It’s a dreary, damp October afternoon as I write this. If I raise my rear-end six inches from the chair I can see the back garden – an overgrown tree, a badly-mowed lawn, in the distance Carrickfergus Castle and beyond that a grey strip of Belfast Lough. Bleak. So I turn my gaze back to the room and pick up a Ph D thesis I’ve been asked to read. It’s about teaching English literature in Sri Lanka and I soon discover that, in Sri Lanka, they teach Tennyson’s ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ and Hilaire Belloc’s ‘Matilda’.
Mmm. On the face of it, a heroic and worthwhile enterprise – taking two quintessentially English poets and making their work available to pupils on the other side of the globe. A bit like exporting cricket to India or Pakistan or the West Indies. Doing the locals a favour through a precious import. Yes, Tennyson’s poem has nothing to do with the history of Sri Lanka, and Belloc’s bourgeois tale of false alarms for London’s fire brigades is a million emotional miles from Sri Lankan society. But both poems are put together wonderfully well and form a noble export one-third of the way round the world.
Yes, except that, along with admiration for the rhythm and the playful tone and all the rest of it, Sri Lankans are ingesting a heavy dose of cultural cringe. That’s the imperial medicine which convinces you your experience, the experience of your community, the art and song and literature of your country are all, well, really second rate. Maybe fifth-rate, even. Certainly more than a bit embarrassing, when set alongside the perfection of English artistry, as seen in these two poems. It’s a centuries-old trick. Load people with enough bales from the golden harvest of English literature and they’ll end up thanking the coloniser for sharing a superior culture and way of living.
My old schoolmate Seamus Heaney has his limitations but he did us all – all Irish people – at least one very big favour. Through his poetry, he’s made it possible for people who’ve spent a lifetime hiding that they came from the bogs of Ireland to celebrate that fact, even glory in their uniqueness.
It’s nearly fifty years since Heaney began writing about the rural life of South Derry. Today, most Irish nationalists north and south have learnt how to crawl out from under the suffocating weight of Mother Britain’s superiority, in literature and in other areas of life. Most Irish unionists, alas, still have some way to go.