Thursday 21 January 2016

David Bowie and the Importance of Failure...

LIKE everyone - like you - I've been reading a lot about David Bowie over the last couple of weeks. I have wallowed in the old songs, compiled my own mental Bowie's Greatest Hits and then revised it the moment I heard another half-forgotten classic come on BBC 6 Music. (current fave song: Everyone Says Hi: a kind of Kooks aimed at the child now grown up... It says we're here for you, don't stay in a sad place...)

But in all the coverage I've read or heard, there's been are still a couple of things no one else has said. And it's how about important failure is in the Bowie story. How long it took him to find his artistic voice.

The Man That Would Become Bowie - David Jones - first appears to the nation as the well spoken 17 year old spokesperson for the SPCLHM - say what? It's okay, I'll help you out. That's the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long Haired Men. Under the avuncular questioning of Cliff Michelmore young Jones and his fellow sixth formers complain in a mild sort of way that they are called 'darling' as they walk down Carnaby Street. The group get most excited when Cliff suggests their look is influenced in any way by Britain's Newest Hitmakers The Rolling Stones. No, no, no they say with one alarmed voice. Though you have to say that David looks the very spit of Brian Jones. There's one good gag. A kid is talking about possibly organising a protest march on the lines of the recent CND ones and someone off camera - I really hope it's David - quips that they could call it Baldermaston. Get it? Oh, suit yourselves.

You can see it here:

Then he disappears from the radar and there are determined attempts to break into the pop charts with standard issue beat groups like Davy Jones and The Lower Third. These songs aren't necessarily rubbish exactly, but they are not The Who, they are not The Pretty Things (the acts Davy would like them to be) and they're certainly not ground-breaking, innovative or any of the things we love him for.

You can hear the Lower Third here:

And then there is the name change (so as not to be confused with the Monkee Davy Jones) the early solo singles, the Antony Newley impersonations. There is The Laughing Gnome.

The song is a ridiculous cockernee knees-up of the kind that Tommy 'flash-bang-wallop-wot-a-picture' Steele might have thought was a little silly. It's good-natured, it's full of cracker joke puns ('haven't you got a gnome to go?' etc). It's a breezy novelty song and on the strength of it, you could not have predicted that its singer was going to be any kind of important cultural figure. It would be like thinking Father Abraham of Smurfs fame was going to reshape the entire pop landscape.

You can see an animated video of it here:

Imagine if it had been a hit. It was enough a millstone as it was without anyone actually buying it. Imagine if he'd had to try and live it down if it had been huge. (Famously the folk-punk group The Men They Couldn't Hang played it while supporting Bowie on his Greatest Hits tour, much to the Thin White Duke's chagrin)

He left novelty pop to the likes of The Barron Knights but still the failures went on. There were the mime years. And he wasn't even a big noise in the world of mime.

 Even after Space Oddity was a TV tie in hit (released to coincide with the first moon landings) it looked like Bowie was destined to be a one hit wonder. You could make a very decent album from the Bowie singles of the early 1970s that flopped. Moonage Daydream, Hang On To Yourself, The Prettiest Star, even Changes all got nowhere first time around.

There was a brief flirtation with a new band. The Hype even played a few gigs.

By the time  of his real break through with Ziggy Stardust in 1972 he's been at it for a long time. (yes, Ziggy, because even the magnificent Hunky Dory didn't really connect with the wider public at the time. Didn't make the charts at all. Not even number 73. Hunky Dory. Flopped. The cognescenti loved it, but one of the things about Bowie was that he wasn't that interested in the cognescenti. He always wanted hits.)

Anyway by the time he was a proper star he was 25 (pretty middle-aged to be a new pop act back then) and had been trying to Make It Big for eight long years. This was an ice age in pop's most fast moving years.

And all the failures and the frustrations gave him the impetus and time to explore back streets and alleyways pop artists don't usually go down. Allowed Bowie to develop something fully worked out. By the time he finally got a platform he knew exactly what he wanted to say and exactly how he wanted to say it. He was like a lottery winner who'd spent every day of the previous decade planning how he'd spend the loot if he were ever to get his hands on it.

Bowie is possibly the finest example of the success of the mature student. By which I mean talent plus a restless, frustrated curiousity, plus being ignored when others among your peers are getting  ahead, plus sudden unexpected opportunities plus a sense that time is running out.

We all remember this from University, where the mature students were better prepared for study than any of the rest of us. Maybe you've been that mature student too.

And Bowie so understood the importance of experiment and failure to his own work that he almost deliberately courted it whenever he seemed to feel inspiration flagging. Invited failure into the studio as a means of pushing himself towards success.

And he didn't just Fail. Fail again. Fail better. (To use Beckett's famous one liner) quite often he failed worse. The Tin Machine is just the most obvious example of this, but among all the genius music there are examples throughout his career of ill-advised excursions into idioms he just doesn't master. You could, if you could be bothered, put together a sort of anti-Greatest Hits. Rubbish Bowie tracks sprinkled amongst the great stuff. Turds scattered over the diamond heap if you like.

Anyway, my point in writing this is to stress how artists, if they are to fulfil their potential and purpose, need the freedom to fail. They also need the space and time to fail (proper time too. They might need years.) Artists need to have their Laughing Gnomes supported every bit as much as their Ziggy's. The one might lead to the other, even if the path isn't straight-forward and we can't see it yet.

Recently I've become interested in the possibilities of older people as emerging artists and the story of David Bowie is quite inspiring in this context. But that's another blog post probably.

Thursday 10 September 2015

Why I couldn't support an unelectable leader

I almost didn't get a vote. When the nice young man from my trade union - Unite - cold called me I nearly hung up on him. I had assumed that he was going to ask me about PPI or changing gas supplier and he obviously guessed that he had a window of about 3 seconds to grab my attention so he gabbled through the sentence helloI'mfromUniteandI'mringingtoaskwhetheryouwouldbeanaffiliatedmemberandbeapartoftheprocessofhoosingthenextlabourleader... And then he took a breath. And while he was doing that I thought yes, I might consider that actually...

I didn't have much enthusiasm for the process however. And that didn't change even after Jeremy Corbyn had scrabbled together enough nominations to be allowed to compete. Not at first. I remember the sickened feeling I got at 10.05 on May 7 and I didn't want that feeling again. And I assumed that what the media was telling me was the true. Jeremy Corbyn was unelectable and that our only chance was to go with one of the others. I was also initially resistant to the Vote Corbyn movement because a lot of the people telling me that Labour HAD to choose him had also spent the weeks before the election telling me they weren't Labour any more and would vote Green or SNP or TUFC or whatever the Trades Union party is called. Anything but Labour basically.

So if pushed I'd have said I was vaguely pro an Yvette Cooper leadership, but the process was as long as a couple of back-to-back ice ages so there was plenty of time to ask around. To find out what other people were thinking. To ask ordinary decent people - people who weren't tribally Labour, people who might have flirted with the the Liberals those who thought the coalition hadn't been all bad - even those who sympathised with UKIP (there a lot of those in Yorkshire before you get all liberal metropolitan on my ass) - to ask them who might persuade them to back a Labour programme.

And I have to say I was pretty startled by the answers. Without exception the only one - the ONLY ONE - who had any chance with this diverse group of people was Comrade Corbyn.

I'll say it again. Corbyn was the only electable one. None of the others mustered anything better than a derisive snort. Their very names made a lot of people quite angry. If Labour has elected Corbyn it may not win. But my (haphazard) research suggests that if it has elected anyone else that it has absolutely no chance.

It isn't a left-right thing. It's more that Cooper-Kendall-Burnham are all too closely associated with the miserable and chaotic opposition of the last five years. From the people I asked there was the distinct impression that other right wing candidates would have done ok with the public - better anyway. A Dan Jarvis maybe... someone who wasn't so visibly rubbish during the campaign, not so associated with the Edstone and all that crap. These three were not only Blairite, they were a Blairite B-team. Not just Tory-lite but Tory Lite-lite.

The other big factor in the affection felt for Corbyn from right as well as left is that he seems so reasonable. He's gently spoken but says what he thinks in a straightforward way and in that he seems to resemble a Johnson or a Farage a Goldsmith or a Lucas. Only not as egotistical. He's anti-establishment in a mild and and safe sort of a way. And he seems attractively unstyled. And this resonates with people too. As a nation we are - let's face it - fairly comprehensively unstyled and quite proud of it.

And then there was the graceless way his opponents reacted to his taking the front-runners position. Not very sportsmanlike.  

I'm not a natural bandwagon jumper. I'm suspicious of sudden enthusiasms and I'm also quite persuaded by those commentators who think Corbyn will hate being leader, that he may not last the course. But before he goes he might have shifted the debate. And the way the public mood has swung over migrants shows that change is possible.

And in any case I don't think the British people wanted a Tory government in the first place. Not really. If anything they maybe wanted another coalition, maybe wanted a Tory party with its hands tied and now they see what it is capable of with the LibDem cuffs off, they're changing their mind about wanting them near the levers of power in any shape or form.

Anyway, the voting is over (and there's still a decent chance one of the others will swing it - the Shy Blairite factor might kick in) but there's plenty for us to organise around. For me its housing, equal opportunities, the need for more creativity in schools, the chance for people of all ages and backgrounds to express themselves imaginatively, to be free from the drudgery of pointless work, and we could agitate properly for a fair voting system, to make this Queen our last monarch - enough to be going on with and it'll be nice to talk about what we're going to do rather than who is going to be on PMQs.


Saturday 24 January 2015

The puzzle of the all-too diligent anti-fan

You pick up a book. Maybe the cover is striking. Maybe the the blurb sounds interesting. Maybe the reviews are good. Maybe your mates have raved about it. Maybe it's a set text for book club. Whatever, you read it. You don't really like it. The cover and the blurb misled you. The reviews were clearly written by mates of the author. Your own friends are all idiots. Fuelled by a not half bad rioja you give it a right kicking at book club. And when you get home you go on Goodreads and give it two stars.

That's quite a common scenario isn't it? And entirely fair enough. Then, a few weeks later, you come across another book by the same writer. Do you read it? Well, you might, I guess, give him another chance.  You're nice like that.

So you read his second book. You don't like it. No surprise really, and so you give that book a two star review on Goodreads too. Still fair enough. Still understandable. But then - and here's where it gets a bit weird - you find yourself looking at a third novel by the same writer. You thought the first book was a  2 star book. You thought the second book was a 2 star book. What do we imagine you'll think of this third book? It's not a hard guess is it? So you're not going to waste your time on this one are you? Of course not. So you pass on, pick up something else, something by a novelist whose previous works you've enjoyed. Or maybe another new writer whose book has a good cover, good reviews, another book you're mates have raved about.

Only you don't. You pick up this third book and yes - give it two stars on Goodreads.

There's something going on here isn't there?Something beyond the normal interaction between book and reader.

I don't mind people not liking my books. I almost expect it. But I'm puzzled by why someone would go to all the trouble of reading all three of my novels(and rating them) if they've disliked both the others. And let's not forget that you actually have to work quite hard to find all my books. The first one came out with a very tiny publisher and the most recent hasn't been out long and is still only available in expensive trade paperback form. (£12.99 - at least wait until the cheap £5.99 mass market paperback  is out)

So forgive me but I can't help taking it a bit personally. Can't help thinking that this particular Godsread enthusiast is someone I know. Is a friend even.  Only not really a friend because a friend wouldn't publicly diss my books.

I'm sure I do have friends who don't like all my books. Quite a lot of my friends are writers (it happened by accident I swear) and writers rarely wholeheartedly love any of the books they read, especially if they are by people they know.

Which means there's someone out there who knows me and who wishes me ill who is sticking their little pins in whenever they can. Trying to hit me where it hurts and going to some trouble to do so. And that makes me feel a bit sad and a bit paranoid.

So what's going on? Is it envy? Hard to imagine given how invisible a writer I am. I'm hardly Zadie Smith. (Except in looks obviously) Is it just someone who wants to wound me because they think I'm a knob? And if that's the case Supercosmic, then I wish you'd stop the nonsense and just tell me to my face exactly why.

And of course I know I should rise above it all. But rising above stuff isn't really my way. Rolling in the gutter, that's my way.

Wednesday 26 November 2014

101 Days Sober - Possibly The Least Exciting Post You Will Ever Read

I had thought things might be more dramatic to be honest.

Imagine you have set off for uncharted waters, unmapped lands. You’re expecting mountains and jungles and strange beasts. A flying unicorn or two. Dragons. You’re expecting to have to do battle with many headed crocodiles, scale cliffs, maybe live off berries and sips of evil smelling water as you cross inhospitable lands. Deserts. You’re expecting the driest and hottest and sandiest of deserts, deserts swept by fiery winds. A demon mistral blowing straight from Hell.

And you’re worrying too about the people you might meet. Desperate outlaws. Robbers and highwaymen. Flaxen haired temptresses. Capricious wizards. Capricious wizards in hoodies juggling with flick-knives. It’s going to be an adventure – that’s why you’re doing it. You are Bilbo Baggins, a pudgily reluctant hero fallen into a world you can hardly comprehend and just hoping you’ll be up to the many trials you’ll be facing. Crossing your fingers that you won’t disgrace yourself

And you discover that this brave new world of fearsome thrills looks a lot like the Home Counties. Mild and ordered. Exceedingly clement. A bit… well… a bit dull really… And then you discover that it turns out you didn’t want adventure after all. Turns out that dull was really what you needed all along.

101 days ago I stopped drinking.

At first I thought I’d just do it for a month. I’ve done a month off the sauce before. I knew I could cope with a month. I wouldn’t enjoy it but good to test your self-discipline every once in a while.

I didn’t have especially high expectations. I thought I might lose a few pounds. I thought I might get through a bit more work. I thought I might find it a little easier to get up in the mornings.

I should say here that I love drinking. I love pubs. To be in the corner seat of the rub-a-dub at 6pm with good mates, twenty notes in your pocket and no rush to get home is – or was – possibly my very favourite thing. And if they’re serving decent beer then so much the better.

And I like wine at home too. A good red with dinner or in front of a film. A crisp cold white on an unexpectedly warm evening. A cheeky vodka and tonic when you get home from work. And then an even cheekier second one. A good malt whisky before bed. Or a cheap blend even. Tesco’s own brand. Hell, even a can of piss like Fosters or Carling can hit the spot from time to time.

I started drinking regularly at about 13 and apart from a couple of miserable sober Januarys I’ve not gone more than a day or two without the company of Mr Booze since then. Many of best nights out (and all of my worst ones) have featured rivers, waterfalls, foaming fucking seas of alcohol. I love getting pished. I have got wrecked on almost every drink. I don't think I've met a fermented or distilled beverage I couldn't get on with. I even like Advocaat. And not just as part of a snowball either.  (A Xmas snowball made by my gran was my gateway drink as it probably was for you too)

My gran and my uncle ran pubs. My mum was born in a pub! Pubs are important to us as a family.

And yet, this time, for whatever reason giving up drinking didn’t seem grim. It didn’t seem like I was holding on and just trying to get from day 1 to day 31 without going completely crazy. This time it was fine. I did find I was eating more chocolate and of the worst and cheapest kind too. Freddo bars, for fuck’s sake. And that pretty much did for the potential benefit of losing a few pounds. But hardly the daily terror I'd been expecting.

I had thought people might pressure me into drinking. The writer Satnam Sanghera tried not drinking recently and he describes situations where good friends practically beg him to drink and finally give up the attempt to browbeat him to submission by sighing and saying ‘well, ok, I’ll just get you a beer then…’

That sort of thing has happened to me in the past, but not this time. No one said ‘go on just have a small one.’ Not once. And this worries me a little. Had I really got so I was so boring under the influence that people were very happy not to encourage me to drink. Or maybe they just wanted a lift home. Or maybe it’s just that we’re all older now and more respectful of other people’s choices?

Anyway, the month breezed past. And so I just sort of carried on. I was curious by now to see at what point the usual horrors would kick in.

And the answer seemed to be… never.

Instead I managed to kick my incipient  Freddo habit. And so did, finally, start to lose a little weight. I went to some parties and drank sparkling water. I’d go out and when I got bored I’d just drive home without waiting at bus stops or railway stations or handing over fistfuls of paper money to cabbies and getting a tiny handful of small denomination coins back in return.

And about six weeks in I realised I felt… well… I felt amazing. It was like I’d had some undiagnosed disease and was now cured. A kind of low level ME, a sluggish that I had been mistaking for normality. A cloud that had lifted. I had somehow forgotten that sometimes it was meant to be sunny. It was like discovering that there were other climates apart from Yorkshire rain. (I love Yorkshire and its rain, but nice to know that other weather is also available)

So I pushed on into the third month… And that was fine too. No biggie. Maybe I have just had enough to drink. Maybe that’s all it was.

So 101 days of sobriety. No big revelations. No white-knuckle ride. Instead a sunnier disposition. A lot more energy. 16 pounds lighter. A spring in my step.

And Christmas is coming and maybe I’ll have a Stones ginger wine on Christmas Eve (I love ginger wine!). Maybe I’ll have a nice whiskey before bed. Maybe I’ll drink the sherry we leave out for Father Christmas. That would be traditional. Maybe I’ll be wasted for the whole period. That would be traditional too. That will be entirely fine.

But maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll stay out here where the countryside is cultivated, the rivers meander and where life is congenial and nothing much happens. Maybe I’ll just leave the sherry to Santa. Maybe I'll just do that.

Tuesday 9 September 2014

Away To Think Again - Why I was Wrong About Scottish Independence


THERE’S a great episode of Happy Days where – shock, horror – The Fonz finds he’s been mistaken about something (I can’t remember what, it’s not the point). Determined to do the right thing he tries to apologise, to admit that he was wrr, he was wrr, he was wrr. It’s no good. No matter how hard he tries to he can’t say it. He screws up his face, digs his fingernails into his palm, makes a supreme effort of will – but still he only gets as far as ‘I was wro, wro, wrrrnnn…’

As we watch the programme we all feel Fonzie’s pain. It’s hard to say sorry. Hard to hold your hard up. But in this one respect I can honestly say I’m better than the coolest man in 1970s kids TV.  I can admit it. I was wrong – wrrrrrooooonnngggg -  on Scottish independence.

See I wasn't surprised by the surge in support for the YES campaign. After all it simply echoed the surge in my heart. 

Just a few weeks ago you’d have found me rehearsing the NO arguments. A leap in the dark, people should be working together for change, internationalism is better than nationalism. We need fewer borders actually.

Only I didn’t really believe it. The more I argued with pro-yes friends the more I was forced to face the fact that were I living North of the Tweed I would be arguing for independence too. My arguments boiled down to a feeling of abandonment. Why they should they get out while we have to stay? And that’s not very grown-up is it?

I don’t have a vote, so my opinion doesn’t count (and why should it? I live in Yorkshire) but I feel emotionally connected. My father was from Fife. My daughter lives in Edinburgh, her mum is from Buckie on the Scottish North-East Coast. I have relatives and friends in Scotland. I feel tied to the place, that land is also my land.

However an independent Scotland doesn’t deny me my roots. My father's family were from Ireland originally anyway, and I don't feel disenfranchised because I can't elect the Taosiach. My relatives are my relatives still. If my daughter becomes Scottish that doesn’t make me any less her dad. It was actually me that was letting emotion cloud my judgement.

All of us on the left can appreciate the thrill and excitement of building a new nation. A new political system with new, fairer ways of voting? The possibilities of a more equable distribution of wealth? A country that isn't so weirded out by the EU? A country where political discourse isn’t managed and shaped by the interests of a distant elite? Yes, please. We can all see how exciting that might be. And if I’d support it living the other side of Berwick, how can I oppose it just because I live in West Yorks?

Of course my efforts to remain a NO supporter weren’t helped by the campaign that purported to represent my views. Complacent at first, condescending almost uninterested, it moved through increasingly desperate and unpleasant phases that have included hectoring, finger-wagging, cajoling, wheedling,  and now outright, deceitful bribery. The English establishment has reacted to the swelling of YES support like an inept teacher faced with an unruly class. Equal parts flapping and shouting of empty threats. And now the offering of sweeties...

I can honestly say Alex Salmond didn’t change my mind at all. Not one iota. He got spanked in that first debate (He’s not immune to complacency either – and I find his manner as aggressively bumptious as any Home Counties Tory) but he didn’t have to. Osborne and the increasingly hysterical Tory press were doing his work for him. The more they tried to bully and frighten the Scottish people, the more I felt kinda sickened. Not in my bloody name, George.

Normally, the desire to become a politician should be a disqualification from office. Who would want to do that? A psychopath obviously. We should stop them by any means necessary. But I do make occasional exceptions to this rule. And my two big exceptions are Gordon Brown and Alastair Darling. Decent men, horribly traduced during their careers by the right-wing establishment. These two were viciously, shamefully, utterly wrongly blamed for the global recession. Their policies were given as the reason for the absolute necessity of austerity measures more extreme than any imposed almost anywhere else outside the Eurozone. And in fact the opposite might be true. Far from causing the collapse of the UK economy Brown and Darling may well have saved it.

How opportunistic, how desperate, do the Tories have to be in order to turn to this particular duo to preserve their Union? (A union that was born in duplicity to serve the desires of the elite - offering the ghostly promise of a slice of British Empire spoils for the Scottish nobility in return for their nation – those nobles got precious little spoilwear btw). It’s sickening and depressing.

Darling has fought a pretty good fight actually. But he has, as others have said, been all head no heart. An appeal to the wallets of the middle class. And Gordon’s fundamental decency is heart-warming whatever he’s supporting. Nevertheless, they are wrr, they are wrr, they are WRRRRROOOOONNNNG on this. Why should the people of Scotland continue to be ruled by a managerial class based in London and working for international money markets and multi-nationals? Why should the Scots the be dragged into military adventures they don’t support, host a Trident missile system they don’t believe in, or put up with the frothing blimpish bigotry of UKIP? No reason at all actually.

And the supposed economic uncertainty  of independence cuts no ice with me either. In fact it's annoying. What about the uncertainties involved in voting no? Imagine an election next year dominated by anti-EU rhetoric, followed by withdrawal from the EU? And there are no guarantees an English electorate will allow the passing of so called devo max in any case. Cameron (and the others) are promising what they may not be able to deliver. 

And it's almost too obvious to keep listing all the small countries that do very well thank you economically with their own currency to boot.

I also think a left leaning Scotland over our border might – in the long term – be good for the Left in England. If there’s a stable, fairer society across our border why wouldn’t increasing numbers of people begin to wonder aloud why that couldn’t happen in their (our) own country? And why wouldn’t they begin to join the organisations and movements that could make it happen?

The most likely thing is still that the Scots will probably say thanks but no thanks. And I think they’ll regret it. Most of us regret most the things we don’t do, rather than things we do. It’s the chances we don’t take that hurt us. The times when opportunity knocked but we couldn’t make it to the door in time. That’s what keeps us awake in the cold dark hours.

And yes, if they do go for it, there’s bound to be unforeseen and surprising consequences – and there certainly won’t be a Scottish Socialist utopia coming into being overnight – In fact in many ways the real arguments will begin after the vote. But I can’t help being energised by the prospect of a new country exploding into being next door. We should all respond to the adrenalin of that. And it’s a lesson in how passion and organisation and having the right arguments and being prepared to deploy them over and over again can achieve wonders. And that’s a marvellous thing to see. As marvellous as Fonzie’s jacket and quiff...

It’s not w, wrr, wrr-wrr- wrrrooonnng. It’s right. I'm sorry it's taken me this long to see it.

Tuesday 15 July 2014

The School I Want

The school I want

Gove hasn’t gone. Unusually for a chief whip he’s still in the cabinet, so he’s still influential, still there in the woodwork, in the heating pipes, under the table. Still whispering policy initiatives, still being listened to. He goes to PTA quizzes with Cameron so it’s not like they’ll be pretending not to see each other when they bump into each other in the parliament corridors.

And the education policies won’t change.

But nevertheless all the brouhaha about his departure has made me think about what really makes a good school.

(And by brouhaha I mean ecstatic calls, texts and facebook messages from anybody connected with teaching. I mean the cheering, the dancing in the staff rooms, and the breaking open of the emergency cava that has been chilling for just this moment).

I was at school for 13 years from 1969 – 1982. I was a teacher for nine years from 1994 - 2003. My eldest child started reception in 1991 and left in 2005. My stepson left in 2012 and the youngest goes up to High School in September. All at ordinary – what we used to call ‘bog standard’ – comprehensive schools, Hannah in Essex and the other two up here in West Yorkshire.

In addition to that my mother was a teacher for thirty years from 1973, so I think it’s fair to say I know my way around schools. I’ve certainly had time to think about what makes a good one.

So here they are then my welcome pack for the incoming Education Secretary.

1     Small is beautiful

In the notional school we’re going to build every teacher will know the name of every student. And every student will know the name of everyone of his peers. This means not just small class sizes (which is also a given) but also small school sizes. Primary schools of not more than 200 hundred. Secondary schools of not more than 500. You could also think about bringing back middle schools. People who went to middle schools love them; people who have taught in middle schools love them. Parents love them. People who don’t love them are accountants but the motto of our new school system is going to be fuck the accountants (only in Latin – Because that’s what Latin is for: providing great school mottos). A year eight middle school kid is a different kind of creature from a High School year eight kid. Generally they are nicer, more innocent, more in touch with that loveable, eager, keen to learn early years kid.

2)    More drama, music, art please, Miss

In any decent education system these would be compulsory subjects. They might actually be the only compulsory subjects. Subjects that require reflection on the world, that require engagement with that world, that encourage expression and development of what we might call the soul. They are also the subjects that fit people best for the modern workplace. Creativity and emotional intelligence are what makes a modern business thrive. Artists are persistent, they practice, they work in groups and on their own. They take what is arcane and difficult and make it accessible for the audience. They turn dreams into things you can see, feel, touch, hold, look at. Artists are dreamers and it is only dreamers who ever change anything.

They also often work for buttons.

Now that UK PLC doesn’t actually make anything much in its factories, we need to get used to selling our creative brain power and the arts develop these more than anything else you might study at school.

3)    And more sport too please, Miss

Not just football. Not just rugby. Not just hockey or cricket. But tennis, badminton, judo, karate, squash, athletics, fell-running, cycling. There is a sport for everyone and we’ve just got to find it. It will save the NHS of the future a fortune. And decent school sports centres that don't smell of piss and with the kind of showers you find in top level fitness clubs.

There should be yoga. A fitter nation eats better, sleeps better, and doesn’t feel the need to hang around the mall intimidating old people quite so much. It does mean you can’t sell off the playing fields for starter homes which I know your cabinet colleagues will find a bummer but you’re clever you went to Oxford, you’ll find a way around that…

4)    Language, Miss!

Could you have a go at making us the most linguistically able people in the world please? We are not innately thicker than the Dutch or the Swedes or the Indians – all of whom routinely switch between several languages. Unless you think we are. It’s embarrassing isn’t it the way Johnny Foreigner can discourse in English fluently about astrophysics or the physiology of Elks while we can’t order a coffee in Calais or a Bolognaise in Bologna.

And you know don’t you Nicky, that people from abroad learn English not to speak to us, but to speak to each other. They are not really interested in us, because we are not really interested in them.

5)    Let the teachers decide what they teach

You wouldn’t tell Paul McCartney how to write songs, or Jamie Oliver how to cook (actually you might, the arrogance of Tory politicians is often breath-taking but I hope you're different) so why tell teachers what they should teach and how they should do it? Trust them. They're smart. They know their stuff. And oh, pay them more, like they do in the public schools.

All the rest – uniforms, hair styles, length of the school day, how many periods, phonics -  let the staff and the parents argue it out school by school. (I think phonics is a bit shit but I might be wrong and I’m prepared to let others decide. The truth surely is that over a couple of thousand years we’ve developed many, many different successful strategies for teaching reading of which phonics is just one. I think uniforms are pointless - they manage without them in Germany and France, not to mention the USA but parents like them. Hell, even the students seem to like them...)

It occurs to me of course that there are already schools like the ones I’ve mentioned. They are called public schools. The big scandal of Tory education policy is that they only want it to apply to our kids. Their own offspring work in small classes in schools where the teachers are properly paid, where the students get long holidays and plenty of sport, music, art, drama. Where there are well-stocked libraries, lap-tops for all and where they can learn Japanese, Russian, Mandarin and Arabic as well as French, German and Spanish.A snip at 30k a year (or more) per child.

It’s only our kids they want to inflict the pernicious Gradgrind curriculum on. And that’s because they see our kids as only fit to file, to photocopy, and to answer phones. They see ours as over-seeing the self-scan aisles in Lidl while their kids plan to inter-rail from festival to festival in a gap year, prior to getting the groovy jobs and generally running things. 

There is a reason the pop charts are full of public school kids these days. It's because the elite see no reason why they shouldn't have everything. Banking, Law, Parliament... Why not rock and roll too? Hell, why not boxing? Why not rap? They'll be after those scenes too soon, mark my words...

We can have the schools we want, the schools our kids deserve. Our kids are as bright as theirs - which the elite know of course - that's why they want them to have as boring and culturally impoverished an education as possible. Otherwise their kids would have to scrum for the fun stuff on a fair playing field and they're not risking that. It's quite blatant. They're not making any secret of it.