Review: Introduction from Exploring English 1: Short Stories we did for our Inter Cert, Edited by Augustine Martin
Gill & Macmillan €15.50
Published 04/09/2011 | 05:00
ON the Saturday of the FA Cup Final in 1972, I sat my entrance exam into secondary school. Following a letter of acceptance, I bowed out of primary school a month ahead of schedule and commenced an extra-long summer that remains extraordinarily vivid in my mind, because three things of personal import happened.
First; I commenced my first paid employment as an underage helper on a Palm Grove Ice Cream delivery van, which dispensed largesse of choices to shops along the chain of small seaside towns that necklace the north Dublin coastline. Second; I began to scribble down my (often conflicted) thoughts in words that became lines and, I gradually realised, poems. Third; I inherited my big brother's Intermediate Certificate English textbooks and, most especially, Exploring English Book 1, edited by Augustine Martin.
I can see sunlight streaming into the back bedroom in Finglas Park -- the room where I was born -- as I lay on the bed at the age of 13, tentatively opening my brother's copy of this book and suddenly feeling older and on the cusp of a new world. It felt like a passport, heralding a different life. That copy of the book presented me with new names to wonder about -- and only half of them were writers. It is true that the official contents page listed authors with whom I was previously unacquainted: Mary Lavin, Liam O'Flaherty, James Plunkett and Katherine Mansfield. But because this was a volume inherited from an older sibling, the back cover contained a second inventory of names -- this time handwritten -- which charted the rock bands he and his long-haired friends were listening to: Led Zeppelin, Yes, Thin Lizzy, Procol Harum and Jethro Tull.
This duality of names was exciting and important to me because both lists represented future worlds which, during the summer, I found myself eager to explore.
Like many younger brothers, I was regularly dispatched on errands that involved the lending of precious vinyl albums by these bands. I was starting to understand the alchemy of lyrics by Phil Lynott or Neil Young. While listening to the (sometimes scratched) albums by the bands listed on the back of that inherited textbook in the summer evenings of 1972 -- before I ever set foot in secondary school -- I began to discover a different alchemy and magic by repeatedly devouring every short story in Exploring English 1.
I still possess my original and now very battered copy of that book. I associate it with the start of adolescence, standing on the verge of a different phase of life that felt exciting and daunting, with the advent of new friendships and emotions and summer nights spent sitting up talking with the intensity that only young people possess.
In later years, I often met people who had similarly started to dip into Exploring English 1 in the summer before they entered secondary school: youngsters who spent summers in the Seventies wandering suburban streets or country lanes amid clusters of fellow teenagers, discussing teachers, dissecting the opposite sex or planning to attend weekend discos. I met them when I worked in mobile libraries or drank in pubs or caught my breath at half-time in a football match or, even much later, when I had become a young parent chatting with other young parents while we watched our children clamber around playgrounds.
There was one thing that we found we shared in common, and we shared it in common with almost everybody educated in the Irish Republic for almost quarter of a century. On our walks to and from school, during the first three years of our secondary education, we had each carried in our bags a copy of Exploring English 1.
The book was lovingly edited by Martin. He included short biographical notes and informed explorations and exercises that whetted the appetite and the imagination.
All these years later, it is hard to realise just how revolutionary Exploring English 1 was in 1967 for introducing the short story to the school curriculum for the first time. The choice of stories was made by a syllabus committee of the Department of Education, who were in turn influenced by an energetic Association of Teachers of English, among whom Martin himself, Veronica O'Brien, Tom O'Dea and Fr Joe Veale were prominent. But while a committee may have helped to select the stories, Martin's approach of 'exploring' the texts was equally revolutionary in terms of conventional teaching and of opening up the imaginative possibilities of language to the relatively young minds who were being exposed to adult themes and ideas.
There are ongoing debates now about what should or should not be compulsory in secondary education, but it seems to me that every school child in Ireland should be exposed, as a right, to Frank O'Connor's Guests of the Nation as a seminal national text. Few children who read it will ever shed the impact of that ending where "the birds and the bloody stars were all far away, and I was somehow very small and very lost and lonely like a child astray in the snow. And anything that happened to me afterwards, I never felt the same about again".
It would be an exaggeration to say that "anything that happened to me afterwards, I never felt the same about again" after reading the stories assembled in Exploring English 1, but it would be true to say that every book I had read before, I never felt the same about again. Because the lives that I encountered in these short stories were more real and vivid than the lives I had previously encountered in the children's books I borrowed from the public library. There was far less adventure here, very few pyrotechnics or trick endings -- though it was hard for a young mind to shed the shocking impact of the final two paragraphs of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, but it was the very ordinariness of the worlds conjured up here that made them so believable.
There was humour in O'Connor's First Confession and Behan's The Confirmation Suit, and my young mind loved Martin's footnote about having carried out "extensive research in Dublin Northside pubs" to try, in vain, to establish a meaning for the word "capernosity". There was almost unbearable pathos in reading James Plunkett's Janey Mary and a shock at reading James Thurber's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, because I discovered that I was not the only person who seemed to occasionally fantasise about an alternative version of my life, where I was the star and matinee hero.
But of far greater impact -- indeed, almost every person I have discussed this anthology with brings up this same story -- was the wonderfully true notion, propounded in Mary Lavin's The Story of the Widow's Son, that any story (and, by extension, any event in our lives) could have two contradictory but equally valid endings; that the outcome of our entire lives could hinge upon how we, and others, react to tiny decisions.
Exploring English 1 was actually the first of a trio of textbooks; the second book being a selection of prose extracts, edited by James Carey, and the third a poetry anthology, edited jointly by Martin and Carey. All three were published in 1967 to coincide with the introduction of a new syllabus for English in the Intermediate Certificate and continued in use until another syllabus for English was introduced in the early Nineties. But it is book one, the anthology of short stories, that remains so vivid and affectionately treasured in people's minds.
Not all of the roughly half a million students who studied this book were enamoured by the stories it contained. Indeed, many probably gleefully destroyed it -- and every other Inter Cert textbook -- as soon as their exams were finished. But, if they look back, a remarkably large number can probably still talk about some character in some story who resonated and lodged, almost unnoticed, in their subconscious.
Exploring English 1 lay on bedroom floors while girls chatted on impossibly heavy house phones, too excited about their lives to get around to studying.
It was opened on buses as terrified students tried to cram in the last days before exams. Initials and love hearts and random notes were scrawled in its margins, a shorthand code of teenage life jotted down in blank spaces. But the book remains infused with Martin's love for literature and his desire to inspire that same love in several generations of teenagers.
This was a book that helped to shape our imaginations. Recalling the book in The Princeton University Library Chronicle in 2011, the Booker Prize winning novelist, Anne Enright, noted how "our sensibilities were shaped by the fine choices of ... [such stories] as Michael McLaverty's The Road to the Shore, a story that revealed as much to me about aesthetic possibilities and satisfactions as it did about nuns".
Most of us threw away our copies of Exploring English 1. We were probably wise, because, with the advent of married life, those hand-drawn hearts and entwined initials on the back covers might have taken some explaining.
It is wonderful, however, to see it republished with its original cover, complete with added graffiti and stains to make it look authentic. It might be the perfect book to share with someone special, whom you didn't know back when you both read these stories for the first time with Led Zeppelin playing in the background. It also still serves its initial purpose -- for readers of any age -- as a great introduction to the art of the short story.
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