Monday, 3 June 2013

Michael Gove- Lord of the gnats

So, according to Michael Gove, William Golding's Lord of the Flies is “considered appropriate for primary children in the best schools,” and schools that get students to study it for GCSE are "pitching expectations so low it is no surprise that reform-minded teachers want change." Leaving aside for now the fact that this is just the latest salvo in his campaign to denigrate the vast majority of schools for which he is responsible let us examine the specifics of the charge.

The first point to make is that if they really are getting students to study Lord of the Flies at Primary level then I really worry about Mr Gove's "best schools." To reduce such a powerful and contemporarily relevant classic of modern literature to a primary school reader would demonstrate a singular lack of understanding, either of the text itself or of the nature of children, because there is simply no way that primary age children could relate to the deeper central messages of the book.

Certainly they could understand it. Like a lot of great literature Lord of the Flies is written with a beautiful simplicity of syntax and vocabulary. No doubt primary age students (particularly those in boarding schools) could relate to its theme of bullying, and perhaps too to the notion of an apparent idyll slowly descending into a dark and terrifying hell. Maybe they would recognise (or be told about) the religious symbolism, with Simon an allegory for the crucified Christ. Maybe too they would see the parody of Coral Island (though I hope to God they wouldn't have had the original forced on them), but I would imagine the teachers in some of the "best" schools would skim over the bitter attack on public-school arrogance that lies at the heart of that parody.

However even if they did notice all these aspects, without in doing so having the book die for them as a story, I think it virtually impossible that primary-age students would understand or could relate to Lord of the Flies' fundamental message. Because it is a text with genuine relevance to our times, and one that such as Mr Gove really should read more closely.

In essence, Lord of the Flies is about the dreadful, corrosive effect of fear on the fundamentals of decent society. Because in the novel, as in Western society since September 2001, it is the fear of the Beast rather than the Beast itself that leads to the breakdown of the central co-operative values of society. As in today's real world that fear leads to increased militarisation (with Jack's hunters transforming themselves into an army), to the destruction of long-treasured values of intellectual debate and free speech (symbolised in the novel by Piggy's glasses and the conch) and to the demonisation of outsiders (Simon is killed because he is not recognised as "one of them" and Ralph and Piggy once ostracised are hunted down like animals). It even leads to today's gruesome fascination with beheading as the ultimate symbol of brutality ("They've sharpened a stick at both ends.")

The horror that sparked all this off- the decaying corpse of the airman- is real, but it was never really the threat to the boys' safety and happiness on the island that they let it become. It was their fear of it, and of the unknown, that led to the terrible spiral of violence, fear and more violence. It was their fear that brutalised them and drowned out all voices of reason and moderation. It was their fear that turned routine prejudice (against Piggy, the grammar-school oik) into murderous hatred and threatened in the end to destroy them all.

The end of the novel, when the British Navy arrives on the island, is generally read as implying that the naval officer simply does not understand the hell into which these boys have descended, demonstrating a lack of imagination comparable with that of the esteemed Mr Gove ("'Fun and games,' said the officer"). That is indeed the dominant reading of the end, but I think there is another way of looking at it too. What marks the naval officer at the end out from the boys is not that he is adult, or that he is in the Navy. What matters is that he has not been caught up in the dark madness the boys' fear created on the island. In his eyes the heinous monsters become again the troupe of frightened, grubby little children that in reality they were all along. 

For me, what the book is saying (and how the hell primary-age students are supposed to relate to this God alone knows) is that we need more people like the naval officer in the world. We need people who will step back from the fear and the bombast and the warmongering rhetoric and see things as they really are. 

Fanatic terrorists prepared to carry out appalling acts of brutality are (as they have always been) few in number and lacking any sort of widespread support. Being made aware of their activities is as shocking as encountering the decaying, fly-covered corpse of an airman suspended in a tree. Fanatic terrorists (of whatever motivation- these have changed often over the years) are our contemporary world's Beasts. But it is not until we allow our own fundamental values to be corroded by fear of the Beast that it can really harm us. When we destroy the conch and smash Piggy's glasses, when we paint our faces and chant "Kill the beast! Cut his throat! Spill his blood!", when we (not they) "sharpen a stick at both ends," then we have lost. And when, as at the end of the novel, we weep "for the end of innocence, the darkness of man's heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy," we need more people who, like the officer, "was moved and a little embarrassed  He turned away to give them time to pull themselves together; and waited, allowing his eyes to rest on the trim cruiser in the distance."

What we don't need is more people like Michael Gove, who think Lord of the Flies is nothing more than an adventure story for primary kids.

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