I am unwell. I have succumbed to that occupational hazard of the modern educational professional, depression, and been sent home on sick leave. Gradually, I am beginning to recognise the warning signs I dismissed or denied at the time. My inability to keep track of keys, ID cards, etc. My moments of disassociation. Saturdays spent entirely either in bed or wishing I was there. Friendships neglected. Weight creeping upwards due to snatched meals.

So here we are. I have no idea when, or even if, I shall return to work. At the moment I would rather jump in front of a tram. I am getting help. I am finding it very hard to get off the sofa and do anything at all, but hopefully that will pass in good time. It’s early days yet.

I feel that one or two people at work have not helped the situation, though the vast majority have been kind and supportive. And the couple that have not, I feel that they are basically decent souls who are being forced by the shameful underfunding of education to make decisions that they would rather not have to make, and would even less rather discuss with me. I have had a gratifying amount of support from parents, children and staff – but none of that means that I am immune from becoming a luxury that my employer can no longer afford.

I have held the line for as long as I could. The cost in terms of my quality of life has been significant. I am blessed by a supportive family and community, and if the worst came to the worst we could manage without the money I make. Many are not so fortunate, and my heart truly bleeds for anyone who has to force themselves back to work in the kind of state I am in at the moment.

Meanwhile, I am beginning to come across some public acknowledgement of the number of teachers going through this kind of thing, and I suspect it is the tip of an iceberg. If anyone knows of any burnt-out and despairing school librarians who are happy to talk, please get in touch. Because the worst possible thing I could do right now is try and get through this alone.

 

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The Curse of Peppa Pig – why kids crave brands, not books

It’s almost as if children need these characters to navigate the unfamiliar landscape of a library and reassure them that they are safe there.

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There’s been quite an outcry against the celebrity-author dominated list of giveaway titles for next year’s World Book Day. It’s a big deal, because for many people bookshops are unknown territory (they may only see books on sale occasionally in supermarkets in their neigbourhood). This is the only book their kids will own all year and if you think that isn’t a big deal come and watch the scrummage when they’re handed out on the day.

So does the celebrity issue really matter or are a few luvvie writers just crying foul?

I’ve always been able to see both sides of this argument but the tectonic plates of my attitude are starting to shift. On the plus side, some celebrities really are good at connecting with children and writing excellent books. Others can certainly turn in a competent job as part of their personal brand, with or without editorial assistance (a hornets’ nest I’d rather not dig into here).

So I’m not declaring war on all children’s books by people who started off being famous for something else. And anyone who grew up reading Enid Blyton or The Hardy Boys will know that the endless, formulaic series has been a staple of the sector for a long time. But the intellectual property of huge corporations is so deeply interwoven into children’s cultural landscape these days that I think some questioning of this trend is legitimate.

Robert McFarlane, writing this week in the Guardian, points out that a recent survey showed that many children are far more confident naming fictional Pokèmon than native wildlife. What bothers me even more in my own work is seeing how magnetic the effect of a well-exposed franchise is on children. Sit them down for a story and they cannot concentrate – their eyes are drawn hypnotically to the Star Wars book behind you, so much so that I actually put such titles out of sight. And don’t get me started on Peppa Pig.

It’s almost as if children need these characters to navigate the unfamiliar landscape of a library and reassure them that they are safe there. For some, I suspect that sitting unsupervised watching Peppa on a screen has taken the place of the comfort of sharing a story with a loved grown-up. There are all sorts of reasons for this, some political, some economic, and just blaming parents isn’t fair when libraries are closing , work is more scrappy and casualised than it’s ever been and books are unaffordable for many. Nor should we overlook the reality that for children whose first language is not English an international franchise can be a useful bridge.

The problem is that professional children’s library provision is in such terminal decline that in many cases the gateway drug has become a substitute for the whole experience of reading for pleasure. To persuade a child to try something new takes time. I am responsible for 18 classes a week in the three school libraries I manage. Sometimes all 30 kids come in together without adult support. With the best will in the world, if kids are clamouring to know where the Star Wars books are I will end up, at least sometimes, shoving one into their hands and moving on. I have had class teachers clamouring to know why the entire class isn’t back in the classroom after less than 10 minutes.

This is the climate in which we need to understand the prevalence of branding, which is now ubiquitous in the numerous literacy initiatives that exist. Running a book club on top of your duties as a class teacher and literacy co-ordinator? Thank God, you can download some colouring in sheets from the latest heavily promoted bestseller. You may long to start a discussion group for literature in translation, using the wonderful Pushkin Press list, but it simply isn’t going to happen.

I’ve seen it in book shops too. I’ve wanted to scream, “Don’t you know those books are written by an anonymous syndicate, that your child just likes the glittery cover or the superhero franchise, that they will be consuming the McNuggets of literature – £4.99 gobbled up in five minutes – when over here there’s real nourishment?” But you’d need someone sitting there all day to really make a difference.

Hence my conflicted relationship with any book or series that is described as a “phenomenon.” I’m certainly not going to stand between kids and their desire to read Marvel origin stories or Tom Gates. It’s not my place to undermine their genuine reading preferences and force classics on them against their will. But I wish there was time for more children to enjoy having that conversation. Letting big corporations have the last word on something as important as a child’s literacy is never ideal.

 

 

Wimpy Kids or British values – the great school library money grab

 

“it’s just simpler to buy your own than fight for basics”.

The recently reported survey results that teachers are increasingly paying for school resources out of their own pockets comes as no surprise to me. It’s not simply a matter of funds not being there. As one respondent points out,  “it’s just simpler to buy your own than fight for basics”.

Schools have discovered that one way to save money is to make it so exhausting and frustrating for teachers to get hold of the basic materials they need that many of them will just pick them up on the way home. Of course, that’s by far the most expensive course, but nobody said the teachers had to do it did they? If the teachers can’t be arsed to go through the right channels, then that’s their problem.

I can’t believe this hasn’t spread to what is left of school libraries. I’m already seeing its depressing, and entirely deniable, fallout. It’ll soon be time for the new Tom Gates and Wimpy Kid books. Last year I picked them up at rock bottom prices from the supermarket, which meant I could afford three copies, no small matter when you have a waiting list of 20 or more. Last year, when a teacher asked me for a book, I could order it when I got home on Amazon Prime and have it in her hands the following morning. And when the dinosaur craze hit Reception yet again, I could pick up five or six books at Oxfam on the way home, thus delighting not only a bunch of five year olds but a valuable charity as well. (At least that made me feel better about buying from the corporate monsters destroying independent bookshops).

Not any more. From now on, I have to put in a requisition and if we don’t have an account with that supplier, tough. Suddenly the books kids actually want to read have to compete with the school’s need for more stuff about British Values or the Ancient Romans in their classrooms. I have to find the time and the energy to make the case that kids deserve control over what they read for pleasure, and that the stuff they choose won’t always impress educational professionals.

I have been in this job for almost 20 years. I have never felt so powerless and frustrated as I do right now. And it’s not even as if this is the school’s money, at least not entirely. It was raised by the PTA, who have faithfully handed it over into my care for years, trusting me to provide the books children actually want to read. They spend hours organising fund-raising events. But they were never consulted about the school subsuming the proceeds into their own budget and, thereby, overruling their right to specify what it is used for.

I am sure the school would justify their new policy by pointing to a spate of recent high profile cases involving financial irregularities in schools. What is wrong with greater transparency? It’s like safeguarding – any new policy, no matter how batty, small-minded or illogical, is hard to question if to do so implies that you’re anti-safeguarding. Of course, I don’t want the right to make off with the proceeds of the cake sale. But for the last 20 years I have never submitted an expenses claim that didn’t include carefully collated receipts. And everyone seemed perfectly happy, particularly the children reading the books they enjoyed.

In the end, I just don’t have the bloody energy to argue in favour of Tom Gates or Minecraft books. People will probably wonder why it’s such a big deal to want the latest one when months later it will trickle down as a second-hand, well-meaning donation. The answer to that is simple – if the last release of something is just as good, why did anyone ever queue up outside a store?

So, I shall swallow hard, pay £8.99 and fill in forms galore for something I could once have got at Tesco for £5.00, and watch as my 90% pupil engagement drops week on week. I shall tell children they have to learn to wait for what they want and that it’s character building, and meanwhile have they tried The Wind In The Willows?  And eventually I’ll have had enough, and I’ll retire. I suppose I’ve had a good run.

 

Why I Love Manchester

manchester-vigil-9-1495564396I am Manchester born and bred. My ties with this amazing place go back several generations and I have always been deeply proud of them. The way Manchester people have responded to the appalling events of this week has made me even more so. Briefly, since so much has been said elsewhere on this theme, I’d like to mention a few reasons why:

  • Community. Guy Garvey said once that we have it in our DNA. It really does feel that way. No big city is perfect, and it would be wrong to idealise, but there is a reason why Manchester people are known for their down-to-earth, practical kindness.
  • Diversity. It’s nothing new in Manchester. Elizabeth Gaskell was writing about globalisation in her novel North and South in the 1850s. We have established, flourishing, tolerated communities from all over the world. When my kids both lived at home it was like the United Nations on a Saturday afternoon in this house. We learned so much together. We continue to do so.
  • Solidarity. It boils down to a healthy defiance. Tony Walsh got it exactly right in his wonderful poem: We won’t take defeat and we don’t want your pity. Manchester people don’t expect life to be a walk in the park. Our city was forged in an ethic of hard work. We recognise oppression and injustice and there’s a radicalism that fights back. In the American Civil War cotton workers here went hungry in solidarity with slaves.
  • Scepticism. Throw as much mud as you like, Westminster bubble – we know a thing or two about terrorism up here. The IRA blew up our city centre. Nobody condones that, but we’ve had a strong Irish community here since the 1840s so we’ve had to listen to both sides of that argument. It’s never simple. You can try to reduce it to slogans, but up here we have built-in shit detectors.

And finally, perhaps most important of all:

  • Culture.  Here in Manchester, a new entrepreneurial class forged the Industrial Revolution. They worked bloody hard and many of them came from humble origins. They took on the Establishment and looked them in the eye as equals. And they wanted the things that had been the preserve of the elite – a world-class  university, fine libraries, an international orchestra, culture. So they didn’t whine and say people had had enough of experts. They moved, and shook, and built those things. Today when you walk down Deansgate you see the neo-Gothic splendour of the John Rylands Library. Five minutes walk away from the Arena is the oldest public library in Britain. Manchester has always valued culture. We know the value of poetry, of music, of things that make the soul sing, whether it’s a great goal or Wonderwall.

Hate will not tear us apart. We’ve not idiots, and you can shut up now, Mrs May, because you’re wasting your breath.

 

 

 

 

 

Costa’s Brexit breakfast

I’m a regular at Costa Coffee, mainly because I’m lacto-intolerant and they do a very good soya flat white. But I felt rather depressed by their new summer menu when I popped in this morning. Is it really necessary to label a chicken and chorizo toastie, “Made with British Chicken” and to advertise on your bags that the coffee has been roasted in London? God forbid that we should drink anything foreign!

Have the marketing team come to the conclusion that too much Continental flavour will send their patriots down the road to Greggs?

 

My tiny heart is frozen – La Bohème Revisited in middle age

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Vitalii Liskovetskyi and Alyona Kistenyova in Ellen Kent’s production of Puccini’s La Bohème

If it’s possible to be formed by the music you hear in your mother’s womb, I’ve been formed by Puccini’s La Bohème. Out of the blue, my father died at the age of 34 in my mother’s first weeks of pregnancy, and she got through it by wearing out her LPs of Puccini’s glorious opera. By the time I started school, I was already humming Che Gelida Manina. By the time I reached college, I knew whole arias word for word and I’m sure it was one of the reasons I taught myself Italian in later life.

So Bohème is probably the only opera I’d actually pay to see, and in fact I’ve seen two productions, spaced by 35 years or so. Last night I realised I’d changed more than the opera had.

I can still listen to Mimi’s farewell on Spotify while doing the ironing and find myself in tears. But seeing it staged seems to sharpen my critical faculties. No matter how glorious the singing (and last night’s Ellen Kent production was well sung, if a little scrappily staged), I can’t shake off the thought that this is basically the story of a dying woman and her abusive, controlling boyfriend trying, and failing, to break up. In fact, misogyny runs through the whole piece. Women are decorative, fickle, the source of moody male tantrums and broken hearts. They are also a tradeable and disposable commodity, guarded and policed by their possessive boyfriends who watch hawk-like for the revealing of a female ankle in public.

Oh, how can you, people will cry? The music’s gorgeous. Puccini was only reflecting the social mores of the period. Actually, Puccini’s philandering caused emotional carnage in his lifetime and led to at least one young woman’s suicide, but nobody said you had to be perfect to write wonderful music. Besides, the more well-informed will argue, in Muger’s original La Vie de Bohéme, Mimi’s a nasty little tart on the make, and Puccini remodelled her as an innocent victim. But I don’t think that feminist argument convinces. The view of women in La Bohéme swings between cynicism and sentimentality; both are the breeding ground of abuse.

I’m probably just getting on a bit. I’m old enough to be irritated by people who text in the stalls, who leave so rapidly after Act I that they forget to take their fags with them, who grumble that it’s not in English. I’m old enough to think that when Colline, looking every inch the hipster in this production, sings an ode to the greatcoat he’s about to pawn to buy Mimi a muff for her cold hands, he might as well wrap her hands in the coat and hang on, she’s going to be dead and gone in five minutes. The Who hoped they’d die before they got old, and maybe they had a point.

Or it may just be that yesterday Downing Street played host to more operatic drama than even the stage of the Palace Theatre, Manchester could manage. I really wish I could stop deconstructing things, but that’s a baby boomer English graduate for you.

I think I’ll stick to Spotify in future. It’s cheaper, anyway.

 

The Divine Leader Does Cornwall

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Even by contemporary (ie, post-2016) standards there is something very worrying about the blatant stage-management of Teresa May’s election campaign. Journalists shut out, forbidden even to film her entering or leaving buildings, get-togethers filled with the Party faithful shamelessly promoted as meet-and-greet sessions, photographs of her surrounded by dead-eyed workers, their expressions a study in guarded neutrality more familiar from pictures of North Korea than beloved Blighty.

Is all this simple control-freakery? I think it’s even worse. I read it as a provocative statement of indifference, even contempt for, the democratic process. I can do what I bloody well like, it says, and you’ll still vote for me because all the other tossers out there are even worse. Go on, grumble about it. It won’t matter a hoot. I can be who I want, say what I like, treat you like utter shit but you’ll come crawling back for more.

And increasingly, even the party affiliation is being airbrushed out – this campaign is about May, it’s a dictatorship in waiting. She is merely the least incompetent option on offer. And our national indifference to our duties as engaged, democratic citizens, has brought us to this. Politics is left to the extremists and those on the make.

I have donated to More United. I hope they manage to make some kind of impact. I suspect that they won’t be able to dramatically change the outcome of this little lot, though I’d love to be proved wrong, but we must keep the flame of resistance alive, the hope of a better way. I know many people out there who are hungering for it. I may not live to see it (I’m 58 and these things can take a long time). But mine was the blessed generation, and anything I can offer to those after it is worth the investment.

Above all, we must not give up hope. People lived through the Holocaust, Stalinism, the Cultural Revolution, the Killing Fields, and that in the 20th century alone. Not all of them, but enough to rebuild, and not to lose hope.