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.

‘Long-famous glories, immemorial shames’

‘Mama, what colour paper should I use to draw The World War?’

‘Green?’

‘I’m going to use purple because of the darkness and the gas.’

And I’m thinking, ‘who told her about the gas? She might have a nightmare.’ Tiny bits of information leave powerful and lasting impressions in children’s minds: the few facts they learn at school might become all they know about a subject. How do teachers find their historical information and where do they send children to find out about the past? There can’t be many adults whose hands do not itch for a smartphone as soon as they want to know something.

Wikipedia is the first website that Google offers a truth-seeker who types in ‘World War Two’. It is common to send older children than my daughter off to research online, which in effect means ‘read Wikipedia’. Less conscientious students just print out the Wikipedia page and hand that in.

There are obvious problems with our reliance on Google, and Wikipedia, for historical knowledge. I will consider two…

The first problem is, you need knowledge before you search – to both select information and to understand it. Daisy Christodolou convincingly argues that “you can only rely on being able to look something up when you know quite a bit about it to begin with,” (Seven Myths About Education, 2014.) She explains that you can neither select appropriate sources, nor make sense of the vocabulary or content, without substantial prior knowledge.

I noticed how my GCSE English students struggled with researching history online when I encouraged them to include ‘context’ in exam answers. The exam requires students, “show understanding of the relationships between texts and the contexts in which they were written” (AQA, 2018); diligent students would do their best to supplement the little I had time to convey in class by reading online. But the poor things rarely could say much that was sensible based purely on lone efforts. They mixed up writers of fiction with characters; comical misinterpretations were easily drawn from complex general statements: one student desperately wrote in an exam essay on ‘Of Mice and Men’ – “Curley didn’t like his wife, he didn’t even give her a name”. This statement sounds like a confused paraphrase of text on the first website that comes up when you search ‘women Of Mice and Men’ on Google, which describes women’s role in 1930’s America vaguely and sentimentally – “women are completely disenfranchised: of dreams, of friends, of family, of community, even of name.” (E-notes.)

The second problem is that we don’t always know whose point of view we are reading online. Everybody knows that history is written by the winners –  that used to be true anyway, in the bygone age of books, when the winners were the ones with publishers. But at least the winners announced their bias by the very fact of their identity. In my father’s Encyclopedia Britannica from 1929, The British Empire is described as possessing “one faith…in the field of political and social ideals.” A contemporary Indian might have disagreed, but the broad reasons for that disagreement would have been clear to both sides.

Internet historians don’t necessarily announce their bias. When I enter the terms ‘British Empire’ into Google the third article suggested by the algorithm comes from ‘The New World Encyclopedia’, which makes the astounding claim, “The underlying goal of the encyclopedia is to promote knowledge that leads to human happiness, well-being, world peace” (NWE, 2018). By looking up the founder – Sun Myung Moon – elsewhere I am able to discover that (according to the New York Times obituary) he “…founded numerous innocuously named civic organizations. To his critics, he pursued those activities mainly to lend legitimacy to his movement, known as the Unification Church… In 2004…he had himself crowned “humanity’s savior” in front of astonished members of Congress at a Capitol Hill luncheon.” (NYT, Sep. 2012.) A teenager would probably not have uncovered this encyclopedia’s eccentric bias. There are many influential people who bury their influence far more deeply than Mr Moon did.

Historians on the internet are not necessarily individual writers. In the case of Wikipedia, we defer to an amalgamation of anonymous voices. Wikipedia relies on the idea that consensus is the best way to truth on any subject. Jaron Lanier is “one of the most respected voices in tech, a visionary who helped shape our digital culture.” (Observer, 2013.) Lanier has written about the danger, not of Wikipedia itself, but of the way it is regarded. Lanier argues, in an essay from 2006, that the idea that collective opinion should be held in great esteem, has been dangerous historically and is just as dangerous now it is being reintroduced by technologists:

“…the problem is in the way the Wikipedia has come to be regarded and used; how it’s been elevated to such importance so quickly. And that is part of the larger pattern of the appeal of a new online collectivism that is nothing less than a resurgence of the idea that the collective is all-wise, that it is desirable to have influence concentrated in a bottleneck that can channel the collective with the most verity and force. This is different from representative democracy, or meritocracy. This idea has had dreadful consequences when thrust upon us from the extreme Right or the extreme Left in various historical periods.” (DIGITAL MAOISM: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism, 2006)

He is asking us to make a link between certainty of crowds on Wikipedia and the certainty of Mao’s Red Guards, the certainty of crowds applauding Hitler in the 1930’s.

Lanier’s essay is worth a read – especially for parents and teachers concerned about their children’s reliance on Wiki-truth. He looks at the value of the ‘hive-mind’ as well as its limitations; he suggests ways that the dangerous aspects of collectivism can be controlled by democratic processes, like those used in scientific research. Lanier’s concluding thought is that we should always remember the value of individual voice for advancing knowledge – “always cherish individuals first.”

When studying – and teaching children about – wars of the past, we need to be conscious of whose point of view we are reading. Perhaps more than in any other subject, the the truth about a war will depend on who you ask. This is why poetry of World War One remains one of the most common and powerful ways to approach the subject. Those who summarise what all the slaughter meant weren’t there; those who were there didn’t pretend to understand it.

‘I’ve got thoughts and secrets and bloody life inside me that he doesn’t know is there’

It’s hard to wake up after half term. My daughter is tired; she gurns, claims to ‘hate school’, ‘hate porridge’ and ‘hate babies’ (a dig at her brother). I lose my temper before we leave the house. Alas we don’t live in a utopia where all adults are kind and reasonable, all children go to bed early and school is fascinating.

Any parent knows that children become more difficult when they are unhappy. Any teacher knows that the children lined up in front of them are not necessarily having a wonderful time in their lesson, or outside of it. I have taught many children who sometimes seemed seriously unhappy, and I don’t think it was only because of my teaching. The tragedy is that the unhappiest children are often the ones who get punished, excluded from class and, potentially, excluded from school.

The last thing an over-worked teacher needs is a pupil who constantly disrupts the lesson with their phone or their rudeness. Teachers impose sanctions, follow their school’s discipline policy. But punishment doesn’t usually work unless someone also talks to the student: acknowledges them as a thinking, feeling, human – even a little.

When a child is excluded, that is likely to be only the start of their suffering. Barnardo’s “is calling for the Government to urgently increase high-quality support for excluded children, to ensure they stay in full-time education.” Research published by them last week states, “‘alternative provision’ for excluded children is at breaking point. Forty-seven of the councils across England which responded revealed they had no vacant spaces in state pupil referral units as of 1 July 2018 (PRUs). Even where there is space, there is a postcode lottery in terms of the quality of education they will receive.” (Barnardo’s, 2018.) Excluded children could find no place to go, be taught for only a short time each day, or be taught badly.

Exclusion can be the point when a child gets involved in violence. Sarah Jones, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Knife Crime said “Professionals talk about the ‘PRU to prison pipeline’. The system is failing these young people.” (Barnardo’s, 2018.) Today, “tributes have been paid to two teenagers who were fatally stabbed on the streets of London within 24 hours.” (The Guardian, 2018.) According to government statistics, knife crime increased by 6% between 2010 and 2017. In the year ending March 2018, “there were 21,044 disposals given for possession of a knife or offensive weapon. Juveniles (aged 10-17) were the offenders in 21% of cases.” (House of Commons Library, 2018.) Children are killing each other on the streets.

Ofsted’s new focus on behaviour – Amanda Spielman’s preference for a “tough stance” (TES, 2018) – is not likely to help the most disruptive children while they are still in school. There is always a reason why a child does not co-operate. If a child is unhappy, addressing how they feel is more useful than a detention. Few teachers have much time to talk to their students. The Government recognise the benefits of school counselling, “what teachers and support staff say is that they often don’t have either the time or the expertise to help children and young people when they begin to show signs of distress. Studies show that school staff can appreciate the availability of a professionally qualified counsellor…” (DfE, 2016.) In the same document they recognise that, in 2016, only 62% of schools offered counselling services and comment, “we do not underestimate the difficulties” of funding. An increased focus on providing good quality counselling for disruptive children would make more sense than an increased focus on ‘behaviour’.

Children also misbehave because they don’t want to do the work. The work might be boring, it might be too difficult, it might not have any relevance to the child’s own life. It’s a tricky problem. It doesn’t help that teachers have very little time for individual students, or that students are locked into narrow schemes of assessment.

Another flaw with taking a “tough stance” is that children exist in the present. Threat of punishment – and ultimate threat of exclusion – may not deter a child from rudeness, violence, constant texting or bullying as they pass through each stage of their school’s discipline policy. A child will not realise what exclusion could mean for their future. A girl I taught (famous for her extravagant rudeness to teachers) told me she was hoping to get a place at the local pupil referral unit, because they ‘let you go out for a fag’.

Teachers are struggling desperately. And many – like me – have quit. According to the Guardian, in 2017, “Almost a quarter of the teachers who have qualified since 2011 have already left the profession” (Guardian, 2017.) Of course teachers need to deal with students who make it hard to get through a lesson: for the sake of the rest of the class and their own mental health.

But is a “tough stance” really the best way to deal with the most difficult kids? Difficult students are also people, probably unhappy people: people whose lives could be severely affected if they are treated as a failure or a problem. If they end up excluded, their lives could be completely ruined – even over.

 

 

‘At best, he learns how to avoid punishment.’

While reading about Octopus behaviour, I was reminded of my daughter. Peter Godfrey-Smith relates ‘famous octopus anecdotes…of escape and thievery’ (Other Minds, 2016, p. 55). For instance, a certain octopus, when fed with thawed-out squid (‘second-rate food’), waited for the scientist who had fed it to walk back past the tank: “It had not eaten it’s squid, but instead was holding it conspicuously…the octopus made its way slowly across the tank toward the outflow pipe, watching [the scientist] all the way. When it reached the outflow pipe, still watching her, it dumped the scrap of squid down the drain.” (Other Minds, p. 57). I recognised, in that octopus, rebellion against rules imposed by an alien being who has no empathy at all for its dislike of thawed-out squid.

My daughter rebels against rules she does not like. While being made to eat vegetables, she is much more likely to pick her nose, interrupt and wander away from the table. She responds better if rules make sense to her – talking about scurvy helps with vegetables. (If an octopus did understand why they were being kept in a tank and fed tasteless squid, I doubt they would agree to it.) We should only impose rules on children if we have a clear reason; rules always work better when the child understands the reason and agrees on the rules they have to follow.

The recent Ofsted reforms to school inspection include an increased focus on behaviour: “The other major change involves looking at behaviour and pupil attitudes in a single category, signalling a more critical view to how schools deal with classroom behaviour.” (Guardian, 2018.) Amanda Spielman, Chief Inspector, said in June at the Wellington College Festival of Education that she believes in a “tough stance on behaviour”. She added, “I think it’s entirely appropriate to use sanctions, such as writing lines, ‘community service’ in the school grounds – such as picking up litter – and school detentions…where they are part of a school’s behaviour policy, they’ll have our full support.” (TES, 2018.) Spielman’s view of discipline is hierarchical. She comes from the world of business; she has never taught real children.

Surely we should be looking at why many children don’t co-operate at school rather than ramping up the punishment. As a teacher I was aware that there was always a reason why a child did not co-operate. Non-cooperation was common among those who felt that the system had nothing to offer them. Teaching bottom set GCSE, for example, to students predicted E’s, forcing them to read Dickens when they had no idea what quarter of the words meant, punishing them for not co-operating, felt worse than futile. Punishing those students only proved to them that school was against them, that the GCSE was an impossible struggle and (possibly) that they themselves were deficient. It would have been more useful to find a way to study with which the students wanted to cooperate: to read something they could understand; to sort out their basic grammar; to talk about the relevance of English to application forms or constructing arguments in real life. Instead I had to slog through termly assessments toward the GCSE and to enforce the school’s discipline policy when students did not behave. I watched two or three individuals become increasingly cynical. I don’t think a “tough stance” would have helped them.

Being “tough” on those who won’t fall into line doesn’t work. Good behaviour should flow naturally from the work of pupils and teachers, who agree on the value of the work. This is particularly the case in primary school. Younger children’s natural curiosity is strong, easier to harness; it is tragic to imagine children at primary school becoming cynical because of tough discipline.

John Dewey saw good behaviour as a natural aspect of cooperation between pupils and their teacher. Dewey was adamant that pupils and teachers should agree on the purpose of activities: “there is no defect in traditional education greater than its failure to secure the active cooperation of the pupil in construction of the purposes involved in his studying.” (Experience and Education, Dewey, 1938, p.67.) He argued that when pupils and teachers are in agreement, pupils regulate their own behaviour: “control of individual actions is effected by the whole situation in which individuals are involved, in which they share and of which they are co-operative or interacting parts.” (Experience and Education, p. 53.)

Dewey thought cooperation with the teacher was especially effective with younger children. It did not need explanation: it worked because the children know they are not being controlled. Children, he said, are more sensitive to “the signs and symptoms” of dictation and control than adults, They “learn the difference when playing with one another.” (Experience and Education, p. 55.) There must be rules in a school, but – as in children’s own games – rules work when children want to follow them.

The danger of this new Ofsted ‘behaviour and pupil attitudes’ category is that it implicitly encourages harsher punishment, obedience of the ‘Taming of the Shrew’ variety. Students who are not co-operating in school might be made more passive by punishment; they might be made more resentful. Neither is useful for their education, or the education of their classmates – excessive discipline could create a cynical culture. Pupils must be enthusiastic about what they are learning; even if they don’t love the subject, they need to see the purpose.

Bertrand Russell, like Dewey, saw very little use for punishment in education. (He includes “speaking harshly” as punishment.) Russell argues that a child’s natural curiosity and desire to fit in with a group should be used to encourage good behaviour. He saw Victorian methods of discipline as damaging:

“To win the genuine affection of children is a joy as great as any that life has to offer. Our grandfathers did not know of this joy…They taught children that it was their ‘duty’ to love parents, and proceeded to make this duty almost impossible of performance…Consequently human relations remained stark and harsh and cruel. Punishment was part of this whole conception.” (On Education, 1926, p. 117.)

Russell’s idea could be applied to a school in which students are told to value their education, then made to write lines, sit detention and pick up rubbish, if they do not sufficiently value (what the school calls) education: thus making the ‘duty almost impossible of performance’.

As a teacher I found harsh punishment usually unhelpful. I avoided it where possible, though I was bound by my contract to follow the school’s discipline policy. As a parent, I am more emotionally involved and more prone to shouting – then regretting it. Both in school, and at home, it is better to explain rules; to rely on voluntary co-operation; to be flexible. If punishment is ever needed, the milder the better.