I remember the first time I went to London in a series of disconnected snapshots. There was a train, with golden yellow doors, the taxi, with the flip down seats, stairs everywhere, up and down which I coughed, down to the underground and up to the top of St Paul’s Cathedral, right into the crowded little ball. What we ate, and where we went, beyond the whispering gallery and the traitor’s gate (intoned in sepulchral tones and viewed from a river boat) is long gone. What I know about that day (the coughing) comes from the memory of my parents. We spent the day shuttling around on all the different forms of transport there were to be found.
These days, my visits to our capital city are dominated by trains. The thing that always amazes me about train travel is the encapsulating nature of it. You start off, sleepy station in a country town, yawning commuters and excited day-trippers, you chat to the interesting man who tells you he used to teach in a school for the blind and that you have brought it all back to him, to the not-so-interesting man who tells you (with accompanying bitterness) about his divorce as the countryside whips past, and before you know where you are, BOOM. Sleepy becomes rush, and you are tumbled out into the whirling vortex that is London.
London is different to anywhere else I know. Everything moves faster, is bigger, more fashionable, shinier and harder edged. I sometimes wonder, as I dawdle my way, resistant to being swept along and thus finding myself accidentally hurtling along in the wrong direction, if it isn’t a bit puffed up. In love with the idea of its own importance.
There are things in London that you can’t find anywhere else, you see. Things I saw through the window as I emerged from the smoke-blackened tunnels of the past and onto the gleaming, glasswalled, roller-coastered railway of the future. The Thames. The O2. A cable car ride across the river. Exhibition spaces of such monstrous size it takes you an age to traverse, sponsored by glamourous oil barons from far away. It’s a far cry from my little primary school dominated world, out here in the sticks.
There is nothing glossy about the world of the primary classroom. Everything is covered in a faint layer of pencil shavings and bits of rubber. The children, the tables, the chairs, the books, everything is slightly smudged, seen through a layer of carbon. Even the new things don’t remain new for long. There is something on the hands of small children that means that everything they touch is indelibly stained at the first instant. A new book goes home, and comes back covered in the remains of breakfast, or tears.
It takes longer to do anything in a school, too. There is no striding along, forging an individual path. We go at the speed of the slowest to get changed. It’s the same wherever there are children, it has to be said. Once you become a parent, you either accept that you are going to be late to everything from now on, or you plan backwards, meticulously working out the latest possible moment you need to start getting ready.
Nothing about working in a school, nothing about working with children, I reckon, is glamorous. The contrast between something like the Academies Show and the classroom is stark, and disorienting. You could tell the teachers, weighed down with freebies; I chatted to a group of them on the train home (they’d collected enough mugs to kit out the staffroom), to a nice lady over lunch. We chewed our fingernails together and bewailed the fact that we had forgotten everything we were going to say.
It’s easy to forget, in those circumstances, where everything is shiny and impressive and important, who you are and where you come from. The smell of pencil sharpenings and washing powder, the littleness of children is a long way away. It’s a good thing I took some family photos to remind everyone what we do, isn’t it?