Translating The English 1989
by Michael Woods
A travel guide talks of the tourist attractions offered by Great Britain.
This bitterly ironic poem is very much a reductive state of the nation speech in the voice of a persona who proudly boasts of the attractions of Britain. All that is said is at variance with the view of the poet who finds that the country she lives in has changed beyond all recognition.
In 1989 there was a strike by the greater London Council resulting in terrible backlogs of work associated with public services such as road-sweeping, refuse collection and funeral services. The effects of this strike were widespread. Rubbish was piled up in the streets and bodies lay unburied in municipal mortuaries. At the same time there was a climate of individualism and selfish pursuit of wealth at any price. Duffy tries here to find an equivalent in language for the state of the country. The result is a stilted, almost pidgin, version of English. The speech of the persona is peppered with phrases used by black marketeers. English is translated into a depressingly recognisable version of itself. As a result we are forced by the poet to reflect upon how the use of language reflects social attitudes.
In this way it is not simply a linguistic translation that is being presented. The 'English' referred to in the title could also be regarded as the population. In this way there is a clear suggestion that England is being transformed into another country, no longer adhering to the values it once cherished. Fair play and social justice seem to have been replaced by contemptible and myopic self interest. People have been translated in the Shakespearean sense of being transformed (see A Midsummer Night's Dream: 'Bottom, thou art translated!').
The language people use can change them and their attitudes since these are inscribed in it. This is not to miss the obvious point that people shape language continuously, too. It is a two way process.
The basic technique of the poem is to assemble a collage of references and fragments presented a form more like prose than poetry. This links to the epigraph of the poem which makes clear that we can lose sight of the original meaning of poetry in one language if we try to translate it into another. In this case it seems that Duffy is saying that there is no poetry left in the country presented in the poem.
The deliberate juxtaposition of high culture and underworld activity in lines such as, 'If / you like / Shakespeare or even Opera too the Black Market.' Indicates that in Thatcher's Britain anything can be bought if you have enough money. Britain is presented as a place of superficiality where the invented worlds of soap operas such as Neighbours and Brookside preoccupy a population too selfish to take action against mugging, environmental damage, vagrancy and rape. The speech of the guide is saturated with phrases that betray the power of advertising and the media, especially the tabloid press with its obsession with royalty and gossip. Mentioning Charles Dickens and Terry Wogan in the same breath is also humorously reductive.
The veneer of jocular bonhomie is stripped away by Duffy through the references to the situation in Northern Ireland, punitively high interest rates and increasing violence. The irony of 'our wonderful / capital city'; 'Plenty culture you will be / agreeing' following a reference to Jeffrey Archer; and 'Rule Britannia and child abuse.' Cannot be lost on a perceptive reader. The idea that the presence of estate agents contributes to a 'smashing good time' is laughable. In the late 1990s and early 1990s such people made colossal profits as house prices boomed.
The limitations of space disallow an exhaustive exploration of all the facets of Thatcherite Britain under attack here. The chilling conclusion of the poem reads like the peroration of a nightmarish speech. The voice we hear makes it all too plain that we are being welcomed to another country. Duffy, among others, is a very reluctant inhabitant. The triple repetition of 'my country' and 'welcome' takes on a hollow, sinister aspect as we realise that the guide's country should be ours too but it has changed so much that we do not recognise it anymore.
Edwina Currie: the British minister for agriculture who famously told the truth about salmonella contamination in eggs.
Fergie; Di: tabloid newspaper terms Sarah Ferguson who was married to Prince Andrew and Princess Diana who died in a car crash in 1998.
Charles Dickens: a novelist famous for his satirical attacks on social injustice.
Terry Wogan - a chat and game show host; also a disc Jockey.
Andrew Lloyd-Webber: composer of extremely popular musicals such as Evita and Cats.
Jeffrey Archer: ex MP and popular novelist
Queen Mum: the tabloid newspapers' term for Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.