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Sunday, April 02, 2006

School Fool

Francis Gilbert's book Yob Nation has become part of the national debate on anti-social behaviour. Syndication of sections of the book jostles alongside commentary on Britain's social decline which namechecks Gilbert favourably. I haven't read Yob Nation yet, and it's policy on this weblog not to 'review' things I haven't read or viewed, so no further comment for now.

That said, it's clear that Gilbert's hour is at hand because he has something to say about an ongoing national preoccupation. There are some similarities in his elevation as an expert and my own experiences as a happy slapping guru. Perhaps this makes us niche neighbours - a bit like soul sisters, only not so close.

Gilbert's early career is detailed in his book I'm a Teacher, Get Me Out of Here. My suspicions of our parallel lives are aggravated by certain biographical similarities. He was finishing off an English degree at Sussex University in 1989 when I was just starting one (albeit with media studies). Upon completing our undergraduate studies, we both drifted into public sector jobs, mainly out of inertia . Like me, he worked in inner London and kept a close eye on jobs in Waltham Forest (p.177), although I actually reached this enchanted realm before I ended up drawn back to blinking light atop Canary Wharf Tower (part of Gilbert's East End scenery). (He was also in Waltham Forest at some point, long enough to find out - in Leytonstone High Street, no less - about a child-molesting colleague [p.206]). There's a fair chance that some of his East London school students from the early 1990s, or their offspring, have passed through my university at some point in time - maybe I even taught them. (Except these kids 'are composite characters and essentially inventions of my [i.e. Gilbert's] own'.)

Like Bea Campbell before him, Gilbert's initially left-wing concerns with the plight of the disadvantaged opened up opportunities created by elitist hostility to a British underclass. Here's how he tells the story: 'It was a Marxist fairytale, but a fairytale nevertheless, because it was here [Cambridge University] that I planned to gather all the intellectual and emotional resources to enable me to venture forth into the dark forest of working class Britain where I would slay the dragons of class envy and alienation .... until the day after the Berlin Wall came down ... the game was up regarding the Revolution' (I'm a Teacher... pp.18-20). All that remained for Gilbert to do was stew on 'the bitter divorce of [his] parents' (p.22).

It seems to me that Gilbert's strategy in the early 1990s was rubbish to begin with. Why not treat teaching as a way to fund one's revolutionary career, rather than see teaching as intrinsically revolutionary? And why was this day-to-day struggle necessarily tied to the fate of the Berlin Wall? It's not too big a leap to imagine that the author's own disenchantment with the working class and social change stemmed from his own limited vision. When that failed, a hostile free-for-all of chav-bashing and misanthropy seems like an acceptable outlet for these frustrations.

Francis Gilbert, I'm a Teacher, Get Me Out of Here (London: Short Books, 2004, pp.11-12; buy it here in the UK; here in the USA).


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