Diary of a thirty-something college lecturer

4th May 2001 at 01:00
A COLLEGE lecturer is addressing his peers. He is not exactly an expert in winning friends and influencing people. He is meant to be Adolf Hitler; or at least a parody of Hitler. It is his party piece.

"What are you, you teachers? You lecturers, as you insist on calling yourselves. I'll tell you what you are. You are nothing. Nothing at all... You don't dig or sow, lift or carry, fix or mend. You're not honest shopkeepers. Not solid suburban folk. Not the toiling masses - not in a million years, the masses - though you're forever talking as if you were. You make nothing; grow nothing; sell nothing. And above all you believe nothing. You are the sneering classes, the lowest of the low, enjoying the respect of nobody, not even yourselves."

The above is an extract from the opening pages of the great further education novel. Or at least that was what I once hoped. Unfortunately, the work never progressed beyond chapter five. In the end I think I grew as tired of our hero - seen here giving his colleagues the rough end of his tongue in cheek - as my readers were likely to.

I dug out the yellowing manuscript the other day and - apart from re-awakening my cringe factor - it has set me thinking about the portrayal of FE in literature and popular culture. Or rather, about its absence.

Yes, all right, I have read my Tom Sharpe. But Wilt first appeared 25 years ago. And while no-one who read it can forget the inflatable Mrs Wilt or the carnivorous delights of Meat One, does anything else about the book linger in the mind today?

Yet the picture elsewhere in education is very different. There is an enormous literature connected with schools, and countless films and television series set in them. Perhaps it's because we all went to one that we are so fond of hearing about them. We remember, and, because we were young and impressionable at the time, our memories come in glorious Technicolor. Schools of their essence are places of conflict. And while the same might also be said of FE, somehow it's never quite so pointed or focused there. That's not to say that there ren't plenty of dramas set in colleges, but invariably they are in universities, not their poor cousins down the road. Universities are somehow more glossy, more glamorous. Let's face it, in the eyes of the entertainment industry they are simply sexier. FE to a television executive is as a bucket of cold water to copulating canines - an instant turn-off. Was it the realisation of the publishing world's indifference that led me to strangle the great FE novel while still in its infancy? Or was it simply that I re-read those early chapters and realised what drivel they were?

It seemed like a good idea at the time. But I'm not so sure about the Hitler angle anymore, after reading that at least 50 per cent of the novels on publishers' slush piles involve the great dictator in some form or other.

My central character, Gerry, was a teacher of history in an urban FE college. At the start of the book he has just attained the dangerous age of 39. As he points out to a friend in a chapter curiously entitled 'Look out Poland': "Do I really want to spend the next 25 years doing the same things over and over again, only doing them worse each time?" Obviously, the answer to the question is no, and the rest of the book (in other words, the part that was never written) is devoted to what Gerry does to rectify that position. Having never before been interested in a career, he sets out cynically to exploit the system and climb the greasy pole of promotion.

Does he make it against all the odds to the top? Of course he does. What happens then? That, I'm afraid, must remain forever cloaked in mystery. Or, to put it another way, I hadn't worked that out yet when the project was abandoned.

The great work was, of course, in no way autobiographical. I have never taught history or impersonated Hitler in my life. On disinterring the manuscript, however, I did do a quick calculation as to my own age at the time of writing. It will not surprise you, I am sure, to learn that I was just one year short of my 40th birthday.

Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a London FE college


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