The return of Phil Harrass Private HMI

1st November 1996 at 00:00
It started with a call from Mickey the Ferret. He was feeling sore because he had recently, at least temporarily, lost his Braveheart tag and regained his old handle for his comments on compulsory testing. "What's eating you?" I asked him, pretending not to know. "Got piles from sitting on the Stone of Destiny?" "That's a cheap shot!" he snapped. "Now, let's get down to business. The word is that a teacher has come up with a sensational computer program that will be invaluable for the profession. If that's the case, we want a piece of the action."

"What do I have to go on?" "We know the school but not the member of staff. " He gave me the name of the place. "I'll see what I can come up with," I promised. "Want my suggestion on where to put the Stone?" "No thank you. " He hung up. I put the receiver down then lifted it again. Johnston Millar had done a bit of programming work in his day. He kept his ear to the ground and soon had a name for me.

I hit the school after the bell. Gut instinct told me that Johnston's suspect would be the sort who hung around after the rest had gone. I was right. I found him hunched over a Power Mac in a back cupboard. A laser printer was working overtime and he seemed to be feeding book pages into a device that looked like half a photocopier.

"I've come about the program," I said. He didn't reply but handed me some poorly bound sheets of paper. I read a little.

"The sweat wis lashin' oafay Ginger as we flew down Leith Walk. 'Algie are those two Fokkers oaf our tail yit?' ah shouted but the radge was outay his boax . . ."

I looked at the front cover. It showed two silver skulls wearing flying helmets and goggles. "Biggles Goes Trainspotting" ran the title, "by Captain W E Welsh." I turned to the guy who'd produced the novel. "What the hell sort of book is this?" I asked. "And what the hell sort of a pen name is Captain W E Welsh?" "You asked about my program. Well, that's an example of its output. What do you know about morphing?" I made a stab. "As in Power Rangers? Multi-ethnic brats in Lycra who encourage primary kids to floor each other with kung-fu kicks?" He clicked his tongue. "You must have seen morphing on television. You scan two pictures into a computer then the machine makes one change into another. Halfway through the process you get an image that is part way between each of the originals. My application does the same, only it does it with written work . . ."

I cut in. "I get it. You feed in Shakespeare and a kid's comic and get a more accessible play?" "I tried that with Viz magazine and Macbeth." He handed me a sheet of verse that began: "When shall we Slags meet again?" "That's not what it's best at," he claimed. "Look at these!" With a sweeping gesture he indicated shelves full of box files. Higher Still maths, English, chemistry, history. Every subject was there at each of the new stages. The programmer explained that all he had done was morphed existing Higher courses with Scotvec modules.

"That's something else, Bub," I said. "You deserve to get rich out of this!" "But I can't," he said sadly. "If I put this on the street then all those hoping to get on working parties will take a contract out on me." I told him I'd try "Biggles Goes Trainspotting" with a publisher I knew and left him reading How Late Noddy Was by Enid Kelman.

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