May 30, 2014 6:40 pm

Michael Gove’s Frightfully British Book Club

‘Don’t get me wrong. I’ve nothing against foreign books. Of course we should read them; but only when we’ve finished all the British ones’
illus of Gove book club©Illustration Lucas Varela

Michael Gove has drawn flak for reforms to the GCSE English syllabus which may lead exam boards to weed out foreign texts such as “Of Mice and Men”. But some of us salute his brave stand and look forward to the day – which surely cannot be far off – when he turns his focus towards the nation’s book clubs. This has to happen. It is time for Michael Gove’s Frightfully British Book Clubs.

Hello, hello, how delightful to see you. I trust you are in good health. May I take your coat? How is the demon wife? Do come in and take a seat. A drink? Do let me get you a drink? A glass of white wine; I’ve a very good Chapel Down Bacchus – the crisp taste of Lamberhurst. You know, I don’t think there’s sufficient appreciation of just how good English wine is these days. I tell you, if you put a “made in New Zealand” label on this and called it Dreary Bay, you would be paying £30 a bottle for it at Majestic.

Oh heavens, I forgot the cheese plate. Here we are: Stilton, Cheddar, Wensleydale, Lymeswold and a lovely bit of Dairylea. It’s heaven with a cream cracker. Now, how about a nice bit of Swinburne to get us started? No Jim, Swinburne is not a cheese, he’s a poet; I had moved on. Have you even looked at the reading list?

Now, look, about this Caged Bird Sings book John recommended at the last meeting. Are you absolutely sure Maya Angelou was born in Dalston? Rather a lot of it seems to take place in the US. Ah, you think her family moved there when she was two. Really? I must admit I rather inferred that she was born in St Louis. I do hope you weren’t trying to pull the wool over my eyes. You do understand what this book club is about? We’re not just gathered here for a glass of South Downs Cuvée and a bit of a chinwag. This is terribly important. I was on a train to Kent the other day and there wasn’t a single person discussing English literature. It has been years since I saw Jane Austen on the 5.15 to Sevenoaks.

Anyway, I think it is my turn to choose this month. It does seem a while since we last read The Mill on the Floss. What do you say we give it another whirl. What’s that? You’d prefer something more modern. OK, we’ll go with Daniel Deronda. NO! we are not reading Of Mice and Men – it’s a wretched book and it’s far too short.

Zadie Smith, well yes, technically she does meet the residency requirements but she’s not exactly Charles Dickens, is she? What’s that, John? You want to know who exactly is Charles Dickens these days; well Dickens is, for one. Do you know there are people out there who have never even read Dombey and Son? Also, I rather think Zadie may still be alive, which is, of course, delightful for her and her friends but something of a disqualification if we are focusing on dead British writers. Of course, you are free to read her in your own time but she won’t be coming up in the end of year supper quiz. At this club we are here to appreciate books, not to enjoy them.

To Kill a Mockingbird? Well, it’s certainly a fine example of post-colonial fiction but if we are going to read something that was made into a movie I really do think it should have starred Laurence Olivier. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections? I am sure it is super but I am afraid it just isn’t a book Michael enjoyed as a child. If you must have treacherous undercurrents in family life, what’s wrong with Ian McEwan – remember, in the end, all unhappy families are alike.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve nothing against foreign books. Of course we should read them; but only when we’ve finished all the British ones. Do you know I actually caught my wife trying to read the kids Huckleberry Finn the other day. I said to her, “What’s wrong with Just William?” It’s quite absurd. Who needs The New Yorker when you’ve got the Daily Express? It’s like stamp collecting. I’ve no doubt there are some super foreign stamps but they still go at the back of the album, don’t they?

By the way, did you see the Euro-election results? You know, I do worry about the rise of Ukip.

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robert.shrimsley@ft.com; Twitter: @robertshrimsley

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