Monthly Archives: December 2013

People and their circumstances

As you may have gathered if you have ever read anything that I have written, I am fascinated by people and their circumstances. I have, for example, never bought into the idea that the world is made up of the simple stereotypes so beloved by our popular press. These are the used to create as much discord as possible setting people against one another. So, not only do we have “shirkers” and “strivers” but then, “shirkers v strivers”.

Now I will not argue that some people may actually work harder than others, either at all times or in particular circumstances. Indeed, as someone who is past retirement age and embarking on my sixth and, probable, final career, I may have a predilection for work myself. Then again, I have, at least for the past 37 years, managed to make a living out of what I have enjoyed. However, there are many other things that I enjoyed and I never got the chance to pursue some of these. Still, it’s been an interesting journey, to say the least. Which, once again in my usual roundabout way, brings me to my subject matter.

Last week, the press reported the head of OFSTED as saying that (and I paraphrase) that the quality of education that anyone received was largely a matter of luck. Given that one’s education largely determines one’s livelihood and quality of living that is a pretty crucial matter.

Now I was lucky enough to go to a good school which, if it did nothing else, gave me a thirst for knowledge; not a bad result for an educational institute. It stemmed from a number of things to do with the relatives that brought me up, the times that I grew up and, crucially, the quality of the teachers and their modus operandi. They may or may not have been better at their jobs than today’s teachers, but they were valued for what they did. Yes, society was more deferential, something I have railed against for much of my life; however, those teachers were respected for what they did.

In today’s world, they are often denigrated by this government which then complains about the behaviour of pupils who, reading their pronouncements, treat teachers in exactly the same way. Have they so little understanding of human nature that they can see no link between these two sets of circumstances? Don’t answer that one as you don’t need to. This lot embark on their pet projects of Free Schools and Academies on the basis of little evidence and, in the process, start to dismantle a comprehensive education system that has value. Oh and, by the way, they do the same to any other non private institution such as the NHS and the BBC. Now I am not trying to pretend that these bodies don’t have their faults, but that as organisations and the service they are set up to provide, they represent something that I hold to as good about this country. As, interestingly enough, do countries other than our own.

I may be old fashioned and am certainly not a nationalist or a patriot, but I like being English and what is represents to me, best summed up by Billy Brag in his anthem, “Between the Wars.”

It’s about a sense of fairness, a care for the underdog, a self deprecation and quirky sense of humour and is represented in the reason that those organisations were created in the first place. Someone once said that you don’t miss something until it’s gone and then it’s too late. I fear that we are losing some of those qualities and what is happening today in education, the Health Service and other organisations as they are forced more and more into the hands of people whose sole aim is to make money at whatever cost. Death by a thousand cuts with, we are told, greater ones to come. I do wish this government had the imagination to see the damage that these will do to our social fabric, although I am, probably, hoping in vain. As a member of that lucky, post war, generation, it saddens me to see that little of the luck we had in being born into the society and the times that we were, is being passed on. More of this after Christmas.

Nelson Mandela

No one of my generation could let the death of Nelson Mandela pass without comment. In my lifetime there have been two giants on the world stage. Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Ghandi. Ghandi was from a previous era and, so, left less of an impression on me. However, I read somewhere that when he came to England during winter in the late 1940’s, clad only in something resembling a bath towel, he was asked what he thought of Western civilisation. His reported response was that he thought that it would be a good idea! With such quiet but devastating humour do some people deal with patronising comments. To me it demonstrates an inner strength and security which is what probably enables them to deal with situations in the way that they do. In their cases, directly facing up the brute force that governments can bring to bear on those who oppose them, for no personal gain whatsoever. In fact, at enormous personal cost; in Nelson Mandela’s case, nearly one third of his life in prison. In fact, the exact opposite. As someone who hates being separated from his family, I can only imagine the resolve that that must have taken, especially when it is only with hindsight that we know that it was only (only?) 27 years. In other circumstances, it could have been considerably longer. Does anyone doubt that he would have had the resolve to see it through?

Both these men seem to have had a humility, on ordinariness that the rest of us relate to in a way that we don’t to others with great power. Amply demonstrated, in Mandela’s case, with an incident recalled by Peter Hain. The former government minister was meeting the great man and happened to mention that his mother was in hospital with a broken femur. Mr Mandela insisted on speaking to her using Peter Hain’s mobile phone. On getting through, he said, ”It’s Nelson Mandela. Do you remember me?”

Which, in my usual roundabout way, brings me to my point. How is it that those who are truly great, the giants that occasionally visit us on this Earth able to retail a sense of humility and humanity, when many of those who strive for power, do not? Maybe it is that they are truly great, although I believe that many people have within themselves that ability. I think that it is that humility and humanity that they manage to retain despite the power that they attain. The rest of us may be smaller in comparison but we do recognise those qualities in the same way that we recognise fraudulence in others who exercise power or aspire to. You know who you are unless the biggest fraud is one that you enact upon yourself.

Which also brings me to my last point which is that, why do, seemingly intelligent men and the occasional women, behave so stupidly at times?  And, yes, I know that we all do, it’s just that we don’t usually do it so knowingly and with such forethought. In this respect, unless someone else buys it for me, I plan to myself a Xmas present, a book entitled, “The Blunders of our Governments”. In one particular instance, it mentions Nicholas Ridley, a government minister of the time who, when being warned about the dangers of the Poll Tax and how poor people would not be able to afford to pay it, said, “Can’t they just sell a painting”.

Now Mr Mandela and Mr Ghandi may have visited us from other planets but such as Mr Ridley, actually lived on one.

Grammar school

I went to a grammar school, the first generation of post war, south London, working class boys to do so. I had been preceded by my cousin, David, on my mum’s side of the family and followed by Mike and Richard on my dad’s side. Many of the teachers would have had direct experience of the Second World War in a school that was situated on the edge of the London Docks that, 13 years before I joined, had been subject to the blitz. It probably gave them a certain view of life which I experienced as wanting something better for the children they taught. There was an ethos about the school which instilled in me, a desire to learn; something that sticks with me to this day. What my wife calls “my insatiable appetite for knowledge”. Not a bad result for a school.

Interestingly, I was also interviewed for Alleyn’s School in Dulwich where, I am told, the headmaster’s first question was “What car does your father drive?”. This, I feel, tells you a great deal about the values he was looking for in his pupils. So why am I writing this? Well, because that prize bozo, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, has done it again. What has he done? Well he has opened his mouth and, in his usual inimitable fashion, nonsense has come out. Moreover, it is of a level of intellect that you would dismiss even from the bore in the local pub. Appropriate, as his topic was, among other things, IQ.

According to The Guardian last Thursday, he is quoted as saying that inequality is essential to fostering “the spirit of envy” and hailed greed as “a valuable spur to economic activity”. At which point, I feel that he displays a great deal of his own mindset. He also called for the “Gordon Gecko’s of London” to display their greed in order to promote economic growth. Please send him a copy of “The Spirit Level” someone and try to remove those horse blinkers he wears. He then went on to say that “Whatever you may think of the value of IQ tests, it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many of 16% of our species have an IQ of less than 85” while calling for more help to be given to those with an IQ of 130. Of which, presumably, he is one. To those that have, shall be given and to those who haven’t, shall be taken away.

Please note the part about the value of IQ tests with its acceptance that many think that they don’t actually measure intelligence. Surely you can’t use something that is not proven in an argument to prove things which flow from the need for its actuality. Finally, he goes on to say that it is wrong to persecute the rich and madness to try to stifle wealth creation. This conflation of the two is a not untypical argument from those who are lucky enough to be wealthy, when wealthy and wealth creators are not necessarily the same thing. Indeed, in a country where much of the wealth that exists is actually inherited, they will, likely, not be the same. It needs saying again and again that those who work in financial services, despite the fact that they generate money, don’t actually produce anything. A pound note may help to pay for your washing machine but it needs a human brain or a team of people to invent and develop one.

Apart from the assumption that wealth creators are motivated, largely, by money, what really galls is not the idea that some people are less able than others but the implication that they are, therefore, of less value. Yet, as those who have read anything that I have ever written will be aware, I know of numerous examples of people who actually appeared to have less ability but went on to do what other, seemingly, more able people couldn’t do. From the people who were homeless and unemployed who built their own homes to the group of people with special needs who, with volunteer help, built their own horticultural training centre. What was even more remarkable, in this latter example, is that one of the young lads with special needs finished up supervising some of the other volunteers.

We can all contribute and we usually do. Why, then, should some receive more remuneration in a year, than many will earn in their whole lifetime. Indeed in ten or twenty lifetimes. Especially when it is from among the former and not the latter that those who bear the greatest responsibility for our current economic woes, are employed. Can we please have a sensible debate about wages, usefulness and value in our society and can someone please direct Boris to the nearest circus where his talents are so obviously suited?