After Gary Carey, a 14 year old boy at Brays Grove school, called me a fat ****, I encouraged Roo to apply for a ward sister’s job in Brighton which she got. I was really fed up with teaching at Brays Grove and wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next so I paid for a careers guidance report. I took some personality tests and had an interview. The results were that a) I was a coldly objective logical thinker 2) I was a producer of innovative ideas and solutions and 3) I was an organiser and planner with an eye for detail. It also said that I did not have the emotional toughness or resilience to cope easily in a stressful job. In conclusion, “teaching mathematics is probably an ideal job for you if your students are keen to learn”. I always take advice and within three years I was back teaching maths in a comprehensive school where a significant minority of students hated maths. Oh well. I remember that when I discussed the report I was told that I wasn’t someone who liked to be made a fool of. I didn’t cope easily with being a laughing stock.
When I started teaching at BHASVIC, I realised that this was my ideal job as students were very keen to learn. Every single student I taught in the eight years there was respectful and ultra keen to learn. That didn’t mean to say that they were all perfect though.
Learning maths is best done by applying problem solving skills by using a number of different techniques. The process of solving a problem is more important than the outcome of a correct answer. Process, not product, is key. This means that a good lesson involves introducing some new techniques (e.g. differentiating a trigonometric function) and practicing in a variety of different situations. Students need to have good notes but there is little point in keeping the pages of solutions they might produce in a ninety minute lesson. At the end of the lesson, a student should keep a worked example but they will never look at their answers to questions again. A few students were aware of this and, rather than carry bulky files around with them, they would throw their work away. A few students were aghast at seeing other students do this but I fully understood. At the end of a lesson, there might be about five students each throwing away about four sheets of paper. Of course, when you’re 17 or 18 it’s great fun to practice your netball or basketball skills at any opportunity and there was nothing better than screwing up pieces of paper and seeing if you could throw it directly into the paper recycling bin in the corner of the classroom whilst sitting at your desk. I understood the fun aspect of this but sometimes things got out of hand. With one particular class, after I had to spend five minutes picking up all the missed shots at the end of the lesson, I hid the bin. Another time, at the end of a lesson, one student threw a piece of paper which (accidentally?) hit me on the head. With just one exception, everybody found this extremely funny. The exception was me and I seem to remember my response went something like “Don’t worry – I’ll just get to your lesson half an hour early having spent three hours marking your work, offering to help you as much as I can and I’m more than happy to also be a target for your little game. Any time, you want to throw something at me, that’s just great and I’ll also be more than happy to pick up any pieces of paper you throw on the floor”. Luckily, with an 18 year old my sarcasm was understood – if I’d said something similar to a Year 9 class they may have taken me at face value and bombarded me with paper. More worryingly, possibly, when a very attractive girl did the same thing a few weeks later, I said I would forget about it but only if she knelt on the floor and begged forgiveness.
Being a laughing stock has happened to me on and off throughout my teaching, especially with the jolly pranks that 16-18 year olds like to indulge in. There was the time at Chancellor’s School when I foolishly left my car keys on my table in the morning before Sports Day in the afternoon. I was told that my car had been hidden somewhere and a posse of Sixth Formers watched me as I searched the school grounds before finding it in the furthest reaches of the field behind the high jump pit. A good friend of mine, Jonathan, the Head of Art, once found a group of Sixth formers taking all the wheels off my car and he persuaded them that this wasn’t a good idea. At Netteswell, before the start of my last lesson with a class of Sixth Formers, they took all the furniture from the room down two flights of stairs and reassembled the layout of the room in the playground. When I turned up for the lesson, the room was completely bare. I looked down into the playground and I could see all the class sitting at their desks with a huge guy, Martin Pike, sitting in the teacher’s chair with his feet up on the desk.
The worst case of being a laughing stock, when I really didn’t know how to respond was with a Year 8 class at Brays Grove. A girl who never shut up was sitting at her desk, fairly near the front. I was sat at my desk and as I moved in my seat, the chair squeaked. The girl looked up and, very loudly asked me if I had just farted. It was actually quite difficult to know how to respond. I could have joked “yes” but she wouldn’t have got the joke. I could have said “no” but then things would have degenerated into “yes you did” and “no I didn’t”. I can’t really imagine me asking Mr Friend at Judd if he had farted. I wonder what would have happened? Anyway, I just pulled a face, shook my head and asked her to concentrate on her work. She just turned round to the rest of the class and shouted out “Sir just farted”.
Talk Talk started out as a synth-pop band and had a minor hit in 1982 with a single named after the band. Their third album, “The Colour Of Spring” was more of an art-pop release and their last two albums, “Spirit Of Eden” and “Laughing Stock” were decidedly post-rock. “Laughing Stock” has achieved critical favour since its release with Pitchfork naming it the 11th best album of the Nineties and Stylus Magazine naming it the best post-rock album of all time.
Wikipedia defines post-rock as “a form of experimental rock music, characterised by a focus on exploring textures and timbre over traditional rock song structures, chords or riffs”.
John recently gave me a beautiful vinyl copy of “Spirit Of Eden” and I’ve always rated that over “Laughing Stock” but, listening to this album over the past few hours, it’s terrific. It especially suits a rainy grey day in January when I’m not allowed to meet up with anyone and I’m trying to eat sensibly after the excesses of the weekend. Listening to somber, reflective music draws all the negativity out of me, leaving just a beatific sense of calmness.
Over 50 different musicians played at the sessions for the album but in the end only 18 of them appear on the six songs that were released. The leader of Talk Talk was Mark Hollis and his vision was to invite a group of musicians with whom he could connect and inspire them to improvise in a way that reflected his own vision of great music. He is quoted as saying that “silence is the most important thing you have, one note is better than two, spirit is everything and technique is secondary”. Although it sounds like each musician was given freedom to express themselves, the recording process was under the full control of Mark Hollis who rejected anything he didn’t like to such an extent that the album took a year to record. The studio was set up with all windows covered, all overhead lights switched off with just a strobe for illumination. The guest musicians were invited in to improvise their pieces with just a basic chord structure for guidance, never hearing the entire song. Most of what was recorded was erased with Mark Hollis piecing everything together after the musicians had left. As such, it is a work of genius to make it all work so seamlessly.
Mark Hollis’ voice is a fragile frightened falsetto. The songs are never dull insofar as there is always something new to listen to, whether it be the slashing guitar in “Ascension Day”, the mournful trumpet in “Taphead”, the insistent percussion in “New Grass” or the rich echoey bass of “Runeui” which brings the album to a close. I don’t think the album passes the Spotify test of grabbing the listener’s attention with the first song (before impatience leads to pressing the fast forward button) as the opening song, “Myrrhman” starts with 18 seconds of silence.
The album was released on the Verve label and the record company played it at a cocktail party for retailers, hoping it would inspire them to stick the album and promote it. It was reported by journalist Steve Sutherland that nobody knew where to look as the music played over the speakers. Despite this, the album reached Number 23 in the album charts.
At the time, Mark Hollis may well have been a laughing stock but the album is now rightly regarded as a classic. Sadly, Mark Hollis died in 2019, aged 64.