“There is no sound reason, of any sort or kind, for concealing the facts when talking to children.” – Bertrand Russell.
The facts in the case are as follows: last week the exam board AQA ordered schools to remove from their GCSE curriculum an anthology of verse containing the Carol Ann Duffy poem ‘Education for Leisure’ because, they claim, said poem glorifies knife crime. AQA took the decision to have the book removed after an external examiner at Lutterworth College, Leicestershire – one Pat Schofield – complained. So now a poem which has been left in the curriculum, invisible and totally unmolested since the 80s (presumably with no ill-effect), has been deliberately shielded from our teenage children’s eyes – no questions asked, no debates had: just removed.
Before we get into the rights and wrongs of such an action, we might start by looking at the poet and her poem. Carol Ann Duffy has been a leading figure in British verse since she exploded on the scene in the 1980s with her debut collection Standing Female Nude (from which ‘Education for Leisure’ is taken). She is widely credited with bringing the art of persona back into English verse by injecting her poetry with a vibrant wit, burning word-play, and knowing irony. She is one of the few living poets who can still claim a sizable readership. Her influence on much contemporary verse is manifestly obvious. She’s often tipped as a potential next Laureate, though I can’t help but wonder if she would take it.
Ms Duffy’s poem puts us inside the head of angry, inarticulate youth: “Today I am going to kill something. Anything./I have had enough of being ignored and today/I am going to play God.” This dole-bound Raskolnikov first squashes a fly against a window, then flushes a goldfish down the toilet, before grabbing a breadknife at the end and heading onto the streets intent, presumably, on acting out his violent fantasies. The nameless narrator of this poem is the classic deluded Nietzschian; filled with a self-loathing which manifests itself both in his delusions of greatness and in his rage at the world for not recognising this fact: “I am a genius. I could be anything at all,/with half the chance. But today I am going to change the world…Once a fortnight, I walk the two miles into town/for signing on. They don’t appreciate my autograph.” A nobody, in other words, who dreams of being a somebody; a voice that is both slightly pathetic and yet potentially disturbed, producing an effect which is, in the end, quite chilling.
By now you might be wondering what, if anything, this has to do with knife-crime, to which my answer would be: precisely. When Ms. Duffy wrote her poem knife-crime was not the hot topic it is today. Presumably, had her narrator picked up a gun at the end of the poem, and not a blade, Mrs Schofield wouldn’t have had a problem. Coming to Duffy’s defence, her literary agent Peter Strauss called the decision to remove the poem from the syllabus “absolutely ridiculous,” saying that ‘Education for Leisure’ was, “an anti-violence poem…a plea for education rather than violence.” He’s right on the first count, but wrong on the second. Of course the decision is ridiculous: saying this poem glorifies knife-crime is like saying The Cement Garden glorifies incest. The poem neither glorifies knife-crime, nor deplores it. In fact, the work actually says nothing about knife-crime at all: it’s a character portrait, no more, no less, and as such draws much of its chilling power from the sharp ambiguity inherent in the contrast between the relish with which the character’s thoughts are rendered, and the psychotic nature of those thoughts. It is the amorality that disturbs, not the immorality.
All of this was apparently lost on Mrs Schofield, who described Duffy’s poem as “absolutely horrendous”, a comment which only succeeds in raising the question of why this poor lady is even in the position she is. Duffy replied in the only way she could given the absurdity of the situation: in verse. In the poem ‘Mrs Schofield’s GCSE’, all Duffy has to do is point up some of the violence that litters the work of Shakespeare to illustrate the arbitrariness of Schofield’s reaction and the AQA’s decision. For her part, Mrs Schofield was reported to be “gobsmacked” at being the recipient of retort by poesy, adding that she found work “a bit weird. But having read her other poems I found they were all a bit weird. But that’s me.” Leaving aside the issue of censorship for a moment, what I find particularly disturbing about this case is that we seem to have a system in place whereby one sole complaint is enough to effect changes on the curricula – for all our children. Who made Mrs Schofield – a woman who is clearly a philistine (“I found they were all a bit weird”) and a self proclaimed one at that (“But that’s me”) – the moral authority as regards the verse our children can and cannot study? “The literal mind,” wrote Christopher Hitchens, “is baffled by the ironic one,” and someone who believes ‘Education for Leisure’ glorifies knife-crime, and finds Duffy’s poetry “a bit weird” shouldn’t really be in the education system at all, let alone in the position to effect changes in the syllabus.
What I would want to ask Mrs Schofield and the AQA is this: what, exactly, do they hope to gain from their decision? Do they really think this poem harmful to the welfare of our children? Do they genuinely believe removing this text from the syllabus will protect our children? And if so, from what? Let us suppose, for a second, that the case against Ms Duffy’s poem is proven: do Mrs Schofield and the AQA really think violence in the inner cities is a result of too much poetry? Or that the perpetrators of knife crime are influenced by literature? Perhaps they believe the danger lies in the poem’s potential to inspire future violence? In which case, shouldn’t we – if our pupil’s are so easily ‘programmed’ by the printed word – completely reassess the entire curriculum? After all, isn’t History not only “a bit weird” but also – it could be argued – a massive glorification of violence? I’d hazard a guess at what their answer would be too: the AQA would probably start bleating something about “sensitivity” – that watered-down, post-pc notion that always pops up in cases of self-censorship such as this. What with the times being what they are, they would argue, their actions show sensitivity towards the victims of knife-crime and their families. After all, we wouldn’t want to offend or upset anyone now would we? But if the AQA has shown any sensitivity at all it is only towards the ill-informed opinion of one woman: Mrs Schofield is the only one who has been ‘offended’ here, the kids – in the words of Pete Townsend – are alright.
I was prompted to write this piece because censorship was one of the first issues to animate me as a political animal, and it was one I had largely thought was behind me. When I was growing up things were always getting banned: pop songs were refused air-time; films were denied cinema releases; films were refused video certificates. Mary Whitehouse was always there in the background, banging on, but she was a little too old for me to take seriously. My particular bête noir was former head of the BBFC, James Ferman. Even as a young teenager I could see how illogical it was to have some old man in London – who had presumably watched all the things he banned – telling me, and everybody else, what we could and couldn’t see. What Ferman was in effect saying by withholding the likes of The Exorcist, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre from the eyes of the British population was that he had watched these films, and while he was mature enough and sane enough to handle them, you my dear simply couldn’t be trusted with such material. I was patronised and offended by such mentality as soon as I had learned to think.
I knew though, that Ferman was a man out of touch with his times, and that as soon as he retired, all of those films I’d have had to track down illegally if I wanted to watch them at all, would suddenly start appearing. So it proved: come his exit in 1999 and not only did we see the return of most of the material banned since the video nasty days, but pornography laws were also significantly relaxed (you could show a hard-on!). Then there was the internet. Such a revolutionary source of free information, it seemed to me, effectively rendered the concept of censorship irrelevant overnight. Admittedly – as Chinese users would no doubt attest – the free speech aspect of the web has not exactly proven utopian or universal. It has nonetheless rendered Western states’ systems of censorship entirely ineffectual, to the point where I simply can’t remember the last time a film was banned, or a song removed from the airwaves, or a book’s publication suppressed, by government machinations. After the floodgates were opened, there seemed no point in going back to Ferman’s patriarchal “ooh no, you can’t watch this” attitude. In these days of Saw and Hostel the very fact that such crude low budget fare as The Exorcist was banned at all seems laughably quaint.
In this context the censorship of Duffy’s poem seems all the more bizarre: a retrograde step back into more unenlightened times. Does Mrs Schofield really know any of the schoolchildren on whose behalf she so diligently complained? This is a generation raised on violent movies, violent video games, and the grand guignol that is the internet – does Mrs Schofield really think ‘Education for Leisure’ holds the capacity to shock or harm these children? I think you’ll find they are made of tougher stuff. The children at the mercy of our GCSE system ought to feel deeply patronised. I know I do.