The Best Person to Decide

‘How many today?’

‘I haven’t counted yet. Hundreds.’ She said.

“Said” actually implies something more positive, more certain, more involved than the way she spoke. “Sighed” might be nearer, but may be too polite, too slight in its ability to depict the awful weight those words carried.

‘Hundreds.’

‘I’ll cook. What do you fancy?’ I tried to put a bit of a smile in the way I asked. I don’t think she wanted smiles.

‘Anything. Nothing. Look you get yourself something. I’ll pick at something later.’ She started rummaging in the bag of papers she’d brought home tonight. ‘I’d better start. They’ve got to be with the exam board in a couple of weeks.’ She dumped a pile on the table. ‘And I’ve still got lesson preps.’

I went into the kitchen and left her to it. I would prepare a Bolognese. I’d do enough for both of us and I’d freeze the rest if she didn’t want it.

I’d had a bit of a hard day myself, but you couldn’t tell a teacher that. It was interesting seeing what went on through the looking glass. When I had been at school I can’t say I had much respect for teachers. Some I liked as people. Some I liked for their ability to convey a subject’s innate value. Some combined both feelings. The majority didn’t hit either mark. Many were just plain average Joes (boys only school, one female teacher and she was the most macho of the lot of them). Many were completely useless.

Just as “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, so all good teachers were alike but each bad teacher had their own particular way of making the day a misery.

The onion was going clear in the olive oil; I added the chopped garlic and looked for the oregano and basil.

I hadn’t seen Rebecca teach of course so I couldn’t tell what she was like in class. I’d seen the amount of lesson preparation she did, had  looked at the materials, talked over some of the curriculum she had to teach and ideas for engaging the little buggers. It all seemed as good as it was going to get given the weird concepts of what kids need to get on in life that passes for educational policy these days. But I’d ever seen the performance part. The bit where she tried to turn the theory into the messy practicality of imparting knowledge and enthusing kids to learn, to see that knowledge was only the first bit of learning, of knowing how to gather information, how to analyse it, how to use it and its products to do other things; how to think.

She’d practised run throughs of new material on me. They seemed cool. I learned some things. But I wasn’t thirty mixed ability, mixed enthusiasm, mixed aggression fifteen year olds. I liked learning new stuff. I loved Rebecca. I’m pretty sure a few 15 year olds would as well given half the chance, but that didn’t necessarily encourage the mind set for learning.

The minced beef was browned and I rummaged for passata in the cupboard.

I held the bottle aloft in triumph.

‘Do you want a bit of Bolognese love?’

I listened for a reply. Nothing but frantic paper rustling.

I poured the sieved tomatoes into the pan and put the water on to boil.

She was grading. Not papers, but pupils. This was like a meta analysis of someone’s evidence for life. Government dictat had swayed from exams, to exams and course work, to exam like assessments and back to exams over the decades but this was different. This was Covid induced surrender to the idea that “the best person to judge the pupil is the teacher.”

I put the spaghetti into the largest pan we had, the water roiling in its eagerness to consume the pasta. I’d always dribbled a little olive oil in with it until I’d watched an Italian chef on an online channel use quite a lot of rude words about that idea. So I just shoved the strands in and went to put the garlic butter into the bread for a quick oven heating.

I stuck my head through the door.

‘Ten minutes love, if you want to eat.’ I said. She grunted noncommittally and dropped another set of marks onto the pile of those who had been weighed in the balance. I grabbed a piece of Parmigiano-Reggiano from the fridge and wondered about what was going on next door.

Rebecca was stressed with the sheer volume of work at the best of times. The obsessive paperwork proving the prep work had been done, plus all the weird governmental obsession with various and multifarious metrics meant there was little time to actually teach. I wondered if the box ticking, hoop jumping and goal setting actually made weaker teachers better enough to balance out the drag on the better teachers. I couldn’t see it making any difference to the stinkers. They would always find a way to win the battle with the pupil.

I grated some of the cheese and checked the clock. Time to test the pasta. I didn’t adopt the Sweeney’s method of hurling a piece against the wall to see if it stuck to it, although that way no doubt still had it adherents.

My teachers had not been particularly aware or bothered about how I interacted with them and the school system. I was quiet and not problematic. That let me sit just above the middle of the pack for most subjects, below in some and near the top in a few. This largely depended on how confident and capable of controlling the class the teacher was. If I could concentrate and they inspired I would fly. If they were on the look out to pick on someone to cover the fact the class was a mess I slumped. I was lucky I guess, the ethos was to learn and only a few bothered with the idea that allowing pupils to “express themselves” was of paramount importance. It was my fellow pupils ‘expressing themselves” that bothered me most of the time.

I’d been at the front of the peloton, just behind the teachers’ pets in junior school. Until the 11 plus which as an IQ test of sorts. I was top of the school and nobody, least of all the teachers, liked it or believed it.

I continually did better in most exams than I did in class with teacher assessments.

The steam billowed up from the colander before I returned the pasta to the pan and poured the Bolognese on top of the pasta. I stood it to one side, snatched the garlic bread from the oven and put the butter and lemon zucchini into a serving dish.

‘Ready if you want love.’ I smiled.

She looked up, hurled the latest paper down on the decided pile and stood up.

‘Sod it. That little bastard’s done nothing all year anyway. Let’s eat.’

Flailing

I’m wondering what’s creative about writing.

I have thousands of things I want to say but doing it creatively is another matter at the moment.

Urgency seems to demand putting the raw thing down. Immediate, now without frills or fluff or camouflage.

Subtly making a point seems to require time for the anger, hurt, offence, pain, infuriation etc to be internalised, cocooned, dealt with and regurgitated when it doesn’t make me ache or foam at the mouth and yet what is lost in the process?

For one, doing something about it now.

What is it?

Injustice, falsehood, stupidity, aggression, wilful misreading, oppression, suppression, acceptance of fashionable idiocies. If the writing means something, should it be left to mature and develop until it can make a point without shouting, without screaming? Will it be too late to do something, to achieve anything when it is ready to see the light of the page?

News cycles are faster, acceptance of foolishness by default easier

Do you need to contradict every lazy assumption that leads to the defeat of thought, of reason?

Maybe.

If not; what?

Maybe just write.

Quick Thought on ‘Snare’

So that was ‘Snare’.

It started life as a deliberate attempt to get myself through not so much a writing block, I ‘m not sure I have those as such, but rather an ‘ending’ block.

The basic idea started with a memory of a walk in the Cotswolds which began through a yellow stone alleyway between the back of cottages to an enchanted valley. That was the only bit I had, but taking an idea for a little walk has never been much of a problem. Bringing the stroll through plot and character to an end however is often problematic.

Spoiler alert – I hate endings, I slow down at the three quarter stage of reading a book I am enjoying because I don’t want it to end, I used to hate going to bed and bringing the day to a close etc etc.

But I decided this story was going to end whether I liked it or not.

Do I like it?

Well it’s my least disliked.

There’s a short intro to ‘Snare’ exploring my feelings and thoughts a bit further on the ‘Snare’ page – found in the menu under ‘Writing’ or here if you want to know more and would like to read the whole story in one place without following from blog post to blog post.

SNARE

Part 4

Ed wanted to know what was going on but he was stuck behind his friend, his view of what was happening blocked by the edge of the copse.  To get a glimpse of what a going on he needed to move around Tom but that would mean making a noise and moving the trees and if Tom’s stillness was anything to go by that was probably not a good idea right now.

Tom slowly lay down, his body behind the hazel, his head just poking round the undergrowth. ‘He’s looking downhill. Not moving though’.

‘Can we get across the path?’

Tom shook his head slowly. ‘He’s not got his back to us. He’ll see the movement. Specially if he’s looking for the dog.’

As if to emphasise that the man most certainly was looking for his dog, there was a burst of whistling and shouts of ‘Max! Max!’ from the direction of the path. There was a crashing sound again in the brush behind them in response to the shouts and a flash of brown and white crossed the track going uphill.

‘Bugger.’

‘What?’

‘He saw the dog. I think.’ Tom said.

The circled back round uphill of them and came across the path. It was a Springer, all smile and tail touching its nose as it greeted them with a bark.

‘Fuck off.’ Tom hissed and his hand curled round the handle of the knife he carried tucked away under his hoody.

‘Don’t Tom!’

Ed looked at the dog, excited now by its new friends. It was unlikely Tom would get near enough to kill the dog but if he did or if the owner saw him with the knife that would be the end of Uni, the end of his escape from the village. He dug inside the rucksack, pulled out the rabbit that Tom had dispatched and waved it like a toy at the dog who, smelling the blood and meat, set for it. Ed held the carcass out to the animal and as the dog seized it, he grabbed the dog’s collar. He left the bag at Tom’s side. ‘Stay there.’ He said and walked out onto the path.

The man had been about the start shouting again by the look of it and was a couple of paces down the side path when Ed appeared. Ed put his gruffest voice on, but gave it the posh edge he used when he was talking to the adviser about his options for college places. He hoped it would sound like Chucker’s keeper.

‘Is this your dog?’

‘Oh, er yes.’

‘Well keep him under control will you? Look what he’s been doing.’ Ed gestured towards the dog’s new toy being shaken like a rat as he trotted contentedly at Ed’s side.

‘Oh, God! Leave it Max!’ Put it down!’

The man looked shocked.

‘I’m so sorry. He got away from me. He’s only young and…’

Ed was up to the man now.

‘You got a lead for him?’

‘Oh yes.’

‘Well put it on then.’

The man fumbled for the lead and snicked it onto the collar. Ed let go of the collar and stood up.

‘You should keep him on the lead in the country. There’s lambs about this time of the year and birds rearing in the woods. If I’d had my shotgun…’

‘Oh God! I didn’t think. I am so sorry.’ He looked down at the dog who was trying to eat the rabbit. ‘Max, put it down, please.’

Ed looked at the dog and firmly took the rabbit and said ‘Leave!’

Max was a bit startled at the gift being taken back but he let go and waited.

‘Thank you.’ Said the man. ‘I couldn’t get him to come back. I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t caught him.’

‘Get some training, then he’ll come back to you.’ Ed smiled. ‘Might even bring you some more to share.’

‘Oh, I am so sorry. He’s not in trouble is he? Are we?’

Ed looked thoughtful for a moment.

‘Well, it’s only a rabbit and no birds damaged so not this time. No. But if he gets loose again where there’s lambs or birds…’

‘Yes, yes of course. It won’t happen again.’

‘Right then. Where are you headed?’

The man patted Max.

‘We’re headed for Colehampton.’

‘Colehampton! You’re way off.’

‘I thought so but Max saw a deer and dashed off and I had to get him. Got pretty lost to be honest. Could you put us back on the right path?’

‘I reckon.’ Ed gave Max a pat as well. ‘A deer you say?’

‘Yes. Big one, seemed to keep stopping to get Max to follow him.’

‘Big antlers?’

‘Yes. Is he famous or something?’

‘Just a bit odd, antlers this time of year.’

The man was looking at Ed, waiting for more. Ed decided there’d been enough chat.

‘Well, you’re on private land here but if you head down to the bottom of the wood and turn left along the 10 acre there, you’ll come to a lane. Turn right up the valley and there’s a footpath about half a mile on the left will take you into the back of Colehampton, by the church.’

‘Thanks. We’d better get going then. Cheerio.’

‘And keep Max on his lead.’

Ed watched the man and Max, reluctant to leave his furry plaything behind, walk down the slope to the ten acre. He wondered about the deer Max had been lured into the wood by. He waited until Max had disappeared and then walked back to Tom.

‘Has he gone?’

‘Off to Colehampton with his dog, aye.’

Colehampton?’

‘He got lost.’

‘That was bloody brilliant Ed. I thought you was a keeper myself for a minute. How did you know he was just a walker?’

‘Dog wasn’t trained was he? Just a pet like, running all over like that, all that noise, him and the bloke. Not a countryman’s dog.’

‘Like the way you gave the dog the tough old boy been squirming all night. Good thinking that. You’ve got big future here you have boy.’

Ed didn’t answer but picked up the bag and walked off up the hill.

They crested the rise and walked down into the Green lane. They kept well into the hedges along the 30 acre, Tom garrulous with the excitement of their encounter. They reached the almshouses without problem and as they went over the gate they turned and looked up into the darkening shadows of the woods. A figure emerged from the edge of the trees, darker than the shadows, and paused. It was hard to see details with the setting sun over the wooded hill casting fingers of darkness down the field, but Ed was sure he could see points of light on antlers. He pointed the figure out to Tom who grunted. Then the figure tipped back its head and a belling roar echoed in the evening air.

‘It shouldn’t have antlers now.” Ed said.

Tom looked at his friend.                     

‘See you tomorrow?’

Ed kept on looking at the hill. The patch or darkness returned to the wood.

‘Don’t think so Tom. I’ve got to talk to some people about next year.’

END

SNARE

Part 3

‘Come on dopey, first one’s only a few yards.’ Tom said, moving off through the bushes.

Ed had done all right at school once he’ stopped hanging around with Tom and actually done some work. His teachers hadn’t suggested college because they’d had him marked down the same path as Tom, but now he’d got his results, good results, he was thinking about going this year. He’d put an application in and had one offer and needed to talk to someone about a couple of others he was waiting for. The idea was to make some cash this year but so far there’d been nothing. And here he was again with Tom.

He nearly bumped into him as Tom stopped.

‘Here we go.’ He stooped and pulled aside a branch. The snare had looped neatly round the rabbit’s neck and the animal was as dead as it was going to be. Tom unpegged the wire and pulled it out from the rabbit’s flesh. He coiled the wire and peg and pocketed them, giving the animal to Ed who stuffed it in the haversack.

‘Next one’s about five yards over.’ Tom whispered.

They turned their back on the run and stepped under and round the undergrowth to where Tom had laid the next snare. There was no rabbit. The loop of wire was still set open and there was no sign of disturbance. Tom shrugged. ‘Bugger. I thought that we’d maybe get them all sprung today.’ He stood up. Never mind, leave it, we can come up tomorrow and check that one.’

‘”We.” Already apparently in Tom’s mind they were working together again. Ed wasn’t so sure. He had a route out if he was sensible. College. A job in a town or city. Money, independence. Not being a country boy on the edge of existence. Not being a sidekick to a chancer like Tom. Wondering again why Tom’s family was weird and what would happen when the luck ran out.

They checked another three snares on this side of the path, one empty, one with another clean kill and one with the animal still kicking a little as the noose hadn’t broken the neck or throttled it in the time since it had run into the trap. Tom slipped a short lead cosh from his pocket and smacked the animal sharply on the back of the neck which stopped the wriggling.

‘He’ll be a tough old bugger to eat. Give that one to my Dad I reckon.’ Tom laughed.

‘Why?’

‘Why tough or why give it my Dad?’

‘Both I suppose.’

‘They don’t die quick, they get real knotty. All that struggling. Quick kill before they realise what’s happening, they’re all relaxed see. Nice eating. Dad don’t mind, but Carslake’s customers is choosy. I start giving him tough old buggers like this he’ll drop the price or stop taking ’em altogether.’ Tom grinned. ‘Customer care boy.’

Ed took the animal and looked at it. ‘You’ll know which is which?’

‘Yeah. Look.’ Tom flipped its neck over. ‘See. Big bit of fur rubbed off this side where it was struggling.’ He lifted the head. ‘And that mark where I whacked him.’

Ed put it in the sack with the others.

‘How many more Tom?’

‘Another five. Round the other side of the warren.’ He pointed to a patch of thick briars just down the hill. ‘That’s it. Hundreds of the little beggars in there. Not far to the fields in the bottom of the valley. I’d get more trapping that side but you don’t know who’s watching from the wood on the other hill.’

Ed nodded and they moved off around the thicket and uphill back towards the track.

They finished emptying the snares. Four of the five had been good clean kills and one untouched. Tom was setting another snare on a new run when they heard a crashing through the undergrowth somewhere down by the briar thicket.

The two of them looked up and then at each other.

‘What’s that Tom?’

‘It’ll be that bloody buck. It’s getting late and he’ll be off to browse in Chucker’s fields.’

‘You reckon?’

‘Yeah, come on. Set one where you are. You’re more or less standing on a run there.’

Ed caught the wire and peg that Tom threw at him. He crouched down and looked for the tunnel through the undergrowth. He’d tight pegged the wire round a good strong trunk of a bush and was just setting it open at the right height for a rabbit head when the crashing sound cam louder and presumably nearer. Ed half crawled to where Tom was finishing his last snare.

‘Come on Tom. Let’s go.’

‘What’s the matter? Afraid of the spooky deer?’

‘I don’t know Tom, but it’s getting late and I don’t want…’

There was a whistle and both lads dropped down to the ground. They looked at each other. ‘That’s not a fucking buck Tom.’

The other noises got louder and they heard panting. A dog was quartering the wood.

They backed under a blackthorn bush, Ed biting his lip as the thorns scratched his legs.

The dog’s panting got louder and the whistling more strident. Then a man’s voice cut the air.

‘Max! Max, come! Come!’

The dog went away.

‘What is it? A walker?’ Ed whispered.

‘Keeper with a new dog?’

‘It’s bound to find us.’

Tom raised his head a little looking downhill to where the noises were coming from.

‘Move uphill Ed, slow and low like. He can’t have seen us.’

‘What about the dog?

‘Don’t sound too bright if he’s making that noise to get him to come back does he? Come on boy, move!’

The two started to half crawl, half stumble up the hill keeping as low and as quiet as they could while they made their way back towards the path.

They almost stumbled onto it through a stand of hazel that someone had coppiced years ago, now left to straggle. Tom stopped, and froze, still, barely, in the cover of the trees.

‘Bugger’s come up the lane and onto the side path. Standing up there now.’

‘Who is it?’ Ed asked.

‘Dunno. No shotgun, not Chucker or his keeper.’

‘What’s he doing?’

‘Just standing there.’

‘Waiting for the dog?’

‘Maybe.’

Tom was like stone, unmoving, eyes fixed and his voice was the sound of a leaf falling. Ed could tell it as there but he wasn’t sure how he could hear it. It was almost as if he could feel Tom’s thoughts in his head rather than through his ears.

SNARE

Part 2

They dropped down to the side of the field out of sight of prying eyes in the almshouses, into the shade of high old hedgerows. A shallow depression lay between the hedges forming a dark, green lane that ran up the hill by the side of Chucker’s 30 acre and on into Dumbar’s wood. Tom kept up a good pace in the warm Spring air and Ed was sweating by the time they got to the top of the rise.

‘Right, we can slow down now.’ Tom said, his voice quiet.

‘What we doing Tom?’ Ed asked in a whisper.

Tom stopped and crouched by the side of the lane.

‘Right, we’re going to go down the other side of the hill in the wood. There’s a few runs I put snares on last night. Need to check ’em.’

‘Snares? Shit we’re going to be in big trouble if we get caught. That what the bag’s for?’

‘What do you think?’

‘Tommy, what do you want rabbits for?’

‘Dad likes them, nice with a mustard sauce’ He laughed. ‘And old Carslake the butcher takes them for a few quid each.’

Ed considered this news.

‘People still buy rabbit then?’

‘Lots of farmed rabbit about.’ Tom nodded to the woods, ‘But these beauties? Wild, natural, sustainable, organic, all that old bollocks. Sell for a premium to the right type.’

‘Who?’

‘Weekend Barbour brigade. Hippies who aren’t Vegan yet. Knit your own yoghurt types.’

‘Must be mad.’

‘Keeps me in fags. Now are you coming or not?’

Ed looked back down the hill and then at the gap in the bushes leading to the wood, then at Tom. They’d had good fun with the fishing and the money had come in handy. He wondered if Tom might cut him in on some now. He was always skint these days.  Be in big debt if he went to Uni.

‘All right, go on then.’

‘Good lad, let’s get on.’

The two of them rose and crossed the lane, disappearing into the deeper shadows beneath the canopy.

‘Bit creepy Dumbar’s, never liked it.’ Ed confided.

‘Why?’

‘Dunno, feels funny. Lots of kids at school said so an’ all. Loads of bad stories about it.’

‘That’s why I like it.’ Tom said.’ All them daft stories keeps folk away. Lots of things in here you don’t get other places with people crashing about scaring ’em off.’ He stopped, and as if to prove his point a fallow deer buck walked across the path ahead of them. It stopped, half in, half out of the shadows for a moment, sniffed the air and walked on, unconcerned, to disappear in the undergrowth.

‘He’s kept his antlers late.’ Tom said ‘April? Should be shed by now.’

‘Big beggar wasn’t he? Ed said.

‘He was. Maybe he’s come to have you?’ Tom said, making a scary face and raising his hands in claw like manner.

‘Sod off Tommy. Let’s find these rabbits.’

Tom let his hands fall to his sides. He nodded down the track to where the buck had crossed the path. ‘Follow the big lad then’

They moved off down the trail to where the sun dappled the bushes and the path, and turned off to the left into the shadows of the undergrowth. There was a crash of something moving hard through the bushes and Tom pointed as the white patch and black horseshoe shape of the buck’s rump disappeared into the woods’ gloomy interior.

‘Should be lying up, daft animal.’

‘Forget him Tom, let’s find these rabbits.’ Ed said

‘Bit odd though isn’t it?’

‘What is?’

‘Bloody big buck wandering about bold as brass in the day, still got his antlers this time of year. Weird.’

‘You’re not scaring me Tom. It’s just a deer.’

Tom was about to say something else but stopped and moved off.

‘Come on then.’

They descended into the deepening gloom of the trees. There was no more noise from the buck, and no birdsong broke the silence. Tom and Ed moved through the undergrowth as softly as shadows. Tom had said no-one came here, but they both knew game birds lay up in these woods. There was no game shooting this time of year and the rearing pens were on the other side of the valley, but Chucker’s gamekeeper could be planning out drives and seeing what was what anywhere on the land. Both listened for the sound of movement and their eyes swept the depths of the wood for a sign of the keeper. They carried on in this fashion, cautiously following the path across and down the hillside for a few minutes. Careful, silent progress. Then Tom held up his hand and pointed at a small ‘V’ carved into an Ash trunk.

‘Down this way.’ He whispered and slid off the track to the left.

Ed could see the animal run emerge onto the path as he followed Tom.

‘Why didn’t you trap it at the end?’

Tom stopped and looked at Ed. ‘And have Chucker or one of his boys see it? Don’t be daft Ed. I thought you was a country boy.’

Ed nodded. Tom always made him feel like this. Never quite as smart, quite as sharp, quite as at ease with the wilder end of life as Tom. Tom hadn’t been phased at all by the police calling about the fish. Never bothered about the teachers on his back. Never directly rude but always challenging. Always one better behind the back of anyone in authority. Hadn’t got him a job though. Hadn’t got him out of the village. Hadn’t got him the exams to go to Uni. He was smart in other ways; ways teachers and coppers didn’t approve of. Ed wasn’t sure he did any more. There was something attractive about Tom’s wildness but it scared Ed at the same time. Tom was like the buck, part of the same natural system, but unusual, larger than life, belonging to a disappearing world. Whereas Ed wanted to get out of Dumbar’s wood and away from the buck whose antlers should be long gone.

SNARE

Part 1

Ed thought he recognised the figure almost as soon as it turned into the narrow alley behind the almshouse cottages. His immediate reaction was to jump off the wall he was perched on and escape down the path at the side of old Mrs Joiner’s place. He could get back to the road that way without having to speak to Edgworth. It wasn’t that he disliked Tom Edgworth. He didn’t. They’d been friends of sorts at school, not that long ago, but Tom was an odd one Ed thought. Not aggressive as such, not mean really and not even particularly unruly at school. Some of the teachers had had it in for him. Bit odd of them really when you thought about it. They were ‘green’ and ‘animal lovers’ but didn’t seem to like Tom’s country ways at all. Ed remembered a ‘show and tell’, some daft American idea, where Tom had brought his ferret. Didn’t like that animal did they? Ed smiled. Not really that bad a bloke Tom. They’d spent one summer fishing for trout and selling them on. Trouble was they’d gone fishing with gunpowder packed in tins. ‘Bang!’ and all the silvery bodies floated up to the surface of old Turbemere’s lake and you scooped a nice bit of earnings. Tom said his granddad had showed him that trick. Better than sitting there all day with a line and getting nicked for poaching and no licence. One bang, five minutes frantic netting and off before Turbemere’s water bailiff could get a look at you, never mind catch you.

Ed looked up the alley again. Definitely Tom. You could tell by the strut in his step that he’d seen and recognised Ed too. Couldn’t walk off now without offending him.

 Problem had been the police were a bit hotter on explosions than in grandad’s day. Lot of bother, but no charges in the end. Couldn’t prove it, and Tom and Ed had just denied it all. Tom reckoned they just visited all the kids in the village. Ed hadn’t liked it. His mum and dad had been furious having police round the house. ‘I told you them Edgworths were no good didn’t I boy?’ his dad had yelled at him. Ed had nodded. ‘And that Tom is worse than any of ’em.’  Ed had nodded again. ‘Stay away from them boy. Won’t go wrong if you stay away from them. Weird buggers they are.’

‘Why weird Dad?’ Ed had felt emboldened to ask now Dad’s ire was turned elsewhere. His father had glanced at his mother who gave one small shake of her head. ‘Never mind boy. You find some other friends that’s all.’ So he pretty much had. Couldn’t avoid Tom completely in a village mind. But there had been no more fishing trips. And now they’d left school and both found that there was no work in a village anymore, with good exams or no exams. Time lay heavy on Ed’s hands. He’d more or less decided to go to Uni next year after all. Tom didn’t have that option.

Tom bounced down the alley between the back of the cottages and the tall yellow limestone wall of the old Sterven estate, long ago split up into its constituent farms and the hall sold off. Tom drew level with where Ed was sitting.

‘You going somewhere Tom?’ Ed asked.

‘No, rooted to the spot me.’

‘Sarcastic bugger.’

‘Well don’t be a prat then Ed Bayfield. Course I’m going somewhere. Why would I be walking down here otherwise?’

‘Going for a walk?’

‘I’d be going somewhere then, wouldn’t I?’

‘Nah, you’d be walking, but not to anywhere. ‘Cept back where you started of course.’

‘Well I’m not. I’m going somewhere.’

‘Where you going?’

‘What’s it to you? You me mum are you?’

‘She doesn’t care where you are.’

‘That’s true.’

Ed jumped down from the wall he’d been sitting on and fell in step beside Tom Edgworth.

‘Where we off?’

‘Oh it’s “we” now is it?’

‘Don’t mind a bit of company do you? I’m bored out of my skull.’

Tom looked his companion up and down.

‘No, that’s okay Ed. You can make yourself useful though, carry that.’ And with that he slung the old fashioned haversack he’d been carrying at Ed.

‘What’s in it?

‘Nothing.’

‘Why you carrying it then?’

‘I’m not. You are.’

‘Very funny. You know what I mean. Why am I carrying it?’

‘Cause you’re a prat and you’re bored.’

‘Ta very much.’

Tom turned left at the end of the walled pathway and vaulted the gate that blocked the way. Ed climbed after him.

‘This is Chucker’s land. He’ll go spare if he catches us.’

‘Well he isn’t going to is he? It’s Tuesday, he’s up the market in town.’

‘I thought they’d shut that?’

‘Nah, they closed the old one, the one that sold useful stuff. It’s what they call a farmers market now. Chucker takes stuff up there.’

‘What, lambs and stuff?’

‘Can’t.’

‘Why not?

‘Can’t kill his own these days, gotta go to an abattoir.’

‘What’s he sell then?’

‘Few veg his missus grows, few birds he shoots, potatoes, and a load of crap he buys in and slaps Sterven Farm labels on.’

‘Cheeky bastard.’

‘Ah well, gives us a chance for a little enterprise, doesn’t it?’

Ed hefted the canvas sack and looked at Tom.

‘Enterprise? What? Like the fish?’

‘You can chuck us the bag and go back if you like.’

‘I didn’t say that.’

‘Good. Let’s get down in the lane.’

CROSSING

[I decided to clear out some old hard copy content this lunch time. I know you shouldn’t, there will be things you may want to use at a later date, alter, rework, inspire yourself with, leave to posterity(?really!). But there are limits and this actually proves the point of not throwing things away (I think!). In the copies of copies of copies of stuff I have multiple electronic versions of, there was this short piece. I can’t remember exactly what it was. It may have been an exercise or a piece I sent or intended to send somewhere when ultra short fiction became a big thing. Whatever it was, it has all dialogue, (one short narrative sentence) and no he said/she saids etc. I think the idea was to differentiate the characters by verbal style alone. Not sur it worked but here it is:

‘It looks like you’re in trouble there. Can I help?’

‘Er, no thanks, I’ll be fine.’

‘Are you sure? Because I don’t want to worry you but there’s a train due in a minute.’

‘A train? Fu…! Sorry. I didn’t think this line was used. Have you got a mobile? Can you ring someone?’

‘I don’t think there’s time. We need to get you off the crossing now. If we both push we should be able to move it’

‘Can’t.  I dropped the keys into the engine compartment and they must have hit the button and locked the doors.’

‘Brakes on?’

‘Yes’

‘Can you get the keys?’

‘They’re too far down for me.’

‘Let me try, my hands are smaller.’

‘You can’t. I’ve got my finger stuck down by the wash bottle.’

‘Have you got any spare keys? I tape one under the rear wheel arch.’

‘No. What’s that noise?’

‘Hell! It’s the train.’

‘Oh God what am I going to do? Get me out of here!’

‘Okay, I’m going to pull. It will hurt.’

‘No! Oh, yes go on then. Stop! Stop, you’re tearing my skin off.’

‘It’s jammed tight. Wait there.’

‘Don’t leave me!’

‘Just getting something. It’s okay I’m a doctor. Right. Look down there. Can you see the train?’

‘Where? Hang on what are you doing? No don’t…! Aaaargh! Oh my God! What have you done! Look at the blood. Fucking hell you maniac!’

‘Move. Away from the car. No, you idiot, over here. Get down!’

The freight train smashed into the car sending debris flying down the line.

‘Oh my God! What happened to my car?!’

‘It’s just a car. Press that cloth on the stump while I see if the driver’s okay. This skirt is ruined.’

TL;DR?

Can people read more than 280 characters?

I was reading an article on the internet this morning:

https://sunilsuri.substack.com/p/gamingforgood

which I had been referred to by a gaming acquaintance. It is a fascinating article (to me at any rate) about using games for purposes other than straightforward entertainment. The obvious additional purposes include education – both in getting children to practice maths, engage with the concept of probability, social interaction and action/outcome ideas.

But there are bigger aims in some games, for example emergency response, planning, disease control, social planning etc. Whilst this is all good stuff, it may not be related even remotely to writing (although writing the scenarios, putting the results of gaming actions into stylised reporting/ narratives surely require authorial skills?). Something did leap out at me however which triggered a little thought regarding current writing practices and received wisdom about length of articles, stories, novels etc.

This is the quote which swapped tracks for me from a games to writing.

‘Consider news consumption. The Reuters Institute found that younger generations “do not want to work hard for their news.” In practice, news is often consumed on smartphones in small amounts to fit around other activities. Such consumption habits do not necessarily lend themselves to deeper engagement with the issues of the day.’

Well yeah. Difficult to get the nuances of anything in 140 characters (now 280, but 140 has a certain ring to it as the limit of human attention span in a digital world). Now most social media content is longer than that, but not by much.

Ah the horror of the modern world! Kids can’t concentrate. Millennials are so needy and have no depth! We’re all doomed.

Well I remember the heady days of proper print journalism and news that contained news on Television and radio.

And hardly anybody bought broadsheets, watched extended news programmes or listened to current affairs on the BBC Home Service.

There are more opportunities to read, hear and see extended, in depth, insightful news reports on thousands of items which would never have made it into the old ‘quality newspapers’ never mind red top tabloids or scandal sheets.

Attention span may have shortened but I remember many people consuming their news from ‘newspapers’ which had pages of hardly any content and masses of filler and still believing made up lies about European legislation which would ban bendy bananas and the British Banger.

The internet and social media may have made such gibberish slightly more available and a few more people than before may not have realised that reality checks need to be applied to anything, wherever you read, hear or see it. That doesn’t mean that any fewer people than before deeply engage with the issues of the day. I suspect there may be slightly more engagement in fact. Young people weren’t that bothered when I was a child/young adult. All those pictures and film clips of protestors on marches and rallies show the active minority, not the majority who were sat at home, or playing sport or working for their exams.

We shouldn’t get suckered in by fuzzy memories of halcyon days when everything was better. Goodness knows I have my doubts about the uses and abuses of digital technology but let’s not overstate them or use the idea as yet another stick to beat younger generations.

As for writing and reading, there seems to be a lot of appetite for reading about. Just because traditional media publishers haven’t always been up to speed on response doesn’t seem a good reason to bemoan the state of modern readers, or writers. Nor is it necessarily a reason to insist on brevity to point of meaninglessness. Yes, micro-fiction is a demanding and entertaining art form when done well, but its brevity is no more likely to get readers on the strength of its size alone than any other length of work. The good thing about reading is you can stop and start at will. Not many of us sit down and read a great slab of a book in one sitting no matter how good or engaging it is. I am however quite capable of remembering where I left off and resuming. I am sure ‘young’ people today are quite as capable of that feat if they wish as anyone else.

Thoughts On ‘Your Call…’

Odd short story. Arrived out of nowhere that one.

I suppose it was a bit trite wasn’t it?

A grumpy old person’s pop at things changing from their past.

Never mind grandad.

Of course I’ve felt like this from at least the early 1980s.

Not I suspect an accident that period of realisation that history was not an unchallenged Whig progression to English glory.

That initial realisation that things didn’t always improve was prompted by a friend trying to contact someone in the council to get something done. I can’t at forty years remove remember what it was, but I do remember his frustration at discovering that, due to the changes in local government funding being foisted on councils at the time, they no longer dealt with whatever it was because, if it were outsourced, it came under a different budget heading and they wouldn’t get grief from Westminster.

Victoria Park Flats

 

I walked past the monolith of the facade of Victoria Park Flats in Macclesfield thinking about how he could maybe persuade someone to tell him how to deal with this problem. And failing.

I mention Victoria Park flats as a cunning acknowledgement that change, ‘progress’ can be good and bad. Victoria Park flats replaced a demolished area of very tightly packed brick terrace mill workers houses. They had a sub Dickensian charm but must have been hell to live in. Victoria Park flats, ‘Viccy Park’, were medium rise concrete rat runs built in neo brutalist style that even the architect probably hated. But they were better plumbed, heated and not as rapaciously landlorded as 19th century mill owners tat.

The fact social disintegration set in shortly afterwards and the physical design encouraged that alienation beloved of social realists was the down side.

There were lots of good people in Viccy Park, but the drugs and the criminal minority got the headlines and the reputation was forged.

So thirty odd years after being ‘the finest housing development in the country’ according to Anthony Greenwood, Harold Wilson’s Housing Minister, demolition began. Traditional low rise buildings replaced the experimental work, but we should remember, that cool as those black and white photos of mill workers in their quaint dress standing outside Coronation Street style houses may look, the flats were a vast improvement for many. The sense of social togetherness and improvement that engendered the idea of replacing those terraces with the flats, may have been let down by the architecture and system build design of the private company that constructed them to the borough architect’s plan, but the recognition of owing the public something better than slums was good.

Under what social ideal were they demolished and replaced? Social justice? Better welfare? Or a desire to have a better facade for the town for visitors on the train.

So I don’t want to return to the terraced houses. Nor the collectivist vision of Viccy Park flats, but I have reservations about why they were replaced.

What worries me is that you can knock a concrete estate down and rebuild. Can you do that with a society? We’ve been through a period where the vision was; ‘no such thing as society’, and defenders of the person who said it can claim as much ‘misrepresentation’ as they like but it was taken as a mantra. A mantra that justified rapacious, devil take the hindmost excess in deregulated city firms that eventually led to the 2008 crash and a near collapse of capitalism. Oddly enough a world system saved by the intervention of governments led by Gordon Brown. A system that fell over its own greed, swallowed the state intervention medicine, kicked the doctor who saved it, and started chanting about the benefits of ‘small government’ and misquoting Ronald Reagan to say government wasn’t the solution it was the problem.

So when I looked at what was going on in the high street, in the offshoring of support services, in the crass manipulation of the language of ‘customer care’ from the viewpoint of someone looking at trying to save the world from outside the world, it became clear that maybe we, at least the western anglo-saxon version of how it works, ain’t worth saving. Even our supposed cures are nightmares: the internet of things, total digital integration to be exploited by monopoly global companies, dehumanising support chains with algorithms masquerading as artificial intelligence, and worse; the spectre of real AI hovering over us.

This isn’t an old git looking back, but a rational humanist perspective that realises there is no Whig theory of history that is going to save us. Unless we get our fingers out and make it clear: progress works for us or ships out, we are stuffed. We tell history where it goes not the other way round. We need to make sure those telling us that ‘X’ is inevitable get told where to go before they take us all to the cleaners.

Then again maybe it was just a trite bit of fun.