8 September 1997. It’s a Monday, the first Monday of term at the start of my second year as a qualified teacher. I have all the confidence and experience that comes from having spent one year in the job. I have my own classroom and I know how things work. I come home from school and sort out my planning for the rest of the week. I am twenty-four years old. I am meticulous and organised and in control. And just after half-past six, the phone rings. It’s my brother. He asks me if my partner, Matthew, is home from work yet. I want to know why. He says that he doesn’t want me to be on my own, that the reason why he’s calling – at an unexpected time, just after half-past six in the evening, on a Monday – is because our mum died, about two hours ago, completely unexpectedly.
She had been taken ill, apparently, at about midday. She’d managed to phone her friend down the road, but hadn’t been able to talk. Her friend had hurried round, but there had been no answer when she’d knocked on the door, and so she’d rung for an ambulance. My mum had had an aortic aneurysm, massive and unsurvivable. She’d been rushed to hospital for emergency surgery, but she’d died, seven weeks before her sixtieth birthday, at about four-thirty in the afternoon.
8 September 2022 was an odd day. Twenty-five years ago. Anniversaries are always hard, but this one was particularly tough, an official marker of half a lifetime without any parents. And so when I looked at the news on my phone at lunchtime, thinking of what would have been happening twenty-five years ago, and saw the announcement that the Queen’s doctors were concerned for her health, I kind of knew how it would all play out. And when the announcement came, at just after half-past six in the evening, I wasn’t surprised.
My mum was lovely. Kind and warm and quietly dignified. My dad had died just over three years earlier, and she was just getting things back together again. The last time I saw her was on the day Princess Diana died. We’d sat in the garden in the late summer sun, everything feeling a bit weird. I’d been planning to go up at half-term. Everything was knocked out of place, out of shape. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do.
A lot has been written about the way that private griefs are brought back into focus by the death of public figures, how collective mourning allows personal sorrow to resurface. There’s a sense of catharsis, a purging, a healing. There’s space to think.
My mum was a knitter, and one of the things I have from her is a cardigan that she made for me in my second year at university. I wear it when I’m cold, and sometimes the Dude wraps himself in it if he’s feeling sad, a hug from the grandmother he never knew, who never got to meet him.
I am thinking, tonight, of everyone who lost someone on 8 September. I am wishing them whatever strength they need to get themselves through what they’re going through at the moment. And I am hoping they have a cardigan to wrap themselves in.
I have become the custodian of our family photo album, the lever arch file of yellowing holiday snaps that my dad took in the early 1970s. There are pictures of me as a baby and in various stages of toddlerhood, and pictures of my brother and sisters in clothes they’d rather not remember: giant flares with patch pockets, orange nylon shirts, matching knitted cardigans and crocheted ponchos. It’s a delight, and I have – of course – made the Husband and the Dude sit through the whole lot, with an accompanying commentary.
Some of the photos are of the house that I grew up in, a 1920s semi that came with my dad’s job, as Safety Engineer for Parkside Colliery in Newton-le-Willows. He spent long periods of time on call in case of accidents, so a house near the colliery was a necessity. Parkside opened in 1957, and didn’t have the exposed winding gear that you’d normally associate with northern pit towns: instead, everything was enclosed within two enormous concrete buildings that reared up above the surrounding fields. They could have been office buildings, or strange, windowless blocks of flats. They were a soft beige colour that turned pale apricot in the sun. In rain, they darkened to dull purple, and then faded back to beige again as the water evaporated. When we went on holiday, they were the landmark we looked out for to tell us that we were almost home.
Most of our holidays were in Blackpool. Blackpool wasn’t our nearest seaside resort – that was Southport – but it was where we went, largely because my dad’s cousin owned a series of guesthouses up near the North Pier and allowed our family of six to have a cheapish week away every year. Later, we used to go to Blackpool twice a year, at Easter and then in November, for weekends organised by the National Coal Board. These were an odd combination of quizzes, team-building exercises and first-aid competitions that involved gruesome mock-ups of underground disasters. Each colliery sent a team to investigate, treat the casualties and show what safety procedures they’d implement. These competitions were fiercely contested, but often, it was the Parkside team, led by my dad, that won. In the evenings, there’d be a dinner dance at the Winter Gardens, a washed-up comedian, and – each November – a Coal Queens of Britain competition, where the daughters of various miners would parade in swimsuits and evening wear. This was in the late 70s, and nobody batted an eyelid at the miners’ daughters and tired old jokes. I don’t remember much about our summers at Aunty Lilian’s guesthouses, but I do remember the miners’ weekends, the donkey rides and trips to the Tower, and the unusually cold Easter when there was snow on Blackpool beach.
My brother and sisters and I went to Blackpool last weekend. It’s the first time since about 1977 that all four of us have been there together, and we wanted to find the guesthouses where we used to stay. The last time I went to Blackpool was in the summer of 1989, the day before the GCSE results came out. That was the summer I lost myself in the Brontës, and the garish lights and sounds, the smells of candyfloss and fish and chips, clashed with the thoughts in my head about the Yorkshire moors and escaping to somewhere where I could hide in a library for three years and read.
The lights and sounds and smells are still exactly the same, but the way to approach Blackpool is to take it on its own terms. It was a beautiful day, with wide blue skies and the sun glinting off the sea, and we had a fabulous time finding the spots that we’d been photographed in so many years ago.
Simon Armitage has been on Radio 4 recently, exploring ten of Philip Larkin’s poems to mark the centenary of the poet’s birth, and one of the poems he chose was ‘To the Sea’, published in Larkin’s final collection, High Windows. It describes ‘the miniature gaiety of seasides’, and it marks a rare note of positivity for Larkin, as the people he describes aren’t being sneered at for their tawdriness but celebrated for taking part in what is ‘half an annual pleasure, half a rite’. The people on the beach are all happily coexisting, doing their own thing: families playing games and making sandcastles, elderly people in wheelchairs being taken for a day out, swimmers gasping at the cold, and Larkin himself as a child, ‘happy at being on my own’. There’s a beautiful description of toddlers ‘grasping at enormous air’ (and what else do children do, when they’re learning to walk?) At the end, there’s a typically Larkinesque nod to human imperfection, but also a sense that for all their shortcomings, the people he describes are doing something important, something that absolves them of anything else:
If the worst Of flawless weather is our falling short, It may be that through habit these do best, Coming to the water clumsily undressed Yearly; teaching their children by a sort Of clowning; helping the old, too, as they ought.
‘Teaching their children by a sort of clowning’: isn’t that gorgeous? And look at the rhymes, too: they’re there, not shoving themselves in your face, but just gently, under the surface, holding things together like the informal rituals they describe.
I’d like to think ‘To the Sea’ was about Blackpool, but apparently it’s about Rhyl, on the North Wales coast, where Larkin’s parents met. We had an annual trip to Rhyl when I was in secondary school, to the Sun Centre. I remember shingle and grey skies. I think we were sold Rhyl on the grounds that it was in another country, and was therefore exotic. It seems an appropriate place for Sidney and Eva to have had their first encounter, somehow.
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.)
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.
Years ago, I observed a lesson on Ciaran Carson’s poem ‘Belfast Confetti’. It’s an incredibly powerful poem, conveying the confused aftermath of a bomb blast and the narrator’s sense of disorientation as he tries to make sense of his changed surroundings. The lesson itself, however, conveyed none of this. Part of the problem was that the teacher had started the lesson with a glossary of words and phrases that he thought the students needed to understand. What this glossary essentially showed was his own lack of understanding of the poem. Carson refers to the labyrinth of Belfast streets – ‘Balaclava, Raglan, Inkerman, Odessa Street’ – that the narrator is trying to navigate. In his glossary, next to ‘Balaclava’, the teacher had put ‘A form of knitted headgear’. ‘Raglan’, meanwhile, was ‘A way of fixing the sleeves to a jumper or cardigan’. Cue a group of very confused students, wondering why the poet had suddenly started banging on about knitwear.
I’ve been thinking a lot about meaning lately, partly because thinking about meaning forms a huge part of what I do but also because of that cursed Ofsted research review. The review places a lot of emphasis on the direct teaching of vocabulary. It states, for example, that ‘While pupils of all ages will gradually learn vocabulary through repeated encounters as they read, there is evidence showing that it is beneficial to identify and explicitly teach some vocabulary.’ And given the review’s clear affinity with models of education predicated on a ‘smooth ramp’ – do this, read that, and you’ll understand this – it’s easy to see why this approach to vocabulary would have such an appeal. Teach students the meanings of the difficult words they’ll encounter in a text, teach them the text, and they’ll sail through without any problems. Get them to use these difficult words in different contexts in order to consolidate their knowledge, teach them about word roots and affixes, and you’ll be building their word power. Add in some spaced recall and you’re ticking a CogSci box as well. Simple!
And there’s nothing wrong with this, as far as it goes. I’d hazard a guess that the vast majority of English teachers will approach some vocabulary in this way. The emphasis there is firmly on the some. As English teachers, we have an array of approaches to vocabulary to draw upon. Sometimes we’ll pre-teach particular words, and we might especially do this if there’s a particular reference that we need students to understand. (Think, for instance, about the word ‘equivocator’ in the Porter’s scene in Macbeth. It links, of course, to the theme of appearances-versus-reality that runs throughout the play, and to the wider concept of equivocation in Jacobean society, but it’s the first time students will have met it, and therefore it probably needs some explanation.) Sometimes we’ll choose texts that have marginal glosses, or create our own versions, so that students get used to glancing across or down the page and picking up a reference without the need for too much intervention: it’s an important aspect of working with texts and one that they need to know about. Sometimes we’ll reach an unfamiliar word and ask the class if anyone has come across this word before: a way of empowering students and moving away from the idea that the teacher is the only source of knowledge in the room. Sometimes we’ll look at words in their contexts and work out what they mean. This isn’t an exhaustive list: it’s not difficult to think of other strategies we use.
There are a number of problems, though, with what the review says about the explicit teaching of vocabulary. I’m just going to look at two of them here. The first is the evidence base that the review draws upon. One of the sources they cite is a US report, A Review of the Current Research on Vocabulary Instruction, published in 2010 by the National Reading Technical Assistance Center. But as we’ve seen with other sources (as Barbara Bleiman demonstrates in this Twitter thread, and as Gary Snapper, Andrew Green and I have experienced in the review’s misuse of our book Teaching English Literature 16-19), the review uses this report to fit an agenda that it doesn’t necessarily support. The headline findings are there: direct instruction, multiple exposure, active engagement. But look more closely, and you’ll see that it is based on studies of children no older than Grade 3: seven of the fourteen studies it draws on focus exclusively on children in preschool and kindergarten, and two further studies focused on older children with weak literacy skills. One of the studies focuses specifically on scientific vocabulary, one on nonsense words, and several on early literacy. One focused on the learning of just three target words. Yet Ofsted present this as research whose findings can be generalised to the teaching of English at secondary level.
The second problem is just so screamingly obvious that it really shouldn’t need saying. It’s that meanings can be connotational as well as denotational. In fact, in English, it’s the exploration of connotational meanings that occupies a significant amount of our time. Nowhere does the review refer to this. It’s as if meaning is all simple, straightforward, univocal. There’s no space whatsoever in the review for the associative, the ambivalent, the strange.
In English, it’s not necessarily the ‘hard’ words, the unfamiliar words, that make us pause. It’s often the words whose meanings we think we know, used in contexts that are unexpected. Think of ‘Death of a Naturalist’, for instance, and Seamus Heaney’s description of ‘the warm thick slobber / Of frogspawn’: my Year Eights all know what ‘slobber’ is, but they’ve never seen it used to describe frogspawn before, and they also wouldn’t normally see it in the superlative light that Heaney does. We needed to think about the colour and texture of frogspawn, to imagine scooping it up and trying to contain it in our hands, to understand the sense of delight captured in that description. Or the way Ted Hughes uses ‘raw’ twice in the first two lines of ‘Bayonet Charge’ – ‘raw / In raw-seamed hot khaki’ – and, in doing so, suggests not only different meanings of the word itself but also the dazed state of the soldier as he drags himself into action, with no time to think of an alternative word. Words don’t just mean things. They can hint and gesture, be playful and ironic. We and our students know this, because we experience it every day.
My Year Twelves are starting to look at different critical and theoretical approaches to literature, and one text I love using to explore the idea of multiple readings is another of Ted Hughes’ poems, ‘Lineage’, from his 1970 collection Crow. (I’ve got Gary Snapper to credit for this particular lesson: he introduced me to it years ago, and it is now one of my absolute favourite lessons to teach.) Here’s the poem:
In the beginning was Scream Who begat Blood Who begat Eye Who begat Fear Who begat Wing Who begat Bone Who begat Granite Who begat Violet Who begat Guitar Who begat Sweat Who begat Adam Who begat Mary Who begat God Who begat Nothing Who begat Never Never Never Never
Who begat Crow
Screaming for Blood Grubs, crusts
Trembling featherless elbows in the nest’s filth
I don’t tell the students anything about the poem beforehand, because I don’t want to guide their responses. Instead, I give them five minutes on their own with the poem, to read and annotate and see what they think it means, and then give them some time in pairs or small groups to discuss their ideas. It’s a brilliant example of how meanings are constructed as part of a shared process of discussion. One thing students often spend a lot of time on is the presence of nouns such as ‘Violet’, ‘Guitar’ and ‘Sweat’: they know what these words mean, but they’re obviously being used by Hughes in a way that doesn’t correspond to their simple denotational senses. They clearly have a significance that’s given to them by their presence in this particular sequence and the fact that they’re being treated as proper nouns, but beyond that, what they mean in this poem isn’t clear. Do they point to human culture, to industry and toil, to a sense of beauty? We talk about all these possibilities, and about the other images and suggestions in the poem: the sense of unmet need, the violence and squalor, the apparent rejection of God. All of this takes a long time.
Do they know what the poem means, by the end of it? Do I know what it means? Should I be able to tell them what it means, give them a nice neat knowledge organiser? We talk about all of this, too. In the end, they decide that the important thing is not arriving at one final meaning, but the process of exploration. It makes your brain hurt, says one of them, but it’s really interesting. And they’re right. This is what makes English such an incredible and complicated and bloody amazing subject to teach, and the Ofsted review contains none of it.
I am exercised, at the moment, by Ofsted’s research review on English. I am exercised by this in many ways, but I’m just going to focus on one of them here. It’s the metaphor of the ‘smooth ramp’ as a way of articulating progress in reading, with the curriculum being designed to ensure that ‘each text bootstraps the language and knowledge needed for the next’. It’s a model derived most clearly from the work of E.D. Hirsch, in which teaching – and therefore also learning – follows a well-ordered sequence. Everything that students need to know in order to understand a text is taught carefully and explicitly, and attention is paid to the texts that students encounter as they make their way through their education: ‘An effective English curriculum will explicitly identify what it is that pupils need to learn in order to understand progressively more complex texts.’
I’ve been teaching English for over twenty-five years now, and the thing I find simultaneously most frustrating but also most rewarding about the subject is its messiness, its porousness, the fuzziness of its edges. Students don’t only ‘do’ English in school. Their work in English will draw on, and be influenced by, all the many areas of life in which they speak and read and listen and write, by the narratives they engage with (not only in books, but on screen, in films and on television and, increasingly, in computer games) and the stories they themselves tell. Take writing, for instance. Behind the very narrow pieces of writing on which my current GCSE students will be assessed in their exams there lies a vast hinterland of written texts, only some of them produced in school and read by teachers: fanfiction, blog posts, contributions to forum threads, reviews, song lyrics, stories. Not all of these texts will ever be read by anyone. Some of them are highly ephemeral. But all of them are important, because they are all part of who my students are as writers, as people who use the written word to engage with the world beyond themselves.
We sometimes try to make links between English and other subjects – History being the most obvious one, because of the literacy demands it makes of students – but actually, I’d argue that English shares more similarities with PE. We want students to exercise in their spare time, because exercise is a good thing, just as we want students to read in their spare time, because reading is a good thing. We lament the fact that we live in a society that presents young people with easier and more attractive options than exercise and reading as ways of spending their free time. We recognise that there are barriers that prevent some young people from exercising and reading as much as we (and often they themselves) would like them to. We also recognise that young people who exercise more and read more outside of school perform better in PE and English within school. We note that young people who are encouraged to exercise and read – by parents and other adults who guide them, take them to sports clubs and fixtures and libraries and bookshops, talk to them and provide support – receive an unfair advantage. But in the end, we have to accept that we cannot control how much our students exercise outside of school, or how much (and what) they read, however much we might wish it otherwise.
I’m not sure I can stretch this analogy much further. One key difference, of course, is that English is a core subject that carries extremely high stakes at GCSE for individual students, as well as their teachers and schools. Another is that English also relies, to a large but largely unexplored extent, on students’ emotional maturity. This is why the Ofsted research report’s definition of the ‘components of comprehension’ is far too narrow. According to Ofsted, comprehension depends on students’ knowledge of vocabulary, context, narrative structure and syntax. But – as we all know – it also depends on far much more than this: on imaginative engagement, empathy, a willingness to enter the worlds of characters whose lives might be very different from one’s own. Students don’t just draw on what they’ve been taught, on what has been presented to them in a carefully-structured and sequenced manner, in order to make sense of texts. They draw on their own lived experiences, on events that we as their teachers might be privy to or might not. They visualise settings and characters in particular ways and build interpretations that are shaped by their world-views, in a manner that has long been acknowledged by reader-response criticism. The Ofsted report mentions that ‘through reading itself, pupils can find out about the world beyond their own experience’. But there is no mention of what students bring to reading from their own experience. Or how they share these experiences with others: my teaching of Ted Hughes’ poem ‘Pike’ to Year Eight, earlier this year, was made all the richer as a result of one boy’s account of pike fishing at night with his dad and his uncle, how unnerving it was and how every sound resonated through the darkness.
The failure of the ‘smooth ramp’ model of the curriculum is that it doesn’t take account of all these complexities. For one thing, they can’t be planned for: you can’t include a student with a penchant for fishing as an essential resource on your curriculum map. They also rely so much on the parts of students’ lives that take place outside of school, not only their reading and viewing and interacting with other people but also their thinking and daydreaming. This means that reading – understanding texts and making sense of them – isn’t a neat and tidy process at all. If there’s one thing I can say about my life as a reader, it’s that it’s been incredibly messy. It’s included periods of rapid progress, like when I discovered the Brontës the summer after my GCSEs, and times that were relatively fallow, when I devoured horse and pony books and teen fiction because I didn’t know what else to read. It has twists and turns, and huge variations in complexity, because I am a great advocate of comfort-reading as an antidote to stress. It’s also contained moments when I’ve encountered texts that were within my intellectual comprehension but very definitely beyond my emotional reach. I remember, at the age of eleven, reading a novel that featured the death of a main character, and how unsettling I found it. This wasn’t because of the way the death itself was described, but because the central character’s reflections on what this meant for her own life – her recognition of her own mortality, and that of the people she loved – made me think about my own world in a similar way. It was a reminder that everything – including me – would come to an end, and that, at eleven, was a big thing to get to grips with. I remember putting the book away in a cupboard where I wouldn’t have to see it. I didn’t return to it for several years, and only then with a sense of trepidation. No pre-teaching in the world, no comprehension activities or vocabulary exercises, would have helped me.
And in any case, those activities wouldn’t have happened, because this was a book I read on my own, at home. It was part of my own world and not something I talked to anyone else about. Because this is another thing about reading. In school, it is part of the curriculum, but outside, it’s often deeply personal and private. Sometimes, as teachers, we try to gain access to this private world. We want students to keep reading journals and write up their thoughts; we ask them what they’re reading and what they think of it. They might, occasionally, want to answer. But I can remember being thirteen or fourteen, and immersed in books that I wouldn’t have wanted to discuss with my English teacher in a million years. The thoughts and feelings I had about them were often so complicated and half-formed that I’d have hated feel compelled to share them. Leave me alone, I’d have thought. It’s none of your business what I’m reading.
So the idea of a ‘smooth ramp’ to an ‘adequate comprehension’ seems to me to be deeply unsatisfactory, an attempt to simplify and rationalise a complex process that replies, in part, on things that are beyond the teacher’s control. In a discussion on the work of Arthur N. Applebee on the English and Media Centre website, Barbara Bleiman refers to Applebee’s belief that ‘some of the seemingly neat and tidy models don’t necessarily succeed in offering the more complex learning that really constitutes knowledge in the subject’. As English teachers, we can structure and shape our students’ journeys through the texts they encounter in school. We can offer them signposts and instructions; sometimes we can metaphorically hold their hands. But we can’t control every aspect of the journey they make as readers, and nor should we try to.
‘Cracked. We’re cracked, Wilfred.’ Alan Bennett, ‘A Cream Cracker Under the Settee’
My plate is cracked, but, to quote Wendy Cope, I have decided not to make a big tragedy out of it. I am going to mark the occasion, though, because this plate has been mine for a long time. Internet shopping means we’ve lost the habit of remembering when and were we bought certain objects, how we chose them and how we saved for them, but this plate – one of a set of four – came into my life at a very particular time, as a result of a very particular set of circumstances. And so, while I may not be making a big tragedy out of it, I am going to write about it.
It’s December 1991. I’m nineteen and back from university for the first time. I’m a bit of a mess, partly because I’m exhausted from the intensity of my first term, but largely because the guy I’ve been going out with has decided to end things and it’s my first big, horrible, painful rejection. I am coping with the culture shock of being back in Newton-le-Willows after two months at Oxford and it’s every possible shade of weird. There are no doors I can knock on, nobody to meet for coffee or cake or a trip to the bar. I need something to do, to take my mind off things.
Therefore, I get a job. I’m in Warrington one day with my mum and I spot a poster in a shop window. The shop in question is Warrington’s only independent department store, a proud institution in a Georgian building on Bridge Street. They want extra assistants for the Christmas period. I go in to see if I can find out more, and ten minutes later I’m in an interview being asked about my GCSE grades and previous work experience.
I start two days later. I’m in Jewellery, to start off with. Jewellery is basically a huge white rack, fixed to a wall, on which I’m supposed to hang earrings. This is meant to take me all morning. The earrings are mostly plastic, in various colours. I decide to arrange them by colour, and work my way through from white at one end of the rack to black at the other, with a special section for silver and gold. It takes me about half an hour. I find my manager, a morose woman called Pauline with frizzy hair, and ask what I should do next. ‘Find something to do’, I’m told. ‘Just make sure you look busy.’
There’s a stand of books near Jewellery, an odd mixture of recipe books, road atlases, romantic fiction and children’s stories. I’m at home with books. I arrange the books, first by genre and then alphabetically within each genre. There aren’t many of them. I take them all out and rearrange them. Then I rearrange the earrings, starting with white at the top this time, and silver and gold at the bottom. I am more bored than I have possibly ever been before.
At about half-past eleven another assistant comes over with a cardboard box, and asks me to unpack whatever’s inside and arrange them on the shelves. What’s inside turns out to be a collection of fake bonsai trees, made of some kind of translucent resin, their leaves attached with wire. The wires have all been flattened and therefore they need to be twisted artfully to make them look as realistic as a fake resin bonsai tree can possibly look. I put a lot of effort into my artful twisting.
I have a forty-minute break for lunch. I eat my sandwich and slink off to Bookland, my favourite bookshop, to decide which books I’m going to buy with my wages. Then I go back to the shop, and try, again, to spin out whatever tasks I’m given so that I always look busy. I’m not allowed on Tills, because I haven’t been trained – ‘We don’t train temporary staff’ – and apart from helping occasional customers to find gloves or handkerchiefs, there isn’t much else to do.
I have a lot of time to think. This hadn’t been the intention. I need something that will take my mind off the Big Rejection and stop the ache that it has left me with. I keep replaying lines from our conversations, the we-can-still-be-friends ones, the it’s-not-you-it’s-me ones. I am probably not the bouncy, cheerful kind of staff that the store wants. There’s another student working there too, and when we’re working the same shifts we take it in turns to mix up each other’s displays so that we’ve got something to rearrange, her on Fancy Goods and me on Accessories. We joke that there should be a Leotards and Handbags department, in honour of Victoria Wood. But then Pauline gets wind of our alliance and puts us on different shifts, and I go back to trying to make a half-hour task last four times longer than it really needs to, tweaking and reorganising and keeping an eye out in case anyone tries to shoplift a fake bonsai tree.
Lunch breaks, and the half-hour between finishing work and catching the bus home, become the focus of my days. I spend a lot of time browsing in Bookland, and decide that if I can buy one book, every day, then working at the department store won’t seem quite so mind-numbingly awful. We’re doing the twentieth century next term, so I buy Woolf and Joyce, E.M. Forster and Dylan Thomas, books that still remind me of that Christmas holiday and the bookshop glowing like an oasis, the hush and smell of paper, the low lights and tactful quiet. And I decide, too, that I need some plates for university. I’d taken mugs, the previous term, but not plates. We were catered for, living in college, and I hadn’t thought I’d need them. But cooking with friends, in the tiny kitchen in our accommodation block, had become part of the glue that held life together. So I wanted my own plates, and in the Homewares department in the basement of the Co-op I found a set of four plates – deep, white plates, with a blue floral border – that, to my nineteen-year-old mind, seemed exactly right.
My dad’s reaction was predictable. ‘Why are you buying plates in Warrington and taking them all the way down to Oxford? Do they not sell plates anywhere in Oxford that you can buy?’ He had a point. But those were the plates I’d decided on. They came home with me, and eventually, when my four weeks at the department store were over, they came down to Oxford with me as well, wrapped carefully in tea towels and packed in a box.
They’ve survived a lot, those plates. A year in a shared house off the Cowley Road, another year back in college, and then four house moves. They’ve been our everyday plates for over twenty-five years. And then, a few days ago, one of them cracked.
It was on the worktop, next to the hob, and whether it suffered from some kind of sudden temperature change or not I don’t know. At least it wasn’t dropped, at least it’s still basically intact. But we’re not going to risk using it any more. It’s now got a safe place in the sideboard, with the proper dinner service we got as a wedding present. And there it will stay, a reminder of that holiday when I tried and failed to cope with the world’s dullest job whilst nursing a broken heart, and returned to university bruised, but with several new books and four blue-and-white plates.
On the face of it, it’s not particularly special. It’s a 1976 copy of the third edition of the Oxford School Atlas, a paperback edition with a cover that’s faded and softened with age. Its spine is peeling and it has a couple of suspicious stains. The edges of its pages have worn soft with years of handling. It contains countries that don’t exist any more, like Yugoslavia and the USSR, and doesn’t contain countries that do exist now, like Eritrea and North Macedonia and Namibia. (Macedonia’s marked out as a vague area spanning southern Serbia and northern Greece; Eritrea appears and disappears depending which page you’re on). Germany is divided; Czechia and Slovakia are united; Zimbabwe is still Rhodesia and St Petersburg is still Leningrad. But it’s a book that’s important to me for other, more personal reasons. It was issued to my sister when she was doing A level Geography back in the late 1970s. You can’t mistake it for anything other than a school book. Inside its front and back covers, and on several other pages, it bears the stamp of its original owner:
But for some reason, lost now in the mists of time, it never made its way back to St. Aelred’s High School, and has been in the family ever since. I’m not sure exactly when it became mine, but I have always loved maps and I must have spent hours poring over it, over the years, working out where different countries are and thinking about all the places I wanted to go to. There are pencilled annotations on some pages from when I did GCSE Geography between 1987 and 1989, and various asterisks showing where we spent family holidays. At some point, it travelled down with me to south Lincolnshire, and here it’s going to stay.
I spend a lot of time thinking about books, not surprisingly, but this week I’ve been thinking a lot about the physicality of books, the bookness of books, thanks to Emma Smith’s fabulous book Portable Magic. Smith focuses on what she describes as ‘bookhood’, a ‘material combination of form and content’: our physical and sensory engagement with books, their smell and feel and heft. ‘If you think about the books that have been important to you’, writes Smith, ‘it may well be that their content is inseparable from the form in which you encountered them’. And so I’ve been looking at my shelves, tracing the spines of books I haven’t read for years but nevertheless consider an important part of my life. The Penguin copy of David Lodge’s Nice Work that kicked off my reading the summer after GCSEs. Old Faber poetry books with their distinctive coloured covers. The Armada Lions copy of Joan G. Robinson’s Charley that I borrowed from my sister’s bookshelf when I was about nine and loved it so much that I couldn’t bear to put it back. (I did buy her a replacement copy several years later, honest.)
Smith’s book is intriguing, exploring the physical form of books as diverse as the Gutenberg Bible, the various editions of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the Choose Your Own Adventure novels of the 1980s, and the paperbacks defaced – or upcycled – by Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell. In her opening chapter, Smith describes one of her school set texts:
‘The edition of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles we had at school was most remarkable for its transparent cover film that called irresistibly to be peeled back, leaving behind a washed-out still of Natassja Kinski wearing a straw hat from Roman Polanski’s 1979 film: later, weakened by these depredations, I think my copy had to be backed in wallpaper left over from our spare bedroom.’
I’m itching to peel that cover film off right now, although I’m less keen on the wallpaper: I remember backing my Maths textbook in Anaglypta, and never being able to close it properly afterwards.
The physicality of schoolbooks, set texts, is something that’s been on my mind for other reasons this week too, because it’s the week when we’ve been doing our budget requests and thinking about that eternal question of how to balance what we’d really like with what we strictly need. We’ve spent quite a lot on books over the past couple of years, updating worn-out stock and introducing new texts. For September, we need a whole new set of novels for Year Seven (we’ve decided on The Bone Sparrow) and also another complete set of A Christmas Carol (we use the English and Media Centre edition). And it’s going to cost. There are other sets of books that we’d like to replace, but we’re not sure if we’ll be able to. How many years can you make your texts last for? How long can a set of paperbacks survive?
I remember my own English set texts. For GCSE we had a hardback Players’ Shakespeare edition of Macbeth and I can remember the different layers of annotations it contained, several years’-worth of other people’s handwriting, mostly in pencil but some in illicit biro. ‘”Aroint thee, witch”, the rump-fed ronyon cried’ was glossed, with some relish, as ‘Get lost, you fat-bottomed slut’. This was the cash-strapped late 80s, and a lot of our school books were past their best, to say the least. We had to handle them gingerly, not just because they were fragile but also because they were, sometimes, grubby and musty. The narrator of U.A. Fanthorpe’s poem ‘Dear Mr Lee’ speaks of her beloved school copy of Cider with Rosie, ‘stained with Coke and Kitkat and when I had a cold’, and anyone who’s been near a set of school books will know how unhygienic some of them can look, especially once they’ve spent a few months sharing a schoolbag with the detritus of teenage life: discarded football socks, the remnants of several packets of crisps, sedimentary layers of packed lunch.
As a teacher, I’m obviously very conscious of the content of the books I expect my students to read, but I also think the physical form of these books is important, too. I’m definitely not advocating for a full sweep of new books every year, but I want my students to spend time reading their set books, poring over them and being absorbed in them and maybe even – gosh – enjoying them, and therefore I don’t think it’s fair to give a student a book that is fusty or tattered or unpleasant to touch, a book whose pages are swollen from the time when someone’s water bottle – or worse – leaked over it, or a book that’s falling apart. I think the condition of the books we hand out gives an important message to students not only about how much we value reading in general, but also about how much we value their particular experience of reading. There are many, many secondary school students up and down the country whose homes contain very few books. The books we give to them in school need to be attractive and cared-for, ones that we’d be happy to have on our own shelves. Books matter.
Making sure books get returned at the end of the year is another perennial headache, although given the provenance of my Oxford School Atlas, you could be forgiven for calling me a hypocrite. I don’t remember St. Aelred’s ever having a book amnesty during the time I was there, between 1984 and 1991, but even if they had, I’m not sure I’d have taken the atlas back. It was too much a part of the family by then, in the way some books are. St. Aelred’s doesn’t exist any more – it was amalgamated with another local school in 2011, and has now been demolished – and I don’t think St. Helens Education Committee would want it back now, outdated as it is. In any case, I’ve spent enough of my own money on school books and supplies over the years. I think I’ve made amends.
I wasn’t sure what to write about this week. My brain isn’t in sonnet mode at the moment, and most of my attention has been focused on getting round the local 10k road race whilst trying not to swear too much (I managed it, got a PB, and am spending the rest of the weekend sitting down). But two threads on Twitter have been playing on my mind this weekend. One is about the classic fiction we’d recommend to younger readers, and how problematic these recommendations are. There’s a nostalgic rosy glow surrounding many of our childhood favourites, but when we go back to them, it’s not long before we start to see images and ideas that we really shouldn’t be passing on without any kind of health warning. The other was sparked by a tweet by a YA writer about her favourite adoption tropes. There were lots of OMGs from the writer about adopted children bringing joy to the hearts of adopters, lots of excitement about adopted people being rescued from error and misfortune – and lots of absolutely rightful pushback from adopted people pointing out that their lives shouldn’t be treated as a plot device. The writer of the original tweet subsequently posted that she hadn’t thought about it that way, and then deleted the whole thread, but really. How can anyone involved in the creative industries, in 2022, not recognise the problem of reducing a group of people to plot tropes, and tweet about it as if those people didn’t exist in the real world? Come on.
There’s a clear intersection between the two threads, because classic fiction is, of course, full of adoption-related plots. Lemn Sissay’s installation Superman was a Foundling lists some of the many, many fictional characters who are adopted, fostered, orphaned or abandoned, and is an eye-opening starting-point if you’d never realised just how widespread these particular themes are. Look more closely at some of these characters, and the tropes will hit you thick and fast. Bitter adopted child intent on destroying adoptive family: hello, Heathcliff. Adopted child helping to soften and humanise a misanthropic outcast: there’s Eppie from Silas Marner, and I guess we could even include William from Goodnight Mister Tom as well. There’s sour and surly Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden; there are the countless plucky orphans who populate Charles Dickens’ novels and the characters who – like Posy, Paulina and Petrova in Ballet Shoes – are collected like souvenirs and blaze through life like stars with never a thought for their families of origin. Adopted children who are resentful misfits; adopted children who are prodigiously talented; adopted children who make the sun shine and the birds sing because their main role in life is to make other people happy, like Pollyanna with her Glad Game. And that’s before we even get to that sodding boy wizard.
One novel that always comes up in recommendations for classic children’s fiction is L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, first published in 1908. Anne Shirley, adopted at the age of eleven by brother and sister Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, is probably one of fiction’s most famous adopted characters. To generations of readers, Anne of Green Gables is most memorable for the series of scrapes that Anne gets herself into. She gets her ‘bosom friend’ Diana Barry drunk on currant wine, thinking it’s raspberry cordial, and flavours a cake with liniment, believing it to be vanilla essence. She walks along the ridgepole of a roof for a dare, falls off, and breaks her ankle. She hits Gilbert Blythe over the head with her slate when he taunts her about her hair. She almost drowns when she and her friends try to dramatise the Arthurian legend of the Lily Maid of Astolat, and her boat springs a leak. She tries to dye her hair black, and ends up turning it green. Anne is a little girl with a vivid imagination, turning an avenue of apple trees into the White Way of Delight and the Barrys’ pond into the Lake of Shining Waters. The only thing she professes herself unable to imagine away is her red hair.
On the surface, Anne of Green Gables is a charming story. It has featured in numerous charts of the most popular novels of all time: it has been adapted for stage, film, radio and television, and every year thousands of people flock to Prince Edward Island to visit its settings. But there is a much more complex story underneath, one that needs to be viewed through the lens of adoption. There’s a reason why Anne needs such a vivid imagination, and it’s because her life has been singularly awful: difficult, lonely, and abusive. Orphaned at three months old, she has been taken in first by a Mrs Thomas, who has a drunken husband, and subsequently by a Mrs Hammond, who has eight children of her own, including three sets of twins. Her place in the Thomas and Hammond households was to be a domestic help, rather than a loved member of the family. When Mr Thomas is killed falling under a train, his mother offers Mrs Thomas and her children a home, ‘but she didn’t want me’. When Mr Hammond dies, his wife divides her children up amongst her relatives, but ‘I had to go to the asylum at Hopeton, because nobody would take me. They didn’t want me at the asylum, either; they said they were over-crowded as it was’. She has had to imagine companions for herself, imagining that her reflection in a bookcase is a little girl called Katie Maurice, and that the echo of her voice is another little girl called Violetta. And she is in danger of not being wanted again, as the Cuthberts wanted a boy to help on the farm, not a girl.
Adoption, in the novel, is surrounded by stigma. Mrs Rachel Lynde warns Marilla about adopted children who set fire to their adoptive families’ houses and burn them to a crisp in their beds, or alternatively poison them by putting strychnine down the well. Anne eventually becomes a much-loved member of the local community, but she has to earn this position. Marilla intends to train Anne to be ‘a useful little thing’, and Anne herself vows to ‘try to do and be anything you want me, if you’ll only keep me’. And she works hard, although the most important work she does is not physical but emotional, bringing joy to shy Matthew and softening the heart of flinty old Marilla. She’s not alone. Time and time again we see adopted children and orphans in literature carrying out this kind of emotional labour in the lives of their new families.
And significantly, Anne is not allowed to forget that being adopted makes her an outsider. Her place in the community is not a given: she has to make herself acceptable and is reminded that she must bow to convention. When she turns down an offer of marriage from Billy Andrews, his sister Jane warns her that she might live to regret the chance of joining an established Avonlea family, as she is ‘merely an adopted orphan, without kith or kin’. Later, when one of her stories is published in a local newspaper, a disapproving acquaintance tells her that ‘she was very sorry to hear she had taken to writing novels; nobody born and bred in Avonlea would do it; that was what came of adopting orphans from goodness knew where, with goodness knew what kind of parents’.
It’s important for us to be aware of these tropes and stereotypes. It’s important, because they still exist. As I’ve mentioned before, the Dude was once told by another child that ‘all adopted people end up in prison’. (The Dude, bless him, retorted by pointing out that actually, most superheroes were adopted, but he shouldn’t have to feel that he has to be a superhero: he shouldn’t have to be anything, apart from himself.) And it’s important because adoption-related storylines often fly under the radar. Another thread I’ve read over the past few days concerns text choices at GCSE: I’ve already written about Blood Brothers and the appalling doomed-adoptee trope that it plays around with, but here’s a reminder not to use that godawful Blood Brothers resource that asks students to imagine they’ve just found out they’re adopted. Teachers of English need to be just as careful when teaching adoption-related texts as they would be with any other texts that address sensitive issues. Being separated from your family of origin, whatever the circumstances, is trauma. Waiting lists for post-adoption support and therapeutic life story work are hideously long. Support for adopted adults is pretty much non-existent, although organisations like Adoptee Futures are working hard to change this situation.
And yet, adoption-related plotlines continue to roll around, earning millions for the entertainment industry. Hey, wouldn’t it be excellent if some of that was ploughed back into counselling and therapy? What if ‘apologetic writer sees the error of their ways and seeks to make amends’ became a trope? I won’t hold my breath.
When I was little, I had a friend whose mum was forever correcting the way we spoke. There was nothing particularly unusual about our use of language – we had the pretty generic Northern accent of the town we lived in, neither Liverpool nor Manchester and neither Wigan nor Warrington, but something in between – but as far as my friend’s mum was concerned, that wasn’t good enough. She’d grown up in Liverpool, and had been trying to lose her accent ever since. She hadn’t really managed it, but it had given her a hypersensitivity to speech, a sense of being perpetually on the alert for anything that was too regionally marked. Any vowel that was a bit too flat or too long, any hint of a glottal stop or dialect word, and she’d pounce. She taught at the primary school I went to, and that seemed to give her licence to monitor my speech, as well as that of her daughter. She probably thought she was doing me a favour, but all it did was to make me wary: afraid of opening my mouth in case I was jumped on, newly self-conscious about part of me that had never been a problem before.
School language policies didn’t exist back then, but if they had been around, I’d probably have been on the wrong side of them. At university, the only state-educated Northerner in a tutorial group of RP-speakers, I was asked to demonstrate Northern vowel sounds by a linguistics tutor who generally treated me as if I’d just escaped from a zoo. So it’s not really surprising that as an A level English Language teacher, regional variation – and, in particular, the ways in which schools try to police their students’ use of language – is one of my favourite topics. Over the last few years, a stream of schools have attempted to eliminate regional speech, arguing that they are giving their students the best chance possible of succeeding in the wider world. From Colley Lane Primary School in Halesowen and Sacred Heart Primary School in Middlesbrough to Ark All Saints Academy in Camberwell, pupils have been told not to use slang, dialect forms and regional pronunciations such as ‘woz’ instead of ‘was’ and ‘gonna’ instead of ‘going to’. Ofsted is all het up about regional speech too, as if it’s the only thing we’ve got to worry about in schools at the moment. An absolute must-read on this topic is Ian Cushing and Julia Snell’s fantastic essay ‘The (white) ears of Ofsted: a raciolinguistic perspective on the listening practices of the schools inspectorate’, which examines how Ofsted upholds the language of the white bourgeoisie, its judgements about non-standard language translating into ‘systems of sonic surveillance in which the nonstandardised language practices of students and teachers are heard as impoverished, deficient, and unsuitable for school.’ It’s a vital text for anyone concerned with diversity and social justice in schools: if your school is developing any kind of language policy, then you need to wave this article in the faces of whoever is responsible for drawing up the policy, and make sure they are absolutely aware of the implications of certain kinds of beliefs about language.
All of this is a very roundabout way of introducing a poem I have loved for years, Tony Harrison’s ‘Them & [uz]’. ‘Them & [uz]’ takes the form of a pair of caudate sonnets, drawing on an incident from the poet’s adolescence. Harrison, a working-class boy who found himself at the distinctly middle-class Leeds Grammar School, was pulled up for his regional speech in the middle of a lesson on ‘Ode to a Nightingale’:
4 words only of mi ‘art aches and … ‘Mine’s broken, you barbarian, T.W.!’ He was nicely spoken. ‘Can’t have our glorious heritage done to death!’
The first of the poems is dominated by the voice of the teacher, asserting his superiority in the plummy accent of the elite: ‘We say [Λs] not [uz], T.W.!’ That shut my trap.’ There are images of awkwardness and inarticulacy, references to the ‘stutterer Demosthenes’ with his ‘gob full of pebbles’ and the narrator’s sense of his mouth being ‘all stuffed with glottals, great lumps to hawk up and spit out’. The use of Greek lettering and phonemic symbols adds to the feeling that there’s some kind of barrier you have to break through, a code that needs to be followed in order to make sense.
The second poem, however, is the perfect riposte to the power of RP. There’s a defiance that runs all the way through, from the opening lines – ‘So right, yer buggers, then! We’ll occupy / Your lousy leasehold Poetry’ – to the narrator’s determination to harness the power of his own regional speech. He tells us that he
dropped the initials I’d been harried as and used my name and own voice: [uz] [uz] [uz], ended sentences with by, with, from, and spoke the language that I spoke at home.
Gone are the Northern stereotypes, the whippets and flat caps. Instead, there’s a reminder that regional speech is about identity, about loyalty. It’s a connection to where you’re from and the people to whom you’re most closely related. ‘[uz] can be loving as well as funny.’
The most brilliant thing about ‘Them & [uz]’, of course, is its take on the sonnet form. Both of its component poems are similar enough to a sonnet to have that sonnet feel. They have a regular rhyming pattern. The first is in rhyming couplets, and the second begins that way as well, though its final four lines have an alternating rhyme, a little twist at the end. (There’s something clever, though: Harrison’s rhyming of ‘from’ and ‘home’ only works as a full rhyme in certain Northern accents, where ‘home’ sounds more like ‘wom’. My dad, descended from generations of Lancashire miners, would, in full dialect mode, have pronounced ‘at home’ as ‘a’wom’.) But they don’t follow any of the typical sonnet patterns: they’re not Shakespearean, or Petrarchan, or Spenserian, or anything else other than themselves. There’s a fair amount of iambic pentameter in there, but not enough to make it completely regular. And, of course, the poems have sixteen lines each, not fourteen. It’s as if Harrison is sticking two fingers up to literary convention: Look. I know all about sonnets, all those rules and the things you’re supposed to do. But I’m not going to do what you tell me to do. I’m doing things my way. It’s a gorgeous, bolshy retort to all the language police out there, and I bloody love it.
Oooh, sonnets. I do love a sonnet. Partly it’s their compression, the tightness imposed by fourteen lines and the need to make every word earn its right to be included. When students say – as they do – ‘but did the poet mean it to be like that?’, the sonnet is the perfect riposte. Nobody writes a fourteen-line poem, in iambic pentameter and with a regular rhyming pattern, by accident: you don’t sit down one day and watch it flowing spontaneously from the end of your pen. But the main thing I love about sonnets – ironically, perhaps, for a form with such a strict underlying structure – is their flexibility. For me, the most interesting sonnets aren’t the ones that stick to convention. They’re the ones that play around with it, that bend the rules and do their own thing, with just enough of a nod to tradition that you can see exactly what they’re doing. This latter point is vital. We’ve got to have that little acknowledgement, the gesture that says yes, I know what I’m supposed to be doing, but I’m doing to do it like this instead. That conscious flouting, that archness, that audacity. It’s lovely.
My students have a number of encounters with sonnets over the years. The first is the Prologue in Romeo and Juliet, in Year Nine, when I introduce the idea of the sonnet as a poetic form. I do this not by frontloading information, but by examining the Prologue, getting students to count lines and syllables and work out the rhyming pattern, and then telling them that there is a type of poem called a sonnet that – in its most conventional form – has fourteen lines, a regular rhyming pattern and regular metre, and is about love. Students then have a homework task to find out five further pieces of information about sonnets, and we start the next lesson by sharing what they’ve discovered.
In this discussion, I focus much more on the purpose of the sonnet than on the different forms the sonnet can take. Students are apt to get bogged down in the differences between Petrarchan and Shakespearean, Spenserian and Miltonic, and want to know if they need to learn all the different rhyming patterns. But this is where I think we need to think about what kind of knowledge is genuinely useful to students at this stage. To me, one of the most important things that students need to know about sonnets is that they’re a form of poetic showing-off. Yes, they’re about expressing your love and praising the object of your affection, but they’re also about the manner in which you do this. You use an intricate rhyming pattern, an elaborate extended metaphor, an artful twist at the volta. A sonnet is as much about the describer as the described. It’s a strut, a peacock flaunting its tail. Imagine David Attenborough doing a commentary on some kind of courtship ritual, and you’ve got it.
All of this means that students are primed for their next encounter with a sonnet, the one formed by Romeo and Juliet’s lines when they first meet. They can make some thoughtful points about the hint that this is going to be a relationship of equals, not the wooer and the wooed. In Year Ten, when we study ‘Ozymandias’, they can interpret Shelley’s use of an unconventional rhyming pattern as evidence of his dislike of authority, and can also see his use of the sonnet form as an ironic comment on Ozymandias’ self-love (although it’s worth remembering the circumstances in which the poem was composed: Shelley and his friends were in the habit of challenging each other to write sonnets on particular topics, and ‘Ozymandias’ was written in response to one of these challenges). And so last week, when Year Eleven looked at Simon Armitage’s sonnet ‘I am very bothered’ as part of their work on unseen poetry, they were ready.
A little bit about methodology. Students are often spooked by unseen poetry, so I like to give them a clear routine to work through. We do AQA, and it’s worth remembering that in a normal year, the unseen poetry questions come right at the end of the longest exam that students will sit in any subject, the last 45 minutes of a two-and-a-quarter-hour marathon. They’ll be tired and they need a bit of breathing space. So I want them to use ten minutes to read the first poem. They do this in two stages. First, they read to try to get a sense of the poem as a whole. What’s it about? What happens? Who is speaking? Then they read it again. What do they notice about language? Are there any significant images? Is the poem divided into stanzas, and does it have a particular rhyming pattern? And, most importantly, what does all of this contribute to the meaning of the poem? We do a lot of work with What How Why, and therefore the students have developed a range of questions that they can ask as they are reading. Then, in class, the students share their ideas with a partner before we discuss the poem in more detail. What we definitely don’t do is work through a mnemonic like SMILE or AFOREST or any of their variations, because this kind of approach encourages feature-spotting, and it’s only a short step from there to banal comments like ‘the alliteration makes you want to read on’ or ‘the similes help the poem flow’. Students need to work with meaning, and for this they need to be able to respond flexibly rather than imposing a framework.
‘I am very bothered’ is a brilliant poem for getting students to read closely. The basic story is simple, if nasty: the speaker is looking back at his 13-year-old self, heating a pair of scissors in the flame of a Bunsen burner in a science lesson, and then handing them over to a girl who is consequently scarred for life. At first, it seems like an apology. My students picked up on the feeling of regret introduced by the opening words, the fact that the speaker is addressing the person he hurt. But then they noticed the sense of enjoyment. One of them commented on the way the speaker dwells on the process of ‘playing’ the handles in the ‘naked lilac flame’ of the Bunsen burner, drawing out the description as if luxuriating in it. They explored the exclamatory ‘O’ at the beginning of the second stanza, and the note of relish in ‘the unrivalled stench of branded skin’, heightened by the poem’s only use of end-rhyme. We talked about the connotations of ownership in ‘branded’, the implications of being ‘marked … for eternity’. There’s a lot of scope to link the poem to ‘My Last Duchess’, to themes of male violence and the way some men try to brand women with their ownership.
The ending of the poem needs careful untangling. What seems to be an apology actually isn’t. The final lines seem to be presenting this act as ‘just my butterfingered way / Of asking you if you would marry me’. Except they’re not. The speaker is very clear about this: ‘Don’t believe me, please, if I say …’ I’m glad he does, because otherwise the poem would seem like a trite request for forgiveness, just one more I was only trying to get your attention-type excuse. As it is, it’s a snapshot of twistedness.
I’d be careful about what kind of group I used this poem with, and would definitely be aware of individual experiences and reasons why some students might find the content difficult. I know that there are some students who would see the speaker of the poem as a lad, a total legend. But my current Year Elevens knew exactly how he should be viewed. They didn’t spot the use of the sonnet form until right at the end, but when they did, they commented that it made the speaker seem even more horrible. Knowing about the sonnet tradition – not only the idea of praise, but also that of showing off – added an extra dimension to their interpretation of the poem. Because this sonnet isn’t about the object of the speaker’s affections at all. It’s all about him, and his male ego.
We didn’t get round to writing about this poem before the end of term, but we have been using _codexterous’s model introductions in our work on unseen poetry, and this has given students a real sense of security. They’re using their opening sentences to establish a sense of the big picture before looking at how this is created, and their writing is really gaining confidence.
Sonnets are where this blog’s going to be at for a little while. Next up: Tony Harrison.