‘Quite Normal’ @ The Ramsgate International Film & Television Festival 2021


Quite Normal was the short film I made back in July 2020 for the Kick-About #5, in response to Alice Neel’s 1932 painting, Symbols. The film was made very directly and simply, and without any actual video footage, the visuals in the film deriving from still photographs of poor reproductions of magazine advertisements from the 1950s.

As an experiment between me, myself and I, I decided to submit Quite Normal to a few film festivals. I was happy with the film – happy with the thematic world of it, with the tone, with its ad-hoc limitations, and very happy with the performance by Charly Skilling. I also had no expectations for the film, knowing it to be the product of straightened times and non-existent budgets.

Yesterday, I was contacted by the organisers of the Ramsgate International Film & TV Festival to notify me that Quite Normal has made the festival’s official selection and will be screened as part of their online event (COVID having put paid to its more usual location-based film screenings). What a lovely surprise, not least because it should encourage anyone else who might be reading this that you don’t need all the bells and whistles to make a short film that other people might be interested in supporting and watching.



Throwback Friday #47 The Old Wives Had It Wrong (2003)

I’ve featured a few songs on here, songs accompanied by handy box chord diagrams, having had the discipline to commit their melodies and chords to paper, as well as to memory. Not so with this one, or indeed the many others like it. This song sits in a folder on my desktop as lines denuded of music. I remember writing it though, and I remember about whom I wrote it. I also remember really liking this song, which makes its silence all the more frustrating.


the old wives had it wrong

1

one day I flew high with a magpie
only found come the ‘morrow
he’d stolen the shine from my heart
‘cause he’d just come to borrow
first he feathered his nest
then he let me go for a song
those old wives, they sure weren’t wrong
one magpie brought me sorrow

2

once cursed and coerced by a gypsy
I let him woo me with all the sights that he’d seen
envy encouraged me to dance to his tune
sang the songs my gypsy would sing
but i missed who I’d been
became this man inbetween
those old wives, the light had seen
there’s just grass and it’s never more green

3

made hay with a stray heard him purring
and in my arms his charms basking
he had a hungering only for cream
for the salt from my warm skin
and though from house he made home
he was as happy to roam
those old wives sure knew their thing
leopards cling to their markings

4

played the fool with a jewel his eyes shining
two diamonds mining the whole of my soul
I burnished him bright with my breath
but my clasp this stone wouldn’t hold
I thought inside I’d seen fire
but a diamond is cold
those old wives they had it told
it may spark but it sure ain’t gold

5

i’ve tried, cried and died over magpies
over gypsies, over strays, over jewels
and so I say madness is love
if love, from kings, makes an old fool
what use then my heart?
is my hope something cruel?
those old wives sure change the rules
I heard them say that love, in the end, conquers all
what use then my heart?
is my hope something cruel?
those old wives sure change the rules
I heard them say that love, in the end, conquers all

October 2003


Incertae sedis (2021)


The latest Kick-About, inspired by Ole Worm’s cabinet of curiosities, saw me heading up to my attic to retrieve a heavy wooden box – not opened in years – from beneath a collection of other heavy boxes, I rummaged inside it for a parceled-up collection of ephemera from my past I knew I’d squirreled away in there for one reason or another. When I found the small paper parcel, tipping out its contents for closer inspection, I quickly found I couldn’t remember the import, value or significance of many of the objects I’d otherwise deigned important enough to save for posterity.

Incertae sedis is Latin for ‘of uncertain placement’, and is used taxonomically to classify things that otherwise do not fit existing schemas or cannot be categorised straightforwardly or curated into bodies of knowledge more accurately. I present the contents of my own mini-museum, with some artefacts contextualised where possible, but most speaking to the fallibility of memory and the destiny of most of our sentimental keepsakes to fall into meaninglessness, and if not for ourselves, then inevitably for others.



The Kick-About #23 ‘Museum Wormianum’


Surely it was curiosity that drove Eugen von Ransonnet-Villez, the subject of our last Kick-About, to construct a submersible so he could paint what he found beneath the waves. Ole Worm, Danish physician, natural historian and collector, gathered the eclectic subjects of his curiosity into a remarkable museum, a wunderkammer, which is this week’s jumping-off point…


Phil Cooper

“What a mouthwatering prompt this week, such cabinets have always fascinated me. I think many of us curate our own little wunderkammers in our homes; on windowsills, mantelpieces and coffee tables; little collections of things we found on walks that sparked our interest and wanted to keep. The prompt brought up memories of early childhood for me, growing up in a rather dull South Yorkshire town where the local museum felt like a magical portal to a different world. It was a mysterious and beautiful world, but also a bit scary at times, because it brought me into contact with things that were strange and didn’t fit. I felt quite at home! I’ve written a little story about it, with a boy who lived in a dreary town, a boy who lit up every time he went to the local museum…”



instagram.com/philcoops / hedgecrows.wordpress.com / phil-cooper.com


Vanessa Clegg

“My whole flat feels like a Wormianum. so these are little glimpses! My take on this was to echo the idea of travel/ collation/collecting, as well as including my practice in the form of notebooks, some being records and thoughts from the trip and some being journeys of the imagination via reading the accounts and experiences of others. Unlike the seventeenth century, when so much of the earth was whited out as Terra Incognita, there is little left that has not had a human footstep, so that what were once strange and extraordinary objects, being revealed to an incredulous audience, are now widely accessible and available online. (On the other hand, the deep seas are akin to outer space, still relatively unexplored/wish it could remain so/and mind bogglingly full of bizarre and beautifully alien life forms). I suppose, in the end, it comes down to objects being touchstones/gateways back to the time and place or people that passed them on, so more of a personal diary than showcase. The National Geographics are a legacy from my father, who travelled far and wide through the images and articles, in a way he was unable to do in his life.”


vanessaclegg.co.uk


Marion Raper

“I can see how Mr Worm turned his house into a museum – my house is much the same! I have many collections of items acquired over the years. Starting from when I was a library assistant, I always loved books and anything historical. When I ran a Charity Shop I collected all manner of bric-a-brac, vintage clothes, jewellery etc. One of my hobbies before lockdown was to share my 1950s memorabilia and give reminiscence talks at local care homes. This was very rewarding, and I believe Mr Worm would have felt the same pleasure in showing off his treasures. Welcome to ‘Marionium’.”



Eleanor Spence-Welch

I am by no means a photographer, but I am someone who collects dead, strange and curious objects. In my own little “museum” that I’ve formed here, I have skulls, bones, vintage photographs, fossils, and the occasional human tooth. The idea of one day having an entire room dedicated to the curiosities I spend time collecting, much like the Museum Wormianum, is a thrilling prospect. What fascinating pieces will I have acquired in that time? In this image, there is a beloved pet, an ice age bone, creatures picked up from roadsides and woodlands, photos of people long gone, and so on. This collection, to me, is a commentary on death not being an ending, but rather an opportunity for something new.


instagram.com/espence96 / twitter.com/E1eanor_Spence / facebook.com/ESpence-Art


Phil Gomm

“When I went up to my attic to retrieve a heavy wooden box – not opened in years – from beneath a collection of other heavy boxes, I rummaged inside it for a parceled-up collection of ephemera from my past I knew I’d squirreled away for one reason or another. When I found the small paper parcel, tipping out its contents for closer inspection, I quickly found I couldn’t remember the import, value or significance of many of the objects I’d otherwise deigned important enough to save for posterity. Incertae sedis is Latin for ‘of uncertain placement’, and is used taxonomically to classify things that otherwise do not fit existing schemas or cannot be categorised straightforwardly or curated into bodies of knowledge more accurately. I present the contents of my own mini-museum, with some artefacts contextualised where possible, but most speaking to the fallibility of memory and the destiny of most of our sentimental keepsakes to fall into meaninglessness, and if not for ourselves, then inevitably for others.”



James Randall

“The museum topic instantly took me to repatriation of plundered pieces, but then I had to confront my love of museums and galleries where the stimulus from vast quantities of fabulous pieces nicked from all over is so heady it makes me swoon! I went through some pics of objects from the British Museum, and, I think, the Museum of Natural History in New York (and one stray marble angel from Bath) and threw them together. When I gouached them together it felt good to me – rather dark, but I haven’t had that creative groove from the act of image making for some years.”



Graeme Daly

“I was initially going to use many of the collectable bric a brac scattered around my dads house and superimpose those on makeshift shelves using roof timber slats that are littered with spiders, but I decided to go against that as I wanted to not mimic Ole Worm’s Museum Wormianum but to go on an adventure and create a story around the origins of all the collectibles and relics that Worm has in his possession. I imagined Old Ole as an adventurer, wearing tan colours and a careworn hat bleached from sweat from adventuring to mysterious places where the sun scorches and the animals and plant life are of the carnivorous sort. Old Ole has fought mutant monsters deep within the caverns of caves, sailed high seas, and fought his way through tortuous chambers. Old Ole has earned his stripes and his relics. Since Old Ole’s book of treasure dates back to 1655, I wanted to use a medium that is also ancient, but has stood the test of time, so I turned to collage. I used many of the bric-a-brac that is dust ridden around my Dad’s house to kitbash and collage them together, as well as pages from the Museum Wormianum to create the ocean – as well as some hieroglyphics scattered about. I have become a bit obsessed with house plants, so some of my plants are in there too – a fatsia, Monstera and Schefflera.”


@graemedalyart / vimeo.com/graemedaly / linkedin.com/in/graeme-daly / twitter.com/Graeme_Daly / gentlegiant.blog


Jordan Buckner

Grief and cardboard… Not sure if this is appropriate for this week’s Kick-About, but in my head, it fits with the idea of a cabinet of curiosities. A collection of artefacts concerned with investigation and understanding… 


instagram.com/jordan_buckner / twitter.com/jordan_buckner /linkedin.com/in/jordan-buckner jordanbuckner.co.uk


Charly Skilling

“I have long been fascinated by the strange things people collect and keep. These cabinets of curiosities are often associated with the Victorians; part educational, part souvenir, and frequently macabre, they suited the Victorian Brits’ devotion to exploration, discovery, and gothic, otherworldly tales. (It also helped to have big houses in which to display them, and plenty of maid servants to keep them dusted!) However, Victorians were not the first to exhibit this fascination with all that is strange and weird; alchemists and apothecaries were renowned throughout the centuries for the collections they kept in their shops: stuffed animals, dried plants and “Things” in jars, all of which purported to possess strange properties of healing or death. From this line of thought it was no great step to find myself reading about shrunken heads. (Did you know, the skill lies in removing the skull by slitting the back of the neck and parting flesh from bone, and then wrapping the skin around a wooden ball so it maintained its shape as it shrank? No, neither did I!). So I decided to make a ‘shrunken head’, and as I was working on it, I found myself thinking about the Victorian gothic tradition, and of Miss Havisham in Dickens’ Great Expectations – and it suggested a poem. So there you are – from shrunken heads to shrunken hearts in a single step.”




Kerfe Roig

“For various reasons, including a recent dream, the turtle shells jumped right out at me, so that’s what I focused on.  Given time, there is much more to mine from even one glimpse of Ole Worm’s collection, of course!”


kblog.blog / methodtwomadness.wordpress.com


Courtesy of regular kick-abouter (and head-shrinker), Charly Skilling, we have our new prompt, a stirring quotation from ‘The Mother of Modern Dance’


Throwback Friday #46 Men-In-Motion (2001)


Okay, so this one is going to take a bit of explaining.

How was it, back in 2001, I ended up choreographing and compèring a male strip show? How was it the participants in the said strip show were also my students at the time? It all sounds rather unsavoury, even more so for actually writing it down these twenty years later!

The short version is we were raising funds for the student degree show for the undergraduate photography course on which I was teaching film and video – an extraordinary project undertaken by an extraordinary cohort of final year students.

Not content with just finishing their respective degrees, the students decided to turn a long-abandoned secondary school in Hackney Downs, London, into an exhibition space for their photography and video work. What ensued, for them, for the photography department’s staff, and for me, was a sometimes gruelling, but deeply satisfying adventure in collaboration. The damp, derelict classrooms and corridors of the school were transformed into clean, white exhibition spaces, the old, empty swimming pool into a venue for the aftershow party. I spent a whole lot of time sitting atop scaffolding towers and shovelling pigeon poo – and likewise everyone else. It took over one hundred days, and hours of hard physical work to prepare the exhibition space – and a lot of money, which is where the male strippers come in….



You have to remember, back in 2001, I was twenty-six years old, so not much older (and in some cases younger) than the students I was teaching in my professional capacity. I was also the licensee of the student campus bar, and so found myself in this rare halfway space between different roles, expectations and responsibilities. I’m happy now, but I was very happy back then, teaching film, talking film, running a very busy bar with all the banter and sauce and boisterousness you’d expect, and working with a team of dedicated educators, who were fearless when it came to fostering extraordinary student experiences.

I don’t think it struck anyone as particularly odd or left-field, or suspect, when I first came up with the suggestion we could ‘put on a show’ to raise funds for the In-Motion degree show big-build at the derelict Secondary School. The Full Monty (1997) must still have been looming large as a pop-cultural touchstone, because the idea of a group of ordinary-shaped students taking their clothes off in support of a good cause didn’t seem problematic in the slightest. I don’t recall a single objection or raised eye-brow.

Contrary perhaps to the associations that go with the objectification of male bodies, I look back at this unlikeliest of episodes as a moment of utter sweetness. As an openly gay member of staff, you might consider how my shifting role from ‘teacher’ to ‘choreographer’ was difficult for some of the young men involved, but apparently not, considering the ebullience and gusto and trust.

One of my fondest and enduring memories will always be, not the pectorals or inguinal creases of these photographers-come-strippers, but the joyousness of that raucous, perfect night; the roar of the crowd, who were in on the joke of it, and what was so charming about the pleasure these blithe young men were taking in their riotously ramshackle show.



Video footage was taken at the night of the performance, and one of my roles, as the resident videographer of the In-Motion project, was to put the content together for posterity. You’ll see straight away how long ago all of this was, on account of the 4:3 aspect ratio and less-than-broadcast quality. I was learning my trade as a video editor at the time, playing fast and loose with copyright and music soundtracks, so interpolating entire sections from the movies A Chorus Line and Cabaret to dial-up the show business accordingly. I appear in this film too – in a fabulously shiny silver shirt, and so young-looking and sleight, I can’t help but sigh.

I’ve only recently dredged up this film from an old DVD and haven’t thought about this particular night in years. To watch it again is to return immediately to that humid bar, which was crammed beyond its capacity with art students of all stripes, all of whom had paid their money to see their friends and classmates bare their bums in a bid to buy litres of white emulsion, hire a crane and scaffolding, buy lights and wire, to make something amazing happen. The film goes someway to conveying the noise in the bar that night, but not all the way. The roof was raised, and then some, by the delightful hooting of students, who couldn’t quite believe we were actually going through with it.

It will sound strange if I admit, that about this one night in the service of one huge transformative project, I feel a genuine sense of achievement and pride. Obviously I’m not talking about the choreography (talk about murder on the dancefloor). I’m talking instead about the directness of what we did that night; I’m talking about our lack of worry and the way we just decided to do an improbable, stupid thing, and then went ahead and did it. I’m talking too about all the people who allowed us do it, about the trust and safety we all felt, and I’m proud of it too, because in this film – on this night – I’m completely confident in all my identities.



Fierce Grinding Discords Part 2


The good news is, most universities are packing impressive sound devices now, installed and finely calibrated in the service of retention and the closing of attainment gaps, and if not quite that, then grimly determined to deliver on decent student satisfaction scores and value for money. We are encouraged to detect and manage the emotional well-being of students earlier and earlier, to guard against their unhappiness, (or even worse, them going somewhere else and taking their fees with them).

During my stint as course leader, I was having more and more conversations with students about their private pain and its impact on their studies. I encountered students who didn’t want to write anything because the prospect of writing made them too uncomfortable; and students who didn’t want to talk in front of their peers, work in groups or give presentations because the prospect of doing so triggered their anxiety. I once supported a student who didn’t like experiencing feelings of ‘suspense’, so excused themselves from watching films that were ‘suspenseful’. Institutionally, I began to see a reciprocal trend for clearing the path of obstacles between students and their degree awards, born of all our enlightened acts of listening. I witnessed word counts shrinking, and the reshaping of curricula and credit frameworks, and alluring debates around alternative assessment gaining more and more ground with senior management.

If Klausner happened to wave his sound machine in my direction, he would have heard me screaming inside. In common with many of my colleagues, academic and otherwise, I was becoming increasingly uneasy at all the listening – but not because I was measuring my fabulously diverse student cohorts against paragons of resilience from some imagined rose-tinted past.  


At the conclusion of The Sound Machine, Klausner, fully sensate to the hitherto ignored feelings of the flora surrounding him, insists a doctor applies iodine to an axe wound in an oak tree. As sensitised to the feelings of our student bodies, we came similarly to rely on the various student support services in place to soothe them. Equipped now with our own sound machines, we knew how to better detect the tell-tale frequencies emitted by anxiety disorders and neuro-diversity, and we knew what to do about it; refer, refer, refer: “Go to the VLE and download the policy on applying for an extension”; “Go get a doctor’s note in support of your claim.” Go make an appointment with the counsellor.” Go, go, go. 

All of which looks responsible, commendable, best practice even, until I remind myself, in The Sound Machine story, it was Klausner who first hit the tree with the axe.  

While I always worked closely and collaboratively with student support services, I was keenly interested in understanding what might be producing all this pain in the first place. What point, I wondered, to all this listening, if we dedicate ourselves to reacting to the resonances of the wounded, and never to the swing of the axe? And while, I hope, I was an academic far removed from the tone-deaf tutors of the golden age of education, I wondered if there was still more I could do pre-emptively, and began by assuming there was. Sure, this quest was driven by my interest in producing transformative learning experiences for each and every individual under my care, but it was fired too by bone-deep exasperation at giving so much of my time and energy to pastoral emergenciesOh, for a day without another student panic attack. Oh, for a unit submission without the accompanying confetti of exemptions. You might say I was dreaming again of a life of silence, and not the bad old kind of the good old days, but the hush produced by higher frequencies of student contentment.

Just as The Sound Machine episode provoked my boyhood self into re-looking at seemingly benign environments for probabilities of risk, I turned my attentions to thinking about the design and delivery of year one of my particular degree programme. I was looking for axes, the glint of things we were doing badly. I looked for cruelties and insensitivity, for any unfair exclusionary practices.

I didn’t find any concealed weapons in our learning aims and outcomes, but as a first year tutor myself, I was able to cut through to something important, to an idea as bold-seeming as it was likely obvious, and it was this: the teaching on first year programmes should not be modelled after the image of the first year undergraduate you hope is coming to study with you, but instead, after the image of the sort of second year student you want your first year programme to produce. 

If we want second years (and thus third years, and thus graduates) unfazed by research and writing, unfazed by public-speaking and collaboration, and by the giving and receipt of constructive criticism, we need to stop anticipating these skills from our first years to ensure we’re actually teaching these skills to our first years. We need to situate their worriesas normal and appropriate, to design for them – and not so as to shame them, anaesthetise them, aggrandise them, or remove them, but to overt them to convert them.

When I asked myself what an undergraduate course without discomfort might look like, I shuddered. To return to The Sound Machine’s image of the neighbour cutting her rose bush, it is also true that expert and judicious pruning produces more flowers. Pruning excises old wood and triggers new growth, but thanks to Klausner’s sound machine, we also know this intervention is painful for its subject. 


When I listened too long to Heads of School, or listened too long to certain student reps, I felt we were in danger of advocating for lobotomies, for excising the pain centres from our learners’ brains, as a sure-fire way to keep them smiling. I began to feel as if our institutional sound machines, for all their good intentions, were producing the effect of deafness in tutors themselves, a growing inability to distinguish our prime responsibilities to students, as educators, from the white noise produced by the effect of aggressive marketisation on our understanding of student satisfaction. I feared I was witnessing the activity of listening being co-opted into damaging long-term strategies for the nullification of short-term dissatisfaction, to the detriment of inclusivity and social mobility. By roping off certain types of academic or social activity from certain profiles of student, I worried we were working only to re-silence their future selves. I knew very well that reading and writing, presenting and group work, produced spikes of anxiety in many of my students. I wanted to see their anxiety managed by them, so not by removing its source, but instead by teaching into these challenging subjects imaginatively, creatively, inclusively, brilliantly.

These were discomforts I wanted for my students because, to overcome them was to learn, to change, to transform; to expose their impermanence; to laugh at fear now and forever after; to win.  


I understand it’s confusing. It sounds suddenly as if I have something in common with those former colleagues, who believed students should just ‘bloody well get on with it’, but that is not the gong I’m banging. Resilience is the weasel word for expecting people to get on with things uncomplainingly because they shouldn’t hope for better; instead of being angry at baked-in injustice, they should knuckle-down and pull themselves up. But I’m not confused at all. The drum I’m banging sounds like this: 

Begin by making different assumptions about your incoming first year students. While they’ve elected to study with you, they are more reluctant than they’re letting on. They will show resistance. They will avoid engaging with activities that worry them the most. This seems like a contradiction or a character flaw, but it isn’t. You can want what scares you, and you can know the value of a thing even as you put your energies into avoiding it.

You might not be able to detect the background hum of first year distress, perhaps because your own familiarity with the rituals of higher education and the foibles of your institution have left you a bit hard of hearing. As Klausner’s sound machine teaches us, just because you can’t hear something doesn’t mean it’s not making a noise. And while first year students are worried by the prospect of learning new things, they are as worried, even more so, by the idea of confronting all the old things they’ve always found difficult or discomforting; perhaps because, before they met you, they sat in classrooms not dissimilar to the ones of my memory, classrooms without any sound machines in them at all.

In the new knowledge your first years, a) don’t already know how to do what you want them to do, and b) feel put at risk at the prospect of trying to do it, you need to, c) teach all of them how to do all of the things you regard as vital for undergraduates. Then, d) keep explaining why what you’re teaching them is valuable, and e) teach those things in ways calibrated to reframe anxiety, not as an expression of weakness or dysfunction, but as a normal frequency of learning.

When you design and deliver programmes of study for first years, as first years actually are, you’re teaching will still discomfort, unsettle and provoke students. You are in the business of pruning roses, and the cries of students must be borne by everyone, by the student, by the tutor, and by the institution, as this dissatisfaction is the short-term noise produced by lasting, long-term change.

But if you don’t design and deliver programmes of study for first years as they actually are, (maybe because you can’t remember what it’s like to be one yourself, or don’t care, or don’t approve of first years as they actually are), your teaching will be very painful. If you don’t teach first years how to do all the things you expect them to know how to do, and you don’t explain your reasons why learning to do those things is important, (and then you fail them for not knowing how to do it or even caring about not knowing how to do it), you are not in the business of pruning roses, you are wielding an axe. Referring your student to the counsellor, on account of their resulting panic attacks, is little different to sending a ‘disruptive’ child to sit at the back of the classroom with the other broken kids, whose own faults it must be they are too different, or too sad, or too angry to make a success of their learning. And if you’re content to wield axes, while bemoaning the spiralling culture of extenuating circumstances plaguing higher education, you must have your fingers in your ears, because the dissonance of that is deafening.

Discomforts like these should not be borne by students. 

Discomforts like these should be acted upon by the institution, but I absolutely do not mean institutions should act by seeking to excise, reduce or demonise the learning activities that so predictably inflame the pain centres of students. I absolutely do not mean that all the difficult and challenging things we want our undergraduates to master should be removed from them because they produce discomfort. I do not want lobotomies for learners. Instead, I want institutions to listen to what their sound machines are really detecting when it comes to the dissonance of student dissatisfaction. It’s not the wailing of the evermore sick and the evermore stupid, or some klaxon calling time on what is ‘too difficult for some’ about higher learning, but a fierce and powerful clamour for truly inclusive curriculum design and its delivery for all.

Originally published on Linkedin

ding.global


Fierce Grinding Discords Part 1


All these years later, I’m still haunted by a 1981 episode of the television series, Tales Of The Unexpected. Entitled The Sound Machine, and adapted from a Roald Dahl short story, the episode introduces us to Klausner, an enthusiast of sound.


“I believe … there is a whole world of sound about us all the time that we cannot hear. It is possible that up there in those high-pitched inaudible regions there is a new exciting music being made, with subtle harmonies and fierce grinding discords, a music so powerful that it would drive us mad if only our ears were tuned to hear the sound of it.”


In pursuit of his ambition to apprehend sounds undetectable to the normal range of human hearing, Klausner invents a listening device. At first, Klausner doesn’t understand the provenance of the screams detected by his machine when he tests his apparatus out in his garden – until he notices his neighbour snipping the blooms from her rose bush. Klausner’s sound machine is hearing the agonies of plants.

As a child, this episode did for walking across lawns what Jaws did for the deep end of my local swimming pool, freighting ubiquitous behaviors in familiar environments with new probabilities of risk. These days, I’m more likely to worry about entire ecosystems than the discomfort experienced by the few blades of grass between my toes. Even so, I still find myself thinking about Klausner’s sound machine, and the act of listening to pain.

Given the clear and obvious impact of the pandemic on student well-being, and on the institutional infrastructures in place to support it, discussions around the responsibility for the pastoral care of undergraduates have intensified. Even before the advent of Covid, the term ‘epidemic’ was much used to characterise the rise of poor mental health among university students.


In my former higher education institution, initiatives to support student well-being proliferated like plucky mushrooms. There were ‘listening posts’ and ‘Mood Boost’ workshops and online counselling sessions, hopelessly over-subscribed. Consider our incessant hand-wringing over the ethics of granting extenuating circumstances to students, with the university unable to make up its mind as to whether the glass was half-full or half-empty, when it came to recording high numbers of extended deadlines and interruptions of study. Was making extensions available to ever-growing numbers of undergraduates indicative of greater inclusivity, and welcome move towards student-centred learning? Or proof instead of systemic course-level failure? By seeking out extra time and additional allowances, were students demonstrating commendable levels of self-determination, or just vapid snowflakes, melting wetly, the institution wilting similarly under the glare of its canny customers?

When the conservative government cut funding for disabled students in higher education, there were those in the university who feared the good and proper project of widening participation would now continue in name only, in service to the institution’s recruitment targets and not much else. For others, the paring back of learning support assistants and free laptops was like being given permission to switch off an expensive machine that was keeping the pipe-dreams alive of students otherwise ill-suited to the rigours of higher education.

Sometimes, often, I’d hear colleagues talking about ‘the good old days’, when undergraduates just knew how to study; when they were resilient, self-directed, arriving on day one of year one as savvy, professionalised learners. 

Hand-on-heart, I wasn’t immune to prelapsarian thoughts myself, dog-tired after another round of tutorials with unhappy students. But golden ageism is always bullshit, as we know very well. We might look back wistfully at tutors from yesteryear going about their simpler business in their simpler classrooms with their simpler cohorts, just as Klausner might once have smiled fondly at someone taking their shears to a hedge. We might coo nostalgically over all those seemingly stoic undergraduates, the sort who “bloody well just got on with it”; strong, silent types, who could be relied upon to metabolise gumption from hardship. 

But let’s imagine, in addition to its existing functions, Klausner’s sound machine has the capacity to detect the frequencies of the past, and how about we turn the dial: what’s that I hear? Ah yes, it is those same fierce grinding discords, the as-of-now unmuted miseries of diverse groups of individuals being nicked, bruised, picked at, and broken by the everyday habits of teachers and the mono-cultures of their classrooms; and not injuries inflicted on purpose, not always anyway, but injuries nonetheless.

When I think back to the classrooms of my own secondary modern, my blood runs cold in the knowledge of this parallel universe of suffering, rendered undetectable by the deficit in my own perceptual apparatus. I remember the rather odd-seeming children hidden away at the back of the class who wouldn’t meet your eye, whose non sequiturs disrupted the teacher’s flow and magnetised the bullies. I recall the clamour of the disruptive boys, too quick and too clever to know when to wind in their necks, but too stupid to read the black board; and I think about the weird kids, the whey-faced loners standing disconsolately at the edge of the playground, friendless inside the hoods of their parkas. 

These young people were all unheard and unhearable in their different ways, for how to detect the call-to-action of Asperger’s, when it’s carried by a frequency to which no one is yet attuned? How to decipher the dissonance of dyslexia when the only sound it makes in the world of other people is naughtiness? How to mitigate against acute social anxiety, when there is insufficient bandwidth by which to detect it?

But that was then, the ‘good old days’, when all the damaged, stupid people knew better than to go to university, when silence was golden… 


The Garden in ‘The Garden’


There’s no way around this. I’m showing off a bit about our narrow, over-stuffed strip of garden at the back of our old narrow end-of-terrace house in Whitstable. With words by Francine Raymond and photographs by Sarah Cuttle, our garden appeared this month on the cover of the Royal Horticultural Society’s The Garden magazine. The general gist of the accompanying article is ‘look how many plants you can cram into a small space!’. Just before putting this post together, I was outside chucking lots of fish, blood and bone about the garden before it started to rain. I smell a lot like cat food now. Oh, the glamour.