The Watcher and The Friend Audio Book

Just a quick announcement that I’m serialising my children’s book, The Watcher and The Friend, pubished by Burton Mayers Books via my Podcast, Telling Stories. I’m hoping to publish a new chapter every week. I’ve had lots of people ask me about this and I can reveal that the second book in the series is almost finished. You can find out more about the book on my other website:

www.rjbarron.co.uk

The Wolf Attack – illustration by Daisy Alexander

The podcast is available here https://spotifyanchor-web.app.link/e/C6FxKvkc4tb

The book is availabe from Amazon here:

Spike: In Memoriam

David Armstrong 1954 -2022

First an explanation for the regular readers of the blog, who are likely to be baffled by this one. The normal diet of political rants, opinion pieces on Education, and reviews of Books, Music, Films, TV and Theatre have been put to one side for this edition to indulge in a personal reflection. Bear with me for five minutes or so.

It’s taken me some time to get down to write this. As you get older, news of one’s contemporaries deaths gets increasingly common. At first, it’s people who seem to be sewn into the fabric of your childhood. TV stars and musicians and sports people. People who figured, back in the day, as media celebrities and who seemed to have always been there, often in the background, in one’s life. And with every death announced, even the minor characters, a part of your childhood dies with it. 

But some deaths are more significant than others. Some people have carved a special place in each of our personal Halls of Fame, and their loss is more keenly felt. The death of David Bowie, for example, left me feeling bereft for a while. A great artist who had provided me with wonderful memories and songs that I’ll always play. Most of the time, it’s a sense of sadness, a moment or two of reflection, a few memories and a few nostalgic conversations about the old days. And then there are yet others whose passing seems like a shift in spiritual tectonic plates. The recently announced death of David “Spike” Armstrong is one such example.

There’ll be many people reading this who have no idea who on earth Armstrong actually was. What did he do? What’s his claim to fame? So, a few basic facts first. He was a left-footed football player, who played in the Seventies and Eighties, predominantly for my team, Middlesbrough FC, and then for Southampton. He played a couple of times (3?) for England, but then, apart from some low  key radio punditry, disappeared from view. It’s a thin basis for devotion, but the bare facts don’t really tell the story, which is quintessentially a tale of the Seventies, a more innocent time than today.

My Username on the Middlesbrough FC Fan Message Board, Fly Me To The Moon, is Spikelangelo. It was intended to be my tribute to the artistry of Spike, a player who did the footballing version of the Sistine chapel ceiling most Saturdays at Ayresome Park, Middlesbrough during the Seventies and early Eighties. Yes, I know. It’s an over the top, hyperbolic description, but I’m really trying to give you a flavour of the talent of this largely unsung sporting hero.

I first saw him play when I was seventeen, living in Stockton-on-Tees doing my A levels at Stockton Sixth Form College. Up until that point, nothing much had happened for Boro, a perenially underperforming small town team. I had been a supporter since I was elevenand strangely, I went to the games regularly on my own. Back then, it was cheap, and although this was the beginning of the legendary era of football hooliganism, for a young kid, it was pretty safe. I was hooked the first time I went. The extraordinary vivid green  of the pitch, the sense of space, the smell of bovril and pipe smoke, the tannoy announcements, the singing and the roar of the crowd – they all had a profound effect on me.

The promotion winning side, 1973-74. Spike, top right, with a little more hair

I also went on my own at that age because my Dad was profoundly cynical about Boro. He talked of Mannion and Hardwick and some mythical glory period, but then told me as many times as I would listen that Boro would  never amount to anything. They would beat superior sides regularly and then let you and themselves down by losing ignominiously to minnows. ( I hate to acknowledge this, all these years later, but that assessment seems to contain a nugget of truth for the long suffering supporter) He famously promised that if Boro ever went up, he would pay for a season ticket. This was round about 1970. It was a promise he would mysteriously forget about just four years later. They did go up and, predictably,  no season ticket materialised.

Of course, as an eleven year old, I had no idea about football. I could sort of tell when we played well, or if the opposition was any good, but tactics, formations, skills were all a bit of a mystery to me. Favourite players might be chosen on the back of a spectacular goal, or the chants, or what it said in The Sports Gazette, or even what they looked like. So one of my early favourites was a winger called Derrick Downing, partly because of his dashing sideburns and longish hair. I think he was pretty good, and he did once score a wonderful diving header against glamour team West Ham, but I couldn’t really form a valid opinion about that on my own.

One thing that stood out for me, though, was that it didn’t really look much like the football I saw on Saturday night on Match of the Day. I’d only just been allowed to stay up to watch it, and it was a window on a much more glamorous world than that Ayresome Park contained. It seemed as if everywhere else had a proper football club, that played proper, attractive, attacking football. Nothing more underlined just how small town, nowheresville Teesside seemed, than the fact that we would never, ever get to be in Division One and be on Match of The Day regularly.

So when in 1973, the legendary World Cup winner, Jack Charlton was announced as our manager, and this was reported on the national news, something was very definitely going on. Something different, something special. We started winning regularly. Very soon in that season, after an early hiccup or two, we hit the top of the table and inexorably extended the lead. Supporters went to the games expecting to win and expecting not to concede any goals. They also, in a dimension that you don’t  often hear mention of, expected thrilling football and lots of goals.This was in large part down to Jack Charlton’s tactical innovations and partly down to the quality of the first team. 

That Free Kick……….

By this time, I had seen a lot more football, and played a lot more proper eleven aside football myself, so I was beginning to understand what was really going on in a football match. I was very lucky that this stage of my footballing education coincided with going to watch probably the greatest side in our history. By then, I’d learned to ignore my Dad’s cynicism. He could keep his Mannions and Hardwicks, that seemed to me to belong to ancient history, with brylcreem and black and white photos. I preferred the present and the future to the past, like just about every seventeen year old in recorded history. 

And I was no longer Billy Nomates, getting the bus to The Blind School on my own. I had a group of friends who were my partners in crime on this new, exciting Holgate adventure. I’ve long thought that the friends you have when you are Seventeen, the books you read, the records you bought, the gigs you went to – all of these are deeply formative experiences. The camaraderie of that shared experience as you are growing away from the family unit and taking your first faltering steps in the adult world. It’s an exciting period  of your life and the friendships you make then forge unbreakable bonds and powerful memories. And that season, and the emergence of my beloved Boro, was a crucial part of it, and made a lasting impression on me.

We were not, as ill informed myth has it, a long ball, kick and rush team. There’s a great video somewhere of Charlton taking a training session. He says to Spike, “You’ve got to be brave enough, Spike, to hit the space behind the fullback. Don’t worry about Alan or Millsy – they”ll get there.”

And he was right – they did get there. A watertight defence that led to Bobby Murdoch, or Souness or Spike playing the ball down the channels for very fast players breaking from midfield, who would either go on to score, or cross for one of the midfield, who had surged into the box, to a score. It was a little like watching today’s Liverpool. Just without the fitness, pressing, and with Players  Number Six and Double Maxim. (By the way, if anyone has access to that video, I’d love to see it again. The internet is not as all powerful as I had previously assumed, and I couldn’t find it anywhere. Maybe I imagined it.)

Souness, of course, was the King of the side. Head and shoulders the greatest ever player I saw playing for Boro, bar none. But not far behind him, in my humble opinion, was Spike. “My Little Gem”, as Charlton affectionately called him. He taught me that there was a lot more to skill as a footballer than George Best type mazy dribbles. There was the skill of being able to bring down a ball, no matter how hard it was hit at you, or at what impossible angle it came at you, and have it under control instantly. There was the skill of having the full range of passing: the two yard lay off after winning a tackle, a forty yard raking cross field ball, a cunning slide rule inch perfect pass between centre back and full back, the perfectly weighted ball into someone’s run, such that they didn’t have to break stride before hitting it.

There was also the reading of the game and the stamina to go box to box for ninety  minutes. And finally, the coup de grace, the skill of arriving in the box at the far post at exactly the right moment from midfield, to score. For about six years in a row, after he became a regular starter, Spike scored 77 goals from the left hand side of midfield. If he were playing now, with those stats, he’d be worth silly money.

The other joy of this, was the fact that, as far as I was concerned, he was my first independent discovery. For most of us, in most areas of life (cinema, theatre, art, sport, politics etc) our opinions are generally speaking based on received wisdom. If people in the media say such and such is good, well they must be, because that commentator knows much more about it than I do. With Armstrong, it was one of the very first times when I saw something and after a while thought, “Bloody hell, he is a really, really good player.” It became even sweeter when those same pundits started talking about him as a future England player. Then, he became my player, my discovery.

So, if he was that good , why did he only play for England three times? It’s a fair question. First, he was unlucky to be playing in the Seventies for a very unfashionable provincial club. There was very little football on the telly back then. Had he played for a London club, or one of the giants, I think he would have had many more caps. Second, he was very unlucky that he overlapped with three other gifted left footers: Trevor Brooking, Ray Kennedy and Alan Devonshire. He was better than all of them. I did get to see him play at Wembley in 1982. It was Bobby Robson’s first home game as manager. He did alright, but it was already a little late for him. I was just delighted to see him in an England shirt. My special player for my special club. It didn’t mean much to anyone else in the crowd that night, but it meant a lot to me, an exiled Teessider in London, trying to keep the flame alive. And by 1982, the glory days of Jack Charlton were long gone, and Boro were about to enter a period of terrible decline.

That Wembley friendly seems to have been airbrushed out of his record, and its not widely known about, but the highlights video below give you a flavour. He’s always showing for the ball, but nearly gives away a goal via a poor/unucky back pass. It’s worth a dip in, just to see Spike in an England shirt at Wembley.

Spike at Wembley!

And now, Spike has gone, and a part of my adolescence has gone with him. My apologies for this piece being as much about me as about him, but really, that’s the point of the article. There have been many touching obituaries to Spike in the last week or so, but they only really give us the surface details. He meant much more to me than the accumulation of his stats. The real meaning of this, is in the relationship we individually forge with our heroes, and the impact they have on us and the way they enhance our lives. So, I will finish by sending sincere condolences to Spike’s friends and family. I hope it is of some comfort to you, in what must be a difficult time, to know that he touched people’s lives in a positive way, by being a key player in a great side that meant an awful lot to a community struggling through difficult times at the end of the Seventies.

RIP Spike. And thanks for all the great memories.

The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne. Being an account of their daring exploits and audacious crimes. by Jonathan Stroud.

Sometimes you come across a book completely by chance and for the flimsiest of reasons you decide to give it a go. I had spotted the book before and there was something about it that caught my interest, but I had done nothing about it.The deliberately archaic style of title and the cover design combined to give the book an air of left field interest. Then when the sequel was being heavily pushed I made a snap decision to catch up with the first one and ordered it from the library.

Reader, I married him. After the first chapter, I realised I was dealing with something very good. After 30 pages, just looking at the book gave me a frisson of excitement. After 50 pages, I wanted to have Mr Stroud’s babies. If you know what I mean. The cover carries a quote from Rick Riordan, proclaiming “Jonathan Stroud is a genius”. When I picked it up I dismissed this as publishing froth. By the end, I was of the opinion that Mr Riordan was underselling Stroud a little. 

So what was so wonderful about it? First of all, it’s a rollicking read. An exciting adventure, Stroud expertly handles the twists and turns of an adventure narrative. He is a master of the end of chapter cliffhanger, whether it be an entirely unexpected development, or a smooth transition to the next phase of the story, he generates a story with fantastic forward propulsion.

The setting helps immeasurably with this. The story takes place in a future England, many years after some cataclysmic,  climate disaster that has plunged England into a  mediaeval  Mad Max type scenario. Much of the country is under the rising sea, where the higher grounds are controlled by regional warlords and groupings of the church and agricultural producers and trades people. There are uneasy truces between the different regions, each of which has their own set of rules for controlling their people and demonising anyone who is a little different. Throw into the mix some wraith like creatures, The Tainted, and a whole menagerie of  strange, dangerous animals.

This catapulting of society backwards gives Stroud the opportunity to show off his lyrical gifts. The descriptions of the various rural settings the two protagonists pass through is absolutely beautiful and compelling, and, even better, completely fitting and essential for the plot. In this way, the flowery descriptions are not a literary indulgence, but integral to Stroud’s realisation of this new world.

But the real joy here are the characters Stroud has created. The heroine, Scarlett McCaine, is one of the finest, feistiest female characters since Dido Tweete in the incomparable Joan Aikens Wolves books. Funny dialogue, intriguing hints at her back story and exciting exploits undertaken with real physical bravery all five the story forward. The reader is also motivated by the wonderful relationship that emerges between her and the waif she discovers early in the book, Albert Browne,  whose opening sections of dialogue are joyfully, and unexpectedly literary and verbose. 

At the beginning of course, Scarlett, a determinedly free spirit loner, cannot wait to get rid of him, as she journeys through a dangerous and inhospitable country, trying to escape her pursuers. But it’s clear that this will be the story of the two characters, McCaine and Browne growing closer to each other as their mutual respect and affection slowly and grudgingly grows. Again this is something that Stroud handles with great skill and subtlety. You know it’s going to happen, and as it does, you know it’s happening, but you can never see the joins.

The other marvellous character is Doctor Calloway who is relentlessly pursuing Albert after his escape from her Hospital/Laboratory/ Prison. There are shades of Philip Pullman here, as Calloway echoes the evil Mrs Coulter from His Dark Materials. It’s a tribute to Stroud that this comparison strengthens each character, rather than diminishing them.

By the end, we are set up for more adventures in this new future England. For which promise I say, Please Sir, can I have  some more? I have a feeling that this is a series that could run and run. And now, I’m going to check out the other books Stroud has written. This one could, of course, be a one off. But, really, it’s so good that somehow I doubt it.

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

The School Prom, part 3

Rick, Deputy Head at Fairfield High School, is the senior member of staff on duty at the annual leavers’ Prom. It’s a hot summer’s evening and resentment runs high over the Zero Tolerance regime instituted by the new Head, Camilla Everson. Meanwhile, a gaggle of Year 11 students, led by the notorious George Mason, who have been formally banned from attending for a variety of crimes and misdemeanours, have plucked up the courage to invade the event

Rick checked his watch again, and took a drag from his cigarette. He had slipped out of the house, weary of the thumping bass and flashing lights, and had made his way to the terrace at the back of the mansion. It was strictly out of bounds for the students as part of the licensing agreement, but it was understood that staff could use it for temporary respite throughout the evening.

He sat at a table on the terrace in the darkness, looking out onto manicured lawns, grateful for the cool quiet out there.  Kevin had been there when he arrived, enjoying a solitary cigarette on his break, so he took the opportunity to ponce a cigarette from him, a treat all the more delicious for its rarity.

“Jo would kill me if she saw me with this,” he confided to Kevin, savouring the grey blue smoke whisping away into the night sky.

“Well, your secret’s safe with me Rick,” he replied.

“Another half an hour and that’s our lot, I think,” said Rick. “Music off, lights on and the wait for the parents to pick ‘em all up.”

“Yeah,” agreed Kevin, “All over for another year, eh?”

“It’s gone pretty well, actually. Better than I expected.”

“Yeah, it could have been much worse in the circumstances. At one point I thought we’d only have twenty kids here. Nothing like it used to be, in our heyday.”

“No. There’ve been a lot of changes.”

Kevin hesitated for a moment and then plunged in.

“I’m surprised you’ve stuck around, actually Rick. I thought you would have got a Headship somewhere else. It must be soul destroying, working under this regime.”

It was Rick’s turn to hesitate. He was normally very discreet when it came to talking about the leadership of the school, and had an instinctive professional loyalty, regardless of his own opinion. He had resisted the temptation to spend the last year slagging off Camilla and Pugh to anyone who would listen, and he would have had an eager and receptive audience, but it hadn’t seemed right to him to turn into that kind of Senior Leader.

But now, his resolve weakened by a long year of humiliations, and lulled into conspiratorial mood by the shared cigarette in the darkness, he cracked.

“Yeah, it is Kevin. It has been. And who knows? I might jump ship early next year if things don’t change. I’ve just tried to do my best and head off some of the madder innovations she wanted to introduce, but looking back, I’ve failed dismally at that. I might as well have gone to be honest.”

He kept quiet about his pact with the devil that was Alastair Goodall, but he was feeling increasingly tainted by it, and for what? There was no sign he was going to get any benefit from it, apart from his enhanced salary for the last year. It sat uncomfortably with him anyway.  Maybe he should knock that on the head as well. The whirl of conflicting thoughts left him unable to say more.

He stood up, looking at his watch once again.

“Come on, no point moping around here. It’s time to wind this down, while we’re still ahead.”

“Yep, we’ll get no thanks for worrying about it. Let’s go, I think we’ve all done enough for one night.”

They walked back in. As they turned the corner, there, framed in the light spilling from the entrance, was one of the teachers peering into the dimly lit terrace.

“Rick? Rick, is that you?”

“Yeah, who’s that? Mary, is that you? What’s up?”

He screwed his eyes up at the figure obscured by the light behind her. He had correctly identified Mary, the Head of Art.

“I think you’d better get in here, quick. We’ve been invaded.”

She disappeared back in to the building. Rick and Kevin looked at each other, baffled.

“Invaded?” said Kevin, “What on earth does she mean?”

When they got back in the building the first thing that told them something might be amiss was the unmistakeable smell of marijuana.

Kevin wrinkled his nose.

“Is that what I think it is?” he asked.

“Who the hell is stupid enough to come to the Prom and smoke weed?”

Then one of the Promgoers burst from the disco room and ran towards them.

It was Jason.

“It’s George, Sir, George Mason. He’s gone mad.”

They ran to the door way and looked in. There in front of them, in the middle of the dance floor amidst a crowd of teenagers, was George, can of lager in one hand and enormous spliff in the other, swaying and dancing to the music.

“What the bloody hell..”

Kevin grabbed Rick’s elbow.

“It’s not just George, look,” he said.

Around the room, the rest of George’s crew were similarly engaged, smoking, drinking and dancing. Their dancing was not quite as hypnotic and dreamy as George’s. Instead, they were taking great pleasure in bumping into each other and anyone else who came within range. As Kevin and Rick watched in horror, this transformed itself into synchronised barging of other innocent dancers, who were sent flying across the dance floor, crashing into other. At the far side of the dance floor, the DJ, who ten minutes earlier had been looking forward to winding it down with  couple of slow numbers, looked on at first bemused and then increasingly concerned. A series of teachers who had been supervising the dance floor had tried to intervene with the interlopers. They were at first ignored and then threatened by their former pupils, who were emboldened by their success so far.

Rick had seen enough.

“You stay here on the door, Kevin, I’ll only be a minute.”

He dashed out of the room and spoke first to the security man on the main entrance who had returned from his fag break and was blissfully unaware that anything was amiss.

“Hey, where the hell have you been? We’ve been invaded and you didn’t see a thing.”

“What? What do you mean, ‘invaded’? No-one has got past me without a ticket.”

“Never mind,” said Rick, “radio your mate on the front gate and get him up here, pronto and then both of you get yourselves to the dance floor. We need you to earn your money.”

“What about the police? Shall we ring for them?”

Rick thought for a moment.

“No, not yet. We don’t need them yet. Go on, man, hurry.”

Back on the dance floor the carnage continued. Then, like a bucket of cold water thrown over rutting dogs, the mood was broken. The music stopped immediately at the same time that the flashing strobe lights were replaced by the harsh overhead neon strips. The dancers stumbled and stood still, blinking in the unforgiving glare of the illumination.

A strange silence filled the room and the dancers and teachers looked round at the newly exposed hooligans, left like flopping fish gasping for breath out of the water. It was filled by a commanding voice from the doorway. All eyes were drawn in that direction.

“Alright everyone, listen up. The party’s over, I’m afraid. A little bit early, but I’m sure you’ll understand why? All students here with Prom tickets, you need to head next door with all of your stuff and get yourself ready. Parents and cars will be arriving in the next five minutes. Let’s make sure we don’t give them anything to worry about, especially on a night like this.”

There was an outbreak of grumbling abut the turn the evening had taken.

Rick held up his hands and started again.

“Yes, yes, we all know you’re disappointed, but we were nearly at the end anyway. There might even be a few keen parents already here waiting outside. So, let’s start to make our way through, please. And if I could ask a couple of members of staff to go through as well, just to make sure all is well?”

Three or four of the staff stepped forward and began to usher students out of the room. As they went, the invaders, looking round at each other began to put up their hoodies and fiddle with their bandanas.

“Oi, you lot. There’s no point hiding your faces, we’ve all seen you and we all know who you are. “

They stopped, embarrassed.

“Now listen. You’ve made a big mistake coming here tonight. You really shouldn’t have done it.”

One boy was bold enough to air his simmering sense of grievance.

“We should have been here anyway Sir. That old cow shouldn’t have banned us, she’s mental, you know she is Sir.”

“Eh, that’s enough of that. Whether you think you should have been banned or not, you were, and that’s all that matters.”

Two or three others joined in, adding their voices to the argument.

“It’s not fair, we get the blame for everything. Fucking teachers always think they’re right. We’ve had enough”

Rick hesitated. He had counted them. There were fifteen of them and about eight members of staff. They were drunk and stoned and very angry. He knew that it wouldn’t take much for this to turn ugly. Soon the two security guards would arrive, and they as a rule, did not do subtlety or negotiation. He knew that he would have to arrive at an agreed resolution in the next couple of minutes or risk disaster. He started again, hoping that his anxiety about the gravity of the situation did not bleed into his voice.

“No, no. no. that’s not going to get you anywhere. You need to start thinking sensibly about this, so that you don’t get yourself into any more trouble. The police are on their way. The security guards will be along in a moment. If I were you, I’d want to be leaving here as quickly as I could, without drawing attention to yourself.”

A familiar voice broke in, interrupting him. It was George.

“What’s the point of doing that, ‘cos you’ll just give all of our names to the police anyway? You’ve already said you know who we are. You must think we’re fucking stupid.”

This intervention stirred the pot again, and there was more rumbling from the mob.

“Language George, please. And, no, I don’t think you’re stupid and I never have done. For a start, I have no idea why you’re here anyway. This is not even your year group and not even your Prom. But let’s not go into that now. The point is this. I give you my word that if you all leave quietly now, taking all of your stuff with you, and there is no trouble with the parents or on your way home, then we’ll say no more about it.”

“See,” snorted George, looking round at the others, “He obviously does think we’re stupid. Don’t fall for this lads, he’s obviously gonna grass us up.”

“George, as far as I know, all you’ve done so far is gate crash a party and smoke a bit of weed and drink too much lager. You shouldn’t have done any of those things, but they’re not hanging offences. Or are you worried about something you’re not telling me?”

“No, course not,” George snapped back.

He turned his frustration on his colleagues. “See what he’s doing? Typical bloody teacher, he’s twisting everything. He’ll dob us in it alright, you see if he don’t.”

It hung on a knife edge. One voice from the mob piped up, “Nah, I don’t think so George. Mr Westfield aint like that, he aint like the others. He always does what he says.”

There was silence as they considered this idea and in that silence it was over. The first of them walked towards the door, followed by a couple more. Then, the rest of them followed. As they passed him to get through the doorway Rick said, “You could probably get a lift home with some of your mates, if you ask nicely.”

Finally, only George remained, standing in the middle of the dance floor. Rick said to the last few members of staff, “Do you guys want to go and help outside, while George and I have a chat?”

They slipped quietly out of the open door through to the hubbub beyond.

George clutched his lager and stared with a set face at Rick.

“So, George” Rick began “Are you going to go along with this and leave quietly? I meant what I said about not taking it any further.”

“Nah man,” George sneered, “don’t come it with the concerned, caring chat routine. Why should I listen to you? You’re the one that got me excluded. You and that Syrian cunt.”

“No, George, you got yourself excluded, you know that as well as anyone.”

“You got an answer for everything, aint you? If my Dad were here, he’d batter you for what you did.”

“Yes George, you’re right, he would. And he’d do a pretty good job of it as well. He’s good at battering people. But who would he go on to batter after he’d finished with me George, eh? And then what would happen? Because there comes a point where using your fists just isn’t enough. But you already know that, don’t you?”

George’s grip on his can of lager had been steadily increasing as he had listened to Rick, his knuckles whitening as he squeezed in rising anger. Without warning, hurled the half empty can with all his strength at Rick’s head with a roar of rage. Rick ducked and the can thudded into the wall behind him, spray spuming everywhere with an angry fizzing. George started forward and grabbed Rick by the lapels.

One of the qualities that had served Rick well as a teacher in a tough urban school was his unflappability. He had ice running through his veins and the capacity to exude calm when all around him were panicking. He knew that George was a very big, powerful lad who didn’t need the amount of alcohol he had consumed to make him dangerous and unpredictable. But Rick himself was tall and well-built. Years of sport and the gym had left him with a confidence that he could look after himself.

He put his arms through George’s and laid his hands on his chest, firmly exerting pressure on him.

“George, man, calm down. Don’t make things any worse than they are.”

George, still incensed, tried to wrench Rick towards him by the lapels, but found that Rick was too strong for him.

Rick’s voice was quiet and even and he looked George directly in the eyes

“George, come on. You’re your own worst enemy. Give yourself a break. Let go and calm down.”

There was one final attempt to overpower him. When that failed, with Rick looking steadily at him throughout, he gave up and with a howl of frustration and despair he pushed Rick to one side and stormed out of the room, barging past students and teachers alike, some sent flying like skittles as he turned the air blue with an extended volley of industrial language. He snatched up his carrier bag of lager from behind the desk and charged through the ground floor until he found the doorway to the terrace. He crashed past the two security guards who were skulking around, desperately trying to avoid being called into action, and disappeared into the cool darkness of the gardens.

Sign up to the blog to get an email alert every time a new post is issued. You can buy a copy of the novel, Zero Tolerance, using the links below:

The School Prom, part 2

An extract from “Zero Tolerance” by The Old Grey Owl

Rick, Deputy Head at Fairfield High School, is the senior member of staff on duty at the annual leavers’ Prom. It’s a hot summer’s evening and resentment runs high over the Zero Tolerance regime instituted by the new Head, Camilla Everson. Meanwhile, a gaggle of Year 11 students, led by the notorious George Mason, who have been formally banned from attending for a variety of crimes and misdemeanours, have plucked up the courage to invade the event

The disco was in full swing and under the strobe lights, Rick could just about make out the identities of the gyrating bodies. Occasionally, the pursuit of teenage kicks led to Rick and some of the other senior members of staff in attendance having to remind a few people that snogging should be restrained and controlled. The air inside was thick with pheromones, Lynx and Babe Power. It was at moments like these that Rick was most glad that there was a no alcohol policy. Add that to the mix and there would have been carnage.

The familiar and comforting tropes of the Year 11 Prom were being replayed in front of him. He had been asked several times to “Show us some moves” and had dutifully provided appropriate dad dancing to keep the students amused. He had chatted to staff about their summer holidays. He had taken a thousand photos and had photobombed a thousand selfies. Ties and jackets had long been removed, to be replaced by sweat stains and flapping shirts. Expensive gelled and sprayed hairstyles had started to wilt, mascara to run,  and regular missions to the toilets were undertaken for running repairs.

Even better, O’Malley was about to go. Rick had had the delicious experience of walking in to the main dance area with him, to be met with a subtle but unmistakeable outbreak of hissing. To his credit though, O’Malley had stuck it out, even though he was snubbed by both staff and students alike, so that he ended up drinking orange juice on the door with the Security guard. Eventually, after braving several laps of the venue, hissed at wherever he went, he finally came up to Rick and said, straining to be heard above the music, “I think I’ll make a move now.”

“Ok,” Rick replied, “See you on Monday”.

He watched as O’Malley picked his way through knots of people chatting and taking photos, inching his way to the exit. He was about to go and have a sit down in the quiet room when Jason came over to him and shouted, “Eh Sir, come on, it’s the conga.”

He hauled himself to his feet. “Alright Jase, if I absolutely have to,” he said and followed him back into the dance room.

*

On the main road by the entrance, a red double decker bus stopped and about fifteen raucous youths got off, George in the vanguard of the battalion. Twenty minutes earlier they had mooched around in the street outside the Trafalgar, George still smarting at his humiliation in the pub and the ruination of his Friday night.

“This is fucking rubbish man,” George had pronounced, “What are we gonna do now?”

“There’s always the Prom,” ventured one of the others, “Why don’t we go up there and try and get in? It’d be a laugh.”

“Come on George man, they shouldn’t’ve banned me in the first place, and you never went last year. They’d shit themselves if we all turned up there mob -handed. They’d have to let us in.”

“Yeah come on,” George agreed, “Let’s go shop and buy some more cans and then get on the 165. We’ll be there in fifteen.”

Their spirits rose with the advent of this new plan and by the time they boarded the bus they were loud, aggressive and objectionable in equal measures. It was an uncomfortable journey for those passengers who had made the innocent mistake of getting that particular bus at that particular time.

The driver was relieved to see the back of them as they all piled off at the stop. Although it was only fifteen minutes away from the Trafalgar they found themselves on a lushly wooded fast road with detached houses set back behind long, mature gardens. It was golf course territory. They stared at the houses and breathed in the fragrance of money.

“Fucking hell, look at those houses, fam. Why do they have the Prom here? Talk about fucking rubbing our noses in it.”

They all stared, each of them lost in a vision of their own. Some were consumed with jealousy, some anger, some inferiority, some acceptance, of a world that existed and that they couldn’t change. Eventually they roused themselves. They started off down the road towards the entrance to the mansion when George, out in front, stopped dead.

“Shit. There’s security. We’ll never get past him without a bit of trouble.”

Illuminated by a solitary street light up ahead was the unmistakeable figure of a bouncer. Shaven headed, with sunglasses and a walkie talkie. They all ducked tightly into the trees by the side of the road and began talking quietly.

“Listen,” said George, “I aint going back after all this. If we go over the fence here, we can get in that way, go through the woods and end up on the drive way that leads to the big house.”

After a prodigious session in the Trafalgar, topped up on the bus with a few cans, this seemed to them the most reasonable plan ever devised. Without any hesitation, the rabble began to shin up the fence and over. Two minutes later, with a few barked shins and bruised arms and legs, they were all over the top and in the woods. Clutching their carrier bags full of lager, they tracked the path while staying in the woods until it turned a bend, so that they would be invisible from the road.

Under the canopy of the trees, the warm night air was soupy with pollen and earthy scents and there was a strange quiet, with only the distant hum of the traffic leaking into the undergrowth. They were an unlikely crew, with baseball caps, trainers and carrier bags, crashing through brambles and whiplash sappy branches. Occasionally, they stopped to get their bearings and they listened to the eerie sounds of snuffling, scurrying wildlife yards away from them.

“Fucking hell, man, what was that?” exclaimed one of them after a particularly piteous set of cries came from a thick clump of rhododendron bushes up ahead. Something was meeting a brutal end in this lush Surrey woodland. They all pulled up and looked around, peering through the swirling blackness. Suddenly, the Trafalgar, with its comforting brash lights and noise, seemed many miles away.

“I hate the fucking countryside,” George pronounced, “Come on, let’s get on the path.”

They didn’t need telling twice. They spotted a light in the distance, winking intermittently through the branches, and they set their sights on that, pushing aside branches and thorns that whipped back in their faces when released by the person immediately in front. When they emerged from the trees onto tarmac they presented a sorry sight: faces and arms scratched, out of breath and sweating, they resembled the apocryphal lost soldiers emerging from far eastern jungles unaware the war was over. They were thirsty, tired, disorientated and in dire need of something resembling entertainment to make this great trek worthwhile. Recriminations were beginning to bubble to the surface.

George leaned forward his hands on his knees, wheezing, red faced, slicked with sweat. This was the furthest he had walked since he was seven years old, and his head was spinning.

“Jesus,” he gasped, “whose fucking idea was this? This better be worth it fam, or there’ll be trouble, I’m telling you.”

As they filled their lungs with the night air and wiped the sweat from their eyes, they surveyed their surroundings. They were a little confused to see, not the imposing splendour of eighteenth century architecture, but a car park, and a few out buildings.

“Shit,” said Adam, “we’ve come the wrong way. This aint it.”

“Fuck, that’s all we need. I’ve had enough of this, man. This fucking sucks.”

There was a general murmuring of agreement when George said, “Hey, look over there. Who’s that geezer?”

The car park was flooded with lighting and they squinted their eyes to adjust. It was Adam who said, “I don’t believe it. It’s that cunt O’Malley. He was the fucker that had me excluded and banned.”

They all looked at each other, each of them thinking the same thing, but waiting for permission to act. George, still bubbling with resentment from earlier slights gave it to them.

“Come on, let’s get the fucker.”

*

O’Malley looked up at the sound of running and a shout. On the far side of the car park was a group of about twenty youths, all with hoodies up and bandanas on, charging towards him, shouting. He froze.

“What the ..” he exclaimed, but before he could do anything they had surrounded him, shouting and taunting him.

He was petrified. There was nothing he could do, so thinking as quickly as his terrified brain could, he played for time. Surely, someone else would come to the car park soon. He wondered whether the security guard would hear him if he took a chance and started to scream, and he concluded that no, they probably wouldn’t above the insistent thumping of the disco. His only option was to talk.

He held his hands up, outstretched in supplication. “Lads, let’s not do anything silly now. Let’s just calm down, and talk this through.”

George, his voice muffled by his bandana, walked towards imitating his voice, as if it were that of a little girl. “Oooh, lads, let’s not do anything silly now. Let’s just calm down because I am shitting myself here.”

The circle of his accomplices laughed and joined in. George took a few steps towards him and began poking him in the chest.

“I hear that you banned some of my mates from the Prom, Is that right?”

“Look, you need to think about what you’re doing. You’re on CCTV and the house is full of people who can identify you. I think you should just turn around and let me go before you do something you’ll regret.”

O’Malley had mustered as much calm gravitas as he could. He hoped that they couldn’t see he was panic stricken. He was mistaken.

“Nice try, but for once, it’s the kids who are gonna tell you what to do, bruv.”

The circle tightened around him and his cries were muffled by the press of bodies. A few minutes later he had been bound and gagged with some of the bandanas and locked in his own car.

“That’ll do for now ,” said George through the open window. “We’ll be back, so don’t go away. Oh, sorry, I forgot, you can’t.”

This provoked a chorus of laughter and jeering. George wound the window back up and locked the car.

“Come on,” he announced to the triumphant group, “It’s round two.”

They followed him, hoodies and bandanas still in place, carrier bags stuffed with cans swinging in their hands, as he skirted the car park in the direction of the thumping bass of the sound system. They rounded a corner and saw the mansion. In the light that spilled from the open doorway, a second bouncer was clearly visible.

“Shit,” cursed Adam, “another one. Now what?”

They huddled together hard up against the wall of the building, out of his eye line, waiting for inspiration to strike. Just as they were beginning to lose hope, they saw the familiar flare of a match, followed by the glowing tip of a cigarette. The bouncer, taking a drag from the cigarette, stretched and began to walk away from the entrance, away from them and around the corner.

George looked in, a smile spreading across his face. “Yes! He’s on a fag break. Come on lads, we’re in.”

He sprinted to the door, keeping as close to the wall as he could, weaving in and out of the bushes, in case the bouncer returned early. The others followed and they all piled through the entrance into the warm yellow light of the foyer. One or two students, taking refuge from the dance floor, or en-route to the toilets, looked up in alarm as the rag tag army burst in, euphoric after their successful kidnapping of O’Malley, and the ease with which they had gained entry. It seemed to them that there was nothing they could not achieve.

And then, reality dawned on them. They looked at each other with their carriers of lager, hoodies and trainers, and then at the Prom goers, who gaped at them open-mouthed, in their shiny suits and tight dresses.

“Look at the state of us, man,” whined Adam, “we stand out like a sore thumb. What are we gonna do now?”

George considered for a moment and then pronounced his judgement.

“We’re gonna blend in, bruv, blend in. And, we’re gonna have a little drink, and a little dance, and a bit of a laugh, for as long as we can get away with it.”

Adam’s face registered disappointment and the rest of the crew looked sheepish.

George felt like a lion leading donkeys.

“Or, you can bottle it and all just fuck off home. You’re on your own.”

He took a can from his carrier, cracked it open and, and took a long, deep draught. Then he placed the bag behind the reception desk, the open can in his pocket, and he sauntered towards the dance hall. The others watched him go. When he had disappeared into the flashing lights and pulsing shadows, the others looked around at each other, leaderless and unsure.

It was Adam that was the first to crack.

“Oh, fuck it,” he said, “might as well.”

He went through the same series of actions as George, and followed his route towards the promised land. One by one the others all followed.

The two prom goers, who had observed the whole scene with a growing sense of fascination from the corner, watched them go. They turned to each other.

“We’ve got to see this, come on.”

“First things first,” said the other, reaching for his phone.

He opened Instagram and, in a blur of texter’s fingers and thumbs, he messaged, “Prom just been invaded by George M and his gang!”

The news spread like wildfire.

Part 3 will follow in a day or two. Sign up to the blog to get an email alert every time a new post is issued. You can buy a copy of the novel, Zero Tolerance, using the links below:

The School Prom, part 1

An extract from “Zero Tolerance” by The Old Grey Owl

Rick, Deputy Head at Fairfield High School, is the senior member of staff on duty at the annual leavers’ Prom. It’s a hot summer’s evening and resentment runs high over the Zero Tolerance regime instituted by the new Head, Camilla Everson.

Rick looked at his watch again. It was seven thirty, the official start time and still there was no sign of any guests approaching. There were a few knots of teachers standing outside, all in their finest party outfits, apart from those, like Rick, who had had to go there straight from school. Kevin, had, as usual been assigned official photographer status, and his tuxedo and Dickie-bow combination, was completed by a camera with a huge zoom lens. It was a serious bit of kit and Kevin spent his time in between chatting to some of the other teachers, fiddling with knobs and dials. He also took the opportunity, every year, to limber up by taking photos of the staff, singly and in groups, wearing their glad rags in front of the shabbily impressive Longdon Park, an eighteenth century mansion in acres of countryside that had been used as the venue for the Prom for as long as anyone could remember.

Rick paced to the bend in the drive, his shoes crunching pleasingly on the gravel, so that he could get an extended view of the long sweep to the main road. Nothing. He turned and retraced his steps, checking his watch again as he went. It was a beautiful early July evening, warm and sultry, with the scent of honeysuckle heavy on the air. Everything was set for a fitting send off for the Year 11 students, but the nervous shifting from foot to foot, the glances down the drive, and the stilted conversations spoke of anxiety. This was not like any of the other Prom celebrations any of them had ever attended.

In the previous week the school had been alive with rumours: Camilla had cancelled it. Only forty tickets had been sold. Social Media was facilitating a planned storming of the Bastille by the disaffected and dispossessed. In Camilla’s new Fairfield there were many members of both groups. There was even a rumour that had surfaced only the day before, that those students who had  bought tickets, were planning on boycotting at the last moment and had hired a club in town, where alcohol and other stimulants could be ingested.

Rick had considered that the boycott was a realistic proposition and that it had been avoided by the final rumour that had sprung up on Thursday, that Camilla, breaking over thirty years of tradition, was not going to attend. As he himself knew, that rumour was firmly rooted in the truth, and he had made a good job of ensuring the news got around the students.

He thought back to Monday of that week and his surprise at being summoned to Camilla’s office. Was she finally going to spring a trumped up disciplinary on him? Alastair’s protection could only last so long. He steeled himself, knocked on her door and went in.

“You wanted to see me?” he began. She was sitting at her desk, hand on mouse, and he just caught a glimpse of the familiar orange of the EasyJet site before she minimised it.

She looked up. “Ah yes, Rick. Come in.”

Rick hovered just inside the door. She rarely invited him to sit down.

“I won’t keep you long.”

That was the phrase she used when she meant “Don’t sit down”

He stood in front of her desk, like a naughty student about to be told off.

“I assume that you are going to the Prom on Friday?”

“Yes,” he replied, “I always do.”

“Good, I thought so. I just wanted to make sure that you know I’m expecting you to stay for the duration and make sure that everyone has left the site.”

“So, you won’t be there, I take it?” Rick asked the question in his most innocent voice.

Her eyes flicked left and right. “No, I have another meeting that night.”

“Bollocks you have,” thought Rick, “A meeting with a bottle of red in an expensive restaurant more like.”

He smiled at her. “I suppose you’ve heard the rumours that there is going to be trouble? Students you excluded and banned coming en-masse to gate crash?”

She bristled. “Oh, I’m sure that’s all just talk. But just in case, I need you to be there for the whole event please. You have a, ….er.., good relationship with the students, even the feral ones, and it’s about time it actually came in useful.”

“Will O’Malley be there?”

“Patrick? Yes Patrick will be there. Well, at least at the beginning.”

“Yes,” thought Rick, “someone else who is wetting himself at the prospect of meeting a group of kids he’s bullied and brutalised all year.”

He contented himself with a thin smile. “Fine. So, was there anything else?”

She thought for a moment and then finally took the plunge.

“Have you heard anything about this Rick? What do you think are the chances of there being trouble? We must avoid any bad press in the Advertiser. Alastair is still exercised about the last front page.”

He considered the question. He knew the answer, he just wanted to make her sweat a little.

“I think it’s highly likely. There are a lot of students, past and present, who hate your guts. Lot of staff too, but at least you can be fairly confident that they won’t burn the building down. Well, most of them. Just saying.”

A look of pure hatred tinged with fury took possession of her face.

“How dare you? Don’t you think I deserve some support from my Deputy?”

“Calm down Camilla. I’m not saying that’s what I think, I’m simply reporting what other people think.”

“And what do you think?”

“Oh,” he said, making for the door, “I couldn’t possibly comment on that. I’ll be there Friday.”

He closed the door behind him and walked down the corridors to his office with a spring in his step. He had rather enjoyed that.

And so here he was, spending a precious Friday night on duty, expecting trouble. He sidled over to Kevin, who had taken as many photographs as he could of the staff and was now standing in the shade so he could flick through the thumbnails to check them out.

“So, Kev, do you think anyone’s coming tonight?” he asked.

Kevin looked up from his camera. “Yeah, I do actually.”

“How come you’re so confident? They’re leaving it a bit late, aren’t they?”

“Look,” he said, jerking his head in the direction of the road.

Rick turned around. There, sweeping round the bend, was the first stretch limo of the evening. Kevin got himself into position with the camera and the car crunched to a halt outside the entrance. The doors opened and eight young people, four girls and four boys, self-consciously unfolded themselves from the limo. They were in strict regulation prom outfits. The girls tottered on high heels, in tight satiny dresses that showcased cleavages of all sizes. They had extraordinary bouffant hairstyles, that had to be slightly repaired or adjusted after removing themselves from the car and encountering the slight summer breeze that drifted across the gardens. There were a variety of shades of spray tan on display, and as they negotiated the treacherous gravel in their heels, they left a trail of glitter behind them.

The boys seemed to have all got their prom suit from the same shop and this year’s look was the ever popular, very shiny, skin-tight suit, winkle pickers, gold bling jewellery and an assortment of silk ties and waistcoats. The more daring young men had taken a chance on either a floral shirt or a dickie bow.

Their procession into the venue followed a set of unchanging rules that, although not written down anywhere, seemed to be known by all. There was a spontaneous round of applause from the gathered staff, followed by five minutes of photographs, and squeals from the female staff, approving every dress and accessory. The male staff confined themselves to comments about football and mercilessly took the piss out of the rather awkward looking boys, in an oddly affectionate and good-natured manner.

Then, after a few minutes of this small talk, they made their way into the main building. Their slightly unsteady progress was down to more than the combination of stillettos and gravel. Like all fifteen year old prom-goers all over the country, they had dealt with the alcohol ban that was always strictly enforced, by getting drunk at home or in the pub, beforehand.

After this first arrival there was a steady stream of students in a variety of modes of transport. Some long -suffering parents had drawn the short straw and had driven groups there. There were several more limos, a couple of horse drawn carriages and one girl, resplendent in leather and Doc Martens who roared along the gravel and round the turning circle, riding pillion on her Dad’s Harley Davison. She was shortly followed by her soul mate, similarly attired, on the back of her father’s moped. They embraced, had their photograph taken and disappeared into the bowels of the Palladian mansion.

In the middle of all this, one of the cars that drove in didn’t stop in front of the house but carried on around the side to the car park. Rick peered against the sun that was getting quite low in the sky, and made out the figure of Patrick O’Malley, a set line of a mouth and a furrowed brow, behind the wheel. He did not look as if this was where he wanted to be sending his Friday night.

“Oh great,” he muttered to Kevin, “Torquemada’s here.”

“I’ll leave him to you Mr Westfield,” Kevin smirked, “I’ll go in and you can do small talk. That is way above my pay grade” And then he sloped off, whistling.

A minute later O’Malley came round the corner, remembering at the last minute to fix a smile on his face. He seemed to have been practising it on the way from the car park. Rick was the only person left out front now, bar the burly, taciturn security guard. Everyone had gone into the venue and the disco had started.

“Rick,” he said, drawing up next to him.

“Patrick,” he replied.

“This was going to be a good conversation,” he thought. “I’m not going to make it easy for him. He needs me more than I need him.”

O’Malley’s smile was beginning to fray at the edges.

“So, are there many here?”

“Not bad. About fifty or sixty. They’re all inside. You should go in. I don’t think there’ll be any more arriving now.”

“What do you make of the rumours that some of the banned kids are going to try and get in later?”

He said this with a smile and in a light, airy tone as if he were idly speculating about something unlikely, like an extra-terrestrial invasion, but Rick could see he was petrified and was probably already calculating a respectable time of departure.

“Well, it’s possible, I suppose. It’s happened before, but we’ve got security on the gate at the main road and on the door here, so I don’t think there’ll be a real problem.”

O’Malley glanced down at his watch.

“You’ll be able to go soon Patrick, don’t worry. But you do have to make an appearance inside before you can leave. Come on, I’ll hold your hand.”

He led the way to the entrance and the security guard stepped aside grudgingly to let them in. Rick was loving this. For the first time for months, he had O’Malley exactly where he wanted him. On his territory.

Part 2 will follow in a day or two. Sign up to the blog to get an email alert every time a new post is issued. You can buy a copy of the novel, Zero Tolerance, using the links below:

Signed copies available here

King Lear at The Globe – Shakespeare at its very worst

A first return to The Globe after a pandemic-induced absence of a couple of years made me long once again for lockdown. As someone who was an English teacher in London for about 35 years, I’ve been a regular visitor, both on my own and with students. In the days of Mark Rylance as Artistic Director it was invariably a thrilling experience, with the pleasures of the authentic setting enhanced by the quality of the productions.

In recent years, however, a trip to The Globe (pictured right) has been something to be endured rather than enjoyed. More and more it has come to resemble just another version of famous world city tourism, an experience to tick off the list made by people on a schedule: The Colosseum in Rome, The Louvre in Paris, The Rijksmuseum and Anne Frank  in Amsterdam etc etc.

I knew nothing of the production before we booked. We originally wanted to see Much Ado, but that was all sold out. There were tickets for Lear and as far as I could  see, very little publicity for it. I was amazed to find out, when digging a little deeper into the production, that this was a reprise of a famous role for Kathryn Hunter, who first did the role back in 1997, also for director Helena Kaut Howson. That, apparently, was a groundbreaking, brilliant production and performance.

It was very hard to tell from this feeble revival. I have to begin this merciless hatchet job with a tiny caveat. We have both got to the advanced age where subtitles are necessary for us to be able to follow any drama on TV. That undoubtedly contributed to the difficulties we both had with this performance, but to be honest, by the time we walked out of the theatre at the interval, I was actually glad I couldn’t quite hear the lines clearly. That would have just served to underline just how much the play was being brutalised. 

We were also badly served by our seats -The middle gallery,  level with the two main pillars of the stage – so for seventy percent of the time, the speaking actors were facing away from us, and their lines drifted away into the summer’s evening air, to compete with the helicopters and jumbo jets that seemed to pass overhead every five minutes.

But all of this was just background annoyance. There are more substantial complaints to come. The story is complex, the language difficult, the characters and relationships hard to pin down. So a production has got to do the bread and butter of exposition much better than this. Clarity of verse speaking, costume, gesture, body language, props, scenery- all of these need to be used imaginatively to pin down what the scenario is from the beginning. Of course, the division of the kingdom, the three daughters and their declarations of “love” were established well enough (partly because they are so well known), but the subtleties  of the interplay between Edgar and Edmund, Gloucester and Kent, the husbands of the “bad” sisters, all of this and much more was abandoned to garbled verse speaking, knockabout comedy, and lots of stage business, with hammy actors walking around the stage for no apparent  purpose except to lend the lines some additional dramatic force. It failed miserably to lend any of it any dramatic purpose at all.

It was old fashioned  Nigel-Planer-Nicholas-Craig-style Actoring at its worst. (Nicholas Craig pictured left) Hand waving, strutting, movement across the stage with no discernible realistic purpose  – it all just screams, “We are doing serious Shakespeare stuff here.” This was also accompanied by full-on, shouting-the-lines,  Shakesperean declamation.

This was particularly the case for Regan. Or, in the case of Edmund, lines delivered in a softly spoken accent that made them very difficult to follow or to take seriously. He also seems to have been directed to play a lot of his lines for laughs, like his legitimate brother, Edgar, whose performance when he had “gone mad” was particularly ludicrous.

That appeared to be the default position. To give this difficult stuff more audience appeal, let’s make sure we mess about and crank up the physical comedy. It seemed to me to be totally inappropriate, and detracted from the drama and tragedy of the play. Unfortunately, on the night I attended, the groundlings seemed to be heavily stocked with the friends and family of the people working on the production, such was the enthusiasm of their laughter, like regular bursts from a machine gun. What on earth they were laughing at, and how that helped a complex, subtle, human tragedy was beyond me.

I don’t especially blame the actors for this. Presumably, they were responding to the director, and in Shakespeare in particular, the director makes (Nicholas Hytner) or breaks (Rufus Norris) a production. In this case, Kaut Howson (pictured right) absolutely destroyed this production. She has been recuperating from an accident, apparently, so perhaps that explains it, but nothing can reasonably excuse this exercise in painting-by-numbers direction.

It did occur to me, as I tried in vain to take my mind off the car crash as it unfolded in front of me, that actually, the play would have been much better suited to the dark, atmospheric candle lit magnificence of the Sam Wanamaker theatre. The Globe can manage knockabout comedy. A warm Summer’s evening lends itself to a lighthearted romp. The Wanamaker would certainly have helped Hunter, whose voice seemed lost in the open air setting.

During one of the many longeurs in the first half, I found myself looking down on a gaggle of young people, mainly boys, either on a school trip or on a foreign exchange arrangement. I lost count of the number of them who were surreptitiously messaging and surfing the net on their phones. My old-person-English-teacher instinct kicked in immediately, but I did manage to exert some self control and stop myself from scowling and tutting. By the time the interval arrived, I’d joined them, checking my messages. 

They’re not daft, kids today.

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

A review

Doerr’s latest novel is his first since the Pulitzer Prize winning All the Light We Cannot See. That book was a particularly happy accident for me. I found it lying around the house, and knew nothing about it, so began it with no expectations. After about thirty pages or so, I knew I was dealing with something special. I browsed this new one in Waterstones in the run up to Christmas and rejected it. It just didn’t sound like my cup of tea: three separate stories spanning several hundred years, including a sci fi section, all linked together by a fictional fragment of a Ancient Greek text. No, thank you very much, I’ll pass on that.

How wrong I was. This is a singularly brilliant novel, one of the best I’ve read for years. Each section is perfectly realised: the stories of two of the little people on opposite sides of the siege of Constantinople in 1453 (pictured right) , Omeir and Anna is beautifully done in luminous prose. I’ve read some criticisms about the sentimentality and implausibility of this story, but you would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the outcome, after years of hardship and personal tragedy. 

The contemporary section, which tells the story of a teenage eco-terrorist bomber, who is “radicalised” by a shadowy online presence that exploits his vulnerability and his disbelief at what we are doing to our planet, is the starting point for the whole novel. Each section as it is threaded through the bigger narrative, slowly ratchets up the tension of the unexploded bomb in his rucksack at the local library. The library is empty except for a group of young teenagers who are rehearsing a theatre production of the Ancient Greek text, Cloud Cuckoo Land, that  holds the whole thing together.

The links extend to the sci-fi section that is set in a spaceship of humans escaping a world destroyed by global warming. You might think that such a variety of settings would jar, and that the author would naturally display a weakness in the realisation of at least one of the stories, but the reverse is true. There is no sense that, in fact, these are three entirely sparate stories that have been clumsily welded together. The whole thing feels seamless, with each section being part of an organic whole. The plotting, linking all of these disparate parts is exquisitely done. Improbable, but done with authority, credibility and artistic integrity. Each section enhances the others, and the sequencing and pacing of the sections turns a heavy weight literary novel of ideas into a page-turner of real dramatic power.

A further structural embellishment is the regular punctuation of the text with extracts from the fictitious Ancient Greek “novel” by the classical writer, Antonius Diogenes. (pictured left) Each extract is short, with the gaps in the text, supposedly  produced by the passage of time,  represented by missing words, scholarly guesses and question marks. For a while, these sections work well. They are strangely poetic and they are a welcome pause for the reader, providing an opportunity to digest the main sections of the overall narrative. After a while, however, I must admit that I began to skim read these bits, but that was because I was so invested in the main story, I really wanted to press on to get to the resolution of the whole thing. So even the weakest aspect of the book is actually an indication of its great strength.

Doerr himself describes the book as “my attempt at a literary-sci-fi-young-adult-historical-morality novel”. Guess what? He succeeds. It reaffirms the value and power of literature as a cultural endeavour that is capable of producing  great beauty and great insight. Immersive, big stories like this that tell us something about ourselves and our world continue to be important. In many ways,  the book is very explicit about that. It is a celebration of the significance of stories, of texts, (like the imaginary Cloud Cuckoo Land of Diogenes) and their ability to endure over the centuries so that they  continue to speak to people in the future. 

Literature, and story-telling in general, does a lot of cultural heavy lifting in our society, whether it’s a comic, a novel, a movie or the latest Netflix series. It can soothe, entertain, reassure, divert, excite. At its best, it can illuminate and make you see the world afresh, while doing all of the above as well. 

Cloud Cuckoo Land is literature at its best.

A School Inspector Calls

Chris Malone’s novella will be familiar – and infuriating- to anyone who has endured an OFSTED inspection

Chris Malone brings all of her considerable experience of school leadership and inspection to bear in her latest novella, “A School Inspector Calls”. The book deals with two very different primary schools that sit on opposite sides of the river in town. The first, St Drogo’s, is the archetypal glossy academy: new buildings, well-resourced, well-connected, high achieving, but with no room for “challenging students”. One such student, Ayiesha Medosa, has escaped from her hellish experience at St Drogo’s and found refuge in its shabby neighbour, Marsh Street Primary. She observes the unannounced OFSTED inspection of Marsh Street from her unofficial bolt hole, the little room where she does most of her school work when the noise and hard-to -understand dynamics of a busy classroom get too much for her.

While there, she observes the malpractice of the inspection, pre-designed to fail a school that is too child-centred to fit the current model of excellence, through a spy hole in the wall. Does her testimony overturn the inspection outcome? I’ll leave that for you to discover.

For anyone familiar with the current landscape of English education, this book will either be a reassurance or a provocation, depending on where you sit in the array of characters the book presents. If you’re open to different points of view, then this little book will be a delightful amuse bouche. It’s brevity is part of its charm, adding to its impact, rather than detracting. Malone skilfully lays out the oppositions, using the surprise inspection as the catalyst to a drama that will be all too familiar to anyone who has undergone the ridiculous palaver of OFSTED. To her credit, she does not simply present the inspectors as pantomime villains, but explores the institutional pressures that are brought to bear on Margaret, the lead inspector, who like the teachers she is scrutinising, has a family and a mortgage to support and has to make some difficult choices between her career and doing the right thing.

The portrayal of the impossibility of the job, leading a school with limited and further shrinking budgets, staffing gaps, crumbling buildings, needy children and relentless, myopic accountability pressures, is both authentic and sympathetic. This is not a job for the faint-hearted. The miracle is that, in such a context, there are any headteachers like the saintly Jill Grimly left at all, notwithstanding her naivety and muddle. The fear is that the oily, superficial charm of corporate yes man, Dominic Major, head of St Drogo’s, (surely destined for life as a government appointee to some ghastly hybrid quango/private sector “think tank” before assuming his place in the Lords with the other authoritarian populists) will become the de rigeur model of effective school leadership and the Jill Grimlys of this world will be set for early retirement and disparagement as beached dinosaurs, left by the tides of history. What am I saying? It’s already happened.

Regardless of where you stand, this little book is definitely worth a read for anyone interested in education and those that believe that all children, the challenged and the capable, deserve the best chance in life to succeed. It’s available from the excellent Burton Mayers books.

If you enjoy Chris’ book, you may want to have a go at my satire on the current insanities of the English education system, Zero Tolerance, available from the link below. It’s also of interest to anyone with any concern for the treatment of Syrian refugees in this country.