Tempting though it is to describe the Secretary of State for Education in the sort of intemperate terms which would require a fusillade of asterisks, let’s be polite. Let’s settle instead for describing him as a pusillanimous, birdbrained, morally warped, dangerously stupid little man. Michael Gove made the headlines again on Sunday following his decision to remove several classics of twentieth-century American literature, including To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men, from the GCSE syllabus, for reasons which appear to have been dictated entirely by his personal distaste for those particular works, and by his predilection for cartoon patriotism. In these difficult times, perhaps we should be grateful to Mr Gove for reminding us that the most pressing threat to common decency in Britain does not actually come from UKIP – at least, not just yet – but from the wreckers already in power who, with their stealth privatisations, punitive taxes, iniquitous welfare reforms and ideologically driven education policies, are well on the way to dismantling the safety-nets of society.
Since the story broke, supporters of Gove have mounted a concerted and largely successful effort to exculpate their man by insisting peevishly that nothing has been banned. Well, of course it hasn’t. I should jolly well think not. You can say what you like about this government – I certainly do – but thankfully we’re still a good many goose-steps away from the banning of literature. However, since that was never really the issue, the Gove camp’s attempt to suggest otherwise is a classic strawman manoeuvre. Of course nothing has been banned. Of course it would be impossible to teach every good book at GCSE. Of course, theoretically, Steinbeck and the rest could still be taught in schools on top of the materials which are compulsory on the new syllabus (although, in practice, that’s highly unlikely to happen because there simply aren’t enough hours in the day). All of this is entirely obvious. The objectionable part, very simply, is the decision of a man in power to bring his weight to bear on influencing the content of the syllabus on the grounds of his personal taste and ideology. That, Mr Gove, is what stinks.
Deep down – or at least, as deep down as they are capable of going – the Goves of this world fear the arts. They fear learning in general, but in particular they fear the unquantifiable, uncontrollable, nebulous nature of painting, of music, of performance, and, perhaps especially, of literature. Literature is complex. It’s opaque, it’s resonant, it’s subversive, it’s suggestive, it’s intricate, it’s untidy, it’s frayed at the edges and open to a multiplicity of intellectual, moral and political interpretations – and, for all of these reasons, it poses a threat to closed and stunted minds. As Bertrand Russell once wrote, “What men really want is not knowledge but certainty.” It’s not particularly surprising that ideologues like Gove should seek to impose upon literature a set of definitions and parameters with which they feel more comfortable – and, when that doesn’t work, that they should try to suppress whichever bits they consider most threatening to their borders.
There has always been a belief among dull-witted people that art and literature are commodities which exist for no other reason than to be decorative, to give us something charming and pretty to hang on our walls, to read with a nice cup of tea on our Sunday afternoons, or to applaud politely on our trips to the theatre. There are plenty of folk out there, and it’s hard to persuade oneself that Gove isn’t one of them, who believe that being educated in literature means little more than being able to stand up in front of the class and recite a nice poem by Keats off by heart.
Of course, there’s plenty in Keats which isn’t actually all that nice, but try telling that to the sort of Tory who, like Gove, cleaves to the reassuring fantasy that there are essentially two types of literature. On the one hand there’s all that nasty, rude, scabrous, difficult-to-understand stuff which is clearly up to no good, staying up late and trashing the joint with its bad language and its political ideas and its subversive influences. And on the other hand there’s the familiar, comfortable canon of Keats, Shakespeare, Dickens and Austen, rubber-stamped, gift-wrapped and safely gathered in, anthologised in wholesome and unthreatening morsels of chocolate-box heritage. Of course, anybody who has actually read Bleak House or Mansfield Park, or has seen a decent production of Coriolanus or King Lear – and, moreover, has actually understood what it is that they’ve read and seen – knows that nothing could be further from the truth. Shakespeare, Dickens and Austen are as angry, satirical and subversive as they come.
Subscribers to the chocolate-box view of literature risk embarrassment if they share their kindergarten ideas in public. Gordon Brown raised eyebrows in a 2008 interview when he identified himself with the character of Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights. Perhaps relying on vague recollections of the Laurence Olivier movie or the Kate Bush song – both unassailable masterpieces in their own right, but neither of them a particularly watertight alternative to reading Emily Brontë’s novel – the former Prime Minister appeared to perceive one of the most tormented, vengeful and violent characters in nineteenth-century fiction as an attractively flinty and windswept romantic hero. In the same year, a soi-disant classical scholar and sometime Shadow Minister for Higher Education by the name of Boris Johnson enlivened a London mayoral debate when he managed to get Shakespeare’s Pericles mixed up with an unrelated Athenian statesman of the same name. Pricked into action by the indignity of having this howler pointed out on air by none other than Ken Livingstone, Mr Johnson hastily claimed that the mix-up had been deliberate – for reasons which remain unclear.
But let’s get back to Michael Gove. An irony apparently lost on our Education Secretary is that great writers have been laughing at him for centuries. In life, and therefore in art, the figure of the posturing, prescriptive, philistine pedagogue is nothing new. Literature is riddled with Goves. He’s there, of course, in Thomas Gradgrind, the monstrous, fact-obsessed schoolmaster in Dickens’s Hard Times who commends young Bitzer’s definition of a horse (“Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth”) to the bewildered Sissy Jupe, who has spent all her young life among horses and understands them more profoundly than Bitzer or Gradgrind can ever hope to do.
Younger readers will have found a more recent Gove in Dolores Umbridge, one of the more memorable creations in J K Rowling’s colourful universe of wizards and witches: an oppressive, unimaginative and morally ugly schoolteacher who shuts down any areas of learning she considers inappropriate, and pursues her vindictive agenda against bright and free-thinking children from behind a veil of kittens, chocolate biscuits, fluffy pink cardigans and sugar-coated smiles.
But of all the slithy Goves I’ve ever encountered in the pages of the English novel, the one whose voice echoes through my thoughts today is the Education Secretary’s near-namesake, Sir Charles Grover. There’s a good chance that you won’t be familiar with Sir Charles – he’s not what you’d call an established figure in the literary canon, and he’s certainly never been on the GCSE syllabus – but he happens to be a figure of some significance in my own personal voyage through literature, belonging as he does to a book which made a profound impression on me at the tender age of nine. I’ve just had a rummage along a shelf in the spare room, and to my delight I’ve found the volume in question. For the first time in decades, I’m holding it in my hand right now. It was published in 1976, and it’s called Doctor Who and the Dinosaur Invasion.
Notwithstanding its lurid title and its even more lurid cover illustration, Doctor Who and the Dinosaur Invasion is a work of considerable moral complexity. Based, of course, on the famous BBC series, it was adapted from his own scripts by the late Malcolm Hulke, a veteran of television drama whose unashamedly political contributions helped to define the moral earnestness of the Jon Pertwee period of Doctor Who in the early 1970s. (Hulke’s best-remembered Doctor Who serial is probably The Sea Devils, fondly recalled by a generation of viewers for its unforgettable money-shot of monsters in string vests emerging from the waves of the Solent – but also, as it happens, a trenchant parable about the follies of unthinking patriotism.) Be they ever so modest, Malcolm Hulke’s teatime fantasy thrillers played their part in expanding my horizons and enlarging my sympathies – a small but important step along the way to the subtler and more substantial rewards of To Kill a Mockingbird, Ulysses and Middlemarch.
Let me tell you a little about The Dinosaur Invasion. The exciting plot concerns a secret cadre of dissident eco-warrior extremists who are appalled by the excesses of modern society. They’re led by a cabinet minister (that’s our Sir Charles Grover) and a brilliant but disenchanted scientist who, very usefully, has invented a time machine. Armed with this expedient gadget, they pluck fearsome prehistoric reptiles from the past and plonk them down in the streets of present-day London, ensuring widespread panic, the declaration of martial law, and a total evacuation of the capital – but this is all part of their plan. Having emptied the immediate area of undesirables, their ultimate aim is to batten down the hatches and reverse the flow of time across the whole of planet Earth, obliterating the human race and effacing its entire history, allowing them to emerge from their capsule as a self-appointed elite who will begin civilisation afresh in a prehistoric paradise unspoiled by millennia of pollution, politics and human wickedness – and this time around, so they fervently believe, they’ll get everything right.
What made this book so compelling to me as a boy, and why I still remember it so vividly today, is that the creepy politician Grover and his pals are not moustache-twirling cartoon baddies – far from it. They’re calm, committed, friendly and plausible. Every step of their dreadful journey has been taken with absolute sincerity, and they believe that their genocidal mission is morally justified. The Doctor’s journalist friend, Sarah Jane Smith, even finds some sympathy with their views, if not with their proposed solution:
Sarah knew that everything the voice said was true. What she didn’t agree with was the way in which these people were trying to run away from the problem, and their schoolmasterly attitude towards anyone who thought differently.
Their schoolmasterly attitude towards anyone who thought differently. Hmm. Hold that thought. A page later, Malcolm Hulke serves up a line which thudded like a crossbow bolt into my nine-year-old brain, and which has, I’m happy to say, remained embedded there ever since:
Sarah thought about this. A veteran journalist once told her, “Beware people who know they are right, like Oliver Cromwell. For the good of humanity, those people sometimes do murder.”
What’s alarming about the fictional cabinet minister Sir Charles Grover is precisely the same thing that’s alarming about the real-life cabinet minister Michael Gove: they’re both people who know they are right. I’m not remotely suggesting, of course, that Mr Gove has any plans to do murder; I’m merely pointing out that he is busy masterminding a dinosaur invasion of another, rather subtler sort. He has already demonstrated his commitment to rolling back time and attempting to rewrite history along lines that better suit his own view of the world, and with every fresh initiative, like this latest Steinbeck-suppressing idiocy, he administers a vicious, oafish kicking to the education of Britain’s children – doubtless, in his own mind, for the good of humanity.
Towards the climax of The Dinosaur Invasion, Malcolm Hulke allows Sir Charles Grover a brief moment of self-awareness:
“Twenty years in politics has taught me that people only believe what they want to believe.” He paused to think. “I suppose that goes for us all in a way.”
I don’t know whether Michael Gove is blessed with sufficient self-knowledge to concede that point – but I suspect he isn’t, and this is profoundly worrying. All of us, even government ministers – no, scrub that, especially government ministers – have an ongoing obligation to enquire within. We need to question ourselves, to interrogate our motives and our means. We need to consult that most reliable of self-regulators and that greatest of intellectual galvanisers: doubt. If we only believe what we want to believe, and if we become so convinced our ideological stance is for the common good that we stop listening to other people altogether – well, that’s when our hands start straying towards the controls of that time machine.
Above all else, an Education Secretary should surely be encouraging children to read books. Good books, bad books, important books, trivial books, British books, American books, Asian books, African books. What children don’t need is agenda-driven interference from a pontificating fool about which books they ought not to be reading, any more than they need autographed bibles, calumnious attacks on Blackadder, or any of the rest of Mr Gove’s silly, vain, hubristic pet projects.
Michael Gove is a man convinced that he is right, and his reaction to every fresh wave of criticism is to pout a little more and stiffen his resolve. The danger he poses to the education of children cannot easily be overestimated. He’s not a disaster waiting to happen; he’s a disaster already happening.
Still, it’s not all bad news. As I post this, I note that To Kill a Mockingbird has today rocketed to number 7 in Amazon’s Top 100 list. Nice work, Mr Gove.