Back to the Future, Part Two: We're on the brink….

Johnson: Are you sure this will work?

Cummings: It’s the Will of The People…

At the time of writing, it all looks pretty bleak for Labour Party supporters. The last poll put the Tories 19 points ahead.(update at the bottom of this article) Yes, it was similar midway through the 2017 election. Yes, this is an election with, more than ever before, constituency-specific conditions that buck the trend of national polls. Yes, the campaign allows Corbyn more direct access to people to be able to counter the most egregious media bias. Taking all of that into account, it still feels like a mountain to climb, and the ambition of being the largest party in a hung parliament, realistic a few weeks ago, seems unattainable now. The first sign of a closing of the gap in the polls has brought out the big guns of the anti-semitism tactic, a hugely successful plan to discredit the most overtly anti-racist political party in the history of the known universe. You can’t argue against it, if you’re not Jewish, without running the risk of being accused of, at best being in denial about the problem and at worst, being a racist. Even Jewish labour party supporters who have the temerity to contest the MSM version of events are demonised as traitors or not being real Jews. Please, give the tens of thousands of Jewish voices who are pro-Corbyn some air time. Please, when you write these articles, give us some evidence. Please Jeremy, argue your case. Look at some of these links for more: Michael Rosen’s blog: Jewish Voice for Labour:

It could still be the case that real people voting on December 12th will show the polls to have been wrong, but I have to be honest, I’m not expecting that and I’m beginning to feel more than a little depressed. Because what is at stake in this election makes it, by a country mile, the most important in my lifetime. Despite the best efforts of the mainstream media to normalise the Conservative Party led by Boris Johnson, to place them in a One Nation Tory tradition, they are really the Brexit party in all but name.

The Selfish, the Sentimental and the Stupid

Consider what has happened in the last year.

Moderate and mainstream Tories have left in their droves. Either they have something resembling principles, and they cannot in conscience be part of a party that is going to inflict such damage on the country. Or they cannot justify, with weasel words, (See James Cleverly, Matt Hancock, Nicky Morgan, Michael Gove) the blatant, repeated and outright bare faced lying and law breaking that is the modus operandi of the current leadership. Whether they have left, or have been ousted by the withdrawal of the whip, or the actions of rabidly right wing constituency parties, they are no longer there, a moderating influence on future policy direction. Look at the names of those who have gone: Rory Stewart, Ken Clarke, Amber Rudd, Dominic Grieve, David Gauke, Nick Boles, Justine Greening, Anna Soubry, Heidi Allen. His own brother, Jo Johnson, has stepped down as a candidate. We have no way of knowing, at the time of writing, how many of his children are standing against him for other political parties. The party is now an unembarrassed coalition of the selfish, the sentimental and the stupid, a mirror image of the voters they now attract.

You just have to look at the current cabinet for a flavour of what a Johnson Government would do.

Priti Patel as Home Secretary: Believes in the Death Penalty. Thinks poverty is the fault of local authorities. Broke Civil Service regulations last year as Secretary of State for Overseas Development by holding secret meetings without the required Civil service officials, with members of the Israel government over illegal settlements on the West Bank. Thinks British workers are “the worst idlers in the world” Has advocated reducing dramatically the welfare state in the UK and imposing working conditions of countries like Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea

Sajid Javid as Chancellor. His main role appears to be as a token person of colour in the cabinet. Has suffered outright and open racism from other Tory members in the way he has been treated and in the torrent of social media abuse he has experienced from many constituencies, members and officials. Played a leading role, before becoming an MP, in Deutsche bank, enriching himself on the back of his trading of collaterised debt obligations (no, me neither), the financial instrument that played a central part in the collapse of the global banking system.

Liz Truss as President of the Board of Trade. Someone with the largest recorded gap between their ability and their own estimation of their ability, coming just ahead of Andrea Loathsome, the person who wants to get rid of all workers’ rights legislation from Europe.

Dominic Raab, co-author with Priti of the book “Britain unchained”, a rag bag collection of lunatic fringe right wing stuff, both on economics and social policy. This is the stuff that passes for the intellectual wing of the party. The compensation prize in this election, if the Tories win, is the prospect of Raab, IDS, and even Johnson himself losing their seats. Most of them, Johnson in particular, wouldn’t be able to find the high street of their constituency without a minder holding their hand, because they don’t give a flying fig leaf for boring old constituency work. That sort of stuff is for social workers.

Matt Hancock, minister for Health, who will say and do absolutely anything he has to, to cling on to power and his ministerial limo.

And that’s before we get onto Jacob Rees-Mogg, Minister for the eighteenth century and Michael Gove whose policy crimes and misdemeanours, and his absolute equanimity about lies and law breaking almost rival Johnson himself. (What a dream team that would have made back in 2016 – The Mendacious Brothers).

So what policies could we reasonably expect to be enacted if the Tories have a working majority, given that the new crop of MPs are likely not to have a single scruple or moral instinct between them? Well, for starters:

  • Savage anti-immigrant legislation
  • Selling off  much of the NHS to USA and a quantum leap towards Health insurance
  • Abolition of all meaningful workers’ rights laws – expect restrictions of sick pay entitlement and the right to paid holidays.
  • Abortion outlawed
  • Increase in State pension age to 75
  • Slashing of public spending on services and infrastructure
  • Increase in unemployment that not even the expansion of the unregulated gig economy can mask.

Most worryingly, once Johnson gets a majority, I don’t think that it’s far fetched to suggest that they will do everything in their power to stack the elections odds against Labour ever getting re-elected. The Boundary commission redrawing of constituencies will go ahead this time, with all that implies for Labour. They will bring in the blatantly partisan requirement for photo ID before citizens are allowed to vote. This will effectively disenfranchise tens of thousands of Labour voters. Johnson has shown his utter contempt for previously accepted norms of public discourse and for the rule of law and the conventions of parliamentary democracy, and will have no hesitation in dismantling anything that is a hindrance to his pursuit of power and his retention of power once he has his hands on it. The most recent heavy-handed threats against Channel four for not just rolling over are a sign of how none of the freedoms we have taken for granted for so long can now be guaranteed.

Lies, damned lies, and the media

Johnson: Won’t anyone notice?

Pa Johnson: Don’t worry -The great unwashed can’t even spell Pinochio

Cummings: Brilliant!

And it is this that is at the heart of this election, the reason it is of such importance. It is conceivable that reasonable, civilized people can vote Conservative because they believe in a smaller state and trickle-down economics. I don’t agree with them and I think that they are wilfully ignoring all the available evidence, but democracy dictates that we must suck it up when The People make the wrong choices.

But absolutely nobody can vote for this particular brand of the Tory party, who has any regard for the truth, for the law and for freedom.

It is possible that some of the apologists can convince themselves that the ends justify the means, that they know they are right so that it is acceptable, ultimately, to bend the truth and the law, to get a Tory Government. That is chilling enough. Even more sinister is the idea that they know they are wrong, but they want power above all else and are prepared to do anything to get it and then hang on to it.

I don’t want to be hysterical about this. I may be being overly susceptible because I watched the BBC4 series, “The Rise of the Nazi Party” a few weeks ago, and I’ve just finished reading the Booker prize winner, “The Testaments”, Margaret Atwood’s follow up to the dystopian nightmare view of the future, “The Handmaids Tale”. But the checks and balances of a mature liberal democracy that we have all taken for granted as guaranteed for ever are under attack, and suddenly it is possible to see how, step by step, populist authoritarianism slides in through the backdoor and slips into a seat on the back row. Before you know it, it’s taken the stage and the audience are all clapping furiously.

We’re half way there. Already Johnson has:

  • Suppressed the report into Russian interference and donations to the Tories
  • Unlawfully prorogued Parliament
  • Misled the Queen
  • Doctored video of Starmer talking about Brexit
  • Produced a fake “Fact checker” version of the Conservative Party website to mislead the public
  • Threatened a national broadcaster
  • Leant on the BBC, with the license fee an unspoken arm twisted behind their backs.
  • Avoided all serious scrutiny by the media
  • Avoided investigation into fraudulently funnelling money to Jennifer Arcuri when London Mayor.
  • Lied about the reason for having the general election

Ten to twenty years ago, just one of these things would have sunk any political career. Now, apparently, the public say that Johnson’s a naughty boy and we don’t trust him, but we like him and we’re going to vote for him because he will get Brexit done, with his “Oven-Ready” deal.

It’s not the deal that’s Oven Ready. It’s us – the long -suffering Turkeys.

Fight back! Vote tactically, even if that means holding your nose and voting for the Lib Dems. Find out who are the nearest challengers to the Tories in your constituency and vote for them.

Ps: Stop press! Latest polling suggests a narrowing of the gap -It’s not over yet and this makes the tactical voting message above even more important.

Back to the Future. Part 1:1979, Margaret Thatcher, and the end of Civilization

In which The Owl breaks the Law, but feels Morally Justified

I am 62 years old. The general election called for December 12th is, by a long way, the most important of my lifetime. There have been other significant elections, elections that I thought were critically important. The first Blair victory in 1997 springs to mind. After the crushing disappointment of 1992, when John Major snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, partly because of the inability of Neill Kinnock to speak simple, clear English, it felt as if that election was our last hope. But even that pales into insignificance when compared to what is at stake now. The only thing that comes close is the election of 1979, and given the recent media obsession with a return to the seventies that both parties spending plans are supposed to represent (more of that later), it seems appropriate to take a little trip down memory lane and recount the events leading up to my flagrant breaking of electoral law over forty years ago.

Thatcher v Callaghan 1979

1979. It is very difficult to accurately paint a picture of the 1970s for people who did not experience that decade as adults. So much has been obscured, wilfully, by the rewriting of the history of that time, that one can almost forgive youngsters for thinking that the seventies was a time of unbridled union power, of reckless public spending, of rampant nationalisation sending the British economy into near terminal decline, rescued only by the intervention of the IMF and the Blessed Margaret. This is the established version of our history. And, having lived through it, one is left wondering how much more of our history is similarly falsified. Indeed, “History is written by the victors” as Winston Churchill famously didn’t say. The only thing that representations of the decade have got right is that it was, indeed, a very brown and orange period, in terms of clothing and home décor.

Up until 1979, there had existed what came to be known as “The Post-War Consensus”. That is, both the major parties accepted that a modern economy and society ran most effectively on a judicious mix of Private and Public sector endeavour. The mixed economy balanced freedoms, rights and responsibilities and a strong state sector was essential, not just for social justice and equity, but for economic efficiency as well. It was accepted by both sides that spending about 40-42% of GDP on the state was necessary to ensure a smooth running, fair society. One effect of this consensus was that a period of Government by one’s opponents wasn’t too disastrous. The Tories had a slightly meaner approach to public spending, but that was about the only difference.

But then came Thatcher and the monetarist experiment. In opposition, when The Labour Party began to be known as the natural party of government, or as more efficient managers of capitalism, the Tories began to think. The pragmatists dabbled with ideology with catastrophic long term results. The ideology they espoused was embraced with the fervour of converting catholics and they developed a toxic combination of ideological certainty, limited intellect, and the common touch, aided and abetted by a command of rhetoric. It was the first signs of populism and it ran riot through the Labour party’s complacency.

At the time of the election, I was living in York, extending my student years after graduation via a series of crummy jobs and even crummier accommodation, until I could settle on what to do with the rest of my life. I’m still working on that last one by the way, but at the time, it felt like I would come up with an answer in the following year or so. One crummy job finished (was it the Great York and Surroundings Bus Census, a job that involved me and my partner in crime keeping ourselves warm as the snow fell, abandoned at some remote village green, by setting fire to our leaflets in the litter bin? Or perhaps it was the job at York bus garage where I was tasked with cleaning the garage floor with some watery detergent and a very small brush? There is probably some hapless youth still cleaning the same floor, with the same tools today, with the same chances of success) and I took a trip to the job centre to find another Crummy Job.

I picked a card from the display boards and took it to the lady at the desk. She peered at the card and read aloud, “Ah, yes, a stock clerk at Raylor’s Plant Hire, Thomas street, York.” She smiled and looked over the top of her horn-rimmed glasses at me. Her smile scurried away, back under its customary stone. She stared appraisingly at me. “Hmm. Are you sure this is the job for you?” It was a question that in later years as an English teacher I would recognise as one that expected the answer “No”. After a further hesitation she made up her mind and I was duly despatched to their offices just outside the city walls, starting at 9am the next day.

After my previous jobs, the prospect of sitting at a desk in a warm office ten minutes away from my flat was appealing. I scrubbed up and wore a respectable jacket and tie to look the part of the keen white-collar worker. This was a job I needed to keep hold of. The first clue that that might be a little more difficult than I had anticipated came when I walked into the huge, open plan office on that first morning. The boss was a dapper little chap called Derek. For devotees of seventies sitcoms, think John Inman in “Are you being served?” Tight suit and waistcoat combo with fetching floral kipper tie, he was the epitome of camp, at a time when no-one really knew what camp was. His desk, a stately mahogany monstrosity with the surface area of an aircraft carrier, dominated the far end of the office. From this vantage point he could surveill the whole team and keep them under his baleful eye. The clue was in the middle of his desk and on the wall behind him. Two enormous full colour pictures: one of Her Majesty, Queen Liz, the other of The Blessed Margaret Thatcher. In the middle of his desk, two plastic union jacks hung as limply as the unwatered Swiss Cheese plant in the corner. My heart sank. My boss was mad Thatcherite. And a monarchist to boot. And this was ’79, the time of The Pistols and Punk. I was shown to my desk, virtually two planks of wood tucked away in the corner furthest away from the mighty Derek. I slunk back there and vowed to myself to keep my head down and my mouth shut.

It was a fine plan, or as fine a plan as twenty-two year old wasters’ plans tended to be. Predictably, it did not survive for long. At 9.15, when the full complement of Derek’s crack team had assembled, each person to their own desk, a strange ritual began that was repeated every morning of the general election campaign.

Derek tapped on a glass on his desk with a spoon, like the best man at a wedding.

“Good morning campers. All ready for another day of free enterprise and wealth creation? Before we begin, let’s just do our daily roll call, shall we?”

His voice was a strange combination of flat Yorkshire vowels and a working man’s club version of a female impersonator. He turned to the woman sitting at the desk on the far end of the front row. “Good morning Joyce. And have you been following the events in the general election campaign?”

“Yes, Derek, I have.”

“And will you be voting Conservative on Thursday May 3rd, Joyce.”

“Yes, Derek, I certainly will.”

“Good girl Joyce.”

Derek moved on to the occupant of the next desk. The same interrogation took place, word for word, with the same responses. There were about 12 -14 people in the office, and each one in turn played their part. Sitting at the back, I watched the whole bizarre spectacle unfold, my heart sinking ever further towards my boots as the focus shifted inexorably towards me. Finally, the moment of truth arrived. The occupants of the other desks turned in their seats towards me. Derek beamed in my direction. “Ah, of course, we have a new member of our happy team. Christopher, isn’t it?” (Please note: all names have been changed to protect the innocent. And the guilty.)

“Yes, that’s right,” I managed to mumble, relieved that he had started with an easy question.

“Well, Good morning Christopher. Have you been following the events of the general election campaign?”

“Yes. Yes, I have actually Derek.”

“And will you be voting Conservative on Thursday May 3rd?”

There was a pause. I swallowed and licked my lips nervously. The silence grew in the room. The fixed, casual smile on Derek’s face began to flicker.

“Well, actually, Derek,“ I began and paused again.

“Yes?” he enquired, disturbed at this unprecedented break with routine.

“Well, I’ll be voting for The Labour Party Derek, actually.”

Everyone froze. The smile fled from Derek’s face and his brow furrowed. His eyes ranged around the massed ranks of his acolytes, as if to spread his disbelief amongst them. Satisfied, he stopped, raised an eyebrow and proclaimed, “We’ve got a bloody …. Socialist in the office. What the hell happened to my arrangement with the lass at the job centre to weed out the lefty students?” The word “socialist” was intoned in a voice dripping with contempt and a lip so curled that it was almost touching his nose.

I somehow survived the rest of that first day. I returned the next day to find my desk relocated to the corridor outside the office. Once a day I was called in for the ritual humiliation of Derek singing the praises of the forthcoming Thatcherite Free Market Utopia, followed by his withering condemnation of the failures and moral bankruptcy of Socialism. Dangerously, I challenged him and argued back. Part of the reason I survived was that Derek enjoyed the argument and he was unused to someone disagreeing with him. But mainly it was an exercise in power relationships. He enjoyed this daily affirmation of his own power and the rightness of his cause. It was like a Lion playing with a bruised and bloodied Wildebeest. And a really small and skinny wildebeest at that. And when the fun stopped, I was summarily banished to the corridor for the rest of the day.

Finally, Thursday May 3rd arrived. The polls had made gloomy reading for Labour supporters, and Derek’s steadily increasing sense certain victory made work ever more unbearable. That evening, my chums and I settled down in front of the telly in my tiny flat, with a few drinks prepared for the worst. I lived in two rooms of a huge Victorian three storey terrace just outside the city walls. Once grand, the house was then positively Dickensian in its squalor, and provided accommodation only marginally more comfortable than rough sleeping. The Landlord was a benevolent Christian from Hull who tolerated the casual and perpetual non-payment of the tiny rent that he charged and turned a blind eye to the recycling of the sole fifty pence piece through the gas meter to heat the fire. He would arrive at the house about once every two months, making pathetic, hand-wringing  attempts to get his tenants to pay at least some of their arrears and would depart some time later having lent most of his debtors a fiver each.

Various ex-university ne’er-do-wells and chancers had passed through this crumbling pile over the years and the net result was, by the time of election night, a stack of neatly arranged polling cards, about fifty in total, was placed just inside the front door. Their rightful owners were scattered to the four corners of the globe by this stage. I was registered to vote in North Yorkshire at that time, after a “Withnail and I” type spell living in a farmhouse near Easingwold. It was the biggest Tory majority in the country, a place where the working classes, horny-handed sons of toil and agricultural labourers, were transported to the polling station in one of the Lord Snooty’s tractors so that they could tug their forelock and vote Conservative because they knew their place.

I had resigned myself to not voting, partly because my vote would not dent the majority, partly because it was a round trip of about forty miles after work. Any remaining flicker of wanting to do the right thing and exercise my democratic rights, won at great cost by the struggle of my forebears, was totally extinguished by three pints of Sam Smiths and a bottle of cheap red. It was the beginning of a long career of armchair socialism.

And then, at about 9.30pm, there was a hammering on the front door. With much grumbling, I prised myself out of the cosy, warm sofa and went down see who it was. I swung open the door, expecting to find someone else come to join the post result wake, only to find three labour party workers, their faces furrowed and serious. They were all in identikit socialist worker outfits of Donkey Jackets, Rock against Racism badges, three-day stubble and John Lennon glasses.

Their leader did not waste time on any social niceties. “Alex is in trouble. You’ve got to come out and vote.”

Alex was Alex Lyon, the sitting MP for York at that time, a well-respected, popular and principled constituency MP in an area that was reliably Labour. If he was in trouble, the political tectonic plates were truly shifting.

“I can’t,” I stammered, “I’m not registered here. I haven’t got a polling card.”

The storm troopers of the revolution exchanged weary glances and shook their heads. Che Guevara leaned in through the doorway and picked up the pile of voting cards. He fanned out the cards in two hands and proffered them to me.

“Pick a card, any card,” he said. “As long as it’s got a man’s name on it.”

I hesitated. Breaking the law came hard to a well brought up lad from the North. My scruples crumbled, however, on the rocks of their scorn.

“Jesus wept,“ one said, “It’s not a hanging offence. Exercise your democratic rights, man. People have died for this, y’know.”

That did it. I marched to the polling station burning with democratic fervour. Wat Tyler, The Levellers, Oliver Cromwell, Emily Davidson, Keir Hardie – I was standing on the shoulders of giants. Songs would be sung in my honour, municipal closes of social housing would be named after me, I would feature in a film made by Ken Loach. Immortality was mine. The man who bravely defied the forces of reaction to cast his vote freely, without fear or favour. Well, there was quite a lot of fear, actually. I slunk into the polling station, collar turned up, mumbling at the teller, hyperventilating and sweating profusely and then scurried out, expecting to be wrestled to the ground by the police.

It made not a jot of difference, of course. The Blessed Margaret stormed to victory with a fairly modest majority of 44 seats. I slunk back into to work on Friday morning, hung over and depressed. I arrived to find that my desk had been moved from the corridor and now occupied pole position in the front row, right next to Derek’s desk. He greeted me that day with a sickeningly broad, beaming smile, and proceeded to lecture me on the onward march of history and progress under the benevolent wisdom of Mrs T. That day and every succeeding day for the rest of my tenure there. It was a horrible, horrible first day of the new Reich, one that left me squirming with disappointment and dread.

What my twenty-two year old self could not have realised back then, was that this was just the start. Over the following forty years, it was all going to get much, much worse.

Coming next week

Part 2: 2019 – The Forty Year Fact Check

John Keats versus Led Zeppelin – a score draw.

The approach of Bonfire Night always feels to me like the transition from autumn to winter. The dark, cold, wet nights after the clocks have gone back heralds a time to be endured rather than enjoyed. It also coincides with what was traditionally thought to be the toughest school half term. It’s a long haul to the Christmas holidays. It’s time to hunker down by the fireside with a wee dram and a ghost story. But before we say a final farewell to the glories of autumn, let’s just remind ourselves of a time that has inspired great writers down the centuries. First off, John Keats. Bit of an irritating cough, but a fine poet and social thinker.

 Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,

   Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;

Conspiring with him how to load and bless

   With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;

To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,

   And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;

      To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells

   With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,

And still more, later flowers for the bees,

Until they think warm days will never cease,

      For summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?

   Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find

Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,

   Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;

Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,

   Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook

      Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:

And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep

   Steady thy laden head across a brook;

   Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,

      Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?

   Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—

While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,

   And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;

Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn

   Among the river sallows, borne aloft

      Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;

And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;

   Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft

   The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;

      And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Now compare and contrast with the majestic Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. I’m convinced that if Johnny Keats had been strutting his stuff in 1969, he would have been wearing loon pants and a Led Zep T shirt. Now that is proper cultural capital, Ofsted. Go back to the drawing board, read Bourdieu properly, and raise your eyes above a narrow band of Great Works. There are contemporary Great Works all around you, if you are prepared to make a judgment that is not just parroting received opinion. Enjoy.

The View from the Great North Wood – The Secret Commonwealth

Cultural musings from The Old Grey Owl…

The Secret Commonwealth    


Philip Pullman

This is the long-awaited second installment of Pullman’s trilogy, The Book of Dust, a sequence that revisits the fantasy parallel England of His Dark Materials. Anyone interested in children’s literature or the fantasy genre as a whole, will have been counting down the weeks until this release, such is the power of Pullman’s fictional world, and the impact that the original trilogy had when first published in 1995. Those original fans will soon be joined by a whole new group generated by the BBC adaptation of His Dark Materials which is set to air on Sunday November 3rd. The trailer certainly suggests that it will be a much more successful rendition than the ill-fated dog’s dinner that was the 2007 blockbuster starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. Not that that would be too difficult mind you.

So Pullman is hot stuff at the moment. But what about the book? Let’s just get a few things out of the way first. Pullman is A Great Writer. His Sally Lockhart novels are glorious confections of London Victorian adventure mysteries, with pea-soupers and coal stained brick warehouses on the banks of the filthy Thames. Those alone would guarantee his reputation. But it’s the first trilogy, His Dark Materials, that moves him into the ranks of the genuinely great. Engrossing, believable, moving, challenging, Pullman creates a parallel world that is both restrained and oddly familiar. He asks big questions about belief, orthodoxy, law and punishment and democracy. But perhaps his greatest achievement is the creation of his central protagonist, Lyra Belacqua, and his invention of the notion of the Daemon, an animal- like creature that everyone in this world has as a lifelong companion, a representation of the soul, the quintessence of the individual. Lyra is one the most memorable characters in children’s fiction. In all fiction. Appearing first as an eleven year old girl in a version of Oxford University, she is resilient, loyal, brave, intelligent, and without any trace of snobbery or prejudice about race, class or gender. And she is one half of one of the greatest love stories ever told.

Dafne Keen as Lyra Belacqua in His Dark Materials

The first instalment of The Book Of Dust, La Belle Sauvage, featured Lyra as an infant, rescued from the baddies by Malcolm Polstead, an eleven year old boy. The second book moves us on twenty years. Lyra is now an undergraduate at Jordan College. Malcolm, is a University Lecturer. They both become caught up in the struggle between the CDD, the repressive state police, responsible for rigorously enforcing religious orthodoxy, and the liberal resistance. The struggle centres around the control of the source of a mysteriously powerful species of rose oil that is grown in the Levant (the equivalent of Syria/Turkey) Pullman uses this to reflect upon contemporary struggles between the West and the Islamic world, on the issues of religious wars, refugees, terrorism, populism. It dies s through the vehicle of a journey eastwards from Oxford, to the Middle East. The journey has all the elements of the classic adventure story: the main protagonists are split up and are all on separate quests to find themselves and to find solutions to their separate problems. Their journeys allow Pullman to paint a vivid picture of exotic lands, full of bazaars, train stations, cafes and markets, serially escaping dangerous situations, only to fall into more dangerous situations. It’s exciting and mostly well told. Pullman can still knock out a page turner. Mostly.

But. This is not a children’s book. It’s complex, dealing with real world issues of politics and prejudice. It is quite adult at times, in its language and depiction of relationships. It’s very sophisticated in the way it handles the growing awareness of sexuality of Lyra, following on from The Amber Spyglass. The depiction of a near gang rape is genuinely disturbing. Pullman himself would I think be quite pleased with that verdict. He has been very reluctant himself to categorise his novels as being for children. And there is a strength in that, because it allows him to break free of the constraints imposed by genre. The worst crime Pullman commits, however, is that, at times it’s a little ….dull. The political wranglings of the Pullman equivalent of The Vatican are arcane and convoluted, and I’d be surprised if they held the attention of many children. Certainly not the ones I know nor the ones I have taught. And it suffers, above all else, from the curse of the established writer. It’s far too long.

Weighing in at over 700 pages, this is a book that wouldn’t have got past the first fence had he been an unknown. That first book has to be absolutely tightly- wrought, like a finely tuned piano. Not a spare word out of place, coming in at under 300 pages tops, the draconian guidelines of publishers and agents at least produce economy and crackle. They impose discipline as much as formulaic writing. Look what happens when you’ve made it. J K Rowling’s Harry Potter books just kept getting longer and longer as no-one would dare to suggest to the behemoth, Jo, maybe you need to rein it in a bit, love. One can only be grateful that she had only planned seven of them. If she had kept going, we would have been at over the thousand page mark by now, no question. The same applies here. And this, for all its strengths and joys, is a little flabby and baggy.

I’m sounding very negative. It’s still a wonderful book and he’s still a titanic writer. The return of the Great Love, at least in Lyra’s memory and regrets, and the beginnings of a new love to replace it, is fabulous. Even so, it’s only a four star member of his astonishing list of achievements. And when you’ve set the bar as high as he has, that’s a little disappointing. If you’re an English teacher, or you just love books, you still must read this. And hopefully, you’ll love it more than I did.

Helping children to plan their writing- 35 years of getting it wrong

Blake’s Newton, measuring the Universe

For much of my career I was a moderator for one of the big exam boards for GCSE English and part of the job every October was to chair a regional meeting of schools to go through a variety of agenda items to help schools to prepare their students to successfully navigate the exams and coursework (or controlled assessments) in the coming year. They were to learn the lessons of the cohort just gone and a key weapon in the battle to teach them those lessons was the Chief Examiner’s report, which distilled the main messages from the national data. It was a hugely useful process and was largely responsible for the year on year improvement in outcomes achieved by students. (I’ll draw a tactful veil over the canny manipulation of the marking tolerances and the blancmange-like rigour of the Speaking and Listening moderation that also played a part. That is, perhaps, for another blog, when I’m feeling stronger.)

Year after year the Chief Examiner banged on about the same issues. Every year he identified what he saw as the game changer as far as English Language results were concerned. Every year I reinforced this message in the regional meeting. Every year I strove to enact this pearl of wisdom in my own classroom. What was it, this Holy Grail of GCSE English teaching, this elusive crock of gold at the end of the rainbow?

Planning writing.

They look so simple, those two little words written down in black and white. Simplistic, even, as a panacea for underachievement in GCSE English. But behind those two little words lies struggle, pain, resistance, frustration, anger, resentment, incomprehension, stretching back years. If you are an English teacher who has ever tried to prepare a class for an upcoming English Language examination, you will surely recognise the following scenarios.

Put simply, I have never, in any of the last 35 years, introduced the concept of planning writing as a step to writing better, without it being greeted by students in the same way that every group of teachers in a training session respond to the prospect of Role Play. With horror. Without fail, the following questions are asked and points raised:

  • I can’t plan. I don’t know how to.
  • I never follow the plan, Miss, so what’s the point?
  • Do you get marks for the plan?

Of course, as a fully paid up member of the liberal metropolitan elite, I have consistently delivered the standard, honest answer to this last question. That is, I have explained in painstaking detail that no, actually, no marks are awarded for the plan, but that writing that has been planned is always better than writing that has not. I’ve supplemented this with reference to the Chief Examiner’s report, sometimes going to the trouble of distributing copies of it, or in latter years, displaying the relevant section on the Whiteboard. This often leads to classic teacher sarcasm: “Of course, (insert student’s name), if you think that you know better than both myself and the actual Chief Examiner, who have been doing this stuff for over thirty years whereas you are barely out of nappies and have done the GCSE , let me see how many times is it? Oh yes, you’ve never done it have you?  Then by all means go ahead and completely ignore our professional advice and just make it up as you go along and see what happens. This produces the following response, brutal in its logic:

So, I don’t really have to plan then?

On a couple of occasions, unable to bear this ridiculous exchange another time, I just lied, and said, without skipping a beat, “Oh Yes, of course you get marks for writing a plan.” Then I would put up with the liberal guilt about ethical behaviour as a teacher before eventually going back the original approach the following year, shamefaced.

Early doors, I used to be moved by the first of the examples above, the idea that no-one had taught them to plan, so of course they would be resistant. In this scenario, I could cast myself as the hero, who could save the disadvantaged from their own lack of cultural capital by actually opening the gate to the secret garden of middle-class academic knowledge and take them through the basic steps of planning. This would inevitably furnish them with the transferable skills that allowed them to structure their thinking and their writing in English and every other academic discipline. And so, I devised over time a series of imaginative approaches to planning, which resulted in this terrible and embarrassing flowchart of the planning sequence:

  • Spider diagrams.
  • Amending
  • Deleting
  • Synthesising
  • Sequencing
  • Numbering
  • Ticking off

It was surely only a matter of time before a lucrative book contract landed on my hallway floorboards to be followed by a regular series of training events based on a whizzy powerpoint presentation and a glossy ringbinder. Fame and fortune awaited.

I would spend a few lessons on this, only to find when I received the exam papers, that out of a class of thirty students, only three had written a plan. Did I dream that sequence of lessons? Was I actually in the room? Or was I just a shit teacher?

This pantomime carried on for years, surviving a range of different approaches, none of which had any discernible impact on the students’ practice. In the end, it was one of the many things that had ossified in my teaching, into another example of stuff that could be categorised as, “Oh well, that’s just the way it is in reality.” I kept on doing the same stuff, even though I knew it didn’t work. It was a tired recognition that teaching is a difficult process of alchemy, and that sometimes we have to acknowledge the limits of our influence. The best laid plans (no pun intended) and all of that.

And then, eventually, I retired, satisfied that, all things considered, I had done a pretty good job over the previous thirty-five years. Early in my retirement, I started to dabble with creative writing: short stories, poems, novels. I reasoned that the excuse of being too busy just didn’t hold water anymore, so I did a bit of internet research (a classic delaying tactic this) and then sat in front of my laptop staring at the screen, not allowing myself to get up and walk away until I had produced some writing. A paragraph or two, at least.

What did I have in my locker that persuaded me I might be able to write creatively? I had not joined a writers’ group, I had not done any kind of creative writing course. No, I was convinced by my thirty-five years of teaching children to write, my three years of studying English Literature at University and a lifetime of reading books of every type and genre. The craft of writing? Pah! Either you’re touched by the muse, or you’re not. Ah, the arrogance! I sat, staring at the laptop for a very long time.

Then it came to me. Of course! A plan! I had to write a plan before I could come up with anything even vaguely coherent. Wasn’t that what I’d been boring young people to death with for all those years? And if it was good practice for them as writers, then surely it would be good practice for me. I had read in the weekend papers many times, interviews with authors promoting their latest book who talked about their meticulous approach to planning. Index cards. Exercise books, colour coded for plot, character, theme. Every last thread spun and tied up neatly by the end. And it was clear that their planning process must work because they were proper writers, with books on the shelves and everything. And once this intense planning had been completed, with eyes closed and chin on finger tips, Sherlock Holmes style, then the writing could begin. And now, it would be a doddle, simply a matter of splurging all those great thoughts onto the paper, ticking off each subsequent element of the plan as it was completed, just like I advised my students to do.

And then, with the wet slap across the face of epiphany, I realised.

Planning doesn’t work. At least not the kind of planning I had been teaching for years.

Obviously, it didn’t work. Leaving aside for the moment the idiocy of testing creative writing via a 45 minute slot in an exam hall, even with unlimited thinking time you couldn’t easily plan every detail of, say, a short story. Or if you did, you would be planning out the magic that is produced by the act of writing itself. Functional, sequential planning has its place in producing transactional writing, when it is simply a matter of ordering and clarifying one’s thoughts, but creative writing is a very different process and does not bend to the same rules and regulations.

I’m with Philip Pulman on this. In a recent interview in The Guardian to promote his latest book, The Secret Commonwealth, he pleasingly berates the functionalists who are currently having a moment in the sun at the expense of school children across the UK. Their niggardly focus on the naming of parts and their slavish insistence that the main function of a piece of writing is to show off the writer’s grasp of the full range of punctuation is rightly blasted. But he is also very interesting on the notion of planning. It’s right at the end of the interview (link below). Have a look.

What I’ve discovered over the past nearly three years is that the planning process for fiction does exist, but that it is bespoke to the writer. I’ll tell you what works for me. It might work for some kids and some other adults, but there’s no guarantee.

The impulse to write comes, for me, from a very strong image of a situation. It could be anything – an atmosphere, a dilemma, a relationship, a texture. From that a story emerges. First the characters and their relationships. Then the skeleton of the plot. Then the next layer of characters. In the course of that process, the story and the subplot start to take roots, but as gardeners everywhere will know, plants are unruly beasts and go where they want. So the vivid image of the starting point, (which may not end up as the start of the story at all) is accompanied by a strong sense of the end point. As a writer, I know where the thing is headed, I’m just open to the route we take. There may be a couple of other definite waypoints (or Vias as the SATNav would have it). Other vivid scenes that have to be navigated around. And no, despite the scornful reaction of some of my friends when discussing this, this is not just a pretentious version of making it up as you go along. It’s surrendering yourself to the process. The act of writing generates ideas that are generally better than those produced by the act of thinking.

When I started the process of trying to write fiction, I read a piece by D B C Pierre, the Canadian author, on starting to write. It was extremely helpful, particularly his metaphor of compost, of all things. Just write, he advised. Enjoy the sense of your growing wordcount. At some stage you will hit a critical point where, like compost heap, you will have accumulated enough copy for it to start to react, to spontaneously breakdown in a process of decomposition, producing something entirely other than that which you started with. And then eventually, when it seems as if you have written something that you are pleased with, that means something to you, that you would like to read, you can begin the real work, the hard work of turning all of that compost into something that somebody else might conceivably want to read as well.

And so it has proved. From a strong image, a sense of the resolution, and a couple more luminous scenes en route, fiction has emerged, almost without my agency, and certainly without detailed planning. And how I wish I could go back and rethink all of those well-meaning lessons on students  planning their writing. Because, unfortunately, they are still saddled with the insanity of having to produce some piece of “Creative” writing in about 45 minutes of exam silence. And that means English teachers have a moral responsibility to prepare them to do it as well they can.

So what practical lessons do I glean from this revelation? I still teach English, as well as writing myself, and I still desperately want my students to do well. I keep it much simpler now and focus on those key elements:

  • An arresting scene, full of texture and atmosphere. Often the opening paragraph.
  • Two or three characters, their relationships and potential conflict
  • A final resolution. Even a last paragraph to work towards, a pole star to help them steer the ship
  • A balance between description and dialogue.
  • Avoid back story
  • Show not Tell

And then, the last piece of advice to be ringing in their ears as they enter the exam hall: Let the writing take you where it will, as long as you reach that last paragraph. And it’s still a nonsense, to ask children to write creatively in these conditions, as a means of ranking them. It will produce a lot of stuff that wasn’t worth their bother: formulaic, trite, cliched. Perfectly suited to an exam devised on exactly the same lines. But at least they might enjoy it a little more and not be too worried about synthesis and sequencing.

And some of them might, just might, want to keep writing.

Research, Rhetoric and The Two Tribes

When you’re a relative newcomer to Edutwitter, one of the things that first strikes you is the starkly polarised positions taken on a series of crucial issues. The second thing is the absolute sense of certainty that often accompanies these positions. Even down to the Middle Way Tribe, the natural Liberal Democrats of policy discussion, who insist, with a near religious fervour, that things are not as simple as the progressives versus the traditionalists, but that the only thing that matters is what works. For the purposes of this article (and as a handy guide to how to live your life honestly), I’m going to acknowledge only the existence of the two tribes. They are the only ones that matter. The Lib Dems have an inadequate ideological analysis and really should just make their minds up and stop splitting the left vote.

Frankly, I think that, actually, it is that simple, but that is a subject for a future blog all on its own. For the moment I’ll confine myself  to looking at one particular topic: Research. In the last few months, I’ve read industrial quantities of effluent written on this topic. Apparently, research into teaching techniques, strategies and approaches that are effective is going to save the world. Also apparently, this is a new thing, instigated by the intellectually rigorous proponents of the new brutalism. You know the kind of thing: Direct instruction. Zero Tolerance. Flattening the Grass. Knowledge rich curricula. (To be clear, I can accept the relevance of Direct Instruction and Knowledge Rich curricula, but not the idea they didn’t happen before and that other approaches can’t coexist with them)

The New Brutalists are very clear about what used to happen in the olden days. In the old days, teachers, who saw themselves as “Facilitators”, didn’t teach facts or knowledge of any kind because it was “oppressive”. Students (oops, that’s a give away to the brutalist thought police), sorry, I mean pupils, were just sat randomly in groups spreading their ignorance thinly, through unguided aimless chat, that might have been in informal language, liberally sprinkled with “like”s and “innit”s and “Y’knowwhatimean”s.

These practices were pursued at the behest of a Marxist teacher training programme, propagated by bearded lecturers who had drank their fill of Paulo Freire and Paul Willis and were readying for the imminent overthrow of society and to hell with grammar and the Oxford Comma. Now, thank the lord, teachers, parents and students have been rescued from this knowledge -free hell because modern teachers who have read Daisy Christodolou and admire Katherine Birbalsingh, realise that there is research- based evidence that validates back to basics practice instead. There was a tweet from one of them the other day (can’t remember which, sorry) along these lines that made me think that they were once asked by their teacher training mentor to do some role play in the classroom and they have never recovered from the trauma of the experience. Rather than pay for therapy they are working through their trauma by inflicting more of it on the students and staff they come across in their day jobs. And let me get my apology in now to save time in the long run. That’s to therapists, people in therapy, and Daisy and Katherine themselves. I’m sure they are wonderful human beings and they are clearly committed educationalists, it’s just their ideas I object to.

I read one tweet the other day that suggested that there is no excuse any more for persisting with outdated strategies in the classroom when there is a wealth of evidence about what works in terms of maximising learning. It went on to characterise the previous twenty years (probably about 1990 – 2010) as a quicksand of myth and progressive sleight of hand. What utter nonsense. People who promulgate this view generally fall into one of two camps. Either they are hopelessly naïve and gullible, and genuinely believe that they are the chosen people who have been shown the true way. The metaphor is deliberately chosen because they do tend to have the certainty of the religious convert. It baffles me what they think was going on in classrooms back in the day and why adults in their late twenties/early thirties aren’t wandering around bumping into walls, slack jawed and knuckle dragging, like the zombie apocalypse, so inadequate was their education.

The other group are evangelists for basic skills, standards and tradition. This is packaged as concern for the education of the working classes, who, they say with great certainty, have been let down by trendy, progressive teachers because they don’t confidently use Standard English, don’t have any familiarity with classical music, and haven’t read Milton. They name drop Hirsch, as if this is the clincher in their argument. Anything that might be cited as evidence of growing levels of achievement of this group is dismissed as being actually only evidence of the grade inflation and dumbing down that Michael Gove, God bless his sainted soul, so heroically rescued us all from.

I don’t mind this cultural war. You can’t take the victories of the past for granted and the tide of ideas will always ebb and flow. I actually prefer it to the dishonesty of how the war is actually presented, that is, as proven methods of teaching versus ideologically- inspired incompetence. A more honest approach recognises that it is a conflict between two ideologies.

And the key weapon in this war is research. I was going to say phony war, but that would be wrong. The war is real, but the key weapon is phony. And many of us have used it ourselves, as an invaluable tool in justifying changes to practice.

I’ve done loads of staff training events in various incarnations in the past: Advanced Skills Teacher, Senior GCSE English examination/Coursework Advisor, Deputy Headteacher, Teacher Trainer. I’ve lost count of the number of times, particularly when launching a new whole school change to classroom practice, that I have used the phrase, “The research comprehensively shows…” or “The research is absolutely clear on this”. I’ve heard it used for the same purpose by many presenters much more august and skilled than me.

And it’s purpose is plainly rhetorical. It’s a device. A flourish. A swagger. It’s signalling to the doubters in the audience that they should hold their tongue, review their opposition to this mad new whole school idea, and listen. Why? Because there is, apparently, a wealth of evidence available, generated by very clever academics, that proves beyond doubt that this particular approach works. It raises achievement, the holy grail for all teachers and senior leaders. And evidence is the hallmark of rational beings, isn’t it?

The trouble is that research evidence has never comprehensively proven anything. A research project helps us make informed decisions, along with all the other research projects on the same or related topics, many of which will contradict the first one. Of course, one should review research evidence and measure it against your own practice and practice you have observed in other settings, and use that process to come to a decision, but don’t fool yourself that that decision is neutral, objective and factual.

Research is very often commissioned to “prove” a classroom approach that someone has already decided is the right way to do things. Research findings are always open to interpretation. What does this mean in terms of classroom practice? What do we have to do differently? And those questions always give rise to ideology. And because of both the way research originates and the way it is interpreted, it’s obvious that research, far from providing unchallengeable answers, is by definition, contested.

And you can see this all over twitter and the blog posts of the influencers in education. People highlight the research they approve of and bury the research they disagree with. Or, they rubbish it: the sample size, the methodology, the people who commissioned it, the interpretation, the premise, anything as long as they have thrown doubt on its findings. Now “Research” is available that rubbishes even Carol Dweck’s (@caroldweck) work.

Scorn is poured these days on some of the practices of yesterday: things like Learning Styles, Brain Gym, Accelerated Learning, Group discussion etc. People are incredulous that teachers of yesteryear implemented all of that with no research to back it up, and they smugly position themselves as wise people who would never make the same mistake again. The inconvenient fact is though, that there was a mass of research evidence cited for these things. Just look at the reference lists in Alastair Smith’s books. (@alatalite) The thing was that the research was not questioned rigorously enough and that it has since been superceded. Who’s to say that the same thing will not happen to the research so confidently championed today?

I’m pretty sure that those people who champion Direct Instruction, Knowledge Rich Curricula, Mastery Assessment, Zero Tolerance Behaviour regimes etc are also largely the people who are in favour of uniform, or setting, despite the fact that there is next to no research evidence that proves that they impact positively on achievement. I’m also pretty sure that as I’m writing this, there are people also typing away, desperately commissioning research to do just that.

So, I’d really like the Education community to move to a position where we are much more balanced about practice and its evidence base. To be more inclusive of a range of approaches that the classroom teacher can select from and combine appropriately. To be less welcoming of yet more articles complaining about practice in the past and about being told what to do, when they are doing exactly the same thing themselves. They are just setting up other, new approaches to practice that will become the new orthodoxy which a new set of gurus will rubbish in ten year’s time. And, when we’re talking about research ”evidence” in particular, we will bear in mind Dylan Wiliam’s (@dylan wiliam) article on Education and research.

The classroom is far too complicated a place for simple solutions.