How to kow tow

If you haven’t had a childhood spent reading old books because there was nothing else to do then you might not know what kow tow means. There’s always Wikipedia, which tells you that one meaning is

the act of deep respect shown by prostration, that is, kneeling and bowing so low as to have one’s head touching the ground. … the highest sign of reverence. It was widely used to show reverence for one’s elders, superiors and the Emperor.

In English academic circles today, it’s widely used to show reverence for the money Chinese students bring. I’ve spent the summer teaching them. I’m now taking a break from teaching because my forehead is worn thin from being expected to bow down to students who flatly refuse to do any work, simply because their parents did pretty well out of the pretend capitalism China adopted over the past twenty years.

I thought for a while it was just me. Understandably, as the Brexit government has shown clearly that Europeans are at best problematic, a lot of them have stayed away this summer. Their places were filled by Chinese instead.

The last class was pretty much the worst I’ve ever had. I’ve been almost pushed out of the way by angry students before, but until this summer I hadn’t been pushed out of the way by students simply because I was where they wanted to stand or walk. In class their behaviour was more problematic. They didn’t do anything.

We’d been told that this batch were B1. In case you ever wondered what the EU does, one of the things that passes their time is developing common standards across lots of different countries, specifically here the Common European Framework of Reference for languages, or CEFR.

It’s a sensible arrangement, laying down common guidelines so that whatever the student’s nationality or foreign language competence you can assess what level they are and judge what level of lessons they should be getting.

According to the framework, B1 students:

Can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc.
Can deal with most situations likely to arise while travelling in an area where the language is spoken.
Can produce simple connected text on topics that are familiar or of personal interest.
Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes and ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.

When someone can’t tell you their name, where they’re from and how many people there are in their family it doesn’t take an expert linguist to realise they aren’t B1 students. There is no shame in not speaking another language fluently at a language school. Learning how is what you’re there for; there’s not much other point in it. Where it goes wrong is when en bloc or singly, you lie about your capabilities then consciously do nothing at all to learn anything.

Almost all my class couldn’t tell me more than their names. About half had adopted what they thought were English names, some of them almost as bizarre as the Nissan Cedric, presumably named to impart some idea of superior class distinction regardless of the fact that not even Conservative Cabinet Ministers are called Cedric today. In a nutshell, most of these students were A1 at best.

Nobody knows everything

You go to school to learn things. I thought it was so fundamental it didn’t need saying, but time and again I’ve been proved wrong. Some learners are sent there for free daycare. Some to actually learn stuff that might be handy when they’re older. And some are sent there to impress the neighbours. Mine seemed to be the last category.

Saving faces

The concept of face is another Eastern thing familiar to any student of W.E. Johns, Conan Doyle or Sapper. It’s about making sure people continue to respect you. If you lose your job you still get on the 07:50 every morning so that next door don’t know you got canned. If your teacher did the language assessment for you then gave you all the answers, leaving you completely flummoxed then you can save face by not trying.

Can’t speak, won’t speak. Can’t write, won’t write.

Try it. You can never be wrong. It’s simple. But it’s not a good way of learning a language.

Naturally enough, I mentioned this issue to the Chinese teachers who accompanied the class. Three of the four of them had next to no English themselves. The one who did told me several students were uncomfortable in my class. Personally, I’m glad that a student who sits in class doing absolutely nothing for a week, wearing a surgical mask because of the disgusting level of air pollution in a rural Suffolk market town and doing her eye make-up at her desk instead of writing a single word of English feels uncomfortable. She ought to.

The reaction of the school when the teachers raised the issue was immediate. It was tough luck. Sure, the students might not actually do anything in class. They may refuse to speak. They might refuse to write. They may be totally unable to follow any instructions or to be anywhere on time, although miraculously, their English might improve at lightning speed when they want something, disappearing just as fast when asked why they thought it was ok to barge people out of their way. They’re paying the fees. Deal with it.

China in your hands

Hideously, I find myself agreeing with Chris Patten, whose Guardian article lays into Chinese government control of universities there and the way the current UK government seems to feel all this talk about standards and independence is all very well but doesn’t really fit with the demands of the real world. On Radio 4 this morning he went further, accusing Liverpool University of allowing a curriculum to be developed on its Chinese campus that would only teach things the Chinese government liked and nothing that it wouldn’t, in much the same way that the fearlessly independent creators of truth, justice, open source information and Google saw no difference in saying ‘first cause no harm’ and saying to the Chinese government sure, ok, of course we’ll block sites you don’t like on our search engine if you let us into China. He thought it was laughable that any academic institution would be so craven as to kow tow to the students. He ought to try teaching.

Billy Liar‘s tarty girlfriend Rita used to sneer at him ‘get off your knees.’ I didn’t realise that I’d be living in a world where grovelling only that low wasn’t low enough.

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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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The happiest days

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

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

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

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

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

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Walking home

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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A sword in every pond

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

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

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

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

 

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Me and JB

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Trump, lies and sellotape

Esquire ran the story today but I heard it yesterday and one thing that Trump has showed us all is that yesterday counts for nothing; he’ll have told another four lies since breakfast. When he came out with this one at a press conference there was nothing but reverential silence from the crowd of supposedly impartial Clark Kents and Lois Lanes all devoted to truth ‘N’ freedom, Gahd, Mom ‘N’ apple pie.

Donald Trump just met the Korean dictator, or as Fox News put it, two dictators met each other. After saying that he’d make North Korea give up all their nukes or goshdurnit, them Commies would pay the meeting ended with Trump basically saying what a nice guy Kim Yung Un was and how he, Trump, had done a brilliant thing when nobody else could and how everybody loved him. So far, so normal.

As was the Big Lie slipped in. Trump said he’d managed to secure the remains of GI’s killed in the Korean War, a Very Big Deal because, he said, so many of their parents had come to see him to say gee Mr Donald, when you go to that there Korea, could you bring back whatever’s left of Jim Buck, my boy in the 427th?

The details I made up, but the gist was what he said. The problem being, nobody laughed. The whole Press pack soaked this rubbish up in reverential silence as if God himself was sitting there lying.

For better or worse, the Korean War ended in 1953. Anyone fighting and dying in it from the USA would have had to be at least 18 when they fought and fell, which means at a minimum they’d have to have been born in 1935. Even by Southern States’ standards, an average of 20 probably held right for parenting back then,  which takes us to 1915. This isn’t any tricky statistics, just boring old maths. And according to President Trump, ‘so many’ people aged over 100 years old not only attended his stump meets but came up to him personally to ask him a favour.

Except they didn’t and everybody knows they didn’t. Except the Press corps dutifully, silently, willingly and without comment soaked-up and repeated this stupid, childish, provable lie. It isn’t good enough that a style magazine gets snide about it the next day. Our problem is the mainstream news happily repeats lies instead of falling about laughing at the liar. Maybe God made Man. Maybe,and maybe the mighty should look on these works and despair. But without any question, the Press made Trump and more than just the mighty need to despair at that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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SQL Sequels

 

I applied for what looked like a dream job recently. Down in Dorset, about ten miles from a town I visit every couple of months, a place I know and love, where I have friends and people to say hello to in the street. I’ve been going there since school trips, back when we didn’t so much find dinosaur fossils as dodge them lumbering up out of the primeval ocean. Kidding – we just chatted with old Tom Hardy and gave him some plot ideas. Turned out he only ever used one of them, really.

Not Your Heart Away

Immediately after A Levels I’d bizarrely got into the habit of working and banged-out 82,000 words that became A Day For Pyjamas. Half our lives away I wrote a sequel to it, Not Your Heart Away, which got some nice reviews on Amazon and won a BBC award when I re-wrote it as a screenplay. Another one (Janni Schenck, a story about a nice orphan kid who loves Swing music and just happened to be in the Hitler Youth) was based on fact; that one was entered for Cannes with the Maison des Scenaristes, back in 2017.  I wrote some stand-up performance spoken word and performed them a bit, but got tired of the don’t-get-paid local stand-up circuit. So yes, stories. I can do that. Gizzajob, as we used to say.

I’d also spent two decades analysing business information, from going around the world listening to people to poring over data tables with my lucky ruler (metal, triangular, I think they’re really something to do with woodwork, but hey) to reading hundreds of pages of interview transcripts and spreadsheet print-outs and finding the tiny clues that open-up markets. Which I did more than once. So yes, I can do data. What do you need?

What the committee decided they needed, after a blistering presentation that I could feel in the soles of my feet had rocked everyone’s socks off, was someone who can do that and was a ‘data expert’ at SQL and Python and Tableau. I can do that too, but those are computer programmes. I’ve nothing against computer programmes. I’ve designed and got written two apps myself, one to track HTML 404 errors, the other to compare and assess casualty data. Is that tech enough?

Apparently not. But they’re still two different skills. One you can learn in a month. Sit me or let’s be honest, pretty much anyone down in front of a PC and an online learning course and you’ve got a competent machine-minder. They won’t necessarily know anything about the data they’re interrogating and most of them won’t worry their pretty little heads over the fact that using data this way is akin to regression modelling; it’s great if you know for certain the future is going to be exactly like the past. Which is a pretty massively flawed assumption in lots of areas of life, not least the national economy after Brexit.

You can’t learn to tell stories convincingly and well to an audience of one or a couple of hundred, online, on TV, at conferences or anywhere else, in a month.  Like any performance, it’s an iterative thing. You get better at it the more you do it. You learn from your mistakes. You might even integrate them into the performance to get a reaction to work back to from the people you’re telling the story to. It’s a two-way thing. It’s adaptive. It’s interpretive. And whatever you do it, however much you call it ‘science’ data crunching isn’t, any more than  power loom operators were weavers. It’s reductive, it’s literally codified; it’s not even about understanding numbers and their relationships. Just learning how to get a machine to tell you ‘how many.’ Never how, and don’t even ask why.

 

 

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The big secret

I went to a small village school in Wiltshire. When I was a boy I mean, not yesterday. It would be called a faith school now. It was Church of England and all that meant was that once a year Canon Long (oh how we laughed) came presumably to see that things were done in a godly way, although as a school of that least demanding of faiths presumably an ungodly way would have done just as well. We had hymns and prayers but no more than seems healthy for children even now when for me, hymns are just for Christmas and funerals. I still sometimes think there really is a green hill far away. I see it whenever I go back there. Ours had a white horse on it.

The school had a stone bell tower although we never once heard the bell rung and a cloakroom with sinks which I never, ever liked being in, particularly on my own, because it always felt as if I wasn’t alone there at all.

Hiding in plain sight

None of that was the big secret. That was hanging on the wall, four feet long.

When I went to my next school there was a huge, wall-sized map of the town. It showed things that weren’t there, like shunting yards and engine sheds and a turntable for locomotives on the railway and curiously, a tiny hut labelled as being owned, presumably collectively, by the local branch of the Communist Party of Great Britain. I don’t know if thst had all gone but most of the railway certainly had.

The map at the village school had something much bigger that wasn’t there: the British Empire. It was there on the wall. It was never discussed. Ever. Under any circumstances, other than just to say it was the Commonwealth now, as if Cromwell’s dour shade had banned dancing for hottentots and admired the lack of worldly ornament favoured by Inuit igloo makers. It made no sense.

There were hints that things had gone wrong somewhere. Our Brave Boys who had kept India British for 200 years had saved it from the Japs in 1945 then somehow two years later decided it hadn’t been worth saving and all went home. We could still find books that talked about the Groundnut Scheme as a great prospect for the residents of Tanganyika. The Ealing comedy of the Groundnut Scheme packed-up in 1951. Ghandi’s name came up from time to time too, rarely favourably.

There it all was, coloured red, on the map in our classroom. There it all wasn’t in reality outside. Nobody mentioned it. Nobody said what had happened, nor why. It certainly wasn’t ever even touched on in History, at primary school or even A Levels; I’m not convinced it is now.

The past is another country. They do things differently there. But here or then, we don’t talk about how or why it all fell to bits. Maybe it’s embarassment, maybe it’s denial. It made me wonder then and now what else I’m not going to be told.

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The king’s breakfast

I suppose it comes to us all. When we’re just kids we do mix tapes, or we did and quite how that’s possible with Spotify I don’t really know. Then we do the extravagent and usually inappropritate presents thing. But me, I’ve just crossed a boundary.

Stuff To Impress Girls

I just bought a butter dish. It struck me the other morning as I dug through the cupboard to find an unchipped ramekin that wasn’t blatantly an imperfectly-washed little glass dish that had recently had a Gu pudding in it, that there must be an alternative to slapping a tub of Lurpak on the breakfast table. The company was delightful, the morning sunny, the eggs had scrambled just about perfectly. Add a plastic tub of butter and I felt as if I was Sid James gurning ‘wrap your laughing gear round that, doll.’

I know I had a butter dish at one time. It was terracotta, which made me think it should be left out instead of put back in the fridge in summer, meaning I had a rancid yellow slick of ghee in the bottom of it which would have made anyone think twice about a re-match. But it was gone, along with every other butter dish in every shop in Bridport. Ditto butter knives.

A few years ago in Spain I found an Arab woman who spoke faultless English and German who tempted me with a Brotchenmesser. With elegant thoroughness Germans had not only invented a special knife that cuts your bread rolls neatly, but arranged the blade so it spread butter as well. I wanted one and in one of those so stupid false economies, thought I shouldn’t spend the eight euros or whatever it was but torture myself about it for the rest of my life instead. But that was then. The past is another country and besides, that butter’s been spread. For some reason every junk shop, charity shop, flea market stall and antique shop is seeing a run on butter dishes. Nobody has one. There was just one oh-so-ironic one marked Lurpak in the Oxfam shop, but say what you may I’m not having anything on my table with a grinning dwarf moulded onto it. The rather fetching French glass possible butter dish (as in it possibly was one but I don’t know if the French go in for butter dishes. Do they? Do Thais? Armenians?) was nice but I couldn’t decide if it was 1930s as claimed, 1950s as it could be at a pinch or that 1960s-could-be-any-time-in-the-’80s French design period, so I left it.

I ended-up with what looks like a butter dish but actually is a pate dish, undubitably also French and of a size to take a huge tub of Lurpak big enough to grease a pig. Should the need arise.

For our younger readers who’ve never heard of AA Milne’s The King’s Breakfast, make like a dolphin and click here.

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