That’s All Folks

P1000636

I’ve just finished my prime and additional marking: 711 scripts, more than ever at this stage. With sampling, that’s around 800, so 1600 essays. And as I have said many times before, it has been a joy, and a pleasure. Give or take an essay all about a writer’s use of the hyphen. But for those I blame the teachers….

There will be more to mark this year, but this is that key moment when your main marking is completed before Review. And this is the last time ever on this Spec., and quite likely the last time for me after 30 years of being a GCSE English Literature examiner.

The yellowed newspaper is my writing/marking pad: my tradition is to use one that lasts the duration. Not a superstition, just a familiar routine. So virtually every day since the end of May to today, and usually at 7.40am, I was outside marking, a morning cup of coffee, sun rising in the east and onto the patio where I am seated, my traditional paper weights used if there was an early morning breeze making waves of the scripts.

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Mikey & Nicky’s Diner Demise

morgove

‘I agree Mikey, Brexit Brunch does have an alliterative ring to it. I was in charge of implementing the new Key Stage 2 English grammar tests you know, so I am aware of these language thingamajiggies. But we’ve only sold one in the last week. People say it’s fine but actually just an all-English fry-up and tell me they aren’t impressed with the silly name and equally silly description: Your 11am -3pm Referendum Breakfast OR Lunch with Coffee OR Tea.

‘Nigel liked it.’

‘Fuck Farage Mikey! He only came along for the photo opportunity!’

‘He said it was a jolly good idea and a jolly good meal.’

‘It was free and he’d had a few. He was making the most of it before going into the Celebrity Jungle. I didn’t think the subsequent article and headline in our local newspaper was very funny: The Three Brexiteers – Where Are They Now? Ha-Ha. And what was so witty about those references to Goveos, Morgaos and Faragis?

‘Indeed, jolly rude and ironic to reference a French novel.’

‘That’s not the point!’ Nicky shouts.

Things have deteriorated of late. Business has tailed off and what is left of the clientele has altered. Even before the Farage visit, a certain type of neo-Neanderthal had replaced the previous more cosmopolitan patron. Nicky’s feelings of frustration and anger are not calmed by arguing about the culinary direction of the diner’s menu.

‘You pretended to go along with the burger focus, happily promoting your Groovy Gove and becoming such an expert at making real hash browns. But all the time you were plotting and scheming. I came back after that weekend off a few months ago and you had changed the menu, highlighting your Brexit Brunch with that ridiculous offer of a free I Love My Country mug with every order. A stupid idea, and a stab in the back!’

Mikey flinches. He knows he is never going to shake the accusation of being the master of treachery. Even the local paper had thought itself clever enough to print how he was more a Count de Rochefort than Brexiteer. The editor declined to issue a written apology despite Mikey’s protestations and pleading, including the offer of a free Brexit Brunch. The editor even reiterated the contrary character tag, seeming to intentionally mispronounce its title.

‘I’ve made mistakes,’ Mikey concedes. ‘And now I don’t think I’ve got the poop…..’

‘….Don’t you DARE use that line from Steinbeck!’ Nicky interrupts, seething. ‘The shit I’ve had to take about you banning American authors and then having to defend it!’ Her eyes are bulging now more than ever, a look of total contempt rather than having just been hit by lightning. ‘That avalanche of Et tu references about the way you treated Boris was difficult enough to take for the smug knowingness of it all, but you of all people quoting from Of Mice and Men….!’ Nicky trails off her disgust with a long, piercing scream.

‘I feel like this is another hinge in history, and two paths beckon,’ Mikey continues once the wailing dies down. ‘We can either try to muddle through and hope for the best, or lean in, embrace this diner and shape it in our interests. That’s why I’ve embarked on a journey to give the British people what they want from this diner: a British menu.’

Nicky is now staring back with bap-eyes as empty as the burgerless buns.

‘Mikey, you already gave this speech when campaigning to be leader of our Party and look how far that got you. And if you mention once more about being an orphan…..,’ she drifts off again, exhausted with the painful memories palpably repeating in her head.

But Mikey doesn’t appear to be finished. Indeed, his own eyes are taking on a noticeable alteration, seeming to glow as if a light is being shone from behind. Their brightness produces a staring, mechanical and alarming glare. He continues as if delivering a programmed speech, this too taking on oddly robotic signs.

‘As Dr Johnson once observed of two women arguing from the windows of houses on opposing sides of a street – they will never agree, Boswell, because they are arguing from different premises. Whether it is a choice of burgers or some other transatlantic fare, I have a different starting premise from those diner owners who are so heavily invested in the regime of low expectations and narrow horizons which they have created with their non-English menus. I believe we need to ask more – much more – of our diner system.’

Nicky has had enough. It isn’t just this obnoxious tirade from Mikey. It’s the months of working with him at the diner, trying to make it a success, coaxing him along when others would have given up long ago. It’s the sense of failure all over again when following in his wake. It’s the feeling of despair at being reminded daily of what despair looks like when you have lost everything you’d ever dreamed about having, thinking Mikey was the one true bright star worth following – in more ways than one.

Nicky gets up from where she is sitting and walks to the back room. She goes to the utility cupboard there, opens the door, rummages inside for a few seconds and then emerges carrying a shovel. Marching back, she isn’t thinking or planning because all she can hear is Mikey rambling on incoherently –

‘….We’re not talking pixies dancing under the Faraway Tree here….’ –

and arriving back to where Mikey is still talking like an automaton, she stops immediately at his side and promptly takes one spontaneous, mighty upward arc then a swift downward swing with the shovel that connects directly on his still yapping head. To her astonishment the head instantly disconnects and is flying across the room, wires protruding from the severed neck – both the body portion and the dismembered head portion – hissing sounds and smoke emanating from each bloodless but grotesque portal, and Mikey is still yammering, though now in a singular robotic repetition.

‘I love ……my..country….I love…..m..y….coun…try….I…lo….ve…..I……ve….my…..

countr…..I…e..m…….count……..’

Mikey and Nicky’s Hash Browns

hash

‘They’re called hash browns. Not the ready-made fake ones you can buy frozen. These are real potato hash browns you are making Mikey.’

‘They remind me of Boris’ hair.’

‘Yes! They do! A little darker, but all those criss-crossed strands do bear a semblance,’ Nicky enthuses.

Mikey and Nicky are getting on. Business is good enough, and Mikey has succumbed to the predominantly transatlantic menu. Having added steak and ale pie to the ‘English’ menu of fish and chips, it has encouraged his better attitude, but the fact Boris no longer visits also helps.

‘Do do, do do,’ Mikey hums.

‘You do seem happier,’ Nicky enthuses some more. ‘What’s that tune?’

‘You know I really can’t remember. I heard it somewhere and I recall it struck a chord’ – Mikey chortles at his unintentional joke – ‘but I can’t remember where and I just can’t get it out of my head.’

Nicky is slicing baps and placing them at the side of the preparation counter in readiness for the lunchtime rush. Her eyes as round and wide as the upper halves of the bifurcated buns, she scans the kitchen and out into the eating area through the large open hatch. The diner is about two thirds full and people are eating and talking happily and Nicky reflects on the changes in her life. From a former position of power and influence – but with all the attendant stress of being loathed for her attempted decision-making – she now surveys the simplicity of working with ordinary people with ordinary lives eating ordinary food and being content. Nicky feels content too. Life is good, and with Mikey being less and less of a treacherous bastard, she knows it can only get better.

‘I feel good,’ she confides in Mikey. ‘I think we made a wise decision buying this franchise. I know we didn’t have much choice, but we have landed on our feet, haven’t we Mikey? This is a change for the better, don’t you agree?’

Man’s yesterday may ne’re be like his morrow. Nought may endure but mutability,’ Mikey quotes meaningfully, if a little pompously. ‘Shelley,’ he adds. ‘One of the great Romantics. I so wanted all 16 year olds compelled to study our fine Romantic poets whilst at secondary school, but that’s one battle I didn’t win.’

‘It’s a burger culture,’ Nicky quips. ‘But correct me if I am wrong Mikey,’ she seems to suddenly and with surprise intention change tack, ‘weren’t the Romantics a radical movement of writers placing the promotion and celebration of Intuition above Reason? Indeed, a revolutionary celebration of the Imagination? That seems a rather progressive idea for someone like you to be encouraging and supporting.’

Whilst getting on in their new burger partnership, Nicky stills feels the ache of having had to follow in the wake of Mikey’s more sensational time as Education Secretary, causing his notorious problems through legislated dictatorial decisions compared with her problems of flaccid but nonetheless annoying failures.

‘Yes, yes, but they were English,’ Mikey flusters, tousling with the strands of hash browns to make them a whole, fried into their mess of completeness.

‘And wasn’t it Shelley who wrote

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away

and doesn’t that remind you a little of political failure Mikey?’ Nicky asks, smirking at the sharpness of her planning.

Mikey puts his spatula down on the grill and stares into the hash browns. He seems to be looking for wisdom in the patterns of random coalescence as a popular side-dish for the even more popular Groovy Gove Burger that has proved such a success at their diner. He turns slowly to Nicky.

‘And written in iambic pentameter,’ is all Mikey adds, sounding meaningful again, if pompously again. He turns back to the grill, picks up his spatula, begins transferring the cooked hash browns to warming dishes, and continues to hum,

‘Do do, do do, do do, do do, do do.’

Mikey & Nicky’s Diner

DINER

‘This isn’t what I had hoped for my future role in society.’

‘I think you need to flip that Mikey.’

‘I said I didn’t expect to be doing this as a job for the future.’

‘I hear you Mikey,’ Nicky says impatiently, ‘but you need to flip that or it’s going to burn on one side.’

‘Like I keep saying, I didn’t expect to be flippin’ burgers for a career.’

‘I know you are no longer in office, but standards are standards, and it’s flipping burgers, not the colloquial contraction. You’ve been away from Education for some time, but please do justice to the rules of grammar, even though we have both come down a peg or two.’

‘Ha, ha, very funny,’ Mikey sneers. ‘I don’t recall you knowing all that much about grammar accuracy in your more recent occupation of the job I made my own. And it’s tragically de rigueur to pun on my more previous role, and it is really a rather banal attempt. As for coming down a peg or two, I think Dante’s Diner occupies a more colossal depth than you imply.’

‘Just flip the fuckin’, I mean fucking burger Mikey.’

Mikey flips the burger and sighs. His white chef’s hat has fallen down the front of his forehead and is resting on his black-rimmed glasses. He is sweating and breathing heavily, lips pursed fish-like as he sucks in and out.

‘Why are we only cooking burgers?’ Mikey asks.

‘It’s a burger diner.’

‘I know, I know. I mean why aren’t we focusing on sausages and meat pies and other proper English food? You know I love this country and wouldn’t dream of providing any of that European rubbish, but why are we concentrating on this American food?’

‘Look Mikey, I know you successfully banned American authors from being studied at GCSE – and don’t I know it, as I kept being reminded, especially by the persistent pesky irate American ex-teacher from Devon, and I knew it was a stupid decision but didn’t feel able to change it, especially as I didn’t feel able to do anything really – but you can’t reasonably ban burgers from a diner’s menu when it is so clearly now the most popular meal in this country too.’

‘Well, I was never a slave to the popular.’

‘No, you weren’t.’

‘What about these yellow aprons?’ Mikey asks.

‘What about them?’

‘Do you think anyone will get the joke?’

‘I should think most people will have seen the pictures of Teresa kneeling before the Queen and walking up the road to number 10. You couldn’t miss hers draped around her backside.’

‘But it is still a political joke?’

‘Yes, Mikey, it’s still a political joke. Unfortunately, it’s probably not the only political joke people will recall when they come to this diner and see the two of us working here.’

‘We aren’t working here Nicky, we own and run the place.’

‘Yes, Mikey, we really have landed on our feet.’

‘Do you think we’ll see Boris again today?’

‘You know the answer to that Mikey. He has been here for lunch every day for the last two months. He’ll order a double cheese burger, ask for ‘loads and loads of relish’ – giggling – and then leave a tip of euros when paying his bill.’

‘I could spit on it.’

‘Spit on what?’

‘His double cheese burger.’

‘You too?’

How Bright Shines the Sheen of Cameron’s Final PMQs?

pmgs

David Cameron’s final PMQs today revealed much about the current state of public political debate in this country.

At one point, Cameron acknowledged the theatrics of this weekly verbal knockabout, but this was no more than a ruse to appear appreciative of the sham whilst actively engaging in it, albeit this one no more than a boxing feint.

I understand the orchestrated tit for tat of the format: the Prime Minister receives the questions in advance, ostensibly to be able to prepare for and provide the detail of his or her answers [for example, statistical evidence]. However, the preparedness is much more than this, especially in the ‘witticisms’ provided for rather than by Cameron himself. Today’s use of such a comic reference to Monty Python’s Black Knight sketch [in reference to Corbyn’s recent bruising from his own Party] will not, I suspect, have been his idea; indeed, I doubt Cameron has ever seen the film.

Whilst this very capacity for such witticisms was praised by those Conservatives using their questions to eulogise Cameron’s tenure – understandably so – it was striking how Corbyn refused each time to respond with similar. It is quite likely he doesn’t have the natural wit to do so himself, especially off-the-cuff compared with Cameron’s written script, but we know it is also intentional to avoid this very theatrical deflection from dealing with the seriousness of debating questions.

And that’s the point – it isn’t a debate. But if the voting public absorb and respond to these soundbites and comic tags rather than the content of serious questioning, that reminds those of us who support Corbyn’s, by comparison, dull integrity and principle just how tricky this can be to fully trust when slick performance above persuasive rhetoric/oration is, ironically, what persuades people to vote for a person and their Party.

This posting is no more than an aside, and I will close on a final reflection. One of Cameron’s most effective one-twos today was a reference to the 2-0 of his Party providing two female Prime Ministers compared with none from Labour and others, but the quip which received the greatest laughs was about there not being a pink bus in sight, a reference to Harriet Harman’s campaign for connecting with female voters in the recent general election.

It was a fine enough joke if joking is what matters in House of Commons debate [and I can’t/won’t be so painfully churlish to deny its place], but it reminded me of two factors that reflect worryingly on both main Parties, and therefore our whole political system:

  • for the Conservatives, that joke had a deeper significance in countering Cameron’s closing and I think hollow tribute to the serious nobility of those who chose political life where recent events in his Party post-Brexit revealed instead rampant treachery and self-absorption;
  • and for Labour, accepting some similar degree of self-destruction, the call to oust Corbyn and replace him with more conventional Labour contenders is totally undermined by a ‘mainstream’ Harman’s pink bus episode as well as an equally ‘mainstream’ Milliban’s tablets of stone debacle where each demonstrated how ineffective their approaches and ideas were.