Tuesday, 15 July 2014

The School I Want

The school I want

Gove hasn’t gone. Unusually for a chief whip he’s still in the cabinet, so he’s still influential, still there in the woodwork, in the heating pipes, under the table. Still whispering policy initiatives, still being listened to. He goes to PTA quizzes with Cameron so it’s not like they’ll be pretending not to see each other when they bump into each other in the parliament corridors.

And the education policies won’t change.

But nevertheless all the brouhaha about his departure has made me think about what really makes a good school.

(And by brouhaha I mean ecstatic calls, texts and facebook messages from anybody connected with teaching. I mean the cheering, the dancing in the staff rooms, and the breaking open of the emergency cava that has been chilling for just this moment).

I was at school for 13 years from 1969 – 1982. I was a teacher for nine years from 1994 - 2003. My eldest child started reception in 1991 and left in 2005. My stepson left in 2012 and the youngest goes up to High School in September. All at ordinary – what we used to call ‘bog standard’ – comprehensive schools, Hannah in Essex and the other two up here in West Yorkshire.

In addition to that my mother was a teacher for thirty years from 1973, so I think it’s fair to say I know my way around schools. I’ve certainly had time to think about what makes a good one.

So here they are then my welcome pack for the incoming Education Secretary.

1     Small is beautiful

In the notional school we’re going to build every teacher will know the name of every student. And every student will know the name of everyone of his peers. This means not just small class sizes (which is also a given) but also small school sizes. Primary schools of not more than 200 hundred. Secondary schools of not more than 500. You could also think about bringing back middle schools. People who went to middle schools love them; people who have taught in middle schools love them. Parents love them. People who don’t love them are accountants but the motto of our new school system is going to be fuck the accountants (only in Latin – Because that’s what Latin is for: providing great school mottos). A year eight middle school kid is a different kind of creature from a High School year eight kid. Generally they are nicer, more innocent, more in touch with that loveable, eager, keen to learn early years kid.

2)    More drama, music, art please, Miss

In any decent education system these would be compulsory subjects. They might actually be the only compulsory subjects. Subjects that require reflection on the world, that require engagement with that world, that encourage expression and development of what we might call the soul. They are also the subjects that fit people best for the modern workplace. Creativity and emotional intelligence are what makes a modern business thrive. Artists are persistent, they practice, they work in groups and on their own. They take what is arcane and difficult and make it accessible for the audience. They turn dreams into things you can see, feel, touch, hold, look at. Artists are dreamers and it is only dreamers who ever change anything.

They also often work for buttons.

Now that UK PLC doesn’t actually make anything much in its factories, we need to get used to selling our creative brain power and the arts develop these more than anything else you might study at school.

3)    And more sport too please, Miss

Not just football. Not just rugby. Not just hockey or cricket. But tennis, badminton, judo, karate, squash, athletics, fell-running, cycling. There is a sport for everyone and we’ve just got to find it. It will save the NHS of the future a fortune. And decent school sports centres that don't smell of piss and with the kind of showers you find in top level fitness clubs.

There should be yoga. A fitter nation eats better, sleeps better, and doesn’t feel the need to hang around the mall intimidating old people quite so much. It does mean you can’t sell off the playing fields for starter homes which I know your cabinet colleagues will find a bummer but you’re clever you went to Oxford, you’ll find a way around that…

4)    Language, Miss!

Could you have a go at making us the most linguistically able people in the world please? We are not innately thicker than the Dutch or the Swedes or the Indians – all of whom routinely switch between several languages. Unless you think we are. It’s embarrassing isn’t it the way Johnny Foreigner can discourse in English fluently about astrophysics or the physiology of Elks while we can’t order a coffee in Calais or a Bolognaise in Bologna.

And you know don’t you Nicky, that people from abroad learn English not to speak to us, but to speak to each other. They are not really interested in us, because we are not really interested in them.

5)    Let the teachers decide what they teach

You wouldn’t tell Paul McCartney how to write songs, or Jamie Oliver how to cook (actually you might, the arrogance of Tory politicians is often breath-taking but I hope you're different) so why tell teachers what they should teach and how they should do it? Trust them. They're smart. They know their stuff. And oh, pay them more, like they do in the public schools.

All the rest – uniforms, hair styles, length of the school day, how many periods, phonics -  let the staff and the parents argue it out school by school. (I think phonics is a bit shit but I might be wrong and I’m prepared to let others decide. The truth surely is that over a couple of thousand years we’ve developed many, many different successful strategies for teaching reading of which phonics is just one. I think uniforms are pointless - they manage without them in Germany and France, not to mention the USA but parents like them. Hell, even the students seem to like them...)

It occurs to me of course that there are already schools like the ones I’ve mentioned. They are called public schools. The big scandal of Tory education policy is that they only want it to apply to our kids. Their own offspring work in small classes in schools where the teachers are properly paid, where the students get long holidays and plenty of sport, music, art, drama. Where there are well-stocked libraries, lap-tops for all and where they can learn Japanese, Russian, Mandarin and Arabic as well as French, German and Spanish.A snip at 30k a year (or more) per child.

It’s only our kids they want to inflict the pernicious Gradgrind curriculum on. And that’s because they see our kids as only fit to file, to photocopy, and to answer phones. They see ours as over-seeing the self-scan aisles in Lidl while their kids plan to inter-rail from festival to festival in a gap year, prior to getting the groovy jobs and generally running things. 

There is a reason the pop charts are full of public school kids these days. It's because the elite see no reason why they shouldn't have everything. Banking, Law, Parliament... Why not rock and roll too? Hell, why not boxing? Why not rap? They'll be after those scenes too soon, mark my words...

We can have the schools we want, the schools our kids deserve. Our kids are as bright as theirs - which the elite know of course - that's why they want them to have as boring and culturally impoverished an education as possible. Otherwise their kids would have to scrum for the fun stuff on a fair playing field and they're not risking that. It's quite blatant. They're not making any secret of it.

Thursday, 25 April 2013


WHAT, I wonder, does it feel like to know a whole county is reading your book at the same time? Pretty good I imagine. BERNADINE EVARISTO knows because her book HELLO MUM was chosen as the Suffolk big read a couple of years ago, which meant thousands of people from Ipswich to Lowestoft, from Newmarket to Felixstowe were reading that book. And loving it. And not just because it was given away free either. 70,000 copies of Hello Mum have been sold since then. Not bad.

Hello Mum is a very accessible, readable book, taking the form of a letter written by a 14 year old boy to his mother. But Bernadine has written experimental and challenging work too. Her first novel THE EMPEROR'S BABE is a historical novel-in-verse and SOUL TOURIST is a novel-with-verse. There's also the subversive and satirical BLONDE ROOTS - a counter-factual story which imagines a world where white people are enslave by black owners. And then there's her plays, her collaborations with musicians - her anthologies, her teaching and her latest book MR LOVERMAN - out in August - where the protagonist is a 75 year old male Antiguan poet who has spent his whole life hiding his true nature and has to face up to the consequences of dealing with he truth coming out,  as he is trying to come to terms with the dying of the light.

Oh, and Bernardine is an MBE. Did I not mention that? The only Member of the British Empire to have answered these ten scary questions... (so far)

Can I have your autobiography in EXACTLY 50 words (not 51, not 49)?

Anglo-Nigerian writer; female; Londoner all my life; fourth of eight children; writer of seven books of fiction and verse fiction; explorer of the African diaspora - past, present, imagined, lived, travelled; teacher of creative writing at Brunel Uni and for UEA-Guardian; award’s winner, award’s judge; critic, editor, cyclist; MBE

Why should people read MR LOVERMAN?

Because they won’t have read anything like it before. Black, gay, 74, blinged-up Londoner from Antigua who is married to his deeply religious wife. Also, funny (and tragic), irreverent, structurally adventurous, and set in the hipster Stoke Newington.

What is your most pressing concern right this minute?

I’m concerned about inequality of all kinds, especially society’s hegemonic structures that maintain privilege and power for the few and damn the rest.

How is being a woman who writes different from being a man who writes?

I have written quite a few first person male protagonists and I enjoy the literary transvestism involved in adopting a male voice. I want my fiction to have emotional depth, and this could be one of the strengths of being a woman writer. However, once I’ve had the sex change I’ll let you know what it’s like to write with a willy. Best, Bernard.

Who - in life or writing - do you most admire?

So many people, so many writers, but too many to mention. Off late: Glenda Jackson for her speech about The Milk Snatcher last week – it made me realize how much we need to hear more orators in politics. For the tiddlywinks reading this, Glenda was the No I classical actress of her generation; Ken Livingston (always); Gary Younge for being one of the few black media commentators allowed to speak in mainstream medi; Michelle Obama and her husband…

Why do we need the Women's Prize for Literature?

To promote women’s fiction but it does make a mockery of that when it simply
gives more to those who have most, which I think somehow defies its objective.

Would you eat a mucky fat sandwich?

Not in million years, mate. Actually, the very idea has me retching. Where are we, Victorian England? That’s like asking me if I’d eat a McDonalds. It’s Pret,
Itsu and Carluccios all the way for me, love.

What will the next book be about? (does it have a title yet?)

My next book is floating around the blue skies of my imagination…er..

If you could be anywhere right now, it would be....?

A ‘luxury room’ stay in a Champneys in, say, Bali? Can you fix it?
Tell me something I don't know...

I used to heckle ‘offensive’ theatre plays in the angry early twenties. I’d always sit at the back so that I could make a quick escape. Now I sit at the back for the same reason, but
I don’t heckle, obv.

MR LOVERMAN is out on August 29 with Hamish Hamilton. You know what to do.

Thursday, 18 April 2013


YOU like books with strong characters and powerful voices. You like situations that make you squirm and sweat. And laugh. You like irrepressible language that dances off the page. So, naturally you like JANE HARRIS and her novels THE OBSERVATIONS and GILLESPIE AND I. And I think you'll like her answers to my questions...

Can I have your autobiography in EXACTLY 50 words (not 51, not 49)?

Born Belfast. Brought up in Glasgow. "Interesting" childhood in which reading was refuge. Escaped to London, then Europe. Started scribbling stories in Portugal and realised that writing was missing ingredient in life. Took a long time to write first novel. Took a long time to write second. Now writing third.

Why should people read The Observations and Gillespie and I?

Hopefully, these two novels make the reader laugh and also shiver.

What is your most pressing concern right this minute?

We have had to move out of our home in order to let the builders take over and replace moth-infested carpet with new flooring (and also carry out a number of other long-overdue building jobs). Since I usually work at home - and love my home - this is a double-upheaval for me and I have found it quite difficult, psychologically, to adapt to being turfed out of the nest.

How is being a woman who writes different from being a man who writes?

I’ll never know the true answer to that question. However, at a fundamental level, I suspect that most men who write are taken more seriously than women who write.

Who - in life or writing - do you most admire?

Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Anne Tyler.

Why do we need the Women's Prize for Literature?

So that - one day - people will stop asking this question.

Would you eat a mucky fat sandwich? 

I ate bone marrow and a lamb's bollocks last week but I don't think I'd eat a dripping sandwich, no.

What will the next book be about? (does it have a title yet?)

Only a working title which I’m reluctant to share. The novel is based on a true story from the 18th century and is set in the French Antilles (Caribbean).

If you could be anywhere right now, it would be....?

Possibly at La Sagesse in Grenada, drinking Rum Punch and playing cards or reading a wonderful book.
Tell me something I don't know...

A Japanese researcher has recently invented artificial meat based on protein from human excrement.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Liz Jensen

A simple question, ladies of the women's prize for fiction jury. And you should think carefully before you answer. Make sure you take all the time you need. Ready? Then here goes. HOW THE FUCK IS LIZ JENSEN'S THE UNINVITED NOT IN YOUR TOP 20?

 You really, really, really think that XXX and XXX are better? Really? Not to mention XXX (Yes, I'm a chickenshit. Too scared of reprisals to name and shame) But, no, really, I'm interested. What was your thinking?

And sorry for shouting just then, but you'll have to help me out because I don't get it.

The Uninvited begins with a series of apparently random - and inventively brutal - killings of parents by their children. These are happening all over the world and begin to unleash panic and violence and state-sanctioned vengeance. So it's a horror story, but it's not just that. THE UNINVITED is compulsive reading. Shocking even. Nightmarish in all the best ways. Gripping doesn't even begin to cover it. It'll keep you awake with all sorts of thoughts you really don't want to be having.

THE UNINVITED also has one of the most carefully drawn damaged narrators I've read in years. And for a terrifying white-knuckle ride it's got some funny set-pieces, some forensic observations of the way we live now, and - more importantly works as a shrewd prediction of where might be headed.

It's science fiction horror - John Wyndham by way of Atwood, Lessing and Angela Carter. As well written and as seductive as that. I love it. Have I made that clear enough? I fucking love it. And I love her answers to the questions too... 50 shades of terracotta indeed.

Can I have you autobiography in exactly 50 words. 

Grew up in a creative but dysfunctional family, went to uni, regretted studying English, escaped abroad as far and as often as I could, became a journalist as a stepping-stone to writing, forgot about writing but never stopped reading, started experimenting with fiction on first son's birth: never looked back.

Why should we read The Uninvited?
You should read The Uninvited because sometimes you need to be scared, and if children randomly killing their parents doesn't give you the creeps, what will?

What, right now, is your most pressing concern?
In general, it's the future. Everyone's. But on a more prosaic and specific note, my immediate issue is what shade of terracotta to paint my kitchen wall. The work-tops and cupbaords are quite pale. But just how dark can I go without invoking gloom? So many choices!

How does being a female writer differ from being a male writer?
Writers are writers first and foremost: imaginatively, we share a constantly expanding landscape in which there's room for everything and everyone, and sex doesn't matter. That said, there are important differences when it comes to our attitude to what we do. I live with a male writer, and I've noticed that he and other male colleagues have more confidence in their work than us. I envy them this. I also note that male readers trust them more, and read them more than they read women. That's really a crying shame. Cynically, if I could start out again, I'd choose a unisex nom de plume, or use initials. My male readers love my work. But I know I'd have more if I had a different name. I don't feel bitter about it, because bitterness is a waste of time. But I regard it as unfair.

Who - in life or writing - do you most admire?
In life: Carsten Jensen, my namesake and husband. (We share a surname by coincidence rather than marriage: freaky or what?)  Get hold of a copy of his brilliant seafaring epic, We, The Drowned, and discover a world-class novelist. I'm also a huge admirer of the climate scientist James Hansen, and campaigners like George Monbiot who continue to inform the world about climate change in the face of depressing resistance from those who should - and secretly do - know better.

Why do we need a Women's Prize for Literature?
We need a Women's Prize for Literature because despite all the progress we've made, we're still under-recognised in the literary world. By male readers and, crucially, by ourselves too. I'd like to see the day when such a prize is no longer neccessary but I don't think it will happen in my lifetime. 

What you eat a mucky fat sandwich? 
Only if it was microscopically small, and you paid me to.

What is your next book about? And does it have a title?
It doesn't have a title yet, but if it did I might not tell you because I'm coy that way. It's the third in the trilogy that  began with The Rapture and continued with The Uninvited. It's set in the close-to-now future, and it spans several continents and lives. I loved David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas and Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad, so this time I'm experimenting with the linked-short-story format. When it's not slow-cooking my brain, and making me want to give it all up and become a fruit-picker, I'm having a certain amount of fun with my multi-narrative.

If you could be anywhere, where would you be at this moment?
In the Blue Lagoon in Iceland, reading the new Kate Atkinson with a massive gin and tonic.

Tell me something I don't know
There are fifty shades of terracotta. 
Liz Jensen has published loads of novels as well as the brilliant The Uninvited (Bloomsbury). Another great one is War Crimes For The Home - You know what to do.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Kate Worsley

THERE aren't enough novels set in small towns. Which, given that that's where most of the population of this country actually live, is a damned shame. There are even fewer books set in small Essex towns. I think there's only me and my latest interviewee KATE WORSLEY doing it. My book's set in a kind of contemporary Manningtree and Kate's is - partly -set in a vividly imagined eighteenth century Harwich. And in her's people do get actually manage to get themselves away from Essex.

Her widely applauded first novel SHE RISES takes its title from the sea shanty the drunken sailor, and is a visceral read. Right from the beginning of the book the reader is tossed into the roil and swirl, the wet dirt stench of sea-faring England 250 years ago, though it's not all storms and sails. We are also guided through the cool, quiet, bucolic world of dairy farming. And the back-streets and rookeries of the pre-industrial working class.

SHE RISES gives us characters in revolt against the place in society allotted for them,  surprising themselves with their capacity for risk and adventure. This is also a gripping, sensual tightly-wound love story of the kind Sarah Waters would be proud of.

And Kate Worsley also claims to know where the world's best pub is.

Can I have your autobiography in EXACTLY 50 words (not 51, not 49)?

Born in Preston. Spent my teenage years mooning about in various get-ups. Got to London as soon as I could. Worked as journalist, follow-spot operator, massage practitioner, restaurant manager... Moved house as often as I changed jobs. Finally got down to writing fiction when I moved out, to the coast.

Why should people read your book?

Because, I hope, they'll have as much fun reading it as I had writing it. And if enough people buy it I can write another one.

What is your most pressing concern right this minute?

Remembering to take my chores headscarf off before I leave the house in 30mins to visit someone I've never met before. And to put my contact lenses in.

How is being a woman who writes different from being a man who writes?

Anecdotally and personally, it seems women are far less confident about our work, and find it harder to prioritise writing over everything else. But both factors can benefit the writing, as long as you actually get it done.

Who - in life or writing - do you most admire?

In life, my other half. In writing, anyone who can combine humanity of feeling, and clarity of thought and expression with humour. Current literary crushes include William Trevor, Helen Dunmore, Joseph Conrad and Jon Cantor.

Why do we need the Women's Prize for Literature?

Because I think both men and women don't take women's writing as "seriously" as men's. If we did it wouldn't be an issue.

Would you eat a mucky fat sandwich?

Only as research for novel number two.

What will the next book be about? (does it have a title yet?)

Working title is Newbourne, about a Depression-era miner's wife moving south under a government land settlement scheme. Hence the dripping.

If you could be anywhere right now, it would be....?

In a sauna. My own sauna. I wish.

Tell me something I don't know...

The best pub in the world is in Harwich. It's called the Alma.



Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Caroline Smailes

I think I've said before that the test of a writer is not whether they've got one book in them, but whether they've got at least five. And this week CAROLINE SMAILES launches that fifth book, THE DROWNING OF ARTHUR BRAXTON. A very modern, very Northern fairy tale this book has already been delighting - and exciting - those who have managed to get their hands on advance copies.

Tanya Byrne, author of The Heart-Shaped Bruise called it 'strange, beautiful and wholly unexpected.' Matt Haig, author The Radleys, called it 'magical.' and the magazine Bella called it 'beautifully told and sometimes disturbing.' And the always straight-talking Bookcunt said it 'fixed something inside that was broken before.'

The thing about Caroline is she always pushing herself on, always trying to find new ways to tell stories - and new ways to reach audiences. She experiments, she doesn't settle. She's a restless, questing spirit - always in search of the story that shocks her readers out of complacency. And she is - book after book - getting herself a reputation as a force to be reckoned with.

As is my way at the minute, I pinged her some questions and she got back to me within fifteen minutes. dark, magical, unsettling, wholly unexpected - with quick brain and fast hands.

Can I have your biography in EXACTLY 50 words (not 51, not 49)?

Caroline watched an interview on Richard & Judy where they referred to someone as a ‘nearly woman’. She identified with that label and faced a ‘now or never’ moment. She enrolled on an MA in Creative Writing. Now, eight years later, The Drowning of Arthur Braxton is Caroline’s fifth novel.

Why should people read The Drowning of Arthur Braxton?

To remember the redemptive power of first love, to see how that love can transform even the bleakest of childhoods into something truly extraordinary.

What is your most pressing concern right this minute?

Ants. I have ants in my office, they are mocking me, we are playing hide and seek.

How is being a woman who writes different from being a man who writes?

I don’t think there is a difference. The process, the angst, the concerns about the industry are experienced by many authors, regardless of gender. Perhaps, I’d suggest, the dominance of females in positions of power in the publishing industry balances out any latent chauvinism?

Who - in life or writing - do you most admire?

Roald Dahl. He wrote what children wanted to read, even when many adults felt the subjects were taboo or difficult. Roald Dahl was never frightened to kill off parents or to address a child’s sense of loneliness and abandonment head-on. He set new boundaries for children’s literature, he mixed together sorrow and wit, he cut through to the essence of what a child finds funny. His stories are timeless.

Why do we need the Women's Prize for Literature?

To celebrate a woman’s view, her craft, her perspective and her creation – this prize offers both men and women the opportunity to read what is perceived to be important literature by women. What’s not to love? I don’t feel this is a feminist stance, it isn’t about minorities. I’d be equally as interested in seeing a Men’s Prize for Literature.

Would you eat a mucky fat sandwich?

Oh yes, can’t beat a bit of dripping on a stottie cake. You can take the girl out of Newcastle…

What will the next book be about? (does it have a title yet?)

It might be called ‘Lime Street’, it’s a story set in a lost property office in Liverpool Lime Street train station, it’s an exploration of what it is to be lost or found or both.

If you could be anywhere right now, it would be....?

Paris, sipping champagne from a plastic wine glass, underneath the cherry blossom tree outside Shakespeare & Co.

Tell me something I don't know...

Some ants can swim.

The Drowning of Arthur Braxton is published by The Friday Project (an imprint of HarperCollins) on Thursday - you know what to do...

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Melissa Harrison

I when I last met Melissa Harrison she was holding a room full of pissed students enthralled as she read with quiet intensity from her book CLAY. She didn't win the literary death match - there are showier more peacocky types for that -  but she did get people to fall in her love with her writing. Of course she did. 

What marks Melissa out is the way she notices everything. Absolutely everything. Most good writing is about paying attention to what's around you and CLAY is startling in the precision of its observation of the natural life that teems, flocks, swarms, grows and dies around us. Human beings tend to focus on their most immediate concerns not taking much account of the fact that we are just one part of a fragile system, which we might well screw up with all our blind stumbling.

So Melissa's book is an urban book, a city book, but it'salso  a nature book. A book where the squirrels and the birds and the foxes are viscerally present with all their hot stink in  their own whole other city in the midst of ours.

She's smart too - as you're about to discover from her answers below...

Can I have your autobiography in EXACTLY 50 words (not 51, not 49)?

I think it’s probably impossible to do it in exactly 50 words and still take in being the youngest of six children, going to a comprehensive school and then to Oxford, working in book publishing and magazines and living in South London with my husband, Anthony, and rescue dog, Scout.

Why should people read your book CLAY?

Because it’s about noticing, and noticing has the power to bring something genuinely transformative into our lives.

What is your most pressing concern right this minute?

Whether there are any Yorkshire teabags in the office.

How is being a woman who writes different from being a man who writes?

Impossible to say, as I’ve only ever been a woman! My guess is not at all; motherhood may create a difference, but that’s a separate question.

Who – in life or writing – do you most admire?

Too many people to mention – but when it comes to literature I find Hilary Mantel’s current prose the closest thing I can imagine to taking flight. 

Why do we need the Women's Prize for Literature?

It’s my understanding that while women read books by men and women, men overwhelmingly choose books by men. Add to that the fact that we all (both men and women) tend to recruit, promote and generally identify with people who are similar to us (hence the perpetuation of men-only boardrooms) and you have a playing field that isn’t yet level. Ask me again when it is.

Would you eat a mucky fat sandwich?

Absolutely. I have a fairly undiscriminating and resolutely carnivorous palate.

What will the next book be about? (does it have a title yet?)

It’s about landscape and belonging. It does have a title, but an obscure sense of literary decorum prevents me telling anyone what it is until it’s finished. 

If you could be anywhere right now, it would be...?

Deep in the British countryside on a warm June afternoon, a quiet pub within an hour’s walk, my camera and a good book in my knapsack and nothing to do but walk, and look, and dream.

Tell me something I don't know...

Despite a) being a keen amateur naturalist and b) being married to one, I am terrified of ants.

CLAY is published by Bloomsbury. - you know what to do...