We Remember your Childhood Well
by Michael Woods
This is a complex poem, not because of its diction but because of its ambiguous use of perspective, or point of view. In essence, the poem is about the responsibility we all have to children.
Although we could read the poem as being about how adults can damage children, Duffy seems to be presenting the idea that regimes are capable of rewriting history in ways convenient to them. We are familiar, for example, with the way in which Joseph Stalin in Russia edited people from photographs and had official records tampered with. What Duffy is saying is that what is horrific and damaging on an individual level can become exponentially larger if horrible principles are applied on what can sometimes be a national scale. This does not mean that harm done to an individual is less significant if it happens to be an isolated instance or a mass one.
The voiceless child is helpless in the face of the authority figures of parents and any other adults who wield power. The truth is that the child is likely to be the most reliable ‘witness’ to the events in his or her own life. Also, adults cannot calculate the damage they do to children. It is clear that the implied listener or defender is the older self of the child. The point to be drawn out here is that damage is not just something that can be inflicted and forgotten about; it lasts. A scarred child becomes a scarred adult.
The poem opens with a denial, “Nobody hurt you” and this is sustained throughout the poem. The word nobody occurs six times and Duffy clearly wants the denial to ring hollow. The child’s version of the events denied in stanza one would clearly be that she was physically “hurt”, that her parents/ guardian/s “argued…all night” and that she was told that there was “a bad man on the moors”. Finally, she would say that they were locked in to their bedroom.
The language of the second stanza takes on the sinister sound of police in totalitarian or oppressive states using official language with a clipped, formal tone. This is doubly alarming, given that the ostensive subject of the poem is others’ memory of a child’s childhood. Children are naturally inquisitive and ask questions incessantly. The speaker/s (there first person plural lends a collective voice to the poem that potentially implicates all adults) claim that they were patient and answered the child’s questions. The fact that this seems to be challenged by the child (there is an implied rebuttal from the child all the way through the poem) is clear when the emphatic one word sentence “No.” is used by Duffy in line 4. This is a feature of some adults’ treatment of children. They think that their word can obliterate any alternatives. This is also true of certain types of government. Duffy is clearly engaging here with the way in which those in authority can sometimes abuse their positions by wielding power and making statements they know will not be challenged, probably because those listening are colluding with them. “That didn’t occur” (line 4) has the air of an official making a statement in court. The ‘child’ is crushed by being told “you couldn’t sing anyway”. The reference to Film Fun locates the poem in the nineteen forties during the Second World War. The final short sentence in stanza 3, “Anyone’s guess.” ironically draws attention to the fact that what the speaker/s are saying is a pack of lies and that the child (now grown up?) can do nothing to gainsay a majority view.
The next three stanzas present a denial of the effects of separation, presumably evacuation in the war. The opening of stanza three, “Nobody forced you.” (line 7) is sinister with overtones of police brutality. The child allegedly “Begged” to be sent away and there are photographs to prove it if her “smiling and waving” (line 9). It is also claimed that the child “chose the dress” in which she went away. This reads as almost a macabre bridal image of a girl in her ‘going away dress’. In saying to the ‘child’, “The whole thing is inside your head.” (line 9) has two meanings. One the one hand, they mean that it is an invention of the child’s imagination but on the other, Duffy is highlighting the fact that what happened to this child is indeed inside her head and will never be out of her head. Further, it will be her version of events that will remain lodged there.
Stanza four builds on the atmosphere of oppression created by Duffy earlier in the poem. The arrogantly condescending and confident, “What you recall are impressions; we have the facts” (line 10). The speaker/s control is compounded in their saying, “We called the tune” (line 10). This is no longer the case in the context of what the poem sets out do, which is clearly to expose the disreputable nature of what these people did. Indeed, they are so shameless that they tacitly admit their version of events is false. It was their power in being able to call the tune that allowed them to invent somebody’s past. The adults are described by Duffy as “The secret police of your childhood” in the most explicitly chilling image with political overtones in the whole pope. It throws the sentence “Nobody forced you” into sharp relief because it puts the reader in mind of torturing regimes. The bullying dimension of the adults’ behaviour is further emphasised through the admission that they were able to get way with what they did simply by dint of being “older and wiser” but, most worryingly, “bigger”. The recalled “sound of their voices” is a hideous “Boom.Boom.Boom.” This is the sound a small child might experience shouting of adults as, while it also suggests the beating a torture victim might have at the hands of aggressors. It even evokes the explosions of bombs or guns, something that is not out of place in a poem that has clear political as well as social concerns.
The transformation of an evacuation to “an extra holiday” is almost laughable were it not for the fact that the child was clearly scared and sent away with strangers who were, the speaker/s admit “firm”. In the context of the child’s experience as previously suggested in the poem, this is a gross understatement and, in our terms, could be synonymous with ‘sadistic’. The adults’ attempt to exonerate themselves by saying, “There was none to blame but yourself if it all ended in tears.” (line 15) is clearly a lie and turns a cliché into a sinister example of what seems ot amount to perjury in the court of life.
The question that opens the final stanza shows how utterly insensitive the speakers are to the effect they had on this child. The point is that what she experienced then still affects her now. The shocking, scatological image of “nobody left the skidmarks of sin / on your soul” (lines 16-17) suggest that the child (now an adult) feels contaminated and sullied by her early experience at the hands of these adults, just as undergarments can be by faecal remains. She feels, it seems, “wide open for Hell.” (line 17). The speakers’ view of their child’s past is incredible: “You were loved” becomes unbelievable and their claim, “We did what was best” could be transposed to “worst”. The final sentence rings particularly hollow as it repeats the title of the poem in a way that people do if they are not convinced of the truth of that they are saying themselves.
This poem emphasises the need for children to be protected and for societies to maintain a truthful and equitable regime based upon the freedom, not the repression of, the individual.