I suppose this is good a place as any to comment on Ditko’s art. Put bluntly, the guy’s a storytelling master and I feel deeply ashamed that my teenage self didn’t recognize just how clever and economical his artwork is. (It was my friend Steve who got the Marvel Tales reprints of these classic stories while I pooh-poohed his choice and plumped for the Byrne-drawn Fantastic Four and Alpha Flight instead.) The confrontation between the Sandman and the principal, for example, takes place in a crowded classroom and Ditko is careful to draw expressions on each of the seven students’ faces in the background (there’s an eighth, incidentally, but he’s half hiding behind one of the others so we won’t count him). Again, in that confrontation, the principal’s upright stance suggests strength and a similar moral uprightness even as Sandman threatens him. Subtle, but effective stuff.
The fight sequences are inventively done, though, with Ditko going to town on showing the range of Sandman’s powers. (He even has him ‘snaking’ away from police at one point in the book.) It’s his facial expressions, though, that are particularly impressive –with Peter’s look of horror as he realizes what might happen if he really lets loose against Flash Thompson a particular highlight.
The resolution of the fight with Sandman is perhaps disappointing (vacuuming him up into a canvas bag really shouldn’t work given what we’ve already seen Sandman do in the comic so far), but then that confrontation has not really been the main focus of the issue.
Amazing Spider-Man #4 is really about the strain Peter’s superhero lifestyle is placing on him. That he can’t even enjoy his moment of triumph against the Sandman without J Jonah Jameson calling for his head, or that he can’t give Flash the kicking he so obviously deserves, serves to highlight that, for all its plotting quirks, the book is a satisfyingly complex piece of entertainment. Its final panel sums up perfectly the dilemma Parker finds himself in and the artwork places him at the centre of a web of choices and consequences from which, the reader understands, he will never entirely be free.
This one’s been brewing for a while. Apologies to Cormac McCarthy, whose The Road I have most egregiously ripped off for this little allegorical piece…
_Where are we going? said the boy.
_Somewhere good, said the man. His hand closed over the boy’s and he gently pulled him along. Stumbling awkwardly, the boy followed in the man’s brisk, purposeful footsteps. So quick was the pace being set by the man, so insistent was the pressure of his grip that the boy did not have the time to stop and survey the land around them, although he caught fleeting glimpses of dead, blackened trees and cracked, bare earth. All he could really concentrate on was the simple act of placing one step in front of the other on the black tarmac road.
_What was that? The boy tugged on the man’s hand and he slowed, although he did not stop.
_What? the man said, smiling kindly.
_That sound… The boy’s voice faltered. What had that sound been? It was difficult to say now. But the beating of his heart, quick and urgent, told him that there had been something. He peered into the gloom, but night had fallen some time ago and the stars provided only enough light to render the stunted trees as uncertain shapes in his sight.
_Perhaps it was just your imagination, said the man. Perhaps…
The boy waited for a reply. There was no movement on either side of the road, as far as he could tell. If only he could stop and be sure. If only they would take the time to look around them!
_Perhaps what? the boy said. He was afraid to ask, but he had to know the answer. The man seemed to know where they were going. Perhaps he would know about the kind of things that made soft, careful noises in the darkness.
The man’s grip tightened for a moment.
_There are animals, he said. Animals in the dark. Desperate things. Lean, hungry. Vicious. You would not want to meet one of those things. They are why we must keep moving.
_So tired… said the boy and he could not keep the whining sound of complaint from his voice. When will we rest?
_We’re on a journey, said the man. We’re going somewhere good.
Howls split the cold night air. The boy moaned in terror. The man ran pulling the boy behind him, heedless of the boy’s whimpering, not slowing even when the boy stumbled and grazed his knee on the black tarmac road. Without breaking stride, the man hauled him to his feet and continued, his mouth set in a grim line, his eyes not leaving the thin black line of the road stretching out ahead of them.
_They’re right… right behind us, gasped the boy.
_Stick to the road, said the man.
_But they might not… might not… It was difficult to get the words out, to make himself heard above the howling in the darkness, the frantic rhythm of their steps on the road, the pounding of the blood in his veins.
_Stick to the road, the man said. To the boy, amidst his terror and the quivering of his thin, emaciated body, it sounded like the man was not speaking to him at all.
_Stick to the road, the man said, pulling the boy, almost a dead weight, behind him. They won’t step onto the road.
More howls. Closer this time. With difficulty, the boy glanced behind him. The view of the road shuddered and jolted with each terrified step.
_They won’t step onto the road.
But they had, the boy saw. The shapes were moving quickly on the thin ribbon of black tarmac road behind them and the meagre starlight reflected from their dead, hungry eyes.
_Where are we going!?! The boy’s desperate question hung quivering on the early morning air. The road and its surroundings were bathed in weak sunlight.
_I told you, the man said patiently.
_No! I don’t want to… don’t want to… His legs were bloodied where the dogs had nipped and scratched at him. How he had got away from them he still didn’t understand, but the fear that his encounter with them had brought now hung about him like a pall of foul-smelling smoke.
_We’re going somewhere good, said the man, his smile now more fixed than it was before, the glint in his eye less friendly.
_Where… With an effort, the boy pulled his hand free of the man’s grip and flung his arms out wide to encompass the blasted wasteland around them, its telegraph poles angled like drunken men photographed in the moment of their falling down, its trees charred and twisted, mockeries of the living, growing things that had reached green-budding branches towards the blue skies in the time before. Rusted motor cars dotted the landscape, islands of useless metal in a sea of ash and grit.
The boy felt tears streak his face. He remembered – although only dimly – the time before. He remembered laughter. He remembered colour. He remembered life.
_Where in all this, he screamed at the man, is ‘good’? Where?
The man did not reply. He simply reached for him and took his hand once more and the boy was too weak to resist.
The road began to turn, gradually at first and then in a more pronounced fashion. It was only when the light began to change that the boy noticed. He looked up.
_Where… He stopped himself. The man, he had come to realize, did not like that question. What’s happening to the light?
_It doesn’t matter, the man said. Stick to the road.
But the road was taking them somewhere the boy at last understood he did not want to go. The sky was darkening not because night was falling, but because the road was taking them downwards in a vast relentless spiral. The sky was darkening because on the left hand side of the road the earth rose up in a huge embankment that grew in height as the road descended. It was this embankment that partially obscured the daylight. It was this embankment that cast cold shadows over them.
The boy looked to his right and his stomach lurched. It quickly became clear to him that the road formed a spiraling descent into a huge pit, whose bottom he could not discern. The road was leading them down into a darkness more complete and more terrifying than even the night that he had barely escaped.
_Where are we going? he whispered.
_Somewhere good, said the man automatically, his hand squeezing the boy’s so tightly that the boy could feel his bones grind against each other under their thin covering of dirty skin.
_No, the boy whispered. No.
But the man did not hear him as he led them along the road, down into the waiting dark.
The recent announcement of Gove’s revised English Literature curriculum (which had been trailed last year) has provoked a predictable storm of outrage, not least because it seems to be informed by the secretary of state for Education’s personal preferences rather than any pedagogical research (hard to believe, I know!). The disappearance of American literature from the course (including To Kill A Mockingbird and Arthur Miller’s plays) has upset a lot of people, including me. It’s Of Mice and Men, though, which strikes me as being perhaps the greatest loss. In the next few paragraphs, I look at what John Steinbeck’s novella brings to the curriculum and explain why I’ll miss it when it’s gone.
Like a lot of people over the last twenty or so years, I first encountered John Steinbeck’s short but powerful novella Of Mice and Men when I was a teenager. Unlike many, I didn’t encounter it at school, but in the local library. I was a keen and fairly precocious reader, but Of Mice and Men was a little outside my comfort zone, being neither a Shakespeare play (I was going through a fair few of them at the time – I used to memorize key speeches like Marc Antony’s ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen…’ for fun back then, but I digress) nor a chunky science-fiction/fantasy epic. Instead, it was a slender volume with a simple white cover on which was placed an artist’s representation of George and Lennie.
Even now, I have no real idea of why I picked it up and took it to the borrowing desk. Perhaps it was simply that I was feeling adventurous and the thin volume in my hand represented a minimised risk. I don’t know. What I do know is that it didn’t take me very long to read it and that I was devastated by the end. In a few short pages, Steinbeck had made me believe in a world very different from my own middle class English upbringing, had made me identify with the central character of George and made me feel his anguish at the intolerable decision he was forced to make at the end of the book. Perhaps the most striking thing about the book is that even now – after almost thirty years and at least ten instances of studying it with a class – that emotional power is still there. In fact, if anything, a combination of closer reading and life experience has deepened its impact.
It is for this very personal reason that I’ll be sorry to see it go in Mr Gove’s nationalistic shake-up of the English Literature curriculum. There are other reasons, of course. Of Mice and Men is by far the easiest GCSE text to teach and the easiest for students to ‘get’. This, I suspect, is at least part of the problem for Gove. There is a suspicion that it is too easy, that its short length, colloquial dialogue and relatively simple prose style mean it’s impossible for students to appreciate how themes and characters develop, or ‘appreciate’ (to use a typically nebulous Goveism) the author’s use of language. Which is all bollocks, naturally. That students engage so readily (not, it should be noted, automatically – there’s still a fair bit of work to be done by the teacher to encourage some students to get into the text) with Of Mice and Men is not so much an indication of its lack of literary challenge, but more a sign of its author’s considerable skill in constructing this little hand grenade of a text.
Its themes and characterisation are not, I’d argue, straightforward – certainly there’s nothing as cackhanded as Blood Brothers’ ‘Do you think this might all be to do with class?’ line – although it’s not without its problems. The liberal use of the ‘n’ word requires careful handling by the teacher, but Steinbeck makes the job easier when you can compare the ranchmen’s treatment of Crooks with what the author does with him in Chapter 4. Similarly, the presentation of Curley’s wife at first appears to confirm the men’s (including the central character’s) reading of her behaviour as deliberately provocative, but Steinbeck’s characterisation is more subtle than that with later chapters giving us an insight into her background (including her disastrous decision to marry Curley, apparently a reaction to the perceived betrayal of her mother) and her Hollywood-fuelled dreams and ultimately giving us a character for whom the reader can feel considerable sympathy.
Then, there’s the central friendship between George and Lennie. In a novel stocked with lonely and isolated characters, this friendship is seen as rare enough to be commented on by a number of the other characters. The importance of that friendship is something that teenagers, I think, instinctively ‘get’ – as, for that matter, is the ‘outsider’ status of most of the book’s main characters. The quotation that serves as heading for this blog entry comes at a particularly charged moment in the novel. Having threatened Crooks with an implied false allegation of rape, Curley’s wife counters Candy’s declaration that he and Lennie would say what really happened with a statement torn from the tormented depths of her own instinctive understanding of her place on the ranch and the wider male-dominated world it represents. “Nobody’d listen to you, an’ you know it. Nobody’d listen to you.” Teenagers, like teachers under an increasingly unresponsive education secretary, get this, too.
Of Mice and Men is a text which, on occasion, has formed the basis of class discussions on issues like personal responsibility and the extent to which environment and wider social pressures influence individual action, as well as prejudice and violence. None of these issues are incidental or ‘easy’, although the text makes it very simple to broach them. Nor does the text address them in an easy, morally simplistic manner. Despite its length and its relatively simple story, this is an adult text set in a recognisably adult world. That pupils respond to it as (generally) positively as they do is because, I think, they appreciate not only the shortness (and corresponding directness) of the story but also the clarity of the writing, the sympathy with which the writer has drawn the main characters and the refreshing sense that the author is neither patronizing nor preaching to them.
While I have nothing against 19th century (or British, for that matter!) literature personally, dropping Of Mice and Men seems a missed opportunity to engage pupils’ imagination and sense of fairness, while demonstrating to them that literature can speak directly to them. With so many teenagers’ imaginative lives being dominated by visual and social media, it has always encouraged me that the reactions of the pupils to whom I’ve taught Of Mice and Men have generally been so positive. The experience of seeing another human being’s imagination fired by a text, of hearing him or her formulate and articulate his or her response to it with thought and understanding, is what I, and I suspect many of my colleagues, got into teaching for. That experience was one which I enjoyed with Of Mice and Men far more than with any of the other GCSE texts I’ve taught. And it does rankle on a very personal level to think that one man’s prejudice against the text has taken that away from both me and future students.