The pause in Brexit proceedings ushers in a period of reflection, before we all take a deep breath and go again. Although, I have to confess to being one of those Brexit nerds for whom the pause is agony, like the gaps in between Game of Thrones seasons. Just before the Easter holiday, I found myself getting annoyed when not only did Brexit not occupy the first twenty minutes of the main news bulletins, but that, horror of horrors, it wasn’t even first item. I’m afraid my habit has got an iron grip of me. The six o’clock followed by Channel 4 news (a personal favourite of mine this and so refreshing after the right wing bias of the BBC. Although one does live in permanent fear of Jon Snow keeling over live on air. He does appear to be gabbling and getting a lot of his words wrong these days. Retire Jon! You’ve done your bit. Now you can sit back and just tweet like the rest of us. Obviously, the money’s not what you’re used to, but that’s getting old for you.) Then a gap that is filled by News 24, Parliament Live, Twitter, and the Internet until Newsnight and the joy that is Emily Maitliss. Since the general election I’ve watched Newsnight religiously, partly in the hope (shameful, I know) that Paul Mason and Iain Dale will actually come to blows. He’s a big lad, though, Iain Dale. Then a gentle wind down to sleep with BBC News 24 before being woken at 6 am by The Today programme.
And this obsessive consumption of news programmes has left me with few certainties, except these: 1. European politicians, when interviewed, are notable for many things, but in particular, their effortless command of English. Can you imagine David Davies back at the start of the negotiations, conducting a meeting in French or German? No wonder he only went over there for about forty minutes in total. They also appear to be thoughtful and intelligent. Adults, in short, compared to the embarrassment that are our shower. They have a detailed grasp of the issues, they are well-briefed and endlessly patient with our amateurish efforts. It’s been clear to everyone for some time, and I suspect, to them almost immediately, that there is no Plan B, and barely even a Plan A, apart from Theresa May Maybotting for England until time finally runs out. When highly educated members of the British establishment think Foreign Languages consists of speaking English louder, it’s no wonder that the vast majority of the population don’t think its worth bothering. We really must get to grips with our failure to teach Languages with any degree of success. And I don’t mean to smear the heroic MFL teachers battling against all the odds in our schools to challenge indifference and outright hostility to foreign languages and foreign cultures. This is a cultural mountain to climb, not just a schools’ problem.
2. Nearly every TV news programme
seems obliged to show its commitment to the will of the people by having some
dreadful Vox pop, which always appeared to be dominated by Brexiteers, who
don’t appear to know their arse from their elbow. And that’s a fully paid up
member of the metropolitan elite talking there, or so the conventional wisdom
goes. The vox pop is either a panel of ”ordinary folk”, often a revisit of some
group of lost souls who went through the same nonsense in the run up to the
Referendum, or it’s random punters in the street who are button-holed for their
reaction to a decontextualized question, the answer to which is clearly
engineered to be dangerously dim and populist.
These little snapshots of uninformed prejudice
never seem to bear any relation to what the polls are telling us. The rise in
people wanting a second referendum or who have changed their mind, that many
polls have indicated in the last few months, seem to have been conducted
somewhere else in the space-time continuum, if these vox pops are to be relied
upon. But then again, polls are notoriously unreliable. Or, in the case of
Boris Johnson, don’t actually exist. Still that story this week at least had
the merit of confirming what we’ve all suspected anyway, that The Telegraph
just makes stuff up. What’s breathtaking, even in these post -truth days, is their
casual admission that it doesn’t matter if one of their “Star” columnists lies.
According to them, Johnson was “entitled to make sweeping generalisations based
on his opinions”. Or lie,
in other words.
Just one example of a ridiculously loaded question arriving at the required result, was the recent poll where shedloads of people mysteriously said they’d like to have a “Strong leader”. That would be instead of a really weak and weedy leader, presumably. Amazing. It’s like giving people the choice of having a cup of coffee that tastes strongly of urine or a cup of really nice coffee. “Yes, I’ll have the piss coffee thanks.” No, I don’t think so.
These are just some of the nuggets of public opinion the vox
pops have treated us to in the last few months:
“I hate the French. I’ve always hated the French”
“I thought when I voted out in 2016 that we’d just be out
like the next day.”
“Why can’t they just get on with it?”
“The bloody politicians are just going against the will of
the people. They are all traitors.”
“They’re talking about the European elections now. Ordinary
people like us don’t know how any of that works. What have the European
elections got to do with us?”
“We’re British. We’ll get through it. We used to have an
Apologies for any inaccurate paraphrasing, but you get my
drift. In my darkest moments, stuff like this awakens my hidden, dormant
inner-fascist and I begin to think that participation in democracy should be
contingent on the possession of at least two A levels, or equivalents. Even a
BTEC would do. And then, after I’ve calmed down, that turns into a lament for
the state of political education in the UK. Why are we so ignorant about our
most basic political institutions and structures? Why don’t people know, with
any degree of certainty, what the parties stand for, who they represent, their
history? And without knowing that, is it any wonder that people vote in the
same way as many people choose their horse in the Grand National. The name
sounds good. Nice colours on the jockey’s silks. Democracy, it seems to me, is
far too important to leave to chance like this.
include political education as a statutory part of the curriculum that applies
to all schools, public and private, academy and local authority. It’s had a
token presence in PSHE programmes, but that is just not good enough. And that’s
not to demean the efforts of PSHE teachers over the years, many of whom do a
great job. But too often it’s a task left to form tutors as an afterthought,
and, as a result, it carries the very clear message that this stuff doesn’t
really matter. It’s not important. But it does matter. And it’s not just
important, it’s crucial to our commitment to an informed and active citizenry.
And so, there, I’ve done it. I’ve done what every charlatan Government
minister does when there is a catastrophic failure of Government. I’ve blamed
the teachers. This Brexit mess is all their fault. But don’t worry. By blaming
the teachers, I have, brilliantly, identified the sure -fire solution, the
strategy that is always used when the whingeing teachers are at fault. More
Academies. So, how does that work, you ask? Dunno, it just does. Where’s the
evidence, you childishly persist? Errr… there isn’t any. Phew! Brexit sorted.
“It’s ten to eight and time for Thought for the Day. The
speaker from our Cambridge studio is…”
“A smug, patronising bastard,” continued Ollie
automatically, his left hand flicking out to jab the mute button on the radio.
Some days, he added his own ending to the familiar link in
his head. Other days, when he travelled to work with a tightening knot in his
stomach, he voiced it. Saying it aloud, with a mannered delivery, added to the
pleasure and invariably came accompanied by a wry smile of appreciation for his
own wit. In the last couple of months, that had become a daily event.
He talked out loud regularly in the car on his journeys to
and from work. He often thought that it was a good thing that the dashcam was a
device only configured to look out at the other traffic, not in at the driver,
but in his darker moods he thought that it was only a matter of time.
Playback of footage taken inside his car would reveal some
uncomfortable truths. A man who would randomly shout at other drivers, pressed
into action by a range of motoring misdemeanours: not indicating, driving too
fast, driving too slow, straddling lanes. The M25 was a rich source of examples
of this kind of incompetence, bad manners and stupidity.
The rest of his repertoire was not provoked by any activity outside of the car, but by the entertainment he had selected inside. Mealy-mouthed, vacuous Government Ministers, desperately straining to fill their allotted time by describing what was already known so that they could not be pressed to give a direct answer to the original question, drove him to fury. He would bang the dashboard and shout at the top of his voice, hurling foul-mouthed abuse at the blatant lies and distortions the disembodied voices were peddling. Favourite songs from the treasure trove of Spotify and Bluetooth inspired lusty singalongs, swaying and headshaking in time to the beat. Occasionally, in town streets, he would find himself intoning a Test Match Special type commentary, or shrieking a Match of the Day style soundbite as he described the antics of the people on the streets.
Outside the car, walking through a shopping centre, or
pottering aimlessly at home, solitariness was always accompanied by silence. It
was invariably a comfortable silence, a silence that fitted him snugly like a
familiar pair of old trainers. So why the change whenever he got in his car and
pulled away from the kerb?
The solid clunk of the driver door closing, the rolling pull
of the seatbelt and the ensuing metallic click as the buckle engaged, all
signified a retreat into a private, protected, invisible world. Despite the
wrap around plate glass windows, it was if he were invisible once strapped in,
in the same way that those who populated television screens were detached from
the viewer in their front room. They were there, but not there at the same
time. He imagined it was the same feeling of anonymity, of invisibility, that internet trollers wallowed in. In the
shadows, they were emboldened to spew vitriol and bile, confident that no-one
would ever know who they were.
“Oh look, there’s another one,” he thought as he had to
brake to accommodate the Nissan Micra that was serenely hogging the middle lane
at fifty miles an hour. Too scared to mix it with the articulated lorries in
the slow lane, relentlessly nose to tail from Prague to the Midlands, and
resolutely refusing to contemplate the outside lane, where people actually
broke the speed limit, the Micras of this world provoked the purest form of his
“Moron!” he muttered at the windscreen, as he swerved around
him, like a stream in flood surging around a rock in the middle of a river bed.
He glanced back in the rear mirror as he pulled away from the Micra, just to
check. Yes, there it was, another “Leave means Leave“ sticker, slightly
obscuring the driver, squat, low down in his seat, flat cap seeming to float in
the air above his head. He bellowed curses at Micraman, who just for that
moment became the target for all of his frustrations with stupid Brexiteers and
their little Englander small -mindedness. A little unfair, he knew. For all he
could tell, Micraman might have principled, reasoned objections to the Europe
that went beyond the outright xenophobic. And he would never voice this level
of anger in the staffroom, where some people went quiet the second it came up
as a topic of conversation. The only safe ground was to blame “the bloody
politicians”, which everyone seemed to agree with. Everyone except him, that
is. Blame the Government, certainly. But MPs? No, they were doing their jobs
properly. If he saw one more bloody Vox pop on the news giving air time to
someone saying, “They’re all the bloody same, that shower. I’m never going to
vote again”, well, he didn’t know what he would do.
Still, the guy in the Micra couldn’t hear him, so he
reasoned a foul -mouthed bellow at the rear-view mirror wouldn’t harm anyone
and provided a healthy release for him. And God knows, he needed some kind of
release at the moment. Particularly today. Another bloody lesson observation,
another evening spent tweaking a lesson plan and polishing his PowerPoint,
another troubled night’s sleep, worrying about whether he would get into school
early enough to do the photocopying he really should have done on Friday. And to
add yet more pressure, he’d been asked to bring in his identity documents
because his DBS clearance had run out. That had been another forty -five
minutes wasted the night before, ransacking filing cabinets in his study,
trying to remember where he usually kept his passport, birth certificate and
proof of address. Pressure, pressure, pressure.
He glanced up ahead. Shit. The signals that straddled the
M25 blared their amber numbers. Just as he clocked the row of 50s, the car
crested the brow of the hill and there laid out below him, in that familiar
descent towards the Dartford crossing, was the beginnings of the banked -up
lines of traffic, the red stop lights spreading back towards him like an
incoming tide. He slowed, checked his rear-view mirror and indicated to move
into the left-hand lane, ready to leave the motorway and join the A2. There was
a grim satisfaction to be had from deftly slipping in between two gargantuan
lorries, into a space barely big enough for that Micra he’d seen moments
before. He smirked to himself. Micraman would need a space the size of three
cricket pitches before he dared to change lanes. The smirk died on his lips almost
as soon as it had formed, as the line of traffic he’d just joined slowed to
walking pace and then stopped all together. The knot in his stomach tightened.
“Come on, come on,” he shouted at the windscreen, slapping
the steering wheel and then gripping it white knuckled. He looked across at the
car to his left and just caught a glimpse of the driver, a young blonde woman
looking at him horrified, mouth agape. Their eyes met and she looked away,
embarrassed. She began talking into her phone and her eyes flicked across at
him a couple of times. His mouth set into a straight line. Now he was an object
of fear and ridicule. How much worse could things get. The last time this had
happened on the way to work, he had ended up sitting in traffic in this very
spot for about two hours
He couldn’t be late. He couldn’t walk into his lesson
without that photocopying. Maybe he could just explain and apologise and
reschedule. “Sorry, dreadful traffic on the M25 this morning” Even just trying
it out for size he knew what the response would be. Excuses were letting the
kids down. They’ve only got one shot at their time at Secondary school. If you
had any kind of moral purpose, you’d get up an hour earlier and make sure you
got in on time. It’s not as if it’s a surprise, the traffic on the M25 being
bad. His heart pounded against his chest and that familiar tightening behind
his eyes began as his head started to throb.
Deep down, he knew that it wouldn’t make any difference
anyway. He knew he was going to fail the observation. It was his third in a row
after all, and according to their Performance Management protocols, it was
three strikes and you’re out. Each one had come up with different reasons why
his lesson was unsatisfactory. The first time he’d been baffled and then
confused and then angry. It had never happened to him before. He’d always been
a Good or Outstanding. He was so used to being good at his job, being the
member of Senior Management who could hack it in the corridors and the
classroom, the expert, the person that others sought out for advice or help.
And now, suddenly, when he wasn’t that person anymore, he was adrift. He didn’t
know who he was.
Back in the day, on the rare occasions when something went
wrong, he would have talked it through with Helen. Her calm, rational
reassurance would have made everything alright again, but now, since the
divorce, he didn’t really talk to anyone, well, not about big stuff anyway. And
so, he was left with the growing understanding that he was yesterday’s man,
whose views on how to run schools and deal with “challenging” kids, were deemed
old fashioned and unfit for purpose. He had, almost overnight, turned from
being part of the solution, to being part of the problem.
And so, he knew that he could have spent all night
perfecting his lesson plan, could have photocopied the entire contents of the
schemes of work filing cabinet, could have slept overnight in his classroom to
ensure he was there in time on Monday, and they would still have found a reason
to fail him. And from there it was a matter of weeks to competency procedures,
union representation and a hush-hush deal being offered to him to resign for a
This analysis was already there in the murky depths of his
consciousness, fully formed, but it was only now, in the strange stillness of a
choked and stationary M25, that it revealed itself to him and that he accepted
it with a calm, zen like feeling of inevitability and release. The knot in his
stomach eased slightly and the pounding behind his eyes relented. He would do
his lesson, whenever he got into school and they could say what they liked.
Just an ordinary lesson, one of those that over the years had generated
hundreds and thousands of excellent exam results, one that he could churn out
without spending hours of agonised preparation on. And then, what would be,
The sun peeked through a sudden gap in the bank of clouds
above, bathing the lines of cars in a warm, golden glow and he felt himself caressed
by a gentle wave of relief. At exactly the same time the traffic began to move.
It was not just one of those five-yard crawls that resulted in another forty
minutes of stasis, it was proper, genuine movement. All around him, in cars,
lorries and vans of all descriptions, drivers broke into smiles, tentative and
hesitant at first but then as the traffic accelerated, broad and strong. Some
even laughed out loud.
As Ollie pulled on to the A2, he couldn’t remember a time
when he had felt happier. The birth of his children, perhaps? Meeting his wife?
The surge of the traffic, blue sky above and bright sunshine all around kindled
an almost alchemical reaction. Base metal had turned to gold, somehow, and his
spirit soared. The silence in the car suddenly seemed at odds with this feeling
of euphoria and his finger automatically jabbed out at the volume button.
He knew even before the first word reached his ears.
Something in the tone, an uncomfortable agglomeration of vibrating air
patterns, a dog whistle like scream, whatever it was, it announced itself to
the world. Thought For The Fucking Day.
“…. and so, although Jesus exhorted us all to turn the other
cheek, there are times when we must make a stand, no matter how uncomfortable
that might be. We too, must be prepared to throw the money lenders out of the
Temple and be prepared to face the consequences of our actions, no matter how
daunting those consequences might be.”
His initial instinct to scream at the radio, so strongly
embedded, suddenly faded as he listened to the words. He never listened to the
words. He didn’t have to. Whatever it was, it would end up with some God or
other telling all of the sinners to be nice. Comfort for the simple -minded, he
always thought. But this morning of all mornings, the words caught somehow. The
moneylenders in the Temple. He frowned and hit the mute button again before the
pantomime of political debate started up again.
Looking up, he realised that he’d taken his eye off the ball
and his exit was fast approaching. For some reason, maybe the volume of traffic
that had build up on the M25, maybe the return to school of the Private school
kids in their massive pretend off-road vehicles, the lane of traffic to his
left was full. Full and fast. He indicated to move left and waited for a gap,
or for someone to slow a little and let him in. His eyes flicked rapidly to
rear view mirror, then side mirror and back again. Nothing.
“Come on, come on, come on. Let me in you bastards,” he
He looked ahead, checking the road ahead. It was then he
noticed. Right in front of him, also signalling left and trying to squeeze into
the exit lane, was Micraman.
“How the hell have you got there?” he wondered aloud.
Maybe it was a different Micra, he thought. But no, there
was the “Leave means leave“ sticker, and there, bobbing up and down around it,
was the flat cap. Unless Micras were always sold to aging Brexiteers, it was
definitely him. And he was in some distress, if the behaviour of the car was
anything to go by. It veered and wobbled alarmingly in the lane in front of
him, and the flat cap was frantically moving left to right like a set of
demented windscreen wipers. Framing the picture in his own windscreen was the
traffic signal above, indicating the road options on the A2 after his exit.
Canterbury. Car ferries. Ramsgate. Dover. The Channel Tunnel.
The road was running out for him to make his manoeuvre. He
was going to have to go for it in the next couple of seconds, or he wouldn’t
make it. The nose to tail lorries closed ranks, like roman centurions forming a
shield wall. Suddenly, up in front of him, a tiny gap appeared and he prepared himself,
clenching and unclenching his knuckles around the steering wheel. Just as he
was about to dart into the gap, the Micra swerved at the last moment, and by a
miracle, managed to insert himself in the chink they had left. Micraman had
either had his eyes closed or had nerves of steel. The lorry at the back of the
gap blared his horn, the driver’s hand jabbing down at it in fury, and there
was an accompanying screech of brakes.
Ollie had watched the whole thing unfold in terrible slow
motion. He instinctively flinched as the Micra jagged across the lanes, waiting
for the impact that would surely follow, but apart from the horrible, accusing
vibrato horn screaming, there was nothing but the smooth flow of traffic. The
last thing he saw of the Micra, as it disappeared off to his left, was the sign
in the rear window, “Leave means Leave”, being swallowed up by the chasing pack
His own car sailed on down the A2, the signs for Dover,
Ramsgate and The Channel Tunnel now a comforting reminder of where he was
headed. He looked down at the passenger seat. The burgundy cover of his
passport peeped out from underneath a folder of his documents, its gold
lettering catching the sun pouring through the windscreen. “European Union.
United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”.
“Yes,” he thought, the beginnings of a smile playing across
his lips, “Leave really does mean leave.”