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

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

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

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

The Watcher and The Friend, Chapter 1 Telling Stories

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

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

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

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

You can buy Zero Tolerance using the links below.

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

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

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

Peter Thomas, Chair of NATE

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark Aston – Schools Week

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

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

London Headteacher (name changed to protect the innocent)

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

Amazon Reviews

Toxic Policies Poison

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

A Great read: both enjoyable and disturbing

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

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


Warmth, wit and wisdom!


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

Brilliant!

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

A great satirical work

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

Lifting the lid on educational chicanery

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

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

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

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

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

Ho!Ho!Ho! That’s Christmas sorted….

Towards Abbey Road – A Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can buy Towards Abbey Road from the link below

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

September

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

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

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

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

She glanced up, distracted.

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

Tom’s face was thunderous.

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

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

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

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

“Tom, I..”

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

She tried again. “But..”

“Oh, forget it. Don’t wait up.”

He turned and slammed the door.

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Miss?”

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

“Yes, Anthony?” she asked.

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

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

“Miss?”

“Sorry Anthony, just coming”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How are you going to carry on?”

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

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

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

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

She straightened up. He smiled at her.

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, shit..”

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

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

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

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

Anna reached out and grabbed the book away from him.

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

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

She lowered her voice, and softened her tone.

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

“I always make mistakes, though Miss.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

“You really don’t care, do you?”

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

“But..”

He stood up abruptly.

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

“Tom, ..”

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where?”

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where The Crawdads Sing

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

Shock as Human Being is underwhelmed by book

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

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

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

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

Delia Owens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cultural Capital

Some people say,
If only these kids read more Shakespeare
At home.
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.

Casting Spells

This is for all those teachers, of whatever stripe, that have ever held a class spellbound, and more particularly, for those English teachers who have ever read fiction aloud to a class of students. My very last thoughts on retirement, honest.

Casting Spells

I have loved casting spells
In the gathering gloom of wet November Friday afternoons
As yellow lights held us all in a web of careful, bold words.
Thirty pairs of eyes wide and gleaming in the dusky, chalk-dusted corners.
Thirty breaths held in a cloud of concentration above our heads.
Yes, that was worth the whole shebang.
But I did not like
The Marking, that squatted on my life like a Toad.
There will come a time, on a wet November afternoon, when a pile of bruised and scribbled purple books might be the object of my wildest dreams.
But not yet.
Not for a long, long time.
And come September, when Summer’s warmth begins to fail and blistered leaves turn yellow,
I will watch the lines of scrubbed children laden with heavy bags,
Proceed to school with first day nerves, and think, with sadness and relief, that no bell summons me,
To cast the old spells
 Afresh for them.

	

Mr Stringer’s Snow Day

A new short story by The Old Grey Owl

The sky was still dark, with flurries of snow carried in fitful gusts of the wind that knifed through him. He crunched his way along the footpath to the main road.

Sam Stringer was on the verge of something, that much was obvious to everyone. It wasn’t clear to anyone who came across him  whether it would be  a nervous breakdown or greatness, but it was definitely something.

At first glance he had it all. He was good looking, with a generous covering of hair on his head and he dressed as if he vaguely knew what he was doing. At work he was amicable, witty and warm. Someone who the rest of the staff had an instinctively good feeling about, though they would be hard pressed to say exactly why. He was effortlessly impressive in the classroom. The kids loved his enthusiasm and knowledge and care and lightness of touch. The staff loved his self-deprecating comments, the fact that he was the go-to-guy on SLT who never let anyone down, his ability to switch from seriousness to sarcasm without anyone ever mistaking that as a sign that what they all did, every day, for the kids, didn’t matter.

And yet there was an unmistakeable air of detachment about him, a coldness and a sadness that seemed the essence of him, unreachable and alone. He was not in a relationship and most of the staff could not remember a time when he had been. He had friends, but they were more like acquaintances, like those university groups that allowed for companionship without intimacy, conversation without revealing. No one knew a thing about his family, and in idle conversation in the pub after work, or in the staffroom over lunch, no one would have been able to answer the questions, “So, where is Sam Stringer from? What does he do with himself? What happens to him at Christmas?” The fundamental question that these more trivial queries masked was, of course, “Who is Sam Stringer?” And to that unasked question there was no ready answer.

And so, people stopped asking, stopped wondering. And his life at work went on, in the flurry of frenzied activities that characterised life in a busy, inner city Secondary school, where one reached the shores of the next weekend, the next holiday, in an exhausted daze, never quite being able to remember how, exactly, one had made it through. This unexamined life went on apace, until one day, Sam Stringer found that he had reached the dizzy heights of Deputy Head, almost without realizing it. It had not been the next step in some carefully considered Machiavellian plan, nor the logical outcome of ruthless careerism, it was simply the place and time and position the conveyor belt of his life had taken him to. At the age of thirty-eight he had earned the respect of his colleagues, the affection of his pupils, a significant and welcome pay rise, and a rather nice, spacious office, with his name on an acrylic door sign: Mr Stringer, Deputy Headteacher.

One of his many responsibilities was Snow. It wasn’t mentioned in his job description and it did not figure at his interview, but as far as the staff were concerned, it was, by a country mile, the most important. The closure of the school because of snow was officially his call. This was partly because he lived ten minutes walk away from the school, so he was the only member of Senior Team who could make an informed judgement based on local weather conditions early enough to set in motion the text and telephone tree, announcing the closure. The real, unstated reason was that Elizabeth, the Headteacher, could trust him to make the correct decision, resisting all pressures from the staff to close at the fall of the first snow flake. She knew that Sam had so little else in his life apart from his job, that a day off was something to be avoided at all costs. He had only ever had to do it once, in his first year as a Deputy, and he had resolutely kept the school open, notwithstanding the traffic chaos and misery that staff and students had to endure. This had garnered Elizabeth valuable brownie points with the local authority, and took her to the top of the league for local headteachers’ macho posturing. It had cost Sam some of his popularity, but he did not seem to notice and carried on as before, charming and effective in equal measure.

And so it was, one Tuesday evening early in December, the Senior Leadership meeting closed with a discussion on meteorology.

“So, are we all clear about the procedure?” Elizabeth scanned the members of her team around the table with her familiar, raking glare. “Sam, as usual it’s your call, but the earlier the decision, the better. We don’t want any complaints about people getting stuck in traffic only to find the school is closed after all. When do you think you’ll be able to get it on the website?”

“Definitely before six. The weather forecast seems pretty certain. The beast from the east is back, with ten feet of snow and freezing temperatures, or that’s what is said when I looked before we started tonight.”

Elizabeth frowned. “Hmm, whatever you do, any of you that is, don’t give the rest of the staff the impression it’s already decided. Weather forecasts have been wrong before and no doubt they’ll be wrong again. I want everyone going to bed tonight thinking that they are coming to school  tomorrow as normal.”

The assembled team were suitably poker faced, controlling the sense of disappointment they all felt. All except Sam who, deep down, knew he would find a snow day at home rather dull in comparison with a day managing the fall out of a snow day at school.

Hesitantly, a voice broke in.

“Do the staff just have to look at the website then? Sorry, this hasn’t happened since I’ve been here and..” Caroline, the newest member of the team, trailed off, feeling more than a little silly.

Elizabeth forced a smile. “Of course, Caroline, forgive me. I forgot, this is your first time.” She looked over at Sam. “Sam, could you?”

“Yes, of course. It was actually in the email I sent out to everyone. There’s a mobile telephone tree and an automatic text message cascade, with some back up calls to key members of staff, so they can ensure everyone in their section of the tree is informed. I thought that everyone would have read that, but…”

The minute he said it, he felt it had come out wrongly, as if he were annoyed at having to explain something he had already dealt with. As someone who loved getting more emails, and felt a little cheated and out of the loop if there was nothing new to deal with, he was genuinely baffled whenever he came across someone who hadn’t checked their own inbox. The expression on Caroline’s face, a mixture of annoyance, embarrassment and incredulity, just confirmed it.

She glowered at him, her eyes stinging. “Sorry,“ she said, “I haven’t been in my office. Teaching all day.”

An awkward silence spread over the meeting and people were left shuffling their papers and looking down at their notes. Thankfully, it had been the last item and the meeting broke up, the various members of the team drifting off in different directions to offices spread strategically in all four corners of the school. Sam hung back to make sure that he and Caroline were the last to leave.

She sensed that that was what was happening and at the last minute she tried to scuttle ahead. Sam called out to her. “Caroline, sorry, can I have a word?”

She turned and forced a thin smile. “Yes, sure,” she said, “What is it?”

He looked around to check everyone else had left. “Sorry, I didn’t mean it to sound critical at the end there. I was just surprised you hadn’t seen the message. It just came out a bit wrong.”

“You should have said that in the meeting, “ she replied curtly and turned tail and left before he could reply. As she walked down the corridor towards her office she wondered if she had been a bit rude. “At least he apologised,” she thought, “Not many men would have done that.”

Back in the meeting room, Sam was left alone, mouth open. He felt a little crushed. Was it him? He went over what had happened in his mind, knowing that he would do the same thing over and over again before the end of the day. Despite appearances to the contrary, Sam was a worrier. He hated for people not to like him and to give them any reason for doing so. Even worse, he always thought the other person was right, and that he had behaved badly, regardless of the situation. It was made even worse by the fact that it was so unusual. Most people warmed to Sam. But that just served to make Caroline’s obvious dislike of him so grating.  She, a newly appointed Assistant Head, had only been in post since September, and no matter how hard Sam tried, he couldn’t seem to hit it off with her. There had been a series of awkward encounters, of misunderstandings and, at times, open arguments. They always ended with Sam apologising, vowing to himself to be more careful next time. But, apparently, he never was.

In the midst of these repeated bouts of self-recrimination lurked something even more disturbing. A feeling so unfamiliar to him that he struggled to keep it buried and whenever it surfaced, which was far too often for his liking, it left him feeling even worse. From the first moment he had seen her, when she had arrived in the school foyer for her interview in the summer term, he was overwhelmed with the strangest, strongest feeling that he had ever had for anyone. She wasn’t stereotypically attractive, but she had something. A warmth, a spark, something indefinable but definitely there. There was no doubt about that. Short, glossy dark hair, green eyes, lovely golden skin and long, long legs. And she dressed well. He wasn’t sure about that last thing. He didn’t really notice people and certainly not their clothes. He would not have been able to describe anything that anyone at the Senior Team meeting that had just finished had been wearing, but he knew, with a painful and insistent certainty, that Caroline Taylor looked just right in whatever it was she had chosen to wear.

He also knew, with equal certainty, that Caroline thought that he was a bit of a joke. Whatever he had managed to do to fool everybody else, Caroline wasn’t falling for it. She could see right through him and obviously recognised him for what he was. An imposter. A charlatan. A phoney.  And for Sam, that merely served to increase her charm. Judgement as well as Beauty.

 With these thoughts churning around his brain, he collected his stuff, locked up his office, and made his way down to the car park. He sighed as he opened his car door. He knew he couldn’t go on like this and had made a sort of decision to look at Headships in other schools, ready to start applying next Summer. He shivered as the car fired into life, a blast of cold air shaking him from his thoughts back to the here and now. He looked up into the sky through the side window. Dark and cloudless, the stars glittered with an intensity unusual in the city sky. He could feel the gathering hard frost, but as yet there was no sign of snow. Maybe the clouds would roll in later, direct from the Siberian plains, with their gift of plump, feathery snowflakes.

Caroline had lingered in her tiny office for longer than usual, just to make sure she didn’t encounter Sam in the car park. She couldn’t bear another awkward conversation. God, what was wrong with her? Why did she always snap at him? He was perfectly OK as a Deputy Head. Better than most actually. He didn’t pull rank and didn’t mansplain. He was sensitive and respectful, without seeming horribly pleased with himself for being so right-on, so PC. It was just that everyone liked him. He was so popular with the staff, foot soldiers and the powers that be, that there must be something wrong with him. No-one could be that perfect. And, even worse, he was breathtakingly good looking. Men like that are always insufferable bastards in the end, she told herself, remembering an unfortunate dalliance with an equally chiselled and toned master of the universe type who had been big in the city. His sensitivity, worn like an Armani suit at the beginning of their fling, was soon cast aside to reveal the sixteen carat bastard lurking underneath, as she was unceremoniously dumped for someone creative at the BBC at the beginning of the summer holidays. Six weeks of self-pity had not repaired the damage caused by her innate suspicion of handsome men.

The worst occasion with Sam, the one that made her feel hot and uncomfortable whenever she recalled it, was back in September, just a couple of weeks after she had started work. She had popped to the local shop on Sunday morning, looking an absolute fright in tracksuit bottoms and no makeup. When she could make herself face the truth of it, she remembered that she had been in such a rush that there was a breakfast stain on her top. Oh God, how embarrassing. Because out of the blue, Sam saw her across the road and waved at her. Mortified, she had turned away hurriedly, and had blanked him. She had marched away down the road, not stopping until she had shut the door of her flat firmly behind her. Blanked him. Oh My God, she thought. How uncool is that?

It had never been referred to since, and Caroline had discovered in conversation in the ladies’ staff toilet, that Sam had a flat round the corner from her, in Mountcastle road.

“Do you know Mountcastle road?” Samira had asked her. “You know that big posh road with all of those massive Victorian villas in them. The ones that back on to the woods. He’s got a lovely flat there. Got a massive garden.” She lowered her voice. “Beautifully decorated, actually”

Like many of the conversations she had so far had in the staff toilet, this one was not making her feel any better about the worst social gaffe she had ever committed. She had put two and two together and had come up with a number nearer infinity than four. “So,” she thought, “Mr Stringer is a bit of player as far as the female members of staff are concerned. Well not me, oh no.”

She looked at the pile of marking on her desk.  She had dug it out purposely so that she could work through it on her snow day at home. It was an ideal opportunity to catch up, from the depths of her duvet, but, somehow, she couldn’t bring herself to put it in her bag. At the doorway, as she turned to switch the light off, it stared back at her, until it disappeared as the darkness flooded the room and she closed the door, relieved, with a click. Tomorrow, the duvet would be enough to sustain her.

*

The alarm jolted him awake. He scrambled in the heavy darkness, pawing at the table for his phone, and finally managed to turn it off, jabbing frantically at the illuminated screen. Five forty-five am. A thick silence flooded the room and he lay back, enjoying the quiet stillness. After a minute or so, the silence began to weigh heavily on him and he swung his feet around and out of the bed. Jesus, it was cold. He inched his way over to the radiator to check and was puzzled to find that it was on full blast, pulsing heat into the air, yet it seemed to have made little impression on the room. There was a strange silence, as if he had cotton wool stuffed in his ears. He continued to the window and opened the curtains a crack. The window looked out onto the back garden, and beyond the fence at the back, the beginning of the woods. He gave a sharp intake of breath. The sky in front of him was full of swirling heavy flakes of snow and the garden was blanketed in a thick covering, blurring all of the familiar shapes. Already, the perfect layer was marked with animal tracks, criss-crossing the lawn.

His heart leaped. Even at this hour, in this cold, with his breath steaming in front of him, it was a beautiful, strange, otherworldly sight. Clearly, this was one occasion when the snow closure would not be controversial. Nobody would be making much progress in the world in that, not, by the look of it, for a couple of days at least.

Fifteen minutes later it was all done: notice of closure on the website, texts sent via the telephone tree, a message left for the Head, local media contacted and the Local Authority alerts system triggered. He spent the next hour on a leisurely breakfast, enjoying the film of snow Armageddon on breakfast news, before rousing himself to get dressed and ready to brave the world outside. The woolly hat, thick scarf, gloves and padded coat seemed to dissolve into gossamer threads as he made his first tentative footsteps down the path from his front door. The sky was still dark, with flurries of snow carried in fitful gusts of the wind that knifed through him. He crunched his way along the footpath to the main road.

The road was eerily deserted, and the yellow cones of light from the street lamps bathed everything in a mysterious wash of amber. He passed a couple of abandoned cars, left at crazy angles to the kerb, buried and undetectable under the volume of settled snow. There were just a few other people out and about, their breath steaming into the dark skies as they laboured through the snow, preparing for their stories of heroic attempts to get to work that would dominate the news for the next few days.

It took him an hour to do what normally would have been a twenty minute walk. The school was suffocated under a thick blanket of snow, and as he struggled with the lock to the car park entrance, he could see the thickly mufflered figure of Ray, the site manager, his breath steaming outside the main entrance. Sam crunched his way towards him through the untouched snow.

Ray looked up and flashed a broad smile, enjoying the camaraderie of pioneers. “Mornin’,” he called from a distance, “Nice day for it.”

“Good morning, Raymond. What’s it like inside?”

“Boiler’s buggered. It’s freezing in there.”

“What do you reckon?”

“A couple of days at least. Maybe more. Weather forecast after that is a bit hazy. And even when the snow clears, there’s no guarantee of when the boiler’ll be fixed. If ours has gone, you can bet your life they’ll be swamped with callouts from loads of others.”

“Oh well, at least it’s a clear call. I’ll put it on the website after I’ve spoken to Elizabeth.”

“She’ll be tucked up warm in deepest Surrey somewhere no doubt.”

“The privileges of high office, Raymond, my good man. The privileges of high office. Not for the likes of you and me.”

Ray snorted. “You’ll be there soon, sunshine, you’re not fooling me. Another couple of years and you’ll be El Presidente, ordering everyone around from under the duvet.”

Sam was momentarily taken aback. Was that what everyone thought, that he’d be a Head somewhere? And soon, from Ray’s tone. He roused himself and the flicker was gone.

“Listen Ray, I wouldn’t bother with clearing the grounds, not yet anyway. Give it a day or so and keep an eye on the forecast. There’s no point shovelling it all up if there’s a ton more snow on the way. If we keep in touch, then we can manage it from this end. You concentrate on the boiler. I’m just going to do a bit of work while I’m here. I can lock up if you want.”

Ray didn’t need telling twice and strolled away whistling. His snow day had just started to look up.

It was about ten o’clock when Sam finally called it a day. He locked the gates behind him and leant into the knifing wind that had sprung up, whipping thick, fat snowflakes into his face. He gasped in pain and shock. The journey back was clearly going to be harder than the voyage out in the quiet darkness of early morning.

An hour later when he finally turned the corner onto the home straight, he had lost all feeling in his feet, his cheeks were red and numb, and all thoughts of the charm, beauty and romance of the snowy landscape had disappeared. For the previous fifteen minutes he had sustained his spirits by fantasising about the bacon sandwich he had promised himself, with coffee and the paper. This was the thought in his head, as he peered through the swirling snow over the road to the blocks of flats on the other side. He did it every time he walked past, and the extreme conditions of the morning made no difference. Caroline’s flat.

He was about to press on, head down into the wind, when his eye was caught by a huddled figure in the entrance hammering on the door. Defeated, the figure slumped to the ground and sat, head in hands and began weeping. He stopped and stared, shielding his eyes from the driving snow. He took a step towards the kerb, almost indistinguishable now from the road surface and kept on going, picking his way gingerly over the compacted snow on the road surface. Halfway across he called out.

“Caroline? Is that you, Caroline?”

The figure leaped up as if stung, or caught guiltily in the middle of some heinous act. She wiped her hand across her face. When she recognised who had called out to her, her face fell.

“Caroline, what the hell are you doing out here? Are you alright?”

“Sam, er ..Hi, yes, yes , I’m fine. I’m just…”

She hesitated, as if deciding what to say next. Her face was red and blotchy and streaked with tears.

“No, you’re not,” Sam insisted, “You’ve been crying. What’s the matter? You look terrible.”

A wry smile creased her features and she started again.

“Yes, terrible, I can imagine. It’s just that my boiler’s broken down, and I came down to go to the shop and I…er..well, I got locked out. And I haven’t got my phone with me, or my keys and there’s no-one else in the building and I, er.. I didn’t know what to do and I..”

The sentence collapsed into a further outbreak of sobbing. Sam reached out instinctively and took her hand.

“God, Caroline, you’re freezing. How long have you been out here? You need to get inside.”

“Oh, I dunno, half an hour maybe. It’s just that I don’t know what to do and why did you have to come along again and I’m looking a state and being pathetic and, oh, I don’t know, I..”

The words tumbled out in an incoherent torrent until the heaving sobs came again and she wrenched her hand away.

“Look, come on, come round to mine. It’s only five minutes away. You can get warmed up and sort yourself out and we’ll work out a way through this.”

She hesitated. The use of the word “We” was suddenly hypnotically alluring, the idea that someone could help her manage this. But not him. Of all people, not him.

He reached out and took her hand again.

“You can’t stay out her, you’ll freeze to death. Come on.”

Gently, he pulled her hand and she took her first step, and annoyance was gradually replaced by relief as she allowed herself to be led towards a solution. The two figures, hunched against the wind, melted into the blizzard as they made their way slowly down the road.

*

By the time she woke up, the grey light outside had begun to fade. After they had arrived at Sam’s flat, he had made her eat and drink and then insisted she get some sleep in the spare room. Her blank, red-eyed silence, as she methodically chewed her toast and drank the coffee he had handed to her, had convinced him that she had been exhausted and had been outside for longer than she had said.

She got dressed and tentatively made her way out of the room and into the hall way.

“Hello?” she called out, “Anyone here?”

The nearest door opened.

“Aha, Caroline. You feeling any better? That was one hell of a sleep. You obviously needed it.”

Sam smiled at her and ushered her into the room.

“Come in, come in. Come and have a seat.”

The room was not what she had been expecting. It was beautifully proportioned. Elegant, with high ceilings, polished floor boards and Persian rugs. She almost gasped when she walked in, her eyes wide and bright. There were three sofas arranged around an open fireplace, which had a gently flickering log fire. She stopped herself from telling him what an amazing place it was. She suspected that many people had told him that over the years.

“No, I won’t thanks. I really had better be getting back. Thanks, though, you’ve been very kind.”

“Getting back? Getting back where? Have you found your keys then? Or your mobile?”

“Well, no obviously, but..” She trailed off unconvincingly.

“Come on Caroline, I know you don’t really like me and you feel a bit uncomfortable here, but  there’s not much else you can do, is there?  Just give in to it and stay. You’ve already sampled the spare room. You can spend most of the time in there if you prefer. I’ve got loads of work to be getting on with anyway and so have you, I imagine. I’ll even lend you my laptop, how’s that?”

He couldn’t work out whether he was more annoyed or disappointed at her evident eagerness to leave, so he straddled the two. He thought himself rather bold for naming the fact that he clearly made her feel a little awkward, but there was little point in being overly polite. At least it was out in the open now. And she couldn’t go anywhere else, that was undoubtedly true. The weather was getting worse, if anything. Even if there were hordes of friends or family in the area, it would be impossible to get to them, unless they lived next door. Public transport, as is the custom in Britain in the bad winter weather, had closed down, and the country had returned to somewhere in the nineteenth century. Like it or lump it, they were stuck together for the foreseeable future.

Caroline submitted to the inevitable and perched on the end of the sofa furthest from Sam. She felt that she had to make some kind of attempt at conversation, at least for a while before she could take up his offer and retreat to a separate room with a laptop. She looked again around the grand living room, and took the least line of resistance.

“This is an amazing flat. It’s like a stately home.”

Sam gave an embarrassed laugh.

“Hardly. It’s the ground floor of the building.”

He saw the expression in her face and admitted, “It is very nice obviously. I’m very lucky.”

“Are you rich then? People who say that they are very lucky usually mean they were privately educated and daddy is something in the city”

“Rich? God, no. I, ..er.. we bought it a long time ago when it was a dump and we did it up, a bit at a time. So, yeah, lucky.”

“’We’? Are you divorced then? Didn’t you have to divvy it up after you split up?”

A pained look flashed across Sam’s face and he stumbled over his words.

“Well, no, not exactly. Umm, I , er..”

Caroline immediately interjected. “Sorry, none of my business. Just putting my foot in it as usual. Ignore me.”

“No, no. It’s me. It’s just that…” He stopped, as if uncertain about how to go on.

“What? What’s the matter? Can’t be that terrible, can it?”

“I was married, but I’m not divorced. My wife died. Yes. She died.” He pronounced the words, awkwardly,  as if it were the first time he had ever said them out loud.

Caroline looked horror-struck.

“Oh God, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know. I would never have asked if I’d known. Sorry, that was a terrible thing to say.”

Sam’s blank face shivered into a near smile. “It’s alright. It was a long time ago. A very long time ago. So, yes, not rich, just lucky.”

A silence hovered and settled on the room. The thick snow had dampened down what little noise there was in the streets outside. There was virtually no traffic, just the occasional gust of wind that whined through the window frames and rattled the panes. Caroline looked up in the direction of the noise, grateful for any distraction. At the far end of the room, a pair of French windows looked out onto a long back garden that disappeared from view in the gathering darkness. The garden melted into the thick trees of the adjoining woodland.

“Goodness!” she exclaimed, a little too eagerly, “What a great garden.”

She sprang up, went over to the windows and peered outside. Sam followed her and looked over her shoulder. There were a few flakes of snow drifting down form the grey skies. This was probably the mildest the weather had been all day. Soon, when the sun completely sank beneath the horizon and darkness settled, the temperatures would plummet again. Outside the blanket of snow across the lawn was untouched, thick and even. Only a few lines of bird and animal tracks criss-crossed the canvas.

“Look at that,“ she breathed, “It’s perfect. When I was a kid and our garden was like this, we’d spend hours in it building snowmen.”

She looked back at him, over her shoulder, and smiled. The memory was real and alive for her. Their eyes met. And then Sam, gestured out into the garden with his eyes and back again.

“Well, shall we?” he asked, grateful for the distraction.

“What, go outside? Really?”

She stopped and thought for a moment. “Yeah, come on. Why not?”

The next hour and a half flew by, as they constructed a family of snow people with accessories, stopping occasionally to discuss tactics and take part in an ongoing snowball fight. When they finally came back inside, it was it was velvet black in the garden, the icy darkness shrouding the mysterious group of snow people who were huddled together as if posing for a family photograph at the back by the woods. Their fingers were numb and wet, their cheeks red, their breath steaming into the night air.

He thought of that moment, many times later over the years that followed, as the moment his second life began again. By what a slender thread our lives hang. Choices made, corners turned, things unsaid. Even in the later contemplation of it, its randomness, its chance, its serendipity, brought fear as much as joy. For who knew when similar happenstance would unravel all that had been tightly woven?

Much later that evening, in front of the dying embers of the fire, when two bottles of wine had softened their defences, they sat on the floor side by side wrapped in a filmy gauze of wonder and disbelief. They had talked for hours, discovering on the way, a shared love of The Strokes, The Arctic Monkeys, The Wire, The Sopranos (with a guilty pleasure of The Gilmore Girls admitted under pressure), William Blake, Patti Smith, lower league football, The World Cup, roses and clematis. At one point in the evening, when it seemed to both of them that this had all been supernaturally prearranged, they discovered that they had both taught English as a Foreign Language in Spain at the same time, Sam in Madrid and Caroline in Barcelona.

Before they knew it, it was 1.30am, the last bottle was empty and the embers had ceased to glow in the grate. A sudden awkwardness descended from nowhere.

“Well,” said Sam finally springing up to gather the glasses and bottles, “That was nice, but it’s probably way past bed time.”

“Oh“, stammered Caroline, taken aback, “Yes, of course. Will you have to do the snow thing again tomorrow?”

“No, thank God. The message this morning made it clear that we’d be shut for at least two days, so at least I’m spared a 5 am start. Might be different the day after though. Forecast is for a big thaw.”

“Nothing good ever lasts, does it?” she asked, looking directly at him.

He looked away. “No. No, it doesn’t.” he muttered and busied himself with clearing up. When Caroline followed him into the kitchen with some token clearing, he said, “Oh thanks for that. I’ll do the rest. You know where everything is, don’t you?”

She looked puzzled. “What do you mean?”

“Oh, you know, toilet and bathroom. You can use the room you were in this morning.” He stole a glance at her. “It was alright, was it?”

“What was?”

“The room. This morning,“ he explained patiently. “The room was alright?”

“Yes,“ she said finally, “The room was just right. Like the three bears.”

She turned to go, so he couldn’t see the look of absolute humiliation on her face. The three bears? What was she like?  “Ok, good night then,” she said to the wall and carried on walking. Sam stacked the dishwasher.

Later, in the strange snow -dampened silence of his room, Sam lay rigid under the duvet, eyes wide open, mind racing. There was a full moon outside, and it silvered the far end of the room through a crack in the curtains. Why had he mentioned Donna? Why hadn’t he made a move or done anything about it? Anything at all. She was wonderful, there was no doubt about that. And she quite liked him, or was she just a great actress? Liked him? Not any more, he thought bitterly. What is wrong with me? Why can’t I just reach out to someone? Will it always be like this, for years and years and years? The questions raced through his mind, over and over again, and not for the first time, his eyes were wet when he finally slipped into sleep.

When the knock came at his door, gently, he woke up, instantly alert. The door opened a crack and there was a rustle, as a soft breath of wind passed through. The kiss, when it finally came, was everything he had been waiting for, for such a very long time.

The next day, whenever it started, was centred on that room. It was for hours and moments the centre of their universe, with the outside world a memory or a distant rumour, a story told by children but not believed. Occasionally throughout the day, noises came from the other world: a distant train, children playing a few doors down, and when the sun fell, the hoot of an owl and the bark of a fox, but they paid little attention to anything other than the adventure of discovery in front of their eyes.

In the silvery moonlight of the next night she turned to him. “Will we have to go in to school tomorrow?“

It felt warmer and the noises outside their window had included a steady dripping of the promised thaw.

“I don’t know,” he replied, “I think maybe it’s going to freeze over again before morning. Sleep now. I’ll sort it out.”

They both knew he was lying.

*

He lay back under the plump clouds of duvet, her arm across his chest, and looked at the clock. 5am.

He thought of marking 11C’s Mock exams.

He thought of planning the INSET day for the first day back in January

He thought of how he could link performance management with teaching repertoire.

He thought of her arm, its downy golden hairs individually picked out against her warm brown skin.

He thought of how he could encourage teachers to observe each other

He thought of the end of term reports he had to write for the trainee teachers and how he could make them sound a little more positive.

He thought of her smell, like vanilla and caramel.

He thought of the paper he had to finish, to present to SLT, on coaching for development.

He thought of her eyes, strangely green with little grey flecks. And white, white, white, like her sparkling teeth.

He thought of the way she wiped away the crumbs of her toast from the sides of her mouth, moist with tea.

He thought of her lips…..

He swung his legs out from under the duvet, perched on the edge of the bed and reached for his phone.

Sam Stringer was on the verge of something. It was not a nervous breakdown. It was not greatness. He stood on the edge and peered over the sides, dizzy and breathless. Finally, he scrolled down, hit the send button, and slipped back under the creamy warmth of the duvet.  The school would be closed again that day.

Sam Stringer was on the verge of falling in Love.

If you liked this story, try my first novel, Zero Tolerance, available from the following links:

www.growl.blog

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

The View From the Great North Wood – Normal People.

Normal People: Great book, slightly disappointing TV adaptation.

Now the terrestrial television version is finally over, I can deliver the review I’ve been sitting on after bingeing the series on I-Player, to avoid spoiling it for those people still ploughing on with week by week. I don’t know this as I write, but I imagine that the viewing figures showed a steady decline from the opening episodes, whose early brilliance, with the promise of much more, became a distant, hard -to- keep- hold -of memory by the end.

The Sally Rooney Conundrum

I came to the series with some history as far as Rooney is concerned. Her first novel, Conversations with Friends launched her onto the literary scene in a blaze of glory. The reviews were universally gushing. This, they shouted, was a major new talent, the voice of the millennials, someone who really understood how that generation felt and thought and acted. Someone fresh and exciting and new. And young. More than anything else, her greatest asset as far as the panoply of cultural commentators were concerned, was her youth.

As someone who has studied and taught literature for all of my adult life, and what’s more, someone with an abiding love and passion for books, I have always looked out for the new kids on the block. I’m also someone who has been partial to the more experimental novelists, both in terms of style and structure. The difficult read was always for me an incentive not a passion killer. And so, I snapped up Conversations with Friends, eager to join the ranks of the disciples. I began to turn the pages with the juiciest phrases from the reviews echoing in my mind: whip smart, forensic examination of twenty something relationships. Funny. Incisive.

After thirty pages, I was puzzled. After fifty I was annoyed. What a dreadful book. Trite, dull, shallow nonsense acted out amongst a menage a trois, with supporting cast, all drowning in narcissistic entitlement. A real case of the Emperor’s New Clothes or Old Wine in New Bottles. I developed a theory that this was yet another manifestation of the modern phenomenon of Literary agents and Publishers preferring young, attractive women to old grey-haired dudes because they were easier to market and promote. It was easier to envisage shipping shedloads of product if it had been produced by a photogenic babe with her finger on the Instagrammable pulse of the millenial generation. This theory gained traction in my very small brain when it was announced that Rooney’s second book, “Normal People” had been listed for the Booker prize. That greater traction converted to obvious conspiracy theory territory when my research showed that Normal People had not even been published when it was listed for this major Literary prize. That was the clincher. I fumed from my unsuccessful writer’s garret and railed against the cosy, cliquey, corrupt literary establishment stitch up, and vowed never to read it and to diss Rooney’s name whenever the opportunity arose.

And that, for me, would have been a perfect and entirely satisfactory end to my virtuous rage, but for one fatal mistake.

I read it.

I finally decided to give it another chance after reading, almost continuously so it seemed, endless glowing references to it, endorsements and general positivity, some from people whose judgement I generally have a lot of time for. I reluctantly concluded that I might have got it wrong and been a bit hasty. I’m sure you’ll find that easy enough to believe.

I started again, sure that my original withering critical assessment would be vindicated. It starts quite slowly and obliquely (another one my moans about modern fashions in literature), so that you have to work hard to piece together relationships and point of view and setting and situation. Or everything, in short. But then, very quickly, after only a couple of pages, the fog lifted to reveal a gorgeous landscape. I was enthralled. The book is a beautiful, beautiful thing of subtlety, wonder , emotion and intellect. The depiction of contemporary Secondary school life, with its airy cruelty, social media fuelled bullying and shifting allegiances between well defined, well known cliques that are impossible to break down, infiltrate or change was masterful. The taboo relationship between the classes and cliques, and its accompanying, soaring exhilaration and embarrassment was beautifully, sensitively explored. I loved the way that the central relationship was so precious, so wondrous to Marianne and Connell that they became paralysed by fear that one wrong word or move would finish it. On some deep level, neither of them really believed they deserved the other and this always translated into, for the observer, an infuriating inability to communicate with each other about their own needs. The subtleties of class and alienation, so often in modern times ignored or badly rendered, were navigated with a rare combination of authority and humanity, as were the perils of the working-class boy arriving at and surviving an elite University.

Daisy Edgar Jones surviving ghastly grey school uniform

It’s a glorious novel about the earth-shattering, life affirming, all- enveloping effect of finding someone who you connect with, at that most tender and exciting time of one’s life, when all things  are possible and one fears that none of them will come to pass.

I was so pleased that I decided to read it, after dismissing Rooney as an establishment darling, a judgement I look back on with some embarrassment. It seems pretty obvious to me now, that my conspiracy theories about literary agents were fuelled by my own frustrations as a budding writer, of not being able to attract a spark of interest in getting my books called.

So, having revised my opinion, I was really looking forward to the TV adaptation. The first episode was fabulous, and promised a binge worthy series. The two actors embodied the characters as I had envisaged them and the awkward choreography of school and relationship was beautifully portrayed. But then, as it progressed, it lost its way. The TV version simply did not deliver the characters’ interior life in the same depth as the book, so the viewer was left baffled by a series of decisions or non-decisions they made. Marianne’s descent into the two appalling abusive boyfriends after Connell, in Italy and Sweden, was utterly unconvincing to me, when in the book, it made perfect sense. The same applied, for me at any rate, about their ridiculous lack of communication about flats and the like, and Marian’s family background.

Paul Mescal sporting rare smile in Young Person angst -fest

And then we come to the matter of televised sex. At the risk of sounding like my mother back in 1974, or the legendary Brenda from Bristol on the prospect of a General Election (“What, another one?”) did we really need it? After the second half hour episode, every scene where they got their kit off was just filling airtime. By then, we had all got the point that “it isn’t like this with anyone else”. And the much trumpeted (well, by The Daily Mail, anyway) forty minutes in total of sex scenes completely misrepresented the balance of the original book.

Notwithstanding all of this, the two main actors were spectacularly good. I have a feeling that we will be seeing an awful lot more of them in the future. Paul Mescal’s  performance as Connell, sensitive, intelligent literate working class boy who is also good at sport and socially successful, was brilliant. His portrayal of the difficulties this  hugely talented character had in finding his niche amongst the posh kids, his breakdown after the suicide of his friend from Sligo , culminating in a heart rending scene of uncontrolled male sobbing was so convincing, so perfect it made me once again worry about my own son and the position of young male twentysomethings in society today. It’s much harder growing up these days than it was in my day, back in the Seventies. Daisy Edgar Jones as Marianne was also fabulous, particularly in the earlier episodes at school and at home, as someone who was alone in her abusive family and with no friends until Connell comes along. I’d also like to give a special mensh to Desmond Eastwood who played Niall, Connell’s flat mate and friend at Trinity. A minor character, he completely slipped my notice when reading the book, but he struck me as being just perfect in the adaptation. Just as in real life, the normal, ordinary, kind, helpful, supportive people tend to go under the radar, and  Niall seemed like an absolute sweetie, the kind of friend everyone needs, who can crack a joke or smooth things over, when all around him over-sensitive people are falling apart, sometimes self-indulgently, sometimes as vulnerable human beings.

So, what a wasted opportunity, after a wonderful start. It could have been so much better. It’s still head and shoulders above most things on TV at the moment, but the book drove me to want more from it. If you didn’t like the TV version, and as you can see, I can absolutely relate to that, please don’t deprive yourself of the pleasure of the book. It is a major piece of work.

The View from the Great North Wood – A Review of “The Mirror and the Light”

The Covid-19 Lockdown means that reading is now, more than ever, a life saver. And books that once seemed intimidating, mighty tomes such as this are now just appetisers. Just think what we’ll know by the end of all of this..

After about 1900 pages of Wolf Hall, Bringing up the Bodies and now The Mirror and the Light, I imagined that turning the last page of Mantell’s latest novel, was similar to breasting the finishing tape of a marathon. Pride, satisfaction, disbelief, and memories of pain, struggle and pleasure. I’m still not quite sure in what proportions those last three are mixed.

The analogy breaks down almost immediately however, because, after a sticky opening hundred pages or so, I raced through the bulk of it, savouring every page. And, more to the point, the Marathon is all about the runner’s experience, the course itself just exists. But the reader’s experience, regardless of their personal response to it, is of a magnificent, towering achievement. There are passages of sublime beauty and power, and it drags you along, careering towards the inevitable end. It is a mighty work and will almost certainly pick up the Booker hattrick. The Booker, though, like all cultural awards, has never been an indicator of quality. Other factors cloud that judgement: The Zeitgeist. Timing. Events. Political correctness. Length. Subject matter. And on all of those counts, Mantell is a shoo in, not least because she has become the literary equivalent of Dame Maggie Smith or Judy Dench, a National Treasure.

Just to be clear about this, I loved Wolf Hall and thought Bringing up the Bodies was even better. I’m just not sure whether, in the end, all of those words were necessary. The main schtick of the trilogy seems to be, from Mantell’s many interviews, the idea that Thomas Cromwell was a working-class arriviste who needed to be rescued from the heavy hand of mainstream establishment condemnation. This was to be achieved by drilling directly into his imagined psyche and portraying him as a three dimensional, living breathing man of his time. This is achieved, but frankly that had been achieved by the end of Book 2 and I’m really not sure what this new one has added. Or at least, what it has added that could not have been accomplished in 500 pages. So example after example is piled on, accreting more and more detail. It’s almost Knaufsgaardian in its use of domestic detail. Many incidents seemed to be included simply so that Cromwell’s half of the conversations can be repeated later as evidence against him.

To this end, Mantell takes no prisoners in terms of the expectations she has of the reader. Hundreds of characters, many of whom have multiple names, come and go in scenes and conversations with little explanation. It is particularly tiresome when the previous book was published several years before. The list of characters at the beginning of the book is a warning of what’s in store. They will be, in most readers’ copies, the most well-thumbed pages in the book as the reader goes back and forth desperately trying to ascertain who exactly is Southampton, or Surrey or Wyatt.

To put Cromwell firmly centre-stage, he is always referred to as “He”, ostentatiously at times when he is sharing the stage with Henry VIII. Sometimes Mantell ties herself in knots maintaining this stylistic tic, while realising that she has to make it clear who “He” actually is. Hilary, love, its OK, we get it. We know you think that Cromwell is more important, more interesting than that King geezer. You really don’t have to keep going on about it.

The other stylistic quirk is the by now ubiquitous, terribly modern use of the present tense to make things more immediate, more dramatic. Generally, in the hands of lesser writers who have been advised by Boutique literary consultants, it’s terribly cliched, boring, inflexible and predictable. Mantell, in contrast, does it brilliantly. It does add immediacy and it does create tension when really none should exist because, let’s face it readers, we all know he’s going to die and how.

In the end, I just don’t think it’s worth it. More than a study of the man, it becomes a study of the religion and politics of the time. It’s a brutal, cruel, savage, amoral world, fuelled by ridiculous primitive disagreements over religion. Of course Cromwell is going to have his head chopped off because he is serving a childish psychopath who wanted to live the fairy story of Kingship and was going to scream and scream until he got what he wanted. And what he wanted was plentiful sex with a young sex nymph who idolised him and didn’t make him feel inadequate. He wanted to feel forever young and to show the world he was a thrusting macho proper man who could get a woman pregnant with a boy (because they were the only pregnancies that counted).  This was a world where Cromwell, in his many internal musings, could think that cutting off someone’s head with an axe was proof of the gentle mercy of Henry and the superior civilization of England. The more gruesome details of the vile tortures and methods of execution of Spain, France and The Holy Roman Emperor almost convince one to agree with him. Until you catch yourself, shamefacedly, in the thought. In the end, I was left thinking that too much time has been spent fetishising this dreadful period of English history, agonising over the political and personal nuances and rivalries at play. Brutal dictators deserve less of our attention

More civilized than thou?………………………………

The real interest is how things are still exactly the same, give or take the rack, being hung, drawn and quartered, or being burned alive. Boris Johnson is similarly childlike, petulant and wanting to be loved and for the true religion versus heretics, just substitute Brexiteers and Remainers. Dominic Cummings as Thomas Cromwell anyone?

This is a book that is definitely worth reading. It’s beautifully written by a writer at the height of her powers. There is much to enjoy and admire. It’s just not as good as the critics will tell you it is (probably without reading it, some of them), and the subject is not as important as Mantell has convinced herself it is. Why not read it and disagree with me? Let’s face it, you’ve got plenty of time in lockdown to do that. If things go badly, you’ve probably got enough time to read all three, starting at the beginning. Good luck