A review of “Sorrow and Bliss” by Meg Mason

Sorrow and Bliss is one of those much-touted novels that seem to gain traction in the Spring so that many people select them as one of their Summer holiday reads. Then you get tweets and Instagram posts from influencers saying how wonderful it was, to which in their turn, in the time -honoured, strange, traditions of twitter, followers gush back, agreeing how amazing it was and the churn of interest continues. Good marketing, I suppose. And, of course, I wouldn’t be complaining if one of my books was at the centre of such a fabricated whirlwind of interest. But there’s more than sour grapes to this less than enthusiastic review. Many of these books represent a triumph of marketing over substance and I’m afraid Sorrow and Bliss is another that disappoints.

It’s targeted at women readers so single-mindedly that it might as well have a pink cover. The quotes on the inside cover are all from famous women, apart from a couple that are just attributed to a publication. There are two large quotes highlighted on the front cover, one from Ann Patchett and the other from Jessie Burton – both female writers surfing a certain zeitgeist at the moment. A comparison with Fleabag is also heavily underlined. That’s like comparing The Tempest to Love Island because it’s got people in it and it’s set on an island. Waller Bridge is a gloriously talented writer and Fleabag is funny, refreshing and moving – everything that Sorrow and Bliss isn’t but wants so desperately to be. The only thing missing are references to Sally Rooney, the media’s favourite young darling. Maybe there are contractual barriers to that, but I’m sure the publishers would have been falling over themselves, to get that agreement over the line. Maybe Rooney comes at too high price these days to be even mentioned in publicity puffs, who knows. But then Rooney’s last book did brilliantly and convincingly portray working class characters that were recognisably human. And we don’t want that sort of thing to catch on, do we?

Haven’t we got over this kind of thing yet? I know you’ve got to have a consistent message and aim mercilessly at your target audience, but this is 2021 and personally, I find the concept of women’s books and men’s books (oh no, sorry, obviously men don’t read at all) rather insulting and hopelessly out of date. At a time when the debate is about gender fluidity and all of that, this stuff seems positively antediluvian.

Meg Mason

Sorry, I digress. Back to the book. Well, let’s deal with the good stuff first. It is genuinely funny at times. On a couple of occasions, I laughed out loud, and that is not something you can fake. Some of the observations about relationships and family dynamics are acute and amusing, and Mason can clearly write. As an experienced journalist you would expect no less, but not wanting to be churlish, she is more than competent at structuring the narrative and balancing dialogue and description, but then so are many Sixth formers. If that is meant to be enough, we’re setting the bar extremely low.

And that’s really all the good stuff. The main problem is that the characters and their dilemmas are so crashingly dull and unbelievable. I’m sure this won’t stop someone snapping this up for a three episode mini-series, but the appeal there, will be, to my mind, the book’s greatest weakness. It invites us to care about the emotional dramas of a white, highly privileged woman from the English upper classes. An endearingly eccentric posh family who live in the middle of London and whose friends and relations are movers and shakers in the Art world, or Finance, or Government or whatever. After one in a series of traumas (discovering that her hastily married husband is an abusive control freak. Sorry, but marriage is important enough to do due diligence surely?), one such family treasure scoops up Martha, the protagonist, takes her to Paris and then lets her live rent free in his fabulous bijou appartement, somewhere very bohemian and rive gauche.

If only all women escaping abusive men and disfunctional families could just slip across La Manche. Why can’t people stand on their own two feet and rely on their family rather than the nanny state? Then we wouldn’t have to pay for ruinously expensive housing benefit etc. Excuse my sarcasm, but this is so out of touch with reality it’s painful. It reminded me a little of “The Pursuit of Love”, the Nancy Mitford novel that was serialised in the BBC earlier this year. That was brilliant, and gave the impression that the author was to some at extent at least, satirising the idle upper classes. Mason, on the other hand, gives no clue about any glimmer of social awareness. Instead, she creates the impression that she is writing about a familiar social milieu, one that she assumes everyone inhabits. Or everyone that reads books, that is. And I suppose that for Meg and her chums, journalists for The Sunday Telegraph, The Financial Times, Vogue, Marie Claire and Elle, it is very familiar.

But enough of class war, back to literary analysis. The husband in this dismal scenario, the nice one that is, married after Martha has escaped from the clutches of Husband 1, Mr Nasty, is a chap called Patrick. That’s where his resemblance to a human being in 2021 begins and ends. There is nice and nice. Patrick is NICE. He puts up with a lot of shit because Martha is very high maintenance and Patrick, as a black adoptee in a very posh family seems to feel that it would be impolite (the greatest British upper class sin) to have any views, feelings, thoughts, standards about anything that might cause any upset. And throughout the novel, he is treated abysmally by absolutely everyone. By the end, I found him so annoying and unbelievable, I really wanted to be casually vile to him as well.

He does, to be fair, provide the only narrative driving force of the novel, which is the desire to see them get married in the first place and then to see them and their marriage survive. Well, OK, maybe “driving force” is a little misleading, because it suggests that I gave a toss about either of them. Maybe narrative meander would be more accurate, a reason to keep going to the end before losing consciousness.

The final piece de resistance of this whole sorry debacle was the treatment of mental illness, a topic so fashionable it squeaks. I got the feeling that the spectre of Martha’s unspecified condition was meant to excuse the whole range of her excesses. Certainly, it features heavily in the largely positive reviews of the book. You know you’re on dodgy ground when depiction of mental illness is described using the word “brave”. This anything but brave. The deliberate vagueness around the condition is thought by many to be a glittering triumph, but I found it yet another cop out. Mason even includes a note at the end of the book: “The medical symptoms described in the novel are not consistent with a genuine mental illness. The portrayal of treatment, medication and doctors advice is wholly fictional”

What? You wouldn’t do that with a physical illness so why do it with a mental one? It smacked of someone slightly out of their depth and who couldn’t really be bothered to do the research. It’s always possible of course that I’ve got this wrong and Mason has had personal or family experience of mental illness, in which case I apologise sincerely. All I can say is that it didn’t ring true for me – a clumsy plot device, rather than an artistic decision.

So once again I find myself out of step with mainstream opinion. Sorry if you loved it but it just did not speak to me convincingly at all. This was definitely a case of mainly Sorrow, little Bliss.

This review was first published at www.rjbarron.co.uk

Saltwater – Jessica Andrews

This debut novel by Sunderland writer Jessica Andrews won the Portico Prize for fiction in 2020, an award explicitly about representations of The North. As an exiled Northerner, and a North -Easterner like her at that, the idea has a lot of traction for me. The North is a different country, even in these days of the crumbling Red Wall, and is generally either underrepresented or misunderstood. The other pull of the novel is that it is about a working-class woman’s experience of university education, of moving away from her Sunderland home to live and study in London, and her struggles to adapt to a very different set of people, with different assumptions, beliefs and values.

Even in 2021, literary representations of working-class life are as rare as hen’s teeth (Shuggie Bain a notable recent exception), so a new one like this is to be welcomed. What makes it even more special is that it’s so good. So very good. The novel is structured to tell the story of Lucy in three distinct parts: her upbringing in the North East, with family connections in Ireland, her experiences in London as a student, and her flight back to Ireland, undertaken as an escape when the contradictions of her two worlds become too difficult to handle. It’s a first person narrative, but unlike so many examples of that most fashionable of styles, it is expertly done. The first person voice is authentically that of the character, not of a literate and well-educated author, and it takes us to the heart of the matter. That is what it is usually intended to do, but so often it fails miserably.

The three separate story strands are intertwined, and the reader has to do a lot of work to untangle them. In the same way, there is the usual obliqueness that is de rigeur in contemporary literary fiction. (Heaven forbid that anyone should ever just tell a linear story any more. Now that would be truly shocking) Sometimes that technique is tiresome and serves only to make rather dull material (characters, relationships, settings, themes, incidents) a little bit more interesting because as a reader you are transformed into something of a detective. An absence of anything as old fashioned as a plot is replaced by the efforts of the reader to discover a story for themselves.  Very often the effort of textual sleuthing isn’t worth the effort for what is eventually uncovered, but here, nothing could be further from the truth. The melange of techniques works beautifully, and embellishes the story, makes it more vivid and meaningful. There’s a poetic sensibility at work in Andrews’ exquisite prose which is by turns spare, rich and luminous. It gives the material, clearly rooted in autobiography, a sparkle such that at times it sings off the page. The technique of intertwining the stories is interesting as well, with a little touch of Kerouac in it. Apparently, Andrews wrote three entirely separate stories, printed them off and then cut them up and spread them around the floor of her house before experimenting with the sequence. Who needs a word processor?

The end result is a debut novel that is a shimmering triumph. Working class alienation via education is an old theme of the post war years, but here it is transformed into a thing of beauty. Andrews is clearly someone we will be hearing more of in the future. Personally, I can’t wait for her next one.

Hic, Haec, Hoc!

Gavin isn’t wearing any trousers……….

Hapless Gavin Williamson’s latest demonstration of his incompetence and the Government’s wholly inadequate grasp of the important issues in education is the brilliant plan to make everyone do Latin because that’s what they do in Private schools, which as any fule kno, are much better than bog standard Bash Street Comprehensive schools. Even those Academies that are meant to be like Private schools, but for the deserving poor. If only they did Latin, even the thick proles would be civilized and could hold a Kulturally Kapitalist rich conversation at the dinner table. Hic, Haec, Hoc!

Gavin has clearly misunderstood “Zero Tolerance” and rather than reading it as a biting satire on the evils of Tory Government policy and the New Brutalism in Education, thinks of it as a guide book to levelling up. A Duffer’s guide to Government. Oven ready, all of their policies were predicted here first, as this extract will show.

In this extract from “ZeroTolerance”, Marcus Grovelle, the Education Secretary is delivering the key note speech at another bloody awful education conference which in reality is simply an excuse to funnel millions of pounds of tax payers’ money into the deep pockets of his ex-Oxbridge pals. This is disguised as him outlining his visionary plans for the future of schools in England. His cunning wheeze to solve the “problems of social care, the NHS, the Armed Forces in the face of the conventional threat posed by Russia and by terrorism and the academic standards of the bottom 40% of our young people”, is an example of “thinking outside the box”, something that only the Free Market can do.

Meanwhile, Headteacher Jane Garner and Deputies Avril and Rick, are preparing for their OFSTED inspection at Fairfield High School the next day…….

Grovelle’s speech was reaching its zenith and the crowd, seduced by the charisma of power, were lapping it up, with its strange mixture of flattery, eccentricity and outright madness.

“And there are so many points of agreement between this government’s challenging of the status quo and the Partnership’s challenging of sloppy teaching and low standards in exams. We have broken the dead hand of local authorities and their monopoly control of education, we’ve provided real choice with the creation of academies that have transformed educational standards in this country, and took that step further with a whole new category of free schools, giving parents the right to set up schools that will give greater priority to standards and old-fashioned values. We’ve finally dealt with the runaway grade inflation and cheating that flourished under the last socialist government, introducing exams that are rigorous and which don’t patronise working-class children and instead expect the same high standards for students whether they come from a council estate or a country estate.

“So, ladies and gentlemen, we are clearly cut from the same cloth. We want the same things, we have the same passion, we refuse to accept the same old excuses. Now, I ask you to join me in our new venture, the next step in transforming Britain’s education system and moving from being the laughing stock of the free world to being the best in the world. I can announce today, that after consultation, from next September we will be introducing the following major reforms.

“All students will have an entitlement to follow a five-year course, leading to GCSE, of Latin and Greek. These courses will be double weighted in the performance tables, to incentivise more timid institutions to embrace the reform. Let’s bring back the standards from historically our finest institutions and spread them to Bash Street Kids Comprehensive.

“We are going to tackle the problem of teacher recruitment with a series of bold and innovative initiatives. Every university, college and higher education institute will be affiliated to a network of local schools, and undergraduates will be able to supplement their maintenance loans by taking up the places that will be on offer as affiliated teachers. This will, at a stroke, get the brightest and the best of our young people working in the secondary school system without the need for costly and time-consuming training, most of which frankly, could have come out of Jeremy Corbyn’s Marxist handbook.”

Here he paused and beamed at his audience, evidently delighted with his clever joke, one he had personally inserted in the text of the speech, against the wishes of his Central Office writers. The audience nervously blinked back, not sure of what their response should be to these extraordinary proposals. Grovelle steamed forward.

“We will tackle once and for all the divide between vocational education and academic. For too long we have been in thrall to the crazy notion that everyone should go to university. We have denigrated practical subjects and sneered at those who have chosen to follow their aptitude for hands-on work. Our new apprenticeships were a start in tackling the ludicrous, over-complicated schemes of the last Labour Government, but now we are going to go one step further. I am delighted to be able to announce today that, from September, from the age of fourteen all students will be able to choose to sign up to do National Service, either in any of the armed forces, or, and this idea is truly inspired and revolutionary, in our National Health Service, with particular emphasis on social care. The sneering naysayers in the Remoaners camp, who constantly talk this great country of ours down, have carped and moaned continually about how our great institutions would collapse without foreign workers to staff them. Why on earth should we condemn the bottom forty percent of our young people to failure in the academic exam system, just for the sake of political correctness? We anticipate that, in the first instance, there will be a traditional gender split, with boys opting for the armed forces and girls for the caring professions, but the choice will be available for anyone to express a preference for either. The only obstacle they would have to face would be the comments of their friends.” Again, Grovelle paused to allow the audience to show their appreciation of his daring joke. He was rewarded with a few nervous titters.

“Imagine, the problems of social care, the NHS, the Armed Forces in the face of the conventional threat posed by Russia and by terrorism and the academic standards of the bottom 40% of our young people, all solved at a stroke.”

The expressions on the sea of faces in front of him told their own story of people picturing the reality of what had just been described to them. There were expressions of bafflement, incomprehension, with a few furrowed brows of those who were turning to anger. Grovelle, oblivious to his audience, ploughed on. The unthinkable had to be thought, and he was the man to think it.

*

“You know this is going to be touch and go, don’t you?”

Avril and Rick looked at each other quizzically.

“What do you mean, Jane?” asked Avril.

“They’ll focus on our data, which is not really good enough. I absolutely need you, Rick, to nail that, otherwise we’re dead in the water. I need that paper putting a positive spin on the results by tomorrow so we can brief the whole staff. You know, value added, no underperforming groups, the usual malarkey.”

“Yeah, that’s no problem, I’ve just about got that finished already. I don’t think it’s briefing staff you need to worry about, though,” replied Rick.

“Go on then, tell me.”

“It’s the rest of the Senior Team and the Governors. Honestly, Jane, they are bloody embarrassing. Did you hear Gordon tonight?”

Avril agreed. “It’s going to take more than a briefing to bring Gordon up to speed. And Julia and Deepak are just as bad. We need to make sure that they are not interviewed by any of the Ofsted team on their own, otherwise we’re snookered.”

Jane sighed. “See what I mean? We’re doomed, doomed I tell you. No, I’ve already doubled up on the likely interviews. A lot is resting on our shoulders, you do realise that, don’t you? I’m depending on you to do the business.”

Rick smiled. “Don’t worry, Jane, we know what we’re doing. We’ll be fine if the lessons and behaviour are good and because it’s early, we’ve got a fighting chance with the kids.”

“Are you on top of Safeguarding, Avril? I don’t want to fail seconds after they’ve walked in the door and they discover our procedures and registers are not up to scratch.”

“They’re all good, Jane, trust me.” She paused and then tentatively began again. “You seem a little negative though, Jane. It’s not like you. Is everything all right?”

She hesitated, got up out of her seat and walked over to her window, watching the students stream down the main path to the gate. There was chatting and screaming and laughing and balls being kicked and arguments being settled. “Look at them. Off they go. They have no idea how much all the staff put in to their wellbeing. All the hours, all the worry, all the discussion, all the care. Some of them will never be cared for as much as this again in the whole of their lives.”

Avril and Rick exchanged a quick glance, eyebrows raised.

“Jane, now you’re worrying me.” Rick said this half as a joke, but he had his fingers crossed that her reply would put his mind at rest.

She turned back to them.

“Why do you think we’re having this inspection now?”

“What do you mean? I know it’s earlier than we anticipated, but that often happens, doesn’t it?”

“Not as often as you might think. And not a whole year early.”

Avril interjected, “What have you heard, Jane? Come on, this must have come from somewhere.”

“You know the authority are expecting us to fail, don’t you?”

“What? What do you mean, ‘expecting us to fail’? How do you make that out?” Rick was indignant at the suggestion.

“They think we’re shit. They think we don’t know what we’re doing because Avril and I are women of a certain age and we don’t talk the talk and we don’t do some of the dafter, trendier things that BetMore777 academies do. They think we’re old school, more like social workers than senior leaders.”

“What?” exploded Rick. “That’s outrageous.”

“Oh, they like you, Rick. They like the fact that you’re young and you know the latest trends. You’ve made a great impression at the Managed Admissions Forum you go to. And they love the fact that you’re so involved with the Partnership. They think you’re the only reason we haven’t sunk already.”

Rick was amazed. He had no idea that this was what was being said within the local authority. He was flustered and tried to splutter a demurral. Jane waved away his attempted objections.

“You’re very good, Rick, you’ll go far. But so are we. And we’ve already gone far.”

“And we’re not ready to bloody stop going far just yet,” rumbled Avril, outraged at being written off as a dinosaur.

“No,” agreed Jane. “Not quite yet anyway. So, the point of all this is that the odds are well and truly stacked against us. We will have to be even better than usual to survive this because they are gunning for us. And there’s no better weapon when you’re trying to get rid of a leadership team than a shit Ofsted outcome, no matter how rigged it is. Especially with our results.”

“Hold on a minute,” said Rick, comprehension dawning on his face. “Do you mean that you think there’s been some kind of collusion between the authority and Ofsted?”

“Well,” said Jane enigmatically, “you might say that but I—”

“Couldn’t possibly comment,” chorused the other two. “Yes, we know.”

“But surely, Ofsted are supposed to be independent. There can’t be that kind of set-up, can there?”

He looked from one to the other of them.

The two women of a certain age looked at each other.

“Bless,” said Avril, “they’re so sweet when they’re young, aren’t they?”

Rick’s face hardened. “Well, sod that for a game of old soldiers. I’m buggered if I’m going to be stitched up like that. We’ve worked too hard to be written off before they even start the bloody inspection. If it’s a fight they want, well let’s give it to ’em.”

Jane collected together her papers from the desk. “Good. I was hoping you’d say something like that. And now, let’s go and rouse the troops. Oh, and I hope I don’t need to say that this last conversation was strictly between ourselves. From the second we walk out of this door, it’s our job to project supreme confidence.” She swung open the door of her office and marched down the corridor towards the Hall, head held high, a spring in her step. Avril and Rick trailed in her wake, scurrying to keep up.

*

Grovelle seemed frozen in the spotlight, still gripping the sides of his lectern. The stunned silence that had flooded the arena after his speech, settled on the venue like a softly billowing sheet. Delegates looked nervously at each other, uncertain. The silence grew and spread and Grovelle’s easy smile had begun to ossify into a rictus grin. He saw his whole project, including a smooth flight path to Number 10, teetering on the edge of the abyss. And then, just as the silence was beginning to be painful, Alastair sprang to his feet and clapped. His applause grew in strength and he smiled appreciatively at Grovelle and took it in turns to half face the audience and whip them up into joining in. Barry Pugh cast down his clipboard, which clattered to the ground as he, desperate to be the third person to join in a standing ovation, jumped up and belaboured his palms in a frenzied show of approval. Those that were instinctively against the proposals in the speech, hunkered down in their seats, uncomfortable and unsure. In the great tradition of brutal dictatorships down the ages, the fever spread like wildfire as everyone scrambled to be on their feet applauding, to avoid being that person who was taken out and shot for lacking revolutionary fervour. The doubters, their objections diluted by the great tide of enthusiasm that had surged up from the floor, began to question their instincts. Maybe they should be bold enough to think the unthinkable.

Sometimes, the unthinkable was unthinkable for a very good reason.

For more of the same, click on the links below, and a copy of the future education section of the Tory manifesto can be yours.

https://www.troubador.co.uk/bookshop/contemporary/zero-tolerance/

Zero Tolerance at Amazon

The Long, Slow, Sad, Lingering Death of The Labour Party

In my last blog I outlined my response to the disastrous elections in May, and bemoaned the collapse of ethical standards in public life. It was a gloomy piece, not least because the normal source of solace when faced by the corrupt incompetence of the Tories and the prospect of ten more years of their asset stripping, the Parliamentary Labour Party, is no longer available as a credible alternative. In this blog, I’m going to examine how this has come about, and what a plausible challenge to Tory populism might look like in the future. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Don’t worry – there will be a few jokes. I can’t promise Marina Hyde or John Crace type wit, just an overarching weary cynicism.

The inevitable defeat at the Brexit general election ushered in a plethora of analyses of what went wrong and what to do about it, nearly all of them completely wrong. They tend to fall in to one of two camps: Either Jeremy Corbyn is the Godhead who reintroduced socialism to the Labour Party and was only prevented from winning the election by a toxic combination of the distortions and prejudices of the mainstream media, the traitors of the Right wing of the PLP, who spent all of their time undermining Jeremy, and the disastrous and undemocratic attempts to go for a second referendum.

Or Corbyn’s Labour Party was a throwback to the Seventies and the electorate were never going to vote for such a hard left collection of policies and the only answer (helpfully supplied by Peter Mandelson) is to go back to the Blair playbook and present the party and the manifesto as a slightly nicer, more humane version of capitalism.

It’s very frustrating that both of these analyses are so completely wide of the mark, and that either of them, if adopted would set back the goal of a labour government for years. I suspect that, even worse, they would simply hasten the eventual demise of the Labour Party as a political grouping in this country. It remains to be seen whether that would be a good thing or a bad thing.

Let’s deal with the analysis first.

  1. Jeremy Corbyn, bless his roughly-darned cotton socks, was a terrible leader. I’m acutely aware that some people reading this will have already made their mind up about me and where I stand, but that just makes me another victim of the tribalism I allude to above. Just put down your outrage for a minute and hear me out. Yes, he’s a socialist. Yes, he has fought for humane, people-centred policies all of his adult life. Yes, he inspired a new generation of young activists (more of this particular achievement later). But none of that is enough. Nowhere near enough actually. He had never led anything before the election for Labour leader. He was persuaded to stand to ensure the left had a standard bearer and that there was some sense of democratic legitimacy, but no-one ever, in a million years, expected him to win.

The leader of a modern political party these days, must start with some kind of emotional connection to the general public, as expressed through a horrible kind of amalgam of Daily Mail and Daily Mirror readers. We can forget about readers of The Guardian and The Telegraph. They are largely unquestioning cannon fodder for the two main parties (more for The Telegraph, admittedly). But the absolute sine qua non for a leader in the modern age, no matter how much we might dislike it, is to be likeable and, more importantly in some ways, to be recognisable as authentic. This is the thing that the Corbynistas just can’t get their head around because Jeremy is all of these things to them. But they are so unlike the average floating voter, who doesn’t give a toss about “Politics”, that their response is an unreliable guide. They are not the people that Labour has to convince.

2. The manifesto was, and remains a huge strength of the party. That is why so many of the policies, after being derided as loony left by the Tories and their henchmen in the popular press, were nakedly stolen after the election. (They always do this, by the way. See my earlier blog here: https://wordpress.com/post/growl.blog/209

The time is right for greater public spending, nationalisation, a focus on housing, employment rights, the National Health Service and a coherent approach to Social Care. These things are popular. Even the much-scorned free broadband policy is a winner. Rather than being attacked for costing too much money it should have been lauded, with the question asked, “How much money will this generate for the economy?”

People do not vote on manifesto policies. The process is nowhere near as rational as that. The days of “It’s the economy stupid” are long gone. They vote, in part at least, on their gut feeling about who they can trust to take seriously the things they care about. And so, the response of the right, which is to say that the voters were frightened away by a programme that was too left wing for them, just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The problem with the policy offer in the last election was not that it was too left wing but that it was so poorly managed, with ideas emerging as if Labour were desperately trying to buy votes form anyone and everyone, making it up as they went along. Oh, the irony of this being a criticism from the Johnson Government, who are the ultimate in policy by focus group and targeted spending (or bribery as it’s sometimes known).

So the first part of the solution was to change leader. Keir Starmer was the obvious choice. A serious heavyweight in terms of intellect, he was in direct contrast to the blustering liar that is  Johnson. How disappointing he has been. He has been unlucky in terms of the pandemic and Brexit, but the choices he has made have made the job much harder than it need have been, when normal service is resumed when the vaccine roll out is complete. The real problem is that Starmer accepts the Mandelson analysis. He thinks Socialism is the problem, not the solution. And here we come to the real heart of the problem for Labour, the problem that has beset them ever since Margaret Thatcher. The centre right don’t really believe that there is much wrong with capitalism that cant be solved by a bit of tinkering. They are embarrassed by the policies of redistribution. They apologise for their core principles. They seem to completely lack the intellectual confidence in their own ideology, and so they, slice by slice, repudiate it. And as the Tory Party has drifted rightwards, turning itself cynically into a particularly nasty version of an English National Party, Labour has opposed in the most lukewarm of ways, so the centre is dragged ever rightward and things that would have been beyond the pale forty years ago now become mainstream common sense. Cameron and Osborne, and now Johnson and Patel, make Margaret Thatcher seem like a member of the Fabian Society. They really are a brutish bunch, who can act with impunity.

This can be seen clearly in the response of the party to the defeat at Hartlepool. It seems barely possible that professional politicians, presumably with armies of media advisors, don’t get the fact that if you are continually apologising for who you are and what you stand for, then the public will be left with the impression that you are really quite weedy and that you stand for stuff that’s not very nice. How many more times must we witness Sir Keir abjectly hand wringing, with the face of a person who has just run over a treasured and much-loved family pet, probably in a foreign car? I’m sick of hearing that the Labour party failed to listen to the people’s legitimate concerns and we are very bad people and we are going to be much better in the future. The results were actually not the complete car crash that the media proclaimed them to be. There were great signs of life in the twitching corpse in the big metropolitan cities, where Labour Mayors are rewriting the narrative with imaginative responses to austerity, and in the South of England, where the trad mainstream Tories are beginning to feel a little squeamish about the nasty amorality of their party in Westminster.

This sense of revival was confirmed in Batley and Spen, where some kind of unspoken electoral pact could be discerned. The Lib Dems clearly fought a campaign in name only. Lib Dem votes going to Labour just about offset the effect the appalling George Galloway, the living definition of narcissistic chancer.

And it is this, finally, that is the only chink of light for The Labour Party. And it is simply a matter of mathematics. Even a Blair-like surge of enthusiasm for the collective vision of Labour would not be able to overcome the collapse of Labour votes in Scotland. It is impossible for Labour, even performing at historic highs, to achieve a parliamentary majority. So, the only route to such a majority is some kind of pact with the Lib Dems, The Greens and the Independence parties.

What would such a pact look like? What would be the policies, the values the vision. What would be the Big Idea. Because we’re assured that to be sucessful , you gotta have a Big Idea.

You’ve got to spend. There is no point shilly shallying around this. In the last election , when there was such a furore about Corbyn’s spending plans in the Right Wing media, a little reported fact was that those plans would have still left us below the European average in terms of spending as a proportion of GDP. All the data screams out, comparing European countries with our own, if you dont spend enough on maintaining a strong state, you inevitaby turn into a Third World Country in terms of housing, transport, health service, social care, employment. Everything, in short.

This is what you spend it on:

Massive increase in Council Housing

Nationalising key Industries

Green New Deal

Sure Start type early years provision

Increase in Living Wage so that people who worked did not need to be in Benefits

Investigate Universal Basic Income

Revival of Corbyn’s free comprehensive Broadband coverage

Renentry into the EU Single Market

Renegotiation of Free movement of Labour to address catastrophic labour shortages in key sectors

Massive investament in Education and Training

Commitment to Devolution and local solutions

The cost? Read some proper economics and try and get your head around the case for Modern Monetarism. Then make the case and hire Cummings to come up with a three word slogan. I’ll do it for Fiver.

If that is going to happen, the ground needs to be prepared, with behind the scenes discussions now. It would be disastrous if it was left to the eve of a general election campaign, when it would inevitably be greeted by the predictable cries of betrayal from the left (who love nothing more than proclaiming their own, pure socialist values, while demonising the Centre right as closet Tories. All while the real Tories are mercilessly stabbing ordinary people in the back. And the side and the front and anywhere else they can get away with. And then getting elected again, in the face of a centre left majority of voters in this country).

The real issue is whether Starmer and his allies are going to be brave enough to go for this, even to the extent of taking a back seat to some of the other parties if they have to. In this argument the Party is very definitely less important than the outcome. I’ve been a Labour voter since 1975, but I would swap the Party and all of its history, for the likelihood of Fifty years of weedy Social Democracy. Just imagine what this country could be if we had had that instead of the horrors of Thatcherism followed by Cameron/Osborne/May/Johnson. And so, just like The Liberals at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, The Labour Party has become irrelevant, or worse. Without the language, the analysis, the unity, the vision, the belief, its every appearance is an apology for its own existence. Rather than fetishize the union movement, and conference and previous campaigns, all of which were once important, just take a clear-eyed look at what is at stake. And move aside.

Stop Press: In another move of audacious brilliance, the party moves to expel Ken Loach. Talk about whistling in the dark. I’m just off to watch Kes again, made at a time when there was some kind of consensus around the state and social justice. Now Kes would be portrayed as a a rallying call to working class tories to storm the Red Wall. After I’ve watched it, it’ll be time for a lie down in a darkened room.

When Darkness Falls

A Journal of The Plague Year

May 2021

In the years when I was making the transition from being a little boy to a teenager and then a young man, some of the realities of history gradually unfolded before me. The second world war as a child appeared as a glorious adventure, fuelled by my weekly comics and endless black and white films on the telly, and part of ancient history. In reality, from the middle of the Sixties, it was only twenty years earlier, roughly the same distance as 9/11 is from today. Then, as the details of the Nazis and concentration camps emerged for me, I was genuinely shaken to realise, probably for the first time, man’s capacity for savage, industrial-scale, cruelty to others. The reality of the Holocaust more than anything else never loses its power to shock and baffle me. The final stage of this gradual loss of innocence, was the story of the rise of the Nazis in Germany in the thirties. I could never quite grasp how it was possible that the Nazis rose to power through the democratic processes of the state. Yes, I know there was manipulation and propaganda, violence and coercion, but even so it was a process that took several years. Did nobody notice? Was no-one motivated to resist? How could they possibly have allowed it?

For years, this formed part of my fundamental narrative: that the world was inexorably getting better, and that as universal education spread, a vaguely socialist perspective, rooted in a concern for the common good and a belief in collectivism, meant that steadily, with some slips on the way, fairness, prosperity and equity were growing. The rise of the Nazis belonged to a more primitive version of human society. It couldnt happen here again, not now. I’ve held on to that narrative, sometimes like a drowning man clinging to bit of driftwood, for years. Even during the beginning of the Tories austerity regime from 2010 I comforted myself that it was a passing phase, and that demographics alone meant that The Tories were inevitably a busted flush.

I was also bolstered by a belief that democracy works. That the population can be trusted not to make stupid decisions, so that, in the end, liberal values are not at risk. That belief has gone now, I’m afraid. It could only ever work as long as there was untrammelled access to reliable, accurate information. A combination of social media and the internet has put paid to that. To think that 20-25 years ago, one of the apparent attractions of the internet and its lack of regulation was the idea of democratising power and information flow, so that neither corporations nor governments, could propagandise their way to power, like the Nazis did in Germany all those years ago.

The Trump experience in the States shows how easy it is to convince people of lies. Even today, it’s clear that The Republican party, far from repudiating the Trump lies, has completely embraced them and Liz Cheney is to be expelled for not backing Trump in the aftermath of the election. What has the world come when Liz Cheney has turned into the poster girl for liberal democracy and the rule of law? Her father will be turning in his grave. This has chilling consequences for the next election. Now, one of the only two available choices to the American people, is as near as dammit fascist.

And the same applies here. The results from our own sweep of elections last week were not unexpected. But they were tremendously depressing nonetheless, not least for the fact that they presage probably another ten years of this, the worst Government and Prime Minister in my life time. And another ten years of this amoral crew really does not bear thinking about. What is the charge sheet as it stands and what can we look forward to?

  • Serial, repeated and proven lying
  • Corruption, misuse of money, cronyism with favours for friends
  • Contempt for the rule of law and the constitution.
  • Obstacles to Judicial review increased so the government cannot be held accountable by citizens
  • Stripping away of planning regulations for a plague of unregulated house building on green belt land
  • Gerrymandering election law via constituency boundaries and photo id for voters.
  • Removal of democratic rights to protest

There is probably more. There is so much shit cascading from Westminster that it’s impossible to compile a definitive list that can be relied upon for more than five minutes.

And when all of this is going on, the BBC acts like an organ of Government, craven and cowardly, frightened that the license fee will be abolished. As the playwright David Hare said a few weeks ago, “The BBC is like Pravda”. At 1 o’clock, 6 o’clock and 10 o’clock, regular as clockwork, the BBC news bulletin turns into a party political broadcast for the Government, aided and abetted by the COVID briefings that give Johnson star billing. Laura Kuenssberg, in an extraordinary article on the BBC website, supposedly investigating Johnson’s lying, cannot bring herself to find a single lie, and dances on the head of a pin to excuse or redefine lying. She is like some kind of mediaeval cleric writing a treatise about equivocation. It was only written in the first place because she was shamed into doing something on it by the 11 million internet views of Peter Stefanovic’s video compilation of Johnson’s 6 main lies to Parliament. She does not even have to do any work on it – he’s done it all. And still she exonerates him and waits patiently for her eventual place in the honours list in the future. Click the link below to see the article and make your own mind up.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-56624437

And the people, those guardians against our slide into the pit of corruption and fascism, vote for it all, cheerily, proclaiming that good old Boris is a bit of a character. And Hitler and Pol Pot would be a laugh to go for a beer with. The most depressing part of the post-election spectacle was Chris Mason’s interview of a father and son on the dockside at Hartlepool, falling into line and providing the standard Vox Pop proving that the Tories are on the side of working people and Labour are just interested in trendy London Metropolitan types. One day soon, somebody on Universal benefit in some godforsaken Red Wall town, will actually use those words in a vox pop BBC interview: “No, I used to be Labour, like me father and grandfather before him, but now Labour are just for the metropolitan liberal elite, like.”

When pressed by Mason to explain why they had changed allegiance, they both referenced the Courts being closed, the local hospital being cut etc etc . They did not seem to realise that these issues, absolutely crucial for local communities everywhere, were the responsibility of the Conservative national Government and had nothing to do with the Labour local council, which presumably was on its knees because of swinging austerity cuts imposed by the Tories. Dear me. Johnson is living proof that you can fool enough of the people enough of the time, and that the current Conservative Party is a coalition of the Selfish, the Stupid and the Sentimental. That’s the MPs, before you start getting sniffy about blaming the voters. The only reason I don’t blame the voters, by the way, is because they’re given false information.

And so now, I can completely understand why and how the Nazis rose to power in thirties Berlin. And the rise and end of Trump transformed my understanding of The Handmaid’s Tale from it being a dystopian tale into it as a roadmap for the rise of the far right. The response of the hardcore Trump supporters and the Q anon crazy conspiracy theorists was chilling, but less so than the realisation that previously mainstream liberal Republican types would go along with it for personal power and advancement. Just as here, normal liberal Tories have been expelled (Grieve, Hammond, Greening, Gauke Stewart et al) and any moderates that are still in place, support the slide into moral turpitude to protect their own skins. I shudder to think for too long about where it will all end, and have no faith in The Great British Public to see through the Fake News.

Which is where I started. Regulate the Internet.

Next time: Why Labour has got it so wrong and why Peter Mandelson is most definitely not the answer.

New YA Children’s Author – first novel available to pre-order.

Find out more about this exciting new YA writer by clicking the link below.

http://rjbarron.co.uk

The Culture wars that are so current today (think Black Lives Matter, the furore over statues, Gender and Sexuality issues) remind us that the liberalisation of social attutudes to discrimination and privilege can not be taken for granted. Battles that seem to have been won have to be constantly refought as the Right and Hard Right appear to be ever more emboldened to turn back the clock and erode hard won gains.

Just at the right time comes a YA novel that addresses these issues through depicting the same battles being fought in a parallel world to ours.

Anyone with a passion (or even a mild interest) for children’s literature, especially YA novels, should have a look at this exciting new writer, R J Barron.

His first YA novel, “The Watcher and The Friend” is due to be published on June 11th and is currently available now for pre-order.

The book tells the story of Thomas Trelawney, a thirteen-year old boy on a Christmas holiday in an old rectory on the North Yorkshire coast. It is the family’s first holiday since the death of Thomas’ older sister, Grace. On his first night there, Tom finds himself mysteriously lured through the Grandfather clock in his room, to the parallel land of Yngerlande, an eighteenth century version of a land nearly, but not quite, like England. He meets the Reverend Silas Cummerbund, the Watcher, whose responsibility it is to guard the passage between the two lands, and discovers that he is the new Friend, the person in England with the power to travel between the two worlds.

Yngerlande is a land of diversity and tolerance. There is a black queen on the throne, Queen Matilda, and women and races of all kinds are in positions of power and influence. Silas has discovered a plot by the grandson of the old mad King, Oliver, to violently depose Matilda and restore the old ways: racist, elitist, sexist. He needs Thomas to help him thwart the plot, because of the strange powers he possesses, including his ability to use the mysterious and powerful Sounding Stones.

Runswick Bay, North Yorkshire

At the end of every night he returns to his bedroom in the rectory in England, before going back through the clock. He visits on five nights, ending on Christmas Eve. Tom discovers as much about himself as he does about this strange new world, particularly when he meets the mysterious girl with stars in her hair. Who is she and what explains the powerful connection they have from the moment they meet?

The Terror

The View From the Great North Wood

One of the more interesting lockdown treats on the telly has been The Terror on Netflix, a dramatized account of the ill-fated expedition to find the North West passage between Greenland and Canada in the Arctic. I began watching it thinking it was a straight historical drama of heroic failure from Victorian times, another story in the vein of Shackleton and Captain Oates. It didn’t take long to realise that this was no ordinary adaptation. It was, in fact, an adaptation of a book of the same name by Dan Simmons from 2007, which is a weird magic realism, horror, adventure, ripping yarns, supernatural mash up of epic proportions. Yes, exactly.  It’s fairly accurate in many respects, but completely weird at the same time.

Simmons seems to have taken his inspiration from the title of the second ship on the mission, The Terror, which accompanied the newer model, Erebus on the journey. Just as well it wasn’t called The Jolly Roger. The interpersonal rivalries and politics of the journey, largely based in fact, are well portrayed and make up the bulk of the opening episodes, along with atmosphere of the Arctic. Howling winds, driving snow, that sort of thing. But then it takes a turn for the weird with the appearance of a supernatural creature, that, through the fog and driving snow, could be mistaken for a huge polar bear. This is the Tuunbaq, a mythical demon creature from the Inuit culture, that terrorises the ships after an Inuit elder is mistakenly shot and killed by one of the crew.

It’s a little weird and a little ridiculous, but at times genuinely scary and always gripping. There are some great performances, notably from Jared Leto as Captain Crozier, the alcoholic captain of The Terror and Paul Ready as Doctor Harry Goodsir, the thoughtful and civilized junior doctor. It’s a far cry from his role in Motherland, particularly his final appearances, which will leave an indelible mark on anyone who watches. Adam Nagaitis, as Hickey is also a compelling presence throughout, before he meets a grisly end. I think we’ll be seeing a lot more of him in the future.

In the end though, I was left a little disappointed. The supernatural elements were often left unexplained (in a lazy way, not in a show-not-tell way) and despite the obviously massive budget, I wasn’t convinced by the harshness of their situation. At times, it seemed all a little too jolly. I had no sense of the absolutely punishing cold, particularly given the fact that they seemed to be wearing nothing more specialist than flimsy Millets duffle coats.

Alright, there was one scene of casual finger amputation, using a pair of pliers, that looked like a slightly too enthusiastic case of cutting someone else’s nails, but there were no other references to the cold at all. It’s like dramatizing Livingstone and Stanley without mentioning the punishing heat. But it did its job in one major respect –  it intrigued me. What was the real story of this expedition when you expunge all of the nonsense? To find out, I read “Erebus – the story of a ship” by Michael Palin. Yes, that Michael Palin. And guess what? As well as being an iconic comedy genius and all-round national treasure TV presenter nice guy, he can also write. This is a wonderful book. I finished it in a couple of days, so compelling was it. The real story did not need any supernatural flimflam to make it work, and I do wish that they had done a straight historical re-enactment. (or that someone else will do one )

Palin tells the story of how, at the end of the Napoleonic wars, there was a long period of peace that allowed Britain to focus its financial and naval might on exploration rather than conquest. Franklin and Crozier, the two captains in this tale, were already veterans of expeditions to the Antarctic, Australasia and The North West passage and their success in the South, along with various political considerations lead to the ill-fated 1845 expedition being launched. Of course, the motivation was not merely for the greater glory and the thirst for knowledge. The North West Passage represented a quicker, easier, cheaper and potentially safer route to the markets of the far East, compared to the hazardous voyage around the Cape Horn, the most dangerous stretch of ocean in the world.

There are some fascinating details. Both ships were fitted with steam engines to power propellers, as a way of minimising the risk of getting stuck in freezing pack ice. The fact that they were barely powerful enough to produce ice cubes for the Officers’ gin and tonics is another matter. The ships had central heating through a network of pipes and these were also used to provide additional supplies of fresh water from melting ice. They had well stocked libraries and games on board as well as provisions enough to last for four years. The diversions were the result of their experience of getting stuck in the ice previously and having to overwinter in permanent darkness for several months. Their journals from previous missions showed quite clearly that even stiff upper lip British chaps ran the risk of depression and mental illness with little to do except survive. They  put on several theatrical performances, in which one of the officers in particular, had a penchant for dressing in women’s clothes. The idea that they took a dressing up box with them has completely turned my preconceptions about Victorian explorers on their head.

None of this, as the book makes it clear, was enough to save the ships and their crew. They were never seen again. Various rescue missions, the first launched nearly three years after the ships’ departure, found nothing, and it was not until the 1850s when artefacts, including graves were found and testimony from the local Inuit people told of white men on ships in the area. Some of the crew stayed on the ship for three winters, and various parties left to try and walk to find help.

When bodies were finally discovered, forensic examinations showed they had unusually high levels of lead in their systems, leading to the theory that they were slowly poisoned by their extensive collection of tinned food that had been poorly sealed with lead. One is the more fascinating snippets in the book is the fact that the contract to supply the tinned food was awarded to a company based in Moldavia because they were significantly cheaper. Capitalism, eh? ‘Twas ever thus: tender on price, lose out on quality.

The discoveries kept on coming, including an extraordinary discovery of three graves on Beechey Island in 1850. They were finally exhumed in 1984 and the bodies inside, in coffins just 6 feet into the permafrost, were eerily preserved, as if the men had just dropped off for forty winks. The later expeditions also confirmed what had been revealed in the 1850s, the last days of the mission entailed unimaginable misery and horror, including cannibalism. The survival instinct must be hugely powerful.

When this was suggested, it was too much for Victorian sensibilities and their veneration of the British Imperial character. No less than Charles Dickens fulminated against the allegations of cannibalism brought against men who he described as “the flower of the trained English Navy.” He was much more comfortable with the notion that the Inuit people had committed the acts of cannibalism, and he dismissed their testimony as “the chatter of a gross handful of uncivilized people, with a domesticity of blood and blubber.” Great writer he may be, Charles Dickens, but fundamentally, he was foremost a man of his age.

This , in short, is a wonderful book, beautifully written, and Michael Palin adds another string to his remarkable, Renaissance-man type bow. Give it a go, and while you’re at it, sneak a look at the TV series as well. They are both worthy of your time, at least until we can all go back out and have a social life again.

The Interview

We do hope you haven’t got anything original to say..

I had a lot of interviews over the course of my career. There was the one that still makes me go slightly pink and hot, when I think about it. After not getting the job, my car broke down as I was about to drive away from outside the school, tail between my legs. My humiliation was completed by being spotted by the Head of English and the Local Authority English inspector, who had conducted their forensic dissection of me a little earlier in a hot, and airless room. I had not performed well. They waved at me and got some kids to give me a push so I could jump start the car. It was difficult to be appropriately grateful while simultaneously wanting the ground to open up and swallow me.

Another one was a three-day marathon for a Deputy Headship. At the end of the second day those who had made the final cut had to have drinks and canapes with the Governors in the evening. They turned out to be most of the Conservative party in Surrey, and it was an awkward hour of showing that I could hold a plate of Marks and Spencer sausage rolls, a glass of Chardonnay and talk convincingly about golf and skiing holidays. I could not.

But in preparing for every interview that I had, the key task that was drummed into me by senior colleagues, was the importance of having questions to ask at the end of the interview. This was not, of course, to actually find anything out. It was more to signal that I had researched the school and had prepared my questions accordingly. The real no-no, the professional crime committed only by rank amateurs was, when asked if there were any questions, to give the answer “No.”

Of course, all the real questions, the ones that demanded answers, could never be asked.

Here’s a short story about one such interview. It’s called “Asking the Questions”

Asking the Questions

The Peter Principle in action…..

“So, David, do you have any questions for us?”

He looked up, uncertain as to what had been said. The Headteacher fixed him with a laser-like stare. He felt like a rabbit caught in a set of particularly unforgiving headlights.

“Err..,” he stammered, looking around each member of the panel in turn. “Well, I ….”

*

Several hours earlier it had all started so well. He had driven into the school car park, under a huge polythene banner proclaiming it to be a “Good School”, with OFSTED vouching for its “Outstanding Behaviour”. A couple of scrubbed and gleaming older pupils were on duty, ready to direct the candidates to their saved parking spaces, and one waited as he clambered out of the car to escort him to reception. It was impressively smooth. There had been six of them assembled in the room which was their base for the day. One person had dropped out, already appointed to the plum job that had interviewed at the end of the week before. Looking around those that were left, it was obvious that they had all applied for that one as well. One of them he recognised from the circuit – Charlie, who he had met in a series of Deputy Head interviews over the previous couple of years – and that made the awkward small talk over coffee and pastries a little easier to manage.

A glance at the programme for the day revealed the usual menu of activities: teaching a lesson, a student council panel, some in tray exercises and a round of panel interviews. All of this to be achieved by 4pm before being given the dread news about who had made the cut for the grand finals of the next day, and who were officially Not Good Enough. It was at once depressingly formulaic and reassuringly familiar. His heart sank, though, when he saw it. How many times would he have to go through this pantomime to move on up the greasy pole? Was this really the best way of selecting somebody to be a Deputy Head? Most of the time it seemed that it served only to arrive at those who had the stamina put themselves through the process, while weeding out the non-conformists, those who either had not bothered to mug up on the latest educational buzz words, or, even worse, didn’t believe in them. Increasingly, he felt that he was one of the latter.

The conversation on the other side of the muffins ploughed on relentlessly. Two candidates he had not come across before, were vying to be the alpha male in the room, spraying pheromones relentlessly around the room. “Direct Instruction, bah, blah, blah.” “Yes, Knowledge Rich, blah, blah, blah” “Really? Because I……Katherine Birbalsingh…silent corridors…blah, blah, blah” “No! Outrageous! VAK?! Really?”

The braying, trumpeting laughter snapped him out of his reverie, and he noticed that throughout the conversation, the eyes of the two stags flicked continually around the room to see who was listening to their easy tour around the latest educational fads. His eye was caught by Charlie, who if anything, was even more jaundiced than him. Charlie habitually loitered on the fringes of opinionated groups and listened, only just controlling the smirk on his lips. When he saw that David was watching, he rolled his eyes theatrically, and took another massive bite out of his pain au chocolat. They didn’t get a chance, however, to chat about the performance they had just been watching, as the door swung open and a tall white man strode purposefully into the room, followed by a scurrying young woman with an armful of buff card folders.

“Morning everyone,” he boomed, beginning a relentless round of hand shaking, introductions and piercing eye contact. The braying chatter stopped immediately as the alpha males switched their attention to the entrance of this demigod, weighing up the correct blend of deference, intelligence and easy charm to deploy. He was immaculately groomed and trailed a cloud of subtle cologne in his wake. David looked down at his shoes, and thought, not for the last time that day, that he really should have given them a bit more of a polish. Instinctively, he tucked his feet far under his chair, and continued to smile.

David didn’t even catch his name as he leant over and fixed him with a steely glare and a crunching handshake. “Morning. David Marshall,” he said evenly, desperately hoping his winning smile would not crumble under the crippling pain the Head’s handshake was inflicting on him. His interview preparation over the previous three years had told him that, when push came to shove, the research showed that most interviews were decided, informally, in the first couple of minutes. An evidence-based approach to that old chestnut, “did they like the cut of your jib?” presumably. At this rate, his chances of success were hanging by a thread.

After the introductions and wrist pummelling, the Head gave a potted version of the school’s recent history, which seemed designed simply to make everyone in the room aware that it had been single-handedly rescued from degradation and despair by his own determination and genius. The Alpha males in the room, at least two of them women, through supreme self-control and an effort of will, were content to merely nod knowingly. Then, having established his messianic status, the Head went through the programme of activities for the day.

The Head was clearly someone who valued action. His opening pep talk reached its final sentence as he swept out of the room, followed gamely by the young woman, who had not spoken since her entrance a minute earlier. She had simply distributed the folders and melted into the background. In the silence that was left by the Head’s departure, there was only time for a collective exhalation, some raised eyebrows and half smiles of approval and admiration of the performance they had just witnessed. Before anyone had a chance to speak, a student, squeaky clean and scrubbed in immaculate uniform, appeared in the doorway.

“Good morning everyone. My name’s Oscar and we’re here to give you all a tour of the school. If you’d like to follow us, we’ll show you around. And please, don’t hesitate to ask any questions of any of us as we make our way around the school.”

Behind him were two other specimens of the student body, who beamed as all of the candidates made their way into the corridor. They introduced themselves as Uzma and Farha, and they seemed to have graduated from the same finishing school as Oscar, exuding charm and confidence in equal measures. As they progressed around the school, David and Charlie gravitated to the back of the group. When an opportune moment presented itself, Charlie leaned towards David and said quietly, “Well, this is all very impressive, isn’t it?”

David agreed, “Yeah, though I suppose these are the best three kids in the school. Let’s see what the rest of them are like.”

They didn’t have long to wait. The bell interrupted their guides’ explanations and Oscar brought the procession to a halt in the main ground floor corridor.

“This is the start of period 1, so there’ll be a lot of movement in the corridor,” Oscar explained.

The candidates visibly flinched, but were secretly pleased. Kids moving in corridors were harder to stage manage than the rest of the process, and could be relied on to give a more accurate representation of the school. All along the length of the corridor, the classroom doors opened, like flowers blossoming, and at each doorway a teacher positioned themselves, as their class silently filed out into the thoroughfare. Soon, the entire corridor was filled with lines of students, all silent, all observing the one-way system. Occasionally, one of the teachers on guard barked an instruction as the kids passed them.

“Eyes front.”

“Hands to yourself”

“Nothing to discuss.”

Charlie and David exchanged a look. Neither of them had ever seen anything like this before. After a couple of minutes, the corridor was empty again, and the doors closed. It was as if no-one had ever been there.

One of the other candidates, a bristling, serious young woman, could contain herself no longer. She turned to one of the girls escorting them.

“Goodness me, that was very impressive. Is it always like that at change of lessons?”

“Oh yes,” Uzma replied earnestly, “Always.”

“It wasn’t always like this, though,” chipped in Farha. “It used to be really rowdy, before Mr Bennet came.” The three of them exchanged a little look and a smile before moving on with the tour.

While the other candidates engaged the guides in conversation at the front of the crocodile, Charlie and David brought up the rear, conferring in low voices.

“These three guides are doing their job, aren’t they? They’re word perfect,” muttered Charlie.

“I can’t tell whether it’s incredibly impressive, or a little sinister,“ said David. “It all seems a little… unnatural to me.”

“Come on,“ chided Charlie, “No need to be quite so cynical about it. Maybe, they’ve got it right. Maybe they have cracked the ethos of the school.”

“Cynical? No, just human. A silent corridor is a deeply worrying sign, if schools are meant to prepare normal kids to take their place in the outside world.” David shook his head. “A calm corridor, an orderly corridor, yes that’s one thing, but a silent one? No. No, thank you.”

Charlie shrugged and they moved on, past silent rooms of Maths students, English students, French students. They were taken in to some of these rooms at intervals, to be greeted by a smiling teacher who would explain the lesson and invite them to have a look at books and chat to the students. Even David was impressed with the neatness of the books, the volume of writing in them, the attentiveness of the class to the teacher’s instructions. He began to wonder whether he was going to have to revise his initial scepticism.

He checked his watch. The tour would be winding down now and soon they would all be taken back to their base for the real business to begin. Oscar and his two lieutenants hastily conferred, and then picked up the pace, ignoring the remaining classrooms, intently solely, it seemed, on not being late getting them back. The faster pace strung out the gaggle of candidates, like tiring runners in the Grand National, and Charlie and David found themselves adrift at the back of the pack. By the time they walked past the Science labs, they were the only ones in the corridor, the others having established a lengthening lead in the dash towards the finishing line.

“Crikey!” David exclaimed. “Do you think this is part of the selection process? See who has a heart attack running back to base?”

He never found out Charlie’s answer, as the door of the nearest lab suddenly burst open, and a grey-haired man in a stained lab coat popped his head into the corridor.

“Psst!” he whispered hoarsely, looking both ways down the corridor and back again.

“Are you the candidates for Deputy Head?”

He had wild, staring eyes, and his head continually flicked back and forth, surveying both ends of the corridor.

Charlie and David looked at each other, bemused. David turned back to the man in the lab and said, “Well, yes, we’re two of them. The others are up ahead. Who are you?”

“That’s not important. But listen. I really must talk to you. In private. There are things you need to know. Things the staff want you to know.”

“Well, yes, I think there’s a meeting scheduled on the programme for the day.” Charlie fumbled with his sheet of paper and scanned it quickly.

“Yes, here it is. 12.45 a working lunch with some Heads of Faculty. That’s when we get to meet the staff.”

The man looked aghast. “Let me have a look at that,“ he whispered urgently, and grabbed the sheet out of Charlie’s hand. He studied it and laughed.

“Oh, yes. These people. Quislings and Yes men. They’ll give you the correct line alright. Oh yes.” He shook his head fiercely, and then, with another quick look down the corridor, backed into his lab.

“They won’t tell you the truth, but I will. And so will the others. Come here at lunchtime. 1.15. Tell no-one else…”

He was interrupted by the appearance of Oscar at the far end of the corridor, who called out

“Ah, there you are! I thought you’d got lost. We do need to get back so we don’t delay the programme.”

The mysterious stranger, tapped the side of his nose, and hissed, “1.15. Tell no-one”.

He backed into his lab and closed the door.

*

That was the last time David saw Charlie that day. They were hurtled through a series of activities that seemed to have been designed with the sole purpose of removing any chance of the candidates being together unsupervised, or of meeting any free-range members of staff. Their student minders had shown them, with great pride, a large room that was rammed with students, all in individual booths, so that they could not see anyone else. There were about thirty of them writing in silence while four members of staff patrolled, occasionally barking, “Sit up straight. Another day for anyone who with their head down or not writing.”

“This is the Behaviour Correction Centre, sir,“ explained Oscar quietly.

“There’s a lot of people in here, isn’t there? Is it always like this?” David had asked.

“Oh yes, sir,” replied Oscar, “But it’s alright, it’s always the same people.”

He had also been shown, with the same pride, the long queues of students that lined up in the playground at the end of break.

“Is this a fire drill?” he had asked, naively. “I didn’t hear the alarm.”

“No sir,“ Farha replied, “We do this at the end of every  break and lunchtime. We have to queue up in register order, and our teacher takes the register, checks equipment and takes us to class.”

David frowned. “Why?” he asked simply.

His three guides looked baffled.

“What do you mean, sir?” Uzma finally asked.

“Well, doesn’t it waste a lot of time? Why don’t you just get straight to class? And what if it’s raining?”

They looked at each other, uncertain how to respond, until Oscar pronounced, “It’s just the way we do things here. It’s good, it’s quieter. But we need to go back to your base now. It’s time for your next activity.”

David bit his tongue and allowed himself to be escorted back.

He had tried to escape at lunchtime, to keep his assignation with the mysterious Mad Scientist, but he was expertly herded this way and that to each new activity so that he had barely a moment to himself. And so, he worked his way through the usual in-tray exercise, did a data analysis of results and underperforming departments, was carouselled through four panel interviews, and had to teach a Year 7 English class a lesson on grammar. The sour expression on the face of the observer when he began the lesson by rearranging the rows of chairs into table groups of four told its own story. She began furiously taking notes, and then gave up after ten minutes. She had clearly already seen enough to make up her mind.

And so had David. The same raised eyebrow and scribbled notes followed his answers about dialogic teaching and collaboration, about restorative justice to accompany strict rules and sanctions, about student voice and student engagement and promoting investigation and experiment, about coaching being non-directive and about empowering staff and students alike. By the end, the interviewers were only just managing to avoid being sarcastic, and he was becoming ever more monosyllabic. What had happened to all the things he believed in? Why had making teaching engaging become such a joke? Why was there this endless emphasis on teachers droning on and checking for retention of facts? When did the ideal English classroom begin to resemble a pub quiz? Why did everyone seem to have such a simplistic attitude to evidence-based practice, a phrase that seemed to be the equivalent of a membership card to the cool kids club? Were there any schools left whose Senior Leadership entertained alternative ideas and were up for the discussion? There were so many questions buzzing around in his head, so much doubt about whether there was any point in staying in this profession that he used to love. So many questions.

*

“David? Your questions?”

His smile had begun to crack as the pause had grown. The rest of the panel reached for their papers and shifted in their seats.

Questions? Oh yes, there were plenty of questions.

He looked again at the panel. Two of them had already gathered their papers together, one was intent on the last of the thick chocolate biscuits and the man closest to him, a governor of some sort, continued to write. He could just about make out, upside down, the beginnings of a shopping list.

“No”, he said wearily, “no questions.”

If you prefer, you can listen to a podcast of this story here: https://anchor.fm/old-greyowl/episodes/Asking-the-Questions-eve5cf

New Podcast

Don’t Smile before Christmas, part 1

Episode 5 of Telling Stories is available now on Spotify and a variety of other platforms. It’s the first part of my short story, “Don’t Smile before Christmas” and the final section will be available later this week. It has been published on the blog before. If you’d like to read it as well as, or instead of, listening to it, it’s available here:

https://growl.blog/2019/08/31/dont-smile-before-christmas/

The podcast is available here: https://anchor.fm/old-greyowl/episodes/Episode-5-Dont-Smile-Before-Christmas–part-1-er9bcq

Telling Stories Podcast : Dont Smile before Christmas, part 1

Milagritos, Part 2

Forty years ago, on February 23rd 1981, there was an attempted military coup in Spain, and Parliament was invaded by troops led by Colonel Antonio Tejero. A sticky moment for democracy in mainland Europe and I was there. Read my story here.

The first part of the story, Milagritos, part 1, can be found using the link below:

Milagritos, part 1

Milagritos, part 2

The wreckage in front of us told its own story. We were onto the second pack of Ducados, the first reduced to a crumpled ball on the table, nestled between the ashtray and a variety of empties. A few beer bottles stood guard, holding the line against those of Rioja and Valdepenas and the remnants of a hastily prepared dinner provided by that cave of plenty in the little plaza downstairs, Milagritos.

In the back ground, the radio continued its hysterical drone. My rudimentary Spanish, good for survival in any bar on the Spanish mainland but little else, picked up the occasional snippet, but my growing sense of gloom was provoked more by the overall tone of the announcer rather than any precise understanding. Along with his interviewees, he veered between the sombre and the melodramatic.

Outside, through the window that looked out onto the jumble of washing lines and thin balconies that faced the inner yard of the blocks, it was dark, with a scattering of stars and a half moon. Alan paced the living room, clinging on to his cigarette as if that were the thing that would save him

“I think we should go out,“ he began, “we’ve got to do..”

I never found out what it was we had to do. The drone of the announcer’s voice suddenly changed gear, and the air in the room shifted. Even I could tell something was happening.

“Whoah, what’s that?”

“Shh!“ Alan hissed, “I need to listen to this.”

I took the hint. Wishing I’d paid less attention to my very attractive tutor’s legs and more attention to her Spanish lessons, I simmered in helpless frustration as a new voice cut through the still air of our flat. My only clue was to watch Alan’s face. He frowned and took a distracted drag on his ducados. His frown deepened and he leant closer to the radio as if he could somehow manipulate the news through an effort of will. Finally, just when I was about to burst with frustration, he turned the radio off.

“What?” I demanded. “What’s happening? What did they say? Why have you turned it off?”

Alan looked up, grim-faced. “We’re fucked. They say that martial law has been declared in Valencia and that tanks have been sent onto the streets. There are soldiers and snipers everywhere. Come on, we’ve gotta go.”

He collected up his cigarettes, and an unopened bottle of scotch and headed towards the door. I scrambled after him. He had stopped in the open doorway. He looked back into the flat, taking in the wreckage of the last few hours of political drama, and then at me.

“And they’ve declared a curfew in Valencia. Anyone found on the streets in a group of more than two is liable to be shot, or at the very least, arrested. We’d better be quick.”

“Hold on”, I protested, “I don’t fancy getting shot. Or even arrested. And where are we going anyway?”

“There’s two of us, we’re safe. I reckon we should just check out the Plaza del Ayuntamiento, and then head off to Marien’s house. They’ve got a TV.”

I hesitated, a picture of a lifetime spent in a Spanish jail, or worse, flickering across my consciousness.

Alan interrupted, exasperated. “Come on Rob, we’re British. We’re not going to get shot – this is mainland Europe for God’s sake. It’s Marien and Macu and Paco and all of that lot you should be worried about, not us.”

“What do you mean? What’s wrong with them?”

“All the Spanish people we know are card-carrying members of the Socialist party. Growing up under Franco and the Catholic church, who can blame them? If they get arrested, they’ll go straight to prison. They’ll be shitting themselves. The least we can do is give them some support. So come on, shift yer arse, or it ‘ll be over before it’s even started.”

He didn’t wait for a response, so convinced was he of his own powers of persuasion, but simply turned on his heels and strode into the corridor towards the stairs. While not exactly convinced, I was sufficiently persuaded to follow. Slamming the door behind me, I ran to catch him up, and we bowled down the staircase and out into the cool midnight air of a February Valencia night. The game was on.

An eery quiet lay heavy on the streets. Normally, at this time of night, every city in Spain was alive and throbbing. In Barrio Carmen, in particular, Midnight usually signalled the beginnings of adventure. In this area, the bohemian heart of the city, artists, musicians, writers and poets, conmen and drug dealers all emerged after dark to cast their spells. But not tonight. We made our way down the deserted streets, a spring in our step. It felt strange to be following our usual tracks in such familiar surroundings. Street lights illuminated some of our landmarks, which emerged from the gloom in pools of amber neon. Normally they would need no such help, as they would scream their existence to all and sundry, with raucous music, shouting and laughter spilling onto the pavement. Warm lighting and delicious smells would also have normally announced their presence, but now all was darkness, save for the pools of amber street lamps, and the only smells in the air were of Spanish drains, without the usual nosegays of garlic, hot olive oil, seafood and marijuana.

The unfamiliarity was compounded by our mood, a strange mixture of fear, excitement and anticipation. This cocktail sharpened our senses. Our eyes flicked nervously at every dash of a stray cat, our ears pricked at sudden, unexpected sounds. What was that? A footstep? A car door? Whispered conversation? A door closing quietly? We slipped through the empty streets in silence, all of our concentration spent on monitoring our immediate surroundings, imagining agents of the military lurking in every shadow, down every alley, in every doorway. Our own footsteps rang out on the cobbles as we turned the corner of Calle de Caballeros on to the wide open spaces of Plaza de la Virgen, only to run straight into two shifty-looking  young men who were lurking in the shadows, surveying the plaza as a whole. We froze.

“Hombre! Que haces?” came the irritated cry from the first as he staggered back from the impact of Alan crashing into him. All four of us sprang back, ready for some kind of confrontation, only for the tension to break with mutual recognition.

“Buenas Noches, muchachos! Los Ingleses, bienvenidos a la lucha!”

It was Paco and Jesus, two of the friends we were on our way to see. After much back-slapping and hand shaking, we got down to business.

“Come on, we need to get off the plaza, it’s too open. Let’s get back to the barrio – we can talk more safely there.”

He was right. We were horribly exposed here on the edge of the deserted Plaza, and it was with some relief that we scuttled back into the dark alleys of Carmen. After a couple of minutes, when we were comfortably burrowed into the warren of streets we stopped to take stock. It transpired from Paco that they had just come out to check whether there were, in fact, tanks on the street. They had seen them at a distance, trundling along the main drag in front of the Railway station, along with a lot of troop carriers.

“That’s not all,“ said Jesus. “We met Maria and Lucia down by Ayuntamiento on our way back here. They said they had heard that there were snipers on the roof tops.”

I looked nervously up above. “Snipers! This is getting serious.”

“Tranquillo, hombre. There won’t be any here in little old Carmen. They’ll be in the city centre and by the TV and radio buildings. They’ll come for us low-lifers and communists later.”

“So, what are you gonna do now?” asked Alan “We were just on our way to yours to get some news from your TV.”

“Yeah, good idea. If we head that way, we might get some late-night churros and chocolate. Pepe’s is bound to be open. He probably won’t even know that anything’s happening, he’s just there wondering where all his usual customers are.”

It was a plan, of sorts. It would be the first time in recorded history that chocolate and churros had been part of a popular fightback against a military coup, but that was Spain for you. Nothing would get in the way of a Spaniard and his dinner.

We slipped through the network of alleys, picking our way steadily to their house. We had just reached the Mercado Central, which opened out on to one of the main roads that skirted Barrio Carmen, when we slowed down and took care to survey the empty market place, still and silent in the eerie street lamps. This was the last part of the route that could be dangerous, near to where tanks might go if they were out.

We stopped at the very edge of the market place, and listened, eyes all the while scanning the far shadowy corners for anyone else lurking there secretly.

“Its OK, I think,“ Jesus whispered, “Come on, lets……”

A low, mechanical rumbling interrupted. We froze and shrank back against the wall, listening intently. The noise, industrial and grinding, got louder as it got nearer. Then there were shouts – a couple of voices, as far as we could make out. The noise of the engines and the clanking and rumbling sound made it impossible to hear exactly what they had said, but it was unlikely to be friendly. We all looked at each other in our huddle, the tension growing to an almost unbearable pitch. There was fear in everyone’s eyes.

Alan said it first. “Shit. Must be tanks. And soldiers by the sound of it. We’ve had it.”

“Let’s make a run for it.” This was my contribution to the Great Escape.

Paco grabbed my arm. “No, no, no, hombre. We must stay. If we run they will shoot.”

And it as at that point when we all realised the key fact we had somehow forgotten. As our eyes looked around the group it dawned on us for the first time. We really were in big trouble. Jesus hissed, “Somos quatro”.

There were four of us, and the curfew applied to all groups of more than two.

We clung to each other, backs against the wall, as the rumbling, grinding, clanking sound grew to a crescendo, with assorted bangs and clashes adding to the cacophony. A street light cast a shadow, grotesquely distorted, of the tank turning the corner. Maybe they wouldn’t see us, maybe they would just go straight on, maybe……

Round the corner it came. A battered, regulation City of Valencia refuse lorry, complete with raucous crew, in hi vis jackets, laughing and joking and dragging binliners behind them. It was the Spanish bin men. They caught sight of us cowering in the shadows and burst out laughing, screwing their fingers to their temples and then miming machine gunning us with a strafe of imaginary fire. I suspect that the international code of conduct for binmen, in every culture, requires them to display no sign of sensitivity at all to the distress of another. The pathetic spectacle we had created had made their night, making their usual after midnight shift a little more bearable than normal.

We didn’t care. We weren’t going to die, and everything was bathed in blessed relief.

Sweet freedom was celebrated by a monster purchase in Pepe’s all-night Bagel bar, with bagels, chocolate and churros, and we almost skipped to Paco’s flat as if we were going to a party. The night passed off with food and drink and cigarettes and political arguments and television updates. The crisis dragged on a for a couple more days before drab normality reasserted itself. Back to business as usual, as I settled own once again to teach IBM business men some version of English, all the while thinking, with a half smile, about the time when I was nearly shot in the noble struggle against a military fascist dictatorship by a crew of Valencian dustbin men.