What Musharaf in Educating Yorkshire taught us about the teachers' strike

Ordinary, unscripted teachers do what no amount of professional PR ever could in this unexpectedly brilliant programme.

A week after some of our teachers went on strike in protest at their changing terms and conditions and the continued onslaught on their professional selves by Michael Gove, Channel 4 showed the last episode in their fixed camera series, Educating Yorkshire, filmed in Thornhill Community Academy, near Dewsbury.

The series had a mixed reception, and that was just from me. Word has it that the production company approached a lot of Ofsted-rated ‘good’ schools across the country to be filmed, hoping maybe that ‘good’ would be an indicator of interesting times ahead. But who on earth would put their staff and students through that? Who on earth would want their teaching methods held up to scrutiny, their pupil behaviour offered up to a critical and negative public, and their exam results turned into spectacle? Well, clearly an egotist or an idiot  - which they found in the form of headteacher Jonny Mitchell. Of course he is neither (maybe he is a bit of an egotist) but the series was exploitative, outside the school’s remit of care, not in the pupils interests, nothing to do with education, damaging, I thought after the first episode.

But I wasn’t quite convinced by my own reaction, so I watched sporadically (by which I mean, on Twitter at the same time) for the rest of the series. And by this one, wasn’t going to bother – I have the last episode of Breaking Bad ready to go, and really? This going to trump that? And then they introduced Musharaf. If you didn’t see it, this is what was going on for Musharaf.

A Year 11 student, Musharaf had a debilitating stammer. It shut him up so completely at times he looked as if the words he wanted had done a total runner. You wouldn’t have known from his demeanour, but it was so frustrating for him, this inability to say what he wanted to say, that he typed at one point about how he wanted to smash his head in with a hammer. He’d been bullied at the start of his school life (hot news: kids can be cruel) but had made it up to prefect, until a stupid Facebook incident had seen him stripped of that green prefect jumper. Now Musharaf was facing his final hurdle at the school: the speaking section of his English GCSE. His teacher was Mr Burton, who’d taken the inspiration for his haircut from his namesake, Tim,and is an assistant head at the tender age of 30. Mr Burton is one of those teachers who read things out in funny voices and stand on the desk and get mock-annoyed when the kids think he’s actually 40 (see hot news, above).

Mr Burton and Musharaf were going nowhere fast, and the exam deadline was getting nearer. Musharaf had some small techniques like tapping a rhythm which sporadically helped him, and there were speech therapists and classroom assistants in the background so obviously plenty effort was being expended on his behalf. But nothing was sticking. Nothing nudging his words out. Once they were stuck, they remained resolutely stuck. And he couldn’t pass his speaking exam if he couldn’t speak. Watching Musharaf struggle, and watching the efforts of everyone quietly engaged in helping him, was very moving. From my sofa, I was leaning forward to will those words out, the same physical reaction you might get watching a race.  And then Mr Burton watched The King’s Speech.

They did this thing in the film, he told Musharaf, where the king listened to music and it helped him talk, let’s try it out. We watched from a corner of the room, one of them had a phone and the other had headphones and Musharaf put them on and tried again on a poem that he had not even got the first word out, last time round. And Musharaf read a poem. Musharaf read a poem. Out loud. It was a eureka moment, amazing. They stared at each other, neither could barely believe it, if they were other people they might have hugged. It was a triumph, we all cried and whooped. 'I have a voice!' Musharaf told his friend in the corridor, afterwards. ‘I’m the Musharaf Whisperer,’ Mr Burton told his colleagues.

I’ll declare my hand here: I’m a script editor and writer – how to tell stories interests me. A good chunk of my family are teachers and I have kids at state secondary school – education interests me. It goes some way to explain why I found this episode so effective. When shows like this work well, when the characters are compelling and their narrative grabs you, then it really pulls you along, and this one pulled me along with tears rolling my face. It was beautifully paced, emotional and funny in equal measure, elements of conflict, self-realisation, moments of pathos followed by relief, and thankfully a happy ending. 

But the timing is important too; it helps make a wider point. Last week, the teachers were on strike, it was a ‘disgrace’, they were a disgrace,  children were ‘suffering’ because that’s the hyperbole when teachers strike, everyone ‘suffers’. If you’d taken the temperature, it would have been pretty cold towards them. We’re ALL struggling, was the common retort, why shouldn’t YOU? If my life is shit, why shouldn’t your life be shit too? It’s not new; the denigration of teachers has gone on for years, and to ice the cake with the idea that unqualified teachers in free schools might in some way be superior to our trained professionals is massively derisory.

And then. Then you actually see a teacher at work. Not a celebrity teacher flown in for the sake of the teevee but an ordinary one, in an ordinary classroom, with ordinary kids, yours and my kids. A gifted and charismatic teacher, actually, but ordinary nonetheless, he’ll be doing his job whether we’re watching or not. The programme gave us all that skill, that care, that passion and compassion – not just from him but from all staff around him at work – and it’s boggling. Because for a while it dammed the flood of shit that’s spouted against teachers, and just showed what they do. Not by flashing big arrows at Mr Burton and his colleagues – WATCH HOW GOOD THEY ARE – it quietly let them reveal themselves. And yeah, daily badinage sometimes went wrong; punishment sometimes felt wrong, teachers sometimes said things I wouldn’t have done, because when you’re not scripted, that’s what happens.

That’s why this series is ultimately so good, maybe even important. It sets the record straight. Sets out that we owe Mr Burton, and the majority of teachers who do similar, a debt of impressed gratitude. They do this every day! For our children! I defy any one who watched it to still think that our teachers are a disgrace. And I challenge Michael Gove to watch it and call them the ‘enemies of promise’. They’re the creators of it. Ask Musharaf.

Teachers can't put on a show with pupils. They have to be left to quietly reveal themselves. Image: Getty
Illustration by James Albon
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The life and times of the London cycle courier

Bike messengers no longer comprise the militia they resembled when the Tories were turning London into a city of finance. But they still trail a thrillingly reckless air of romance.

It was as if I’d accidentally stumbled into some secret cell from which an insurrection was being planned. The four or five mechanics and cycle couriers loosely clustered around the counter, costumed in black clothes that seemed, impossibly, to be skinny and baggy at the same time, had an arachnid quality to them. Static crackled from the radios clipped to their shoulders on the tarpaulin courier bags that arced over their backs like a carapace. They looked like the conspirators of an anarchist revolution, rebuilding bikes from greasy cogs and oil-stained bits of metal as if they were bombs. I was almost disappointed when the one standing behind the counter proved to be cheerfully friendly. Suddenly, they looked endearingly like twentysomething Mutant Ninja Turtles.

The late 1980s and early 1990s were the heroic phase in the history of the bicycle courier. London’s roads were arteriosclerotic with traffic, so courier firms that had once despatched vans, motorbikes and scooters across the city increasingly resorted to bike messengers, who were as nimble as they were cheap. The internet hadn’t yet made them half redundant, relegating them to the role of delivering documents that ­require a signature from Soho to the City, or  conveying portable corporate gifts from the City to Mayfair.

In these years the messengers visibly became a tribe. They acquired a more uniform appearance, albeit one that accommodated individual eccentricities; they devised a dialect to lubricate radio communication between couriers and controllers; identified an unofficial headquarters, a bar in Shoreditch called the Foundry; and developed their own rituals of belonging, including the Cycle Messenger World Championships. This annual event, inaugurated in Berlin in 1993, was hosted in London in 1994, when approximately 500 couriers from Europe and the US as well as the UK attended. This is roughly the number of couriers who still fling themselves along the streets of London today, in far more embattled conditions.

It was in 1993, at the acme of the profession and its associated subculture, that the then prime minister, John Major, speaking to the Conservative Group for Europe, made an infamous prognostication about the future of Britain, in which he misused George Orwell’s reference to “hiking” from his essay “The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius” (1941). “Fifty years on from now,” Major prophesied, “Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and Pools fillers and – as George Orwell said – ‘old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist’ . . .” In contrast to this pastoral fantasy, bike messengers seemed to herald a feral future in which, at evening rush hour, as traffic fumes thicken, the congested lanes and streets of cities are convulsed with semi-vagrant, rodent cyclists, all of them addicted to danger, competing with suicidal energy in so-called “alleycat” races.

Major’s imaginary old maids, ideologically speaking, were the sisters of those honest, industrious Englishmen whom Norman Tebbit invoked in 1981 when, as Margaret Thatcher’s employment secretary, he made his notorious claim that, instead of rioting like the current generation of unemployed, his father had “got on his bike and looked for work”. When a cycle courier got on his bike, he wasn’t looking for work, he was working. In this sense, the bike messengers out-tebbited Tebbit. Yet their untamed appearance and their countercultural attitudes aligned them with the sorts of people who relished a riot – the New Age travellers and class warriors who, in the pages of the tabloid press, threatened to stain Thatcher, Tebbit and Major’s pristine vision for Britain. At a time when cycling, in Britain’s political imagination, seemed in danger of becoming an emblematically Conservative activity, cycle couriers were fifth columnists.

Bike messengers no longer comprise the ragged but glorious militia they resembled when the Tories were assaulting London and reconstructing it as a centre of finance. They no longer look like desperadoes or mercenaries among the armies of conventional commuters that traverse the city. But they still trail a derelict charm and a thrillingly reckless air of romance as they hurtle through the streets. Indeed, in some respects, their piratical appeal has grown.

Cycle couriers have managed to survive in the city’s increasingly competitive ecology, subsisting even though a deadly combination of emails and Uber cabs threatens to render them extinct. Such is the persistent value of the autograph (as opposed to some kind of electronic fingerprint, say) that signed documents still need to be ferried from door to door; such is the capital’s ongoing road congestion (and the congestion charge) that it is still quicker to cross it on two wheels than four. Their heightened appeal, though, can perhaps be explained by the fact that they look so attractively fierce and undomesticated beside more rarefied species of cyclists that have evolved in London over the past couple of decades. Among these, the most prominent are middle-aged men in Lycra shorts on racing bikes; commuters in suits on fold-up bikes; and tourists, foreign and domestic, in chinos on bank-branded public hire bikes. (A recent addition to this list is the newest subspecies of courier, employed by the food delivery service Deliveroo. With the only job requirements being to own a bicycle and a smartphone, they can be seen in increasing numbers, huffing and puffing up mild inclines and wobbling under the weight of their giant backpack-boxes full of chow.)

The cycle courier also looks far tougher, far better adapted to the remorseless daily demands of urban life, than another, rather more populous metropolitan species: the hipster. The hipster may or may not be a cyclist: if he rides, it will most likely be a showy, courier-aping, customised “fixie” (fixed-gear) bike. But whether on wheels or on foot, with his spindly legs rigid in drainpipes instead of agile in tights and cut-off combat pants, his beard absurdly sculpted instead of attractively disordered by the force of the elements, the hipster is an ossified, etiolated, even decadent descendant of the cycle courier. In the contemporary capital’s mythological bestiary, bike messengers, their lower bodies inseparable from the sleek metal frames of the machines on which they balance, are the city’s centaurs; hipsters, its plodding satyrs. Messengers, as Emily Chappell explains in the glossary that concludes her new book about being a courier, have a portmanteau term of contempt for “urban cyclists who adopt the supposed style and attitude of cycle couriers without ever having worked as one”: “fakengers”.

Chappell’s book, What Goes Around: a London Cycle Courier’s Story (Guardian Faber), which is fascinating for offering a ­female courier’s memoir of a predominantly male culture, is one of no fewer than three to have been published by couriers or former couriers about the city’s cycle-life in the space of six months. The others are Jon Day’s Cyclogeography: Journeys of a London Bicycle Courier (Notting Hill Editions), a learned handbook on cycling that dignifies cyclists as psychogeographers; and Julian Sayarer’s Messengers: City Tales from a London Bicycle Courier (Arcadia), the most combatively political of the three.

Sayarer’s memoir drily characterises couriering as “the best of all the worst jobs in the world”. In his prologue, he describes a phone conversation in which his agent tries to persuade him to produce a manuscript “about bicycles, and the city”. When Sayarer expresses his reluctance to write another book about “punctures and brakepads” at a publisher’s insistence, the agent admonishes: “If you don’t, mark my words, they will find a name instead of yours to put on that spine!” It transpires that they could have put the names of at least three authors on the spine, all of them highly accomplished prose stylists and compelling narrators.

All three books read a little like threnodies; and it is tempting to see them as symptoms of a subculture that is becoming increasingly conscious of the need to memorialise itself precisely because it is under threat. Chappell, Day and Sayarer feel like anthropologists scrambling to record the language of a threatened tribe; they are compiling a semiotics of urban cycling in the face of its fatal transformation. As the appearance of boutique bike shops, cycle superhighways and bank-sponsored hire bikes implies, if bicycling in 21st-century London is being promoted by politicians, it is also being sanitised, rationalised and privatised.

Revealingly, in his “mayoral foreword” to a document published by Transport for London (TfL) in 2010, Boris Johnson underlined his determination to turn London into what, in a clumsy and faintly sinister portmanteau term, he called “a cyclised city” – “a civilised city where people can ride their bikes safely and easily in a pleasant environment”. Everyone wants to be able to ride their bike safely, and the vast majority of cyclists want Johnson to stop orating and instead introduce stringent legislation to prevent HGVs from killing them at traffic junctions. But not everyone who wants to cycle safely wants London to become a “pleasant environment”. I don’t; and it certainly wouldn’t still be London if it did.

***

In the civilised city of TfL’s “Cycling Revolution”, the commuters, fakengers and sightseers pedalling along the superhighways are inadvertently erasing the record of cycle couriers who pioneered them. The books by Chappell, Day and Sayarer restore the record. Each contains detailed, often vivid descriptions of, for example, the punitive physical discipline that the job demands, which quickly becomes an addiction; the jerry-rigging of equipment fatigued by the road; the encounters with blank-faced representatives of corporate offices; gatherings of the tribe at the likes of the Foundry; the run-ins with black-cab drivers; and, most gripping of all, the alleycat races.

Day recounts one particular race, designed by his brother, also a courier, to be “an urban steeplechase with a fox-hunt theme”. Attaching a fox’s tail to his belt loop and strapping a plastic container filled with liquid to his back, his brother set off through the traffic on his bike, sputtering a trail of white paint through his rear wheel. After a short time, Day himself signalled the beginning of the race with the blast of a horn. “We followed the paint that lay in a splattered line on the tarmac, competing with the other street markings and tracing a ghostly outline of my brother’s journey,” he writes with characteristic flourish.

Sayarer provides a second-hand account of the same alleycat race in his own book. Day’s brother makes an appearance under the identity used by controllers on the couriers’ radio system: “Two-Four brings me up to speed with his life and tells me about his last alleycat: the fox hunt.” Day also plays a cameo role in Chappell’s book, in the guise of the courier “who was now waiting for his DPhil viva to roll around before finally moving on to lecture in modernist fiction at King’s College”. At times it really is as if the names of all three of them appear on the spine of the same book.

Reading these absorbing accounts of bike messengers’ struggle to subsist on the roads of London, the only thing I felt was missing was a sense of the angry inner monologue that, surely, shapes their consciousness as they cycle through the relentlessly hostile traffic. For the most part, admirably, and aside from a few vituperative references to cabbies or cops, Chappell, Day and Sayarer seem “to float above the chaos and ­friction of the city with an unfailing smile” (as Chappell puts it, describing another female courier). When I cycle, I maintain a constant, resentful running commentary, at times all too audible, on the confrontational or careless drivers who threaten to knock me on to the road. It seems hard to believe that professional couriers don’t suffer from the same psychosis: cyclosis.

Matthew Beaumont is the author of “Nightwalking: a Nocturnal History of London” (Verso)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle