One old white dude’s voyage of discovery over 38 years in the classroom.
I was fascinated to read earlier this month a call for Of Mice and Men to be filtered when read aloud in the classroom so that one specific offensive word was not used. This was a campaign promoted by “anti-racist educator” Marsha Garratt up in Teesside, and the BBC story can be found here:
It set me thinking about my own steadily evolving relationship to teaching the book, since I first started as a Secondary English teacher way back in 1982. When I arrived in London in 1981 my life experience was almost exclusively a white one. I was born and brought up in Teesside, and then went to University in York. After a year or so of crummy jobs I found myself living in Valencia in Spain for a year. So up until the age of twenty four, everywhere I had lived was overwhelmingly white. I was a socialist and a passionate believer in equality and the struggle for social justice, so my ideology was progressive, but my lived experience was narrow.
Moving to London in this context was exhilarating. I lived in the Hasidic Jewish enclave of Stamford Hill before moving to Brixton. Before that I had first lived in Kings Cross, where the most notable minority community appeared to be sex workers, judging by the number of used syringes and condoms I had to kick out of the doorway of the short life housing flat/Squat where I lived, every time I left in the morning. It was a whirlwind of new experiences and especially invigorating being part of a rich, diverse community.
This was the major chord of starting to work as an English teacher in the ILEA – the extraordinary range and variety of people who went to Inner London schools. It’s multi racial character was a real source of strength and was something that the ILEA rightly celebrated. This was when I first encountered Of Mice and Men. It was a fixed part of the English Curriculum even then, and I set about preparing to teach it, aided and abetted by the English Centre’s seminal study guide on the book. ( the inclusion of Steinbeck’s letter to Annie Luce, the actress cast to play Curley’s wife in the first stage production was hugely significant and an invaluable resource in the classroom ) When I first read the novel, I was struck by how powerful it was. Of all the novels we taught in those days, it was probably the most perfect.
Why was that?
It was short, so you could read it aloud as a complete text and still generate enough written and discussion work to fulfil assessment requirements.
It’s perfectly structured, coming full circle to finish where it started, as foreshadowed in the opening chapter, in the brush by the river. And because of that it made it easier to teach what, for many pupils, is a complex and abstract concept: whole text structure.
Steinbeck’s prose, like Arthur Miller’s in many of his plays, was a wonderful celebration of the poetry of the vernacular. Spare and simple, both dialogue and description are masterful examples of economy of expression. At a time when many students suffer from a devotion to the Thesaurus and equate baroque purple prose with quality, this was an invaluable antidote.
It never failed, in over thirty-five years, to provoke an emotional reaction from readers. It was a rare day when the reading of the final chapter did not have students in floods of tears. Even stony-faced macho boys would permit themselves a quiver of the lip at the end. At a time when reading is under threat as never before from a panoply of more seductive, modern pursuits, this was invaluable. It opened a door to a world where books could make connections, generate meaning and have a real impact on the way someone viewed themselves in society. Suddenly, books had a point. They made sense. They were endorsed as a thing of value, rather than something dull and worthy that posh people did at home and everyone else was forced to do at school.
It generated mind-bending shifts in attitudes about women, black people, workers, sexism, racism and capitalism and deepened understanding of our history and how and why things are as they are now in relation to the past. I can recall numerous light bulb moment lessons when students suddenly made a connection between Steinbeck’s intentions for his depiction of Curley’s Wife and the way she was described by the men on the ranch. In that way, it also was the first time that many students had considered the idea of an unreliable witness in fiction. The first appearance of Curley’s wife in the novel routinely confirms for most students the opinion expressed by Candy. They think of her as a flirt, a “floozy”. The description of her dead body causes them to think again, powerfully but not in a hectoring, lecturing way. The first reaction places them in the position of the men on the ranch, the last places them outside of the novel, in the position of Steinbeck. For many students, for the first time, they are aware of the idea of a writer manipulating and deceiving the reader for a deeper purpose.
There is a problem here, though, and with the depiction of Crooks. It needs very careful, skilful teaching for it to work. Some students don’t get beyond agreeing with Candy when it comes to Curley’s Wife. You really have to commit as a teacher, to go the extra mile here. This is why the Steinbeck letter is so unusual and so important, providing a rare example in the classroom of evidence of the author’s intentions outside of the main text. Unfortunately, no such equivalent text exists to help with the teaching of Steinbeck’s presentation of Crooks.
The scene in Crooks’ room late on Saturday night is nuanced and layered. Again, some students find it difficult to interpret Crooks’ gleeful bullying of Lennie in any more subtle way than lying on one side of the Good/Bad dichotomy. The notion that this behaviour might give the reader some greater insight into his situation is a difficult idea to grasp for some and needs the same persistent, careful teaching. In recent years, given the time constraints of exam-based questions with limited time to prepare, the persistent, careful teaching of subtle interpretations has been hard to preserve. Easily packaged answers are the order of the day.
But back to the subject of this blog – the way my attitude to teaching the novel changed over the years. From the beginning, Steinbeck’s liberal use of the N word was uncomfortable. As the educated teacher, I rationalised this as being acceptable because of his clear intentions to expose injustices in his society. For him to do this as a white writer in the 1930’s in America seemed to me to be admirable and progressive. Nonetheless, I could not reasonably expect my classes to be aware of this and therefore spent a lot of time preparing the ground for the use of the word and the entirely positive reasons behind it. I was in effect trying to say, “Don’t worry guys! He’s on your side, and what’s more on your side from a time when that was a dangerous thing to be. Let’s celebrate him.” It only worked because I had developed the trust of my classes and had made a big thing about injustice and racism in every other area of the stuff I taught. I had nailed my colours to the mast so that everyone knew the values that applied in my lessons.
I cringe when I look back on it now, and the tinge of white saviour complex it connotes. And cringe even more when I think how long that situation was maintained in my teaching as the status quo.
The next phase, probably at least ten years later, was to discuss the issue with each class as I always had, but then let them take a vote on it. If that seems now like passing the buck, it was done from a desire to give the students some respect and level of control. And that situation lasted for at least another ten years, (probably more). Each successive class had their own reaction to it. Every class came round to loving the book, with some taking longer than others to get the nuances under the surface. It was still doing all the things I wanted it to and it still had all the qualities I loved and valued, but steadily, growing in the back of my mind was an unease that wouldn’t go away.
Every time I said the word out loud, it felt like I was slapping my black students in the face. I was expecting them to silently endure disrespect and humiliation in the service of Literature. I justified it to myself on the same grounds that were used when the great statue debate emerged in the last few years. You know the stuff:
You can’t rewrite history. This happened, we can’t pretend it didn’t and we must simply explain it. To pull them down would be to airbrush history in the tradition of the Great Dictators down the ages. It’s just meaningless gesture politics, designed only to let people show off as “woker than thou”. More important to be actively ant-racist than to obsess about symbolism. Etc etc.
But of course, all of this dispassionate rationalising ignores the power of emotional reactions. How could I, a privileged old white guy, airily dismiss the concerns of the activists as gesture politics. I didn’t have historic crimes against my community paraded in front of me every day when I went to study or work, walking past a statue of some historic figure whose entire historic status is founded on the slave trade. Talk about rubbing your nose in it.
And I finally reached the same conclusion about Of Mice and Men. I continued to read the book to classes, explained the context and Steinbeck’s intentions, but this time talked about why I wasn’t going to use the word in question. Ironically, this took me right back to my days as an A level Literature student back in 1973 in Stockton -on-Tees. One of my teachers was an older woman, who was tremendously old fashioned and dull, dull, dull. (Don’t worry, her identity will not be revealed and I would have never dreamed of telling her). We found it hilarious that when teaching us The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales (and some of The Tales themselves) she would just miss entire words and phrases out when she read the text aloud. And the weird thing was she would never refer to it, or explain it or even acknowledge it. It was as if she had a different, more prudish, edition. And here I was, doing more or less the same thing. Although, to be fair, she was rather more concerned about depictions of farting and medieval rumpy pumpy, than racism.
So, I got there in the end. And it kind of worked. All of the good qualities of the novel were retained. And it was such an easy, obvious way of dealing with a problem that needed to be addressed, I can’t think why it took me so long to reach it. And I think back, to everyone I taught the book to, from 1982 onwards and I think about their feelings in my classroom when I so confidently said that word in front of them, over and over again.
I was quite a good English teacher. I took it seriously and wanted to open the eyes of my students. I wanted to introduce them to the power and beauty of Language and the power and beauty of Literature, regardless of who they were and what their background was. I have no doubt I made many mistakes on the way and I apologise for them, unreservedly. I tried my best but I got as many things wrong as I got right, I’m sure. The Of Mice and Men mistake was the biggest of them all and for that I am sincerely sorry. The campaign deserves all of our support and I wish it well.
How what we read always bubbles up into what we write, even when we aren’t aware it’s happening
A guest appearance in the blog today from children’s author, R J Barron, writing about the links between his new novel, The Watcher and The Friend and the work of Joan Aiken, in particular, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. The connections between what we read and what we write, even years later, are mysterious and powerful. Read on for more
In the first part of this blog, I wrote about my serendipitous discovery, over many years, as a teacher and a parent, of Aiken and the Wolves Chronicles. Here, I’m going to look at the links between her wonderful books and my own children’s debut, “The Watcher and The Friend”.
It wasn’t until much later, after my book was written, that I realised the connection. Even when my editor had explicitly asked me about the inspiration, and the books I would compare it with, I did not come up with “Wolves of Willoughby Chase”. Budding writers will be familiar with this part of the process. Agents are thinking about selling, marketing, promoting. And that leads them to think about genre. What other books is your book like, so we can directly appeal to lovers of those books in the hope that they will give your book a punt? I said Narnia (The Grandfather Clock) His Dark Materials (parallel world, moral dilemmas, emerging feelings between young protagonists), Thomas Kempe (ghostly messages written across time and space). And it’s true, there is a connection between all of those books and my own. Originality is a very overrated quality in my opinion. Everything is connected, and ideas breed other ideas. The Jim Jarmusch quote is a useful guide here: “Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent.” In other words, whatever you steal, make it your own. If you’re alive in the world, it’s impossible to produce something original. You’d have to lock yourself away for a lifetime to achieve that, like a jury in a murder trial. And for what? Instead, we should celebrate the connections between our own work and that of others, even connections that have emerged from the sub-conscious.
And the sub-conscious was exactly where my ideas lurked, in the shadows, skulking. But now they are out, wide-eyed and blinking in the sunlight, the connections are perfectly clear to me. Here they are:
In Aiken’s novels, the strength of the parallel world she creates is the fact that England’s real history has been tweaked only very slightly, as if an acetate copy has slipped on top of the original. The effect is disconcerting. The reader feels as if they are standing on shifting sand and everything, including the things we take for granted, has to be re-assessed, re-evaluated in some way. The power comes not from the precision of the words themselves, but the suggestions held by the white spaces in between the words. Everything seems to be at once familiar and strange at the same time.
The time shift in “The Watcher and The Friend” is different. At first it appears that Tom has simply gone back in time, to the Runswick bay and North York Moors of 1795. The clue first appears in Tom’s reaction to historical England, as we are told that there was something not quite right about it, something he couldn’t put his finger on, but which jarred, or irritated like a tiny pebble in one’s shoe. The reason he couldn’t work out what it was the fact that it was something so familiar to someone who lives in South London in the early twenty first century – the absolute diversity of the population. All kinds of people from all over the world, living relatively harmoniously together. This state of diversity and equality is extended in The Watcher to all groups – women hold positions of power, same sex relationships are commonplace and so not worthy of comment. As we subsequently learn from an amused Silas Cummerbund, Tom has journeyed not to England in 1795, but to Yngerlande, a parallel world, also in 1795, where there is perfect equality. There has been no history of Empire, colonisation or slavery, and therefore power relations have not developed in the same toxic way as in our own world.
Settings – Country side and weather
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase appears to be set in a mini ice age, with permanent ice and snow serving as a perfect backdrop to the wolf packs that are terrorising the country. This is very deliberately echoed in The Watcher and The Friend. One early chapter, The Frozen North sets an atmosphere that can be so powerful in children’s fiction, and descriptions of snow, in both countryside and “Georgian” towns and villages, are used to provide an atmosphere that is both beautiful and harshly challenging. For many children in the UK, apart from those who live in remote areas in the hills, snow is an unfamiliar occurrence and one which is mainly evocative of classic children’s books read or films (such as the Harry Potter series) seen. It’s a powerful motif of adventure, something that is both thrillingly beautiful and to be escaped from at the same time. The escape from a snow bound forest, and its attendant dangers, into a domestic setting with food and warmth and closed doors, fulfils a most basic human desire for security.
In The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, the early escape back to the big house after being pursued by wolves that descend from the hills into the estate is a key example of this. Lucy’s encounter with Mr Tumnus in The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe is another. In The Watcher, such snowy scenes of pursuit and escape play a significant role in the novel: in the wolf attack on the lonely snowy roads across the Moors to the coast; the scene where Della, Tom, Dan and Clara emerge from the smugglers’ tunnels high up on the top of the Moors, to encounter a group of Redcoats who have tracked them down in a thick, snowy forest; and the snowy streets of York on Christmas Eve, thronged with Redcoats nervously on guard outside the Queen’s Christmas Ball in The Assembly Rooms. All of these echo Aiken’s deployment of memorable settings to create a strong and vivid sense of place.
Creatures – Wolves, Steedhorns and Steedwings
The combination of a parallel world and a historic setting allows the writer to give full vent to their imagination as far as reality is concerned. Creatures that come from old folk and fairy tales naturally inhabit this land. The archaic setting gives permission for imagination to flourish. These creatures are surely the kind of things that would have existed in this strange alternative universe. Aren’t they?
And so, very real and very frightening wolves, are joined in my book by Unicorns (or Steedhorns, as Yngerlande terms them) and flying horses (Steedwings). Not the sickly pink, disneyfied versions. No, these creatures are large and rough and shaggy, with brown coats and matted hair. The Steedhorns are commonplace and considered a pest by the local farmers, because of the damage they do to crops and the environment whereas the Steedwings are rarely seen and thought by most people to be the stuff of old tales.
In Aiken’s version of England the same cast of wild and fierce animals are present as a source of danger: primal, terrifying, ancient in the shape of the packs of wolves that roam the countryside with a careless lack of fear as far as human beings are concerned. Casual references to bears abound, along with flocks of sheep, (rescued from the slaughterhouse) a pink whale and many individual creatures that tag along after Simon, a prototype eco warrior, years ahead of his time, is the future King of England with an uncanny affinity with animals of all kinds. For children, animals in fiction are both a blameless repository of affection, and an echo of an ancient wilder world than their own. Aiken taps into this unerringly – perhaps she was an animal lover herself?
Strong female characters
Dido Twite is possibly Aiken’s greatest creation. Missing presumed drowned in the North Sea at the end of Black Hearts in Battersea, she reappears mysteriously at the beginning of the next book in the series, Nightbirds to Nantucket, on board a whaler headed towards the Newfoundland coast. The story of her rescue does not detain the reader for more than a paragraph or so and no-one who has read Black Hearts needs to know more than that, so delighted are they that Dido has returned. The legend has it that readers were distraught at the end of Black Hearts at the thought that Dido might have died and wrote to Aiken begging for her resurrection. I love the fact that this was not part of a grand plan on behalf of the author but instead it emerged at the behest of her readers. Proof again that reading is a social act of reconstruction for each individual, and that once a writer has let their work go, it no longer belongs to them, but has an independent life of its own, being constantly regenerated every time it is read afresh. And once Aiken had been diverted down that path by her readers, a whole warren of paths and turnings sprang up that had not been envisaged when The Wolves of Willoughby Chase was being planned. This is the very nature of the writer’s imagination. The act of writing begets deeper, richer, better writing; better than could ever have been planned, no matter how meticulous the creator.
The Dido that returns does not disappoint. Feisty, independent, brave, loyal, she brings a young, and as yet unjaundiced, eye on the idiocies of the adult world. The book sings whenever she is on the page, not least because of Aiken’s fabulous inventiveness in terms of Dido’s language. Even without speech tags or description, the character is immediately identifiable through her dialogue alone. Croopus! What a creation!
Like Aiken’s books, the most important characters in The Watcher are female, despite the fact the protagonist, Thomas Trelawney, is a thirteen year-old boy. As well as a group of younger female characters (Tom’s sister Grace, the mysterious girl Clara, who trails stars in her wake, Della Honeyfield, the dashing coachdriver and her partner Dr Amelia Church) the book paints a positive portrait of an older woman, Mary Carruthers. As Silas Cummerbund tells Tom early in the book, “With age comes wisdom, Thomas. Most of the old women I know are fearsomely clever, and the world would be a better place if people listened to them a bit more often. Your world and mine.”
A world under threat – plots and rescues
First and foremost, The Watcher, like the Wolves Chronicles, is an adventure, an entertainment. The story carries important messages about the world we live in, but the book stands or falls on the story alone. If the reader is not engaged, no message of any kind, no matter how pressing and relevant it is, will have any purchase. In the alternative history that underpins the stories of the Wolves chronicles, the ongoing struggle for power of the Hanoverians versus the Jacobeans provides much of the drama of the plots. Revolution, counter revolution, plots hatched and foiled ( usually at the last minute), hiding places, treachery, chases, discoveries – all of these regularly punctuate the pages of the novels in a breathless chase towards a final resolution. They are exciting adventures and readers turn the pages eager to experience the next twist or turn.
And so it is with The Watcher, I hope. I make no claims by this comparison – it’s up to readers to respond. I’m just struck, after the event, of a similar technique, a similar structure that underpins my book. In The Watcher, Yngerland in 1795 is a diverse, tolerant society. The only hierarchy is that generated by money. Apart from that, all “minority” groups are treated with equal respect and have an equal place in society with equal status. It serves as a model for our own world, particularly when it comes under attack. The “old Guard” – white rich landowners, with the figurehead of the grandson of a King who had been deposed many years earlier – secretly try to mount a coup against the Queen, Matilda, a black woman who represents everything they despise. The old guard want to preserve their interests, establish their privilege and consign all other groups to servitude. The Watcher, The Reverend Silas Cummerbund, has an ancient role of guarding the portal between Yngerlande and England, and working together with the new “Friend”, Thomas, they work to foil the plot. Their struggle to save Yngerlande involves wolf attacks, invisible ghosts, chases through smugglers tunnels, capture in dank cellars and flight across a snowbound North York Moors, all against a background of a snowy five days in the run up to Christmas. They succeed, of course, winning this first battle, but the war is clearly not over.
This blog has been a musing on connectedness and intertextuality. If you’re a teacher, a reader or a writer, I hope you’ve got some inspiration from this reaffirmation of how important children’s fiction is and how what you read as a child resonates down the years. I loved writing The Watcher (and I’m looking forward to the next four volumes in the series) and it’s clear to me now that the enjoyment I derived was in part down to the pleasure I had had years before in reading Joan Aiken’s books. If you haven’t read them, let me enthusiastically encourage you to begin. You have a treat in store. And as a writer taking the first faltering steps towards a readership, it would be remiss of me not to encourage you to do the same with my Aiken-inspired first children’s novel, The Watcher and The Friend. See if you can spot the connections as clearly as I now do myself.
If you’re interested in The Watcher and The Friend, try a lttle more. Click the links below either to read the first few chapters, or, even better, to buy a copy.
Sorrow and Bliss is one of those much-touted novels that seem to gain traction in the Spring so that many people select them as one of their Summer holiday reads. Then you get tweets and Instagram posts from influencers saying how wonderful it was, to which in their turn, in the time -honoured, strange, traditions of twitter, followers gush back, agreeing how amazing it was and the churn of interest continues. Good marketing, I suppose. And, of course, I wouldn’t be complaining if one of my books was at the centre of such a fabricated whirlwind of interest. But there’s more than sour grapes to this less than enthusiastic review. Many of these books represent a triumph of marketing over substance and I’m afraid Sorrow and Bliss is another that disappoints.
It’s targeted at women readers so single-mindedly that it might as well have a pink cover. The quotes on the inside cover are all from famous women, apart from a couple that are just attributed to a publication. There are two large quotes highlighted on the front cover, one from Ann Patchett and the other from Jessie Burton – both female writers surfing a certain zeitgeist at the moment. A comparison with Fleabag is also heavily underlined. That’s like comparing The Tempest to Love Island because it’s got people in it and it’s set on an island. Waller Bridge is a gloriously talented writer and Fleabag is funny, refreshing and moving – everything that Sorrow and Bliss isn’t but wants so desperately to be. The only thing missing are references to Sally Rooney, the media’s favourite young darling. Maybe there are contractual barriers to that, but I’m sure the publishers would have been falling over themselves, to get that agreement over the line. Maybe Rooney comes at too high price these days to be even mentioned in publicity puffs, who knows. But then Rooney’s last book did brilliantly and convincingly portray working class characters that were recognisably human. And we don’t want that sort of thing to catch on, do we?
Haven’t we got over this kind of thing yet? I know you’ve got to have a consistent message and aim mercilessly at your target audience, but this is 2021 and personally, I find the concept of women’s books and men’s books (oh no, sorry, obviously men don’t read at all) rather insulting and hopelessly out of date. At a time when the debate is about gender fluidity and all of that, this stuff seems positively antediluvian.
Sorry, I digress. Back to the book. Well, let’s deal with the good stuff first. It is genuinely funny at times. On a couple of occasions, I laughed out loud, and that is not something you can fake. Some of the observations about relationships and family dynamics are acute and amusing, and Mason can clearly write. As an experienced journalist you would expect no less, but not wanting to be churlish, she is more than competent at structuring the narrative and balancing dialogue and description, but then so are many Sixth formers. If that is meant to be enough, we’re setting the bar extremely low.
And that’s really all the good stuff. The main problem is that the characters and their dilemmas are so crashingly dull and unbelievable. I’m sure this won’t stop someone snapping this up for a three episode mini-series, but the appeal there, will be, to my mind, the book’s greatest weakness. It invites us to care about the emotional dramas of a white, highly privileged woman from the English upper classes. An endearingly eccentric posh family who live in the middle of London and whose friends and relations are movers and shakers in the Art world, or Finance, or Government or whatever. After one in a series of traumas (discovering that her hastily married husband is an abusive control freak. Sorry, but marriage is important enough to do due diligence surely?), one such family treasure scoops up Martha, the protagonist, takes her to Paris and then lets her live rent free in his fabulous bijou appartement, somewhere very bohemian and rive gauche.
If only all women escaping abusive men and disfunctional families could just slip across La Manche. Why can’t people stand on their own two feet and rely on their family rather than the nanny state? Then we wouldn’t have to pay for ruinously expensive housing benefit etc. Excuse my sarcasm, but this is so out of touch with reality it’s painful. It reminded me a little of “The Pursuit of Love”, the Nancy Mitford novel that was serialised in the BBC earlier this year. That was brilliant, and gave the impression that the author was to some at extent at least, satirising the idle upper classes. Mason, on the other hand, gives no clue about any glimmer of social awareness. Instead, she creates the impression that she is writing about a familiar social milieu, one that she assumes everyone inhabits. Or everyone that reads books, that is. And I suppose that for Meg and her chums, journalists for The Sunday Telegraph, The Financial Times, Vogue, Marie Claire and Elle, it is very familiar.
But enough of class war, back to literary analysis. The husband in this dismal scenario, the nice one that is, married after Martha has escaped from the clutches of Husband 1, Mr Nasty, is a chap called Patrick. That’s where his resemblance to a human being in 2021 begins and ends. There is nice and nice. Patrick is NICE. He puts up with a lot of shit because Martha is very high maintenance and Patrick, as a black adoptee in a very posh family seems to feel that it would be impolite (the greatest British upper class sin) to have any views, feelings, thoughts, standards about anything that might cause any upset. And throughout the novel, he is treated abysmally by absolutely everyone. By the end, I found him so annoying and unbelievable, I really wanted to be casually vile to him as well.
He does, to be fair, provide the only narrative driving force of the novel, which is the desire to see them get married in the first place and then to see them and their marriage survive. Well, OK, maybe “driving force” is a little misleading, because it suggests that I gave a toss about either of them. Maybe narrative meander would be more accurate, a reason to keep going to the end before losing consciousness.
The final piece de resistance of this whole sorry debacle was the treatment of mental illness, a topic so fashionable it squeaks. I got the feeling that the spectre of Martha’s unspecified condition was meant to excuse the whole range of her excesses. Certainly, it features heavily in the largely positive reviews of the book. You know you’re on dodgy ground when depiction of mental illness is described using the word “brave”. This anything but brave. The deliberate vagueness around the condition is thought by many to be a glittering triumph, but I found it yet another cop out. Mason even includes a note at the end of the book: “The medical symptoms described in the novel are not consistent with a genuine mental illness. The portrayal of treatment, medication and doctors advice is wholly fictional”
What? You wouldn’t do that with a physical illness so why do it with a mental one? It smacked of someone slightly out of their depth and who couldn’t really be bothered to do the research. It’s always possible of course that I’ve got this wrong and Mason has had personal or family experience of mental illness, in which case I apologise sincerely. All I can say is that it didn’t ring true for me – a clumsy plot device, rather than an artistic decision.
So once again I find myself out of step with mainstream opinion. Sorry if you loved it but it just did not speak to me convincingly at all. This was definitely a case of mainly Sorrow, little Bliss.
This debut novel by Sunderland writer Jessica Andrews won the Portico Prize for fiction in 2020, an award explicitly about representations of The North. As an exiled Northerner, and a North -Easterner like her at that, the idea has a lot of traction for me. The North is a different country, even in these days of the crumbling Red Wall, and is generally either underrepresented or misunderstood. The other pull of the novel is that it is about a working-class woman’s experience of university education, of moving away from her Sunderland home to live and study in London, and her struggles to adapt to a very different set of people, with different assumptions, beliefs and values.
Even in 2021, literary representations of working-class life are as rare as hen’s teeth (Shuggie Bain a notable recent exception), so a new one like this is to be welcomed. What makes it even more special is that it’s so good. So very good. The novel is structured to tell the story of Lucy in three distinct parts: her upbringing in the North East, with family connections in Ireland, her experiences in London as a student, and her flight back to Ireland, undertaken as an escape when the contradictions of her two worlds become too difficult to handle. It’s a first person narrative, but unlike so many examples of that most fashionable of styles, it is expertly done. The first person voice is authentically that of the character, not of a literate and well-educated author, and it takes us to the heart of the matter. That is what it is usually intended to do, but so often it fails miserably.
The three separate story strands are intertwined, and the reader has to do a lot of work to untangle them. In the same way, there is the usual obliqueness that is de rigeur in contemporary literary fiction. (Heaven forbid that anyone should ever just tell a linear story any more. Now that would be truly shocking) Sometimes that technique is tiresome and serves only to make rather dull material (characters, relationships, settings, themes, incidents) a little bit more interesting because as a reader you are transformed into something of a detective. An absence of anything as old fashioned as a plot is replaced by the efforts of the reader to discover a story for themselves. Very often the effort of textual sleuthing isn’t worth the effort for what is eventually uncovered, but here, nothing could be further from the truth. The melange of techniques works beautifully, and embellishes the story, makes it more vivid and meaningful. There’s a poetic sensibility at work in Andrews’ exquisite prose which is by turns spare, rich and luminous. It gives the material, clearly rooted in autobiography, a sparkle such that at times it sings off the page. The technique of intertwining the stories is interesting as well, with a little touch of Kerouac in it. Apparently, Andrews wrote three entirely separate stories, printed them off and then cut them up and spread them around the floor of her house before experimenting with the sequence. Who needs a word processor?
The end result is a debut novel that is a shimmering triumph. Working class alienation via education is an old theme of the post war years, but here it is transformed into a thing of beauty. Andrews is clearly someone we will be hearing more of in the future. Personally, I can’t wait for her next one.
The Culture wars that are so current today (think Black Lives Matter, the furore over statues, Gender and Sexuality issues) remind us that the liberalisation of social attutudes to discrimination and privilege can not be taken for granted. Battles that seem to have been won have to be constantly refought as the Right and Hard Right appear to be ever more emboldened to turn back the clock and erode hard won gains.
Just at the right time comes a YA novel that addresses these issues through depicting the same battles being fought in a parallel world to ours.
Anyone with a passion (or even a mild interest) for children’s literature, especially YA novels, should have a look at this exciting new writer, R J Barron.
His first YA novel, “The Watcher and The Friend” is due to be published on June 11th and is currently available now for pre-order.
The book tells the story of Thomas Trelawney, a thirteen-year old boy on a Christmas holiday in an old rectory on the North Yorkshire coast. It is the family’s first holiday since the death of Thomas’ older sister, Grace. On his first night there, Tom finds himself mysteriously lured through the Grandfather clock in his room, to the parallel land of Yngerlande, an eighteenth century version of a land nearly, but not quite, like England. He meets the Reverend Silas Cummerbund, the Watcher, whose responsibility it is to guard the passage between the two lands, and discovers that he is the new Friend, the person in England with the power to travel between the two worlds.
Yngerlande is a land of diversity and tolerance. There is a black queen on the throne, Queen Matilda, and women and races of all kinds are in positions of power and influence. Silas has discovered a plot by the grandson of the old mad King, Oliver, to violently depose Matilda and restore the old ways: racist, elitist, sexist. He needs Thomas to help him thwart the plot, because of the strange powers he possesses, including his ability to use the mysterious and powerful Sounding Stones.
Runswick Bay, North Yorkshire
At the end of every night he returns to his bedroom in the rectory in England, before going back through the clock. He visits on five nights, ending on Christmas Eve. Tom discovers as much about himself as he does about this strange new world, particularly when he meets the mysterious girl with stars in her hair. Who is she and what explains the powerful connection they have from the moment they meet?
I had a lot of interviews over the course of my career. There was the one that still makes me go slightly pink and hot, when I think about it. After not getting the job, my car broke down as I was about to drive away from outside the school, tail between my legs. My humiliation was completed by being spotted by the Head of English and the Local Authority English inspector, who had conducted their forensic dissection of me a little earlier in a hot, and airless room. I had not performed well. They waved at me and got some kids to give me a push so I could jump start the car. It was difficult to be appropriately grateful while simultaneously wanting the ground to open up and swallow me.
Another one was a three-day marathon for a Deputy Headship. At the end of the second day those who had made the final cut had to have drinks and canapes with the Governors in the evening. They turned out to be most of the Conservative party in Surrey, and it was an awkward hour of showing that I could hold a plate of Marks and Spencer sausage rolls, a glass of Chardonnay and talk convincingly about golf and skiing holidays. I could not.
But in preparing for every interview that I had, the key task that was drummed into me by senior colleagues, was the importance of having questions to ask at the end of the interview. This was not, of course, to actually find anything out. It was more to signal that I had researched the school and had prepared my questions accordingly. The real no-no, the professional crime committed only by rank amateurs was, when asked if there were any questions, to give the answer “No.”
Of course, all the real questions, the ones that demanded answers, could never be asked.
Here’s a short story about one such interview. It’s called “Asking the Questions”
Asking the Questions
“So, David, do you have any questions for us?”
He looked up, uncertain as to what had been said. The Headteacher fixed him with a laser-like stare. He felt like a rabbit caught in a set of particularly unforgiving headlights.
“Err..,” he stammered, looking around each member of the panel in turn. “Well, I ….”
Several hours earlier it had all started so well. He had driven into the school car park, under a huge polythene banner proclaiming it to be a “Good School”, with OFSTED vouching for its “Outstanding Behaviour”. A couple of scrubbed and gleaming older pupils were on duty, ready to direct the candidates to their saved parking spaces, and one waited as he clambered out of the car to escort him to reception. It was impressively smooth. There had been six of them assembled in the room which was their base for the day. One person had dropped out, already appointed to the plum job that had interviewed at the end of the week before. Looking around those that were left, it was obvious that they had all applied for that one as well. One of them he recognised from the circuit – Charlie, who he had met in a series of Deputy Head interviews over the previous couple of years – and that made the awkward small talk over coffee and pastries a little easier to manage.
A glance at the programme for the day revealed the usual menu of activities: teaching a lesson, a student council panel, some in tray exercises and a round of panel interviews. All of this to be achieved by 4pm before being given the dread news about who had made the cut for the grand finals of the next day, and who were officially Not Good Enough. It was at once depressingly formulaic and reassuringly familiar. His heart sank, though, when he saw it. How many times would he have to go through this pantomime to move on up the greasy pole? Was this really the best way of selecting somebody to be a Deputy Head? Most of the time it seemed that it served only to arrive at those who had the stamina put themselves through the process, while weeding out the non-conformists, those who either had not bothered to mug up on the latest educational buzz words, or, even worse, didn’t believe in them. Increasingly, he felt that he was one of the latter.
The conversation on the other side of the muffins ploughed on relentlessly. Two candidates he had not come across before, were vying to be the alpha male in the room, spraying pheromones relentlessly around the room. “Direct Instruction, bah, blah, blah.” “Yes, Knowledge Rich, blah, blah, blah” “Really? Because I……Katherine Birbalsingh…silent corridors…blah, blah, blah” “No! Outrageous! VAK?! Really?”
The braying, trumpeting laughter snapped him out of his reverie, and he noticed that throughout the conversation, the eyes of the two stags flicked continually around the room to see who was listening to their easy tour around the latest educational fads. His eye was caught by Charlie, who if anything, was even more jaundiced than him. Charlie habitually loitered on the fringes of opinionated groups and listened, only just controlling the smirk on his lips. When he saw that David was watching, he rolled his eyes theatrically, and took another massive bite out of his pain au chocolat. They didn’t get a chance, however, to chat about the performance they had just been watching, as the door swung open and a tall white man strode purposefully into the room, followed by a scurrying young woman with an armful of buff card folders.
“Morning everyone,” he boomed, beginning a relentless round of hand shaking, introductions and piercing eye contact. The braying chatter stopped immediately as the alpha males switched their attention to the entrance of this demigod, weighing up the correct blend of deference, intelligence and easy charm to deploy. He was immaculately groomed and trailed a cloud of subtle cologne in his wake. David looked down at his shoes, and thought, not for the last time that day, that he really should have given them a bit more of a polish. Instinctively, he tucked his feet far under his chair, and continued to smile.
David didn’t even catch his name as he leant over and fixed him with a steely glare and a crunching handshake. “Morning. David Marshall,” he said evenly, desperately hoping his winning smile would not crumble under the crippling pain the Head’s handshake was inflicting on him. His interview preparation over the previous three years had told him that, when push came to shove, the research showed that most interviews were decided, informally, in the first couple of minutes. An evidence-based approach to that old chestnut, “did they like the cut of your jib?” presumably. At this rate, his chances of success were hanging by a thread.
After the introductions and wrist pummelling, the Head gave a potted version of the school’s recent history, which seemed designed simply to make everyone in the room aware that it had been single-handedly rescued from degradation and despair by his own determination and genius. The Alpha males in the room, at least two of them women, through supreme self-control and an effort of will, were content to merely nod knowingly. Then, having established his messianic status, the Head went through the programme of activities for the day.
The Head was clearly someone who valued action. His opening pep talk reached its final sentence as he swept out of the room, followed gamely by the young woman, who had not spoken since her entrance a minute earlier. She had simply distributed the folders and melted into the background. In the silence that was left by the Head’s departure, there was only time for a collective exhalation, some raised eyebrows and half smiles of approval and admiration of the performance they had just witnessed. Before anyone had a chance to speak, a student, squeaky clean and scrubbed in immaculate uniform, appeared in the doorway.
“Good morning everyone. My name’s Oscar and we’re here to give you all a tour of the school. If you’d like to follow us, we’ll show you around. And please, don’t hesitate to ask any questions of any of us as we make our way around the school.”
Behind him were two other specimens of the student body, who beamed as all of the candidates made their way into the corridor. They introduced themselves as Uzma and Farha, and they seemed to have graduated from the same finishing school as Oscar, exuding charm and confidence in equal measures. As they progressed around the school, David and Charlie gravitated to the back of the group. When an opportune moment presented itself, Charlie leaned towards David and said quietly, “Well, this is all very impressive, isn’t it?”
David agreed, “Yeah, though I suppose these are the best three kids in the school. Let’s see what the rest of them are like.”
They didn’t have long to wait. The bell interrupted their guides’ explanations and Oscar brought the procession to a halt in the main ground floor corridor.
“This is the start of period 1, so there’ll be a lot of movement in the corridor,” Oscar explained.
The candidates visibly flinched, but were secretly pleased. Kids moving in corridors were harder to stage manage than the rest of the process, and could be relied on to give a more accurate representation of the school. All along the length of the corridor, the classroom doors opened, like flowers blossoming, and at each doorway a teacher positioned themselves, as their class silently filed out into the thoroughfare. Soon, the entire corridor was filled with lines of students, all silent, all observing the one-way system. Occasionally, one of the teachers on guard barked an instruction as the kids passed them.
“Hands to yourself”
“Nothing to discuss.”
Charlie and David exchanged a look. Neither of them had ever seen anything like this before. After a couple of minutes, the corridor was empty again, and the doors closed. It was as if no-one had ever been there.
One of the other candidates, a bristling, serious young woman, could contain herself no longer. She turned to one of the girls escorting them.
“Goodness me, that was very impressive. Is it always like that at change of lessons?”
“Oh yes,” Uzma replied earnestly, “Always.”
“It wasn’t always like this, though,” chipped in Farha. “It used to be really rowdy, before Mr Bennet came.” The three of them exchanged a little look and a smile before moving on with the tour.
While the other candidates engaged the guides in conversation at the front of the crocodile, Charlie and David brought up the rear, conferring in low voices.
“These three guides are doing their job, aren’t they? They’re word perfect,” muttered Charlie.
“I can’t tell whether it’s incredibly impressive, or a little sinister,“ said David. “It all seems a little… unnatural to me.”
“Come on,“ chided Charlie, “No need to be quite so cynical about it. Maybe, they’ve got it right. Maybe they have cracked the ethos of the school.”
“Cynical? No, just human. A silent corridor is a deeply worrying sign, if schools are meant to prepare normal kids to take their place in the outside world.” David shook his head. “A calm corridor, an orderly corridor, yes that’s one thing, but a silent one? No. No, thank you.”
Charlie shrugged and they moved on, past silent rooms of Maths students, English students, French students. They were taken in to some of these rooms at intervals, to be greeted by a smiling teacher who would explain the lesson and invite them to have a look at books and chat to the students. Even David was impressed with the neatness of the books, the volume of writing in them, the attentiveness of the class to the teacher’s instructions. He began to wonder whether he was going to have to revise his initial scepticism.
He checked his watch. The tour would be winding down now and soon they would all be taken back to their base for the real business to begin. Oscar and his two lieutenants hastily conferred, and then picked up the pace, ignoring the remaining classrooms, intently solely, it seemed, on not being late getting them back. The faster pace strung out the gaggle of candidates, like tiring runners in the Grand National, and Charlie and David found themselves adrift at the back of the pack. By the time they walked past the Science labs, they were the only ones in the corridor, the others having established a lengthening lead in the dash towards the finishing line.
“Crikey!” David exclaimed. “Do you think this is part of the selection process? See who has a heart attack running back to base?”
He never found out Charlie’s answer, as the door of the nearest lab suddenly burst open, and a grey-haired man in a stained lab coat popped his head into the corridor.
“Psst!” he whispered hoarsely, looking both ways down the corridor and back again.
“Are you the candidates for Deputy Head?”
He had wild, staring eyes, and his head continually flicked back and forth, surveying both ends of the corridor.
Charlie and David looked at each other, bemused. David turned back to the man in the lab and said, “Well, yes, we’re two of them. The others are up ahead. Who are you?”
“That’s not important. But listen. I really must talk to you. In private. There are things you need to know. Things the staff want you to know.”
“Well, yes, I think there’s a meeting scheduled on the programme for the day.” Charlie fumbled with his sheet of paper and scanned it quickly.
“Yes, here it is. 12.45 a working lunch with some Heads of Faculty. That’s when we get to meet the staff.”
The man looked aghast. “Let me have a look at that,“ he whispered urgently, and grabbed the sheet out of Charlie’s hand. He studied it and laughed.
“Oh, yes. These people. Quislings and Yes men. They’ll give you the correct line alright. Oh yes.” He shook his head fiercely, and then, with another quick look down the corridor, backed into his lab.
“They won’t tell you the truth, but I will. And so will the others. Come here at lunchtime. 1.15. Tell no-one else…”
He was interrupted by the appearance of Oscar at the far end of the corridor, who called out
“Ah, there you are! I thought you’d got lost. We do need to get back so we don’t delay the programme.”
The mysterious stranger, tapped the side of his nose, and hissed, “1.15. Tell no-one”.
He backed into his lab and closed the door.
That was the last time David saw Charlie that day. They were hurtled through a series of activities that seemed to have been designed with the sole purpose of removing any chance of the candidates being together unsupervised, or of meeting any free-range members of staff. Their student minders had shown them, with great pride, a large room that was rammed with students, all in individual booths, so that they could not see anyone else. There were about thirty of them writing in silence while four members of staff patrolled, occasionally barking, “Sit up straight. Another day for anyone who with their head down or not writing.”
“This is the Behaviour Correction Centre, sir,“ explained Oscar quietly.
“There’s a lot of people in here, isn’t there? Is it always like this?” David had asked.
“Oh yes, sir,” replied Oscar, “But it’s alright, it’s always the same people.”
He had also been shown, with the same pride, the long queues of students that lined up in the playground at the end of break.
“Is this a fire drill?” he had asked, naively. “I didn’t hear the alarm.”
“No sir,“ Farha replied, “We do this at the end of every break and lunchtime. We have to queue up in register order, and our teacher takes the register, checks equipment and takes us to class.”
David frowned. “Why?” he asked simply.
His three guides looked baffled.
“What do you mean, sir?” Uzma finally asked.
“Well, doesn’t it waste a lot of time? Why don’t you just get straight to class? And what if it’s raining?”
They looked at each other, uncertain how to respond, until Oscar pronounced, “It’s just the way we do things here. It’s good, it’s quieter. But we need to go back to your base now. It’s time for your next activity.”
David bit his tongue and allowed himself to be escorted back.
He had tried to escape at lunchtime, to keep his assignation with the mysterious Mad Scientist, but he was expertly herded this way and that to each new activity so that he had barely a moment to himself. And so, he worked his way through the usual in-tray exercise, did a data analysis of results and underperforming departments, was carouselled through four panel interviews, and had to teach a Year 7 English class a lesson on grammar. The sour expression on the face of the observer when he began the lesson by rearranging the rows of chairs into table groups of four told its own story. She began furiously taking notes, and then gave up after ten minutes. She had clearly already seen enough to make up her mind.
And so had David. The same raised eyebrow and scribbled notes followed his answers about dialogic teaching and collaboration, about restorative justice to accompany strict rules and sanctions, about student voice and student engagement and promoting investigation and experiment, about coaching being non-directive and about empowering staff and students alike. By the end, the interviewers were only just managing to avoid being sarcastic, and he was becoming ever more monosyllabic. What had happened to all the things he believed in? Why had making teaching engaging become such a joke? Why was there this endless emphasis on teachers droning on and checking for retention of facts? When did the ideal English classroom begin to resemble a pub quiz? Why did everyone seem to have such a simplistic attitude to evidence-based practice, a phrase that seemed to be the equivalent of a membership card to the cool kids club? Were there any schools left whose Senior Leadership entertained alternative ideas and were up for the discussion? There were so many questions buzzing around in his head, so much doubt about whether there was any point in staying in this profession that he used to love. So many questions.
“David? Your questions?”
His smile had begun to crack as the pause had grown. The rest of the panel reached for their papers and shifted in their seats.
Questions? Oh yes, there were plenty of questions.
He looked again at the panel. Two of them had already gathered their papers together, one was intent on the last of the thick chocolate biscuits and the man closest to him, a governor of some sort, continued to write. He could just about make out, upside down, the beginnings of a shopping list.
Episode 5 of Telling Stories is available now on Spotify and a variety of other platforms. It’s the first part of my short story, “Don’t Smile before Christmas” and the final section will be available later this week. It has been published on the blog before. If you’d like to read it as well as, or instead of, listening to it, it’s available here:
In the summer of 1975, Steve Chapman was feeling very clever and very pleased with himself. In the last nine months he had:
Secured his first proper girlfriend
Lost his virginity
Finished his A levels
Tried smoking cannabis resin
He made a list of these milestones in the journal he kept. It wasn’t a diary in the conventional sense. He did not record his thoughts and actions every day, but instead made lists of achievements, plans and opinions. He was pleased with the notion of a journal. It lent his thoughts greater weight and added to his sense of himself as someone of finer feelings and ambitions than the common herd.
None of these achievements had been accomplished smoothly, but, he reasoned, out of struggle comes true enlightenment. And nobody else knew he had stumbled across the line in all four spheres of human endeavour. He certainly wasn’t going to tell anyone he was a serial incompetent, when he was so clearly skilled at presenting a serene and untroubled face to the world.
The truth was:
His first girlfriend secured him, pursuing him relentlessly and overwhelming him one evening after strong drink had been taken.
Losing his virginity was more a question of temporarily mislaying it. A botched fumble in a spare room was accomplished with relief rather than rampant studdery.
His results had still not been issued, but he knew that the cavalier approach to his studies he had adopted for the last eighteen months (starting the minute he discovered peers who would go to the pub with him) had seriously jeopardised his chances of success. As the results day drew nearer, he grew ever more queasy about the prospect of ignominious failure.
Smoking spliffs, while a deliciously naughty marker of someone who was delighted to be outside of the mainstream, made him cough and fall asleep.
His Parents, who thus far had been indulgent of his long hair, late hours and frequent hangovers, mainly on the back of his unprecedented educational achievements, had their limits. It had been made clear to him that now was the time, notwithstanding his impending glittering A level success, to get a job. The very phrase sent a chill down his spine, but he knew that money was tight at home and he couldn’t expect much in the way of subs.
Matters came to a head one Sunday lunchtime in June. He was sitting at the table with his Mother and Father, demolishing a steaming plate of roast beef, thin gravy and industrially blitzed vegetables. It was a rare occasion that all three of them were in the same room together at the same time. His father often worked nights and was either out at work, or as his Mother often used to say, with a combination of warning and relief in her voice, “Your Father’s in bed.”
It was his Father that raised the subject. “So, Steven. Any luck on the jobs front?”
Steve stopped in mid munch, a heavily laden fork of Yorkshire pudding suspended in mid-air between plate and mouth. The surprise was as much generated by the fact that his father had initiated conversation as it was by the subject matter. He was a shy, taciturn man, who inhabited silence as comfortably as a trappist monk.
“Er, no, not yet. There doesn’t seem to be much about.”
He ploughed on with his lunch, piling more steaming forkfuls into his mouth. To his surprise, the conversation was clearly not over as far as his father was concerned. Normally one sentence seemed to require an extended period of silent rest to allow his father to recover from such abandoned social exertions. This was rare stamina and determination on display.
“Where have you tried?”
“I was going to try the Bakery, but Martin told me that there were no vacancies. He went round last week and just missed the last one.”
“Steven,” his mother interjected, “Don’t speak with your mouth full please. We can wait.”
Steve held up his hand in acknowledgement and ground away at his food until normal service could be resumed. With a final hasty swallow, he began again.
“Sorry Mam, this dinner is too good to wait.” Flattery was one of his most effective weapons in the ongoing battle to avoid parental censure. He had learned long ago that charm would prevent any practical difficulties arising in his life as a result of a potential telling off. He repeated the sentence again, more intelligibly this time, and waited for his Dad to drop the subject.
“I can probably get you a job at the shed you know,” his father said, patently not dropping the subject.
Steve was gripped by a blind panic. His heart started hammering against his chest and he felt himself getting hot. There must be something he could do to prevent this catastrophe from coming true. Racking his brains while taking a little longer than was necessary to finish his mouthful of roast beef, he finally managed a weak, “Really?”
It wasn’t the most brilliant strategy he had ever come up with, but in the absence of an idea, delay was the only option open to him.
“Yes, they’re going to advertise next week in The Gazette I think, but you could get in early. I’ll find out at work tomorrow if you like.”
“Yeah Dad, that would be great. Thanks.”
This news had obviously come as something of a shock to his mother as well. Her face had taken on a disapproving look, and she glared at her husband with a straight, thin lipped mouth.
“Don’t be daft Tom, he’ll be wanting something better than that, won’t he? A lad that’s about to go to University won’t want to be working in your filthy railway shed.”
The glare was returned. “Aye well, beggars can’t be choosers, can they? A job’s a job.”
Steve intervened. “They don’t normally have summer jobs there do they? What’s it doing?”
“No, they’re just taking on some lads temporarily to get rid a lot of the rubbish there and to clean up generally. The fitters and fitters’ mates are up to their eyes in maintenance. We haven’t got time do the clearing. The money ‘ll be alright mind.”
“Brilliant, thanks Dad. And you’ll let me know tomorrow, yeah?”
It was agreed. The rest of Sunday dinner passed as normal. Steve’s mother chattered on, while his Father subsided into his more familiar silence. Steve, occasionally responding to his Mother’s questions, with non-committal grunts, was gripped with a dread feeling of impending doom.
Later that day Steve was gloomily staring into a pint. Sarah broke into his brown study.
“So, explain it to me again. You’re broke, you’d like to enjoy this summer of leisure, and, I assume, you’re very keen to lavish money and attention on me. And you’ve been offered a job.”
“Exactly,” muttered Steve.
“I’m obviously missing something here. To any normal person that sounds like a timely solution to a problem, but you’re behaving as if you’re about to be sent to prison.”
“It’s not just any job, it’s a job working with my Dad. Shift work, in the dead of night, doing unspeakable things with bits of metal. It’ll be noisy and cold and physically exhausting. It might as well be prison, or a chain gang or something.” He sighed and took another sip of his drink.
Sarah rolled her eyes. “Dear God Steve, you sound like a Jane Austen heroine. Get a grip. Its only for a few weeks, you can manage that surely?”
“Of course I can manage it, I’m not an invalid. I just don’t want to, that’s all. It’s going to spoil the whole summer. I’ll be too exhausted to see you. The trouble is, I’ve got no way of reasonably turning it down. It’s a done deal. I’m trapped.”
Sarah thought for a moment. She smiled and squeezed his knee. “I’ve got a solution. Leave it all to me.”
Sarah turned the key in the lock and pushed open the front door.
“Hi Mam, Dad, we’re back,” she called into the hall.
“Eeh, you’re early love. Anything the matter?” Her mother bustled into the hall from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a tea towel. Any time Steve saw her she seemed to be in the middle of some kind of domestic task. Until he had started going out with Sarah, he had no idea that there were so many domestic tasks to be done. He still wasn’t sure whether this was because the smooth running of the household was a fiendishly complex, time intensive procedure or whether her mother, with time on her hands, had to fill her days with something. Steve’s mother worked and had little energy or inclination left over for cleaning.
“No, no, everything’s fine. I just wanted to ask Dad something.”
“Oh well, he’s in the front room. Hello Steven love, how are you?”
“I’m very well Mrs Young, thanks.”
“Would you like some cheese and biscuits love? Come though to the kitchen while I get you some.”
Her other main mission in life appeared to be rescuing Steve from malnutrition. She took any opportunity to feed him and Steve had learned from experience that resistance was not only futile, but considered rather rude. He meekly followed her into the kitchen while Sarah went to clinch the deal with her father in the front room.
A few minutes later he came into the front room with the obligatory plate of Ritz crackers and mature cheddar. Sarah’s father was ensconced in his usual throne, a leather swivel armchair within blinking distance of a huge colour TV that was almost as deep as it was long. He was wearing a towelling robe, with his bare legs sticking out of the end with his feet, snug in leather slippers, up on a matching leather pouffe. The picture was completed by his equivalent of his wife’s tea towel, a conical glass of golden lager, with a generous head of white creamy foam.
“Well, here he is. We were just talking about you Steven,” he announced.
“Oh. Hello Stan. Were you? Talking about me I mean?” Steve was a little confused by Stan’s opening gambit.
“Yes, we were. I hear you’re wanting a job so that you can take my daughter out to fine restaurants.” He smirked.
“Well, er, I..”
He glanced nervously at Sarah, who was enjoying his discomfort.
“Good, I’m pleased to hear it lad. About time to. You can start on Tuesday. It could probably be tomorrow but I really should clear it with Geoff first. There won’t be a problem, but there are protocols you know.”
Steve gulped. “Great, thanks Stan. I really appreciate it.”
“No problem, son, no problem.”
There was a pause.
Finally, Steve couldn’t hold out any longer. Sarah was clearly not going to rescue him.
“Um, what exactly is the job Stan? And where exactly is it?”
Stan shook his head. “Dear Lord, don’t you two talk about anything? Or are you as simple as you appear? You’ll have to shape up better than this when you start you know. My reputation’s on the line.”
Sarah and her father turned to look at each other and beamed. Steve managed to crack a faint line of a weak smile. He was beginning to wonder whether working nights on the railway might have been the better option after all, but nevertheless, that night he added to the list at the front of his journal:
Got a job
His mother was delighted, his father silently put out. An office job. For Steven it represented a narrow escape and further proof that this was set to be a golden summer of legend. It had got to be better than the harsh realities of life of shift work in a wind-blown hangar full of rusting metal and heavy tools. He could sit down. He would probably be able to read. He would certainly be able to daydream. And, for the first time in his life, he would get paid.
On Tuesday morning, the horror of dragging himself out of his warm bed tested his resolve to the limit but, gritting his teeth, he persisted, enduring a train journey through the pock-marked wasteland that was much of the landscape of Teesside in the 1970s. On arrival at the Cargo Fleet Drawing Office he was shown to a seat at a desk in one corner of a cavernous open plan office by Sandra, a middle -aged lady from the typing pool who had met him on arrival. As she led the way across the neon-lit arena, Steve felt horribly exposed, like a gladiator striding towards the lions, while the crowd weighed him up and assessed his chances of survival. His progress was punctuated by a series of witty cat-calls, largely generated by the fact that no women worked in this office and the arrival of Sandra produced a rush of testosterone that seemed to temporarily disable all signs of intelligent life. “Oi, Sandra, you’re a right cradle snatcher.” “Have you given him one yet, Sandra?”, “Sandra, fancy a quick one?” were some of the more sensitive contributions she had to endure on the voyage out to the desk in the corner. She left Steve wordlessly at the desk, indicating that he should sit, turned on her heels and embarked immediately on the return trip, oblivious to the repetition of exactly the same abuse as on the outward journey. She glided along, head held high, poker faced.
Just before she reached the end of the office to make good her escape, the sound of approaching shouting cut through the casual banter. The door was flung open, the handle banging violently on the opposite wall. Sandra stopped in her tracks to avoid being steam-rollered by two men who strode purposefully into the room in mid-conversation. Immediately, the sniggering and cat-calling stopped and all of the men in the office, previously so smug and sure of themselves in their casually flung insults, bowed their heads, averted their eyes and with an eagerness that was pathetic to behold, started shuffling the papers on their desks. The boldest of them, those with ambition or more resilient self-confidence, flicked a glance towards the newcomers. One of them even managed to mumble, “Morning Peter, morning Geoff.” They were disregarded and the two men continued their conversation as they progressed through the office.
“…a lovely shot from the seventeenth. Just left me about five yards. He was spitting I’m telling you.”
“I BET HE WAS. I HOPE YOU HAD SOME MONEY ON IT, GEOFF.”
The reply came from the taller of the two men. At first Steve, nervously looking on from the shelter of his corner desk, thought that there was some kind of argument going on, and that the smaller man was in receipt of a regal bollocking from the taller. Then, when it became clear that they were laughing and joking with each other, Steve was enveloped in a cloud of cognitive dissonance. Unlike the others, who resolutely avoided eye contact, Steve continued to stare surreptitiously at the giant with a voice like thunder. He was about six feet six in a dishevelled grey suit with a pink shirt and paisley kipper tie. The enormous knot was an inch or two below the open shirt collar, through which peeked a forest of jet black hairy tufts. The same unruly tangle of black hair framed a shining bald pate, and the matching effect was completed by strong tendrils of wiry growth protruding from ears and nostrils, like mini shaving brushes. Steve’s contemplation of his outfit was interrupted by an outbreak of painfully loud, explosive laughter, as the taller man gave vent to his enjoyment of his own joke. The room shook and a slight breeze stirred up as he made his way to his desk. His outfit was completed by a huge pair of black boots that seemed to be encrusted with steel segs, given the reverberating clatter they made on the linoleum floor.
His desk was at the far end of the office, adjacent to Steve’s but mercifully hidden by a couple of screens and some straggly pot plants. By leaning backwards Steve was able to peer through a gap in the screens, fringed by foliage, and spy unnoticed on the occupant of the desk. The floor shook as he clumped his way to his chair, and the air echoed to the scraped chair legs on the tiles as he prepared to sit down. His every interaction with the world around him seemed to be an assault: he slammed the door, pummelled the floor, barked his conversation, ploughed the chair legs into the floor’s crust, bombed the desk top with the set of box files he casually dropped. Then he crashed down into his seat and let out a sigh like a steam train. It was a miracle that the desk/chair combination had not been reduced to matchwood. This had taken about forty seconds from one end of the office to the other but already Steve could feel the beginnings of a headache developing.
His fascinated musings about this strange creature were interrupted by the approach of the second man, who had continued his fight path across the office and arrived like an arrow from a bow at Steve’s desk. He smiled broadly and reached his hand out to Steve.
“Geoff. Geoff Barton. And you are?”
Steve returned his outstretched hand.
“Er, Steve, Steve Chapman.”
“Yes, that’s right, Steve. And you’re going out with Stan’s daughter, aren’t you? Sarah, is it?”
“Yes, that’s right,” said Steve, not quite sure where this was leading and keen to disentangle his hand.
A smirk played across Geoff’s face. “Yes, Stan’s daughter. Stan’s told me all about you lad.” The smirk rippled into a laugh, as if what Stan had told him was in some way ridiculous. Steve’s face dropped.
“No, no”, Geoff hurried to reassure him, “All good, Steve lad, all good, honestly. Got a bit of a soft spot for you, if you ask me Steve. Not like Stan at all, actually.”
Steve softened. Good old Stan had put a word in for him, clearly.
“Anyroad up lad, down to business. See that filing cabinet behind you?”
Steve turned to look in the direction of Geoff’s gaze, and clocking a regulation gun metal grey cabinet, nodded.
“That cabinet is full of blueprints. What your job is, in the first instance, is to calculate the floor area of each building on each drawing. What’s your maths like?”
Before Steve could answer, Geoff ploughed on. “Never mind, never mind. There’s a calculator on your desk. Just work out the floor areas for each plan, record it on a central list and on the plan itself, and keep the completed plans in a pile on that table next to the cabinet. You got that?”
“Yeah, seems quite straightforward. What do I do when I’ve finished?”
“Finished?” snorted Geoff, “Finished? You wont finish lad, not unless you don’t do it properly. Just take it steady and we’ll see where we are after that, eh? Alright? I’ll drop by to check you’re alright later on. Welcome to Chicago Fleet, son. British Steel, land of the brave, eh?”
He turned to go.
“Er, Geoff?” Steve hesitantly called after him.
Geoff stopped, turned and took a few steps back in his direction, a beatific smile of endless patience with fools on his face. “Yes, Steve?”
Steve’s glanced back in the direction of Geoff’s colleague, between the screen and the pot plant. He lowered his voice. “Who’s that guy over there? The one you came in with?”
A cloud passed over Geoff’s face. He bent down and, leaning on the desk, matched his volume to Steve’s. “Don’t concern yourself with him. That’s Peter, the boss of the whole section. He’s way above your paygrade. Keep out his way, don’t draw attention to yourself and you should be alright. Most of the rest of the office are petrified of him and that’s the way he likes it, but his bark is certainly worse than his bite. But don’t give him any excuse to bark, mind. Or bite. If you’re lucky, the summer’ll be over before he even notices you.”
Before Steve could reply, Pottage barked. The phone on his desk rang and Pottage snatched up the receiver from the cradle. It disappeared into his huge hairy paw, each end only just poking clear of the mammoth fist, like a black balloon, squeezed into deformity
“POTTAGE!” he bellowed into the receiver. There was a pause, filled with tinny, far away squeaking.
“NO!” replied Pottage decisively, and he crunched the phone back down on to the cradle with an almighty crash. The room shook slightly and the ragged leaves of the pot plant continued to quiver, like an earthquake’s after shock. He went back to assaulting the pile of card folders on his desk. Never had a phone call been so comprehensively over.
Geoff smiled back at Steve ruefully, raised his eyebrows and turning on his heels, walked back out of the office. Steve stared back through the gap in the foliage, a mounting feeling of trepidation rising in his stomach. “Just as well his bite isn’t worse than his bark,” thought Steve, turning to remove the first wedge of blueprints from the filing cabinet drawer.
He worked his way through them methodically for the rest of the morning, entirely undisturbed by the other office workers, save for regular booming outbursts from Peter Pottage whenever the phone rang. Occasionally, Pottage would sally forth from his desk, sending a ripple of fear through the rest of the office. The inhabitant of every desk would immediately cease whatever conversation they had been having and give the papers on their desk their fullest attention, eyes down, brows furrowed. The relief in the room when Pottage descended on a particular individual was palpable and grew as Pottage proceeded to bawl out whoever was the lucky recipient. It was still unclear to Steve whether Pottage was giving someone a bollocking or merely checking the progress of work in a paternalistic, polite enquiry.
By the time it got to late afternoon, Steve was feeling positively euphoric about the world of work. He had survived his first day by keeping his head down, occasionally spying on the monster that was Pottage through the gap in the screens, and working his way through the mountain of blueprints on his desk. As the day progressed, the edge had been taken off his fear of Pottage, and consequently he began to feel the first stirrings of boredom.
At about four in the afternoon, Steve’s thoughts had begun to turn to the journey home and some down time. His fantasies about how he would spend his first pay packet were rudely interrupted by a commotion from the desk behind the screen. Pottage had moved away from his desk and stood adjacent to it with a clear view down to the far end. In one hand he had a huge fat cigar that he sporadically puffed on furiously, generating pungent clouds of smoke. In the other he had a fishing rod.
“MIND YER BACKS!” he shouted, though he needn’t have bothered as every other worker in the office was rigidly staring at him with unswerving concentration. Taking a final puff on the cigar he swung the rod over his head and with a snap of his wrist, flicked it back, sending the line and hook whistling through the air to the back of the office. There were murmurs of approval from the watching desks and a panicked jump out of the way by one of the occupants at the back and to the right. Once he had saved himself from having his eye out, he grabbed hold of the hook at the end of the line and affixed it to a sheet of paper about A5 size. No sooner was it attached than Pottage again shouted, “HEADS!” and began to furiously reel the paper in, stopping in mid -reel for a restorative drag on the cigar. As the hooked paper swung past him, he grabbed it and pulled it towards him.
“BROWN TROUT!” he announced, with a beaming smile playing across his lips. He ripped the paper from the hook and displayed it to the office as proof. The sheet had the words “brown trout” scrawled across it in thick black felt tip. There was a general murmur of approval, with a ripple of muted applause and the occasional “Well done Peter”.
From behind the screen, Steve watched aghast as the whole pantomime was repeated several times, with Pottage casting off and then reeling in, from various desks, a Chub, a Tench and, producing a spontaneous ovation, a Salmon. After a while, it was clear that Pottage’s sporting needs had been sated and he spent a good five minutes elaborately putting away his rod and tackle. Then, still puffing on his cigar, he strode down the middle aisle of the office and out, pausing only to bellow, “A GOOD DAY’S WORK THAT. GOOD EVENING GENTLEMEN.”
Every day followed the same pattern, with Steve dividing his time up between daydreaming and continuing his allotted task of working out floor areas. Every day, Pottage assaulted his immediate environment, and all those in it, with his every action. Even his thoughts seemed loud. Every day, Pottage devoted the last forty-five minutes to practising his casting technique as part of his fantasy pursuit of brown trout about five hundred metres away from a river that had not seen a fish of any description since the Industrial Revolution. Every day Geoff would wander over to Steve’s desk and say, “Alright Steven, how’s it going? Good lad,” and then wander away again without waiting for a reply.
Steven took to devoting his daydreams to thoughts of his future life as a University student. By then he would have taken up his rightful place as one the country’s intellectuals, far from the meagre, petty concerns of this nine -to- five drudgery, surrounded by smaller spirits and meaner souls. He began to pity his fellow office slaves for they had no such chance of escape. Probably that was kinder, for what would they do with choice if it were ever on offer? Without the wit to inhabit such liberty fruitfully, it would be shamefully wasted on them.
Similarly, he thought Teesside a provincial backwater, ill-suited to his talents and he envisaged his journey to York in September as emotionally and intellectually, a one-way ticket out of Nowheresville. Probably, he mused, en route to London or Oxford, or some other exotic place he actually had no idea about at all, where he would end up working in some kind of creative profession, whose jobs were routinely advertised in The Guardian on Mondays. He would meet a series of impossibly glamorous and sophisticated beautiful women who would be entranced by his northern charm, towering intellect and dashing good looks. A string of casual yet subtly intense affairs would follow before finding a soulmate in an obscurely published avant-garde poet.
He had begun to think that his relationship with Sarah had run its course anyway and that it was probably best all round if he finished it before he left for York. Sometimes an act of decisive cruelty was, in reality, an act of kindness. It had been great and she was great, but she wasn’t quite up to the mark culturally, when push came to shove.
He was decided. He would give British Steel another three weeks, out of respect for Stan, and to accumulate enough money to fund an appropriate wardrobe and accessories to make a splash on his first entrance into undergraduate life. He reckoned he could probably just about bear another three weeks of idling away behind a screen, observing the ridiculous goings on of the workforce. The only issue was when was he going to break the news to Sarah, who obviously, would be devastated. She had already made a bit of fuss about not seeing him very much and had ruined a “romantic” dinner for two over a bottle of Mateus Rose by continuously carping and complaining about his being “distant”. Distant! Was it his fault his mind was full of finer things, things Sarah couldn’t possible understand or appreciate? The more he thought about it, the more he realised that the only option open to him was to cast off all of the trappings of his old life in preparation for the new.
No matter how hard he tried or how much he steeled himself, he could not bring himself to do the deed. Finally, it came to the week he had planned as his penultimate at the Cargo Fleet office. He had arranged to meet Sarah at The Stockton Arms on Thursday evening. It was the usual drinking venue of their set and he thought it might be kinder to break the news to her in familiar surroundings, surrounded by all of their friends, who would undoubtedly be a source of solace to her afterwards.
They were sitting at a corner table, and a series of friends had come and gone. It had been a great night and Steve positively had to fight back his tendency towards nostalgia. It had to be now, he told himself repeatedly. Just as he was about to launch himself into “the conversation”, they were joined at the table by a couple of people who were outer members of their circle, John and Graham, who were always good value after a few drinks.
“Hey guys,” announced John, “Mind if we join you two young lovers?”
“Hi John, Graham, come and sit down. How are you?” Sarah was genuine in her enthusiastic greeting. Steve felt a mounting sense of irritation. Sarah seemed more comfortable when other people were present.
“So, Steve,” John began cheerily, “How are you feeling about going away in September? York, isn’t it?”
“I’m pretty excited actually John. The university looks great, it has a really good reputation – almost like Oxbridge actually. And, to tell you the truth,” continued Steve, warming to his subject, “It’ll be a relief to get away from Stockton.”
“Oh, why’s that?” enquired Graham, sitting forward in his chair.
“Well, you know, Stockton’s so small and there’s absolutely nothing happening here. It’s such a backwater, I’d go mad if I had to stay here.” He looked from one to the other, a broad smile on his face. He was met with blank looks and the silence grew. It began to get awkward.
“Er.. where is that you two are going again? Nottingham, was it? What’s that like?” Steve was struggling to thaw the sudden freeze that had descended.
“No, It’s Teesside Poly actually,” said John in clipped tones, “I’m not gonna get the grades for Nottingham.”
“Oh. Oh well”, said Steve brightly, “I’m sure that’ll be fine, staying somewhere you used to.”
“Yeah,” agreed Graham, “Somewhere small and not too demanding. Somewhere we could cope with. I’m just keeping my fingers crossed I don’t go mad. Still,” he continued, scooping up his cigarettes and pint, “at least all the tossers like you will have left. Come on John, let’s go and talk to someone who’s not being intellectually stifled by his hometown.”
They both got up and moved away, shaking their heads.
“God, what’s wrong with them? They’re a bit touchy, aren’t they?” protested Steve.
Sarah glared at him. “My God Steve, you really are a bit of wanker, aren’t you? What a snob. Don’t you get it? Not everyone is as clever as you, but they don’t like having their noses rubbed in it. Honestly, I give up with you, I really do.” She drained her glass and got up.
“What…what are you doing?” spluttered Steve.
“I’m leaving. That’s it. And not just the table, I’m leaving you. I was going to tell you tonight anyway, but I can’t bear to spend any more time with you. I’m going to talk to some proper human beings with proper feelings.”
“But, I didn’t mean…”
“No buts. Enough. Finish your drink on your own. You might as well get used to it.” And with that she stalked off.
The next day at work, Steve consoled himself with the fact that he could give his notice in, do one more week and then be free. He had spent half the night tossing and turning, trying to come to terms with what had happened in the pub, but try as he might, he couldn’t make sense of it. What had he done that was so wrong? Everyone knew that Stockton was the armpit of the universe. Denying it was just romantic nostalgia of the worst kind.
He was able to continue chewing it over in his mind, sitting at his desk protected by the screen and the pot plants, but he made little progress and, giving up the struggle, devoted most of his imaginative energies to speculating about the finer life he would have in York, where his thoughts about the world would not be so cruelly traduced. He even found time to fit in a little floor area calculation, adding the figures to his growing list of tallied numbers.
By the time the clock had ticked around to 4pm he could begin to think about home time. He would go over and find Geoff to let him know that next week would have to be his last. He felt sure that Geoff would be a little gutted to lose such a productive and trouble-free member of staff. He was just about to get up to begin, when he was interrupted by stirrings from the lair of the mighty Pottage behind the screens.
“Oh God,” thought Steve, “We’ve got to go through this angling pantomime again. Jesus wept.”
He shrank back down behind his screen and prepared to watch the daily ritual of Pottage being indulged by the junior members of his office staff, pathetic in their abject fear. At least, thought Steve, he could hide and stay out of the way.
Pottage collected his rod, lit his cigar and strode out into the centre aisle as usual. He stopped, surveyed all corners of the office, sniffed the air and bellowed, “DO YOU KNOW LADS, I THINK I’LL TRY THE OPPOSITE BANK. I’M FISHING DOWN AT GREAT AYTON ON SUNDAY AND THE SUN’LL BE AT ME BACK MOST OF THE TIME.”
There was a general murmuring of approval and nodding of heads as Pottage crunched his way down to the other end of the office, his cigar generating industrial quantities of smoke. From his hidey hole, Steve looked aghast down to the other end where Pottage was taking up his position. He was in full view. He thought of edging sideways, closer to the pot plants, but it was too late. Pottage had him in his sights. He took the cigar from his mouth and opened his mouth to speak, but thought better of it. Instead he half turned to glare at a desk half way down on the left. He flicked the rod back over his head and snapped it forward, casting the line unerringly on to a sheaf of paper in front of the nervous occupant who quickly attached the sheet of paper as part of a well-drilled routine and watched with some relief as it sped away, Pottage furiously puffing on his cigar while working the reel handle.
He squinted at the sheet and a broad smile broke out. “PIKE!” he proclaimed.
“Oooh,” came the servile chorus with a smattering of applause. Pottage held his hand up, still smiling, and as quickly as the applause had broken out, it stopped.
“Now then,” he said quietly, a gleam in his eye. He turned and flicked the line flatter this time. It fizzed like rocket, arrowing straight to Steve’s desk where the hook bounced off his pile of blueprints and hit him on the shoulder. He jumped out of his skin, his trailing arm sending the neat pile up into the air like a cloud of giant confetti.
“WHAT FISH HAVE I CAUGHT YOUNG MAN? EH?”
“Um, I haven’t got a fish actually Peter,” Steve mumbled nervously.
“WHAT’S THAT LAD? SPEAK UP.”
Steve cleared his throat and raised his voice. “I er, I haven’t got a fish Peter.” He racked his brains to think of a time when he had ever said anything quite so ridiculous.
“PUT THE FIRST SHEET OF PAPER ON THE HOOK LAD. COME ON, CHOP CHOP!”
Like a naughty school boy, humiliated by a sadistic teacher holding him up by his ear, Steve fumbled amongst the sheets of papers, found one and inserted the hook. Pottage, watching him like a hawk whipped it away and began reeling it in. Steve watched it gracefully fly away from him and into Pottage’s waiting hands.
Pottage tore it from the hook and scanned it quickly, his expression clouding over as he did so. He paused to puff again on his cigar. The office held its collective breath, waiting for the judgement of Solomon.
“WHAT THE BLOODY HELL’S ALL THIS RUBBISH?” He screwed it up into a ball, dropped his rod to the floor and marched back down the aisle towards Steve’s desk. He bent down and scooped up the blueprints and Steve’s laboured calculations that were strewn all over the floor.
“IS THIS WHAT YOU’VE BEEN WORKING ON LAD?” He brandished the fan of papers under Steve’s nose.
“Er, yes, that’s right”, gulped Steve.
“AND WE’VE BEEN PAYING YOU FOR THIS CRAP HAVE WE?”
“Er, yes, you have actually.”
“DEAR GOD, NO WONDER THE COUNTRY’S IN SUCH A STATE. CLEAR YOUR DESK LAD, THE GRAVYTRAIN HAS JUST OFFICIALLY HIT THE BUFFERS.”
Pottage’s final act of humiliation was to rip the pile of papers in front of Steve’s nose and to deposit them directly into the bin by the side of his desk. Before the last fragment had fluttered down into the bin, Pottage had turned on his heels, picked up his fishing rod and clattered his way out of the office en route to a weekend’s real fishing.
The stunned silence persisted after he had gone. No-one could bring themselves to look Steve in the face, and one by one, they all began to pack up their own work and prepare themselves to leave, making sure they returned on Monday morning to a clean desk. Eventually, Steve was the last person left in the office. He was just about to get his jacket and leave, when the door at the far end of the office swung open and Geoff came in. He walked up to Steve, an embarrassed expression on his face.
“I suppose you realise that this was your last day Steven?” he asked.
“I sort of got the feeling that was the case, yeah,” replied Steve, his face telling a story of confusion and hurt.
“Don’t look like that lad, you had a good run. You were just unlucky Peter changed his casting position. He’s never done that before.”
Steve looked at Geoff. “There wasn’t ever really a job here was there? Not a proper one, I mean.”
Geoff shook his head. “No, lad, there wasn’t. It was a favour to Stan. We sort of “create” a job every summer for one of the executive’s sons before university, that sort of thing. Sometimes two. In your case, you were the deserving boyfriend, that’s all.”
Steve forced out a hollow laugh. “Deserving boyfriend, that’s a joke. The funny thing is, I was gonna…” He paused.
“You were going to what lad?”
He shook his head.
“Oh nothing. It doesn’t matter.”
Later, in the early hours of the morning, in the quiet darkness of his room, he sat at a desk, staring out of his window at the rows of streetlamps illuminating the pebble dash houses of the estate. A confined cone of yellow lit up a small section of the desk top and his journal, opened to the first page. After some thought he turned his attention to the journal, picked up a pen and wrote, adding to the list:
Lost reputation and friends.
He stopped for a moment, looking back out of the window at the rows of identical houses, huddled in the darkness. Shaking his head, he turned back to the journal and added
Lost self -respect
He shivered. Suddenly, he wasn’t feeling very clever or very pleased with himself anymore.
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.
Zero Tolerance – the perfect gift for the special teacher in your life….
Since it was published at the end of February this year, my first novel, Zero Tolerance has had some brilliant reviews. At this festive time of giving, what better way is there to celebrate the end of a truly ghastly year, by giving a copy of the book to that special teacher in your life.
Still not convinced? Read some extracts from the reviews below:
Peter Thomas, Chair of NATE
Be warned: this is a very offensive book. It will cause great offence to true believers of some of the current orthodoxies prevailing in UK education.
Sceptics, agnostics and heretics will love the book. It is very funny and it is rooted in a very realistic school setting.
Swift’s Modest Proposal….Pope’s Rape of the Lock…Rushdie’s Satanic Verses…The life of Brian….Charlie Hebdo cartoons…(were all) a cause of offence.
Rattling the bars of an institution can be done from outside or inside, but, either way, rattling them turns the apparatus of repression into an instrument of communication. And this novel rattles quite a few bars, with offence intended.
Debra Kidd – Trainer, writer, founder of National Teacher learning Day, author of “A Curriculum of Hope”
Love, loved, loved this book by The Old Grey Owl. If you’re a fan of silent corridors, zero tolerance etc etc it may not be for you. For the rest of us …..bloody brilliant!
Mark Aston – Schools Week
This is the Edu-Dickens that we have been crying out for since Hard Times. Not since watching A Very Peculiar Practice – an equally caustic satire of encroaching privatisation of the NHS in the late 1980s – have I felt so politically energised by a cultural product. If the malpractices engaged in in this novel are anywhere near truth, then we have streamlined and simplified the English education system into nothing less than a Victorian workhouse, with all its attendant, oft-ignored rules and regulations and lack of meaningful (because often corrupt) oversight.
Those who already experience schools in the way described by the anonymous author will lap up the almost burlesque caricature of the Cruella de Ville that is Everson (she is described as such during a pleasingly terrifying learning walk of the school).
London Headteacher (name changed to protect the innocent)
Loved the book! The plot rang very true for a leader of one of those rare beasts, an LA maintained proper comprehensive school in London. Lots of sadness, but lots of hope too and lovely characters. Highly recommended!
Toxic Policies Poison
Toxic workplace practices have been in place in the private sector for decades, but now they have infiltrated schools. The academisation of Fairfield High has a catastrophic impact on the teachers, pupils and local community. Amid all this turmoil lie two boys, a Syrian refugee and a pending class boy fed a diet of violence and racism. Can anyone survive Zero Tolerance?
A Great read: both enjoyable and disturbing
A great narrative expose of a zero tolerance approach to school management – believable, scathing, with a sensitive human touch and engaging characters. I thoroughly recommend this read, particularly for educators …
A satirical, yet hopeful, look at 21st century schools and the dark forces attempting to transform them.
Warmth, wit and wisdom!
This is a must-read for any teacher that will make you think about what it’s really all for. The novel deftly blends wit and wisdom throughout and The Old Grey Owl writes unsavoury characters so well that you’ll be recoiling at every mention of the pathetic ‘Barry Pugh’!
I loved this novel, it took me on an emotional roller coaster. The characters with all their own doubts and foibles, are drawn brilliantly, We’ve all met these characters during our own school lives or as teachers and we can all picture a face that fits. Then there’s Karim, we may not have met him, but we all know the terrible plight of the refugee. A wonderfully spun tale, I highly recommend this book.
A great satirical work
The British education system has been slowly languishing for many years, suffering from defunding and having attention grabbing, but ultimately useless ideas forced on it. The cries of experienced educators have been drowned out and it seems empathy is at an all time low… or so I believe from what I’ve read in Zero Tolerance. This was a great, satirical work which weaves in astute thoughts on politics, refugees and the general ridiculousness of 21st century life. The Old Grey Owl really breathes life into teachers, a career which has been disrespected by the government for a while now.
Lifting the lid on educational chicanery
This novel is both an engaging page-turner and an important indictment of the direction being taken in state education at the moment. The characters are expertly drawn and the narrative takes you through the travails of teachers trying to do a good job against a back drop of crazy initiatives and unscrupulous school leaders. Added to this is the poignant story of a Syrian refugee who has escaped from one sort of nightmare only to be engulfed by another. Ultimately it has a redemptive finale. We can but hope that, like Rick and his fellow travellers at Fairfield school, this country finally sees the light and we move forward to an education system which aspires to give young people a fully rounded education rather than one narrowly focused on league table supremacy.
First of all this book is a great read. The characters, while they clearly represent a type, are drawn in depth and detail. The plot is wonderfully controlled to keep the reader engrossed and although the story is serious and often tragic, it is fundamentally kind-hearted. This is plainly a book on a mission which may be too apparent, but anyone with experience of children, teaching or teachers can fill in the shades of grey between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’. I mustn’t give a way the ending, this book must be read.
A well-paced, intelligent and humorous expose of life in a newly acadamised London school. The anonymous author has written an excoriating account of school life under the awful ‘Superhead’ Camilla, a Gradgrind of the C21st. The novel is an engaging story, full of interesting, empathetic characters and despicably horrible villains. There is genuine emotional engagement with the wellbeing of the oppressed teachers in the book and delightful vignettes of their home lives. The quality of the writing improves throughout the book and there is delightful language and metaphor mixed with political astuteness. Interwoven with the school story of the bastardisation of education, is the story of Syrian refugee Karim, a modern day Oliver Twist who overcomes every adversity to find a new life in England. The denouement is full of dramatic tension. All teachers should read this book and all fans of Dickens, Morpurgo, Pullman, Tressell and Rowling will not be disappointed. Ten out of ten and a gold star.
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