‘I didn’t get where I am today by telling the truth.’

Have you ever noticed a person disappear while they are talking to you?

You enter the school office in the morning; your child has a massive splinter. Ask the ladies behind the desk for tweezers. You expect them to try to get the splinter out before the register; give the lamb some sympathy. But you haven’t read the risk assessment for splinters.

The lady behind the desk – normally pleasant and helpful – leans back in her office chair away from the glass; doesn’t want to see the sharp bit of dirty wood lodged in your daughter’s finger.

‘School tweezers are not sterilised therefore we can’t allow you to use them I’m afraid.’

‘But it hurts.’

‘I’m afraid we are not permitted to use non-sterile equipment because of the risk of infection involved. If you like I can fetch the designated first-aider on the team, but she would say the same thing. ‘

‘Can I use the school tweezers please?’

‘I’m afraid our policy is not to hand out non-sterilised equipment. Why don’t you use your teeth’

‘The human mouth is full of bacteria.’

‘We are not allowed to hand out non-sterilised equipment.’

‘For goodness sake!’

I try to make it a joke, meet the eyes of the other parents and staff. Out of seven people, no one looks back at me. The lady’s tone is beginning to change: I am one of those difficult parents.

I know it’s just a splinter, but the feeling of a person abandoning their sympathy and common sense, relying on the language of PowerPoint, online training and statutory documents agitates me.

It happens a lot. I must have done it myself on the odd parent’s evening. The queue of parents is long. One particular person is asking difficult questions about what the assessments are testing them for; how exactly their child can move up to the top set; why they didn’t get an ‘A’. I might have reeled off the phrases thrown around in department meetings about ‘progress targets’, ‘interventions’ and ‘value added’ without giving real thought to the worried father or mother in front of me, their particular child. I can’t remember anything specific, but why would I? Spouting jargon, not bothering to think, is easily forgotten.

What about if I worked in a job centre? Would I think about every single person in front of me, respond honestly to other human beings?  (Or ‘queries from customers’ as the jargon would have it.)

Would I truly think about the people in front of me if I happened to be a nurse, GP, police officer, prison guard? Or would I hide behind jargon?

George Orwell described the phenomena in Politics and The English Language (1946):

“..one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine.”

And again in 1984:

“..his spectacles caught the light and presented to Winston two blank discs instead of eyes. What was slightly horrible was that from the stream of sound that poured out of his mouth, it was almost impossible to distinguish a single word.”

Orwell says we hide behind official language; we also allow it to infect our thoughts, until we become more like machines working than people responding. A child with a splinter becomes a potential risk for which the organisation is not insured; mass murder, torture and incarceration become a purge.

People naturally hate jargon. That’s why comedy so often points out the absurdity of official language – Yes Minister, The Thick of It, The Office, The Britass Empire. You can think of more. A teacher I once worked with, who took it upon himself every year to organise interesting school trips, changed every use on the shared risk assessment form of the word ‘public’ to ‘pubic’; waited to see if anyone spotted it, then gave up and told other members of staff about his gag – risking getting into trouble for the satisfaction of laughing at the stupid convoluted language we all did our best to ignore.

Jargon is offensive. Relying on jargon is the first step towards losing yourself in an ideology. And, with an ideology, as Solzhenitsyn explains, a person can do terrible things:

“Yes, even Iago was a little lamb too. The imagination and the spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology.”

The Gulgag Archipelago (1973)

Cloaking your thoughts and actions in jargon allows you to get away with behaviour you’d rather not name; speaking and thinking in jargon confuses your ability to think for yourself. Jargon, therefore, leads to ideology. Justified by an ideology, a person could become a terror.

So I think it’s important to look carefully at splinters, and call them what they are.

Eyeball Computer 4

This week’s instalment – look out for the full novel at Leveller’s Press. And, if you like it, please share ...

 

Suburbs

5

 

That evening Tuesday headed for the border in a secure train with nineteen other medical rejects. All were afraid; all engaged fully with their screens to avoid thinking about what would happen next. With her tongue, Tuesday felt the painful place in her mouth where the implant sat and watched the Fashion Channel. Passing through the western quarter they saw graded blocks, much like those of the southern quarter and the ubiquitous malls. Further to the northwest was the Bluesky Nuclear Facility: a grey monster. They passed a strange area called The Institute: densely packed lab compounds and elite education centres. The buildings included a few ancient elaborately decorated structures, which were still used by senior researchers; these were surrounded by wasteland and high security guarded fences. Beyond were techy blocks: each fifty or sixty stories, their tiny windows shadowed by surrounding buildings. Beyond was the Oxford Gate. It was shorter than the blocks, but thick. Authorised cityzens had to clear seven checkpoints in order to pass in and out of the City. Concrete masts, containing two guards, rose above each checkpoint.

As the train pulled in to the Gate, all screens were disabled. Each young medic listened for their number to be announced. All were focused on the cheery female voice issuing instructions inside their ears. No one even coughed. They were terrified of missing important information. One by one, unwillingly, they left the train to be scanned, registered and issued with kit.

They filed through the first checkpoint. At the second their irises were scanned and their DNA checked. At the third, they ate in the Halfway Canteeen: Betterthanmeat Burgers, with something white and sloppy. At least there was coffee. They were driven in trucks through the final checkpoints, five in each vehicle. All screens were disabled. Only the cheery voice accompanied them. There were patches of silence. The exiles looked at one another. Would someone speak? What could they say? As they passed the final stage, Tuesday turned and watched the blurred blinking green lights of the final road block through the tinted window until they disappeared.

 

6

 

Tuesday finished work on the fourth day long after dark, yet still had to endure the de-contamination process. Her mind felt numb: her first few shifts at the Freshair Hospital blotted out all that had happened in the two weeks leading up to her exile. She passed directly from the ward into a fine shower of chlorine, which coated the Tyvek outer layer. She then entered the safety area, where she removed her outer gear and placed it into an incinerator, guided by the cheerful female voice. All equipment had to be left in this room, which automatically disinfected every five minutes. In the next room, she immersed her naked body in a cold bath. The coolness at first was a relief, until the burning sensation began: caused by disinfectants in the water.

She was then free to dress and eat in the medic’s canteen: labmeat, soy, Perfectfruit. And hot black coffee. The pleasure of coffee had obsessively occupied her mind since she crossed the border: the sustaining bitterness and heat that warmed your insides. If she ever slept peacefully for a few hours, she dreamt of coffee.

She arrived back in her apartment with just enough energy left to remove her clothes and flop on the bed: to dream of the shrivelled half-alive patients. They were dying of a new hemorrhagic fever: bleeding to death on the inside. Solemn bloody eyes watched her in her sleep. She woke sweating. The temperature in these apartments was not well regulated. But she never opened the window; the scent of burning human flesh floated in the air around the hospital at night.

 

Eyeball Computer 3

Part three of Eyeball Computer – Tuesday finds herself in a shuttered shop on The Edge in a dentist’s chair… If you like it, share it. The full novel available to buy soon from Leveller’s Press

 

4

 

At the end of that final day of work she left the hospital and boarded the tram. There was no need to stop to buy sleepers today. Exhaustion had already begun to envelop her. She closed her eyes, so that all she could see was the screen. Floating to the right of her dark vision was the news – drones had destroyed an important Southern air base, the Suburbs were experiencing another smallpox epidemic that posed no danger to immunized cityzens. She switched channels – a documentary about the triumphs of geo-engineering – the famous old footage of the first engineered ice-cap being lowered. She floated peacefully on the water realizing too late that she was sinking, breathing ice. Terrified and coughing, she woke up. Some commuters glanced over curiously.

She fell into bed when she got in and did not wake until the screen reactivated at seven the next morning.

Her neck hurt. Her head ached. She moved gently to see how bad it was. She noticed her uniform, unwashed on the floor. She was meant to have returned it the night before, after work. She would need to take it back, so she could collect another before leaving for the Suburbs. The handwritten notes were inside. They had to be destroyed. She would have to explain the late return and the hole she had made in the lining of the right shoulder.

She set out a little later wearing the bright outfit she had chosen while on a Joy trip: silver leggings projecting vintage clips from children’s cartoons, the pink shoes and a bright yellow smock. An outfit appropriate for clubbing. She held the two notes tightly crumpled inside her fist.

While on the tram, an alert that she had programmed informed her that her stop was next. But she didn’t move. She surprised herself. She didn’t get off at that stop, or the next. The tram began to empty of professionals, who worked mainly in the centre of the City. She had been taught at the Academy that this great City had once been the capital of England – an impoverished ex-industrial state. To liberate the place from its savage history and to indicate its key status at the heart of the Nation, The Corporation had simply, and poetically, re-branded it the ‘City’. The Corporation now based most of its lab work and financial offices here. So the luxury enjoyed by all professional inhabitants – high tech apartments, lifetime gym membership, etcetera etcetera– depended on the wealth generated by this great metropolis. Every cityzen, techy and professional alike, feared relocation to the Suburbs above almost anything else.

Her tram passed the strange old short frilly buildings by the river used as an administrative centre by The Corporation. A few high-level governors got off. Now, the only people left were herself and a cleaning technician with a face mask who hummed to an old cheesy number playing on his screen – ‘Suckin Tits’. The music video to this was predictable but a favourite with men of all ages.

The first stop across the river was the end of the line. She stepped out behind the techy, who doggedly began to hoover the street, still swaying to his music.

She now knew she had a plan, but was too scared to think about it clearly. She climbed steps, which led to the Southern Train Hub. After a quick coffee in the station, making eye-contact with the ticket machine, she boarded a train for the southern edge of the City and the sea. The train flew. She could make out shapes as they flashed past. Rows of high rise apartment blocks were seemingly endless. Close to the river there were the luxury blocks: sleek blue with tinted windows and verdant irrigated roof-gardens. Further on, E-block South was dingier with smaller windows. Some rubbish lay in the streets here: dragged about at night by foxes and seagulls. V Block and beyond were for technicians. Some of these were the remnant of the first wave of high rises from over a hundred years before. The old ones had bits missing and were well known to be extremely flammable. The outer-most, half-vacant, blocks were densely packed between warehouses, recycling plants and other industrial buildings. Almost no light could get through their windows. Decaying piles of rubbish swarmed with fighting squawking seagulls. At regular intervals through the whole City, short fat shopping malls spread out their limbs between the high rises, their rooftops flashing with advertising.

As the train sped, she watched the Reality Channel. D8 mixed close-up shots of couples on dates with commentary offered by celebrities and psychiatrists who specialised in sexual behaviour.

Abruptly she reached the end of the line. Having left the train, she drifted along by the sea next to tram tracks, which separated the City from the waves. The pavement opposite her was lined with filthy crumbling shops that The Corporation used as outlets: strip clubs, kebab bars, and Drugsmarts. Techies came here for pleasure. And there were also a few dance clubs, frequented by wild young professionals.

Her screen played footage of a shadowy couple in a hotel room. The man ravenously licked something from between the woman’s thighs. A psychiatrist’s face – ‘in many species the male uses courting rituals to prepare the female for intercourse. This couple choose to re-invigorate typical foreplay with a delicious fruit flavoured sugar-free gel form of Joy, which can be safely spread anywhere and is proven to have zero side effects!’ Tuesday turned the volume down and continued her walk, attempting to focus on what was around her.

On sale in The Edge from offies – small outlets that also sold drinks and drugs – was sugar in thousands of colourful forms. Professionals avoided sugar. They were fastidious over their health and appearance. But most techies were flabby, or obese; the older ones possessed incomplete sets of yellow and black teeth. She never looked at techies if she could help it. Their ugliness made her nervous. The techies themselves acted as if professionals didn’t really exist.

Waves lapped old pavement slabs about six feet below the level of the street, which decades before had been raised up by concrete injection, to save the Edge from the rising sea. A low concrete wall separated the street from the sheer drop. Emerging from the water, slightly out to sea, were the skeletons of rotten buildings – girders and breezeblocks. Rubbish swirled on the yellow foam. Socks, microwaves, ancients pieces of useless cars, food packages lay stranded on the concrete, until waves picked them up again.

She had been here once before, as a teenager. She and some other girls from the top science set had been given permission to spend the afternoon collecting samples for a project they were doing in Ecology, looking at ways in which ocean salinity levels could be adjusted. They needed a sample of local sea water.

A memory came back to her that had affected her deeply. What had made most impression was not the sea water. She had been staring at the shop fronts, fascinated by the squalor, and noticed a techy leaving a strip club. He was still zipping up his trousers, the fat on his belly and neck wobbled uncontrollably as his t-shirt rode up while he had a coughing fit. She remembered her youthful outraged revulsion. Until that point her ideas about sex had been uncomplicated. They were taught from when they were very young that sex was natural: a healthy way to get pleasure. At the Academy they had been allowed to watch porn: digitally finessed celebs of various genders grasping, sucking, coming. The clips at first made her feel odd: curious and afraid. Other girls whispered and giggled. But, for all of them, the strangeness quickly wore off. Sex became what it was: an animal function, which could be exploited for pleasure. Something to approach creatively but safely, with protection, in the appropriate setting. But the sight of that ugly techy had disturbed her young mind. Why did he engage in sex? What did he look like when he came? Reproduction was not the point. Trained techies bore babies. But the sight of him had made her question the beauty of non-reproductive sex. Why do it at all? Who would ever do it with him? Those obscure questions resurfaced now.

She also remembered that she had looked out into the distance while collecting the water samples. She remembered that seeing nothing, apart from her screen, the brown sky and the waves, had made her long to run back to the Academy. The other girls had also seemed keen to get away, so no one wasted any time on the way home.

Now she looked out to sea again. It was boring. The expanse of greenish yellow water made her conscious how small she was. She allowed herself sadness. She wanted to swim in her emotion. Where was he now?

She took out the notes and pretended to cough into them. ‘S99, 769 the Front’. This was definitely the Front – the last street on The Edge. Where were the numbers on the buildings? She was afraid to stand still and search for them. She kept going, not wanting to seem lost: that would look strange and could prompt an attack from a techy, though attacks were rare, as the guards showed techies no mercy. What could easily happen, though, would be techies noticing her tight leggings and leering, laughing, studying her bottom. She wanted to avoid such humiliation on her last day at home.

She threw quick glances at the buildings trying to spot numbers. A few were visible, painted long ago. Inner-City signs were digital and changed with the weather, the time of day and who happened to be passing.  Painted numbers were hard to read. She was sweating and coughing, though the air here was gentler than in the centre. She noticed 640 above an ofie, shortly after 643 above a kebab bar. She started to count the shops walking more slowly, so she didn’t miss any. She spotted 720. Her hands trembled. She straightened herself and kept going until what had to be the correct building stood across the tram tracks from her. The windows were covered with ancient metal sheets pulled down years before by some techy, to protect the outlet at night. Thick layers of rust now welded the shutters in place. Animals had spread curry smeared food packets in the street outside. Giant seagulls fought over them. The bricks were stained with urine and something blacker. She hesitated.

But she couldn’t just stand there. And she couldn’t return to the centre without knowing why he had sent her here. She crossed. She would certainly attract attention. Guards could pick her up at any moment and take her back for a psychological assessment.

As she set foot on the other side, a shadow moved across the edge of her vision, obscured by the screen. A hand touched her. She turned around, preparing to be interrogated. In front of her stood a tiny old woman, smiling, wearing a dirty orange techy’s uniform. She led Tuesday inside. The room was dimly lit by small dusty beams of sunlight. Posters on the wall showed faded people with bright teeth and old fashioned brushes. There were two leather sofas with springs exposed. On a low table were piles of magazines, their flimsy pages had been shredded by generations of rodents for nests. Tuesday could still make out an image of a sleek man and woman laughing, holding up an over-dressed infant to the camera: possibly even their own – together! Sudden banging outside made her jump.

‘It’s ok it’s just the gulls.’

The tiny woman’s fine features indicated that she possessed a percentage of Asiatic DNA. Her thick skin was intricately wrinkled: she looked like an apple Tuesday had once seen on a hospital greenhouse tree in winter, forgotten, withered on the branch.  Tuesday made herself smile.

‘Come this way.’

The woman turned and walked through a doorway. She moved quickly. Tuesday followed. They turned into a room totally flooded with sunlight. There was a broken glass ceiling. A bird’s nest rested on the few remaining panes. Bird shit had dripped on to the floor beneath. A long chair with a reclining back was pushed against the wall on the other side, away from the mess. Beside it on a steel table were carefully arranged antique dental instruments. Tuesday studied them with an experienced eye.

‘Don’t worry I trained as a dental technician. The sterilizer works: we have a generator.’

‘What are you planning to do to me?’

‘This won’t hurt.’

‘Excuse me?’

‘Just lie down.’

Why should she? The frail old techy couldn’t hurt her. She could easily escape with a little force. But she couldn’t. Any disturbance would be investigated. Her DNA would be traced. She would be assessed and probably diagnosed as deranged. She was even beginning to doubt her own mental health. And any psychological assessment carried with it the threat of relocation; in the most extreme cases it meant transfer to a deranged ward.

‘What are you going to do to me?’

The tiny woman paused, ‘Green did send you?’ Tuesday’s fright had made the woman begin to worry that she had dragged the wrong one in.

‘Yes.’ Hearing Green’s name weakened Tuesday’s suspicion. She felt a sudden urge to comfort the little old techy – to take away her fear.

‘Lie back and think of something that makes you very happy.’

She got into the chair and focused on her screen – sweaty professionals lifting weights, drinking energy drinks. Dancing all night…she looked up at the underside of the nest and listened to the skreek-ing of seagull chicks.

‘Open wide. You will just feel a tiny prick.’

A sharp jabbing needle entered her upper left gum. She jerked her head away. She would have sworn, but there were no obscenities in her professional dialect.

‘Sorry sweetie you need a local anaesthetic and we don’t have the latest kit.’

‘I consume no sugar and use a laser cleaning system. Professionals receive free dental cover anyway.’ She gave up.

‘This won’t take long.’

Tuesday looked at the equipment in fear. The old woman said nothing: clearly worried about security. Any conversation could, in theory, be recorded by the chip. Understanding this with horror, Tuesday decided that, sometimes, it is best to hide from the authorities. Part of this new thought was knowing how difficult it is to hide anywhere. She felt terribly helpless, like a lame animal who smells a predator.

The dentist worked on the numbed left side of her mouth. Tuesday felt scraping. The nimble fingers attached something to her molar and screwed it tight. They began to pull.  It was hard to understand how a small ageing person could exert such force. Tuesday began to worry that some other parts of her might come away with the tooth. She remembered how close grey matter is to the roof of the mouth. She wailed.

‘Keep your mouth open wide! And for goodness sake, sweetie, shush!’

Tuesday closed her eyes. At last, the pulling stopped. She opened her eyes to see her own tooth, forked and dripping gore, lifted aloft. She sensed a gaping bloody chasm where it had been but did not dare explore it with her tongue.

Her tormentor beamed, neatly flipped the tooth around and held it up to inspect the chewing side.

‘There’s the blighter.’

Was that an outdated dental term? Tuesday watched the dentist collect a tiny pointed probe from the table and a pair of tweezers. She forced the probe deep inside the tooth and twisted. Parts came away. She then inserted the tweezers and pulled out a metal tube the size of a grain of rice. The tiny dentist sang happily to herself as she placed the tooth into a waiting dish. Then she put the tube into a bag and showed it to Tuesday. Tuesday looked at her chip. It seemed that a part of her had been removed, though her screen and audio were still playing, (her eye and ear connected via Wi-Fi). Sun streamed through the open ceiling. The chip gleamed. Tuesday remembered that they had all been put to sleep by nursery mothers before their first trip to the dentists, after they grew the adult molars. She felt a vague sense of betrayal remembering how they had reassured her.

There was a lamp attached to the table and a thick circular magnifying lens. The dentist inspected the chip under the lens, murmured to herself, drew paper and pen from an inside pocket and began to write. Tuesday was curious – she had never seen anyone write with a pen.

She passed Tuesday a scrap of paper, which read: ‘I have the code. When the time comes, just type this code into your palm, followed by your ID number and then these four extra digits. Remember, we must not deactivate until we have been contacted in writing by another void detailing the time and place, mentioning the code word ‘silentseagull’. Mass deactivation is the only possible solution. And the silence will be worth the wait. Believe me sweetie…’  Beneath these words were the magic numbers.

In her distress and confusion, Tuesday followed these instructions immediately, though she was supposed to just memorise the numbers. The dentist was visibly shocked and distressed; true voids did not behave recklessly. For Tuesday, the room went blank. She could still see: her eyes told her that she was in the same place. She coughed to make sure that she could still hear. But, everything was suddenly utterly quiet. She did not like the silence. Her screen and her audio had simultaneously stopped.

 

 

 

 

Half an hour later, she walked shakily back to the Edge Train Hub. Running her tongue around and around a bloody wodge of stuff the dentist had used to stem the blood. Anaesthetic and shock made her dizzy. She was confused by perceiving a full field of vision. The sky was immense!

She was in danger. A guard could spot her and pick her up for intoxication.

Hidden inside her sleeve, carefully wrapped, was a new false tooth, which contained her old chip. The false tooth could be slotted in, or removed, later that same day: once the wound had partially healed. In the meantime, the chip would transmit to her eye and ear anyway from close range. The dentist had urged her to reactivate immediately, but she had run away before reactivating it. The note with the necessary codes was crumpled inside her fist, along with Green’s letters.

Reacting to Tuesday’s foolish behaviour, the dentist had written more instructions on a second piece of paper, which she had then destroyed. She wrote that Tuesday ‘simply must reactivate the chip for cover’ and reassured her that ‘when the day came’ she could ‘throw it into the sea where its signal will be lost forever.’ With a reverential expression on her face, the dentist had added ‘we are the Void and we fight for silence.’ But Tuesday didn’t understand and couldn’t see why anyone would ever want to throw their chip into the sea. Without replying, or doing as she was told, she had bolted.

She paused, struggling to focus her naked right eye. She took one last look at the waves. An emptiness faced her that she had always known, but never been forced to inhabit before now. She could hear mocking seagull’s cries. Rusted bits of buildings, almost submerged by high tide, glittered: oblivious to the waves that were gradually grinding them down into meaningless sand. She turned away and walked – as steadily as she could – to the hub, trying to focus on the tasks she had to complete before her relocation.

 

Eyeball Computer 2

Here is the second instalment of my novel. If you like it, please share it. The whole thing will be available soon from Levellers Press.

 

2

 

   During the week leading up to the final review, the junior’s mind continued to plan her impressive position at the City Hospital. She imagined herself mentioning her new role casually to other professionals. She wondered whether she would still eat alone in Solefood. But she slept badly. She would wake from nightmares crawling with the live embryonic tissues used in genetic training, or one of the unspeakable viruses that she had heard were common in the Suburbs. When she woke, she was afraid. She had to get up in the grey light, re-check the locking system and oxygen levels before lying down again, still afraid. She began to take sleepers, which she bought in the Drugsmart on the way back to her student apartment. In the day she focused on work with forced energy.

She passed the exam easily. Her review followed immediately, in the Consultant’s Common Area with its bizarre dusty old unhygienic leather armchairs and flaky images of unsmiling dead officials in antique costume. She waited all afternoon for details of her appointment to the City Hospital.

Later that day, everything fell to pieces. She immediately messaged a query and received personal confirmation, from K herself, that there was no mistake. She would be spending the first phase of her career in the suburban Freshair Hospital. To be transferred out of the City was a fate normally reserved for medics who had barely passed the exam. They were useful there: disposing of contaminated corpses; limiting the damage caused by rampaging gangs with ancient and modern weapons. She was assured she would be given appropriate protection: an infection proof medisuit and a guarded apartment. It was even possible she could return for a level two post, after a short quarantine period. But she would be leaving her specialism. Psychiatry, a discipline that commanded respect and that she found endlessly fascinating, was out of the question in future.

The next day she arrived early at the hospital, when the sun did not burn and the air did not grate. She had only three days left to work here; one day after that to pack her things and leave.

She sat on a nearly empty tram. The few commuters were lost in their screens. She had cried during the night – pathetic, like a deranged in the special measures ward. The fragile skin beneath her eyes was vaguely purple.

Her mind, still heavy from an over-dose of sleepers, was absorbed in the exuberant chat of the Fashion Channel; she didn’t want to hear the news, especially not of the Suburbs. Voices described the latest creations of artists displayed at the Festival of Fashion – famous erotic dancers discussing the ‘unbelievable sensuality, retro-futurism’ of a bony girl in supersized UV goggles spinning around a parasol crafted from found objects. The teenager rotated her pelvis to an electronic miaow; a tube of silver satin stretched over her anorexic frame projected images of the City, apocalyptic waves, aerial shots of the Suburbs with smoke rising, newscasters, laughing teeth. ‘Wow! A challenging new take on individualism’. Ads – ‘Set your unique beauty free…’ Young climbers scaling a tower – ‘Joy, give your mind a lift…proven to have zero side-effects.’ The positive energising voices comforted her. Some of her earliest memories were of little songs sung at night by the screen – ‘sleeping lamb don’t be afraid, drink your vitz five times a day…’

She smiled, remembering vaguely her nursery mothers who sang the little songs over and over to comfort them at night.

She was trying not to think of the suburban posting. I must be positive. There is so much to hope for; I could study the savages.  She decided to spoil herself, make a date, indulge in some extravagant sensual pleasure. She had credit in her account. She could book a suite until closing, buy some Joy, order room-service, wear no panties in the restaurant – they always liked that.

She stepped into the hospital lobby and realised, next week I will be gone. A few patients might remember her for a while. But the only lasting record of her work would be in the data. She thought with bitterness of the respect commanded by K. Her own ambition was confused now. Her plan to pioneer, to create intricate models of the synapses, would never happen. She was afraid. But, reminding herself focus on the the positive, she began to calculate the number of work hours she would need to complete before returning to the City. She could make use of the Suburbs. She would be in a unique position as a gifted researcher there. If there was a way of studying the multitude of diseases and abnormal mental states that had long been eradicated within the confines of the City. She was young. She could still be great.

Her ward round went as normal. But XR4’s room was empty. She had expected that. The windows of the vacant room remained tinted, deactivated. There was just enough light to make out the shape of a tidy bed and grey chair returned to the correct position.

Her chip had not yet registered his transfer. Maybe the internet was experiencing interruptions, or maybe he had only been transferred in the past few moments, so she was left with five empty minutes. She should have returned to the bright corridor and tuned into hospital news, but she stood there doing nothing in his old room; she remembered the strange comment, which had cost her so much. She wondered why she wasn’t angry. She wondered where he was. Her mind presented many scenarios: in some he was being given a forced drip of mood stabilisers.

The sadness of the week before was still inside her. She recognised it as simple emotional confusion and she saw that it had caused her inability to make basic medical decisions. She stared at his empty bed. Memories weren’t something she wasted much energy on. But, in this emptiness, she thought about the little plastic toys she had played with in her nursery. She remembered herself lining them up on their backs and tucking them in to nap under hygiene wipes. They were all professional figures and it was difficult to lie some of them down, as they were fixed with their arms stretched, poised for work: a manager, a teacher, a fashion model, a fitness professional. There was even a governor with a real miniature digital palm control. The guards were the most difficult, because of their proportionally large weapons and combative postures.

She noticed his blanket pulled unevenly over the pillow. She felt the emptiness of his bed in her gut. She stared as if he might appear from underneath the blanket – like an advert.

She saw a scrap of white sticking out behind the bed and walked over. One, probably filthy, tissue had been neglected by the automatic Cleener and, oddly, by the nurse. It was resting on the screws that attached the bed to the wall. She pulled it with the tips of two fingers. An unused tissue slid out. In tiny script something was written in pen. Who owns a pen? It took her a while to read the spidery letters written in in imitation of digital font to make them legible: MY NAME IS GREEN. FIND ME. Real names were not appropriate in the workplace. Medics and patients certainly did not use names. She was almost dizzy.

She noticed underneath, much more faintly, he had written MY DARLING. Terms like that were used all the time in adverts, and by some enthusiastic lovers during orgasm. But Green must have planned to use exactly those words so inappropriately. He was expressing plain emotion. Emotion he felt for her, regardless of what he could get back for it. She choked with unforgettable sadness, though in that moment she thought she could shrug it off. She had to highlight this.

Her audio beeped. She left the room fast, in fake readiness for the last patient on the round: the one who went on about Extremesport. She knew some staff would be aware of XR4’s transfer, so she regretted the five minutes she spent in the dark doing nothing. All errors were recorded.

 

 

 

 

In Solefood, she drained her cup of Smoovie: ‘a cocktail of vitamin enriched tropical labfruits perfectly designed for the professional’, leaving fibrous lumps at the bottom. The early lunch slot was ending, and other professionals were rising, dropping their packets into the correct bins. She scanned her empty table, feeling that there was something she had forgotten: she hadn’t highlighted Green’s note. It was still crumpled inside her sleeve. But she could never highlight this now: it was negligent to let so much time pass when a potentially dangerous psychotic trait had clearly presented. She dreaded knowing that her poor conduct would be logged. She would keep the note, drop it in the bins outside the Drugsmart on her block, which were emptied frequently.

She walked back to the hospital through boiling streets shrouded in poisonous smog. Indistinct figures filed past, clothed in drab uniforms or bright suits. Some wore masks, but most accepted that they didn’t really purify anything and went bare-faced. People passed wordlessly, plastic figures on a conveyor belt. An un-chipped observer would have heard little apart from the sound of the tram doors and coughing.

She entered the cold white lobby and thought about the note. In the lift on the way up to data offices, her chip switched to work-mode: visuals were disabled; the audio began to transmit hospital announcements, ads and reminders. The lift doors admitted another medic. Was Green being intravenously treated? She wondered if there was a way she could find him. Could she pose a researcher? Of course not: professionals needed specific authorisation for each ward. And all abnormal conduct was logged.

The doors opened. The other medic exited and two orderlies entered, pushing a stretcher. She moved to the corner; feeling impatient as they slowly manoeuvred the bed.  She didn’t want to be late on top of everything else. She turned her face away to conceal any expression. Something touched her hand. Cold fingers? They clasped her thumb lightly. She felt her heart beating. She saw Green lying there, his bloodshot eyes half open. He had a drip in his vein and bruising on the underside of his arms.

The orderlies hadn’t noticed his hand move. She edged backwards until he lost his grip. Painfully, he lifted his head to search for her. She turned away. ‘This patient appears disoriented, please alert his medical team.’ She spoke too loudly. The orderlies stood like a pair of startled lab animals. They couldn’t understand how a medicated old could lift his head so far. It was incredible he could move at all – with that amount of sedative in his blood. One of them had noticed Green’s hand drop. It looked as if the pair had been holding hands.

Looking into her eyes, without reproach, Green said – ‘The short nurse will help you…’

‘Goodbye.’ She spoke to Green and she imagined that her voice expressed no emotion. Then she composed herself to face the orderlies, pretending she had been addressing them. Relief washed over her when, a few seconds later, Green was wheeled out of sight and the doors closed.

 

3

 

On the night before her final day of work, she lay on top of slippery sheets in one of the luxury suites of Dolce Vita. A thin purple satin dressing gown was pulled around her naked body. She shivered in the air from the vent, but didn’t move. Her eyes looked through the window, following the lights of many aircraft. To the right of her vision, the screen played erotic dance: naked male, female and androgynous. They splayed and merged. Their movement was punctuated by adverts for performance or pleasure enhancers. The sound was groans mixing with a teasing sliding melody over a heavy drum beat. She turned it down as low as she was able.

Her date had been a young man barely out of the Academy: an information analyst with aspirations to govern.  He had already left the hotel because he needed to be up ‘bright and early’ for work. Data on food distribution had to be processed the following day using a programme that he had designed. His talk had been about his work – the reduction of waste; the safe and ecological daily transport of produce from the Suburbs. She recognised his ambition and confidence, which set her teeth grinding. It made her miserable, because she knew she possessed the same. But her plans were totally ruined. And she wasn’t sure, anymore, that it mattered what she did. Ideas poured from the boy’s lips like waste water from a drain after a flood. Listening to him had made her dislike herself.

She had tolerated him as they ate curried soy and drank jasmine tea laced with Joy and she had been comforted afterwards by the touch of his sweating body and the sound of his voice saying her real name. Her name was Tuesday, named after the day she was named on, by a nursery mother who had run out of ideas. She sometimes told the men she dated her real name, because it added a certain sweet passing intimacy to the fucking.

Now Tuesday was alone, she wept and told herself to just get over all this pointless emotion. She was grateful no one could see. She felt in her body a sense of grief, though she wouldn’t have been able to call it that. She thought it might be thirst, but knew it wasn’t. She glanced at her uniform: in a pile on the floor. Still pushed into the lining through a hole she had made were two notes from Green. The second had been passed to her by the short nurse within a case containing a blood pressure monitor. The nurse had looked at her as if to say ‘ah poor thing’: the sympathy of a kind nursery mother who knows you are being laughed at in the dormitory every night, but can’t do anything to change it. And she had wanted to protest that she didn’t know him, didn’t want any of his weird deranged notes. Written on the second note were the words GOOD LUCK and an address on the southern outskirts of the City.

She disabled her visuals and kept the audio low by setting her chip to ‘sleep’, dreading automatic reactivation. She dressed still shivering. In the bathroom, washing her face, her reflection didn’t please her as usual. There were purple blotches under the eyes and two little ugly white spots in the crevice of the nose. Strands of tangled hair stuck to her face. She smiled, but it only made her eyes appear more depressed.

Maybe these pills do cause side effects? She had taken well over the recommended dose of Joy. And she knew from regular users that there was often a come-down period. She found the box and swallowed two more bright blue tablets.

As she slipped on her pink high heels, she looked out of the window. The lights of the City were very beautiful. The distant music in her ears, hypnotising.

Sitting on a night tram, she turned the music up to max. Her heart thumped. She was lifted in her mind like a dancer, a cloud. She drank sweet crystal water from her flask. She watched her feet slide back and forth in perfect time. Maybe her feet controlled the music? Maybe she was inside the music like a drum beat? With no Iscreen playing, she let her eyes wander. She watched images on the tramscreens of healthy young professionals holidaying on a distant beach drinking Perfectfruit cocktails. The colours were heavenly. Time faded into the distance. She nearly missed her stop.

She stepped into her apartment feeling awake and stood studying her things. Her clothes hanging still were like repeated versions of herself, frozen ripples in a stream. A friendly microwave winked. Empty boxes lay with their arms open, longing to be filled with objects. Her flat duvet cover was speckled with tiny sparrows that all seemed to be singing ‘Tuesday’. She lay down, floating on drafts of sound, thinking about her own name, maybe she could still change it, would it still feel like her if she was called Ocean Breeze, or did it sound too much like an air freshener? Maybe just Ocean? She chewed the inside of her cheek and decided to use this burst of energy positively. She started to pack. Objects slid into place. She neatly stored every last item, apart from the uniform, clothes and makeup she would need for the last day of serious work and for her day off packing. Then she sat on the floor drinking hot black coffee from her flask, watching the dirty light drip into the sky through tinted windows. When the flask was empty, she lay down on the floor and fell asleep.

Eyeball Computer

Over the next two months, I will be publishing the first part of my novel on this blog. If you enjoy it, share it! You will soon be able to buy the whole book from Levellers Press

 

Eyeball Computer

 

“They are so confident that they will run on forever. But they won’t run on.”

Fahrenheit 451

 

Prologue

 

‘WE ARE THE VOID AND WE FIGHT FOR SILENCE.’ The man wrote these words carefully, with an ancient felt tip, on the concrete wall next to where he sat, legs dangling over the dirty undulating mass of plastic bottles, packets and carrier bags that floated on the tide. To his left, not quite touching him, sat a young dark woman dressed in a nurse’s uniform frowning at the hazy red sunrise, shading her face with one slender hand; her fingernails were perfectly manicured burgundy. She followed the seagulls with her eyes, diving and fighting, sighed, let her head drop into both hands and massaged her temples and eyes.

She was watching an advertDo you crave truly stimulating orgasms? Love lets you go deeper. For truly intelligent passion. Buy Love, the mindful fuck.’ Sound effects, electronic bells, fade out…

The man lightly tapped her shoulder and she looked up at him, frowning with expectation: as if what he was about to say might solve everything, but she doubted it. He pointed to the words he had written on the wall; she leant over him to read them, not permitting their bodies to touch. His hand moved a fraction toward her, then dropped away. She looked into his face, still hoping for an answer, then bent her head to read the words again. She nodded sadly and returned to rubbing her face and forehead with her fingertips. The morning sun began to burn, warning of the terrible heat that was to come. Using the same felt tip, he scribbled over the words until they were illegible.

Awkwardly, he took her hand. She allowed this, but kept her eyes fixed on the piles of rubbish beneath their feet. He held her fingers softly and spoke under his breath,

‘Do you agree to that?

‘How can I agree?’

Fear shot through him. ‘I thought you wanted to?’

‘I thought I did.’

His pulse slowed, ‘You did, you did. One day we will live in silence together and we will be as free as birds my darling, trust me.’ She looked up at the gulls, her face immobile. His cheeks burned – it was a bad line.

‘But I can’t remember silence.’

‘Believe me. Come this way.’

He stood up, holding her hand tightly. She rose more slowly, dusting off her uniform. They were both sweating. He led her across the tramlines towards a derelict shop with its shutters pulled down. Outside, he coughed loudly five times. Someone inside approached and began grappling with the shutters…

 

 

The City

1

 

  Better to be dead than pumped full of Corporation excrement, the old man thought. Outside the hospital, the air burned. Inside, the man sat facing the window in the hard chair he had moved so that he could look out. He was still: gazing into the foggy yellow distance. Cold air, blowing from the floor, stirred the hairs of his balding head.

Outside his glass door, a junior medic paused for breath. Normally she liked the ex-government patients. They lived in the City Hospital, as there was no apartment space in the City for olds. The Suburbs were far too dangerous. And it was best practice to keep them under observation. Olds could become unstable and, as all psychiatrists knew, instability was a danger to the patient and to the peace of the entire City.

She glanced at the sensor and the doors slid open. She entered – XR4, old medic. The disorder was abnormal. Used issues lay beside his bed and around his chair. His slippers looked as if they had been thrown. He turned to look at her. She looked past him.

‘How are we this morning?’ Always Cheerful, a psychiatrist’s maxim.

‘Fine. You?’

‘Her eye passed over him. She guessed from the abnormal fixed stare that he wasn’t focused on his Iscreen. His apparent disregard for the screen upset her. Could it be disabled? It wasn’t possible. But she could feel his eyes roaming her face. She became conscious of her limbs. A lonely animal part responded. Doctor’s visuals were disabled during work hours; despite herself, she looked right back at him and felt a jolt. She struggled for air. She moved her eyes away. He hummed four sad notes. He’s disabled the audio too? (A thought, an intuition.) One only ever heard humming in unison with the Iscreen. She didn’t recognise this melody.

She was cheerful again. ‘What activities have we got lined up for today?’

‘Hot Yoga, Community Movie.’

She took his right finger and attached the blood pressure monitor. His hand was heavy and muscular. He was still strong. The delicate skin was warm. His blood pressure was dangerously high. She recorded the data on her palm control. Her eyes took in his bony bare toes. Some of the tissues around his feet were neatly rolled, not crumpled. She glanced down at the paper cup to make sure his meds had been consumed. She waited for her audio to signal the end of the five minute consultation. He was trying to meet her eye again. Time passed painfully.

‘Are you nearly finished this rotation miss?’

Patients never spoke unprompted. She was confused. ‘A new junior will take over in two weeks.’

‘You remind me of somebody.’

Despite the bizarre nature of the comment she was not surprised. Without thinking, she smiled.

Her audio beeped. Grateful, she turned away. She felt her arms dangling. She didn’t want to be watched and enjoyed knowing he was looking.

Once alone, he hummed a little and enjoyed the silence. Silence was his last friendly companion: it left his tired brain in peace. He was aware of familiar pointless emotion and the physical memory of a woman leaning heavily against him. He allowed himself to imagine, for a moment, the room where they used to sit. He gave the wall a kick. Suddenly, he couldn’t catch his breath. There was, again, that choking tightness in his chest and arms. Gagging on disinfected air, he gaped at the yellow sky. Why should all that noise bother me so much? There was something in her look

 

 

 

 

Off timetable the following afternoon, she sat outside her consultant’s office. Cold sweat dried in her armpits. Her uniform stuck to her. It was summer; she had been suffocated by the record heat on her lunchtime walk. But, inside, the Cleenair was chilly. Her teeth chattered; she ground them. Her audio beeped and she rose to enter the office of Consultant K.

K, a renowned researcher and practitioner, was Head of Psychiatry at the City Hospital; she possessed assured status and power.  Part of her role was to advise The Corporation on mental health policy. She wore a shimmering white suit and a genuine gold blouse. Her slippery red mouth did not move when the junior entered.

‘I see that patient XR4 presented high blood pressure yesterday?’ Did you highlight this?’

‘Yes, no… But the patient has a history of high blood pressure so I didn’t action the reading.

‘A psychiatrist must notice the physical as well as the behavioural.’

‘Of course.’

‘Please attend an urgent review after your work is finished at nineteen o five this pm.’

‘Will do.’ She smiled, positive at all times. And rose, dismissed.

 

 

 

 

The meeting began with formalities: cameras and identities checked. Attending were the psychiatrist, Consultant K, a short nurse from Rest Ward and a mid-level manager who – disgruntled with the after-hours conference – was fiddling with his ear.

The junior was agitated. Her fear had been gathering all afternoon. She tried to think it was just the automatic response any cityzen experiences when the guards appear in a City mall, though they are never there for the professionals. She had told herself that she had followed procedure during yesterday’s consultation with the old, but knew it wasn’t true. And she desperately needed K’s endorsement, because K was one of the three seniors conducting her final review in one week’s time, which would decide upon her first real professional role.

K asked her for her opinion on XR4’s level of engagement the previous afternoon. The junior stated the data as she had recorded it, humbly acknowledging again her failure to highlight his blood pressure. K was glancing slightly to the right, reading from her Iscreen; she tapped a number into her palm control. Cleaner than life, a recording of XR4’s voice, and the junior’s, played inside the ears or all four.

‘Are you nearly finished this rotation miss?’

‘A new junior will take over in two weeks.’

‘You remind me of somebody.’

K looked at her with triumph, delighted to have the hard evidence. She asked if the junior had, by any chance, become acquainted with this particular old in a professional capacity during her training. She hadn’t.

‘Then could you explain why you have simply ignored his pathetic attempt to create attachment between himself and a professional medic? As an ex-medic he knows this is totally outside the parameters of acceptable dialogue. His disregard for parameters is a clear symptom of potentially delusional transference, which – as you know – ought to be highlighted so that a consultant can conduct a review, prescribe meds and recommend a way forward. We are not friends with the patients. He don’t help them by encouraging delusion. We must engage in personal dialogue only once we are qualified and only for professional reasons.’

‘You are correct.’

‘So, having recognised your error, what can you recommend? I suggest transfer to a ward where his heart abnormality can be properly managed, and an immediate course of appropriate mood stabilizers. Would you support this?

All transfers required the certification of two medical professionals, one of whom could be a junior, but not a nurse. The question was therefore an official request for endorsement of a senior’s medical opinion. The answer had to be acquiescence.

The junior realised with horror that she might cry – something she hadn’t indulged in since she was a teenager at the Academy. She looked over at the nurse, whose eyes were fixed to the floor. K gave her an angry smile. The junior’s mind was yellow, like the sky over the City. She didn’t have a medical opinion. Whom did she remind him of? The manager let go of his ear and loudly tapped one toe several times on the plastic floor: he was about to miss the early tram for F Block. She thought of the future. Before she had always imagined herself making decisions, discovering the intricacies of relationships between synapses, sleeping in a luxury apartment in C, or even B, Block and choosing her own exquisite furniture. Now she saw a small old woman sitting in XR4’s chair staring into the foggy yellow sky. She understood that she missed his face and – even – that she would like to touch him again. At the same time, she remembered she hadn’t even taken a swab to confirm his standard meds had been consumed. In her distress, one single thought was clear – I am alone.

‘Democracy and freedom are more than just ideals to be valued – they may be essential to survival.’

My daughter used to sort of imagine ‘the government’ was one single person – ‘I want to be the government when I grow up’. We have explained the party system to her a couple of times, but explanation hasn’t entirely dislodged her picture of one ruler deciding everything. At what point do children stop playing queens and kings; when do archetypal ideas of power develop into something more like reality? Ideas about power don’t change without education.

David Carr, teacher training development officer with the Houses of Parliament Education Service, identifies a problem: ‘We know that young people aged 18 to 24 who don’t vote say it’s because they weren’t taught about politics at school, and therefore don’t understand it.’ (The School Run, 2019) But, since 2001, children are supposed to be taught about politics at school. Citizenship is a compulsory part of the National Curriculum at key stages three and four (ages 11-16). It covers such topics as, ‘the different electoral systems used in and beyond the United Kingdom and actions citizens can take in democratic and electoral processes to influence decisions locally, nationally and beyond.’ (Gov.co.uk) Sounds pretty good. So why do many young people say they don’t understand politics?

Schools could begin by teaching children about politics at a younger age. David Carr recommends that a child should be taught about politics when they become curious. Personally I have found five to seven-year-old children to be curious about pretty much anything you say. There is a Citizenship curriculum for primary school children, but is not compulsory.

And – remember – academies and free schools don’t have to follow the National Curriculum as long as their curriculum is ‘broad and balanced’. So I am guessing many of them don’t teach Citizenship too rigorously, or at all; it isn’t one of the subjects by which schools are judged to be academically successful. In January 2018, 46.8% of pupils studying in state-funded schools in England were in academies and free schools. (Gov.co.uk)

How can we claim to have a representative democracy when over 30 percent of the population didn’t vote in the 2017 election? 2017 turnout was up, but only by 2.5 percentage points from the previous election. And how will the children of that silent 30 percent feel voting is worth the bother once they turn 18? It’s relevant to point out here that voting is, of course, only one useful way to get involved with politics. It would require unusual independence and energy for a young person to understand – and care about – politics if the subject isn’t talked about at home and isn’t taught at school. 

Last week I listened to a World Service radio program – My Perfect City – about participatory budgeting: a process that allows citizens some say on how money is spent in their city. (Though the real power of citizens in participatory budgeting is pretty limited.) Children in Paris are involved in this process. Greg Clark, urbanist professor, comments that participatory budgeting gives young people a voice because, “in too many of our democratic systems young people are disenfranchised until they are 17 or 18.” But, once they are able to vote in the UK, only 40 – 50 percent of 18 to 24 year old people do so. (BBC, 2018) Our education system should start by making sure that people are educated and optimistic enough to get involved constructively as soon as they turn 18.

On the same radio program, Dr Ellie Cosgrave, director of UCL City Leadership Laboratory, argues that it is a good idea to ask children as young as seven how the budget of a city should be spent: “if we trained young people earlier about critical thinking actually we would have a more liberated democracy”. I agree that taking part in real discussion and voting could help children to understand democracy and to care about it. But they have to understand how democracy works in the first place. We should begin by making sure every child has the opportunity to understand clearly how British democracy works. Active participation in discussion and voting, which has a real purpose, within schools could be one way to teach politics.

The idea of a ‘youthquake’: that people aged 18-24 turned out to vote in the 2017 election in greater numbers, has been shown to be wrong and things don’t look good for the future: the data “suggests that large, sudden, and unexpected shifts in the age-turnout relationship are very unlikely.” (BBC, 2018)

The Houses of Parliament Education Centre offers outreach, resources, training and free visits to the Houses of Parliament: ‘We have a new Education Centre which welcomes over 100,000 children every year, and also subsidise travel costs for eligible schools from further afield’. I have a few suggestions off the top of my head for how they could improve things – you can probably think of more. The Parliament Education Centre could provide knowledgeable peripatetic unbiased teachers to reach children in schools struggling with budget cuts and staff shortages. Academies could be required to teach Citizenship. Education about our democracy could start when children are seven rather than eleven. Education about politics could involve discussion and voting on real aspects of children’s lives.

There could be a cartoon on CBBC designed to teach young people how the government works. How a bill becomes law according to Shaun the Sheep. (I could do with watching that myself just in case my daughter ever asks me.)

‘Only machines make no mistakes’

‘The dead-alive also write, walk, speak, act. But they make no mistakes; only machines make no mistakes, and they produce only dead things. The alive-alive are constantly in error, in search, in questions, in torment.’
Yevgeny Zamyatin

Part of the reason I finally decided to abandon teaching was the awfulness of A-level preparation. The same moment that stacks of great books were at long last brought out of the cupboard, I was forced to reduce my teaching to training young people to produce essays that met assessment objectives. Students encountered Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, George Orwell, Christopher Marlowe, Aravind Adiga, Jane Austen and Emily Bronte, only to be told to consider what they read in terms of a short list of bullet points. Teaching A-level degenerated into a glorified version of filling out forms; as they get closer to exams all conscientious students want is to complete past papers and see break downs of their scores. A-levels do not equip young people to think for themselves.

My first complaint is that the focus on assessment objectives encourages young people to ignore their natural intuition as they read. Assessment objectives are set by Ofqual (a non-ministerial governmental department that ‘regulates qualifications, examinations and assessments in England’) and incorporated into A-level and GCSE examinations by the various boards. They are a list of bullet points, which supposedly measure a student’s achievement. A good student (by which I mean one who gets high marks) is likely to read with half a mind on what the assessment objective wants them to say. Hence the phenomenon of students fixated on filling the margins of books with annotation that corresponds to specific AOs: ‘Miss! We haven’t got enough notes in our books! We can’t do the essay!’ A student reading Act Two of Macbeth might need to know the term ‘dramatic irony’, but the effect of writing ‘dramatic irony’ repeatedly in the margins, with (AO1) carefully added next to the phrase, is to remind the student they can only score highly by referring to AO-focused notes, rather than their own feeling about Macbeth’s failure to stand up to his wife. Most do have their own feelings – even some vague thoughts – about Macbeth’s feebleness, but prefer to focus on what they know the exam requires, because that will get them a better score.

My second complaint is that the author’s meaning is disregarded. A book is rendered dull and impotent by A-level study, because whatever interpretation you might want to make is fine, so long as it ticks AOs. After finishing my PGCE, I taught Death of a Salesman in a sixth form college, sharing the set with a more experienced teacher. I was given a load of essays to mark in which many of the students had said that Death of a Salesman was particularly poignant, because it was performed before an audience who were going through The Great Depression, hence would share in Willy Loman’s suffering. But the play was actually set, and first performed, in the late forties, when America was experiencing post-war economic growth. I asked my colleague how we could fix the problem, how we could give the students a better idea of exactly what relationship the play had to The Great Depression. My colleague suggested it would ‘be alright’ to let them leave that in even though it wasn’t accurate. It met the AO for referring to the play’s ‘context’: more important for their grades than a real understanding of what Miller was writing about. There were 25 in the class and many of them spoke English as a second language; we had enough problems as it was. I could see my colleague’s point of view, but I was left wondering what exactly I was meant to be teaching them; disliking the answer – we were only teaching them to pass tests.

In state schools there is hardly any time to allow students to reflect on books through open class discussion. I have experienced the difference. In a private school you teach small groups and see them a lot; in a state school you might have an A-level class of over 20 and fewer lessons with them. In state schools, there’s huge pressure from management on results in English. And in the state sector you have more basic problems before you can even get to talking about the books: reading the books, grammar, paragraphing. Basic writing is difficult for any teenager habituated to text message grammar, especially if their class is big and their teacher is over-stretched; especially if their parents can’t, or don’t, help them at home. In the state sector I felt permanently wrecked. So it’s easy to understand why teachers fixate on the AOs – sometimes from week one of the A-level course – anything to get the kids a decent grade. But our students pay too much, if the price of a decent mark is forgetting their natural curiosity when they read; learning to reduce books to a list of points and quotes, which answer AOs. Books are transformed into tedious tangles from which students laboriously extract threads; reading becomes a task rather than an experience.

I wonder if the recent fashion for aggressive political correctness in universities might, in part, be down to students being taught at A-level not to think for themselves, or at least not being rewarded for expressing real thoughts from their own brains. Many young people can’t bear to be offended, to the extent that long-time gay-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell was no-platformed in 2016 by Fran Cowling, the NUS’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) representative, ‘who said that she would not share a stage with a man whom she regarded as having been racist and “transphobic”’ (Guardian, 2016) In a debate on safe spaces at the Oxford Union the following year, Tatchell commented, ‘all ideas should be open to scrutiny and critique.’ (YouTube, 2017) It is bizarre that making such a statement in a university should be controversial. If someone says something you don’t like at university argue back! Is that so very upsetting? Maybe it is, if you have never learned to defend your own views. Or if you have been trained in thinking according to a list of correct ideas.

Because a student who is not encouraged to notice and describe their own natural response to a book will be left waiting to be told what the correct response is. They will allow the authority to tell them what they should say and what they say will become what they think. An ex-colleague of mine is a moderator for one of the exam boards. He recently drew the attention of the Chief Examiner to a school whose students had followed a memorised essay formula for answering exam questions; they had expressed similar ideas in similar patterns. The students on the whole achieved good marks, because they had ticked off the AOs. But they had clearly not thought for themselves. The Chief Examiner suggested that my friend should mention this in his moderator’s report, but did not adjust the grades, or seem to think there was anything really wrong.

Teachers may be inured to the authoritarian character of English A-levels and too over-worked to fight back. But A-levels have a serious effect; the way they are assessed must be open to question. A-levels are supposed to be the beginning of thinking like an adult, of really learning. But the English A-levels students sit today do not encourage individuals to think for themselves, or to seek to understand the thoughts of writers.

We should teach students to comprehend the ideas of other people whilst developing an ability to weigh those ideas for themselves. How can we know our own thoughts if we can’t discern the thoughts of others? Real reading is encountering people: past people, foreign people, old people, people in prison. If we don’t want to understand anyone else’s thoughts, then we don’t want to know our own. We may not want to think – fine, it’s not required. But we must not dress up ticking off AOs as thought. We must not pretend we can get anything from reading books using AOs as a guide. That’s like pretending speed dating is a deep and genuine encounter.

A-level markers work for roughly three pounds per paper. They tend to focus on a single question, which they mark over and over again from scanned-in papers; they ‘get blisters… from repeatedly pressing the same buttons.’ (Guardian, 2014) Can they be measuring much apart from a student’s ability to meet government criteria?

We must not fool ourselves and our children that studying for an English A-level involves real grown up thought, unless real grown-ups think what they are supposed to think and say what they are supposed to.