The most unusual thing I ever stole, as far as I can think, was a book of poems. There was no previous owner as such – at the age of fourteen, I’d received a copy like every student in my year, and while officialdom demanded these books’ return after two years, I resolved early on never to give mine back.
The book was our course anthology, containing over fifty texts to study for exams. No one was expected or supposed to read or write about that many – the book, a mass-produced A4 affair, contained sections of poetry from pre-1914, from ‘other cultures’ and by then-current national writers, from which teachers made selections – and my class must only have read and discussed umpteen. I read each last one though, slipping the slim volume into my bag instead of handing it in at lesson’s end, sneaking home with it to pore over its contents at my leisure. I remember distinctly that when I turned sixteen the month exams were held, each page was thick with spidery teenage script, annotations laced like latticework between text and images, covering it to the last square inch.
How I loved that book. The two years during which it was a course text for me were perhaps the hardest of my life, and certainly those most filled with fear: fear of going outside, fear of harassment, of physical assault, fear of being outed; fear of homeless, fear of self-harm, fear of attempting suicide; fear of failing. Fear of succeeding. The fear I most lucidly remember though, perhaps oddly given its competitors, was of my voice. Public speaking is a widespread fear especially in teenagers, and I still recall my fourteen-year-old self’s efforts not to shake during a speechmaking assignment, but more than that, I loathed my voice. Nasal, stuttering, equipped with vowels to match neither my region nor my social class, it brought me no end of embarrassment and angst. (When a line in Othello called for ‘bastard’ to be read out, my long, southern ‘a’ drenched in self-aware discomfort, I squirmed inwardly.) Somehow, the anthology I half-inched home was an antidote to this.
Humanist platitudes on literature and why to study it are ten-a-penny, mostly involving tawdry clichés: friends found between book covers, world travel from inside one’s bedroom, hot tears shed theatrically reciting A.E. Housman. Like much of humanism, seemingly in all its forms, these are unsalvageably middle class apologies, speaking to those who love English, who rejoice in it, but not who need it; whose education is for leisure not survival. My feeling (and for this I won’t apologise) is that that book of poems saved my life, or at least helped to. When I scoured its innards reading Walcott, Blake, Imtiaz Dharker, I sensed for the first time that my voice could mean something – that it might, one day at any rate, make people stop and listen if I learned to do with it a fraction of what they had; that instead of hampering me, it might grow strong like Sujata Bhatt’s titular tongue. It’s the greatest privilege there is really to have a voice, a powerful engine of hope to think yours might be heard. That shaped as well as saved me: it’s what first impressed on me that I should be a writer, a great part of what made me want to study literature. I know I’m not alone in this.
The anthology remains on my shelf, its contents having stayed with me since first reading them. This being Britain’s National Poetry Day, I’ve wondered which poem from it to share here, but only one was ever a serious contender. Simon Armitage’s ‘Kid’, the title entry from his third collection in 1992, resonates more strongly with me now than ever.
A rare trochaic pentameter, turning traditionally heroic iambs back to front, the poem’s metre suits its subject matter. Years after having flown the Batcave, a jaded adult Robin vilifies his former mentor:
I’m not playing ball boy any longer
Batman, now I’ve doffed that off-the-shoulder
Sherwood-Forest-green and scarlet number
for a pair of jeans and crew-neck jumper;
now I’m taller, harder, stronger, older.
The caped crusader has been found out, myths of familial warmth with Robin scotched, affairs with married women blown open, ditching his ward only to wind up destitute and alone. It’s a bleak, pained monologue, but triumphalist as Robin taunts him finally:
Batman, it makes a marvellous picture:
you without a shadow, stewing over
chicken giblets in the pressure cooker,
next to nothing in the walk-in larder,
punching the palm of your hand all winter,
you baby, now I’m the real boy wonder.
It’s a poem for anyone who’s outgrown a hero, let alone a swathe of them – for all who’ve learnt to mistrust those they were told cared about them, as certainly my teenage self did, beaten, kicked and spat on while teachers stood by. (My former headmaster, whose insistently gendered title is revealing, is one Batman I can’t fail to envision reading Armitage’s lines. Neither of us ever deserved to know the other.) There’s a silver lining in there too, though: a suggestion we emerge taller, harder, stronger, older on anguish and betrayal’s other side. I feel sure personally that I’ve Armitage, his fellow writers and poetry at large to thank for that.
There are other texts from that anthology which merit reading (I wish I had the space to name each one), whole other volumes I could mention just as lovingly. But that stolen book of poems gave me a sense of hope and strength I desperately needed. I’ll never give it back.