In Times of Peace by John Agard: Read by Noel Clarke | Remembering World War 1 | More 4


My Extraordinary Daughter – the best idea I ever had.

IMG_0368When I first posted ‘My Extraordingary Daughter’ she was just about to begin her degree at Glyndwr in Wreham. She was working for Calon Lan Caring Services and had just become the youngest Special Constable in North Wales. I talked about her: ‘pounding the beat in Rhos and on Wednesday and Friday she will be sat in university lectures on Crime and Criminology. She will also spend at least one morning or afternoon doing housework at home. She will walk the dogs, pick up some grocery and go out with her friends.’ I said: “And she will do all this with grace, and humour and energy and above all, enthusiasm. Because that is what my extraordinary daughter does. And as if all of that is not enough, she will do all this looking absolutely beautiful. She will light up each and every room she walks into. Because that is what she is: a little ball of love that lights up everywhere around her.”

She has now left home for her final year at ‘uni’ – house-sharing (shacking up, we used to call it) with Mr ‘Well Fit’, and is working for another caring service. Now approaching her 21st birthday next week, a lot has happened, but little has actually changed since my original post: she continues to be the best idea I ever had. 🙂 

E. was my idea. The best one I ever had. She was carefully planned because I didn’t want any more maternity leave, we simply couldn’t afford it and because once I had finished changing nappies, I really had finished changing nappies.

It was quite a fun pregnancy really – I ate zillions of tins of fruit cocktail, and cream cakes, and drank loads of tea for the first time in years. I also went off alcohol. I got really fat really quickly, and Eddie, the caretaker, commented immediately. I remember starting to worry about ‘doing this one properly’ – ‘natural birth’ ! And just like last time, I started making crap, nervous jokes about the crap system of babies having to come out the way they got in again. And again, it didn’t happen.  I was marking GCSE exams, as usual in those days: the deadline was the 12th, ‘it’ was due on the 21st. But then it all went pear-shaped when the final scan was mis-read. It appeared she had stopped growing and she had to be whipped out sharpish. Unfortunately, I told the nurse, that was not going to happen: I still had papers to mark. The nurse was aghast; the doctor was fairly calm, and agreed I could have till Wednesday night and come in on the Thursday morning.

We got up at the crack of dawn to get to the hospital by 8 am. I was wheeled down into the bowels of the hospital and put in a queue. And that is where we stayed pretty much all day. There was one emergency after another all morning. After lunch, which I didn’t have, there was one emergency after another. It was 3.30 in the afternoon before she was unzipped.

At some point, flicking through a baby magazine (I bought loads, read some and ignored all) I learned that the worse age gap between siblings was between 2 and 3 years – apparently it was the age difference which created the greatest sibling jealousy, which in turn could create loads of other issues. GM was 2 and half. Great. To combat this we presented E to him as his present and his responsibility, which he took to with the same gusto he had for all his toys. So when we finally arrived home with her, not only did Benjy the dog take a couple of sniffs and immediately hop into her carry cot with a protective stance but GM raced upstairs and returned with his sunglasses and placed them over her face.

E could hold her head up within a matter of a few weeks: GM watched her like a hawk, imagined every possible harm that could come to her, anticipated her every need – and picked her up at every alarming gurgle or cough. He would waddle across the sitting room with her in his arms – her arms, legs and head flopping all over the place – much to the disgust of many a visitor. But she thrived on it. And could hold ber own bottle around 5 months, could walk in her ninth month and could use a small knife and fork before she was one. In fact she surpassed every baby and toddler milestone miles ahead of all the textbook expectations. Until she went to school.

She went off to O P  Primary nursery before she should have. She could, and did, dress herself completely and was appalled to learn one of her first targets was to be able to put her own coat on. S., the childminder, was equally appalled and pointed this out strenuously. S. was a governor at a local Catholic primary school and didn’t like taking E to O P. S. also pointed out and then demonstrated that E could even ride her two-wheeler bike without stablisers. This did not go down well with the other ‘mums’ – they had 7 year olds with theirs still on.

E. had an extraordinary vocabulary for her age. She could calculate and was extremely dexterous for her age. But her school work was ropey. She was chatty in class but clearly struggled to get on with the other girls. She did make one friend, J. E. and J. were always falling out though.  J. tried to bully E. and E. soon got fed up with this. J. tried it one time too many – pinching E. in an afternoon lesson. E. did not pinch J. back. E. punched J. hard. J. did not try to pinch E. again. 

By the end of the third week  she declared that school had been great so far, but she wanted to know how much longer she would have to keep going. S. and I laughed – I told S. she could tell her it would be another 11 years. E. gave up on other girls somewhere around the end of Year 1. And she also gave up on her school work. I didn’t have the time to coach her at home, didn’t know how to coach her at home, being fearful of making matters worse by confusing her, and decided rather than to work on her school work, we would make sure she was good at other stuff. 

E. was again bullied by the girls at W B Gymnastics club. It was quite a big thing, the ‘choosing the activity’ decision. GM was doing football with T. FC and also went to kick boxing with H. from next door. E was told she had to find an activity to do when she was 6. And just before she was 6 she announced her choice: gymnastics. We were gob-smacked. Where on earth had she discovered gymnatics and did she even know what it was? But I was impressed, and made enquiries.

I still remember the first few sessions. She was obviously new and couldn’t do anything. The girls overtly shunned her, and she came over to me quite a few times and said that no-one would partner her. I sent her back. Just do it anyway. And she did. I was appalled at how the mothers of these girls condoned their behaviour. But it was one of the best things that ever happened to her. Because when she was no longer the new girl, she didn’t avoid the new beginners, she offered to partner them. And my extraordinary daughter began to take shape.

She decided to be a policewoman just before her fourth birthday. They had been playing in the dress-up box and the toy kitchen had bored her as usual. So had the dolls and the princess stuff. And then she found the police uniform. And came home and declared this is what she was going to be.

We moved to HK in 2002. She went to Y. D. She was in year 4, and surprise, surprise, not, the girls bullied her. She was the new girl again, and was shuffled around from ‘friend’ to ‘friend’ for the next 3 years. Eventually she settled on I. Just like J., I. tried to bully her. They argued and fell out all the time. But things were different this time because she was discovering she didn’t need girls at all – she made friends with the boys instead. And go down well this did not. This is  probably best illustrated by describing the party to which every girl in the class was invited except I. and E. This remains one of the most callous and rude things I have ever witnessed: people drive through what looks like this idyllic little Welsh village, and yearn to live somewhere like this, oblivious to that old adage that money can’t buy everything, including class.

Towards the end of the first term at YD Emma brought home a piece of school work. It was a history piece. It was paragraphed. The sentences had capital letters and full-stops. The names and places had capital letters. The words were spelled correctly. More importantly, it made sense. Half-way through reading it I burst into tears. Finally, E.’s academic performance matched her ability. and there was loads of it. When E. left YD we bought Mrs J. a thank you card, and I wrote a note in which I attempted to express a fraction of the gratitude we felt for the difference she had made to E., to the difference she would continue to make to E. In deed everything she went on to accomplish would be based on the difference she had made to E. Mrs J. cried when she read the note, I cried when E collected her A level results – and thanked Mrs J. all over again.

“No-one bullied M. again …”‘

When E. started secondary school she didn’t get bullied. This time she ‘got’ bullies. She didn’t attempt to make girl friends, they attempted to make friends with her. But they were too late, her best friend was M. and D. and A. All boys. Because she couldn’t pursue her gymnatics here she took up judo instead. When someone tried to bully M. she stepped in, hooked his ankle with her toe and floored him. No-one tried to bully M. again when E. was around.


And despite, or even because, she had given up on the girls, she was elected form rep. year after year. She was on the School Council as Year 11 Year Rep when the school was inspected –  the School Council was deemed one of its outstanding features. She organised and sorted out the room allocation on the Year 10 skiing trip to Austria ensuring no-one was left out, and as a result of her intervention in a couple of other incidents, was then invited back the following year to help with the next year group: Year 11s aren’t even usually allowed to go at all. She raised huge amounts of money for charities each year selling sweets. She made Flintshire Senior County String Orchestra, playing the violin in one of the country’s most predigious junior orchestras. She got her orange belt at judo and played netball for the school. When she went to Wakestock at the end of Year 11, a fortnight before her sixteenth birthday, she spent the first night in the First Aid tent helping to sort out an O-D case. It’s what she does.

102_4832And when she wanted to go to Leeds Festival, she went. Going to Leeds was more than a matter of just buying a ticket. She had to pass her History GCSE with a C. Which was not going to be easy: she had worked her little butt off at the beginning of the course, and got an A* in her coursework by writing everything that could be written about some castle somewhere, without understanding a single word of it. Her end of Year 10 exam was an E, her Year 11 mock was a G. She had two evenings left before the exam and she knew nothing about the history of medicine or the American West, and frankly, cared less. But I didn’t want anything below a C spoiling her certificate. So if she wanted to go to Leeds she would have get the C in History as well. It’s not easy learning an entire GCSE syllabus in two evenings. But it can be done, because she did. And that is why she went to Leeds.


So when she became the youngest Special Constable in North Wales Police for as long as they could remember it was no surprise to anyone who knows her. As they read out the personal synopsis of each candidate at the Attestation Ceremony most began “and X has just left Y Univeristy, where they attained a degree in … ” : E.’s began “and E. has just completed her A levels… “.


GM with his favourite’toy’.

My daughter is everything I would have liked to be. She is a talented athlete and a very talented musician. She is kind and  caring and thoughtful. She will work till she drops. She does not know how to give up. She is absolutely stunning. Above all though, she is totally unaware of most of this. And that is why she is my extraordinary daughter, and why I love her so very much.

Summer 2013

So, WordPress congratulates for having my blog one year today. And I realise my attempt to capture a whole year of my life for my children and for prosperity didn’t quite work out. It was the summer that did it. I booked a holiday to Manhattan at Easter and immediately regretted it. And everything kinda went downhill after that.

At this point I am tempted to copy and paste a load of Facebook statuses (?): I can’t remember the last period of my life when I was so sociable, the ‘dates’ just kept rolling in – an excellent season at Theatre Clywd, I seemed to be skipping in and out of the underground car park every five minutes.

It was a great catch-up.

It was a great catch-up.

And then there was a wedding. As ever I dreaded it – I hate weddings, and I especially hate wedding parties. There is this exotic mix of people from all the different parts of the couple’s and their families’ lives – schools, workplaces, social clubs and anywhere else friendships spring from. They invariably have little in common – except being absolutely over-joyed at the prospective happiness these wonderful people can now look forward to! This almost heady enthusiasm for the next 40, 60 or even more years of mortgages, gas bills, nappies, toddler and then teenage tantrums, Christmases spent spreading themselves between in-laws both loved and loathed, had always seemed forced and false to me even before I got married/divorced, but since I got divorced – and so many of the people whose weddings I have been to have also got divorced, nowadays it all seems totally unrealistic as well. Fortunately, this was an O’Brien wedding and the dread of the  tired lettuce leaf decorated finger buffet, with the almost statutory processed ham and blurrr paste sandwiches and scrawny, dehydrated chicken legs would not be a problem: O’Briens have always known how to feed guests. However, even an O’Brien wedding involves the most dreaded element of all: the wedding/wedding party uniform. This is  an odd combination of formal, slightly posh but not too formal, smarter than smart-casual but not quite prom. Dresses continue to dominate the female wardrobe – this is still the one place even the silkiest, satiniest trousers will not do. Having given up even trying on dresses two dress sizes/two babies ago, I knew I would end up praying someone else had had the bottle to dare to dress up a pair of flares – and sure enough, yet again my prayers weren’t answered. Oh well.


‘Because We Can’ Best tour name ever!

Next up was Bon Jovi ‘Because We Can’ at Manchester. But Richie ‘couldn’t’ and a very brave little man had to stand in for him. Courage is a universally respected human quality: unfortunately it is no substitute for talent – and I wanted to rip my ears off half way through the ‘Bad Medicine’ solo. ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’ got a round of applause but we all knew it was for effort. Jon worked his bollocks off as usual, but it was a Roll-er firing on 3 cylinders.

And then it was July. I remember thinking that I hadn’t seen many wasps for years. When I was a  kid they were a perennial part of summer. And then the day before the dreaded holiday was due, from out of nowhere there seemed to be millions of them in our garden. Most of them outside my kitchen window. In a moment of madness I tried to clear them out by hosing them- their retaliation was swift and emphatic –  three of them stung me on the head. It was like a scene from a cheap, slapstick 40’s comedy – one of my hands was slapping my head and hair, the other was frantically clinging a thick spray of water from an out-of-control garden hose pipe. Squealing. Like an hysterical Stan Laurel. I can still feel the needle-like stingers jabbing into my skin. The rest of the day the stings were a bit throbby and that night, as I checked and rechecked everything for New York the next day I put down not being able to sleep to the dread of the long flight and the fear of whether there would actually be an apartment at the end of it of. And this is how the great Manhattan/Harlem adventure began – and pretty much ended.

I was already itching and unwell when instead of the plane continuing to drvie down the runway, the pilot announced the first 20 minute delay. I was itching worse and really unwell by the time we eventually took off 7 hours later. All forms of modern communication were employed to contact the host before we finally got to the apartment: email, text and finally mobile phone. And the first thing I had to sort out was a pharmacy/local store which sold anti-histamines.

View from the apartment.

View from the apartment.

The next three weeks were dominated by first this wasp sting, then an allergic reaction to possibly some shampoo which made my eye, and then my whole face swell up and finally an insect bite on my arm. Even walking along Madison Avenue didn’t feel the same. Gary Martin was frustrated I didn’t feel like wandering around on my own – which I usually did with total confidence, so had to hang around with me all the time. We did the usual and the galleries were awesome this season. ‘Starry Night’ and Pollock’s ‘Let’s just chuck a load of paint around’ were breathtaking; the Frick was WOW! and the MoMA’s Monet was massive! Harlem was hot, and noisy and full of jazzy-kinda stuff, very atmospheric! We did the 9/11 Memorial, which despite its obvious commercialisation was still extremely moving: the blue and white John Lennon Memorial, which despite its obvious tininess continues

John Lennon's Memorial in Central Park

John Lennon’s Memorial in Central Park

to be the most moving and respected 6 foot of New York. We discussed Washington and Boston, and then discovered they were both even hotter, couldn’t agree on how to get there, and so came home a week early. Into the even bigger nightmare of E’s new boyfriend – which fortunately lasted only five months and is best forgotten beyond the now-obvious lessons learned by all.

And so it was back to school: record exam results all around – including the English Department’s, which did not beat the Maths’ and were, therefore, still unsatisfactory and the Head pointing this out to the whole staff, pretty much set the tone for the rest of this school year.

A memo to all toddlers re. your diet

I Love this but you have ‘better’ to come: teenagers.

Teenagers’ lives in brief … remembering this is a much larger ‘chunk’ than many believe, beginning at the end of primary school long before they hit 13 years old, and lasts well into their  early 20’s : their lives can roughly be divided into 3 important sections – their bedroom, their friends, and school.

  • Their bedroom. Before they hit their teens, this is a room to sleep in and it is difficult to get them to go to it. Now they will live in it. You are not allowed in – which is just as well because as the floor is the main storage facility, there’s no room for you anyway. Wardrobes and cupboards have become superfluous so have to be covered up with stickers, posters, To Do lists (which must not be ‘done’) and pictures of (females) ‘cute’ animals in strange poses or (male) cars, guitars or other objects of desire. Notice, there is no category for their diet on this one, as they refuse to eat with you. The only evidence of what they may be living on is indistinguishable mould covered leftovers which you eventually discover by stepping on when approximately every few months you do have to prepare both your mind and body  for a Search and Rescue operation  to retrieve your best china/plates/mugs/crystal glasses/plastic mixing bowls/picnic plates from what will be increasingly accurately known as ‘The Pit’. The only other occasion you have to enter this sanctum is to collect laundry. (You will give up on bed sheets and duvet covers around the age of 14, finding it easier to just buy new ones annually.) The laundry is actually quite a fascinating collection: the last time they had nothing to wear, you took them to an expensive fashion purveyor and purchased tasteful, hard-wearing items which fitted them properly. You will, however, rarely find any of these items in the laundry – instead there will continue to be the shapeless, foul-langauge bearing T-shirts bought from music or sports events (male) or £3 ‘tops’ from New Look (female), the latter designed for women at least 10 years older.
  • Their friends. These are the best/worst people in the world. They hate their friends until you comment on them. Then you are the worst person in the world and they hate you. Their friends have everything they do not. Their friends are prettier/’fit’-er, allowed to do everything they are not and apparently have the only reasonable parents in the world who constantly leave their friends unattended at home, do not make them visit grandparents or go shopping and who NEVER go in their children’s bedrooms. They also have better mobile phones, and a ‘decent games console’ despite you only ever buying exactly what they asked for themselves. They spend a lot of time reduced to tears by their friends. It is useless trying to console them, because it is the end of the known world and you don’t understand: which obviously you don’t as you are not allowed to actually meet most of these friends because you are embarrassing.
  • School. All you need to know about school/’uni’ is that it has changed beyond your imagination since your day. They return from this place exhausted daily. When you enquire what they have been doing, you will be told ‘Nothing’. This is shorthand for “I’m not telling you because it’s none of your business and even if it was, you wouldn’t understand because you do not know any of my friends, and you would have the teachers arrested if you knew how they treated me, which would be embarrass me in front of my friends.” After having to talk to you for this long, they will then retreat to their bedroom where it will take them the rest of the evening to ‘chat’ on their mobiles, laptops and even games consoles about everything that happened at school that day.



Hurrah For Gin

I’ve noticed an alarming trend at pre-school, some of my fellows seem to be eating what is presented to them on their plates without query. I have also witnessed some voluntary consumption of vegetables. It makes me sick.

Take heed people, follow these simple rules and exert some fricking authority!

  • Set the tone – spend a week detoxing on jam toast.
  • Refuse anything but Cheerios for breakfast. Have them without milk on Mondays, Thursdays and every other Friday. Hyperventilate if they get this wrong.
  • Don’t try anything new EVER.
  • Just because you liked something yesterday does not mean you have to like it again today. It is perfectly acceptable to change your mind and you do not have to explain yourself.
  • Fruit as a pudding is bullsh*t.
  • Be suspicious of anything that was recently alive. Beige, dead looking stuff is safer.
  • Request a wide variety of food at the supermarket…

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A Great Season at Theatre Clywd

winslow-3566816It’s been a great season at Theatre Clywd. Thursday was ‘The WInslow Boy’ Terence Rattigan.

My Facebook status read:

nqdztmIOMz‘The Winslow Boy’ Terrence Rattigan – Theatre Clywd – Terry Hands is a bloody genius – brilliant, brilliant touches of comedy with tangible atmosphere changes! Absolutely stunning set complete with Edwardian conservatory, authentic greenery and a huge tree! “Real’ rain on glass roof! Phenomenal performance by a local lad as Ronnie – best ‘shaking with fear’ I have ever seen … Sir Robert was totally totally awesome – such authority. Kate made me cry in her ‘dumping the junk’ suffragettes a ‘hopeless cause’ speech! Just THE best theatre experience. 

Nuff sed.

Daily Post review.

GM leaves uni.

One minute he was slurping baby rice off a teaspoon, then he was waddling around off to nursery. Five minutes later he’s taller than me and he’s wearing ‘his own clothes’ again in Sixth Form. I spent 4 years dreading him going to university and … now suddenly, that’s all over too.


How deluded is Mr Gove ?

The problem with me is that I’m too subjective and get ‘all emotional’ about things which immediately, it seems to me, are wrong. So when I hear or read snippets about Mr Gove and his reforms, I instinctively ‘know’ he is wrong – about everything. But I have been fairly dismissive of all the Gove reforms in England because I teach in Wales and we have a hugely different agenda, so hugely different that we are almost as different to England as the Scottish curriculum and examination system is to the misnomered ‘England and Wales’ one.

This week’s NUT conference and Twitter links to Guardian articles have however, finally led me  to investigate what all the fuss over the border is actually about. And personally I find it hilarious.

Teaching, like medicine and policing, is a very closed shop: it is full of attitudes and practices which are based on pragmatism best kept well away from the public. Teaching has a public face which has to be maintained at all costs: pupils come first, everyone is equally valued, teachers slave for long hours after school EVERY night and this one is the cracker: government initiatives force teachers and schools into massive upheavals that will have a serious and real affect on lessons. Of course, this facade has to be maintained. But facade it is.

The NUT would have the public believe that the changes being proposed by Mr Gove will actually make some kind of difference to the average – and good – teacher’s methods and approaches. What the public must never know is what ever changes the government thinks it may be bringing about, the only real difference they will possibly make will be to the language and, God forbid, possibly the layout of schemes of work and lessons plans – neither of which bear the slightest resemblance to what goes on in the classroom anyway.

The government is seriously deluded if it thinks its changing of ‘the curriculum’, the syllabi recycling which takes place every few years or even the lecturers in teacher training establishments have the slightest influence on what goes on in the classrooms of Britain.

There is only one influence on what and how the curriculum is taught in Britain and that is the experienced teacher, usually the Head of Department, who issues forth on the only thing that matters to any young teacher fresh from a four year course on the ‘shoulds’ and ‘coulds’ of education – and that is how to survive an hour with 30 hormonally rampant teenagers whose only real interests in life are a) being fancied by another equally hormonally rampant teenager, b) being accepted by the bitches in Set 3 (otherwise known as their peers),  and c) who is going to win ‘the league’ this year,  whilst at the same time delivering a sufficient number of exam passes  to keep their Head of Department from having a mental breakdown each September before, during or after the exam results meeting with The Head.

Mr Gove is right. History teaching in this country has now over-taken maths as probably the most poorly taught subject on the curriculum. (And kids do not know how to use commas. You’ve probably spotted a few places where my own sentences would have benefitted from a few strategically placed little mini-slashes.) Discovering my own daughter did not know who Winston Churchill was, I must admit,  a bit of a shock – not the least because she has a GCSE Grade C in History.

On reflection of course, why should she? The syllabus she studied included the history of medicine, the American West and the local castle built by Edward II. Before that, in the lower school, she will have had a series of single lessons on various aspects of the Victorians, the Romans and the Normans (– notice we are still not admitting that this actually means Italians and French! God forbid we were invaded by a bunch of opera-loving facists and snail-eating fashion designers. No, the Romans and Normans were eventually overcome and are now obsolete with no further modern relevance or living descendants.).

So, how or why have I managed to assimilate so much historical ‘knowledge’ despite only studying History at O level myself? The only topics I remember revising for my O level was the Agricultural Revolution – and some inane stuff entitled ‘Welsh History’ which only succeeded in teaching us that, in fact, according to the English Secretary of State who sanctioned that particular little section of the syllabus that particular year, Wales, does not actually have much of a history of its own.

The answer is: my parents, television and most importantly literature.

I learned about Winston Churchill and World War II because my parents and grandparents were still living it. My father was a war-baby and was brought up on what is now called recycling – they called it ‘Make Do and Mend’. It meant nothing was to be discarded, everything had multiple uses and Hitler was only going to be defeated by every newspaper, tin can and bit of metal being used and reused time and time again. They were taught that the war was being fought because Hitler wanted to take over the world – there was no element of  disgust at the persecution of the Jews because the mass extermination of them was largely only discovered when the Allies stumbled across Auschwitz and the other concentration camps at the end of the war – the persecution of Catholics, gypsies, blacks and the disabled was equally not a driving concern behind  the resistance to the Nazis. Which of course was why, within a decade the great British public was so easily able to dish out their own brand of racial hatred and suspicion towards the West Indians lured to Britain to man our buses and clean our hospitals in the 1950s. It is also why to this day my father has difficulty binning anything made of aluminium and why ‘broken’ doesn’t mean ‘useless’ it means ‘find a different use for it’ – and why he still refers to people from other cultures with a language which dehumanises them.

My father missed going to Korea because he had the flu and had ten days of ‘leave’ due to him. He used them to go home to recuperate and missed the posting. Consequently,  I know very little about the Korean war except what I learned from ‘Mash’, a sitcom starring Alan Alder set in an army medical unit. I do know about Vietnam though. It was on the BBC news daily when I was a small child. One day I noticed that it had been ages since there had been any stories about it and thought nothing more about it until I was much older and realised it must have ended. The next time the Vietnam war entered my consciousness was when I went to see a film called ‘Rambo’ in 1982. It was still some time before I made the connection to all those news stories I had walked in to in our kitchen throughout most of my primary school years.

And this leads me to the second source of my awareness of the past: film and television. My generation was hugely influenced and informed by dramas and films set in the past: ‘Roots’ practically wiped out racism for a whole generation, ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ bred a hatred of class distinction and the weekly western reinforced what was later to be exposed as the fallacy of the American Dream. As a child, Wyatt Earp and Jesse James were as real to me as Robin Hood and the daleks. And like the films set in India and Africa such as  ‘Zulu’, the western presented the white Europeans as the civilising force which took democracy and the railroad to savage barbarians in the nether regions of a hitherto dark, ‘uninhabited’ (by white Europeans) and mysterious continent just waiting and begging to be colonised by some European adventurer or entrepreneur.

The 60s and 70s were also littered with films set in World War II: two people in particular were responsible for the Allies victory and they were both called John – no not Winston or Montgomery – John: as in John Wayne and John Mills. These two guys were everywhere – flying planes, captaining ships and leading infantry attacks on Germans all over the world. There was also a really important person who lost his legs, a chap called Douglas Bader who apparently fell in love with a waitress who admired his determination to take her to the pictures and another bloke who was responsible for some bouncing bombs blowing up some dams.

So when I was thrown into pre-1914 literature at university it was all rather a shock to discover that things which had happened in the past had actually influenced who we were today. In deed, it soon been apparent that things called social reformers had influenced the ending of slavery and not as I had previously assumed, that the government had one day decided to simply pass a law because the prime minister wanted it that way. I also discovered that writers and artists as well as politicians and kings and queens had had a hand in historical changes which had taken place and had helped bring about shifts in attitudes and thus the laws of the land. I discovered the reason we had so many Latin roots in the English language had something to do with the Anglo-Saxon language absorbing words from people who had actually lived and governed Britain for four hundred years – yes, four hundred years – not a ‘term’ as I had been led to believe from studying them for 12 weeks in Year 8 at school. And there was more – Wales apparently really did have its own history before the Industrial Revolution, before hundreds of thousands of English men and women had swarmed into the South Wales valleys and the mining areas of North Wales, bringing with them little in the way of any significant cultural influence but their usual resistance to learning the indigenous language – thus explaining the ease with which your average Welsh person communicates with people from the West Indies and South Africa alike.

It is entirely through literature that I have learned anything really: the hypocrisy of the Catholic church and its influence through Chaucer; the social unrest at varying times, including apparently a civil war in Britain and of course the injustices of empirical ambition through Swift, Dickens and Yeats. And it was Wilfred Owen who taught me the reality of World War I: the conditions, the horrors and waste of human life which the history books dispense with so glibly with a few, and often poorly placed, adjectives whilst swiftly moving on to names and dates and conferences commentators at various times have deemed important.

When I look at the compulsory curriculum I wonder at its failures! PE does little but put children off most of the activities: children really inspired to pursue sports and athletics do so at after school clubs. Geography reduces our beautiful planet to contour lines and statistics; with cheap international travel, kids learn more from a fortnight on the Costa Nota Lotta (usually in term time).  Don’t even get me started on the teaching of art or music ! And my respect for science diminishes year on year. Are we really that better off after hundreds of years of it? Beyond destroying our planet, what exactly has it accomplished? And by discovering how the universe works – and even how it began –  we can … well, what ?… change anything that really matters? We will be able to cure all diseases so that one day a generation can finally live forever … bringing about what … the lack of necessity for anyone else to ever be born? Are we to believe that science will one day invent the ultimate fuel …to drive computers that will one day do everything for us … so that we will be able to do what – be entertained by computer generated literature, film and art ? Or maybe science will one day be able to eradicate suffering … in all its guises – physical pain, mental illness? What about the psychological and emotional pain of bereavement, romantic heartache and even that inconsolable, pit of emptiness you feel when your youngest child finally leaves home ?

For me there are only a small handful of subjects which are vital to the real enhancement of the human condition – literature, music, art and history. Learning who we are and being able to take part in and respond to the things which make life worthwhile is far more important than the average rainfall in Sweden or how many x’s y is worth.  Science, maths and all the rest could cheerfully be left to the options stage in secondary school in my opinion. Mr Gove is right. Being able to use punctuation effectively is vital to written communication. And a grasp of the lives and contributions of key players in our history is equally vital for us to comprehend why we should be welcoming the Polish and the Bulgarians alike into our country, why we already have so many immigrants from areas of the globe the Victorians colonised and why racial hatred leads to nothing but violence and war.

But teachers are not paid to do any of this. They are paid to get children through exams. They are paid to churn out economic commodities who with a little bit of luck may pick up a book or go to an art exhibition on their day off once in a while. And that is why it is not government initiatives or syllabus changes that will influence what or how a teacher delivers in a classroom.  What will influence them is what the Head of Department tells them works. What kids need to write in an hour and a half in the gym on a sunny afternoon in June. And this will not change from one year to the next. To get a C at English literature students will still need to know that Curley’s wife does not have a personal name to suggest she is just another of his possessions, that Wilfred Owen uses alliteration to imitate the sound and rhythm of bullets being fired and that Lady Macbeth – despite being viewed as weaker both physically and intellectually than her husband – is to blame for him killing Duncan.

How the syllabus is worded, the terms used in the scheme of work to convey this – VAK, AfL, brain gym, mindmaps – are all irrelevant. At the end of the day, the bottom line is, the English literature teacher will read these texts in class and tell her pupils what they need to write about them to get the ticks they need to pass. And the history teachers will continue to devise lists, acronyms and mnemonics to help her students remember the five key causes of World War I – because there never has been – and more importantly, probably never will be – any marks allocated for students to demonstrate empathy with the men who could distinguish between Shell and BP petrol cans used to carry drinking water in the trenches.

The Secret Teacher

Teenagers’ Ignorance

Using Mr Men to Teach History