Larkin, Zahawi, and arguing with texts

Well. I started planning this post a fortnight ago, when Nadhim Zahawi made his statement that removing the works of Philip Larkin and Wilfred Owen from the curriculum was an act of ‘cultural vandalism’. But then life got in the way, in the form of a weekend away with our Gold DofE expedition and various other things, and it’s only now that I’ve had time to actually write it. And after one of the most turbulent weeks in politics I’ve ever seen, Nadhim Zahawi is now two whole Education Secretaries ago, and it all seems like yesterday’s news. I’m playing serious catch-up.

Actually, though, coming back to things after the event is entirely in the spirit of what I’m going to say here, so that’s okay. What I want to do is to look at the writers we study and the way they influence us – which is not necessarily in the way Nadhim Zahawi might think.

Let’s deal, first of all, with that issue of ‘the curriculum.’ As many people have pointed out, Owen and Larkin haven’t been removed from the curriculum at all. What’s happened is that OCR has removed one poem by Wilfred Owen (‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’) and one poem by Philip Larkin (‘An Arundel Tomb’) from the poetry anthology that students study for its GCSE English Literature specification. But an exam specification and ‘the curriculum’ are not the same thing. Each individual school is free to develop its own curriculum, and therefore to teach as much Wilfred Owen and Philip Larkin as they like. Schools following the OCR specification can still use these two poems (and really, teaching one poem by each poet is hardly the same as ‘studying Owen’ and ‘studying Larkin’). You’d have hoped that Nadhim Zahawi would have known the difference, being Secretary of State for Education and all, but why let reality get in the way of an attention-grabbing headline? Maybe James Cleverly will grasp which is which: Michelle Donelan didn’t really have time.

All this is by the by, though, because the main thing I want to do is to look at the idea of literary study that underpins Zahawi’s comments. It’s one that’s influenced heavily by Matthew Arnold’s view of literature as ‘the best that has been thought and said’, something to be handed down from one generation to the next. It’s a bucket-filling model that casts students as passive recipients of the glories of the past. And it’s one that contains all manner of problems, many of which will be familiar to anyone who’s ever grappled with the basics of literary theory or tried to construct an English curriculum. Who decides what is ‘the best’ and what isn’t? How are new texts admitted to this sacred canon? How do we balance the important texts of the past with those that are fresh and urgent, that represent a more diverse and plural world? Creating a curriculum that is genuinely varied, that allows space for a range of voices, is a complex job.

Let’s not forget, either, that the most important voices in there belong to the students. Because even when you’ve decided on your perfect curriculum – diverse, challenging and thoughtfully-driven – you should be very wary of treating the texts within it as objects of reverence. Texts are not there simply to be admired. They can be, yes – but they should also be questioned and argued with. They should spark conversations and our teaching should allow space for this. Sometimes, those conversations will last the length of a unit of work. Sometimes, they’ll stretch over years.

It’s fitting that Zahawi should have mentioned Larkin, as he’s a writer I first encountered when I was at school, studying The Whitsun Weddings for A level English Literature, and I’ve been having a conversation with his work ever since. Larkin’s poetry had a huge impact on me as a teenager. This was partly because the places he wrote about – the ordinary towns with their large cool stores and mortgaged half-built edges – were very much like the place where I grew up. It was also because of his poetry’s obsession with elsewhere, anywhere, as long as it wasn’t wherever you actually happened to be, which appealed to me as a restless seventeen-year-old. And it was because of the way he played with language, hyphenating and compounding, starting with the concrete and moving to the abstract. There was a sense of words being carefully chosen, being weighed for their effect. Some of his descriptions still shape the way I see the world: vast Sunday-full and organ-frowned-on spaces; piled gold clouds and shining gull-marked mud; smells of different dinners; an enormous yes. I can’t go to London on the train without thinking of the city’s postal districts packed like squares of wheat, and I’ve spent a lot of time, in my part of the world, looking for places where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet. (Confession: I even went up to Hull for the Larkin 25 celebrations back in 2010, to visit the giant fibreglass toads that took over the city, and to see exhibits that included Larkin’s enormous slippers, his saucer-souvenir, and the actual lawnmower that features in ‘The Mower’, complete with an artfully-poised fluffy hedgehog. I am a literary nerd.)

‘Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world  Unmendably.’

But this isn’t the only Larkin, and as most people will know, the man himself was neither admirable nor wholesome. Many of his views were deeply unpleasant, and you don’t need to dig too far to find them out: the racism, the sexism, the Thatcher-worship. And you can’t teach Larkin – you shouldn’t teach Larkin – without addressing this. His work opens up questions about whether a person’s writing can ever be separated from their life, whether the unsavouriness of the man undermines the brilliance of some of his poetry. This is an important question for teenagers to consider. What kinds of awfulness are we prepared to excuse? How much leeway do we allow?

My Year Twelves explore a range of Larkin’s poems as part of their work on the AQA Theory and Independence unit, which involves looking at texts from a range of critical perspectives. We examine four poems through a feminist lens, looking at the male gaze, the representation of women and the narrative personae in ‘Wild Oats’, ‘Self’s the Man’, ‘Afternoons’ and ‘Broadcast’. We discuss Larkin’s own tangled relationships with women, which gives us the chance to talk about the place of biographical knowledge in the study of literature, and consider the different attitudes conveyed in these poems. We think about whether an unmarried childless man could ever understand what it is like to be a young mother like the women in ‘Afternoons’, and I talk about the different reactions I have had to that particular poem since I first read it at seventeen: first shuddering at the idea of a life bound by domesticity, then indignant that Larkin was undervaluing women’s experiences, then – as a mother myself, pushing my son on the swings in an appropriately Larkinesque playground that was bound on three sides by graveyards – finding his description all too resonant. We question and pick apart, and I remind them that no interpretation can ever encompass everything, that no reading can be the final one.

And so, nearly three weeks after Zahawi bemoaned the removal of Larkin from one particular exam specification, I’m going back to his words, and picking them up, and feeding them into a discussion I’ve been having with Larkin’s work for over thirty years now. Because studying literature isn’t about passing on ‘the best’. It recognises that texts can be contested, no matter how great they may once have been held to be. It gets young people to think. Above all, it opens up a conversation, and hopes that that conversation runs and runs, looping backwards and forwards, long after the last exam has been sat.

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