I always want to say positive things about Mike Leigh films, and see the creative glass as at least half full, so I will. How good it is to see a feature film set in Britain, full of interesting, believable characters living normal lives that are suffused with decency and sanity, laced with happiness and sometimes sadness.
Good casting, interesting locations. The two central characters, Poppy and Zoe, are young, enthusiastic, conscientious, idealistic yet realistic teachers. They have a great relationship with one another, and with their pupils. The (female) head of the school is professional, caring and motivated. They provide classrooms where there is an equal emphasis on creativity and literacy. The one positive central male character in the film is a young, good-looking social worker cum education welfare officer who is called in to work with a boy who is aggressive and a bully, though not in any over-the-top way.
The other male characters are a curious mix of saddos and sickos. Poppy’s youngest sister walks out of an involvement with a hopeless urban dropout who seems to be borderline impotent and highly emotionally illiterate. Poppy’s other sister is pregnant and married to a passive and somewhat henpecked young man who’s main interest in life seems to be playing computer games, when his wife allows him to. He goes along with her idea of sensible bedtimes.
Poppy and her girlfriends go to all-night sessions at clubs at weekends, get drunk and stoned, look after one another and generally love one another. Poppy goes to trampoline sessions at the gym, and to flamenco classes run by a passionate and eccentric Spanish woman whose husband has been cheating on her with someone a lot younger.
Halfway through the film Poppy inexplicably wanders into a dark, derelict factory when she hears a strange wailing voice calling out through the darkness. It belongs to a large, hairy tramp, whom she talks to and tries to help by offering him money for a night in a hostel. He’s clearly schizophrenic but Poppy sticks around anyway and exudes sympathy and concern, whilst we just wonder why she doesn’t just do the sensible thing and fuck off out of the situation before she gets attacked and raped.
Poppy, in spite of her relentlessly cheerful, positive and jokey attitude, is clearly very tough and unafraid of anything her city life confronts her with. She’ll take on bullies, nutters and arseholes in her calm, positive, sympathetic, intelligent way, no matter how unpromising the situation.
The main dramatic element in the film is her relationship with her driving instructor, a Grade A fruitcake, trying to keep his weirdness and aggression suppressed within a cloak of professionalism. He’s a seething mess of resentment, frustration and prejudices, all of which are barely held in check, particularly when confronted by Poppy’s constant provocative cheerfulness which at times seems to spill over into grinning loopiness.
I just wish Mike Leigh and his editor had been a bit more vigilant in putting a brake on the loopy stuff, and letting Poppy show the more serious and reflective side of her character. Here’s a potentially brilliant young actress who needs more help in developing her performances, especially when portraying someone as complex and unusual as Poppy, who almost loses one’s affection and empathy through too much grinning and apparent dipsiness. The Zoe character, on the other hand, is played to perfection.
Towards the end of the film we’re forced to sit and wonder why Poppy doesn’t just abandon the driving instructor and find someone decent as he becomes increasingly bitter, verbally aggressive, threatening, and eventually turns into a stalker. I’d have baled out halfway through the second lesson.
Mike Leigh, however, wants to show us that someone as strong and caring as Poppy can potentially take on the world and all its ills, and come out on top. Not that she’s able to change the mad driving instructors and crazy tramps of this world into happy-go-lucky wholesome people, but she’s able to show them that she’ll do her best to be on their side and help them overcome their pain and misery, no matter how crazy and scary they are.
In the final scene of the film Poppy and Zoe float calmly and peacefully on the clear, still waters of a beautiful lake, side by side, using an oar each to move and steer their boat. The film has hinted throughout that there may be a physical element as well as emotional, spiritual and practical elements in their relationship. Clearly they love and respect one another, as best friends must.
“We’re getting quite good at this, aren’t we?” says Poppy. And indeed they are.
Can we ‘immunise’ young people against unhappiness and depression?, asks Madeleine Bunting in this week’s Guardian, in an article headed Happy Mediums. This is the aim of a “groundbreaking project to teach emotional resilience”. Hmmmm.
I’m torn between cheering enthusiastically, or saying ‘here we go again’, and thinking what on earth do these specialists and journalists imagine the best teachers have been doing in schools for decades? Just teaching the National Curriculum? Patience, calmness.
This American-inspired project sets out to teach children the basics of ‘positive psychology’, the basic premise being that in order to live happier and more fulfilled lives we must habitually pay attention to the positive elements in our lives and see them as glasses that are at least half full and not complain about and worry about them being half empty.
The project sets out to demonstrate to children that pessimistic thoughts can become self-fulfilling, while optimistic thoughts have more constructive outcomes. We need to keep situations in perspective. “We’ve got a culture of pessimism, and a lot of the problems today are because a lot of parents are like overgrown children,” says a teacher in on of the participating local authorities. “I’m teaching what the wise man [and presumably wise woman] of the community might be doing.” This is a teacher who has seen for herself that most children in South Africa, for example, whilst materially much poorer than ours, tend to be happier and more emotionally/spiritually intelligent.
The project aims to give children ‘a set of emotional tools that will help them to deal with the knocks of life’, and with lives that are often full of abuse and neglect. The children appear to be enthusiastic, and enjoy the role play and games. They appear to develop higher degrees of self-confidence and ability to handle emotional conflict. Life can be filled with laughter if we can learn to see ‘the funny side of things’. Children also need to learn that ‘you reap what you sow’. A lot karma, indeed.
Children clearly need to learn how to handle anger and frustration, which we’ve known all along. If this hasn’t happened by the time they get to teenage then they really are in trouble. This is what is meant by the need to ‘immunise’ them.
The real question for me is why training colleges and universities haven’t seen this all along, and made this the central issue in training teachers. The clear answer is that they used to focus more on the entire range of developmental needs of children, but thanks to government and Ofsted with their ‘relentless’ pressure to ‘raise standards’, and to do this by putting far more emphasis on what the teacher does, rather than what children need, things have changed. The full force of demands has been to drop what the political Right (which includes New Labour and workerist lefties) see as artsy-fartsy touchy-feely stuff (role play and games indeed!) and concentrate on the ‘basics’, meaning teachers' ability to push and cram children through National Strategies, and raise scores in tests and exams.
All of these people, being materialists, have a mind-set that says the only way for kids in inner-cities to live happier and more fulfilled lives is to get fistfuls of exam passes, get themselves to university, get highly paid or at least well paid jobs and move out of the inner city ghettos, as they see them. Increasingly they are ghettos without pubs and clubs for adults and families to meet in or open spaces for kids to play in because of New Labour’s relentless pursuit of targets to replace pubs and other sorts of meeting places and so-called brownfield sites (which used to be where people actually worked in their local districts) with yet more blocks of flats and bijou houses. Starter homes indeed. Communities indeed.
So out with personal, social, emotional and spiritual development (whilst still paying lip service to it in obscure QCA ‘guidelines’) and in with more and more ‘booster’ classes in didactically taught phonics and writing ‘lessons’. Not that they’re writing for enjoyment or for their own reasons, or for a proper audience. There’s not even reading as we know it, Jim. It’s not proper and pleasurable reading for meaning any more. It’s not enjoying what the great books and stories teach us about life and about ourselves, teach us about other people and the great human challenges and issues.
It’s now reading snippets provided by the teacher for so-called character studies, and reading to consider authorial techniques. And so on. As if most Primary age children, let alone teenagers, give a fuck about any of that, let alone see any point in being crammed for tests on it. Connectives and adjectival phrases indeed. But you either have these things in your own writing, kids, or you get marked down. And out. And so do your teachers, poor sods. No wonder they just do what they're told - follow the National Literacy Strategy. Or the Big Writing Strategy. or some such bullshit.
But I digress. Back to the article. “Professor Martin Seligman, author of The Optimistic Child, is one of the most famous advocates of positive psychology, having popularised his academic research on what constitutes human wellbeing in bestsellers such as Authentic Happiness. His Penn Resilience Programme is a combination of cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) and social skills such as negotiation, coping strategies and decision-making.”
Of such stuff are careers and fortunes made. I think teachers have always known that at least 10 - 15% of children, and far more than that in inner cities where poverty is more commonplace, suffer from depression, anxiety disorders, poor physical health, low thresholds of anger and aggression, low self-esteem, low expectations and low self-confidence. Why else do people think that working in schools full of underprivileged kids is tough? Because they’re thick?
However, “What makes Seligman’s work unusual is that PRP has been rigorously evaluated”. So there. “This is what first caught the interest of the economist Lord (Richard) Layard, and of Geoff Mulgan, director of the Young Foundation”. Caught their interest did it? That’s Young as in wealthy ennobled left-leaning philanthropist, not young, as in people of restricted age. Apparently both of these political celebrities are working with the three local authorities that are developing a programme of work in their Local Wellbeing Project - South Tyneside, Manchester and Hertfordshire. There’s always three, isn’t there? A poor one, a rich one, and one that’s just right. Consultants, are they? Or are they philanthropically giving away their valuable time?
This, of course is the famous Geoff Mulgan, ex think-tanker, author of Connexity (“How To Live In A Connected World” - gulp!) who’s made a career of stating the bleeding obvious. If anyone has connections, especially within the comfortable, cosy middle class world of New Labour, it’s Geoff. Probably a very nice man. See - half full.
I’ve a hardback copy of Connexity on my shelves, bought in a remaindered bookshop for a couple of quid, which I’ve been unable to take down and read since I realised a) he’s a New Labour tosser, b) he doesn’t possess a radical bone in his body, and c) the blurb on the book tells us he’s into evolutionary psychology, the predictions of business gurus, cybernetics and systems theory. In other words, a tosser.
But the blurb says more! “Mulgan argues clearly and passionately that the only way out of our current impasse (eh?) is to go beyond our sense of ourselves as isolated units (?) and recognise the webs of mutual responsibility in which we live”. Lordy lordy, and passionate as well. I didn’t realise I had a sense of myself as an isolated unit. Never mind! Three cheers for common sense!
But lo! “Broad-ranging, brave, and timely (i.e. opportunistically, written in 1997, just as his mates in New Labour were coming to power), Connexity suggests new ways of thinking for a new century.” Oh yes, Millennial stuff, and nonsense. It takes a big man to be this brave. New ways of thinking! I’d never have thought of that. Presumably using our arses instead of our brains. Well it worked for Tony.
It seems that Layard and Mulgan, “both engaged for more than a decade in the developing academic debates around wellbeing and happiness, have been keen to push the issue up the political agenda and have sought ways to apply academic research to practical policy”. Well, lads, you could always have got a job as a teacher, though I’m not sure about your aptitudes and resilience. Fucking hell - I’ve been seeking ways to put theory (and common sense) into practice for more than THREE fucking decades. Giz a job!
And there’s even more. “What Layard and Mulgan needed above all [apart from a kick up the arse to actually go out and do something useful] were programmes that had measureable outcomes to ensure the subject got taken seriously by policy-makers and politicians.” Policy-makers, eh? Who they?
Well of course we can’t ever take anything seriously unless we’ve amassed shedloads of data. But “Mulgan insists it’s about the basics of everyday life - people talking to each other, how they live their lives.” Duhhh! And for this we need masses of data. Give us the research!
And this, everyone, is how the world is run. Politicians and policy makers are there to oil the wheels of the status quo, and won’t even consider doing things differently unless they are persuaded by think-tankers, academics, researchers and high-profile writers that the existing ways are fucked, which they patently are, and there are proven ways of doing things better - providing we can all agree on what needs doing better, which we can’t.
I had a dream recently that people with real intelligence who’d acquired their wisdom and understanding of how to live properly from the university of the real world actually formed a political party with the intention of putting into parliament in order to run the country competently scores of people from working class backgrounds who actually knew their arses from their elbows.
These would be down-to-earth people who understood wellbeing issues and possessed high levels of intellect, and also emotional and spiritual intelligence, unlike our current bulimic, neurotic and career- and ego-driven politicians and government toadies. They would be local government employees such as department managers, teachers, health service workers, tradesmen, skilled and semi-skilled factory workers, trade unionists, and so on. They wouldn’t need to read opportunistic millennial books on new ways of thinking. They would already know what people need to live decent lives - proper education; motivation to be life-long learners; decent homes and schools; good teachers; thinking and communication skills; emotional, social and spiritual intelligence; decent communities and environments; access to good health services and social services; politicians who pay them proper attention and show them proper respect; membership of a society that doesn’t take from the poor to give to an increasingly rich middle and upper class, and so on.
And then I suddenly realised that this was why the Labour Party came into existence in the first place. People who were OF the people and had some real experience of working for a living, of doing proper jobs, and of living in working-class communities, and of living on low incomes, actually did enter parliament after the party’s first electoral successes. Ah, plus ça change . . .
There is an important and serious side to all of this. The Poppies and Zoes of this world are doing fucking important jobs, and deserve to be taken seriously, as Mike Leigh so obviously does. They should not need to be going out on strike in order to achieve some semblance of decent pay and conditions. The government has done some good things to improve education. They have invested in new schools, for instance. But they have done so much that is diabolical and damaging to children, teachers and school managers, and they just can't face it and can't accept it. They need calling to account, and I’ll try to do some of that in another blog.
In the meantime we need to support this and any and every scheme that addresses children’s (and teachers’) wellbeing, and not just ‘standards’. We need to take the work of Martin Seligman very seriously, and I guess we need to applaud the likes of Layard and Mulgan for at least giving it support at their rarified political and policy-making level.
I’ll write more tomorrow on Seligman, on Paul Ekman, on his Extraordinary Persons Project, and on how it connects with the work of Maslow, and on Daniel Goleman’s work on Destructive Emotions, and his connections with Ekman, and with the Dalai Lama. So here come some more connections for you Geoff, mate - you little polymath you.
After nearly 3,000 words I’ve had enough for today, and I expect you, dear reader, have too.