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 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.

 

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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 a 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 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 here 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.

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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.

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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.

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