11 June, 2015

Wonderful Sublimity and Devilish Hubbub

Nottingham on a typical Saturday night - "The best place in
the country to get p****d" I was advised
I stepped out into the night air and, dodging the traffic that accelerated away from roundabout at the end of Maid Marian Way, crossed Derby Road. I began the short climb up Vernon Street and passing the Strathdon Hotel dodged  the traffic again and made my way along Wollaton Street;  over Clarendon Street then towards Hanley Street. By now, although only a short distance, the gradual climb was starting to take its toll on my breathing. As I approached Hanley Street, silent and almost empty apart from parked cars, two young women staggered towards me. Both wearing very short dresses and tottering along on their very high heels they were clinging to each other. As they drew level one of them sobbed loudly, her friend putting her arm around her trying to cheer her up. They both carried beer bottles and stood there propping each other up, half leaning, half half falling against the wall of an office building. As I hurried past them I caught a glimpse of the black streaks of make up  that ran down the cheeks of the one who was sobbing. As I looked down the street towards the City centre from where these two young women had come I could hear, and almost feel, the night life throbbing away in the distance - a mixture of police sirens, thumping music, the occasional car horn and background noise. I hurried on my way up silent Hanley Street and  passing Wollaton Street car park I could still hear the sobbing girl and the slurred, alcohol fuelled strident voice of her friend. As I reached the top of Hanley Street and crossed Talbot Street I heard behind me the smash of glass - presumably a breaking bottle - and a young woman's voice shouting "f**k". I walked the last few yards into Stanley Place to the Talbot Street Car Park.  By now I was breathing rapidly, the last few hundred yards up the steep hill had taken their toll. As I passed the glass doors of the   Welbeck Hotel four young people - two women and two men - came out, their voices loud and harsh, giggling and laughing, oblivious of the hour and silence of this quiet cul de sac.  The Car Park was silent as I climbed into Pat’s little VW Beetle, sat for a  moment to regain my breath and then drove out onto Talbot Street on my way back to meeting my wife, who I had left at the St Barnabas’ Cathedral.
Yes, I saw lots of this sort of thing as I drove the
one way system

As I drove along the one way system I passed Rock City – a Nottingham back street “institution”. Outside were several hundred youngsters, some, it looked to me, no older than 14 or 15, waiting to get into the club. It was just after 10.30 and I grumbled to myself that they should be in bed by now! Then towards the Royal Centre and past the front of Trent University. At the traffic lights I sat and looked into the windows of the Uni Express Convenience Store, its window posters advertising their late night delivery service for students “We deliver to your door seven days a week till 6 am” it told them and me. The pavements were now thick with youngsters – mostly in large groups, and mostly staggering along the footpaths. Taxis filled the road, spilling out their contents of loud, youths and scantily clad girls. As one taxi pulled away, having deposited its contents, two or three of the youths chased it as it edged into the traffic banging with their fists on its back window and roof until it picked up speed and disappeared. At the end of Talbot Street I watched the queue that stretched as far as the eye could see – youngsters all waiting to gain admittance to The Comedy Club. Another huge queue stood alongside as youngsters waited to withdraw money from the two ATMs that stand there and at the side were the brightly lit windows of Wagamama’s restaurant, every table it seemed full with revelling young diners. In the far distance I could see flashing blue lights and hear police sirens. A group of girls, arms linked, tottered, whooping, laughing and screaming across the road in front of me as I sat at the lights. One of them covered, as far as I could see, in tattoos, her skimpy dress leaving little to the imagination put a bottle to her lips. Then the lights turned green and I edged forward to turn into South Sherwood Street but was momentarily startled as a police car, lights flashing, shot across the road in front of me and disappeared down South Sherwood Street.
Dante's vision of hell - looks a lot like what I drove past 

And so away from the City Centre – left onto Shakespeare Street past the beautiful old Arkwright building that was originally a constituent college and library of University College London but is now part of Trent University. And then, through the vast complex of buildings and halls of residence that now constitute Trent University and at finally back to silent  Clarendon Street filled with once grand Victorian Villas now turned into offices of the University and student accommodation. Then, still  following the one way system, I got back to the Derby Road roundabout to pick up Pat for our journey home. By now the time was nearly 11 o'clock, and as we drove up Derby Road away from the city centre we again saw police cars with their flashing blue lights pass us heading towards the city -  a last reminder of what had seemed to me like modern version of Dante’s vision of hell in his allegorical Divine Comedy . For this is Nottingham – and probably many other English cities - on a Saturday night.
Definitely city centre Nottingham on Saturday

I noticed recently that the area through which I had walked and driven on Saturday night is described on tourist information leaflets for my home town as “vibrant”. Mmmmmm – no matter how much I try I cannot help but think that is a very liberal use of the word and being incredibly economical with the truth. As we drove over Abbey Bridge and through the Lenton area of Nottingham  the silhouette of the Queens Medical Centre with the lights of the hospital wards pinpricking night loomed out of the darkness. I knew the A&E department in the hospital  would already be stacking up with the victims of the night’s city centre revelries.  Idly my mind went back to an interview that I conducted some years ago when involved with interviews for trainee teachers at Trent University. A young man entered the room for his interview with me. There was and is a desperate shortage of men applicants for primary teaching courses so he had a distinct chance of acceptance.  He was smartly dressed and his references and academic record were excellent. He was a strong candidate for admission. Near the end of the successful interview, as I mentally prepared to add him to the list of candidates who should be offered places, I asked him the final question.  I was required to ask him (as of all candidates) why he had chosen Trent University as a place to do his training. I expected him to refer to the excellent reputation of the University, or the suitably interesting course etc. But, no, he staggered me when he smiled and said in his broad Geordie accent: “Oh, it’s a no brainer man, my brother came to Nottingham Uni two years back and he says it’s the best place in the country, except for Newcastle, to get pissed every night of the week” . I was utterly lost for words at both his reason and his unashamed willingness to share this in an interview situation. As I sat lost for words at his candour (and, I think, his lack of judgement) I was initially unsure how to respond so I simply thanked him, shook his hand and showed him the door. I then put a question mark at the side of his application and left it for others to decide whether he should be offered a place. When I wrote up the notes from the interview I commented upon his obvious academic potential but also suggested that should he be offered a place I would not be prepared to host him in my school as a trainee teacher nor would I offer him a job should he ever apply to me. I explained that in my view his maturity, his judgement and his personal and professional understanding of the role of  a teacher were seriously lacking. My comments did not go down well with "the powers that be" - they were deemed "an unacceptable reason for refusal" but I rather took this as a sign of the way we are declining in our expectations. I lost no sleep over it but, having said that, I think my experience on Saturday night was, perhaps, unfortunate proof of what he said.
The last rehearsal for the concert

And then we were joining the Nottingham Ring Road at the Lenton traffic island. We picked up speed - me still in grumpy old man mode muttering that “No one should ever tell me that the young are short of money or that students are having a hard time” and in the darkness of the car I'm sure that I detected Pat raising her eyes to heaven as I grumbled “I'm sure that the fathers of those girls don’t know they’re going go out dressed like that!”  But, as we sped away from the city, other thoughts gradually entered our minds and conversation. Both of us thought and spoke of where we had been and what we had seen and heard – something that was a very far cry from my walk and drive through Nottingham’s “vibrant” streets. What we had heard, seen and enjoyed in St. Barnabas’ Cathedral was not the modern vision of Dante’s Inferno that prevailed on Nottingham’s city centre streets but rather, and to use the programme notes, something “sublime”, almost one might say heavenly. We had sat humbled, spellbound and overawed as we saw and heard  Bach’s mighty B Minor Mass. Surely one of the greatest creations of mankind.
Albert Schweitzer

“The salient quality of the Mass in B Minor is its wonderful sublimity. The first chord of the Kyrie takes us into the world of great and profound emotions: we do not leave it until the final Dona nobis pacem”.  So said theologian, musician, philosopher, physician, missionary and Nobel Prize winner Albert Schweitzer. He was not wrong. Not only is the B Minor one of the very greatest of Bach’s works but stands amongst those at the very peak of the world’s  greatest works – some may say it is indeed the greatest. And although the performance that Pat and I had just enjoyed was an amateur performance with no great orchestra, stars or expensive tickets it was outstanding and bore comparison with any of the other performances we have seen or CDs we have played. As Schweitzer said, it really did take us, and judging by the applause and response the rest of the audience as well, to a “world of great and profound emotions”.
The logo - Pat has one in the back window of her Beetle
The Mass had been performed by a local east midland choir – the East of England Singers and their accompanying orchestra the New Classic Players. The singers and players are two of the many music making groups that comprise the Nottingham based music and music education organisation Music for Everyone  founded by Angela Kay thirty years ago this year. The performance of the B Minor was part of the celebrations of this thirtieth anniversary year. Angela, by profession a teacher, wanted to create an organisation which would offer music making opportunities to people of all ages and abilities. The only criterion for participation was and still is, enthusiasm. She wanted to enable singers of all kinds to enjoy together the breadth of the choral repertoire – those who could not read music singing alongside those who could; and those who had never sung in a choir alongside the experienced choral member. During the last thirty years Angela Kay’s ideas have grown and today offer music opportunities across the full musical spectrum: concerts, workshops, choral, jazz, instrumental, adult, youth groups, children’s opportunities, sold out concerts like the one we attended, quiet choral weekends where participants come and learn works and sing them just for the pleasure rather than for an audience. As well advertised and stand alone concerts there are groups – “Daytime Voices “- that meet in various areas of Nottingham to provide regular, weekly musical opportunities at a local level. Similarly, there are events such as the one entitled “Blow the dust of your instrument” – aimed at encouraging those who might have once enjoyed making music to get back into the habit. Later this summer there is to be a choral weekend where singers come and rehearse with a choir for much of Saturday and Sunday and then perform a concert (this one is singing Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms) for an audience on the Sunday evening. Pat has taken part in this sort of venture on numerous occasions.

Angela Kay
No stone of the musical world is left unturned and a look at the web site will show the breadth and depth of what is on offer. And, throughout the thirty years the original criterion has held firm – enthusiasm and love of music are the entry points. Music for Everyone choirs and orchestras have performed in established concert venues like the Royal Concert Hall here in Nottingham as well as in schools, colleges and churches throughout the area. Angela Kay has stayed at the helm and often, as on Saturday night, is the conductor of the choir and orchestra. But finally and most importantly, it must be said that although Angela and her organisation have remained true to her first guiding principle of universal participation, this has not been at the cost of quality – every concert, every event is first class, enjoyable, exhilarating and above all excellent.

The view from our seats
In 2014 Angela Kay was rightly awarded the MBE for her services to music and music education  within the region and as she turned to receive the audience’s applause and shouts of “more” on Saturday night I think that everyone who had seen and heard the performance felt the same; not only had they enjoyed a very memorable event but they were aware that Angela Kay must have been exhausted so much had she put into getting the very best out of her singers, her orchestra and indeed Bach. The audience clapped and cheered – partly for the wonderful music that we had heard - but also for what Angela Kay had given on Saturday night and over the thirty years of her organisation’s life.

One of the children's music making
activities run by Music for Everyone
It is not wrong to use the word monumental when describing the B Minor and like all Bach’s music the Mass is taxing. As the programme notes reminded us, virtually every section, every movement, every orchestral accompaniment is a concerto in its own right. Additionally, in its 2 hour length, there are precious few moments when choir, soloists, orchestra or conductor can coast, switch off or hide. It is physically demanding as well as musically taxing. It is not a piece for the faint hearted. But, as with all Bach, it is glorious. Its 27 sections range from the most serene and sublime to the truly spiritual and the magnificent and grand. Its sheer scale and grandeur make it both musically and spiritually an awe inspiring work; within this vast piece there is great pathos, unadulterated joy, magnificent splendour, extreme emotion, wonderful melody, exquisite beauty and breathtaking brilliance. Quite simply, it is why Bach is so revered and why conductor and Bach scholar John Eliot Gardiner refers to the music of Bach as “music from the castle of heaven”.

East of  England Singers, orchestra and conductor
Bach composed his Mass around 1748–49, a year or so before his death in 1750. He didn't even give the work a name, and it originally only existed as a collection of itinerant manuscripts written over many years. Indeed, this is largely what it was, a piece of music the composer had been building up to for the whole of his life; it is, therefore, a reflection of Bach’s musical life. The first part was written 1733 and other parts have their origins even earlier, but it was not finally put together until the very last years of Bach's life, when he had already gone blind. It was probably the last major project he involved himself in. Sadly, he never heard the work performed in its entirety – he died in 1750.  As part of his requirement as Cantor at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig Bach had spent much of his life churning out a vast quantity of choral works, works that many would argue are the greatest choral music ever written. But these were for performance as part of the religious life of both the Thomaskirche and the town. The B Minor Mass is different; it was written for no specific occasion in the church or in Leipzig’s year and it stands among those supreme works which occupied Bach’s final years and which seem almost to be a planned summation of his great life. The Art of the Fugue, The Goldberg Variations, The Well  Tempered Clavier and The Musical Offering. Each of these with the Mass are not simply pieces of music or even great pieces of music – they are works that have defined our western  music.. Quite simply  the Mass, the Goldberg, the Art of the Fugue  and the Well Tempered Clavier  and are at the root of all music that we hear today.
Blow the dust off your instrument....!
To listen to the B Minor is to hear something very close to perfection. It touches one at every level – musically, emotionally and spiritually. It crosses boundaries. Conductor and Bach scholar Robert Shaw wrote: “....Bach’s Mass in B Minor holds a unique position in the minds and hearts of men and women of all faiths – and no faith at all – [it speaks of] the oneness of humankind with the universe, and the responsibility of human life to seek beauty and to do good..... Bach’s Mass in B Minor has become, some two hundred and fifty years after he bound its 27 movements together, the most remarkable musical allegory of human existence – [with all] its pain, aspiration and promises.”  The musicologist and Buddhist Yoshitake Kobayashi  commented that:  “The universal spirit of Bach which manifests itself in the B-Minor Mass produces the great paradox that this, the most Christian works in all of sacred music, transcends and dissolves its confessional limits, serving instead the whole of humanity – non-Christians included.......It may seem odd that as a Buddhist I have theologically come to terms with one of the most Christian works of European music history but the spirit which manifests itself in this work nevertheless encouraged me to do so”. I have absolutely no doubt that every member of Saturday night’s audience - whether they be of a Christian faith, an non-Christian faith or no faith at all - would agree with those words.

One of Bach's original pages of
manuscript for the Mass
The German writer and philosopher Goethe described himself as "not anti-Christian, nor un-Christian, but most decidedly non-Christian," and listed the symbol of the cross among the four things that he most disliked yet he also said this of the Mass 'It is as though eternal harmony were conversing with itself, as it may have happened in God's bosom shortly before He created the world.'  And, finally one of the many other tributes paid to the B Minor is that of modern minimalist composer Michael Torke who simply commented “Why waste money on psychotherapy when you can listen to the B Minor Mass?”. Why indeed? - as one who frequently turns to the Mass before I put out the light to go to sleep or when I’m feeling down or stressed I know Torke to be exactly right.
How can such sublime work have been 
produced by a man who seems so ordinary, 
so opaque - and occasionally so intemperate?

But perhaps the best and most telling comment comes from Bach himself. Not about the Mass in particular but about all the music that he wrote: “The aim and final reason of all music should be none else but the glory of God and refreshing the soul. Where this is not observed there will be no music, but only a devilish hubbub.”  When I think of the sublime and uplifting two hours that Pat, I and the audience had spent in the beautiful St Barnabas’ Cathedral and where we had experienced  a “world of great and profound emotions”  I’m sure that I was not alone in knowing that Bach’s glorious music and the wonderful playing and singing and conducting  did indeed glorify God  and refresh the soul.  It was a powerful reminder that it is not all the “devilish hubbub”, or the vision of hell that that I had witnessed only a few hundred yards away in Nottingham city centre on Saturday night but rather, a  recognition that there is still, in this world,  the good, the profound, the exquisite, the spiritual, the sublime, the serene and the truly great and magnificent.

06 June, 2015

"Build the bloody Ark!"

Labour leadership hopefuls
Following the General Election result of last month the Labour Party are in some disarray. Ed Miliband, probably rightly, has stood down as leader, although I suspect it won’t be many months or years before it is realised that he was rather more correct in his views and overall leadership than he is currently being given credit for. In the past few weeks several leadership wannabes have been throwing their hats into the ring and making pronouncements as to where Labour went wrong and what should be done. As I read of each potential leader I am rather less than inspired – mostly because they really don’t inspire - which seems to me to be a damning indictment of any potential leader! I don’t think I would ride into battle on behalf of any of them. My main anxiety and disappointment is that, mostly, they seem (and each in their different way), to be crypto-Tories talking the same talk and walking the same walk as their Tory counterparts. They have swallowed the Tory narrative and are simply repeating it in more acceptable fashion; there is now no question about austerity measures but merely how you want them applied: savagely as with the Tories or in rather pleasanter dollops by Labour. Understand that and one can understand why the Tories will always win – they are dictating the message. Additionally, each leadership hopeful appears to have analysed how the Tories won and decided that this is the course that Labour must now follow. This is simple reaction politics;  aping Tory ideas in the hope that it will work for them. These leadership contenders talk, as do their Tory counterparts, of wealth creators, strivers and hard working families. They emphasise how they will ally with the City and with the business community. They talk of value for money, GDP, empowering people  and most of all are fixated with the term “aspirational voters”  who seem to be equated with the John Lewis or the Waitrose shopper -  what many might define as middle England. Maybe there is some mileage in this, I am not a political analyst, but to me in using these terms and in reciting this message they are subliminally reinforcing the Tory policy albeit with a Labour sticker attached. 
The only message we seem to be getting from leadership  hopefuls!

Now it might be that the think tanks and clever spin doctors confirm that this is the way forward and how a future Labour Party or leader has to project itself – firstly, snuggle up to those with the most potential power (media, the City etc) and voting potential (the middle class) and secondly be friends with everybody and by saying nothing of substance so that no one will be annoyed. Be all things to all men. Maybe this is correct but I'm put off. Despite all the spin and trendy vocabulary, all the nods and winks towards the media, all the vague promises that a future Labour government will not make the alleged 'mistakes' of the last and that they will be good boys and girls by making sure that all these various power groups, vested interests and sections of society are paid heed of I cannot, for the life, of me discern what they will actually do if elected leader. Each potential leader has been very loud in telling how they and the Party will behave in the coming years but nowhere am I advised what they will stand for and do. Of course, they will argue that Party policy is determined by the Party membership and will be made plain in a future manifesto. Further, it may well  be that the political analysts will suggest that it is a good policy to have no policy – or at best only a very vague one - but I’m not so sure.  If one is electing any kind of leader then one needs to know what they intend to deliver – what are their aspirations, goals and ideals; where will they, as the leader, take us and what they will fight for. Not to do so is, to use the old idiom, like asking us to “buy a pig in a poke”. One of the leadership hopefuls, Liz Kendall recently confirmed this when she commented that “During the election, lots of people told me they agreed with our criticisms of the Tories, but didn't think we said enough about what we would do ourselves”. Quite, my point exactly! As a Labour Party member I have a vested interest in the leadership contest so in the end, I want to know what my subscriptions will be paying for and what will comprise the New Jerusalem, if there is to be one. I also want to know how it will be forged - but that is secondary to what it is. That is, too, I believe, what the wider electorate want and need to know.

Attlee during the 1945 election
So what should any prospective leader be offering me if they want my vote and continued membership? Well, I do not want a closet Tory whose ideas, aspirations and ideals are indistinguishable from those projected and enacted by our current government. If I wanted those then I would vote Tory – quite frankly they are much better at them than the Labour Party are or can ever be. Privatisation of essential services, cosying up to the City, right wing policies, jingoistic vocabulary, John Bullish anti-foreigner rhetoric, Euroscepticism, tax cuts, increasingly divisive education policies, marginalising of welfare budgets and the rest are all the natural hunting ground for the Tory party and have been from time immemorial. They are past masters at that game and if that is my choice then the Tories are the ones. No, I want something different.

It would be nice to turn the clock back and say I want a party and eventual government that was unashamedly socialist – say like that of Attlee in 1945. But in this day and age that is neither realistic or appropriate. When Attlee set out his plans in 1945 he called them “a New Jerusalem. He was surrounded by a group of high minded and well intentioned individuals who intended to build a new world from the wreckage of two World Wars, a terrible depression and centuries of inequality.  The world that they inherited had no mobile phones, precious little money, no computers, no celebrity culture, no CDs, not enough material goods and a majority of the population who were genuinely poor and subject to varying degrees of privation and need. But there was one thing they did have: both Attlee’s government and the populace had hope and the desire to make things better. From a seemingly hopeless situation they carved out and laid the foundations for a more liberal world, a more affluent world and a world which would rapidly become more equal, fair, caring and just. Today we have a world that is full of mobile phones, loads of money, millions of computers, a thriving celebrity culture, technology that our fathers could not comprehend, living standards and personal wealth undreamed of by my parents  and an obscene desire to fill ourselves and our lives with the acquisition of material goods. But at the same time, large sections of the community are increasingly disaffected, our formerly liberal world is increasingly threatened by security services, the war on terror and intrusive global power players. Despite being one of the richest nations in the history of the world great swathes of the population are effectively excluded from enjoying its benefits as zero hours contracts, austerity, privatisation and cuts in welfare provision take their toll. And finally, seventy years after Attlee’s New Jerusalem dream was born we are increasingly becoming less equal, more unfair, less caring and certainly less just. We are indeed a very different world from that of 1945; the Labour Party and its new leader need plan for this.  In short, we need a Labour leader for 21st century Britain who, like his illustrious forefathers, is a man or woman of vision and imbued with Labour ideals and idealism as were those men and women of 1945. He or she needs to not only have a dream and ideals which they can verbalise but needs to be unequivocal, unbending and unapologetic about how it will be implemented. This is what a leader does and it is what gives people hope, inspiration and the will to succeed. 

What the current leadership hopefuls need - a little of the same
 spirit so beautifully captured in Ken Loach's recent film on the
1945 election
In my last blog I wrote at length about the wonderful autobiographies by Labour politician and elder statesman Alan Johnson. In his second instalment, Please Mr Postman Johnson related a particular episode that occurred during his time as a trade union representative. The event itself is unimportant but the comment, made by a trade union member was:”.........the job of a [trade union] leader isn't to predict rain, it’s to build the bloody ark”. Absolutely, I would not expect any leadership hopeful to forlornly and despairingly tell me tell me how bad it is – we all know that. I would want him to inspire me with his/her vision of what it can be.  Nor do I want him or her to give me spin or talk in crypto-Tory jargon. I want him to make me feel a valued part of and integral to his plans and in a language I can relate to - not have the very things that I despise most repeated ad nuasseum so that as an ordinary member of the electorate I begin to believe (as I and I think many others do) that all the parties are the same because they talk the same talk and walk the same walk. When people think that then they become disaffected, they believe their vote is useless for it appears that all politicians and parties are the same and so, they believe, nothing will change. This disaffection and cynicism is becoming more and more a part of our political landscape - it is something we should be worried about. It is absolutely crucial that Labour and its new leader sing a different song – not to do so will not only condemn them to failure in any election, for the Tories will always win out. But more importantly, it is crucial to the long term health of democracy for there to be choice, for that is what democracy at the end of the day is rooted in. If there is no choice then there is no democracy.

Margaret Thatcher's legacy still marks out and defines our
social economic and political landscape. Labour's "ark" should
spell out its death knell with something better.
So, I want him or her to show me the Labour ark not simply recycle the Tory ark. I want to know what this Labour craft is like that will take us across the stormy seas to the New Jerusalem. How  will it address and resolve the fractures in our modern society and drive real and fundamental Labour change? How it will end once and for all the growing inequalities, the injustices? How will it overcome the real threats to the wider world such as environmental issues and the nonsense and growth of the security threat to liberty? And last but not least, how will it slay the culture of the “me, me, me world” that has grown in this country since the days of Margaret Thatcher - a culture which would truly horrify not only Attlee and his colleagues but the 1945 population at large – so much have we changed. We, and our society, are the offspring of Margaret Thatcher not Clement Attlee. We need someone who has a plan for an ark that is going to change all that.

In April 1964 American President Lyndon Johnson summoned Richard Goodwin his advisor and speech writer to the White House. Goodwin recorded in his memoirs that he found Johnson in the White House swimming pool, where the President often went to think.  Johnson was naked, doing a slow sidestroke and told Goodwin and aide Bill Moyers to doff their own clothes: “Come on in, boys. It’ll do you good” said Johnson. As they bobbed up and down, the president “began to talk as if he were addressing some larger, imagined audience of the mind,” Goodwin  wrote that night in his diary. And, Goodwin went on, he was drawn by “the powerful flow of Johnson’s will, exhorting, explaining, trying to tell me something about himself, seeking not agreement — he knew he had that — but belief.” All this happened a little more than four months after Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas had made Johnson president. “I never thought I’d have the power,” Johnson told Goodwin and Moyers. “I wanted power and to use it. And I'm going to use it..... Hell, we've barely begun to solve our problems. And we can do it all.”
The White House pool - where the Great Society
was born

A few months later, Johnson announced the Great Society programme to America:

“......The purpose of protecting the life of our Nation and preserving the liberty of our citizens is to pursue the happiness of our people. Our success in that pursuit is the test of our success as a Nation. For a century we laboured to settle and to subdue a continent. For half a century we called upon unbounded invention and untiring industry to create an order of plenty for all of our people.

The challenge of the next half century is whether we have the wisdom to use that wealth to enrich and elevate our national life, and to advance the quality of our American civilization.
Your imagination, your initiative, and your indignation will determine whether we build a society where progress is the servant of our needs, or a society where old values and new visions are buried under unbridled growth. For in your time we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society.

The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time. But that is just the beginning.
The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents. It is a place where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness. It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community.

It is a place where man can renew contact with nature. It is a place which honours creation for its own sake and for what it adds to the understanding of the race. It is a place where men are more concerned with the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods.
But most of all, the Great Society is not a safe harbour, a resting place, a final objective, a finished work. It is a challenge constantly renewed, beckoning us toward a destiny where the meaning of our lives matches the marvellous products of our labour.......”

Johnson, of course, was in a very different position to any Labour leadership hopefuls: he was President, he had power, he was operating in a very different age and in a different political climate to our own. But equally, he was also in a potentially weak position  - judged suspiciously by many and constantly compared with the iconic Kennedy with whom he could probably never have competed. In short he was following a very hard act! But he had a dream and an ambition that drove him: he grasped the nettle, he caught the mood, he was brave, he was stubborn, he challenged vested interests, he had a vision, he bullied, he cajoled, he compromised, he used every trick in the political book.......and, most of all, by the power of his argument and his personality he not only got his way but he inspired.
The aspirational voters that the Labour
leadership are obsessed with

There is no talk in Johnson’s words of aspirational voters or Waitrose shoppers, no reflecting on how bad things are, no talk of getting value for money or necessary austerity packages, no cosying up to those with power or being everything to everyman, no reference to wealth creators or strivers. The message is clear, unequivocal and unapologetic – and crucially, it is positive, it’s a “can do” message just as Attlee’s was in 1945. In short it inspires and gives everyone listening a share and an ownership both in it and of it; they, the electorate, are the vehicles of change. Not everything worked out, some initiatives were failures, many problems were found and battles lost but Johnson’s vision galvanised people into action: legislation on poverty, civil rights and racism, community action, employment initiatives, educational support and legislation to improve educational opportunity and success, Medicare and Medicaid, welfare and social security, arts and cultural initiatives, transport legislation and programmes, consumer protection, environmental action.......it was an all encompassing programme.  Today, the laws enacted through Johnson’s programme are woven into the fabric of everyday American life, in ways big and small. It has knocked down racial barriers, provided health care for the elderly and food for the poor, sustained orchestras and museums in cities across the country, put seat belts and padded dashboards in every car, and planted oak trees in Washington and across the wider country. "We are living in Lyndon Johnson’s America,” said Joseph Califano, who was LBJ’s policy adviser from 1965 to the end of his presidency,“This country is more the country of Lyndon Johnson than any other president.” 

It is worth remembering that fifty years ago this month (June 2015) Head Start,  one of the main planks of the Great Society programme was founded. “Young children”  said Johnson “are the inheritors of poverty’s curse, not its creators”. Head Start, a programme for deprived children and their parents was the inspiration and impetus for the Labour Party’s Sure Start Programme which was put in place in 1998 and which is now increasingly under threat because of the present government’s austerity cuts.  One of Head Start’s early beneficiaries, Darren Walker, is now president of the American Ford Foundation, and he recalled recently how he was sitting on the porch of “our little shotgun shack in Ames, Texas” with his mother, when a woman approached to offer a Head Start place. “It changed my life”  Walker confessed, “It allowed me to imagine, to think creatively about the world beyond my environment and what my life might be.”

Quite – making people think about the world and what life might be. As the Tory government press on with a message of austerity, divide and rule and openly promoting inequality and injustice there is a ready battle to be fought and a ready political narrative to be proclaimed and spelled out as to what life might be. Lyndon Johnson’s programme and the comments of Darren Walker are the sort of narrative that the Labour Party needs to be addressing and shouting from the roof tops. It is the story that any would be leader needs to  tell. Johnson’s message was for his country at his time; like Attlee’s New Jerusalem it is not, in content or words, the panacea for us in 21st century Britain. Nor did it solve all the problems – it never could. But it put into the mind of all Americans what they and their country could (and maybe should) be; that was both its inspiration and its legacy.  Its thrust and its clarity, its drive and its enthusiasm, its commitment and ideals were its strengths. And verbalising  these ambitions, painting the picture of a better life, raising the expectations and aspirations of everyone is what being a leader of any kind - in business, in the military, in schools, in politics - is all about. Lyndon Johnson clearly knew this as he swam naked up and down that pool; in short, he knew how to “build the bloody ark”. Our prospective Labour leaders would do well to think on that.

01 June, 2015

Real Lives

Alan Johnson - wannabe rock guitarist, postman,
trades union official, MP, Home Secretary and
elder statesman - and chronicler of the late 20th century
As I approached retirement a few years ago I promised myself that this would be a time to read all the books that I wanted to read and to revisit favourites from the past. The result is that the shelves in my office are rapidly filling up with books already read and those still to be opened. I had some book tokens for my 70th birthday – which I soon spent – and each month sees my Amazon account climb as I find something new to keep me busy!   I often have several books on the go at the same time and these can vary from popular novels to non-fiction to classics. In the last few weeks I’ve re-read and relived my youth with Dickens’ David Copperfield and Pickwick Papers (both tales that I last read as a teenager), loved reading again Laurie Lee’s Magical Cider with Rosie, hugely enjoyed Bill Bryson’s One Summer:1927,  been engrossed and inspired by philosopher Michael Sandel’s Justice, as always enjoyed my favourite crime writer John Harvey, been gripped with one of the few John le Carré spy story that I had not previously read (A Delicate Truth), delighted in  a few more chapters of Music in the Castle of Heaven, John Eliot Gardiner’s vast and hugely detailed, erudite and seminal biography of Johann Sebastian Bach and, at the opposite extreme, slummed out with a Joe Nesbo thriller! And at the moment I’m reading the second instalment of Labour politician Alan Johnson’s acclaimed autobiography (or “memoir” as he prefers to call to it): Please, Mister Postman.

As I have become older biographies and autobiographies have increasingly become my most enjoyed read and amongst my favourites are:

  • The Outcasts’ Outcast – a wonderful biography of Lord Longford by Peter Stanford. The life of the great reforming Lord – a man of infinite goodness and intention who was often reviled by the media and much of the population
  • Eric Clapton – The Autobiography. The life of the great rock guitarist
  • Michael Foot by Kenneth O. Morgan – the life of the great Labour politician and probably the last of the great political orators
  • Macmillan by Alistair Horne. The biography of probably the last ‘one nation’ Tory Prime Minister. Famed for his phrase “You’ve never had it so good” he was one of the few more recent Prime Ministers that we could describe as a statesman.
  • The Time of my Life – the autobiography of Dennis Healey, often described as the best Prime Minister England never had.
  • Lincoln by Carl Sandburg – a truly inspiring trilogy about a truly inspiring President
  • Kennedy - An Unfinished Life by Robert Dallek. One of the best of the many biographies of the iconic President
  • Trautmann – the biography of the much loved German goalkeeper by Alan Rowlands
  • Harold Larwood  by Duncan Hamilton – the biography of the great fast bowler forever remembered for his part in the Bodyline Test Series.
  • Tom Finney – My Autobiography. The story of arguably England’s greatest footballer who was born and lived only a few streets away from where I grew up and who I watched play so many times.
  • The Long Walk to Freedom – Nelson Mandella’s life and times
  • My Life in Pieces – the wonderful story of the great actor Simon Callow
  • Testament of Youth – not strictly a biography but the great tale and indictment of war by Vera Brittain
  • Roosevelt by Conrad Black – the life of the great American President
  • Boycott, the Autobiography – the life and career of the great English batsman Geoffrey Boycott
  • Aneurin Bevan the biography of the great Welsh Labour MP, father of the NHS and great orator by his protégé Michael Foot.
Three sporting greats
I could go on and on. Many of these I return to again and again. Sandburg’s Lincoln is a case in point. I first read this almost half a century ago when at college as part of my American History option. I loved the book then and still today occasionally take it down from the shelf, its pages now a little faded by time, to read Sandburg’s stirring prose retelling the life of the great American President. Sandburg, being a poet, has the knack of capturing atmosphere and the man. In places Lincoln reads like an epic poem rather than a book about a politician. To read Sandburg’s words describing of Lincoln’s early years as a humble prairie lawyer and then to read the final chapters following his assassination as America and the world mourned his passing is both humbling and often overpowering. Similarly, the touching tale of Harold Larwood by Duncan Hamilton takes one back to another time and allows one to witness and be part of the feelings of the day. Harold Larwood, a humble coal miner’s son from north Nottinghamshire, only  a few miles from where I live, became the most feared fast bowler in the world playing a sport which in those days still segregated its  players as either “players” or “gentlemen” (Larwood, being a working man, was the former). Larwood, pitched into the mighty Ashes series against the Australia of Don Bradman, was England’s secret weapon to destroy Bradman and the Australians by bowling at the batsman’s body. The 1932 series became known as the Bodyline series and caused international tensions, almost broke up the British Empire and Larwood was vilified by the powers that be for simply carrying out his captain’s (the ‘gentleman’, Douglas Jardine) orders. In the aftermath  Larwood was largely ignored and rejected by the upper echelons of English cricket because he refused to apologise - he was an easy scapegoat, an ordinary guy faced with the full force of "the establishment" - but thirty years later was ultimately welcomed and loved in Australia, the land who had, during the series, so hated him. He lived out his life there and only rarely returned to England, his country of birth and for whom he had given so much. Only a couple of miles from where I live is Trent Bridge Cricket Ground – one of the great Test Match grounds of the world - and where Larwood  played out his career for Nottinghamshire and England. Today, part of the magnificent ground celebrates Larwood’s memory by having a pub called the Larwood & Voce Tavern (Bill Voce was the other part of the fast bowling partnership in the Bodyline series – and also a Nottinghamshire man). The inside is filled with memorabilia of these two and of Bodyline – but in the quarter century after the series when the two  were subject to constant criticism by politicians, “gentlemen”, high society and the public school educated administrators of cricket it was a different story. They were effectively disowned by those who had used and then abused them. It is a tale of inspiration, overcoming the odds and ultimately forgiveness – it has the power to make me angry and sad at how mankind can so quickly turn on those it has loved. Like Lincoln  it is a bitter sweet tale and the same is true with the wonderful biography by Alan Rowlands of Bert Trautmann the German goalkeeper. A prisoner of war in the Second World War Trautmann, a German paratrooper was imprisoned near Manchester during the War and initially thought to be dead by his parents. He stayed in England and became the greatest goalkeeper of his day playing for Manchester City. In the post war years he increasingly became the symbol for reconciliation between England and Germany. The story reached its high point when, in one of the great sporting moments, while playing in the 1956 Cup Final at Wembley he broke his neck, but played on despite being in great pain. He became a true hero in every sense of the word. And finally, the biography of Lord Longford – The Outcasts’ Outcast. A man born into great wealth and privilege for whom it was the natural order of things that he should progress serenely through life at the upper levels of mid twentieth century society. Born an aristocrat with the right to sit in the House of Lords he confounded his heritage and became a Labour party politician. He was devoutly Christian but often vilified by many for his forgiving views and belief in the inherent goodness of even the most terrible crime or criminal. His commitment, belief in redemption and in the rightness of what he was doing and his untiring hard work ensured that he became one of the century’s renowned social reformers. Sadly he was frequently and savagely  abused in the popular media and criticised by his Labour colleagues for his perceived lack of ability – and maybe there was a bit of truth in this. But any lack of ability was more than made up for by his industry, his strength in standing true to his beliefs and principles against the severest of criticism and satire, and his obvious goodness as a man.  His footprint can still be seen in our contemporary views about prison welfare, homosexuality, equality and pornography – his contribution over so many years has done much to make our society what it is today. In short, like Lincoln, Trautmann and Larwood he made a lasting difference society and certainly did more than many of those who most criticised him.
Lord Longford - often ridiculed and
scorned  but stayed true to his

And, I suppose that is true of virtually all the biographies that I have listed. Each person written about  in their way  ‘made a difference’ – be it on the sports field, in politics, in music or in life. The two music biographies that I have mentioned – that of rock guitarist Eric Clapton and that of the Baroque composer Bach would seem on the surface to be miles apart but in their age and beyond both changed the musical world. So, too, with political biographies such as those of Harold Macmillan and Aneuurin Bevan. Macmillan, the public school boy, like Lord Longford, had the world at his feet. It was almost predictable from the day of his birth that he would achieve high office. And at the other end of the spectrum, Bevan from the most humble of backgrounds who worked from the very bottom to the top. Politically and socially these two were worlds apart. Macmillan, a Conservative by both upbringing and inclination would have sat in the House of Commons and heard the fiery and heart on sleeve Bevan scathingly  castigate Macmillan’s Prime Ministerial predecessor thus:  “Sir Anthony Eden has been pretending that he is now invading Egypt in order to strengthen the United Nations. Every burglar of course could say the same thing, he could argue that he was entering the house in order to train the police. So, if Sir Anthony Eden is sincere in what he is saying, and he may be, he may be, then if he is sincere in what he is saying then he is too stupid to be a prime minister.” Macmillan would undoubtedly have winced but at the same time had a worthy riposte to Bevan when in 1948 the Welshman declared “No amount of cajolery, and no attempts at ethical or social seduction, can eradicate from my heart a deep burning hatred for the Tory Party. So far as I am concerned they are lower than vermin.”  And for his part Bevan would have been infuriated by the unflappable, incisive and pragmatic Macmillan when he calmly declared “It is the duty of HM Government neither to flap or falter”  or when ‘Supermac’ as he was labelled suggested that the population ‘had never had it so good’ or finally when asked what things in politics he most feared he allegedly  and laconically replied ‘Events dear boy, events’. But, as with Clapton and Bach, as with Longford and Trautmann, as with Larwood and Lincoln and all the  rest, Macmillan and Bevan were game changers and their biographies illustrate this.
Foot & Bevan - two of my (and Johnson's, I think) heroes

The life stories that I have enjoyed most are those which have, in some way, resonated with me as an individual and reflected my own experience or convictions – my childhood, my background, my basic beliefs about life. Or, often I have enjoyed them because the subject is someone for whom I have a great admiration – although not necessarily liked. Sometimes the personal link is obvious – for example the biography of Tom Finney tells of the streets, people and places that I knew as I grew up, like him in Preston. As I read it I can picture every place and event as well as appreciate the life story of this great footballer. Similarly, the life of Nye Bevan chimed with me partly because of his humble background but especially because his beliefs, his idealism, his commitment and because his passionate words expressed my ill thought out feelings more or less exactly. Other biographies have spoken to me in other ways – especially in that they might have opened up an understanding of a person that was not there previously; those of Macmillan and Eric Clapton very definitely fall into that category. In the “admiration” bracket I would include the biographies the great actor Simon Callow, the writer Doris Lessing, the economist John Maynard Keynes and the life stories of Michael Foot and Dennis Healey – the latter two  being men who often crossed political swords although of the same political creed but for whom I hold a great respect and admiration. Occasionally I read something which disappoints or frustrates me – and a previous admiration begins to wane. For example, I have always had a huge respect and admiration for politician Shirley Williams, the daughter of the great pacifist Vera Brittain. Brittain’s great work Testament of Youth is, I believe, one of the great books and should be compulsory reading in all schools and I long felt that her daughter, Shirley Williams, lived many of her mother’s ideals and beliefs as a Labour politician – especially when she was Minister for Education. As a teacher I had great respect for her and much of that respect is still there – she was and still is, in my view, the last great Minister for Education that we had. But, having said, that I found her autobiography (Climbing the Bookshelves) disappointing and shallow. After reading it I began to seriously question her real commitment and passion and felt let down wondering if she really believed in anything at all. Deep down, it seemed to me, she had all the ideals that I cherished but never the will and the passion to turn these into reality. Politics, I think, is a brutal game and it seemed increasingly that Shirley Williams was born into a privileged background but unlike Lord Longford (and to use sporting parlance) she talked a good game but never really got bloodied. Maybe I’m wrong!  Sometimes I have enjoyed books which might not be strictly biographies but are written by people who have lived through great events and use these, and their life story, to provide an insight into world history and society. Two writers stand out here: historian Eric Hobsbawm with his Interesting Times and Fractured Times and, secondly, the writings of historian and political scientist, the late Tony Judt – especially Ill Fares the Land and The Memory Chalet and Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. Ill Fares the Land and The Memory Chalet are two books which have left a lasting impression and if forced to choose would certainly take these to support me should I be cast onto a desert island! And finally, it is always a joy to read of someone who I don’t have any particular affection for – or maybe even dislike – and to then find that despite my prejudices that the subject does have redeeming features. The biography of impeached and disgraced American President Richard Nixon by Conrad Black springs to mind here; despite Nixon’s politics and the manner of his downfall via the Watergate scandal, “Tricky Dickie” (as he was often called at the time), was maybe not so bad as often painted. Like others I have mentioned, he came from humble origins, rose to the supreme office, was the ultimate "fixer" politician and on balance made a lasting contribution to the world - especially in opening up dialogue between the communist and the free world. Following this line of thought I keep trying to convince myself that I should read the biography of Margaret Thatcher! I’m sure that I will find some things to applaud. I certainly respected and admired her – there can be little doubt that her commitment, single mindedness and industry changed Britain and probably the world for ever.  But, I fear that my dislike, indeed hatred and revulsion of her policies, style, manner and arrogance would lead me to, at the very least, hurl the book through the window or more likely cause my sudden demise via a combination of apoplectic fit and heart attack. Perhaps she is one biography too far.
Tricky - "there will be no whitewash at the
White House" - Dickie Richard Nixon". There was, but
maybe he wasn't all bad.

At the top of this blog I mentioned the biography which I am currently reading – indeed have just, last night, finished – the second instalment of Labour politician and now elder statesman, Alan Johnson’s memoirs. Aptly named Please Mister Postman (Johnson spent much of his pre-MP life working in the  postal service) the memoir, and it’s first instalment This Boy, ticks all the biographical boxes for me. This Boy when it was published a couple of years ago was widely acclaimed and rightly became an immediate best seller; it told the tale of Johnson’s very humble, and at times desperate, upbringing in post war London against the backdrop of the 50s and early 60s. Apart being beautifully written and inspiring as Johnson and his older sister struggled to overcome the heavily stacked odds it is also a wonderfully evocative and accurate memoir of the time and place. I could relate to it exactly and the convictions about life, society and politics that were slowly dawning in Johnson’s young mind I could largely recognise as similar to my own. When he mentioned that one of his favourite books was the western Shane it rang an immediate bell – one of my all time favourite films is Shane (see blog: Wooden Ships and Iron Men -July 2011) and as I read of his early teenage years I often felt as if I was reading my own story. And this feeling has continued into the second instalment Please Mister Postman when Johnson traces his marriage, setting up home in the late 60s, his growing interest in reading and in his dawning political awareness, aspirations and ambitions. He talks of his “secret” reading of The Times when all his work colleagues read the tabloid newspapers – I can relate exactly to that; my wife often says that when we were at college – and before we were an “item” -  she always noticed me as I would always have my copy of The Guardian with me! He talks of learning new phrases such as lingua franca  as his work brings him into contact with a wider range of people and situations. When I read that I reflected how many times that sort of thing happened to me when I went to college and was suddenly mixing with fellow students who had come from very different social backgrounds to my own. I still remember vividly the very first night at college when a formal dinner was held and I found myself sitting on a table with a lecturer and seven other students; I had never sat at a table where there was a range of cutlery set out in front of me or where grace would be said or wine served. I sat praying that I would not commit a social sin and watched everyone of the others like a hawk to see which knife, fork or spoon they used, how they held them how often they sipped their wine, how they passed the salt and pepper, what phrases they used, how they laughed, when they laughed. I was on a steep learning  curve and as I read Johnson's memoir I sensed the same thing had happened to him too. I can relate, too, to the pictures he draws of life in the 70s – the cheap white (often German) wine like Blue Nun, the Party Seven [pint] beer cans which were popular at the time, the slowly growing chance for ordinary people to own things like cars and telephones. Then came the growing tensions that began to appear within society: the Labour Party becoming dominated for a time by left wing militants, the miners’ strike, the Thatcher government and so on. Johnson documents these all too well and his words took me back to that time with a  vengeance.
The first two instalments of Johnson's memoirs -
will there be a third?

And by a stroke of pure coincidence I was engrossed with Johnson’s depiction of where he and his wife settled in the Thames Valley town of Slough. This became very personal for me since my son, when he moved to that area over 15 years ago, shared a house with a friend only a couple of roads away from where Johnson had lived on the Britwell Estate. My son then bought a flat in the area where each day Johnson would have delivered his letters all those years before. As with Johnson’s first book depicting his childhood I began to feel that I was almost part of this story!  I knew the pubs he mentions: The Feathers opposite the gates to the great Cliveden House  (see blog: A Saturday Afternoon Walk Through History - May 2012)  and the Jolly Woodman near to Dorneywood – both places where we have enjoyed a drink and meals – and many of the other areas and places Johnson writes of. Today my son still lives in the Thames Valley and I know that when I next visit him and his family I will be noticing, with new interest and insight, some of the places that Johnson referred to.
I remember it well!

And finally, Johnson’s occasional comments that he makes concerning his political beliefs and ambitions they too resonated. He talks of the schools of the time although called comprehensives were that in name only for selection still existed and “the best” were creamed off to go to the local grammar school, When I started teaching that was exactly the same situation that we had here in Nottinghamshire. In my village, children I taught took the 11+ test and if they “passed” then they went to one of the two comprehensives in neighbouring West Bridgford; if they “failed” then they were sent to the local village secondary modern. And yet, when I moved schools to teach in West Bridgford I discovered that children living there did not need to take the 11+ at all to go to these same “comprehensives” - they simply transferred to the one of their choice. So children within only a couple of miles of each other were treated completely differently – and I would argue grossly unfairly. It was, too, a situation that had an interesting and telling spin off. The parents in my village whose children had to take the 11+ viewed the comprehensives as highly desirable, a step up, and their ultimate goal and where their child, if they passed the 11+ would gain opportunities unheard of at the local village secondary modern. Like a rare antiques these schools were highly valued because they appeared exclusive. But the West Bridgford parents on the other hand had a low opinion of the comprehensives – after all any child living in West Bridgford could go there so there was no exclusivity. For the West Bridgford parent it was a case of familiarity breeding contempt. In fact, of course, as with Johnson’s example in Slough, the whole situation made a nonsense of the term “comprehensive”; for some children (the “less able” as defined by the test my village) were being hived off to a secondary modern whilst at the other end “bright” children were gaining admittance to selective schools in wider Nottingham. These “comprehensives” were not comprehensive at all! It was a sham reinforced by parental snobbery and ambition and it went on for several years before some limited kind of equality was put in place. It would be nice to think that anachronisms like this are a thing of the past; sadly they are not, inequality and educational snobbery are alive and well in 21st century Britain. In Trafford (Manchester) for example, where my granddaughters are at school, and where selection grotesquely skews the school system and thwarts any real chance of equality. It is an undeniable truth that England has never, at any time in its history, had an education “system” – for “system” implies something thought out, coordinated, logical, organised in a progressive manner, whole and cohesive. Instead, we have always had and still have a lottery, an ill un-thought out, disorganised and  fractured hotchpotch of competing interests and self interest that creaks along with no discernible logical or educational structure  giving some huge advantages and others almost insurmountable disadvantages. In the 21st century as yet more pieces of nonsense - free schools and academies - are introduced into this complex and unedifying mess of  independent schools, public schools, faith schools, grammar school, comprehensives, aided, voluntary aided, controlled schools, voluntary controlled schools........and so on – equality via education becomes more and more unlikely as they all vie for a bit of the educational action. Whatever the merits of the various kinds of school that we have in this country what we have could not even in the broadest of terms by called a "system".  If some future dictator or visitor from Mars decided to impose an education system on the UK then this is exactly what he or she would not have - it is a mess and a shambles. It is a great sadness and source of no little anger to me that after all these years the Labour Party have never been prepared to grasp the nettle and resolve this situation once and for all.
Some political greats

That, however, is another story! There were other things that resonated in Johnson’s memoir such as the left wing “take over” of the Labour Party. Like Johnson, I remember that as a very difficult time. In schools we were increasingly being subjected to what I considered to be left wing propaganda at in-service courses and from the local education authority.  Political correctness ran amok and for a time one feared that Orwell’s dystopian society really had arrived.  It was the only time in my almost 60 years of reading The Guardian that I gave the newspaper up for a few months in favour of The Times. I remember too, as Johnson refers to, the coming of Neil Kinnock – now often, and wrongly,  criticised by “New” Labour. But Kinnock began the slow rebuilding of the Party after the left wing debacle and in my view put the building blocks in place for Tony Blair’s later victories.
And finally, I felt totally at home when I read  towards the end of the book of Johnson’s admiration for Michael Foot and especially Foot’s magnificent biography of Nye Bevan which I listed above as one of my favourite biographies. Foot and Bevan may, in the modern Labour Party, be “old hat”, and not the subject of polite conversation amongst the Party  apparatchiks and the trendy young turks, indistinguishable from their Tory counterparts and those who are currently vying for the leadership of the Party following the election result a few weeks ago. But when I read of Johnson’s respect for these two giants of another age I felt that maybe all is not lost!
On my desk waiting to be read!

When I read this reference to Foot and Bevan the circle was completed, the icing on the cake; and as last night I closed the book having got to the end I began to wonder if Johnson will write a third instalment and if so what will it be called? His previous two have been the titles of Beatles’ songs: This Boy and Please Mister Postman reflecting, I suppose, Johnson’s unfulfilled ambition from his teenage years of becoming a rock guitarist. So what will he choose next as his memoirs come up to date and he becomes a cabinet minister holding high office – Yesterday or maybe All You Need Is Love or A day in the Life or We Can Work It Out or maybe it's just got to be Paperback Writer! I shall look out for the next instalment if there is to be one – but until then there are plenty of other biographies to go at; sitting on my desk at the moment are the biographies of the late and much respected politician Roy Jenkins and the ex-Archbishop of Canterbury, and a man I hugely admire - Rowan Williams. So there’s plenty to keep me out of mischief!