The Ghosts of Islington


There was one failure, dear readers. Jerking side to side on the Number 19 bus, ironically coming down Upper Street this afternoon I revisited that faux pas in my mind. Images of the time, now ten years dead, resurface behind the wavy lens of memory. It is my Viet Nam flashback sequence. “You weren’t there man. I saw some stuff man.” It is the stuff of clichés. I call them the Ghosts of Islington.

A colleague who knew me well before, during and after is more generous. “It was your difficult second album,” he offers,” Bands who produce a first great album always struggle with their second.” I want to believe him. But I am manic by nature. To ride these streets is to summon the Devil. To negotiate Upper Street is to invite the Ghosts to the table.

And gratefully, gleefully they come. I watch them arise from the frost and car vapour on the short, steep steps that lead onto the road towards Angel Underground Station. The phantoms gray and shouting like Munch’s Scream line the street; perched on lampposts, on post boxes, keen to direct their collective energies at the stone-faced Head on the Number 19.

“We remember you. We remember you. You failed here.”

I had been warned not to take on the school. Warned up until the very minute I put the pen to paper and signed the contract. My first headship had been meteoric. A small and forlorn school in North West London had rocketed from the bottom three into the top three in the area during my four-year posting. I was Midas.

The move I wanted, the new challenge I chose was a notoriously difficult school close to my home. It reeked with a 300 year old history. Dickens himself had walked its halls. Cruikshank himself had left illustrations in the school safe. But time had stopped there. I was briefed that the school had not moved on. My task was to modernise the institution.

I remember a teacher there: 33 years into his postings and days from retirement. He frequently told me the same story, too often in fact for it to be anything but a warning. The Roman general returning from a glorious victory would employ the service of a minion to whisper in his ear as he rode triumphantly through the streets, “All glory is fleeting.”

The story, dear readers, of that difficult second album is best saved for another day. Suffice to say the job was not completed. And the experience remains as the one school I couldn’t save. Dickens himself, mocking my failure, had left me with Jacob Marley’s ghost, tethered to the spot by earthly chains.

It wrangles and unsettles. It reminds me that I am not as good as I like to think I am. And now the Ghosts of Islington rattle the disjointed music from Marley’s chains and whisper in my ear as I ride, ironically, down Upper Street., “All glory is fleeting.”

But I am drawn. I blame the sportsman in me. The scene of my single defeat is the place I want to be.

And so the school in Islington, at the far end of Upper Street but close enough to my second school where the Cruikshanks probably still rest in the safe, is the one I visited today. They need a new Head. They are looking to move on. They need someone with the skills I can bring to the table; the same table where the Ghosts of Islington moan out their ethereal warning.

I walk into the other school where the retiring Head greets me. My posture is assured at the reputation that comes with the record of having redeemed the irredeemable in East London. The retiring Head recognises me instantly, “You had the school down the road, I remember you.”

We walk the school corridors together. It is clear I can have an impact here. It wasn’t me, dear readers who summoned the Roman slave. Regardless he was there, whispering in my ear, “All glory is fleeting.”

“I am wiser now,” I whisper back.

Keep the Faith,

The Head

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