Shakespeare v Wodehouse


OVER the years I have heard many examples of inspiring teachers whose enthusiasm gave their young charges a lifelong passion for the subject. In my case, however, love of English came despite rather than because of my instructors. In the Sixties and Seventies Nelson Grammar School was in the grip of a deep malaise which started with the staff and worked its way down. Most of the teachers were miserable old timeservers eking out the years until they could stump off into retirement and hit the sherry full-time. It would never have occurred to them that lessons should be interesting or, heaven forfend, fun. The message was: ‘You’re not here to enjoy yourself, you’re here to pass exams.’

Throughout my seven years of English classes at NGS it seemed that the sole criterion for choosing set books was tediousness. They would be pored over in class and we would be expected to regurgitate Sir or Miss’s broadcast opinions in essay form. Shakespeare was a case in point. A proper teacher would have brought the Bard to life for us, rejoicing in the incredible language and drama. No, just learn the lines and get your GCEs.

In 1972, when I was in the Upper Sixth, the school went comprehensive, bringing in hundreds more pupils from neighbouring secondary moderns along with a crop of new teachers including a Leftie headmaster nicknamed Potter for his likeness to the caretaker played by Deryck Guyler in the TV school comedy Please SirThere was no Lower Sixth – they had gone off to the new sixth-form college. Rather than appoint a selected number of prefects, Potter invited the entire Upper Sixth to help control the invading hordes. We held a vote and told him: ‘No, thanks.’

It was against this unpropitious background that Potter decided he would take our English class. Unlike most of his staff he was clearly a bright bloke with an excellent Oxbridge degree, but likeable he wasn’t and bombastic he was.

One day we were discussing Sons and Lovers by D H Lawrence and I opined that it was poor stuff, with its crude imagery and crass repetition. ‘Oh yes?’ replied Potter. ‘So who does the Great Ashworth think is our greatest writer?’

‘P G Wodehouse, sir.’

‘What!! The performing flea of English literature?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘How can you say that, boy? Why, for heaven’s sake?’

‘Because I can read him over and over again and always enjoy it. He makes me smile. He makes me happy. Jeeves, Blandings, Mr Mulliner, the golf st . . .’

‘That’s enough of that! What about Shakespeare? Where does he stand in your valuable estimation?’

‘I can’t say I like him because I don’t.’

‘Are you saying that over the past few centuries there has been some sort of global conspiracy to claim Shakespeare is the be-all and end-all, and force him down the necks of oiks like you?’

‘So far as I’m concerned, yes. No teacher in this place has ever made me enjoy his stuff.’

‘Ye gods, this is what I’m up against. We’ll continue this conversation when I have the time to make you see sense.’

We never did.

At a parents’ evening before the A-level exams, my mum introduced herself to Potter and he replied: ‘Ah, the mother of the great Wodehouse fan.’

He told her: ‘So long as your son keeps reading that piffle, I can assure you he’ll never get an A-grade in English.’

Loyally she replied: ‘That’s just where you’re wrong.’ And bravely, for money were tight in them days, she added: ‘I’ll bet you £10 he gets an A.’

He huffed and puffed before protesting: ‘I cannot possibly entertain wagers with parents over pupils’ exam grades.’

Lucky for him. He would have lost his money.

Over the intervening years I have of course come to acknowledge the Swan of Avon’s merits and I commend you to this piece by my better half. But given a choice between Coriolanus and Carry On, Jeeves, it’s Bertie Wooster who gets this cove’s vote every time.

Short rations

ALMOST 40 years ago, as a birthday ‘treat’ for my first wife, I took her for dinner at a restaurant in Ilkley, West Yorkshire. It had a stellar reputation as one of the best in the North, and we starved ourselves all day in preparation for a proper feast. Having failed to research the place, we were unaware that it was in the vanguard of the Nouvelle Cuisine movement, typified by small, light dishes hitherto unknown to one whose idea of a good feed was steak pudding, chips and mushy peas or a nice hot curry.

Having driven for an hour or so from our home near Burnley, we were greeted by an elderly maitresse d’ who was clearly surprised to meet a couple in their twenties – the rest of the clientele ranged from middle-aged to ancient.

We were ushered to the crappiest table in the place, stuck in a corner, but keen not to spoil the evening I voiced no criticism. Not soon enough the old girl arrived with the menus. Good job there were no prices on the one given to the wife – she would have fainted.

Among the starters, priced at £12.50, was a mousseline of lobster and crab which Rosa Klebb announced was ‘the signature dish of the house’ and a must-order. I went for it.

What arrived 20 minutes later was the size of half a boiled egg, surrounded by a minute salad. I could have dispatched it in one mouthful but, with great discipline, managed to make it last the best part of 30 seconds.

Such was the quality of the main courses that I cannot remember a thing, apart from the sense of being robbed blind. When it came to puds I seized on the cheese and biscuits and was pleased that an entire box of crackers arrived with the paltry platter of fromages. I wolfed the biccies two at a time, causing a frosty old gimmer at the next table to remark: ‘You’re hungry, aren’t you, young man?’ The bill, and remember this was in the early 80s, approached £100.

Suffice it to say that we stopped for fish and chips in Crosshills on the way home, and had a steak sandwich in the Mucky Duck at Fence before close of play.

The restaurant is still going and I have no doubt that it provides more substantial fare nowadays but the memory of a hungry night and the grievous bodily harm to my wallet leaves me hardly champing at the bit to pay a return visit.  

A PS from PG

It was one of those still evenings you get in the summer, when you can hear a snail clear its throat a mile away.

PG Wodehouse: Carry On, Jeeves

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