Early in my newspaper career I was asked to speak to a class at a local primary school in Wiltshire.
The invitation was to go and talk to the ten and eleven year olds about the books that meant a lot to me growing up. I took along a much loved, well battered copy of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.
The book, a standard text, is loved by English teachers because of the sparsity of the powerful prose and the way that Steinbeck conjures up the stifling heat and oppression of Depression-era America.
I loved it, I told the children in that Wiltshire classroom, because for me, the heart of the book was about a deep, deep friendship. At the time I was living on my own, away from my closest friends and the story of Lenny and George spoke of the kind of friendship I enjoyed growing up. It’s why the book was so special to me at that moment of my life.
I’ve thought about that book a lot this week, not just because of Michael Gove’s hastily reported plans to ban the book (which he has since clarified were a fiction, thankfully) but also because the friend it reminds me of had an important message for me in the last week.
The last week has been a painful one to be a minority in Britain. The rise of the far right across Europe is a terrifying notion.
It is borne out of fear and a lack of understanding of others. Talking to my best friend, the one I am reminded of when I read the story of Lenny and George, I was also reminded of the real, deep power of literature in the face of something as difficult to grasp as the march of the right across our fractured continent.
We spoke on the phone as the results of the election poured in. The following day he sent me a clip from an old film, with the message ‘don’t despair too much old friend’.
The clip was taken from the 1962 film of the book To Kill a Mockingbird. It was the moment when Atticus Finch, that towering character of literature, explains to a court full of deaf ears that no man can judge another until he has walked a mile in his shoes. While it seems we won’t after all be losing Of Mice and Men or To Kill A Mockingbird from the syllabus, the very notion that we might is terrifying.
When it seems the history books have been forgotten and we look like we might allow Europe to repeat the awful mistakes of the past and allow the fascists to take us once again to a dark and dangerous place, it is perhaps in literature that we will find the saviour.
If you are as worried as I am, that the events of recent history might be a precursor to a repetition of history, I’d suggest the most powerful act we can accomplish is to teach younger people of the lesson at the heart of To Kill A Mockingbird – that all men are equal.
And perhaps remind ourselves of that lesson at the same time.