To Silence a Mockingbird


I mean it when I say, if I were writing this in pen and ink, it would be blotched with my tears.

Mississippi schools have taken Harper Lee’s masterwork, To Kill A Mockingbird, off the schools reading list, as some parents find it ‘disturbing’.

What’s really ‘disturbing’ of course, are the implications of suppressing a masterpiece because it offends idiots.

To Kill A Mockingbird puts The N Word in the mouths of fictional bigots from the 1930s, you see, and that will never do – even though it is precisely the word such bigots would use – because in 2017 it is considered best that minds are not sullied by truth, even though To Kill A Mockingbird was voted Novel Of The Century in 1999, even though, in 2006, it was described by British librarians as being, ahead of the Bible, ‘the book everyone should read before they die’, even though it is a work of such beauty, honesty, compassion, courage, humour, love, innocence, grace, morality, charm and honour, that I actually feel both proud and humbled that the book and I arrived in the world in the same year, 1960.

Nelle Harper Lee was working as a reservation clerk for BOAC, spending her spare time writing short stories, reflections and articles which she hoped to piece together into a book, some day.  She presented her writing to a literary agency. An editor advised her to leave work and concentrate on writing, but finances didn’t allow.

That Christmas she received a cheque of donations from friends and well-wishers, of exactly a year’s salary, with a note saying ‘Take a year to write whatever you want. Merry Christmas.’

What was born was To Kill A Mockingbird, and it is perfect.

Harper Lee died at the age of 89 last year, and this was the only book she published – a ‘sequel’ published in 2015 turned out to be a first-draft of Mockingbird – and although I am not a religious person, I believe she was put on this Earth specifically to write it.

It was an instant success, selling like hot cakes, winning the Pulitzer Prize, made into a powerful hit film two years after publication, and it remains a best-seller – but alongside the accolades, it has been the most challenged book of the 20th century, constantly under attack for the truths it tells, and the way they are told.  It was removed from school reading lists for being ‘immoral’ fifty years ago, and, well, here we are again, heartbreakingly full-circle: it’s now ‘disturbing’.

Oh, heaven forbid anyone should be ‘disturbed’. Let’s ignore the huge moral questions of our age, in case there are any sexist attitudes or racial pejoratives involved, causing the righteous to loosen their corsets and reach for the smelling salts.

I recall tutoring a ‘predicted to fail’ child through GCSE English.  She was Dyslexic and had been given African poetry to study, which was inspired by Apartheid. The problem was, her class-teacher was told not to describe Apartheid, which would have made sense of the poetry, because Apartheid was far too ‘disturbing’.  I taught the student about Apartheid before we went near those anguished African poets. Then their voices lived. She got ‘B’.

Get this, kiddies: you are not meant to be emotionally numb, vaguely aware that there are bad things being hidden from you so that you don’t feel or think anything. Don’t you see how creepy that is?

It’s a writer’s job to make you feel and think. Read, and you are meant to be disturbed, scared, heartbroken, excited, filled with hilarity, moved to gut-wrenching tears of grief and joy and to generally feel as if you have been put through an emotional blender. You don’t have to like it. But every book came out of a writer at a particular period in history, and you can no more sanitise a book so it fits the vacuous mind-set of today’s New Puritanism, than you can demand no painting by Rubens is hung until his fat nudes have become gym bunnies.

As for you, hand-wringing parents, if you are afraid of new thoughts, or can’t handle conflicts or context, then confine your reading to the back of cereal packets – that doesn’t make you a lesser being. But it does make you unfit to hold forth on the subject of artistic merit and morals. Most readers – yes, even your offspring – are perfectly capable of handling the wildest emotions and ideas, and have the intelligence to understand context. So, stop demanding your opinions be inflicted on a world which can experience art without going into psychological melt-down and calling the Thought Police.

The human soul demands the truth and light which dullards such as those who flinch from this book would deny us; we spent centuries winning the right to our own free voices, and it’s a saddening wake-up call that people so idiotic as to swoon at a word, are once again allowed input into which writers are allowed to grace our minds.

In the book, the narrator recalls her father telling her it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.

That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it. “Your father’s right,” she said. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy . . . but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

It’s also a sin to silence them.