Category Archives: The Big Wide World

The Homeland Diaries

Bone cells last the longest. Regenerating every 30 years, they are the oldest cells in our body. Our stomach lining is renewed every couple of days, red blood cells 3 times a year.  So there is nothing of this place left in me. None of this dust or thick, humid, mosquito-plagued air permeates my being. I have London skin, English blood, British bones forged from 30 years of wet brick and the breeze off the Thames. My building blocks are of fish and chips and strong beer and the breath of passing tourists from around the world.

But I am acutely aware that this is home. This is the land and community into which I was born. My fetal cells, child cells, teen, were all collected on an isthmus of land sandwiched between swamplands and the Delaware River. That child was built of maple trees and flying cut grass. He was forged in summer sunlight, bright enough to turn the highway white.

ImageFrom the height of the great green steel bridges that straddle the river I gain my first view of the town.  The canopy has thickened in the 30 years since I left. Lush, green, inviting, the leafy clumps are enriched by the slow flowing marsh.

But it is cancerous, toxic and silent.  I swivel my head across the landscape left to right from the chemical plant at the north end of town to the south where it disappears into the swamp amidst charismatic churches and bait shops.

My maternal grandparent’s house was a copy of every other one on their street. A functional box design, it nested between a toxic, foul smelling canal that poured perpendicular from the sprawling chemical factory that employed half the men in town.

We lived down the street until I was 3; the house behind the fire house. Tacked to the wall above my bed, a large map of the world was the last thing I saw as I fell asleep.

ImageAt the other end of the street a copse of 100 maple trees hides the chemical factory gates. The trees are not so close together as to provide cover. There was tokenism in mind when they were planted. Like the canal, they draw their lifeblood from the chemical tainted waters deep underground. They are contaminated and poisonous.

It is one of my first memories- the great maple trees towering overhead, their trunks far too wide to embrace. Their paper bark peeling away perhaps blistered and burned by the chemical water table.

My grandparents would hide Easter eggs there in the hollow and knotted feet of their roots. Pastel colours of a hot water and vinegar dye, they would dot the copse like phosphorus mushrooms fed on the noxious emit of the chemical plant.

I expect the maple trees in the copse to be 500 feet tall by now. Nearly half a century has passed. But they are not. They are the same height I remember them as a child.

My grandparents house has been rebuilt and is unrecognisable.

I look to the white hot highway. It is the fierce summer sunlight that turns the world the colour of faded Polaroid photographs. It is the sunlight that awoke the child behind the firehouse, illuminating the global view above his bed.

We would sit on the curb in that white summer heat watching the parade of veterans and marching bands some pageant queen perched on the back of a convertible.

John ran the shop across the street. He was old and sold soda from a fountain that was antique even then. After church we would go in for a pretzel rod or a banana popsicle. John was kind, quiet sort of man.

I heard the adults talking. John had gone to Greece and died.

I asked where Greece was. The explanation was far across the sea. I was thrilled. Thrilled to learn there was another land beyond the seashore.

I associate this place with boredom and that association has not left me 30 years on.

It is not real. It is a snap shot. I measure myself against it and make a notch on the doorframe.

My mother tells the story. I have no recollection of the event at all. The facts are diluted and shaken in the space of a generation. I ran with a branch around that maple tree. My aunt tried to take it from me but I eluded her chase, falling and somehow ramming the stick down my throat. The hospital extracted it and the distance by which it missed my larynx shortens with each re-telling.

I do not recall one dot of the event. It is folk lore to me. But the paper thin bark peeling from the maples, the pastel coloured eggs, my grandparents’ house built by Russian tradesmen are all clear.

At two years old I could have lost my voice.

But I have not lost my voice. I have a voice.

-Southern New Jersey

Summer 2012

Keep the Faith,

The Head

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The Serbian Shot Putter

I am not invited to the party. The roads are closed. Many of us are leaving town.

2000 soldiers guard a great crystal bowl turned upside down. I press my nose against the glass and fog my view. Visitors to the city, my city, politely squeeze past and enter the party bowl. I am invited to watch on tv or for £15 a big screen in a park.

We are the old women outside the church watching some unknown bride.

Optimism once reigned supreme. Seven years on when the preparations became part of each day’s conversation have been building in crescendo towards this moment. MacDonalds and Cocla Cola are crowned. Long live the King the corporate suits cry out. But This is not about the burger. It is nominal and exclusive. The lack of a debate about the whole morality issue of corporate influence to the point it is unapologetically accepted.

It is the party we are not invited to.

So the teams sometimes in groups of half a dozen, sometimes in pairs, sometimes alone.  They wear matching chinos and sporting tops. They photograph everything looking for Sherlock Holmes and Harry Potter.

Team Indonesia holed up in the Waldorf. The Swiss tucked up behind Southwark Cathedral. The streets filled with the sporting fruits of Polynesia . Everyone is lost and asking for directions. Where is the Oxford Street?

Instead I walk along the Thames towards Tower Bridge. I want to see the rings simple and still meaningful to me; hanging from the ramparts of Tower Bridge. They are still the rings of Munich of Mexico City, of The Games with soul still in situ.

At first glance I thought he was wearing a varsity jacket; the Serbian shot putter. Squat and rooted in the earth. Thick, unmovable like a tree trunk.

I walked behind him for about 50 meters from the reconstructed Globe, lovingly rendered so not to look like a Disney attraction.

He slipped into a nook outside the Anchor pub on Bankside. I wanted to stop and share the legend with him: beneath the pub is a fabled tunnel into the Clink prison next door. But my Serbian does not even extend to hello.

The shot putter is young. In his jacket he reminds me of my high school days. I watch him until he notices that I am staring. It dawns on me that he is a sentry; standing guard as I take my leave from this city.

Someone sends me an email: ”We all need to go home every now and then.”  I have not ventured onto the  soil of my birth for nearly half a decade. It does not feel like going home. It feels like I am taking refuge.

Keep the Faith,

The Head

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The Beatle

As if on cue, the dead rose from Forest Lawn.  Discarded bin liners and copies of the Daily Mail stuck to their legs and they stiffly found their balance and staggered towards the mass of people paying homage to a distant messiah-like speck on the horizon. We nodded along to the music, raised our hands when directed to and shouted out the Messiah’s name as if he could hear us from 150 meters.

The whole day had been in jeopardy. Three months of unseasonably cold rain had made London’s green fields a sea of mud. The concert venue carefully segregated from the rest of Hyde Park had been turned into a sea of clinging mud and rough wood chip.

I have lost count of the number of times I have seen the man perform now. Bruce, The Boss, Springsteen, whatever he is known as; I have been attending his concerts with loyal regularity since the mid 1970s. Then I was a young teen following the music that the older kids were listening to. Eventually the music became a reflection of my own life. But each time I had seen him play, the crowd around me had gotten older. I hadn’t aged; of course, I was still the child of the 1970s hung-over from Woodstock and embracing David Bowie. My arthritic hip prodded me in the side reminding me that youth was an illusion.

We had arrived two hours before he was due to perform. My wife suggested we sit on the plastic bin liners she had brought in front of a big screen on one of the few relatively mud-free areas of the venue. We sat back to back, drinking vodka and munching magic brownies as we waited for the show to begin. Others joined us on the grassy knoll and soon about 20 small camps filled the space. I took great consolation in the fact I was neither the oldest nor the fattest concert member- not by a long shot.

The brownies worked their magic and I sought out conversations with those camped around us. The man behind us, far too young for the woman he was with, smoked a cigarette which caused huge dismay to the people behind him. In that passive aggressive tone only a sanctimonious ex-smoker can recognise, the indignant woman invited him to blow his smoke in a different direction. I invited him to blow it our way not just t remind myself of my Benson and Hedges days but also to counter the aggression with a spirit of “all is cool.”

I made the observation to my wife that the knoll now resembled a cemetery.

As the chords of the first song were struck, the 50 bodies on the lawn began to complain in unison that they couldn’t see. Their small claimed patch of little England had been infiltrated by people actually wanting to stand, dance, interact with the performance. I struggled to my unsteady feet and hoisted my wife upright. I was a child of Woodstock, not the Stock Exchange.

And at the concert’s end, a Beatle walked on stage. I had waited 35, 40 years to see one of the Fab Four in the flesh and the moment had come in a muddy field where the Stones had played their legendary 1968 concert for Brian Jones. It was a defining moment for me in my 50th year.

And then the sound faded out. Curfew. The rich and powerful residents that live in the multi million pound apartments along Park Avenue had lobbied Westminster to ban any noise after 10.30. The moment was gone, evaporated.

I shouted out my disgust and raged against the system. I turned to vent my disgust that the free spirit of the 1960s was gone, replaced by the selfish gaining the moral high ground. The Beatles were either dead or had sold their soul out long ago.

 

Keep the Faith,

 

The Head

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The Interpreter

More than 40 languages are spoken by the children at my school. English is (sometimes) one of them. The children quickly become immersed in their adopted culture and language and as is the case with the young; pick up a new language at rate far ahead of their parents.

Luckily, many of our 84 staff speak at least one of these community languages and are able to act as a translator for me when I need to communicate technical issues to parents with still a very cursory understanding of English.

One 6 year old was brought to me today by a rather embarrassed teacher (unrelated fact: she is from Poland). The young child was from Sri Lanka and his mother, suitably new to English so that she needed to support of my Tamil-speaking teaching assistant in order to make sure she understood everything that I needed to convey.

Her young son, for the second time in the past month had exposed himself to another child. This is not as unusual as it sounds and happens a few times a year. Usually it is a gesture used by children to gain a reaction from their peer and thankfully only rarely a reflection of distressed behaviour.

The mother sat across from me in my glass box and stared intently at me as I told the interpreter what I wanted her to relay.

“Tell her that her son exposed himself to another child.”

The interpreter looked at me rather vacant and it was obvious that she herself was struggling to understand my intent.

I needed to extrapolate and said bluntly, “He showed another child his penis.”

The interpreter quickly looked away and at the floor as the reality dawned on her.

She nodded and drew breath, seemingly summoning the strength to pass on the message.

Her few sentences in Tamil sparked an animated conversation which lasted several minutes. I listened passively to the exchange. Both seemed confused as they chattered away pointing at the young boy and gesturing to the empty spaces around them.

Eventually, silence. The interpreter turned to me and said, “Mother says there is some mistake she never sends him to school with peanuts”.

Keep the Faith,

The Head

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The Wedding Reception Conversation

A few weeks ago I found myself deep in the Essex countryside attending the wedding of two old friends/colleagues. They had been a couple for a long while and indeed we had worked together in another time, in another school, in another part of London. Both are fine teachers with unique strengths. Their early courtship was kept private from their colleagues (and myself), harboured safely in the clandestine glances and nuances of language that I never seem to decipher.

Indeed when the prospective groom came to see me in my West London office, in order to finally apprise their love to their fellow professionals, I thought it was a joke. I laughed heartily until I realised my male colleague was not laughing with me. He was merely smiling.

Fast forward 5 years and I am in a tastefully decorated marquee on an Essex farm drinking pink champagne and catching up with former colleagues from that West London school. One had moved on to a village school in Hampshire, another was working for a left wing think tank. Our former senior teacher had left teaching all together to raise a family in the French countryside. It was the newly provincial mother I found myself talking to over my sixth glass of champagne.

“I have been reading your blogs, but you need to write more of them,” she shouted in my ear over the sound of the band playing an old Motown classic.

It has been just over a year since a childhood acquaintance inspired me, via her own blog, to start a journal of my school’s adventures as it moved from failure to success. It was true then and now that I wanted the blog to be an exercise in catharsis, a chance for me to release some of the inner demons knocking about inside my head. If others found that notion entertaining so be it. The first rule of Head Lines was it is cathartic. The second rule of Head Lines is: It is Cathartic.

So I make no apologies for the infrequency of recent entries. I don’t think that this is down to a lesser need for inner cleansing but more to do with busy schedules and shifting goals. The period occurring in the few months after school’s success has ushered in a range of personal physical changes. In January I quit smoking. In February I joined a gym. In April I was diagnosed with diabetes. In May I turned 50 years old.

So the outward looking symbolism of the blog’s first year appears to slowly giving way to a more introspective theme. So be it. As if to reinforce the notion the diabetes clinic has told me that I should abandon my trusted size 11 Doc Martens in favour of something kinder to my feet. (Remember, dear readers, equally at home marching through a period of transition as well as…well…at home in the bottom of the wardrobe).

Keep the Faith,

The Head

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The Venetian Diaries

Oh the irony! I am scribbling the draft of a blog on snatched hotel stationery;  at a corner table in Harry’s Bar where Hemingway wrote Across the River and into the Trees.  It is humbling. Papa himself always sat at the heavy oak corner table. The panel walls are more English than Italian. I press my cheek to the warm wood and I detect a waft of his ghostly breath.  It smells of Prosecco and a fresh peach Bellini, it smells of Aperol and gunpowder.

The barman is dressed in an art deco period white dinner jacket and black bow tie. It is 10.30am and far too early to be dressed this way. He serves us rough, broken almond shortbread and the best coffee we have had in two days. Without speaking my wife hands me more paper as I furiously write. It is like she is feeding the furnace of a steam locomotive.

Days ago the doctor confirmed I was diabetic. The unwelcome but inevitable family inheritance has come home to roost at my 50th birthday. I picture my father: confused and lengthening vacancies in between insulin injections. I think on my sister’s half amputated foot. Her organs burned out and propped in her coffin at the age of 47. I think on my maternal grandmother; sweetened blood bursting the walls of her 57 year old heart. Their genes half century ticking like a time bomb deep in my bones.

Ernest knew. Hemochromatosis. His father had it.  Oinbones showed the same symptomatic signs. He didn’t wait around. Heavy drink and see the world until the small hours of the night when he swallowed that shotgun.  He knew how the story ended because he wrote it himself.

And in this bar: Harry’s Bar, dear readers, Hemingway wrote a novel about the ages of man. He wrote about our creeping greyness and thickening blood and the lessons we learned as we think back on our youth. He wrote about seemingly meaningless acts 30 years prior that take on new meaning and symbolism as we ponder them from the vantage point of age.

Once I knew a Venetian. She was the only one I ever met. 1983: the communal payphone in the university dorm rung for me. A halting Italian accent on the other end is Paola, my roommate’s legendary friend. We call him Jarhead as he is an army brat and has lived all over the world. Memory does not afford me the story of how they met; no doubt at some sunny Mediterranean military base. Jarhead  had spoken of the girl he had met and her promise to one day show up on his doorstep in America. Now she had made good. She is at the Port Authority bus station in the city. She had made the long trip alone; across the sea from Venice. The army brat does not know. We entice him into the car with some concocted tale of an emergency situation in the city.

Paola surprised Jarhead.  His face was consistently stone and never betrayed by emotion. He cracked that night.

Paola- petite and exotic with the soul of an artist stayed for weeks. I was painting a mural on the wall outside our dorm at the time: a screaming white mask with heavy dark eyes. One night, Paola deliberately painted the sole of her right foot with the remnants from the black can and pressed the print on the wall. There it stayed for ever; or at least through 1983, reminding us that she had passed through.

And now, thirty years on, what do I remember of that dorm room? The aging lazy boy recliner we had rescued from some vacant lot, the mural outside the door and Paola’s footprint on the wall.

And now, thirty years on, I was in Paola’s city, in Pound and Maughan’s bar,  at Hemingway’s table.

An elderly American tourist shuffles past the door of Harry’s bar; white Reeboks and a baseball cap with the name of a battleship on it, “Bridge of Sighs. Not size. It’s SIGHS . You know- exasperated”

The skin of my face seems to be collapsing and collecting in my vast double chin in every photo that I review on our camera.

My wife laughs as I tell her, “ Mr Pineapple would like the Bridge of Sighs, he is naturally exasperated”. The elderly American tourists shuffle onto the Ponte della Paglia in white Reeboks and jostling to have their photo taken. Bridge of Sighs: the prisoners last view of the sea and sky before descending into the darkness of prison. How ironic thousands turn to looks at it, their backs to the sea and sky every moment since.

My feet are swollen. We walk and get lost. We stop for a coffee and get lost again. There are no cars to watch out for. The last of the cars are abandoned on the end of the long bridge Mussolini built to the mainland. Boats are the default setting for transport. Boats and feet. I scan the lapping canal water at the base of crumbling facades. I am looking for Paola’s left footprint on the wall.

The plague ravished this city. It did it time and time again between the in the 14th and 17th centuries. Half the population would eventually succumb. Venice, it seems,  has never recovered from the shock and every few meters there is a reminder of the tragic past and frailty of life. Every other shop window contains the mask of a plague doctor: black shrouded and with a long hollow beaked mask. 400 years ago the beak would be filled with herbs as a misguided science against the disease.

The city is stunningly beautiful. Built on pines driven into the mud 1600 years ago and now long petrified; the medieval homes of wealthy merchant survived while the rest of Europe burned and burned again. The crumbling plaster falls from the facades, wooden bare shutters drawn throughout the day. It is the aging beauty of Sophia Loren. Weathered and lived in, radiant and timeless.

Look closer: skulls are chiselled and sculpted into the walls. Stray cats are held in high regard. They keep the rats at bay which rules this city by night. Despite the reputation I have yet to see one and it disappoints.

We have lunch in a rough eatery in the Rialto market. I have Pasta Pescadore. I am Col Kurtz. Sell the house, sell the kids. I am never coming home.

I am reading a guide to Venice’s 400+ bridges. I coax my wife on the long walk to Ponte Delle Tette. “This I have to see,” I tell her as I relay the story of how 15th Century prostitutes would stand topless on the bridge or on nearby balconies. It seems this was a quality assurance exercise. Mrs Head reluctantly poses on the bridge in a more dignified and modest pose.

Our hotel bed is positioned facing the window, not the telly. I like it that way. A switch to the side opens the electric shutter and the lagoon is in front of us. A day of boats on shifting water remains in my inner ear and the large bed rocks with my lingering equilibrium. I shut my eyes and my sea legs wobble.

My wife is silently reading a guide to Venice Bridges. She tells me the story of the Ponte Dei Pugni: the Bridge of Fists. In the 17th Century fights on the bridge were common place and an accepted means of settling disputes. “There is a marble footprint embedded in the stone of the bridge,” she reads aloud, “to mark the spot where the fighters stood at the start of a bout.”

And so it was. I scuffed the bottom of my walking shoes, my swollen feet on the marble footprint. I pushed off of the spot with the same foot my sister had half amputated. I was a fighter. I am a fighter. I pushed off from the footprint and shadow box on the bridge. I will not succumb like Ernest did. I can change my destiny.

Paola’s footprint now forever linked on the Bridge of Fists.

I thumb through Hemingway’s Across the River and Into the Trees:

 

‘Tell me some true things about fighting.’

‘Tell me you love me.’

‘I love you,’ the girl said. ‘You can publish it in the Gazzettino if you like. I love your hard, flat body and your strange eyes that frighten me when they become wicked. I love your hand and all the other wounded places.’

 

Keep the Faith,

 

The Head

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The Test Event

There are less than 100 days until the Olympic Games come to London. I know it, the kids know it and with the amount of media hype around the landmark 100 day countdown, I imagine there are some comatose patients at University College Hospital that know it. The large custom-made clock, the one shaped like the 2012 Olympic logo (and affectionately known to Londoners as the Lisa Simpson blowjob- look at the logo for yourself and you will understand)   has been ticking away in Trafalgar Square, for the first time, displays the DAYS TO GO in double digits. Woo hoo.

You will forgive me if I seem cynical, dear readers. I didn’t start out this way, honestly. Flashback to an early summer afternoon in 2005, finishing lunch in a school I was visiting somewhere in Chelsea: an unknown teacher burst through the door breathlessly announcing that London had got the Olympics. I remember a feeling of elation and surprise we all expected Paris would get it due to Britain’s involvement in George Bush’s Second Iraq War. The elation came as it dawned on me that the greatest sporting show on earth would be coming to my home and I would be a part of it.

I was even more thrilled when in 2009 I took on my current school, deep in the heart of the East End and in the sight lines of the new stadium. Immediately, I forged every link I could with the Olympic powers. Our school was one of the first in the country to be awarded the Olympic Quality mark. In my head I harboured a great dream of our school’s children taking part in the opening ceremony. And that’s where my enthusiasm started to unravel.

I approached the organisers with a request for a set of large Olympic rings to put in the school entrance. Denied.

I approached the organisers with a request to use the Olympic rings on our school letterhead. Denied.

Denied unless we were a corporate sponsor that is. MacDonald’s, Coca Cola, Visa could all use the logo but a local school was not afforded the same opportunity. The lottery for tickets came and went and no one I know got a single seat at a single event. This was about the same time polls were being published reflecting those who lived in the shadow of The Games were feeling disenfranchised from them. Increasingly 2012 was becoming a sponsored corporate money event that had nothing to do with the city at all. Yes I was naive enough to think it would be different.

So I made a display from the posters that the organisers sent our school (instead of a set of rings). I blew up the balloons that marked the countdown from 300, 200, 100 days to go. I planned for the school to shut early and open late to accommodate the Games.

I went to the meeting called by the local government in which we were briefed on security and how it would impact on our school during The Games. We learned that staff could not drive to work, that stations would be closed and to expect journeys taking two hours longer than usual. We learned which of our children’s’ families were being watched by unknown security police.

At some point The Games became something happening to us, not for us or even with us.

But still I tried to keep positive. When 20 tickets for the Paralympics arrived at our school, we were thankful. At least a handful of the children would get the Olympic experience.

And when 16 more children were invited to take part in a Test Event at the Olympic Park; one which aimed to smooth out the kinks in a 90 days to go dress rehearsal, of course we said yes.

The bus that dropped the children off at the edge of the Olympic Park went as far as security would let it. In the pouring rain the children had to walk from there. A few were in wheelchairs and were pushed along the sparkling new pavements until…well until the pavements were no more. The park is still a building site and finishing touches are being undertaken everywhere. It was vast and windswept in the unseasonable cold rain. It had the feel of a sea-shore pier before the season had started.

The walk was compounded and complicated by the pockets of ongoing construction. The group, wheelchairs in front snaked around the back of the stadium like a train. Nearly an hour after being deposited by the bus we had arrived at the arena.

“We have a shuttle scooter for the wheelchairs,” an organiser announced.

I wanted to award a 10.0 to the man for stating the bleeding obvious.

As the event wound down to its conclusion, our staff noted some of the other schools with wheelchairs leaving the arena early. Outside 50, maybe 100 wheelchairs stood in a long line waiting for the single shuttle to take them back to the gates.

“We will need at least 10 shuttle scooters for The Games,” an organiser announced.

And so this once in a lifetime event will pass me by. I have begun to look at air flights for the period just after July 27 so we can leave this city to its party. I haven’t been invited, nor has anyone I know. It will be the neighbour’s big shindig on the other side of the wall and we can listen to the dance music and hear the merriment all night but we will never be invited in.

The school is expanding. A new extension is being built. The architect asks me what pattern I want in the brickwork. I ask him to do the Olympic Rings. It will immediately identify the date it was built for all eternity. That will be this school’s Olympic participation. That will be my addition to these Games so long-awaited. By the time the bricks are laid, the corporate sponsors will have long left town in search of the next hyper venue. The bricks will be there a century, maybe more.

 

Keep the Faith,

 

The Head

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