Teaching Of Mice and Men

One old white dude’s voyage of discovery over 38 years in the classroom.

I was fascinated to read earlier this month a call for Of Mice and Men to be filtered when read aloud in the classroom so that one specific offensive word was not used.  This was a campaign promoted by “anti-racist educator” Marsha Garratt up in Teesside, and the BBC story can be found here:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-tees-58842159

It set me thinking about my own steadily evolving relationship to teaching the book, since I first started as a Secondary English teacher way back in 1982. When I arrived in London in 1981 my life experience was almost exclusively a white one. I was born and brought up in Teesside, and then went to University in York. After a year or so of crummy jobs I found myself living in Valencia in Spain for a year. So up until the age of twenty four, everywhere I had lived was overwhelmingly white. I was a socialist and a passionate believer in equality and the struggle for social justice, so my ideology was progressive, but my lived experience was narrow.

Moving to London in this context was exhilarating. I lived in the Hasidic Jewish enclave of Stamford Hill before moving to Brixton. Before that I had first lived in Kings Cross, where the most notable minority community appeared to be sex workers, judging by the number of used syringes and condoms I had to kick out of the doorway of the short life housing flat/Squat where I lived, every time I left in the morning. It was a whirlwind of new experiences and especially invigorating being part of a rich, diverse community.

This was the major chord of starting to work as an English teacher in the ILEA – the extraordinary range and variety of people who went to Inner London schools. It’s multi racial character was a real source of strength and was something that the ILEA rightly celebrated. This was when I first encountered Of Mice and Men. It was a fixed part of the English Curriculum even then, and I set about preparing to teach it, aided and abetted by the English Centre’s seminal study guide on the book. ( the inclusion of Steinbeck’s letter to Annie Luce, the actress cast to play Curley’s wife in the first stage production was hugely significant and an invaluable resource in the classroom ) When I first read the novel, I was struck by how powerful it was. Of all the novels we taught in those days, it was probably the most perfect.

Why was that?

  1. It was short, so you could read it aloud as a complete text and still generate enough written and discussion work to fulfil assessment requirements.
  2. It’s perfectly structured, coming full circle to finish where it started, as foreshadowed in the opening chapter, in the brush by the river. And because of that it made it easier to teach what, for many pupils, is a complex and abstract concept: whole text structure.
  3. Steinbeck’s prose, like Arthur Miller’s in many of his plays, was a wonderful celebration of the poetry of the vernacular. Spare and simple, both dialogue and description are masterful examples of economy of expression. At a time when many students suffer from a devotion to the Thesaurus and equate baroque purple prose with quality, this was an invaluable antidote.
  4. It never failed, in over thirty-five years, to provoke an emotional reaction from readers. It was a rare day when the reading of the final chapter did not have students in floods of tears. Even stony-faced macho boys would permit themselves a quiver of the lip at the end. At a time when reading is under threat as never before from a panoply of more seductive, modern pursuits, this was invaluable. It opened a door to a world where books could make connections, generate meaning and have a real impact on the way someone viewed themselves in society. Suddenly, books had a point. They made sense. They were endorsed as a thing of value, rather than something dull and worthy that posh people did at home and everyone else was forced to do at school.
  5. It generated mind-bending shifts in attitudes about women, black people, workers, sexism, racism and capitalism and deepened understanding of our history and how and why things are as they are now in relation to the past. I can recall numerous light bulb moment lessons when students suddenly made a connection between Steinbeck’s intentions for his depiction of Curley’s Wife and the way she was described by the men on the ranch. In that way, it also was the first time that many students had considered the idea of an unreliable witness in fiction. The first appearance of Curley’s wife in the novel routinely confirms for most students the opinion expressed by Candy. They think of her as a flirt, a “floozy”. The description of her dead body causes them to think again, powerfully but not in a hectoring, lecturing way. The first reaction places them in the position of the men on the ranch, the last places them outside of the novel, in the position of Steinbeck. For many students, for the first time, they are aware of the idea of a writer manipulating and deceiving the reader for a deeper purpose.

There is a problem here, though,  and with the depiction of Crooks. It needs very careful, skilful teaching for it to work. Some students don’t get beyond agreeing with Candy when it comes to Curley’s Wife. You really have to commit as a teacher, to go the extra mile here. This is why the Steinbeck letter is so unusual and so important, providing a rare example in the classroom of evidence of the author’s intentions outside of the main text. Unfortunately, no such equivalent text exists to help with the teaching of Steinbeck’s presentation of Crooks.

The scene in Crooks’ room late on Saturday night is nuanced and layered. Again, some students find it difficult to interpret Crooks’ gleeful bullying of Lennie in any more subtle way than lying on one side of the Good/Bad dichotomy. The notion that this behaviour might give the reader some greater insight into his situation is a difficult idea to grasp for some and needs the same persistent, careful teaching. In recent years, given the time constraints of exam-based questions with limited time to prepare, the persistent, careful teaching of subtle interpretations has been hard to preserve. Easily packaged answers are the order of the day.

But back to the subject of this blog – the way my attitude to teaching the novel changed over the years. From the beginning, Steinbeck’s liberal use of the N word was uncomfortable. As the educated teacher, I rationalised this as being acceptable because of his clear intentions to expose injustices in his society. For him to do this as a white writer in the 1930’s in America seemed to me to be admirable and progressive. Nonetheless, I could not reasonably expect my classes to be aware of this and therefore spent a lot of time preparing the ground for the use of the word and the entirely positive reasons behind it. I was in effect trying to say, “Don’t worry guys! He’s on your side, and what’s more on your side from a time when that was a dangerous thing to be. Let’s celebrate him.” It only worked because I had developed the trust of my classes and had made a big thing about injustice and racism in every other area of the stuff I taught. I had nailed my colours to the mast so that everyone knew the values that applied in my lessons.

I cringe when I look back on it now, and the tinge of white saviour complex it connotes. And cringe even more when I think how long that situation was maintained in my teaching as the status quo.

The next phase, probably at least ten years later, was to discuss the issue with each class as I always had, but then let them take a vote on it. If that seems now like passing the buck, it was done from a desire to give the students some respect and level of control. And that situation lasted for at least another ten years, (probably more). Each successive class had their own reaction to it. Every class came round to loving the book, with some taking longer than others to get the nuances under the surface. It was still doing all the things I wanted it to and it still had all the qualities I loved and valued, but steadily, growing in the back of my mind was an unease that wouldn’t go away.

Every time I said the word out loud, it felt like I was slapping my black students in the face. I was expecting them to silently endure disrespect and humiliation in the service of Literature. I justified it to myself on the same grounds that were used when the great statue debate emerged in the last few years. You know the stuff:

You can’t rewrite history. This happened, we can’t pretend it didn’t and we must simply explain it. To pull them down would be to airbrush history in the tradition of the Great Dictators down the ages. It’s just meaningless gesture politics, designed only to let people show off as “woker than thou”. More important to be actively ant-racist than to obsess about symbolism. Etc etc.

But of course, all of this dispassionate rationalising ignores the power of emotional reactions. How could I, a privileged old white guy, airily dismiss the concerns of the activists as gesture politics. I didn’t have historic crimes against my community paraded in front of me every day when I went to study or work, walking past a statue of some historic figure whose entire historic status is founded on the slave trade. Talk about rubbing your nose in it.

And I finally reached the same conclusion about Of Mice and Men. I continued to read the book to classes, explained the context and Steinbeck’s intentions, but this time talked about why I wasn’t going to use the word in question. Ironically, this took me right back to my days as an A level Literature student back in 1973 in Stockton -on-Tees. One of my teachers was an older woman, who was tremendously old fashioned and dull, dull, dull. (Don’t worry, her identity will not be revealed and I would have never dreamed of telling her). We found it hilarious that when teaching us The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales (and some of The Tales themselves) she would just miss entire words and phrases out when she read the text aloud. And the weird thing was she would never refer to it, or explain it or even acknowledge it. It was as if she had a different, more prudish, edition. And here I was, doing more or less the same thing. Although, to be fair, she was rather more concerned about depictions of farting and medieval rumpy pumpy, than racism.

So, I got there in the end. And it kind of worked. All of the good qualities of the novel were retained. And it was such an easy, obvious way of dealing with a problem that needed to be addressed, I can’t think why it took me so long to reach it. And I think back, to everyone I taught the book to, from 1982 onwards and I think about their feelings in my classroom when I so confidently said that word in front of them, over and over again.

I was quite a good English teacher. I took it seriously and wanted to open the eyes of my students. I wanted to introduce them to the power and beauty of Language and the power and beauty of Literature, regardless of who they were and what their background was. I have no doubt I made many mistakes on the way and I apologise for them, unreservedly. I tried my best but I got as many things wrong as I got right, I’m sure. The Of Mice and Men mistake was the biggest of them all and for that I am sincerely sorry. The campaign deserves all of our support and I wish it well.

Inspiration, Stealing and Intertextuality

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:

Alternative History

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.

Click the buttons below to buy The Watcher and The Friend at your preferred bookshop

This piece first appeared in the barrononbooks blog at www.rjbarron.co.uk

A review of “Sorrow and Bliss” by Meg Mason

Sorrow and Bliss is one of those much-touted novels that seem to gain traction in the Spring so that many people select them as one of their Summer holiday reads. Then you get tweets and Instagram posts from influencers saying how wonderful it was, to which in their turn, in the time -honoured, strange, traditions of twitter, followers gush back, agreeing how amazing it was and the churn of interest continues. Good marketing, I suppose. And, of course, I wouldn’t be complaining if one of my books was at the centre of such a fabricated whirlwind of interest. But there’s more than sour grapes to this less than enthusiastic review. Many of these books represent a triumph of marketing over substance and I’m afraid Sorrow and Bliss is another that disappoints.

It’s targeted at women readers so single-mindedly that it might as well have a pink cover. The quotes on the inside cover are all from famous women, apart from a couple that are just attributed to a publication. There are two large quotes highlighted on the front cover, one from Ann Patchett and the other from Jessie Burton – both female writers surfing a certain zeitgeist at the moment. A comparison with Fleabag is also heavily underlined. That’s like comparing The Tempest to Love Island because it’s got people in it and it’s set on an island. Waller Bridge is a gloriously talented writer and Fleabag is funny, refreshing and moving – everything that Sorrow and Bliss isn’t but wants so desperately to be. The only thing missing are references to Sally Rooney, the media’s favourite young darling. Maybe there are contractual barriers to that, but I’m sure the publishers would have been falling over themselves, to get that agreement over the line. Maybe Rooney comes at too high price these days to be even mentioned in publicity puffs, who knows. But then Rooney’s last book did brilliantly and convincingly portray working class characters that were recognisably human. And we don’t want that sort of thing to catch on, do we?

Haven’t we got over this kind of thing yet? I know you’ve got to have a consistent message and aim mercilessly at your target audience, but this is 2021 and personally, I find the concept of women’s books and men’s books (oh no, sorry, obviously men don’t read at all) rather insulting and hopelessly out of date. At a time when the debate is about gender fluidity and all of that, this stuff seems positively antediluvian.

Meg Mason

Sorry, I digress. Back to the book. Well, let’s deal with the good stuff first. It is genuinely funny at times. On a couple of occasions, I laughed out loud, and that is not something you can fake. Some of the observations about relationships and family dynamics are acute and amusing, and Mason can clearly write. As an experienced journalist you would expect no less, but not wanting to be churlish, she is more than competent at structuring the narrative and balancing dialogue and description, but then so are many Sixth formers. If that is meant to be enough, we’re setting the bar extremely low.

And that’s really all the good stuff. The main problem is that the characters and their dilemmas are so crashingly dull and unbelievable. I’m sure this won’t stop someone snapping this up for a three episode mini-series, but the appeal there, will be, to my mind, the book’s greatest weakness. It invites us to care about the emotional dramas of a white, highly privileged woman from the English upper classes. An endearingly eccentric posh family who live in the middle of London and whose friends and relations are movers and shakers in the Art world, or Finance, or Government or whatever. After one in a series of traumas (discovering that her hastily married husband is an abusive control freak. Sorry, but marriage is important enough to do due diligence surely?), one such family treasure scoops up Martha, the protagonist, takes her to Paris and then lets her live rent free in his fabulous bijou appartement, somewhere very bohemian and rive gauche.

If only all women escaping abusive men and disfunctional families could just slip across La Manche. Why can’t people stand on their own two feet and rely on their family rather than the nanny state? Then we wouldn’t have to pay for ruinously expensive housing benefit etc. Excuse my sarcasm, but this is so out of touch with reality it’s painful. It reminded me a little of “The Pursuit of Love”, the Nancy Mitford novel that was serialised in the BBC earlier this year. That was brilliant, and gave the impression that the author was to some at extent at least, satirising the idle upper classes. Mason, on the other hand, gives no clue about any glimmer of social awareness. Instead, she creates the impression that she is writing about a familiar social milieu, one that she assumes everyone inhabits. Or everyone that reads books, that is. And I suppose that for Meg and her chums, journalists for The Sunday Telegraph, The Financial Times, Vogue, Marie Claire and Elle, it is very familiar.

But enough of class war, back to literary analysis. The husband in this dismal scenario, the nice one that is, married after Martha has escaped from the clutches of Husband 1, Mr Nasty, is a chap called Patrick. That’s where his resemblance to a human being in 2021 begins and ends. There is nice and nice. Patrick is NICE. He puts up with a lot of shit because Martha is very high maintenance and Patrick, as a black adoptee in a very posh family seems to feel that it would be impolite (the greatest British upper class sin) to have any views, feelings, thoughts, standards about anything that might cause any upset. And throughout the novel, he is treated abysmally by absolutely everyone. By the end, I found him so annoying and unbelievable, I really wanted to be casually vile to him as well.

He does, to be fair, provide the only narrative driving force of the novel, which is the desire to see them get married in the first place and then to see them and their marriage survive. Well, OK, maybe “driving force” is a little misleading, because it suggests that I gave a toss about either of them. Maybe narrative meander would be more accurate, a reason to keep going to the end before losing consciousness.

The final piece de resistance of this whole sorry debacle was the treatment of mental illness, a topic so fashionable it squeaks. I got the feeling that the spectre of Martha’s unspecified condition was meant to excuse the whole range of her excesses. Certainly, it features heavily in the largely positive reviews of the book. You know you’re on dodgy ground when depiction of mental illness is described using the word “brave”. This anything but brave. The deliberate vagueness around the condition is thought by many to be a glittering triumph, but I found it yet another cop out. Mason even includes a note at the end of the book: “The medical symptoms described in the novel are not consistent with a genuine mental illness. The portrayal of treatment, medication and doctors advice is wholly fictional”

What? You wouldn’t do that with a physical illness so why do it with a mental one? It smacked of someone slightly out of their depth and who couldn’t really be bothered to do the research. It’s always possible of course that I’ve got this wrong and Mason has had personal or family experience of mental illness, in which case I apologise sincerely. All I can say is that it didn’t ring true for me – a clumsy plot device, rather than an artistic decision.

So once again I find myself out of step with mainstream opinion. Sorry if you loved it but it just did not speak to me convincingly at all. This was definitely a case of mainly Sorrow, little Bliss.

This review was first published at www.rjbarron.co.uk

Saltwater – Jessica Andrews

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.

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

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

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

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

The Watcher and The Friend by R J Barron. Chapter 3 The Watcher Telling Stories

This is chapter 3 of The Watcher and The Friend. Thomas Trelawney, aged 13, meets the mysterious Silas Cummerbund, The Watcher, for the first time
  1. The Watcher and The Friend by R J Barron. Chapter 3 The Watcher
  2. The Watcher and The Friend Chapter 2, The Grandfather Clock
  3. The Watcher and The Friend, Chapter 1
  4. Asking the Questions
  5. Episode 6 Don't Smile before Christmas, part 2

September

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

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

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

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

She glanced up, distracted.

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

Tom’s face was thunderous.

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

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

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

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

“Tom, I..”

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

She tried again. “But..”

“Oh, forget it. Don’t wait up.”

He turned and slammed the door.

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Miss?”

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

“Yes, Anthony?” she asked.

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

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

“Miss?”

“Sorry Anthony, just coming”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How are you going to carry on?”

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

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

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

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

She straightened up. He smiled at her.

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, shit..”

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

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

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

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

Anna reached out and grabbed the book away from him.

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

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

She lowered her voice, and softened her tone.

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

“I always make mistakes, though Miss.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

“You really don’t care, do you?”

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

“But..”

He stood up abruptly.

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

“Tom, ..”

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where?”

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where The Crawdads Sing

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

Shock as Human Being is underwhelmed by book

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

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

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

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

Delia Owens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cultural Capital

Some people say,
If only these kids read more Shakespeare
At home.
Or even saw a production or two
At The Globe.
That, and maybe listening to a bit of Mozart and a trip to a gallery
To worship at the temple of Art,
Would make all the difference. Even Tate Modern would do, at a pinch.
They deserve it, really.
Culture, that is. It’s just not fair to abandon them 
To their parents, who were
Abandoned in their turn.
So we cannot blame them. Not really.

Others, well meaning, no doubt,
Talk of Stormzy and Assassin’s Creed
Of Mice and Men and Game of Thrones
As if they had the same worth.
But everybody knows that proper culture must be
Old and Hard, otherwise it does not count. It is not
Culture with a capital C.
It’s common sense.
It’s alright for them. They’ve got their exams already.

Missionaries in  Africa did not agonise about their task to civilize,
But set to work to bring light to the darkness.
Not for them the liberal guilt that stalks us today
Or the righteous anger of The Woke
Now that Black Lives Matter.

But in between, where people live, culture is imbibed
Without thinking, like breathing in.
Like air, we need it to survive.
The air we breathe nurtures and sustains, whether its breeze stirs lush, clipped roses
Or scatters crisp packets in a grimy dance.
It is the same air.
It is the same culture.
It is ours, not theirs.

Casting Spells

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

Casting Spells

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

	

So. Farewell then English Teaching. Not with a bang, but with a whimper.

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.

The English Teacher