To clumsily paraphrase the late, great Don Bradman’s advice on what to do if you won the toss on the morning of a Test Match: “if you are given a bottom set for GCSE English Literature, choose ‘Of Mice and Men’ for the prose exam. If you are in doubt, think about it, then choose ‘Of Mice and Men’. If you have very big doubts, consult a colleague, then choose ‘Of Mice and Men’.”
Sadly, as we all know, last summer the unthinkable happened and orders were passed down that no longer were GCSE students to be introduced to the bittersweet friendship of George and Lennie. I have to confess to a longing pain of sadness when I sat through the conclusion of the BBC’s excellent ‘Happy Valley’ – which, in many interesting ways, echoed the shocking end of Steinbeck’s novella – and realised I would not be leading students to Soledad any time soon.
But time moves on and, last June, I was presented with a list of, largely, unfamiliar novels and asked to pick one to deliver to Set 4. Now, sadly, I am not someone who likes to admit weakness. So, rather than admit my unfamiliarity with Narayan’s ‘The English Teacher’, Grenville’s ‘The Secret River’, Achebe’s ‘No Longer at Ease’ or Cather’s ‘My Antonia’ I airily suggested I would be happy with either ‘Mansfield Park’ or Frayn’s ‘Spies’. A quick glance at a set list that made my heart skip a beat (and a timetable that seemed to have every lesson scheduled at the end of the day) and it was clear Austen might not be the most … accessible choice.
‘Spies’, on the other hand? That was a different matter. It sounded relevant, modern and exciting. Spies. James Bond. Tinker, Tailor etc. Who could fail to be engaged by all that intrigue? (I should note at this stage I had not read the book – or, indeed, much Frayn at all. I did remember seeing ‘Noises Off’ in my teens and quite enjoying the silliness.)
It was, therefore, a shock to read through it over the summer. Compared to the brisk directness of Steinbeck’s writing, Frayn’s meandered. The narrator becomes lost and confused – and the reader along with him. It is never quite clear if we are in the past or the present and the reader becomes aware that we are far more conscious of the reality of the narrator’s memories than he is.
How on earth were Set 4 going to cope with such a sprawling mess of contradiction, paradox and confusion?
And the answer was: ‘unbelievably well’. Where I was expecting frustration at the oblique nature of the writing, I found genuine interest in unravelling the mystery. Yes, they found large sections of the writing challenging but, then again, that was their experience with most text: they just needed a little guiding on how to decipher it.
As we went through, we kept journals of hints and clues that Frayn drops throughout the novel – slowly building up the picture of the events of the summer (in a way that, interestingly, the narrator never quite manages to do himself). It was a genuinely collaborative effort which led the class to debate regularly on what event might cause Mrs Hayward to cry in “the dirt”, on whether Stephen would ever realise the significance of the use of ‘X’ and ‘!’ in the diary (rarely have I been so relieved to have a number of streetwise girls to bluntly explain to the more sensitive souls the meaning of this episode!)
It was important, I think, that the study of this text was practical – with the students ‘doing something’ following each chapter. Yes, we wrote a lot of essays, but we also explored the text in more creative ways. For example: we each built our own version of The Close and religiously annotated the houses and the road when each new clue was developed; the class each filmed the key moment in the tunnel where Stephen waits, in terrified silence, for a hand to touch his shoulder – focusing on how to increase the tension and build the unbearable atmosphere; after researching propaganda posters and their role in WW2, the class created their own – in particular warning against the quislings that might be found behind white picket fences.
In a few weeks, my class will be sitting their end of Year 10 examinations – so we are refreshing our memories of the text we studied back in September. I am pleasantly surprised by how much they have retained: certainly, far more than I ever felt was the case with ‘Of Mice and Men’.
Do I miss George and Lennie? Yes, of course. But I think Stephen and Keith might be a pair of good substitutes.
Robert Frost teaches English at a school in London. You can follow him on Twitter at (@stoppingfrost).