Please Vote Remain

I’m currently polishing up the (final, I hope) draft of my book. Amongst other things, it’s about the way in which people buy into certain ideas of ‘Englishness’ for strategic reasons, and in particular, the ways in which people exploit the rhetoric of their own powerlessness in order – paradoxically – to police and perpetuate conservative social and economic structures. Although I’m writing about fourteenth and fifteenth-century England, it feels uncomfortably close to the bone today.

I can’t express the reasons to vote Remain better than anyone else you’ll hear. Many will stick in my mind, but in particular this piece by Jenni Hill, the series of heartbreaking posts by my fellow medievalist Sjoerd Levelt, and the conversations I’ve been having with my partner, who is the only person in her working group – a group who are working to find a cure for TB as incidence of the disease rises in the UK and elsewhere – eligible to vote in the current election. I can understand the fears and feelings that make people want to vote ‘leave’. I can understand the dogged optimism that convinces people it will somehow be alright if we do – that we won’t, against all predictions, crash economically and culturally. That we won’t give credibility to the sort of politics that clamours for the UK to leave because it harks back to a twisted image of British rule. I can understand it, but I don’t share it.

Please vote. Please vote ‘Remain’.

 

 

 

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This Poem is Not ‘Relatable’: Carol Ann Duffy and Tory Grammar

The other day, I – glibly, I admit, and probably leaning a little bit on educational capital – characterised Carol Ann Duffy’s poem for Orlando as ‘terrible’.

And I stand by that. Duffy can write gorgeous, brilliant poetry – I love the opening parts of Wenceslas, for example. I love the way its half-rhymes on ‘wherein’ and ‘Swan’ chime against the full rhymes on ‘river’ and ‘forever’, and ‘parboiled and oiled’. I love the way the syntax builds, from gently meandering phrases loaded with nouns, to a brisk procession of culinary verbs. I like the way the ‘sing a song of sixpence’ picture of a pie full of birds is juxtaposed with the arcane terminology of a medieval cookbook and with an echo of Dylan Thomas. And in pointing out that I like these things I am, I know, tacitly setting out my credentials to criticise, too.

I could say that Gay Love is, beneath its apparent hectoring simplicity, a sophisticated piece of unexpected tensions. I could say that the doggerel-like, jingling rhyme scheme that hammers through the poem reflects the very ubiquity of homosexuality that Duffy depicts, or that its distribution in internal rhymes and across lines of varying lengths reflects the irregularity of queerness, or the disruptive transgression of established form so beloved of undergraduates who’ve read too much Foucault. I could probably cobble together an argument that the depiction of the only three unambiguously gendered women in the poem – the writer, introduced anonymously, because god knows we’ve enough known and named women writers in English Lit), the ‘calm’ doctor (it’s ok: she’s only taking your pulse, we’ll leave the hard science to the Man Person) and the ‘actress’ (does anyone really use ‘actress’ any more) – is in fact an ironic exposé of internalised sexism. I take the point (made in response to my previous post) that it is only my own searing misogyny that interprets the un-marked gender of butcher, baker, candlestick maker and children as presumptively masculine. I could even claim with a straight face that ‘baling the gold hay’ is a well-known rural gay men’s euphemism for cottaging and that mockery of it would be to appropriate and erase the queer farming community.

But it would be a struggle. Because, truthfully, I think the rhyme scheme is leaden, that the syntax – unfortunately – works with beautiful mimetic effect only when describing the anxieties of the closeted politician, that the imagery is trite and reactionary, and that the last line isn’t particularly original or clever.

Jem Bloomfield, discussing the predictable backlash against that last line, argues that comments reveal ‘the woeful state of public discussion of poetry – lurches between “it has A Meaning” and “means whatever you feel like”.’ This, I think, is spot on. When I’ve mentioned disliking this poem over the last few days, a fair few people have immediately assured me that Duffy’s message is tolerance. That the poem ‘means’ good things. That when Duffy chose to celebrate an oh-so-British-middle-class set of establishment and salt-of-the-earth figures, she was just choosing ‘representative’ people. Or she didn’t really mean to imply that we should only tolerate homosexuality because doctors, farmers and scientists are useful to us. Or that to criticise the poem is ‘overthinking’ because the ‘message’ is positive. Technical details – the focus on the nitty-gritty of the poem – just get in the way of talking about the ‘meaning’.

I mention all of this, partly as a context for that original glib comment, but partly also because I think it illustrates a wider oddity about the way we look at language and literature. Recently, I have been – for my sins – thinking about the way English is taught. I have a fair amount of ongoing cynicism about the motivations behind the current government’s reforms of Humanities teaching, and I do think these reforms have a more-than-incidental relationship to wider issues.

I wasn’t one of the people who jumped up and down in fury when I learned that the new requirements for primary school children include a hefty amount of formal grammar teaching. On the face of it, this didn’t seem particularly awful to me. I could even see the case for teaching quite young children to identify things like modal verbs or subjunctive moods. Why not? Some of them, as my friend pointed out, referring to her daughter, might actually enjoy it. But what I did wonder about – as I trawled through reams of government guidelines talking earnestly about graphemes and phonemes and fronted adverbials – was how carefully this vocabulary set itself up as precise, pseudo-scientific in its Latin and Greek roots. It evokes, too, the formal grammar training I associate with a certain kind of education – the kind of education that taught grammar in English via Latin, and (longer ago) imposed Latin grammatical structures onto English. It is, in short, an educational programme that evokes the same kind of ‘Englishness’ Duffy depicts in her poem: class-bound, Establishment Culture Englishness.

But when we look at the literature side, there’s something peculiar going on. Children are allowed to read (and write) ‘narratives’ or even down-to-earth ‘stories’. They’re encouraged to talk about ‘events’ and ‘themes’. What, not a whisper about the distinction between fabula and syuzhet? Colour me shocked.

It would be cynical to suggest that the reason children aren’t taught heavy theoretical vocabulary to use for describing literature is that there’s no history of associating this kind of formal study with socially privileged Englishness, as there manifestly is with the study of grammar. It would be worse than cynical to observe that ‘grapheme’ and ‘phoneme’ sound pleasantly Classical, suggestive of the clinical precision of scientific terminology or the nostalgic memory of Upper VI A doing Latin prep for Oxbridge entrance. By contrast, even anglicised from фабула and сюжет, the vocab on the lit side speaks a little too plainly of its origins on the other side of the Iron Curtain and offers the worrying reminder that there is still a place called Europe out there somewhere, and its not all made of Classical ruins to put on postcards.

The simple terminology on the lit side is, unfortunately, not a sign of incongruous common sense breaking into the document. There’s nothing wrong with calling a story a story; there’s nothing wrong at all with some recommendations, for example the suggestion that children might think about what themes go into the making of a fairy tale, or how narratives could be told differently from different speakers’ perspectives.

But there isn’t very much of this. The guidelines stress the importance of teaching children to interpret literature as a way of talking about morality or identity: to think about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ or to ‘identify with’ the emotions of characters. Listening to students – even students at university studying English literature – you could come to the conclusion that Chaucer and Shakespeare both set pen to paper for the sole purpose of providing readers in 2016 with a ‘relatable’ moral lesson, a kind of literary message in a bottle. Generally (because our focus is strongly on ‘identifying’ with characters in literary texts) this will be a message mysteriously in keeping with the mores of twenty-first-century British society. If we follow this line of thinking, Chaucer’s Wife of Bath is providing something akin to documentary reportage of the Woman Question circa 1389, and the literary aspects of the text – its genre, its style, its rhetorical tropes, its prosody – are all somehow excluded from the experience. Technical details, once again, just get in the way.

It seems to me that this odd imbalance – the hyper-precise, rigorous approach to English language, and the impressionistic, moralising approach to English literature – sets up students particularly inadequately. I’ve been told that the precise teaching of grammar is something I should welcome, as a lit specialist, something that will produce students who can understand exactly how a poem is put together, and what it means. I’m not convinced. If we teach children that all literature must be ‘relatable’ without giving them the tools to identify why and how it communicates, we’re pushing them to accept writers’ world views uncritically, to discount the nuances and tensions and subtextual implications, and to believe the ‘right’ reading is a simple, moral lesson.

 

We are Not Orlando: Spurious Community Building and the Failure to Name the Problem

We are all queer now.

Or at least, that is how it seems, if you’ve been following the media lately. The only acceptable response to the shootings in Orlando has – rapidly – become not horror, sorrow, shock or sympathy, but a declaration that you, the speaker, are part of the tragedy too. For once, I was impressed by Owen Jones, who insistently attempted to keep the discussion of the headlines on Sky News focussed on the political point: that this shooting was motivated by homophobia, and that homophobia is not a problem the West has solved. But almost everywhere else, and stunningly quickly, I saw people hurrying to concentrate on the personal, not the political. There is a hashtag, #WeAreOrlando. An article by Melissa Harris-Perry urged straight women to feel guilty that spaces ‘safe’ for them were not ‘safe’ for gay men (not that being a straight woman protected MP Jo Cox, shot at close range in her constituency on Thursday). A piece by Laurie Penny describes how the author’s own emotions built to catharsis at a vigil in London:

I don’t cry in front of other people, she explains. The tears clot in my heart and I have to go somewhere private to dig them out. But, somehow, the experience of coming together on a London street to think about forty-nine dead men and women in America provided catharsis. Embracing her housemate, Penny remembers: We cuddled, and she said “It’s OK to be us. It’s OK to be us.” And I said, “I know.”

Love wins, Penny concludes – though how, I’m not quite sure. How are we going to change things? What are we going to do?

The last straw, for me, was this poem, written by Carol Ann Duffy, about Orlando. I do understand that, as poet laureate and as a lesbian, she is probably more or less required to do this, and I can’t imagine writing poetry to order is particularly easy. But, by any stretch of the imagination, it’s a terrible poem – not just as a tribute to the dead, but as a message, too. The writer, the priest, the farmer, the teacher, the politician, the doctor, the scientist, the judge and the actress – so we are assured, in rhymed doggerel – are gay.

The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker
Our children, are gay.
And God is gay.

Ok, we get it. Everyone is gay, even ordinary people. Most of them, we note, are also male, except the actress and the doctor. Goodness, what did she do to be included in the pantheon? Duffy’s doctor is ‘calm’; her politician is neatly dressed in a suit and tie. It’s a list of safe establishment figures, of people neatly tucked away in the closet. This comes across – rather appallingly, in my view – as a list of people whose respectable occupations ought to persuade you it’s in your own interests to tolerate homosexuality.

None of them seem to bear much resemblance to the forty-nine people who died in Orlando, who also seem – if you’ll excuse me – rather different from Laurie Penny. Or me. Yet we are – once again – being pushed the idea that the only way to respond to this attack is to rewrite it in our own image, to write over it with images that look more like us, to clamour over it with the insistence that it’s not just them, it’s us, too. This is spurious community-building. It might make us feel better, but it doesn’t do anything, and it doesn’t respect the memory of the dead.

Yesterday, I came across this article (shared, if I remember rightly, by Dorothy Kim), about the Veracruz shooting, in a gay club in Veracruz, Mexico, on May 22nd. Didn’t read about it at the time? No, nor me. We weren’t encouraged to take that event and make it into a performance of personal emotion, to appropriate it as a way to demonstrate how virtuously outraged we are, how close we feel to the tragedy. And it doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to work out why that was.

Meanwhile, one of the first things I heard when Jo Cox was shot yesterday, was an outburst of angry reactions against women who referred to this as ‘male violence’ or ‘violence against women’. And I’m disturbed by this dynamic. We declare ‘we are Orlando’; we declare that we, too, are the victims. We erase the differences between us and them, the differences that left them dead and us living. Yet, when it comes to naming perpetrators, we – like Owen Jones’s co-panelists on Sky News – become strangely defensive; strangely quiet. We don’t want to talk about the fact that homophobia and misogyny are rooted in a system of ongoing oppression that can’t be wished away by waving a rainbow flag.

There’s a spurious sense of community here, I think: or rather, a sense of community that is clearly genuinely felt, but which doesn’t meaningfully unite either in recognition of the victims of Orlando – who have been overshadowed, and their particular, individual experiences glossed over – or in opposition to the structural power that produced the conditions that made their murder possible, that made the murder of Jo Cox possible. At the most basic level, the victims of Orlando – the victims of Veracruz – and Jo Cox all died because someone decided their lives were expendable, worth less than the life of the shooter, less than the life of a man with a gun.

So, what can we do? I don’t think I have a good answer (and it wouldn’t be my place to have one, either). But there are things that I think can help. I read. I listen to people like Prof. Cath Andrews, who lives and works in Mexico, and often publicises incidents of violence against women and marginalised groups, which otherwise don’t make it into English-language media. Likewise, I listen to Dorothy Kim and Jonathan Hsy, both medievalists who relate history to modern structural problems, with a particular focus on marginalised groups. I listen to Karen Ingala Smith, who continues (against considerable aggression) to document the kind of violence Jo Cox faced, and to show that these are not one-off acts of madness, but patterns of violence against women. I listen to Carissa Harris, who describes how she teaches her students about the histories of sexuality, race and gender. This list of people is a personal list. That’s the point. Rather than pretending our responses are universal, we should be acknowledging that they are personal. They’re partial. By acknowledging that specificity, we can respect the individuality of the victims of hate crimes, and we can also – I believe – better identify the hidden structures of power and violence that characterise the perpetrators of these attacks. We can learn to see them, to name them – and ultimately, I hope, to fight them.

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MP Jo Cox (centre)

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In memoriam