04 July, 2015


The Body Centre on our village green
As Pat and I went for our pre-breakfast walk the other day we passed, as always,  what was formerly known as the Youth Club and which stands on the edge our village green. It is a building that has recently had significant refurbishments although the building itself is still relatively new – probably about 35 years old. It stands on the site of what was originally part of the old junior school where both Pat and I began out teaching careers. During the past few decades the building has been a youth club, a place where the local Baptist Church meet to worship each Sunday and a place where various groups of people have met for different types of activity – table tennis, community meetings, old folks’ groups,  discos and the like. A few months ago the building was refurbished and it now is proudly called  “The Body Centre”. Maybe all the activities which previously went on still occur but there is no doubting now its intended use and as we walked past the windows I noticed a young man in boxing gloves and shorts punching the guarded hands of his trainer; clearly, he was hoping one day to be heavyweight champion of the world. It was reminiscent of a scene from the Sylvester Stallone film “Rocky”! On the wall behind him in huge black letters were the words: “EAT, SLEEP, TRAIN, REPEAT”. When I came home I Googled “Body Centre Ruddington” and discovered  that many physical activities go on there: “Boot Camps, Kettlercise Classes, Metafit Classes, Personal Training, Sports and Remedial Massage and Corporate Wellness Programs (sic)” says the web site. Rooms can be hired for parties, the outside artificial grass pitch can be used for outside activities and clearly every effort is being made to utilise the facility – and judging from the tweets it seems to have a strong base of support. Obviously the local council will want it to be successful and financially viable rather than standing unused so all this is good news. But deep down I wondered – does this “success story” reflect a little on the priorities of our modern society?
The Centre's web page

Wherever one looks today we are reminded in a million different ways of the physical aspects of life. Each day we seem to be subjected to the latest research advising us to adopt this diet or take this course of action if we want to improve our life chances. Don’t eat red meat, eat oily fish, stay away from alcohol, eat a Mediterranean diet, fried breakfasts are bad for you..... and so the list goes on. If we follow the advice we are assured that we can add a few months to our lives; except it doesn’t always work like that. A good friend ate the most healthy, vegetarian diet imaginable, rarely used alcohol, was a long distance walker, was exactly the right body mass, didn’t smoke and had regular health screenings and check ups.........she developed a nasty aggressive bowler cancer followed by pancreatic cancer from which, sadly, she died very young. Another good friend – a sportsman through and through, and apparently supremely fit – collapsed and died in his late thirties  some years ago while taking part in the Robin Hood Marathon here in Nottingham.  Fate is cruel.
Pumping iron  here in Ruddington

Each bit of health advice often, too, contradicts others. As we swelter in the UK heat wave at the moment we are advised to cover ourselves up to avoid the chances of developing skin cancer. And yet there has been a well proven trend in recent years suggesting that this policy is causing a recurrence of rickets – a condition principally caused by a lack of vitamin D which we mainly get from sunlight. We are bombarded with healthy “must dos” – keep our body mass index in line with government recommendations, eat five vegetables or fruit each day, take regular exercise.......and so on. We flick the pages of the Sunday supplements and look at the magazines on display in the newsagents and we see a wealth of slim, well honed and young (usually female) bodies staring back at us.  All of them passing on, both overtly and covertly, the same message:  “you can look like this.....you should look like this.....if you don’t look like this then you are failing”. And just as we are obsessed with the notion of the body beautiful we also fret about the young becoming “couch potatoes” and our health experts warn of a growing obesity epidemic. We regularly read of young people who have been bullied, because of their size or young women  who feel ashamed that their bodies do not match up to the super slim models who prance up and down the catwalk. We all too often read of young women  undertaking potentially fatal diets or suffering from one of the many slimming diseases. Only this week in Nottingham we have had the inquest on a young girl who died weighing only four stones after starving herself. She “fooled” her doctors by wearing hidden ankle weights to make it look as if she was heavier than she really was. Such is the pressure that as individuals and as a society we impose upon ourselves to conform to what society deems as an acceptable physical appearance and such is the overwhelming  importance that we attach to the physical aspects of our personality. We can blame the super models, we can complain about the fashion media for this state of affairs but they merely reflect our priorities.  In the end we buy into the fashion magazines, follow the diets and  follow the advice; we are society and we create the pressure. We increasingly are fixated with the search for health, fitness, good looks, eternal youth – or at least the look of eternal youth.  Individually and a s a society we have an obsession with the body and a desire to look and behave “young” - to not grow old and to be fat, wrinkled or to be unable to do the things that we could do when we were young.
Circuit training.....Eat Sleep, Train, Repeat! Body
building maybe but mind numbing
In this quest for youth thousands turn out to run marathons, mini marathons, fun runs and the like.  The benefits of sport are promoted at every level: our government  ploughed billions into the promotion of the Olympic Games and its underlying premise was that it would encourage people to take up sport and exercise for all the benefits they give us. Sporting bodies like the FA pour billions into their respective sports and indeed fans pour money into them at the other end. Newspapers have whole sections and pullout supplements dedicated to sport; even my beloved Guardian – arguably the most “serious” newspaper in the UK- has a daily sport supplement several pages in length. It devotes little more than a page or two to other cultural pursuits – the theatre, music, books and the like. But such is sport’s claim on the mindset of our society that it has become ring fenced and beyond criticism. Our roads are increasingly filled with lycra-clad men (and sometimes women) peddling their hugely expensive bicycles as they seek to emulate their Tour de France heroes and at the same time maintain their youth and fitness levels. Incidentally, I often find this amusing. Those involved in cycling often quote the Netherlands as a cycle friendly country and that we in the UK should adopt the same ideas in our design and use of cycle lanes etc. They are right, but there is, however, a difference as a trip to the Netherlands will quickly show. The emphasis there is not primarily upon sport and maintaining fitness but on practicality. It is quite rare to see the lycra clad cyclist on his or her designer racing cycle. It’s true one sees thousands of everyday people, peddling away down Dutch streets and through Dutch cities. They are clad in their everyday clothes and mounted on very traditional machines using the cycle as a simple and easy means of getting themselves (and often their children ensconced in a huge basket on the front of the machine) from A to B. For the Dutch it seems largely a matter of practicality but for us it is a matter of style, of keeping our youth and of our obsession “image” and with the physical.
One of the billions of  trivial platitudes
posing as "wisdom" and to be found on any
social networking site in the 21st
century. They speak volumes about the
maturity and priorities of our society.

In short we have become, in the UK at least, obsessive about the value of sport generally but in particular fixated with the desire to maintain our bodies, our health and indeed our youth for as long as possible. As the message on the Body Centre’s wall said: “EAT, SLEEP, TRAIN, REPEAT” –  the modern mantra, it seems, for today’s good life. There is, of course, nothing wrong with that – indeed it is probably a pretty laudable goal that we try to keep fit and healthy - but it also says much about us and our priorities.

Firstly, this trend, increasingly, reflecting what I will call “the culture of youth” – the desire of people to still be “youthful” despite the fact that they are well beyond that age – which has become firmly rooted in our 21st century culture belies, I believe, a certain immaturity. On Saturday Pat and I went to see our grandson aged seven play in a football competition. We had a lovely day and saw some super football. We were surrounded by all the parents of the hundreds of players.  The vast majority of the young (and not so young) men stood there in their football shorts, their designer trainers and their logo emblazoned replica football shirt proclaiming  the name of their favourite player from Manchester United or Barcelona or Chelsea or Liverpool. It seems to me quite natural that a little boy might want to wear a top just like his favourite player .......but a grown man? At what point does he accept the mantle of adulthood or does he always want to simply be rather large little boy? In a similar vein we see middle aged ladies keen to get in on the latest keep fit dance routine in sports halls or gymnasiums or places like our newly opened facility on our village green. Of course, there is nothing wrong with all this, but underpinning it is the desire not to grow up; American moral philosopher Susan Neiman  suggests that “...by clinging impotently to youth we impoverish youth and maturity alike”. Quite. And Robert Pogue Harrison – Professor of Literature – observes “.....the collective drive in modern western cultures to make ourselves younger in looks, behaviour, mentality, lifestyle and above all, desires is a malign influence. Our age’s self defeating ruse is to give the young sovereignty of culture, all the while depriving them of the opportunities, solitude, the example and the  shelter needed to cultivate an authentic and creative  adult life.....”  My feelings exactly. In short if we, the older generations, still cling to youth and childish things then how are the young to grow up to maturity of outlook, expression, desire, culture or  opinion ? As I write this blog the words from the Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians keeps intruding into my mind:  “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things”.  Mmmmm!

Modern day Peter Pans in their footy shirts 
supporting their team (Arsenal) 2015
But if this desire to stay young, keep our bodies on good shape, be obsessed with the physical aspects of our existence is a cultural priority of the modern world it begs, I believe, a question;  namely why the physical? Why not a similar desire – or to use Harrison’s term “drive” - to make ourselves “brainier” or “wiser” or more “spiritual”? Indeed, I would guess that the current fixation on the physical is a relatively recent phenomenon. Although, clearly we have always had recreations – many of them physical in nature – there has not been, I believe until the second half of the twentieth century, the same emphasis upon our physical well being on such a  mass scale. People have enjoyed participating or watching some form of sport for hundreds of years but it has never reached the stage that it has today of being a leviathan within the western culture. Maybe people simply have more time to indulge themselves now? Maybe, as relative wealth has increased, people have more opportunity to be narcissistic or to devote time to sporting pursuits? But again it begs the same question why sport and fitness – why not other more cerebral, artistic or spiritual pursuits? Whatever the reason we are a culture obsessed with physical over more cerebral, academic, artistic  or spiritual interests. In this we are, too, a culture of contrasts.
Mature men, women and children supporting  Arsenal in 1948
At the same time as we prioritise and become increasingly obsessed with the physical we increasingly marginalise the other aspects of our personalities: fewer and fewer of us admit to any great religious belief, our churches are less well attended now than ever before and as a western culture we seem increasingly suspicious of those who do have a faith – especially those from the middle east. Our health provision consistently devotes less resources to the needs of the mentally ill and to  psychological and psychiatric well being than it does to physical illness – and this despite the fact that all research indicates that there is a far greater need than ever before for effective mental health support in this age where an ageing population, drug  and alcohol use, social isolation, the breakdown of the family and extended family, unemployment  and a myriad of other 21st century conditions all contribute to a growing mental health problem. As austerity bites local council shave been forced to cut back on “non-statutory” educational and social provision; libraries are marginalised and where they do continue or perhaps blossom it is often because there has been a conscious effort to make them “accessible” and user friendly, to increasingly stock materials that are light entertainment rather than more demanding places of learning. Masses of people will pay eye watering amounts of money to watch their favourite football team, to enjoy their SKY entertainment package or to enjoy the facilities of their local gym but perceive a night at the opera or a visit to a concert hall or a subscription to a library or evening school course as not worth it or too expensive. And I wonder why – why, and on whose authority, should the physical be deemed more desirable than the mental, the academic, the cultural or the spiritual.

The things that I write of are not confined, I believe, to this country - they are prevalent throughout western societies. Noam Chomsky in his book "How the World Works" comments that: "I used to haunt the main public library in downtown Philadelphia.........those were the days when people read, and used the libraries very extensively. Public services were richer in many ways in the late 1930s ans early 1940s.......I think that's one of the reasons why poor, even unemployed people living in slums seemed more hopeful then....Libraries were one of the factors....[not] just for educated people - a lot of people used them. That's much less true now......I travel a lot and often get stuck in some airport or other. I used to be able to find something I wanted to read in the airport book store - maybe a classic, maybe something current. Now it's almost impossible...I think it's just plain market pressures. Bestsellers move fast and it costs money to keep books around that don't sell quickly..... One of my daughters lives in a declining town.... the town happens to have  a good library staffed by a couple of librarians. I went there with her kids on a Saturday afternoon and nobody was there except the kids of a few professional families. Where are the kids who ought to be there?....probably watching TV....for them going to the library just isn't the thing to do. That's a big change since my younger days. It was the kind of thing you did if you were a working class person fifty or sixty years ago. [The] emptying people's minds of the ability or even the desire, to gain access to cultural [and intellectual] resources is a dangerous thing that is one step along the way to the totalitarian state". Absolutely - the unthinking and the uneducated rarely ask searching questions of those in power. Put it into the minds of people that the only thing that matters is "EAT, SLEEP, TRAIN, REPEAT" and you have a healthy but a docile, easily manipulated population.

Me (front row, extreme left) in my draughtsman and
night school days
When I left school in 1961 I was lucky to gain a post as a trainee designer draughtsman in a local engineering firm. For two years I attended night school four nights a week to study for the necessary mechanical engineering qualifications. From Monday to Thursday I would leave home at 7.30 in the morning with two packets of sandwiches and two small thermos flasks: one of these was for my lunch as I sat at my drawing board and the other I would eat and drink for my tea. I  left work at 5.30 pm, walked the couple of miles through Preston to the college and I would sit with other similar students in the classroom – all of us doing the same thing, eating and drinking – waiting for the class to begin at 7 pm. Then, at 9.30 pm, we would all troop off home.  After two years I was given a day off from work so that I could continue my studies in “work time”. I still, however, had to go to night school for one night each week since I had left school without a GCE  O level in maths and had to, therefore, do a “catch up course”. I didn't see all this as a problem – of course I would rather not have had to study every night but I was not dissimilar from many of my friends and it was firmly planted in my head that study was the way forward. Of course, I still loved watching my favourite football team, Preston North End, but I knew that any mid week games were only rarely an option for me. It never occurred that I was missing out on going to the gym and even if it had I'm quite sure that common sense would have told me that my future qualifications were of more importance that pleasure pursuits. I would like to think that young people today would view the world similarly – but I fear that might not be the case – it would interfere with their “me time” or “chilling time”.

Pleasure, games, sport, keeping fit  were, for previous generations largely secondary to the pursuit of some kind of self improvement. We might have wanted to go to that football match or go ten pin bowling but these were games, pleasures and to be kept in perspective – brief interludes in the job of growing up. Leaving school was, at the time, a life marker; one was going to be concerned with more adult things. As for going to the game in a replica football shirt bearing the name of my favourite footballer I have absolutely no doubt that had I turned up like that then Tony and Gary Clarkson, Stewart Kilner, Alan Smith, David Bradshaw and the rest would have laughed at me, probably called me a “Big Jesse”  and advised me to go into the children’s section of the ground or go and hold my daddy’s hand. In short we looked forward to growing up and the responsibilities that went with it – today, it seems young men, especially, want to be Peter Pans who never grow up. In writing this I am reminded of the feminist joke that appears with monotonous regularity on social media sites: a little boy says to his mother that he can’t wait to grow up. Mum replies “Don’t be silly you’re a boy – you’ll  never grow up, you’ll just get bigger”. Harsh?  - maybe, stereotyping? – yes. But as with all stereotyping containing more than a grain of truth.
Headlines like this no longer raise an eyebrow. We can blame the government
but in the end the clue is on the right hand side of the page. As a society we have
changed our priorities: happy to narcissus like  pay £99 for "Botox and fillers" less
motivated to pay more tax or fees for libraries; happy to pump iron and get the 
adrenalin going less willing to read a "boring" book - this is a huge social change.

Society has changed. Up until about twenty years ago virtually every area of the UK had thriving night school classes where one could, for a small or moderate  fee, go to learn some skill or develop and interest: learn a foreign language, learn how to maintain a car, become skilled in needlework of some kind,  learn cooking skills, dabble in a bit of philosophy, develop your artistic skills, take a course in beginners’ economics or psychology or Latin, develop photography skills, learn how to set up and get the best out of your stereo system, refresh your basic English or maths, learn how to make your own wine or beer. The list was endless. They weren't about gaining qualifications – although that was sometimes an option – but rather about developing an interest, widening horizons, keeping the mind active. Sadly in the past two decades these have dwindled. Since Margaret Thatcher’s governments  local authorities have been forced by economics to charge more for the use of the facilities and classes have became more expensive. At the same time there has been a move to focus more upon the gaining of qualifications rather than simple personal development so courses leading to academic or professional qualifications have become assimilated into the formal education system whilst those of a more informal nature have simply fallen by the wayside. Whereas once I could attend a German language course aimed at my two week holiday in Germany – now if I want to brush up on my German I have to enrol on a course leading to a qualification.  Inevitably this is more demanding and more costly and in my view it also removes one of the basic elements of “education” – that real education is done for its own sake and not first and foremost to gain a qualification.
Jesse Boot

With this in mind I am reminded of Boot’s the Chemist. In Nottingham where we live is the head office of Boot’s the Chemist and many local people are employed in the factory and warehouses that are centred here. For those not familiar with the UK, Boot’s have shops on virtually every High Street throughout the country – they are a leading company. Boot’s was founded by Jesse Boot here in Nottingham in the latter years of the 19th century – it began as a small back street shop selling various “cures” and evolved into the giant pharmaceutical dispensing chemist that it is today. Jesse Boot was also a philanthropist – he has a school named after him and was very much the founding father of Nottingham University. From his earliest shops he insisted that his staff took every opportunity to better themselves; he paid over £5000 to install a great organ in the Albert Hall here in Nottingham – the organ is still there, Pat and see it each time we visit the venue for a concert. He encouraged his employees to learn a musical instrument and provided them. There was a Boot’s Brass Band and a Boot’s Orchestra – still in existence, a friend of ours plays in it today. He paid for the fees of the organist at the Albert Hall but insisted that the organist played one concert a week for as many of his employees (and their families) who cared to attend.  The concerts were to be on Saturday afternoon in order that they were available to all his workers and so that the children of his workers could also attend and thus gain from the experience. He insisted that each seat should cost no more than three pence. Each concert was to be a recital - enjoyable but also worthwhile in that it would expose his workers to music that they might not otherwise have the opportunity to hear and which would  encourage an interest in good music. Finally he requested that concert goers should be well turned out so that the event was treated as special and with respect; in short not only was Jesse Boot widening the musical horizons of his workforce he was also helping them to move up the social ladder. Records show that every seat was regularly filled.
The Albert Hall Nottingham - the "descendent" of Jesse Boot's
great organ still present
Boot’s was and  has always been traditionally seen as a “good employer” in the locality. In following Jesse Boot’s ideas throughout the years one of the “perks” of working at Boot’s was the company’s desire to have a better educated work force, so all staff were encouraged to attend night school classes – it was not compulsory nor was it intended to necessarily gain further qualifications (although that was always on offer) – but to simply broaden their horizons, better themselves and thus, hopefully make them more aware people and thus more useful employees. I don’t know whether this situation still appertains – Boot’s has long since been taken over by one of the multinationals although its base is still here. But, if it is a policy that the company still pursues then I would guess that it doesn’t operate in quite the same altruistic and philanthropic way. Certainly the unavailability of evening school courses of the type I described above will limit it as will financial considerations,  and I wonder, too, whether people of the 21st century will be quite so willing to commit themselves to an evening  a week to some kind of “study” however mild or light. I wonder, too, whether it would have the same attraction for many as a night pumping iron or playing badminton or keeping one’s figure trim. Maybe I'm wrong – but I don’t think so.

Ex-Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams
I have just finished reading two wonderful biographies – that of Rowan Williams the ex-Archbishop of Canterbury and of Roy Jenkins the Labour politician often described as the best Prime Minister we never had. These two men  came from very similar backgrounds – working class and from the mining communities of south Wales. Rowan Williams’ parents like many of that generation - and especially in that area – saw learning and church going as very much part of personal development. It was the way to self improvement; as Williams’ biographer Rupert Shortt  suggested it was a world of “the tight knit, rooted in the world of the hearth, infused with the spirit of decency”.  There was a disdain for what Shortt describes as “the homogenising effects” – or to use our modern phrase “dumbing down” - of mass entertainment. Books and learning were prized above all things – Shorrt records how “delighted” Rowan Williams was to receive as his tenth birthday present a Latin Grammar book. Meal times and evenings were the time for serious discussion, where the child was gradually introduced to the world of the adult. There was little place for the trivial – a far cry, I believe from much of today’s child rearing and today’s world.

Roy Jenkins 
Roy Jenkins came from a similar background; in the words of the biographer Jenkins’ father, Arthur, came from “the great (now largely lost) tradition of Welsh self improvement”. Arthur  Jenkin’s left school at 12 to go down the pit but  over the next twelve years by educating himself through evening classes and discussion groups he won a miners’ scholarship to Ruskin College, Oxford – the college founded in 1899 to offer the opportunity of higher education to working men who would not otherwise have had access. On completion of his college course he had to return to the pit but continued to read, attend classes and became involved in local politics and slowly but surely he worked his way up. A relative talking about the house that Arthur Jenkins and his family lived in commented  “And the books! Why, there were books everywhere”. In 1945 when Clement Attlee swept to power with his great reforming Labour government Arthur Jenkins was appointed as a junior education minister – surely a tribute to his endeavours. Sadly he died in 1946 but by then his son Roy – who reflected many of the beliefs, values and aspirations of his father - was already contesting parliamentary seats and became an MP in 1948. Roy fulfilled his father’s ambition by becoming  a cabinet minister and holding many of the highest offices of state until his death in 2003.

John Meynard Keynes
When the great economist John Meynard Keynes left Cambridge in the early years of the twentieth century he took his first job in the Government Treasury in Whitehall. Keynes came from a privileged family, the son of a Cambridge don and Keynes himself was considered to have a brilliant mind as his later career showed. When he began work at the Treasury he was advised by his chief, Lord Chalmers, that every man on his team and  in life generally must “drive two horses abreast, one his work horse and the other some scholarly enthusiasm”  - I suppose in  modern usage we would term this as being something of a Renaissance Man. Chalmers himself was a world authority on Pali and translated the sacred texts of Buddhism. Basil Blackett one of Keynes’ colleagues was a renowned translator of Byzantine Greek. Another colleague was an established poet, another was an expert on classical literature and so the list went on. Keynes himself was an authority on a number of things: the writings of the world's great philosophers, art, civic architecture and so on. When Keynes, shortly before his death, was presented with an honorary degree (one of many) by Cambridge University in his acceptance speech he commented that for "....the first time in history humankind faces the challenge of coping with freedom from economic worry........ how will [mankind] occupy the leisure that science and economics will have won for him...there [are] no nations that can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance that we now and increasingly will enjoy without a dread......"  Keynes was clear in his own mind that it was the responsibility of all men and women to involve themselves in "things of worth" that would satisfy the moral imperative as he saw it to live "the good (worthwhile) life". And for Keynes and his peers this meant things of the mind. Of course, one may argue that what constitutes "the good life" will vary from person to person and what night be termed a "thing of worth" will be a personal choice. But, whatever, Keynes's views reflect the difference in values between his age and our modern perception and what is certain is that Keynes, his peers and past generations would not think that "EAT, SLEEP, TRAIN, REPEAT" constituted a "thing of worth" or fulfil the imperative to live "the good life".

The chess room at Derby Mechanic's Institute
Stories like the above, of course, are of a different time and may well be considered not typical. One might argue that these were rather special people - indeed, in Keynes' case he was from a privileged position - the son of a Cambridge don and from a social circle and well to do family to whom learning would be natural and expected. But the desire to self improve and to value learning, skills pastimes and aspects of the personality that were perhaps more cerebral, reflective, intellectual or spiritual were embedded into the mindset of very ordinary people and families.  People like Jesse Boot or Arthur Jenkins or Rowan Williams' family were not educational high flyers or “posh” – they was an ordinary people whose priority was to make good. Jesse Boot and the rest were not against having fun, enjoying themselves, playing sport or involving themselves in pleasant recreations. Indeed Jesse Boot regularly hosted sports days for his employees at this home where sports, refreshments, entertainments and the like were laid on for  everyone’s enjoyment. But that was just what they were - entertainments, pastimes. Not to be confused with the serious aspects of an adult’s  life and personality, the development of knowledge, skills, understanding, self improvement.

Part of the library at Otley Mechanic's Institute

Only this week I received a programme from  the Oldham Coliseum Theatre. Pat and I visit there once a year to take our grandchildren to the pantomime – it is quite near where our grandchildren live. One of the plays to be performed this coming season is “The Pitmen Painters”. The programme tells me that: “it is the true story of a group of Northumberland miners in the 1930s who, desperate to improve their knowledge and understanding of art, employed Robert Lyon, Master of Painting at Kings College Newcastle.  Unfortunately, the lectures were not too successful, they were too academic, but Lyon realised that a better approach might be to get the men actually painting rather than talking about it”. 

Some of the work of the Ashington School of Painters
The results were amazing  -  the group went on to become an art phenomenon, celebrated throughout the art world. The men continued to work in the pit until they each retired but their work (known as the Ashington Group) was – and is still - displayed in galleries across the world. This is self improvement at the sharp end.  All these examples  coincided with the age of institutions  such as the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) or The Mechanics Institutes  - both hugely popular amongst working men and women as a source of educational self improvement, of being able to hear visiting lecturers of national standing, of a place for listening to concerts or of hearing national politicians speak. Every town and city in the land had such places and they were well used. Thousands, like Arthur Jenkins, or the Ashington miners profited from their presence and the ambitions of individuals to develop knowledge, skills and intellect were met. They thrived because they were consistently well used just as today our towns are filled with gymnasiums, sporting centres, boot camps and the like filled with individuals who want to improve their physical well being, lose a few pounds in weight or look a bit younger.

Nottingham Mechanic's Institute - records show that
people had to be turned away so popular was it
All of these people would, I believe, find it not only strange but very wrong that in our modern world leisure time is filled with going to the gym or being obsessed with the physical aspects of one’s life. They would be unable to comprehend that grown men are so immature and trivial that they  walk round in football shirts proudly boasting their favourite footballer. They would find it immoral that people diet - sometimes with fatal consequences - or undertake extreme physical programmes simply to make themselves look good or to “copy” their fashion icons. They would be horrified that libraries are considered a drain on resources and that in order to make them well used they often have to be stocked with the mundane and the trivial. Jesse Boot and all the others would never believe that evening schools and the like have been allowed to wither away because people are no longer anxious to support them or choose to spend their money on other things. They would not believe that we have allowed successive governments to ensure the demise of libraries and evening classes. They would be distressed that great swathes of our society have abandoned  the spiritual aspects of their personality – not because everyone should be a practising be Christian (or of any other faith), but simply because modern man and woman more often than not never even bother to think about it. Religion and spiritual awareness has largely been marginalised by many, condemned to the dustbin of history without even a second thought. In short, they would simply not understand why both individually and as a society we have largely rejected and allowed to fall into disrepair the vast array of opportunities that we had for developing learning, knowledge, awareness and skills - be they learning a foreign language, playing chess, learning the skills of  needlework, understanding car mechanics or philosophy, or ballet or Buddhism.  They would not comprehend why modern man or woman might choose the boot camp option or the slimming club or the 5 a-side football night over the art appreciation class, the improver’s course in maths or the introduction to home maintenance.  They would be bemused why someone might find a motto like “EAT, SLEEP, TRAIN, REPEAT” to be inspiring or worthy of response. They would be horrified to read the trivialities posing as "wisdom" and repeated ad nauseam  on social networking sites; for example,  "Being an adult was the dumbest thing I ever did" or "Do what makes you happy and be done with all the rest".   So many today have consciously or subconsciously adopted the mantra “I know what I like and I like what I know”  rather than widening and deepening their horizons and their understanding of the world in all, its many facets. They choose, just like Narcissus in the Greek myth, to be fixated by themselves, their physical well being and their  appearance  content in their own little world filled the trivial and the dumbed down.