27 October, 2015

Standing "a tip-toe"

Last Sunday (October 25th ) was the Feast of St Crispin – commemorating  the early Christian saints Crispin and Crispinian (also called Crispinus and Crispianus), twins who were martyred in about AD 286. This long ago event, although still part of the Roman Catholic calendar of saint’s days, would probably have slipped from the pages of history had it not been for William Shakespeare who used the day as the centre piece of arguably one the  greatest speeches that he wrote: that of Henry V before the Battle of Agincourt on October 25th 1415. So, Sunday was a double celebration if that be the word: the six hundredth anniversary of one of the great battles of history – between England and France – and the commemoration of these two little known saints.

A mediaeval impression of the martyrdom
of Crispin and Crispinian
I don’t think I am alone, when I say that I believe that of all Shakespeare Henry’s speech is one that sends the most shivers down the spine. It has been used over the centuries to base great clarion calls to arms or to great endeavour and whether or not  one takes a cynical view of war and battles and the claims of politicians and generals (as I do) I do not believe that one cannot be moved and inspired by Shakespeare’s great words. Shakespeare, of course, was  a clever man who could build up a story, pull on the heart strings, use words in such a way that they became etched in the mind. He could, by his very use of words, make an everyday event or a great battle seem the essence of mankind. And this is just what Henry’s speech does. Shakespeare used a bit of fact and a lot of fiction to place the speech and indeed, if one looks at historical fact the speech and the story are totally spurious.  Henry had no legitimate claim on the French throne as he was the son of a usurper and therefore had no de jure right to the English throne either. His invasion of France was as much an act of aggression as Hitler’s on Poland. The great diarist William Hazlitt, in his sketches of Shakespearian characters  is clear:“Henry was.... careless, dissolute, and ambitious—idle, or doing mischief. In private, he seemed to have no idea of the common decencies of life, which he subjected to a kind of regal license; in public affairs, he seemed to have no idea of any rule of right or wrong, but brute force, glossed over with a little religious hypocrisy and archiepiscopal advice....... he was ready to sacrifice his own life for the pleasure of destroying thousands of others.”  But, this is the theatre, it is make believe, it is Shakespeare; so we love Henry the hero because of what Shakespeare made him just as we hate Richard III, the villain, for exactly the same reason.
The RSC at Stratford

But imagine the scene Shakespeare painted for us. The small, exhausted English army - little more than a rabble - led by Henry have been in France for months. Winter is coming, they are a long way from home, hungry and aware of the mounting French threat. They have fought a series of battles against the far superior French. The French army has horses, the best resources and machines of war and, critically, far superior numbers. Henry’s men are ready to go home – dejected, tired, ill and fed up. And then they again meet the mighty French war machine. On a cold, rain soaked stretch of land near Agincourt in northern France the two armies face each other about a mile apart and in the early morning light Henry speaks to his generals and soldiers, trying to revive and inspire them to one last effort which he well knows will probably result in all their deaths. One of his generals and Henry’s cousin, the Duke of Westmorland, bemoans their weak position in relation to the French:

I have heard that speech declaimed and I have read it literally, I suppose, thousands of times; I have used it over and over again in lessons that I have taught. But never once do I tire of it and never once does it not raise the hairs on the back of my neck. And I know that I am not alone. Below is the Kenneth Branagh rendering of the great speech from his 1989 film:

On Thursday of last week Pat and I went to Stratford Upon Avon – the birthplace of William Shakespeare. It takes us about ninety minutes from here in Nottingham and whenever we go it is usually to visit the Royal Shakespeare Company Theatre – the home of Shakespearian drama. Our children had bought me an RSC voucher for my 70th birthday a few months ago and we decided to spend it on seeing Henry V at the RSC. The current  production has had rave reviews and is shortly to transfer to the London theatre.

Whenever we go to the RSC, and we have been many times over the years, I still get the same buzz. As I walk across the open space towards the theatre, past the statues of Shakespearian characters and enter the great doors my heart quickens just a little and somewhere deep within me I feel I am at the very heart of what it is to be English. Other nations of course will have the same emotional response to things that are definers their own culture: every Frenchman might feel exactly the same about Bastille Day or every German his Wagner; the Italian might feel his heart lift at the thought of Verdi and every Russian stand proud at the poetry of Pushkin or the novels of Tolstoy; the American would, I’m sure, shed a tear on listening to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address; the Austrian might be uplifted at the sight of his alpine scenery  or the Scot might feel the need to raise his glass to Robbie Burns. This is not simple nationalism it is about the very essence of what it is to be German or Russian, Scottish or English or whatever. Nor is it confined to my own feelings. Just because I feel it does not mean that other English men and women should also feel it in the same way. One does not have to love Shakespeare or get a buzz out of Stratford to define oneself as an Englishman. Others will have different, equally worthy and inexplicable emotions or beliefs that they feel get to the very essence of their being.

The English rabble army setting off to France
It isn’t just a visit to the RSC or hearing the great lines of Shakespeare that make my heart miss a beat or suddenly feel a welling up of emotion.  Nor is it about  jingoistic patriotism – I will have no truck with that. It is simply about things that remind me of what and where I am and how very small I am in the great scheme of things and in the great sweep of the time and place that I inhabit – a tiny dot on a small island in the northern hemisphere in the late 20th and early 21st century. I can get the same feeling standing on a bleak east coast beach such as Thorpness or Aldeburgh while looking out to a flat, grey sea. It can come upon me when I hear the opening bars of Handel’s Messiah or listen to the evocative music of Gerald Finzi so redolent of English apple orchards and dusky autumn days. I have felt it standing on the end of the cobb at Lyme Regis, watching the waves batter the sea wall or while sitting in the silent and overwhelming grandeur of somewhere like Kings College Chapel in Cambridge. I’ve certainly felt it when reading Dickens – the opening paragraphs of Bleak House or Great Expectations never fail to make my heart race, no matter how many times I read them. Similarly reading a piece of poetry such as Housman’s  A Shropshire Lad, some of John Betjeman’s works or any of the war poets who recorded the tragedy of the Great War. Whenever I return to the area of my birth – Lancashire – I feel it as I look out over bleak Lancashire moorland, or see the skyline of some Lancashire mill town with its tall factory chimneys and rows of little terraced houses, or I pass what were once great cotton mills, the “dark satanic mills” recalled in Blake’s great poem. The vibrations of their weaving looms are now long silenced but the noise and the trembling of the pavement is still fixed in my memory from when, a life time ago,  I played under their shadow in the narrow streets of Preston. And I still get the buzz. The list could go on and on and on.  It is about my very being, it reminds me who and what I am.

It is not uniquely English or British. It is not about great victories or high culture. It is of both the common man and the greatest in the land. It is so profound and yet it is so basic. It is inexplicable and intangible but also so clear that it can almost be touched so strong is its presence. It can be the everyday and the ordinary or the great overwhelming event. Many people still talk of the 1984 Live Aid Concert and the group Queen’s performance having this effect upon them. I can understand that but equally far more prosaic events can be just as effective. When our children were small and we visited their grandparents in south London many years ago I would often take them to meet granddad as he arrived home from the City on the train each evening. The children would wave to the trains as they glided under the bridge and I would stand there mesmerised as each train poured out its never ending stream of business suited and umbrella carrying London office workers onto the platforms below us like a unstoppable human river. And it was in its way exciting and made me feel very, very small.
Henry talks to his troops

A week or two ago Pat and I went to the funeral of an old friend. The funeral was in his local village church which was filled to overflowing, people standing outside. We knew it would be so. Our friend, a lifelong sportsman and keen rugby player had been an international rugby referee and we knew the rugby fraternity would be there in force. And so they were. As I looked around me I saw rows of men each wearing with pride their blazer – England badges, Welsh badges, British Lions badges – it was a history book of the rugby game’s great and good. Occasionally I saw a face I recognised, an international player or sports commentator. Hands were shaken between old sporting foes and comrades all gathered to pay their final respects to their old friend. And as I opened the order of service I saw what I had deep down, half suspected would be there – the great Welsh rugby anthem, the hymn “Guide me O Thou Great Redeemer”. Brian, our friend, was English through and through but this Welsh talisman so representative of the sport Brian loved was right and everyone knew it was so. And when the congregation rose to sing it was like standing at the Welsh national stadium before some great game – voices around me swelled, backs straight, pride bursting through at every word and note. Brian was given a magnificent send off. Like at the theatre on Thursday, the hairs on my neck stood up. I and others felt very small in the shadow of this great moment in this tiny village church in the middle of England and which  we were witness to.

The cynic might say it’s just a bit of emotion, everybody gets it, get over it, move on.  And we do get over it – until, that is, the next time it occurs. It is so basic to our being that it cannot be got over. No matter how many times I hear the Henry V speech or read Owen’s  great war poem Dulce et Decorum Est or walk a bleak east coast beach or listen to Gerald Finzi’s dreaming music of England the hairs still prickle and the heart beats a little faster. It is not something we should dismiss. I feel for the person who does not experience it – they are missing something in their makeup, and something which helps one to make sense of the world and to know our place within it.

Henry in battle
It is, too, a delicate thing that can easily be ruined and lose its effect. The still, bleakness of Thorpness beach in Suffolk would be ruined should a children’s playground be built; the wonderful word pictures painted by Dickens in the opening paragraphs of Bleak House would lose its strength and overpowering atmosphere were it to be rewritten modern, easy to understand prose; the music of Finzi would lose its quiet dreamlike resonance if it were “jazzed up”. It is the same with Shakespeare – a fact that was brought home to me a couple of weeks ago. We went to see the new film blockbuster of Macbeth – a production that has received widespread acclaim. Macbeth is, of course, a tragedy, death and destruction stalks every line. It is not a pretty play, nor should it be. We were warned before hand by the press – describing it a violent and bloody production – “Well, it should be, it’s Macbeth”, I thought. As we settled down in our seats to watch, however, I became a little anxious: Based upon Shakespeare’s Macbeth” we were advised by the credits. “Mmmmmm! I thought, what does that mean?”  Well, it was certainly violent; blood, spittle and gore spread everywhere, Great brooding, bleak Scottish skylines dominated and no opportunity was missed to remind the audience of the bleakness and violence of the tale. But as the final credits rolled we sat totally unmoved. Cold to what we had seen. And the reason? Such was the desire by the director to make this tale as dreadfully realistic as possible every actor had spoken their lines in the broadest Scottish accent, and for extra effect they had mumbled their lines too, as is the wont of so many film actors today. The result, Shakespeare's great words, ideas, thoughts and the subtle nuances of  his mighty plot about intrigue, murder, an increasingly demented Scottish king and the subsequent carnage that followed were totally lost - indecipherable in this mumbling Glaswegian mess. Instead of giving insight into the tortured minds and actions of Macbeth and his wife it had merely became a sort of medieval gangster film – the Godfather in Scotland; its power to impress or overawe lost.  It had became a mumbling and rampant excuse for gratuitous screen violence rather than one of the great stories of man’s devious, scheming and vengeful nature.

I love all Shakespeare and I am pretty sure that there are parts in all his plays that can have the same effect on me as Henry’s great speech. The opening lines of Romeo and Juliet make my pulses race:

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
Whole misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents' strife.

As do its closing lines:

A glooming peace this morning with it brings.
The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head.
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things.
Some shall be pardoned, and some punishèd.
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.

I never fail to respond to one of Shylock’s great speeches in the Merchant of Venice:
He hath disgraced me, and
hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses,
mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my
bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine
enemies; and what's his reason? I am a Jew. Hath
not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not
revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by
Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you
teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
will better the instruction.

And I know that as I watch A Midsummer Night’s Dream my mouth is frequently wide open and tears well when I hear the immortal lines:
I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight;
And there the snake throws her enamell’d skin,
Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in:
And with the juice of this I’ll streak her eyes,
And make her full of hateful fantasies.

Surely the most beautiful writing in the whole of the English language! This really is the stuff of dreams. Can there be anything more over whelming in its poignancy and sheer beauty. And I'm a sucker for it every time! And pleased to be so, for it is at the very root of me and reminds me that I still retain the capacities to respond to these very basic aspects of mankind. It tells me that whatever else I am, I am still human.
The wonderful RSC auditorium. Our seats were in the very
bottom right hand corner

So we went to the RSC theatre. We had wonderful seats. So close were we to the action that as the actors entered and exited we felt as if we were players in the scenes, courtiers at the French King’s court, soldiers in Henry’s army or witnesses to the mighty battle which a few highly talented actors were able to magically convince us was taking place in front of our very eyes and on that very stage. And I know that I wasn't alone. As Henry stood before his frightened and exhausted troops, ready to utter the great words that would bring him great victory in the face of overwhelming odds  an air of expectancy fell. Everyone knew the words but we also knew that we wanted to hear them again. This wasn't about a simple story of a rather dubious English King. Nor was it about a great patriotic victory (although historically, it was certainly that) and it wasn't really about great literature. It was, I believe, because everyone sitting there in the RSC knew it was about themselves and the very deepest aspirations, hopes and fears that inhabited their souls . They knew that it was good to “stand a tip toe” and feel proud or to reminisce to our children and grandchildren about our past or our deeds; they knew that it is a perfectly natural thing – especially for an English man - to want to stand up for the underdog, which Henry’s rabble army certainly were that October Crispin morning in 1415; we all knew the basic instinct of wanting to be remembered for something good or valiant or kind and to be respected for it by our peers and descendants; we knew that we all deeply desire to be a “band of brothers” united and respected for our beliefs and our actions. It is what humans do and what humans are. We are social animals who have deep feelings of joy, regret ambition, remembrance and the rest. We are different from the  animal world. We are human. Yes, Shakespeare in that speech, as in so much of his writings, offered every person in the audience some of the greatest human emotions that they could understand and desire; he was speaking directly to our inner soul and at the same time reminding us of it.

17 October, 2015

A False and a Pernicious Choice

It has been a rather bitter sweet couple of weeks. Recently I had a Facebook contact from an ex-pupil of mine – now a highly successful administrator in the health service. She was a high flying school girl and clearly destined for great things and it was a delight to hear her news. She had simply stumbled across my name on the social networking site and made contact after all these years. I'm not a huge user of social networking sites but I wasn't surprised - it's not an unusual occurrence. As is the case with social networking  her initial contact with me generated others – her friends and my ex-pupils wanted to make contact also. And over the last week or so I've had over a hundred Facebook contacts and emails from all over the world and although I'm not a fan of Facebook it is nice to hear how these people, many of whom are now grandparents themselves, are doing as adults.  I can’t deny that when I read some of the lovely comments and memories that they have of their time with me, it is very gratifying and humbling.

That was the sweet part of the past few days. But it all turned rather bitter at the end of this week when the current Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, announced that she would be allowing the expansion of a grammar school in Kent. For the latter half of the twentieth century grammar schools (which for those unfamiliar with British education are based upon selection of children at 11) have been limited, unable to expand or be newly created. They still survive in isolated pockets throughout the country because no party, unfortunately, has had the political will to scrap them, so sensitive are they in the national psyche. One of the areas of the country where they are most prevalent is the county of Kent and it is in Kent that an existing school in Sevenoaks has been allowed to expand. One might think this is a small issue but for observers like supporter Phillip Bicknell (see below) or opponents like me the writing is on the wall; although Morgan claims this is a one off decision to respond to a particular situation the reality is that grammar schools are back!

Phillip Bicknell, a Tory councillor and spokesman on education commented on the grammar schools announcement that: “We are trying to provide all of the residents with choice, so they can choose what school they think is best for their children.” But, it never seemed to occur to this gentleman or to Nicky Morgan, that this is a false and a pernicious choice - for selection, by definition, immediately excludes the majority from that very choice. Parents might desire to choose to send their children to a grammar school but  if the child doesn't pass the selection process then the choice is invalid. There is no such parental choice for the majority of the population who will be excluded from this "choice" because their children are simply not bright enough. Put crudely if you have a bright child then you have a choice - if you don't then there is no such option. For the whole of my life - and I'm past 70 - I have wrestled with this one. What is so difficult for Tories and grammar school supporters to understand in this simple bit of logic? I can only presume that Tories are really not very bright – maybe it’s the result of attending a grammar school themselves!
Our Education Minister Nicky Morgan 
Secondly, I wonder, why oh why do people (the electorate) in various parts of the country - Kent, Trafford etc. consistently vote for or accept some form of selection in their area when the majority of the local population are by definition excluded from this alleged "choice" or the benefits that might accrue? Indeed, they will be actively disadvantaged since the majority of the children in the area will have to go to schools which, are by definition, deemed inferior (or maybe, actually, are inferior) since they do not have "the brightest" on their rolls and will not attract what is often termed in relation to grammars "the best teachers". The nearest analogy I can find is of  a “turkey voting for Christmas"  - voting for something that is very likely to disadvantage their own children. For every child who passes the test and therefore “benefits” from the grammar school education at, least three and probably more will be offered something that is either inferior as a matter of fact (because, for example, they might not be offered the range of academic subjects so prized in our UK system) or by default – because our class ridden society prizes for its “top jobs” and career prospects those with this academic golden key. Those not passing the exam will go to schools which are by definition for the less able. It is a socially divisive policy. I can only assume that the the electorate within these areas who still want to keep grammar school and selection at 11 are no more than just aspirational voters.

And thirdly, whilst I can, with difficulty, accept that there were (are?) maybe some outstanding grammar schools whose academic emphasis and strict selection really did/does benefit some children and the "hot house atmosphere" and selection process could, just possibly, be justified because of the outstanding importance to the national interest the reality is, as any (even cursory) study of grammar schools will prove, very different. Their history and their exam results show that bearing in mind the alleged greater "ability" of the intake the end results were at best average and almost certainly nothing to crow about. This was made clear to me couple of years ago. At the request of an elderly friend, I did little research into her ex-grammar school. She attended the school in the early 1950’s the very zenith of the grammar school age. I found records of the school, which was locally very well thought of. I looked at the prize days and examination results. The results were stunningly poor bearing in mind the school was taking the “best” in the area. Out of an annual intake of between 100 and 110 per year only some 40% of pupils were passing more than 2 GCE O levels. Year after year it was the same. The children getting the prizes for the best exam results were passing 4 or at the most 5 GCE O levels – and only an absolute maximum of 15% of the total intake ever got 4 or 5 O levels. If OFSTED  judged these results today the schools would be judged abject failures. I was so staggered with the results – not at all what I had expected - that I looked at other grammar schools of the time. The results were consistent across the country. Of course, one came across the occasional exception to that rule – places like Manchester or Bradford Grammar who did indeed turn out some very high performing pupils. But these were definitely the exception and rare indeed. The evidence was and is clear grammar schools do not guarantee academic success – in fact they perform poorly given the raw material they are given. But they do bestow social benefits, contacts and entry to better careers.

There is another dimension.If one takes Kent for example, an area that retains a significant number of grammar schools the effect on the rest of the school population is marked: Poor or less able (for that read “average”) children in selective Kent – i.e. the vast majority - do far worse at GCSE than in areas of comprehensive schools (i.e.  non-selective selective). It is the same in other areas. Where my granddaughters live in Trafford, Manchester, the impact of a number of highly selective grammar schools means that all the other secondary schools are disadvantaged, for the most able have already been creamed off. The whole secondary education  sphere there is skewed giving huge advantage to the relatively few bright children attending the selective schools and almost universally condemning the vast majority average and below to an inferior system. It leaves other schools less able to run the courses, attract the staff that will allow the school to flourish and consequently denies children in those schools the opportunity to reach the highest levels of attainment and qualification. My eldest granddaughter has to travel out of Trafford for her secondary education to a school and an area were all abilities are catered for equally in the same school.

Don’t get me wrong. I'm not against selection. Children, like the rest of us, are all different – for some a highly academic education will be appropriate for others less so. But to actually set up special, separate schools for each which then sets (literally in stone – the school building) a child’s future and sets them apart from others is highly divisive and social engineering at its most crude. It is pandering to the basest instincts in mankind. In a society already widely acknowledged to be one of the most unequal in the developed world the new initiative is setting in stone one of the main drivers of inequality. Supporters of grammar schools claim that they help to bridge the gap and provide an avenue for poor, able children to be socially mobile. There is clearly an element of truth in this – but only for a very tiny few. As this week's Guardian commented grammar schools: “.... help only a minuscule number of economically disadvantaged children, while perpetuating social disadvantage for the rest. They make actual society more like the entirely imaginary society that Conservatives so ardently cleave to, in which poor people are thick and rich people are clever”. Children, like adults, can of course never be equal; we are all born with different abilities, aptitudes and backgrounds. No government can completely eradicate this. But what we can do is try to ensure that all children start from the most level playing field possible – not give some a further “leg up” simply because they are able to pass a test at 11. To use a horse racing or a golf metaphor in those pursuits we handicap the best horses, riders or golfers to try to ensure that when the race or round of golf takes place everyone starts as equal as possible and has a fair chance of being the eventual victor. In our English education system we do exactly the opposite. Some children because of their genetic inheritance or good fortune of parents and upbringing start the education and life race with a huge natural, in-built advantage over the majority - the ones who are average or just  not so bright, or whose parents are not very bright or are poor and so on. And what does the Tory party and much of the electorate in places like Kent and other selective school areas decide is a fair response to this situation? It's obvious - give the naturally gifted and fortunate a special school, with the best curriculum, teachers and resources. "It's obviously for the best" they proclaim, keeping a straight face as they say it. Just like the awful cosmetic advert says you deserve this preferential treatment "because you're worth it". And we wonder why inequality grows? I call it obscene.

In this country, both historically and today we value above all things academic ability. Our private and existing grammar schools, be they Eton or more humble institutions, emphasise the traditional academic curriculum. Our most prestigious universities reflect this. The result, the vast majority of those who succeed in this system – either through ability or money – take “top jobs” – and as a society we perceive “top jobs” as being of a certain kind – in the City, in law, in medicine etc. We do not value, in the same way, other vocations: engineering and the like. It is the very root of inequality and puts us internationally at a disadvantage for our brightest and best rarely go into careers which make a huge difference to the economy (unlike , say Germany); they go into the law or the City and the like - they do not become the scientists and engineers for these careers are less highly prized and consequently less well rewarded. Indeed only this week the government sponsored school inspection service OFSTED complained bitterly about the low level opportunities offered to young people  via training and apprenticeships saying that such courses gave  only low level skills and were simply a way of supplying cheap labour. And this is the rub - we do not value all skills and learning equally. In contemporary Briatain, as always, academic prowess rules! As Michelle Hanson commented in this week's Guardian: "........the government hasn't grasped what a proper apprenticeship is, especially if it involves practical skills. To it, and the Department for Education, “practical” seems to mean “thick”. Hanson went on: "....a Somerset school that had a farm taught agricultural courses. But the DfE has decided that no such courses shall count in the league tables. They are not academic or “rigorous” enough. A BTec level 2 in agriculture counts for nothing. So this excellent school has plunged down the tables.....our  leaders regarding anyone with practical skills as a comparative dimwit." In 2002 Professor Alan Smithers wrote of the ".....damaging gulf between the academic and vocational" In the rest of Europe ".....nursery teachers, technicians, plumbers, builders, craftspeople and farmers are well trained, respected and have proper careers. Here, they are lesser beings, who ought to use the back door. Why bother to train them properly? It’s so expensive......Anyway, foreign plumbers, nurses, builders and other practical creatures are cheaper, because we don’t have to train them...". It is not too expensive, however, to fund a new Grammar school for the academic elite.

Nye Bevan famously said: “We could manage to survive without money changers, lawyers and stockbrokers. We should find it harder to do without miners, steel workers and those who cultivate the land” and I would add to that something which I have always fervently believed: the wealth and the standing of our society is built, and has always been built, upon the backs, the industry, the goodwill and the brain power of the ordinary man and woman, the ordinary worker, the average and below average – not the fewer than 25% who comprised the private and grammar school elite. My much loved aunt used to put it another way when she frequently said "England's bread hangs by Lancashire's thread". A humble weaver in a cotton mill all her life she knew that it was on her back, hard work, weaving skills and care that England's cotton industry thrived - not on the dealers in stocks and shares or the City traders or the bankers or the lawyers or the oh so clever toffs. She was right and nothing has changed. She was just " factory fodder" - the average, the ordinary, her talents and industry not valued by the mill owners or the shareholders or the City. She knew "nothing" because she had no academic  certificates or valued qualifications. Like millions of others she was invisible to those in power - the products of the private schools and grammar schools.

John Newsome, in his great 1960s report on secondary schooling, "Half our Future" - and from which I directly benefited (see below) - so rightly said they, the average and below average, are at least half our future and in having a selective education system involving grammar schools we are casting them aside and wasting their talents and industry. Newsome stated the blindingly obvious that most of the nation’s human resources were being wasted by condemning them to an inferior education. They are sacrificed at the altar of the few. This pernicious doctrine was further highlighted in today’s Guardian when it commented  ruefully: “Why can’t the champions of grammar schools see how narcissistic and patronising this attitude is? It assumes that only very special people deserve entry into the hallowed halls of the professional class – people who have passed a written test proving themselves to be worthy of grooming for social-mobility greatness. People who have intelligence, people who have the nascent potential to be a little bit more like themselves. It’s the essence of Conservatism, this idea that almost everyone in life gets what they deserve.....”

I could go on and on and on. When I read this latest Tory proposal regarding grammar school expansion I inwardly wept. It made a nonsense of all the kind comments that I had received on Facebook and in emails from former pupils. How out of step I  had been to have had all those ideals that I should work for all the children not just the brightest and best as I stood each day in front of a class. "What a quaint old fashioned idea to believe in equality and fairness" Nicky Morgan seemed to be whispering in my ear as I read of her announcement and of the glee of the Tory party and their followers. I felt betrayed by what I hoped our society might be about. In these days when inequality within society is acknowledged by all parties  we have a government who is prepared to do this and worse, we have a nation where so many people up and down the country tacitly approve it by sending their children to these divisive schools. I am ashamed of my country this weekend.

I wouldn't mind, however, if testing and selection at 11 was really justified. Educational and psychological research, however, is replete with incontrovertible evidence that it simply doesn't work. Selection at 11 based upon IQ tests and the like (and further skewed too often, with specific coaching to pass the tests) is consistently shown to be an unreliable indicator of ability or of future success. The nation is awash with people holding high positions in industry, commerce, academia and indeed government  who "failed" their 11+ exam. I do not for one minute put myself into that category but my own story to a degree mirrors this truth.

For over 40 years I worked in the classroom. I went into teaching for many reasons -  interest, security of employment, simple desire to be a teacher and thus feel that I had progressed into something better than I might have been......a whole host of reasons, some morally supportable others less altruistic. But, from day one it was with a desire to try to ensure that I would give every child that I taught something that I did not have in quite such amounts: a chance to be better  as a right not just as a piece of good fortune. I “failed” my 11+ - every child took it in those days -and went, as a result, to a tough secondary modern school (even by the standards of the day in the 1950s). Today, Fishwick Secondary Modern  would undeniably be called a sink school. Out of my class of 53 boys at the junior school I attended (St. Matthews in Preston) just 3 boys went to grammar school: Billy Masheter, Barry Alston and Brian Rigby. I didn't feel  bitter or resentful that was just how it was. I was going to Fishwick a school like all the others  in  a Lancashire mill town whose sole purpose to turn out “factory fodder” for the town's cotton mills and factories. But I was lucky. In my very last year at secondary school  the school (because of the growing awareness of the national waste of talent caused by grammar schools and which was made manifest in John Newsome's 1963“Half our Future”) things for me changed. I was doubly lucky, too, because a new head teacher arrived just at that point and the school changed changed tack.  In the very last week of the summer term, with no qualifications (we didn't take tests as we were deemed incapable of passing them for we had failed the 11+ four years before) and  just as we were about begin the search for a factory job  my school began allowing children to stay on for an extra year. We were to be allowed, if we wished, to study for and attempt the very exams that the grammar school boys and girls had been working for for the past 4 years; exams previously reserved only “more able” which at 11 I had been told I was not. With my parent’s support I “stayed on”.  At the end of that year I took four GCE O levels and passed them all – the local grammar school turned out my ex-junior school friends with 5 GCEs after 5 years of “hot house” academic education. So what was the separation at 11+ all about then? Suddenly, with my GCE O levels I was no longer factory fodder – other opportunities arose - opportunities that had always been there for Billy, Barry and Brian. I just was lucky. Had I been born just a few months earlier and therefore in a different school year group then I would not have had that chance. I would have been “factory fodder” and had a very, very different life. That is the price of the inequality generated by such things as grammar schools. Of course, those who were lucky enough to attend grammar schools are generally (although, thank goodness, not always) their greatest supporters. Well, to repeat the famous words of Mandy Rice Davies in the famous Profumo scandal case of the early 60s “They would wouldn’t they”. Supporters also say – and amazingly they do it without smiling or seeing any irony in it – grammar schools are so good that they want them for everybody. Well we’d all vote for that. But these oh so bright ex-grammar school pupils are, it seems, incapable of realising that the whole essence of a grammar school is that it only takes the brightest as defined by  a test to test the brightest.  It cannot be for everybody. It is selective. If you make it non-selective and let everybody in then it ceases to be what it is It’s a kind of oxymoron. I wonder what it is that these people find so hard to understand?

When I began teaching – and I suppose for the next forty years - if I had an ideal, an aspiration, a fundamental principle that guided my work it was that I did not believe it was right that other children should have to rely on luck as I had. A child born with the genetic inheritance and upbringing that ensures that he or she is “bright” already has a huge advantage in education, career and indeed life over the average and not so bright. I saw that fact of life every single day in my classroom and my school. I tried to drive that bright child even further but never, I hoped, to the disadvantage of the rest. I saw it as my professional and moral obligation not to treat children equally in the sense of the same but to treat children as individuals - each according to his need. This week’s government announcement makes me believe that my altruistic desire, my professional belief, my moral idealism or maybe it was just my naivety was and is grossly misplaced. It would get would get short shrift in 2015 Tory Kent and other such places. Again, I say, I am ashamed today of my country, my government and sadly ashamed of much of the population who support this move. It is a commonly held belief and has been for generations amongst politicians of all parties that Winston Churchill was absolutely right in his analysis of the British electorate at the end of the 2nd World War and when he had just lost the General Election. "The British electorate" he said "vote with their pockets not with their minds" – they do not have ideals he suggested, they vote only for themselves. So true. Despite the fact that only a small proportion of the electorate will benefit from grammar schools people still accept them and want them – the greed factor kicks in. “I want some of that”  they cry even though three quarters of them at least are certain not to be selected and will almost certainly  positively disadvantaged  (or at least their children will) by its introduction. It just looks like a good bargain – they fail to realise, however, that most of them will never reap its benefit. It's the educational equivalent of the lottery ticket. Someone many years ago said to me “Buying a lottery ticket is simply a tax on the stupid. The people that buy one would, in the end, gain far more if they paid instead an extra pound each week on their income tax – they'd get better roads or health provision etc. But they prefer to buy a lottery ticket even though they know that they are virtually certain of not winning and gaining absolutely no benefit for their hard earned money goes to the lottery winner.”  Voting for or supporting grammar schools is exactly the same.

When defending grammar schools supporters usually base their arguments around three areas: parental choice, which I have already mentioned, and either (or both) "wanting the best for their child" or "it's  a natural thing,it will always happen, and people should be able to spend their money and live their lives as they want to - the state shouldn't dictate how we live ". Well, I can see the attraction of both arguments except that I guess that "wanting the best for my child" is exactly the argument that virtually all of the current wave of refugees would use as they cross Europe from war torn or less desirable lands to seek a better life for their family in northern Europe. Whatever one's views on that issue current Tory policy, the anxious and inflammatory speeches at the  recent Tory conference and in the Tory press, and the Prime Minister's line suggest that "wanting the best for their child" is not a valid excuse for giving asylum. This privilege of taking action to do the best for one's child is, it seems, only to be extended to certain people and not to others: wanting the best for ones child is justified if you are  a grammar school supporter but not so if you are a refugee. And the second point? Well, that really does open a can of worms! But in short, allowing something to happen - in this case selection in schools - because it is a "natural thing" and therefore could not or should not be stopped  should perhaps be applied to other spheres. Man has murdered since the time of Cain and Abel - it has always been part of mankind's story, so why not simply allow it rather than waste money on costly police forces or prisons? Every day thousands of motorists are caught speeding and are penalised - maybe we should do away with speed limits - I speed and probably you do too, so what is the justification using Tory logic, of having laws to prevent it. I think the point is made - at least to any reasonably aware person,  but maybe the term "reasonable"  by definition precludes supporters of grammar schools. "Grammar school supporter" and "reasonable" - another oxymoron?

I will end - you will be pleased to know - with four final thoughts. Firstly, a long remembered night. About twenty years ago my son was at university – Loughborough University. It is a very well thought of institution and academically high on the list. Although it offers courses in every sort of subject it is especially well known for its emphasis on sport. It is an Olympic training centre for athletes, many international rugby players, swimmers or cricketers etc. are ex-Loughborough students. Academic requirements are high but so, too, is sporting prowess and it is rare to find a student there  - whatever he or she is studying - who is not a sportsman or woman to a high standard. They have usually played representatively for their sport. My son studied maths but he was also a talented footballer, who had played for Nottinghamshire, had trials for England schoolboys and had played for Notts County a local  professional club. Whenever one visited the university its vast sports facilities were always in use. It was a joy to see; this was not just the academic cream of the country but also the young sporting cream of the nation. I remember one summer evening driving up to the University. Adjacent is a large housing estate. Many thousands of people live there. It is not the worst place in the world but is a bleak urban landscape. The schools there are tough and many of the children challenging to say the least. Petty crime, drugs and antisocial behaviour was and is a continuing problem. As I drove I noticed the many teenagers standing around on the street or idly kicking a ball, on the pavement. Bored and potentially problems – one could see how petty vandalism, drugs and minor crime could develop – young men and women with nothing to do. As I got to the end of the road – there was the University, its vast playing fields and sports facilities lit up with pitch side lighting. All the fields and tracks filled with the students actively engaged and involved in these superb sporting facilities. It was wonderful to behold and I thought how lucky my son and his compatriots were to have all this. But another thought entered my head too. As I drove past that group of youngsters sitting on the pavement and I looked at the students on the playing fields, the nation’s brightest and best, all  lucky enough to be born bright, who had had numerous other advantages along the way and who were now given all this and the words from St Matthew came to me: “For whoever has, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whoever has not, from him shall be taken away even that he has”. I know that I have taken that quote out of context but it sums up the reintroduction of  grammar schools.

My second thought is something that my favourite writer and historian, Tony Judt said (See  http://remarque.as.nyu.edu/object/io_1256242927496.html ) in his last lecture before he tragically died of motor neurone disease. I defy anyone to watch it and not be terribly, terribly humbled and to go to bed thinking about it. Judt was talking about how in our modern world we have forgotten why we need certain things for the common good. He talked about what he called the paradox the welfare state and all that went with it – notions of education, health provision and the like, equality and fairness and provision of the weakest and the ordinary. He said: “The paradox of the welfare state and indeed of all the social democratic (and Christian Democratic) states of Europe, was quite simply that their success would over time undermine their appeal. The generation that remembered the 1930s was understandably the most committed to preserving institutions and systems of taxation, social service, and public provision that they saw as bulwarks against a return to the horrors of the past. But their successors.......began to forget why they had sought such security in the first place....... By the late 1970s ...such considerations were increasingly neglected. Starting with the tax and employment reforms of the Thatcher-Reagan years, and followed in short order by deregulation of the financial sector, inequality has once again become an issue in Western society. After notably diminishing from the 1910s through the 1960s, the inequality index has steadily grown over the course of the past three decades.....” . He was not wrong and the terrifying thing – at least for me – is that we are all part of  this paradox - every one of us, I believe. I might have all these moral scruples and high ideals about schools and children, I might berate those who support grammar schools or pay for their child’s education or extra tuition but in the end, individually and as  society, we have learned the lesson that Thatcher and her ilk taught us: that the world is a market place and anything can be bought - education, health provision, life chances and a myriad of other wants. Everything including our ideals and most hard fought for beliefs has a price. It is what philosopher Michael Sandel referred to in his book “What Money Can’t Buy – the Moral Limits of the Markets”  except that as Sandel showed everything can now, it seems, be bought and sold. So to my utter shame I can criticise but at the same time admit that when push comes to shove I too will pay for quick access to health services, to give me preferential treatment over others  to ease the pain in my back (see previous blog). We have all become a little more morally bankrupt – and I am ashamed of what our society and what I have become. Judt was exactly right – we have all forgotten why we wanted these these social and educational benefits in the first place.

The return of grammar schools is yet another nail in the coffin of society's individual and corporate willingness to act for the common good, the moral good. It increasingly sidelines any aspirations we might have for fairness, equality or justice. It is Judt’s paradox in perfection. We've forgotten that in the 1960s Newsome in the UK and other educationalists and politicians woke up to the fact that half of the nation’s talent was going down the proverbial drain and the nation needed them. We are so comfortable and so selfish that that is all history. "Hey!" we subconsciously say to ourselves "Let’s  not bother about it we think. Let’s vote for our own selfish aspirations. My kid might get into a grammar school, in fact I’ll make sure they do I'm rich enough to pay for private tuition to make sure they are drilled to pass the test - and to hell with the fact that means that over three other kids are actually disadvantaged in their education and life chances. That’s life – they should get richer parents! Get over it".

Thirdly, and in a sad way following from the last, let us try a little word substitution. How about substituting "hospital" for "school"  so that we discuss merits of selective hospitals rather than selective schools. Suppose that some right wing government seized power. Given the present situation this might come sooner than one might imagine. But let us suppose that this government looked at the population, its needs, the costs of running a welfare state etc. and decided that great changes had to be made. Indeed, as I write this I am thinking we are already there with this grammar school announcement, and with the continuing privatisation/austerity measures being imposed on our health service, our justice system and our social care provision. And let us further suppose that this government decided that it would be in the nation's interest to have a two track health system (indeed, in many ways we already have  this). So, the government announce that from then on all children aged (say) 11 will be tested for health, genetic make up and family background. Those found to be genetically "sound", of good "stock" and with a very healthy track record, and who are supported by wise, well off parents who ensure good diets etc. shall be "selected" and offered the choice of de-luxe health care in the best hospitals and under the care of the best doctors. Of course these already healthy, genetically well endowed and well cared for children would, one assumes, not need to call on health care provision  too often since they are inherently  healthy and well cared for. So despite the costs of this super health care to which they were entitled, the end result might be economically sound. And of course, there would be another, perhaps unspoken benefit - like Nazi Germany we would, by default, be developing a super breed; clearly, the government might say, in the interest of the nation - the race. But of course, there is another side to this dystopian  future: namely that those deemed to be not "super beings" - the unselected,  vast majority, the weak, the ailing, the less able, the ordinary, the average then they would suffer with inferior health provision for they are not selected or offered the "choice", the de-luxe service; and in any case, they are "inferior" by definition the selection process confirms that and so not fitted for inclusion. For these, the majority, a cheap, basic, emergency only provision would be all that was necessary for their needs are less pressing and ultimately they are disposable - they are merely cheap fodder for the state's economy. Is this an unlikely scenario? I think not given the way our educational inequality is going and given the growing privatisation of schools and health provision. Indeed I might argue we are well along the route. One need only look to (say) the USA to know that this is fast becoming the norm in that country - and what America does today we do tomorrow. But I wonder, would those politicians, parents and electors who so keenly support the grammar schools which bestow such a huge educational and career advantage be quite so keen to support the scenario I have painted.I suspect not and yet, I believe the two cases are directly parallel - to support one and not the other is a nonsense.

And my last thought?– one I have quoted in blogs before but which distils the whole argument about selection in schools marvellously and at the same time points the finger at exactly what is the real driving force for this desire for the return of grammar schools:pure and simple being seen to be better than the next man. Peter Dixon’s wonderful poem “Oh Bring Back Higher Standards”   

Oh bring back higher standards-
the pencil and the cane-
if we want education then we must have some pain.
Oh, bring us back the gone days
Yes, bring back all the past...
let's put them all in rows again - so we can see who's last.
Let's label all the good ones
(the ones like you and me)
and make them into prefects - like prefects used to be.
We;ll put them on the honours board
...as honours ought to be,
and write their names in burnished script-
for all the world to see.
We'll have them back in uniform,
we'll have them doff their caps,
and learn what manners really are
...for decent kind of chaps!
So let's label all the good ones,
we'll call them A's and B's-
and we'll parcel up the useless ones
and call them C's and D's.
We'll even have an E lot!
And F and G maybe!
So they can know they're useless,
and not as good as me.
For we've got to have the stupid-
And we've got to have the poor
If we don't have them...
Well, what are prefects for?

What have we become? Margaret Thatcher was right when she famously said “There is no such thing as society”  Private Fraser in the TV sit-com series  “Dad's Army” put it more eloquently and had it right when he oft repeated: "Doomed, we are all doomed". Private Fraser's oft used comment would be humorous were it not such a serious issue. Our modern  society and electorate Churchill (as I noted earlier) reminded us over half a century ago votes selfishly for me and mine not rather than wisely with mind and morals and in doing so it is walking wide eyed into oblivion – and no-one cares. I am very ashamed of myself and my society today.

08 October, 2015

Slipped Discs, the Good Life, Cold Beer and Utility!

I have not blogged during the past few weeks – the reason simple – my slipped disc and degenerative spinal condition has made it too painful and difficult to sit for periods at a computer and largely unable to concentrate for long enough to write anything remotely  meaningful. Survival has been the name of the game! However, although I'm not completely recovered – nor, given my  long term, chronic back condition am I ever likely to be  - I am on the road to some kind of recovery and have largely managed to abandon the pain killers.

All I wanted to do was to be able to
walk up and down the garden path
Given the length of time I have been away from blogging there are no end of things that I could blog about and indeed may well do so in the next few days. The shake-up of the UK political establishment with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as the new Labour Party leader would seem a suitable focus. The refugee crisis in Europe has also been a matter of huge concern. Or maybe the continuing death toll in the USA as yet another mass shooting occurs reflecting the sad and indeed frightening mind set of American culture (if there be such a thing) society.. Or what about the confrontation between the medical profession in the UK and the government over the imposition of a new contract on doctors – the repercussions of that and what it says about our modern values are surely ripe for comment. But in the end, perhaps selfishly, and reflecting my state of mind, I have opted for a personal perspective related to my own condition of the past few weeks.

My health problems have been a serious handicap to any kind of normal life – walking more than a few feet has until the last three or four weeks been almost impossible. Standing for more than a few minutes is even now too painful. I slept for several weeks in the armchair since lying flat in a bed was not an option and simple, everyday tasks – having a shower, going to the toilet, cutting the grass, putting out the waste bins for the weekly collection, standing to make and pour two early morning cups of tea, filling or emptying the dishwasher, laying the table for tea, making a sandwich, peeling the potatoes and the like have all had to be done with great care and forethought or not at all – and when they were attempted all were dreadfully painful. On so many occasions I have simply cried with pain, fearing that I might never be able to do these simple tasks again without pain or worse, be increasingly dependent upon others for help and perhaps a burden to my family. One Sunday morning I sat and watched as Pat cut the lawn – a thing that I found both distressing and demeaning. It took away my dignity – as I saw it - doing the lawns was my job.  It made me aware of how much the basic humanity and dignity of a person must be affected when they cannot do the simple things of life and they become reliant upon others for the basics. These, it seemed to me, are the hidden anxieties and downsides of physical handicap and not maybe as easily addressed as simply getting someone to do the job or throwing money at the problem. In a perverse way it made me think that the long discussion and arguments that we have had in the UK in recent months  and years about benefit payments and the provision of various welfare arrangements for those in need maybe has a hidden dimension – namely, that although we might argue about who should receive such aid,  how entitled are they to  it and can the nation afford it we are perhaps not always as understanding about the hidden aspects of welfare. How demeaning it must make many feel to have to be dependent upon others for their daily needs – for dressing or toileting, for making a simple meal or indeed for the money to buy food when they cannot work because of their ill health. For many, I suspect, personal dignity must be marginalised – and that, I believe, cannot help ones physical and mental well being.
The best £20 I ever spent - it got me to Italy!

And continuing this line of thought my experiences of the past two months or so have made me appreciate the value in little things and in small steps towards small goals. Each little goal achieved has been a small step not only to some kind of recovery but, importantly, to restoring my basic dignity and self reliance. During the time when my back was at its most painful my day was measured by how successfully I could manage the smallest things. How long I could stand in the shower before having to tumble out and call Pat to help me dry myself or put my socks on, my back and leg crying out with extreme pain. I counted it a real improvement when I was at last able to shower, dry myself and clean my teeth without having to sit and rest in between and without having to call for assistance. And, as my condition very slowly improved, my day got off to a much better start when, having taken my early morning cocktail of five painkillers, I waited for about 45 minutes for them to kick in and was then able to go to the bathroom, shave, shower and clean my teeth - and only then collapse into the chair in pain. The next step was doing that and then walking the short distance to the newsagent to buy our morning papers – a thing that only a few weeks ago I never even thought about, it was what I had done for years – but now was such a huge challenge. Now, thank goodness, I am able to do that, and in  the past day or two I have reached another real milestone – I can do it without the painkillers. I only take those in particular situation as required. As I write this blog I have now gone for four days out of the last seven without any pain killers - down from a daily diet of 21 strong painkillers a day to the occasional paracetamol - not only does it tell me I'm recovering but also makes me feel good about myself!. It's not all plain sailing,  I'm still in pain, as I was this morning, when I attended a friend's funeral and then collapsed in agony in my car after standing for several minutes to sing the final hymn, then the exit of the family and the final anthem by the choir. But  can  now manage the pain and am happy that I am no longer confined and totally reliant upon someone else for the most basic and everyday activities.
My daily cocktail of 21 painkillers from morning till night

When my condition was at its worst and after being virtually completely immobile for a couple of weeks I was able, one morning, while driving (luckily driving a car was one of the few things that I could do without too much pain – the problem was getting to and from the car!!!!) past the local village store to stop the car and, with the help of my walking stick, go into the shop to buy an item. I wanted to buy a small dessert for Pat, a little treat for looking after me through the past weeks.Unfortunately I had to stand in a short queue at the checkout, my back screaming with pain – but my joy when I was at last able to get home, tell Pat of my success and present the dessert.  It was for me as good as winning an Olympic medal! It was the same with all the other little everyday tasks – as the days and weeks went on all I wanted was to be able to complete these simple actions that we all take for granted. They defined my life, were a measure of my progress back to health and most importantly for me little signals that meant that I might not be totally dependent upon someone else to dry my back after a shower, put on my socks, do the lawns, peel the potatoes, wait on me with my meal and then clear the table while I just sat there, virtually helpless and unable to help.

Many months ago Pat and I booked a short trip to Italy to visit Ravenna and other ancient northern Italian towns to view the world famous  ancient mosaics and churches there. Pat had long wished to visit these but as my back deteriorated in late summer a large question mark began to hang over whether I would be able to get there. Fortunately I had a spinal block injection which I was told might just help but would take up to 6 weeks to work. I was desperate that I be well enough to go on the trip – not for me – but I didn't want Pat to miss this long awaited for opportunity. I had a host of fears - mostly about getting through the airport – the inevitable long walks, standing in queues to check in, negotiating the nonsense of security checks and the like. All I wanted was to get to Italy. If I could just get there and then had to stay in the hotel all day while Pat went to visit the places she longed to see then so be it. As my condition very slowly improved I began a daily regime. I kept a daily record to ensure that I could see progress. On day one I could walk from the back door of our house some 10 feet down the garden path before I had to stop in agony, clutching my walking stick and bent over in pain. Later that day I tried again – this time i managed about 15 feet, half way down our garage. When I returned to the kitchen each time I was bathed in sweat and in great pain. The next day I tried again – and this time managed the half the length of the back garden path – about 30 feet. And so I continued – several times a day, each time slowly increasing the distance walked (or rather staggered) before the pain became too great. After a week I was managing 10 lengths of the garden, then 25, then after about three weeks I could do about 40. And slowly it took longer before the pain kicked in and when I returned to the kitchen in agony slowly but surely my body recovered more quickly. About a week before the trip to Italy I was able to walk in the garden about 50 lengths of the garden - about half a mile - before collapsing in pain but at the same time able to begin to believe that, although it would be painful, I might indeed be able to get through the airport and onto that plane, albeit with a mountain of painkillers, careful planning and good fortune. My task was given a huge lift when  I saw advertised a walking stick with a little flip up seat so I ordered one. It was the best £20 I have ever spent – the minute it was delivered and I tried it out I knew that here was my salvation. I was no longer reliant on a chair being available I could rest, and take the pressure off my screaming spine wherever and whenever I wanted. I could and would get through that airport without being totally reliant upon others or fearing that I might fall over!
What we had come to see in Ravenna and Parma

And so it proved, with the help of my “training”, my pain killers and my little walking stick seat  I negotiated the “joys” of Manchester Airport at 4 am one Saturday morning. It wasn't easy but a few hours later Pat and I were speeding along the Italian autoroute from Venice airport towards our base in Bologna. We made it. I didn't partake in all the activities – certainly not the long walks but I did most things, Pat was able to see what she wanted to see and we were able to enjoy the wonderful Italian food and the stunning cities that are Bologna, Parma and Ravenna.  It had all been worth it – not simply because Pat had seen what she wanted to see but because for me I had been able to overcome the physical handicaps I was experiencing – it made me feel good, I had to a degree beaten the pain and was aware that although it is likely that I will always have problems of this sort I can largely live a “normal” life.

But, looking back, my weeks of being able to do little had one small plus. Since I could do little else I had the opportunity to sit in the armchair and catch up with some serious reading. During that time I reread various books that I love and which all  have a common theme – namely what constitutes a “good life”. Books by philosopher Michael Sandel (What Money Can’t Buy - the moral limits of the markets),  the late historian Tony Judt’s magnificent Ill Fares the Land and political scientist Robert Skidelsky’s How Much is Enough.   All approach the issue of the good life from different perspectives but within their arguments a common element emerges – that maybe in the modern world we have lost something in our quest for “the good life”. Too often today the good life is linked with the acquisition of material goods and an enjoyable  life style rather than living a worthwhile life or making good and morally justifiable decisions about one's actions. I do not for a minute suggest that I am living a “good life” – my new car sits on the drive, I am already planning my next holiday and I am as guilty as the next in mankind's modern quest for  material sustenance. But, equally, my experiences of the past few weeks have reminded me that when the going gets tough then one quickly develops a different set of priorities and perceptions for a good life than the simple acquisition of the next electronic gizmo - health trumps wealth every time and retail therapy fails miserably to salve the failings of the body and the mind.

And as I sat in my armchair one day, reading, thinking on this and, I must confess, feeling a bit under the weather and sorry for myself I remembered back over 50 years to when I was studying for my A levels at Blackpool Technical College. We had an economics teacher – Mr Williams. “Doug” as we called him behind his back was a delightful man with a soft, lilting but strong Welsh accent and was always ready to argue with us teenagers about the merits of football and rugby teams. His lessons always had the same format – he simply dictated notes from a battered old ledger – I'm pretty sure they were the notes that he had taken at university many years before and which he just repeated to students year after year. We sat, silent, heads down scribing each word he spoke. Every so often he would refer to the set text book – “Read pages ..... of Hanson before the next session”  he might occasionally say and we would note this in our files to do at home and then, without a pause, he would continue reading his ancient notes for us to take down. At the end of every lesson the last 10 minutes or so would be times when he would throw a question at us related to what we had been scribing – “Give me some examples of scarce resources” or “How might taxation effect demand in the nation’s economy”. We all sat faces down hoping that someone else would be asked to answer the question. And, as the lesson drew to a close the last thing Doug would say before he swept out of the room would be: “Homework – do Question ... on page .... of Hanson”. No further explanation, that was it – we had to sink or swim. Best practice or learning theory was lost on Doug! OFSTED would surely have failed him! But whatever deficiencies there might have been in his teaching style Doug got results – year after year his students passed their A level economics, and passed well. When I first went to Blackpool Technical I was interviewed by the head of A level studies, Mr Parkin, an upright, brisk man with a small military moustache  and who we students called "the Colonel". “What do you want to study?" he asked me I replied "History and geography". “That’s fine” he said. “I’ll teach you history but you should also do economics”. I protested that I knew nothing of economics and had not studied it to O level. “That doesn't matter” said Mr Parkin “you will pass, all Mr Williams’ students pass”. And so it was.  Doug Williams could predict with almost absolute accuracy what grade each student would get and what we each needed to brush up on in order to get it. And we all had fond memories of him, his manner, his old battered notes and his terse style kept us amused and indeed on our toes. But there was one other thing – and something that really did make the difference and stays with me to this day.

My battered copy of JL Hanson -
memories of Doug Williams

Doug had devised a particular point of contact with his students, something that he knew would engage them, something that gave them immediate access to what he was talking about. Whenever a new economic term or process was to be studied he always related his explanation to beer and drinking! We, of course, were convinced that Doug was a covert alcoholic but in reality I think he had simply hit on a wheeze that appealed to teenagers for whom drinking and going to pubs was increasingly part of their life. So every economic term – stocks, shares, economic depressions, scarce resources and the rest was explained with a simple analogy that related to alcohol. It made us laugh, but boy did we remember it. By the time the exam came round we all had a thorough grasp of all the terms we might meet in the exam – and of course could give an example! Two in particular stand out even today. When explaining  the economic term “diminishing returns” Doug’s analogy went like this: “Imagine a very hot day. You have been out on a very long walk and got lost in the country. You walk and walk, getting thirstier and thirstier. At last just as you think you can go no further and you are covered in sweat you come across a small pub with tables and umbrellas outside. You sit down and the landlord comes out and asks if you want a drink. You order a pint of cool beer and when it comes you gulp it down – not stopping. It is the most wonderful thing that you have tasted in your life and you can’t wait to have another. When the second one comes you drink that too but this time you stop half way down the glass for a rest, you are not quite so thirsty now. When your glass is empty you order a third – this time you drink it a little more slowly, stopping more often. You’re still enjoying it but it doesn't have quite the same magic as that first glass. The satisfaction  and pleasure that you get is getting less and less with each pint you drink. That, gentlemen, is diminishing returns!”  Doug’s explanation might have many holes in it but it gave us the idea and we remembered it. And the other explanation that I remember so well – and the one that came to me as I sat in pain and feeling a bit sorry for myself in the armchair? That was his explanation of “economic utility”. Utility in economic terms means the satisfaction experienced by the consumer of an item. It is closely related to diminishing returns for diminishing returns is simply a lessening of utility. And Doug’s explanation? “A bank robber is crossing the desert, escaping from the police but after several days his jeep breaks down and he is forced to walk, carrying on his back a bag stuffed with his loot – enough to keep him in luxury for the rest of his life.  He walks and walks for days under the blazing sun slowly dying of thirst. Then, just as he is about to collapse and die he comes to a Bedouin camp. He crawls into the camp and the Bedouins greet him. He cannot understand their language nor they his so he shows them the bag of loot indicating that he wants to buy something. They each rush into their tents and bring out various valuable items – one a magnificent diamond necklace, one brings out his beautiful daughter, another brings out a camel, another  a fine thoroughbred race horse, another a fine set of clothes (the robber is in rags), another a selection of the rarest and most expensive eastern spices. He looks at all these items as each Bedouin pleads with him to buy their offering. Which one should he buy? Then another Bedouin appears. He brings a great stone vase filled with ice cold beer. In that instant the robber knows which will give him the greatest satisfaction of his wants – the greatest utility. He knows that the beer is not worth much compared with all the other riches he is being offered but he also knows which has the greatest utility, greatest satisfaction for him at that point in time......and he hands over the money and greedily gulps down the cool refreshing beer! 
A lot of pain but we got there and enjoyed some
 lovely Italian food 

Again, not a perfect economic description but good enough to remember the basics!

And, as I sat in the armchair, taking my pain killers and feeling generally low I reflected that at that point in time it was not expensive or exciting things that I wanted. I would get the greatest satisfaction or utility by being able to do the simple things – to walk down the garden path without crumpling in too much pain, to take a shower without having to ask for help, to be able to get up first in the morning to stand in the kitchen and make the early morning cup of tea, to be being able to say “I’ll walk down and get the paper this morning”, to be able to stand in  supermarket queue for a few minutes knowing that I could once again fend for myself without the help of others.In short, like Doug Williams’ bank robber in the desert who traded all his wealth for a jug of cold beer we don’t know the value of simple things until we no longer have them!