After the showing of the two part adaptation of Mayflies on BBC over Christmas, I thought it was a good time to revisit my original review of the book (first published on my other website, www.rjbarron.co.uk last year). It’s a great example, I think, of a TV adaptation being better than the book, although the book has a lot to like and admire. Here’s what I wrote, back in June 2021:
This book looked right up my street – an affectionate memoir of a group of seventeen-year old friends in Glasgow, forever bonded by their shared experience of growing up together as a band of brothers with their love of music holding them together. Then add to the mix a fast forward to contemporary Britain to see how they have fared in the intervening thirty-five years. It’s structured in two halves -then and now- and it’s almost brilliant. Almost, but not quite.
The first half, an evocative portrait of a group of friends on a mythical weekender to Manchester for a festival, with the obsession of the possibility of catching a glimpse of Morrisey in a club, is beautifully done. Anyone who experienced the salvation provided by a like-minded group of anti-establishment friends at that age, with the same passions, the same obsessions, the same devotions, will read this with a tear in their eye and a smile, as your own memories flicker in and out of focus. The power and significance of the music you listened to when you were seventeen – what pain, joy and agony it can conjure, even when catching a few bars of an obscure track in the gang’s playlist.
The main protagonist, destined to escape working class Glasgow life through his intelligence and determination (and, classically, the devotion of the ubiquitous English teacher who encouraged him and pushed him on his path) is a sympathetic character who is transformed into a very successful writer, critically acclaimed and living in a hipster’s paradise in a beautiful and expensive part of London. He has still remained connected to his roots, however, and to one friend in particular who stayed in Glasgow and who turned his talents to English teaching in a “Challenging “ school where he has spent his entire career, inspiring generations of abandoned Glaswegians through his teaching and his humanity.
The second part reveals very early on that Tully, the Head of English back in Glasgow, has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. From then on the remainder of the novel charts how James (“Noodle”) deals with this devastating news and helps Tully end his days at Dignitas. I hope that’s not a spoiler, but the publicity surrounding the novel made the story very clear. There is tremendous sadness and grief and nostalgia, as you would expect, and the novel does not shy away from the anger and unreasonableness people show in these testing situations.
Pic: Andrew O’Hagan
But. And it’s a big but. The second half goes on and on and on, seemingly without the watchful eye of an editor. And then I realised. This was autobiographical. This was O’Hagan’s story. And the novel had become a therapeutic exercise for him, whereby every detail was included because the memory of his part of the second half was too significant to leave anything else out. I googled it, and it was true. This was O’Hagan’s story, almost word for word, and just a year or so earlier. And Tully was, in fact, Keith Martin, his boyhood friend. So O’Hagan deals with grief so recent, it’s still raw and it completely clouds his judgement.
It’s a familiar problem for a novelist, when you are casting around in your own autobiography for material for a novel and the first draft includes a load of stuff that is oh so significant to you, but which means diddly squat to your readers. And the editor was too sensitive to point it out. Or O’Hagan was too blinkered and determined to listen. It’s a pity. I reckon that if O’Hagan had waited a for a few years, he would have written a masterpiece, with the benefit of some perspective.
Pic: O’Hagan with Keith Martin in 2018 (right)
But then, sometimes, what the reader needs is irrelevant. The writer’s human too. And if Andrew O’Hagan needed to write this book to work through his grief, who am I to carp, because it wasted half a day of my time. The friendship he delightfully and brilliantly portrays , a friendship we can probably all replicate in our own back story, deserves the epitaph O’Hagan decides to give it, in his own way and in his own terms. Narrative arc can sometimes take a back seat.
The distance between the events portrayed and the writing of the TV script, with the urgent, autobiographical recording of the novel in between, has done the trick, I reckon. And I don’t think it’s insignificant that the adaptation was written by Andrea Gibb, not O’Hagan himself. Mediating traumatic events through a third person has brought much needed perspective, while retaining the raw emotion of the story.
It’s a great piece of work. And the first half of the novel, with its portrait of the obsessive, bonding passions of the gang of seventeen year old friends, remains a beautiful, luminous, evocative piece of writing.
“Hamnet” was in my top five novels of the year in 2021, and many other people’s as well, if Twitter is anything to go by, so the announcement of her follow up, “The Marriage Portrait”, earlier this year caused great excitement. English teachers who have taught GCSE Literature in the last fifteen years will be very familiar with the source material: My Last Duchess by Robert Browning.
The poem, written in 1842, is a wonderful thing. It’s a long poem, a dramatic monologue, in the voice of an Italian Duke, Alfonso of Ferrara. The Duke is escorting a servant of a visiting nobleman around his palatial aristocratic pile. The visitor is there to negotiate a marriage between the Duke and his daughter. They stop at a portrait, hidden behind a curtain, of the Duke’s late wife. Browning brilliantly conveys, from his own lips, the cruelty and snobbery of the Duke.
By the end of the poem, the reader is left with an uneasy near certainty that Alfonso has engineered the murder of his young wife, seemingly because she was open hearted and friendly with people other than himself, specifically, people from a lower social class than himself. It’s master class of innuendo and suggestion. Without saying anything incriminating, the case against the Duke and the world he represents seems watertight.
It’s also a marvellous poem for GCSE students. It’s a great example of a poem that at first sight, and after first reading, seems impenetrable: obscure, dull, irrelevant. With a bit of reassurance, and a bit of skillful handholding, students can learn the fact that poetry, with its supercharged language, can be made to yield its secrets, like a tightly folded bud opening its petals one by one. Repeated reading reveals new insights, new possibilities, new pleasures. Once experienced, the joys of poetry seem just a little bit more real, a little bit more accessible, and students seem a little bit more willing to try another difficult one.
And so, given the magic wrought by O’Farrell in Hamnet, it seemed like a rich seam of material to mine. I started, with eager anticipation, a useful store of knowledge, and a fund of goodwill towards the writer. And there is a lot here to admire. I read it quickly, carried along by the narrative and the language. But…..
By the end, I was racing to finish for a different reason. How can I put this politely? It’s a little…..dull. The period and place are beautifully evoked. The language shimmers and sparkles. But the plot, which is the spine of any novel in my opinion, disappoints. The fact that, because of the original poem, the plot is so well known isn’t really the issue here. After all, O’Farrell starts the novel with Lucrezia, the Duchess of the marriage, realising she has been brought to an isolated rural loggia to be murdered. The rest of it is a procession of inevitability.
O’Farrell tries to use structure to shake things up a little, switching between the scenes at the end of her life, “imprisoned” in her husband’s country retreat, and incidents from her childhood in Florence. The scenes in Florence are more engaging somehow. The portrait of a privileged, but loving family, makes a sharp contrast with the Ferrara scenes. There’s a charm and an interest in the depiction of Lucrezia’s childhood, the eccentric younger child of the family. One luminous early section concerns the encounter between Lucrezia and the tiger her father commissions on a whim, to add to his menagerie of exotic creatures, kept down deep in the dungeons below the family home. Her determination to leave her bedroom and travel in the dark to encounter this magnificent beast radiates with poetry and significance. The idea that the Tiger allows her to stroke it through the bars without savaging her, imbues our protagonist with qualities that mark her out as a rare character of substance.
There’s also a pleasing attempt to use the plot to give the Duchess an escape route. No spoilers here, but it is plausible and the idea is satisfying. Ultimately, though, it is rather thrown away, as if O’Farrell herself felt a little uncomfortable about changing history.
In the end, the problem is that O’Farrell, gifted novelist though she is, cannot compete with Robert Browning’s original. (Picture of Browning , right) The subtlety and nuance of his version of events requires readers to work hard to unpick its story. He pays them the ultimate compliment of trusting their intelligence to pick up the thread he has carefully woven through the verse. Somehow, it makes for a more satisfying read than O’Farrell’s four hundred plus pages of prose, no matter how beautiful much of it is.
I was left with a feeling of disappointment and let down. What promised much delivered very little. I’m hoping her next novel will abandon a reworking of our literary heritage and strike out with something new. It’s a difficult habit to kick though, once you’re in the grip of addiction. And there’s so much to choose from:
Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti (All that suppressed sex and oozing juice of ripe fruit. It could certainly stand a Game of Thrones mash up)
London by William Blake. (who was that mysterious man wandering around those “Chartered streets”?)
Dickens’ affairs with Ellen Ternan and Georgina Hogarth. (With the added Gothic bonus of the Great Man’s attempts to have his wife locked up in an asylum)
And, of course, that old favourite, beloved of English teachers of a certain vintage, from the days of 100% coursework and “creative responses”, a retelling of The Ancient Mariner from the point of view of the Albatross. That would be a challenge. It was certainly beyond the grasp of most of the Year 11 kids who attempted it in the Eighties.
On second thoughts, I have some advice for Ms O’Farrell. Just step away from your laptop, Maggie, take some time out, and come up with a contemporary tale set in the here and now. Now that would be worth waiting for.
Rick, Deputy Head at Fairfield High School, is the senior member of staff on duty at the annual leavers’ Prom. It’s a hot summer’s evening and resentment runs high over the Zero Tolerance regime instituted by the new Head, Camilla Everson. Meanwhile, a gaggle of Year 11 students, led by the notorious George Mason, who have been formally banned from attending for a variety of crimes and misdemeanours, have plucked up the courage to invade the event
Rick checked his watch again, and took a drag from his cigarette. He had slipped out of the house, weary of the thumping bass and flashing lights, and had made his way to the terrace at the back of the mansion. It was strictly out of bounds for the students as part of the licensing agreement, but it was understood that staff could use it for temporary respite throughout the evening.
He sat at a table on the terrace in the darkness, looking out onto manicured lawns, grateful for the cool quiet out there. Kevin had been there when he arrived, enjoying a solitary cigarette on his break, so he took the opportunity to ponce a cigarette from him, a treat all the more delicious for its rarity.
“Jo would kill me if she saw me with this,” he confided to Kevin, savouring the grey blue smoke whisping away into the night sky.
“Well, your secret’s safe with me Rick,” he replied.
“Another half an hour and that’s our lot, I think,” said Rick. “Music off, lights on and the wait for the parents to pick ‘em all up.”
“Yeah,” agreed Kevin, “All over for another year, eh?”
“It’s gone pretty well, actually. Better than I expected.”
“Yeah, it could have been much worse in the circumstances. At one point I thought we’d only have twenty kids here. Nothing like it used to be, in our heyday.”
“No. There’ve been a lot of changes.”
Kevin hesitated for a moment and then plunged in.
“I’m surprised you’ve stuck around, actually Rick. I thought you would have got a Headship somewhere else. It must be soul destroying, working under this regime.”
It was Rick’s turn to hesitate. He was normally very discreet when it came to talking about the leadership of the school, and had an instinctive professional loyalty, regardless of his own opinion. He had resisted the temptation to spend the last year slagging off Camilla and Pugh to anyone who would listen, and he would have had an eager and receptive audience, but it hadn’t seemed right to him to turn into that kind of Senior Leader.
But now, his resolve weakened by a long year of humiliations, and lulled into conspiratorial mood by the shared cigarette in the darkness, he cracked.
“Yeah, it is Kevin. It has been. And who knows? I might jump ship early next year if things don’t change. I’ve just tried to do my best and head off some of the madder innovations she wanted to introduce, but looking back, I’ve failed dismally at that. I might as well have gone to be honest.”
He kept quiet about his pact with the devil that was Alastair Goodall, but he was feeling increasingly tainted by it, and for what? There was no sign he was going to get any benefit from it, apart from his enhanced salary for the last year. It sat uncomfortably with him anyway. Maybe he should knock that on the head as well. The whirl of conflicting thoughts left him unable to say more.
He stood up, looking at his watch once again.
“Come on, no point moping around here. It’s time to wind this down, while we’re still ahead.”
“Yep, we’ll get no thanks for worrying about it. Let’s go, I think we’ve all done enough for one night.”
They walked back in. As they turned the corner, there, framed in the light spilling from the entrance, was one of the teachers peering into the dimly lit terrace.
“Rick? Rick, is that you?”
“Yeah, who’s that? Mary, is that you? What’s up?”
He screwed his eyes up at the figure obscured by the light behind her. He had correctly identified Mary, the Head of Art.
“I think you’d better get in here, quick. We’ve been invaded.”
She disappeared back in to the building. Rick and Kevin looked at each other, baffled.
“Invaded?” said Kevin, “What on earth does she mean?”
When they got back in the building the first thing that told them something might be amiss was the unmistakeable smell of marijuana.
Kevin wrinkled his nose.
“Is that what I think it is?” he asked.
“Who the hell is stupid enough to come to the Prom and smoke weed?”
Then one of the Promgoers burst from the disco room and ran towards them.
It was Jason.
“It’s George, Sir, George Mason. He’s gone mad.”
They ran to the door way and looked in. There in front of them, in the middle of the dance floor amidst a crowd of teenagers, was George, can of lager in one hand and enormous spliff in the other, swaying and dancing to the music.
“What the bloody hell..”
Kevin grabbed Rick’s elbow.
“It’s not just George, look,” he said.
Around the room, the rest of George’s crew were similarly engaged, smoking, drinking and dancing. Their dancing was not quite as hypnotic and dreamy as George’s. Instead, they were taking great pleasure in bumping into each other and anyone else who came within range. As Kevin and Rick watched in horror, this transformed itself into synchronised barging of other innocent dancers, who were sent flying across the dance floor, crashing into other. At the far side of the dance floor, the DJ, who ten minutes earlier had been looking forward to winding it down with couple of slow numbers, looked on at first bemused and then increasingly concerned. A series of teachers who had been supervising the dance floor had tried to intervene with the interlopers. They were at first ignored and then threatened by their former pupils, who were emboldened by their success so far.
Rick had seen enough.
“You stay here on the door, Kevin, I’ll only be a minute.”
He dashed out of the room and spoke first to the security man on the main entrance who had returned from his fag break and was blissfully unaware that anything was amiss.
“Hey, where the hell have you been? We’ve been invaded and you didn’t see a thing.”
“What? What do you mean, ‘invaded’? No-one has got past me without a ticket.”
“Never mind,” said Rick, “radio your mate on the front gate and get him up here, pronto and then both of you get yourselves to the dance floor. We need you to earn your money.”
“What about the police? Shall we ring for them?”
Rick thought for a moment.
“No, not yet. We don’t need them yet. Go on, man, hurry.”
Back on the dance floor the carnage continued. Then, like a bucket of cold water thrown over rutting dogs, the mood was broken. The music stopped immediately at the same time that the flashing strobe lights were replaced by the harsh overhead neon strips. The dancers stumbled and stood still, blinking in the unforgiving glare of the illumination.
A strange silence filled the room and the dancers and teachers looked round at the newly exposed hooligans, left like flopping fish gasping for breath out of the water. It was filled by a commanding voice from the doorway. All eyes were drawn in that direction.
“Alright everyone, listen up. The party’s over, I’m afraid. A little bit early, but I’m sure you’ll understand why? All students here with Prom tickets, you need to head next door with all of your stuff and get yourself ready. Parents and cars will be arriving in the next five minutes. Let’s make sure we don’t give them anything to worry about, especially on a night like this.”
There was an outbreak of grumbling abut the turn the evening had taken.
Rick held up his hands and started again.
“Yes, yes, we all know you’re disappointed, but we were nearly at the end anyway. There might even be a few keen parents already here waiting outside. So, let’s start to make our way through, please. And if I could ask a couple of members of staff to go through as well, just to make sure all is well?”
Three or four of the staff stepped forward and began to usher students out of the room. As they went, the invaders, looking round at each other began to put up their hoodies and fiddle with their bandanas.
“Oi, you lot. There’s no point hiding your faces, we’ve all seen you and we all know who you are. “
They stopped, embarrassed.
“Now listen. You’ve made a big mistake coming here tonight. You really shouldn’t have done it.”
One boy was bold enough to air his simmering sense of grievance.
“We should have been here anyway Sir. That old cow shouldn’t have banned us, she’s mental, you know she is Sir.”
“Eh, that’s enough of that. Whether you think you should have been banned or not, you were, and that’s all that matters.”
Two or three others joined in, adding their voices to the argument.
“It’s not fair, we get the blame for everything. Fucking teachers always think they’re right. We’ve had enough”
Rick hesitated. He had counted them. There were fifteen of them and about eight members of staff. They were drunk and stoned and very angry. He knew that it wouldn’t take much for this to turn ugly. Soon the two security guards would arrive, and they as a rule, did not do subtlety or negotiation. He knew that he would have to arrive at an agreed resolution in the next couple of minutes or risk disaster. He started again, hoping that his anxiety about the gravity of the situation did not bleed into his voice.
“No, no. no. that’s not going to get you anywhere. You need to start thinking sensibly about this, so that you don’t get yourself into any more trouble. The police are on their way. The security guards will be along in a moment. If I were you, I’d want to be leaving here as quickly as I could, without drawing attention to yourself.”
A familiar voice broke in, interrupting him. It was George.
“What’s the point of doing that, ‘cos you’ll just give all of our names to the police anyway? You’ve already said you know who we are. You must think we’re fucking stupid.”
This intervention stirred the pot again, and there was more rumbling from the mob.
“Language George, please. And, no, I don’t think you’re stupid and I never have done. For a start, I have no idea why you’re here anyway. This is not even your year group and not even your Prom. But let’s not go into that now. The point is this. I give you my word that if you all leave quietly now, taking all of your stuff with you, and there is no trouble with the parents or on your way home, then we’ll say no more about it.”
“See,” snorted George, looking round at the others, “He obviously does think we’re stupid. Don’t fall for this lads, he’s obviously gonna grass us up.”
“George, as far as I know, all you’ve done so far is gate crash a party and smoke a bit of weed and drink too much lager. You shouldn’t have done any of those things, but they’re not hanging offences. Or are you worried about something you’re not telling me?”
“No, course not,” George snapped back.
He turned his frustration on his colleagues. “See what he’s doing? Typical bloody teacher, he’s twisting everything. He’ll dob us in it alright, you see if he don’t.”
It hung on a knife edge. One voice from the mob piped up, “Nah, I don’t think so George. Mr Westfield aint like that, he aint like the others. He always does what he says.”
There was silence as they considered this idea and in that silence it was over. The first of them walked towards the door, followed by a couple more. Then, the rest of them followed. As they passed him to get through the doorway Rick said, “You could probably get a lift home with some of your mates, if you ask nicely.”
Finally, only George remained, standing in the middle of the dance floor. Rick said to the last few members of staff, “Do you guys want to go and help outside, while George and I have a chat?”
They slipped quietly out of the open door through to the hubbub beyond.
George clutched his lager and stared with a set face at Rick.
“So, George” Rick began “Are you going to go along with this and leave quietly? I meant what I said about not taking it any further.”
“Nah man,” George sneered, “don’t come it with the concerned, caring chat routine. Why should I listen to you? You’re the one that got me excluded. You and that Syrian cunt.”
“No, George, you got yourself excluded, you know that as well as anyone.”
“You got an answer for everything, aint you? If my Dad were here, he’d batter you for what you did.”
“Yes George, you’re right, he would. And he’d do a pretty good job of it as well. He’s good at battering people. But who would he go on to batter after he’d finished with me George, eh? And then what would happen? Because there comes a point where using your fists just isn’t enough. But you already know that, don’t you?”
George’s grip on his can of lager had been steadily increasing as he had listened to Rick, his knuckles whitening as he squeezed in rising anger. Without warning, hurled the half empty can with all his strength at Rick’s head with a roar of rage. Rick ducked and the can thudded into the wall behind him, spray spuming everywhere with an angry fizzing. George started forward and grabbed Rick by the lapels.
One of the qualities that had served Rick well as a teacher in a tough urban school was his unflappability. He had ice running through his veins and the capacity to exude calm when all around him were panicking. He knew that George was a very big, powerful lad who didn’t need the amount of alcohol he had consumed to make him dangerous and unpredictable. But Rick himself was tall and well-built. Years of sport and the gym had left him with a confidence that he could look after himself.
He put his arms through George’s and laid his hands on his chest, firmly exerting pressure on him.
“George, man, calm down. Don’t make things any worse than they are.”
George, still incensed, tried to wrench Rick towards him by the lapels, but found that Rick was too strong for him.
Rick’s voice was quiet and even and he looked George directly in the eyes
“George, come on. You’re your own worst enemy. Give yourself a break. Let go and calm down.”
There was one final attempt to overpower him. When that failed, with Rick looking steadily at him throughout, he gave up and with a howl of frustration and despair he pushed Rick to one side and stormed out of the room, barging past students and teachers alike, some sent flying like skittles as he turned the air blue with an extended volley of industrial language. He snatched up his carrier bag of lager from behind the desk and charged through the ground floor until he found the doorway to the terrace. He crashed past the two security guards who were skulking around, desperately trying to avoid being called into action, and disappeared into the cool darkness of the gardens.
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An extract from “Zero Tolerance” by The Old Grey Owl
Rick, Deputy Head at Fairfield High School, is the senior member of staff on duty at the annual leavers’ Prom. It’s a hot summer’s evening and resentment runs high over the Zero Tolerance regime instituted by the new Head, Camilla Everson.
Rick looked at his watch again. It was seven thirty, the official start time and still there was no sign of any guests approaching. There were a few knots of teachers standing outside, all in their finest party outfits, apart from those, like Rick, who had had to go there straight from school. Kevin, had, as usual been assigned official photographer status, and his tuxedo and Dickie-bow combination, was completed by a camera with a huge zoom lens. It was a serious bit of kit and Kevin spent his time in between chatting to some of the other teachers, fiddling with knobs and dials. He also took the opportunity, every year, to limber up by taking photos of the staff, singly and in groups, wearing their glad rags in front of the shabbily impressive Longdon Park, an eighteenth century mansion in acres of countryside that had been used as the venue for the Prom for as long as anyone could remember.
Rick paced to the bend in the drive, his shoes crunching pleasingly on the gravel, so that he could get an extended view of the long sweep to the main road. Nothing. He turned and retraced his steps, checking his watch again as he went. It was a beautiful early July evening, warm and sultry, with the scent of honeysuckle heavy on the air. Everything was set for a fitting send off for the Year 11 students, but the nervous shifting from foot to foot, the glances down the drive, and the stilted conversations spoke of anxiety. This was not like any of the other Prom celebrations any of them had ever attended.
In the previous week the school had been alive with rumours: Camilla had cancelled it. Only forty tickets had been sold. Social Media was facilitating a planned storming of the Bastille by the disaffected and dispossessed. In Camilla’s new Fairfield there were many members of both groups. There was even a rumour that had surfaced only the day before, that those students who had bought tickets, were planning on boycotting at the last moment and had hired a club in town, where alcohol and other stimulants could be ingested.
Rick had considered that the boycott was a realistic proposition and that it had been avoided by the final rumour that had sprung up on Thursday, that Camilla, breaking over thirty years of tradition, was not going to attend. As he himself knew, that rumour was firmly rooted in the truth, and he had made a good job of ensuring the news got around the students.
He thought back to Monday of that week and his surprise at being summoned to Camilla’s office. Was she finally going to spring a trumped up disciplinary on him? Alastair’s protection could only last so long. He steeled himself, knocked on her door and went in.
“You wanted to see me?” he began. She was sitting at her desk, hand on mouse, and he just caught a glimpse of the familiar orange of the EasyJet site before she minimised it.
She looked up. “Ah yes, Rick. Come in.”
Rick hovered just inside the door. She rarely invited him to sit down.
“I won’t keep you long.”
That was the phrase she used when she meant “Don’t sit down”
He stood in front of her desk, like a naughty student about to be told off.
“I assume that you are going to the Prom on Friday?”
“Yes,” he replied, “I always do.”
“Good, I thought so. I just wanted to make sure that you know I’m expecting you to stay for the duration and make sure that everyone has left the site.”
“So, you won’t be there, I take it?” Rick asked the question in his most innocent voice.
Her eyes flicked left and right. “No, I have another meeting that night.”
“Bollocks you have,” thought Rick, “A meeting with a bottle of red in an expensive restaurant more like.”
He smiled at her. “I suppose you’ve heard the rumours that there is going to be trouble? Students you excluded and banned coming en-masse to gate crash?”
She bristled. “Oh, I’m sure that’s all just talk. But just in case, I need you to be there for the whole event please. You have a, ….er.., good relationship with the students, even the feral ones, and it’s about time it actually came in useful.”
“Will O’Malley be there?”
“Patrick? Yes Patrick will be there. Well, at least at the beginning.”
“Yes,” thought Rick, “someone else who is wetting himself at the prospect of meeting a group of kids he’s bullied and brutalised all year.”
He contented himself with a thin smile. “Fine. So, was there anything else?”
She thought for a moment and then finally took the plunge.
“Have you heard anything about this Rick? What do you think are the chances of there being trouble? We must avoid any bad press in the Advertiser. Alastair is still exercised about the last front page.”
He considered the question. He knew the answer, he just wanted to make her sweat a little.
“I think it’s highly likely. There are a lot of students, past and present, who hate your guts. Lot of staff too, but at least you can be fairly confident that they won’t burn the building down. Well, most of them. Just saying.”
A look of pure hatred tinged with fury took possession of her face.
“How dare you? Don’t you think I deserve some support from my Deputy?”
“Calm down Camilla. I’m not saying that’s what I think, I’m simply reporting what other people think.”
“And what do you think?”
“Oh,” he said, making for the door, “I couldn’t possibly comment on that. I’ll be there Friday.”
He closed the door behind him and walked down the corridors to his office with a spring in his step. He had rather enjoyed that.
And so here he was, spending a precious Friday night on duty, expecting trouble. He sidled over to Kevin, who had taken as many photographs as he could of the staff and was now standing in the shade so he could flick through the thumbnails to check them out.
“So, Kev, do you think anyone’s coming tonight?” he asked.
Kevin looked up from his camera. “Yeah, I do actually.”
“How come you’re so confident? They’re leaving it a bit late, aren’t they?”
“Look,” he said, jerking his head in the direction of the road.
Rick turned around. There, sweeping round the bend, was the first stretch limo of the evening. Kevin got himself into position with the camera and the car crunched to a halt outside the entrance. The doors opened and eight young people, four girls and four boys, self-consciously unfolded themselves from the limo. They were in strict regulation prom outfits. The girls tottered on high heels, in tight satiny dresses that showcased cleavages of all sizes. They had extraordinary bouffant hairstyles, that had to be slightly repaired or adjusted after removing themselves from the car and encountering the slight summer breeze that drifted across the gardens. There were a variety of shades of spray tan on display, and as they negotiated the treacherous gravel in their heels, they left a trail of glitter behind them.
The boys seemed to have all got their prom suit from the same shop and this year’s look was the ever popular, very shiny, skin-tight suit, winkle pickers, gold bling jewellery and an assortment of silk ties and waistcoats. The more daring young men had taken a chance on either a floral shirt or a dickie bow.
Their procession into the venue followed a set of unchanging rules that, although not written down anywhere, seemed to be known by all. There was a spontaneous round of applause from the gathered staff, followed by five minutes of photographs, and squeals from the female staff, approving every dress and accessory. The male staff confined themselves to comments about football and mercilessly took the piss out of the rather awkward looking boys, in an oddly affectionate and good-natured manner.
Then, after a few minutes of this small talk, they made their way into the main building. Their slightly unsteady progress was down to more than the combination of stillettos and gravel. Like all fifteen year old prom-goers all over the country, they had dealt with the alcohol ban that was always strictly enforced, by getting drunk at home or in the pub, beforehand.
After this first arrival there was a steady stream of students in a variety of modes of transport. Some long -suffering parents had drawn the short straw and had driven groups there. There were several more limos, a couple of horse drawn carriages and one girl, resplendent in leather and Doc Martens who roared along the gravel and round the turning circle, riding pillion on her Dad’s Harley Davison. She was shortly followed by her soul mate, similarly attired, on the back of her father’s moped. They embraced, had their photograph taken and disappeared into the bowels of the Palladian mansion.
In the middle of all this, one of the cars that drove in didn’t stop in front of the house but carried on around the side to the car park. Rick peered against the sun that was getting quite low in the sky, and made out the figure of Patrick O’Malley, a set line of a mouth and a furrowed brow, behind the wheel. He did not look as if this was where he wanted to be sending his Friday night.
“Oh great,” he muttered to Kevin, “Torquemada’s here.”
“I’ll leave him to you Mr Westfield,” Kevin smirked, “I’ll go in and you can do small talk. That is way above my pay grade” And then he sloped off, whistling.
A minute later O’Malley came round the corner, remembering at the last minute to fix a smile on his face. He seemed to have been practising it on the way from the car park. Rick was the only person left out front now, bar the burly, taciturn security guard. Everyone had gone into the venue and the disco had started.
“Rick,” he said, drawing up next to him.
“Patrick,” he replied.
“This was going to be a good conversation,” he thought. “I’m not going to make it easy for him. He needs me more than I need him.”
O’Malley’s smile was beginning to fray at the edges.
“So, are there many here?”
“Not bad. About fifty or sixty. They’re all inside. You should go in. I don’t think there’ll be any more arriving now.”
“What do you make of the rumours that some of the banned kids are going to try and get in later?”
He said this with a smile and in a light, airy tone as if he were idly speculating about something unlikely, like an extra-terrestrial invasion, but Rick could see he was petrified and was probably already calculating a respectable time of departure.
“Well, it’s possible, I suppose. It’s happened before, but we’ve got security on the gate at the main road and on the door here, so I don’t think there’ll be a real problem.”
O’Malley glanced down at his watch.
“You’ll be able to go soon Patrick, don’t worry. But you do have to make an appearance inside before you can leave. Come on, I’ll hold your hand.”
He led the way to the entrance and the security guard stepped aside grudgingly to let them in. Rick was loving this. For the first time for months, he had O’Malley exactly where he wanted him. On his territory.
Part 2 will follow in a day or two. Sign up to the blog to get an email alert every time a new post is issued. You can buy a copy of the novel, Zero Tolerance, using the links below:
Chris Malone’s novella will be familiar – and infuriating- to anyone who has endured an OFSTED inspection
Chris Malone brings all of her considerable experience of school leadership and inspection to bear in her latest novella, “A School Inspector Calls”. The book deals with two very different primary schools that sit on opposite sides of the river in town. The first, St Drogo’s, is the archetypal glossy academy: new buildings, well-resourced, well-connected, high achieving, but with no room for “challenging students”. One such student, Ayiesha Medosa, has escaped from her hellish experience at St Drogo’s and found refuge in its shabby neighbour, Marsh Street Primary. She observes the unannounced OFSTED inspection of Marsh Street from her unofficial bolt hole, the little room where she does most of her school work when the noise and hard-to -understand dynamics of a busy classroom get too much for her.
While there, she observes the malpractice of the inspection, pre-designed to fail a school that is too child-centred to fit the current model of excellence, through a spy hole in the wall. Does her testimony overturn the inspection outcome? I’ll leave that for you to discover.
For anyone familiar with the current landscape of English education, this book will either be a reassurance or a provocation, depending on where you sit in the array of characters the book presents. If you’re open to different points of view, then this little book will be a delightful amuse bouche. It’s brevity is part of its charm, adding to its impact, rather than detracting. Malone skilfully lays out the oppositions, using the surprise inspection as the catalyst to a drama that will be all too familiar to anyone who has undergone the ridiculous palaver of OFSTED. To her credit, she does not simply present the inspectors as pantomime villains, but explores the institutional pressures that are brought to bear on Margaret, the lead inspector, who like the teachers she is scrutinising, has a family and a mortgage to support and has to make some difficult choices between her career and doing the right thing.
The portrayal of the impossibility of the job, leading a school with limited and further shrinking budgets, staffing gaps, crumbling buildings, needy children and relentless, myopic accountability pressures, is both authentic and sympathetic. This is not a job for the faint-hearted. The miracle is that, in such a context, there are any headteachers like the saintly Jill Grimly left at all, notwithstanding her naivety and muddle. The fear is that the oily, superficial charm of corporate yes man, Dominic Major, head of St Drogo’s, (surely destined for life as a government appointee to some ghastly hybrid quango/private sector “think tank” before assuming his place in the Lords with the other authoritarian populists) will become the de rigeur model of effective school leadership and the Jill Grimlys of this world will be set for early retirement and disparagement as beached dinosaurs, left by the tides of history. What am I saying? It’s already happened.
Regardless of where you stand, this little book is definitely worth a read for anyone interested in education and those that believe that all children, the challenged and the capable, deserve the best chance in life to succeed. It’s available from the excellent Burton Mayers books.
If you enjoy Chris’ book, you may want to have a go at my satire on the current insanities of the English education system, Zero Tolerance, available from the link below. It’s also of interest to anyone with any concern for the treatment of Syrian refugees in this country.
Sally Rooney’s third novel frustrates and disappoints in equal measure.
The View from The Great North Wood
I’m sad to report that the answer to the question posed by the title of Rooney’s third novel, “Beautiful World Where Are You?” is, “Well, not here, at any rate.”
I had looked forward to this for some time, keenly anticipating more of the glorious writing that characterised “Normal People”, a novel I loved, with great surprise after finding her first effort, “Conversations with Friends”, a full blown example of the Emperor’s new clothes. The critics gushed, and told us we were witnessing a new kid on the block who was authentically chronicling life and love as experienced by the middle class, educated twenty-somethings of Dublin (and by extension, everywhere else). I found it tediously thin and empty. “Normal People”, on the other hand, is one of the great novels of the twenty first century, a subtle and beautiful story of an enduring and evolving relationship between a “difficult” middle class young woman and a talented working class young man.
So I come to this with some perspective. Neither an adoring fan, nor an anti-woke critic, I really wanted to love this book. And there is much here to enjoy and admire, but ultimately, it disappoints. It tells the story of four young adults in Dublin and some unspecified Irish seaside town, and their attempts to find meaning in their lives and relationships, doing so via different perspectives, omniscient narrator and text/ digital message exchanges.
Rooney seems at pains to demonstrate how much she really is the voice of a new generation by laying on with a trowel the importance of social media to all of these characters. Time and time again, scenes are punctuated with exhaustive (and exhausting) descriptions of tapping on social media icons, scrolling through news feeds, checking messages etc etc. Sally, we get it. You don’t need to do this. We all do these things, even old fogeys like me. It’s a bit like Charles Dickens droning on about closing the doors on that new-fangled train type thingy. Interestingly, the key relationship, the friendship between Eileen and Alice, only seems to work digitally, when they are writing to each other. Whenever they are together physically in the real world, they fall out, and their friendship seems false and unsupportive.
The social media stuff, and the painstaking, repetitive description of the physical choreography of sex, shows that Rooney seems to want to challenge Knausgard in her relentless accretion of the mundane details of the business of living. Again and again, we are battered with flat, colourless prose recording hands resting on limbs, legs touching and not touching. And just like Knausgard, it is draining and dull and says nothing, a mere inventory masquerading as an insight into a new configuration of millennial sexual relationships.
It’s also hard to love a book that focuses on such unlikeable characters. The two women, Alice and Eileen, apparently best friends, are tiresome in the extreme. Alice is a thinly-veiled portrait of Rooney herself, a young female Dublin novelist who is lionised from her debut novel. This in itself is a little depressing. It’s like the Rock Band who have made it big. Their first album is sparky, innovative, full of energy and ideas. The difficult second album is more of the same with greater technical competence. Then, when they’ve broken through and are established in the mainstream and are selling out stadiums in America, the third album is written in hotel rooms and includes songs about the emptiness of life on the road in endless hotel rooms. The songs reflect their changed circumstances, but who gives a toss? It’s very difficult to empathise with the neuroses of the creative rich and famous.
After a vague nervous breakdown, she now clearly despises the trappings of fame and despairs of the emptiness of her life and world. No matter how hard I tried, I really couldn’t summon any sympathy for a woman afflicted by wealth, fame and privilege. Her friend Eileen, from their university days, is presented as the junior partner in the friendship. Less successful, less confident, her relationship with Alice mirrors that with her elder sister, Lola, despite the fact that Eileen loathes Lola and idolises Alice. Her lack of agency, her diffidence in articulating clearly what she wants, her self-pity about her life, is after a while, simply grating, generating annoyance rather than empathy. A key narrative thread in the novel is her long-standing love for Simon, five years older than she is, who she has known from home since childhood. They have had a history of almost, but not quite, falling into the relationship that clearly both of them want, but circumstances and other relationships, and bad timing have prevented from happening. Simon is probably the only likeable character out of the four, and is in some sense, a rehash of Connell from “Normal People”. Committed to social justice, modest, strikingly fit and handsome, and successful in terms of a career in the political world, he seems like a nice self-effacing kind of chap. Obviously he is markedly inept in terms of opening himself up to intimacy, but dear readers, there are worse crimes to be indicted for.
There is an element of their relationship that works well for me and it’s another echo of “Normal People” which was a tour de force on tentative, awkward communications between people who really like each other but are scared they might say the wrong thing and ruin it all. This is beautifully done there and once again, the conversations between Eileen and Simon are toe-curlingly awkward and realistic, leaving the reader wanting to shout at them, “Just tell each other straight, for God’s sake” Rooney is brilliant on this kind of self-sabotage through embarrassment and feelings of lack of self-worth.
“Telling each other straight” is the one positive quality I could discern in Felix, the final character of the four. He seems to be the partner of choice for Alice so that Rooney can signal her right-on ness yet again. He’s an unskilled working-class chap who she meets on some Tinder-type dating app. Their first date is a disaster but she is intrigued by him. As the novel progresses, we learn that he was a low achiever at school, and does not read, so has little idea of her career as a novelist, but it is clear from Rooney’s descriptions and his dialogue that he is intelligent. The dialogue between Alice and him is refreshing and thought provoking. They fence around like all of the others, but Felix’s great strength is that he is fairly clear and straightforward about what he wants from her. He’s respectful about asking though – this is not a portrait of an abusive man – but Rooney deliberately muddies the waters by including a scene where Alice finds some particularly nasty, violent pornography on his phone. The fact that she does not judge him negatively for this seems to be part of Rooney’s schtick that modern love and sex is different somehow.
I don’t buy it I’m afraid. He lets her know he is bisexual and makes a mockery of his own name by making it very clear he’d like to have sex with the gorgeous Simon, right in front of Alice and everyone else. Rooney seems to be saying that, these days, for these fabled millennials, sex is just another appetite and is disconnected from other emotional connections. Loyalty, fidelity, exclusivity in relationships seems so last century. The ghastly Felix, appears utterly selfish on one level, such that, in a scene late on in the book, when he gets back home to be reunited with his beloved dog and there is a detailed description of him lovingly stroking it, I feared for the dog’s honour. We were genuinely just a short step away from a bold depiction of the love that dare not speak its name. Fear not, gentle reader, the dog survived, honour intact. As did Felix’s relationship with Alice, which just did not ring true to me.
There are some redeeming features. The opening 4 or 5 chapters are wonderful. She is a beautiful, precise writer, and effortlessly draws the reader in to a scenario. I was expecting something magnificent, but ultimately, I was disappointed. She is also brave enough to tackle big ideas. The email/message exchanges between Alice and Eileen have them dissecting weighty themes about the meaning of life. What is important? What really matters in life when climate change and populism threaten our very existence? Rooney concludes it is the connections we make with other people and the pursuit and enjoyment of cultural beauty. The trouble is, after a little while, one’s heart sinks when yet another musing whatsap message exchange about the meaning of life hoves into view. In the end, I just flicked to get to the narrative. Ideas are all very well, but let’s not forget about the story.
Speaking of the story, very early in the novel she gives us ten pages of back story, telling us about the childhood connections between Eileen, Simon and Alice. It’s a curious pause in the proceedings. On its own, it’s a masterful bit of plotting which could have been the outline of a very satisfying, better novel. And then I realised that it was too close to the plot/milieu of Normal People, so she couldn’t just repeat that again. So in effect, it’s a what-happens-next continuation of Normal People in disguise.
The weirdest aspect of the novel for me, given that I think that Rooney is a great stylist, is the curiously flat, perfunctory prose that sucks all of the life out of every description. There is a distance set up between the reader and the characters, and in effect, between the characters themselves, because the style makes it so hard to care about what happens either way. At times it’s like reading the shipping forecast, or a clinical psychotherapist’s academic report, holding up a mirror to the participants.
She’s a wonderful writer, but at the moment the scoresheet reads won 1, drawn 1, lost 1. She needs a big result from the next book. I’ve got my fingers crossed.
Here’s an extract from my novel, Zero Tolerance, a satire on toxic schools and Government policy on refugees, published by Matador books. It’s the last day of the Autumn term and an exhausted group of staff gather in the staffroom for farewell drinks. Sound familiar? See how many characters and scenarios you can recognise. If you enjoy this chapter, you can buy the book from the following link:
It had been the kind of December day that never really gets light, a smudgy, damp greyness having hung over the day for hours. It was completely at odds with the manic, unhinged hysteria that had reigned at Fairfield from the moment the first students had arrived at about 7.30 am. A non-uniform day, strictly in aid of charity of course, the last day before the Christmas holidays was traditionally a day to be endured. Damage limitation was the name of the game. Students were arrayed in tinsel, hats and flashing festive jumpers and nearly all of them were toting huge bags full of cards and sweets and presents. The whole day was a battle between staff and students to keep them all off the corridors and in classrooms. This had always been a struggle, but since the advent of mobile phones and messaging in all its forms, it was now nigh on impossible as students were alerted to the best party (Miss has got pizza for everyone!), the best DVD showing or when and where the assembly entertainers were rehearsing.
Just after the lunch the final students were escorted off the premises, the last bus duty had been completed and the last angry phone call from a local shopkeeper or resident about behaviour on the buses had been taken. Senior Team and the long-suffering Heads of Year had answered the calls and patrolled the local area, trying to keep a lid on high spirits. Now, at about two o’clock, with early darkness closing in, everyone congregated in the staff room for the farewells and drinks. The first couple of drinks took the edge of the empty-eyed, numbed exhaustion that pervaded the room. This first half an hour at the end of the autumn term was almost painful, so exquisite and acute was the sense of release from torment. So much time stretching out in front of them, with no early starts, no marking, no planning, no late meetings.
There were just a couple of staff leaving, so the event would be mercifully short, allowing the younger staff to pile down the pub before going out on the lash for the rest of the evening and the older staff time to get home early and have a nap on the sofa before a quiet night in in front of the telly. The real victims were those in between with young children, who would have already calculated the amount of Christmas shopping they could get in before getting home to play with the children and make the dinner.
As they were waiting for everyone to arrive and for the speeches to begin, staff congregated in their friendship groups, staking out territory in comfy chairs around low tables, hoovering up twiglets and warm white wine. Charlotte, found herself in between Kevin and Kwame.
“So, you going away in the holidays either of you?” she asked.
“No such luck,” grumbled Kevin. “We’re hosting this year. We’ve got a house full for about five days. It’s costing me an arm and a leg.”
“What about you, Kwame?”
“Yeah, we’re taking the kids to my sister’s in Leeds. We’re not setting off until Christmas Eve. So I’m looking forward to a few days of sleep before then. She’s a great cook, my sister, and the kids really get on well with her kids so it should be good. Then it’s our turn next year.”
“Lucky you,” said Kevin. “Enjoy this one while you can. What about you, Charlotte?”
“We’ve got John’s mother staying with us for the week, so that’s a week of back-breaking hard work, with no thanks and constant moaning from the Queen.”
“Difficult, is she?”
“Nightmare. She thinks I don’t look after him properly and that I’m a mad career-obsessed harpy who couldn’t wait to farm the kids off to childcare.”
“Knows you well then, by the sound of it.”
She shot him a look. “Hmm, very funny. Honestly though, it’s just a week of torment. I’ll be glad to get back to school, I’m telling you.”
“See, I told you, she’s got your number perfectly,” retorted Kevin, warming to his second glass of wine.
“Oh, I’m not talking to you anyway, Kevin, after you let us all down so badly with the snow. What was it you said? Definitely snow before and after Christmas. I can’t tell you how that promise has got me through some tricky days in the last few weeks. And for what? Absolutely nothing. Not even a bit of frost. I thought you said that Norwegian site was infallible.”
“Sorry guys, believe me no-one’s sorrier than me. I don’t know what went wrong.”
Kwame changed the subject. “So, who’s leaving today then? How many speeches do we have to sit through?”
“Just a couple,” said Charlotte. “That young technician, Matt, I think his name is, you know the one that looks about twelve years old and that woman who was on long-term supply in science.”
“Plankton, then,” said Kevin. “Good, we’ll be out of here in twenty minutes.”
“Ey up, here she comes,” said Charlotte, as a quietening of the crowd indicated that something was afoot.
Jane stepped up to the front of the room, waited a second for quiet to descend and then encouraged it on its way.
“Okay, colleagues, the sooner we begin the sooner we can finish. I know we’re all desperate to draw a line under this term and to have some quality time with our nearest and dearest.”
The hum of chatter subsided and all eyes were on the front. Jane, normally so easy and generous with her end of term addresses, that had become something of a local legend for their humanity and good humour, was strangely clipped. The two speeches and exchange of gifts for the two admittedly minor departures were rattled through and almost before people had settled in, they were at the end.
Almost before the departing IT technician had mumbled his thank-yous and farewells Jane was back out front, resuming her role as Mistress of Ceremonies.
“So, not long to go now,” she started with a smile. Encouraged by the ripple of laughter this created she pressed on. “I don’t want to keep you much longer. I just wanted to take this opportunity to thank you all, particularly those of you who have been with me on this journey for the past ten years, but all of the rest of you as well, for all of the hard work and dedication you show to the children in our care every day you come to work. We don’t get much thanks these days for the work we do with our client group, our students, as they used to be known. And since no-one ever went into teaching for the money, thanks are an important currency in terms of morale. Our kids are frequently described in the outside word as problems, burdens, difficulties to overcome. I’m quite used to that lack of understanding from the media, who frankly get just about everything wrong that they report, but it gets harder and harder to take when the people who should know better, our glorious leaders, seem to revel in their own ignorance and parade their prejudices as if they were great new insights to be proud of.”
Jane’s voice had dropped and the audience, raucous and irreverent minutes before, were enveloped in an air of intense concentration. What was happening here? This was not the speech they had been expecting. She continued.
“I want to thank all of you for your outstanding work during Ofsted, but more than that, the outstanding work you do day after day, not to get a pat on the back from Big Brother, but because it makes a difference to our kids, many of whom arrive at our doors looking for respite from damaged and difficult family circumstances. The kid who has spent the night in emergency accommodation. The kid who has not eaten since free school meals the day before. The kid who lives in fear of a family member coming into their room at night. The kid who watches their mother battered and brutalised. For those kids, we are the nearest thing they have to love and security. And on their behalf, I want to thank all of you for that.”
Rick, standing to the side, felt a lump rise in his throat. He battled his stinging eyes and wondered where this was going next. If he hadn’t known better, he would have sworn this was a resignation speech.
“Many of you will have worked out that this will be the last ever farewell speech I will give…”
What? Rick’s heart skipped a beat and his mouth fell open. Avril, standing next to him, held her breath.
“…in a Fairfield High that is a local authority-controlled school.”
They both began breathing a little easier. Rick remembered to close his mouth.
“Now, I’m sure you will all agree that Longdon have been a signally useless local authority for much of that time, but at the very least, they have been our useless local authority, with human beings we know and can talk to and have some kind of productive relationship with. With some sense of accountability and transparency. From January, we move over to the control of the Bellingford Multi-Academy Trust, and things will change, inevitably. So far, I am reassured by what Alastair Goodall and the Trust have been saying about their plans for the future, and I hope that this marks the beginning of a prosperous and harmonious new relationship.”
She paused and looked around the crowd. The gap she had left grew, and in it everyone in the audience mentally inserted the next part of her speech for her: “But I don’t think it will.”
She left that unsaid, of course and pressed on. “So, I am sure that the Trust has lots of additional work lined up for all of us in January. That makes it even more important that we all have a relaxing and enjoyable holiday. Spend quality time with those you love, family and friends. Just in case, in January, work takes over, and it becomes harder to give those people the time they deserve. Merry Christmas to you all.” She raised her glass to the audience, who did the same and chorused, “Merry Christmas.”
While conversations carried on, mostly about the weirdly affecting tone of Jane’s speech and everyone’s holiday plans, and people decided to have one last drink or another sausage roll, Jane slipped out of the staffroom before Avril or Rick could buttonhole her. Avril was about to follow her, when she was collared by someone who was rather exercised by a mistake in her December payslip that had just materialised in her pigeonhole. She watched her go, over the shoulder of Joyce, who was worried about how she was going to pay for Christmas without the correct salary. Just in time, Avril averted her eyes from Jane’s departure, and gave Joyce her full, smiling, yet concerned, attention.
By about four in the afternoon the school site was just about deserted, with a mere handful of cars left in the car park. Rick and Avril both found themselves outside the closed door of Jane’s office.
“You as well?” said Avril, as Rick rounded the end of the corridor.
“I just wanted to check she was all right. I’ve never heard her give a speech like that before.”
“Me neither. But she’s gone. I knocked and tried the door. It’s locked.”
“Gone? But she’s always the last to leave. Without fail.”
“Listen, it’s probably nothing. I’ll ring her later, just to check. Don’t worry about it. Go home and start the holiday.”
“Yeah. Yeah, you’re probably right. I will. Have a good Christmas.”
“You too. See you in January.”
By four-thirty there was only one car left in the playground. Tony, the site manager, was stomping around jangling a huge bunch of keys. He was desperate to lock up and put his feet up. The school was a much pleasanter place to work when there were no students in it and a positively delightful place to work when there no teachers either.
“Bloody Kevin. What the hell is he still doing here?”
Up in the top floor observatory that was his classroom, Kevin was putting the finishing touches to his leaving preparations. He had spent the previous twenty minutes doing last-minute checks of the Norwegian weather site. This was partly because Kwame and Charlotte had spent the twenty minutes before that mercilessly taking the piss out of him for his snow closure obsession and the failure of his predictions.
He stared at the screen, an expression of triumph on his face. “Ha! I knew it! It was right all along.”
Then triumph turned to disappointment. “What a bloody waste of a fall of snow. What a criminal waste,” he lamented.
Five minutes later he passed Tony jangling his keys as he went through the main entrance to the car park.
“Sorry mate, didn’t mean to keep you. Have a good Christmas.”
“Same to you,” he grunted, rattling the doors as he locked up behind him.
Kevin loaded up his boot with marking and a bag full of cartons of Celebrations and bottles of wine his grateful students had given him for Christmas and opened the driver’s door to get in. At that moment, the first fat snowflake floated down from the lowering darkened skies and landed on the bonnet of his car. By the time he drove through the car park entrance onto the road, the air was thick with flakes.
Kevin peered out of his window at the sky full of silent white feathers. He shook his head as he drove off. “What a terrible waste,” he muttered.
I’m reposting an old story and podcast so that new followers will get the alert. It’s a Christmas Ghost story
A ghost story for Christmas by The Old Grey Owl
Click the link below to listen to the podcast of this story:
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.
Earlier this year, the best-selling British crime author, Mark Billingham (left), caused a little controversy at the Times Cheltenham Literary Festival when he said that if a novel does not grip him after twenty pages he “throws it away angrily”. He reckons that he does this with 50% of the books he starts to read. “Life’s too short,” he says, “and there are so many great books out there.”
This is an opinion that has divided readers, but it’s one that will be familiar to anybody who has tried to submit a manuscript to publishers or agents, and it’s very much in line with their thinking. You know the drill: submission guidelines that specify the first three chapters in the initial submission. The publishing and self-publishing industry is a growth area of one thing above all else. And its not new novelists. No, it’s companies largely inhabited by people who have fallen foul of those same submission guidelines and can’t get published. What’s the next best thing to do? Why, advise other wannabe authors of course. Look through the individual agent pages of literary agencies, where each agent is desperately trying to pitch themselves and their own USP. “I’m looking for submissions that grab me immediately, that make me desperate for the rest of the manuscript. I immediately know that the novel is going to be amazing from the way it gripped me relentlessly from the start.”
Oh dear. Really? This is as hackneyed and depressing as the relentless mantra, “Show Not Tell” or the terribly modern obsession with writing in the first person or (but usually “and”) writing in the present tense because it makes the novel so much more immediate and engaging. Whenever I see that I have to suppress a yawn, knowing that I’m going to be reading an identikit novel that is indistinguishable from all the others. Don’t get me wrong. In the hands of a skilful practitioner, the first person does all that the gurus promise. It’s just that it’s not often in those hands, and the voice of this first person, unless the character is meant to be a wannabe novelist with a penchant for purple prose, is all too often crashingly inauthentic.
But I digress. Iain Banks (below), the brilliant Scottish writer, has a lot to answer for. Ever since his wonderful novel, “The Crow Road” began with the immortal first line, “It was the day my grandmother exploded”, critics, publishers and agents have demanded fireworks right from the off. In that book, it was bold, refreshing, innovative and exhilarating. In the hands of lesser exponents it is simply cliched and desperate. Everyone has been told they have to do it. The first 3 chapter submission requirement underlines that. And so, all books have to follow the same pattern.
How sad! How reductive! How depressing! Like virtually all rules of writing, it’s unhelpful and misleading. If that’s what your book needs, then go for it. But don’t do it because some guide to writing told you to. And if your book needs an opening that is a leisurely unfolding, with space to breathe and think, then be brave enough to do that. The real fireworks are those that aggregate from your deliberate, mindful laying out of a setting, a situation, characters and a dilemma and then, come with a joyful rush at the end.
The real dilemma here is that this approach takes us perilously close to a knee jerk dismissal of all advice, all criticism, all agents. And in the relentless pursuit of publication, it is all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that agents are just cynical manipulators, who care nothing for fiction or creativity, and are simply obsessed with the question, “Can I see this book selling shedloads of copies?” One of the key lessons to learn when dipping your toe into the shark-infested waters of publishing, is that to stand any chance of being recognised, you have to develop the capacity to take criticism with good grace. Ninety percent of it is accurate and helpful, no matter how sharp the sting.
But sometimes, you have to say no. It may not get you past an agent’s rejection pile, but if you don’t believe in the text, then it won’t go much further than the second hurdle. If you think your book needs a leisurely unfolding, it probably does. Sometimes, the budding writer knows more than the established agent. But only sometimes.
If you liked this blog try my novel, Zero Tolerance, available from the link below:
Or, if you prefer Children’s Fantasy adventure, try The Watcher and The Friend, available from the link below:
How what we read always bubbles up into what we write, even when we aren’t aware it’s happening
A guest appearance in the blog today from children’s author, R J Barron, writing about the links between his new novel, The Watcher and The Friend and the work of Joan Aiken, in particular, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. The connections between what we read and what we write, even years later, are mysterious and powerful. Read on for more
In the first part of this blog, I wrote about my serendipitous discovery, over many years, as a teacher and a parent, of Aiken and the Wolves Chronicles. Here, I’m going to look at the links between her wonderful books and my own children’s debut, “The Watcher and The Friend”.
It wasn’t until much later, after my book was written, that I realised the connection. Even when my editor had explicitly asked me about the inspiration, and the books I would compare it with, I did not come up with “Wolves of Willoughby Chase”. Budding writers will be familiar with this part of the process. Agents are thinking about selling, marketing, promoting. And that leads them to think about genre. What other books is your book like, so we can directly appeal to lovers of those books in the hope that they will give your book a punt? I said Narnia (The Grandfather Clock) His Dark Materials (parallel world, moral dilemmas, emerging feelings between young protagonists), Thomas Kempe (ghostly messages written across time and space). And it’s true, there is a connection between all of those books and my own. Originality is a very overrated quality in my opinion. Everything is connected, and ideas breed other ideas. The Jim Jarmusch quote is a useful guide here: “Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent.” In other words, whatever you steal, make it your own. If you’re alive in the world, it’s impossible to produce something original. You’d have to lock yourself away for a lifetime to achieve that, like a jury in a murder trial. And for what? Instead, we should celebrate the connections between our own work and that of others, even connections that have emerged from the sub-conscious.
And the sub-conscious was exactly where my ideas lurked, in the shadows, skulking. But now they are out, wide-eyed and blinking in the sunlight, the connections are perfectly clear to me. Here they are:
In Aiken’s novels, the strength of the parallel world she creates is the fact that England’s real history has been tweaked only very slightly, as if an acetate copy has slipped on top of the original. The effect is disconcerting. The reader feels as if they are standing on shifting sand and everything, including the things we take for granted, has to be re-assessed, re-evaluated in some way. The power comes not from the precision of the words themselves, but the suggestions held by the white spaces in between the words. Everything seems to be at once familiar and strange at the same time.
The time shift in “The Watcher and The Friend” is different. At first it appears that Tom has simply gone back in time, to the Runswick bay and North York Moors of 1795. The clue first appears in Tom’s reaction to historical England, as we are told that there was something not quite right about it, something he couldn’t put his finger on, but which jarred, or irritated like a tiny pebble in one’s shoe. The reason he couldn’t work out what it was the fact that it was something so familiar to someone who lives in South London in the early twenty first century – the absolute diversity of the population. All kinds of people from all over the world, living relatively harmoniously together. This state of diversity and equality is extended in The Watcher to all groups – women hold positions of power, same sex relationships are commonplace and so not worthy of comment. As we subsequently learn from an amused Silas Cummerbund, Tom has journeyed not to England in 1795, but to Yngerlande, a parallel world, also in 1795, where there is perfect equality. There has been no history of Empire, colonisation or slavery, and therefore power relations have not developed in the same toxic way as in our own world.
Settings – Country side and weather
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase appears to be set in a mini ice age, with permanent ice and snow serving as a perfect backdrop to the wolf packs that are terrorising the country. This is very deliberately echoed in The Watcher and The Friend. One early chapter, The Frozen North sets an atmosphere that can be so powerful in children’s fiction, and descriptions of snow, in both countryside and “Georgian” towns and villages, are used to provide an atmosphere that is both beautiful and harshly challenging. For many children in the UK, apart from those who live in remote areas in the hills, snow is an unfamiliar occurrence and one which is mainly evocative of classic children’s books read or films (such as the Harry Potter series) seen. It’s a powerful motif of adventure, something that is both thrillingly beautiful and to be escaped from at the same time. The escape from a snow bound forest, and its attendant dangers, into a domestic setting with food and warmth and closed doors, fulfils a most basic human desire for security.
In The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, the early escape back to the big house after being pursued by wolves that descend from the hills into the estate is a key example of this. Lucy’s encounter with Mr Tumnus in The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe is another. In The Watcher, such snowy scenes of pursuit and escape play a significant role in the novel: in the wolf attack on the lonely snowy roads across the Moors to the coast; the scene where Della, Tom, Dan and Clara emerge from the smugglers’ tunnels high up on the top of the Moors, to encounter a group of Redcoats who have tracked them down in a thick, snowy forest; and the snowy streets of York on Christmas Eve, thronged with Redcoats nervously on guard outside the Queen’s Christmas Ball in The Assembly Rooms. All of these echo Aiken’s deployment of memorable settings to create a strong and vivid sense of place.
Creatures – Wolves, Steedhorns and Steedwings
The combination of a parallel world and a historic setting allows the writer to give full vent to their imagination as far as reality is concerned. Creatures that come from old folk and fairy tales naturally inhabit this land. The archaic setting gives permission for imagination to flourish. These creatures are surely the kind of things that would have existed in this strange alternative universe. Aren’t they?
And so, very real and very frightening wolves, are joined in my book by Unicorns (or Steedhorns, as Yngerlande terms them) and flying horses (Steedwings). Not the sickly pink, disneyfied versions. No, these creatures are large and rough and shaggy, with brown coats and matted hair. The Steedhorns are commonplace and considered a pest by the local farmers, because of the damage they do to crops and the environment whereas the Steedwings are rarely seen and thought by most people to be the stuff of old tales.
In Aiken’s version of England the same cast of wild and fierce animals are present as a source of danger: primal, terrifying, ancient in the shape of the packs of wolves that roam the countryside with a careless lack of fear as far as human beings are concerned. Casual references to bears abound, along with flocks of sheep, (rescued from the slaughterhouse) a pink whale and many individual creatures that tag along after Simon, a prototype eco warrior, years ahead of his time, is the future King of England with an uncanny affinity with animals of all kinds. For children, animals in fiction are both a blameless repository of affection, and an echo of an ancient wilder world than their own. Aiken taps into this unerringly – perhaps she was an animal lover herself?
Strong female characters
Dido Twite is possibly Aiken’s greatest creation. Missing presumed drowned in the North Sea at the end of Black Hearts in Battersea, she reappears mysteriously at the beginning of the next book in the series, Nightbirds to Nantucket, on board a whaler headed towards the Newfoundland coast. The story of her rescue does not detain the reader for more than a paragraph or so and no-one who has read Black Hearts needs to know more than that, so delighted are they that Dido has returned. The legend has it that readers were distraught at the end of Black Hearts at the thought that Dido might have died and wrote to Aiken begging for her resurrection. I love the fact that this was not part of a grand plan on behalf of the author but instead it emerged at the behest of her readers. Proof again that reading is a social act of reconstruction for each individual, and that once a writer has let their work go, it no longer belongs to them, but has an independent life of its own, being constantly regenerated every time it is read afresh. And once Aiken had been diverted down that path by her readers, a whole warren of paths and turnings sprang up that had not been envisaged when The Wolves of Willoughby Chase was being planned. This is the very nature of the writer’s imagination. The act of writing begets deeper, richer, better writing; better than could ever have been planned, no matter how meticulous the creator.
The Dido that returns does not disappoint. Feisty, independent, brave, loyal, she brings a young, and as yet unjaundiced, eye on the idiocies of the adult world. The book sings whenever she is on the page, not least because of Aiken’s fabulous inventiveness in terms of Dido’s language. Even without speech tags or description, the character is immediately identifiable through her dialogue alone. Croopus! What a creation!
Like Aiken’s books, the most important characters in The Watcher are female, despite the fact the protagonist, Thomas Trelawney, is a thirteen year-old boy. As well as a group of younger female characters (Tom’s sister Grace, the mysterious girl Clara, who trails stars in her wake, Della Honeyfield, the dashing coachdriver and her partner Dr Amelia Church) the book paints a positive portrait of an older woman, Mary Carruthers. As Silas Cummerbund tells Tom early in the book, “With age comes wisdom, Thomas. Most of the old women I know are fearsomely clever, and the world would be a better place if people listened to them a bit more often. Your world and mine.”
A world under threat – plots and rescues
First and foremost, The Watcher, like the Wolves Chronicles, is an adventure, an entertainment. The story carries important messages about the world we live in, but the book stands or falls on the story alone. If the reader is not engaged, no message of any kind, no matter how pressing and relevant it is, will have any purchase. In the alternative history that underpins the stories of the Wolves chronicles, the ongoing struggle for power of the Hanoverians versus the Jacobeans provides much of the drama of the plots. Revolution, counter revolution, plots hatched and foiled ( usually at the last minute), hiding places, treachery, chases, discoveries – all of these regularly punctuate the pages of the novels in a breathless chase towards a final resolution. They are exciting adventures and readers turn the pages eager to experience the next twist or turn.
And so it is with The Watcher, I hope. I make no claims by this comparison – it’s up to readers to respond. I’m just struck, after the event, of a similar technique, a similar structure that underpins my book. In The Watcher, Yngerland in 1795 is a diverse, tolerant society. The only hierarchy is that generated by money. Apart from that, all “minority” groups are treated with equal respect and have an equal place in society with equal status. It serves as a model for our own world, particularly when it comes under attack. The “old Guard” – white rich landowners, with the figurehead of the grandson of a King who had been deposed many years earlier – secretly try to mount a coup against the Queen, Matilda, a black woman who represents everything they despise. The old guard want to preserve their interests, establish their privilege and consign all other groups to servitude. The Watcher, The Reverend Silas Cummerbund, has an ancient role of guarding the portal between Yngerlande and England, and working together with the new “Friend”, Thomas, they work to foil the plot. Their struggle to save Yngerlande involves wolf attacks, invisible ghosts, chases through smugglers tunnels, capture in dank cellars and flight across a snowbound North York Moors, all against a background of a snowy five days in the run up to Christmas. They succeed, of course, winning this first battle, but the war is clearly not over.
This blog has been a musing on connectedness and intertextuality. If you’re a teacher, a reader or a writer, I hope you’ve got some inspiration from this reaffirmation of how important children’s fiction is and how what you read as a child resonates down the years. I loved writing The Watcher (and I’m looking forward to the next four volumes in the series) and it’s clear to me now that the enjoyment I derived was in part down to the pleasure I had had years before in reading Joan Aiken’s books. If you haven’t read them, let me enthusiastically encourage you to begin. You have a treat in store. And as a writer taking the first faltering steps towards a readership, it would be remiss of me not to encourage you to do the same with my Aiken-inspired first children’s novel, The Watcher and The Friend. See if you can spot the connections as clearly as I now do myself.
If you’re interested in The Watcher and The Friend, try a lttle more. Click the links below either to read the first few chapters, or, even better, to buy a copy.