Early Bird? Garrick as Richard III

I’m a bit of a snob. I’ve never looked inside a volume of York Notes. Are they the ones that used to have those waspish yellow and black bands on the covers, that I used to sneer at when I was an Olympian teen, doing A-Levels like a real grown-up by reading the actual books? Or were those Mr Brodie’s rival notes? Never knew. Never knew who Brodie was either. Didn’t want to. Both series seem now to have had glossy makeovers so I will never know.

Probably I ought to find out what teenagers are told they should know about Othello and To Kill a Mockingbird and stuff, though somehow I feel that not reading York Notes is among the least bad of my bad habits of a lifetime. Curiously (I’m obviously behind the times) the bestselling York Notes Intermediate Volume is on Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. An Amazon review of this no doubt admirable volume says: ‘i bought this book for myu english gcse course, it is very helpful and must have one if you want to do well in your exam.’ This isn’t signed ‘Molesworth’, but I suppose by now he has grandchildren who can txt like that while taking out the civilians in Call of Duty 6 with an uzi. Another one says: ‘Themes are very important in the story “Of Mice and Men” and york notes covers it in maticulate detail.’ Ah, those Themes, where would us literary critics be without them? So much more tasty when covered in maticulate detail, too.

But York Notes have moved on. They’ve gone beyond ‘maticulate detail’. Now, apparently, they can help you matriculate, even graduate. York Notes Companions, hefty 300-page volumes, are available for pre-order. Alas there are no reviews yet – and you can hear the spirit of English prose sighing gently in anticipation. Instead there is a press release for this exciting new series (intercepted by an LRB mole) which promises a whole revolution in learning:

Instead of study guides to specific texts, the York Notes Companions will focus on the broader theoretical, cultural and historical themes, providing the building blocks necessary for student success at university. Designed to provoke wider debate, rather than provide a crutch, the aim of the Companions is to fill a gap for students and lecturers alike!

Broader themes. Wow. I didn’t know there were broader themes. No crutches, either. This university business is grown-up stuff. And no more gaps, once they’ve been filled by these volumes, which sound as though they’re going to be as flexible and durable as Polyfilla. Building blocks, too – and they say studying literature lacks the hands-on material values provided by solid vocational courses.

The press release also says that these books can get you into Uni. Even when times are hard. OK it doesn’t quite say that they can get you into Uni because someone might sue them if it said that in so many words, but it says:

University applications up 16.5%, 100,000 additional students predicted for September, lecturer availability hit by staff cuts and record competition for courses and jobs – getting ahead at university is going to be harder than ever. But it’s not all doom and gloom – early birds, keen to start their learning now, can make the most of the opportunity. With applicants confirming their university places in the coming weeks, the time is ripe for students wanting to get a head-start in their studies and stand out from the crowd.

‘Doom and gloom’ – it rhymes! ‘Early birds’ – that must be one of those metaphors I keep reading about, like ‘the time is ripe.’ Where is the York Notes companion to York Notes press releases, bringing out all those themes?

As for us lecturers, we need York Notes Companions too, to fill our gaps and help us escape those cuts in ‘lecturer availability’ (note the way they’ve left the comma out after ‘staff cuts’, to suggest that lecturers too, not just students, are enduring ‘record competition for courses and jobs’). Hang on though, what’s this? Those cuts in ‘lecturer availability’ provide an ‘opportunity’! All the stuff we spout is just from the York Notes Companions anyway, so cut out the middle-man and let those lecturers stuff their availability up their building blocks while you stand out!

The whole story – opportunities out of disasters, a glorious revolution ahead – puts me in mind of something I think John Steinbeck once said, maybe in one of his late novels: ‘Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York.’ Isn’t that a great quote? (Note seasonal themes. Note pun on ‘son’.) The time is ripe for early birds to stand out from the doom and gloom.