Category Archives: Bristol

Back to school

There are some cities that succumb to a form of mass hysteria when it comes to schooling, and Bristol is one of them. Its reputation as a bohemian hub, full of alternative and creative types, sits uneasily with the large number of families here who opt out of state education. My sons have seen a steady loss of their classmates from the local primary school to private prep schools over the years. Some parents admit that switching to the private sector at this early stage guarantees a place for a child who might otherwise fail the Year 7 entrance exam. Others focus on their child’s sensitivity or cleverness: Jasper would benefit from a more nurturing approach; Jessica wasn’t being stretched. All too often, it seems, the local primary isn’t good enough for some special snowflakes.

When the prospect of secondary education looms into view, those who remain loyal to the state sector begin to feel, preposterously, as though they’re swimming against the tide. In this part of town, private secondaries far outnumber state schools: there are at least seven within a two-mile radius of our house. Middle-class parents treat the idea of sending their child to the local comprehensive as some sort of social experiment; a risk that they aren’t prepared to take. The proximity of a well-known and prohibitively expensive public school means that they can justify their educational choices with the refrain, ‘At least it’s not Clifton College.’ They protest that they only want to do what’s best for their child, that their choice of school is nobody else’s business – and yet, in providing their child with an educational springboard, they may well be depriving a clever but less privileged child of an opportunity further down the line.

This unfair divide in our education system is on my mind because I’ve spent the last twelve months choosing a secondary school with my elder son. I’ve trudged around open days, questioned diffident adolescents about their favourite lessons and listened to head teachers rehearsing the USPs of their school. Meanwhile my son has dissected frogs, fiddled with Bunsen burners and watched endless re-runs of the school play. If I’m honest, I still can’t be sure which school will suit him best. There are too many imponderables that will affect his day-to-day experience – the class teacher, the cohort, and the development of his personality. All I can do is make an informed choice based on a combination of observations, data and gut feeling. And my decision? A deep breath, followed by a mumbled confession that lays bare my hypocrisy: he’ll be starting at an independent secondary school later this week.

I always thought I wouldn’t do it, while privately thinking less of parents who did. It seemed wrong – it still does – to buy an educational advantage in this way. Of course, there are many ways in which parents use money to boost their children’s chances in life – engaging a private tutor, for example, or moving to the catchment area of a better state school – but paying for private schooling is a decision on a much larger scale. It means that my son will mix almost exclusively with other middle-class kids on a daily basis. It’s almost certain to affect his world view.

Despite all of this, over the last year I’ve come to acknowledge that my child – small, shy and swotty – is likely to be happier and more successful at the school we’ve chosen than at the local secondary. As Year 7 has loomed ever larger on the horizon, my thinking has become more nuanced and my attitude has softened. (How convenient, I hear you say.) Could it be that private schools aren’t entirely populated by the offspring of florid-faced, braying Tories? Is it not possible to come from a privileged background and still be kind, polite and thoughtful?

The presence of an Ofsted-outstanding state primary school on my doorstep – small, nurturing and with a largely middle-class intake – has, until now, made it easy for me to align my actions with my principles. Our local comprehensive is a different proposition. It’s a large school with a broad social mix, where a higher than average proportion of children qualify for pupil premium. In theory, it was exactly the sort of education I wanted for my son, but that was before I visited. At the open day we witnessed several disruptive incidents which, while swiftly dealt with, meant that the teacher’s focus switched from imparting knowledge to crowd control. The main theme of the head teacher’s talk was disadvantaged pupils and lower achievers – rightly so, given the school’s demographic – but there was no mention of the provision for more able children. Against this backdrop, it seemed horribly elitist to ask about the patchy GCSE results. Fortunately, I didn’t have to: somebody else did, and the head’s response was unconvincing.

I’m aware of how this sounds. To express these concerns, even through the medium of a pseudonymous blog, makes me cringe. It immediately sets me up in opposition to parents who have chosen that school for their children (not to mention those who had no choice in the matter). To them, it will no doubt appear that I am criticising their decision in order to justify my own. And yet, how can a large inner-city school be expected to provide an outstanding education for all of its pupils when faced with real-term cuts to its budget? The reality is that it has to set priorities, and many pupils will lose out. Over the past year, some of Bristol’s secondaries have resorted to desperate measures: withdrawing lessons in ‘non-essential’ subjects, such as drama and sport; denying individual support to children with special needs; and pleading for parents to plug the gap in funding. Meanwhile the status of the teaching profession is downgraded while pressure is heaped on teachers, who are expected to do more with less, year on year. It’s profoundly depressing, and it’s not what I want for my son.

Now the autumn term is almost upon us, and it’s time to stop the self-flagellation. The choice is made, and it’s back to school. Although it’s tempting to preface any conversational reference to my elder son’s schooling with a set piece about how I struggled with my decision and am still not fully reconciled to it, this smacks of having it both ways: preserving a sense of myself as an essentially decent person, while reaping the benefits of an elite education for my child. And perhaps there’s more to the decision than I care to acknowledge. I went to a private school myself, and while there was much about it that I professed to hate, I can’t deny that it conferred certain benefits. I’ve come to recognise a perverse aspect of my personality: I’ve never been a joiner and yet I very much want to belong. I’ve always rather liked the security of being part of an institution – be it a school, university or profession – while publicly railing against it. The wood-panelled corridors of my son’s new school already feel familiar, although I’ve only set foot in the building a couple of times; perhaps, in the end, we all revert to type.


Retail therapy: why I don’t buy it

The month of May has finally arrived, topped and tailed by a public holiday. Time off work allows us to indulge in our favourite national pastime as hordes of people part with their hard-earned cash at retail parks up and down the country. The last time I visited one of these out-of-town hellholes – otherwise known as Cribbs Causeway, on the outskirts of Bristol – it finally dawned on me that they aren’t designed for oddballs like me who prefer to travel by public transport, and who view a shopping trip as a tedious necessity rather than a family day out.

On that occasion, I got off the bus at the wrong stop and spent ten minutes stranded beside a dual carriageway, unable to see any obvious means of reaching the shopping mecca on the other side, while puce-faced motorists bibbed their horns at each other in the queue for the underground car park. Why does anyone think it’s acceptable to behave like this? I’d be regarded as certifiable if I barged down the street, elbowing people in the ribs and bellowing at them to get out of my way, but it seems that different rules apply once you get behind the wheel of your car.

In an attempt to avoid the trauma of another excursion to Cribbs, I take myself off to Clifton village and its chi-chi boutiques for a spot of clothes shopping. This brings its own problems. Few women past their fortieth birthday welcome a svelte assistant popping her head round the changing-room curtain every two minutes, ostensibly to ask how they’re getting on but really to snicker at their cellulite. Some of these shops mockingly position their full-length mirrors in the communal areas, giving me little choice but to step outside the cubicle for confirmation that the shift dress that was so beguiling on the assistant makes me look like a dumpy frump with footballer’s knees.

Food shopping is more my scene, which possibly explains the cellulite. I bypass the supermarket, with its bulletproof pears in shrink-wrapped polystyrene trays and its infuriating self-checkouts, and head straight for the Saturday morning farmers’ market on Whiteladies Road. Here I stand in a queue for fifteen minutes while the ditherer in front of me tastes all the artisan cheeses on display and discusses them at length with the stallholder, before finally buying a tiny sliver barely equal in weight to what he’s already guzzled. Then he heads off to Waitrose in his 4×4 to stock up on ready meals, all the while congratulating himself on how he’s single-handedly propped up the local economy with his measly purchase.

Flagging by this stage, I drop into the Bristol Coffee House for a shot of caffeine. There, I hear the hipster ahead of me (you know the type – tricky specs and a statement beard) asking, ‘Can I get a flat white?’, to which the only appropriate response is, ‘No, this isn’t a self-service canteen.’ These are the sort of shoppers who fall for the trendy, down-with-the-kids school of marketing whereby companies attempt to project a personality on to their packaging, portraying themselves as a wacky bunch of innovators driven by a passion for the product rather than, say, the need to pay the mortgage. Note to these companies: it’s of no interest to me that ‘we’re always doing fun things here at Pieminister’, nor do I want to drop in at Fruit Towers to say ‘hi’ to the ‘guys’ who make Innocent Smoothies.

Given all this, it baffles me that shopping is still our leisure activity of choice. A few years ago, my neighbouring city of Bath ran an advertising campaign designed to attract visitors to ‘a golden city paved with shops’. The bathos of this slogan is so striking that I can practically see an ellipsis before the final word. Really, is that the best they could come up with? A World Heritage Site famous for its Roman remains, Georgian architecture and literary connections, and the main tourist pull appears to be its crappy retail outlets, most of which are replicated in every town across the country? Sometimes it seems there’s little hope for humanity. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to do some internet shopping.

Bristol: no place like home?

It came as no great surprise to me that Bristol was recently named the best city in Britain by The Sunday Times. When I moved here over a decade ago, I was smitten by the grand Georgian terraces of Kingsdown and Clifton, the audacious beauty of the suspension bridge and the multi-coloured houses tumbling down to the harbour. We have theatres, galleries and street art; Michelin-starred restaurants and farmers’ markets; yet we can cycle to the countryside within half an hour.

It’s a proud and quirky city. A symbol just as fitting as Brunel’s famous bridge is the Cabot Tower, a Victorian folly on Brandon Hill built to commemorate the four-hundredth anniversary of John Cabot’s voyage to Newfoundland. At night, a flashing light at the top of the building spells out the city’s name in Morse code. Bristol’s Gloucester Road is thought to have the largest number of independent traders of any shopping street in the United Kingdom, while the Stokes Croft area, populated by artists and squatters, hit the national press three years ago when it became the scene of an anti-capitalist riot triggered by the opening of a new Tesco branch.

For the folks who live on the hill in the prosperous neighbourhoods of Clifton and Cotham, life seems pretty good. Still, there’s an occasional sense of nostalgia. The butcher, greengrocer and ironmonger are gradually being replaced by Costa Coffee branches and bijou gift shops. In previously bohemian quarters, estate agents proliferate and houses are so overpriced that stockbrokers who’ve sold up in London are the only people who seem able to afford them.

And let’s not forget that Bristol has its grim side. A visitor emerging from Temple Meads station is confronted by a Holiday Inn Express set in a grey seventies office block, a derelict petrol station and a network of roundabouts and dual carriageways. Further out, there’s a lot of anonymous 1930s suburban sprawl. Meanwhile the residents of Hartcliffe and Lawrence Hill, two of the most deprived areas in Britain, might raise an eyebrow at the Sunday Times’s assertion that Bristol benefits from good housing and low unemployment.

Another problem immediately strikes the first-time visitor from London or Manchester: Bristol is shockingly segregated, both socially and racially. In a memorable 2009 Panorama documentary, two Asian reporters posing as a married couple went to live in Southmead, a predominantly white, working-class housing estate in north Bristol. They were racially attacked and abused more than fifty times in eight weeks. And it’s not confined to the poorer areas. On the sunny slopes of genteel Cliftonwood, a black friend who had never felt quite comfortable here was subjected to racist insults by a neighbour in an argument over parking.

I’m passionate about Bristol but it’s headline-grabbing and reductive to talk about this city – or any other – as the best in Britain. Your experience of the city depends on who you are and where you live. Context is everything.

Cocktails, headbands and pools of sick

Never a joiner, I’m usually left cold by the prospect of a fancy dress party. It often ends up feeling either silly or pretentious. What’s wrong with a night out that involves nothing more than turning up, having a few drinks and staggering home again? As with the modern curse of the three-day hen do in Barcelona, it seems a bit presumptuous to expect your friends to make all that effort on your behalf.

Yet I have to admit, I loved Saturday night’s Great Gatsby party. It’s not often you see a group of middle-aged people infused by excitement and glamour, their paunches concealed by sequins, tassels and elegant three-piece suits. For a few precious hours we downed cocktails with youthful enthusiasm, danced like demons and flirted with no real danger of transgression. It was a euphoric two-fingered salute to our responsible daily lives – we may be in our forties but, hey, we can still do it!

Of course, this is the sort of thing youngsters get up to every weekend. A couple of years ago I saw the photograph ‘Girls’ Night Out’ by Martin Parr in an exhibition at Bristol’s M Shed. It depicts a group of young women on Whiteladies Road in Clifton, known locally as ‘the Strip’ and famous for its throbbing student bars. It could easily have been a tawdry scene – four raucous women wearing short, tight skirts and too much make-up – but instead there’s something exuberant and joyful about the image. Perhaps it’s just the effect of the street lighting but a transformation has taken place, making the scene seem magical and full of possibility, the women transcendent and lovely.

The reality is somewhat different. Come Sunday morning, all the locals know that you have to sidestep broken glass and puddles of congealed vomit on the Strip. And so it was after the Great Gatsby party. At school drop-off on Monday, the glitz and glamour had evaporated. Once again, we were just a group of harried parents with grey skin and crows’ feet. There were tales of late-night escapades in taxis and on bathroom floors, most of them involving losing personal possessions, being violently sick and falling asleep in one’s party clothes. A fair number of us had spent Sunday dry-heaving and dozing on the sofa.

Perhaps, after all, there’s wisdom in the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald: ‘It’s a great advantage not to drink among hard-drinking people. You can hold your tongue, and, moreover, you can time any little irregularity of your own so that everybody else is so blind that they don’t see or care.’ I’ll raise my glass to that.