No Rest

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(just tell me when it stops…)

It’s been a while since I last posted, mainly because work has not stopped. The summer months are not normally known as crazy season in Tutoring Land. As much as the myth of contemporary tuition has one toe in reality – what with high hourly rates and parents panicking about the education of their spawn while they’re still teaching the alphabet – tuition remains, like ice-cream sellers and Santa Clause, a seasonal occupation.

 

If tuition were plotted on a stress-o-meter there would be a murmur of concern between September and December, an agitated buzz of anxiety from January to February, moving into full frontal nervous collapse until the end of the exams in June. Like the school year, which it trails alongside like gulls along a chip van, the industry of personal tuition has always experienced something of a desert come the summer.

Recently, however, this summer vacation has vanished. Agitated concern now seems to be the default position across the year. It is difficult to pin point exactly where the cause of this lies, but when Michael Gove opines that the 6 week summer break is too long, you can be sure there is a political dimension to the demonizing of holidays as dangerous aches of feckless idleness.

And politics is merely following where money leads, for despite having recesses wide enough to drive the House of Commons through, most MPs seem to view their state breaks as a chance to catch up with the infinitely more lucrative pursuits of their private careers. With insomniac money incapable of sleep, it seems none of us is to be permitted the opportunity for a healthy doze. Thanks to globalization and the endless possibility of digital connection, who hasn’t found themselves increasingly ‘on-call’, answering emails through the night and organizing their calendar while feeding the kids as they take this one call on the loo?

The pressure to compete in this unending race, to avoid being covered in yesterday’s opinions, listlessly sinking to the bottom of the broadband connection in an effluent of ambition, might be presented as the need for the people of Britain to leave behind the fiscal and ideological mess of European Union; to martial themselves and keep in step with the marching success of plastic capitalism that is Chimerica.

But scratch the surface of techno-immediacy and there is something familiar, hard and Puritan about the need to work until your pre-pubescents are on medication for stress-related depression. Dismantling the welfare state, state education and the NHS, seems to be nothing more than the desire to remove the safety net to make sure people’s sense of life is properly apoplectic; turning it into a terrifying struggle, where failure to succeed along brutally mercantile lines is met with certain death.

According to a report published by the Timewise Foundation this week, out of a sample of 1000 employees, 75% of people who work part-time said they felt they had hit a brick wall professionally and were over-looked for promotion because they had opted for greater flexibility and more time. Employers, so it seems, don’t want part-timers who seek to balance work with family and outside interests. Instead the turners of the global market only want people who are prepared to sacrifice their all to ensuring nothing else matters.

And while many of us struggle to cope with either the unending elastic of expanding responsibilities or the financial paucity of part time work, the pressure drips down into the cots of the next generation. Parents have been coming up to me in the street, over-hearing conversations, or seeing me with one of my pupils, and almost assaulting me into coming to work for them. They grab my arm, wide-eyed with tales of how their son is struggling to care about his exams. Their pubescent daughter wants to hang out with friends, they gasp, as though the thought should have been surgically removed somewhere around her last family holiday to Disneyland. Their grip remains unremittingly tight. Summer it seems, is no longer the chance for people to relax, merely the next stage of the battle plan, assessing the front of the next exam before their child is safely capable of manufacturing the appropriate level of panic at their economically-fraught situation by themselves.

Even in a heat wave the children must learn. This is where it starts, this is what it means to be alive: you must strive, work, accomplish, or you are done for.

It is a Puritan message without the hope of salvation. It is the philosophy of terror at its most intimate and domestic; the very nightmare with which parents and guardians all around the money-driven, hashtag-trailing, exhausted globe are lullabying their babies to sleep.

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Coming Unstuck

Newsflash, rich kids: The thing about societal well being is it affects all of us

Newsflash, rich kids: The thing about societal well being is it affects all of us

It’s a warm day today. There’s a scent of summer in the air. The G8 summit in Northern Ireland has taken place and David Cameron has shown Vladimir Putin that he is right about Syria because he can go swimming in cold lakes too. People are wearing flip-flops. Tell you what, let’s quit this heaving metropolis and head for the beach. Let’s go Brighton.

We’ll get the bus to the train station. Come on, we can sit behind two ten year old boys who go to St. Paul’s school. They’re discussing the most expensive cricket ball ever made and effortlessly move into opining on the value of their family homes. ‘Yours must be worth £400million.’ Says the blond, slightly Lady Di-looking one. ‘Oh no,’ protests the other, modestly. ‘I’d say only about £40million.’ ‘No but furbished,’ insists Lady Diana. ‘Ah, yes well with the sauna, steam room and gym…’ ‘And all the furniture…’ ‘Then yes it probably is worth £400million.’

Platform 16. Bring the paper. What’s happening in the news? Well, people are protesting in Turkey and they’re protesting in Brazil and in Mexico, in a case of life imitating a Charlie Brooker synopsis, there is a growing campaign to elect Morris the Cat as the next prime minister (slogan: ‘Tired of voting for rats? Vote for a cat.’) But never mind about that because global warming isn’t happening after all. It’s sunny today like they promised back in the 1970s. As long as you don’t read that email saying the melting ice caps are releasing methane jets a kilometer wide. Don’t read that. Look at the view. We’re nearly there. Off the train, out the station and… shit! What’s that smell?

Ah, didn’t anyone tell you? There’s a problem between the rubbish collectors in Brighton and the city council. Apparently, see, because of this austerity thingy, everyone has to have cuts and the rubbish collectors in Brighton are not happy about losing the additional payments they get for working constant overtime, so they’ve gone on strike, which means no one is collecting the rubbish. And because making rubbish is one of the things people now a days are really, really good at, there’s a lot of it piling up on the street.

Oh. Bummer. And we were really looking forward to having a super fun time by the sea.

The thing with this ongoing and mounting disparity between the rich and the rest is that it is like pulling a ball of chewing gum apart with both hands. You can stretch the thing surprisingly far but there will come a time when the limit of elasticity is reached and that lump of sticky stuff snaps.

Like gum, the glue that holds our societies together is being stretched further apart. And when the glue breaks then there’s really no knowing what will happen. If there’s no coherent, inclusive story about togetherness then all those aspects of the social contract, like people walking on the left, or curtseying to someone because she wears a crown covered in jewels, all that snaps apart with the glue. It doesn’t matter how much bunting you run across Regents Street, or how much you rig a royal wedding, the Olympics and a royal hatching, if the social glue is broken then people don’t care anymore what they do. The rules are broken. In the words of Cole Porter: Anything Goes.

The Coalition’s catchphrase of ‘We’re all in this together’ is now widely viewed as bankrupt; insincere and insubstantial. It is not a phrase backed by any coherent desire to bring the dissociating extremes of the spectrum back together. But unless action is taken to do just that, then rubbish uncollected will be the least of all our worries.

Someone said in America that global riots are about a year away. To the people of Sweden, Turkey, Syria and Brazil, that year has come. For the rich in this country, widely hoping that the brief excursion into petty theft that took place in the summer of 2011 was the last scent of trouble in England, spilling bins of Brighton must seem like an uncomfortable nuisance.

It is understandable that the rich want to salt away greater quantities of wealth, imagining that by hoarding it they can avert the worst effects of social collapse. The logic of austerity functions in the same way. But by acting out of fear they are producing the very effects they most want to avoid.

Instead of hoarding a greater portion of the wealth for themselves they need to be unleashing investment on grass roots projects to recycle, reclaim and reuse, providing ethical work for the millions who want it, redistributing from the anxious few to the increasingly alienated many: sharing the land so more people have a chance of supporting themselves and each other.

The alternative to voluntary redistribution is something altogether less organised, more rabid and chaotic. I don’t know how much serious attention was given to that at either the Bilderberg meeting or G8 conference this month. I suspect rather less than was given to deciding which country’s leader filled his trunks best.

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The Fear According to Judy Studley-Rochford

 

Did Mrs Studley-Rochford want to buy some pegs?

Did Mrs Studley-Rochford want to buy some pegs?

I’m sitting across from a woman in her mid fifties, whose hair is fine, bobbed, the colour of wet sand and whose face, a tightly drawn series of triangles, is straining at the fact that I’ve come to the defense of gypsies.

“How can you say that?” She shrieks, eyes wide and crazed. “They are utter monsters!”

 

Let’s rewind. I’m among the wide plains of Lincolnshire, in what looks like an old Elizabethan mansion, but which is actually a very good Victorian copy. Not for the first time, I am a long way from home, socially and geographically, teaching Business Studies, Geography and P.E. A-level to someone who wouldn’t need me if he could muster up the strength to open his files, turn each page of his copious notes and read what’s written on them.

 

The pupil, Harry, is currently in the cinema room, battling through a play station game and destroying some evil horde (possibly gypsies?) or creating a dream football team (gypsies excluded). But it is his mother, Mrs. Judy Studley-Rochford, frothing at the topic of gypsies, who seems more in need of help. She is very much alone in this shining beacon of a country house and ever terrified of traveling folk targeting her satinwood.

 

I arrived at the start of the week to find the house embroiled in the kind of security that would make a fitting challenge for a Mission Impossible scene. At the heavy front door, which was eyed by a camera and only opened after multiple bolts had been slid and locks had been turned, entry led into a vestibule, for which code had to be keyed electronically, before one could actually reach the house itself and do something dangerous like walk unhindered from room to room.

 

I was not the only visitor that week. As I sat down with Harry in the paneled dining room, reading through the physical process of hitting a tennis ball, I was aware of two men dressed in khaki overalls, gently removing vases from their stands and paintings from their hooks. When I had the chance, I asked Mrs. Studley-Rochford what they were up to.

“They’re DNA marking,” she said, as though it were obvious.

I stared blankly.

“So that if they come here and try to break in, anything they take will be traceable. We’ll get it back. They won’t be able to hide it anywhere,” she paused, a triumphant glint in her haunted eyes. “Not even in one of their pits!”

 

The men dutifully went through anything they could find in the house that wasn’t structural. When the day was over and night came, I witnessed the lockdown of Hawmsley House. Alarms were primed, sensors flashed, exterior doors were locked more than once, every window had to be bolted and no interior door could be left ajar.

“Is there anything else you need?” Mrs. Studley-Rochford asked before I turned in, “Only I’m setting the last alarm and you won’t be able to leave your room until morning now.”

I assured her that I was fine, said good night and thought that all I lacked in this multi-million pound palace was the freedom to get a glass of water after dark.

 

In between lessons I watched her. She stood sentry in the kitchen, alert to any arriving vehicle, whether housekeeper or gardener, never too busy she couldn’t leap at the first sound of tyres cracking up gravel. The country estate, in the manner of such, had large gates and a low fence, whose openness and accessibility harked back to a time when all within reach would bow to the gentry from the big house. There was never any need for barriers when the whole village was your vassal, and when each outlying cottage acted as first defense against strangers. But then the architects of the estate hadn’t bargained on unbridled capital and class war when they landscaped the all-too accessible grounds.

 

As we sat down to eat on the final evening, I asked whether she liked living in her home.

She looked uncertain. “Well of course it’s a lot safer than South Africa.”

That seemed like a positive start.

“It’s just that we’re so exposed,” she moaned. “You can see it from the roads, in all directions. They know exactly where we are.”

I asked her whether she had thought about planting trees.

She frowned, “Trees? I mean, seriously. Have you seen how long they take to grow?”

What about a very high fence?

She nodded, staring past me to the open prairie of a back garden and chewing a mouthful of sweet corn as if considering it.

“I’ve mentioned it to Hugo but of course he’s not here. He doesn’t see them…”

 

I learned that her husband worked for a giant bank and lived abroad in gypsy-free Shanghai, only returning for no more than 182 days in every tax year. Harry was away at school and his elder brother at university.

“So it’s just you living here?” I asked cheerfully.

“Well Parsons the gardener lives nearby. Oh and the dogs, of course. It’s fine, fine…” she drifted away, repeating that word in the way that only makes it sound less convincing the further it echoes.

 

As we continued eating I was aware that she stopped dead, frozen by an unshakeable fear, whenever a car appeared to slow down. It was unfortunate their house was bordered on three sides by roads, one of them fairly major, and by a couple of T-junctions. I realised I couldn’t avoid this subject now. The DNA marking, the locks, anxiety over impending vehicles – I had to find out, who exactly was she afraid of?

“The Gypsies,” she cried, relief at being able to voice that word erupting like magma. “The Thomson family!”

 

I asked whether she was frequently plagued by offers to sharpen knives and tarmac her graveled drive.

She set her face. “It’s not a joke. The Thomson family is infamous. They come for you in the night. They steal everything, everything.” Her voice was becoming more strained and yet at the same time almost joyful.

“They stole a tractor once, and every single garden tool from a shed and,” she leaned closer for emphasis. “They bury everything they take in pits.”

Seriously?

“Pits!” she barked.

I had vague memories of a story about some rural thieves who had pilfered silver from houses like this, but hadn’t they been charged and tried years back now?

“They have enormous families. They’re like thorns, you cut one head off and twelve more spring up. They’re around here now, I know they are. Watching. Waiting.”

The rant against one particular family segued effortlessly into a wider attack on gypsies in general and before finding myself an unwitting audience to racist brush strokes of an even broader nature, I suggested there were a lot of qualities to the nomadic life, and hadn’t our ancestors benefited from living with a much greater sense of freedom as they roamed across the land?

 

It was at this point that Mrs. Studley-Rochford’s eye actually swiveled. The left one blinked rapidly, but it was the right one that seemed to resemble a pinball that had been shot and had nowhere to go. That’s when she exploded and called all gypsies monsters.

 

Of course it’s awkward when the family that is paying you to come and live amongst them for a week suddenly goes mental. Mrs. Studley-Rochford’s double-barreled calm had been rocked by the sound of her own raised voice and social niceties breaking on the polished parquet. Even though she rose to suggest desert and her eyes had regained a semblance of stability, I could still see a vein on the side of her neck pulse. I knew curfew would come earlier tonight.

 

But it’s even more awkward to realise that people can spend the best part of their lives, locked into some awful, happiness-sucking anxiety about pig ugly pictures being nicked.

 

The terrible tragedy among the super rich is that although they have what the rest of us think we most want – the mansion, the yacht, the holidays, the jewellery – they live in abject fear lest any part of it gets stolen. The result of such long-nurtured fear is that their children grow up with an inherited psychosis, to the extent that Harry revealed in detail, on more than one occasion, what he would do should he find the phone in his bedroom disconnected and the house under attack by vigilante gypsy cat burglars. It’s little wonder that the moneyed classes, both new and old, reach so instinctively, so habitually, for guns.

 

It’s equally awful to think that a house that could bustle with the lives of dozens of people, perched on a 75 acre estate that could similarly offer homes to many, is kept intentionally isolated; home only to one terrified woman and a son whose sole ambition when it came to university was to get as far away from his gypsy-obsessed mother as possible.

 

It’s the language of fear that gives families like the Studley-Rochfords their DNA markers, panic rooms and highly complex alarm systems. But it’s a fear that makes them the biggest victims of their own wealth. Their mansions become prisons, their possessions change into objects of terror, and the world outside exists in never-ending menace.

 

I think of Judy Studley-Rochford as one of the reasons not to have obscene wealth inequality. I see her perched on a stool in her kitchen at night, alone, fiddling with the filigree on an impossibly expensive chain bracelet as her supper for one defrosts in the oven, reaching for her glass of chilled Pinot, eyeing the silent threat of car headlamps as they ache along the inky vista, trying not to shake.

 

 

 

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Eating The Rich

marie-antoinette

(Food banks Versailles-style)

Last week we heard that half a million people are now relying on food banks, because, in case the glut of millionaire MPs gave you other ideas, the policy of austerity is divisive, destructive and leaving more people than ever too poor to feed themselves.

 

It is of course preferable that ASDA gives their unsold food away to some of the 5.8 million in the UK who are in “deep poverty”, rather than opt for M&S’s policy and make it inedible with ink before chucking it in locked bins. But hearing that fewer people are plummeting under the no-bread line would be preferable still.

 

In the kitchens of the rich the only food banks present are the masses of provisions piled up in handle-less cupboards and walk in fridges. But from where I am teaching it seems that the rich need government intervention to save them from themselves more than they know, because the problems of poverty, malnutrition and obesity for the majority are mirrored in a range of equally pernicious problems for the few. The breaking news is that rich people aren’t happier being rich – they just have more money with which to cram their larders in an attempt to compensate.

 

I have lost count of the number of posh families I’ve worked for where there are eating disorders among one or more of their members. From the many terrible, but somehow elusive and insoluble, intolerances, to the number of girls cursed by an abundance of food and mental anxieties about weight that leaves them petrified to consume more than a crumb of it. I worked with one family whose daughter had devolved to bone tautly dressed in skin and was frequently hospitalised because of her anorexia. Her family owned an enormous estate in the North, where the father ran parties to shoot farmed pheasants. Such was the seasonal massacre that birds were left to rot uneaten in such numbers they could have provided nutritious meals for thousands.

 

Another family was part of a glittering metropolitan elite, whose Rolodex read like a copy of Hello! Magazine. The mother hired a live in chef to cook for the family and, this being London in the unequal 21st century, the food created was the kind of work esteemed by the cult of Heston Blumenthal: microclimates of leaf arranged around an animal that had been killed for one square inch of its braised backside and spat at with spume. It was food at its most indulgent and complex; the sort of dish a contemporary Marie Antoinette would recommend passing out to food bank queues. Their son would play around with this culinary artifice if forced to, before retreating to his room and gorging on the comforting tubs of Haribo sweets he hid under his bed.

 

I worked intensively with one family and experienced the shopping being delivered one weekend when the parents were, unsurprisingly, absent again. £300 was spent, but because the only thing the children would eat was pasta with butter, the majority of it was just left to rot before it was finally thrown out.

 

I’ve worked with a teenage boy who barely saw his parents and whose diet centered upon a bin of cookies that filled one of his many drawers, a 7 year-old girl who stuffed herself to get through the fact she had no friends at school and a GCSE student whose anxiety of failure was so severe he was taken out of school and had to be bribed to get up and study with cupcakes and slabs of caramel.

 

To see evidence of illness and imbalance percolating through the richest strata in society is a sign that the current system of grotesque inequality is failing everyone. If people at both ends of the spectrum are suffering then one answer may be to ensure their social locations are not so separate.

 

It seems pressing that we organise redistribution from the few who have much to the many who have little. This redistribution needs to involve land as much as food and money, because one of the surest ways to give people back their health and sustenance is to afford them the right to have access to gardens, allotments, community growing projects, orchards and wildernesses. Planting a seed and nurturing it to grow helps teach the value of food, the importance of care, the centrality of nourishment.

 

The bogeyman against greater taxation for the rich needs to be exploded and exposed for what it is; a fear of insufficiency that is keeping the rich sick, deranged, alienated and blind to the very real levels of poverty they are best able to rectify.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Great Disruption

This blog always feels like a portrait of a saner world; one we would all do well to step toward…

Bealtaine Cottage ~ Home of Goddess Permaculture and Earth Healing

Flo and JackPlanet Earth is a closed system.

Flo and JackMost politicians and all governments simply do not understand that fact!

Bealtaine Cottage interior designThere cannot be infinite economic growth!

view from a window at Bealtaine CottageThe world has limited resources, yet humankind is governed by an extractive mentality, encouraged by those in power to continue extracting the Earth’s resources, regardless of the cost to the next generation…never mind future generations!

roses at bealtaine cottage Ireland June 2013The problem is so big, that it requires one to change everything about the way one thinks, lives and interacts with the world.

compost bucket at Bealtaine CottageThe problem with our current thinking and those who lead us further into the mire, is that denial is the natural response.

Potager garden at Bealtaine Cottage June 2013Those young enough now will look back on this era when food and energy prices soared, as the world population surged.

Morning at Bealtaine Cottage gardens, June 2013The time when tornadoes ploughed through cities, killing and devastating people and homes and sometimes whole communities.

Lunaria in early June 2013 at Bealtaine CottageA time when  floods swept away life and homesteads…

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The Horror, The Horror

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(Staring into the Heart of Darkness… or any of the ISEB examination papers tbh)

Working for the rich is an otherworldly experience, of the sort ordinarily reserved for science fiction plotlines or black ops. Like heading up stream with Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now, journeying to the interior of planet rich is the kind of venture that only gets weirder the further you go. Because you’re getting paid to fight, or teach (depends on what sort of day you’re having), you take it all – the kilim-coated walls, the self-illuminating ensuite sink spout, the shelves of books about Ayn Rand – until there comes a point when you stop and realise that if you don’t leave immediately you will turn as mad as Kurtz, miles from civilization, wide-eyed, rocking back and forth and squatted on a chintz bedspread in an ornamental gazebo.

In this job you get used to being given an address and told to turn up, even when such an address sounds like the sort of destination that could only cater for a Lamborghini show room. You might ask yourself – but how is it possible to live off Park Lane? Where can you nip out to get a pint of milk? To which of course the answer from planet rich is simple: Selfridges.

Mrs. Rosie Bell greeted me in person. She was a large woman and had the look of a Tory boy wet dream about her: all pearls, paddles and failsafe recipes for custard.

“Ah, you must be the tutor!”

She charged towards me as she charged into sentences, as I imagined she would charge through both the jungle and the agenda at one of her charitable meetings. As I trailed behind her up the three flights of stairs, past floor to ceiling experiments in modern art, I felt the first stirrings of take off; that giddy sensation that comes both from climbing too high up a single house and sensing an undetermined absence from reality.

Primark might have been but a few streets away, but this far off the ground we were deep into the heart of darkness.

“So, this is Armaminta,’ Mrs. Bell sung, pushing open the door as though she were welcoming me into the Colonel’s temple.

“But positively everyone calls me Minty.”

I looked at eleven year-old Ara-Minty-Minta, who was perched on a bed so stuffed with beaming, peachy-faced toys that I wondered where she might sleep. Minty and her room were as fresh and bright and white as an advert for skin bleaching. Her neatly pony-tailed hair was the shade of blonde that other people merely point to in the hairdressers, the kind of blonde that made Hitler happy.

“Now, Minty. Mr. Elliott has come to help you prepare for your examination.” Mrs. Bell sat on the end of the bed and looked at me expectantly.

I asked if she were planning to stay to supervise the lesson.

“Of course,” she boomed, curling up amid the lobotomised toy dogs and smiling fur fruit.

I took out a comprehension and set Minty to read it. It soon struck me that Minty had inherited her mother’s forthrightness as she addressed me as one would the infirm or slow.

“Now,” she asked me, “Let me tell you exactly what I need to do.”

She directed me to each word she was reading with the same sort of brusque, well-executed efficiency that doubtless was responsible for the rainbow of dressage rosettes that starred her headboard. This is how the rich are bred to do it, handling humans as they handle their horses, with blinding teeth and a short lash.

It was towards the end of the second paragraph when she stopped.

“I’m very sorry but I absolutely cannot read this.”

I asked her what was wrong.

“I simply can’t read a story where anything as yucky as this happens.”

Despite a frequent urge, sometimes unconscious, other times uncontrollable, to set more avant garde pieces of writing, the comprehension I had picked was an average paper from the Independent Schools Examination Board. It concerned an argument a mother was having with her daughter about some of the family’s racing pigeons that had ended up in the casserole. It was scarcely ‘The Bell Jar’ but Minty seemed aghast.

I asked whether it was the death of the birds that upset her or conflict in general?

“No, thank you,” she squirmed, as though I had offered her to smear raw offal across her face.

“But all stories have conflict in them,” I tried to explain.

“No but you’re not listening to me,” her voice spiraled even higher than the house. “I don’t want them. Nothing at all like that, where awful, horrible things happen.”

“But what about all the stories where people struggle to overcome…”

“Yuk absolutely not!”

“But…”

She pursed her lips, folded the paper shut and exclaimed a final “No!”

I felt Mrs. Bell start to uncoil like a waking snake, and thought about all the great books I was used to teaching kids. The upheavals of Animal Farm, the loneliness that suffused Of Mice and Men, even Harry Potter, for fuck’s sake. I wanted to explain to Minty that life was as much about sadness, despair and loss as it was about bunnies. How else were we to understand death? How could we be helped to cope with failure?

But as I looked around me: at the plush spines of brand new books, which dazzled in happy pastel tones on shelves lushly populated with shells, trinkets and the endless smiling portraiture of family happiness along a foreign beach; at the confectionary of cuddles covering her bed (undented, even by the force of Mrs. Bell); at the sheer wealth of her world – just off Park Lane – I realised that there was little point. Hers was a life long ago engineered to avoid any scent of unpleasantness, far removed from the poverty that cheapens and stains any life that suffers it to ugliness. In its own way, such a life as Minty’s was horrific, distorted from the common experience to such a degree as to beggar belief how the poor girl would manage should anything more severe than a broken pencil occur. But with an ample armoury of staff ready to drive, feed and clean her, that danger was the kind of terrifying adventure reserved for fairy tales – as unread as any other hardship. I dutifully smiled, put away the comprehension and brought out something much more tame about a boy on a bike.

“Well that went very well,” Mrs. Bell informed me when she called later that week. “Minty absolutely adored you. Next time you should come down to the country to work.”

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The Tricks to Tutoring

Image(An American Gigolo or just your average private tutor?)

I work for a London agency, one of the many that now serves the city and its increasingly multi-millionaire clientele. I am contacted, offered a job, a rendezvous is arranged to suit the client and I turn up looking whichever part I have been hired to play. Strict disciplinarian? Children’s TV presenter? Absent-minded academic? Sometimes, with all the talk of agents, clients and jobs, one feels like a less leggy, more bookish, Belle de Jour.

Like high-end prostitution, the appointments all tend to take place in the salubrious streets that fan out from Hyde Park. Mostly I go to theirs, arriving outside houses as big as embassies, let in by a discreet member of staff, ushered up or down flights of stairs to where the client waits, expectant, bored or itchy with nerves. But I’ve been booked to show up at hotels before now, cafes of department stores, even once in the back of an oversized horsebox, circling the M25. With time and practice comes a degree of nonchalance. There are only so many six-storey town houses you can ascend before dumbstruck awe is replaced by a recurring sense that taste and money exist in inverse proportion.

I am shown where to go and once the niceties are dispensed with, I am expected to perform. Unlike a call girl, my sweaty palm is not patted with crisp fifties first. I am not so much hired as auditioned for the role: part school teacher; part performing monkey. I’m expected to educate and charm in perfect balance, so the lesson passes like the briefest mist, flavour of candyfloss, and the pupil is left pleasantly surprised and slightly high. This is one of the tricks to tutoring and each is delivered with the shining expertise of a true professional. You open your satchel full of the tools of your trade, set the bench low enough for someone to succeed, even if they’re mentally impotent, and fill the air with more bursts of encouragement and showering of reward than a pushy parent at an egg and spoon race.

The very rich who pay for tutors come from all over the world, part of the crook of tax avoiders who seem to strive harder to make sure no one takes their money than they do to earn it in the first place. There are of course the old guard: families who pride themselves on a long and titled heritage and who will, if you’re around them past lunch, lead you to the shelves in the library to show you the letter from Charles I that proves it. Others, easily the majority, having popped like fungi into the feted ranks of the rich overnight, by selling cars or running banks, wear their purchasing power less smoothly.

The aristocracy is the master at hiring prostitutes, delivered into it at birth and blasé at the reality that the world is peopled by those who do for you, or simply do you. New money behaves like the guilty husband, still wedded to some idea of nuptial fidelity. More often than not their immediate ancestors strove to get out of their particular servitude quicker than you could say ‘hand job’. They hover like nervous wasps as you perform your function, desperate for you to leave before they are found out, either by you or someone they know.

Sometimes the assignation is a disaster. They wanted prim and orderly and got something altogether too freaky. You were expecting sane and workable, but got swivel-eyed and psychotic. The rule is the same for all working girls: safety first. Most of the time the infatuation is more like bad sex: short-lived and increasingly disappointing. There is an occasional hour here or there, which, like any date, begins with promise, only to fade away when both sides remember they forgot to call. Again.

But sometimes one brief encounter turns into an affair. You ride the crests of a wave altogether more tantric, as weeks merge into years, and you become as much a part of the family as the Nespresso machine, over which you yourself take charge, once you’ve been introduced to the grandparents and given your own key. By this stage you could easily fall into the trap of imagining yourself indispensable; seduced by the suggestion that it would be so much easier if you could be housed somewhere more convenient, such as your own neighbouring pied-à-terre.

Always remember you are not. You are staff: a smile for hire. However nice they get, you are not the client’s best friend. An offer to teach abroad on their skiing trip is not the same thing as an invitation to ski with them. And even though they might promise you a million dollars over the phone, like all gentlemen escorts, don’t believe it till it’s in the bank.

But it’s at this stage that the distance between tutoring and prostitution can tend to dissolve. When your job is no longer to deal with anything even remotely school-shaped; when you are invited out to dine or to attend a party and your client is next to you. And you are dazzling, polite and interested; the perfect escort for town. And all the time, somewhere in the back of your mind, clocking up the evening, a meter is silently running.

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By Royal Appointment

English: Buckingham Palace in London, England....

Palaces, if not passes

Occasionally I find myself in the palaces not merely of the rich, but of the titled. One of my earliest bookings was with the child of a prince of a Middle Eastern Royal Family. The house’s geography, like the family’s status, was situated midway between Buckingham Palace and Harrods.

I was not alone in working with this young prince. There was a group of us working with his highness at different hours to help him with his core subjects for GCSE. I was hired to teach Maths and arrived to find the child dwarfed by the cavernous proportions of the family’s Georgian residence, hunched over a dining table so polished you could have applied make up in its reflection. Every pencil and piece of paper was mirrored by the luster of its glassy black surface. Sadly, once the lesson started, this was about as clear as things got.

“I don’t understand,” sighed the prince. We had begun by very gently working through addition and subtraction, had experienced moderate success with minor multiplication and were now approaching the dark arts of division. I drew a cluster of circles on the paper and bags in which to convey them, in an attempt to explain the process by which numbers decreased. He followed my drawings, watched as numbers moved across the page, nodding judiciously all the while, as though he were assessing the merits of a particularly knotty legal case.

“Do you see?” I asked, willing him to gaze in the miraculous dawn of comprehension, solve the Holmesian puzzle and divide that 16 by 4.

He scowled. Bit his lip. Winced.

Then shook his head.

One of the people, paid, like me, to assist in the smooth running of life, entered with a tangerine and an apple on a plate. I grabbed the tangerine and began to finger it open, certain that with a little practical demonstration, division would be mastered like the squat orange fruit, peeled of its impossible skin and ready to yield sweet rewards.

“See, division is like this,” I offered, splitting the tangerine into chunks. “If there are twelve segments of this tangerine, and I divide it into two like so…”

I handed him half the tangerine.

“Oh thank you,” he beamed.

“Then how many segments are there…”

I broke off as I watched him chewing absently on a piece of the answer.

“Yes, I am listening. Go on,” he nodded, “How many are what?”

This went on for several hours, over several weeks. I used matches, sweets, even those edible ball bearings waiting like disco mines to crack your teeth on the frosting of cup cakes. Still division was beyond us. Fractions, percentages, proportions, ratios: every part of Maths that involved even the scent of division became a bog into which the merrily trundling truck of our lessons would squelch and stick.

Finally I left, admitting defeat, but trusting that even if he couldn’t master division, the young prince would doubtless find his métier in life, playing polo or managing the odd oil field.

Intelligence doesn’t matter to a royal family. They don’t get where they are by being brilliant mathematicians or writing soul-honest sonnets, but by being born into the biggest inequality racket in town. Royal families only need to get their offspring through the best schools like they need to make sure they can kill things and know which knife

to use: because it’s the done thing. If lessons don’t work, there are always tutors. And if tutors don’t work, there’s always Art History.

No, the prince, I had no doubt, would be fine. And if the question ever arose, how many barrels could be filled from x number of strikes, well, I don’t doubt there would be any number of geniuses on hand to work it out for him.

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The Who and Why

 

The first thing you need to know about me is that I’m not one of them. I’m not rich. I’ve never panned the planet for gold, made myself giddy gambling millions on how high the cost of sugar can go, or inherited a 5000-acre estate because of an ancestry that could be traced back to William the Conqueror.

 

I grew up in a two up, two down house as part of a post war estate in a small town city. I was raised by a single parent and went to the local comprehensive school down the road. In my child’s eye view, rich people lived in a different part of town, in houses that weren’t attached to their neighbours. Such people went abroad for holidays and had two cars. They had curtains that rose in a ruche at the touch of a button.

 

Going to state school never felt like being a second best option. It certainly didn’t preclude us benefiting from inspiring and talented teachers, or from applying to the best universities. But it was only on reaching Oxford that I saw how near universal a fee-paying education had been. I also realised not everyone had been selected because of intelligence or ability. There was always a place to be had for the child of a particularly generous benefactor, moved by inexplicable generosity to buy the college in question a new library.

 

But this was back in the early 1990s, an era almost Soviet in comparison to the contemporary climate. Back then, poorer students were given grants to study, not intimidated from applying by loans that rivaled a mortgage in size and longevity of debt.

 

Since leaving university and knowing I needed to make things, I put out for a job that paid well without swallowing all my time. At the start of the new millennium I discovered tutoring. I found it was something I could do and it paid well enough to give me the bulk of my week free to dream, wander and write.

 

For most of the Noughties I never experienced much sense of compromise about what I was doing. Many of the young people I worked closely with had special needs, had been excluded from conventional education or were being home educated. I worked with families across the social spectrum, often reducing or removing my fee to work with those most in need.

 

Every so often I would take on a client whose child was none of the above; someone who was rich, not terribly bright and whose parents were gimlet eyed in their focus on advancement. The experiences with such families could be amusing, in that their way of life was so absurdly other, so preposterously excessive, that they made for great anecdotes. Sometimes such amusement palled into horror, as it became all too clear exactly what it cost to be that rich, and how regularly and painfully the price of such wealth was paid for by the children.

 

But with the crash of 2008 and the ensuing years of austerity, I noticed changes. The number of clients whose children were sincerely in need of extra help evaporated. It wasn’t that the need had gone, more that they could no longer afford even reduced rates and I felt I couldn’t afford to do as much work for free. In their place arrived a mass of clients who had far more money to pay, from all over the world; arriving in London because there was a culture that embraced the rich without worrying about that pesky issue of taxation. Such families didn’t blink as the tutoring rates rose, piling the advantage of one to one tuition onto the already fat slab of advantage that came with a private school education, multiple homes and a personal driver.

 

Following the bursting of the property bubble, I found myself living in a flat in West London; no more than a fifteen-minute stroll from the very houses in which I was tutoring. I spent my working hours passing the spreading frontages of pawn shops and pay day loan stores, before crossing the road to the leafy, confetti-coloured stucco of houses full of children for whom the word ‘recession’ never seemed to feature on their spelling lists.

 

It was on one particular occasion that I realised the time had come to stop this work. I had just been asked to work for a child whose father had been implicated in the sale of arms to a country whose leader had made killers out of 7 year olds. I might be heading for economic oblivion but I could no longer in any way justify feathering the already over stuffed seats of such grotesque privilege.

 

And deciding to stop, I decided to talk. As the gap between rich and poor grows oceanic it feels more necessary than ever to open the shutters on such a world. It is because this world of the insanely wealthy has struck me on close inspection as such a soul-destroying, fear-laced, poisonous and piteous cage in which the rich themselves are most trapped, and into which so many of us, perversely, aspire to fling ourselves, that describing how it looks from within seems more pressing than prurient.

 

So this is what it looks like, behind the palace gates and guards, past the entry codes and ornamental fountains, via helicopter and private jet. This is what it looks like when you pimp your brain out to the 0.1% of the human population, which controls almost 80% of the world’s wealth.

 

Like I said, I’m not rich, but I’ve met a few people who are.

 

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Teach The Rich

 

Working as a private tutor nowadays is a bit like being a confiseur for Marie Antoinette: no matter how much you spin the sugar into a confection about feeding society, you’re really just making life sweeter for the rich. And I should know, having taught a predominantly wealthy elite for over a decade.

 

Five years into the most thoroughgoing economic malaise since the Great Depression, and among more cuts than a straight-to-DVD movie, it should come as scant wonder that one of the few boom industries is that of private education. Among the strata of the recession-proof uber rich, the private tutor can often appear as simply the next human accessory, summoned before the court to perform.

 

Yet in a society plagued by the disease of aspiration, it’s no longer just about the very rich. Salaried and striving parents are queuing up to fuel the boom in a market valued in excess of £6bn a year, hyperventilating that their kids are being left behind as an already unequal form of education plunges into something that would make the feudal system look like the dictatorship of the proletariat.

 

Amid terror tales of two year olds receiving elocution tutorials, and salacious reports of super tutors creaming £1000 per hour, the method for ensuring your child makes it with the likes of David Cameron, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Bear Gryllis appears simple: start ‘em young and pawn your granny to do so.

 

I began tutoring with no formal teaching qualification, only a respectable degree from one of the top universities of the world and a knack for working with children without leaving either one of us in shreds. Soon I was called to the sort of West London streets I thought had been dismantled once Mary Poppins had finished filming. The class of degree was less important than the whispered name of the university. I repeatedly watched parents hypnotized by the dubious dream of some sort of intellectual osmosis, passing accomplishment like a cold, from tutor to pupil.

 

Among the braying stables of the landed gentry, a class not similar to TB being at once both anachronistic to the modern world yet ever more resistant to removal, what made the process endurable was being called on every so often by a normal family, for whom tutoring was an expensive and rare gift that succeeded in helping an already able child fulfill their potential. Sometimes I worked for the council, or on a donation-only basis, or for free. Helping those who were living proof that money does not happiness make, the ones struggling to cope with their parents’ divorce, excluded and facing depression, or those who couldn’t speak without spluttering into a vast, gutteral chasm, made tutoring feel, if not as moral as curing cancer, then at least something marginally less dirty than selling arms to Bahrain.

 

Of course one to one tuition is an amazing process. The problem is that under the current system, already polarized between the wafer thin few and the frantic, competing many, where the standard of exams in the private sector is at least two years more advanced than the equivalent level in the state, children already excessively advantaged are being further preferred. In many cases, the next step for such kids is to have the tutor turn up and sit the paper for them.

 

Invariably it’s the parents who could do with an education. I’m thinking of the CEO of a major bank who had all his family’s possessions DNA swabbed, such was his fear of many-fingered gypsies running off with a pot. Or the media mogul who, in addition to his five-storey Mayfair house and Oxfordshire mansion, kept a chateau in the Loire valley, closed up throughout the year, save for the two weeks in the summer when it was needed. Recently I was offered any financial incentive I cared to mention to continue working for the sons of a convicted, billionaire murderer. It was at this point I realised the time had come to take up something marginally less compromising. Like fracking.

 

The malaise with private tutoring is not the absence of regulation. The agencies I’ve worked for have been tightly run with all tutors CRB checked, and for every passing public school graduate who fancies earning some cash between gap years, there are scores of tutors from local comps; intelligent, kind, and, though shockingly inferior in terms of social connections, at least warm-blooded enough to understand how to be interested in someone’s emotional well-being for longer than the duration of a gin and tonic.

No, the real problem is why we continue to panic buy into a system so fatally unequal, so personally exhausting, so environmentally destructive and wonder why there remains an issue with the lessons our kids are learning.

 

 

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