The approach of Bonfire Night always feels to me like the transition from autumn to winter. The dark, cold, wet nights after the clocks have gone back heralds a time to be endured rather than enjoyed. It also coincides with what was traditionally thought to be the toughest school half term. It’s a long haul to the Christmas holidays. It’s time to hunker down by the fireside with a wee dram and a ghost story. But before we say a final farewell to the glories of autumn, let’s just remind ourselves of a time that has inspired great writers down the centuries. First off, John Keats. Bit of an irritating cough, but a fine poet and social thinker.
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
Now compare and contrast with the majestic Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. I’m convinced that if Johnny Keats had been strutting his stuff in 1969, he would have been wearing loon pants and a Led Zep T shirt. Now that is proper cultural capital, Ofsted. Go back to the drawing board, read Bourdieu properly, and raise your eyes above a narrow band of Great Works. There are contemporary Great Works all around you, if you are prepared to make a judgment that is not just parroting received opinion. Enjoy.
Cultural musings from The Old Grey Owl…
The Secret Commonwealth
This is the long-awaited second installment of Pullman’s trilogy, The Book of Dust, a sequence that revisits the fantasy parallel England of His Dark Materials. Anyone interested in children’s literature or the fantasy genre as a whole, will have been counting down the weeks until this release, such is the power of Pullman’s fictional world, and the impact that the original trilogy had when first published in 1995. Those original fans will soon be joined by a whole new group generated by the BBC adaptation of His Dark Materials which is set to air on Sunday November 3rd. The trailer certainly suggests that it will be a much more successful rendition than the ill-fated dog’s dinner that was the 2007 blockbuster starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. Not that that would be too difficult mind you.
So Pullman is hot stuff at the moment. But what about the book? Let’s just get a few things out of the way first. Pullman is A Great Writer. His Sally Lockhart novels are glorious confections of London Victorian adventure mysteries, with pea-soupers and coal stained brick warehouses on the banks of the filthy Thames. Those alone would guarantee his reputation. But it’s the first trilogy, His Dark Materials, that moves him into the ranks of the genuinely great. Engrossing, believable, moving, challenging, Pullman creates a parallel world that is both restrained and oddly familiar. He asks big questions about belief, orthodoxy, law and punishment and democracy. But perhaps his greatest achievement is the creation of his central protagonist, Lyra Belacqua, and his invention of the notion of the Daemon, an animal- like creature that everyone in this world has as a lifelong companion, a representation of the soul, the quintessence of the individual. Lyra is one the most memorable characters in children’s fiction. In all fiction. Appearing first as an eleven year old girl in a version of Oxford University, she is resilient, loyal, brave, intelligent, and without any trace of snobbery or prejudice about race, class or gender. And she is one half of one of the greatest love stories ever told.
The first instalment of The Book Of Dust, La Belle Sauvage, featured Lyra as an infant, rescued from the baddies by Malcolm Polstead, an eleven year old boy. The second book moves us on twenty years. Lyra is now an undergraduate at Jordan College. Malcolm, is a University Lecturer. They both become caught up in the struggle between the CDD, the repressive state police, responsible for rigorously enforcing religious orthodoxy, and the liberal resistance. The struggle centres around the control of the source of a mysteriously powerful species of rose oil that is grown in the Levant (the equivalent of Syria/Turkey) Pullman uses this to reflect upon contemporary struggles between the West and the Islamic world, on the issues of religious wars, refugees, terrorism, populism. It dies s through the vehicle of a journey eastwards from Oxford, to the Middle East. The journey has all the elements of the classic adventure story: the main protagonists are split up and are all on separate quests to find themselves and to find solutions to their separate problems. Their journeys allow Pullman to paint a vivid picture of exotic lands, full of bazaars, train stations, cafes and markets, serially escaping dangerous situations, only to fall into more dangerous situations. It’s exciting and mostly well told. Pullman can still knock out a page turner. Mostly.
But. This is not a children’s book. It’s complex, dealing with real world issues of politics and prejudice. It is quite adult at times, in its language and depiction of relationships. It’s very sophisticated in the way it handles the growing awareness of sexuality of Lyra, following on from The Amber Spyglass. The depiction of a near gang rape is genuinely disturbing. Pullman himself would I think be quite pleased with that verdict. He has been very reluctant himself to categorise his novels as being for children. And there is a strength in that, because it allows him to break free of the constraints imposed by genre. The worst crime Pullman commits, however, is that, at times it’s a little ….dull. The political wranglings of the Pullman equivalent of The Vatican are arcane and convoluted, and I’d be surprised if they held the attention of many children. Certainly not the ones I know nor the ones I have taught. And it suffers, above all else, from the curse of the established writer. It’s far too long.
Weighing in at over 700 pages, this is a book that wouldn’t have got past the first fence had he been an unknown. That first book has to be absolutely tightly- wrought, like a finely tuned piano. Not a spare word out of place, coming in at under 300 pages tops, the draconian guidelines of publishers and agents at least produce economy and crackle. They impose discipline as much as formulaic writing. Look what happens when you’ve made it. J K Rowling’s Harry Potter books just kept getting longer and longer as no-one would dare to suggest to the behemoth, Jo, maybe you need to rein it in a bit, love. One can only be grateful that she had only planned seven of them. If she had kept going, we would have been at over the thousand page mark by now, no question. The same applies here. And this, for all its strengths and joys, is a little flabby and baggy.
I’m sounding very negative. It’s still a wonderful book and he’s still a titanic writer. The return of the Great Love, at least in Lyra’s memory and regrets, and the beginnings of a new love to replace it, is fabulous. Even so, it’s only a four star member of his astonishing list of achievements. And when you’ve set the bar as high as he has, that’s a little disappointing. If you’re an English teacher, or you just love books, you still must read this. And hopefully, you’ll love it more than I did.
For much of my career I was a moderator for one of the big exam boards for GCSE English and part of the job every October was to chair a regional meeting of schools to go through a variety of agenda items to help schools to prepare their students to successfully navigate the exams and coursework (or controlled assessments) in the coming year. They were to learn the lessons of the cohort just gone and a key weapon in the battle to teach them those lessons was the Chief Examiner’s report, which distilled the main messages from the national data. It was a hugely useful process and was largely responsible for the year on year improvement in outcomes achieved by students. (I’ll draw a tactful veil over the canny manipulation of the marking tolerances and the blancmange-like rigour of the Speaking and Listening moderation that also played a part. That is, perhaps, for another blog, when I’m feeling stronger.)
Year after year the Chief Examiner banged on about the same issues. Every year he identified what he saw as the game changer as far as English Language results were concerned. Every year I reinforced this message in the regional meeting. Every year I strove to enact this pearl of wisdom in my own classroom. What was it, this Holy Grail of GCSE English teaching, this elusive crock of gold at the end of the rainbow?
They look so simple, those two little words written down in black and white. Simplistic, even, as a panacea for underachievement in GCSE English. But behind those two little words lies struggle, pain, resistance, frustration, anger, resentment, incomprehension, stretching back years. If you are an English teacher who has ever tried to prepare a class for an upcoming English Language examination, you will surely recognise the following scenarios.
Put simply, I have never, in any of the last 35 years, introduced the concept of planning writing as a step to writing better, without it being greeted by students in the same way that every group of teachers in a training session respond to the prospect of Role Play. With horror. Without fail, the following questions are asked and points raised:
- I can’t plan. I don’t know how to.
- I never follow the plan, Miss, so what’s the point?
- Do you get marks for the plan?
Of course, as a fully paid up member of the liberal metropolitan elite, I have consistently delivered the standard, honest answer to this last question. That is, I have explained in painstaking detail that no, actually, no marks are awarded for the plan, but that writing that has been planned is always better than writing that has not. I’ve supplemented this with reference to the Chief Examiner’s report, sometimes going to the trouble of distributing copies of it, or in latter years, displaying the relevant section on the Whiteboard. This often leads to classic teacher sarcasm: “Of course, (insert student’s name), if you think that you know better than both myself and the actual Chief Examiner, who have been doing this stuff for over thirty years whereas you are barely out of nappies and have done the GCSE , let me see how many times is it? Oh yes, you’ve never done it have you? Then by all means go ahead and completely ignore our professional advice and just make it up as you go along and see what happens. This produces the following response, brutal in its logic:
So, I don’t really have to plan then?
On a couple of occasions, unable to bear this ridiculous exchange another time, I just lied, and said, without skipping a beat, “Oh Yes, of course you get marks for writing a plan.” Then I would put up with the liberal guilt about ethical behaviour as a teacher before eventually going back the original approach the following year, shamefaced.
Early doors, I used to be moved by the first of the examples above, the idea that no-one had taught them to plan, so of course they would be resistant. In this scenario, I could cast myself as the hero, who could save the disadvantaged from their own lack of cultural capital by actually opening the gate to the secret garden of middle-class academic knowledge and take them through the basic steps of planning. This would inevitably furnish them with the transferable skills that allowed them to structure their thinking and their writing in English and every other academic discipline. And so, I devised over time a series of imaginative approaches to planning, which resulted in this terrible and embarrassing flowchart of the planning sequence:
- Spider diagrams.
- Ticking off
It was surely only a matter of time before a lucrative book contract landed on my hallway floorboards to be followed by a regular series of training events based on a whizzy powerpoint presentation and a glossy ringbinder. Fame and fortune awaited.
I would spend a few lessons on this, only to find when I received the exam papers, that out of a class of thirty students, only three had written a plan. Did I dream that sequence of lessons? Was I actually in the room? Or was I just a shit teacher?
This pantomime carried on for years, surviving a range of different approaches, none of which had any discernible impact on the students’ practice. In the end, it was one of the many things that had ossified in my teaching, into another example of stuff that could be categorised as, “Oh well, that’s just the way it is in reality.” I kept on doing the same stuff, even though I knew it didn’t work. It was a tired recognition that teaching is a difficult process of alchemy, and that sometimes we have to acknowledge the limits of our influence. The best laid plans (no pun intended) and all of that.
And then, eventually, I retired, satisfied that, all things considered, I had done a pretty good job over the previous thirty-five years. Early in my retirement, I started to dabble with creative writing: short stories, poems, novels. I reasoned that the excuse of being too busy just didn’t hold water anymore, so I did a bit of internet research (a classic delaying tactic this) and then sat in front of my laptop staring at the screen, not allowing myself to get up and walk away until I had produced some writing. A paragraph or two, at least.
What did I have in my locker that persuaded me I might be able to write creatively? I had not joined a writers’ group, I had not done any kind of creative writing course. No, I was convinced by my thirty-five years of teaching children to write, my three years of studying English Literature at University and a lifetime of reading books of every type and genre. The craft of writing? Pah! Either you’re touched by the muse, or you’re not. Ah, the arrogance! I sat, staring at the laptop for a very long time.
Then it came to me. Of course! A plan! I had to write a plan before I could come up with anything even vaguely coherent. Wasn’t that what I’d been boring young people to death with for all those years? And if it was good practice for them as writers, then surely it would be good practice for me. I had read in the weekend papers many times, interviews with authors promoting their latest book who talked about their meticulous approach to planning. Index cards. Exercise books, colour coded for plot, character, theme. Every last thread spun and tied up neatly by the end. And it was clear that their planning process must work because they were proper writers, with books on the shelves and everything. And once this intense planning had been completed, with eyes closed and chin on finger tips, Sherlock Holmes style, then the writing could begin. And now, it would be a doddle, simply a matter of splurging all those great thoughts onto the paper, ticking off each subsequent element of the plan as it was completed, just like I advised my students to do.
And then, with the wet slap across the face of epiphany, I realised.
Planning doesn’t work. At least not the kind of planning I had been teaching for years.
Obviously, it didn’t work. Leaving aside for the moment the idiocy of testing creative writing via a 45 minute slot in an exam hall, even with unlimited thinking time you couldn’t easily plan every detail of, say, a short story. Or if you did, you would be planning out the magic that is produced by the act of writing itself. Functional, sequential planning has its place in producing transactional writing, when it is simply a matter of ordering and clarifying one’s thoughts, but creative writing is a very different process and does not bend to the same rules and regulations.
I’m with Philip Pulman on this. In a recent interview in The Guardian to promote his latest book, The Secret Commonwealth, he pleasingly berates the functionalists who are currently having a moment in the sun at the expense of school children across the UK. Their niggardly focus on the naming of parts and their slavish insistence that the main function of a piece of writing is to show off the writer’s grasp of the full range of punctuation is rightly blasted. But he is also very interesting on the notion of planning. It’s right at the end of the interview (link below). Have a look.
What I’ve discovered over the past nearly three years is that the planning process for fiction does exist, but that it is bespoke to the writer. I’ll tell you what works for me. It might work for some kids and some other adults, but there’s no guarantee.
The impulse to write comes, for me, from a very strong image of a situation. It could be anything – an atmosphere, a dilemma, a relationship, a texture. From that a story emerges. First the characters and their relationships. Then the skeleton of the plot. Then the next layer of characters. In the course of that process, the story and the subplot start to take roots, but as gardeners everywhere will know, plants are unruly beasts and go where they want. So the vivid image of the starting point, (which may not end up as the start of the story at all) is accompanied by a strong sense of the end point. As a writer, I know where the thing is headed, I’m just open to the route we take. There may be a couple of other definite waypoints (or Vias as the SATNav would have it). Other vivid scenes that have to be navigated around. And no, despite the scornful reaction of some of my friends when discussing this, this is not just a pretentious version of making it up as you go along. It’s surrendering yourself to the process. The act of writing generates ideas that are generally better than those produced by the act of thinking.
When I started the process of trying to write fiction, I read a piece by D B C Pierre, the Canadian author, on starting to write. It was extremely helpful, particularly his metaphor of compost, of all things. Just write, he advised. Enjoy the sense of your growing wordcount. At some stage you will hit a critical point where, like compost heap, you will have accumulated enough copy for it to start to react, to spontaneously breakdown in a process of decomposition, producing something entirely other than that which you started with. And then eventually, when it seems as if you have written something that you are pleased with, that means something to you, that you would like to read, you can begin the real work, the hard work of turning all of that compost into something that somebody else might conceivably want to read as well.
And so it has proved. From a strong image, a sense of the resolution, and a couple more luminous scenes en route, fiction has emerged, almost without my agency, and certainly without detailed planning. And how I wish I could go back and rethink all of those well-meaning lessons on students planning their writing. Because, unfortunately, they are still saddled with the insanity of having to produce some piece of “Creative” writing in about 45 minutes of exam silence. And that means English teachers have a moral responsibility to prepare them to do it as well they can.
So what practical lessons do I glean from this revelation? I still teach English, as well as writing myself, and I still desperately want my students to do well. I keep it much simpler now and focus on those key elements:
- An arresting scene, full of texture and atmosphere. Often the opening paragraph.
- Two or three characters, their relationships and potential conflict
- A final resolution. Even a last paragraph to work towards, a pole star to help them steer the ship
- A balance between description and dialogue.
- Avoid back story
- Show not Tell
And then, the last piece of advice to be ringing in their ears as they enter the exam hall: Let the writing take you where it will, as long as you reach that last paragraph. And it’s still a nonsense, to ask children to write creatively in these conditions, as a means of ranking them. It will produce a lot of stuff that wasn’t worth their bother: formulaic, trite, cliched. Perfectly suited to an exam devised on exactly the same lines. But at least they might enjoy it a little more and not be too worried about synthesis and sequencing.
And some of them might, just might, want to keep writing.
When you’re a relative newcomer to Edutwitter, one of the things that first strikes you is the starkly polarised positions taken on a series of crucial issues. The second thing is the absolute sense of certainty that often accompanies these positions. Even down to the Middle Way Tribe, the natural Liberal Democrats of policy discussion, who insist, with a near religious fervour, that things are not as simple as the progressives versus the traditionalists, but that the only thing that matters is what works. For the purposes of this article (and as a handy guide to how to live your life honestly), I’m going to acknowledge only the existence of the two tribes. They are the only ones that matter. The Lib Dems have an inadequate ideological analysis and really should just make their minds up and stop splitting the left vote.
Frankly, I think that, actually, it is that simple, but that is a subject for a future blog all on its own. For the moment I’ll confine myself to looking at one particular topic: Research. In the last few months, I’ve read industrial quantities of effluent written on this topic. Apparently, research into teaching techniques, strategies and approaches that are effective is going to save the world. Also apparently, this is a new thing, instigated by the intellectually rigorous proponents of the new brutalism. You know the kind of thing: Direct instruction. Zero Tolerance. Flattening the Grass. Knowledge rich curricula. (To be clear, I can accept the relevance of Direct Instruction and Knowledge Rich curricula, but not the idea they didn’t happen before and that other approaches can’t coexist with them)
The New Brutalists are very clear about what used to happen in the olden days. In the old days, teachers, who saw themselves as “Facilitators”, didn’t teach facts or knowledge of any kind because it was “oppressive”. Students (oops, that’s a give away to the brutalist thought police), sorry, I mean pupils, were just sat randomly in groups spreading their ignorance thinly, through unguided aimless chat, that might have been in informal language, liberally sprinkled with “like”s and “innit”s and “Y’knowwhatimean”s.
These practices were pursued at the behest of a Marxist teacher training programme, propagated by bearded lecturers who had drank their fill of Paulo Freire and Paul Willis and were readying for the imminent overthrow of society and to hell with grammar and the Oxford Comma. Now, thank the lord, teachers, parents and students have been rescued from this knowledge -free hell because modern teachers who have read Daisy Christodolou and admire Katherine Birbalsingh, realise that there is research- based evidence that validates back to basics practice instead. There was a tweet from one of them the other day (can’t remember which, sorry) along these lines that made me think that they were once asked by their teacher training mentor to do some role play in the classroom and they have never recovered from the trauma of the experience. Rather than pay for therapy they are working through their trauma by inflicting more of it on the students and staff they come across in their day jobs. And let me get my apology in now to save time in the long run. That’s to therapists, people in therapy, and Daisy and Katherine themselves. I’m sure they are wonderful human beings and they are clearly committed educationalists, it’s just their ideas I object to.
I read one tweet the other day that suggested that there is no excuse any more for persisting with outdated strategies in the classroom when there is a wealth of evidence about what works in terms of maximising learning. It went on to characterise the previous twenty years (probably about 1990 – 2010) as a quicksand of myth and progressive sleight of hand. What utter nonsense. People who promulgate this view generally fall into one of two camps. Either they are hopelessly naïve and gullible, and genuinely believe that they are the chosen people who have been shown the true way. The metaphor is deliberately chosen because they do tend to have the certainty of the religious convert. It baffles me what they think was going on in classrooms back in the day and why adults in their late twenties/early thirties aren’t wandering around bumping into walls, slack jawed and knuckle dragging, like the zombie apocalypse, so inadequate was their education.
The other group are evangelists for basic skills, standards and tradition. This is packaged as concern for the education of the working classes, who, they say with great certainty, have been let down by trendy, progressive teachers because they don’t confidently use Standard English, don’t have any familiarity with classical music, and haven’t read Milton. They name drop Hirsch, as if this is the clincher in their argument. Anything that might be cited as evidence of growing levels of achievement of this group is dismissed as being actually only evidence of the grade inflation and dumbing down that Michael Gove, God bless his sainted soul, so heroically rescued us all from.
I don’t mind this cultural war. You can’t take the victories of the past for granted and the tide of ideas will always ebb and flow. I actually prefer it to the dishonesty of how the war is actually presented, that is, as proven methods of teaching versus ideologically- inspired incompetence. A more honest approach recognises that it is a conflict between two ideologies.
And the key weapon in this war is research. I was going to say phony war, but that would be wrong. The war is real, but the key weapon is phony. And many of us have used it ourselves, as an invaluable tool in justifying changes to practice.
I’ve done loads of staff training events in various incarnations in the past: Advanced Skills Teacher, Senior GCSE English examination/Coursework Advisor, Deputy Headteacher, Teacher Trainer. I’ve lost count of the number of times, particularly when launching a new whole school change to classroom practice, that I have used the phrase, “The research comprehensively shows…” or “The research is absolutely clear on this”. I’ve heard it used for the same purpose by many presenters much more august and skilled than me.
And it’s purpose is plainly rhetorical. It’s a device. A flourish. A swagger. It’s signalling to the doubters in the audience that they should hold their tongue, review their opposition to this mad new whole school idea, and listen. Why? Because there is, apparently, a wealth of evidence available, generated by very clever academics, that proves beyond doubt that this particular approach works. It raises achievement, the holy grail for all teachers and senior leaders. And evidence is the hallmark of rational beings, isn’t it?
The trouble is that research evidence has never comprehensively proven anything. A research project helps us make informed decisions, along with all the other research projects on the same or related topics, many of which will contradict the first one. Of course, one should review research evidence and measure it against your own practice and practice you have observed in other settings, and use that process to come to a decision, but don’t fool yourself that that decision is neutral, objective and factual.
Research is very often commissioned to “prove” a classroom approach that someone has already decided is the right way to do things. Research findings are always open to interpretation. What does this mean in terms of classroom practice? What do we have to do differently? And those questions always give rise to ideology. And because of both the way research originates and the way it is interpreted, it’s obvious that research, far from providing unchallengeable answers, is by definition, contested.
And you can see this all over twitter and the blog posts of the influencers in education. People highlight the research they approve of and bury the research they disagree with. Or, they rubbish it: the sample size, the methodology, the people who commissioned it, the interpretation, the premise, anything as long as they have thrown doubt on its findings. Now “Research” is available that rubbishes even Carol Dweck’s (@caroldweck) work.
Scorn is poured these days on some of the practices of yesterday: things like Learning Styles, Brain Gym, Accelerated Learning, Group discussion etc. People are incredulous that teachers of yesteryear implemented all of that with no research to back it up, and they smugly position themselves as wise people who would never make the same mistake again. The inconvenient fact is though, that there was a mass of research evidence cited for these things. Just look at the reference lists in Alastair Smith’s books. (@alatalite) The thing was that the research was not questioned rigorously enough and that it has since been superceded. Who’s to say that the same thing will not happen to the research so confidently championed today?
I’m pretty sure that those people who champion Direct Instruction, Knowledge Rich Curricula, Mastery Assessment, Zero Tolerance Behaviour regimes etc are also largely the people who are in favour of uniform, or setting, despite the fact that there is next to no research evidence that proves that they impact positively on achievement. I’m also pretty sure that as I’m writing this, there are people also typing away, desperately commissioning research to do just that.
So, I’d really like the Education community to move to a position where we are much more balanced about practice and its evidence base. To be more inclusive of a range of approaches that the classroom teacher can select from and combine appropriately. To be less welcoming of yet more articles complaining about practice in the past and about being told what to do, when they are doing exactly the same thing themselves. They are just setting up other, new approaches to practice that will become the new orthodoxy which a new set of gurus will rubbish in ten year’s time. And, when we’re talking about research ”evidence” in particular, we will bear in mind Dylan Wiliam’s (@dylan wiliam) article on Education and research.
The classroom is far too complicated a place for simple solutions.
Dogrel – Fontaines DC
Of course, the great thing about Spotify for all of us old timers who still love music, is that you can try out anything you hear about and see whether it tickles your fancy. It’s risk free, unlike back in the day when, if you were lucky, you heard something on John Peel late at night and were sufficiently struck to go out and buy it the next weekend. You had to be sure, because an album was a huge investment back then and a balance had to be struck between the excitement of finding something new and the responsibility of not blowing your beer money on something that would eventually turn out to be either ordinary or a little embarrassing.
Nowadays, the fact that I read about how great Sharon Van Etten’s latest record was and that that led me to download it from Spotify, only to find that, actually, it was a dreadfully dull dirge, these days that is not such a disaster. It remains in my Spotify library, untouched. I gave it another go (the third) last week, in a rare fit of open-minded second chance giving. It was still pants.
But all of this is made meaningless by the occasional discovery of something beautiful and stirring. Which brings me on to the wonders that are Fontaines DC, who, I discover, are listed for the Mercury Prize. In the same way The Black Keys had echoes of the first half of the Seventies, with their bluesy rock, guitar, bass and drums based sound, Fontaines DC recall the sound and feel of the latter part of The Seventies. On first hearing, on Spotify in the car, I almost had to pull off the road, so strong were the associations. I was transported back to the refectory at Leeds University, sweat condensing on the ceiling as we bounced to The Clash, thrilled by the raw energy of it, intrigued by the intelligence of the lyrics, and intoxicated by the sense of the sweeping away of the old.
There’s no sweeping away of the old here. All that was, has gone and is back again, so nothing shocks in quite the same way, but the songs are wonderful, the lyrics clever, the melodies a sweet counterpoint, the drive insistent. The illegitimate love child of The Clash and The Pogues, after a quick fumble with Joy Division, Fontaines DC produce a compelling love letter to Dublin, their home city. In the opening song, “Big” they announce their intent with a great first line: “Dublin in the rain is mine/ A catholic city with a pregnant mind”. The song also boasts a chorus that should be etched on the consciousness of every teacher.
“My childhood was small,
My childhood was small.
But I’m gonna be Big.
I’m gonna be Big”
A lovely reminder of the bygone age of “Every Child Matters”
On “Television Screens”, the first few bars, with the driving drums and bass and spiky, jangling guitar, slicing across are eerily reminiscent of Joy Division, so much so that when that section arrives at the point when the vocals should interject, people of a certain age, will be able to see in their mind’s eye, Ian Curtis, manically flailing his arms around, juddering from side to side as if someone had inserted an extra battery, about to launch into the lyrics. What’s even more reassuring is that when it turns out to be not Curtis but lead singer Grian Chatten, there is no disappointment, just a feeling of being in very safe hands
Their love of all things Irish permeates the album, which concludes with “Dublin City Sky” , a gorgeous Pogues-like ballad about love and loss, and “Boys from the Better Land” with its memorable verse,
“ You’re not alive until you start kicking
When the room is spinning and the words ain’t sticking
And the radio is all about a run away model
With a face like sin and a heart like a James Joyce novel”
It turns out that they have been nominated for The Mercury prize. No matter what happens with that (and I have a very bad track record of picking winners) think of this as a gift from me to you. An early Christmas present. Download it. Because one thing I am sure of.
Their childhood was small. Their childhood was small. But they’re gonna be Big. They’re gonna be Big.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Directed by Quentin Tarantino. Running Time: 2hr 45m Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie
I went to this as a Tarantino virgin. Of course, I’ve seen untold clips from Pulp Fiction and Reservoir dogs, but for some reason, never a whole film, all the way through. It felt like I’d just missed the boat. Even at the beginning, when he was the hippest film maker in town, for some reason our paths did not cross. And latterly, exposed as a ghastly chauvinist and apologist for the likes of Harvey Weinstein, he held little appeal. And then there was the violence. Yes, I know, it was comic book and ironic, knowing and referential, but still it was enough to put me off shelling out to see his films at the cinema.
So I went to this as a sceptic. And came out as a convert. Apart from three minutes of ghastly, gratuitous violence at the end of the film, it was a magnificent, bravura piece of film making. The homage to late Sixties LA culture, with a fabulous soundtrack and wonderful sets and costumes, was delightful. Pitt and DiCaprio were a great double act, with their complex and nuanced “friendship” at the heart of the film. The criticism, on-line and in lots of the reviews, of Tarantino marginalising Margot Robbie by giving her hardly any lines in comparison to the two big beast leads, misses the point, I think. I’d normally be right there, criticising Tarantino’s attitudes to women, but the film is not really about Sharon Tate and therefore isn’t really about Margot Robbie. The handling of the Charles Manson story is subtly skewed so history is reworked and it’s a better film as a result.
There’s also a tantalising bit of evidence that he’s trying to behave himself in the light of #metoo. The Brad Pitt character gives a lift to the clearly underage, sexually aware, hippy girl and she propositions him. He takes the trouble to ascertain her age before turning her down when he finds out she is too young. It was so transparent you could see Tarantino having the conversation with his lawyer behind the screen. Didn’t fit the times nor the character, and there was just a sense that he was “playing” the issue while earning brownie points. Like Sir Geoffrey Boycott sponsoring a women’s refuge.
It’s not perfect, hence the four stars. The opening half is baggy and self-indulgent. You get the feeling that Tarantino was having a whale of a time, and no-one was going to tell him to leave that scene on the cutting room floor, but it could easily have been at least twenty minutes shorter. And there is that nasty blood rage at the end. But I’ll forgive him all of the faults for the scene where Pitt’s character goes to visit an old Hollywood ranch film set where the Westerns used to be made. Now in crumbling disrepair, it’s been effectively squatted by the psychotic hippies that fall in with Manson. Pitt goes to visit an old colleague, concerned for his welfare. He parks just inside the entrance and his buddy lives in a trailer at the far end of the lot. The darkness underlying the Summer of Love and its aftermath, seeps through the luminous sunny colours as Pitt walks the length of the ramshackle film ranch, with every step ratcheting up a sense of fear and foreboding in the audience. It’s a masterclass in creating tension.
Go and see it. And while you do that, I’ll stream all of his others. I’ve already waited too long.