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The old familiar places

November 28, 2017

Television Quiz show, University Challenge, first broadcast in 1962, has switched question master and channel and has reflected the changes in academic institutions and their students – but one thread has remained constant.

Ask a question centred on the culture, history, or geography of Scotland, Wales or Ireland and, unless a team contains a student from those far flung corners of the world, there are liable to be blank faces. Place Aberdeen on the map? Sorry, mate. In what century did Owain Glyndŵr live? Haven’t a clue. Where is the Hill of Tara? Nope.

Now, you might wonder why a young person brought up in, say, Warwickshire, should have the information to answer questions centred within three or four hundred miles of his upbringing – if you were rather insular. And maybe it isn’t important.

But then, ask students from Ireland, Wales, or Scotland similar questions about England and you are liable to find they know the answers. Place Bristol on the map? There ye go. In what forest did Robin Hood live? No problem. Where is Stonehenge? Pinpointed immediately.

So, if these young people represent the brightest and the best, and are capable of answering loads of questions which many of us don’t even understand, why this Celtic blind spot? And why does it not operate in reverse?

The simple answer, of course, is that, in educational and media terms, information about the country of 50 million souls outweighs the information provided about the countries of 5 million and 3 million. You may say this is just the way of the world, the consequence of comparative size – except, it doesn’t seem to work that way between France and Germany or Belgium and Holland. Let’s not get into the question of autonomy here, but clearly, that has an effect, and one which Ireland still has to fully offset even after  nearly a century of independence.

However, this is not merely a question of self government. It is more a question of whether education is inward or outward looking, and the signs are that, in England, popular knowledge of these islands is, geographically, rather limited.

How else to explain the acceptance of the Brexit promises, so obviously based on falsehood? Why are “values” based on wars from a century ago, and the suggestion made that this shows the best of the “British people”? How come the ignorance of the harm done by colonial exploitation, or the easy stereotyping of “foreigners”? Why the generally unchallenged view that “British fair play” and “English Justice” are the best in the world – when the evidence suggests both claims are dubious at best?

It is perhaps ironic, or inevitable, that it would be a Scot who wrote the wise words:

“O wad some Power the giftie  gie us

To see oursels as ithers see us!”

Lack of self awareness can be annoying in those yet to mature, and has caused many an embarrassment or mistaken decision. That can be coped with – what is more worrying is when it is a feature of the body politic, as it seems to be at Westminster just now: a  lack of self awareness and an ignorance of, or disdain for, the impact of decisions and actions.

If the apparently “best educated” in the land grow up with a general blind spot when it comes to other countries – especially those in these islands, and if they go on to make crucial decisions in governance, then we can all suffer. It is interesting to note that, whilst English exceptionalism can lead to a kind of xenophobic nationalism, in Scotland and Wales, there has developed a more outward looking civic nationalism, where independence is not about flags and superiority but about an effective, connected governance, and a welcome to citizens from elsewhere as part of the nation.

The reason this is particularly important just now is to be found around the Irish Border issue as part of Brexit. As seems to be their general approach, those charged with effecting Brexit apparently take an “It’ll be alright on the night” approach to the problems that would follow the construction of what would  become a hard border on the edge of the EU.

Well, it won’t be alright.  And the fact that they think it will be betrays a long recognised  aspect of British politics: they know nothing about Ireland – and don’t particularly want to remedy that state of affairs. There are a whole swathe of folk in England for whom, sadly,  Ireland is no more than Terry Wogan, Guinness, and leprechauns.

As always, history is involved, and we only need to go back as far as the creation of the Border in 1922.

When arrangements were being made for Partition, there was an understanding on the Irish side that a border would be drawn round areas of Ulster which contained  largely a Loyalist/Protestant majority. Though demographically this could never be exact, it was fair to expect that Co Antrim, North Down, North Armagh and East Derry would remain under UK control – roughly a third of the current 6 county state. Free State politicians were confident that this would not prove to be a viable entity in  the long term. This optimism was abetted by an agreement that there would be a review of the decision by the Border Commission after some years of operation to see if the borderline should be adjusted.

However, the Commission proposed  a border not just around “loyalist” territory but one which included the largest area of land that could maintain  a unionist majority, thus stranding thousands of nationalists within a state which was openly set up as “A Protestant State for a Protestant People.” The promised reappraisal was never carried out.  After the “initial” border was operational, the absence of the chance for restructuring was a particular blow to nationalists living in Fermanagh, Tyrone, Derry, South Down and South Armagh.

Behind this lies much of the angst that the border has caused through the years – even when there were no “Troubles”. What most English politicians fail to realise is that the Border Commission’s partition of Ireland was so  incompetently carried out that it led to a novel and film: “Puckoon”, by madcap humourist, Spike Milligan, who admitted even he could never have thought up anything as bizarre and unworkable.

The border cuts through fields, houses and businesses. Even more tellingly, it cuts towns off from their hinterlands: Derry’s natural hinterland is Donegal, folk in Leitrim and Longford are as likely to shop in Enniskillen as they are to go to Sligo; Donegal folk receive hospital treatment in Derry’s Altnagelvin Hospital. It is, in every possible sense an “unnatural” border, and as such is porous and, without military intervention, basically impracticable.

Generally speaking, English politicians are either ignorant of these facts, or dismissive of them. And, without being overly alarmist, as has been said today, if you put up customs posts, as EU law requires, then  they will be attacked as well as  circumvented, and that will require military protection, and that will offer an excuse to some for “retaliatory” action.

The vast majority of meat exports from the six counties are processed in the 26 counties, so how would a border impact that trade? Thousands live in one jurisdiction and work in another. Virtually everybody who lives along the border crosses and recrosses it many times every day. There are well over 300 crossing points. No wonder the people of the six counties voted decisively to remain within the EU.

None of this information seems to have reached, or at least resonated with, anyone in Westminster.

The Brexiteer claim that this is some sly trick by the EU and Ireland to force a re-unification of the country is laughable. Anyone with any knowledge of contemporary Irish politics knows that, no matter what might be said in party manifestos, neither Fianna Fáil nor Fine Gael are keen on re-unification, and all the challenges it would bring. Both parties, and many in the Republic, are happiest with a 32 county state remaining an aspiration: it would be nice, but maybe not yet. Leinster House politics is shambolic enough without adding another 6 counties into the mix.

The truth is that the current situation, where the border is of little import to those who live on either side of it, suits nearly everybody. The DUP can claim they are still “British”, and nationalists can  point to the invisibility of the border and the many cross border initiatives to demonstrate that unity is steadily approaching.  Like the original Partition and various initiatives through the years, the Good Friday Agreement was the familiar model of the British “kicking it into the long grass”. It will do for now  – and then we can go back to forgetting about Ireland.

Those of us who remember the start of the Troubles have a clear recollection of the ignorance in England about the six counties, an area they had forgotten about since the 1920s, with a short exception during World War 2.

The vast majority of people in England, including politicians, had no idea of the voting system, the housing allocation, the gerrymandering, the employment practices, or the bigotry which permeated the  six counties of the province,  and were flummoxed at the growth of the Civil Rights Movement in the mid sixties.

Ironically, the incumbent Prime  Minister of the statelet, Captain Terence O’Neil, either by temperament or political instinct, was of a mind to meet at least some of the Civil Rights demands, but was hounded out by extreme members of his party. An informed Westminster Government might well have come to his aid, insisted on changes, and possibly avoided the escalation to paramilitary warfare. The irony, of course, was that the extremist loyalists were arguing against their six counties becoming the same as Britain; they preferred their position of inbuilt electoral and social superiority.

The reaction of Home Secretary James Callaghan, as he later admitted, was one of bewilderment, yet, despite the admonishments of the likes of Gerry Fitt – far from being a militant Republican –  the UK government was hopelessly ill informed about the realities in the six counties. They repeated the mistakes of ignorance by permitting Internment in August of 71, which, possibly  more than any other event, promoted the state of unrest from protest to full scale armed insurrection – with the tragic consequences.

Though it roils easily off the tongue, the oft repeated aphorism is deadly accurate: “Ireland’s trouble is that the Irish can’t forget their history and the English won’t remember it.”

The only solution to such a situation is skilled negotiation and a willingness to adopt a means of progress that all sides can live with. The dropping of the territorial claim by the Republic from their constitution, and the acceptance of “unity by consent” were two very important examples of this. It’s informative to note that the meat of the Good Friday Agreement was ground out by the American George Mitchell, and Irish politicians, rather than Westminster knowledge.

In the Brexit situation, a deal to allow the six counties (and Scotland who also voted heavily to retain EU membership) to maintain their position in the single market and the Customs Union, would be best in terms of the impact on people’s everyday lives.

Unfortunately, the politics of the situation means that Westminster, and the DUP, are unlikely to accept this.

Brexit was conceived as a party political strategy to allow David Cameron to face down his right wing Eurosceptics, and it failed miserably when the vote went against continued membership. Its toxicity lingers on, as the Westminster Government, ill-prepared and seemingly without a strategy, find themselves beholden to the DUP, and reduced to ill founded hopes that all will turn out for the best.

Without informed and skilled negotiations, this will not happen.

Of course, the people who will suffer from this incompetence are not the Tory politicians in Westminster, nor the hopelessly divided parliamentary Labour Party in opposition, but the people of Leitrim, Donegal, Sligo, Derry, Monaghan, Fermanagh, Louth, Armagh and Down, as well as the farmers of the six counties in general and those dependent on trade on the island of Ireland.

There’s a danger that English politicians will again pay the price for their ignorance of the Irish situation, be it in a veto, or in the support of the other EU members for the Irish position.

And this time, it seems like someone has cut the grass, and it’s no longer of a length to cover a fudged solution.

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What became of the people

November 22, 2017

Back in the sixties, life – and television, seemed  simple.

People would write to Granada Television, makers of Coronation Street,  seeking the tenancy of houses vacated by actors leaving the soap  opera. They sent in wreaths when Ida Barlow was hit by a bus, and couldn’t understand how Z Cars’ Jimmy Ellis was unable to help them with a crime because he wasn’t actually PC Bert Lynch.

Of course, they were all bonkers.

And me?

Well, to be honest, I’ve never really managed to convince myself that Bob Ferris and Terry Collier – The Likely Lads – were not real: a couple of mordantly witty Geordie guys, whose lives were somehow followed and recorded by documentary cameras.

There were many reasons for their success, all brought poignantly to mind by the death of “Bob”, Rodney Bewes, this week,  and many of them were about time and place. When we heard of his death, there were many of my generation shed a tear – and, if I’m totally truthful, I was howling. It felt a bit like the loss of an old friend, but, really, it was about the loss of a part of our youth.

When they first appeared on our screens as 21 year old factory workers, we lived in a land of monochromed, dual-channelled television, but limited channels was not the only determinant of choice. Few had central heating, so leaving the living room, especially on winter evenings, was a brave decision. In the unheated bedroom, cold lino and ice decorated windows awaited – better to stay put and subject yourself to “family television”.

Television viewing reflected life. Theoretically, the choice of shows was patriarchal – dad knew best. In reality, mum kept the peace by arguing for shows likely to appeal to the youngsters. It wasn’t an altogether bad arrangement. With a potential for more than 20 million viewers,  tv companies had to be focused, and viewing possibilities obviated  the lazy option of “niche programming”. Quality was paramount, with the BBC needing  to prove it was worthy of its iconic position, and the ITV  newcomers trying to show that being “commercial” wouldn’t affect standards. For a time, in drama and documentaries, it was a golden era – enhanced by the knowledge that half the country might be discussing last night’s programmes at any given time.

Perhaps it was the shared experience that made these television shows so iconic. Adults watched shows – like “Top of the Pops”, which they may not otherwise have viewed, while youngsters gained an appreciation of drama with “Dr Finlay’s Casebook” or “The Wednesday Play”. Family discussions often ensued, issues of the day were given an airing.

Moreover, as became apparent decades later, the memory of evenings spent together in front of the television would form an important part of happy family memories for my generation. This is ironic, as, at the time, the idea that television was killing conversation and interaction in the home was much posited. In hindsight, it’s maybe fortunate we had no idea of the future  impact of iPhones and personal computers.

So, it was into this scenario that Bob Ferris and Terry Collier first stepped in 1964.

They had the advantage of a couple of young, edgy  and, non- metropolitan writers, in Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. This was also the age of the angry young northern man and there are echoes of this – especially of Keith Waterhouse’s “Billy Liar” – in “The Likely Lads.”. Indeed, Rodney Bewes was a friend of Tom Courtney’s and appeared alongside him in the film version of “Billy Liar.”

So, compared to the “French window” types of television comedy which were common previously, the “Lads” sought to take a more realistic look at life. Indeed, it’s hard now to recall how “exotic” a setting of Tyneside was for contemporary viewers, when “London and the south” was generally accepted as the centre of everything. It is interesting reading Brian Epstein’s 1964 autobiography “A Cellarful of noise” to note how he gets most pleasure from the fact he has brought fame to four boys “from the provinces.”

Clement and La Frenais had the knack of fitting gags into realistic situations, and inventing recognisable characters. Their dialogue was easy on the ear and jazzed up with the odd Geordie phrase, and, most importantly of all, the situation in which the two main characters found themselves promoted that comedic necessity: conflict.

Bob is aspirational – he wants to be a “young professional”, while Terry cussedly sticks to his working class roots and sees being “upwardly mobile” as a betrayal. Of course, because the characters are so well conceived, the situation is more complex than at first appears. Bob is never totally happy with his aspirations, while Terry is envious of elements of a middle class lifestyle. Such is the human condition.

This conflict – between accepting your lot and wanting more – has long provided effective comedy. Originally, in popular television terms,  an internal conflict within Tony Hancock, it was later represented externally by Harold and Albert Steptoe, and, later,  by Fletcher and Godber in “Porridge”. In all these situations, the comedy is heightened by the characters being trapped – either socially and economically, or, in the case of “Porridge”, physically. Ultimately, you could say Bob and Terry are trapped by their friendship – a state of affairs which is at once tragic and touching.

For my generation, the timing was important too. For  the original series, in 1964, I was 12 years old, so Bob and Terry were like big brothers, living in a world we could only dream of – with beer, girls, and other adult pursuits. When they returned ten years later, seeking to establish themselves, heading towards middle age, we were just starting out on our independent adult lives. My first car was even a Viva, like Bob’s! Apart from being funny and endearing, they were relevant.

Equally crucial  was the fact that things went wrong for them, they seldom achieved the result they sought, in any part of their lives. We could identify with the slings and arrows of misfortune, that feeling of being tossed about by fate as we tried to appear as mature adults.

And, of course, there were the comic misunderstandings and madcap adventures: Bob’s constant battle to broker some kind of peace between Terry and Thelma, the classic attempts to avoid the football score, and Bob’s middle name, to name a few.

In truth, they felt like an extension of ourselves: we recognised them and they had our empathy and often our sympathy.

We would discuss with pals whether we were Bob or Terry. It was a worrying reflection: am I ever as soft and sentimental as Bob? Do I ever act as thoughtlessly as Terry? Who would I rather be? Who do I fear I might be?

Of course, the answer, and a huge part of their success, was that all of us were both of them – Bob and Terry exist in us all, and what we were watching was the playing out of our own inner conflict. We can all be charming or rude, soft or cynical, honest or dissembling. How, and when,  we choose to control that conflict is what decides our personality.

Most of us, I guess, identified more with Bob than Terry – whilst admitting he could be a right prat at times!

The final three questions remain: could the series have returned with them as old men? Would we have wanted it to? Should it have happened?

The first two are relatively easy to answer: given the well documented rift between the two actors, it’s unlikely that it could ever have come to pass. Though Rodney Bewes remained keen, Jimmy Bolam was not, although he did point out there were instances of actors who didn’t get on playing best friends on screen. In this case,  I think the absence of chemistry would have been fatal to the feel of the show. Bolam  appears to have semi-retired in any case.

Would we have wanted it to?

Well, of course we would. When characters are as well drawn  and well loved as Bob and Terry, whether in literature,  or on screen, there is always the feeling that they live on after the story ends, part of our lives, always just out of sight in the corner of our eye, and we speculate endlessly about what became of them.

Should it have returned?

“Going back” is often a mistake. Clement and La Frenais have lived for some time in California, their writing style and approach has developed in a certain direction, and they had hinted at an unwillingness to risk  spoiling the legacy. It may well be that Bob and Terry could only have been effective in their particular 60s and 70s setting.

Because the characters were so complete, it is not too difficult to project a future on to the old men they would have become. We can also factor in the political, social and economic events of the past forty years.

Would we really want to see Terry as an embittered old Brexit voter, railing at foreigners and the state of his beloved Tyneside – and particularly at the fact that Newcastle became a  “party central” city, decades too late for him to enjoy it? He may well have been an extra in “I, Daniel Blake”.

How would we take to Bob in 2017? A terminally disappointed ex-pat in a gated community on the Costa del Sol, surviving on what’s left of his much diminished pension – feeling as out of place there as he was in his three piece suit at Thelma’s mother’s?

I think perhaps Jimmy Bolam was right, whatever his reasons, and that it is better to leave them out there, still chums, and much loved in our memories.

However.

It’s impossible not to speculate………

Terry has never left Tyneside and never had a closer friend than Bob. For a time he was the favourite wild uncle of Audrey’s kids, but they have all moved away. He still maintains his loyalty to the working class, but remains incandescent about the manner in which the workers of the north east were duped by New Labour.  The world, he believes, has not rewarded his “honest” approach to life.

Bob continued to aspire, often more to please Thelma than from his own convictions. They ended up in London’s suburbia, Bob visiting upmarket housing developments for the firm, aware he could never afford to live in such opulence. He makes a number of “clever” investments based on “sound” advice at the badminton club, but the financial crash, just as he was retiring, almost wiped him out. The couple had no children, but he and Thelma grew even closer as the years passed, and when he was widowed he was devastated.

Luckily, he had paid off the mortgage on the house and rented it out through the years, giving him an additional income. He decides to leave a London where he had never really fitted in, and return home.

Needing a lodger, he reluctantly approaches the recently evicted Terry (something to do with a late night chip pan fire) who becomes his housemate  on the Elm Lodge Housing Estate. Terry often forgets to pay the rent, Bob seldom reminds him. Both make a show of hating the arrangement: “Only till I find somewhere else, mind!” – but are secretly comforted by it.

After all these years, their conversations are reassuringly familiar – about their schooldays, the wrecking of old neighbourhoods, pubs long lost, and the exploits of their teenage years. Both are near apoplexy over Mike Ashley’s ownership of Newcastle Utd.

The highlights of their week come from visits to the local social club, where they play dominoes, drink beer, and have a hot meal. Predictably, Bob tries to fit in with the other members, ever polite and obliging, whilst  Terry sneers at them all and their “social manners”, not always sotto voce.

What really rekindles the spark of Bob Ferris and Terry Collier, though, is their fierce competition for the favours of the club’s social convener – one Deirdre Birchwood.

Lads as likely as ever.

God bless, Rodney!

Southbound on the Highway of Memories

November 21, 2017

Popular music takes hold of you. It provides the accompaniment to all the occasions of your life – the special and the mundane, the memorable and the forgettable, those of import, and the everyday routines – and it never really goes away.

At least, that’s how it seems to those of my generation, for whom music in the sixties was a wrap around experience – enjoyed with friends via radios and stereos, concerts and discos, or in your room as a background to thought and reflection – and the occasional shout from down the stairs to “turn it down”.

Eventually it was possible to listen through headphones – maybe to that special tune at a special time, or to appreciate some amazing new stereophonic development, but, most of the time, it was – really – why would you want to listen alone, when you could sit in a darkened room with your best pals, listen together, join in, work out the chords, and discuss the album’s merits or otherwise?

Or you could put a stack of 45s on the Dansette and dance and sing along to them, – pausing for breath as each liquorice coloured disc dropped on to  the turntable.

Music was just THERE. Life was inconceivable without it. And, as a result, it earwormed its way into our brains and memories. Give me a month and a year and I’ll give you a song – and I’ll probably be able to tell you what label it was on, who the band members were, and who produced it. Give me an important moment in my life and there will be a soundtrack – a holiday, passing exams, meeting a girl, going round to a friend’s house, leaving school, starting university, graduating, getting a job, and so on, year after year, decade after decade.

As adulthood took over, with added responsibilities, family, and career, perhaps the knowledge became a little less encyclopaedic, but there were still albums to be bought, concerts to seek out, musical memories to share with those who had known us longest.

Eventually, we accepted that our music would be forever there, an audio reminder system, a route to recapture emotions and memories, the sentiment in our souls. Part of who we were, really, an aural identification – a reality acknowledged in Sally Magnusson’s excellent  “Playlist for Life” initiative for dementia sufferers.

Some songs, heard live in concert, have the ability to bring tears, to me, at any rate: – Paul Simon singing “Homeward Bound” or “Sounds of Silence”, Glen Campbell with “Wichita Lineman” or “Galveston”, James Taylor with “Sweet Baby James”, and, less obviously, Thin Lizzy and “The Boys are Back in town”, The Stones with “Paint it Black”, Mary Chapin Carpenter with “This shirt”, Fleetwood Mac with “Go your own way”, Fairport Convention with “Meet on the Ledge”,  and many others.

It’s often something to do with the quality of the song, but more often it is the link to its personal associations, a sudden realisation that you are hearing, live, a song and an artist which you have heard on record so many, many times, in so very many different situations – and which you have carried through  life, often as an emotional support, for good times and bad.

And often – and perhaps this is the real beauty of it – it catches you unaware.

Last Sunday night we were driving down the A9 from Aviemore to Edinburgh. It’s a journey of around  two and a half hours, made less scary now by the average speed cameras. The selected playlist was Paul Simon’s “Graceland” followed by “Simon and Garfunkel’s “Live in Central Park” – an album I’d not listened to for a few years, freshly added to the car’s  iPod system.

The music made the trip feel like about an hour’s worth of driving – but the remarkable element was provided by that being “caught unawares” moment.

The Tom and Jerry of American folk music launched into Paul Simon’s  “American Tune”:

And I don’t have a friend who’s not been battered,

I don’t have  a friend who feels at ease;

I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered

Or driven to its knees.

But it’s all right, it’s all right,

For we’ve lived so well so long-

Still, when I think of the road we’re travelling on

I wonder what’s gone wrong,

I can’t help it, I wonder what’s gone wrong.”
The relevance of this lyric from the early 70s hit me with an almost  physical strength

I have a great love for America. Three  of my grandparents spent time there, later generations emigrated there,  and their children and grandchildren remain. I’ve never been to the USA – the mid West, New England, New York, or DC,  without hooking into that feeling of excitement and energy that permeated the country.

I’ve always been well aware of its many faults, and we’ve been uneasy political bedfellows since 1968 and the death of Bobby Kennedy, but there was always an optimism about the place. As a young country, one always felt that it aspired to be better, to espouse democracy, to challenge its inequalities and iniquities. Though the “American Dream” may have been based on a palpably false capitalist assumption, the very suggestion of equality in their constitution spoke of an awareness that there was a better way.

Under Obama, for all the diminished delivery of his vision, for all the drones, and the stuttering foreign policy, there was a sense of a nation seeking to put its own house in order, rather than trying to prioritise imposing its will on others. There was a hope that a new modern age was coming, where smart politics and genuine understanding might at last start to outweigh the pork belly and the bellicose immaturity.

Until now, when the incumbent of the White House seems hell bent on encouraging the worst of the nation to do their worst.

I find myself struggling with the idea that I could even visit the country during the present presidential term.

And Simon’s hymnal lyrics seemed to illustrate the awfulness of America’s current situation:

“And I dreamed I was flying

And high up above my eyes could clearly see

The Statue of Liberty

Sailing away to sea.”

 It became difficult, driving through that dark night, with these forty year old lyrics ringing so true, as a kind of prediction of how the great could fall so low, of how material prosperity can instigate a social poverty that wipes out spiritual compassion.

I don’t know what will become of the USA. Once you unlock greed, and manipulate fear, it can be difficult to steer back to a more civilized route. Appealing to the worst in people’s nature inevitably encourages the lowest dregs of society, and they are unlikely to willingly forego their new found attention.

Attitudes that all decent folk hoped were buried in history, or had at least become  unacceptable to the point of invisibility, are freely and openly espoused, with the encouragement of a wealthy elite who seek only to utilise the poor and dispossessed for their own advancement.

The final miles to Edinburgh on Sunday night were driven in a sombre frame of mind. Sometimes you don’t really want to hear what the music is telling you:

“We come on the ship they called the Mayflower,

We come on the ship that sailed the Moon;

We come on the age’s most uncertain hour-

And sing an American Tune.

But it’s all right, it’s all right,

You can’t be forever blessed.

Still tomorrow’s going to be another working day,

And I’m trying to get some rest,

That’s all, I’m trying to get some rest.”

 

Lyrics Copyright Paul Simon. Universal Music Publishing.

 

 

A different kind of Eden

November 20, 2017

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Around twenty years ago, I wrote a piece in the Times Educational Supplement  about Hunter Davies – long one of my favourite writers. He had coaxed his wife, the late novelist and biographer, Margaret Forster, into  being interviewed, by him, at the Edinburgh Book Festival. I loved her writing almost as much as his, and that, added to the novelty of a husband interviewing a famously fiesty wife, made for much anticipation.

It was a glorious event, Margaret never missing an opportunity to put Hunter affectionately in his place, and both handled it well. In my TES review, I mentioned  that Hunter, with his Scottish/North of England background, although he was older, had always seemed very accessible and recognisable to me. His first novel,  set in Carlisle, “Here we go round the Mulberry Bush” has long been the only realistic account of “my” “Swinging Sixties” that I’d ever read, and his “boyish” love of football – like me he continued playing well into his fifties – cemented the attraction. His account of a year in a comprehensive school: “The Creighton Report” was published at the end of my first year as a teacher –  in a comprehensive school.

However, in my piece, I did comment that his appearance at the Book Festival in a white suit, was possibly stretching our connection a little too far. I’d tried such attire briefly myself, and it doesn’t work!

He was kind enough to reply to the article – sending a postcard of his lovely Loweswater house, now sadly sold in the wake of Margaret’s death, with a note of thanks and signing it, exactly as I would have wanted: “your chum, Hunter.” Because, without a doubt, that is how I think of him. Something to do with background, style, subject matter. While other favourites like John McGahern, Brian Moore, Blake Morrison felt like “writers”, Hunter felt like a “chum”.

It was only when reading the second episode of his autobiography: “A Life in the Day”, I realised how blessed I had been. Hunter plays up to being famously careful with money, and in the memoir he deprecates his wife’s habit of sending those “expensive postcards” to fans “with first class stamps”! So I guess I was honoured!

I read “A Life in the Day” – which commences at the start of the sixties – straight after the first volume of his memoir “The Co-op’s got bananas” which tells his story from childhood, he was born in 1936 – till the end of the fifties. In that way, as he intended, I not only read of his life, but gained a kind of social history of the post war years. Hunter is fifteen years my senior, but change came pretty slowly between 1945 and 1960, and so much of his childhood rang true, as did his childhood move from Scotland to England which I experienced in 1958.

The “grammar school” education system, small numbers gaining university entrance on a full grant, the feeling of isolation from “the world” in small town north west of England – I shared all of that too.

And there is the additional friendliness of familiarity throughout the books, almost as if I’d been there with him. This effect was gained through Hunter’s freely admitted habit of recycling stories from previous books and columns. Some of his revelations were not new to me, but all  the more enjoyable for being recognised and placed within the context of his life.

I realised as well that I had been closer to him than I thought in the late 70’s when a university pal of mine had moved south to work for the Times and rented a flat in the Dartmouth Park area where the Davies’s already were living – so the walks to the pub in Highgate were there in my memory.

Coincidentally, I had just read Claire Tomalin’s autobiography “A Life of my Own”. I  finished it with a distinct understanding of the differences between life in Scotland, or even the north of England, and Ms Tomalin’s experiences.  The widow of war correspondent Nicholas Tomalin, now married to playwright, Michael Frayn, she had been to Cambridge University, and fallen into a lifestyle where every house guest and dinner companion seems to have been a student  mate or part of the highest level of English literati, and frequently both.  It was a world of shining achievement and influence which is far away from the experience of the majority of citizens, and seemed very particular to London, and, indeed, a  definite part of London, socially and geographically speaking. It was as if her whole life had been a preparation for the excesses of Tony Blair’s “Cool Britannia”!

So I was surprised when she made a brief appearance in Hunter’s memoir. Apparently, she was a near neighbour and there was   mention of one dinner party chez Tomalin. Furthermore, her husband, Nicholas,  had originally edited the Sunday Times “Atticus” column with Hunter as his assistant, and she herself had also worked at the paper.

There is only a brief  mention that I can recall of Hunter in her book, when he helps with the children after the news of Nick’s death cam through, and, generally,  the contrast between the two memoirs is illuminating.

Hunter affects to downplay his own successes and to promote his amazement and enjoyment at finding himself in the company of the famous. His cover photo really could have been a picture of him standing with his arms stretched wide saying “Why me?” It’s an appealing approach, though most of us who have followed his career know that he works bloody hard and has a deceptively “easy to  read” style which belies the craft that lies behind it.

Luckily for him, for fifty five years until 2016, in Margaret, he had a wife who was so opposed to the whole “literary darling” lifestyle that, not only did she refuse to do book signings and promotions, but she steadfastly avoided the kind of showbusiness junkets that Hunter lapped up, and was even absent from  his OBE investiture on principle. They appear to have come to an arrangement over their differing approaches, but there can be no doubt that she kept his boyish enthusiasms in check and ensured he remained on the palatable side of star gazing.

And that, really, is the joy of both these books of his autobiography.

From the moment Margaret is first mentioned (as a schoolgirl, she organised a protest when the city’s schools were given an afternoon off to watch a cup tie between Hunter’s beloved Carlisle United and  Arsenal) it is clear that she is the love of his life. Being Hunter, there is much bloke-ish reference to this: “I married the cleverest woman on earth”, and the repetitions of her  many disapproving comments, when  he overegged his enthusiasms, but he fools nobody. If ever there was a confirmation needed that opposites attract, their more than half a century of  marriage proves the point conclusively.

Of course, having followed Hunter (and Margaret) so avidly through the years, I’m not quite sure that Hunter is as different to Margaret as he claims. He certainly played a particular role convincingly: interviewing the stars, holidays with the McCartneys, January birthdays in the Caribbean – but it’s hard not to believe that his happiest times were at their beloved house in Loweswater with Margaret and family, far away from the north London celebrity frenzy. Even in Dartmouth Park, it’s clear he recreated some of the homeliness of Carlisle and Dumfries and his earliest years, and strenuously promoted a real community spirit, as opposed to courting the trappings of fame.

That these two volumes of memoirs are actually an unassuming tribute to his dearly loved wife, is not, of course, an accident. It’s a very “Hunterish” way of doing it. Had he said to Margaret: “I’m going to write about our love”, there is little doubt there would have been a rolling of eyes and quite possibly a throwing of objects. When he said he was going to write his autobiography, the response would have been: “Well, that’s all you’ve ever done!”

So he manages to get the last laugh, disguising the story of their love as the story of his life.

Which, of course, it is.

I think the best summary of these two books about two special people, and one I believe they would have appreciated,  is that both of them are a huge credit to their upbringing and their home place: the city of Carlisle, fortuitously situated on the River Eden.

Hunter and Margaret were always great walkers. It was yet another facet of their life which Hunter turned into writing: “A Walk along the Wall”, “A Walk around the Lakes”, “A Walk along the Tracks”, and others, are classics of their type.  I understand Hunter still walks, especially on Hampstead Heath. I hope he doesn’t feel alone on these walks now, because, like countless others, through his books and columns, for almost fifty years, I have enjoyed walking beside him.

Like Margaret, in spirit, we are all with him still.

He’s a very good companion.

Of the people, by the people.

October 7, 2017

More  by accident than design, I have found myself in Spain for the past week, over the period of the Catalán Referendum and its aftermath.

I have been in and around Valencia, three and a half hours south of Barcelona, so I can make no eye witness claims as to happenings in Catalunya – but it has been interesting to view the week’s events developing, from a position in Spain, but   outwith  the “eye of the storm”.

State broadcaster, TVE, much like the BBC’s coverage of Scots affairs, is unsurprisingly very much on the side of the status quo, and this has shown in its unbalanced reportage of events in the Catalán capital. However, this has been an occasion when “citizen journalism”, often much, and rightly, maligned, seems to have come good – a lesson for some involved in Scottish political affairs, perhaps – that balanced and fair reporting has more impact that partisan half truth. Also, a  special reference to the Ferret’s Peter Geoghegan for his insights during the week.

A couple of years ago I was in Valencia for  their October 9th Valencia National Day parade, also marked as the Feast of San Dionisio, the patron saint of lovers. It was a glorious festive occasion with the Valencians’ obvious love of their history, culture and autonomy superbly displayed. Of Spanish flags, there were none, only those of Valencia, and the parade was unremittingly positive and upbeat, the atmosphere  only faltering slightly as the local Commander of the Guardia Civil and his entourage passed. It was a reminder that, while the majority of Valenciens seem to accept their current level of autonomy, the Spanish state might well be advised not to take that acquesience for granted.

On that basis, I wondered about local reaction to events in Catalunya. Many, Valenciens, I suspect, are bored with the ongoing focus on the country to the north, and others may fear the consequences of their rich neighbour becoming independent. However, generally, as is the case in the more progressive parts of Spain, irrespective of personal political beliefs, there seems to be an acceptance that the Catalans have the right to vote on their future and the right to act on the result.

As is often  the case, however, it is the central power’s reaction  to the attempt to exercise those rights which has engendered most attention. The heavy handedness of the Madrid government, in sending in paramilitary police and Guardia Civil to attempt to block the vote, has not gone down well with those who remember and reject the years of Franco (though those who have privately kept the Falange flag flying are delighted at the sight of “firm government”). The downright and demonstrable  lies of Spanish Government officials, coupled with a supremely ill judged intervention from the pathetic remnant of a discredited monarchy, have only served to ignite fire in the middle of the smokescreen of obfuscation.

Where nations are united in a political state, there is generally a declaration that this is “a union of equals” – for the good of all involved. However, if one partner attempts to act as an equal and is slapped down, the foundation and rationale of that union becomes less and less tenable. It happened in Scotland when after many “declarations of love” for Scotland during the Referendum campaign, David Cameron made an ill judged attack, along the lines of “back in your box”, before the vote counting was even finished, and the current UK Government makes no secret at all of its disdain for Scotland’s democratic rights, especially in its handling of a  Brexit for which the country did not vote. The UK Government’s unsatisfactory response to Spanish state violence at the polls in Catalunya serves as an indicator of its current  thinking on Scotland’s rights as a nation within a state.

Catalunya, and watching millions, have seen clear evidence over the past week that Madrid is as much an enemy of its people as it was in Franco’s day, and that its continuing membership of the Spanish state is not in its best interests. The fact that, as I write this,  Spanish state army convoys are headed towards Barcelona, merely underlines this fact in graphic form.

Similarly vivid was the contrast between press pictures of Guardia Civil violence against would be voters, and the iconic pictures of Catalán police saluting the people as they sang “Els Segadors”, the Catalunyan National Anthem.

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Picture SER Catalunya

Apart from the fact that Catalunyan independence seems inevitable, the precise way forward is still unclear. The country looks likely to declare its independence on Monday and will then put in place its contingency plans. These, of course, will very much depend on the reaction of Madrid and their European and international colleagues. Whilst negotiations would seem to be the only rational  route to progress, there are currently few signs that this will be the favoured first option of the Spanish government.

When people are convinced that a government is not serving their wishes or is not hearing their concerns, the result can be either insurrectional violence, or a dysfunctional politics where voters chose to give the politicians a bloody nose, rather than vote for meaningful policies. In Scotland and Catalunya, this has ended in votes towards independence, in England, long bereft of a post colonial sense of its own  identity, this has translated into votes for UKIP and Brexit.

Where government is broken, people will either attempt to take events into their own hands, or seek alternative models.  Where the ruling powers have a post colonial need to “rule” others, this will be seen as sedition, rather than an evolution towards more effective and appropriate  models of governance. Both Spain and the UK are entities looking for a role in the world after having lost Empires. In both states, devolution was born out of a desire to keep control, rather than any recognition of a democratic deficit; it is universally accepted that power devolved is power retained, and both states are currently providing clear proof of this in their actions – towards Catalunyan independence and Scotland’s place in Brexit. All views of “British values” involve a looking back towards “world power” status and war time exploits. Even where these views are accurate, and often they are complete misrepresentations of what actually happened, they present a view of the current UK which is hopelessly outdated and accepted by nobody with a balanced or informed view of history

For Scotland or Catalunya to gain independence is not a condemnation  of what has gone before, nor is it the product of hate, disdain, or bigotry, it is merely a recognition that a construct, which once may have worked to the benefit of both partners, no longer works  for one, or indeed, both,  of them, and should therefore be remodelled.

This is obvious to all, outside of the most non-progressive thinkers in both Spain and the UK. Even the Labour Party, which espouses the majority of SNP policies, need to understand that a progressive Scotland, and its neighbourly example, is the most hopeful means of promoting progressive policies in England, a country which often seems enthralled by the self interested policies of Conservatism. Labour needs to jettison its current  obsession with the Union, and move away from  a mindset which seems to suggest if the Labour voters of England can’t benefit from a Labour policy, then neither should SNP voters in Scotland. Listening to the people? Serving their wishes?

Catalunya is not Scotland. In much the same way, Scotland is not a Nordic country. However, it should be understood that, when comparisons are made, there is not necessarily any attempt to allege huge similarities, but rather to point out that if Scotland where in a  position to  work with such countries and adapt such policies as would be appropriate, this would be of benefit to all. At present this possibility is severely limited by the UK government’s anglocentric view of the world.

Perhaps one of the most frustrating of all UK weaknesses is its refusal to learn from others, and its deluded belief that “British” ideas are always best. Such parochialism is disastrous in terms of the political and social health  of the state.

Both Scotland and Catalunya can benefit from joining the international community, learning from it, and sharing with it. Just as importantly, these benefits can be felt in Spain and in England too. Post independence, all countries involved would benefit from a stronger and more equal partnership.

How good it would be to proceed on such a positive course, where a country’s politics is able to reflect the wishes of its people, where the voter could be engaged by the link between political process and the realities of everyday life – and how far we seem to be from politicians in London or Madrid who can espouse such vision!

Somebody who knows me

August 29, 2017

I became a guidance teacher  in 1978, 18 months or so  into my teaching career. Having been to school in England, I wasn’t sure what “guidance” entailed, but the headteacher who appointed me assured me that my commitment to the school, and good relationships with pupils, parents and staff, equipped me well for this new sector in Scottish secondary schools.

The “Orange Paper”, which suggested the need for a guidance support system  had been published in 1968, under the name of “Guidance in Scottish Secondary Schools”. Its central tenet was that “that each pupil knows and is known personally and in some depth by at least one member of staff”.

The establishment of the  structure was timely and was put in place relatively quickly. It was a response to changes in society which had impacted on the  stability of family life and the longevity of jobs and residential locations. Teachers realised that there were more “second families” and single parent families, and that there was a greater movement of pupils between schools than there had been immediately post war. Young people reacted to these life changes in different ways, some coping better than others, but all affected by instability, unpredictability, or uncertainty. In some cases, this  influenced their behaviour in school  and the chances of fulfilling academic potential.

The “Orange Paper” recognised that the presence of somebody outside of the family who could maintain a neutral view and support the pupils and their families,  in and out of school, would have a highly positive impact on the education of the “whole child.

The guidance role was one which I loved and maintained through 38 years in the profession, ending up as a Depute Head in charge of Guidance. To me the importance of a pastoral approach in schools was beyond dispute.

The ten year report on Guidance in 1986, called, appropriately, “More than Feelings of Concern”, reflected on the structure’s initial success but correctly stated that there was a need for more professional training for guidance staff – a progression which came to pass.

The need to accept and act on the premise that a young person’s development within and outwith school was something to be promoted and safeguarded generated many initiatives. In the Lothians, the redoubtable Councillor Elizabeth McGiness developed the idea of a “Youth Strategy”. This brought together professionals from Education, Health, Social Services, Educational Psychology, Community Education, and the Police.

At monthly meetings, their brief was to discuss pupils in the school who were considered in danger of losing their place in school, family, or community, through their behaviour or the particular challenges they faced. Early intervention was the key – and the ability for a professional to offer specific support at the meeting, rather than weeks’ or months’ delay in a decision being made, was invaluable. Class teachers and parents also contributed to the discussions and reports so the child’s needs were monitored, and met wherever possible.

Where the various professionals respected each other on a personal level, the teamwork which followed was highly effective and the most vulnerable and troubled pupils, and families, benefited greatly. Young people were offered synchronised support and the reassurance that somebody was looking out for them.

Inevitably, the more effectively the guidance structure operated, the more it identified areas for support. Equally, the more of a demand there was for resources, the more difficult it  became to meet these increasing needs, and the services which were best placed to provide support were on many occasions those whose budgets were being cut.

The McCrone Report: “Teaching in the 21st Century” restructured the profession. It scarcely mentioned “guidance”, and nobody was sure if that reflected its obvious and undisputed importance, an oversight, or a heavy hint that its days were numbered. A Director of Education telling a room full of guidance staff that “the days of ‘touchy feely’  guidance are over” provided a clue to the thinking of some.

Part of the efficacy of guidance was that its structure was flexible enough to meet the needs of different schools, but, generally, the model into which I found myself placed in 1977 would have been common. The guidance group would be a year group of 180-200 pupils. Their guidance staff would be an assistant principal teacher with responsibility for around 60 pupils and a principal teacher with around 120. Neither guidance teacher would have more than 4 or 5 classes to get to know in depth. In most cases they would teach their “guidance classes” Social Education and so would be in class with them for at least one period a week. Somewhere between a half and a third of their “teaching time” would be freed up for guidance matters, meeting pupils, parents, class teachers, partner agencies and so on.

In this model, there was every chance to get to gain good knowledge of the pupils for whom you had responsibility, and the assistant principal teacher could learn from the principal teacher as their partnership progressed. In addition, with two staff allocated to the year group, pupils knew there was an alternative support in cases of personality clashes or unavailability of their particular guidance teacher.

After McCrone, assistant principal teacher posts were abolished and principal teachers became “curriculum leaders”. In subject terms, this meant they had responsibility for two or three departments instead of just one. For guidance “curriculum leaders”, this meant that their “guidance load” could increase to anything from 200 to 300 pupils.

The loss of “subject departments” under a principal teacher meant that weekly “departmental meetings” changed in their content. Certainly the former model, where there would have been a slot for class teachers to bring to the attention of the Principal Teacher the names of pupils whose academic progress was giving concern, became less feasible. This in turn meant that traditional meetings between principal teachers subject and  guidance, to exchange information about “causes for concern”, were no longer viable.

Clearly, the original model for guidance and support was being demolished – not through philosophical and educational discussion, but through the removal of the structures which made the job possible.

It wasn’t long before interviewees for guidance posts were being told their approach was “too pastoral”. A bit like telling Gary Lineker he should stop going on about football.

The decision makers were faced with a number of dilemmas.

Clearly, the idea that every pupil would have a teacher who knew them really well, and had the time and resources to support them, was no longer seen as sustainable. However, an increasing number of pupils still needed additional support.

Furthermore, disruptive and challenging pupils not only hindered their own academic progress, but also that of their classmates, and now that schools were under increasing scrutiny over exam results, this was bad news.

Equally, a number of pupils, especially those who did not “act out” in school, but may still have had support needs, were reporting that they hardly ever saw their guidance teacher – or in some cases, that they did not even know their identity.

The fix for these problems was reflective of the times.

Schools moved away from pastoral care and instituted “tracking and  monitoring”. Computerised school management systems would flag up where pupils were underperforming in a subject. Pupil Support staff were required to interview “flagged up” pupils and set them targets. This would lead to improved academic performance, and headteachers could report that all their pupils were seen by the guidance staff on a regular basis.

If education was simply about exam results there  might be some justification for this “remodelling” of pupil support. However, most would agree that the philosophy of “teaching the whole pupil” serves pupils, their families, and society far better than does an “exam factory”.

Furthermore, the original approach was also geared to improving academic performance through addressing a pupil’s individual challenges or concerns. A happy and supported pupil, who feels valued by others, will generally perform to their academic potential. In simplistic terms, the progression the pastoral system followed was: “You don’t seem happy, your work is suffering, what is wrong, how can we support you, we do understand, here is some support to help. I’m seeing you because I’ve noticed you’re not yourself”.

With the best will in the world and the most conscientious guidance staff, a “tracking and monitoring” model delivers a very different message: “You’ve missed your targets in these subjects, what are we going to about that, how can we get better results, I am seeing you for your bi-termly interview.”  In such a structure, it is difficult for staff to convince the pupil that there is a genuine interest in their wellbeing outside of their academic potential, and, as has been suggested, pointing out to a child that they are  failing does not necessarily lead to them succeeding. A child in need of support will not find it easy to approach a person of whom their chief experience is the  indication that they are failing in class. The opportunity, and time, for class teachers to discuss concerns with guidance staff has also vanished – and nobody pretends that ticking boxes as an “alert” adequately replaces such discussions.

There are, of course, countries and education systems where schools and teachers have no responsibility for the “whole pupil” at all. There is a philosophy that the child’s life outside of school does not, or should not be allowed to, impact on their academic work. Maybe that is the route being taken in Scotland. I hope not because that way lies a horrible mess for society.

Currently we know that there are more teenagers than ever before self harming in Scotland as well as elsewhere. This statistic clearly reflects the increased pressures that our young people have to handle.

Politicians and academics all have their theories as to causes and means of addressing the problem, but most agree that a basic concern is that an increasing number of youngsters feel they have nobody to whom  they can talk: an ironic situation in an age which purports to have us more “connected” than ever before.

Of course, what young folk are seeking is not just “communication” but a meaningful version of it: to know there is someone they can trust, who will listen and empathise, who may, or may not, have solutions to their concerns, but who, ultimately, will help them feel valued, that they are worth the time spent, and reassure them  that they are possessed of ideas and attitudes which are worth consideration. In the absence of this, despair or self hate can set in.

In addition, children who come from unsettled or disturbed family backgrounds often feel unable or unwilling to “trouble” family members with their problems, judging them to be   insubstantial, compared to the daily struggle they witness around them in the home.

The virtual world of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat excels at giving instant feedback, but struggles to promote anything more socially valuable, and can often add to the stress felt by many adolescents.

There is, of course, thankfully, an ever growing awareness of the importance of mental wellbeing amongst teenagers and young people: SAMH, See Me, Penumbra and many other organisations highlight the problem and seek to provide support for those in need.  Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) continue the work pioneered at the former Young People’s Unit at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital, but a sentence on the Royal Edinburgh home page reveals the struggle to adequately address the problem: “We have places for 12 patients and are 1 of only 3 adolescent inpatient services in Scotland”.

Not all young people who self harm, have major mental health issues – but they clearly have a need for support and understanding. In short, one means of addressing the situation would be to ensure that every child had someone outside of the family who knew them well and who they felt they could trust.

This is not a requirement met by the new “Named Person” Act: each Named Person will have responsibility for far too many youngsters to get to know them in a detailed way, and, in any case,  the focus of their remit is to promote a  positive connection between families and support services.

However, it does echo a need that was originally met by Guidance back in the 1970s – the availability of someone to support each child –  whom they see on a regular basis and whom they know has their wellbeing at heart.

Would a return to pastoral guidance be expensive? Financially, of course it would be, though possibly not beyond reasonable cost, when balanced with the costs of supporting damaged adults through their lives.

Would pastoral care solve all the problems? Of course not – but it would give our young people the chance of early intervention  in  their troubles and vulnerabilities – and all are agreed that early intervention is vital if we are to have an impact.

Would pastoral care lead to improved examination results? Statistics suggest it would, because well  supported pupils are better able to give of their best, and are less likely to disturb classes and the progress of their classmates.

Another point to be made at this juncture is the store theoretically set on examination results by the “majority of parents”. I can only speak from my own professional experience, but, in 38 years I can remember less than a handful of parents whose first priority was examination results. Generally, and almost uniformly, their priorities were as follows:

Is my child happy at school?

Is he safe at school?

Is he doing himself justice?

Has he got friends?

Is he well behaved?

Parents knew instinctively that, with good teaching and home support, if the answers to these questions were all positive, then  academic potential would have been  achieved when the results were published. What is important in schools is how young people are equipped to deal with their lives in general rather than examinations specifically, though academic success is obviously one of a school’s aims.

You don’t make pupils happy, valued and successful by ensuring they get good exam results, you make sure they get good exam results by ensuring they are happy, valued  and successful. And a good guidance teacher supports their colleagues as well as the pupils, and  their families.

Anyone who has retired is always open to the charge of nostalgia or old fashioned thinking: “You don’t know what it’s like today!”

Fair enough – but some successful approaches fit all times, and a child who feels known and supported will flourish, and the way to tackle current concerns is to prioritise support for young people in our schools – support for the pupils, not the examination system.

Last Friday night I met up with some of the pupils from that original guidance group in 1978. I was touched that they wanted to see me again after all these years, and excited to discover what life had brought them.

In those individuals, all over 50, I could see the children I had supported, and I could see how they had taken that support into life. Some had fared better than others – such is life, but all were recognisable, emotionally speaking, as the 12 year olds I had welcomed to secondary school that day nearly  40 years ago.

In their varying ways they thanked me for the differing support I had given them, the confidence they had received from knowing someone knew them and was looking out for them.

Obviously it was an affirming moment for me, and hugely gratifying to know that they appreciated the concern I had shown for them – even as adults all this time later. I was greatly moved by that.

However, that meeting of some of our guidance group, 33 years after they left school, was more than an illustration of mutual affection, it was pretty strong evidence that pastoral support is effective, and it resonates far beyond school days. It is needed in our schools more than ever, and if we try to ignore that fact, our children, and our society, will pay the price.

From City to Coast 3

June 29, 2017

This is the third and final “Letter from France” written after a recent short stay.

Writing about Paris is in some ways like writing a love song: it has been done so many times that the temptation is to ask: why bother?

The answer to both, of course, is that every relationship is unique, and, on that basis, should be celebrated. It depends what is brought to the partnership by each side, and how the writer choses to portray it.

My relationship with Paris is as a tourist – I can claim no more than that. However, even that relationship matures through time. After the frenetic activities of the first few visits, when every tourist box has to be ticked, every site seen, there comes a time when just being there is enough.

Strangely, the less organised your itinerary, the more you may discover, and the better you are able to appreciate the place.

With just over 24 hours in town and in temperatures forecast to be in the high nineties, there was no way we would be racing about the place, but we are staying on the Ile de St Louis for the first time, a few hundred yards from Notre Dame, and even that gives us a new perspective on the city.

I love the architecture of Paris, Haussmann’s boulevards, the elegant stonework and the myriad side streets all over the city. Most of all, however, I love the people who throng the streets and the Seine as it flows through the centre, drawing the eye with its constant movement: along with its bridges, very much a part of the city itself.

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It performs the same role as the Liffey, the Potomac, the Clyde, and the Thames and other rivers with cities built around them and through which they flow. Though the East and Hudson rivers are crucial to New York, the Charles forever associated with Boston, and the Spree with Berlin –it is possible to spend time in these cities without being overly aware of their rivers;  in Paris, nobody escapes the notice of the Seine. The two are synonymous – and this is not just a tourist thing. What fascinates me is the way in which the Parisiens embrace their river, make it a part of their daily lives, eschew the idea that it is for looking at, or photographing, and incorporate it into so many aspects of their routine.

Basically on this visit we follow the Seine from Notre Dame to Les Tuileries by the Louvre. As it happens, that’s not a bad tourist route, but our eyes are on people rather than buildings, sights rather than sites.

Although since 2002 the Paris-Plages scheme has converted parts of the banks of the Seine into “beaches” every Summer, this scheme has been extended and now large lengths of the banks, formerly expressways for traffic through the city centre, have been closed to cars altogether.

The transformation, which we are experiencing for the first time, is quite stunning in its impact, and we have not been expecting this – nor have we predicted the calm atmosphere in the city overall.

After the terrorist atrocities that Paris has suffered, and the continuing French State of Emergency, I suppose we wondered if that would be manifested  as we moved round the city. We see soldiers twice, I think – once in the gardens by Notre Dame, and once on patrol  in the courtyard at the Louvre. I’m sure there may be signs of increased security in other places, but in general, the people and the police seem much as usual.

To be fair, Paris, and France in general, have always had  a fairly   militarised police structure: officers bearing arms, CRS vans in side streets, a variety of sirens and flashing blue lights are part of the normal streetscape.

As it happens, there is a ‘contained’ terrorist incident while we are in the city. A car rams a police convoy on the Champs Elysée and the driver is shot dead. We are a mile or two away from the scene and vaguely aware of a number of police vehicles speeding by, but nothing which suggests a serious incident. French phlegm, I suspect, is a potent defence.

The car free river banks are a revelation. Pedestrians and cyclists seem to coexist amiably and small open-air cafes have sprung up at intervals. There are fitness machines, a climbing wall, flowers, hammocks,  and benches – everything you might want to attract folk to the riverside.

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We made our way, slowly in the heat from Notre Dame to Les Tuileries, stopping regularly to shelter from the sun and to take in our surroundings. Paris is as impressive as ever – crossing the bridges and going down to the river bank we catch glimpses of familiar sights: the Hotel de Ville, Pont Neuf, Pont des Arts, Musée d’Orsay, the Louvre, and Rue de Rivoli before arriving at Les Tuileries to seek some shade and some rest.

At the side of the pond a heron lands and settles not ten feet away – maybe too hot to be wary, or maybe displaying some Parisien sang-froid. The trees provide the shade for which they were planted and in the quiet of the gardens we can look around at Les Invalides, the Eifel Tower, the Pyramid at the Louvre, but what still holds my attention most is the parade of people we saw on the banks of the Seine.

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Young and old, trendy and business like, relaxing and busy, moving and still. They are a cross section of Paris life – portraits against a busy background of tourist boats and commercial vessels. Some are active – cycling, boarding, or trying out the fitness machines or climbing-wall fitments. Some listen to music and a few play – a guitarist, an accordion, and a distant saxophone blowing jazz over the water. Remarkably, a bagpiper on the bridge above us. What takes the eye – and the ear – most of all –  are the conversations, people talking and listening, facing each other with intent, reflecting and positing, hearing and replying.

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There is something glorious about all this human interaction at the heart of one of the world’s great cities. It something we often miss in the hurry and scurry – this ability of humanity to talk and listen in the midst of bustle and movement, the willingness, even the need, to communicate, exchange views, pass comment and hear our neighbour’s voice.

Despite popular belief, personal music players are quite scarce; drink tends to be soft or a discreet glass of wine, pizza boxes are completely absent, and most rubbish is neatly stacked in litter bins. It is like an assertion of sophisticated behavior, a choice to be the best and not the worst, a celebration of togetherness rather than divisiveness – and all colours and races are represented – when you think of all the Seine has flowed past down the centuries, how could it be otherwise – and why on earth would you want it to be?

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I’m well aware I could seek, and find, a very different Paris, were I  willing to look, but I don’t feel in any way that reduces the impact of these river banks and their city dweller inhabitants

Later on in the evening, the streets still busy, the air still stifling, we take a  walk back to the riverside, and find a quite remarkable number of people sitting in twos and threes, seldom bigger groups, more wine bottles – usually with glasses – on show, musicians, cyclists, skaters, sometimes solitary  thinkers, but mostly talkers and listeners, a coming together of citizens, the babbling conversation of the Seine flowing past, mixing with the interaction between its people.

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It’s a sight which is strangely moving – as if the people are taking over the city from the buildings. It is most obvious, of course, on the parts of the river bank which had been the “Pompidou Expressways”, once  a steady line of hurtling vehicles, now moving to a gentler beat of evening walks, casual chats, and gentle exercise.

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However, as has long been the case, the older parts of the banks, always accessible to the city’s residents, are thronged tonight as well. Benches, steps, ledges hewn out of the river walls, tree stumps, the gunwales of barges and houseboats and smaller craft tied to the quays,– they all serve as a place to sit or lean and contemplate the Seine, Paris, and life in general. The groups of people form patterns, dark against the light stone, disappearing off into the distance, with the occasional movement seeming to fade into the general stillness.

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There are still boats moving on the water, but, generally, the Seine is a quiet river rather than a centre of noise. It means that car horns, police and ambulance sirens, and the music of the buskers all seem to exist individually and distinctively, rather than form a carpet of noise. It gives this bustling city an intimacy – which of course is one of its great attractions, be it by the river, in the gardens, or in the squares and alleyways of Le Marais or Montmartre.

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A setting sun lends drama to the scene, as the water flames and the people become shadows.

It brings our short stay in France to a perfect end, an impressionist message from the Seine and its people.

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Tomorrow we will fly out over those northern green fields and we’ll be thankful for a France that is diverse, thoughtful, vibrant, and very much its own person.

An Auld Alliance indeed.

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