Berries like blood
Stains on her shirt
All that red squirrelling
Now the summer sags
And trees are beset by
By dry slime
It must be time
Berries like blood
Stains on her shirt
All that red squirrelling
Now the summer sags
And trees are beset by
By dry slime
It must be time
The morning light penetrates my skin
Like benign bleach, or some
Essential vitamin, only missed in absence
It glances from the surface of the sea
Like skimmed stone, then it
It is a weapon of mass invention
The very place of our creation
No wonder then, that our mother’s mother shaped her very
Grounds around those rays that suns make at solstice;
That she took the warmth within her, like tea
And it made me
This sculpture is going with us to ‘Potfest’ (yes, it is really called that. There may well be some customers who are dissappointed!) It began with a firing failure, but there was something about her that I could not throw away…
Hopefully this poem makes the same point;
How is she made?
And for whom?
Could that through which she is constructed
Be the very cause of her constraints?
By whom was she broken?
Might she ever mend?
Before the first blush of red kisses the top leaves of
My maple tree I sense the approach of autumn
from a certain essence in the still-warm air
It reminds me not quite of dying, but
The way tea is when it’s gone cold in the cup
Or an apple is after it sat too long
Long before the weight of old leaves became too much
For the oaks to bear, the soil was already weary
From pushing so much green
While we sat under a yellowing sun
Conversing while we could. Refusing to heed
The birds on the telephone lines, making ready
For their leaving
The great Becoming
How small we made you.
How constrained by our constraints;
We wore you like a lapel badge,
Pocketed you like a personal passport, then
Raised you at our border like a flag.
We locked you in the pages of
Our Book, then threw away the key.
But how we worshipped you.
How we pointed at you with steeples.
You asked us to follow you, to
Give away our second shirts, but instead
We made a million icons, each one framed in gold.
We swayed and raised our egos, singing love songs-
Not to you, but to idealised versions of ourselves.
How is it that still, you love things by becoming them?
How was it that this brown-skinned man with the heart of a woman
Took upon herself another name for everything, so we could
Encounter her in all these beautiful things and bleed with her when she
Lies broken? And just when all seems lost, she whispers still;
See, I am making all things new.
I am trying to write a poem a day at the moment- a return to an old discipline that I have found useful. I may post some of them on here… inevitably the quality will be somewhat variable- although I have long tried to stop measuring poetry in terms of whether it is ‘good’ ir not – even my own. Rather I try to decide whether it is meaningful.
I have been thinking about the stories that hold our society together. A few of us watched a video clip and discussed it via Zoom on Sunday, and it occurred to me (not for the first time) that in order for things to get better, we have to find better stories, and we have to come to see the old ones as flawed.
The title of this piece, by the way, comes from here.
The process begun by the Enlightenment was, by and large, a positive development at least for Europe. But this process has been interrupted not so much by religion – the antithesis of the Enlightenment – but by a faith-based secular ideology that says the pursuit by individuals of their own private material gain is good for all.
To dissent against this faith-based secular religion is to be consigned to Purgatory and Hell by the Upholders of the Faith. When the upholders of such a system see a dissenting opposition that is so threatening it must be condemned, it is probably worth asking, “So what’s the threat?” This is what makes a study of the writings of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and other dissenters from the secular faith so fascinating. Before “Marxism” was codified into a tool of repression by state capitalists, (Soviet Union, China – regimes that used Marxist rhetoric to repress their own people), it was and still can be a useful critique of the secular religion of capitalism and very revealing in its analysis. Some have helped bring this nineteenth-century dissent up to date on the basis of a critical scientific analysis of the evolution of the capitalist system, (Paul Sweezy, Howard Parsons, David Harvey, John Bellamy Foster, et al.).
The most valuable critique is the questioning of the “enlightened self-interest as public good” assumption. This assumption is based on the false premise that humans are separate from their environment; that somehow, we are “above” the normal consequences of action in the field of the life-death continuum of Planet Earth. A brief perusal of the consequences of this false premise should be sobering to any thinking person. The pursuit of resources and markets to feed a system that MUST grow to survive has made the planet and all of its inhabitants commodities. In capitalist mythology, EVERYTHING has a monetary value, including and perhaps especially, people. The fact that humans are dependent on a healthy environment is not a central consideration – capitalists who acquire financial independence can BUY a healthy environment as one of their private acquisitions, it is assumed. Everyone else must either enter into the field of competition and buy their own “healthy environment,” or be consigned to a life that Thomas Hobbes called “nasty, brutish, and short” – a self-fulfilling prophecy if ever there was one.
Here is the poem;
Lies we tell each other
Money greased the wheels that turn
The world around, and
I am not lost, I’m found
The bigger men will harder fall, for they
Lack our humble cushion
Our enemy is Russian
Fulfilment comes consuming this
Joy is made through data
I’m just a late starter
When we wish on falling stars
Trickle-down comes calling
All poetry is boring
The common good embraces this;
My own accumulating
Stress is enervating
Christmas comes but once a year
We show great love through spending
Our world is never ending
The air bends her
But she is not hindered.
She curls and curves in the wind, but
The shapes she makes
Are not dictated.
Sometimes the sea gives
Sometimes she has to take.
She spies a silver flash
Then pierces the waves
Like a flung spear.
Her world has four dimensions;
Grey skies, smoked by approaching weather
Blue-green fathoms that fade to deepest black
Fledglings awaiting her return, unfillable
The song of the spirit that lives in
We have been watching this. It has thrilled me and it has made me weep.
About half way in, a band called ‘The Breath’ stole mine.
They were familiar songs to me- I love their albums. But watching them come together after lock down in order to sing again… sublime words, brilliant guitar playing and her voice…well, listen yourself.
My late sister would have loved it. We would have cried together, instead of me crying alone, wishing I could share it with her.
Which is kind of the point of this post. What is it that allows us to be human? The lock down has confronted us with this question in a way that we would be foolish to waste or ignore. What are we missing most? What (of the things we used to do) now seems so pointless?
What carries us?
I know myself better now. That is not to say that I am ‘sorted’, or that the brokenness is all mended. I am not sure I even aspire to those kind of solutions. Rather, let me remain tender, open to failure as much as hard success.
Today I was searching through some old poems, looking for one that might work as part of a commission, and I found this one. That will do, I thought. Not for the commission- but that will do, nevertheless.
I choose goodness
I caught a glimpse today
Of my capacity for goodness.
I thought it gone away
But there it lay
Like a laughing flapping fish
Wet mouth wide open, saying
That (despite being the epicentre of my own unfolding event)
I still know what it means to love.
That (despite all my callow grasping)
I know what it means to give.
That (despite my tendency to measure myself and find you wanting)
There is joy to be found in your achievment
I am a man full of holes
But it did not all leak away
I am broken
But I am not destroyed
Today, I choose goodness.
I choose love.
Regular readers of this blog will know that, along with my wife Michaela, I make a living through a small business called seatree. We call it our on-going experiement in trying to live creatively and sustainably. We make art from ceramics and other stuff, run workshops and poetry things, and somehow it has worked – the adventure continues. We feel so blessed to be able to make our lives from thee ingredients, in this beautiful place.
Then along came the pandemic.
At first, particularly for Michaela (who is the one who does the organising) we panicked. Our outgoings are small, but overnight, all the galleries we work with closed, and we had to cancel our workshops. Like many others we faced the real posibility that everything we had worked for was going to fall apart. I even started to think about going back into social work, which was a terrifying prospect from my ‘escaped’ perspective.
But then we started to get creative. We spent hours setting up our website shop. We developed things like our workshops in a tin. Like the rest of the world, we started doing things via zoom. We discovered that the new normal could still be creative, and the veg in the garden grows just as well in lockdown- better in fact as we have had more time to develop our growing spaces. It is quite possible that things will never go back to how they were, and for us, that is OK. We need change- both as individuals and as a wider society.
However, some changes need investment that is beyond our financial reach.
In order to continue to run workshops, we need to create more workspace. This means re-purposing our large shed, clearing out a lot of the things we have in there at the moment and making some socialy distanced work stations.
We need to sell more things direct, and this means creating a better display area for things we make here, as well as a way to manage stock better.
Put simply. we need a new shed! A beautiful. hand crafted seatree hut. Even doing all the work ourselves, we think this will cost in the region of £5K, which is a lot of money for us.
We have taken a plunge into the unknown, otherwise known as crowd funding.
“How does this work?” I hear you ask.
You follow this link to our Go Fund Me initiative.
You are not giving something for nothing though;
For every donation, we will create for you a limited edition decoration and an invitation to our grand opening!
For every donation over £50, we will also include a hand-drawn seatree poem.
And for or every donation over £100, we will offer you a poetry or pottery workshop, or a piece of ceramic art.
Every seed you sow, we will nurture.
So, there we are. Donate if you feel we are worth it. If not, then no worries, but perhaps you can help spread the word?
Can we ever move forwards without looking backwards?
I am sick to death of politicians and policy makers talking about education as if it is the ultimate social leveller; as if it offers a level playing field through which achievement is available to all.
From our recent history we have Tony Blair, with his ‘Education, education, education’ mantra. New labour sunk huge amounts of money into our education system at all levels- from increased nursery programmes right through to a huge expansion of university places. Even though austerity has wound back a lot of this largesse, we have to ask who benefitted most from these educational programmes? Did Blair manage to achieve his stated goal of ‘breaking the link between home background and educational achievement’?
Consider this most recent quote by (of all people) Michael Gove, during his disasterous term of office as education secretary;
“rich, thick kids do better educationally than poor, clever children before they even get to school… unfortunately, despite the best efforts of our society, the situation is getting worse”Quote from here.
If even Gove can see that education is not ‘levelling up’ then why do we continue to pretend otherwise? (Gove appeared to have given up trying, given his other policy ideas!)
For educationalists this is first and foremost a technical problem; how to create the right school environment; how to engage kids in learning; how to motivate teachers and increase expectations all round. Regulation and testing regimes became ever more complex and ‘failing’ schools were pounced upon by hit squads of super-teachers, as if the answer lay in super-leaders who weild both carrot and axe. Of course- these efforts are far from futile. A good school is always better than a bad school. A good teacher is alway better than a bad one. We all remember our experience of both for the rest of our lives. The problem is that no matter how good the school is, Gove’s words remain true. Middle class white kids benefit most. Black poor kids the least.
It is perhaps worth mentioning at this point that I am talking about state education. Private education systems make this inequality of attainment so much greater. Private schools operate as hothouses for A and A star qualification. They absorb 27% of all money spent on education within the UK for 7% of the pupils. Our judicuary, our top university places, our houses of parliament, our doctors, our lawyers, even our pop stars – all of the elite positions in society in fact – are loaded from these elites. Who can blame middle class parents for wanting to give their own kids a chance to join the elite? Many have argued that until state-funded (through grants, tax breaks and direct funding) private schooling is removed (or at least dethroned) all other efforts to create equality of attainment are pointless, but that is not my point here. Private schooling works becuase it preserves inequality for the elite. It makes success and advantage hereditory, rolling down the generations, but these schools never pretended to be anything else. They never aspired towards any kind of social engineering other than the preservation of privilege.
Let’s look back again to those great educational efforts to bridge the class divide. Here is a (very) brief summary;
I attended a school established as an educational experiment. When data showed that the comprehensive schools of the late sixties and seventies were not significantly closing the gap between middle class kids and those from poorer backgrounds, educationalists asked a lot of questions. The same questions that are being asked by many today, even if they are being ignored by our politicians.
Why does poverty almost always produce low educational achievement?
Why does race/gender have such profound effects also?
Is it about home environment? How can we motivate parents to value their childrens education more?
How can we place schooling at the heart of communities, so that everyone buys in to learning and values it at all ages?
How can teaching styles/classroom layouts facillitate learning?
In repsonse to these questions, the powers that be produced something called a ‘community school’. After all, in the 1970’s we had no fear of big urban planning solutions. Sadly, most of them ended badly. Our school was built in 1974, as part of redevelopment of the town centre. It included a wide range of community resources; an ice skating rink, indoor bowls, youth club, day centre for older people, sports halls, a cinema/theatre and a restraunt. The schooling ethos was deliberately informal – no school uniforms, teachers called by first names and all class rooms were open plan. Lessons were open to parent and members of the community as well as children.
By the time I attended (1976) the school was already under harsh media scrutiny. The Sun newspaper ran headlines about how we were being taught swearwords in our classes and the open plan classrooms were predictably impractical. Meanwhile, at lunchtime we had nowhere to go but out into the shopping precinct which the school was connected to, and there was the inevitable trouble, which further affected the reputation of the school. All of this was a shame, because much of what was being attempted was brilliant. The teaching staff, in the early days at least, before the powers that be tried to bring everyone back in line, were motivated and committed. even our caretaker was an Oxbridge graduate.
Despite all of this, the important question is this one; did the school level our opportunity for kids from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds, like me?
On a personal level, I went to university. I was the first in my family to do so, even if only by the skin of my teeth. But I was the exception, not the rule. I have tried to find evaluation of success rates on line, but the whole community school experiment seems to be a forgotten footnote. My instinct is that my school was no more successful than any other comprehensive of its time, but I do not know for sure.
In 1970, Basil Bernstein (above) wrote a highly influential paper called ‘Education cannot compensate for society’. He was a British sociologist, whose early work had been around understanding the social impact of education, particularly how language development is affected by social class. In one reading, the 1970 paper might be understood as a repudation of all his earlier work, almost as if he was saying ‘forget all your efforts to bring about social change through education because the forces in wider society will always dictate outcomes’. Certainly this is the way that his paper has often been used in later years. The very concept of social engineering is in itself dated, right? These days we focus on individual achievments and measurable individual outcomes.
In fact, Bernstein’s paper was not fatalistic in this way. Rather it was written in response to another educational experiment- this one on a rather grander scale, known as ‘compensatory education’. In the USA, huge effort had been put in to educating kids from the inner cities, for example with Project Head Start, part of President Johnsons ‘Great Society’ campaign. The idea was to identify kids in need and blitz them with after school clubs, extra classes and raise their expectations. Bernstein thought that it would not work, and indeed he was right. He thought that compensatory education would be plagued by these problems;
He sought to show that the idea of compensatory education as advocated in these programmes was based on assumptions that were based more on social prejudice than evidence. The first objection that he offers is that the compensatory education theorists and programmes failed to regard as a central problem that most children from deprived backgrounds also attended schools which did not offer an “adequate educational environment”. He pointed out that the Newsom report showed that “79 per cent of all secondary modern schools in slum and problem areas were materially grossly inadequate …”.
But, essential though decent material conditions for school are, Bernstein went on to criticise the ideology of these programmes. He argued that the labelling of children as “culturally deprived” set in train a whole series of negative consequences, however laudable the intention may have been. Among these were: (1) an unthinking downgrading of the children’s own experience; (2) an unconscious assumption that middle-class use of language is the only valid one; (3) to lower teacher expectations of the children concerned; (4) to exclude parents who became regarded as part of the problem rather than essential to its solution.From here.
Sixty years ago, Bernstein was speaking to a world that was still actively looking for ways to become more equal. We gave that up in 1979, but paradoxically, the efforts to ‘rescue’ poor kids through education continue.
In case you missed it, here is my conclusion. Education is a noble human enterprise. It can set many of us free, but it does not do so evenly or fairly. In fact, mostly education operates according to the prejudices and priorites of the society it is embedded in. In part this is sustained deliberately by the power of elites, but it is more than that.
Consider how teachers bring unconscious bias into the classroom. Check out this article that reveals how teachers react in different ways to black kids even as early as nursery education. They are not doing this because they are bad people, but because they are just like us.
To change education, we have to change society. It does not work the other way round- we have proved this. It is all about inequality, stupid.