Michael Jarvie criticises Clanchy's recent memoir, and the publishing and reviewing industry responsible for its publication and promotion
Kate Clanchy’s memoir, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, was published in 2019 by Picador. Following its appearance, apart from a few dissenting voices, the reaction to the book was generally favourable and the blurb even features an endorsement from The Bookseller magazine, and author Philip Pullman is quoted as saying how it should be ‘in every staffroom’ and that it should be ‘read by every student teacher’. In 2020, it won the Orwell Prize for Political Writing. However, in August 2021, a veritable Twitter storm erupted after readers and writers of colour highlighted numerous examples of racist language in the book.
In this appraisal, I’m going to dive deep into the text to see if these accusations are justified. Although I initially decided to approach the work from the perspective of social class, which has a direct bearing upon my own status as a working-class writer, it would be remiss of me and insensitive not to address the other issues, namely the allegations of racism, disablism and body shaming.
As for Clanchy’s guiding principle, we can find the following sentence early on in the book: ‘I have included nobody, teacher or pupil, about whom I could not write with love.’ So let’s see if the work lives up to her stated aim. First, let’s examine her depiction of social class and the accusations of classism.
Working-class people all look the same
In an early teaching job, she admits that she found her Scottish working-class pupils to be so homogeneous that it was difficult to tell them apart. As an aside, she invokes one of those infamous inanities uttered by that entitled toff Prince Philip – namely that Chinese people all look the same as each other. As a result, one of her later comments makes absolutely no sense. Annoyed by some of the girls’ clothing choices, she proclaims, ‘If I could put a burqa on Suzie and Kristell tomorrow I would.’ But this conflicts with her previous observation, since wearing a burqa would make identification even harder, nor would it promote a sense of individuality. Moreover, such a suggestion – despite being tongue in cheek – is demeaning for these two working-class students and tantamount to implying that their chosen attire is something to be ashamed of.
Later she speaks of working-class families as a ‘tribe’ with ‘broken noses and vast, tattooed arms.’ As for one of her other pupils ‘poverty is stamped through Cheyenne like letters in a stick of rock, manifesting itself in her rotting, nineteenth-century mouth.’ Despite the fact that Cheyenne’s behaviour is at times obnoxious, Clanchy’s response is demonstrably classist in nature and an example of punching down. It’s all very well replacing the children’s names in the text with pseudonyms, but if Cheyenne were to read this book, she would know immediately that this description applied to her.
Black people are other, strange, exotic
Next, let’s look at race. There’s certainly a preoccupation with minute physical characteristics – especially noses – when describing non-white children in the book. Thus, we encounter phrases such as ‘black, almond-shaped eyes’, ‘Somali height’, ‘Cypriot bosoms’, and ‘Japanese hair’. Later we are introduced to Jonathan, who is ‘six foot five inches tall, with a slow, resonant African accent,’ Aadil ‘a tall Somali boy with a deep African voice’ who is ‘more muscular and square-set, with chocolate-coloured skin, a broad-based nose and rounded head’, Cumar who has ‘a thin nose, narrow skull and very dark, almost black skin,’ and Izzat who is ‘so small and square and Afghan with his big nose and premature moustache.’ However, one might be forgiven for asking what exactly the author means by ‘Somali height’ or ‘Cypriot bosoms’, let alone what is denoted by an ‘African accent’ or an ‘African voice’.
By contrast, Clanchy’s description of Saira is hardly flattering since she is portrayed as being ‘very butch looking altogether with square shoulders and a distinct moustache.’ Likewise, Nesrin ‘a vigorous Kurdish widow with a marvellous nose,’ is also described as possessing ‘irrational, exclaiming melodramatic energy that perhaps only a Kurdish widow who grew up in a village with more scimitars than telephones could possibly muster.’
There’s certainly a whiff of cultural superiority in the previous description. And as Clanchy makes clear, she herself is about as physically different from her pupils ‘as I, with my Nordic height and Celtic colouring, am from a petite, olive-skinned Mediterranean woman.’ Moreover, despite the degree of specificity, she also candidly admits ‘[to] most of us – white people, English people – you look the same.’ Although you could attempt to formulate an argument that diversity is celebrated in the book, there’s also another conflicting conclusion that one might inevitably reach. For it would surely be more accurate to say that non-white individuals are presented in the main as other, strange, exotic.
Perhaps the most egregious example is when she writes that ‘a boy with jet-black hair and eyes and a fine Ashkenazi nose named David Marks refused any Jewish heritage’. Using an ‘Ashkenazi nose’ as an indicator of Jewishness is not something I would have employed, since it smacks of the pseudoscientific National Socialist playbook with its callipers and phrenological measuring charts – after all, what on earth is a Jewish nose? Likewise, there’s her use of the word ‘Becks’ which I gather is a slang term to describe shallow and materialistic Jewish girls.
Disabled people are irritating
Now let’s look at Clanchy’s portrayal of disability. That this is problematic is obvious given the fact that one pupil is immediately introduced as ‘Anorexic Clarice’. Two of her pupils have ASD – Autism Spectrum Disorder – whereupon she confides that ‘though they both wear skirts and have long, thick hair, it is somehow very hard to identify them as girls,’ which could be construed as an example of transphobia. Furthermore, ‘when, still filling in the form, they flick through the lists of “country of origin”, I feel there should be an “other” for that too: ASD Land.’ She goes on to say that ‘no one else wants to be friends with them’ and concludes that they can be ‘jarring company’ and ‘probably, more than an hour a week would irritate me.’ Even if you applaud her honesty, this is hardly a way of endearing oneself to one’s readers.
The final example I wish to consider is that of body image. Here, Clanchy is particularly cruel in her depiction of one of her pupils munching fig rolls two at a time. Of another girl she writes ‘she wasn’t a pretty girl, even by the standards of the IU… She was fat, a swathe of freckly flesh bulging out from her collar, blurring her jaw line, giving her premature double chins.’ In a different passage she can’t resist pointing out ‘they are all white… and none of them, except spooky, platinum Angel… is pretty.’ Meanwhile, Clanchy’s own self restraint and ability to focus on long-term goals is contrasted with the behaviour of the working-class kids who are slaves to instant gratification, whether that is through food or consumer goods.
Although the author seems to have done some good work with her charges, there is always the suggestion that she is using their status as a marketing ploy and to enhance her own reputation. It might also be said that the danger of focusing so much on the migrant experience above all others is that it eventually becomes the only subject for their poetry. In other words, it presupposes that asylum seekers and migrant children are unable to write about anything else.
So why didn't the agents, judges, editors and publishers notice?
So how did the book manage to see the light of day in its present form? After all, didn’t Clanchy’s publisher have any misgivings about some of the content, or her agent, or her editors? And what about the judges at the Orwell Prize and the reviewers in the mainstream press? My own take is as follows. The environment that Kate Clanchy moves in is predominantly white and middle class, and its denizens share a similar worldview. This is, after all, the milieu of her agent Zoë Waldie. It is also the world of Kris Doyle and Paul Baggaley, who are mentioned in the Acknowledgements section at the back of the book. When it comes to the four Orwell Prize judges in 2020, only one, Elif Shafak, who is Turkish, might be said to hail from outside this enclave. The remaining three conform to the predictable stereotype: Stephanie Flanders (a graduate of Oxford University) Paul Laity (who has lectured at Oxford University) and Professor Robert Tombs (a former academic at Cambridge University.)
The aftermath is perhaps the most depressing part of this whole sorry affair. In essence, what happened can be concisely related. When negative reviews of the book appeared on the Goodreads website, Clanchy claimed that the examples cited were incorrect and she attempted to stifle debate by having the offending reviews deleted – essentially casting herself in the role of victim. There’s even a word for such people – they are the Karens of modern parlance, entitled white women who attempt to manipulate the system to get what they want. Clanchy also enlisted the help of her prominent writer friends on Twitter to support her. As a result, several prominent female writers of colour – including Professor Sunny Singh, Chimene Suleyman, and Monisha Rajesh – were vilified, even receiving racist messages and emails.
Within a short space of time it became abundantly clear that the offensive passages were not an invention of the reviewers and eventually Poetry Wales broke ranks and issued a statement distancing itself from Clanchy, which was soon followed by a restrained announcement from Picador and finally a carefully worded – though far from satisfactory apology – from the author herself.
As I see it, there are now three options for the book: it could be left as it is; rewritten to remove the offending passages; or withdrawn from publication. I gather that the second option is going to be pursued by Picador, though I feel this is a strange decision. In my view, an author should have to stand by his or her words. Surely the lesson we must learn is that in future the publishing industry as a whole should be less white, less middle class, and less prejudiced. Sadly, the only way that will ever happen is for it to be restructured so that it reflects the life experiences of the many, not the few.