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
Ben Marley has climbed his way up the greasy pole to finally become Headteacher. All the scams and tricks and double dealing of his ruthless pursuit of advancement come back to haunt him when he finds himself back in his old school one last time on Christmas Eve as darkness falls.
This summer’s literary sensation is just a Netfix mini-series in waiting.
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.
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?
Enter the Nightingale University Programme, stage left.
They really are the gift that keeps on giving. If you thought a nadir of some sort had been reached with the Dominic Cummings jolly to Barnard Castle, the Tories have shown, week by week, that they are genuinely world leaders in arse -from-elbow confusion. And that’s genuinely world leaders as opposed to Boris Johnson-type world leaders (ie embarrassingly feeble).
Each day of the Great Exam Grade Debacle, has sent the collective jaw ever further nearer the floor. It doesn’t seem possible that even vaguely sentient human beings could get things quite as badly wrong as this. And yet still their supporters plead mitigation. Katherine Birbalsingh says she feels sorry for Gavin Williamson. Her compassion does her some credit, if not her judgement. She’s joined by Toby Gobfull of Brylcreem Young, Michael Gove and his wife, Sarah Vine, who just the other day told us she too feels sorry for Johnson, saying that the stress and exhaustion of worrying day and night is bound to generate bad decisions. Nobody has ever been that worried before, judging by the tsunami of bad decisions we’ve been submerged under. And, really, Johnson’s only worry is can he get another holiday in before people start dying in their droves again in the autumn. The only person in the entire country who must be feeling rather chipper about all of this is Chris Failing Grayling, who suddenly doesn’t stand out from his peers as being a complete knob. He is surrounded by complete knobs. There is a veritable Bullingdon club of knobs whichever way he looks. He has never felt so at home. He has heard on the QT, that he has been lined up to replace Private Pike at Education, because it needs a safe pair of hands. Relatively.
But now, Gavin has other fish to fry. On the back of his frankly brilliant wheeze to save the nation’s children, by going with CAGs (how on earth did little Gav think of that one all by himself?) he has another problem to deal with. Universities now have to accommodate thousands of extra students, and there is no chance whatsoever that having clambered out of one trench of excrement, Gavin is going to dive into another by not allowing any of the Great Northern Unwashed to go to a university of their choice. (Rumour has it that Johnson was genuinely surprised, when Dom told him, that anyone from a northern town went to university anywhere. The last time he saw an oik from the north at university, it was warming his toilet seat, for a small fee and a roasting at the common room fireplace.)
Although Johnson finds it tiresome, he has been told time and time again that he has got to make an effort to be nice to the Oiks, despite their body odour and skin disease. And so he will give his imperial assent to the Great Education Plan. To accommodate the additional working class hordes, he has given the green light to the building of a new generation of “Nightingale Universities”. Because he got a lot of praise for his “Nightingale hospitals” even though no-one was ever treated in one. He said he was going to build them and build them he did. Hurrah! So it stands to reason that the same thing will work for University capacity. They’ll convert all of the empty shopping centres around the country – John Lewis, IKEA on out of town sites etc – and they will be staffed by (and this is the bit that Cummings is really pleased about) by all the new graduates who can’t get a job for love nor money. Graduate unemployment solved at a stroke. It’s just like Dom keeps saying, you just have to be prepared to think outside of the box and go for eccentrics, mavericks and loons.
And to make it as unsinkable as The Titanic, the new Nightingale Universities will be run by their new Chief Executive, Dido Noseintrough, fresh from her triumphs at TalkTalk and Track and Trace (motto: No infected individual knowingly informed), with fat contracts awarded, without tender, of course, to Tory chums in IT and Construction. And next year, when the dust has settled, a few discreet titles in the honours list. Taking back control to be World Leaders in corruption, nepotism and cronyism.
It’s clear to me that Johnson, Cummings, Gove et al have read my novel, “Zero Tolerance” and have taken it for an instruction manual. In that, the Education Secretary, Marcus Grovelle, solves the problem of Social Care, spending on the armed forces, school funding, graduate unemployment and teacher recruitment, with a brilliant solution. And I thought I was writing satire!
I’m going to publish the relevant chapter to whet your appetite for more. Coming soon!
Some people say,
If only these kids read more Shakespeare
Or even saw a production or two
At The Globe.
That, and maybe listening to a bit of Mozart and a trip to a gallery
To worship at the temple of Art,
Would make all the difference. Even Tate Modern would do, at a pinch.
They deserve it, really.
Culture, that is. It’s just not fair to abandon them
To their parents, who were
Abandoned in their turn.
So we cannot blame them. Not really.
Others, well meaning, no doubt,
Talk of Stormzy and Assassin’s Creed
Of Mice and Men and Game of Thrones
As if they had the same worth.
But everybody knows that proper culture must be
Old and Hard, otherwise it does not count. It is not
Culture with a capital C.
It’s common sense.
It’s alright for them. They’ve got their exams already.
Missionaries in Africa did not agonise about their task to civilize,
But set to work to bring light to the darkness.
Not for them the liberal guilt that stalks us today
Or the righteous anger of The Woke
Now that Black Lives Matter.
But in between, where people live, culture is imbibed
Without thinking, like breathing in.
Like air, we need it to survive.
The air we breathe nurtures and sustains, whether its breeze stirs lush, clipped roses
Or scatters crisp packets in a grimy dance.
It is the same air.
It is the same culture.
It is ours, not theirs.
This is for all those teachers, of whatever stripe, that have ever held a class spellbound, and more particularly, for those English teachers who have ever read fiction aloud to a class of students. My very last thoughts on retirement, honest.
I have loved casting spells
In the gathering gloom of wet November Friday afternoons
As yellow lights held us all in a web of careful, bold words.
Thirty pairs of eyes wide and gleaming in the dusky, chalk-dusted corners.
Thirty breaths held in a cloud of concentration above our heads.
Yes, that was worth the whole shebang.
But I did not like
The Marking, that squatted on my life like a Toad.
There will come a time, on a wet November afternoon, when a pile of bruised and scribbled purple books might be the object of my wildest dreams.
But not yet.
Not for a long, long time.
And come September, when Summer’s warmth begins to fail and blistered leaves turn yellow,
I will watch the lines of scrubbed children laden with heavy bags,
Proceed to school with first day nerves, and think, with sadness and relief, that no bell summons me,
To cast the old spells
Afresh for them.
Is this the inevitable fate of the retired teacher on Twitter?
After this strange, extended hiatus, stretching back to March, the finishing tape looms into view. As I suspected a few months ago, I have already taught my last proper lesson. The last three years of part time English teaching, an enjoyable Indian summer in many ways, comes to an end next week as there are no hours available next year. Such is the lot of the part timer.
I can’t quite believe it’s all coming to an end. Just a couple of stories to wave it all goodbye. About 25 years ago, as an Assistant Head at the peak of my powers, we had an after school presentation from some insurance company and pensions. I think they were trying to flog AVCs or something. As part of his presentation, the rep got all the staff to stand up (it was a teaching staff event) and then asked people to sit down when he’d got to the age they would ideally like to retire. He started at fifty years old, which tells you how long ago it was, and worked through in five year intervals, thinning out the standers as he went. Towards the end (I forget now what age he had got to) there was a growing ripple of laughter around the audience and I looked around to share the joke. To my embarrassment, the joke was me! I was the last person standing and it became a standing joke at school that I was actually aiming for Death in Service.
Looking back now it seems extraordinary. But as a young man I absolutely loved my job and could not imagine not coming in to work to teach English and to develop whole school systems of assessment and CPD and all those other things that seemed so important at the time. But time does take is toll, and eventually energy drains away. Working as a member of SLT in “challenging” schools is hugely demanding and after a while, you find you have nothing left to give. I was very lucky in the sense that I never got to the point where I was dreading going into work and counting down the days to retirement. Retirement came out of the blue and was all the more of an enjoyable surprise for that. And then going back to a spot of part time teaching also sugared the pill for a few years.
But now, semi-retirement will turn in to proper retirement (with a bit of teacher training thrown in) and I can’t quite imagine what not being a teacher will be like. Since the age of five my life, like that of all teachers, has been governed by the rhythms of the agricultural calendar that the academic year shadows. September as a new beginning through to the long summer holiday to recharge the batteries before beginning again My thoughts have turned regularly in the last few weeks to how it all began, in an attempt to get some perspective and to close a bracket. Thirty Seven years ago, almost to the day, I had finished my PGCE and was wondering what was going to become of me. This was in the days of the great, much maligned (unfairly in my view) ILEA, when as soon as you qualified, your name went into the ILEA Pool and you could be offered a job in a school anywhere in Greater London.
One day in July, I was lounging around the living room of a shared house in Brixton, surveying the wreckage from a particularly wild evening of young person entertainment the night before, when the phone rang. It was County Hall. “Are you still looking for an English job, Mr X?”, came the question. When I confirmed that I was, he continued. “Can you get to School Y by 1pm?” I looked at my watch. I confirmed that, yes, indeed, I could do that. This was, of course, a lie. I had no idea where school Y was, but faint heart never won, etc etc.
I put the phone down and worked out that I had about 45 minutes to get ready and get to the school. My A-Z (ask your parents, youngsters) told me that the school was just up the hill. And then, with a sinking feeling, I remembered that my only pair of trousers were drying after a rare trip to the laundrette and I was lounging around in a pair of scabby Adidas shorts. Even I, an innocent in the ways of the corporate world, knew that that would not cut the mustard at an interview. Two minutes later I was on my bike, hammering down Brixton Hill for some emergency shopping. Morleys of Brixton (“South London’s West End store”) furnished me with an acceptable pair of black cords. I just had enough time to cycle back up the hill, get changed and get to the school by one. Until I put the cords on.
Disaster! They were far too long and unhemmed. My entire career hung in the balance and for a nano-second I considered not showing up. And then, the same amalgam of inspiration, winging it, and sheer effrontery that was to serve me so well as a teacher and then member of SLT, kicked in. Ten minutes later, I was sitting in the Head’s office for my interview. I can’t remember a thing about it now except for the memory of having my feet firmly tucked in as far under my seat as possible, so that no-one could see the line of shiny silver staples in a ring around the ends of each trouser leg. Emergency hemming to the rescue.
It was the last day of the Summer term and, as the interview was taking place, the staff were already gathered in the staffroom for the end of term jollies, desperately hoovering up warm white wine and twiglets to mark their successful survival for another year. I did not know it at the time, but I was the only candidate for the job and I would have been appointed even if I’d been bollock naked. In some ways when I look back on the last thirty seven years, I see now that this was my finest hour, the high water mark of my educational achievements.
So, what now? How can I continue to pontificate on Twitter about Teaching and Learning when I no longer teach? Will I turn in to the educational equivalent of Alan Shearer on Match of the Day, the ex- player boring everyone to death with his endless, blindingly obvious analysis? Or even worse, an Edu-Twitter version of Geoffrey Boycott, bemoaning how everything was better in the good old days and that young teachers today have got it all wrong. My ambition is to emulate Gary Lineker. Someone who used to be very good, is still a fan, is self -deprecating, a bit funny, and has some thoughtful insights to offer while not taking himself too seriously. Let’s see how that goes for a while.
And for all those of you I am leaving behind in the socially distanced classroom, I send my best wishes. Enjoy your privilege, for English teaching is the noblest profession. For me, it was a blast and I will miss it terribly.
Sam Stringer was on the verge of something, that much was obvious to everyone. It wasn’t clear to anyone who came across him whether it would be a nervous breakdown or greatness, but it was definitely something.
At first glance he had it all. He was good looking, with a generous covering of hair on his head and he dressed as if he vaguely knew what he was doing. At work he was amicable, witty and warm. Someone who the rest of the staff had an instinctively good feeling about, though they would be hard pressed to say exactly why. He was effortlessly impressive in the classroom. The kids loved his enthusiasm and knowledge and care and lightness of touch. The staff loved his self-deprecating comments, the fact that he was the go-to-guy on SLT who never let anyone down, his ability to switch from seriousness to sarcasm without anyone ever mistaking that as a sign that what they all did, every day, for the kids, didn’t matter.
And yet there was an unmistakeable air of detachment about him, a coldness and a sadness that seemed the essence of him, unreachable and alone. He was not in a relationship and most of the staff could not remember a time when he had been. He had friends, but they were more like acquaintances, like those university groups that allowed for companionship without intimacy, conversation without revealing. No one knew a thing about his family, and in idle conversation in the pub after work, or in the staffroom over lunch, no one would have been able to answer the questions, “So, where is Sam Stringer from? What does he do with himself? What happens to him at Christmas?” The fundamental question that these more trivial queries masked was, of course, “Who is Sam Stringer?” And to that unasked question there was no ready answer.
And so, people stopped asking, stopped wondering. And his life at work went on, in the flurry of frenzied activities that characterised life in a busy, inner city Secondary school, where one reached the shores of the next weekend, the next holiday, in an exhausted daze, never quite being able to remember how, exactly, one had made it through. This unexamined life went on apace, until one day, Sam Stringer found that he had reached the dizzy heights of Deputy Head, almost without realizing it. It had not been the next step in some carefully considered Machiavellian plan, nor the logical outcome of ruthless careerism, it was simply the place and time and position the conveyor belt of his life had taken him to. At the age of thirty-eight he had earned the respect of his colleagues, the affection of his pupils, a significant and welcome pay rise, and a rather nice, spacious office, with his name on an acrylic door sign: Mr Stringer, Deputy Headteacher.
One of his many responsibilities was Snow. It wasn’t mentioned in his job description and it did not figure at his interview, but as far as the staff were concerned, it was, by a country mile, the most important. The closure of the school because of snow was officially his call. This was partly because he lived ten minutes walk away from the school, so he was the only member of Senior Team who could make an informed judgement based on local weather conditions early enough to set in motion the text and telephone tree, announcing the closure. The real, unstated reason was that Elizabeth, the Headteacher, could trust him to make the correct decision, resisting all pressures from the staff to close at the fall of the first snow flake. She knew that Sam had so little else in his life apart from his job, that a day off was something to be avoided at all costs. He had only ever had to do it once, in his first year as a Deputy, and he had resolutely kept the school open, notwithstanding the traffic chaos and misery that staff and students had to endure. This had garnered Elizabeth valuable brownie points with the local authority, and took her to the top of the league for local headteachers’ macho posturing. It had cost Sam some of his popularity, but he did not seem to notice and carried on as before, charming and effective in equal measure.
And so it was, one Tuesday evening early in December, the Senior Leadership meeting closed with a discussion on meteorology.
“So, are we all clear about the procedure?” Elizabeth scanned the members of her team around the table with her familiar, raking glare. “Sam, as usual it’s your call, but the earlier the decision, the better. We don’t want any complaints about people getting stuck in traffic only to find the school is closed after all. When do you think you’ll be able to get it on the website?”
“Definitely before six. The weather forecast seems pretty certain. The beast from the east is back, with ten feet of snow and freezing temperatures, or that’s what is said when I looked before we started tonight.”
Elizabeth frowned. “Hmm, whatever you do, any of you that is, don’t give the rest of the staff the impression it’s already decided. Weather forecasts have been wrong before and no doubt they’ll be wrong again. I want everyone going to bed tonight thinking that they are coming to school tomorrow as normal.”
The assembled team were suitably poker faced, controlling the sense of disappointment they all felt. All except Sam who, deep down, knew he would find a snow day at home rather dull in comparison with a day managing the fall out of a snow day at school.
Hesitantly, a voice broke in.
“Do the staff just have to look at the website then? Sorry, this hasn’t happened since I’ve been here and..” Caroline, the newest member of the team, trailed off, feeling more than a little silly.
Elizabeth forced a smile. “Of course, Caroline, forgive me. I forgot, this is your first time.” She looked over at Sam. “Sam, could you?”
“Yes, of course. It was actually in the email I sent out to everyone. There’s a mobile telephone tree and an automatic text message cascade, with some back up calls to key members of staff, so they can ensure everyone in their section of the tree is informed. I thought that everyone would have read that, but…”
The minute he said it, he felt it had come out wrongly, as if he were annoyed at having to explain something he had already dealt with. As someone who loved getting more emails, and felt a little cheated and out of the loop if there was nothing new to deal with, he was genuinely baffled whenever he came across someone who hadn’t checked their own inbox. The expression on Caroline’s face, a mixture of annoyance, embarrassment and incredulity, just confirmed it.
She glowered at him, her eyes stinging. “Sorry,“ she said, “I haven’t been in my office. Teaching all day.”
An awkward silence spread over the meeting and people were left shuffling their papers and looking down at their notes. Thankfully, it had been the last item and the meeting broke up, the various members of the team drifting off in different directions to offices spread strategically in all four corners of the school. Sam hung back to make sure that he and Caroline were the last to leave.
She sensed that that was what was happening and at the last minute she tried to scuttle ahead. Sam called out to her. “Caroline, sorry, can I have a word?”
She turned and forced a thin smile. “Yes, sure,” she said, “What is it?”
He looked around to check everyone else had left. “Sorry, I didn’t mean it to sound critical at the end there. I was just surprised you hadn’t seen the message. It just came out a bit wrong.”
“You should have said that in the meeting, “ she replied curtly and turned tail and left before he could reply. As she walked down the corridor towards her office she wondered if she had been a bit rude. “At least he apologised,” she thought, “Not many men would have done that.”
Back in the meeting room, Sam was left alone, mouth open. He felt a little crushed. Was it him? He went over what had happened in his mind, knowing that he would do the same thing over and over again before the end of the day. Despite appearances to the contrary, Sam was a worrier. He hated for people not to like him and to give them any reason for doing so. Even worse, he always thought the other person was right, and that he had behaved badly, regardless of the situation. It was made even worse by the fact that it was so unusual. Most people warmed to Sam. But that just served to make Caroline’s obvious dislike of him so grating. She, a newly appointed Assistant Head, had only been in post since September, and no matter how hard Sam tried, he couldn’t seem to hit it off with her. There had been a series of awkward encounters, of misunderstandings and, at times, open arguments. They always ended with Sam apologising, vowing to himself to be more careful next time. But, apparently, he never was.
In the midst of these repeated bouts of self-recrimination lurked something even more disturbing. A feeling so unfamiliar to him that he struggled to keep it buried and whenever it surfaced, which was far too often for his liking, it left him feeling even worse. From the first moment he had seen her, when she had arrived in the school foyer for her interview in the summer term, he was overwhelmed with the strangest, strongest feeling that he had ever had for anyone. She wasn’t stereotypically attractive, but she had something. A warmth, a spark, something indefinable but definitely there. There was no doubt about that. Short, glossy dark hair, green eyes, lovely golden skin and long, long legs. And she dressed well. He wasn’t sure about that last thing. He didn’t really notice people and certainly not their clothes. He would not have been able to describe anything that anyone at the Senior Team meeting that had just finished had been wearing, but he knew, with a painful and insistent certainty, that Caroline Taylor looked just right in whatever it was she had chosen to wear.
He also knew, with equal certainty, that Caroline thought that he was a bit of a joke. Whatever he had managed to do to fool everybody else, Caroline wasn’t falling for it. She could see right through him and obviously recognised him for what he was. An imposter. A charlatan. A phoney. And for Sam, that merely served to increase her charm. Judgement as well as Beauty.
With these thoughts churning around his brain, he collected his stuff, locked up his office, and made his way down to the car park. He sighed as he opened his car door. He knew he couldn’t go on like this and had made a sort of decision to look at Headships in other schools, ready to start applying next Summer. He shivered as the car fired into life, a blast of cold air shaking him from his thoughts back to the here and now. He looked up into the sky through the side window. Dark and cloudless, the stars glittered with an intensity unusual in the city sky. He could feel the gathering hard frost, but as yet there was no sign of snow. Maybe the clouds would roll in later, direct from the Siberian plains, with their gift of plump, feathery snowflakes.
Caroline had lingered in her tiny office for longer than usual, just to make sure she didn’t encounter Sam in the car park. She couldn’t bear another awkward conversation. God, what was wrong with her? Why did she always snap at him? He was perfectly OK as a Deputy Head. Better than most actually. He didn’t pull rank and didn’t mansplain. He was sensitive and respectful, without seeming horribly pleased with himself for being so right-on, so PC. It was just that everyone liked him. He was so popular with the staff, foot soldiers and the powers that be, that there must be something wrong with him. No-one could be that perfect. And, even worse, he was breathtakingly good looking. Men like that are always insufferable bastards in the end, she told herself, remembering an unfortunate dalliance with an equally chiselled and toned master of the universe type who had been big in the city. His sensitivity, worn like an Armani suit at the beginning of their fling, was soon cast aside to reveal the sixteen carat bastard lurking underneath, as she was unceremoniously dumped for someone creative at the BBC at the beginning of the summer holidays. Six weeks of self-pity had not repaired the damage caused by her innate suspicion of handsome men.
The worst occasion with Sam, the one that made her feel hot and uncomfortable whenever she recalled it, was back in September, just a couple of weeks after she had started work. She had popped to the local shop on Sunday morning, looking an absolute fright in tracksuit bottoms and no makeup. When she could make herself face the truth of it, she remembered that she had been in such a rush that there was a breakfast stain on her top. Oh God, how embarrassing. Because out of the blue, Sam saw her across the road and waved at her. Mortified, she had turned away hurriedly, and had blanked him. She had marched away down the road, not stopping until she had shut the door of her flat firmly behind her. Blanked him. Oh My God, she thought. How uncool is that?
It had never been referred to since, and Caroline had discovered in conversation in the ladies’ staff toilet, that Sam had a flat round the corner from her, in Mountcastle road.
“Do you know Mountcastle road?” Samira had asked her. “You know that big posh road with all of those massive Victorian villas in them. The ones that back on to the woods. He’s got a lovely flat there. Got a massive garden.” She lowered her voice. “Beautifully decorated, actually”
Like many of the conversations she had so far had in the staff toilet, this one was not making her feel any better about the worst social gaffe she had ever committed. She had put two and two together and had come up with a number nearer infinity than four. “So,” she thought, “Mr Stringer is a bit of player as far as the female members of staff are concerned. Well not me, oh no.”
She looked at the pile of marking on her desk. She had dug it out purposely so that she could work through it on her snow day at home. It was an ideal opportunity to catch up, from the depths of her duvet, but, somehow, she couldn’t bring herself to put it in her bag. At the doorway, as she turned to switch the light off, it stared back at her, until it disappeared as the darkness flooded the room and she closed the door, relieved, with a click. Tomorrow, the duvet would be enough to sustain her.
The alarm jolted him awake. He scrambled in the heavy darkness, pawing at the table for his phone, and finally managed to turn it off, jabbing frantically at the illuminated screen. Five forty-five am. A thick silence flooded the room and he lay back, enjoying the quiet stillness. After a minute or so, the silence began to weigh heavily on him and he swung his feet around and out of the bed. Jesus, it was cold. He inched his way over to the radiator to check and was puzzled to find that it was on full blast, pulsing heat into the air, yet it seemed to have made little impression on the room. There was a strange silence, as if he had cotton wool stuffed in his ears. He continued to the window and opened the curtains a crack. The window looked out onto the back garden, and beyond the fence at the back, the beginning of the woods. He gave a sharp intake of breath. The sky in front of him was full of swirling heavy flakes of snow and the garden was blanketed in a thick covering, blurring all of the familiar shapes. Already, the perfect layer was marked with animal tracks, criss-crossing the lawn.
His heart leaped. Even at this hour, in this cold, with his breath steaming in front of him, it was a beautiful, strange, otherworldly sight. Clearly, this was one occasion when the snow closure would not be controversial. Nobody would be making much progress in the world in that, not, by the look of it, for a couple of days at least.
Fifteen minutes later it was all done: notice of closure on the website, texts sent via the telephone tree, a message left for the Head, local media contacted and the Local Authority alerts system triggered. He spent the next hour on a leisurely breakfast, enjoying the film of snow Armageddon on breakfast news, before rousing himself to get dressed and ready to brave the world outside. The woolly hat, thick scarf, gloves and padded coat seemed to dissolve into gossamer threads as he made his first tentative footsteps down the path from his front door. The sky was still dark, with flurries of snow carried in fitful gusts of the wind that knifed through him. He crunched his way along the footpath to the main road.
The road was eerily deserted, and the yellow cones of light from the street lamps bathed everything in a mysterious wash of amber. He passed a couple of abandoned cars, left at crazy angles to the kerb, buried and undetectable under the volume of settled snow. There were just a few other people out and about, their breath steaming into the dark skies as they laboured through the snow, preparing for their stories of heroic attempts to get to work that would dominate the news for the next few days.
It took him an hour to do what normally would have been a twenty minute walk. The school was suffocated under a thick blanket of snow, and as he struggled with the lock to the car park entrance, he could see the thickly mufflered figure of Ray, the site manager, his breath steaming outside the main entrance. Sam crunched his way towards him through the untouched snow.
Ray looked up and flashed a broad smile, enjoying the camaraderie of pioneers. “Mornin’,” he called from a distance, “Nice day for it.”
“Good morning, Raymond. What’s it like inside?”
“Boiler’s buggered. It’s freezing in there.”
“What do you reckon?”
“A couple of days at least. Maybe more. Weather forecast after that is a bit hazy. And even when the snow clears, there’s no guarantee of when the boiler’ll be fixed. If ours has gone, you can bet your life they’ll be swamped with callouts from loads of others.”
“Oh well, at least it’s a clear call. I’ll put it on the website after I’ve spoken to Elizabeth.”
“She’ll be tucked up warm in deepest Surrey somewhere no doubt.”
“The privileges of high office, Raymond, my good man. The privileges of high office. Not for the likes of you and me.”
Ray snorted. “You’ll be there soon, sunshine, you’re not fooling me. Another couple of years and you’ll be El Presidente, ordering everyone around from under the duvet.”
Sam was momentarily taken aback. Was that what everyone thought, that he’d be a Head somewhere? And soon, from Ray’s tone. He roused himself and the flicker was gone.
“Listen Ray, I wouldn’t bother with clearing the grounds, not yet anyway. Give it a day or so and keep an eye on the forecast. There’s no point shovelling it all up if there’s a ton more snow on the way. If we keep in touch, then we can manage it from this end. You concentrate on the boiler. I’m just going to do a bit of work while I’m here. I can lock up if you want.”
Ray didn’t need telling twice and strolled away whistling. His snow day had just started to look up.
It was about ten o’clock when Sam finally called it a day. He locked the gates behind him and leant into the knifing wind that had sprung up, whipping thick, fat snowflakes into his face. He gasped in pain and shock. The journey back was clearly going to be harder than the voyage out in the quiet darkness of early morning.
An hour later when he finally turned the corner onto the home straight, he had lost all feeling in his feet, his cheeks were red and numb, and all thoughts of the charm, beauty and romance of the snowy landscape had disappeared. For the previous fifteen minutes he had sustained his spirits by fantasising about the bacon sandwich he had promised himself, with coffee and the paper. This was the thought in his head, as he peered through the swirling snow over the road to the blocks of flats on the other side. He did it every time he walked past, and the extreme conditions of the morning made no difference. Caroline’s flat.
He was about to press on, head down into the wind, when his eye was caught by a huddled figure in the entrance hammering on the door. Defeated, the figure slumped to the ground and sat, head in hands and began weeping. He stopped and stared, shielding his eyes from the driving snow. He took a step towards the kerb, almost indistinguishable now from the road surface and kept on going, picking his way gingerly over the compacted snow on the road surface. Halfway across he called out.
“Caroline? Is that you, Caroline?”
The figure leaped up as if stung, or caught guiltily in the middle of some heinous act. She wiped her hand across her face. When she recognised who had called out to her, her face fell.
“Caroline, what the hell are you doing out here? Are you alright?”
“Sam, er ..Hi, yes, yes , I’m fine. I’m just…”
She hesitated, as if deciding what to say next. Her face was red and blotchy and streaked with tears.
“No, you’re not,” Sam insisted, “You’ve been crying. What’s the matter? You look terrible.”
A wry smile creased her features and she started again.
“Yes, terrible, I can imagine. It’s just that my boiler’s broken down, and I came down to go to the shop and I…er..well, I got locked out. And I haven’t got my phone with me, or my keys and there’s no-one else in the building and I, er.. I didn’t know what to do and I..”
The sentence collapsed into a further outbreak of sobbing. Sam reached out instinctively and took her hand.
“God, Caroline, you’re freezing. How long have you been out here? You need to get inside.”
“Oh, I dunno, half an hour maybe. It’s just that I don’t know what to do and why did you have to come along again and I’m looking a state and being pathetic and, oh, I don’t know, I..”
The words tumbled out in an incoherent torrent until the heaving sobs came again and she wrenched her hand away.
“Look, come on, come round to mine. It’s only five minutes away. You can get warmed up and sort yourself out and we’ll work out a way through this.”
She hesitated. The use of the word “We” was suddenly hypnotically alluring, the idea that someone could help her manage this. But not him. Of all people, not him.
He reached out and took her hand again.
“You can’t stay out her, you’ll freeze to death. Come on.”
Gently, he pulled her hand and she took her first step, and annoyance was gradually replaced by relief as she allowed herself to be led towards a solution. The two figures, hunched against the wind, melted into the blizzard as they made their way slowly down the road.
By the time she woke up, the grey light outside had begun to fade. After they had arrived at Sam’s flat, he had made her eat and drink and then insisted she get some sleep in the spare room. Her blank, red-eyed silence, as she methodically chewed her toast and drank the coffee he had handed to her, had convinced him that she had been exhausted and had been outside for longer than she had said.
She got dressed and tentatively made her way out of the room and into the hall way.
“Hello?” she called out, “Anyone here?”
The nearest door opened.
“Aha, Caroline. You feeling any better? That was one hell of a sleep. You obviously needed it.”
Sam smiled at her and ushered her into the room.
“Come in, come in. Come and have a seat.”
The room was not what she had been expecting. It was beautifully proportioned. Elegant, with high ceilings, polished floor boards and Persian rugs. She almost gasped when she walked in, her eyes wide and bright. There were three sofas arranged around an open fireplace, which had a gently flickering log fire. She stopped herself from telling him what an amazing place it was. She suspected that many people had told him that over the years.
“No, I won’t thanks. I really had better be getting back. Thanks, though, you’ve been very kind.”
“Getting back? Getting back where? Have you found your keys then? Or your mobile?”
“Well, no obviously, but..” She trailed off unconvincingly.
“Come on Caroline, I know you don’t really like me and you feel a bit uncomfortable here, but there’s not much else you can do, is there? Just give in to it and stay. You’ve already sampled the spare room. You can spend most of the time in there if you prefer. I’ve got loads of work to be getting on with anyway and so have you, I imagine. I’ll even lend you my laptop, how’s that?”
He couldn’t work out whether he was more annoyed or disappointed at her evident eagerness to leave, so he straddled the two. He thought himself rather bold for naming the fact that he clearly made her feel a little awkward, but there was little point in being overly polite. At least it was out in the open now. And she couldn’t go anywhere else, that was undoubtedly true. The weather was getting worse, if anything. Even if there were hordes of friends or family in the area, it would be impossible to get to them, unless they lived next door. Public transport, as is the custom in Britain in the bad winter weather, had closed down, and the country had returned to somewhere in the nineteenth century. Like it or lump it, they were stuck together for the foreseeable future.
Caroline submitted to the inevitable and perched on the end of the sofa furthest from Sam. She felt that she had to make some kind of attempt at conversation, at least for a while before she could take up his offer and retreat to a separate room with a laptop. She looked again around the grand living room, and took the least line of resistance.
“This is an amazing flat. It’s like a stately home.”
Sam gave an embarrassed laugh.
“Hardly. It’s the ground floor of the building.”
He saw the expression in her face and admitted, “It is very nice obviously. I’m very lucky.”
“Are you rich then? People who say that they are very lucky usually mean they were privately educated and daddy is something in the city”
“Rich? God, no. I, ..er.. we bought it a long time ago when it was a dump and we did it up, a bit at a time. So, yeah, lucky.”
“’We’? Are you divorced then? Didn’t you have to divvy it up after you split up?”
A pained look flashed across Sam’s face and he stumbled over his words.
“Well, no, not exactly. Umm, I , er..”
Caroline immediately interjected. “Sorry, none of my business. Just putting my foot in it as usual. Ignore me.”
“No, no. It’s me. It’s just that…” He stopped, as if uncertain about how to go on.
“What? What’s the matter? Can’t be that terrible, can it?”
“I was married, but I’m not divorced. My wife died. Yes. She died.” He pronounced the words, awkwardly, as if it were the first time he had ever said them out loud.
Caroline looked horror-struck.
“Oh God, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know. I would never have asked if I’d known. Sorry, that was a terrible thing to say.”
Sam’s blank face shivered into a near smile. “It’s alright. It was a long time ago. A very long time ago. So, yes, not rich, just lucky.”
A silence hovered and settled on the room. The thick snow had dampened down what little noise there was in the streets outside. There was virtually no traffic, just the occasional gust of wind that whined through the window frames and rattled the panes. Caroline looked up in the direction of the noise, grateful for any distraction. At the far end of the room, a pair of French windows looked out onto a long back garden that disappeared from view in the gathering darkness. The garden melted into the thick trees of the adjoining woodland.
“Goodness!” she exclaimed, a little too eagerly, “What a great garden.”
She sprang up, went over to the windows and peered outside. Sam followed her and looked over her shoulder. There were a few flakes of snow drifting down form the grey skies. This was probably the mildest the weather had been all day. Soon, when the sun completely sank beneath the horizon and darkness settled, the temperatures would plummet again. Outside the blanket of snow across the lawn was untouched, thick and even. Only a few lines of bird and animal tracks criss-crossed the canvas.
“Look at that,“ she breathed, “It’s perfect. When I was a kid and our garden was like this, we’d spend hours in it building snowmen.”
She looked back at him, over her shoulder, and smiled. The memory was real and alive for her. Their eyes met. And then Sam, gestured out into the garden with his eyes and back again.
“Well, shall we?” he asked, grateful for the distraction.
“What, go outside? Really?”
She stopped and thought for a moment. “Yeah, come on. Why not?”
The next hour and a half flew by, as they constructed a family of snow people with accessories, stopping occasionally to discuss tactics and take part in an ongoing snowball fight. When they finally came back inside, it was it was velvet black in the garden, the icy darkness shrouding the mysterious group of snow people who were huddled together as if posing for a family photograph at the back by the woods. Their fingers were numb and wet, their cheeks red, their breath steaming into the night air.
He thought of that moment, many times later over the years that followed, as the moment his second life began again. By what a slender thread our lives hang. Choices made, corners turned, things unsaid. Even in the later contemplation of it, its randomness, its chance, its serendipity, brought fear as much as joy. For who knew when similar happenstance would unravel all that had been tightly woven?
Much later that evening, in front of the dying embers of the fire, when two bottles of wine had softened their defences, they sat on the floor side by side wrapped in a filmy gauze of wonder and disbelief. They had talked for hours, discovering on the way, a shared love of The Strokes, The Arctic Monkeys, The Wire, The Sopranos (with a guilty pleasure of The Gilmore Girls admitted under pressure), William Blake, Patti Smith, lower league football, The World Cup, roses and clematis. At one point in the evening, when it seemed to both of them that this had all been supernaturally prearranged, they discovered that they had both taught English as a Foreign Language in Spain at the same time, Sam in Madrid and Caroline in Barcelona.
Before they knew it, it was 1.30am, the last bottle was empty and the embers had ceased to glow in the grate. A sudden awkwardness descended from nowhere.
“Well,” said Sam finally springing up to gather the glasses and bottles, “That was nice, but it’s probably way past bed time.”
“Oh“, stammered Caroline, taken aback, “Yes, of course. Will you have to do the snow thing again tomorrow?”
“No, thank God. The message this morning made it clear that we’d be shut for at least two days, so at least I’m spared a 5 am start. Might be different the day after though. Forecast is for a big thaw.”
“Nothing good ever lasts, does it?” she asked, looking directly at him.
He looked away. “No. No, it doesn’t.” he muttered and busied himself with clearing up. When Caroline followed him into the kitchen with some token clearing, he said, “Oh thanks for that. I’ll do the rest. You know where everything is, don’t you?”
She looked puzzled. “What do you mean?”
“Oh, you know, toilet and bathroom. You can use the room you were in this morning.” He stole a glance at her. “It was alright, was it?”
“The room. This morning,“ he explained patiently. “The room was alright?”
“Yes,“ she said finally, “The room was just right. Like the three bears.”
She turned to go, so he couldn’t see the look of absolute humiliation on her face. The three bears? What was she like? “Ok, good night then,” she said to the wall and carried on walking. Sam stacked the dishwasher.
Later, in the strange snow -dampened silence of his room, Sam lay rigid under the duvet, eyes wide open, mind racing. There was a full moon outside, and it silvered the far end of the room through a crack in the curtains. Why had he mentioned Donna? Why hadn’t he made a move or done anything about it? Anything at all. She was wonderful, there was no doubt about that. And she quite liked him, or was she just a great actress? Liked him? Not any more, he thought bitterly. What is wrong with me? Why can’t I just reach out to someone? Will it always be like this, for years and years and years? The questions raced through his mind, over and over again, and not for the first time, his eyes were wet when he finally slipped into sleep.
When the knock came at his door, gently, he woke up, instantly alert. The door opened a crack and there was a rustle, as a soft breath of wind passed through. The kiss, when it finally came, was everything he had been waiting for, for such a very long time.
The next day, whenever it started, was centred on that room. It was for hours and moments the centre of their universe, with the outside world a memory or a distant rumour, a story told by children but not believed. Occasionally throughout the day, noises came from the other world: a distant train, children playing a few doors down, and when the sun fell, the hoot of an owl and the bark of a fox, but they paid little attention to anything other than the adventure of discovery in front of their eyes.
In the silvery moonlight of the next night she turned to him. “Will we have to go in to school tomorrow?“
It felt warmer and the noises outside their window had included a steady dripping of the promised thaw.
“I don’t know,” he replied, “I think maybe it’s going to freeze over again before morning. Sleep now. I’ll sort it out.”
They both knew he was lying.
He lay back under the plump clouds of duvet, her arm across his chest, and looked at the clock. 5am.
He thought of marking 11C’s Mock exams.
He thought of planning the INSET day for the first day back in January
He thought of how he could link performance management with teaching repertoire.
He thought of her arm, its downy golden hairs individually picked out against her warm brown skin.
He thought of how he could encourage teachers to observe each other
He thought of the end of term reports he had to write for the trainee teachers and how he could make them sound a little more positive.
He thought of her smell, like vanilla and caramel.
He thought of the paper he had to finish, to present to SLT, on coaching for development.
He thought of her eyes, strangely green with little grey flecks. And white, white, white, like her sparkling teeth.
He thought of the way she wiped away the crumbs of her toast from the sides of her mouth, moist with tea.
He thought of her lips…..
He swung his legs out from under the duvet, perched on the edge of the bed and reached for his phone.
Sam Stringer was on the verge of something. It was not a nervous breakdown. It was not greatness. He stood on the edge and peered over the sides, dizzy and breathless. Finally, he scrolled down, hit the send button, and slipped back under the creamy warmth of the duvet. The school would be closed again that day.
Sam Stringer was on the verge of falling in Love.
If you liked this story, try my first novel, Zero Tolerance, available from the following links:
Marcus Grovelle, the Tory Education Secretary, in an eerie foreshadowing of Gavin Williamson, solves the problems of the NHS, Social care and Teacher recruitment at a stroke.
In this extract from “Zero Tolerance”, Grovelle, speaking at a conference of POCSE, a teachers’ group designed to raise exam performance, tackles the pressing issues of the day.
Grovelle’s speech was reaching its zenith and the crowd, seduced by the charisma of power, were lapping it up, with its strange mixture of flattery, eccentricity and outright madness.
“And there are so many points of agreement between this Government’s challenging of the status quo and the Partnership’s challenging of sloppy teaching and low standards in exams. We have broken the dead hand of Local Authorities and their monopoly control of education, we’ve provided real choice with the creation of Academies that have transformed educational standards in this country and took that step further with a whole new category of Free Schools, giving parents the right to set up schools that will give greater priority to standards and old-fashioned values. We’ve finally dealt with the runaway grade inflation and cheating that flourished under the last socialist government, introducing exams that are rigorous and which don’t patronise working class children and instead expect the same high standards for students whether they come from a council estate or a country estate.
So, Ladies and Gentlemen, we are clearly cut from the same cloth. We want the same things, we have the same passion, we refuse to accept the same old excuses. Now, I ask you to join me in our new venture, the next step in transforming Britain’s education system and moving from being the laughing stock of the free world to being the best in the world. I can announce today, that after consultation, from next September we will be introducing the following major reforms:
All students will have an entitlement to follow a five-year course, leading to GCSE, of Latin and Greek. These courses will be double weighted in the performance tables, to incentivise more timid institutions to embrace the reform. Let’s bring back the standards from historically our finest institutions and spread them to Bash Street Kids Comprehensive.
We are going to tackle the problem of teacher recruitment with a series of bold and innovative initiatives. Every University, College and Higher Education Institute will be affiliated to a network of local schools and undergraduates will be able to supplement their Maintenance Loans by taking up the places that will be on offer as affiliated teachers. This will, at a stroke, get the brightest and the best of our young people working in the Secondary School system without the need for costly and time-consuming training, most of which frankly, could have come out of Jeremy Corbyn’s Marxist handbook.”
Here he paused and beamed at his audience, evidently delighted with his clever joke, one he had personally inserted in the text of the speech, against the wishes of his Central Office writers. The audience nervously blinked back, not sure of what their response should be to these extraordinary proposals. Grovelle steamed forward.
“We will tackle once and for all the divide between vocational education and academic. For too long we have been in thrall to the crazy notion that everyone should go to University. We have denigrated practical subjects and sneered at those who have chosen to follow their aptitude for hands-on work. Our new apprenticeships were a start in tackling the ludicrous, over-complicated schemes of the last Labour Government, but now we are going to go one step further. I am delighted to be able to announce today that, from September, from the age of fourteen all students will be able to choose to sign up to do National Service, either in any of the armed forces, or, and this idea is truly inspired and revolutionary, in our National Health Service, with particular emphasis on Social Care. The sneering naysayers in the Remoaners camp, who constantly talk this great country of ours down, have carped and moaned continually about how our great institutions would collapse without foreign workers to staff them. Why on earth should we condemn the bottom forty percent of our young people to failure in the academic exam system, just for the sake of political correctness? We anticipate that, in the first instance, there will be a traditional gender split, with boys opting for the armed forces and girls for the caring professions, but the choice will be available for anyone who to express a preference for either. The only obstacle they would have to face would be the comments of their friends.” Again, Grovelle paused to allow the audience to show their appreciation of his daring joke. He was rewarded with a few nervous titters.
“Imagine, the problems of Social care, the NHS, the Armed Forces in the face of the conventional threat posed by Russia and by terrorism and the academic standards of the bottom 40% of our young people, all solved at a stroke.”
The expressions on the sea of faces in front of him told their own story of people picturing the reality of what had just been described to them. There were expressions of bafflement, incomprehension, with a few furrowed brows of those who were turning to anger. Grovelle, oblivious to his audience, ploughed on. The unthinkable had to be thought, and he was the man to think it.
Will Williamson have more success than Grovelle? Read the rest of “Zero Tolerance” to find out.
Amidst all of the hopeless Tory floundering over their pathetic handling of the pandemic, such that even hardened liars have started to look a little embarrassed at the nonsense Cummings has told them to spout, they have inadvertently stumbled on a get-out-jail-free card, like Bilbo in the tunnels under The Misty Mountains finding the ring of power in the darkness. (apologies – there will be no further fey Lord of the Rings type references in the remainder of this blog) And to their great relief, it’s a combination of bogeymen that they are very familiar with. Buried deep in the Tory psyche, is the fundamental conviction that The British People (Pompous voice, serious expression) love bashing the unions and in particular, they love bashing teachers unions’ and Local Authorities (sometimes known as “Communists” and “Soviets”). So, at PM questions this week (shortly to be renamed, “Are you talkin’ to me?”) the execrable LiarMan Johnson was wetting himself with joy at his cunning wheeze for ignoring the questions by asking a load of his own. The use of the word “Asking” in this context is a little misleading. “Asking” implies complete sentences but The Great Orator will not be tied down by the restrictions imposed by Standard English Grammar. Those sort of rules are for losers and oiks. Bellowed single words, Latin phrases, and the stamping of feet takes Boris right back to the good old days at The Bullingdon club.
This was compounded by Robert Halfon at the Education select committee asking the unions (Mary Bousted, I think) why Students could go shopping in Primark but not go to school. Halfon is usually one of the more sympathetic Tories, someone who does a passable impersonation of a human being most of the time, so this intervention was particularly disappointing. It really does not take a lot of brain power to work out that easing the lockdown on shops is a question for his boss to answer, not the teaching unions. In the great new Tory spirit of nothing being their responsibility, they seem both baffled and outraged that the situation in schools is no more than the consequences arising from a responsible following through of the Government’s own safety guidelines for Covid 19. Sorry guys, it’s not a Union plot, no matter how convenient that would have been for you.
Then came the Great Tory Plan for saving a generation of students, probably purchased on line from the same CunningPlans ‘R Us store as the one they were supposed to have in place for Social Care. Oh, and the one for a comprehensive free trade deal (both “oven-ready” plans, if memory serves me well). This involves a startled looking Gavin Williamson, announcing a scheme to give one to one tuition next year so that no student will fall behind. Apart from the ones whose names are already down for a zero hours contract opportunity, when they leave school, because they don’t really count. Until Daniel Rashford (keep up, Mr Hancock!) gets wind of it, then at the last minute they will really, really count and will all be promised scholarships to Oxbridge, instead. Until everyone has forgotten about it, after we all get back from Tuscany in October.
This is a classic Tory response to a situation they have fundamentally misunderstood and then misrepresented. It is infuriating that it appears that, emerging from the mist, oven ready, so to speak, are teachers, to take on the role of Tory scapegoat. The narrative goes something like this. Lockdown and continued school closure is a tragedy for the life chances of young people. It is doing irreparable damage to their education and therefore to their eventual outcomes and prospects. It is doing particular damage to the lives of those working – class kids. You know, the ones the Tories really care about so much. Well, when Marcus Rashford tells them to. In order to mitigate the damage inflicted on young people by Marxists and Trade unions, teachers must give up some of their holidays, or work at the weekends for the next year so that the kids can catch up what they’ve missed. So much education has been lost, they say. So much Damage has been done, they say. Decent ordinary teachers want to work themselves into the ground to make things right, but they are being held back by the Socialist teaching unions, who, rumour has it, aren’t patriotic and think Churchill was a racist. (They do tend to get a bit confused, after a while. I think this is called “Cognitive overload”)
This, as you have probably gathered, drives me mad.
Lockdown and non-attendance at school has not done “irreparable damage” to the vast majority of students.
Learning has not been “Lost”, like a piece of PE kit without a name tag. It may well have been delayed, but it’s definitely not “Lost”
The idea of lost learning comes from a confusion about the distinction between learning and covering a set curriculum. Learning is vital. Covering a set curriculum to an arbitrary timescale and set of assessment criteria is as important as we deem it to be. And in this situation, that’s not very.
Two groups of students have suffered terribly during this period: Those at risk in child protection terms and those whose mental health has worsened because of the lack of opportunities to socialise with their peers and adults other than those in their close family. It is vital that these children get back into school as quickly as possible, not to be crammed with the knowledge they have missed learning, but to experience positive interactions, whether that be play or discussion, with others.
The Tory plan to plug the gaps of what has been missed, by first testing, supposedly to identify “Gaps” and then by “catch up” programmes before and after school, at weekends and in the holidays is a dreadful, unimaginative, useless response to this unprecedented situation. More than anything else, children need to go back to normal. The situation envisaged in September is not normal. It piles pressure on staff and students after the extraordinary challenge that the pandemic has presented. In short, it’s the worst of all possible worlds.
One to one tuition can make a contribution, but it can also mess things up even more. Unknown tutors, teaching a programme uncalibrated to the needs of the school, the class and the individual, with little accountability is potentially a huge waste of money. And, at the risk of being cynical, who exactly will trouser the vast sums of money being talked about? The Government has specified that they will control the provision of accredited tutors from approved Tuition companies. And guess who will own those little beauties? Friends and family of The Conservative Party. And donors, of course. Some people will get a tidy little wedge from this “crisis”.
And, of course, if you think about this situation in terms of lost learning, you are immediately in crisis territory, leading to a panicked response. The minute you start to think of it as simply learning delayed, the crisis evaporates (notwithstanding the two groups mentioned above) and a rational plan can emerge.
Let me suggest my alternative. If education is so important, if the learning that would have taken place needs to be achieved, if the Government is prepared to spend considerable sums of money on this, then why not just repeat the year?
That’s right – Repeat the year.
No additional pressure. Going over some of the same ground will reinforce learning. Repeating will allow time for greater depth, nay, even mastery.
In Primary you could either keep the Year 6 children and devise the most thrilling transition programme ever. Reception would be deferred for a year because International best practice from those jurisdictions we so admire, is to give children more playing time by starting formal education at least a year later than the UK. Or, to avoid their disappointment, they could transition, and do their interim programme in secondary before staring the Year 7 curriculum. The departed Year 11s means that there is physical space in the schools, as usual.
This way you would cover the curriculum, but without a panicked sense of rush that “Catch up” implies. And students going on the Higher Education would do so, but just a year later than usual. No big loss there. People have been doing gap years for decades now, so it can’t do any damage, surely.
This is not quite a back of the fag packet solution. I have actually turned over and gone on to the front as well. But I do recognise that inevitably, there will be lots of things that my brilliant solution does not account for. But I imagine, given the adversarial nature of Twitter and Social media in general, that there will shortly be a tsunami of people telling me how dim I am not to have considered X, Y and particularly Z.
Normal People: Great book, slightly disappointing TV adaptation.
Now the terrestrial television version is finally over, I can deliver the review I’ve been sitting on after bingeing the series on I-Player, to avoid spoiling it for those people still ploughing on with week by week. I don’t know this as I write, but I imagine that the viewing figures showed a steady decline from the opening episodes, whose early brilliance, with the promise of much more, became a distant, hard -to- keep- hold -of memory by the end.
The Sally Rooney Conundrum
I came to the series with some history as far as Rooney is concerned. Her first novel, Conversations with Friends launched her onto the literary scene in a blaze of glory. The reviews were universally gushing. This, they shouted, was a major new talent, the voice of the millennials, someone who really understood how that generation felt and thought and acted. Someone fresh and exciting and new. And young. More than anything else, her greatest asset as far as the panoply of cultural commentators were concerned, was her youth.
As someone who has studied and taught literature for all of my adult life, and what’s more, someone with an abiding love and passion for books, I have always looked out for the new kids on the block. I’m also someone who has been partial to the more experimental novelists, both in terms of style and structure. The difficult read was always for me an incentive not a passion killer. And so, I snapped up Conversations with Friends, eager to join the ranks of the disciples. I began to turn the pages with the juiciest phrases from the reviews echoing in my mind: whip smart, forensic examination of twenty something relationships. Funny. Incisive.
After thirty pages, I was puzzled. After fifty I was annoyed. What a dreadful book. Trite, dull, shallow nonsense acted out amongst a menage a trois, with supporting cast, all drowning in narcissistic entitlement. A real case of the Emperor’s New Clothes or Old Wine in New Bottles. I developed a theory that this was yet another manifestation of the modern phenomenon of Literary agents and Publishers preferring young, attractive women to old grey-haired dudes because they were easier to market and promote. It was easier to envisage shipping shedloads of product if it had been produced by a photogenic babe with her finger on the Instagrammable pulse of the millenial generation. This theory gained traction in my very small brain when it was announced that Rooney’s second book, “Normal People” had been listed for the Booker prize. That greater traction converted to obvious conspiracy theory territory when my research showed that Normal People had not even been published when it was listed for this major Literary prize. That was the clincher. I fumed from my unsuccessful writer’s garret and railed against the cosy, cliquey, corrupt literary establishment stitch up, and vowed never to read it and to diss Rooney’s name whenever the opportunity arose.
And that, for me, would have been a perfect and entirely satisfactory end to my virtuous rage, but for one fatal mistake.
I read it.
I finally decided to give it another chance after reading, almost continuously so it seemed, endless glowing references to it, endorsements and general positivity, some from people whose judgement I generally have a lot of time for. I reluctantly concluded that I might have got it wrong and been a bit hasty. I’m sure you’ll find that easy enough to believe.
I started again, sure that my original withering critical assessment would be vindicated. It starts quite slowly and obliquely (another one my moans about modern fashions in literature), so that you have to work hard to piece together relationships and point of view and setting and situation. Or everything, in short. But then, very quickly, after only a couple of pages, the fog lifted to reveal a gorgeous landscape. I was enthralled. The book is a beautiful, beautiful thing of subtlety, wonder , emotion and intellect. The depiction of contemporary Secondary school life, with its airy cruelty, social media fuelled bullying and shifting allegiances between well defined, well known cliques that are impossible to break down, infiltrate or change was masterful. The taboo relationship between the classes and cliques, and its accompanying, soaring exhilaration and embarrassment was beautifully, sensitively explored. I loved the way that the central relationship was so precious, so wondrous to Marianne and Connell that they became paralysed by fear that one wrong word or move would finish it. On some deep level, neither of them really believed they deserved the other and this always translated into, for the observer, an infuriating inability to communicate with each other about their own needs. The subtleties of class and alienation, so often in modern times ignored or badly rendered, were navigated with a rare combination of authority and humanity, as were the perils of the working-class boy arriving at and surviving an elite University.
It’s a glorious novel about the earth-shattering, life affirming, all- enveloping effect of finding someone who you connect with, at that most tender and exciting time of one’s life, when all things are possible and one fears that none of them will come to pass.
I was so pleased that I decided to read it, after dismissing Rooney as an establishment darling, a judgement I look back on with some embarrassment. It seems pretty obvious to me now, that my conspiracy theories about literary agents were fuelled by my own frustrations as a budding writer, of not being able to attract a spark of interest in getting my books called.
So, having revised my opinion, I was really looking forward to the TV adaptation. The first episode was fabulous, and promised a binge worthy series. The two actors embodied the characters as I had envisaged them and the awkward choreography of school and relationship was beautifully portrayed. But then, as it progressed, it lost its way. The TV version simply did not deliver the characters’ interior life in the same depth as the book, so the viewer was left baffled by a series of decisions or non-decisions they made. Marianne’s descent into the two appalling abusive boyfriends after Connell, in Italy and Sweden, was utterly unconvincing to me, when in the book, it made perfect sense. The same applied, for me at any rate, about their ridiculous lack of communication about flats and the like, and Marian’s family background.
And then we come to the matter of televised sex. At the risk of sounding like my mother back in 1974, or the legendary Brenda from Bristol on the prospect of a General Election (“What, another one?”) did we really need it? After the second half hour episode, every scene where they got their kit off was just filling airtime. By then, we had all got the point that “it isn’t like this with anyone else”. And the much trumpeted (well, by The Daily Mail, anyway) forty minutes in total of sex scenes completely misrepresented the balance of the original book.
Notwithstanding all of this, the two main actors were spectacularly good. I have a feeling that we will be seeing an awful lot more of them in the future. Paul Mescal’s performance as Connell, sensitive, intelligent literate working class boy who is also good at sport and socially successful, was brilliant. His portrayal of the difficulties this hugely talented character had in finding his niche amongst the posh kids, his breakdown after the suicide of his friend from Sligo , culminating in a heart rending scene of uncontrolled male sobbing was so convincing, so perfect it made me once again worry about my own son and the position of young male twentysomethings in society today. It’s much harder growing up these days than it was in my day, back in the Seventies. Daisy Edgar Jones as Marianne was also fabulous, particularly in the earlier episodes at school and at home, as someone who was alone in her abusive family and with no friends until Connell comes along. I’d also like to give a special mensh to Desmond Eastwood who played Niall, Connell’s flat mate and friend at Trinity. A minor character, he completely slipped my notice when reading the book, but he struck me as being just perfect in the adaptation. Just as in real life, the normal, ordinary, kind, helpful, supportive people tend to go under the radar, and Niall seemed like an absolute sweetie, the kind of friend everyone needs, who can crack a joke or smooth things over, when all around him over-sensitive people are falling apart, sometimes self-indulgently, sometimes as vulnerable human beings.
So, what a wasted opportunity, after a wonderful start. It could have been so much better. It’s still head and shoulders above most things on TV at the moment, but the book drove me to want more from it. If you didn’t like the TV version, and as you can see, I can absolutely relate to that, please don’t deprive yourself of the pleasure of the book. It is a major piece of work.