All the things I remember from GCSE English

“‘Above all, these poems are preoccupied with loss.’ To what extent do you agree with this view of Wilfred Owen’s poems?”

Of course they’re preoccupied with loss. They’re about world war bloody one, and the misery of the humans involved, and the scale and magnitude of half a decade of desperation and confusion, when the old order toppled leaving nothing in its place but the industrialisation of death – it is all loss. I cannot answer your question. I cannot breathe for all that blood and gas. I cannot demean that world or its desperate literature by farting out essays of my own.

Nor can I tell you about George and Lennie, plucked from Of Mice and Men thanks solely to its brevity. Their slim lives spelled out a world so foreign to me that I have no hope of commenting on Steinbeck’s use of imagery and metaphor because I cannot get the girl in the red dress out of my head, nor stop the shudders from those clumsy, oblivious hands.

I remember Simon Armitage burning a girl’s hand, the 6 o’clock news in a Scottish accent, and I have the vaguest sense of a poem about race, whose title, I think, has now been censured, and erased from modern vocabulary.

I remember not reading Macbeth, just the summary plots notes at the top of each page, and feeling uncomfortable at our teacher’s attempts to make Romeo and Juliet relevant by highlighting all the references to sex, in a class whose own tender sexuality was already producing enough poems and crude jokes by itself.

I remember being asked why I didn’t participate, and what I was reading behind my text book, and did I think that was appropriate for my age. And I remember thinking, none of this is appropriate, it is brutal.

Your demands are a betrayal of all the characters that support me, and the lines and plots that sing inside me and I cannot answer your question on loss because my loss would be too great. The words are too real, too precious to me, but yet could bare none of your artificial scrutiny, because in this hollowed out war of a world, with its adult themes of work and sex and death blowing in from every corner – they are all that supports me.

And I remember reading, many years later, that there are moments in reading where a hand reaches out and takes yours. And then, bound across the ages, we reach out together and stick two fingers to your question.