Monthly Archives: December 2016

A trip to the Black Country Living Museum

A month ago, we packed the family into our ageing Megan, and travelled to the Black Country to see relatives and visit one of my favourite Museums, the Black Country Museum.  Sharing a hotel room with your tweenage family was, it turns out, a bit like sleeping in a busy badger set. Sighing, coughing, burping and breaking wind keeps us all awake as, outside, urban foxes voice the sleepless frustration that bubbles away inside.  In the morning we emerged blinking to breakfast next door at the brewer’s fayre – the idiopathic y adding little authenticity to the atmosphere of disinfectant and yesterday’s grease.

Then on to the Black Country Living Museum. I have been to the museum several times during my time teaching in Reading. That we were prepared to travel from Reading to Stourbridge with a coach full of kids to visit the museum year after year illustrates how highly we thought of the museum as a learning experience.  Put briefly, I loved that trip when I was teaching, and loved the way that the children learned from it.

One of the great things about the museum is the way it puts human scale against the Industrial. Maddy hates ‘ humanoids’ as she puts it – hating being at the bottom of the unhappy valley where ‘almost humans’ explain things that have emotional significance. All of us NT’s enjoyed the way that these helped us see the individual stories that in turn enabled us to see the bigger picture, and Maddy was able to listen to and later to recall with interest their stories of underground food and drink – ‘tack’ underground as well as the dangers of each of the different methods of digging out the coal.

Most memorable from their point of view was the young man sitting in the mine bottom, waiting for the pit pony and driver at a ventilation door, so unimportant that he was not allowed a candle. We imagined the stories that the child would tell itself in the dark – waiting for the sound of the hooves or the glimmer of a candle to disrupt the 12 hour shift, sitting on the floor of the tunnel in silence.

The museum covers industrial technical history – in the shape of the mine already discussed, but also using a working Newcomen EngineUntitled

This engine was used to pump water from mines – it is amazing in action – dramatic smoke and a swinging pump arm full of crashing power in a tall room full of heat. Underneath the machine is the weirdly hypnotic ash-pit. My young nephew spent a good 5 minutes watching the embers flitting down to the cooling ash pile.

UntitledAbove ground, the first houses you see are earlier than many of the other domestic settings, Pitt’s cottage, a one story self-built home, which contrasts with the back-to-backs further in to the museum, one of which is set slightly later in 1891 (and highly suggestive of overcrowding and poverty) and the other, set much more comfortably in 1924.

Where I think the museum is missing a trick is in not making more of the change over time (or perhaps even change over geography) aspects of the different houses and displays that they have gathered from around the black country. There is an element of this – many of the shops on the top row are more obviously from the 1930s – though the school is earlier – perhaps late 1800s.

UntitledOften however we’re just ‘in the past’. There’s a wealth of information on the website, but not much available as you wander around. It would take a strong guide to explain the transitions and contrasts between buildings and chronological periods, but I think this would be a worthwhile aim of the museum.

UntitledThere are very strong guides at the museum – the children particularly enjoyed the lady in the Chemist shop. Despite looking the model of idealised Victorian female propriety she was more than willing to delight in explaining the use of suppositories. She also showed the children how ‘the Victorians’ made pills, which they were enthralled by.

Untitled

It’s this handiness, the skill and often very hard labour involved in production that stays with me after a trip to the BCM. This is especially true of that the different kinds of metal work that the Black Country specialised in. Watching a man working in the Nail Shop not only shows the great skills involved in working metal and also in working metal so quickly that they could make a living out of it (there’s a great video on the page to show you how it was done), but the physical nature of the labour – the hardness of the work. The hammers, mangles, wash tubs, fire grates, carpet beaters, brushes, mops, files and other tools are on display in areas around the museum – in shops, in the hands of dummies, laid out on the floors of houses as if momentarily dropped or left. When you step back and consider how much of the work achieved by people using those tools is now achieved through the use of energy (in the form of fossil fuels, mostly) you realise how much the consumption of such energy has changed our lives.

UntitledI’m reading (slowly, it’s very long!) Frank Trentmann’s ‘Empire of Things’, which alongside this trip has made me realise how much today’s consumption of ‘goods’ is based on the provision of things like water, energy and sanitation that allows us to operate them, but which also gives us the time to operate and enjoy them. This is the other thing that I think the BCLM is perhaps missing – it’s implicit in the gas lamps, the coal scuttles and the water pipes, and in the bridges, canals and trolley buses, but I think that it too could be brought out more.

I’ll end this rambling set of reflections with what was a real treat. I’m a wannabe baker (isn’t everyone these days) and as a family we really liked looking into the Victorian bakery. The heat (it was a cold day) was very welcome, the smells and the bread, basic human nourishment, alongside the excellent volunteer guide, made us think very carefully about how people lived, how they fed themselves, and enjoyed life despite the difficulties. Last week we watched the excellent ‘Victorian Bakers‘ on the BBC iplayer and recognised the bakery on the second episode of the show. We were really gripped by the way the programme explored the nature of bread production over time – how it changed, what stayed the same, how the meaning of bread itself changed over time.

Victorian England, and the Victorian Black Country in particular wasn’t one ‘thing’ or even a set of different class-based ‘things’ – it was a time of unprecedented change in almost every aspect of the way people lived, ate, socialised, organised, travelled, and how they voted and persuaded each other – which is what the Victorian Bakers and the Victorian Slum BBC programmes were so good at helping us to see. If I had one wish for the BCM it would be that they found ways to explain this in more depth – perhaps even to help us walk though, in and out of these changes and make explicit comparisons and contrasts.

A personal archaeology of skills.

500px-bifaz_con_percutor_blandoI first became aware of the possibility of being a writer* during my professional legal training. Before then I experienced only moderate success, and limited satisfaction, when I wrote. I struggled to communicate my ideas and lacked confidence that I could structure an argument or marshal evidence.

However my awareness of a crucial change came not as a result of learning to argue. There was no dramatic damascene moment in which my mock-trial performance convinced me, or a thrilled audience, that I was to be the next Michael Mansfield. Truth is, my advocacy skills are distinctly lacklustre. I go red. Over adrenalized, I splutter, and angrily forget crucial words and arguments.

No, my awareness of a transformation into someone who thought they might, possibly, be able to write came as I was taught to draft contracts.

Contracts are attempts to explain and describe a reality – an agreement between parties. They also attempt to cater for known and unknown situations that will occur in the future. Drafting them requires general skills – methodical working, careful checking of details, clarity of aims as well as specific ones – careful definition of terms, building the mechanics of information flow through the instrument, defining and then engaging legal subroutines in particular circumstances. You also need to know a lot – contract law, rules about consumer protection, about product safety, regulation, taxation, attestation, consideration, the list goes on.

Writing these contracts taught me the value of a plan, which then changed, of key terms, which were then adapted, of structures, which had to be re-structured, and of checking, drafting, re-drafting, looking things up, testing and re-visiting. They taught me to look at things from the point of view of my client, from the view of their business partners, and from that of other legal professionals who might read it in the future in an attempt to understand the parties’ agreement and intentions. The contract had to protect the interests of the first, allow the second to recover the legitimate advantage that the parties had agree would be their ‘consideration’ under that agreement and give the third enough information to enforce that agreement in case of dispute.

How was I taught this? I was taught what the bits of a contract did, just as everyone else in my class was, and the kinds of things you have to take into account when taking instructions. I was taught the laws and conventions that govern the formation of legal agreements, and how these related to contract drafting. We were all taught this.

I know this sounds daft, ridiculous but, unlike for most people in that class, for me drafting contracts was fun and even exhilarating. [Alan Partridge]I took to drafting a contract like one of David Attenborough’s peregrine falcons takes to the New York skyline. Yes, I got into scrapes, false starts, mistimed dives, but I was held aloft by thermals, could see the skyscrapers, the trees, the landscape and the details [/Alan Partridge]. Not everyone could do this – but I could. I could do it well, with an enjoyable, wing-beating, effort.

But did this awareness, this enjoyment emerge from earlier experiences, was it because of what I already knew, or what I could already do? Why was I able to dive into this? Why did I take to it?

I think it was because I spent my early teenage years programming computers. I had a ZX81 which I taught to swear on screen (once spent a lovely afternoon teaching my uncle’s Dragon to actually say ‘bugger’ in response to certain key presses). Eventually I turned my ’81 into an alarm system for my bedroom. Then I was given a Spectrum into which I would pour hours of typing – entering and then debugging programmes taken from computer enthusiast magazines. I learned how to structure, to test, to go-back-and-fix.

Why, in turn, was I able to invest such time, why was I able to understand how the different parts of a programme fitted together?

When I was much younger I often played with a ‘Bigtrack’ robot – using simple keypad commands to negotiate the smooth floors of our new-build 70s semi, in order to deliver ‘just in time’ Lego bricks to the road layout where I was learning to build parts out of other parts. Bricks into doors, floors, windows, into houses, houses into towns. At the same time I loved taking things apart – my grandad would bring round old radios for me to take to bits – ask questions about, crunch underfoot. I played at putting things together and at taking them apart.

From first principles of deconstruction and construction, to learning about physical movement then how information can move and flow through text, how routes through a programme are constructed by routines, subroutines, blocks of stored data mediated by defined and fluid variables into defined terms, clauses, sub-clauses and sections, I travelled towards being able to write well (or better at least!). I transferred this growing understanding, these skills to new and different domains, one after the other. Later I used the same skills to help me conceive, draft, re-draft and improve pieces of non-fiction writing, first on various OU courses, then in writing summaries and worksheets for pupils. After this I moved on to writing for websites, a podcast and then several books. At each stage I picked up new skills and knowledge, and new dispositions, but these all built on the same skills – the same bits of my brain lighting up and modifying with each task – as had lit up all those years before when I typed:

10 Print ‘Hello Ed’
20 Goto 10.

Run.

*this doesn’t mean being a professional writer, or earning money from writing, but _being_ someone who interacts with the world partly through writing, who enjoys it almost as much as he hates it, but who has to do it .

Just take the phones off them

school-32616_1280Been thinking about this for a long time – years in fact, as teacher, but it’s taken some things happening to us as a family to convince me that smartphones should not be given to children until they’re really old enough to understand the risks associated with them.

I’m not saying that technology doesn’t have a part to play in the development or the learning of children – it does (though probably not as much as I thought it did 10 years ago), nor that children should never see a screen in school. I just think that the potential benefits of having a smartphone are outweighed, by quite a long way, by the damage they can cause.

Phones cause self-image problems, facilitate bullying, are a conduit for sharing pornography, hate imagery and they pose a personal safety risk. I would argue that most children are unable to really understand the nature or extent of those risks. What’s more, phones distract children from learning when they’re in school – and they stop families from talking together when they’re at home. I’m not sure that there are many upsides – what positive things do children actually use their phones for?  Do any scattered examples of ‘great things my kid has done with their phones’ counterbalance the great harm that phones are doing elsewhere?

Following our discovery that our eldest (year 8) was chatting online with strangers (despite lots of discussions about the dangers of this, and other online risks).  So, we took her phone from her – with the intention of giving it back in 6 months. That time is nearly up – and we’ve decided that we’re not going to give it back, ever.

Since we took the phone away she’s been a much happier person – she’s sleeping better, doesn’t spend hours covering her face with make up and pouting at her phone, she spends less time having feuds with others, and much less time worrying about her appearance.  She’s playing computer games again, and reading many more books than she did before – in other words she’s free to be a child.

So, anecdotally (yeah, I know) it seems they can thrive without them, and if we all agreed that kids would be better off with a http://amzn.to/2gw307p so that we can call them if we need to, I hope that lots of similar problems would diminish. So, why can’t we just take the phones off them?