The Last Train North on Christmas Eve.

Since the time of writing, Johnson has finally cancelled Christmas and we are left with the choice of criminalisation, infection or isolation. Thanks, pal.

As I write, the UK is on the edge of being submerged in the biggest crisis of my lifetime, as the most tumultuous year any of us has ever experienced limps to an end. No, I don’t mean Brexit. Liarman Johnson will, with a straight face, pull a supposed rabbit from a virtual hat and proclaim that he has heroically faced down the forces of evil at the eleventh hour and achieved a stunning deal that is brilliant for Britain. Anyone with functioning synapses knows that this is nonsense, and that he has, just as he did with Northern Ireland, rolled over in front of Michel Barnier and capitulated. Fishermen? Let them eat cake. Level playing field? We can manage being at the bottom of a steep cliff because we are English, are we not? ECJ ajudication? Bring it on, as long as we can call it something different. Maybe The Johnson Universal Deal Agreement System, or JUDAS for short.

All of that was always going to result in a stage-managed last-minute escape. No, the real crisis we face, is the terrible possibility (terrible to The Daily Mail, that is) that Christmas, as we know it, will not take place. And what makes it worse is that we can’t even blame it on Johnny Foreigner. So appalling is it to Johnson, with his psychopath’s need to be loved, that he is willing to contemplate millions of people travelling across the country, trailing infection in their wake, so that they can congregate around a groaning table, having spent an obscene amount of money they don’t have, on stuff that their nearest and dearest don’t want. Ah, Boris. Bless ‘im! Yes, just step over the bodies, dear, that’s right. Don’t distress yourself, it’s not important. It’s no-one’s fault – they had underlying health issues, you see.

When it comes to historical re-enactments, Boris is always going to want to play Charles II, (Nell Gwynne in tow), rather than Oliver Cromwell, who let’s face it, was a bit of pinko killjoy.

But let me, for a moment at least, step out my customary jaundiced mind set and acknowledge the joint humanity of this. Yes, even Tories (or Johnson’s English Nationalists) get some things right. And even Lefties value family and Christmas, and desperately want to end the year with some semblance of normality. So one can understand the reluctance to impose travel and mixing restrictions on a weary population, not least because it would be almost impossible to police. Allowing people to do something (ie removing the threat of legal enforcement) while advising them not to do it, in the light of the most up to date evidence, seems a reasonable course of action. It allows people to make sensible decisions based on their own personal circumstances. There will be people who know this will be their last ever Christmas. There will be those whose mental health would be severely tested by the prospect and the reality of a Christmas on their own. And, not least, there will be those ( the majority I believe) for whom cancelling Christmas as usual is by far the best solution. We can put up with more inconvenience for a while longer to play our part in not spreading this accursed virus any further. All of those groups can make defendable decisions.

My own Christmas arrangements have been completely disrupted. And the changes take me back down Memory Lane, to a time when the late December trip back up North, was a regular feature of my festive schedule. This tale takes place in the distant time of December 1982. Not quite Dickensian times, but near enough. I had just completed my first term as a trainee teacher, back in the days when trainees had the course paid for as their fourth year of Higher Education. (Yes, youngsters, Fees and maintenance all taken care of by the State. Don’t believe all you read about the Seventies and early eighties, before The Thatcher Ascendancy.)

I had to cycle twenty miles a day to get to my College and back during this term. Given the fact that I can’t get up two flights of stairs at home without groaning these days, this seems barely believable to me now. Although I really enjoyed the course and was amazed to find that I was quite good at teaching, it was with some relief that I greeted the Christmas holidays, with a break from the bike and the South Circular. But money, not leisure, was the main driver, despite the generosity of the state, and I was delighted to get a job for the Christmas holidays. I began to calculate the largesse I would demonstrate on my return to the land of my fathers, to check in with all of my Sixth Form chums again. Yes, the drinks would be on me.

I lived in a shared house at the top of Brixton Hill, just opposite the prison. One of the guys who I shared with, a friend from Teesside, was also training to be an English teacher, and we both got the same holiday job – seasonal shop assistant in Morleys of Brixton (“South London’s West End store”). We did it for about two weeks. I was on the stationery counter and spent a very depressing fortnight selling a whole range of Christmas tat to people who could barely afford to feed themselves and their families. They would shuffle up to the counter,  hands digging deep into their pockets for their last few coins, and begin the process of mentally calculating which things they would have to put back. I say “people”, but the reality was that they were almost exclusively women, often with small snotty kids in tow, looking harassed and malnourished. My mate was assigned to the fragrance counter, where he worked under the watchful eye of a very glamorous supervisor, who apparently found his jokes hilarious. He had to serve an endless queue of young women, with the occasional dutiful male partner thrown in, looking for the perfect Christmas perfume, while the supervisor stood behind him intermittently squeezing his bottom. When we exchanged notes every evening in the pub, it didn’t take long for me to feel that perhaps I was getting the worst end of the deal. Cheshire -cat- grinning mate sympathised with my plight, but not enough apparently, to offer to swap counters.

By the end of the two weeks, we had both had enough of South London’s West End Store. Even good-humoured sexual harassment (though it wouldn’t have been called that back then) can pall after a while and for me, the guilt of fleecing the poorest members of the community where I lived had become too much. We decided, without telling management, that we would not return after the holiday. That turned Christmas Eve into our last day and we become a little demob happy. We were due to finish early, and we had booked tickets on the last train North out of Kings Cross. We took our bags into work with us that morning, so we could get off to a flyer. The plan was to take the tube up west from Brixton, have something to eat and start our Christmas celebrations before boarding the train with a few cans of beer. You have to remember that we were much younger, we were Northerners, and we drank like fishes with little discernible impact on our bodies or brains. Oh happy day! What we didn’t know then was how much that would change as age began to take its toll as it inevitably did, but that’s another story or three.

In the last couple of hours of the shift, I had a Robin Hood type transformation, and began to assuage my guilt by handing over vast handfuls of excess change. At first, some customers, eyes wide, frowning, tried to give it back, but a subtle combination of non-verbal gestures made it clear that, yes, this was their lucky day.  A wink. A raised eyebrow. Even, for the less quick on the uptake, a tapping of the side of the nose. Word obviously got round and soon I had the longest queue in the store, much to the amazement of the supervisors who had pigeonholed me as a rather miserable presence on the shop floor. someone without any natural gifts for sales (ie capacity to lie with a straight face). This was in direct contrast to their attitude to my mate, who they had their eyes on for the fast-track management training course, because of his smiling charm. They didn’t seem to realise that it’s much easier to be happy and charming, when you are the object of the customers’ (and colleagues) sexual fantasies rather than the butt of their resentment of their own oppression. “Q: Why can’t I have a nice Christmas and get things that my children and my partner will really enjoy?” A: “Because of that miserable northern git behind the counter.” The lack of a Marxist analysis amongst the client base was deeply disappointing.

Eventually, the shift was over and we were free. I dread to think what the totting up of the till revealed at the end of the day, but no-one ever mentioned it, and the knock on the door from The Old Bill never came. Perhaps everyone else was on the take from the till, who knows? By the time we clambered on to the train at Kings Cross, we were firmly in holiday mode. An early dinner/late lunch with a few drinks had got things off the ground, and we looked forward to a jolly couple of hours to Darlington, aided and abetted by the train buffet. We had tried to get into the spirit of the occasion by attaching some modest bits of tinsel to our outfits, but a quick look at the queue of people boarding the train with us was the first indication that we had perhaps misjudged the situation. Everyone getting on the train appeared to be part of a larger group. They were dressed like extras from Brideshead Revisited, in tuxedos and formal evening wear, with the few women in attendance in posh frocks and they were all decorated with superior Christmas adornments, including liberal quantities of mistletoe. Each little knot of people had their own wicker hamper, and many of them already had champagne flutes in hand and were quaffing (because what else does one do with Champagne in this situation?) as they waited to board.

We both exchanged shifty, bemused glances, and our self-consciousness sky-rocketed. Never had one’s northern oikishness been so publicly exposed. The entire cohort of the passenger list appeared to be old alumni of the country’s finest public schools and Oxbridge, borne out by their braying self-congratulatory conversations. A little bit of shell-shocked earwigging confirmed that this was The City of London heading home to the parental pile in the North for the holidays. They had clearly, like us, come straight from work, but unlike us, their work wasn’t selling cheap cards and scent in Sarf London. The only response to this severe case of Class Alienation was to drink. So we did.

On the first trip to the toilet, it became clear that this was the Longest Party in the World. It was wild. Staggering down the rolling train aisle, I passed table after table of Champagne parties. Crackers were pulled, canapes and all manner of posh food, some of which I had never heard of back in the eighties, never mind tasted, were shovelled in, streamers streamed, music was played and eventually as the drink took hold, dances were danced. As the train pressed on to the frozen north, there was some thawing of the unspoken class war that had been bubbling under the surface of the  bonhomie. Alcohol can do that. We shared drinks and stories and had a laugh. It was a reminder of our common humanity and when we finally arrived at Darlington, shrouded in freezing fog, the doors opened and we literally poured out on to the platform in an hysterical tumble of giggles and spilled luggage. Had we continued on to Edinburgh, alcohol might well have worked its way inexorably into the mindless aggression phase, and we may well have attempted to start the revolution on British Rail, but thankfully we didn’t and we had, instead, a Stave-5-Scrooge like warm glow of love towards our fellow human beings. It’s a memory that has stayed with me ever since. A perfect, almost mythical Christmas Eve journey back home. I’ve often thought that Chris Rea should have left the car at home and let the train take the strain, but it all worked out pretty well for him in the car.

However you are spending Christmas, and whatever your movements (or lack of) across the country, I hope you have a restful holiday after what has been a miserable year. When we all get to New Year’s Eve, we need a collective resolution to hasten the vaccine, and never to forget the fiasco of incompetence we’ve endured, led by the charlatan in chief, Mr Johnson. Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and most importantly, Stay Safe!

‘Twas the last day of the Christmas term

Rick was already dreaming of starting his marking on Boxing Day

Now social distancing is ingrained in the psyche of all teachers, it seems impossible to remember what “fun” the end of the Christmas term used to be. Last Day non-uniform hysteria, form parties, the final assembly, comedy socks and jumpers and manically excited kids being supervised by terminally exhausted teachers. A recipe for a major disaster if ever there was one. But wouldn’t it be nice if those days could come back? To remind yourself of more innocent times, have a look at this extract from my novel, Zero Tolerance. It’s the last day before the Christmas holidays at Fairfield High School, in the London Borough of Longon. Ho!Ho! Ho!

Remember, don’t try this at home kids……alcohol’s not big and it’s not clever.

Zero Tolerance, Chapter 14

It had been the kind of December day that never really gets light, a smudgy, damp greyness having hung over the day for hours. It was completely at odds with the manic, unhinged hysteria that had reigned at Fairfield from the moment the first students had arrived at about 7.30am. A non-uniform day, strictly in aid of charity of course, the last day before the Christmas holidays was traditionally a day to be endured. Damage limitation was the name of the game. Students were arrayed in tinsel, hats and flashing festive jumpers and nearly all of them were toting huge bags full of cards and sweets and presents. The whole day was a battle between staff and students to keep them all off the corridors and in classrooms. This had always been a struggle, but since the advent of mobile phones and messaging in all its forms, it was now nigh on impossible as students were alerted to the best party (“Miss has got Pizza for everyone!”), the best DVD showing or when and where the assembly entertainers were rehearsing.

Just after the lunch the final students were escorted off the premises, the last bus duty had been completed and the last angry phone call from a local shop keeper or resident about behaviour on the buses had been taken. Senior Team and the long-suffering Heads of Year had answered the calls and patrolled the local area, trying to keep a lid on high spirits. Now, at about two o’clock, with early darkness closing in, everyone congregated in the staff room for the farewells and drinks. The first couple of drinks took the edge of the empty-eyed, numbed exhaustion that pervaded the room. This first half an hour at the end of the Autumn term was almost painful, so exquisite and acute was the sense of release from torment. So much time stretching out in front of them, with no early starts, no marking, no planning, no late meetings.

There were just a couple of staff leaving, so the event would be mercifully short, allowing the younger staff to pile down the pub before going out on the lash for the rest of the evening and the older staff time to get home early and have a nap on the sofa before a quiet night in in front of the telly. The real victims were those in between with young children, who would have already calculated the amount of Christmas shopping they could get in before getting home to play with the children and make the dinner.

As they were waiting for everyone to arrive and for the speeches to begin, staff congregated in their friendship groups, staking out territory in comfy chairs around low tables, hoovering up twiglets and warm white wine. Charlotte, the head of English, found herself in between Kevin and Kwame the Head of Maths.

“So, you going away in the holidays either of you?“ she asked.

“No such luck,” grumbled Kevin, “We’re hosting this year. We’ve got a house full for about five days. It’s costing me an arm and a leg.”

“What about you Kwame?”

“Yeah, we’re taking the kids to my sisters in Leeds. We’re not setting off until Christmas Eve. So, I’m looking forward to a few days of sleep before then. She’s a great cook my sister and the kids really get on well with her kids so it should be good. Then it’s our turn next year.”

“Lucky you,“ said Kevin, “Enjoy this one while you can. What about you Charlotte?”

“We’ve got John’s mother staying with us for the week, so that’s a week of back breaking hard work, with no thanks and constant moaning from the Queen.”

“Difficult, is she?”

“Nightmare. She thinks I don’t look after him properly and that I’m a mad career -obsessed harpie who couldn’t wait to farm the kids off to childcare.”

“Knows you well then, by the sound of it.”

She shot him a look. “Hmm, very funny. Honestly though, it’s just a week of torment. I’ll be glad to get back to school, I’m telling you.”

“See, I told you, she’s got your number perfectly,” retorted Kevin, warming to his second glass of wine

“Oh, I’m not talking to you anyway, Kevin, after you let us all down so badly with the snow. What was it you said, ‘Definitely snow before and after Christmas.’ I can’t tell you how that promise has got me through some tricky days in the last few weeks. And for what? Absolutely nothing. Not even a bit of frost. I thought you said that Norwegian site was infallible.”

“Sorry guys, believe me no-one’s sorrier than me. I don’t know what went wrong.”

Kwame changed the subject. “So, who’s leaving today then? How many speeches do we have to sit through?

“Just a couple ,” said Charlotte. “That young technician, Matt, I think his name is, you know the one that looks about twelve years old and that woman who was on long term supply in Science.”

“Plankton, then,” said Kevin. “Good, we’ll be out of here in twenty minutes.”

“Ey up, here she comes,” said Charlotte as a quietening of the crowd indicated that something was afoot.

Jane stepped up to the front of the room, waited a second for quiet to descend and then encouraged it on its way.

“Ok colleagues, the sooner we begin the sooner we can finish. I know we’re all desperate to draw a line under this term and to have some quality time with our nearest and dearest.”

The hum of chatter subsided and all eyes were on the front. Jane, normally so easy and generous with her end of term addresses, that had become something of a local legend for their humanity and good humour, was strangely clipped. The two speeches and exchange of gifts for the two admittedly minor departures were rattled through and almost before people had settled in, they were at the end.

Almost before the departing IT technician had mumbled his thank-yous and farewells Jane was back out front, resuming her role as Mistress of Ceremonies.

“So, not long to go now,” she started with a smile. Encouraged by the ripple of laughter this created she pressed on. “I don’t want to keep you much longer. I just wanted to take this opportunity to thank you all, particularly those of you who have been with me on this journey for the past ten years, but all of the rest of you as well, for all of the hard work and dedication you show to the children in our care every day you come to work. We don’t get much thanks these days for the work we do with our client group, our students, as they used to be known. And since no-one ever went into teaching for the money, thanks are an important currency in terms of morale. Our kids are frequently described in the outside word as problems, burdens, difficulties to overcome. I’m quite used to that lack of understanding from the media, who frankly get just about everything wrong that they report, but it gets harder and harder to take when the people who should know better, our glorious leaders, seem to revel in their own ignorance and parade their prejudices as if they were great new insights to be proud of.”

Jane’s voice had dropped and the audience, raucous and irreverent minutes before, were enveloped in an air of intense concentration. What was happening here? This was not the speech they had been expecting. She continued.

“I want to thank all of you for your outstanding work during Ofsted, but more than that, the outstanding work you do day after day, not to get a pat on the back from Big Brother, but because it makes a difference to our kids, many of whom arrive at our doors looking for respite from damaged and difficult family circumstances. The kid who has spent the night in emergency accommodation. The kid who has not eaten since Free school meals the day before. The kid who lives in fear of a family member coming in to their room at night. The kid who watches their mother battered and brutalised. For those kids, we are the nearest thing they have to love and security. And on their behalf, I want to thank all of you for that.”

Rick, standing to the side, felt a lump rise in his throat. He battled his stinging eyes and wondered where this was going next. If he hadn’t known better, he would have sworn this was a resignation speech.

“Many of you will have worked out that this will be the last ever farewell speech I will give”

What?! Rick’s heart skipped a beat and his mouth fell open. Avril, standing next to him, held her breath.

“in a Fairfield High that is a local authority-controlled school.”

They both began breathing a little easier. Rick remembered to close his mouth.

“Now, I’m sure you will all agree that Longdon have been a signally useless local authority for much of that time, but at the very least, they have been our useless local authority, with human beings we know and can talk to and have some kind of productive relationship with. With some sense of accountability and transparency. From January, we move over to the control of the Bellingford Multi-Academy Trust, and things will change, inevitably. So far, I am reassured by what Alastair Goodall and the trust have been saying about their plans for the future, and I hope that this marks the beginning of a prosperous and harmonious new relationship.”

She paused and looked around the crowd. The gap she had left grew, and in it everyone in the audience mentally inserted the next part of her speech for her: “But I don’t think it will.”

She left that unsaid, of course and pressed on. “So, I am sure that the trust has lots of additional work lined up for all of us in January. That makes it even more important that we all have a relaxing and enjoyable holiday. Spend quality time with those you love, family and friends. Just in case, in January, work takes over, and it becomes harder to give those people the time they deserve. Merry Christmas to you all.” She raised her glass to the audience who did the same and chorused, “Merry Christmas”.

While conversations carried on, mostly about the weirdly affecting tone of Jane’s speech and everyone’s holiday plans, and people decided to have one last drink or another sausage roll, Jane slipped out of the staffroom before Avril or Rick could buttonhole her. Avril was about to follow her, when she was collared by someone who was rather exercised by a mistake in her December payslip that had just materialised in her pigeon hole. She watched her go, over the shoulder of Joyce, who was worried about how she was going to pay for Christmas without the correct salary. Just in time, Avril averted her eyes from Jane’s departure, and gave Joyce her full, smiling, yet concerned, attention.

By about four in the afternoon the school site was just about deserted, with a mere handful of cars left in the car park. Rick and Avril both found themselves outside the closed door of Jane’s office.

“You as well? “ said Avril as Rick rounded the end of the corridor.

“I just wanted to check she was alright. I’ve never heard her give a speech like that before.”

“Me neither. But she’s gone. I knocked and tried the door. It’s locked.”

“Gone? But she’s always the last to leave. Without fail.”

“Listen, It’s probably nothing. I’ll ring her later, just to check. Don’t worry about it. Go home and start the holiday.”

“Yeah. Yeah, you’re probably right. I will. Have a good Christmas.”

“You too. See you in January.”

By four thirty there was only one car left in the playground. Tony, the Site manager, was stomping around jangling a huge bunch of keys. He was desperate to lock up and put his feet up. The school was a much pleasanter place to work when there were no students in it and a positively delightful place to work when there no teachers either.

“Bloody Kevin. What the hell is he still doing here?”

Up in the top floor observatory that was his classroom, Kevin was putting the finishing touches to his leaving preparations. He had spent the previous twenty minutes doing last minute checks of the Norwegian weather site. This was partly because Kwame and Charlotte had spent the twenty minutes before that mercilessly taking the piss out of him for his snow closure obsession and the failure of his predictions.

He stared at the screen, and expression of triumph on his face. “Ha! I knew it! It was right all along.”

Then triumph turned to disappointment. “What a bloody waste of a fall of snow. What a criminal waste,” he lamented.

Five minutes later he passed Tony jangling his keys as he went through the main entrance to the car park.

“Sorry mate, didn’t mean to keep you. Have a good Christmas.”

“Same to you,” he grunted, rattling the doors as he locked up behind him.

Kevin loaded up his boot with marking and a bag full of cartons of Celebrations and bottles of wine his grateful students had given him for Christmas and opened the driver’s door to get in. At that moment, the first fat snowflake floated down from the lowering darkened skies and landed on the bonnet of his car. By the time he drove through the car park entrance on to the road, the air was thick with flakes.

Kevin peered out of his window at the sky full of silent white feathers. He shook his head, as he drove off. “What a terrible waste,” he muttered.

If you liked that chapter, why not try the rest of the novel? It’s available at the links below:

https://growl.blog/2020/12/01/on-the-first-day-of-christmas-my-true-love-gave-to-me/

New Podcast -The Chains he Forged – a Ghost Story for Christmas

Lockdown is the mother of invention, or so it seems. In the long, idle hours generated by Covid and Retirement, there has been ample opportunity to hone a new set of skills. The main insight I have gained after being out of the English classroom for the first time since 1982, is that the thing that I miss the most, the essence of English teaching is reading a great book or a poem aloud to a classroom full of kids. And so, I present the results, via my two new ventures, The View from the Great North Wood Youtube channel, and the Telling Stories Podcast. Indulge me, and think of this as therapy for someone still grieving.

Both ventures are straight out of the “Sniffin’ Glue” school of publishing, that is, rough and ready, with an unmistakeable aroma of punk. In those days, we were all just encouraged to get it down while it was hot. To pick up a guitar and learn two chords (who needed more? Patti Smith famously used just one, brilliantly) and start to thrash. To type, cut and paste (with scissors!) and xerox it.

So with that in mind, dive in. But be kind. And, don’t hold back from subscribing and spreading the word.

The Watcher and The Friend, Chapter 1 Telling Stories

This is the first chapter of a new novel for children by R J Barron, The Watcher and The Friend, published by Burton Mayers Books on June 11th 2021
  1. The Watcher and The Friend, Chapter 1
  2. Asking the Questions
  3. Episode 6 Don't Smile before Christmas, part 2
  4. Episode 5 Don't Smile Before Christmas, part 1
  5. The Chains He Forged – a Ghost story for Christmas

On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me…..

Zero Tolerance – the perfect gift for the special teacher in your life….

Since it was published at the end of February this year, my first novel, Zero Tolerance has had some brilliant reviews. At this festive time of giving, what better way is there to celebrate the end of a truly ghastly year, by giving a copy of the book to that special teacher in your life.

You can buy Zero Tolerance using the links below.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/s?k=zero+tolerance+a+novel&crid=2YAT8X7XXX3WO&sprefix=zero+tolerance%2Caps%2C658&ref=nb_sb_ss_ts-a-p_5_14

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

Still not convinced? Read some extracts from the reviews below:

Peter Thomas, Chair of NATE

Be warned: this is a very offensive book. It will cause great offence to true believers of some of the current orthodoxies prevailing in UK education.

Sceptics, agnostics and heretics will love the book. It is very funny and it is rooted in a very realistic school setting.

Swift’s Modest Proposal….Pope’s Rape of the Lock…Rushdie’s Satanic Verses…The life of Brian….Charlie Hebdo cartoons…(were all) a cause of offence.

Rattling the bars of an institution can be done from outside or inside, but, either way, rattling them turns the apparatus of repression into an instrument of communication. And this novel rattles quite a few bars, with offence intended.

Debra Kidd – Trainer, writer, founder of National Teacher learning Day, author of “A Curriculum of Hope”

Love, loved, loved this book by The Old Grey Owl. If you’re a fan of silent corridors, zero tolerance etc etc it may not be for you. For the rest of us …..bloody brilliant!

Mark Aston – Schools Week

This is the Edu-Dickens that we have been crying out for since Hard Times. Not since watching A Very Peculiar Practice – an equally caustic satire of encroaching privatisation of the NHS in the late 1980s – have I felt so politically energised by a cultural product. If the malpractices engaged in in this novel are anywhere near truth, then we have streamlined and simplified the English education system into nothing less than a Victorian workhouse, with all its attendant, oft-ignored rules and regulations and lack of meaningful (because often corrupt) oversight.

Those who already experience schools in the way described by the anonymous author will lap up the almost burlesque caricature of the Cruella de Ville that is Everson (she is described as such during a pleasingly terrifying learning walk of the school).

London Headteacher (name changed to protect the innocent)

Loved the book! The plot rang very true for a leader of one of those rare beasts, an LA maintained proper comprehensive school in London. Lots of sadness, but lots of hope too and lovely characters. Highly recommended!

Amazon Reviews

Toxic Policies Poison

Toxic workplace practices have been in place in the private sector for decades, but now they have infiltrated schools. The academisation of Fairfield High has a catastrophic impact on the teachers, pupils and local community. Amid all this turmoil lie two boys, a Syrian refugee and a pending class boy fed a diet of violence and racism. Can anyone survive Zero Tolerance?

A Great read: both enjoyable and disturbing

A great narrative expose of a zero tolerance approach to school management – believable, scathing, with a sensitive human touch and engaging characters. I thoroughly recommend this read, particularly for educators …

A satirical, yet hopeful, look at 21st century schools and the dark forces attempting to transform them.


Warmth, wit and wisdom!


This is a must-read for any teacher that will make you think about what it’s really all for. The novel deftly blends wit and wisdom throughout and The Old Grey Owl writes unsavoury characters so well that you’ll be recoiling at every mention of the pathetic ‘Barry Pugh’!

Brilliant!

I loved this novel, it took me on an emotional roller coaster. The characters with all their own doubts and foibles, are drawn brilliantly, We’ve all met these characters during our own school lives or as teachers and we can all picture a face that fits. Then there’s Karim, we may not have met him, but we all know the terrible plight of the refugee. A wonderfully spun tale, I highly recommend this book.

A great satirical work

The British education system has been slowly languishing for many years, suffering from defunding and having attention grabbing, but ultimately useless ideas forced on it. The cries of experienced educators have been drowned out and it seems empathy is at an all time low… or so I believe from what I’ve read in Zero Tolerance. This was a great, satirical work which weaves in astute thoughts on politics, refugees and the general ridiculousness of 21st century life. The Old Grey Owl really breathes life into teachers, a career which has been disrespected by the government for a while now.

Lifting the lid on educational chicanery

This novel is both an engaging page-turner and an important indictment of the direction being taken in state education at the moment. The characters are expertly drawn and the narrative takes you through the travails of teachers trying to do a good job against a back drop of crazy initiatives and unscrupulous school leaders. Added to this is the poignant story of a Syrian refugee who has escaped from one sort of nightmare only to be engulfed by another. Ultimately it has a redemptive finale. We can but hope that, like Rick and his fellow travellers at Fairfield school, this country finally sees the light and we move forward to an education system which aspires to give young people a fully rounded education rather than one narrowly focused on league table supremacy.

First of all this book is a great read. The characters, while they clearly represent a type, are drawn in depth and detail. The plot is wonderfully controlled to keep the reader engrossed and although the story is serious and often tragic, it is fundamentally kind-hearted. This is plainly a book on a mission which may be too apparent, but anyone with experience of children, teaching or teachers can fill in the shades of grey between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’. I mustn’t give a way the ending, this book must be read.

 A well-paced, intelligent and humorous expose of life in a newly acadamised London school. The anonymous author has written an excoriating account of school life under the awful ‘Superhead’ Camilla, a Gradgrind of the C21st.
The novel is an engaging story, full of interesting, empathetic characters and despicably horrible villains. There is genuine emotional engagement with the wellbeing of the oppressed teachers in the book and delightful vignettes of their home lives. The quality of the writing improves throughout the book and there is delightful language and metaphor mixed with political astuteness.
Interwoven with the school story of the bastardisation of education, is the story of Syrian refugee Karim, a modern day Oliver Twist who overcomes every adversity to find a new life in England. The denouement is full of dramatic tension.
All teachers should read this book and all fans of Dickens, Morpurgo, Pullman, Tressell and Rowling will not be disappointed.
Ten out of ten and a gold star.

If you’ve been convinced by those fab reviews, or you’re either curious or desperate, why not see for yourself? Click one of the links below to find the book

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

Ho!Ho!Ho! That’s Christmas sorted….

“The Fascist Painting – What is Cultural Capital?” reviewed.

Phil Beadle’s latest book is a must-read for anyone serious about going beyond OFSTED’s hopeless misunderstanding of cultural capital and its place in the curriculum

Phil Beadle’s latest book is a timely contribution to the current debate about cultural capital and its place in UK schools. It’s not a wishy-washy dispassionate overview of the terrain, with practical suggestions for how overworked school leaders can get that OFSTED box ticked, thank goodness. I was amused when reading it at the thought that some people may have bought it expecting just that, scrolling through edu-books on Twitter and Amazon, desperately looking for inspiration in advance of writing the proposal for SLT the next day. Anyone who does mistakenly buy it thinking they were about to get a how-to guide to cultural capital is in for a shock. It’s too much to hope, I suppose, that anyone in that situation would actually pause to consider whether the pursuit of cultural capital provision in school was worth a candle, but it’s a nice thought nonetheless. I’ve been there myself. You are charged with rolling out an initiative that you have real misgivings about, but your half-hearted, timorously voiced objections are steamrollered, and the institutional imperative takes over. Careers are built on championing the new, fashioning current buzzwords into practical and procedural systems. And jobs are lost, or opportunities missed, for anyone who is lukewarm. The only show in town these days is evangelical zeal, so reluctant turd polishing is not enough. The turd must be buffed with pride and passion.

If you are an agnostic, or you are a fully paid up member of the non-believer wing of the profession (sometimes referred to as “Progs”) you’ll find much to admire and enjoy in this book. It comprehensively demolishes the nonsense that is OFSTED’s understanding of cultural capital, and along the way many of the other sacred cows of The New Brutalists (I particularly enjoyed the withering critique of Doug Lemov’s ideas in general and SLANT in particular. This will almost immediately cause sceptical readers devoted to “Teach Like a Champion” to harrumph, stop reading and unfollow, but woah there! Take a breath.  As Educationalists, let’s at least give ideas we don’t like an airing and disagree politely. No need for no-platforming here)

In OFSTED’s view, cultural capital is what working class kids lack. Familiarity with “the best that has been thought and said” becomes an inspectable thread in schools’ provision and so schools are scrambling around trying to design a crash course in high culture. Beadle, with his scalpel- like analysis, shows that the adoption of the ideas of Matthew Arnold, are simply yet another incarnation of the rubbishing of working class culture as second class and inauthentic. It is an unquestioning espousal of ideas rooted in a racist, violent, homophobic and upper class superiority, all transmitted from generation to generation via model public schools, right down to Mr Michael Gove. These are the views, courtesy of Mr Gove (assisted by the lovely Dominic) and the last ten years of Tory Government, that have left teachers and students with a barren educational wasteland to inhabit, a world where students are subjected to a coercive and joyless trudge through a slurry of facts. It would be a disservice to Beadle to leave the impression that all it amounts to is Dave Spart class warrior polemics. That’s the tone of my review, but not of the book.

First and foremost, this is a scholarly work, built on a rock solid foundation of sociological theory and analysis. Beadle is a clever guy and a very good writer who has bothered to do the work. He’s read Phillipe Bourdieu extensively and it shows. Each chapter is shored up with a mountain of foot notes. But interestingly, the foot notes reveal the dichotomy at the heart of the book ( and the author, I suspect) Because as well as showing the scholarly heft of the work, they are also very funny. Beadle doesn’t take himself too seriously. He is self-deprecating, sarcastic and barbed by turns. But every time you think the book is going to descend into a political piss-take (welcome and justified though that would be) he then veers back into serious academic and pedagogic considerations.

In that sense, the book takes no prisoners. It makes a lot of demands on the reader. Some of the sociological stuff is heavy duty Marxism and can be like wading through treacle at times, but it’s worth persisting with that, because it’s always leavened by an anecdote or a well-chosen, apposite cultural comparison. My take on this was that, whenever the book got to be hard going, well, that was my fault not Beadle’s. Ultimately, it’s refreshing to read a book where the author pays you the respect of treating you seriously as a sentient, intelligent adult. The idea of persistence is important in the context of resilience, another fashionable shibboleth that Beadle examines. He is at his best when skewering the idea that a teenager from a single parent family in temporary accommodation, using food banks and with no access to IT, a quiet space or books might benefit from “Resilience Lessons”. Patronising doesn’t even begin to cover it.

The same thought comes to mind when thinking about giving the same kid a dollop of High Culture at discrete weekly sessions (the whole year group in the hall in front of a powerpoint and a harassed member of SLT, no doubt). It’s like a teaspoon of cod liver oil on your bowl of thin gruel doled out by do-gooder in the workhouse. This is another strength of Beadle’s analysis – his reclamation of the idea that working class culture is real and vibrant and powerful. It’s not second class, a pale substitute for the real thing. It is the real thing. These children do not need to know about Mozart or Shakespeare or the latest Stoppard so that they can hold an intelligent conversation at a posh dinner in the West End with rich clients (I think that was the gist of a recent tweet on cultural capital from Ms Birbalsingh). They need to know about Mozart and Shakespeare and Stoppard because they are good and interesting and make life a little bit more worth living. Just like the other cultural products that they consume.

And this is where Beadle’s book turns from being interesting and thought provoking into being useful and inspiring. At the end, he addresses the notion of what schools could usefully do in terms of promoting culture. He affirms the positive value to individuals of experiencing all forms of truth and beauty, and puts forward the idea of a programme of cultural experience woven into the everyday life of schools. Culture, in this programme, is all forms of culture not just the upper class approved versions of high culture. Teaching high and low together in a dialectical comparison would produce a synergy of deeper understanding. Integral to his approach would be the explicit teaching of the provenance of cultural artefacts. Where are they from? Who are they produced by, how and why? How are they perceived?  All of these are powerful questions that illuminate and empower. So far from rejecting high culture as belonging to the rich and powerful and privileged, he reasserts its value and leaves the reader with a genuinely exciting idea of a curriculum entirely designed around culture. So, duh, of course it’s not Stormzy or Mozart, it’s Stormzy and Mozart, and much , much more.

No doubt the defenders of traditional approaches to culture will be up in arms at this pinko threat to standards, but that is the ultimate proof that Beadle is genuinely on to something here. Whether you agree with its thesis or not, this is a great book that deserves to be widely read, and you may enjoy being outraged. Give it a go – all you have to lose is your prejudices. You can buy it using the link below.

Towards Abbey Road – A Review

Martin Phillips’delightful memoir of growing up in a South London suburb in the Sixties. It’s not all Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll you know. There was The Beatles as well.

Martin Phillips’ memoir, published by Amazon earlier this year, has been the surprise hit of a packed schedule of Lock Down reading since March. It’s a delight. A gentle, reflective and funny account of his early years in the Sixties in the London Borough of Bromley, it charts a boy’s coming of age to a soundtrack of pop and rock classics of the era. By the time he leaves, guitar metaphorically strapped to his back, to begin adulthood and independence as a trainee teacher, the decade is on its last legs. There is a powerful sense at the end of the book that the times they are a’changing. His first day at college, in a delicious piece of serendipity, was the day The Beatles released Abbey Road. The innocence of The Sixties was over and we would never see anything of its kind again.

The music punctuates the book like a string of pearls. From Love Me Do in 1962 to the aforementioned Abbey Road in1969, the book covers many of the major releases in that extraordinary 8 year period of innovation and revolution, and delightfully, some of the minor ones (Blodwyn Pig anyone?). Phillips continually returns to The Beatles as the lode stone of the times, the golden thread that ties his early memories together, and the book creates a wonderful sense of what it must have been like to experience it at first hand, rather than, as most of us did, in retrospect when they had been afforded the status of cultural icons.

This, I think, is one of the major achievements of the book, one even more important in these dreadful days of officially sanctioned, improving, civilizing culture. OFSTED and the New Brutalists have a lot to answer for, with their laughable misreading of Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas on Cultural Capital. In their hands, Culture becomes a means of civilizing the savages on the estates and rescuing them for the poverty of their familial and community horizons. It’s a way of saying, over and over again to working class children, you are really not good enough. In Phillips’ memoir, the music of the time was throwaway, low brow, and frowned upon by the great and the good. And, as a result, it was essentially thrilling and deviant and belonged to the people who consumed it avidly as a marker of something new and liberating. We didn’t know it at the time, but in living our ordinary lives, the stuff we liked would become immensely significant culturally and historically in the development of ideas and the challenging of conventions. We don’t seem to know it now, either, but the things that the High Priests of Cultural Absolutism now scorn will be venerated by future generations.

So we have fabulous tales of seeing Fleetwood Mac at The Eden Park Hotel, Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix at various pubs in South east London, as Phillips dabbles with acoustic and electric guitars in a series of not-quite-making it bands. An early forerunner of the  Glastonbury festival, The Festival of the Blues at Bath Recreation Ground is attended, with an incredible line up of Fleetwood Mac, John Mayall, Ten Years After, Led Zeppelin The Nice (and that’s just the first few acts) compered by John Peel. There are the first tentative wide-eyed trips into continental Europe, the first faltering steps on the path of love and sex, all described with a freshness that conveys the vitality of those first experiences that live with us all for the rest of our lives.

A major pleasure of the book is his description of his life at school, from the end of Primary to the end of A levels, and the enduring friendships that were made with a series of sympathetically drawn characters who become partners in crime as Phillips negotiated his way through the tricky terrain of adolescence in the suburbs. He is splendidly dismissive of some of the teaching he received at his boys grammar school, which should serve as a welcome rebuttal of those who glorify the good old days and yearn for the days of standards and rigour. Hmm. The teacher who set exercises to do in silence while reading his novel at the front of the class, I suspect, was much more common than current educational mythology would have us believe. It was certainly not the model that Phillips used in his long career as an English teacher, Senior Advisor for Devon, Senior Coursework Moderator for the AQA and Educational Consultant.

Finally, for those of us of a certain age, there is the added pleasure of those other incidental cultural artefacts that make up the warp and weft of life lived. Watneys Red Barrel, The Moon Landings, The World Cup, The Beatles doing All You Need is Love live on the telly. Four channels, Crackerjack, Vesta Chow Mein, Derek Underwood at The Oval, playing out all day. Just the names alone will send  shiver down the spine of anyone who was there.

If you’re a teacher, if you like contemporary music, if you are of a certain age, if you like social history, if you enjoy a life well told, then this book is definitely worthy of your attention. Buy it, read it, and then tell your friends to do the same. They say that if you can remember the Sixties then you weren’t there. Martin Phillips remembers the Sixties and he most definitely was there. And because of his vivid retelling, so can we be when we read his marvellous book.

You can buy Towards Abbey Road from the link below

https://www.amazon.co.uk/s?k=towards+Abbey+Road&ref=nb_sb_noss_2

September

Anna had always looked forward to September. Even as a child, the prospect of the new school year, with its pristine uniform, books and equipment, promised the chance of a new start, when anything was possible. The same feeling still buoyed her now as a teacher, even though the new start always turned sour all too quickly, and she knew that disappointment was never too far away.

This year, it felt to her that the promise of a clean page was even more important than usual. As she busied herself with her new pens and stationery, and began to lay out her clothes for the first day back the next day, she struggled to hold down her rising feelings of anxiety. Although the return to class was daunting after six weeks away, it did at least mean that she would get out of the flat and away from Tom for a time. He needed some time and space and six weeks cooped up together in a small flat had pushed him towards the edge. She knew it was her fault and she needed to loosen up a little, but she was sure work would help.

Her anxiety was divided equally between Tom and Anthony Gordon. She had heard the horror stories in the staffroom about Anthony’s attitude and behaviour. Seemingly continually on the verge of furious, violent eruptions, he was particularly bad, apparently, with female members of staff. Ever since she had discovered that he was going to be in her Year 9 class, back in July, a seed of worry had lodged itself in her mind. By the time she arrived at the night before the first teaching day of the Autumn term, it had grown to the size of a Giant Redwood. She had managed the two evenings before the first INSET days, but now before the first real day with children and timetables and teaching lessons and duties, its branches twisted everywhere in her head and she could not get to sleep for worry. Tom hadn’t helped. As she tossed and turned in bed, she thought back to earlier in the evening, when Tom had lingered at the doorway of her study, fiddling with his watch. Anna did not look up from her desk.

“Anna, come on. We’ve got to be there in 15 minutes. I’ve been telling you for the past hour.”

She glanced up, distracted.

“What? Oh, sorry Tom. I don’t think I can come, I’ve got to finish all of this off, and I’ve still got hours to go.”

Tom’s face was thunderous.

“You are joking, I presume. I can’t just show up on my own. Just leave it, you need to get out anyway. It’ll be good for you.”

She shook her head. “No, I’m sorry Tom, I’m worried about tomorrow. You go on your own. You’ll have a better time without me.”

“It’s just a job, for God’s sake.  The kids you teach are all no-hopers anyway It doesn’t make any difference what you do. You’re wasting your time.”

She looked as if he had slapped her across the face.

“Tom, I..”

He cut across her. “Is it always going to be like this? Christ Anna, don’t be such a martyr and have some fun, while you still can.”

She tried again. “But..”

“Oh, forget it. Don’t wait up.”

He turned and slammed the door.

She could still feel the vibration echoing through the flat as she recalled the scene, lying in bed unable to sleep. She reached across for her phone. No messages. 2 am. Where was he?

*

Anthony, on the other side of town, could also not get to sleep. He was not used to sleeping in a proper bed with a duvet that covered him for one thing. And for another, he was excited about going back to school. It was the first time in his life he could remember having new uniform and equipment. Unable to bear it a moment longer, he swung his legs out from underneath the thick covers that were swamping him, and went over to his desk. His desk! Another novelty that made him constantly look over at it, as if to check that it was still there and someone had not discovered a mistake and had come to take it away. He handled his pencil case and calculator, and flicked through his new dictionary, trying out some of the new words for size.

His finger traced down the edge of the page as he sounded the words one at a time.

“ Stab – pierce, wound with pointed weapon. Hmm. Stability – firmly fixed or established. Not easily moved or changed or destroyed. Stamina – endurance, staying power. Status – social position, rank, relation to others.”

He stopped and looked around the room, picking out objects from the deep shadows that cloaked them. Bed. Wardrobe. Computer. Games. Posters on the wall. Maybe it would be different this time. Maybe his Dad had really changed and they could all stay together in this flat and everything would be alright. Maybe his Mum would be proud of him and school would ring home with good news for a change. Maybe…

*

Thirty yellow buds blossomed cream as 9C opened their exercise books to the first page.

“OK Year 9. Can you put today’s date and the title please, and underline both of those things neatly?”

“What’s the title, Miss?” came a shout from the middle of the room, closely followed by, “What date is it today, Miss?”

“Date and title are on the Whiteboard. I’m not expecting you to be mind readers, you know.”

A couple of the sharper kids raised their heads and smiled up at her, a few looked puzzled and looked around, while the silent majority ploughed on, oblivious to the joke that had just sailed over their heads. Anna surveyed the class, judging when to move on.

“Ok, everyone let’s just get the rules clear from day one. If you all know what’s expected, no-one will get into trouble, and your work will improve. Or that’s the intention, at any rate. So, rule number one..”

She clicked the powerpoint and began to talk through the first rule as it appeared on the screen. The class copied it down in silence. The clock ticked and Anna covered the room, her heels clicking on the hard lino floor. A cloud of concentration gathered above their heads. She already felt the first day of term nerves drain away, the minute she had started to project her voice to this first class. It was the same every year and she laughed at herself inwardly over the time she had wasted in the last few days, worrying about the starting the new year.

After twenty minutes the task was done and Anna could move on to her first real task.

“OK, everyone, pens down please and look this way. Now, I’ve never taught this class before so we don’t know each other. The first thing we are going to do is to think about how English and school in general has been for each of us since we started a couple of years ago, and what we would like to achieve this year and by the time we leave school for good..”

She was off. Instructions came easily and the lesson plan, the product of agonised hours, dissolved as instinct took over. A brief explanation and setting up, some questions fielded and a five minute group discussion with feedback to the whole class (that had caused a deep breath before launching in to it) had come and gone, expertly managed, and almost before she knew it, the writing task had been set up and the entire class were back working individually, writing their letters of introduction to her, their new teacher.

Ten minutes in, she stood back and surveyed the room. The concentration was almost painful. She had patrolled the room, reading over shoulders, fielding questions, making suggestions, correcting mistakes, and now she wallowed in the pleasure of watching the class visibly get cleverer in front of her eyes. Where was the performance management observer when you needed them? Or the OFSTED inspector?

“Miss?”

She looked in the direction of the question and just controlled her frown in time. Anthony Gordon had his hand up. He had been surprisingly perfect up to that point: immaculate uniform, immediately following instructions without question, responsible participation in the group discussion. It was almost as if he had been taking the piss. But now, the honeymoon was over. He’d done well, but it was too much to expect him to keep this up right to the end of the lesson. She flashed a smile at him as she moved over to his side of the room.

“Yes, Anthony?” she asked.

“Miss, can you read this to see if it’s alright?”

She hesitated, expecting this to be the first line of an elaborate setup, with her as the butt of the joke. Her eyes flicked around the room. No, there were no supressed sniggers, no furtive glances, nothing. The whole class had heads bent to their work, absorbed. She looked back to Anthony who was waiting patiently.

“Miss?”

“Sorry Anthony, just coming”

She navigated the tables and reached out to pick up his book. She scanned it quickly, already rehearsing the bland, standard reply of encouragement she would give before moving off, before she stopped, a frown creasing her face. She read it again. She looked again at Anthony, who shifted uncomfortably in his seat. His face fell.

“It’s crap, innit, Miss?” he mumbled, and reached out to grab the book back from her.

“Anthony, it’s great. This is the best piece of writing you’ve done. You’ve got the tone just right. And some of your expression is just beautiful.”

He looked a little confused. “Really, Miss, it’s alright? You sure?”

“Anthony, it’s more than alright, its excellent. Well done.”

A smile spread across his face and he seemed to blossom in front of her.

“How are you going to carry on?”

“I’m not sure, Miss. I’m a bit stuck.”

“Well, you need to go on to, give some examples of the things you’ve mentioned. Anecdotes. And maybe you could use a few rhetorical questions in the next section.”

She bent down over his table, placing the exercise book back in place and on a separate sheet of paper began to write.

“Something like this,” she said, as she wrote out a few sentences. “Have a go, see how you get on.”

She straightened up. He smiled at her.

“Thanks, Miss” he said before bending back down towards his book.

Anna threaded her way back through the grid of tables to the front of the class, and surveyed the group. Perfect, humming concentration pulsed in the room. It was all she could do not to laugh out loud. A girl at the front looked up at that moment.

“What’s up, Miss? What’s funny? You look very happy.”

“Nothing, Kirsty. Let’s get back to work please. Another five minutes”

She began to circulate around the tables, looking over shoulders at their writing, scanning the room for issues. She approached Anthony’s table and found herself just behind him when the quiet in the room was disturbed by his hissed exclamation.

“Oh, shit..”

All heads looked up and searched the room for the culprit and there was the beginnings of a group giggle rolling across the room.

“Anthony! There’s really no need for that kind of language.”

“Huh? Oh sorry Miss, it just came out. I’ve messed it all up.”

He lifted his book half up and grabbed the corner of the page with his right hand.

Anna reached out and grabbed the book away from him.

“No, no, no. Don’t tear the page out, Anthony, you’ll ruin all that work.”

“It’s already ruined, Miss. Look at it.”

She lowered her voice, and softened her tone.

“It’s not ruined, Anthony, you just made a mistake, that’s all.”

“I always make mistakes, though Miss.”

She laughed. “So does everyone. Mistakes are nothing to be worried about Anthony. Just cross it out with a single line and correct it. Then you can carry on and add to what you’ve already done.”

“But it’ll look crap, Miss. I don’t want crossings out all over it. I always muck it up.”

“I’ll tell you a secret Anthony. Examiners love crossing out. It’s a sign of an intelligent student. Someone who knows they’ve got something wrong and who has tried to do something about it. If you ripped out the page every time you made a mistake, you would never, ever finish.”

He looked puzzled as he tried to process this information. Anna gently laid the book back down on his table. Keeping one hand on it so he couldn’t snatch it again, she pointed at the mistake.

“Look, it’s easy. You just draw a single line through what you got wrong, like this..” She modelled the crossing out, her red pen neatly scoring through a misspelling. “Don’t scribble it, that will look messy. Just a single line and then put your correction next to it. See.”

Anthony’s face moved from puzzled through disgruntled and ended in reluctant acceptance. He bent his head back down to his work and the final minutes of the lesson passed in silent concentration.

*

“Yeah, it was amazing, he just kept on writing. I was, like, expecting him to kick off all lesson, but there wasn’t a flicker. It was like teaching a different kid, honestly…”

She paused and glanced over at Tom, who was intently scrolling on his phone.

“Are you even listening to me Tom? Jesus, you’re so rude. You don’t take any interest in my work. You could at least pretend.”

There was a delay as he finished and then he looked up.

“I was listening for the first fifteen minutes. And then I wasn’t.”

“You really don’t care, do you?”

“For god’s sake, it’s just a job. Do you even know what I do? When do you have to listen to me going on about my job. You’re so fucking boring these days. You didn’t used to be like this.”

“But..”

He stood up abruptly.

“Never mind. I’m going out for some peace.”

“Tom, ..”

He lunged at her and grabbed her throat, pinning her to the high-backed chair.

“Shut up!” he screamed, “Just shut the fuck up.”

He pushed her back against the chair and stormed out, slamming the door violently behind him. Anna slumped back on her chair, her hand to her neck, stunned. And then the tears came.

*

 Anthony crouched at his desk, rigid, his pen gripped tightly above his exercise book. Another shout, another crash of something heavy against the wall, another strangled whimper from his mother. He flinched at each sound, slumping lower towards the desk top beaten down by every noise. He remained frozen, breath caught in fear, waiting for the noise he knew was coming next. The sound  that always signalled respite, a brief passage of calm before the next time. The door duly slammed, after a final volley of abuse, and as the vibration settled slowly into stillness, his shoulders came down and a weary peace descended on the room.

He sat frozen, not daring to go out of his room for fear of what he might find. His ears strained for some sign to cut through the noise of distant traffic and an intermittent gusting wind. And then he heard his mother moving around and the sound of cupboards opening and closing. She was alright and he could stay where he was, safe and quiet.

He looked down at his book, at the sentence he had stared at for the previous fifteen minutes while mayhem had swirled around in the room outside.

“In the future, I’d like to work as a professional gamer, and have a nice house and family, where my mum and dad can come and visit.”

He thought for a second and was just about to add a last sentence when the door burst open and his mother stared him, wild-eyed. The bruise around her eye and cheek bone was ripening as she spoke

“Anthony. Come on. Pack up what you need. We’ve got to leave.”

She tossed a battered blue IKEA bag onto the floor in front of him.

“Where?”

“Back to the Refuge. Come on, we need to be quick.”

She went back out to collect her stuff. Anthony automatically began to bundle his clothes and a few books into the bag. He had done it several times before and it barely registered with him, thinking he would probably have to do it again some time in the future. He took a final look around his room, grabbed his exercise book from the desk, stuffed it into the bag, and turned out the light.

*

 Anna sat in the darkness of her flat, scrolling through the messages on her phone. The dim blue glare sparkled in the tear tracks on her cheeks and softened the red rims and smudged mascara. He wasn’t coming back, that much was clear. He wasn’t picking up and had left no indication where he might be staying. Another woman, obviously, she thought bitterly. Someone who had the dinner on the table and didn’t have the audacity to talk about her own life and feelings and worries.

When she had got back from school that Monday she knew as soon as she walked through the door that he had gone. The gaps on their shelves confirmed it. He had come back when she had been at work, gathered up his stuff and removed it all, so no trace was left, without even telling her.

She slumped down at the kitchen table, and swung her school bag, stuffed with marking, with a heave on top of the table in front of her. It thudded down and spilled the first few books, spreading like a hand of cards. She looked fondly at them, so new, so clean, so full of hope. She had been convinced that this September everything was going to be different. A new start, a new her. She would manage everything and be the woman that she knew she could be. Having it all. Juggling competing demands. In control. But it only takes one ball to veer slightly off course and a chain reaction starts, that no matter how frantically you tried to keep it going, inevitably ends with everything crashing.

She wiped her eyes and blew her nose, collecting her resolve to keep on going. Reaching out to the books that had fanned out in front of her, she chose the one that was a little grubbier than the rest. Dog-eared and stained, the name on the front provoked a ghost of a smile. Anthony Gordon. At least he had made a fresh start, if only until the end of the first week. He hadn’t been seen since then and rumours had flown around the staffroom about the police and social services being involved. But now his book had magically appeared in her pile.

She switched on the side lamp, and opened the book, illuminated in a warm, yellow cone of light. As she read, flicking through the pages, her smile froze and then disappeared altogether. He had written three pages, the most he had ever achieved. There were careful crossings out and corrections made but the pages had all been crossed out, each line like an angry slash, almost penetrating the surface of the paper. The last page hung where it had been partially ripped out. Anthony had scrawled a new title, “My Future”, complete with a parody of underlining, free hand, red and jagged. Underneath, in capital letters, he had scratched simply, “I AINT GOT ONE”.

A cold wind moaned outside her kitchen window. She shivered. September was already halfway through and soon October would be here. Winter was coming.

A Journal of the Plague Year, November 2020

Incompetence, Ideology and Entitlement: The Return of the Shit Show

It is with no pleasure that I return to this chronicle of our nation’s darkest days, but needs must. The needs are distinct but all are pressing. A need for personal therapy. In the absence once more of social intercourse, the need to articulate the current situation and its impact, performs a vital function in terms of one’s own understanding of the crisis, not to mention mental health. A need to play my part in the popular revolt against Mr Johnson in particular and The Conservative Party in general. It is coming, sensation seekers, be patient. There will be a reckoning, along with a wailing and a gnashing of teeth. And, finally, a need simply to record for posterity the twists and turns in this long strange trip.

Reasons to be Cheerful

  1. Although, of course, I’m gripped by fear and loathing, the portents look good for Tuesday’s American election. Unless the polls have completely messed it up (and our experience of Brexit and the last US election give pause for thought), it seems likely that the nightmare of Trumpery is coming to an end. This is tempered by an expectation of street violence by very well-armed and emboldened far right militias in the US. Trump really does need to stand trial for his crimes.
  2. People are at last beginning to see through Mr Johnson’s bluster to conclude that, yes, The Emperor is very much not wearing clothes. And it’s not a pretty sight, gentle readers
  3. News that a dossier of evidence about Slytherin Dominic Cummings has been passed to the CPS has warmed the cockles of my heart. The documents support allegations that Cummings perverted the course of justice in his away day to Durham and his subsequent No 10 Garden “explanation”. This (wait for it) carries a prison sentence if proven.
  4. It’s all gone quiet on Brexit. It could yet end in no deal, but more likely is that a fig leaf “understanding” will be announced that can be presented as a great triumph by The Liar Extraordinaire. Even if that happens, le merde will hit le fan. Delays, shortages, lorry queues, rationing, emergency medical shortages. I know it’s harsh that that can be presented as a reason to be cheerful, but I am increasingly of the view that people need to feel the pain to fully understand what they voted for. Already the Lie Machine is in full vigour blaming the nasty foreigners for all of this. My hope is that Johnson’s tattered credibility will make this harder to stick than previously.

That’s enough of whistling in the dark to keep our spirits up. Now for grim reality. And so to Lock down, Act 2. Has anything ever been so predictable as this? The sight of Tories and Johnson himself, making themselves look stupid by condemning Labour’s call for a national lockdown has been priceless. Even two days before their ignominious u turn, they were criticising this as extreme. It is presented to us as Johnson making “difficult” political choices between health and the economy, and being such a libertarian (what a great guy) that he delayed until the bitter end  before bowing to the inevitable. What arrant nonsense. As a result of this dithering he has successfully synthesised those polar opposites, health and economy, because the multiplier effect of delay has ensured that the economy will be locked down for significantly longer now than would have been the case. All the while we have had to endure the prospect of their entire Covid policy being calibrated by a calculation so self-serving, so empty, so crass and yet so predictable. It is this: Johnson’s brain has been whirring with the following equation. What do I have to do to be able to ease restrictive measures, so that some species of family Christmas can be preserved? Yes, dear reader, Johnson is motivated not by protecting citizens but by the prospect of headlines about Boris Saves Christmas. Even if Boxing Day were to be followed by the Dickensian spectacle of bodies piled in car parks, such is Johnson’s short-termism that he would have jumped at that as an opportunity. And then he would have blamed Michel Barnier.

To be honest, the first Lock Down was relatively painless for some people, including me. Retired with a juicy pension, in a nice house with a big garden, it has been perfectly manageable. Misanthropes like myself have enjoyed the excuse it provided for not seeing people. The return to eating out in Restaurants during the summer was also welcome, if misguided now in hindsight. Sport’s return, at least on the telly, was also welcome even if  that, in saying that, I’m well aware that I’m part of the bread and circus’ response of Nero Johnson. The lack of cinema, theatre and gigs has been harder to bear. But the second wave, in the dead of winter, will be very much harder, not least psychologically. And I think, its doomed to failure because of some catastrophic policy errors, that stem from an obsession with presentation rather than substance.

It is a huge mistake to leave Schools and Universities open. The case for closing Universities is unanswerable and the data on children, infection and schools is not yet all in. I am fairly certain, based on nothing more than intelligent observation, research evidence devotees, that schools will be found to have played a major role in the resurgence of the virus. But the libertarian hawks, buoyed by the case to be made on the grounds of “suffer the little children”, are nauseatingly hypocritical when they insist that children need schools to be open.

There are two reasons for school closures to be more problematic than other sectors of society. First, closure presents major threats to children who are at risk in abusive families. Secondly, deteriorating mental health amongst children and teenagers who are removed from society and networks by the lockdown, is a genuine worry. But, to be blunt, mental health and abuse are neither of them contagious and there are other ways of mitigating those risks short of a return to full time attendance.

But, of course, the opponents of this policy are all there, drip-dripping their bile and vitriol. So we have Kelvin Mckenzie tweeting that teachers are lazy, and didn’t do a stroke of work during the first lock down. He is backed up by other such intellectual power houses like Julia Hartley Brewer, Sarah Vine, Isabel Oakshott. The brain dead of Fleet street are joined by the ideologically fervent of Westminster, with their commitment to grand abstract nouns such as Liberty and Sovereignty. You know those Titans of the Commons, Iain Duncan Smith, Steve Baker, Desmond Swayne. Mark Francois would be fighting them on the beaches as well, but of course, he has his own little local difficulty to deal with at the moment. These Freedom Fighters, who so often invoke the Second World War as England’s finest hour, would have been useless during that actual conflict. Imagine them dealing with a polite request from the ARP to put that light out: “How dare you infringe my inalienable rights as a freeborn Englishman. I reserve the right to keep my lights blazing and to hell with Jerry. Those Europeans are all just frit.” As someone pointed out a few days ago, it is delicious watching Boris get shafted on his own side by the Libertarian Loony right. A richly deserved taste of his own medicine, and one hopes deeply instructive to be lectured by people who have the resources to protect themselves against Covid while making a quick killing financially.

“Put that light out!” “How dare you infringe my liberty as a free born Englishman!”

But why have they, Johnson  in particular, been so unremittingly hopeless in dealing with this public health crisis? It’s because it goes to the heart of the lies and contradictions that being a Tory in the modern world now consists of. Every instinct in their body, every ideological sinew of belief screams in agony when the only solution that will work is one which requires them to spend billions of pounds of money to give to people for doing nothing. So they kick and scream and drag their heels. They don’t mind pending billions of pounds of public money that go to their mates or the wives of their mates. That’s business as usual and money well spent as far as they are concerned. This is where the sense of entitlement comes in. They are the ruling class. It’s something they have taken in with their mother’s milk. They deserve it. Scrutiny from the oiks in Parliament is an affront that normally can be tolerated but when their backs are against the wall and it actually means something they are furious that their decisions are being questioned.

All of their public health decisions have been made with an eye to the economic cost. Every single one. So they think that’s they can preside over a policy of repeated lock down and easing to buy enough time muddling along until a vaccine comes along. And people will die, but they are not the really important people, so we can put up with it and they can try to gloss it over and get away with it in time for some more giveaways before the next election. Easing the economy in July was essential to allow people to start to make money, so they could ease back on public spending. A terribly sort sighted, ideologically hide bound mistake that will lead to thousands more deaths and just as much if not more on the eventual public spending bill.

They really do need to take off the blinkers and think a little bit more about economics. Globalism and Thatcherism have comprehensively failed. Public spending needs to increase massively on the decent infrastructure that Germany has maintained. They are hardly a hotbed of Marxism, after all. A touch of Modern Monetary Theory is what is needed. The level of deficit is nowhere near as important as classical economics has taught us. Balancing the books is irrelevant. The last six times we have had a balanced budget in the last three hundred years, it has been followed by an incredibly deep recession. For countries that issue currency, deficits are good for the health of the economy, as long as you keep a weather eye on inflation. In the face of this new thinking, traditional Tory economic advocates are like flat earthers.

So what should be done?

  • Lock the economy down just as in March.
  • Impose a rent and mortgage freeze
  • Maintain furlough and extend to the self employed

This puts the economy in a deep freeze, still alive, ready to revive next year.

  • Close schools and universities. Refund part of fees paid. Have rota systems for schools so that children get regular contact with others outside of their household
  • Cancel exams and do ongoing assessment

This will give us a chance of getting to the end of Spring next year with a workable vaccine and everything in place to bounce back strongly.

Next time: My five point plan to rid the world of disease, prevent war, and train everyone to be nice to each other. Or was that my five pint plan?

Podcasts and Youtube videos

Lockdown is the mother of invention, or so it seems. In the long, idle hours generated by Covid and Retirement, there has been ample opportunity to hone a new set of skills. The main insight I have gained after being out of the English classroom for the first time since 1982, is that the thing that I miss the most, the essence of English teaching is reading a great book or a poem aloud to a classroom full of kids. And so, I present the results, via my two new ventures, The View from the Great North Wood Youtube channel, and the Telling Stories Podcast. Indulge me, and think of this as therapy for someone still grieving.

Both ventures are straight out of the “Sniffin’ Glue” school of publishing, that is, rough and ready, with an unmistakeable aroma of punk. In those days, we were all just encouraged to get it down while it was hot. To pick up a guitar and learn two chords (who needed more? Patti Smith famously used just one, brilliantly) and start to thrash. To type, cut and paste (with scissors!) and xerox it.

So with that in mind, dive in. But be kind. And, don’t hold back from subscribing and spreading the word.

Telling Stories podcasts, featuring readings of short stories, poems, and ramblings on politics, education and culture

The Watcher and The Friend, Chapter 1 Telling Stories

This is the first chapter of a new novel for children by R J Barron, The Watcher and The Friend, published by Burton Mayers Books on June 11th 2021
  1. The Watcher and The Friend, Chapter 1
  2. Asking the Questions
  3. Episode 6 Don't Smile before Christmas, part 2
  4. Episode 5 Don't Smile Before Christmas, part 1
  5. The Chains He Forged – a Ghost story for Christmas
On Spotify, if you prefer…
The View from the Great North Wood Youtube Video channel
Books of the Year. Surreal doesnt cover it.
Casting Spells. The joys of reading aloud to a class
Enjoy the short story to a relaxing backdrop of snowy , silent woodland

Where The Crawdads Sing

This summer’s literary sensation is just a Netfix mini-series in waiting.

Shock as Human Being is underwhelmed by book

Twitter has been agog all year, or so it seems, about this book from first time novelist, Delia Owens. It firmly established itself as the book to read this year, and in normal summers, it would have furnished many a beach bag as the go-to holiday read. I was intrigued. Could it really be that good? Or was it just the latest example of marketing triumphing over substance? There was only one way to settle it and, firmly behind the curve, I bought it and settled down with a raised eyebrow, waiting to be convinced.

Unfortunately, dear reader, I was not. Convinced that is.

There is a lot to admire and enjoy about it. I finished it in three days, for a start. So, yes, it’s a page turner, and in my book, that is a powerful attraction. It’s an often under-appreciated skill to load a narrative with so much forward momentum that it’s easy to read seventy pages without really noticing it. Normally, even with books that I end up loving, I can be persuaded to break for a cup of coffee and a biscuit after twenty pages or so. It’s hard work reading and one needs to keep one’s strength up. But here the scenario, setting and characters are so well set up, structurally, that I found myself engrossed in wanting to know what actually happened.

Probably the most admirable thing about it is the fact that the author is a Seventy year old Biologist, whose only other foray into publishing has been Biology text books. A first novel becoming an international best seller is something that the rest of us mere mortals can only dream about. As an aspiring novelist of a certain age, depressingly familiar with the Publisher’s/Agent’s rejection email, this is a phenomenal achievement. So, notwithstanding the criticisms about to follow, I take my hat off to her.

Delia Owens

Her intimate knowledge of Biology furnishes the book with its greatest strength. It’s a beautiful portrait of a wild eco system. There is a fabulous sense of place in the book. The coastal strip of North Carolina marsh land is vividly evoked by someone who clearly knows what they are talking about. This is, refreshingly, not the product of painstaking research, but the result of a lifetime of work and study. She knows her stuff and that sense of authority is absolutely convincing and compelling.

The Whodunnit, Crime element of the book is also very well done, (at least until the end) and she handles the switching back and forth from the past to the present very skilfully, creating tension and adding layers of detail to characters and relationships. There is some sense of satisfaction from the court room scene at the end, with the orderly presentation of prosecution and defence questions and their answers providing some welcome kind of resolution and clarification. The court room scene, of course, has haunting echoes of “To Kill A Mockingbird”, even down to the presence of the marginalised black families in the courtroom. I expected Scout and Jem to pop up at any moment. Kya Clark, the main protagonist, though white, is the victim of prejudice and suspicion by the mainstream community, and her main support and friends throughout her isolation were the elderly black couple, Jumpin’ and his wife Mabel. This Maycomb County type atmosphere resonates throughout the novel. For the most part, it’s another of the pleasures of the book, but like so many things, it’s not an unqualified triumph. There is a straining for this effect, a trying too hard. There are only so many times you can describe the eating and making of Grits, for example, before it becomes faintly ludicrous.

The court room scene, despite its satisfactions, is an opportunity missed. Too plain, too straightforward, with nothing on the same scale as Atticus’ forensic reveal of Tom Robinson’s left-handedness. I got the strong sense, that, like many first-time novelists, by the end Owens had run out of steam, and was just going through the motions. The “twist” right at the end is the least dramatic denouement in the history of murder mysteries. Not because of what is revealed, but the way in which Owens chooses to do it. It’s baldly described, with no character interplay, and the result is deflation. For me, a big “So what?” I’m afraid.

A few other gripes from the grinch. The notion of the main character, Kya, pulling herself out of her poverty stricken, school-refusing, backwoods abandonment, to become a highly literate published writer just wasn’t credible to me. I was willing to suspend my disbelief a little, to give myself to the novel, but I couldn’t sustain it I’m afraid. The two emblematic boys in Kya’s life, Nice Boy and Bad Boy, were similarly two dimensional and also had me running my disbelief down from the flagpole in annoyance.

And then there’s the poetry. Give me strength. It’s not that the poetry is so dreadful, it’s just that there’s far too much of it, and, again, it strains credibility that anyone one in the known universe would recite poems in response to things that happen to them as they mosey their way through the Mangrove to the beach.

As I was reading it, even in my enjoyment, I could imagine Reece Witherspoon rubbing her hands together with glee, cackling, “I wonder if we could get Gwyneth in this and maybe Bobbie May Brown to play Kya.” It’s absolutely set up to be the next “Big Little Lies” or “Little Fires Burning”. And it will probably be a much better Netflix mini-series than book.

So, there you have it. For all of you that read it, devoured it, enjoyed it and eulogised about it on Twitter, I’m sorry. Please don’t take this the wrong way. I’m not saying that you’re wrong or stupid. It just didn’t speak to me. That’s my Bad. There’s precious little enough pleasure in these COVID Neo Fascist times, so I’m glad you found some in this and wish that I had too. Now, let me just get back down to writing an international best seller. How hard can it be?