My mother didn’t care for poetry, but she furnished my habit from youth and provided the Oxford Book of English Verse from the Literary Guild Book Club. I liked gung-ho stuff and learned a lot of it. Invictus was a favourite as I was all for self-realisation – though she had another term for it. It drives me MAD when I see it misused.
When I read of a school where everyone has to ‘follow Invictus’ and the children are encouraged to learn it by heart I nearly had to self-isolate with rage. I may be misinformed but apparently they suggest that children choose their friends by whether or not they’ve committed this Henley to memory. You can picture the windswept coastal playground chat:
I say old man, have you learnt Invictus yet? It’s bally good, you know.
Sorry, old thing, don’t think I’ll bother. Prefer to focus on the ladies, what?
Well I’m the sorrier, old fruit. I’m afraid it’s curtains for you and me. Can’t be seen with chaps of your sort. The Chief wants us all to make our own path by following his every instruction and you just can’t argue with that. No need to make a face, it’s perfectly clear to me. Toodle-oo.
Invictus is a great piece of Victorian rhetoric written by someone who had a terrible early life (and incidentally may have been the model for Long John Silver). It speaks of the undefeated human spirit and is where we get the phrase ‘bloodied but unbowed’. Allow me to quote the last verse:
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
Don’t misunderstand me. Telling children that they can escape the grinding poverty and hopelessness of their birth is an entirely good thing. I’ve led a school in those circumstances and I sympathise with the aim – but it can’t be at the expense of truth. Captaining your soul to a good berth requires a following wind and predictable seas.
The photographer Chris Killip died this week and his collection In Flagrante has followed me from house to house. They’re photos taken in the north-east between 1973 and 1985 and illuminate my memories of the same time in the same place. ‘Youth on a wall, Jarrow, 1976’ was for many the definitive image of the time, but as a work of art it is itself timeless.
The school that the boy on the wall went to wouldn’t have bothered much about Invictus. The education he got might not have been up to much and he was probably selected for it, luckily or unluckily. In Jarrow in the seventies his prospects would have looked pretty bleak at 16, but he’d have been used to bleakness. Would it have helped him to go to a school where he had to learn Invictus by heart? Hard to say. If the school was well-run and kindly, energetic in finding jobs and filled with skilled teachers then the poetry could have been an added bonus, a consolation in troubled times to come. If not? Would he have turned the blame in on himself for being insufficiently unbowed? What does the picture say to you?
And now? He sits on the wall rather than going to school. He missed 6 months of education last year and ran wild in that time, with criminals. He might get a grade 3 in English if he works hard with a gifted teacher, but its still a fail. He can enrol at a college with next-to-nothing, but he’ll have to carry on fighting GCSE maths until he’s 19 while youth unemployment heads for 20%. With what does he captain the small ship of his fate through these menaced waters?
Children deserve to be told the truth. They are free to read poetry and they are the master of their souls but neither puts food on the table. Learning Invictus and repeating it in a community of Invictus-chanters will not prevent you from failure in a system that requires 30% to fail. We can choose as a nation not to provide for the most vulnerable but we cannot escape our responsibility.
It is shameful to download the failure of the state into the hearts of our children and mask it with the 19th century equivalent of ‘just follow your dreams’. They deserve the truth – and they deserve an education system that cares about them all.