A Long Overdue Change in Education

A Long Overdue Change in Education

A while ago I promised a group of year 10 students that they could have a debate once they’d finished some work. They did and I wrote a simple statement on the board: “We live in a capitalist democracy.” I explained what both words meant and then, underneath it, I wrote: “So why aren’t economics or politics on the curriculum?”

I was interested by their response as much as anything; I wanted to know whether they cared and what they thought the reasons might be. For the former, I can say that they did. They desperately want to know more about the world around them, whether it’s understanding interest rates, inflation, or international trade. One student confessed that she was scared of a recession despite not knowing what one was.

The reasons were equally telling. A large group saw education as an oppressive regime designed to keep the truth from them. There was talk of an omnipotent “they” who wanted to keep society in the dark so that “they” could remain in power. A lot of students talk of “them” and “they” – referencing some kind of illuminati-style group who control the world. It’s terrifying how accepted that vision is, and, despite it being a long way from the truth, we simply cannot challenge it with the current curriculum.

More recently, I starting preparing a scheme of work in which some year 9s would write an article exploring whether a second referendum could be democratically acceptable. The trouble was, it became very clear that the students would need at least a passing acquaintance with trade tariffs, electoral law, and the history of The Troubles in Ireland – none of which they had.

They were all very aware of Brexit, but, swamped by homework, social media and the whole process of being a teenager, they didn’t spend their evenings obsessively watching the news in the way that I did. As a result, there weren’t just gaps in their understanding, there was a chasm. And I couldn’t bridge that gap, bearing in mind that my focus had to be teaching them to write and not teaching them about Brexit.

The truth is that the world is changing very fast, and we are no longer capable of keeping our young people ignorant of the fact. Via social media feeds, students today are acutely aware of issues, but with nowhere to turn except YouTube they follow rabbit holes and come to all kinds of strange conclusions. They discuss their views amongst themselves, but without a foundation in understanding their rhetoric is passionate but ill-informed, and we must take responsibility for that.

And this isn’t something that can be combatted with what passes as ‘news for young people.’ News isn’t celebrity gossip, viral clips, or some kind of parred down version of Brexit that can fit into two minutes, as presented by someone who looks like they should be on Celebrity Love Island. That’s everything the news isn’t; that’s everything that’s wrong with the media today. The reality of the news, for them and us, is that it is an attempt to understand the narrative of the world we live in, in order that we can hold those in power accountable for their actions; and on almost every level, the news cannot be understood without a grounding in politics and economics.

I recognise that education can’t be expected to keep up with change in real time, but the core values of the political left and right, or the relationship between interest rates and inflation, or the importance of trade tariffs on employment can hardly be called passing fads. They’re central to modern life and will have a real and direct impact on the lives of the young people we educate.

In a democratic society, there is absolutely no reason why a young person should be expected to know all about Shakespeare, Pythagoras, cloud formations, osmosis, and the history of the Black Death, while not being able to say anything how parliament works. A fifteen-year-old in our society could be forgiven for thinking that being able to spell onomatopoeia is more important than knowing anything about institutions that govern us.

Students will be given the vote at 18. At the moment there is no requirement that they ever study politics. We live in a world that is driven by the needs of the economy, and yet there is no expectation that they understand how it works. This is simply not good enough.

So why don’t we teach it?

The truth is that schools across the country will often try to build these ideas into PSHE lessons, but there is a lot to fit in. Unless politics and economics are put on the curriculum, in a compulsory, assessed and formal manner, schools cannot justify investing time and effort into really teaching them. Nor can you cover the political spectrum in an hour a week, while also fitting in the raft of other issues that PSHE needs to address.

I understand the argument that putting politics on the curriculum is risky, given the political leaning of most teachers; would the right wing be given a fair hearing? In response to this, I’d remind you that it’s not hard to ensure impartiality when you’re managing the assessment, and these would be set by the exam boards who should be a-political; and also, remember that we’re dealing with teenagers who will more often than not respond to dogmatic teaching by rebelling against it. Teenagers are capable of making up their own minds, families will continue to lend their opinions, and as long as the assessment is unbiased the learning will only allow students to enter into the discussion.

And regardless of the objections – which aren’t insurmountable – we have to accept that this kind of change is long overdue, and that it is more important now than it has ever been before. The world is changing fast:

The rise of populist politics is a genuine threat to a democratic system that’s already reeling from multi-national corporations’ belief that they are so far removed from the society that they need not even pay tax. We’re in danger of losing democracy itself; and people from across the economic and political spectrum need to understand that educating the masses is the only way we can stem this tide.

Automation is real, jobs will be lost, and it’s not inconceivable that the whole idea of work has to be re-thought. Can we really keep the process of earning money through labour so central to a society where so many jobs are set to vanish? How will we reorganise a future where ‘what do you do?’ means something other than asking your profession?

And climate change is also very real, and it could be catastrophic. We simply cannot allow a generation to grow up believing that 16th Century verse is more important than understanding a real and present threat to the future of all life on planet earth.

We need bring about a paradigm shift in the way we are educating our young people, and we need to do it with the kind of urgency we developed during the war, when entire industries were turned on their heads within months. We did that then because we knew that the threat of the Nazis was real. But the threats I’ve listed above are also real, and rapidly approaching, and without genuine institutional change our nation – and even, possibly, our civilisation – will not survive; and for once that isn’t hyperbole.

Regardless of what happens with Brexit, it would be criminally remiss to ignore the importance of political and economic education in the world today. We need to be producing students who are more aware, more capable global citizens, and who are better equipped to dealing with the troubled times we are living in.

And the strange thing about all this is that I genuinely believe that an update to education, which would begin with the introduction of politics and economics as core subjects, would be welcomed by the public, now more than ever. Middle class parents are often genuinely bemused that nothing is different from their day, while working class parents are angry – and often use it to support disengagement from their children.

I know that the world is distracted by the very same problems I hope to help, but this is why now is exactly the moment to push it. No-one could disagree that a deeper understanding of politics or economics wouldn’t help heal the wounds our country has suffered post-Brexit; no-one could dispute that a better understanding of the role of lobbyists wouldn’t help us deal with climate change; and no-one could argue that a better understanding of economics wouldn’t help put pressure on governments to close down the kind of tax loopholes that are letting corporations become unmanageably powerful.

Regardless of your leaning, teaching politics and economics can only help empower people to deal with an insecure future. And in this respect, the only people who should be worried are the kind of people who have something to lose from creating a society of well-educated individuals who are capable of making rational decisions in the ballot box. Which means now is the time to find out whether or not those year 10s had a point after-all.

How to fix education on the cheap (and why no-one’s talking about it)

Despite the common complaints that it’s under-resourced, the British education system is actually one of the highest funded in the world, our teachers work some of the longest hours in the world, and yet we’re still lagging behind on the Pisa rankings. On the back of this data, it would be reasonable to assume that the problem isn’t to do with funding, or the effort put in behind the scenes.

The truth is that the problem with British education has nothing to do with how we’re teaching our children at all, but it has everything to do with what we’re teaching them.

The best summary of what I’m saying here would be to recount two stories from kids I’ve taught over the past few years:

I once asked a top set Year 11 boy, from an Outstanding school in Richmond, how well he thought his education had prepared him for his life. He said, “You know what, sir, it’s a disaster. I reckon I could calculate the velocity of a ball dropped from a tall building on a windy day, but I couldn’t tell you how to work out the APR on a credit card.”

More recently, I’ve worked at a struggling school in Brighton where a Year 10 girl said she was scared of a recession, “and I don’t even know what one is!”

The brutal truth is that the biggest blocker to students’ learning is disengagement from what they’re being taught. Teachers work tirelessly to bring their subjects to life, but that effort could be completely re-directed if we worked with a system that taught them anything that they were actually interested in. It is insane that we go to them with a curriculum that doesn’t include the basic skills or knowledge that they’ll need to function in a modern world.

The truth is that teenagers are very interested in anything that they can see the point in, but they can’t see the point in 99% of what they’re being taught at the moment. And this is leading to a disengagement that is immeasurably damaging their educations, our schools’ results, and wider society.

Normally, when I raise the idea of a useful-skills based education system, people begin talking about working class kids doing plastering courses, but I want to be very clear that this is NOT what I mean. It’s not just the struggling students who are suffering; and in many ways it’s the brightest who are being let down the most.

There is no reason why we teach them language analysis by using Shakespeare, with his strange 16th Century syntax and obscure Greco-Roman references, instead of teaching them to interrogate the subtle spin of the modern media, an understanding of which will underpin how they understand the world they live in. It seems ludicrous to prioritise teaching them how to calculate the internal angles of a triangle, while ignoring GDP or APR or inflation. It is insane that we don’t ever teach them the core values of the political Left and Right and then complain when they don’t seem interested in politics. And how can we live in a society where ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking it, without ever teaching them what the law actually is?

The list goes on (and there a complete version of it here), but I do not believe you can overstate just how much of a game changer this would be.

So why isn’t this higher on the political agenda? Well, as far as I can tell, there are two main reasons…

Firstly, the teachers. I’m in the unusual position of being someone who became a teacher despite loathing my own education. Most teachers enter the profession because they loved their schooling and this fact makes change difficult for the industry: teachers will naturally try to preserve and protect what they loved. Opposition from the teaching unions blocks the Labour Party from any involvement in the debate, and stops schools making a fuss about it themselves.

And alongside that, what’s blocking the Tories, is the ruling elite’s desire to create a population who are intelligent enough to perform a task, but not educated enough to question why they’re doing it.

If our education began producing young people who were smart enough to interrogate the modern world, who were able to ask questions of those in power, who were given a stable enough foundation to actually begin affecting the world around, them then the ruling elite’s days would be numbered.

So there we have it: an education system drifting into irrelevance, that’s drowning children in mundanity while failing to prepare them for the world they’re entering in; but one that’s that’s perpetuated by the teachers and the policy makers.

But the real tragedy is that the students want change – ask any of them – and they’d work a hell of a lot harder, and achieve a hell of a lot more, if they could see the point in what they were being taught….

10 Ways to Improve Education

10 Ways to Improve Education

As a challenge, I’ve made a list of ten things that I think students need to understand in order to take part in contemporary society, most of which are only brushed over by the current system:

  1. An understanding of the political process – including a broad understanding of the core ideals of the major political parties, and the responsibilities of MPs. I cannot believe that we can expect to run a genuinely democratic society while spending longer educating people about 16th Century poetry than we do the workings of parliament. In some utopian future they’ll look back on this fact with a mixture of bemusement and pity.
  2. Economics, Macro and Micro – this is the most commonly called for subject by students, many of whom think you can rent a two-bedroom flat in Brighton for £150 a month – or is that too much? They should have experience running imaginary budgets for households and countries, which would include an understanding of GDP, APR and inflation, and would also include an understanding of the positive and negative effects of a loan based society; as well as giving them at least a rough idea of how much life actually costs. This kind of thing is also really useful to teach basic arithmetic.
  3. An ability to interrogate the modern media – this would range from the ability to critically read anything from films and newspapers to an understanding of how the industry of the media affects the output – the relationship between the medium and the message. This should help them understand the narratives that they build their own lives around as well as being able to involve themselves more responsibly in their broader society. Infinitely more useful than another lesson spent learning how to spell onomatopoeia.
  4. An understanding of the current effects of technology and an actual debate about the changes offered by near future developments – this isn’t actually as tough as it sounds. They just need to study sci-fi (and maybe watch Black Mirror.) Inexplicably, given the state of society, science fiction has never been a key genre in English literature…?? I’ll say that again: In a world driven by technological progress, a world where the very future of humanity rests on our ability to develop technology capable of saving us from ecological armageddon, science fiction has never been a key genre in English. The mind boggles!
  5. Climate change and the ecology – this is currently covered I’m sure, but it needs to be cross curricular. This isn’t a problem that scientists can fix alone, and an understanding of how lobbyists and PR influence decision makers should be central to points 1, 3 and 5.
  6. Emotional and social wellbeing – again, this is covered in parts, but doesn’t get anything like the recognition it deserves. Mental and emotional health, in a wide range of forms, is very real for today’s students and they’re far more capable of dealing with it than we think. We can’t brush this under the table any more. Implementing it might be seen as a hot potato, but, really, it might not mean anything more than reading contemporary fiction with them.
  7. Literacy – this seems like a nuts thing to add to a list of changes to changes in education, but the reality is that a lot of the kids I teach don’t read and can’t really read. At the moment the problem is that ‘literacy’ isn’t separate from ‘literature,’ so before kids can really read properly we’re going to them with Shakespeare and Dickens. It’s like trying to teach someone to weight-lift by giving them 50 kilos to bench press. Literacy means reading and writing, plain and simple. Let them read contemporary fiction – and not study, but read. Just read. This way they can go through three or four interesting books a year, as a kind of reading group. They can reflect on the issues, explore the ideas and develop their understanding together. BUT they’ll only do this if the books are relevant enough to be enjoyed WITHOUT being studied. There are a number of nuanced differences being highlighted there, and it’s important to understand the difference between studying a book and reading one. That’s for another post, but the base line is in understanding that no text, really, should be so complicated that a kid can’t understand it on first reading. The depth can be eye opening, but their understanding of the plot and characters should come without teacher input. This means: retire the cannon from secondary schools.
  8. Globalisation – really, this means studying the world today. Too many students are stuck in an ‘empire mentality,’ mainly because throughout their educations they’ve been taught about times in history when that’s what everyone thought; at the moment they’re not capable of looking at our world as an interconnected society where the news is real, it’s happening, and they can affect it, because they spend their days being told about things that happened centuries ago and are then expected – in some theoretical alternate-reality – to apply this learning to things that are happening in the real world, though no-one’s ever told them about that. This is also a response to the fact that, because history is a topic that’s covered in some depth, a lot of students will leave school knowing more about the 18th or 19th Centuries that the 20th or 21st. Madness!
  9. Domesticity – this is a big one for me, mainly because it’s a chance to bring a bit of magic to the regular world around them. Into this bracket I’d stick DIY – so kids can team-build flat-pack on a timer (they’d love it) – and cooking, which they do already; but why not add car repairs, gardening, wiring a plug! It’s amazing to think that a bright kid could leave school and tell you what equation connects power, energy and time but couldn’t wire a plug. It’s shocking.
  10. Exercise – again, I know it’s there already, but until you’ve spent an hour trying to calm down a room full of 14-year-old boys who are shaking they’re pumped so full of hormones (and Haribo,) you can’t appreciate the extent to which most kids need to spend a lot more time running their little socks off. They should physically work until they’re physically spent and then they’ll be ready to learn. Middle of the day is marking time. Lessons finish later. And we could certainly be a bit more imaginative with our nutrition training as well. They genuinely don’t understand what a diet of sweets and Lucozade does to them.
  11. The Law – I know, there’s 11 here now but… really… we live in a world where ignorance is no excuse for breaking the law and yet we NEVER teach people what the law actually is. They know nothing about their rights, they know nothing about how laws are setup, arranged, or why they’re there and yet they’re expected to follow them – despite not even knowing what they are?!?!? This, for me, is surely, the maddest thing on an insane list…

I know that nothing comes without a price, and that making these changes might mean that future students leave school without having studied one 16th Century play a year for 6 years on the trot, or knowing how to calculate the internal angles of a triangle; it means they might know more about the digital revolution than the industrial one and they won’t understand the struggles faced by women in the 19th C. because they’ll have been too busy studying the role of women in the world they live in but … I guess, all things being equal, that’s a price I’m willing to pay.

The world is changing. Education is not. The answers are there for us. Let’s at least do the obvious…

For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn

For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn

For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never worn. That’s what the advert said, and that’s exactly what we needed.

I was expecting my own newborn in less than a month, but what kind of a world was it coming into? It was thoughts of the future that possessed me as I rode to collect the shoes.

We weren’t badly off, my husband and I, and I never forget that it could be worse. Our hover-car is self-controlling – with all the safety features – and it zooms up and down the San Franciscan valleys with the speed of an old world roller coaster.

It still feels strange to cross the waters at the bottom of Prospect Hill. Like a lot of people, I remember when San Francisco was seen as a coastal town. Nowadays it’s just a series of small islands, each poking their head above the sea like a Pacific volcano. It won’t be too long, they say, before it goes the same way as New York, Sydney or Hong Kong. The old timers reckon it all happened so fast, but they had warning… decades of it.

As I make my way through what used to be known as Silicone Valley, I pass by a government information screen that advertises off-world opportunities – The chance to begin again. I won’t go though. The off-world colonies are a dream – the technology’s still a century away, and Mars… It’s a sham. It’s like dropping cheese into the waves while rats are fleeing the sinking ship and I won’t go with them. There’s got to be a better way.

I touch my belly again, and think of the child that grows inside. Is it really fair to bring another living human being into a civilisation that’s on its way out? Beaten by our own blind evolution.

They desperately sought progress, with no idea that this is where we were going…

By the time I realise that we’ve reached my destination, I realise I’ve been sitting outside the house for long minutes, lost in thought while I stare across the bay. Three ships are sitting in dock, waiting to travel to the cool of the North; taking the chosen few to a new life in the scientific resorts of Alaska and the Arctic.

I shake feelings of envy from out of my head and look to the house. Only because I’m waiting for my own child, I remember their advert and am touched by the sadness of this family’s grief. For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never Worn. Their child must have died.

In a moment, I realise that the father is standing in the doorway beckoning me in. I move to position my UV protector mask, but he comes bounding down the garden path, carrying a portashield, and then bundles me into the house.

“Come in, come in, get out of the sunshine,” he says and guides me into the living room to where a pair of simple, blue faux leather children’s shoes sit inside a cardboard box. They have flowers cut out of them, and for a moment I remember a time in my youth when flowers – like baby’s shoes – were commonplace and disposable; but everything was back then.

“I couldn’t believe that we’re selling them on so soon,” says the grieving father, with a grin that sits somewhere between pride and a schoolboy’s cheek. “We’re not the first though.”

I’m not clear on what he means for a second, but then I turn and see his wife enter the room swaddling a baby who gurgles playfully before being a little sick on her shoulder.

“Oh I’m sorry,” I say. “I didn’t… I thought…” I look between the parents, clearly bemused.

“Oh… you… I mean… you didn’t know?” the father stammers.

“But you must have read about us?” the mother exclaims, joyfully. “We’re the new generation.”

I step back, thrown slightly. The mother approaches me, in a way that leaves me strangely en-guard, and begins peeling off the layers that surround her child.

“Look, but look, he’s the future…” she says, almost pleading. And then, as though performing some kind of magic trick, she extracts her baby’s sausage like leg, and I realise with horror why they are selling the shoes.

His leg is normal – pudgy and healthy – but it leads down to a foot that’s splayed, like the flipper of some fat, pink frog. It’s as long as my hand and for a second I believe it’s plastic, but then the child laughs and flexes his flipper and I turn to face its father, who’s still smiling as though he wants reassurance or acceptance from me.

“We’re the future,” he says. “That’s what we were told.” He’s silent only briefly, though it feels longer. “We’re going to Alaska soon,” he adds with a kind of apologetic pride.

“They’ll try to make you all like this,” the mother says, as she reaches for me. “They can still … help your…” she gestures at my belly but I turn and run, out of the room and back to the car. I slam it into motion and take off, dangerously leaping between two peaks.

I’m almost home before I allow the car to slow down, and then stop; fearful sobs desperately try to breathe something like calm back into my body. I think of my sister, and remember her decision to leave. I miss her so much it hurts.

And then my hand slowly rests again on the child that grows inside of me, and my thoughts return to that evening, many months ago, when my husband and I decided to try.

“Oh my baby,” I whisper. “What have we done?”

When the Land Was New

This was the first poem I ever wrote, looked back on and thought Holy shit! I wrote that. I was 14, and, given the nature of the poem, that’s kinda hilarious!

25 years later, I’ve pretty much grown into who I was afraid of…

When the land was new, and the mountains were made
out of patterns in sand with a bucket and spade;
when the trees were just sprouting, the beasts were just made,
and the new-born was suckling, the new eggs were laid.

When the river was winding its way through the hills,
And the fishes were swimming and flapping their gills;
When my sentence was past by a voice, high and shrill,
And the cooking was placed on a high windowsill.

When the clouds sailed by in a sky of deep blue,
And the new buds awoke with the birth of the dew,
When I could be me and you could be you,
That was when the old world was new.

***

Yet now I worry about paying the bills,
And mending the crumbling, new window sills;
I trudge off to work to the beat of the drill,
And then find out my daughter is taking the pill.


My life is a mess, I’m locked in a hold,
I fear all the time, I don’t want to be old.
My life now is lead, my life then was gold,
And my thin beard looks like old food growing mould.

Now the mountains are carved out of leaden skyscrapers,
The outside world is restricted to papers;
The trees are all gone, and our planet dying,
The fish have stopped swimming, the birds have stopped flying;
the rivers are clotted, the seas are all dead,
and all papers are signed and all words have been said;
and yet still the carnage holds us in dread
for ours being counted with those all but dead.

***

Old age is a veil that covers us slowly,
Those high or low, blasphemic or holy;
All men fear it; and as I remember
My fire of youth burnt out to an ember,
I find that my promise of not fearing death
Disappears like the fog of a cold days hot breath.

Yet deep, deep down the fire still smoulders,
As my face grows wrinkles and I slowly grow older;
though its glowing red flame makes me no bolder,
I just tell my wife things that I already told her.

Soon my flame will stop glowing and never again re-light,
Save your breath, my love, please stop blowing,
I shall rest in the endless night.
I shall kill my fear of death,
Learn to love the night.
Yet I shall savour my every breath.
I and pass through willingly into the light.

I was fourteen when I wrote that.

Fucking mental.

Should’a been locked up.

Going Back To School

This poem was written from someone who loves teaching, but can’t stand the desperate way we approach kids. We threaten them into learning instead of helping them to grow, and it often makes good teachers apologetic as opposed to assertive; scared as opposed to confident. As a result I often dread going back to school…

Monday comes creeping like some terrible slug;
All greasy and slimy and desperately
Trying to leave behind a trail that gleams.

Why I don’t write…

Why I don’t write…

Again, we come back to the silence.

After days of being aware of the computer sitting there; days of me faffing around and dragging out mundane tasks because I wouldn’t know what to say, and pretending that the weeks don’t pass, I’m finally back, staring at the page and writing whatever first comes to mind.

It’s strange that this kind of writing used to be what I was best at. It’s what I did as a teenager when I kept this accursed diary that took on board whatever I thought for night after lonely night. But that was so private, and without the ears of the outside world it allowed itself to drift into the meaningless ramblings that did so much harm to me.

It’s important to have an anchor. Without it, it’s easy to become lost. After all, without an anchor we drift and it becomes hard to know who are we, really. And not just deep down really – and not as some spiritual question of philosophy – but who are we in our world. Where do we sit? What do we stand for?

What do I stand for?

My writing expresses much of it… haha! But that’s tell and not show isn’t it…

So what do I stand for?

What do I think will help?

A freedom of expression has always been my goal. A fearless honesty that allows the human condition to experience itself and reflect on that being, rather than cutting itself short with fears about our worth. We are worth it because we are alive.

It’s ok to be who you are – and more than that: it is essential to be proud of who we are; and a writer’s voice is a voice that we have a responsibility to use… but it’s not enough just to tell yourself that.

Allowing yourself to be is only the first step in being.

It’s who you become; that’s where the living lies.

And so what stops me from doing that? What stops me from being?

I know the answer already.

I know why I don’t write.

It’s because most days I’m so fucking angry, about so much, that I just want it all to burn.

And I think I’m ashamed of my anger. So I hide it.

I’m ashamed of the rage I feel about climate change, and Trump, and Brexit; and our gender battles, and #metoo and my losing my kids; I’m ashamed of sitting, stalled, on my couch and watching the world through a screen; and dating online because I can’t find a life; and I’m ashamed of the impotent rage I feel going into school every day and teaching kids about 15th Century poets when technology is changing the world so fast that no-one can keep up and the civilisation we’ve taken for granted for so long is spiralling out of control so fast that I don’t see a way out of it for us… and yet I sit on the couch and just manage my rage.

I’m ashamed of my anger. So I hide it.

Because rage is just passion misdirected. Like depression is just passion misdirected. And anxiety is just passion misdirected. And sloth is just passion misdirected.

But when I write, and I put it down and can see it again, I’m ashamed of my shame.

And then I know that it’s time to post something.

Let’s hope it doesn’t take as long next time…

Music

In the spirit of cataloging, this was a poem I wrote years ago. It’s full of teenage angst, but has a neat meter and I kinda love it in a cheesy way. Half of me thinks I should delete the first verse…

With music as my basis,
I travel distant places,
My mind’s a distant dream
My darkness falls in flames
The world still plays its games
And I’ll always be the same:
A soul without a name,
A dream without an aim,
Desperately searching for love
Without the obligatory shame.

Music is special,
It melts the mettle we cover our emotions with,
Brings barriers down;
A smile can quickly turn to frown,
Or happiness come from being down.
You can’t lie to it,
I’d like to die to it,
If love were a bed I’d lie in it;
‘Cause music be the food of love,
The Raven and the Dove,
The world beneath the physical,
The rest beneath the syllable,
With wisdom no less than magical,
My God music is so special.

We Live as Once We Did

This poem’s written in the voice of a teenage girl from a kind of post-apocalyptic tribe of Native-American type people – think like a hippy version of Mad Max…

We live as once we did,
Together amidst the trees.
A people protected by sheets of green,
with roots that reach deep and stay strong.

The rise of the moon brings the safety of night.
The chance to hide away,
Deep in the forests
Where our weavers dance the stories that bind us
to the space within,
And allow us not to drift
into waking-dreams of times long gone.

The Melancholia
is an illness that draws our gaze from the moment;
and the moment is what we cling to.

The weavers dance the stories that bind us
to the space within;
Not tales of strangers, who we never knew,
Or dreams of far of places that can never be;
This is not like the old days.
Here, we hear the stories that celebrate
those we know and love.
For they are who we stay for.

The weavers dance the stories that bind us
to the space within;
Our celebration is the life, the moment,
Not the dream.

—-

The night brings the familiar warmth of fire,
a chance to rest from travel.
We make camp,
Heal wounds,
And find peace
within the embers.
We talk amongst ourselves,
And we live amongst the trees.

—-

But I stay close to those who protect me.
For at night, fears shake my sleep.

Not fears of those beyond our realm,
Or of those with whom we share our home.
My nightmare is those who remain blinded to the truth;
Those who wander our world
hoarding and chasing
and seeking to own.

Those who learnt nothing from the fall.

They are who we hide from in the days.

They creep out from their concrete jungle
in stinking steel, and steal anyone they can find.
They try to restore what had fallen
and want thanks for bringing it back.
Their belief is a kind of zealotry,
Their faith is a form of oppression.

We have offered peace to them
but their hunger cannot be reasoned with.
They dream of the past,
And promise the future,
But never see what’s here.

And so, for now, we must hold our own:
Fight back when needs be,
Defend our space
And continue…

To live as once we did.
Together amidst the trees.
A people protected by sheets of green,
with roots that reach deep and stay strong.

Films For Schools: Watership Down

Films For Schools: Watership Down

Given the new version of Watership Down that’s currently airing on BBC this is a post from a while ago about the original film….

One of the keys to introducing kids to big ideas is making them accessible. There really is no point in going to a classroom with Thomas Aquinas if they’re left scratching their heads like WTF?

But that doesn’t mean big ideas can’t come into the classroom – in fact they really should – but the bigger the ideas, the more accessible they have to be.

I think that Watership Down is a kids movie with ideas that would have left even St Thomas himself with something to think about.

Let me elabourate…

Religion
The film opens with a short mini-saga about the rabbit religion, focused around the sun-God Lord Frith and his relationship with El-ahrairah, the Prince of Rabbits. Frith is a benevolent spirit who’s created perfection. But – as is the way with religious creation myths – ‘evil’ must be introduced to the world, and the opening explains how.

Like all religious myths the story tells as much about the civilisation that created it as anything else. In this case, it’s important to recognise that, despite the fact they live in constant fear of death, the rabbits don’t really see evil. In their world El-ahrairah – the founding rabbit (a kind of Adam figure) – committed the ‘sin’ of having too many kids and basically being too successful and maybe a little greedy. Most rabbits would see this as a natural enough mistake – they might even feel proud of him – and it’s reasonable for Frith to make a change.

At this point, the rabbits are ejected from Eden and other animals are given a thirst for their flesh. This is why rabbits are constantly hunted by hawks, foxes, weasels, etc… It’s a really classic religious story, fitting the mould of so many others.

But Frith is also forgiving and he finds El-ahrairah and gives him gifts which, if used correctly – with cunning and tricks – will allow him to escape from the killers. Again, this is classic creation story stuff that can be used to look at other religious stories from around the world as a foundation for understanding why religion exists: to help the people find inspiration.

Really, the fact that Richard Adams could create a religious story that echoes so many others is a very interesting window into religion – turning it into a story which has its own reasons for being created. There is a case for saying that some children may look at this as belittling for other religions, but this is both underestimating the reality of religious belief – which often accepts story as being apocryphal – and because the author was smarter than that, for reasons I’ll come to.

Ecology
The heart of the story is about a group of rabbits who need to re-establish civilisation after having been kicked out of their own home by developers. The drive comes in the form of a prophetic vision from Fiver, a neurotic who’s blessed with the gift of foresight; this is the first of a few lovely lessons in learning to listen to even the strangest amongst us.

The obvious reference to developers starts a theme that runs through the story: a celebration of the wonderful countryside that exists all around us. By seeing the hedgerows and fields as being more than just areas to produce our food, and turning them into smaller ecosystems within which entire communities thrive we’re teaching kids to love and respect our world in a way that is still desperately missing at the moment.

Establishing Civilisation
But the real reason I think Watership Down needs to be canonised is that although the above exist, the real heart of the film is about civilisation. Because while the rabbits search for a new home, they discover no less than five different social orders; each of which displays a completely different way of life.

Sandleford Warren
The original home of the rabbits is basically fine. They have a ‘normal,’ patriarchal hierarchy: an owsler, which is a kind of police force, who maintain order and eat the nice food, while a chief rabbit lords over them all. The chief isn’t really that interested though and he’s a little lazy – he gets Hazel’s name wrong twice in the opening exchange. Initially, in many ways, Sandleford is probably the warren that is closest to our own society: Basically fine, but the leaders are lazy and the police slightly oppressive.

Cowslip’s Warren
For me, this is one of the most interesting warrens in the film – and it’s the one I said I’d return to and talk about religion.

Cowslip’s warren is on a local farm, and the rabbits here live in a kind of luxury. They are given all their food by the farmer, their warren is HUGE and they’re never under threat. Fiver doesn’t like it there, though the other rabbits all think it’s fine; Fiver says there’s an air of death, but then he looks at things on a different level.

You see Cowslip and co have struck up a different deal: they’ll accept food and safety from the farmer, but they know that they’ll be killed when he’s hungry. They’re almost like a society under a spell. They accept an illusion of safety in exchange for deferring to a new god: Man.

In a nutshell, they’re domesticated: looked after, cared for, but killed when the farmer decides.

At one point, Hazel asks to read some stories of El-ahrairah and his trickery – “Rabbits will always need tricks,” he says.

Cowslip brushes him aside. “No,” he replies. “El-ahrairah and his trickery don’t mean much to us. We need dignity, and above all, the will to accept our fate.”

He then reads a poem, about death, that reveals the truth: although they are free, they’re depressed as fuck! Their acceptance of their place, their acceptance of their position as being below man, and the fact that they’ve given up fighting or trying to survive have left them without a meaning to their lives. Without the desire to fight death, what reason is there to live? Without the fear of losing everything is there any reason to celebrate having anything?

What is lost when you’re handed everything in exchange for an agreement to die when requested?

In some ways, this is a society without religion. It’s a desperate place where life has no higher purpose. Life is lived and then given up, without challenge.

In a lot of ways, Cowslip’s society seems even more like our own than Sandleford. A kind of dark caricatured version of what some people live…

Nuthanger Farm
On their way to Watership Down, the rabbits come across a farm with a litter of hutch rabbits. Again, comparisons with human society abound: trapped but looked after, scared to leave – terrified of the outside world – but prepared to accept pacivity in exchange for their safety. But again… maybe it is this the society that is really most like our own?

Efrafa
Stalinist. That’s all you can say. Pure, dark, nasty, oppressive dictatorship. And General Woundwort – what a fantastic villain!

Efrafa is the first time a lot of kids will be introduced to the pain and villainy of a dictatorship, and whether through Blackabar and his torn ears, Captain Holly’s tales of fear, or Hyzenthlay’s whispered terror, the horror of the place is obvious.

It is essential that all students explore the terror of a dictatorship and, as a contrast to the other societies – as a recognisable way to live that might even be better than Nuthanger or Cowslip’s nameless warren – it’s a great way to introduce them to the idea.

Watership Down
But it is Watership Down that is the hero of civilisation: created by Frith, found by Fiver, fought for by Bigwig and won by Hazel. A symbol of teamwork and togetherness, safety and, most importantly, longevity.

In the way that Sandleford was patriarchal, Hazel’s warren on Watership Down contains much of the traditional feminine.

Because the hero of Watership Down, despite Bigwig’s strength or Fiver’s mysticism, is undoubtedly the pragmatic, reasonable Hazel. His diplomacy and pragmatism make him the only person who could lead that group. His focus is survival. He reminds me of a kind of serious version of El-ahrairah, who’s capable of plotting and scheming for the bigger picture.

In one of the most touching scenes in the film, Hazel looks to the sun and asks Frith – God, in effect – if he can exchange his life for theirs; offering his own ultimate sacrifice in exchange for the future of the warren. God looks down and says no. “There is not a day or night that a doe does not offer her life for her kittens, or some honest captain of owsla, his life for his chief. But there is no bargain. What is, is what must be.” And above all the other deaths in the film – some of which are horribly brutal – it is this moment that exposes the real, harsh truth of life: there are no deals with God.

Living creatures die, and civilisations fall if no-one fights for them.

And that’s the key, for me, to Watership Down. It isn’t just about different types of civilisation, it’s about someone who was prepared to fight for a civilisation that was fair. He founded a new civilisation because there wasn’t another one he could really support.

Hazel fought for a civilisation that was right, fair, open, honest and, at the end, when the Black Rabbit of Inlay comes to take him away it doesn’t present his death as tragic or painful; it presents death as a beautiful end to a life well lived.

Conclusion

I don’t believe that Watership Down should be taught in schools because I like it – though I clearly do – I believe it needs more attention because it both challenges deep and important ideas about our society and because, more than anything, it presents a hero who is prepared to sacrifice himself not just for “another” but for the preservation of an imagined future that he will never know. I believe that we should teach Watership Down because this is what our world needs at the moment.

Father Christmas

Father Christmas

The snow fell gently that night. A wind chime tinkled. Rainbow coloured lights blinked and winked, illuminating a single line of footprints that led down the side alley of the house.

The rusted lock had been opened with ease – the intruder had the key and grease he’d needed – and the tangle of bikes and garden implements had been silently avoided, even in the darkness.

He’d slunk across the patio and made for the laundry room, where he’d found the window with the loose latch through which he knew he could enter, silently, even though he was drunk.

Inside, there were clothes hanging to dry: a child’s snowsuit, a woman’s underwear, a man’s overalls. The intruder breathed deeply and shuddered in the darkness.

She deserved to suffer. But it was the child he wanted.

In a moment, he realised where he was and remembered the need for speed. He slipped off his shoes – a desire to leave no trace – and, clutching a pillowcase like a swag bag, he gently eased open the door and entered the house…

He wasn’t inside long, and he exited the same way he’d arrived, vanishing into the night.

He knew he’d pay for the visit, but it didn’t matter. He knew he’d never see their faces when they saw what he’d done, but it didn’t matter. Because he also knew that, on Christmas morning, she’d awaken to an unexpected gift beneath the tree, with a label on it that read simply: Love, dad xx

 

As I said in the recording, I wrote that a while ago for a story competition that had to be exactly 250 words. It was really about remembering not just the perspectives that we often have on dads – and men in general to some extent – that men are a threat, a danger.

But hopefully it will also remind is that for a lot of dads – myself included – Christmas can be an intolerably lonely time, one marked mainly by absence. The loss of children always brings about a kind of grief, and even if the children are “ok” – living as they are with their mother – their absence is always accompanied by a deep and profound kind of pain. 

So maybe, while we celebrate Christmas this year, we could remember those men who are refused access to their children, or whose children have been taken away from them by mothers who decided to live abroad, or across the country.

Happy Christmas anyway xx 

Perspective

Perspective

Audio from Opening Lines, Brighton, December 2018

Just a little reminder to take care this Christmas… xx

The Victim
There’s a blackness so deep it almost glows. And that’s all there is. I’ve an awareness of myself, but nothing more. It’s as though I’m surrounded by an emptiness, a vacuum, that draws me outward to fill it, and it stretches me so thin I almost don’t feel like I exist; and I know that I haven’t the strength to fight it forever. For a half a second I am enough to reflect on what had happened: I remember, like the memory of a dream, the warmth of a fire, presents unwrapping, a scooter I could ride; and then – from out of the darkness – I see the lights of a car, made ghostly by the cloud of wet sleet and snow that’s being whipped by the wind. The lights approach me, faster and faster; and then a dull clunk like two stones clashing. And then I’m alone again, in a blackness so deep that it almost glows…

The Driver
I shouldn’t be here. ButI can’t leave. It wasn’t my fault. But I know I’ll replay this again and again for the rest of my life. I’ll live this forever… I was driving to my parents’ house; there was incessant noise from the backseat; the snow and sleet flew so thick it was like a fog. And then, there was a moment where it parted, as though some divine wind had passed, and by then it was already too late… I can still see her face, strangely frozen, in an eyes-wide-open moment of pure terror.And that’s the image I’ll take with me, branded into my mind. And when I close my eyes to sleep, she’ll be there as well. I curl up and cry.

The Nurse
I check the instruments, but nothing’s changed. She’s in a coma and unless she wakes up soon she’ll stay that way until we shut it down. The man who hit her looks awful– thank God he’s sober. I feel for him, I really do. I feel for her as well… and the family. God, the family! But in this line of work, it’s hard to hold that care and my mind begins to wander. I keep an eye on the readings, there’s not much I can do, and if I’m honest, a part of me is itching to check my phone and see if Hannah’s still on for Thursday. I know it’s insensitive, and so concentrate to hold back a smile at the thought of her… And then I feel a cold wash of guilt as I look back at the girl on the bed, her skin as pale as a ghost, and remind myself that there’s nothing I can do.

The Messenger
I know they’re in there. I spoke to them earlier. I reassured them as well as I could. Over the years, I’ve learnt the knack of that: if you’re too hopeful it makes things harder later on; it makes for an easier shift if you keep expectations low. I resent the times when I deal with this like it’s a job, but it is. Their only child, and she’s gone. Is that a job? Carrying news like this. Is it something you should do so often you’re good at it? Before I open the door – every time – I remind myself that although this how I pay my bills, this isn’t a job. This is about life, and I’ve gotta do what I’ve gotta to do, because someone’s gotta do it.

The Family
She’s gone. There are no words. There is only grief, and the memories that burn.

The T-Shirt
Shit happens.

Hello again…

Right. Blogging.

The best blogs are these kind of constant streams of thought that let you into someone’s world. The ones that make you feel like you’re listening to an honest friend who’s whispering into your ear.

I keep trying that. I’m so angry though, and I don’t know where to start.

Am I angry at the world?

Is it Trump – who’s become exactly the kind of bogieman that I think he’s always wanted to be; or is it the shit-storm that is Brexit; is it race-relations, or gender, or capitalism, or the environment…I mean fuck, where do you even start?

Do I write about the fact that I see nothing but pain ahead for my species? Not my race, you understand; not my family, or my friends, or myself, but my entire species; and every other species on the face of this planet. We live in an age that could bring about the end of all life on planet earth.

The trouble is that when I write that I always feel a little trite. Melodramatic. OTT.

But it’s not though, is it.

Haha! Fuck. It’s not even melodramatic to say that humanity is going through an existential crisis – and I don’t mean we’re all smoking in rain coats, it’s that there’s an actual threat to our existence.

So what do we do about it?

Haha! – again. Because I don’t know. I wish I did. I think I keep delaying writing my posts because in truth I don’t see a way out of it for us, and I don’t want to start talking until I can see some kind of solution.

But that idea itself was against what I wrote in my first post.

What I said then was that the blog should speak with whatever voice I wanted to express and just speak it. So maybe the solution is just to start with that simple truth, and to see writing this as a kind of therapy.

So I’ll say it: I don’t see a nice way out of this for us. This time we live in. I see a lot of pain ahead because we’re not listening to the collected voice that tells us not to… cause so much pain ahead!

Haha – fuckit… just fuckit

But it’s weird, because this wouldn’t really happen if we all didn’t secretly want it to. It wouldn’t happen if we all stopped looking at what made us different and started reminding ourselves about what made us the same: we all want to survive this fucking crisis.

Surely that’s one thing we can all agree on.

So maybe we need to calm down, and learn to love the Trumps, and the Brexitiers, and the misogynists and the racists… Or wait, hold on…???

Can we love someone, but fundamentally disagree with them? Can we see their human heart, but still hate what they stand for? Can we fight for our ground without worrying about it falling out from under us?

Can we hate each other, but learn to love ourselves enough to learn to live together?

I guess that’s the question that I don’t have the answer to.

And I guess that’s why I don’t blog. Because I don’t know the answer.

But this evening, I’m wondering whether or not the first step is simply to ask the question.

Hello World…

Hello World…

So… I’ve had a blog for a while, but I’m not sure I was really ‘doing it right.’

I’ve always written – I’m 40 now – and over the years I’ve gathered together forty or fifty short pieces that I’m really proud of, written two novels and some plays. I guess I thought that I’d stick some of them online and an adoring world would come running. That didn’t happen, obviously, and I became a little disenfranchised with the whole thing – writing and blogging. I retreated, basically.

More recently, I’ve started to do what I should have done before and actually started reading other blogs rather than just publishing on my own. It’s left me a little embarrassed about what I was doing – and my reasons for doing it.

The internet, and blogging in particular, isn’t about just a wall upon which you can post your own internal monologue while you peacock around it. The internet, and everything that’s great about it, is about sharing and sharing only exists if people are reading as well as writing.

So for that, for the years I wasted stuck in a bubble of my own making, I’m sorry – to myself as much as to everything the internet stands for! 

Anyway, I’ve decided to change – a new approach is required – and I’m very excited.

A bit about me:

  • I’m an English teacher who hates education – I was expelled from school myself, and only went back into it with the hope of changing something that it’s become increasingly obvious doesn’t really want to change
  • I’m a father, who’s suffered at the hands of the family court – a mess of legality that damages children as much as their parents and is, I believe, an elephant in the room for gender equality
  • I’m fascinated by religion! I’m a fundamentalist agnostic – which is to say that I’m definitely, passionately and emphatically not sure what to believe. But religious symbolism is amazing!
  • Love a bit of sci-fi – Black Mirror is coming people!
  • Very involved in politics – like everyone I regard myself as being reasonable, balanced, and blessed with common sense. But, as I say, everyone says that so what do I know?
  • And despite everything I believe about gender, politics, technology or education I honestly think that the only real horror facing humanity is coming from the environment. I might have fallen for the biggest scam in history, but given the size of the gamble throwing my lot in with the planet is a risk I’m prepared to take.

Anyway, that’s me. Nice to meet you world!

Let’s get busy being born, not busy dying…

Why I write…

Why I write…

To learn to write about myself
But not become a bore,
To learn to look into the heart of myself
But feel no shame for what I saw;
To create another’s biography
That’s honest and deep and aware,
But hide the preliminary autopsy,
The self-conscious autobiography,
And create another who’s self-unaware.

Strip back the layers of manners,
Pull down the Floydian wall,
Create a knowing self-consciousness
That’s not self-conscious at all.

To dive into the well of my mind
And wave and never drown,
To give to the world a piece of my mind
With a smile on my face and my feet on the ground;
To explore myself but not get lost
And create with the bounty I find,
To know myself and then use that knowing,
To create new worlds, new times;
To switch on a light in the long dark night of the soul that’s a vessel of growth,
To get lost in the underground caverns of mind, that are mine and lie hiding my truth;
To relax and be merry and allow all my dreams,
To be free in a guiltless mind,
To be happy and honest and decent and true
And to learn to use all that is mine.

In short, in truth, I continue to write
To grow and to learn how to be.
Sometimes it’s because I get worried,
And sometimes it’s because it’s just me.

So I guess it’s important to post this one at some point, it’s what I do after-all.

I don’t know what made me an addict of writing – I mean I’ve got a few theories – but this poem has a go at expressing what’s so addictive about it.

I don’t really “like” the first two lines, but I keep them because they’re the real first reason I got into writing – to learn to write about myself – though I’m slightly embarrassed about it now.

The truth is, I was fascinated by the experience of being. And not just being me –  though I was the only me I knew how to be, so it made sense to start there – but I was deeply attracted to just understanding of the sense of being and how that expressed itself through writing. 


Revolution

Revolution

The world around resounds with sounds –
Revolution?
Revelation?
One nation?
When again?

Never.

One planet
Under natural law,
We’re only monkeys after all.

After a fall
It’s time to begin again,
A mistake is a time when
You learn to stand tall,
See the score.

They’re only monkeys wanting more,
Just children playing at war.

Desire’s
A fire that burns from within
Like a red hot pin piercing your skin,
Burning towards a heart within,
With a heat and a craving
No matter can save him
From.

Tomorrow is another day,
Another path, another way,
Another chance to kneel prey
And say
To the God within
It’s time to loose the need to win,
Time to re-begin,
Time to look within;
Loose the need to win,
And you will.

But we’re skipping along a windowsill,
With a burning desire to kill at will,
And a personal crave for and power and needing
And getting,
Forgetting the life,
Or the wife,
Until loneliness slices your heart like a knife;

Then you’re skipping along a windowsill
With a burning desire to kill at will.

This world is not a place for livers,
Lovers, brothers,
Or children with mothers;
Mother fuckers
Fucked it up,
bruked it up,
Chucked it up,
Some people down here are just too deaf to hear,
Or are standing to near
To see the world clear…

Until,
After a fall
It’s time to begin again.
A mistake is a time when you learn
To stand tall,
Not appalled
But reflect on the falling.

Stand back and you’ll hear our planet earth calling.

It’s falling
Through space
And the whole human race is racing to clear up a debt;
A debt to the people who live on its surface,
A debt of a life that is incomplete yet.

Sitting I think of people:

Those that I have never met,
Those that I will never know,
Those whose stories look like mine,
Those whose lives were lead too slow,
Those who, like me have never known,
What it is to live,
Those who, like me have never shown
All they have to give,
Those seeds, like mine that though were sown
Weren’t watered enough to become fully-grown.

Still…

Tomorrow is another day,
Another path, another way,
Another chance to kneel pray
And say
To the God within
It’s time to loose the need to win,
Time to re-begin,
Time to look within;
Loose the need to win
And you will.

Still…

No,

Still.

This is from deep in my adolescence – I was probably about 22 – and it’s purely exploring the struggle between the process of being and the experience of living. I like it for that reason.

Nowadays, I see it as a little simplistic but sometimes that’s the best way to explore polar opposites. 

Tonight I’m Gonna Go Running

Tonight I’m Gonna Go Running

Tonight I’m gonna go running
Feel the streets pass underneath me
stretching out before me
and next to me the sea will smash
a path
cause I’m not stopping

Tonight I’m gonna go running
my feet pounding like a heartbeat
heavy
rhythmic
drumming
but light cause they’re not stopping

At the end of the road is the end of my woes
a shame ‘cause the road don’t end
but somewhere along the way I’ll know
that the journey’s end
is not the goal
but it’s getting there
I’m getting there
I’m getting there
Please tell me that I’m get there
And not just growing old

So where is there?
Where am I going?
And maybe the secret I’m running for
is that there really is no there
the ‘there’ is just the getting
the going
the living
the loving
the losing
the bruises
the random acts
between us two
there’s no way back
from the things you do.

so what are you going to do?

Well …
Tonight I’m gonna go running
Feel the streets pass underneath me
stretching out before me
and next to me the sea will smash
a path
cause I’m not stopping

I’ve never dreamt of stopping
Though sometimes I don’t start,
I seem to spend half my days
Feeling for my heart
And wishing I could separate
the whole from all the parts.

The beat within
The fear of sin
The dream that at the end
I’ll find my friends
And we will bend
The steely rod that’s cold within.

The beat beneath my soles
The heat within my soul
The burning space that I can’t place
That leaves me off my role.

The beat beneath my soles
The heat within my soul
The burning space that I can’t place
That leaves me off my role.

I want to keep control
I wanna lose control
I want to feel that I can heal
the hole within the soul.

The orbit of thoughts
that ought to have brought
what’s sought but never sold;
The clearness of mind
that’s tried to unwind
the soul that’s lost control;
caverness dreams
that seem to believe
they’re gone but…

Let them go…

They’re gone now,
let them go…

They’re gone now,
let them go…

And tonight, you should really go running
Feel the streets pass underneath me
stretching out before me
and next to me the sea will smash
a path
cause I’m not stopping

The Classics are Rubbish

The Classics are Rubbish

Some people try to flower their verse
with metaphor, simile, rhyme,
or any other literary mediums available to them;
They use long words, or even worse
long dead tales, from a long dead time,
and expect us to do the homework.

That’s all very well, they say what they say
to the few who can translate,
but whatever happened to seizing the day
for the rest of us who have to wait
until the revision notes come out.

On coalitions and socialism

On coalitions and socialism

At the heart of western politics is a simple divide: Left and Right. Amongst other things, the Right believe that competition will drive society forward, while the Left believe that by working together the sum total of our achievements will be greater.

The Right thrives by dividing people, and then saying ‘look, we told you that humans are inherently selfish! The Right is the only system that fairly reflects the real way that humans are. Capitalism is only natural and fair.’ This is the world we live in. And if we’re not careful, advances in technology combined with an unstable environment will make those at the top of the system powerful to the point of being totalitarian.

And yet, the left is dying at the moment.

The problem is that in the past, the Left – in Russia and China – has tried to enforce a cooperative environment. This was forever doomed because you can’t enforce equality – simply because, by definition, whoever is doing he enforcing isn’t equal to the rest. Unfortunately, a lot of the current Labour party still believe that the only way for the Left to succeed is by enforcing their beliefs rather than demonstrating them.

But the truth is that the only way the Left can succeed at the moment, and it must – we are currently threatened by the Far-Right in a way that hasn’t been seen since the ‘30s – it must lead the way by displaying the cooperative, socialist values that it holds at its heart and, before anything else, this means proving that people can work together.

The Left would have us believe that bankers can give up their bonuses for cleaners they’ve never met and have no personal connection to; they want the rich to share their wealth with the NHS, a place where smokers and non-smokers are received equally, while regular joggers and the chronically obese are treated without judgement; they want us to pay for the education of other people’s children, and put their own children into classes with them.

In a nutshell: the Left wants us all to get into bed with each other, and trust that, as a group, we will be stronger together.

But at the moment Labour party isn’t even prepared to get into bed with the Greens, a party who have repeatedly shown more of the kind of Left wing values that many people traditionally voted Labour to support! And they won’t countenance cooperation with the Liberal Democrats after they betrayed everyone by working within (arguably taming) the Tories during 2010-2015 coalition. And don’t mention the SNP…

I’m not disputing that some Green party members are fanatical (perhaps with good cause,) or that Tim Farron’s views on Homosexuality were retrograde, or that working with the SNP would lead to all kinds of challenges in Scotland, but learning how to work with other people – despite their flaws – is exactly the challenge that Socialism must overcome if it is to ever prove that its most basic philosophical belief is even possible.

If the Labour Party can’t learn to work with other political parties then they’re really just proving that Socialism itself doesn’t work.

In their defence, behind all this is a party who are hell bent on dividing us. The Tories will divide parliament and then use a weak opposition, combined with a First Part the Post electoral system (that is designed to only work with an effective opposition,) to tighten their grip on power. They will divide us all and then introduce oppression to maintain social order in a society they divided.

If there is a future for us all it relies on society learning to be social, and if the Labour Party can’t learn to work with those with whom it shares its house then they can’t display the kind of values that we need, and, what’s more, they have no right to call themselves socialists.

You can’t enforce cooperation. You can’t enforce respect for other people. But you can display it, and, have faith, others will follow…

Miss You

Miss You

It’s worth saying, before I start all this, that this was from a particular period of my life, and I basically ripped it off of Elvis Costello (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wY71zqHfHKI)

The man’s a legend. I stole. My bad.

And also, I never did any of these things…

I had you
And for a while the whole world loved to know
When we spent time
I knew you were the one,
I guess I’d always known

I don’t know,
I don’t know why you did it why you left the floor
I’m sorry
Or maybe it was nothing
I’d not done a long, long time before

But now I miss you
I know you’re out there somewhere
Are you thinking of me?
I miss you
Are you dreaming of my touch
Though when you wake it’s him you see

I miss you
I see your face laughing through
The window of my car
I miss you
Then you go inside together
And he just smiles and touches your arm

I miss you
I’d call you every day
But I want more.
I miss you
And when your phone just rings and rings
I know your clothes are on the floor

I miss you
I know you’ve moved on now
Your heart don’t break
I miss you
I know you’ve moved on now
And that’s for me to learn to take

But I miss you
I’ll keep on seeing you
Though each night takes you further away
I miss you
But maybe there’ll come a time for us
You smile and add, one day

And ‘cause I miss you
I’ll hang on in there, break myself with waiting
I miss you
Even though there’s nothing left in me but still you’re taking
I need you
I don’t know how to start to learn to live again
I miss you
I want you here though every thought of you just brings me pain
You’re killing me
I swear to you I’ll never love again
I beg you
Oh, please, just let me go just let me learn to live again

I love you
But if you’re through hurting me
Then maybe let me go
I’ll miss you
There’s no way left to save us now
No-way I know

I’ll miss you
I’d kiss each of your cheeks
If you’d let me close enough
Then I’d leave you
And say goodbye to you and say goodbye to us
I’ll miss you

I find it more of an interesting poem than a poem I particularly like. I don’t like it at all, really. It’s got some troublesome attitudes and behaviours, and although it reflects a kind of neurosis, it almost seems too possessed by its own neurosis to notice that it’s neurotic.

Also, it’s from a period of my life that I’m not particularly proud of, and I think the attitude of the poem reflects this. 

However, my remit with this blog is a kind of honesty, so I can’t take it down now, can I…?

Power

Power

He placed a small box onto the table.

Ornate carvings it had none;
Gilt and gold was not its thing.
In fact
It was hard to see the colour really;
It was almost hard to see.

But it was there:
A small box, sitting
on the worn green leather top
of a wide wooden desk, before
the most powerful man in the world.

“It’s yours, if you want it,”
The traveller said.
“It has the power to create
anything you desire;
the power to control people;
it has the power to meld and mend
consciousness itself
and as such,
it creates reality.”

The traveller sat back:
“It’s yours, if you want it.”

“What’s the catch?” asked
the most powerful man in the world.
“There must be something.”

The traveller shrugged:
“I have one myself.
And no-one needs
more than that.”

There was a moment’s pause
Where the man’s hand itched to reach out,
And snatch it,
And be damned with what else.

“What do you want?” asked the man.

“You have a choice,”
the traveller said.
“My asking is only curiosity,
But I want to know what you’d do:
You can have this,
I’ll give you ten;
Or I’ll give you one for everyone
On the face of your planet.

The decision is yours.”

The man thought,
in the way we often do,
not rationally or logically
but dreamily,
excitedly.
He played out hopeful scenarios,
Pursuing an end to a point of comfort:
If everyone had one,
What would that be?

The endless consumption;
Street corners riddled with drugs
And debauchery.
The population losing focus,
Chaos reigns.
The lecherous mob,
drowning in their luxury;
Humanity sinking into sand.

Or he could manage it,
Help them,
Distribute it fairly,
And see the future through.

And he knew what he must do.

The traveller left that afternoon,
His ship slipping silently into space,
And the man was left holding his box:

Ornate carvings it had none;
Gilt and gold was not its thing.
In fact
It was hard to see the colour really:
It was almost hard to see.

And it never seemed to work.
And he often looked back and wondered
If he’d simply chosen wrong.

International Men’s Day 2018: Four Men

International Men’s Day 2018: Four Men

I knew a man once whose wife left him.
She said he was boring and she wanted no more of him.
So she took his daughter to a commune in Wales,
And to see his child he drove four hundred miles.

For seven years his girl was raised
by a poet half his age;
A man who worshipped Ferlinghetti,
And spent his nights getting drunk and sweaty,
While he just prayed that she wouldn’t forget him.

The poet left them in the end,
Too young to be tied down, he said.
And the wife returned to town,
And nothing more was said.

The father and daughter still get along,
But she wonders why the bond’s not strong.

The second guy I met, had a face as white as milk,
‘cause he’d had a call from a former boss
– they’d had a Christmas fling –
And she phoned ‘cause she said
It was finally time to tell him
The truth:

“I’ve got a fucking kid! A baby. Holy shit!”
For a long time he just swayed and swore
Like a twenty-one-year-old confused
Who’s woken up on the morning after
And realised he’s just been used.

“She was thirty-fucking-five!” he spat,
meeting my eyes, with fear.
“… she was minted, she bought all the drinks …
… It was Christmas, I just didn’t think …
… I don’t even remember half the night …”

He didn’t even remember half the night.

He didn’t even remember half the night.

And so a little later
I started to wonder
whether calling it rape
just might be right.

The third was in his sixties,
Bald all over with alopecia,
He’d had a stroke some years ago
And had cheeks that were grey and sunk like stones.

“Sheeee… but sheeee… I don’t care!
He’s still my son!”
But he wasn’t really.
Oh no, not really.
Not when all was said and done.

The real father of the boy he’d called his son since birth
Was some guy his wife had known from work,
Who’d kept his picture by his computer
Along with all his other squirts.

“He’s still my son,” he said.
“I raised him!” Then he hung his head.
And I wondered if he had the strength
To live that lie until he was dead.

The final man is famous,
With a son who surpassed us all,
But he was written from the scriptures.
Eclipsed by the ghost who made us all.

He’d taught his son some handy-work,
Maybe how to build a dresser,
But he was nothing next to mother dear
The Virgin Mary, bless her.
And don’t talk about his real dad
He missed most family get-togethers.

But is that the perfect father?
A mythical creator;
An invisible provider;
Like a just supporting actor,
Or a car’s optional extra;
Who’ll come inside
Then step aside
To make way for the oppressed. Hah!

Being a dad’s like being a ghost.
So don’t tell me how it feels
to sit round a board room table and talk about the way we deal
with something so important,
but be dismissed with a smile.
I may be a man but I still understand how it feels to feel futile.

Now, misogyny is not for me
– I don’t blame a gender for their behaviour –
But let me make this plain:
If you really want equality,
Let’s talk about child custody
And we’ll change the world all over again.

Fragile Angel

Fragile Angel

She’s a fragile angel
standing at the crack of doom,
Shuffling herself around
to get a little room;
Before she takes the leap
into all to come,
And wakes up from her sleep
to the sound of art’s dark drum.

Her wings are airbrushed, ruffling,
in a breeze that’s quite divine,
Her eyes are focused on a truth
that she can’t quite define;
But she knows that she can’t stay here
without playing her roll:
Chasing all that’s physical
in the hope she’ll lose control.

The picture’s written on the walls
the words are on the page
The dreams of burying herself
are from another age;
‘cause experience is living
and learning how to seek,
And art’s a voice she can’t deny
it finds a way to speak.

Beneath the old iron bridges
there’s a brick build canopy,
Where she’ll lend a lens a friend
and see what it can see;
She’ll find a way to broker
an image of naked truth,
That was taken from the gutter
with the stars her only roof.

She’s a fragile angel
standing at the crack of doom,
Shuffling herself around
to get a little room;
Before she takes the leap
into all to come
And wakes up from her sleep
to the sound of art’s dark drum.

The problem’s the matter, not the method

The problem’s the matter, not the method

Two years ago I left a successful career as a copywriter to become an English teacher, and now I feel like I’ve entered Room 101. It wouldn’t be so bad except that I’m expected to teach 1984 while standing in the middle of it…

Not long ago I saw a grown woman break down in tears because she’d spent the afternoon desperately trying to teach Macbeth to a group of year tens who couldn’t care less about the Bard. In the end I comforted her in the only way I knew how and made it clear that it didn’t really matter, none of them would have any use for Shakespeare anyway. Through the tears she asked me why we even bothered, and I struggled to answer that.

Six months before I’d been asked to teach Midsummer Night’s Dream to a kid who’d not long moved here from Eastern Europe. He couldn’t speak modern English, but I was supposed to teach him the Elizabethan variant. He was just getting to grips with grammar, and I was turning it on its head.

I knew a teacher in London who claimed she could get a student a C in literature even if they couldn’t speak English. I’ve been reassured since then that she wouldn’t get away with that anymore because of the terminal examination system, though that doesn’t change the question of why we teach Shakespeare, with his topsy-turvy syntax and out-dated vocabulary, to kids who can’t master the modern language and will only find their lexicons expanded to include halberds, codpieces and perfectest reports.

Not long ago I put a range of people on the whiteboard and asked which one of them was most likely to vote for the Tory Party – we were doing an exercise in characterisation. The year tens sat in silence for a minute or two, until one asked who the Tory Party were. Another barked that it was obvious – they were something to do with the government… weren’t they? I smiled and reminded them that they’d have the vote in three years. They all agreed that they didn’t care, and, to my shame, I hoped it would stay that way. If they didn’t even know who the parties were, how could they be expected to make an educated choice on the subtleties of policy? Democracy’s great, but only if anyone’s being taught how to use it!

I put the matter to my then head of department who made it clear that educating them about the world wasn’t our job. Our job, he said, was to get them through their GCSEs. He offered to lead the class for a starter a week later, and made it clear to the kids that they’d be using what he taught them for the rest of their lives – right up to university, if any of them decided to go. In that moment I understood the depth of education’s aspirations: their job is to get them through as many exams as possible, and it ends after the final one. The world stops at the school gates. Teachers teach what they were taught, and if there are problems, they lie with the government, the parents or – worse still – with the kids themselves.

The idea that the problems with teaching lie with the kids reminds me of an old David Cronenberg horror called Dead Ringers in which a radical gynaecologist realises that his problems are because women are built in the wrong way. The simple truth is that the learning must service the kids, and although it’s possible for a dynamic teacher to keep a class enraptured with a well written shopping list, it’s not the most efficient way to work. In most cases kids aren’t engaging with what’s being taught, despite our best efforts, and the reason for this, I believe, is the matter, not the method.

So what if we changed it…

What if poetry was swapped for song lyrics, leaving Shelly, Byron and Keats shelved for Lennon, Dylan and Eminem? Because is it really ok to teach To His Coy Mistress or The Laboratory, but claim that rap is immoral? I’ve taught Cleaning Out My Closet and had the classroom in raptures – opening up and sharing their inner selves in a way that I’ve never managed with any of the Romantics. And I’m not saying it’s impossible to access a class with poetry from ages past, but it’s harder to emotionally engage a teenager when they’re completely divorced from the themes of the verse in front of them. In the same way, it’s possible to climb Everest with a ball and chain around your feet, but why would you bother? What are we trying to achieve by teaching them straight poetry when there is more fantastic, lyrical verse being produced today than at any other time in human history? Again, I’m not having a go at the classics but I’ve had more success sharing ideas about depression using Elbow’s Some Riot than I ever have with Keats’ Ode To Melancholy.

And what if plays were replaced with film? What if, rather than studying the language of the stage, students learnt how to read narrative and character using one of the biggest and most influential industries in the modern world? And I don’t say this because I don’t like theatre, but I did once know a 15 year old who thought that the robots in Transformers were real, and I had to explain to a whole class how Avatar was really about the damage that we’re doing the rain forests. “Sir,” one said. “They’re nine foot tall and blue. It’s not even about this planet. I don’t think you know what you’re talking about.”

And what if we replaced an emphasis on reading fiction – which is vastly overrated in education – for an understanding of press bias, the role of advertising, and the language of PR managers and lobbyists? It’s shambolic that most kids leave school knowing what onomatopoeia is but have no idea how a well-worded press release can make someone doubt human involvement in global warming, despite all evidence to the contrary. I once heard a stroppy, smart year 10 complaining about To Kill a Mockingbird saying: “So racism’s bad, tell me something I don’t know!” Given the fact that he was Indian, liberal, well educated and absolutely lovely I did rather think it was a case of preaching to the converted. Alongside the rest of the class, though, he came alive when I did a ten-minute plenary and explained who the Anonymous group were. Suddenly they all had challenging opinions, and as they left one asked me what actually happened in the financial crash. It broke my heart to know that I’d never have the time to explain it.

And it’s not that I’m putting down any of the classic art forms, I just feel very strongly that in order to genuinely prepare our children for the world they’re entering into we should, at least sometimes, refer to the world that they’re entering into. I recently taught Frankenstein to a set of year 7s and although they embraced the philosophical question of what makes something truly alive, the class didn’t really come alive itself until someone started surreptitiously passing round a copy of Blade Runner, and I’d shown them HAL’s death scene in Kubrick’s 2001. In the end I had to apologise for the fact we needed to return to the two hundred year old novel that many of them would have loved to study at degree level, but didn’t want to read at the time.

I find it astonishing that we teach centuries old texts, when the world is drowning in intelligent, relevant, mind blowing, world changing art, and science is taking steps that are both profoundly dangerous and awe inspiring in their scope. But the kids don’t know any of this. Most of them don’t even know who the Tory Party are, and some think Transformers are real.

I am aware that a lot of this was covered while Gove was making his changes a while ago, but my experiences in teaching have led me to believe that Gove was really only giving the educational establishment what they secretly want. The reality is that while pay, pensions and working conditions made headlines during Gove’s push the idea of dropping Shakespeare, poetry and an emphasis on Victorian literature didn’t. At its heart this is because the teaching establishment still connects the classics with rising standards when this simply isn’t the case.

The truth is that English teachers like poetry, Shakespeare, Dickens and Tennessee Williams. They like them because they were taught them, and they became teachers because they liked school. It’s a self-preserving model, and it’s tough to break down. Teachers don’t want to embrace change anymore than the government does, but someone needs to push this through because at the moment the world is changing fast, and the kids we’re sending into it aren’t even remotely ready.

The solution has to be, as Gove rightly put it, to return to basics: what do we want to teach these children, and how do we best do that?

If I’m honest, I have no interest in teaching them Shakespeare – he’s dated to the point of only ever being relevant in the broadest sense. I hated Shakespeare at school and still think British education has done something unique in overrating the greatest writer to ever have lived. I want to teach them to read and write though. I want to help them become worldly, open-minded members of a progressive society that is ready to take its role in a globalised economy. I just don’t see how they can do that when the majority of what they’ll need to know to do that is going to have to be self-taught.

Education as I see it is a self-serving, self-preserving form of social conditioning that’s been (accidentally) designed to create the illusion of education while keeping anything of any real value away from the people who need it most. And I wouldn’t feel so bad about this if I didn’t think that teachers were as complicit as the government in preserving it.

Spring 2017

Spring has sprung,
winter’s song’s sung:
The Tinder times with
Swipes and wipes,
And occasionally the longer nights
That sometimes come when the sun beds down.

But spring has sprung,
And this year’s song
is still waiting to be sung.

But do we belong in this world that we’re seeing?

With Ronald Dump plonking his shit
down in such a way that even Brexit seems sane!
Can we get any madder?
You mean angrier?
No, clearly not,
I mean this world is fucking insane!

There’s no reason anymore.

We warned the world
Of a Brave New World,
then walked right into the warning.

As though we missed some deep truth dawning:
That it’s the same fuckers
fucking us up in the same fucking way as before.
And that’s just fucking annoying.

Because don’t think this hasn’t all happened already.

The fall of Rome:
The debauchery, the corruption,
the celebration of democracy
while eroding at its core.
The mob rules.
Chaos ensues.
Divides are drawn
and then Dynasties born.

But spring has sprung,
And here’s another chance to pray
and say to the god within
It’s time to lose the need to win.
Time to re-begin:

Don’t hang on.
Don’t let go.
Don’t move a fucking muscle.

Don’t shade.
Don’t blink.
Don’t worry.
It will all come on through.

Because spring has sprung
And the year is still young,
And just look at what we did last time.

We can change it all as quickly.
But not while we’re living meekly,
So maybe it’s time to find a way
to find the way to live today
As though we’re living history.

I said: Maybe it’s time to find a way
to find the way to live today
As though we’re living history.

Because, make no mistake about it:
That is what we are doing.