Saturday, 29 October 2011

Why Status Quo fans never listen

Back in the seventies, I had a year off my studies to be President of the Goldsmiths Student Union. Previously, I had been the Social Secretary and had a wonderful year indulging myself with strange bookings for big events (2000 capacity) and smaller ones for a few hundred. Some of the LPs the companies sent to me cause supercilious sniggers even now. The Pink Fairies debut album, anyone?

I tried all nighters with a staggering range of acts that included people like Mungo Jerry on the same bill as Lindisfarne and various heavy metal bands. Some worked fantastically but to this day I still shudder at the image of the night Status Quo and John Martyn shared a stage. John was near to tears as his gentle set was ruined by the jeers of SQ fans who wouldn't listen to anything that didn't have the same riff in every song.

When I took over as President there was an incredible range of issues on the table for the NUS. Grants, creche facilities, accommodation, Gay Rights, Fights against the National Front and many others. Within the student council I tried to organise we had every shade of student politics, SWP, Tory and even one NF man. Full union meetings were a circus which I tried to organise without the whip.

I soon realised that politically I had a lot to learn. Whatever I tried to do, someone would tell me I was fighting on the wrong side. On one occasion, clear directions from NUS meant although I could speak against him, I couldn't stop the NF guy speaking. Unfortunately he was a damn good speaker. He loved the fact that I had allowed him to speak and made a great show of thanking me. Next day a very edited version of our debate was in the Daily Telegraph, making it seem as if I had supported the NF line, rather than one person's permission to speak.

I tried to get them to print a retraction. Instead a conversation I had with the education editor was misreported yet again.

There is no point in Labour trying to win the support of the right wing press. They will always report what they want, to bolster what they want and will always denigrate the views of the left.

I learnt as President that socialist arguments are never listened to by right wing media and that Status Quo fans are too stuck in the past to listen to anything that challenges their viewpoint.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Why I love my Kindle

One year on a quick blog about why I love my Kindle but sometimes don't. No massive research, no facts and figures, just a response.

What I don't like first:

1. I miss being able to pass on my book. Did this in lots of ways- to friends and family, holiday bookshelves, station cafe etc.
2. Being able to remember the book by checking the cover or the summary on the back of the paperback. With the Kindle it is far more complicated and often I completely forget what the book was I intended to read.

BUT what I do like in no particular order:

1. The ability to get most books within a few seconds. I read a review of a children's author's fantasy series and was able to download the first book immediately. My local Waterstone would never have had the complete collection.
2. Checking out referenced stories easily. I read online about a young American writer who had only published online. Got to start reading her that day.
3. The absolute treasure of "free" classics. So many books I may well not have bought to read, I have downloaded and read when I can. Always wanted to read Sherlock Holmes stories again. Done. Hadn't read Jane Austen for 30 years. Done. Re-read Jack London. Done.
4. New writers. There is a wealth of free books on the Amazon site by either new writers or authors giving away one book to drag you in. Have found some real gems in amongst the rubbish and enjoyed reading other people's reviews.
5. Storage. This really is a boon. Hundreds of books sitting there. Begging me in.
6. Ease of use. When I read hardcover books now, I can't help but think "wish it was on my Kindle". They are so bulky especially when you try and read in bed.
7. The battery life is amazing. It really does last a month.
8. And it is easy to read, hold and use
9. Synchronising between Kindle and Android is great too.

I still buy printed books. Love the feel of them and still like the disposability but the Kindle fulfills most of the needs I have as a very avid reader.

As an educationist I can genuinely see them or their equivalent replacing many books in the Library. The same way that reference books have largely been supplanted by the web.

So, yes I love my Kindle!

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Coalition, Cockroaches and the Welfare State

During my time working in Africa for schools, I spent a week in a village in Tanzania. Villagers had no electricity or running water in their homes but the school I stayed in did. However, the week I was there, the power went down and this stopped the water running too.

Night time was never fun. I had never used a mosquito net before so each bedtime was a complicated process with no light and cackhanded attempts to seal myself into my bed sanctuary. I have to be honest and tell you I am not brave about insects and the first night the bombardment of mosquitoes attacking my little sacred place terrified me. Only a few bites in the course of the week though and my privileged western access to anti-malaria tablets meant I would be safe.

What frightened me more each night was the floor full of cockroaches. Lights off and I could hear them, torch on and I could see them scurrying into the walls. Hated it, hated them. I would lie in bed and feel them creeping up on me while the mosquitoes buzzed around trying to break down my little place of safety.

But I knew I would be OK. I had the net to protect me, the bloody expensive tablets inside me and a torch to turn on whenever I felt I wanted the roaches to run away.

This is where my thoughts on the coalition come in. We used to hear about the wonderful theory of "trickle down", the idea both Thatcher and Blair seemed to espouse. As the rich got richer, the poor would also see the benefits. But we know now "trickle down" is just the rich pissing on the poor. And that's exactly what the coalition is doing.

They are taking away ordinary people's malaria tablets, mosquito nets and light as they destroy the NHS, housing benefits and education.

I really do feel the same about the coalition as I did those bloody cockroaches.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Unfortunately, lots of them come along at the same time

Something said recently by David Cameron, set me thinking of the Thatcher years. He had said so many of Thatcher's ideas were now being recognised as great, suggesting I suppose that he and Gideon fully intend to continue implementing such wonderful policies as destroying the public sector, privatising anything that moves and casting another generation onto the slag heap.

But it made me think of one very practical example I lived through of how Thatcher's "grand ideas" completely changed one aspect of our society.

One person's economy is another's quality of life

In the 80's I was commuting into Waterloo, then taking two buses to get to the school I taught in, on the Old Kent Road.

When I started doing those journeys every bus had a driver and a conductor. As the Tory cuts took effect I saw the progressively deteriorating effect on travel in London. It may be apocryphal, but the Thatcher quote about only failures needing to take a bus, seemed to be evident in the transport policy concerning them.

A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure

Slowly the friendly conductor, who helped on board the old, the infirm and the young parents with kids, was got rid of. It took longer at each stop because no-one was there to direct and the driver had to take the fares, creating long hold ups of cars behind the bus. Pretty soon the drivers alone in their cabs got frightened of the passengers and heavy duty plastic screen were put in between them and the people getting on. Queues and travel in London got slower.

Once that minimal contact between driver and passenger was eliminated with tickets bought before getting on, the driver became dramatically more distant. Old people who might have been helped by a conductor, now got thrown around as driving became more erratic and less connected to the people in the bus. I saw the service deteriorate around me.

In other words buses became less of a service to the people who used them. Besides, important people didn't need them anyway.

So much of what happened under Thatcher was the elimination of care and public service. It's all happening again.

The public sector is now again being dismantled. The teams that have grown to support the people they serve are being broken up, individuals made redundant. Things that matter to ordinary people are being scrapped because the "important" ones, the millionaires in cabinet have no need for them.

That's the way it is. Let's face it, when you get on a bus how likely is it that George Osborne will be sitting next to you. His oyster card would only be used to buy the oysters to accompany his champagne.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Remembering Racism in South Africa (and so much more)

An article by Victor Dlamini (link at bottom) reminded me of the privileges accorded to me as a visitor during my time working for a Charity in South Africa.

Between 2003 and 2008 I worked supporting the introduction of new technologies to the "formerly disadvantaged schools". In inverted commas because for most "formerly" was entirely the wrong word. The key initiative I worked with is a wonderful organisation that produced outcomes envied across the world and I have written in many places of our partnership work. As a visitor who spent 1/3 of the year in Africa, I was able to benefit from many advantages. The exchange rate only one of them. However, as recently reported in Trip Advisor, South Africa is one of the friendliest places on earth.

I worked with schools in many different communities across wealth and racial divides. The coloured community, which still describes itself this way, faces as many problems as the Xhosa. Schools are still poorly equipped and lacking the resources that many take for granted. I also worked with schools that were still largely white and when I visited often reminded me of visits I have made to Eton! Fantastic grounds and buildings, rowing teams and swimming pools.

I worked especially closely with some Xhosa schools in Guguletu and Khayelitsha. I loved the enthusiasm and warmth of the staff who were sometimes teaching classes of 50 learners. On several memorable occasions I took classes in ICT or Maths, speaking English to students who need that language for school work but went home to speak isiXhosa. 50 kids or more stretches ability and patience. In my attempts to be part of these groups I tried to involve myself in all aspects of school life. I managed to secure over £1/2m of support, product and sponsorship for schools here.

I was asked to formally open one school's ICT Lab on a blazingly hot Cape Town day, in a large tent erected just for that purpose. This was a big event for the whole local community and many were invited and turned up for hours of celebration, talks by education officials, local politicians and me! I went for a celebratory meal with the whole of the staff a few days earlier. It was then that they explained to me that they were expecting several hundred guests and they would be providing lunch, all cooked by the staff themselves. Chicken, pap, steamed bread, tripe, spinach etc. prepared on school grounds and on portable gas cookers. I couldn't resist! To their astonishment I said I wanted to help. They tried to tell me as the main guest, I shouldn't but agreed it would be original. Only condition, it was customary to bring a knife.

Two days later I was collected at my central Cape Town hotel at 4.30 in the morning. The early morning ride round Khayelitsha collecting some teachers without their own transport, being handed mugs of tea and various breakfast foods at every house was one I shall never forget. Not least because my "driver" was the young ICT technician who had rigged the biggest stereo system in his boot and decided that the time we were together would be my introduction to kwaito.

Arriving at the school by 6am we set to preparing food. They wouldn't trust me with the chicken, so I was set to washing spinach at an outside tap. 5 plastic sacks full of the stuff. I also got to stir the chicken as it stewed in pans.

I was presenting at 12, so I had to get changed into my suit just before, as the other guests arrived. When I emerged, hands clean and freshly scrubbed,the "important people" had arrived. I did my friendly thing and talked to all, practising my very limited isiXhosa and Afrikaans.

At one point, one of the officials, from the coloured community, took me aside. He said he had to warn me about the food. He said it was never a good idea to eat food in these "black schools" as you could never trust it, and that I as a foreigner would probably suffer. He also said that he often pretended to be Muslim, so that he could excuse himself. I am sure he meant well, but this expressed so neatly the lack of understanding between the different communities in the Western Cape.

I told him I had helped prepare the food he was being offered and I could guarantee it's hygiene and the care taken in providing it.

I have been taken many times to restaurants off the beaten track by my best friend in South Africa, the Principal of one of the biggest schools in Southern Africa with over 2000 learners. As part of the coloured community he had been on the stage with Nelson Mandela at one of his first ANC rallies in the Western Cape after his liberation. He took great pleasure taking me into places where as he said, ten years earlier he would have been refused admission. Yet when I started to arrange network meetings for schools wishing to join my schools association, I was always startled when white and black principals from the same area would admit this was the first time they had ever sat and talked.

My principal friend was shocked the first time I took him with me into Khayelitsha to visit a Xhosa school. The communities do not mix on a day to day basis. One Saturday evening colleagues from a Khayelitsha school took me out for a meal and drinks in bars in Guguletu. All of us were middle aged and the looks we got from the youngsters out on the town were of the "look at the oldies" type, rather than look at that Umlungu. Later in the evening we sat in a small informal bar. A group of men drinking with gusto on another table were clearly discussing me. Comments and gestures made that clear. To be honest I was a little worried. My colleagues however, showed no concern. When I asked them what the situation was they patiently explained that most of the men were Heads and teachers from local schools and one of them remembered me from a school visit. Racial sterotyping? Our group suddenly got much larger for the rest of the evening.

I loved my experiences and the people in South Africa. I met people from all communities dedicated to creating a new South Africa, one with opportunities for all.

But the legacy of apartheid still continues to cast a long racist shadow in so many ways.

Ubuntu: "I am what I am because of who we all are."

Partnership Project Unites African and UK Schools

Victor Dlamini


Friday, 1 April 2011

On being rude on Twitter (and Johann Hari)

I have written here several times about the lack of basic courtesy that is often Twitter's hallmark.

I have been guilty many times. I have so enjoyed making fun of Danny (Beaker) Alexander and Nick (#noddingclegg) Clegg. I am afraid I have let my spite go to extremes when the nonsense of Govian education policy bites us once again. So because I don't know these people personally, I have been rude.

Trouble is, once you meet people here, or at least talk to them in thoughts bigger than 140 characters, I find it harder to be merely rude at their expense. It's that basic courtesy thing. Also just because you disagree on politics doesn't mean you won't share a love for John Martyn, Western Cape Pinotage or Anne Tyler.

So I have talked at length with some politicians, bloggers and educationists whose views on the Tory road to the future I violently disagree with. Isn't it better to state your view, correct theirs where you can but continue the conversation?

I love finding the slightly acidic quote or picture that backs up my gut feelings and gets others looking and commenting too.

As an ex teacher, but someone who has worked within education all my life, I prefer the staffroom discussion to the playground brawl.

I also feel we all need to be aware of criticism and adapt our own comments and views when someone takes the trouble to point out mistakes, or misinterpretations. Sometimes we keep quiet.

Yesterday lots of people were tweeting about something Churchill is supposed to have said re. the Arts. You know the one - "What then are we fighting for?" Trouble is I used that a long time ago and many people came back and told me that this was one of those myths we all like to pass on. Didn't jump up and correct yesterday because the underlying thought resonated, Tory Arts cuts are counter-productive.

Bit like the myth that I still repeat even though people tell me it is apocryphal. The one about the Tory Cabinet minister forced to travel on London Underground for the very first time? The story goes that he asked his secretary to book him into the Dining Car. Works, because we all feel that the cabinet millionaires just aren't aware of what ordinary people experience. And no, it wasn't Boris Johnson.

So, I want to listen, be amused, be engaged and occasionally be corrected. And like almost everyone else on Twitter, I want to be loved too.

Johann Hari wrote his Indy column today about how Ed Miliband needs to be better understood, to be clearer in the way he speaks.

I objected to one line, which I think was supposed to be a casual throwaway joke about isiXhosa, one of the languages of South Africa.

"In interviews,(Ed M).... will casually back up his points by referring to "the IFS", or "the OBR" – which may as well be in Xhosha click language for all it means to most people"

isiXhosa speakers hate the way those who can't reproduce the intricate sounds of their language make fun of it. He can't even be bothered to spell correctly the language of 8 million people in South Africa, 18% of the population. (Xhosa not Xhosha) Using this for his "funny" wasn't and I objected to it in the comments and on Twitter. He promptly blocked me, blocking any debate or discussion.

In South Africa the plethora of official languages in that multi-cultural society, is often the subject of the satirists.

Pieter-Dirk Uys has been satirising African politics, society and language since and during the days of apartheid. I sat in one of his performances and although my Afrikaans is limited his jokes still made me laugh and often made me cry. He told one story of problems caused by having to use all 11 official languages on signs. "Imagine someone approaching a gate and seeing all the official versions of "Beware of the Dog". By the time they had read to the bottom, the Zulu speaker would have been bitten!"

Made me laugh as this was in the context of a man who had lived through the changes, loved his country and continued to humourously criticise all he felt was still wrong.

If Twitter can add value to our perception of the world and society we need to engage in the debate and still see the humanity in the people we criticise.

I feel sorely let down by Johann Hari in that endeavour. Quite a few have responded to me by DM or in open tweets. Several comment on this growing trend. "one of those cause journalists whose main cause is his career". By "blocking he is as bad as some of those he criticises. Criticism obv OK as long as it isn't of him!"

Well yes. My thoughts too.

Johann Hari Independent Article

Pieter-Dirk Uys

all 11 official languages

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Why did that chicken cross the road?

The answers that people might give now

Teresa May: I am proud of our police force and it was not their fault that the chicken lost its leg

Douglas Adams: 42

Descartes: It's not pink, it's not spam

Gaddafi's security chief: Give me just five minutes alone with it and I'll find out!

Hamlet: That is not the question

Ken Clarke: I fell asleep, what was the question?

Margaret Thatcher: this chicken's not for turning

Buddha: If you ask this question, you deny your own chicken-nature

Nick Clegg: I told it my principles were on the other side

Friday, 28 January 2011

Stephen King, Education and Coalition Horror

In the nineties I taught ICT in a small mixed comprehensive in Berkshire. Having arrived there from an inner London school, I noticed a lot of differences between the kids from the two areas. If you have ever played Monopoly you will have a notion of the value of the Old Kent Road and lots of the kids who lived there didn't put a much higher value on themselves. My first few weeks in the Berkshire school on the edge of a country town was spent getting used to the accents and them getting used to mine. The country yokel cry of "Please Sir" I really thought was their attempt to take the piss out of my London voice. The willingness to stand up when asked also came as a bit of a shock. These kids were different to the multi cultural environment I had spent the first 17 years of teaching in.

Stephen King : 49 books and counting

We got used to each other though. One of the things that was exactly the same in both schools, however, was the way in which boys had distinctive tastes in literature and English teachers just couldn't understand it. In my new school most of the English Department was female throughout my time there. Every year when learners chose the novel they were going to read and write their GCSE Book review on, the same problems emerged. Lots of the boys wanted to adopt a Stephen King Horror and most of the staff tried to dissuade them.

There was the underlying feeling that "King was trash" and something more "literary" and appropriate should be selected. In the last few years we have heard a lot about how the Harry Potter books have got kids reading, well 20 years ago I think King did the same thing for teenage boys.

Running ICT access meant I got lots of students asking me for assistance when they were doing research. A common complaint was the hostility many felt when a King book was their choice. Some of them kept at it, often choosing the nastiest title they could find, just to be awkward. A bit like fumbling with fags behind the bike sheds, or trying to get to porn sites in the ICT Lab. All bravado.

But I have always loved Stephen King's books. I love the ability to tell a story that starts with real life events and real life people that you care about and want to learn about. Rarely do I pick a King book up and not want to keep going until I reach the end of the story. Some of his novels are sensational rubbish but some of them I would seriously place among the best written in the English language. And for anyone who has never picked up one of his stories and has a snobbish view of them, read one: that's a challenge!

I would say Misery, Dorothy Claiborne and Hearts in Atlantis are among the best. The novellas such as Stand By Me and Shawshank, superb.The horror is subsidiary to the suspense and character development in most of his writing.

So to go back to the nineties. I was called to arms! I thought I should take up the cause of the King and argue my point on behalf of all the boys who wanted to do their review of one of his.

When I got my chance to put my case and talk about the language, the writing skills, the story telling ability, I was a bit shocked. At the time I did this, none of the teachers had read any King. It wasn't part of their cultural background. It wasn't what they knew. They had no experience of reading what the people they were responsible for liked or kept them going. They dismissed the aspirations of this group of boys who wanted to read what they wanted to read, not what someone else foisted on them. Hopefully, most of these boys went on to read a much bigger collection of literature but often the set books became hated books because they were made to read them.

I have this relationship with Dickens. Bleak House was my set book at A level. I was told to read it. Never did and still haven't up to this day.

So, a few points there but a wider one. Watched Andrew Neil's Posh and Posher yesterday. Apart from the fact that Mr Neil needs someone to explain to him what Comprehensives really are and do, and that if all the private schools were closed as Labour should have done in 1997 then education for all would be so much better; apart from all that it is pretty damn clear that all the millionaires from Eton and Oxford and Cambridge in the Cabinet have no idea what people in UK are really like.

No idea at all. They don't share our relationship with the world. Osborne needn't worry about cuts, his Trust fund will carry on isolating him. Gove can carry on organising the world so that schools reflect the education he suffered. Because none of them are really linked in to what people really want or see. There is good stuff going on in our communities. Stuff that the millionaires don't see, don't understand and don't care about.

Reminds me of Stephen King and the English teachers.

me (sort of...)

me (sort of...)