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.
If you’ve been convinced by those fab reviews, or you’re either curious or desperate, why not see for yourself? Click one of the links below to find the book
Martin Phillips’delightful memoir of growing up in a South London suburb in the Sixties. It’s not all Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll you know. There was The Beatles as well.
Martin Phillips’ memoir, published by Amazon earlier this year, has been the surprise hit of a packed schedule of Lock Down reading since March. It’s a delight. A gentle, reflective and funny account of his early years in the Sixties in the London Borough of Bromley, it charts a boy’s coming of age to a soundtrack of pop and rock classics of the era. By the time he leaves, guitar metaphorically strapped to his back, to begin adulthood and independence as a trainee teacher, the decade is on its last legs. There is a powerful sense at the end of the book that the times they are a’changing. His first day at college, in a delicious piece of serendipity, was the day The Beatles released Abbey Road. The innocence of The Sixties was over and we would never see anything of its kind again.
The music punctuates the book like a string of pearls. From Love Me Do in 1962 to the aforementioned Abbey Road in1969, the book covers many of the major releases in that extraordinary 8 year period of innovation and revolution, and delightfully, some of the minor ones (Blodwyn Pig anyone?). Phillips continually returns to The Beatles as the lode stone of the times, the golden thread that ties his early memories together, and the book creates a wonderful sense of what it must have been like to experience it at first hand, rather than, as most of us did, in retrospect when they had been afforded the status of cultural icons.
This, I think, is one of the major achievements of the book, one even more important in these dreadful days of officially sanctioned, improving, civilizing culture. OFSTED and the New Brutalists have a lot to answer for, with their laughable misreading of Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas on Cultural Capital. In their hands, Culture becomes a means of civilizing the savages on the estates and rescuing them for the poverty of their familial and community horizons. It’s a way of saying, over and over again to working class children, you are really not good enough. In Phillips’ memoir, the music of the time was throwaway, low brow, and frowned upon by the great and the good. And, as a result, it was essentially thrilling and deviant and belonged to the people who consumed it avidly as a marker of something new and liberating. We didn’t know it at the time, but in living our ordinary lives, the stuff we liked would become immensely significant culturally and historically in the development of ideas and the challenging of conventions. We don’t seem to know it now, either, but the things that the High Priests of Cultural Absolutism now scorn will be venerated by future generations.
So we have fabulous tales of seeing Fleetwood Mac at The Eden Park Hotel, Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix at various pubs in South east London, as Phillips dabbles with acoustic and electric guitars in a series of not-quite-making it bands. An early forerunner of the Glastonbury festival, The Festival of the Blues at Bath Recreation Ground is attended, with an incredible line up of Fleetwood Mac, John Mayall, Ten Years After, Led Zeppelin The Nice (and that’s just the first few acts) compered by John Peel. There are the first tentative wide-eyed trips into continental Europe, the first faltering steps on the path of love and sex, all described with a freshness that conveys the vitality of those first experiences that live with us all for the rest of our lives.
A major pleasure of the book is his description of his life at school, from the end of Primary to the end of A levels, and the enduring friendships that were made with a series of sympathetically drawn characters who become partners in crime as Phillips negotiated his way through the tricky terrain of adolescence in the suburbs. He is splendidly dismissive of some of the teaching he received at his boys grammar school, which should serve as a welcome rebuttal of those who glorify the good old days and yearn for the days of standards and rigour. Hmm. The teacher who set exercises to do in silence while reading his novel at the front of the class, I suspect, was much more common than current educational mythology would have us believe. It was certainly not the model that Phillips used in his long career as an English teacher, Senior Advisor for Devon, Senior Coursework Moderator for the AQA and Educational Consultant.
Finally, for those of us of a certain age, there is the added pleasure of those other incidental cultural artefacts that make up the warp and weft of life lived. Watneys Red Barrel, The Moon Landings, The World Cup, The Beatles doing All You Need is Love live on the telly. Four channels, Crackerjack, Vesta Chow Mein, Derek Underwood at The Oval, playing out all day. Just the names alone will send shiver down the spine of anyone who was there.
If you’re a teacher, if you like contemporary music, if you are of a certain age, if you like social history, if you enjoy a life well told, then this book is definitely worthy of your attention. Buy it, read it, and then tell your friends to do the same. They say that if you can remember the Sixties then you weren’t there. Martin Phillips remembers the Sixties and he most definitely was there. And because of his vivid retelling, so can we be when we read his marvellous book.
Anna had always looked forward to September. Even as a child, the prospect of the new school year, with its pristine uniform, books and equipment, promised the chance of a new start, when anything was possible. The same feeling still buoyed her now as a teacher, even though the new start always turned sour all too quickly, and she knew that disappointment was never too far away.
This year, it felt to her that the promise of a clean page was even more important than usual. As she busied herself with her new pens and stationery, and began to lay out her clothes for the first day back the next day, she struggled to hold down her rising feelings of anxiety. Although the return to class was daunting after six weeks away, it did at least mean that she would get out of the flat and away from Tom for a time. He needed some time and space and six weeks cooped up together in a small flat had pushed him towards the edge. She knew it was her fault and she needed to loosen up a little, but she was sure work would help.
Her anxiety was divided equally between Tom and Anthony Gordon. She had heard the horror stories in the staffroom about Anthony’s attitude and behaviour. Seemingly continually on the verge of furious, violent eruptions, he was particularly bad, apparently, with female members of staff. Ever since she had discovered that he was going to be in her Year 9 class, back in July, a seed of worry had lodged itself in her mind. By the time she arrived at the night before the first teaching day of the Autumn term, it had grown to the size of a Giant Redwood. She had managed the two evenings before the first INSET days, but now before the first real day with children and timetables and teaching lessons and duties, its branches twisted everywhere in her head and she could not get to sleep for worry. Tom hadn’t helped. As she tossed and turned in bed, she thought back to earlier in the evening, when Tom had lingered at the doorway of her study, fiddling with his watch. Anna did not look up from her desk.
“Anna, come on. We’ve got to be there in 15 minutes. I’ve been telling you for the past hour.”
She glanced up, distracted.
“What? Oh, sorry Tom. I don’t think I can come, I’ve got to finish all of this off, and I’ve still got hours to go.”
Tom’s face was thunderous.
“You are joking, I presume. I can’t just show up on my own. Just leave it, you need to get out anyway. It’ll be good for you.”
She shook her head. “No, I’m sorry Tom, I’m worried about tomorrow. You go on your own. You’ll have a better time without me.”
“It’s just a job, for God’s sake. The kids you teach are all no-hopers anyway It doesn’t make any difference what you do. You’re wasting your time.”
She looked as if he had slapped her across the face.
He cut across her. “Is it always going to be like this? Christ Anna, don’t be such a martyr and have some fun, while you still can.”
She tried again. “But..”
“Oh, forget it. Don’t wait up.”
He turned and slammed the door.
She could still feel the vibration echoing through the flat as she recalled the scene, lying in bed unable to sleep. She reached across for her phone. No messages. 2 am. Where was he?
Anthony, on the other side of town, could also not get to sleep. He was not used to sleeping in a proper bed with a duvet that covered him for one thing. And for another, he was excited about going back to school. It was the first time in his life he could remember having new uniform and equipment. Unable to bear it a moment longer, he swung his legs out from underneath the thick covers that were swamping him, and went over to his desk. His desk! Another novelty that made him constantly look over at it, as if to check that it was still there and someone had not discovered a mistake and had come to take it away. He handled his pencil case and calculator, and flicked through his new dictionary, trying out some of the new words for size.
His finger traced down the edge of the page as he sounded the words one at a time.
“ Stab – pierce, wound with pointed weapon. Hmm. Stability – firmly fixed or established. Not easily moved or changed or destroyed. Stamina – endurance, staying power. Status – social position, rank, relation to others.”
He stopped and looked around the room, picking out objects from the deep shadows that cloaked them. Bed. Wardrobe. Computer. Games. Posters on the wall. Maybe it would be different this time. Maybe his Dad had really changed and they could all stay together in this flat and everything would be alright. Maybe his Mum would be proud of him and school would ring home with good news for a change. Maybe…
Thirty yellow buds blossomed cream as 9C opened their exercise books to the first page.
“OK Year 9. Can you put today’s date and the title please, and underline both of those things neatly?”
“What’s the title, Miss?” came a shout from the middle of the room, closely followed by, “What date is it today, Miss?”
“Date and title are on the Whiteboard. I’m not expecting you to be mind readers, you know.”
A couple of the sharper kids raised their heads and smiled up at her, a few looked puzzled and looked around, while the silent majority ploughed on, oblivious to the joke that had just sailed over their heads. Anna surveyed the class, judging when to move on.
“Ok, everyone let’s just get the rules clear from day one. If you all know what’s expected, no-one will get into trouble, and your work will improve. Or that’s the intention, at any rate. So, rule number one..”
She clicked the powerpoint and began to talk through the first rule as it appeared on the screen. The class copied it down in silence. The clock ticked and Anna covered the room, her heels clicking on the hard lino floor. A cloud of concentration gathered above their heads. She already felt the first day of term nerves drain away, the minute she had started to project her voice to this first class. It was the same every year and she laughed at herself inwardly over the time she had wasted in the last few days, worrying about the starting the new year.
After twenty minutes the task was done and Anna could move on to her first real task.
“OK, everyone, pens down please and look this way. Now, I’ve never taught this class before so we don’t know each other. The first thing we are going to do is to think about how English and school in general has been for each of us since we started a couple of years ago, and what we would like to achieve this year and by the time we leave school for good..”
She was off. Instructions came easily and the lesson plan, the product of agonised hours, dissolved as instinct took over. A brief explanation and setting up, some questions fielded and a five minute group discussion with feedback to the whole class (that had caused a deep breath before launching in to it) had come and gone, expertly managed, and almost before she knew it, the writing task had been set up and the entire class were back working individually, writing their letters of introduction to her, their new teacher.
Ten minutes in, she stood back and surveyed the room. The concentration was almost painful. She had patrolled the room, reading over shoulders, fielding questions, making suggestions, correcting mistakes, and now she wallowed in the pleasure of watching the class visibly get cleverer in front of her eyes. Where was the performance management observer when you needed them? Or the OFSTED inspector?
She looked in the direction of the question and just controlled her frown in time. Anthony Gordon had his hand up. He had been surprisingly perfect up to that point: immaculate uniform, immediately following instructions without question, responsible participation in the group discussion. It was almost as if he had been taking the piss. But now, the honeymoon was over. He’d done well, but it was too much to expect him to keep this up right to the end of the lesson. She flashed a smile at him as she moved over to his side of the room.
“Yes, Anthony?” she asked.
“Miss, can you read this to see if it’s alright?”
She hesitated, expecting this to be the first line of an elaborate setup, with her as the butt of the joke. Her eyes flicked around the room. No, there were no supressed sniggers, no furtive glances, nothing. The whole class had heads bent to their work, absorbed. She looked back to Anthony who was waiting patiently.
“Sorry Anthony, just coming”
She navigated the tables and reached out to pick up his book. She scanned it quickly, already rehearsing the bland, standard reply of encouragement she would give before moving off, before she stopped, a frown creasing her face. She read it again. She looked again at Anthony, who shifted uncomfortably in his seat. His face fell.
“It’s crap, innit, Miss?” he mumbled, and reached out to grab the book back from her.
“Anthony, it’s great. This is the best piece of writing you’ve done. You’ve got the tone just right. And some of your expression is just beautiful.”
He looked a little confused. “Really, Miss, it’s alright? You sure?”
“Anthony, it’s more than alright, its excellent. Well done.”
A smile spread across his face and he seemed to blossom in front of her.
“How are you going to carry on?”
“I’m not sure, Miss. I’m a bit stuck.”
“Well, you need to go on to, give some examples of the things you’ve mentioned. Anecdotes. And maybe you could use a few rhetorical questions in the next section.”
She bent down over his table, placing the exercise book back in place and on a separate sheet of paper began to write.
“Something like this,” she said, as she wrote out a few sentences. “Have a go, see how you get on.”
She straightened up. He smiled at her.
“Thanks, Miss” he said before bending back down towards his book.
Anna threaded her way back through the grid of tables to the front of the class, and surveyed the group. Perfect, humming concentration pulsed in the room. It was all she could do not to laugh out loud. A girl at the front looked up at that moment.
“What’s up, Miss? What’s funny? You look very happy.”
“Nothing, Kirsty. Let’s get back to work please. Another five minutes”
She began to circulate around the tables, looking over shoulders at their writing, scanning the room for issues. She approached Anthony’s table and found herself just behind him when the quiet in the room was disturbed by his hissed exclamation.
All heads looked up and searched the room for the culprit and there was the beginnings of a group giggle rolling across the room.
“Anthony! There’s really no need for that kind of language.”
“Huh? Oh sorry Miss, it just came out. I’ve messed it all up.”
He lifted his book half up and grabbed the corner of the page with his right hand.
Anna reached out and grabbed the book away from him.
“No, no, no. Don’t tear the page out, Anthony, you’ll ruin all that work.”
“It’s already ruined, Miss. Look at it.”
She lowered her voice, and softened her tone.
“It’s not ruined, Anthony, you just made a mistake, that’s all.”
“I always make mistakes, though Miss.”
She laughed. “So does everyone. Mistakes are nothing to be worried about Anthony. Just cross it out with a single line and correct it. Then you can carry on and add to what you’ve already done.”
“But it’ll look crap, Miss. I don’t want crossings out all over it. I always muck it up.”
“I’ll tell you a secret Anthony. Examiners love crossing out. It’s a sign of an intelligent student. Someone who knows they’ve got something wrong and who has tried to do something about it. If you ripped out the page every time you made a mistake, you would never, ever finish.”
He looked puzzled as he tried to process this information. Anna gently laid the book back down on his table. Keeping one hand on it so he couldn’t snatch it again, she pointed at the mistake.
“Look, it’s easy. You just draw a single line through what you got wrong, like this..” She modelled the crossing out, her red pen neatly scoring through a misspelling. “Don’t scribble it, that will look messy. Just a single line and then put your correction next to it. See.”
Anthony’s face moved from puzzled through disgruntled and ended in reluctant acceptance. He bent his head back down to his work and the final minutes of the lesson passed in silent concentration.
“Yeah, it was amazing, he just kept on writing. I was, like, expecting him to kick off all lesson, but there wasn’t a flicker. It was like teaching a different kid, honestly…”
She paused and glanced over at Tom, who was intently scrolling on his phone.
“Are you even listening to me Tom? Jesus, you’re so rude. You don’t take any interest in my work. You could at least pretend.”
There was a delay as he finished and then he looked up.
“I was listening for the first fifteen minutes. And then I wasn’t.”
“You really don’t care, do you?”
“For god’s sake, it’s just a job. Do you even know what I do? When do you have to listen to me going on about my job. You’re so fucking boring these days. You didn’t used to be like this.”
He stood up abruptly.
“Never mind. I’m going out for some peace.”
He lunged at her and grabbed her throat, pinning her to the high-backed chair.
“Shut up!” he screamed, “Just shut the fuck up.”
He pushed her back against the chair and stormed out, slamming the door violently behind him. Anna slumped back on her chair, her hand to her neck, stunned. And then the tears came.
Anthony crouched at his desk, rigid, his pen gripped tightly above his exercise book. Another shout, another crash of something heavy against the wall, another strangled whimper from his mother. He flinched at each sound, slumping lower towards the desk top beaten down by every noise. He remained frozen, breath caught in fear, waiting for the noise he knew was coming next. The sound that always signalled respite, a brief passage of calm before the next time. The door duly slammed, after a final volley of abuse, and as the vibration settled slowly into stillness, his shoulders came down and a weary peace descended on the room.
He sat frozen, not daring to go out of his room for fear of what he might find. His ears strained for some sign to cut through the noise of distant traffic and an intermittent gusting wind. And then he heard his mother moving around and the sound of cupboards opening and closing. She was alright and he could stay where he was, safe and quiet.
He looked down at his book, at the sentence he had stared at for the previous fifteen minutes while mayhem had swirled around in the room outside.
“In the future, I’d like to work as a professional gamer, and have a nice house and family, where my mum and dad can come and visit.”
He thought for a second and was just about to add a last sentence when the door burst open and his mother stared him, wild-eyed. The bruise around her eye and cheek bone was ripening as she spoke
“Anthony. Come on. Pack up what you need. We’ve got to leave.”
She tossed a battered blue IKEA bag onto the floor in front of him.
“Back to the Refuge. Come on, we need to be quick.”
She went back out to collect her stuff. Anthony automatically began to bundle his clothes and a few books into the bag. He had done it several times before and it barely registered with him, thinking he would probably have to do it again some time in the future. He took a final look around his room, grabbed his exercise book from the desk, stuffed it into the bag, and turned out the light.
Anna sat in the darkness of her flat, scrolling through the messages on her phone. The dim blue glare sparkled in the tear tracks on her cheeks and softened the red rims and smudged mascara. He wasn’t coming back, that much was clear. He wasn’t picking up and had left no indication where he might be staying. Another woman, obviously, she thought bitterly. Someone who had the dinner on the table and didn’t have the audacity to talk about her own life and feelings and worries.
When she had got back from school that Monday she knew as soon as she walked through the door that he had gone. The gaps on their shelves confirmed it. He had come back when she had been at work, gathered up his stuff and removed it all, so no trace was left, without even telling her.
She slumped down at the kitchen table, and swung her school bag, stuffed with marking, with a heave on top of the table in front of her. It thudded down and spilled the first few books, spreading like a hand of cards. She looked fondly at them, so new, so clean, so full of hope. She had been convinced that this September everything was going to be different. A new start, a new her. She would manage everything and be the woman that she knew she could be. Having it all. Juggling competing demands. In control. But it only takes one ball to veer slightly off course and a chain reaction starts, that no matter how frantically you tried to keep it going, inevitably ends with everything crashing.
She wiped her eyes and blew her nose, collecting her resolve to keep on going. Reaching out to the books that had fanned out in front of her, she chose the one that was a little grubbier than the rest. Dog-eared and stained, the name on the front provoked a ghost of a smile. Anthony Gordon. At least he had made a fresh start, if only until the end of the first week. He hadn’t been seen since then and rumours had flown around the staffroom about the police and social services being involved. But now his book had magically appeared in her pile.
She switched on the side lamp, and opened the book, illuminated in a warm, yellow cone of light. As she read, flicking through the pages, her smile froze and then disappeared altogether. He had written three pages, the most he had ever achieved. There were careful crossings out and corrections made but the pages had all been crossed out, each line like an angry slash, almost penetrating the surface of the paper. The last page hung where it had been partially ripped out. Anthony had scrawled a new title, “My Future”, complete with a parody of underlining, free hand, red and jagged. Underneath, in capital letters, he had scratched simply, “I AINT GOT ONE”.
A cold wind moaned outside her kitchen window. She shivered. September was already halfway through and soon October would be here. Winter was coming.
This summer’s literary sensation is just a Netfix mini-series in waiting.
Twitter has been agog all year, or so it seems, about this book from first time novelist, Delia Owens. It firmly established itself as the book to read this year, and in normal summers, it would have furnished many a beach bag as the go-to holiday read. I was intrigued. Could it really be that good? Or was it just the latest example of marketing triumphing over substance? There was only one way to settle it and, firmly behind the curve, I bought it and settled down with a raised eyebrow, waiting to be convinced.
Unfortunately, dear reader, I was not. Convinced that is.
There is a lot to admire and enjoy about it. I finished it in three days, for a start. So, yes, it’s a page turner, and in my book, that is a powerful attraction. It’s an often under-appreciated skill to load a narrative with so much forward momentum that it’s easy to read seventy pages without really noticing it. Normally, even with books that I end up loving, I can be persuaded to break for a cup of coffee and a biscuit after twenty pages or so. It’s hard work reading and one needs to keep one’s strength up. But here the scenario, setting and characters are so well set up, structurally, that I found myself engrossed in wanting to know what actually happened.
Probably the most admirable thing about it is the fact that the author is a Seventy year old Biologist, whose only other foray into publishing has been Biology text books. A first novel becoming an international best seller is something that the rest of us mere mortals can only dream about. As an aspiring novelist of a certain age, depressingly familiar with the Publisher’s/Agent’s rejection email, this is a phenomenal achievement. So, notwithstanding the criticisms about to follow, I take my hat off to her.
Her intimate knowledge of Biology furnishes the book with its greatest strength. It’s a beautiful portrait of a wild eco system. There is a fabulous sense of place in the book. The coastal strip of North Carolina marsh land is vividly evoked by someone who clearly knows what they are talking about. This is, refreshingly, not the product of painstaking research, but the result of a lifetime of work and study. She knows her stuff and that sense of authority is absolutely convincing and compelling.
The Whodunnit, Crime element of the book is also very well done, (at least until the end) and she handles the switching back and forth from the past to the present very skilfully, creating tension and adding layers of detail to characters and relationships. There is some sense of satisfaction from the court room scene at the end, with the orderly presentation of prosecution and defence questions and their answers providing some welcome kind of resolution and clarification. The court room scene, of course, has haunting echoes of “To Kill A Mockingbird”, even down to the presence of the marginalised black families in the courtroom. I expected Scout and Jem to pop up at any moment. Kya Clark, the main protagonist, though white, is the victim of prejudice and suspicion by the mainstream community, and her main support and friends throughout her isolation were the elderly black couple, Jumpin’ and his wife Mabel. This Maycomb County type atmosphere resonates throughout the novel. For the most part, it’s another of the pleasures of the book, but like so many things, it’s not an unqualified triumph. There is a straining for this effect, a trying too hard. There are only so many times you can describe the eating and making of Grits, for example, before it becomes faintly ludicrous.
The court room scene, despite its satisfactions, is an opportunity missed. Too plain, too straightforward, with nothing on the same scale as Atticus’ forensic reveal of Tom Robinson’s left-handedness. I got the strong sense, that, like many first-time novelists, by the end Owens had run out of steam, and was just going through the motions. The “twist” right at the end is the least dramatic denouement in the history of murder mysteries. Not because of what is revealed, but the way in which Owens chooses to do it. It’s baldly described, with no character interplay, and the result is deflation. For me, a big “So what?” I’m afraid.
A few other gripes from the grinch. The notion of the main character, Kya, pulling herself out of her poverty stricken, school-refusing, backwoods abandonment, to become a highly literate published writer just wasn’t credible to me. I was willing to suspend my disbelief a little, to give myself to the novel, but I couldn’t sustain it I’m afraid. The two emblematic boys in Kya’s life, Nice Boy and Bad Boy, were similarly two dimensional and also had me running my disbelief down from the flagpole in annoyance.
And then there’s the poetry. Give me strength. It’s not that the poetry is so dreadful, it’s just that there’s far too much of it, and, again, it strains credibility that anyone one in the known universe would recite poems in response to things that happen to them as they mosey their way through the Mangrove to the beach.
As I was reading it, even in my enjoyment, I could imagine Reece Witherspoon rubbing her hands together with glee, cackling, “I wonder if we could get Gwyneth in this and maybe Bobbie May Brown to play Kya.” It’s absolutely set up to be the next “Big Little Lies” or “Little Fires Burning”. And it will probably be a much better Netflix mini-series than book.
So, there you have it. For all of you that read it, devoured it, enjoyed it and eulogised about it on Twitter, I’m sorry. Please don’t take this the wrong way. I’m not saying that you’re wrong or stupid. It just didn’t speak to me. That’s my Bad. There’s precious little enough pleasure in these COVID Neo Fascist times, so I’m glad you found some in this and wish that I had too. Now, let me just get back down to writing an international best seller. How hard can it be?
Some people say,
If only these kids read more Shakespeare
Or even saw a production or two
At The Globe.
That, and maybe listening to a bit of Mozart and a trip to a gallery
To worship at the temple of Art,
Would make all the difference. Even Tate Modern would do, at a pinch.
They deserve it, really.
Culture, that is. It’s just not fair to abandon them
To their parents, who were
Abandoned in their turn.
So we cannot blame them. Not really.
Others, well meaning, no doubt,
Talk of Stormzy and Assassin’s Creed
Of Mice and Men and Game of Thrones
As if they had the same worth.
But everybody knows that proper culture must be
Old and Hard, otherwise it does not count. It is not
Culture with a capital C.
It’s common sense.
It’s alright for them. They’ve got their exams already.
Missionaries in Africa did not agonise about their task to civilize,
But set to work to bring light to the darkness.
Not for them the liberal guilt that stalks us today
Or the righteous anger of The Woke
Now that Black Lives Matter.
But in between, where people live, culture is imbibed
Without thinking, like breathing in.
Like air, we need it to survive.
The air we breathe nurtures and sustains, whether its breeze stirs lush, clipped roses
Or scatters crisp packets in a grimy dance.
It is the same air.
It is the same culture.
It is ours, not theirs.