The Journey – Excerpts (with sincere apologies to Cormac McCarthy)

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…

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_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.

 

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“Nobody’d listen to you, an’ you know it. Nobody’d listen.” Why I’ll miss Of Mice and Men.

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.

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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.