A Christmas Carol: The Exam

Amazon ran a competition to re-invent A Christmas Carol as a 1,000-word children’s story. For fun, during a tube journey, I decided to write  an entry on my phone. What fell out has a difficult message, and made me cry on the tube, and I didn’t win. But I sort of love it anyway. 
So here it is. Merry Christmas, every one!
Headmaster Gerald Fezziwig glared across the cold, dark dining room of Grays Boarding School. His children, Tim and Jessica, were passing something under the table instead of finishing their spelling test.
“Freeze!” yelled Gerald, marching towards them, hands locked behind his back.
Tim reached out a trembling palm. In it was a crumpled Christmas present, wrapped in glittery paper.
“It’s for you”, said Tim. “It’s for Christmas tomorrow”.
Mr Fezziwig looked down.
“Children,” he asked in a menacing tone, “what do I learn from a present?”
Jessica shrank in her seat. “Nothing, daddy. We just thought it might make you happy.”
“Happy?” said Mr Fezziwig with surprise. “What use is happiness? The best children know that how you feel isn’t important. What matters is in your head. What do I always tell you Timothy?”
Tim sighed: “Happiness is fleeting, but learning lasts forever?”
“Exactly!” said Mr Fezziwig. “And because I love you so much, we will spend tomorrow doing multiplication tests.”
Later, as Mr Fezziwig sat in his cold, dark study, he looked at the crumpled present and frowned, before tossing it into the bin.
His eyelids became heavy and he fell into a deep sleep. Until a noise shattered his snoring.
“Who’s there?” Mr Fezziwig shouted.
“Wooooooooooooooo-oooooo,” came the reply.
Mr Fezziwig’s heartbeat grew rapid. “Stop this at once,” he shouted, “who’s there?”
“WooooooOOO… hee hee hee,” the ghostly voice cracked into a peal of laughter.
In the dark, Mr Fezziwig’s furious face changed. Suddenly he was soft, and quiet.
“Nora?” he whispered.
A figure glowing with light stepped from behind the Christmas tree. It was Nora: his first love, his only love.
“Oh Nora,” he said, running towards her. But her radiant body was untouchable.
“Shhhh….” she said, translucent eyes shimmering. “We must go!”
She clicked her fingers and the room faded. A scent of mince pies filled the hallway in which they now crouched, looking into a brightly-lit kitchen, bursting with toys, hams, and cakes.
A tinier Tim and Jessica sat at the table. Jessica was throwing her Christmas pudding across the room, while Tim rubbed some into his face, making her squeal.
“There’s me!” said Mr Fezziwig, catching a glimpse of his past self. A tall, young Fezziwig smiled and twirled Nora across the kitchen to the strains of a brass band playing Christmas carols in the background.
“Look children!” young Fezziwig exclaimed, “We are dancing!”
“Dance again! Dance again!” said Jessica.
“Without you? Never!” Whisking Jessica from her chair, Mr Fezziwig waltzed her around the kitchen with glee.
“Teach me! Teach me!” said Tim, wriggling from his chair.
“What is there to teach?” Gerald cried. “Feel as you go, Tim. Dance from your heart!”
In the cold hallway, a tear dripped down old Mr Fezziwig’s face. Who was this young man with such hope in his soul?
“Nora, what happened to me?” he asked. But she was gone.
“Nora?” he cried. “Nora!”
Above him the roof melted away. Rain fell on his head. Mud squidged around his slippered feet, as he realised he was stood in a familiar field.
A wreath of flowers passed by. Two children, dressed in black, stood beside their father. He was holding all his emotions inside so they did not fall out and hit those two little people below.
In the background, from beyond the church door, he could hear the hum of a Christmas tune.
A tearful Jessica looked up: “Daddy, it’s mummy’s favourite song. Should we dance?”
Her father avoided her gaze as he replied: “Not anymore.”
“But we can dance using our hearts, daddy,” said Tim.
“There is no more dancing,” said their father. “From today, there is no more heart.”
In his slippers and robe, the present-day Mr Fezziwig lurched to hug his grieving children, but as he did, the church melted away.
“Why have you left me again, Nora?” Mr Fezziwig cried, “What are you trying to show me?”
Stood once more in the draughty dining hall of Grays Academy, Mr Fezziwig could see Tim at the master’s table. He was older now, a grown-up, but his eyes missing their sparkle. Two children sat before him in the hall, writing furiously with one hand and passing a crumpled-up gift with the other.
“Father, what is Christmas?” the small boy asked.
“It is something for other people,” said the no-longer tiny Tim.
“But… we found this,” said the boy. “Is it a present for us?”
Tim took the gift and looked at it, long and hard. After a moment, he opened the glittery paper and pulled out its contents. It was a tiny porcelain figure of a man and woman dancing.
Tim softened, momentarily. Then his face grew angry.
“Of course this isn’t for you! Happiness is fleeting, but learning lasts forever. All good children know that. Carry on with your test,” he snapped.
Mr Fezziwig knew, at last, what Nora was trying to show him.
It was early morning at Greys Boarding Academy when Jessica and Tim dragged themselves to the dining hall. Their father waited with a stopwatch.
“Today, we are going to have a test,” announced Mr Fezziwig.
The pair sighed and waited for their papers.
Instead, their father held out a Christmas Pudding.
“First task! Who can rub the most pudding into their face in one minute?”
The children looked confused.
“Really?” asked Tim.
“Really!” beamed Mr Fezziwig. “And then,” he said, pulling out a large turkey and presents wrapped in glittery paper, “we are going to cook lunch, play pass the parcel, and…” his voice trailed off as he brought out a music player and pressed the button, springing forth a rambunctious melody of brass bands. “And… we are going to dance. We are going to spend lots of time dancing. We are going to dance from our arms and our legs and, most of all, our hearts.”
The Fezziwig children sat, open-mouthed. In his heart Gerald finally felt something. It wasn’t learning. It was happiness.

My Year In Books 2017: What I Finished (& Didn't), and Liked (& Didn't)

For the first time this year I’ve kept an eye on the books I’m reading, and thought I’d share lessons from the worthwhile & highlight those which weren’t. I’ve left education books out, as I speed-read those for my job, so I can’t always say if I’ve finished or liked with accuracy. Plus, I’m always talking about those.
So here’s everything else:

Finished, & Liked

  1. Option B – Sheryl SandbergMy Book Of The Year 

When Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook and author of Lean In, lost her husband to a heart-attack when he was  47, her word fell apart. Two weeks later, a friend offered to attend parents’ evening with her. Weeping, she said it was a kind offer, but she simply wanted her husband back. “Option A is no longer available,” said her friend, “so you’ll just have to kick the shit out of Option B.”
That line is devastating. So is this book. And yet, it’s oddly hopeful. Because it’s not a self-help book about dragging yourself up. Instead, it’s about how to lift others when they find themselves destroyed and on the floor. What you should text a friend in need. (‘How are you today?’ is a good example). What not to say. (Sandberg describes the many people who tell her about a friend who never got over the death of their husband – not helpful, folks!)
Be warned. It’s sad.  I sobbed for two weeks on the tube while reading it. But I also became a better person afterwards. If you’re naturally good with distraught people, you may not need it. Everyone else, get it. Just be sure to carry tissues.
2. What’s Your Message – Cam Barber
Do you think you’re good at presentations? Yeah, me too. Then I read Cam Barber’s book which lays out the most effective way to do presentations, and suddenly realised I don’t know anything. Ultimately, most people will go away from a talk with only a few memories. How you shape those is what will matter. Focus on one big message, and then sub-messages, for best effect. Sound obvious, but Barber shows its power.
3. Fashion Journalism – Julie Bradford
Fashion? Yeah, fashion. I can’t tell you how many people tell me in one breath that  fashion is unimportant, and kids shouldn’t judge each other by looks, and how dare I mention how politicians dress; then, in the next breath, tell me how important it is that kids wear blazers.
Why is that? One of my theories is that we’re not good as a country at talking intelligently about fashion because it’s often treated as an irrelevance. Hence, when events occur like this year’s rule change, allowing MPs not to wear ties in Parliament, few people could give any context as to why the rule was even there in the first place.
I therefore went looking for a history of fashion. I didn’t find it in Bradford’s textbook for fashion journalism students but I found a good foundation for understanding how fashion media works, and how intelligent the journalism can be. And then I found…
4. Costume & Fashion: A Concise History – James Laver
This book blew my mind. Did you know there are statues from ancient Malta in which the women are wearing ballgowns almost identical to those in fashion thousands of years later? Did you know the history of fashion divides down two axes: hot/cold countries, draped/tailored outfits. Note: gender isn’t in there. For much of history, and in other countries, it simply isn’t a thing! Mind-boggling when you think how important fashion is in gender identification in Britain today.
Then there’s the constant theme of royalty and politicians and power leading the way in fashion. The tale of how the modern-day suit came from Charles II’s declaration shortly after the Great London Fire of what the royal court must wear. (Not even mentioned on his Wikipedia page, by the way). Stories of booms and busts: how one decade there’s no collars, then one appears, and thirty years later collars are so flouncy that people can barely see. Fashion changes so fast across the decades of all centuries that it left me believing that our idea the pace of change is faster now than ever before is probably a lie.
5. The Ethical Slut – Janet Hardy & Dossie Easton
This one might raise an eyebrow because it’s about sex, and having lots of it, potentially with multiple people at the same time. For that reason, I almost left it out. BUT, not only would that be dishonest, it’s also a bloody brilliant book and I’d really like other people to read it and talk to me about it.
Also I can’t think of a better year for people to be reading a book about the ethics of sex, especially given all the sex scandals, plus compulsory relationship and sex education on the horizon for schools.
The book is twenty years old and onto its third edition. (I read the second). Essentially, it’s a manual for ‘open relationships’. But don’t jump to conclusions! That doesn’t mean polyamory (though it can), or hippy communes (though it can), nor labelling yourself as pansexual, or hyperflexible, or anything else. (Though, guess what? It can!) Instead, it starts from the premise that sexual relationships are interesting, and fun, and can be healthy and helpful. Also, given that people spend a lot of time thinking/worried/at it at any one time, then how can we best talk about sex and act in a really clear, ethical (but still sexy) way?  Unlike other relationship books it doesn’t suggest monogamy is an aberration or to be avoided. It merely puts it as a very good option along with lots of other ways of relating. What it is absolutely clear about is THAT EVERYONE NEEDS TO BE CONSENSUAL and it does a great job of being honest about the complexity of relationships. If you are going to be in charge of sex education at school, I would urge you to read it, even if you end up disagreeing with parts of it.
6. The Invention of Angela Carter – Edmund Gordon
The most unlikely book I’ve ever enjoyed, this is a biography of feminist author Angela Carter. Except, is she actually feminist? I’ve no idea. Because, weirdly, I’ve never read any of her work. I can’t stand most fiction and she writes those ‘magical realism’ books where people sprout wings while they’re flying around Sainsburys (or something).  BUT this biography, by the incredible Edmund Gordon (who is the same age as me – weep), is astounding. Carter is a truly independent woman who runs around the world having slightly strange relationships and writing books. It’s as much a guidebook for how to live your best life. Second, Gordon’s writing is a masterclass in getting to know a subject and checking and re-checking sources. For someone whose background is philosophy and creative writing, Gordon has the tenacity and care of a ruthless historian. The way Gordon gently explains how he knows things, without ever taking away from this being Carter’s story, is breath-taking.
7. In Cold Blood – Truman Capote
Somehow, I never heard of Truman Capote – the celebrated writer – until I was in a journalism class in the US. This book, In Cold Blood, was mentioned as a classic of the ‘real crime’ journalistic form. It tells the tale of a grizzly (true) murder, starting with all the characters and leading up to arrests and the final punishments. I read while on an Indian island in February without any power, using only a head-lamp because it was so gripping. I was utterly bereft when it was finished.
8. Effective Investigation of Child Homicide & Suspicious Deaths – David Marshall
This is an expensive, technical and reasonably long British police textbook on how to investigate child murders. And yes, I finished and liked it. As a teacher, and while a journalist, I’ve been faintly obsessed with asking the best question to get the most useful answer so that something unknown before receiving it becomes known afterwards. One of the most difficult cases for police to prosecute are child murders – particularly those of babies. They usually happen at home, motives are harder to ascertain, and the line between accident and intention is murkier because children’s frailty means things that wouldn’t kill an adult nevertheless cause kids to die (for example, a fall down the stairs).
Hence, I went looking for clues of how to deal with ambiguity. What I got was a glimpse into the incredibly difficult job that police investigators do and the care, and smartness, and interpersonal skills needed. It reminds of the absolutely horrific circumstances families can sometimes find themselves in. I found I kept thinking about the siblings who survive, and how it must affect their schooling. Not a widely recommended read, but a definite pause for thought.
9. Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail Or Survive – Jared Diamond
This book has changed my mind about geography as a subject. For years I’ve found geography a strange anachronism on modern-day timetables. Its inclusion in the EBacc continues to baffle. The absence of many geography teachers on social media, or among headteachers, means I’ve rarely heard counter-narratives. But Jared Diamond’s book, which uses geography – really uses it – to show how island civilisations across the world have faded out of existence is mind-blowing.
For example, he talks at length about the Easter Islands and how the giant stone statues that are now a tourist trap were a form of annual competition between tribes. However, the tribes became so obsessed with winning that they started using all their resources on the statues, never thinking that the island’s preciously-limited items were being extinguished for no greater gain than winning a game with no long-term purpose. Starting to sound eerily familiar? The rest of the book takes that line and keeps smashing you with it in the most powerful way.
(And if you’re wondering how this is geography, and not history, it’s because these island civilisations disappeared without trace centuries ago – so most of the work to figure out what was going on involves looking at soil, rocks, the stomach contents of birds, etc).
10. Coalition Diaries – David Laws
This book is 600 pages long and you feel it. It’s a mammoth. In its pages, we learn of David Laws’ years at the education department with Michael Gove. We learn of Gove’s madcap assistant, Dom Cummings, who went on to become famous as a spearhead of the Leave campaign; and you learn of the times Laws tried to stop some of Gove’s crazier ideas. (He lost on Mary Seacole and sex education).
The funniest part of the book, though, isn’t actually related to education, though. Throughout the entire thing, no matter what is going on, the backburning issue in Laws’ constituency is the widening of the A303 in Somerset. It’s like a constant boil that keeps flaming and needs lancing. One minute Laws is at a summit on world peace, and the next he’s posing in a hardhat while looking sad about the A303 for the local newspaper. It reminds what a nuts job being an MP really is.


Didn’t Finish, Did Like

11. Goebbels – Peter Longrich
The people behind the people are endlessly fascinating to me, and none more so than Goebbels. This is a wonderful and rich book, and I got all the way to him meeting Hitler (which took a long time), but then it all got a bit military textbook for me and I lost interest.
12. Strong Woman – Karren Brady
I love Karren Brady. She’s straight-talking. And interesting. And correct. The book is a good overview of her life. But she’s so straight that it gets a little plain and I got a bit distracted and ended up leaving the last four or five chapters.

Finished, Didn’t Like

13. The Gay Talese Reader – Gay Talese
Frank Sinatra Has A Cold is the greatest profile interview I’ve ever read. (With this one, about R Kelly, a close second). I’d also become more aware of 81-year-old journalism-god Talese after the bru-ha-ha over his book, The Voyeur’s Motel. (Netflix recently released a great documentary on that incident which is worth watching too).
This book includes Talese’s most famous profiles over the years. There’s Sinatra, but also Mohammad Ali and Joe DiMaggio. Plus a few others. However, I’ll be honest: I didn’t like a lot of them. Too meandering, and too sportsy, and too something-I-dont-know but it felt dull. HOWEVER, there is one story, about an incident in his grandfather’s tailors in Italy which is just wonderful story-telling and leaves you rolling with laughter. Almost worth it just for that as the tale is not online. (Unlike most of the rest).

Didn’t Finish, Didn’t Like

They all bored me to tears. I have no more to add.
14. Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thein
15. What Got You Here Won’t Get You There – Marshall Goldsmith
16. The Early Stories Of Truman Capote – Truman Capote


Finally, I  re-read these books this year because I’ve loved them so much in the past. They are very close to being on my ‘classic texts’ list.
17. Believe In People – Karel Capek < Essays from the Czech writer who invented the word ‘robot’. I went back to re-read his essay on why he isn’t a communist, after I had spent a weekend getting beaten up by Corbyn supporters for writing a blog about why I don’t agree with free university tuition. Capek’s reminder that humans, not political ideologies, are what really matters is always a comfort.
18. Good Self, Bad Self – Judy Smith < Smith is the Hollywood ‘reputation handler’ that the TV series Scandal is based on. This book talks about the qualities that ultimately bring down celebrities and politicians. It’s always a useful reminder to keep ones ego in check.
19. Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste – Carl Wilson < This book is about Celine Dion. Wilson, the author, is a cool music journalist who hates her and sets out to discover why other people love her. This is the most well-written book I’ve ever read.

Goals for 2018

You may have noticed the distinct lack of fiction.
The problem is that I have three beloved fiction authors: John Irving, Maeve Binchy, & Terry Pratchett. Two are dead and the other averages one book every three years.
So, if you feel moved to do so, make me a fiction recommendation in the comments.
It needs to be written in unfussy language and, ideally, peppered with a slightly sarcastic tone. If it’s sci-fi, it has to be funny. If it’s set in another country, the names have to be easy to read and remember.