The future of reading in our schools and the Lanchester consensus

Leo Robson asks why all the fuss about Capital and Michael Rosen says children's authors actually kn

The Critic at Large in the next issue of the New Statesman, out tomorrow is broadcaster, poet and children's author Michael Rosen. Rosen asks why children's novelists are so seldom consulted by politicians on the best way of encouraging young people to read. Rosen canvasses five possible explanations:

Your rough guide to likely reasons goes like this: 1) The author of a brand-new children's book about some characters called Wifflies is a celebrity once seen in a jungle, on ice or in Buckingham Palace. 2) The author sold a billion books last week. 3) The author's writing has been described by a bishop, Tory MP or private-school head teacher as obscene, left-wing, miserable, atheistic, horrific, violent, gay or feminist. 4) A publishing company has republished an old family favourite but edited out nice old family-favourite expressions such as "nigger". 5) The author is dead, English and classic but (it has just been discovered) had a very, very small penis, was hated by his grandchildren, had an affair with Trotsky and told lies about his incarcerated younger sister "Giddyboots".

Perhaps the main reason for authors not being asked for a second opinion, says Rosen, is the longstanding official interference with their to intellectually and aesthetically engage their intended audience in schools

Authors and illustrators for children are part of a long history of trying to engage children's interest in anything from factual, ideological, figurative and graphic traditions ... What infuriates me - and virtually every other writer for children I meet - is that the past 30 years has seen successive governments waging war on the democratic sharing of [their] wisdom.

Also in tomorrow's NS, our lead fiction reviewer Leo Robson discusses John Lanchester's Capital, a sprawling novel of London life. Robson departs significantly from the early praise heaped on the book (Lanchester's former London Review of Books colleague Andrew O'Hagan described it as "amazingly good; I doubt there will be a better novel this year. The well-written English novel of society - of the here and now - is such a rare beast, and especially rare is the one that also captures with style the inner lives of its characters"). Robson, for his part, acknowledges Lanchester's grasp of London's sociology and demography, but wonders if all that knowledge amounts to a satisfying novel:

Lanchester is fluent in the relevant codes at every level of society and on every rung of the property ladder, but vignettes don't add up to a vision. What's missing is a central device - a scam or legal case. There is a subject of sorts - a harassment campaign aimed at the inhabitants of Pepys Road [the south London street in which the novel is set]- but it has no propulsive force.

Capital has been praised for its social critique, but Robson wonders if Lanchester hasn't sacrificed depth for breadth:

A portrait of metropolitan decadence, the novel is all surfaces and stereotypes, all symptoms. The damning truth we yearn to hear has yet to be delivered.

Also in the 5 March issue of the New Statesman: Jane Shilling and Jonathan Derbyshire on Rachel Cusk; Norman Lamont on Trita Parsi's book about Obama's Iran policy; Kate Mossman on Madonna; and Will Self's Real Meals.

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The radio station where the loyal listeners are chickens

Emma Hills, the head chicken trainer at Giffords Circus, knows what gets them clucking.

“The music is for the chickens, because of course on the night the music is very loud, and so it needs to be a part of their environment from the very start.” Emma Hills, the head chicken trainer at Giffords Circus, is standing in the sawdusty ring under a big top in a field outside Stroud as several rare-breed chickens wander freely around boxes and down ramps. They are the comic stars of the summer 2017 show, and Emma is coaxing them to walk insouciantly around the ring while she plays the early-morning show on Radio 1.

It’s the chickens’ favourite station. There seems to be something about its longueurs, combined with the playlist, that gets them going – if that’s the word. They really do respond to the voices and songs. “It’s a bit painful, training,” Emma observes, as she moves a little tray of worms into position as a lure. “It’s a bit like watching paint dry sometimes. It’s all about repetition.”

Beyond the big top, a valley folds into limestone hills covered in wild parsley and the beginnings of elderblossom. Over the radio, Adele Roberts (weekdays, from 4am) hails her listeners countrywide. “Hello to Denzel, the happy trucker going north on the M6. And van driver Niki on the way from Norwich to Coventry, delivering all the things.” Pecking and quivering, the chickens are rather elegant, each with its fluffy, caramel-coloured legs and explosive feather bouffant, like a hat Elizabeth Taylor might have worn on her way to Gstaad in the 1970s.

Despite a spell of ennui during the new Harry Styles single, enthusiasm resumes as Adele bids “hello to Simon from Bournemouth on the M3 – he’s on his way to Stevenage delivering meat”. I don’t imagine Radio 1 could hope for a better review: to these pretty creatures, its spiel is as thrilling as opening night at the circus. Greasepaint, swags of velvet, acrobats limbering up with their proud, ironic grace. Gasps from beholders rippling wonder across the stalls.

Emma muses that her pupils learn fast. Like camels, a chicken never forgets.

“I’ve actually given up eating them,” she admits. “Last year I had only two weeks to train and it was like, ‘If they pull this off I won’t eat chicken ever again.’ And they did. So I didn’t.” 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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