This debut novel by Sunderland writer Jessica Andrews won the Portico Prize for fiction in 2020, an award explicitly about representations of The North. As an exiled Northerner, and a North -Easterner like her at that, the idea has a lot of traction for me. The North is a different country, even in these days of the crumbling Red Wall, and is generally either underrepresented or misunderstood. The other pull of the novel is that it is about a working-class woman’s experience of university education, of moving away from her Sunderland home to live and study in London, and her struggles to adapt to a very different set of people, with different assumptions, beliefs and values.
Even in 2021, literary representations of working-class life are as rare as hen’s teeth (Shuggie Bain a notable recent exception), so a new one like this is to be welcomed. What makes it even more special is that it’s so good. So very good. The novel is structured to tell the story of Lucy in three distinct parts: her upbringing in the North East, with family connections in Ireland, her experiences in London as a student, and her flight back to Ireland, undertaken as an escape when the contradictions of her two worlds become too difficult to handle. It’s a first person narrative, but unlike so many examples of that most fashionable of styles, it is expertly done. The first person voice is authentically that of the character, not of a literate and well-educated author, and it takes us to the heart of the matter. That is what it is usually intended to do, but so often it fails miserably.
The three separate story strands are intertwined, and the reader has to do a lot of work to untangle them. In the same way, there is the usual obliqueness that is de rigeur in contemporary literary fiction. (Heaven forbid that anyone should ever just tell a linear story any more. Now that would be truly shocking) Sometimes that technique is tiresome and serves only to make rather dull material (characters, relationships, settings, themes, incidents) a little bit more interesting because as a reader you are transformed into something of a detective. An absence of anything as old fashioned as a plot is replaced by the efforts of the reader to discover a story for themselves. Very often the effort of textual sleuthing isn’t worth the effort for what is eventually uncovered, but here, nothing could be further from the truth. The melange of techniques works beautifully, and embellishes the story, makes it more vivid and meaningful. There’s a poetic sensibility at work in Andrews’ exquisite prose which is by turns spare, rich and luminous. It gives the material, clearly rooted in autobiography, a sparkle such that at times it sings off the page. The technique of intertwining the stories is interesting as well, with a little touch of Kerouac in it. Apparently, Andrews wrote three entirely separate stories, printed them off and then cut them up and spread them around the floor of her house before experimenting with the sequence. Who needs a word processor?
The end result is a debut novel that is a shimmering triumph. Working class alienation via education is an old theme of the post war years, but here it is transformed into a thing of beauty. Andrews is clearly someone we will be hearing more of in the future. Personally, I can’t wait for her next one.
Lockdown is the mother of invention, or so it seems. In the long, idle hours generated by Covid and Retirement, there has been ample opportunity to hone a new set of skills. The main insight I have gained after being out of the English classroom for the first time since 1982, is that the thing that I miss the most, the essence of English teaching is reading a great book or a poem aloud to a classroom full of kids. And so, I present the results, via my two new ventures, The View from the Great North Wood Youtube channel, and the Telling Stories Podcast. Indulge me, and think of this as therapy for someone still grieving.
Both ventures are straight out of the “Sniffin’ Glue” school of publishing, that is, rough and ready, with an unmistakeable aroma of punk. In those days, we were all just encouraged to get it down while it was hot. To pick up a guitar and learn two chords (who needed more? Patti Smith famously used just one, brilliantly) and start to thrash. To type, cut and paste (with scissors!) and xerox it.
So with that in mind, dive in. But be kind. And, don’t hold back from subscribing and spreading the word.
Anna had always looked forward to September. Even as a child, the prospect of the new school year, with its pristine uniform, books and equipment, promised the chance of a new start, when anything was possible. The same feeling still buoyed her now as a teacher, even though the new start always turned sour all too quickly, and she knew that disappointment was never too far away.
This year, it felt to her that the promise of a clean page was even more important than usual. As she busied herself with her new pens and stationery, and began to lay out her clothes for the first day back the next day, she struggled to hold down her rising feelings of anxiety. Although the return to class was daunting after six weeks away, it did at least mean that she would get out of the flat and away from Tom for a time. He needed some time and space and six weeks cooped up together in a small flat had pushed him towards the edge. She knew it was her fault and she needed to loosen up a little, but she was sure work would help.
Her anxiety was divided equally between Tom and Anthony Gordon. She had heard the horror stories in the staffroom about Anthony’s attitude and behaviour. Seemingly continually on the verge of furious, violent eruptions, he was particularly bad, apparently, with female members of staff. Ever since she had discovered that he was going to be in her Year 9 class, back in July, a seed of worry had lodged itself in her mind. By the time she arrived at the night before the first teaching day of the Autumn term, it had grown to the size of a Giant Redwood. She had managed the two evenings before the first INSET days, but now before the first real day with children and timetables and teaching lessons and duties, its branches twisted everywhere in her head and she could not get to sleep for worry. Tom hadn’t helped. As she tossed and turned in bed, she thought back to earlier in the evening, when Tom had lingered at the doorway of her study, fiddling with his watch. Anna did not look up from her desk.
“Anna, come on. We’ve got to be there in 15 minutes. I’ve been telling you for the past hour.”
She glanced up, distracted.
“What? Oh, sorry Tom. I don’t think I can come, I’ve got to finish all of this off, and I’ve still got hours to go.”
Tom’s face was thunderous.
“You are joking, I presume. I can’t just show up on my own. Just leave it, you need to get out anyway. It’ll be good for you.”
She shook her head. “No, I’m sorry Tom, I’m worried about tomorrow. You go on your own. You’ll have a better time without me.”
“It’s just a job, for God’s sake. The kids you teach are all no-hopers anyway It doesn’t make any difference what you do. You’re wasting your time.”
She looked as if he had slapped her across the face.
He cut across her. “Is it always going to be like this? Christ Anna, don’t be such a martyr and have some fun, while you still can.”
She tried again. “But..”
“Oh, forget it. Don’t wait up.”
He turned and slammed the door.
She could still feel the vibration echoing through the flat as she recalled the scene, lying in bed unable to sleep. She reached across for her phone. No messages. 2 am. Where was he?
Anthony, on the other side of town, could also not get to sleep. He was not used to sleeping in a proper bed with a duvet that covered him for one thing. And for another, he was excited about going back to school. It was the first time in his life he could remember having new uniform and equipment. Unable to bear it a moment longer, he swung his legs out from underneath the thick covers that were swamping him, and went over to his desk. His desk! Another novelty that made him constantly look over at it, as if to check that it was still there and someone had not discovered a mistake and had come to take it away. He handled his pencil case and calculator, and flicked through his new dictionary, trying out some of the new words for size.
His finger traced down the edge of the page as he sounded the words one at a time.
“ Stab – pierce, wound with pointed weapon. Hmm. Stability – firmly fixed or established. Not easily moved or changed or destroyed. Stamina – endurance, staying power. Status – social position, rank, relation to others.”
He stopped and looked around the room, picking out objects from the deep shadows that cloaked them. Bed. Wardrobe. Computer. Games. Posters on the wall. Maybe it would be different this time. Maybe his Dad had really changed and they could all stay together in this flat and everything would be alright. Maybe his Mum would be proud of him and school would ring home with good news for a change. Maybe…
Thirty yellow buds blossomed cream as 9C opened their exercise books to the first page.
“OK Year 9. Can you put today’s date and the title please, and underline both of those things neatly?”
“What’s the title, Miss?” came a shout from the middle of the room, closely followed by, “What date is it today, Miss?”
“Date and title are on the Whiteboard. I’m not expecting you to be mind readers, you know.”
A couple of the sharper kids raised their heads and smiled up at her, a few looked puzzled and looked around, while the silent majority ploughed on, oblivious to the joke that had just sailed over their heads. Anna surveyed the class, judging when to move on.
“Ok, everyone let’s just get the rules clear from day one. If you all know what’s expected, no-one will get into trouble, and your work will improve. Or that’s the intention, at any rate. So, rule number one..”
She clicked the powerpoint and began to talk through the first rule as it appeared on the screen. The class copied it down in silence. The clock ticked and Anna covered the room, her heels clicking on the hard lino floor. A cloud of concentration gathered above their heads. She already felt the first day of term nerves drain away, the minute she had started to project her voice to this first class. It was the same every year and she laughed at herself inwardly over the time she had wasted in the last few days, worrying about the starting the new year.
After twenty minutes the task was done and Anna could move on to her first real task.
“OK, everyone, pens down please and look this way. Now, I’ve never taught this class before so we don’t know each other. The first thing we are going to do is to think about how English and school in general has been for each of us since we started a couple of years ago, and what we would like to achieve this year and by the time we leave school for good..”
She was off. Instructions came easily and the lesson plan, the product of agonised hours, dissolved as instinct took over. A brief explanation and setting up, some questions fielded and a five minute group discussion with feedback to the whole class (that had caused a deep breath before launching in to it) had come and gone, expertly managed, and almost before she knew it, the writing task had been set up and the entire class were back working individually, writing their letters of introduction to her, their new teacher.
Ten minutes in, she stood back and surveyed the room. The concentration was almost painful. She had patrolled the room, reading over shoulders, fielding questions, making suggestions, correcting mistakes, and now she wallowed in the pleasure of watching the class visibly get cleverer in front of her eyes. Where was the performance management observer when you needed them? Or the OFSTED inspector?
She looked in the direction of the question and just controlled her frown in time. Anthony Gordon had his hand up. He had been surprisingly perfect up to that point: immaculate uniform, immediately following instructions without question, responsible participation in the group discussion. It was almost as if he had been taking the piss. But now, the honeymoon was over. He’d done well, but it was too much to expect him to keep this up right to the end of the lesson. She flashed a smile at him as she moved over to his side of the room.
“Yes, Anthony?” she asked.
“Miss, can you read this to see if it’s alright?”
She hesitated, expecting this to be the first line of an elaborate setup, with her as the butt of the joke. Her eyes flicked around the room. No, there were no supressed sniggers, no furtive glances, nothing. The whole class had heads bent to their work, absorbed. She looked back to Anthony who was waiting patiently.
“Sorry Anthony, just coming”
She navigated the tables and reached out to pick up his book. She scanned it quickly, already rehearsing the bland, standard reply of encouragement she would give before moving off, before she stopped, a frown creasing her face. She read it again. She looked again at Anthony, who shifted uncomfortably in his seat. His face fell.
“It’s crap, innit, Miss?” he mumbled, and reached out to grab the book back from her.
“Anthony, it’s great. This is the best piece of writing you’ve done. You’ve got the tone just right. And some of your expression is just beautiful.”
He looked a little confused. “Really, Miss, it’s alright? You sure?”
“Anthony, it’s more than alright, its excellent. Well done.”
A smile spread across his face and he seemed to blossom in front of her.
“How are you going to carry on?”
“I’m not sure, Miss. I’m a bit stuck.”
“Well, you need to go on to, give some examples of the things you’ve mentioned. Anecdotes. And maybe you could use a few rhetorical questions in the next section.”
She bent down over his table, placing the exercise book back in place and on a separate sheet of paper began to write.
“Something like this,” she said, as she wrote out a few sentences. “Have a go, see how you get on.”
She straightened up. He smiled at her.
“Thanks, Miss” he said before bending back down towards his book.
Anna threaded her way back through the grid of tables to the front of the class, and surveyed the group. Perfect, humming concentration pulsed in the room. It was all she could do not to laugh out loud. A girl at the front looked up at that moment.
“What’s up, Miss? What’s funny? You look very happy.”
“Nothing, Kirsty. Let’s get back to work please. Another five minutes”
She began to circulate around the tables, looking over shoulders at their writing, scanning the room for issues. She approached Anthony’s table and found herself just behind him when the quiet in the room was disturbed by his hissed exclamation.
All heads looked up and searched the room for the culprit and there was the beginnings of a group giggle rolling across the room.
“Anthony! There’s really no need for that kind of language.”
“Huh? Oh sorry Miss, it just came out. I’ve messed it all up.”
He lifted his book half up and grabbed the corner of the page with his right hand.
Anna reached out and grabbed the book away from him.
“No, no, no. Don’t tear the page out, Anthony, you’ll ruin all that work.”
“It’s already ruined, Miss. Look at it.”
She lowered her voice, and softened her tone.
“It’s not ruined, Anthony, you just made a mistake, that’s all.”
“I always make mistakes, though Miss.”
She laughed. “So does everyone. Mistakes are nothing to be worried about Anthony. Just cross it out with a single line and correct it. Then you can carry on and add to what you’ve already done.”
“But it’ll look crap, Miss. I don’t want crossings out all over it. I always muck it up.”
“I’ll tell you a secret Anthony. Examiners love crossing out. It’s a sign of an intelligent student. Someone who knows they’ve got something wrong and who has tried to do something about it. If you ripped out the page every time you made a mistake, you would never, ever finish.”
He looked puzzled as he tried to process this information. Anna gently laid the book back down on his table. Keeping one hand on it so he couldn’t snatch it again, she pointed at the mistake.
“Look, it’s easy. You just draw a single line through what you got wrong, like this..” She modelled the crossing out, her red pen neatly scoring through a misspelling. “Don’t scribble it, that will look messy. Just a single line and then put your correction next to it. See.”
Anthony’s face moved from puzzled through disgruntled and ended in reluctant acceptance. He bent his head back down to his work and the final minutes of the lesson passed in silent concentration.
“Yeah, it was amazing, he just kept on writing. I was, like, expecting him to kick off all lesson, but there wasn’t a flicker. It was like teaching a different kid, honestly…”
She paused and glanced over at Tom, who was intently scrolling on his phone.
“Are you even listening to me Tom? Jesus, you’re so rude. You don’t take any interest in my work. You could at least pretend.”
There was a delay as he finished and then he looked up.
“I was listening for the first fifteen minutes. And then I wasn’t.”
“You really don’t care, do you?”
“For god’s sake, it’s just a job. Do you even know what I do? When do you have to listen to me going on about my job. You’re so fucking boring these days. You didn’t used to be like this.”
He stood up abruptly.
“Never mind. I’m going out for some peace.”
He lunged at her and grabbed her throat, pinning her to the high-backed chair.
“Shut up!” he screamed, “Just shut the fuck up.”
He pushed her back against the chair and stormed out, slamming the door violently behind him. Anna slumped back on her chair, her hand to her neck, stunned. And then the tears came.
Anthony crouched at his desk, rigid, his pen gripped tightly above his exercise book. Another shout, another crash of something heavy against the wall, another strangled whimper from his mother. He flinched at each sound, slumping lower towards the desk top beaten down by every noise. He remained frozen, breath caught in fear, waiting for the noise he knew was coming next. The sound that always signalled respite, a brief passage of calm before the next time. The door duly slammed, after a final volley of abuse, and as the vibration settled slowly into stillness, his shoulders came down and a weary peace descended on the room.
He sat frozen, not daring to go out of his room for fear of what he might find. His ears strained for some sign to cut through the noise of distant traffic and an intermittent gusting wind. And then he heard his mother moving around and the sound of cupboards opening and closing. She was alright and he could stay where he was, safe and quiet.
He looked down at his book, at the sentence he had stared at for the previous fifteen minutes while mayhem had swirled around in the room outside.
“In the future, I’d like to work as a professional gamer, and have a nice house and family, where my mum and dad can come and visit.”
He thought for a second and was just about to add a last sentence when the door burst open and his mother stared him, wild-eyed. The bruise around her eye and cheek bone was ripening as she spoke
“Anthony. Come on. Pack up what you need. We’ve got to leave.”
She tossed a battered blue IKEA bag onto the floor in front of him.
“Back to the Refuge. Come on, we need to be quick.”
She went back out to collect her stuff. Anthony automatically began to bundle his clothes and a few books into the bag. He had done it several times before and it barely registered with him, thinking he would probably have to do it again some time in the future. He took a final look around his room, grabbed his exercise book from the desk, stuffed it into the bag, and turned out the light.
Anna sat in the darkness of her flat, scrolling through the messages on her phone. The dim blue glare sparkled in the tear tracks on her cheeks and softened the red rims and smudged mascara. He wasn’t coming back, that much was clear. He wasn’t picking up and had left no indication where he might be staying. Another woman, obviously, she thought bitterly. Someone who had the dinner on the table and didn’t have the audacity to talk about her own life and feelings and worries.
When she had got back from school that Monday she knew as soon as she walked through the door that he had gone. The gaps on their shelves confirmed it. He had come back when she had been at work, gathered up his stuff and removed it all, so no trace was left, without even telling her.
She slumped down at the kitchen table, and swung her school bag, stuffed with marking, with a heave on top of the table in front of her. It thudded down and spilled the first few books, spreading like a hand of cards. She looked fondly at them, so new, so clean, so full of hope. She had been convinced that this September everything was going to be different. A new start, a new her. She would manage everything and be the woman that she knew she could be. Having it all. Juggling competing demands. In control. But it only takes one ball to veer slightly off course and a chain reaction starts, that no matter how frantically you tried to keep it going, inevitably ends with everything crashing.
She wiped her eyes and blew her nose, collecting her resolve to keep on going. Reaching out to the books that had fanned out in front of her, she chose the one that was a little grubbier than the rest. Dog-eared and stained, the name on the front provoked a ghost of a smile. Anthony Gordon. At least he had made a fresh start, if only until the end of the first week. He hadn’t been seen since then and rumours had flown around the staffroom about the police and social services being involved. But now his book had magically appeared in her pile.
She switched on the side lamp, and opened the book, illuminated in a warm, yellow cone of light. As she read, flicking through the pages, her smile froze and then disappeared altogether. He had written three pages, the most he had ever achieved. There were careful crossings out and corrections made but the pages had all been crossed out, each line like an angry slash, almost penetrating the surface of the paper. The last page hung where it had been partially ripped out. Anthony had scrawled a new title, “My Future”, complete with a parody of underlining, free hand, red and jagged. Underneath, in capital letters, he had scratched simply, “I AINT GOT ONE”.
A cold wind moaned outside her kitchen window. She shivered. September was already halfway through and soon October would be here. Winter was coming.
This summer’s literary sensation is just a Netfix mini-series in waiting.
Twitter has been agog all year, or so it seems, about this book from first time novelist, Delia Owens. It firmly established itself as the book to read this year, and in normal summers, it would have furnished many a beach bag as the go-to holiday read. I was intrigued. Could it really be that good? Or was it just the latest example of marketing triumphing over substance? There was only one way to settle it and, firmly behind the curve, I bought it and settled down with a raised eyebrow, waiting to be convinced.
Unfortunately, dear reader, I was not. Convinced that is.
There is a lot to admire and enjoy about it. I finished it in three days, for a start. So, yes, it’s a page turner, and in my book, that is a powerful attraction. It’s an often under-appreciated skill to load a narrative with so much forward momentum that it’s easy to read seventy pages without really noticing it. Normally, even with books that I end up loving, I can be persuaded to break for a cup of coffee and a biscuit after twenty pages or so. It’s hard work reading and one needs to keep one’s strength up. But here the scenario, setting and characters are so well set up, structurally, that I found myself engrossed in wanting to know what actually happened.
Probably the most admirable thing about it is the fact that the author is a Seventy year old Biologist, whose only other foray into publishing has been Biology text books. A first novel becoming an international best seller is something that the rest of us mere mortals can only dream about. As an aspiring novelist of a certain age, depressingly familiar with the Publisher’s/Agent’s rejection email, this is a phenomenal achievement. So, notwithstanding the criticisms about to follow, I take my hat off to her.
Her intimate knowledge of Biology furnishes the book with its greatest strength. It’s a beautiful portrait of a wild eco system. There is a fabulous sense of place in the book. The coastal strip of North Carolina marsh land is vividly evoked by someone who clearly knows what they are talking about. This is, refreshingly, not the product of painstaking research, but the result of a lifetime of work and study. She knows her stuff and that sense of authority is absolutely convincing and compelling.
The Whodunnit, Crime element of the book is also very well done, (at least until the end) and she handles the switching back and forth from the past to the present very skilfully, creating tension and adding layers of detail to characters and relationships. There is some sense of satisfaction from the court room scene at the end, with the orderly presentation of prosecution and defence questions and their answers providing some welcome kind of resolution and clarification. The court room scene, of course, has haunting echoes of “To Kill A Mockingbird”, even down to the presence of the marginalised black families in the courtroom. I expected Scout and Jem to pop up at any moment. Kya Clark, the main protagonist, though white, is the victim of prejudice and suspicion by the mainstream community, and her main support and friends throughout her isolation were the elderly black couple, Jumpin’ and his wife Mabel. This Maycomb County type atmosphere resonates throughout the novel. For the most part, it’s another of the pleasures of the book, but like so many things, it’s not an unqualified triumph. There is a straining for this effect, a trying too hard. There are only so many times you can describe the eating and making of Grits, for example, before it becomes faintly ludicrous.
The court room scene, despite its satisfactions, is an opportunity missed. Too plain, too straightforward, with nothing on the same scale as Atticus’ forensic reveal of Tom Robinson’s left-handedness. I got the strong sense, that, like many first-time novelists, by the end Owens had run out of steam, and was just going through the motions. The “twist” right at the end is the least dramatic denouement in the history of murder mysteries. Not because of what is revealed, but the way in which Owens chooses to do it. It’s baldly described, with no character interplay, and the result is deflation. For me, a big “So what?” I’m afraid.
A few other gripes from the grinch. The notion of the main character, Kya, pulling herself out of her poverty stricken, school-refusing, backwoods abandonment, to become a highly literate published writer just wasn’t credible to me. I was willing to suspend my disbelief a little, to give myself to the novel, but I couldn’t sustain it I’m afraid. The two emblematic boys in Kya’s life, Nice Boy and Bad Boy, were similarly two dimensional and also had me running my disbelief down from the flagpole in annoyance.
And then there’s the poetry. Give me strength. It’s not that the poetry is so dreadful, it’s just that there’s far too much of it, and, again, it strains credibility that anyone one in the known universe would recite poems in response to things that happen to them as they mosey their way through the Mangrove to the beach.
As I was reading it, even in my enjoyment, I could imagine Reece Witherspoon rubbing her hands together with glee, cackling, “I wonder if we could get Gwyneth in this and maybe Bobbie May Brown to play Kya.” It’s absolutely set up to be the next “Big Little Lies” or “Little Fires Burning”. And it will probably be a much better Netflix mini-series than book.
So, there you have it. For all of you that read it, devoured it, enjoyed it and eulogised about it on Twitter, I’m sorry. Please don’t take this the wrong way. I’m not saying that you’re wrong or stupid. It just didn’t speak to me. That’s my Bad. There’s precious little enough pleasure in these COVID Neo Fascist times, so I’m glad you found some in this and wish that I had too. Now, let me just get back down to writing an international best seller. How hard can it be?
Some people say,
If only these kids read more Shakespeare
Or even saw a production or two
At The Globe.
That, and maybe listening to a bit of Mozart and a trip to a gallery
To worship at the temple of Art,
Would make all the difference. Even Tate Modern would do, at a pinch.
They deserve it, really.
Culture, that is. It’s just not fair to abandon them
To their parents, who were
Abandoned in their turn.
So we cannot blame them. Not really.
Others, well meaning, no doubt,
Talk of Stormzy and Assassin’s Creed
Of Mice and Men and Game of Thrones
As if they had the same worth.
But everybody knows that proper culture must be
Old and Hard, otherwise it does not count. It is not
Culture with a capital C.
It’s common sense.
It’s alright for them. They’ve got their exams already.
Missionaries in Africa did not agonise about their task to civilize,
But set to work to bring light to the darkness.
Not for them the liberal guilt that stalks us today
Or the righteous anger of The Woke
Now that Black Lives Matter.
But in between, where people live, culture is imbibed
Without thinking, like breathing in.
Like air, we need it to survive.
The air we breathe nurtures and sustains, whether its breeze stirs lush, clipped roses
Or scatters crisp packets in a grimy dance.
It is the same air.
It is the same culture.
It is ours, not theirs.
This is for all those teachers, of whatever stripe, that have ever held a class spellbound, and more particularly, for those English teachers who have ever read fiction aloud to a class of students. My very last thoughts on retirement, honest.
I have loved casting spells
In the gathering gloom of wet November Friday afternoons
As yellow lights held us all in a web of careful, bold words.
Thirty pairs of eyes wide and gleaming in the dusky, chalk-dusted corners.
Thirty breaths held in a cloud of concentration above our heads.
Yes, that was worth the whole shebang.
But I did not like
The Marking, that squatted on my life like a Toad.
There will come a time, on a wet November afternoon, when a pile of bruised and scribbled purple books might be the object of my wildest dreams.
But not yet.
Not for a long, long time.
And come September, when Summer’s warmth begins to fail and blistered leaves turn yellow,
I will watch the lines of scrubbed children laden with heavy bags,
Proceed to school with first day nerves, and think, with sadness and relief, that no bell summons me,
To cast the old spells
Afresh for them.
Is this the inevitable fate of the retired teacher on Twitter?
After this strange, extended hiatus, stretching back to March, the finishing tape looms into view. As I suspected a few months ago, I have already taught my last proper lesson. The last three years of part time English teaching, an enjoyable Indian summer in many ways, comes to an end next week as there are no hours available next year. Such is the lot of the part timer.
I can’t quite believe it’s all coming to an end. Just a couple of stories to wave it all goodbye. About 25 years ago, as an Assistant Head at the peak of my powers, we had an after school presentation from some insurance company and pensions. I think they were trying to flog AVCs or something. As part of his presentation, the rep got all the staff to stand up (it was a teaching staff event) and then asked people to sit down when he’d got to the age they would ideally like to retire. He started at fifty years old, which tells you how long ago it was, and worked through in five year intervals, thinning out the standers as he went. Towards the end (I forget now what age he had got to) there was a growing ripple of laughter around the audience and I looked around to share the joke. To my embarrassment, the joke was me! I was the last person standing and it became a standing joke at school that I was actually aiming for Death in Service.
Looking back now it seems extraordinary. But as a young man I absolutely loved my job and could not imagine not coming in to work to teach English and to develop whole school systems of assessment and CPD and all those other things that seemed so important at the time. But time does take is toll, and eventually energy drains away. Working as a member of SLT in “challenging” schools is hugely demanding and after a while, you find you have nothing left to give. I was very lucky in the sense that I never got to the point where I was dreading going into work and counting down the days to retirement. Retirement came out of the blue and was all the more of an enjoyable surprise for that. And then going back to a spot of part time teaching also sugared the pill for a few years.
But now, semi-retirement will turn in to proper retirement (with a bit of teacher training thrown in) and I can’t quite imagine what not being a teacher will be like. Since the age of five my life, like that of all teachers, has been governed by the rhythms of the agricultural calendar that the academic year shadows. September as a new beginning through to the long summer holiday to recharge the batteries before beginning again My thoughts have turned regularly in the last few weeks to how it all began, in an attempt to get some perspective and to close a bracket. Thirty Seven years ago, almost to the day, I had finished my PGCE and was wondering what was going to become of me. This was in the days of the great, much maligned (unfairly in my view) ILEA, when as soon as you qualified, your name went into the ILEA Pool and you could be offered a job in a school anywhere in Greater London.
One day in July, I was lounging around the living room of a shared house in Brixton, surveying the wreckage from a particularly wild evening of young person entertainment the night before, when the phone rang. It was County Hall. “Are you still looking for an English job, Mr X?”, came the question. When I confirmed that I was, he continued. “Can you get to School Y by 1pm?” I looked at my watch. I confirmed that, yes, indeed, I could do that. This was, of course, a lie. I had no idea where school Y was, but faint heart never won, etc etc.
I put the phone down and worked out that I had about 45 minutes to get ready and get to the school. My A-Z (ask your parents, youngsters) told me that the school was just up the hill. And then, with a sinking feeling, I remembered that my only pair of trousers were drying after a rare trip to the laundrette and I was lounging around in a pair of scabby Adidas shorts. Even I, an innocent in the ways of the corporate world, knew that that would not cut the mustard at an interview. Two minutes later I was on my bike, hammering down Brixton Hill for some emergency shopping. Morleys of Brixton (“South London’s West End store”) furnished me with an acceptable pair of black cords. I just had enough time to cycle back up the hill, get changed and get to the school by one. Until I put the cords on.
Disaster! They were far too long and unhemmed. My entire career hung in the balance and for a nano-second I considered not showing up. And then, the same amalgam of inspiration, winging it, and sheer effrontery that was to serve me so well as a teacher and then member of SLT, kicked in. Ten minutes later, I was sitting in the Head’s office for my interview. I can’t remember a thing about it now except for the memory of having my feet firmly tucked in as far under my seat as possible, so that no-one could see the line of shiny silver staples in a ring around the ends of each trouser leg. Emergency hemming to the rescue.
It was the last day of the Summer term and, as the interview was taking place, the staff were already gathered in the staffroom for the end of term jollies, desperately hoovering up warm white wine and twiglets to mark their successful survival for another year. I did not know it at the time, but I was the only candidate for the job and I would have been appointed even if I’d been bollock naked. In some ways when I look back on the last thirty seven years, I see now that this was my finest hour, the high water mark of my educational achievements.
So, what now? How can I continue to pontificate on Twitter about Teaching and Learning when I no longer teach? Will I turn in to the educational equivalent of Alan Shearer on Match of the Day, the ex- player boring everyone to death with his endless, blindingly obvious analysis? Or even worse, an Edu-Twitter version of Geoffrey Boycott, bemoaning how everything was better in the good old days and that young teachers today have got it all wrong. My ambition is to emulate Gary Lineker. Someone who used to be very good, is still a fan, is self -deprecating, a bit funny, and has some thoughtful insights to offer while not taking himself too seriously. Let’s see how that goes for a while.
And for all those of you I am leaving behind in the socially distanced classroom, I send my best wishes. Enjoy your privilege, for English teaching is the noblest profession. For me, it was a blast and I will miss it terribly.
This is the long-awaited second installment of Pullman’s trilogy, The Book of Dust, a sequence that revisits the fantasy parallel England of His Dark Materials. Anyone interested in children’s literature or the fantasy genre as a whole, will have been counting down the weeks until this release, such is the power of Pullman’s fictional world, and the impact that the original trilogy had when first published in 1995. Those original fans will soon be joined by a whole new group generated by the BBC adaptation of His Dark Materials which is set to air on Sunday November 3rd. The trailer certainly suggests that it will be a much more successful rendition than the ill-fated dog’s dinner that was the 2007 blockbuster starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. Not that that would be too difficult mind you.
So Pullman is hot stuff at the moment. But what about the book? Let’s just get a few things out of the way first. Pullman is A Great Writer. His Sally Lockhart novels are glorious confections of London Victorian adventure mysteries, with pea-soupers and coal stained brick warehouses on the banks of the filthy Thames. Those alone would guarantee his reputation. But it’s the first trilogy, His Dark Materials, that moves him into the ranks of the genuinely great. Engrossing, believable, moving, challenging, Pullman creates a parallel world that is both restrained and oddly familiar. He asks big questions about belief, orthodoxy, law and punishment and democracy. But perhaps his greatest achievement is the creation of his central protagonist, Lyra Belacqua, and his invention of the notion of the Daemon, an animal- like creature that everyone in this world has as a lifelong companion, a representation of the soul, the quintessence of the individual. Lyra is one the most memorable characters in children’s fiction. In all fiction. Appearing first as an eleven year old girl in a version of Oxford University, she is resilient, loyal, brave, intelligent, and without any trace of snobbery or prejudice about race, class or gender. And she is one half of one of the greatest love stories ever told.
The first instalment of The Book Of Dust, La Belle Sauvage,
featured Lyra as an infant, rescued from the baddies by Malcolm Polstead, an
eleven year old boy. The second book moves us on twenty years. Lyra is now an
undergraduate at Jordan College. Malcolm, is a University Lecturer. They both
become caught up in the struggle between the CDD, the repressive state police,
responsible for rigorously enforcing religious orthodoxy, and the liberal
resistance. The struggle centres around the control of the source of a
mysteriously powerful species of rose oil that is grown in the Levant (the
equivalent of Syria/Turkey) Pullman uses this to reflect upon contemporary
struggles between the West and the Islamic world, on the issues of religious
wars, refugees, terrorism, populism. It dies s through the vehicle of a journey
eastwards from Oxford, to the Middle East. The journey has all the elements of
the classic adventure story: the main protagonists are split up and are all on
separate quests to find themselves and to find solutions to their separate
problems. Their journeys allow Pullman to paint a vivid picture of exotic
lands, full of bazaars, train stations, cafes and markets, serially escaping
dangerous situations, only to fall into more dangerous situations. It’s
exciting and mostly well told. Pullman can still knock out a page turner.
But. This is not a children’s book. It’s complex, dealing with real world issues of politics and prejudice. It is quite adult at times, in its language and depiction of relationships. It’s very sophisticated in the way it handles the growing awareness of sexuality of Lyra, following on from The Amber Spyglass. The depiction of a near gang rape is genuinely disturbing. Pullman himself would I think be quite pleased with that verdict. He has been very reluctant himself to categorise his novels as being for children. And there is a strength in that, because it allows him to break free of the constraints imposed by genre. The worst crime Pullman commits, however, is that, at times it’s a little ….dull. The political wranglings of the Pullman equivalent of The Vatican are arcane and convoluted, and I’d be surprised if they held the attention of many children. Certainly not the ones I know nor the ones I have taught. And it suffers, above all else, from the curse of the established writer. It’s far too long.
Weighing in at over 700 pages, this is a book that wouldn’t have got past the first fence had he been an unknown. That first book has to be absolutely tightly- wrought, like a finely tuned piano. Not a spare word out of place, coming in at under 300 pages tops, the draconian guidelines of publishers and agents at least produce economy and crackle. They impose discipline as much as formulaic writing. Look what happens when you’ve made it. J K Rowling’s Harry Potter books just kept getting longer and longer as no-one would dare to suggest to the behemoth, Jo, maybe you need to rein it in a bit, love. One can only be grateful that she had only planned seven of them. If she had kept going, we would have been at over the thousand page mark by now, no question. The same applies here. And this, for all its strengths and joys, is a little flabby and baggy.
I’m sounding very negative. It’s still a wonderful book and he’s still a titanic writer. The return of the Great Love, at least in Lyra’s memory and regrets, and the beginnings of a new love to replace it, is fabulous. Even so, it’s only a four star member of his astonishing list of achievements. And when you’ve set the bar as high as he has, that’s a little disappointing. If you’re an English teacher, or you just love books, you still must read this. And hopefully, you’ll love it more than I did.
For much of my career I was a moderator for one of the big
exam boards for GCSE English and part of the job every October was to chair a
regional meeting of schools to go through a variety of agenda items to help
schools to prepare their students to successfully navigate the exams and
coursework (or controlled assessments) in the coming year. They were to learn
the lessons of the cohort just gone and a key weapon in the battle to teach
them those lessons was the Chief Examiner’s report, which distilled the main
messages from the national data. It was a hugely useful process and was largely
responsible for the year on year improvement in outcomes achieved by students.
(I’ll draw a tactful veil over the canny manipulation of the marking tolerances
and the blancmange-like rigour of the Speaking and Listening moderation that
also played a part. That is, perhaps, for another blog, when I’m feeling
Year after year the Chief Examiner banged on about the same
issues. Every year he identified what he saw as the game changer as far as
English Language results were concerned. Every year I reinforced this message
in the regional meeting. Every year I strove to enact this pearl of wisdom in
my own classroom. What was it, this Holy Grail of GCSE English teaching, this
elusive crock of gold at the end of the rainbow?
They look so simple, those two little words written down in
black and white. Simplistic, even, as a panacea for underachievement in GCSE
English. But behind those two little words lies struggle, pain, resistance,
frustration, anger, resentment, incomprehension, stretching back years. If you
are an English teacher who has ever tried to prepare a class for an upcoming
English Language examination, you will surely recognise the following scenarios.
Put simply, I have never, in any of the last 35 years,
introduced the concept of planning writing as a step to writing better, without
it being greeted by students in the same way that every group of teachers in a
training session respond to the prospect of Role Play. With horror. Without
fail, the following questions are asked and points raised:
I can’t plan. I don’t know how to.
I never follow the plan, Miss, so what’s the
Do you get marks for the plan?
Of course, as a fully paid up member of the liberal metropolitan elite, I have consistently delivered the standard, honest answer to this last question. That is, I have explained in painstaking detail that no, actually, no marks are awarded for the plan, but that writing that has been planned is always better than writing that has not. I’ve supplemented this with reference to the Chief Examiner’s report, sometimes going to the trouble of distributing copies of it, or in latter years, displaying the relevant section on the Whiteboard. This often leads to classic teacher sarcasm: “Of course, (insert student’s name), if you think that you know better than both myself and the actual Chief Examiner, who have been doing this stuff for over thirty years whereas you are barely out of nappies and have done the GCSE , let me see how many times is it? Oh yes, you’ve never done it have you? Then by all means go ahead and completely ignore our professional advice and just make it up as you go along and see what happens. This produces the following response, brutal in its logic:
So, I don’t really have to plan then?
On a couple of occasions, unable to bear this ridiculous
exchange another time, I just lied, and said, without skipping a beat, “Oh Yes,
of course you get marks for writing a plan.” Then I would put up with the
liberal guilt about ethical behaviour as a teacher before eventually going back
the original approach the following year, shamefaced.
Early doors, I used to be moved by the first of the examples
above, the idea that no-one had taught them to plan, so of course they would be
resistant. In this scenario, I could cast myself as the hero, who could save
the disadvantaged from their own lack of cultural capital by actually opening
the gate to the secret garden of middle-class academic knowledge and take them
through the basic steps of planning. This would inevitably furnish them with
the transferable skills that allowed them to structure their thinking and their
writing in English and every other academic discipline. And so, I devised over
time a series of imaginative approaches to planning, which resulted in this
terrible and embarrassing flowchart of the planning sequence:
It was surely only a matter of time before a lucrative book
contract landed on my hallway floorboards to be followed by a regular series of
training events based on a whizzy powerpoint presentation and a glossy
ringbinder. Fame and fortune awaited.
I would spend a few lessons on this, only to find when I
received the exam papers, that out of a class of thirty students, only three
had written a plan. Did I dream that sequence of lessons? Was I actually in the
room? Or was I just a shit teacher?
This pantomime carried on for years, surviving a range of
different approaches, none of which had any discernible impact on the students’
practice. In the end, it was one of the many things that had ossified in my
teaching, into another example of stuff that could be categorised as, “Oh well,
that’s just the way it is in reality.” I kept on doing the same stuff, even
though I knew it didn’t work. It was a tired recognition that teaching is a
difficult process of alchemy, and that sometimes we have to acknowledge the
limits of our influence. The best laid plans (no pun intended) and all of that.
And then, eventually, I retired, satisfied that, all things
considered, I had done a pretty good job over the previous thirty-five years.
Early in my retirement, I started to dabble with creative writing: short
stories, poems, novels. I reasoned that the excuse of being too busy just
didn’t hold water anymore, so I did a bit of internet research (a classic
delaying tactic this) and then sat in front of my laptop staring at the screen,
not allowing myself to get up and walk away until I had produced some writing.
A paragraph or two, at least.
What did I have in my locker that persuaded me I might be
able to write creatively? I had not joined a writers’ group, I had not done any
kind of creative writing course. No, I was convinced by my thirty-five years of
teaching children to write, my three years of studying English Literature at
University and a lifetime of reading books of every type and genre. The craft of
writing? Pah! Either you’re touched by the muse, or you’re not. Ah, the
arrogance! I sat, staring at the laptop for a very long time.
Then it came to me. Of course! A plan! I had to write a plan
before I could come up with anything even vaguely coherent. Wasn’t that what
I’d been boring young people to death with for all those years? And if it was
good practice for them as writers, then surely it would be good practice for
me. I had read in the weekend papers many times, interviews with authors
promoting their latest book who talked about their meticulous approach to
planning. Index cards. Exercise books, colour coded for plot, character, theme.
Every last thread spun and tied up neatly by the end. And it was clear that
their planning process must work because they were proper writers, with books
on the shelves and everything. And once this intense planning had been
completed, with eyes closed and chin on finger tips, Sherlock Holmes style,
then the writing could begin. And now, it would be a doddle, simply a matter of
splurging all those great thoughts onto the paper, ticking off each subsequent
element of the plan as it was completed, just like I advised my students to do.
And then, with the wet slap across the face of epiphany, I
Planning doesn’t work. At least not the kind of planning I
had been teaching for years.
Obviously, it didn’t work. Leaving aside for the moment the
idiocy of testing creative writing via a 45 minute slot in an exam hall, even
with unlimited thinking time you couldn’t easily plan every detail of, say, a
short story. Or if you did, you would be planning out the magic that is
produced by the act of writing itself. Functional, sequential planning has its
place in producing transactional writing, when it is simply a matter of ordering
and clarifying one’s thoughts, but creative writing is a very different process
and does not bend to the same rules and regulations.
I’m with Philip Pulman on this. In a recent interview in The Guardian to promote his latest book, The Secret Commonwealth, he pleasingly berates the functionalists who are currently having a moment in the sun at the expense of school children across the UK. Their niggardly focus on the naming of parts and their slavish insistence that the main function of a piece of writing is to show off the writer’s grasp of the full range of punctuation is rightly blasted. But he is also very interesting on the notion of planning. It’s right at the end of the interview (link below). Have a look.
What I’ve discovered over the past nearly three years is
that the planning process for fiction does exist, but that it is bespoke to the
writer. I’ll tell you what works for me. It might work for some kids and some
other adults, but there’s no guarantee.
The impulse to write comes, for me, from a very strong image
of a situation. It could be anything – an atmosphere, a dilemma, a
relationship, a texture. From that a story emerges. First the characters and
their relationships. Then the skeleton of the plot. Then the next layer of
characters. In the course of that process, the story and the subplot start to
take roots, but as gardeners everywhere will know, plants are unruly beasts and
go where they want. So the vivid image of the starting point, (which may not
end up as the start of the story at all) is accompanied by a strong sense of
the end point. As a writer, I know where the thing is headed, I’m just open to
the route we take. There may be a couple of other definite waypoints (or Vias
as the SATNav would have it). Other vivid scenes that have to be navigated
around. And no, despite the scornful reaction of some of my friends when
discussing this, this is not just a pretentious version of making it up as you
go along. It’s surrendering yourself to the process. The act of writing
generates ideas that are generally better than those produced by the act of
When I started the process of trying to write fiction, I read a piece by D B C Pierre, the Canadian author, on starting to write. It was extremely helpful, particularly his metaphor of compost, of all things. Just write, he advised. Enjoy the sense of your growing wordcount. At some stage you will hit a critical point where, like compost heap, you will have accumulated enough copy for it to start to react, to spontaneously breakdown in a process of decomposition, producing something entirely other than that which you started with. And then eventually, when it seems as if you have written something that you are pleased with, that means something to you, that you would like to read, you can begin the real work, the hard work of turning all of that compost into something that somebody else might conceivably want to read as well.
And so it has proved. From a strong image, a sense of the
resolution, and a couple more luminous scenes en route, fiction has emerged,
almost without my agency, and certainly without detailed planning. And how I
wish I could go back and rethink all of those well-meaning lessons on
students planning their writing.
Because, unfortunately, they are still saddled with the insanity of having to
produce some piece of “Creative” writing in about 45 minutes of exam silence.
And that means English teachers have a moral responsibility to prepare them to
do it as well they can.
So what practical lessons do I glean from this revelation? I
still teach English, as well as writing myself, and I still desperately want my
students to do well. I keep it much simpler now and focus on those key
An arresting scene, full of texture and
atmosphere. Often the opening paragraph.
Two or three characters, their relationships and
A final resolution. Even a last paragraph to
work towards, a pole star to help them steer the ship
A balance between description and dialogue.
Avoid back story
Show not Tell
And then, the last piece of advice to be ringing in their
ears as they enter the exam hall: Let the writing take you where it will, as
long as you reach that last paragraph. And it’s still a nonsense, to ask
children to write creatively in these conditions, as a means of ranking them.
It will produce a lot of stuff that wasn’t worth their bother: formulaic,
trite, cliched. Perfectly suited to an exam devised on exactly the same lines.
But at least they might enjoy it a little more and not be too worried about
synthesis and sequencing.
And some of them might, just might, want to keep writing.