Can We Still Blow Up The Heads Of Chickens?

Probably not.

And it was probably never a good idea, at any time.

But there was a time when I did, and there was a time when I used the deed as a stimulus for teaching effective writing.

Context is everything. When teaching an Autobiography unit to year 9 students many years ago, and at the end of year 9, one of the chapter titles that students could chose to complete was called ‘The Dreadful Things I Did’ and this was, not surprisingly, quite popular. I would occasionally use my own personal experiences to engage and inform, and this was an ideal area in which to demonstrate relevant memories.

To illustrate, I had many personal anecdotes I could and would tell which were directly, and dramatically, related to this chapter’s theme. One, which is too convoluted to retell here in terms of the logistics of getting to the point where my friends and I were totally concealed within a storm drain and looking out of a gap precisely at a nearby main road level [the lengthy telling of these logistics all a part of the set-up], had the ‘punch-line’ of describing the ability to throw sloppy mud balls from our concealed spot straight through the open windows of passing cars to smack directly into the drivers’ unsuspecting faces.

Another was my play-chasing a friend around his garden with a four-pronged pitch-fork in my hand and when he ducked into a shed to escape my advance, I randomly – or so I think/imagine it now – threw that fork through the open window of the shed and when he came out of it, my former friend had four incipient red dots across his forehead.

That was an anecdote that gained impact soon after the telling. The fortuity of the ‘miss’ is frightening on reflection, and was not lost on students when I explored how my life, and that of anyone else, could so easily be affected/altered by one stupid action.

There are many, I must stress, that I didn’t tell. And I won’t here.

Not now.

But I did also tell the one about the chicken heads and used this in a written form to exemplify interesting ways to construct writing to tease and engage a reader. Just before I present the model here, I should explain what I mean by ‘context’: I used and taught this, rightly or wrongly, at a time where I think as teachers we felt less paranoid about others [parents/senior leaders] making corrective judgements about our professional judgements; I used and taught this in an environment where I felt my students would know me well enough to understand and appreciate the ‘parameters’ I would establish before telling, like making it clear this wasn’t something to emulate [!], and I used and taught this to establish a challenging account of a time and place where I grew up [small town America] when that very context too was educationally of interest, and the violence of the content was something we could/would possibility explore beyond the storytelling.

Cherry Bombs

The myth about them actually still being able to run around is true. Let me explain, but let me also set the context.

The first part of the story concerns a small red ball. A small red ball with a fuse. A small red ball packed with explosives and a fuse. A small red ball with a rather large potential for harm.

This small red ball was called a Cherry Bomb. It was a firecracker that you could quite easily buy at the shops and it was lethal. You could light a Cherry Bomb and throw it into a toilet bowl and it would explode and crack the porcelain. You could place a Cherry Bomb just inside the outlet of an aluminium drainpipe and it would explode, tearing the end into shreds of metal.

Cherry Bombs, as far as I know, could only be bought in America. It was most definitely an American firecracker: large and, as I’ve said, lethal. I would buy Cherry Bombs in the 60s when I was living in Elk Horn, Iowa. Like any firecracker, you bought them to set alight and wait for the almighty bang. Or to blow up toilet bowls. Or to blow up drainpipes. Or worse.

Cherry Bombs are now illegal in America. I don’t know when it was decided that they couldn’t be sold anymore. Perhaps it was when the government found out what my friends and I did with them.

As I said at the start of this chapter, the myth about them actually still being able to run around is true. The ‘them’ would be chickens. Let me explain. The Cherry Bomb was about the size of a 10 pence piece, but obviously as a complete sphere. If you pried open the beak of a chicken, and used a little bit of brute force, you could just manage to squeeze a Cherry Bomb into the opening. Obviously, being such a tight fit, the Cherry Bomb wouldn’t fall out, no matter how hard the chicken struggled.

Once placed in the opened beak, I’d light the fuse and wait for the head to explode. If you recall what happened to a drainpipe, you can imagine the many places a chicken’s head travels to once it has been blown to smithereens.

However, most amazing are the places the chicken’s remaining body travels to once the head has disappeared. Yes, the myth that a headless chicken keeps on running is very true. Very painfully true.

Writing Exemplar [click on text then click again to enlarge]

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Of course, I have absolutely no doubt that many reading this will/would immediately reject my premise of an apt context for having used this, and indeed reject it for all number of other reasons! But, as ever, I present for those who are interested as an honest reflection on my teaching in the past, and as a means for my further exploring that past and thinking about what I did that was hopefully right and perhaps wrong and how such notions may or may not themselves be a moveable feast over time. When I recently posted the poetry idea I created for ‘Beheaded’ poems, I had to reassess its appropriateness for using now, and wrote about this with a caveat about using.

Give You That

al shirtBig Al is 60.

I know Big Al is 60s.

What do you mean Big Al is 60s?

You said Big Al is 60s. I know he is.

No I didn’t. I said Big Al is 60. What do you mean he’s 60s?

The shirts.

What do you mean the fucking shirts?

I didn’t say fucking shirts. I said shirts.

Don’t be so fucking pedantic.

His shirts are 60s.

I know his shirts are 60s.

So do I. So why did you tell me he’s 60s?

I didn’t you knob. I said he’s 60.

What? 60?

Yes, fucking 60!

You mean 60 years old?

Apocalypse Now!

That would explain the shirts.

I’ll give you that.

Where does he get them, by the way?

Fuck knows.

I thinks it’s America.

What? From Burt Reynolds?

I don’t think Burt Reynolds sells 60s shirts.

But he sure wears them.

Only in ‘Boogie Nights’.

But that’s set in the 70s and 80s.

OK, and other films. Like ‘Shark!’

Did he wear 60s shirts in that?

Well it was made in the 60s.

But they’re films.

So?

So, that doesn’t mean that’s what he wears in real life.

Big Al does.

But that doesn’t mean he gets them from Burt Reynolds.

I’ll give you that.

Kev and I pause from our usual to and fro and reflect on where we have arrived. It would appear to be at some coalescence of agreement on the fact Big Al is 60 years old and wears 60s shirts. Whether those shirts come directly from Burt Reynolds would appear to be a fanciful idea, but you never know – Big Al has some esoteric suppliers for his shirts.

Do you think they’re 50s shirts?

Unlikely.

Why unlikely?

Don’t think there was that much colour in those days.

What the fuck do you mean not that much colour? Colour is colour. It isn’t defined by a period in time.

I know colour is colour. What I mean is that much colour wasn’t fashionable in those times.

Have you ever seen 50s pop art?

What do you mean have I ever seen 50s pop art?

Forget it. I think you’re right that it wasn’t fashionable. Are we talking hippy colour?

You think Big Al is a hippy?

That’s not what I’m saying.

So what do you mean by hippy colour?

Is that what you mean by 60s?

Hippies were in the 70s.

‘Woodstock’ was in the late 60s.

I’ll give you that.

Do you think you have to take drugs to wear shirts like Big Al?

Don’t be stupid.

Do you think wearing shirts like Big Al does is like taking drugs? All that colour?

I’ll give you that.

Kev and I pause again, this time somewhat overwhelmed by the sustained agreement that has interfered with our routine. I decide to pick up my opening thread, just to see where it unravels.

As I said. Big Al is 60. That means he remembers a better Rangers.

Rangers?

Yes, Rangers.

As in Texas?

Why the fuck Texas?

The Texas Rangers.

What has that got to do with Big Al?

Isn’t he from Texas?

No, it’s Glasgow.

Ah, I thought he had an accent.

But he lives in Wales.

Is it a Welsh accent?

No, but it isn’t Texan either.

So, it’s Glaswegian?

Och aye the noo Jimmy.

What?

That’s Glaswegian.

Like Steinbeck?

What?

Like Steinbeck speaks: ‘gang aft agley’

That’s not Steinbeck you numbnut.

Yes it is. Lennie says it.

No he fucking doesn’t.

Are you sure?

It’s from a Robert Burns’ poem.

Oh yeah. I’ll give you that. What did you mean by a better Rangers?

Rangers FC. Big Al will have known of their football in better days back in the 60s.The days of three willies.

Three willies?

Yes: Willie Henderson, Willie Johnston and Willie Mathieson.

Those pricks?

I’ll give you that.

We pause again. Kev downs a Stella and I down a Jack. All this skirmishing over Big Al is thirsty work. We normally get pasted just so we can tolerate the shirts, but tonight’s cycle of conflict and resolution demands another kind of wasted indifference. But I try to salvage one last piece of coherent observation and repeat,

Big Al is 60.

So it’s his birthday?

No, he’s 60 so he’s had his birthday. Otherwise it would be Big Al is going to be 60. That’s not what I said. I said Big Al is 60.

Big Al is 60?

Yes, that’s what I said. He’s 60.

He’s not 60s?

I didn’t say he’s not 60s. I said he’s 60.

He’s 60s and he’s 60?

No, he’s 60 and he’s 60s.

Hang on, hang on. How can he be 60s?

Am I missing something?

It’s hard to imagine, considering their colour, but yes you are.

What the fuck do you mean?

His shirts.

What about his shirts?

His shirts are 60s. Big Al isn’t 60s. Big Al is 60.

I’ll give you that.

The Hut is Gone

‘The hut is gone?’

‘The hut is gone, yes.’

‘My hut is gone?’

‘Well, it was never strictly your hut, and it definitely wasn’t your hut for the last five years, and it’s been replaced by a new purpose-built facility, so why are you being so tetchy about this? And you don’t work here anymore.’

‘I was just passing and noticed a gap.’

We stare at one another and it all starts to come flooding back, but I stop that before the explosion. It’s taken years, but I can stop it now. In this context. But I feel I need to pursue the demise a little further,

‘Did anyone save any of the posters?’

‘What posters?’

‘There was a Hendrix, a Mohammed Ali – I think – and loads of A3 photos of San Francisco, and then all those Country and Western posters – Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard and other greats – and then loads and loads of Rock pictures; oh, and there was definitely a Paul Rodgers at Portsmouth, and….well, I forget, but the ceiling – I mean the original ceiling – was covered, and I just wondered if anyone bothered to retrieve any of them?’

‘No.’

We stare some more. It is an impasse.

‘That’s French,’ I say.

‘What’s French?’ he asks.

‘An impasse.’

‘What impasse?’

‘The one we are at.’

‘I don’t understand what you are on about.’

‘Well, you wouldn’t would you? And I only really mention because that French teacher inherited my hut, didn’t he? Mr Jolly?’

‘It’s not Jolly, it’s Jones. He teaches Spanish’

‘Yes, I know. That was just a joke. I’ve heard what he’s like playing five-a-side, and it’s not friendly. But surely he will have said something about saving the posters?’

‘I really don’t know what you are on about.’

‘I guess not.’

We stare more again, but at the ground rather than each other. It’s more a gulf, or a chasm to be honest. When I look up from the ground he is miles away.

‘I’ve got to go,’ he says.

‘Just like the hut.’

‘Pardon?’ he asks.

‘There was student writing as well. I think someone wrote ‘fuck’ on the ceiling, and they might have even used the c-word. It was quite funny, as I recall. And it was wonderfully sweet of them to leave their risqué messages. I felt as if they were secure and confident about returning and writing on the ceiling like that. I think I may have used a naughty word or two in my teaching, so they felt they could add their own.’

‘Students?’ he asks, shaking.

‘They’d left school. I wouldn’t let students still at the school write on my ceiling. I’m not stupid.’

‘You let students write disgusting messages on your ceiling?’

‘They weren’t ‘disgusting’. They were fond remembrances, I’m sure. Just had some expletives in them. The original ceiling was covered by those sound-proofing tiles. It’s not as if I let them write where anyone could see. I’m not stupid.’

He looks at me with a kind of disbelief that seems incredibly rude.

‘You let students write expletives on your teaching hut ceiling?’

‘I didn’t know they were writing expletives at the time. I only noticed when they’d finished. Then I covered it all up. Messages for posterity, I thought….though it looks like that never became a reality.’

‘I am utterly astonished that you could have allowed that to happen in a school classroom,’ he stutters and shakes.

‘That’s nothing compared to what those two year 11 students did in my other hut.’

He looks at me with such panicked incredulity I know he won’t be able to ask, so I tell him,

‘They made love on my desk. Can’t remember their names, and it was on a prom night here at school and they decided that a safe and secure place for their fucking would be my classroom. I felt rather honoured by that. Thing is, they weren’t as ‘safe’ as they thought…’ I laugh a little but notice he isn’t standing on the same solid ground ‘…because to the best of my knowledge they later had a baby and I think it would have been conceived that prom night. They were still together though when I found out. I think that’s brilliant.’

His is shifting sand. He is standing opposite me, on the other side of that chasm, but the distance itself isn’t enough: his body is sinking in the shifting sands of the gradual realisation that two kinds of fucking happened in two of my huts, one bad enough as a linguistic reality, but the other infinitely worse as an actual student fornication that resulted in an actual birth which in his mind was actually outrageous and unforgivable.

‘Perhaps they’re at the school now,’ I offer.

‘Who is here now?’ His eyes are so open the whites make me think snow is coming.

‘Their child. Though I’d imagine he or she would probably have come and gone if they were ever here. And I don’t recall seeing the two of them attend as parents.’

‘You mean this happened before I was working here?’

‘Oh yes, long before your tenure. Didn’t I say that?’

He looks like he wants to hug me, but the distance is far too great. And there is still the fucking on the ceiling, so to speak.

‘Christmas is coming,’ I say, thinking a change of subject might be worth a punt.

‘I guess you’d let someone write expletives on the ceiling of the manger?’

I look at him with two of my own but unspoken questions: is he taking the piss, and does a manger have a ceiling? But I respond with,

‘If I knew the virgin birth would lead to months of festive advertisements on TV, I’d have written Fuck Christmas on the ceiling myself.’

He winces, but the sinking would appear to have stopped. If we tried, we could probably shake hands across the trenches and kick some more bantering balls in the snow. But we don’t.

‘So not one of my friends and ex-colleagues mentioned the posters and pictures on the ceiling?’

‘You’ve been gone for five years. Christmas comes back once a year, but this is the first time you have returned in those five. We’ve moved on here. The new buildings represent our investment in the future. I thought you of all people would appreciate our getting rid of temporary accommodation. People still here have jobs to do; they’ve moved on too.’

A jolly-looking Jones walks across the courtyard opposite us at that point, giving me a surprised smile and waving. I want to run over and kick him in the balls, but I’ve heard how he reacts to that kind of accidental contact in the sports hall, so there’s a good chance he would be homicidal if attacked intentionally.

‘Happy Christmas!’ he calls out.

I turn, walk away, and leave the site. The posters and pictures have gone, along with the hut. It’s time I take my memories and leave as well. Perhaps there’s a plaque still there, and a few other posters left on the last ceiling that was mine, but time does eventually erase most things that have nothing more to give than nostalgia. It’s like kicking the shit out of a colleague’s five-a-side shins: the bruising eventually fades and disappears, but even before this you’ve laid it all to rest over a beer, new faces around the table laughing and telling today’s stories.

I turn again and call out,

‘Happy Christmas,’

but no one is there. It doesn’t matter. There’s all kinds of ways to let people know you’re still around. You wait until I find that bastard Jones.

An Impression of Colour

There is no blue without yellow and without orange
– Vincent Van Gogh

The significance of colour to GCSE English Literature examiners matches the significance of a singular rote regurgitation to students that sit GCSE English Literature examinations: ‘hierarchy’. To the latter cohort, this structural reality informs the characters and themes in most texts studied, the increments within either of those areas quite probably foreshadowed by that very and other prevalent device – somehow: it will be teased out like Curley’s wife’s hair to lay flopping or dead on the page; and to the former cohort, this structural reality resides entirely in pens. Marking pens. The colour of these marking pens, to be precise.

In the hierarchy of examining and examiners there is a clear increment in proficiency and status, either to be perceived or actual, and it is colour-coded. Starting at the beginning, it is pencil and grey for assistant examiners finding their fledgling assessment feet. Once on the first rung of apparent proficiency [one has to stress apparent because another kind of flopping can actually happen at any point on the ladder] they move to the higher use of a red pen. Senior examiners, who also mark in red for their prime papers, are further up the hierarchy and thus use a green pen to monitor and mentor the AE’s reds. At a later stage, SEs use a superior purple pen to correct and alter all previous colours, righting wrongs and circling conclusively with authority. Continuing up on the refining climb, a black pen supersedes all that has made its prior errant judgements, until – in another one of those students’ favourite applications of a premier literary device: the ‘cyclical’ – the pencil and its smooth grey usurps the black and thus again all that was judged and standardised and corrected before to probably infer some deeply socialist principle of caring assessment.

Not that any of this matters to Big Al.

For Big Al, colour is a moveable feast. It is moveable by the paradox of being absolutely fixed for Big Al in that he couldn’t on the one hand give a fuck what anyone else might think about his choice of colour in the clothes he wears [or in the defined 60s era of its once prevalent fashion], but also on the other by the actual movement in the visually psychedelic momentum of the colours he wears over the defined period of Marking Review or especially on a singular day within this. Just looking at Big Al on a particularly vibrant evening, colour-wise, is like taking LSD.

Any night out eating with Big Al after an intense day’s examining in the basement emporium of the Palace Hotel in Manchester can attest to the hallucinatory impact of his sartorial selections. Sunday produced a particularly robust appreciation of Big Al’s dress sense in the lively debate engendered by the other drabber dressers with whom he socialised in that collective downtime, especially the linguistic groping for a precise semantic grab of the hue he was wearing, this too aping more students’ fashionable analysis of the writers’ craft as a semiotic jamboree of intention, where declarative verbs and past participles replace the empathetic or aural touch and feel of an author’s voice.

‘It’s peach.’

‘No, it’s apricot.’

‘Tangerine.’

‘Pumpkin.’

‘Kumquat!’ Trish shouts thinking she’s nailed it.

Kev smirks and you know what’s coming next: innuendo like an Exocet, smut at the speed of sound, a pun pummel.

‘Cum what?’ he asks in mock offense, the tone of voice as spellcheck on his own exegetic suggestiveness. ‘Don’t be so disgusting.’

‘Mango.’

‘Papaya.’

‘Squash.’

‘Persimmons.’

Kev is smirking even more now, this fruit ensemble not about to commandeer the thinking in his head,

‘It’s Queen’s Snatch,’ he declares triumphantly, no one quite sure which colour chart he is accessing.

We all stare in bemusement, though Big Al is staring back in anger, still piqued by the accusation earlier in the evening that his marking pace was like a tortoise on tranquillisers.

‘It’s not my idea! John whispered it in my ear. I’m just repeating what he said.’

John looks up hurt at the slight on his character and the blatant affront of the lie, but doesn’t bother to argue, subdued by the imperious weight of Kev’s banter and the laughter from the rest of the group.

‘It’s Sharon’s fruit,’ Tom suggests knowingly and convincingly. For a moment, there seems to be a resolution, the hiatus in word-painting seeming to be a confirmation of Tom’s decisive naming. And the fact he is just pocketing his smartphone.

‘Don’t be fucking stupid,’ I pitch in, prodded from the quintessence of my usual quietude and deference into this aberrant outburst of miserable contrariness.

‘It’s fucking yellow,’ I assert in a withering rejection of all that has preceded.

‘Yellow?’ everyone asks in a chorus of communal disbelief and bullying.

‘Yes,’ I state calmly and assured and then rising to walk over and stand behind Big Al before slowly removing his blazer from the back of the chair and raising it up for everyone to see, like a sun rising above the horizon. In that instant of glaring revelation, there is another joint response, this time in affirmation and clear regret at the orange tangent they had all taken, with a babel of murmurs ‘yes he’s right’ and ‘yes it is fucking yellow’ and ‘how could we have got that so wrong?’

Trying as ever to not appear smug in the victory of my incisive observation, I offer the group a precursor rationale for their tangential colour references.

‘You’re all still overwhelmed by what Big Al was wearing last night. You know, when we lost him for about ten minutes in our walk to the Beef and Pudding restaurant?’

By its very nomenclature, an ‘apocalypse’ cannot creep, but the slow awakening to that instant of recalling ecstasy is a joy to observe as the nodding heads of their sudden comprehension seems like a collective of Churchill dogs on amphetamines.

‘Oh yeah!’ they all shout in that moment of crystallised if colloquial clarity.

‘As you are no doubt now remembering,’ I continue, ‘we lost Big Al at that corner where the nightshift workers are revamping the Metro tracks. When I went back to look for him I saw Big Al up the line wearing a construction helmet and working a jackhammer, breaking up the concrete around the old lines. It was hard to spot him at first as he blended in with all the other guys in their Hi Vis jackets. As the foreman explained after I’d managed to convince him that Big Al was meant to be coming with us to dinner, they’d all thought he was one of the expected but late agency employees helping out that night. When he’d walked by the site in his luminescent orange suit, they simply grabbed and put him to task – all hands to the deck when labouring against the clock on a night shift.’

‘An easy mistake to make,’ Kev pitches in with another smirk on his boyish face.

‘Not really,’ Phil counters, a surprise interjection considering his hitherto contemplative quiet, but a blunt refutation as he is no doubt still ruffled by Kev’s earlier smear that Leonard Cohen was a better singer-songwriter than Bob Dylan, a red rag to the bull of Phil’s huge regard for the latter. None of us had felt entirely convinced that Phil’s impromptu singing of Cohen’s The Sisters of Mercy in an assumed copycat monotone had entirely won the argument, but I think most of us were prepared to acknowledge the moral high ground of Phil’s genuine passion over Kev’s mischievous prodding.

‘I agree Kev,’ I say, because he is right. The only leeway in defining the puissance of Big Al’s orangeness on that night – and by extrapolation, its luminous resemblance to a builder’s Hi Vis attire – is whether you think in artistic terms it is more like the relatively small and yet dominant focus of that colour in Claud Monet’s Impression Sunrise, or the actual dominance of that colour in Lord Leighton’s Flaming June. But I wasn’t about to ask Phil which of these he would choose. There wasn’t time. The night was already drawing to a close and I could no longer consume infinite flyers and instead went for the literal one.

However, before I mouthed my usual on y va I did offer one dissenting view of those builders’ handling of our colourful colleague.

‘It did seem wrong,’ I conclude, ‘that having snatched Big Al from his surprise overtime on the railroad, all the workmen shouting out how they hoped he would get safely back to Guantanamo Bay was a damn cheek. I mean, even Kev wouldn’t crack a joke out of a serious situation like that.’

Totality

You broke my heart is said, and
at that point, sacrifice and belief
step into the background to observe
a momentary lapse in the colossal
order of things where lovers
know failure is the one inevitability.
How much the journey to that
apocalypse has made the greater good
will be totaled unseen, and the most
basic of faiths is being tested by this
defeat. Such loss is as ironic as the
leaves falling from a blossoming tree;
such is the sweet aftertaste in their
bitter revisits to one long memory.