by Michael Woods
Duffy was a writer-in-residence in east London schools between 1982 and 1984. Set in a comprehensive school, this poem explores the attitudes, hopes and fears of both indigenous English and immigrant pupils. Written in several voices, the poem allows us to hear the thoughts of African, Asian and English teenagers. The poet explores the differences in attitudes and cultures expressed by these young people.
The title of the poem clearly refers to the type of school known in Britain as a comprehensive, one in which a diversity of pupils is educated. Comprehensive education is predicated on the idea of equality of opportunity irrespective of gender, intelligence, wealth, race or religion. Difference, in these idealised terms, is something to be celebrated but Duffy shows how these differences manifest themselves in a real, less than perfect situation. Each stanza corresponds to a change in perspective presented in the voices of a variety of girls and boys who attend the same school. The tone of the poem is largely conversational but the degree of formality modulates according to the argot of the speakers.
The first stanza is written in the voice or persona of a young African girl who naturally tries to make sense of England and its culture by comparing it to her own. She begins by saying that 'Tutumantu is like hopscotch, Kwani-kwani is like hide-and-seek.' This immediately draws attention to a difference in cultural background between English and African children's games, but we are also struck by their essentially similar childish playtime pursuits. This natural affinity between young children of different races is touching and renders even more distressing the conflict born out of the increasing intolerance of people as they grow older, following the bad example set by parents and friends. There is more complication presented, however, in the conflict between sisters, one of who has returned on a visit to Africa after being immersed in English culture for some time. The language barrier becomes a source of conflict in the home which is normally associated with intimacy and peace, 'Sometimes we fought in bed because she didn't know / what I was saying.' The family is clearly in the transitional phase of immigration. As far as the girl's mother is concerned, the prospect of owning a house in England offers a solution to a predicament but happiness is associated with Africa in the child's mind. The simplicity of the vocabulary and conversational tone conveys an impression of someone who is expansive and friendly. Her sentences are simple and make sense; her tone is gentle and child-like.
Stanza two presents us with sharp contrasts. Duffy concentrates on the ironic tension between the idealised inclusiveness of a comprehensive school and the exclusivity, racism and prejudice of the indigenous English pupils. Stereotyping of Asian and African children is a facet of a frightening stereotypical fourteen-year-old called Wayne who follows the 'National Front', an unashamedly British racist organisation believing in white supremacy. He is a nightmarish example of brutal male attitudes and behaviour. This boy sees 'Paki-bashing and pulling girls' knickers down', the organised attacking of Indian immigrants and sexual terrorising of young women as being part of normal life. He inherits his racist attitudes from his father who blames unemployment on immigrants. He is also, it seems, a football hooligan. The single word sentence, 'Arsenal.' sums up the extent of his horizons. His myopic views on life are shaped by what have become known as video nasties, a football terrace mentality and a racist father. Appallingly, he thinks a film entitled, 'I Spit on Your Grave' is 'Brilliant.' The content of such a film is, for decent people, hardly imaginable. Wayne is not optimistic about employment and blames immigration. The truth is that there are for more decent people among the immigrant population worthy of employment as evidenced by the attitudes and personalities presented in other stanzas. This 'institutionalised racism' is seen by the poet as a definite feature of the school in question. These attitudes led to such crimes as the murder of the eighteen year old black student, Stephen Lawrence in East London on 22nd April 1993.
The child who speaks in stanza three attended 'Masjid' at 6.00 a.m. for early morning prayers in her home country and started school at 8.00 a.m. Such practices are not generally replicated in English culture. She has a far more disciplined life than the majority of her European peers. There is comfort for the girl in remembering the community of people like herself, although she remains anonymous throughout. She pines for the cultural and religious patterns with which she is familiar - the country where there is 'the friendly shop selling rice' and where 'Families face Mecca'. There is considerable pathos generated by Duffy's use of the past tense in this stanza. This is accentuated by the final sentence, 'People wrote to us that everything was easy here'. Such hopeful letters are juxtaposed with the reality of the experience of characters like Wayne. The girl's home village is now 'empty' because of the economic attractions of England. Poverty is a real incentive for self-improvement but the ultimate price can be the effacement of original culture.
Michelle, the voice introduced in stanza four is, she contends, doomed to work in Safeways, the well known supermarket chain, and has little prospect of being allowed to do much else. Her horizons do not stretch much beyond pop music, 'I like Madness' and her sense of being restricted by parents is quite typical of most teenagers. Her desire to preserve her virginity, 'I haven't lost it yet' for a relationship involving mutual respect is hopeful and her honesty about feeling attracted to 'Marlon Frederick' offers the possibility of cultural boundaries being crossed. However, she is unable to pursue her affection because his complexion is 'a bit dark', and attitude she finds hard to shake off. Again we see that it is the English teenager whose perspective is limited. Contrast this with the Asian boy's optimism, 'I have hope and am ambitious'.
Cultural and religious diversity is explored further in stanza five. Ejaz is warned by another Moslem against pork, considered unclean by those practising this religion. Their shared understanding is not simply linguistic but demonstrates cultural solidarity in the face of those who have no respect or sensitivity for their way of life or system of beliefs.
The sixth stanza again presents an English boy who might be capable of friendship with Sikhs whose turbans mark them out as being 'different from us'. Ironically, he does not see himself as different from them. The Army offers escape form unemployment but probably not from racism and nationalism. Another irony is the prospect of the boy emigrating. Having imbibed the attitudes of the Army he will expect to be accepted wherever he goes, along with a wife who will provide food and athletic sex.
The final stanza is written in the voice of a boy with a clear knowledge of, and pride in, his own cultural heritage. He suffers from being unable to understand English, the consequence of which is deprivation of milk in school with the clear implication that this will be extended to other areas of life beyond it. The poem finishes with an ominous emphasis on the bad aspects of an English society being real; 'Everything I saw was true.' Perhaps the most important message underlying the poem is that Britain has not become a multi-racial, multicultural country as a result of ad hoc immigration but as a direct result of colonising other parts of the world. For centuries, England has tried to impose its values on others. The representative voice of Wayne is, unfortunately, less of a caricature than an index of white xenophobic attitudes.