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Monthly Archives: December 2015

Why racism isn’t racism

A lot of people – silly people – have claimed that Oliver Letwin’s racist comments were racist. In no way were they racist. He doesn’t have a racist bone in his body. A racist brain, perhaps, or a racist penis, who knows, but a racist bone? I’m pretty sure not. No. Oliver Letwin isn’t a racist. He isn’t a racist because racism is bad, he is not a bad person (in fact, a jolly good egg!) and therefore, he can’t be. It’s as simple as that.

There has been some silly discussion about whether we should call his racism racism, in the light of it being seen as racist by some people. Oliver has already apologised for the offence those people have taken, in taking his racist words as being somehow racist. It’s clearly not racist for him to have said those racist things, and to accuse him of racism is worse than being racist, or indeed suffering from racism in the first place. Oliver is the real victim in all this, struggling to defend himself from the soi-disant politically correct Nazis, who are always throwing around slurs like the bunch of communist scumbags they are.

When can we have a sensible discussion of race in this country? What I mean by that is white people being allowed to be racist all the time, in positions of power, and not having to get told off for it every now and then by people who are instantly ridiculed and dismissed as being loony left nutters. If only we could sensibly talk about racism by being very racist, but without the condemnation of it, then everything would be all right. I met a black person once and he or she agreed with me, so there you are.

Look, it was a long time ago and a very different time. In 1985, we didn’t know that racism was wrong – not that Oliver was racist when he said those racist things, and the government of the day implemented a completely racist policy based on the racist things he had said. Saying racist things, and furthermore doing racist things based on the racist things that have been said, is not racist; I’m sorry that needs explaining to you.

In 1985, we were naive children. Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder had only released Ebony and Ivory three years before, so we were very much in the early days of racial politics. We didn’t know that accusing black people of being lazy drug dealers was in any way wrong – not that I’m saying it is wrong, obviously, because it wasn’t. I once went to Brixton in the 1980s. Did you? No! Of course I was in a car with the doors locked and daddy’s chauffeur drove very fast, but still. I was there.

What you have to remember in all this is who is really to blame for all this. The Tories, not that they’re racist anyway, are only racist because Labour is so unelectably loony-left – and were all through the 1980s, when they were doing ridiculous things like discussing “diversity” and boycotting our friends in South Africa – so actually, this is Jeremy Corbyn’s fault. He was knocking around with Gerry Adams anyway, and you know what they say about the 1980s – you’re entirely responsible for everything you did then, and you can’t use the excuse that it was a different time.

Indeed, this all reminds me of the recent unpleasant kerfuffle about Cecil Rhodes, and how his instigation of apartheid is somehow seen by revisionists as being, in some way, racist. He may have said that white people were superior to black people, and he may have done things that stole power and wealth from black people while putting it in the hands of a white minority, but that’s not as bad as someone wanting to take his statue down. I think we know who the real bad people are.

Of course you know who the real racists are – the people who won’t let politicians in power be completely racist and get away with it 30 years later by still being in power and not having to be accountable for their actions. Yes, that’s real racism. And I think it’s something we’re not going to see with the Twitter denizens and their fury and shrill screeching about so-called racism. Racism isn’t racism, if I say it isn’t. Or even if I say it is. Essentially, nothing is racist. I can’t see how this is so hard for people to grasp.

 
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Posted by on December 30, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

Saying goodbye

I couldn’t bring myself to realise it for ages, but the cat was unwell. Very unwell. Not just feeling a bit off-colour, but really, hopelessly poorly. Cats are good at hiding how badly they’re doing, so by the time you notice anything, there are real problems. And these problems weren’t going away.

I got her, not on purpose but kind of by accident, about 15 years ago, just after my mum died. I’d moved out on my own and I was feeling completely lost, and then someone asked if I wanted to look after their cat because they were moving house, and I said yes, and then she turned up and that was that. We didn’t get on well at first – she hid under furniture for the first few days – but then she gradually sniffed around, didn’t see too much danger, and accepted her new home. She accepted food, and after a few weeks, the odd stroke. She was spiky, angry, grumpy, not through malice, just through caution – life hadn’t been kind to her before, at times. Animals can’t be unpleasant with any intent, they just are what they are, I think. It took time, but we got to know and depend on each other.

Maggie – named after the Rod Stewart song, not Simpson or even god forbid Thatcher – was a small, bony, yellow-eyed black cat, with soft fur and sharp claws. We spent the next few years together, moving from one place to another. In everything, she was the constant. Everyone needs a constant in life, alongside family or friends or loved ones, something that keeps you grounded to where you are and what you are, and who you are. Someone or something that makes you realise that you can’t be totally selfish and you’re not always first in the queue. That was my cat.

Then you get to that point where you know you have to make a decision, and when a pet is elderly, and tired, it reminds you of the people you’ve known in your life suffering through pain and hardship and it makes you want to think back. You can’t help it but you do. You think back over those moments in hospitals and crematoria. You think back over those moments when people felt too unhappy to continue. You think back and you wonder if there had been some way, to stop such suffering from happening, whether you could have taken it, or should have. You look into the eyes of an animal that is no longer raging against the dying of the light, but doesn’t want to go, but you know that suffering every day is worse.

It didn’t take long for her to go, just a couple of seconds, then she was gone. The sparkle went from her eyes and the fur stopped rising and falling, and that was that. It was gone, everything gone and finished and forgotten, in the blink of an eye, in a breath, in a moment.

Then you have to start life again, and get on with it, for the living. “Be kind while there is still time”. I say it over and over again. And I mean it a little more, as time runs out, away from all of us.

 
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Posted by on December 13, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

Get back on the horse

I want to talk you through the disastrous teaching interview I had this week. Firstly, it might give you a laugh. Secondly, it might give you an insight into what it’s like to be a teacher, or to try and become one. And thirdly, it explains something about what it’s like to be a grown-up and to try and work out whether you really can change or not.

It began badly. I had loads of things to get ready but no time to get them ready in the classroom (you usually have five or so minutes to set it up) so I had to try and sort out some unifix cubes and a powerpoint presentation on an unfamiliar whiteboard, in a classroom I’d never been in before, while children were just sitting round, bored, chatting to each other. No one was in charge of them. I had to get things ready for my lesson. The observing teachers just sat at the back and watched. Five minutes of murmuring agony while I tried to get it all ready.

You have to get children quiet after a period like that. So once I was ready I do something that I always do, I counted down from three to one and said something like “Eyes on me please”. At the dozens of schools I work in, this usually works pretty rapidly. Other teachers recommend clapping to a rhythm or shaking a musical instrument, but I’ve tried that and not found it particularly effective. I do counting down. Anyway, this was what happened: no one went quiet, they just carried on.

You have a sense of impending doom sometimes. But you have to try and be positive. I was actually feeling really good about the lesson I’d prepared because I’d had some really good advice from a teacher who’d done the exact same thing in their class of the same age group recently, and had good results. So I knew what I was doing. And yet, the worries began. Still, I tried my best authoritative teacher voice, cheerful and bright, and tried again. No. And again. Finally. Most children quiet. You start praising the ones who are doing the right thing, as I’ve been taught to do, so that they set a good example. You’re not supposed to do much negative talk, it should all be positive and full of praise for good choices. That’s what I was doing. I was clinging on.

Four or five children just totally ignoring me. Now, I’ve been in classes where there’s one or two, who’ve got serious issues especially around new adults, and you learn to accept that as a supply teacher, but so many just couldn’t give a shit about what I was trying to teach. No eye contact, no nothing. They just wanted to fiddle with whatever they had in front of them – silly me, I’d decided to be brave and use “concrete manipulatives” which were instantly transformed into toys – rather than look at me. I was drowning. It was the worst.

You carry on, because you have to try. We play a game, which about half the class take part in and the rest just gaze out of the window. I later discover that they had had a 45-minute maths lesson with the previous interviewee two minutes before I came into the room, which might explain it a bit, but not enough. I’m sinking fast.

You ask the easiest of easy questions just to get them going. What do you know about multiplication? Talk to your partner! OK, what did we say, hands up! (Three or four hands lazily trickle into the sky) “Adding”. And you think ok, repeated adding is multiplication, I know that, this is fine, so you ask a little more – using open questions and being cheerful and excited and happy – and, no, it turns out they really meant adding, just once. Fuck. The one easy question that was guaranteed to get this going has holed the ship below the water line. We’re going down.

The two observers, who of course are going to be smiley and cheerful to me later, scribble away on their sheets. One day, I say to myself, I will observe you, I’ll sit in judgement on you… but not today.

We move on. Pace, pace, pace. Always keep the pace up! Never slow down. Never be sluggish, always be moving on. We use whiteboards; the kids just draw on them. We use our “concrete manipulatives”; it doesn’t work. We use partner talk; they don’t talk to each other. This whole thing is a disaster already. I feel like giving up, and we’re five minutes in. We’re doomed.

I carry on. Independent work happens, or rather doesn’t. Almost no one understands what they’re trying to do, even though I’ve modelled it and modelled it and modelled it and asked if anyone has any questions, and asked them to show me on thumbs or smiley faces how confident they are. One boy puts his head down on the table and refuses to work. The observing teachers, sensing blood, find the least interested children they can notice and ask them about the lesson.

I keep going. One child throws himself down onto the floor on a bean bag and refuses to get up. There is no one to help me. I have a choice of dealing with him or trying to work with a group, so probably wrongly I decide to deal with him and eventually he gets back up and works, albeit at something he doesn’t really get. A small victory. But the work I’ve set, for an average class at this year group, is actually well beyond this class, and there’s no way of simplifying it now.

Then there’s a plenary, carried out in almost entire mumbling. I’ve lost the class, I know it, they know it, everyone knows it, the observers know it, and we all want it to be over. I finish off. The teacher observers are all smiles and nice and take me through to another room where I pointlessly go through two hours of written interview tasks that might as well have gone straight in the bin.

This is probably the worst it has got, but it’s not an isolated case. Most people I know who are teachers managed two or three interviews at most before they got a job. Not me. This keeps happening. On the rare occasions when I’ve had outstanding lesson observations in interviews, I haven’t got the job for other reasons – wrong answers to questions, not having enough experience, not having glowing enough references, and so on – and that’s that. That was interview number twenty three. I don’t think 24 or 25 or 26 is going to be any better. And it’s not that way because I think negatively about it; it’s that way because it’s that way.

I teach in a lot of schools. About fifty or sixty since I began. I see a lot of motivational style prompts and posters around classrooms that are aimed to try and improve what we call “learning skills” – basically, the ways that you learn and how you learn about learning. Most are genuinely lovely things, and they encourage a kind of risk-taking, playful, bold approach to learning that helps develop a heuristic approach to life. “Mistakes are just steps on the journey” or “If you’re struggling, that means you haven’t given up” or “If you keep doing the same thing, you’ll always get the same result”. And so on and so on. It’s kind, inspiring, hopeful.

Except, there’s a problem. I keep finding that, while trying to teach children all about these wonderful ideas – that if you keep making mistakes it only helps you learn, that if you get things wrong it’s OK, that if you try different things it’s going to make things better for you – these things don’t really apply to my adult life. More specifically, it doesn’t seem to apply to my teaching career, which lurches and stumbles from one disaster to another. My mistakes don’t seem to make me better, they just make me feel bad. And when you’re an adult, it’s not seen as another step on the learning journey, it’s “Can’t you do this yet? Everyone else can!” The feedback I get is contradictory, and doesn’t work. I try to change, I try to adjust, but if you teach a lesson one way for one school, it’ll be wrong at the next school. Until eventually you start thinking, it’s not the teaching, is it. It’s me.

I’ve had enough “friendly” chats to try and “help” me. One head teacher said “Well, you’d probably do really well at other schools, but not this one. It’s you. You aren’t friendly. The children don’t like you.” At another school: “It’s you. The children like you too much, you’re a nice person, but you need to be tougher.” At another: “Maybe you should take a break for a couple of years, and then maybe not go back into teaching.” At another: “You’re just a quiet little man and you just sit there thinking you’re better than everyone and that’s what you think the pupils in your class should be like.” At another: “I think you’re never going to be a teacher because I don’t like you, and if I don’t like you, no one will.” At another: “You just don’t look like a teacher.” I listen and I learn.

I teach for three main reasons: firstly, because there still is, somewhere in me, a flickering hope that I can do some good. Secondly, because I need the money. And thirdly, because I used to think I would be good at it. I don’t think that anymore. I just think I can try my best, and try to learn, but whatever happens, it doesn’t seem to work. I am burnt out and finished. I slap on a fake smile for the kids but I worry they can see through it. Every moment is slowly crushing me.

It doesn’t help that supply teaching is the most impossible, thankless thing in the world, but even so. It isn’t working. When you reach that place where you know, you know. And I know.

 
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Posted by on December 6, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

Kaboom

It’s never going to stop. We might hope it’s going to stop, but it’s never going to stop. One war after another, until the end of time, or mutually assured destruction, whichever comes first. That’s just the way it is and always will be. Every November, we shall remember them; a couple of weeks later, we forget all the lessons, and it’s bombs away again.

Some Belgian people killed some French people, so Britain must bomb Syria. Because otherwise it would look awfully embarrassing at dinner parties. Or because we need to step up on the world stage and “show confidence” to stand alongside countries that bomb hospitals on purpose and then shoot people evacuating from them. Or because we want to really do a nice bit of advertising for some lovely branded missiles that we’ve got round the back of the shop. Or because people who behead people and hate women are bad, unless they’re buying the missiles we’ve got round the back of the shop, in which case meet the Queen, have a cup of tea, sit down in a comfy chair. Or because we need to do our bit against fascism, by voting with a government that monitors “extremism” in five year old children. Whatever. It just must happen.

Such a comfortable, remote controlled destruction. No bayonets or hand grenades, it’s all precision bombing from high altitude with magic bombs that ask you survey questions – with 5 being “strongly agree” and 1 being “strongly disagree”, how do you feel about setting fire to people in orange jumpsuits in cages? – before deciding whether to kill you or not. We want to minimise civilian casualties as much as possible, except by not dropping bombs on people, because omelette/eggs and all that grown-up stuff. No civilian casualties, because we don’t count them. So none must have happened.

If you’re not with us, you’re a terrorist sympathiser. If you don’t show requisite politeness to people deciding to drop bombs on other people, killing them, or you dare confront those people with the inevitable end result of their decision to kill people – that people will die – you’re the lowest of the low. Sure, some children may need to be counted in piles of smouldering rubble by the number of spines visible among the viscera, but I think you’re forgetting the real victims in all this: some Labour MPs who struggled long and hard deciding whether to kill other people or not received some pretty beastly emails. Puts it all into perspective, doesn’t it? I think we know who the real monsters are now.

It’s a strange little existence we have in this country, given our history. Once we thought nothing of brutalising the world, feasting on slavery, committing genocide (and putting in railway lines)… Now each little adventure has to be justified by imminent risk to us and our “way of life”. It’s like we’re the poor innocent victims, the lion being attacked by a mouse, and we must do everything we can to kill, kill and kill again. Not because we like it or we want to – of course not – but because tough decisions need to be made, and if you can’t see that, you’re very naive indeed. It just so happens that time after time after time, our islands are threatened by people thousands of miles away, and we must bomb them. It keeps on happening – getting worse, even – and the bombs don’t seem to help, so the only answer is more bombs. Because that’s all we’ve got. Bombs. It’s all we’ve got left.

It’s an odd time to be alive, when our leaders must be prepared to obliterate other countries in order to prove their toughness, or else we run the risk of losing out on a place on the “world stage”. Tough decisions, every couple of years, the same tough decision, exactly the same decision, just a slightly different lot of families under the ordnance, wondering why they had ever been born in their final moments.

Ah but you mustn’t be so emotive. War isn’t about emotion. Killing people isn’t about emotion. Tough decisions. Strong leadership. No time for those silly hysterical qualities now. War is good, it brings peace and saves lives. And we all nod along. Another bogeyman who’s just like Hitler, that one Good War we can all reflect on as being the one time in history it wasn’t our fault. Another Hitler, every few years. Another danger. Another time to kill.

I’m not sorry if this sounds pessimistic, because it is. This is the pattern and this is how it goes. We get what we vote for – unless we happen to be foolish enough to be a member of a political party – and we vote for tough decisions. We vote for minimising civilian casualties. We vote for death from the sky, because it’s not our sky, and the people who flee this bloody mess are nicely kept out of sight by our borders, though we’ll take a handful or two in because there was that one boy who washed up on a beach onto the newspaper front pages and people actually cared for a couple of weeks. Vote for death. Again and again and again.

 
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Posted by on December 3, 2015 in Uncategorized