The Black Feathers – a gig review

A feather, in case you didn’t know, is a marvel of natural engineering. Incredibly light but, pound for pound, as strong as carbon fibre, allowing our avian friends to carve shapes in the air with apparently effortless grace and power.

So The Black Feathers are aptly named. This evening’s performance at the Lansdown in Bristol began with “Goodbye Tomorrow”, showcasing the immaculate harmonies of Sian and Ray, two voices perfectly paired and expertly controlled, with Ray’s sometimes feather-light, sometimes assertively resonant touch on the guitar providing backing. Like the playing, the voices, whether whisper-soft or soaring powerfully, are polished to perfection, every phrase engineered and refined.

Next came a sly, fun take on “Spirit in the Sky”, with mischief in the guitar line acknowledging the camp of the original but the beautifully constructed vocal still showing reverence to a famous old song. Yes, there’s not just musical talent on display (although the songs are so good, so well delivered that the duo could sit stock still, never speaking to the audience and it would still be a spellbinding evening) – there’s self-deprecating humour, wit and true warmth too.

Thus the tone for the evening is set, the haunting “Homesick” a combination of heart-stopping beauty and incredible precision , the ‘foot-tapping misery’ of “Down by the River” and the pared-down, truly acoustic “You will be Mine” all faultlessly delivered and interspersed with jokes, asides and a genuine gratitude to the audience.

The singing is impeccable, one runs out of superlatives for the quality of the harmonies and for the composition of the melodies around which they are woven. The lyrics are elegantly constructed, meaningful and every song is polished, every dynamic thought through and rehearsed. The performance transports the audience; a glance around the room shows eyes closed and emotion writ large on faces. Tonight’s performance could truly have graced any stage in the world. I hope one day soon that everyone sat in the upstairs room at the Lansdown will be pointing at their televisions, telling relatives: “I saw them before they were famous, it was amazing, I was this close.”

If there’s any justice, that’s exactly what will happen. Catch The Black Feathers while you can, and pick up “Soaked to the Bone” and amaze your next dinner guests.


Bring on the dancing scientists.

Most of the people who I know are involved in the education system at any professional level believe that it is in some trouble. Clearly the Guardian is struggling too, as it’s now publishing articles on education written by sixteen year-olds. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t listen to the views of teenagers on education; in fact, we don’t really consider their true needs nearly enough. Perhaps though, they should be briefly challenged and encouraged to produce a nuanced edit before being published in a national newspaper.

I offer as evidence the sentence: “…Maybe it’s no surprise that this stigma exists: we’re in a society that is obsessed with living for the future.”  Well, yes. As we race towards extinction due to climate change, famine, war and the other horsemen of the apocalypse, we absolutely should be living for the future.

The article in question is by a lady called Orli Vogt-Vincent and, in her defence; it is, the odd phrase aside, a thoughtful and lucid piece about being forced into choices by her school and the fact that her option to take up dance is considered less valuable than science.

As a champion of STEM education, you might expect me to offer some rebuttal. I do not. I think that she’s quite right in many respects – the current administration does devalue the arts, does not encourage the study of subjects like philosophy which are the very underpinnings of civilised thought and is obsessed with shoving kids into academic qualifications in maths and science for which few are suited.

My problem with the article rests with the Guardian’s decision to publish it with no debate or discussion. Fair enough to not allow comments, I would not wish to subject any minor to the bile spewed in even the most respectable papers’ comment threads. But this article, which I assume will be read by a fair number of the nation’s more sensitive and enquiring youth, simply adds to weight to the idea that the arts and science are in some way adversarial.

My guess would be that Ms Vogt-Vincent probably has some great dance teachers and at the same time she has not been inspired by science. This is probably the case in many schools. I wholeheartedly encourage Orli to throw herself into dance and to get the most out of it. I would, however, urge her to apply the same iron discipline that a great dancer requires to her studies in science because there are issues around climate change, energy security, health, food, resource management and countless other areas that will require her to make decisions about her spending, her democratic choices and other vitally important areas of, yes, her future. Only a good quality science education will give her the foundation to understand those issues clearly.

So my problem with the way that The Guardian has chosen to present his piece is this: it is unhelpful. All the paper has done is pitted two areas of education against each other when they should be championed together.

The great failure of the current administration and of many authoritative voices in education is that students’ subject choices are simply seen as a pathway to qualifications and hence careers. This article is making the same mistake.

First and foremost, education should be equipping students to make good choices that steer them to a life of happiness, fulfilment and enable them to make a contribution to society. Not to turn them into career-obsessed wage slaves who will do anything they’re told if it will help them reach the next promotion.

This thing is, at present, it’s easy to study technical subjects and still enjoy the arts on a purely participative basis – no qualification required. A neurosurgeon may play piano in a jazz quartet but we (rightly) discourage professional musicians from dabbling in brain surgery.

We need an academic pathway that engages intelligent students deeply in the important issues of science so that their lifestyle and political decisions can be made on a sound basis without shackling them with the pressure of a qualification, enabling them to throw themselves into other subject areas if that is where their passion lies. A pathway that enables the dancer or the artist to have a road to Damascus moment, perhaps, and suddenly, at the age of sixteen, develop a love of organic chemistry. Or, equally, not.

The obsession with STEM education has come from a good place, Orli, I hope that you realise this. The planet is in a bad way and at the moment, we don’t have the engineers, the scientists and the doctors to fix it. It doesn’t mean that we don’t need dancers and artists and musicians too – I’m an engineer turned educator and still the thing I’m most glad I learned is to play the guitar. The pressure you’re under to study physics rather than physical theatre is born of the panic felt by those looking over the parapet and seeing the approaching shadow. The message, though, has got lost in the obsession with economic progress at all costs because those technically-educated alumni, you see, also make a better regular return for their paymasters.

But for the Guardian – shame on you. You’re supposed to be looking deeper, doing some journalism and encouraging your readers to think more deeply about an issue, not to take a side in a knee-jerk debate that will ultimately leave the dancers and the physicists equally impoverished.

Reading festival? Have your own.

Yes, of course, I’m talking about reading, the thing you do with books (for youthful readers, a book is like a long series of Tweets bound in paper), not the annual celebration of rockular music, where popular beat combos cavort in front of stoned, cider addled fans in a field.

I would describe myself as an avid reader and possessed of minor bibliophiliac tendencies; I do love being surrounded by books and I don’t think I’ll ever prefer a reader to a real book. I don’t get obsessed with first editions and bindings, though: a new paperback is just fine for me.

I’m not massively well-read: I gave up a few dozen pages into Ulysses, can’t be doing with Dickens and failed to find any of Robertson Davies’ clever novels as captivating and funny as I was supposed to. Literachoor is all well and good but I find I enjoy a throwaway novel about superheroes fighting zombies far more as long as there are a few witty lines.

I say this as qualification because I’m going to recommend a couple of books and I don’t want anyone to think that you need to be able to quote chunks of Heidegger verbatim to be able to get something out of them.

Anyway, alongside the penny dreadful thrillers and comic-book plotted sci-fi that I’ve been enjoying over Christmas, I’ve been reading two slightly more serious books and I want to commend them both to anyone.

I’m a big fan of Ben Goldacre – partly because we share many of the same concerns about the presentation of science to the public, especially in the media and partly because I find his doesn’t-suffer-fools-gladly approach amusing. He’s a lucid, witty communicator of really important ideas. “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.” Is perhaps a slightly off-putting title to some people but please don’t be put off. It’s a collection of essays and articles on the misuse and abuse of science in media, politics and commerce. The book deals with issues that affect us all but, because, as the title suggests, the details are more complicated than the headlines suggest, we are often misled.

The articles are short, easy to read and entertaining. Depending on your reading speed and diet you could easily make it through in three months of entertaining and enlightening (see what I did there?) shits. You will emerge from the lavatory wiser and, I hope, angrier.

Speaking of angry brings me to my second recommendation. Owen Jones’ “The Establishment: and how they get away with it” will divide opinion. It’s divided mine and I give you theWikipedia link rather than the Amazon link so that you can have a look at the reception for the book. Of course, one would expect skilled rebuttal as criticism from the right-wing press for a book like this, so, although many of the criticisms aimed at the book are certainly valid, they should also be perhaps weighted accordingly.

Jones looks at the way that a small part of society has come to wield disproportionate wealth and power and how they continue to protect their privilege and the cost to the rest of us. It’s an angry, passionate book although the observations that the author struggles with some of those ideas and is short of viable solutions ring true. Just because you don’t entirely agree with a book or that it doesn’t make your mind up for you is no reason not to read it, though (in fact, I’d tend to steer clear of books that do try to make your mind up for you rather than invite you to think), and I think that everyone should read this one, even if you end up skimming some sections. If it doesn’t make you angry, I’d be surprised and suggest that you’ve either given up or achieved independent wealth and no longer give a shit what happens to anyone else.

Read them both and agree, disagree, act, don’t act. I’m not making a call to arms here: that should be your call to make. But I think that these are two important, thought-provoking books. You’re welcome to borrow my copies if you wish. Happy reading.

Oi! Where’s all the smutty jokes to?

Regular readers of my solecistic soliloquies may have feared/hoped that I’d finally provoked the wrong right-wing nut-job and spent a few months face-down in a ditch trying to sleep off a case of localised lead-poisoning.

No such luck, I’m afraid – if I’ve been poisoned by anything over the last few months it’s been a cocktail of ennui, cynicism and despair that I should probably stop ordering and go back to the neat Jameson’s and misused psychotropics that, on a leisurely re-read, appear to have fuelled most of my output to date.

If I’m aiming for anything with these articles, other than a safety net against future conscription, it’s a satirical look at what’s going on with just enough jokes to keep the jaded reader awake to the end of the piece. Since I last put stylus to wax tablet (following the recent hipster obsession with vintage tech, my blogs are written on clay tablets in cuneiform and transcribed to electronic media by a skinny intern with an incongruous beard whom I pay entirely in sarcasm) there’s been plenty going on that’s stuck a hot needle in my overloaded spleen but as soon as I think about writing something…


The thing about trying a bit of satirical humour is that you want to be able to exaggerate, to carry something that you find ridiculous to its logical (or illogical) extreme. How, though, do you go about satirising news about Donald Trump, who appears from even the most balanced media coverage, to be a Spitting Image puppet brought to life and left to run rampage across American politics?

How do you satirise David Cameron telling the UK he’s fighting the EU to regain our democratic rights while he sells them on to corporations via TTIP? How do you make a joke about the global response to climate change without it being more than a weary glance and raised eyebrow at the guy standing on the next stool across at the gallows. “Hey what’s the deal with these ropes, man? Pretty ironic when I’m being hanged for dealing…”

How do you write satire when the BBC churns out the same pro-economic-expansion-come-what-may as everyone else while the planet falls apart under our noses? They film Cameron standing in a swamped village promising a few quid for flood defences without challenging him to do something about the underlying problem.

The modern news looks like a spoof dreamed up by George Orwell during a binge-drinking break from writing 1984 while if you want compassionate, thoughtful and balanced commentary on current events, you’re better off reading the output of a comedian – “Clean energy is always described as expensive and inefficient, but I suppose that if the price of the alternatives is extinction, we might just be measuring expense and efficiency wrongly…” that’s Frankie Boyle, professional media bogeyman, not George Monbiot.

Anyway, here I am again, mixing metaphors, moaning and bad taste humour. It feels like taking on the Agean Stables armed only with a cocktail swizzler but I suppose that’s all the more reason to crack on and put your back into it.

As a new feature for 2016 (and, if we’re honest, a spur to write more), I’ve decided to take requests so, if there’s some topic you’d be interested to see me try, drop me a line. I promise to either write something or to send you a personal and deeply offensive message declining the offer.

What have the Greeks ever done for us?

I wonder, as democratically elected EU leaders pressurise the Greek government to impose demonstrably inefficacious austerity measures against its people, whether they will stop to consider where the term ‘democracy’ originates?

Or, for that matter, the splendid architectural features of the buildings in which they govern, the philosophies underpinning much of their societies’ governance or the roots of half of the words that they utter.

The original Athenian model of democracy has, of course, been changed a little, allowing at the time only property-owning men, over a certain age, born in the country to vote. Keep a close eye on the next Conservative manifesto, folks.

Nonetheless, I think that the best thing that the Greek government could do with whatever remaining funds they can scrape together from down the back of the Parthenon is hire a really good patent lawyer and make a case for intellectual property rights on democracy, classical architecture, drama and – let’s generously say ten percent – of all of the words in most European languages. Taking even a small payment for every use (and twice for every misuse) of the word democracy should be enough to cover the loans and, if the EU won’t buy it, they should just threaten to take back all of the columns they’ve influenced on civic buildings. Now there’s a threat to destabilise the union.

With the debt wrote off, they can change the referendum for one on sovereign money creation and then finally, just before the party starts, threaten to sue all of the Greek-teaching public schools in England in order to get the Elgin marbles back.

How hard do teachers work?

Let’s have a quick look at a teacher’s workload. It’s a well-known fact that teachers swan up at nine o’clock, sit reading the paper while children do sums until ten, cigarette and coffee in the staff room until eleven, shouting in the corridor, double Latin, down the pub at half twelve for lunch, snooze through a test and then home at three. Of course, every six weeks, there’s a couple of weeks off. Or at least anyone trying to score cheap points against teachers would have you believe.

What’s the reality? I was a teacher once. I think someone ought to stick up for them.

Granted, teachers get long holidays. It may be possible to do no work in the holidays but I’ve never known a teacher that managed. Still, for the sake of argument, suppose teachers spent every minute of the school holidays pissed in a skip.

School holidays, twelve weeks, encompassing all but one of the bank holidays.

Annual leave entitlement for a comparable profession (in terms of training and qualification) 20-25 days, usually not including bank holidays, so five or six weeks. Being uncharitable, one might accuse teachers of getting eight additional weeks of holiday. Let’s make those weeks up in term time. Eight weeks spread across the forty comprising a school year means that we have to add in an additional day for each week. Or, instead of the standard white collar, 37.5 hour a week contract it’s a 45 hour a week contract. Or a nine hour day.

So a teacher who does no work whatsoever in the holidays should work from, say 8.30 until 6pm with a reasonable break for lunch. Anything else is above and beyond.

A full time teacher will average around 22 hours of classroom teaching a week. It’s a demanding business, being a teacher, entailing a huge range of professional capabilities and making up to 3000 non-trivial decisions per day[1]. Non-teaching time in school includes registering and providing pastoral care to students, meetings with colleagues, parents and external agencies, supervision of lunch and break times, data entry and administration and a host of other activities that would never occur to anyone who’s never worked in a school, from putting up displays to confiscating radioactive materials inadvertently brought onto the site (personal experience).

In theory, non-contact time in the week is protected for lesson preparation. Even if this happened, if a quiet, comfortable, well-resourced space were provided for teachers to prepare lessons, this release time typically amounts to 2-3 hours per week.

Remaining preparation is done outside the timetable. I used to be a science teacher, so this included planning the content of lessons, ensuring that a coherent passage of learning was provided; preparing (and often creating from scratch) resources; trialling practical activities; reviewing data on students to ensure that lessons match their prior learning and ability; consulting safety documentation; ordering practical equipment; checking up on unfamiliar bits of science; looking for extension tasks. I’ve missed a few bits but also have to include thinking. To teach a good science lesson takes some thinking. You have to do all of that for 22 or so lessons. How much time would you like to think a teacher is putting into preparing a lesson for your kids? Twenty minutes enough? Half an hour? How long do you prepare for a fifteen minute presentation at work?

Then there’s marking. I could write about the current research on what constitutes good marking but let’s just look at the numbers.

Remember that we’re spending every day of every holiday in a gin-soaked haze. That gives me forty weeks or two hundred days a year to work. On average, a secondary school teacher will see anything between 200-400 students each year.

So on top of the teaching, pastoral care, admin, meetings, and lesson preparation, how much time in those nine-hour days is left for marking? If we’re starting at 8.30, students take up every second of time until the buses leave at 3.30. If you’ve got a relatively light, four lesson day to plan for and you’re a really quick planner, let’s say you can knock out a quality lesson in fifteen minutes, there’s an hour gone. Most evenings have a meeting or some admin. Call it another hour. You have an hour left until 6pm.

An hour. 200 days, 200 students. An hour each. That’s about the time that you can put into each students’ marking each year. What can you reasonably mark in an hour? End of unit tests, a couple of homework assignments, perhaps? One or two pieces of extended writing?

Most schools now ask teachers to mark every piece of work that students do, giving constructive written feedback, then asking students to respond to that feedback and checking said student response. Work done in class, homework, test papers. It can’t be done.

On top of that, schools still provide sports teams, orchestras, plays, all manner of other social and support activities, trips and events.

I work with teachers all over the South West. They are exhausted: working into the night, working through holidays, constantly thinking about the wellbeing of their students, put under pressure to achieve demanding targets from disenchanted students, in fear of inspection. Although the pay has gone up a typical teacher will be unable to buy a home in most of the UK, unlikely to be able to retire comfortably. Schools are facing real terms budget cuts, facing rising numbers, increased pension contributions and an unparalleled recruitment crisis.

If you know a teacher, ask them two questions. The first should be “Would you like a very large drink?”

Then ask them how they honestly feel about the profession. Then think about writing to your MP about the state of education in this country. If nothing changes, there will be no one to teach our nation’s youth in ten years.

[1] Danielson, Charlotte. Enhancing professional practice: A framework for teaching. ASCD, 2011.

After some mulling… goodbye to Terry Pratchett.

I lost a friend last month. It may seem deceptive and overly dramatic to write that about someone who, admittedly, I never met and only once saw in the flesh but it feels true.

I’ve left a little time before writing about Sir Terry Pratchett. There was so much written about him so soon after his passing and I felt that I had little to add. I genuinely had a lump in my throat when I heard the news; and hence my opening declaration.

Consider our friends. Over the years, our true friends are the ones to whom we turn for support and comfort in times of need. I can still remember reading “Wyrd Sisters” whilst feeling ill and alone in my first year at university and being so cheered that I ended up feeling grateful for the opportunity that being ill had afforded me. I still turn to his books now when I’m poorly, or shattered. The humour, the compassion are salves to my soul.

Our friends know us. Pratchett’s characters are our dear friends and the supporting casts of our lives writ large. His ear for dialogue, his grasp of the inner dilemmas that plague us, his wry appreciation of the absurdity of life – he knew us all.

Our friends know how to make us laugh. Strictly for the fans – remember the description of Windle Poons’ wheelchair? A series of wry chuckles, mounting to the giggles ended with me reading:”There was a huge, oilskin hood that could be erected in a matter of hours to protect its occupant from showers, storms and, probably, meteor strikes and falling buildings…” and laughing so much on a train to Cambridge once that I feared my fellow passengers might attempt a medical intervention.

Our friends can always teach us something, always know how to make us think. I’ve just watched “Facing Extinction“, in which he revisits Borneo after eighteen years to see how attempts to save the orang-utan are going. If I have to say ‘spoiler alert’ before telling you that the news is less than stellar, you really need to get your head above the parapet more often. Of course, I knew about the plight of the orang-utan, and so many other endangered species and about the effect that the scale of palm oil production is having on the world. My wise friend, though, had a gift for making these things more real to me.

Our true friends can always make us smile, we always look forward to the next time they’ll walk into our lives. I read the last Discworld novel last week, a bittersweet experience, and I know that although I can and will re-read so much of his work, that there will be no more and it makes me sad. I wanted to avoid writing a variation on his obituary, and going on about him being more than “just” a genre writer but I have to add this: if you’ve not tried reading one of his novels, do give it a go. Yes, if you’re unfamiliar with the tropes of fantasy fiction then some of the humour will be lost on you but the warmth and the wit will still shine through. “Guards! Guards!” is laced with so many great gags from so many genres and still, at its heart, a tightly-plotted mystery that you could hate The Hobbit (I do) and still love it. And take a look at the damage that’s being done to the rain forests, look into the eyes of an orang-utan and ask yourself if we couldn’t all do a little more to keep alive those things in the world that are truly magical.

Rest in peace, Sir Terry.