Stories that will run and run
0 946737 34 7. National Language Unit of Wales. Pounds 3 each.
These three booklets, the first in a series called Reflections from the Classroom, are designed for A level teachers of English in Welsh schools. All three are by practising teachers and all three can be recommended, though not with equal enthusiasm.
The best is by Jude Brigley, whose volume hums with enthusiasm and crackles with ideas about short stories, Welsh short stories in particular, and how to teach them. Her students are compelled (though who would wish to resist?) into an appreciation of the genre through completing stories from known beginnings, writing poems about them, responding to suggestive statements ("A story is never complete." "A story could begin anywhere." and so on), detailed attention to characterisation and language, continuing stories, and through role-playing. They are encouraged to read Carver, Atwood, Updike, Lessing, as well as Welsh short stories. Such work on stories from Wales not only develops intelligent reading but also becomes a rich source of creative writing. Here is evidence of English teaching of the highest order that never forgets that as teachers it is our role to equip students to make successful journeys without us, but that "students need to see themselves as explorers."
One minor criticism is the lack of a book-list of critical works on the short-story, not only of such classic studies as those by O'Connor, Walter Allen, John Bayley, and Ian Reid, and works that link the short story to modern literary approaches, such as the volume by Dominic Head, Claire Hanson, and Elizabeth Shaw, but also of the small amount of work on the Welsh short story, mainly relevant volumes in the Writers of Wales series and scattered articles in Welsh periodicals.
Ellie Jones's study includes short sections listing Assignments, and some atmospheric photographs, but most of her volume is a commentary on R S Thomas's poems, with suggestions for further reading. This approach perhaps works less well than Jude Brigley's, if only because, in the space available, Ellie Jones can often offer no more than hints at interpretation. That said, the commentary is intelligent and valuable in its thematic grouping of poems. It is a pity she did not emulate Brigley and concentrate on how she taught a poet who is surely often problematic for sixth-formers. It is also a pity that, very occasionally, there is some implied denigration of the English-speaking Welsh.
The study of A Toy Epic contains much useful information about the novel's stages of composition and some interesting pedagogical ideas (for example, students are encouraged to write chapter summary-titles in the manner of Tom Jones, to respond to extracts from reviews of the novel, and to study a page of the text marked up and annotated to show aspects of language).
But in the end the authors try to do too much, with lists of minor characters, fuller studies of the more prominent, and chapter-by-chapter groups of questions that tend to dictate approaches. The infamous Brodie's Notes on occasion come too readily to mind, which is a pity, given the obvious intelligence and enthusiasm of the authors.
At a recent conference on Welsh writing in English, Ellie Jones was asked, "Why R.S. Thomas and not Dannie Abse?" A full answer may well take in nationalist interests and the seeming dominance of Welsh cultural and educational life by the Welsh-speaking minority. Certainly the continued privileging of two writers with determinedly North Walian and Welsh language perspectives might seem odd to some, though this would be odder still if both were not writers of high quality. Some balance is provided by Judge Brigley's volume and, we trust, by the next volumes in the series. In the meantime, all three studies will be more than useful to teachers of English in Wales.
James A Davies is a Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Wales Swansea.