Cut the prose, give us some action;Talkback

21st May 1999 at 01:00
David Blunkett's reading list for boys is far too literary, says Ian Whitwham

A friend told me her sister had just had a baby. It was, she whispered, special needs. Ah. It was a Boy.

Boys. They are getting a bad press lately. They're spiritually and emotionally illiterate and, above all, they're merely illiterate. Reading? They can't do it. Girls zoom through the big books - they find themselves in Bront and Austen. Boys are lost for words. While the girls cut swathes through Jane Eyre, the boys baulk at Stig of the Dump. And that's the elite.

Take Dave Mania in Year 10. You give him a book and it makes him tense. He regards it as an ultimatum - something to be defused. There he sits with it in his knuckles. He's not in his element. He should be searching for berries and pulling things out by their roots. He should be hitting things until they stop making noises. Instead, he finds himself teased by print and on the wrong side of words. All his school life, teachers have kept putting them in his way. He's barely on nodding terms with the stuff. And if he can hack his way through it, he encounters Darcy.

David Blunkett is concerned and has called in experts. Emphasis, the Education Secretary decrees, must be placed on "boy-friendly" texts. To this end, he has suggested some of the following: Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, Gulliver's Travels, Sherlock Holmes. Mmm. I can see that tearing the lads away from Kerrang. It is difficult to contemplate Year 10 boys wrestling meaningfully with the honed mockeries of 18th century prose. I'm not sure how those delicate ironies would seduce them away from their Playstations.

Have these experts ever read them? As far as the lads are concerned (and they're not) they might as well be written in Martian. This is the very stuff that bored and floored me in my Sixties grammar school - and I was a tediously literate pip-squeak. I still have a head wound where Mr Merrilees bounced a board-duster off my skull during a terminal reading from The Heart of Midlothian. I rushed home bleeding to read Bobby Charlton's Bumper Book of Football or Biggles or Desperate Dan or Molesworth. That's boys' stuff. I went on to Virginia Woolf - the hard stuff.

Even the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has weighed in. These experts recommend "non-fiction thrillers and horror" for the boys. I hope that doesn't mean the diaries of the Yorkshire Ripper?

In the meantime, may I offer the following for Mr Blunkett's consideration as right riveting reads: Elmore Leonard, Tony Adams, James Lee Burke and Hunter S Thompson. Oh all right then...The Dandy, Roy of the Rovers, Smash Hits, Kung-Fu Weekly, Skull-Crushing Illustrated, The Beano or The Iliad. It's a start...

That should sort out the special needs from the girls.

Ian Whitwham teaches in a London comprehensive

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