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Thursday, 19 May 2016

‘A’ Level English 1977

A nostalgic look back at the 1977 Joint Matriculation Board ‘A’ Level English Literature Paper 

Park Lane College saved me. But for their one-year ‘A’ level course, I would have still been struggling with a correspondence course through Woolsey Hall, having no doubt failed to get into university. Instead, I passed with a grade A.

They doggedly tried to put me off. They maintained the one-year course was only for resit students and that the two-year course was more suitable; that it was expecting too much of myself not even having studied English Literature at ‘O’ Level. Somehow I talked my way in. Perhaps it was undersubscribed and they needed the numbers, and my £23.50 (equivalent to about £130 today) was as good as anyone else’s.

‘A’ Level English Literature was one of the most difficult courses I have ever done. Selecting and organising all the quotations, sources of literary criticism and conflicting viewpoints into examination-usable form was gruelling, but it was interesting and enjoyable as well, and developed useful skills for later. It was certainly an intense experience because I can still picture the classroom and where we all sat: me always at the back.

Most on the course were indeed resit students, mainly girls in their late teens, and as late as 1977, in Leeds, only one was Asian. The token teenage lad worked at the tax office and told gleeful tales about the persecution of wayward taxpayers. But there were other older first timers. There was an aloof social worker who gazed contemptuously out under her Joanna Lumley ‘Purdey’ fringe and exchanged hardly more than a dozen words with the rest of us all year. There was a bearded chap in his early thirties who said little more, yet managed to give the impression he knew everything already. And luckily, there was a kindred spirit also aiming for university. His grasp of the coursework, huge vocabulary and sweeping command of the English language put mine to shame. It was enormously helpful to be able to discuss things with someone of similar aims and interests, and hard to believe when the results came out he did not get an A grade as well. A travesty! It really peed him off even though he still did well and went to university too.

The syllabus in those days offered enormous, some would now say excessive choice. You could get away with covering just two out of three Shakespeare plays, one out of three longer poetic works and four out of sixteen set books. So that’s all we did. It would have been silly to try to cover everything, even over two-years. The sagacious course leader, Jonathan Brown, pared things down to what could be achieved in a year. Even within these bounds the exam paper offered a choice of questions.

Do they still let you take the question papers home after G.C.S.E. and ‘A’ level exams? They did then, so here it is (click to enlarge images).

If you have trouble seeing full sized images of the papers, you can see and download them in PDF form here


Section A: ShakespeareJulius Caesar, Othello and The Winter’s Tale.  

The rubric was complicated but essentially you had to answer three questions covering at least two of the three plays. In other words you could get away with studying only two. We did Julius Caesar and Othello.

English Literature A Level Paper 1977

First, you had to answer either Question 1 or Question 2, above, which quoted passages from the plays and asked you to address specific issues relating to them. It looks like I did the Julius Caesar part of Question 2.

English Literature A Level Paper 1977
Then, questions 3, 4 and 5 were discussion questions on the three Shakespeare plays. You had to do two, but each offered an either/or choice. I did 3(a) on Julius Caesar and 4(b) on Othello.

From the notes made after the exam on the first page, it seems I estimated I had got no more than a C in this paper.
English Literature A Level Paper 1977Section B: Longer Poetic Works.

There were three set texts: Pope’s Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot, Wordsworth’s The Prelude and T. S. Elliot’s East Coker and Little Gidding, with one question on each. As you had to answer just one of the three questions, we only studied Pope’s Epistle.

Again, there was an either/or choice within each of question. It looks like I did 6(a).


Novels, Plays and Poetry: four from sixteen set texts.

English Literature A Level Paper 1977

The syllabus offered sixteen different works, but the examination only required you to answer questions on four, so we covered only four: Jane Austen’s Persuasion, the selected poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the poems of Wilfred Owen, and Arthur Miller’s plays A View from the Bridge and All My Sons. Again, the paper had an either/or choice within each question. I think I answered questions 7(b), 10(a), 12(a) and 14(b).

The other twelve items on the Paper 2 syllabus were parts of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, Metaphysical Poetry, Defoe’s Moll Flanders, Sheridan’s The Rivals and The School for Scandal, Keats Lamia and other poems, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Poetry of the Thirties, Patrick White’s The Tree of Man, and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.


Literary Criticism. Two compulsory questions quoting passages from unnamed works followed by lists of points to be addressed.

English Literature A Level Paper 1977

Paper III was the joker in the pack, impossible to prepare for fully in advance. I really thought I had messed this up.

Question 1: two poems. With the help of the internet I can now identify them as John Stallworthy’s A Poem about Poems About Vietnam, and Seamus Heaney’s The Folk Singers.

Question 2: a passage I recognised in the exam as being from George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier. I remember timidly deciding not to say I knew what it was. I don’t know whether you got extra marks if you did. 

Looking back over nearly forty years, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry left the strongest impression. I can still quote Pied Beauty by heart. A lot of people find his poetry dense and unintelligible, as in ‘The Windhover

          I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
                dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
                Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
          High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
          In his ecstasy! . . .

It was a real privilege to be able to take the time to dissect and understand this stuff: his ‘conglomerate epithets’ and his obsession with the different roots of the English language. His lines still come back both in moments of elation (“... what wind-walks! what lovely behaviour of silk-sack clouds!”) and despair (“Pitched past pitch of grief, ...”).

Wilfred Owen too, remains familiar from his regular outings in television programmes and newspaper articles about the First World War. Years later, attending a conference at the Craiglockart campus of Edinburgh Napier University, I could not help but be aware that this was where Owen and Siegfried Sassoon had been treated for shell shock almost a century earlier. Sitting on the lawn in front of the main building, eating lunch in the sun, I imagined they might once have done exactly the same, discussing poetry during Owen’s brief respite from his doomed youth. Sadly, the topic of our own lunchtime conversation was human-computer interaction.

Arthur Miller revealed a great deal about how plays are put together. I later felt there were more than just situational similarities between the film Saturday Night Fever and A View from the Bridge, although to be strictly accurate they were different bridges.

I was astonished by Alexander Pope’s verbal dexterity and can still remember chunks of the Epistle, but my favourite from his heroic couplets comes from another work, An Essay on Criticism

          True Wit is Nature to Advantage drest,
          What oft was Thought, but ne’er so well Exprest,

On the other hand, despite my enthusiasm at the time, I am ashamed to say I read no more Shakespeare. I know he was myriad-minded, but it takes effort, and I became too tied up with other things (like human-computer interaction) to try.

The same is true of Persuasion, despite the once-or-twice stand-in teacher at Leeds Park Lane College, Mr. Trowbridge, declaring that whenever he felt disheartened there was no better remedy than to go to bed with Jane Austen. He even got a laugh from us with that one.

See also: ‘A’ Level Geography


  1. Thank you for writing up your experience of A Level English Literature. The paper I took in 1978 must have had a very similar format. Some of the works we studied were too difficult for me at age 18 (particularly Donne and Eliot) - I failed the exam - but I read them again in my early twenties and started to appreciate them then.

    1. I think it was also difficult at 18 to put in the amount of effort required to do well. I spent hours doing trial questions and answers.


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