Saturday, 19 July 2014

Neat, neat, neat: Teachers, tests and lies


There's a thing going round the internet. Well, there's always a thing going round the internet. It's divided opinion more than most, and nearly made me fall out with someone I love. Which wasn't nice.

It's a letter from a teacher to children in her school about not worrying about their test results. A sort of consolation prize. I think her heart's in the right place but I also think she is feeding the children a lie.

We've always been fed lies, of course. Growing up in the 60s, the lie was that we are living in a meritocracy. I was told that with brains and hard work you could get anywhere. Turned out that was only part of it. In real life, it needs brains, hard work, self-confidence, a financial safety net, and knowing the right people.

The lie is different now. The story is that achievements don't matter as long as you are a nice person. Funny, though, how it hasn't resulted in more nice people than there were before.

The lie is in this letter going round the internet. I thought it was a fake at first: it rang my bullshit detector very loudly. Some people whose opinion I respect thought it was great.  Some people whose opinion I respect thought it was awful. I did too.

It felt so phoney. I got the same feeling I get from looking/reading/listening to Bad Art. And Bad Art is one of the things in the world that makes me angry. (Yeah, I know, priorities and all that but that's just the way it is.)

Nothing rang true. The Americanisms, for a start ('neat', 'smart'). Turns out she'd plagiarised it. The sweeping generalisations (there was nothing personal about the child - so whose benefit was this for, really?). And the lies. The lie that 'there are many ways of being smart'. No, being nice is not being smart. It's a good thing, but it's not the same. The lie that failure doesn't matter. The lie that fuzzy feelings are a good thing in themselves. The lie that 'self esteem' is more important than the truth.

It reminded me of what happened during the 90s when my nieces and nephews were growing up. And children were sent home from school with certificates and badges more or less every day. For doing more or less nothing. Has it made them more confident or successful than my generation? I doubt it. Has it done any harm? Well, my nieces and nephews have turned out well as adults but I would say that, wouldn't I? I have friends, though, who work in graduate recruitment who believe they are dealing with a generation that has an unrealistic sense of entitlement.

It reminds me too of the creeping sentimentalisation of our culture. It's coming, I think, from American mass entertainment and I don't know why we listen to it because that country is not, after all, a bastion of equal opportunities.

We're getting the lie that we can all get along because fundamentally everything's lovely and everyone's lovely. Then there's the lie that all we have to do is share inspirational messages and the world will suddenly become a heaven on earth. (And anyone who challenges this is 'negative'.) And there's the lie that if you have 'a dream' you can get anywhere. You don't even need brains or hard work any more, just a wishlist.

Life is more complex, and tougher than that. The world, as today's news broadcasts are telling me loud and clear, is not a nice place, and  humans are not necessarily nice people. So why pretend?

Don't get me wrong, I hate Michael Gove as much as the next person. And I agree with the basic idea behind that teacher's letter. That tests aren't everything and there are other things that matter about people.  But there are better ways of saying it than this inauthentic, sentimental posturing. As for lying to children – I've never believed in that.


Friday, 27 June 2014

Book review: Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys

Years ago, when I still worked for other people, I was talking about the legendary grumpiness of a colleague and one of his admirers said 'You don't know what he's been through.'  As if that was an excuse.  And I thought: 'You don't know what I've been through either.' And then I thought: 'Show me someone who's got the the age of 40 who hasn't had bad things happen to them and I'll show you someone who hasn't lived.'

Shit happens. We're all survivors, one way or the other. And you could call Viv Albertine's memoir the story of a survivor. Except that would be a) very '80s and b) a cliche.

I picked this up expecting the best bits to be about the punk years and her time as guitarist with the Slits. They weren't. The best bit was following the life story of a woman who has been through a lot. As we all have, which makes this the story of  everywoman. But she's probably been through more than most, which makes this the story of someone extraordinary.

Extraordinarily honest. No spoilers, but she tells you everything. There are some experiences I hope I never have, and some that made me cry because they were so close to home. I'm not going to tell you what they are and that's why I'll never write a book like this.

And it's an extraordinarily full life. Considering this includes several years as a  'Hastings housewife', she's done a lot. And considering she describes herself as melancholic, that's an achievement.  Living life to the full is hard when you're 'prone to depression'. I know.

But she doesn't let anything stop her. My favourite quote: 'That should be written on my gravestone. She was scared. But she went anyway.' That's how I try to live, too.

You could call this a story about female survival, but more importantly it's a story about female creativity. Or what Viv calls 'self expression'.

That's where punk comes in. Or 'punk' as she puts it, which is fair enough because she was there. She doesn't romanticise the movement (for her, it died early on, when the London scene turned violent) but it's clear it was a turning point.

For a fan, it's a great read. Inside gossip on the Sex Pistols and their circle, and spot-on descriptions like this one of Johnny Thunders: 'He looks like he's walked straight out of a Shangri-Las' song: bad but good.'

But the music business is just part of her story. It's about a lot of other things, too. Things that happen to you, things you make happen, bad choices, good choices, learning to say yes.

Some of what the book is about is in the title (based on her teenage obsessions). I'm so glad she wrote it herself instead of, as her 'manager' wanted, getting it ghost-written. I like the voice that is true to herself. I like the bit at the end where she lists the clothes, music and boys for each time period in the book. I like the fact that the photo captions describe what she is wearing and where it came from.  These things matter.

And music, of course. Music matters. She describes her first musical epiphany, listening to the Beatles: 'Now everything's changed: I've found the meaning of life, hidden in the grooves of a flat black plastic disc. I promise myself I will get to that new world, but I don't know how to make it happen.'

And her second, on seeing the Sex Pistols for the first time: 'This is it. At last I see not only that other universe I've always wanted to be part of, but the bridge to it.'

In between, not knowing that music was something women could do. Finding out. Doing it. Doing it well.

And at the end of the book (not the end of the story), finding out that older women can do it too. Now that I've read the book, I just want to hear those songs.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

My top 10 music books

Jarvis Cocker has written about his top 10 music books for the Guardian. So I thought I'd write about mine.


Diary of a rock'n'roll star by Ian Hunter

Published in 1974 and it cost 50p. My sister gave it to me for Christmas. It's Ian Hunter's diary of Mott the Hoople's 1972 American tour and I have to confesss that as a teenager quite a lot of it went over my head.

The back cover blurb is hilarious. "Worshipped, hated, envied, exploited - who are they, these rock stars?... Read Diary of a Rock'n'Roll star - and your idols will never seem the same..."

Just Kids by Patti Smith

Julie Burchill's autobiography, I Knew I Was Right, didn't make it into the list, but I like what she says about that famous Patti Smith photo: "I see this picture of her standing up against a wall with a jacket slung over her shoulder. For those of us who saw that black-and-white photo in 1976, it remains as endlessly iconic as Marilyn over the grating or the England 1966 squad over the moon."

Robert Mapplethorpe took that photo and the book is the story of the two would-be artists and soulmates in New York - up to, and during, the punk rock years. A perfect evocation of big-city bohemia for everyone who wished it was them.

England's Dreaming by Jon Savage

The definitive history of (as the subtitle says) the Sex Pistols and punk rock: the rise and fall in huge detail. Long, but never boring. It was first published in 1991, when I refused to read it (I distrust anything about music that looks remotely academic). A review of the Sex Pistols' reunion  brings the reissue up to date.

Revolt into Style by George Melly

"They're selling hippy wigs in Woolworths, man." They always have, and they always will. This book shows why. Like everything George Melly has done, it's also very entertaining.

Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? by Charlotte Greig

A history of girl groups in pop, published by Virago in 1989. We need more music books about women and written by women. Which makes it even worse that I don't own this book any more: I think it's in my ex-husband's house. I do, though, own Charlotte Greig's first novel, A Girl’s Guide To Modern European Philosophy, set in 1974. Beautifully written and with so much period detail that it feels like a historical novel.

Last Train To Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick

The first of a two-part biography of Elvis, another one that deserves the "definitive" label. More than that, a dramatic narrative describing the unstoppable momentum of Elvis's rise to fame - making the story almost as exciting as the records. Sadly, the second volume describes the unstoppable momentum of Elvis's drive to self-destruction.

Bedsit Disco Queen by Tracey Thorn

Tracey Thorn's pop-career memoir, from the post-punk indie explosion to stardom of sorts with Everything but the Girl. Favourite quote: "I often feel that I barely recognise 'The 1980s' as a decade in the form that it is now remembered and repackaged for glib TV programmes." Her version of the 1980s is the decade I remember: DIY culture, benefit gigs and feminism - not Live Aid and the royal wedding.

No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs by John Lydon

Lydon's autobiography, and the personal context makes sense of a lot of what came later. Ghost-written but Lydon's voice comes through: funny, intelligent and very sharp.

The Commitments by Roddy Doyle

Hilariously accurate picture of your first band.

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

Hilariously accurate picture of your local independent record shop.