28 March 2011


Just to prove that my Shirley jetted halfway round the world to be with her Yorkshire pud, here she is earlier today in the grounds of the lavish Grand Palace, Bangkok. It was here, in the 1860's, that the American governess, Anna Leonowens, allegedly sought to "civilise" the court of Siam's absolute monarch - King Monghut. Her story was transformed into a musical and film in 1956 - "The King and I" - which even today is still most offensive to Siamese patriots. After all, sophisticated "civilisation" existed in this part of the world when America still belonged to the buffalo.

We had professional Thai massages in the Wat Pho Temple complex then after some attempted shenanigans from uncharacteristically deceptive taxi drivers, we caught a cab with an honest driver all the way back to the Ratchayothin area of North Bangkok.

We needed to be back early for our dinner date with the owners of the Serene B&B. At five, we were duly driven to the district of Nonthaburi where they have a lovely little "river house". It has a wooden terrace on stilts right over the Chao Phraya River. Watching boats go by, we drank fine wines and ate a lovely homemade Thai meal. Very delicious. Followed by fresh pineapple and water melon.

The owners, "Staborn" and Thida, speak exceptionally good English and we chatted happily with them for three hours or so. Turns out that Staborn's father was once the king's royal dentist and played a leading role in developing dentistry as an academic subject in Thai universities

Shirley's gone to bed early. After all, she's still wrestling with jet lag. Tomorrow I'm taking her back to Elephant Island - Koh Chang - near the Cambodian border. We will need to be up at 5am for the bus departs at six thirty. I may have trouble blogging again before next Sunday but I'll try. Going back to the beach, the palm trees and the luke-warm waters of The Gulf of Thailand. As I said before - somebody's got to do it!
Mural detail - The Grand Palace

25 March 2011


Songkran begins on April 13th and is a very special day in Thailand's calendar for it marks the beginning of the Buddhist new year. We are currently in the year 2553, about to move into 2554. "Songkran"means moving or passing forward. Today my international school with its motto: "Where East Meets West" broke up for its three week Songkran summer holiday.

This morning something very special happened. All teachers sat behind a line of low tables with our hands held over silvery basins. Then the pupils came shuffling along on their knees clasping smaller silvery bowls filled with water and petals. Every pupil in the school poured a small amount of water over my hands as they shuffled down the line. It's all about cleansing and wishing elders good luck for the year ahead. And do you know, every single pupil poured their water with good grace. There was no stupidity. No students opting out or making wisecracks. They did it with respect and affection.

Shirley will arrive in Bangkok on Sunday evening. I guess she will be as shattered as I was when I first arrived. It took me longer than expected to adjust my body clock. I will meet her at the airport and then we will probably have an evening meal before bedtime. On Monday, if she's feeling up to it, we will take a ferry from Nontaburi, down the river to the Golden Temple and Wat Pho Temple where the famous reclining Buddha resides. Perhaps we will both have massages in the air-conditioned parlour in the temple grounds. In the early evening, the owners of my little B&B have invited us for dinner at their riverhouse. The owner speaks very good English for he worked all over the world in his younger days on behalf of the Thai Tourist Authority. I know it is a privilege to be invited as farangs (foreigners) into a Thai home.

Early on Tuesday morning, I'm taking Shirley back to the island of Koh Chang for five days. I hope the weather is kind to us - not too much tropical rain. I want to take her snorkelling - viewing beautiful tropical fishes in their protected marine park - as well as riding elephants through the jungle to their bathing pool. And we will laze about at the Whitesands Resort where our beach hut will look out directly on a palm fringed beach as the warm blue waters of the Gulf of Thailand lap at our doorstep.

Later we will visit one of Thailand's ancient capitals - Ayutthya - about two hours north of Bangkok. I have booked a rather lovely hotel there which gets a high 9.0 rating on "Trip Advisor". It's a bit of luxury - especially for Shirley. After all, the rest of the time she's in Thailand she'll be in this B&B in Bangkok or in our tiny and fairly primitive beach hut at Koh Chang.

When she departs on April 7th, I'm heading north to Chiang Rai - just seventy miles south of the epicentre of yesterday's earthquake - which was just over the border in Burma. I hope to slip over into Laos for a couple of days before heading back to northern Thailand's main city - Chiang Mai for the Songkran Festival proper... Well my friends, somebody's got to do it.

24 March 2011


Buddhism is based upon the teachings of Sidhartha Gauttama who lived around twenty six centuries ago, growing up in the region we now know as Nepal.He became known as "The Buddha" in his lifetime. It means the "awakened one" or "the enlightened one" for, allegedly, he experienced a profound realisation of the nature of life, of death and of the nature of existence.

He taught that awakening comes from one's own experience - not from any sort of religious dogma. In Buddhism there is no "god" as such, no divine figurehead. The images of Buddha that we are all familiar with are not adulatory. They simply serve to focus thought, to help Buddhists along the road to personal enlightenment.

There are probably 400 million practising Buddhists in the world, largely in Asia. In Thailand you cannot escape from Buddhist imagery. Most buildings - even new tower blocks - demonstrate homage to the spirits of deceased ancestors in little spirit houses to which residents or office workers bring offerings. In Buddhism there is no equivalent of the Christian Sunday. Days just go on.

This week a sixteen year old student told me that her grandmother would go to the local temple every day to give offerings to the dead and to strive for her own personal nirvana. Younger Thai people are losing that devotion but the philosophical influence of Buddhism is still very apparent in the lives of the Thai people. It underpins their habitual courtesy, their honesty, their attitude to animal life and the way they see themselves in the grander scheme of things.

I have been anti-religion from childhood and there is no way I would ever become a practising Buddhist. Or is there? Maybe all of us are already Buddhists - striving for happiness, striving for enlightenment. Perhaps being a Buddhist has nothing to do with symbolism or temples or monks in saffron robes.
Images of Buddha from Koh Kret

22 March 2011


With Muammar Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi in charge, I guess the Libyan boil was always going to burst. It was just a question of time.

Western forces claim that their actions are all about protecting the Libyan people. Well if that is really the case, how come they have collaterally murdered an unknown number of Libyan citizens with their adventurous attacks from the air? Where is the protection in that when mothers,sons and grandfathers have been blown to smithereens or else maimed for life? The mantra "No pain no gain" is insulting to innocent Libyan families who have been bereaved by their self-proclaimed saviours. How many more must die?

Al-Jazeera reports that:

"Only one in three Britons agree with the decision to take military action in Libya, according to a poll published on Monday. The ComRes/ITN survey found that 43 per cent disagreed with the action and 22 per cent were unsure. But in parliament, British legislators voted 557 to 13 in favour of military involvement."

Why is my country, the so-called "UK", always next in line behind the USA to flex military muscles around the globe? Iraq, Afghanistan and now Libya. With all three countries there is surely a linking theme and that's what the Clampetts used to call "black gold" - oil. It's key to the hidden agenda. Mobilisation of military forces because of internal governmental terrorism in Indonesia, Congo or Burma seemed out of the question. Reason - no oil. But Libya? Straight in there with the best airborne hardware available.

Anticipating political change in Libya, the west should have composed wiser, longer term diplomatic strategies instead of jollying Gaddafi along because he held the keys to the oil cupboard. As in all hastily devised military interventions, it is the innocent, ordinary folk who will suffer the most. There will be many more tears before the new Libya emerges.

19 March 2011


At Kohret

I have never been a great lover of dogs. They bark. They bite people. They poop on pavements. No - give me cats any day. I admire their independence, their tolerance, their feline smiles. I grew up with a cat - tortoiseshell Oscar who in spite of her name bore countless kittens. And in the first year of our marriage we acquired tom cat Blizzard from the RSPCA shelter in Bawtry. He lived with us for around fifteen years before dying of some internal complaint - possibly kidney failure. It broke my heart when he died. He was the best of cats.

I swore I'd never have another cat but then Boris appeared at our back door - a skinny black and white stray. Shirley took pity on him and fed him and it wasn't long before that cunning so-and-so had wheedled his way into our house. I said - you can keep him as long as I get to name him - and I called him Boris because that's not the sort of name you are meant to give to a cat. I came to love him as much as Blizzard but a couple of years ago, Boris suddenly disappeared - after ten years as master of Pudding Towers. We think he was probably killed on the road.

Getting back to dogs... In Bangkok there are many street dogs - all shapes, sizes and conditions. Jon's wife Denise calls them "zen dogs" because they are so chilled out. They don't bark at you. They don't bite or chase you. They just "hang out", sniffing around for food or water, often lying across pavements so that you have to steer round them or step over them. They often look up at you with inscrutable eyes like the Buddha himself, as if to say - "What's your hurry? Why not follow my example and simply watch the world go by?" Zen dogs.

Today I visited an island in the Chao Praya River. It's called Koh Kret. I cycled round it on a concrete walkway above the reedbeds and the vegetable fields. I paused to take photographs along the way. I guess I'm always trying to find the essence of a place. Is it there in the temples? Is it in the lotus flowers in the swamp or in the shape of the old woman bent double by osteoporosis? Perhaps it's in the postures and the implacable faces of the street dogs. There were many on Koh Kret. Here are just three:-
Specially for dog lover Mr John Gray of North Wales, may I introduce the "best in breed" winner, Llewelyn:-

17 March 2011


Woman in the marketplace at Nontaburi, selling drinking coconuts and bananas:-
Vimanmek Teak Palace built by King Rama V around 1900. Not a single nail was used in its construction:-
Chao Phraya River Scene:-
Flowers by a canal:-

16 March 2011


Last weekend I went to a cinema complex in northern Bangkok - ten minutes walk from my accommodation - to see "127 Hours". Directed by Danny Boyle, the film tells the story of a few days in 2003, when a young American outdoor enthusiast called Aron Ralston was exploring Blue John Canyon in a remote part of Utah. Accidentally, he tumbled down a crevice in the rocks where his right arm became trapped by a large rock he had dislodged.

As the hours and then the days pass by, Aron becomes more and more desperate to escape from this unfortunate situation. He sees visions of his family and of himself when he was a little boy. His water canister is empty. What can he do? Gradually, the inevitable dawns upon him - he must sever his arm with a useless Chinese knife his mother bought him for Christmas or he will die.

Ralston's part is played brilliantly by James Franco. In some senses, the tale might seem difficult to transfer to a movie format but Danny Boyle's creative vision is gripping, enhanced by wonderful cinematography and sound. At its heart there is the true life story of a man whose eagerness to live gave him the strength to administer a self-amputation without anaesthetic. Perhaps we might conclude that the moral of the film is that where there is a will there is a way. No matter how awful the circumstances, if you really want to survive you will find a way.

However, that same day we all heard about the dreadful events in northeastern Japan. I very much doubt that any of the thousands who have died there would have been able to relate to the possible moral conclusion of "127 Hours". When a tsunmai or a powerful earthquake come to get you, your hopes and dreams shrink into nothingness and there is no escape. As George Alagiah said on the BBC World News - the events in Japan remind us how ultimately flimsy and fragile is this "advanced" technological world that we have created.

But for me "127 Hours" was a super film and if you like that sort of tale, I would thoroughly recommend it.

13 March 2011


Above you can see our lovely friend Moira - when we visited Santiago di Compostela in north-western Spain with her and her husband Steve, a retired fifrefighter. Moira recently started following my blog and I know she will be very surprised to see this post. Steve and Moira are presently in India. They touched down in Bombay (I refuse to call it Mumbai) and she emailed her first impressions to several friends. Moira is an incredibly fast typist. After all, this is something she has had to do most of her working life. That factor helps to explain the rapidfire, gushing nature of her account which I find a fascinating, unfettered piece of "stream of consciousness" writing which really captures a westerner's initial view of what must be a crazy, alien and overwhelming metropolis to encounter, full of sights, sounds, smells and human energy. Here it is:-

hello all !
arrived safely mumbai airport ... then hour longish taxi via mad mad mad bonkers traffic ..... horns go allllll the time ..... you take your life in your hands (literally !! ... rob why didn't you mention this !) ....when crossing the roads ..... however seen no one run over yet although 2000 homes have just burnt down in one of the shanty towns ! how the fire engine would get there i just don't know .... talk about a culture shock .... however blending in a bit more now, beginning to get the hang of things a bit/how folk work ! my red hair seems to draw attention from a lot of children ! hotel we have been in fine-ish ..... big holes in the sheets .... rather a yuk toilet .... waaaah .... but loads of hot water ... and extremely friendly/helpful proprieter, Raj .... (hotel moti international .... just near posh-ish hotel The Taj ..... which we couldn't afford ... ! which is just more or less next door so we are sort of with the posh folk !! ??) The gateway to india is about five mins away <>>>> so hot don"t want to eat much<>>> expensive for backpackers like you >>>> and us !) ..... not getting too harrassed ..... off to goa on early train in the morning 12 hours long journey then onto hampi .... then kerala all being well ...... just about to go and eat somewhere ..... first meal we had cost about two quid all in ..... though there are some more expensive places that a lot of folk go to .... rob ... been in mondegar cafe too a few times for breakfast .... near regal cinema ..... been in musem and art gallery but will be glad to move on from mumbai as soosooooo crazy/frantic/traffic amazingly never ending ever ever ever .....where do all the people live ?? ... a place all should come to once .... a couple of ozzy girlst told us they'd just come from delhi and think mumbai is laid back compared to there !! oh my god i don't think i'd be able to take it !! they say mumbai not as much in y'face ..... everyone seems to be in y'face here!!!! but no, not really that bad .... just biggggg culture shock .....but we are quickly adjusting to what's what ..... righty ho all,

11 March 2011


What we remember from our childhoods may simply be psychological signposts to the kinds of people we really are. We don't choose what we remember. So much filtering of memory occurs, till in the end, bobbing on the surface, there's just a relatively small amount of flotsam with the mother ship far below the waves.

I remember, I remember... every time I was physically punished during my own school days and connected with every one of these memories is an echo of the seething feeling of injustice that accompanied those incidents.

Press the rewind button. It's 1962. I'm nine years old. I am in the playground of the village school where my father is the headmaster. Another, older boy has brought a rubber tiger mask into school. He has put it on and he is chasing round the yard, deliberately scaring girls who are screaming. I am in a gang of perhaps six who accompany the tiger boy. It's fun and the girls' screaming is affected. Nobody is really scared.

Miss Ford is on playtime duty. She not only calls an end to the high jinx, she sends the tiger boy and his followers to the headmaster's classroom where we wait in line. He, my father, being supportive of his younger colleague, tells us off and instructs us to hold out our hands. He walks along the line slippering all of us with a black plimsol. It hurts but not as much as the sense of injustice I feel inside. What had we done wrong? We were just having fun. Years later Dad apologised.
Fast forward to 1966. By achieving such a high mark in the eleven plus exam, I have won a scholarship to Hymers College in Hull where the posh boys go. It's a fee-paying direct grant school but each year, probably to ensure some council funding, they allow some plebs like me to join their hallowed ranks. I'm in music with Mr Watson. The room is like a large chapel. We are sitting in rows listening to some rather tedious classical music - Rachmaninov. Behind me one of the posh boys begins to rock his table on the hollow hardwood floor. Mr Watson calls out "Stop that!" above the soaring violins but the rocking noise continues. With his black academic gown splayed behind him, he surges up my row, comes to The Pleb's desk and cracks me hard across the temple with his open palm. He explains himself - "I said stop it!"

My anger boils over. I yell in my best East Yorkshire brogue, "It wasn't me you bastard!" and exit stage left. I am blubbering with shame and hatred and an overwhelming sense of injustice. I want to kill Watson. Put my muddy rugby boots on and jump up and down on his oily head. "It wasn't me you bastard!" Later no more is heard about the incident. Watson sweeps it under the carpet as if it never happened and I am grateful that I got away with swearing at him. If music be the food of love, play on Rachmaninov!

Onwards and I am sixteen. I don't want to wear a school cap. I feel stupid in it and my head is so big they don't make caps to fit me. I ride to school from the countryside. Thirteen miles there and thirteen miles back. I'm the only Hymers boy on the bus. At home I am listening to Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, Sgt Pepper's and Donovan and I saw Judy Collins on "The Simon Dee Show" singing "The Circle Game" and I have smoked marijuana, been drunk, known girls and I'm interested in Trotsky and Seurat and "Oz" magazine, Hull City and the civil rights movement in the USA. And they want me to wear a cap! Black and red with the school badge in the middle. I mean..

They have warned me. But now it is too late. I am in the office of Harry Roach, the much-feared headmaster. He is holding a thin bamboo cane. The room smells of polish and chalk and fear. A clock is ticking. I notice leather-bound books on the shelves, a large blotter on the oak desk, boys outside on the rugby field. He is lecturing me but I am not listening because I know what is coming. He tells me to bend over. I hear the cane swishing through the air then it hits my buttocks - one - two - three - four - five - six in rapid succession. The pain emerges like fire. My rump is ablaze and Harry is puffing after the exertion. All I can feel is the fire. I am like a whipped dog. I stumble from that dreaded chamber and my deranged hymn-singing torturer, determined to leave his horrible posh school in the summer.

And there were other times which I will not trouble you with now. Admittedly, I was no angel. I am sure there were occasions when I deserved the punishments I received but memory has chosen to let those bits of videotape settle on the ocean floor. Yet that plimsol, that open hand, that cane - I recollect those moments as if they happened just last week, remaining unsure what this says about my psychology.

10 March 2011


Voices are rarely raised in Thailand. People communicate with each other in a quiet, courteous manner. It is the same out on Bangkok's busy arterial roads. Often there'll be three lanes of clogging traffic with drivers skilfully weaving in and out of their lanes to gain some forward motion. But nobody's honking. No fists are raised. No road rage boiling over. Just brightly coloured taxis, buses, limousines, battered old Toyotas in a traffic jam dance.

In the school itself, I have yet to hear a teacher properly raising his or her voice in anything resembling annoyance. There's no need to play that card because the students are calm, dignified, compliant and cheerful. They support one another. On Tuesday I read out Peachy's creative writing to her Y9 class and when I had finished, the whole class applauded spontaneously - not my delivery but Peachy's splendid effort. There wasn't a hint of irony in that applause. No surly, snarling, teenage cleverdickery - just smiling young people acknowledging their classmate's work. How very refreshing this is for me. Like a daily medicine.

And I love the way in shops or restaurants, the humble Thai greeting will often accompany transactions. Palms together, head slightly bowed, hands moving from heart to head - "Kop Kun Kap" - thank you. In the depths of a sprawling modern city, the character of old rural Thailand has not been forgotten.

7 March 2011


A cacophony of sound. Yes that is what I heard as I put my head on the pillow at midnight in the Thai Garden Inn on the edge of Kanchanaburi. Frogs, cicadas, a distant rooster, night birds and a host of small insects whose names I couldn't possibly pronounce.

Kanchanaburi lies a hundred miles to the north west of Bangkok and is famous because the River Kwai Yai flows through it - under the famous Bridge on the River Kwai. I couldn't do everything in the thirty six hours I was there but I visited two war cemeteries, a large Buddhist temple complex and two museums that tell the story of the Japanese Death Railway. Between 1941 and 1943, 100,000 men died in the construction of this vital link between Thailand and the Burmese coast. Nearly seven thousand of them were young British prisoners of war brought up in cramped box carriages from Singapore and Malaya. Around 40,000 were Malays and a further 40,000 were Burmese. Many Dutchmen and Australians also perished.

The cruel single-mindedness of the Japanese seemed to know no bounds. Dysentery and cholera were rife. There were tropical ulcers and festering wounds. So many heartbreaking stories. Food supplies were paltry and equipment to drive the railway through the mountains was very limited - disposable human muscle power being the principal resource. At the Jeath Museum in the grounds of Wat Chaichumpol Temple, the visitor leaflet closes with these salutary words - "May Peace Always Conquer Violence".

Cycling back from Chungkai War Cemetery, I was startled by a six foot crocodile that had been resting in the grass at the side of the road. It made a swift beeline for the bushes. Later, I was surprised to discover that the Siamese crocodile is extremely rare - a truly endangered species. I guess it could have been a different kind of croc. It all happened so quickly. I'm just so glad it didn't choose to rear up from the tall grass and take a chunk out of my left leg! Sir Chris Hoy or Lance Armstrong never had such problems when cycling.

I swam dozens of lengths of the lukewarm hotel pool, separately met two people from Sheffield and had a whole riverside restaurant to myself as I ate a delicious Thai meal watching the swirling mountain waters flow past me. I rode back to Bangkok in a cramped minibus - £3 for the trip - and after battling through the city's eternal traffic jam I was deposited at a bus station just a mile from my serene guesthouse.

Walking across the Sood Jai Bridge, I had looked at the verdant river vista before me with distant and strangely shaped mountains beyond, shimmering in a haze of heat and had whispered to myself "Yes - this is really Thailand". A dragon boat had powered through the water as I had noticed a little palm leaf house in the shadow of the arching concrete. Here's my latest photo album:-
Dedicated to the memory of a random member of the British army: 996278 Gunner H.Heward who died on October 8th 1943 at the age of thirty one. How very different his visit to the River Kwai must have been. May he rest in peace...

4 March 2011


It was Wednesday February 9th, the day I was scheduled to begin my journey to Thailand. The flight was due to leave Birmingham at eight twenty in the evening. In recent years I have made several car journeys to Birmingham from Sheffield. It normally takes an hour and forty five minutes - M1, M42 and then A38 right into the heart of the city. No problem. And the airport lies to the east of the city anyway - meaning the journey would be even shorter

To be cautious, Shirley and I set off at just before quarter to four in the afternoon. We tootled along the Dronfield by-pass towards Chesterfield, possibly thinking that we hadn't needed to give ourselves so much time. We'd probably be there by half past five, ready to order a last supper with Frances who planned to come out to the airport by train from Selly Oak in Birmingham to see me off.

We sped along the A617 towards its junction with the M1 - Junction 28. And when we got there - yes, you've guessed it - the traffic on the southbound M1 was completely stationary - as far as the eye could see. Panic. I was going to head across to Mansfield and try to get down to Nottingham but Shirley mentioned Clay Cross and the A61 so I doubled back and, feeling not unduly concerned, drove over to Clay Cross, meeting the A61 at about four thirty.

Between Clay Cross and Derby there's a squat little former mining town called Alfreton, mentioned in some of D.H.Lawrence's writing and bang in the centre of this ugly town is a busy crossroads with traffic lights. Unfortunately, we weren't the only ones who were trying to avoid the M1 car park that evening and Alfreton was becoming not just congested but clogged up like a U bend filled with solidyfying fat. We found ourselves moving at a snail's pace. From Higham to Alfreton is little more than a mile but it took us almost an hour, so now it's just past six o'clock and we're miles from Birmingham. Could we make it? I was beginning to doubt it.

I had checked in online but I still needed to be at the airport ninety minutes before departure at six fifty. The race was on. Fortunately we breezed around Derby and hit the A38, driving as fast as I dared as we watched the minutes and the miles tick away. Shirley had kept Frances informed of our progress with one of those annoying inventions that Americans call "cell phones".

It was touch and go as the airport drew closer. After all, many people have missed flights because of road hold-ups and I thought that perhaps this was my time in spite of our early departure from home. Like Michael Schumacher, I skidded into the drop off zone of Birmingham International, hauled my bulging suitcase from the boot and dashed to the Emirates check-in desk. Amazing! Just in time - by the skin of my teeth!

And there was Frances! Little time to talk. Just hugs, kisses and a "Bon Voyage" card with three tiger cubs on the front. Then dashing through security to the departure gate, on to the plane to find that a creative writing student from East Anglia University, Norwich was in my pre-booked seat. Get out of there ye scallywag! I needed to catch my breath. Phew!

2 March 2011


In the autumn of 2003, I was lucky enough to visit Durban in South Africa with a group of Sheffield schoolteachers. One of my lasting memories is of the five days I spent at the Ogwini Technical School in the vast Umlazi shanty town on the southern edge of the city.

One day I had to teach a class of sixty Zulu pupils aged thirteen to twenty. The windowless room was chock-a-block. I asked them to write a letter to schoolchildren in England, telling them all about their lives. As they grafted away, you could have heard a pin drop. These were impoverished children from tin shacks. Most were barefoot. And you know what - every single one of them had a pen to write with!

And now here in Bangkok, I am teaching some of the sons and daughters of Thailand's aspirational and wealthy upper class. Once again every single child has a pen to write with. In fact here every child has pencils, crayons, highlighters, sticky tape, glue, erasing pens, scissors etc.. The idea of requesting a pen from a teacher is utterly unheard of.

Wind back to my working class Sheffield comprehensive school or "technology college" as they preferred to call it. There wasn't ever a lesson that began without a bunch of "students" requesting pens to write with. Often they would fail to hand these pens back. In other words they stole them. In my English department we tried letters home, detentions, fines, pen monitors, lists -whatever we could think of - but still a hard core never brought pens or even carried schoolbags. There were 870 children in the school and in my last year I had to order some five thousand cheap black ballpoint pens

You had the mentally certifiable headmistress claiming it didn't matter - we had bigger things to deal with - oh, and by the way, could we ensure that homework was set each week and where's your action plan for next term? All those computers, those career lessons, all those highly paid teachers and ancillary staff and yet sometimes I felt that my English colleagues and I were the only ones who understood that having a pen was a symbol of intent as much as anything. Without a pen, children were simply sticking two fingers up at the system, declaring they didn't really give a damn. It was a contagious disease.

The children of Ogwini, like the children of St Stephens Bangkok, prove that I wasn't mad or unreasonable to expect pupils to be responsible enough to bring pens to school. This is something that will never make newspaper headlines but it demonstrates that the pompous, conference visiting, expenses-claiming, back-slapping gobs-on-legs who preside over England's education system will frequently fail to see the trees and the bushes that make the wood.