It’s That Parallel Universe Again …

In which The Author writes an open letter to his student friends

This should have been my last day of University (barring a couple of exams in May). You’re all on Facebook, boasting that you’ve submitted your last assignments, dissertations, portfolios and everything else. In a Parallel Universe, I’m desperately trying to get Turnitin to work (which it never does) and get my hard copies stamped at the Admin Office before 4 p.m. After that, I’m going to the Students’ Union with you to raise a well-deserved glass or five in celebration of a job well done.
Instead, I’m sitting in a town centre pub in Aberdare, having been unemployed since the summer. I explained the reason for this in Everything Changes, so there’s no point in reiterating it here.
Being unemployed is a two-edged sword. I’m in the pub because I couldn’t afford to pay my phone bill. Consequently, I’m no longer online at home. I have to pick up free WiFi where it’s available. Fortunately, the two pubs in which I’m a regular have given me the access codes, so I can use their systems. The free time has enabled me to extend my knowledge of Linux and other open-source software, which I wouldn’t have had time to do while I was working. I probably wouldn’t have had time to do it while I was studying either. I’m still the go-to guy when it comes to IT. I even earn the odd pint now and again.
But being stuck in Aberdare, a town with a very large number of ill-informed, poorly educated, narrow-minded individuals, means that I’m not getting the intellectual stimulation I need. After all, most people I meet seem perfectly happy to talk about sport, or TV, or reminisce about the good old days, or discuss trivia.
When serious issues do raise their heads, it doesn’t take long before ‘it’ (whatever ‘it’ is) is blamed on foreigners, immigrants, Muslims, or some other intangible generalised group. In exactly the same way, the Nazis demonised ‘the Jews’ as though they all formed one homogeneous body with a single agenda. The Welsh working-class must be amongst the most right-wing people imaginable, as I discussed in <a title="No Future" href="; target="_blank"No Future.
The biggest back-handed compliment that someone can give you around here is to call you ‘College boy! (or girl!)’ Because it somehow implies that you’ve turned away from your roots and become one of ‘them’ – whoever ‘they’ are.
I remember the first time that someone called me that. I was in the lift of Hirwaun Flats, going to visit Mams. I’d come straight from school – an absolute nightmare journey for me, because it meant that I had to travel two miles on the bus, through Penywaun and Trenant, amongst some of the dregs of the school. I know I’m going to sound like Peter Hitchens on a grumpy day, but looking back, I certainly didn’t associate with them. We lived in a nice semi-detached house in Trecynon, my parents were both working, we were generally law abiding (apart from the odd bit of railway line trespass), we didn’t watch video nasties or porn films, we didn’t drink, smoke or do drugs. Our parents made sure we were home by 9 p.m., and when we went into town it was to shop on a Saturday, not to hang around the streets in the evenings.
In 1977, when we were the last intake into the Grammar School (see School Reunion), the politicians and educationalists were claiming that putting pupils of all backgrounds and abilities under one roof would allow the standard of achievement to rise overall. The competitive nature of the new system would, the argument ran, enable the stronger pupils to thrive and encourage the weaker ones to push themselves harder. It would be a real-life version of Waterloo Road, where a few dedicated and inspirational teachers would empower their charges to turn their lives around.
The educationalists and politicians were wrong, of course, as it didn’t take people long to realise. What really happened was that our classes became filled with aggressive, amoral, anti-social, disruptive, dysfunctional, disinterested individuals who were only there under duress. Vandalism, loutish behaviour, bullying, fights, truancy, and abuse of teachers and pupils (both verbal and physical) increased sharply. It seemed as though teachers were dividing their time between teaching and peace-keeping.
My friend Julie F. (Veiled Vicki’s older sister) teaches in the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham. She started wearing a pale blue beret to work a few years ago. Most of her colleagues and pupils thought it was just a cool fashion statement. (Julie teaches art, and always dresses strikingly.) Only a few of them realised that it was a sly reference to the headgear worn by UN forces in war zones across the globe.
Anyway, on this particular Friday afternoon, the bus was chock-a-block with foul-mouthed, unruly, shaven-headed younger teenagers. I shouldn’t be at all surprised to find that some of them are still around, waiting on the benches outside Sheppard’s Chemist for their methadone. I was glad to get off the bus at the Prince in Hirwaun and walk the short distance to the Beacons.
And, while standing in the lift, with my chosen reading matter sticking out of my blazer pocket, I met a complete stranger. I had no idea of his age, but he was a grown-up. That’s all that mattered. He pulled the book from my pocket and eyed it suspiciously. It was J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion.
‘Oh,’ he said, handing me back the book with a strange look in his eyes. ‘College boy, eh?’
I can only assume in retrospect that, as it wasn’t a thriller, a western, a book about the war, or something to do with coal-mining or railways, it was outside his sphere of interest. Just reading the title had obviously told him that it was way above his (self-defined) intellectual level. I wasn’t ‘the same’ as him.
And it’s this same inverted snobbery that has led to the Welsh working-class being even more politically downtrodden, impoverished (both financially and culturally), and spiritually deprived, than they were a century ago. After all, that was the time when the great Workingmen’s Institutes were key features throughout the valley communities.
With their free libraries, meeting rooms, dramatic and operatic societies, these imposing buildings acted as bases and catalysts for self-education. They were the incubators for a new generation, the illegitimate children of the 1870 Education Act and the socialist drive towards self-empowerment. Some of these valleys autodidacts rose to political high office. Others achieved fame as writers or performers. A fair number stayed closer to home and became teachers, inspiring the next generation to transcend their roots and reach their full potential.
I wonder when everything changed, to the extent where education became something to treat with disdain, or to mock, or to vilify, or to reject entirely. It certainly happened somewhere in that period between my leaving primary school in 1977, and 2012 when I should be finishing university. I really don’t envy anyone who wants to teach in the current climate. I suspect that things are going to get worse, in spite of successive governments pledging to improve standards. They haven’t managed it in the last thirty-five years.
We’ve gone too far down the the American route of gang warfare and drug-related crime to turn back now. The lowest common denominator looks set to inherit the Earth, just as it inherited my school in 1978. Reading a quality newspaper, or finishing a book, or even holding a reasoned conversation without resorting to violence, is way beyond many of today’s youngsters.
Trapped in a media maelstrom of vacuous and transient ‘celebrity’, unable to distinguish fiction from reality, their minds blown on drugs and cheap alcohol, worshipping American ‘culture’, their attention spans restricted to the three seconds it takes to change channels on their Sky boxes, their weekends consisting entirely of the three Fs (Football, Fighting and Fucking), their sole concern is to get rich or famous (or both) by whatever means necessary.
They conveniently ignore the fact that most people don’t reach those dizzy heights. Without a skill, or some qualifications, or some accidental discovery of a latent talent, they’re going to be on the scrapheap by the age of twenty. Again, without wanting to sound like a Daily Mail columnist, a large proportion of the working class are a disgrace to their forebears who struggled to improve their lives and the lives of those around them.
Today, the students I met at Glamorgan have reached the end of their three- (or four-) year journey. What will become of them, I wonder? I know that some of my friends have already applied for PGCE courses. Are they going into teaching because they want to, or because the economic situation makes the job market too fiercely competitive? Is it just a way of putting off the inevitable?
My cousin Adam has an MA in Archaeology and ended up working in a Wetherspoon pub in London before he embarked on his teacher training. He’s only recently been able to secure a full-time position – in a profession which (we’re constantly told) is currently experiencing a skills shortage.
Have a look back over my blogs since September 2009. Read my rather jaundiced comments about the piss-poor standards of literacy, numeracy, and ‘General Knowledge’ among some of my fellow students, and then you’ll see why I’m not especially upset about not finishing University. It’s arguable that many of them lack these basic skills because their own teachers had failed to grasp them.
There’s little doubt in my mind that this Compound Disinterest will increase in the next generation. My old schoolfriend Mark W. graduated from the same institution last summer, with a First in Politics and Sociology. He was the only one of his group to achieve that grade. He’s signing on as well.
In today’s environment, when everyone gets a dozen A* grades at GCSE, and everyone pisses (no typo!) their A levels, a well-typed CV and grammatically-correct covering letter automatically flags up the overqualified. Maybe there’s some truth in the old saying about the Valleys – ‘If you want to get on, you have to get out.’
Perhaps twenty years from now, Aberdare will be little more than a dormitory for Cardiff and Newport. Of the original inhabitants, stubborn, embittered old souls like Mark and I will be left here. We’ll be drawing our pitiful state pensions and reminiscing about the good times, when the coalmines were open and the town was thriving.
Of course, in yet another Parallel Universe, I didn’t fuck up my Chemistry A level and went to Bradford University. I graduated with a BPharm and went to work for Sheppard’s. In that particular scenario, I’m there now on a Friday afternoon, dispensing methadone to Aberdare’s smackheads. There’s always someone worse off than yourself, after all. Even if it’s you!
So, to my friends down at the University for whom this particular stage of your various journeys are ending, I wish you God Speed on the next stage. Wherever you choose to go and whatever you choose to do, I’m glad and immensely privileged to have known you all. At least, unlike the last time I didn’t finish University, we’ll be able to keep in touch virtually. And I sincerely hope we do. It’d be nice if you’d give a stubborn, embittered old soul some cause to smile now and again …

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