Tom Bennett

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Step back in time: The Chamber of Secrets, Dungeons and Dragons, and saving children from Satan

Who needs to Hang Around? I’ve got the Internet.

I uncovered some weapons-grade gold this week: under a stack of boxes, unmoved for decades was a dusty, discreet red book, innocently titled ‘RS Department Minutes 1980 ff’. It might sound unremarkable, but to the steam punk edu-enthusiast that I am, it was crack. To me it was a time capsule, a message across the decades from one teacher to another. I’ve even been reading it in bed, that’s how good it is. Like a prospector hand-sieving lakes of dirty water, much of it is as gripping as a Ukrainian phone book. But every so often, a flake of purest magic gleams in the silt. Now I can see why Tony Robinson spoils his knickers whenever someone pulls out a grimy sliver of pottery from an dismal ditch.

1980. Imagine the world then: Jimmy Carter signs a $1.5 billion bail out for Chrysler, and the USA boycotts the Moscow Olympics; the Iranian embassy in London got its clock cleaned; and Jimmy Saville’s chair was the relic of a saint as opposed to an emblem of disgrace. The Berlin wall was still mercifully unaware that David Hasselhoff would conduct a concert from its apex, years later, as a final humiliation for Communism. Duran Duran signed with EMI; and in Glasgow, an eight year old boy sat at a desk, waiting for blogging to be invented. A world as alien and intimate as 2044 is to us.

The Diary Of Tom Bennett

Playah’s Handbook

It’s a fascinating chronoscope; a window in time. It feels like the Diary of Tom Riddle, and at any moment I’ll tumble through the fourth dimension and land in a world where Pac-Man is just arriving in pubs, and I have to avoid meeting myself in order to prevent the end of the galaxy. I could write a book about this book: this is a reality before Ofsted; before the National Curriculum; before Citizenship and VAK, levels and damned sublevels; before unsatisfactory and 21st century learning; before flipped classrooms and robber-baron consultants.

There’s too much in there to cover in one blog: for instance, there’s a report from the Inner London Education Authority (which I believe Boris has, just this week, floated the idea of a resurrection, because few politicans can resist the lure and bait of autonomy for long. A devolved power doesn’t last long when someone reckons they can scoff it themselves) to the school, a sort of Ofsted report. The staggering thing about this is the level of detail and effort that’s gone into it, as opposed to the cookie-cutter approach these days where the inspectors essentially decide the school grading in advance from the data, and then look for the evidence to confirm it. There’s an enormous amount of discussion about O-levels, the rise of multiculturalism, secularism, and also, to be fair, stationery. The whole damn thing is typed or written, in an era when only NASA could muster a word processor. It really is a very impressive piece of book keeping.

Gelatinous Cubes

Another time for all that. What caught my eye last night was an excerpt from an RS department meeting, which is a joy to read, and read around:

‘…all members of the department had been asked quite a lot of questions on the subjects of the devil, the occult and mysticism; it seemed there was a growing interest in the school on these matters. The department felt that a role play club based on the game, “Dungeons and Dragons” would be most unwise.’

I was hugging myself with pleasure at this. Oh for an era when Dungeons & Dragons was the most worrying cultural influence on our children. In 2012 if a kid hasn’t seen 2 girls 1 cup by the time they finish primary school, they’re deemed to have had a sheltered upbringing.

Level 5 Teacher/ Lion Tamer

Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), as the less popular among you will know, was part of the role-playing game phenomenon, which now seems impossibly quaint and old fashioned to a generation used to Grand Theft Auto, Skyrim and Resident Evil. Essentially a Lord of the Rings rip-off, you pretended to be a wizard, a warrior, a thief and so on, in entirely fictitious scenarios generated and administrated by a ‘Dungeon Master (DM)’; you would be expected to face challenges and battles using spells, weapons and wits, moderated and circumscribed by game rules. The element of chance was delivered via a series of spectacularly silly dice: four, eight, twelve and twenty sided shapes.

Has the internet been invented yet?

You would sit around a table and glumly act in character as you navigated the imaginary perils the DM put in front of you. Like this:

DM: You are in a dark room, with a treasure chest and a coffin in the corner.
You: I open the coffin.
DM: *rolls odd die* OK, it opens. A MUMMY jumps out at you, groaning *makes groaning noise*
You: My character says ‘Go back to the eternal rest from which ye spawned!’ I cast a Fireball spell at him.
DM: *rolls some more dice* OK, he’s toast.
You: Does he have any treasure?
DM: He might have had some, but the fireball melted the whole coffin.
You: Aw, man! Is there any more Pepsi in that glass?

Etc. It was a lot more fun that it sounds, maybe. Essentially it was a way for young nerdy teen boys to get together while they poured over complex books of spells and rules, drew monsters and improbable damsels with dimensions that would require scaffolding to support. It was almost always boys, in my experience. Perhaps girls had grown out of playing Let’s Pretend by then. But it was sociable, and added meaning to endless nights drawing comics, writing cod-fantasy stories, and pretending to save the world, night after night. These days being a Geek has been rescued from opprobrium by virtue of the fact that geeks grew up and colonised the media. Now, it’s so hip it’s commonplace.

Not in 1980. In 1980 if you were a geek you were marked with the sign of Cain, and no one would go see Smokey and the Bandit 2 with you. Believe me. So we did what sub-cultures have always done; banded together. Which is exactly how vulnerable, sensitive children who read Le Guin, Moorcroft and Burroughs but who lived in goals and never got picked for the team have survived. If you’re lucky, you invent Microsoft; if not, you spend your life hiding your comics and queueing for autographs at sci-fi conventions.

(On an unrelated note: I tweeted this week that I thought Red Dwarf was, to be honest, a bit pish. Five minutes later one of the writers of the thing had retweeted me to his army, and I spent the rest of the night watching as pale-faced, unshaven, grown men filled my timeline with poorly punctuated insults. Given that I hadn’t  @ed the chap I presume he must have been scouring the timelines for references to his masterpiece theatre. I only hope that, in the dystopian future of Red Dwarf, it’s still OK to dislike fart jokes and say so publicly. Smoke me a kipper! Hilarious.)

Yeah. That didn’t happen in 1980.

Do you renounce Old Split-Foot?

The idea that teachers could save children from El Diablo by preventing them from role playing as Caradoc the half-elf magic user now seems twee beyond expression. And with apologies to my predecessors (all of whom had immaculate administrative skills) I hope they never see the lessons I do on Wicca, Norse Gods or the Gods of Mount Olympus. I even, in response to a class vote, made a lesson on Dawkins, Hitchens and Bertrand Russell, and we debated atheism. Next week we’ll all be raising spirits like the Witch of Endor and attempting to kick-start our broomsticks. Or not.

It would appear that the geeks did inherit the earth. I can only imagine what my predecessors would have made of it. Sorry.

Hogwarts in Special Measures: Notice to improve

A bastion of elitism and institutionalised racism

Oh boy, oh boy. A response, below, got me thinking about Harry Potter’s educational experiences. Perhaps you’ve heard of him? I know this is a well worn path, but tinkering around on the wiki entry for Scotland’s premier selective boarding school with a giant squid made comment irresistable. Here are some of the things that immediately struck me:

1. It’s a selective boarding school, with fees payable. What’s the selection criteria? Ability? Faith? Wealth? Er, no, actually, it’s birth. If you’re ‘born magic, or not,’ as the book puts it. So if you’re a member of the lucky sperm club you qualify for entrance. Oh, how jolly egalitarian. Of course, qualification still doesn’t imply admission, as the poorer candidates (like Tom Riddle) find out. You still have to cough up the Galleons, or groats, or whatever the Hell wizards buy their milk with. Dumbledore magnanimously allows that ‘there are funds available for students who cannot afford robes and books.’ Oh, thank ‘ee mazzer. He might have added ‘And snuff, and truffles.’ How can they stand being in the same Highlands as the rabble?

Hermione shouldn’t be hopping about with her knickers in a twist about the House Elves, despite their servile lack of class consciousness; she should be painting placards about the scandalous admission system. Born magic or not? Hmm, so we have an educational hierarchy of pure bloods, half-bloods, squibs and Muggles do we? Can I smell the bonfire of class war? You’re born into one or the other? I believe Gandhi was quite specific about this: the untouchables must be integrated with the mainstream. And I understand Marx had a few words to say on the matter, something about History, and Chains.

Still, is the accident of occult genes any more indicative of inequality than the multiple benefits that fortuitous birth conveys upon any non-magical child? A healthy series of trimesters, sturdy nutrition, the down-payment against stress that financial security brings, the confidence of a supportive nest, and the opportunities of doors opened by friends and family…none of these are the child’s fault, and one can hardly be surprised that they take advantage of them, just as one cannot begrudge a parent for grasping every opportunity for their offspring. Is a magical chromosome any more or less unjust than that?

Perhaps if the school was serious about equality (which it isn’t, but that might not be such a bad thing, because equality is a hydra-headed concept, and at least some of the definitions aren’t universally positive: equal rights for all animals, for example, leads to murder trials for stepping on an ant), then it would have a number of places reserved for non-magical students, who would be led through seven fruitless, soul destroying years of being crap at everything (except hiding from Slytherin predators in the showers), with extra time in their exams (which they would still fail) and having spells made even easier for them (and yet strangely, still uncastable). Then they would be entered for soemthing like ‘Knowledge of How to Open Ye Doors’ GCSE, which they would all then pass with a C, and the school could record that it had entirely complied with the Occult Ability Equality Act, as well as top up their pass rate.

‘So you see, we’re just better than the other people.’

2. Differentiation/ Streaming. While no streaming in lessons is immediately apparent, there’s one system that should have every educator choking on his porridge: the Sorting Hat. Yes, pupils at Hogwarts are selected for Houses again, not by ability, not in order to result in an integrated mix of gender, race and ethnicity…no , they’re selected by character. You heard me. If you show courage, bravery, loyalty, nerve and chivalry, then it’s Gryffindor for you, which I imagine is full of the most self-righteous, arrogant and entitled set of stuffed robes in the known world. ‘Yes, I’m in Gryffindor; yah, actually I am pretty brave and honest, yah.’ The most noble people I know are often the most modest; they would, by default, shrink away from describing themselves with such glowing terms. What must that do to their noodles?

Hufflepuff values hard work, tolerance, loyalty, and fair play. Boy, I bet they’re hammering at the door to get into Hufflepuff. ‘Oh, I got into Hufflepuff, did I? I must be a bit of a thick grunt then. Right-oh. Best get on, then.’

Ravenclaw values intelligence, creativity, learning, and wit’ : all I can say is that they must be even more insufferable than Gryffindor. I would happily spanner anyone from Ravenclaw, just on principle

‘Haw-haw-haw. We’re off to bash the oiks.’

Slytherin house values ambition, cunning, leadership, resourcefulness, and most of all, pure wizard blood. Which means they’re racist. And a bit like Peter Mandelson. Again, they probably have to chain them to their beds at night to prevent them sneaking out into any of the other houses. ‘Bloody Hell, they think I’m David Miliband.’ Can someone tell me why anyone would want to be in Slytherin? Any mention of its members invariably describes them as shifty, arch, sly, crafty, self-serving, vain, arrogant, etc. Most of them seem to have ‘meaty faces’ (if they’re stupid) or ‘thin, pinched faces’ (if they’re clever). Most of them are pretty ugly, unless they’re ‘beautiful and terrible’ like Bellatrix. Far be it from me to criticise the quality of Potter’s Pen, but I think she takes physiognomy a bit far. Everyone in Slytherin is a bastard. And I know the horse has bolted a bit, given that the series is over, but they’re all on Voldemorts’s side. What; is Dumbledore taking crazy pills, and inclusion to Olympic levels? ‘Yes, we’re keeping them all at school. Yes, the bastards too. They have every right to learn magic, even if they will use it for violence and mayhem. What?’

Much has been said about the intrinsic unfairness of selection by ability. Not much has been said about the problems of selection by character. Talk about pigeon-holing; talk about stereotyping. ‘You’re a bad ‘un’ says the Hat (a HAT, I’d like to add), ‘Off you pop with the other bad ‘uns. Ah, now youre a swell guy; take a seat next to Harry Potter.’ The kids must droop under the expectations of that bloody hat. I wonder if any of them fantasise about dropping the halo and getting a bit snaky for once; or not plotting the downfall of the Headmaster and actually perfroming something altruistic? A few years in the Cauldron of Character Caste (good name for the next book, incidentally) and there’s no chance for any of  the poor buggers.

‘Screw the House-Elves. I LIKE my robes ironed.’

3. Divination. There’s actually a subject called Divination. You know, where you can see the future? That must make predicting grades a bit easier. Although it doesn’t seem to work most of the time, which seems to imply that it’s a bit of a non-subject, like Life Skills or GCSE/ BTEC equivalents…

Ah, you could go on about this stuff forever….