Here at TattyBogle Primary School as part of our Curriculum for Excellence summer term project we have been set the task of a writing a reflective response piece to the World Writers Conference which is part of the Edinburgh Book Festival. This is because our teacher Mr EM is convinced that we need to SAVE CULTURE and the way to do this is to respond, in advance, to the big questions of the day. He will have us all become Writers. But we must be a certain kind of writer. As writers we must Create Culture. Not grow it, or engage with it or take part in cultural activity. No. We are tasked with Creating Culture. I have no idea how to do this.
It doesn’t help that the Festival doesn’t happen till August and we have to respond well before it ever happened. I thought this might be impossible but Mr EM is determined that it’s not.
‘Saving Culture is not dependent on temporal concerns, boys and girls,’ he says ‘it just takes a bit of effort.’
He fixes us with his stern stare that tells us that Effort is what is required. Not complaining. So we don’t. Complain. To him.
When I go home to tell my mum of my summer term project she is a bit surprised. Here at TattyBogle (as Mr EM has made it abundantly clear) Culture is not something that people chat about that much. Or think of saving. We save money or water or that but we don’t save culture. Most of us don’t know what culture is if you want my opinion. I’m sure I don’t.
She thought that for a primary six child, (that’s Year Six now mum, don’t you watch the soaps?) writing what I done, sorry that’s did, or want to do on my holidays or something like that would be ‘more age appropriate.’ I wish.
‘The world’s moved on, mum,’ I tell her. ‘Mr EM says. He says we are the digital masses and we need to pull our finger out.’
‘Your fingers,’ she says. ‘Plural.’
‘How many fingers do I have to pull out, mum?’ I ask. ‘I thought it just meant each of us had to pull one finger out. Not me pull all of them out.’
I shudder a bit. I’m not sure I want my fingers pulled out. My brother John does it to annoy me sometimes. I mean, he cracks his fingers which is sort of the same thing isn’t it? I don’t want anyone pulling my fingers out, and I’m certainly not keen on doing it myself.
‘Anyway, it’s a nasty expression,’ she says. ‘They shouldn’t be teaching you rude things like that.’
I don’t know what she means.
She is confused. I am confused. Confusion runs in our family like a gene trait I think. I’ll give you an example. Culture. The hot topic in TattyBogle Primary School this term.
Right, well see, my mum thinks that Highland Dancing is culture. I know better.
‘Culture is ‘professional’ mum,’ I tell her. ‘Mr EM says so. ‘
And is Mr EM god then is he? Mum says.
He might as well be, I think. He’s the headmaster of TattyBogle Primary and that’s about as close to God as I’m ever likely to come.
‘What’s the point of it?’ my brother John asks. My brother is at TattyBogle Academy. He’s escaped the clutches of Mr EM. He’s 16. So he knows almost everything about just about anything. (He’s going to help me with some of the more difficult words and concepts here – after all, he had Mr EM too – and survived.) He’s just failed his Standard Grades (which these days with 98% pass rates is quite an achievement in itself and he is justly proud of his fierce and independent spirit).
He’s so smart he knows he’s failed before the results are even out. The teachers seem to know it too. But he knew even before them. ‘Why they should even bother sending his papers to be marked they didn’t know,’they said. My mum is still hopeful. She’s an optimist my mum. She thinks that with a 98% chance of ‘success’ even John can ‘make it.’ She’s not gone as far as getting him a new blazer for school next year (definitely not one with prefect’s ribbons) but she does think that he’ll be back for Highers. John knows better. He has insider information after all.
What so far only John (and me of course because he told me but I’m sworn to secrecy) knows is that he didn’t even turn up for half the exams. So he can’t have passed them. The teachers didn’t have to send in the papers because there were no papers with the name John McRoary on them. Now, this piece of secret information which I have may well become a useful bargaining tool for me in the weeks to come, so I don’t tell anyone. But I know when or if my mum and dad find out there will be fireworks. Industrial scale.
My dad isn’t as optimistic as my mum and he has ‘taken John under his wing,’ as my mum would say. To my dad this translates into ‘giving the boy a kick up the arse.’ You’ll find out more about this later.
But right now, my brother John is asking me what’s the point of the essay. We all know better than to debate what’s the point of Curriculum for Excellence at the dinner table in my house. Usually.
‘The point,’ I says to him, ‘is that if we WIN the competition we might get to go to the Edinburgh Book Festival.’
He snorts. ‘Why’d you want to do that?’
For me, any chance to get out of TattyBogle and see the world is enough of an answer, or indeed a prize, but this doesn’t wash with the rest of the family.
‘Did he actually say you could go if you win?’ mum asks.
‘Virtually,’ I reply.
My brother John laughs. ‘Ya tumshie,’ he says, ‘he means you can go there virtually. On line. Not fer real.’
I’m not sure I want to go to a virtual festival because, well, not to put too fine a point on it, it’s not REAL is it? And if it’s not REAL it’s not PROPER. And if it’s not PROPER what’s the point?’
Mr EM doesn’t see the world this way. Mr EM is all for the competitive spirit. In Writing as in Life.
‘Life’s not a co-operative venture, boys and girls,’ he says more than once a week. ‘And writing’s the same. It’s a competitive environment. Only the strong survive.’
My mum can’t understand how writing can be competitive and it’s not because she doesn’t understand Darwin’s theory of evolution. I don’t, John doesn’t but she does. At least that’s what she says. Often.
‘I may be a simple woman,’ she says, ‘but don’t take me for a fool.’
‘No mum,’ is the standard (and safe) reply.
My dad struggles in his own way to deal with whether writing could or should be a competitive sport.
‘You win prizes for cows and sheep,’ he says. ‘We all ken how to judge them. How’d you judge a piece of writing eh? What’s the criteria?’
‘Beats me dad,’ I reply. I don’t even know what a criteria is. Is it like a critter? I decide not to ask him. He’s got the burden of one ‘stupid’ son and I don’t want to send him over the edge by realising that his genes have not produced champions. I want my dad to be proud of me.
Anyway, irrespective of whether there’s a point or sense to any of this the REALITY is that I have to write this essay and it’s got to be about whether literature should be political. And I’m struggling. But the hopes of TattyBogle Primary rest on my head. That’s been made abundantly clear. If I fail, we fail. If we fail…
‘Failure is not an option,’ says Mr EM.
That’s my life over then.
At the moment we are ‘competing’ in the class (there’s only six of us) to see who writes the best essay on this subject. I can’t see how it’s going to be me. But I want to make my dad proud. I want to go into Primary 7 with my head held high and I want to get Mr EM off my back. And I wouldn’t mind going to Edinburgh. I’ve never been. They have a castle. These are all good reasons quite apart from the fear of having someone else pull one or all of my fingers out if I don’t come up with the goods.
So, Mr EM made us all write a first draft this week. I handed mine in to him. On time. (Which was more than most of the kids did.) He read it. He gave it his considered critical opinion. He said it was shit. And I got a nasty look from Nick the school bully who has his head so far up Mr EM’s bum that he can certainly talk about shit in a cultured manner. My life is over if I don’t get this thing written and WIN the competition for TattyBogle. The pressure is intense.
(Come back tomorrow for an update on Jack’s progress.)