Dennis, Alex and I took to the streets yesterday with our trade-mark trolley of give-aways, and passed the time it takes to walk from the Mission to the Shelter for the Homeless, engaged in earnest conversation. Dennis is a bit disillusioned. I think if there was an OFSTED for Churches, and I’d quite like to start one, (GODSTED?) he feels his would be in Special Measures.
I pause for thought. We are very fortunate at GCM (Gloucester City Mission) because when Dennis and I joined, the hard work had been done, Missioners are accepted and respected on the streets, and we have a fun time being nice to people. In the four years I’ve been dispensing loving-kindness in the shape of a sausage roll, I have never been insulted, assaulted, or treated in any way other than kindly. I am very grateful to the street-people for being so generous with their time and forbearance. I often wonder what they really think of us!
Dennis thinks his church is too complacent. He was particularly wound up by the apparent lack of concern for the poor by the bankers in his midst. I am surprised. I had stereotyped Dennis’ church as being low-brow evangelical, and necessarily short on bankers: goes to show how misleading prejudice can be.
“Dennis,” I say, having come over all preachy, “Why don’t you give the banker the same opportunity to open himself to you as you do Bill Jones?” (Bill is the poster-tramp of the Mission, and proud of it.) Dennis looks at me in awe, and I am overcome with smugness. I am, you may spot this, taking him to Martin Buper’s insight that, “All real living is meeting.” You can’t know anything about anyone unless you make the effort to share your vulnerability with them. Or just listen to them. Really.
“You should be the pastor of a church.” Dennis says, and I stare at him in disbelief: several disqualifications immediately springing to mind. One of the best things about being a Catholic is that I’m NEVER going to be burdened with THAT.
However, I did get to do some pastoring. The aforementioned Bill Jones was waiting for us in the porch outside the shelter.
Bill greets me with enthusiasm. He doesn’t so much flirt with me as insist that we get married. “Over my husband’s dead body, Bill,” I laugh, and he does too. It’s our ritual, so don’t get reading anything into it.
“I’m barred,” he says by way of explaining why he’s outside the shelter, not in it. He usually is. He’s also usually drunk, which is, more often than not, why he’s barred. Bill is not a quiet drunk.
He’s been ejected from his room in a hostel for, allegedly, killing one of the other residents. I ask him about this and he answers evadively: “You don’t want to know.” He’s wrong, I DO want to know, but I’m not about to press him.
“Where are you living now Bill?”
“Here,” he replies, pointing to the ground beneath his feet. Hey-ho Bill. Have a sausage roll.
He then engages me with a brilliant stare and begins to gabble. Well, this is new. So I reply in tongues, make the sign of the cross on his head and say a blessing.
“I liked it when you did that. Do it again!” So I do.
At this point. his social worker arrives essaying yet another attempt to get him to see sense on the housing issue. I hear him tell her he wants to go to Scotland. I get the feeling that she wants him to go to Scotland too, and really, I wouldn’t blame her.
Little Rowen Pedlar was four years old. He was due to start in the Reception Class the following Monday, and he was bursting with excitement.
I smiled, broadly. We would do what we could to make that enthusiasm last. But we don’t stay four for long, and soon the weight of the system would bear down on him, and his innocence would be lost in the drive to get him up to a SATS Level 5 in seven years time.
My daughter thinks, as I do, that we can’t vote Labour until The Wrong Milliband is replaced by anyone, except, maybe, Ed Balls. So two thousand sleeps until we mark a ballot paper then. She has one caveat. Michael Gove, the Education Minister.
” I am horrified that this man is in charge of my children’s education.” Everybody needs to be.
I know something about education. I loved my job when it was creative, experiential, pedagogically sound and a pleasure to do.
Now, I’m glad to be out of it.
I don’t have a privileged background. I was brought up in the poorest, toughest neighbourhood in Gloucester. I am where I am today because I passed the eleven-plus and had it in me to survive the casual neglect of the working- class girls in my Grammar School.
Hilda Mortimer, the head of this institution, sent for my mother to say:
“You don’t want Mary to go to College, You’ll need her wage.”
This was 1969, not the Dark Ages. To those whom she favoured, Mort is lionised. I know, I read the obituaries.
God! I’m sounding bitter. I’m not, though I must admit, I’m glad I got THAT off my chest.
Until my last post as Head Teacher of a village school, I taught exclusively in schools in areas of socio-economic deprivation ( As we were trained to call them.I used to call them, ‘home’.) so I DO know what I’m talking about.
I laugh like a drain when I hear nostrums touted like, ‘ Raise Standards! Introduce Latin!’ I love this one. I think of Vincent. It took me a whole year to teach Vincent to read and write his name. In English. You wouldn’t want to know what his home life was like. I expect Vincent Is now in prison, or dead.
A string of frustrated teachers will have spent the six succeeding years trying to get Vincent to a Level Four. He wouldn’t have made it. The most likely scenario is that Vincent’s frustration will have boiled up into such anger that he will have been ‘excluded’ long before he sat the Y6 tests.
It’s not LATIN, you f****** idiot, it’s the fact that schools that teach it usually have far fewer than thirty children to teach it to, that gets results.
I apologise. I reserve the F* Word for the rarest of rants. It means something then, doesn’t it?
I expect you’re wondering what set me off: Sports Day at my granddaughter’s nice little school in the next village down.
What a ghastly occasion this is! I have hated Sports Day since my infancy. No-one ever told me that I was unlikely to win anything because I was short on height and protein. Perhaps they didn’t know? I was about eight when I resigned myself to the futility of it, and stopped trying. I became clever at other things instead.
Back to the present. I three times crossed the tracks at the gd’s Sports Day, in unsafe UV levels, to find and replace her hat. I smiled a lot though: I wanted only to be a mild pain in the arse.
I got chatting to one of the parents sitting nearby. The head teacher doesn’t speak to Lynne anymore because she opened her big Liverpuddlian gob to complain. These were her issues:
Her 11 year old daughter was taught by a Classroom Assistant in the weeks leading up to the SATS tests because the teacher wanted to concentrate on the students she thought might make LEVEL SIX. This is NOT what primary education is about, or shouldn’t be. Don’t tell ME being taught by a TA is the equivalent of a teacher’s attention: if it WAS, she could have taken those being hothoused, couldn’t she?
I don’t want to be over- dramatic, but isn’t this just the kind of pressure that is leading to increasing levels of child mental illness, and teenage suicide? Not a price worth paying for the kudos of a few insecure level 6 ‘s .
There were fourteen children in Sarah’s ‘exam’ class Ten were given prizes. Good for their self-esteem, but what about the four singled out as failures? Negatives like this SERIOUSLY impact learning. I know this.
( It’s the proportion I object to. This is double incompetence: too many awards to be worth anything, and so many, leaving the excluded four feeling all the worse for it.)
I’m not going on, the other issues relate to the school now being run as a business, and extras that were once free are now beyond Lynne’s reach. Football Club, for instance.
Don’t get me wrong, bad schools need fixing. But when I see backward-looking, score-based solutions, that won’t work, that won’t work, because they never have, being trumpeted, I get mad.
And now teachers are going to be paid by results. This will be fun. It’s hard enough to persuade colleagues to take a Year 6 class as it is… . And the ridiculous, I would say statistically dishonest, measure of a child making ‘two thirds of a Level a year’ is frankly unworkable.
( Dishonest because SATS levels are calculated on huge populations, they are unsafe predictors of individual performance. Speak to a statistician: I did.)
There’s a logic to this if you’re making widgets, I can see it clearly. But we’re not making widgets, we’re raising the next generation. Pissing a teacher off by further holding down her pay is not a good idea. It is not going to make for a happy teacher, and unhappy teachers run unhappy classrooms. I’ve seen it, I know. You’ve been in one, you know. And you can’t sack all of them.
There are alternatives. Intelligent systems that are liberal and humane, (and SUCCESSFUL) like the Primary International Baccalaureate, and (Dear God, I AM mad! ) scrapping Trident to lower class sizes so that EVERY child gets the start in life that the sons and daughters of politicians can have.
( Now you know what a wet I am, I expect you think I banned competitive races on Sports Day. You’d be wrong. I simply made them voluntary… .)
PS If you believe that class size doesn’t matter, you’re right. For rote-learning.
This train, just two coaches
Rattles and clangs through my lovely country
Where the green summer hills roll voluptuously across the
Greener landscape with soft woods
That do not spike and shade like yours -
But filter sunlight and harbour flowers of
Many generous hues.
I walked here so many years ago
With my lover, or maybe yesterday -
It depends on how his imagination works,
And whether we will always contain each other in
Our lazy hearts.
Go on! Describe the rain!
I dare you …
Look, I left you a space, and the trust,
Because everyone has words.
Long like loquacious, and endowed
Slate-stacked fire-steam dropping in my head like -
You know –
THAT kind of rain that leaves you
Will it ever stop?
I was about sixteen when I learned how to resurrect people – or at least ensure a sufficient flow of oxygen to the brain to hope for some kind of survival, in a recognisable form, until the paramedics arrive.
I expect the Youth Club and the Community Centre where I was trained with a revolting dummy, are both long gone, as neither are fashionable in these days of rugged austerity. But THIS is not about THAT. One day, when I’m mad enough… .
Here’s a bleak bleak scene. Manchester. The Peak Forest Canal – 1974: An empty lock alongside a smut-caked factory building – vast, as factories were serious affairs when Victorians built them. The lock is not completely drained. In a few feet of water a child is dying. Desperate men are trying to lift him out. It’s fifteen feet of slimy wall to the canal side above. A nine-year old brother shouts, ‘My mum’ll kill me.’ I walk slowly forward, I want to help. I always want to help.
I’m the only person with CPR training. But I am twenty-two, and it was so long ago.
I try. I take this lifeless boy in my arms, I lay him down, and I try. He gurgles, but he is limp, his eyes are dead. I keep trying, I turn him over, I try to empty him of water. He is dead. I walk away.
I grew older and I grew up and I became a head teacher. One day, I went to a head teacher’s conference in Harrogate. I am forty-eight now, and the tiny body, in my arms, is a distant memory. A man is about to drown beside me. I am in the hotel swimming pool doing some lengths in my black bra and pants, hoping no-one notices.
‘He’s going down!’ I heard a shout from the side of the pool, I turn, the man beside me cries out and disappears beneath the water. He’s a big man, and I’m in my underwear. He’s drowning.
‘Not this time you don’t.’ The thought comes so quickly, though time seems to stand still. He’s a big man. He’ll pull me down too – and he does. I instinctively bend my knees, so that when my feet hit the pool floor, I can spring up. I bunny-hop both of us in this absurd fashion, to the side of the pool. People haul us out.
‘Thank you! ‘ the rescued one splutters.
‘That’s all right.’ I reply, turning crimson, because I’m dressed in my underwear.
I bolt for the dressing room. I never see the man, who’s life I may have saved, again. It doesn’t matter. I am jubilant. Somehow, I can forgive myself for the little boy who’s life I couldn’t save, so long ago.
Aunty Ethel wasn’t even dead.
It was my parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary, so I am fifty-one, and I ruined it. My father never, so far as I can recall, was ever seriously angry with me until this day. I thought he had the right to be a bit upset, though I maintain it wasn’t entirely my fault.
Aunty Ethel, in her eighties, collapsed in our dining room. I felt in vain for a pulse and couldn’t find one. Dad was right behind me.
‘I’m so sorry Dad, Aunty Ethel’s collapsed – she’s dead.’
Two things happened instantaneously. Dad groaned, and Aunty Ethel sat up. She was dead DRUNK and had toppled over in an alcohol-induced stupor.
‘Mary Ellen!’ My father roared, ‘ I wish you’d THINK sometimes!’
Everybody laughed about it afterwards. Except me. I am glad Ethel survived my diagnosis of death, of course I am, but imagine how I felt! My credibility as a first-aider was shot to pieces for ever.
Or was it?
The last time I renewed my First Aid Certificate the trainer, said, ‘ We don’t look for a pulse in very elderly patients, because very often, one can’t be found.. ‘
My colleagues were more than a little bemused when I punched the air and shouted,
The thing is, I love to write. There is something so therapeutic about the gentle ‘pudd-pudd’ of my fingertips skipping across the virtual keypad in front of me. Today’s challenge, writer’s block. I’m fed up with God, the poet’s run out of inspiration, and my daily round is too mundane to mention. I will mention it though, just for fun:
Think About Getting Up
Listen to Radio
Writing a List always does it for me. Here I go again:
Aowl and I had great fun the other day trying to get the microphone to type for us.. Its potential for the literary aspirations of a one-year old are pretty staggering I think, but what was typed up made no sense. What does? (Broad smile: Maybe something: Maybe sometimes.)
(A feature of an ipad. You talk to it, and it talks back. It is a Two on the Enneagram. It lives to serve.)
Microphone Man, Let’s call him Cyril, when asked to write something for me, was very helpful. ‘ I don’t know what you mean by, ‘Write something for me. How about a web search for it?’ I admit to being impressed. Technology is so cute. No sense of the ironic, doesn’t know when it’s leg is being pulled, just cute.
Having time on my hands, I actually took Cyril up on his offer, and a whole new world has opened up for me!
I was taken to a website wherein I can register to write papers for students with deficiencies in the honesty department. Nobody’s perfect. The paper I wrote on the ferns growing in Prince of Wales Park in Bingley, in order to escape the local College with a Certification in Education, owed much of it’s content to,’ The Observer Book of Ferns’. I’m in no position to judge.
Why in heaven’s name, did I choose to write a paper on the ferns in The Prince of Wales Park? I don’t remember, though I do recall my horror at finding just the one variety when I made my foray into the damper regions of this particular pleasure garden. Though the park was a mere five minutes walk from my digs, I did not, in the end, have to leave my bedroom to complete the assignment.
If the University of Leeds wishes to strip me of my Certificate in Education (Mary Cook, 1972) I invite it to be my guest. I wouldn’t return to teaching for a pension. Oh! Wait!
Saturday: Old School Reunion. Carol drags me along to these and I go very grumpily because I hold this huge grudge against the school for deliberately underestimating and failing to nuture the talents of those of us who were not from the professional classes. I tell my story, for the umpteenth time, about being the only girl from Ribston Hall NOT to be accepted by Rolle College, Exmouth, because Mort didn’t like me, and Carol, who left the place sixteen and pregnant, and had to live in the real world, rolls her eyes and changes the subject.
‘I remember you did really well in your O Levels,’ Cheryl says, ‘And we all gasped when you turned up to collect your prize with your hair cut short and dressed in a Mary Quant black and white number that stole the show.’ This I do not remember AT ALL, and though I nod graciously, I am convinced she mistakes me for someone else.
When the topic moves on to sport, I hold back on the story of me and Jim over the wall at the Regatta of ’69, and recall instead, the doughnuts Carol and I scoffed on the way back from Denny’s, via which ever back garden we’d socked the tennis ball into. ( Ah, if only we’d used the skill it took to whack the thing over the court and into No 32, to actually play tennis, we’d have won the French Open in ’73. Doubles. ) Everyone feigns shock. Even I now begin to realise why Mort hadn’t liked me.
I find myself in the old photos — Gladys second maid from the left, ‘The Admirable Crichton’ 1966. ‘Fishwife’ ‘Pygmalion’ 1969. ‘Oh Look! Is that Angela Parsons? I wonder what happened to her? Do you remember when we were in Lower Sixth and we tried to find out how many chairs we could hang round her neck and Mort walked in? ‘ I am distraught that the famous ‘ Regatta’ photo is missing. I resolve to go to the Citizen Office and buy one and donate it. I find myself sitting in the front row of the 1963 School Photograph, but nowhere to be seen in the 1996 one … ‘I expect you were away,’ Carol muses. ‘You were always away.’
They have Year 12 now. I ask you! Says everything you need to know about the decline and fall of the education system today.
Carol, almost certainly resolving never to bring me again, hauls me off shortly after the raffle. I had muttered, ‘What about the Matson girls?’ during the head’s speech, not quite under my breath, and had drawn some disapproving glances. “Well,” I defend myself, “We’re here aren’t we? Don’t we deserve a bit of recognition? Our families made real sacrifices to send us to this dump.”
As Carol departs to catch her bus to Stroud, I head off for a nostalgic walk in Cranham Woods.
The day is warm, hot even, and still. The woods are as I remember them as a child. Green, cool, mysterious, an invitation to daydream.
It would be fanciful to imagine that I found the actual beech tree under which I officially lost my virginity: I appoint one in the general vicinity to the honour, and pat it with nostalgic affection. William the Bastard dumped me five years later, in my early twenties, and when I met him again a few years ago I was glad to discover that he he is now fat and bald, shorter than I remembered and his face heavily lined from smoking and the sun.
Moving swiftly on – Here’s the tree under which I had buried the shreds of the musician’s love letters, and I seek out the tree stumps on which we had climbed to play, ‘I’m the King of The Castle’ a game that he insisted that he always won. Ha! I scramble up a large relic and yell, ‘I WIN!’ at the top of my voice. Not a good idea in retrospect, because what I was about, was best not advertised. I bloody well hope he heard me though.
I walk for an hour, enjoying the cool greenwood that has been a place of refuge since I was old enough to walk the four miles from my home in the valley below.
Saturday evening. Pressing buttons 1,2, 1, 1, 2, 1, and listening, involuntarily, to The William Tell Overture for twenty minutes to get through to a technician in India to get the Broadband sorted. Didn’t. These call centres test my mettle. You really discover what sort of person you are after twenty minutes of William Tell. Not nice.
Sunday: Mass, Sunday lunch, Book Club. A curse on whomsoever chose ‘The Confessions of St Augustine’ of which I read as far as the stealing pears incident before giving up. I stole pears. It was expected of everyone, under the age of 14, who lived near an orchard, when I was a lass. Even when they were cider pears hard, sour and inedible.
I crib something from the internet during which I pick up a working knowledge of Neoplatoism and the Manichees. Both of which I find considerably more interesting that St Augustine. I think he should have sexed his Confessions up a bit – and I totally disapprove of him dumping his concubine. I want to read her side of the story. A point that roused mild interest and general approval at the Book Club. We’re doing poetry next time. I foolishly announce that I will write some.
Tom, who feeds the hungry and doesn’t attend committee meetings, has me in fits describing how the book might have read if Augustine had been a window cleaner. As a student of history, for three weeks, before switching to American Studies, I point out this was not a viable occupation in Three Hundred and Whatever, but it certainly works as a scenario for attaching oneself to a concubine.
Monday: Feeding The Hungry. It’s a cosmic balance thing. If I get off my arse to do some good, I might get remission for the other stuff… (NO, I don’t really think like that!) Chat at length to Kevin who lives in a tent by the river with the connivance of the farmer. I listen and listen and learn a lot.
Legion of Mary: We agree to move to Tuesday am and I take on Alpha and visiting Mary Coombe in the home for the elderly next door to my cottage. Later, arrange to meet Wendy in Cheltenham on Tuesday morning. Damn.
Walking In The Light Prayer Group: Well, as a denizen of the semi-darkness, I didn’t have a lot to say. Gail who gets it all first hand from God, and passes it on, dominates. Fr Aidan announced that Mary C wasn’t coming any more as she has bigger fish to fry and bewails the loss of the most spiritual woman in the parish, and hopes we can get on without her. I am caught between laughter and tears. ‘ Gotta go at Eight,’ I announce – so I can only walk in the light till then. ‘ You must pray before you go,’ says Gail , so I stand up, bang on the table, and lift my hands, ‘Father you know exactly what you want to do, so please go ahead and do it! Love you! I blow a kiss to my dear deity and leave. Everyone else pleads and begs for ages. I mean… What’s the point?
Dinner with the Heads: Frances and Lynda have been friends of mine since the first jolly to South Africa in 2001. I haven’t, because of being away, ill, praying, etc. been for months. I am late because I had difficulty in throwing Margareta out of the car in Newent. Worse, I have left my credit card at home and notice that a significant part of the money I have brought to pay for dinner willl have to get me back because the tank’s running on empty. Nobody is surprised. I buy coffe and join the group. There’s a lot to get through … I’ve been to South Africa and the USA, fought off malaria, celebrated Christmas, and gained a granddaughter … Lynda takes me aside to talk about the terrible doings at Pauntley. Everybody knew the place would fall apart if I left, except the governors. Well, it has, and I am sad. Lynda works for the Head Teacher Support Service, so she has the low-down. Home for 10:30pm. Ravenous.
Tuesday. Mass am followed by coffee with Margareta who is 81 and off to Switzerland tomorrow. She is a native of Zurich. We unpick the doings in the parish. She is worried because I wasn’t too happy about our sojourn ‘In The Light’ the previous evening. ‘I remind her that a night has passed, perspective has dawned, and I and He are laughing about it.
Wednesday. AM: Walking the streets. This is my second week, and I’m on first names terms with the Big Issue sellers and the alcoholics (A second team go to the drug users). I ask Simon about his girlfriend and flat. Both gone. I stand and nod while he unfolds the story. Dennis can’t get a license to sell his prints on the streets. His twin brother David died of an overdose at the very minute that Dennis was being baptised. I can’t make sense of it either. I give him a sausage roll. ‘ Look out for my graffiti, I always do a banana,’ he says. I promise I will, and am delighted to find one on wall nearby. Dazzer sits with his dog, his plate and his ghetto blaster in an alley behind Argos. He reads Sci Fi and does tattoes. He as a fresh one – the emblem of the SS. ‘That’s powerful,’ I say, tactfully. He tells me he has everything he needs, right here. I am speechless.
Evening: Alpha supper where I failed to recalll any of the above….
Thursday. All day at The Mill gardening and turning over with Mary and Stephen the difficulties I’m experiencing with parish life. ‘
“Don’t do anything that doesn’t bring you joy. We don’t get involved in parish work because it either fills you with guilt or wears you out. It encourages the view that church is a building …”
Right. No more walking in the light then! Hallelujah. Perhaps they don’t get Catholicism either. Found figwort growing in the old mill race and point out to Mary the bird she is admiring is a gull, not a kite. Advise she looks for a forked tail.
Friday: Recover from gardening. Reply via Facebook to a post by Darlene with intimate details of Kate’s recovery from the Barry, without realising it went on my ‘ wal’ and not simply to Darlene. Eldest daughter quickly ‘phoned to advise me of the blunder. Fortunately Kate hasn’t seen it. Jen was great because she didn’t have a go about a comment I’d made, in the same post, about Hannah and I taking bets that ‘Abigail’ would be ‘Abby’ by Christmas. Could have been worse, but new parents are a bit touchy.
Usually, I am fairly upbeat. I have an amazingly contented life – I really do. Enough of everything, a fantastic family, and some wonderful friends – so much to feel good about.
Today, I am allowing myself the luxury of reflection, and I am rather disappointed with myself.
It started with a spat with a friend over our differing political perspectives. I climbed on my high horse and … Well, it hardly matters. In a measured response, my friend suggested that we, both moderates, have failed as citizens by leaving the arena and allowing bigotry to dominate public debate.
Yes, but. I don’t want to. I read the views of extremists with distaste. Furthermore, I can see that any attempt to put forward a moderate opinion is greeted with, at the very least, derision. Politicians don’t help, the polarisation of debate makes our Parliament painful to watch.
We know this, it hardly needs reiteration. The question is … Is there anything I can do about it?
Three days later…
One of my favourite manoeuvres to write my way out of a block is to write a list:
(With bullet points)
# I joined a comment site in order to inject a little reason. (Guardian cif ‘Belief’) In three years I commented three times. I was trying to join in a game with the big boys. I got knocked over and I went home. Moderation just isn’t as sexy as rage.
# I try to do good works. Sometimes I succeed. At least in making myself feel good.
# I go to church, and say some pretty hot prayers. And I meditate, at least once a month, whether I need to or….
# I try to be helpful, I aim to be kind, I place a premium on compassion and sometimes I get away with fooling people into thinking that this is WHO I REALLY AM.
WOW! That got me over the hump. But the bottom line is, ‘who I really am ‘ is complacent, self-serving
and cowardly. I’m not worried by that, particularly. I get by. I’m probably too old to change… :)
‘So,’ I tell myself, ‘Let’s have a look at what you can do to be a bit more authentic.’
(Talking to myself reminds me that I exist. Sometimes, this is important, I find.)
Pause for thought,,,,
I flirted with poetry -
I gave her a sideways glance
With just the hint of a wink
I blew her a kiss
Whilst executing a hip-drop
Or two …
It was very naughty of me,
As I had no intention of going all the way.