“Jake Balokowsky, my biographer/Has this page microfilmed”. So wrote Philip Larkin in a grouchy poem, “Posterity”, about being a famous poet. Many English literature academics know how it feels to have prying eyes on their work right now – only instead of a scholar with a book contract, it’s a journalist with a cynical freedom of information request.
I say cynical because the aim is not to obtain accurate information – which every academic would happily provide for free – but to legitimise yet another story about how campus recycling bins around the country are filling with the works of cancelled authors.
This is (to quote Larkin at his bluntest) a load of crap. I know because in the School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, where I teach, we received such a request last year. I saw the emails and reading lists we handed over. And I saw the tabloid news story, illustrated by a big picture of Shakespeare, which suggested that we were “abandoning” him by replacing an introductory module featuring Henry IV Part 1 with one about English as a global language.
The reality is that our students can still spend weeks reading Shakespeare. But reality is not the point of these stories, which always appear in right-wing newspapers, complete with outrage from rent-a-quote reactionaries. The point is to harvest furious clicks by taking aim at what is widely known as the “decolonising” of English studies.
Decolonising literature is, among other things, concerned with acknowledging and addressing the fact that as an academic subject English has systematically promoted white, male authors as a superior sort of being ever since its colonial origins in the English Education Act of 1835, which spread English-language education in India. This is not a new argument. In a book from 1986 called Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, the Kenyan novelist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o wrote: “TS Eliot’s high culture of an Anglo-Catholic feudal tradition [is] suspiciously close […] to the racial doctrines of those born to rule.” Ngũgĩ, who was educated in the British colonial system, was not dismissing Eliot as worthless – elsewhere, he quotes admiringly from Four Quartets – but he was criticising him by attempting to describe his worldview accurately.
It seems to be hard for some journalists and politicians to grasp the idea that you can criticise a writer from a historical perspective or take them off a reading list without feeding their works into a woodchipper. Last week the Times hit the poetry panic button, reporting that Larkin and Wilfred Owen had been discarded by one of the three main GCSE exam boards, who at the same time had introduced contemporary poets from a wide range of backgrounds: “GCSE removes Wilfred Owen and Larkin in diversity push”. Immediately Nadhim Zahawi, the Education Secretary, tweeted: “Larkin and Owen are two of our finest poets. Removing their work from the curriculum is cultural vandalism. Their work must be passed on to future generations – as it was to me. I will be speaking to the exam board to make this clear.”
It is touching, in a way, that Zahawi has such faith in exams to leave our children with a love of these poets, and not a lifelong aversion to them. I loved Larkin when I was 15, but I was a freak as far as my friends were concerned: we weren’t even studying him (or Owen) for GCSE – I was reading poetry in my spare time, like a swot from a comic.
We all have a fondness for what stays with us from school. Recently I found my GCSE English anthology in the loft. Its biro-scored pages reminded me that some of the poems I liked most were by poets you hardly ever hear about now: Edward Lucie-Smith, Norman Nicholson, Coventry Patmore. The richness of poetry in English is the inheritance of everyone who learns the language, and “our finest poets” are a lifetime’s reading. Why insist on two?
Showing this tatty old booklet to my daughter, who is studying for her GCSEs, two other things struck me. First, there were no poems by women at all. And second, of the three poems by writers who were not white, two had been marked by my teachers as “Not for Study”, including a satirical monologue by Wole Soyinka about a 1950s English landlady whose attitude to Black immigrants echoes racist sentiments expressed in Larkin’s letters.
Zahawi came to England from Iraq in the late Seventies, when he was eleven years old. He followed up his tweet about the Times article with another: “As a teenager improving my grasp of the English language, Larkin’s poems taught me so much about my new home.” Larkin’s poems, with their virtuoso, photographic phrasing (“car-tuning curt-haired sons”), do preserve in miniature a familiar version of England at that time. But it’s also an England with no immigration: a fantasy land, no more real than Last of the Summer Wine. Now students will have the chance to read Warsan Shire, a British-Somali poet who has written unforgettable lines of visceral empathy with immigrant lives (“I watch the news and my mouth becomes a sink full of blood”).
As a white teenager growing up in rural Norfolk in the Nineties, I wish my teachers had taken the chance to talk about the Soyinka poem in class. It might have helped us to understand structural racism as the scaffolding of the home country we took for granted (not something our history lessons, untroubled by centuries of empire, were about to do). Taking such revelations to my wider reading, it might even have dawned on me that “Posterity” is insidiously anti-Semitic in its caricature of a left-wing Jewish American academic writing about an “old fart” like Larkin for money, rather than “teach[ing] school in Tel Aviv”.
Larkin can still be found in bookshops and libraries across the country. The poems of Soyinka – a Nigerian Nobel laureate who studied in Leeds – have been out of print for decades. The decolonisation of English has a long way to go. If Tory politicians and the British press sincerely believe in the educational importance of literature, and the necessity of critical discussion, they should stop trivialising serious efforts to modernise what students read.