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Tuesday, 3 December 2013

(The Leaning Tower of) Pisa

For me, one of the most startling aspects of todays House of Commons debate about the latest Pisa data - apart from the turgid mud-slinging, point-scoring and planted questions from the government benches - was the language that was used. Almost universally now, the debate around educational attainment centres on our children "falling behind" or being "left behind" in the "global race". I counted several uses of this kind of imagery, but it is ubiquitous among politicians and policy-makers on all sides.
Education seems to have shifted its core purpose during my career as a teacher. Without for one moment denying the self-evident need to equip children and young adults with the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in the workplace, a vital part of education is being ditched, slowly but surely.

We have made mistakes in education policy-making because we've allowed ideology to fashion it. There were ill-feted experiments like ITA spelling and teachers who took the 'real books' or 'whole language' philosophy to such ridiculous lengths that they refused to teach phonics at all, as though children would learn to read by osmosis. Sometimes, these failed education policies have been based simply on prevailing cultural aspirations. But the current trend for viewing education simply as a means for creating a suitable future workforce is the result of a much deeper, political consensus; one based on the assumption that neo-liberal market economics must direct our lives.

I believe this is a profound mistake. Education has a deeper, more subtle capacity to alter our lives, to draw out of us what we might become. And we as a country must have higher aspirations for what we want to build. Whilst a significant majority of the UK electorate are in favour of nationalising (or mutualising, to put it another way) the railways and the utilities, the government presses ahead with the further de-mutualisation of the education system and the opposition have no real alternative vision. They would tinker, but they accept the consensus.

A high-stakes accountability system based on test results will always cause a narrowing of curricular opportunities despite what some people might argue, simply because everybody wants to be seen to be 'successful'. If we really just want to ape other countries' educational systems then maybe we'll simultaneously have to give up the idea of education as a way of transmitting shared values and culture or as part of the way we look after our most vulnerable children.

Of course, 'global races' have to have winners and losers. If we allow education to be seen purely through the prism of that kind of imagery, then we might as well tear up the 1959 United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child and accept that sub-standard or non-existent education is all right for the losers.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Manchester Fiction Prize 2013

It was a complete surprise last week to receive a telephone call from the Manchester Writing School to let me know that my story The Incalculable Weight Of Water had been shortlisted for the 2013 Manchester Fiction Prize. The relatively new prize, worth £10,000 to the winner, was instigated by Carol Ann Duffy, the poet laureate and Creative Director of the school.

I first entered a competition in 1998 when I picked up a leaflet in our local library for Arc Publications. In those days I didn't yet have the internet and sent off a short story in the post with a cheque for the small entry fee. My story was selected by Tibor Fischer and Sarah Dunant to be published in the anthology and I was invited to read the story at the Ilkley Literature Festival. I was paid £50 for the story, but I can't quite describe how it felt to see my name in print for the first time.

In the fifteen years since then, I've occasionally entered competitions such as the Bridport Prize and the Fish International Prize and along the way had some moderate success. If it wasn't for such competitions and the tireless work of enthusiasts such as the people at Salt and Comma Press then it would be hard for writers of the short form in the UK to experience that early taste of success that helps to build confidence. It would also be difficult for readers to find new talent, as mainstream publishers rarely seem to publish short fiction other than by already established novelists. Indeed if a publishing house does accept unsolicited submissions (which is becoming increasingly rare these days) they often add a footnote of 'no short stories or poetry'.

On Friday I'll be delighted to be there with many other people who share the same enthusiasm for short fiction, which Sarah Hall in the Guardian eloquently described as "a bastard to write." I hope that in another fifteen years these awards, competitions or prizes are still around, providing a foothold for emerging writers of the next generation.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013


May 1983. I remember leaving the station at Oxford and setting off on the mile walk to Hertford College. Sixteen years old, still three months before I could begin driving lessons, I clutched a copy of David Thomson’s ‘Political Ideas’ in my hand – at least figuratively; it was probably in my rucksack – and walked down the long road towards the dreaming spires.

At some point along that mile I made contact with a boy who had a map. He was a candidate for a geography scholarship at the same college. In those days, Hertford was alone in allocating a small percentage of places to state school pupils nominated by their teachers, based purely on an interview. Or in my case, three interviews. We eventually wound up at the lodge to the college. I was already overawed and beginning to sense that feeling of being abroad, of entering a culture that although recognisable, was not my own.

At dinner I sat quietly at a long wooden table and answered the handful of questions directed at me. I asked none of my own, not because I wasn’t curious about the other candidates and their lives but because there were never any pauses in the conversation. To be part of this world I would have to fashion my own openings, make my own way, turn the light in my own direction. But at sixteen I didn’t know how this was done.

Late in the evening, about nine-thirty as I remember it, I shifted along dark corridors and up gloomy flights of steps to find the room of a don who was going to interview me about politics. The room was softly lit and the shelves predictably stacked with books. The man wore glasses and a tweed jacket, which was somehow reassuring, and he smiled and chatted about my journey and school work and which books I’d read. Remembering Thomson, I discussed Hobbes, Locke, Mill and Marx. This wasn’t so bad after all. Perhaps Oxford was full of kindly souls like him. Maybe the worm that had grown fat on my doubt would wither and die if I stayed here long enough.

The next morning, feeling more confident, I made an attempt to talk about economics to a more serious but nonetheless friendly man. Sensing the worm bulging, he steered me onto economic history and I did well. Or at least I talked a good deal and he nodded, which might not have been the same thing as doing well. In the hour before my final interview I walked around the streets and colleges, poking my head tentatively through the gates, watching the confident carriage of scarves and bicycles and books, straining my eyes up to the windows of the Bodleian library or the Bridge of Sighs.

At eleven I pitched up at another room for the last interview, philosophy, wondering if I could ever be that certain of my mind, of my learning, of my character. At my school it was fairly easy to shine, but here it would be difficult. Would I immediately be discovered as a fraud, a confidence-trickster who had somehow managed to fool the dons into letting him in? I could already picture them all, smirking with polite but embarrassed unease. My half-hearted knock was finally answered by a man in full morning suit with tails and a wing collar (was he wearing a bow tie or is that too far-fetched?) who lounged casually on a chaise-longue.

‘Give me an example of an ambiguous word,’ he clipped. In my writer’s memory ‘he barked’, although surely nobody in real life would be so rude to a nervous sixteen year-old?

I sat still and drew breath, trying not to look at the strange and, quite frankly, bored eyes that waited on my answer. I knew what ambiguous meant: unclear, vague, uncertain, indefinite, indistinct. But my brain was home again to the neurological worm of doubt who now slithered unchallenged through the clouded synapses, feeding on what little rational thought available until it found the only word stupid enough for that moment.

‘Bread?’ I mumbled. The man in the morning suit arched his eyebrows. Was that the beginning of a smile at the corner of his lips? Was he about to laugh in my face? ‘It can mean money in America,’ I stuttered, suddenly picturing Huggy Bear from Starsky and Hutch.

‘Mmm, I was thinking more of a word like ‘many’,’ the man said cautiously, metaphorically throwing me on to the ‘no’ pile.

At that point I should have argued or given him ten other similar words, tell him that most, maybe all, words are ambiguous in some sense. Thirty years on, I could pretend that at that moment I stared out of the window into the May sunshine which lit Oxford and decided it wasn’t for me. That somehow, I decided for myself to take another path towards teaching and writing. But the truth is, I can’t be sure that’s what I did.

Out of politeness, the interview dragged on for a few minutes more at which point I was released to the train station and the long journey home. I forgot about the experience quickly and although I received a nice letter complimenting me and asking me to take the entrance examination, I think I’d sensed that the place was for people of certainty; the politicians, the journalists, the publishers who years later would publish my writing. Perhaps they, too, have a tamed worm of doubt kept somewhere safe. But at some point I must have decided to let mine free. Maybe it was in that dark room in Oxford, sitting opposite a man in a morning suit who wasn’t going to a wedding.

At sixteen the world had been black or white, heroes or villains, left or right, right or wrong, God or the devil, BBC or ITV, new wave or heavy metal, bitter or lager. Yet these days I increasingly cherish my worm of doubt. My roles as a partner, a parent, a teacher, and not least as a writer, have deepened its value to such an extent that I’m fairly - but not completely - sure that every human would benefit from a small one. Especially Mr Gove, Mr Osborne and Mr Duncan-Smith. (Surely a seriously important man like IDS should be less ambiguous about his real surname?) When humans doubt themselves, they might be spurred on to improve something that they do. A writer who writes and then sits back and beams with self-satisfaction will become a lazy writer. A teacher who trots out the same lesson plans each year will eventually let pupils down. A politician who is not for turning might come to regret it, although I doubt they would agree with me. True, at some point people have to make decisions, decide the right course, stick their necks out. But the conviction that you are always right is . . . well, it’s too ridiculous for words.

I quite like grey, I occasionally watch ITV, I’m not averse to a little Led Zeppelin although I prefer Joy Division, I drink lager on holiday and in Indian restaurants. I haven’t yet worshipped the devil or voted Tory. I could combine the two quite easily at the ballot box just to prove my point but there’s a limit to what I’m prepared to do in the name of art. Or is it philosophy? I'm not sure.

One thing is for certain though. As my cursor hovers over the ‘publish’ button, you can be sure that I’m doubting if this is good enough.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Staying Within . . . .

I'm getting there. It's slow and it's sporadic, but the story is coming to an end. And when I read it back it is - for the most part - the story I set out to write. At 70,000 words and at least another 15,000 to go, this is a 'big' book. I call it a book because that's how I see it in my head, with a beautiful cover and my name on the spine sticking out in a bookshop. In truth it's just a manuscript and it might never see the light of day.

Sometimes you can read something that is so apt, so totally connected to the streams of your life that you half wonder if it was written for you. Of course, it couldn't have been (unless you know the author) but still . . . that's what a real writer is after: a connection between what he or she wants to say and what some stranger feels about it.

After the first excitement of being published (on the cusp of a global recession in 2008/9) I quickly realised that writing would never make me wealthy. Although I would love to write full time, it is unlikely that this will ever happen. I once read a statistic that 90% of writers earn less than £10,000 a year in the UK. I wish. I earn 20p a copy of every book sold. And I write what I want to write, which isn't always fashionable.

So it begs the question why do I (and many other writers) bother? Recently my dad sent me a link to an article in the New Yorker by a writer I admire, Jeffrey Eugenides. Well, Mr Eugenides expresses it better than I could, which is probably why he earns a decent living and I don't. You can read the article here.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Questions And Answers

On Friday I was down in Oxford for the regional final of the Kid's Lit Quiz. As it's a 3 hour drive from my part of the world, I decided to make a day of it and visited the fantastic new Barefoot Books studio for lunch first. I wasn't sure what the quiz was all about really but by the time I left at 6 for the long drive home, I'd had a glimpse of a reality that the persistent critics of schools refuse to see.

The event was brilliantly organised - 30-odd teams of 4 pupils from different schools competing to answer questions on all manner of children's and YA literature - and even as part of a team of authors we struggled to match the scores of most of the teams. The winners scored 90/100 on questions based around themes as wide-ranging as France and Aesop's Fables. The children were bright, knowledgeable and enthusiastic about reading and literature.

This morning I tuned into the Andrew Marr Show briefly until Osborne mentioned how his government was 'transforming' a school system that was letting children down. Well, on Friday I saw at first hand children who were highly motivated and far more knowledgeable about literature than I was at their age (or am now, if you care to check the final scores). The constant peddling of doom about schools and 'standards' for the last twenty-five years has left a huge hole in our national self-confidence. Our elected leaders have hijacked the purpose of education. No longer is it seen as the 'drawing out' and building upon of talents and enthusiasms but merely as a means to produce economically useful adults.

But Friday's experience galvanised my belief that if politicians stopped rubbishing teachers, schools and 'standards' (and by association, children's achievements) and placed some real trust in our schools and children, we'd do just fine without George's kind of 'transformation'.

Friday, 19 October 2012

My Nose Pressed To The Window . . .

I've taken to writing again.

There's something about the summer, even a wet one, that gets in the way of my imagination. On the other hand the summer is always my most productive period for reading, being the farthest removed from teaching. And reading is at the heart of good writing.

This summer I was also spent some time fretting over what to write next. I'd finished a novel last spring and put it to one side as I struggled to develop an idea for a commission. That I failed in my task at first dismayed me. I couldn't take an idea, somebody else's idea, and make it work. But I learnt something new from that.

I remember reading an interview with Mark Haddon, the author of The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night-Time, a few years ago in which he was asked:

"You said in an early interview that you'd always felt like you had your nose pressed to the window of the House of Literature and they were all in there – Ian McEwan was in the kitchen, and Jeanette Winterson was washing up. Are you there too now, peeling the potatoes?"

His answer resonates with me:

"You realise eventually there is no place like that. What keeps you writing is that you don't ever enter a place that feels like home at last. You're still going uphill. There's still a little glowing light in the distance that you're trying to get to. I was writing something recently and I was chuckling at something I'd written, and my wife looked across and said, "Do you think that real writers do that?" And I didn't even notice it was funny at first, because I still think, "Oh, one day I'll be a real writer." "

Writers come in all shapes and sizes but I suppose they all write for a reason. They're maybe not fully at home in the world and maybe never will be. And writing, at least for me, is an act of discovery which draws me away from that feeling even if only for a time. Don't get me wrong. I'm not miserable. I like a pint and a laugh. I'm happy enough. But I've always felt slightly off-kilter, out of line, on the outside.

I could never describe writing as a job because that implies I do it for money, to occupy time or to soothe my ego. And none of those are true. So when I sat down and planned out a new book today, it was because I was driven to do it. 

And it's the book I want to write.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Reading For Writing . . .

This week I find myself down in a pit of self-doubt, reminding me of that childhood feeling - the one that said I could never be as good as the writer of the great book I'd just put down. After a conversation with one of my editors about a submitted manuscript I'm now back to another undeveloped idea, a blank page and a bag of books to read. That part doesn't dishearten me too much. Editors and agents have very specific requirements and often a manuscript can be a good one but is rejected for either personal or commercial reasons. I love the story and if it's never published I'll still have the experience of the process of writing it, which will help.

I've already read one of the books - "A Monster Calls" by Patrick Ness - in a single sitting. It reduced me to tears, which came as a surprise. Films can get me that way but books rarely do. It was beautifully conceived, immaculately structured, convincing, truthful and - above all - powerfully humane. I don't think a children's or YA book has ever affected me as deeply.

That was yesterday. Today I write with that same feeling of "I could never write anything as good as that". But I'm trying to write myself out of that feeling here. It never stopped me as a child. It never stopped me as an unpublished writer. Why should it stop me as a published author? If I can somehow put myself back at school and see myself as a learner, I can reap something from the admiration and professional deflation I felt as I put "A Monster Calls" down. What was it that made the book so compelling?

In school I find that the most creative writers are often children who are avid readers. They aren't necessarily the most competent writers, but their ideas and their ability to build them into a story set their work apart. I suppose that extra exposure to good writing just sinks into the sub-conscious somehow. I always encourage a bit of well-disguised 'stealing' from authors at that age because it builds confidence and cements an understanding of what makes some stories successful and others not so successful.

After finishing "A Monster Calls", I went to the supermarket. Loading the boot of the car with the weekly supply of Cheesy Wotsits for the locusts, I moved aside a box containing books from my last school visit in July. Books by me. Books you can buy in a bookshop. I felt (a little bit) better.

I empathise with the British athlete who just came on the TV at the Olympics, knocked out in the first round of the hurdles. Like him, I need to get back to training, change something, do something better, ready for the next story.