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My Other Stuff – Writer-insighter
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The Lost Towns

In another life I was helping build a market research company. Between the two of us, we did pretty well at starting with pretty much nothing and unlike Seasick Steve, by the time we’d done with it we didn’t still have most of it left. We got some big clients quickly and we did very good work, although quite often it was a lot better than some clients knew they were getting. 

The oddest thing, maybe the best thing about it was the amount of England I got to see. Unlike a lot of pretend researchers we knew something about sampling, making sure that the necessarily limited number of people we could interview or talk to were representative of the many more people that we physically couldn’t. I’d had to learn about sampling and probability, T-Tests and R factors at university. I wasn’t much good at it at first but the uni solved that by telling me they’d throw me off the course if I didn’t get my finger out, so despite my meager C-grade Maths O Level I managed to come third in my entire year in QMD. It meant Quantitative Methods and something beginning with D but I never knew quite what. ‘Disciplines’ didn’t sound right.

We had an agency who couldn’t handle their contract with the Ministry of Defence as our first client and basically did their job for them at a fraction of their fee to MoD. We picked up work for a High Street computer magazine company and tested and evaluate their existing and putative magazines and artworks, hindered slightly by our direct client there wanting to spend much of the consultancy time talking about her issues with her husband, which I felt were somewhat unavoidable given that she was also shagging the CEO. We had a client whose major source of capital was the Barons Court townhouse he’d bought decades previously, who had to hang on doing group discussions in Newcastle suburbs until he could cash it in. A client who pretty much only worked on cigarette packaging who endured evening after evening in hotels munching his way through curling sandwiches while he listened to respondents arguing over which pack they’d put over here with this pile because of the colour, or because of the embossing of the lettering, maybe over here with these.

I remember a misty trip to a closed, out-of-season Chessington Zoo to interview a chef about squirty cream with wild animals grunting and roaring damply just out of sight; another fog-bound trip in the opposite direction, going back with a taped interview about Chantilly cream if not lace, back from some hotel somewhere on the Fosse Way near Loughborough that I wouldn’t now recognise apart from the black stagecoach standing outside it in a glass case. For reasons that were never made clear as Hunter Thompson said so often, for reasons that were. Hotel after odd hotel in the fog, hideous flock-wallpaper commercial hotels near Swansea, Fawlty Towers dosshouses on the red light strip in Leeds but none of them as glowingly remembered as the trip to Plymouth just as Spring was starting nearly thirty years ago. 

Plymouth was about 150 miles away from where we were; it’s never been easy to get to and more so if you confuse it with Portsmouth when you’re planning the trip. It’s absolutely nowhere near there at all. It was very early April and where we were just outside London it had been rainy and cold for weeks. We got down to Plymouth and entered a world of bright sunlight. I’d never been there. Or rather, I think maybe I had; there’s an inexplicable childhood memory of walking with my family through a deserted naval dockyard, back then still full of big white ships with huge guns on them. Improbable as that sounds, out of all the improbable things I remember from being six years old I think that memory still seems one of the more probable. 

On the journey back from Plymouth we went cross country. I’d been to Brixham on holiday when I was six or seven and it was just about on a roundabout route we could take, so we did, skirting the edge of Dartmoor, stopping at a little town that might have been Kingsbridge with a big crossroads somewhere south of the moor, visiting a great shop that sold marvellous things we didn’t buy, with Django Reinhardt music playing on their CD on every floor. Thirty years ago. I’ve never been back and couldn’t if I tried. Shops like that don’t last, certainly not for thirty years, out in the middle of nowhere, however keen and smiling and alive the two women running it ever were. 

We left the town quietly and drove east, out into more nowhere, taking a short cut towards the sea, driving along a deserted flat beach that went on for what seemed like miles, then turning inland just slightly to find a wartime American Sherman tank painted black and parked on a concrete plinth at the side of the road. 

It was there because a local man had put it there. He’d pulled it out of the sea and it was there because of lies and a massive accident. Before the invasion of Normandy it was obvious that maybe it would be a good idea to practice landing on a beach in force, so one night the US Army practiced doing exactly that, at Slapton Sands, which has much the same beach as those across the Channel. Thousands of untried, untested but trained American soldiers were fully kitted out with the same full load of gear they’d have for D-Day, loaded onto ships, taken out into the English Channel, turned around and brought back in to the simulated looks-just-like-it landing beach. Just before they got there it all went horribly wrong, as wars do. Somehow, by luck or accident, German boats got mixed up in the Allied armada. When they opened fire the Americans on the ships thought it was all just part of the exercise. Around 750 of them were killed. “Around” because only about 250 bodies were recovered, which was important because some of the bodies had belonged to people who knew exactly where the invasion was going to take place. Slapton Sands looked like Utah Beach. There was a massive effort to find the bodies of these key figures in a bizarre inversion of normality where it was better to find a dead body than to hope they’d been captured instead. Dead people tell no tales. And ‘around’ because the Allies weren’t exactly going to advertise any of this just weeks before the invasion. And ‘around’ because governments tell lies. There was a mass grave, as you’d need with 750 dead soldiers. Decades later the British government was still lying about the whole episode, not least as it had been a disaster from start to finish, beginning with a friendly-fire incident that was rumoured at the time to have killed 450 soldiers before the Germans started. Fishermen’s trawls got snagged on things on the seabed that according to Her Majesty’s Government were all in their imaginations. It was harder to officially deny the Sherman tank that a man called Ken Small hauled out of Lyme Bay in 1984. 

We stopped and looked at the tank and wondered why it was there. We didn’t know anything about it at the time. Most people didn’t. They probably still don’t. There was nobody around to ask, just our car, the deserted road with the sea on one side and a lagoon on the other and a tank that shouldn’t have been there.

We drove on again and got to Brixham, where the sun was shining and the tops of the palm trees were slightly swaying in the sea breeze and the English Riviera looked like a Real Thing. We stopped at a cafe near the replica of Drake’s ship, the Golden Hind. I’d last seen that when I was six or seven, but this time I had coffee and the distraction of a couple about my age at a table just behind me to one side. They had Northern accents. He looked a bit weedy. She had the largest breasts I have ever seen in my entire life. Blond, unremarkably dressed in jeans and a t-shirt and a denim jacket, completely average-looking except for those most remarkable things of all. Just astonishing. My partner was somewhat less than impressed.

I know, OK? I mean, I’ve gone on training courses and everything. I do know how un-right-on, how dehumanising, how sexualising, how un-personing all that reducing a woman to a single physical attribute sounds. And probably actually is. But they were unbelievable. Even now.

We drove on in the sunlight back through the West Country I grew-up in. I stopped again at some little silent town to stretch my legs. I walked through a yard of some kind, perhaps an old bus station or something to do with a cattle market. I could hear no sound of any kind at all. It was the West Country I remembered, the beautiful old place you have to leave because there’s nothing there any more, or not for me anyway. Some time later on the A303 we stopped again in a picnic area and saw birds bursting out of a hedge, small birds, twenty or thirty of them, and then saw why as a buzzard or a hawk of some kind swooped low over the hedge in pursuit.

One other trips we discovered Iron Masters’ lodges around Sheffield, a gourmet luxury hotel run by an architect who’d gone bust, where I was asked to return a restaurant critic’s trousers to him next time I saw him, which I never had. I remember an almost perfect Georgian town somewhere in the Midlands, somewhere I’d never heard of before and will never see again, one of those places that was doing rather nicely thank-you until it decided it didn’t need the railway to call there. I wondered about all the people who lived there, what they did for jobs, if they knew there was an outside in the Great Not There as it snuggled itself into the darkening night with another three hours of driving ahead of me before I saw home. 

All of this I’d never seen before. I think most people never do. It was the best part of market research, for me; finding out where I came from, seeing the lost towns of England, wondering where home would ever be. 

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The last Englishman

I love the Real England, but I hate more than anything on earth (except cowardice in looking at the truth) the intellectual sloth, the gross mental indolence that prevents the English from making an effort of imagination and realising how shameful will be their portion in history when the story of this last year in the biography of democracy comes to be written. Shameful foolish and tragic beyond tears, for the toll will be paid in English blood. English lads will die and English lads have died, not one or two, but hundreds of thousands, because their elders listen to me who think little things, and tell them little things, which are so terribly easy to repeat.

I didn’t write that. Rudyard Kipling did, writing about the Russian revolution a hundred years ago, his point proven by how pathetically little has changed. The Prime Minister, who likes to pose as the ultimate Englishman despite being an American citizen until 2017 appointed a Minister specifically to find the benefits of Brexit, unable, along with the UK media who enabled it, to tell the truth about the lunatic lake of half-truths, conditional clauses, delusion, racism and xenophobia that bred it. After two months the Minister has somehow inexplicably failed to make his findings public. Meanwhile, lorry drivers crap on the roadside waiting for the technological solution the government promised would simplify import and export, in the absence of which the whole process has become more difficult. This year, apart from intending to send people to camps in Africa, Australia being no longer available, the main item on the Parliamentary agenda has been not just shamefully foolish and tragic beyond tears, but all the evidence anyone could ask for of a failed state. The main item, even bigger than the pretence that a disease killing 500 people per day has somehow not just gone away but was personally cured by the Prime Minister dressing up as a nurse, has been avoiding telling the truth about his lies and lawbreaking.

There were, unarguably, parties at Number 10 Downing Street, during a Covid lockdown where parties were banned by the man who was there. Nobody even disputes that now. Even the Prime Minister, who used to claim he didn’t know about that happening in his own house, despite being filmed at the event, now says OK, he was there, maybe, but not for long and anyway, he didn’t know it was a party. Adults in the UK are being asked to believe that an adult who genuinely does not know what a party is, is fully capable of say, being responsible for the launch of nuclear missiles in defence of the nation.

Even without a handy little military unpleasantness far away, the preferred English kind notwithstanding that it usually resulted in a colossal English defeat (vide Mons, Dunkirk, Norway, Singapore), a man who pretends everything, from not knowing how many children he has to not knowing that PG Wodehouse was kidding to not knowing that airborne disease transmission can be mitigated by wearing a mask to pretending it’s all just not happening and doesn’t matter anyway so long as he’s still Prime Minister is still Prime Minister.

And the hundreds of thousands of dead? That only happens in the kinds of wars we don’t have anymore. Except of course, it doesn’t, as a direct result of the policies of the Party the Prime Minister leads. 130,000 preventable deaths in 2019, well before Covid. Another 170,000 on top of that caused directly by doing too little, too late, having a lockdown, not having a lockdown, pubs being too dangerous to enter, totally safe to enter and too dangerous to enter all in the course of a single day, pretending that science was just something girly swots did, that adhering to medical advice was subsidiary to the unassailable right to infect anyone, anywhere at any time because Freedom.

We have seen progress in reducing preventable disease flatline since 2012. At the same time, local authorities have seen significant cuts to their public health budgets, which has severely impacted the capacity of preventative services. Social conditions for many have failed to improve since the economic crisis, creating a perfect storm that encourages harmful health behaviours. This health challenge will only continue to worsen.”

Institute for Public Policy Research 2019

Most unforgivably of all, the cowardice in the refusal to face facts is something the Prime Minister is or was or pretended to be aware of. More contemptible still is the way it’s almost impossible now to decide which of these is ever true, or at what time, or whether it just changes according to who he talks to, but that’s just a given now.

One of the big things affecting lives and deaths is the fact that UK trade is down 15% post-Brexit, according to the government’s own figures from the Office of Budget Responsibility, still shamelessly called that without the slightest trace of irony. Handily though, that’s hardly ever mentioned in most UK media, let alone repeated around the bar in every pub. The little, easily repeatable things still matter more. And as everyone knows, when it comes to the UK’s problems it’s all down to them forrins, innit?

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Cloudy, clearing later

My father claimed he was born in Australia and was brought up near Orpington in Kent. My father was a liar. I’m beginning to find out why.

One obvious reason was that when my mother tried to divorce him she found that you can’t divorce people you’re not actually married to, which came as some surprise to her as she’d been to the church and wore the dress and everything. He was a bigamist, running two parallel families. According to her, anyway.

I started to look into the truth or absence of it back in the 1980s and got as far as establishing he wasn’t born in Australia at all. That took a good half-hour; in those days you just walked into Somerset House in the Strand and looked in the big books, gave them some money and they gave you a copy of the birth certificate.

The 1980s, people keep insisting, were a long time ago. They probably still are. One good thing that’s changed since then is more and more genealogical websites make it far easier to check who was where and when. I’ve just discovered something that ties up. I think I might have discovered something quite odd, as well.

Odd things have happened throughout my life to do with my appearance. It’s not normal. So I’ve been told, anyway, meaning my face is let’s say, distinctive rather than having, for example, an unusual number of fingers for Suffolk. Someone who I’d thought was a great friend once spent an evening wondering out loud how I always got such attractive girlfriends, musing “because you’re not.” Actually, I am of course, and in any event, you can often get to go to bed with very attractive albeit slightly unhinged women just by listening to them droning on about their boyfriend or husband for a bit. Allegedly.

Why any of that matters is because of something that happened in the town I grew up in, Trowbridge in Wiltshire. In those days you insured a car by going to the insurance broker’s office. I NAY! Amazeballs, yah? But everyone did. Including me, one day, trying to insure some Sunbeam Rapier or VW Beetle. The insurance broker asked me what I’d done with the car I insured last week. Which was odd, because I hadn’t. And people don’t look like me. They just don’t.

Be that as it may, today’s discovery is a bit unsettling. Either my paternal grandfather married a woman with the exact same name as his sister, the two of them in the middle of a string of eight children on a farm that’s still there in Kent, or I don’t really want to consider the alternative. I think it has to be the former, not just because I’ve got the right number of fingers, but because the two Kate Bennetts, despite being weirdly the same age, were born in different places, one in Mitcham, Surrey, one in St Paul’s Cray, Kent.

Kate Bennett, born 1877, is the mystery figure in all this. She produced my father at the age of 43, the youngest of three children, two of which I’d never heard of until this morning. But those were the children who survived – I’d discounted her as too old to have children in those days, thinking there was only one, but my father was the last child or the last child that didn’t die before being registered, at least.

The other big mystery is the place. It doesn’t exist. The Urban District Council changed and changed again between 1920 and now, which really does not help track down addresses. A map puts the family of five at a Vachard Place, near what’s now Orpington, in 1921. And it’s massive. The farm the man who appears to be my paternal grandfather came from is still there, a couple of miles from the 1921 address, but he had moved to Mitcham then back again; I’d guess his father died and he either inherited some part of the farm or felt he had to go back to help. But this Vachard Place place is a mystery. It fits with things I remember my father telling me – he grew up in the countryside, there were trees and fields all around, it was beautiful. It’s a country park now so presumably, it hasn’t changed much in the past hundred years and more. But the house is massive. Extremely expensive-looking. Unlike the farm, which according to Companies House has assets of £20,000, or at the least the company registered at that address does.

He was dead by 1939. Or at least he isn’t living with my father and Kate, who was by then widowed and ill, as people often were in their sixties back then. There was another unknown girl living in the same house by then, although whether she was a servant or someone taken in from charity I don’t know – she was never mentioned.

But so much wasn’t.

If I’m honest, this has been an unsettling morning. Either my father’s father shagged his sister, which for obvious reasons I’d prefer not to believe, or there were other relatives I’ve never heard of. I accept that my mother probably didn’t have the wherewithal to go and check the 1921 Census. But she could have walked into Somerset House the same way I could and did. She could have seen or asked to see my father’s birth certificate in the same way my partner and I have that on the list of stuff we’ve shown each other. I can’t think of a reason why we wouldn’t. She was disconcerted to find she had Irish ancestors not that long ago who she’d never heard of. I’m disconcerted today finding ancestors whose existence was denied by omission and collusion.

People tell lies. They tell lies for a reason. People cover-up lies too. I don’t know the reason for that.

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The price of our soles

Once upon a time in a land long ago I bought some shoes. It was London, between 16 and 30 years ago, it was this time of year, it was Jermyn Street and they were Church’s. And two pairs of Lobbs. Oh, and a pair of Gucci loafers. Sometimes I think there was something wrong in my head.

The thing about paying five times more than a normal High Street pair of shoes is they last. Not the last. They last. Apart from the pair of Lobbs I think I left under someone’s sofa before the cleaner came in after which no mortal eye beheld them since, or not to my knowledge anyway, I still have all of them. None of them were what you’d call everyday shoes, apart from maybe the Church’s which were and are a fairly unexceptional black brogues and of all of them, my least favorite. The sole lets in water and something is pressing up through the inside of the heel, or feels like it.

The Lobbs were both double monk shoes. Not made of a monk, you understand, or even a pair of monks, but those odd shoes with a strap over the top, or two. Not like Clark’s sandals, thanks for asking. One pair black, one pair brown, from the January sales and still eye-wateringly expensive even when you try not to think about it. it was the black pair that went AWOL. The brown ones are fine. Except they’re not. I had them re-soled by Lobb’s about 20 years back. I never, ever wholly got on with the replacement soles, which admittedly don’t slip on station platforms the way the originals did, but always seemed not just monstrously thick but somehow seemed to trip me up because of their thickness, which as both soles are the same thickness and it doesn’t alter ever, hardly makes any sense at all. Except they do and always have, especially on stairs. And yes, stone-cold sober, thanks.

Squidgygate

The Gucci loafers – ah yes, I remember them well, not least as I still have them and they fit in a way that makes you think you forgot to put any shoes on. They’re just brilliant. It was 2003, I think. I didn’t get them because Diana Spencer laughed about one of her numerous (ahem) unofficial consorts’ fondness for them. It wasn’t that more than once after six months on a rowing machine and a habit of drinking in Harvey Nicholls’ top floor bar, the odd minor Sloanette or rather less usefully, cabbie or builder mistook me for Major Hewitt now and again. I just wanted a pair. Not the ghastly ones with red and green ribbon on, as if you’ve just run through a ticker-tape parade or a church fete. Just plain black, the lovely discrete little snaffle-bit decoration on the apron and tiny metal labels on the sole just in case anyone’s missed it, although like finding out a girl’s wearing tights and not stockings, by the time you’re there it’s a bit late to quibble. Anyway, thanks to the rarity of any bona fide opportunity to wear them on a haunted bomber station in East Anglia, they’re fine. Conferences, when I used to do conferences, and dates. According to the Sloane Ranger’s Handbook, gals of a certain type always used ‘look at their shoes’ as a watchword. I’d already taken steps to ensure the worst dating put-down of all could never be uttered, at least about me.

(In case you’re wondering, younger or not fond of hanging around the White Horse on Parsons Green, it was these utterly devastating words:

“White socks! He was wearing white socks!”

Apparently that’s where Conrad got the idea for the last line of Heart of Darkness.)

“The horror. The horror. Exterminate all the brutes.”

Anyway, long and short, the Church’s desperately need a new sole, heel and insole, which is going to cost a cool £190 notes, plus VAT. Because making a new pair takes 200 separate tasks and ripping off the old sole and heel, slapping a new one on and re-cushioning the heel and sole inside comprises 60 separate tasks, by hand, in Northampton. It’s an ethical dilemma, of a kind. Do I say, sure, ok, here’s over £200 for a new pair of old shoes I only wear for best, best these days being funerals or going to court, something I try to avoid doing and pat myself on the back for recycling? Or do I buy a £100 pair of something black which will last two years at the absolute outside, washed individually in Chinese children’s tears?

Then there’s the brown Lobbs to do, which if they had Dainite soles instead of the weird Lobb re-soles that make me walk as if Noddy Holder would have been happy to wear them onstage I’d wear an awful lot more. Maybe in red. Which is going to cost about the same, give or take £50.

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Babysitting: Lucy Kellaway

About a thousand years ago I used to work with a man called Alec Kellaway. I say work, but I could never explain what it was he did at Mintel and when I asked him ,neither could he. Although it was a sunny summer morning long before the pubs opened, he gave every impression of being totally off his face. His assistant, in the far-off days when middle managers had assistants to open their email for them, explained to me later: he was being Michael Caine. Which was odd on two counts, one because Mintel wasn’t a theatrical agency and secondly because I thought he was just being an arse. Which however, wasn’t and isn’t Lucy Kellaway the former FT journalist’s responsibility or indeed, her fault.

About five years ago she wrote in the Financial Times about how big a pain it had become to work there, so she quit and re-trained to teach. Having a public profile already via the FT, it was a natural progression to getting a TV show about learning to teach. I’d done something like it just a year or two before, so I could identify very much with some of the issues being raised in the programme.

Yesterday the schools went back after lockdown. We’re all officially supposed to forget the day in December when the Prime Minister announced schools were too dangerous to go to, then said ah yes, but eheu, what he’d meant by that, naysayers notwithstanding, was that schools were very safe and should open at once, followed a few hours later by his announcement that actually, thinking about it, it had struck him that schools were lethal cesspools of infection and should be avoided at all costs. Except for the children of key workers, obviously, presumably on the grounds that their parents tended to be lower-paid so who really cares what happens to them. On the very same day schools were unsafe, safe, then unsafe, all the while “following the science”. And that’s official.

Officially Rude To Mention It

A lot of things in education are Officially Rude To Mention It. The time when I took a four-inch blade a pupil had publicly threatened another child with, to find him rewarded not with expulsion and a criminal record but with a one-day pass not to do any lessons was very, very ORTMI and I was all but shushed whenever I asked what possible reason there was for not getting rid of this little criminal. But you can’t say that. For a start, little is size-ist. But more important, if people like that aren’t mainstreamed, as the jargon goes, then their educational needs aren’t being met. Which translates into a disruptive child having the inalienable right to disrupt every other child’s learning.

Another thing Officially Rude To Mention is what schools are actually for, which was what Lucy Kellaway’s Saturday FT piece was about. Although I disagreed with her late namesake on the very few occasions I couldn’t avoid meeting him I didn’t disagree with the objectives of the organisation she set-up, Now Teach. But her words are telling.

“One day in early January I was at school, babysitting a handful of vulnerable students and kids of key workers who came to school during lockdown.”

Lucy Kellaway, FT 6 March 2021

Ooops! Lucy!!!

Vulnerable students means kids whose parents don’t GAF about them, which you’re totally not allowed to even think, let alone say. They’re kids whose mental health is a bit fragile. They’re kids with learning difficulties. They are kids with development issues. They are kids who need special attention and special treatment because that’s the way they are. And they don’t get it. They get mainstreamed. It’s simple gaslighting.

Mainstreaming is supposed to mean everyone is integrated. You cannot integrate a kid who is violently scared of unexpected noises (usually for a very good reason) in a classroom full of kids. You cannot integrate a kid who can’t see the page properly, or a kid who looks at the page and sees the letters jumping around. Or a kid who can’t read very well in their own language, which isn’t the one his book is printed in. Not at the same time and pace as the other twenty-nine kids in the class. Here in Suffolk a lot of parents know this perfectly well. But they still return a Conservative MP every time they get the chance not to, so their own kids’ education budgets are cut, all the special care is whittled away and their kids, whether with special needs or not, are just lumped in with everyone else to sink or swim. Victorian values, after all. That’s what they voted for.

The other boo-boo that lets the cat out of the bag is the B word. Babysitting. For weeks the UK media has been clamouring to take kids away from their parents, a large proportion of whom clearly can’t frickin STAND another day with the little brats hanging around their every attempt to watch porn on the work laptop in peace. But that’s what a lot of teaching very clearly is – storing the kids from 08:45 until home time.

At a private school I was at last year this applied unfairly, they thought, to two key workers’ children, brother and sister. Clever, quiet, affluent, they had one big problem – both their parents were doctors. Keyworkers. So you two, school bus. Now. I don’t care if it’s lockdown or not. That’s the law. Along with the kid who can’t hear without his implant aid and the kid who walks out of the room whenever someone drops a book.

When I started out as a teacher I thought it was my job to inspire. I wanted to prepare them for the world by telling them about it and interesting them in it. Yet about a year ago I stopped all that. The penny dropped: my view of education was at odds with the prevailing one.

Lucy Kellaway, FT 6 March 2021

Me too, Lucy. I remembered, reading that, of the time I was rejected from a teacher training course. I’d said two unforgivable things. Stories, I said, were a good thing. They gave context. Stories around the subject help people remember. They bring things to life. And apparently that is an absolutely disgusting, irrelevant notion that has no place in education today. Nor does the other thing I said was a good thing: school trips. Out of all the things I did at my very ordinary thousand-pupil Wiltshire school, the things I remember best are the school trips. Apart from Wednesday sailing club, a trip to Heathrow airport, wonder of the ages; Othello in London; a trip to Nympsfield to go gliding; a play in Salisbury; the trip to Dorchester as a pretend homage to Hardy, which was a trip to the museum then sitting in the kids’ pub, as distinct from the teachers’ pub, playing the jukebox and becoming a friend for life with someone I’d never spoken to, in a different form; another trip to Dorchester, because. A trip to the RSC.

No, no and apparently no. That’s not what school is for, I was told in writing. It’s for the National Curriculum. It’s for cramming the facts Michael Gove approves of. It’s for passing exams. It’s absolutely definitely certainly not for real life, enjoying yourself, or putting anything at school in a broader context so it might actually have some use for you later.

More and more I agreed with everything Lucy Kellaway wrote.

The children need the qualifications not to understand the world but to make their way in it. The point of my job is to open doors for students and exams are those doors.

Lucy Kellaway, FT 6 March 2021

Which is true and I can deal with that. The problem starts when you have a huge number of kids – those with reading difficulties, for example, those who can’t deal with the noise level of other kids, for another – who are never going to pass exams. It isn’t just that some doors never open, not for them. The bigger problem is getting baby-sitters for kids for whom school doesn’t have any purpose if all the real-life learning is taken out of it.

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Want to know how it feels?

Yes, please. If that’s alright with you.

Kate Bush asked me this, years ago. Well ok, so she asked everyone else too, but still. I’m pretty sure I saw her and her Mum in Laura Ashley in Bath, when she and I were about 18. The location is plausible enough. Maybe we did actually share a moment. Certainly eye contact, the way you do over the years. Mine have included Kate O’Mara round the back of Sadler’s Wells and Pamela Stephenson (or to you, Lady Connolly as she styles herself now that her TV career has expanded from having a grenade stuffed down her blouse on The Professionals) getting off a Tube train I was getting on.

We didn’t, you know. Speak or anything.

But what-ifs aside – actually no. We’re living in the middle of the biggest what-if in England ever. What if we left a successful trading union that brought us countless benefits, had government ministers telling lie after lie after lie about how easy and successful it would be, had an Old Etonian Prime Minister who thought it was funny to call black people picaninnies in the papers, cut our exports by 68% overnight and 99% of the media told us it’s all totally brilliant? It would be laughable except for the fact that it’s true.

But Kate Bush. And this is true as well.

I went out one night. Drink was taken. I met this girl and we got on brilliantly, went back to mine and duly fell asleep. And asleep, you dream. I do, anyway. In my dream I met Kate Bush at a party. We’d both been drinking, which was plausible enough, not least as there’s video of her actually smoking a cigarette, which for me was like finding a film of the Pope with a remarkable command of Anglo-Saxon having a fight with a nightclub doorman.

Kate told me in that honeyed voice that this was something special. That she wanted to remember this. She didn’t want it to be just a drunken fumble that got out of hand. And in the morning it was going to be wow, wow, wow, wow, wow (wow) unbelievable.

I thought I took it on the chin. I didn’t ask for an actual printed receipt about the morning. I didn’t say there’s nothing wrong with a drunken fumble that gets out of hand. I did what you have to do (which in those days was an abortive fumble above the waist on the off-chance and dutifully heard the expected and resigned ‘Go to sleep’) and went to sleep. Hey, it was the ’80s.

When I woke the other side of the duvet was turned down. The sheet was warm where she’d lain. There are noises from the bathroom. There are actual noises of toothbrushes and soap dishes from my bathroom. I heard the bathroom door open and light, female feet in the hallway.

In about 30 seconds she’s going to open my bedroom door and step into my bedroom. There will be no morning-after dog-breath. Her hair will be well, like Kate Bush’s hair. See above. It’s going to be In The Warm Room in quadrophonic surround sound. My life is going to be complete, better than the way it was when I drove halfway across America to visit Hunter Thompson.

29, 28,27, 26 and the door is opening and …..

And suddenly there was a wrenching, churning pain in my stomach, an overwhelming feeling of loss, as if something had fallen out of me. I sat up in bed, arm outstretched, pointing at her. At the awful realisation, as I cried out, that …..that…..that….

You’re not Kate Bush!

The person who wasn’t took it quite well, considering.

So yes, Kate, or yes, as you were back then, anyway. I still want to know how it feels. Any time you want to finish that conversation is fine with me.

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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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