As will be obvious, I need to be circumspect, but in currently examining students’ responses to GCSE English Literature, I continue as I have done for nearly three decades to be impressed with the empathy and understanding so many demonstrate at all levels of their ability to engage with and respond to literary texts.
One of the perennial favourites is JB Priestley’s An Inspector Calls and it has always seemed to me important that young people engage with its important message about social inequality, the palpable harmful impact of that on vulnerable and poor people, and the author’s hope of how in our recognising and putting this right we can all create and live in a better world. There is always a relevance to this message, sadly, whatever decade in which students have read and responded, yet that message has been heightened now by the recent events of London’s Grenfell Tower fire and tragic loss of life.
Whilst I will avoid the more explicit political relevance of this event to Priestley’s play and contemporary student responses, as I read their empathetic and knowing indictment of all that Mr Birling represents, as well as the just purpose of the Inspector’s exposure of this, I cannot help but be particularly moved by both that youthful appreciation of Priestley’s message and the poignancy of its absolute relevance to the tragedy symbolised by the Kensington disaster.
When students write about the theme of social responsibility and how this is displayed as such a divisive issue in a world polarised by political proclivities, I am sure it resonates for them as much as me in light of these recent events. I have over the years been reassured by their overwhelming support for the notion of and need for change at the time Priestley was writing and in the future – especially the acceptance of universal social responsibility – but it is personally sad for me to read this now when I know that change has so tragically not occurred.