David Copperfield

I did not like Dickens until I was 28 years old. When I joined a new school, the whole of the Autumn term for year 7 was spent reading Dickens, which I thought I hated, so I decided I really had to read some. The good news was that I was totally wrong. Dickens is great, once you get past the excruciating syntax and accept that these are not, in fact, capital “S” Serious books.

In fact, David Copperfield may be the greatest comic novel ever written. It is a thinly veiled autobiography, and full of the most genuinely humorous scenes in all of literature – not just Victorian literature, all of literature. It is a masterpiece and you must read it if you have not already. (You’re welcome.)

What is good but in a different way is the recent film, The Personal History of David Copperfield. Like the novel, it is hilarious. Unlike the novel, which usually comes in at around a thousand pages of printed text, the film delivers the most vital storylines in under two hours. A recipe for disaster, some may say. Luckily, Armando Iannucci wrote and directed it, so it is a work of pure genius.

And what happens in the film, when you squash up all those thousand pages, is you see more clearly the peaks and troughs of David Copperfield’s life. The vista is one of extreme success and extreme failure, cycling around. An idyllic early childhood gives way to the entry of an abusive stepfather; poverty and drudgery give way to fame and fortune. This is repeated several times.

I found this film incredibly profound. For me, no other film has quite captured the essence of reality so well as this sometimes surreal piece.

In March 2019, I was reeling from a spectacular failure. I’d applied for a headship and arrogantly assumed I was a shoe-in. I’d done heaps of preparation, redrafted my application several times, and conducted three mock interviews with three different, very kind individuals. I was absolutely ready. This was my school.

I didn’t even get through to day two of the interview. I was crushed.

Reading back over my diary at that time, I laughed at how crushed I had been. I wanted to tell that sad, pathetic woman: “don’t you worry! In a couple of months time, you’re going to see the dream headship – a new start school in London with your favourite academy trust – and they’re going to be mad enough to give it to you!”

Deflated and humbled by my earlier failure, instead of putting in hard hours and preparation for this second attempt, I rushed an application to get it in by the deadline and repeatedly believed I wasn’t going to get called to the next stage of the interview.

Reading my diary in the months after my appointment is a whirlwind of disbelief: how did I get to do this job? How did I get to work with these incredible people? What had I done in life to deserve such riches? Once the interviews for our founding staff began, my disbelief doubled: never had I ever turned away so many extraordinary professionals. We hired a dream team. For each post, we would worry we hadn’t shortlisted the right people, and then at the interview day they would just gleam like gems. Every member of that team was a star player.

And then, when we had recruited our entire team, COVID-19 struck.

One evening early on in the crisis a very close friend had sent me a text message: “your school’s not going to open!” I laughed then, as they were joking and we have that kind of relationship.

But as the weeks crept on, and schools closed, and shops closed, and we were all sent home, and the children came in twos and threes instead of hundreds; and our building slowed and slowed, and the supply chain was disrupted, and the contractor for the second half of our building wouldn’t sign until after the virus was “over,” and the Department for Education couldn’t sign the funding agreement without a building, it began to sink in. Our school wasn’t going to open.

While personally hugely disappointing, the decision makes perfect sense. The DfE’s understandable priority is existing schools: the logistical challenges of reopening schools is immense; time and resources are limited; of course they want to place those limited resources into current schools rather than opening new ones. The DfE are supportive of a new secondary school in Ealing, which is desperately needed in years to come due to the large numbers of children going through the primaries right now: they, and we, are confident that Ark Soane will open – in 2021. While a deferral is disappointing, our founding team are committed to coming back next year stronger than ever – a year spent working in one of our other Ark schools, thinking carefully about Soane, is a privilege in many ways.

It is nonetheless desperately sad for all of us – “our” year 6s who will go to other schools, as well as our founding teachers who were excited to build something brilliant in September.

And so I turn to David Copperfield. I’m not working in a blacking factory (or a bottle factory, as the thinly veiled autobiography has it); it’s not so bleak as life for my furloughed friends and family. But there is, after all, no hierarchy of pain.

The hope I draw from Copperfield is this: this life will be full of tragedy and joy. These will cycle around, and we should always be wary of our highest points because they will not last. As I read back in my diary, I want to warn that joyous woman that her dream school will remain just that – a dream – for longer than she can imagine.

Yet at this very low time, where we are all united in fear for our families and our lives and our jobs and our world as we know it, I know that more positive times will come. I can’t wait to see where the next joy enters.

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