This used to be my playground


Burying some old demons for good. Spending an afternoon rehearsing on the grounds of my old secondary school – where since I left, over 90% of the site has been flattened and rebuilt.

I don’t know about you, but stuff that happened in childhood – bad stuff – is what drives me to do the community activism I’m doing today. The emotions of many things are still so very raw that it still sometimes feels that they happened yesterday, not twenty years ago. Perhaps too that’s why I wasn’t too fussed when the lady at the dentist reception said ‘Haven’t you been a good boy?!’ when the note from the dentist said to book a 1 year rather than a six month check up. There’s still that hurt child inside me that has too many injustices that need putting right – even though I know they never will be. The institutions responsible are too great and the people within them either don’t care, don’t remember or are dead.

That’s why part of this weekend was a significant moment for me.

I’ve recently joined the Dowsing Collective as a male tenor and we had an intensive four hour rehearsal today. The last time I had a rehearsal of that length on the site concerned for a public performance was over two decades ago. Looking around the site was a surreal experience. Although I had taken a wander around the site during the Easter of 2004, just before I started in the civil service, it was as if this was the first time I had been back ‘as an adult’. (Not all the building work had been completed at that time).

“What was so bad about things back then?”

Both at a macro level and a micro level, we could see bad things happening – and very little being done about it. Or if it was, it was too late for my generation. This ranged from watching helplessly as children with real talent and potential fell in with a bad crowd, through to political institutions allowing the site to get to the stage where it was a hazard for everyone on it. Think of the older series of Grange Hill – it reminded me of that. The crumbling infrastructure was in sync with the divided year group I was part of – one where it felt violence was always around the corner even though I was seldom directly on the receiving end of it. Others were not so lucky. I recall having no sense of pride or ownership of the site. I felt we were stuck out on the edge of town missing out on all of the fun stuff – which was why I developed a mindset of putting absolutely everything into doing well in my exams to get me the grades that would get me out of that hell-hole. That was my way of dealing with it. I recall the loathing was mutual between the different groups. One of the teachers remarked at the time that she had never known a year group so polarised.

At the same time, starved of resources and training by their political masters, the school was never able to provide the support students needed to achieve their potential. In my own comments in a report from the mid-1990s about GCSE geography, I wrote that the work I was being set was far too easy – the stuff of year 8. The teacher in her comments never acknowledged this. When I did A-level geography at Hills Road Sixth Form College, we had a student teacher living with us doing a PGCE at Homerton College – again, both institutions in my neighbourhood. She told me that her friends on PGCE placements at Hills Road for geography said the standard of work we were being set was second year undergraduate level work. Thus I moved from year 8 geography to second year undergraduate level in…a couple of months. In terms of extra-curricular things, my previous blogposts about music apply in particular Music – a personal journey as well as Music makes us one. 

“Why can’t you just let it go?”

Good question. Much of it is simply an innate part of who I am as a person – my disposition. I’ve also spoken before about my biggest personal failing: A lack of courage. Had I had more courage, I would have challenged more things, not followed bad advice or orders and gone down different paths. But I didn’t. Hence here I am.

At the same time (and with the 20:20 vision of hindsight), there are three things that explain the strength and depth of emotions on all of this:

  • I never achieved my potential
  • I wasn’t able to enjoy myself nearly as much as I should have done in the prime of my life
  • No one from those days is part of my life – they haven’t been this side of the millennium

Thus it feels like I have no shared personal history with anyone.

Which is strange for someone who is so passionate about history.

Talking of which, when I got inside the newest part of the building, I spotted a ‘Then and Now’ display of various sports teams. One was from when I was in year 8. I recognised all of the faces in the rugby and netball teams. And that was my ‘Lord of the Flies ending’ moment.

For GCSE English, Lord of the Flies by William Golding was one of our texts – one of the only ones in my entire time at school I enjoyed reading. Richard III was the other one. I didn’t enjoy the rest because I was cursed with utterly uninspiring English literature teachers – and for some reason have always clashed with trainee English literature teachers that I met during my university days when discussing content. For those of you that don’t know the full plot, click on this link. Essentially, a plane with lots of children on board crashes on a tropical island killing all of the adults, but not the children. The children then organise themselves, trying to survive and work out how to get themselves noticed and rescued. As I read through the book at the time, I got the sense that the boys were becoming more and more ‘adult’ very quickly due to the pressures of fighting for survival. And it becomes more and more violent too, culminating in both the slaughter of an animal and finally a fire that rages out of control, laying waste to the island but at the same time catching the attention of a passing ship that rescues them. In the final scene, the adult rescuers look on the pathetic (not in the pejorative sense) group in front of them: Boys. The contrast with the preceding chapters (which what helps make the book so great) is massive.

“The Lord of the Flies moment?”

Realising that all of the bad stuff that happened within our year group – the things that hurt at the time and subconsciously, even consciously have been hurting up till now, were carried out not by men, but by boys. Boys from a bygone age. Boys that have since grown up. Boys that are now men – men that have never been part of my adult life and probably never will be either. And all of this happened on a geographical site that no longer exists. To today’s generation, the crumbling monolith, the ageing science labs built so long ago, the BBC computers…it’s all a fairy tale that never really happened. Accordingly, I can finally bury my demons.

“So…what’s replaced it?”

A futuristic educational complex that, when they first started work on it in the run up to my GCSEs I could never have imagined. The facilities that the students now have are awesome. The part of the site where we were rehearsing was opened in 2010. The building work to transform the site began less than fifteen years prior to that. Yet comparing the mid 1990s to what is there now, you’d have said that the time difference was at least fifty years.

It shows in the students work. Looking at the scale, complexity and imagination of the artwork on display was inspiring. We were not doing anything near as grand and mindblowing as what was on display by their year 9s. Again, I didn’t have the greatest art teachers in the world either, so learnt to despise them too. Art of all subjects should be something that inspires. With me, they completely failed. Hence why trying to get back into anything creative has previously required me having to overcome a huge number of mental and emotional barriers.

“What else was inside the building?”

A massive new performance hall that matches what a number of the private schools in Cambridge have. The audio-visual capabilities are on a level that we simply did not have access to at the time. Rather than the dark corridors, the interiors were bathed in the sunlight of early spring. A new all-weather surface for football, along with resurfaced tennis courts – the latter being one of the few remaining parts of the site that is in its original place with its original function when I was there.

“How does it make you feel?”

I’ve got really mixed emotions. It’s relieving – and will continue to relieve the emotional pain. At the same time, it’s firing up even more passion in me around community activism. (The last thing in the world local councillors want to hear – because they are normally the first people on the receiving end of it – poor so-and-so’s).

It helped it being such a warm day and spending the afternoon focussed on the music. You could almost describe what we sing as secular choral music. Sopranos, altos, tenors and basses split into separate parts – and sub-split further because there are so many of us – something that I found awe-inspiring at my first rehearsal. Singing has also been a regular topic of conversation between me, Penny Homer (who now is the training manager of the Association of British Choral Directors) and Frances Coppola, (part singer, singing teacher, finance blogger and Newsnight pundit). Basically I was looking for a large collective of singers that performed non-religious music. When I stumbled across the British Humanist Choir when I was living in London (I think it was at a picnic), I felt I wanted something bigger, with far more energy and a music director that didn’t have an attitude problem – she got really stroppy with us for not moving over to listen to their performance. In a park. With no acoustics. And a poor selection of tracks.

“Sounds like you are a harsh critic that is hard to please”

I’m not really. (Just to note, The Football League show on BBC1 has just featured interviews with 3 Cambridge United figures from the early 1990s – Gary Johnson (now at Yeovil), Steve Claridge (who was everywhere) and Gary Rowett – now manager of Burton.

It’s more wanting to see continual improvement and positive development more than anything else. That in part is based upon the things I’ve seen, places I’ve been to and even the dance floors I have danced upon in the first decade of this millennium. (2000-2010). In the Hofburg in Vienna on New Year’s Eve 2007, me and a group of ballroom dancers went along and danced Viennese waltzes in here. My point being that (austerity and financial crises aside), these sorts of events are far more accessible to more people than perhaps we think. Hence why when I was helping run the dancing society in Cambridge a decade ago, I was able to point beginners to places like this as something to aim towards. Perhaps it’s poignant given I’ve just got back from the Easter Ball of Cambridge Dancers’ Club.

Knowing that we can do and be far better than this

I look around my home town in particular and think this all of the time. My continued research, outreach and analysis is now focussing on a number of specifics. At the same time, I can’t pretend I’m not finding it difficult. OK, no one said this sort of work would be easy. But it’s been a lonely business. Progress has been painfully slow. Resistance, intransigence, weariness and even apathy from many quarters has come as an unpleasant and unexpected surprise. (Yet all part of the learning process).

At the same time, a number of things have happened already in 2014 that even at the turn of the New Year I never expected to happen. In the grand scheme of things, it felt like they came out of nowhere. Yet as my last blogpost showed, I’m moving away from ‘making noise’ to working on specific things with other people. What the outcome of that work will be remains to be seen. But for now, the emotional burden of the past just got noticeably lighter. And that’s no bad thing.


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