Teaching Poetry

Ever since I retired from teaching I’ve been less and less keen to read about education. Government initiatives, cuts in funding, the failure to support young teachers - it always seems to be bad news. But here’s a book which changes all that, and is full of insight, commitment and imagination. I went to a workshop Kate Clanchy ran in Birmingham twenty years ago, and was really impressed. I’ve bought her three poetry collections since then, and read her novel. i had heard about her work at Oxford Spires Academy, where she’d helped teenagers from all sorts of backgrounds, none of them posh, write fabulous poems and win competitions. so now here’s her book about poetry, teaching poetry, teaching kids, being a parent choosing a school…everything you might ever have wondered about to do with education. It’s called “Some kids I taught, and what they taught me” and it’s the most inspiring book I’ve read this year. Get it from the library, give it to teacher friends for Christmas, donate a copy to your local school - it needs to be in as many hands as possible, as soon as possible - just wonderful.

Binge Watching

Back in the day, you discovered a good TV series, and then watched the episodes unfold, week after week. that’s how I watched Talking to a Stranger, The Singing Detective and, only this year, Years and Years. But now there’s the dreaded indulgence of binge-watching, where all the parts are made available straight away. I decided I wasn’t really interested in Fosse/Verdon, the story of choreographer/director Bob Fosse and one of his wives. But then I read a review which told me that (a) that Michelle Williams was in it and (b) that it was really good. (In my experience, those two things usually go together). It’s brilliant. Clever, thoughtful, complicated - you jump around in time, and the relationship between the two lead characters develops all the time, but it’s tremendous, one of the best things I’ve seen this year. so yes, I’ll confess. I watched all eight episodes within a week (on iplayer), and almost wish I hadn’t. But whichever way you tackle it, don;'‘t let the chance slip by.

Women on TV

time was, people complained that Tv was dominated by men - producers, writers, actors, and so it was. But some things change for the better, and channel 4s “I am…” series is really good news. It’s a gorgeous idea, for a start. Male writer gets together with female actor and says “what do you care about?” They talk, and work out an idea for a one-hour drama, which he then writes and she stars in. Given that the three actors are Vicki McClure, Samantha Morton and Gemma Chan, the results are very much worth watching. They’re very different, and some better than others (I thought Gemma Chan’s was terrific) but streets ahead of your average TV drama fodder. At a time when there really isn’t that much being transmitted that I want to watch, this has been a godsend. Catch them on All 4 while you can - “I am Nicola…Kirsty…Hannah.”

Johnson the Diplomat

when Boris johnson was campaigning to become PM, his team were very clear - tell them you saved London, but DON’T MENTION THE FOREIGN OFFICE. They knew that his time as Foreign Secretary was a total disaster, and that his best chance of winning was to hope that nobody remembered that. But now he’s in charge, we get an immediate reminder. In the first few days of his premiership, he made token trips to Scotland, Ireland, Wales. Wasn’t always welcome, didn’t make any progress, but at least he flew the flag. but in Europe, nothing. Despite claiming that he would attempt to make a new deal, he’s had no contact with senior EU figures, and is clearly terrified of being filmed talking to them, and then coming back with nothing. That’s Theresa May territory, and he’s steering clear.

But all the Brexit theory says that once we’re out, we’ll make exciting new deals with our partners. Oh no we won’t, not if we treat them like dirt. Whatever he says, Johnson is the ultimate entitled Englishman, convinced of his own superiority, and totally unable to see how he looks to other people. Which would be fine, if he were an isolated lunatic. as our Prime Minister, he’s going to make us pay, for a long time.

The Great Hack

Just as we’re consigning Cambridge Analytica to history, here comes another treat from Netflix - The Great Hack. This does a wonderful education job in explaining exactly how digital advertising was targetted during the Brexit campaign, aimed at a small number of undecided voters with impressively precise effect. But it also sets the context of CA’s work - the links with military spending, the gun for hire mentality which means that they were happy to go all over the globe, delivering election results for various dictators, often through dirty tricks, bribery and persuading people that it wasn’t worth their while to vote. They have a CA guy who speaks rather sadly about how unlucky it was that CA happened to be the firm that got caught, but when you look in detail at what they were doing (and at what they tried to hide) it’s very clear that this is a powerful effective way of twisting democracy, and we don’t have anything like the machinery we need to control it. So, just when you thought you had quite enough already, there’s another reason to be gloomy…

A ruthless coup

When we saw the announcement of Boris Johnson’s success in the leadership election, he and Hunt turned to congratulate each other, and Johnson made a joke about Hunt’s good ideas, which he’d now proceed to pinch. Good mates, we thought, and although Hunt has reservations about Johnson he’ll do what many cabinet colleagues have done, and stifle his misgivings in return for a place in the cabinet.

Oh no he won’t. Because Johnson won’t be offering him a place in the cabinet that he’ll want to accept. There’s no notion of keeping the party together, healing woulds, representing different factions. It’s the hard Brexit dream team, with nobody there who might get in the way. Maybe the most extreme move is having Dominic Cummings as a senior adviser. To most people he’s the guru on the Brexit election, the maverick mastermind who gloried in the poisonous anarchy of that campaign, and by force of personality imposed a ferocious discipline on his part of the Leave campaign. His tactics, his slogan, his focus on targetted digital advertising were all crucial, and without him they wouldn’t have won.

But my memories of Cummings go further back, to his time in education. He was similarly rude and disruptive then, making a lot of enemies and steering through the Gove reforms, but that’s not an achievement to be proud of. The sustained insults to people working in education, and the abstract nature of the changes envisaged, ensure that there’s no positive legacy - just a record of damage and possibilities missed. Cummings might win Johnson the election for which he’s heading, but he won’t do anything for the lasting benefit of the country.

Coping with Adolescents

I’ve written a sonnet about Trump entitled Teen, and that’s not just me being abusive. that’s what he reminds me of, insecure teenagers I taught, covering up with bluster and over-confience. A couple of recent examples. He wants the Us to withdraw from Afghanistan, and he wants Pakistan to take up some of the slack to allow them to do that. Not nonsensical in itself, but he feels the need to justify it by claiming that he could destroy Afghanistan in a week, but doesn’t want to, because it will kill 10 million people. My soldiers are better than your soldiers, and if I wanted I could blow up the world. No sense that this military might is not actually there for his pleasure, but for the service of the country as a whole.

And now it’s India. He’s claiming that India asked him to solve the Kashmir dispute. the only snag is, India say they did no such thing. Of course they didn’t. No-one in their right minds would let Trump anywhere hear a complex negotiation. and deep down he probably knows that, and hates it, so he’s going to claim they asked him anyway, even though they didn’t. If we were just talking about him on his own it would be sad, but the consequences for the rest of the world could be disastrous.

Knock Down the House

It may well be that Netflix has a lot to answer for, so far as its impact on film-making is concerned, but short-term it delivers some wonderful stuff. There’s a moving documentary at the moment called Knock Down the House, about young Democratic candidates seeking to resist the Trump avalanche by standing as candidates for Congress. They’re not rich or respectable, and many of them don’t have a long political track record - but that’s the point. They’re at the sharp end, thinking “if I don’t do this, who will?” and watching them support and energise each other is really powerful. If you’ve ever been involved in a grass roots campaign of self-defence, you’ll recognise so much of this. The film moves between four candidates, all of them standing against the odds, but the triumph is the election of Alexandria Ocasia-Cortez, now famous as one of the squad. That she got to Congress is totally stunning. Now there’s the battle/tension/debate, between her and young, radical oppionenets of Trump, and the Nancy Pelosi generation, hardened veterans who see the dangers of going too far left, the way that feeds the Trump machine. There aren’t simple answers, but it’s still heartening to see that energy and passion actually record a win for once.

A European perspective on Brexit

Maybe I shouldn’t have watched. I’ve thought and read about this, so I wasn’t expecting to learn anything new, but Thursday’s documentary review of the Brexit negotiations was still hugely depressing. All it did was spell out in remorseless detail, again and again, how incompetent we had been at every stage. European partners, who had thought of us as intelligent and responsible operators, looked on in disbelief, as it slowly dawned on them - “No, they haven’t got a clue. They don’t what they want. They don’t know where they’re going.” Every one who spoke from Europe, and especially from Ireland, was thoughtful, perceptive and illuminating, while the Brits were just floundering around,striking poses and looking at themselves in the mirror.

There was one brief, striking moment of illumination. Theresa May, visiting Northern Ireland, glot a close-up look at what “no deal” would mean to particular people and businesses there - and it cured her of the “no deal is better than a bad deal” nonsense, which she no longer spouted after that particular epiphany. But such wisdom was occasional and late, and we are surely screwed.

World Cup Final

i’m not that bothered about cricket. My wife and son are both a lot keener than I am, but he’d been at Edgbaston to see England thrash Australia in the semi-final, so I was having a leisurely day and thought I might as well check in to see if cricket was finally “coming home”, as the wistful patriots love to sing. Oh boy,.what a game. I suppose I started with a “Can we please do it? Just for once?” kind of feeling, but ended up totally gutted for New Zealand. all the luck there was went against them. Yes, both teams ended up with the same total in normal play, but 12 of England’s was from two freak sixes - a catch where the fielder trod on the boundary board a nanosecond before he passed it to someone else, and then then ludicrous 2 plus 4 contrived by the ball hitting Stoke’s bat as he charged into the crease, diverting it for an extra four runs. Before that the New Zealanders had been incredibly impressive, defending what looked like a puny total with tigerish teamwork. Joe Root, an impressive and attractive run-maker throughout the competition, was reduced to a wildly belligerent schoolboy, determined to get himself out through sheer frustration. Watching Kane Williamson do the magic captain thing, organising and encouraging his team, was really impressive - as was the dignity with which he coped with an outrageous conclusion to the match,. Now that;’s sportsmanship.

Labour and Anti-semitism

I really didn’t want to watch this. I hated the whole hassle about adopting or not adopting various definitions of anti-semitism, and i’m sure that the Israeli lobby exerts a powerful force on such debates, but I didn’t know enough what had been going on in the Labour Party, so I thought I’d educate myself.

Oh boy. To start with what seems definite. The change in Labour Party membership has led to a change in tone, an increased willingness to resort to “Zionist” as a term of abuse. The programme gathered together a series of young Jewish members, and - even more crucially - a succession of young campaigners who were seriously committed to the grinding business of exploring allegations of anti-semitism, and of ensuring that they were thoroughly investigated. As a group, I thought they were admirable and convincing, and I believed their cumulative account of a party leadership that had regularly intervened to stop them doing their job. And who, in the process, imposed pressures on them which led to resignation and mental illness.

But the most depressing aspect of this is the leadership’s response. No, they weren’t coming on the programme.( One innocent lower flunky did appear, but only to insist in the vaguest possible terms about how totally he and Jeremy were opposed to anything nasty). The allegations came from disappointed Blairites, disaffected members who had never fully believed in Jeremy - and Jeremy, as we all know, has always been a beacon of hope and light. He may not be personally anti-semitic, but he is a crap manager of people, and if he’s allowed his immediate entourage to infect party procedures in the way this programme describes, then he deserves everything he gets. Not great news for the rest of us, or for any hopes of an alternative government, but here you go. They never said it would be easy.

Prime Minister material?

Watching the great debate between potential prime ministers, it seemed at the time a crucial moment. Hunt says that he backs Kim Darroch, the UK ambassador to the US, despite Trump’s insulting personal attacks. which way will Johnson jump? He won’t jump. He’ll bluster, as usual, and later he’ll say he was misrepresented, misunderstood, like he al;ways does, but he won’t bite the bullet and say Trump has got this wrong, and we stand by our diplomats.

So when, next day, Kim Darroch resigns - partly because of Johnson’s failure to back him - there’s a kind of satisfaction in watching Johnson squirm, at seeing him have to confront the consequences of his self-obsessed entitlement. In any normal world, the notion that he might be the best person to be our Prime Minister is patently ridiculous, but this is the asylum and the lunatics are in charge.

Exit Lionesses

So we’ve come to the end of the line. The plucky Lionesses have come to the World Cup,reached the smi-final, but are now going home. and that’s OK. They weren’t the best team, and they have done well, and it has been a pleasure to sit through a number of games of women’s football - which is something I’ve never done before.

Early on, I wasn’t convinced. We seemed to give the ball away so much, not be able to sustain concentration or teamwork, that i couldn’t see us beating any team of any quality. Watching Norway beat Australia, for instance, I though “either of these are a lot better than us.” But then, when it comes to Englan v. Norway, they manage to turn it on. They chase around the field, harass the Norwegians out of possession, and produce some fast, flowing movements which create great goals.

The USA, however, were a step too far. Too tough, too canny, too consistent. when the commentator was cooing about Steph Houghton’s courage in stepping up to take the crucial penalty, you knew we weren’t quite up to it. sod her courage, where’s her common sense? It was a pathetic penalty, and she should have known she wasn’t in the state to take it. If that had been Megan Rapinoe, it wouldn’t have bobbled along the ground. so we’re not the best in the world, but it was fun while it lasted. r

Hermione Lee

So I read this rave review of Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald and thought, “Yeah, give it a try.” That’s 75p’s worth of try, which is what it costs me to order a copy from the library. the library, amazingly, continues to function, even if the budgets, staffing and footprint are all down. to me, it’s one of the wonders of the world, but God knows if it will last.

So, it’s along book, and i’m not sure, even know, how much I like Penelope Fitzgerald, or rate her as an author, but the biography is a thing of beauty - careful, detailed, sensitive. Fitzgerald’s a difficult, prickly character, and there must have been times when it was hard to be fair to her, but I worked my way steadily though, reading a chunk a day before breakfast, just luxuriating in the pleasures of intelligent, quality writing.

This encouraged me to seek out The Blue Flower, supposedly Fitzgeral’s masterpiece, from a local second-hand bookshop. I read it, with some enjoyment, but not much enthusiasm, and i’m not sure I’m converted. But the quality of the biography is utterly beyond doubt.

Judi and Me

There’s something about actors of your own age, especially when you both start young and get to be over 70. As a student in 1966 i never dreamed that the smart, tough young woman who leapt off the screen in Talking to a Stranger would end up as an eminent dame, but there you go. It’s been a pleasure to watch most of what she does, and i wish her well in a vague sort of way - which made it all the more poignant to read about her vanishing sight. she’s had to give up driving, because she’s a threat to other people, though the loss of independence is heartbreaking - as it was for my dad, and will be for me, when the time comes. she has to get other people to read her lines to her when she learns them, and that can’t be easy. And as she gets older she has to re-evaluate the past, as we all do. To recognise that Weinstein and spacey seem to have committed serious crimes - but still wanting to hold on to the quality of work that they made possible. It’s true what they say, Judi, life’s a bitch, and then you die. but it’s good to do it in such company.

The Truth about Thatcher

No, I really didn’t fancy a five-hour series about Margaret Thatcher, lived through all that, thank you, andlife’ depressing enough. But the good thing about the current catch-up regime is that it allows you to have second thoughts, to be persuaded by rave reviews to overcome initial prejudices, and give something a try which you didn’t originally fancy.

And yes, it was worth it. as with many of these current documentary series, they’ve amassed a ton of first-hand testimony from key participants, and have ditched the omnisicent anchor offering their distinctive take on what happened and why. The downside of that is that there’s rather too much Bernard Ingham, lamenting how her courtiers didn’t have the guts to stand by her - even when she was visibly wandering over the edge.

And that’s the big revelation - the speed at which she lost her crude but powerful political instincts, and slid into mania. Insisting that Tebbitt should become chair of the party (though he and they clearly knew that wasn’t the right job for him) but then seeing succession potential plots in any move by any member of her government - paranoia running riot. It’s the first time I’ve ever felt sorry for Tebbit - but i’m not promising that will happen again.

MI5 surveillance

Yet another reason why the paper version of The Guardian is my lifeline to sanity - albeit a disconcerting one. An unobtrusive little article on page 10 begins “MI5 has lost control of its data storage and has been obtaining surveillance warrants on the basis of information it knows is false, the high court heard.”

Oh, fine. Not a big problem, then. Certainly nothing significant enough to surface on the TV news, which likes it stories sexy, snappy and - above all - short. The nittty gritty of how the secret services should operate, and what kinds of control could be exercised over them, are left for the nerdy readers of The Guardian and they, we know, are a shrinking, aging band. so here we go, drifting down the plughole, feebly protesting as we go…

Welshpool Poetry Festival

A gorgeous weekend at Welshpool, thanks to Pat Edwards, energetic ex-teacher and active poet who has gradually made their Poetry Festival a real delight. This year I went to two workshops, a reading and a discussion, which gave me a sustained taste of Liz Berry and Caroline Bird. It would be hard to imagine two more different people. Liz is tiny and quiet, rightly besotted.with her two young sons and the richness of the Black Country where she grew up. Caroline has had an interesting career - published her first collection at 15, drug addiction, rehab, marriage break-up…but what’s most remarkable about her is her natural talent for speaking in images. They just spill out, in this creative torrent about how hard poems are to write - but how important it is that we should try. The two two-hour workshops were totally different from each other in style, approach, atmosphere - but both hugely worthwhile. It’s such a privilege, that we amateurs get a close taste of how the professionals go about their work.

63 UP

And suddenly it’s gone. This wonderful feast of television, with us for an hour a night, over three spell-binding nights, and now we have to wait another seven years for it to come round again. It’s not fair. but we should be grateful, because there’s nothing quite like it.

You sympathise with the subjects, and the onrunning internal debate about “Can I really stand to do this again?” We might well refuse for ourselves, but we don’t want them to, because it’s just such a rivetting watch. The editing is stunning, taking you seamlessly back over these staging points of lives, so that we kids ourselves that we know these people, where in fact we’ve just had very brief glimpses.

But what glimpses. who’d have guessed that two Barnardo’s boys in adjacent beds would end up with warm links between their families, undertaking regular visits between here and Australia. Or that a plummy, superior young man with a posh accent would turn out to have a very soft spot for Bulgaria, and would put in hours of work to support people without his advantages? We age, they age, and it’s hugely comforting to do it together.

The original narrow "social class aspect has withered, rightly, but what stands out over time is the gender-based insensitivity of some of Apted’s earlier questioning. Rightly, some of the women challenge him on his nosiness about boyfriends, his assumption that family and children would be the limit of their horizons - but they know him well enough to do that, and he knows it’s good TV so it stays in. we’re all getting old, and some of them are dying off, but while it lasts we’re lucky to have it.