To our neighbour's teenage daughter at No 35 and her friends:
Thank you for the all-night entertainment that we and the other neighbours had the privilege of enjoying from 9pm on Monday 24 June 2013 through to the technicolour vomiting finale at 6am the following morning. I am sure you are keen to read a critical review of your performance, which may be presented to your father upon his return from holiday.
Firstly though, I must congratulate you all on your ability to make such a small gathering of single-celled organisms sound like the social extravaganza of the year.
The opening scene was rather low key; the arrival of a small motley crew of chattering performers, one of whom was sporting hooped earrings large enough for performing sealife to jump through and another who had clearly dressed for the body she mistakenly thought she had. The invitees were armed with an assortment of alcoholic beverages, undoubtedly stolen from their parents' cabinets. The less fortunate hugged self-purchased imports at 1.99 max that would strip the most resistant of industrial paint off walls.
The cabaret gathered a little more pace when two of the crew appeared to have misread the "bring a bottle" request and had drunk a bottle instead before arriving. With arms around each other's shoulders, they proceeded to belt out a rendition of Robert Palmer's "Addicted to Love". As top of the misheard lyrics' chart, "Might as well face it, you're a dick with a glove" only raises a vague chuckle amongst some hearing it for the first time, a groan from those who have heard it umpteen times before and a loud cackle from Mary at No 37.
Unfortunately, this was the only line in the song that they knew; hence reciting it repeatedly until a voice from within the house yelled at them to "shut the f*** up!" This was uttered a millisecond before my partner was about to utter a similar profanity.
Once all inside No 35, the barely audible "thwump, thwump" of base music, excited discourse and the occasional shriek of mirth didn't lend itself much to our amusement, but did offer some reassurance that the troupe would have passed out before midnight. Perhaps a little prematurely, we decided to move away from our first floor vantage point and relax.
Cue the reveller on a moped that had less oomph than an electric toothbrush that needed recharging. Despite this, the owner was clearly proud of his little gadget; so much so that he announced his arrival by riding this motorised pushbike up and down the cul-de-sac like an annoying insect buzzing around one's head, until the in-house guests appeared at the front door.
The inmates of the menagerie temporarily spilled out into the garden - along with the alcohol - and the earlier, relatively controlled banter degenerated into raucous laughter, screaming and an element of discord between a couple of guests. During the bi-directional diatribe, we established the names of the latter guests as being "Bell End" and "Douchebag", both preceded by "Effing".
To complement the drunken melee, the other guests launched into another serenade: "Tell me why I don't like Mondays! Tell me why I don't like Monday-ees!" I could tell them why they weren't going to like bloody Tuesdays either.
It was clear that sleep was some way off, so I decided to take the opportunity to observe this month's super moon that had not been visible previously due to overcast conditions. Instead, I was treated to the half-moon display of a male partygoer, enhanced by the glare of two other neighbours' security lights. I'd like to offer a couple of tips; if you're going to wear the waistband of your jeans at the top of your thighs, at least make sure that your underpants don't resemble a dish rag that's been festering on the side of the sink for weeks. And even if you were called Calvin Klein, why would you want it embroidered on your trollies? I presume this is for the benefit of the police if you forget who you are, where you are and why you're there.
To the lad who decided to fertilise another neighbour's plants: I'd keep it tucked away if I were you, unless you're planning to participate in Channel 4's Embarrassing Bodies.
The disagreement between Effing Bell End and Effing Douchebag had obviously escalated. It was like watching and listening to a couple of toddlers attempting to ward off a swarm of bees, using limited vocabulary - primarily beginning with "f" and "c".
There was an interlude after Act 4 of this outdoor theatre performance when Effing Bell End decided to stumble back indoors, swiftly followed by Effing Douchebag and the rest of the ensemble.
The neighbours at Numbers 33 and 37 benefited most from the remaining acts as the combination of merriment and discord continued behind closed doors until the hurling finale at dawn. By all accounts, 5.99 had gone down, but 25.99 came back up. Lovely. Nothing like a great return on your investment.
Verdict: 0/10 for Social Respect; 10/10 for Social Embarrassment. At least we had the small satisfaction of knowing that this cluster of Amoebas (or Amoebae, whichever "plural" you prefer) probably felt marginally worse the following morning than the rest of the sleep-deprived neighbourhood.
How would you react if you thought that your child's teacher marked their work with little regard for grammatical accuracy, punctuation, spelling or sentence formation? Even worse, what would you do if you thought that the teacher actually removed pages from your child's book because they couldn't be bothered to mark the work? Would you be concerned if you thought that some of the teachers at your child's school allowed the pupils to behave in a disruptive manner, throwing furniture around and being abusive, whilst they took no action to restore order?
It's hard to believe isn't it? But it happens.
Many years ago, my partner hurried through the door from work one evening as though on an urgent mission and waved an A4 sheet of paper in my face.
"You won't believe this," he said, "James* brought this in this morning. It's his 14-year-old son's history homework. Have a read of it and tell me what you think."
The typewritten piece was headed, "The Murder of Thomas Becket" and was probably the best part of the entire piece. The font used was Arial size 16, so it was not necessary for a great deal to be written in order to fill the page.
The 250 word essay was full of glaring grammatical errors, too numerous to mention. There were full stops in the middle of sentences and none at the ends. Likewise with commas, which appeared to have been used in place of full stops. Nevertheless, very few of these errors had been corrected by the teacher despite the fact that, as it stood, much of the composition did not make sense.
The third "sentence" began, "But after six f***ing years Thomas Becket came back..."
Now, when I was at school, language like that, particularly in written homework, would have resulted in a trip to the headmaster's office, if not temporary suspension from school. However, this lad's teacher had simply circled the "f" word and written, "See me" in the margin. This boy is dead meat, I thought.
When I reached the end of this painful piece of illiterate twaddle, I felt acutely embarrassed for the boy. Was the work even worthy of a mark and what criticism was the teacher going to make?
My partner laughed at me as he watched my reaction. My jaw dropped open in synchrony with extreme widening of my eyes, to form a fixed expression of astonishment.
The work had been awarded an A2, the top possible mark being A1. On the opposite side of the page to the circled mark, the teacher had written the following comments:
"Good effort Edward* (despite the swear word!) You have got most of the facts right. Some grammatical errors to check over though."
The odd thing was that this teacher hadn't highlighted many of the grammatical errors. She'd penned in some quotation marks and given some nouns a capital letter, but it almost appeared as though she had skimmed through the piece at great speed, only picking up on the "f" word, which leapt out of the page and would have hit even the most indifferent and bored person in the face.
How is a child going to learn if you comment on errors that need to be looked at and then fail to highlight exactly what these are?
By the above standards, I imagine that in order to gain a B2, all a pupil would need to do need to do would be to write his or her name at the top of the paper and not necessarily correctly either.
You only need to look at the manner in which so many children speak these days, to question what they are actually being taught in school. It seems to have become acceptable to say, "you was" instead of "you were", "we done" instead of "we did" or "could/should/would of" instead of "could/should/would have" and makes me wonder whether the teachers bother to correct a child's English, since these youngsters almost certainly write in the same style that they speak.
I agree that education begins at home and yet when children spend a large percentage of their week in the school environment, surely it is a teacher's duty to try to encourage and maintain certain standards of spoken and written English amongst their pupils.
What on earth is happening to our education system? More importantly, on what basis are these so-called teachers being employed? Do they need to be able to speak English correctly themselves and is it necessary for them to be articulate? Or do they simply need to have the fundamental qualifications and the ability to work through a curriculum automaton-fashion?
If the pupils manage to grasp the concept, albeit loosely, of what is being taught, then that is possibly just a bonus.
Maybe this apathy is simply a sign of the times? How do you, for example, teach children who don't want to be taught? Is this a regional disease, or is it a national problem?
One ex-teacher to whom I spoke used to work at a local secondary school where, she says, most of the pupils were "no-hopers". She even admitted to having "ripped pages out of their exercise books when I couldn't be bothered to read their essays. They were so thick that most of them probably wouldn't even have remembered having completed an assignment, so it didn't really matter. It only worked until you reached the centre page though, after which it became a little more obvious when the pages in the front of the book began falling out!" She threw her head back and roared with laughter, whilst I was thinking how lucky my children were that she didn't teach at the school they attended.
I asked her why, if the pupils were no-hopers, did they even bother turning up for school? Wasn't there a high truancy rate? She explained that school was somewhere for many of them to go and behave in a disorderly manner because, she said, their parents didn't want them at home.
When I showed her the aforementioned piece of history homework, she said, "That's because schools are finding it hard to recruit teaching staff, so their standards have dropped and they are prepared to take on practically anybody who is willing to teach."
She went on to say that because the pupils were such imbeciles, the only way that she managed to get through the working day was to keep her head down and leave the pupils to their own devices; throwing chairs around, swearing and behaving like wild animals. She said that these days, if you so much as looked at one of these kids in a certain way, they would report you for abuse, so if you wanted to avoid harassment you simply had to accept that you were going to be treated like a punch bag.
This particular teacher, who was still only in her forties at the time, took early retirement as a result of stress-related ill health, precipitated by working at this school. She said that the only way that the other teachers at this school managed to cope was by taking a day or two off sick every week.
I decided to take a look at the Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education) report for this school, which fell well below the national average for achievement, behaviour and attendance. It was recognised, however, that the children's "backgrounds, attainment on entry, parental apathy or other external factors were insurmountable stumbling blocks to raising achievement."
I believe that lack of discipline is a key problem area. If teachers allow themselves to be intimidated by troublemaking pupils, for fear of reprisal if they take positive action to reprimand the culprits, the situation can only continue to deteriorate. Does this also apply to homework too I wonder? Maybe the teacher who marked the piece of work highlighted at the beginning of this article felt she had to tailor her comments and marking level in order to avoid an act of vengeance.
I realise that this is not representative of all schools, but how long will it be I wonder, before this delinquency becomes a national disease? Even in the more affluent sectors and higher achieving schools, a large percentage of children could probably name all the entrants in the most recent series of X-Factor and achieve high scores on computer games, yet be unable to faultlessly recite their times' tables, or string more than two words together in an intelligible manner.
When my youngest daughter was at primary school, she frequently used to bring home notices and newsletters that were littered with typos and grammatical errors. Much to her horror, I used to mark these and return them to the school in her bag. However, she was not afraid to point our errors to the teachers herself - and often did so.
I am certain that there are many competent teachers in this country - and my daughter has the benefit of such teachers at her current secondary school - but there are also many parents who could no doubt do a better job of educating their children at home. With increasing numbers of pupils per class, lack of individual attention and declining standards, is it any wonder that more parents are choosing to opt out of the state education system in favour of teaching their children in the home environment?
*Names changed to protect identities
I regurgitate this article every year, because although it was written in 2000, little has changed (in our household at least) except the age of my daughter.
I'll be frank. Most men hate shopping. That is, unless they are searching for some sort of power tool for themselves.
An example of male enthusiasm linked to power tools was when my other half breezed excitedly into our home office brandishing his latest gadget-like purchase. At the time, I was sitting gazing at a blank PC screen searching for inspiration, which arrived instantly in the form of a Bosch Router.
"Look at this!" he enthused, as he waved this heavy metal object menacingly above my head. "Remember me telling you about how I wanted an edging tool, so that I could get a nice profile on the borders of furniture, like this desk for example?" he said, running his middle finger across the perimeter of his recent creation and then swiftly removing it when the razor-sharp edge sliced through his flesh.
"Well, now that I've got this, I can do that," he gushed, as I ducked to avoid this now identified flying object swooping precariously past my cranium, whilst he gave a charades' type demonstration of the action that one would employ when using such a contraption.
Mention the words B&Q, Do-It-All, Homebase and, above all, power tools and his face lights up like a Halloween pumpkin. Mention any other type of shopping, for anyone other than himself and his features contort into an expression on a par with someone who's just stepped, barefooted, into a pile of dog excrement.
Naturally, from a man's point of view, Christmas is the worst time of year to engage in the tedious pastime of shopping, not just for one person, but for a miscellaneous assortment of friends and relatives. Most of these you only hear from once a year via a brown paper package containing a hand-knitted garment that makes you itch uncontrollably.
This loosely-woven home-knit is generally a ferret-coloured sweater that would fit a cross between an anorexic chicken and monkey, sent with much love from someone with a name like Auntie Ivy, who always has stale, tea breath, who wears Eau-de-Skunk perfume and whose Orangutan lipstick overflows the outline of her lips and invades the rest of her face in a haphazard pattern. Oh, and she always seems to forget that you've matured somewhat, mentally and physically, since you were a mere six-years-old.
As far as men are concerned, Christmas shopping is best left until an hour before closing time on Christmas Eve. This is the "panic and buy anything for the sake of having to" hour and trying to secure the best of what is remaining on the spartan shelves.
The tacky choice generally includes a cellophane wrapped set of Lavender fragranced talc and bath cubes, a pair of musical Santa socks, a window candle arch with two faulty bulbs and a Popular Christmas Songs' album, by some obscure artist sporting a coat hanger grin, Grecian 2000 hair and a diamond-patterned pullover.
The only time that my partner enjoys the shopping experience as a couple, is when we visit select underwear stores, allowing him to sidle off and rifle lustfully through the transparent lingerie and waggle his fingers through the gap in crotchless panties. When shopping as an attached man, he can conduct himself in this manner without question. Unaccompanied, he would give the impression of either being a pervert or of harbouring a secret fetish for cross-dressing.
Last year, accompanied by our one-year-old daughter, we visited a shopping mall in Bristol to "tentatively" search for some Christmas gifts. Led by my "has to be in control all the time" partner, we skirted past 101 women's clothes' shops before I barely had time to drool longingly through the window at some over-priced, flirtatious little number, as it hung perfectly from some unbelievably stick-like, sullen-looking plastic dummy. And no, I don't mean Posh Spice.
Suddenly, without prior warning, my beloved quickened his pace to the equivalent of having had a large stick of dynamite lodged up his behind, before veering sharply to the right and cutting across the paths of innocent pedestrians. He must have assumed that I was following, since not once did he glance over his shoulder to check that I was trotting dutifully behind.
Darting in and out of a bustling crowd of people, who all seem to be travelling at right angles to you, is not so much of a problem when you are not weighed down by any sort of baggage. However, when you have a mind-of-its-own pushchair and a large, golfing umbrella that has a habit of piercing unsuspecting victims in the nether regions, life becomes a tad more difficult.
After playing skittles with the pushchair and mobile human targets and ruining a nice young man's reproductive capacity with my umbrella spike, I spotted my eager sidekick disappearing into a store that had "The Gadget Shop" emblazoned across the entrance.
He spent more time in this store excitedly twiddling with knobs (imagining they were nipples, no doubt) and pushing various buttons, than we did in total looking around the entire mall. After declaring, "I’ve got to get one of these" at least ten times, he announced, "Well, that's about it then. Not really much else here is there?"
"So aren't we actually going to do any Christmas shopping today then?" I enquired.
"No, I think I'll take a day off work in December," he said.
"When, exactly?" I asked.
"Oh, probably Christmas Eve," he replied....
My daughter is in Year 8 at secondary school, has an excellent attendance record and is performing exceptionally well academically. As a testament to her achievements, she has been selected to participate in the BBC School Report feature, due to be screened in March 2013. Since she entered the school in September 2011, she has never taken any time off for holidays or other social events during term time. She also invests a substantial amount of time into completing her homework assignments on weeknights and at the weekends and participating in extra-curricular activities, including helping at fundraising events to support the school.
It was with some optimism, therefore, that my partner and I duly completed the standard form to request a two-day absence for a brief trip to a German Christmas market in the third week of December; the final week of term when most schools are winding down for the festive break and when there are no crucial examinations. We viewed this as an additional opportunity for our daughter to support her education by enabling her to practice her German language skills, in addition to writing a report about how Christmas is celebrated in Germany, which will form part of her BBC School Report project. (Her English teacher was in favour of the visit and specifically asked our daughter to take lots of photos during the trip.)
My partner and I were surprised and disappointed, therefore, to receive a letter from the school (the day after we had submitted the form) stating that our request had not been authorised, along with the standard blurb about a penalty notice and fine being issued should we go ahead and take the holiday anyway. Interestingly, we also received a similar letter through the post that was intended for another family at the school who had requested time off for their two children to attend a farm show. This request had been authorised, although the family won't have been aware of the decision because their letter was sent to our address in error.
Whilst I appreciate that schools are not legally obliged to grant the statutory 10 days per year and it is down to the discretion of the headteacher, it is important to point out that parents are unable to make an equal judgement over teaching training days that take place during term time, or Assessment Days when children are given the day off.
I understand that where a child is struggling academically, or has a poor attendance record, then it is perfectly reasonable for a holiday request to be declined, but this is certainly not the case with our daughter. She is also more than capable of catching up on any crucial work that she may have missed in this "wind down" week.
In March 2012, the Daily Mail published a scathing article about a headmaster at a school in Telford who took a two-week holiday during term time whilst he turned down parents' requests for holiday leave and fined them 100 pounds sterling. Naturally, the school attempted to defend the actions of the Head, but it did seem as though it was a case of one rule for teachers, another for parents and children.
Upon receipt of the letter, my partner duly phoned our daughter's school and spoke to the assistant headteacher who had made the decision. When my partner asked her if she could explain why she classed a visit to a farm show as an "exceptional circumstance" when they had turned down an educational trip to Germany, she could not answer. In fact, she did not have a reasonable argument for any of the points that my partner put to her - very eloquently I might add. Despite her weak stance, this teacher refused to back down, so my partner informed her that from now on we would take a different view about our daughter's active involvement in extra-curricular activities and would be taking the holiday anyway.
My partner later commented that our daughter's excellent English skills were attributed more to my homeschooling efforts than the teachers' abilities at her previous school, which frequently sent home notices and newsletters that were littered with spelling and grammatical errors. On one occasion, our daughter had to tell the teacher that one of the words on her spelling test list was incorrect. Had she not informed the teacher of this, our daughter's correct spelling of the word would inevitably have been marked as incorrect. Bearing this in mind, children do not always miss out educationally when they are absent from school.
Over the past few days I have communicated with numerous parents who have been in a similar situation, but who went ahead and took the holiday regardless. Some of the parents phoned the school on the first day of absence to say that their children were ill, whereas others were happy to have "unauthorised absence" noted on their children's reports.
It appears to me that denying these requests seems to be a pointless exercise and is almost certainly an attempt to obtain a good Ofsted report than a concern about a child's educational welfare.
My friend, author and publisher Shahida Rahman kindly invited me to participate in 'The Next Big Thing' Blog Hop, which gives writers and aspiring authors the opportunity to talk about their next books by answering 10 standard questions. (Thank you Shahida). They then tag other writers who answer the same questions and so on. It's rather like the old chain letters that used to circulate when I was at school (and inevitably still do, although via email and social networking sites these days). It's a wonderful way to become acquainted with other writers and learn about their current projects.
1. What is the working title of your next book?
I'm actually working on three books at the moment as follows:
a) The first is a follow up to my book Chasing Death: Losing a Child to Suicide (published in October 2009) and is entitled Kristian's Heaven: My Death and Life.
b) The second book is being written purely to raise funds for the charity Young Minds and is entitled Chasing Life: Finding the Light.
c) The third book is a novel entitled Grandad Wise.
2. Where did the idea come from for the book(s)?
a) I wanted to write a more positive sequel to Chasing Death and since the glimmer of hope in the first book comes from the chapter on life after death, I could think of no better storyline that a book written from my late son's perspective of watching his family from the spirit world and letting them know, in subtle ways, that he is still around.
b) When I published Chasing Death, I arranged for one pound sterling of every copy sold to be donated to Kidscape, the UK charity dedicated to protecting children from bullying and abuse. I also wanted to be able to contribute to another brilliant charity, Young Minds, so thought that the best way would be to write another book specifically that they could sell directly through their website, enabling them to retain all funds. Clearly the topic of depression and recovery seemed an obvious one; something that would offer hope to sufferers and their families.
c) The basic idea for this book came from my own wonderful relationship with my paternal grandmother and step grandfather. I wanted to show that some of the most beautiful and powerful relationships transcend age and cultural differences and that the most influential and supportive people in our lives aren't always the closest, or even biological, family members.
3. What genre does your book fall under?
a) Fiction (not entirely sure how else this would be categorised))
b) Non-Fiction; Health, Mind and Body
c) Fiction (Teens and Adults)
4. What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
My imagination has been unleashed now. However, this is a difficult one, because actors who would be perfect for the role now will have aged by the time the movies are made. However, assuming the scripts were written and the movies ready to be filmed, I would choose the following:
a) Kristian's Heaven: Kristian would be played by someone like Alex Pettyfer (Stormbreaker and Wild Child) or Oliver Jackson-Cohen (Lark Rise to Candleford). There is no ulterior motive for selecting stunningly good-looking actors of course, other than the main character is based on my late son who was an extremely handsome young man, so the features would need to be similar. Other actors and actresses.......hmmmmmmm.........Helen Mirren is fabulous; I am certain she would fit in somewhere and perhaps Judy Dench.
c) Grandad Wise: Since the story begins in 1974 and one of the lead characters (Grandad) would be 42, my choice would be any actor who resembles a young Christopher Plummer, since that is the image I had in mind when imagining Grandad's appearance. This character is also born in 1929, the same year as Christopher Plummer, so I suppose that when the story concludes in 2013, he could play the part of Grandad without the need for any prosthetics or special makeup! The young girl (aged 3 at the beginning of the story) would be played by any angelic-looking blonde actress. As a teenager, I would choose Saoirse Una Ronan (Hanna and The Lovely Bones) and Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey) for the part of her teacher at Grammar School. (Brief pause whilst I drool pathetically). With the other characters, it would probably be a case of taking younger actors and ageing them artificially as the story progresses, with the exception of the characters who are already older at the beginning. I suppose I would have to kill some of them off before the end of the story!
5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
a) Kristian's Heaven is written in the voice of a young lad who took his own life and, from the spirit world, is watching his family piece their lives back together, whilst seamlessly addressing the countless "Whats, Whys, Wheres and Hows?"; questions that plague a survivor's mind following the loss of a loved one to suicide.
b) A book that offers hope and comfort through personal stories of depression and recovery, along with invaluable (and achievable) strategies for parents on building a child's self-esteem, identifying a child's learning type (multiple intelligences), dealing with bullying and communicating with teenagers.
c) Things aren't always as they seem and karma are the underlying themes of Grandad Wise; a book of dark secrets and surprising twists and turns, which focuses on a young girl's heartwarming relationship with her grandfather; her tireless guide and saviour in an otherwise tumultuous world.
6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
My obvious choice would be my current publisher Shahida Rahman at Perfect Publishers Ltd. As an author herself who understands the pitfalls of publishing, Shahida offers an exemplary service to other writers, not to mention 100% royalties. This has certainly enabled me to raise more funds for charity in a short space of time than would have been possible had I chosen a mainstream publisher. I am not sure whether there would be any additional benefits from being represented by a Literary Agent, but am always open to offers of course!
7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
All the manuscripts are current works in progress. At this stage, I cannot say how long it will take to complete the first drafts. I am not a 9 to 5 writer. My greatest inspiration comes when I am engaged in other tasks, so my notepad and pen are permanent companions - wherever I am! Some of my best ideas come from my dreams.
8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
I suppose that the only book I have read that is vaguely similar to Kristian's Heaven is The Lovely Bones, although the situations in the book are completely different. As far as the other books are concerned, I'm not sure. I am so enthused by the concepts that I haven't felt the need to compare them to anything else that may be on the market. Any such comparisons may stifle my creativity in an attempt to make them completely different.
9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?
a) Kristian's Heaven is simply a follow on from Chasing Death, which I was prompted to write after losing my son to suicide in November 2002.
b) Again, my son Kristian was the ultimate inspiration behind this book, because had it not been for his suicide then I would probably not have written a book about depression, or strongly felt the need to help a charity committed to improving the emotional wellbeing and mental health of children and young people.
c) Same answer as question 2c.
10. What else about the book might pique the reader's interest?
I believe that all three books will elicit a gamut of emotions in the reader, with elements of "Woah! I never expected that!" Each book covers highly sensitive and moral issues, whilst also providing inspirational quotes and strategies to live by. The aim is that each reader becomes absorbed and takes something positive from the words within.
I'd now like to introduce you to some fabulous fellow authors and friends who have so kindly agreed (not under duress I trust) to participate and give you a glimpse into their creative world.