Those of us who read and write poetry sometimes seem very odd to the usual run of the citizenry, you know. We are not quite normal.
This has been made very clear in Britain over the past few weeks. In Bristol a dreadful series of events has unfolded; a young woman went missing one evening before Christmas, and some days later her dead body was found by a roadside, showing signs of strangulation.
She was young, attractive, white and middle-class, so the case has drawn for more attention than the more usual run of murders – the gang-related killings of young men on slum estates, for example.
But the moment when the media really went apeshit was when her landlord was temporarily arrested. Christopher Jefferies was a retired English teacher in his sixties (like myself, actually) with a reputation as a a solid and decent citizen (stalwart of the local neighbourhood watch, campaigner for the preservation of old buildings, and enthusiast for the King James Bible and the Cranmer prayer book).
Once arrested, however, he became the target for all sorts of press innuendo. He lived by himself – sinister! He loved the work of Christina Rossetti, a poet obsessed by death – sinister! He had an odd hairstyle – sinister! Racking their brains, some former students recalled that as a teacher he on one occasion lost his temper – sinister! And he taught them ‘The Ballad of Reading Jail’, a poem about a murderer – sinister! An ex-tenant who did not like him remembered that he did not want her to put up net curtains – and that, of course, is sinister evidence that he must have been a Peeping Tom!
The police freed him a couple of days later, and are now looking in other directions, rather desperately – appealing on Facebook and so on, as though anyone with anything to tell them would not already have been aware of a case that is the talk of the whole country.
Well, the British libel laws are in disrepute, but they have their uses, and I hope that in the fullness of time Mr Jefferies’ solicitors will be communicating with some of the tabloid editors.
Meanwhile it is worth noting the horror with which the media represented the literary interests of this civilised and cultivated person. To some of us, an affection for the work of Christina Rossetti is a mark of intelligence. She is is one of the finest poets of the nineteenth century, but not an easy one; her writings are complex, profound and unsentimental. But to the tabloid journalist (whom we may of course assume to be entirely innocent of any knowledge of her work) the fact that much of her writing deals with the problem of death marks her as sinister, and her readers as abnormal. I take it that the writers who made this accusation were blithely unaware of the irony of its inclusion in an article specifically designed to be pored over by ghouls in search of salacious details about horrible murder.
Mr Jefferies was cast by the papers as “Professor Strange”. He was clearly a bit funny. Unlike the other teachers at the boarding-school where he worked he never refereed a football match or took the slightest interest in sport. That, to many a tabloid-reader, must be utterly inexplicable, and mark him off as quite inexplicably sinister.
And doubtless, if, God forbid, there were to be a murder in my neighbourhood, and the police picked on me as someone who seemed a bit odd, there would be locals enough with stories to feed the inevitable tabloid reporters. Among the books on my shelves there are many that could be cited as damning evidence of an interest in strange and violent things. My hairstyle not infrequently gets a bit unkempt. My lack of interest in football is locally notorious. When I was a schoolteacher I often tried to make my lessons interesting, so doubtless ex-students could be found who would recall the macabre relish with which I read them ghost stories or encouraged them to act out some of the gorier scenes from Shakespeare. I wouldn’t stand a chance.
Are we really in an age where to be literate is to be weird? On the evidence of the past few weeks – yes.