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.