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A book: Class War

class war coverI need to write a better blurb for it, but: it’s about Dave Coote, a teacher who’s struggling along in an academy school and facing up to the fact that the job is becoming impossible because of creeping privatisation, corruption, and management bullshit.

There’s other stuff happening, too: a former student who drops in to ask a favour and turns his life upside down. And then there’s the evidence of financial mismanagement Coote comes across and what he decides to do about it.

It’s a work of fiction, of course, and published under a pseudonym because: reasons.

It’s a quick read: 68,000 words. Available for Kindle and Kindle Apps:

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Amazon Canadia

Amazon Oz

Amazon India

 

Pill two, pill three

4am-001Huh. Following the powerful effect I felt from the first antidepressant, I was wary of the next, but (turns out), the second pill was much milder in its effect than the first.

I still woke too early (before 5 a.m.) – it was a Saturday, so even more annoying – and still felt slightly headachy and spaced-out, but by noon those feelings had faded, and I spent the rest of the day feeling normal. I went shopping in the morning, and maybe I was a little photosensitive, it’s hard to tell. I do suspect a slight blurring of vision, but that’s very hard to quantify, particularly as I’m still kind of getting used to wearing new glasses.

The third pill seemed to have no strange effects at all. Saturday night to Sunday, I think I managed to sleep quite well (for me). Six o’clock, and then able to doze for a bit. So that’s not bad. The true test will be tonight, to see whether I wake too early on Monday morning.

Mood-wise, I don’t feel very different. Now that the spacy feeling has passed, I’m feeling pretty normal. Although I just cut 250 songs from my phone playlist in a ruthless cull.

Pill One

DrugItem_10899I went back to the doctor for a third time about my insomnia. I’ve had two scrips for sleepers, and I’ve been frugal with them, taking a maximum of three per week, in the knowledge that they are addictive and that the low dose I was on wouldn’t remain effective for long.

It was a new doctor, possibly a replacement for the one that just threw up his hands at the damage being done to the NHS by this kleptocracy and retired.

She questioned me closely about my symptoms, asking a wider range of questions, making me uncomfortable with some of the answers. I can’t say I was 100% honest, but I also don’t really know what some of the answers are. Are you happy? Fuck, no. But…

It’s not that I have much trouble getting to sleep at night (not since I went back to reading paper books and cut down on coffee). It’s that I tend to wake stupidly early (around 4 a.m.) and can’t get any more sleep. She asked about my eating habits and about the job.

It’s only when you come to describe the job to a non-teacher that you realise how preposterous it sounds. Not just impossible to do, but impossible to believe. When you get to the bit where the management burst into your room like Special Branch and start questioning your students and checking their books while you’re in the middle of a lesson, it starts to seem like you’re making this shit up. Or the bit about how – even though you already don’t have enough time to do all the things you’re supposed to do – you’ll be given even less planning/marking time with no additional pay next year – just because the head teacher has it in his power to make that happen and claims to have no budget to do otherwise.

So she gave me a sleeping pill refill but also some anti-depressants. This is a bad idea, I know. But I’m looking to get through to the end of the academic year: short term thinking. I know the side effects can make you feel worse, but I also know that people respond in a wide range of different ways, so I’ll give it a go and eliminate the possibility.

Now. I was warned that these pills would take a couple of weeks to start working as they should, and that in the meantime I might feel a bit weird. I kind of imagined that as being in about a week’s time, after a few doses, I would start to feel odd, maybe. One little pill, one little 50mg pill, couldn’t have much impact.

Welp, maybe it’s the power of suggestion, but I started to feel weird almost immediately. I didn’t take a sleeping pill as well. Read a bit (The Magus is my current bedside read) and fell asleep as normal. Woke up at 4 a.m. (as normal) and then couldn’t get to sleep (normal). But it was the way my mind was working that felt strange. I couldn’t seem to grasp at a thought. I still couldn’t get back to sleep, but neither could I think about anything. Thoughts were under water, but deeper than they appeared; I’d reach for them and my hands would close around nothing.

I went through the day feeling spaced out and headachy (all expected, according to the leaflet). Felt a bit more normal after about 11 a.m., but even now (nearly 5 p.m.) I’m feeling floaty and distant from my own thoughts.

Anyway, folks, the bit about work being shit and causing stress and anxiety? Probably the best therapy was to write a book about it. So I did. If a few hundred thousand people buy it, maybe I could give up teaching.

An interview with the author

class war coverFrequently Arsed caught up with T O McKee, author of Class War: the teacher’s story, a novel about life in a bog-standard comprehensive academy school in 21st century Britain. We asked all the burning questions that readers want answered.

First things first: why did you choose to publish under a pseudonym?

It’s not because I’ve breached confidentiality or written anything about actual people or places. I’ve taught in a number of schools over the years, and I’ve worked with people who have taught in more, so I’ve synthesised all those experiences into a fictional school with fictional staff and students – a composite of experience, like all fiction. On the other hand, what I say in the novel about the atmosphere of fear and censorship within schools is true. So although I haven’t written anything actionable, I’m mindful of the way in which employers will find fault and use any excuse to accuse teachers of being unprofessional. For example, what I say about social media in the novel is true: I have been in meetings where staff were told not to use Facebook. At all. And even doing something like running a useful blog for students to use as a resource is frowned upon if it takes place outside the micromanaged control of school leaders.

Is life as a teacher really that bad?

It is. And it’s even worse, because to undo all the damage that has been done over the past few years would mean another unsettled period of permanent revolution. You can trace the fault back decades. When they did away with grammar schools, for example, they didn’t do away with all grammar schools, so they hung around as a reminder of the old system – for parents and politicians to obsess over. Education has been a political football for my whole life.

Is teaching no worse than it always has been, then?

The difference, when the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition came into power, was the determination to make wholesale – and I think deliberately damaging – changes in a hurry. I think that Gove/Cameron etc. believed they wouldn’t be in power for long, so they set out to make irreversible changes as quickly as possible. So while teaching has always been unsettling, with the ground constantly shifting, what Gove wrought happened dizzyingly fast, and was ill-planned and gleefully destructive. To be a teacher in one of the subjects that Gove decided was unworthy – creative subjects, for example – was to see your contribution devalued, your livelihood threatened, and the number of students opting to take your classes diminish because parents had been influenced – or confused. Meanwhile, non-creative subjects like Business Studies get a free pass. And beyond what’s happened with the curriculum, the management style that has been encouraged by the current OFSTED regime; the attacks of teachers’ pensions – for ideological, not economic, reasons – the attacks of unions, pay and conditions, the ever-increasing workload, micromanagement, the pressure to conform – all of it makes the job harder and more horrible.

Is that why the drugs?

I wanted to portray a mid-life crisis – the kind that people who can’t afford fancy sports cars have. But I’ve known a lot of teachers who would have to confess to drinking a bottle of wine every night in order to relax or sleep. People who take three sets of books home at the weekend, who put in 60-hour working weeks.

Do you work those kind of hours?

I don’t think so. But I probably work more than I’m aware of. I’ll be working on my laptop with the telly on, for example. Which in my mind might be telly watching time. But I’ve watched whole series without looking up at the screen. And I’ve spent hours creating resources for myself or my students, which is part of the planning and preparation. The long-term view is that you can re-use rich resources in later years and save yourself time. But then exam specifications change, or subjects are abolished, or whatever. So they don’t last that long. I try not to take more than one set of books home at the weekend, but you definitely work longer than your contracted hours. And then at stressful times, sleeping can be hard.

Why include the romantic sub-plot?

I needed something that would highlight how my main character is being driven to clutch at straws. The lack of joy, the unrelenting pressure, the feeling of being ground down – he needed something to cling to, something that would offer hope. There’s nothing quite like that feeling you get when you meet someone and go through that initial attraction. And I also wanted to write about the different ways in which people interact in these digital days.

Is it doomed?

Maybe. Maybe all relationships are doomed. I’ve kind of left that for the reader to judge, based on their own experiences.

And was that romantic sub-plot based on your experience?

I wish. Kind of. Not a romantic relationship, but certainly thinking about how – for a long time – I would write lots of letters to people I cared about, but how these days you’re more likely to chat or exchange selfies. I have chatted online with former students, and it’s a weird experience and there was never any romantic interest on their part. At my lowest ebb as a teacher I might have fantasised about throwing everything away and running away with a younger woman, but not really.

But that’s not the ending of the novel. What about that ending?

People like to complain, don’t they? And then most don’t do anything about it – complaining is enough. But some people get out on the street. Historically, you look back at protest movements – the anti-Vietnam movement, Civil Rights, the Poll Tax – and you can see that there was some impact. Change never happens quickly, and it often doesn’t go far enough, but without those people – who often/usually put themselves in physical danger – society would be a lot worse. But I have mixed feelings. While you’re in it, on the march, you’re just surrounded by shouty people and you have tired legs from walking too slowly, and your feet hurt. And then you get home and the BBC haven’t even bothered to report it. So you feel like nothing will change. We do need a mass movement. But most of all, we need an engaged electorate who are aware of their own interests and aren’t fooled (by racism, lies, by short-termism) into voting against them. So I wanted to finish on that note. How you can be reluctantly driven to participate, but also what might result from all the frustration and anger and the feeling of helplessness that goes along with it.

The final image is ambiguous

It reflects my own ambiguity. I want to bring the place down in flames, but I’m afraid to live in the aftermath. It’s a kind of what would you do? moment.

Some Podcasts worth a listen

The Guardian, in typical, desperate old-media fashion, have published an article entitled 50 Podcasts You Need to Hear, which is just inviting a punch to the face. So here are some podcasts you might find interesting if you like that sort of thing.

  • 2 Dope Queens (WNYC) – Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams host standup which is more inclusive of women and minorities than you get from the mainstream. Funny.
  • Afoot! (Incomparable) – a mystery genre focused podcast hosted by the affable Glenn Fleishmann with a roster of guests. So far, the team have discussed Marple, classic radio mysteries, Sherlock Holmes – and the latest episode is about Veronica Mars.
  • The Eddie Mair Interview – the only thing I miss about listening to Radio 4 live is Eddie Mair on PM. This programme features him interviewing one guest – and you get a longer slice than you do on the radio.
  • Sophomore Lit (Incomparable) – a discussion show hosted by John McCoy with a roster of guests which is focused on those books you had to read at school or college.
  • TV Talk Machine (Incomparable) – in these times of confusion™ of too much TV™, how do you sort through the merely okay for the stuff that’s really worth watching? How do you keep up with the unbelievable quantity of scripted TV that is now in the world (and who would have seen that coming when ITV shares were down at 37 pence?). TV Talk Machine is the answer. Hollywood Reporter critic and Jason Snell will keep you up to date.
  • Here’s The Thing with Alec Baldwin (WNYC) – another interview show, with a single guest per episode, hosted by the gravel-voiced Baldwin. He does tend to ask a second question before his guest has answered the first, but that’s only because he’d so interested.
  • The Incomparable Game Show – my second favourite podcast, this. A rotating series of different games, from panel and quiz shows to family parlour games and tabletop adventure games, the usual Incomparable suspects play ’em all. They often *cough* borrow *cough* show formats from times gone by. Whatever your opinion of the original shows, the podcast version is guaranteed funnier. My favourite is the nerd quiz Inconceivable, which could surely find a spot in the mainstream, but they’re all very enjoyable.
  • My Favourite Album with Jeremy Dylan – documentary maker and music industry insider speaks to a variety of musicians about their favourite record. Not always going to be your cup of tea, but most of the time, an interesting interview.
  • Reconcilable Differences (Relay FM) – My favourite in the ‘two blokes talking about stuff’ genre, the chalk-and-cheese combination of the friendly, easygoing Merlin Mann and the hypercritical and uptight John Siracusa is an excellent listen. Starting from the premise of answer the question, How did we come to be this way? this show takes in a wide range of topics, from family and film to drugs and cars, and really digs into them. This is the podcast I would make if I made a podcast. Long.
  • Robot or Not? (Incomparable) – the antidote to long podcasts, the same John Siracusa sits with Jason Snell and delivers a verdict on the most vexed question of our times: is it a robot, or not? Short.

Ibera PakRak System

Of course, following the crippling back pain, there had to be a solution that would put the weight on the bike and not on my back. As reluctant as I am to add weight to my carbon bicycle, I obviously can’t use the backpack any more.

One of the reasons I’m reluctant is that, at the weekend and on holidays, I want to ride my bike with as little on it as possible, so I really didn’t want to fit a complicated pannier system that would be difficult to fit and remove. And because the main weight I’d be carrying would be my laptop, a pannier system would end up being imbalanced. So I hit the YouTubes and the interwebs and I did some research. Topeak offer a range of solutions, including a rack that fits to your seatpost and a selection of trunk bags, including one with fold-out panniers. Tantalisingly, they used to have an actual laptop bag, but that no longer appears to be available (in the UK, at least).

A similar, but cheaper, system is available from Ibera, and its this I went for, as their biggest trunk bag looked like it might just be big enough to contain my laptop. The first step is the seatpost-mounted commuter carrier, which gets around the lack of rack fixings on my bike. It looks kind of precarious, but (it says here) it can support up to 10kg, which should be more than sufficient for my needs. It attaches where the seatpost meets the downtube, and comes with a couple of shims you can insert. I used the thicker of the two shims, hoping it will be right. The rack itself can be adjusted – I pulled it back to its furthest position to accommodate the big bag.

Step two is the trunk bag itself, which attaches to the rack with a snap-on system. It has a lightly padded interior and an ABS plastic base which looks pretty solid. It comes with an optional carry strap and has one big pocket with three smaller ones around the outside, plus one on the top. There are also some bungee cords to tighten around a rain jacket or something, and inside there’s a zip compartment in the lid. It seemed as if it ought to be able to contain what I carry to work: laptop, wallet, keys, pen, spare cartridges, maybe a bottle of chocolate milk. It could also potentially contain a shirt and tie, maybe even a rolled up pair of trousers, but let’s not go overboard.

The true test was, could it contain my 13″ MacBook Pro? The dimensions seemed to indicate that it might. And it does – just. But that’s no bad thing. The snugger the fit, the less the thing is going to move around. Above you can see it in its resting place. The zips, once you go past the first corner, do up pretty easily really, and it seems fairly secure. Of course, I haven’t tested this setup over the bumpy British roads on the way to work, but we shall see. If you have a 15″ Pro, that won’t fit, and nor might the older non-retina design with the built-in DVD drive. If you have one of the new 12″ MacBooks, that’ll go in easy, as will the 11″ air (you’d probably need extra padding). Given that the next-generation MacBook Pro will probably be thinner and lighter, the future is bright.

Getting on the bike with the bag on is no easy feat if you have issues with your hips and back. Getting my leg over was a stretch. But I am in a bad way at the moment, so maybe it won’t be too much of an issue. I can also ask someone to snap the bag on for me once I’m on, I guess.

So now the Port Designs GOLED backpack will be going on the eBay. This Ibera solution, by the way was pretty cheap: the seatpost rack was just £22, and the trunk bag was £34. So £56 all-in, about half what the Topeak solution would have cost.

Biking to Work

aid1493229-728px-Align-Your-Hips-Step-2-Version-2In all the years I worked at the old place, I summoned the courage to cycle in just once. It was a 19-mile journey, which I managed at a respectable 15 mph. But I put the bike on the roof of the car to get home, and I never did it again.

Tuesday is Strava’s global bike to work day, but I won’t be participating because it looks like it’ll be raining, and I’m not up for that. But I have, already, cycled into my new place of employment twice. It’s (depending on the route) 9-11 miles, so an easier ride, and because I no longer share a ride with the rest of my family, I cycled home both times too.

My first attempt was a couple of weeks ago. Forecast had been fairly decent, though it did change on the day, and it was much colder and cloudier than I’d originally been hoping. In fact, it was so cold first thing in the morning that I had to wear the full winter gloves, three layers, and my phone’s battery was nearly flat when I arrived. That was not just temperature-related, but because I was using Google to follow the recommended cycling route on the back lanes.

How did it go? Pros: I was on a post-exercise high all day at work, and in such a good mood that some students (clearly sensitive to my moods) actually commented on how cheerful I was. I also broke the duck: dealt with the colossal faff of making sure I had everything I needed, including a pair of shoes in the cupboard at work and an emergency shirt in case I was disgracefully sweaty. As far as the latter, I wasn’t (because: cold), and the regular, non-cycling merino roll neck sweater I wore was perfectly suitable – with the bonus feature that it was something I have been wearing to work on a regular basis, anyway.

It’s ironic that I went for this jumper, considering the quantity of specialist cycling gear I own. But all the cycling gear, even in XL configurations tends to look a bit tight around my wok belly, so while I like wearing it on a loop ride, I didn’t want to be walking around all day looking like that. I did wear my Rapha commuting trousers, but I’m still skeptical about them. Although I ordered my standard waist size, they’re a lot tighter than all the other trousers I wear in that size, and they’re not terrific for riding my road bike. Sure, they’d work for an upright commuter bike on flat roads, but they’re not really suitable for drop-bar riding.

My top layer was my Chapeau jacket, which came into its own in the cold air, and looked acceptable enough that a colleague expressed disappointment that I wasn’t wearing lycra, because they’d wanted to poke fun.

But I might wear lycra in the future, and just change into a pair of trousers at work.

Cons: I found it hard. I hate first-thing exercise, preferring to ride in the afternoon, and in warmer weather. The restricted movement of the trousers made me uncomfortable, and my feet were freezing. The biggest problem (apart from my own weight) was the weight of my backpack, containing my laptop and some sustenance, as well as all the bits and pieces I usually carry in my jacket pocket. I guess with the best will in the world the backpack added 3-4 kg in weight, and it puts additional pressure on your neck and shoulders, lower back, hips etc.

Cycling home was just about okay. My legs were tired (and teaching means I’m on my feet most of the day, so it’s not as if I was resting), and I had a couple of gumption moments on the steeper inclines. But I got there.

And then I did it again this recent Thursday. It was warmer (only just, in the morning), so I was able to wear regular gloves and my feet didn’t get cold. I also took a more direct route, on a busier road. The thing about the back roads route was that it was (a) two miles longer; and (b) involved a full mile on the A43 dual carriageway. The more direct route (on the A422) does involve a lot of impatient and dangerous cars/trucks (but the speed limit is 50, and at most people were waiting, what, 5-10 seconds to overtake – many of them too closely).

Cycling in was okay. The merino roll neck was slightly too warm once I was at work (my room gets hot on sunny days) and the backpack was still too heavy, but I managed, if slowly. I didn’t feel quite so much of a post-exercise high, and I still found the preparation (shifting stuff from jacket to backpack etc.) a big faff. For the route home, I took off a layer (the jumper) and took it easy, but I did stop about half way to put a bit of extra air into my back tyre. This was mainly through concern that the weight of the backpack was compromising it, especially over bumps and unavoidable potholes. So that added 5 minutes to the journey.

Then a thing happened. The following morning, reaching forward with a slight twisting motion to pull my right sock on, my lower back went into spasm. 24 hours later, I’m still in pain (not so much), and I think the real problem is with my hip, which is out of alignment. Now, I’ve had problems with my hips for years, and one of the reasons I cycle rather than run is that I need low-impact exercise. But clearly the combination of cycling and wearing a backpack has put my left hip out of alignment.

I was in extreme pain on Friday. I shouldn’t have gone to work, but I had classes I needed to see, and I knew that a day at home would be just as painful. The fact that I kept moving all day probably helped. But the pain was so bad I couldn’t pull the zips up on my boots until lunchtime, and even this morning, I had to sit down to pull on my trousers, and I’ve not risked trying to put socks on.

So I’m still keen to ride to work, but what do I do about my MacBook? I could leave it at work – but that would mean being without it at home for two nights, and if I wanted to ride to work, say, twice a week, I’d be without my laptop (either at home or at work) for most of the week, unless I risked carrying it in one direction or another.

So this is annoying, particularly as the backpack was quite expensive. Dammit.