Tuesday, 30 August 2011

English Riots: just a walk in the park?

I think his name was Jeff Glynn. Jeff, if you’re out there I dedicate this piece to you in thanks for the memory...

I was a naive English Literature undergraduate, straight and vanilla as one can be (secondary school educated, simple soul, late into uni) when Jeff unexpectedly came into our very... proper tutorial on Emily Bronte. Our usual lecturer was absent for some reason or other and in bounded Jeff, looking suitably disreputable and talking about how “Wuthering Heights” was about the suppression of sexual energy expressed in the imagery of the orifice.

Shocked and stunned to the core, I learned about Heathcliffe’s entries... usually through windows and (MOST shamefully) the occasional back door... violently coming to sounds of breaking glass. I...was...SCANDALISED. No way would Emily Bronte seek to corrupt her dear readers (oops, sorry for the error in form, wrong century but you get the idea).
I think I may have confronted Jeff about his interpretation. I seem to remember a self-satisfied grin, in hindsight aimed at a fairly sad, superficial, aspiring intellectual and self-righteous moron whom he had totally flabbergasted. And of course he was probably right. Heathcliffe did indeed make every one of those violent entries. I know now that Wuthering Heights was never really a mere gothic romance but also a study in abusive, co-dependent relationships. The former worked for me for a while – until I grew up to also understand that Bronte may or may not have understood the power of her symbolism but despite her claustrophobic and isolated upbringing the need to express herself was gloriously fulfilled in her creative imagination. Had it not been for Jeff, my addiction to the simplistic assertion could have resulted in lifelong crassness.

Mind you, one can take an interpretation too far. Fast forward 10 years to my second teaching job in inner-city Leeds and to a boy called Joseph. We were looking at a fairly trite poem about a walk in a park for GCE (no, not GCSE. This was in the “time before...”). I remember asking for comments and soon after was brought full circle back to Jeff. “Miss, I think this is about sex. The woman is walking down a path and is careful not to tread outside of it or she would have to deal with the ‘rough mown grass’ (see I said it was trite) and the sexual problems she may find there. The ‘rose arbour’ (I kid you not) she is going under symbolises her sexual awakening and may even be (he blushed), her vagina”.

Absolute flabbergasted silence. What to do? Clearly I had to give credence to this interpretation if nothing else to consolidate the victory he had over his classmates, being probably the first one in their experience to mention the word ‘vagina’ in class and to a teacher at that. But it was definitely a pudding well over-egged, an interpretation of a piece of mid-Victorian romantic schmaltz that bore no resemblance to anything remotely sexual and would certainly result in a disastrous fail if this was somehow horribly transmogrified into an examination response. Or was this just me? Again. Had I just never shaken off my reluctance to dig a bit deeper into my sexual psyche and so to properly engage in the symbolism of sex . In the silence that encompassed Joseph’s interpretation, I did think about this even then (such was the power of Glynn). But in the end...“No, Joseph”, I said gently. “I think this is just about a walk in the park”.

And so we fast forward another 20 years and to a country that seemingly went mad. And I’m finding myself thinking again of Jeff Glynn. We have been given another narrative to interrogate; another piece of real-life ‘text’ to interpret and contextualise. We’ve heard of people inciting riot on social media, kids strapping hammers to their legs, men getting mowed down in full public view for protecting their property. Businesses burned, flats gutted and people made homeless. The recent trouble on our streets has been interpreted in many ways. “It’s the cuts... it’s the police... it’s the consequences of deprivation” .
Although no doubt the reasons stem from a cocktail of circumstances one thing is certain: if we get it wrong... if our interpretation is too surface then we are sure to get reactions that are equally extreme, equally mindless.

Jeff, I think you should visit our estimable, Eton education Prime Minister because in the heat of everything he has managed to come up with just that. A surface and completely inadequate interpretation in the oxymoron of: “Criminality: pure and simple”. He could do with your piercing, deprecating look as you survey yet another sad, superficial, self-righteous moron and say, “No David. This is not just about a walk in the park.”


ADDENDUM: Having written the above whilst on holiday and being so isolated am without a signal to upload it onto this Blogspot (in time for it to have any relevance) I see that I can claim some foresight. Whose crass mindlessness is it that would believe that stopping benefits and evicting innocent families because of aberrant offspring would solve anything? I suppose this is an easier question to answer: they are those who are not interested in seeking resolution but are native dwellers in that timezone known as The Age of Stupid.