It isn’t what you write with

For years I thought it was. I had a steel Parker fountain pen at school. I’d had cartridge pens and they leaked and I didn’t like Bic biros, which back then, was about the only choice. I know it sounds like something out of Dickens but in lots of ways it was.

Then I started spending money on pens. I still do. And it’s a total waste of time as well as money. Have a look at the current line-up.

Why, exactly?

This review considers possibly the most important aspect of pen use and ownership, the often-ignored Flickability Score, or how easy it is to irritate other people in meetings or on the sofa by being irresistible to flick the button on the end of it.

Then obviously stuff like weight, image, and lastly, what it’s actually like to write with.

The lovely brass Kaweco

From the top, ignoring the outrageously dusty state of the baize top on my bureau, the lovely Kaweco Sport. Bought new this year, despite looking as though Albert Speer would have played with this in meetings. Design classic, solid brass, a reassuring weight and it fits the hand nicely. But. But.

Flickability Score 7, Weight – too much really, Image – solid, expensive, artistic impactful, slightly odd. This rating should really be called the Aldeburgh Measure . You’ll understand better if I tell you that although you can get one of these for £45 online, in Aldeburgh they’re over £60. Beautifully lit in clothes shops, obviously. Writing capability – um, not that great, actually. And you can’t find the refills easily. Not in WH Smith, anyway.

1990s Parker Sonnet Rollerball

I used this pen for years in meetings and sometimes for actually writing. Aside from the ludicrous price of refills I’m amazed that this pen has nearly doubled in price since this one was very kindly given to me by a partner’s mother for my birthday. It was totally unexpected and never repeated, but that’s another story. It was still a lovely thought and appreciated as such.

Sadly, without a flicky top it scores zero for flickability, although of course you can flick the top across a table by accident, destroying your credibility in half a nano-second. Non-Parket refills might be cheaper but they’re also a bit scratchy, so it’s not as good to write with as it used to be. Image-wise, this suffers because as I get older I don’t want people to think I’m, you know, older, so lost points there. As Pink FLoyd used to sing:

Now it’s too late to lose the weight you used to need to throw around.

Pity, really. You can get the refills in Smith’s though, if you’re prepared to pay over the odds for them.

Lamy Al Star biro

The Lamy biro *sigh*!!!! It’s soooooo ’80s! But then, I am, which doesn’t help these days when discussing say, sexual politics in offices. Things change, I try to explain. I’m not justifying anything, it’s just how things were…. Just like this pen in fact, although the black one I had then was plastic, not aluminium.

This pen defines flickability. German-designed again and it fits the hand beautifully. Being a biro it doesn’t write fantastically, but it’ll do. You could still sign cheques in wine bars with it, if there were still cheques. Or wine bars, come to that. It’s still a Lamy. And it still looks as if Max or Miguette or one of those ’80s faces might wander by any minute now….

Uniball Jetstream 101

I first bought a Jetstream when I read about the ghostwriter in Robert Harris’ Ghost using one. I know. Hidden shallows. It’s been said before. Anyway, cheap as chips and unexpectedly brilliant, it’s a biro but it’s more than that too. Mitsubishi, the people whose previous model Zero brought you Pearl Harbour, came up with waterproof ink that actually works for the Jetstream. As they say in the USMC, there are many biros but this one is mine. Spill your coffee over a page written in this and apart from the paper turning brown, nothing else happens. Ok, you’ll have to mop the table, but the ink won’t run. It seriously won’t run. Ever. Which is pretty magic itself in an 80p pen, but more than that, the barrel of this pen is a bit rubberised, just a little bit bendy and altogether very, very tactile. Or it responds to it well, at least (see 1980s office reference above..) It flows when you write with it, but it’s still well….. a biro. Which is bad. But a great pen. If you got one of these from the office stationery cupboard you’d be pretty darned pleased. I would, anyway.

Uniball Eye

I’m really sorry to have to say this. But. Out of all of these pens, the Uniball Eye is probably the best to write with. It’s a rollerball. It fits the hand. The nib just flows over the page, whatever the quality of the paper, yet another obsession. It has the magic Mitsubishi waterproof ink. Buy them by the dozen and you can get the unit price down to under £1 on Ebay. When they came out they seemed to be reserved only for architects or those frighteningly fit greying middle-aged men who owned whole companies and had more money than you did, and although I went on to own my own companies they still had more money than I did, Cotswold barn or no. Still, I had the same pen and they probably had more sense than to waste money on a brass Kaweco.

It isn’t what you write, nor, sadly, what you write it with. It’s the way that you write it. The song remains the same. So what do I do with all these pens now?

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The office. R.I.P.

Lucy Kellaway wrote about the death of the office recently. I should say ‘peacefully, at home, after a long illness,’ but my recollection of offices was that they were anything but peaceful and the sooner they died the better. Except I don’t think they will.

I’m about the same age as Lucy Kellaway, so I remember the same kind of London offices she does. I worked in the same office, and thankfully not for, her husband. I won’t call him a total arse, but when a grown man gives meaningless, single-word answers to office questions and someone else later explains ‘he was being Michael Caine today’ then my first thought isn’t ‘wotalarf.’ I’d have cheerfully blown his doors off.

Like her (and I don’t know if I would, having only met her husband when he was, for reasons of his own, pretending to be a Cockney actor in a 1960s film, as any grown office worker might do), I first knew offices in the 1980s. I don’t know if it was the end of the golden age, but it was a different time altogether, where behaviour that would get you sacked today was just well, normal office behaviour.

Office technology was a computer room, where no moral was allowed to tread. There was a Telex machine, which admittedly did look like something from a Michael Caine spy film and ties and jackets were expected. Your cuffs might be brown with dirt, but so long as they were on a butcher-striped shirt and fastened with links then you were fine. Smoking helped too. I nearly typed that it wasn’t compulsory, but obviously it was; whether you bought cigaretttes or not you got to smoke everybody else’s in an office where air conditioning didn’t exist. In the best office I worked in, long gone in Kingly Street now, the windows were never opened because of the mite-infested pigeons roosting outside in the light well. You could chain your bicycle to the railings on the stairs though, at least.

And the drinking. Drinking was, at all intents and purposes, compulsory. Two pints at lunchtime was fairly standard unless it was a Monday, when you could say you’d had a heavy weekend. And Fridays, when you could probably do three without anyone saying anything at all. If you were really on form then Gilbey’s gin and tonic mixer cans could be passed off as healthy sparkling water, especially if you got rid of the can and poured the contents into a cup from the coffee machine. And put it in your desk drawer if your boss’s boss’s boss was around.

I missed, by maybe only a couple of months, tea-ladies with a trolley and a staff canteen. We still had Mom & Pop Italian sandwich bars where you could get proper fresh mozzarella sliced with tomato on panini before Pret deliberately bought the premises next door and put a family out of work, something I’ve never forgiven them or their pretendy artisan-food-fan customers for.

As for high-functioning alcoholics – the manager who used to trade sex for cocaine on her boss’s wife’s desk, the one who got arrested for over £1,000 worth of parking tickets in the office, the one who flagged down a cab for 100 yards because she couldn’t walk that far? The girl who was so enraged at being mugged of her week’s wages that when the police arrived they arrested her for a breach of the peace? That kind of functioning alcoholic? Yep. Been there.

When I say been there, only with the latter in fact. I mean that in a loving and caring way, obviously. Ye gods were we drunk. And that was the deal. London floated on alcohol. The office was the interruption between pub at lunch and pub autopsy in the evening, before you maybe went on somewhere for dinner and more alcohol. Maybe a gin and Noilly Prat, something light as an aperitif. Maybe the older guy at the next desk would mumble ‘chemist’ and stumble out of the office to be back in about. fifteen minutes, refreshed from the off-licence and the bookies next door. If you mentioned it then you’d better be prepared to be called a sanctimonious prig at full volume and in one way, those people were right: the problem was the people who couldn’t cope, the ones who had a drink and their work suffered. Nobody had much time for them, as I remember.

And the sex thing, of course. I never did in the office. Not actually in the office, although like most people I knew, spent some time setting up things for after the office. But not your own office. Not on your own doorstep. That was a firm rule – only the week and foolish did that. For when you stop, you see? What do you say to them then?

You really got me

The thing that really got me in Ms Kellaway’s article was the bit about loyalty.

Without an office, without a body of people beavering away at the same place and time, it is hard to know how a company could ever create any sort of culture or any fellow feeling — let alone anything resembling loyalty.

For all the alcohol, and possibly because of all the alcohol, the cigarettes, the jangling, cuff-linked cigaretty posturing and preening of 1980s Soho, where after-work meant playing backgammon in the bar down the street (not for money. I didn’t have enough money to lose. Even though a Sociology degree had given me pretty decent backgammon skills) there actually was a kind of culture and camaraderie. It was hard to tell. We were mostly half-drunk and it’s easy to confuse trying to look down someone’s shirt on your fourth drink with a fine fellow-feeling, despite that it was only fellow-ettes I intended doing that with.

It was when the drinking stopped that all that fell apart. I was working at CACI. By 1990 the most career-damning insult was to be called frivolous. As in ‘that’s a frivolous argument.’ Now, you might say that a company that distinguished itself most by running Abu Ghraib prison in occupied Iraq probably wouldn’t rate frivolity that highly. Which would be to miss the point. Back then we just thought the accusation of frivolity meant the person saying it didn’t have the wit to riposte. Maybe they just hadn’t drunk enough, but by then they didn’t have office competitions on who could rack-up the biggest lunch-bill in a week. Wierdly, that was when loyalty was found to be a one-way street, too. Employees would get speeches about it, just like the ones about how great open-plan offices were, while they saw their boss’s promotion measured in opaque their office door was. And how people usually got sacked pretty soon after the loyalty speech.

I worked for myself pretty soon after the rot set in. The internet came. There was a place nearby that re-sold the contents of bankrupt businesses, which there were a lot of back then. I remember walking across a field clutching the future in the shape of a US Robotics modem, thinking this was the future. Everyone could work from home now. You wouldn’t have to commute. You wouldn’t have to spend three-quarters of your life within 200 yards of your office. And I totally missed the point, the way UK infrastructure totally missed the bus, to coin a PC-related phrase.

When I moved out to Suffolk I read the local papers to get a feel for the place. It’s amazing what you find. I’d been in Cannock Chase one day, stopping for petrol, when I read about a murder almost exactly a hundred years to the day from another murder there, with enough similarities to make at least a six-episode TV series. I didn’t find two murders a hundred years apart, guv. I found the mayor of Leiston who gave the best and worst UK business quote ever:

How can we have more jobs without more heavy lorries?

Eastern Daily Press.

That was 2001. Then and now I thought it was pathetic. It wasn’t just the lack of vision; it was the total failure of ambition, the ‘it’ll never change round here’ forelock-tugging nimbyism of it all that makes me cringe. Forget embarrassment: I’m talking about shame.

The Suffolk village where I lived then was one of the very last to get broadband. A decade after we’d started using the web in our office we were still paying for every single minute of dial-up time. The internet took off so much faster in the USA because the technology meant it was only ever a local phone call. It was in the UK too. The difference is and was that in the US, local calls were free.

Suffolk has a lot. Beautiful landscape. Peace. Tranquility. Big skies. It could have been the most miraculous creative hub. If it had had decent connectity. As it is, it didn’t even have proper offices staffed by lecherous semi-pro alcoholics reeking of lust, sweat and cigarettes. It’s a different world.

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Heart of darkness

So far, 36,000 people in the UK have died from the corona virus and if you add-in the untested, as Her Majesty’s Government are understandably in no hurry to do, a lot more have. As I was writing this I got it wrong though. It isn’t 36,000 at all. It’s now 37,048. You can track it here at

It’s certainly brought out the cliches. I was going to type that I’ve never seen anything like it in my life, but one thing I have seen before is government incompetence, dogma and a total refusal to accept that anything it does could ever be wrong. That part is just like the 1980s again. You turn if you want to.

I’ve been meaning to read everything I have in the pile but it mostly hasn’t happened. I still haven’t read Wolf Among Wolves and I love Hans Fallada. Ditto A Boy In Winter, Austerlitz, even Arthur Miller’s Timebends isn’t getting read. Instead I tried to catch-up on my everyone’s-supposed-to-have-read-Conrad list, given that at least he wrote short books.

Apocalypse Now was the problem.

There was a spare of films about the Vietnam War, from the Deerhunter through Apocalypse through FMJ, teaching mine and Jeremy Clarkson’s generation an entire vocabulary of gooks and slopes, M16s, medevac, fragging officers and the Thousand Yard Stare. Man, the chopper used to fly right over my house. Not in Vietnam but in Finsbury Park, coming down from somewhere north to shoot Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket in Docklands. Back then we – a collection of girls called things like Laura and Nicky and Caroline, DPG spooks, thick rich boys and ditto moguls (Nay, rarely, not Indian princes, girls who do photo shoots, ya? Because of the way they speak, ya?!?!) called it Full Dinner Jacket at the White Horse in Parson’s Green. What larks!

The Sloany Pony in all its glory *sigh*

But only because if you can remember the 1980s you weren’t drunk most of the time. I found it oddly appropriate that when a film-maker wanted to shoot in a tense, devastated third-world hell hole the obvious location was London. But it was a different place back then. The horror. The horror.

Conrad, to point out the bleeding obvious, wrote Heart of Darkness. To be honest, guv, I found the telling a story by telling a story about someone telling a story a bit laboured, quotes and all. But I can’t find a publisher and Conrad did, so what do I know?

Thinking about a post-industrial ruined city? Think London.

What I did find in Heart of Darkness wasn’t on the edge of town but on page 101, appropriately enough Orwell’s place where there is no darkness. It was a passage I very much identified with, because 15 years ago, it happened to me.

I have wrestled with Death. It is the most unexciting contest you can imagine. It takes place in an impalpable greyness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators, without clamour, without glory, without the great desire of victory, without the great fear of defeat, in a sickly atmosphere of tepid scepticism, without much beleif in your own right and still less in that of your adversary.

Conrad, Heart of Darkness, right at the end. Obviously.

That, as I remember it, was pretty much what it was like. A detachment, when you’re really, dying-type ill. A lack of interest in the outcome. I didn’t have Covid-19. I think I actually did in February and March, when I couldn’t stop coughing for about a month, had a temperature of 38.4 and not much memory day-to-day, other than being desperately tired all the time. Fifteen years ago I had something equally fatal, an iliac Deep Vein Thrombosis.

It’s Not All About You

Except when it happens to you, yes it %@&*ing well IS, actually.

I’d been flying around the world too much, I had a vein that had grown too close to an artery and in an airplane long-haul the artery expanded as arteries do. It pressed my iliac vein against my spine hard enough and long enough to stop the blood flowing through it, so it did what my blood does and clotted.

The thing about blood is that while it’s inside you it’s got a job to do and that job means it has to keep moving. The problem when blood in a vein clots mainly starts when the clot breaks up. First it goes to your lungs and can rip them apart. It’s called a pulmonary thrombosis and it really hurts. You’d know if you had one. Coincidentally enough, that’s what kills a lot of people with Covid-19. Three 300mg aspirin tablets – about 25p – would help, but I didn’t know that then. If the clot goes through your lungs without killing you it goes into your heart. That’s fine. It’s getting the clot out that’s the problem, because clots have a habit of getting stuck there. The heart will keep pumping, because that’s all it knows how to do and liquids don’t compress. Something’s got to give and the thing that will is your heart, as for once factually, however many times you’ve said it to people who are telling you to go and try to enter your body parts in someone else, permanently, it doesn’t feel as if it’s ripping apart, it actually is.

Then Mistah Kurtz, he dead.

If you’re lucky. Because if you aren’t then the blood clot will head next to your brain. It can kill you there by ripping it apart again, but if you’ve really lucked out you’ll just have a stroke, and I’m far too old to want to try to learn how to use a spoon to feed myself all over again.

Perhaps all the wisdom, and all truth, and all sincerity, are just compressed into that inappreciable moment of time in which we step over the threshold of the invisible. As Conrad put it.

From reading Hunter S. Thompson – never a wholly reliable source – I used to believe that the last words in Heart of Darkness were Kurtz’s.

The horror. The horror. Exterminate all the brutes.

Although to be fair, that could equally have been said by any Cabinet Minister advocating herd immunity.

We aren’t getting much wisdom, truth or sincerity out of HMG. But when the man who is Prime Minister was elected by people knowing full well he was sacked twice for lying all three are probably fairly unreasonable expectations.

The last words spoken in the book are much more apposite.

We have lost the first of the ebb.

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Reasons to believe

If I listened long enough to you
I'd find a way to believe that it's all true
Knowing that you lied
Straight-faced, while I cried.
Still I look to find a reason
To beleive.

I didn’t write that. Well, obviously I did, but I wasn’t the first to do it. So far as I remember it was the B side of Maggie May when Rod Stewart first released it, when it was the first single I ever bought. Back when there wasn’t much music around to listen to, so if you were into any music at all then you listened to it again and again and again, no matter how many times your Mum banged on the floor or ceiling screaming at you a stream of non-sequiturs about other people living in the house too.

The song was called, oddly enough, Reason To Beleive. It ought to be the national anthem now.

It’s week I don’t really know what of Covid19 lockdown. I can’t see any end to it and I don’t think anyone can. The biggest problem for me is that I can’t trust pretty much anything outside my front door now. I can’t trust people I don’t know not to kill me. And I certainly can’t trust this government, specifically because they told me not to.

When I was a boy we watched a lot of TV at home, despite there being only two, then three channels and not enough programmes to go round, to the extent that HTV, my station back home as they called it on heart-wrenching posters above the buffers at Paddington Station (they should have strap lined the whole railway ‘We’ll take you home,’ except they never did) used to have to run pictures of daffodils to a Russ Conway soundtrack in the daytime on the rare occasions a pre-epidemic cold was bad enough to keep me at home. When they weren’t broadcasting daffodils and knees-up piano music they ran Combat.

It was written, filmed and screened in the early 1960s on for the prime target audience, the men who’d actually fought through northern Europe not even twenty years before, just turning forty and beginning to appreciate a comfy chair and their memories of a time when they didn’t need to worry about trouser buttons popping when they sat in one. My father hated it for the way the “trigger-happy Yanks’ never had their helmets fastened, though quite when called-up RAF groundcrew who pretended they were pilots got so finicky was always unclear. But then, so was my father’s whole war along with the rest of his life and that’s another story in itself.

The format was simple. GIs invade Normandy and fight their way through France to beat the Nazis. Despite hardships, goodness eventually and always prevails. So far, so simple. You’re sitting there watching it, ain’t you? There are plenty of guys you knew that ain’t.

How it was as a six year-old is something I’ve begun remembering a lot now when practically anyone you meet can kill you, not with a burst of Schmeisser fire in an idyllic French hamlet but by silently giving you a dose of a fatal virus without even meaning to. Every simple walk outside becomes an episode of Combat.

A gap in the hedgerow? Don’t rush through it. Stop. Listen. An empty narrow trail across that field? Binoculars. It looks empty, but look at that path coming into it in the next field. The one that’s got (cue title sequence and dramatic music) …. SOMEONE WALKING ON IT!

But that’s how a walk through the fields is now. You can’t sensibly get on a path through crops if there’s a chance you’ll meet someone halfway across. Around here if you startle wildlife you have a decent chance of a deer running smack into you, and we have some big deer in my part of Suffolk, most of which never seem to have heard of social distancing. Maybe it’ll all be over by Christmas.

And maybe it won’t, because the one thing that has become absolutely clear is that the government doesn’t have the first idea what to do. The second thing that’s become clear is that pretty much everything said by them turns out to be a lie less than a week later.

We’re expected to believe in the same breath that the Prime Minister was fully in command of everything in the UK and literally wrestling the Grim Reaper at one and the same time. That it’s ok when the Prime Minister boasts about shaking hands with people with corona virus but everyone else shouldn’t go within two metres of anyone they don’t live with. That it’s all something from Foreignland, but there’s no need to test anyone coming into the ?UK, let alone track and trace their contents, and at the same time just 300 people were quarantined. But most of all, the constant drumbeat for the masses:

We’re following the science

Which is palpably untrue when other countries’ science hasn’t just been different but resulted in rather less than 32,000 deaths, one of the worst fatality rates in Europe.

Now the PM has announced, simultaneously, that a) we’re past the peak of infections and b) oh by the way, here’s 6,000 death figures we just found down the back of the Office of National Statistics’ sofa, but that doesn’t count. Because science. And anyway, it’s difficult to compare, which seems to be the standard response any time the government is questioned now.

All of this from a government which told us that we’ve all had enough of experts, except when experts can be rolled out to agree – or at aleast stand there not disagreeing – with anything the PM says.

It’s insulting. It’s the new normal. And I don’t have anyone to believe any more.

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Mailchimp chumps

I tried to watch the Mailchimp instruction video about menijing yer campeen. I meant, of course, managing your campaign, but it sounded like that.

Which is why I’ve just had to abort listening to the Mailchimp training webinar thing.

I just couldn’t stand the mangled vowels any more.

It was odd. Lockdown or not, if you’re going to have presenters then maybe don’t have pictures of them looking as if they got their clothes from a skip behind the worst local charity shop. I’d say the same if they were men, but they weren’t. Given they were static photos and neither of them appeared anywhere else other than the intro up until the halfway point where I had to switch their voices off, I don’t know why they were in the webinar at all. What was the point?

But the voices. Both American, which apart from New Hampshire isn’t a bad thing in itself. Seriously. Have you ever heard a rural New Hampshire accent? It leaves you thinking how sad it is that mental health programmes are so few and far between in the USA. None in rural New Hampshire, apparently, given the evidence of your own ears.

But like omigard? That rising inflection? At the end of every sentence? Like seriously? What’s it for? It always sounds like a question, which is irritating enough. But in a how-to-do-this-thing video, as we old people call anything with moving pictures on a screen, we don’t want questions. We’ve GOT questions. What we want are answers. Not answers?

Even more weirdly, the woman couldn’t say permission in any context whatever without pronouncing it as permission? With the rising inflexion at the end? For no reason? This is a time when WTUF FOR??? really is a question.

It wasn’t just that one of the women doing the presentation not only managed to speak in a monotone almost all of the time except when she was doing an irrelevant rising inflection. It wasn’t just that she did it every time she said permission?

It wasn’t even that she chewed up her vowels so that manage your campaign became menij yer campeen and by the time you’d worked out what she meant she was half-way through the next mangling.

She diverted attention from the message. So far as I can see it, and I know this is ridiculously old-fashioned, language is to communicate. If it doesn’t do that, if people can’t understand what you’re saying, because of the words you use, the speed of delivery, or the way you say things, then it’s failed. You haven’t communicated. You just made a noise. Like a farmyard animal.

I wanted to know what they had to say at Mailchimp. I wanted to understand more about how to use it. I just wish they’d understood how to tell people in a way that didn’t have them switching the sound off.

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Never mind the quality

We are where we are doesn’t mean anything. But we ought to know, so we don’t go there again.

I first went to the USA in 1984. It was America, just like in the movies. I bought an old Chevrolet. I taught kids to shoot on summer camp. I *cough* ‘parked by the lake.’ I nearly got myself shot by the police. I dated a cheerleader called Nancy-Jean. So far, so road movie. I was in heaven.

I saw signs everywhere for things made in America. Pendleton coats, a faded painted advert on a brick wall in Eagle River, from a time when they were definitely for working stiffs, not an Amerind virtue-signalling fashion statement. My car was the definition of Made In America. It was ludicrously big, crudely finished, fatuously thirsty and sounded great.

I went back in 1997, twice, to New York for work. I went to DC and San Diego again in 2003 on two trips and then to Cupertino and Denver the year of Katrina.

It wasn’t the same at all.

Over nearly twenty years I didn’t expect it to be. What I also didn’t expect was how much shopping would have changed. The first time I went it was hard to buy anything that wasn’t made in America. The last time I went it was hard to find anything that was.

For one reason, the same one that’s bugging me here in the UK today. Call it globalisation (as if it’s a new thing, not something we had two hundred years ago and which defined London, Glasgow, Liverpool, Bristol and pretty much every other port in the UK, and certainly every port involved in the Great Slave Triangle (rubbish UK goods out to Africa, sell them/exchange them for slaves, take the slaves to the New World, rum, coffee, sugar back to Blighty). You didn’t know? Really?

We always wanted to buy it cheap. Cheap become the obsession. In places like China wages are a small fraction of the amount you’d have to pay someone in the UK to stand in a factory. Their idea of copyright law seems to be that you make it, we’ll copy it. Then try to sue us and see how far you get. Quality control is to say the least, variable. And the returns policies are a joke.

I bought a converter plug for my new MacBook a couple of weeks ago, because suddenly all my USB plugs don’t fit the oh-so-tiny Thunderbolt plugs the Mac has, which magically do electricity as well as data stuff. I’m so old that a Thunderbolt as an American airplane, if it wasn’t a cowboy hero’s horse.

Long and short being that it didn’t work. Surprise! The one for £2.99 worked fine, even after I bent the end of it. The one that cost £20+ that did ten other things as well didn’t do them as well. Or at all. Or anything, really, except cost me money.

No problem, email and tell them.

Last time I had a problem with a Chinese IT stuff supplier they told me as a special deal they’d repay me the postage so I didn’t have to send it back and I could leave it there.

I emailed to ask why I’d put up with that as their product didn’t work. They emailed me back to say they didn’t make a lot on them, and basically, take it or leave it.

This time they asked for a video of the plug not working, so a technician could have a look. It doesn’t really need a technician to look at a home movie of a plug not working to see that a plug isn’t working. But the inference is clear: you’re doing it wrong.

But there probably wasn’t an inference to be made, other than: “We don’t speak English very well.”

Which is fine. I don’t speak Mandarin at all, so they’re one up. Now if I could just stop doing the English thing, and the American thing: buying it cheap then wondering why it isn’t made the way it used to be.

For anyone saying ‘don’t buy Chinese stuff, they gave us corona virus’ (and there are just such people, dear reader), a question. Do you want to maintain a totally false sense of prosperity by being able to buy cheap rubbish in Poundland, or not? And you do. It’s better than asking real questions about the economy, productivity, investment and incomes, after all.

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Living in the past

This isn’t about voting. I’ve been researching family trees with my partner. We’ve got back to the mid-1700s so far, with some surprising finds.

There are not one, not two, but three American families so far identified. Two of them on the eastern seaboard, as you might expect, but one pioneer in the truest sense of the word, born in Devon, ended up dying in Troy, Doniphan County, Kansas, in 1861, in his early 20s. I don’t know whether it was Indians, something to do with the Civil War, Act of God or just the natural course of events in a world with few doctors, no anaesthesia or antibiotics and a sketchy idea about germs – Louis Pasteur didn’t work out how to make milk safe to drink until 1870.

I was going to say I don’t know what would drive anyone to Kansas in 1861, given that I drove there on I-70 in 1984, following Eisenhower’s footsteps from 1919, but I do know. Poverty. Desperation. How else do you explain it?

If you know anyone called Chapple in Troy KS, say hi for us. Richard from Devon died there. His brother, William Henry, died there too, in 1915. One thing about this bloodline – if they lived to adulthood they lived a good long time. 90 isn’t that uncommon in this research, all through the 1800s and the first half of the 20th century.

There are sailors and blacksmiths and soldiers, including the expected slain in the First World War and although I expected to find that, I didn’t expect anyone to be a Private soldier at 42, volunteering at 40 in 1915, to be killed in Belgium and leave his name at Tyne Cot, along with 35,000 other British and Commonwealth soldiers who don’t have a grave worth the name. They are why I don’t, won’t and can’t ever support Brexit: the EU has given Western Europe the longest period of peace it’s ever enjoyed.

Losing my religion

Some other surprises too. Either there were twins both sharing the same name in Ireland where the female line came from, or someone walked out on his wife and married bigamously in Hampshire; either way, he almost certainly gave up his faith to get married in a Church of England parish. Or did one run away to sea, then liking living dangerously, came back to the village he’d run out of to have a baby with the new wife? She’s the right one to have had the right other offspring in the right places, so what’s the story? A tolerance I’d not expected from a wronged wife? An arrangement that would raise eyebrows today, in rural Ireland in the 1860s? I don’t know. I doubt I ever will.

The child rapist was something of a surprise too. Not someone who raped children but a distant, distant ten year-old who was convicted of rape in the first half of the 1800s. I’m not sure that’s physically possible; the fact that someone else in that court session got life while the ten year old got two years makes me wonder about it even more.

Why is it important? Because a friend of mine was wrong when she said she’d done her family tree and they were ‘a long line of nobodies.’

None of them were nobody. They were everybody.

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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.

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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.

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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 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.


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