Running out of school

Despite the fact that the word is banned in schools now, stupidly I took a teaching job at Stowupland High School after a few days helping out on Reception. One of the duties doing that was co-ordinating searches for students who decided they were going to go into nearby Stowmarket instead of being at school. The consequence to the perpetrator, as with every other deviant behaviour at that school, was pretty much nothing at all.

Hidden away in a leafy part of Suffolk I’d listened dis-believing while qualified teachers had their time wasted trying to find children who had been taught it was completely acceptable in Stowupland parlance to ‘go for a walk’ if they felt that sitting in a class doing boring learning stuff was too much of an arse-ache. Two qualified teachers spent most of their day either sitting in a duty room waiting, or following walkabout pupils at a discrete distance in case they got upset at being asked, let alone told, to get back to the class they’d walked out of.

I thought it was a one-off, on Reception. I didn’t understand the key thing about Supply teaching; that you’re there because either a teacher has walked out (one did, but I stupidly didn’t register that in my mind) for good, or just can’t face it that day, week, or forever after. Occasionally, at other schools, a full-time permanent teacher might go sick, or get stuck in traffic on Suffolk’s laughable roads where one three-car accident can shut things down for a morning, or exams might mean that someone’s double-booked and needs another body to help out. At another Suffolk school for example, despite the fact that the school has two senior staff paid £150,000 a year, more than the Prime Minister, they’re permanently short of three teachers (combined salary under £70,000 p.a.). And yes. Both of them. Each.

And I didn’t clock it.

I saw the ex-member of staff slamming out of the security door and signing-out for the last time and I still didn’t clock it. I’d taught there before, filling in for General Science. I was going to say I was getting nowhere but I had actually persuaded a pupil that he didn’t actually need to carry a thick cane that would be pretty useful as a rod of correction if I remember my Rastafarian argot from Bath, a long time ago, home of the Lion of Judah.

Apart from that I was getting nowhere until I explained that the thing about things was that atoms and that, they all vibrate, all the molecules and stuff, doing little orbits at different speeds, which is why (cue demonstration) when I put my hand under this water coming out of the tap my hand pushes the water away and it flows around my hand, and when I push this plastic bowl my hand doesn’t go through it and the whole bowl moves instead. That seemed to work. Nobody had explained that. I thought it was the basic Stuff About Atoms that you’d need to know. Apparently it was, but nobody had told them about it. Instant ‘legend.’

Stabby Boy, the liar Billie Maddison

I met him on my first day in the English department. That was the name the boy wearing his coat backwards in the corridor and slamming doors gave, but he was a liar anyway. There was no Billie Maddison at the school.

So it’s entirely safe to call Stabby Boy Billie Maddison too, given that so far as the school was concerned it was no big deal and he didn’t really exist anyway.

“Next time, I’ll stab you.”

Billie Maddison, November 2018, Stowupland High School

Stabby Boy got his name because I caught him threatening to stab several other pupils in a corridor. That’s what he said he was going to do and that was the only reason I could see for him carrying four-inch bladed pointed scissors that he’d stolen from the Science Lab, first in his hand when he was jabbing them at other pupils, then in his front trouser pocket when he saw me. I decided there and then that if he did anything with the scissors other than hand them over to me slowly and now then job or no job, his next destination was going to be the floor in about half a second.  I am categorically not dying to keep someone else’s adolescent ego intact.

He handed them over. Oddly, I didn’t want him in the class after that. I called Security, or whatever fact-hiding name the two qualified teachers whose job it is to pander to anarchy were called that week. I explained the situation and told them I wanted Billie removed. They removed him.

He’s back inside five minutes.

Billie walked to the back of the class, propped his chair on two legs and leaned back against the wall. I told him to sit down at the front. Why? Well, firstly because I told him to and secondly, I don’t trust him and want to see exactly what he’s doing.

He doesn’t have to. According to him.

Call Security again. When they turned up, obviously after I’d been unable to give Billie’s real name, and confirmed that yes, as it was me again then the room hadn’t changed either and nor had the subject not being taught thanks to Billie Maddison, they asked him what the problem was. He was being picked on. I told him again to move down to the front and added that he didn’t decide where he sat, I did.

This was the cue to start throwing desks. Sadly, Billie beat me to it. Security laughably stood there watching. When he eventually consented to be moved and after I’d made it clear, as it obviously needed to be, that I was not having him back in the class we could finally get on with the lesson.

The Ultimate Price

Billie wasn’t in class next day. He was the day after.

He’d paid the school’s ultimate price: a one-day internal exclusion. If you’re an adult carrying a bladed article in a school you can go to prison for up to three years. You don’t have to threaten anyone with it, or steal it, or keep it in your trouser pocket for a quick draw, or jab people with it. All of which Billie Maddison had done in front of me. You just need to have it on you.

So we taught Billie Maddison an important lesson that day. Unfortunately, the lesson was that if you don’t want to go to classes, all you need to do is steal a weapon and you don’t have to.

Which is why there’s a teacher shortage.

Incidentally, if you’re the Head at Stowupland High School and think there is anything even vaguely inaccurate about this account, look at the internal exclusion records for last November. I’m more than happy to talk about this in public.

Silence only protects the guilty. Just the way Billie Maddison likes it.

Share Button

School Blues

There’s a book by Daniel Pennac, winner of the Prix Renaudot. Which isn’t anything like a Fiat Punto, despite the funk-eh name.

Michael Morpurgo reckons “Every education Minister, every teacher, every parent should read this,’ even if he did miss the last comma.

It’s all about how Danial Pennac didn’t do well at school until a teacher told him to write a novel, when he realised that nobody has to be a failed student for ever. It’s about “how fear can make children reject education” and how ‘inventive thinking and inspired teaching can lure them back’ from being ‘struggling students adrift in a faltering system.’

I’m not French. Sorry, but there it is. I never went to a French school although I did eat tongue in the uni at Rouen. Not like that. She wasn’t having any, then or ever after, notwithstanding that was pretty much the point of me going. I never even went to France until I was 21. It was all translated by Sarah Ardizzone, whose Mum I know a bit from when she used to live down the road.

There are lots of good bits of dialogue in the book but overall it put me in mind of Clint Eastwood talking to that chair. To be fair, he didn’t say the thing that teachers aren’t now allowed to say.

Come on, punk. Make my day.

Sincere or not, it comes over as a well-practiced party piece. And there’s lots to like about it.

“What improved my mistakes was that…teacher who refused to lower his standards by allowing spelling mistakes.” Dear God man, you’d better not come out with language like that in a Staff Room these days. You’ll stunt someone’s freedom of expression with that kind of bolshy talk.

He also says the thing that utterly, totally, absolutely can’t be said: it’s the sodding parents.

“Our “bad students,” the ones slated not to become anything, never come to school alone.” For once, a schools commentator isn’t talking about Mrs Proudly blocking the pavement with her leased Range-Rover while she ?Evoques (ooooh, see what sir did there?)  her kids’ heart attacks 40 years later by making sure they never walk more than 48 feet per day.

“Look, here they come, their families in their rucksacks. The lesson can’t begin until the burden has been laid down and the onion peeled. It’s hard to explain but just one look is often enough, a kind remark, a clear, steady word from a considerate grown-up, to dissolve those blues, lighten those minds and settle those kids into the present indicative.”

Quite good at the old wordage, isn’t he? And as any decent teacher knows, a lot of that is absolutely bang on. He didn’t add ‘and un-fuck the fucked-upness that your fucked-up mum and dad fucked you up with, they may not mean to but on the other hand, they did’t really give a fuck what was going to happen to you either,’ to paraphrase Philip Larkin.

What really got me was two things. Pennac goes to considerable trouble to damn other people who say how dim everyone thought they were at school but look at them now, before going on to do pretty much the exact same thing himself. Repeatedly.

But what really got me was the poetic little end-piece about the swallows that fly, if he lets them, through his bedroom windows, across the room and out the other side.

It’s not that he doesn’t once namecheck the Venerable Bede, which seems an obvious and curious omission; perhaps it was because Bede wrote of a single sparrow, not entire squadrons of more graceful, somehow entirely more Gallic birds.

It was really nice. His point was that if he didn’t open the windows at both ends of the room the sparrows would charge in and brain themselves against the closed windows; you have to help them to live.

You could watch Minnie Driver in Hunky Dory and get the same, but hey. French. Comprendez?

“Yet it still happens: three or four of the idiots fly straight into the fixed panes. Our proportion of dunces. Our deviants. They’re not in line. They’re not following the path. They’re larking about on the edge. Result: fixed pane. Whack! At which point one of us gets up, picks up the stunned swallow – they weigh hardly anything, with their bones of wind – waits for it to wake-up again and sends it back out to join its friends. That’s what I believe love looks like, in the context of teaching, when our students fly like crazed birds.”

Leaving aside the fact that Pennac would be back on his mobile to the Supply agency in pretty short order if he used that vocabulary about the most disruptive and violent students in any British school I’ve been in, it’s lovely. And I think that’s what love looks like too.

Except I never, ever, ever saw a swallow throw a desk, nor pick up a chair and try to smash another child over the head with it and regard it as completely acceptable behaviour.

I never, ever, ever saw a swallow jab other swallows with a stolen four-inch blade and tell them it would stab them next time. But I’ve seen all that at schools, with next to no consequences.

Tolerating that behaviour isn’t love. It’s rewarding hate. And when it gets that far gone then frankly I don’t care if they hate themselves or someone else. It needed to be stopped before it got to that. Hard. Life is not about infinitely tolerating bad behaviour, making excuses for it, accommodating and adapting to it. Unless you’re Boris Johnson, of course, when it gets you as far as Prime Minister. For the rest of us, we do people in schools no favours when we pretend that’s what real life is all about.

Share Button

Somewhere else

A friend asked me if I wanted to look into my past. “Don’t you want to know about your father?” But the answer I come up with more and more, the older I get is no, not really.

What for?

I think she imagined it would give a sense of certainty, something I’ve never really had in my life, in large part due to the web of stupid lies and silence woven carefully around pretty much everything from the time I was born until I left home shortly before my nineteenth birthday. A cold-water shared room in a crappy bit of Cardiff wasn’t anyone’s idea of a palace, but at least I knew what was going on. A bit, anyway. I’ve never known exactly what was going on, it seems to me.

Proving yourself

I’ve had to re-apply for my DBS. I teach, and if you work with children you have to prove you don’t have a criminal record. Not that that would have stopped Jimmy Saville or Cyril Smith, both of whom happily sexually abused children for over forty years without the slightest stain on their reputation, let alone a criminal record but it’s considered rude to mention anything of the sort. Last time I did I was accused of ‘talking about paedophiles.’

You pay about £60 to get the Criminal Records Bureau to agree that no, they don’t have anything on you, guv, so you’re not a million to go in the frame, as they used to say in The Sweeney.

The frustrating thing is that while that’s the law and fair enough apart from the fact it doesn’t cost £60 to read ‘computer says no,’ the law isn’t good enough for some teaching agencies. You could have gone out and got yourself convicted after the records check, couldn’t you? Hmm? Get out of that. At which point you might feel, as more and more people do in the UK, that actually, all this teaching stuff is pretty much bollocks. It’s not the actual teaching part but all the rubbish that goes with it, from being expected to be a mental health therapist (obviously untrained and totally obviously unpaid; it’s the UK, after all) to having to prove I’m not a criminal, with the obvious implication being that in the absence of contrary evidence, I am.

Of course there have been teachers who abuse kids. And they were always, are now and will always be massively outnumbered by the number of parents and parents’ families and friends who abuse children, mentally, emotionally, physically and sexually, not a single one of whom will ever have to prove anything to anyone, until and unless the statitically unlikely happens and they go to court.

Naturally, I have a DBS. An Enhanced one in fact, that I presume doesn’t just mean I don’t have a criminal record but I really don’t have one. I also paid to make sure that it was registered on the Update Service, which is a simple way the government can screw yet more money out of you for something that should be yours free: it tells people you still haven’t been convicted of anything. To be fair, the DBS people are more than happy to give this information to anyone who asks if they can be bothered to phone up and ask. Which is obviously more than can be reasonably expected of any HR or compliance department.

I got a new bank card last November when the old one expired. There has always been money in that account. Do you have a funny feeling about what was going to happen?

I didn’t, because I was ill. I don’t even remember much beyond the day before Christmas Eve when I went to the carol service at draughty, lofty, cold Norwich Cathedral after getting us lost walking through drizzling sleet and turning a ten-minute walk into a half hour. I had a cold before. It turned into something else. I saw the email from DBS that they sent on Boxing Day, but I didn’t bother to read it. I was on the Update Service. On standing order. So it got renewed.

What about it?

The problem was it didn’t. The bank decided that obviously, anything I’d agreed to be paid with the old, expired bank card was just a passing fancy and if I really wanted anything to continue to be paid I should have thought of that before I didn’t stop time and the old card expiring.

So I’m not on the Update Service. Ok, said one teaching agency, then you haven’t got a DBS. So you can’t work.

I’ve pointed out that’s not what it means at all. That if anyone could be bothered to phone DBS they will learn in seconds that no, there is no subsequent information about convictions because there are no subsequent convictions to the DBS check being done originally. But God forbid HR or Compliance should ever do anything like take responsibility and check something themselves. That would be anarchy or something.

The agency wanted me to re-apply for a DBS. Apart from phoning DBS (which can’t be done, because either nobody has 10p for a phone call or see above), the only way of proving I still don’t have any convictions is to re-apply for a DBS and then put it on the update service. Again. Which makes no sense, apart from costing me £60 to prove something I’ve already proved, which as a safeguarding measure makes suspected criminals out of people doing their job.

I applied for one anyway. Not so fast, said the agency, our requirements are it has to be an enhanced one. Not the law, obviously. Snag. I can’t apply for one. Nobody can, said DBS. Only an organisation can. You’ll need two forms of identification, like your passport, driving licence or birth certificate, something governmenty. Let’s call it List A. It was nearly good enough for Radiohead, after all. Then something like a rent book or mortgage agreement or an electricity bill. Something corporate as well. List B.

That’s the law

Three documents.

Obviously, the law wasn’t good enough for the teaching agency, who stipulated that all three documents had to be from List A. One of the things that really, massively, instantly irks me is people who don’t know the law telling me what ‘the law’ says. Especially when absolutely anyone with internet access can find out from www.legislation.gov.uk. Anyone. No excuses.

I have a passport. I have a driving licence. Somewhere I had a birth certificate but when my father did his ultimate bunk he stole mine for reasons unclear to me. I was told it was so that people couldn’t find out who he was. If so it was spectacularly ineffective, as a simple visit to Somerset House in 1986 not only got me a copy of my birth certificate but also yielded his death certificate and his father’s name. Albert, if you really want to know. I couldn’t be bothered then or now to check out more, but one thing was clear; he hadn’t been born in Australia at all.

The other thing clear over Christmas was that I couldn’t find the copy of my birth certificate. So I couldn’t provide the three documents from List A. Which isn’t a legal requirement. Which is an agency requirement. Which is made-up. Which leads to an argument with them every single week.

I found it today, under a pile of books in a bookcase. Why it was there I have no idea. It uncovered another lie. I wasn’t born in Stratofrd-on-Avon at all.

I was born in Tiddington, a little village where until the 1980s there was a maternity hospital. Not far from Stratford, but definitely not Stratford. So why the lie? I’m not sure I can be bothered to find out.

 

Share Button

Blame it on the boogie

I’m talking about sunshine, albeit on a day when the temperature is going through the floor here in Suffolk where the wind blows straight from the Urals. Or that’s what they claim here, every winter. Maybe it’s even true. What is definitely true is that once again, it’s time to book the tickets to the Django Reinhardt festival in Fontainebleau. Which gives me two problems.

Problem One: It’s not there

Sure, there really is a Django Reinhardt festival in Fontainebleau, along with nobody who can remember Robert Louis Stevenson and DH Laurence living there in the artists’ colony at Barbizon. There was last year too, when I went for the first time. But the proper festival is up the road in Samois-sur-Seine, the tiny little ‘Allo ‘Allo town where the man lived the last few years of his life after the war, and where early one morning, walking back from the station and Saturday night gig in Paris, he collapsed and died.

This was a man who transformed music. A man who as a gypsy, as a Swing musician and often enough in those days as someone who looked Jewish would and by the lights of the times should have ended his short days ten years earlier, in a camp when the Nazis took Paris. A man who the Nazis ignored, despite people like Heydrich specifically banning pretty much everything that made Swing swing.

The Fontainebleau festival you pay for. That’s not the problem.

Problem two: The Fontainebleau django reinhardt festival isn’t about Django Reinhardt

Now for me, this is something of what I’d call a big problem. It’s corporate. They’ve got flags and chairs and army guys with shooty guns walking around a lot, but they go for that stuff in France to post a letter some days. More to the point, the music isn’t Swing. It’s not that it don’t mean a thing if it’s not, but I don’t really see how you can have a festival named after and for a specific musician playing a specific type of music then churn out music that sounded like the theme from Shaft, which was what happened one Saturday night last year. Sure, it was still real and it was still fun, but it still wasn’t real fun.

Problem Three, that it clashes with a summer job I really like doing, is even more problematic. I did something to my Achilles tendon last year which solved that problem, but still. It’ll be summer here again soon. The music will be hear again soon. And Fontainebleau, and walking in the woods nearby with a friend in a thunderstorm, making the coffee while she got the croissants from the boulangerie, hiring bikes to ride through the woods to listen to that marvellous music, free, at the real festival, all that will be here again soon too.

Share Button

Total and Utter State

Another day teaching at what’s described as a High School, a title which now seems to mean simply that it’s not for tiny little children, although some of them physically are. And another day where for all the pious policies in the Teaching Manual, you can’t fight a culture where the majority simply don’t want to learn anything and where there are no sanctions to change their views.

Given I won’t be there after the end of term then luckily that isn’t really my problem for much longer. But it’s sad that so much of what so many kids do actually know is only the internet-sanctioned stuff.

Talking about gun control, nobody had heard of Andy Murray, the tennis player. Not for his tennis, but because he survived the Dunblane massacre, in Scotland. Which they’d never heard of either. Nor knew where it was.

But they could give full-fact disclosure on Columbine.

Share Button

The book what I wrote

A few years ago I wrote a book and that. Like Charles Dickens, I used my experiences and memories of stuff that had happened to me and turned it into fiction. I know this has been a hard thing for some people to grasp. Just as presumably, they have trouble with the idea that there never actually was someone called Pip or Bob Cratchett, or a legal case called Jarndyce v Jarndyce, a title which always makes me think of Randal and Hopkirk (Deceased). It’s probably my age or something.

I used a literary technique we writers call ‘Making Things Up’ to some effect; it was one of five winners of the BBC Writers Room competition out of a field of 3,500. After that I wrote another screenplay called Janni Schenck, a fictional story about a real-life character I met once, an old man who had been a young boy in Germany in the 1930s. That was entered for Cannes by the Maison des Scenaristes. I showed it to a friend once. She said she never wanted to read it again. I asked her why. She told me that ‘kids like Janni killed half my family in Vienna.’ The only shred of intelligence I could find stopped me singing ‘this means nothing to me.’ Luckily.

So far so blah. Another two screenplays, one about Hereward, the forgotten Saxon with anger management issues and one about Shingle Street, just down the road from me. And then yesterday a phone call out of the blue. Would I like to meet a TV company on Monday to talk about writing a series for the BBC?

I looked back to the Not Your Heart Away reviews this morning and found the nicest thing anyone ever wrote about my stuff. It went like this:

For those men of a certain age, who grew up in an era of patchouli oil, smoky pubs and vinyl records, Not Your Heart Away is a sort of emotional time machine which instantly, effortlessly and somewhat disturbingly transports the reader back to their adolescence. It would be cliched – and untrue – to refer to this as an age of innocence. Carl Bennett’s nineteen year old protagonist Ben has mostly one thing on his mind and it certainly isn’t innocent. But there is a strange naivete about a pre-satnav and iPod world where driving any distance involved maps and cassette players, and a Zippo lighter, twenty Marlboros and a pint of cider was about as good as it got.

But Bennett’s second novel – which picks up where last year’s debut A Day For Pyjamas left off – is much, much more than a nostalgia trip for middle-aged men the wrong side of 50. Themes of loss – loss of love, loss of innocence, loss of friends – are interwoven with asides and observations on such diverse subjects as UFOs, rolling the perfect joint and the legend of the Glastonbury Thorn. Not many authors could juxtapose Bob Marley and AE Houseman, Patti Smith and Shakespeare, and get away with it, but these characters make it sound perfectly natural. There is a dreamlike, sun-tinted quality to Bennett’s prose which derives in part from his ability to evoke the wide open spaces of Salisbury Plain, the delicious (and never to be repeated) laziness of post-A level summer holidays and the sheer joy of a road trip with friends in a car borrowed from your parents.

And throughout, the aching, the sweating nervousness, the misunderstandings and the real fear of first love. On one level it would be easy to dismiss Not Your Heart Away as a familiar tale of teen angst and unrequited love. Ben’s stumbling, fumbling and ultimately humiliating pursuit of Claire will strike a chord with many of us. But it is Bennett’s gut-wrenching, relentless, visceral ability to put the reader in that place, at that time, with that girl – to enable us to say, “that’s me, that was my story” – which puts the novel in a class of its own.

Not Your Heart Away is not without flaws. Whether deliberately or not, the narrative bewildering switches from past to present tense and back again – sometimes within the same sentence. Ben’s best friend Peter, a key character in the first half of the story, disappears without trace in the second and is never heard of again. Theresa, Ben’s unimaginative and undemanding girlfriend, suffers a similar fate and somewhat conveniently fades into the background. At times, the verbal jousting between characters is confusing and repetitive. The lack of resolution or denouement is strangely unsatisfying and there is no doubt that when, in the closing stages, the story catches up with the present and we encounter the middle-aged Ben, the writing lacks the insight and depth of earlier chapters. Perhaps this feeling of loose ends still unravelled, and fates not yet determined, is deliberate. After all, life rarely has neat conclusions, and more rarely still is there a “happy ending”. Maybe it’s just a ploy to get us to buy the third and final part of Ben’s story. 
But these are minor complaints. Not Your Heart Away is, by any standards, a remarkable story. It takes you back to a time and place – not just a memory but a palpable, tangible time and place – just as surely as a whiff of dope or a snatch of Roy Harper. It is both unsettling and comforting, dream and reality, fact and fiction. If you left school in the late 1970s, it is not just Ben and Claire’s story, it’s yours. As Ben himself says, “It’s soul, it’s heartland. It’s where I’m from.”

 

I didn’t even have to slip him a fiver for the review.

Share Button

The happiest days

I haven’t written much recently. I’ve been teaching. And I’m not sure there’s anything much to say about it.

I do three kinds: teaching English as a Foreign Language; supply teaching in the rural area I live in and sometimes I teach on film sets. That started the year off busily but it’s tailed off to nothing for the same reason as education in general – people like to talk about how important it is, but they treat it as the afterthought it so often is. On filmsets it’s the law – if you’re under sixteen you have to have a set number of hours of education per day, the same way children on a film have to be chaperoned. There’s no way around it and everybody in the business knows it – without chaperones and teachers you can get your film shut by the local council if they’ve a mind to do it, and all your crew and backers are not going to be pleased with you. Which doesn’t explain why the biggest UK website specifically for chaperones carries so many ads for tomorrow, or next week, apart from the obvious reason: nobody bothered about it until the last minute and now they just realised it’s the law.

And sadly, the same goes for supply teaching. Sometimes it’s a pleasure. Sometimes. But most often it’s exactly what it is – day time childcare that’s only necessary because a regular, salaried teacher couldn’t face going in to school again. Or in the case of a school here, because the County Council cut the education budget because the government cut thier budget and the school is short of three full-time staff. They aren’t going to be hired – there’s no money for that. But there’s also a brainless culture in schools that shows no sign of going away. For kids who can see that nobody much cares about thier education – and don’t try to pretend that anybody who voted Conservative does, the party returned again and again and again here in the fields – the conclusion is obvious for many: it doesn’t matter.

Like a lot of teachers, I come away from a day’s supply teaching sad. Sad that there aren’t any books. Sad that it comes as a surprise to a sixteen year old that a pen or pencil might be something you could usefully have with you. Sad that capital letters and full stops are something that has to be taught to kids who thirty years ago would have been out in the world. But that would be no good – the kind of job you can walk into without knowing how to write a short note to someone have long gone and the unemployment figures aren’t going to fiddle themselves, so every one of those kids is staying in some kind of school until they’re eighteeen, like it or not. And for those that don’t, the ones who never got the memo about those jobs are going boys, and they ain’t coming back, it’s still a waste of everyone’s time.

Or this evening I think maybe they did get the memo. And just couldn’t read it.

Share Button

Walking home

About a month ago I got back from heaven. I’d done something I’d promised my self I would do for at least ten years and the thing I was afraid of didn’t happen. It was so, so much better than I could even imagine. And for once, the best things in life were free.


Every year for the past thirty-odd years, jazz manouche fans and musicians make thier way quietly and un-announced to the place where Robert Louis Stevenson, Django Reinhardt and Monet once lived. At different times of course , but the three of them had that in common. Must be funny, Abba told us, in a rich man’s world but Django was never that rich. He was born in 1910. He died in 1952. He came within a whisker of dying several times before that. You can find his history on line but I found him years before the internet even existed, thanks to British Rail.

While Jimmy Saville was feeling-up crippled patients in Stoke Mandeville and leering ‘ow’s about that then, guys and gals?’ an ad agency came up with a better idea than fronting a celebrity pervert: just show some pictures of a train rolling along and play the most complicated, most relaxing, happiest guitar music ever written or played.

And he still spoils everything. He spoils learning and playing my beautiful Hofner Verithin guitar, (the one that makes girls actually stroke the thing) not just because he didn’t much like electric guitars but because even though he only had two working fingers on his left hand he played approximately four zillion times than I’ll ever play. You want to talk about guitar heroes like Clapton or Page? Please do while I die laughing. .Listen to Django Reinhardt play and you can’t switch Radio 1 on for a month or more. Ther’e no moronic repitition. No children’s skipping rhymes masquerading as popular culture. No whiny nonsense about how haters gonna hate but baby you save me, or as they say in Scotland, any a that shite. There aren’t even any words in almost all his songs apart from Nagasaki where as is well-known, the fellows chew tobaccy and the women, well the women wiggy-waggy woo. Until they got atomised, obviously, but the song pre-dates the hiatus.

I went to Fontaineblue with a friend and learned the thing about the Django Reinhardt festival the hard way. It’s not at Fontainebleu. I’d bought tickets for all four days. I won’t be doing that again. Not just because most of the acts, certainly the ones the guests in the corporate hospitality tents had come to hear and be schmoozed over were nothing, absolutely nothing to do with his music, but more because the real festival is free.

We got the Eurostar to Paris then a commuter to the town. We got an AirBnB that we wouldn’t have looked at twice in England. We bought fresh croissants for breakfast and spoke O-Level French and didn’t, for once, buy espadrilles. Luckily, because we did what Django did; we hired bicycles one day and walked the next, 8km past the railway station at Avon, along the banks of the Seine to Soissons.

If you’ve got a thing about stateless refugees, or gypsies, look away now. Django Reinhardt was one. So was his wife. So are most, if not all, the real musicians who pitched-up in the camp on the north bank of the river; so were their ancestors who were put, as Django was going to be, into more sinister camps in the war. These were beautiful, handsome, proud, wistful, quiet people a million times removed from the travellers with dogs on a bit of string shambling around the west country. And they played. They played double bass, violin, melodica and guitar all without sheet music, for hours at the camp and in the village, free. For the joy of it. A whole day’s fabulous music was ours for the price of coffee and pastis and marguez, salad and frites – a bill for all of that music and food for the better part of the day for less than 2 Euros.

In the evening we wandered back to the paid-for festival to hear big names hamming-up what sounded like the incidental music from ancient episodes of Starsky and Hutch. We felt the same then as I feel now, as I’ve always felt Django Reinhardt’s own unique music. There is nothing like it. There never will be again.

 

Share Button

A sword in every pond

Those of a certain age and inclination will recognise the words from Roy Harper’s classic One Of Those Days In England and as he says, those much younger cannot understand by half. He sings about an England I recognise, one I grew up with in the West Country, surrounded by myths and legends and vanishing hitchhikers and UFOs and ponds, with or without swords. Just about an hour’s drive away, not far in miles or epochs, we had Glastonbury, the old pre-festival one of hills and marshes and our once and future king. We took it seriously to the extent that it wasn’t questioned. Once there was a king. He didn’t die, he slept. He will come again, whoever he was, Roman trying to hold back the Dark Ages, Saxon trying to tie the knots of a dissolving empire together again, Jesus allegory, saviour, myth, nonsense: our king in the west, where the sun goes down over Lyonesse. And his sword in the pond, where he threw it, like the Grail at the bottom of the Chalice Well. See, why’s it called Chalice Well if the Grail isn’t in it? Heh? Answer me that! S’obvious.

There’s a pond near me too, but this one holds no swords I know of.  About five weeks ago I rescued three goslings stuck the wrong side of a mesh fence and threw them over the fence, into the grass where their parents were frantic. As I threw the last one over I got a jolt off the electrified top strand of the fence that I hadn’t realised was electric. Then I didn’t see them again. I thought they’d died, either bleeding internally from the fall or their little hearts had just given out from too much excitement; either way, they weren’t there when I looked for them, two or three times a week as I walked the fields.

Then just at the end of last week, out in the middle of the pond, almost exactly where I’d last seen the little family, stopped, staring at me, there they were, exactly in the same formation, three goslings and two adult geese, one in front, one behind. Again, staring at me. I thought they couldn’t be the same ones because they’d grown so much, but when I looked closer one of them still had down on its head. As my friend said wisely, almost as if it had had an electric shock.

That little pond where the railway used to be holds something much more mysterious, more precious, than any immortal sword. Three little lives I saved. Maybe it is the Excaliber pond after all.

 

Share Button

Me and JB

 

I should have written more, something JB Priestley probably never said. But I should. I thought, because I was told by my family over and over again, that nobody would want to read anything I wrote. Nobody should.

I started reading books that took me out of my rubbishy, circumscribed world when I was maybe twelve or thirteen. By fourteen I lived in books to an extent that I couldn’t really tell which was their reality and which was mine. I read Lonesome Traveller and loading the bag for my after-school paper round priced-up how much toffee you’d need to buy in the Frome Road post office to keep you going doing that stuff, hi-balling a frieght out of Fresno, whatever that turned-out to actually mean. When Kerouac was writing about being on the road I thought that somewhere down the A361, maybe just over the hill at Farleigh castle, that would be where the desert started, where Springsteen’s passing stranger would put up his sign about counting so many foreign ways to the price you pay. But they didn’t seem foreign to me.

Nor did England when I read Priestley’s English Journey. For me, despite the fact that Jack rode flatcars (we didn’t have those in Trowbridge) and hitchhiked (people still did that then, but not at fourteen) and JB Priestley was chauffered around in a Daimler thirty years before I was even born, the spirit was the same. Both of them looking for the new in the old, the new places and faces and stories locked up in the old brick and smoke and sadness of their times. Both of them had cast themselves as outsiders; I got the idea that maybe both of them weren’t actually that much good with people, or at least the people all around them. Maybe that was why they had to keep moving. I could do that part of being a writer fine well. Gizza job.

And I shared something else with JB that I couldn’t articulate, mainly because I didn’t know about it until this morning when I read in the rubbishy Guardian. Well sorry, but no newspaper has room for sentences like “In it he describes his lifelong search for something ineffable.” None. But there was a JB quote stolen by the ancient male professional hypocrite Muggeridge who bafflingly dominated the TV when I was a kid, alongside Thunderbirds and Crossroads. It was about that feeling I got, a looking for something I couldn’t name, something so nearly under my fingertips. Something I couldn’t name that I’d recognise like it was my own hand or foot when I found it, if only I could say what it was.

“It was waiting for me either in the earth, just below the buttercups and daisies, or in the golden air. I had formed no idea of what this Treasure would consist of, and nobody had ever talked to me about it. But morning after morning would be radiant with its promise. Somewhere, not far out of reach, it was waiting for me, and at any moment I might roll over and put a hand on it. I suspect now that the Treasure was Earth itself and the light and warmth of the sunbeams; yet sometimes I fancy that I have been searching for it ever since.”

Last year I read the same thing written in a different country by someone else who didn’t fit. He liked JB too and put on two of his plays, but his face was the wrong face. The Nazis burned his books because they thought he wasn’t Nazi enough so he joined the Party to keep his head on top of his shoulders. Then they lost and and the Soviets thought he wasn’t anywhere near part of the people’s movement. They made sure he couldn’t be the teacher he’d trained to be, couldn’t be the theatre producer they’d made him be and they weren’t generally that happy with his entire existence. Maybe because reality was all too close he wrote about the First World War, not the Second.

“But he was a young man, and the song of the lark made him blissfully happy, stirring the the old longing thst had accompanied him from Haumont. He felt as if someone was walking behind him with light footsteps, calling his name softly and tenderly. When he stopped and turned to listen, the voice stoped calling out, but when he turned back he felt the presence behind him again, as if it were trying to play a trick on him. Schlump continued on his way, a faint smile on his lips, stroking the ripe corn with his fingers. He didn’t tell anyone about this, and when he was with friends he forgot it altogether.”

That’s how it felt, those times I’d be about to go out, or to start a journey, or just alone in the house I knew and my step-sister knew was haunted, when I’d have combed my hair, done my boots, got the clothes I wanted and suddenly, keys in my hand, knew I had to look for a thing I couldn’t go without, a thing I couldn’t name. It made me smile, but like Hans Grimm, I never found it. I hope he did, before he felt so shut-out that one day he went home while his wife was out and shot himself. It was 1950 and East Germany. He was in the wrong place and definitely in the wrong time. I still look for it occasionally, now and then when the light is right. It still puts a half-smile on my lips.

Share Button