The BBC was wrong to censure NewsNight and Emily Maitlis for her opening remarks on last night's programme.
She was not expressing an individual view by speaking in terms of Dominic Cummings breaking the rules or that the country could see that.
She was voicing a view that is held by many, and which - for reasons that perhaps ought to be the subject of a further and much more searching complaint - is not expressed through the BBC remotely often enough: that the current government have consistently lied to the British people, that they have lowered the standard of those lies to such an extent that the lies would shame a child who told them, and that they have come to expect those lies to be reported without challenge by the BBC.
It is time that the organisation made a choice. Specifically, the BBC needs to stop hiding behind the curtain of 'impartiality', and report what is actually happening. It is disheartening to think that Emily Maitlis will not be able to do so in the future as a result of having done so last night.
Not an easy sell, this year. At least it's nice outside, although that can be the insult added to the depressive or anxious injury that pushes things over the edge. With everyone still supposed to be isolated from everyone else, an over-reliance on screens and a succession of terrible news about coronavirus and (when it can push its way to the top of the news agenda) Brexit, racism and the latest on Donald Trump's continuing struggle with reality, it's no surprise if (that?) mental health is suffering.
Oddly, despite the strangeness of the situation, mine has mostly been good throughout this lockdown. The opportunity to a bunch of things that I wouldn't otherwise have done has been great, as has the time spent with my children who I would otherwise see only briefly at the start - when in a flap to get to work - and at the end - exhausted by work - of the day. There is no doubt that my work life is easier in some ways than it was when I was in front of classes full time, largely because I'm not having to steel myself for the behavioural battle that can characterise some teaching. One relatively naive commentator I read a couple of days ago seemed to think that if we could just make sure all the students gathered around their respective screens for a few hours a day, they would learn just as much as if they were in the classroom... Well, that's not quite what she said. What she said was she couldn't understand why teachers weren't offering real-time teaching instead of setting work for students to do in their own time. Apparently that's what they do in private schools. Good for them. In that case, the parents presumably have a bit more of a dog in the fight, paying as they do some thousands of pounds a term for their children's education, and therefore they expect them to be occupied. And are, perhaps, that bit more willing to impose. What's missed in this argument is that you don't just need the kid to be sat at the computer, you need them to have switched off all the distracting crap that a computer can do and actually be focused on the lesson. And - with the best will in the world - the commentator in question did not seem to expect to have to commit to being there to facilitate this for hours at a time.
It can't be stressed highly enough that 'live' teaching online seems to be a bit of a nightmare, because trying to organise the 30-or-so kids to all be using the same software at the same time is a job beyond what most of us can achieve, but more than that, you're either depriving the students of the social aspect of the real classroom by not letting them interact (most lessons probably have no more than 20-30 minutes of 'teaching', with a decent proportion of the time spent of work of various kinds - this idea that a teacher stands at the front teaching for an hour at a time is pretty niche in modern education), or you're letting them interact, which is guaranteed chaos.
It could be done, but there are so many pitfalls that most schools don't really want to approach it that way. Nevertheless schools get hammered off right-wing commentators for not managing to achieve what private schools with an embarrassment of resources can do. Ah, well. I've done my best to do right by the kids, which is not necessarily the same as doing right by their parents. Occupying time - a goal that smells strongly of 'childcare' rather than 'education' is not the point. And here's the real existential threat to our way of life: if it turns out that remote education under the broad supervision of parents is no less effective than piling kids together in schools, it may be time to have a think about how we do school and what it's for.
So all of that was a diversion of a sort. Mental health is likely to suffer in such strange, suffocating circumstances. It is probably the single weirdest thing that most of us have ever experienced. Here's the thing, then. Reach out. It might be that reaching out is exactly what you need to do. It might be that you need to speak - or converse by text - with someone who gets you. It might be that all you need to do is read their words, offering their love and the promise that better times will come, whether that be in a month or two, or a year, or longer. It might be that you can't have that conversation, and that is as hard as it comes. But hope remains, even if it means waiting...
May 16th, 2020
Well then. It's turned into a bit of a political football, with some arguing one way and some arguing the other... The Daily Mail's headline on Friday - which suggested that teachers should make themselves heroes by returning to work, and that the unions are the ones behind the slow pace of reopening schools - is a great example of the point made by the second article, although in this case it is the teaching unions that have an irremediably damaged reputation and a thoroughly warped place in the narrative, rather than teachers themselves. Unions exist to protect their members, their rights, their safety, their working conditions and so on. And, both on a historical level and on a current political level, they exist to interpose themselves between the workers they represent and - gasp - the more capitalist, free-market end of the political spectrum. Some commentators have even managed to be sensible about the challenge, whilst also maintaining that there are aspects of the government's choices that are questionable.
What's clear from the communication we have received from our own child's school, and from the discussion around reopening the one I work for, is that whatever 'reopening' means, the sad disappointment for the ones advocating it without understanding what it means will be that it doesn't do the job they might be hoping for. Specifically, an 'open' school will not do anything like the working week's worth of supervision / childcare / keeping-safe-and-off-the-streets / socialising (in all possible senses) / education that it has previously offered. Once that message starts to permeate into the discussion, perhaps some of the more emotive language (on both sides...?) may calm down. Although it must be noted that the point raised by the teaching unions - how do you do this safely? - is the same one that heads and their teams are currently trying to answer, and it is abundantly clear that the answer includes the caveat, 'with great difficulty'. I want(ed) an answer to a question I raised in one of those arguments on the internet where there are no winners: am I supposed to avoid your children in every conceivable context except the one which facilitates you going back to work? I didn't get an answer in that particular exchange, other than that the risk to the children was low. The evidence is limited at best for this, and I am not willing as a parent for my child to be part of a study which would not pass the first round of a university ethics committee's scrutiny. Equally, I'd rather not contract the virus myself, although I am supposed to be only a bit likely to die. My parents, on the other hand, who would probably end up in the position that they have been previously of being the main back-up childcare option, are fairly likely to die if they contract the virus.
The Children's Commissioner has stepped in to this argument, telling the sides to stop squabbling and reach an agreement. It can be no surprise that some papers have reported this as 'squabbling unions told to grow up and get back to work'... But it is worth noting that there is very rarely a spin on these types of stories that says 'unions protect their members by questioning politically-motivated decision to send them into unsafe working environment'. For some reason...
Anyway, here's something I found myself duty-bound to write, largely on the rather similar basis that a discussion in the national media really ought to start with facts, rather than judgement...
Schools are currently open. Key workers (and others) have had the option of sending their children in to school for the last eight weeks - in the case of my school, that includes during the Easter holiday. So we're not 'reopening schools'; we're widening the net of who can attend. Discussion (in school management, and in communication between school and parents) centres around realistically limiting the number of students returning so they can manage the ones they do get effectively. The issue with the narrative in the newspapers (lazy unions blocking reopening) is that it doesn't capture the actual question, which is how can we get more kids (not all kids - you're going to be very disappointed if you think you can go back to work full time) into schools without causing the sort of havoc that school closures were supposed to prevent. There's still an inconsistency in policy - that teachers are supposed to avoid other people's kids in all conceivable situations except school - which needs some smoothing over before any teachers will be convinced that this move is about education rather than facilitating a return to economic normality by providing 'childcare'. The next week is absolutely critical in managing this situation, because if it moves (further?) towards the government imposing its will on a country's worth of headteachers, there will be a real risk of the schools being forced to run in ways contradicting the guidance, and individual heads will have to make potentially harmful choices that they shouldn't be pushed into making.
I can add the very salient point made by another teacher blogger that it doesn't matter how much he wants to go back, we shouldn't pile in to school unless it really is safe to do so. One point missed by the papers - of all stripes -is that even if teachers are the workshy, feckless bunch of layabouts we're made out to be, that doesn't speak on whether it's safe to send your kid back to school. Even if teachers were on an extended holiday, sipping the proverbial lunchtime margherita in the sun, that wouldn't change what matters to the decisions about schools.
Let's all hope that the people in charge aren't chancing it for political gain. There are plenty of things that could happen to help us all believe that. It's time those things started to happen.
For the first time in a while, I'm due to be back in work tomorrow. Not because of the announcements made over the weekend and today, mind, but because the rota has made its way round to me. So I will be going out and seeing exactly what it means to be in the workplace in the new normal. I'm almost looking forward to it, although it will be bereft of most of the usual faces and therefore the conversation that for the most part is what makes going to work worth it. I'd like to be able to say I have full confidence in the management of the situation, and in terms of the local management I think that's right. I don't think I will be asked to do anything that is dangerous or that fails to take into account the solid advice that has been previously given, but I am aware that this does not apply to everyone. It's a challenge that says a great deal about management, about how the principles that guide actually need to be instantiated in reality, rather than something to point to when things are going well. And it's the real top managers who don't seem to be clear on what exactly is going on at the moment.
Guidance suggests that those who are in proximity to others in an indoor space should be wearing masks, but this doesn't apply to schools. It's not clear why. I am not sure what approach to take, except that I'm hoping my Mr Twit Coronavirus beard will serve instead of a cloth around my mouth and nose. I certainly don't know how to make that decision in light of the expectations of the young people I will be around. Wear a mask? Well, if I do, am I promoting a sense of fear or of a kind of me-first distancing? If I don't, am I being reckless? No one seems to know, and the worst part of it is, no one seems to be really willing to discuss the matter in a grown up and sensible way. That's the central problem at the very core of this whole fiasco, which I think is the right word. No one at the top wants me - somewhere in the middle, as usual - to know for sure what the best advice would be, because then I can make my own decisions about how to follow it. Rather, I am given a series of vague and hand-waving suggestions which on the most plausible reading of it are about protecting the interests of someone other than me and the young people I serve. We'll see, tomorrow, of course, but I don't hold out much hope for the situation improving rapidly, partly because of the sheer darkness of the powers-behind-the-throne, and partly because of the people in whose hands the decision-making is, in reality, left. That's us, selfish, desperate, bored, frightened, frustrated... Hardly the most ideal conditions for deciding how to deal with something that might just matter.
Still, the garden centres are going to open up again soon, so that's one thing, eh?
In some ways, the lockdown is great. I have spent a lot of time cycling with my daughter and playing with my son, learning the names of all his dinosaurs and which exact episode of Andy's Dinosaur Adventures he is asking for. I have been able to spend real time looking at the flowers as they bloom in spring. Teenage me would have found that laughable, but that's one development I can say for certain that I am pleased with. An appreciation for things-in-the-world is a source of pleasure, that kind of pure pleasure that comes from honey on toast, or a good cup of tea. It's not of the 'MasterChef' type, where it almost has to be deviant to qualify as worthwhile. Although the big small one taking an interest in food has upped the quality of the cooking in the house, and the quantity of cake, which is never a bad thing, there is a weekly stress over choosing what to cook to meet the stringent requirements imposed. Last week, I tried (with some success, I might add) fondant potatoes, which was new to me, sitting somewhere in between the simple and the complicated, although clearly anyone who would bother to attempt them has too much time on their hands. Flowers, which I suppose would have been the bane of my early teenage years, really are about as spectacular a thing as nature offers. You can sort-of see the need, from the point of view of survival of the fittest, for flowers to be attractive in its dull, behavioural sense. But that translates into something extravagant for us humans, capable perhaps of appreciating the appearance of something beyond its promise to deliver a sweet treat.
But at the same as all of this, lockdown is oppressive, a heavy burden to bear when there can be no trips out to band rehearsals, the pub, even the park is hopeless because all the exercise machines and children's play areas are cordoned off. Going to the shops demonstrates the good in some people and the desperate self-centredness of others. The Thursday night clap is a glorious invention, and one that - with some initial trepidation - I have joined in, by, with a couple of neighbours, offering a weekly performance of a tune out in the street. Visuals are poor, what with all the trees, acoustics are strange (I've barely ever played an amplified guitar outside, because you wouldn't normally get away with it!), and the two blokes I'm playing with are proper musicians. Fortunately, to make me feel better about this, one of them has taken to playing a trombone (his usual instrument is the double bass), which makes me sound a little more like I know what I'm doing. I've decided, when all of this lockdown stuff is over, though, to get a band together that plays the kind of music I would choose to play if no one else had much of a say in it. And to get out and play lots of shows, because - frankly - the world needs that kind of stuff, and I want to get out of the house. Applications from drummers, guitarists, bass players all gratefully received!
I genuinely hope all these ideas, projects and resolutions I'm making end up following through. I'm disappointed with how little I've written, but I can just about sense that improving. A couple of blog posts does not a fourth novel make, of course, but it's a form of progress. The struggle to motivate oneself to do anything constructive after a day of policing arguments over who snatched what off whom, when is the right time to give up and watch a bit more Andy's Dinosaurs, or who is doing their family MasterChef entry today, that struggle is, I say, a big one. Somehow work seems less onerous in this context. But I wouldn't swap back, I don't think. It's a strange thing to say - a very strange thing! - but the process of getting to know the children in a new, intense way has been a privilege, one that will be denied to most people most of the time. I can't share the lockdown experience with everyone I would want to, but that's the thing, isn't it?
It will be worth it, in the end, when it's all over and we can go back and see those people who we couldn't see, do the things we couldn't do... I think a lot of us will want the new normal to be quite different from the old.
75 years ago on Friday, the Second World War ended in Europe. The best result, in the circumstances, as the losing side was responsible for some of the worst atrocities that have ever been committed. Worth celebrating. Well, yes. For those involved, Victory in Europe really was about the end of a six-year period of something similar to what we're undergoing right now. Similar, in the sense that a lot of the things you might normally do are forbidden. Different in the sense that we in 2020 are not at the immediate risk of being blown to bits by a bomb falling from the sky, or having to jog across France being shot at by blokes with machine guns. That second experience, of shooting and being shot at, is one that now a few generations of young men (in particular) have had only through the medium of (computer) gaming. I'm not denying that the games are good - in fact, I probably ought to keep my mouth shut on the subject as I haven't played the games - but I am going to say it: these games, celebrating the activities of soldiers in the Second World War (or other wars), are inappropriate. What does inappropriate mean? Well, not naughty in this context, rather something else. Celebrating war and death just shouldn't be happening.
Ah, but you've got it all wrong, Richardson. We're not celebrating war and death, rather we're celebrating the heroes who kept us safe in those times. Yes, there's a point in there. The people who fought and died and the people who fought and survived deserve to be recognised, and that recognition can be happen in a sombre and reflective mood. A street party was the right thing in 1945, but even without the threat of spreading a virus by close contact, a street party in 2020 is just wrong. Because it's not a celebration of some great evil conquered any more. That right belonged to people 75 years ago. The hijacking of remembrance (perhaps it should have a capital R in this case) seems to be a curious case of real nationalists trying to seize on the vaguely patriotic sentiments of the many and prod them into something more... what? Nationalist? Xenophobic? Conservative? All of those things? If you don't wear a poppy, you're failing in your duty to remember. If you wear a white poppy, then you're a traitor because you're remembering the dead on the other side. Yes, I bloody well am. No one should need to die in war. But the machinery of state made it impossible for your average person to dissent, to fully and thoroughly analyse the cause being fought for, to make a principled stand based on conscience. Perhaps now, in the age of the internet and instant personal communication, it would be a bigger failure than it ever has been to just go with what the government say, but I don't think you can hold an individual German soldier to account because the principle he was fighting for was bogus. So, I say, if that German lost his life fighting in war, I remember him.
I'll go further, in fact: my white poppy remembers the dead on all sides, but I think it also says something else. It acknowledges the terrible crimes that war, nationalism, xenophobia, racism, fear, all of these things, make human beings commit. It actively grieves for the loss to humanity that war causes, not just in battlefield casualties. War turns people into criminals, and those crimes are hateful and the crimes themselves unforgivable. But what kind of people does it make us if conflate the crime and the criminal? It is not in my power to forgive the dreadful crimes committed in the name of ideology during the Second World War. But painting war of any kind as a kind of good-against-evil battle is dangerous. When we do that, we run the risk of seeing war - as it so often portrayed in films or computer games - as the glorious goodies against the evil baddies, and that simplicity clouds the reality. How do you treat people who have done bad things? This might be the ultimate test of a person's central goodness. Don't look at how someone behaves to a person they agree with, someone they like, an equal or a superior. Look at how someone behaves to a waiter, the homeless man on the street, the criminal. Look at how they choose their job, how they make decisions, whether they themselves seek forgiveness for wrongs done. Whether they challenge prejudice...
So I will take the provocative step on Friday of wearing my white poppy. I will piss some people off. But it's time for that to happen, now. Those people need someone to show them how to think. Not what to think, but if nothing else just a call to use that power to think. Why is he wearing that white poppy? Because it is time to move on from celebrating victory in the Second World War to instead celebrating and seeking peace. Perhaps that should be the rebranding - not VE Day, but Peace in Europe day. Let us hope that we have not forgotten, because victory in Europe is all for nothing if there is no peace afterwards.
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought