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Monthly Archives: April 2015

Amateurish

The election campaign is a feeble, meandering, tedious trundle through long-tired tropes, safe soundbites and personal attacks. It isn’t working, at least for the government, since they have the advantage of being in government and being able to show off their proud record of success – as well as blame any failures on the MESS THEY INHERITED when Labour caused the entire world capitalist system to come to its knees in 2008 by keeping Sure Start centres open.

But no. You have to pinch yourself. Is this really the Tory machine? Is this really the best they’ve got? It gets worse, and worse, and worse. And just when you think it’s as bad as it could possibly be, Boris Johnson, the partially inflated corpse of a 1950s Beano cartoon character, hisses and bubbles on television – SOMETHING ABOUT CLASSICAL STUDIES, TO SOUND BRIGHTER THAN I REALLY AM, MUMBLE MUMBLE – giving you a chilling view of the future.

It’s a shambles. It’s inept. It’s a waste of talent, if there is any, and there must be some if you look carefully enough in the wreckage, but you wouldn’t know that, given what you can see and hear. I think there are many reasons for this, and a combination of factors that come together to make this nonsense of a campaign possible, but chief among them is the idea that keeps coming back, and back, and back – that Tories are entitled, arrogant bastards.

Only entitled, arrogant bastards would have thought that they wouldn’t need to put anything of substance together, apart from wishing a couple of tax cuts into effect that will only affect millionaires, but no-one’s going to check the detail, because they’re scum, and we can rely on the scum to vote for us, whatever we do. Only entitled, arrogant bastards would have thought the meek, milksoppish Miliband had somehow tripped and fallen to defeat his slicker, more polished brother, and that it would be a piece of cake to dispose of him with the red-faced Cameron. Only entitled, arrogant bastards would have the backing of the vast majority of Her Majesty’s Press, and waste it with a series of pathetic photoshops, letters from Conservative Party supporters saying they’d quite like to vote Conservative, actually, and spineless personal attacks on the opposition, always carefully distanced enough from the Prime Minister to make him look blameless – and gutless. Only entitled, arrogant bastards could have imagined that this time the Labour leader would make a mistake like saying a bigoted woman was a bigoted woman, thereby exposing him as the REAL bigot, eh kids?

Entitled, arrogant bastards. But not just that. Clumsy. Foolish. Amateurish. Weak. CHAOS OR COMPETENCE, YOU MUST CHOOSE. CHOOSE NOW. CHAOS. CHAOS. CHAOS. IT WILL BE CHAOS IF WE LOSE. IT WILL BE CHAOS. COALITIONS ARE CHAOS, APART FROM THIS ONE OBVIOUSLY, WHICH IS ALL RIGHT, EXCEPT FOR THOSE YELLOW IMBECILES.

And yet. I have a queasy feeling. A queasy, nervous feeling.

I remember Kinnock – God, how ridiculously left-wing he looks now – tumbling headfirst into danger. Not arse over tit on that beach in Brighton, nor at that Sheffield rally where he shouted a bit and there were some flags. No, just heading into the oblivion, day by day, getting further and further away, while it seemed to be closer.

Last time out, the friends of the Tories in the press said it was a clear choice between fear and hope – David Cameron, by the way, represented hope, if you can imagine that. Now it’s reversed. Hope is the other fella, and fear is all they’ve got. Fear Labour. Fear the SNP. Fear everyone. Fear it all. Be afraid, be very afraid.

But I am afraid. I keep having a nightmare vision, and it goes like this: a resounding victory for Cameron in 10 days’ time, and his beaming, jolly puce face as he rides up the Mall to see the Queen for tea and sandwiches and smalltalk. Even though he wins, he knows he’s doomed, so he puts in place a succession plan for Jovial Johnson to take over. Bowled over by the hilarity of a man with slightly silly hair and a suit that doesn’t fit being a politician, a grateful public cheers him along into the most brutal sell-off yet: schools, more hospitals, everything must go. UK PLC, up for sale again. Food banks are still happening and people are being sanctioned to death, but look, he’s quite funny on television and everyone feels slightly better about themselves.

Yes, Labour are terrible. Yes, Labour started it all. Yes, Tony Blair. And all of that. And no, Miliband isn’t the great saviour of anyone, or anything. But there has to be something better, a least worst option, a way of getting out of this that doesn’t mean more of exactly the same. Mustn’t there? Come back to me in five years’ time when Labour have enacted another great raft of cuts, I suppose, and left everything as bad as it is now, just with slightly more handwringing.

Amateurish, all of them. And so are we. We don’t know what we’re doing or what we’re voting for; we just slap an X in the box and hope that, somehow, it might count where we live, and even if it doesn’t, that other votes elsewhere might make a difference. After all that, all there is, is fear or hope. Or maybe a lot of both. Right now, I have a lot of both.

 
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Posted by on April 27, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

Hate

People are dying, right now. Dying because where they live is terrible and because they want to find another life. They’re dying because they wanted to live some kind of life and were willing to risk everything – their lives and their children’s lives – to do it.

As a person who is like those people – we might have different coloured faces or different body shapes or different experiences of the world or religions, but we’re essentially the same – it takes a lot to kill off our first instinct, which is compassion.

So if you see someone else hurting or in pain, your first instinct is to help. Do something. Do what you can. That could be me, you think, so you would hope someone would help you, if it happened to you.

It’s just an accident of birth that made some of us live comfortable lives and gave others a situation so intolerable that they would risk anything to escape it. We can either pretend that we somehow deserve what we’ve got and they don’t, or recognise the enormous, overwhelming privileges we enjoy.

So it takes a lot to be able to see people dying to find a better life and think, no, leave them to die. It will only encourage the others. These men, women and children must die; it will stop a few others. We must not help them. We must let them suffer and die.

People. Human beings. People with lives, dreams and hopes. People with histories stretching back thousands of years, with families, and friends and everything that makes anyone alive – souls. Hundreds of souls cramped into filth to risk drowning. Half alive, risking death. And yet we would rather they died than help. What did it take to put us here?

It’s easy to blame one outlying squawk of badly written trolling in a national newspaper, and to imagine if we removed that person we would make everything okay. But it’s more than just one columnist, or four or five angry voices below the line in the comments box. This goes back to who we are, collectively.

We praise politicians who make “tough choices” and “difficult decisions”. We read long, elegant pieces about how wars and slaughter are sad but necessary, and how it’s the lily-livered anti-violence fools who are the real cause of trouble. We vote in men in suits who do more of the same. You’re not grown up if you believe bombing people is somehow erroneous or immoral; you’re shoeing a touching naivety if you believe that anything other than violence can solve anything. The whole culture is pointed in the same direction: it’s awful, but that’s war. Some people must die for the common good. No bloodied bodies in shards of rubble in our teatime news broadcasts; but bowed heads on remembrance day, and help the heroes. It’s terrible, but necessary.

That’s part of how we can numb ourselves. Some people are allowed to die. As long as it’s not us, it’s all right. We may feel a twinge of something in our guts when we read about other people’s deaths or hear about them on television, but these are a mass of other people; they aren’t us. We can detach ourselves sufficiently. We do not watch them drown or see their bloated corpses fished from the sea, days after, but even if we do, we can still fine enough of a disconnect to ensure we don’t worry about it too long, or even at all. We deride people like the nasty columnists but they’re just able to represent a more efficient version of ourselves; they’re just more practised at what we’re already training ourselves to do.

We are encouraged to look after “our” money and “our” wealth; we are told to value what we have, and to guard it jealously. We look outside our homes the same way we look over our borders. We’ve got enough, and we’re pulling up the drawbridge. It polls well. It’s what we want.

And so when a boat capsizes and families die in horror and pain, we can rationalise it carefully and calmly, using the sensible detached reasonable messages we get all the time. These people had to die. It might seem wrong but we mustn’t be squeamish. We deserve what we have and they don’t. Let them die. It’s hate turned into rational thought.

The only thing that can kill hate is compassion. And the more hate there is, the more compassion you need, in yourself, to fight those rational, reasonable, sensible voices telling you that regrettably some people have to die in agony so we can live in comfort. Compassion needs to grow. And it won’t work straight away. You need to keep fighting hate with compassion, and compassion, and compassion. And it still won’t win. It’ll never win entirely. And they will call you naive, and daft, and soft. But only compassion has a chance. Only compassion means anything.

 
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Posted by on April 19, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

Hard working

If there’s one word – or two, or one with a hyphen – that sums up every political message right now, it’s hardworking (or hard working, or hard-working).

We must be hardworking. Labour exists to help hardworking people. The Conservative Party wants to help hard working people enjoy their deserved fruits of their hard work. The Lib Dems, well they probably go on about hard-working families, but I’ve not really bothered reading anything by them. Something about hard work though. They’re all at it. We’re all at it. Hard work. We’re hardworking. We’re working hard.

It’s the ‘hard’ part that deserves a little more attention. I don’t think I’ve always worked hard, or especially well. If anything, I found the few desperate, dismal months when I was unemployed a lot more hard than work. Not having a job is hard. Not being able to work is hard. Not knowing whether you’ve got any work next week or not is hard. Not knowing whether you’ll have enough money from the work you may or may not do is hard. That’s all hard. Work, in comparison, isn’t hard. Though perhaps that’s not the sort of ‘hard’ we’re looking at.

It makes a bit of a fetish out of grinding yourself into the dust nine to five every day for a fortnight in Butlins with the kids every couple of years. You must work ‘hard’ or you’re not working at all. You can’t just coast along for 20 years, waiting for the carriage clock, though those days are long since distant memories for most of us; you must work HARD. If you don’t work hard, you’re not working properly. If you’re not working hard, you’re not working right.

Who governs for those of us who phone it in every day? Who is there to make laws on behalf of those people who don’t give a monkey’s about their jobs, their careers, their employers or their colleagues? Who stands up and says yes, we represent working people – people who just turn up on Monday morning with a raging hangover, wake up on Tuesday thinking “oh god, not this again”, feel a bit better about things on Wednesday and see Thursday as a blessed relief before the slow descent into Friday and, oh god at last, the weekend? What about all of us soft workers?

It’s quite charming, looking back, at the times when people actually did have careers, when a job did mean something other than a way of getting some money to trundle in before you die penniless and fraught in a hospital corridor. Now we’ve all got 58 pensions worth £2.37 each with all the companies we’ve dithered along with for three and a half months at a time. All work is hard work. Work is hard to get, and when you get it, it’s hard to keep, and it’s hard whether you keep it or not. There are no jobs for life and we’re meant to be grateful just to have a job at all, even if you’re treated like dirt and can be kicked out at a moment’s notice for the first couple of years – years! – you’re there.

Not for us the chance to avoid tax – it’s sucked right out all at source, and we’re left with the carcass. We can dream of having a million-pound house to hand to our grandchildren, but that would mean actually having a house in the first place, which would mean houses being affordable, which would mean having a permanent job, and so on, and so on. Hard work. That’s all very hard work, and it’s getting harder by the day. It’s all a dream.

But still, the word comes out. I’m sure it must be attractive to people in focus groups – people trying to scrape together a living by doing market research, piecemeal, one place at a time, they must know the meaning of hard work more than anyone. Hardworking. We must be hardworking. We are. But the hardness isn’t in work, it’s in getting work, and keeping it, and being able to find any kind of joy in that.

 
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Posted by on April 13, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

Try, try again

It’s normal for teachers to be the people burdened with endless pressure. (That’s why we take such dazzling salaries; it’s not just our love of constant observations, endless data, book scrutiny and learning walks that got us into this game.) But this move into exam retakes from the government – the prospective government, be that as it may – lurches all the pressure from teachers onto students, and when we say “students” we do, of course, mean children.

The best thing to do, it would seem, with children who are on the verge of being teenagers, just as the hormones are beginning to kick in, with so much pressure on them already, is to label them successes or failures – and, if they fail, to test them again, and again… and again. By the time they’re 12 they could have failed four separate tests. Fail, fail, fail, fail. By the time you’re 12. Four failures. Not grades, or levels, or things where you can see your progress on some sort of ladder, but failures. Fail. You are a failure, aged 12. You’ve failed, and you will not succeed. You lose. You fail. It’s all over.

I know there are those who rather like the idea of labelling people failures. They’re the same kind of bitter, jaded losers who are happy to force kids into competitive sport when they don’t want to be competitive. Survival of the fittest. Never did me any harm. All that sort of attitude. These are the people so lacking in empathy that you almost want to feel sorry for them. Almost. They could, and should, know better, but choose not to: if it isn’t hurting, it isn’t working. Let the children suffer: it’ll give them “character”.

Character. Ha. No, it’s not character. It’s needless pain. Children of 11 or 12 don’t need to be labelled failures. Think of the damage that it would do to a child’s self-worth, self-image. Everyone else has succeeded, but you have failed. Everyone else managed to do it, but you are cast aside into ‘mediocrity’. Everyone should be able to do this, but you can’t do it. And we’ll force you to do it again, and again, and again.

All this in the name of ‘battling mediocrity’. But there’s something worth saying, in all this, and it’s not something that you hear very often in education circles. Some people are mediocre. Not just that. Some people are mediocre, or average, or below average, and do you know what, that’s okay. Sure, we can fiddle the data here, give some coaching there, kick the SEN kids down the corridor, exclude all the children who weren’t ever going to make it, and then our numbers look a lot more healthy all of a sudden. But so what? It’s lying. It’s deceitful. It’s papering over the cracks. Show the cracks. Cracks are beautiful, and important, and as worth celebrating as everything else.

As teachers we all know the stories behind every child. We know most of the reasons why they are where they are. Sure, we’ll do everything we can to help them get to the best place they can go – but that place isn’t always the same as other children who have had more advantages, or fewer disadvantages. Or whatever. If we can get each child to get somewhere far better than they might have otherwise done – and as far as they could possibly have gone – that’s great. And if that endpoint is still below the national average, that isn’t a disaster. That isn’t a source of shame. That shouldn’t be something you as an educator, or they as a person, or their parents, should see in a negative light. It’s not a failure. It’s not wrong.

Or we could carry on demanding constant improvement for everyone, in every circumstance, all the time, and that it’s never enough. We can pretend that we’re caring about children, while working them into the ground to get our numbers up. We can kid ourselves that we’re really putting the children’s interests first while giving them terrible views of their own abilities and character. We can keep trying to make everything better all the time, demanding excellence for all, success or failure, and not care about the costs, about the people that’s going to affect, and how it’s going to affect them. We’ve got a choice.

 
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Posted by on April 8, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

Home again

All holiday I’ve been thinking about that thing you’re not supposed to think about when you’re on holiday: home.

Well, that’s not entirely true. I’ve managed a few hours where home hasn’t even been a place in my mind. No home, no place anywhere, just here and now. It’s why you go away. You go away to be away from wherever it is you normally are.

When you arrive back, just as the plane sinks, so do you. All those things you wanted to do, could do were going to, seem even further out of reach. People seem ruder and less pleasant back where you live; the rain scatters down, insistently. Is this really home, really where you want to be?

But then, home is different this time. Not just my home, but a home to make for someone else. A home to create. A feeling, not just a place. The security, safety and warmth.

I’ve been thinking back over the homes I grew up in, the places where I felt safe, and loved. The places where, even if I didn’t feel happy, I knew I was safe, and looked after, and cared for. You forget the colour of carpets or wallpapers; you just remember the feelings you had. Everything that went right or wrong happened at home. All the disaster and happiness. Everything. The centre of the universe – or yours, anyway.

When you’re tiny, you think the whole world is yours. Everything is about you and your needs. Everything is about what you want and what you can’t have. You grow, and wonder why everything can’t be the way you want it to be, learning that the reason why it isn’t is that this world wasn’t made for you. Only the tiny corner of it called home is yours.

How do you make a home? I have no idea and it’s my job. All you can do is bring as much love into it as you can, and hope. Hope that you get it right and everything goes well. Hope you aren’t as awful as one day you’ll seem, in teenage years or other times. Hope they’ll see through that, as I did, and remember everything good. Am I ready for that? Already?

The other day, I pressed my fingers against the belly of my girlfriend, and I felt something – someone – push back. She didn’t know who I was, this tiny person inside another person, but already she has made herself known. Soon her home will be my home, the one I make her. Soon her world will be mine. It fills me with every fear and every hope I’ve ever had.

Back home tomorrow. Whatever feelings it gives me to be back, I need to make it a place full of happiness and love. It’s not about me, anymore. It’s not about me, at all. It should be scary, and it is, but all I feel is relief. It wasn’t all about me; it never was. That centring on myself is over. At last.

 
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Posted by on April 5, 2015 in Uncategorized