In April 2012, for Napowrimo, I wrote a series of poems about Tory Education Secretary Michael Gove. Or, more specifically, about a cardboard cut-out of him. See, Gove did something that year which no Education Secretary had done in a long time, if ever: he refused to address the annual conference of Britain's biggest teachers' union, the NASUWT.
This presented NASUWT General Secretary Chris Keates with a problem: one of the major set-pieces of Conference is the General Secretary's reply to the Ed Sec's speech. With Gove having chickened out of attending, there would be no speech to reply to, and no-one to whom she could address these remarks.
Keats got around this by making a speech to a cardboard cut-out of the Secretary, which she stood next to on the platform and harangued. It seemed a fair swap. The cardboard Gove was two-dimensional, flimsy, lacking in substance and had no real ideas about educational policy: in this respect it was hard to tell the difference between the cardboard Gove and the supposedly real one - a conceit I decided to run with in the first poem of the sequence.
Maybe Gove feels that he lacks substance as well, because at this week's Tory Party Conference, not for the first time, Gove decided to pitch up at Manchester rolling with a crew. Maybe he did this to disguise the flimsiness of his material, like a rapper getting loads of people to do guest spots on his album to cover up the fact that he's only written enough stuff for about three full songs, or a stand-up hosting a chat show in a break between tours: he trotted out one of his old numbers, the 'enemies of promise' bit, but mainly allowed others to have the stage, padding out his time while also making him look super-magnanimous: we had George Parker, an ineffectual American ex-union leader turned corporate shill; we had a lady who got somewhat over-excited over the opening of a free school in her area, and who brought her wee one along with her to elicit a little more emotion from the audience; and most interestingly we had a guy called Lindsay Johns, who Gove brought along to provide some ideological cover for an attack on 'trendy teaching' and 'political correctness'. Here's the Mail's report of the speech, which is interesting both for the Fail's sheer joy at having found a black guy who can say stuff that sounds even more right-wing than one of their leader articles, and for a priceless photo of Gove and George Gideon Oliver Osborne making 'interested faces' while Johns speaks.
What's this guy selling? Johns is, according to the Mail, 'a writer and broadcaster who runs a youth programme in Peckham'. I can't find any record online of him running a youth programme, but he does do mentoring work for an organisation called 'Leaders of Tomorrow'. A Guardian profile indicates Mr Johns used to write pieces for that organ until 2009. His last piece for the Grauniad was a defence of Derek Walcott's right to be Oxford Professor of Poetry despite allegations he had sexually harrassed a student. After this he began writing a blog for - well, well! - the Daily Mail: a fact that paper seems curiously unwilling to mention in their fawning article about his speech.
Johns is again referred to as leading 'a youth mentoring scheme' on the website for The Sage, Gateshead, advertising a talk he gave as part of last year's Free Thinking Festival, the theme of which is that we 'should stop listening to young people'. I've never really worked as a mentor to anyone, but I would imagine that working as a mentor to young people and at the same time believing we 'shouldn't listen' to young people might create some rather interesting cognitive dissonance. But I digress.
What interested me in the hoo-ha about Johns was a phrase that kept popping up in the tweets I read about his speech: 'bling culture'. This kind of phrase-making irks me because it's so much a feature of the discourse that makes idols out of people like Johns. Basically it works like this: if a problem primarily affects young, working-class and/or BME people, the media and the politicians decry it as a 'culture' issue. Gun culture. Knife culture. Drug culture. Bling culture.
The next stage is that the media and political classes start giving out about the need for 'role models' to appear and lead the poor benighted denizens of these cultures out of their stupefied bondage to the knives, the guns, the drugs and the bling (which almost always seems to consist of stopping them listening to those damn hippety-hop records, incidentally).
There are all kinds of problematic assumptions which underlie all this. There's the assumption that people in the groups which have these cultures can't think for themselves, and need messiah figures they can mimic in order to stop being lesser breeds without the law and start behaving like decent, civilised people. You know. In a lot of ways, they're like children. Am I the only one who finds this assumption kind of racist?
There's the assumption that only certain groups get to be called 'cultures' and need 'role models'. The Houses of Parliament enjoy a lot of cheap, subsidised alcohol, and there have been skirmishes in the bars there as a result - but no-one suggests Parliament has a 'booze culture' and needs the shining example of a role model to lead them to a brave new sober future. Two girls got raped at Latitude, but no-one is decrying the excesses of Poncy Festival Culture and calling on indie kids to put some role models forward and get their house in order. Some cultures, clearly, are more equal than others in this view. Hmmm. I wonder what they might have in common?
And there's the fact that it's far, far easier to bemoan a knife/gun/drugs/bling/fishcakes culture than it is to address the deeper economic or social factors that might lead kids to carry knives, take drugs or fetishize bling - not that that's the reason politicians are so keen to trot it out as an idea, of course. Oh no.
On the same day that Johns decried 'bling culture', Boris Johnson made a speech. Johnson, as Mayor of London, presides over a city where locals are being priced out of the housing market to clear space for luxury flats to be erected for wealthy oligarchs. Are the Tories really going to claim they can't see why that might lead some people to think that their only chance in life is to get rich or die trying? Come to think of it, is Johns really going to go on about 'bling culture' under the auspices of a gang of people who are paying security guards to keep an eye on their £45-a-bottle champagne? Maybe that's okay, though: it'd only be Bad Bling Culture if it were Henny or Courvoisier G4S were guarding. Important to keep up with what's U and non-U, after all.
It's pretty clear that Johns has spotted a gap in the market and decided to insert himself into it aggressively. He's playing an old and profitable game, flogging a position that makes privileged people feel better about their own views about education, and peddling the usual straw man nonsense as a way of promoting it. I've worked in education and I've never seen these 'down wiv da kids', 'hip-hop Shakespeare' lessons he talks about - I suspect they exist in the same universe where 'Baa Baa Black Sheep' has been banned for being racist. Most of the teachers I know are less concerned about 'making things achingly cool and hip' than just controlling their classes, getting kids through their exams and surviving the ridiculous workload they have to deal with without burning out. And I believe in the need for a more inclusive curriculum and I haven't had a 'Rolls Royce, Oxbridge humanities education'. I went to a comprehensive and got my BA from a former polytechnic.
Johns talks dismissively about young people using 'street slang that makes you sound like you've had a full-frontal lobotomy'. Well. When I did the Architects of Our Republic workshops back in August I met a lot of people at the youth group workshops who did use quite slangy speech when they talked to each other, though when they talked to me they code-switched to some extent, as you'd expect - but none of them sounded lobotomised (such a wonderfully ableist phrase, that, by the way). And I was impressed by the work all of them did. In fact, at the final performance at the South Bank Centre I thought some of the people from the youth workshops did some of the best poems on the night. Those young people didn't sound lobotomised. They were passionate, articulate, dedicated, inspired, and inspiring. They were reading out work that mattered to them, into the writing and performance of which they'd poured craft and graft, effort and enthusiasm, inspiration and perspiration. They were seizing the moment, that summer night, to say something about things that mattered to them. To tell their truths, from the heart, in the language that felt most real to them, which in no way sounded lobotomised, whatever register they happened to be using.
What they were not doing was spotting a niche in the market and insinuating themselves into it. What they were not doing was crafting their image and presentation in such a way that they could flatter the prejudices of an audience from which they would always be separate, accepted at most in a conditional sense. Their words weren't cynical and calculated, but urgent and real.
And that, pace Johns, made them worth listening to.