Carol Ann Duffy & Censorship

In the 1980’s, Carol Ann Duffy wrote the following poem:

Education for Leisure

Today I am going to kill something. Anything.
I have had enough of being ignored and today
I am going to play God. It is an ordinary day,
a sort of grey with boredom stirring in the streets.

I squash a fly against the window with my thumb.
We did that at school. Shakespeare. It was in
another language and now the fly is in another language.
I breathe out talent on the glass to write my name.

I am a genius. I could be anything at all, with half
the chance. But today I am going to change the world.
Something’s world. The cat avoids me. The cat
knows I am a genius, and has hidden itself.

I pour the goldfish down the bog. I pull the chain.
I see that it is good. The budgie is panicking.
Once a fortnight, I walk the two miles into town
for signing on. They don’t appreciate my autograph.

There is nothing left to kill. I dial the radio
and tell the man he’s talking to a superstar.
He cuts me off. I get our bread-knife and go out.
The pavements glitter suddenly. I touch your arm.

And it’s been in GCSE poetry anthologies ever since. Well, until 2008, when exam boards buckled under pressure from teachers and removed the poem from their anthologies because of its violent content.

Now, I was taught this poem in 2006 whilst studying for my GCSEs. I didn’t think it was overtly violent, and it certainly didn’t encourage me to go out and kill someone. And yet, this poem has been banned in many schools because of fears it would encourage students to commit knife crime. Apparently, teachers had been making complaints about this poem for years, one teacher from a school near Hull, commenting: “It really does worry me that we could be endorsing violent feelings. It is about an unemployed individual who seeks recognition by killing. It is a very powerful poem – but that is my point, we do not want blood on our hands.”

Dramatic much?

One exam invigilator, Pat Schofield, one of the most outspoken people to welcome the ban, said: “I think it is absolutely horrendous – what sort of message is that to give to kids who are reading it as part of their GCSE syllabus?”

Again, very dramatic.

But this is the part of the story I love. Carol Ann Duffy responded. With a poem:

Mrs. Schofield’s GCSE

You must prepare your bosom for his knife,
said Portia to Antonio in which
of Shakespeare’s Comedies? Who killed his wife,
insane with jealousy? And which Scots witch
knew Something wicked this way comes? Who said
Is this a dagger which I see? Which Tragedy?
Whose blade was drawn which led to Tybalt’s death?
To whom did dying Caesar say Et tu? And why?
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark – do you
know what this means? Explain how poetry
pursues the human like the smitten moon
above the weeping, laughing earth; how we
make prayers of it. Nothing will come of nothing:
speak again. Said by which King? You may begin.

This poem is such a clever response in my opinion. Why has ‘Education for Leisure’ been censored, when violence is regularly depicted in the plays of the most prominent author in the English canon, William Shakespeare? Using references from plays such as The Merchant of Venice:  ‘You must prepare your bosom for his knife,/said Portia to Antonio/in which of Shakespeare’s Comedies?’, Romeo and Juliet: ‘Whose blade was drawn which led to Tybalt’s death?’, and Macbeth: ‘And which Scots witch knew/Something wicked this way comes?’, Duffy makes her point very clear.

I am a huge Shakespeare fan, but I agree with Duffy; Pat Schofield seems to have forgotten all the other references to knife crime in the English literary canon.

As I said at the beginning, reading ‘Education for Leisure’ in class didn’t make me go out that evening and knife someone. Nor did it make any of my classmates do so. And if a student does go out with a knife in an attempt to maim or kill another person, I really don’t think we should be blaming a poem.

The Devil’s Wife

On the way home from school one day, aged nine, a news report on the radio told its listeners, including my Nan and I, that Myra Hindley had been hospitalised. As I listened, I wondered who this woman was, why she was important, and asked my Nan the question that would lead to many a sleepless night; ‘Who is Myra Hindley?’

A nine-year old’s mind is often irrational in its fear of something; some are afraid of ghosts, others of the monster under the bed. I was afraid of Myra Hindley and Ian Brady; the Moors Murderers, whose killing spree in the 1960s terrified me. Did they know where I lived? What if they came to find me? I couldn’t get what they had done out of my head.

In hindsight, my Nan probably shouldn’t have tMyra Hindleyold a nine-year old about the Moors Murders, and if she had, maybe she should have omitted certain aspects of the story. But from that point onwards, I always wondered why two people had ‘gone so bad’, how they could have committed such atrocious crimes, and why one of them was constantly fighting to be released from prison. I mean, wasn’t she sorry?!

The fear lessened as I got older; I knew that the pair of them couldn’t ‘get me’, and in 2002, Myra Hindley died. But I never forgot what they did and how disgusted I felt, and still feel, about their crimes.

But I find that when you’re scared of something, you want to find out more about it. So I did; I watched documentaries and read books on this period in history, to get a better understanding of how two people could be so evil. It’s pretty hard to admit that you’re interested in two serial killers, without being seen as a psycho or a potential serial killer yourself. But I’m not alone, and when Carol Ann Duffy wrote this poem from Myra Hindley’s point of view, I found it really thought-provoking.

I think you need to have a good understanding of Myra Hindley’s life in order to truly understand the references Duffy makes in this poem. But if you do, it’s such an interesting read.

Before Myra Hindley, women were seen as incapable of such a crime. But she ‘gave the camera my Medusa stare’, and from then on, she was portrayed in the media as a heartless monster; a soulless woman, and from my point of view, rightfully so. But she had her supporters too; most notably, ‘her MP’-Lord Longford, whose political views are incredibly amusing in their contradictory nature.

Duffy really gives Myra Hindley a voice in this poem, and it’s pretty chilling stuff. Yes, the devil is evil, but the devil’s wife; how can a woman allow herself to covet such a title?

The Devil’s Wife

1. Dirt

The Devil was one of the men at work,
Different. Fancied himself. Looked at the girls
in the office as though they were dirt. Didn’t flirt.
Didn’t speak. Was sarcastic and rude if he did.
I’d stare him out, chewing on my gum, insolent, dumb.
I’d lie on my bed at home, on fire for him.

I scowled and pouted and sneered. I gave
as good as I got till he asked me out. In his car
He put two fags in his mouth and lit them both.
He bit my breast. His language was foul. He entered me.
We’re the same, he said, That’s it. I swooned in my soul.
We drove to the woods and he made me bury a doll.

I went mad for the sex. I won’t repeat what we did.
We gave up going to work. It was either the woods
or looking at playgrounds, fairgrounds. Coloured lights
in the rain. I’d walk around on my own. He tailed.
I felt like this: Tongue of stone. Two black slates
for eyes. Thumped wound of a mouth. Nobody’s Mam.

2. Medusa

I flew in my chains over the wood where we’d buried
the doll. I know it was me who was there.
I know I carried the spade. I know I was covered in mud.
But I cannot remember how or when or precisely where.

Nobody liked my hair. Nobody liked how I spoke.
He held my heart in his fist and he squeezed it dry.
I gave the cameras my Medusa stare.
I heard the judge summing up. I didn’t care.

I was left to rot. I was locked up, double-locked.
I know they chucked the key. It was nowt to me.
I wrote to him every day in our private code.
I thought in twelve, fifteen, we’d be out on the open road.

But life, they said, means life. Dying inside.
The Devil was evil, mad, but I was the Devil’s wife
which made me worse. I howled in my cell.
If the Devil was gone then how could this be hell?

3. Bible

I said No not me I didn’t I couldn’t I wouldn’t.
Can’t remember no idea not in the room.
Get me a Bible honestly promise you swear.
I never not in a million years it was him.

I said Send me a lawyer a vicar a priest.
Send me a TV crew send me a journalist.
Can’t remember not in the room. Send me
a shrink where’s my MP send him to me.

I said Not fair not right not on not true
not like that. Didn’t see didn’t know didn’t hear.
Maybe this maybe that not sure not certain maybe.
Can’t remember no idea it was him it was him.

Can’t remember no idea not in the room.
No idea can’t remember not in the room.

4. Night

In the long fifty-year night,
these are the words that crawl out of the wall:
Suffer. Monster. Burn in Hell.
When morning comes,
I will finally tell.

5. Appeal

If I’d been stoned to death
If I’d been hung by the neck
If I’d been shaved and strapped to the Chair
If an injection
If my peroxide head on the block
If my tongue torn out at the root
If from ear to ear my throat
If a bullet a hammer a knife
If life means life means life means life

But what did I do to us all, to myself
When I was the Devil’s wife?