Hurry Up And Enjoy Yourself: the inexplicable drive to make everyone the same.

The unit comprising parents and their kids, known also (rather aptly I think) as the “nuclear family”, has many advantages. Autonomy is not to be sneezed at, and a bit of distance from extended family can be constructive. But there are also a few downsides. A committee of two adults seems rather small to be making big decisions about people too young to contest them, so there’s often a feeling of colossal responsibility. Then there is the childcare issue. It’s all on you. Unless, of course, you have the finance to pay someone else to do it. Enter The Nursery.

The Nursery is filled with hard working, well meaning and compassionate staff who do an amazing job of making children feel happy and comfortable, all whilst being paid well under the odds for their work. The Nursery is also the first step on the school system ladder, the first time your child will be assessed as anything other than cute, hilarious or grumpy. His or her needs will be filed, behaviours analysed, and any problems will be identified and acted upon, by people with qualifications. You can tell them apart from the workers on “the floor”: they have clipboards and badges.

They want to know how your child functions in a room full of screaming kids of a similar age. Is your child “taking part”, “joining in”, able to “communicate their needs”? I have been in these rooms. I’ve had fifty three years to get over my fear of them. All that happened is that a childhood fear became an adult aversion. As a two year old, however, I only had one need I wanted to communicate: to get the f*** out of there.

I have older two kids, now teenagers: at pre-school, primary school and secondary school the conversation went like this, for both of them….

Teacher : “Oh they always have their head in a book”.

Me: “OK that’s great…I’m glad they enjoy that. I enjoy that too.”

Teacher: “…they are doing so well at school, good grades, helpful, a pleasure to teach.”

Me: “Ah great, I’m glad they are not causing you any trouble.”

Teacher: “The thing is, they don’t put their hand up in class, and that’s a bit of a worry.”

Me: “Is it?”

Teacher: “Yes, if they know the answer to a question they should say so. It builds confidence.”

Me: Shrugs (thinks: “for whom, the student or the teacher?”)

(Actually, the exchange never went like this. I would usually nod and say “ah OK” and pretend to understand, perhaps giving a couple of suitably pitying looks – you know the type, that slick professional faux-empathic face that seems to crumple in the middle from the sheer force of caring…Then when we got out of the meeting I’d say to my daughter or son: “Ah OK, same old shit, I’m glad you’re enjoying school, I did too. And I never put my hand up either. And I don’t now. It’s all fine, do what you’re doing, it seems to be working.”)

This was fifteen years ago. My youngest son is two and a half. and we are back here again. He is….. Two and a half. If, by a certain date, he has not achieved targets of easy going confidence and loudmouthery, then, we are told, the “investigation as to why he is socially anxious needs to go a little deeper.”

Social anxiety, we are told, is not the same as introversion. Introverts don’t like being around large groups of people. Socially anxious people fear it. I am not a scientist, but I’m not sure at two years old you can separate these two categories. (Teacher: “Are you afraid of all these people?” Small child: Turns away and points to an empty corner of the room). I don’t like the “correctional” overtones of this approach, almost like taking your young son out to do manual work to “man him up”. But I can’t say I blame the messengers in this case. They have a job to do. But they are also answerable to a system of what I shall call “Extrovertiarchy” because I like to make up words. Even the boxes they have to tick seem somehow to be part of an extrovert world, a simple yes or no, an answer at face value without nuance. Where, for example, is the testing environment where a child is left alone with one box of lego for half an hour? How did they do? Did they simply throw it around the room until somebody came to play with them, or did they build a multi-storey car park with motorised gates and an integrated miniature fare paying system?

Here’s a handy guide (one of many) to what constitutes introversion. Jonathan Rauch’s observation on extroverts is particularly pointed:

“Extroverts have little or no grasp of introversion,” Rauch suggests. “They assume that company, especially their own, is always welcome. They cannot imagine why someone would need to be alone; indeed, they often take umbrage at the suggestion. As often as I have tried to explain the matter to extroverts, I have never sensed that any of them really understood.”

Taking “umbrage” at the need to be alone is the privilege of those who seek to asses our children. The list of traits found in introversion are, it seems, cardinal sins when you are in the schooling system, and also will mark you out as potentially “strange” as an adult. Of course, the usual list of “famous” people who were introverts is supposed to make us all feel better, the idea that you can “channel” your weirdness into genius. It’s a good reason not to try and stop our children developing into the perfectly happy introverts they are destined to become. But it’s not enough to only allow visionaries the privilege of their own company, the space to de-compress. There’s a kind of moral compass at work that says “normal” is “extrovert”. A normal person can sit happily whilst two or more people try and ask you different questions simultaneously, or while a speech therapist with a voice like a mouse with a jet of compressed air up its arse tries to coax out your underlying self confidence….”Look, it’s a dinosaur! A din-o-saur….squeak squeak”.

I love my son’s nursery, but you can’t help feeling they are victims too, trying to achieve the impossible by converting everyone to a way of seeing the world that is hard wired into us way before they get there.

Extroversion rules. It is a marker of well adjustment and good mental health. Big crowds of shouting strangers are a fact of life, and one that occurs with alarming regularity. Social media is full of bug eyed, self promoting lunatics and influencers who manage to similarly shouty with only one person as a prop. These paragons of self assuredness are everywhere. Introverts don’t like them, but we are a minority, and that’s how we like it. You need a system to kick against. Please don’t fix anything or we’d have nothing to shy away from. As a fashionable minority, we are where we want to be, tucked away under what passes for reality.

Love Letters

When I was about ten, I pulled a poster down from my wall, wrote “I Love Sally” on the back, and put it back. Nobody had known my guilty secret, and now, following this confession, I knew it. It was real. Signed, sealed and, until now, never delivered.

Pen on paper, feeling the contour of the lines, the resistance of the paper against the felt tip, you have to push the pen, gently ease the words into existence. It was real, real but protected by a photograph of the Chelsea squad circa 1970 that originally belonged to my dad. A firewall for the old century.

Perhaps I wanted, one day, to be discovered, then someone else could spread the rumour, take over the administration of this devoutly wished-for union. And maybe Sally had her own scrawled secrets beneath the bedroom blu tack. I liked to think of our posters talking to each other, meeting in some kind of virtual union of unfulfilled actions. Safe, secure.

Either way, I am glad there were no home computers, let alone internet, available to me then. Printed words, like these here, carry a kind of authority for me learnt from childhood. Print meant books, newspapers, magazines. The effort of putting something into print meant that somebody somewhere meant what they said. You couldn’t have five pints in the pub, become melancholy and morose and publish an article for publication five minutes later. Even newspapers, working on a very fast turnover, required witnesses (editors) to filter the content and, in the meantime, you could sober up clutching your head thinking “Why did I write that?”

Now there is no hangover, but there is the rage and counter-rage of the internet. Momentary thoughts slip through our fingers into the public space, unedited but presented in the flawless fonts that pass for a measure of quality. You’d think twice about that passing comment if you’d had to chisel it into a stone tablet. Today’s Moses would likely have had another couple of hundred commandments saved as drafts in a separate folder.

Landlords often stipulate that no blu tack on the walls is allowed. I used to think it was to avoid damage to the inevitable magnolia paintwork. Now I know: it’s to force our secrets out into the real world. You cannot hide anywhere except, for now at least, in your mind.

I won’t be tagging Sally in this post. Her Facebook address is safely hidden under a firewall on the long since corrupted hard drive of my memory.

On discourse and debate

When I was at school, aged 12 I guess, I was in a kind of “sponsored” fight. There was a bully named Dave. He was bigger than everyone else, like a scarecrow in a field of overgrown wheat. He was picky with his friends. He decided he didn’t like me because of the shoes. His way of bullying was not to beat me up, but to force me to beat up another kid, whose name was Geoffrey. Geoffrey was kind of small and wimpy, and a bit annoying, according to a Dave the school bully. I was told if I didn’t fight him I would be beaten up, and then the rest of my year group were told to get to the orchard at break time, where they could watch me beating this guy up. It was a fight, a real bout, and it was sponsored by Dave the school bully, who would have sold tickets if he’d had the brains to organise it.

We are familiar, I’m sure, with the concept of going down and staying down. They hit you, you go down, you don’t get up until everyone leaves. I was planning this in reverse, that I would throw a left hook (gentle, made to look heavy) and this kid would go down, my contractual obligation would be over and I could get on with practising Scott Joplin in my fucking lunch hour.

Anyway, I did it, and he surely caught the strange brand of apologetic panic in my face as I landed the blow. His glasses fell off. I was then required to get on top of him and give him a stagey pasting.

The next day Geoffrey comes in and he’s black and blue down one side of his face. I felt pretty bad. I wished I hadn’t done it. He was simply an annoying kid in the wrong place at the wrong time. The look in his eyes, straining through broken glasses at me. The look. The eyes. If I hadn’t seen these things, I might have forgotten about it, wiped it from the mind and moved on. I couldn’t.

For some reason this is all coming back to me today, and it’s because of Facebook. There are a good few pastings dished out there these days. A few pompous claims and pointed barbs. When was the last time anyone looked into the eyes of a human being whilst sticking the boot in against people and groups, good or bad. That look that reminds us we are all human, the flicker of common humanity, that feeling reminds me I am part of a larger group of things much like myself. When that is gone, we are just a loose fitting sack of opinions, upbringings and fixed term prejudices which we let off from time to time. There’s rarely any change to the status quo. When was your mind last changed online?

Don’t get me wrong, I thought all this was a godsend at first. I am quite a shy person and happy to retreat into a cave and hurl rocks out of its entrance at whoever was passing. Eye contact is a major project at the best of times. But I would rather be reminded of that fact for every second that goes by than get sucked any further in to this blank, blinkered, rabble-rousing trend any further.

Go to the pub and talk it over. We are all doing our best. Whatever you may think. Change your mind, or see a new opinion and keep yours anyway. But see it at least, whoever you are.

“Q” is for…

“Q Samba” : Arto Lindsay, from “Mundo Civilizado”


Arto Lindsay.  The geeky, skinny kid at school, scribbling in his notebook when he thinks no one’s looking, or when he thinks that people think he thinks no one’s looking.  Probably just schoolboy crush scribbles, arrows through hearts, epigrams.  Eyes almost upstaged by his owl-like lenses, which are looking straight at you, and it’s a hard stare to look back at.  People don’t.  Prom Queens, though, might take him home in one of those High School movies, people would learn to look beyond appearances, towards new experiences, everyone would learn things and nothing would change.  Music, credits, thank yous, etcetera.

But he’s an eccentric.  A real one, not a muscle boy they put in glasses to indicate intelligence, reticence and hostility to games lessons.  He is thin, thin like he lives on some unknown energy, some ambiguous pulse.  He plays guitar, but no real notes, just a noise, and only when it’s called for. Mostly it just hangs around his neck, as it does on this song.  The weight of it might kill him.

Through the gate, now the path winds to the door, you pass sculptures, perpendicular pagan gods staring down suburban sidewalks, old amplifiers, guitar strings wound around slow growing creepers. Carnival melting into darkness and out again.   It’s taking forever to get to the door.

Shall we listen to some music?  He reaches for a cd, the cover a photo of a woman’s face, or maybe a girl’s, her expression masked by the blood red smear of a rose.  Smiling eyes though; maybe.  A strange, disjointed guitar, Brazilian, lurches into a kind of beat that doesn’t belong where it is, as a voice, half-spoken, half sung, asks:

How do you do that?  

Did you just make it up?  

Is there a special need for that?

Now don’t just make it up”

Not exactly poetry, this is like a kid asking questions at school.  But he grows up fast;

“How do you shake just that and not shake all the rest

Breaking all those beats apart you careless hypnotist”

A careless hypnotist, still thinking about what that implies.  The lyrics feel like they are meaning something, but they sometimes fold in on themselves, like…

You dance like you’re not alone

You dance like I’m not here

Often they seem like a study in a single sound…

Your supple cheekiness

Supreme funkiness

Your sure footedness

And you pelvic finesse.”

But that last line,”pelvic finesse”, what the hell is that?  Animal sexuality crossed with featherlight delicacy?  The music echoes the words, mismatched but familiar sounds, somehow stitched together, a brash and buzzy keyboard flooding the light and sunny samba like chilli sauce in Angel Delight, its line left jagged and raw like the edges of an awkward conversation.  Samba school drums sucked into a lop-sided sample, another piece in the jigsaw of disorder, of musical and verbal memories, those memories that for each person are their own.

Except for the Prom Queen. Tradition dictates that her head must be empty, as she trots home to recount, perhaps reluctantly, some other version of these few short minutes.