It is fast approaching GCSEs in Britain. In fact, as I write, my lovelies at the school which I work at will have completed their Religious Education exam earlier in the day, and now be cramming French into their skulls ready for tomorrow’s trauma. I’m an English teacher and I have had the pleasure of preparing my class (shout out!) to complete their English Literature exam on R.C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End (if you’ve not had that pleasure, go ahead and watch the play.)
My experience and memory of teaching this play to my altogether fabulous Year 11s, ties in with my recent lazy Sunday which I spent not being completely brain dead, but instead taking the time to catch up on something more substantial than my usual Sunday viewing choice: Grayson Perry’s All Man.
Though years apart (one set in WW1 and one very firmly rooted in the here and now) both masterpieces resonate so much within me, and strike a harmonious chord with what I see before me in society, and at times, in my job. Both explore what it is to be a man and how silence leads to pain.
Sherriff’s play is about the sinister gung-ho approach to war, which sees young men hero-worshipping false idols, created by propaganda (exemplified by young Raleigh, the company’s latest recruit) the stoic acceptance of the futility of war and one’s death being one’s duty (exemplified by the affectionately nicknamed ‘uncle’ of the group, Osbourne) and of the pain of not being able to live up to the dutiful heroic ideal of what makes a man, and rightly so (exemplified by Hibbert who is branded a ‘worm’ for attempting to shirk).
In fact as we built up a contextual background for the play, some of Year 11 and I were kind of disgusted by the propaganda that we studied which feminised men who wanted to be passive, caricatured as ‘camp’ skinny weaklings, for not being able to come to terms with a ridiculous, frightening and all together fruitless situation. However, some of the group inevitably sniggered at first, presented with the dilemma: knowing full well that they too would be afraid in a combat situation, but laughing at the camp figure before them, because the media, comedy and society has told them in some manner, that to talk about one’s feelings is to be weak, that it is important to keep face, to be territorial, to laugh at tears and to suffer in silence, because that’s what those before us have done. This is echoed in the cage fighters which Perry interviewed. In the need for a man to show that he is ‘hard’ and he is top of the pecking order.
I have touched on the fact in one of my previous Gumption articles, that ‘men’ are an issue. You know how everyone cares about being ever so politically correct about women? I was trying to explain that actually, our focus isn’t to be aimed at solving women’s rights, it is about human rights. We should be striving for equality, not the exclusive support of men or women. Men, especially in the North East UK (as Grayson Perry points out) are committing suicide. Some men, like some women, have insecurities and pressures, but in our society, they have no voice. They are screaming inside, and feel like they cannot access help or advice, because they have been stifled by a silent society. It is not okay to speak about feelings. You get on with your work and provide for your family. You do not trouble anyone, or take down that mask, or second skin which protects you from scorn. No way.
These are ideas which I had been mulling over for some time, and Perry’s documentary and artwork just echoed and amplified those musings further. At points I was in tears, sometimes I was shouting ‘Yes!’ at the TV and I was hoping that all the men I knew were watching, and in particular, a certain group of boys that I have seen begin to grow into fine young men.
What struck me with Perry’s work, is the way in which his pottery Shadow Boxing (I like to think of it as a funereal Urn) and his banner The Death of a Working Hero brought to light what has seemed to be a generational motto for decades in Britain: provision, hardness, silence, duty. How utterly screwed up, and how utterly upsetting that generations of men have defined themselves as merely this, when they are so much more. How agonising that young men, unable to find a way out, have left this Earth, without their loved ones knowing that this is how they felt.
Without them having a chance to listen, to comfort and to help their brother, their son.
It is time to talk.
I am so grateful to have taught Journey’s End. To watch a secret perplexed look creep upon many a male and female face as I tell them that Hibbert should talk about his fear to help his well-being, or that when the men talk of their gardens at home that really they should talk about how they are feeling, that Stanhope doesn’t have to drink if only he could let is guard down, that it isn’t soft for the officers to get dewy-eyed about the remarkable and beautiful sight of a bird amidst the destruction of the worst war, that Talking Therapy was a landmark in breaking down ‘masculinity’… that it is okay to cry, to be afraid, to empathise, to sympathise, to be sensitive, to care, to console, to talk. And to think that I get to drum these ‘new ideals’ into these children under the guise of revision – hurrah!
Thank goodness for Perry and his art, for Sherriff and his. Why, in the gap between their works, have we barely changed? We talk about starting talk. We talk a lot about this buzzword ‘dialogue’. Hooray for such and such a celebrity who has started an important ‘dialogue’ through a ground-breaking tweet… Let’s make this talk a reality. In our schools, communities, but first, where it can arguably have the most impact: at home. Time to Talk. Time to listen.