The best part of writing this book was the research.
At a charter school in California - the equivalent of a free school in Britain - I got the chance to talk to some of the children. The headmaster generously arranged for me to speak to a mix of them, not just the high achievers. One boy right in front of me was bigger than the others. He did not smile. He told me he had been held back a year because he had not done well enough. His opinion of the school was grudging. It was 'not great, but good'. I then asked what difference going to this school had made to his life compared to how things would have been if he had continued going to a regular 'public' - state-run - school.
"Juvie," he mumbled.
I could not hear him properly. I asked him and the others what he meant. They said he meant that if he had not gone to this school, he would have ended up in juvenile hall. From there, of course, he might well have graduated to prison .
In other words, this school had saved him from severely damaging his own life and committing crimes against others. For any school to be able to achieve that is terrific. His words were telling, first-hand evidence: gold dust for an author.
There were times of pure pleasure, too. In Warsaw, an expert on pensions I wanted to interview told me to meet her at the Blikle Café. So I went along - rather early - and found this utterly charming, old-fashioned café where I had a pot of superb Yunnan tea while waiting for the appointed time. In due course, the expert came with a friend of hers who was also a pensions expert. They settled down together on a banquette and - this is going to sound bizarre - we had a really jolly and amusing discussion of pensions in Poland. I guess it shows how much I had got into the subject. For example, the army and the police had obtained absurdly generous pension terms. The advantages they had obtained amounted to an abuse of everyone else. But as I expressed astonishment at some of the things that have happened there, my companions were cheerful and wryly amused. It was just normal for them.
I visited eleven countries in all. Many people I met and things I saw did not make it into the book. One was a meeting with a woman who works as a cleaner in a hospital in New Zealand. My guide and I picked her up in a car. She got into the back and we were engulfed by the smell of cigarette smoke surrounding her. We went to a McDonalds and she told me she was the daughter of a lone mother but had ended up being looked after by her grandmother. Her grandmother did not like her, though, and had dumped her in the middle of nowhere, aged 14. She had become a street girl doing anything and everything necessary to survive. I learned that she herself was unfortunately repeating some of the same pattern, being a lone, unmarried mother herself with children by two fathers. But the good news was that she had got the hospital cleaning job and was beginning to get her life together as a result. The conversation gave rise to conflicting emotions: sympathy for her because she was treated so horribly as a child and concern for her children.
Sometimes my prejudices were confirmed and sometimes I had to re-think my views. What is certain is that I found a world being changed by welfare states. People's lives are being transformed. I found it fascinating.
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