About Robert Johnson

English teacher since 1997. Worked in High Schools in Yorkshire till 2005. From 2012 have worked in FE establishments. From January 2015, worked in Adult workplace training delivering Funky Skills Maths and English.

A Level English Lit Paper 2B – A Moan + Tasks!

When I talk to students of any level who have had two years of teaching in their school and they tell me certain things, I want to shout out my ranting obscenities at their teachers. I really do. Teachers may blame Covid but that is no excuse for being rubbish at their job! Today has been no different because I shared my final tuition session with a student today on the subject of Protest Writings at A Level and the 2B paper he is about to sit on June 20th, 2022. 

It is now June 14th so he has six days left, so we went through the novel, The Kite Runner and although he knows the novel well and can tell me about themes and ideas, characters and stylistic devices, authorial methodology and the likes, he knew nothing about the context of when and where this novel was written. 

Now this got me asking him questions. Did the teacher teach him about the theatre in Shakespeare’s day when reading King Lear? Did she teach him about the political and social ramifications of Shakespearean England and its monarchs when reading Richard II and all that that does entail? Did he know about the 1980s when reading the five Tony Harrison poems, one of which is a real beast? To each question (and the same before, in previous sessions, with Gatsby) did he have that in his lessons with his teacher? 

The answer was in the negative!

Did he know why Hosseini wrote Kite Runner? I found out the answer before I saw him. He saw that before 2003, when it was published, the Taliban had banned a very popular pastime in Afghanistan, which is why he chose initially to write a short story because they had banned children from flying kites. I have zero idea why they banned it as an activity for children, neither do I care regarding their choices made, but the fact that this was missing from his knowledge and skill set six days before the final exam of 2022 made me want to scream! 

And I can scream with the best of them! 

So, I had to backtrack and thought of sharing it here, but in more detail. 

Ask yourself what was happening when the writer you have studied was writing. Then make a list of what life was like then and in which country. Taking the Hosseini novel for a second, as an example, it was published in 2003, so presumably it was written post 2001. 

What does that date mean to you, as a reader? What would it mean to him, as being from Afghanistan, but living in America at the time and presumably being the recipient of some serious racism? Do you, when you see 2001, remember the history of the 11th September in that year? Does the thing known as ‘9/11’ mean anything to you? It should, for that is when the planes hit the twin towers and within two years, this novel is published, suggesting a causal link between the after effects of that heinous day in American history, with the inception of this protest novel. 

The World Trade Center south tower (L) burst into flames after being struck by hijacked United Airlines Flight 175 as the north tower burns following an earlier attack by a hijacked airliner in New York City September 11, 2001.

Now consider what I created with this student’s aid. 

1950-59……children expected to obey parents and much more confined in their attitudes to home and life. Rebellion building though with the inception of Rock n Roll in 1958. Elvis Presley. Jerry Lee Lewis. Cliff Richard et al. 

1960-69……the rise of the Swinging Sixties, flower power, the summer of love, drugs, drink, rebellion happening between parents and families, Vietnam, wars on different continents et al

1970-79……in the UK, the 3 day week, unemployment, recession, the rise of the Thatcher government and all its austerity measures that would destroy and devastate the UK. worldwide panic and loss of confidence. Punk Rock. Sex Pistols. New Wave music (just) et al. 

1980-89……1982 Falklands War, 1984 UK Miners’ Strike (watch Full Monty again) and the effects of the now ensconced Thatcher reign. Trouble and strife everywhere, riots, protest marches against nuclear weaponry (I went on one in London) and rebellion, as well as major poverty, Thatcher being outed. Continued rebellion across the country. 

1990-99……changing times across the world as policy regarding all manner of things changed. New Presidents and Prime Ministers, but never a real change for the better or for the positive. The O. J. Simpson trial. American President Bill Clinton was accused of dodging the draft and doing naughty things with his intern. But, 1997 though, in the UK, saw a real change when Labour won their election and Tony Blair entered Number 10. A landslide victory for a centrist candidate (he was never so far left or right but more like a Liberal) but jobs started happening as we went into the year 2000, often remembered as Y2K. 1997 saw the death of Princess Diana and the rise of dislike in how the Queen dealt with it. In the end, it was Blair who helped her to see a better way. A very rocky decade for some.

2000-2009…..this is a time when Labour lost power in the UK because of what happened post 9/11 and because Blair went into Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein, with President GW Bush at his side. British troops died in Iraq and the country became disaffected by his desire to go to war. Britain was fed up with war after Thatcher in 1982. Lies were told and the Tories came back into power under David Cameron and then, later, Theresa May. Facebook appeared in 2005. Twitter thereafter. Social Media became a platform for anyone to add comments, whether true or not. The Beslan Murders. Soham Murders. The arrival of the CRB and now, the DBS Disclosure. Thousands accused of crimes they never committed. Growing distrust in the authorities, Police, justice system. 

2010-2022…..same sex marriages legalized. Prince William and Katherine married. War on Terror still going on. British Olympics in 2012. Queen longest reigning monarch. Brexit (need I say more?) Boris Johnson. Freedoms being eroded yet again. Covid19 emerged to kill indiscriminately, throughout the world. Russia invading Ukraine. 

We did this in a short time and I have since added to it here, but the point is to look at when your writer was writing? So, if it is Tony Harrison and X, on the death of coal, it is the 1980s to 1990s and how Thatcher closed them all (the mines) more or less, down and we started buying coal and energy from the likes of Russia. Need I say more there in the present climate of war in Ukraine? 

When you look at the context of when the texts you have read over the past two years were written, you then understand more about why a writer chose to put pen to paper, or press a key on a computer and create a masterpiece. 

That much is important to remember as you revise for this exam.

So, here are some tasks for you to do before the 20th……..have a go at them all, where applicable. 

  1. Read about when Shakespeare was alive. 
  2. What was society like?
  3. What was the attitude of the ruling classes to those in the theatre? 
  4. Why did he write the play he wrote? 
  5. How was it received by the public and those in authority?
  6. Did it (Richard II) cause things to happen? 
  7. Why did your writer actually write their work? 
  8. What socially was happening at the time? 

Do it for all your texts read and studied before the 20th June exam. Google has all the answers so there is no excuse. Make your own mind up on each text. 

By doing this, you will be able to add some real and concrete, social and historical context to your exam answer. You will score more points and get a higher grade, for sure!

God bless. 




I always ask my students a question that annoys the life of them, whatever we are reading.

An example is Macbeth! I ask WHY Lady Macbeth is so manipulative. They give me an answer and I reply with WHY? So they give me a deeper answer and I ask WHY? again. After about 4 or 5 times, they are infuriated with me but finally get to the deeper understanding I am trying to teach them.

Try it now.


Try to ask WHY 3 or 4 times, based on each answer and see where it goes.


Done it?

Now watch this and wonder, why did Shakespeare actually write Macbeth? (hopefully, outside of UK viewers will be able to access the iPlayer)


Was he saying something to the newly crowned King? If James I was so into getting rid of witches and witchcraft, then what is Shakespeare doing by introducing 3 of them right at the beginning?

I know what I think.

Try it with your other texts and see where asking WHY leads you.



Just a brief warning to anyone who is copying and pasting from this site.

That is okay for your notes or revision purposes, for you can do this, but please do not print off an analysis and then present it to your teacher as your own words. That is cheating. That is plagiarism. That gets a big, fat, zero mark, especially from me. I would give a FAIL mark immediately, and have done only once in the past.

I say this because this site below has been checking someone’s work….and found this site to be the one that they stole words from.


So be careful. All a teacher needs to do is Google a sentence that does not sound like your words and find this page or site and then you are in trouble for cheating.

Do the work! Achieve the grade! Do it on your own merit! Then it will mean something!

Stop the cheating!

Exposure – Wilfred Owen

Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knive us . . . 
Wearied we keep awake because the night is silent . . .
Low drooping flares confuse our memory of the salient . . .
Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous,
       But nothing happens. 

Watching, we hear the mad gusts tugging on the wire,
Like twitching agonies of men among its brambles.
Northward, incessantly, the flickering gunnery rumbles,
Far off, like a dull rumour of some other war.
       What are we doing here?

The poignant misery of dawn begins to grow . . .
We only know war lasts, rain soaks, and clouds sag stormy.
Dawn massing in the east her melancholy army
Attacks once more in ranks on shivering ranks of grey,
       But nothing happens.

Sudden successive flights of bullets streak the silence.
Less deadly than the air that shudders black with snow,
With sidelong flowing flakes that flock, pause, and renew,
We watch them wandering up and down the wind’s nonchalance,
       But nothing happens.

Pale flakes with fingering stealth come feeling for our faces—
We cringe in holes, back on forgotten dreams, and stare, snow-dazed,
Deep into grassier ditches. So we drowse, sun-dozed,
Littered with blossoms trickling where the blackbird fusses.
       —Is it that we are dying?

Slowly our ghosts drag home: glimpsing the sunk fires, glozed
With crusted dark-red jewels; crickets jingle there;
For hours the innocent mice rejoice: the house is theirs;
Shutters and doors, all closed: on us the doors are closed,—
       We turn back to our dying.

Since we believe not otherwise can kind fires burn;
Now ever suns smile true on child, or field, or fruit.
For God’s invincible spring our love is made afraid;
Therefore, not loath, we lie out here; therefore were born,
       For love of God seems dying.

Tonight, this frost will fasten on this mud and us,
Shrivelling many hands, and puckering foreheads crisp.
The burying-party, picks and shovels in shaking grasp,
Pause over half-known faces. All their eyes are ice,
       But nothing happens.


Wilfred Owen is famous for many reasons, but most notably for his diatribe aimed at those foolish types back in Britain who (like Jessie Pope) were saying things like “it is sweet and fitting to die for your country” in the Great War of 1914-1918. Owen was an officer in the trenches and a poet of note and is famous for many poems, but my ultimate war poem, which is called Dulce Et Decorum Est, an analysis of which should be on this site, is his best.

But he is also famous for showing us just what the men were exposed to in the trenches in WW1 and this poem, aptly called ‘Exposure,’ does just that. Title theorists will say that this is about a man who is exposed to something that is not very nice, assuming you just read the title and nothing else. This is what we expect from the title (unlike Tissue in the same power/conflict grouping) and we certainly get what we expect, but in the usual, graphic, realistic style of Owen. 

He does not pull his punches this fellow and never did. Dulce Et Decorum Est details things like a soldier’s “froth corrupted lungs” as he spits up his internal organs after a Mustard Gas attack – for that, see the final ever episode of Peaky Blinders – and this poem is no different to that one. In fact, it is, perhaps, more graphic than that when you unpack every line, which is how I tend to teach poems such as this. 

For this analysis, or my interpretation, for that is what all these are, just my take on it, we see the initial idea of how a man’s brain can actually “ache” in the first line and how the setting sets the tone for the rest when he mentions the “merciless iced east winds that knive us” as they sit, stand, or lay in their trenches. These are men that are dug in well and not going far very fast. Indeed, the English and German forces, for a large part of the war, hardly moved a foot over such long periods of time and when ground was won, it was soon lost again. But like with Heaney’s Storm On The Island, this is a wind that can feel as if you are being “knived” or cut in two. It is severe. Imagine being in a trench 365 days a year, exposed to the elements, the snow, the hunger, the desperation and then think how you would deal with it, if indeed, you actually would, for a lot of young folk today would desert, be captured and executed for desertion and be branded a coward where they lived, such is the nature of humanity in the present day. 

Then we see how in their exposed state, they are “wearied” and how they “keep awake because the night is silent.” Is a part of you thinking that this sounds odd at all? Surely, silence through the night would enable you to rest and sleep and wake up refreshed? But not in a trench in northern France or Belgium in 1916, just before Owen was shot and killed. (he died 2 weeks before the end of the war) Imagine, if you can, seeing the “low drooping flares” that “confuse our memory of the salient” and you realise that silence is an enemy because that is when they fear that the enemy are up to no good, especially at night. Try watching We Were Soldiers, with Mel Gibson and see what I mean. 

So they are “worried by silence,” as they should be, as “sentries whisper” and everyone around them seems “curious” and “nervous, but nothing happens.” The positioning of that last line of the verse makes this a graphologically deviant poem, especially as it is repeated, in that we expect lines to begin in a certain place, but it is done so for effect, for drama and to get the point across to those in charge, who will read this, that this life we are living as soldiers is pointless because nothing ever happens. Back then, both forces were at a point of stalemate on the front lines and so it was a case that nothing ever happened for most of the time. 

So you have imagined being there on the front line. Now try to imagine watching and listening for what comes next. The poet says they “hear the mad gusts tugging on the wire,” as the wind rustles through the barbed wire and the safety wires in what was called “No Man’s Land,” the place in between the two opposing lines. He describes it as being “like twitching agonies of men among its brambles.” Just close your eyes for a moment and try to visualize that in your mind and see what he was exposed to in that place of horror and then you will see why he chose the title of the poem in the first place. 

Then you hear the “the flickering gunnery rumbles” from somewhere where the heavy artillery is based, ready to pound the enemy, or you, in your trench and you, as the soldier stuck there, begin to ask a simple, single question, when you ask “what are we doing here?” It is a question worth asking too, for as I type this, there are Ukrainian soldiers in similar trenches, fighting an enemy of advancing Russian soldiers who are intent on killing their way of life, their country and their independence from Russia. How might they be feeling at this moment in time, when the weather is not that brilliant either here in the UK or in eastern Europe? 

There is a poignancy to this poem therefore, that is shared through the power of the words used, for when he says that the “misery of dawn begins to grow,” we sense that the new dawn will not be looked at with finesse and affection, but with a sense of here we go again! Thus, we sense in this section of the poem that what must be done must be done and like with the 600 in the Tennyson poem, theirs “is not to reason why, theirs is but to do and die.” So as dawn gathers and comes on them, revealing them to the elements of daytime, when they have just suffered the harshness of night, what we see as readers, is the idea that war is a futile waste of human life. Owen therefore, was a pacifist in his thinking, even though he would have done his duty if and when needed. He knows that “war lasts, rain soaks and clouds” do the thing they do to us all. The sense of melancholy is palpable at this point in time, as Owen describes the horrors before him each night and day. 

He then repeats the phrase from earlier, when he says “but nothing happens,” as if to repeat it makes it true. The sense of truth and realism in this poem is something that is also palpable as well, because this maelstrom of emotion he is feeling in the trench is then suddenly interrupted as “sudden successive flights of bullets streak the silence.” To me, this shows that when you least expect it in the trenches, that is when the enemy will appear, this time in the form of bullets, of large caliber and very powerful weapons, aimed at killing or maiming at the very least. But these ‘rounds’ or bullets are nothing compared to the other stuff they need to live with each and every day.

They live with rounds, flares, gas attacks (that were banned) and also, a sense that this war will never end, because nothing ever does change when you leave politicians in charge. Instead, what the soldier has to deal with in this situation is a series of “nonchalance” where “nothing happens.” It is the same thing, every day and this is what they are exposed to. Likewise, the same is true of when they think back on “forgotten dreams and stare, snow-dazed, deep into grassier ditches.” Owen describes his men as being “sun-dozed” and tired, something they will need to change, or die, when he is no longer the officer with them. He then asks an all too pointed and fatalistic question when he says, “is it that we are dying?” 

He senses his own end in this poem, as if he is exposed to the last days of his life in this mud infested trough. This is further portrayed as he uses words like how he sees their own “ghosts drag [themselves] home” and how life in the trench becomes worse by the day. References to “crickets” and of how the “innocent mice rejoice” make us cringe and that is the effect he is wanting, for he is wanting to show the truth of the matter, unlike Tennyson (COTLB) who is wanting to promote the idea that it is indeed, a brave and noble thing to do for your country from the confines of his very comfortable leather backed armchair. 

And so, the men “turn back to [their] dying” and the war that rages on, dispassionately and without a care for the common soldier. Then, it comes down to belief and what you believe regarding war. Is it a waste of life? Is it a noble thing to fight for? The answer is in each of us and may be different from one to the other. But in the end, what we believe dictates if we go or not, to where there is a war. Scores of English men are signing up for the Ukraine Defense Force as I type. They shall fight in the front lines within the next two weeks. The same is true for them as it is here as well, because it is true that “God’s invincible spring our love is made afraid.” As such we shall always be prepared to act on our instincts and if that takes us to battle, then so be it. 

But in as much as there seems to be a dwindling of faith in the men, there seems also to be the idea that the “love of God seems [to be] dying” and if that is true, then we can see the relationship between one nation and another (GB v Russia) depleting as well, which is also what they are all exposed to. This is the reality of warfare. It knocks all the humanity out of you, just as much as the night frost does and did in those trenches. Just as later that night, there were shriveled hands and burying parties, where the enemy allowed you to collect the dead and wounded so they could be buried, so too is there that sense of the “shaking grasp,” the “pause over half-known faces” and all their “eyes are [like] ice,” as  the same sense of nothingness comes over them, that “nothing happens” and that in the end, it will always be the case that nothing ever changes in war. Man hates man. Wars begin and words become twisted, especially when coming out of a politician’s mouth, but in the end, the gravity of the exposed situation is heralded by the degree of shot played. Sometimes, you need to cease asking what the problem is and then offer a solution when they tell you just how bad life is, given their life situation.

Storm On The Island – Seamus Heaney

We are prepared: we build our houses squat,
Sink walls in rock and roof them with good slate.
This wizened earth has never troubled us
With hay, so, as you see, there are no stacks
Or stooks that can be lost. Nor are there trees
Which might prove company when it blows full
Blast: you know what I mean – leaves and branches
Can raise a tragic chorus in a gale
So that you listen to the thing you fear
Forgetting that it pummels your house too.
But there are no trees, no natural shelter.
You might think that the sea is company,
Exploding comfortably down on the cliffs
But no: when it begins, the flung spray hits
The very windows, spits like a tame cat
Turned savage. We just sit tight while wind dives
And strafes invisibly. Space is a salvo,
We are bombarded with the empty air.
Strange, it is a huge nothing that we fear.


In the past, when I have had to read Heaney for my own GCSEs and then, in teaching terms, with a class from an anthology of works for their exams, one thing has always struck me above most other poets today, or in his time, or before and that is the richness and colour in his imagery and this is no different. Entitled with the word “Storm,” the use of title theory makes you think that this is going to be about the raw power of the elements as the island is battered and bruised in a storm and you would not be wrong, but it is also about the things that we fear the most, acting as one big metaphor for the minor things that batter and assail us in our own lives. 

I remember having a short little moment with Heaney at the Whitbread Book Awards in 2000. It was a glorious moment but I was so nervous that I could not speak too much to him, but I wish I had now, instead of getting tongue tied and silly, thinking that ‘God has just walked into the room.’ Such was the effect of his arrival on my senses. I even wrote a poem about it, called ‘Meeting Seamus’ which may, if I remember right, be on here somewhere. 

This poem then, is about a major storm on an island, as the title suggests, but it is also about so much more. If symbology was a thing, as Robert Langdon says in The Da Vinci Code, then what his words symbolize is the context of our fears about one thing or the other. For example, consider the opening salvo of “we are prepared.” Those words alone denote that they are prepared for something nasty that is coming, so as an act of preparation, they have done all they can to alleviate the issue, just as much as we would, had we got to go to hospital, or the Dentist’s, or somewhere else that we fear the most. “We are prepared” also denotes that they recognise danger when they see it, so preparation is key to success in these matters. 

Then we see that the poet says “we build our houses squat,” which signifies a small house; a hut of sorts, that can withstand what the elements throw at it, day in and day out. Squat signifies small, so perhaps this is a smallholding, like a Croft, where subsistence farmers lived and eked out their meagre existence? I seem to remember teaching another Heaney poem in recent years, on a similar subject – Digging maybe? Look it up and see the similarities, if any.

So this is a small place with walls made of rock and where they “roof them with good slate.” This is a solid, hardy structure that could even be metaphorical for our own lives and minds, for when our fears do get the better of us, how do we respond? Is our house built on strong stone and firm foundations? Can we say that “this wizened earth has never troubled us?” If we can then we have led a truly charmed life indeed. But this is a threadbare existence that is being shared here as well and one which would bring with it its own fair share of conflict as the crofter battles the harshness and true brutal power of the natural elements.

Single tree in the fog, struggling the strong wind

There are “no trees which might prove company when it blows full blast” and raises “a tragic chorus in a gale.” There is hardly any protection from the “thing you fear,” which again, can be either analogous or metaphorical for other, more human things, as the house gets a pummelling from the elements. The lack of “natural shelter” shows an image to the reader of the barren nature of these surroundings and makes the reader think of how remote and even dangerous this place could be to live in. Heaney says that “you might think that the sea is company,” but it is not. It is a pure danger to anyone who ventures out on it or in it. This is the power of nature versus the absurdity of humanity in one short sentence being shared here and Heaney is a true artist in his own right at work, putting his ideas into effect as he shares his metaphor of fear with us all. 

When it comes to power and conflict therefore, this is a poem showing opposing forces at work; nature and humanity. The storm rages as it “spits like a tame cat turned savage” and “we just sit tight while wind dives and strafes invisibly.” We know, don’t we, that in the end, the storm will subside and things will get back to what we consider to be ‘normal,’ but in the heat of the storm, that is when the power of Creation is at work and when we need to do the only thing worthy of doing and that is staying inside our safe, if not barren homes, even if that barren home is our heart and mind as we face the normal fears of the day.


In the end, there is a ‘strangeness’ to this poem, because the poet says that “it is a huge nothing that we fear” and he is right. We are right to fear the dangerous storm or the hurricane or the tornado. They can and will kill anything out inside them, but for me, this just shows the power of one over the other and at times, even with our basest of fears, we are prudent if we just sit tight till we let it pass.

Macbeth Act 5 Scene 1 – Student Reply

I love it when a student suddenly gets brave and writes something that is worthy of adding here, so we shall call this student S, to hide his identity, but when asked to complete a past paper question on Macbeth and how the character of Lady Macbeth changes, starting at Act 5 Scene 1 and mentioning other parts of the play, he did this for me.

Student Exam Answer (completed within the given exam time frame)

On the whole, in act 5 scene 1, Lady Macbeth is portrayed as guilt ridden and melancholic because this is a poignant moment in the play. This is because she has killed King Duncan with her husband and she is feeling the guilt attached to the act.
Lady Macbeth is guilt ridden and this is shown in the text when she says “Hell is murky” in her mind. Because she is sleep walking, she is reliving the after effects of killing Duncan. In her waking moments, she is too aware of what she has done, but because she is sleepwalking, she is not conscious of the words or actions she is expressing. These are the things that the Doctor and the Gentlewoman see or hear and this is why they are confused. In support of this the Doctor says, “the heart is sorely charged” when observing Lady Macbeth’s words and actions and the Gentlewomen says, “heaven knows what she has known,” which shows the level of her unhinged nature at this moment in the play. There is a sense of melancholy in Lady Macbeth at this moment which makes this a very poignant moment in the play because it shows her guilt and the taboos she has taken part in.
Before the death of King Duncan she is a different personality to the rest of the play. However, she is manipulative towards her husband and exploitative. When she first receives the letter she starts to exploit Macbeth because of her avaricious nature. For example she tells her husband “look like the innocent flower but be the serpent under’t.” The serpent is a biblical allusion referring to the story of Adam and Eve and the serpent (Devil) in the Garden of Eden. Additionally, Lady Macbeth portrays herself and women in general as being weak and feeble in their gender.
After Act 5 Scene 1, she begins to unravel and loses her grasp on reality, which leads to her killing herself. This starts in Act 5 scene 1 when the doctor says, “this disease is beyond my practice,” which implies at the time that madness is seen as an incurable disease. Furthermore, when Lady Macbeth says, “to bed, to bed: there’s knocking at the gate. Come, come, come, come give me your hand: what’s done cannot be undone” shows the depth of her mental struggle and the emotions that Lady Macbeth is going through. When she then says, “what’s done cannot be undone” she is talking to Macbeth in her sleep and is implying that even though Macbeth has killed Duncan, he cannot change that and he should continue with life as it was before he killed Duncan.
In conclusion, Lady Macbeth at the start of the play is seen as a very persuasive person as she manipulates her husband, but near the end of the play, her true form is shown as she spirals out of control, leading to her death.

Can you do any better?

Poppies – Jane Weir

Three days before Armistice Sunday
and poppies had already been placed
on individual war graves. Before you left,
I pinned one onto your lapel, crimped petals,
spasms of paper red, disrupting a blockade
of yellow bias binding around your blazer.

Sellotape bandaged around my hand,
I rounded up as many white cat hairs
as I could, smoothed down your shirt’s
upturned collar, steeled the softening
of my face. I wanted to graze my nose
across the tip of your nose, play at
being Eskimos like we did when
you were little. I resisted the impulse
to run my fingers through the gelled
blackthorns of your hair. All my words
flattened, rolled, turned into felt,

slowly melting. I was brave, as I walked
with you, to the front door, threw
it open, the world overflowing
like a treasure chest. A split second
and you were away, intoxicated.
After you’d gone I went into your bedroom,
released a song bird from its cage.

Later a single dove flew from the pear tree,
and this is where it has led me,
skirting the church yard walls, my stomach busy
making tucks, darts, pleats, hat-less, without
a winter coat or reinforcements of scarf, gloves.
On reaching the top of the hill I traced
the inscriptions on the war memorial,
leaned against it like a wishbone.
The dove pulled freely against the sky,
an ornamental stitch, I listened, hoping to hear
your playground voice catching on the wind.


Writing your thoughts and emotions down is a therapeutic thing to do and this poem, by Jane Weir, is a prime example of this kind of thing in writing. After all, a poem is just another piece of writing written by someone to share a thought or a feeling inside a story, or a play, or in this case, a poem. Because we treat poetry as the thing for the clever ones, we negate the need to read good poetry and that, to me, is a sad indictment on modern society. 

‘Poppies’ begins “three days before Armistice Sunday,” which we all know, comes every November 11th, or the Sunday associated after that date. If the 11th is on a Thursday there are Remembrance Day services then at 11am to remember the time and day the Great War (Google that) ended and then, on the Sunday after, the official Sunday services begin, with the major one being held in London, at the Cenotaph, on Whitehall. 

I can tell you from experience as a veteran that doing that march past in London is an experience, to say the least. Damn near killed me off doing that in 2008. It is such a long day up on your feet, standing easy, then to attention and then waiting for the section you are in to begin marching, only to go right wheel at the end of the street, hang another right back into Horseguards and come to a stop with all the rest. All your Army training tries to kick in, but because you have not done this for possibly two decades, you are as rusty as can be and make so many mistakes. 

This is Remembrance Sunday, for me, but the speaker in this poem sees this act of remembrance in another way. Whether this poem is autobiographical or not, I do not know. I suspect it is because it sounds and feels so personal, as if only the poet would know what these feelings and raw emotions really are like. And so, she begins at a time when days before any service, “poppies had already been placed on individual war graves.” 

It could be anywhere where there are war graves, but this reminds me of Aldershot and the graves there of three friends who went away to the war in the Falklands and never returned alive. Their mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, had to deal with their loss in ways that I can only guess at and this poem, to them, would be very hard to read. It is deeply personal, for she then begins to speak to the lost child, saying “before you left, I pinned one onto your lapel,” as if she remembers adding a Remembrance Day poppy onto her son’s uniform blazer. But it is the word “blazer” at the end of this verse that worries me, with younger readers in mind, for when I first read it, my mind went towards a young boy in a school blazer. I suppose it is easy to go there, if you are a fifteen year old reading this for the first time, but upon further research, I found it to be a mother of a lost son (lost to war) who is grieving for her son each Remembrance Day season. 

So do not be worried if you too become confused by this as you read the poem. It is one of those words that can do such a thing as this and becomes, for me, a major criticism of the wording. Had she written “tunic” or “uniform” instead, my brain might have seen who and where this young lad is in his life and not ‘guessed’ at the word used and got it wrong. 

Even teachers can get lost in a poem you know! 

She describes the “crimped petals,” the “spasms of paper red, disrupting a blockade of yellow bias binding” on his blazer and verse one ends with a fond memory of a time when she was able to love and protect her boy. The redness of the poppy we wear at Remembrance Day and the days and weeks before are represented in the colour of course, for that goes without saying, but in the end, what it shows is a willingness to remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice and lay down their lives for others. 

Thus, she sends her young son off to a war torn zone and for this reader, now sixty, it makes me remember those brave lads who went off to the Falkland Islands in 1982, but more recently, it may make us think of those heading off on tour to Afghanistan or even Iraq, depending on our age. It is meant to give us that reaction for she has written it like this on purpose. 

As she sends him off, she has “sellotape (which I always thought began with a C but never mind) bandaged around” her hand as she was before this, trimming his uniform before he set off, so he looked his best; a mother’s prerogative and privilege, I dare say. Had I gone to the Falklands, (I had left the service two years before) then I am sure my mother would have been the same with me as she cried and waved me goodbye, not knowing if she would see me again. Weir says she “rounded up as many white cat hairs” as she could and then “steeled the softening of my face” in that last, final moment when her son was alive. It would be the last time she would see his face and smile, looking at her and saying “it’s alright Mum. I will be fine.” Of course, you never know for sure that you will come back from such conflict and this is what this poem is so good at, in bringing this truth to life in the written form. 

She says she “wanted to graze [her] nose across the tip of [his] nose, play at being Eskimos like we did when you were little.” To those who do not know, this is the form of Innuit welcome, the Eskimo welcome where you touch the end of the nose to the other person and then rub sideways in affection. It is something my mother did with me when I was very young and something I still remember and a sign of affection that signified love of the deepest sort, the sort of love that is perfect and pure. It made you feel somewhat warm and safe inside, as if you knew all would be well in that awkward moment. 

Of course, we know this lad never came back and we see the lady in this poem resist “the impulse to run [her] fingers through the gelled blackthorns” of his hair. He had a spiky, prickly cut, which can signify more than one thing. The first and most obvious would be the haircut of the British army recruit, but another could be a cut that is short enough, but also brutish enough to scare the heck out of the enemy. I somehow doubt it was the latter, favouring the buzz cut or skinhead cut the army sometimes gives, one I have adopted most of my life since my time in the TA. It is just something you get used to and find hard to come out of wearing. 

At that moment, she says that “all my words flattened, rolled, turned into felt, slowly melting.” In other words, her thoughts, her words, her wishes for her son all melted into nothingness and to a point where only a look would be enough.  This must have been a hard moment in her life and it is one of those where you choke up, with absolute pride, but also out of utter fear for the safety of your child. Suddenly, this is where most people, even those who do not believe in a God, actually say something like “God, keep him safe.” It is a time of utter terror. 

She says “I was brave, as I walked with you, to the front door, threw it open, the world overflowing like a treasure chest,” using a truly remarkable simile to describe her feelings at that point. For a treasure chest to be overflowing means it is totally full of all that it holds and some of it is even trying to get out, so the mixture of emotions felt here is total, hence the simile, but for “a split second” in the moment, she feels utter pride, a very different emotion than abject fear and then, in an instant, he is “away, intoxicated” in the moment himself as he takes a deep breath and off he goes, to war and to possible death. 

Then the tone of this poem changes, as she speaks other thoughts after he had gone and how, in the days and weeks afterwards, she “went into [his] bedroom” and “released a song bird from its cage.” Somehow, I doubt that this actually happened, for it means a rough, tough, army lad who has a songbird at home and the image does not sit well with my experience of squaddies at home, but the idea that “a single dove flew from the pear tree” does because the dove is the worldwide symbol of peace and it is in that vein that this poem is written, to share the raw emotion of loss from war and conflict, on a very personal level. 

She even tries to follow the path of the bird through to “the church yard walls,” when she is trailing herself to the graveyard with her “winter coat or reinforcements of scarf [and] gloves,” knowing that her memory of him is fading and that as each year passes, so does her reality of a memory of him. She will always remember him, but her visualization of him will change over the years, even though the fact is that she will have photos of him in her home. Time is a killer to the memory of a person you love. Anyone who has lost a loved one will tell you the same thing. 

At the top of the hill, she traces “the inscriptions on the war memorial” where his name is inscribed on stone, to remember him in another way. It is the sort of thing that we do when we wish to remember our loved ones. She then leans “against it like a wishbone,” which is a great simile to represent the relief from the whole moment as something special happens to her. She sees the same dove, that symbol of peace, flying “freely against the sky” and describes it as “an ornamental stitch,” like a stitch in sewing, or in the skin, when wounds are stitched, that suggests a flight pattern that is direct but also showing that it knows of her presence in the area of its flight. 

Bueatiful white dove with wings outstretched flying in a clear blue sky

Of course, there is a much more sentimental idea to this dove, in that some people will believe that this is the long dead spirit of her son covering her, protecting her, shadowing her as she spills her grief, so that what she experiences in that special moment, is a glowing sensation of love for her lost son rather than anything negative. It is so well written at the end, that it makes the heart glow and for that, I shall be forever grateful, as an English teacher, a former soldier and someone with a heart that feels for people who have lost loved ones in times of conflict. 

This, for me, is why this is such a powerful poem because the last thing she shares is her listening to the dove and the quietness of the morning, as she hopes “to hear [her son’s] playground voice catching on the wind.” We who are teachers know what “playground voice” refers to, for whenever we have been out on playground duty, supervising you all when you were playing in your spare time, we have heard what one comedian once described as “white noise,” which he said was the sound of happiness, the sound of kids playing and shouting and screeching, usually very loudly. It is something we should all rejoice at when we hear it, for that is the best laughter around. 

The more I read this poem, the more I love it!

The Emigree – Carol Rumens

The Emigree – Carol Rumens
There once was a country… I left it as a child
but my memory of it is sunlight-clear
for it seems I never saw it in that November
which, I am told, comes to the mildest city.
The worst news I receive of it cannot break
my original view, the bright, filled paperweight.
It may be at war, it may be sick with tyrants,
but I am branded by an impression of sunlight.
The white streets of that city, the graceful slopes
glow even clearer as time rolls its tanks
and the frontiers rise between us, close like waves.
That child’s vocabulary I carried here
like a hollow doll, opens and spills a grammar.
Soon I shall have every coloured molecule of it.
It may by now be a lie, banned by the state
but I can’t get it off my tongue. It tastes of sunlight.
I have no passport, there’s no way back at all
but my city comes to me in its own white plane.
It lies down in front of me, docile as paper;
I comb its hair and love its shining eyes.
My city takes me dancing through the city
of walls. They accuse me of absence, they circle me.
They accuse me of being dark in their free city.
My city hides behind me. They mutter death,
and my shadow falls as evidence of sunlight.


As with any poem, ask yourself two questions at the beginning of the poem. What does the title itself suggest the poem might be about? And then ask what does the surname of the poet suggest or infer? Sometimes, when we are dealing with poems from other cultures than the typically white British poets, these questions can be very helpful and indeed, title theory is a thing, so ask these questions of all of them. 

You might not be able to answer much from the word “Ozymandias,” but you certainly can from “The Emigree,” because an emigree is a person who has ‘emigrated’ from one country to another. Now, with that in mind, what does your mind think when you see that? A man or woman, or even a family, fleeing a war torn conflict? Well, you would be right to think that. 

Then, of course, the name “Rumens” does sound European at a guess and after a short read online, I was able to come up with information saying that the poet was born in Forest Hill, London. Ah, you think. That did not work out well did it? So much for surnames! But, her surname now, because she married, is not the same as when she was born. Google it and see. 

Her husband is the man with the name that could have been shortened down and seeing as how the poet has translated texts from Russian into English for a living, we get the impression one of the Russian speaking countries is where this is based as a poem. 

All that from a title and a surname? It can happen. 

The poem though, when I read it today, reminds me of one country in the news every day at the moment; Ukraine! It is a war torn country and it is a beautiful one to boot. But it could be any country in the world. I have seen the pictures of what places like Kiev and Mariupol looked like before Russian artillery flattened them and killed innocent civilians. So when this poet writes, “there once was a country” that she left “as a child,” I am immediately reminded of Ukraine and their children. 

But did the poet mean it to happen like that? Is this autobiographical or biographical? (Google if not sure of definition of each) I ask as she then says “my memory of it is sunlight-clear for it seems I never saw it in that November which, I am told, comes to the mildest city.” Rumens was born and bred in London, so this is not about her. Rather, it is about someone else, maybe even someone fictional and even though the character in the poem sees the city in her memory as being “sunlight-clear,” she cannot see it that way now. 

She says that “the worst news I receive of it cannot break my original view,” which she no doubt has in her house here in this country, possibly even, as I do of Prague, after my holiday there, in a “bright, filled paperweight” hidden behind glass as an ornament. To her, the city she is referring to is a beautiful place and always will be, as the citizens of Mariupol will attest to their beautiful place in the world. The reality may be somewhat different however, because like the poet, who can see that “it may be at war” and that “it may be sick with tyrants,” those who flee such situations as this are in a situation where their very lives may depend on being safe rather than being home. 

In her mind, there is “an impression of sunlight” whenever she can see this city in her head. There are “the white streets of that city, the graceful slopes” that “glow even clearer as time rolls its tanks” against the city and change takes place once again. In terms of power and conflict, it is right there for you; the desire to not be here but at home where she belongs versus the need to keep her and her family safe somewhere else. 

The use of the simile in the line where she writes “the frontiers rise between us, close like waves” is a particularly vivid description of the raw emotion that this person is feeling because she can visualize her homeland, but not actually physically see it due to her exile. To me, that must be terrifying to have to endure, because she arrived when she was a lot younger, carrying with her “a child’s vocabulary” that she carried here “like a hollow doll” as it opens up and “spills a grammar” to her into her life. 

She is saying that when she arrived she only had a smattering of English skills and she reminds me of a boy I once taught called Andi Q*****, who was from Kosovo, and came to this country from there to escape persecution from the Serbian armies. He was eleven when he arrived in my Form Group at the school where I worked, with next to no English (hello, goodbye and something lasting two words which is quite naughty) but by the end of the academic year, he was very fluent in English and went on to be a paramedic, I hope, which is what he wanted to be. 

He came to this country just like the person in this poem. He had a certain picture of his homeland in his head, I am sure, just like this person does and it did not take him long to “have every coloured molecule” of the English language mastered. This is what is going on here in this poem, as she settles into life in the United Kingdom. 

But then the conflict comes as she thinks the whole thing might be by now, “a lie, banned by the state,” even though her knowledge of home is still there with her. Clearly, she has no passport, so she has no identity in one sense, but for a person to be in such a position as this means that their country has crumpled to a certain extent that it simply does not exist any longer. She has fallen, like the character of Viktor Novorski in the movie called The Terminal, through the cracks of that society into nothingness. 

There is “no way back” to where she was from for her, so where she is at is where she is at; permanently. But the memory of that oldDplace rests in her heart and her mind as she remembers. In her memories, “the city comes to [her] in its own white plane,” like an existence memory that flits into the mind for a short time and then you think what was I doing now? 

She finishes, with a flourish, by saying, “my city takes me dancing through the city of walls,” which sounds confusing for most, but basically means that in her memory, or imagination, the city will never leave her even though she left it. 

The next line, for me, is interesting, because it changes direction into thinking in terms of others, as the lady in the poem thinks that “they accuse me of absence, they circle me.” Does the “they” refer to people, or to those city walls she has just been mentioning? There is no right answer here for this is poetry and each reader comes at a poem based on their experience, so what is your take on this poem? That is what you will write in the exam after all, in your analysis. 

She continues by saying “they accuse me of being dark in their free city,” which basically means they, whoever ‘they’ are, believe that her thoughts are dark, or her faith is dark, in the city. If I am right in thinking that Rumens is a Jewish name, from the Russian ending, like Rumenovski, then it comes as no surprise to me that there is a fear for this place as she remembers it. Death and the muttering therof, is an example of how her city hides behind her. In doing so, there is a strong request that as her “shadow falls as evidence of sunlight,” she too, will sense a closing of play for the day and as she has some ulterior motives, you should see her as someone who is safe to be around, if not a little dark in areas. 

That then, is the poem, so where is the conflict and where is the raw power. Your task is simple; locate any references to power and then to conflict in the poem. Your challenge has been set.

Checking Out Me History – John Agard

Dem tell me
Dem tell me
Wha dem want to tell me
Bandage up me eye with me own history
Blind me to my own identity
Dem tell me bout 1066 and all dat
dem tell me bout Dick Whittington and he cat
But Touissant L’Ouverture
no dem never tell me bout dat
a slave
with vision
lick back
and first Black
Republic born
Toussaint de thorn
to de French
Toussaint de beacon
of de Haitian Revolution
Dem tell me bout de man who discover de balloon
and de cow who jump over de moon
Dem tell me bout de dish run away with de spoon
but dem never tell me bout Nanny de maroon
see-far woman
of mountain dream
fire-woman struggle
hopeful stream
to freedom river
Dem tell me bout Lord Nelson and Waterloo
but dem never tell me bout Shaka de great Zulu
Dem tell me bout Columbus and 1492
but what happen to de Caribs and de Arawaks too
Dem tell me bout Florence Nightingale and she lamp
and how Robin Hood used to camp
Dem tell me bout ole King Cole was a merry ole soul
but dem never tell me bout Mary Seacole
From Jamaica
she travel far
to the Crimean War
she volunteer to go
and even when de British said no
she still brave the Russian snow
a healing star
among the wounded
a yellow sunrise
to the dying
Dem tell me
Dem tell me wha dem want to tell me
But now I checking out me own history
I carving out me identity


There is a deep sense of irony in this poem, right from the title onwards, because when asked recently, by their teacher of English, swathes of students could not tell me what certain things were in this poem, like what happened in 1066, or who Dick Whittington was, or even Mary Seacole. Only one student out of three classes was able to answer all three questions. Now when you see this, as a teacher, you immediately begin to question your colleagues in the History Department (would that be another title maybe?) until you realize that they do not know about these things because the curriculum is set up just to teach children about certain things in British, or even, English history. 

This is what the great poet, John Agard, rails at in this poem, the inner conflict of how he can be British, but how he and successive children can only be taught the typical, racist, white ruled, white dominant parts of our history. So think back to recent times and ask yourself these questions. Can you remember statues being ripped down and thrown into the rivers or seas on the news? Were you watching the news? Do you even read newspapers or even online news content? Can you remember what BLM stands for? Does the Black Lives Matter movement lead you to support or even loathe the whole idea? If none of this so far has made a dent in you, then you are massively narrow minded and without the right knowledge to be able to live in this modern and multicultural world. 

This is where racism is bred, in the ignorant people of our towns and cities of this nation!

Agard rails against such a one sided education system that teaches about one thing and not the other, about white culture and not black and I say God bless him for doing so! Here is the man speaking in perfect Standard English, just in case you felt he wrote this poem because of the way he speaks. 

Such a belief would be racist in its entirety to begin with. 

He writes his poem in this way to show the difference and divergence between cultures, to show the difference between the white history and black history. One is taught and the other is ignored and if you think I am wrong, then go through the names in his poem and ask yourself do you know who they are? My bet is that the answer will be, in the large part, not a lot. 

So Agard begins by saying that “dem tell me wha dem want to tell me” referring in the first part to teachers of English history, but more so towards those who set up the curriculum, the government politicians who say what we teachers must teach in our subjects. To add clarity, ten years or more ago, we used to have a section in our GCSE English poetry called “Poetry From Other Cultures,” which was solely a time spent learning these poems for the exams, as well as widening our knowledge of being British, but now, even those have been santized out of the curriculum, to make it so that other things are studied. 

It is wrong! 

Agard says they do this so as to “bandage up me eye with me own history.” Now, imagine putting a bandage over your eye – what happens? You can only see in what we might call ‘Tunnel Vision,” or can only see a part of the world that is open to you, because the rest, the important rest, has been blocked by someone, or something, in an attempt to make you see one thing above all else. This is what Agard is saying when he says he is being blinded to his “own identity” because his History teachers taught him about “1066 and all dat” or concepts or legends like “Dick Whittington and he cat,” but the thing they ignored, which was most important to him in understanding his Britishness, was ignored; history about people like “Touissant L’Ouverture” (Google him) who he says, was “a slave with vision” who kicked back at the establishment at the time and led the Haitian Revolution when they fought for power from the French Imperial rulers. 

Agard repeats this by adding the name of “Napoleon,” who we all know about, surely (what? You don’t know who he is? Shame on your History teachers) so as to share how important Toussaint was in the history of Haiti. This is the culture of Agard’s homeland, because he was born near to there, in British Guiana and so, he is able to relate how Toussaint became the “thorn to de French” or a “beacon of de Haitian Revolution,” a man to look up to and to learn about, but in Britain, he is a non-entity, never spoken about. This is the conflict here in this poem; the differential attitudes white British people have towards those from the Caribbean and especially, their history. This is why TV programmes like Who Do You Think You Are are important to watch whenever a celebrity from Caribbean culture is featured. We can learn so much from those episodes.  

Then Agard mentions how he learnt in English schools all about “de man who discover de balloon and de cow who jump over de moon” and how “de dish run away with de spoon,” all of them nursery rhymes intended to teach young British children certain things, but somehow, Black characters from history were never seen, heard of or spoken of and when they were, it was often as a butt of a joke, like the Gollywog (Google a picture and see). I wonder if in fifty years time, people will speak and read about the likes of Barack Obama, or Martin Luther King Jr? It is the same kind of hypocrisy that is being discussed here, in this poem. We call ourselves British, but we ignore at least fifty percent of others who are British, in favour of one thing or another; the epitome of what being British actually might mean. One could argue that is white nationalism at its worst.

But then, Agard mentions someone called “Nanny de maroon,” who we find was a “woman of mountain dream,” which is again, something typical white English GCSE students are unaware of. So I ask you now, as students, to Google the life out of this poem, so as to learn about all these people. It will help your understanding of the poem, but also of the wider world and its history and identity. She was a “freedom river” for her people, just like “Lord Nelson and Waterloo.” 

We know about Waterloo, don’t we? Please tell me that is a yes! 

But just as much as we know about Nelson and Waterloo, we know very little about people in African history, like “Shaka de great Zulu.” We might know about Christopher “Columbus and 1492” but are we aware of who or what the “Caribs and de Arawaks too?” All of these are valid questions, because Agard is pointing out that our understanding of history is a one sided history written by those who won the battles, the Victors of previous conflict. If you are not sure what I mean, ask yourself who wrote your History books you have read so far. The answer is that it is usually from someone whose side won the war, or conflict. 

Then we come to a very well known name, or at least I thought so till I asked those three classes about her. Just who was Florence Nightingale? If you do not know the answer, then get reading, because those who read the most score the highest GCSE grades. There is a proven correlation between the two things. Agard says “dem tell me bout Florence Nightingale and she lamp,” the lady who went to the Crimean (near Russia) War, as a nurse and comforted many a battle scarred British soldier. But, says Agard, when they were teaching him about Florence Nightingale, “dem never tell me bout Mary Seacole, from Jamaica,” who travelled “to the Crimean War” because “she volunteer to go” even when “de British said no.” 

Google Mary Seacole and see for yourselves. She is an important figure in British history, but is ignored for one reason; the colour of her skin. She was told she could not go because those in charge, who were white, had a very dim view of black people. We think we have moved on and become enlightened, don’t we? But ask yourself another question. Why, in 2022, do we need a movent like Black Lives Matter? 

See it now? We Brits have always been inherently racist to the core! 

Agard says that “she still brave the Russian snow, a healing star among the wounded, a yellow sunrise to the dying.” She gave comfort to the dying souls in the Crimea at the time, was a friendly face to those who needed one and yet, she has been whitewashed out of British history. (I used white-washed, on purpose) So Agard says, “dem tell me wha dem want to tell me, but now I checking out me own history” because “I carving out me identity.” What he means by this is simple. He now, as an adult, has the right to access any information and learning on what he sees being British is all about and it is his desire now, to shape and carve out his identity, because he is British, yes, but he is also so much more than that! 

As to the language of the poem, I shall leave that to others, but know this. Poems like this are written to be performed, so enjoy what follows and see how he meant the words to be stressed. Perhaps, even underline the key words where he stresses more the depth of the word.