Thursday, 27 October 2011

Bring back Conscription (not really)

She's right. Of course she is. In her last column in The Guardian's G2 section Deborah Orr writes about the scandal that is the general level of literacy in the UK. She's right too about the half-hearted or plain wrong-headed attempts to drive up standards in schools. What she doesn't do is offer any solutions.

This government (and the last one too) HAVE got some solutions. They're just mindless ones. They generally consist of thumping the party conference table and promising to sack the shit teachers, close the shit schools and let businesses set up shiny new ones (like businesses have such a great track record in running anything. Including businesses.)

And it doesn't work. It won't work. Can't work. The truth is there aren't that many genuinely crap teachers. But there are a lot of miserable ones.

I was a teacher for ten years all told. At different times I taught English, Drama, Media Studies... I taught in tough estate schools, Catholic schools, rural schools - always in secondary schools, always in comprehensives. And what did I see over that ten years? Over that time standards of classroom behaviour definitely declined. All teachers will tell you there is more low level disruption now. More answering back, more chatting, less focused work, shorter concentration spans. But what really brought me down was the casual rudeness of kids towards other kids. I don't mean sustained, systematic bullying but a offhand reflexive dismissive attitude towards each other. Routine dissing became increasingly the norm. This was especially true if anyone showed an exceptional desire to learn.

And where does it come from this desire to poke and prod and needle each other?

It's not there in the early years. If you see any reception class anywhere in the country no matter how deprived,  you'll see whole classes eager to find out how everything works and eager to play. More than eager desperate to be friends with everyone, desperate to know everything about everything. By the time they hit secondary school much of this energy and drive has been lost. By the end of year nine, nearly all of it has gone.

A lot of this must be down to the curriculum which is increasingly skewed towards the perceived needs of the employers. Most owners of big and medium sized businesses, the suits who governments listen to,don't actually want creative, free-thinking employees who are likely to wonder about the point of what they're doing? They want drones who will work producing more shit so they can buy more shit without being troubled by philosophy or morality or spirituality or dreams of a better world than this one. This means a lot of subjects that should be the most joyous - literature, music, art, drama - are side-lined, and the 'core' skills English, Science, Maths, IT reduced to their most functional and boring components, because of course all those subjects could be joyous too. Even sport is tied into a health agenda now. Keep fit - save the NHS money. Even that most basic of human arts - cooking - is reduced to designing ready-meals and thinking about how to market them (I'm not making this up for polemical purposes by the way, that's actually want you do in Food Tech GCSE. In primary school you might make a pineapple upside down cake, once you've moved up to primary school you draw a pizza and work out which parts of the demographic it might appeal to using pie charts and surveymonkey.)

But it's not just the curriculum. It's the teachers. It is.

I taught for ten years and made a lot of good friends in teaching. It would be fair to say that I'm the envy of most of them because I managed to get out.

I was a good teacher, I think. My results were good and an even better index is that quite a lot of the students I taught became teachers in their turn. Most of those students turned sir and miss are in their mid to late twenties now and they seem to be still enjoying it, still buzzing and creative. Exhausted but feeling that their life has purpose and meaning. That they're doing a good thing against huge odds, prepared to kick against all the pricks. That it is still worth doing all the paperwork, still worth putting up with gratuitious insults from government, to put up with a league table obsessed senior management team, to put up with the indiscipline not just from students but from parents who have been increasingly encouraged to see themselves as customers.

My older ex-colleagues meanwhile are just exhausted. The talk is of escape committees, of going under the wire or over the wall. The staff room of the last shool I taught in was like Hitler's bunker - but with none of the joie de vivre that might imply. At least Hitler's henchmen knew it was likely to end pretty soon for better or worse. In the staff room at Chantry high School, Ipswich there wasn't the option of a cyanide pill or a merciful bullet to the back of the head. There was just the prospect of more of the same for day after day, term after term, year after year.

When I 'retired' from teaching (at the age of 39 - I got in late, as well as getting out early) there was a chap leaving on the same day who had done 44 years in the same school. He'd taught at Chantry longer than I'd been alive. He was well loved and had done everything from deputy head downwards.  He'd also run soccer teams, drama clubs, organised residential trips and all that. He had taught grandparents of some of his current pupils. He was, rightly, a legend. He was also pretty much the last of his kind.

Teaching should be a marathon, but it's run like a sprint. You wouldn't expect a distance runner to sprint like Usain Bolt from the off and keep that up for 26 odd miles. Of course you wouldn't. But govts do expect teachers to do that. And you can't. You just can't. No one can.

So teachers burn out. And they're not paid as badly as they once were - not if they've been doing it a few years and so they're trapped. Not in a gilded cage exactly, but a semi-detached cage with nice curtains and cushion covers, one that has three bedrooms and a patch of garden and a garage. Teachers wages seem nicely calibrated these days to be just too much to give up easily.

And what else could they do anyway? What does a burned out teacher do? Just as a cynic is a heartbroken idealist, so an inadequate teacher is often a formerly outstanding one brought low by the erosion of their confidence by the sense of being on a treadmill. By tiredness. Those of us who are parents know the toll days and weeks of sleeplessness can take on your patience, your ability to plan, the amount of work you can get through - and being a teacher can get to be like having a baby that never grows up, that never learns to sleep through the night. You're simply never allowed to be 'off' to have a bad term, or a series of dodgy lessons.

And even if your lessons are amazing all the time you still get ground down.When I did my PGCE my lecturer once said (possibly quoting someone else) that in teaching the 'ball-and-chain of your personality rolls across the classroom floor in front of the kids.' In other words, there's no hiding place in teaching. Every week your very human frailties are on public display to an audience with forensic inclinations. In an average week the average secondary teacher might teach 300 different students. That's a lot of very harsh judges. It makes all the X factor bollocks look like nothin (which it is of course). In ten years I taught several thousand students, all of whom will be able to tell an unflattering story about me, or mimic my voice, my gestures, mock my mannerisms and my beliefs.

That's bloody tiring. The thought of it now makes me tired even now.

And yet all those mid-career teachers, the ones plotting escapes in a school near you right now, they can't just leave. They have mortgages, children at Uni, petrol to buy. Even those threadbare jackets and comedy ties cost you know. So what do we do? These unhappy teacher have experience, wisdom and insight that we shouldn't lose - but equally we shouldn't put them or kids through the torture of forcing them into the classroom day after day until their retirement. And retirement itself is five years further off for most teachers than it was. Like having five years suddenly added to your sentence when you've committed no new crime. that's got to be against some UN Human Rights convention somewhere.

Maybe we should bring back conscription.

Not for 18 year olds, but for people with degrees. Maybe it could be a condition of getting a student loan. Perhaps it would become a rite of passage, a badge of honour, something people boasted about. The compulsory time at the chalkface would be celebrated with plays (Mr Chips With Everything maybe), sit-coms and a whole new Carry On film. If everyone had to teach it would be more respected and MPS (and parents) might be less inclined to pontificate. And if they did pontificate, then there's more of a chance that they'd have at least the vaguest idea of what they were pontificating about.

It's a facetious idea, of course it is. But the long-term unhappiness of teachers is a problem for everyone who has children. The lack of routes out of classroom that make good use of the skills that have been hard won there is a waste for the whole population. What is the sense of having some of the best minds of our generation planning ever more desperate ways out. Maybe, in a more enlightened future, teaching will be something that you do while your health, vigour and sense of humour is intact and then - like footballers when they hit 35 - it is expected that you'll move on.

People point to the holidays, but the holidays are just part of the trap. You know that feeling you get on a Sunday. The Antique Roadshow Blues, when what is left of your weekend is ruined by the knowledge that the working week will soon be upon you? Well teachers get that big-time in the middle of August. that sense that panicky sense that you have to do something WORTHWHILE and IMPORTANT right NOW or the term will be on you and the waters of target-setting, report writing, marking and powerpoint prep will close over your head. One benefit I hadn't expected when I left teaching was the feeling of release from the burden of holidays...

So this has been a long blog post (thanks for staying with me) and it doesn't offer much more in the way of solutions to the fact that our schools are fucked than Deborah Orr's piece did. But I guess you could boil it down to most of our teachers are good, but they're desperate and we've got to find strategies that ease them out into creative paths without condemning them to the bear-baiting style cruelty of endless terms in the classroom. Or, alternatively, we make life easier for the classroom teacher.

Oh, and we've got to convince students that there's nothing weird, random or (their word) gay about Peace, Love and Understanding. That would be a start.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Not The Booker winner Michael Stewart on staring into the abyss and on that other prize...

This is a picture of the excellent Yorkshire writer Michael Stewart. A handsome man but very stern isn't it? Aggressive. Not the sort of man whose pint you'd want to spill at 11pm in a dive on the rough side of town. Looks like the leader of the Inter-City Firm or some other notorious football hooligan crew. Looks like a man who would shiv you as soon as look at you.

It is, fortunately, a completely misleading photo. In person Michael is gregarious, thoughtful, entertaining company. It's not in his character, or in his looks that any darkness resides - but it is there in his imagination.

Michael's debut novel King Crow has just won the prestigious 2011 Not The Booker Prize run every year by The Guardian newspaper (some would argue that it is more prestigious than the Booker itself). And it's a fair bet that he was looking much more smiley and upbeat then.

King Crow is the story of a quiet lad from Salford who likes to spend his time in his own world where he draws the birds he sees around him. Despite himself however he is drawn into a murkier world, one populated  by drug-dealers with all their menace and violence. This is a poetic book. Poetic in its descriptions of birds and nature. And bleakly, blackly poetic in its depictions of mental squalor and casual violence too.

Mainly, however, it's a good read. Gripping and thought-provoking - which is certainly not something you can say about every winner of that Man Booker thing everyone keeps banging on about.

Hello Michael - can you give me your autobiography in exactly 50 words?

Michael Stewart is a... 50 words you say? Why 50 words? Seems an arbitary figure but I'll have a go. Right. Michael Stewart is a... It's definitely 50 words? Not 49? Not 51? It has to be exactly 50 words right? Ok, here goes then, Michael Stewart is a...

Why should I read King Crow?

You shouldn't... but you will.

Where did the story come from?

I read an article in a magazine about circling ravens in Scotland leading a farmer to a dead body. I thought, what a great way into a story. (how wrong I was)

How did you feel on hearing you'd won Not The Booker?

I thought I've not won the Booker - I've won Not The Booker. (Those italics are important.)

What next? Are you working on another book?

I'm working on another novel called Cafe Assassin. It's about a man who comes out of 22 years of incarceration to get revenge on the man who put him in there. It's a sort of modern take on Wuthering Heights - only not as good.

You also write radio plays and for theatre...

I love the immediacy of drama. And it is relatively quick. I don't know how some novelists go straight from one book to another (I know lots do). I need a break, a different pace of working. When I finished King Crow, I couldn't hink about writing another novel. All I wanted to do was write scripts and short fiction. Which I did. But once I got that out of my system I was ready for another marathon.

Who, in life or writing, do you admire and why?

I have a picture of Samuel Beckett above my desk. He is staring into the abyss. That's a writer.

What do you think about Julian Barnes winning the Booker? Do prizes matter?

I'm happy for Julian Barnes and I'm looking forward to reading his book, but I thought the fracas about the non-inclusion of Alan Hollinghurst was hilarious. There's a tremendous sense of entitlementin mainstream literature.. Just because you have won the Booker in the past, it doesn't mean you have a right to be on the list in perpetuity. The Booker is really about the six main publishers. It costs them a lot of money to enter their authors. Is the public aware of how this excludes indies? Do prizes matter? If you win a prize it's an important prize and validates your genius, if someone else wins it's corrupt and elitest and not worth the paper the cheque is written on. We are all in the business of selling books. Anything that helps achieve that is a good thing. But on a personal level, triumph and disaster are both imposters.

Where do you see yourself in in five years time? Ten?

I've just won the Man Booker for the fourth time. Aim high - why not?

Recommend something...

Hunger by Knut Hamson. It's where the modern novel starts.

And, finally, tell me something I don't know...

Taushiro, a language of native Peru, is spoken in the region of the Tigre River, Aucayacu River, which is a tributary of the Ahuaruna River. It is known as a language isolate, which means it has no demonstrable relationship with any other language. In 2008, a study conducted on the Taushiro language concluded that only one person speaks the language fluently.

And so the interview ends - and Taushiro there's a foreign rights deal that it's not really worth getting....
  The award-winning King Crow is published by Bluemoose. You know what to do.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

An idea for Dragon's Den? Better than that surely...

This is a quick post about an idea I had yesterday. WH Smith are launching an e-reader to compete with Kindle, the Ipad, whatever the Waterstones reader is called... and if Smiths are lumbering into the market place why not indie bookshops?

A recent pull-out guide in A Top National Newspaper listed 300 great indie bookshops. 300 shops. That's more than Waterstones, more than WH Smiths. All of whom are disenfranchised when it comes to e-book sales. You see where I'm going? why not an IndieReader? A smart executive grey, slim smart machine that would mean that a reader could download books from the independent bookseller of their choice. Publishers would produce an IndieReader edition. the technology is almost certainly there all that's needed is the will and cooperation between shops...

Perhaps the government - were it actually serious about competition - could finance the R and D costs behind such a thing?   Failing that, maybe the IPG, the shops themselves or a friendly Russian billionaire would get behind it. Either way, if we get a wriggle on we could have our own (much smarter, much slicker, much cooler) device into shops before next Christmas. Maybe before next summer.

There might be a reason why it wouldn't work, but I can't see it. Readers like independent bookshops, but they also like to be able to take a selection of books on a mini-break without going over their hand-luggage only weight limit. Why should Amazon get all of that market? Amazon has no goodwill attached to its brand. It only has utility.

Almost certainly someone else had this idea before me and came up against insurmountable obstacles. If so I hope someone tells me. I'd hate to see indie booksellers disappear from our high street killed off by a cheap gizmo. Fight gizmos with gizmos I say. Fight them with better gizmos.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Peter Salmon on Haile Selassie and lost art of girting..

The second in my series of interviews with contemporary artists who I also happen to know and happen to like. Another writer this time. (I mostly know writers). Peter Salmon is an Australian polymath, brain the size of a planet (and not a small one). A former bookseller, and the curator of The Hurst, a residential writing centre in Shropshire. The former home of the playwright John Osborne.

Pete's first novel is The Coffee Story (Sceptre), a story about, er, coffee. But also much else. Linguistically and stylistically inventive at every turn it's bonkers. But in a (very) good way. It's been compared (favourably) with Philip Roth's Everyman.

He is, as this interview reveals, a man who looks at the world (and not just tomatoes and coffee) from unusual and unsettling angles.I ask him more or less the same questions I asked Mark Illis, but I get back very different answers.

Hello. Can you give me your autobiography in exactly 50 words? (Not 49. Not 51)

Where to start? Does one's autobiography begin at the moment of conception, or do we need to go back further, back to say, the 1536 Pilgrimage of Grace, where a band of plucky dissenters marched under the banner of the Five Wounds of Christ? Perhaps not, perhaps not. So.

Why should I read The Coffee Story?

Because it's great. Really great. I mean, some of it's not that great - the middle bit for instance - the middle bit is admittedly pretty dodgy. Still, it's better than the start, which is simply no good! And then the ending - terrible. Complete bloody nonsense. Which book again?

What made you want to write it?

All my life I have been driven by an overwhelming and barely controllable desire to write a book that combines the Coronation of Haile Selassie; the decline of communism in the late 20th century; and some pretty decent knob jokes. So here it is.

This is your first novel... working on a second?

It's based around the fact that wherever I go to promote my book - publisher parties, festival events, book clubs, bookshops and readings - I am always given lots of strong coffee in celebration of my book. My next book is called The Cocaine and Lots of Sex Story.

Any ambitions to write in other forms? Film? TV? Theatre? Television? Poetry?

There once was a writer called Peter
who diversified into theatre,
Telly and poems,
Said Watson to Holmes
'He's as multifarious as Bhagavad Gita!'

Another young writer, also Peter
Stuck to novels, thinking it neater
Cos this scriptwork was crap
And on top of that
His poetry tended to have some serious problems regarding metre.

You're Australian... Anything you particularly miss about Australia? Anything that has surprised you about living in England?

A fact few non-Australian people know is that - according to the national anthem - it is a a land 'girt by sea'. I miss this girting, and I'm surprised by the lack of it over here. Scotland and Wales are the problem I guess. They prevent England being girt.

What do you do when you're not writing?

Well, Steve, I guess like all writers I am always writing to some extent. When the non-writer is doing the dishes or gazing into space it is like a cow looking over a fence. But the writer! The writer is a chronicler of the universe! I also collect hardcore pornography.

Who - in life or writing - do you admire and why?

I think Jesus was pretty good. I mean, say you were out walking the dog, and the shop you were going in didn't have somewhere to tie it up, then you'd be in pretty safe hands if Jesus was walking past and offered to look after it. Really safe.

Where do you see yourself in five years time? Ten?

In five years I see myself sat beside a sparkling blue pool in LA somewhere, surrounded by handsome men and beautiful women, with great shoals of seafood piled high on plates, me taking lots of drugs and making love night after night to strobe light. Ten years - caught and jailed.

Tell me something I don't know...

All of the answers to the questions in this interview are exactly fifty words long, except one, the answer in limerick, which actually acts as a sort of accidental meta-joke, as it's caused by the last line of my poem being metrically inconsistent. One for poetry fans!