Sex, Shakespeare and the Secretary of State for Education

If the tabloids can use sensational headlines, then so can I.

And of course this posting is self-indulgent, but have you not noticed the title of the blog: mikeandenglish?

I visited a friend and former teaching colleague today who has also now retired from the job. He had retrieved personal teaching memorabilia from the school where we taught together and was showing me some of this, including the following correspondence I intended to have with the then Secretary of State for Education John Patten – one of the bigger knob-heads of the Tory years – and which I had circulated to the English team for their ‘entertainment’ back in 1993, and which I do so again here now.

I hadn’t forgotten this gem from my many missives to people in positions of educationally destructive and dumb authority, but I don’t believe I had retained this full set. I did throughout my teaching career confront any government lunacy thrust down my teaching throat and have recently complained on this blog that not enough of us in the profession did this in the past, and certainly do not do so now. I make no apology for that: even given the current demands of the job, it doesn’t take much to write a letter of conviction, and as a Head of English not that long ago working through target mania and specific, quite nasty, scrutiny of results and so on of my Department, I understand the pressures yet the need to fight on. That said, it is clear from this example of banter that I achieved little in my past assaults apart from the catharsis it provided, as necessary as this was.

Here’s the exchange:






Metaphor failed to enlighten
those domestic vistas

when, apparently, I should have been
me, me, me

which as universal truths
explain how the world works.

All these years of love and suffering
were nonetheless some coherent order

when writing about myself and the
hurt and joy and killing and poetry.

There’s death
and then the task of articulation.

John Steinbeck – To A God Unknown

Originally posted in March, 2012

js - Copy

Proper Lust


I have just finished this, beginning it many months ago, and don’t know why it has taken so long – having been quite gripped by its portentous narrative – apart from the rather feeble reality that I like reading outside in the sun and it has just returned after a long and grey absence.

It is a novella and Steinbeck’s second significant book, completed in 1933 and having taken, apparently, five years to write. It is the polar opposite of Of Mice and Men being laden with language and philosophy. What is does share, however, is a tragic inevitability as the protagonist Joseph Wayne is consumed by his love and worship of the land and eventually sacrifices himself to it, literally, when that land finally rewards him for his gift – not that he can then benefit. But others do, and that is perhaps crucial.

I sound like I am saying Of Mice and Men has no philosophy which would be inaccurate. But To A God Unknown is heavy-handed in this respect, not that this weight in any way dissuaded me – indeed, this and the voluptuous language Steinbeck was exploring to encapsulate such early literary and philosophical preoccupation is the book’s strength. There are times when Joseph’s communing with nature is so intensely realised that you want to partake wholly in its pastoral ideal, though that makes it sound more cerebral than acknowledging the primacy given to the physical commitment required in achieving that spiritual attainment.

It is above all, I think, a humanist attainment too. There seems to be an undercurrent of rejecting Christian precepts of humbling oneself before God in gratitude for what is given through the natural world, and Steinbeck offers a pantheism of which even Coleridge couldn’t conceive. Perhaps it would have been too pagan for someone like Coleridge too.

I am intrigued by the cover of the book that will end this posting and its notion of a ‘lust’ for the land – which is quite appropriate – but  is quite inappropriately [if comically] represented by the near-naked female. There is a strong and powerful quest for love through Joseph’s marriage to Elizabeth in the story, but this too has its tragic conclusion.



The Figurative Committee
make the most of their own
sod-breaking, warning me

of hearing a cliché
as it clanks, especially about
growing older and

digging frosts – the vegetable
patch completely dug
getting an enforced embargo

[that one too about to be
a spade-end on a stone like…
excised, being heard],

advising how to use the
ordinariness of getting older
without calling it an idea.

Willy Vlautin – Lean On Pete

Originally posted September, 2011


Third Triumph


This third novel consolidates Vlautin’s skill and significance as a contemporary writer and it also continues the stylistic American tradition of simple storytelling in terms of naturalistic dialogue and straightforward expression. The honest and believable first person narrative of 15 year old Charley Thompson provides the perfect vehicle for such simplicity, but of course whatever the techniques and personas and situations used, the depth of feeling and meaning is conveyed with an immediacy and emotive impact that is compelling.

Charley’s story is similar in many respects to the themes and contexts of Vlautin’s previous two novels: journey as escape and self-discovery; damaged lives; hardship [against the self, both physical and mental, but especially loss and death], and the kindnesses, indifferences and nastiness of humanity.

It isn’t a significant difference, but I don’t feel this story is either as bleak or as hopeful – Vlautin’s potent novelistic paradox – as its predecessors. That isn’t to say it is neutral. Charley’s hardships are many and continue to come at him, but apart from two specific moments of violence he copes well [for his age] and we as readers are not made to dwell on these as Charley continues to move forward and beyond these quickly – though not in the physical reality of his trek across significant distances. Nor is it as thematically hopeful in as much as although Charley encounters many examples of kindness and support I don’t feel the book ends with such a certain affirmation of this – though the reader is allowed to decide/imagine for themself.

The novel is rich in its ensemble of characters with more variety and range than in the previous two books. Charley is, as I’ve said, totally believable and he is also hugely likable in his vulnerability, work ethic, survival instinct and youthful exuberance.

Horses and horseracing are an interesting contextual reality for much of the story and Vlautin has clearly used his interest in and knowledge of this to provide yet more credible and engaging settings for the book. There is also a brilliant pattern of experiences – many shown quickly or even just recalled by Charley in reminiscences with others – which seem to tumble out of Vlautin’s own actual experiences. That or it is just more from his rich and vivid imagination. It’s a wonderfully ‘easy’ read and in many ways for me as rewarding from that simple experience as much as the heartfelt tale.

NB: Last year I included an extract from this excellent novel to illustrate and teach the power of dialogue in my GCSE text Writing Workshops, see here, and subsequently had the great pleasure of interviewing Willy Vlautin and talking about this book, see here.


I appreciate

for your suggestions
for getting in touch
for your inundated
delayed response
for your suggestions
with the shadow
for your correspondence
with the shadow

I will bear in my
suggestions received
since I apologise for
the time you have
been inundated with
the shadows

It is fantastic to hear
once again
from someone who is

I am passionate
passionate about me
I will bear
passionate practically
for everyone
and me

but as you can appreciate
for getting in touch
these suggestions
your concerns
once again
with me
I am

with shadow

Lucy Powell – Labour Lite?

As an ‘English Education’ blog I haven’t written much lately on educational matters, certainly not in venting my dissatisfaction about political decision making, and have instead concentrated more on posting poems and reviews, these latter as passionately important to me and definitely far more pleasant to share.

However, I have recently had a response from Lucy Powell, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, regarding an email I had sent her presenting concerns about Nicky Morgan’s expressions of wanting to re-introduce testing across the curriculum [details in my email below].

I am sharing this communication for two important reasons: firstly, I am always keen to express my dissatisfaction with Tory educational decision-making as it is usually so appalling; and, secondly, I have always also expressed similar whenever Labour policies deserve scrutiny and criticism, and Powell’s response to me is so disappointingly bland that I am presenting it here to demonstrate the apparent lack of any engagement with my precise points or even the broader and general issue of testing in schools.

Whilst Powell expresses her newness to her position, and the alleged high level of correspondence since she attained her post as reasons for the delay in response, her letter’s largely formulaic template and then glancing reference to ‘methods of examination in our school system’ demonstrate a lack of urgent interest, in-depth understanding or, as I have said, prompted engagement with the issue I presented.

This isn’t good enough.

My email, sent November 2015:

Dear Lucy Powell,

I am writing to enquire if as Shadow Secretary of State for Education you will be challenging Nicky Morgan’s recent announcement of a need to review National Curriculum testing, considering these particularly for 7 year olds, and asserting yet again the necessity to implement a testing regime in order to be ‘robust’ in raising standards.

There are so many fatuous soundbites in such declarations, and as an English teacher of 30 years – now retired but still writing educational texts, and a veteran [!] Senior Examiner at GCSE – I am looking to the Labour Party to challenge this on the basis of an understanding of teaching and learning and how an informed curriculum aids student progress and improvement rather than testing.

I understand there is a large landscape for the proposed review, so my particular interest, obviously, is with English teaching and testing. This subject is notoriously difficult to break down into discrete areas of understanding and skills, and the tests and their designers therefore actually substitute an understanding of this difficulty with, for example in Writing, the supply of generally irrelevant discrete language-knowledge questions [sample KS2 English Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling tests as worrying evidence of this]. This is bad/wrong enough, but mark schemes and the examiners controlled by these then impose further narrow parameters on rewarding students for already narrowed opportunities to demonstrate meaningful writing skills. It is therefore an educational façade and farce.

The knock-on effect is, clearly, that students are taught to the tests rather than focusing on improving Writing, or worse, engaging with Writing as an energetic and engaging element of English and as a crucial life skill.

It is also obvious that such tests essentially exist to provide a measurable aspect of notional competence, and a measurement that is then used to make comparisons on and observations about ‘standards’.

Ed Balls abolished Key Stage 3 SATs in 2008 as a recognition, I believe, of their unreliability. I am hoping that Labour will continue to oppose any return to these or indeed any expansion to other ages. My view is that whilst the issues of ‘stress’ and ‘pressure’ on young people is an absolutely valid and pertinent aspect of why these tests should be resisted, I would like to see some trenchant political commentary from Labour on how such tests are educationally unsound. I would like to see Labour taking a stand, as it currently is on so many other important issues, that is based on more than mere counter soundbites.

I would welcome supplying any further detail to support my more general observations here. I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,
Mike Ferguson

Powell’s email, sent January 2016:

Dear Mike,

Thank you for getting in touch. I apologise for the delayed response but as you can appreciate, I have been inundated with correspondence since my appointment as Shadow Education Secretary.

I appreciate the time you have taken to raise your concerns with me. I am passionate about education. My children attend the same schools in Manchester that I do and practically everyone in my family works in education as teacher or head teachers.

It is fantastic to hear from someone who is passionate and experienced in teaching. I receive many emails from concerned parents and teachers about methods of examination in our schools system. I will bear in mind your suggestions as the Shadow Education team move forward to develop Labour policy.

Once again, I appreciate the time you have taken to share these suggestions with me. I hope you can take some comfort in the knowledge that I use the information and suggestions received when discussing education policy with the Shadow Education team and when holding the Government to account in Parliament.

Kind regards,

Lucy Powell

Willy Vlautin – The Motel Life

Originally posted September, 2011


More Stoytelling


I’ve just finished reading Vlautin’s debut novel The Motel Life having been totally wrapped up in its painful and compassionate story for the last few days. I think this is a stronger book than his second Northline which I also reviewed recently, but that is neither here nor there; they are both excellent. This too concerns itself with damage and repair. It is a story about two brothers Frank and Jerry Lee and how their love and support for one another holds up in the wake of a tragic accident. It seems the world of Vlautin’s stories and musical narratives are primarily about how life tests us all, and in The Motel Life, Frank in particular is tested throughout by circumstance as well as the prevalent cold and snow of the winter.

Ordinary people, a strong sense of place, and realistic dialogue provide the basis for Vlautin’s storytelling expertise. As with Northline where the occasional appearance of Paul Newman provides a separate narrative thread, in this story Frank is a consummate storyteller, and he is normally regaling his brother Jerry Lee with tall tales to get both of them through and past difficult moments. This escapism is always seen for what it is and enjoyed purely in the moment rather than as some kind of permanent palliative for a tough life: another layer in the convincing and candid realism.