It’s a holocaust and it’s happening now.

 

Could this be a message of change for 2017? A friend in Saudi Arabia sent me a link to it. It is neither hopeful nor inspirational, unless you do something with it. Please forward. If enough people want it to be, 2017 can be the year when our political leaders stop standing by watching and wringing their hands and take action to stop this and similar horrors around the world.

’Don’t ask me who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. I don’t know. And frankly it doesn’t matter… Who is marching to stop this?‘

What a party!

By Mary Helms

We celebrated Cheryl’s 60th birthday in Paris, more than 20 of us, surprising her at an intimate gala at George V. What a party!

So some of us had amazing memories as we gathered at a neighbor’s home to surprise her for her 70th. There were new friends added, lovely food catered, and the best of wines. A true feeling of anticipation and festivity as we waited for Cheryl to arrive! The rain added to the excitement as we wondered when she would show up!

And show up she did, her recent discovered Parkinson’s trembling. We trembled with her, four of us who had strokes since the Paris party and the spirits of Ann and Bill and Jack whose laughter was a bright memory. And just before the cake was cut, the rainbow came, double and complete, horizon to horizon! And we trembled once more, all of us. What a party!

Damn you all to hell

This story also comes from the excellent Letters of Note website,

In July of 2012, in an admirable attempt to secure him as a guest on his Nerdist Podcast, Chris Hardwick sent a beautiful 1934 Smith Corona to noted typewriter collector Tom Hanks and popped the question. Within days, Hanks responded with the charming letter seen below, typed on the Corona.

27 Tom Hanks Smith Corona 27 Tom Hanks letter

Unsurprisingly, the anecdote-filled podcast that resulted is wonderful. It can be heard here. And here’s the text of that splendid letter.

Dear Chris, Ashley, and all the diabolical genuies at Nerdist Industries.

Just who do you think you are to try to bribe me into an appearance on your ‘thing’ with this gift of the most fantastic Corona Silent typewriter made in 1934?

You are out of your minds if you think… that I… wow, this thing has great action… and this deep crimson color… Wait! I’m not so shallow as to… and it types nearly silently…

Oh, OKAY!

I will have my people contact yours and work out some kind of interview process…

Damn you all to hell,

(Signed, ‘Tom Hanks’)

 

We tell true stories, mostly. And all the better for it.

by John Carey

What follows is an extract from John Carey’s introduction to The Faber Book of Reportage, 1987. Here he explains the distinction we have to think of between writing truth and writing fiction. When Carey refers to reportage he does so in the broad sense, meaning live, on-the-spot news journalism.

 

…if we ask what took the place of reportage in the ages before it was made available to its millions of consumers, the likeliest answer seems to be religion.

Not, of course, that we should assume pre-communication age man was deeply religious, in the main. There is plenty of evidence to suggest he was not. But religion was the permanent backdrop to his existence, as reportage is for his modern counterpart. Reportage supplies modern man with a constant and reassuring sense of events going on beyond his immediate horizon (reassuring even, or particularly, when the events themselves are terrible, since they then contrast more comfortingly with the reader’s supposed safety). Reportage provides modern man, too, with a release from his trivial routines, and a habitual daily illusion of communication with a reality greater than himself. In all these ways religion suggests itself as the likeliest substitute pre-modern man could have found for reportage, at any rate in the West.

When we view reportage as the natural successor to religion, it helps us to understand why it should be so profoundly taken up with the subject of death. Death, in its various forms of murder, massacre, accident, natural catastrophe, warfare, and so on, is the subject to which reportage naturally gravitates, and one difficulty, in compiling an anthology of this kind, is to stop it becoming just a string of slaughters. Religion has traditionally been mankind’s answer to death, allowing him to believe in various kinds of permanency which make his own extinction more tolerable, or even banish his fear of it altogether. The Christian belief in personal immortality is an obvious and extreme example of this. Reportage, taking religion’s place, endlessly feeds its reader with accounts of the deaths of other people, and therefore places him continually in the position of a survivor – one who has escaped the violent and terrible ends which, it graphically apprises him, others have come to. In this way reportage, like religion, gives the individual a comforting sense of his own immortality.

If reportage performs these social functions it clearly has a social value comparable to that which religion once had. Its ‘cultural’ value, on the other hand, has generally been considered negligible with certain favoured exceptions such as Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad, which are allowed to be literature because their authors also wrote respectable literary hooks. The question of whether reportage is ‘literature’ is not in itself interesting or even meaningful. ‘Literature’, we now realise, is not an objectively ascertainable category to which certain works naturally belong, but rather a term used by institutions and establishments and other culture-controlling groups to dignify those texts to which, for whatever reasons, they wish to attach value. The question worth asking therefore is not whether reportage is literature, hut why intellectuals and literary institutions have generally been so keen to deny it that status.

Resentment of the masses, who are regarded as reportage’s audience, is plainly a factor in the development of this prejudice. The terms used to express it are often social in their implications. ‘High’ culture is distinguished from the ‘vulgarity’ said to characterize reportage. But the disparagement of reportage also reflects a wish to promote the imaginary above the real. Works of imagination are, it is maintained, inherently superior, and have a spiritual value absent from ‘journalism’. The creative artist is in touch with truths higher than the actual, which give him exclusive entry into the soul of man.

Such convictions seem to represent a residue of magical thinking. The recourse to images of ascent which their adherents manifest, the emphasis on purity, the recoil from earthly contamination, and the tendency towards a belief in inspiration, all belong to the traditional ambience of priesthoods and mystery cults. Those who hold such views about literature are likely, also, to resent critical attempts to relate authors’ works to their lives. The biographical approach, it is argued, debases literature by tying it to mere reality: we should release texts from their authors, and contemplate them pure and disembodied, or at any rate only in the company of other equally pure and disembodied texts.

The superstitions that lie behind such dictates are interesting as primitive cultural vestiges, but it would be wrong to grant them serious attention as arguments. The advantages of reportage over imaginative literature, are, on the other hand, clear. Imaginative literature habitually depends for its effect on a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ in audience or reader, and this necessarily entails an element of game or collusion or self-deception. Reportage, by contrast, lays claim directly to the power of the real, which imaginative literature can approach only through make-believe.

It would be foolish, of course, to belittle imaginative literature on this score. The fact that it is not real – that its griefs, loves and deaths are all a pretence, is one reason why it can sustain us. It is a dream from which we can awake when we wish, and so it gives us, among the obstinate urgencies of real life, a precious illusion of freedom. It allows us to use for pleasure passions and sympathies (anger, fear, pity, etc.), which in normal circumstances would arise only in situations of pain or distress. In this way it frees and extends our emotional life. It seems probable that much – or most – reportage is read as if it were fiction by a majority of its readers. Its panics and disasters do not affect them as real, but as belonging to a shadow world distinct from their own concerns, and without their pressing actuality. Because of this, reportage has been able to take the place of imaginative literature in the lives of most people. They read newspapers rather than books, and newspapers which might just as well be fictional.

However enjoyable this is, it represents, of course, a flight from the real, as does imaginative literature, and good reportage is designed to make that flight impossible. It exiles us from fiction into the sharp terrain of truth. All the great realistic novelists of the nineteenth century – Balzac, Dickens, Tolstoy, Zola – drew on the techniques of reportage, and even built eye-witness accounts and newspaper stories into their fictions, so as to give them heightened realism. But the goal they struggled towards always lay beyond their reach. They could produce, at best, only imitation reportage, lacking the absolutely vital ingredient of reportage, which is the simple fact that the reader knows all this actually happened.

When we read (to choose the most glaring example) accounts of the Holocaust by survivors and onlookers, some of which I have included in this book, we cannot comfort ourselves (as we can when distressed by accounts of suffering in realistic novels) by reminding ourselves that they are, after all, just stories. The facts presumed demand our recognition, and require us to respond, though we do not know how to. We read the details – the Jews by the mass grave waiting to be shot; the father comforting his son and pointing to the sky; the grandmother amusing the baby – and we are possessed by our own inadequacy, by a ridiculous desire to help, by pity which is unappeasable and useless.

Or not quite useless, perhaps. For at this level (so one would like to hope) reportage may change its readers, may educate their sympathies, may extend – in both directions – their ideas about what it is to be a human being, may limit their capacity for the inhuman. These gains have traditionally been claimed for imaginative literature. Bur since reportage, unlike literature, lifts the screen from reality, its lessons are – and ought to be – more telling; and since it reaches millions untouched by literature, it has an incalculably greater potential.

The collection: it’s never to late to do something wonderful.

It was cold and my feet hurt. I’d just been rejected, for the umpteenth time and been politely told off by a station guard for rattling my bucket. ‘It annoys the staff,’ he explained. ‘Well, if you do it too much it does.’ Then a dignified middle-aged man with a beard trailing his family behind him stepped from the throng that was flowing from the shopping centre and stopped, right in front of me. He looked me full in the eye as he dug inside his voluminous winter coat, pulled out his pocket book and proceeded to empty its contents into my bucket. My spirits soared. Then he gathered his family around him, mother, teenage son and two younger daughters and spoke to them for a while in a language I couldn’t catch. Soon they were all rummaging among their clothing. The procedure took some time. Then the teenage son, beaming from ear to ear, came over to pour handfuls more cash into my bucket.
‘Thank you’, he said, then bounced off with a spring in his step to catch his departing family. For the first time that day, I felt great.

36Collection1

I was with my wife, Marie, and younger son, Charlie, standing at the top of the escalators in Bond Street station, just outside the barriers. It was Easter Sunday and, though a lot thinner than we’d anticipated, a constant flow of shoppers was coming through. Marie and I each had a bucket, Charlie had two and we’d a three-hour stint to complete. We were collecting money for Syria’s refugees and those displaced by civil war inside the country, three million-plus and growing by the day.

That sea of faces rising from the escalators is daunting, first time you confront it. They come in surges, a mixed amorphous mass. The last thing they’re expecting to greet them is three white Brits in a line, rattling buckets. Not all are pleased. Most are indifferent. Some are, well, extraordinary. If only we could have an announcement at the foot of the escalator, saying, ‘Get your money ready!’

Bond Street station is the world in microcosm, a mini United Nations. In our three hours it seemed as if every conceivable ethnic grouping filed past us. We couldn’t help but notice which were the more generous. It wasn’t the white British middle classes, far from it. Charlie felt South Asians gave most to him – a Japanese woman with a huge smile gave him half the contents of her purse. A Chinese woman with a cheeky grin slipped me a tenner. But it was middle-eastern people, mainly Muslims, who put most in my bucket. Marie’s too.

Young couples are the least generous, or so it seemed to us, with older couples not far behind. Some people love givers and giving, so support us with looks. Others prefer to look away.
Three people come at me from different angles all at the same time. Briefly the bucket gets busy. I don’t know who to thank first, so I thank the whole foyer, loudly. The station manager beams. Everyone is looking at me now.

36Buckets

Then there’s a lull. Busyness comes and goes, but the shoppers are few and I fear it’s not enough. We’re doing badly. Someone tells us that most shops are closed. For a full 20 minutes everyone ignores us. Then Marie says, ‘I’ve got three tenners.’ I think of Pavarotti and Co. but resist breaking into song.

Smile. Make eye contact. The brightest eyes are the most generous, there’s no doubting that. The bucket feels heavier, but isn’t really. We stand stock still, not rattling, not moving, buckets aloft. Then, in unison, we give them a sway.

Children really enjoy giving. A man stood in front of me for several minutes digging in his pockets. Then, having found his oyster card, he left without giving. Behind him a gaggle of Syrian women, hands ornate with henna designs, ask if they can take my photo, then give me a pile of cash. ‘Here’s £10.00, says another woman, ‘Have a nice day and thank you very much for what you’re doing.’ Smarter-dressed people are not more generous. Expensive coats don’t give, we reckon.

A young Turkish boy maybe eight or nine asks me what I’m doing.‘Why are they fighting?’, he asks. ‘What’s a refugee?’ I try to explain but can’t give him a decent justification. ‘It’s just bad’, I say. ‘People have to leave their homes and loved ones in the middle of the night.’
He looks about to get emotional. ‘I’ll speak to my auntie, ‘ he promises, ‘and come back.’ He didn’t, though he tried, I’m sure. And used some of my lines too, I bet. Perhaps, as he grows, he’ll think about it…

A young Italian man asks me the way to Buckingham Palace. I oblige, though he gives me nothing but a smile. Then another chap asks me why I’m doing this. I should have quoted some lines from A A Gill in today’s Sunday Times, but I didn’t bring it with me.

As I watch, figures appear out of the darkness, bent double under sacks. Families hold hands, moving past us like heavy ghosts. This is the last leg of one of the most dangerous journeys on Earth.

Gill goes on, in similar, graphic vein. Note for next collection: bring a supply of moving emotional stories, because sometimes people want to talk. ‘Why isn’t there more on the News?,’ one man asks. Marie responds accurately. ‘I don’t know.’

Just as we were getting ready to go a woman in a headscarf walked up to Charlie and asked what he was doing. She was young, about 25, and crying, big tears running down her cheeks. As she left him to visit the cash machine in the corner of the concourse, her eyes met mine. Minutes later she was back, clutching money. She didn’t want to speak, just put two notes into my bucket, urgently. I watched till, with a gentle push from her, they were gone. Then so was she. I was overcome.

Our time was up. We thanked London Transport’s wonderful people, signed out then headed off to find a pub, thirsty and a bit tearful. As we sauntered down Brook Street a passing gent hailed Charlie. ‘For Syria’, he said, putting a fiver in Charlie’s bucket. For a minute I thought Charlie was going to say, ‘But we’ve finished for the day.’ He didn’t.

‘You’re a toff,’ he said, beaming.

Truly it’s never too late, to do something wonderful.

36haul

© Ken Burnett 2013

An abridged version of this article is featured on The Guardian’s website.

Ken Burnett is one of six independent trustees of the UK’s Disasters Emergency Committee, the unifying body for 13 leading British aid charities which come together in times of great need to raise money for the victims of crisis and disaster. To support the DEC go here.

What happens when I try to give my Guantánamo guards presents?

From the Reprieve website. See below for details. 

Emad Hassan was abducted by bounty hunters while studying in Pakistan and sold to US forces for $5,000. A simple mistake in the confusion of interrogation sealed his fate – he told his interrogators he knew about ‘Al Qa’idah’, referring to a small village with that name near his hometown in Yemen. Emad was then taken to Guantánamo Bay, where he has been held ever since. He has been on hunger strike since 2007, longer than any other detainee.

Emad has never been charged with a crime and was cleared for release in 2009. But he has lost a third of his life to Guantánamo. These are his words.

 Emad Hassan

While I was being fed, the Block Commander fell down unconscious, his eyes rolled back up into his head, a choking sound came out of his chest and his legs kicked at something invisible. I watched for a second. Then two. Then three. I found myself crying, calling the medical team to come. I was worried about him. I forgot who we both were. The block guards jumped to his aid, trying to help him breathe. He was taken to the hospital.

Believe it or not, I was really worried about him. I tried to analyse my feelings later, but found it odd that I would do so. This is the reaction of any human, surely? But here in Guantanamo, things are different. I’m supposed to enjoy this terrible scene. I’m supposed to be happy to see this man suffer. After all, he is, as the colonel put it, “an enemy”. If he is truly an enemy, then I shouldn’t have called the medical team over, I should not have asked about his condition for the rest of the day. Yet I thanked God for my reaction – it means I am still human.

I agree with Colonel Bogdan the guards here have been suffering. Although he said guards here suffer from PTSD at twice the rate of combat troops and that was an absurd statement. [He later retracted it.] The guards here are suffering because of the inferiority complex with which they live. They are ordered to separate their bodies from their souls and to abandon their humanity, yet this cannot be. They are forced to ignore their emotions and feelings for others. More than that, an important part of them was murdered: Justice, freedom and rights were erased.

These are the principles that they live by and are willing to die for, that’s the fuel that keeps them standing their ground in Afghanistan. So, where is it here? Guards do what they are convinced is wrong and say what they believe is nonsense. Especially the Block Commander who collapsed unconscious.
 This life affected him; it created an imbalance within his personality. This conflict disabled his mind, eyes and ears and instead he used his boss’s mind, eyes and ears. What his boss decided, judged, said – that is what he does. He is a robot.

I once gave a guard a gift, if you can consider chocolate milk a gift. He refused it with a fierce look, as if I was trying to bribe him. I expected the refusal. A refusal like that is nothing new. But why did he react like that? Did the chocolate milk offend him? Did he misunderstand my simple action? I explained why I did what I did. I told him: ‘My religion and morals teach me to appreciate respect and so when you show me respect, I want to give you a gift. I know it is nothing – the chocolate milk, I mean – but as you can see, there are few things I have. If we were living outside in the real world, it would be different. I didn’t mean to offend you, it never came to my mind that such a simple offering would offend you.’

Even after this speech, he refused to accept the chocolate milk. Perhaps he just doesn’t like chocolate milk.
 I continued to give guards small tokens of my appreciation. The medical staff reacted in the same way. Some accepted, but most refused my presents. I had to explain why I was doing this to everyone, particularly the women. It is hard to get beyond their suspicion. I have learned that if you give someone something then you must expect something in return. And no one here – guards, medical staff – wants to give us detainees anything.

They believe it is a risk to accept something from us. Once, one guard saw another guard accept candy bars from a prisoner. The first guard told someone what had happened, and the guard who accepted the candy was punished and moved to another camp while the detainee was targeted and harassed by the guards. 
So now we have been taught as detainees that our job is to hate the guards and we will be punished if we do not do our job.

How many times have I been punished for this reason? Too many. But I refuse to stop. Sometimes the gifts are not just for them, they are for me, they are given to remind me that there is a place for gifts in my heart, to remind me that I am alive and am capable of love, honesty and sincerity.

 

Story reproduced with permission from Reprieve,

Reprieve logo
PO Box 72054
London EC3P 3BZ

020 7553 8140

info@reprieve.org.uk
www.reprieve.org.uk

Reprieve is a small organisation of courageous and committed human rights defenders, founded in 1999 by British human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith. Reprieve provides free legal and investigative support to some of the world’s most vulnerable people: British, European and other nationals facing execution and those victimised by states’ abusive counter-terror policies – rendition, torture, extrajudicial imprisonment and extrajudicial killing.

Reprieve’s lawyers and investigators are supported by a community of people from all around the world, connected by a belief in human rights and justice. Together, they fight for the victims of extreme human rights abuses with a combination of public pressure and legal action.

Join Reprieve and take action here.

 

 

I like words

This story is a letter from a writer looking for work. I found it on a brilliant website called letters of note. It shows creativity and hutzpah in spades, of course, and also expresses very nicely the taste, feel and smell of words, their endless range and versatility.

Dear Sir,

I like words. I like fat buttery words, such as ooze, turpitude, glutinous, toady. I like solemn, angular, creaky words, such as straitlaced, cantankerous, pecunious, valedictory. I like spurious, black-is-white words, such as mortician, liquidate, tonsorial, demi-monde. I like suave ‘V’ words, such as Svengali, svelte, bravura, verve. I like crunchy, brittle, crackly words, such as splinter, grapple, jostle, crusty. I like sullen, crabbed, scowling words, such as skulk, glower, scabby, churl. I like Oh-Heavens, my-gracious, land’s-sake words, such as tricksy, tucker, genteel, horrid. I like elegant, flowery words, such as estivate, peregrinate, elysium, halcyon. I like wormy, squirmy, mealy words, such as crawl, blubber, squeal, drip. I like sniggly, chuckling words, such as cowlick, gurgle, bubble and burp.

I like the word screenwriter better than copywriter, so I decided to quit my job in a New York advertising agency and try my luck in Hollywood, but before taking the plunge I went to Europe for a year of study, contemplation and horsing around.

I have just returned and I still like words.

May I have a few with you?

Robert Pirosh

The running man

From Born to Run

by Christopher McDougall

The Rarámuri, or Tarahumara, are a Native American people from northwestern Mexico, renowned for their long-distance running ability. In their language the term rarámuri refers specifically to the men. This passage was read at Sir Christopher Chataway’s memorial service, held at St John’s Church on 19th March 2014, a brilliant celebration of a wonderful life. Chris was one of Britain’s most famous athletes. He held the world record for the 5,000 metres and paced Roger Bannister for the first 4-minute mile. Though running was his passion, he was so much more; a highly successful businessman, government minister and chair of the international development charity ActionAid to mention just a few. A great man and a good friend too.

Borntorun1

‘That was the real secret of the Tarahumara: they’d never forgotten what it felt like to love running. They remembered that running was mankind’s first fine art, our original act of inspired creation. Way before we were scratching pictures on caves or beating rhythms on hollow trees, we were perfecting the art of combining our breath, mind and muscles into fluid self-propulsion over wild terrain. And when our ancestors finally did make their first cave paintings, what were the first designs? A downward slash, lightning bolts through the bottom and middle – behold, The Running Man. Distance running was revered because it was indispensable; it was the way we survived and thrived and spread across the planet You ran to eat and to avoid being eaten: you ran to find a mate and impress her, and with her you ran off to start a new life together. You had to love running, or you wouldn’t live to love anything else. And like everything else we love – everything we sentimentally call our ‘passions’ and ‘desires’– it’s really an encoded ancestral necessity. We were born to run: We were born because we run. We’re all Running People, as the Tarahumara have always known.’

Borntorun3

The President’s Task Force

From Relationship Fundraising, by Ken Burnett, Wiley 2002.

This story is and example of supporter recognition par excellence. It’s included here because it shows that donors and volunteers want to be involved in their favourite causes and will happily go along with whatever creative ways we can find to make that involvement real. This story was first told to me by an eminent American database expert called John Groman.

Donors want to be involved in their favourite causes. Even if they clearly understand it as a device designed to secure their involvement, they appear not to mind at all. The joining of a structured scheme gets them in on the inside, usually at a very modest cost. Fundraisers and campaigners should capitalise on this compulsion to belong. Voluntary organisations have a clear and very desirable product in involvement schemes, one that is so far under-developed in many countries.

A classic example of how completely this can work in practice was the launching of the President’s Task Force, an elite donor group established by Ronald Reagan’s office shortly after his election in 1981 as president of the USA. Of course the qualification to join the President’s Task Force was that you should give a minimum donation – $10 each month – to campaign funds. Large numbers of patriotic Republicans rushed to do their duty, trading a small amount of their disposable cash for the recognition and reward that went with being able to tell friends and neighbours that they were a member of the President’s Task Force.

Various pieces of commemorative paraphernalia were produced and distributed in case members had to prove their status to doubting acquaintances who needed physical evidence of their friend’s important role in the affairs of slate. These included a ‘presidential medal of merit”, a presidential medal of merit lapel pin, a model American flag, which was dedicated en masse at a special ceremony in the White House, and inscription of the donor’s name on the ‘presidential roll of honour’. There was even an exclusive ‘members only’ Task Force telephone hotline.
Donors, of course, loved it. For just $10 a month this was real value for money. Most of all to encourage the authentic feel of the campaign the fundraisers had produced stationery that was the exact facsimile of the President’s writing paper. Colour printed and embossed, laser personalised and signed it looked exactly as it would had the President himself taken time out from his busy schedule to write a personal note to Elmer E Rosenblum, or whomever, to acknowledge his individual contribution and stress its importance to America.

More than a few of these letters were framed and hung in a prominent place in the family home so that visitors could be easily subjected to an hour or so’S dissertation on Elmer’ 5 sacrifice for his country.

Across the length and breadth of the entire United States, thousands of Republicans took their membership of the President’s Task Force very seriously indeed – and the dollars rolled into the President’s office as a result. Sustained by a brilliant direct marketing campaign of record and reward, the President’s Task Force gave its donors something beyond price – the prestige of practical involvement in something they believed in. As such it simply used the best of technique and technology, plus a forgivable amount of kitsch, to establish the ideal relationship fundraising proposition, an ongoing relationship where both donor and recipient could benefit in equal amounts, at the end of which a clear financial and practical target could be reached.

In relaying the case history of the ‘President’s Task Force’ at the International Fund Raising Workshop in Holland, John Groman of Epsilon Data Management provided an anecdote which summed up the power of the campaign.

Late one evening a motor-cycle patrolman flagged down a speeding motorist on one of America’ 5 interminable inter-state highways. With customary leisurely grace he strolled up to the driver, who appeared to be in something of a hurry, and proceeded to ask him to provide his driving licence and evidence of insurance. Without a word, but inwardly seething at the delay, the driver – it may even have been Elmer E Rosenblum – got out of his car and led the patrolman firmly by the hand round to the back of the car, to the enormous boot (or trunk) of his Cadillac. Still without a sound, but with a gesture of magnificently righteous indignation, he flung his hand dramatically down to point out the large and very official-looking bumper sticker which prominently proclaimed the ‘President’s Task Force’ and indicated that the driver was, in fact, nothing less than a member.

The patrolman was astounded. He stammered a fulsome apology, saluted, swore it wouldn’t happen again and waved his distinguished visitor happily on his way. I don’t know that the patrolman escorted Elmer across the state line with lights flashing and sirens wailing, but I like to think he did.PTF1

An uplifting solution

It’s inner city Glasgow, 1975, and a new teacher takes on some hard men and wild women who’ve been kept behind at school.

by Isobel Robertson 

Teaching secondary school is an awesome responsibility even at the best of times. I like this story because it shows that winning is possible whatever the odds, that even the hardest and toughest of youngsters can be reached.

43 Scotland's tawse

‘Take a deep breath, it can’t possibly be as bad as you imagine.’ I tried hard to convince myself that I would cope splendidly. Turning the door handle I stepped across the threshold into the lions’ den.

Thirty pairs of eyes swiveled to ‘clock’ my entrance, sullen 15-year-olds, the cream of the ROSLA kids. ROSLA, Raising Of the School Leaving Age, passed amid crisis and panic within the teaching profession, had just become the latest piece of genius theory to reduce unemployment numbers. These were the first class forced to stay the extra year in school, with no discernable syllabus, resources, or goodwill. And here they were, sitting in my classroom, thinking they’d rather be anywhere else. I pulled myself up to my five feet four inches, tried best as I could to scowl and marched to the comparative safety behind my desk.

The next few weeks were hell on earth. I tried a host of topics related to my geography degree; environment, weather, town planning, country capitals, quizzes, puzzles….even ‘draw your granny!’ The cries of ‘useless’ and ‘boring’ rang in my ears each night as I trudged home to mark jotters with nothing in them, or worse, comments I’d rather not decipher.

Then there was the discipline.

Matthew Mills was the worst. He goaded me every day, trying to force me to give him the TAWSE, or strap, a leather belt Scottish schools used as an instrument of punishment, even torture. I had decided, as a cultured human being, I would never give ‘the belt’. I could remember the pain I had suffered when it made rapid contact with my tender palms and fingers. Matthew was the leader of the pack and eventually I had to do it. I extracted him from the class; no way was I going to belt him in front of his adoring public. He was over six feet tall. I got a stool to stand on. Then I issued a warning. 

‘So help me, if you move your hands I’ll go straight into that class and tell your boys just what a coward you are.’

Then I hit him as hard as I could. And another twice for luck! His face was predictably impassive. I hadn’t really hurt him.

Then, unbelievably, he said, ‘Aye, you’re no bad.’

Things really improved after that, but in my professional opinion I was not doing a good job. Discipline had recovered, but what to do about the education part of my job? I had access to transport; I had imagination and a supportive head of department pleased to sign off any idea as long as he was not asked to participate. And I had a cousin who managed a factory on the edge of Glasgow. It was a small factory but part of an industrial estate. So began the germ of an idea.

In those days there was negligible focus on Health and Safety or parental consent and in any case most of these kids were untraceable in the evening hours, their parents or parent being only too glad of their absence. I did prepare. I thought about learning outcomes and rationale. They’d see a production line, see working in a team, learn about economics, advertising and so on. Some of these kids would end up working in a factory. I had my link to industrial geography.

All set! Seatbelts on in a minibus full of excited ROSLAs. On this their first ever field trip were Matthew and his pals plus five girls, with the distinctly unlovely Janice among them. Janice was a ‘big lassie’ and a member of the Orange band. Yes, the type that marches the streets throughout the marching season to the stress and discomfort of the city of Glasgow Police. Janice played the horn but her voice alone sufficed to create a deep bass background to any tune. With Janice and Matthew on board we left the playground, my heart fluttering in my chest.

‘Aw muss, gonae pass they busses so we can gie them the finger?’ ‘Certainly not. We must get there safely children.’

And safely we did arrive, amid raucous laughter, at our first stop, the lightbulb factory. But sadly the experience left the kids unenlightened. On to watch paint dry at a paint outlet on the industrial estate. Few questions were asked and little interest shown. I was thinking the whole thing was a disaster but I did have my trump card, my cousin’s factory. As we drew up outside the Lovable Bra Factory there was a gasp from the crew.

We entered the building to be met by Gordon. He gave them the uplifting story of the company and explained the production line. We were ushered in to the factory space where rows of Glaswegian ladies at their Singer sowing machines were blathering away nineteen to the dozen. Reams of pink, black, neon lace, ribbon and wire for the DD cups. I had never seen the boys or Janice so quiet and riveted.

The banter and the chat from the women was pure Glaswegian. Finally a brassy redhead addressed Matthew

‘Ah son, d’ya fancy a job on this line, eh?’

Immediate response,

‘Nah. Ma job’ll be taking them aff!’

Much hilarity all round. And the laughter continued all the way home with hearty singing and even a ‘thanks miss’ at the end.

I had found a breakthrough. The kids had to finish the term and we managed to get there but life for me was tolerable and I actually had a new group of minders in the school.

‘Aye, she’s ok her. Gie her some slack eh?’

Tawse2