29 September, 2014

Wargrave Wolves Waltz On.......

Getting the tactics right before the game!
On Saturday, as I stood on Wargrave Recreation Ground in Berkshire watching my grandson, Sam, playing for his football team (see last week’s blog). There were, of course, other footballing events taking place in the country’s great stadia at the same time. At Old Trafford, the “Theatre of Dreams,” mighty Manchester United were defeating West Ham – and in the process, the United and England captain Wayne Rooney was being sent off after “chasing and hacking down” the West Ham player Stewart Downing – a fellow England player.To his credit Rooney accepted that he was in the wrong after the West Ham manager described the event as “crazy and irresponsible” and Rooney’s own manager, Louis van Gaal,  came out with the rather bizarre comment that Rooney “....doesn’t have to change, he just needs to do it in a more friendly manner.” Meanwhile a few miles down the road at Anfield, home of Liverpool FC, the Liverpool player Mamadou Sakho stormed out of the ground prior to the game when he heard that he had not been selected to play in the match against Everton. Again, to his credit he later apologised when he faced a barrage of criticism from both club and fans but events like these make me wonder where it all goes wrong.
A bit of pre-match warm up

Whatever the “pressures” on these top sportsmen they seem to have an insatiable capacity to act like badly behaved children – unable to control their tantrums and, to coin a  modern phrase, “Throw their toys out of the pram”. Of course it is nice to have a get out clause that appears to explain and justify these outbursts – namely the pressures of the game – but it really doesn’t wash. I am always reminded of two things when that excuse is offered. Firstly really great players – Bobby Charlton, Tom Finney, Bobby Mooore, Gary Lineker, Franz Beckenbaur, Pele, Lionel Messi............ don’t get sent off or behave as Sakho did. Their skills do the talking for them. As in life it is the inadequate players that shout loudest  and behave badly to make up for and cover their many deficiencies And secondly, I am always reminded of the wonderful comment by the “golden boy of cricket” the  great Australian player and former war time fighter pilot Keith Miller who, when asked to talk about the pressures of playing  international cricket, colourfully remarked: "Pressure, I'll tell you what pressure is. Pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse. Playing at the top level sport is not pressure – it’s a joy."
Shaking hands with the opposition 

So I wonder where it all goes wrong for as I watched Wargrave Wolves play Darby Green and Potley Dynamos on Saturday I saw all that is good in sport. I saw two teams trying their hardest to win. I saw every player smile and accept the referee’s decisions. I saw these boys, and their parents, accept the unwritten rules of the game – shaking hands with the opposition, applauding a good effort on either side, acknowledging that there were two teams on the pitch and that both demanded respect. When  players were substituted or left out no one walked away in a bad tempered huff – they sat on the side and clapped when those on the pitch did well...........and so it went on. And yet, despite this, it was still exciting and both sides still desperately wanted to win – just as much as the players at Liverpool or Manchester United wanted to win. When, near to the end of a very close game which either side could have won, the Wargrave player Max Meader broke through and scored the winning goal (and his second of the game) everyone – Wargrave and Darby Green spectators both applauded his effort. And in the last few minutes as Darby desperately tried to equalise everyone both on the pitch and off it were excited and tense........and yet no-one chased after and “hacked down” anyone as the United and England captain did an hour or two later at Old Trafford. So I ask myself what brings about this fundamental change in temperament and human nature in just a few short years?
And we are off!

My hour or so stood at the side of the pitch restored much of my waning faith in sport and those involved. All that I saw and heard was positive  and wholesome. No foul language, everybody willing to take a turn, no confrontations between players or between fans. Everybody giving 100% in their efforts to win the game but at the same time respecting the efforts of others. I saw children ranging from 6 or 7 year of age up to teenagers all learning the sort of things that sport at its best can teach – personal discipline, adherence to rules, acceptance of a decision – even when you might disagree with it – endeavour, listening to instructions and advice, digging deep when the going gets tough, not losing your head when things go wrong.........the list is endless and it was all there in abundance. It was everything that professional sport appears to have lost. And underpinning all this the fact that they were all enjoying a game, learning a skill which will hopefully develop and grow as they become older to provide a long term pleasure and recreation.
Can we get that equaliser?

As I predicted in my last blog, my rose coloured glasses told me that my grandson Sam, of course was the best player on the pitch and that at the end when his team had won the game (they have now played three and won three) their success was all due to him! Of course it wasn’t – rather, it was due to the efforts of all.  And in any case the winning is only a very small part of it. Someone once said that it isn't winning that's important it's taking part. Well I'm not too sure that's completely true. It is about winning - and about losing - that is what a game of any kind is about be it football, cricket, chess or a card game like snap! There are winners and losers and there is nothing wrong in that. What is important is how you win and how you lose. Are you able to accept both with dignity and good humour. And that, indeed was the final thing that the morning gave to the boys as the final whistle blew. Both teams were unbeaten prior to the game so Darby and Potley Dynamo players and fans must have been hugely disappointed not to have won. Wargrave, for their part were very lucky to win.  But to the credit of the Darby boys their disappointment didn't show. Defeat was accepted graciously - they applauded the Wargrave team and for their part the Wargrave players were magnanimous in victory. And, of course, the two teams will both look forward to their next meeting when, I'm sure, Darby and Potley will be anxious to reverse the result - and that is just as it should be. Again, another life lesson - if at first you don't succeed try, try try again.

These are surely important life lessons that I would want my grandchildren to experience and learn from for it is not really about sport it is about life itself – the accepting of what is and being able to rise again from failure or accept that wining or succeeding is a very transitory thing. Enjoy your successes but remember that failure might be just around the corner. That is the real value of sport – it is a vehicle, a metaphor for life where one can learn about yourself and about others – how far you can push yourself and how you must treat others like you. It is a huge lesson that most of the top teams and players in England clearly have not learned – when they see winning as an entitlement and defeat as unacceptable then they “chase and hack down” or “storm out of the ground” when things don’t suit them - it appears to justify their actions to both the player and the fan. Clearly something goes very wrong between the recreation ground and the great stadia across the nation.

26 September, 2014

Wargrave Recreation Ground to Wembley World Cup?

I suppose all parents want their children to do better than they did and to have a better life, more opportunities and the rest. That is certainly true for Pat and I – although we came from fairly humble backgrounds with the help of  good fortune, good parents and maybe a bit of hard work on our part I would like to think that we made then most of what we had. I know that my mother and father when they watched me collect my master’s degree were both quietly bowled over and although they didn’t say much it became a constant source of pride.  I’m sure that their friends got fed up of hearing the tale of them seeing me being presented with the degree! It is of course what we do as parents – we not only do we want the best for our children but are quietly satisfied when we see it all go right. And it doesn’t end once they are grown up - even as adults you still want things to go right for them – their job, their family, their own children. When, as a grandparent you see one of your grandchildren making a success of something – their school work, their playing of a musical instrument, their first job and the like then one gets that same feeling of pleasure and pride.

John in his playing days
Kate in her orchestra
As I wrote those words I thought back to a Christmas about ten years ago. It was the first Christmas after the death of my mother and my dad, who was himself a very ill man with only a year or so to live, was spending Christmas with us. After tea we sat round the table and my son John, who is a management accountant was explaining his new job as  chief finance officer to us. It all sounded very complicated to me and I must admit after a few Christmas drinks I wasn’t taking it all in  but as I sat there I watched my dad; he was quite mesmerised by what John was saying. I’m sure that he didn’t understand much of what John was explaining about the work, his company and role but as I watched I knew what dad was thinking. You only had to look at dad to see the wonderment and huge pride as he listened to his grandson. I knew with certainty what was going through his mind: “Here I am, a humble lorry driver who never passed an exam or got a qualification in my life but worked hard, was never out of work, had little schooling, but always turned myself out every day looking smart and professional – shining boots, neatly knotted tie, clean overalls – and who always gave my unopened wage packet each Thursday night over to my wife (my mother)..........haven’t I been successful! My son is a teacher and my grandson a management accountant dealing with millions of pounds every day and is a "boss", he’s got the world at his feet......and somewhere deep down he is part of me.....I must have done something right”. A few months later dad was very ill in hospital and on the day he was to be discharged John went to collect him to take him home. Dad told me many times – and I know he bored all his neighbours with the same story of what happened. He never tired of telling the nurses as he waited for John to arrive “My grandson is a management accountant and a chief finance officer – he’ll sort my medication out.....he’s coming to pick me up in his car......make sure that I'm ready, he’s a busy man, he’s driven up from London to take me home” And then when John at last arrived at the hospital (according to dad) the nurses scurried around to make sure that everything was ready and there were no delays in dad’s discharge........ "they certainly jumped when John walked in, they couldn't do enough for him" dad told us all! Dad had told all the ward about his grandson and made sure that John’s reputation went before him! Put simply, dad was hugely proud of both his grandson and granddaughter and saw their success as proof of his own success.

As a grandparent, I know how he felt – my five grandchildren are still young, but when I see how they are progressing at school, when I look at them and see what they appear to be turning into I am quietly delighted and hopeful for their futures. Of course, things can (and do) go wrong – but just as with one’s own children one hopes that your grandchildren will do even better and have even greater opportunities in this mad, frightening and uncertain world than we did. But, for me (and maybe all parents?) there is another dimension to all this which is equally satisfying. It is something that has become very apparent to both Pat and I over the past few weeks.

Sophie & Ellie - future Olympic
Our daughter, Kate, has two girls – Sophie and Ellie. From the earliest days Kate has poured herself into her daughters – every waking hour it seems is used up doing exciting and interesting and valuable things. The girls play musical instruments, they are both outstanding swimmers, they are members of various groups like brownies and guides, they do adventurous things such as canoeing, no holiday is a time spent lying by  a pool – all sorts of exciting trips and adventures are planned.... in short they live exciting and fulfilling lives. I am in awe of what Kate – and husband Andrew - puts into her family.  It tires me out just listening to all they are doing! Watching her girls grow up into bright, alert, adventurous young women reminds me of the old adage by (I think) Brigham Young, the founder of the Latter Day Saints Church: “You educate a man; you educate a man. You educate a woman; you educate a generation.” – certainly true in the case of Kate – and hopefully what she is passing on to her girls they in turn will pass onto any children that they have.

John (3rd from left back row) in
his first team - Ruddington Village
When Pat and I were “bringing up” Kate and John we tried, like all other parents, to support them, give them opportunities to enjoy and succeed at different things, advise them when they needed it and of course come down heavily on them when they needed that (a thing that was a frequent occurrence as they became teenagers)! Our interest in music meant that both children had music lessons – a dismal failure as far as John was concerned(!) but for Kate it bore fruit, she now gets a huge amount of pleasure from her music and leads a small orchestra and has many musical friends. She took to canoeing – an activity which made her many friends at university and provided a wonderful outdoor pursuit for Kate, a girl who was not sporting in the competitive sense, and with it she developed her love of swimming and life saving. And the list goes on. John was sports mad and most of our weekends were spent at the side of a football or cricket pitch as he made progress and moved up the sporting ladder eventually playing professionally and semi professionally. For us as parents it was hard – getting children to orchestra rehearsals, music lessons, swimming lessons, cricket practice, football games and at the same time ensuring that school work and homework were all fitted in – but it is, of course what parents do.
Sam (3rd from right) in his team - Wargrave Wolves!

And that is the extra dimension that I find myself increasingly enjoying as my five grandchildren grow up. Glad, of course that they are all healthy and seemingly able children; glad that John and Ruth and Kate and Andrew take such good care of them and are, as far as it is possible to be in these uncertain times, soundly established and in employment terms stable and successful. They are all those things but the extra dimension is that I get a quiet pleasure out of seeing them repeating what Pat and did all those years ago for their own children – music lessons, sporting opportunities, busy and exciting lives, fitting the other important things in like homework........ . In short, it is history repeating itself. What we did for Kate and John they now are doing for their children. I can sit back and (maybe egotistically) think to myself “We must have done something right”..........exactly what I think my dad thought all those years ago as he sat listening to John talking about his new job as a finance director: “I might only have been a humble lorry driver but look what my family have become”
Ellie may one day
play in the Berlin Phil! 
Luke might be goalkeeper
for England!

All this was brought home to me last week. John is now “retired” from playing football – his legs no longer able to keep up with the younger players! But, as his own three boys have begun to take an interest he has become involved in coaching the local boys’ team. Sam, his oldest is six and has just started to play in properly organised games – a league for children aged under 7. Each Saturday Pat and I get a phone call to tell how his team has done, and what sort of game he has had. In his first game he scored a hat trick (three goals) and so far his team have won all their games. And when, each Saturday tea time, Sam excitedly tells us about the game (and despite the fact that as I get older I become less competitive and have increasingly fallen out with the bloated world of professional football) I feel the old “stirrings” of those days spent watching John grow and develop into a good player. Suddenly, as I listen, my grandson is no longer a little 6 year old.......he is, I muse as i listen to him going to be a future captain of England, walking out at Wembley..... a future Bobby Moore – the ultimate footballer and sportsman – lifting the World Cup high and showing it to a delighted nation! All, of course sentimental pipe dreams – Sam may not have the talent or indeed may fall out of love with the game – but at this moment in time it makes me very proud to see what he and my other grandchildren are doing and succeeding at.  And it makes me even more proud of Kate and John that they are carrying on the tradition with their own children. I find it incredibly gratifying that in passing on to their children the sorts of things that we passed on to them they are in a way saying that what we did was of value and appreciated - and they want to do the same thing for their own kids.
Will Sophie - starring here in her school play
"Pirates of the Curried Bean"(!) one day grace
 the stage of the Royal Shakespeare Company?
Alex might be the next George Best or
David Beckham

So tomorrow (Saturday) Pat and I will make an early start to drive the 120 miles or so down to Wargrave near Reading. We will need to make an early start since Sam’s game kicks off at 11 a.m. and it will take us over 2 hours to get there. He doesn’t know that we are coming to watch him but I know it will please him. And as I stand on the touchline I know that I will be convinced that Sam is the best player on the pitch - that mistakes will never be his fault and that all the best moves will be initiated by him! I know that despite my increasing lack of a competitive spirit I will be urging him on and hoping that his team overcome the other team and win handsomely. In short I will be doing just what my dad did in hospital all those years ago, building Sam up into a great player just as my dad built John up to the nurses and other patients – and all for a very simple reason, that because deep down what I see in my son and daughter, and now in my grandchildren, is what I trust represents the very best of what I might be or might have been.  When I see Ellie with her clarinet, Sophie with her violin; when I see both girls plough through the swimming pool water as dolphin-like Olympic champions because of all the hard work that Kate has put in; when I watch Sam in his football kit practicing in the back garden and his two younger brothers wanting to join in I know that all the hard work that Pat and I put in all those years ago is still bearing fruit with a different generation.

January 12th 1993 Old Trafford - John Beale
number 5 and opposite him the United captain - future
international  star Gary Neville
And as Sam walks out with his team tomorrow morning I know that lurking in the back of my mind will be a cold night in January 1993. John, our son, was captain of the Notts County Youth team and they were in the quarter final of the FA Youth Cup – and playing hot favourites Manchester United. The United team was filled with players who were already becoming household names – Beckham, Scholes, Neville. Gillespie, Butt, Casper, Savage – players who would all become internationally famous top players. Pat and I sat high in the Old Trafford stands and watched as our son led his team out onto the hallowed turf of the “Theatre of Dreams”, Old Trafford – a place where the very greatest names in the game had shown off their skills to the world: Charlton, Law, Best, Cantona, Edwards, Foulkes, Styles, Crerand......and now our son was leading a team onto that same pitch. We watched as he shook hands with the United captain, an eighteen year old Gary Neville, who despite his youth was already being tipped as one of English football’s future superstars. I can remember thinking as I sat there that this was what all the years of standing on a cold wet touchline had been for. The result wasn’t important (we lost 3-1 but didn’t disgrace ourselves!) but the occasion was – etched in my memory, filling me with pride. Just as my dad was filled with pride as he listened to John talk of his new job.
Sam ready for the game.......will he one day lift the World
Cup at Wembley like some latter day Bobby Moore.
I can dream - but even if that doesn't come true I know that
the tradition is being kept on by my children.

And tomorrow morning, Wargrave Recreation Ground won’t quite be Old Trafford but I know that I’ll get the same buzz – seeing Sam turn out for his team starting the same journey that John began all those years ago and knowing that John, like his sister Kate, is continuing to carry the torch for the next generation. Others may disagree but I find that quite rewarding and satisfying.  And yes, it fills me with pride and I know that if my dad was still alive he would have loved to have had a phone call from his great grandson each Saturday telling him how he had done in his football match. It all reminds me of one of my favourite songs by Eric Clapton – My Father’s Eyes:

........And I hear those ancient lullabies.
And as I watch this seedling grow,
Feel my heart start to overflow.
Where do I find the words to say?
How do I teach him?
What do we play?
Bit by bit, I´ve realized
That´s when I need them,

That´s when I need my father´s eyes........

23 September, 2014

Maybe I should take an apple for the teacher!

This week I’m off back to “school” – or something approximating to it! Pat has been an active member of the local U3A (University of the 3rd Age) for the past few years and although I am a member and help with mailing members about meetings and changes to the programme I have never really been an active participant in courses or groups.

For those not familiar with the U3A it is a very popular and successful organisation throughout the UK. It began in the early 1980s  following ideas, initiatives and plans laid by a Cambridge academic, Peter Laslett and various other national figures most notably Michael Young and Eric Midwinter. Midwinter was an internationally acclaimed social analyst and historian whilst Young had helped to write the great Labour manifesto of 1945 and subsequently achieved international fame as the author of “The Rise of the Meritocracy” and “Family and Kinship in East London” – two seminal works that influenced thinking on social policy throughout the second half of the 20th century. Young also went on to be the major founder of the Open University – he was a man who has  had a profound influence on the social, cultural and academic life of the country. The basic idea underpinning the U3A is that older people (those over 55) have a wealth of knowledge, skills and experiences that should not be wasted – these can be passed onto others to enjoy and benefit from. So the organisation – purely voluntary – is based on the idea that those who fall into this “third age” bracket, the 55 pluses, can lead groups or join groups on things that interest them. Members pay a small annual membership fee and then usually a couple of pounds for each meeting attended simply to cover the costs of room hire etc. Our local U3A runs most of its meetings in a local church facility where spare rooms are available – thus, not only do the members benefit but so too does the church who get the revenue for room hire. A wealth of courses and groups run in our local U3A – art appreciation, painting and drawing groups, greeting card making, dance, IT for older people, sailing, psychology, play reading, book groups, various walking groups, poetry groups, Mah Jong, gardening, card playing, a film group, wine appreciation, science, singing, history, petanque, creative writing, theatre and quiz groups, French conversation, music history groups and so on – the list is quite endless and ever changing. Some groups last a short time, say 6 meetings, whilst others run month after month and year after year. Some groups are weekly whilst others are bi-monthly or monthly. For many older people it is a valuable social opportunity whilst for other it is a valuable way of keeping the mind active. Each month there is an open meeting for all members who care to attend. This is an opportunity for members to get together, discuss itmes of mutual interest or concern in relation to the U3A and this is always accompanied by a visiting speaker – for example, some months ago the speaker was an ex-diplomat who had spent time in the troubled state of Syria. He was able to give a firsthand commentary on the problems of that region. In a week or two’s time the speaker is an authority on birds and will discuss, in particular, barn owls. This week’s speaker is a gentleman who has had a life long association with the theatre and will retell anecdotes and stories about the world of the theatre and actors. Various outings are also arranged – shopping outgoings to some distant venue, visits to places of interest (for example, Pat and I joined a trip to York a few weeks ago and last week Pat went to London to tour Buckingham Palace), and there are a number of groups which may often appeal to those people who are perhaps widowed or single such as a holiday companions group or a Sunday lunch group. In short, the whole thing provides a valuable learning and support network all at a very moderate cost and it is all self running.
Michael Young - one of those responsible for the U3A

As I say, I have helped with the local administration  for the past year or two but rarely been involved with the groups, although I have helped out with one of the IT groups as an extra pair of hands assisting people who are struggling with their lap top or tablet computer skills. This week, however, is different: I begin two courses which are just starting up for the coming year: a basic philosophy course and a “meander” (so described by the course leader!) through early English poetry – Beowulf, Chaucer and the like. The two course leaders have briefed those of us who have signed up on pre-course reading and tasks to complete and we are ready to go (I think!).

And..........just like the child starting school for the first time I am terrified! Will I be able to cope with it? Will I make a fool of myself? Will others in the groups be so much more knowledgeable and confident than I? The groups, I know, are very low key, they are not great academic testing grounds, indeed, I think the social aspect is as important as the learning, but as the first sessions approach (each of these two groups meet for one session  per month, so it is hardly demanding of time) what seemed a good idea when I signed up now seems less so! I know now what the young children starting at school felt when they saw me stride across the playground or into the classroom! I know now what it might feel like to be sitting there in my seat and suddenly be asked a question by the teacher – as I did millions of times of children in my many classes. The boot is very much on the other foot! Of course, when I was a child or student myself I learned to take it all in my stride but now sixty years later it suddenly doesn’t sound so easy and for me sounds very threatening!

It all reminds me of a number of years ago when I enrolled on a night school course to learn German. I went with a friend who had a little more proficiency than I (as, I think, did every other member of the class!). Each week we were given homework tasks based upon the course text book. I did my “homework” more than diligently and even spent time working through the following chapter which I knew would form the basis of the next lesson  so that I was extra well prepared for any questions that might be asked! I was a real swot! It wasn’t that I wanted to be the star of the class – far from it – I just didn’t want to be the class fool! Put simply, I wanted not to be noticed, to be able to merge into the background and not be known either for my lack of ability or indeed my brilliance. I wonder how many children have sat in my classes over 40 years and felt exactly as I did then and do now – silently, perhaps praying “Please don’t ask me Mr Beale......”? I might laugh about that now but it was and is a salutary lesson in what we often do to children in school; there will undoubtedly be, in any class, a very significant number of children who, for whatever reason, will feel uncomfortable or threatened when they don’t know the answer or feel foolish because others do. In our modern education system where success is the only game in town I wonder how many children who find “success” difficult (and I’m not just talking about the very weak or unable children) and who will feel increasingly threatened, stressed and eventually alienated when the success demanded by teachers, parents and wider society eludes them. My two U3A courses are unimportant – if I don’t like them or find them too easy or too hard I can leave. Children don’t usually have that option - and if they do opt out then they are judged to be failures or somehow less worthy.
Poet and storyteller Allan Ahlberg
And as I write those words I remember the wonderful poem “Billy McBone” by children’s poet, author and ex-teacher Allan Ahlberg whose school (Brookside) in Leicester I used to visit when supporting, monitoring and assessing trainee teachers:

Billy McBone
Had a mind of his own,
Which he mostly kept under his hat.
The teachers all thought
That he couldn't be taught,
But Bill didn't seem to mind that.

Billy McBone
Had a mind of his own,
Which the teachers had searched for for years.
Trying test after test,
They still never guessed
It was hidden between his ears.

Billy McBone
Had a mind of his own,
Which only his friends ever saw.
When the teacher said 'Bill,
Whereabouts is Brazil?'
He just shuffled and stared at the floor

Billy McBone
Had a mind of his own,
Which he kept under lock and key.
While the teachers in vain
Tried to burgle his brain,
Bill's thoughts were off wandering free

I think that I have everything ready .......maybe an apple for the teacher?
I wonder if, as I sit in Tuesday’s philosophy class or the medieval English poetry group on Wednesday, I, too, will be Billy McBone! Will my thoughts be “wondering free” as I gaze out of the window in a day dream? Will I shuffle and look at the floor when the course leader asks a question? I’m already getting worried! And as I sit here writing this there rests at the side of me on my desk my note book (newly bought for my courses!) all neatly written in with pre-course notes arising from the tasks set; the required text books bought and various parts highlighted as required by the course leader, my pencil case filled with new ballpoints and a highlighting pen........in other words I am ready for what is thrown at me! When I started looking at the various set pre-course tasks I dutifully drew nice straight margins on my note book and made sure that I underlined titles of the various tasks – all very school boyish! As I did it I remembered all the assemblies that I had led at the start of each academic year when I had reminded the children that this new school year was a time to start new and that everyone should try hard to make sure that their work and their books and their handwriting etc. all stayed as neat as on this first day of the year! And now, here I am; it is September the start of a new school year, my little bag is packed with all I need - new fresh note books and sharpened pencils and just like the children going to school and meeting their new teachers I am anxious and keen to create a good impression - I've just thought........ maybe I should take an apple for the teacher!

What creatures of habit we are indeed!

21 September, 2014

Of Gentlemen and Fools

Tricky Dicky - or gentleman?
In last week’s New Statesmen there was an article about Richard Nixon – the disgraced president of the USA who resigned his presidency 40 years ago this year following the Watergate exposures. The article retold the tale of Nixon’s brush with British  prime minister Harold Wilson at the start of the Nixon Presidency. In the run up to election the hot favourite to win the presidency was Hubert Humphrey  and Harold Wilson, anticipating a Humphrey victory, appointed a new ambassador to Washington  - the former Labour MP and then editor of the New Statesman, John Freeman. Freeman had, over the previous months and years written many scathing articles on Nixon which had increasingly irritated the Nixon camp – but to Wilson’s horror having just appointed Freeman and sent him off to Washington to represent British interests, Nixon, against all the odds, won the Presidency. Wilson (and Freeman) were left in an embarrassing situation with egg very much on their faces – the man they had so actively disparaged was now the most powerful man in the world. It was a diplomatic faux pas of some magnitude!

John Freeman 

In early 1969 the newly inaugurated President Nixon visited the UK and on his arrival was wined and dined at 10 Downing Street. John Freeman, was present as was Wilson – and they were clearly worried about any repercussions following the criticism and scorn they had heaped on Nixon in the run up to the election. It was a tense occasion – but Nixon rose to it. As they all sat down to dinner – senior politicians from both sides of the Atlantic, civil servants and the rest Nixon rose to his feet and lightened the mood. He tapped his glass and, smiling, said......"Some people say there’s a new Nixon, and they wonder if there’s a new Freeman. I’d like to think that’s all behind us. After all, he’s the new diplomat and I’m the new statesman”. The assembled guests roared with laughter – Nixon’s quip had taken the heat out of the situation.  His, clever use of the name of the magazine that Freeman had used to criticise him and his reference that they were all in changed circumstances so should forgive, forget and move on was both magnanimous and appreciated. Wilson  recognising that this had got him and his new ambassador off the diplomatic hook – quickly scribbled a note on the back of his menu card and had it passed to Nixon. It said “That was one of the kindest and most generous acts that  I have witnessed in a long political career. You can’t be born a lord but it is possible – and you have shown it – to be born a gentleman.”  Freeman went on to enjoy a long and distinguished career in Washington and developed a close relationship with Nixon which in the turbulent times of the cold war was of huge benefit to both nations and the world at large.
Harold Wilson

Reading the article and the comments made by Nixon and Wilson got me thinking about the idea of “a gentleman” – it all sounds a bit old fashioned and twee in this day and age and I wondered, as I read Wilson’s comment, if he had in his mind the famous aphorism of King James I who commented “As your King I can make a you a lord, but only God can make  you a gentleman”. Or, maybe, Wilson was thinking of the equally famous comment by Cardinal Newman in the nineteenth century: “It is almost the definition of a gentleman to say that he is one who never inflicts pain”. One might argue that Nixon, too, was thinking of Newman’s comment – clearly, the American president was out to build bridges and not seeking painful revenge for the earlier criticism of John Freeman. My own favourite as to the essential  of a gentleman is one proposed by Confucius: “A gentleman would be ashamed should his deeds not match his words” – and although Nixon’s later career was shrouded in dispute and dishonour just maybe a bit of Confucius was in the back of his mind when he rose to speak that night at the Downing Street dinner.

On a more flippant note, while writing this it occurs to me what I often used to say when in school before I retired. Like many schools we increasingly found ourselves providing tissues for children – instead of tissues simply being available in case of an emergency they increasingly  became free use – a box on every teacher’s desk and the children simply used them when required. This increasingly irritated me since it was costly to the school and, more importantly, I also felt we were not encouraging the children/parents to ensure that they had with them a basic piece of hygiene -  a handkerchief or packet of tissues. I had many “discussions” with the staff on this and always lost! – my grumpy riposte was always the same: “A gentleman always carries three handkerchiefs – one for himself, one for a lady and one for an emergency........!”  I never won the argument with the rest of the staff, but always felt better as, grumpily stumping out of the staff meeting, I said it!!!!!

But, to move on. Over the past few days I have read with some considerable despair of a number of other news items that cast a different slant on the world than considerations of the essential nature of a gentleman. I read the other day that the state of Texas executed Lisa Coleman – a convicted child murderer. There seems no doubt that this lady was guilty and Texas was merely following its state law in the matter. Apparently some 1400 people have been executed in the USA since 1976 but only seven states – Texas, Florida, Oklahoma, Alabama, North Carolina, Arkansas and Virginia – have imposed the death penalty on women in the past three decades. Whatever the moral, religious or legal arguments for or against the death penalty what I can’t get my head round is that it would simply appear not to work.  To use Texas as an example: Texas is by far the USA’ s “executions leader”, with 517 inmates put to death in the past 32 years. That represents 37% of the national total and yet  Texas comprises only about 8% of the US population. The state has carried out nine executions this year and has another eight scheduled between 15th  October and 18th  March. Am I missing something? Clearly, the good folk of Texas and their state government  need to start examining themselves and their society – because if they have so many people who qualify for the death sentence executing them clearly isn’t solving the problem. Either the killers or the Texan residents are just not learning the lessons of history – state imposed violence and imposing the death sentence simply doesn’t work in reducing murder. Even the briefest study of criminal history in any country in the world manifestly proves that – that the good folk of Texas and other US states seem unable to grasp that is a matter of concern. One can only assume that states like Texas who are burying their heads in the sand so far as what works and doesn't work in reducing the need for the death penalty merely wish to keep the punishment not as a deterrent - since it clearly doesn't work - but as a form of retribution and vengeance. That, it seems to me, is never a sound or morally justifiable reason for a law of any kind. It merely makes Ghandi's comment even more true: "An eye for and eye leaves the world blind" - and boy, are there a lot of blind people in that part of the world
But it doesn't work!

Similarly, on the same day I read about the latest execution I also read that school  departments across the US have taken advantage of free military surplus gear, stocking up on mine-resistant armoured vehicles, grenade launchers and scores of M16 rifles. At least 26 school districts have participated in the Pentagon’s surplus program, which is new but has become especially pertinent after police responded to protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, with teargas, armour-clad military trucks and riot gear. Federal records show schools in Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, Nevada, Texas and Utah obtained surplus military gear. At least six California districts have also  received the equipment.

Now it may well be that in the violence and killing that seems endemic in the USA these items are judged to be necessary – just as executing people is judged to be good idea in Texas – but again, it seems to me that people are just not learning from either the experience and the facts. Violence begets violence and the facts are clear, it doesn’t work. In a bizarre twist San Diego school district said it was painting its armoured vehicles white and hoping to use the Red Cross symbol on it to assuage community worries.  A spokeswoman confirmed that the vehicles had been stripped of weapon mounts and turrets and would be outfitted with medical supplies and teddy bears for use in emergencies to evacuate students and staff! As I read this something else crossed my mind......in the past week or so we have heard increasing sabre rattling by the US and the British government about what they plan in relation to the worsening middle east situation and in particular  the struggle against the ISIS terrorist organisation. The plan, such as it is, is to ramp up the military hardware and action and, where only  a few weeks ago, we were being told that there would be no military intervention this now seems to have been conveniently forgotten. We now have “a couple of thousand advisers on the ground” we are told; sadly, a trawl through the recesses and dark corners of my mind reveals that I seem to remember about fifty years ago hearing that same phrase in relation to Vietnam – “advisers” were to be available but would play no part in any military operations...........!  Well, we all know where that lead and how it all ended in tears and ignominy (at least for the Americans). And, so, I wondered hopefully, if the San Diego spokeswoman had got it right – that just, maybe, stripping out the weapons and filling these killing machines with teddy bears and good will might be the better option. It would seem to me that teddy bears and a bit of common sense in Texas, or in rioting American school districts or in Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq – and the rest – might just be more productive than violence, war and death sentences as solutions to the problems.
Every school should have one apparently!

“Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent” suggested Isaac Azimov and fellow author Tolstoy said:  “All violence consists in some people forcing others, under threat of suffering or death, to do what they do not want to do”. Absolutely, I hear myself saying and I can’t but say “spot on” when I read Socrates telling us from two and half millennia ago that "Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it!".  Clearly, those in power in the White House, in Downing Street or in states like Texas haven’t thought about these things – they are displaying their incompetence by failing to learn from history so are repeating the errors of the past. They have a total lack of understanding of the human condition and what might prompt and sponsor violence in the first place and so cannot begin to understand how to deal with it in a positive way that will change individuals and societies. With fools in charge of the asylum the outlook for the world looks bleak indeed.

And so to the matter of fools. You might be thinking that certain parts of the world and many of those in power have a monopoly upon incompetence and stupidity. It may often seem like that but it is not so. Over the past couple of days I have come across several items that illustrate well what a foolish, Alice in Wonderland, place the whole world is becoming.  The more I look and the older I become I am minded to think that Alice’s make believe world is more and more our own: "If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn't. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn't be. And what it wouldn't be, it would. You see?”  says Alice and the Cheshire cat’s comment seems apposite: "We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad."
"How do you know I’m mad?" said Alice.
"You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn’t have come here.” 

Quite – we live in foolish times!

I read this morning that in Texas (again!!!!!) the constitutional right of “Texans to photograph strangers has been upheld as an essential component of freedom of speech - even if those images should happen to be surreptitious “upskirt”pictures of women taken for the purposes of sexual gratification!........ The judges said that photographs were “inherently expressive”, like other artistic mediums such as films or books, and so the process of creating them, as well as the images themselves, was part of an American’s right to free speech because “thought is intertwined with expression”. Well that might be a legal nicety and may well sit well with the right to free speech as enshrined in the US constitution and in other human rights legislation but in the end it is the legality and reasoning of the madhouse and the fool. We live in bizarre times.

But don’t be fooled, the Texas court system doesn’t have a monopoly on stupidity (although they are working very hard on all fronts to win the world stupidity award). Also in this morning’s paper I read that Oxford and Cambridge universities – two of the most prestigious places of learning on the planet and attended only by those with very greatest minds on the planet are to introduce one or two new initiatives for the coming year.
They may be the nation's brightest and best - but they
haven't quite got their heads round basic right and wrong

Because of increased incidences of  sexual violence on university campuses students will have to attend what are called “sexual consent workshops” where they will have explained to them (presumably in  very short, easy to understand words) what they might and might not do when out on their first date or what they are or are not allowed to do with or without the permission of another. A spokeswoman for Cambridge said "We are sending out a very clear message with these workshops that sexual violence is not welcome within the university community."  Presumably her saying this implies that there are some who think it is welcome!  It is further suggested that there is a need now because "A lot of people come to university with a very, very basic sex education which stems from sheer biology." Mmmmm......so our young, indeed, the brightest and best of our young, people who have more access and opportunity to information and understanding than any previous generation in the history of the world now “come to university with very basic sex education”.....absolute rubbish! To be clear, this is not about sex education it is about basic right and wrong – which clearly our brightest and best have failed to understand or get to grips with despite the years spent in our education system, despite the privileged background from which many of them come and despite the fact that by the time they get to university they are legally classed as adults. Am I missing something?

Additionally, however, we are told, there is the problem of what is termed “the lad culture", which began in the 1990s. A survey this week suggested lad culture, sexual harassment and assault affect women right across the higher education sector. A spokesperson said the university had recently reviewed its harassment policy to make "more explicit its inclusion of all aspects of harassment, including sexual violence, assault and stalking". Another problem facing many female students at Oxford and Cambridge are, we are informed,  the drinking societies, where, they say, lad culture persists. “The Wyverns”, a notorious drinking society composed mostly of public school boys at Magdalene College, Cambridge, did, for example, cancel its annual "jelly wrestling" contest for female students following a petition of complaint; but it then  subsequently hired a bucking bronco in the shape of a penis. Then there's the "finger a fresher" challenge, and the annual mass drinking bash known as "Caesarean Sunday". "The environment in some of these drinking societies is at best sexually aggressive, at worst openly misogynistic," said a spokeswoman. Quite so – and again it is deeply worrying that many of these people will go on to positions of power and influence within our society! The lunatics will be in charge of the mad house!
Mmmmm! - is this one of the essential skills  and
qualifications to gain a place at Cambridge? It would seem so.

For the life of me I cannot understand a number of points: Firstly, we are talking here about the brightest and best in society – why do they need it all explaining to them that to stalk a woman or harass a women in any way is wrong? What is so difficult to understand? – they have often been to the greatest schools in the land (Eton and places), almost certainly in the case of the members of the Wyvern society come from the great families of the land and have had  a very privileged upbringing, and yet despite having all these brains and this background still need to be given extra instruction on basic rights and wrongs. Secondly, I ask myself, what the hell are the university authorities doing – it seems to me to be not a matter of negotiation. Clearly anyone who, having been deemed academically worthy of a place at Oxbridge should not find the harassment of women, the lad culture, bucking broncos in the shape of a penis, fingering freshers or drinking bashes reasonable pastimes – nor should they require extra classes to give them simply pointers on right and wrong. If they do then manifestly they should not be in the university. It seems to me to be non-negotiable. For the university to tolerate an “environment in some of these drinking societies is at best sexually aggressive, at worst openly misogynistic,"  is as stupid and unacceptable as court ruling in Texas about “upskirt” photographs. It is, as I say, the reasoning of the mad house.

And finally something a little lighter but also a sad reflection of our mad, mad world. Yesterday morning Pat and went to Leicester to do a bit of shopping. As we walked through the Highcross shopping centre which, since it was early in the day, was quite quiet we noticed a huge queue which, as we approached, we realised went way down the shopping mall. As we gazed at the queue we realised that it was eventually disappearing into the Apple Store. Pat quickly realised that all these people were queuing to buy the new Apple i-phone which had just been released for sale. Many of those in the queue had sleeping bags and fold up chairs – clearly they had been there a long time. I stood open mouthed partly because I could not conceive of why anyone would make such a gesture just to get a phone but mostly because as I looked and took in the fact that the queue was virtually wholly comprised of young people – teenagers and those in their early twenties – and I could not comprehend how these people could afford the £500/£600 that the new phone costs. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t begrudge them their “toy” but I guess that most of these people already have a mobile phone so this is merely to keep up with the fashion. Further, I wondered since this was a mid week morning that none of them were at work  - so were they students, unemployed, not yet old enough to work.......and if so where does the money come from? And finally, I read weekly in the paper and hear on the TV news from our pundits and politicians how hard it is for young people today – they cannot afford a mortgage or the rents of properties in some of our major cities, they cannot afford the increases in university fees and even that the young have been hit hardest by the recession and many can find no work. Well all that’s as maybe  but when I go into Nottingham to the theatre or cinema I do not see the bars and restaurants filled with middle aged or older people – I see it filled with the young, when I see youngsters going off on a gap year to the far corners of the earth I wonder where the money comes from and on Friday morning I wondered where the £600s were coming from to pay for this latest fashion must have? Apple must be laughing all the way to the bank.

When I returned home I glanced at the internet and found this article in the local Leicester newspaper, the Mercury:

"Hundreds of iPhone 6 fans queued outside Leicester's Highcross shopping centre on last night to ensure they were the first to get their hands on the new model. A line of tech-heads snaked through the shopping centre this morning, which opened at the earlier time of 6am.

Sham, who was front of the queue, was greeted by a round of applause from staff, as he entered the shop at 8am. The 19-year-old, who had been waiting since 9am yesterday morning, said: “It feels really good to finally have my hands on it. I was pleased to finally see the phone but I must admit, I was sad to see the money go.” Sham said he felt like a celebrity as he walked through the doors to buy his iPhone 6 Plus.“I plan on gloating to all of my friends and family for a little bit - I’m looking forward to showing it off. “But them I’m off to bed. “It will be the Apple Watch next - but I might pre-order that one.” Ronak had also been queuing for nearly 12 hours, with his girlfriend, Shanice  . Ronak, 20, who also brought an iPhone 6 Plus, said: “It is very exciting. The time actually passed really quickly overnight, I’d definitely do it again - the wait was worth it.” Shanice, added: “I need a bath before I even think about playing on my phone - I feel so gross. But I agree, it was worth the wait.”Jamie 19, who also joined the queue at 9am yesterday, said that “adrenalin” kept him awake throughout the night.“People might criticise us for queuing all night but to them, I’d say ‘haha, I’ve got the new iPhone and you don’t’.” Nikeal19, said: “It’s great, I can’t stop smiling. “Although, I’m ready for bed now.” Mohammed 21, was among the first 20 in the queue. He said: "It was a slightly chilly night but I do it because I love Apple. "I'm so excited to be one of the first in Leicester to get the phone."

The iPhone 6 cost new owners from £539 and the iPhone 6 Plus, from £619.99"
Yep - that was the queue we saw

Mmmmm.....all youngsters, all had the time and the money to spend and all were going back to bed – clearly there was no thought of going to work to earn the £600 required. I asked myself again where did the money come from? And I read that 20 year old Shanice wants to play on her phone and that 19 year old Jamie is so pleased he can’t stop smiling. Do I detect any sort of maturity here – sadly not – these are just overgrown babies – and rather foolish babies at that. Should I weep crocodile tears for the poverty stricken youth and their problems of today? I think not!

The old adage “A fool and his money are soon parted” was never more true that in Leicester’s shopping centre on Friday morning! Alice’s mad world is with us....and yes........Albert Einstein was indeed right: "Two things are infinite: The universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the universe." 

11 September, 2014

Check Your Privilege!

We all need someone to blame for
society's ills but are the "PC Brigade" simply
hard working people trying to do their
best in unimaginable circumstances?
For the past two years or so the UK has been on a soul searching mission as more  and more  examples of abuse of some kind have come to national prominence: the Jimmy Savile scandal and its aftermath which has seen several high profile celebrities in court accused of being sexual predators of some kind or other; we have heard allegations of corruption and abuse involving public figures such as the late MP Cyril Smith; and more recently the spotlight has fallen on abuse within the family and the local community – most recently the abuse of young girls by Asian men in the Rotherham area of South Yorkshire. Without wishing to minimise the dreadful nature of the allegations or findings, these events have been ready made fodder for the salacious monster that is the media and especially the tabloid newspaper industry. They have also been ready made platforms for solemn faced politicians, legal experts and moralisers to make pronouncements as to the state of the nation and what must be done. Government committees have sat and reported, the full weight of the courts is threatened and those who, it is deemed, should have prevented these dreadful happenings – the police, social workers, doctors, the BBC, teachers and the rest – have been pilloried. In the fall out from the Jimmy Savile scandal last year the newly appointed BBC Director General George Entwistle was forced out of post because someone had to be blamed for the BBC's failings in relation to Jimmy Savile - and this despite the fact that Entwistle was a long term and faithful servant of the BBC, recognised by all as a good and decent man and had had no hand in events that took place long before his tenure. His removal was filled with invective and hate such is the need for a sacrifice and that the mob be sated.   All the current angst, of course, may well be justified. Clearly, given the nature of the allegations and findings no person in authority can turn a blind eye; in short, something must be done – and rightly so we all cry. But just maybe our society needs cooler heads and more thought given to what is so wrong with our society rather than howling at those doing the job on our behalf. I am reminded of Friedrich Nietzche's comment: "If you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you" - truly, as we wring our hands and scream abuse, what we see in society's ills is only a reflection of ourselves. 

And.......... in amongst all this I have another slight anxiety. This is not about whether those accused or found wanting should not be punished or castigated, nor is it in any way to deny the truth of the reported occurrences. Clearly, there is something very wrong in our society and it is right and proper that the issues are addressed - but it is our society and ourselves that we need to look at first rather than blame and pillory those who have worked (and, yes, maybe made mistakes) to try to solve the ills of our nation. In the photo above, just maybe we should be more concerned about the picture and the comment about the young woman and the messages that it sends to people about the sexualisation of young women and its effect upon wider society's attitudes towards girls and women rather than castigating "the PC Brigade" - and before we start throwing brickbats at the social workers, police, administrators and others who are involved on a daily basis with the problems that result in our towns and cities.

The present Home Secretary, Theresa May -  into whose “in tray” all this eventually falls has to be seen to do something. Now although Mrs May is not my favourite person I do have to say that she has managed the “can of worms” that is the lot of any Home Secretary very well. It is not a job that I would like. In short she is damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t. In this morning’s Guardian, for example, she is taken to task by an MP who complains that she has made the wrong choice to chair the enquiry into child abuse arising out of the Rotherham and other exposures. “Just when it looked as though the inquiry into child sex abuse could finally get under way” says the MP,  “it once again has to face whitewash accusations. After the absurd appointment of Lady Butler-Sloss, which ensured the inquiry got off to a farcical start, Theresa May has made the equally dubious appointment of a replacement chair in Fiona Woolf. This time it emerges the chair has close links with Lord Brittan. Yes, Leon Brittan, the former home secretary who has been accused of covering up a massive child abuse scandal. May’s inquiry was supposed to reflect the change in attitudes to these crimes, showing a willingness to bring perpetrators to justice and face failings that have destroyed lives. Above all, it was about telling the story of people who have been ignored for far too long”.
Theresa May - a good Home Secretary - but can she really
understand the issues and problems facing many for whom
she has direct responsibility? 

I’m sure that the points being made by this MP are entirely justified – but there is, I believe, another dimension. Let me explain.

Last Christmas while visiting my son and family in their village (Twyford in Berkshire) we went as a family to the village Christmas Fair – street stalls selling Christmas ware, Santa, fairground rides and the like – a very pleasant evening out. Twyford is a very wealthy place where top end cars are parked on every drive and no one would dream of shopping at (say) Tesco or ASDA when there is a local Waitrose! Everything at the Christmas Fair was done in the best possible taste – morris dancers, polite stall holders, no bad behaviour or drunkenness and  as I stood at one of the stalls I suddenly realised that Theresa May was standing at the side of me – she is the local MP and lives at the adjoining village of Ruscombe. It was good to see a minister of state supporting the local charities and community. In the background hovered her two “minders”. She bought something at the stall and then disappeared into the throng. This area of the country – the Thames Valley is, as I say,  the UK's “wealth belt” – all the celebrities live in the area, it is the home of the rich and powerful in every sense of the word. Mrs May is married to a London banker and I am sure lives a pretty privileged life – which I do not begrudge her at all.
Twyford Christmas Fair - enjoyed by all, and all in the best
possible taste of the Thames Valley.A far cry from many
parts of our unequal nation.

But, when I look down the list of government ministers I find that every single one, like Mrs May, represents a wealthy, leafy area of the country. The vast majority are in the pleasant green areas surrounding London but those that are not are based in equally affluent and pleasant places – for example, George Osborne who is MP for Tatton in Cheshire, one of the richest areas of the nation.  And when I look at those figures I can’t help asking myself how can these people have any concept of what it is to live and work in a “deprived area” or at least an area where there are significant social, educational, ethnic or financial problems. When I read of the dreadful problems in Rotherham like everyone else I was horrified, but was I surprised - no. South Yorkshire like many parts of our country, faces huge problems.  That does not excuse child abuse or lack of action on the part of those responsible for administering the area but I have absolutely no doubt that the police, social workers, teachers, health workers, local government workers and the rest each day are fire fighting in a way that does not have to happen in the Royal County of Berkshire, in the Cheshire’s millionaire belt or in Oxfordshire’s dreamy Cotswold landscape where the Prime Minister David Cameron is the MP.

One of the trendy phrases that became fashionable on social networking sites a year or so was “Check your privilege”. Its meaning is not always obvious, because all too often the well-intentioned phrase is abused. But roughly speaking, it is a way of telling a person who is making a point that they should remember they are speaking from a privileged position, because they are, for example, white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied or wealthy. It is, in other words a reminder that not everyone sees life like you – and often for perfectly good reasons based upon their upbringing, their environment, their cultural identity and so on.  And I wonder, if these well meaning Ministers can, from their wealthy constituencies and ivory towers, ever understand, say, why a policemen or nurse or social worker struggling to keep his or her professional head above water in a tough area for day after day after day and week after week after week sometimes doesn’t react exactly how they should. But when they don’t and problems occur they are routinely pilloried by those in power who not only have the privilege of hindsight but also can easily come out with the quick fix, easy solution to the problems – without ever having to address them themselves.
 A thuggish, unpleasant man with no comprehension of
people or places.But bizarrely he is our "Communities
Minister"- whatever that is! Just the sort that one would
not want in your community - loud, abrasive and totally
lacking insight or empathy. A Yorkshire man by birth but
now a"professional  northerner" living in the sunny south
where life is easier, pleasanter and more "rewarding" -
far from the poorer, less favoured parts of our nation.

I can relate to this from two of my experiences in the classroom. Many, many years ago, as a fairly newly qualified teacher, I had a child in my class called Steven. He had caused major problems in the school from the earliest times. In today’s terms he probably wasn’t so bad but in those days he was classed as a very difficult child – not unable but attention seeking, plain naughty, aggressive towards  the other children, dishonest and constantly demanding. This was not a tough school – it was a pleasant rural place where the vast majority of the children were able, high attaining and well behaved and their parents were supportive and anxious for their children to do well. When Steven came into my class at the beginning of the academic year I was determined to do what no other teacher had so far done - succeed with him. I would pour resources in, I would support him, praise him and I would ensure that every bit of work was specifically addressed to him so that he could feel valued and succeed. After half a term I knew I had failed. I knew that every morning I was planning lessons and arranging my own teaching style and class management purely to keep Steven in check.I was spending most of my time either sitting with him or at least hovering in his area so that I was constantly available and so that he did not disturb the rest of the class. And, of course, what I also realised was that in doing this was being to a degree “unfair” to the other thirty or so children in the class – I knew that I was giving able, hard working children work that they could simply get on with so that I could be available just to keep Steven on the straight and narrow and ensure that he didn't  disturb others too much. Finally, I also realised something else – any one of the parents of the remainder of the class could quite legitimately say to me ”Why don’t you spend as much time with my son or daughter as you do with Steven – it’s not fair – think what progress they would make if you did”.  I knew that I had to try a different strategy. I also knew that other teachers had started off just as keen and idealistic as me and failed. I had to become “hardened” to the fact that there would be other Stevens in my class and learn that although I must try my best there was only so much that I could do but I could not professionally or morally deny the others  for whom I was responsible just to favour one child. That was the reality of the situation. And in a way I believe that is a situation that many professionals working in difficult circumstances day in day out have to make. I also knew that in the hurly burly of the day, while trying to keep the lid on Steven so that other children could work and progress I had to cut corners, take decisions that I would not have taken in a different set of circumstances - and I knew that sometimes I made mistakes. Of course, as I gained in experience I learned other strategies, but for the rest of my career I knew that although I would try my very best in some situations one had to make hard choices which were not always the right ones but were necessary, in order that those deserving of your care and attention could be helped – not just those who shouted loudest.

So when I see social workers, teachers, health professionals and the rest pilloried by society and by those in power I often reflect......”If only you knew the reality of the situation”.  In the end these people have to make tough choices that under normal circumstances they would not wish to make, they will often regret this,  and, they are under such pressure in certain areas that they are continually “fire fighting” and managing one crisis after another that they will make mistakes. It’s the reality of the situation. When those who work and reside in the leafy suburbs come with their criticisms and quick fix solutions and have the great benefit of hindsight and the moral high ground I am immediately suspicious. I ask how can someone who lives and works in the delights of the Thames Valley have any conceivable  understanding of what it is to be facing the professional and moral problems faced by many employed in our inner cities and deprived areas year in year out. They cannot.
Yep......the blame game is in play

The second experience from my past is more recent. In the latter years of my teaching career and after I retired I spent almost 12 years working with, supporting and assessing young teachers and those training to teach. It was a very rewarding time and one which I look back upon with fond memories, partly because I enjoyed it but mostly because it was a huge privilege to work with these talented and hard working young professionals; I so often reflected how much better they were than I was at the same stage of my career. But I soon realised one thing. I could visit a classroom where the young teacher had planned a good lesson but for reasons often out of their direct control were finding that the lesson wasn’t going as it should - and, from my ivory tower, I could give a quick fix solution. As I watched I often thought to myself......”I’ve been here myself, this has happened to me” - a difficult child, an unplanned interruption, snow suddenly seen to be falling through the classroom window and the class erupts with excitement, a child sits in front of you and is suddenly sick, something that they children just didn’t ”get” despite the best efforts of the teacher. All everyday classroom things that are not always planned for but are outside your control – and the professional has to manage this on an every day basis. Often when I saw things not working out it was easy, as an outsider, to spot what was going wrong and why – a simple organisational or management error that the young teacher was making or a better way of explain something so that the children could understand. But all that, of course, was based upon my years of experience and of the privileged position I held sitting at the back of the classroom watching without any obligations or distractions or pressures. For the young, inexperienced man or woman standing at the front of the class trying to teach some mathematical concept to a lively group of 10 year olds whilst I sat judgementally at the back it was not so easy – what was so obvious to me was not so to the young teacher embroiled at the “chalk face” trying to teach fractions while little Jimmy throws a tantrum because he was up late last night playing on his computer and is now critically tired. I am sure that some of these social workers and policemen and health workers and teachers might, at the moment, be looking askance and ruefully shaking their heads as the great and good make their quick fix solutions and pronouncements from their positions of privilege far removed from the blood and guts of the daily grind. And I ask myself, rather than castigating failure why are those in power not supporting and building bridges. I can well remember that if a trainee teacher gave a less than successful lesson they knew it – they didn’t need me to weigh in with more criticism or pointing out all their failures. What they wanted and needed was positive advice, support and confidence – so that they could do their work better.

Just maybe, if there is a problem in many areas of our national life – and there certainly appears to be in the wake of all these scandals and dreadful happenings - then it seems that what the politicians and those in power should be doing is examining what is wrong with our society – for we are all members of that society, we are all guilty – rather than pillorying those who have been fighting the fight to the best of their ability under impossible circumstances. Just maybe, those wealthy government ministers living in their wealthy constituencies should be asking themselves what they can immediately - no ifs, buts or maybes - do to make some of the wealth of their areas available to those struggling to hold together society in the poor deprived areas where many of the problems occur. Maybe Mrs May should be ensuring that her banker husband directs some of his bank’s millions into ensuring that jobs are created in the poorer areas rather than in booming London! I won’t hold my breath – it’s easier to castigate failures – and anyway it’s good media fodder: "Home Secretary gets tough with lazy social workers" makes much better reading in the corridors of power and in these austere times than "Home Secretary increases funds for social support in under privileged  areas". 

A Ruscombe christening - all very pleasant and afterwards a
reception Buratta's in Twyford. Life doesn't get
much better - few social problems and few to blame here!
So, having recounted those tales I am left with two questions: how dare those in positions of power, who largely reside and work in ivory towers of privilege, wealth and remote from the reality of everyday life  criticise and threaten those who are trying very hard to succeed doing jobs that many would not take on. And, secondly, how can people like Theresa May, David Cameron, George Osborne  and the rest given their positions of privilege and the environment that they operate in possibly comprehend the world of the inner city or of places, like Rotherham,  where perhaps  things are going dreadfully wrong. I live in a village on the outskirts of Nottingham, I like to think that I am an aware sort of person, not particularly privileged or posh or wealthy but I am also very aware that I could not even begin to comprehend the lives and values and problems of many who live only two or three miles away from me. I could not begin to face their daily problems or know where to begin if I taught in some of the schools only a mile or two away. My world in my little village, not a particularly wealthy place, is only 3 or 4 miles away from inner Nottingham but it is light years away in terms of attitude, opportunity, culture and outlook; I could not begin to survive there. So how can Theresa May or David Cameron?

But, sadly, times have not changed. It has always been thus. It all reminds me of Kipling’s wonderful poem “Pagett MP” written over a century ago. Rudyard Kipling was born and lived for many years in India - a member of the British Raj when India was indeed "the jewel" in Victoria's crown. He loved the country, but knew that those like him working and living in there were viewed by those in England, and especially those in power, as having a soft life - a life of servants, pleasant climate, riches, indolence and luxury. Kipling knew that wasn't the real picture at all - hence is wonderful poem: 

Pagett, M.P.

The toad beneath the harrow knows
Exactly where each tooth-point goes.
The butterfly upon the road
Preaches contentment to that toad.

Pagett, M.P., was a liar, and a fluent liar therewith --
He spoke of the heat of India as the "Asian Solar Myth";
Came on a four months' visit, to "study the East," in November,
But I got him to sign an agreement vowing to stay till September.

March came in with the koil. Pagett was cool and gay,
Called me a "bloated Brahmin," talked of my "princely pay."
March went out with the roses. "Where is your heat?" said he.
"Coming," said I to Pagett, "Skittles!" said Pagett, M.P.

April began with the punkah, coolies, and prickly-heat, --
Pagett was dear to mosquitoes, sandflies found him a treat.
He grew speckled and mumpy-hammered, I grieve to say,
Aryan brothers who fanned him, in an illiberal way.

May set in with a dust-storm, -- Pagett went down with the sun.
All the delights of the season tickled him one by one.
Imprimis -- ten day's "liver" -- due to his drinking beer;
Later, a dose of fever --slight, but he called it severe.

Dysent'ry touched him in June, after the Chota Bursat --
Lowered his portly person -- made him yearn to depart.
He didn't now call me a "Brahmin," or "bloated," or "overpaid,"
But seemed to think it a wonder that any one ever stayed.

July was a trifle unhealthy, -- Pagett was ill with fear.
'Called it the "Cholera Morbus," hinted his life was dear.
He babbled of "Eastern Exile," and mentioned his home with tears;
But I told him, I haven't seen my children for close upon seven years.

We reached a hundred and twenty once in the Court at noon,
(I've mentioned Pagett was portly) Pagett, went off in a swoon.
That was an end to the business; Pagett, the perjured, fled
With a practical, working knowledge of his "Solar Myths" in his head.

And I laughed as I drove from the station, but the mirth died out on my lips
As I thought of the fools like Pagett who write of their "Eastern trips,"
And the sneers of the travelled idiots who duly misgovern the land,
And I prayed to the Lord to deliver another one into my hand.

Rudyard Kipling

The lovely church in Ruscombe, home of Theresa May -
a lifetime and light year away from the people and places for
whom she is responsible..
Just maybe the MPs, moralisers, London tabloid editors and legal experts should get themselves out and about a bit to work at the cutting edge. Maybe Mrs May and her ilk should leave leafy Ruscombe with its beautiful, quintessentially English church where my grandchildren were christened a year or two ago and get herself up to some of the poorer parts of our nation – not on a flying media/photo opportunity trip to wave the government flag but to work as a social worker, nurse, teacher or to man the police vans on a wet  Friday night. And then, just maybe, like Pagett in the poem, they might understand that there is another reality and quite a different  universe to the one that they inhabit. They might then learn a little about the reality of life and why people behave as they do, not as they should. They might understand why sometimes people fall short of what we all desire, why and how mistakes are made,  why the daily grind and the insurmountable problems might force people to regretfully make the best decisions they can in the circumstances they are forced to operate in. In short, they might be more humble.  I don’t, however,  see it happening any time soon.