Dead white males are back in the news. That’s right. Because as John Humphreys said on the Today programme recently, probably having seen Ann Farmer’s piece in TCW, they never really went away. The Radio 4 item was a response to the recent claim by teaching union boss Mary Bousted that this ethnically narrow bunch of blokes who no longer have much to say for themselves are hogging the curriculum. They need to make way in order ‘to include enough black and female writers’. Conveniently, Ms Bousted didn’t say what ‘enough’ was. Twenty per cent? Fifty per cent? Or about eighty-five per cent to make up for the historic prejudice and injustice?
So who did the Today producers feel would be the right people to be discussing Bousted’s view that Shakespeare needed keeping in his place because he was ‘an intensely conservative writer who wrote a lot of time to bolster the divine right of kings – so you need different voices in that’? Who did they invite to reflect upon this comment of conversation-stopping simple-mindedness? We had Barrie Rutter, founder of the Northern Broadsides theatre company, who quite rightly dismissed Bousted’s position as ‘claptrap’. An actor and theatre director of long experience, Rutter is no slouch when it comes to the Bard, not least perhaps because he was once married to Shakespeare academic Professor Carol Rutter. He articulated the fact that the ‘stuff of human conflict and discourse runs through these great classics: that’s why they’re classics’. He was radical enough (and right) to say that we ‘need to go forward back to the Greeks’. Though I’m not persuaded that Mary Bousted would be on board with the educational value of Aeschylus.
The other guest was a poor choice. Sharmaine Lovegrove’s chief credentials for discussing whether Shakespeare is punching above his canonical weight in the national curriculum seemed to be that she was once involved with gal-dem, a magazine written by women of colour, and now heads Dialogue Books, a publisher whose priority is inclusivity and diversity. Listeners could not be clear how well acquainted Ms Lovegrove was with the works of Stratford-upon-Avon’s most famous son. Although she paid lip service with ‘we need Shakespeare, we love Shakespeare’, her main purpose was to assert the fiction that ‘writers of colour are being taken away from the curriculum’. Anybody familiar with exam board specifications knows this is rubbish.
But why let facts get in the way of a good narrative? What Ms Lovegrove so transparently wanted to do was political: she wanted to have a pop at ‘a Conservative government who believe in rigorous testing . . . and memorisation’. She had already stated that she had a ‘a really huge problem’ with Michael Gove and how, as Education Secretary, he ‘wanted to bring it back to a sort of more draconian, Victorian type of literature which is not the society we are living in’. She added that ‘we need literature to represent our society . . . and that’s what I do as a publisher’.
Both Mary Bousted and Sharmaine Lovegrove were always likely to do well. Bousted not only enjoyed the comforts of a middle-class background and the cultural capital of parents who were teachers, but her politically active (Labour and Liberal) mum and dad made sure that she went to a Catholic girls’ direct grant grammar school. She probably got a bit of Shakespeare in both the home and in the classroom. Cultural capital is something Sharmaine Lovegrove was lucky enough to enjoy as well. Her uncle, a former grammar school boy whom she credits with kindling her love of books, was an educationist and historian who founded the Black Cultural Archives.
So these are two people who are now just fine in their positions of power. They’ve made it. Indeed Lovegrove sounded, when she spoke delightedly (but ungrammatically) of being ‘sat here today’ on the Today programme, a bit like Shami Chakrabarti on Question Time foolishly boasting how clever she was, though disingenuously claiming it was because she’d been to a terrific state school. Well, good for the lot of them. The fact is that when it comes to Shakespeare, many youngsters would have not a hope in hell of knowing anything of his genius were they not required (thanks to Michael Gove) to study the likes of Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet and then write about an extract in a GCSE exam.
Ditto other dead white males: Shelley, Browning, Wordsworth, Byron. For the record, there are some dead white female ones on the English Literature courses too, such as Rossetti and Barrett Browning, and there are some very much alive women such as Carol Ann Duffy and Jane Weir, and people of colour such as Imtiaz Dharker, Daljit Nagra and John Agard. Just because good English teachers will foster a love of reading by encouraging broad reading (and nothing is stopping teachers from doing this) does not mean Tennyson has to be a dirty word. Of course, works are set in the context in which they were written; that is now a requirement.
That’s how it always is with the Left’s agenda though. ‘Trust me, I know best, it’s really not for the likes of you. You don’t need it. It’s really not relevant for your lives. We’ve got something instead here for you to read – it’s by someone just like you – illiterate and living on a rundown estate.’ The Left are brilliant at scrambling up the ladder, and then they can’t wait to pull it up behind them.
Quick note to Today programme producers: next time you need someone to sit alongside Barrie Rutter and be truly committed to the value of Shakespeare why not get in someone who is the real deal such as Jonathan Bate, Stanley Wells, Germaine Greer or yes, Carol Rutter? Just a thought.