How many friends do you have? Two, six, thirty?  Or perhaps, like one of my fourteen year old pupils, you have 762. Really? The word friend and its meaning is becoming debased and devalued, thanks to social media which, as far as I can tell was set up by the socially inept and is now creating social ineptitude on a global scale. A recent BBC news item stated that in a survey of twelve to eighteen year olds, twenty-five per cent of them felt more comfortable dealing with ‘friends’ via a screen or on their phones than face to face.

Friendship as we know it is a dying art. Friendships these days are conducted through the medium of Facebook or Twitter on whichever small screen is to hand. Popularity is measured by how many people like whatever crashingly boring news you’ve just posted on your page, be it the mundane making of beds, washing the family laundry or having a night out at the 02 to see Michael Buble. Your page or thread of inane consciousness instantly means something to somebody, desperate for you to ‘like’ them back. These people immediately become your friends. All it takes is a little thumbs up logo. It’s not unusual these days to have hundreds of friends: Stephen Fry, for instance, has a Twitter following of messianic proportions (now there’s a thought. If Twitter had been around two thousand or so years ago maybe the New Testament would have panned out differently) – but how many of these buddies would drop everything on a freezing cold morning to come round and help him jump start his car? How many of them would bake you bread in return for dropping their offspring at school? How many of these push-a-button-quick friends would you invite to your wedding or significant birthday? How many of them would you go on holiday with?

I think I have quite a lot of friends, as it goes. Probably between ten and twenty. There are different groups of them – old friends, tennis friends, writing friends, work friends, book-reading friends and friends I made when Son was small. Some of these friendship groups overlap but they all have one thing in common. They are real. I know what these people look like, know how they think, what’s likely to upset them, what will make them laugh and which ones I can call on for advice or a trip down memory lane. I know when their birthdays are, how old they are and whether they are sensitive to my knowing. They know all this about me. Most of them know some of my family; I know, or know of, their nearest and dearest. I might know some of their deepest darkest secrets, their hopes and dreams, the successes and failures they’ve made and they will know mine. They are the people I share celebrations with, remember to send cards to and phone when it’s time to get together. We meet, we interact, we pick up where we left off. Face to face. As friends do.

The internet is a powerful tool. Of course I can see the potential of Facebook and Twitter in a commercial sense. If I had something to sell or I wanted to raise money or awareness about something then it would be foolish not to sign up, even though it irks me to have to sponsor somebody through their online giving page. All big businesses now use Facebook (it’s easy PR – back in the day, my life in publicity would have been such a doddle) – even BBC news has a page although I’d much rather visit their website for updates, but that’s just personal preference.

The internet can also be extremely destructive if not treated with a little caution. Splashing drunken photographs of yourself across a Facebook page may seem highly entertaining when you’re a student but may come back to bite you when (as happened to a friend’s son), fresh out of university with a good degree, you struggle to secure employment because the potential employer has checked your suitability via social media. There’s no hiding from it once it’s out there.

Posting photographs of children online is done either with complete naivety or a flagrant disregard for child protection. I came across an alarming post on WordPress recently highlighting the plight of one family who, quite innocently, posted a video of their six year old son performing in his school talent contest. The pictures got into the ‘wrong’ hands and went, as they say, viral. The family were traumatised by the salacious comments made towards their son and began a long and partly unsuccessful journey to have the video removed.

Sadly cyber bullying is rife amongst teenagers –just to be ‘unfriended’ causes untold grief. In the real world, some friendships fizzle out naturally due to geographic distance or a change in interests perhaps – but it doesn’t mean that the original friends have parted acrimoniously. Life goes on. Then there is the sinister issue of young people being ‘groomed’ on the internet and Facebook is the first port of call for this lowlife. How do teenagers assess the authenticity of a wannabe friend?

Which brings me to blogging. Blogging is a form of social media, so what’s the difference? Why do we blog? To seek out similar interests, to inspire and be inspired, to be informed through an alternative channel to anything else that’s published or broadcast. To have our say, I guess. We build communities with like-minded bloggers – we visit each other’s sites and leave comments. A comment is valuable; it can set off a discussion or a different train of thought.  Blogging creates a form of friendship but, without wishing to offend, it’s a two dimensional one.

I don’t know you, not really, and you don’t know me (although through our creativity we get to know one another on a certain level), so how do you know that I’m not a sociopathic inmate residing in a high security prison? With a good imagination?

How do I know that you aren’t?

I’ll leave you with that spooky thought this Halloween week. imagesKUGEYSAW

Have a good one.

 

 

Imagine losing all your precious possessions in a major disaster. What would you rescue? Photographs? Your computer? Your jewellery? I know what I’d grab first but this isn’t about me. (If you’d really like to know what I’d save, click here – I wrote about it a while back).
Last week we visited Uppark, a Georgian stately home completely devastated by a monumental fire in 1989 when a builder, finishing off repairs to the lead flashings on the roof, had an accident with a blow torch. Pictures, treasures, furniture and tapestries were pulled from the wreckage. The unfortunate builder’s insurance eventually coughed up £20 million, providing the wherewithal for the National Trust to undertake a major conservation project.

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Uppark, South-facing view

Six years later, in 1995, the house had been restored to its former glory and re-opened its doors to the public. It’s taken us since then to travel the twenty miles or so to check it out. It was the restoration rather than the history of the house that interested me – I’m not usually that bothered about mooching around former homes of the upper classes who, having fallen on hard times or wanting to avoid inheritance tax, bequeath their stately piles to the Trust in return for modest accommodation somewhere on the site.

However, for those who like a little historical content, the house was purchased by one Matthew Fetherstonhaugh, the son of a baronet, in 1747. He then married into the Hugenot family so between them, he and his wife were not short of a bob or two. They embarked on the Grand Tour  – a rite of passage for all the wealthy, ox-bridge educated elite of the time. This was a lengthy tour of cultural Europe, ostensibly undertaken to widen horizons and educate but what it did was allow our monied gentry to purchase works of art, furniture and the like to fill their stately homes after indulgently sampling everything else the continent had to offer. (And our kids thought they invented the gap year – pah!) Over two years the couple amassed a wealth of artworks with which they decorated Uppark.

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Evidence of past pursuits – bagging a couple of pheasants

The years passed by, the house was left to Matthew’s only son Harry who lived a riotous life. He had a brief but torrid affair with a teenager called Emma Hart who lived at Uppark with him until she became pregnant and then he sent her packing. She would later become Lord Nelson’s infamous Mrs Hamilton. The Prince of Wales was a frequent visitor to Uppark where he followed such pursuits as gambling, shooting and hunting.   Through this royal connection Harry met and befriended the designer Humphry Repton who was responsible for adding the front portico,the dairy block and the stables to Uppark.

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The front portico, designed by Repton

At the age of seventy, Harry married his dairymaid, Mary Ann, and the couple lived together until his death twenty years later. She inherited the house and her descendents have lived there ever since, passing Uppark into the hands of the National Trust in 1954 while retaining part of the house for their own use.

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The dairy where Harry met Mary

So, other than providing us with an example of how the wealthy lived in those days, has Uppark actually left the nation with any kind of legacy? Well, yes, because below stairs between 1880-1893, HG Wells (the author) lived briefly with his mother, where she was employed as the family’s housekeeper. It is thought that he gained inspiration for his novel ‘The Time Machine’ while playing in the tunnels that linked the old kitchens at Uppark to the main house.

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The kitchen, now in the main house

Now – enough of the history stuff and on to the restoration. Most of the main house and its contents were damaged in the fire and it was a frenzied labour of love by the family and the National Trust together with countless fire-fighting teams to salvage as many treasures as they could. Touring the house today visitors are hard pushed to detect what is genuinely old and what has been renovated, conserved or restored. Floorboards look fashionably distressed; old paintings and chandeliers cleaned and rehung.  Walls and ceilings have been meticulously copied from old plans – the gilding of the ceiling in the main saloon is stunning. Each room displays a large photograph showing the extent of the damage and it is testament to the craftsmanship and expertise of the restoration team that the house now presents as it does.  An art work that sadly didn’t survive the flames was a Canaletto landscape. One of the fire crew managed to remove it from the wall in the saloon only to leave it resting at the top of the staircase for someone else to carry down …

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Zoe Hillyard’s patchwork vases

Running currently at Uppark is a modern art exhibition whereby thirteen artists have been commissioned to respond to moments and events reflecting the history of the house. Each room houses one of these art works and it was fun to spot them and work out their significance. My favourite were the ceramic patchwork vases created by Zoe Hillyard displayed in the red drawing room. They added a splash of colour, they looked like ceramic pieces stuck haphazardly together but on closer inspection it is revealed that they are made from fabric off-cuts stitched together like a patchwork quilt. A little reminiscent of Grayson Perry’s ceramics – which is probably why they caught my eye.  This exhibition finishes on 2nd November but is worth catching if you can.

Anyone enjoy food shopping? I don’t. I positively hate it but as we all have to eat then it has to be done at least once a week in, as far as I’m concerned, as little time as possible. Which is why I trail begrudgingly to the supermarket: because it’s convenient.

Or at least it was. Our local store has recently undergone a major refurbishment to for all intents and purposes provide us – the customers – an improved shopping experience. Well, it hasn’t worked for me.

So we now have, on the outskirts of our small country town, a behemoth rivalling the size of an aircraft hangar. The range of goods of course is much wider – one third of the selling square footage is given over to home wares and clothing.  (I can’t bring myself to call it fashion, even though there is a range allegedly designed by Gok Wan).   From boxed dinner services to wooden boards, glassware, utensils, bed linen and plasma screen TV’s to gardening accessories, toys and bath towels.  As if I’m going to rush in and buy a duvet and curtain set from a food store on a whim; it’s just never going to happen.

I don’t remember on any of my prior pilgrimages to the store’s previous incarnation ever being accosted to fill in a customer questionnaire asking if I’d be interested in buying this superfluous stuff while I’m filling my trolley with comestibles. I’m assuming they’ve done their market research and have somehow come to the conclusion that it’s what we want but the general consensus amongst my work colleagues is that it’s anything but convenient.

The inconvenience store…

We now have to walk a distance of about ten miles, weaving up and down the aisles, all now arranged in a completely different order to that we’ve been used to. I’m not even sure the food range has expanded – they just put more of the same onto longer and higher shelves.

And the signage, hanging unhelpfully above – oh, my word. Can anyone tell me, in the name of Del Monte, what the blazes ‘Ambient Fruit’ is? I’d loved to have been around that table discussion when it was decided that this a more appropriate term for tinned peaches. They’ve also done away with the old, exotically entitled ‘Foods of the World’ and gone for a derogatory ‘Ethnic.’

To pick up my daily newspaper I have to push my trolley through the clothing area, past the queues for lottery tickets to the fixture at the foot of the stairway to our new ‘exciting’ restaurant. This establishment is on a mezzanine with far reaching views over harassed shoppers or the newly extended car park. It looks like an airport holding area and is anything but exciting. Quite frankly (and far be it from me to appear judgemental), the calibre of clientele frequenting this restaurant are not the sort to read a daily newspaper.

The car park has doubled in size and they’ve even provided electrical hook-up points because they must have calculated that during the inordinate amount of time it takes to charge up an electric car (according to a recent Top Gear programme) will probably be same length of time now needed for one shopper to get around their newly improved store.

Perhaps I should put all my eggs in one basket, so to speak, and stick to on-line grocery shopping: get it delivered direct to my door. Up until now I’ve preferred to select my fresh goods but I could be swayed into not worrying about it.

And isn’t it interesting to note that in the news this week, the shares of this particular supermarket chain, along with one of the other of our ‘big four’ have taken a substantial tumble. Coincidence? Convenience? I don’t think so.

I’m so excited. I’ve just had two books delivered. They arrived on the doormat bound in tantalisingly plain brown cardboard packaging. I can’t wait. Having persevered over the summer, reading novels on my ipad and coming to the conclusion that it really is no substitute, I decided to get back to the real thing. There’s nothing like a proper book, is there? I like a nice cover, the feel of a book; I like the non back-lit, kinder-to-the-eyes off-white pages; I like flicking back and forth to check things – maybe make a wee note or two – but I’m not ruling out e-books completely: they’re a convenient way to take reading material on holiday. However, unwrapping my parcel felt like welcoming in an old friend.

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Not that the books themselves are familiar- that would be pointless – but the tempting little stack they are making makes me want to get stuck in straight away. The first is Grayson Perry’s ‘Playing to the Gallery’ which is mostly the transcription of his highly entertaining Reith Lectures, broadcast on BBC’s Radio 4 programme last year. I shall enjoy dipping in and out of that one. The second is a biography of the Bloomsbury Group sisters, Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell. I was prompted into buying this one after a visit to the most extraordinary house during my summer break when I became fascinated with the relationship between these two highly creative yet completely different characters and wanted to find out more.

Charleston is the rambling old farmhouse nestling comfortably beneath the South Downs in Sussex that was home to artists Vanessa Bell and her lover, Duncan Grant. They moved there in 1916 after Virginia Woolf, who was already living in a village a few miles away had written to her sister declaring that “it’s a most delightful house” although she warned that there was no hot water and “the house wants doing up – and the wallpapers are awful.” Vanessa became interested in the idea of a farm as this would give Duncan Grant the guise of farmhand, allowing him to escape jail as a conscientious objector during the First World War. Apparently, during the height of the shelling across the channel, the windows at Charleston would shake.

The bohemian household soon became a magnet for other artists, writers and musicians of the era. Vanessa and Duncan hosted parties and the likes of Lytton Strachey, Roger Fry, E.M Forster, Benjamin Britten, T.S. Eliot and Clive Bell – Vanessa’s estranged husband – would stay for weeks to enjoy and take advantage of the creative atmosphere.

Vanessa and Duncan set to improving the house and stamping on it their own inimitable style. They painted every possible surface in bold, glorious colours – walls, ceilings, floors, mantelpieces and furniture, for not only were they artists, they were designers. Their work was to be seen on textiles, wallpaper and crockery designed exclusively for Harrods. Some of their fabric designs have recently been revived by Laura Ashley and can be seen on some of the upholstery in the house.

The couple lived at Charleston for the rest of their lives, with her two boys Julian and Quentin, and their own daughter, Angelica. Vanessa died in 1961 and Duncan remained at the farm until he died in 1978 at the age of ninety-three. He was still entertaining artists like David Hockney at Charleston well into his eighties.

In 1980, The Charleston Trust was set up to preserve this wonderful property and share it with the world by opening its doors in 1986. A major restoration program was undertaken to restore some of the rooms to their former glory. Being an old building, there was no damp-proofing. On the day I visited, I was lucky to have the most informative guide who explained that the walls in the dining room, hand painted by the couple, had suffered substantial damage. The restoration team had to lift the walls off in sections – fortunately held together by layers of the awful wallpaper that Virginia had first mentioned to her sister – where after they were taken to London and treated. During this time, a proper damp-proof course was put into the house and the walls duly replaced in all their original glory. Only a very small section, to the left of the fireplace, is reproduction.  Sadly, photography inside the house is not permitted but there are pictures on the  Charleston Trust’s website.

The Charleston Trust continues to improve the old farm. There are plans to restore the historic old farm buildings and create educational facilities. With the support of their patron, HRH Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, Charleston will continue to flourish. This year the house hosted its 25th annual literary festival where ‘books, ideas and creativity bloom.’ Authors and artists arrive at Charleston to give talks and lectures and to mingle with their admiring public – carrying on the vision created by its extraordinary owners almost one hundred years ago.

The following pictures of the garden are mine. Here too a restoration is underway,  getting the outside of the property back to how it was in its Bloomsbury heyday.

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Front door to Charleston

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Through the gate to the compost heap!

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Spot that butterfly …

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Herbaceous borders – a jumble of glorious colour

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A tranquil little spot in a sunny corner

And now to my reading pile …

 

 

If you are a lover of dogs or drive an unnecessarily large vehicle, you may want to skip this post in case it causes offence.

You have been warned.

Now, you’re probably wondering to what that word in the title refers. It’s an invented word which became part of my family’s vocabulary since the time I was really quite small. It is a word coined by one eccentric uncle who, while out walking with us as he frequently did on a weekend, would shout out periodically, ‘Mind the Oomjar!’ warning us of unmentionable messes smeared across footpaths left by animals who know no better.

Don’t get me wrong: I like dogs. Some of them I’d even say are cute but I don’t want one. I’m quite happy to join dog-walking friends just so long as I have nothing to do with their accompanying plastic bags. We don’t have the time or the type of lifestyle that would be fair to a furry addition to the family. Shoving a dog in kennels every time we decided to have some time away wouldn’t be kind – it compares to packing your kids off to boarding school at the first opportunity. Why bother to have them in the first place?

It’s the dog owners I have issue with. Or at least some of them. Having just spent the most glorious weekend on the Camel Estuary in North Cornwall, it became apparent very early on that this is a dog’s paradise. Every other person we seemed to encounter had at least one canine in tow, often with an uncomfortably human name. Since when did it ever sound right to name a dog ‘Stan’ or ‘Jonathan?’ Perhaps their children are called Rex and Rover (or even Satan), I don’t know, but to me, there is a blurring of nomenclature here which just sounds weird.

Dog owners arrogantly assume that everyone else will be as besotted with their pooches as they are. So while you’re sitting on your picnic rug on beautiful golden sands, whiling away hours minding your own business and trying to enjoy the scenery, the peace is invariably shattered by the frenzied yapping of a small dog or the louder, gruffer barking of a larger variety followed by the braying tones of an over indulgent owner. A sea-drenched spaniel will probably come bounding over and shake itself all over you while its owner will become terribly offended if you shoo their pet away. They’ll make jokey excuses like ‘Oh, he’s just playing!’ and ‘Oops, sorry: Hector, bad boy, come here!’ which simply aren’t good enough, frankly. I can’t remember ever letting my toddler wipe his jammy little fingers over a complete stranger.

Talking of toddlers – I can illustrate here how barmy some Brits are about their dogs. We witnessed, on a short ferry ride across the river Camel, a young couple with a pushchair containing a dear little boy push a pacifier in his mouth while they proceeded to take photographs of each other with their dog; of the dog and selfies with the dog. The child was completely ignored. What’s that all about?

I don’t care how intelligent or obedient dog owners think their pets are, they can’t read. (The dogs, that is, not the owners – although the jury is out on that one, actually). So when confronted with a large sign at the start of the wonderful coastal path walk that says in large letters ‘No Dog Fouling’ – who in the name of the National Trust is this directed at? We undertook a walk of around five miles along a fantastically beautiful stretch of the South West Path but instead of being able to walk, head up and enjoy all that nature has to offer, we were constantly looking at our feet to watch out for the Oomjar. Where are all the responsible plastic bag wielding dog owners then? And before anyone tries to tell me that it was probably fox – I do know the difference – I live in the country.

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The South West Coastal Path along the Camel Estuary. Good job you can’t view this in Smell-o-Vision.

Dog owners are also very quick to tell you that their animal would never hurt anyone. I’m sorry, but that’s ridiculous. They might be the most docile of pets but they are still unpredictable animals. Owners do not have complete control over their pet’s actions and while I’m happy to believe that a dog won’t bite me, you can’t say for definite that a large excitable one won’t bound up to a toddler, put his paws up and knock the child off his feet potentially causing damage, can you? Dogs can hurt – albeit indirectly – as I know two people who have broken their ankles while out dog walking.

So enough of Oomjar for a minute and on to vehicles: large ones. I drive a small hatchback, perfectly adequate for my needs yet last week while attempting to park at our local station before boarding the London train I was almost thwarted because the station commuter car park is littered with four wheel drive monstrosities or huge people-carriers. These cars are too wide for the current parking bays so those of us with ordinary cars are finding it increasingly difficult to acquire a space. Why are these cars being used just to leave in a car park all day? Why do folk have these vehicles in the first place – do any of them actually use their four wheel drives properly? Have they ever actually been off-road? (No; only in the wretched station car park).

Ah, I know – they must be owned and carelessly parked by the same unthinking types that let their animals leave their Oomjar all over the place. You’d need a big car for children and dogs, wouldn’t you? But only at the weekend when they all head off for Cornwall to ruin the place for the rest of us.

Any invented words still in use in your family?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lest we Forget # 2

For me the most enjoyable modules we deliver on the English curriculum are the poetry ones because they’re a good way for students to play around with language and begin understanding inference not to mention the techniques they will need to espouse for their exams. Of the poets chosen by whoever it is that decides what and who we should be teaching, Wilfred Owen (who would have been a punk poet had he lived in the late 1970’s – imagine ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ spat out by Johnny Rotten – it works!) and Simon Armitage, a contemporary British writer, are my absolute favourites. I’ve been fortunate enough to see the latter in performance. If he turns up at a venue near you, crawl over broken glass to get a ticket – it’ll be worth it.

Here’s an example of his work, an extract from a longer poem which I’ve posted to commemorate today’s sadly memorable, eponymous date. When this was first released in its entirety in 2005, Armitage was criticised by some – unfairly, in my opinion. See what you think.

 

Out of the Blue

You have picked me out.

Through a distant shot of a building burning

you have noticed now

that a white cotton shirt is twirling, turning.

 

In fact I am waving, waving.

Small in the clouds, but waving, waving.

Does anyone see

a soul worth saving?

 

So when will you come?

Do you think you are watching, watching

a man shaking crumbs

or pegging out washing?

 

I am trying and trying.

The heat behind me is bullying, driving,

but the white of surrender is not yet flying.

I am not at the point of leaving, diving.

 

A bird goes by.

The depth is appalling. Appalling

that others like me

should be wind-milling, wheeling, spiralling, falling.

 

Are your eyes believing,

believing

that here in the gills

I am still breathing.

 

But tiring, tiring.

Sirens below are wailing, firing.

My arm is numb and my nerves are sagging.

Do you see me, my love. I am failing, flagging.

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Click here if you’d like to watch a short clip of Simon Armitage reading his poem.

 

 

As we trundle inevitably towards our new school year next week amid threats of redundancy, more cut backs and an ever shrinking national curriculum, here’s a reminder of why we do what we do.

Queuing up in our corner shop the other day, I recognised the young man in front of me as one of our ex students. He bought a couple of cans of coke and a pack of cigarettes.

“Still smoking then Danny, I see,” I said smiling, but trying to force a look of disapproval.

He turned and grinned at me. “Orright, Miss? Hey, do you remember when….?”

We reminisced a little before he left the shop. I watched him drive away in smart little car.

Do I remember? How could I forget? Eight years ago Danny (not his real name) was a student in a class of sixteen listless, under-achieving kids with bad attitude. I supported their English GCSE lessons alongside a young teacher who has since become a firm friend. I shall refer to her throughout as TF (Teacher Friend). She was patient, innovative and determined to get the best from this rabble who were not overjoyed to be in school at all, let alone have to struggle with Shakespeare or, heaven forbid, visit the library and select a book. I admired her enthusiasm but worried that she was being overly idealistic.

Nevertheless, we took them on for two years from the age of fourteen and from the outset they were a challenge. Their target levels were understandably rock bottom. They never produced homework. A detention was not a deterrent – they never turned up for one anyway. Their reading wasn’t fluent; none of them could spell or at least, didn’t bother. They would arrive in the classroom without their exercise books or even a pen. Because they were such a small class and they had most of all their other lessons together as well, they formed a tight bond: they worked and moved as a pack. TF wasn’t having any of this – she set about finding the pack leader and working on him. She wisely reckoned that with him on side, the others might eventually follow.

(I ought to point out now that it was not Danny who was leader; if anything, he presented as slightly anxious. He was content to follow the crowd, take the path of least resistance).

And follow the others did. Amid much groaning and sprawling on desks, we started studying “Much Ado About Nothing.”  Instead of making them write reams and unpick unintelligible quotes, TF got the students acting the play out. Pack Leader was Benedict; our feistiest female played Beatrice. The others took turns in having a go at the other parts; they began to understand the play and, dare I say, enjoy it.

When we finished with that, we moved to a modern text by Willy Russell called “Our Day Out” – chosen because it is a short play about a load of dysfunctional kids going on a school outing. The irony did not pass over their heads: they thought it was hilarious. We began to love these kids: as hard as they found this subject, they had a sense of fun: they began to work for TF and produce essays of sorts. It was more than we had hoped for.

During one lesson, one of the pupils mentioned that she had never been on a school outing. Most of the others agreed. I was appalled. TF and I exchanged glances and before I knew what I was doing I had suggested that we take them to the theatre to see Willy Russell’s musical play, “Blood Brothers” – at that time showing in London.

Well, what can I say – we had opened the floodgates – the kids were thrilled with the prospect. A few of them had never even visited our capital city. They were nervous. To them, London represented a terrorist target.

Of course, we hit massive resistance as well as disbelief in the staff room.

“Take that lot out – you must be mad!”

“You’ll never get the risk assessment passed,”

“Of course you can’t take them by train – far too dangerous!”

“Imagine them in a theatre -they’ll disrupt the performance! You’ll get the school a bad name …”

 And so on…

TF dug her heels in. Management suggested she team up with the Drama department who were running the trip later in the year but she politely refused. She didn’t want our little band of oddballs mixed in with a lot of high achieving students who regarded a theatre trip an everyday occurrence. She wanted this to be an occasion for them.

I dug my heels in. I don’t like being told I can’t do something either, surprisingly. I filled in a lengthy risk assessment form, got it begrudgingly signed and then I set about ordering subsidised tickets, checking out the school minibus schedule and acquiring a driver. My heart sank when I saw the state of the minibus. Used virtually exclusively by the PE department, it was filthy and smelled of unwashed bodies and football boots. Not suitable for a theatre trip to London. I called in a favour from an old ex-colleague who had started running her own hire company. She provided us with a vehicle and driver at minimal cost. Our trip was on – hurrah!

The kids were uncharacteristically enthusiastic. They all paid their fees within a couple of days. We finished “Our Day Out” and started on the poetry, expecting some opposition. There was none. The class continued to work well.

A couple of days before our outing, Danny dropped a bombshell. We were rounding up a lesson when he stood up, said he hated English and wouldn’t be coming on the trip. He stormed out. We were mystified. Nothing appeared to have provoked this outburst.

Pack Leader took me aside and explained conspiratorially that Danny couldn’t come because he wouldn’t be able to smoke. I almost laughed, but not quite. Pack Leader went on to explain knowingly that Danny was addicted to nicotine and “got the shakes” if he didn’t have a cigarette. When I realised that PL wasn’t winding me up, I was horrified. Apparently Danny had been smoking regularly since about the age of ten – with his parents. I thanked PL for his honesty and told him to leave it with me.

I managed to get Danny on his own for a quiet word. I asked him to explain his reason for the outburst. With a little coercing, his reason bore out what PL had told me. I asked Danny if he ever managed to go to the cinema and sit through a film. He had, many times. I told him that a theatre performance was just about the same length as anything at the cinema. It wasn’t the theatre he was worried about, however. We had suggested to the kids that because we would have to leave school in the late afternoon and they’d probably be hungry, we’d go for a burger before the show. Danny told me that after food especially, he needed a ‘fag,’ otherwise he got the shakes and started sweating. I told him that no way was he missing this trip and I’d sort something.

I mulled it over and discussed it with TF. I hatched a plan of which she wanted no part as it might compromise her professional position but she agreed to turn a blind eye.

Can you guess what my plan was? And what would you have done given the circumstance?

Here’s what happened.

At last our much anticipated evening arrived. The students met us back at school having gone home to change into their ‘smart-casual’ clothes. The girls teetered on impossible heels, looked a few shades of deeper orange and carried huge handbags filled with goodness knows what. The boys wore nicely pressed shirts and jeans. Because it was coming up to Easter, TF put little bags of chocolate eggs on each minibus seat which were scoffed down as we drove the forty odd miles to London’s West End. Any affectation of being ‘cool’ dissipated within the confines of that bus. As we crossed the river their excitement grew as they spotted Big Ben and then Nelson’s Column.

Our driver dropped us at Leicester Square and arranged a rendez-vous point for later on. We trooped off to Burger King where the kids were at home ordering their meals. TF and I withdrew a little with a bag of fries and a coffee. I kept a surreptitious eye on Danny, who was having a whale of a time with the others but who was, I noticed, unusually fidgety. When they’d finished, he was definitely looking sickly; I wasn’t imagining it. I nudged TF who, in her teacherly fashion, grouped the kids together and suggested we move across the street to Frankie and Benny’s for ice cream. This was our pre-arranged cue. I stayed behind to make sure the rubbish had been cleared by our party, and Danny stayed to ‘help.’ Then he and I sauntered off in the opposite direction, into the Square, and he (self-consciously, I have to say) lit up. I stood by the gate while he wandered up and down dragging on his horrible cigarette.

Eventually I was joined by PL who had cottoned onto what was happening and didn’t want to miss out, so he had a quick couple of drags too. Understandably, we received a few disapproving stares. I turned a blind eye to that one and, as we walked back to meet the others, while I impressed on them that I thought smoking was a disgusting habit and that it would affect their health this occasion was not to be discussed or mentioned back at school. They promised me that the incident would go no further – and it never has.

Having met up with the others again we walked crocodile fashion along Charing Cross Road to the theatre, our students keeping to a tight, nervous formation. It was interesting to see a bunch of supposed streetwise kids so far out of their comfort zone.

Their amazement and appreciation of the old theatre was gratifying. They gazed about them in wonderment at the old Victorian building. They were awestruck. We had fantastic seats along the front row of the dress circle. TF had grilled into them the need for excellent behaviour as the other theatre-goers had paid top dollar for their seats. We told them there’d be time for sweets in the interval. They were as good as gold, and as the music began, they leaned forward in their seats and became absorbed.

As the play came to its final heart-wrenching scenes, the sound of muffled sobbing came from along our row. Feisty Girl left the theatre with black mascara tracks coursing through her powdered orange face. Our party was buzzing. Danny gave me the thumbs up as we waited for the bus – he looked calm and chatted to the others about the performance. When our driver saw how much the kids had enjoyed themselves he suggested taking them on a short tour of the sites before we left the capital. So they took in Piccadilly Circus, Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament to round off their evening. We arrived back at school after midnight and we dared any of them to bunk off the next day. None of them did. It was business as usual and back to poetry in the classroom.

On my desk I found a scribbled note which said simply ‘thanks for last night.’ It wasn’t signed, but I recognised the writing.

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