No Thatcher-bashing in front of the children, please

24th February 2006 at 00:00
Preaching politics in the classroom is strictly pooh-poohed - unless, of course, you happen to be lambasting Margaret Thatcher. We teach children to be open-minded and non-judgmental about most things, but we expect them to swallow one fashionable and politically correct opinion whole: they must learn to loathe the Iron Lady.

When we refer to the 1980s we must portray them as the decade of darkness.

Even the mention of that woman's name must make us visibly shudder. As we all know, it was a period when the Tory leader had the temerity to tell readers of Woman's Own: "There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families."

A couple of centuries earlier the universal bogeyman was Napoleon, but forget the little corporal, and forget Genghis Khan and all the enemies of society throughout history. There is one boo word that all school children should agree on. And that word, as she is always known, is Thatcher.

If you take a party of pupils to an event such as GCSE Poetry Live! where they get a chance to see the writers whose works appear in their examination anthologies, you do not simply get an unadulterated dose of poetry. Not very far below the surface there is a political sub-text waiting to leap out, and the hidden agenda is to heap contumely on Margaret Thatcher and all her works.

Speaking during the Cambridge leg of the poets' national tour, Carol Ann Duffy - who recently picked up the pound;10,000 TS Eliot prize for her latest collection Rapture and who has been described as a superstar of British poetry - referred to the background of one her early poems, "Education for Leisure". The poem showed, she explained, that if there were no such thing as society and if we did not invest in troubled young people, then the problems would simply escalate. And she referred - as if it were an immutable and unchallengeable truth - to Mrs Thatcher's "appalling reign at Number 10".

Later, Simon Armitage - who apparently dwells in the "poetry stratosphere", according to the booklet produced to accompany the occasion - explained the background to his poem "Hitcher", in which a man with a job kills his drifter of a passenger, by saying that during that decade of despair nothing counted except money.

You hear the same kind of thing when you listen to theatre company staff explaining the inspiration for Stephen Daldry's award-winning production of An Inspector Calls, which has been given a new lease of life and added relevance because it appears to provide a powerful retort to the notion of each man for himself.

You may not like Margaret Thatcher, but teachers pride themselves on training children to detect bias, and this insidious political message is being sneaked in by the back door into the minds of young people who have grown up in the post-Thatcher era and who do not have enough knowledge and experience to make up their minds for themselves. When they hear our first woman prime minister coming in for ritual attack, do they cast their minds back to Arthur Scargill and wonder if they are only being told one half of the story?

It seems poetry is trying to be the new rock 'n' roll. You can only be a real poet if you count yourself among the oppressed or dispossessed, if you come, like Carol Ann Duffy, from what the booklet archly describes as "what was once called a working-class family", or if you speak, like Simon Armitage, with a broad Yorkshire accent, or if you belong to an ethnic minority (which can include Scotland and Wales).

Genuine superstars who were born in the purple, such as Herbert, Shelley and even the "mad, bad, and dangerous to know" Byron, would simply not get a look in now. They would have too much blue blood to mount the poets'

podium and would be inclined to go off message in the land of the agreed text.

The writers who perform at GCSE Poetry Live! have as much right to their hang-ups and prejudices and chips on their shoulders as anyone else, but they should be more up-front about the message they are seeking to promote.

If they are proposing to mix their poetry with their politics, they should save their preaching for audiences which are more resistant to the official party line.

Peter King

Peter King teaches English at Wisbech grammar school, Cambridgeshire

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