28 June, 2013

“Play up! Play up! and play the game!” - but remember it's only a game.

Although I was never a great sportsman I have always loved football and cricket. Throughout my childhood and teenage years my beloved Preston North End were an ever present part of my life.  Even now, fifty plus years later,  as 5 o’clock on Saturday evening approaches during the football season I anxiously tune in my radio or TV to find out how my team have performed. I now live over a hundred away miles from Preston and never have any inclination to return to watch PNE but when some years ago my father died and I visited the place of my birth for the last time one of the things that I did on that last day was to sit in my car outside the football ground and remember the many wonderful hours I had spent there watching games, queuing for tickets, waiting for autographs and the like. From the day I began teaching until the day that I retired I taught sport and games on a weekly basis – football, cricket, swimming and occasionally athletics. I have coached swimming, tested children for certificates and medals and organised school and district galas. For the past thirty plus years I have been actively involved, and still am, with running football teams and leagues for young players and semi professional players. Sport has been very much part of my life.

As I grow older, however, I increasingly question its value and effect. Comedian John Cleese, I suppose, puts my views well when he says: “I was always a sports nut but I've lost interest now in whether one bunch of mercenaries in north London is going to beat another bunch of mercenaries from west London”.
Lots of positive character traits here - all developed
with the help of sport.

In one sense this is not entirely new. I can vividly remember many years ago standing at swimming galas and watching parents get animated and overly excited as their child raced down the pool and then anxiously check their stop watches to see by how many hundredths of a second the race had been won or lost by. I couldn't then understand why a measurement so small that it cannot be measured by the human eye should be the decider between victory and defeat – why not call it  a draw I often thought? I still have that same feeling when I read of Olympic records being broken or great horse races decided only after  a photograph shows who got their horse’s head past the post first. But, that I suppose is the root of all sport – in the end it is about winners and losers.  It is what defines it – and this, I believe, is increasingly so. I once listened to the great broadcaster Alistair Cooke in his long running programme “Letter from America” suggest that the reason that cricket has never taken off in America is because  the American psyche does not sit comfortably with sharing honours – there has to be a winner and a loser. Cooke recalled that an American colleague confessed his incredulity that a game of English County cricket lasting three days (or in the case of a Test Match five days) could still end as a draw. He saw that as a complete waste of time! I presume the gentleman concerned would be more comfortable with what we are increasingly seeing today - the growth of a different kind of cricket with the limited over game or the 20/20 game where a win/lose result and instant gratification is the name of the game. But, to coin a phrase – it’s not cricket!

My concern, however, about sport today is not really about any of the points raised so far – but rather the way in which it has become such a dominant force in society. Its influence permeates society in so many ways – and, I believe, not all of them good. It has become a leviathan used to justify the spending of huge amounts of money, doubtful actions and justify human traits and behaviours that are to say the least dubious.  In short we have lost, it seems to me, the Olympian ideal of sport and forgotten that in the end it is simply a game, a recreation, a pastime – no more no less. It has become - to coin George Orwell’s oft quoted judgement of all sport “War without the shooting”.
A young fan developing those wonderful
positive sporting characteristics. We have to
teach sport in schools politicians tell us
 in order to these traits. Clearly this lad is an
 "A" student

These various issues have come to the fore in a variety of ways in recent days and months.

A few weeks ago we were on holiday in Spain. One evening the hotel’s large bar was taken over by German guests who all wanted to watch the European Cup Final between two German teams. As I stood at the bar waiting to order a couple of drinks one of the football fans demanded (and I use the word accurately) that the bar man get “more chairs” for the fans to sit on while they crowded around the TV screen. They had already taken all the tables and chairs to sit on so the bar was totally bereft of facilities for any other guests for the remainder of the evening. The fans were no problem except that they spoiled the evening for everyone else in the hotel who wished to use the bar to sit and enjoy a quiet drink – there were no chairs and the chatter and cheering from the football fans drowned any possibility of a quiet evening! The fact that they were German is irrelevant – it just happened to be two German teams involved – had it been two Italian or English or French or Spanish teams the result would have been the same. What was implicit in the situation was that football  took priority over other aspects of life.

I see this often in my work with the youth football league that I help to administer.  It is a sad fact that it is increasingly the case that people – players and team officials will cheat, lie and break any other rules (football, social or moral!)  in order to play football or “get a result”.  For example, we have to have very strict rules  - and equally strong punishments – to prevent young players simply telling lies about which teams they have played for, which club they are registered with or what their age is. I see grown men – become raging monsters if the referee gives a decision with which they disagree. Increasingly, it seems, to me football has become a drug which, like a hallucinogenic, changes the personality. We see this, of course, in the professional game both on the field of play and in the stadium. Highly paid stars “perform” and part of that performance is not to do with their footballing skills but to do with fooling the referee and gaining an unfair advantage over an opponent. Like very poor actors they play to the crowd with their goal celebrations or by feigning injury. And the crowd love it – baying back their approval or disapproval.  Sport, it seems, increasingly today justifies the bizarre and the dishonest. As I sadly move towards this conclusion I find myself agreeing more and more with Noam Chomsky when he said: “Sports plays a societal role in engendering jingoist and chauvinist attitudes. They're designed to organize a community to be committed to their gladiators”.
The home of a Premiership footballer
all paid for by the fans.

This sort of behaviour is not the preserve of football – we see it in other spheres. As Wimbledon begins we will see it on the courts – the twisted facial expressions, the disagreements with the referee, the “emotion” – and the crowd delight in it. Cricket, that game of sobriety, calmness and good manners has gone the same way.  To use the phrased “it’s not cricket” is now totally redundant – a saying from a bygone age. No longer do batsmen “walk” when they know that they are out – they wait to be dismissed by the umpire and then often challenge the decision.  We hear of the often obscene but always unpleasant and unsporting “sledging” that goes on from the fielders as they crowd around the batsman and try to put him off by their comments. And, the crowd, once silent, thoughtful and graceful is now a noisy rabble  and often fuelled with drink. Sadly my observations go across the spectrum – cyclists who are now a bye word for drug related problems, boxers who bite, rugby players who find themselves in drunken brawls. The list is endless. When I read a comment such as this by boxer Mike Tyson prior to one of his boxing bouts “I want to rip out his heart and feed it to Lennox Lewis. I want to kill people. I want to rip their stomachs out and eat their children”  I am more than a little concerned about the motives and justifications for sports.

For me the root of the problem is that sport has become too big and increasingly based upon the celebrity culture. Because of the potential rewards of victory – and by implication the losses of defeat – anything goes in order to secure the prize. It justifies the huge amounts of money invested in sport at every level. Whether it be Premiership football teams who have budgets and debts enough to equate to a small country or a small village club who, the chances are, will be hopelessly in debt and relying on the goodwill of a few local sponsors the result is the same - the sport drug will justify the debt and the mortgaging of the future. All in the name of sport.  Just as was said about the banks at the height of the financial crisis a year or two ago – sport is at every level is becoming  too big to be allowed to fail.
Brazilians asking why they can afford the
World Cup & the Olympics but not schools & hospitals

We have seen in the past week many thousands of people in Brazil suddenly begin to question the vast spending on the Olympics and the Football World Cup that their country is hosting. They are asking, not unreasonably, how can it be that we are spending all this money when we don’t have satisfactory hospitals and schools? Good question – but the answer is simple.............  “because it is sport”.  At the same time as the Brazil protests there was a smaller protest in London – by fans of Premiership football who were complaining – not unreasonably – about the cost of watching  a top game. Ordinary people, they said, could no longer afford to go along to support their team. Increasingly, the fans argued, seats are being sold and costs driven up because of hospitality packages and business use. The football clubs didn’t deny this. Sport of all kinds has become big business and the drug of the masses. My Guardian newspaper yesterday  had, out of a total of a total of fifty pages, nine that were devoted entirely to sport, plus two full pages devoted entirely to Wimbledon plus a half page photo on the front of the newspaper of the tennis player Rafael Nadal as he tumbled to defeat on the opening day. Overkill? – 20% plus of a newspaper that likes to think of itself as a “serious” paper was devoted to what is in the end a leisure pursuit, a pastime. Having looked at the previous few days - the pattern doesn't change much – indeed it increases at the weekend. Similarly this morning's Daily Telegraph – another allegedly serious newspaper - had a huge photo of of Roger Federer covering the top half of the front page. It was reporting the fact that he had been knocked out of Wimbledon. Maybe it is big news and many might be interested  - but is it quite so big as the important things of life? The media thrusts sport at us and convinces us that it is the most important thing in  the world. It doesn't end there. After last year’s Olympics in the UK we not only celebrated the fact that the UK did well in terms of the athletic performances and of staging the games but the media were soon telling us that things indirectly related to the event were of great "importance". The broadcaster Claire Baldwin who had been one of the main BBC broadcasters was suddenly being described by the media as a “national treasure”. After the Olympics she was awarded an OBE for her work. For me that seems a bit over the top - that someone receives one of the country's highest honours for simply telling us about the Olympics!!!!! And following from this what in many ways is the really sad part of so much sporting worship. In recent years we have seen so many sportsman lauded and praised only to discover a few years later or as a result of investigative journalism that they were not quite the superheroes we imagined – golfer Tiger Woods, jockey  Frankie Dettori, cyclist Lance Armstrong,  world class cricketers convicted of taking bribes, great Italian football stars and teams convicted of match fixing, Premiership footballers who become embroiled in night club fights when they should be at home tucked up in bed........and so the list goes on. As I said before, it’s not cricket and it’s not, to my mind, what sport is supposed to be about. It’s certainly not the Olympian ideal of sport.
Tom Finney as I remember him - training
in the back streets of Preston - a true
sportsman from an era when sport
instilled the right values 
In the end,  sport has become too big in the national and international consciousness. Not only is it commercially too big to fail  - the debts too great – but the media empires built upon it are  too vast.  Where, for example,  would SKY be without sport ? Sport is by far the biggest single reason that people use SKY TV and as a result each week choose to give Rupert Murdoch huge amounts of their hard earned cash! Youngsters see themselves as the next superstar celebrity – they live in the fantasyland of sport – and in far too many cases their parents promote that dream. In days gone by youngsters would see their favourite footballer walk down the street to the ground or catch the bus home after the match. Today the stars live in gated mansions away from their  fans  - and in any case the globalization of sport means that a club like Manchester United or Liverpool or Arsenal is no longer the preserve of its local fans it is global. Little boys in India worship the stars that turn out at Old Trafford – but those little boys will never go there or meet their heroes as I did as a child. When, as a child I saw arguably the greatest player ever to play for England, Tom Finney leave the Preston ground after each Saturday’s  game he walked down Deepdale Road like the rest of us. And we knew that on Monday morning, as well as fitting a  bit of training in he would be working at his plumbing business – he was known as the “Preston Plumber”. The point is that he was attainable – we little boys dreamed that we might be like him – not a superstar or a celebrity but someone who was just good at football and like us. In other words the whole thing was kept in perspective – the exact opposite to today where over the top behaviour, rewards, excess and “glory” is the promise that sport offers to its participants. The personalities, the life style and the perverted value system have become the important thing,  not the game.
Tom up a ladder in his day
job as a plumber - we could
all relate to it
 The globalisation of sport, the vast media bandwagon that promotes it, the indulgent life styles that the stars live, the excess and of course the rewards obtained beg the question is it worth it? Does it provide value for money? Does it make individuals or society a better place? Value for money is probably in the eye of the beholder. Would I pay £50 or £60 to watch a top game – no. But of course many people would.   Often I wonder what goes on in the human mind when a parent of limited means pays his money to go to the game with his son – knowing that the money which he can ill afford is going into the pockets of people who earn more in a week that he earns in two or three years? Russian oligarchs, Indian industrialists and Saudi princes many of whom have gained their vast wealth by dubious means in their home countries or by  the labours and poverty of their fellow countrymen buy Premiership clubs and ensure a champagne life style for the players and officials of clubs in exclusive areas  of London or Manchester. And no –one seems to question this, it is simply what happens – it is sport. Those football fans who were complaining in London last week about the cost of watching their favourite team have a simple solution - don't go to the game. Don't they ever stop to think of the utter stupidity of their situation? - they are being encouraged to spend money that they can't afford (and which they complain about) and this goes to vastly wealthy players and billionaire club owners like Roman Abramovich  which in turn further encourages the rising costs. The sporting drug, like all drugs has them hooked and they can't kick the habit.
Alistair Cooke

But above the economic value of sport there is something more important. 

Traditionally, in the UK at least, there is the notion that sport is somehow character building. Politicians frequently remind schools of the value of sport in the curriculum to encourage a healthy life style and to develop basic human attributes such as the will to win or the ability to accept defeat honourably or to understand that  everyone can’t be a winner. Indeed, much of this philosophy came from the Greek Olympian ideal and in its purest sense maybe has much to recommend it. In writing that I am reminded of the words of one of my favourite poems – “Vitai Lampada” by Henry Newbold.

Vitai Lampada
("They Pass On The Torch of Life")

There's a breathless hush in the Close to-night --
Ten to make and the match to win --
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.
And it's not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season's fame,
But his Captain's hand on his shoulder smote --
'Play up! play up! and play the game!'

The sand of the desert is sodden red, --
Red with the wreck of a square that broke; --
The Gatling's jammed and the Colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England's far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:
'Play up! play up! and play the game!'

This is the word that year by year,
While in her place the School is set,
Every one of her sons must hear,
And none that hears it dare forget.
This they all with a joyful mind
Bear through life like a torch in flame,
And falling fling to the host behind --
'Play up! play up! and play the game!'

Sir Henry Newbolt (1862-1938)

Newbold’s poem spells out the Olympian ideal well. The boy at Rugby School going into bat. Last man in. The fielders gather around him -  a silent battle (no sledging from the fielders!) between batsman and the fielders as they try to take his wicket.  At all times he and they must “play the game” – play fair. It’s not about personal glory or fame it’s about doing a job that has to be done for his team and his school or club. It’s about following his captain’s orders, being disciplined and honourable, not losing his wicket, hanging in there for an hour so that the win might be gained or defeat avoided. And then the poem reminds us that these lessons learned on the sports field are transferable to life. The boy is now a young man in a battle. Everything is going wrong, the Colonel dead, the gun jammed but the young man has to again do his duty honourably, disciplined, hanging in to ensure victory and the safety of his comrades – “Play up! Play up! and play the game!”

Not at all like the cricket of
Go to The Oval cricket ground in London - one of the great grounds of the world - and you will see the memorial to past Surrey players who fell in the Great War (1914-18). It has the inscription "They played the game". But, today, that seems, like Newbold’s poem, a bit twee and “cheesy”.  Today’s world is a long way from Newbold's - it's a place where media pundits are heralded as “national treasures", sportsman too often cheat, money rules the game, glory is dispensed like confetti upon the heads of sportsmen, teenage footballers happily tell lies about which clubs they are registered to in order to get onto the pitch and  kick a ball, where sporting organisations like the Olympic Committee and FIFA will demand from countries who wish to host these great events that monies raised for the organisation are tax free, or where the media devote huge amounts of time and money to promoting the dubious antics of stars and sport. It is a game that has lost its integrity and, too often, represents all that is wrong and shallow in the world.

I don’t disagree that sport can and does indeed develop a number of worthwhile attributes – the sorts of thing hinted at in Vitai Lampada . Billy Jean King famously commented that “Sports teaches you character, it teaches you to play by the rules, it teaches you to know what it feels like to win and lose-it teaches you about life”.  But I think it’s also true that as well as building character it also reveals it. And, if sport does indeed develop certain worthwhile traits, then might it not also develop and encourage others that are less worthwhile?  Sadly, that conclusion  is increasingly my experience – cheating, aggression, intimidation, a sense of failure for those who cannot match the best players.  The oft mentioned observation of many teachers – and one that I have experienced more times than I care to remember - is sadly true. Yes, sport in school is great for the winners – it reinforces their belief in themselves and maybe does all the things that Billy Jean King praises. Sadly, however,  most children are not sporting winners and they often increasingly learn that they are failures – the ones that never get picked for a team or who the better players don’t want in their team. That is not a reason for not doing sport  but it is a reason for keeping in perspective – it is a game no more no less and to start attributing all sorts of other qualities to it is both a nonsense and dangerous.
The All Blacks' Haka may be a bit of pre-match
fun but its purpose is to intimidate - a
wonderful personal characteristic

When Sir Alex Ferguson recently retired as Manchester United manager  he recalled that early in his career at Manchester United he had been concerned by his team’s less than satisfactory performances. By chance he had recently attended a concert and so he took the team to a concert. He pointed out to the players that everyone in the orchestra was vital – whatever their part, large or small, and that one missed or wrong note could ruin the whole performance. Everyone has to play their part, the whole is the result of the efforts of each individual and that each instrument  although different from its neighbour was vital in the whole piece. He was of course quite right – it was a good analogy. But it goes further and highlights the fact that sport is not the only way that people can learn important character building lessons. Learning an instrument or being part of an orchestra is an obvious example – it requires hard work, determination, diligence, awareness of the role of others, the overcoming of difficulties ....... in fact just the same qualities that Billy Jean King was hinting at! It is my belief that there are few pastimes or interests, if entered into with the enthusiasm and effort needed to succeed at sport, will not help in developing positive personal attributes. Becoming a ballet dancer, collecting stamps, becoming a mountaineer, becoming a gardener, becoming a good cook or a skilled carpenter, these and many others will require and develop worthwhile characteristics that are traditionally seen as the preserve of sport. Sport does not have a monopoly on positive personal development – in fact, it is increasingly my belief, that it encourages more negative attributes than many other occupations. I'm with American neurosurgeon and author Ben Carson when he famously said to University students: “Don't let anyone turn you into a slave. You're a slave if you let the media tell you that sports and entertainment are more important than developing your brain”.
Ben Carson

As I become older I too often reflect what, perhaps, has been lost. And I wonder if in today’s world sport really does pass on the sort of values and behaviours that we want for our children. My own feeling is that the answer to that is no and that overall we would be better without it. I find it very difficult to accept that sport today is the force for good in society that we popularly imagine. What I am absolutely certain about is that in the 21st century it has become too big and too important in the national and individual psyche. As my daughter says “Football [and all other sports] is just 22 blokes running around a field chasing a bag of wind – and thinking that it is important”. There’s nothing wrong with the blokes chasing the bag of wind – in the end all sports and indeed most leisure pursuits are very individual choices.  To coin a phrase, “whatever turns you on!” But my daughter’s final comment “thinking that it is important” is not only true it is worrying.  So many people - including those who should know better - seem to think that sport is the only thing and so important that huge amounts of money, emotion, posturing, celebrity worship and the win at any cost mentality  must be invested in it in order that it should  dominate our lives and the lives of others - the opium of the masses. Just as it did at the hotel in Spain where most of the guests were denied their relaxation in the bar because of the demands of football fans! Sport and its promotion in the media has become a justification for unacceptable behaviour and the assumption that it is the most important thing in the world. It isn't – it’s a game, no more and no less – and to add to it all sorts of alleged attributes and worthwhile characteristics is a nonsense. It is equally as likely (especially in the modern money driven sporting world) to reinforce and generate aggression, dishonesty, cheating, willingness to go into debt, a sense of failure and other negative characteristics as it is the promote other more worthwhile traits. Benjamin Carson was right when he wrote: “If we would spend on education half the amount of money that we currently lavish on sports we could provide complete and free education for every student in this country.”  Carson was speaking as an American  but his comment rings equally true of the UK, and I suspect to the people of Brazil. There are things of importance and value upon which to spend money and to devote media coverage - sadly, the sportsmen, sporting event and the culture of modern sport are n ot amongst these.

16 June, 2013

“We are such stuff as dreams are made on...” (The Tempest: William Shakespeare)

I can still vividly remember when I was about 13, about fifty five years ago, sitting, at school, reading a book. I was totally engrossed in the story – so much so that I think I got told off by the teacher for not putting the book down when told to. As I sat there I little knew  that the book would become an integral part of my life and my career. All this came flooding back to me a few days ago.
The book that started it!
Let me explain. The school that I went to was a humble affair – today it would be unquestionably described as a “sink” school – a pretty tough secondary modern school in Preston where I grew up. The occasional “knifing” on the school playground or field was not uncommon and even then, as young teenagers, we were well aware of the kids who were already going off the rails and becoming involved with the police. It was not unusual for police cars to arrive at school. Secondary modern schools – although the title sounds grand – were for those, like me, who had failed to jump the 11+plus test hurdle. The overwhelming majority of the pupils at schools like mine would go to work in the factories of the industrial north of England. The school had no great aspirations other than to turn out "factory fodder". There was nothing wrong in that, it was what society demanded of the secondary modern. The school and the teachers were as much victims of circumstance as were the pupils. But, then, when I was about 13 we had a new head teacher – Dr McEwan - perhaps anticipating the coming of Bob Dylan in the early 60s "the educational times they were a changing"! In a few years (1963) the Newsom Report Half our Future)  would be published which recognised that the future wealth and social fabric of the country would increasingly depend upon the better education of over half the population – the average and below average - and that included me. The country, said the report, was actively wasting the talents of most of its young by casting them aside at 11 and it laid the foundation stone for a comprehensive system of education. Today, our current Education Secretary, Michael Gove, is doing his best to turn the clock back.

But back to me and my book! Dr McEwan (“Batman” we called him because he always wore his academic gown as he walked around school!) was clearly an early convert to the new doctrines and on his arrival in the late 50s he immediately set about changing the school and one of the first things he did was to convert one of the prefabricated classrooms into a small library. There were a few shelves with books, a few tables and chairs and that was it. We didn’t have a librarian  and were only allowed in there with a teacher – but it was a start. Each week, once the room was up and running, we had one of our weekly English lessons in the library. We would be shown how to use it and understand the Dewey numbering system, given tasks to find information and set other book related work.........and, best of all, for half the lesson be allowed to choose a book to quietly read. Books could not be taken out of the library so one had to read quickly!
The Globe

On one of my first visits I selected a book which looked mildly interesting – a historical adventure story – Cue for Treason  by Geoffrey Trease. It is a children’s story of adventure, dastardly deeds, spying, good guy overcomes bad guy and the rest – and it all takes place in Elizabethan England. It had been written by Trease in 1940 and became one of his most famous publications. Great literature it was not, but like all good stories – especially for children - it had that knack of always wanting you to read on.  Each chapter ended at an exciting point – you just had to read the next chapter! And that was why I got told off – I began reading the book and was hooked and over the next few visits to the library I hurriedly sought out my book so that I could carry on with the tale.

When I left school, I suppose that I forgot about it until ten or more years later I when began teaching. I was working  by then at a school (Lady Bay Junior School in Nottingham) with a long corridor and along the entire length of the corridor were bookshelves filled with books. One day, as I leafed through these, I came across Cue for Treason  – and suddenly the story from my own school days  flooded back. I re-read the tale and was again transported back to Elizabethan England – to Queen Elizabeth, William Shakespeare, the Spanish Armada and plots to kill the Queen. This was no angst filled novel of the sort pushed at teenagers today to reflect their lives and support them in their teenage years – it was unashamed exciting adventure and swashbuckling fun taking the young readers to another age and another life. And, as I had enjoyed it so much, I read it to the class I was teaching. They loved it and each afternoon as the end of the school day approached and I got to the end of a chapter they always wanted to hear then next one – just as I had done all those years before. For the rest of my teaching career I read the book regularly and never once did it let me or the children down. I can still quote great chunks of it so many times I have spoken its words! Not only was it a good story but a great way to teach history and the great names of England’s past – Shakespeare, Raleigh, Drake and the rest – all in a fictional setting but hopefully it aroused an interest, awareness and a love of the nation’s past.
Yes - we bought cushions

I thought about that book on Thursday as I walked out of Southwark Underground Station in London.  Pat and I had booked tickets to see Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream at the wonderful Globe Theatre in Southwark. As we left the station a sign gave directions to the Globe. The Globe, constructed some years ago to replicate the theatre that Shakespeare knew is a wonderful place. Open air, as it would have been in Shakespeare’s day, audience standing in front of the stage and the “better off” sitting in the galleries looking down on the stage. It is built close to where the original Globe stood – and of course as well as putting on Shakespeare’s plays is simply a place of pilgrimage and homage to the great writer.

As we walked out of the station and followed (as the signpost instructed us) the orange lampposts I thought about Cue for Treason. In the story, the two heroes Peter & Kit (Kate) become actors in a group of travelling players, they eventually arrive at the Globe and perform there. They become friends with the young Shakespeare and the great Richard Burbage, one of the great Elizabethan actors of the day, and as the story develops they become embroiled in spying, high treason, the coming of the Spanish Armada and plots to kill the Queen. As we walked along the London streets to reach the theatre I remembered in the book reading that in Shakespeare’s day all the theatres were on the south side of the Thames – actors and theatre goers were classed as a rather unsavoury lot and had to perform outside the city walls – hence the Globe being on the far side of the river Thames from the city of London! And when we got to the Globe and eventually took our seats in the balcony, looking down on the stage and the “poor people” standing at the foot of the stage I could just picture what it might have been like in Shakespeare’s day. In Cue for Treason one part describes how Peter paid a penny to sit on a stool near the stage and paid another penny to have a cushion. We, too, had cushions to sit on – but paid £3.00 each! In another part of the tale when Peter and Kit (playing the part of girls and women, for in Shakespeare’s day women were not allowed to act) are acting on the stage they have to put up with the smoke from the pipes of the gentlemen sitting close to them -  all smoking the new weed brought back from the New World by Raleigh and Drake! And in my mind’s eye as I sat on my cushion looking at the empty stage and the rapidly filling space before it I could picture it all – it was my much loved and many times read book leaping into life before my very eyes.
Our view of the stage - with the "poor people" standing!

At the interval we ate our ice cream – standing in the courtyard looking across the river at the dome of St Pauls. I don’t suppose ice cream was around in Elizabethan times but we could have bought a burger – and that, too, reminded me of the book. In the story, at one point, we are told that members of the audience bought hot meat to eat. We gazed across the Thames at St Paul's and I recalled the words of instruction allegedly attributed to Charles II after the Great Fire of London when he told Christopher Wren, the architect, to "fill the sky of London with the new cathedral". Wren certainly succeeded – even today his great dome still stands out for all to see. I have to say however, that as I looked along the Thames towards the financial centre of the City – “the square mile” - and saw the towering office blocks soaring upwards I did (in grumpy mode!) reflect that maybe that says much about our 21st century society. The financial skyscrapers now tower above St Paul's and in doing so maybe reflect our worship of Mammon. In Elizabethan and Stuart times church spires and domes soared to heaven to be nearer to God and to remind all of the pathway for eternal life. Today, it is the Shard and the Gherkin and the other London skyscrapers that seek to dominate the skyline and remind us mortals that salvation is rather more materialistic and is gained via banks, insurance companies and pension funds rather than devout faith and belief!
Titania & Bottom

But back to the magical play – A Midsummer Night’s Dream  - my favourite Shakespeare play – silly, magical and with wonderful language. A feel good factor and happy ending. I sat (as I think did every other person in the audience) entranced. And to think that half a millennia ago Londoners might too have stood or sat on the rough benches as we did, swigging their ale and gnawing at their hot meat -  laughing at Bottom and his friends as they performed their “play”, watching mesmerised at the antics of the fairies Oberon and Titania and Puck or got caught  up in the tale of the four lovers as they roamed the woodland and fell asleep beneath the trees. It must have been magical and mysterious for those Elizabethan Londoners – it was still so for us, even today in our very clever modern, technology filled world. So often that afternoon I found myself sitting with my mouth open as I watched. So often I heard myself quietly speaking some of the great words as the actors spoke:

“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull'd in these flowers with dances and delight...... “
(Can there be any more lovely words in the English language than these?)
Lord, what fools these mortals be”
“The course of true love never did run smooth!
Now until the break of day,
Through this house each fairy stray.
To the best bride bed will we,
Which by us shall blessèd be.
And the issue there create
Ever shall be fortunate.”
“If we shadows have offended,
Know but this and all is mended.
That you have but slumbered here,
While these visions did appear,
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding, but a dream.”

And as we gazed down on the standing audience below us, or looked along the rows of seats in the galleries where we perched on our benches we noticed the many groups of school children all enjoying the play, all, hopefully, learning to love Shakespeare. We looked, too, at the many tourists – Americans, Japanese all too enjoying this essential bit of England. When we struggled through the crowds exiting the theatre down the narrow staircase at the end of the performance I got caught up in a group of American teenagers – all  laughing and talking excitedly of what they had just seen. Shakespeare still has a message for today - for all nations and all ages.

We were reminded of this “message” when we went into the gift shop at the interval. I managed to resist the temptation to buy - although I could have spent many pounds! One item took my eye – I wish now I had bought it for my office. A large poster of the words by Bernard Levin the English journalist and broadcaster. Levin wrote a piece to remind us all of the many words and phrases from Shakespeare that have become part and parcel of our vocabulary.

“If you cannot understand my argument, and declare ``It's Greek to me'', you are quoting Shakespeare; if you claim to be more sinned against than sinning, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you recall your salad days, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you act more in sorrow than in anger; if your wish is farther to the thought; if your lost property has vanished into thin air, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy, if you have played fast and loose, if you have been tongue-tied, a tower of strength, hoodwinked or in a pickle, if you have knitted your brows, made a virtue of necessity, insisted on fair play, slept not one wink, stood on ceremony, danced attendance (on your lord and master), laughed yourself into stitches, had short shrift, cold comfort or too much of a good thing, if you have seen better days or lived in a fool's paradise -why, be that as it may, the more fool you , for it is a foregone conclusion that you are (as good luck would have it) quoting Shakespeare; if you think it is early days and clear out bag and baggage, if you think it is high time and that that is the long and short of it, if you believe that the game is up and that truth will out even if it involves your own flesh and blood, if you lie low till the crack of doom because you suspect foul play, if you have your teeth set on edge (at one fell swoop) without rhyme or reason, then - to give the devil his due - if the truth were known (for surely you have a tongue in your head) you are quoting Shakespeare; even if you bid me good riddance and send me packing, if you wish I was dead as a door-nail, if you think I am an eyesore, a laughing stock, the devil incarnate, a stony-hearted villain, bloody-minded or a blinking idiot, then - by Jove! O Lord! Tut tut! For goodness' sake! What the dickens! But me no buts! - it is all one to me, for you are quoting Shakespeare.”

Need one say more!
A final enchore
And as we sat on the train returning home I thought about the book that I had first read over 50 years ago and how my own experience of seeing Shakespeare came later in life – I was almost 20 before I saw a Shakespeare play so to speak "in the flesh". By that time I was at Blackpool Technical College and hoping to become a teacher. The College’s dramatic society performed Othello in the round in Blackpool Tower Circus ring. When I went to the performance I had no idea what I would see or indeed what it was all about.  I had never read any Shakespeare or been exposed to it at school.  All I knew, as I sat there, was that I was watching something a bit special. It was the start of my love of Shakespeare. Little did I think that winter's night in Blackpool in 1964 that I would one day sit in the Globe or go, as I have many times, to the Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford on Avon. And I thought, too, of that little library at my school and the doors that it opened up for me. I thought of that book that I read there, not then knowing then that I would later use it to give pleasure and maybe a little understanding to many hundreds of children and that it would became part of my own education and indeed part of me. Cue for Treason had been my very first experience of Shakespeare - I read about him in the story, I read the little extracts from his plays that were part of the story, I pictured in my minds eye how he might have sat in some tavern writing the words. I didn't "know" any Shakespeare, but in reading the tale a tiny seed had been sown. I thought, too, how lucky those youngsters on their school trips had been to have experienced what I had just seen. Certainly more useful than an afternoon spent in a classroom and, just maybe, being the spark to a lifelong love of language, the theatre and above all Shakespeare. Not through studying a text or answering questions in an exam, not through analysing or learning great tracts of verse, but by simply enjoying and responding with a laugh or a tear or an awareness of beautifully spoken words and a clever plot. For that, I thought, is what education is about – “lighting a fire in the mind and not filling a bucket with watery facts”.  I wonder how many exam points will be awarded by Mr Gove for laughing out loud when Bottom turned into an ass. Will his examiners nod approvingly when all the children giggle in embarrassment at the occasional “rude bits” in the play and then after the play talk excitedly about these "naughty bits"? Will the exam have a way of measuring what goes on in each child's mind when they hear strange and unfamiliar words made real and understandable from the mouth of a great actor and within the context of the play? Will Mr Gove be able to recognise and assess when a child suddenly thinks - "this is for me" Will they get a merit in Mr Gove’s world when after the play ends they rush to the theatre gift shop to buy a copy of the play or a “Midsummer Night’s Dream” T shirt. Will they get a distinction when they return home a little bit more aware and excitedly tell mum and dad of what they have seen and what it might have been like to go to the theatre at the time of Shakespeare. No they won’t – because exams cannot and do not measure these things. The exam orientated treadmills that Michael Gove extols are underpinned by his notion of the 3Rs based upon a curriculum that is based upon the philosophy – “read, remember [or recite], regurgitate” rather than “read, reflect, respond”.  For me that afternoon spent at the Globe was infinitely more useful to young people than studying a text or doing an exam. Virginia Woolf famously said, in a lecture she gave at Girton College, Cambridge: “I do not believe that gifts, whether of mind or character, can be weighted like sugar or butter.”  She was right. 

I should have bought the T shirt
but would Mr Gove have approved?
In the end education is about making dreams and ambitions a reality. Yes, it is about the tools and the skills,  but it is  much more importantly about providing the opportunities, the experiences, and the understandings to raise our awareness; to make things happen and to fulfil our dreams and our aspirations and our potential. It’s not just about taking exams it's about awakening interests, developing life long loves, giving us things to cling onto in the hurly burly of life and reminding us of what it is to be human. In short as Shakespeare reminded us in The Tempest:
“We are such stuff as dreams are made on...,”

And I’m not sure how you measure or test dreams!

11 June, 2013

"Something rotten in the state of..........."

The newspapers and TV broadcasts are full, at the moment, of the exposures in the Guardian of the alleged secret surveillance of the public by NSA (the US National Security Agency) and Britain’s GCHQ. This morning we have read of the “outing” of the source of the allegations – an American named Edward Snowden - who apparently worked as a technical assistant at the CIA. At the centre of the various exposures is the alleged involvement – consensual or otherwise of global internet giants such as Google or Facebook. These companies protest their innocence and both the US government and Britain proclaim that if there is surveillance then it is necessary in the war against terror, it is proportionate, it is backed by strong legal safeguards, was done with the cooperation of the companies concerned – and, to quote US Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss, has only been concerned with collecting “significant information on the bad guys, but only on the bad guys”.  

Having read the good Senator’s comments I’m left wondering how does he know? – do the “bad guys” have a digital post it note on their foreheads and stored data saying “I am a bad guy”! And, in any case, until they have done the surveillance how do you know who are the “bad guys”? If the NSA & GCHQ know who these “bad guys” are, then presumably they know why they are bad guys – so why the mass surveillance of everyone on the planet’s lifestyle via AOL, SKYPE, Facebook or Google?

The whole government  response from both sides of the Atlantic reminds me of President  Theodore Roosevelt’s comment of almost a century ago “When they do the roll call in the Senate Senators don’t know whether to call “present” or “not guilty”. In the end both David Cameron and Barrack Obama sound rather like thieves pleading their innocence when caught with their fingers in the till!

But leaving aside the issue of whether the allegations are correct or whether our political leaders are quite so honest and transparent as they would have us believe there are other issues.

Firstly – should we be surprised? Spying and surveillance has been around as long as there have been wars, international disputes, high politics and the rest. In fifteenth century Florence Machiavelli earned his crust in this business and earned lasting fame with his book "The Prince" setting out how the Prince should govern and control. Our own “Good Queen Bess” – Elizabeth 1st – had a huge network of spies and covert operators within England all ensuring her and the nation’s “safety”. The network was run and information gathered perused  – by William Cecil – later Lord Burghley. Such was Cecil’s contribution that after being made a Lord he was able to build one of the greatest homes of England, Burghley House near Stamford in Lincolnshire. After Burghley had done his bit in the service of the Queen the job was handed over to Francis Walsingham – one of the most ruthless spy masters ever known. A couple of centuries later, before George 1st became King of England he enlisted a musician – George Frederick Handel – to do a bit of spying for him. George, as Elector of Hanover, knew he was shortly to be offered the British crown. He could speak no English and knew little of England and its politics – so he dispatched his favourite musician, Handel, to London to make music – and at the same time do a bit of meeting people and influencing them, getting to know the “lie of the land” – call it what you will. And, of course, reporting back to Hanover.  The trouble was Handel quite liked the place and concentrated more on his music and pleasing London society than on his "covert operations" - much to the disgust of his German employer! A bit later Charles Dickens gave spies and "surveillance operatives" a really bad name when he introduced them as characters in his "A Tale of Two Cities" - Barsad and Cly were given a really bad press when they spied on the delightful and innocent Charles Darnay! And, of course, coming a bit more up to date, America, the land of the free, didn't look quite so free in the times of Senator Joe McCarthy or a few years later at the time of Watergate. No, spying and surveillance has been around for a very long time and by its very definition it is secret and underhand – not to be so makes it useless. So, when politicians protest their innocence or strive to convince us that it is necessary or that it is only aimed at the “bad guys” it seems to me that the only sensible response is to raise one’s eyebrows and say “Well you would say that wouldn’t you!”

The second point that I would make about the present media frenzy relates to the involvement – alleged or otherwise - of major global internet giants. Again, should we be at all surprised? We live in a world where increasingly most of our lives are run via the power of the computer – perfectly legal and legitimate information about us is stored in computer data banks. We buy items on line, we book holidays on line, we pay our bills on line, we search for information via our computers and so it goes on. In short our whole life is there before us – each time we press a computer key we leave a digital footprint about who we are and what we do. I am told that companies and governments now, with the help of what they call “big data” can predict with almost total accuracy who each of us are and what we will do from just a few isolated items of raw information. So, it would seem to me that if governments   do want to spy in us – and undeniably they will – then the internet and our computers are ideal ways of doing it – for there we are, warts and all! As a blogger I leave a huge footprint each time I do what I am doing now – putting my interests, dreams, plans, beliefs and ideas (nutty though they might be) for all to read. For those who use Facebook or Twitter they do the same thing every time they log on. When I buy something from Amazon  or look at the John Lewis Web site, when I Google “motor insurance” to find where I can get the best quote on car insurance, when I read the electronic edition of the Guardian each day my preferences and the essential “me” is recorded and stored somewhere. In that context why on earth would governments and “spies” not use Facebook or Google or Microsoft  to peep into our lives – it is a ready made data bank! Not to do so would be perverse.

Now this might be obvious and it might be understandable. The motives of government may be malign or benign. They might indeed, as Senator Chambliss protests, only be looking at the “bad guys”! But whatever the reasoning it is frankly stupid of society to hold its communal hands up in horror and say “This is dreadful that it is going on!” - of course it is! In writing that I am reminded of the utter stupidity of many millions throughout the world who daily go onto Facebook and write something along the lines of “Looking forward to going on my holiday to Spain tomorrow” or “Having a lovely time in France – weather is glorious, don’t want to come home”. We  are  told regularly by the police that burglars love this – they can point exactly when a house is going to be empty and ripe for breaking into! If your average neighbourhood burglar finds this useful then how much more useful will governments find the highly personal items that you might knowingly or unknowingly record on your computer – your finances, your buying habits, your fetishes!

We get what we deserve! We want to live this digital life on Facebook and Twitter, tell our most intimate secrets, obsessions  and ambitions to anyone on the planet who will look at our Blogspot. We broadcast our interests and our buying plans by visiting web sites like Tesco or ASDA or Sainsbury’s and  enjoy the flexibility of internet banking and all the rest. Should we not also realise that it all comes at a cost – and the cost is that our innermost lives are stored on computer banks across the world. In a way this is democracy at work.  The majority want big supermarkets and retail parks, they want free access to the internet and all that it offers and that is what we get. They want the "right" to express their views as I am doing now. But if we don’t question and fight for the society or sort of  government that we want then these "democratic freedoms" will be and are hijacked by big business and government.  Our "freedoms" become easily "managed" by Microsoft, AOL, Google, Facebook, the NSA and GCHQ - and we can’t then complain or be surprised when, to misquote Hamlet, we find “there is something rotten in the state of Denmark”  [for Denmark read UK/USA et al].

But having said all that, there is something more that worries me more in all this – about what it is to be part of humanity and how that can be influenced by the sort of world we are allowing to happen.

Some years ago, Pat and I flew out of Gatwick on our way to Italy. It was two days after one of the terrorist attacks in London. Security at the airport was understandably intense.  That afternoon as we queued, with thousands of others, to pass through security there were two events that imprinted themselves on my mind and which I think of each time I pass through airport security today.

As we stood at the desk waiting to be checked through there was a young family in front of us. They were much younger than us and, to my prejudiced “senior citizen eyes”, looked rather dubious. Dad had a rather scruffy track suit bottoms, flip flop sandals, ear ring, a shaved head and a multitude of tattoos – in short I would not have liked to meet him on a dark night! As he emptied his pockets and checked his bag through the guard took from him a packet of aspirins and told him that he could not take these onto the flight. The man replied that these were prescription drugs and that he must have them for his medical condition. He showed the guard his prescription – but to no avail. After a brief argument they were confiscated and he was told to move on which, unwillingly, he did. I approached the counter and turned out my bags and pockets. In my pocket was an identical packet of aspirins They are not important to me and not part of a medical prescription - I simply carry them in case of  a headache. The guard flicked through my belongings and nodded me though, returning all my belongings  - including the aspirins. My aspirins were fine and yet the guy in front had his packet confiscated. Why should that be?  I asked the guard why and received no answer. I suggested to the guard he might be better employed as a doctor since he clearly knew what drugs were to be prescribed for individuals. I asked him why I paid huge amounts of tax to employ highly qualified doctors and nurses in our hospitals, their task being to use their undoubted skills and medical knowledge  to prescribe drugs like the ones refused to the guy in front of me and confiscated by the security guard. Clearly, I suggested,  a few chaps like him obviously overrode those prescriptions – it would be much cheaper to employ a few security guards to prescribe our medicines in our hospitals than highly paid doctors. Did he have medical qualifications I asked or access to this gentleman’s medical records? I was told to “f**k off” and move on – which I did, scowling.

This was clearly a matter of prejudice – no more, no less. The guy in front of me looked a bit “dodgy” and that was the basis for his treatment. Presumably I looked a fine upstanding citizen complete with tie (yes! – I always wear a tie even when I'm travelling!) and what happened that day was nothing to do with security and all but to do with prejudice and arbitrary judgement. From that day onwards when I hear politicians (as I have heard this week from the US or from our own Foreign Secretary, William Hague)  say that those who have done no wrong have nothing to fear I think of that guy in the queue and I think, too, of the dreadful but illuminating verse first voiced in Nazi Germany by Martin Niemoller:
First they came for the communists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.
Then they came for the socialists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me

But my education about security did not end there on that hot afternoon at Gatwick. Having passed through security we waited for our flight in departures. We were, as I say, going to Italy for a holiday. As we sat there waiting for our flight to be called there sat opposite us an Asian family – mother dad and two teenage children. The lady was dressed in a sari. They sat quietly waiting for their flight. And as I sat there I found myself being sucked into the atmosphere of ‘suspicion’ – were these people what they seemed? After all, she was wearing a sari, the family looked dark skinned. We had all been brainwashed to know that dark Asian skin and Muslim belief equalled "Evil Empire" (a Ronald Reagan pearl of wisdom about Russians reinforced a few years later by  George W Bush when he talked about an "Axis of Evil" emanating from middle eats states) and terror. Maybe (dreadful thought) they were Muslims!  Were they an ordinary family or were they terrorists ready to blow up our plane? As I sat there I realised I was simply using prejudice again. It was not a feeling I enjoyed to be so suspicious of my fellow human being. We have become and I had become institutionalised or programmed to be suspicious. I had lost any naivety that I might have had that people are intrinsically good. And I did not like the feeling or myself. The man might indeed have been a terrorist – but far more likely he was a guy going on holiday - maybe, I suddenly thought, he was one of those consultant doctors who had prescribed the aspirins! Maybe he was a teacher like me, or an engineer, or a dustman or an postman or a lawyer.  Maybe, I thought, if because of my heart condition I have a heart attack while on this flight he may be the one person on the plane who has the skills to keep me alive. And I felt very contrite – and indeed very worried – for this is what the “war on terror” was and is doing to us all – it is  making us suspicious and fearful and mistrusting and wary of our fellow men. It is not a feeling that I like and it detracts from my humanity.

So when politicians tell me that security initiatives of the type that has been exposed in the past few days are "necessary" or "legitimate" or when I am told that "legal safeguards are in place to protect me" I am immediately worried. I'm not convinced that any "legal safeguard" can protect or promote my basic humanity - that, is all bound up with belief, morals, maybe belief and certainly ones own perception of oneself.  At its core it is about what we are as humans - and no law or safeguard has yet been written to define that. And, I wonder, if the good Senator Chambliss (if he ever reads this blog) or if one of the spying networks like PRISM deep in the bowels of some US security site latches onto these words will I, too, be cast as “one of the bad guys” –  maybe I am already condemned! As I discovered at the airport that day, wear the wrong clothes, have a shaved head, have a darker skin and someone somewhere will judge you “one of the bad guys” – not for good reasons but on the arbitrary whim of an airport security guard or our own personal prejudices - or some "surveillance operative" deep in some secure room in GCHQ or the NSA. The security guard did it to the man in front of me in the airport queue and I thought it as I sat waiting for my flight and watching the Asian family waiting for their's - so why not that surveillance operative or Senator Chambliss?

Just before the present media frenzy blew up I had just finished reading the wonderful autobiography of the great historian Eric Hobsbawm. He died -  a very old man (almost a hundred years old) - a year or so ago. In his book (“Interesting Times”) he reflects upon the history of the 20th century – through which he lived his long life. Towards the end of the book he makes some acute but chilling observations:
“Washington announced that Sept 11th had changed everything, and in doing so, actually did change everything, by in effect declaring it-self the single-handed protector of a world order and definer of threats against it, Whoever failed to accept this was a potential or actual enemy....... September 11th  proved that we all live in a world with a single global hyperpower that had finally decided that, since the end of the USSR, there are no short term limits on its strength and no limits on its willingness to use it, although the purposes of using it – except to manifest supremacy – are quite unclear........Living [as Hobsbawm had done at the time of writing] for over eighty years of the twentieth century has been a natural lesson in the mutability of political power, empires and institutions [he had lived in Austria at the fall of the Austrian Empire, lived in Britain through the demise of what he called  the greatest Empire ever created – the British Empire, witnessed the fall of the Soviet bloc and many others] .....I am unlikely to see the end of the “American century”...... . I look forward to an American world empire, whose long term chances are poor, with far more fear and less enthusiasm that I look back on the record of the old British Empire, run by a country whose modest size protected it against megalomania.......”

From where I sit that sounds a bit like the meglomanic bully on the school playground – the big guy - I think his name is Sam - who because he is the biggest puts himself about and sees every other child on the playground as a threat and fair game. There used to be another big lad – also a bully (I think his name was Ivan) and the two cancelled each other out. They were wary of each other and didn’t bother too much about the ordinary kids. But Ivan left the school so now Sam is alone – the one “superpower”  and he worries that everyone else on the playground is a potential threat to his supremacy so he terrifies, polices, tries to control, tries to influence and intimidates at will. And so keen are the ordinary kids to gain Sam's affections and good will that they comply, they fawn over him, do his bidding and listen to his "wisdombecause  as he has so often told them if they are not for him then they are against him. And he promises them his support and safety if they comply - rather like some mafia  protection racket – and the children, quite understandably, do as they are bid.  Yes, it sounds just like a parable reflecting the international relations of the past thirty years. And yes again .......it sounds just like our Foreign Secretary, William Hague, fawning and defending the dubious actions of the big guy - NSA - desperate to earn its approval, its "protection" and safety. We do as we are required and we give loyalty to a very dubious argument and institution. And meanwhile in addition to losing our privacy to the giant computers of Facebook, Google, GCHQ, NAS and the Pentagon we are all – everyone on the planet - at the same time losing a little of our humanity in this misguided, misplaced and immoral “war on terror”