Monday, December 20, 2004

'I heard it was because a man called Archie Duke shot an ostrich because he was hungry' (Leave those kids alone: III) 

Okay, this is getting on to being slightly out of date but it's definitely an anecdote worth sharing. The clock winds back to the middle of November, specifically the week prior to Children in Need, and the action starts with me being asked to participate in the school's annual contribution to the charity. Keen as ever to be viewed as a team player - and thereby gain a good report - I accepted this rather dubious of invitations without asking what would be involved. Normally public humiliation is something I go in for in a big way, hence, I suppose, bloggage, but for public humiliation centering on Staff Karaoke, I'd usually prefer a bit more preparation time - get myself all good and ready to really humiliate myself, like. Being in the main a curious bunch, the teacher asked me if I had any ideas off the top of my head. I told them that perhaps I'd go as Nelly. Some of the younger ones sniggered at this. Did they perhaps, I asked, think that I as a skinny white boy couldn't cut it in the emulation of a large black man? Apparently they did. Hmmm, if I'm unable to get even the most tepid of support from staff, then what chance did I have of carrying it off in front of an audience of half the school; answer: very little. So I pondered who to go as, and what song to do on the way home. Sitting on the bus I assessed my theatrical abilities: can't sing, can't dance, can swear a bit. Sensing that it would be a good idea to exclude it from even the smallest of considerations, I left 'can do public nudity' off the list. Regular readers will understand that, as the living embodiment of the post-Scream-everything's-a-reference world, I started mental lists of the historical and the musical. Neatly fusing the Higher History syllabus and current rock trends, I resolved to go on stage the next week as the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and perform U2's Miss Sarajevo. I was inordinately pleased with myself until I realised that, in the time available, the chances of being able to gather the elements of suitable costume were practically nill. I consoled myself by embracing the public nudity option for quite some time but I restarted the process to go as someone I'd like to go as. Perhaps I was looking at it from the wrong side of things: which songs are good songs to do for an audience? ACDC's Whole Lotta Rosie with it's '38-42-56, you can say she's got it all' chorus wandered through my brain, but I sadly put this to one side, not wishing to have to do a lesson before the performance to explain to my tracksuit-wearing children who ACDC actually are. In the end I just decided to go as plain old Franz Ferdinand, reasoning that if would take minimal effort and that, in a certain light*, I suppose I could just about pass myself off as a reasonable immitation of Alex Kapranos, the band's lead singer. Lighten my hair slightly, a bit of make-up, camp it up outrageously for the crowd and Bob's your aunty. Piece of piss in other words.

Staff Karaoke is great fun. If you're a kid getting to laugh at your teachers for charity. If you're one of it's victims - sorry, forgot the party line there, willing participants - you have to embrace it, consume it, become it if you're to survive, never mind triumph. I was luckier than most taking part for the simple reason that after the end of this term, I don't ever need to go back to that school - my standing at the school was in no way at risk. Somewhere in the black beating pit of my soul I am a natural showman, and in the right circumstances - generally between the hours of 9am and 3.30pm - I love being the centre of attention. It's probably an overcompensation for my shy and retiring teenage years. Couple this with the upswing of my manic lifestyle and Staff Karaoke is something of a minor broblem at worst. We all had a rehersal on the night before the CiN festivities, which went well, with Friday being the main event.

I got up that morning and dressed mostly in black, and put a white tie and all the necessary make-up in my rucksack. As it was bitterly cold I arrived at work looking rather like a Gore-tex swaddled Johhny Cash and we all had a pretty relaxed morning with not much in the way of meaningful work achieved as the kids were toddling between various fund raising activities; the Home Economics department was doing a roaring trade in cakes, savouries and sweets made from fairly traded ingredients -a massive plus as far as I'm concerned - and more musical events involving the kids. A kind of mini-X-Factor was a bit of a hit and proved, surprisingly that has a good singing voice and is an expert guitarist, and then it was time for us to go and prepare ourselves for the main event. I emerged from the staff toilets - what luxury: acres of marble floors and raw silk toilet paper - in dire need of assistance with my eye make-up. having sucessfully lightened my hair to the desired shade with the skillful application of chalk dust, I rather took the sheen off this victory by stabbing myself in the eye with and eye-lining pencil. And I thought I was dangerous enough with a razor. Blinking through my tears I realised that I wasn't actually looking at Kim Wilde, but one of the art teachers doing an impressive imitation. I told her that if she stabbed the entire audience in the eye, then she'd stand an excellent chance of winning on presentation alone. She looked like she was going to stab me instead, but rather kindly offered to sort out my make-up for me instead. So she starts drawing on my face - at the time I suspected her of writing 'cunt' on my forehead - only to be called back into the ladies' to assist one of her colleagues. I suspect that they were doing something arcane with bra straps; they always are. But I digress. I looked at my watch; time was running out. 'You're just keeping me hanging on out here,' I shouted. 'It's almost time - we'll be on stage in a minute.' The door shoots open and Kim stalks out closely followed by Emma Bunton and the head of the music department, henceforth referred to here as Shirley Bassey. Kim takes the eyeliner and resumes the task at hand. She now adds 'shitstabber' to the litany of curse words on my forehead. 'You're always making jokes like that,' she says, 'you think you're really funny, don't you?' I tried, honestly I really did, but I just can't help myself. 'Funny how? Like a clown? Do I amuse you?' From the way they blankly look at me, I deduce that neither are Martin Scorsese fans. Thankfully George Harrison, the only hippy P.E teacher that I've ever encountered, apparently is and he laughs, saving me from possible consignement to a straitjacket. One of the sixth-years running the show summons us to the wings of the stage: it's nearly time. We've been given no indication as to which order we've to appear on stage. We wait. Although we look calm enough, I've done this sort of thing enough time before to know that, in our own private ways, we're shitting ourselves. Reverting to type, I seek comfort in Emma Bunton's cleavage. This is a mistake, as it's only after I've been shoved out onto the stage that I realise that they've selected me to go first. I'm this close to telling the little fuckers that they had better pray that I don't come back post-Christmas, when I realise that I'm not Allan anymore, but Alex Kapranos, lead singer of Mercury Prize-winners Franz Ferdinand and I am here to put on a show. Opening the Camp valves to full and selecting Maximum Cheese, I strut to the mic stand. They all seem taken aback, or perhaps just defeaned, when I yell 'hello____! How're you doin' tonight?' It's 2.30pm, it's full daylight and I have neither cigarettes, fuel, sunglasses nor a car. Hit it!

The music starts to play at maximum volume, FF's Take Me Out threatening to take the windows out and I start to sing. And dance. As no one runs shreiking from the room, I class this as a good start. As the song lends itself well to call-and-response choruses, that's what I do and the kids get into it as well, well hyped-up by the time I stagger into the wings passing Jake and Elwood Blues - by day the head of the Modern Languages Department and a Chemistry teacher - going the other way. They're fantastic, and even though I doubt that any but a select few will have actually seen the Blues Brothers, the kids seem to love it; maybe it was the whip they brought for Rawhide, I dunno. Shirley Bassey follows this duo and does live versions of several Bond numbers with a piano accompaniment. Baby Spice is up next and gives a good showing, but Kim Wilde is up next and she just blows them all away: she is Kim Wilde o Top of the Pops in the 1980s. Only George Harrison is left. He goes onstage with a beautiful semi-acoustic guitar and does While My Guitar Gently Weeps. This is good, but My Sweet Lord is even better and he has the crowd in the palm of his hand. I peek out and see lighters raised above heads.

The IT Department have created an electronic voting system - be assured, Scots readers, that your taxes are well spent - and it's coupled with a massive digital projector/screen combo and we're all called onstage to get the results. Jake and Elwood come third, Kim Wilde is second and the mighty George gets a well-deserved first place. The real winers, however, are all the children that will benefit from the £2500 that the school raised. The students eventually drift off home and we staff head off to the pub for stiff drinks to steady our nerves. On the way I discover that every year for the last five, Kim and George have been locked in a battle for victory in the Staff Karaoke match. I also learn that they all spend the best part of the intervening year creating costumes and practising, practising practising. I feel much better about my relatively poor showing. Losing, however, always has its upsides, namely that it is the winner who buys the drinks. As the drinks arrive, I reflect that it's been eight years to the day since a friend died in a car accident, and the countless thousands of pounds that his family have raised to honour his memory.

'Here's to you, pal.'

*i.e complete darkness

Monday, December 13, 2004

Never Mind the Bollocks (II) 

When this story left off, I was clutching a referral to my local hospital. I admit that I knew this would be a possibility, but I'd rather hoped that my GP would tell me that it was nothing to be concerned about, that it would clear up by itself in a few days et cetera, et cetera. I'm starting to resent people who are simultaneously good at and efficient at their jobs, especially when that zealous efficiency leads directly to people sticking needles in my nuts. So I went to the hospital a few days later which, as any UK reader will know, is alarmingly simply due to the speed of things; no eight month wait for me, and presented myself for a battery of tests. Once again my genitals were poked and prodded and blood was taken to levels approaching exsanguination. I also learned that electropheresis gel is very cold. After yet more prodding the consultant frowned and said 'I really think we're going to need to take a sample of that. Just to make sure that there's nothing to worry about'
'Must you?'
'Yes, I'm afraid so.'

I suppose that I should be glad that he was nice about it. I went with a nurse to the place where the wicked deed would be done and, once again, I dropped my trousers. The now expected prodding was followed by the appearance of a rather sinister-looking large needle. A really slender needle to be sure, but still a needle that was to be plunged into my left testicle. Any chance of an anesthetic, I asked. Did you know that you can't sucessfully anesthetise the testes? That was the second thing I found out that day. Apparently nothing short of an epidural or a general anesthetic would do the job, which would mean booking a theatre and coming back another day and, although we're sure that there's absolutely nothing to be concerned about, it is better to get this sorted out as soon as possible. When I've gone to the dentist over the years, I've often found the experience of anethsesia injected into the gums to be far worse than needles inserted, even drilling, into the teeth themselves. Don't get me wrong, it fucking hurts, but it's a different kind of pain and at least you can eat and drink afterwards without food and beverages dribbling down the tnigly side of your face. I reasoned that this would probably be a similar kind of experience* and one needle would be preferable to two. I told myself that I'm a tough guy, that I can handle this, and steeled myself for the pain. I was half-right. While one needle undobtedly was preferable to two, the third thing I found out was that I am not a tough guy. It hurt like Hell itself, but it was over in a few seconds. The fourth thing that I learned was the true meaning of the word 'breathtaking' and then it was off to see the consultant again. This time, perhaps mindful of their recent activities, there was no prodding of my nuts. He assured me, yet again, that there was very little to get worked up about, that realistically I'm far too young to be at real risk of cancer et cetera - but better safe than sorry, eh?


*Although I'm pretty certain that my testes neither eat nor drink.

'I want my Minority Report!' 'Who are you again?' 

Hey Folks,

I'd like to share a conversation I had with my then-fiance in a cinema in St. Austell, Cornwall, in July 2002. We had gone to see Minority Report, starring Tom Cruise.

Her: Who's that?
Me: Tom Cruise, dear.
Her: Okay, thanks.

Such conversations took up a fair amout of our time, and I didn't mind the interuption. Two mimutes later, however:

Her: And who's that?
Me: Tom Cruise. In a different jumper.
Her: Oh...

See, she always maintained that she had a condition she called 'face blindness.' It seems that, according to The Guardian at least, she wasn't lying. Or insane. She was - and I hope very much still is - an incredibly independent woman. The only thing she needed anyone for was to tell her who people on the T.V were. Given my near-instant recognition of faces and names and crushing lack of personal confidence, it seems that fate put us together for just that purpose. Perhaps we were meant to be together.

Congratulations, me.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

You made me forget myself/ I thought I was someone else 

We had our Church's Christmas Fayre a couple of weekends back. It was opened by our local MP who is, funnily enough, the Home Office minister responsible for Immigration. He should be thankful, therefore, that this was the day before the Blunkett/visa scandal broke in the Sunday Torygraph because as it was, his opening remarks had to encompass the war in Iraq - 'I promise that this speech will last less than 45 minutes' - and the proposed ID card scheme. He's a decent guy, and he had the good grace to come and face us - for we can be a hostile crowd when the mood takes us - without attempting to justify government policy. He delivered his speech with his usual good humour and aplomb, spent a goodly amount of cash and departed. I was running the secondhand video - you should see how many people are offloading old videos now that DVDs have taken hold - and bookstall, and the day's humour potential increased markedly when I discovered a porn movie - Flesh Gordon - among the goods on the stall. The things that people donate to churches these days, eh?

On my break from the stall I was having a coffee in the other part of the building and chatting to some other members of the congregation. The usual stuff - life, jobs, the fact that I stayed till 11pm the night before to help get Santa's Grotto read, how I'd found a porn movie on the video stall - when I heard a clattering sound behind me. When I worked as a kitchen porter in a restuarant, after a while I could instantly tell by sound alone what sort of dish had just smashed to the floor behind me; glass pudding dishes sound distinct from dinner plates and saucers sound different from cups. Since my friends have started to spawn children, I've learned to recognise a whole new variety of sounds that are unique to babies and toddlers. The two-tone noise coming from behind me was clearly a child's plastic tumbler - with lid - hitting the floor handle first and then doing a bouncing half turn to hit again with the main body of the cup. Parents, you know what I'm talking about. Being the nearest, I automatically got up and handed the cup back to the child sitting in its buggy, waiting a second or two to make sure the boy wasn't going to start playing the Throw the Cup Game (agan, parents will know exactly what I'm talking about here) and then I went back to my seat.

'You're an all-round good guy, aren't you,' said my table-mate. I lookede at her and looked away again. I shrugged. It's not as if I'd donated bone marrow or rescued the child from an unexpected raid by child-stealing Maoist rebels. I didn't really know how to react. My internal monologue was raving about how, although I appear to be a decent bloke, I am, as a particular person would no doubt tell you, a bastard of the first order. I wanted to believe her, though; I had a desperate need to be told I was a good guy. Seeking the path of least pain and resistence, I left and went back to the stall, where a ten year old from the Sunday School was still engaged in his fruitless quest to sell vintage Schwarzenegger movies to octogenarians. Despite this child's lack of business accumen, the fayre did well and we raised over £1300 on the day and things began to wind down so we commenced with the tidying up. A woman asked me to brush the hallway. Of course, I said, happy to do it - I secretly love to clean floors; a woman who would expect, nay, force me to do so 12 hours a day would be a good candidate for a future spouse - and one of my fellow leaders remarked that I was a really good guy for helping out. At this point I was just about reduced to tears and I was so close to screaming at them, to tell them all to stop saying these things to me. Instead, I went and swept the floor and pondered what had been said.

Am I a bad guy who does good things, or am I a good guy whohas done a lot of terrible things? Which is better? The last time I met my friends Cannibal Saul - devout Christian - and Saint James - confirmed agnostic and consistent winner of Best Living Human Being - I tried to articulate some of this inner turmoil to them as they've known me through the good years and the bad, and are familiar with What Went On. One afternoon we took our lives into our hands by starting a theological discussion. While it was the same theological discussion that we've been having for the past six years, we added an element of danger, perhaps a sense of immediacy, to it by choosing to conduct it whilst crossing and incredibly busy road in the centre of Edinburgh. As conversations inevitably do when I'm involved, we soon got round to discussing the fact that we might not make it home alive. Yes, I said, dragging Saul out of the path of an oncoming bus, 'and bear in mind that we're all sinners too. That's why I,' I shouted as I rolled under the body of a juggernaut and between his wheels, are these vehicles really neccessary in a cityscape? 'Do as much to keep The Man on side as possible.' Saul seems to wish to continue to continue this conversation in the middle of the lefthand lane, but Saint James shepherds him to the dubious safety of the pavement where we are crushed under the feet of festival-goers. As we free ourselves from the melee and head for home, Saul says that he thinks my position is a sensible and refreshing one for a Christian to take. Saint James, who is guaranteed a place in the afterlife, makes noises of agreement. Neither, however, tell me if I am a good or a bad man.

I think I'll probably spend the rest of my life trying to figure it out, but I doubt if I will ever get the definitive answer. My life may never have had any absolutes before, but I hate how obvious that lack is and how fragile my existence is these days. While I'm happy with the progress that I have made in the past year, I'm sad that this progress cost such a high price and grew from such life-changing circumstances. I'm often incredibly angry at the world and I have to force myself to face the fact that I've got nothing to complain about as it is all my fault. We Christians believe that there is always a chance at redemption and forgivness, but while this may work after death it is not some magic cure-all for life here on planet earth. I have to accept, and it's terribly hard, that I've destroyed several futures for myself and others by my actions and I am never going to have another chance at them again. What's done is well and truly done, but when I die and I'm standing tall before the man I suppose I'll find out then if I am indeed a good or bad man. Regardless, I'm determined to have as many pluses in my corner as possible, hence all the do-goodery. Is it cynical? Does that lessen my motives?

More to the point, does anyone need a kidney?

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Never Mind the Bollocks (I) 

I hope it doesn't sound as if I'm gloating, but I got naked with a woman the other day. A professional woman no less. A ver pretty professional woman whom I did not have to pay for the pleasure of her company. All in all you could be forgiven for believing that your humble correspondent had pinched Reilly's passport, wallet and credit cards and is living his life to the full, but I assure you that you'd be quite, quite mistaken in this belief. This rather pretty, professional woman, whom I did not have to pay for her company was, I'm saddened to say, my GP and I was seeing her in her professional capacity and she was seeing my genitals.


Whilst showering, I noticed that one of my testicles was swollen and sore to the touch. Further investigation revealed what appeared to be a small lump where, usually, there is no small lump. Now although I spent a lot of the years 1999-2004 doing my level best to fail my degree, I have learned a great deal about what could be causing such things and I resolved to go to the doctor as soon as possible. I then gave a mental shrug and went back to singing the second verse of Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah, which is one of my favourite hymns for singing in the shower. Now that I'd noticed that things in the hinterland were apparently not as they should be, I also noticed that it was actually quite painful. At that moment I felt most keenly the lack of the Best-Wife-I'll-Never-Have because she could easily have explained it away as due to her love of punching me in the nuts. Of all the things I've missed since we broke up, I assure you that never before have I missed her lovely habit of kneeing me in the groin. Getting an appointment at my GP's practice is rather difficult and goes something like this, as the following conversation between myself and the receptionist shows:

Me: 'I'd like an appointment, please.'
R: 'Okay' - looks at PC - 'the first available appointment is 12th August 2008at 2.45pm.'
Me: 'Er, I think it might be a little bit...urgent...is there not, perhaps, anything a little sooner?'
R: Sighs'Well I really don't know. Hmph.'Glare.'Here's one on Wednesday Morning at 8.30 with'evil grin 'Doctor_____. Would that suit?
Me: 'Yes, that's great. Thank you for your help.'
R: 'Oh, okay.'

Medical receptionists can sense what ails you, perhaps better than any doctor as they don't have any fancy kit like torches or stethescopes to help them out. They know that a man using the word 'urgent' to secure an appointment has something of a deeply personal and possibly embarassing nature to resolve - it's like going into a newsagents and asking for some - wink, wink, nudge, nudge - cough medicine. She gave me an appointment with a female doctor but I cunningly outflanked her by accepting the appointment. She was, perhaps understandably, crestfallen by the ease with which I had robbed her of some of her day's passing pleasure. What this poor woman didn't relise is that I'm 100% liberated man and that I've spent a significant part of the last half-decade purchasing sanitary products and collecting prescriptions for oral contraceptives - usually from the same pharmacy. I just plain don't care about that stuff anymore, and I'll be damned if I let one of nuts fall off by being too embarrassed to see a female doctor. Being magmanimous in victory, however, prevented me from screaming 'In your face!' at her and cackling madly to myself.

So I saw the doctor before work last Wednesday. I don't know if there's an NHS manual on how to break the ice with patients, but if I had a pound, even a Euro, for every time a doctor, nurse, or surgeon has looked at my file and said 'I see you've had your money's worth out of the NHS,' I would not be rich, but I'd be significantly less poor than I am currently. So, asks the vivacious doctor, what seems to be the trouble? I speak to her of my troubled nether regions, the cold that I've not been able to shake for a month and general sense of rundownness. Could they, I ask, be connected? Unlikely, she says, but I should get any suspicious or unusual lumps examined post haste. Yes, I know; that's what I'm here for. She looks at me rather quizzically. Am I sure? Would I not, perhaps, prefer to be examined by a male colleague? I tell her that it doesn't bother me if it doesn't bother her and I'd rather get this sorted out ASAP.

Very well, then.

For the first time in well over a year I remove my trousers in front of a woman and hop up onto the edge of the bed as instructed. She starts poking and prodding and, despite this is manifestly erotic as being kicked in the head with a steel-toecapped boot*, there is a fair bit of movement. I'm getting my first errection in 18 months the presence of a woman and she's checking to make sure I don't have the Big C. Fantastic. What do I do? Do I ignore it? Make conversation? I apologise. Don't worry, she tells me, it's a natural reaction. This causes me to ponder. Is it a natural reaction because (a) it's what always naturally happens when the genitals are stimulated or (b) it's a natural reaction because she's an attractive woman, knows it, and clearly expects all men, even gays, to react accordingly. I'm still trying to figure that one out when I realise, rather belatedly, that she's finished the examination. She's looking at me in that funny way again. She tells me that it's alright for me to get dressed again. I do so. She tells me that she's inclined to believe that it's possibly due to an infection or a cyst, but that she's going to refer me to the local hospital to rule out anything more serious. This doesn't bother me at all as I'm perfectly used to hospitals having spent plenty of time as a patient and visitor to them. I'm a curious person, however, and I ask her what sort of things they'll do. 'They'll take some blood and probably an ultrasound as well. If they think there's anything to be concerned about they might take a biopsy to find out.'
'Okay, that sounds fine...Wait just a damn minute! A biopsy?' How, pray tell, will they do that?
She told me.
My eyes watered.
I'll keep you informed.

*Assuming that you're not into S&M, If you are, make it a feather-capped boot.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Teacher, leave those kids alone (II) 

Problems with The Boss

It's not every day that you can say that you've been publicly humiliated by Bruce Springsteen. Perhaps large, soulless corporations or the state of New Jersey can, but it rarely, if ever, happens to me; that is, until Springsteen humiliated me last week. I own a personal CD player but when I'm out walking, which is often, or travelling I've lately taken to carrying a personal radio with me instead because I enjoy the sheer variety of music and discussions on the airwaves - I've found that even the best CD that I've ever burned eventaully gets a bit stale. There are about ten or so stations that I regularly scan, channel-surfing until I find music I like or a discussion that interests me, which is totally mood-dependent - classic rock sits equally well with classic opera. Far be it for me to scream 'conspiracy' here, but I've noticed that separate stations on different bands seem to play similar or even identical tracks as their rivals, often within a few minutes of each other. When we're talking the most recent number one this is understanable, expected even, like a group of monkeys with typewriters producing Shakespeare, but with older or perhaps more obscure music - my comfort zone in other words - it becomes more apparent that something is going on. Perhaps even, stations have 'research' staff who monitor their rivals' output in the manner that GCHQ and the NSA monitored Soviet signals traffic in the Cold War. Please, if you don't hear from me again, assume that there is a conspiracy in operation and that I've been silenced by the Jewish cabal or whoever it is that runs the media these days; on reflection, perhaps it would save the time and resources of the police if you were to direct the constabulary to Rupert Murdoch. I am, however, digressing from the point I wish to make.

Starting when I was walking on a Sunday evening, and extending through to Wednesday night, I noticed that all these different stations were seemingly engaged in a Bruce Springsteen marathon. This, in and of itself, is no bad thing but it's certainly a noticeable phenomenon. Secret Garden, Born to Run and Dancing in the Dark were played once and Thunder Road, Nebraska and Brilliant Disguise were played twice, with the latter being played on two different stations within minutes of each other. There was also one other track that I couldn't remember which was annoying me, as by this stage I was compiling a list. It's worth noting that these songs had to have been played in the early mornings, late afternoon/evening or later at night for me to have heard them because I'm at school in the daytime and I don't listen to the radio in the house - these tracks had to be played when I was out with my radio, which amounts to a formidable concentration of Springsteen airplay. Try as I might, I couldn't remember the track whose name I needed to make the list complete, to the point where I wasn't sleeping and I was off my food. I knew, however, that if I let my brain get on with it, it would eventually relinquish the missing article in the same way it provides me with names, faces and song lyrics. It also does alapha-numeric combinations which means if you do a hit and run on me then you'd better finish the job lest I report your number plate. Bruce Springsteen goes in for practical jokes and public humiliation, and he make a complete fool of me in a Standard Grade Religious Studies class and my fourteen and fifteen-year-olds were most surprised when I leapt to my feet in an Archimedian 'Eureka!' moment and shouted 'I'm On Fire!' How they mocked me.

Later, leaving school that afternoon, I switched on my radio and heard the following chorus:

Tell me now baby is he good to you
Can he do to you the things that I do
I can take you higher
I'm on fire

Make that two plays for I'm on Fire...

Sunday, November 28, 2004

The Bad Seed? 

Hey Folks,

Given that this blog is ostensibly - love that word - to do with the fact that I suffer from depression and related anxiety disorders, it propbably won't surprise y'all to hear that I'm concerned. Rather than my concern relating to the usual, general and unspecified sense of fear and existential dread, I'm much worried about the behaviour of the media. And the government. What, you may be wondering, could the government and the media be doing this week to make Sad Sack actually share his concerns with us rather than them being accepted as part of the Natural Order? Well, since you asked, I'll tell you. Lots of people have commented on the legislation contained in the Queen's Speech, notably that which deals with anti-social behaviour* and the media's handling of so-called 'terror scares.' The common view expressed by these legions of bloggers and opinion pieces is that we UK residents were, although perhaps mildly concerned about the threat posed by terrorists we have mainly refused to be terrified of them and to make significant changes to our lifestyles. Neither were we truly frightened by the thuggish antics of a small minority of young people and children, at least until the government decided that we should be frightened and started to make them an issue. I imagine that I will not be the first to note that by trumpeting bills designed to deal with petty crimes almost in the same sentence as those aiming to protect us from international terrorism, then the implication is that this mindless thuggery is on a level as equally dangerous to us as the prospect of men and women prepared to die at the wheels of lorries loaded with high explosives. Taking this implicit argument to its logical conclusion, it follows then that this anti-social behaviour is an even greater threat to our safety do to the fact that it comes forth from and happens within our communities. The message that the government clearly wishes us to receive - and the media aids and abetts it in this aim - is quite clear: there's a group of teenagers on your street and they're throwing stones and bottles. Or grenades. Watch them closely enough and you might see them preparing or planting a dirty bomb. They'll kill you and everyone you care about. Fear them! Indeed, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that to replace the services of Alistair Campbell, that Blair had had Ilya Ehrenburg cloned to run a General Election campaign focused on these twinned issues. You all know that it's just mad enough to be true.

Young people have always been perceived as, at the very least, a major annoyance if not an outright threat; Saint Augustine discourses at length about the various failings of youth - it is nothing new, but it is my belief that it has become such a problem today due to the few real problems that we Westerners face. The fact that the fear of wholesale thermonuclear destruction courtesy of the Warsaw Pact and Nato is no longer uppermost in our minds, means that our idea of what constitutes a real threat to collective safety have become diluted and diffused - Lacking this main threat, our minds have wandered and engaged ever more fantastic and nebulous threats. Our apparently genetic need to fear something - higher primates such as gorillas and baboons fear crossing watercourses, and all animals flee from fire - is at odds with the manifest fact that our technology has allowed us to defeat those threats: as well as conquering the Cold War, we've largely destroyed the threat of disease and few fear the possibility of God's wrath and we conequently lack a Great Enemy to occupy this genetic need to fear. We Brits, however, and are constrained by the fact that we're too damn polite.

Liberals, humanitarians and cosmopolitan people - to use Robin Cook's term - have been doing their level best to ensure the failure of those who actively seek to make all Islam and its adherents responsible for the actions of a tiny minority and wish to respond to the violence of these few with collective reprisals, and I think that we are generally succeding in this to ensure that we maintain a free, open and tolerant society. WE are all aware, however, of the hate spread by several vocal members of a truly racist minority in our country, who argue that while many Muslims do not take part in violence, they still tacitly agree with and support its aims. This may be true, I honestly can't say, but I fear that it is true for us as well. Many people would never describe themselves as being racist, but it is a common enough occurence to hear someone, when confronted with the bile preached by the likes of Nick Griffin, say words to the effect of that's terrible, but he kind of has a point... Even if this does represent the 'silent majority,' then they are still constrained by the fact that they know that such views are rarely tolerated and their sense of British manners precludes them from being openly racist and saying that they truly fear what might be said inside a nearby mosque. Where then can this 'silent majority' place their fear? Fat people? No can do, they know it's the fault of poor genes, or McDonalds. The disabled**? Impossible, their homes would be picketed by placard-waving disabled rights activists. The answer: they fear Britain's children. In the eyes of the government, the media and the wider population, children and young adults are schizophrenicaly portrayed as being simultaneously our 'hope for the future' and 'thuggish criminals.' Our society's obsession with the actions of young people has been given full vent in the trial of Luke Mitchell, who is accused of murdering his girlfriend in June of 2003. In what is an extremely emotive case, I'm sad to say that the media's coverage has broadly been sensationalist in manner with plenty of lurid speculation that I believe to be dangerously close to being prejudicial. It seems that even BBC Scotland's coverage is not above it either, but the actions of the tabloid press in particular make me burn with rage. I've read several lurid accounts of the evidence presented in court on Thursday and, despite the import and gravity of the case, it stretches over pages six and seven after dubious psuedo-news reports on the latest happenings in the I'm a Celebrity...encampment. Reading the two pages would require a strong will to cope with the sheer amount of innuendo and spurious claims being presented as evidence. I firmly believe in the nature of the judicial process, but I worry greatly that the prosecution is surrendering to tabloid-style decisions about what constitues sound evidence. Thursday's evidence seems - if the newspaper accounts are to be believed - to centre on the content of several essays and scribblings on the jotters of the accused. The media have driven themselves into a frezy over quotes lifted from these essays and graffitto, making much of the fact that Mitchell refers to Satan as 'a fallen angel' and to having shaken hands with the devil. Much is also made of the accused having written that God 'is a futile excuse at most for a bunch of fools to go around annoying others.' These quotes are tied in the media's mind, if not the prosecution's, to Mitchell's view of himself as a Goth, and the fact that he admires Kurt Cobain and listens to Nirvana. It is implicit that the editors of these esteemed organs view such statements and opinions as being symptomatic of someone who would kill. Neither is there any discussion or analysis of what Mitchell may actually have been saying the quoted material. The entire sweep of the media has failed to analyse these comments in any meaningful way - the do not, for instance, link his professed atheism to him being a student of a school which bases a significant portion of its ethos on religious teaching. Over and over again we are simply expected to accept all this as evidence of murder.

Permit me to offer my own very brief analysis of some of the possible implications of what was presented as evidence: Firstly, regardless on your views on its truth or authenticity, few would argue that even the Bible refers to Lucifer and his status as a fallen angel and physical contact with Satan is a common theme of religion and popular culture, with much literature discussing the subject. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters springs almost instantly to mind as do the lyrics of U2's I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For which actually contains the line 'I have held hands with the Devil.' Few would argue that this would make Bono a Satanist or a murderer. From the way the media has chosen to portray this evidence, is it reasonable to expect that an abscence of belief in God or a steadfast conviction that religion is a load of bollocks, is the thinking of someone who would murder their own girlfriend. I'm a Christian and I find such an inference deeply troubling and offensive. These 'facts' consigned to pages six and seven are bad enough, but the massive frontpage headline simply beggars belief: 'I have tasted the Devil's green blood' splashed across the lower half of the page - under, funily enough, still images from I'm a Celebrity... - and while your eyes may see 'I have tasted the Devil's green blood,' your brain reads 'guilty.' Now you can call me an apologist if you like, but there to be a very good reason for Mitchell to have written this. At the very least there is a possible context for such a statement. We have already been told that Mitchell is a habitual and heavy user of various drugs if not an actual addict. You do not, in my opinion, need to be a team member of the Betty Ford or Priory clinics to be aware of how often addicts describe their addictions in physical, tangible and evil terms - 'demon drink,' 'the hell of substance abuse' - but once again these statements are seen as evidence of criminal intent. This may be the first and last time that you hear me agreeing with Donald Findlay, the boy's QC, who says that they are at best little more than the writings of a rebellious and occasionaly thoughtful young man, and at worst 'stupid.' I personally don't find him to be that rebellious: if I had a pound - even a Euro - for every time I've met an angry teenaged Goth atheist, I'd be taking you all on holiday come summer. Mitchell is a cliche of the modern teen certainly, and I seriously wonder about the current state of collective wisdom if he is being viewed as some sort of dangerous Other. My true hatred of sensationalist coverage stems from the fact that it has the effect of misdirecting us from the real facts of a case. Tucked away in the last two columns of the story, we read about Mitchell's fascination with knives and how he talked openly with friends about how cool it would be to commit murder. Again this does not mean that he actually killed his girlfriend, but it is arguably far more pertinent to the case than what he may have scrawled on the cover of a folder. Luke Mitchell may well be guilty, but it is for the jury sitting in court to decide and not the media. Sadly, regardless of the eventual outcome of the case, I fear that Mitchell's portrayal in the Press will lead to the further stigmatising and alienation of young people, especially those that choose to dress in a certian manner, listen to music that they like and offer opinions on society, politics or religion that more 'responsible' adults may feel uncomfortable with. Ultimately, it makes a mockery of us and our belief that our children are our future.

*Note that if you replace 'behaviour' with the word 'elements' you get a catch-all label most famously beloved of the Third Reich and the USSR. Am I really suggesting that we're on a descent into fascism? Perhaps I am, but I'm hoping to be proven wrong

**I myself have several blind friends, but I've viewed them with a measure of suspicion and distrust ever since David Blunkett became Home Secretary.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Teacher, leave those kids alone: part one of a potentially limitless series 

So, as previously intimated, I've been doing the education thing for the past month and a bit. At first, every event was distinct and sharp in my my mind, but, as the days have passed into weeks, most of them have blurred into an indistinct mass divided into at school and at home. Which is not to say that I haven't enjoyed it as it has been a largely good experience, it's just that only the exceptionally hilarious, sad or maddening events loom large in my memory. I'm lucky to be working with some exceptionally talented and committed staff, and the school environment is good too. I don't recognise any of the 'problem school' issues, beloved of tabloid editors across the land, in this school and I know that it is equally true for the permanant staff as well. In the mornings, I usually arrive before 8.30 which leaves me a good twenty minutes or so to bond with my colleagues in the highlight of the morning, the The Daily Mail Game. The DMG could be considered to be analogous with the USMC's 'hoo-rah' team talk, used to fire men for battle, and it works like this: A teacher's name is selected from a rota each day and that teacher then has to buy a copy of the Mail. In the staffroom they shut their eyes and open it at a random page. They then open their eyes and read whatever is on that page. Such is the mind-numbing stupidity of the Daily Mail's content that we cannot help but be enthused to got out and achieve miracles of educational performance, lest the children in our care leave school so mentally stunted that their only realistic career choice is to work as a journalist for the Mail. If you ever wish to see true failures of educational achievement and guidance then look not at kids hanging around on the streets, but at people who really should know better switching off their analytical functions and unquestioningly accepting the piffle peddled by newspapers like the Daily Mail. The Daily Mail Game has proved so successful that we're thinking of marketing it as a family game next Christmas, and we all fully expect to be millionaires by this time next year, Rodders.

Sadly, it's not all fun and games; I have to do actual work as well. For the first couple of weeks this was mainly just job shadowing and getting the measure of the kids, and doing a fair bit of marking. I know that in future years the system will surely crush me , but for now I actually enjoy marking. Dad's at college doing computer science and he loves the programming element: it seems that we take comfort in repetitive tasks. Doing these sorts of tasks is really in my best interest as it means that my assigned teacher, Mr Bird, can get on with his job and I therefore get to observe a good professional interacting with his classes on an almost full time basis. I also take an active role in class by helping the kids as and when they require it and lately I've taught a couple of lessons to allow me plenty of practise before my tutor from uni comes to assess my progress. A couple of times, they've even left me alone with different groups of pupils to see how I cope with the all-important discipline issues. The fools. So far, though, it's all been going swimingly. Mr Bird, who I work with the most, although I float into the other social science classes fairly regular, is also the school's Depute Head and it's rare to find a member of a schoo's senior management team with any significant teaching responsbilities. He is, however, very gifted and it is obvious that the quality of teaching would suffer if he weren't able to combine the roles successfully. The downside is that he's frequently called to attend no-notice meetings or take interminable phone calls that take him away from class. Although I wasn't too impressed at first, it's worked to my advantage in that I'm now used to and confident enough with the regular students that work continues and discipline is maintained when he's off dealing with the Bigger Picture - the Head, she deals with the Really Big Picture, and consequently has no teaching role whatsoever, which just confirms my theory that school's would benefit from a business management type to deal with the financial side of things to allow the professional teaching staff to get on with things. But I digress.

Success has a funny way of working against you, and my capicity to deal with classroom travails came back to bite me. A week or so back, I, the innocent almost graduate, was sent into Here Be Dragons territory having been asked (i.e told) to cover a 'please take.' This term denotes notes that are passed, such as in the manner with which Blind Pew dispensed the Black Spot, to un-busy teachers asking them to cover for an absent colleague: 'Please take class X @ 10am.' Wily staff will do deals with colleagues, Satan, anyone to avoid an unfamiliar or 'bad' class with a gusto that would impress Machiavelli. Of course, sloth plays a part as well. I was in our classroom marking some essays on electoral reform in Britain in the 1850s - fascinating stuff, you should read up on it - when one of the admin staff walked in and left a note on the desk. Mr Bird saunters back in and tells me that he has a meeting right after lunch to discuss decentralising departmental funding...my eyes glaze over, drool forms at the corners of my mouth as I slowly nod my head and I vaguely realise that he's reading the note..."Oh, can you do this for me?" Do what, I ask, instantly aware to the myriad of possible dangers consigned in a secretary's note. "Mr Green" isn't in today and I've been asked to cover his Higher Computing class, but I can't because of this meeting. I think you'd be up to it though; you can handle it can't you?" He's a decent man, and I honestly think he has confidence in my abilities and that I was indeed up to the task, but knowing that didn't prevent men from wanting to thump him. The luch bell rings and we go and have eat our lunches, which is the traditional protocol at lunchtime. My fate becomes common knowledge among the teachers. You'll be fine, they reassure me. An art teacher who seems like he was was and old man when ENIAC was a boy seems certain that all young people know everything there is to know about technology. "Yes," I tell him, "my glasses are the source of all my powers." What I don't tell him is that I got a D for Higher Computing. The bell ends, signaling the end of lunch.


I don't know this class, I don't know this subject; the kids are already in and sat down by the time I get to the classroom. They're doing programming. I feel like telling them that they really want my dad, that this is his bag. I can, at a push, remember how to do a basic loop program, but I'm much more comfortable naming the divisions that fought at Stalingrand and their commanders. I scan the class and recognise a couple of kids from other classes that I've worked with and thankfully they are both good students. One of them is a girl of 17 who is so kind and decent that, to quote a description of one of my own school's prefects, 'so nice that she makes Mother Theresa look like Imelda Marcos.' One pupil asks - deliberately or not, I don't know - a particularly awkward question. Teaching an unknown class can be like a totalitarian state: if you are slow to put restive backs to the wall, then pretty soon you can expect to find yourself facing the firing squad. When you have a good working relationship with students, they'll tolerate weakness or mistakes without complaint, but plenty of others will use it to their advantage. Getting caught out is the easiest way to lose control, but I'm already reacting. I ask the class to offer their knowledge to enlighten their classmate, and there's a pause. It lengthens. Then Mother Theresa's hand shoots up and she reels off an answer that I should be paying attention to, but can't hear such is the volume of my internal cheering. They get on with their project work, coping by themselves and mostly helping each other out. They only ask me basic questions which are covered in sufficient detail in Mr Green's lesson plan. It seems as if they've let me have Round One. They are restless, however, chattering goes on around the room and it increases throughout the second half of the lesson. One boy in particular seems to be talking more than most, but this is just because he has a rather distinctive voice which stands out from the general buzz. Usually, I'd be inclined to let this go because it's not as if he's causing serious problems or disruption, but I'm on the edge still and he's getting to me. I specifically tell him to quiten down and get on with his work, which is silly as it personalises the issue and can lead to escalating tension between teacher and beligerent pupil. I know all this, and I know it's a mistake, I know that he feels aggrieved for being singled out for what is essentially a group transgression but I'm young and inexperienced, he won't shut up and I'm the one with the power.

"That's enough." My tone hardens: "I mean it." Definatly, he ignores me and talks at an ever-increasing volume until he really is disrupting the class. I have to take action. I leave the sanctuary of the desk knowing that I've contributed to this confrontation but I don't know how to step back. The class is arranged in parallel rows of tables, with two sitting side-by-side at each. PCs line three of the walls. I stand opposite him and place my palms on the desk, leaning down to make eye contact and I turn on The Stare that I've been perfecting for most of the last decade. I tell him in no uncertain terms that unless he shuts up right now then I will bring down the full weight of the IT department, the school, the law, God, right down on his head. He's got the message, he knows that I'm The Man in this situation, but he can't help himself and starts to protest. Although I've saved face and the class can finish its hour in peace, I'm hyped up, unable to stop myself and almost snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. As I utter the words "stand up when you speak to me," I know that I've fallen into a trap, that I've committed a stupid unforced error. As he stands, I realise the gravity of my errror; it's not so much a person going from a sitting to standing position, more the construction of the Tower of Babel happening right before my eyes.

He's simply the biggest sixteen year old I've ever seen, more than a head taller than me and with the build to match. He's huge, and I can't believe that I've failed to notice his sheer size before now; you can hear me swallowing as my adam's apple moves in my throat. He's standing in front of me, copying my stance, and he's the one looking down for eye contact

"Right, I've stood up. what now?" There is an audible intake of breath as the class prepare for the inevitable fireworks, they know that neither of us can back away now; somebody has to die. My forebrain is utterly paralysed, shocked by the sheer mass of teenaged manchild before me. I'm doomed. The discs spin, three cherries line up and the machine starts spewing coins as my tongue engages, speaking seemingly from far, far away and saying in a voice that I can hardly recognise.

"What happens is that I just told you to stand up, making you look like an idiot in front of everyone, and you did it. Now I'm telling you to sit down, be quiet and let everyone get on with their work and you're going to do it now. He sits down without a word, deflated, seemingly stunned at the loss of his position. Afterwards, I'm back with one of our own first year classes, trying to figure out where The Speech came from. Mr Bird asks me how I got on with the please take.

"Fine," I say. I smile. "No problems."