SEX EDUCATION

A couple of weeks after a photogenic Oxford student with a conveyor belt career smoothly lined-up for her received a suspended sentence for stabbing her boyfriend whilst under the influence, a woman one year younger than Lavinia Woodward hasn’t been granted similar clemency from our judiciary. 23-year-old Alice McBrearty has been sentenced to 16 months for having a ‘full-blown (unfortunate turn of phrase) sexual relationship’ with a 15-year-old schoolboy. Eight years between the seducer and the seduced isn’t that great an age gap when compared to, say, Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone and his third wife Fabiana (a staggering 47 years his junior), Billy Joel and his current missus (33 years’ difference) or Rupert Murdoch and Jerry Hall (25 years); but, lest we forget, the pupil was under-16 by a few months, so that means Ms McBrearty is officially a Paedo.

The defence barrister in the case said that her client ‘is not sexually attracted to children,’ before adding ‘She will of course be branded a paedophile for the rest of her life. She is a sex offender’. As a result of pleading guilty to seven counts of sexual activity with a child while in a position of trust, Alice McBrearty is bracketed in the same legal category as a loathsome individual like Ian Watkins. After sentencing, a lawyer representing our old friends at the CPS said ‘We would like to thank the victim for coming forward and for supporting this prosecution during what has been a difficult time for him and his family.’ However, it was the father of the ‘victim’ who intervened in the affair and contacted the police rather than the boy himself. Of course, such an intervention would have severely altered the wistful ambience of Bobby Goldsboro’s 1973 hit, ‘Summer (The First Time)’, but this isn’t 1973.

One wonders how much longer the sentence Alice McBrearty received would’ve been in the reversal of this case’s gender roles; a 23-year-old man seducing a 15-year-old girl would certainly have received a prison sentence, though recent patterns in such cases suggest he’d have been looking at a tenure behind bars considerably more extensive than 16 months. Not that gender imbalance diminishes other double standards on display where this particular case is concerned. The fact remains that, going by current legal definitions, inflicting serious physical injury upon a partner is a lesser offence than providing them with practical sex education – an extracurricular lesson that it’s hard to imagine the ‘victim’ being an unwilling scholar of.

According to slavering press reports, the female teacher at a school in East London had a four-month affair with the unnamed male pupil – indulging in classroom snogging, sex acts in her car (which may have constituted the ‘full-blown’ aspect of the relationship), and the inevitable hotel rendezvous; she even got her leg over with him at her parents’ home. The judge’s summary included the observation that ‘I accept you truly believed this was a great romance, that you were in love with him and vice versa, and that age didn’t matter; but it did.’

When, way back in the 80s, I and a fellow 19-year-old were advertising for musicians to form a band, being contacted by a 23-year-old bass-player led to a shared immediate opinion that this ‘old man’ was a bit suspect, believing if he hadn’t found fame and fortune at the advanced age of 23 he was evidently doomed to obscurity. Remembering this serves as a reminder of how a mere four-year gap makes a difference at 19, something that was brought back to me not so long ago when I overheard a conversation between two student girls mulling over whether or not to accept the offer of a potential flatmate also aged 23; ‘He sounds a bit weird’ opined one of them, a character summary which appeared to be solely based on his age. The chasm is perhaps wider than one cares to recall when distanced from the adolescent mindset – though I’ve no doubt this was part of the attraction for the boy inducted into a world he probably craved to be a member of when he encountered Alice McBrearty.

Judge Sheelagh Canavan said that Ms McBrearty was ‘a bright, intelligent and gifted young woman who knew right from wrong’ who nevertheless committed ‘the grossest breach of trust’. The judge accepted the ‘victim’ was consenting, adding ‘What 15-year-old schoolboy would turn down such an attractive offer?’ That the judge acknowledged the boy’s willing participation in the affair with a woman eight years his senior speaks volumes; but as things stand, the law is there in black-and-white, and Alice McBrearty knew it was – as did her besotted ‘victim’. The CPS interpreted their relationship from the legal perspective, as is their wont, stating ‘She conducted a sexual relationship for months with a boy, despite knowing he was under-age and she was committing a crime; she groomed him on social media and bought him gifts before having sex with him in her home, at a hotel and in her car.’

Of the two traditional sexual fantasies that tend to occupy male minds – schoolgirls and older women – the former has now been discredited as latent paedophilia whereas the latter retains its potent allure, even if it becomes redundant as the decades roll by and the only older women resemble Vera Lynn. For the average teenage boy, however, the attraction remains as relevant as the opposite does for his female equivalent; in the turbulent maelstrom of the teenage thought processes, the desire to be over-16 is predominant; the teenager in question will gravitate towards any adult prepared to treat them as a fellow adult, and that includes on a sexual level. That the genuine adult should know better is the real issue. Alice McBrearty at 23 was quite possibly as emotionally immature as the 15-year-old she seduced and may not have been the scheming predator the 16 month sentence will portray her as; but does that make her a sex offender? As the law stands, yes.

© The Editor

SCHOOL’S IN

A school uniform may be resented by those with no choice but to wear it, yet the sullen adolescents slouching against bus-shelters this morning have merely exchanged one uniform for another – one day dressed in their regulation designer teenage attire and the next back in the straitjacket dictated by the educational institution selected by their parents due to its standing in the league tables. One mass-produced outfit trades on the illusion of individuality and the other is sold as a constricting concession to The Man, but both cynically feed the consumer appetite, either that of parent or child. The latter I sighted earlier today are now at the stage Alice Cooper once sang of – ‘I’m in the middle without any plans/I’m a boy/and I’m a man’. Envy them? Thought not.

The aforementioned veteran shock-rocker has regularly cited the inspiration for his biggest hit as being the moments leading up to the last school bell that heralds the summer holidays, moments he rightly recalled as being amongst the highlights of childhood. Even a childless person can’t help but notice those moments have been and gone for another year now, however; a sudden alteration in the apparel of the urban parade as of today is something one can’t help but notice, though I must stress at this stage of proceedings I have no midlife leanings towards the female variety resuming the route to the academy. Who would dare these days, anyway?

No, I was simply made aware that school was no longer out because of the proliferation of identikit brats cluttering the pavements in the manner of chattering wheelie-bins. Mercifully, most of my social media brothers and sisters have either avoided or have passed the proud parent bombardment, so I haven’t had to endure any forced smile mug-shots of their offspring in freshly-ironed and starched blazers this week. Not that I don’t feel sorry for those caught in the competitive crossfire of parental one-upmanship; in fact, I have no qualms in declaring I’d much rather have been a schoolboy then than now – even if then would seem virtually Victorian to today’s press-ganged classroom crew.

Assembly – the daily induction: a hymn to sing, a fable from the Bible, a round-up of results involving the numerous school sports teams, a slap across the skull from a patrolling teacher as swift punishment for talking, the occasional gust of wind provoking sniggering, and every once in a while a lecture on the evils of some vandalism committed by a villain nobody will name – all conducted in the chilly environs of a hall that can double-up as a dining room three hours later. Not long after the half-asleep multitudes are herded off to their respective classes, the unmistakable aroma of boiled slurry begins to seep into the space, though the belly will have to wait for the dubious gastronomic treats; lucky belly.

Those wooden rubbers designed to erase chalk text from the blackboard could very nearly have an eye out, as they would have said on ‘Blue Peter’ if the school experience had been realistically portrayed on the programme. As a teacher’s weapon, the wooden rubbers competed with a ruler or a register when deciding which would serve as the quickest means of altering a daydreaming pupil to the lesson when hurled in their direction. Running the gauntlet of staff sadism was a tricky business that, if done with the correct amount of cheeky chappie nerve, could ensure a legend that would last a lunchtime; if done wrong, detention alongside the swivel-eyed school yahoos awaited.

Those I knew who did as they were told and got on with their work probably enjoyed careers of clerical social-climbing and mobility once graduating from our glorified Borstal; they were fortunate they could do so while it was still possible. Their equivalents today can look forward to university (which was a rare privilege at my alma mater), albeit bankrupting their parents in the process and saddling themselves with decades of debt as their degree qualifies them for soul-destroying telesales that won’t even pay their astronomical rent, never mind entitle them to a home of their own. Some progress.

We are also intermittently informed by our tabloid press that today’s schools are hotbeds of violence – both physical and sexual; coppers are often on site; bullying initiatives are part and parcel of the curriculum; CCTV and weapons searches are apparently regular fixtures. Never had any of that at my school, but I fail to see how the violence could possibly be any more vicious and endemic than it was during my tenure. The most severe punishment a teacher can dish out to an unruly ‘student’ today is temporary suspension; they can’t administer six-of-the-best let alone a clip round the lughole, yet they could more or less indulge in any assault when I was at school, and it was sometimes hard to decide who were the scariest – the staff or the more psychotic pupils.

Okay, so institutionalised violence emanating from the staff-room may have been outlawed, but pupil power has its own downside. Not that any parent would want to accept this could be the case at their own child’s school – after all the trouble they went to when moving into the right catchment area and ferrying their offspring to the gates in Chelsea Tractors? No wonder they react to any fictional portrayals of school that dwell on this violence with such fury. ‘Grange Hill’ was the bête noir of parents for the first few years of its existence; surely characters such as Gripper Stebson were pure fantasy? Yet, the kids recognised this council estate Flashman in an instant. Only when the cast were applauded for the ‘Just Say No’ campaign did the show achieve the parental pat on the back.

I doubt schooldays were the best days of anyone’s life, merely an introductory episode to the equally joyous workplace or dole queue; I certainly don’t look back at mine with any fondness, that’s for sure. Yet, at the same time, I wouldn’t swap places with the poor sods enduring it today. I would imagine the environment they currently inhabit is a good deal less intimidating than the one I inhabited at their age, but the prospect of joining a workforce with the longest hours in Europe and diminishing rewards at the end of it makes one wonder why the whole lot of them aren’t bunking off. Mind you, that would put their parents in prison, wouldn’t it? I guess not all new laws are bad.

© The Editor

BACK TO THE TEACHER

Okay, so it’s been a bloody grim week so far, and as a means of combating the worst elements of the twenty-first century, I’ve been retreating into the selective embrace of the past in the shape of programmes for schools and colleges produced in the 1970s. Thanks to YouTube, over the last 48 hours I’ve sat through 40-odd year-old editions of ‘Look and Read’, ‘Words and Pictures’, ‘How We Used to Live’ et al. If I dip into my desk drawer and pull out a copy of the Radio Times from the same era (the copy in question dated 31 August-6 September 1974), the centre pages provide the most striking contrast between television then and television now, for they contain a four-page guide to that autumn’s educational schedule across BBC TV and radio.

And the variety on offer in this schedule is all the more eye-opening because these series are all primarily aimed at adults; there isn’t even room for cataloguing the myriad of programmes produced for schools during this period. Got kids? Watch ‘Parents and Children’ on BBC1; like football? Listen to ‘Behind the Goals’ on Radio 3; just qualified as a social-worker? Watch ‘Developments in Social Work’ on BBC2; interested in ‘news-making, decision-making and forms of loyalty’? Watch ‘Focus’ on BBC1 – and that’s not the flute-based, yodelling Dutch prog-rock band, despite ‘House of the King’ being used as the theme tune to numerous educational programmes in the 1970s.

You can learn to speak German, Spanish, Russian and Welsh, learn to become a mountaineer, rugby player and gardener, learn how to understand economics, the National Health and local government, not to mention ‘systematic thinking in action’! Arts, sciences, languages, the community, home and leisure, work and industry, teaching – all fall under the umbrella of public service broadcasting in 1974. Despite his reservations over the one-eyed monster, no doubt Lord Reith would have been proud his original remit remained relatively intact.

Today, what used to be viewed as television down-time is filled during the day with cheap and cheerful antiques/cookery/house-buying and selling/quiz show formulas and late at night with rolling news, interactive game shows and repeats of daytime fodder with a man in the corner of the screen aptly gesticulating his way through ‘The Jeremy Kyle Show’. In retrospect, it’s amazing how a TV landscape that switched-off around midnight seemed to cram more into its limited broadcasting hours than one that never sleeps. The adult education programmes described above could usually be found hidden away last thing at night or presented together in a large chunk on a Sunday morning, sandwiched between a religious service and farming news; space in the listings may have been at a precious premium, but the schedulers always found a space to educate and inform as well as entertain.

Then of course, there were the twilight hours that were occupied by hirsute men in spectacles with little or no evident experience in front of a camera – the Open University. Who could forget that eerie, unnerving jingle jolting the armchair snoozer back to life far more effectively than a car alarm would do today? And who could forget programmes for schools and colleges? For anyone who was of school age in the 60s, 70s or 80s, they were amongst the few breathers from the classroom tedium on offer. What a ritual that was, being ushered into the library and watching the teacher wheel-in a huge telly, waiting for what felt like an aeon for the machine to warm-up, and then being greeted by some unsettling Radiophonic Workshop ditty accompanying a pulsating diamond or a circle of disappearing dots before the actual programme began.

It’s worth bearing in mind just how many hours were given over to schools broadcasts as well. An average BBC1 week during term-time would begin around 9.38am and would sign-off not long after midday; following a dinner-break for the test card, the news, ‘Pebble Mill at One’ and ‘Watch with Mother’, schools TV would open its gates again for another hour or so at the precise time of 2.2pm. That’s not even including BBC schools broadcasts on the radio, when the VHF wavelength on Radio 4 would be used exclusively for them between 10.00 in the morning and 3.00 in the afternoon.

We should also remember that ITV – yes! ITV! – played its part in the television education of the nation’s children as well. Even though commercial considerations freed them from a less rigid public service commitment than the Beeb, their weekday schedule ran from 9.30-12.00 and produced some of the most memorable schools programmes of them all. There was even an advertising armistice during these transmissions.

Calculate just how much of pre-24 hour TV on both sides of the British broadcasting divide was given over to educational programming and it’d be pretty impressive. It’s indisputable that many were cheaply-made on shoestring budgets, especially the Open University broadcasts; and some were uniquely dull in a manner that elevated visual boredom to a level that now seems quite radical, on a par with the worst Warhol movies or a contemporary art installation But I’d still be more bored sitting through an edition of ‘This Morning’ than an episode of Granada’s austere schools science show, ‘Experiment’.

Noble ventures are not something one would now really associate with British television. Most 21st century TV execs would probably regard ‘Comic Relief’ or ‘Children in Need’ as such, and in their own way, they are. But annual or bi-annual telethons, when the normal schedule is set aside for one night only to accommodate a good deed, are different to the noble venture that was educational television. It was a product of a period in which the people who ran television regarded it as a tool of communication that amounted to more than a ratings-chasing commercial cash-cow or a daytime sedative. Much like the internet is today, TV then was viewed as a multi-purpose medium capable of all that life can afford.

So, where did it go? Firstly, the advent of the VCR hailed the death-knell of schools programming in its traditional slot; secondly, in the mid-80s BBC TV schools programmes were shunted over to BBC2 in preparation for the launch of daytime BBC1 and the arrival of cosy sofa chinwags about child abuse and the menstrual cycle. Not long after, ITV transferred their schools schedule to Channel 4 in order that Richard and Judy could do likewise, paving the way for menopausal gobshites and underclass-baiting bullies. It is ironic that a slot once reserved for mind-expansion is now reserved for the gradual erosion of the brain cells, and after-dark telly today is no less retarded. It does seem a shame that the increase in broadcasting hours doesn’t seem capable of embracing the same breadth of broadcasting available when less was more.

© The Editor

THE BASH STREET KING

Unless you’re in the know, chances are the name Leo Baxendale means nothing to you. However, if you’re over at least 30, you’ll be more than familiar with the characters this unsung National Treasure gave us – The Bash Street Kids, Minnie the Minx, Little Plum, and Grimly Feendish, to name a few. It’s been announced that Baxendale has died at the age of 86 and – subsequent innovators such as Alan Moore and the ‘2000AD’ generation aside – it’s hard to think of anyone who revolutionised British comics more than this remarkably gifted draughtsman from Preston.

Beginning before the Second World War, both The Dandy and The Beano were firmly part of the British cultural furniture by the time Baxendale became a regular contributor to the latter in 1952. The introduction of Dennis the Menace the year before had given Britain’s schoolboys a new anti-hero that enabled them to live out their revenge fantasies on authority figures such as parents and teachers by proxy. Tapping into this new spirit of cartoon anarchy that served to inject some much-needed colour into monochrome Austerity Britain for anyone under the age of around 13, Baxendale added to the list of naughty schoolboys with an entire class of them, The Bash Street Kids.

With Desperate Dan the cowboy star of The Dandy, Baxendale decided to showcase the other side for The Beano by creating Red Indian character Little Plum as well as The Three Bears. Both strips ran for over thirty years, long after their creator had left the comic, whereas The Bash Street Kids continue to run riot in their preserved 50s playground to this very day, as does the other character whose creation he will forever be associated with, Minnie the Minx.

Clearly a female equivalent of Dennis the Menace, Baxendale’s tomboy (first appearing in 1953) even wore the same red-and-black hooped jersey Dennis had virtually trademarked. However, whilst her male counterpart can be placed in a long tradition of unruly little boys such as William Brown (AKA ‘Just William’), there were few precedents in either literature or comics for Minnie. Yes, there were the wild pupils of St Trinian’s, though they were posh girls at a boarding school; Minnie was a working-class heroine when the idea of a girl from ‘the lower orders’ being as mischievous and badly-behaved as a boy was very much frowned upon. She instantly provided female readers with their own role model that parents were destined to disapprove of; the fact she also happened to be ginger gave hope to redheads everywhere. Like Dennis, her wicked deeds may have ended with the obligatory slipper on the backside, but readers at the time were aware that’s how all wicked deeds concluded, so her ultimate failure didn’t matter; what mattered was that she had the guts to have a go.

Dundee-based DC Thomson, publishers of The Dandy and The Beano as well as a host of other popular titles, were notoriously reluctant to give credit to the artists illuminating the pages of their publications; the serf-like approach they had to the men whose creations and artwork sold millions of copies (in 1950, the weekly circulation of The Beano alone was estimated at 1,974,072) irked Baxendale and he left the company after a decade in 1962, moving to DC Thomson rivals Odhams Press. Whilst there, he helped create Wham!, a gloriously insane comic that allowed his vivid imagination to run riot and one that introduced one of his most memorable creations, Grimly Feendish.

If you’ve ever seen the animated movie ‘Despicable Me’, the influence of Feendish is unmistakable. A fat bald villain clad in black, Feendish’s army for achieving world domination included bats, spiders and various fictitious creatures that made him a cult horror figure so potent to 60s children that when some of them grew up and formed The Damned, they even wrote a hit single about him. Unfortunately, the high production cost of Wham! and its sister titles pushed Odhams into financial difficulties and the company was absorbed into IPC, whose titles showcased most of Baxendale’s new work in the 70s as well as introducing that decade’s comic readership (myself included) to the likes of Grimly Feendish.

Still smarting from his treatment by DC Thomson and the fact that the strips he created remained amongst the most popular in the company’s comic stable, Baxendale took the company to court in the 80s in order to gain the rights to his creations. This legal battle spanned seven years, eventually settled out of court with an arrangement that apparently suited both parties. The fact that Baxendale was prepared to take on the authority of Thomson seemed to echo the attitude of Minnie the Minx and The Bash Street Kids towards their own authority figures, perhaps showing there was more than a touch of the creations in the creator.

Whereas the 1960s may have opened the door to irreverence that in turn heralded the death of deference, without the foundations laid in the previous decade we wouldn’t have had ‘Beyond the Fringe’ or John Lennon asking the people in the expensive seats at the Royal Variety Performance to rattle their jewellery. Whilst the likes of Spike Milligan and The Goons are rightly recognised as hugely significant pioneers in helping to manufacture this atmosphere, credit is also due to the men whose madcap characters enlivened the comics read by kids who went on to play their own part in the 60s cultural revolution.

Leo Baxendale stands at the head of these neglected innovators; that it’s still possible to follow the adventures of Minnie the Minx and The Bash Street Kids in the twenty-first century is testament to their enduring appeal and to the man who made them. RIP.

© The Editor

NIGHT SCHOOL

TeacherIn retrospect, Miss Pitts wasn’t exactly a bubbling cauldron of constrained and suppressed sexual tension; she wasn’t even – with respect – someone I’d look at twice today. But to a school containing many a sweaty, spotty boy in the throes of nascent pubescent lust, she was an object of desire, a real woman amongst girls. This was a desire that culminated in an ad-hoc end-of-term play in which a scene she participated in saw her exploit her object status by wrapping the flesh of her nether regions in a deliberately teasing slit-skirt that conformed to the laws of gravity when it fell to the ground as she fought off a pretend attacker, gifting the male members of the audience a glimpse of fully-developed female thigh. The response was a resounding cheer and, I suspect, a wave of amateur erections.

At that age, any female teacher – however retrospectively unattractive – will suffice in the absence of anything else. And I would imagine the same applies for the girls re the male employees of such an establishment; at that age, your imaginative libido will take anything it can get.

Miss Pitts had been the girls’ games teacher at my middle-school, which was mixed. At my all-boys high-school, there were two female teachers I remember. Both became the focus of fantasies that never crossed the line into reality; graffiti on toilet walls and in exercise books were as far as these primitive fantasies went, sketched by boys with no real idea as to what a physical encounter genuinely entailed. There was no hardcore internet porn to provide pointers; big brother’s hidden stash of ‘lorry drivers’ magazines’ was the sole source material. Not that this prevented the tall tales of elder boys as to what had happened one quiet evening during detention, of course. Embellished bullshit abounded where the female teachers were concerned, though pop culture had already capitalised on this. One thinks of the line from ‘Maggie May’ by Rod Stewart, which hints at the seduction of a youngster by an older woman – ‘It’s late September/and I really should be back at school’.

Somebody who did cross the line that nobody I was at school with crossed has this week been rewarded a record £4 million (or whatever the US equivalent currently stands at) and is, by his own dubious admission, ‘scarred for life’ by the experience. The fact that the teacher in question became pregnant by her pupil helped complicate matters. One could instinctively blame him for not wearing a condom, but – as the senior party – one should really blame her for not being on the pill. Whoever is ultimately responsible, the outcome of one pupil who genuinely got what every schoolboy yearns for was an unexpected baby, and that takes the affair onto another level altogether.

This case climaxed in a Californian courtroom and resulted in the record-breaking payout for the ‘traumatised’ boy while his seducer can look forward to twelve months behind bars and a lifetime on the American sex offenders’ register. Both parties were culpable, but a law that fails to take into account that some are older than others when a particular legal age is within a whisker heaps the majority of the responsibility on the shoulders of the elder participant. The pernicious US virus of serial litigation has already crossed the Atlantic, so there’s no point in adopting a superior attitude where our American cousins are concerned. The same outcome would probably happen here now; and that’s nothing to celebrate.

31-year-old Laura Whitehurst, who was described in characteristically subtle fashion by the Daily Mirror as ‘sex-crazed’, faced a potential sentence of 29 years, which was reduced by 28 after she did a deal by admitting six counts. Her momentary ‘other half’ (the scarred-for-life party) will receive his payout from his local education authority, who he sued for being negligent and complicit in his affair with Ms Whitehurst. He had claimed other teachers at the school knew about his ‘abuse’, but turned a blind eye. It’s hard not to envisage the vested interests of other parties after the event – specifically parents and law firms – and come to the conclusion that a boy who was 16 at the beginning of his romance with his teacher has repaid the woman who provided him with the desired extracurricular education in a pretty shitty fashion.

As soon as the case went to trial, the oh-so familiar factor of ‘other victims coming forward’ reared its ugly head, especially when the whiff of filthy lucre was in the air. Two former pupils hedged their bets by claiming similar ABUSE on the part of Ms Whitehurst, one of whom alleged he’d received a blowjob from her in the classroom whilst he was at the tender age of 14. By contrast, the boy who took the case to court was a couple of years older at the time his after-school lessons with Ms Whitehurst began – old enough to be recruited by the Armed Forces and old enough to earn his living.

We’ve had similar cases here over the past couple of years, and it’s time a line was drawn between the playground patroller who lives by the maxim that a finger of fudge is just enough to give the kids a treat and the older woman (or man) who responds to the hormonal approaches of a teenager by giving them what they want. Neither is morally ‘right’, but there are distinct differences between the two that the law needs to recognise, and fast. Otherwise, this farcical state of affairs can only get worse – or better, if you’re working for a law firm that stands to benefit. But I’m guessing most people reading this don’t.

© The Editor

LIVING IN A BOX

CybermenIf, like me, you happen to reside in a neighbourhood that retains the majority of its Victorian architectural roots, chances are you may have noticed the high proportion of churches – even if not all of them are still open for business. In an era when working hours were long and wages were low, Christianity served a purpose beyond mere faith, being at the heart of community life in a way it only appears to be today in rural England. But the church’s core business at its most basic was to offer hope – however slim – and a kind of ethereal distraction from the toil that the mass of the country’s workers endured.

Times change, of course; and religion, at least the one that has been that of the nation for centuries, no longer commands the same authority it once had or is turned to by millions as an escapist alternative to the dispiriting norm. Celebrity culture, certainly for what used to be called the working-class, seems to have taken its place. The reasons for an elevation that is to many utterly baffling are myriad, but the fact that it exists in its current form at all suggests there is a need for it as there was a need for the church in the nineteenth century.

Working conditions then were notoriously bad, even though there had been several pieces of legislation (largely prompted by campaigning reformers) that gradually improved the wellbeing of workers; the days of bewildered orphans being bussed from one part of the country to another in order to provide unscrupulous mill-owners with cheap labour were thankfully gone by the end of the nineteenth century. But for all the vast contrast between the lot of the working man and woman of today and their equivalents just over a hundred years ago, there is little cause for celebration; and many might argue the overall picture implies the situation has got worse rather than better over the past couple of decades.

Parents have always mapped out a newborn’s life, whatever their social demographic. Following in father’s footsteps was a familiar scenario both to those at the top and those at the bottom, whether that entailed journeying along the same prep school/public school/University/Foreign Office conveyor belt as Daddy or joining yer old man darn t’pit. So, in some respects, modern mania for catchment areas and ‘the right school’ isn’t necessarily an entirely unprecedented development. But it does reflect a very contemporary, almost obsessive, desire for absorbing people into the system at the earliest possible age, a mantra of propaganda pumped-out by media. Once Junior boards the educational treadmill in twenty-first century Britain, he or she is on the first lap of a marathon operation that surpasses anything his or her nineteenth century predecessor had to suffer. The old, rather quaint, boast that the National Health Service would provide the people with cradle-to-grave care has now been surpassed by a far less benign watchdog spanning the same timescale.

A child at school today is placed under fanatical observation and surveillance more or less from day one. The bureaucratic box-ticking that has permeated all public services settles its all-seeing eye on the school-kid and will never avert its gaze thereafter, ensuring the child slots into the system; and the system preaches that the child is secondary to concern for what the OfSted report will say. The idiosyncratic teacher who fired and inspired the imaginations of the open minds before him – the kind that could be seen in the likes of ‘Dead Poets’ Society’ or ‘The History Boys’ – has no place in today’s academic institutions. There are boundaries and boxes, and stepping or thinking outside of them is simply not allowed. A teacher is there as a trainer of trainee drones, not simply in terms of a workforce, but in every aspect of work, rest and play; and there’ll be little of the latter once Junior is released into the big bad world.

An unpaid internship or a zero-hours contract – what are they really but updated and rebranded nineteenth century working conditions? A Victorian working man or woman low down the food chain was, in many cases, dependent on their employer for a roof over their heads, a scenario not that different from the tied cottages they’d left behind when migrating from country to town. They could never have imagined owning their own home and the prospect of doing likewise for the working man or woman in both the same position and far higher up the food chain of today is just as implausible.

Their working hours are barely shorter than the working hours of their nineteenth century ancestors and they will have to keep working for more years, probably up until their mid-seventies. Money they owe may not land them in debtor’s gaols anymore, but in all likelihood they will never pay off all their debts before they die; their debtor’s gaols are the jobs that drain them and the homes they don’t own. Where do they go for much-needed, albeit temporary escape? They want to watch a family of rich bitches talk bollocks as opposed to a lone, lonely vicar talk bollocks. The Kingdom of Heaven and the Kingdom of Kardashian both offer unrealisable dreams because dreams are necessary when reality is a master-plan drawn-up by people with no imagination, no compassion, no heart and no soul, people who don’t have to live the lives they’ve designed – Tory, Labour, Liberal or Whig.

The unacceptable face of capitalism? The unacceptable face of Britain.

© The Editor

SCHOOL’S OUT WHEN WE SAY SO

Alice 2 - CopyA family holiday was not always my favourite out-of-school experience as a child; as much as I disliked school itself, at least I was free of it from 3.30pm onwards – though home could often be as unpleasant as the classroom; not having to endure a full twenty-four hours in the company of either family or fellow pupils meant the division of the day made a degree of sense. Come the school holidays, my day was essentially my own, with working parents and the freedom to roam; for this period of ecstatic emancipation to be curtailed always seemed unfair, and on the rare occasions when family holidays took place during the six-week summer break, it felt as though I’d been robbed.

However, this didn’t happen very often. Mostly, family holidays were scheduled in term time, meaning that even if the holiday contained the usual tensions exacerbated by the unnatural nature of two weeks in the sardine can, at least I was missing out on tedious lessons, playground Capones, and slap-happy sadists masquerading as teachers. If you’ve paid any attention to the headlines over the past couple of days, you probably know where I’m going with this.

It’s amusing to think that, if today’s rules had applied 35-40 years ago, my parents would have faced fines and possible imprisonment during my school days, both for taking me out of school for a fortnight and for ‘allowing’ me to take myself out of school. The latter occasions were those days when I preferred taking on my partner-in-truancy Stuart at PONG, playing air bass ala John Taylor to his copy of ‘Rio’ as he did his best Simon Le Bon (with a pair of his mother’s tights acting as makeshift New Romantic headband) or simply spending the afternoon up a tree on my own.

The fanatical obsession with endless exams, intense tests and putting pupils under all-day surveillance in the bureaucratic battle to ascend the league tables has placed both them and their parents under a strain I was spared, for which I am eternally grateful. I wasn’t viewed as a future financial investment by either parents or the State, which (as it turned out) was fairly shrewd foresight.

The legal victory on Friday of John Platt against the Isle of Wight Council following his refusal to pay a £120 fine for taking his six-year-old daughter out of school and on holiday during term time has been celebrated in some quarters as a triumph for common sense and two defiant fingers up at The Man. It is ironic at a moment when there is a continuous government emphasis on reducing the interference of the State in the lives of the individual that the State actually has more power to interfere today where some scenarios are concerned than it ever has previously. With regards to John Platt, he had managed to persuade magistrates on the Isle of Wight to overturn the fine, but the local authority appealed and took the case to the High Court. His argument was that it was not up to local authorities to decide what was best for his children, and this argument appears to have been vindicated following the High Court’s decision in his favour.

Of course, there is also the crucial truth that the travel agencies hike up their prices during official school holidays, aware that changes to the rules of the game mean parents now risk incurring the wrath of the watchdogs if they decide to holiday when prices aren’t so astronomical. Most don’t like making a fuss and adhere to the system, but for those who don’t, one has to ask what the child actually loses out on by missing a week or two in the classroom. All I can really recall about the aftermath of a holiday in term time is returning to school and being filled in on the latest gossip about who snogged who, who had a fight with who, and who went to the toilet in their trousers when a teacher refused them permission to go to the loo during a lesson. I don’t remember missing out on some vital piece of information that cost me dear come an exam, and (much to my chagrin) I was never absent from an exam due to a family holiday anyway.

Following the case of John Platt, there are now renewed calls for the law to be tightened. The Department of Education has pompously proclaimed ‘The evidence is clear that every extra day of school missed can affect a pupil’s chance of gaining good GCSEs, which has a lasting effect on their life chances.’ Really? Does that mean, even if they miraculously acquire a precious degree, they still won’t be qualified enough to make it as a zero-hours contract, unpaid intern for a corporation whose billions are funnelled through to the Cayman Islands via Luxembourg or Eire and only ever reach the pockets of fat cat shareholders based in Monaco? All because they weren’t present for a physics lesson one moribund Monday afternoon? Education, education, education, eh?

© The Editor

PLAYGROUND POLITICS

50s-kidsSome days I was Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest; the day I leapt from a tree I was Tarzan; I don’t ever remember the Lord of the Jungle limping away from a landing like I did that day, but I tried my best not to show it; my foot was killing me, though my cousin whose appearance from a distance provoked the flight from the branch had no inkling of this fact. Boys don’t cry. Another day, I was the Six Million Dollar Man, engaging in one more bionic jump from a great height, this time the platform held up by scaffolding on the first floor of a partially built house on my parents’ new estate; I hit a mountain of what I reckoned was sand (though it was probably unmixed concrete) and bust my lip. Again, I soldiered on through the pain barrier because that’s the way things were.

At school, when an audience for death-defying feats was all-but guaranteed, the pressure not to revert to a cry baby was even greater. Children see everything placed before them as a challenge to be conquered and, left to their own devices, they test the limits of their physical and mental strength, preparing them for far greater challenges poised to come their way in the future, when climbing frames and fisticuffs are superseded by less simplistic solutions to a problem. To use a frightfully old-fashioned term, such obstacles and how one handles them are ‘character-building’. It’s as necessary a part of learning what it is to be human as picking up language from the adults surrounding us as we gaze out of our cribs, absorbing the ambience at the beginning of life’s learning curve. Put the brakes on any of these formative educational elements and one risks raising an inept generation scared of their own shadows and incapable of independent thought, let alone taking a risk. Perhaps that’s part of the plan.

A couple of weeks after it was announced by one school that they were encouraging a form of rugby during games lessons that excluded tackling, it was announced by another this week that they had banned that traditional playground pastime, tig. Reminiscent of the conkers-with-goggles concept pioneered by another school built from cotton wool a few years back, these latest curbs on the right of children to experience the rough & tumble chime with the general frowning upon notions of competition. We all participated in sports days, even those of us not of a sporty bent; my best performance was coming third in the 1974 sack race. I got a little certificate, but my final position was clearly marked upon it. Everyone wasn’t a winner because that’s life. Where would the Olympics be if every athlete to take part in an event was awarded gold?

How the teaching profession expects 16-17-year-olds to emerge from education capable of competing for jobs is beyond me. They will leave school utterly unequipped to deal with rejection, whereas those of us who were the last to be picked for the football team learnt that lesson early on – which is how it should be. The ramifications of shielding children from the harsh realities of the big bad world is evident now in the foot-stamping students who cannot accept an opinion that contradicts their own and therefore require safe spaces to suck their thumbs. This isn’t what mummy and daddy told them life outside of school would be like, for mummy and daddy are as complicit in their children’s arrested development as the teaching staff advised to treat all their charges as though they belonged to a world coloured in the same reassuring shades as a Ladybird book.

No one is suggesting the ideal model for modern schooling should be Dotheboys Hall from ‘Nicholas Nickleby’, with spank-happy Wackford Squeers laying down the law, nor are they suggesting children should spend their childhoods being repeatedly told they’re useless and will never amount to anything. But like so many areas of twenty-first century life (particularly Law), the balance has been tilted from one extreme to another, bypassing the middle ground whereby some form of realistic equilibrium can be achieved. Removing physical contact between children, whether on the rugby pitch or in the playground, is not preparing them for life outside of the school gates anymore than pretending everyone they meet there will have the cheery constitution of Rod, Jane and Freddie.

I sometimes feel as though all activities in school today must be preceded by a warning akin to those issued by BBC announcers: ‘We’d like to warn pupils that the following lesson contains scenes of grazed knees and scuffed shoes’, with an accompanying helpline to ring at the end, just in case some kids were traumatised by the experience of playing. If children are made of china rather than flesh-and-blood, why not take a leaf out of the country that produced such pottery and bind their feet before they can walk – or better still, bind their entire bodies? Each able-bodied child could also be provided with a mobility-scooter to preclude the prospect of injury, perhaps with a drip attached that can pump breast-milk into their delicate frames.

The only adults that jump from trees or buildings are those who indulge in it as a hobby – the so-called ‘dangerous sports’ brigade, addicted to keeping their adrenalin pumping; most avoid doing so because they did all that as kids, which is when it should be done. Deny kids that necessity and you deny them a brief and vital episode of fun before their absorption into the machine that renders them commodities and financial investments for parents, management and government. Mind you, if they have too much fun they might begin to question the system lying in wait for them, and we can’t have that.

© The Editor

THE BACK OF MY HAND

DennisSometimes I fancifully imagine the state education system waited for me to finally leave school before they outlawed corporal punishment on their premises. The facts bear me out. I exited education in 1985; caning and other forms of physical teacher-on-pupil chastisement were abolished in 1986. Okay, so I might be exaggerating my small pond reputation as a trouble-maker, but it does seem retrospectively coincidental. I actually managed to evade the cane, which now seems quite an achievement; but I was cunning. However, that didn’t prevent me once being led into a darkened room by a teacher, where I was ordered to bend over, and a term’s worth of pent-up frustration of being outwitted by a smart-arse shit was unleashed in the form of a hard plimsoll on my backside. That was the ritualised form of punishment; there were more spontaneous acts of violence on the part of the staff during lessons, of course – objects being hurled across the classroom, tables being shoved into the midriff, heavyweight registers whacked on the back of the head – all perfectly legit and an accepted response by an exasperated or simply sadistic teacher to a pupil he regarded as disruptive or merely annoying.

In the public schools, regular beatings were regarded as character-building as sport, especially in the days when pupils were being groomed to govern the colonies; so entrenched was the practice that prefects could administer a thrashing of a younger pupil on behalf of a teacher, viewed as a perk of the prefect system. Parodied and satirised as a key aspect of public schooling in literature, films and on television (anyone remember Jimmy Edwards in ‘Whacko!’?) it was no wonder it took longer for the law to be extended beyond state schools – 1998 for England and Wales, 2000 for Scotland, and 2003 for Northern Ireland.

The birch was the most commonplace implement for punishment in schools up until the advent of the cane in the late nineteenth century, eventually being outlawed throughout British educational establishments in 1948, though controversially retained on the Isle of Man until the mid-70s. The cane became rarer as a form of school discipline in the 70s, usually administered only by the headmaster and gradually superseded by the slipper. By this time, buttocks bearing the brunt of the impact were no longer bare, probably to the disappointment of those teachers who paid good money for their own bottoms to receive a far harsher treatment from a lady of their choice. A greater awareness of the physical as well as psychological effects on a developing body and mind played their part in the eventual ending of corporal punishment in schools, and the subversive sexual element of the exercise was probably a factor too.

I haven’t even mentioned the unlicensed activities of playground bullies, but we’re talking adult-on-child here. Away from school, parental punishment was less regulated and more impromptu, if just as predictable. Strangely enough, being aware of what the consequences could be rarely stopped an act guaranteed to provoke them; a deterrent? Not really; but it did have some effect, looking back. It certainly made any affection towards my father difficult, knowing what he was capable of; and I have always found it hard to forgive and forget, quite frankly. The memories of running away from a six-foot ogre in anticipation of a red handprint on my legs loom large in my childhood recollections.

It is true that successive generations of children experienced a less violent form of physical retribution from a parent as chastisement fashions changed; my parents came from the era when a father removing his belt and whipping his child was a common occurrence, giving rise to the ‘it never did me any harm’ cliché as justification for dishing out their own punishments, ones in which the hand was regarded as a more humane alternative to the belt. The backside was generally the target area, with the head and ears reserved for special occasions. Mostly, the casual nature of these smacks reflected the minor misdemeanours I committed; my mother would routinely smack me in public and nobody would have considered her guilty of child abuse. Dennis the Menace always ended his weekly adventure bent over his father’s or teacher’s knee with a slipper or cane poised to descend upon his bum, after all. Did I really deserve it, though? I was no Dennis as a child, certainly not in comparison to some of the kids I went to school with; but that was the language of child-rearing as spoken during my formative years. I wasn’t to know then that within twenty or thirty years the language would be outlawed forever. I wasn’t to know then that I belonged to the last generation of children who would receive it both at home and at school.

One could say there’s a fine line between ‘acceptable’ chastisement of a child by a parent and actual abuse, though the majority of parents know where the line lays. Any government interference that robs them of authority over their own children’s punishment stinks of the state adopting an in loco parentis approach. The last major poll surveying parents in 2012 found that 63% disapproved of a smacking ban.

I suppose there’s an argument to be made that being exposed to such rough justice from an adult at an early age toughens you up and eradicates any brattish tendencies, just as parents and teachers telling you you’re a waste of space and will never amount to anything could galvanise you into proving them wrong. We now have a generation of young adults who bypassed all of that, whose idea of punishment at home was the naughty step and at school, suspension. They’re the ones we saw throwing wobblers in supermarkets back in the noughties as their hapless parents had to stand and watch. They’ve also been repeatedly told how special they are, something that won’t necessarily prepare them for the gradual realisation they’re not. Imagine when they get to university and how they’ll cope with something that contradicts their opinion of themselves and the world around them. Oh, we’re already there.

© The Editor