Real Hope For Dark Days

It’s a sore trial living in the UK at the moment. After three years of the shambolic Brexit debacle, in which zero progress has been made, we’re now forced to witness a leadership contest that showcases the most dismal collection of candidates – more of a police line-up than a beauty parade. Worst of all, Boris Johnson is supposed to win, which makes me feel like I’m living in a piece of Dadaist theatre except they tell me it’s really happening. How a man who has been sacked twice for lying, who caused chaos in the Foreign Office and wasted millions as Mayor of London, who basically has no principles and is known to be lazy, self-serving and ready to give up at the first obstacle can possibly become Prime Minister beggars belief. I mean, it’s not like we haven’t sat here laughing at Trump all this time. Anyway, enough. It’s just depressing to acknowledge what the plausible leaders of our country now look like.

It’s just as well, then, that books can offer genuine hope and solace. If you have inadvertently glanced at the online comments on the Guardian website lately and lost all hope in humanity, I have two books that will restore it. Growing Pains by Dr Mike Shooter and Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me by Kate Clanchy are both non-fiction accounts of lives spent helping children to find their best and most promising selves. Mike Shooter is a child psychiatrist in the NHS, Kate Clanchy teaches English in a multi-cultural comprehensive, and they have brought much joy and inspiration into our house lately, with narratives that are a patchwork of fascinating case histories.

Growing Pains is the story of Mike Shooter’s career listening to adolescents (and their families) in crisis. He begins the book with an honest account of his own depression and his early work in medicine. It’s one particular encounter, at 2am on a terminal ward that changes the course of his life. He is following the Senior Registrar – ‘aloof, taciturn, straight-backed’ – to check on a Mr Dobbs, who is dying of an aneurysm. They find, as one might expect, a terrified man.

Simon sat on his bed and asked him if he was frightened. Mr Dobbs nodded; he was beyond words. Then Simon, straight-laced, Simon, the man we thought more suited to a brigade of guards than patient care, took him in his arms and rocked him to and fro like a baby, while Mr Dobbs sobbed into his shoulder.’

The next morning, Simon is absent and Mike Shooter is asked if he’ll talk to Mr Dobbs instead. He is so afraid of the prospect that he goes to see the Dean of the Medical School instead, to tell him he’s quitting. But the Dean, a wise old soul, says no he isn’t; he’ll make a good doctor one day, but he’s depressed. ‘And the worse you feel about yourself, the harder you work to prove you’re wrong. You’ve been fighting against what you really feel for years. This was bound to happen. Mr Dobbs was just the final straw.’ The Dean arranges for him to see a psychiatrist, and over the course of the next few years, the treatment Mike Shooter receives makes him realise that this is the field he wants to dedicate himself to. The ability to ‘see beyond [the] patient’s symptoms to the human being behind them’ was the rule he wanted to follow.

Well by now you might be able to see beyond the words of this review to the readers behind them – the only problem we had with it was that it kept making Mr Litlove cry. And if Mr Litlove cries, then I cry, that’s just how it goes. I need to stress that these were not tears of sadness, but the more complicated throat-tightening tears of beauty and humanity. And I should also stress that this is not at all a manipulative book. Dr Shooter never dwells on any part of his story and in consequence the narrative was not harrowing, despite the subject matter. It was inspirational, in the most grounded and humane ways. One of the stories that stays with me still concerns another middle of the night emergency call that summons Dr Shooter to a household in crisis.  An eight-year-old child, Danny, is threatening to kill himself. When the doctor arrives, the child is on the landing, his pyjama cord around his neck, the other end tied to the banisters, and his desperate, angry, fearful parents are hypnotised by the situation. Mike Shooter’s response is to come in as if everything were normal, exclaim at the lateness of the hour and express a strong need for a cup of tea. He asks if Danny would like a snack before bedtime, and the spell of craziness is dispelled by the autopilot of ordinary hospitality. Everyone comes and sits around the tea tray in the middle of the living room where it becomes apparent that the man is the mother’s new partner whom Danny is rejecting and that ‘they all wanted to change things but didn’t know how to do it without tearing each other apart’ A problem with which I imagine we are all familiar, and where salvation can come so much more quickly with someone calm, kind and firm to help.

Kate Clanchy’s book also focusses on individual students as they struggle and triumph on the battlefield of education and the stories she tells are just as fascinating, whether it’s the way the word ‘gay’ has signified in classrooms across the years, or what the parents of excluded children are up against when they try to get their kids a fair educational deal. Kate is also a poet and her poetry club becomes one of the major features in her stories, as she finds it can be a real liberation for all kinds of children, including those who have English as a second language or who suffer from dyslexia. She tackles knotty subjects like selection in schools – both streaming in classes and the nightmare parents face when trying to decide what school to pick for their children. And she talks about the pleasures and pains of teaching English.

There are so many stories I love, I don’t know which to tell you about. But just off the top of my head, there’s Allen, a large, capable boy more suited to open spaces, but bright and interested in English literature. He was that mythical beast, an adolescent boy willing to talk about emotions, and as such he stimulated real class discussion. It just so happened that this class was one in which Kate could exercise her own judgement to some extent and choose the books that would best inspire her students (not something that happens these days). Twenty-five years later she looks him up on Linked-In and finds out that he runs an engineering business and is a self-made millionaire, He in turn remembers her lessons as a place where ‘I learned who I was.’ ‘English:’ Clanchy writes, ‘the lesson where you laugh about sex, and argue about war, and talk about jealousy. English: where you grow up.’ The problem is that English, like poetry, does not ‘WALT’ well. WALT stands for ‘We Are Learning To’ and has become the staple of ‘formative assessment’ which the government likes a lot. It comes from the best of motives, Clanchy explains, the desire to open up a learning process that might appear hidden or opaque. But what works well for a science lesson is altogether harder to pin down in the arts and humanities. The consequence has been that WALT dominates lesson plans and the non-WALT aspects of education, like artistic creativity and all that nebulous maturation process get left out of the curriculum.

The stories in both books inevitably bump up against politics because both authors are working on the cliff edge where the vulnerable and the economically-nonprofitable clash with government funding. But these are not polemical books. They are about thoughtful people who are really good at their jobs understanding the pressures on all sides and doing their best for children, however that shakes out. Listening to these books has made me think a lot about what’s wrong with the world today, and for my own part I think it boils down to an insufficient engagement with reality. I blame the media mostly, for their two-note grizzles of sentimentality and outrage, emotions that reliably sell papers, but which have made us all happy to be ignorant. It takes terrific courage to face the truth of our lives, and mostly we are invited to side step that reality and find someone else to blame. Or we end up letting ourselves be sold ideals of perfection and purity that are equally dangerous.

What I loved about these books is their authors’ readiness to talk about getting things wrong. Clanchy produces such an admirably nuanced description of Cheyenne, a poor working class child who spent her time pushing Kate’s middle-class buttons and stalking her children, whom Kate could not truly like. And I loved the story in which Mike Shooter is called to deal with a psychotic break in an adolescent who has been wrongly placed in the adult ward. Hassan escaped his nurses and ran around the grounds of the unit, talking in Somali and scooping mud and grass into his mouth. Shooter thought it possible that he was just terrified and involved in some kind of prayer ritual he didn’t understand, so he called the Somali elders from the community to come and advise him. After a few minutes they turned on him. asking how he dared call himself a doctor and telling him to get the boy some medication. It’s not about mistakes – if you’re a human being engaged in something you care about, you will be making mistakes. They are inevitable. What these stories show is that it’s about the process – the process of finding out what’s wrong and of learning and becoming more self-aware in consequence, possibly the most important process that we are called upon to practice on a regular basis and which we avoid and fumble and foul up out of embarrassed pride or some weird, punitive notion that it ‘shouldn’t happen.’

These have both been terrific books, loved and admired equally by myself and Mr Litlove. They have made us laugh and cry and feel deeply in touch with both the difficult business of growing up and the authentic hope embedded in the care of people like Mike Shooter and Kate Clanchy that we might actually make it. For they have a lot to teach adults too, as a quick glance around the political candidates for Tory party leader can tell us. They’ve made me want to have a completely different kind of identity politics, one in which gender, skin colour, race, religion, none of these thing matter, but where the identity is question is that of a grown-up and it’s an identity to which we all aspire.

Decades of capitalism have encouraged us to stay children with the goal of becoming spoiled children. I think it’s given us very complicated feelings about people who are able shamelessly to make a fool of themselves in public, and that sometimes such people can be used to assuage us about our insecurities. This is an indulgence – something that makes us feel better in the short-term but worse in the long-term. What we need is to admire the grown-up again, the sensible, grounded person who doesn’t make a fuss about things, but who won’t sit passive when they could offer help. The sort of person who, currently, says the wise, placatory thing on social media and is totally ignored. We need the kind of grown-up who has a strong moral compass and a great deal of compassion, who has emotional intelligence, self-awareness and the courage to look reality in the eye, even when it is ugly. The kind of grown-up who can sit with people in emotional distress and not make it about themselves. We need more Mike Shooters and Kate Clanchys, basically, and the fact that they have written these books shows that such people are out there, it’s just that we so rarely get to hear about them. For me they’ve been a properly optimistic antidote to everything going on in the news, and the embodiment of an aspiration that is as difficult as becoming rich and famous but infinitely more desirable.



15 thoughts on “Real Hope For Dark Days

  1. Wonderful post, and I wholeheartedly agree. It’s hard not to look at the so-called politicians behaving like children and despair. Like you, I blame the media of all kinds and I refuse to engage with the news and the like (Mr. Kaggsy will insist on watching the lot, so-called debates and all). Thank goodness for books, I say….

    • Mr Litlove finds it hard to keep away (though he hasn’t watched the debates) but I completely with you – books all the way! You just need that time and space and thought to say something meaningful and true about our complicated world. And the greatest thing of all about books is that any attempt at a power grab ruins a narrative. Authority has to be earned, it’s never given. Oh what would we do without them???

  2. So enjoyed this post, thank you. I’m aware of the Kate Clanchy book and, as an ex school teacher (although only two years in an inner city comp) I’ve not known whether to avoid or seek it out! Definitely the latter now. And on your first paragraph – absolute agreement. OH announced that we wouldn’t be watching the Sunday night debate – as though I might have suggested otherwise. Apart from not having any say in the outcome, why are they deciding the new PM by some sort of reality contest where someone gets voted out every round? By a very small minority of the population. I’m writing this not having heard the latest, and not having a vote and feeling despair – yes, more reading required.

    • Oh I do think you would enjoy it. Though I must have a look around for other blog reviews of it – I’d love to know what other teachers think. I was educated in a comprehensive (though in East Anglia, the whitest part of the UK) but taught at a university which has the enormous privilege of no crowd control needed. I don’t know how teachers manage to find the energy five days a week to deal with a whole class, especially 15-year-olds on a wet Friday afternoon!

      You are so right about the weird reality show format – I hadn’t really thought about that. It just seems a long, slow process that not many people get a say in, and given where we are right now, that is just one more bizarre thing in a sea of bizarre things. It is incredibly depressing. I can’t tell you what a relief it’s been to turn to these books about normal people, people you can believe in, who just want to make a difference. It has helped.

  3. As always great writing from you Victoria! Not sure that WALT really works better for science than for English or history, though I can see that some aspects (the mathematical as opposed to the scientific) do lend themselves; we are learning to “integrate by parts” for example.

    I remember the dreaded “set books” in English at my Edinburgh School in the 1970’s and I had no great desire to read Steinbeck or Hemingway (or most of them). I discovered that if I sat quietly at the back of my class (streamed, I was in the top set for English), reading my way through C20 European literature in translation and was completely open about it I was left in peace. Happy days!

    • Ah Dark Puss, gone are the days when we could have some hand in our own classroom education, alas! The curriculum is so strict these days. I have to admit that the books I studied for English literature were the only ones I really disliked in my adolescence – my relationship with Dickens has never recovered, and Shakespeare is still on stony ground. But I loved the books I read for my French and German A levels. So, on balance, it all worked out in the end.

  4. Your posts are so emotionally literate and your subject matter so often poignantly to-the-emotional-point: thank you for shining a light on what the unsung do, where they put their hearts and how they help. Thank you thank you thank you.

    • What a lovely comment, Angela, thank you! These are just terrific books and prove – if proof were needed – that the real heroes of our age are to be found among so-called ‘ordinary’ people. They’re the ones making a real difference and it’s just a shame they don’t get sung about more often. It was a pleasure to do so here.

  5. Wonderful post, as ever, and BOY do we need hopeful books these days. Your post reminded me of the novel Happiness by Aminatta Forna. There’s a wise psychiatrist, and people ackowledging that things might go wrong, and if you haven’t read it yet I bet you’d like it.

  6. I adored the Kate Clanchy book – she came to my local bookshop to talk about it, and she is such a nice person – very witty too. I wrote it up on my blog. I must get my hands on the MIke Shooter book now – sounds an emotional but great read.

    • The Mike Shooter is also really good. I don’t know if we got used to it or whether the tone of the case histories changes over its course, but we did both stop crying after the first few chapters! I would have loved to meet Kate Clanchy – I can so picture her!

  7. I might have to work up a bit of resilience to read these books hearing about the effect on the two of you! Just come back from visit to child at Uni, it makes more sense for her to stay there over the summer to get a job, but it’s weird realising she’s essentially left home, and she has had a short course of treatment for her anxiety, which is typical of her, she’s focused and tends to sort herself out, but sad to hear about what she’s had to live with all her life. These are times to make all of us anxious!

    • Oh my goodness, yes. These are indeed anxious times, though I do remember reading a therapist somewhere writing that if you were alive, you would suffer from anxiety. Our son stayed at uni throughout all his holidays once he’d matriculated. He was determined to ‘leave home’ at that point, which showed an admirable desire to grow up, I felt, even if it did entail a few problems! But it’s a tough adjustment after full-time mothering. I know I felt the oddness of it for quite a while afterwards. But it all comes good and they love you all the more when they realise just how nice home comforts are!

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