18 June, 2012

A Reading Engagement!

A feature of any number of my blogs over the past year or two has been my love of books and reading - specifically my love of words and language. I don’t come to this as any kind of expert or authority but simply as someone who, over my personal life, has had a love of the written word and, in my professional life, have spent many thousands of hours listening to children read, reading stories and poems to children, marking and commenting upon the written work of children and advising children, parents and other teachers on matters concerned with the written word.

I could blog and rant long an hard about the current educational initiatives being promulgated by this and previous governments in relation to reading  but I will save you that doubtful pleasure!  I will, however, make just one comment – perhaps apposite, bearing in mind that our “esteemed” Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove has, in the past few days, made yet another pronouncement on the failings of schools and teachers by announcing a “return to basics”, the reciting of poetry by very young children and an increasingly prescriptive curriculum. At the time (the late 80s) when the National Curriculum was being   established in this country, teachers were being sent on endless courses to deliver the new regime, shelves in classrooms were being filled with hugely thick files filled the  prescriptive new curriculum and teachers were ticking sheet after sheet of endless tick boxes to fulfil the new requirements.  I was undertaking work at Nottingham University. I had the opportunity to   work with Keith Gardner -  a world respected authority on the teaching of  children’s reading. I can remember Gardner (who worked at the University with fellow world authorities, Eric Lunzer, Hunter Diack and John Daniels) commenting to me  that the new curriculum had no place for the simple enjoyment and pleasure of reading, no time in the day for story time, when children could listen to and be inspired by a story or poem. All the time was scheduled for “studying texts" – story time was dead. Reading  books simply for pleasure was increasingly under threat - there simply wasn't time in the school day, so many other important things had to be squashed in. The photocopied sheet of an extract from book was, however, alive and well - and to be "studied" - it could be fitted in neatly into the "Literacy Hour" - the time when we would all magically make all children literate!Gardner was adamant – and in my view correct – he felt this was a retrograde step which would adversely affect children’s reading and only become apparent over many years. Time, I believe, has proved him correct. The government is still, over twenty years later, still airing huge concerns about children’s reading and introducing ever more stringent and prescriptive answers – witness, this last week’s announcements by Michael Gove. They will fail – as all previous such initiatives have failed.  Books are there to be enjoyed and reading perceived as a pleasurable, useful, worthwhile, engaging and inspiring activity - not as some kind of literacy laboratory where specimens of the written word are analysed, dissected and practised. This outlook simply makes books and reading a literary obstacle race in which a  series of educational hurdles and fences must be jumped over and succeeded (or failed!) at. And, like the ultimate obstacle race, the Grand National, where at the end only a few horses finish, so too with reading, relatively few children end up as engaged, committed and discriminating adult readers - their engagement and love of the pursuit has been drained from them as they have scrambled  over each school based literacy obstacle. 
Michael Gove "inspiring" a class of
five year olds

But to return to my blog.

In the past week a couple of reading related items have caught my attention. Firstly I read the other day an article about type face fonts – not a thing that I know much, or indeed anything, about.  In the article an item of  research by Oppenheimer - “Fortune favours the Bold (and Italicised)":  - it was suggested that we absorb written information better when it is a little hard to read. Researchers found that students tested retained information better if they had read it in fonts less clear and easy to read -  a cramped line of type or a font with lots of curls and strokes forces us to hover more and  to thus engage with it more and this, it was argued,  aids learning and retention. Another comment on the same theme was that of novelist Jonathan Franzen who has suggested that e-books make for a less fulfilling reading experience because of their relative impermanence  and the “uncanny ease of moving the text into view”.  Words are presented effortlessly and thus require little or no effort on our part! I am a keen e-book reader, but on thinking about it I believe both Franzen and Oppenheimer might be on to something.  As the article (How Comic Sans Got Useful: Marth Gill: New Statesman 18.06.2012) commented “.....words presented to us with the effortlessness and clarity of motorway signs demand shallow engagement”. And, I might add, shallow engagement equals the potential for shallow understanding, retention or enjoyment.

Now I have no way of knowing if these theses are correct, but I certainly would subscribe to their general principle – that engagement, involvement and interaction  is key if one is to get the maximum from the written word.

And the second reading related item that has come my way in the past week or so?

I happened upon “reading list” for children quoted on my internet server last week. This was a list of book suggestions for children. Interested, I read the list and was ready to pour scorn – expecting the usual Harry Potter dross. In fact I was very pleasantly surprised – there was little I could disagree with and many of the suggestions were books that I had read to children or advised parents (when I was teaching) to obtain for their children in order to inspire and motivate them to read. Indeed, only that day I had received a text message, complete with photo, from my daughter and family  who were on holiday in France. It showed my grand-daughter, Sophie,  lying on the beach reading. She was reading one of the books that I had recently bought her.
A beach in France and Sophie
Johnson finishes off
"Mrs Frisby and the rats
 of NIMH"

Let me explain. A few months ago I bought my two grand-daughters – Sophie and Ellie -  a  raft of books which I had found, during my years in the classroom, to be books that children enjoyed, were inspired by, were worth reading – and, most importantly (for me), addressed issues that were what I will call about “growing up”:  humanity, understanding others, understanding the world, becoming a person, empathy, imagination, responsibility and the like. I am not qualified to make any great literary judgement on these titles – but I do know they “spoke” to children – and indeed myself. No matter how many times I read them to classes or discussed them with children I never tired of them – and copies of each still rest on my office shelves!  Many, many times over the years children would proudly arrive in class with their own copy of one of these titles or beg “Please, Mr Beale, can I borrow that book when you’ve finished reading it to the class” I wanted my own grandchildren to have the same experience with the books I have loved and shared with children in my class. 

I once read a quote about the awful Mrs Thatcher who, it was said, had little time for reading fiction. The writer suggested that Mrs Thatcher could not empathise with or understand others because she herself had no imagination – she could not imagine what it was like to be another person with their everyday problems, aspirations, fears, dreams and needs. These are the human qualities that reading (especially fiction) can give – a well written story can provide a peep into the life and mind of another person. Read Betsy Byers' "Eighteenth Emergency" and, in a humorous way, you can understand what it is like to be bullied - as is the hero, Mouse; read "The Silver Sword" and children can begin to understand what it must be like to go hungry, to lose your family or to live in  a war scarred country; read Jan Marks' "Thunder and Lightnings" and children will, in  a small way, learn about loneliness when you move house, start a new school and eventually begin to make new friends. Perhaps my list of titles went a little way, I hope, to developing these human qualities in children that I taught and now in my grand daughters.

Well, we met our daughter and family for lunch at the weekend. Sophie, as usual, quiet - she was immersed in her book as she devoured both her burger and  the words of her book!  But it was gratifying when she told me that she had  already read three of the books that I had given to her and that Ellie, her younger sister had enjoyed one of them.  Most are a bit “old” for Ellie at the moment – but she had enjoyed Betsy Byers’ wonderful “The Midnight Fox” – and was able to comment on it with maturity and understanding. Sophie had waded through the same book, but had also polished off “Mrs Frisby and the Rats of Nimh” and Nina Bawden’s “Carrie’s War” – all books that, in their different ways, help children to understand emotions, feelings,  hopes, fears, sadness and joy. I got a real "buzz" out of that. Perhaps, in a tiny way, I had passed something on.
Sophie - book in hand - and Grampy 

So what are these books that were on my book list (not in any order – merely the way they are currently arranged on my shelf!):

’The Serial Garden’ a short story by Joan Aiken
‘I am David’ by Anne Fine
‘The Wheel on the School’ by Meindert DeJong
‘Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH’ by R.C O’Brien
‘The Goalkeeper’s Revenge’ by Bill Naughton
‘The Snow Goose’ by Paul Gallico
‘Carrie’s War’ by Nina Bawden
‘The Silver Sword’ by Ian Serrallier
'Nothing to be Afraid of' by Jan Mark
'Cue for Treason' by Geoffrey Trease
‘The Fib and other stories’ by George Layton
‘The Eighteenth Emergency’ by Betsy Byers
'The Midnight Fox’ by Betsy Byers
The Diary of Ann Frank 
'Smith' by Leon Garfield
‘How the Whale Became’ by Ted Hughes
‘Thunder and Lightnings’ by Jan Mark
‘The Ghost of Thomas Kemp’ by Penelope Lively
‘Elidor’ by Alan Garner
‘The Weirdstone of Brisingamen’ by Alan Garner

As I say, I could not comment on the great literary worth of these titles and clearly just as with the beauty contest, beauty is in the eye of the beholder – others will disagree and have their own list. I will accept that many may look a bit dated now - they reflect a lifetime in the classroom and a teacher who  began his classroom career in the early the sixties - but maybe that is a strength, they were  just as popular when I read them to classes in the year I retired 2004 as when I read them forty years before. In short they still spoke to children. For me (as I’m sure for many others) I could easily multiply this list many times over and substitute any number of other inspirational, engaging and important books for children (and adults!) to enjoy and profit from – but these are a start and my personal favourites.

Poems, too, can inspire and enthuse children – and indeed speak to them. Again, I am  not in any way an expert, but Allan Ahlberg’s “Billy McBone” is a case in point: “Billy McBone had a mind of his own, Which he mostly kept under his hat......’ – a wonderful poem which, as a teacher, I could relate to exactly and it had the kids in hoots of laughter. It was made even more real for me when  I recently visited a lovely school in Oadby, Leicester to support and assess a trainee teacher there. There, in the reception area, was this, and other  poems - all beautifully inscribed. They were done in recognition of their author, Allan Ahlberg, who, many years ago, had been the head teacher of that school before turning his hand to children's writing.  Or, what about ‘And did you know that every flake of snow, That forms so high in the grey winter sky..........’ – one of the many, many poems that I have rehearsed with children over many years of Christmas productions. 
And, John Betjeman's great Christmas poem is another that everyone - young and old should hear:
............And London shops on Christmas Eve
Are strung with silver bells and flowers
As hurrying clerks the City leave
To pigeon-haunted classic towers,
And marbled clouds go scudding by
The many-steepled London sky.

And girls in slacks remember Dad,
And oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children's hearts are glad,
And Christmas morning bells say 'Come!'
Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.............

Children could relate to this and understand what it was saying - and it helped to make them understand a little more about what Christmas, and indeed the giving of gifts, is really about -not the turkey, not the false fun not the over indulgence of facile gifts. In short, it broadened their horizon - and that is what all education and literature must do - take you to places that are unknown. That was Mrs Thatcher's weakness - she lived in her own world , praising only what she knew rather than experiencing the life of others; education in general and reading in particular allow you to do that.

Orto continue, what about ‘The wind was a torrent of darkness upon the gusty trees, The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas........’ - it still brings shivers down my spine. I still remember the many, many times throughout my teaching career that  I read Alfred Noyes’ ‘The Highwayman’ to groups of 11 year olds. And each time was the same: as we got near the end class after class would be hanging onto every word. It is the ultimate poem that both boys and girls could relate to - and did. I can still hear the gasps and squeals when the girls suddenly realised what ‘Bess, the landlord’s black eyed daughter’ was going to do. I can still remember vividly a bright and wonderful 11 year old, Ruth Pike (never a girl to keep her emotions in check!), suddenly, wide eyed squealing in horror as she realised, from the back of the classroom, what was about to happen "Mr Beale, Mr Beale, Mr Beale........she's gonna kill herself isn't she!"......  And then it, too, dawned in the rest of the class that Ruth was right.  Hands were put to mouths and  eyes widened, all humanity displayed itself on the eleven year old faces in front of me, as the poem went on:
".....her finger moved in the moonlight
The musket shattered the moonlight
Shattered her breast in the moonlight
And warned him - with her death."
 And, I can still almost feel the heart beats of the boys and hear their cheers (yes, they sometimes  actually cheered!) in the class when the highwayman: 
spurred like a madman, shrieked a curse to the sky, 
With the white road smoking behind him 
And his rapier brandished high! 
I’m sure it’s not the greatest poem ever written but it always had the same result – it touched feelings for the kids and for me too. For those few minutes a class of children knew a little of what it was like to be a highwayman, or tied up by the soldiers, or to hatch a plan to kill yourself in order to save your lover. Maybe it's romantic stuff, probably most of those kids have now forgotten it - but, I would argue, that just for a few minutes Ruth Pike and her friends (and a hundred other classes too) moved into a different world - and maybe it has helped them to understand people and their actions more. And that must be what we should be passing on to children - widening their understanding of the world. I'd like to think so.
A few of my well loved titles that have engaged
me and many children over the years 

I loved using poetry at school and  it certainly brought some wonderful pieces of work from children. Like my selection of books I cannot comment on the literary worth of the poems that I like, I simply enjoy them. To quietly recite a few words or lines of a favourite poem is a real joy: ‘Listen, my children, and you shall hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere........’ (“The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” – Longfellow)– it immediately takes me to a magical far off world of brave soldiers and colourful historical characters. ‘There’s a breathless hush in the Close tonight, Ten to make and the match to win........’ (“Vitai Lampada” by Newbolt - often thought a bit old fashioned now but one of my favourite poems) talks of pride and doing the right thing, service and obligation – all the high ideals that we try and so often fail to live up to. Read the poem and I defy anyone not to be stirred and moved by its appeal to our highest instincts. Or what about a children's poem?: ‘One afternoon when grassy scents through the classroom crept, Bill Craddock laid his head on the desk and slept......’ (“The Bully Asleep” – John Walsh). Those opening words come and I can smell the classrooms in which I have worked for the past forty years and remember the children hanging on to every word – and then wanting to read it for themselves. At the end of the poem, after all the children have planned how they can play tricks and get their own back on the sleeping bully,  little Jane feels sorry for him and wants to comfort him:
......Not caring, not hearing
Bill Craddock he slept on;
Lips parted, eyes closed –
Their cruelty gone.
‘Stick him with pins!’ muttered Roger
‘Pour ink down his neck! said Jim.
But Jane tearful and foolish,
Wanted to comfort him.....
The poem speaks of how we react as humans and, I believe of forgiveness and the ability to understand why even the worst of us (the bully) acts as he does and can be understood. It's about teaching our humanity and our common heritage to children. And, as humans, this  surely is an most important lesson we must pass on. And finally, while on the serious side of poetry I have absolutely no doubts that anyone - adult or teenager - who has not read and thought about some of the Great War Poems - especially Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen - is missing part of their basic humanity. They are, quite simply, incomplete as human beings and cannot possibly comprehend the world in which we now live which has been so moulded and formed by terrible wars. The  great and terrible opening lines of Owen's famous poem  set the scene for the awful horror of war:
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind........

Read Owen's savage poem in full and I defy anyone to ever again cheer or vote for war. It is the very stuff of humanity. I cannot read this poem - and I do so every few weeks such is its moral power and outrage - without in the same breath thinking of the terrible and anguished last words of Shakespeare's mighty play King Lear. When, after three hours, the awful events of the play have unfolded before the audience, when man's raw inhumanity to man has been exposed for all the world to see and recoil at, the last words of the whole play, spoken by Edgar, remind us to:  "...... remember the gravity of this sad day. We should speak what we feel, not what we ought to say". This is the power of story and poem; to allow us to understand, speak of and think of the very things that make us most human and remind us of what we are all capable of - the great hurt and horror or the great love and aspiration of which we are all capable and which defines mankind. Ruth Pike and then, following Ruth's wisdom and maturity, her classmates recognised this when they realised the awful - but at the same time great loving act that Bess, the landlord's black eyed daughter was about to carry out. Bess was going to kill herself to save her lover, the Highwayman, and Ruth Pike did indeed "speak what she felt and not what she ought to say" when she squealed 'Mr Beale, Mr Beale, Mr Beale....she's gonna kill herself isn't she..." . That squeal of horror and recognition confirmed for all to see and hear  Ruth's humanity, her emotional maturity and her understanding of mankind - it displayed her empathy, sympathy, and understanding of what people feel and will do - all things that Michael Gove and the awful Mrs Thatcher never understood for one second. And yet, Ruth Pike, an 11 year old girl (and many others over the years) in my class had it in abundance!

And finally - fun and enjoyment! My copy of Michael Rosen poems - "Wouldn't you like to know" was always in demand for the sheer pleasure it gave and the fact that children could relate exactly to it - it was their world. "Read it again" class after class would ask when they heard "My Dad's thumb" or "I'm just going out for a moment". The boys especially loved "From a problem page" - they recognised exactly what it was about and loved writing their own versions. And "I am a wasp" - wonderful stuff - one to really make them think and imagine - and yes, in a strange way  imagine and empathise with the wasp's predicament. - which, of course, is what poems and tales of any kind should hopefully do.

And back to some of the books that I listed above; the wonderful chapter from “Thunder and Lightnings” called ‘Victor’ – a description of school that every teacher and pupil will recognise, or the hilarious chapter from Betsy Byers ‘Eighteenth Emergency’ – a book I have never known any ten year old not relate to when the hero, Mouse, who is constantly bullied, tries to be a bully himself and picks on a girl but it all goes wrong for him. He is punched by the girl, Viola Angotti: ’It was the hardest blow he had ever taken. Viola Angotti could be heavyweight champion of the world. As she walked past his crumpled body she said again ‘Nobody’s putting me in no garbage can.’ It had sounded like one of the world’s basic truths. The sun will rise. The tides will flow and nobody’s putting Viola Angotti in no garbage can’. And what about poor little Mrs Frisby, the field mouse as she struggles to protect her family and ill son Timothy in the face of the farmer's plans and the coming winter in O'Brien's "Mrs Frisby and the rats of NIMH".  This is a story that gives so much to children - yes it's about animals but like Orwell's "Animal Farm" it's about bigger things - friendship, love, endeavour, not giving in, hopes and fears. Or, moving on to Meidert DeJong’s wonderful “The Wheel on the School”. The introduction says:“This is one of the rare stories in which lie the beginnings of wisdom.......”. So true. It is one of the world’s very, very great books for the young (and the not so young!) - it should be made compulsory for everyone for it is about the very essence of humanity and whether you are 11 or 101 I guarantee that you will find it moving, relevant and thought provoking about the nature of man and woman kind. Oh, the young Margaret Thatcher should have read it – it would have opened her eyes to simple kindness, generosity, gentleness, wisdom and what real education is about (not what she, and now Michael Gove, think it is about!)! It would indeed have made her a better, more rounded person. And, something vastly differently? what about the sheer mystery, magic and fear inherent in Garner’s “Elidor” - a tale which makes Harry Potter novels look what they are - badly written, shallow and infinitely forgettable. Or – and this is true – I have seen children cry when reading or being read – parts of Anne Holm’s magnificent “I am David” – the story of a boy who has escaped from a concentration camp and another book, which in my view, should be compulsory reading as an aid to growing up. Anyone who has not read this book or has not been moved by it has a serious part of their  emotional chemistry missing. The chapter describing David’s growing relationship with the cruel farmer’s dog who he initially fears (because in the camp, all dogs were guard dogs with snapping teeth and to be much feared) but which provides him with friendship and warmth on cold nights and becomes his protector and companion when these two escape from the tyranny of the cruel farmer; or the confusion and incomprehension that David feels when he witnesses other children not eating up all their dinner; or the unmitigated joy when David receives a tablet of soap to wash with or an orange to eat all for himself are all salutary reminders of things that we take for granted and the fragile nature of the human condition. And finally – I could go on and on - who could not feel for poor old Mr Johansen in Joan Aiken’s humorous, magical and bitter sweet short story “The Serial Garden”. The hero of the story, Mark, makes a magic garden and palace from cut outs on the back of some old cereal packets. But when the packets of breakfast cereals are thrown away his music teacher Mr Johansen can no longer meet his love of many years before – Princess Sophia Maria Louisa of Saxe –Hoffenpoffen (what a wonderful name)! When I read this tale to children and got to the final paragraphs where Mark’s mother tidies his bedroom and unthinkingly  throws away the cereal packets that Mark has been saving (and in doing so condemns Princess Sophia Maria the dustbin), the children, as a body, would regularly exclaim 'Ohhhhhhhh – no!' And, when at the end, the distraught Mr Johansen puts adverts in 'The Times' in a feverish endeavour to track down any old packets of the cereal and so find a way back to his old love, thirty children would be wide eyed and want to know if he ever got any replies to his ads. I can remember one class where I sensed they were so upset that I actually changed the ending so that it ended happily!
A demolition site in Manchester - the basis of Garner's
magical and terrifying "Elidor" - a book of real
substance that makes Harry Potter look shallow.

Wonderful stuff all - and unless we provide opportunities for children to listen to, be read to, to simply enjoy, to read for themselves and get a feel for language, emotions, and characters and situations with whom they can relate and engage with then we are doing them a grave disservice. You can analyse, dissect and study text and "literature", but in the end you have to hear it, engage with it, laugh with it, cry with it – be friends with it and see it as good and worthwhile rather than a thing to be learned or assessed. Such is the power of books when we engage with them, enjoy them, laugh with them cry with them then they influence us and in doing so, perhaps change us as people!

Books and poems inspire, sadden, gladden, emotionally and intellectually challenge and stimulate. They speak of hopes and fears, of regrets and ambitions, of memories and of what is and what will be. They introduce the young to the breadth of human emotions and human joy and suffering and enable us to become better people and to understand others and their condition. That is the power of the written word – it’s not only about studying texts, understanding “good literature” or having great word recognition and phonic skills. No one would deny that these are important considerations. The worrying thing is, however, that successive governments and people like Michael Gove are interested only in the quantifiable and measurable aspects of reading – comprehension skills, word recognition scores, literary comment that can be assessed and marked. In my view, these tell only part of the story – and the least important part.

Whilst writing these last few sentences I was reminded of a letter to the Guardian several years ago ( I pinned the letter on the notice board in my school office - to remind me of what real education was about and to annoy any visiting inspectors who came!). It was from a farmer (I think from a small Gloucestershire village) who was also a governor of his local primary school. He complained bitterly about the amount of testing that children were being put through to "assess their progress" as the National Curriculum and OFSTED took hold. His point was simple and unarguable: "The government and school inspectors are not interested in children only in test results.  Let me tell them something. I raise pigs and no amount of weighing them makes them fatter and better for market.  It's a rich diet, plenty of grub and a happy environment that does that. Children are no different - it's not testing that does them any good - it's a rich  education that brings them on" . Give this man a job - he certainly knows more about education than Michael Gove, OFSTED and other politicians!

Reading for pleasure is part of that rich diet. My grand-daughter, Sophie, would get no marks in Michael Gove or Margaret Thatcher's literacy exams when she explained that she loved books so much that she read all the way through her dinner and got into trouble with mum because she often didn't answer when spoken to .......... . But, then again, I believe that it might just help her become a more aware and well rounded adult than either of these two political, humanitarian and emotional cripples. Maybe I'm an idealist, but I'll make no apology for that - if we are not idealists with dreams of the best we can be then how can we change and make ourselves and the world better? What can't be denied, however, is that books and reading have the power to change us as people and children need to be provided with the opportunity to be "changed" and to perceive reading and books and poems as pleasurable, useful, worthwhile, and inspiring. They are not simply things to study or to be tested upon or "comprehended" as modern politicians would have happen in every classroom throughout the land.  Children (and adults!) have to be allowed to be  “engaged” and be a party to the world that books and poems create - for that engagement will make them a more engaged, and engaging, member of the human race - more able to understand our fellow man or woman, more able to understand ourselves and more able to make the world a better place for our fellow humans.

04 June, 2012

"Come on, cheer, cheer!" (Part 2)

In talking about the Royal Jubilee, our Prime Minister, David Cameron, yesterday commented that “The Queen brought a sense of national unity and stability....someone that the whole country can identify with......someone who the whole country can revere and look up to”. Despite my republican leanings and even greater anti-monarchist beliefs I will agree that the Queen has, for the last sixty years, been a symbol of the nation with whom many will identify. I would also unhesitatingly agree that Elizabeth has undertaken her task with great commitment and industry. I do not have the same regard for the rest of the royal family or the wider aristocracy.
Where I would take issue with Cameron’s comment, however, is his use (and he is not alone in this, as witnessed in yesterday’s media Jubilee coverage) of the word “revere”, and to a lesser degree the phrase “look up to”. My Oxford Dictionary defines “revere” as “Regard as sacred or exalted, hold in deep and unusually affectionate or religious respect” . Well, that might have been alright in the days when kings and queens ruled by “divine right” but even in the most monarchical of western societies the belief of royal divinity and reverence withered about three centuries ago with the advent of the Enlightenment and the French revolution. My copy of the great King James’ Bible is prefaced with the words: “Great and manifold were the blessings, most dread Sovereign, which Almighty God, the father of all mercies, bestowed upon us the people of England when first he sent Your Majesty’s Royal Person to rule and reign over us...........”. There’s no arguing with that, King James was to be revered! But no matter how much convinced royalists would like it otherwise we are no longer in the early years of the seventeenth century. Few, I think, today could sustain an argument that Elizabeth, or any other of the royal family, was sent from God and should be regarded as sacred.

The world has changed.

Within Cameron’s use of the word “revere” and its implication that we should set the Queen on a plateau far above common humanity there is, however, a kernel of “truth” in relation to what has actually happened in our society – and especially to the royal family - over the past decades.
The front page of the King James Bible
The people who populated western societies at the time of King James in the seventeenth century were overwhelmingly Christian. Their kings and queens assumed a glorious position far superior to the rest of humanity within the nation’s conscience. In France Louis XIV was known as the “sun king” so great was his glory. Elizabeth I was referred to as “Gloriana”- allegedly sailors chanted this when she visited Tilbury following the defeat of the Spanish Armada. And against this backdrop it was not unreasonable that these magnificent figureheads assumed some kind of religious aspect – as the preface to the Bible said, they were “exalted”, “most dread” or bestowed “great and manifold blessings” and the like. The king's word was law and his orders unquestioned. For example, some estimates suggest that as many as 72000 people were executed on the direct orders of Henry VIII and there is reliable documentary evidence to confirm that between Elizabeth I accession to the throne and the accession of Charles II at least 300 were executed on the direct orders and wishes of the king or queen.  Henry VIII's execution of two of his six wives and his proclaiming of himself as supreme head of the Church, when added to the executions ordered by the first Queen Elizabeth  (including that of her distant cousin, Mary) suggest that the monarchies of old  did very much hold the power of life or death over their subjects. For the ordinary man the king and his whims were very much an extension of God on earth – “divine” and “sacred” - a thing to be "most dreaded".

Even in 1908, Baden-Powell in his book "Scouting for Boys" was still able to  comment on the social organisation of bees. "They are a model community" he wrote "they respect their queen and kill the unemployed" There is no doubt that if he wrote the same thing today he would be castigated - the world has changed - we no longer talk of honouring the powerful whilst at the same time killing those less fortunate. Slowly but surely, the common man has risen – he no longer believes in the divine right of kings; kings and queens no longer rule with absolute power – countries are now ruled by elected government and not the whim of a divine king. And, not least, religion has less of a hold on the hearts and minds of the populace – there is less of a link between king or queen and the notion of divinity or reverence. This latter point is important in, perhaps, explaining the sort of response that we have today to the monarchy and to Cameron’s plea for us to “revere” the Queen.

G.K. Chesterton
A century ago the writer and committed Christian G.K. Chesterton famously commented that “When people cease to believe in God, they do not then believe in nothing, but believe in anything”. Throughout the centuries and across cultures – perhaps even from the cave man – people have felt the need to believe in something “bigger” or “greater” than them. It provided solace when times got hard; it explained the unexplainable; it put the life of the lowliest man into a context. It provided the notion of heaven and hell and therefore some basis for a moral framework – “be good and you will go to heaven”; “be bad and you will be cast into the fires of hell”. But, over the years, people have become less “religious”, fewer believe in the literal translation of the Bible and other religious texts; and probably even fewer believe in a white bearded man in the sky – be he God or king - making decisions on their behalf.

Putting the sacred book away
at Amritsar. The young men had
something to believe in.

Against this back drop, Chesterton’s comments brings a ring of truth. If people stop believing in God do they find a substitute? I do not have any overly strong  religious commitment but my instinctive feeling is that Chesterton had a point. I read the other day a comment that reverence or nostalgia for a monarchy is very similar to a reverence for the church. Both provide a sanctuary of ritual, adoration and worship; both have implicit undercurrents of service and subservience (to either God or king); both provide a cosy feeling that someone greater than you has your interests at heart and will ensure that you are protected from life’s ills; and, of course, both monarchy and church provide heroic symbols and offer something gloriously permanent in what are our increasingly transient lives. This is not to criticise or mock a religious faith - belief in a God or Gods, a belief in something greater than ourselves to provide a bedrock for our lives is, I would argue, an intrinsic part of the human condition which seems to me to cross all cultures and generations. One of the most inspiring, moving and thought provoking moments of my life was a few years ago when I visited the Golden Temple at Amritsar - the spiritual home of Sikhs. Late at night Pat and I were privileged to watch the Sikh scriptures - the Granth - being put away for the night. Hundreds of young men struggled and begged for a place in the carrying of the scripture's ark or in the procession or simply to polish the gold of the ark. Pat and I commented at the time, these young men had a faith, something to believe in, to build their world around and to provide a moral framework. They were not extremists and certainly not terrorists but simply young men ackowledgeing their faith in something bigger than them. As we stood and watched we contrasted this with young men and women in the west who increasingly,  it seemed to us, turn to celebrities, drugs, football, pop music, violence or the consumer society as their Gods.  For many - certainly since the days of Princess Diana - there has become an obsession with the celebrity culture of the monarchy. In the magazines and newspapers and on TV today the Queen and the rest of the royals are made into celebrities and people with almost magical or divine qualities by those who would praise them. They are heroic symbols to revere, not for their status as the nominal human manifestations of the nation, but rather for their celebrity qualities - the clothes they wear, the "wisdom" they utter, their tastes in music, their relationships, their good looks, their holiday choices and the like. 

As I sit watching TV now (Monday, June 4th) I’ve just learned from Elton John that the Queen is “incredibly brilliant” (I wonder on what basis this analysis is made? What does it actually mean?). Certainly it suggests that she has qualities of intellect or personality far in excess of those enjoyed by the rest of the human race.  Recently, whilst flicking through my wife’s “ Daily Telegraph” I discovered from Boris Johnson, mayor of London, that  the "Second Elizabethan" age is characterised by many wonderful things, achievements for which the Queen, by association, is responsible:"If we measure monarchical success by the growth in longevity or per capita GDP of her subjects," he wrote, "then she is the most successful monarch in history."  Of course, he neglected to mention that if, on the other hand, we measure monarchical success by the allowing of the government for which she is responsible to fight an arguably illegal war, for overseeing two of the greatest depressions and periods of unemployment in recent history (the Thatcher years and our present time), for  rising crime rates, child poverty, binge drinking, deteriorating social mobility, a widening economic and social gap between the south east and the remainder of her realm, the decline in industrial manufacturing, bird flu, carbon emissions, rising terrorist activity, increasing consumer debt or declining attendance at church or many other criteria then the second Elizabethan age looks a bit shakier! Boris Johnson and other royalist cannot have it both ways - if the monarchy is to be associated with positive aspects of the nation then they have too to take responsible for the less desirable events.

In recent days magazines, newspapers  and other media commentators have given us such gems as: the Daily Mail telling us over the weekend that ".. the queen does not perspire.....She doesn't even glow ......and so her clothes never crease”. And she was "a beautiful young woman, wise beyond her years” we were told in yesterday’s Jubilee coverage, ”she seemed to glide rather than walk” . Prince Charles reaffirmed this when he told us on TV that his mother has "amazing poise" and "natural grace". She is also said to “cure herself and her corgis homeopathically”. The Daily Mail assured us that "....She bathed the [corgi's] wound in a special ointment and the injured paw was healed within days". Amazing! - this woman could save the NHS  millions with her curative powers.  Is she related to Jesus, after all, he had the same ability to make the lame walk and to cure lepers. Perhaps she could be beatified – “Elizabeth, Patron Saint of Vets and the RSPCA – one touch of her “special ointment” and all ailments cured”. Maybe she has the powers of some medieval alchemist and having hit on this "special ointment" might turn her magical skills into turning base metals into gold. That could be useful - it would solve the present financial crisis for George Osborne. But it doesn’t end with these wonderful curative powers. The Queen’s hat, we were told on TV yesterday (as the wind gusted along the Thames),“never blows off”; nor we learned “is she ever late”. I have also discovered that even “the most truculent of prime ministers fall under her spell”. And, of course, she was a “wonderful child..... Her clothes were always neatly folded!”. And finally, unlike the rest of us the queen will never cause the NHS a problem through obesity or drink related problems - she shows outstanding restraint at all times because "She'll only have one or two sandwiches and maybe a sliver of cake" and will only ever allow herself one small alcoholic drink.

With all these extreme qualities the Queen really is a cut above the rest of us mere mortals who sweat, grow fat, have to use the NHS, misbehaved as children, have to have our pets put down, walk rather than glide or are only averagely wise. Elizabeth was indubitably born to be a monarch!  There must be something in this divine right of Kings! 
A floral sacrifice to the Goddess Diana

But, staggeringly, it doesn’t even end there. Other royals, too, are attributed with gifts that set them apart from common humanity. Diana’s star and goddess like radiance, of course, shone on us all and outshone all others in the royal and celebrity galaxy. Sadly, of course, just as in the Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus, it all came to an abrupt and nasty end. Just as Daedalus and Icarus who  flew too near the glory of the sun, until wings melted and poor Icarus crashed to earth so, too, with  Diana. She, too, flew too high as she gloried in  the mindless worshipping adoration of  the media and  right wing and tabloid press. She crashed to earth causing tremors that shook the royals and wider society to the core - and  we, poor mortals never enjoyed the fullness of her sun like radiance.  Millions across the country and indeed the world wept! But why? - she was simply a young woman (and, I would suggest, a rather silly, immature woman) who had a car crash whilst away from her family and out in a foreign city with her lover.  It does indeed sound like the stuff of the Greek gods and goddesses. Zeus would send thunderbolts to keep mortals and his wayward family of gods in order - Diana's thunderbolt was a fast moving car in a  Parisian subway!  Did she offend Zeus and other gods by being glorified and worshipped too much? According to Greek myths that was certainly what happened In ancient Greece - when a mortal or god assumed glory and adulation above their station then Zeus acted, a thunderbolt was sent, and everyone put back in their rightful place!  
A thunderbolt from the gods in a
Parisian subway?

Canova's "Three Graces".
But is there a bottom to
compete with Pippa's
But worry  not, Kate Middleton is fast assuming Diana's mantle. On becoming  a royal she suddenly, mysteriously and magically accrued fashion sense and wisdom like no other. She is the darling of the masses and can do no wrong. Her every comment, smile, grimace, fashion accessory or gesture has become a pearl of wisdom to be drooled over and copied.  And....... by association with the blossoming goddess, even her sister, Pippa, is assured of god like immortality because she has, we are reliably informed by any number of media outlets, the most desirable bottom in the universe. Pippa's name will be known for posterity because of her posterior! Millions of young women across the world must fall asleep at night dreaming they will awake in the morning with a heavenly Pippa-like rear! Indeed, only a few weeks ago the Daily Mirror carried the following headline: "I paid £6k for Pippa's bum and bagged my own Prince Charming - single mum finds love after butt boosting surgery"  Is any more proof needed  that the mindless flag waving glorification, hero worship and adulation of the royals has shredded the minds of the population?  Clearly Kate and Pippa when they pass from this mortal world will join Diana on Mount Olympus with the rest of the great gods and goddesses of old: Zeus, Athena, Artemis, Apollo, Pandora, Hera, Poseidon......Di, Kate, Pippa! Perhaps some great sculptor will, in the style of Canova, carve them in stone like the Three Graces - each perhaps holding a copy of "Hello" magazine! 

But, moving on.The Duke of Edinburgh is known for his profound wit – which if any lesser mortal made similar pronouncements they would be shunned by society and perhaps even prosecuted by the law. The Prince of Wales has insight far above mere experts and professionals – he can make pronouncements on anything about which he has little qualification or experience and the media will hang on to his every word. Two of the present royal family (The Duke of Edinburgh and Prince Charles) are the recipients of the Order of Merit - given for exceptionally "meritorious service" in the armed forces or for "the advancement" of art, literature and science. It is the pinnacle of the British honours system. This means that they rub shoulders with the greatest, the brightest and best: Isaiah Berlin, Bertrand Russell, Florence Nightingale, Edward Elgar, Rudyard Kipling, Geoge Bernard Shaw, Henry Moore, Tom Stoppard, Nelson Mandella, Benjamin Britten, Thomas Hardy, T S Elliot, Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, Tim Berners-Lee...... . The Order is limited to a membership of twenty four at any one time. Even the brilliant Professor Stephen Hawking can't even make it into this group - he only gets as far as the Companion of Honour - the junior section. So to have two out of the twenty four from the same family is a clear indication of the superhuman powers enjoyed by the royals -  we truly must exalt and revere! And so it goes on – attributing qualities to the royals which makes them into celebrities, and give ordinary people something to “look up to”, or to “revere” as these god like figures glide amongst us.

In 1955 (and remember this was just two years after the Queen’s coronation when the monarchy was at a high water point in Britain) Malcolm Muggeridge the author, journalist and Christian commentator recognised this tendency to put the royals on a pedastal and ruffled many feathers when he wrote: “.....monarchy has become a kind of ersatz religion........Among other solaces, like Johnnie ray and dreams of winning the football pool and Lollobridgida is royalty. The people one sees staring through the railings at Buckingham Palace even when the Queen is not in residence are like forlorn worshippers at one of those shrines, whether Christian, Hindu or Buddhist, which depend upon some obviously bogus miraculous happening.....” One could rewrite Muggeridge’s comment for today by substituting “the X factor”, “the lottery” and “Cheryl Cole” and it would be equally true.Watching the crowds on the Mall or on the banks of the Thames and listening to their glorification of royalty suggests that Muggeridge's analogy with worshippers at a shrine is still very much alive and well in Britain. 
In the days of King James or Louis XIV the King very much held the power of life or death over his subjects. He was a man to be obeyed and feared. His wish was his servant's (or his subject’s) command. No-one would question his rights or wishes. He was “God on Earth” - to be "most dreaded". But no more. And once the vestiges of divinity and godliness were swept away what was left was what Muggeridge rightly called a “royal soap opera” based on a facile celebrity culture.  And remember this was 1955. What Muggeridge would have made of the death of Diana and the outpouring of grief that followed or the celebrity status of Prince Harry or Kate Middleton and the rest is  difficult to imagine.
Malcolm Muggeridge

Today, the adulation of the monarchy, as we have been reminded in the Jubilee celebration, is about the facile and the celebrity not the substance. If Cameron is correct that the Queen brings a sense of national unity and stability in an ever changing world then it should not be sullied with what we have increasingly got – "a royal soap opera" of crass comment and jingoistic sycophancy . It is unlikely we will change our monarchical political structure anytime soon and in that context the sycophantic utterances from the media and indeed from the population need reining in. The Queen, like any other citizen of this, or any other country, requires and should be given respect, not curtsies or subservience. She should not (nor should her family) be attributed qualities that set her or them apart from the rest of us mortals so that we must follow David Cameron’s advice and “revere and look up to her”. She is not a god or goddess – she is simply a woman, who by an accident of birth, happens to have found herself in a job as a physical representation of the nation. And other royals like Kate Middleton just happen to be people who have a vague connection with this woman. Neither she nor they are special or god like in any sense of the words and none are worthy of the sort of adulation we have seen in the past few days.

The sad thing is that as in all things the Queen and the royals, like all of us, have to exist in their time – the early years of the twenty first century. A time when the facile and the celebrity are indeed king (or queen!). A time when millions will watch – and think it worthy of approval and has some intrinsic goodness and worth – programmes on TV like “The X Factor” or “The Apprentice”. They will read newspapers like the "Sun", the "Daily Mail" or latterly the “News of the World” and believe what they read is “truth” and "in the public interest". They will buy magazines such as "Hello" and hope that a little of Kate Middleton's stardust sprinkles on them if they by a similar dress to hers from "Primark". They will discuss the latest events in “Coronation Street” or “Eastenders” as if these are real people in real situations and worthy of comment and opinion. They will read magazines in which the wife of Wayne Rooney gives fashion advice and believe that Mrs Rooney - a childhood sweet heart who happened to marry a professional footballer  -has some insight that the ordinary woman does not have. They will cling onto the words of celebrity gods and goddesses like Nigella Lawson or the truly awful Gok Wan or Mylene Klass and think that these are super beings with knowledge and understanding that they rest of us cannot and will never have. In this context royalty is just one more soap opera, one more false god for people to mindlessly subscribe to – no more or less important than the latest pop sensation, football star or cult fashion. Despite my personal antipathy towards the royals I would agree that they are put in this celebrity soap opera by the media and the mindless public who are simply looking for something to look up to and follow; something to believe in – something to “revere”

Perhaps, however, it is worth remembering the words of Oliver Cromwell to his general, Thomas Fairfax, in relation to the worship and adulation of crowds. When entering a city to tumultuous cheering crowds Cromwell warned his general that "the same people would turn out to see us hanged". Or, more recently, the Russian imperial family, although waning in popularity by 1914 as war clouds gathered over Europe, were still met with  "the usual tumult of applause and adulation" according to Alexandrovna Vyrubova who was the best friend and confidant of the Tsarina. She wrote in her diaries of the time: "It was the same through all......governments, crowds, cheers, acclamations, prayers, and great choruses singing the national hymn, every evidence of love and loyalty...... all the bells of Moscow pealed welcome to the Sovereigns. Every day it was the same, demonstrations of love and fealty it seemed that no time or circumstance could ever alter.........In the religious exaltation of the hour this appeared a symbol that the blessing of God, after three centuries continued to rest on the House of Romanov". That all looks pretty familiar to me having experienced the last few days of the Jubilee! But of course it all ended badly Within four years the Tsar and his family had been executed, courtiers like Vyrubova had been forced to flee Russia and at the time few in Russia seemed terribly bothered - such is the fatuity of adulation, worship and sycophancy. 

The Romanov imperial family
To return to Baden-Powell's comment of 1908 - made at about the time when the Romanovs were still enjoying their respect, reverence and adulation - like so many "queen bees". But the respect for the queen bee, or in this case the Tsar, wore a bit thin and the millions of unemployed ordinary bees, or ordinary Russians - the  starving members of Russia's vast expanses - decided not to play the game any more. They discovered that royal reverence and respect didn't put food in the belly or  clothes on the back - it was merely an optional extra, a  luxury, an extravagance - a hollow and facile false god. Something nice to do on a bank holiday! Put another way the reverence and adulation of royalty  is, quite simply the opium of the masses -and as with  religions worship, adulation and adoration simply placates, provide solace and a warm cosy feeling that someone greater will look after you in bad times. Unfortunately, too often, as with other opium like drugs, when the drug wears off or is no longer available or is found wanting then the addict wants something else to give him his kicks or to pacify him.

03 June, 2012

"Come on, cheer, cheer!" (Part 1)

Well, Pat and I have just returned from our usual Sunday afternoon walk around the village. We crossed the village green and the recreation ground. We walked through the village centre and down several of the streets. We saw a few closed shops decorated with red, white and blue flags and selling various jubilee items. There were perhaps half a dozen houses with flags or other memorabilia displayed. We saw a few others out for a walk. But street parties – not a one. No cheering crowds. No forelock touching serfs and peasants on the village green celebrating and paying homage to the octogenarian we are all supposed to admire and adore in London. No bells peeling. In fact little to distinguish today from any other Sunday afternoon.

When we returned we sat and enjoyed a cup of tea and for a few minutes watched the river jubilee pageant on the Thames. We were told frequently that that this was a glorious once in a life time display. We saw the Duke of Edinburgh – looking rather like an upper class Captain Pugwash - all dressed up in his uniform and sporting so many medals that he must have been weighed down. Quite how he found the time to be there when he clearly spends so much time fighting all these battles in order to win all these awards is beyond me! We also learned lots of useful information such as “this boat (a house boat) is twice as wide as a normal river boat”. We heard Lord Sterling, who had inspired and largely funded the “Gloriana” – the lead vessel in the pageant – tell us "that it would all be worthwhile if it encouraged young people to take up rowing" (!). Where do they find these people? How do such vapid people as him manage to breath in the correct places in order to get to the end of each day? There must, indeed, be something very, very wrong with modern Britain, the Britain of Elizabeth Regina, if people quite so vacuous as Sterling can become millionaires and wield power.  And then we had a wonderful Monty Pythonesque piece from top news reporter John Sergeant. Sergeant, an excellent reporter, told us “the noise of the crowd cheering is deafening” as he stood on the bridge watching the flotilla pass. Unfortunately it was pretty silent. Desperately he shouted to his audience “Come on cheer, cheer!” Little response. “Come on cheer, cheer!”. Eventually a few reluctant half hearted cheers crept into the microphone from the few people standing nearest to him filled our living rooms! Sergeant looked glad that was all over as the camera skipped off somewhere else.

Of course for many, I suppose, it is a great event – but, I suspect, for most it is all a bit irrelevant. My experience walking around my village this afternoon seems to have been replicated across the country. I’ve just read a comment on the web: “I've just been out in Norwich and the whole city is joining in the Jubilee celebrations by not having street parties, or not waving flags, or simply not seeming to give a toss about anything - other than shopping in Asda”. Someone else commented: “There is nothing going on in Wales. No street parties. No flags. No money”

It’s not all bad news for the monarchists however! The Guardian has reported (and I kid you not): “Ceri Jones, 31, from Neath, got in the party atmosphere by offering sausages rolls to more than a dozen friends at the Big Lunch”. Well, that’s all right then – Elizabeth Regina can sleep easy in her bed, she has thirteen loyal subject, all well fed in Neath! And the Queen can gain some satisfaction that the nation is awash with street parties: In Scotland the official estimate is that "there will be one hundred parties over the weekend, with about a third of these in Edinburgh". Wouldn’t want to be a party pooper or spoil the Queen’s day, but it seems to me there’s a hell of a lot of Scotland that isn’t planning anything then. And Gloucestershire – home of HRH Prince of Wales and other minor royals – "is boasting 300 street parties". Sounds a lot – but not when you spread them out through the county and urban areas of places like Bath.

No, the whole thing is a sham – quite underwhelming. Call me a curmudgeon but I am in full agreement with the recent comment I read “Hurrah for Mrs Queen! I'm overcome with emotion. People of Britain rejoice we are all going down the river together!”

On Wednesday, Pat and I popped to Loughborough to do some shopping. We parked the car and walked into the town centre. We passed a small side street – Shakespeare Street – which has a sign on the wall at the start of the street. The sign dates from the coronation and tells us that in 1953 the street won the prize for the best decorated street in Loughborough. When we passed on Wednesday just two lonely flags fluttered from the windows of one house. I wonder if Shakespeare Street will win the prize again – it could do since I didn’t see any other decorated streets around Loughborough!

Times, I suspect, have moved on since 1953 and the coronation. People are no longer quite so impressed and overcome by the monarchy. I can just remember the pomp and majesty of the coronation. I can remember as a seven year old being ushered into the school hall mid way through one February morning in 1952 and being told by a grim faced Headmistress that the King (George VI) had died. School would be closed as a mark of respect for the remainder of the day and we should all go home. I can remember running home and banging on the front door and then telling my mother that the king was dead. It seemed as if it was the end of the earth.

Of course, today we wouldn’t react like that – we wouldn’t immediately close a school send little children home – perhaps to wander the streets if there was no-one in at home. And in any case, although the death of the monarch would be the headline news it would not, I believe, have the same impact that it did then. The world has changed.

So far as the Jubilee is concerned it is simply a celebration, but I suspect that for most, it will have little to do with royalty or the monarchy.  If it has any value or significance, it is that people get an extra day’s holiday where they can have a few beers, do a bit of DIY, engage in a little retail, therapy, go out with the family, stay in bed, watch TV. Despite what the media would have us believe the whole thing is a rather hyped up sham which promotes the alleged worth of some rather unworthy people. Of course a few people will have their parties and will want to wave the flag or sing the national anthem. For the most part, in a Britain that is increasingly moving away from a religious faith and belief, these are people who need their 'fix' of something or somebody to look up to or believe in now that a God is less the focus of society. Our Prime Minister has urged us to have a get together, a big lunch, meet people. Well, that might be a good thing to do, but what has it got to do with celebrating the Queen’s jubilee? In years gone by the serfs and peasants may well have gathered together to celebrate the birthday of the local Lord or perhaps even the King - after all, in those days perhaps their very safety and livelihood depended upon him - but I would suggest that today most people would need other reasons for having a party!