Monthly Archives: August 2015

Inadequate – Chapter One

As well as using this as a place to discuss my ideas, I thought it might also be useful as a place to stick bits of writing – from shorter pieces to slices of a larger whole piece – on to get people reading, commenting and sharing ideas about my ideas and their own ideas when it comes to writing.

One of my current ideas was to tell a story based around the idea of academy schools, comprehensive schools, and the dangers of where they might end up if things kept changing to the nth degree. I am currently a teacher, and every year things change – nothing remains consistent. There are always new initiatives, new ideas, new ways of getting the pupils engaged and learning. Where might this end up? What would the education system be willing to change to make this happen? How far might accountability need to go to make the education system ‘work’?

Below is what I termed Chapter 1, but is effectively setting the scene. This isn’t specifically based on any school I’ve worked at, merely collating some of the issues that are reported in the news and exaggerating for narrative effect. I do hope that there aren’t any schools like this!

NB: The name ‘Inadequate’ is a link to the Ofsted gradings for lessons (though these don’t technically exist anymore). Inadequate, unsurprisingly, is the lowest grade a teacher could get.

Chapter 1

If you took an hour out of your day and chose to walk the corridors of Mayfield Comprehensive School, there would be little to really surprise you – especially if you were a reader of the Mayfield Gazette. As expected of a rural regional newspaper, where the closest thing to ‘real’ news involved illegal fertilizer use in the run up to the annual Mayfair’s Biggest Vegetable competition, any hint of scandal was leapt upon like a bottle of water in the desert found by a lost, wandering man. To the Gazette, Mayfield Comprehensive might as well have been an oasis, and they had no desire to move until they had gulped down their fill.

If you took a walk through the wrought-iron gates, you’d begin to realise that unlike some media outlets, the Gazette only reported on stories that could be legitimately considered as ‘fact’. Admittedly, the types of stories that seeped out of the school wouldn’t need ‘sexing up’, any additional information liable to make the story even less believable, if that was possible.

As always, seeing is believing. Braving your way down the dimly lit corridors, you’ll see everything that was suggested in the newspaper – and more. Lack of funds may have caused many of the issues faced by the school, but all institutions these days know the value of a good PR manager. The stories that ended up in the paper were just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

As you walk down through the concrete playground, you’ll notice the eight smashed windows spread liberally across the school building, victims to balls blasted hopefully towards the rusting goalposts at either end. Cardboard covered the holes as best as possible, a vain attempt to make them less dangerous. Even as you watch, the wind catches the corner of a square of cardboard covering a ground-floor window, exposing the glass with minimal fuss.

In most schools, your first run in with the pupils would be in a classroom. Luckily for you, at Mayfield you would be welcomed by the Year 11 smokers, who stand in one corner of the otherwise empty playground. Ties, blazers and shoes were clearly optional, the crowd instead choosing to wear a general air of menace, surrounded by a suspicious smelling fog. Teachers who walked past would glance over and shake their heads, but quicken their steps less they made eye contact. This social norm opened up the opportunity to be attacked with a volley of abuse, merely for existing, it would seem.

First impressions of the teachers wouldn’t exactly be better. As far as advertising went, the reams of newspaper columns didn’t exactly inspire the best and the brightest of the teaching profession to sign their life away and work at the school. Some good teachers remained, blinded to the terminal decline of the school by their desire to ‘give back’ and ‘make a difference’, tired clichés that seemed to excuse poor choices.

Neurotic, alcoholic, disorganised, perverted – just a cross-section of the qualities the teachers of Mayfield Comprehensive brought to the educational table; arguably, the best ones. You’d see the twenty-two year old PE teacher who smoked forty a day, often to be found supplementing the Year 11s cigarette stash under duress. Similarly, you’d find the middle aged party girl, a perpetual hangover impinging on what limited skills she already had. At the other end of the scale, a creased, threadbare shirt would be wrapped around a creased, threadbare man who seemed to spend more time snoring than teaching. Rumour had it that he should have retired several years ago, a staff shortage and general ignorance being the only thing keeping him in a job.

Depending on the time of day, and what rooms you chose to look into on your wander round, you’d potentially see a myriad of other ‘features’ of the school. Year 10 students making out in the janitor’s closet. A screaming match between two Year 8 students using language that would make a marine blush. Petty and mindless acts of destruction and vandalism, each more pointless than the last: every third display board ripped and torn; suggestive smudges on white walls down the art corridor; A4 sheets of paper cut into the smallest pieces of confetti and chucked across the classroom; the crusts of a limp-looking ham sandwich rammed down the back of a radiator.

There is the classroom where the Head of Science and a cleaner made a sex tape that somehow found its way onto to school network. The closet where one of the Year 11 girls gave birth to a baby she didn’t realise she was having until her waters broke in Period 5 Religious Education. The corridor which still has the blood stains on the wall from a particularly violent altercation between two Year 7 boys involving a makeshift stabbing implement made out of a sharpened protractor. The office where an ex-English teacher chose to take photos of himself to share with the girls in Year 9, much to their dismay.

As you head back down the pathway, your steps will be quicker on your departure than your arrival. The air will smell sweeter, the sunlight just that little bit brighter. If you make the decision to take one last look at the school (unsurprisingly, some wouldn’t), you’ll be left with one overriding thought.

This is not teaching.

If, like me, you came from a privileged background where school was a place to enjoy the opportunity to learn, the world of Mayfield Comprehensive couldn’t be further from your own experiences, even with the slightly hazy rose tinting around the edges. That these places exist would be shocking enough; that they make up a significant minority of the potential places a child might spend their formative experiences makes the thought of their existence even worse.

No professional deserves to work somewhere like Mayfield. No child deserves to get an education from somewhere like Mayfield.

But it happens. Yet arguably, it could be worse.

Drugs, Doubts and Debilitating Injuries

When I was young, there were two things I enjoyed about anything else: a 100m final (Olympic or otherwise) and the World’s Strongest Man. In my head, there were no more exciting people on earth than the guy who could lay claim to being the fastest man alive, and the monster who could legitimately tell people that he was the strongest human walking the planet. Even to this day, I will always try and go out of my way to watch either event in all their glory.

Whilst names like Magnus Ver Magnusson and Magnus Samuelsson mean a lot to me, it is no stretch of the imagination to suggest that the 100m Olympic/World Champion was a more noteworthy accomplishment among the general public. This has increased manifestly over the past several years with the emergence of the most charismatic sprinter I, and many others, have ever seen: Usain Bolt.  With his double Gold in the 2015 World Championships this week just gone, he further cemented a legacy that will take years for anyone to challenge. In some peoples’ eyes, it was even better due to the fact that he beat Justin Gatlin, a man twice caught for doping, in the process. It was seen as a triumph of the beauty and honesty of the sport over doping and drugs. Not only was this a victory for Usain and his fans; it was a victory for the very sport of athletics.

One of the best ways to generate ideas in the initial stage of trying to write a story, outside of exploring the media around you, is to ask yourself ‘what if?’.

Imagine an all-conquering hero in the world of sport. Showered with love, praise and adulation by fans all over the world, they are nigh-on impossible to beat when they are on their game. Nothing can stop them when they are in full flight, and people tune in just to see them talk, let alone compete.

What if this was all foundered on a lie? In no way am I suggesting that Bolt’s records and achievements are, yet the rise and fall of Lance Armstrong has made a public cynically wary of inexplicable sporting success. How would the world react to the falling of an idol? In a world where sports stars are akin to Gods in the eyes of the media, how might this ripping apart of everything people held up as good and honest play out? As a narrative, you could see it from the perspective of either the sports star, coming to terms with the reality of the choices they have made, or the fans, struggling to understand the choices their hero made. It opens up a lot of potential for tense, soul-searching narrative.

I remember once watching a stand-up comedian joking about the idea of having one Olympics for people on drugs and one for those who are clean, as a viewing audience would love to see someone run the 100m in three seconds. As ludicrous an idea as that may be, the concept of sporting events where the chemically and technologically advanced are accepted as long as they are on a level playing field isn’t too far fetched as a futuristic concept. To add the potential for conflict, the collision between the ethics of the enhanced athlete and the pure competitor could open up a lot of potential storyline arcs. You could even begin to consider the impact of this physiological alteration in the long run, the potential long term damage done to both body and mind. It is already a psychological issue for people coming off of steroids where they find it mentally difficult to accept the changing nature of their bodies, so one can only imagine the potential impact of more powerful alterations and the withdrawal thereof.

This idea of the deterioration of mind and body over time harnesses some of the current debate and discussion surrounding multiple concussion syndrome. Chris Borland, a 24 year old NFL player, recently retired due to worries about his long term health in a physically demanding and dangerous profession. He is not the first, and there are legitimate worries that he won’t be the last. Whilst one or two players retiring young won’t cause the NFL to shut down, there is concern about what the NFL will need to do to protect players as the risks of permanent damage become all too well known.

The amount of money in the sport of American Football is insane. Like in many good stories, money is often a very corruptible influence on people. To what lengths might a company go to to make sure that their sport can still run and generate the money they expect – both in positive and negative ways? Also, will any short term fix potentially see an epidemic of older retirees suffering with as-yet-unforeseen conditions, illnesses and problems?

With such a huge industry built around sport in the US, the crash-and-burn of one of its biggest cash cows would have a huge knock-on affect on cities, universities and colleges. With something so integral to a national identify going to dust, you can only believe that something would rise up to fill its space in the sporting pantheon.  If people want something so much, they are willing to do anything to get it; anyone for some black market American football?

I feel there is a rather large void in the book industry exploring some of the core issues in the sporting world in a fictional environment. Not suggesting any of these are ideas are the next big thing in ‘sporting fiction’, but they do highlight a potential wealth of ideas that can be generated through contemporary issues within the sporting world.

Any ideas of your own? Like what I say? Think my ideas suck? Please comment below!

 

 

Reading Challenge – Book 60: ‘Mistborn: The Final Empire’ by Brandon Sanderson

Due to me getting married this summer, I have fallen fairly far behind on my written reviews. To be fair, I’ve skipped over a couple of books in my reading challenge that aren’t really that important to cover. I mean, ‘Ayoade on Ayoade’ by Richard Ayoade was interesting, whilst ‘Why Do Buses Come In Threes?’ was a pretty perfunctory look at real life mathematics, but beyond that, they were just books that I happened to read. Rather than feel the pressure to comment on everything, from now on I will just cover the main books that I feel it necessary to review in more detail. With that being said…

indexReading Challenge: Book 60 – ‘Mistborn: The Final Empire’ by Brandon Sanderson

I am a fair weather fantasy fan. I’m unashamed to admit that my first foray into the world of swords and dragons was, like many fans, from time spent with ‘A Song of Fire and Ice’ by G.R.R. Martin. Seeing a copy of the first book, ‘Game of Thrones’, with Sean Bean on the front of it (at the time, just about pre-HBO series release), I decided to have a look at it and was instantly hooked. I would even go as far as to argue that ‘A Clash of Kings’ might be one of my most favourite books of all time. However, the series isn’t what it once was in my eyes, and a year or so back I started to try and look for other fantasy that might reinvigorate my interest in the world of elves, orcs and goblins.

Enter Brandon Sanderson.

He wasn’t my first attempt by any means. I dipped my toes in other fantasy pools, but nothing that I picked up grabbed my interest in the way that ‘ASoFaI’ had. The first book in Joe Abercrombie’s ‘First Law’ Trilogy, ‘The Blade Itself’, came very close, an excellent book with a raft of interesting characters – yet I finished the book and moved away from the series (much to my chagrin now – my Mum has even read these three books!). I was still bereft of a fantasy series to really sink my teeth into.

Enter Mistborn.

I’d read ‘Firefight’ by Brandon Sanderson as my first attempt to explore his oeuvre, but ‘The Final Empire’ was the initial fantasy stop of a fairly prolific output for someone so (relatively) young. Maybe this would finally be the series to replace, or at least sit alongside, G.R.R. Martin’s glorious epic.

The book acted as the flint that reinvigorated my dwindling interest in the fantasy genre as a whole.

There are several reasons for this. When I first attempted to explore fantasy as a wider genre, the areas that were often discussed included characters, world building and systems (magic and so on). It was how a fantasy author was able to develop and manipulate these three things that would make their book a success or not. Naturally, these all meant very little if the plot wasn’t also something that was effective in engaging the reader in the world that has been created. In all four areas, Sanderson has proven himself a master, and even out-performed the best of Martin’s output in some areas.

The book tells the story of a Skaa called Vin and a ragtag bunch of mercenaries who plot to overthrow the Lord Ruler, a man who has supressed and abused the Skaa over many years. Even though this type of ‘defeat the big evil bad guy’ storyline is ten a penny, it is impressive how quickly Sanderson engages you with Vin’s plight, and makes the developing plan to destroy the Lord Emperor genuinely exciting. Vin and the Lord Ruler are perfect examples where world building and character development collide beautifully, as we desire for Vin to be successful due to the sense of immortality and undeniable cruelty that pervades every aspect of narrative linked to Lord Ruler. Not only do we respond to Vin as a true underdog hero, along with her maverick mentor Kelsier and various other colourful characters, but we legitimately wonder how they might achieve the lofty goals that are set out from the very start.

All this would fall apart if the systems in place weren’t interesting, and the central concept of Allomancy is the exciting core of the story through which we see Vin’s development and the general conflict between a range of different people. In Sanderson’s world, people are able to burn metal to allow them to enhance certain skills. As a Mistborn, Vin is able to burn all the metals, and we see several scenes with her building these skills through Kelsier and other members of the crew. By making the realisation of her powers part of the narrative, it helps the reader engage more with her character, as we learn the power of the metals at the same time as she does. These enhanced powers are not only an intriguing part of the plot (with rumblings of an Eleventh metal part of the overarching narrative), but they serve up some action packed fight scenes. If anything, it occasionally gets confusing as to how the different metals are being utilised at any one time, but this is a minor quibble.

In closing, this is the first time in a while in which I have swallowed up a book of this size in a matter of days once I got going. The last time – ‘Game of Thrones’. Maybe I really have found something to match up to Martin’s masterwork. Guess I’ll just have to crack open ‘The Well of Ascension’ and see.