I always thought of English as one of my weakest subjects at school. By the time my GCSEs rolled around I felt pretty confident with English Literature – I’d studied the texts, followed in class when the subtext and deeper meanings were explored, and I understood the breakdown of the characters and their motivations. English Language, though, felt like something I couldn’t study for in the same way.
After the exam I did a debrief with my mother and brother at home. As I described the kinds of questions asked I told them about one in particular I wasn’t sure I’d done a good job of answering. We were asked to discuss the writing style of a newspaper article. It was a Jeremy Clarkson column about some new car or other – this was in the days before he had styled himself as a controversial figure but he used humour in his writing a lot.
“I wasn’t sure what to say about it,” I told them, “it was kind of funny in parts.” “Did you write that then?” my brother asked. “No, I didn’t,” I replied, and I couldn’t explain why. I knew there was humour in the piece as I was reading it. The thought, ‘this is kinda funny’ flashed through my brain. But it didn’t occur to me to write that down in the answer.
County Derry’s most famous son, Seamus Heaney, attended the same school as my father and brothers. He has a poem called, ‘Whatever You Say, Say Nothing,’ which explores the culture of Northern Ireland during the Troubles. “The famous Northern reticence, the tight gag of place and times” where we figure out whether someone is Protestant or Catholic by finding out their name or what school they went to. Nothing direct. Nothing overt. “Smoke-signals are loud-mouthed compared with us,” he writes.
Growing up in a place where your name alone is a piece of intelligence does something to your brain. That GCSE English paper was asking me to articulate all the information I had received and processed when reading the article. I couldn’t do it because I wasn’t practised at it. What I was practised at was making deductions based on crumbs of information, reading subtle signals and processing in real-time what could be spoken directly and what was to remain between the lines. Things inferred were usually things to kept quiet.
When writing one of the earlier pieces in this series I called my mother to check I had my facts straight on the story about my grandfather unknowingly driving a young man with a gun through an army checkpoint in Creggan. Her knee-jerk reaction was, “You can’t tell that story!” When I asked why, she joked, “Security, Megan. Security.” I heard the same joke in my youth. When a minute or so had passed and her prefrontal cortex had come back online she agreed it was probably fine to share that story.
On some level I have that same primal ‘whatever you say, say nothing’ response. Most of the stories I’ve shared in this series I’ve never told any of my friends. Not friends in London and certainly not friends from home. People just don’t talk about this stuff, me included. It’s hard-wired, much like a trauma response. I’m trying slowly to undo it.