Blackadder and all that

To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.

(Right, bear with me on this post as it could meander all over the place.)

I have been reading about the Michael Gove-Sir Tony Robinson-Blackadder history education hoo-ha. And it’s got me going back in time to my teenage years at school in Devon and as a student at Lancaster.

Me studying back in 1987 at Lancaster University
Me studying back in 1987 at Lancaster University

I was 11 when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979. I was 22 when she was usurped by John Major. By then I was married, living in London and doing my PGCE. I went on to teach in what were known as ‘inner city’ schools in Camberwell and Plumstead, with an interest in early years and how we learn to write.

After a few years, I had my own children, three of them, in quick succession (when our daughter was born, her brothers were just 2 and 3 years of age). Those years are a blur, to be honest. But I do remember it was the steepest of learning curves.

Now, in 2014, those infants are teenagers, one on a gap year, one in his final year of sixth form, and one in Year 10. I have not returned to primary school teaching. But I have seen my kids go through the education system. I have taught in pre-schools, been a youth worker, and done a Masters degree. And now I teach adults creative writing. I have experienced more than my fair share of education.

Going back to 1987…

I met my husband at university. He was a history and politics student and active member of the student union and Labour club. I was studying English and Women’s Studies. We had a shared worldview, even though I was a yokel and he was a Londoner. And what made our political development more honed? We had something to rail against. The excesses of Thatcherism.

The ‘alternative comedy’ scene was central to this for me. Spitting Image, Saturday Live, French and Saunders and Blackadder were a huge part of my growing up and instrumental to my development as a writer. But especially Blackadder as it was a ‘sitcom’ and hence had a narrative. Blackadder Goes Forth, aired first in 1989, was the most complex of the four series, comi-tragedy at its Shakespearean best. Who can stay dry-eyed at the final moments as our beloved characters go over the top and the terrifying scene is replaced by poppy fields? (See clip at end of post.)

Fast forward to another Tory government. 2014. And Mr Gove. I am angry but not in the least bit surprised that the Education Minister is attacking the way WW1 is taught in schools. Sir Tony Robinson aka Baldrick has retaliated with his support for teachers, teachers who know how young people learn best: through dynamic and multi-media means (a little bit of alliteration there). How amazing that we can learn about the past through poetry, letters, memoirs, ‘official’ documents, academic books, comic strips, art, music, photographs, field trips, film footage … and, yes, satire.

BGF is satire. It flags up the absurdity of war, the senselessness and futility of sending millions of men to their untimely, tragic deaths. Declining empire pitched against rising empire. And the result? The Nazis. WW2. The Holocaust. Miilions of civilian deaths. All in the name of power.

Doesn’t mankind (and here I really do mean mankind) ever learn?

What have we learned one hundred years on, as empires once again shift and pose and strut. What can we learn?

We’ve tried to bring our kids up to be progressive, anti-racist, feminist, to ask questions, to argue. And boy have there been some arguments. The most momentous was at the dinner table a few years ago when DS1 and DS2 (forgive Mumsnet-type acronyms) conflicted over the outcomes of the Treaty of Versailles. It still bubbles to the surface even now.

It is hard being a teenager. It is very hard being a teenager in 2014 as they have to navigate their way through a minefield of social media and sexualised images and celebrity non-culture. Yes, they have their own generation of comedy too but the ‘alternative’ is now mainstream. (Jack Whitehall is lovely but he isn’t Ben Elton.) So I am glad my boys were shown Blackadder Goes Forth at school as part of their learning experience of the Great War. I am saddened that our daughter chose not to take history as an option. But she has seen Blackadder Goes Forth at home. And she has had to endure listening to her brothers battle it out over the Treaty of Versailles (if you’ll pardon the pun).

But imagine being a teenager in 1914?

My hope is for all three of them to go through the rest of their teenage years and into adulthood always questioning, never settling for the status quo. And to remember that most of their worries and problems are ‘first world’ worries and problems.

I hope they put their experiences into the bigger picture and ask what it is to be a good human being.

I hope my daughter can take on her brothers over the outcomes of the Treaty of Versailles.

And I hope that teachers continue to show Blackadder Goes Forth to their students and that Michael Gove doesn’t win in his elitist attempt to rewrite history.

And I thank God that this is not 1914 and that I do not have to wave my boys off to war. Do consider entering the Words for the Wounded writing prize. Closing date March 11th 2014.

We will remember them.


The Grocer’s Daughter

_48153436_-24Love her or hate her, you can’t feel complacent about the force that was Margaret Thatcher. A woman in a man’s world. Maybe she didn’t encourage other women into the cabinet or see herself as a feminist, but she did show by example that there was nothing a woman couldn’t do.

She was Prime Minister throughout my teenage years, the time I was politicised. I soon realised I would never vote Tory, especially during the miners’ strike (a backdrop I use in a chapter of The Generation Game). But I never questioned that I wouldn’t go to university, even though I was the first woman in my family to do so, at a time when only 6% of the population were going to university. That’s what I wanted to do, so I worked hard and I went. With a full grant and all my fees paid. I didn’t realise then how lucky I was.

I don’t like what Mrs’s T’s reign (and Reagan’s) did, the legacy she left; the way society has fractured, and the welfare state dismantled. She couldn’t understand non-achievers because she achieved everything she wanted. Her biggest failure was her inability to understand that not everyone had her brains, courage and vision. And yes, we were coming out of the winter of discontent, rubbish on the streets, the dead waiting to be buried, the unions acting undemocratically. But she went too far, selling off council housing, British Rail, everything except the gold (another PM did that…). She began the process of shifting the emphasis away from society and onto the individual. A process that has been unstoppable.

But one thing she fought for, being a woman and a mother, was child benefit as a universal benefit. She knew the ideological and practical importance of this small but regular income that could be spent on nappies, children’s shoes and the like.

This government, run by an old Etonian who has never had to struggle against the odds, is far more destructive and divisive than she ever was. I didn’t think that was possible but sadly it is.


A little bit of politics

So I have now been blogging for a year… When I put my first post up last St Patrick’s Day I had no idea what I was doing, to be honest. Still not sure I do. But I have discovered a lot about what is important to me during my 90 posts, some of which have been a surprise.

The main themes I’ve rambled on about have been:


Books (my book in particular…)

Popular culture


70s and 80s nostalgia

Bruce Forsyth (and hurrah, he got his knighthood along the way!)

A little bit of politics (and a lot of Tory-bashing)

God and today’s church

Canada (where I live a parallel life in another space/time log cabin)

Music (pop)


Mental health


Having just read Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman (what a blast of fresh air!), I think it appropriate to dedicate this anniversary to the suffragettes who gave their lives for the rights of their sisters. A hundred years on, what would they think? What would they say to today’s young men and women? How would they feel, knowing that women are still judged by what they look like?  Lap-dancing, stripping, plastic surgery, bum implants, pneumatic breasts, Katie Price, Nuts magazine et al, Page 3, and the fact that women in the UK are paid on average 30% less than men despite the Equal Pay Act of 1970…what would they do with this very present and worrying reality?

I have two sons and a daughter and I know I have a duty as a mother to bring all three up as feminists.  It helps that we are a liberal-Guardian-reading household and that my husband and I were students in the 80s when Margaret Thatcher had a deep and long-lasting effect on our political beliefs. We talk about stuff, the media, the telly, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding… we debate. We let them ask questions and they know we don’t have all the answers. But they know right from wrong (mostly). And they know it is right to judge people by their actions, not by their looks/clothes/or walk.

Back in the 80s was an exciting time to be a woman. I was an English major, the  first of my family to go to a university. But what opened my eyes was the Women’s Studies minor I took, and the unit in Women Writers. I thought the bad times were behind us, that the future was bright for the human race, men and women alike. I thought that things could only get better a good decade ahead of Tony Blair (and even before Professor Brian Cox was a keyboard player). But twenty-five years later, I worry that my teenagers are bombarded with images that suggest women are still second class citizens. That the boys will have better life chances than their sister (though she is a tough cookie despite the obsession with mascara).

Don’t get me wrong … I like being a woman. I like wearing dresses and looking feminine. I like shoes and bags. But this doesn’t mean men should patronise me or think they have the monopoly on a conversation. And I like men too – they are somehow less complicated. You know where you are with them on the whole, even if it’s not always somewhere you want to be…

Maybe that’s why bloggging – and writing in general – can be so therapeutic. You can do it with no one looking at you. If I’m judged, it is by what I write, and the way I write it, including my occasional bad use of adjectives. And that’s fine.