It’s Saturday night in the strange new quasi-quarantined world we now live in, and everything is similar and yet, eerily, different.
I’ve propped my phone against the tin of cat biscuits in the kitchen to watch a Hilary Mantel documentary while making dinner, and Hilary speaks from a virus-free idyll (earlier this year) that feels as long ago as Tudor England. I scrub up as if I’m performing surgery, not brushing the muck off a carrot. The brushing of muck must be thorough but simultaneously gentle enough not to inadvertently spritz my eyes with invisible virus. I wash my hands before slicing the carrots. I take the wet fish out of its paper and bundle it into the oven and wash my hands again. I feel a sneeze coming and sneeze on my elbow, as per NHS instructions, then pivot immediately back to the sink for another bout of hand hygiene. I’ll have no skin left at this rate.
The Majestic Mantel: ahead of the social-distancing curve
I listen to a bit of Hilary. I pour a sherry. After dark my partner and I put coats on and wander lonely as clouds in nearby woodland, where the only life we see is feathered or four-legged. (Our tally so far: 2 otters, 1 baby owl, 2 ducks, 5 muntjac.) We come home and wash our hands again and turn Netflix on.
The whole evening is such a peculiar intertwining of normal and mental I can’t make sense of it.
In the early hours I burst awake from an equally normal-slash-mental nightmare in which I’ve been wantonly bumping into people on a sunlit street. It takes me about an hour to slow my heart. Lying awake in a panic I impulse-download the Calm app. It instantly crashes. I cannot – no matter what – turn off Matthew McConaughey recounting a dreamy story about the mysteries of the universe. In desperation, I roll out of bed to make hot milk, skinning my hands again under the tap before touching the cup or the cupboard, full of new resolve not to visit my mum after all (not even to drop off her Mother’s Day card on her doorstep then run to the car for cover, as if we’re bombs or fireworks or radioactive waste) because she has all the bells and whistles (over 70, compromised immune system) and because each small act of ordinary existence now comes with a side-order of fear and self-loathing (have I just killed the postman by touching the gate with an unwashed thumb? Will a pensioner starve because I bought that tin of tomatoes?). It is very difficult to constantly be responsible for other people’s safety, particularly so when the germ-spreading mechanism is your own, unruly, body – and even more so when that body is often, recently, ill with a merry-go-round array of symptoms, some of which bear passing resemblance to the tripartite* parcel of Cough-Fever-Shortness of Breath that we all know by heart now.
I ought to be used to it, really. I’ve practised my whole life for this. About 95% of my daily actions are escorted by a clang of panic – will we all crash and die if I don’t pump my car tyres? What if that person I was rude to commits suicide? Will the building explode if I’ve left the heater on at work? – but, nine times out of ten, there’s a Normal Human on hand to point out that I’m just being paranoid. I’m catastrophising, as therapists say. Buildings rarely explode. There are multiple and complex reasons for suicide. You have perfectly buoyant tyres.
But, overnight, all the Normal Humans have joined me on Team Catastrophe. Maybe you have killed the postman, they say – and half the people on his route as well.
It’s now Wednesday, a warm afternoon in the city and, since starting this post, social distancing has been stepped up across England – things already feel different (by which I mean worse) than they did last weekend. Habitually, in the kitchen, I switch on the radio and the first words are ‘face masks’. I step on the television remote by mistake and see coffins in Italy, rows of them.
I think I had other paragraphs planned, but I’ve simply run out of words for now.
Stay safe, everyone.
* To the three main symptoms we should all be adding sudden loss of sense of smell, which I found out a few days ago is a (worryingly) common symptom (considering that so few of us know about it.).
Am I having another bash at NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, for the uninitiated) and another bash at writing Madder Hall?
And sort of not.
What I’m doing is NaNoREWriMo: National Novel Rewriting Month. Because I’ve already (more than once) written the (&*$^%^$@%ing) novel. I just haven’t written it well enough.
‘I must frankly own, that if I had known, beforehand, that this book would have cost me the labour which it has, I should never have been courageous enough to commence it.’ So begins the 1861 edition of Mrs Beeton’s The Book of Household Management and (leaving aside the juicy fact I learnt recently, courtesy of Jeremy Paxman, that Mrs B had syphilis) I kinda know the feeling. It’s not quite true, in my case, that I’d never have commenced the thing at all. What is certainly true in my case, however, is that I would have commenced it differently. Like most things in my life, I went about it arse over tit.
While being forever grateful to Writers’ Centre Norwich for all the lovely side-effects of my (2013) year as one of their Escalator writers (agent exposure, professional workshops, one-to-one mentoring, delicious lunches…) I can’t deny that I entered the programme at the wrong time for my novel-in-progress. It didn’t exist, when I sent off my application, as anything more than a flicker (a glint, as I think Nabokov called it – or was that Henry James?) of a single image, slowly moving: a yellow-haired girl, a teenager, wheeling a bicycle towards a country house. It still didn’t exist (not really) when I uploaded a draft chapter to the Writers’ Centre website. Or even when I gave a reading ‘from’ the novel at an agents’ showcase in London, several months into the process. To be honest, it didn’t properly exist until November, two years ago, when I hit my stride at last by splurging 70,000 words, going way over NaNo target (50,000) and posting a daily blog as well. In the end it was writing quickly, as I began to do at the time of writing this post (with thanks to the late Ray Bradbury), that helped me make the leap from nothingness to novel. I still think writing quickly is the key (‘in quickness is truth’, as Bradbury said).
But, like most things, a novel needs more than one kind of approach. And, occasionally (as has happened to me – cue ‘lightbulb moment’), it needs to be older than you thought it did. Madder Hall was, all along, a Victorian novel, in spite of the fact that its author (that’s me) didn’t want it to be. There were long months of locked horns. But, eventually, it was clear as proverbial crystal: the story was horribly ill at ease in the 20th century.
My brain experiencing a lightbulb moment. (Also, fact fans, the flash-powder igniting in an 1850s-style photo session.)
I was just about getting my head round the mountain of research that awaited me when – hello, bombshell – I had to have a sex change too. In the process of getting to know my antagonist I’d discovered that, actually, he was more fascinating, to me, than my sketchy yellow-haired protagonist (who never – damn her – seemed to react to anything, or have any feelings). Her raison d’être was to be mysterious – therefore, quelle surprise, I couldn’t get under her skin.
So, antagonist became protagonist. And the 1970s became the 1850s.
And, thus, the research began. In my day job I’m a research lecturer, and I have an enduring fondness for finding things out. Therefore I didn’t (and don’t) mind the mountain of research, which continues each day and helps me push the plot along. But it does tend to slow things down temporarily, by which I mean (almost) stop them entirely. What is necessary, for me, is to get to a bursting point: to be so blown-up, balloon-like, with Victoriana that, come time to write, I need only the littlest pinprick to get going. It’s not really about knowing things (although, obviously, it is partly about that, because pesky facts have to be faced); it’s mainly, I think, about feeling Victorian. Sensing the mindset. Imagining what it was like to wear six starchy petticoats, laden with sweat; to think of a telegraph as blindingly new and exciting; to only just know of the word ‘scientist’; to think of child abuse as ‘seduction’; to love God devotedly and not even know (yet) about Darwin or (properly) about dinosaurs.
I can only cling to the notion that I’ll get there in the end. And, come November – as each November regularly does come, year after year that I labour (in vain?) on this book – it’s a rather nice, comradely thing to look out of my hidey-hole, like a tortoise in Spring, and find legions of other writers openly, publicly, sharing their own twisted journeys towards achieving something ‘novelly’ in shape and size (if not, exactly, a novel – because 50,000 words, although entirely admirable, isn’t quite book-length, outside YA). For the last few days, as a run-up to NaNo, I’ve been doing 1000+ words every day – with no regard to quality whatsoever – as you can see here in my Scrivener ‘scene’ files:
The upshot has been that I (usually) exceed my target every day… which led me to think I’d be breezing through come November 1st! But you know what they say about pride and falls… In the spirit of openness, here’s evidence of my own limping start to the month:
‘At this rate you will finish on August 4th’… and this book (for reasons I won’t divulge) absolutely has to be finished by June 2017. So, on I press. I’m comforted, as I slog, by sensible advice in a book called Writer’s Workshop by Stephen Koch: you might get it wrong, he says, ten thousand times… Getting it right the ten thousand and first is all that matters.
It’s been so long since I blogged that I had to sit, for a little while, staring hard at the screen. I wasn’t looking for inspiration; I was looking for the ‘new post’ button.
It’s funny how quickly your brain un-accustomises itself to things that once seemed normal and natural.
Writing this seems okay, though. But lonely. A dribble of visitors have passed this way in the six months or so since my last post. If I’m honest, though, I’d forgotten I even had a blog. Or what it was for. I’m still not sure. I think (I think) this is going to be a writing diary, for the summer months (when I’ve hung up my gown and mortar board), while I’m tackling the start of the novel (again) that was masquerading for quite a few months as The Finished Article, before Rogue Traders off the telly came round and said, hold on a sec, you’ve plumbed that chapter in completely wrong, and the sub-plot needs rewiring.
There isn’t a thing I can do about it except: start again.
I don’t (thank Christ) mean start again start again. What I mean is, the book learned to write itself as it went along. It got better. (Which is better than getting worse, as I’m sure you’ll agree.) The book was like Terminator 2 as opposed to 1, and when it got to the end of itself it had to send me back in time to… make itself pregnant, or something along those lines. Ah, you know what I mean. It’s not quite good enough, is what I mean. I can’t send it out like that.
So it’s back to the notebooks, where I found this little doodle…
And this message I wrote to myself (pardon my French)…
And this is the front door of my book (although in the actual real world it’s a door at Felbrigg Hall).
And these are the circular stairs I’m eternally walking up (or down) till the day (please God let it be soon) that this book becomes good enough.
And the problem is that I don’t hate the bits I’ve got to get rid of. It’s harder to say goodbye when the words have been carefully ordered, or happen to have fallen in a lucky way. I quite like a lot of it. Having written well once, I can write well again. I think, I hope. But the plot isn’t right. There are characters who need to die. Someone’s feet need reattaching (really).
I can’t promise much excitement here, on this blog, for the next few weeks, but you might find succour if you’re stuck, a bit, with your own book (in particular with a book that you once thought was finished).
For now, then, it’s back to the grindstone. Back to square… seven, or possibly eight. (Square six, on a bad day.)
I thought I’d share the Inspiration Trust’s response to my previous post:
Your blog contains a number of factual inaccuracies.
1. There is no “isolation room” at The Hewett Academy. When operating as the Hewett School there was an isolation room, called “The Cooler”. This approach is not used by The Hewett Academy. The Learning Support Unit has two members of staff present to support pupils working outside of their normal class, alongside any other pupils temporarily working in the unit.
Dear Inspiration Trust,
The Learning Support Unit is clearly intended as a punitive measure (if kids are being sent there for infringements of uniform policy). N’est ce pas? In what respect could this ‘unit’ be said to deliver (a) learning and (b) support?
This just in from a former Hewett teacher: there was, indeed, a ‘cooling-off’ room at the Hewett School. However, this was never (to the best of said teacher’s knowledge) called The Cooler. Which is in fact (to the best of said teacher’s knowledge) a term used in the popular TV series, Waterloo Road.
2. Behaviour policy in each school is a matter for the senior leadership team of the school. It is not set by Sir Theodore Agnew; your reference to him is wholly without foundation and could be considered defamatory.
You choose to focus on the disciplinary aspects of the policy, but completely ignore the praise and reward aspects that provide positive encouragement to students and are working well.
Dear Inspiration Trust,
The tweet in which you called me abusive could likewise be considered defamatory, so I suggest you remove that before you go any further. As could the comment on our Facebook page in which you claimed I’d made false allegations and caused distress to parents and pupils. When challenged to present evidence of these false allegations you mysteriously vanished. I’ll remove the reference in the original blog post, and I’m certain that, as a courtesy, you’ll want to remove the offending tweets and comments you made about me.
You might also care to furnish us with some understanding of the decision making process behind your behavioural policy, which a number of previous staff and parents at Inspiration Trust schools have described as ‘top-down’. Especially since Ian Burchett (from Inspiration Trust) assured us that you’d adopt a hands-off approach at Hewett. Interestingly, this ‘hands-off’ approach has consisted of issuing kids with IT’s standard behavioural policy. Weird, huh? And what of your much-trumpeted understanding of ‘Hewett’s non-traditional ethos’? What indeed.
3. It is factually incorrect to suggest an “entire PE class” was given detention for “wearing the wrong length socks”. This did not happen. Some individual pupils were given detentions for not wearing the correct uniform, after having several weeks notice of the new uniform.
Dear Inspiration Trust,
I believe that parents were unaware of the exact length of black socks required by Hewett Academy, hence there’s every likelihood that you are factually incorrect to make this statement.
4. The uniform does not contravene government guidelines. Both the Department for Education and Competition and Markets Authority guidelines allow for branded items and nominated suppliers. The previous school uniform included items that were only available from the school. All existing pupils received a free set of the new uniform so parents did not have to pay.
Dear Inspiration Trust,
Parents did have to pay, and are paying, because you didn’t issue sufficient kit to see a child through the school week. Yes, the guidelines allow for branded items and nominated suppliers, but if you familiarise yourself with best practice you’ll see that you’re falling short of the available guidance. The previous uniform did indeed include items only available from the school shop, but trousers and skirts could be bought elsewhere (as you well know), and there were fewer items too (as you also know very well). Jumpers and polo shirts were handed down, and those who had financial difficulties could apply to the Anguish Fund for help. Since help is only available on a bi-annual basis, those who applied for the old Hewett uniform are deprived of additional help until 2017. Is that a factual inaccuracy? I’m happy to be corrected if so.
5. Haslam Dodd reported independently to the Interim Executive Board for the statutory consultation, and the consultation report accurately reflects the comments raised during that process. The decision to proceed with academisation was not made by Haslam Dodd or the Inspiration Trust, but by the Department for Education.
Haslam Dodd also carried out a parallel non-statutory consultation on behalf of the Inspiration Trust. This was made clear during the consultation process.
Dear Inspiration Trust,
Leaving aside the report prepared by HaslamDodd (which is full of emotive language) can I please ask now for those present at the consultation meetings to comment below if they had any clue whatsoever that HaslamDodd were carrying out a consultation on behalf of the Inspiration Trust? If it was made clear, then it was clear as mud. It was certainly never made clear that HaslamDodd saw the consultation process as a chance to put across the ‘IT vision’! Parents and community members should feel happy to correct me if I’m wrong on this point…
6. The Hewett Academy principal and vice principal were appointed by the Interim Executive Board. As is entirely consistent with Department for Education guidelines and was openly discussed at the time, the Inspiration Trust met with candidates and advised on the appointment as the likely future sponsor. To suggest otherwise is wholly inaccurate.
Dear Inspiration Trust,
The email correspondence makes clear that Inspiration Trust’s role in the appointment of these staff members went far beyond an ‘advisory’ capacity, and frankly I’m amazed you can claim this is ‘wholly inaccurate’ when De Souza is referring to ‘Principal Leverage’ (before the consultation process even begins) and asks if she can introduce ‘our’ new appointment. Sorry, re-introduce. Can you explain this proprietorial stance if Inspiration Trust weren’t already calling the shots at Hewett? Indeed, am I correct in thinking that a great deal of expenditure (including the appointment of HaslamDodd) was drawn from a pre-academisation grant awarded to Inspiration Trust several weeks, or months before their acquisition of the Hewett School? What chance did we ever have of changing the outcome of the consultation, if Inspiration Trust (as I understand it – correct me, of course, if I’m wrong, and I’ll remove this statement) were already spending the money allotted for Hewett’s academisation?
7. Nothing has been “stolen”. The Hewett site was voluntarily transferred from Norfolk County Council to the Central Norwich Foundation Trust, an independent charitable trust, in 2010 at no cost. The site was transferred from the CNFT to the Inspiration Trust – also an independent charity – in September when the Trust took over responsibility for the school from the CNFT.
Dear Inspiration Trust,
You know this is a minor point; you know that the CNFT and Inspiration Trust operate differently; you know that 2000 people petitioned against you and that 80% of respondents to the questionnaire carried out by HaslamDodd said ‘no’ to your acquisition of the Hewett School. You keep banging on about these tiny details when the larger point remains: the majority of us did not want you. We told you that openly, clearly, a number of times. Jonathan Haslam agreed at our final consultation meeting that he would have to report to the Secretary of State that the audience had voted unanimously for Inspiration Trust to back away from our school. Why weren’t we listened to? You seem amazed and angry that parents continue to feel hostility towards you. See it from our point of view for a second, please. This was not a voluntary process. You were forced upon us. You claimed you’d be ‘hands off’ at Hewett, that you respected our non-traditional ethos. And what are you doing now? Exactly the same as you’ve done in all your schools. You didn’t mean a word of it, did you?
[Warning: the following blog contains the statement that several children were given detention for having the wrong length socks in PE class. Before you go any further, I must advise that they may, in fact, have been wearing the wrong colour socks. Rest assured I’ll be wearing a hair shirt for the remainder of the day.]
I wish I wasn’t writing this.
I wish I was writing my novel instead (2841 words on day 19 of NaNoWriMo = epic fail, as the youngsters say) but sometimes (often, lately) a thing needs saying and none of the usual channels for saying this thing is available (for a number of reasons) and hence you resort to writing a blog in your sheer bloody frustration at people’s stupidity.
Because, yes, it is stupid to send a schoolchild to isolation for having her nose pierced: especially stupid when two days ago, at the end of school on Friday, said piercing was perfectly A-OK with the Powers that Be. It is stupid to send home a 5-page pamphlet on the school’s new behavioural policy (since becoming an ac*demy with the Inspiration Trust), documenting the sort of interventions any right-minded teacher would thumb their nose at (and please, for the love of God, do high school kids need rewarding with gold bloody stickers? I think not.) It is stupid to give the majority of a [edit kindly suggested by Inspiration Trust] PE class detention for wearing the wrong length socks.
If you don’t think it’s stupid, then have you considered the possibility that you might be stupid?
It’s especiallystupid to name the isolation room the ‘Learning Support Unit’, thus linking forever in every child’s mind the unfortunate concept that ‘learning support’ is a kind of punishment. (This paragraph has been edited to remove a statement considered defamatory by the Inspiration Trust and replaced with a cheeky otter instead.) )
And you know what else is stupid? The ravishing new uniform, with the owl-in-a-taco-shell logo (kudos to the person who left that comment on our Facebook page) attached to one tit (as Travis in If… would have it). It’s utterly, totally, maddeningly stupid that the school (sorry, ac*demy) have spent £60,000 on cheap ugly tat, like a wet dream in a polyester factory, and – potentially contravening the government’s own suggestions for best practice [with thanks to Inspiration Trust for the edit] on this matter – they’ve handily ruled that all items may only be purchased from the school approved supplier.
You might think they’d want to build bridges with the community from whom they’d just stolen a 54 acre site worth upwards of £60 million. You’d think – since everyone already had black skirts and trousers – that maybe it might possibly be a teensy bit sensible to retain black as the primary colour if changing the uniform (the uniform they claimed they wouldn’t change…) since our school isn’t known for its wealthy parents, and maybe they could have consulted those parents on what sort of expenditure they felt would be acceptable. I mean, why not do those perfectly simple and sensible and decent sorts of things? If you’ve genuinely got the community’s best interests at heart and all that.
But they haven’t. They don’t give two hoots (apologies: crap owl joke). We already know they have issues with telling the truth, having sat through a sham consultation – at taxpayer expense, hurrah! – conducted by several white men in dark suits (see below), and two women: Sheree Dodd of the inventively-named media consultancy firm HaslamDodd and Rachel de Souza of Untimely Email Deletion Notoriety).
They claimed that our new head teacher and deputy head were not appointed by Inspiration Trust. I repeat, they were not appointed by Inspiration Trust:
Who’s this email from? Oh that’s right. It’s from Rachel de Souza of the Inspiration Trust. It’s dated 17 May 2015. The Secretary of State named Inspiration Trust as the school’s sponsor on 5th August 2015. I think you see the problem.
And they claimed that HaslamDodd were an ‘independent’ firm of ‘independent’ consultants offering ‘independent’ and ‘impartial’ services as ‘independent’ and ‘impartial’ facilitators of the wholly ‘impartial’ consultation procedure.
And yet… and yet… rather curiously, here’s an email from Jonathan Haslam (released as part of my Freedom of Information request) in which HaslamDodd offer their services in what seems to be a PR role to Inspiration Trust:
Look at points 4 and 5 in particular.
I could go on.
I won’t. I can’t be arsed. It’s depressing, and sad, and unfair.
And now Inspiration Trust have our school, and they’re busily boxing our kids into Enid Blyton-shaped holes.
It’s got sod all to do with their education. It’s got sod all to do with raising standards.
It’s got everything to do with ensuring that children do as they’re told. Don’t stop, don’t think, don’t ask, don’t voice an opinion.
If your hair is dyed red, or your fingernails are painted, you’re no longer welcome in a classroom at the Hewett Academy.
If you have an ‘extreme’ hairstyle you’re no longer welcome in a classroom at the Hewett Academy.
If your make-up is less than ‘discreet’, you’re no longer welcome in a classroom at the Hewett Academy.
If an item of your uniform is missing you’re no longer welcome in a classroom at the Hewett Academy.
If you’ve purchased an item of uniform from the wrong supplier (i.e. a cheaper one) you’re no longer welcome in a classroom at the Hewett Academy.
I think this stinks.
Get thee to an isolation cupboard.
For some kids, make-up and hair dye and piercings are fiercely entwined with their sense of identity, their sense of self-esteem. For a child with Body Dysmorphic Disorder, for instance, the sudden cessation of everything that makes him or her feel safe or comfortable could have horrible consequences. Teenagers aren’t really known for their confidence: why would you want to dent it still further, unless to feed your own petty hunger for power?
And, honestly, seriously, truthfully… why does it even matter if somebody’s nose has a ring or a stud in it? Why do you care? Is your faith in your own educational ability so thin and minute that you place all your emphasis on banning slap? Are you really so threatened by difference?
If so, how pathetic.
In my (un-humble) opinion, your face is your own face, and no school has jurisdiction over it.
If it’s identikit kids the Academy want, they can go buy a Lego kit. The Hewett kids are individuals. And long may they remain so.
I feel genuinely sorry for anyone who trusts this government to have their best interests at heart.
I feel genuinely sorry for anyone who trusts this government’s friends and associates to have their best interests at heart.
I’ll tell you why, shall I?
Until recently I was a certified Nice Person™. I once turned the music down because my cat was trying to sleep. I made a crying student smile by showing her pix of Emergency Kittens. I move snails out of the way on dark, wet nights and I try my darnedest to be there for my friends when they need me (sometimes fail at this, I admit) and I tell my daughter every single day how loved she is, and how utterly gorgeous (because I know what it’s like to grow up thinking you’re sort of slightly rubbish).
This week, however, courtesy of our lovely government, I discovered that I’m hostile and intimidating. Courtesy of the government’s lovely friends and associates at the Inspiration Trust I discovered that my behaviour is abusive. Along with the participants in two other hard-fought academy campaigns, my fellow Hewett chums and I were allowed to be openly maligned on a government websiteand in a press release the same day.
Mwa ha ha ha ha! De Souza, Agnew, and Academies Minister Lord Nash chuckling it up at our expense. And they’re coming to a school near YOU.
Don’t the government have rules they have to follow? You’d think so, wouldn’t you. You’d think it wasn’t acceptable for the Department for Education to quote mistruths from Dame Rachel de Souza with absolutely no right of reply from the ‘small but vocal’ (2000 people petitioned against them) ‘politically-motivated’ (as if the mass privatisation of education isn’t politically motivated) campaigners who made life so incwedibly difficult for poor Dame Rachel and her Tory chums. Because, after all, how dare we stand against them? How dare we Hewett oiks defend our own school, paid for by local taxpayers, from the filthy marauding hands of private business? How dare we?
What Theo Agnew thinks every time he looks at our oik-ish faces.
Well, the thing is, you see – we did dare. We did dare to say, actually, hang on a flipping minute, we don’t want our entire school system to be privatised, thanks very much, and this feels like a fight worth having – not just for the sake of Hewett, but for education in general. After all, as a wise man once said: ‘If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.’ So we did dare, and we continue to dare (because as long as they’re educating my daughter, I will continue to hold that bunch of crooks to account whenever I see fit, thanks very much).
So, yes, we defended our school. And, yes, we felt hostile towards the people stealing it, as people generally tend to do when their own property is being prised from their gradually loosening fingers by people who already own giant swathes of the Norfolk landscape, and – here’s the really amazing thing – they didn’t pay a penny to acquire it! In fact, yup, they were paid to steal our land. They were paid by you and by me. They continue to be paid by you and me, and they’re pissing the funds away on Vera Wang tea sets and Hugo Boss chairs and jollies to New York for meetings with education ‘experts’ who advocate things like this (skip ahead to 5.55 if you want the fright of your life, whilst noting that comments are disabled for this video, because that’s how Inspiration Trust tends to roll):
I’m abusive, according to the folks who run Hewett Academy’s social media, because I dared to voice dissenting views on a public internet page (’tis how the internet works, you rusty old bunch of farts – and if you’re going to call me abusive you’re going to provoke rude language; ’tis how human nature works):
You can read my response to this tweet (which, taken out of context, is misleading – natch) on our Facebook page, now called the Hewett Parents’ Forum to reflect the fact that, you know, the vast majority of us hostile and intimidating folks are just parents. Parents of the very kids the government is claiming to protect by instating their chums and buddies in our state-owned, council-run, accountable schools.
And here’s my daughter’s ballsy response to their nonsense. Proud to have a daughter who’s courageous enough to speak against authority.
So let me tell you what I’ve learnt in recent times: the government (and their chums) do not give sweet FA about your kids, or about you. If they gave sweet FA about you or your kids they would actually listen to your community voice. They would meet with you and your kids in a fair, friendly forum to discuss the needs and wishes of you and your kids. Rachel de Souza has never never ever ever visited Hewett parents or pupils. NEVER. Theodore Agnew, the chair of Inspiration Trust, has never never ever ever ever visited Hewett parents or pupils. Rachel de Souza told Hewett teachers she’d been ‘after us’ for ages: we’re the ‘jewel in the Inspiration Trust crown’, with our glorious 54 acres of land, and it’s just the perfect size for embryonic Charles Darwin Primary, the latest feather in the IT cap, although they cannot, of course, possibly comment on this.
Perhaps you’re thinking: Hmm, she *is* a tad hostile. Well, listen – you’d be hostile, too, believe me, if you’d found yourself ignored, belittled, and lied to for this bloody long.
Please note the failure to reply to my second tweet… So often were we met (on twitter) by the sudden sound of silence from IT in the aftermath of any awkward (i.e. truthful) tweet, that a running gag sprang up at their expense:
This is their tactic: happy to poke their heads above the parapet for cheap ‘victories’ (minuscule inaccuracies in a campaign comment), sarcastic remarks, or government-sanctioned slagging-off; heads buried down in their murky foxholes whenever we tiptoe close to the truth in an ‘uncontrolled’ forum, i.e. social media. De Souza wouldn’t come near me on our local news show, Look East, in spite of the fact I was there in the building, ready and waiting to speak to her on the hook-up from London. And why? Because, to paraphrase Jack Nicholson, she can’t handle the truth.
An unspun truth is a frightening thing for these people who pick riches from the public purse. It’s important to them that the public look elsewhere while their pockets are in the process of being picked.
And, hence, you’ll be told in the coming weeks and months that perfectly good and decent schools are failing or coasting (coasting sounds nice, though? Don’t you think? A happy, peaceful place to be, as opposed to an Ofsted-haunted gibbering wreck) and you’ll be told that Downhills Primary was physically attacked (when, in fact, the only thing the lovely and tireless Downhills campaigners ever did of a physical nature was stick a cheeky plaque on the side of the school) and you’ll be told that Hewett campaigners were hostile and intimidating and abusive. You’ll be told that the DfE ‘saw sense’ by gifting our school to the Inspiration Trust, and that our buildings were in disrepair (yes, they were, because the government refused us money to repair them), and that pupil numbers were falling (thanks in part to the government-funded opening of two new schools by… can you possibly guess? By the Inspiration Trust).
You are a free human being. You live (for the time being) (sort of) in a democracy. You can make up your own mind about this. You can swallow the government line if you want to. You can say, well that Lynsey woman – maybe she is a bit bolshi and, god, she’s always swearing and writing rude things about willies, and those nice folks at the Inspiration Trust are (mostly) Catholic, aren’t they? Good Christian people. And surely, surely, the government wouldn’t lie to us?
Or you could read this, from local councillor Emma Corlett, where actual unspun truths are told. And you could read this from the Guardian, reporting on the Shadow Education Secretary’s recent findings. And you could read this extraordinary blog with lots of icky statistics in it – the sort of unspun ickiness the Inspiration Trust is so afraid of.
And you could ask yourself why they are hiding? Why did Rachel de Souza refuse to debate me? Why did she never set foot in our public ‘consultation’ meetings? Why do they go all coy when they’re asked something difficult?
The truth is powerful. And that’s why they’re scared of it.
Yesterday, after a long and often bruising fight, we ‘lost’ our campaign against the hostile academisation of my daughter’s school, the Hewett in Norwich.
Except we didn’t lose. We didn’t lose, because we couldn’t lose. It’s impossible to lose, in my opinion, when the other side is cheating.
The moral victory is ours: we played by the rules; they didn’t.
We proved to them, via a publicly funded consultation, that Inspiration Trust was unwelcome at Hewett.
They ignored it.
We spoke unanimously against them at our final public meeting.
They ignored it.
The Guardian newspaper leaked revolting email correspondence between the two worst offenders in this hideous stinking mess – Rachel de Souza, the CEO of Inspiration Trust, and the board’s chair Theo Agnew – in which de Souza described herself as SICK at Hewett’s Ofsted success in 2013. Was the school ‘vulnerable’ again, she wondered, when exam results later fell? Agnew remarked on her ‘cunning ways’.
They all had cunning ways, as it turned out: not only de Souza and Agnew, but all of their chums too: Lord Nash, the Academies Minister; Tim Coulson, the Regional Schools Commissioner; Nicky Morgan, the Secretary of State for Education. They all had their fingers in pockets and pies, and the stench of Tory cronyism is strong in Norwich today.
So I’ve woken up this morning with one or two regrets. I’m regretting the fact that gagging clauses and widespread fear meant that so few Inspiration Trust teachers were able to go on the record with the shocking stories they told me in confidence. Perhaps I should have got naked and chained myself to the railings or thrown myself under de Souza’s chauffeur driven car or the hooves of her Tory chums’ polo ponies. I’m regretting the ratio of food to alcohol in my life last night, when I slunk to the pub in the rain after helping to cover the gate of our school in Crime Scene tape, and regretting the paltry amount of sleep I’ve had for the tossing and turning and nightmarish visions of this...
I’m regretting the fact that Look East cut me to ribbons last night and gave squirming and gurning de Souza free reign to suggest that I’m some kind of numbskull who just hasn’t seen the light yet. She admires our passion. She hopes (gurn gurn) that we’ll later become her biggest supporters. (The words: ‘dead’ and ‘body’, ‘not’ and ‘over’ spring to mind.)
But there’s one thing I’m not regretting…
I’m not regretting this campaign. I never will. Look what happened last night, with an hour’s notice. All of these lovely people arrived in the absolute pissing rain, and they stood in support of our school. They brought banners and signs.
A supporter made this, in ‘honour’ of the Hewett’s new logo (rustled up within 24 hours if you believe the bastards at Inspiration Trust):
We hugged and talked and commiserated. We spoke to reporters and had our pictures taken and wiped the drizzle from our faces and, later on, went to the pub and got drunk. (Well, one of us did…) Someone (who won’t allow me to name her) did something just beyond lovely for me, and I thank her from the bottom of my heart. Hewett kids and Hewett parents and local residents stood proud in the rain. Our school isn’t perfect. We’re not perfect. But we’re something else, something better: we are decent human beings.
I have met the most astonishing, amazing, and good-hearted people in the course of this long and hard campaign (too many to name individually, although Jo and Emma deserve special mention). I have found my own voice again (it was down the back of the sofa for most of 2014), and watched other people find theirs. I have tweeted and blogged and written emails and stood shouting in school halls and gone on the telly box and the radio and flung my whole self at this campaign, and the reason I’ve done all this is quite simple: it was the right thing to do.
Unlike the delightful Dame Rachel, I’m not a believer in God. But I reckon if he did exist, he’d be on our side. He’d have been outside those gates getting soaked last night (or, possibly, stopping it from raining at all…).
So the Inspiration Trust may have stolen our school, but you know? Be careful what you wish for. Because we come with it. We’re not going anywhere. We are Hewett. And this is only the beginning.
It’s 3.38 a.m. and I am awake. I don’t want to be awake. I don’t want to be thinking real thoughts about grubby Real Life. I want to be fast asleep, dreaming cool dreams in Technicolor with jazz on the soundtrack, floating in my PJs over the rooftops of Norwich (that was a good one) or spending a moment with someone I loved who isn’t alive anymore, or finding my novel on a bookshop shelf and remembering that, hey, I finished it months ago and it’s already published and under it there’s one of those little cards that says Our bookseller recommends…
But, no. I am awake. My stomach hurts. I’m far too hot. My mouth tastes metallic from taking a sleeping pill last night. I smell iffy. I quite need a wee, after drinking a cup of hot milk and a glass of cold water. My boy cat is thumping around on the floor catching insects. My room is too stuffy. I’ve got to get up in four hours. I’m going to be tired all day.
It’s like traffic lights. Green when you wake and you’re still optimistic (it’s only a blip; shut your eyes; think of sheep), and then amber when things look a little bit hairier (go on, head, tell me that one again about how inadequate I am as a human being; you know how I love that one), and then finally, angrily, you’re at red. There is swearing. The inadequacy engine is in overdrive. You might as well fling off the covers and fling your hot self out of bed and go flinging off to the microwave in the kitchen to fling some milk in it and now you’ve got to have a wee as well and the microwave has to bleep (of course) while you’re weeing, and what if it wakes your daughter up, and what are you meant to do at 3.38 in the morning, and why did you make such a dick of yourself in that conversation earlier? Why did you have to press send on that message? Why don’t things ever work out the way you want them to? Why don’t people like you back equal amounts that you like them? This is one of the great conundrums of the universe, of course, and even a really good cup of hot milk cannot solve it, neither at 3.38 am nor 338 years from now when, should the world still turn, the great minds – in the middle of the night – will still be pondering this question.
But then, you see. I mean, you see.
The thing you see is this: that you’re awake. Awake. You climb in bed again. You drink your milk. You listen to some music. When you stop the music, there’s an owl outside. Is anybody else awake and listening? Someone’s car comes down the road: that’s odd. It’s 4.26 now. The owl has gone quiet. You try to picture it, in the forest behind your house. You generally keep different hours, you and the owl. Is it sort of a gift, then, that you were up just now in time to hear it? Is this morning a gift, no matter what time it starts? Will the owl return later, in your memory, when you’re writing (fingers crossed) and bring something real and true (the emotion you felt while hearing the owl) to a scene that’s a little too flat?
And the things that went wrong? Well, they were a gift as well. In their way. You were living, alive, awake to experience them.
It’s all over, already, for so many people. So many.
A new bird is making a noise now. A dawn sort of noise. Day will dawn, one morning, without you. You won’t be awake anymore, or again. This is it. Now is it. You have ears, to hear owls. A mouth to drink milk. If you’d died all those years ago, when you tried to, you wouldn’t be hearing that owl in the forest or watching your cat chew the plant on your cupboard or writing this blog post that someone might read when they’re up in the morning at 3.38 by themselves.
You’re awake. This is good. Now your cat’s on the windowsill, watching the birds. These are things you don’t usually see. Have a look out the curtains, a look at the world. You see differently now. Have a look at yourself. You look different as well. Stop regretting. You’re fine as you are. You’ve done fine. You’ll do fine in the future. You weren’t such a dick, after all, in that conversation that seemed such a crashing disaster before you woke up. You were just being you, being genuine, slightly too open. So what? You’re awake. It’s not over. Your turn isn’t over. Keep going. Keep playing. Keep waking up.
A bunch of noobs called Inspiration Trust (who’ve been in the edukashun business since way back in the dim and distant days of 2012) want to ‘sponsor’ my daughter’s secondary school, the Hewett in Norwich. (Translation: snaffle the 54 acre site, valued by the Local Authority in 2009 at £60 million.) Here’s why they shouldn’t.
1. This email from their CEO Rachel de Souza, describing herself as ‘sick’ at a ‘Good’ Ofsted rating for our school.
2. This twitter convo with the Guardian’s education correspondent Warwick Mansell in which they go all coy, suddenly, about their future plans for the school’s 54 acre site.
Funny how it’s ‘all hypothetical’ when challenged on a point of squirmy fact… yet they’re happy to advertise no. 3 (see below) on their website weeks in advance of the consultation even *starting*…
3. The fact this was on their website (see above) before the consultation even began.
Note bullet point 2: Investigations ‘underway’ for a high level sports facility…
4. These minutes from a totally impartial meeting with our IEB (Interim Executive Board: the peeps parachuted in by the lovely government after they kicked out our own school governors – by email! – and refused the IEB put forward by Norfolk County Council. Sounds legit.) Inspiration Trust are so terribly nonchalant and blasé about Hewett’s 54 acre site that they didn’t even think to mention it at the meetings they shouldn’t even have been invited to – oh no, wait, hang on! They did kinda sorta mention it…
You bet your ass there was a ‘discussion’. I’m speculating here but, ‘Get those chavs off my bloody land!’ is the way I imagine it unfolding…
5. The fact that our ‘consultation’ was more of an insulting con.
HaslamDodd ran the consultation meetings with all the impartiality of a foot fetishist contemplating someone’s toes. ‘You’ve said enough already,’ as Sheree Dodd was fond of remarking.
6. Because the ‘independent consultants’ running our consultation said they publicised the meetings as hard as they possibly could, honest guv…
But they actually didn’t (love how the meeting was advertised in the local paper the day before…):
7. The sorry excuse for a questionnaire provided to us by HaslamDodd. It was (a) shit and (b) mostly written by Inspiration Trust themselves. And (c) there was no paper copy sent home with Hewett pupils which, hello, would have been an obvious move if you were genuine about widespread consultation. But who am I? Certainly not a firm of taxpayer funded ‘independent’ consultants.
For ‘The IEB regarded it as very important blah blah’ read: ‘Rachel de Souza regarded it as her god-given and inalienable right to waste taxpayer money on a marketing exercise’.
Naturellement I pointed this out to them on The Twitter.
8. Because even though the consultation found eighty percent were against Inspiration Trust it still isn’t good enough for them…
‘Deciding on the proposed changes to the Hewett School is not about a popularity contest or about making symbolic gestures – it is making sure the children of Norwich get the best possible start in life… Changes are needed to restore the Hewett to the full, bustling, and great place it once was, and we believe the Inspiration Trust has an important part to play in that transformation.’
10. And the gobsmacking fact that the Academies Minister, Lord Nash, is a personal friend of Sir Theo Agnew, the chair of Inspiration Trust. (Oh yes, and Theo also chaired the Department for Education’s Academy Board until Gove ejected him recently to cock up the home office instead.) Let the back scratching commence!
Here they are chortling together outside Isaac Newton Sixth Form, housed in the old fire station and gifted to them at a knock-down rent by one of their millionaire mates. Sir Theo of Agnew is on the left of the picture, Lord of Nash beside him. Who’s that lady? Oh, it’s Rachel de Souza of course! Mwa ha ha ha ha.
11. His Majesty Sir Theo of Agnew’s usage of the vile phrase ‘cunning ways’ in reference to the Machiavellian machinations of Dame Rachel. (For sauce, see the Guardian article in no.1.) (Apologies, I meant source. Of course.)
12. The fact that Norwich has been telling them to sod off for months.
Hundreds of us marched in protest. Two thousand of us signed a petition against them. Are they thick-skinned or what?!
13. The fact that Her Royal Dameness Rachel de Souza is a tiny bit chickenshit, let’s be honest.
14. This chock-full-of-platitudes response from Education Secretary Nicky Morgan (in the run-up to the election):
15. The fact that Inspiration Trust were allowed to write the advertisement for Hewett’s head teacher before the consultation began. (I’m sorry: assist in writing it. Excuse me while I go slap my wrist.)
This one’s for Hewett…
And this one’s for an Inspiration Trust school… or, no, hang on…
16. The fact that Inspiration Trust SUCK at snark. (Although much respect for the lovely kids in this video and I’m genuinely glad you’re doing so well. Sorry that IT saw fit to use you as emotional blackmail.)
17. The fact they think this is a good use of taxpayer money. Skip ahead to 5.50 if you want the fright of your life.
18. The fact that Inspiration Trust are evicting a brilliant Sure Start centre (my old nursery, peeps) that’s been around (in one form or another) since 1939:
First off, it’s a semi-colon. It’s punctuation. There can’t be many folks alive who love punctuation as much as I do.
But second, and more importantly, it’s a sign that you’ve survived depression. It’s a sign, in my case, that I’ve survived a suicide attempt, and you can read about that here if you’d like to (because, as people keep pointing out to me, I am very, very open about these things). What it means is: you could have ended your sentence. But you chose not to. Or, in my case, my own ineptitude stopped me from ending my sentence… But, hey, I was sixteen. What did I know? Very little (although, natch, I thought I knew everything).
After a bit of debate on Facebook I’ve decided where to have it, too. On the back of my neck, at the top of my spine. This means, of course, I’ll only be able to see it in the mirror.
But this makes sense, because… one of the other things I survived was an episode, ten years ago, when I hated my face so intensely I couldn’t leave the house. I had to go live with my parents. We had to cover all the mirrors up, or take them down, and the ones that were fixed to the bathroom cabinets had to be opened at such an angle that they couldn’t be looked in. Does this make me sound weird? I suppose it does. It’s not something I’m proud of. It happened, though, and since I’m a product of everything – good and bad – that’s happened to me since the second I burst, splat, from my mum’s womb, plastering the walls with blood (so I’m told), I can’t see the point in denying these things. I felt I didn’t have a face. I didn’t feel I existed. This made life difficult. I was just extremely ill, as I’ve been ill before and possibly (although every day I guard against that as well I can) will be again.
But my sentence hasn’t ended yet. Virginia Woolf wrote one that was 199 words long. A sentence is long as a piece of string. I feel unhappy, writing this. Things haven’t gone my way and, yeah, I’m sad. But my grasp on punctuation is as solid as ever. I can really rock a dependent clause. So I’m going to get a semi-colon on my neck because I want to celebrate the fact I’m still alive. I’ve fucked up 99% of things in my life, but I stuck around long enough to have the world’s best daughter and, maybe I’m kidding myself, but I genuinely think I do some good in the world these days.
Today I’ll be treating myself to an itsy bitsy teeny weeny pity party here on the blog, after which…
I’ll be writing about writing again.
I am (or was) a (sort of) writer. It feels like frigging ages ago.
So what have I been for the last few months?
I suppose I’ve been mostly a teacher slash anti-academies activist. But thanks to the mostly term-time nature of those activities (although fear not, Inspiration Trust, I shall still be gunning for you right through summer… to infinity and beyond, if necessary) I am now on my holidays. En vacances, as they say in la belle France, and although I’m not actually going anywhere, because the flip side of a term-time job = holiday poverty, I will certainly, like Paris in August, be a lot less busy than usual.
Many of my shops and restaurants will be closed. My metro will be occupied almost solely by tourists (not a euphemism) and, while others holiday in far-flung climes, I’ll be home in my garrett, fronting up to the giant-sized task of Le Novel.
But never mind the giant-sized novel, what about the teeny weeny pity party? Well, fire up the cheesy mix tape (Mustang Sally, Love Shack, the Macarena, etc) because the festivities are about to begin.
I am really extraordinarily hot as I’m writing this, and I am really extraordinarily sick of it. It’s very warm in England at the moment, but this is the sort of warmth that comes from inside and is driven by wildly fluctuating lady hormones, and this is my third year of getting so wet (in a bad way) when I walk up the road that I might as well have been swimming. I know you’re not supposed to talk about the M word in mixed company, but let me strike a blow here for forward-thinking on this issue. After all, you didn’t used to be able to show married couples in bed together on a TV screen and now… well, now, you patently can. It’s high time, IMHO, that talking about menopause was normalised and made okay. And if, like me, you happen to start it stupidly early (hot flushes at 32, Fact Fans) it’s meant to be worse and more intense and last longer. To which, I say: hurray! Oh yes, and you die earlier as well (so I’m told) which makes it all-round brilliant, really.
I need, I think, to get me some drugs. But these, you see, won’t be cool drugs of the kind the Verve once sang about the ineffectuality of; these will be distinctly un-cool, if cooling (see what I did there), Ancient Biddy Drugs (Ancientionius Biddicus in the original Latin) and then I will have to ‘be’ an old lady and can’t masquerade as a slightly crispy youngish lady anymore. Which is to say: I will have to ‘be’ an old lady inside my head, even more so than I am already. It is important to me (to everyone, I imagine) who I am inside my head.
My dad, for instance, although he can’t see well enough to walk anymore – except familiar routes from chair to bed to bathroom, etc, and even then with occasional difficulty – refuses to have a wheelchair so that we can take him out. He refuses even to hold my arm in the street. He refuses to do both these things because, even though he has dementia, he still maintains an image of himself with which the image of an otherwise housebound granddad in an adult perambulator is markedly at odds.
I suppose (or know, in fact) that I too hold an image of myself inside my head with which the image of a wrinkly biddy requesting HRT whilst, under her clothes, her neck and breasts are switching themselves to the rinse cycle, is also markedly at odds. But, yesterday, as I came back from a workshop day near Diss to find the streets half-shut for our local Lord Mayor’s Procession and, hence, no proper buses running, I very nearly actually died (all right, I didn’t, but sshh, I’m telling a story here) walking to the nearest available bus stop in the strobing sun, and when at last I caught the bus I went instantly onto a 60 degree pre-wash and thought, you know what, I just cannot anymore. I don’t know how other women manage this, and all power to those who do, but I am so far over this I’m peering at it from the wickerwork confines of a hot air balloon basket.
Hello, down there.
So: drugs, I think. Let the mantle of Biddyhood fall where it will. I could get on board pretty well with being a biddy. I love my cats a really extreme amount (in spite of the fact they’re psychopaths) and I like books and board games and hot milk in bed and, even though it’s begun to rain – the loud, hard, window-slashing kind of rain – since I’ve sat on my old biddy backside writing this post and, undeniably, the air through my bedroom window has a minty cool, refreshing quality, I am still surreptitiously sniffing myself because I’m convinced I smell like cheese and onion crisps and my clothes are still stuck to my skin and I’m not sure if my laptop is cooking my legs or my legs are cooking my laptop.
I feel a bit sad about it all. And not just because of the extra washing – both of clothes and body; both of which I find very boring even when done in normal quantities – or waking with bird nest hair, a strange mad cross between straight and curly, because I’ve got hot in the night. It is sad not to be able, anymore, to make babies, even though babies are mostly composed of poop and sick and have magical, soul-stealing properties that make their parents obsessed with said poop and sick – as if art, and literature, and science, and current affairs had simply stopped existing. I don’t want to get up in the night anymore to have my nipple nearly bitten off (true story) and slink back to sleep so tired that I literally didn’t care that blood was pouring down my top. But neither do I want to be perimenopausal. Ain’t life grand.
But actually, yeah, my life is grand. And I need to remember that fact. I don’t have everything I want, of course; but, better than that, I have everything I need. I can ask for my old biddy drugs on the NHS (for now, at least…) and I can play piano when I’m sad and hug my daughter and sometimes, when I’m teaching, I see people look at me, like, ‘I never knew that before, what you’re saying, and now my life’s been changed a little bit’.
But it’s weird, I think. One day you’re a lion, enormous, roaring. Then one small thing in your universe changes and, suddenly, how fast you shrink.
I’ll always be like this, I’ve realised. Never knowing, today, how big or small I’ll be tomorrow. Or later the same afternoon. Or last thing at night. It’s a very uppy-downy life I lead.
So I wanted to have this one last whinge, for now, about non-writing things because the book is calling and, from tomorrow onwards, I’ll have oodles of writing-related things to whinge about.
Until then, I’ll be having a shower. A cold one. Cheerio.
I’ve just changed (look up) the tagline of my blog. So I’m officially allowed to write this sort of shit, instead of feeling subtly guilty and or dirty for cheating on my novel blog as well as my actual novel.
Anyone seen the film Sliding Doors in which Gwyneth Paltrow inhabits two parallel story lines: one with luscious flowing locks, and t’other with sassy Brad-Pitt era slick-fringed crop? (There’s probably a proper hair-dressy word for this style. Do say if you know.)
Long and swishy.
Short and sassy.
It all hinges (nice bit of door-related humour for you there) on whether or not she makes her train. I’ll say no more, because spoilers, but suffice to say that, as butterflies’ wing beats can make skyscrapers crash (or something; as you may have gathered, I don’t really understand chaos theory), the missing or catching of a London train has profound effects on more than Paltrow’s flaxen hair.
I think lately I seem like I’m happy and smiley and possibly hothousing metaphorical testicles under my dress (we all know that real ones don’t make you ballsy). And often I am. But you know how people say you’re only ever three pay cheques away from homelessness? For me it’s three shit things away from feeling entirely rubbish about myself. Not even three, actually. Today is one of those days. And I’ve only accrued two reasons. One’s just the usual baloney I tend to get myself involved in, and the other’s the fact that it’s Father’s Day. If you’ve read this post you’ll know that my dad has dementia. Buying him presents is the devil’s own work. In the end I bought baby shampoo, because he hates having his hair washed, and anyway, blah, that’s the end of the sentence because I physically can’t write down the other stuff I’m thinking.
It makes me sad, is all.
So this could be a crappy day.
And then again, it couldn’t.
Like Gwyneth catching/not catching her train, I suppose I have two choices: sit here accumulating gloom, or get up and live.
The ‘getting up and living’ option was just on the brink of including a walk in the woods, but God or Zeus or whoever has put the kibosh on that with a sheet of thrashing rain (which I wouldn’t actually mind walking in, but my neighbours would probably think I’d gone mental again if I set off in that). So I’m back at the drawing board.
Today I’m concerned about Nicky Morgan’s eye health. All that staring! It can’t be good, can it?
Nicky Morgan. She loves a good stare.
Who, or what, is holding her eyes open? And what is she being forced to watch?
Surely she’s a shoe-in for the Stare Out Championship Finals?
Or is it too late? Have the body snatchers taken up residence already?
Anyway, I’m feeling like a massive bitch now, because mocking someone’s appearance isn’t cool. I should know better. I do know better. But I’ve been awake since 4.38 feeling stressed about my powerlessness to bloody do anything in the face of Nicky Morgan’s policies (coughs noisily into handkerchief and mumbles the word Gove… which, curiously enough, is a little-known synonym for the contents of one’s handkerchief when one has been too long in the capital, hence acquiring the sad affliction colloquially known as black bogies).
Moving on… (Because mocking Gove’s appearance would be entirely too easy, and irrelevant of course because one’s appearance has nothing at all to do with the state of one’s soul. To say, for instance, that Gove resembled a slippery fish would be wholly unfair when in fact— Oh, hang on…)
Very, very, very soon I will be blogging about writing again. I hope, I beg, I pray. I have reached the point in our school campaign (you can see more here) when I just want it to be over. I once had a normal life, I think. (Normal by Lynsey-ish standards at least.) By the bed there are two Cindy Shermans (not even prints – before you pop round to rob me: photocopies of prints. Wonky photocopies n all) that make me remember the heroine of my novel (I’ve fallen a bit out of love with the word protagonist) but no matter how many times I look at them lately my brain’s on a patch of ice, or a laminate floor with a rug on, or maybe roller-skates, because it won’t stick to anything it’s meant to stick to. It keeps getting angry and picturing Nicky Morgan’s bug-eyes and wanting to ruminate on the fact that, if Inspiration Trust invade my daughter’s school (the Hewett in Norwich), we’ll be making profit, by proxy, for a bunch of millionaire Tory donors. That’s definitely not something I want to do.
Other things I don’t want:
a Principal instead of a head teacher
children referred to as ‘products’
an openly right-wing deputy and an openly Catholic head (sorry, Principal).
The last time I checked, homosexual activity was ‘contrary to natural law’ in the Catholic church. In our school we have several gay or bisexual children. Last night (at the second of our parent ‘consultations’ on the future of the school) I raised the issue of LGBT rights in the light of Inspiration Trust’s avowed ‘traditional values’. I wanted the Catholic head, newly appointed, to offer a firm commitment to positivity around homosexuality (along with a woman’s right to choose, and the continuing rights of teenagers to access free contraception at the Base (a community centre operating on the Hewett site) in direct contradiction to everything their religion holds dear.
Sheree Dodd, however, (who was orchestrating the consultation at taxpayer expense), shut me down. I raised my hand again later, but sadly the sands of time had run away with us (probably while the White Men in Suits who constituted the panel were rambling on: this was the kind of consultation where some were more equal than others; you know – the unfair kind).
I’ve done you a little gallery here… I’ve even done you some captions: but owing to the fact I’m having fancy circles instead of boring old squares (because I’ve had enough of boring old squares at these bloody consultations) you’ll have to click on the pictures to read the captions. (It may not be worth it. Your call. Life’s short.)
A little bit of activism.
Inside at last, where the temperature was warmer but the atmosphere somehow chillier.
Mr Ian Burchett representing Inspiration Trust. Um, sort of.
Sheree Dodd: female presence amongst the blokes in suits.
Hewett pupil doing her bit 😉
A little bit more activism.
It’s worth blogging about this, I think, because the kind of consultation we’ve been ‘enjoying’ this week will very shortly go the way of this: Stary Nicky announced an education bill last week. This bill will enable her to ‘sweep away’ (her words!) the ‘bureaucratic loopholes’ (aka parents’ views) in order to push through the forced academisation process with a speed as yet unseen. At the moment it takes, on average, 13 months for the journey from ‘troubled’ community school to glorious academy. With Morgan’s sensible court shoe on the gas it could take as little as two months in future. In other words, from this: to this:
Always good to have a pic of Jeremy Clarkson looking twatty. (Basically every picture of him ever taken, then.)
If you think this is a good thing you’re probably an idiot and should stop reading now because the rest of this post will only irritate you further.
I think we’ve got up Morgan’s nose. I’ve tweeted her enough times that there’s a passing chance she makes the sign of the cross when she sees my name (another rightwing Christian; awesome). Last night I was so far up the nose of Sheree Dodd that I could’ve investigated for ‘Gove’. ‘We heard a lot from you last night,’ she said, slapping me down again. Well, we heard a lot from Ian Burchett, too: that’s the IT guy, and for IT read Inspiration Trust, BTW. Wouldn’t want to give the impression that anyone connected with academy BS is remotely Roy or Moss-like:
100% cooler than anyone connected with IT. And that’s a statement of fact.
You know what else is a ‘statement of fact’, according to Ian Burchett? Only one child (yes, one child) in the whole of Norwich defected from the Hewett to one of our brand-spanking-wholly-unnecessary-new free schools, Jane Austen College (owned by Inspiration Trust)! It really is true. Ian Burchett does have that kind of information. It isn’t opinion, or supposition, but a ‘statement of fact’.
He was in the mood for offering these cast iron sorts of statements last night.
Oh, hang on, no. Except he actually wasn’t! He couldn’t say ‘how long’ Jane Austen would remain in their present location (where, as I pointed out, they have no frigging windows! ‘I said please don’t send me here; it’s like a prison,’ as one child remarked to me last night). He couldn’t say why Dame Rachel de Souza, head of IT, should be negotiating over the future of Hewett’s land when – silly Rachel! She must’ve forgotten – she doesn’t own it yet. He couldn’t say anything concrete either about the future location of the newest player in the IT empire: Charles Darwin Primary Academy. He couldn’t say much about ‘traditional values’ either, except that, in his universe, traditional means ‘learning taking place in classrooms’. Or summat like that. No, it didn’t make sense to me, either.
I am roundly mocking him because it reflects the contempt shown to us by Inspiration Trust. We Hewett paupers are so terribly lowly that Dame Rachel couldn’t be arsed to show her face, but sent a stooge instead. I know supermodels used not to get out of bed for less than £10,000 dollars but FFS we have 54 acres of land, worth sixty million quid, at our disposal. The stooge didn’t even do us a bloody powerpoint. I’ve talked before about Aristotle’s definition of the distinction between empty (but impressive) rhetoric and genuine policy. Burchett had neither skill under his belt. I don’t pretend to be a policy maker, but I can write a speech: Mr Burchett, if you want a hand in future, I’ll help out! I rewrote the FAQ sent to us by our Interim Executive Board (IEB) whilst waiting to be (wo)manhandled by a gastroenterologist on Monday, so you see it won’t take me too long. What’s your hourly rate? I extend this invitation to the IEB as well: if you’re struggling to write a job advertisement you don’t need to ask IT to do it. I used to write job specs for a living. Once again, if you quote me your (own) hourly rate I could probably undercut it by, oh, 75% and still feel decently rewarded.
Anyway, we’re holding our own public meeting next Tuesday, 16th June at 7 p.m. There’s a link here if you’re Norfolk based and you’d like to come along. We’ll be talking about the same lack of choice I was talking about on this Future Radio story on Norfolk’s schools. We’ll be talking – honestly – about IT and why, no matter how Stary Nicky insists otherwise, they’re not the right fit for our non-traditional school. All the white men in suits, and Sheree Dodd, have been publicly invited (by yours truly) and rest assured I’ll be most upset if they don’t show their faces. I’ll (probably) blog about the meeting here.
And then… I’m done, I think. I really, really, really do have a book to finish. I’ve got to get back to it. My soul has got little bits of blackish bad stuff attaching to it, like lungs in anti-smoking ads, and I reckon it’s time for a detox.
Update: this post has been edited in light of the recent pointing-out to me, on ye olde twitter, that our incoming deputy is not, as I’d originally stated, a Catholic. He is, however, a Gove fanatic. Both these things are, of course, manna from heaven for an atheist pinko such as myself.
One day soon I will actually blog about writing my novel. (Before trading standards come knocking.)
One day soon I will actually do some work on my novel.
Neither of those things, however, will be happening today.
If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you may know that 2014 was a year of such cataclysmic awfulness that it’s almost been wiped from my head. For most of that time, I didn’t know how I would carry on being alive. I thought I was pointless and awful. It took a long while to get better. Some days would be bearable; some would be worse. There’s no rhyme to these things, and no reason. You just have to keep showing up every day and believe you’ll recover eventually.
I did recover. I am recovered. I’d had an unpleasantly sticky break-up, on top of other things, and it takes time to un-plunge yourself from the bog of lost affections. ‘You’re more like you,’ my daughter said to me the other day, ‘now you’re single. You used to complain all the time… and now you just get on and do things.’
It’s like being an alcoholic, though, or an addict: you don’t just get better; you have to stay better, actively, as I wrote about here. Just the way a relationship needs to be worked at, you need to keep working at loving yourself. Is it harder or easier to love yourself than someone else? It should be easier, right? But it isn’t, not always. I think people (especially women) often make allowances for undeserving others. It’s way easier to make such allowances for someone you fancy (and unless you’re really peculiar, or else Narcissus, you don’t usually fancy yourself…) ‘Well, he did try to call me, but it wasn’t his fault a passing magpie swooped through the open window and, in the process of trying to steal his phone, hit the delete key with its beak, so you see he had no way of knowing my number and, what was even worse, he was nude when it happened, and Christ knows how but the magpie’s claw must have caught the camera button, because that’s the only possible explanation for the willy pic he accidentally sent my hot best friend.’
I think you catch my drift.
Good things and bad things have happened in the last few weeks. I’ve made sensible decisions, and I’ve made some really stupid ones. The kind that are so stupid you auto-cringe whenever you think about them. I’m auto-cringing a bit now.
This is the face of the auto-cringe.
But so what? There are worse things than cringing. Worse things than making a dick of yourself. What I’ve come to believe is this: if you don’t take chances, your life will be shit. If you want something, ask for it. Speak up, speak out, speak your mind. Have a go. You will fail sometimes. Things will happen that make you feel silly or sad. I’ve felt silly and sad quite often, the last few days, but I’ve also felt totally fucking awesome. I feel proud of myself. I will keep making twatty decisions, I’m sure, because one of the many facets of my personality is, if I’m honest, a bit of a twat. I did something a little bit twatty last night, when I’d guzzled some wine, and I might be a twat again later. There’s no way of knowing.
But yesterday I did some cool stuff too. Nicky Morgan, our fabulous Education Secretary, announced a bill of such stunning stupidity, arrogance, and injustice that our school campaign got a much-needed fix of publicity. These links won’t last for long, but you can see me here (about 8.15)
and here (at about 2.15) having a ding-dong, and here (at about 0.57) walking around in a car park.
Windswept in the city.
If you’d rather not look at my mug anymore you can hear me here with a fellow campaigner, Jo Smith, on breakfast radio this morning around 40 minutes in. And we made a pretty good team, if I say so myself.
And even though it turns out my forehead is way more crinkly than I thought it was, I’m proud of myself for stepping up.
Inspiration Trust are giving me wrinkles.
… or do I have a concertina for a forehead?
Because, what the hell, there’s always Botox. And, yes, I’ve messed up (yet again) this week. But I’ve also done good things too. So long as, occasionally, I can do something good then I’m happy to carry on being a twat, occasionally, too.
There’s a certain, very famous Longfellow poem I expect you’re familiar with (although, hang on, Gove’s not fond of American literature, is he?):
There was a little girl,
Who had a little curl,
Right in the middle of her forehead.
When she was good,
She was very good indeed,
But when she was bad she was horrid.
While I can’t lay claim to curly hair (without the assistance of heated appliances, or else a particularly sweaty night) I think there’s some relevance, for me personally, in the last three lines.
I’m a fairly mild sort of person most of the time. I wouldn’t say I was good, exactly; but most of my acquaintances would likely be willing to chuck a ‘nice’ in my direction. Sometimes I can be very nice. When the mood takes me. I’m usually kind. I find kind things to say down the back of the sofa when there isn’t any obvious kindness immediately to hand. I smile at animals in the street. I say cheerful things about the weather to passing neighbours, even if those neighbours have passed my car on more than one occasion with the express aim of checking the date on my tax disc.
But, you know what? Don’t piss me off.
Don’t piss me off because, believe me, I will argue till the cows come home, and that first generation of cows will have withered and died and in fact their grandchildren will also have long been home and quietly resting in fields of chewed grass by the time I finally shut my gob.
Such massive love for Lucy in Peanuts, I even named my daughter after her.
I just like the last word. Always have; always will.
I think it’s a consequence of growing up with Tory parents. (Although, happy day, Mum has now defected to Labour.)
Before I explain, let me first bring some shame on my head by confessing to something:
Until the age of nine I, too, was a Tory.
Just because, you know, my parents were. And then my middle school held a mini election in class. We listened to the parties’ policies and made our considered nine-year-old decisions and, after hearing the arguments, the party I voted for was… Ecology. (1980s incarnation of the Greens.) This was a surprise to me. My thoughts and feelings weren’t, after all, that similar to my mum’s and dad’s in this respect. I actually had my own opinions. And they were strident. And natural-seeming. They seemed to have formed the way cliffs do, for instance – without even meaning to; in response to the buffeting of the world around them – or much as a freshly rinsed white linen sheet (in my house) will attract, by the laws of inevitability (and Sod), a black cluster of cat hair within twenty-five seconds of leaving the washing machine, even if both cats are currently outside. It’s a conundrum.
What was I talking about?
Ah, yes. Well, I grew up arguing, you see. I was hot-headed and angry, and so was my dad, and we’d clash about twelve times a minute when I lived at home, because I cannot stand (just cannot stand) being told what to do, or to think. And it may be that I do it anyway, what you want me to do, but – trust me – the resentment is building, and one day, whether it’s a giant ding dong (not as pleasant as it sounds) or the metaphorical scissoring of your life from mine (like an angry divorcee with the family photo album), you are going to know about it.
Ofsted, you have been pushing me for a while now. I’ve said nothing. Or next to nothing. In fact, I semi-defended you on the radio a few months ago (‘I’ve got no particular beef with Ofsted’, I think were the words), but you – and the government that has hold of your reins – is really beginning to piss me off now. First you helped capsize my daughter’s school with your doom-mongering of the knee-jerk variety (all your reports are knee-jerk, dear Ofsted, because you simply don’t spend long enough to make reports of a more considered variety), and now you’re coming for adult education.
Let’s stop for a minute and talk briefly about the education of adults.
How do you define an adult?
The dictionary says ‘person who is fully grown or developed’. Immediately, see, we’re in murky waters, because ‘growing’ and ‘developing’ are so open to (mis)interpretation. I’m 41 and still not sure I’m a grown-up. It’s one of those things that’s hard to define.
Something else that’s hard to define? Enjoyment. According to Ofsted, it isn’t enough for my learners to enjoy my classes; there has to be evidence of achievement on a scale from one to five, or one to ten (it keeps changing), and something called a RARPA (I still don’t know what that stands for) that may or may not be the same as the ROA (or possibly the ILP) and learners must self-assess themselves in order to evidence achievement against a range of SMART targets (don’t ask), and if you replace the words ‘giving’ and ‘receiving’ (in the following clip) with ‘evidencing’ and ‘achieving’ you’ll have a good idea of the massive balls that teachers are forced to regurgitate, over and over again, for the benefit of Ofsted, because Ofsted have no real way of assessing the success or failure of actual teaching. The only thing Ofsted know how to assess is paperwork.
In my classes I teach consenting adults. I say consenting because everyone’s here, primarily, to enjoy themselves. Yes, they want to learn something – and they will learn something, I guarantee it; or else! – but that something can’t always be easily proven in any meaningful sense. They have fun. We get on. As a person I suck in a number of ways, but I think, as a teacher, I’m good at making people welcome. How would Ofsted know? They wouldn’t. They’ve never once visited one of my classes. They’ve never seen one of my lesson plans. If they had, they wouldn’t like it…
After years of experimentation…
… this is the style of lesson plan that works for me.
I’m not meant to use these lesson plans anymore. We got slated by Ofsted a few months ago (more specifically, the management team were slated; hence, by association, the teaching has also been tarred… because them’s the rules). If you’ve worked in teaching in the last ten years you can probably picture the carnage. We can’t move for steering groups and rapid intervention teams and six-page lesson plans with space for each activity to be checked off against Ofsted’s Every Learner Matters criteria:
Be healthy – promoting excellent physical, mental, emotional and sexual health
Be safe – ensuring all learners stay safe from all forms of harm
Enjoy & achieve – making progress in learning and personal development
Make a positive contribution – developing self-confidence, social conscience and enterprise
Achieve economic wellbeing – preparing for financial independence
In my lesson plans, I’m supposed to achieve ‘number two’ (being safe) by ensuring my learners remove their bags from any gangways.
I’m actually supposed to write this into my lesson plan. Every week.
These are adult learners: professionals, past and present, with far greater economic wellbeing (for the most part) than the poorly-rewarded tutor who’s teaching them. It is really appropriate for me to make space in my lessons to help prepare an eighty year old retired policeman for financial independence?
I have yet to promote the sexual health of any learner, young or old.
As for three and four: come on! This is what you do your teacher training for. Once you’re trained, why can’t someone assess you (once, twice, thrice if you like) on probation – and once it’s been proven that (a) you’re not a massive bitch and (b) you do actually know, mostly, what you’re talking about, then leave you to get on with it. Would that be so crazy? You could have an appraisal once a year – you know, how they do in other jobs. I’ve had lots of other jobs: in shops, in offices, in restaurants… even a summer spent French polishing furniture for a pervert (don’t ask)… I don’t recall inspectors leaping from the woodwork to assess me, unannounced, in any of those jobs. (Although actually, in the latter case, an inspector might’ve helped.)
We have a peculiar new magazine called the Rising Standard (which I’m almost a hundred percent certain is what Nigel Farage calls his wang), and a red alert system to summon the rapid intervention team if a learner goes AWOL. It’s like a police state. I hate it.
I just want to teach. Is that too much to ask, Ofsted?
Over the years I’ve thought happiness was a place to get to. Nine enormous lit-up letters, nestling in the hills somewhere like the Hollywood sign. And as soon as you get there: pow, like a comic-book sock in the face, you see stars. Hello, life. You can start now. I’m happy. And happy is how I’ll eternally be. Of course things will go wrong: I’ll forget to buy butter, and cats will still vomit, and Mailer’s Law decrees that every writing class I teach will contain a student who’s hell bent on being a bell end… but once you’ve arrived at Happiness you’ll manage these things happily and all shall be happy, as Julian of Norwich nearly said, and all manner of things shall be happy.
Of course, this is bullshit.
There’s a story about the Hollywood sign. One ordinary Friday evening in 1932, when the sign was only nine years old, a young actress called Peg Entwhistle climbed to the top of the letter ‘H’ and dived to her death down the side of the mountain.
If you go about life thinking ‘happy’ is somewhere uphill and you’ve just to climb to the summit then rest up forever, you might go the way of poor Peg.
That’s why happiness isn’t a place, or a state, or an end in itself. That’s why happiness, I think, is a little kid next to a river. And the bank’s a bit slippery, and he’s not really watching his feet, and his laces have just come undone, and that’s dog poo he’s about to step in, and who’s that weird man in the bushes – are those binoculars he’s holding?
And you, yeah you, are responsible for that kid. If you don’t keep your eye on him, unhappy things are going to happen.
Shit. Where’s he gone?
Happiness, too, has got to be kept an eye on. As any fule kno it looks perfickly lovely from the outside, watching kids play by the river. But under the skin of the outside it’s different. If you’re the one tasked with ensuring that child returns safely alive at the end of the day it’s less perfick and lovely than constantly stressful in small sorts of ways: like a kettle that can’t ever come to the boil but keeps trying to start. (Just been teaching my daughter about systems of imagery for her poetry paper this morning, and boy does this blog post need one…) You can’t close your eyes for too long, you can’t properly read, you can’t talk without having to check, check, check – and each check is accompanied by a squirt of adrenalin and after all, before you know it, this isn’t actually as much fun as you hoped it would be. Roll on bedtime.
That’s life too, right? Sometimes (not always) it isn’t as much fun as you hoped it would be. And then there are days, of course, when it’s downright fucking awful.
Even on downright awful days you can still be jolly.
By deciding to be. By tending to your happiness the way you’d tend a tottering two year old by a fast-flowing river. By looking out for it.
It’s not in the big things: the new job, the fancy house, the lottery win. It’s a known fact that people who break every bone in their body can end up as happy, eventually, as a person for whom the giant sparkly finger said, ‘It’s you!’
As hard as it seems to believe when you’re going through shit, it’s not actually life events that make you happy. Except momentarily, fractionally, fleetingly. It’s a tiny bird hopping beside you when you walk into town, or treating yourself to sugar in your tea. It’s a text from a friend. It’s playing the ornaments in a Chopin nocturne exactly the way you meant to (fingers don’t always do what they’re told, as any piano-playing fule kno). It’s noticing colours, lights, sounds, faces. It’s walking along a warm street lined by trees and remembering that, even though you hate your legs in every cosmetic sense, you’re incredibly lucky to have them. It’s finding the right word. It’s cuddling a person you love. It’s throwing a bobble for your cat to chase. It’s being told you’re the staffroom pin-up in your new job because your students gave you such glowing reports, and that teachers you’ve never met in a school you’ve never been to are supporting your campaign against academisation and know who you are, and think you’re kind of cool.
In other ways the week’s been shitty. Campaigning is scary and stressful. I haven’t been sleeping, and eating’s gone out the window too (even Sainsbury’s knock-off nobbly bobblies have lost their appeal: don’t buy the real ones, people, because: Nestle…). I’m waking at 1.45, or 2.25 if my brain’s being kind, and I re-plump my pillow and pull down my eye mask and try to get back to the dream I was having, but this happens:
Twice this week I’ve been marking at 4 a.m. which doesn’t seem fair or proper for someone so poor she has holes in 87% of the clothes she owns, but there we are. Life is what you make it. You have to keep paying attention: and, yes, your purse has just dropped down a drain with your house keys in it, but maybe you never liked that purse anyway. And maybe you’ll have to ask help from a passing stranger, and maybe that stranger will have a long pole, and it might be the start of a beautiful friendship, etc.
My cat’s on the bed and he’s well cute. I had five hours sleep last night instead of two, so yay me, I’m winning at that, and I’ll bury my face in his floofy belly and not care too much about big things going well or wrong or so totally tits up you can hardly bear to think about it. All there ever is, in life, is this moment. The thing I just wrote? It’s already the past.
So is this.
Now is life.
And now can have happiness in it, no matter what, if you just keep an eye out.
I wrote this exercise for my Write Club group a couple of weeks ago. I call it I am born and it’s simpler than a two times table or the sky in a child’s painting or… other random things that are also quite simple. (My brain doesn’t seem to be working today: I blame the election.)
It has to be written in present tense (or else I’ll come round personally and tell you off) and each ‘chunk’ of your life is addressed in a single sentence: you’re aiming to capture a snapshot from that part of your life.
Lickle me and my nanny Gladys.
I am born and my hair is black.
I am four and I look fat in photographs.
I am twelve and I still believe in God.
I am fourteen and nothing has really gone wrong yet.
I am sixteen and miserable now, heaven knows.
I am eighteen and aching to leave.
I am twenty four and I don’t know yet that I’m pregnant.
I am twenty five and feeding fifteen times a night.
I am twenty nine and serious about writing.
I am thirty-one and sad about my skin.
I am thirty-five and can see the hill in the distance.
When I read this to the group in class I opted to maintain an air of mystery, amidst the crows’ feet, by stopping at thirty-five. But life didn’t stop at thirty-five, I’m glad to say (although, back then, I did feel it might be winding down, like that hideous bit when the lights come on at the end of a party and everyone blinks).
In another life I’m fairly sure I was a tortoise (slow and thoughtful; fond of lettuce), and hence, you see, I’ve decided I was just in hibernation. Under the straw in somebody’s shed. Tucked away in my shell.
But it’s Spring now. On my street, as I write this, lawns are being mowed. There are wildflowers in the grass strip between lanes on the way to the Sweet Briar Roundabout and, in between watching idiot drivers weave from one lane to another, without so much of a blink of their lights, I can turn my face a fraction of an inch and see those flowers. They make me smile. Am I silly for smiling at flowers? You might think so. I don’t.
There is always more life to be led. Well, not always, of course. I haven’t yet become immortal. We lost both our tortoises one awful Spring when my mum left them too long in the shed and if sheds are a metaphor for death (which, apparently, they now are) there’s a shed waiting for all of us, eventually. Which is why it’s important to do things now while you’re alive. Not tortoise-y things, bless them, because four hours with your face in a water trough isn’t something I’d particularly sanction (and neither is humping your good lady companion whilst she’s chomping lettuce; there’s a time and place for these things, as I used to think, in my childhood years, glancing out of the bedroom window to see poor Flash in the process of being molested by Speedy) but you can certainly come out of your shell (see what I did there) and get involved with your community, your country, your world a wee bit more.
And so I’m campaigning. Not like a tortoise; more like a yappy dog (that a fair few people would probably kick in the face, if they could). I’m campaigning because it’s wrong not to, if things are happening that you’re not very happy about, and you have a voice (I think I do).
Since I started campaigning I’ve been lucky enough to sit on a panel for the People’s Question Time with Natalie Bennett and Rufus Hound, where I shared my experience of depression (among other things) and finally got to say a public thank you to the nurses who played such a big part in keeping me alive last year.
Yup. Just me and Natalie Bennett chilling on the People’s Question Time panel. As you do. Sitting between us, looking pensive, is People’s Assembly Member Murad Qureshi.
Important points to make.
Swish. Because I’m worth it.
Fellow panel mates, Rufus Hound and Shelly Asquith.
But the fight continues. We have a Tory government, and our Tory government is hell bent on privatising every last inch of our country. They’re hell bent on privatising my daughter’s school, and if that’s something you, too, feel strongly against, then join our campaign here on Facebook.
And so, as this post ends, we come to the end of my timeline (so far):
In writing this post I have been inspired by an inspirational post on the inspirational website of the inspirational academy chain called Inspiration Trust.
I am no longer going to link to this post, nor name the author. Perhaps it is unfair to single out an individual and perhaps it detracts from the larger battle. Perhaps it should also be noted that individuals can be placed under pressure by companies for whom they work.
Nevertheless, this particular individual was happy to sling the first blow by suggesting that those who sit on the sidelines shouting and moaning about his employers, Inspiration Trust, were basing their observations on nothing more than ‘lazy twitter comments’.
Here’s one of these lazy twitter comments. Actually, it took me a whole four seconds to take that photograph. Another ten seconds or so to upload it and a minute or two to compose an appropriately concise slogan.
But it’s taken weeks and weeks and weeks of being ignored by the Department for Education and Inspiration Trust for me to reach the point of snark. If de Souza had come and fecking well asked if we wanted to give her our 54-acre school site, worth approximately £60 million, we’d have told her very politely: ‘No! But thanks for asking.’ and sent her on her way.
Neither has Sir Theodore Agnew, the chair of Inspiration Trust, come cap in hand to Hewett and said, ‘Hello, lovely yokels! May we please have your school and all its land?’ Theo Agnew is also, since you probably didn’t think to ask but ought to have done (because, hello Tory democracy!), the chair of the Department for Education’s Academies Board. Oh, and also he sits on Policy Exchange, the right-wing think tank which ‘advises’ the Department for Education on all matters educational. Did I forget to mention he’s great friends with Lord Nash, the DfE’s Academies Minister? Perhaps I neglected to say that he’s also a Tory donor, to the tune of several hundred thousand pounds. Oh, and one last thing! He made his fortune outsourcing work to India, where graduates could happily earn a pittance for doing jobs for which he’d have had to pay unskilled British workers more.
Actually it isn’t the last thing, since I probably ought to say that he went to an independent school (Rugby, I think, off the top of my head), failed his eleven plus, and has a crinkly fat-cut chip on his shoulder about anyone and anything to do with education.
Such are the men (for they are, primarily, men, with Trophy Woman Rachel de Souza providing the female touch) who are taking slow hold (and I said ‘slow’ because I like the way slow and hold sounded together, quite menacing, although in fact they’re doing it rather quickly; rather bloody quickly indeed) of our education system and please, please, please will everyone stop wetting themselves over the r*yal baby and find the inspiration to sit up and say, actually, no, we don’t want all our schools to fall into the hands of private businessmen who do this sort of thing with them.
And hence my journey: not to work for Inspiration Trust, but to oppose them.
At Hethersett Academy, owned by Inspiration Trust, there is a tiny room. It is the isolation room. It is where children are sent to spend the day alone when misbehaving. It is a room where a child with special educational needs can be sent to spend the day alone.
It isn’t called Room 101. But it doesn’t have to be, does it?
This is where we are heading if we don’t do something now.
I was seven when Charles married Diana. My street had a party. My mum or dad bought me the Ladybird book about the wedding, and to this day I remember my fascination with the name of one of her bridesmaids: Clementine.
It was all quite exciting, I seem to remember. Also the sausage rolls were very tasty. They always taste better on paper plates.
Fast forward thirty years or so and I’m walking home with radio four on my headphones, swearing out loud in the street at the fawning coverage of the ‘royal’ baby’s birth.
The thing is, yes it’s lovely that Kate and Wills, or whatever their names are, have had a baby – by which I mean: it’s lovely for them. It’s lovely for the baby’s gran and granddad and aunties and uncles and so on and so forth, as it’s lovely for all families when a new arrival comes along. But the grown men and women who’ve camped for twelve days outside the posh London hospital where poshos give birth (is it just me, or does Lindo Wing sound like a Bond villain?) must surely be in need of psychiatric care. When the ‘duke’ arrived with ‘the toddler prince’ there were screams from the audience. Actual screams.
I don’t mean to be rude, but: WTF? In a country where our Prime Minister (although, fingers crossed, not for much longer…) goes to great lengths to avoid being seen, or snapped, with his titled chums – mere peasants, of course, when compared with the ‘royals’ – because that sort of thing doesn’t ‘play well’ with the electorate… why, then are we falling over ourselves on bended knee to lick the boots of the land’s most toffish toffs?
Does anyone really believe (really, truly) that God chose Queen Elizabeth to rule us?
If the answer is no, then un-bend your knee immediately, un-doff your cap, get the next bus out of London and stop saying silly things on the radio about how it’s all been ‘worth it’ – for a glimpse of the toddler prince and then, some time later, a tinier glimpse of his new sister’s head in a shawl. ‘We’ve got a princess!’ said one of the crowd, excitedly, in a strong Geordie accent.
I don’t want to rain on your parade, love, but I doubt she’ll be round Newcastle way any time soon.
Although I must admit, this is a novel way to give birth.
It’s the feel good factor, according to radio four. But what, exactly, are we meant to feel good about?
A night’s stay in the Lindo Wing is £5,913. (Kate gets a discount, having used the Lindo once before.)
This doesn’t include consultant’s fees, which are roughly £6000. (Reminds me of my own labour! I lay on the floor of the day room in the dark, by myself, for a couple of hours, because I didn’t want to wake the sleeping women on my ward.)
According to the Torygraph, the ‘Cambridges’ will hire a second nanny – one per child – although:
‘the Duke and Duchess are determined their children should have as normal a childhood as possible, and since they moved into the newly-refurbished Anmer Hall at the end of last year they have been immersing themselves in local life.’
This is Anmer Hall.
This is the ‘royal’ baby’s second home, Kensington Palace, where taxpayers picked up the £4 million refurbishment tab:
Meanwhile, in other news, here are the contents of a food bank box from the Trussell Trust:
There are currently 3.5 million children living in poverty in the UK. That’s almost a third of all children. 1.6 million of these children live in severe poverty. In the UK 63% of children living in poverty are in a family where someone works.
Did you know that some children in Britain today don’t know what a banana is? Food banks can’t often give fruit, because it doesn’t keep.
A hundred people every day, too mentally ill to work, have their benefits sanctioned (i.e. stopped) for paltry reasons. Forty two of them leave the benefits system altogether. Only seven enter work.
That’s thirty-five mentally ill people every day who don’t have a penny to live on. And, thanks to these sanctions, a hundred thousand children are suffering.Through no fault of their own. (Even if you ‘blame’ their parents.)
But yeah, you’re right. I should be celebrating. Two small children get to live in luxury forever at our expense.
Courtesy of the fab blog In the Media by the fab blogger Naomi Frisby (who is well worth a follow on twitter as well) I came across this collection of spinster cut-out dolls on Literary Hub. This is Edith ‘Age of Innocence’ Wharton, whose quote is my favourite of all:
I am myself a spinster, being over forty and having never married. I do have a daughter and I think I’ll be horribly lonely at first when she goes off to university (and yes, you will go, darling daughter, no matter what you occasionally toss into the conversation about taking a different route through life…) but actually, in terms of needing another ‘half’, I think in fact I don’t. Need one. I feel whole.
Hair is seeping from places that used to be smooth, and stray bits of me (teeth, hair) are dropping off, and the other day I happened to turn my arm over to look at a lumpy scar I’ve had for years and my elbows look really old. I have spots and melasma. I snore. I get really worn out. I hate parties. (Don’t all rush at once for my phone number.)
Perhaps I’ll feel differently one day, but now I don’t care. I like work. I like reading and thinking and walking and watching TV by myself. I like going to libraries alone, and the cinema too, and I’ve got friends (and my daughter, occasionally, when I unstick the glue that attaches her lately to her friends) and I’m not really sure what marriage is for, if I’m totally honest. It seems to be totally fine for some people. For people who want it that’s totally fine. I even tried to join in once, a while ago, but it’s not my forte, I don’t think: marriage, relationships. Oh, I like it at first (I suppose everyone does), but then afterwards isn’t it all a bit hard and upsetting and boring? Either you don’t care enough, or you care too much, and the two of you seem to switch places every so often – caring, uncaring – and what about all of that effort we put into reassuring each other: she isn’t more pretty than you, I promise; I wasn’t flirting, etc? Stay single and channel that effort somewhere more interesting instead.
Whether or not I’ll read this book Spinsterthat everyone’s talking about, I don’t know. I like these cut-out dollies, though. I don’t even mind the word ‘spinster’ although everyone says it isn’t fair because ‘bachelor’ is much cooler. To which I say: really?
Fair play to Russell Brand. He gets off his arse and does something, and just lately I’ve begun to understand how difficult and time-consuming and plain bloody admirable that is.
But this week he’s really got my goat.
I was watching a video on his channel (an admirable video) about taking direct action against the sort of buggers who are trying to nick our school (more to follow on this), and just as I was feeling a wee bit mean for linking to Parklife on another post I noticed this:
So, cheers for that, Russell. Have a gratuitous Parklife link in return:
First of all: female porn is just porn. Sometimes it’s porn with a knowing edge to it but it’s still porn. Willies are out and proud and enjoying their usual excursions to all the usual holes. The men tend to be better looking in female porn, but otherwise: tis porn as we know it.
I’m subtly insulted by his olde-worlde implications that women are titillated – yes, in their nether regions – by the mere fact of somebody paying them attention.
Russell Brand on ASMR reminds me of the Living and Growing DVD that convinced a nation of 5 to 8 year olds that feathers were an essential part of sex.
Secondly (and here you can imagine me emitting a primal scream) why the red-top headline? Surely, but surely, RB already has enough attention without needing to sex-up (and, hence, smear with the pervy brush) something that’s (eventually, hopefully) going to be a key part of mental health strategy? You might as well call meditation ‘mental masturbation’ and have done with it.
Not in public please, love.
Russell, although undeniably a man of the world, has come blundering into the ASMR debate like a horny cow at the crockery counter.
ASMR, f*ck yeah! Russell Brand liberates ASMR from obscurity in the style of Team America liberating Paris…
You might as well ask a nun about the ins and outs of tea-bagging as ask someone who doesn’t experience ASMR to ‘explain’ ASMR to his million-plus followers.
So, what is ASMR, I hear you ask?
All right. Hands up. If you don’t experience it, you will think it’s weird. You’ll think it’s creepy. You’ll want to stay especially clear of Hailey WhisperingRose who is mainly composed of bosoms (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and posts videos in which she ‘snuggles up’ with you:
…or invites you on a date.
Hailey cooks up a feast in the ASMR kitchen.
Okay. Wow. I’m really not helping myself here, am I?
Let’s talk about onions. This is my absolute favourite ASMR video.
This is someone who calls herself Fairy Char. And she cooks caramelised onions. That’s all she does. She begins by lightly stroking the uncooked onions (because people who get ASMR like scratching and stroking noises) but other than that: there is no inappropriate handling of onions. The onions get peeled and go straight in the pan. They start cooking. Her clothes remain firmly in place at all times. She discusses the merits of onions. Perhaps you might like to include them on a pizza topping?
PHWOAR. Right, Russell?
He talks about ASMR as if it’s a fetish.
It isn’t a fetish.
I mean, I like onions, but I don’t like them like them.
ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) has always (we think) been around. I used to experience it years ago, and it wasn’t until another writer said: ‘Hey, do any of you guys get this weird tingly thing when someone talks to you slowly?’ that I realised there was a whole community of tingle heads out there. And I WASN’T WEIRD, because other people felt it too.
I used to get it on first days at work (of which I had several, as a temp in London) when somebody soft-of-voice was explaining, and pointing, and speaking at a certain pace… (And would promptly ‘come round’ afterwards none the wiser on how to work the photocopier.) Now and then a cold caller’s voice will fall into the exact rhythm that triggers my ASMR and I won’t even listen anymore to what they’re actually saying, about double glazing or needing my bank account details as a matter of urgency or whether I’ve heard of business opportunities recently in Nigeria, because all I hear is the cadence of it. And it’s lovely.
The key thing is that people shouldn’t feel WEIRD for experiencing something so fecking fantastic. I’m genuinely sorry for you if you don’t experience it, because it’s kind of like your brain’s in a bubble bath being soaped by velvet hands while angels serenade from on high and nothing matters except that feeling. You’re properly in the moment. You don’t even have to stare at a raisin for a really long time; you can soak your own head in the bliss of mindfulness and watch the world’s shit drift away.
Also, it helps you sleep.
So who cares if you have to keep minimising your youtube window when you work in the library, because sometimes, yes, there is oddness on screen:
The inimitable Tony Bomboni. Credit where credit’s due: he’s got some balls.
I listen to ASMR a lot when I write, and it prickles my brain and keeps giving me tiny spurts of joy that help me write better, more happily, and I’ll quite often have two windows open at once and some Brian Eno overlaid on the crackle of frying onions because, wow, then I’m in heaven.
The University of Sheffield have a study going. The scientific community is slowly waking up. This is a medication free way for people who suffer stress, anxiety, and depression to lift their spirits for a bit. I suppose, if the women (and men) who ‘perform’ in these vids (ASMR-tists) are easy on the eye that’s because they get so frigging close to the camera (to whisper in each of your ears in turn, using binaural mics) the profession does tend to invite those confident enough about their lack of nostril hair and pustules to actively enjoy extreme close ups.
But that doesn’t make it porn. If that makes it porn, then 97% of the output on mainstream television is porn. Porn is:
‘printed or visual material containing the explicit description or display of sexual organs or activity, intended to stimulate sexual excitement.’
See, Russell, nothing about onions.
EDIT: I feel duty bound to add an update here. Since posting this, a couple of months ago, I have been fairly swamped (by the standards of this ole blog, at least) by people searching for ‘asmr porn’ and ‘haileywhisperingrose tits’. Not sure what that proves, if anything, but in the interests of full disclosure…
It’s hard when you don’t get a ticket. It’s hard and it’s sad. I mean, after all, this isn’t the Titanic we’re talking about; this ship really is unsinkable, and some of the very best people you know are onboard already – or racing down the gangplank – and the worst thing is that you’ve been onboard before, a few times, years ago (you hitched a lift to the Cape of Good Hope but the Horn of Bad Luck was just round the corner and you fell with a splash into murky water)… So you can’t even tell yourself it’s a shit boat and the entertainment’s Jim Davison and the captain is Old Gregg.
No, it isn’t the boat that’s the problem. The boat is just fine. More than fine. It has all the English canon onboard and most of the Yanks as well, except people like Hemingway, who’s gone off in his own fishing boat with a bottle of turps (it takes a special kind of drink to get a ghost pissed), and Salinger, who went shopping for ear plugs on shore leave, once, and was never seen again.
I am, of course (of course! You mean you didn’t realise?) talking about rejection.
I’m talking about rejection through the hackneyed metaphor of ships setting sail. More specifically, the ship of literary success that was docked in the harbour for years and years and years and yet somehow, in spite of the fact you were once at the front of the queue, you failed to get a ticket.
It’s a little bit rubbish, sometimes, this writing lark. You put yourself out there, and the editor says:
And your heart goes bang-bang-bang and the critic that lives in your head says never write again and then these guys appear:
Call yourself a writer? I’d call yourself a taxi to Loserville if I was you…
And yesterday it was sunny but now:
And your face is all:
And you come across this on the internet:
I can tell you now, God. You need a bigger jar.
And you feel a bit:
So you go for a walk, and you walk to a bridge, and you stand on the bridge and look down at the river. You take out your phone for a photo and tap a few words in a memo:
Look in the river. It goes down forever. The sky is in it.
Darting insects make the river wink.
A boy is fishing.
Shirt as red as flags. I’m here, it says. I live.
Birds fly through the water-sky.
Or is sky-water better?
You put your phone in your pocket, go home again, and boil the kettle. Book, tea, blanket. You always get sick on boats, anyway.
If I hadn’t been so clueless, I wouldn’t be here today.
The only reason I’m still alive is that, rather than gobbling a handful of pills in one go, I took each individually: thirty-five paracetamol and five of my Dad’s blue pills (for his bad back… this was 1989 and Viagra was but a glint in a drug rep’s eye). All this swallowing took enough time that my stomach rebelled and disgorged quite a lot of its contents before I could fall asleep.
I was sixteen years old at the time. And, yes, you have read this correctly. I once attempted suicide.
People are talking today on twitter about #youngmentalhealth, and seeing the hashtag made me realise that, actually, this is something I want to share. I shared it with my own daughter a year or two ago, after a local school student committed suicide, because I wanted her to know that I know. I know how it is when you cannot go on… and I know how it is, the morning after, to be woken up, dopily, for your Saturday job at the library, a suicide note in your pocket, your family in shock and bewilderment. Frogmarched into the garden and walked up and down in the biting wind of a February morning. Rushed to the hospital. Stomach pumped. (I’d describe the pumping better if I could, but my brain doesn’t seem to remember it. All I have left is a couple of ‘flashbulbs’: a doctor’s white coat gaping open, come on, Lynsey, we’ve got to do this, and the fact that my throat was being awkward, refusing to swallow the tube. (I always was contrary.)
Anyway, not that you need me to tell you this, but it’s horrible. Having your stomach pumped is horrible.
I was sky high for hours afterwards. A psychiatrist came and discussed my most intimate details with nothing for soundproofing except a plastic curtain. ‘These young people,’ stage-whispered the old lady next to me. ‘They don’t know how lucky they are.’
As I said, this was 1989. I’m not sure what it’s like these days, for an over-dosee, but back then they dumped you with everyone else in the general medical ward. You weren’t terribly popular either. You’d made extra work for the doctors and nurses. You didn’t know you were born, and what did you have to be sad about anyway? Your whole life was ahead of you.
That, of course, was the problem. That is the problem, when you’re really sick. A whole life is ahead of you. And what if it’s all as horrendous as this little bit of it?
If this was a story you’d call it far fetched, but a boy from my school was wheeled in, later that night, having taken an overdose of aspirin after a row with his girlfriend (his ears ringing tinnily because of it, which is one of the consequences). Amazingly enough, he suggested I get into bed with him. (Of all the places I’ve ever been hit on, etc etc.) I declined.
This whole time, although nobody told me, they still didn’t know if I’d live or I’d die. Paracetamol has that effect: once the damage is done, then it’s done.
I was lucky.
But the thing is, you see, I did wake up. I didn’t die. I was glad to wake up; I had come to my senses. It wasn’t too late, for me, and I want to say STOP if you’re thinking of ending your life. Stop and think. Stay alive for another five minutes, then five after that. There are good things ahead of you. Honestly. I promise. A porter came whistling in while I lay in that hospital bed, and he stood a vase of daffodils on my bedside table, and he didn’t say anything but he smiled at me. A whistling man, a smile, a vase of daffodils. That’s all it takes, sometimes. If this blog post can be somebody’s vase of daffodils – yours, maybe – then I’m glad I wrote it.
A book, a chair, a glass of wine. Such are the ingredients for a happy evening.
Add Margaret Atwood to the recipe and you have a properly fantastic evening.
Not just Margaret Atwood, but Margaret Atwood at the Book Hive reading from her new collection of stories Stone Mattress, Margaret Atwood shaking your hand, Margaret Atwood telling you inspirational tales of Robert Louis Stevenson’s semi-accidental creation of Treasure Island, Margaret Atwood signing the following on your copy of Stone Mattress:
The reason she signed this was because I asked her to. This is what I do now. I decide what I want, and I ask for it.
People can always say no, after all. (On occasion, they do.) They can also say yes.
Last year, 2014, was my annus horribilis. This year, so far, has been awesome. The fun started just before Christmas, at the tail end of the annus horribilis. I woke up one morning with balls, and decided I’d take a quick punt on tweeting a blog post of mine to the pianist and mental health advocate James Rhodes.
Moments later, this happened:
Shortly afterwards, Derren Brown (who probably needs no introduction) posted the link on his Facebook page.:
As a consequence I got my first ‘1K’ likes:
And I had the HUGE reward of being told, by several people, that my blog had helped them. Really helped them.
Good things do emerge from the ether sometimes, with no warning, but often – more often, it seems – they are likely to happen to those who go after them: don’t ask, don’t get, after all.
And so, in the spirit of living dangerously (NB by which I mean relatively dangerously: you’re unlikely to see me engaging in extreme sports any time in the next century) I applied for a TV game show (and got through the audition… watch this space!) and managed to land a lovely job teaching narrative strategies (posh name for ‘storytelling’) to animation students at the Norwich University of the Arts. I joined the campaign to save our local school from academisation (as I posted about last time) and ended up, somehow, on my soapbox as the opening speaker at Saturday’s demo.
I’ve set up my own Write Club in partnership with Norwich’s Maddermarket Theatre (beginning on April 11th, Norfolk peeps, if you’re interested) and, probably best of all, I made a guest appearance on the youtube channel of a certain Lucylou:
The awesome Lucylou would probably love you forever if you clicked through to youtube and gave her a thumbs up, by the way…
This time last year I was down in the mouth. I was cross and resentful and couldn’t bear anyone to mentionmy ex, his new partner or even their two little pugs. But things change. Yesterday, among numerous Mothers’ Day treats planned by the aforementioned Lucylou, we took the puggies to the park together.
Aw. Pug love.
And, as you can see, it was awesomely fun. If slobbery. Fun things often are slobbery, though, aren’t they?
So here’s to 2015: my year of living both dangerously and slobberyishly. (And making up words if I want to.)
And, finally, let me make clear that the having of testicles isn’t remotely connected to courage or brass neck or bravery. I just like the word ‘balls’.
When I was fourteen I went to an all-night screening of John Hughes films at the local ABC and, watching Pretty in Pink, I remember despising (strong word, but the right one) the subplot about Iona, the thirty-something record shop owner, and her pursuit of true love.
Why is she even bothering, thought fourteen-year-old Lynsey? She’s so old, it’s too late, let’s see more of Steff (James Spader) leaning expensively on cars.
That boy knew how to lean.
I wasn’t a complete idiot, though. This was always my favourite scene, even then (although I probably, yes, definitely used to have a massive heart-swell when OMD played at the prom where Andie and Blane – yes, you are reading those names correctly – were reunited at last over some oddly-sliced pink silk and chiffon. PLOT SPOILER. Oops, sorry).
Iona, the old-timer, is the disturbingly young looking creature in the pillbox hat.
These hastily-assembled teenage opinions came roaring back to bite me on the bum a few years ago when my daughter made the comment (apropos of something I’ve since forgotten): ‘What do you know? You’re thirty-five, you’re nearly dead!’
So, yes, I am now older than the old-timer Iona. Curiously, I have wound up giving that name to a character in The Novel That Dare Not Speak Its Name, so perhaps she had more of an influence on me than I realised.
What I want to say is that it’s fine over here, on the other side. Over the hill. The big hill that, in my imagination, has the numbers 4 and 0 in the style of the Hollywood sign. (The hill that seems mostly to be a part of the female landscape, IMHO, whereas men, perhaps, really understand this particular hill when they’re closer to 50. Or even 60. But I digress…)
The thing about being over the hill is that you’ve climbed it already. So, first of all, you deserve a goddamn cup of tea, in a fancy flask. And a biscuit. Give your old feet a rub. Have a natter with your fellow climbers about watercolour painting and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and admire a passing bird with royal blue plumage.
And then, oh aged one, hoist those binoculars because there is lots still to see on the other side of the hill. And the going is, well, it’s less hilly. One might say it’s Norfolk. It tends towards flatness.
Edward Seago: ‘A Norfolk Landscape’. In hills, it is somewhat deficient.
The thing is, you see, that until you’ve climbed the hill you can’t see over it. You can’t see what’s there. The young still milling about at the base of the hill, or a little way up it, can’t peek yet (or possibly peak) because ‘over the hill’ is a place you can only see once you get there.
And it’s freaking awesome! This won’t be everyone’s experience, I know. And it wasn’t mine, either, until a few months ago. All I could think of, sadly, daily, were the things I’d lost. The ways I’d changed. The wrinkly crinkly face I was growing. The strange sudden urge to throw ice cubes down my top every so often. The inability to walk twenty yards without dripping in sweat.
And, yes, those things still happen. I’m still wrinkly, crinkly and, often, incredibly hot (and not in a good way). But, you know what?
There’s so much else to be getting on with. So many dreadful and wonderful things have happened in my life already: the dreadful things – well, no matter how dreadful, they’re rarely forever. And as for the wonderful things, it’s your choice to acknowledge them or not. A wonderful thing (as I said in another post, once) can be watching the wind on a stinging nettle, because so many wonderful things had to happen for you to be watching that wind and that nettle: the gift of sight (and it is a gift), the gift of freedom, liberty, aloneness (yes, they’re all gifts too), alertness. Aliveness.
I did a bit of rabble rousing yesterday, at a rally to save our local school from academisation.
Photo by ace photographer Lucy White.
I even, briefly (and silently) made the local news.
Angry and be-hatted of Norfolk.
When I was younger, I wouldn’t have done that. I wouldn’t have bothered, and I wouldn’t have felt confident enough. I was too busy heaving myself up the hill (with a pushchair, to boot). There are lots, and lots, and lots of women in the Norfolk flatlands over that hill who have things to say and do and share. I never particularly thought I was worth it, to quote L’Oreal, because (a) upbringing (we’re kind of mousy in my family) and (b) what if I make an arse of myself?
But so what. It’s no biggie, making an arse of yourself. You always feel better the day after doing something, trying something, than the day after running away from it all.
So, don’t run away, my fellow hill climbers. You already ran up a hill (or crawled, or plodded): the scenery’s lovely, the tea’s hot, the biscuits are chocolate. There’s no going back, and it’s foolish to try. You can no more be 20 again than 11, or 8, or 4… Now is now. You are you. I’ll raise my fancy flask to that.
Today Terry Pratchett has died. Today Terry Pratchett has died, and although I confess I’ve read embarrassingly little of his fiction this death has hit me harder than any other ‘celebrity’ death.
This is going to be an odd little blog. A departure from my usual tone. My Dad was diagnosed with PCA, the particular kind of Alzheimer’s from which Terry Pratchett suffered, in the months following Pratchett’s own diagnosis. For that reason, my family and I have followed the very public progress of his illness with more interest than most. I sat down, one evening in (I think) 2007 and watched him, on a TV documentary, failing to tie his tie, trying a new-fangled treatment (a sort of futuristic hat), facing his diagnosis with the good-natured kind of bravery we all, secretly, hope we’d find inside ourselves in the same situation.
It’s a hell of a diagnosis. To face it as sunnily as he seemed to is a wonderful thing indeed. I’ll find myself suddenly, usually when driving, remembering moments, less than a decade ago, when my dad was a different man entirely. When my dad was still my dad. One day, not yet (thank God), there’s a chance he won’t know who I am. There’s a chance he won’t know I’m his daughter. The nerves in his brain are dying. His cortex and hippocampus are shrinking. He can’t read a book, do a crossword. He struggles to put down a cup on a table. It’s hard and it’s cruel and it’s not bloody fair.
As I write this, I’m raising my glass of white wine to my dad (in the full knowledge it ought to be beer, his tipple of choice), because I’ll always, always, be your daughter, even if, one distant day, you no longer know it.
And I’m raising my glass to Terry Pratchett too, this man I never knew, and barely read, for his bravery and his good nature. As a human being, he was top bloody drawer.
It’s been ages since I was offered a larger willy.
Last week I was hailed as, variously, an Anal Explorer and a Pussy Sensei (my cats attest to the latter qualification). More recently I’ve been swimming in invitations for lifelong love in the arms of young Eastern European women.
Hello friend,I am writing this letter to invite you to this website, with an intention of meeting you there. Maybe you are the Mr. Dependable, the Mr. Perfect and exactly the one I search for. Well I have always wanted to meet foreigners who are so interesting with their gentle and sophisticated nature and stylish looks. My Prince charming should be reliable, loyal, humble and courageous or in other words the perfect man and a dream-come-true for me. I am Angelina and I am from Minsk, Belorussia. Ours is a small country with lots of political problems but we still try to be happy and live life to the fullest. I am a straightforward and humble girl who believes in finding my true love sooner or later.
It must be fun writing spam. (Second only to choosing colours for paint shades.)
As it turns out, replying to spam is also fun…
Hello Angelina from Minsk, Belorussia!I received your ‘letter’ with interest. (FYI in English we call this an ’email’.) I confess I am somewhat perplexed. You refer to me as your friend (my apologies if we’ve already met and I’ve simply forgotten)! I must confess I am ignorant on the subject of Minsk (besides knowing that Phoebe’s scientist boyfriend, David, was relocated there in Episode 10 of the famous television show, Friends, entitled ‘The One With the Monkey’. Do you receive this programme in Minsk, Belorussia, Angelina?)
I’m sorry to say I shall not be joining you on the website you mention.
Allow me to tell you my story, Angelia from Minsk, Belorussia, as you’ve been so kind as to tell me yours.Or perhaps… might I call you Angie?You referred to me by a number of touching epithets: ‘perfect’, ‘dependable’, ‘gentle’, ‘sophisticated’, ‘stylish’. You also referred to me as ‘a man’. Dependable I may be, and one might also make a case for ‘gentle’. Sophisticated and stylish are rather less certain and surely, Angelina, you remember the final line of Billy Wilder’s ‘Some Like it Hot?’ Nobody, Angelina, is perfect.
With one of your assertions, however, I must take issue. A moment’s exploratory foraging in the underpantal region has reinforced for me the pre-existing notion that I am, indeed, a woman. On this issue, as so many others, I’m afraid I must disappoint you, Angie from Minsk.
I’ve never said that word aloud before. I’m saying it now, Angie from Minsk, as I picture you in your small country with lots of political problems.
It’s only fair to inform you that you are currently competing for my affections with Yoshiko Centini, location unknown, possessor of ample breasts and butt, and Eugenia, a middle-class girl from Petrozavodsk in Russia, whose upbringing has rendered her free-thinking and liberal. (Amplitude of physical attributes as yet unknown). Poor Eugenia, so busy in the ‘computer labs’ of her software firm that she rarely has a chance to ‘mingle’ in nightclubs. ‘Left behind’ in personal life. My sympathies, Angie, are beginning to drift towards Eugenia…
If I just knew a little more of your taste in literature, Angie. What films do you enjoy watching? Do you have any firm beliefs on God’s existence? Where do you stand on monogamy?
Is this you, Angelina from Minsk?
I’m wondering, you see, if you’ve thought sufficiently of the day-to-day nature of ‘true love’ as opposed to the fantasy version exemplified by your reference to ‘Prince Charming’? One might say that ‘Charming’ and Cinderella have remarkably little on which to base a lifetime together. For instance, does Cinders enjoy long walks, foreign films, nights out with friends? Does Charming have a good sense of humour? Perhaps he is passive aggressive, controlling. He might be a drinker.
It’s hard to be sure of these things from an evening’s dancing together, abruptly severed at the stroke of midnight. Frogs may turn to princes, in the realm of fairytale, and indeed, in the realm of what we call ‘Real Life’, a prince may suddenly, nay shockingly, unleash his inner frog, so to speak, on possession of his ‘princess’.
I’m concerned for you, Angie. You’re too pure for this world. ‘Reliable, loyal, humble and courageous’ are certainly good qualities to aim for in your search for lifelong love, but you may find the juxtaposition of ‘humble’ and ‘courageous’ somewhat rare once you move from the digital dating realm to the actual. How ‘humble’, in fact, was Prince Charming in the aforementioned fairytale? I saw no evidence for this. Neither do I feel sufficiently informed to make clear judgement on the issue of his bravery and/or reliability.
‘Charming’ is rarely synonymous with the other qualities you profess to be seeking, Angelina.
Let me end this response by wishing you all the very best in your search for love. Had I, after all, decided to pursue the tempting offer of an eight inch appendage with which to give the ultimate in sexy satisfaction all night long, perhaps I could have been your ‘dream-come-true’. Let me humbly, if not courageously, suggest that you search within for the fulfilment of your dreams, Angelina from Minsk, Belorussia. Certainly you shouldn’t count on a prince to fulfil them for you. Indeed, if one can believe the recent revelations with regard to a member of our royal family here in England, it may be a very different variety of ‘happy ending’ that he’s hoping for.
One of the hardest things about being a writer (unless you happen to be Stephen King, Jackie Collins, John Grisham etc) is having to spend the lion’s share of your time reading other people’s work.
You have to do this because it’s notoriously difficult to make a living from actually writing. Unlike bank managers, say, who are able to pretty much exclusively manage banks for a living, writers are expected to also have ‘day jobs’. A novel that takes upwards of two years to write (and some take much, much longer) could earn you far less than the minimum wage. A sobering thought, she writes (reaching for the wine glass beside her).
An ‘umble writer begging for a crust of bread.
Some of you who read this blog will already know that my ‘day job’ (and, often, my night job too) is Creative Writing Teacher. if you’re interested in seeing the sort of things I teach, I direct you to the Exercises menu up above (i.e. at the top of this screen; it isn’t floating in the sky, I’m afraid. Although I sincerely wish it was). The actual teaching is fine, and often fun, and even though the cows have come home hours ago I’m still talking about writing… which is my silly way of saying I rarely run out of things to say about fiction. I love it. I love helping people get better at writing, and (most of) my students are extraordinarily nice human beings. They send me hampers of Cornish goodies to enjoy whilst watching the tennis and buy me notebooks at art exhibitions and give me ruddy lovely books for Christmas. (Students, you know who you are.) Many of my students have become friends, and that’s A Good Thing.
So I’m not carping. But I spend hours, and hours, and hours reading other people’s work. I spend hours, and hours, and hours writing comments about other people’s work, and then suddenly I turn around and… shit! I was meant to be writing a novel.
Today is one of those days. I literally (I really do mean literally) cannot remember what I’m writing about. Which scene was I on? What’s my novel called? How does one write a sentence that isn’t a response to a sentence already written by a creative writing student? Why does an ice wind blow when I open the Scrivener file with my novel on it? (And while we’re asking questions: is it positive or negative that my dishwasher’s broken? Washing dishes by hand is labour intensive, yes, but Agatha Christie got her best ideas while washing up…)
The weird thing is, I think teaching has made me a better writer. I’m much faster, now, at deciding what I think about a sentence, and landing – with the accuracy of my cats in the vicinity of a spider – on the precise problem that’s causing an ending to fall flat, or the reason a piece feels empty, or the single thing (sometimes the single word) that needs adding to make a thing make sense. I’ve got better and better at structural editing. Words and sentences have always felt either ’round’ or ‘non-round’ to me (round being good…), but now I can feel the roundness or non-roundness of an entire story, or scene, with fairly impressive speed. (Other people’s, I hasten to add. I’m still more tortoise than hare when it comes to my own work.) I’m good at striking out sentences that are nothing but echoes of what’s gone before. If a sentence says nothing new, then you ought to remove it. I’m good on the difference between story and plot, and I ought to have some kind of cape and a tight lycra costume for my superhuman efforts to eliminate the twin beasts of the Info Dump and the Unnecessarily Fancy Speech Tag.
All this makes me better, faster, simpler, more honest. Reading is reading (whether published or not), and writers ought to read. Must read. (I doff my cap here to Andrew Miller who writes, in the Guardian’s masterclass on fiction – ebook available here – that a painter who wishes to paint a tree must do two things: look at trees, and look at pictures of trees. Well said, Sir.) It isn’t the reading, per se, that’s the problem: it’s the mulling, and pondering, and probing, and mulling, and pondering, and commenting, and wondering, and mulling, and pondering, etc that a conscientious teacher does, and does at great length, quite often, while the clock ticks, and the day darkens, and the memory of her own novel creeps quietly into a corner and lightly festoons itself with cobwebs.
I’m not remotely religious… this was the best image I could find of a dusty book.
Anyway. That said, I must go. I have marking to do. And dishes to wash. And a novel to write. But that’s another story…