The myth of the monstrous teacher

Recently we took the kids to see the stage musical Matilda in London’s West End. We’d all read the book and seen the movie but this was something different. It’s a great show with memorable tunes, entertaining performances (especially the ten year old girl in the title role) and lots of parent-pleasing stuff about how much cooler books are than TV. But towards the end one thing about the story struck me as being perhaps a little bit dated, albeit in an interesting way.

The main thrust of the plot has Matilda (and other characters) standing up to a vile, cruel, child-hating teacher called Miss Trunchbull, and one of the repeated musical refrains has Matilda asserting her right to stand up to bullying adults, “be a little bit naughty” and defy authority. What I wondered whilee listening to this was that the archetype of the monstrous teacher may have a long and popular history, but does it really have any basis in reality any more? When (spoilers, although it shouldn’t come as a surprise) the whole class rises up in noisy defiance, I found myself thinking that maybe contemporary teachers would view this scene rather differently. I don’t think kids any longer have the kind of cowering fear faced with adults in positions of authority, and they probably no longer need such encouragement to rebel and talk back. Might not a teacher these days think “Actually we could do with a little more classroom discipline, and some of the kids I teach need to sit down and shut up and listen a bit more”?

Now the novel was written by Roald Dahl in 1988, which to my mind already puts it into an era when this kind of monstrously cruel teacher was already probably a thing of the past, more or less. And I don’t recall anything in the other versions of the story about it being a period piece. But compare this portrayal of teachers with what you can see nowadays on children’s TV drama on channels like CBBC. You see very few scary, authoritarian teachers and a lot more weak, comically ineffectual ones trying in vain to control a rowdy, aggressive bunch of kids.

This is maybe a small complaint, as the rest of the story is very much about using your intelligence, self-respect and fighting anti-intellectualism. But it might be nice to see more stories which present teachers as heroes, rather than villains.

By the way, this was probably my favourite song from the show.


Little boy lost

I remember a family outing to a forest in Devon with a river running through it (broadly similar to Tarr Steps). I was probably somewhere between 6 and 9 years old at the time. I was there with my parents, siblings, grandmother, aunt and uncle.

We were heading back towards the car park and I had run on ahead. Just before the car park I stopped and decided that it would be a funny joke to head up the hill a little and hide behind a tree. As family members gradually arrived back at the car park I watched from my hiding place as they started to look around for me. After a few minutes they started to get more worried and a couple of them headed back they way we’d come to search along (and in) the river. The more serious things got the less keen I was to venture down from behind the tree and to reveal myself, fearful of the inevitable tongue-lashing. But at a certain point it became unavoidable so I meekly trotted down the hill to where my uncle and gran were waiting while the others had gone off looking in various directions. These being the days before mobile phones we had to wait until they’d all come back before they knew I was safe and sound.

And this was back in the 1970s when parents were noticeably more relaxed about their kids wandering off on their own. I’ve experienced a couple of occasions where I’ve ‘mislaid’ a child and it doesn’t take long for the cold feeling to grow in the pit of your stomach and for your mind to leap to the darkest conclusions. Somewhere between thirty and sixty seconds.

So…yeah. Sorry, mum.


Compare and contrast: Last Saturday I went to a friend’s birthday party. I had a few beers and got home around 1:30. I slept until 5:30, then woke with a pounding head. I was awake until 7:30 when I was sick. The pain was sharp, located in a precise spot just at the base of my skull, and impervious to Paracetomol. The usual “never again” thoughts passed through my head. Now when I’d had the drinks (although they were stronger than I’d anticipated) I knew that a certain quantity would be enough to have this effect the next day. But somehow that’s never enough to stop you.

Then yesterday I took my kids for vaccinations in anticipation of our trip to Sri Lanka at the end of December. One of them in particular was very upset about the idea of a small amount of brief pain, even knowing that it would be over in a matter of seconds. The suffering, at least in terms of physical pain, was much less than mine, and yet the emotional stress was that much greater. It’s like the opposite of those old “delayed gratification” experiments. We’re more upset at the idea of a little pain right now than the strong possibility of maybe even greater pain in the future (even if only a few hours in the future).

Spider Sematary

Some time back one of my daughters accompanied me down to the basement on an errand, and caught a glimpse through an open door into a small room we never use. As it’s pretty much abandoned the spiders have free reign, and the place is full of cobwebs. It obviously made an impression as she kept talking about “The Spider Room”, and her elder sister became envious and demanded to see it for herself (perhaps reminded by last weekend’s trip to the spider show at the African museum).

Today as I was working from home she asked again, so once she’d fulfilled her part of the bargain (finishing her homework) I took a ten minute break and took her downstairs for a look. In addition to the expected cobwebs and musty smell, after a while I spotted a spider. Or at least, what I thought was a spider. What puzzled me was that it was bright white.


I guessed it was an empty, dessicated spider corpse. But as I looked closer, I realised that the ceilings and walls were covered with these ghost spiders, just hanging there as if left behind by Miss Havisham.


The photos are a little misleading as in fact it’s almost pitch black in there, and only the magic of Photoshop allows us to see anything at all.

This is now probably the coolest room in our house.

Visiting Budapest

Last week I had a birthday. No, I’m not going to tell you which one (although if you’re reading this you probably already know) but it was a significant one. Significant enough to warrant a four day trip to Budapest while the in-laws stayed home to look after the kids. Here are a few of the things we saw and did there.

Our hotel offered rooms with “Danube View (TM)”, and sure enough there it is, with the Chain Bridge (the first bridge to link the towns Buda and Pest).

On our first afternoon we saw the main shopping street (full of tourist tat shops and Thai massage parlours) and the Central Market (more on that in the next post, about the food).

The next day it was time for the serious culture and history stuff. We started with the synagogue, which is the second largest in the world after one in New York.


In the courtyard at the back was a metal weeping willow.


Names and dates were inscribed on individual leaves.


There was another beautifully designed and evocative Holocaust memorial off to one side.


Wandering the streets nearby we found Szimpla Kert, the most famous of Budapest’s “ruin pubs“. We weren’t really in the mood for boozing, and it wasn’t the best time of day to get a feel for the atmosphere of the place, but we popped inside anyway for a look.


It’s huge and full of a bewildering variety of bric-a-brac. It reminded me of a friend’s house in London which I crashed in for a few months in the mid-nineties.


In the afternoon we walked up Andrassy Street until we reached number 60, also known as Terror House. The building where the Communist authorities used to detain, torture and execute dissidents has been converted into a museum detailing their practices.



It’s not pretty stuff, but it is interesting, and well laid out. There are a lot of photos and videos (some, but not all, subtitled in English), and an information sheet in both languages for each room.

This room didn’t require any clarification.


There was some (relatively) light relief in the Communist Propaganda room. I especially like the farmer explaining the Five Year Plan to his pigs.


Once you’ve finished with the upper floors a lift takes you down to the basement. When you step inside the lights go out and as the lift descends painfully slowly a video screen shows an interview with the house executioner, explaining his working methods.

This part of the exhibition has extra impact as you know that this is no mere reconstruction, but these are actually the rooms where these things happened.


A ledge on the outside of the building hosts photos and candles to commemorate the victims.


Outside we took the metro. Budapest has the third oldest underground railway in the world after London and Liverpool, and it has remained small and quaint, all wrought iron, wood and tile.


One of the main attractions of Budapest for many is the baths. I’m not really into spas, although I’m happy to relax in a pool of hot water given the chance, so we headed to the Gellert hotel, home to the most famous baths. It’s a beautiful building, but a poorly signposted labyrinth inside, and the main pool is freezing cold. Still, we managed to find some hot pools to soak in, and as it was a weekday afternoon it was relatively quiet; just me and a Karl Marx lookalike.

Later we tried another one: Szechenyi, which was larger, with a larger variety of hotter pools. It was also crowded (this was a Saturday afternoon) with young snoggy couples and American tourists regaling each other with tales of drunken excess across the capitals of Europe.

On the third day we visited St. Stephen’s Basilica. The star exhibit is the mummified right hand of St. Stephen (first king of Hungary) himself.


We passed by the iconic Parliament buidling, but had missed one of the English guided tours and didn’t fancy waiting around an hour for the next one.


On our last day we crossed the river and took the funicular up to Fisherman’s Bastion for the views across the city.



There’s certainly plenty we didn’t have time for (I was particularly keen to see Memento Park, but it wasn’t to be), so I can envisage going back at some point.

There are more photos here.

No-go area

This morning a tweet from Drew McWeeny caught my eye. He’s subsequently deleted that tweet, so I can’t quote it exactly, but he was commenting on the recent election results in France and Greece, and he said something about both France and Greece having elected Neo-nazis. I (and several others, I think) replied that France had in fact just elected a socialist president. He replied apologising for the confusion. It seems he had read a comment from someone else which confused socialism with National Socialism, put two and two together and came up with Nazi. He tweeted a retraction, so no harm done.

What stayed with me for a while afterwards was the hashtag he’d put on the original tweet. Again, as he’s deleted it I’m relying on my own, not exactly fautless memory, but it was something like #notagoodtimetovisiteurope.

Now I’m sure he put this on with tongue in cheek. I don’t think he or anyone else would seriously turn down the chance to visit France solely because a right-wing government had been elected. Or would he? Would you? As a tourist, does it make a difference to your enjoyment of exploring a country if you have major ideological differences with the current administration?

I’ve heard people say in the past that they didn’t want to visit a particular country because they didn’t want to support or appear to condone an oppressive regime, as if visiting, say, China means that you’re turning a blind eye to their human rights violations. I have two problems with this. One, people travel to foreign lands on holiday for many reasons, like a desire to see a different culture, see their monuments and landscape, meet the people, eat the food. No one I know thinks to themselves “I approve of Sweden’s progressive government, which is why I’m going to fund them with my tourist pounds/dollars/euros”. Two, even if you say that you don’t want any of your money to go, however indirectly, to a government with which you disagree, then you’re going to have to be very careful with your shopping. Object to China? Try buying a consumer product which isn’t made there. Issues with Israel? Pay attention to where your fruit and veg comes from. Not easy, is it? And, I’d argue, not very effective either. If you look hard enough you can find something to object to in pretty much any country you can name, but I don’t see that as a reason to stay home.

In fact I’d say that it makes it all the more important for people to go there and interact with the locals, exchange ideas, and spend your money there. After all, some of your money may end up in government coffers, but some of it will also benefit the people who may desperately need it and who aren’t necessarily to blame for the state of their country.

I despise Silvio Berlusconi and everything he stands for, but that didn’t stop me living in Italy for a year and visiting regularly afterwards. I went to the US last year, but if I’d decided to go a few years earlier I don’t think the presence of George W. Bush in the White House would have put me off. Now there are some places I’d think would be fascinating to visit but feel that I can’t simply for safety reasons. I’m thinking of various places in the Middle East and Africa. And there are places like North Korea which would also be interesting but where the restrictions imposed on tourists are so heavy and the freedom to move around, take photos and ask questions is so limited as to almost defeat the object of travelling there.

But politics is usually a fairly transient thing and often increasingly removed from the inhabitants’ day-to-day lives, and I don’t think it should constitue a serious barrier to those wishing to broaden their minds and expand their horizons through travel.

Our Dear Leader

“In Mrs Song’s home, as in every other, a framed portrait of Kim Il-Sung hung on an otherwise bare wall. People were not permitted to put anything else on that wall, not even pictures of their blood relatives. Kim Il-Sung was all the family you needed – at least until the 1980s, when portraits of Kim Jong-Il, named secretary of the Workers’ Party, were hung alongside those of his father. Later came a third portrait, of the father and son together. The North Korean newspapers liked to run “human interest stories” about heroic citizens who lost their lives rescuing the portraits from fire or flood. The Workers’ Party distributed the portraits free of charge along with a white cloth to be stored in a box beneath them. It could be used only to clean the portraits. This was especially important during the rainy season, when specks of mold would creep under the glass frame. About once a month, inspectors from the Public Standards Police would drop by to check on the cleanliness of the portraits.”

Nothing To Envy: Real Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick