Tag Archives: London

The Frozen Fox

ImageBy the time I reached the classroom the rumour had evolved from gossip into gospel. Summonsed from my morning constitutional of greeting the children and their families at the main playground gate, I made my way as quickly as possible down the long, airport-like corridor that connects the four wings of my school. A child had passed the message to me, (in strangled English heavily laced with a Bengali lilt), that a fox was sleeping outside the window of class 6 Yellow.

The thought of a fox in the urban side streets of the city’s poorest district may seem farfetched. In reality, there is probably not a single Londoner who has not spotted one at some point in the past year or so. Steadily, the population of the much maligned mammal has risen as the environment provides plenty of shelter and food scraps.

What started as a group of three living in the thick undergrowth along the edge of the staff car park has risen to a skulk of 10 or more. As their numbers have increased, so has their bravado. They can be spotted several times a day, plodding along the car park, peeking into windows on their way to the neighbouring park. It is possible to spot individuals; the one with a damaged leg that limps along on three paws, the spindly and mange-ridden mother, the sleek and quick male who I remember as a cub last April.

I doubted the sleeping story immediately. The foxes don’t sleep in the open. The path between their car park den and the local park was a motorway to them; a means of getting from A to B. It was familiar to them but equally it was a place of danger. They seldom loitered let alone slept in the open, other than to boldly peek in a window or two as they padded down the cobblestones. No, the fox was surely dead I thought.

And sure enough dear readers, upon reaching the classroom window, I could see it was too still to be sleeping. By now Big Bert, the school caretaker had joined me with a makeshift array of equipment soon to be a fox-disposal kit. “Sleeping, eh?” he winked at me as we opened the classroom door and approached the lifeless body. Our collective breaths froze in the mid January air, as we circled the remains.

Big Bert poked the torso with a litter picker. It was hard, frozen both from rigor mortis and the blast of Scandinavian cold currently blanketing Britain. He lifted the animal up and the body did not change shape. Gravity has no providence in such matters.

I held open the rubbish sack but the weight of the body was too much for the litter pickers; they bent and strained. Bert’s baseball-mit-sized hands draped in thick industrial gloves grabbed the animal by its sleek tail and stuffed it into the bag. A chorus of disgust arose from 6 Yellow and I turned to see 30 faces pressed against the glass; processing the collective realisation that the fox was not actually sleeping at all.

Hello again, dear readers. I offer no apologies for my sporadic efforts in updating this blog. The blog has always and remains driven by catharsis and life has been quieter in the post-inspection era. The school is thriving. Just like the skulk behind the car park.

It was in that moment; the stiff and frozen carcass being lifted by its tail that my thoughts turned to this blog for the first time in months. Something so full of life, now dead to this world and frozen in an un-natural pose, how could one not have drawn parallels with the journey of this blog?

And so, another omen. I poke at these words with a cheap litter-picker to see if I can coax life back into the body. Perhaps I shall try again, when and if needs dictate. Perhaps the rumour was correct: it was sleeping, not dead. 

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 Condemnation

Condemned to Hell by a five year old: strike that one off the Bucket List, dear friends.

The playground at lunchtime is a market place. Children of varying ages compete for the attention of staff. Children, each in their own world, dragging their own personal baggage and level of need. Some hold tightly onto my arms. Others side step my gait, eager to get face to face in order to pass on the details of every injustice bestowed upon them by other children. Others want confirmation that I am, in fact human, asking questions that seem obvious but shows they cannot separate the Head Teacher from the person: “Do you have children? What are their names? Do you tell them off?”

The games I play with them are designed to include as many as possible in a short amount of time. The aim is for dozens rather than a few being able to make contact before the playground bell marks the return to classes. Even then, they trip over my size 11 Doc Martens (equally at home defying the diagnosis of the Diabetic clinic or exiting the playground) as they squeeze any remaining attention from the sponge. “How old are you? My gran is older than you.”

One little girl and one little boy are the first to approach me every afternoon. Both are five and keen to take part in the game of Monster Chase or Sticky Toffee we will play each day. The girl is quieter.

The boy is inquisitive. He is stocky and thickly built. His halting Urdu accent reflects he is second generation Pakistani British. He smiles incessantly, obviously loved and nurtured at home and safe enough in his school persona to ensure he will flourish in the next 6 years with us.

Today he danced alongside me as the children funnelled from their classrooms onto the playground. It was not my daughter’s ages or the name of our cat that he wanted answers to. “What religion are you?” he asked.

The suddenness and bluntness of his question caught me off guard. I stopped and stooped so to look him in face. I had an innate sense that this was an encounter he might remember when he was 20, 40 60 years old and I wanted to handle it correctly.

“I’m a Christian,” I said.

“You will go to Hell,” he blinked back.

“Why do you say that?”

“Because you don’t have my God,” he offered. “You are not Muslim so you will go to Hell.”

To witness someone so young indoctrinated and intolerant drew a sigh from deep inside my lungs as I said, “I think God loves everyone.”

The child, a five year old, shook his head to confirm my damnation.

By now the quiet girl had joined us. I knew her story well as I had been briefed before she had even started her first day at our school. Born in Kabul the young girl knew only war. The same was true of her parents before her and her grandparents before them. She joined us 8 months ago with no English, no writing. The Taliban had banned all girls from education so she spent her days holed up in her Kabul house playing games with her mother.

Eight months on; she speaks fluent English. She writes beautifully and frequently brings her work to my office to admire and discuss. She writes about life in London and how much better it is. She is joyful at the idea of going to school, of being free to walk down the street and feel her hair in the unseasonably cool July breeze.

She is my personal battle with the Taliban. She is one who got away from Afghanistan. She is the one we will save and teach to read and write and think freely without fear of judgement in the name of God. She is proof I will not go to Hell. 

 

Keep the Faith,

 

The Head 

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The Protocol

Not long after the 7/7 bombings here in London; schools were on high alert. It was thought that we might be an easy target for an attack and therefore pages of guidance came pouring through the post box and email inbox on how to respond to potentially dangerous situations. Safety first was the mantra. What you are doing may seem foolish but it is better to be safe than sorry.

And so, as the guidance suggested, we stockpiled bottled water in the church basement for the children to use in the event of a chemical attack. We screened the post each morning, opening letters away from our face in case anthrax had been sent. We set up a code word for use in a civil emergency which parents could to find their children

Arriving one morning for work, a teacher stopped me from entering the gates. A large sack was sat inside the fence and was obviously leaking a white powder via small puffs of wispy fingers caught up on the summer breeze. By now a small group had gathered and their eyes burned on me for a solution to the obvious question that presented itself.

I knew it wasn’t anthrax. I just knew. But the procedures that had been sent to us insisted we err on the side of caution. If in doubt, call the authorities. Don’t worry if it seems frivolous. Let the experts decide.

But alas, dear readers, nobody wants to look the fool. But the bottom line was I did not know what was in the bag. I was responsible for the 200 children who would soon be on site. The protocol was clear; I made the phone call.

Within minutes a specialist national security van had pulled up and erected a tent around the area. Half a dozen men in chemical suits skulked about the van like a scene from E.T. I was instructed by the police to stand in the middle of the road, away from everyone else. There standing in the middle of a London street, a thousand London eyes peering down from the windows, the police watched me for a full 30 minutes. “We had to check if you developed any physical symptoms,” they confided.

No great surprise that the bag contained not anthrax, but plaster. It had been fly dumped by some local tradesman who I am certain has no idea of the local emergency he caused that July morning.

Today, the Rottweiler: my nickname for the Receptionist I keep on a long chain at our school’s front desk was making the calls. The calls are phone conversations with parents of children who have been absent for more than a day. Frequent and dear readers will remember the Frank Cannon blog in which I outlined the school’s ever –increasing responsibilities to ensure children attend.

The Rotty had finished one such call this morning when she bustled into my glass box of an office; the blood drained from her face.

“There is a case of smallpox in the Nursery.”

Yes, I asked her to repeat herself too. “You mean chicken pox,” I corrected her.”No SMALLpox.”

Rotty relayed the conversation she had just completed. It seems a mother of a child spent the weekend in hospital with her daughter who had been diagnosed with Smallpox. She had spots, stiffness and generally was unwell.

“I said to her on the phone, ‘Are you sure it wasn’t Chicken Pox’? And she said no it was SmallPox,” Rotty relayed.

Four headships and I have never had a case of Small Pox in the school. Foot and Mouth, yes. Norovirus? Hell, I shut the last school for two days when 147 children caught it in less than 24 hours. But Small Pox? It was positively medieval.

The bag of plaster went through my mind. This seemed to be a repeat of the feeling. Err on the side of caution or take a chance with the lives of the children?

A quick phone call to the local Heath Authority confirmed that no one knew the procedure in such an outbreak because- uh… this was the 21st century. They suggested I called the National Health Authority for Infectious Diseases. I didn’t want to because, quite frankly, I was going to look a bit of a dick. But in my position…you get the gist, dear readers.

A very nice doctor (I think he said his name was Dr Gary) told me down the line, “Highly unlikely- the last known case in Britain was in 1979.” Dr Gary promised he would ring the child’s GP and the local hospital and get back to me.

It is 6 hours later and he still hasn’t phoned.

I am assuming it isn’t Small Pox. Just like I assumed it wasn’t anthrax. I am sure some where in this city tonight, Dr Gary and the careless plasterer are having a pint and laughing the beer out their nose at the thought I fell for it. Twice.

If you see them, tell them: I didn’t have a choice.

Keep the Faith,

The Head

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The 28th Anniversary

Like all the best immigrant-made- good stories, I can confirm that I had £90 and a cheese submarine sandwich from The Italian Kitchen deli in my pocket.

28 years ago today, I arrived in this country for the first time. Correction: I arrived in any country for the first time. I was 21 years old and had never been outside my native USA. Correction again: I had never been anywhere beyond the East Coast of my native USA. January 15, 1984.

Hours earlier I had left my two roommates in a cockroach-infested basement apartment on the outskirts of Trenton New Jersey. All three of us were penniless students at the local college, living on fried baloney sandwiches and sleeping on mattresses on the floor. We would take our clothes into the shower and wash them as we cleaned ourselves. The ceiling above the shower had collapsed some months prior, in keeping with the general lack of maintenance in the apartment block. Always one to make an opportunity of  a crisis, we used the hole to speak easily with our upstairs neighbour; Winnie. She was a single mother with two beautifully well-mannered kids. For what little we had, Winnie and the kids had even less. We would share our clothing, food and music with them through the opportune hatch in the shower ceiling.

The hours leading up my departure for the airport had been spent partying. It was our way and certainly my trip across the pond to undertake a three-month stint as an exchange student was not a necessary pre-requisite for a party. Even as I lugged my duffel bag to the door I remember my roommates putting on my favourite album of the time. The songs still instantly transport me to that time.

I remember little of the flight itself other than the smell of the marinating onions and good quality olive oil used by the Italian Kitchen deli wafting through the economy class seats.

My first glance of what would be my adopted country was the green patchwork farms of Sussex from the window of the airplane. It was mid-winter and the sight of green grass surprised me. In the airport at Gatwick, I remember the yellow signage pointing out the taxis and trains were alien and distinctly European.

I caught the train to Victoria station in London. As I waited for the staff from the college I would be attending to meet us, I quickly stepped outside and onto Buckingham Palace Road for my first glimpse of London. But that has already been covered in a previous blog.

The staff drove us on a lightning tour of the London sites. Big Ben (St Stephen’s Tower) was in scaffolding being cleaned and repaired. I had no premonition that these streets would become my home, my neighbourhood in the years to come. I was 21. My wife had just turned 14 years old a week prior! I knew no one in the country other than those in the car.

We stopped at a pub called The Stick and Weasel in City Road. Years later I stumbled upon the same pub by chance. On January 15, 1984 I ordered a gin as I thought that was the British thing to do (I had seen the movies), but the mini bus driver advised me that men tended to order beer in pubs.

And so we left London that gray and damp January day for the long drive north to Lincolnshire, where I would be based until the Spring.

28 years later, I am proud of the life I have made. I have a wonderfully close family and many friends. I cannot walk down the streets of this London neighbourhood, in the shadow of St Stephen’s Tower without bumping into someone I know. My wife (now of a riper age) and my children are also well-known to all. I have become a Londoner.

I remind my wife of today’s date and its relevance in our family history. She shrugs indifferently. There is little time for sentimentally when one is a Londoner; you just get on with it.

But I need to mark the occasion.

I put on the old song that played as I exited the cockroach-infested apartment, Winnie and the kids waving from the window.

Oh…I’m living in the future.

I feel wonderful.

I’m tipping over backwards

I’m so ambitious

I’m looking back

I’m running a race and you’re the book I read

Keep the Faith,

The Head

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The New Year’s Eve Party

The New Year’s Eves of my youth perpetuates distinct images. My parents would host a small group consisting mainly of relatives. I would dart about the house playing with my cousins as my father mixed Highballs using Canadian rye whiskey or Southern Comfort in the kitchen. He would venture back into the front room with the glasses and the sound of laughter would increase exponentially throughout the evening. My parents rarely drank (at least in front of us kids) so the unusual act added to the festive ambiance.

As midnight approached, live pictures from Time’s Square would come on the tv. As the great ball dropped, even at a tender age, I had the feeling of time passing: a whole year was slipping away. We would take pots and pans from under the oven and beat them on the front lawn. Guy Lombardo would play Auld Lang Syne on the television.

In the late 1990s, Mrs Head and I came up with a New Year’s Eve plan. Like many of our friends we had small children but didn’t want to miss out on the New Year’s Eve festivities. It had been our habit, before the children were born, to make our way to Trafalgar Square (London’s equivalent of Times Square) to welcome in the New Year with thousands of other Londoners. As the children arrived it became impractical to carry on the tradition. But we didn’t want to lose that sense of revelry so we brought the party to us.

The plan was to host a party where our friends and family with children could come and make merry in a safe environment. The first party was arranged to start on December 31, 1998. Mrs Head suggested it had a theme of Purple in homage to the Prince song 1999. About 2 dozen people joined us that night; drinking the night away, dancing and generally having a good laugh.

With each passing year, the tradition has continued and grown. The children are grown but they still opt to attend our party with their friends which outnumber ours. Each year still has a theme and elaborate costumes are assembled to keep the night special.

A few days ago, we draped ourselves in cockney finery to observe the theme of London and see in 2012. The punchbowl filled with vodka and brandy and fruit juice and anything else in the cupboard left over from Christmas habitually ran dry and needed replenishing. We danced and laughed just like every year for the past decade and more. The children are old enough to join us in Trafalgar Square, in fact they would be more likely to take us rather than the other way around. But we have started something here that is rooted in the pot banging midnights of my youth. And the tradition continues.

As perhaps 100 people gathered in our front room at midnight, I found myself pressed against the wall near the window. I could see my wife on the other side of the room but could not get to her. We made eye contact and tried to move towards the centre of the room to meet. That sense of time slipping away I felt as a child surfaced again, as it does every year as the countdown from 10 bounced off the walls. I dove into the crowd and managed to at least grab her outstretched hand as the Happy New Year shout went up.

Auld Lang Syne struck up from the music system: my traditional nod to those New Year’s Eves of my childhood.

The next afternoon, those who had passed out or slept over began to surface. The flat was a debris field of party poppers, empty plastic cups and beer bottles. Every year my wife makes a (very) late breakfast for those who have stayed and we sit around the table fanning the embers of last night’s hazy memories. It is then we start to decide on next year’s theme.

Such is the cycle of time, dear readers.

A Happy 2012 to you all. I know where I will be seeing in 2013.

 

Keep the Faith,

 

The Head

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The Ghost of Christmas Past

I would have settled for a five foot Christmas tree this year. Yes, dear readers, one as modest as that. And I choose the word settled purposefully. Eight or nine feet of Scandinavian pine has been the norm for the past 10 years; bursting forth from some corner of our front room, every wilting branch poking us in the ribs to remind us that this season is short and the years are even shorter.

But when I suggested the five foot option, it was met with a choir of boos and hisses from my children, just as if the pantomime villain had strolled onto the stage. “But we always have a big tree.” The voices wail, “It is tradition.” Hence the Ghost of Christmas present passes through our front room on the shrill wave of derision.

Charles Dickens is turning 200 years old. The television is constantly reminding us of the fact and England is re-discovering one of its greatest writers as a result. The great characters of Pip, Miss Havisham, Mr Bumble, Uriah Heep, Jacob Marley are being re-constituted for a new generation. For me it has been an opportunity to consider the one innocuous and somewhat banal line from Dickens that has stuck in my mind for decades. It is from the very end of A Christmas Carol; Scrooge has been redeemed and already he has thrown the crown coin from the window for a child to collect a prize Christmas turkey. It is nearly the last line of the stave: “He knew how to keep Christmas well,”

1968: It is the tree; the tree that sticks in my mind. Tall and thin and plastic: it smells of the heat of the attic. The ornaments box is too big for the job of delicately protecting the glass baubles. Therefore the bottom is lined with slivers of sparkling glass and fish hooks to hang the trinkets from the individually assembled artificial branches. The glitter sticks to our fingers. It creates cuts unseen to the eye but felt in the tiniest of nerve-endings.

Wrapped in tissue are the most precious decorations: not monetarily precious but my mother’s most beloved. Three glass birds with plastic plumage: each a different primary colour with contrasting glitter down the side.  They were a gift from my father’s father.

There is a wind up concoction. It has the appearance of a tangle of feathers on a small drum. The base twists and sets the mechanism into action. On top some different bird pecks in quick-fire, metallic spasms to a 4/4 beat. A chime plays out a Partridge in a Pear Tree.

My father hands down the nativity scene from the attic. The figures are too big for a crèche, too small for real life. Instead they give the circus-like feeling of a freak show. Mary is leaning forward with her hands on her heart. I cannot tell Joseph from the shepherds. The sandy bags inside the sheep will stop it from blowing over on the front lawn.

I push my ear into the green carpet at the base of the tree. Andy Williams is playing from the heavy maple-wood hi-fi. His voice sounds underwater as I press one ear hard into the carpet. Silver Bells, Silver Bells, it’s Christmas time in the city…”

Unintentionally camouflaged, the green plastic soldiers I hold are pushed along the carpet. They are defending the white dome. It is the cool white-metal dome that holds the main moulded trunk of the synthetic tree. It is also the soldiers’ fort. One infantryman hold a bazooka, perched on the thumbprint-shaped switch that turns the dome into a music box, slowing spinning the tree to the metallic chime of We Wish You a Merry Christmas.

We want it to be colder. We want it to snow for Christmas like it does on the television. The sweaters and flannel shirts are too hot for this weather.

Andy Williams wants to Let it Snow. But the weather outside is unseasonably warm, not frightful. The soldiers are aligned on the white dome as it rotates; disappearing and appearing again.

Keeping Christmas well.

2011: Older and hopefully wiser, Christmas is about stability and constants. It is about undertaking the same and the familiar. There is comfort in that. Without ever verbalising the notion I have passed it to my own children; hence their abhorrence that the tree could anything other than the 9 foot Northern Fir. Surly and imposing; a tree elbowing its way out of a corner adorned in flashing lights and tinsel, demanding we deck the halls. Demanding.

I drive home on the greasy-wet and glare-drench streets of East London. On the fly-over where the A13 enters the Limehouse Tunnel, I glance south across the Thames. The Millennium Dome, now re-named and reconstituted sits on the southern foreshore. It is white and cold. It is the dome that held the Christmas tree of my childhood, plastic and smelling of the attic’s heat. I imagine my green and plastic soldiers perched on its lip, bazooka’s primed and ready; defending Christmas Past.

I do not fear that Scrooge’s dream-like revelation will be my own. There will be no ghosts to visit me and demonstrate the dangers that lie rooted in my desire for money over love. That was Ebenezer’s lesson to learn, not mine. Mine, dear readers, is that we are defined by our ritual, our traditions. And those traditions are our comfort, not our foe.

Tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy.

Keeping Christmas well.

Keep the Faith,

The Head

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