800 Books in my life, part 2

So here we are in 1958. I’ll doubtless be recounting my schooldays in due course (it’ll be page 370), so I won’t encroach on it too much here. My first two years at Grammar School were about getting used to the place as much as anything else. The first year was mostly repetition of things we had already done at primary school.

They kept us pretty busy all through the seven years (schools had their own Sixth Forms in those days), and for the first three years we did a huge range of subjects. There really wasn’t much reading time during the day, and in the evening … well, we got a television round about that time; and I was discovering music (page 780) and listening to the radio a lot.

Things changed in the next (4th) year when we were split into specialised streams; Arts (Humanities in modern terms); Science, and Economics. Only the dull fellows did Economics; it was History, Geography, British Constitution, and stuff like that. I and all of my friends went for Arts. If I remember rightly we dropped Geography, Physics and Chemistry but kept History and Maths. Also Art (painting, that is) which I was terrible at.

In the languages (English, French, Spanish, Latin) the literature began to play a part though I can’t remember what we read. The next (5th) year was GCE ‘O’ level year (present-day GCSE) which meant we got Set Books to read. This continued all through the two years of Sixth Form up to ‘A’ level (and for that matter all through University), a total of six years.

It was school policy, at least for ‘A’ level, that we studied all the set books, even though this wasn’t compulsory. The idea was, reasonably enough, to give us a broad base; but it was an awful lot of reading. I can’t remember much about the books, except, for some reason, the Latin ones. Our Latin masters (two) had to put us through De Bello Gallico although it bored them as much as us; but they found time for some Cicero, Juvenal, and, sweet relief, Martial. One year the School Play was, I think, something by Plautus – in English, of course – and another year they crossed the Aegean for a play by Aristophanes.

I’ll skip the French books as I’ve no idea what they were; I was much more interested in the Spanish texts.

Spanish literature was a revelation; it was strangely exotic, yet you could get on a train and go there. The language was the same; superficially European yet somehow not. We managed to stay clear of Blasco Ibáñez and all that swaggering stuff they call españolada; I remember a book called Juanita la Larga, a pallid love story which turns out to be by Juan Valera. I think it was already unfashionable at the time. And I’m pretty sure this is when I first met the poetry of Antonio Machado, mournful stuff (a lot like Housman) but I liked it and translated some into Esperanto, including the whole of La Tierra de Alvargonzález, with a fair attempt at rendering the assonance.It was after University that I started reading for pleasure again, and, at last, some of it was in English. So that will come next.


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