Friday, 31 October 2014

New poem: Museum

We were on holiday in the country and just

outside a village we were going through we

saw a sign that said, ‘The World’s Best

Museum’. I said that I thought it strange that

if it was the ‘world’s best museum’ we hadn’t

heard of it. And anyway, why would it be

here? That made everyone angry, and they

said that there must be something wrong with

me to be put such a downer on everything.

So I said, fair enough, let’s go. We went down

several country lanes and over one of those

level crossings that everyone worries about

and got to a house that stood on its own

next to some woods. The sign outside just

said, ‘Museum’. It didn’t say what it was a

museum of. There were no lights on and it

was just beginning to get dark, so I said that

I didn’t think anyone was in but the others

said there may be and that was me putting

a downer on things again. So we knocked on

the door and quite quickly a woman came out

and asked us if we had come for the wood. We

said that we hadn’t. We had come for the

museum. She looked a bit puzzled for a moment

so I said,‘The sign. The Museum.’

‘Ah yes, the Museum,’ she said, ‘the Museum.’

She said to follow her through the house and

out the back. In the garden there were some

sheds and she said, ‘There you go.’

We moved forward, a bit hesitantly, and went

up to the first shed. I pulled at the door and it

came open after a strong tug. Inside it was

dark, so we gathered around the doorway and

looked in. I could make out a sign on a shelf at

the back of the hut. It said, ‘What do you reckon?’

The little one said, ‘What does it say?’

I said, ‘“What do you reckon?”’

She said, ‘I don’t know.”

I said, ‘I don’t know either.’

Then the woman from the Museum said,

‘What do you reckon?’

And I said, ‘Do you mean, what do I reckon

with “What do you reckon?” or do you

just mean, “What do you reckon?’

She looked at me and said, ‘What do

you reckon?’

The little one said that she didn’t like

it. I said that it looked like there were

more sheds we could go in but the others

said that there wasn’t much point.

I said that this time it wasn’t me putting

a downer on things.

They said, ‘Never mind that.’

The little one said, ‘We don’t have to

go through the level crossing on the way

back, do we?’

Thursday, 30 October 2014

New Poem: Garden Centre

I was in this garden centre and an announcement

came over the tannoy that we weren’t allowed to

pick any of the fruit off the fruit trees. There was a

woman there who was standing next to a tree and

one of the guys who served in garden centre asked

her if she wanted an apple off the tree he was

looking after. She said no. She asked me if I wanted

one. I said no. Then the voice came over the tannoy

and said, ‘Oi, you two, you’ve ruined everything.

You, the woman, you’re supposed to have taken an

apple off the man there. And then you were supposed

to have offered it to the man there.’ The woman

shrugged and walked off. I picked up a pot of

lavender and went to pay for it.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Diversity in children's books

Shoot me down on this one but here goes: I very much enjoyed the Guardian's page on diversity in children's books. We need as much information circulating about these. I also think there is an urgency about this with a resurgent right focussing as it does on what they call 'immigration' linked to a general xenophobia. So what is 'diversity'? This is where I think there is a serious discussion to be had. Diversity must mean more than 'black' or more than 'black and Asian'. This is to do favours to everyone. Of course 'people of colour' have experienced (and are still experiencing) in the most recent period serious prejudice, discrimination, violence, intentional and institutional racism.

However, 'diversity' as a term should not be a 'cover' or an alternative for dealing with these issues of racism. If we (or anyone else) is going to use the term 'diversity' then that's what it should be: a reflection on how in a given space (let's say 'UK" for the moment) we are diverse. Diversity has to encompass every possible sense of the ways in which we are diverse.

Now to the egocentric part of that. I am what, (I gather from my own children from what they've been told at school), is being termed 'ethnically Jewish or jewish'. I can live with that. So how is that part of diversity being reflected in lists of 'diversity'. I find that inevitably, 'ethnic jewishness' mostly gets to be defined in terms of the Holocaust. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm very much in favour of the Holocaust being treated in children's books. But the Holocaust is ultimately not a 'Jewish question' it's a humanity question. It wasn't actually caused by Jews. Admittedly, it has become a matter of enormous concern to Jews - of course - but apart from experts, it isn't necessarily how we lead our lives. So, yes, a big welcome to books about the Holocaust but in terms of diversity, it's a bit offbeam to say that that is a 'sufficient' description.

So, what in terms of 'diversity' am I talking about? Well, for several centuries Jews have lived in Britain being diverse themselves, arriving from very different parts of the world, speaking different languages, eating different foods etc etc….and in terms of children's daily lives, doing a wide variety of things. I know of one tiny part of that - i.e. a way of going on of highly politicised 'Ostjuden' (Jews from Eastern Europe) who arrived in Britain at the end of the 19th century retaining, as my children tell me, some ethnic markers, whilst participating in many of the institutions of the locality or country - in my case London. Though I'm touched by the Holocaust through my father's side of the family and have indeed written about it a good few times, particularly when thinking about racism, resistance and persecution, this hasn't been the only or the main definer of my life.

So this is a very longwinded way of saying that 'diversity' should reflect ways in which people lead their lives. I didn't mean this to apply just to a reflection on 'ethnic Jews' but to all members of all communities. That's to say, it's the "normality of difference" that needs to be celebrated and not just a people's moments of injustice and persecution, no matter how powerful and necessary these are too.

Again, of course, many people of African origin have said this in relation to the slave trade. I hear, for example, that of course this has to be recorded, documented, marked, but in terms of lives lived now, it's not what is going on. As I say, diversity is a slightly different matter, it is about the 'normality of difference'.

I suspect that in the coming months and years we will have to struggle as much for this 'normality of difference' as we do for the reminders about persecution and injustice. Not 'instead of' or 'more than' or 'less than' - but 'as well as'.

New poem: Deer

We were on a road between two towns and a sign

came up by the side of the road. `It was a picture

of a stag. I’ve always understood that this means

that as you’re driving along a stag could jump out

on to the road. You could hit a stag. Or a stag could

hit you. And maybe the stag would be with other

deer. They could all hit your car. First the stag would

hit it - voom. And then the others - voom voom voom.

We looked into the woods to see if we could see

any. It was raining, so we reckoned that they would

be sheltering under the trees. Or lying under the

bracken. It was autumn so everything was turning

yellow, brown and dark green. If the stag and deer

were in there, they’d be hard to see. If they came

out and did that voom voom voom thing, you wouldn’t

get much notice. In between the woods, there were

open parts, clearings. There was gorse. Again, no

deer. A few cows. A few ponies. Then it was back to

woods: silver birch, oak, beech. As we came round a

corner, I looked again into the woods and saw

something which for a moment looked like a group

or herd of something - a bit grey, a bit brown. Not

deer though. It was jackets. They were hanging from

the trees. Maybe twenty or thirty of them. Damp from

the rain, so they were still. Not that there was any


Sunday, 26 October 2014

New poem: Brooch

Sometime after my father died, my step-mother came

over with a small plastic pot. One of the things in it was

a brass brooch of a miner’s lamp. I had never seen it

before. I went online to see what it was. I found out

that they were sold by the miners’ union during and

after the General Strike of 1926. It was to help the

miners’ families who were starving. I remembered from

when I was a boy, my father saying that he could

remember the General Strike from when he was 7.

Something about a type-writer being thrown over a wall.

He hadn’t ever mentioned the brooch. It must have

been his mother’s. He didn’t know his father. He was

in the US. He, his sister and his mother didn’t live

near any pits and coalfields. They lived in Whitechapel,

in east London. In a house with 6 or 7 others. He said

he shared a bedroom with his Uncle Sam. They didn’t

talk to each other he said. Sam had spoiled a cap my father

had been bought on Petticoat Lane. I asked him who

turned the bedroom light out? Neither of us, he said. They

had candles, not lights. I remember his mother. He called

her ‘Ma’. I didn’t know then that she had had a baby who

died. Or that her father and mother came from Poland. I

don’t know if anyone in the house knew any miners. My

father said that sometimes sailors used to come to the

house. He remembered a sailor who came from Jamaica.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

New poem: Chair

I was in the barber. When the barber had finished

cutting my hair, I got up and looked down at the

metal plate where my feet were, it was the metal

plate joined to the chair I had been sitting in. The

writing on the plate, said, ‘UTOPIA’. I put my jacket

on and stood at the bus stop. I wondered if I had

just been sitting in Utopia. Was that where I was?

Had I just had a moment in part of a perfect

society? I thought about what it had just been like.

Someone was cutting my hair. He comes from

Turkey. He used scissors. He also cut my beard.

He did that with an electric beard-trimmer. He

also blew some hot wet air into my face. It came

from a hot wet air machine. When it was all over

I gave him some money. Then I saw the sign on

the chair. So far, this didn’t sound like Utopia. Not

like a whole vision of the best possible society. I

was just sitting in a chair and someone was cutting

bits of hair off my head. Unless that’s what Utopia

is: people sitting in chairs having their hair cut.

And their face steamed. Then getting up and

standing at the bus stop. Actually, there were

some other things. They gave me a cup of coffee.

The young man who made it was learning

English. And learning how to cut hair. And there

were some newspapers on the table before I had

my haircut. I read them. And there were some other

people there. We talked a bit. That was before the

haircut. And, like I said, after the haircut, I waited

at the bus stop. Not for long. A bus came along

pretty soon.

Friday, 24 October 2014

New poem: Bread

I opened up a packet of bread the other day,

took out a slice and as I put the butter on I

noticed that there was a hair in the bread. Not

on the slice. It was in the bread. It wasn’t

very long. I didn’t fancy eating it, so I put the

slice back in the packet and put the packet

in the bin. In the morning, I was looking around

for something to eat for breakfast, and I didn’t

have anything in, so I thought, ah, maybe I

could fish that loaf out of the bin, pull the

slice with the hair in it out of the packet and

maybe eat one of the other slices. So I got

it out the bin, opened up the packet and the slice

that had the hair in was on the top. Now

it had several hairs. I looked closely at it and

I could see that the hair was growing out of the

bread. This wasn’t mould. I know what that hairy

mould looks like. This was hair. It was a browny

colour with little blonde touches. I put it back in

the bin and went off to work. When I came back

from work, I got the packet out again and

sure enough, it had grown more hair. Now there

was enough hair to make it look like it was the top

of someone’s head. All growing out of one slice.

It even had a parting. Then, without knowing

why, I picked up this slice with the hair on it

and started to eat it. I was right about the hair.

It was hair. The bread had changed though. It

didn’t really taste like bread. More like something

made out of walnut. I ate it and pulled the hair out

of my mouth. It wasn’t really hairy. More furry than


Thursday, 23 October 2014

New poem: Trains

I noticed that there have been some improvements

at the station I use: streamlining of services.

A couple of years ago they figured out that we don’t

need indicator boards which tell you of every single

station the trains go to. All they needed to do was

put up the names of the last station on the line. This

meant that getting a train became an interesting kind

of guesswork. Would the train to Bigtown stop at

Littletown? Or would the train to Redtown be the

right one for Littletown? It was great. You could stand

on the wrong platform at the right time. Or the right

platform at the wrong time. Or the wrong platform at

the wrong time.

Then, they figured out that the indicator board thing

was a luxury. So they did away with them. Now, You

arrive at the station and guess which train might be

yours. Sometimes, you can wait on one platform, a

train comes in on another. You think it might be yours.

You dash along your platform, down the stairs, along

a tunnel, up some stairs on to the other platform, the

train is leaving. You dash back down the stairs, along

the tunnel, up the stairs, back to the platform you were

on in the first place.

Other people get up in the morning and think, I wonder

where I’ll go today? They head to the station and just get

on any train that looks like a train they might want to get


New poem: Cucumber

There was a cucumber in the lost property office.

It was found near the ticket barrier at the station.

No one came in to say it was theirs. The cucumber

sat on the shelf. It started to go soft. But still no

one came. Then it started to flatten out and go

mushy. The skin stayed more or less the same.

A bit wrinkly but still like a cucumber skin.Inside

the cucumber became goo. It was smelling quite

strong. A fruity earthy smell. After a bit more time,

it started going dark grey. And fruit flies flew around it.

Then, about six months after the cucumber was

put in the lost property office, a man came in and

said, ‘Have you got a cucumber?’

The lost property office assistant said, ‘I’ll have

a look in the book.’

He got the book out and it said, ‘Cucumber.’

‘Can I ask you where you think you lost the

cucumber?’ he said.

The man said, ‘No, I’m sorry. I got on the train,

got off the train and went home. When I got home

I looked in my bag and the cucumber was gone.’

‘Can you tell me which station you got on at, and

which station you got off at?’

‘Well, my problem is that I got on and off at quite

a few stations that day,’ said the man, ‘and I can’t

remember them all. You see I deliver stuff for


‘Do you deliver cucumbers?’ said the assistant.

‘No,’ said the man, ‘the cucumber was for me

to eat.’

‘Can you describe the cucumber?’ said the


‘It was green,’ said the man.

‘If I said to you,’ said the assistant, ‘that this

cucumber was found at a ticket barrier, do you

think you could tell me which ticket barrier that

might have been? You see we have to make sure

that people don’t come in here and claim things

that don’t belong to them. You might come in

here and say that you lost a gold watch. I can’t

hand you a gold watch, just because you say

you lost one.’

‘I haven’t lost a gold watch,’ said the man.

‘I didn’t say that you did,’ said the assistant.

‘I lost a cucumber,’ said the man.

‘So you say,’ said the assistant.

‘Can I ask you if anyone has come in here and

handed in a cucumber?’ said the man.

‘I can tell you that someone has indeed come in

here and handed in a cucumber.’

‘That’ll be mine,’ said the man.

‘No,’ said the assistant, ‘what you don’t know is

whether many people have come in here

and handed in cucumbers, in which case we

would have the problem of finding out which of

the many cucumbers belongs to you.’

‘Have many people come in here and handed

in cucumbers?’ said the man.

‘No,’ said the assistant.

‘Well, that one lone cucumber must be mine,’

said the man.

‘Not necessarily,’ said the assistant, ‘someone

else could have lost a cucumber and it’s their

cucumber that was handed in.’

‘Oh, yes,’ said the man, ‘I didn’t think of that.’

‘Well,’ said the assistant, ‘if you can’t think

where you might have left the cucumber, I’m

afraid I can’t give you the cucumber that we’ve

got here in the lost property office.’

‘OK, fair enough,’ said the man, ‘thanks very

much for your help.’

New poem: Flats

Some new flats are going up near me. They’re

overlooking a car park. I don’t mean a car park

for the flats. It’s the big car park for the shopping

centre. The idea is that people who live in flats

like overlooking. So there are flats overlooking

the sea, overlooking rivers, overlooking canals,

overlooking railway lines. Now there are flats

overlooking car parks. They say that it’ll give

people something to do: they think that people in

the flats will be able to stand on their balconies

and watch people parking their cars. Or watch

people coming back to the car park, getting

into their cars and then driving off. The aim is to

build bigger car parks so that more people will

park their cars and then they’ll build more flats

overlooking the car parks and this will build up a

sense of being part of something big and

interesting - like parking cars. And car parks.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

New Poem: Exam Marking

Here at NormCheck, we are looking closely at the principles

of exam marking. We regret that many people are under the

mistaken impression that exams serve the purpose of enabling

individuals amass a specific amount of knowledge in an

important field relevant to what will be that person’s life beyond

and after the exam. We work very hard to eliminate as much

‘usefulness’ from the exam system as we can. We are also

extremely vigilant in eliminating what progressives have called

‘transferrable skills’. In the world outside the classroom, it may

well be the case that people’s ability to interpret data in unexpected

ways, to invent new ways of doing things, to know how to

investigate something unfamiliar, to co-operate with colleagues

and strangers - are all useful but that’s of no concern of ours.

At NormCheck we are putting a great deal of effort into ensuring

that education - that’s to say exams - are solely concerned with

core facts. Luckily, at the Department for Instruction, we have

people who know what these core facts are. They have all studied

eitherPPE, pure economics or law - and, thankfully, all had some

experience of a private education.

So, to recap, he exams themselves are not for the purpose of the

individual to acquire and retain anything useful. They are solely

for the purpose of us to grade, select and segregate people. This

is why exams aren’t tests of what people know on a given day. They

are a means by which we can draw a line across a group of people

and say, all of you above that line are a success, all of you below

that line are a fail. What we do at NormCheck is move the line.

That’s our job. Each year, we meet up, have an extremely nice

lunch and spend the afternoon working out where we’ll put the line.

This has nothing whatsoever to do with whether this or that pupil

knows anything or not. It is entirely to do with where we decide to

put the line. This depends on such things as what the Secretary of

State at the Department for Instruction thinks, which itself is usually

dependent on what the Daily Mail thinks.

New Poem: Examz Inc. - or why it's important to have exams that prevent you from remembering anything

Here at Examz Inc., we’ve been doing some blue sky thinking

about Projectile Vomiting (PV) . Here’s the definition: “vomiting that

is sudden and so vigorous that the vomit is forcefully projected

to a distance”. We’ve commissioned an extensive study on the

application of PV principles in the assessment field. First reports

suggest that we have a lot to learn from this important work. In PV,

it’s essentially a matter of w.g.i.c.s.o. - what goes in, comes straight

out. It’s the most efficient system known to man of the ‘return’ principle.

Almost nothing is wasted. Our researchers applied this principle to

fact-consumption and fact-delivery.

What would be the most efficient PV replication in the education field?

It turns out that for many years we’ve been nearly there, but not there.

Schools and exam boards have been content with what in the field of

physiology would be, say, spitting out, dribbling and slow vomiting.

In all these cases, there is a lack of efficiency: slow return, inefficient

delivery - and more importantly - a persistent danger of residue,: small

amounts remain inside the person.

If we apply PV to the education situation, we bolt teaching to instruction

and not waste time with any activity that might obstruct PV-type delivery.

So, quite clearly, the best known system of PV delivery in the assessment

field are lengthy exams in which there are only right and wrong answers

and uncomfortable seating arrangements.

Preparation for PV delivery exams should consist of PV delivery practice,

once a week. For four days of the week, the instructor instructs

with the PV material, that is to say, the consumption side. Day five is

PV day, with all-day instruction on how to eliminate repetition, hesitation,

deviation, discussion, co-operation, investigation, invention, interpretation

and compassion followed by a two hour PV exam. Research suggests that

when PV is applied, it is the most efficient way of guaranteeing that pupils

retain as little as possible of what they have consumed. This is part of the new

Empowerment Agenda much favoured by the new Department for Instruction,

who argue that PV style learning is the world’s most proven method of

enabling disadvantaged children to fail exams.

New poem: Exams

A lot of time is being wasted in schools trying

to teach a whole lot of unnecessary stuff. The

point of schools is to pass exams. Exams are

tests in who can write fast. Or put another way,

exams find out who can write slowly. That’s

what they’re for. So, instead of wasting loads

of time muddling this up with writing answers

to questions that no one cares about, school

can concentrate on the business of learning to

write fast. And of course, it’s not just about

writing fast. It’s about writing fast for over an

hour. In hard exams it can be for two hours.

And when I say ‘writing’ this has to be writing

by hand. This is really important. I’m out and

about in the real world, and all the successful

people I meet spend several hours every day

writing fast by hand. So my school of the future

will be full of children writing fast by hand.

And, here’s the innovation: they won’t be

thinking at the same time. To be really fast,

they’ll be copying. In front of them will be iPads

or laptops, with a lot of writing up on screen.

It can be anything, ads for soft drinks, poems

that celebrate a well-known fast food,

instructions for self-assembly wardrobes...and

the children will be copying these. Teachers -

or teaching assistants, or assistants to teaching

assistants can come round and if a child is

slowing down, they can give them a little nudge

to remind them to speed up.

Then at the end of the year, when the child’s fate

is to be decided, the big exam will discover who

can really write fast, who can write not-so-fast,

who writes slowly and who writes really, really


Tuesday, 21 October 2014

New poem: Parrot

We were at the zoo when I heard a parrot

say, ‘I could have been Prime Minister.’ I

told the others to carry on to the Reptile

Room and I went up to the parrot and said,

‘When was this?’

The parrot said, ‘1957.’

‘Which party?’

‘I can’t say,’ it said.

‘Did you have a lot of support?’ I said.

‘Oh yes.’

‘So it didn’t turn out good for you?’

‘Not sure I had the charisma,’ it said.

‘Really? You seem very lively.’

‘That’s very kind but it’s not what people

said at the time,’ it said.

‘How about policies?’ I said, ‘did people

think you had good policies?’

‘Oh, yes.’

‘Can you tell me any of them?’

I said.

‘I’m really sorry, no I can’t.’

‘Shame,’ I said, ‘I would have liked that.’

‘Ah, well, you’ll have to just take it

from me that they sounded really good at

the time.’

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘shame all the same.’

‘Well,’ it said, sounding a bit irritated, ‘you

can’t expect me to remember everything.

Some of us can only remember, “Who’s

a pretty boy?”’

‘And there’s one I knew who used to say

“Shut your face”,’ I said.

‘I don’t know that one,’ it said.

Monday, 20 October 2014

New Poem: Messages

The king’s idea was that there should be a messenger

service all over his kingdom. Whoever wanted to send

a message would hire one of the king’s messengers.

There would be a fee for this of 100 crowns a year which

would be paid straight to the king, into his coffers to pay

for wars. For a hundred crowns you could hire a

messenger any time you liked. The king announced that

the messenger service had begun. Twenty messengers

waited in the yard outside the king’s palace. Nothing

happened. Nothing happened for several days. The

leading messenger went to see the king.

‘I don’t think this messenger thing is going to work,’ he

said. ‘Anyone wanting to send a message- apart from you,

sir - is going to have to come here first.’

‘Yes,’ said the king, ‘that’s why it’s a good idea.’

‘No, sir,’ said the chief messenger, ‘you see by the time the

person wanting to send a message has come here, they

might just as well as have sent someone from where they


‘That’s a good point,’ said the king.

‘Might I suggest that the messengers do routes?’said the

chief messenger.

‘Go on,’ said the king.

‘One of us does route A to B. One of us does route C to D.

Another does route E-F and so on. People who want

messages sent come to the messenger point in A or C or E

and so on.’

And that’s what happened. The people who wanted to send

messages came to the messenger points and the messengers

ran the routes. It became very popular. The money rolled in.

The king waged wars. Everyone was happy. The messenger

system got more popular. The messengers worked very hard

running between the messenger points. Some days, they didn’t

have time to eat. They said that the king had to take on more

messengers. He said he couldn’t do that as he needed more

soldiers. The messenger service stopped being so good. One

day it was because some message-senders gave their

messages to the messenger but the messenger never arrived.

No one knew what happened to him. He just disappeared.

Some said that he dropped dead because he hadn’t eaten for

a month. Some said that he met someone on the way and

decided to stay with her for the rest of his life. Someone said

that he stopped off at a theatre, stole a wig, a false beard and

a magician’s cloak and was now touring the country doing

conjuring tricks. Another day it was because the messenger

had so many messages to remember that he muddled them up:

someone who was supposed to have got a message saying

that he loved her more than the night-sky loves the stars, ended

up getting threatened with having her legs broken for not paying

her rent. A birthday greeting went to someone who was dead.

One day, one of the message points was full of people wanting

to send messages but there was no messenger to take them.

The people ended up telling their messages to each other. At

least four people ended up getting married as a result but for the

rest it was a disaster. In the end the chief messenger went to see

the king.

‘The message system is not working,’ he said,‘you haven’t got

enough messengers.’

‘That’s where you’re wrong,’ said the king.‘It’s not “not enough

messengers”, it’s “too many messages”. Yack, yack, yack,’ said

the king, ‘that’s all you do. What’s the weather like where you are?

How’s Auntie? How’s the little one? Did you see so-and-so last

night? What are you wearing? Where are you? I’m on the chariot

on the way to the sea, where are you? On and on and on and on.’

‘But you’re still collecting the hundred crowns off people,’ said the

chief messenger.

‘Of course, I am,’ said the king, ‘I’ve got wars to do.’

Sunday, 19 October 2014

New Poem: Bins

I said to the dustman, ‘You’re taking my stuff.’

‘Yep,’ he said.

I said, ‘Everything in this bin matters.’

He said, ‘C’mon pal, we’re on a tight turnaround here,’

I said, ‘You’re taking my stuff.’

He called to his mates, ‘We’ve got one here.’

I said,‘That’s my past you’re taking.’

He said, ‘Uh-huh.’

I said, ‘I haven’t got any other past. I can’t go out and

buy someone else’s past and pretend it’s mine. All

the stuff in here happened to me.’

He said, ‘Am I taking it or not?’

I said, ‘Why are you asking me? This is all much

bigger than a yes/no thing. It’s about identity. And


‘And bins,’ he said.

‘We are what we throw away,’ I said, ‘and you’re

a cog in a machine that is cutting us down to

size. The machine doesn’t want us to know who

we are. And the way it’s doing this is to cut us

off from our pasts. It’s not your fault,’ I said, ‘you

have to earn a living, but you’ve become a tool

in their hands.’

He said, ‘I’ll just do next door’s. If you change your mind

in the meantime, I’ll come back and get yours. ‘

Saturday, 18 October 2014

New Poem: Pizza

We ordered in a pizza and when it came

we talked about how we'd divvy it up.

He said that because I didn't eat as much

as him, I should have less. I said OK but

it wasn't much less than him and after all

it was me who had bought the pizza. He said

that was besides the point. This was about

eating not paying.

I said, 'Is it?'

So he said, 'How about thinking in eighths?'

I said, 'Go on, I can run with that.'

He said, 'How does five eighths and three

eighths sound to you?'

I said that I thought I was hungrier than three

eighths, and he said but 'hungrier' would be


I said, 'What's wrong with that?'

And he said, 'Four eighths is the same as a half.'

I said, 'Is it?'

He said, 'Well let's talk sixteenths, how about

I have nine-sixteenths and you have seven?'

'Does that add up to the whole pizza?' I said.

'Yes, it does,' he said.

'Well then that sounds a bit more like the way

me and you eat pizza,' I said, ‘yes, you probably

eat one sixteenth more than I do.'

'Two,' he said.

'Two what?' I said.

'Two sixteenths,' he said, 'which is the same as

one eighth.’

‘Is it?' I said, 'why have you gone back to eighths?'

'Because that's how you do the divvying up,' he


'Fair enough,' I said, 'so let's carve it up.'

I went over to the drawer and looked for the big

knife we use to cut up pizzas and it took me a

moment or two because it had got caught under one

of those strainer spoons you can buy in France.

When I came back, he was breaking chunks off the

pizza and eating them.

'Have you divvied it up into sixteenths?' I said.

'No,' he said, 'I was getting hungry so I've started


I looked at him.

'Great, you've got the pizza knife,' he said, 'do you

want to divvy it up into sixteenths, or shall I?'

I said, 'Hang on a mo. If you've started on it already,

doesn't that affect the way the divvying up works? I

mean…I mean…'

'No, he said, 'it's just the same.'

Eulenspiegel rides again: funny, subversive stories for reading aloud

If you're looking about for a funny, subversive book to read aloud or share with your children, I'm going to unashamedly recommend one of mine. They are re-tellings of the German 'Till Eulenspiegel' stories. They are about a comic, trickster figure of peasant origins who plays tricks on those 'above' him in society, artisans, landowners, dukes and university professors (!). They date from the late fifteenth, early sixteenth centuries. As full of life as Chaucer and Robin Hood. I've adapted them, retold them and put them in a 'frame' of my brother and I getting bored on a trip to Germany when we were boys and being given some 'medicine' to stop us being 'naughty'. Here's how it's billed in the Walker Books online catalogue

Till Owlyglass (Till Eulenspiegel) is a boy who was special from the day he was baptised three times. But not in a good way. Not in a way his parents liked. He was always in trouble for his rudeness and practical jokes, and grew up to be the most outrageous trickster in Germany. Everyone told storie…

New Poem: Questions

I was at Euston Station. An elderly woman came

up to me and started talking to me. She had an

accent. Could have been German. Or Portugese.

She asked me if she could ask me some questions.

She showed me a picture of herself in a polythene

see-through bag. I didn’t look very closely at it but

I thought I saw the word ‘Marketing’. My train was

delayed so I said, OK. She said that it was to improve

the service. I said, OK and she rummaged around in

her bag and took out a clip board. On the clip board

there was a list of questions.

She said, ‘Are you travelling today?’

‘Yes,’ I said.

‘Are you travelling for business, leisure or family


I said, ‘Family reasons.’

She said, ‘Do you ride a horse?’

I said, ‘No.’

She said, ‘When a piece of bread is smaller than

the slot in the toaster, then, assuming you turn off

the toaster for health and safety reasons do you
a) stick a knife in the bread and hook it out?
b) pick up the toaster, turn it over and shake

it out? c) leave it in there?

I said, ‘’b’) I turn the toaster over.’

She said, ‘Do you travel First Class or Second Class?

I said, ‘Usually Second Class, but at the weekends I might


She said, ‘Do you think the world political situation

would be improved if a) the Roman Empire came back b)

people stopped eating processed meat, c) politicians drank

more water?

I said, ‘I don’t think any of those. Can I say ‘None’?

She said, ‘I’m the one asking the questions.’

I said, ‘I know.’

She said, ‘I’ll take that as a)’

I said, ‘The Roman Empire one?’

She said, ‘Yes.’

I said, ‘The Romans didn’t have trains.’

She said, ‘If they did, they would have made them

run on time.’

I said, ‘Except towards the end. You know, when they

were leaving here and going back to Rome.The trains

wouldn’t have been on time then.’

She said, ‘I’ve made a note of that.’

I said, ‘Thanks.’

She said, ‘On a scale of ten do you think the following

would improve the service:

‘Giving customers flat-pack self-assembly furniture to

construct on their journeys?’ 10 for definitely, Zero for

not at all.”

‘Nine,’ I said.

On a scale of ten, do you think customers should be

supplied with the magazine, ‘Dairy Cow News’?

I said, ‘Nine’.

She said, ‘Why?’

I said, ‘Because when I was about ten years old I

developed a fascination with dairy cows. I could tell

the difference between a Dairy Shorthorn and an

Ayrshire. I think having a free copy of ‘Dairy Cow

News’ would be of great interest.’

She said, ‘The survey is complete. We give all the

people we interview a small gift. You have a choice.

Would you like a pen, a notebook, a tomato, a

holiday in Florida or a baby?’

I said, ‘I’ll take the tomato.’

Thursday, 16 October 2014

I had a dream Miliband said this...

"Tonight I want to tell you about a hoax. It’s a hoax invented by the Tories, aided and abetted by almost every news outlet. The hoax is called ‘austerity’ and it goes like this: we in the Labour government caused a terrible crisis for the whole population. We did that by borrowing too much money. The solution to this crisis is for everyone who earns a living from salaries and salaries alone, to have less money in their pockets; any form of service run by the government should be either cut or sold off.

Why is this a hoax?

It wasn’t Labour who caused the crisis. Whatever way we describe that crisis, it was caused by people who make a living out of lending money. They gambled with billions and trillions - and lost.

Then: austerity. Austerity says that the way out of the difficulties is to make the least well off in society worse off, and to make the services that they enjoy disappear - or become a means by which people can make a profit. Meanwhile, the richest people in society have at the very least stayed being very, very rich, or for them to become richer.

So, let’s be clear: this thing called ‘austerity’ has been a way in which rich people have stayed rich or got richer, while poor people have stayed poor or got poorer.

But all we hear is that the ‘economy’ is getting better. So we say, what does this mean? Surely what they saying is that the system is running just nicely for those with money. For all the people who earn money from wages and salaries only, it’s not very nice at all. This business of ‘getting better’ is really the business of ‘getting worse’!

So...what is to be done?

At the heart of everything is how do we make sure that everyone in society gets the goods and services they need. This government says that happens thanks to the market. But hang on, it was the market - the money market bit - which destroyed billions and trillions of money, which has had the knock-on effect of making poor people poorer.

Then again, when the market takes over public services, what happens is that billions that could be used for those services goes off into the pockets of the business people who run the services and often back to the people who run the money markets. More for the rich, less for the poor yet again.

So, what we’ve got to do, is start with all the basic utilities and services and take them into public control. This doesn’t mean that I or my colleagues in the Labour Party run them and get very rich in the process. It means that we have to find a way in which you run them for your benefit. It means that instead of politicians in Westminster doing it all, it means that the people who work in all those industries and institutions that provide the utilities and public services must have a way of taking part in running them. At the same time, the people who use those utilities and services must have a way of joining in that too.

This means a new kind of voting and elections. Not just this old business of voting for politicians who work hand in glove with the super-rich making sure that they stay super-rich. It means extending democracy into running the things we need. There’s been a lot of talk about Westminster being distant. That’s true. But it won’t be solved by sticking some other people into Westminster who for half a second seem a bit more chummy. It can only be solved by getting everyone involved in running the utilities and services we need.

Whenever people talk about this sort of thing, wiseacres chip in and tell us that what’ll happen is that all the rich people will take money out of the country and all the rich people abroad won’t lend us any.

Excuse me if this gives me a reason to laugh: it would be hard to imagine a situation in which more rich people’s money could fly out of the country than what happened in 2008. When we let the money markets do what they want, they do that sort of thing anyway!

Then, if you have elected us to do these things, we would be elected to have power over the banks. You the people would have given us the power to control what happens to the money in the banks. What’s more, just like the kind of democracy running the utilities and services, we could have something similar running the banks. As for money from abroad, well, that would all depend on whether this country can make things and service things in a way that people here and abroad find useful.

But I’m running ahead of myself.

Let’s just stick to the things we can do first. Let’s remind ourselves what we mean when we say ‘wealth’. To listen to the Tories talk, you’d think wealth is something that rich people earn by being terribly clever or terribly wise. No, wealth is something else altogether. Wealth is the combined power of our minds and bodies. Or put another way, wealth is what we are capable of when we can put our minds and bodies together to make the things we need and to carry out the services we need. At the moment, wherever I go, I see millions of people using their minds and bodies - yes - but over and over again, the result is that very rich people make off with a vast portion of the money made by all that work. Billions of that money is not used in order to improve the standard of living of the majority of people, nor is it used to make goods and services more and more useful for every single one of us.

So, we’ve got to move towards a society where we get this ‘wealth’ thing right.

That’s all I’ve got time for just now. In the meantime, I hope that as many of you as possible will work on ways in which you can defend the services you need, and your standard of living. Only when you all do that, will you have the will and the power to run them yourselves."

New Poem: Hand Dryer

It was late and before going home I thought

I’d nip into a cafe for a cup of tea and a

sandwich. I found one down an alley near

the station. They had run out of pretty nearly

everything but I got a tomato sandwich

and before I ate it, I went to the toilet.

I washed my hands and turned on the

hand dryer. What came out was a pretty

poor flow of air. Coming out in short bursts.

And it wasn’t very warm. And actually, it was

a bit damp. I was just about to leave the toilet

when I heard a cough. It seemed very near.

Like from behind the wall. Or in the wall. As

the cough came out, a bit more of the dryer

blew air. Then stopped. I thought that was

odd and I looked more closely at the dryer.

I touched it and it wobbled. So I got hold of it

shook it. I don’t think I pulled it but it came

away in my hands. I had the whole dryer in

my hands. On the other side of the dryer, in

the hole left in the wall, was a man. His face,

that is. The man’s face. He was standing

behind the wall, or in the wall, with his face

behind the dryer. All I could see of him was

his face. I said, ‘Did you just...’ And before

I could finish, he said, ‘Yep, that was me.’

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

New Poem: Ticket

I once had a job at a cinema and I had to check

people’s tickets. I was standing at the barrier one

Sunday and people were coming through all the

time with their tickets when a woman came up

with a piece of paper and handed it to me. I could

see straightaway that it wasn’t a ticket. The tickets

were all on white pieces of paper and her bit of

paper was light green.

I said, ‘I’m sorry, but this isn’t a ticket.’

She said, ‘I don’t think you’ve looked at it.’

I said, ‘I don’t need to look at it, it’s green.’

‘Look at it,’ she said.

‘OK, I’ll look at it,’ I said.

It was folded over. I opened it up. On it was

written, ‘This could be a ticket.’

I said, ‘This isn’t a ticket.’

She said, ‘Read it.’

I said, ‘I have read it.’

‘No, read it out loud,’ she said.

I read it out loud: ‘This could be a ticket.’

‘There you are,’ she said.

‘No it isn’t, ‘there you are’.’ All it says, is ‘This

could be a ticket’. It doesn’t say that it is a ticket.’

‘That’s because that would be a lie. Obviously,’

she said.

‘Right,’ I said, ‘It isn’t a ticket. Look there are

people waiting to come in,’

‘No, no,’ she said, ‘the point is, it could be a


I said, ‘Yes, yes, it could be, but it isn’t.’

‘But what it says there is that it’s possible.

It’s not impossible. There is a chance that it

could be.’

‘I’m supposed to let you in, on the

off chance that this is a ticket?’ I said.

‘Well,’ she said, ‘you don’t want to be in the

situation where it really was a ticket and you didn’t

let me in. You’d be in all sorts of trouble.

Lawyers, police, stories in the papers.’

I looked at her. I looked round to see if my

manager was there. She wasn’t.

I said, ‘OK, go in.’

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

2 articles/interviews with me about poetry in schools

These are two articles by Daniel Xerri interviewing me about poetry in schools. They have just been published in the peer-reviewed journals New Review of Children's Literature and Librarianship, and Arts Education Policy Review. The first article focuses on teachers' attitudes toward poetry:

The second article discusses poetry's place in the curriculum:

Given that they are both published by Taylor & Francis, please note that the articles are only accessible via subscription, usually an institutional one.

Monday, 13 October 2014

New poem: Wasps

I was playing by a river in France when

an old lady came past and the boy I was

with said that was the Wasp Lady. I asked

him why she was called the Wasp Lady

and he said that she gets rid of wasps’

nests. I asked him how she does that. He

said that she had a special way. ‘What

sort of special way?’ I said. He laughed

and said that he wasn’t supposed to say.

I said, ‘Why aren’t you supposed to say?’

He said that the people in the village

didn’t want children to go about saying it.

I said, ‘How does she do it? How does

she get rid of wasps’ nests?’ He said that

she stands by the wasps’ nest and sings.

‘That’s it?’ I said. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Then

what happens?’ I said. He then said it

wasn’t really singing. It was more like a

single note. She stands by the nest

trying to sing this note. It’s not like any

singing you ever hear, he said. ‘Like

what?’ I said and he just laughed. We

went on mucking about in the river and

I said, ‘What does this singing thing do?’

He said that if she gets it right, people

say that it makes the wasps eat the queen.

I said,‘That wouldn’t get rid of the nest.’

He said that it would. If the queen goes,

all the rest die off after a few days. If

there are no new eggs, there are no new

wasps, that’s the end of the nest. ‘Do they

sting the queen?’ I said. ‘I don’t know,’ he

said, ‘I think they just eat her. They hear

the singing and start to eat her.’

If they say, 'The poor are the problem', let's say, 'Briefing 38'

Let's keep going on about it: "Briefing 38".

If anyone asks us, why are the NHS workers or the teachers etc etc on strike?

let's say 'Briefing 38'.

If people say, it's immigrants' fault that wages are too low,

let's say, 'Briefing 38',

if people say, that it's benefit scroungers who are costing the nation too much,

let's say, 'Briefing 38'.

If people say, that this or that group of people are a 'social problem',

let's say 'Briefing 38' - that's the 'social problem'.'

If they say, 'What's "Briefing 38"?'

we can say,

'The richest fifth of the nation's got £5970 billion;

the poorest has got £57 billion.

Never mind "Grand Theft Auto"…

this is Auto Grand Theft -

the rich automatically thieving from the poor…'

In support of the striking NHS workers

These are the hands
That touch us first
Feel your head
Find the pulse
And make your bed.

These are the hands
That tap your back
Test the skin
Hold your arm
Wheel the bin

Change the bulb
Fix the drip
Pour the jug
Replace your hip.

These are the hands
That fill the bath
Mop the floor
Flick the switch
Soothe the sore

Burn the swabs
Give us a jab
Throw out sharps
Design the lab.

And these are the hands
That stop the leaks
Empty the pan
Wipe the pipes
Carry the can

Clamp the veins
Make the cast
Log the dose
And touch us last

Sunday, 12 October 2014

New Poem: Worms

If you put a tent up on long grass and you

leave the tent with its groundsheet down

on the grass for about three weeks, the

grass starts to rot. When you take up the

groundsheet, you find the grass has gone

yellow and smells. Worms seem to like it

and sometimes you find clusters of them

wiggling about together. One holiday we

were on the Welsh borders and our tents

were up for four weeks. We took them

down when it was time to go home and

there was a cluster of worms just where I

had been lying. I went over and had a look

at them. As I walked round them, I could

see that they had clustered together in the

shape of the bus routes near where we

lived. I called my friend over and said,

‘Here look at this, it’s the bus map.’ He

said, ‘Oh yeah.’ He looked at it closely

and then he noticed something: ‘There’s

no 43. The 43 is missing.’ He was right.

‘The map would be no good without the

43,’ he said. ‘The 43 is a really useful

route. The 43 goes all the way down the

Holloway Road.’

No, Tristram, no

Three points re Tristram Hunt's speech on schools:

1. Hunt has announced plans for local school commissioners who would oversee all types of state-funded schools."

What is this? Who are these? Who appoints them? What do they do? Why are they better than having local councils? Why are they better than what would be my preference: local council governance with teacher, governor, parent and pupil representation?

2. He has talked up Singapore's education system. Singapore is a very different society, Tristram. The education systems we make, Tristram, are a mixture of being both a reflection of the kind of society we have and the kind of society that education makes. Simple question, Tristram: do you want to live in a society like Singapore?

3. Hunt has talked of the virtue of taking 'oaths'…what does the swearing of oaths do? Well, Tristram Hunt would know about oaths, because he's an MP. MPs swear oaths. So if oaths are a good idea, Tristram would know just how successful MP oath-swearing has been…over, let's say, the last twenty years…On a scale of one to ten, Tristram, how successful has MP oath-swearing been in giving us MPs who are not corrupt, venal and greedy?

New Poem: Gloves

My aunt didn’t have pets but she looked

after two gloves. Indoors, it was no big

deal, we hardly noticed that she sat with

the gloves beside her on the sofa. You’d

sometimes see her patting them or

stroking them. They had their own chair

at the table. When she came to the door

to say goodbye she nearly always had

them sitting folded over her arm. It really

was no big deal. The only time it was

more of a thing was when she came over

to our place. She brought the gloves with

her in a cat basket. When she arrived, she

put the basket down on the floor and slid

the gloves out of the cat basket. They were

with her all the time she was at our house,

then when she went home she eased the

gloves back into the cat basket. The basket

was always on the seat beside her in the

car. As she drove off, we waved to her. I

think there was once or twice I waved to

the gloves.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

New Poem: Dog

When I was a kid, we had a dog that

could wee bubbles. You didn’t have to

feed it anything special - not soapy water

or anything like that. What would happen

is that he just got into a certain kind of

mood and you’d see him wandering about

for a bit, he’d walk round in a circle and

then he would stand very still for a bit

and the bubbles would come out. You

could never tell when he would decide

to do it and you couldn’t make him do it.

It was just when he felt like it. I told my

friends that he could do it but they didn’t

believe me. Then they would come

over and I would say, ‘Jack, wee bubbles!’

but he never would. And even if one of them

came over for sleepovers, he wouldn’t do it.

So none of them believed me when I said

that he did.

New Poem: Hospital

When I was in hospital, once I started to get

better they would let me get up and walk

about. I used to walk out of my ward, and

down the corridors. Bit by bit I was getting

stronger. One time I got to the end of one

corridor I hadn’t walked down before and

there was a ward in front of me. I was

feeling a bit bored so I thought I would

just pop in and have a look. I noticed

that it was very quiet. For a moment I

wondered if everyone in the ward had

died. It was all so still. Instead of walking

out - which is what I should have done -

I went further into the ward. The beds

were all where they normally are, all

along the walls, some with drips or

machines of some kind. None of the

beds were empty but instead of people

in them there were chess pieces. Not

ordinary chess pieces. Human size ones.

They just lay in the beds. Not moving.

Or making any sound. Pawns, knights,

kings, queens and the rest. I thought

that I would be able to figure out some

kind of order to it: kings and queens in

some kind of special beds, or maybe the

pawns would be the nurses or the cleaners

but no, it was nothing like that. It was

just that there were all the different chess

pieces in the beds. Though now I think

about it, I don’t remember seeing a

bishop. There should have been four.

But I don’t remember there being even

one of them.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

New Poem: Curtains

There was a kind of curtain or drape. Well,

two actually. I was wearing a jumper and

pushed myself through the gap between

the two curtains. There had been times when

people wanted to keep the two curtains

closed. They had sewn velcro all down the

edges of the curtains. As I pushed through,

I was attacked by the velcro. It grabbed my

jumper, down the sleeves and across my

chest. I lifted my arm and pulled it down again

quickly but the velcro stuck. The curtain

swelled up around me and into my face. I

turned round and the curtain wrapped me up.

The velcro sealed me in. I wrenched my head

back. The curtain folded over my face. I

felt my feet taking off from the floor. I lay

in mid-air and waited for someone to come

and help me. I thought, if I lie very still, I’ll

be able to breathe through the curtain that

was lying across my mouth. My arms were

tight next to my sides. The less I move, I

thought, the less I’ll need to breathe. I


Thursday, 2 October 2014

New Poem: Running Away

I was in the High Street, late. Just the

street lights. The department store

that isn’t there anymore was up ahead.

One of the doors opened. Someone

came out. And then someone else.

They were naked. And smooth.

Then another one. And another. All

of them naked and smooth. Soon there

were ten or eleven of them. None of

them had hair. Or shoes. And they

weren’t walking. Or running. More like...

sliding. Their arms didn’t bend. Or their

legs. The street lights shone on their

backs. Their faces didn’t move. They

didn’t speak. They had no eyes.

New Poem: White Paint

We turned up in the yard because there

was an ad in the paper. There was a man

there who asked us if we had ever done any

painting before. I said yes. He sent me to

the top of a ladder and on to a plank. It was

high up, under the roof. There was no ceiling.

I had to paint what was the underside of the

roof. There were three of us up there. It was an

empty factory, or a hangar. Our plank was about

seven feet under the roof so we had to paint

above our heads. The man said it was best not

to look down.

It was a hot day, the sun shining on to the roof

outside. It wasn’t just that it was hot doing painting.

The roof was hot. The man said we were toshers.

Just put it on. And get it done. As the paint went on,

the heat made it fume. I could feel it spread out

under my face, into the spaces behind my eyes. It

made me smile. Thick cream paint.

I looked across to the other guys. They were

toshing. I smiled. They smiled. One of them laughed.

Don’t look down, he said. I’m not sure he said

it to me. He may have it said to the other guy. I nodded.

He nodded. There was a day at the beach. The

sand was a million fragments of glass, each

pointing towards my eyes. There was a link between

my eyes and being sick. You could look at

the brightness for so long that it flowed into your

stomach. Light waves making sick waves.

There was a presentation day once and

everyone was told to go on to the platform, shake

hands and get off the platform as quickly as

possible but this boy Jeff, got up there and waved.

He waved to his mates and they all cheered. And

that had been wrong. Jeff was wrong. He had done

a wrong thing. Jeff was wrong to have done that.

The paint was white. The smile was more like a grin

now. Like I had to pull my lips back to make room

for the fumes in my face.

The roof moved. The paint was white. The waves

reached my legs. Milk into a bucket from the cow.

Thick with bubbles. You could paint with milk.

Warm milk with cream. And it’s cream that makes

butter. Shaking it up till it gets thicker. It’s the

shaking that makes it thick.

I had to kneel down. I knelt down. I looked

across to the other guys. One of them was standing.

He had stopped painting. He was standing. I said,

‘Whooo.’ He said, ‘Yeahh.’ I said, ‘I’m kneeling.’ Then

he knelt down too. I said, ‘I’m going to lie down

now. I’m going to lie down.’ I lay down on the plank.

He lay down on the plank too. I looked at the other

guy. He was pressing on. ‘He’s good,’ I said.

He said, ‘Don’t shut your eyes.’ I shut my eyes.