23 October, 2012

Pride, Pleasure, Happy Memories and Refreshing the Soul.

As always it seems that there is much I could moan or rant about – the newspapers are full of negatives – an incompetent Tory government stumbling from crisis to crisis (so says Norman Tebbitt – the Don Corleonesque “godfather” of the Tory party!), the continuing economic situation throughout the world, football once again in the headlines for all the wrong reason as racism and violence yet again raises its ugly head, hit and ruin drivers on our streets and the Jimmy Savile sex abuse case continuing to develop a life of its own. But I shall ignore all these negatives and, in the words of the 1940s hit song “accentuate the positive” -  well almost!

On Saturday we woke to a crisp autumn day – brilliant blue skies and a heavy dew. Pat and I decided to have a trip out to Chatsworth House – the vast mansion/palace in mid-Derbyshire which has been home to the Dukes of Devonshire for many generations. Chatsworth is about an hour’s drive from where we live and we arrived just before lunch.
The approach to Chatsworth House

I’m not really one for walking around stately mansions but as we drove down the main drive to the car park one could not but be impressed by the grandeur – as well as the vastness - of the place. It was almost breathtakingly beautiful with the Derbyshire hills behind it, the sheep grazing in front, the trees covered in Autumn browns and golds and the back drop of the brilliant blue sky. When we got to the car park it was already quite full and behind us a steady stream of visitors rolled in. Coaches were pulled up on the coach park disgorging their hundreds of visitors – I commented to Pat that there seemed so many young  Japanese tourists that Tokyo must be empty!
There was a reason for our visit as well as a simple day out. The House was hosting an exhibition of statues in the grounds and Pat, who loves sculpture, was keen to see it. So, we paid our £8.00 each (senior citizen’s rate!) to enter the gardens and wandered for an hour or so – Pat clicking her camera as we passed each of the said sculptures. The art work was not really my taste – a bit modern for me – rather skinny looking hares on the top of pyramids and the like! - but impressive for all that. And in the setting of the gardens and grounds a real treat.
A skinny hare! Not my choice
but maybe it refreshes the soul.

As with other great houses of England the history of Chatsworth is the history of the nation. It has close associations with the great events and the great and the good of national life. Amongst many, many others to have been involved in its history are Queen Victoria and Albert, President Kennedy (his sister married the son of the 10th Duke of Devonshire), the famous Mitford sisters (the present Duke is the son of Deborah Mitford), Charles Dickens, Mary Queen of Scots (she was briefly imprisoned there!).............and so it goes on. There is one story that appeals to me. In 1843, apparently, the Tsar of Russia, Nicholas 1st informed the then Duke that he, the Tsar, would be coming to visit Chatsworth. In anticipation of this Imperial visit, the Duke decided to construct the world's highest fountain – as you do! - and set architects and builders to work on it. An eight-acre lake was dug on the moors 350 feet above the house to supply the natural water pressure. The work was finished in just six months, continuing at night by the light of flares, and the resulting water jet reached a magnificent height of 296 feet. Unfortunately for the Duke, the Tsar died  and never saw the fountain! All was not lost, however, the water power found a practical use generating Chatsworth's electricity from 1893 to 1936 when the house was then connected to the mains electricity! And another bit of the House’s history related to the second world war when it was used, as many of these great houses were, to house soldiers and the like. In Chatsworth’s case it became occupied by Penrhos College, a girls' public school in Colwyn Bay, Wales. The contents of the house were packed away in eleven days and, in September 1939 and 300 girls plus teachers moved in for a six-year stay. The whole of the house was used, including the state rooms, which were turned into dormitories. Unfortunately,  condensation from the breath of the sleeping girls caused fungus to grow behind some of the pictures. The house was not very comfortable for so many people, with a shortage of hot water, but there were compensations for the girls, such as skating on the Canal Pond. The girls grew vegetables in the garden as a contribution to the war effort.
A lovely Autumn day - better use of land than a motorway
or vast metropolis.

Those familiar with one of my favourite books,  “Brideshead Revisited”  by Evelyn Waugh will know that the story starts with the central character, Charles Ryder, suddenly finding himself at palatial Brideshead during the second world war. His regiment are billeted there – a place he had known and loved in pre war years. Just as Chatsworth housed a girl’s school so the fictional Brideshead housed soldiers and visiting Chatsworth the other day, driving down the long sweeping entrance drive and looking down on the House reminded me of an extract from the book.  In the story, the elderly Lord Marchmain recalls, as he lies on his death bed, the history of his ancestors and the palatial Brideshead.

“We  live  long  in  our  family  and  marry  late. Seventy-three  is  no  age. Aunt  Julia,  my  father's  aunt,  lived  to  be eighty-eight, born and died here, never married, saw the fire on beacon hill for the battle of  Trafalgar, always called it 'the New House'; that was the name they had for it in the nursery  and in  the fields when unlettered  men had long  memories.  You can see  where the old house stood near the village church;  they  call  the field  'Castle Hill,'  Horlick's  field  where  the ground's  uneven and half  of it is waste,  nettle and brier  in hollows too deep for ploughing. They  dug to the foundations  to carry the stone for the new house; the house that was  a century old when Aunt Julia was born. Those were our roots in the waste hollows of Castle Hill, in the brier and nettle; among the tombs in the old church and the chantrey where no clerk sings.
"Aunt Julia  knew the tombs,  cross-legged knight  and doubleted  earl, marquis  like a Roman  senator,  limestone, alabaster, and  Italian  marble; tapped the escutcheons with her ebony cane,  made the casque ring  over  old Sir Roger.  We were knights then, barons since Agincourt; the larger honours came with  the  Georges. They came the last  and  they'll go the first;  the barony descends in the female line;  when Brideshead  is buried - he  married late -Julia's  son will be called by the name his fathers bore before  the fat days; the days of wool shearing  and the  wide  corn  lands, the days of growth  and  building,  when  the  marshes were drained  and the  waste land brought under the plough,  when one built the house, his son added the dome, his son spread the wings and dammed the river. Aunt Julia watched them build the fountain; it was old before it came here, weathered two hundred years by the  suns of Naples,  brought by man-o'-war in the days of  Nelson. Soon the fountain will be dry  till the  rain fills  it,  setting  the fallen  leaves afloat in the basin  and over the  lakes  the reeds  will spread  and close........”

I would guess that the same sort of sentiments and history might be made by many of the great aristocratic families of the land – and probably by the current Duke of Devonshire.
What could be pleasanter?

Chatsworth has been home to the Duke’s family, the Cavendish family, since Bess of Hardwick settled there in 1549. The name 'Chatsworth' is a corruption of 'Chetel's-worth' meaning 'the Court of Chetel'. In the reign of Edward the Confessor a man of Norse origin named 'Chetel' held lands jointly with a Saxon named 'Leotnoth' in three townships; Ednesoure to the west, and Langoleie and Chetesuorde to the east. Chetel was deposed after the Norman Conquest and in the Domesday Book the Manor of Chetesuorde is listed as the property of the Crown in the custody of William de Peverel. Chatsworth ceased to be a large estate, until the 15th century when it was acquired by the Leche family who owned property nearby. They enclosed the first park at Chatsworth and built a house on the high ground in what is now the south-eastern part of the garden. In 1549 they sold all their property in the area to Sir William Cavendish, Treasurer of the King's Chamber and the husband of Bess of Hardwick, who had persuaded him to sell his property in Suffolk and settle in her native county. The rest, as they say is history – the Cavendish family have been masters of Chatsworth ever since.

Clearly when those Cavendishes of generations ago set about building the place it would never have crossed their minds that within a few hundred years ordinary people would be paying their few pounds to come and gaze upon what they had created. The exclusivity that they had built was now almost the property of everyman – as long as he or she has a few pounds to get in! But as we walked around in the Autumn sunshine the hundreds of smiling faces – including ours – bore witness to everyone’s approval of what had been created a few hundred years ago. Part of that, I feel is due to the obvious time, money, effort and thought that has gone into making Chatsworth what it is today. As well as an impressive “pile of stones” and vast estate it is beautifully kept and maintained. Whether it be the house, the grounds, the tended gardens, the toilets, the ice cream stall, the shop, the several cafes  wherever one went it was beautiful. As well as a pleasant day out it is something that ordinary people can in their way be proud of – it is a kind of statement about the country in which they live – and if the faces of the Japanese visitors was anything to go by something which overseas visitors are impressed by. I remember some years ago visiting St Petersburg and walking around the Winter Palace and other great Russian buildings. The guide books told us that as Russia slowly came out of the Communist era these buildings had been restored at great expense as a focus for ordinary Russians – it was thought it gave them a link with their nation’s past and a pride in its present. I don’t know whether that is true, but I suspect everyone walking round Chatsworth on Saturday could somehow feel a link with our national heritage, not matter how much one might, occasionally, want to rant about its inequalities and inherent down sides!
The man who makes women
around the worldgo weak at the knees!

We shared a bench in the sun with two Japanese girls and enjoyed the sandwiches which we had bought at the cafe. They, like everything else, were  first class. Later we visited the farm shop and Pat bought one or two bits and pieces – while I drove round and struggled to find  a parking spot so busy was it! And we visited one of the gift shops for a bit of “retail therapy” (no trip should be without this element Pat tells me!) after all it was certain that we would find something for the grandchildren – and so it proved!

It was while in the gift shop that I sadly shook my head! The merchandise was all very nice – of obvious reasonable quality and not too expensive. I knew that we would not be leaving empty handed! But as I walked around I was struck by a couple of things. In one corner I found a display of what I will loosely Call “Pride and Prejudice” merchandise – a Mr Darcy mug proudly displaying the face that has made millions of women (including my wife!) go weak at the knees since the serial was screened on TV a number of years ago. Colin Firth's Mr Darcy image gazed out on us from fridge magnets, Mr Darcy notebooks, pencils, booklets and, of course, copies and DVDs of "Pride and Prejudice". At the side of us a group of Japanese girls squealed “Mr Darcy, Mr Darcy, Oh, Mr Darcy” – obviously he makes Japanese female knees go weak too! Fortunately I managed to prise my wife away from the display without her succumbing to Mr Darcy’s obvious charms (obvious to her that is!). Clearly it was felt by the merchandising department that Mr Darcy would sit well in a place like Chatsworth – a real retail opportunity. A clumsy connection was being made between Chatsworth and the fictional home of Mr Darcy, Pemberley, which was also situated in Derbyshire and which many Pride and Prejudice “aficionados” believe to be based on Chatsworth. Buying a mug or a fridge magnet was also buying you a tenuous link with Mr Darcy! Are we really so gullible as a population that we are impressed and influenced by this sort of blatant manipulation.  Clearly we are!
In the shop!

And as I wandered on I came across two or three other displays that I found even more “worrying”. Large displays, these, each with a large photograph of the Duke of Devonshire or the Duchess of Devonshire or their children. And the legend on the photograph proudly asserted that the items on the display were the “Duke’s Choice” or the “Duchess’s Choice” or “Lady Burlington’s Choice” – the connection being made that the items here had been specially chosen by these venerable, aristocratic people and, thus, were clearly of extra worth and attention. That buying these would somehow be a statement of your  good taste and eye for quality – because you, like the Duke or Duchess, have an eye for such things. In a tiny way it would be linking you with the great house and its owners. Are people really taken in by this? Does the Duke really walk around with one of the scarves he was advertising as “his choice”, does Lady Burlington actually use the make-up or the rather “naff” biscuit box that she was promoting as “her choice”. It was classic retail manipulation using class and celebrity as the springboard. I don’t blame the Duke and Duchess for using it – they know that a gullible public will buy into their ploy. It is exactly the same principle that Prince Charles uses when he sells his organic food - which he brands as “Duchy” – and of course only sells it to the "right kind" of people who shop in the best stores – like Waitrose. It reminds me of the letter in the paper recently commenting that someone had been in the queue at a cheap discount shop and heard the lady in front of her to say into her mobile phone ”Oh, I’m just standing at the checkout in Waitrose!”  It’s like the elderly lady who always took a couple of  Harrods bags with her when she went shopping. She would take her shopping out of the everyday plastic bags and decant it all into her Harrod’s bags – it looks so much better! And we are all guilty. Just before my daughter got married she and my wife went shopping for outfits. On the way back they proudly displayed the bags from the top designer shops on the back ledge of the car – no ASDA or Primark bags, they were tucked into the boot - just the Jacques Verte and Gucci on display! Look at us.......we shop at Gucci.....look at me, I’m wearing the Duke of Devonshires specially chosen leather gloves! Oh dear!

The image was on sale – Mr Darcy, the rich aristocratic hero of Pride and Prejudice or the Duke and Duchess’ personal seal of approval on items – were being used to attach extra “value” and desirability to very ordinary bits of kit. Sadly, as I looked around, many, it seemed were taken in; Mr Darcy mugs will be decorating many Japanese and English kitchen table tops, young women up and down the land and in Tokyo will feel like princesses or at least “ladies” as they put on their Lady Burlington make up and elderly gents like me will feel that warm glow and knowing connection with the toffs as we pull on our “Duke’s Choice” leather gloves and scarf this winter – just like the Duke of Devonshire will do each morning as he looks out over his estate. As I left the shop I had a little cynical chuckle to myself. Yes, I suppose it confirms my grumpy old man status. I just find it very sad that seemingly intelligent people are so easily taken in by clever marketing – and of course the innate desire of many to link themselves, no matter how tenuously, with celebrities. Having said that I don’t blame the Duke or Prince Charles – if people are so easily taken in then one can’t blame the retailed for selling them what they want!

My grumpy old man moment however, is a small price to pay for a lovely day out in a real gem of a place. If a bit of clever retailing rooted in the gullibility of people  is all the Duke of Devonshire can be accused of then he is a fortunate man. He owns a wonderful estate and has clearly made a huge contribution to the Derbyshire landscape, the local economy, the local and national heritage and the pleasure of many thousands who visit his home each week. Good luck to him!

As we walked around another small part of me rebelled again – that one family had so much and, some might argue, the result largely of inherited wealth went against my basic instincts. But this was a passing thought that was soon replaced by the feeling that this wonderful place has been looked after and preserved for generations by the Cavendish family and now made accessible, for the common good. If the land had been sold off and was now covered with housing estates and motorways and factories would we, in reality, be better off. I think not. Left wing republican, anti establishment  socialist I may be but I couldn't help thinking that maybe some things have a greater good.

As I pondered this I was reminded of another bit of “Brideshead Revisited” – in the Epilogue – when Charles Ryder, who knows the great house well, is talking to Hooper one of the soldiers under his command. “...... the young officers [said Hooper] used to lark about in it  [the ornate baroque fountain] ....... and it was  looking a bit the worse for wear......all  the drivers  throw  their cigarette-ends and the remains of the sandwiches  there,  and you can't get  to it to clean it up.......... Florid great thing, isn't it? ......... It doesn't  seem to make any sense--one family  in a place  this size. What's the use of it?"
"Well, I suppose Brigade are finding it useful."
"But that's not what it was built for, is it?"
"No,"  I  said, "not what it  was built for. Perhaps that's  one of the pleasures of  building it,  like having a  son, wondering  how he'll grow up. I don't know;  I never  built anything, and I forfeited the  right to watch my son  grow  up. I'm homeless,  childless, middle-aged, loveless, Hooper." 
Skinny hare with a cello seem a bit bizarre - what is it for?
But it made me smile - I wouldn't mind it in my garden!

Just, maybe, places like Chatsworth, ornate fountains or indeed the sculptures we went to see have “no point” or there’s “no use in it” - except for the fact that they are there and because they are there can be enjoyed. In Hooper’s world great houses, ornate fountains or skinny hares sitting on the top of pyramids would have no place – but then, the world might just be a poorer place. And, as Ryder comments about Brideshead, Chatsworth, too, has, like a family and children, grown and matured with passing generations. And today is enjoyed each year by many hundreds of thousands of ordinary visitors who come to enjoy the heritage, the countryside, the gardens  the splendour, the history and, as we did, the Autumn sunshine. Not what it was intended for when built half a millennia ago – but still, despite the Mr Darcy mugs and its not so subtle reinforcing of an outdated class system,  fulfilling a justifiable and important function boosting the local economy but perhaps more importantly giving to many pride, pleasure, happy memories and a refreshing of the soul.

19 October, 2012

“.......In This Work Are Contained The Most Hidden Beauties Possible In The Art Of Music......”.

When the phone rang earlier this week I almost didn’t answer – our lives are plagued by cold callers and call centres trying to sell us double glazing, cavity wall insulation and the rest. The number that came up on the screen certainly looked like a call centre but without thinking I answered – and I was so pleased that I did. “Hello” said the lady on the other end, “this is Lakeside Arts Centre here, we have two return tickets for Thursday night’s concert – are you still interested”. At first I was thrown – Lakeside, concert, Thursday night? And then it all fell into place.
The Djanogly Recital Hall at
Nottingham University
You see many weeks ago I discovered that the pianist Angela Hewitt was coming to Nottingham and playing two recitals at Nottingham University – one in October and the other in April 2013. The programme – Bach’s “Art of the Fugue”. I applied for tickets on the first day they were available but the October concert had already been snapped up. I did get tickets for the April date and the lady in the booking office said she would put my name down on the list for any October returns but neither she nor I had much hope. And, then, on Monday afternoon she rang back. The rest is history!

So last evening Pat and I made the short trip to the University and in the Recital Hall we listened not only to the wonderful music of Bach but also heard it played by Hewitt who is unarguably today the foremost interpreter of Bach’s keyboard music. In the intimate atmosphere of the Djanogly Recital Hall, together with about 350 other Bach enthusiasts,  we sat entranced and mesmerised. As I looked round the audience I noticed many sitting with their eyes closed – not sleeping but simply savouring the sound of Bach and Hewitt. I found myself, like many others, craning forward  - on the edge of my seat – hanging onto every note. Quite magical. Boy was I glad that I answered that phone call on Monday afternoon!
The magical Angela Hewitt - Glenn
Gould's heir!

Angela Hewitt is currently on a world tour of major concert venues where she will perform Bach’s hugely complicated (and, as result, not often performed) Art of the Fugue. Our evening in Nottingham University  was one of those  concerts. In the last few years Hewitt has made Bach her own. She has recorded virtually all Bach’s keyboard works – bringing her such praise as “one of the recording glories of the modern age” and “the pianist who will define Bach performance on the piano for years to come”. I don’t think anyone who sat in the Recital Hall last night would disagree with those comments.

My lasting memory, however, of the evening is one I would never have expected when I took my seat. I had expected to be entranced and humbled to hear the great music of Bach – just as I am each time I visit the Thomaskirche in Leipzig and hear the great choral music sung in the place where Bach wrote it almost three hundred years ago. I had expected to feel a thrill to be hearing one of the world’s great pianists play only a mile or two from my home. Yes, I had expected all that and I wasn’t in any way disappointed. But what I will remember when I think back to that concert is the look of both joy and exhaustion when Hewitt stood up to take her applause after the final note of the Fugues. The thunderous applause was expected – she will be  used to that – but as I looked at her (and in the in the intimate environment of the Recital Hall we were very close) she smiled and bowed but looked absolutely drained and exhausted so much had she put into her performance. How does one “wind down” from something like that I pondered? How can you do that night after night? How paltry my £20 seemed for such an inspiring two hours. Worth every penny and more!
Hewitt in full flow!
On the same day as the concert  I saw on the news that football clubs are being criticised  for huge price rises in the costs of their seats I thought what a strange world we live in – I pay just £20 to see and hear the most glorious music known to mankind and  played by the greatest exponent of that music in the world - a one off opportunity and event.  And yet it would cost me far more than £20 to go and see my local football team filled with some very mediocre players and I can do that week after week. I could watch them huff and puff, run around, kick a bag of air round a bit of grass, abuse each other and in the case of the England v Serbia game earlier this week have a violent scrap at the end! What a strange set of values operates in the modern world! It seemed to turn the whole basic principles of economics on its head! In economics, I seem to remember from when I studied it, that economic “worth” is determined by the  scarcity of a resource and the desire of people for that scarce resource. Now, clearly, many people desire Premiership football matches but football is not a scarce resource – society and the media is awash with the stuff - so why is it expensive! And to add to that, another very basic economic law is that of “diminishing returns” which basically states the more that one gets of a thing the less one values it – surely that is true of football! So what strange economic and psycholgical laws kick in here – where something of dubious quality and certainly no scarcity is increasingly desired by people who are already sated on it – and those same people will pay ever increasing amounts to get more of something they already have a lot of! I’m confused!

Pages from Bach's 1st edition of the Art of the Fugue
But back to Hewitt and Bach! As I sat enjoying the concert and listening to Angela Hewitt entertainingly describe and explain to us in the audience the underlying themes of the Fugues and to give us some insight into Bach’s brilliance and the musicology of the piece I was struck with another thought. Hewitt is, as I say, the greatest interpreter of Bach today. Although she lives in London she is in fact Canadian by birth – and that is the twist! To Bach enthusiasts the world over, when one thinks of Bach’s keyboard works one name above all others springs to mind – the great Glenn Gould. Many might disapprove of Gould’s interpretations of some Bach pieces but all would agree that he stands head and shoulders above the rest in terms of his playing skills and prodigious talent. And – Gould, too, was Canadian. In his home city, Toronto,  the same city where Hewitt studied Gould’s statue sits proudly on a pavement bench – and is visited by Gould “nuts”, Bach enthusiasts and serious music scholars from all over the world. What is it about Canada – a large country in area but not the biggest population on the planet – that it should produce these two huge Bach talents?
The idiosyncratic Glenn Gould in typical pose

Hewitt in most ways is the opposite of  Gould – she is bright, outgoing, an easy communicator – a star in every sense of the word. Gould on the other hand was  difficult, reclusive and often antagonistic. Stories about Gould are the stuff of legend – indeed he became something of a myth in his own short life time (he died aged 50 in 1982). For example, he was a child prodigy  passing his final Conservatory examination in piano at the age of 12  and in doing so achieving the highest marks ever of any candidate before or since. Whilst playing and recording he hummed to the intense annoyance of audience and recording engineers and, it has to be said, many who bought his discs! He was averse to cold, and wore heavy clothing (including gloves), even in warmest of places. He was once arrested and mistaken for a vagrant, while sitting on a park bench in Florida, dressed in his standard all-climate attire of coat(s), warm hat, and mittens. The temperature of the recording studio had to be exactly regulated. It was said that when Gould was recording the air conditioning and heating engineers had to work just as hard as the recording engineers.  A small rug would be required for his feet underneath the piano. His piano had to be set at a certain height and would be raised on wooden blocks if necessary. He had to sit exactly fourteen inches above the floor and would play concerts only while sitting on the old chair his father had made. He continued to use this chair even when the seat was completely worn through. His chair is so closely identified with him that it is shown in a place of honour in a glass case at the National Library of Canada! Since his death a steady stream of Bach enthusiasts from all over the world visit his grave.  And even in forty years since his death his memory is recalled in deep space! In the Voyager 1, the  deep space probe launched by NASA in 1977 – five years before Gould’s death - there is “the Golden Record” a specially constructed “record” of the greatest sounds of mankind and his culture. There are three Bach recordings included – one of them is Gould’s interpretation of the Prelude and Fugue in C major. So, the music of Bach and the prodigious talent of Glenn Gould is hurtling through space – and is now the furthest man-made object from earth!
Voyager 1 - containign Gould's 1955 version of Bach's
Goldberg Variation - the furthest man made
object from Earth!
And for myself.........my Bach keyboard recordings are virtually all (except for one or two by Angela Hewitt!) by Gould. Pride of place goes to Gould’s 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations– considered by many to be the definitive interpretation of the great work.  The Goldberg is considered by many – myself included – to be the greatest piece of music ever written. The opening bars of the Goldberg are carved onto Gould's gravestone and if I had only one piece of music to listen to that would be it. On a melancholy personal note I have already instructed my wife when the grim reaper appears then it is the aria from that work that will be played at my funeral! I have Gould’s later interpretation of the piece dated from 1981 but nothing compares to the 1955. By a strange twist of fate the 1955 version was the first recording the young Gould made and it turned the classical music  world and the music of Bach on its head so great was its impact. When Gould recorded the piece again in 1981 it was – although no-one knew it at the time - the last recording Gould would make! However, having had the pleasure of listening to Angela Hewitt a third version - that of Hewitt - will be shortly finding its way into my collection!
Gould recording - all wrapped against the elements

And  Angela Hewitt? – as I say, not at all like Gould – but without any doubt his musical heir. Last night’s programme was a delight – mostly Bach but with a Beethoven Sonata thrown in and a wonderful encore which the audience loved. The main piece of the evening was, of course, the Art of the Fugue – the first ten “movements” or “Contrapunctus” as Bach termed them. At the April concert we will hear the remaining parts of the work. In whatever she played her fingers flew across the keys and the sound of the Steinway grand piano positively filled the Hall – although Angela Hewitt is quite a tall lady she is slim and certainly no heavyweight – how did she make such a big sound! During the short interval I commented to my Pat “how does she remember all the notes?”. But in the second half when we heard the Art of the Fugue a small music stand was erected on the piano and it appeared that a kind of i-pad placed on it? It certainly wasn’t sheet music – maybe it was the musical equivalent of the politician’s autocue!
The wonderful statue of Gould in his native Toronto.
Maybe the city fathers will one day place Angela Hewitt
at his side!

But what a performance of this hugely difficult piece!  As I sit writing this blog on my office notice board behind me is pinned my ticket for the next Hewitt concert in April 2013 – when we will hear the remaining parts of Bach’s great work. Now, there is something to get me through the winter! In the programme notes, the eighteenth century musicologist Friederich Wilhelm Marpurg was quoted. He said of Bach’s work : “The name of the composer is sufficient recommendation for a work of this nature.........in this work are contained the most hidden beauties possible in the art of music. To be an excellent musician and not appreciate the virtues of Bach is a contradiction. In the minds of all who had the good fortune to hear him, there still hovers the memory of his astonishing facility.........and his performance, equally excellent in all keys, in the most difficult passages and figures, was always envied by the greatest masters of the keyboard”. I don’t think that anyone who sat in the Nottingham University Recital Hall with Pat and I last night would disagree with that and I would add that Marpurg’s comments about Bach's "astonishing facility" with "the most difficult passages and figures" would in any way deny that the comments could equally be  applied to Angela Hewitt’s performance, her keyboard skills and indeed her "feel" for the music of Bach – breathtaking, inspiring and quite unforgettable. Roll on April 25th!  

15 October, 2012

Homework, Philosophy and Prefabs for Schools - Michael Gove's Valuation of Education and the Young

Last Friday Simon Jenkins wrote an article in the Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/oct/11/michael-gove-more-soviet-than-socialist) bemoaning, amongst other things, the increasing centralisation of our education system. Jenkins forcefully argued that the result of this is to “hold back” educational progress, discourage a responsive and meaningful curriculum and encourage a system of education based upon the “it never did me any harm” philosophy. Jenkins suggested that in the late nineteenth century whilst English children were still following a classics based curriculum “the French and Germans were teaching science and technology, history and geography and beating us commercially”. In his article Jenkins referred to what he termed the “collapse of educational progressivism in the 1980s and its replacement by teaching to the test.....”.

As I read I found myself, much to my wife’s annoyance,  mumbling “absolutely right” or “spot on” over my cornflakes. I enjoy reading Jenkins, although have to confess on balance perhaps more often than not have reservations about his observations. On this occasion, however, he was completely right. In particular, it was his brief reference to educational thinkers and philosophers like John Dewey, Johann Pestalozzi and Rudolf Steiner that,  for me, pulled all Jenkins’ arguments together. Only  a week or two ago in my blog (http://www.arbeale.blogspot.co.uk/) “Musical Musings, Educational Jargon and Economies with the Truth” I had made a not dissimilar connection  – although not so eloquently as Jenkins! I said: “[the] EBacc appears not to include music at all! How can that - the omission of music - I wonder, be equated with a “rounded education" - the thought of it would have been bizarre to the ancient Greeks like Plato and Aristotle  or to the great educational philosophers of the past few hundred years - Rousseau, Dewy and the rest.  For a discussion of terms like "rounded education" is also a debate about the nature, philosophy and ethics of education, a debate clearly not, I conclude, on the educational agenda of any political party in contemporary Britain, and far beyond the interest or understanding of our current underwhelming and philosophically challenged Secretary of State for Education, Doc Gove, paddler of educational myths, quick fixes and fake remedies...."
Plato - will Gove's thoughts
 on education still be read
 in two thousand years -
I think not!
Having read Jenkins’ article, I forced my wife to read it and then passed it on to my daughter and on Saturday afternoon I sat pondering Jenkins’ comments as I sat helping my nine year old granddaughter, Sophie, with her maths and science homework. It filled most of Saturday afternoon and a good deal of Sunday morning and, knowing that she had significant amounts throughout the week as well, Jenkins’ comment that a  "good education is still identified with a juggernaut curriculum....”  had a certain resonance. I’m sure that to Sophie the prospect of the next few years, endless homework, gradgrind tests and the like must be daunting -  but as Jenkins’ reminded us the philosophy that says “it didn’t do us any harm” seems to justify it. But, like Jenkins, I wonder.

I cannot say whether it did good or harm but what I do know is that times have changed. When I was at primary (and secondary modern) school fifty or sixty years ago there were not the pressures and expectations of today. To a large degree the drab Victorian school – St Matthews C of E in Preston, Lancashire and Fishwick Secondary Modern - that I attended was the centre of my world. Sophie like many other children, however, has other calls commitments and distractions – she has violin lessons, swimming lessons, brownies and the like.  Her family, like many others, go out together at the weekend. Television, computer, an endless round of parties and other social engagements fill her life..........in short school is only one facet of modern life calling on her time, interests and learning opportunities.  It was not so for me  and I suspect many others in past generations.  If I wanted to play football or cricket I did it via the school team; any acting I did was via the school nativity; any songs I learned were in school, the school Christmas Party was a highlight of my year; it was through school that I accessed the world and knowledge. It was through school that I accessed people who had something to offer and who might be conduits for my improvement. Despite the school being drab with brown tiled walls and high windows preventing me looking out and day dreaming it was my world and was important -  for me, and others of my generation, there was little else.

Today, however, is different; school is only one amongst many distractions and opportunities; the internet and the media brings the world and all knowledge into Sophie’s lap top and front room at the press of a button, through her clubs and other opportunities she meets and talks to adults from a wide variety of backgrounds and professions;  she walks through “glitzy” shopping malls with all their distractions, she has tennis lessons and music lessons, she goes on trips with other groups and is already a well travelled young lady. School has to (whether it likes it or not) compete against this backdrop. It is not the only provider of learning access and success or failure. The world has changed.  Today, the world is filled, as Jenkins reminded us, with people who have “made it” despite school.  Indeed, I am a case in point - rejected as a failure at 11+ I managed to scrape a few of Mr Gove's beloved GCEs at 16 and by my mid thirties had a Masters Degree. By the time I retired I had been at the top of my profession and involved in training the next generation of teachers. So, when I went to school as a child schools were crucially important to the life and opportunities of the ordinary child - but even in those far off days not the only game in town! And today, more than  ever, schools have to know this and be adaptable and forward looking and not harking back to the past so favoured by Mr Gove and his political undead.   Schools have to be part of this world – not to do so increasingly marginalises them. I was unimaginably depressed a week or two ago when I read that Michael Gove was planning  that school building should henceforward be utilitarian and “cheap” rather than architecturally exciting and innovative.........Mmmmmmm! - I wonder if quills, slates and ink wells are factored into the costings? The announcement was accompanied by this comment to justify the programme: "A school building should be a safe and welcoming environment in which great teaching can take place, but it is teachers who will inspire children, not buildings." I would certainly not disagree with that general premise - but there is more to it than that over simplification.
My school before I retired - lovely
architecture - curves, slopes,
a beautiful and stimulating environment
in which to come learn

In a world inhabited by the young, many of whom come from homes filled with hi-tech gadgets,  designer furniture and fittings and see glamour and glitz in their shopping malls and on TV, Mr Gove’s plan to inspire them and to encourage them to see value in education is to house them in cheap utilitarian buildings made from bolted together pieces, with reduced communal areas and costing many millions per school less than the current building budget.  “Look my children” says Mr Gove, “ forget the wonderful shopping mall and the bright shiny houses you see on TV. Forget that your Premiership football team has a swanky new stadium. Don’t be silly teenagers influenced by the latest bit of technological kit.  We know what's best for you! You'll love being taught in educational prefabs. In  our country we value education so much that we are going to put you in utilitarian cheap buildings – you’ll really appreciate them – it's a sort of architectural statement of  exactly what we think of you. Posh trendy building like the Shard aren't for the likes of you - no, they are for those we really value – bankers and the like. It’s the sort of educational and architectural  equivalent of the old hymn “All things bright and beautiful” - you know the bit were it says  ‘the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate’ .  Make sure that you learn that bit for this week’s homework – you’ll be tested on it Friday morning. I've instructed all teachers that Friday morning's lesson is  about touching forelocks and curtsies”.  

Which parallel universe does Michael Gove inhabit I wonder?

For me these latest announcements say much about what we, as a society, value. When a society has taken the view that the education of its young is not something to value above all else and it allows politicians of any hue to dictate their whims, fancies and prejudices then there is something seriously wrong with that society.
Inside my school - Lantern Lane
East Leake. When I showed prospective
parents and children round they often
gasped with excitement at the
environment. It spoke of
the value placed on what we were

Don’t think that I begrudged the time spent helping Sophie with her homework – it was great and took me back to my time teaching.  To find myself repeating all the old phrases and tricks that I had used in the classroom over forty years to explain something or to pick up on something she had said or done; to see her making the same mistakes I had seen thousands make on their way to understanding; to see what a proficient young lady she is......yes it all gave me a thrill. But at the same time, I pondered, has anyone at her school, has Mr Gove and his myriad of inspectors and advisers ever given any serious thought to what they are proposing for children in Britain of the early twenty first century. As we ploughed through the maths and science  - the maths on a photocopied sheet with spaces for the answers........but the spaces were not allowed to be filled in. Instead Sophie had to transcribe all that was on the sheet and write in her answers at the side in her exercise book. The science homework that she had to complete six or seven pages writing in the blank spaces "water vapour" or "droplets" or "condensation" or "evaporation". We were positively on the edge of our seats with excitement so gripping was this! As Sophie practised her scribing skills rather than develop any love or feel for science, I was reminded of the quote by Rousseau:  "We should not teach children the sciences but give them a taste for them."  and wondered what he would have thought. A little later as I emptied the dish washer Sophie watched my glasses steam up with condensation - and there was real science about evaporation and condensation - not scribing - she squealed with excitement and wanted to try herself! And I thought of Plato - a couple of thousand years ago saying: "You must train the children to their studies in a playful manner and without any air of constraint with the further object of discerning more readily the natural bent of their respective characters.". But Plato is dead - long live Wackford Squeers and Gove's Gradgrind Academies!
Good old Wackford Squeers -
boy, would he have felt at home
 in 21st century Goveland

Jenkins’ comments had an awful ring to them. Here in the homework was a philosophy based upon “it was good enough for us so it’s good enough for them” And, I wondered on what premise was the homework set; was it to provide a link with home to involve the parents in the education of their child; was it to provide an opportunity for the child to work entirely independently with no teacher there; was it given because there simply wasn’t enough hours in the school day and it was a way of overcoming the educational juggernaut. The really sad thing was that I simply  wasn’t convinced that anyone in Sophie's school had given this any  serious thought – it was so arbitrary and mindless. It seemed to be given because that was what schools do – more of the same from schools of  generations ago.

But another thought crossed my mind as I sat at her side and thought of Jenkins’ article – educational philosophy. It may sound very dry and terribly old hat but is at the very essence, I believe, of Jenkins’ article and my angst.

When I trained as a teacher in the mid sixties educational history and philosophy were significant elements of the education course that we all studied. The great names of education – Dewey, Rousseau, Montessori, Plato and the like were studied as was a historical perspective as to how the education system of our country had been developed. It gave, I believe, a canvas against which to see and justify or criticise  what we were doing in the classroom. Referring back to Jenkins’ article we could understand how the schools of the middle ages or of the 1870 Education Act or of the 1944 Act reflected the needs and thoughts of the time. We could read Rousseau or Dewey or Plato and perhaps begin to understand how children were viewed and compare and contrast that with our current beliefs and practises. We could in a small way understand the great educational shifts and developments and maybe put them into some sort of perspective.

In the latter stages of my career I worked extensively in teacher education – either with newly qualified teachers or especially with graduates who decided to enter the profession. Newly qualified teachers had rarely, if ever, studied educational history or philosophy – it was no longer part of the teacher education curriculum – and the trainee teachers, the graduates too never experienced it, it simply wasn't part of the course.

All that these aspiring professionals were given were practical tools to teach – some curriculum knowledge, a few tricks and strategies to keep order in the classroom, a dose of information about the teacher and the law, a bit of learning theory but mostly a whole raft – many A4 files in length - of prescriptive curriculum content – what must be taught and how it must be taught. The writing was on the wall for established teachers too. From the mid eighties onwards as the National Curriculum began to entwine its strangling tentacles around schools, educational innovation and children the professional development courses for teachers changed. Before that one went on a course and came back with a few ideas, a load of inspiration and the knowledge that you were a better mathematician or musician or scientist. In short,  you were a better professional. But all that changed.  From the introduction of Kenneth  Baker’s National Curriculum one came back only knowing how to teach page 85 of the maths curriculum or page 101 of the Literacy strategy  – what examples to give to the children, what resources to have available, how much time to spend on each skill or concept. And so the list went on. Teachers increasingly were termed “practitioners” – and indeed that is what they were becoming and have become – “practitioners” not professionals. They have increasingly become skilled workmen, tradesmen rather than professionals with “vision” and understanding about what they are doing and more importantly why they are doing it.

In writing this I am reminded of a young teacher who worked in the next classroom to me at the time that the National Curriculum was being introduced. She was a talented young lady. At the time  teachers across the nation were being asked to undertake time audits and schools to apportion dollops of time when this or that concept or skill could and should be taught No acknowledgement here of the less able child or the not very effective teacher who might take a bit longer. No acknowledgement that the skill might be being taught on the day when snowflakes fell and the class of 7 year olds were far more interested in the excitement to come at playtime! But on this day at a 11.55 am – five minutes before the lunch break the young teacher put her head round my classroom door. Looking highly embarrassed she whispered.......wait for it....... “I’ve taught multiplication by ten and I think they’ve all got it.......but I’ve still got about five minutes left on the time I allocated. Shall I do it all again!”

This is not to denigrate today’s teachers. When I worked with them I was constantly humbled by their commitment and classroom skills – far in excess of anything that I had at the same stage in my career. But they were skilled in the same way that a carpenter or a builder is. And, just as the builder works to the architects plan they too work to the plan and the plan is written by Michael Gove and his predecessors. They, themselves, have little vision or awareness of where education has been and where it needs to go in the early years of the twenty-first century. They have no underlying philosophy or historical perspective or context in which to place their lessons or the school and classroom ethos.

One of my treasured and much thumbed possessions is my copy of RS Peters’ seminal work “Ethics and Education” – it discuses important educational issues: what is education, education and the individual, education and motivation, the justification for education, ethics and the teacher, the ethical foundations of education, worthwhile activities, authority and education, equality, punishment and discipline and a raft of other considerations.  Peters, as any philosopher, raises the questions and identifies the issues that need to be considered if the nature and rationale of education is to be understood.

Sadly, I believe that Peters’ and others like him – Dewey, Rousseau and the rest – educationalists who have given some structure, context direction and foundation to what we do in schools would not today find a place at Mr Gove’s high table.  Numbers are the only ethical base required by the accountant and the payments by results inspector. Everyone knows what the curriculum should consist of - for Mr Gove and many of his recent predecessors have told us what it is. It is not a matter for debate or rational thought. Inspiration and understanding of what the needs and ambitions and experiences of young people are is not countenanced in the modern educational world envisaged by Mr Gove. We have created a school system based on the sweat shop which rewards drudgery and not inspiration and aspiration. Progressive thought, as Jenkins argued  is long dead. Thinkers and thinking is not to be encouraged in classrooms or by teachers. Drab brown tiles and high windows through which one cannot see the world were good enough for me. They are good enough for the next generation in their prefabricated utilitarian school buildings. 

President Bill Clinton’s Labour Secretary Robert Reich once famously said: 'We are creating a one size fits all [education] system that needlessly brands many young people as failures, when they might thrive if offered a different education whose progress was measured differently. Paradoxically we're embracing standardised tests just when the economy is eliminating standardized jobs.” I wonder what Reich would comment today about the ramshackle “system” in the UK.   I use the word system in its loosest possible terms for a “system” implies something planned and cohesive and thought out – precisely not what we now have in this country with academies, free schools, continual calls for more selection and higher standards, exam fiascos and a teaching workforce which is well meaning and industrious but with little concept of where it is going or why as successive governments  have de-skilled it and  neutered its professional base with an increasingly prescriptive and backwards looking curriculum.

I have absolute belief and conviction that the curriculum that is being force fed to the children of our country in this the twenty first century when combined with the poverty of inspirations and aspiration for children, the low value placed by those who should now better and are in political charge and the the total lack of any understanding of what education id and what it should be will, in the long term result in a nation of mediocrity. We will produce endless millions capable or writing shopping lists and spelling "risottos" correctly (one of my granddaughter's recent spellings) but we will not produce another Shakespeare. We will produce millions who can  add up the cost of their shopping but be unable to understand the mathematical relationships and opportunities required by modern technology. We will have a population who can spell Australia and can tell you how much it costs on Ryanair to fly there - but know nothing of this vast country where it is or what its geography and history are. We will have generations who are not exposed to the of excitement of science and discovery but can spell evaporation - and write it very neatly since they have practised it so many times. We will have a population who do not see learning as exciting and worthwhile but merely a drag and something to be slogged through. Schools will increasingly be seen as the poor relation in the face of the other many distractions and attractions of everyday life. What we will have is, I believe,  bad for teachers, very bad for schools but most importantly,  unimaginably depressing for generations of children like my granddaughter(s) -  and as Jenkins’ argued in the long term, fatal for the national interest. 

09 October, 2012

Popular Culture & Poor Judgement.

We live in a world that increasingly, it seems is driven by popular culture. Maybe it has always been thus but I don’t think so – the growth in the power of the media (especially TV), social networking, the information society etc. all combine to give people a voice. Indeed, this blog is a facet of that trend – everyone has an opinion and airs it! Probably for the majority of time it doesn’t matter too much; this blog or TV shows like “The X Factor” or “Strictly Come Dancing” - where viewers vote for their favourite performer and so express their opinion - might be criticised for their tastelessness, tackiness or their dumbing down effect but are in the end merely distractions. One can delete my blog or turn the TV off!

There are however other aspects to this popularisation trend which are, I believe rather more worrying.

A few weeks ago I watched a TV police programme “Inspector George Gently” set in the late 1960s. The programme was, as always, enjoyable and largely, I felt, recaptured the atmosphere of the time. However, at one point I think there was a small slip up in the production. A small child went missing and in the aftermath a collection of flowers, children’s teddies and other toys are left outside the child’s home by friends and neighbours. I may be wrong but my recollections of the times do not include this sort of public display of grief, sympathy or emotion. Even in the swinging sixties the “stiff upper lip” was still, as I remember it, the way British people at least dealt with crises, death, injury or catastrophe.
Flowers and teddies left outside a house in Inspector Gently's
late 60s - not as I remember it!
 I’m not defending that position – it may be that the public outpouring of grief and mutual support is a “good thing” – but it is, I believe largely a modern trend. The ultimate “outpouring”, of course, was following the death of Princess Diana – indeed I might argue that this was the event that acted as a catalyst to something that up to that point was a relatively unknown phenomena. This popular outpouring following Diana’s death – undeniably encouraged and stoked up by the comments of the ultimate PR and band wagon man Prime Minister Tony Blair - led to the Queen being heavily criticised for appearing hard and uncaring - or "professional" one might say!  As we have seen in the middle east in recent months with what has been called “the Arab Spring” it is out of such situations that great changes for good or ill might come. In the case of Diana (and I am not a monarchist – indeed few things would give me greater pleasure that to see the British monarchy and all its trappings got rid of) it is my view that the Queen was exactly right in her basic response – she should have remained aloof, dignified and calm, not subject to the baying hounds of popular culture!

Now, it seems, any unfortunate event has to be marked by a public display of emotion and support – and not only by those closest to the deceased or the family concerned. As with Diana’s death people from far and wide will show their sympathy and emotion even though they have no contact with or knowledge of that person. Facebook pages are set up and we read comments like “I will always love you and miss you” – from remote sympathisers with no other contact than the Facebook page! Maybe it does people good to show their emotions in this way. Maybe the “stiff upper lip” approach was not good psychology. Maybe it is good to let it all “hang out”. But, having said that, I also feel that it is bound up with another change in our national psyche – the increasing (it seems to me) deterioration of what I will loosely call “professionalism”.
Police and Crown Prosecution
wear supportive pink ribbons - I'm not sure
that ensures totally even handed justice.
It does show poor judgement.

This was all brought home to me over the weekend as I watched one of the TV reports from Machynnleth in Wales as the dreadful story of the missing little girl April Jones unfolded. During the reports of the search for April her parents asked that people should show their support by wearing pink ribbons – pink being April’s favourite colour. We were told by reporters that everywhere in the town was a sea of pink and shops were rapidly running out of pink ribbon. This was all well and good and if this tribute brought some kind of support to the distraught family and kept the profile of the case high in the public imagination then it is clearly a good thing. However, over the weekend the police called a news conference to announce that a man would be charged with April’s murder. At the news conference, the police men and women on view all wore pink ribbons – and, for me what was worse, so did the representative of the Crown Prosecution Service! This cannot be right, it would seem to me that someone in his position (and indeed the police) should not put themselves in the position of potentially “taking sides” or displaying a position that might be interpreted as anything less than totally objective – it is the principle on which our justice system operates. The gentleman concerned was clearly a Welshman – perhaps a local man – and so maybe he felt a particular affinity with this dreadful event. I am sure that his motives were well meant – but they were misguided. He explained what the accused would be charged with and ended by saying “we must, however, remember that the accused is entitled to a fair trial”. He was quite right in this but, no matter how hard I tried, the fact that he was wearing the pink ribbon – a physical manifestation of his loyalty and support for the family of the child at the potential expense of the accused - seemed to detract a little from his objectivity. It was no surprise to me that when I watched the TV footage of the crowds outside the court room having to be held back by police as they tried to get to the van carrying the accused many were wearing pink ribbons. Popularism and popular culture is fine – but it must not be allowed to cloud professional judgement or professional responsibility and compromise objectivity – when that happens we are not far from the rule of the mob and the vigilante.
Robert Dougall - doyen of
newsreaders until he raised his eye
brows in disapproval! 

And this trend of compromising objectivity has grown and developed over many years. I well remember about thirty years or so ago. One of the BBC TV newsreaders was a man named Robert Dougall. He was, I suppose, one of the senior readers and in a way “the face” of BBC News. One evening, and I remember this vividly, he reported an item of news and there was a short film clip to accompany the item. At the end of the clip, Dougall sighed and raised his eyebrows, clearly expressing his personal disapproval of the issue being reported. In the days that followed Dougall was chastised because he had, it seemed, brought his personal feelings into what should have been an objective piece of reporting. Today, that would not be an issue. The truly awful Fiona Bruce with her husky tones and “come to bed eyes” each day has a voice and expression for every type of news event she reports. In much the same way that it was claimed some years ago that Tony Blair’s government had “sexed up” the facts about Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction so, too, many news readers (most notably Bruce) and channels “sex up” the news to make it more powerful, emotive or eye catching. It is the popularisation of news rather than its objective reporting. Bruce’s style is fine for her comparing of the Antiques Road Show – but not for news reporting. What Bruce (and many others today) provide is an “act” and a subjective “presentation” of the news. Subjective opinion and personal viewpoints have become hopelessly muddled and entangled with objective substance – and when that happens people are influenced for good or ill – by opinion and not by fact. It is how mobs are swayed by clever orators.
Fiona Bruce - an emotional voice
and expression for every bit of news.
We all know what she approves of,
dislikes or enjoys. 

And finally, one last but different example of this popularisation. In itself of no importance whatsoever when compared with the above – but a telling and a sad indictment of the world we live in. It also highlights well the thin line between professionalism and popularisation.

Last week the England Football Manager, Roy Hodgson went to watch a high profile match at Arsenal. Hodgson is well respected, articulate and thinking man – who generally stands a little aloof from the day to day murky goings on in football. For reasons known only to himself he elected to travel to the game by underground rather than car or taxi. In itself this might be very democratic of him – to travel with the ordinary “punters” - but it brings with it some responsibilities. As England Manager he could have had reserved parking, maybe even a police escort if he really required it but no, it was by public underground he went.

As was always going to happen he was recognised by football fans on the train and in the “banter” that was always going to occur he was asked about the selection of the next England team – and in particular if the player Rio Ferdinand would be playing. For those unfamiliar with football news Ferdinand plays for Manchester United but after an illustrious England career has not played for the national side for some time – partly through injury and partly because of an ongoing dispute about racist remarks between his footballing brother Anton and the England captain John Terry. “Is Rio going to be in the squad” the travelling fans asked Hodgson. The formal announcement of the selected England team was due to be made on the following day. At this point Hodgson could have ignored the question and stuck his head in his newspaper, he could have said “No comment”, he could have said “Look lads, you know I can’t tell you that – read your papers tomorrow and you’ll find out”. That would have been the correct and professional thing to do. Any one of those answers would have solved the problem – the last one the best as the fans concerned would have understood what he was saying but at the same time he would have had made their night by talking to them – they would have all gone home and said to family and friends “Guess what, I talked to Roy Hodgson on the train tonight". It would have been a bit of reflected glory. But no, instead Hodgson said “No, Rio isn’t in the team” and then allegedly went on to say that the player’s England career was over! Unsurprisingly it was front page headlines the day after. Equally understandably Rio Ferdinand was soon expressing his frustration and anger that travellers on the London underground knew of his non-selection before he did – it became a matter of public knowledge and Hodgson was forced to apologise to the player.
Roy Hodgson -  a normally thoughtful
man who showed incredibly bad judgement
last week.

Leaving aside the player’s hurt feelings (I suspect that he will soon get over it!) it seems a professionally inept thing for Hodgson to do. Hodgson is extremely well paid, holds a job which is very much in the public eye, is without any shadow of doubt the man at the pinnacle of English football and, because he has to deal with a range of high profile people and international bodies will have had intensive scrutiny of his CV on his past record in diplomacy and the like. On top of all that, as I noted above, he is unquestionably, an intelligent and articulate guy. So why would he do this! Was it a mental aberration? Did he just want to be one of the lads? Did he want to give them a thrill? Whatever, although in the great scheme of things it was of minor significance, it was naive, stupid and a superb example of poor judgement. And this is the point – be it the gentleman from the Crown Prosecution Service in Machynnleth, be it the senior police officers involved in the April Jones case, be it Fiona Bruce and the BBC News production team it is pure and simple poor judgement. And when our top people show this it is worrying.

We live in a world where “transparency, openness and accountability” is an oft repeated mantra. Politicians of all persuasions tell us that it is the way forward to ensure a fairer and more open society. It will ensure that big business, politicians and others positions of power and influence – for example the police – act efficiently and correctly and in the best interest of the populace. I think we might all go along with that, but and it is a big but, “transparency, openness and accountability” brings with them a measure of responsibility. Hodgson, I suppose might claim he was being “transparent” in divulging his team selection to fellow train travellers – but it got him into a good deal of trouble, Fiona Bruce might claim she is exercising her “openness” in showing her personal feelings whilst reading the nation’s news. The police and the Crown Prosecutor may well claim that wearing a pink ribbon openly displayed their huge commitment to their cause in finding little April Jones. But all of these examples, in their way, potentially compromised the people involved, and at the same time severely impacted upon the way that they undertook their various duties. In short, that is the “accountable” bit - for if a professional is anything – be he footballer, teacher, brain surgeon, crown prosecutor or policeman he is responsible for his actions and, therefore, accountable for them.
"Hi, Ashley, I'm your future King
 - see you got into a  bit of trouble the
other day when you called the
Football Association t***s. But don't worry,
I'm the next King and President of the FA.
Don't worry the punters will love you, I
love you and never forget, yesterday's
news is today's fish and chip papers.
 It'll soon blowover - till, like Jimmy
 Savile it blows up in your face"! 

And finally - a late news item! This morning I saw a photo of Prince William and his wife Kate visiting the new National Football Centre. The great and good of the footballing world were there - as were the England team. And the photo........shows William, possibly the future King of England shaking hands with the despicable Ashley Cole - the England player at the centre of another current controversy (brought upon himself) when he recently tweeted an obscene comment about the Football Association. Cole has a track record of bizarre and unacceptable behaviour (including taking an air gun to training and shooting a student!) in both his personal and professional (I use the term loosely) life; and yet here is the future King (who also happens to be the President of the Football Association) shaking hands with the man who only a few days ago scandalised himself, his profession and most of the nation by his obscenities. If William had any sense of professional duty and obligation he would have refused and let it be known that Cole is not acceptable. Instead, however, a smiling Prince said to a smiling Cole "If you keep being a naughty boy we'll take your twitter account away!" In doing so he legitimised Cole's actions and associated himself with them. How's that for trivialising a serious issue and for the future King to be totally lacking in any comprehension of his responsibilities! Young men like Cole will never “mend their ways” – when, just like the jar of jam in my larder they get the royal seal of approval whatever their behaviour. Why should the young drunk men and women on my city’s streets not call out obscene comments to the police or act in a bizarre, immature and gratuitous manner. After all, Ashley Cole does it and within a few days jokes with the future King and President of his profession. I look forward to my local chief constable taking sherry and joking with local miscreants. I would hope that my local chief constable would have rather better professional judgement than our future King and the Football Association which he presides over. But hey! - to do the right thing, to be responsible, be professional to might not be popular, it might look boring to the populace, the tabloid readers and the "X Factor"  viewers - and anyway, we all love footballers don't we - no matter what their sins. And the young prince, clearly, wants to be liked and to be a regular guy.

All the top people wanted a bit of
Savile's glory - but they're all running
for cover now!
No, in the mad rush to jump on the popular culture bandwagon, in the anxiety of those with power and influence to be seen as “one of the people” with open and transparent views and opinions and reflecting the popular beliefs and opinions of the time there is a huge danger that professional decisions and action will be compromised. What is undoubtedly true is that taking this course of action will lead to further situations  of the sort that Roy Hodgson found himself in the other night and for many in high profile, highly professional or responsible positions they will look increasingly foolish and incompetent - and certainly unprofessional. One only needs to look at the current hand wringing at the present "exposures" of ex-disc jockey Jimmy Savile's sex life in the late 20th century. A  lot of prominent professionals appear now to be running for cover distancing themselves from the close relationship they had with the man in those years. No, those in positions of responsibility need to take their responsibilities responsibly. Sadly and frighteningly, however, in modern Britain we have a worrying trend away from professionalism and responsibility as everyone wants to appear ordinary "guys and gals" (to coin Jimmy Savile's catchphrase!), popular and in tune with the times - it is a downwards spiral.