31 March, 2011

Don't Panic!

As I have noted before in these blogs as I get older the more anti war and military I become. War films on TV are an anathema, pathetic men in uniform become to me even more foolish and patriotic  and jingoistic flag waving hides, I believe, a basic flaw in the national character.

But, having said that, I can't resist the gentle humour of Dad’s Army! It is my one concession to the military. Perhaps it looks a little dated now but I can’t resist the re-runs and have them all on DVD anyway. It isn’t just Dad’s Army – other similar sitcoms from years gone by – Fawlty Towers, Rising Damp, Butterflies, The Good Life, Only Fools and Horses  and the rest can always raise a smile.
Shaldon from Teignmouth

What I like about these programmes is that although they are sitcoms – not real – as with all good comedy they are acutely observed. We can all recognise ourselves, or people that we know in the characters. We’ve all met pompous individuals like Captain Mainwaring. We've all seen Del Trotter in the pub or down the market. We've all heard the prejudice and moans from someone like Rigsby in Rising Damp. The essence of good comedy is that we can relate to it – that is what makes it funny – it gently prods us and makes fun of our own little foibles.  I know that I could easily become Rigsby or on another day I could be Captain Mainwaring – indeed, I think my wife already thinks that I am!. And perhaps it is good that it reminds us not to become too pompous or too prejudiced – lest we turn into Mainwaring or Rigsby. We’ve all see Basil Fawlty type people and every single one of us has the capacity to behave like him – but seeing him on screen perhaps serves as a little warning to us all.

I thought about this last week while in Devon – and  indeed came to the conclusion that Dad’s Army was even nearer reality than even I had previously thought.

Village Green
We spent an hour or so in the nearby village of Shaldon – at the mouth of the River Teign. The larger town of Teignmouth stands on the other side of the estuary. A lovely spot. The village is right on the waterfront and steep streets rise with narrow lanes and a variety of cottages, bungalows and established houses. So steep are the streets that the whole place seems to cling to the land in danger of toppling into the estuary! A couple of nice pubs, a couple of pleasant cafes, a well stocked greengrocer and a baker who sells wonderful cakes and pasties! The views across the estuary are stunning – especially when the sun is reflecting off the rooftops and windows of Teignmouth. If you are down that way it's well worth an hour or so of your time!

But, back to Dad's Army!

At the end of the village, facing the sea are several items relating to the 2nd World War – an observation post and the like. There is also an informative tourist information board explaining  that during the War the local Home Guard were responsible for  the protection of the estuary and for keeping watch for a possible enemy attack or invasion. Just like Captain Mainwaring’s platoon at Walmington-on-Sea! All interesting stuff but the best bit is the copy of a list of instructions to the Guard in the event of an invasion. Their mobilisation orders.
Tourist information board.
It is absolutely straight out of Dad's Army - it could easily form the plot of an episode and I can just picture Corporal Jones shouting 'Don't panic, don't panic'! But it also makes one realise how matter of fact and sensible these people were. The orders could, from our sophisticated world, be viewed as amateurish – but they were written for adults and the assumption was that adults would act as adults. In reality there was  a great danger that we might be invaded - and if so the Teignmouth area was in the front line.   Yet the orders are gentle, polite, open to misinterpretation and the assumption was that these men would act correctly, use their common sense and at all times 'do it right'. Although amateurs they would be totally professional – they would interpret the instructions as they were intended and would not need it spelled out in words of one syllable.  Today, I guess, a similar list would be hundreds of pages long, full of Health and Safety issues, strident, alarmist and assume that if things can be got wrong, people will get them wrong!  Important issues would be in bold with coloured fonts. There would be clarification of simple words and instructions. Sadly, we live in a world where litigation and a dumbed down culture mean that nothing would be left to chance. 

So what did the orders say? (and I copy straight from them):

In the event of an invasion or danger No 17 Platoon (Gunners) will:
  1. Ring Mr Holland (Teignmouth 679) – ask him to give a message to Gunner Tanner who is his next door neighbour.
  2. Gunner Tanner then proceeds to Mill Lane and warns Mr Burgess who has written instructions giving names and addresses of men he has to warn.
  3. Gunner Tanner then warns Gunner Harvey who has written instructions and will warn all outlying Teignmouth men on his motor cycle.      
  4.  Ring Sgt. Bent (Shaldon 14) and ask him to warn Shaldon men via various NCOs
  1. Ring Commercial Inn (Bishopsteignton 285 – Mr Mole). Ask him if he would be good enough to send a message to Sgt Mitchell.
  2. Sgt Mitchell has instructions to warn Gunner Burgoyne
  3. Ring Gunner Daunt (Teignmouth 512) – he has names and addresses of three men.
  4. Ring Gunner Coysh (Teignmouth 229) who has written instructions giving name and address of one man.
  5. Ring Battery (Shaldon 165) and ask Capt. Gowan for the van to make a few trips to West Teignmouth Church and back. All the men have been advised that the van will be doing these runs and they will be picked up on route and conveyed to Battery.
  6. Shaldon men will make their own way to Battery.
  7. On mustering all men will report to the Battery Office and sign Attendance Book
  8. A list of operational duties will be found in the Battery Office.
Mobilisation instructions
I cannot conceive that today similar instructions would be so loosely worded and leaving so much to chance – 'ask him if he would be good enough', 'the van will make a few trips', 'ask him to give a message', 'via various NCOs', 'picked up on  route' etc. Today, we would want to know exactly where we are to be picked up, we would demand to know how many trips and at what frequency the van would pick us up, and what if Mr Mole is busy and would not be 'good enough' to make the necessary phone call! What if they failed at the first order - if Mr Holland's phone is on the blink or he hasn't paid  his phone bill or if Mr Tanner is out? Who will defend Shaldon - will the country be invaded? It all left so much to chance, but at the same time assumed that these men would act correctly and use their common sense – perhaps something that we have lost today when everything has to be spelled out or our litigious society constantly wants to find loopholes in the wording of documents so that blame can be apportioned. Perhaps these instructions, even though it was war time, were written at a time when  a gentleman's word was his bond – when everyone knew that these men would do what was expected of them – the instructions were incidental.

But, whatever, as I read the notice, I could just picture Lance Corporal Jones saying 'Don’t Panic!' I could see in my mind’s eye Shaldon’s equivalent of the young Pike doing something wrong and incurring the wrath of Shaldon’s Captain Mainwaring - 'Stupid boy' he would say! I could almost hear Shaldon’s equivalent of Private Walker – the 'spiv' – as he stood in the bar at the Commercial Inn doing a black market deal saying 'OK, in  a minute, I’ll catch you up when I’ve finished my beer and sold these nylons!'

Wonderful stuff!

But, whatever my views on the military, I found it all quite humbling that these men – ordinary people – accepted the orders in the spirit that they were meant to protect their country and their way of life. Was life perhaps simpler then – or  have we lost  something. We all laugh at Captain Mainwaring’s pompous outlook, we mock the upper class Sgt.  Wilson or the dour Scottish coffin maker Private Frazer and the doddery medical orderly Private Godfrey – but in reality  these were the men of Shaldon and thousands of similar places throughout the land. And when the chips were down they did it right! I’m not sure we would act as wisely or as well today.
Looking back across the estuary

As I stood on the front looking out over the estuary and out to sea I was reminded of Nelson's simple but pointed message to his fleet before Trafalgar 'England expects that every man will do his duty'. I'm not a military man but when the chips are down that is what it is all about - and whoever wrote the orders for the men of Shaldon all those years ago, clearly expected that they would all do as Nelson had commanded, a century and a half earlier.

Go to Shaldon – worth the trip – and the notice reminds you of a simpler but perhaps rewarding time!

26 March, 2011

In Praise of the Langstone Cliff Hotel

A drink on the verandah
As I ate my delicious  'full house' fried breakfast the other morning I read, with a mixture of bemusement, sadness and cynicism,  of the latest  whim of our  'nutty professor'   Michael Gove, HM Secretary of State for Education – that children should read fifty books a year. Now don’t get me wrong, as an avid reader and primary teacher of forty years I’m all in favour of kids reading as much and as often as is humanly possible – it’s just that having heard the mad ramblings of successive Secretaries of State for Education I am cynical in the extreme about the thinking behind such an announcement, the potential  implications for kids and teachers  and, indeed, Gove’s qualifications for making such a proposal. If past experience is anything to go by this  'off the cuff' comment will, in the fullness of time, become part of the curriculum and a required assessment element – all because Gove woke up in the middle of the night and had  a  'good idea' while he went for a pee! But as I ate my breakfast I determined not to rise to the bait – I’ll leave it for another blog (be warned!).

I took this laid back view because I am on holiday – at my favourite hotel.

From our balcony
I’ve visited many places on the world’s surface, followed the tourist trail to some of the world’s great attractions – Venice,  watched the sun rise over the Taj Mahal,  drunk wine watching the sun set at Ayres Rock, stood atop the fated twin towers in New York, been moved watching the nightly 'putting away' of the Sikh holy book at the Golden Temple of Amritsar, dined at Raffles in Singapore, listened to Bach in Leipzig, gazed at the ceiling  of the Sistine Chapel, been overwhelmed by the treasures of the Hermitage and the Tsar's Winter Palace in St. Petersburg  - and the rest – but always we come back to Dawlish in Devon and to the Langstone Cliff Hotel – one of the world’s great hotels! You may not have heard of it, it doesn’t boast 5 stars, doesn’t employ a world famous chef nor does it sport a top hotel name like Radisson or Ritz or Hilton. But it does have a huge following built upon over half a century of providing a welcoming atmosphere, excellent food and service and a lovely environment.  We usually take advantage of the hotel’s hospitality, wonderful food, friendship and   facilities 4 or 5 times a year – each time for a short break of 3, 4 or 5 days. It has become a place for the family to gather twice a year for a get together  'on neutral territory.' It has also become a  'bolt hole' to escape to and relax in knowing that for a few days we will be looked after quietly and without fuss or pretension.   Our grand daughters bore their teachers for weeks before coming by telling them  'we are going to the posh hotel'. We are not alone, many of the hotel’s clientele have been regular guests for 40 years or more – like us, generations of the same families descend for a long weekend or an Easter break or perhaps a main summer holiday.

So, what is special about the Langstone? What makes people return year after year? It’s certainly not the 'poshest' hotel in the world, it’s only 3 star, Dawlish is hardly the centre of the universe, it’s not the cheapest place on the planet.  On the other hand, it does have some very pleasant grounds with a view from the verandah   that would be difficult to surpass. The food is universally  agreed to be exceptional – a real strength – fresh, homely, varied, delicious. The lounge is pleasant and comfortable. Rooms are bright, clean and well maintained. Weekend entertainment in the ballroom is lively and memorable.

The verandah!
But there is something else much more important than all these. It’s a thing that you can’t score on an evaluation sheet. It’s not about value for money, the number of lifts or the promptness of reception – important though these things are. No, it’s the quality of the staff from the very top to the bottom. Geoff Rogers and his family who own the place, the receptionists, the bar staff, the kitchen staff, the waitresses and waiters, the cleaning staff, the maintenance staff – every single one care about  the place and want to give you a pleasant stay. From the minute you walk through the door you feel part of the Langstone family. And you can’t put a star or a price on that. You always feel valued and important to them. No Ritz this with posh 'flunkies' at your elbow – just kind ordinary people doing a good job with diligence, care and a friendly smile. Every single staff member is someone who you would be pleased to call your friend or to have as a next door neighbour.

Of course, very occasionally things go wrong – in an organisation such as this with all the people, staff and guests involved that is inevitable. There might be something that you can 'complain' about – but it is always sorted immediately and always the result of some particular set of circumstances.

A couple of years ago my wife and I visited Leipzig. We had booked into a 3 star hotel that we knew but unfortunately when we arrived the receptionist sadly told us there had been a mistake and they did not have a room. But, she explained, they had booked us into the hotel further down the road and a taxi was waiting to take us. There would be no extra cost even though it was a much 'better' hotel. Indeed, the taxi driver reinforced this – 'much better place, 5 star' he told us as we travelled the few hundred yards to our new resting place. Yes,  it was very swish – glass doors, walk in see through showers, huge beds, a lounge filled with small shiny metal stools not meant to be lounged in, designer meals in tiny portions on odd shaped plates, totally sterile with no atmosphere. But it was  'five star' and clearly what a lot of people enjoyed. Obviously, the facilities that a hotel provides are crucial but at the same time are only a very small part of the story. If you wanted a posh bed for the night it was fine, if you wanted a relaxing stay that would give you fond memories you’d be hard put.

The Langstone is great! You can be an Olympic swimmer, read the Guardian in the lounge and advise the owner, Geoff Rogers, on  how to organise an Easter Egg Hunt!

The quality of hotels, like pubs, beauty contests and indeed kids is  in the eye of the beholder. Parent’s invariably and rightly think their child is the child from heaven – teacher often has different ideas! In  the days of Miss World, we all enjoyed disagreeing with the judge’s final decision. My village has a number of pubs which each night are full – clearly enjoyed by many - but not my cup of tea! And I am sure that many might visit the Langstone and it will not meet their needs – the food not  'designer' enough, the swimming pool a bit cramped, no air-con in the rooms –whatever. But for many it is 'the business' – in the sixty or so years that Geoff Rogers has worked to build up his business he has not only created a successful business but  created a place of warmth, rest, friendship and memories for many thousands of families who have returned year after year.  That is what the Langstone is all about and why people return.

Evening sunset - a beer, a  wonderful
view, a lovely meal to look forward to -  
and yes, Mr Gove, about
fifty books loaded into my Kindle!

And so, back to my fried breakfast – even the misguided ramblings of the Secretary of State for Education  will not be allowed to spoil the best fried breakfast in England (and probably the world). Nor will he intrude on my thoughts as later I sit on the verandah in the evening sunset sipping my pint, enjoying one of the best views in England  watching the sun go down over Lyme Bay, looking forward to choosing my evening dinner from the excellent menu in the lovely restaurant ....... and reading one of those fifty books that I am supposed to read each year!

18 March, 2011

A Long Road Back For Japan

Hi-Tech Tokyo
at night
One of the short stories that I told in school assemblies – usually each harvest time -  was of the Japanese village headman. He was an old man and sat one day on his verandah on the hillside looking down at the young people from the village enjoying their harvest celebrations in the field below. The rice harvest was safely in and the villagers were relaxing. The earth trembled  but the people were used to this, earthquakes were common and not to be worried about and the villagers carried on with their celebrations. Then, the old man noticed the sea in the distance, he saw it draw back from the shore and he suddenly became very afraid – he had seen this once before as young boy and knew it was the sign of a coming tsunami. He was safe in his house on the hillside but he knew that the village folk were in danger if  a tsunami rolled in. He called out but they couldn’t hear. What could he do? He made a decision.  He stumbled from his chair and brought a flaming torch from the fire. He went across to his barns where his rice was stored and set the barns ablaze. Far below, the people saw the smoke and realised there was a fire at his house. They immediately left their festivities and ran up the path to help put out the blaze – and as they did so the tsunami rolled in – they were safe – saved by the burning harvest.
A brief résumé   of the story which I enjoyed telling, and over twenty or so years many children enjoyed listing to. The dreadful events in Japan of the past few days give it  a terrible resonance – tsunami, fires, food shortages, destruction – but one can’t fail to be impressed at the calmness, dignity and  stoicism that the people of Japan appear to have shown in the face of this catastrophe.
Japanese Temple
My wife and I have watched the news reports with interest and great sadness in the past few days.  We briefly visited Japan three or four years ago. It was a short 3 or 4 day  'stop over' on our way back from Australia. We just thought it would be nice to call in – but had no expectations – just  a place on the tourist trail. In the event we fell in love with it. We spent the time in Tokyo and from the minute we arrived felt so welcome and enthralled by the dignity and politeness of the Japanese people.
The Imperial Palace
Our Japanese was absolutely zero but the kindness of people and the wonderful public services ensured that we never got lost, were able to navigate the underground system and enjoy the shops and the sights. In the few days we were there we had so many happy memories. The bus driver who stood at the front of the bus and bowed to the passengers before taking his place behind the steering wheel. The luggage men who did the same as they stored the luggage in the buses. The wonderful mix of hi-tech shops rubbing shoulders with ancient Japanese temples and customs. The occasional geisha that we saw in their wonderful costumes. Despite Tokyo being one of the world's major cities and one of the largest conurbations in the world it seemed always subdued – no racing cars and car horns here – wherever we looked dignified movement. Occasionally we would pass  workmen mending the road or building – all were smartly uniformed with boots and wellington that shone – no scruffy labourers here – a pride in everything. When we sat in our hotel restaurant, the waitress kindly and  smilingly helped us with  our chopstick skills! To us it seemed that everyone took  a pride in themselves, their work and their city. Perhaps this is looking through rose coloured glasses but I don’t think so.
A Tokyo Market
A couple of days after we returned home I went to catch my local bus into Nottingham and was told by the driver 'I don't give change  yer 'ave to 'ave the right money'. When I asked why, he told me that he only had 29 minutes to get onto Nottingham. He wasn’t impressed when I told him that  I'd just returned from Tokyo where  they gave change and probably built three Nissans while navigating to the centre of Tokyo in 29 minutes! He just told me to 'F**** O**!' Mmmmm!
No, I’m sure Japan has its problems and it’s not as great as I think, but  it is a stunning and thought provoking place and for me a fascinating, lovely people. It was another example for me of how wonderful, in their many different ways, people of other nations can be, and why I would be unwilling to embark upon or support any kind of war against a foreign nation. Having travelled to a fair  number of  destinations I have always found that ordinary people are pretty much the same the world over – the same dreams, worries, ambitions, needs, beliefs etc -  it’s leaders and governments that cause the problems!
The wonderful Loo
We had so many  happy memories of our short stay, but two or three stand out. Firstly, bizarrely,  the  hi-tech toilets. Each toilet had a row of buttons which ensured it performed all sorts of functions - we never discovered them all! When you walked into the loo, the lid/seat lifted automatically and the toilet bowl was sanitised. From that point onwards the loo met your every need  blowing warm air, cleaning (you and it!) powdering etc. And as you left, the seat and cover silently and automatically closed after you! I do belief my wife would have spent the days we were there constantly using the loos!
Secondly, and much more important, the quiet, calm, politeness of the people. Whether a market stall or exclusive shop, whether a bus driver or waitress or fellow traveller, all were without exception kind, helpful and quietly friendly. No 'in your face' behaviour here – everything measured and dignified. One of the great things we discovered as we read the guide books was that apparently this characteristic of politeness, respect, awareness of the feelings of others is rooted not so much in Japan’s religions (although there is a link) or in Japan's ancient customs and history. Rather it is a natural response to a very crowded island – it is the only way of successfully living together in the crowded conurbations in which make up Japan. People simply have to get along together and you do that be respecting your neighbour and being kind, polite etc. Makes sense to me – perhaps we could learn something there!
Tokyo at dawn
And finally an event that happened in our last hour or so in the country which perhaps pulls all these things together. We left our hotel early in the morning. The coach picked us up, together with other travellers for the two journey to the airport. As we stood waiting we noticed a young Japanese woman who looked rather upset and fraught. We climbed aboard the bus as did she and she sat on the seat immediately in front  of us. She was perhaps 18 or 19 years old. After a little while she turned to us and asked in perfect English could we give her some advice! We were a little 'thrown' but even more so when she began speaking. She told us that she was going back to America (New York) where her mother and father were – they were Japanese and her father a Japanese executive with a contract in New York for a number of years. She lived with them, had been at school in New York, and had been on holiday in Tokyo visiting friends and relations. But, her problem was (and she was moved to tears) she did not want to return to New York – she hated America she said – so uncouth, loud, rude, brash – no quiet calmness and respect. Having experienced both Tokyo and New York (and I love New York!) I had  a huge amount of sympathy with the points she was making - Tokyo is everything that New York isn't and vice versa!. She wanted to ask us what she should do. She had, she told us, been up all night packing, unpacking and re-packing her case – as her thoughts changed.  Should she ring her parents and say she was staying in Japan? She was terrified of offending and upsetting them. Should she ring them and discuss it – although she knew her father would  'order her' back to New York? What would we, as older people, advise? She had the promise of a job and friends with whom she could stay.
A public exercise session
We were dumbfounded and unsure. We sympathised and the best advice was that she really should discuss it with her parents rather than just not go back. We were very uncertain of Japanese  protocol – and the parent/child relationship. Clearly to her this was very important – she was anxious not to upset her parents and to 'do the right thing'. For almost two hours we talked as the bus rumbled through early morning Tokyo – and then we arrived at the airport and we had to leave. We never did find out what she did – we left her on the concourse, mobile phone in hand looking upset and fraught. Our last advice was 'Speak to dad' but it sounded somehow feeble.
The incident quite saddened us – we would have loved to discover what happened to her – who knows perhaps she will read this blog and tell us! But it perhaps said much about Japanese culture, the parent child relationship and the fact that we see on the news pictures the old people displaced by the tsunami being cared for by the families in the refugee centres. Perhaps too, the calm, dignified life style that we witnessed, is the same behaviour that is at the moment ensuring the orderly queues for food as the homeless wait for assistance.
The temple gateway
The terrible events in Japan in the last week – earthquake, tsunami, nuclear disaster are quite beyond comprehension – for us it has  a special poignancy, our brief visit had given us many happy memories and a fondness for the people. We can only hope that they are able to resolve their problems and hopefully their   national characteristics will help them in the next weeks and months. A wonderful country and a wonderful people.

11 March, 2011

Putting One's Foot in One's Mouth!

Near the beginning of the wonderful film 'The King’s Speech' the elderly King George V reminds the Royal family that with the coming of radio and cinemas they – the Royal family – are on show to the ordinary man and can no longer live in their little cocooned world. This puts great pressure on the young Bertie – who, against his wishes, finds himself King George VI a few years later. He cannot hide his speech impediment from the world’s prying eyes and comment.

Flyer for the King's Speech
I have thought about this in the last few days as we have witnessed the sad mess that the Queen’s son, Prince Andrew, has got himself into – again!

As  a very young child I can remember three royal events. Firstly being taken by my mother and auntie and standing in what seemed an endless queue as we waited to see the royal wedding dress when it toured the country after the Queen’s marriage in 1948. Then, very much imprinted on my mind, was something I thought of several times as I watched 'The King’s Speech'. I vividly remember one bleak, cold morning in 1952 when I was about seven sitting in my school class in Preston. The teacher told us to line up at the door and we were shepherded into the hall. It was mid morning – not the usual assembly time so we knew that 'something was up'. We sat down in silence and then the head teacher tearfully announced that 'The King is dead'. It was remote and meaningless but we all knew it was of importance. A prayer was said and then we were told that the school would close for the rest of the day as a mark of respect and that we should go home. Half an hour later I was banging on my front door. I was lucky, my mother did not work – other children just sat on their doorsteps for the rest of the day until parents came home from work – and when she came to the door I told her the news – she did not know. And I remember her too crying. It wouldn’t happen today – any head teacher who did that would soon find themselves in trouble – parents, OFSTED, local council, social services, Michael Gove, tabloid newspapers –they would all be having a go. They might be right to do so, but it is perhaps a measure of how much the world has changed and how much our relationship and response to royalty has altered. The other event was a year later when I came remember squashing into my Uncle’s tiny front room together with crowds of other local people to watch the coronation of our present Queen on his tiny black and white TV. Seeing the thousands filling the London streets – everyone on the TV and in that front room it seemed unquestionably loyal to the young woman who was wearing the crown.
Bertie with his family

Looking back, the pomp and majesty of that occasion seemed to have some significance and relevance – and it still does, even today when I see the old grainy films on TV. It seems to me that it was a world that largely still respected the notion of a royal family – it seemed then somehow right. The end of the last war was still very fresh in the minds of people and the royal family were, I suppose, the personification of the nation’s struggle to victory.  But, I’m not sure it would be quite the same today. True, there would be the vast crowds and the cheering. True, the ceremony would be almost exactly the same – but I have this awful fear that it might all be a bit of a show biz event and simply an excuse for a good day out or a few beers down the local while we watch it on the big screen. No more or less than a big football match! In 1952 the people were, I believe, largely expressing their loyalty, respect,  support and love for the new monarch in whom they placed their trust. Today, however, I think it would be simply a bit of glitzy, perhaps tacky fun – a glorious bit of theatre where those attending the wedding would include pop stars, footballers, TV entertainers, high executives, doyens of the hospitality circuit, top chefs – and it would often be these that the crowds would cheer not the notion of loyalty and national pride.
Prince Andrew - a man used to
putting his foot into his mouth

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not a paid up member of the patriotic flag waving brigade! I just think times have changed – not better or worse – just different. My wife tells me that she will be settling down to watch the latest royal wedding at the end of April (I think I have another engagement on that day!) – but I think it’s the appeal of a wedding, the frock and the glitzy occasion that is the appeal rather than any great patriotic and royalist belief. I think this a significant change in the national consciousness. The problem for the royals today is the basic contradiction of their position in the modern world.

Part of the problem is that the royal family  cannot be formally criticised or taken to task. The normal rules do not apply. The royals are protected from public accountability by law. The other part of the problem is that they are, by their very nature, brought up in an environment quite removed from the everyday. True, they occasionally make a foray into the real world – they shake hands, attend a theatre, open a public building even become a member of the armed forces but they are still highly protected and removed, not real – but they cannot have any understanding of the ordinary man and his/her world. They are the pinnacle of a system of aristocratic government that bizarrely exists in what is allegedly  a democracy – only we Brits could think up a system like that! – and as such are always going to look and act a bit dotty.

Although I find Andrew and his brothers quite nutty and it worries me that they hold such privileged and potentially powerful positions with little to substantiate their position except an accident of birth I’m not likely to lead the charge to set up a guillotine to behead all royals.  I just find them a bit irrelevant and bizarre.  I do feel sorry for the Queen - whatever my views on the rights and wrongs of royalty she has, I believe, throughout my life time been an influence for good and has conducted herself and her position with immaculate and impressive attention to detail, goodwill and sincerity.  But the poor woman must at times despair with her family. I understand that she enjoys the TV programme  'Dad’s Army' – if she does then she must oft use Captain Mainwaring’s phrase to the young Pike – 'Stupid Boy' when talking to her various sons.! I wonder what she must have said or say to their wives!  I think old King George V was right – he knew his family were in a changing situation  and that things would never be the same again. Andrew’s many and latest gaffes are merely example of this – obviously, though Andrew is a rather slow learner (probably in the genes!) and he hasn’t learned the lesson. His great grandfather would clearly have given him a hard time!
Marie Antoinette - did not endear
 herself to her people, although it's
 probably a myth that she told them
 to eat cake! 

But Andrew is  not alone. Royals have always had a bit of a reputation for dropping 'clangers' or saying things which the rest of us would find difficulty in getting away with. Marie Antoinette didn't do her reputation any good in the run up to the French Revolution!  The Duke of Edinburgh is well known for his outbursts and forthright views! Prince Charles is an expert in putting his foot in his mouth.  Most of it is pretty harmless stuff  but occasionally one comes across bits which make me think.

The much loved Queen Mother – a lady who is portrayed in the film 'The King’s Speech' very positively  – was not above expressing her right wing views. Indeed, if she expressed them today, it is very likely that she would cause quite a stir. When  Clement Attlee became the Labour Prime Minister at the end of the war she was horrified.  A letter from her on  17 May 1947, showed 'her decided lack of enthusiasm for the socialist government' and described the British electorate as 'poor people, so many half-educated and bemused' for electing Attlee over Winston Churchill. Similarly, her husband, King George, when Attlee attended the Palace for the kissing of hands on his election and formation of the government was greeted with silence. The story goes that  Attlee and the King stood for some minutes in silence, before Attlee finally broke protocol and spoke first by saying  'Your majesty, I've won the election.' The King replied 'I know. I heard it on the Six O'Clock News.' I doubt it would happen today without the press commenting. Imagine if Prince Andrew had said this!  But moving on from the royals Churchill, the defeated politician of the time and himself  of aristocratic birth, commented on Atlee 'A modest man, but then he has so much to be modest about.'

Now all this might be good knock about stuff, and in the end everyone is entitled to their opinion but despite these royal viewpoints the legacy of Attlee’s government is still with us today seventy years later. This 'modest man' who was elected by 'poor people, so many half educated and bemused' laid the foundations of modern Britain and so many things that we take for granted and treasure. The welfare state, the national health service, the raised living standards of millions through his Keynesian policy of full employment and increasing educational opportunity, the nationalisation of and investment in  basic utilities and the consequent improved access to them for ordinary people were all due to Attlee’s government. He has, in numerous surveys, been voted the greatest British PM of the 20th century.
A very modest man, Attlee
 with King George VI

So, all in all, the views of the royals and the nutty behaviour of Prince Andrew should perhaps be taken with the proverbial pinch of salt – they are, in the final analysis, the opinions of people with no knowledge of society or any real empathy with the ordinary man. At a time when the NHS is under some considerable threat and where the welfare state plays such a critical part in the life of the nation it might be useful to have a referendum. The question might be put:  'In these times of austerity should we keep the monarchy or the NHS (or welfare state etc)?' I suspect that Atlee might have the last laugh!


08 March, 2011

Anyone Can Teach

The current TV series 'Dream School' in which chef Jamie Oliver puts various celebrities in front of a tough class to teach has caused quite a stir. The underlying assumption of the programme is that if you put a  celebrity 'expert' in front of the class this might be an immediate motivation for the kids – far better than their boring old teacher. To date, it appears to have been pretty much an unmitigated disaster with the celebrities so far being a pretty useless lot. Several have been made to look boorish fools and hardly anyone has come out of it with any credibility. Perhaps it will all change as the series continues. In fact, I’m not sure they are particularly useless – although one or two are certainly boorish fools! The reality is that they have not got, nor have they ever been taught, basic teaching skills – they, like Jamie, have made the mistake of, 'Well, I know a bit about what I’m teaching, I'm an expert so that will make me a good teacher.' It won’t and it doesn’t. It’s perhaps worthy of comment that the only person who seems to have had any success is artist and TV personality Rolf Harris – and he is a trained teacher!

The programme does, however, highlight a real concern.

After a successful 39  year career in the classroom, running a school and working with young/trainee teachers I took retirement. There were many reasons – OFSTED, SATs, league tables, the total irrelevancy of what I was putting the kids  through to gain the required SATs results that put us in the top 5%  and the three OFSTED inspection approvals of 'good' and 'outstanding' for my school.

But amongst all these was another that constantly gnawed throughout the 39 year period – the fact the everyone thinks they can teach. Oliver’s latest programme makes precisely this assumption. It was not unusual for me to have to explain/defend particular school actions, decisions, teaching styles, child management issues etc. to twenty year olds who had produced a child at 15 and then turned up with him or her at my nursery/reception class. It seemed so often to me that the ability to produce a child also magically bestowed upon these people the full knowledge of how to manage children, how to instruct, how to develop learning and understanding, how to manage a classroom, how to teach. The knowledge that I had gathered after 10, 20 or 30 years of working with children - about their abilities and their cognitive, social and physical development - was as nothing to the immediate understanding and wisdom bestowed on the first set of parents who walked through the door.  My knowledge, skills or experience counted for little – because everyone  can teach. It is true that so often people would say, 'Oh, I couldn’t do your job' – but despite this they all had an opinion! Perhaps if the programme had any value (which I doubt) it might have done a little to dispel the notion that teaching is easy and unskilled that anyone with a bit of knowledge can do it.

I never worked out why these same people didn't turn up at the Manchester United training ground to take Sir Alex to task on his training methods or to be included in his football team on Saturday afternoon in the same way that Jamie slots his personalities into the classroom team. In fact that appeals to me.  I was a useful park footballer as a youngster so I have the skills and I have the  experience - I have followed football all my life and visited most big stadiums and attended many big games – so please, Sir Alex, how about giving me a game on Saturday afternoon – and pay me one fortieth (for 1 game out of 40) of Wayne Rooney’s annual salary, that’ll boost my pension by quite a few grand for the next few years! My son,  an accountant and financial director  wouldn’t dream of allowing me to help out in his accounts department – he would rightly remind me that I don’t have the skills. My daughter, as a senior IT worker, I’m sure would be unhappy about taking me into her place of work to write a few programmes – but why? – I am more than computer literate, I’ve even taught computer skills for the past 15 or so years – I have the experience.  I can always remember some years ago, walking into my GP’s surgery and in reply to the question, 'Ah, what can I do for you?' I replied, 'Well doctor, I think may have ...... .'  I didn’t get any further, Dr MacLaren held up his hand and said, 'I’m the doctor, I'm paid to think. You just tell me what’s wrong, not what you think it is. I’ll tell you what it is.' He was, of course, quite right, although I felt a bit put out! Yet, on any given parents' evening, it is not unusual for a teacher to be asked to justify their actions or to be told in no uncertain terms by parents with absolutely no skills knowledge or classroom experience  what the needs of their child are and how he or she should be taught!!  When my car is broken down I rely on the expert skills of the mechanic to fix it. I don’t question him on his motives, his theories as to what he should do or the justification for his actions. But, everyone thinks they can teach and has an opinion – and of course, they are always better at it than the teacher.

For me the really worrying thing about it all is that we have such a low value on education and schools that we happily believe that anyone can do it – let’s send in a few stars to do the business, let’s allow volunteers (shades of the Big Society) to help out – after all, it’s easy, it’s cheap and it’s only the kids we are talking about.

 I’ve got some good ideas for Jamie's next series. How about  unqualified people doing brain surgery and working in the operating theatre – after all, most people  know about it – we’ve all taken aspirins, put on the odd sticking plaster, we’ve all sat in the doctor’s surgery, we’ve even watched 'Casualty’and a few 'fly on the wall'  documentaries about life in hospitals.......and we all have opinions about the NHS! We'd all make great brain surgeons and what a laugh it would be to see these 'stand ins' making mistakes. Or perhaps we he could draft a few people in to run the banks – after all, we are pretty much agreed that bankers are useless at it – most of us have bank accounts, we know about managing our family budgets, we can add up and take away, we can use a computer and a calculator – it would be easy. Err, until someone lost a million quid on the market then all hell would be let lose when Bob Diamond saw his bonus going down the drain or we suddenly realised our savings accounts were a little smaller. But, in schools with our children it’s alright to have perfectly nice but totally unqualified and inexperienced people turn up in the classroom and create mayhem.  Or, what about Jamie allows a few of us to run his restaurants, cook the meals, serve his clients – we can all do that, I’m very handy with the toaster, I can peel potatoes and I always lay the table on Sunday lunchtime! We  all love a good cop show, we all know exactly how it works so how about members of the public leading the next murder inquiry  rather than police officers? Drive around in a few fast cars with flashing lights, batter  a few doors down, shout a lot at shady looking people, take a few finger prints and do the odd autopsy – it’s easy and what good TV. We could even have a follow up arranged by Jamie - draft in a few ordinary souls or stars to be judges and barristers  - wouldn’t it be fun as we watched all these well intentioned people work out their prejudices in the courtroom without any kind of qualifications. I mean, we can all read, we all have an opinion about where we stand on legal matters, we’ve all watched endless courtroom dramas so we know what to do. Why stop at only the jury being ordinary people, let’s throw the whole thing open. It would make such good television  - but I’m not sure that the defendant would be quite so impressed as the noose tightened around his neck.

It wouldn’t happen of course. Barristers, brain surgeons, chief constables, accountants and the like would not want their job/profession trivialised in this way, the work they do is too important and society knows it.  But teachers are fair game – 'cause everyone can teach. The sad thing is that whilst this viewpoint prevails  -  and it is nothing to do with the quality of teachers – there are good and bad bankers, policemen, accountants and the like – the viewpoint of kids will be influenced and teachers, teaching and schools will be perceived as not worthy of respect or that they have something of value. The programme, like Jamie Oliver, is shallow and offensive. More importantly, however, it highlights a commentary upon the value that we place on education and the education of our children in this country.

03 March, 2011

Doing My Homework!

I have been doing my homework! I should explain.

Every couple of weeks I go to the Patchings Farm Arts Centre near Arnold, Nottingham to a water colour painting course. Our task at the last session (continued as homework) was to produce a water colour depicting a scene from Venice and, in particular, a statue that stands there. The subject had been chosen originally by the famous Nottingham artist, Richard Bonington, who was born in Arnold in 1802,  and who sadly died young in 1828. Bonington, visited Venice on numerous occasions and was the son of a Nottingham gaoler and a teacher and was prodigiously talented. In his short life he not only produced wonderful pieces of work but was a major player in the development of water colour painting. He is remembered locally in the Arnold area – a school named after him and  a local theatre and his statue stands outside the Nottingham School of Art, now part of Trent University.

Bartolomeo Colleoni in Venice
Bonington’s water colour depicts a horseman on a plinth in a Venetian Piazza. The horseman is Bartolomeo Colleoni, a fifteenth century nobleman. He was a soldier of fortune and for a time commander of the Venetian army. He owned estates outside the city and apparently did much good work developing agriculture and the lot of his workers. He did many charitable works  and donated a large amount of his wealth to the City on his death. He requested that on his death a statue be erected to commemorate him in St Mark’s Square. However, statues were not allowed in St Mark’s Square so the city fathers did the next best thing and erected the statue of Colleoni sitting proudly astride his horse in the Hospital of St Mark’s adjacent to the square. This was the subject of our (and Bonington’s) water colour!

It set me thinking about the role of statues within towns, cities and villages – to remember, honour, celebrate, brighten, reflect local or national  'heroes'.

I may be wrong but I believe that in recent years things have changed a little in this country. My mental picture of a statue in  a public place is of some important looking Victorian gentleman or soldier or even a monarch. Grand people who have earned their fame in Westminster or on the battlefield.  Of course, I may be wrong and there are clearly exceptions to this – Eros in Piccadilly springs to mind – but none the less it is my perception. But in recent years we appear to have become much more comfortable with celebrating  lesser lives or placing statues for the sheer pleasure of their presence – to brighten the environment.

Don Bradman in Adelaide
Harold Larwood in Kirkby in Ashfield,

A year or two ago I fulfilled a life ambition and visited Australia – and in particular Adelaide. A beautiful city and the jewel in the crown is the Adelaide cricket ground –truly one of the world’s greatest and most beautiful sporting venues. The tour of the ground was an event not to be forgotten – and especially seeing the statue of Don Bradman in a park near the ground –  a place of reverence for cricket lovers the world over. Bradman is in typical batting pose – majestic and graceful – in a beautiful parkland setting. When I came back to England I went to Kirkby In Ashfield, a few miles north of Nottingham, to see the other half of the story – the statue of the great Nottinghamshire and England fast bowler Harold Larwood . Bradman and Larwood had been the main combatants in the infamous 'bodyline'   test series of the early 30s – the most famous game in that never to be forgotten series  being played out at Adelaide.   Larwood’s statue – a wonderful action pose of him delivering his horrifyingly fast bowl stands in the middle of the local shopping centre. In fact on the day I visited it a hot dog stall stood glumly in the rain behind Larwood and windswept fish and chip papers blew around his feet. Not the beauty of the Adelaide setting for Bradman’s statue,  but perhaps Larwood, as a local miner, who loved his roots would have preferred it that way - his statue is amongst the people and the area from which he came not in some grand, remote place.

The Holy Trinity at Old Trafford - Best, Law and Charlton
Bobby Moore at Wembley

On the same theme, it has become fashionable for other sporting heroes to be celebrated with a statue near their places of fame. The wonderful statue of Stanley Matthews which stands outside Stoke City’s ground shows Matthews dribbling past defenders. At Old Trafford there is the 'Holy Trinity' – George Best, Dennis Law and Bobby Charlton – so life like they look almost alive!  The great Bobby Moore is remembered at Wembley – the scene of his greatest triumph – the 1966 World Cup victory. And one of particular resonance for me is that of Tom Finney of my team, Preston North End. The statue at Preston’s ground is known as 'TheSplash' and places Finney sliding through a deep puddle at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge. I was there that day and remember the scene well – the press photograph became a bit of an icon and the statue has brought the event almost back to life! But, I still find it a bit 'spooky' to see a sculptured representation of a scene I actually witnessed!

Stanley Matthews drifts past defenders
outside Stoke City's Brittania stadium
Tom Finney slides through the water
on a day I still remember
And then there are some other wonderful bits of stone and bronze.
Eric  Morecambe the great comedian – from an age when comedians were actually funny rather than pedlars of crude humour and foul language –  he stands on the sea front in Morecambe. Or, Captain Mainwaring of 'Dad’s Army' fame – the actor Arthur Lowe sits on a bench in Thetford, where the programme was filmed over many years.  Or what about here in Nottingham – 'Old Big Ed' – Brian Clough. He stands proudly looking out over the Market Square, hands clasped over his head in typical fashion. Some years ago, my wife and I visited St Petersburg. Our Russian was nil and we sat one bitterly cold day sipping coffee in a cafe at the Tsar’s Winter Palace.    A young waiter came across and in halting English asked where we came from. When we said Nottingham – not expecting him to know where it was or understand – his eyes immediately lit up and he beamed back 'Ah Brian Clough'.  'Old Big Ed' would have liked that! And finally, at the Eurostar rail terminal at St Pancras the wonderful poet John Betjeman – the ultimate pairing with Betjamen’s love of great buildings and rail travel – he must be sitting looking down feeling quite happy as his statue gazes out on the travellers.
Brian Clough looks out over
Nottingham's Market Square
Eric Morecambe makes everyone smile

John Betjeman views his beloved St Pancras

Captain Mainwaring keeps everyone in order
 in Thetford!

Just before Christmas we had a short break in Berlin. The German’s, I think, have always loved their statues. Go to any German town or village and you will surely see several – groups of people, fairy tale characters and the like. In the narrow streets of Berlin’s  old town we came across several groups – not famous Germans but just well known 'locals' from the past. They made us smile and gave a cold day a little warmth – surely what art of any kind should do!

Karl Marx and Frederich Engels remembered
in Berlin's Old Quarter 
A local gent from the
past in
Berlin's Old Quarter

There are two others I would mention – on opposite sides of the world but with a common bond. One I have not seen – but would love to, if only as an act of homage. The Glenn Gould statue in Toronto I have seen only photographs of. Gould, the greatest exponent of the piano music of JS Bach, was a Canadian and for people like me who love pieces like the Goldberg Variation or the 48 Preludes and Fugues  he represents almost god like qualities! And on the other side of the world – in Leipzig – the statue of Bach  outside his place of work, the Thomaskirche. A traditional 'Victorian' statue, this but again a place of reverence and worship for Bach aficionados. Flowers are placed daily at the base of the statue and each time I stand in front of it a lump comes to my throat – again, I suppose, what all good art should do  have an emotional impact!
Glenn Gould sits on the Toronto pavement
JS Bach stands tall outside his Church
I don’t know if I am correct in my belief that statues are becoming more reflective of wider society than in previous years. Nor am I an expert in works of sculpture.  I can appreciate the skill involved in carving or moulding a statue but I'm  not sure that I know what constitutes 'good art'.   Perhaps to the purist these are no more than 'gimmicks' - but I like them  - they bring a smile and in a world where the headlines seem to be dominated by violence, war, poverty and the like, they perhaps remind us of some of the pleasanter aspects of life - people who have made us smile, sportsmen who have excited us, local eccentrics, musicians and the like - and for me that must be good.

Fewer Kings, Queens, generals, politicians and more sportsmen, entertainers or local heroes. I’m not saying that is a good thing or a bad. However, I can’t escape the feeling that I’d prefer to commemorate and look at a statue of Brian Clough or Bach to one of Bomber Harris a man largely responsible for the carpet bombing and firestorms of the Dresden and Leipzig areas at the end of the last war. But of course, many might disagree with me on that.