Yesterday, I was walking through the car park
on my way to Morrisons when I said to myself
“I think I’d rather go bowling instead. I’ll go bowling
and eat fries out of one of those little paper bags,
and Coke from a Coke bottle, drinking it
without the bottle touching my lips,
like in the adverts.”
I go bowling and play a two-player game against myself.
It’s an interesting battle. Player one has a lovely technique,
spinning his medium-weight ball into the pack of pins
accurately but without great force.
Player two is the fans’ favourite. A showman.
They love the way he looks up and says a not-quite-silent prayer
before heaving the ball down the lane, brutishly,
fist-pumping in his opponent’s direction.
Afterwards, I go to the Counting House for a pint
and read a story in the Mercury
about a Mr Jez Wilkinson of Kibworth Harcourt
and his prize-winning courgette.
Later, I indulge in some light graffiti,
drawing a magic mushroom smoking a spliff
on the rear wall of the pub, before
making my way to Morrisons.
It is rare that a spoken word video is viewed by 10,000 people; rarer still when viewed by 100,000.
It is therefore surprising to find a video on the subject of higher education that has amassed two million views in four months – a viral sensation that many pop stars would be happy with.
The video http://youtu.be/y_ZmM7zPLyIcalled Why I Hate School but Love Education, by Suli Breaks, makes the provocative suggestion that much of what goes on in university education is a waste of time, and more valuable learning might be gained informally.
Those of us who have been to university know there is some truth in this. There can barely be an undergraduate who has not sat in a lecture theatre wondering: why am I here? Or, perhaps: what have I done to deserve this?
It is also true that many people leave university with the rather depressing attitude that they are done with education, as if the learning part of their life is over.
So, I am sympathetic with the overall line of argument. But the way in which Suli delivers his message is so skewed and misleading, that instead of agreeing with him I found myself alarmed.
He begins by reminding us that society suggests higher education might well be a good thing, and that your family may agree with that sentiment.
He then asks us to look at the statistics. Here the trouble starts. Instead of quoting statistics, he provides examples of the net wealth of seven entrepreneurs, including Oprah Winfrey, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and Richard Branson.
The connection is that these people did not complete higher education. The point being that they didn’t bother wasting their time with such trivialities as gaining a degree, and got on with becoming hugely successful, and fabulously wealthy, instead.
At least one of these people would be deeply offended with their life story being misused in this way. Oprah Winfrey initially left college just one credit short, because she had secured a job. As a woman who grew up in extreme poverty that was understandable, and the fact that she later graduated shows the value she placed on her own higher education. That she has since built an academy for underprivileged girls in South Africa underlines her belief in the power of higher education.
Another of his statistics, Mark Zuckerberg, was at Harvard when he came up with the idea for Facebook. He trialed his business model there, using his fellow students as guinea pigs. It is unlikely that Facebook would exist in the way that it does if Zuckerberg had not gone to an elite university.
However, the deeper problem here is that these people are outliers, who bear little or no relation to what most people gain from going to university.
Then came the part which I found not just wrong, but odious. Suli says:
Some of you will protest, money is only the medium by which one measures worldly success and some of you will even have the nerve to say: I don’t do it for the money. So what are you studying for? To work for a charity?
This I found offensive because he suggests university is only about earning lots of money. About the destination, not the journey. Should a person, when beginning an English Literature degree, really be thinking about the job at the end, not the deeper understanding of the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare? This ‘money over love’ argument is deeply distasteful to myself, and also, I suspect, to the majority of our fellow spoken word artists.
His talking derisively about working for a charity reveals a lack of awareness of what that type of work can mean. For myself, over the past four years, it has meant working for a charity that I care about, and doing a job that gave me personal satisfaction way beyond the pay packet.
All that I have outlined would be clear to most people who watch the video. So, why, you might ask, has it gained so many views?
It is because he provides a seductive message that higher education is not the key to success. That it is boring. That it encourages limited thinking. That it won’t get you that dream job.
This can be partially true. At a time when university education is relatively expensive in the UK (although not compared with the US) and graduate jobs are hard to find, some young people might like a video which encourages them to at least question it, or, judging by the comments on YouTube, dismiss it. What he makes no mention of are the positive benefits of university: the opportunity to study a subject you might be fascinated by, to develop your critical thinking, while also meeting people from different backgrounds and having the time to develop your extracurricular interests.
It is potentially inspiring to say that lacking a university education is no barrier to greatness.
The more prosaic truth is that you are more likely to get a satisfying, well paid job with a degree than without one. That is the argument the UK government gave when introducing tuition fees.
Social mobility in the UK is very low in comparison to other rich countries http://gu.com/p/37mev/tw. There are many reasons for this. One of them is that for middle-class children going to university is a fact of life. For many working-class children university remains an unlikely dream, or perhaps not even that.
I can understand why Suli Breaks became disillusioned at university. He may have chosen the wrong degree for him and was not inspired by it. He may have had an idealistic view of university life which was not fulfilled. He may have found that the people around him were no more intelligent than those from home. But if he were, in 10 years’ time, compare which people were doing better – those who went to university and those who did not – he might produce a video which encourages people from BME and working-class backgrounds to take the life-changing opportunity that is university education. It wouldn’t be such an easy message to get across, but it would be a lot more useful.
“I’m big into integrity,” said the poet Tshaka Campbell. “I’m not going to write about something like an abortion from a woman’s perspective because there is no way I could know what that is like.
“I don’t like poets who write a break-up poem and you say, ‘have you ever broken up with someone?’ and they say, ‘no!'”
Tshaka shrugged, and smiled, as if to say, “how ridiculous is that – to even think to do something like that?” And many of the crowd at Bang Said The Gun, a popular spoken word night in south London, laughed with him.
I didn’t laugh. I didn’t laugh because I was too busy wondering exactly how dangerous a joke like that is. He was effectively saying, in a flippant, light-hearted way, that if you haven’t directly experienced it, don’t write about it.
Which set me thinking: would he have told Hubert Selby Jnr to not write the rape scene in Last Exit to Brooklyn because he was not rape victim nor rapist? Would he have told Patricia Highsmith not to write The Talented Mr Ripley because she had no direct experience of murder? Would he have stopped Shakespeare from writing anything but the occasional poem about his early years in Stratford-upon-Avon?
I suspect not, because he would see that these were serious writers and would do what he could to encourage them. So I do not believe that he meant this joke to be taken as a general truth.
However, even if we look at the specific example he sets – that of the poet writing a break-up poem without having experienced a break-up – we can see that even this is wrong. For example, we know that Morrissey was famously celibate and had no boyfriends or girlfriends during his songwriting heyday in the 1980s.
That didn’t stop him writing one of the greatest love songs of all time, There is a Light That Never Goes Out. He was able to write this song, not because of a love that he had directly experienced, but because of his unique sensitivity to the human condition.
To give Tshaka the benefit of the doubt, he might have meant that if a writer writes about a difficult subject – a break-up; an abortion – and does not fully think through the subject, then poor quality writing is almost certainly the result. But that could equally be the case whether someone has experienced something or not – anyone who has been to a few open mic nights knows that.
Tshaka Campbell has been writing poetry for 20 years. The crowd was full of people there to see him, the headline act. Many were no doubt writers or aspiring writers, likely to be influenced by this charismatic performer and therefore take his ill-judged joke seriously.
I would be really sad if an aspiring writer came away from that night and decided to steer clear from daring, imaginative work, and write only from their own experience, because they believed it more artistically credible to do so.
The present glut of poets, and Campbell is not one of them, who seem to only write in the first person, suggests that the ‘only write from your own experience’ philosophy has its adherents. What I would like to see is more poets bravely experimenting with different styles and techniques – developing characters, writing from unusual perspectives, using satire and irony – before hitting upon a style which suits them.
As the songwriter Conor O’Brien, from the band Villagers, said in a recent interview:
“It was Dylan who made me realise that you could just lose your mind a little bit, and sometimes when you’re adventurous and you have that spirit in you something quite fundamental comes out.”
Which seems like a much better piece of advice for a writer than telling them what is off limits.
So perhaps Tshaka Campbell should impose a small limitation upon himself: stick to performing his often brilliant poetry, and leave the jokes to the comedians.
Don’t call him that
wears cuff-links and tie-clips
runs the tightest of tight ships
is not having any
‘this story can’t be written the way that I imagined it’
a local newspaper editor as he lives and breathes
if you sliced Mike Beard open
he would bleed the finest newsprint ink
the kind reserved only for front page leads
newspaper executives are impressed by his boundless
enthusiasm for sacking staff and driving down expenses
just as hairdressers are by his insistence
that he still has need of their services
hates the needless use of long words and phrases.
Why, he asks, with an uncomprehending shake of the head,
would a reporter use the word dictatorial,
when they could use decisive
multicultural, when they could use foreign
or person affected by Down’s Syndrome
when they could simply say mong?
Like a particularly excitable pyromaniac
Mike Beard is delighted every time he hears
reports of arson. He marches into the heart
of the newsroom and demands to know who
will be covering. The reporters, all of a sudden,
become obsessed with the carpet; apart,
on this occasion, from me. Without the slightest
awareness of personal space he gets up in my face
and demands to know the questions I’ll be asking.
Before I have a chance to answer, he’s reeling
off questions like an insane hostage-taker
makes demands. He wants to know the precise
height of the flames, the top temperature of the blaze,
the true nature and scale of the victim family’s pain.
While I frantically make notes I know his main interest is not in me accurately
reporting this petty tragedy, but in ensuring
every success I have looks like I have failed.
And I wish, instead of smiling compliantly,
I had the guts to say
I can feel the great, frightening vacuity
of your existence. In every blundering
assertion of your authority, lies a desperate,
haunted fear of redundancy. That day which you
picture so clearly, when you are forced out
of your high-backed black leather editor’s chair,
pack up your framed motivational quote
by Steve Redgrave, hand back the keys to your
executive saloon, so you have to take a cab back
to your four-bedroom home in Cooden
in which you will live out your days, on your own,
sitting on your leather recliner, incandescent
with rage at the shoddy quality of TV journalism,
which you would never, have never put up with
before switching off, to take solace in Bruce
Springsteen’s tales of hardbitten working men,
blubbing like a child as you listen to Born To Run’s
saxophone solo, wishing that you’d had, just once,
a pretty young secretary you could fuck.
I’ve just been treble-kissed by a girl in a work email
she’s asking me to help her review some text
but could it be that she loves me, as this email,
with its treble-kiss plus smiley face sign-off suggests?
Or does she, in her beautiful, youthful folly
treble-kiss everyone, flippantly, thoughtlessly
thereby degrading the entire email kiss system
not caring what colleagues take it to mean?
Or does she operate a precise kiss system
based on inverse proportion, meaning the three
is one and one is three, rendering this treble
as meaningless as a peck on the cheek?
Or is it a habit she developed after
falling in love with the XXX movies, making
these kisses not kisses at all but a simple,
yet knowing, nod to the great Vin Diesel?
No, that’s unlikely.
Perhaps she does genuinely fancy me
but is asking me to complete this task
to assess whether I have the makings
of an obedient and subservient boyfriend
She’s probably one of those women who moves in
within days of your first date, then stops you
having evenings with your mates because you’re
saving for a wedding you haven’t even proposed for
Almost certainly she’s the kind of nightmare girl who
watches every calorie, bans you from eating carbs,
then cries if you so much as cast a lustful
glance at a cheese and onion pasty
I look at the email with disgust. I complete
the task in good time, and when I send it back,
sign the email with no smiley face, and only
a single kiss, to show how much I hate her.
A couple of Saturdays ago, I was stood in the middle of Brockwell Park for an appointment with Gary From Leeds and photographer Susannah Ireland. It had been mild all week and not bad earlier that morning, but now the weather, in respect for a Yorkshireman in a municipal park facility, had pulled out the freezing cold and driving rain.
Gary was there, enjoying the bleak weather, in tune, as it was, with his general outlook on life. Susannah was there, a woman used to being sent out to all manner of grim and unpromising destinations for her day job as news photographer for the Times. So it was just me amongst us who wondered whether doing a photo shoot in these conditions was a good idea.
I wanted to suggest a postponement, when Gary pulled out a 35-metre length of yellow rope from his bag. “I thought we’d tie ourselves up in this,” he said with an enthusiasm he usually only shows when talking about David Batty.
Susannah, who as a brilliant photographer has a taste for the diabolical and downright weird, then wrapped the rope around Gary and I, saying, “If you want it to look good, it’ll have to be tight.”
When the two of us looked like characters Samuel Beckett might have created if he was being particularly unkind, Susannah began snapping. For the next hour, with the weather worsening, she trooped us about the park until we are both the very definition of dishevelled.
We were there because Gary and I are planning a spoken word show at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and needed some publicity shots. It is called ‘The Long and the Short of it’ and will essentially be a poetical journey covering key topics such as food, fonts, ring-roads and death. It will have facts, lists and statistics and perhaps the odd limerick.
And if this photo shoot is anything to go by, it will be a bit of a struggle to create, but the end result should be pretty good.
What rhymes with bigger? What rhymes with trigger? What rhymes with figure, jigga, gravedigger and cigarette? What rhymes with the friend of Winnie the Pooh who wasn’t Eeyore, Christopher Robin or Piglet?
It’s a versatile word, yes, but the world would definitely be better if every rapper was banned from using his favourite epithet It goes without saying that its flippant use in pop songs has got to be wrong To spray the word like dirty fertiliser upon the earth To use the term to wrap raps around is absurd When we heard that if this word was spoken by black men Their contribution would always be token
Maybe, But why did Ice Cube name his band NWA and not BMEMWA: Black Minority Ethnic Men With Attitude? Could it be that he had learnt that men like him Had spent 400 years not even being seen So when he got up on the mic Forgoed platitudes about the American Dream Instead got heard by lacing his verse with savage language So a racist could hear everything he was afraid of From unrestrained hate through to pussy lust and gun love
This wasn’t high art But vexed brothers blazing a path Giving a generation of wordsmiths the chance To exercise their first amendment right to rhyme tight On worthy subjects like hoes, blunts and Smith & Wessons Until rap became more all-American than John Wayne westerns And 20 years after Straight Outta Compton And two decades of relentlessly negative self-portraits of black men America had such a low opinion of this race of untermensch That they rejected a white war hero, and elected a black President
I have written a poem about snow. And, to prove it, here it is. I hope you enjoy it.
Cool and patient
I stand at the station
waiting for the commuter train which may or may not come.
The 7.54 has been cancelled
some say there’s still hope for the 8.17.
I’m cool. I’m patient.
I’ve been here too make any quick alterations,
too long for any big deviations.
Snow is falling,
gentle as a lover’s little finger stroking the back of my neck
which, through some sort of El Nino effect,
causes a loudspeaker to blast a harsh message
announcing the suspension of passenger services.
Shoulders slumped, curses muttered,
the wage slaves shuffle out
barking into phones about working from home
and when I’m left on the platform all alone
bend to gather a handful of snow
make a soft, sweet ball
and have a throw.