Sunday, December 30, 2007

A class act

At this time of year reading comes in two types, the serendipity bought as Christmas presents from my over-long Amazon wish list and the books that I should read, determinedly ferried backwards and forwards from England, usually lying untouched in my suitcase. The now relenting cold gave me the perfect excuse to engage in the former and, once again, neglect the latter.

My Rugby League addiction was satisfied by Stevo, the autobiography of the former Great Britain hooker and Sky TV summariser, Mike Stephenson. It isn’t a great read, although it isn’t one of those anodyne, ghost written sports books (if it had been there would have been a few less exclamation marks). Punches are pulled towards the end about the creation of Super League, bringing to mind the embarrassing Pravda broadcast on Sky where Eddie Hemmings and Stevo pretended the fans were all in full agreement with the proposals. (I had just come back from Keighley, who were being denied promotion, where the crowd, whipped up by the chairman, demonstrated against them on the pitch. Some towns held protest marches, whilst I always remember a foul-mouthed, belligerent female Featherstone fan who attended matches all the following season wearing her "Maurice Lindsay is a wanker" tee-shirt. The fans won a partial victory when the proposed club mergers never took place).

It was the start of the book that grabbed me, celebrating the game’s Northern, working class roots. A Dewsbury miner’s son, Stevo had an upbringing that we would now think of as shockingly poor. There was little money, his schooling was weak, and he was in minor trouble with the police as a youth but sorted himself out through sport. This was the 1960’s, romanticised as the era of youth rebellion, hedonism and affluence. Not for the Northern working class. The way that players were treated by club owners, with their general parsimony towards those who earned a part-time living by playing the toughest sport of all, can only be described as feudal. The game was hard, bordering on psychotic, scrums were real, and the camaraderie amongst the players, cemented by a common upbringing, was boisterously blokeish.

Stevo played in the Great Britain team that won the World Cup in 1972 (many years before the Rugby Union even dreamt of holding one), an achievement studiously ignored by the Southern-based, national media. It was only afterwards, in 1973, when he went to play in Australia, that he became a sporting star with something like the rewards associated with being an international of the highest class. Not bad for an asthmatic with a twisted spine.

Self-deprecation is second nature in the North. It is to be expected that Stevo would take the mickey out of his looks, especially after fourteen broken noses. However, he also talks of his lack of brains. The old joke is that it is a requirement for playing in the front row of the scrum, but that isn’t what he is saying; he means it.

And this is a man who, as a lad, hitchhiked to Italy so that he could indulge in his love of art, who later became a successful restaurant owner, a print journalist and a broadcaster. This is the man who set up a travelling exhibition of Rugby League memorabilia all round Australia and now has his own museum at the birthplace of Rugby League, the George Hotel in Huddersfield. All this was achieved despite the impressive proportion of his life that has been spent pissed. He still thinks he is thick.

Just imagine where he would be now if he had not been good at sport. Probably, he would be like many another working class sixty-year-old - in poor health; recently retired from clearing drains blocked with the detritus of other peoples' affluence; and still with an unfulfilled passion for art, forever held back by the inferiority complex he was taught to embrace. Never doubt the damage done by inequality, by class prejudice, and a lack of expectations that stifles the aspirations of the best. Celebrate every attempt at social inclusion, especially in education, at all times of life, instead of falling back into a lazy elitism of defending 'standards' against 'dumbing down'. There are loads of talented Stevos out there; the only difference is that they are not world class sportsmen.

There would seem to be no connection at all with my other gift, Anne Fadiman’s delightful collection of essays, At Large and at Small. I have already posted on the extract read on Radio 4 about naturally nocturnal people.

The whole book is full of such gems. There are essays on favourite indulgences, coffee and ice cream; marvellous pieces on the Romantics, especially the one on Charles Lamb; and others on Arctic exploration, butterfly collecting, literary criticism and more. It ends with an acutely observed tragedy. The essays are an examination of the world in miniature and, at times, the book is no less profound for its small compass.

So where is the link with Stevo? Fadiman is impeccably middle class, East Coast American, the well-educated daughter of a writer. The answer comes in her post 9/11 essay on her relationship with the American flag.

In her youth she rejected flag waving. Why? Nominally, she would have associated it with her opposition to the Vietnam war. Now, after 9/11, she is clear that her "disdain for the flag wasn’t political; it was social". Patriotism was associated with the working classes, with which her circles "professed heartfelt solidarity" whilst never meeting anyone from them and scoffing at their tastes and way of life. This was the Sixties too, days "which pretended to be egalitarian but were in fact unthinkingly, unapologetically, unbelievably snobbish". Days when a young, art loving, Dewsbury miner’s son learnt how to see himself as thick before becoming a plumber’s mate and going on to be a star in the most unpretentious sport on earth. Have we become more egalitarian since? I am not so sure.

The grass is always greener

This is a second hand story as my awful virus forced me to linger in bed and miss a social gathering in Lafkos this evening. Apparently, when my absence was discussed, the topic of Hull came up. Someone had been designing way markers for the network of old donkey paths that criss-cross the hills in partnership with a small copy shop in Volos. Volos is the nearest small city, an hour’s drive away. It is an attractive port at the head of the Pagasitic Gulf and sits snug against the base of Mount Pelion. It is near the site of the ancient city of Iolkos from where Jason set out on his quest for the Golden Fleece. The owner of the copy shop has his own dream too. He wants to live in Hull.

Yes, you read that right. Apparently, he did a degree in graphic design in Hull and fell in love with the place. And now, when I sit in my office in Hull, dreamily watching my screen saver taunt me with pictures of Pelion, I will know there is a man in Volos, who sits longingly in front of his own computer gazing at a slide show of the sights of Hull. We are like lovers with the wrong partners, each wanting what the other has. Who knows? One day we may put it all right.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Man flu

Ok it is really only a cold, but I claim the privileges of my gender to make the most of it. It has been pretty debilitating though and not what you want on holiday. I have often noticed that the body decides that once the pressure of work is off it is alright to be ill. No it isn’t body. I want to be ill so that I can miss work not when I am missing it already.

It has been an odd stay. The weather has been bleak and cold. We arrived to a funeral. The man who owned the plot of land next to the house died of a stroke at the age of only 63. A nice, friendly man who had learnt some English when he was at sea, he always greeted us, helped himself to our water for his vines, and kept himself fit. He is a loss. More prosaically, the dishwasher decided to blow up. And yes, for those bucolic fantasists amongst you, we do have dishwashers in rural Greece; I am also hoping that we have people who can fix them.

The beauty is still there and sneezing and sniffling beside an olive wood fire with good books is preferable to being holed up in Hull. I look out of the windows to see the citrus trees laden with bright oranges and the silvery leaves of the olive groves on the far hill. Wood smoke hangs over the village, many people are away and it is very quiet. The local butcher, Costas, has once again made his late entry for the Turner Prize with his amazing strings of fairy lights flung haphazardly over the tree outside his house. Boxing Day was accompanied by the gunfire of the hunters and I hope that I will be over this virus in time to join in the New Year’s Eve cacophony.

The skies look unremitting and I do not think that we will have any warm winter days this year. And once again, given the utter unreality in England about Greece and the failure to realise that winter exists, when I get back I know that people will say, “at least you have been sitting in the sun”.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Happy hols

The office is tidied, everything is switched off and a very tired fatman is off to Greece for a Christmas break.

There isn't much chance of a post for a few days so I would just like to wish everyone who drops by here all the best, even if they feel like this.

And something for the government to mull over from Patrick Geddes, written in 1917;

"Let it not be thought, however, that in the coming polity, the mature and the aged are to be excluded from the joy of educational militancy".

Just heard from Greece. They have been without power for 16 hours and the cleaner found two dead rats under the sofa. Paradise.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Stop whining

Can modern life deal more cruel blows to the middle classes? Now the Torygraph reports on the stress of "second-cheapest wine syndrome". They know a thing or two in these parts though:

Those in Yorkshire are most likely to choose the cheapest bottle on the menu.

A state of fear

John Pilger reckons that,

Britain is now a centralised single-ideology state, as secure in the grip of a superpower as any former eastern bloc country.

It is also a "murdochracy" (make your mind up please), "an empire devoted to the promotion of war, conquest and human division".

Thank God I escaped. To think that a few hours ago I was in the office of a sinister, baby-eating minister to discuss adult education. Luckily he had to dash off to his constituency for a big Christmas event with local children before he could order his minions to pounce. I hope to God the children survived.

Already anxious about our disagreements, I was transported away to the centre of power - the grotesquely gothic Houses of Parliament - by an MP who is also a government whip. There the monster punished me harshly for my dissent. She bought me coffee and a beer, before sharing a taxi back to Kings Cross. Now I gaze anxiously from my hotel window as I type anything I want, to be read anywhere in the world, by anyone who is so inclined. There is no freedom of speech in this country any more.

What is this? A new tab has appeared on my screen. How did it get there? I do not believe it is simply because I clicked on the link. It is the blog of a shadowy man, known for his "contortion of intellect and morality", the dreaded Norm. He thinks the article is bollocks too.

What did the Middle Ages ever do for us?

Sometimes it is hard to resist temptation, a Madeleine Bunting column is such a rich source for a blocked blogger. Eric at the Trots cannot really be bettered, but I will still rise to the bait of a truly terrible piece. This time she has got carried away reading Mediaeval history. And joy upon joy it confirms to her that we are at fault for everything, society is fragmented and that we are "baffled and insecure" - and it is all the fault of the Middle Ages. Yikes.

Her discovery of "one the most influential and controversial books of medieval history of the last 20 years", R I Moore's 1987 book, The Formation of a Persecuting Society, has got her all aroused. Excitedly, she continues, "The relevance of its argument today is uncanny". Actually, there is nothing uncanny about it. It is part of the process of writing history. Whilst it is clearly a distortion to project the concerns of contemporary society backwards, inevitably what often interests historians are the aspects of the past that concern the present. Even with my scanty knowledge of early history, I would have thought that persecution of groups is hardly a phenomenon that only emerged in the Middle Ages. Instead, the gloomy turn of her mind has joyously leapt on a study that confirms her interpretation of a "fear of Islam" that is rooted in anomie rather than the corpses of the arbitrary victims of Jihadi terrorism.

My specialism is the 19th Century, and if Bunting had paused for breath she would have thought about all the Gothic revival buildings littering our towns and cities and realised that other ages felt an affinity with the Middle Ages too. For 19th Century radicals, it was a period when skilled workers could control their own destinies. William Morris saw it as the unity of art and craft; for Peter Kropotkin it was an exemplar of mutual aid.

Take your pick of "cultural shorthands" - as for myself I have always been suspicious of utopias based on idealised pasts as well as imagined futures, and so reject the use of history as polemic. All that Maddy's disastrous article proves to me is that a little learning is a dangerous thing, especially if posted on Comment is Free.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Down south

I'm in London for the British Library, a meeting with a minister about adult education cuts, and a beer with a fine chap. The internet connection from this hotel is dire, posting will be light but I don't think that I can resist today's classic from Maddy of all the Sorrows. Watch this space.

Saturday, December 15, 2007


It seems a long time since I have felt able to say that the Guardian is the home of some outstanding writing, but this is certainly the case today.

First, there is a moving account by the novelist Khaled Hosseini of his return to Afghanistan. Amid his shock at the devastation of war, the legacy of the unimaginable brutality of the Taliban, the continuing desperate poverty, and the disillusion with the pace of reconstruction, is a feeling of hope.

But here is the most amazing thing of all: amid the despair, sickness and destitution, I saw beauty and kindness that brought me to my knees. And I saw what I had come to Afghanistan to see: signs of rebirth and hope, signs of a people allowing themselves to dream again. I saw men planting grapevines and trees on the hill that leads to Bagh-e-bala, King Abdur Rahman Khan's old palace, which overlooks the city. I chatted with a young shepherd playing the flute on that hill, the bells on his sheep jingling as they fed on grass. He thought his life was much better since the Taliban had been largely ousted - he could play his flute again. Children flew kites from rooftops and young men in pirhan-tumban played volleyball at the Shar- e-nau Park. People smiled and little schoolgirls sang songs as they skipped to school, holding hands. I saw people painting old homes, building new ones, digging gutters, going to the movies and playing Bollywood soundtrack songs and rubab music at street corners.

The article is a robust reply to the negativism of those like Simon Jenkins. However, it is also a call to speed up development and, in the words of a policeman he talked to, "to find ways to put the aid money where it was most needed, in the pockets of average people". Read it all.

The second is a long report from inside Burma. It is a recounts a nation in the grip of fear, of ever present violence and brutality, of suppression by a remote military elite. But still there are voices of hope.

Thet Pyin:

"There are divisions in the army. The core of the dictatorship is small, it is at odds with the military in its larger role. This government will fall."

Ludu Daw Ahmar:

"People are very much afraid of the government but this can't go on forever. There will be a day when the people break this"

A senior cleric in Mandalay:

"But we know it will not change tomorrow. It might take five years, it might take 10, but it will be go. It has no solutions."

A political activist in hiding:

"Nobody won in September because it's not finished"

If there is one thing that gives hope, it is that the human capacity for horror, brutality, genocide and sadism is always confronted by a greater power, the capacity for resistance. That longing for freedom, for an assertion of all that is best in humanity, is indestructible. It wins in the end. It is where we, with our privileged lives, should stand, not with the cynics and the 'realists' who would abandon hope and thereby betray the oppressed.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Educationally challenged

The Torygraph gets worked up about University Challenge.

Apparently, it "stands accused of neglecting undergraduates in favour of teams stacked with "ringers", in the shape of mature and graduate students".

I have news for them, most mature students are undergraduates and there are now more of them than the kids straight from school. This cliché ridden attitude is of piddling significance in terms of prejudice about Higher Education, but it is symptomatic of the stereotypes that stand in the way of those of us who want universities to be open, inclusive institutions for the whole community and they inform the most crass decisions of government. Wake up. The world has changed - though not enough.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Who's right?

Make your own mind up.

In Afghanistan there is no realistic mission, no achievable objective, no long-term strategy, only the fruitless pursuit of failure.

Simon Jenkins

Almost universally, the Afghans I know see the presence in their country of foreign military and assistance workers as a necessary means to an end. Some of them even agree that if the foreigners left today, Afghanistan would collapse tomorrow.
Anja Havedal

A clue:

Anja Havedal has been living and working in Afghanistan since May 2006.

Monday, December 10, 2007


Norm has dealt with one aspect of Gary Younge's muddled piece in the Guardian, in which he develops a familiar theme of Western hypocrisy around criticism of the refusal of an Iranian-German footballer to play for the German under-21 team in Israel. Norm points out that the German experience is precisely why the present generation might just have pertinent comments to make about anti-Semitism.

Younge segues from his original arguments that there is "a far less murderous recent history of antisemitism in his Iranian heritage" and that (conveniently overlooking the past sixty-two years) "if any nation exemplifies the limits of integration without a vigorous culture of anti-racism it is Germany - the European nation where Jews were most assimilated and almost found themselves wiped out", to yet another tiresome discussion of Islamophobia. He writes,

It has become a Europe-wide habit to refer to Muslims in particular and migrants in general as though they are barbarians who must either be civilised or banished, before they pollute the egalitarian societies in which they were either born or now live. Lacking all sense of humility, self-awareness and historical literacy, Europe's political class acts as though these communities not only manifest homophobia, sexism, antisemitism, political violence and social unrest, but also as though they invented them and introduced them to an otherwise utopian continent.

Please Gary, if you want to criticise, get it right. Not only is this the creation of a straw man through vague generalisations, it does scant justice to the anti-totalitarian left, which does not conflate Islam the religion with Islamism the political ideology. Instead it makes the specific point that Islamism has imported into its world view precisely those aspects of European irrationalist thought - nihilism, death cults, anti-Semitsm, etc. - that caused carnage in the 20th Century. Our European experience shows that these ideas are not only repugnant but also unbelievably dangerous and that they have to be confronted.

This misrepresentation is compounded by a strange false analogy with the sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church.

Even as these scandals have run parallel with the war on terror, no one is claiming that Catholicism represents a threat to our civilisation.

Eh? Well there is a reason for that. It isn't. The clergy in the Catholic Church are actually supposed to be celibate. Therefore there was no way in which anyone could claim "the abuse was essentially religious" as it took place against the express commands of the religion. Despite the appointment of sex offenders to the priesthood, there also doesn't appear to be any Catholic militias decapitating Protestants, wishing to bring back the Inquisition, stoning to death adulterers, hanging gay men, or suicide bombing Anglican jumble sales and coffee mornings. Perverts ruining the lives of choir boys to satisfy their repressed sexuality isn't quite the same thing. The reason why Jihadi movements can be seen as a threat to our civilisation is that they have declared themselves to be just that and have set about a campaign of random murder in an attempt to bring it down.

To pretend that the dead of New York, London, Madrid, Bali and the far more numerous Muslim victims in Muslim countries are not witness to the existence of a murderous political movement is to abandon all sense. To claim that Europeans are unable to act in solidarity with the victims of those movements is equally ridiculous.

I am an atheist and do not like religion of any type, but I can certainly spot the difference between Islam and Islamism, in the same way that I can distinguish between European Enlightenment values and European Fascism. I would hope that Gary Younge could be similarly discriminating.

Saturday night

I went to the pub on Saturday; nothing remarkable about that except for the snapshot it gives of the effect of legislation. Over the more than 25 years I have frequented the place it has never been one of those boozers you left early, that is until the licensing laws were changed and hours were extended. Then, all of a sudden, everybody started going home at around the old legal closing time. Late drinking had lost its appeal. Now many are not coming at all. The smoking ban has coincided with cold weather and so the pub is empty for much of the time. The family that run it are worried about how long they can stay in business. It is an old, small pub; a cosy social institution.

There is no doubting the overwhelming evidence on smoking and health, but such gems of British life are now being squeezed by the smoking ban on one hand and by cheap supermarket drink on the other. The big bars will continue to prosper but the ban has accelerated the decline of the traditional local. Even as a non-smoker who prefers a smoke-free environment, I wish that the protection of livelihoods had been considered as well as the protection of health. And smokers now have another health risk - exposure. Glad I never started.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Avuncular pride

My nephew, the film maker Simon Ardizzone, was the guest on Little Atoms this week. I will post the link when the broadcast is available on-line.

Friday, December 07, 2007

More on music

The answer to stress? Alcohol, music, blogging, and sometimes all three. This time I neglected the wine as I was gripped by Roger Norrington's live recording of Mahler's Fifth Symphony. I am sipping it now to catch up.

I ordered the CD after reading a profile of Norrington's search for authenticity and war against vibrato in the Guardian this summer. After today, I was in the right mood to listen to it attentively.

Mahler's Fifth is one of his most joyous works - and, although everyone associates him with death, I always find Mahler joyous. The work is famous for the Adagietto, played as a searing, tragic dirge to accompany the death of Aschenbach in Visconti's film of Death in Venice. This is a misinterpretation. The Adagietto is a delicate love song and was the basis of Mahler's proposal to his future wife. It is life affirming rather than being about the merging of an obsessive love with death, as popularised by the film. Norrington gets it sparklingly right, making it beautiful, tender and touching.

The clarity of sound in this recording is startling and grabs the intellect as well as the emotions. It is a well known piece that I listened to as if for the first time tonight. I have become enamoured with 'authentic' recordings. Sometimes masterpieces need the patina removing so that they can shine anew.


The avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen has died. Many of the eulogies will mention his appearance on the cover of Sergeant Pepper, but will they also remind us of Thomas Beecham's famous judgement?

"Have you heard any Stockhausen?" Beecham was asked. "No, but I believe I have stepped in some."

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Away for a day

Luke Johnson writes in the Financial Times,

...wheezes such as conferences, workshops, awaydays and seminars are the biggest waste of time and money known to the business world. ... mostly they are for people who haven't got enough work to do. As Samuel Johnson said: "There is no kind of idleness by which we are so easily seduced as that which dignifies itself by the appearance of business."

Guess what I will be doing tomorrow.

(Hat tip Daniel)

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Lords a leaping indignation at the changes to the funding of lifelong learning .

Sorry that this is turning into an adult education blog at the moment. It was not my intention when I started it, but then I was not expecting a crisis like the current one to hit.

The House of Lords debated the proposals on Monday and gave them a savaging. Labour peers were particularly harsh.

Baroness Blackstone: "I regret having to say this but I passionately believe that a little less haste and a bit more consultation would go a very long way, so I hope that my noble friend will be able to reconsider the matter".

Lord Puttnam: "This is a bad policy; it is a policy that is based on a false choice and, like all false choices, it inevitably results in a poor decision".

Lord Plant: "I think that this policy is spectacularly misconceived. It cuts entirely across the lifetime learning agenda, a good deal of which takes in things such as certificates and diplomas, which will be put at an acute disadvantage by the consequences of this proposal".

Lord Morgan: "...the Government have championed many admirable principles in higher education and I fear that this policy on ELQs runs counter to almost all of them. ...The deckchairs will be rearranged but the iceberg will still be there. ...The proposal will be deeply damaging to many English universities".

Lord Griffiths: "I speak in the name of all those who redirect their lives and seek appropriate skills for the new direction that their life takes, my two sons included; they started abortively with bad careers advice from their schools but ended up finding their way, retooled themselves for their jobs and are now happily ensconced in them. In the name of all that is decent—I know that my noble friends on the Front Bench are decent if nothing else—I do ask for a reconsideration".

There is a bigger point to be made here. Francis Sedgemore, on his own site and at the Drink-soaked Trots, has posted about losing faith in politics and this debate gives us a taste of just why this is the case. The policy was being defended by David Triesman, now a Labour peer and junior minister, but formerly the General Secretary of my union, the AUT. Its successor, the UCU, is vehemently opposed to the changes and if he was still in his old job, I suspect Triesman would be too. In fact, he probably is and is cursing his brief.

When we have a system that demands the defence of a policy as defective as this by someone who, in all likelihood, is as opposed to it as its detractors, we have theatre rather than politics. It is hard not to feel cynical as well as frustrated, even though our local elected representatives have acted impeccably. Could we ever have a system where intellectual honesty trumps defence of a party line? It might just prove to be popular.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Fighting the good fight

Michelle Hanson joins the chorus of disapproval of the changes to the funding of Adult Education.

...what does the modern world need with little old ladies learning medieval history and GCSE Spanish for fun? Or people retraining, or getting their qualifications up to date, or anyone who can only study in the evenings or weekends, which is mostly women?

She doesn't get the details of the changes quite right, but is only too aware of the sentiment behind them,

...lifelong learning and flexible or part-time courses suddenly aren't so important after all. All we really want now are courses that increase "employability, career prospects and earnings".

It is heartening to see the mainstream media taking up the issue. However, the Government is showing a grim determination to persevere with this awful policy against all the opposition and evidence of the damage that will be done. Hanson puts it a bit too strongly when she writes,

If they proceed as planned this time, adult education will go down the tubes, together with all those universities and colleges, like Birkbeck and the Open University and Mrs Fielding's college, which have, until now, poured their souls into supporting lifelong learning.

Some certainly will survive, but she isn't that far off about the consequences of this act of vandalism. She concludes, "Optimists may still petition our government at". If you haven't signed yet, please do so now.

As of this morning (5/12) there were 11,768 signatures on the petition. NOW over 12,000 have signed.

Good morning

I am not a morning person. My idea of hell is the latest fashion for breakfast meetings. Late at night I become creative, I can read and write with heightened concentration. Mornings are for prevarication. The worst thing about my tendency towards nocturnal habits is that the rest of the country does not operate in that way, and, even worse, feels morally superior about being up bright and early.

My first meeting of today was at 10.00 am. I got in at 10.02. This time, rather than feeling rushed and harassed, I felt calm and confident. As a result of my late arrival, I had caught a gem of a broadcast on Radio 4. It was a celebration of being a night person, an 'owl', as opposed to the 90% who are 'larks', up in the morning and horribly efficient at an unearthly hour. It made me feel good about myself.

The programme was a reading from the Book of the Week, "At Large and at Small: Confessions of a Literary Hedonist", a collection of essays by Anne Fadiman. You can listen to the broadcast here for the next seven days. There were many gems as she confronted the "powerful pro-lark tradition". The one I liked most was her description of her snatched, late night childhood reading. I too remember huddling under the bedclothes with my torch and book, deep into the night. I was always late for school the next day. Being a fat child, teachers put my bad timekeeping down to sloth. They did not realise that it was simply because I had been enthralled by the stories unfolding in the secret cocoon of my bed until the early hours. Fadiman says, "The child who reads at night is likely to become the adult who writes at night". She's right, I do.

It sounds like a super little book about the everyday pleasures of reading and writing. I might buy a copy; ideal for bed time - and later.

Democratiya 11

The latest Democratiya is out and it is a bumper issue. Check it out here.

Sunday, December 02, 2007


First, there is an excellent review of Terry Glavin's new book, The Lost and Left Behind, in the Observer. It captures it's theme perfectly. I recommend the book highly. (UPDATE: Terry comments on the review here).

Secondly, Rachel Cooke gets depressed by a book called, How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read.

So why is it that, in spite of all these things, I find How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read so depressing? Why does the fact that it has appeared on clever-clever newspaper Christmas books lists even before it is in the shops make me feel weary to my bones? It's not only that you can have too much irony. It's that Bayard's essay (assuming it is not really by Chris Morris, and a giant spoof) is yet another product of a world that commodifies everything, that regards books pretty much as if they were status handbags. It sees reading only as a social indicator, as a way of getting on or looking cool, ignoring the fact that, at bottom, it is a private pleasure to be enjoyed for its own sake.

I wholeheartedly agree, though there is a pang of guilt that will undoubtedly hit many a teacher, especially those like myself who work in subjects like Politics and History. How often we rely on secondary interpretations of classic texts, only to finally get round to reading the originals properly and realise we have got it completely wrong for the past twenty years. There is a part of teaching that relies on received opinion that is often way off-beam. We too have a lifestyle problem, only this time it is integral to earning our living. It involves a need for instant expertise when we should probably remember that wisdom lies in the recognition of the limits of our knowledge.

Cooke gets to the heart of the matter when she writes that,

Fine: dazzle your pals with your (wafer-thin) grasp of why Middlemarch is the greatest English novel. But this is a delight that will last only seconds; reading Middlemarch will give you hours (and perhaps a lifetime) of deep satisfaction.

And this is something to remember. However much you may need to survive in a classroom, the real thrill of reading should never be forgotten. After all, it is how you got there in the first place.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Losing elections

It hasn't been a great start for Gordon Brown, to say the least. Sometimes it may not be the headline news that is all important; it could be an issue that evades the scrutiny of the private polling and focus groups that makes all the difference. Could the cuts in adult education be just such an issue?

The Electoral Reform Society has estimated that fewer than 8,000 votes could decide an election, yet millions of people participate in adult education, and millions have started losing out. I have lost count of the times students have told me that their classes are their lifeline; this is not an insignificant activity and the attachment of people to learning is powerfully emotional. Not only that, though this is only anecdotal evidence, I have noticed that the majority of those that participate are natural Labour voters. Could they just sit on their hands in the next election to register their distress? Could this unnecessary and destructive policy be an election loser? It doesn't seem to have occurred to those in power that this may be the case.