Literature at WHS   -   Chris Snuggs

English was one of my “A” Level subjects, so I should in theory remember a lot of English literature. Weirdly, however, I only remember a few things with any clarity:

The Mayor of Casterbridge” (Thomas Hardy): this was a set book at “O” Level and caught my imagination. I turned out to be in tune with Hardy’s rather melancholic view of Human Nature and Fate. I knew that book backwards by the time I took the exam, and was rather disappointed that I only got a “2" in English Lit. However, it was one of very few works of English literature at WHS that really excited me - which I accept says more about me than it does about English literature.

“The Pardoner’s Tale” (Chaucer): Patrick Hutton did this with my small English class in the Lower VIth. When I say “did this” I don’t think we read it all, or if we did, I can’t remember much. It was not a riveting tale in itself but fascinating for being an experience of mediaeval English - which is a vivid and moving evocation of the past. I remember it also because he made us learn the prologue BY HEART - which I still more or less remember to this day - and because Patrick was a truly beautiful human. He also launched me into philosophy with a homework one day: an essay entitled: “Why is a rose beautiful?” I have no idea what I wrote. (Why didn’t I keep some school work to show my kids?) but I do remember being intellectually excited by this unusual question. Whether the class actually reached a satisfactory and definitive answer to it also remains lost in the mists of time.

“A Collection of Poetry by Thom Gunn & Ted Hughes”: This was an “A” Level set book, but I am afraid it left me somewhere between unmoved and catatonic. I can’t see the point of cryptic verse which doesn’t rhyme. Unbelievably, we did not as I recall ever read: “No man is an island.” by John Donne, which later became my all-time favourite poem, a work whose sublime message can to this day bring me to tears. We also at some time or other read a few Shakespeare sonnets: “Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? “predictably became my favourite.

Of all the rest ...... there isn’t much to say as I can’t remember any of it - with the exception of “La Peste” in French, which I will mention below.

Shakespeare’s plays? Even at school, I had a BIG problem with Shakespeare. He wrote his plays to be SEEN in a theatre, not studied at school. It always seemed to me a travesty to teach it in class before pupils had ever had a chance to see it as he intended. As far as I am concerned, shoolchildren shoud NEVER study in class a play they have not previously seen. WHS did its best to give us a taste of Shakespearean theatre. “Coriolanus” was put on one year, and there were some others, too - "Henry IV" for example. And once we were bussed off by Ken Bullard somewhere to see “A Misummer Night’s Dream” - it might have been East Bergholt.

There is of course a problem with my approach. If kids do not read a Shakespeare play AT SCHOOL then they might NEVER DO SO during their lifetime - and as his language is so rich in both form and content, that would be a shame. Even so, on balance, I would vote to leave drama to the stage - at least until one has seen the play.

German and French: We can leave aside German. I vividly remember my first German lesson in the Lower Vith with Mr Waters, a kindly and approachable chap. He handed out a copy of “Die Judenbuche” by Annette Droste-Hülshoff. I looked at tthe first page - and hardly understood a word. It is in fact asking a lot to understand an authentic work of German literature after just three years learning German. Well, we plugged on with it and I eventually got a “B” at “A” Level. I think we also did some Goethe and a couple of other things, but nothing that grabbed my imagination.

French was a different kettle of fish. The poetry of Eluard and others left me cold - it just wasn’t beautiful read out in class. Gentle and moving lyrics in songs around a campfire seems to me to be the best place for poetry generally.

Novels, however, were another matter entirely. I particular loved “La Peste” by Albert Camus, an allegory about German occupation in WWII. Camus made it all seem very real, and Stretch dealt with it in an interesting way. We also had an introduction to Jean-Paul Sartre and existentialism, which greatly appealed to my irreligious soul. Stretch also played us poetry of a kind in songs by George Brassens and a few others such as Jacques Brel and Edith Piaf.

Pre-6th form Derek Thornbery did quite a lot with us, including “Prester John” and “The 39 Steps” I seem to remember - and he would often simply READ out loud to us - which was surprisingly agreeable on a lazy summer's afternoon after wandering from the main field across to his room.

In conclusion (a very personal one), I am surprised that as a hyper-prolific and even obsessive pre-WHS reader of exciting boys’ books (the Hornblower, Billy Bunter, Biggles, Jennings, Just William series and other books by Robert Louis Stevenson et al, including most of the great English classics) I didn’t find English literature at WHS more fulfilling than I did, or indeed as fulfilling as Ian McEwan did with Neil Clayton. I was actually more interested in science - though better at non-science subjects as far as grades were concerned.

With hindsight, I would like to have read certain novels in conjunction with history classes. What better way to learn abut and be motivated by The French Revolution than to read "A Tale of Two Cities"? Similar books about absolute key periods of history could have been read, especially Classical Greece & Rome, the Dark Ages, the Renaissance etc. AND I enjoyed in the Lower VIth doing "The History and Philosophy of Science", when for the first time I learned about some of the great scientists of past centuries. My all-time favourite non-fiction book is a biography of Michael Faraday - an absolute genius of experimentation. His life and his discoveries are so much more riveting than a load of dates of Kings, Queens and their battles. But those could have been COMBINED with a book. Does anyone know of a historical novel about 1066 for example?

And I left WHS having NO idea at all about the life of Florence Nightingale for example. We could have read that in conjunction with studies about the Crimean War and 19th century European geoolitics. Of COURSE time was limited, but some of the stuff we did was really boring in comparison!

Here is a very subjective off-the-top-of-my-head list of works I would LIKE to have read and studied at WHS, including some* which I consider to be essential reading for everyone. OTHER OBs will be much better informed about great books to have studied than I am.

"Tom Sawyer" - Mark Twain *"Oliver Twist" - Charles Dickens "Moby Dick" - Herman Melville
"The Trial" - Franz Kafka *"The Diary of Anne Frank" "A Passage to India" - E.M. Forster
*"Treasure Island" - R. L. Stevenson *any Hornblower novel - C.S. Forester *"Lord of the Flies" - William Golding
"Alan Turing - the Enigma" - Andrew Hodges "A Tale of Two Cities" - Charles Dickens *"Animal Farm" - George Orwell
"The Double Helix" - James Watson "The Sword in the Stone" - T.H. White "The Three Musketeers" - Alexandre Dumas

In relation to "The Diary of Anne Frank", I don't remember learning anything about WWII at WHS - which is astounding. I do seem to recall a book about Auschwitz and the Holocaust being passed around in Halls House at one stage (circa 1962) called "Five Chimneys" by Olga Lengyl - but never actually got hold of it myself. Then some boys were rumoured to have a copy of "Lady Chatterly's Lover", which was strictly on the verboten list as far as the staff were concerned.

FINALLY - the most beautiful poem

ever written - bar none .....



"Devotions upon Emergent Occasions,
no. 17" - (Meditation) - 1624 (published)



For Whom The Bell Tolls - John Donne

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manner of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.