Wednesday, 25 July 2018

A meeting with Robert Scheer and Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Robert Scheer and Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Teachers don't get to meet great people; we don't move in the same circles - but I was lucky enough to have a friend who does, one that was making a documentary on the great Robert Scheer and with an added chance to meet the famous poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Did I want to fly out and perhaps meet these people - maybe ask a few questions? Hell yes, I booked my tickets and was on my way.

The poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who at 99 is still razor sharp, an ideological and artistic hero of mine, the writer of 'Two Scavengers', a poem which I've taught for a good few years, was sitting at his desk with the blinds guarding us from the heat of a San Franciscan noon on a Friday. My burning question of a man that has met and hung out with Castro, Dylan, Ginsberg and Kerouac? What was the reason for his layout in the poem 'Two Scavengers' - across the page - and the possible metre in the poem? Yes, I know, I could have been more broad, but I wanted to show him that I knew of his work... his reasoning was that it reflected the paintings of the time - the use of a divided page; when I mentioned 'beat' poetry with regard to the rhythm, he corrected me and said that was all really Alan Ginsberg, no more. But he agreed his metre had a definite internal, subtle rhythm (well at least I'd been teaching that bit right); still focused on poetry I mentioned how the final lines of the poem finished with the ironic 'of this democracy' and how this hard-edged ending that commented on the USA had stirred unrest in the classroom with a fellow American teacher; he smiled and said that the original line had been 'demi-democracy'; we agreed 'democracy' worked better, but before I could start bombarding him with further poetry questions and thinking I was right there in the 1960s (well, I was but about four), I was quite rightly reminded by Lawrence as to the reason we were here - to talk of his days with Robert Scheer, the acclaimed political journalist and the subject of a forthcoming documentary. Robert gracefully led the discussion and kept me on track, speaking of his being given a job by Ferlinghetti in the early 1960s at the famous City Lights bookstore in the town. It's still open until 10pm, now a national treasure and a wonderful source of literature from around the world. Robert and Lawrence talked of old times and how Lawrence had served in D Day, become a pacifist after flying into Nagasaki and shared their memories of a world in which political debate, in my view centred on San Francisco, was beginning to have world-changing repercussions for Vietnam, Nixon and Human Rights. These two individuals had given the Black Panthers a chance to speak, chatted with Fidel Castro and allowed the Cuban plight to be aired via the literature in City Lights. Whether you agree with the politics wasn't really the point, the aim was to let you decide by reading what all sides had to say.

Lawrence spent a good hour chatting to myself and Robert, but really I just wanted to let these two influential gentlemen talk and hopefully let something of their drive rub off on me. I was clearly out of my depth when Kenneth Rexroth was mentioned as a major influence, but with impeccable manners, both would listen to what I had to blurt out, neither dismissing my somewhat naïve and hurried questioning; but both had the good grace and patience to answer in detail before we descended into downtown San Francisco with Robert for a guided tour of iconic venues that still stand, such as Caffe Trieste, Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope restaurant and bar Vesuvio.
Stephen French and Mike Poore (DP) interview Robert Scheer

But I'll leave all that for the Documentary. Needless to say, it was a memorable time as a motorcyclist stopped and pulled over to tell Bob what a great job he did - and still does, shouting across the traffic ‘Thank God for you Bob’ reset the visor and roared away. A couple of kids in a playground would call out 'are you making a film - can we be in it?' My teacherly caution cut in and I prepared to brush them off, but Robert would immediately stop mid-filming and ask them about the school, how they were doing, interact and engage. I know it sounds obvious, but his approach and openness was a lesson to me.

I left Lawrence's flat with a firm shake of the hand in the muted colours of the room, down the dark, wooden corridor and out into the searing sunlight of the North Bay area of San Francisco. It was all so modest, quiet, considered and peaceful. Yet I was fully aware that my time with these two great men was a once in a lifetime experience for me, something that will inform my teaching - and my approach to people for the rest of my life. Openness, generosity, debate.

Robert Scheer and Stephen French of CodeFrench in conversation

Wednesday, 17 May 2017


                                                                                             Response given to 'Stage RAW':

I wandered into the Bootleg theatre on the recommendation of a friend and discovered a powerful combination of excellent writing, several hard-hitting performances and a couple of superb vignettes on the subject of this all too present issue. The 90 minutes flew by. I not only saw a well-observed relationship (tightly acted - auto-pilot clearly disengaged) which subtly revealed all the realistic awkwardness of a couple on the last legs of a relationship, but it was the accuracy of the friendship observed between the two female leads that blew me away - here we see all the tension, cut-throat competitiveness and surprise compassion between two female actors faced with an industry masterfully personified by a man in a Chesterfield.  To sum up that scene as 'fun' is a little simplistic in my view; in fact to say these issues have been addressed before is also a little reductive; so no more plays and films on 'the industry' and it's tribulations? 

It would be all too easy to create a play that focuses far too earnestly on its chosen issue, and I've seen plenty that do; but this doesn't at all. This is a story told with purpose, but what made it special for me was how it mixed this with humour, pace and a genuine subtlety of observation for the way people react in a competitive world.  I've no idea how such chemistry was created, but you really should witness this.


Thursday, 3 September 2015

New posts - my Acting stories - see below and the page to the right...

I'm going to post my acting stories online - feel free to comment - unless you're a h8ter...

Saturday, 2 May 2015

A week of teaching...

I get an email from middle boss after dutifully putting requested work on her desk - go see the boss please...  sounds ominous.

Okay so, the idea is to give you an insight as to why you don't hear from me very often and why, perhaps, I bleed from the ass on a regular basis and hey, just how are things with you lately?  Well, lately I don't go to many of those parties either so don't need to reply with 'bleeding from the ass actually...' amongst other things.

Amongst 'other' things being me frenetically trying to get all the coursework in at the college - that's 307 separate pieces of coursework accounted for, signed for, annotated with my red pen of wisdom, hole punched, cover sheeted and connected via those little green bastards called 'laundry tags' and - oh yeah - assessed for a grade that may ruin the next ten years of the students' life or enable them to move on with a degree, MA, Phd and house  in the country with two beautiful children and a people carrier.  So no real pressure here to get this done but let's just say I've been on this since the 1st April; phoning, emailing students who've forgot, didn't know, didn't realise, didn't care, didn't live on the same planet but are still very ready to point out where the blames lies when the big fat 'E' comes through their door on the 21st August.

Fuck 'em you say; yeah why should we bother?  Because if we don't get the grades then the college looks bad, gets less funding, less students elect to go here, they close the course, the college rationalises and I end up looking for work.

So, back to the boss.  With several piles of coursework surrounding me and trying to plan lessons at the same time, I head down to see what he wants.  The look is similar to one used if you're due a beheading, he calls in his fat, nodding assistant, also sporting the look of a coming execution.  Stay calm, think through your reply...

'I'd like you to explain what this is...'  miraculously the  work I gave to middle boss is now on big bosses desk - a set up!  And she asked so nicely.  You mean the Formal Assessments - that's what I have set this week..'   (oh, by the way, on top of the 307 pieces of life changing coursework and lesson planning, there's also the formal assessment needs setting and marking 'within one week please...' problem is I teach Film GCSE and AS, English Literature AS and A2 and GCSE English.  That's quite a few formal assessments - but hey - know what?  I got in ahead of the game and set them, marked them, stuck them on the computer all within the week - ah - wrong.

Seems like I set the wrong questions.

'Why did you not set the full exam like your manager asked?'  So that's why she asked for my exam papers and ran. His tie is multi coloured, his triangle of colour sticks from his upper lapel, his brightly polished brogues edge out from the garish blue of the made to measure suit.  He sends his kids to private school, wouldn't dream of trusting them to us.

'I didn't know we had to - I thought - as per all formal assessments - we set the question we think is proper and maybe, as the expert (he doesn't teach - tried it for two years and went into management)   we might be trusted with setting the right question suitable for the students at their stage of the course?  Which is section B, which is what they've been studying' (because I'm their teacher), because you don't teach, because you have no idea what stage they're at.

'Have some respect' says the fat assistant head, hands knotted across her stomach.  'Respect?' My voice is too high, my cheeks grimacing, my teeth are baring, all too much.  'Yes I taught IT for eight years and I know about workload', 'that's not the same subject, that's not nearly the same amount of coursework - why don't both just get behind us teachers instead of constantly finding fault?'  She narrows her eyes and takes an intake of breath - something she must regularly do with students but doesn't expect to have to with teachers; but then again, she's decided to go along with Mister No Experience across the room, she will come face to face with angry 'workers' like me.  Must me very annoying for her.

'Did you not read her email?'

Of course I bloody didn't.  Middle manager held such bad weekly meetings which descended into shouting chaos after thirty seconds she was told to send an email - the email was largely the same seven pages of generic crap every week with the odd hidden demand somewhere along para 37b.  Well, you know what?  Didn't manage to read it this week - she knew I wouldn't - the trap was set - I even collected the evidence for her; might have been something to do with 307 pieces of coursework, marking the formal assessments and perhaps even planning those pesky annoying lessons we're supposed to spend 1.5 hours on planning for every hour we teach.   I teach 22 hours, so that's 32 hours planning - 57 hour week before I mark the homework and coursework? - Yeah - don't be daft.

'So you want me to set a full exam - for every student?'

'Yes'  Assistant nods sagely to my left hand side.

'Not physically possible' My reply.

I calculate the existing 55-60 hour week and add a whole new set of Formal assessments into the bargain.

'Every other department has done it'

'Every other department doesn't need 25 minutes to mark each essay'

(It's gonna be a 71 hour week, by the way, I'm paid £28000 for this)

'I need to known when'.

The Sociology teachers pitch up, do not react quite so aggressively, explain like naughty schoolboys. It's like we've been called into the headmaster's office, the problem is that this is someone actively destroying what's necessary to help these students pass.

So... march out - set the new full exams.

Second year A level students on Monday?  They just do it - good on 'em.

First year students on Tuesday - eleven of them march out.  Tears, anger, depression, panic attacks. Yeah I know what you're thinking, get a grip etc.  But this is their exam, they've just lost two hours of valuable revision.  Their walking out the lesson maybe their own fault, but it didn't need to happen, it shouldn't have happened.

I don't report it, because she'll somehow turn this into a bigger problem and I just don't trust the witch anymore.

She puts an invite on my desk - 'come to my birthday...'

I decide that silently getting on with this mad workload is the answer - kicking up a fuss and saying I've got too much on will only make things worse with such arseholes.   And the ass is now bleeding on a regular basis.  Stress related they'll say.  You think?

Thursday - I plan my speech to the first year A level and deliver.  'Do not interrupt me for the first five minutes' I give them the talk about loyalty, I'm a loyal teacher but I expect loyalty from my students despite unreasonable, no-notice requests to sit full mock exams; that might mean an apology before walking away, an attempt at the paper, but not storming out, metaphorically flicking the Vees. Ironically as I give the speech I realise I'm explaining to fifteen people why I do this job; that I want to do it, that I used to have a better paid job, that their constant attempts at progress, at homework, at persevering; at politely listening to my tedious speeches and anecdotes for ten months... and then throw in an inspirational (practised in the toilet - fourth time that day) 'together we could be the highest achieving class in the country - if we could all just get a 'C' or above'. They get it.  I'm drained.  It's five minutes into the lesson, feels like Friday afternoon and I'm exhausted and ready to cycle home.

As I do a one to one interview with one of the students they say they knew I was being forced to carry out a stupid request and that it wasn't personal, but I realise it's hit home and I almost shed tears with emotional relief and have to turn away and wipe my glasses. They individually apologise because they're decent, intelligent individuals and I'm ready to lay down my life for them all over again.  But all this was an unnecessary trial which hasn't helped their preparation for the exam one jot, it's just got in the way.

Oh and the coursework?  Haven't touched it - 60 essays later this week and there's still twelve to go (that's a few hours marking), so what about the students' essential coursework?  It's forty per cent of their mark...  strange how the middle manager isn't about to answer such problems.  'Smile everyone' she'll say as she wanders in.

Bank holiday weekend - but the weekly memo (which I read from cover to cover) stipulates all mock exam results are due online by Tuesday, so you know what I'm doing this weekend - not writing this bastard blog.   I need to go to the toilet...