Sorrow and Bliss is one of those much-touted novels that seem to gain traction in the Spring so that many people select them as one of their Summer holiday reads. Then you get tweets and Instagram posts from influencers saying how wonderful it was, to which in their turn, in the time -honoured, strange, traditions of twitter, followers gush back, agreeing how amazing it was and the churn of interest continues. Good marketing, I suppose. And, of course, I wouldn’t be complaining if one of my books was at the centre of such a fabricated whirlwind of interest. But there’s more than sour grapes to this less than enthusiastic review. Many of these books represent a triumph of marketing over substance and I’m afraid Sorrow and Bliss is another that disappoints.
It’s targeted at women readers so single-mindedly that it might as well have a pink cover. The quotes on the inside cover are all from famous women, apart from a couple that are just attributed to a publication. There are two large quotes highlighted on the front cover, one from Ann Patchett and the other from Jessie Burton – both female writers surfing a certain zeitgeist at the moment. A comparison with Fleabag is also heavily underlined. That’s like comparing The Tempest to Love Island because it’s got people in it and it’s set on an island. Waller Bridge is a gloriously talented writer and Fleabag is funny, refreshing and moving – everything that Sorrow and Bliss isn’t but wants so desperately to be. The only thing missing are references to Sally Rooney, the media’s favourite young darling. Maybe there are contractual barriers to that, but I’m sure the publishers would have been falling over themselves, to get that agreement over the line. Maybe Rooney comes at too high price these days to be even mentioned in publicity puffs, who knows. But then Rooney’s last book did brilliantly and convincingly portray working class characters that were recognisably human. And we don’t want that sort of thing to catch on, do we?
Haven’t we got over this kind of thing yet? I know you’ve got to have a consistent message and aim mercilessly at your target audience, but this is 2021 and personally, I find the concept of women’s books and men’s books (oh no, sorry, obviously men don’t read at all) rather insulting and hopelessly out of date. At a time when the debate is about gender fluidity and all of that, this stuff seems positively antediluvian.
Sorry, I digress. Back to the book. Well, let’s deal with the good stuff first. It is genuinely funny at times. On a couple of occasions, I laughed out loud, and that is not something you can fake. Some of the observations about relationships and family dynamics are acute and amusing, and Mason can clearly write. As an experienced journalist you would expect no less, but not wanting to be churlish, she is more than competent at structuring the narrative and balancing dialogue and description, but then so are many Sixth formers. If that is meant to be enough, we’re setting the bar extremely low.
And that’s really all the good stuff. The main problem is that the characters and their dilemmas are so crashingly dull and unbelievable. I’m sure this won’t stop someone snapping this up for a three episode mini-series, but the appeal there, will be, to my mind, the book’s greatest weakness. It invites us to care about the emotional dramas of a white, highly privileged woman from the English upper classes. An endearingly eccentric posh family who live in the middle of London and whose friends and relations are movers and shakers in the Art world, or Finance, or Government or whatever. After one in a series of traumas (discovering that her hastily married husband is an abusive control freak. Sorry, but marriage is important enough to do due diligence surely?), one such family treasure scoops up Martha, the protagonist, takes her to Paris and then lets her live rent free in his fabulous bijou appartement, somewhere very bohemian and rive gauche.
If only all women escaping abusive men and disfunctional families could just slip across La Manche. Why can’t people stand on their own two feet and rely on their family rather than the nanny state? Then we wouldn’t have to pay for ruinously expensive housing benefit etc. Excuse my sarcasm, but this is so out of touch with reality it’s painful. It reminded me a little of “The Pursuit of Love”, the Nancy Mitford novel that was serialised in the BBC earlier this year. That was brilliant, and gave the impression that the author was to some at extent at least, satirising the idle upper classes. Mason, on the other hand, gives no clue about any glimmer of social awareness. Instead, she creates the impression that she is writing about a familiar social milieu, one that she assumes everyone inhabits. Or everyone that reads books, that is. And I suppose that for Meg and her chums, journalists for The Sunday Telegraph, The Financial Times, Vogue, Marie Claire and Elle, it is very familiar.
But enough of class war, back to literary analysis. The husband in this dismal scenario, the nice one that is, married after Martha has escaped from the clutches of Husband 1, Mr Nasty, is a chap called Patrick. That’s where his resemblance to a human being in 2021 begins and ends. There is nice and nice. Patrick is NICE. He puts up with a lot of shit because Martha is very high maintenance and Patrick, as a black adoptee in a very posh family seems to feel that it would be impolite (the greatest British upper class sin) to have any views, feelings, thoughts, standards about anything that might cause any upset. And throughout the novel, he is treated abysmally by absolutely everyone. By the end, I found him so annoying and unbelievable, I really wanted to be casually vile to him as well.
He does, to be fair, provide the only narrative driving force of the novel, which is the desire to see them get married in the first place and then to see them and their marriage survive. Well, OK, maybe “driving force” is a little misleading, because it suggests that I gave a toss about either of them. Maybe narrative meander would be more accurate, a reason to keep going to the end before losing consciousness.
The final piece de resistance of this whole sorry debacle was the treatment of mental illness, a topic so fashionable it squeaks. I got the feeling that the spectre of Martha’s unspecified condition was meant to excuse the whole range of her excesses. Certainly, it features heavily in the largely positive reviews of the book. You know you’re on dodgy ground when depiction of mental illness is described using the word “brave”. This anything but brave. The deliberate vagueness around the condition is thought by many to be a glittering triumph, but I found it yet another cop out. Mason even includes a note at the end of the book: “The medical symptoms described in the novel are not consistent with a genuine mental illness. The portrayal of treatment, medication and doctors advice is wholly fictional”
What? You wouldn’t do that with a physical illness so why do it with a mental one? It smacked of someone slightly out of their depth and who couldn’t really be bothered to do the research. It’s always possible of course that I’ve got this wrong and Mason has had personal or family experience of mental illness, in which case I apologise sincerely. All I can say is that it didn’t ring true for me – a clumsy plot device, rather than an artistic decision.
So once again I find myself out of step with mainstream opinion. Sorry if you loved it but it just did not speak to me convincingly at all. This was definitely a case of mainly Sorrow, little Bliss.
This debut novel by Sunderland writer Jessica Andrews won the Portico Prize for fiction in 2020, an award explicitly about representations of The North. As an exiled Northerner, and a North -Easterner like her at that, the idea has a lot of traction for me. The North is a different country, even in these days of the crumbling Red Wall, and is generally either underrepresented or misunderstood. The other pull of the novel is that it is about a working-class woman’s experience of university education, of moving away from her Sunderland home to live and study in London, and her struggles to adapt to a very different set of people, with different assumptions, beliefs and values.
Even in 2021, literary representations of working-class life are as rare as hen’s teeth (Shuggie Bain a notable recent exception), so a new one like this is to be welcomed. What makes it even more special is that it’s so good. So very good. The novel is structured to tell the story of Lucy in three distinct parts: her upbringing in the North East, with family connections in Ireland, her experiences in London as a student, and her flight back to Ireland, undertaken as an escape when the contradictions of her two worlds become too difficult to handle. It’s a first person narrative, but unlike so many examples of that most fashionable of styles, it is expertly done. The first person voice is authentically that of the character, not of a literate and well-educated author, and it takes us to the heart of the matter. That is what it is usually intended to do, but so often it fails miserably.
The three separate story strands are intertwined, and the reader has to do a lot of work to untangle them. In the same way, there is the usual obliqueness that is de rigeur in contemporary literary fiction. (Heaven forbid that anyone should ever just tell a linear story any more. Now that would be truly shocking) Sometimes that technique is tiresome and serves only to make rather dull material (characters, relationships, settings, themes, incidents) a little bit more interesting because as a reader you are transformed into something of a detective. An absence of anything as old fashioned as a plot is replaced by the efforts of the reader to discover a story for themselves. Very often the effort of textual sleuthing isn’t worth the effort for what is eventually uncovered, but here, nothing could be further from the truth. The melange of techniques works beautifully, and embellishes the story, makes it more vivid and meaningful. There’s a poetic sensibility at work in Andrews’ exquisite prose which is by turns spare, rich and luminous. It gives the material, clearly rooted in autobiography, a sparkle such that at times it sings off the page. The technique of intertwining the stories is interesting as well, with a little touch of Kerouac in it. Apparently, Andrews wrote three entirely separate stories, printed them off and then cut them up and spread them around the floor of her house before experimenting with the sequence. Who needs a word processor?
The end result is a debut novel that is a shimmering triumph. Working class alienation via education is an old theme of the post war years, but here it is transformed into a thing of beauty. Andrews is clearly someone we will be hearing more of in the future. Personally, I can’t wait for her next one.
Is this the inevitable fate of the retired teacher on Twitter?
After this strange, extended hiatus, stretching back to March, the finishing tape looms into view. As I suspected a few months ago, I have already taught my last proper lesson. The last three years of part time English teaching, an enjoyable Indian summer in many ways, comes to an end next week as there are no hours available next year. Such is the lot of the part timer.
I can’t quite believe it’s all coming to an end. Just a couple of stories to wave it all goodbye. About 25 years ago, as an Assistant Head at the peak of my powers, we had an after school presentation from some insurance company and pensions. I think they were trying to flog AVCs or something. As part of his presentation, the rep got all the staff to stand up (it was a teaching staff event) and then asked people to sit down when he’d got to the age they would ideally like to retire. He started at fifty years old, which tells you how long ago it was, and worked through in five year intervals, thinning out the standers as he went. Towards the end (I forget now what age he had got to) there was a growing ripple of laughter around the audience and I looked around to share the joke. To my embarrassment, the joke was me! I was the last person standing and it became a standing joke at school that I was actually aiming for Death in Service.
Looking back now it seems extraordinary. But as a young man I absolutely loved my job and could not imagine not coming in to work to teach English and to develop whole school systems of assessment and CPD and all those other things that seemed so important at the time. But time does take is toll, and eventually energy drains away. Working as a member of SLT in “challenging” schools is hugely demanding and after a while, you find you have nothing left to give. I was very lucky in the sense that I never got to the point where I was dreading going into work and counting down the days to retirement. Retirement came out of the blue and was all the more of an enjoyable surprise for that. And then going back to a spot of part time teaching also sugared the pill for a few years.
But now, semi-retirement will turn in to proper retirement (with a bit of teacher training thrown in) and I can’t quite imagine what not being a teacher will be like. Since the age of five my life, like that of all teachers, has been governed by the rhythms of the agricultural calendar that the academic year shadows. September as a new beginning through to the long summer holiday to recharge the batteries before beginning again My thoughts have turned regularly in the last few weeks to how it all began, in an attempt to get some perspective and to close a bracket. Thirty Seven years ago, almost to the day, I had finished my PGCE and was wondering what was going to become of me. This was in the days of the great, much maligned (unfairly in my view) ILEA, when as soon as you qualified, your name went into the ILEA Pool and you could be offered a job in a school anywhere in Greater London.
One day in July, I was lounging around the living room of a shared house in Brixton, surveying the wreckage from a particularly wild evening of young person entertainment the night before, when the phone rang. It was County Hall. “Are you still looking for an English job, Mr X?”, came the question. When I confirmed that I was, he continued. “Can you get to School Y by 1pm?” I looked at my watch. I confirmed that, yes, indeed, I could do that. This was, of course, a lie. I had no idea where school Y was, but faint heart never won, etc etc.
I put the phone down and worked out that I had about 45 minutes to get ready and get to the school. My A-Z (ask your parents, youngsters) told me that the school was just up the hill. And then, with a sinking feeling, I remembered that my only pair of trousers were drying after a rare trip to the laundrette and I was lounging around in a pair of scabby Adidas shorts. Even I, an innocent in the ways of the corporate world, knew that that would not cut the mustard at an interview. Two minutes later I was on my bike, hammering down Brixton Hill for some emergency shopping. Morleys of Brixton (“South London’s West End store”) furnished me with an acceptable pair of black cords. I just had enough time to cycle back up the hill, get changed and get to the school by one. Until I put the cords on.
Disaster! They were far too long and unhemmed. My entire career hung in the balance and for a nano-second I considered not showing up. And then, the same amalgam of inspiration, winging it, and sheer effrontery that was to serve me so well as a teacher and then member of SLT, kicked in. Ten minutes later, I was sitting in the Head’s office for my interview. I can’t remember a thing about it now except for the memory of having my feet firmly tucked in as far under my seat as possible, so that no-one could see the line of shiny silver staples in a ring around the ends of each trouser leg. Emergency hemming to the rescue.
It was the last day of the Summer term and, as the interview was taking place, the staff were already gathered in the staffroom for the end of term jollies, desperately hoovering up warm white wine and twiglets to mark their successful survival for another year. I did not know it at the time, but I was the only candidate for the job and I would have been appointed even if I’d been bollock naked. In some ways when I look back on the last thirty seven years, I see now that this was my finest hour, the high water mark of my educational achievements.
So, what now? How can I continue to pontificate on Twitter about Teaching and Learning when I no longer teach? Will I turn in to the educational equivalent of Alan Shearer on Match of the Day, the ex- player boring everyone to death with his endless, blindingly obvious analysis? Or even worse, an Edu-Twitter version of Geoffrey Boycott, bemoaning how everything was better in the good old days and that young teachers today have got it all wrong. My ambition is to emulate Gary Lineker. Someone who used to be very good, is still a fan, is self -deprecating, a bit funny, and has some thoughtful insights to offer while not taking himself too seriously. Let’s see how that goes for a while.
And for all those of you I am leaving behind in the socially distanced classroom, I send my best wishes. Enjoy your privilege, for English teaching is the noblest profession. For me, it was a blast and I will miss it terribly.
Marley was alive, to begin with, but that’s not how it stayed. After a while, he died. This is how everyone’s story turns out, yours and mine, in the end.
They discovered the body when they finally unlocked the door to the loft, expecting to find a decaying rat or pigeon. The smell, which had steadily grown stronger over the previous weeks, was like a punch in the face when the cold, stale air billowed through the open doorway.
The old building was full of musty smells, creaking floorboards and hidden, disused rooms. They had been promising to refurbish it for years: the addition of a new block here, replacement windows there. There was even talk at one stage of razing it to the ground and replacing it with a plate glass, chromium and cedar-clad cathedral of prize-winning architect design. Staff had joined focus groups to talk to the architects and builders and pastel coloured plans had been drawn up and displayed with much pride in the old library. When the crash pulled the plug on all of the planned public sector investments, the grand schemes were quietly forgotten and the crumbling pile slumbered on undisturbed as the occasional tile or stained piece of plaster flaked and fell to the ground, as if the building was an ancient sleeping behemoth suffering from psoriasis.
It was the thing that Marley was most looking forward to about his new job. A Headship in a new school, in a gleaming new building, fit for the 21st century. Like him, he thought smugly. Fit for the 21st century. A Headteacher who had jettisoned all of those tired, ridiculous practices so common when he had started teaching. Learning styles, group work, discovery learning, thinking skills. What on earth had they all been thinking of? Marley had sniffed the way the wind was blowing early. He’d read the right books, gone on the right courses, networked on Twitter with the right people and had adopted the right poses.
The head he had first worked under, Richard Fitzwig, seemed like an exhibit from a museum now. Yes, it had been a happy place, but it’s easy to be happy when the Head lets you do what you want. Wiggy wouldn’t last five minutes in a school today. How happy would those kids be now, applying for jobs and courses on the back of crap grades? At least now, after three years of relentless focus on results and behaviour, they had something to show for it. And of course, there had been casualties on the way. Collateral damage, as he liked to think of it. Exclusions, “arrangements” for off-rolling, the endless detentions and uniform checks and silent lines and mobile phone battles. Not to mention the set piece assemblies to humiliate the ring leaders. What were they called again? “Flattening the Grass” assemblies, yes that was it. He smiled grimly at the memory.
And if many of the kids and more of the staff resented what he had had to do, then so be it. No-one had said it was a popularity contest. But, in his more reflective moments, usually alone in the small hours, he wondered. Part of him envied the easy camaraderie some of his colleagues seemed to have. And the same part was relieved he was leaving. The headship was just reward for hours of thankless work turning the school round, but more than that it was an opportunity to start afresh as the coming man in a shiny new building.
He looked around his bare flat, magnolia walls hardly troubled with pictures, shelves untouched by photos or books. A kitchen littered with a week’s worth of pizza boxes and foil trays. One Christmas card, from his mother, a bleak accusation of the lack of personal success to match his professional achievements. Not even a jokey card from Bella, for old times sake. Her poetry was for someone else now. Not that he’d ever understood it, mind you. He was a scientist, a rationalist, who chose the minimum number of words to communicate exact meaning, not nuance. She’d tried to explain it to him one day, when he was newly qualified, and it had sort of made sense then, but not any more. Nuance was for losers. Once he’d settled into his new job, the salary would mean he could buy somewhere bigger, somewhere more appropriate to his new status. And maybe then it would be worth investing something of himself in it, so it became his home, rather than an extension of his office. Whether it would be worth investing anything in anyone else was a different question. He had been badly burned last time. People always let you down, he thought, and the only way to guard against that was to keep everyone at arm’s length. Easier that way.
He roused himself, making a deliberate effort to shake off this dangerous introspection. Through the window he could see the blurred grey light of Christmas Eve ebbing away. There was a gust of wind and a flurry of thin snowflakes swirled across the pane. He shivered. Maybe this run was not a good idea after all. He could always leave it until January. But no, he needed to get it out of the way so he could leave the school and that life behind him, and the run would do him some good. Once he got going, he wouldn’t feel the biting wind. He reached for his rucksack, checked his laces and grabbed the keys before heading downstairs to the front door of his block.
There was already a thin dusting of snow on the pavement, and the knifing wind blew it up into dancing clouds and the beginnings of drifts in the corners. He took one final look at his watch underneath the gloves. One o’clock. He should be back in a couple of hours if all went well and the building was empty. He’d unlock and disable the alarm as usual, collect the last of his stuff from his office and most importantly, remove a couple of things from his computer, just in case. He’d intended to do it on his last day, but there had been too many people milling around, so he had resolved to wait until now, Christmas Eve, when he could be sure that he’d be the only human being in the building.
Fifteen minutes later, he rounded the corner, and saw the familiar turrets and towers of the sprawling, dirty red brick institution where he had worked for the last ten years. When he told people where he worked, they would invariably gush about how amazing it was. Hogwarts they called it. He had tried to explain the first few times it had happened that, close up, it was a dirty, crumbling, inefficient, fire hazard, but gave up when it became clear that people didn’t want their gothic fantasies to be spoiled. After a while he just smiled and nodded and agreed with them. And then, inevitably, they would move on to what a shame it was that the school had gone downhill so far and so fast, and how it was all down to the sorts of children that went there these days. He’d be glad to leave that behind as well.
As he pounded the last few metres, his breath steaming into the darkening sky, he noticed with a start that the gate was open. Turning into the car park, his worst fears were confirmed. There were half a dozen cars parked in front of the school, and the yellow lights blazed out into the gathering gloom. He pulled up, and leaned forward, his hands resting heavily on his knees, his breath coming in laboured pants and gasps.
“Shit,” he thought, “It’s open. Who the hell is in there?”
The poster on the plate glass of the entrance answered the question. The Longdon Players production of “A Christmas Carol”. Damn. Of course, how could he have been so stupid? And, yes there had been an email about it to all staff, but he had been so caught up in his leaving that it hadn’t registered. The local amateur theatre group had a two-week run at the school, before and after Christmas. They must be in doing some last-minute tweaking before they went again on December 30th.
He removed his headphones and pushed tentatively at the main entrance door. There was no-one behind the desk on reception and no signing-in book. Gary, the site manager, must have come to some arrangement with the Theatre group. He’d be hunkered down somewhere watching the football, and he’d re-emerge to switch off the lights and lock up when they had all gone. He looked up. Beyond the harsh neon lights that flooded the foyer, all was in darkness, but he could hear the distant noise of people, from the small theatre space in the far corner of the building. Good, he thought. If he slipped in and up to his office, he could avoid anyone noticing him and get away without any awkward conversations. If it took longer than he thought, he had the keys to be able to lock up again after he had set the alarm.
He switched on the torch on his phone and crept up the main staircase. If he turned on the main lights that would bring someone running, so he followed the eery, silvery light from his phone, occasionally catching his breath at the strange looming shadows it conjured up as he made his way to his office on the second floor. He had been here late at night on his own many times before and there was no doubt about it, it was a creepy place. In the wind, the building emitted the full panoply of creaks and groans and whispers, and with no lights save for the shimmering, unsteady beam from his phone, the shaky pools of darkness would have tested the most determined rationalist.
Still, that had worked to his advantage many times in the past. Being a key holder, and often on call for building and alarm issues, he had had to unlock and have a quick check many times in the past. And once in, on his own, he was free to do a little sneaking around. Hacking in to the passwords of every member of staff was child’s play for someone like him. He had never done anything criminal. He wasn’t stupid after all. But information was very powerful and he had information on everyone. He was conflicted about leaving all of this behind. One the one hand it would be something of a relief to not have that capacity in the future. As a Headteacher, he would have power of a different, more respectable kind, and it would be a triumph of sorts to have got away with some of his deceptions. But then again.
He unlocked his office and switched on the light, blinking as it pinked into life. There was a chill in the air as the seasonal shut down of the boiler had begun to take its toll. Those people down in the theatre must be freezing, he thought. He could just about hear the strains of one of the songs from the show, floating up from the rehearsal. The office was stripped down to the bare bones, with just a few reminders of the previous five years. He went over to his computer and switched it on. There, on the key board, was a Christmas card. It was sealed and addressed to “Ben Marley”.
He sat down and shook his head. What a waste of money. People were so stupid. Why on earth didn’t they just send a group email to everyone? The virtue-signallers could link it to some charity thing if they really felt the need. And the Greens could feel smug about cutting down on waste. He just didn’t want to spend money and he didn’t feel the need to dress that up in any finer motive. Christmas was just one big con.
Still, he could take it home with him and it could join the one from his mother. He ripped open the envelope and pulled out the card. A bog-standard holly and robin snow scene. At least he was spared the sanctimonious Christian nonsense. He opened it up.
“Dear Ben. Thanks for all of your hard work and support over the years. Enjoy your well-deserved promotion. Now you will really find out what it’s all about! Here’s some advice from someone who knows. Take some time and trouble nurturing relationships with your colleagues. It will help in the long run. Regards, Margaret.”
His pleasure at getting a hand-written card from the Head, who normally got her PA to do all of that for her, was soured by his annoyance at the thinly veiled criticism of her advice. Relationships indeed. She should mind her own bloody business. Maybe he wouldn’t take it home after all. He picked it up and looked at it closely again. With a flourish, he ripped it into pieces and dropped them into his bin. He’d like to think of her finding it on her return in the New Year. That would show her.
And then he saw it, just to the side of the monitor. A neatly stacked pile of what looked like more cards, all identical in white envelopes. There must have been about twenty-five of them all in the same pile. Who the hell were these from? He took the top one from the pile and examined it. In black biro in capital letters on the front of the envelope was a single word: MARLEY. The card inside had a simple message: “Fuck off and Die, you miserable bastard.” It was signed “Jack, 10B4”.
He grabbed at the second card in the pile and ripped it open. It had exactly the same message, this time signed, “Sophie, 10B4”. He didn’t bother with the others. His heart sank. All of them, every single one, hated him with a passion. Yes, he had been very harsh with them since September, but that was necessary to knock them into shape for their GCSEs. Yes, the exam specification and the league tables demanded that everyone be drilled to within an inch of their lives, and he wasn’t paid to be an entertainer or a social worker. It would be him that would get it in the neck if they didn’t get the results that the school needed. People got the sack for that kind of poor performance. There were no second chances these days.
The first flush of pain he had felt converted steadily into anger. How dare they? What cowards, to wait until he was leaving the school before they were brave enough to put their names to this outrage, after months of lessons with sullen faces brought on by screaming and shouting and eventual compliant silence. In a fit of rage, he swept the pile of cards from his desk onto the floor, before turning his attention to his computer and memory stick.
He worked steadily for a couple of hours, deleting files, copying them, and getting rid of emails. Finally, he stretched and yawned and looked away from his computer for the first time. The window was a dark square now and to his surprise it framed a blizzard of thick snowflakes. It was time to go. He rubbed away at the condensation on the window and looked outside. The show had settled and there was a couple of inches laying in the car park. There were no cars there now and, strangely, no tracks. They must have all gone before the snow had really got going. Now he came to think of it, he hadn’t heard anything from the theatricals downstairs for some time. He shivered at the sight of the snow swirling in the darkness outside. His run back home was going to be a lot more challenging than the one earlier.
He took one last look around the office, the cards still strewn across the floor, and locked the door, fumbling with his keys in the darkness. The corridor was heavy with darkness, but right at the far end, a thin yellow light leaked from the doorframe of the last classroom. This high up he could hear the wind moan and the walls creak, as if the old bones of the building were flexing in the aches and pains of accumulated years. And then, just as he was about to feel his way to the staircase, there was another noise.
He stopped and listened. There it was again. But it couldn’t be, surely? He narrowed his eyes and bent his head down towards the far end of the corridor. Yes, again. The sound of a distant child softly crying. Using the torch on his phone again, he navigated his way to the end of the corridor and flung open the door of the lighted classroom. A small boy, sitting at a table at the back of the room, jumped out of his seat in fright, shocked by the violent entrance.
His face was tear stained and he was wide-eyed and staring. He was about ten or eleven years old, and he was wearing a shabby, old-fashioned looking uniform. He held a cap in his hands.
“What on earth are you doing here? Who are you?” Marley demanded.
“Please Sir,“ stammered the boy, “I’m Ignorance. Or was it Want? I can never remember which I am. Maybe I’m both.”
He wrung the cap between his hands and wiped his runny nose on one of his wrists.
Marley looked utterly baffled. “Ignorance? Want? What are you talking about lad? And what the hell are you doing here? Who else is here?”
He scanned the four corners of the room, as if a gang of the young boy’s accomplices were about to spring out and attack him.
“No-one Sir. I am quite alone. Quite alone in the world.”
Marley looked more closely at him. He was filthy. His hands and finger nails were black with accumulated grime, and his clothes were threadbare. Marley’s frown deepened and then suddenly broke into a smile.
“Of course!” he exclaimed, “The production. You’re from the Theatre thing, aren’t you? Do they know you’re up here on your own? They’ve all gone, I think.”
The boy wiped the tears from his face. “Beggin’ your pardon Sir, but I dunno. I dunno nuffink about no theatre group.”
“What are you talking about? You must be from the production. Don’t play games with me lad. Otherwise, where’ve you sprung from? Who are you? What are you doing here?”
The boy looked up at him, his eyelashes jewelled with tears. “But I’m always ‘ere Sir. Always ‘ave been. Always will be.”
“What do you mean, ‘Always here’? I’ve never seen you before.”
“No, Sir, you ain’t. I’m always ‘ere, but you never seem to see me. No-one sees me. I sees you and I hears yer shout at the kids. Always shoutin’, never listenin’, that’s you. Not that you’re the only one, Sir, oh no. There’s plenty like you. More in the last few years, if anyfing. But you’re the worst.”
The boy pointed a bony finger at him and fixed him with his beady eye.
“You’re the worst,” he repeated.
Marley stared at him, mouth open. The chill in the room had started to bite and he shivered involuntarily.
“Is some kind of a joke?” he demanded. “Did someone in 10B4 put you up to this? “
The boy’s eyes flicked to the back of the room. There was a set of rickety stairs leading to a tiny landing in front of a door. Marley’s eyes followed the boy’s. The door led to the loft, a kind of attic space under the eaves. It had been used for storage before Health and Safety regulations prevented it. Nobody went in there now.
“They’re in the loft, aren’t they?” he demanded, a triumphant smirk on his face. “Aren’t they?”
The boy simply smiled without answering. In the silence that filled the gap came the moaning of the wind outside. It was really starting to blow hard now, and the rafters creaked and groaned as the gusts of wind battered them. Marley stared again at the door. Slowly, the handle started to turn.
“I knew it!” Marley exclaimed. “We’ll soon settle this nonsense.”
He strode up to the staircase, leaped up the five or six steps to the landing and grabbed the handle. The door would not open.
“Locked in, are you?“ he shouted through the door. “Shall I leave you in there? Wouldn’t be so brave spending the night in darkness locked in the loft, would you? You know what they say about it don’t you? Haunted it is. Haunted.”
As he was shouting these threats through the door, he fumbled with his keys. He found the right one, unlocked the door and opened it. It was pitch black inside.
“Come on out,“ he called into the room, “ You’re caught. You might as well give up now before you make things worse for yourself.”
He reached for the light switch which was outside the loft on the balcony and pressed it. The loft space was suddenly flooded with white-bright lighting, revealing the cobwebbed beams and dusty floorboards inside. There was a sound of scuffling, as if a rat had scuttled away into a distant corner. Marley stepped inside.
“I know you’re in here,” he said in a raised voice. “Just come out from where you’re hiding so we can get this thing over with.”
There was a sharp chill to the air inside and the wind in the darkness beyond was howling steadily now. He took another step inside. There was a sudden noise behind him. He whirled round to see the boy, still holding his cap, out of his seat and standing just outside the doorway on the landing.
“What are you doing? You’re not helping, you know” Marley said. “You kids, you’re your own worst enemies sometimes.”
The boy smiled at him, his tear-tracked, dirty face lit up like a beacon.
“Sometimes,” he repeated.
There was a sudden gust of wind and the timbers of the loft screeched and shifted. The door, caught in the blast, slammed with a tremendous bang. The boy turned the key in the door, reached for the light switch and the loft was plunged into inky darkness.
In the darkness outside, all was still and the sky was full of fat snowflakes gently floating down. The wind of earlier had subsided completely and the thick layer of snow on the ground muffled all the sounds of traffic. Gary drew the entrance gates shut, pulled off his gloves and fiddled with the padlock and key, cursing against the cold.
“Bloody theatre company. A no show on Christmas Eve. That administrator bloke must think I was born yesterday, saying he hadn’t sent any email booking a rehearsal.”
He paused, struggling to get his gloves back on over his frozen fingers. “Still,” he smiled, “It’s not all bad. Double time is double time, whether anyone showed up or not.”
Several weeks later, Gary was in his office taking the detectives through the CCTV footage of the holidays. They finally located Christmas Eve, and there, in grainy black and white, was film of Marley walking across the car park. Walking next to him was what appeared to be a young boy, from the theatre group, dressed as a Dickensian urchin. From the moment the camera picked him up until he entered the building, Marley didn’t turn or appear to talk to the boy. It was almost as if he did not know he was there.
They ran the film on, hoping to see someone, anyone, leave the school later. There was nothing. “That kid must still be in the building, “ said the senior detective on the case, a balding, corpulent man who gave the impression that he’d really rather be back in his warm office tidying up paperwork.
“But who is he?” asked Gary. “I’ve never seen him here before.”
The detective raised an eyebrow. “I think the question is, ‘Where is he?’”
In the months that followed, there were several TV appeals, posters all over the neighbourhood, and an extensive search of the school. The boy, whose blurred image stared out accusingly at anyone who chose to look, was never identified, nor found. Eventually, they were all discreetly taken down, discoloured and tatty by this time, as if people did not want to be reminded of the harsh realities of the world for which, somehow, they felt they were unfairly being made responsible. More comfortable to take them down, rather than look away.
When the police left, with cursory thanks and platitudes, Gary was left alone in front of the screen. He scrolled back to the point when Marley and the boy entered the school, and, on a whim, switched to one of the other cameras on the feed, pointing out from the main entrance, towards the front gate. There they were again, together but entirely separate, walking through the steadily mounting snow. And then he stopped. He froze the final shot. There on the screen, stretching back from the entrance to the main gate, like a line of punctuation marks, was a track of footprints.
One line for two people.
He stared, and shivered, as the wind rattled the panes of his window and the bones of the building creaked and groaned.
The approach of Bonfire Night always feels to me like the transition
from autumn to winter. The dark, cold, wet nights after the clocks have gone
back heralds a time to be endured rather than enjoyed. It also coincides with
what was traditionally thought to be the toughest school half term. It’s a long
haul to the Christmas holidays. It’s time to hunker down by the fireside with a
wee dram and a ghost story. But before we say a final farewell to the glories
of autumn, let’s just remind ourselves of a time that has inspired great
writers down the centuries. First off, John Keats. Bit of an irritating cough,
but a fine poet and social thinker.
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
Now compare and contrast with the majestic Jimmy Page and Robert
Plant. I’m convinced that if Johnny Keats had been strutting his stuff in 1969,
he would have been wearing loon pants and a Led Zep T shirt. Now that is proper
cultural capital, Ofsted. Go back to the drawing board, read Bourdieu properly,
and raise your eyes above a narrow band of Great Works. There are contemporary
Great Works all around you, if you are prepared to make a judgment that is not
just parroting received opinion. Enjoy.
The answer, for anyone who has taught examination groups in
Secondary, or in Primary schools working towards Year 6 assessments over the
last five years or so, must be a resounding yes, yes, yes. Where there used to
be job satisfaction now lies frustration, boredom and anger. Joy, once a
regular companion on the road in English lessons, is now a rare visitor. When
it does come, it is considered a distraction, an irrelevance, a false friend. Internal
observations, performance management, analysis of exam results and residuals
have no time for this imposter. So irrelevant is it, that there is no metric to
measure it. And without measurement, there can be no value.
This arid wasteland has been coming for a long time. The
ideological tide has turned and there has been an inexorable sense that incremental
changes, in themselves often individually justifiable and manageable, together
are being used to create a model that is brutally functional, with no room for
beauty, or the shiver of emotion that a handful of crafted words can produce.
At Primary school, young children are frog marched through parts of speech, and
the disembodied parsing of their own language so that they can spot a prepositional
phrase at five hundred yards. I take my hat off to Primary colleagues who have
had to wade through all of this nonsense while still managing to preserve a
love of reading amongst their charges.
Then we have the fool’s gold of assessment without levels, provoking
an enormous waste of teacher hours and ingenuity to come up with a multitude of
systems that are impossible to compare and are less precise and accurate than
the system they replaced. Many of these new approaches were, in reality, levels
with a different label. There seems to have been a new orthodoxy established here,
and I have visited many schools where the GCSE grading system has simply been
adopted from Year 7. This compounds the idea that everything in school, from
the minute the child enters, is geared to their final product or outcome, their
GCSE grade. So once the common grading system has spread across the school community,
GCSE style assessments and texts follow. Students in Year 7 begin to tackle “GCSE
style” exam questions, on language and literature to better prepare them for
the final ordeal. They analyse Victorian non-fiction texts for structural devices.
Extended writing, where students have the space to develop ideas and sustain
them over several pages, has gone the way of the quill and VHS recorder. And
when the few students who have retained their interest in books arrive at their
first few A level lessons, they are frightened by the demands of an A level
coursework essay, which seems inordinately “long.”
The new Assessment Gods also decreed that “Best Fit” assessment
was dreadfully old- fashioned and not fit for purpose because Teacher
Assessment of children’s reading was wildly at odds with test scores. No, that
was woolly liberal thinking, the product of Gove’s Blob. Mastery Assessment was
the thing. As blindingly obvious as a populist’s analysis of the impact of
immigration and just as helpful and accurate. What a con! I have struggled in vain
to get my head around mastery assessment. I’ve tried to go beyond nodding my
head and saying, of course students must know one lesser thing, before they can
progress on to the next higher thing. Clearly, everything must aggregate incrementally,
so that bit by bit, the grains of sand accumulate to form a mountain of knowledge.
Secure knowledge that is. And from this flows the obvious conclusion, that students
must be held back, protected from knowledge they can’t possibly grasp, until
they have mastered the simpler knowledge. What nonsense. This is not the way
people learn. They learn haltingly, unpredictably, differentially. Mastery assessment
was a gift to hundreds of charlatan CPD providers (“Mastery teaching in
Geography.” Only £275 per course delegate, with discount for early booking) but
not much more. I might be wrong, but no-one has explained it to me
satisfactorily yet. Certainly not Mr Oates.
Best fit, certainly in English, is a much more useful
concept that allows professional teachers to exercise judgement, balance
strengths and weaknesses and arrive at a considered grade. Unfortunately,
judgement and balance imply a lack of rigour, a subjectivity, a lack of irrefutable
evidence. The idea that criteria- based assessment, examinations and mark
schemes provide more reliable and valid assessments of students’ achievement is
fanciful. That is just the justification, however. The real pull of the number
for the accountability gurus is the fact that it can be aggregated, to provide
system wide judgements. This assessment is not for the benefit of the student,
it is a mechanism to judge (and find wanting) teachers, schools, and local authorities.
Though not, interestingly, Academies. I prefer to go back to Myra Barrs and think,
“Words not Numbers” http://ioe.academia.edu/MyraBarrs
This new assessment brutalism has been accompanied by the
new GCSE specifications. No tiers of entry. No texts allowed in the Literature
exams. Complex questions, highly demanding reading requirement and great
pressure of time has produced a system where Senior Managements, and hard- pressed
Heads of English, have to plan their delivery of the spec, usually over three
years with endless repetitions of exam practice. Drill, drill, drill. Schools
where students spend a year learning their key literature text. No-one has yet
explained to me how making the exam harder means that standards rise. The
necessity to keep the same percentage grade distribution between the old spec
and the new clearly shows that standards haven’t risen. Once again, UK
education reverts to type, serving brilliantly the top 40% and failing
miserably the bottom 60%. Its no surprise, but a tragic policy consequence,
when students are delighted to wave good bye to the books they have been
battered with for two or three years and vow never to pick up a book again.
Meanwhile, as Rustin reminds us, there has been a crisis of
teacher recruitment. I’ll leave to one side the dog’s dinner that is Tory
policy on this area. The supply of trainee teachers has virtually dried up,
with the latest figures telling us that between 40 and 50 % of teachers leave teaching
within their first five years. In a previous life, as a Secondary Deputy Head,
I interviewed many candidates for jobs who told horror stories about the harsh
and bullying regimes in some of the best- known Academy chains, who seemed to
have an explicit policy of burning young teachers out, with a view to getting
two or three cheap years out of them before getting rid. This has also impacted
on English teaching. The Male English teacher is a particularly rare beast, at
a time when positive male role models are more important than ever. The Male
English teacher is fast becoming as endangered as the word’s insect population.
It’s a toxic cocktail: salary stagnation, oppressive and
bullying accountability regimes, grindingly dull officially -sanctioned teaching
approaches, a supply of trainees that has turned into a trickle. English
teaching was always a very demanding job, requiring real dedication and a
willingness to go the extra mile and burn the midnight oil, but it’s compensations
more than made up for the sacrifice. The classroom was a crucible of creativity
and regeneration and kept us all, students and teachers, coming back for more.
I fear that it will take a long time, and a concerted effort to change a mechanistic,
functional culture, to repair the damage that has already been done. I’m afraid
that the worst is yet to come.