Now, children, are you sitting mildly uncomfortably on your five inches squared of hair shirt carpet? Well then, we best begin because there’s an awful lot of the English Canon for us to Piers Ploughman it through, and I imagine it’s going to take some time, what with the fact none of you can cope with the scrutiny of your grammatical capabilities. How this will affect my imploring you to read the Greatshas not yet manifestoed itself, but Isuspect it means thatwhen you don’t understand the text being gently pummelled into your roast chestnut heads, it may not be attributed to the fact your literacy, let alone your literary knowledge, issub-embryonic. Of course, if you do understand, you can,under the jurisdiction of the previous Regime,probably still sue me (cutting child benefit only applies to taxes at the moment, correct? Someone check that with George…)
Now, I don’t expect you toknow, but English Literature did in fact begin with Shakespeare. Yes, children, that is correct. Before Shakespeare, there were no Words. There was no versifying. There were no crusading heroes, thresholds to be crossed, monsters to be slain, or ladies to be loved. And just before you gothinking you’ve espied a chink in my consummateknowledge of Key Texts, I shouldn’t bother mentioning Ulysses, or Hercules, or Troy, or Damocles. Do well to remember insteadthat we are talking about English literature here. Not the doggerel of any otherculturally inferior clime.
Don’t be disheartened by the sound of Dryden or Pope. Unfortunate monikers, admittedly, but what is in a name, after all; and anyway, with no more money in either yours or any other citizen’s purse, we simply will not stoop to any form of New Labour rebranding; you will just have to practice the art of separating association from form (although don’t get too carried away; far beyond me to predict where encouraging that skill might lead you, and OED knows we don’t need any more Deconstructionazis!)
Now, while Tony and Co™ may have rendered obsolete the need for any modest proposalsto the Ireland problem,that great politico-literary progenitor of mine, Sir Jonathan Swift is the gentleman to read if you ever wish to surpass the achievements of someone like, well, me, for example. Indeed, reading his Magnum Opus makes a fine substitute for: a) travelling to under-developed lands, full of uncultivated people who read our literature because their own, frankly, isn’t up to par, and b) interrogating the government, when you feel as though they may not be applying the most humane or sensitive salve to the wounds of the Nation. (You are the future Electorate, after all! Although that’s another sermon.)
Now, for all the young ladies privy to my Audience, may I present you with an afternoon thimbleful of Miss Jane Austen. Admittedly, I may know nothing at all of their politics, but where would Cilla, Trinny and Susannah, or even the Angelic Delightful Emma Woodhouse/Harriet Smith hybrid that is Cheryl be without such a fine precedent of fairer sex roarings and felicitations to imitate? Or should that be intimate? Well, either way, enjoy Miss Austen and her cappuccinic constitution because it’s the only oestrogenic antidote I can offer you amidst all that unsurpassable satirical swagger, manly bawling and melancholia. Besides, Dickens and Hardy will soon show you how it really is for Women in English Literature. Workhouse whores, field labouring victims, or Hoity Toity Defloweries who are deNatured (that capital isfor emphasis, by the way, Deconstrucionazis)the minute they stray from Angel in the House horizontal.
Once this becomes your bedtime reading, you may sleep soundly in the knowledge that it’s a bourgeoiseasy life, if only you know which tomes to turn to along the Bunyanian way. And yes – you will be tempted to skip ahead to Elliot and Eliot, Woolf, Forster, Lawrence, and Mansfield. The sky will darken still, with Winterson, McEwan, Walters or Mitchell all whispering lasciviously into your lexorexic ears. You may even be plagued with phantasies of reading something beyond the shores of the Sceptred Isle; something even more exotic than Lord Burton’s version of 1001 Nights. Should you prove particularly canonically faithful, it may, perhaps one day, be safe for you to graduate to Walcott or Rushdie. That really would be pushing the boat out, so to speak though, because, well, it’s hardly English literature, is it? What place works by the likes of Emerson, Borges or Rumi? Never on this Proper Englishman’s Reading List, that’s for certes. And don’t even think about Joyce. What could the Irish possibly have to say in our illustrious mother tongue? Much less teach us anything about the value of it?
And if ever someone should offer you John Donne or Aphra Benn, the Earl of Rochester or his imitative poetaster niece I forget the name of, Lady Mary Wroth, Blake, or Shelley’s embroidery-striking wife, just remember: all I’m truly concerned with, children, is that none of you should grow up the victim of an inequality promulgated by the lackadaisical standards of the last government. Now, apply yourself to that reading list and one day, you too might grow up to be a member of a millionaire’s club Cabinet.