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Festivals, teachers, youngsters, politicians, and former heroes.

October 31, 2010

Last year during the Edinburgh Festival, I was sitting in the middle of Charlotte Square Gardens one afternoon, relishing the last of my holidays and taking in the hive of activity that is always the Book Festival. I was also musing, as is my annual preoccupation, on the insanity that sends Scotland’s young people back to school just as the ‘world’s greatest arts festival’ is getting under way; it’s not surprising that Edinburgh can feel more like Islington than the Scottish Capital during the Festival.

I have to admit to an ambivalence towards the Book Festival, and, indeed, to the ‘Literary world’. I love books and reading and wish I had more time to indulge my hobby; I enjoy writing and passionately desire to be better at it; but, sometimes, when I look at those around me in Charlotte Square – writers, readers, agents and fans, I feel alienated from the whole process, and start to hope that I am nothing like these people. Maybe I need to get more involved or loosen up a bit, but sometimes it feels like pretentiousness rolls down the marquee covers along with the inevitable rain. These, though, are my prejudices, and talking of which – bear with me.

On this August teatime of last year, I was sitting on a bench, drinking a coffee and feeling pretty benevolent towards the world at large. Gathered round next to me was a family of Edinburgh stereotypes, and I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense, it’s just that they were readily identifiable to a local resident. Mum and Dad were well spoken, expensively kitted out and very much at home in their surroundings. The children, a boy and girl aged about 6 and 8, with names like Josh and Emily, were polite, well behaved and fascinated by their Book Festival experiences. Both parents were highly attentive to their offspring and kept a dialogue going about the shows they’d seen, the books they liked and the various statues dotted about the gardens, who they represented and why they were famous.

Occasionally a child they knew would pass, and would be brought into the conversation. At one point they spotted their music teacher who also came across and had a chat. These children were being given the best possible start in life; they had obviously been well taught, at home and at school, and were clearly comfortable in the love and attention of their parents. You could sense, even at that point, that they were liable to have successful and relatively happy lives at least if they capitalised on the start they had been given.

I could have gone into full Victor Meldrew rant to myself then – about the iniquities of the education system, the old school tie’s continuing efficacy in Edinburgh, middle class values, the bourgeoisie – but, for once, I didn’t. I was mellow and reflective and rather enjoyed listening to this happy family, together in the sunshine, extending their knowledge, building their confidence, whilst at the same time, being acutely aware that this kind of start to life was hardly the norm for most children in Scotland, the UK, or, indeed, the world. That didn’t devalue that on which I was eavesdropping, but it did raise some perennial questions.

At that point, with the kind of fateful coincidence that would make you shudder, I spotted a familiar figure walking towards the writers’ tent. Resplendent in linen suit, with computer bag and comfortable demeanour, was the unmistakable figure of Tariq Ali, the 60s firebrand, who was performing at the Festival later on.

l had a sudden fantasy in which I jumped up and rushed at him, shouting: “Where did it all go wrong Tariq? Why are Book Festivals still the preserve of the minority? Why do so many kids start and finish their lives disadvantaged? Why didn’t the revolution work?”. Thankfully I was able to contain myself to a wry smile and a shake of the head. In my teens, Tariq Ali would have been one of the heroes who could well have encouraged me to man a barricade. In the late 60s, ‘changing the world for the better’ was a preoccupation for us. It may well be that those who were older than us and making the headlines were a touch cynical in their aims, but for us 16 year olds, it was the real thing.

Looking round Charlotte Square, you would have to reckon that, at least in the area of literacy, we had failed. The majority of Edinburgh’s postcodes would not be represented here, the demographic was depressingly narrow. As an English teacher and graduate, of course, I would equate successful education with a love of reading and a familiarity with books, but, really, that’s not a bad indicator of how well a country’s youth are encouraged to look outward, learn from the world, and make an impact. The Book Festival do encourage local schools to visit and get involved; indeed, pictures of pupils visiting the Festival from the school of my first teaching post featured this year in the slide show that warmed up for visiting authors. The fact remains that reading, widening the outlook, comfort with the written word, despite JK Rowling’s best efforts, remains an endangered pastime amongst a wide section our young people.

So my visit to the Festival last year was a little depressing in its reminder of the difference between what we had hoped to achieve as teenagers and the current state of affairs. It seemed like the privileged were adding to their good fortune while the disadvantaged continue to be ‘outside the railings’, as it were.

More depression followed this weekend in the speech made to conference by Labour leader, Iain Gray. At one point he referred to his former occupation as a teacher in Gracemount on the south side of Edinburgh. He stated that, after time away in Africa in the mid 80s, on his return he found the pupils were different:

The youngsters believed they had no future. No chance of a job. That society did not want them. Even the best of them believed that there was no point even trying. All that they could be had been crushed.

Of course, he was making a point about the impact of the Tory Government’s policies at the time, but in choosing that description of the pupils, I think he revealed why he is now a politician and not a teacher. In the mid 80s I taught also in a school in south Edinburgh, no more than four or five miles from Iain Gray’s location. Though we had a truly comprehensive catchment area, and suffered, as did all schools, from the lack of support and resources from London government, I don’t recognise his description of the pupils at the time. We made it our business as teachers to give the pupils hope, we encouraged them to reject the suggestion that they had ‘no chance of a job, that society didn’t want them’. We taught ‘the best of them’ that there was ‘a point in trying’ and that it was their responsibility to make a difference. We believed, as teachers, that we could make a difference, even if politicians couldn’t or wouldn’t.

Of course, it is emphatically not a teacher’s place to preach party politics at his pupils, to try and indoctrinate their beliefs in any way, but, by the same token, it is his job to ensure that they play their part in their society, tak tent of others’ needs, and become what the Curriculum for Excellence even today calls: Responsible Citizens.

The Labour leader’s words hit a particular spot with me as, earlier in the week, I had received a booklet through the post from a former colleague of those times. It turned out that two of our pupils from the 80s had produced a show on the Free Fringe this year. Composed of poetry and monologue, it looked back on their adolescence and progress into adult life, their influences, and the result of it all. I had not known about it, but my colleague sent me the script, pointing out that I got a ‘favourable mention’ in the show.

Reading through the booklet, I blushed at how favourable the mention was. Teachers’ work is infrequently praised, and it’s even rarer to discover the influence of your efforts some twenty years later. In 35 years of teaching, I’ve read comments from Inspectors, managers, officials and parents on a regular basis, but I don’t think I’ve ever been as happy as I was when I read their description of my teaching all that time ago. It finished:
He moulded the poets you and I would become
With lessons that taught us to question our world
The syllabus was a bomb in our teacher’s skilled hands
And we were revolutionaries learning to think for ourselves.

That’s just the job!

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