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.
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
“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.
“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.