Where there's a Willesden there's a way

Sunday, January 30, 2005

The past will haunt you...

Five years ago I found an interview with my old headmistress on the front page of the TES. One year ago, I found a book by her. Tonight it's the TV adaptation, and somehow I can't help but wander if I'll be walking to work in five years time beneath a massive poster saying "Vote Stubbs". Or "Marie Stubbs is watching you." These things really can snowball.

Incidentally, also in the news this week it's Opus Dei. But I thinik I've dug up enough skeletons for one week.

Spinning to the head of the class

It's almost time to locate the nearest sofa and hide behind it. Because 9pm on ITV sees Ahead of the Class, the television adaptation of the book of the same name by Lady Marie M. Stubbs. It's the story of how a "Superhead" came out of retirement to take over a troubled school and give its children a future. I'm feeling queasy already.

I'll have to declare an interest here; Marie Stubbs was my headmistress for many years. And I'm quite troubled by the furore around this book; myself and my family have known and studied her methods quite closely over the past nineteen years. And before I continue, don't think this is adolescent lashing out at figures of authority or a chance to settle old scores. I'm far too old for that sort of thing, and enough time's gone past to give us all a bit of perspective on all this.

What's worried me is just how much her side of the story has been taken at value and held up as an example for our troubled times. If you google her, you'll only find one whisper of criticism (and now two). She's always been an excellent publicist and now it would seem that in retirement she has gone from applying her talents to her school to herself. She's been very successful in that respect.

What first started ringing alarm bells with me was the phrase "...now children walk down brightly painted corridors". I've been there- in the run up to an inspection, the second floor corridor became a shocking shade of crimsom. The toilets, too, took on a red wall, a yellow wall and a blue one. It's very easy to buy a pot of paint and some flowers, but the flowers disappeared the day after the Ofsted inspection, and red walls don't change a thing.

I'd respect these as genuine attempts to make a change if it wasn't for the malicious tactics my school employed. The system contrived to keep students from leaving to go to other sixth forms (with much better results and a wider choice of subjects) and many of my friends remained there because their application forms had been "lost". I'd been tipped off by a number of well-placed staff members that this was a deliberate move, and so was able to ensure my forms were actually sent off.

Students who did move on were heavily pressured to stay, and after they left returned to collect their GCSE certificates on Speech Night only to be refused admission, which was a particularly vindictive and petty move.

Every student was compelled to do Reception duty, which was quite a good policy. It wasn't quite as productive towards our education when I got pulled out of a mock GCSE exam in order to do it. In the book, Mrs Stubbs does allude to her thorny professional relationship with Father George Dangerfield. I was once witness to the most unprofessional thing I've ever seen when, on a holy day of obligation in a Catholic School, she talked for 40 minutes out of the alloted hour for mass on the importance of never calling anyone a loner. Father George refused to say mass in twenty minutes, saying that to do so would be a sin. After a flurry of activity Father George kindly agreed to say mass after school instead which would of course be compulsory, somehow earning the entire year group an after school detention and leaving us amazed that adults could actually act in this way.
I could cite examples all day of this bizarre behaviour and obsession with presentation, but that's not especially productive. I don't deny that it's a very good book and that she took on a very difficult task. What I'm trying to say is that anyone can tell their story to make themselves look very good (this blog being an example- in reality I just sit on the sofa all day), but achieving results is something else. So I'm going to take this whole thing with a pinch of salt.

But I'm not quite in the right frame of mind for My Headmistress:The Movie yet. I'm still getting over the live show.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Got the Gunther blues

Well, some guys get cremated
And some go under the ground
But I'll tell you what you can do
When I am not around
You can wrap me in a blanket
And prop me up bed
Bury me under the floorboards
Make an ashtray from my head
You can stuff me you can mount me
Use my body as a door
But don't, please don't,
Dissect me on Channel 4

You can feed me to the fishes
Use my arm to clean the dishes
You can even put me in a dress
And call me your missus
You can cut me up in pieces
And serve me to the poor
But my only wish is
Don't dissect me on Channel Four.

You can donate me to medical science
Or that bloke who sells cheap pies
Use my body in defiance
Of the laws concening undertakers and common decency
I could be a crash test dummy
Or a thoroughly modern mummy
But don't, oh baby I'm begging you don't
When I'm dead and gone don't
Dissect me on Channel Four

Don't let Gunther get his hands on me baby!

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

In my head. And I'd like it to stay that way

I've been inspired. I've only got the first verse of my new song so far; I'm going to call it the Professor Van Hagens Blues.

Well, some guys get cremated
And some go under the ground
But I'll tell you what you can do
When I am not around
You can wrap me in a blanket
And prop me up bed
Bury me under the floorboards
Make an ashtray from my head
You can stuff me you can mount me
Use my body as a door
But don't, please don't,
Dissect me on Channel 4

Monday, January 24, 2005

Tappety Tap Tap

The dust is settling here on Meteor Street. I've only got another 6 boxes to unpack, the pictures are up, and blog fever is gripping the flat.

Mog's Next Big Adventure has gone live, and I'm working on Meg. It's like having three soap operas in the same flat.

Maybe I should ask the neighbours if they want a blog too. This could be a publishing phenomenon.

Yes, I know...

"Good morning London, it's 7.25 on Blue Monday and you're listening to Capital". My contact lenses were not going in, my chin was bleeding and the DJ seemed to be taunting me. "Scientists have calculated that Monday 24th January is the most depressing day of 2005." They've got an equation and everything. "G represents the co-efficient of gloom, T the average temperature and E is the amount of money people haven't got. Welcome to the world of pop science. Someone works out an equation like this every couple of weeks. It makes good copy.

Despite this, I was in good spirits. I couldn't see properly, but it was my first commute to work from the new place. And it started easily.

As the train pulled up on time, I sat opposite two fairly relaxed looking businessmen. "Well" said one of them, "they say today's the most depressing day of the year." I huddled beneath my jacket. "It's because of pay day and the weather, some guy sat down and worked it out." I checked my busy schedule for the day, straightened my collar and flattened my hair.

I maintained an aura of invulnerability walking down Borehamwood High Street. I breathed the cold air deeply and walked with a purpose. The person next to me talked into his mobile phone. The person in front of me dropped to the ground and hit his head hard.

Blood was coming out of his mouth and there didn't seem to be anyone behind his open blue eyes. One person called an ambulance whilst two of us debated the merits of the recovery position against the close aproximation to the recovery position the poor guy had landed in. He seemed to breathing OK, and we stood over him and panicked, and he came to just as the ambulance and a police car mounted the pavement directly in front of him, sirens screaming. There was a lot of fear in his eyes.

I hung around, wondering how long was a decent interval to let the professionals get on with it. As they loaded him into the ambulance, I passed the two police officers sitting in the car with a flask of tea.
"...it's the time of year, someone's worked it..."

I walked into the office in search of coffee and cigarettes. Five minutes later I was in the warm recounting the story and starting to get freaked out. My colleague listened sympathetically and put her arm around me.

"They do say today's going to be the most depressing of the year."

"Yeah", I replied. "Apparently someone's worked it out."

Under the patio

Day 2 in Willesden and I've already found my first dead thing. Mog's got an allotment, and we've got our doubts about the previous owner.

Day 1 was spent in a haze of dust, cardboard and pulled muscles. Having driven my stuff through the rat race of North London *three* times, the least I could do was get Smooth B drunk. So I did. When Mog's drunk, she talks in an Irish accent- and I was surprised to find myself doing the same thing. Mog suggested we hit a cafe in the morning before doing some gardening, and having unpacked by 9am on Sunday, I felt like getting some air. So we headed down Willesden High Road with a big spade.

Inevitably I was going to do the joke. Walking through the park I turned to Mog.

"Do you think we went deep enough"

"I think so. Sniffer dogs will never find her."

This was a joke that was to horribly backfire an hour later. Mog had handed me the spade and pointed to some seriously undisturbed ground. After much singing and quoting Seamus Heaney, I'd got the Shallow Grave references out of my head. Until the spade sank into the ground with an unearthly squelch.

"Mog", I shouted, uncovering the corner of a black plastic sack, "can you come and look at this?"

I dug around it. I worked out pretty soon it was too small and squishy to be a body. At least not a whole one anyway. It was probably about the size of a large rabbit or a small cat. Or a head. I tried to lift it and it smelt terrible. After I'd convinced myself it was really nothing to worry about, I dug a hole and put it down. We're planning on growing potatoes over there.

The allotment is littered with cans of strongbow, a piece of carpet and some knickers. We're wondering if it belonged to a truck driver.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Last dinner in Watford...Last sunset in Watford... Last Simpsons in Watford...

I've only been packing for an afternoon, and I'm tired already. It feels like it's going to be a long weekend.

For a start, it's a surprise just how many clothes I've got. The first thing I cleared out was the laundry basket, and I've found t-shirts I haven't seen in over a year. Very scary. I'm also wondering where the toy fishing game came from.

I seem to remember that whenever I move, several things happen:
- Clothes and books take up most of the move.
- I run out of boxes.
- One third of my possessions get lost or broken.
- I turn to drink quite early on.

It's been a while since I moved, but it's all coming back to me now.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Magical farewell tour

In this town you get some strange looks when you start angrily shaking your fist at the sky. It's just my way of saying goodbye.

I'm on my way to Wheathampstead for yet another training course, and my last journey out of Watford is not going well. I spent an hour at the bus stop outside my flat before getting an obscure branch line to St Albans. I've spent another hour out here, my course started ten minutes ago, and I'm no closer to getting the bus I need. On the bright side it's stopped raining.

Two and a half years of taking Hertfordshire public transport and I'm still no closer to figuring it out. Either I'm really bad at buses or it really is jusl the system. And although I'm going to miss Brother's place, I'll be happy to give up this particular game. I know transport in london ain't great, but compared to Watford, bring it on.

I need some boxes.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner

There's an appeal for witnesses on the corner of my new street and I don't remember my new flatmates having quite as many dirty old spades. On the bright side, the cupboards are huge.

After whinging about Hertfordshire public transport for over 2 years, I've finally decided to head back to Willesden. I'm not totally sure I know why. Maybe it's the lure of the bright lights of the big city. Maybe I just really fancy a change. Or maybe it's the 30 minute commute to work.

I'm going to miss living with Brother though. It's been a laugh being out here, and having arrived here from Willesden degreeless and careerless, I feel like I can come back with some sense of self-respect and a steady income. And I've got Brother to thank for that one.

It's going to take some getting used to though. The buildings are massive and there's people everywhere. It's a bit noisy and disorienting. It feels like I'm back in London.

Finally, something to blog about.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Like Toy Social Workers...

I first realised this morning would be weird when I didn't jab myself in the gum hard with a toothbrush. I'm not exactly a morning person.

This Monday morning has been a bit too easy. I got up at the instant both my alarms went off, showered for exactly a minute and then had the easiest shave in my life. I even did my eyebrows and got my hair to look flat.

After getting ready I had an unprecedented 15 minutes- yes- 15 minutes to spare, so l managed to make a coffee. A rather smooth tall vanilla latte to go, to be precise, without even scolding myself and waking Brother with my screams. And still left the house 4 minutes early.

I smell a rat. I'm either about to offend Manager or realise I've picked up my laundry hamper instead of my work bag. But for the 20 minutes I might get to enjoy it, it's nice to have some insight into what it would be like to be one of those people. You know the type; goes for jogs, thinks its the best part of the day, eats breakfast.

Maybe it's my commendable enthusiam for my new job. Or maybe it's the fact that I inexplicably woke up a full hour early and lay in bed with the same thought on a loop. This one:

"...Step by step heart to heart, left right left we all fall down, like toy soldiers...Step by step heart to heart, left right left we all fall down, like toy soldiers...Step by step heart to heart, left right left we all..."

That's usually the point I start bleeding. Maybe I've already had my useless hour.

Monday, January 03, 2005

People I've met today...

I'm not feeling too great; my sinuses feel like they're going to pop through my eyes and all I want to do is sleep. But before I surrender to it, I decided to take a walk.

The Kings Langley stretch of the Grand Union Canal is home to vast stocks of trout, a huge variety of wildlife, the faded remnants of our industrial past, and my mate Nick the Unabomber.

There's quite a few Unabombers in the Hertfordshire stretch of the canal, but Nick's the friendliest. On the other occasions I've met him he's been George. And this time James. And he's never called himself an Unabomber, but you can always tell.

Unabombers are drawn to the canal by its permanance. Everything consists of wood, stone and iron, you can travel miles without crossing a road, and the only televisions nearby float soundlessly past. Nick the Unabomber can be found next to his small battered boat, chopping wood, cultivating a wild beard and profoundly regretting the 20th Century. Nick tells me that apart from government spy satellites and "men in planes", no-one's taken his picture in twenty years.

"Are you carrying one of them mobile phones?", he asked me as a form of introduction. "No", I lied, sending out thoughts to everyone I know not to text me for a few minutes.

"Good", he said, extending a finger, "because I'll tell you summat." He fixed one eye on me. "Them things are gonna kill us." I nodded neutrally.

"You see, you've got your radiation, out there." He waved his hands around, "and you've got yourself, you know, in 'ere." He was tapping the side of his head a little more than is healthy, so I nodded a little more. "And if it's all out there, it ain't in 'ere. And if it ain't in 'ere, you ain't 'uman no more."

I think I was following him, so I nodded again to prove it. He held his hand to his ear before pointing over his shoulder. "And if it's going from here to there, it's gotta go through here." He tapped his head again. "And that's gonna mess up your thoughts and all sorts."

The light was fading both in the sky and in Nick the Unabomber's eyes, so I made quite a few excuses and left. He'd given me a lot to think about on the way home.

I've had a lot of run-ins with technology lately. Unreliable phones, inexplicable Windows errors, and a frighteningly bad new computer system being introduced at work. Information Technology can be annoying, yes, frustrating, yes. Alienating? Yes, especially if you can't work it. But dehumanising? For me it's the opposite, as I seem to use it solely for texting, emailing and blogging, which are all quite human activities.

Unhealthy? Admittedly we're all getting fat, and the jury's still out on the radiation thing for now.

I think he'd be onto something with cars though. We all know the effects they have on communities and cars, but I really didn't like to mention it.

Of course, no-one's actually saying Nick the Unabomber is directly responsible for any acts of terrorism. But as technology becomes more alienating and, well, more annoying, so shrinks the line which seperates the alienated from exclusion and even a brutal and random campaign of randomly lashing out at progress through mailbombs.

I doubt Nick will be the first though.

More importantly

I'm still trying to get to grips with this Tsunami. It's about an order of magnitude bigger than any disaster I can remember.

Newsreaders look stunned by what they're telling us, and we just can't comprehend the scale of this thing that's happened. In this country we're arguing over who can give the most because numbers (£60m, 125,000) are something we can pretend to understand. But we really can't make sense of something like this, and the minute we start to glimpse it it becomes overwhelming. Even Krishan Guru-Murphy lost his composure presenting the Channel 4 News Special (slightly).

Mother's neighbours are Sri Lankan. They lost a lot of family out there, as a lot of other people did. All we could really do was to pray, but it doesn't seem like that worked.

It's really amazing how everyone's got behind this fundraising effort. We can't make sense of it, and we can't go out there and help, but all of us can donate money to the people who can really help, and that's a start. And I'm asking every visitor to the site this week to donate something to the Disasters Emergency Committee .

I suppose we're all hoping that this is a short term thing; we'll give money, Tony Blair will come back from his holidays and say the right things, and everything will come back to normal. But we're coming to realise that it won't be that easy. Those 125,000 aren't coming back, and there's entire communities which just don't exist any more. And for those left behind, getting back to some semblance of normality could take years. This emergency aid is a brilliant start, but we all need to be in this for the long run, and I don't think any of us know how that's going to happen. But we've got to do it.

In the meantime pray for those people if you can. And definitely give some money.

Well, it's late

Inexplicably I'm bleeding.

I've learnt the hard way that if you have something that feels like a scab on your back, it probably is a scab and you probably shouldn't scratch it.

Another good lesson is when you're in a hole, stop digging. I wish I'd taken that advice in the past.

After more than a year, I was finally feeling confident enough to revisit some of my time at Imperial College- not least because I had a really strange dream about that place, and coincidentally, I ended up there today.

Looking back on what I've found on the web about my time editing the college newspaper, it doesn't exactly look like I did a very good job of it. But I always knew that. I suppose I hadn't got that much insight into exactly how much of a twat I made of myself half the time. (I seem to remember some of the time I was really nice though.)

I though I was being pretty brave to go back there, but I'm feeling comfortable enough about how things have gone since then to be able to put it down to history. I always had a strong sense at Imperial that it wasn't quite my life, and I wasn't quite myself. And I was never happy there. So no matter how badly I left College, it actually seems I've got back that thing I was looking for back then- as well as coming away with some lovely friends, even if still no degree. But it's still pretty difficult, if necessary, to come back and be reminded of it once in a while. And it was nice that there's a big mass of pipes and steel where my old office was, meaning that there's no going back to a lot of those places.

But that's absolutely the last time I go within half a mile of the place.

Incidentally, I start my new job on Tuesday. Happy New Year everyone.