“Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.” ― attributed to C.S. Lewis
Motivational Tweets and mindset posters have become ubiquitous in education and can be both a source of inspiration and anathema. When I volunteered to write this blog, I was acutely aware of the risk of taking a difficult idea and reducing it to superficial soundbite.
Whilst I don’t profess to know how to teach wellbeing, as an English beak, I do have experience and faith that literature, as well as providing knowledge and entertainment, offers students a rich therapeutic opportunity. Sometimes this can be as simple as starting a lesson with 5 minutes of enjoyable reading or, at the end of a long day, a more luxurious trip to the library and the chance to curl up in a comfy chair and lose yourself in a good book of your choice.
Another of the joys and privileges of literature is being able to read the best that has been written and to let great writers do the talking. What prompted me to write this blog was the teaching of R.C. Sherriff’s play ‘Journey’s End’ (1928) to my current Remove class for their IGCSE English Literature examination.
We had recently finished studying Yann Martel’s ‘Life of Pi’ (2001) and the relevance of this contemporary postmodern survivor narrative during the midst of a pandemic wasn’t a tough sell. The class appeared to enjoy its elements of escapist magical realism and they found that suspending their disbelief about the protagonist’s dilemma of being trapped on board a small boat with a 300lb tiger was both easy and immediately engaging.
In contrast, ‘Journey’s End’, a World War One play set in a dark and dismal dugout, composed primarily of waiting and waiting for the “Big Attack”, seemed to be a much drearier prospect and we were all struggling to see the value of digging up the past.
Nonetheless, what both the class and I soon came to realise was that the play was humbly understated and quietly amusing. We began to discover the facetious trench humour that both the infantry officers, as well as the rank-and-file soldiers, employed to survive the war of attrition. Most of the jokes centre around food and cups of tea and serve both as a distraction technique and a way of inverting life-and-death matters to become trivial and vice versa. For example, here is a conversation between two officers about a recent artillery attack:
Hardy: They simply blew us to bits yesterday. Minnies – enormous ones; about twenty. Three bang in the trench. I really am glad you’ve come; I’m not simply being polite.
Osbourne: Do much damage?
Hardy: Awful. A dug-out got blown up and came down in the men’s tea. They were frightfully annoyed.
Osbourne: I know. There’s nothing worse than dirt in your tea.
With the lack of agency that an industrialised war entailed, the incongruous focus on the minor calamity of contaminated tea relieves the tragic tension with a toppling effect and becomes a battle and bonding of wits between the men, as they confront the inevitability of death.
Whether it is reasonable to use the metaphor of war in reference to COVID‐19 is debatable, but it is true that the current pandemic has been traumatic for students, albeit to hugely varying degrees for different people. Sherriff’s play has taught us the importance of having a sense of humour in the face of adversity, and whilst COVID‐19 is no joking matter, dealing with the fallout requires seeing the funny and often absurd side of life. To quote Lord Moran, a British medical officer who served for over two years on the Western Front:
‘Only humour helped. Humour that made a mock of life and scoffed at our own frailty. Humour that touched everything with ridicule and had taken the bite out of the last thing, death. It was a working philosophy that carried us through the day.’
Lord Moran’s words reveal the value of humour as a coping mechanism and mirror Martin Seligman’s, Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and one of the founding fathers of the Positive Psychology movement, who in his book ‘Flourish’ (2011) suggests that ‘Playfulness and Humour’ are interventions and character strengths that people can build to achieve human flourishing.
Unfortunately, explaining humour or irony is rarely funny. I will leave it to the pupils to decide how to interpret the play and its interludes of comic relief, but I will leave you with the best advice I have given about teaching and possibly life: “Crack a joke or crack up!”. If that fails, then I find a good book and a quintessentially British ‘nice cup of tea’ usually does the trick.
Samuel Tapp, | Deputy Housemaster Munawir Hill | Head of Theory of Knowledge | Teacher of English
 Sherriff, R.C., Journey’s End, 1928, Heinemann Plays.
 Moran, Sir Charles Watson Lord., The Anatomy of Courage: The Classic WWI Study of the Psychological Effects of War, 2007, Basic Books; 1st Carroll & Graf Ed edition.