Hey Prime Minister, Leave Our Schools Alone

Portsmouth teacher and historian Dr Dave Allen considers forty years of changes in the education system in light of the current debate about the return of grammar schools.

Imagine you’re at a social event, one of those where a person’s opening gambit is to ask ‘and what do you do?’ The security guards, fashion designers, brain surgeons and astronauts have a pretty easy ride since most of us know no more about such ‘jobs’ than we glean from the mass media. Then they turn to me and I say ‘teacher’.

It’s what I’ve been now for more than forty years and I know that most people, on hearing my answer to that question, will be able to make assumptions and form views about what I do/did based on more than just a popular view. For a start, I guess 99.9% of people in this country will have been ‘taught’ formally in some kind of institution, beyond their immediate family. For the majority that will be at least school, but possibly also college, university, apprenticeship or some kind of formal training at work, which might carry with it the obligatory certification.

I’ve been there. If you’re interested, I’m actually Dr Dave Allen, BEd (Hons), MPhil, PhD. From that you can tell either that (a) I’m a bit clever or (b) I’ve cracked the requisite tricks that reward middle-class people like me for playing the game. BEd (Hons – never forget the Hons) stands for Bachelor of Education, distinct from Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Science (BSc) and was an invention of the 1960s Labour Government as the nation prepared to go comprehensive and in the early 1970s, raise the school-leaving age from 15-16. They developed the Schools Council (from 1964) and began a process of professionalisation of education which soon proved to be far too dangerous, as an increasing number of people working daily ‘at the coalface’ became more reflective and analytical about what was going on. In addition, as one of the new generation of school teachers with degrees in education I was not unique in wishing to continue my studies beyond degree level. Both my (1984) MPhil thesis and my (1994) PhD thesis were concerned with the teaching of the arts in secondary, further and higher education and included accounts and analyses of ‘real’ teaching in specific classrooms (mine and others).

We might assume of course that this level of enhanced engagement would be welcomed by those who pay people like me to look after their children and grandchildren, but throughout my professional career it never felt like that. I graduated in 1975 and embarked immediately on ten years of teaching in comprehensive schools in and around Portsmouth. One year later, a man educated in the city at Mayfield School, North End when it was the Northern Grammar School for Boys, made an important speech at Ruskin College Oxford. He was James Callaghan, the Labour Prime Minister and the full text of his speech can be found here.

The speech invited comment at the time, not least because it seemed to signal a more interventionist approach by politicians who had previously kept the daily details of education at arm’s length. Of course, for a hundred years or more it was the politicians who had created and funded a growing and universal programme of schooling for young people, and they legislated to raise the legal leaving age or alter secondary education from the post-war tripartite system to something called ‘comprehensive’. But after that, the politicians generally provided the resources and let the professionals get on with it.

But the professionals sometimes tended to cause alarms. Callaghan acknowledged that ‘life at school is far more full and creative than it was many years ago’ but he identified a number of key issues that schools must address within the context of ‘clear enough’ goals which were ‘to equip children to the best of their ability for a lively, constructive, place in society, and also to fit them to do a job of work. Not one or the other but both’.

This of course was ‘common sense’ – what reasonable person could disagree? – but the politicians had generally avoided the ‘detail’ in the past precisely because that’s where they might find the devil. Let the professionals deal with that.

Callaghan however concluded with a fairly clear agenda for the future. Education must address:
• The methods and aims of informal instruction,
• The strong case for the so-called ‘core curriculum’ of basic knowledge;
• The proper way of monitoring the use of resources in order to maintain a proper national standard of performance;
• The role of the inspectorate in relation to national standards;
• The need to improve relations between industry and education.
• The examination system – a contentious issue.
Finally, he told us ‘we are expecting the Taylor Committee Report shortly on the government and management of schools in England and Wales that could bring together local authority, parents and pupils, teachers and industry more closely’.

That was it then – the government was beginning to require education to establish far clearer relationships with parents, business, industry and the government itself, albeit still within a system that was largely based on the shift from grammar/secondary modern/technical schools to something called ‘comprehensive’. Famously, the Conservative Education Secretary Margaret Thatcher was responsible for creating more of them than her Labour counterparts, but Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister, while making no attempt to reverse that trend, saw her chance in the 1980s to reverse many of the social developments of the 1960s which she saw largely as the root of all evil in the country.

It did not happen immediately; through the 1980s Local Education Authorities controlled the purse strings and the day-to-day running, including in-service courses in their teachers’ centres to improve pedagogical skills. Meanwhile, further up the line most of the independent colleges of education and art colleges were taken under the control of the expanding Polytechnic sector. By the early 1990s that would change again with almost all of them becoming Universities.

Among the calls Callaghan made was that for a ‘core curriculum of basic knowledge’. Note that this did not refer to a core curriculum of basic skills or understanding, just ‘knowledge’. What did that mean? Was it to know that 2+2 = 4? That the Battle of Hastings was in 1066? That hot air rises or in Latin ‘Amo’ means ‘I love’, or did he mean something more than core ‘facts’? If so, what exactly – and why?

Conservative politicians have generally been fairly clear about the purposes, processes and goals of education despite the fact that very few of them have had any involvement in the state sector as pupils or parents. Most were educated privately at considerable cost and that private sector, which expanded in the mid-1970s with the abolition of direct grant grammar schools, gives a lie to the idea that there has ever been a truly comprehensive system of education in this country. Comprehensive generally means full, inclusive or whole and it should not ever mean ‘partial’ when that partiality is self-selecting according to privilege. Remove from any social gathering those who choose to absent themselves by virtue of their assets and you have something which merely brings together all those that are left. That is neither full, inclusive or whole and I believe that is to the detriment of all those on both sides of the social divide.

In the late 1980s, the Conservative government, under Education Secretary Kenneth Baker introduced the Education Reform Act, including the National (or core) Curriculum. When the subject groups were set up they included a range of different individuals including those from industry and business. Callaghan’s wishes were being enacted by the Tories. In 1985, after 10 years of teaching the arts in comprehensive schools I went to London and worked on the Arts in Schools Project, a government funded initiative to improve teaching in the arts 5-18. It involved 18 LEAs in the central project plus the Arts, Crafts and Design Council, the British Film Institute, London’s South Bank and a range of other key institutions. Crucially it centred not on ‘academic’ research but on the activities and understanding of practising teachers across the country.

We gathered and published regularly an extraordinary wealth of ideas, information and documentary evidence and our main publications emerged around the same time that the National Curriculum arts groups met to formulate their proposals in those subjects. But they paid little attention to what we had discussed or discovered, or as far as I could tell to any of the other teacher-led curriculum development groups operating at that time. The heydays of professional, reflective teachers were probably over – from now on they would be regarded increasingly as ‘technicians’, carrying out the requirements of government and operating increasingly in ‘independent’ schools as the LEAs were dismantled.

Since the late 1980s, perhaps since Callaghan’s speech, every time there has been a change of government, or Prime Minister, or Education Secretary there has been a change of direction, a shift in policy, with politicians not merely tampering with the detail but operating as the devil incarnate. Teachers are no longer prepared as I was, with a four-year degree combining the study of education and a main subject, for it is much cheaper (and less dangerous) to have them pay for their own three year degree (in whatever) followed by a one-year ‘on the job’ training. Along the way they might find themselves working in a free school, an academy, a comprehensive or some other kind of institution – perhaps one where the governors can impose a particular set of explicit beliefs in the teaching at the school. There is a kind of potential mayhem in this ‘withering away’ of state control, but it’s not anything a Marxist would recognise. Now we have a new Prime Minister who is arguing for the return of Grammar Schools.

I am the product of a grammar school of the 1960s and I might have a good deal to say about that proposal if it seems appropriate to write a follow-up to this piece. For now, I have just one question about that idea: why do people always talk about going back to grammar schools; why does no one ever speak about reintroducing the good old secondary moderns?

Quake

By Chris Campbell.

Robert was in his early sixties and had lived alone since his wife had died almost two years ago. He had a daughter who lived in Eastbourne, down on the south coast of England. He lived on the outskirts of Oxford only two streets away from where he was born. He had spent the majority of his working life, apart from a three year stint in the Royal Air Force, in a factory making cars. He had gradually worked his way up through the ranks and was now the workshop foreman in the body shop.

His shift finished at six in the evening and after a pint with a few close friends in the pub across the road from the factory, he walked the short distance home. He cooked himself a meal, from his well-stocked freezer and by using the microwave, it was ready in a little over a quarter of an hour. After his meal and watching television for a couple of hours he retired to bed with a book just before eleven. Around two in the morning he woke with a strange sense of something being not quite right. He sat up in bed and looked around his bedroom. Nothing seemed to be amiss except that the curtains were swaying gently as if a breeze was blowing against them. Robert was sure he had closed the window before getting in to bed but got up to check. Sure enough the window was closed, yet the curtains continued to billow slightly. He looked out of the window onto the quiet street below. Again it was as if a breeze was blowing, with the small trees rocking slightly. All was quiet with no one about.

Suddenly there was a sharp crack and Robert’s television aerial came spiralling down from the roof, its arms tapping against the window pane. Robert continued to look out of the window and was amazed to see several more television aerials break away from their mountings and collapse against either the roof or walls depending on where they were mounted. He gradually became aware of a low pitched deep rumbling noise which seemed to emanate from beneath his feet. The rumbling grew in intensity and suddenly a large crack appeared in the road and spread outwards rapidly.

The house opposite suddenly slipped sideways and the end collapsed on itself. Robert, extremely scared by this point, threw on a pair of trousers and a jumper and ran downstairs and out into the street, as many other people were doing the same. A man from further down the road was yelling that it was an earthquake. He continued to shout in an attempt to rouse people from their sleep. Minor earth tremors happened quite regularly all over England but most were unfelt by the majority of people and registered less than one on the Richter scale. A quake of this magnitude was extremely rare. While most of the tremors lasted a matter of seconds, this was now entering its third minute. More houses were falling now and the once quiet road now looked like a middle-eastern city under enemy artillery fire. Robert’s own house fell victim to the quake and slipped sideways into a rapidly growing hole. People were screaming and running around aimlessly calling out for their relatives and trying to avoid falling masonry.

Five minutes after it began the quake was over. The street had been virtually demolished with only the occasional wall still standing. All the power had gone in the first minute of the quake but the darkness was illuminated by a growing number of fires from fractured gas mains. Water was also pouring, or as in a couple of cases, actually spurting like a geyser from broken water mains. Several people were trying to use their mobile phones to call for help but there was no signal. One young man was cuddling a boom box radio to his chest but all the unit was picking up was static. There was no sign of anybody from outside the street coming to their aid. People were searching in the rubble for family and friends whilst others were moving away towards the city centre, no doubt with looting the city centre stores in mind. The whole area was devastated and where you would normally have seen spires rising into the sky there was now nothing.

Robert kept trying to contact his daughter in Eastbourne but all the mobile signals were still out of action. His car was still parked outside where his home once stood. Robert got in and started off along the road, the intention being to head out of town and see if he could pick up a signal on his mobile phone or failing that, drive to Eastbourne and make sure his daughter was okay.

The going was really slow getting out of the city as the roads were badly damaged in many places and there was debris and smashed vehicles to contend with also. After a couple of hours, daylight was beginning to break, the dim light making the scenes of devastation seem worse. He eventually reached a hill outside town and tried once again for a mobile signal. Still nothing. There were a few cars on the road by this time and out of the city limits the going was a bit easier, however the road was still severely damaged in many places. At least out in the country there were hardly any fallen buildings to contend with. The drivers of the other cars that he saw looked as bewildered and frightened as he felt himself. He continued to make slow progress along the A34 and by the time the sun came up fully he was ten miles from Oxford. The scene of devastation and ruin was now more apparent in daylight with hardly a building or structure still standing.

He was brought to a halt a mile or so further on when he came to a bridge over a river. The bridge had disappeared, broken to pieces and swept away by a very fast flowing and swollen river. He realised that this was as far as he was going to get in his car. He knew of another river crossing some three miles away but the back roads towards the other bridge appeared to be blocked by fallen trees as he had driven past them. He got out of the car and locked it out of sheer habit, even though there was no one around to steal it or otherwise tamper with it. He needed to find a way to cross the swollen torrent so that he could continue southwards. He was a fairly strong swimmer but knew that he would not stand a chance against the current of the river. There had to be another way.

He slid down the bank to the water’s edge and looked around for something he might be able to use to assist his crossing. There were several fallen trees on this bank jutting well out into the river and some more on the far bank, which looked from his viewpoint as if they practically touched just over the midpoint of the river. He thought that he might be able to clamber along a tree on this bank and then transfer to one from the far bank. His mind made up, he headed for the nearest tree that looked possible to cross and carefully worked his way on hands and knees and then astride a branch out over the raging water. When he finally got to the end of his tree, his weight was pushing the small branch down perilously close to the water. The tree on the other bank was tantalisingly close, no more than three feet or so. Could he reach it and would the other small branch support his weight?

Edging forward as far as he dared, he lunged for the other tree and managed to grab the lowest branch with one hand. He managed to pull the branch a little closer so that he could get both hands round it, then praying that the branch would hold, he pushed off from his tree. As the new branch took his weight, it sagged down so that his feet were in the water. Using practically all of his strength, he managed to pull himself up bit by bit until he was able to straddle the new branch. He made it to the far bank and sat down to rest for a while. Sitting in the warm sunshine made him feel drowsy and soon he slipped into a fitful doze.

When he awoke about two hours later, he was stiff and decidedly hungry. His first priority was to get moving again before he seized up completely and to try and find something to eat. He had never really been the outdoor type so as a consequence had no idea what he could eat if he found anything growing like berries or fungi. Once he had climbed back up the bank, slipping and sliding back a few times he reached the road once again. About a quarter of a mile along the road he could see what looked like the remains of a petrol filling station. He headed towards it in the hope that there may be some food available.

Once he got there he found that the forecourt was severely damaged with giant cracks and some of the ground pushed up almost to the height of what had been the building’s roof. The small office was standing but leaning at quite a severe angle towards a gaping crevasse. He carefully worked his way to the door and called out with a hello to see if anyone was still there. There was no reply, but on looking closer he saw a pair of jean clad legs sticking out from under a pile of rubble. Nothing he could do for this unfortunate soul. In the corner were the remains of a chilled cabinet in which he could see familiar looking food wrappers. Gingerly making his way across the shattered floor to the cabinet he found the door smashed and twisted giving him relatively easy access to the contents. He filled his pockets with food and silently apologising for stealing made his way back outside. This pattern went on for the rest of the day, stopping at various ruined buildings to gather more food or drink cans. He had found a discarded holdall outside the petrol station so now had something to carry more food and drink than before.

This continued for two days with Robert steadily making his way south. Between his river crossing and Newbury he had found an abandoned van with the keys still inside so had managed to drive for a short distance before debris once again blocked the road. The fact that he was technically stealing the vehicle didn’t really make much impression on him now. It was amazing he thought, how quickly a person could come to accept stealing. It was after all the only way to survive now. He hadn’t seen many living people since leaving Oxford but had come across a fair number of dead bodies. Like the stealing, this had also failed to cause him much concern.

By the end of the third day he was approaching Winchester and decided that he would try and get some sleep as it was now getting dark. He had got used to sleeping in whatever shelter he could find and was quite lucky this evening when he saw a partially standing barn about a hundred yards off the road. He made his way across a muddy field and found that the half of the barn that was still standing was nearly full of straw bales. That would make for quite a comfortable bed he decided. He had obtained some matches in one ruined and abandoned building and soon had a small fire going. From the fire’s heat, he was able to make some toast from the loaf he had stolen earlier in the day. He had cans of beans so it was quite nice to have something hot to eat. Lacking a saucepan or any kind of cooking utensils he had cooked the beans in the tin resting on a stone across the fire. The toast he managed with a pointed stick. Eating the hot beans was a bit more challenging but managed reasonably successfully with a further combination of sticks. He awoke at daybreak and once again started moving south.

He thought he was doing quite well but this illusion was shattered a short while later when he topped a long hill about four miles from Winchester. Where there should have been rolling green fields, with the city just off the main road to the right, there was only water. The water stretched from left to right as far as the eye could see. There were waves on the water and it appeared to be much larger than a lake. He walked along the top of the hill in an easterly direction for several hours with no sign of a crossing place or dry land. He was reluctantly forced to admit to himself that it wasn’t a lake but the sea. The earthquake had been severe enough to alter the shape of England forever.

For eleven days he followed the new coastline, always in an easterly direction. The coast now seemed to be curving towards the south, but he thought that by this time he must have been past where London should have been. The next day the coast took a definite turn to the southwest. He had come down almost to the shore line some days previous and had been walking on grass for the past two days. With the direction change, came a surface change as well. Instead of the soft grass the ground was now broken and rough with stones, sand and large boulders. He walked on following the coast with the sea to his right.

As he walked he saw a shape materialising on the horizon. As he got nearer the shape became more readily identifiable as a ship. It took him another two hours to reach the ship, an oil tanker now sitting high and dry on what he guessed had once been the seabed. The deck of the ship was a good sixty feet above his head. As he came nearer, a shot rang out and the sand spurted up at his feet making him run for cover under the shadow of the hull. A deranged voice yelled down telling him to clear off and stay away. Robert didn’t need a second telling and crept away under the cover of the ship’s hull for as long as he could. When he reached the far side at the stern of the ship he sat and rested and decided to wait till nightfall before leaving what cover he had and continuing on his way.

Several days previously he had given up hope of finding his daughter as he was certain by now that Eastbourne no longer existed like many other places, London included. With so many places gone it was easy to understand why there had been no signs of a rescue attempt for the people who were left. He had only continued on his way as he had nowhere else to go. He continued onwards for several more days before the ground started rising again. When he reached the top of the rise, the same scenes of ruin and devastation greeted him, but this time any signs that remained were in French so he surmised that he had reached what had been the French mainland.

Although he never knew it, if he had turned west instead of east on reaching the sea, and followed the coast in that direction, he would have eventually arrived at Bournemouth which was still standing in places. East of Bournemouth, the sea had taken everything in a diagonal line from Christchurch to Ipswich in Suffolk, so Eastbourne was certainly gone forever. The only good thing about this was that all the people in the area that was now sea would not have suffered much, as the sea would have engulfed the whole area in a matter of minutes and being in the middle of the night no one would have known what had hit them.

The quake was worldwide and the world map had changed dramatically overnight. That in a great part explained why no help had been forthcoming from any foreign country. The United States and Canada were virtually halved in size with the ocean now reaching the Midwest. Australia had survived with only relatively minor damage but New Zealand was gone. Robert eventually stopped moving in a part of what had once been northern France when he had come across a virtually undamaged but abandoned house on the outskirts of a small village. He met up with a small group of fellow survivors from France and England as well as Holland and Germany and together they set about rebuilding their lives, in a strange new world.

STAR POems: The Hammock

By John Pearson

I am the man-length canvas
pulled out of store, strung between
grey bulkheads ready to still
the pitch and roll of any ship.
I am a solitary place
a cocoon to relieve
the last watch’s weariness.
I am a lying sick bed
and even a second skin
wrapped around a dead sailor.
stitched up by a leathered hand
and shipped to a salinic grave.

Photography by Moshe Tasky.

S&C Presents… Taking the P Out of Pompey: Satire in a Dangerous Age

‘Ours is a useful trade, a worthy calling. With all its lightness and frivolity, it has one serious purpose, one aim, one speciality, and it is constant to it: the deriding of shams, the exposure of pretentious falsities, the laughing of stupid superstitions out of existence.’ So wrote Mark Twain over 100 years ago, but his celebration of the satirist’s craft is arguably even more relevant today in a dangerous age of ‘post-truth’ and ‘post-integrity.’

Star & Crescent and the University of Portsmouth’s Faculty of Creative and Cultural Industries present satirists working across fiction, memoir, journalism, graphic art and music whose targets range from the local to the international, from politics to sexual morality, from artistic pretensions to literary conventions, from the things we take for granted to the things we don’t think about enough.

Brace yourselves for a lively, funny, frivolous yet serious and combative evening.

Where? Eldon Building, University of Portsmouth.

When? 7.30pm on March 21st 2017

Free entry

Check out our Facebook event here.

Our performers:

Charlotte Comley is a writer, creative writing tutor and professional storyteller.

Olly Gruner is a writer, musician and lecturer in Visual Culture at the University of Portsmouth. His research focuses on the history and legacy of the 1960s and he is the author of Screening the Sixties: Hollywood Cinema and the Politics of Memory (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). In 2015, he organised a series of satirical events, This Is the Week That Is: A Celebration of Political Satire at Portsmouth University.

Justin MacCormack is a horror author, specialising in the abstract and bizarre. His popular anthology, Hush! A Horror Anthology is available now, and his comedy erotica novella The Castle of Count Shagula is due out soon (it is also horrifying, but for very different reasons).

Van Norris is an expert on satirical film and the author of British Television Animation 1997-2010. He also creates visual satire under the pseudonym Jack Caramac.

Louis Netter is a trained illustrator, animator and designer with over 10 years of experience teaching in higher education. His current work is in experimental graphic novels, from the literary to the controversial. Artwork is held in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Library of Congress, New York Historical Society and many University libraries across the USA. www.louisnetter.com.

William Sutton is a novelist, musician and Latin teacher. He has written for The Times, appeared at the Edinburgh Festival and Highdown Prison, acted in the longest play in the world, and played cricket for Brazil. His historical Lawless mysteries (Titan Books) unearth the dirtier side of Victorian London’s cobblestones (July 2016). He writes for Star & Crescent and Southsea Lifestyle and redistributes his teaching income round Southsea via the medium of cake.

Tom Sykes is an author, journalist and Portsmouth University lecturer whose work has appeared in Private Eye, New Statesman, The Scotsman and Star & Crescent. He is one of the founding editors of Star & Crescent and his latest book is Ivory Coast: The Bradt Guide.

(Graphic courtesy of Jack Caramac)

Generation Coil

Although the contraceptive coil is no longer common in many countries, it remains popular in Britain. Portsmouth-based student Isabelle Bilton recounts the experience of having one fitted in a Portsmouth hospital in uncompromising detail.

My hands shook as I typed the number for the clinic; the January cold had crept under the doors and filled our student house. I pulled my blanket tighter round my shoulders and stared at the screen, breathing deeply to calm myself. I reread the script I had written out one last time. Just do it. I pressed dial and waited whilst it rang.

‘How may I help?’ a woman’s voice whined down the phone, probably for the hundredth time today. I was shocked at hearing an actual human not an automated message and it threw me off slightly.

I went to spurt my prewritten script, staring back at me, but veered off after ‘hi I want to book… Um, an appointment…’

‘For what?’ she said with an air of impatience.

‘Oh, I, uh, sorry, for um… I want a coil.’ I stuttered.

After a stream of invasive questions, I had myself an appointment at the end of March. I sighed, half with relief at having finally booked it, and half trying to expel the dread which was settling in my stomach.

I had been on the contraceptive pill for around five years, along with approximately 3.5 million other women, but I had eventually decided that user-dependant contraception was too much for my overactive imagination. The success rate of the pill is advertised as 99%, but in reality the figure is much closer to 92%. Vomiting, diarrhoea and forgetfulness all affect the likelihood the pill won’t be as effective. The Mirena coil, on the other hand, is more than 99% effective. With the recent controversy surrounding the links to depression and the pill, it’s not surprising that more women like me are keen to move on. Soon I would be using, according to the NHS website, ‘one of the most effective forms of contraception in the UK.’

A few months later and I was sat on my childhood bed feeling my insides churn with nerves. Naturally, I did what any intelligent (stupid, very stupid) woman does when she is in doubt about something medical and I Googled it. I was met with a plethora of horror stories, mainly residing on parenting forums. A personal favourite was a thread named ‘how painful is the coil fitting on a scale of 1 to 10’ which was met with a ’10,000’ by one woman and details of blood and gore.

I had read and reread the letter I had received compulsively. I was advised to eat a bit before and have taken pain killers. I was soon crying over a tin of ravioli I thought was out of date (it wasn’t) and telling my sister she doesn’t care about me (she does), and finally storming off to my old bedroom like a stroppy teenager.

Moments later, I was presented with the now-hot ravioli and its empty tin, which clearly stated October not January. I sniffed and reluctantly accepted it. I began to pick at it, but managed less than half because with each mouthful I felt increasingly more unwell.

‘I don’t want to do it, but I know I have to,’ I told my mother as we parked the car up outside the doctor’s.

‘No, you don’t have to do it, if you don’t want to,’ she assured me.

‘But I do. I do want it; I just don’t want this bit.’

She stroked my arm and we made our way inside. My body was slick with cold sweat. There was a tight feeling in my chest, pressing down; the dull ache of anxiety. Thick artificial heat swamped us. The waiting room was long and thin. The walls were dull; shades of beige and faded duck egg blue. I glanced at the other people waiting – a teenager tapping on her phone, heavily made up; a woman in a suit, her hair slicked back; a man frowning at his book, glasses slipping off his face; a couple with a small sniffling baby. Tatty posters clung to tired staples on the walls. The unmistakably clinical smell of disinfectant drifted around us.

‘Isabelle?’ A woman entered the room, clipboard in hand, smiling.

I had felt like looking around at the other patients, pretending it wasn’t me. Is there an Isabelle here? I could have just shrugged my shoulders and left. Instead, my mother began to stand, collecting my stuff, as I forced a smile at the doctor.

‘Firstly please don’t worry,’ the woman said, leading us through into the appointment room, ‘I’m the queen of coils!’

I felt a slither of worry drain from my body. Any woman who uses the phrase ‘queen of coils’ in her opening statement before fiddling around inside your uterus is clearly of good humour. ‘Now you want an IUS, right? The hormonal coil?’ Queen of Coils smiled at me, reassuringly.

I nodded. I had done my research. My mind flicked back to the dog-eared leaflets and countless webpages. I knew the three different kinds of coil: copper, Mirena and Jaydess. The latter two release hormones and are classed as intrauterine systems (IUS). The copper coil is an intrauterine device (IUD) with no hormones whatsoever.

‘Yes, um, I think it’s Mirena I want?’ I looked to my mother.

‘Yes,’ my mum confirmed, ‘it’s Mirena.’

I nodded again. I opted for Mirena as it releases a progestogen hormone, similar to the natural hormone progesterone produced in a woman’s ovaries, at a very low level into the blood stream. This was the same hormone in the pill I was taking at the time. It also remains in for two years longer than Jaydess.

‘Brilliant! I have a Mirena as well!’ Queen of Coils chimed, ‘aw, it’s ace! It doesn’t interrupt sex and you won’t have to think about contraception every day anymore. Do you know how it works?’

‘Yes, kind of…’ I trailed off, figuring she probably had to explain it anyway.

‘That’s okay. Well, it thickens the mucus from the cervix… Uh, the opening of your womb, making it harder for sperm to move through it to reach an egg. It also thins the womb lining which makes it less likely to accept an egg if it had managed to be fertilised. They really are fab. I’ve never looked back. Do you have one too?’ she turned to my mum.

‘Yes, I’m with you on that. I told her to get one but didn’t really think younger women tended to have them… Certainly not before children.’

‘No, no. That appears to be a common misconception!’ Queen of Coils exclaimed, ‘The youngest girl I’ve fitted one in was 13! We’re getting more and more young people in now, I think a lot of them keen to get away from the pill.’

I felt I was becoming part of a movement for young women to leave behind the pill and move on to more long-term reliable contraceptives.

‘And my periods?’ I queried.

‘Well, it could make your periods, lighter, shorter or they could actually stop completely. So your one, Mirena, is much more likely to stop periods altogether than Jaydess. I don’t know if that’s a positive for you?’

It certainly was.

‘Okay, well if we’re all ready… I’ll draw the curtain and you just slip your knickers off and lie down on the bed there for me, please?’ Queen of Coils instructed, pulling the curtain to. I glanced at my mum as we were separated.

As I pulled my dress up and laid down on the cold surface Queen of Coils began to speak again, ‘Are you okay if we are joined by a doctor training to do coil insertions and a student nurse?’

I propped my legs up and laughed at how bizarre the situation was as I heard the room fill. I had been given a blue piece of tissue to place over my crotch. This seemed rather pointless considering they were going to be looking into my vagina, surely the rest of my pubic region didn’t really need hiding?

The three women checked I was ready and then entered the little makeshift cubicle. I closed my eyes tight, opening them slightly only to see the women gelling up an interesting looking instrument. I’d rather not see and certainly rather not know I had thought to myself.

It didn’t last long as my eyes snapped open when that gelled up instrument was inside of me and freezing cold. Queen of Coils clutched my hand and talked to me about university, my hobbies and anything other than what was going on down in my bottom half with Trainee and Student Nurse. The instrument was being used to open me up so they could measure my cervix. I whimpered almost immediately, my mum still on the other side of the curtain. There is something unsurprisingly uncomfortable about having a cold object inside of you, forcing your insides further apart.

‘Do you want mum?’ Queen of Coils asked.

‘Mmhmm,’ I stammered, feeling waves of panic for what was coming spread through my chest, ‘yes, yes please.’

She was there immediately, stroking my forehead, providing a comfort only a mother could give.

‘Now, you’re going to feel a tiny scratch,’ Queen of Coils began to say.

I interrupted her, ‘no, no, I don’t want to know what you’re doing, just do it and don’t tell me what or how or anything. I just want to know when it’s done!’

The scratch, I later learn, was the anaesthetic. Trainee was struggling to measure my cervix. I could tell this wasn’t going as smoothly as we had all hoped. She soon gave up, deciding the instrument was too big. Once again, she tried, this time after locating a miniature version as Student Nurse observed. After a few failed attempts, they managed to get a measurement.

‘Don’t look so worried,’ Student Nurse said soothingly, ‘I know it’s scary but we know what we’re doing – promise! We’ve all had coils fitted. They’re brilliant… In fact I think we’ve all had our coils fitted by people in this very room. I trusted them to do it to me, so don’t you panic.’

The coil was in, then my body rejected it, then it was in, then my body rejected it once more. I was blissfully unaware of what was going on; my eyes pressed closed, my mother soothing me. I felt tiny waves of what felt like numbed period pain. Queen of Coils watched Trainee try and fail, before taking over herself. There was a snipping noise and she looked up at me smiling.

‘There! All done!’

‘That’s it?’ I asked, ‘that’s it?!’

‘That’s it! It’s in!’

I had been waiting for the pain and felt almost a little underwhelmed. It didn’t seem as dramatic as I’d pictured it.

‘Now, don’t sit up too quickly,’ Trainee advised. ‘We’ll bring you some water and painkillers and you just sit up in your own time and pop your knickers back on.’ She began to close the curtain. ‘Oh, I almost forgot!’ She plonked a wad of what looked like stuffing on my lap before drawing it closed.

Upon further inspection I could see it was a sanitary towel, so thick I could hardly believe it was designed to stick to my underwear.

I sat up gradually, feeling a little lightheaded. As I angled myself upright, I felt the rush of wet and grabbed the tissues beside the bed to soak between my legs. There was a small trickle of blood and the gel leaving but little else. I downed the water like a shot and stuck the pad to my pants. It was like having a wad of loo roll shoved in my underwear.

On the way home my stomach cramped. The pain came in waves, which spread all through my lower abdomen. At home, I lay on my bed, moaning and trying to find that nice safe little position which usually eradicates cramps… but I never found it. I ended up fishing out an old microwavable lavender scented heat cushion to press to my belly and, a few minutes later, they subsided. I think it coincided with the pain killers kicking in, but then that was it. I had no more bleeding, nor pain, at all and now it’s in for a minimum of 5 years.

‘Can’t you like… feel it?’ My friend asked me in horror days later.

‘Not one bit.’

‘But aren’t you worried about being able to have kids and stuff in the future?’ She asks, her brow furrowing.

‘Nope, apparently your fertility returns to normal after it’s out, and literally any trained doctor or nurse can remove it really easily. I’m not worried at all.’

Months later and I am convincing friends to transition over from the pill. I am kicking myself for not doing it sooner. Ten months ago I was so scared I cried over a tin of ravioli and almost ran out of the waiting room. Now, however, I am period and pregnancy free for 5-7 years. If you’re feeling (not even that) brave, then book your fitting. Wave goodbye to the pill, say hello to generation coil.

Photography by Moshe Tasky.

An Open Letter to Donna Jones

In a letter to the Leader published exclusively on S&C, contributor Rosie Bremer takes a tongue in cheek look at the reduction in funding facility time passed by Portsmouth City Council on 14th February.

Dear Mrs Jones,

I’m so sorry I was unable to attend the recent Portsmouth City Council meeting discussing reducing facility time for trade unions. As a member of the public I would have enjoyed nothing more than sitting in the public gallery cheering on my civic representatives in their wholly well-meaning efforts to set Portsmouth on the right and proper path to prosperity.

I applaud the council’s genuine commitment to keeping all the goodies safely in the pudgy hands of the 1%, as this frees us – the 99% of us who don’t own the fruits of our labour – to innovate some inventive survival strategies. I was recently very impressed by the management style of Mr Ashley of Sports Direct and am relieved that PCC is emulating his lean, efficient style of running a Victorian enterprise a full 116 years after the demise of that great era.

In particular I hope that, if workers for PCC are without adequate union representation (in fact, let’s call it what it is – interference), more women will follow the shining example of the employee who gave birth in the toilet at a Sports Direct warehouse because she couldn’t afford to take time off work. If only everyone would just go just that extra mile!

For far too long people have been allowed luxuries like sick pay, holiday pay, weekends off, tea breaks and parental leave. I absolutely understand how it must stick in your throat to abide by any kind of regulation that gets in the way of your business case. Extensive studies reveal that workers perform so much better when they’re absolutely exhausted, not paid properly and there’s insufficient support for them. These are of course the ideal conditions for workers – it’s why the sweatshop model works so well.

I think it most impertinent of the unions to spend so much time complaining about their members’ working lives. The truth is that anyone these days should be grateful to have any kind of paid employment after the bankers spectacularly crashed the economy in 2008, like a toddler trying to fly a plane.

It’s only fair that the people who had least to do with this global catastrophe should be the ones to take all the shit for it. That’s just the way of the world, isn’t it? It’s the natural order of things.

The luxuries of life like a house, some clothes, food on the table three times a day, heating in cold weather, a night out at the cinema every now and again (which a disreputable trade union rep might try to help workers’ secure – in YOUR time!) rightfully belong in the august hands of people such as yourself. Well-respected, successful, property-owning people are the only ones who should be allowed to be successful, well-respected and property owning. If the works of the splendid Friedrich Hayek taught us anything, they taught us this: that it is property that sets us free and not trade union representatives.

Every PCC employee now has the opportunity to be truly free with reduced facility time for trade union representatives. Each and every worker experiencing workplace stress, financial insecurity, bullying and harassment will now get the chance to own his or her very own bottle of prescription anti-depressants.

It is most heartening to witness your drive to fleece us of anything that might make our working lives more bearable, more productive and happier, and I know it will yield some great results. Sadly I have no surviving female ancestors but my daughter has a grandmother; do let me know if you want me to put her up for sale to assist the council in its efforts to recoup the money squandered by the gambling spiv bankers in those heady 2008 days.

Heaven forbid that we should take the path that Iceland took, and let the people off paying the bankers’ debts.

Yours In Appreciation Of Your Smash And Grab Efforts,

Rosy Bremer

Democracy in Portsmouth? It’d Be a Good Idea

In the wake of recent protests both local and global, journalist, political commentator and S&C editor Tom Sykes questions how representative our elected representatives really are – in Portsmouth and beyond.

Criticisms of democracy have been around since the birth of democracy itself. But new questions are being asked in the West about how fair, efficient and representative our systems are given the allegations of dirty tricks in the run-up to the EU referendum and the election of Donald Trump with almost 3 million fewer votes than his opponent Hillary Clinton. The unprecedented protests against Trump across the United States are, in part, a symptom of public frustration with a perverse procedure that, on four occasions in American history, has handed the presidency to the candidate who won the electoral college but lost the popular vote.

The US is not the only country with a yawning disconnect between the will of the people and the actions of those who claim to represent them, even when the statistics show such claims to be dubious. The Conservatives’ 2015 general election win was spun by some commentators as a vindication of the austerity programme. But, as Abi Wilkinson of The Mirror points out, ‘Only 24% of those eligible to vote actually put a cross next to a Tory candidate on their ballot paper. That leaves a massive 76% of people we have no reason to believe support the Conservative government.’

The problem of legitimacy is even more arresting in local Portsmouth politics. In last May’s city council elections, Conservative leader Donna Jones was returned with a 55% majority. Her victory looks less impressive when you consider that, out of a total electorate of 10,286 in her Hilsea ward, only 1,566 (15.5%) voted for her.

As for the rest of the successful candidates in that same election, the mean majority based on total votes cast was 40.07% and the mean percentage based on the total number of eligible voters per ward was a mere 12.67%. None of these figures could be described as landslides.

When someone is elected to high office with no more than, as it were, a cult following it’s only logical that some of their policies will be intensely unpopular with the overwhelming majority of people who didn’t vote for them. Donna Jones, in particular, sounded hypocritical when she alleged that ‘democracy has been compromised’ by anti-austerity protests supported by large sections of the public.

Whatever happened during the fracas at the Arts Lodge last week, we can be sure that almost 5,000 people have signed a petition to keep it open. That’s almost 3,500 more people than who voted for Jones and most other serving councillors in this city. More strikingly, according to Lib Dem councillor Gerald Vernon-Jackson, 95% of Portsmouth residents oppose the closure of the Lodge.

When you contrast this with the council’s decision to ratify the Solent Combined Authority, about which there was little in the way of public consultation, it’s obvious there’s a double standard at play.

The blame for the democratic disconnect doesn’t ultimately lie with Trump, Jones or any other individual actor in these flawed elections and referendums. The problem is structural and we need a radical overhaul of our democratic processes and practices. More than that, we need to change the broader social conditions that make politics, by and large, a closed shop for the privileged. You need at least $10 million in the bank before you can even begin to think about standing for president of the United States. One third of British MPs were privately educated and a quarter went to Oxbridge.

Can we really, with a straight face, call this democracy?

Photography by Sarah Cheverton.

Guns, Glitter and Gewgaws: A 1950s Christmas

In a S&C Christmas exclusive, actor, playwright and S&C Contributing Editor John Bartlett recalls the Christmas customs of his childhood. Some of these customs remain with us, others now seem alien or eccentric.

In 1956, my father Reg fell ill whilst serving on board the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle. He had to leave the ship at the earliest opportunity for medical tests at the Royal Naval Hospital, Plymouth, where it soon became clear his condition was terminal. Out of necessity and compassion the senior doctor arranged for a transfer to Royal Naval Hospital Haslar in Gosport, where at least my mother could visit him during his last days. (I know all this from a letter I still have dated 26th January 1956). During Reg’s last week he learned that his rank of commissioned bos’un was to be phased out and he was to become a sub-lieutenant. ‘A little too late,’ he observed ruefully.

Not long after Reg died my mother Marion took a few rooms in a house opposite my nana and grandpa’s house in Westbourne Avenue, Emsworth. I, the little boy, was adored by everyone but oblivious of the sadness that must have seeped into my mother’s core. She must also have been at a loss concerning the future. Fortuitously, my father had taken out several life policies a year or so before he died which meant she would now be relatively well off. It was her lifelong friend Eileen who suggested she should move up East Molesey in Surrey for a fresh start.

Surrey has a sense of self-importance and an outward sophistication. The neat houses, with their high walls and clipped gardens, are bastions of middle class England. An Englishman’s home is his castle as they say, but there’s another side to that equation – if these mini kingdoms keep their residents safe by shutting the world out, they also shut the occupants in.

The double bay frontage of our East Molesey house was, to my young eyes, enormous and imposing. A large central yellow door was reached by several stone steps. Splendid in their unassailable position protecting the house were two stone lions flanking the doorway. In later years I was able to clamber gingerly out along the edge of their plinths and ride on the backs of these magnificent beasts.

With the war having ended just a few years earlier and rationing now on its way out, Christmas in the late 1950s was an opportunity to celebrate one’s freedom and the coming of a new and thrilling world. The austerity of the war years had given way to a brighter future and change was in the air. This was evident in new innovations in fabrics to fashion, ceramics to advertising, and literature to cinematography.

As Christmas approached, my mother would retrieve the old brown battered cardboard box of decorations from the attic. Once more out came the tawdry glitter, the fairy for the Christmas tree, plaster cake decorations and crêpe paper streamers. The very first thing to be done was to unravel the streamers, which had been carefully rolled up prior to being stored the previous year. There was always slightly yellowed sellotape still attached to both ends of the vibrant paper garlands. With fresh sellotape applied, in no time at all we’d fixed the streamers to the light fitting in the centre of the room. After we twisted and twisted them to form a pleasing helix, we strung them one by one across the room. The first streamer was always fixed from one diagonal to the other, then across the centre of the room and finally from one side to the other in a Christmas version of the Union Jack.

To augment the streamers we constructed paper chains, as these never survived from one year to the next. This required, with plenty of lick, a single strip of coloured paper being stuck together into a circle. We then passed the next strip through the first circle and assembled in the same way. We continued this process until a long chain was formed. The next step was to suspend the chain from the picture rail in swathes and loops around room.

To supplement the overall effect, we also had a number of concertina paper decorations. These were constructed in such a way that when opened up and fixed back to back with the aid of a small brass split pin, they became three dimensional shapes consisting of innumerable paper diamonds all trimmed to form the desired bell or ball. We hung them in the corners of the room or suspended them from the central light. With much huffing and puffing, we suspended coloured balloons in a variety of shapes: long sausages, ovals and pears. Finally, we threw tinsel, much of it saved from the previous year, over just about everything. Tinsel in those days was made from very long narrow strips or strands of silver tin foil. Attempting to save and reuse it was quite difficult as it had a habit of folding over and over on itself, flattening into a useless lump like some fantastical earring. It is still possible to buy a silver plastic tinsel of the strand variety but, to my mind, it has largely gone out of fashion and not seen quite so often today.

The Christmas tree, which always stood in the corner of the room, belonged to the only variety of fir tree that could be purchased at the time. False fake Christmas trees did not make an appearance in any numbers until a decade or so later. Strange to think that originally the whole purpose of bringing into the home evergreens was to symbolise the ancient pagan belief in the representation of everlasting life during the winter solstice, a practice, for obvious reasons, readily adopted by the Christian faith.

The rather sparse pine needles stuck out from the branches at ninety degree angles. As the tree dried out and Christmas Day approached, more and more pine needles cascaded down, covering the floor to form a spiky green carpet around the base of the tree. So much so that, by the time the special day had arrived, large areas of the tree were quite bald. This annual needle shower was replicated in homes up and down the length and breadth of the country. After Christmas, when we had taken down and packed away all the decorations once more, no matter how diligently the area had been cleaned, pine needles would still surface throughout the year. I didn’t ever see goblins as Robert Herrick would have it in his poem ‘Ceremony upon Candlemas Eve’, but then again I suppose I’m not a maid.

Down with the rosemary, and so,
Down with the baies, and mistletoe
Down with the holly, ivie and all,
Wherewith ye drest the Christmas Hall,
That so the superstitious find
No one least branch there left behind;
For look, how many leaves there be
Neglected, there (maids trust to me)
So many goblins you shall see.

Once we’d propped the tree up and secured it with bricks and earth in a galvanised tin bucket, we festooned the base with red crêpe paper. We then covered the earth with cotton wool to simulate snow and adorned the scene with a few pine cones.

The next task was to decorate the tree with glass gewgaws – this is an archaic word for brightly coloured glass baubles. The tree was topped by the ubiquitous fairy dressed all in white with some glitter on her dress and wings that were crumpled from being stored in a cardboard box for eleven months. The only other tree decorations were twenty or so miniature candles, which came out every year but were never ever lit. The fading pink barley twist candles were secured to the tree by cheap pressed tin candle holders, reminiscent of miniature daffodils.

The tin was painted in gaudy colours on the outside and silver on the inside, each holder had a pegging device similar to a tiny clothes peg by which they were fastened to the tree. Trying to make the candles stand upright was almost impossible. Each candle leant at a crazy angle either to one side of the pine twig or the other. The concept of having a naked flame anywhere near a highly inflammable Christmas tree was left over from the Victorian era. When the candles were lit the butler in the ‘big house’ was obliged to stand next to the tree with a large bucket of water just in case the tree caught light, which it sometimes did.

The final element of dressing the tree was, of course, more tinsel, partially saved from the previous year and augmented by a new card. Undoing the flat cardboard package with its mini window onto the partially hidden glitter inside, was always a source of great excitement. The slightly dull – by today’s standards perhaps – silver strands were all neatly laid out and wound round the card from top to bottom. Seeing them there was always an exciting precursor to the festive celebrations to come. Under the tree, packages and parcels wrapped in thin festive Christmas paper, jostled for space.

At this time I was an only child and my mother, from a 1950s perspective, did rather spoil me. There were such things as a cowboy hat, a pair of silver guns in holsters, a sheriff’s badge, colouring books and puzzles. But one year my most prized present was a magnificent castle bought from Bentalls at a knock-down price owing to some slight damage. Dating back to 1867, Bentalls in Kingston is a large household store and according to their website ‘offers the best brands outside the west end of London.’

I remember their children’s section which had a number of customized seats, a racing car, a showground style horse and a large – but not real – ostrich to sit in. Children by and large don’t like having their hair cut so these specialized seats made the ordeal less of a trauma. That is until the hairdresser accidentally caught the lobe of my left ear in her scissors and drew blood, snip! I didn’t much care for the barbers at Bentalls after that.

The base of the castle was in the shape of a frustum or truncated pyramid. To give the impression of height it was partially sponge painted with a canopy of dark green trees. A path was set into the base which wound its way up on three sides to arrive at the castle’s entrance, equipped, of course, with two towers and a portcullis. The castellation continued around the walls where, at the back more towers and walkways completed the edifice. Set into the base was even a secret Norman arched door which could be opened with stubby children’s fingers, by carefully sliding the door upwards. The top section of the castle could be removed to reveal a void in which the soldiers and knights could be safely stored when not in use. Rather incongruously I had a collection of ‘sons of the desert’, which, when attacking the castle, I used to place in long rows on the inclined path. Their curved scimitars were drawn and raised threateningly above their heads. Their red Arab robes were sculptured in such a way as to look as if they were running, and very formidable they looked too.

No matter how excited I was or how hard I tried, at some point I always fell asleep on Christmas Eve. But when I awoke there at the foot of my bed was a pillowcase full of all sorts of delights. These small toys were a precursor to the main event and much larger toys were placed under the tree by my doting mother. My Christmas stocking contained many little trinkets, many gleaned from Woolworths. A monkey on a stick, plastic puzzles, a comic book, a sort of helicopter device which if you pulled the string a circular disc flew up into the air, crayons, a toy trumpet, a selection box of sweets covered in red netting and held fast together by a festive cardboard boot, a variety of nuts and of course there was always an orange.

I suppose in life everyone has some regrets and one of mine years later was to tell my mother that I didn’t want a stocking full of trinkets and knick-knacks anymore. These little gifts which were had been so exhilarating a few years earlier now just seemed like a waste of money and items I didn’t want or need. I can still see her troubled face, so deeply pained and hurt by my thoughtless, but well-meaning, utterance. To her I was always her little boy, but things change and I was growing up. Things seen from one point of view are different from another. As far as I was concerned I was saving her the trouble and helping with the cost of Christmas but from her perspective the stocking was a demonstration of her love to me and by refusing it I was in some way pushing her away.

The giving of gifts over it was now time to concentrate on the turkey. Apparently turkey only became popular towards the end of the 1950s but I don’t recall anything else for Christmas dinner – we certainly didn’t have goose. We may, perhaps, have had a large joint of beef but being only five years old in 1958 I don’t remember. Cooking the Christmas turkey always seemed to be a mammoth task and not to be undertaken lightly. Huge amounts of pork mincemeat mixed with sage and onion stuffing were placed in the cavities of the bird and slices of streaky bacon placed over the breast.

Eventually, all was ready and the cooking could begin at last. Once in the oven it seemed to take forever before it was cooked and ready for the table. In the meantime the vegetables had to be prepared. Potatoes were peeled and par boiled. Mum always sliced them length ways which made them shallow but deliciously increased the area to be roasted – I still roast mine in the same way. Parsnips were added to the mix and both potatoes and parsnips were placed reverently around the bird, to cook and crisp up.

We always had sprouts with the outer layers removed. To speed up the cooking time the base of each sprout was trimmed with a cross cut into the base. Prior to cooking – and to kill any slugs and bugs that might be nefariously lurking amongst the mini taste explosions – the sprouts were then left for an hour or so in water with enough salt in it that it could have rivalled the Dead Sea. Carrots were peeled and cut into rings and cauliflower was divided up into manageable florets.

When the turkey was nearing completion it was time to deal with the vegetables. I don’t use the word ‘deal’ lightly as deal with them my mother certainly did. The sprouts were redeemed from their briny repository and along with the carrots and cauliflower were placed in one of three perforated aluminium containers that fitted together to make a circle. These holey receptacles were then placed snugly into mum’s pressure cooker. With its insistent hissing from escaping pressurised steam, demonic is the only word to describe this beast of the kitchen. The exterior of the cooker was barrel shaped and a dull grey in colour. A number of raised ribs ran from its top to bottom and along its girth. The silver chrome safety valve, which presumably kept the contraption safe, was situated on the top. For the most part this potential bomb behaved itself and it was only when the pressure had to be released that it really came into its own. Held reverently in front of her, Mum used to take the whole device to the sink where she, cloth in hand, would remove the valve. Immediately a jet of steam, reminiscent of an escaping genie in a bottle, would rise to the ceiling and envelop the kitchen. The noise was quite deafening and certainly very scary. As to whether it was safe or not, I still have my doubts.

Christmas dinner, with all the trimmings, was much like any other Christmas dinner – in many ways not a great deal has changed. I have yet to ascertain what ‘trimmings’ are, as I once asked for these in a variety of shops, a butcher’s, greengrocer’s and a general store, and got some strange looks. All the vegetables were over-cooked, especially the sprouts which had been transformed into a dullish green mush quite unpleasant to the taste buds. We did have a mysterious white lumpy concoction, which thankfully mum only made once a year, which went under the heading of bread sauce. Having pulled the crackers, donned the hats and read the terrible jokes – jokes that still seem to be doing the rounds – it was time for the Christmas pudding.

Today the Christmas pudding seems to be as popular as ever but I think a much lighter version obtained back in the fifties. Puddings in those days were almost black and far too rich to be enjoyed after a large meal, but, no matter, the ritual of the pudding had to be observed. Once devoid of its muslin cloth and the ancient, slightly chipped and cracked pudding bowl, the pud was doused in brandy and set alight.

Then it was time for the procession to begin and in it came from the kitchen, replete with a sprig of holly. A bluish flame hovered around the circumference and flickered over the top of the black morass of fruit and boiled pudding. Inside there were several Victorian and Edwardian silver threepenny bits (3d) which previously been boiled before being stirred into the mix. It was a great honour to find one but was instantly replaced with a sixpence. The old threepenny bit, usually pronounced ‘thrup-penny bit’, was then washed and stored for future use. I wonder where they are now?

Boxing Day was always cold turkey with a salad of lettuce, hard boiled eggs cut in half, tomatoes and hot buttered potatoes. Heinz salad cream, Branston pickle and a jar of pickled onions also graced the table. In a jug, a stick of celery, split into sticks and washed clean from the soot it had been grown in, thrust green fingers towards the ceiling. Looking back I don’t know why, but tea was always served at the beginning and again at the end of the meal.

In case you were hungry thinly sliced brown bread and butter was very much a part of the proceedings. More often than not a trifle had been created which consisted of a rusk covered in tinned strawberries that had been mixed with red strawberry jelly. Layers of custard and cream were spooned over the top and finally, to complete the concoction, sprinkled hundreds and thousands dotted the surface. At some point the platters were cleared away to make room for the Christmas cake, which had not been touched from the previous day.

For some reason I remember the cake being square rather than round and again like the Christmas pudding, seemed to be much darker and heavier than modern versions. The sides of the cake were always adorned with a red and gold band or sash, which to complete the festive look, had a sort of red frill attached to either side. The band was rarely if ever replaced from one year to the next. At the end of the Christmas period or the cake whichever came first usually the latter, the band was carefully rolled up and stored with the rest of the Christmas paraphernalia. The cake itself was covered in an almost impenetrable white icing, so hard it was in danger of breaking one’s teeth. The icing, to simulate drifts of snow, was lifted into little sharp peaks like a frozen sea. Placed in a prominent position and presumably before the icing had time to set, was a little plaster Father Christmas replete with vestiges around its base of the aftermath of the previous year’s icing snow storm. In addition to Father Christmas, there was also a little snowman, scarf, buttons and all, growing out of the sweet sugary winter icing. At either corner of the cake imitation holly with shiny red berries, quite out of proportion to everything else, helped the overall look and feel of the cakey ornamentation. To complete the picturesque festive scene in curly italic writing a decorative semi-circular gold inscription boldly pronounced, as you might suspect, ‘Happy Christmas.’

All I have described remains to me familiar and yet, somehow, quaintly distant. Christmas, in many respects, is exactly the same but like all things there are subtle differences that are perhaps elusive and difficult to pinpoint.

Was a 1950s Christmas better than today? Probably not. It was just, well, different. Maybe there was a different set of priorities, a different focus. But when all is said and done, what I remember the most is the cosy all-enveloping family warmth and love of a mother who wanted the best for her child.

Photography by Moshe Tasky

Portsmouth Writers’ Season: Tom Harris

We present an excerpt from chapter one of Tom Harris’ new novel, The Sweep, a fantasy adventure set in an alternative, steampunk-inspired London. This is a capital divided by wealth and corruption, run by a fractured law, where monsters haunt the night and where the downtrodden slave to survive; it is a time of Masters and a time of Sweeps.

I stare into black.

The chimney seems endless in the night and the air is warm on my face, as it whistles down the flue.

‘There were stars out tonight, I’m sure of it,’ I say, to the boy beside me, squinting as I search for a hint of light, even optimism, at the end of this everlasting chimney pot.

‘I ain’t never seen a star. Not through the smog, and with all them nebula-train headlights shootin’ round the sky I ain’t never gonna see one,’ he disagrees.

‘So with all those lights flashing about, why’d you suppose there’s nothing but black up there?’ I ask, gazing into the flue.

‘There’s somethin’ blockin’ it, ain’t there?’ he asks, not as confident as he makes out half the time.

‘You’re wise beyond your years, young Jarl,’ I say.

‘Don’t take the rise. I ain’t no kid anymore, Kohle!’

‘No, you’re not. None of us are…’

When I look at him, he seems like a baby, alive for only ten years in this hardened world, but I’ve only got five years on him. There isn’t much time to be a kid in Londinium.

‘Well…’ I pause, breathing out. ‘There’s definitely an obstruction.’ I step out of the hearth and trip over Jarl, who’s getting under my feet, like the young ones do.

A mist builds in the room, too thick to be wisps of curious smog from the Downstreets, but we need to move whatever it is that’s blocking the flue before this whole house is choked in fumes.

This room reminds me of a lost time. Of a home I once had. It is small of size with two comfy chairs, a table and a bookcase, but the heart of this room is its fireplace.

Jarl tugs at one of the white cover sheets, revealing a huge clock beside us. It’s important to protect as much as we can from the smoke.

Smoke ruins. It scars and it’s building quickly in here…Doesn’t stop me seeing past it though, doesn’t stop me remembering and imagining a home full of laughter and joy; a home, like I used to have…but all that is so distant now, like a different time…

‘So, we climbing this chimney or what?’

I smile and rub my knuckles across the boy’s head. ‘You’re my apprentice, Jarl, remember?’

‘Ger off,’ he shakes free and tuts at me, but I wait and he delivers that reliable grin, as ever he does.

I raise my hand to my mouth and step into the hearth. That inevitable aroma of the embers, the smoky char of my world, fills my head, ripening bogies into black pulses, ready for the picking. A heat haze flickers before the mantle. The air is hot to the touch.

None of them. That’s how many of our clients put their fires out properly. They close the damper, thinking it’s been snuffed out but the smoke gathers, unable to rise through the flue and into the burnt butter skies of our capital; Londinium.

This city is fog. This city is smoke. It has swallowed the poor of the Downstreets and it is rising fast. The rich won’t be able to run from it forever. It won’t be long before all the Downers are sucking down oxygen canisters just to stay alive. It is a city of a million chimney stacks. That’s all that matters to me. As long as there are chimneys to sweep I’ll always have a place here.

‘Right. Last job,’ I say, because I always say it.

Jarl nods and we both say. ‘Until the next one…’

I pull on the lever. The noise that screeches down the chimney tells me what I need to know. Client said as much; knows what he’s talking about. I drop to a crouch, pull on my helmet and goggles and place my gloved hands against the burning bricks. The brass plates on my knees and elbows clink as I pull myself into the darkness. No gas lamps or candles up here, just me and my senses; my instinct. The chimney is narrow, but not as tight as most in the Downstreets. There’s enough room to flex elbows and knees, it’s not a bad climb, really.

‘Do ya think the dampener’s knackered?’ calls Jarl.

‘It’s damper. Remember what I taught you, yeah?’ – I can’t hear it, but I know he’s grumbling, probably pulling a face too – ‘Maybe it’s busted,’ I concede, as I climb, hands and fingers moving fast so the skin doesn’t sear. ‘Client said it wouldn’t open using the lever system and he’s right on that too, but I won’t know what’s blocking it till I get up there. It might be dangerous, so don’t follow. Just wait there for my instruction.’

‘Yeah, yeah,’ he calls back.

I climb quickly, as if I’m desperate to put more distance between us, but I’m not. If anything, this past six months, it’s been great to have him around; someone to care about. Stops me over-thinking. Stops me dwelling and makes me look forward, not back…never back.

‘Hey, did I tell you that thing, Kohle?’

‘Tell me what thing?’ I smirk, mocking him, cause I know what he’s going to say.

‘I saw him again…as clear as a well swept flue, I did. The man with the corvus head.’

Jarl is a good kid, but he’s young. He’s got an imagination that stretches as high and as far as the Londinium Sky Tracks, and that brain of his twists and turns faster and sharper than the nebula-trains that race along them. He makes me laugh with his stories. This new one is the best yet.

‘Saw who?’ I say, just poking him, messing about to see if he’ll bite.

‘Him! I did tell ya. I told ya ‘fore we got here, tonight.’

Yep. He’s biting alright.

‘Corvus!’

‘Oh, him…Yeah, you be sure to point him out, next time,’ I call down, as the plates on my knees clang against the wall as the flue narrows. The smoke is thickening and despite my goggles, my eyes weep from the smoke. I push on, but Jarl will not be ignored.

‘I seen him again, I did! In the grounds of Caminus Hall. He dain’t see me, but I seen him. Twice, I did now. Dressed in black; boots, trousers and a fur ruff round his neck and then there’s his head!’

‘You shouldn’t be sneaking around in the dark like that – should you?’ I shout, coughing as smoke crawls into my lungs.

‘But his head, Kohle! Jet black feathers, eyes darker than any night and that beak, all hooked and deformed. He’s a freak!’

‘Well, whatever he is, I don’t want you lurking about in the grounds beyond midnight. If Miss Tanis sees you, you’ll be out on your backside! It’s that what’s giving you night terrors. It’s a sure way to end up in the belly of a vulpes if you go wandering the grounds. Remember the rhyme? When the skies are still and there’s nothing but black…’

‘Yeah, yeah, I remember – out come the vulpes, to tear out your rack. What does that mean anyway, tear out your rack?’

‘Your ribs,’ I say, moving on before the heat sticks me to the brick. ‘It means, the pack will tear you apart and devour the flesh from your ribs.’

‘Now who’s givin’ me night terrors,’ he calls up. ‘Anyways, there ain’t no way, Tanis will catch me. Not whilst she’s in that wheelchair of hers.’

His laughter rises up the flue and tickles my face, forcing a smile. He’s too young to care that he shouldn’t joke about people in wheelchairs, even if it is Miss Tanis.

As I reach up, the handhold crumbles and brick-dust sprinkles my face. I slip. In that second before I stop my fall, memories engulf me. The way their bodies fell, Mum and Dad, gone forever, just like that. The reek of burning flesh snaps me from my past. I grit my teeth, clamp my plated knees against the walls and shake off my burning palms. ‘Focus you idiot!’ I curse.

‘You’ll see him one day, Kohle. You’ll see Corvus. I know ya will. Though I hopes you don’t. He might be that killer they say is about, come to take his pick of the sweeps of Caminus?’

‘That’s enough, Jarl. I’ve told you, it’s all fiction and fabric, so enough!’

He falls quiet. He’s being silly now, showing his age, and so I push on as the smoke scuttles into my lungs. Time to stop talking. I brace using elbows and knees and pull up the cloth gag from my neck. I prop it over my nose so it covers my mouth. Then I continue the climb.

Jarl’s voice fades as I rise through the flue. I hate ignoring him, but that kid would natter all day and we still have work to do. We always have work to do.

It’s getting hotter. Heat rises. Everyone knows that. Takes a lot to make me sweat, but I’m drowning in it at the moment. The damper must be close now and I’m sure that’s what’s broken. A sinister melody of wind instruments finds me. It’s the sound of the Downstreets funnelling down the flue. Although I don’t know the tune, I climb faster, using the beat, like the music is growing inside me.

Jarl’s calling to me, but I’m a long way up and his words are strangled by the distance.

‘I can’t hear you!’ I yell. His reply is muffled.

The clang and clatter of brass plates below grabs my attention. Is he moving up the chimney just cause I won’t answer him?

‘Stay put will you! There’s no point in brushing out the flue till I’m done. You know that! And if this blockage falls it will squash you flat. What do you think of that?’

His strangled cries continue. He’s banging around like he’s having a tantrum or something.

‘Whatever it is that you want can bloody wait till I’m done!’ I yell.

Why doesn’t he listen to me? I won’t be around to teach him forever. Maybe it’s me. Maybe I should let him figure stuff out for himself. What if he’s getting too dependent? I’m fifteen and that’s ancient in this job. I got less than a year of my Under-Master trials left and then he’s on his own. That’s not long to learn all that he needs. I mean, it’s dangerous; everyone knows that. From sweeping high rises for the rich on Hillside and Montem, to cleaning the crumbling, narrow stacks of the poor in the Downstreets…Unless you know what you’re doing, you’ll not last out your first phase apprenticeship, let alone live to become a Master Sweep. That’s why we get to do it, cause no-one’ll miss us when we go. We have nothing and no-one, except each other. I pause. Why has he gone so quiet?

‘Jarl!’ I call and through a break in the music, comes a deafening silence. Has he left me? Left the bloody room? No-one leaves on a job. No-one.

‘Oi! We are not done yet. Don’t you run out on me! I thought you were past all that? Jarl?’

Nothing.

From rage comes doubt and from doubt comes worry. What if he’s slipped? What if he’s hurt?

‘Jarl! You okay?’ – Nothing.

Nah, don’t get yourself at it. He’s fine. Just needy. The young ones always are. I was. I remember. I have to let him be, let him learn, make his mistakes. I climb again and as I reach up, my hand lands on a cast iron plate.

‘Ah, there you are!’ I say.

The damper is closed as expected. That’s what has caused the build-up of smoke, but as I push my brass arm plate against it, hoping to release the building fumes into the night sky, something is very wrong. The damper is sealed fast.

I brace myself in the flue and put my shoulder into it, banging on the plate. Bolts of electric pain spark in my muscles, but I grit my teeth and go again. No use. It’s not budging. I can’t work it out. Why would anyone seal a valve? Any Sweep worth his salt knows that the damper acts as a valve, there to control the heat – the flow through the flue – but this isn’t jammed or stuck, it’s no accident at all.

My head is taking over my body and the stiller I become, the faster the heat burns through me. My clothes stick to my sweaty skin. Must act. Must move. I jam myself in the brick channel and kick away at the plate. It pings back, ringing in my head. I kick harder. I slip. Don’t get clumsy. Get your head straight. Only apprentices and idiots fall.

Jarl’s voice returns, carried on a rush of sooty wind. Then a mighty clang echoes up the flue. My mind flashes to that expensive-looking clock and the cover sheet.

‘Jarl! If you’ve broken that clock, I’ll…’

Jarl screams.

I fly down that chimney like I’m on fire. The brass plates chink and scrape as I slide down the flue, sparking against the brick. I descend through the smoke and the darkness, my heart smashing against my chest plate. My breathing is ragged, my stomach rolling over and over.

‘Jarl!’ I call, as his screams reach into me. ‘Almost there!’ I cry. His screams stop, replaced by a metallic clang, repeating, like someone’s hammering.

I’m out of time. I drop. My stomach hollows as I freefall. I widen my legs and arms, using the plates to slow my fall. The brass brakes spark and slow me, holding me in the dark. My body screams in agony as the bitter light from the room colours the smoke at the bottom of the flue, before all the light is snuffed out.

‘Jarl!?’ I whisper. ‘What’s going on?’ There’s no reply, just an eerie scraping, and then a bang that almost makes me swallow my tongue. ‘Jarl? Is that you?’ I slip and before I can brake I clatter into metal. The sheet folds beneath me and I crash down into the hearth; swallowed up by a cloud of soot.

A voice grunts and moans. I’ve fallen right on him, trapping him beneath the sheet. What has he been doing?

‘Where did you get this thing, Jarl? You okay?’ I call, as the sheet rises up and tips me off my feet. I roll out of the fireplace, spreading soot across the dust sheets and onto the wooden floorboards. Dust and smoke fill me up, my eyes adjusting as I gasp for clean air. Can’t focus.

The mist clouds me.

The sheet of metal lies dented in the hearth. What is that thing and what is it even doing there?

Jarl. I try to call his name, but the words won’t leave my mouth. I see the sheet move. A figure rises from under it, covered in soot. It is not Jarl, but this creature he talks of.

It is Corvus, born into life.

The stranger is just as he described; eyes glazed as though dead and a crooked beak that sits on a head of feathers. Above this macabre mask sits a top hat with goggles wrapped around the sash, but this is no fabrication of a child’s mind, it is a man.

As he stumbles out of the hearth, I sense the danger. I reach for a weapon, something to defend us. I take a brick in hand.

‘The boy?’ I manage, as he stands to full height. I see it only briefly, but where his trouser leg is torn by the sheet is a mark. It is art – skin-ink – a large cross upon his calf.

Those dead eyes drop upon me and his mutated voice fills the room.

‘Cr-r-ruck. Your kind will pay for their crimes, Sweep.’ He steps forward, as I rise to my haunches. ‘Cr-r-ruck. I am vengeance. I am wrath.’

Can’t breathe. Can’t speak, but I rise to meet his challenge, as I must.

Talons on the toecaps of dark grey boots clink as Corvus crosses the room towards me. He pauses to stare into the fireplace before he takes a shiny dagger with a brass handle from a sheath on his waist. His demented voice fills the room again as he stares me down.

‘Cr-r-ruck. I come for you all, for you know not what you have done. It has begun and it will not end until all have paid the true price, Sweep. The final price.’ Then he lurches forward. I slip aside as the dagger flashes through the air. He comes again and I roll away as the blade chases me.

I turn and face him on my haunches. ‘The boy? Where is the boy?’

He makes no sound. His movements are slow, but his reach makes up for that. The dagger slashes again and I dart under him. I can’t fight this beast. He has me cornered in the fireplace. He thrusts. I roll aside, clattering across the metal sheet. There’s only one place I can survive this.

‘Cr-r-ruck. Only death waits for us in the dark, Sweep!’

He’s too close and when the dagger comes this time, I am done. As the blade arrives, all I can do is to hold out an arm. It’s instinct to block its path to my face. The dagger screeches across my brass plate but it was meant for my flesh. With no resistance to stop his weight coming forward, Corvus stumbles. He has lost all balance. Though he does not fall, it buys me time.

I slide across the sheet and wriggle back into the hearth, scrambling through the debris of soot and brick. The echo of the knife chinking against the rubble in my wake propels me forward and I rise with hands, elbows, knees and feet working quickly with the brass. Into the darkness I climb until my breath runs out. I peer down into the sliver of light, gasping for air, as the shadow of Corvus blocks it out.

Though his dagger and his crushing hands can’t reach me that voice still can.

‘Cr-r-ruck. Know that you led the boy to his end, Sweep.’

‘What? What have you done to the boy?’ I scream.

‘Cr-r-ruck. Nothing less than what was done to me. Know that you can’t live your life up there in the dark. Not forever.’

The scream of a klaxon silences my anger and halts my voice. It is the sound of law. The Flam! A capital alert has been signalled.

‘Cr-r-ruck. This night is yours, Sweep, but I will be waiting for you, for all of you.’

Light returns to the flue and as the klaxon continues to splinter the Londinium night, I descend. All flee at the sound of the klaxon, even Corvus it seems.

‘Jarl…?’

I rush down the chimney, pausing should the slash of a blade greet me. It does not and the klaxon gives me no choice. I drop and scramble out across the sheet, ignoring the bruising and the heaviness of my legs. I back away to take in the room, fear numbing all physical pain as I search for another weapon to fight with should Corvus spring from the shadows. As the klaxon wails through the timbers of this old house, I sense I am alone.

When I see the crumpled boy beneath the sheet, my world turns colder than ice.

‘Jarl?’ I cry and I rush to the boy, pulling the sheet from his body, best I can.

I stagger back into the old clock. Through the smoke and dust, darkness descends.

I understand death. I am a killer after all.

This moment is familiar to me. It is as though I am looking down upon my parent’s bodies in the mines, like it’s happening all over again…

He is broken. Gone.

The death of a sweep. The death of a friend.

My Jarl.