Surprising cultural coincidences (Part 1)

As a secondary school English teacher, I am depressingly aware of the fact that children often feel that the texts they read at school are irrelevant to them, that they have nothing to do with their everyday lives and, increasingly, that they are a relic of a bygone era. With the reforms to the GCSE English curriculum put in place by Michael Gove, that is even more the case, as modern texts and literature from other cultures have been shafted in favour of supposedly ‘canonical’ works – no doubt my Key Stage Three pupils are as thrilled by the prospect of studying Great Expectations as I am about teaching it. Needless to say, my expectations are anything but great…

As a lover of literature, I find it difficult to understand how my pupils could not be fascinated by the interaction between everyday life and art in all its forms – past and present, foreign and familiar, high brow and low brow.  Indeed, my meandering career, thus far, has been founded almost entirely upon a passion for the written word, an obsession with the craft of the text and an insatiable desire to seek out connections and coincidences within and across art forms.

There is some fantastic work going on in the arts, culture and the media on highlighting cultural references and bringing interdisciplinary connections to public attention. In this post, I want to share one of my favourite recent media moments – a clip from ‘Match of the Day’, broadcast last year during the 2014 FIFA World Cup (I like to think my pupils would be very impressed and rather proud if they knew that I was blogging about the World Cup).

The clip in question is not something I would have expected to see on ‘Match of the Day’ – it is not a penalty kick, an own goal, or even a streaker on the pitch; to my mind it is something far more exciting: Thierry Henri, reading a poem by Charles Baudelaire. Had I known such things might happen on ‘Match of the Day’, I would have watched the programme avidly myself; as it is, I have to confess to having heard of this momentous broadcast second hand, before logging onto YouTube in search of ‘the ocular proof’.

Thierry Henri had already secured his place as one of my favourite footballers, prior to the 2014 World Cup. He had the advantage of being one of the few I had heard of, besides the ubiquitous Beckham and ’90s heroes like Giggsy and ‘ooh ahh Cantona’ (pre-acting career). Henri also scored himself bonus points in the favourite footballer category by starring in the Renault adverts in the early noughties, waxing lyrical about ‘va va voom’ in his endearing francophone tones; his reading of Baudelaire’s “Elévation” in the minutes leading up to the hotly anticipated World Cup play-off between France and Germany in 2014 simply served to secure his place as (probably) my number one sportsman of all time. Even though things didn’t work in France’s favour in the game, the poem came across as a poetic pep-talk, a call for ‘Les Bleus’ to aim high, to rise up beyond the sun, beyond the ether, beyond the starry skies, to fill their bellies with fire and lose themselves in the pleasure of playing football.

I have often questioned the English tendency to refer to football as ‘the Beautiful Game’, blighted, as it often seems to be in this country, with tales of bad behaviour from footballers and fans alike; in linking the sport to the Baudelairean experience of ‘Elévation’, Thierry Henri’s slot on ‘Match of the Day’ allowed me to see football in a new light, to conceive of it as an art. In spite of my delight, the moment also left me feeling puzzled: why a French sportsman reading a French poem? Why should this happen only when two continental teams went head to head? Why have we not heard Wayne Rooney reading W.H. Auden? Why has Steven Gerrard not been spotted spouting Shakespeare’s sonnets? When will David Beckham treat us to a few lines from fellow Londoner William Blake?

French literature and culture offers fertile territory for explorations of interdisciplinary connections and cultural ‘cross-pollination’; this is, I argue, because the arts still matter in France and because they are open to all. When Thierry Henri reads Baudelaire, it means something to a French audience and it’s cool – as testified by the online movement ‘Le Geek, C’est Chic’ (http://legeekcestchic.eu/). In Britain, being a geek is still considered more freak than chic – especially where literature is concerned. If Ashley Cole started quoting Coleridge, we’d all think he’d gone crazy. Living in the UK, I feel a strong sense that the arts still matter, but in many parts of the country and in many social circles, the class divide rages on. The fact that every time I go to the local theatre, I find myself among the youngest and, probably, the least well off in the audience says more about the demographics of theatre-goers than it does about the age and income of the local population.

As I contemplate my return to academia, I think frequently of the legacy I want to leave my pupils. Ultimately, I believe that if knowledge is power, art is pleasure. While I do care about their progress and about helping them all to get the C grades (or 4s!) they need in their GCSEs, what matters more to me, is that they can access both the power and the pleasure which learning can bring, and that they are never embarrassed to be educated.