My daughter’s version

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I found this story on an old memory stick. My daughter wrote it almost seven years ago, when she was thirteen.  It’s a well worn anecdote within our family (here and here are my own versions, in verse) but I’d never heard her version.  Here it is.

The crudely cut hillside was covered in dark grey slate. The roads were rough and winding, framed by irregular hedgerows. The car purred slowly along the track towards the Llanberis pass, sheep dotted randomly outside the window.  There were two passengers inside the car. A girl and her father, both silently hypnotised by the steady beat of the music playing on the car radio.  The girl was sleeping, slumped against the cool glass of the window with the crumpled map draped across her knees. The car rounded a corner and the small town of Capel Curig came into view. The welcoming lights at the windows woke the girl and the car came to a stop. The bags were unloaded quietly in darkness and the two people sleepily climbed the steps up to their usual room on the second floor without noticing anything.

The girl sat up suddenly. The loud yelp from the bathroom had signalled her abrupt awakening. The familiar, tall figure of her father sprang from the room, fingers wrapped in a fluffy white towel.

“I forgot the water was so damned hot here! Do you know where the plasters are? I think they’re in my back pack, can you have a look?” said the man, who was obviously her father. She climbed out of her bed and looked in the old, blue Vango back pack that had been to this beautiful part of Wales many times before. She saw the turquoise first aid box wedged into the side pocket. She handed it to him. He fiddled around with the box for a couple of minutes before she took pity on him and opened it herself.  She took out a large square plaster and handed it to him.

They trooped downstairs with their backpacks and walking boots.

“Two bacon sandwiches in the name of ––––– please.” said her father. They paid and left the bar, both clutching hot sandwiches. They sat outside eating their breakfast whilst choosing their route up the mountain.

“But we always take the miners track!” she moaned.

“I know but it would be easier on our legs,” he replied.

“I think we should take the Pyg track and then once we get over the shoulder, carry on round.” she said.

“Well that is a possibility, ok, well yes,” he agreed. “Shall we get going?”

She nodded. They both loaded their heavy packs into the car. They followed the road round, up the hill to the Pen y pass car park. They went into the café and bought sandwiches, crisps and biscuits, enough for lunch and dinner. They paid and went out to the car and laced their feet into big walking boots.  Then they began to walk.

The track was steep and rocky. The landscape was breathtakingly beautiful. The way the slate and grass rolled along the hills in harmony was something that she had never seen before. Every now and then the bleat of a ewe, defending her lamb from a passing car could be heard. The two walkers walked hand in hand for an hour or two, talking about the things that had never been bothered to be said before. Suddenly, the view changed. They had reached the shoulder and were looking at the glacial lake. But she thought it wasn’t as beautiful as her father had described. The surrounding area was covered in thick snow.

“But I checked the weather forecast this morning!” he spluttered.

“The mountain weather forecast daddy?” she asked.

“No, the normal one! What are we going to do? We can’t go back, the slope will be to icy.” he replied, an anxious note in his voice. “We’ll just have to keep going up.”

They dug around in their bags, searching for scarves and jackets. They glugged some hot tea from a thermos and trudged on up. The snow was getting worse and worse. As the track got steeper, it became harder to walk due to the black ice. All you could see was a blanket of white snow and black specks, marching to the summit, guarded by the white, wet sentinels people had built along the way. A few hours later, the man and his daughter reached a queue. People were shivering and crying, all desperately trying to reach the shelter at the top of the mountain. An older man was lifting his toddler whilst trying to maintain his balance himself. The ice under foot was treacherous, waiting for someone to slip and fall to their death, down to the silent, snow covered rocks below. The queue was slowly becoming shorter as people managed to clamber to safety. When the girl and her father had climbed to the shelter on the top of the summit, they sat down and huddled together. The hug said so much, there was the apology from him and the regret from her and the fear from both that this was the last time they would embrace each other and that they would die on this god damned mountain.

They saw there was only one way down. The endless, steep track was called the mountain ranger. The track was covered in snow drifts that came to her knees. The wind seemed to be determined to claim at least one of the innocent walker’s lives as it was blowing strongly, pushing everyone to the edge of the cliff. The walk was slow and seemed never ending but then a light appeared in the distance. The pair walked faster, relief flooding through them. They almost ran the last few meters, desperate to get into the warmth. The light they had seen belonged to a small, old fashioned inn. The man inside told them to sit by the fire and brought them hot tea and listened to their story. The man had a dog. The dog went and sat next to her. She ran her finger through its coat, the course black fur warming her hands and making her feel reassured. She thought of home and desperately wished she was at home, in bed with her own dog on her feet and not this stranger’s one.  She squeezed her father’s hand and he squeezed it back as if to say, “Me too.”

 

We haven’t walked the mountains together for some years; I miss that company painfully.  This brings back so much more than just a walk.

 

Wow… One hell of a year

I find this difficult to write.

My Low Points

I can’t easily discuss low points, just because. I am proud of three things: that I stood up for my colleagues’ economic welfare, that I took a principled stand on my pupils’ wellbeing and, despite a voice in my head saying “Why would they ever want a nobody like you?” became a trustee of the College of Teaching.

Five years after I made my decision to enter teaching, I sometimes wonder if I have sabotaged my own career. I’m very spiky – most of the time manically happy and collaborative, but sometimes in despair and extremely cynical. I try to keep these latter moments to myself. That’s when the black dog appears in my Twitter feed. I try to keep my eye on the highlights, my heroes and the horizon.

My highlights: 

  • seeing a group of pupils through the 11+ selection process with their heads held high (by no means a certainty at the outset) and watching their huge personal growth, sometimes with tears in my eyes at the enormous steps they chose to take; 
  • marching with a colleague alongside the trans teenagers and their families with Gendered Intelligence at Pride in London (could I use any more prepositions?)
  • teaching at a school in special measures, at which I encountered equally sparkling minds and beautiful personalities; 
  • working with and learning from some great colleagues, of whom I will single out five (below);
  • becoming a founding trustee of the College of Teaching, because it forces me to do something about our profession rather than just fretting about it. 

My heroes:

  • Toby Brothers, an extraordinary woman who seduces pupils, for whom she has uncompromisingly high expectations, into loving learning and literature (me included, as she taught me to love Ulyssses and complete it after thirty years of trying.)
  • Julie Pakbaz, a teacher who had no financial need to teach but did it because it was important. Sharp, bright, endlessly supportive, far younger than me and far more grown up, she challenged me and challenged our pupils to be our disciplined best selves.
  • Cindy Harnett, my assistant head, with whom I developed an immediate professional rapport and who, like Julie and Toby, both taught alongside me and taught me to be the best I could be.
  • Vicky McDowell, my fellow trustee, who offered me strength through vulnerability, wisdom in her quiet words and thoughts, and a sudden, unquestioning friendship
  • Steve Davy, Year 4 teacher at the Wroxham School, whose manic, amazing mind matches mine and then marches way beyond, forcing me to laugh and run behind him, picking up the ideas he scatters as he goes. We’ve drunk too much, sworn undying love on the Northern Line, swigged strong coffees and thought up wild ways to teach. Even my wife thinks he’s extraordinary, and she’s not easily impressed.

The Horizon

My goals for 2016 are to:

  • allow time to care for my wife and family, usually bottom of the pecking order;
  • take my personal health and welfare seriously: I am 52, rapidly gaining weight, doing no exercise and not at all happy with it. I have to get serious and make it sustainable;
  • have a fabulous and successful time with my Year 4 class (my first step outside Year 6) – again, in a sustainable way;
  • do whatever I can, and whatever I am called to do, in pursuit of the successful establishment of our College of Teaching;
  • learn German, just because.

See you on the other side x

Just a story, you understand…

  

Back in 1993, I remember Charles Handy, then professor at London Business School, and author of Understanding Organisationssaying, “I was once arrogant enough to believe I could understand organisations.” He was addressing a roomful of people with MBAs, veritable masters of business (I was an interloper, a guest).

This was one of the reasons I chose to read English at Birkbeck as a mature student, rather than pursue a Master’s degree in Organisational Behaviour. Stories made more sense to me.

So in lieu of understanding, I am going to offer a story.

In the beginning…

Twenty years ago, I became involved in a number of assignments to help an organisation assure itself of the quality – and safety – of its projects.

The chief executive of this organisation had, in his words, “the keys of the jail rattled at him” after a fatality on a project. Safety, always highly valued, was given an even higher priority.

Over some years, we focused on three aspects: process, organisation and people.

Process

We took a suite (ie three binders) of impenetrable and often  contradictory procedures for managing projects and tried to create an easily understood statement of what had to be done (by who and when). We remarked that the one thing that seemed to be missing from the procedures was management. There was lots on planning, evaluating, reporting, learning lessons and, er, reporting on the lessons learnt. And, of course, there were increasingly complex and powerful IT systems to support and report (all of which required intensive feeding. In fact, the beasts required so much attention that there was little time to do anything  else.)

But management was, by and large, missing.

We produced some pretty brilliant procedures, backed up with great guidance and topped with a very short overview document, in a leather pocketbook. It really was good, though I say so myself. But it was still a steaming pile of proverbial because it didn’t fundamentally address management.

Organisation

We advised on countless, endless attempts to fiddle about with the structure of the organisation (and I bore myself even thinking of the pretty PowerPoint charts that promised to ‘streamline accountability’ and ‘optimise control’). Suffice it to say, I wince when I see similar organograms elsewhere. They may support; they never solve.

People

“Ah,” you might say, “now we’re looking at the right aspect.” It’s who turns up that matters. So we helped to develop and implement a means of ensuring that the people who were managing projects were competent. Quite rightly, the client saw that this was important.

Project managers presented their portfolios to show they had the requisite education, experience and qualifications. They sat three tests to show that they had the necessary contextual and generic skills, knowledge and understanding for the role. And they were interviewed by senior managers.

I assessed hundreds of them. Some were brilliant – either on paper, in person or by reputation. Many were mediocre. The process weeded out the weakest: some received training; others weren’t used again.

I had some faith in this approach, partly because I’d waded through the portfolios, partly because I’d helped to set, run and mark the assessments and partly because I knew and trusted the wily old dog who interviewed many of them. He hated the ‘treacle layer’ of assurers and checkers who constantly scrutinised and challenged his project managers. And he was as interested – in fact more interested – in hearing about interviewees’ catastrophes than their triumphs. No true project manager has had a failure-free career; what’s most important is how how we dealt with it and what we learnt from it.

But…

Despite all this, project outcomes were little better. Two reasons come to mind. 

Firstly, the organisation’s strategy was subject to such violent political storms that its direction, structure and very existence were in continual flux, and its directors either couldn’t or wouldn’t adequately protect its people from debilitating uncertainty. But people can cope with that if they’re equipped for it.

Secondly, and I think critically, the organisation’s culture, the environment in which its project managers had to work, undermined their effectiveness. It undervalued them (they’d get better pay elsewhere and they weren’t on the golden career ladder). It naturally suspected them (tests, ‘assurance gates’ and prescriptive procedures don’t generate much of a sense of agency, empowerment or true accountability). It constantly tinkered with their roles and structure. And, perhaps most difficult to pin down, it didn’t give a coherent message to project managers that they were professionals who were expected, and could be trusted, to manage their projects to deliver the best outcomes.

So…

I don’t think there was an easy answer. But time and again our clients, and their masters, weren’t even responding to the right exam questions.

My last piece of consulting was for this particular client. I enraged one of the directors by observing that it was as if I had stepped out of the Tardis and found myself back in time, almost twenty years before. Nothing seemed to have changed (though it appeared that everything had). They were having the same arguments and making the same mistakes.

Our advice, at the outset and almost twenty years later, was that you can’t address the elements of an organisation, its people, processes, strategy or environment in isolation: all need to be directed towards what you are trying to achieve. That was the corporate – and correct – message.

My own belief is that bright, experienced, valued and empowered professionals can fight their way out of most stupid situations. Better still, adequately rewarded, well directed and trusted, they can usually be relied on to do a brilliant job. 

Of managing projects, mind you.  This is, after all, just a story.

Facts, facts, facts

Yesterday I found myself in a regrettable misunderstanding over an early day motion from 2004 signed by Jeremy Corbyn. It supported the assertion by John Pilger that the NATO intervention in Kosovo was based on a lie, that the Serbian forces had not perpetrated a genocide.

Initial Responses 

The language of the motion seemed intemperate, but I had no knowledge with which to judge it.My first responses were thus:

  • I wanted to find the facts, as a lifelong student of History. When I was 15, my history teacher, Michael Barlen, reinforced the need for “Facts, facts, facts. Who, why, what, where, when.” As an undergraduate, I was rarely content with secondary sources and would ferret out primary sources, even reacquainting myself with Latin so I wouldn’t have to depend on translations. In my brief spell as a research student, I was similarly obsessive in my pursuit of facts.
  • I question anything I read or hear in any media, as a former communications professional (PR executive and marketing manager).  I used to create some of the ‘spin’ so I look for it everywhere. I recognise my own tendency towards naivety, so I force myself to be sceptical.
  • I want my daughter to understand and guard against inhumanity. I took her to Oradour-sur-Glane to see the consequences of inhumanity for herself. 
  • I need to understand what leads us to war. As a Quaker, I am a pacifist. But as the child of a diplomat and grandchild of a decorated bomber pilot, as a former member of the TA and as the friend of a serving army officer, I tend to listen to and respect what members of the armed forces say, and I’ve done a lot of listening over the years.
  • I want to understand what makes humans perpetrate acts of evil time and again. As my friend served in a military-civilian liaison role in Bosnia, Basra and Kosovo, I have taken an interest in her work and saw a common thread of inhumanity.  We just seem to keep doing it: why?

Distrust of ‘Authorities’

As an A level history student, I attended a debate at the Cambridge Union. Magnus Pyke argued that ‘History is bunk’. The case for the defence of History was led by Geoffrey Elton, not yet Professor of Modern History. Assisting him in its defence was David Irving, an urbane man who was introduced to us as an historian. He impressed me; years later, I shuddered at the thought of having been taken in for event a moment by this holocaust denier. It gave me even greater reason to question ‘authorities’ and to challenge my own first impressions.

Sources of Information

I feel no closer to understanding what happened in Kosovo, except that thousands died, far more were displaced and there were inhumane acts on both sides. I still feel ignorant and am not sure I will ever know. I will certainly not take John Pilger’s word for it, nor any source that’s readily to hand on the Internet. I will ask my friend, as she was there in the aftermath of the war, tasked with helping the civilian population to recover. I doubt that she will have a definitive answer but I will listen to her and weigh up what she says.

Implications for my teaching

I try to bring my own approaches and responses, in an age-appropriate way, into my teaching.

  • I encourage pupils to search for evidence to back up any assertions they make.
  • I encourage them to be sceptical about what they see, hear or read, to ask questions about its validity and to seek other reputable sources.
  • I convene discussions about inhumanity and its causes, suitable for the Year 6 pupils I have taught. This has included a morning’s discussion with a holocaust survivor and, for others, a topic theme of refugees and asylum seekers.
  • I try to offer a balanced view of warfare, honouring the men and women who fought in the defence of Britain and asking how we can avoid any future loss of life.

Conclusions

Quakers are, as well as pacifists, seekers after truth. When I am feeling tired and cynical, I sometimes wonder if I will ever find it; for the rest of the time, I’m the same obsessive dog with a fact-seeking bone that I was as a child.

On Metaphor

Derived from the Greek words meta (over or beyond) and fero (carry), metaphor is a powerful part of language. This morning, metaphor went beyond language.

I blundered into my Quaker meeting for worship a few minutes late. The usual three-rowed square of seats around a table had been replaced by a two-rowed circle. And there were children among the seated adults.

At the centre of the circle was a black cloth. Onto it, one of the adults laid out her story, about the universe, the Earth and our place on it. She surrounded Earth, a multi-coloured pile of cloth, with wooden figures.

The figures, small, simple, jigsaw-cut, lay flat. Another friend stood up and said she wish she knew how she could help to bring humanity to its feet. She felt small, she said, powerless to do anything. She sat down.

After a minute, a woman walked around to the figures. She knelt and began to bring the figures to their wooden feet. Another woman joined her, then I did. Then two children came to help. It was soon done.

One person’s statement of helplessness had provoked another’s action, which, in turn, had prompted us to act. Our actions, the actions of adults, had, in turn, prompted children to act. None of this was premeditated.

I sat down and breathed out heavily. I couldn’t have said this in any way that was as profound as the action, the image or the experience.  These words and my pictures are an inadequate substitute. 

   
 

Love Song

Thank God you’re back,
between the grubby sheets,
beneath the creased black covers.

Back this morning, whispering
in my empty ears, scribbling
secret notes across my thoughts.

Back beside me in this café window
watching London walk to work,
thick-thieved in conversation.

Back because I need you;
but when teaching stuffs my days
with doing, you’ll fall silent.

Four poems; one place

Poems…

I found myself, for the nth time, looking for the links to poems I wrote around a man. 

…about Stories

When I was about twelve, a teacher read us David Kossoff‘s Book of Witnesses. I loved it because it gave imagined humanity to dry biblical figures. Who doesn’t love a story? That was one of the joys of my history degree: imagining the people I read and write about. I especially loved the triangle of wild Henry II, cautious Gilbert Foliot and the incredibly irritating Thomas Beckett. Or the tragic clash between Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II and Pope Innocent III. Or comparing the odious Oswald Mosley to the overweeningly ambitious David Owen. No wonder Shakespeare looted Holinshed for every bit of Tudor propaganda: History is gripping!

…and Sculpture

  

After visiting Antony Gormley’s Event Horizon exhibition at the Hayward gallery, and seeing sculptures like this, I started thinking. He challenges us with questions. How about talking about the body as an energy center, not as a statue? Is there a way to go beyond the horizon? Can we use a body as an empty catalyst for a kind of empathy with the experience of space time? Gormley’s wire sculptures reveal the figure through a wild tangle of wire around an empty space. 

…and Jesus

The tomb is empty, Jesus has gone, but the stories remain and are retold, time and again. I wanted to create tangles of feeling, image and thought around that empty space, just as Kossoff had done. And the story of a man who could provoke such love and hatred had to be a good one. I used to think he was divine; I no longer do so. I would like to imagine that he represents consummate man: certainly, he has come to bear enormous symbolic significance for countless Christians. Forget the cross: that crushing metaphorical weight would have finished him off.

…and Judas

I wrote Judas first, at a time when I was in despair. I’ve long liked Judas and believed that despair was his chief failing. He did what his conscience, his extremist cause and Christ (there for its alliterative pleasure, not for any religious reason) dictated. Judas should have retired and had a family; instead, he killed himself.

…and Mary Magdalene

I wrote Mary Magdalene next. This came from three perspectives: Jesus as the object of physical desire; Mary as a human capable of intense feeling and the salted wound of loss; and a female figure onto whom every generation scrawls some (usually misogynist) graffiti. I like to think she loved Jesus and that he, being entirely human, had a physical relationship with her. Pure conjecture. My friend and one-time tutor, Professor Anthony Bale, told me about the physical, almost sexual fixation that some medieval believers had for Jesus, how they would kiss and caress his wounds – rather, their wooden and plaster facsimiles. I had at that stage only read the first three and the last chapters of Ulysses (with the help of my friend Toby Brothers and the comradeship of her literary salon, I’ve now completed it). Molly Bloom‘s post-coital soliloquy has always struck me as such a powerful text. It resists being pinned down and yet each reader can give it our own punctuation, read it in our own voice. Arrogantly, I copied Joyce’s tricks…

…and Mary, mother of Jesus

Mary, Jesus’s mother, came from my heart. I love my daughter so intensely that the thought of her predeceasing me fills me with panic. It always has done (what a morbid imagination!) and now that she drives, I worry even more. So I placed myself in Mary’s body and mind. With her dead son.  After he’d been tortured to death. Almost unbearable, which is why it came out so short and austere. Anything more felt wordy and self-indulgent. I saw Fiona Shaw perform Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary and was transfixed (what an apt word). He managed to maintain that unrelenting austerity of tone for hours: a literary magician. I was pleased that I’d managed to write my brief poem long before Tóibín had written his play as I’d never have bothered after seeing it.

…and Peter

I picked Peter first, though his voice came to me last. Infuriating, hot-headed, hypocritical, passionate, prone to saying stupid things: I felt most affinity with him. When he did eventually come, I saw him beside the fire, lying his arse off. So human. I had some fun with textual analysis and concordance, using the gospel writers’ words as a framework, discipline for my sloppy lines. Peter lived long enough to give himself a place in history, though he would have laughed his head off at the pomp he engendered, or cried bitterly at the millions who have suffered with the blessing of his ‘successors’. Peter’s story seems to unite all the others, so I devised the poem with hyperlinks to the other three. They appear in separate posts but can be read through this one.

Incidentally…

Oh, those dot, dot, dots made me think of music and space. I like John Cage’s 4’33, the musical equivalent of a Quaker meeting for worship, full of meaning. We wrap our own meaning around this space, but we can also let it talk to us. 

I also really like Nils Frahm’s response to 4’33, which I think is far from a joke and which brings me back to the stillness of Cage’s piece every time I listen to it.

Not His Rock

The murderous heat gave way
to deathly cold that night.
I found a place beside the fire
and warmed my trembling hands.

Three times? I shook my head.

The servant girl beside me
saw my firelit face and said,
“I’ve seen you with him.”
“You’re mistaken,” I replied.

It’s not my son who has to die.

Another woman, by the gate,
caught sight of me and shouted,
“He’s that madman’s friend,”
an accusation I denied.

I’ve never felt his gentle weight.

Then a man who’d seen me
cut his cousin’s ear off cried,
“You’re one of his disciples!”
“I’m no follower of his,” I lied.

I didn’t kiss him in the garden.

As the darkness crept away,
a stabbing shaft of sunlight
caused a cockerel thrice to crow
and I knew then, as now,

I’m not his rock; I’m only human.

Afterwards

Nothing prepares you for the cold stone
contours, crags, gashes, gullies, gouges
of a broken body. Empty sepulchre,

my son.

I lift him, drag him backwards,
wrap round him, make believe
my blood is running through him,
feel him come to life inside me.

Taste the bitterness of knowing.

Smell dead sweat.
Start to wash him.

Sweet Jesus

Sweet Jesus Christ

words worn to threads by men
who never knew his smell his taste
the touch of his hands the look
in his eyes the power of his arms
arms strong from aching
day in day out work

Oh Jesus wept

so he did
for me for stupid Peter
poor old Judas every
godforsaken one of us

Holy Mother

the press of his chest
the weight of him
his whipchord hardness
braced against my

God

I can’t believe
he’s gone for good