The write stuff

russell-brandIf I hadn’t had such good English teachers, I would say how much I’m loving* the fuss about Caitlin Moran’s Twitter feed being included on the A level syllabus. Predictably, last week’s news that sixth formers would be studying Russell Brand’s loop-de-loop speeches, which skewer politicians as cleanly as a barrow boy spears a whelk, has been greeted with harrumphing disdain from some parts of the Department for Education.

One Government spokesman cheekily observed, “They must be having a laugh,” which, unless he’s doing the same and playing with the use of wit and irony in Government press releases, is a bit rich from someone supposedly protecting standards of English from being dumbed down.

The introduction of contemporary writers alongside more traditional texts like Shakespeare, Pepys, Blake and Bronte is designed to broaden students’ range of English and, according to Hester Glass – English specialist at OCR, the organization that brought in the changes – give university students a better grounding in English and enables others to become more employable. The idea is to ensure that everyone can use language “in a practical, agile and articulate way” whatever field they end up working in.


Opponents are so quick to equate the introduction of contemporary popular writing with a plummeting of standards that some argue it contradicts Michael Gove’s assurances that new-style A levels would be more “rigorous and demanding”.

Which writer, with the possible exception of Will Self, wants their work to be described as “rigorous and demanding”? Mr Self, who last week wrote several thousand words bemoaning the decline of literary fiction, wants us to feel the burn, as if reading novels were some kind of cerebral assault course rather than the natural precursor to television. (

The whole point of writing novels, plays and poetry is to entertain, amuse, inform or otherwise be of some use. Did Shakespeare write his plays so they could be studied by teenagers forced to spend their summers inside memorising and dissecting his lines for hours? No, he wrote to make us laugh cry and clap – he would be thrilled to know that the latest production of Titus Andronicus at London’s Globe Theatre makes so many members of the audience faint with shock every night that the ushers have begun counting the nightly “droppers”.

It’s not patronising to ask students to read writers like Russell Brand and Caitlin Moran, it’s patronising to dismiss their work as being of no educational value simply because they are contemporary and entertaining.

Instead, the Government holds up writers like Samuel Pepys as proper examples of writers A level students should be studying. Samuel Pepys is a wonderful writer – and he is rightly celebrated for his talent to bring 16th century London to life, pricking pomposity and celebrating love, lust and life wherever he found it in all its bawdy, mucky, complicated nonsense. He wrote a diary documenting details of his daily life, from the pickles he got into with his boss at work to the pickles he got into at home with his even busier love life. He didn’t write because he wanted his words to be pored over and studied, he wrote because he had something to say and he wanted to entertain – if only himself. So what makes his words intrinsically more valuable than those of Russell Brand or Caitlin Moran, both of whom write professionally about contemporary life in a way that is irresistibly entertaining? Nothing, except the patina of age.

Some writers, like Will Self, are the equivalent of Russian weightlifters, begging us to admire every straining overstretched metaphor. Others, like Russell Brand are tumblers, dancing across the pages as playfully and apparently effortlessly as Olga Korbut. And there’s room for all of them, especially on Twitter, where writers are forced, by the restriction of 140 characters, to be as disciplined and creative as those who in previous generations would have written haiku or sonnets, but written with infinitely more speed and wit. So let’s hear it for the 140-character Twonnet.

My only fear is that everything people read will eventually have all the fun wrung out of it by being swept up by the dead hand of homework. Perhaps that’s the point – it’s all one huge attempt at reverse psychology and we will soon have English teachers bellowing at students, “Put that book down, pick up your phone and get back on Twitter – do you want to work in McDonald’s ALL your life?”

*Despite what a particular burger company may feel about it, there’s nothing progressive or temporary about love – you either love something or you don’t. And grammar apart, it’s very unromantic to say “I’m loving” anything, because that implies you can imagine a time when you won’t.

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