Bernard's weekly Journal pieces May-August 2012

Why the Brits are still a nation of winners when it comes to grit

Thursday 30th August 2012

In recent columns - in fact, ever since the Olympics blew our minds as a nation - I’ve been in line with almost every other commentator, including those who know much more about it than I do, in applauding the fact the plucky British amateur has ceased to be. No longer do we have to cross our fingers for a heroically embattled but totally outclassed GB sportsperson, hope against hope for the weather or a miracle to intervene and occasionally squeak a narrow win (but more often stiffen the upper lip as defeat is snatched from the jaws of victory. “Come on, Tim!”)

The outstanding Olympians in Team GB who amazed us in London - and, for sure, the Paralympians just getting underway - are nowadays superbly prepared and supported professionals. They dedicate themselves full-time to their sport: as a result we’ve seen our athletes assert themselves win across the board. This wasn’t a matter of a bit of home advantage and supportive crowds: it was all about doing it properly, at long last.

Still, if we thought that traditional British grit and pluck were entirely obsolete now, Bank Holiday Monday proved us wrong. The worst holiday weather I can recall (and I remember some shockers) sent Brits scurrying for shelter.

The Traffords and friends were at Wooler’s Glendale Show as usual: for our family of teachers it’s an end-of-summer ritual. Through the downpour we made swiftly for the food tent and loaded up with artisanal pies and cakes for lunch. We checked out the tent full of baking, flower, vegetable, craft and photographic competitions: it’s vital to admire the work of (and the prizes won by) friends and neighbours, not least so we can pop round later to offer congratulations and sample the champion rock-cakes or lemon curd (delicious, Lynda!).

We kept up our spirits in a beer tent and tried to watch the Shetland Pony Grand National steeplechase, though it’s hard to see when the wind’s blowing gallons of water into your face.

Thus it was amid the incessant deluge and the slithery mud that I discovered where the plucky Brit, now banished from the world of elite sport, has been reincarnated.

It’s us! It’s we ordinary people who, in full knowledge of the fact that the annual local show will be more like a scene from the trenches in “War Horse” than a summer event, still don our wellies and waterproofs and go along to support. It’s the organisers, stewards, exhibitors and stallholders who still smile and are keen to do business. It’s the stockmen and women who make sure that, even when wet through, their cattle and sheep are still immaculate and do them credit. It’s the motorcycle stuntmen who do their hair-raising tricks even when the ground’s so slippery it’s hard to keep your own footing, let alone jump seven parked cars. And it’s the kids riding the Shetland ponies or playing in the Wooler steel band who give their all – and would do so even if the wet day degenerated into Hurricane Isaac.

Yes, we grinned and we bore it heroically. The plucky Brits and their agricultural show won through despite the horrendous weather. Mind you, our lot were pleased to get home to dry clothes and a hot cup of tea.

There was a curious postscript to our wet day out. It all went quiet round the kitchen table. People were recovering and warming up. Some were reading the paper. Then I noticed four of us were playing Words, the online app for Scrabble. Two iPads were in use, and two android phones. There was barely a sound, beyond the odd expletive when one participant queried another’s dodgy but high-scoring spelling.

Next time we’re all together and kept indoors by the weather we’re going for a record – a whole household where no one speaks but everyone’s in touch digitally. Clearly, it’s the future.

 

The finishing tape is moved as runners approach it

Thursday 23rd August 2012

OK. I was wrong, miles off: I resign as a prophet.

I’m talking about my prediction last week about A level results. The overall pass-rate was up, as I foretold, but top grades were squeezed down. I didn’t think they’d have the nerve – or the brass-necked cheek.  Ministers leaned on the watchdog (Ofqual) who in turn pressed exam boards to limit A* grades.

Then someone thought, “Oops! The universities want stratospheric grades from candidates applying for top courses: we’d better warn them that a lot will miss.” Consequently universities were slightly flexible on near-misses this year.

Nothing has been admitted officially. It won’t be. And (as I write this) something similar seems likely with today’s GCSE results: constant moaning by media dinosaurs about “dumbing down” panics government into interfering.

Remember George Orwell’s futuristic novel “1984”? Under Big Brother’s iron rule, people had to learn to speak the contradictory, to believe the incredible: doublespeak and doublethink. This year, in the parallel universe education inhabits, standards are declared to have risen because candidates got fewer top grades. Just run that past me again, will you? 1984 meets Groundhog Day.

Now, I’m as much like a cracked record as the next old bore, but I reckon we’ve recently seen some amazing examples of how to live your life and fulfil both your dreams and those of others: we’ve also seen at least three lousy examples.

First good one, inevitably, is those Olympians, particularly Team GB: not just the medal winners but all the athletes; and their support crews, coaches, technicians, physios, psychologists, families, the lot. They’ve shown a nation, and arguably the world, how to do it: through commitment, investment, long-term preparation and sheer dogged hard work.

It would be interesting to learn the ratio of back-room staff to athletes who competed. I suspect it was high: that’s what success requires. So to maintain that level of achievement and allow Team GB to inspire and lead a generation into the future, that investment must continue, economic situation notwithstanding.

We need that example - both for national pride and for national fitness, health, well-being (and avoidance of obesity, I guess). But, in all matters educational (and I’d include sport), to build a higher pyramid you need to start from a broader base. So stop bickering about how many hours’ sport should be taught in schools, or how many playing-fields Michael Gove has flogged off, and get on with the real work of growing the grass roots of sport. I’d start by sticking a specialist sports teacher in every primary school in the land.

Meanwhile we must support and honour those shining examples at the top end, and insist the media promote sportswomen as well as men. And, following those fantastic Olympian examples of commitment, sportsmanship, compassion and mutual respect, let’s demand that the toothless Football Association requires professional footballers to meet the same standards. Let’s see the next trial for racist abuse hinge on an issue worthier than whether it’s acceptable for one zillionaire footballer to say, “I’ve ****ed yer missus” but not for another to use the word “black”, however much it was done “ironically”. That’s the first lousy example I want to outlaw.

I said our Olympic success was down to commitment, investment, long-term preparation and sheer dogged hard work.  Last week’s A level candidates who won their university places, apprenticeships or jobs followed an identical formula: there are no short cuts.

So Michael Gove directly interfering and fudging A Level marks is my second awful example to the young: how can they play fair in the academic race if the finishing tape is moved as the runners approach it?

My last disgraceful example: Vladimir Putin conniving with the Russian Church (now, there are improbable bedfellows!) to suppress free speech (if dreadful music) from Pussy Riot. Two of those three young women are younger than my daughters: somehow that trial and outcome get to me.

Still, good examples outweigh bad at present!

 

Olympic medals are not due to the kit and nor are exam results

Thursday 16th August 2012

I have a problem. I write a column for Thursday’s Journal. So I send it in on Wednesday, ready for print.  A level results come out on a Thursday every year.

 

Here’s my dilemma, then. While I try not to mention my day job too often in this column, it would be perverse to overlook education on the single calendar date that’s most crucial to vast numbers of young people.

 I have to write this before we know the results. I’m in the trade: but please don’t imagine some secret source tells me in advance what the national figures will be. They’ll start creeping down the wire well after I’ve filed this column.  So I’ll have to try a bit of prophesying instead.

 In terms of national statistics, there are three possible outcomes today. First, as usually happens, overall pass rates (and particularly those at top grades) will have risen again for the nth year in succession. Or, second, they’ll be much the same as last year. Third possibility, they’ll be down on last year. Let’s consider the implications of all three.

 If overall pass rates are up again, we can predict the usual response from the grumpy section of the media and politics. Exams are getting easier: the whole system has been dumbed down; an A level in 2012 has about as much value as a Cub Scout’s knot-tying badge in 1972. The same old cracked record will be played yet again.

 The second scenario is more likely this year than previously. Leaks from exam boards suggest that Ofqual, the government’s examinations watchdog, has told examiners to keep results, especially in English and Maths, close to last year’s figures.

That’s ridiculous!  Ensuring consistency in exams is either a scientific process or it isn’t. And if it is, you can’t fiddle around with a few marks to ensure this year’s results are pretty much like last year’s.

My third possibility won’t occur. Yes, some subject grades will vary: the cohort of candidates is different every year. Boys might outscore girls in scientific subjects but not in English and History - or the trend might be reversed. 

But overall, A Level results won’t fall. That, at least, is not because of government fiddling, but because teachers and candidates alike make sure of it. It’s a teacher’s job to help exam candidates achieve the best grades they’re capable of. Year on year, they get better at playing the exam boards’ games: to do anything else would be unprofessional and amateurish.

The candidates get better at it, too. They learn from the year above. They know it’s getting tougher to win places at their desired university, or to get the job they want in a tight employment market. They see what needs to be done, and work like fury to do it.

Competition for top courses is terrifyingly fierce, but candidates are still aiming high: faces will be anxious on Thursday as they find out how they’ve fared. So, when the vast majority do themselves enormous credit and achieve great results today, as I believe they will, can we please agree not to denigrate their achievement by claiming it’s all got easier?

It’s as bad as saying those Olympic world records set in the stadium weren’t really the best ever: the modern track surface was merely faster, easier for them. Forget our wins in the Velodrome: they were all down to Team GB’s hi-tech bikes. Raised standards? No, just better kit.

Fortunately we are unequivocally, joyfully celebrating our Olympic success. Let’s see if today we can greet academic achievement with similar pleasure, giving credit where it’s due.

There are lessons to be learned about the investment, commitment, sacrifice and dogged hard work that delivered Olympic medals: precisely those same elements create academic success.

But that’s another discussion, one for a future column, perhaps.

Meanwhile, congratulations to our Olympians. And well done, exam candidates.

 

Excellence is now the name of the game as sacrifice is rewarded

Thursday 9th August 2012

Excellence is cool. At last it seems GB is proud of being brilliant, and of its outstanding athletes, instead of being faintly embarrassed.

At the heart of the word excellence lie the preparation and training, with sacrifice along the way, necessary to achieve such astonishing levels of performance that medal wins aren’t so much “likely” as “entirely predictable”. Witness one cyclist after another digging deep under extraordinary pressure and producing yet another world record to ensure a crucial race win. They made no fuss: they just did it.

It hasn’t always been that way. Trawl back over past decades of Olympics and you’ll find memories of two kinds. Of course there have some wonderful Olympians: Mary Rand, Daley Thompson, Fatima Whitbread, Sebastian Coe, Steve Redgrave to name a few.

There aren’t that many, though. What your trawl would find in quantity are numerous plucky Brits who have managed, almost miraculously, to pull off a stunning win: and still more who just missed out. In previous TV coverage the nation was on the edge of its seat, heart in mouth, hoping beyond hope – and often disappointed.

In London 2012, when we talk of Team GB, we do mean “Team”. We're not pinning our hopes on a few stars: we're looking at a huge team, with strength in depth, so a misfortune for one athlete is not so much a disaster as an opportunity for another to shine. Time after time, when more is asked of our athletes they deliver: supreme preparedness, supreme confidence.

I'm not sure when this new focus began, this concentration on real excellence and genuine acceptance of the necessary commitment (including financial investment by government). I suspect it was around the 2000 Sydney Olympics: so this new determination was well embedded by the time London won its bid. In 2012 it’s clear, finally, that the days of the glorious British amateur are over, that we now do international sport professionally and, as a result, are winning.

Is it so important? Yes. All of us, individually and as a nation, need trailblazers, role-models, medal-winners. It has to do with national pride, something we shouldn’t underestimate, especially when times are tough.

Moreover we need these towering figures to remind us what can be achieved when talent and aptitude (those are necessary!) are developed rigorously and with total dedication over a period of years.

Most of us know we’ll never manage an Olympian level of dedication: but we can translate it to our more modest efforts to get fitter, lose weight, improve our golf swing– but equally to learn the piano, get on in our jobs and careers, even become better parents or friends.The model of committing to and sticking at something is the same.

One of the curses of modern society is the glamour/celeb culture of being famous and getting rich quick. London 2012’s sporting stars will achieve celebrity and very possibly riches: but they’ll have worked their socks off for them. Power to their elbows!

But don't we lose something, some of the fun, when we are so hard-nosed about it? Now it’s taken so seriously? Far from it. Every coach – sporting or otherwise –and every teacher in the country knows that the real fun, the deep and lasting laughs and memories, occur when genuine challenge and endeavour are happening, not when a group of people are messing around.

Besides, with the pride of Olympic achievement as the backdrop, there have actually been many laughs. Film of the BBC commentary box during the 100m final had me in stitches, with Colin Jackson shouting, “Come on, Wotsisname!”

I loved one spurious statistic going the rounds yesterday. After the Bradford-educated Brownlee brothers won Triathlon gold and bronze it was stated that, if Yorkshire were a country in its own right (which many Yorkshire folk believe it is), it would be tenth in the medal tables. Brilliant!

In 2012 Britain excellence is at last cool. Excelling is proving to be fun, too.

 

A great Olympic opener that was game for a laugh

Thursday 2nd August 2012

Like others – including Tom Gutteridge in his column on Monday – I was ready to be grumpy about the Olympic opening ceremony. And, like so many others, I was delighted by its undoubted and spectacular success. One thing I didn’t expect from the Olympics, either their opening ceremony or more generally, was the number of laughs that emerged.

Most of the show was brilliant: only the odd bit tickled my sense of the naff or ridiculous. Being an old git, I didn’t understand some cultural allusions: for instance, what were those strange blue geese doing on bicycles, peddling around the arena and flapping their luminescent white wings while the Arctic Monkeys sang?

And I question why the athletes’ procession, surely the whole point of the ceremony, had to wait for 80 minutes before taking a full 100 minutes to get them all in: by midnight I felt the athletes might be as ready for cocoa and bed as I was. Still, the host nation is expected to put on a show: and we did.

As for the very British comedy, when Sir Simon Rattle arrived to conduct Chariots of Fire, I feared something portentous and over-serious: cue Mr Bean to steal his thunder. (At that point I received a text from my sister-in-law, one of a number of friends and family who reckon I look like him, or vice versa. I can’t see it: check out the photo. Still, her text, “Ceremony better now Bernard’s appeared,” made us giggle.)

The Queen’s cameo appearance with James Bond was as hilarious as it was clever. I hadn’t thought how the rest of the world sees James Bond as the iconic Brit: clever Danny Boyle spotted it and included him to great effect.

A lot’s been said about HM’s acting debut, and how convincing she was in role. Surely she should be: she was simply being the Queen – er, which she is. On the other hand, if she hadn’t been thinking carefully, in normal majestic mode she’d have followed “Good evening, Mr Bond” with her usual line: “And what do you do?”

OO7 would have been obliged to reply, “If I told you that, I’d have to kill you.” At that moment, a SWAT team would have crashed through the window and immobilised Bond, or riddled him with bullets (“Sorry about the paintwork, Ma’am”).

Whoops! I forgot. It’s not the SAS in charge, but G4S. So Bond’s threat would have been followed not by commandos with stun grenades but by an awkward silence. Then the Palace phone would have rung.

“Sorry, your Majesty. Security here. We understand you have a death threat situation. We’re a bit shorthanded right now. We did have a few squaddies spare, but now right they’re filling empty seats in the arena. We’ll send someone round when they come available.”

We didn’t restrict the humour to ourselves: others got in on the act. Hapless American presidential hopeful Mitt Romney is doing a Gaffe World Tour. On Thursday he was expressing grave concerns about the lack of security at the Games: by Friday he was full of how wonderful it and they were. Not having offended enough people, he then flew on to the Middle East where, in just a couple of ill-chosen sentences, he succeeded in further damaging relations between Israel and Palestine. As I write this he’s in Poland: the world holds its breath, waiting to see who he can alienate there.

Finally, my sense of humour got the better of me while still on holiday this week. I needed cash but, instead of using a hole-in-the-wall, I couldn’t resist going into a well-known high street bank and asking if I could have some of that laundered money the newspapers have been talking about. “It’s so much nicer when it’s clean and well-pressed”.

To their credit, the bank staff were unfailingly courteous: but they couldn’t see the funny side.

 

Slow down and enjoy your time in the sun… when it finally comes

Thursday 26th 2012

Only a few weeks ago I wrote about how hot weather makes us slow down – and how slowing down, a rare interruption to our hectic routine, does us good. That was in May.

Since then we’ve had the June from hell: non-stop rain, consequent floods, misery and, on the rare occasions that the sun has appeared briefly, jokes about “What’s that bright orange thing in the sky?”

The Trafford summer holiday was planned as a quiet trip for two around some elegant cathedral cities. Okay, so it’s a middle-aged kind of vacation, but we were hoping to be able to put the roof down on our ageing sports-car (a relatively recent mid-life crisis) and enjoy some old-fashioned rural motoring. Then June arrived. We nearly went to the travel-agent to book flights to the sun.

Nearly, but not quite. Fortunately. As we set off last Saturday our hearts lifted: the sun was shining. Since then, as we’ve gradually headed south, it’s not merely shone but blazed.  We’re burnt lobster-pink and, when the temperature hit 31 degrees on Tuesday, we nearly had to put the roof up.

This mini-heat-wave, down south at any rate, illustrates again my point from May. When the weather (finally) heats up, we slow down. We have too: we cannot maintain our usual pace. And we feel so good.

Hotter countries long ago learned the knack of slowing down as a way of life. One of the things that charms us Brits about Italy, Spain or Greece as holiday destinations is that the pace of life is simply gentler.

Culturally the Italians have made it an art form. Don’t go to an Italian restaurant for fast food: proper Italian cuisine is cooked to order from fresh ingredients. You can’t – you just mustn’t - rush it. In fact, Italy has become aware of the dangers of modern European commercial rush eating away at their traditions. A movement was launched in Northern Italy a few years ago: called “Cittaslow” (Slow Cities), it demands a return to doing things calmly and in a civilised manner - particularly sitting down to eat and enjoying good, carefully prepared food, not grabbing a takeaway on the run.

Cittaslow has gained momentum in the past few years, with 147 member towns across Europe. Full marks to Berwick for having the imagination and courage to sign up to it, emphasising the quality of Northumbrian produce at the same time: quality time; quality of food; quality of life; quality of, well, everything.

Part of this is a state of mind. We’re all in such a hurry. Modern technology allows us to do more and more in less time - so we become hamsters on a wheel, donkeys on a treadmill, never stopping, never getting to the end. I’m as big a culprit as any.

It’s not all bad. We must be imaginative, energetic and productive to break the negative economic cycle. Nonetheless, to be creative we need periods of quiet both to recharge the batteries and to allow ideas to take root and grow.

Cittaslow isn’t the only step in that direction. The growing interest in well-being (even from government, when it actually stops to think) involves protecting space for relaxation, for the company of family and friends, for community – for the things which too easily get squeezed out when we’re constantly in a hurry.

Anthony Newley wrote the musical, “Stop the world: I want to get off.” We don’t need to get off it entirely, but it’s good to step aside for a while.

We can design “stillness” programmes, ring-fence “quality time”, read self-help books. But when we get a spell of wonderful English summer, it does it for us anyway. I fear this latest one hasn’t yet reached the North-East: I really hope it will. It’s certainly reminded me what good stems from even a few days.

Slowing down, feeling good. That’s quality of life.

 

It's safe to say Games security will be higher thanks to armed forces

Thursday 19th July 2012

This week’s papers are full of shock-horror headlines. For a start, the Census report says our population has grown by more than three million. The media suggest we should be outraged.

Why? Who was expecting a smaller figure? Not me, at any rate. Not because I’m a statistical genius: I’m hopeless with stats and long ago ceased using them in my job because the humblest maths teacher can tie me in knots. 

We could all have guessed because (a) the last government lost all track of migration figures and (b) the current lot keep talking tough, but block the wrong people (like all the overseas students anxious to pay billions in tuition fees into our economy) and can’t even get the Borders Agency working right – not even with six weeks (six weeks? How hard can it be?) to train staff for Olympic arrivals.

Doom-mongers proclaim the end of British civilisation. Racists complain about “all those people coming over ‘ere and nicking our jobs.” (Have you tried to find a plumber since the Poles went home for a better life post-Crunch?).

Nimbies (Not In My Back Yarders) claim there’s no room to build homes: after all, 2.27% of the UK landscape is already built on.

However, last week some papers observed that immigration actually increases prosperity. It’s the declining populations in Europe (Portugal and Greece, to take two examples) whose economies are sickest. Meanwhile London’s recovering faster than the rest of the nation: not because politicians live there, but because the capital is growing. And more children (including immigrant children) will in time help to fund the care for all of us who are inconveniently living longer.

Thus pundits were claiming George Osborne should be quietly pleased that immigration is contributing to recovery: but he can’t say so because so many of his supporters hate it.

Another alleged surprise: security firm G4S couldn’t recruit enough security personnel for the Olympics (check with Editor: can I use the O-word, or is it restricted to sponsors?).  But no one’s surprised: Joe Public wouldn’t award that corporation (remember the odd prisoner-related debacle when it was Group4?) a contract for fixing a drinks party in a brewery, let alone guarding the booze stocks.

In response they’re drafting in the military: hurrah! Moreover, troops will take overall control of Olympic security – as they surely must. You can’t imagine battle-hardened Afghanistan veterans taking orders from a baby-faced twenty-something in a brightly-coloured, logo-covered jump-suit fresh from an intensive five-day training module in Harpenden.

I’m ecstatic that the army will be in charge. For the first time I can believe that, had I succeeded in getting hold of any tickets (which I didn’t), I would have felt safe entering Stratford, East London.

Our troops are used to spotting risks, assessing them and taking appropriate action in the blink of an eye. You won’t get them asking a guy wearing a suspiciously bulky jacket with protruding wires to hold on while they check with Control. (“Hi, Tracey. Duane here on Gate 3. Got a gentleman here says he has to wear this electric waistcoat ‘cos the English weather’s a bit chilly. You want to x-ray him just to be on the safe side? Trouble is, the queue’s three miles long and they’ve already missed the first seven races. Mind how you go, sir! Have a nice day!”)

Our armed forces are good on judgment. Besides, it’s not as if they’ll be trying to rein in trigger-happy allies. We won’t see gung-ho US Marines activating those roof-top-mounted missiles in response to an exuberantly thrown javelin: or Navy Seals swinging into action when a visitor turns up in trainers with the wrong logo on.

No, our boys and girls from the military will be firmly in control. Calm, yes: but I wouldn’t mess with them. Potential terrorists will think twice, too.

I reckon the Games have just got a whole lot safer.

 

We can do something to turn the bankers’ Bollinger to vinegar

Thursday 12th July 2012

You couldn’t make it up. Since the revelation that Barclays executives were manipulating LIBOR (the London Interbank Offered Rate) at the very time when businesses seeking or repaying loans were struggling most, we learn the City has been spending £92 million on lobbying.

In other words, those fat cats who claim to turn the wheels of the economy but distort the London housing market (and just about everything else) with their mind-boggling bonuses have been paying a fortune (their customers’ money) to lean on government so that decisions and policies go their way – like killing off the proposal for a super-watchdog to monitor their behaviour.

These revelations can only feed the burning sense of anger and resentment that ordinary tax-paying, mortgage-paying citizens feel against those responsible.

Responsible? Wrong word. It’s irresponsibility that created all this. The city slickers at the heart of such behaviour had no sense of responsibility. It was a game to them, an intensely macho one. The emails uncovered are childish: “Nice one, big boy. Bollinger’s on me”.

”Big boy? Bollinger?” These were indeed overgrown schoolboys playing with toys, but their toy was the economy, the livelihood of every one of us.

The natural reaction in response to such a scandal is to demand tighter regulation. Keep them in order: make them subscribe to certain minimum modes of behaviour and regulations.

But regulation is hard to impose and still harder to enforce. Indeed, a government minister admitted in Monday’s papers they would probably never be able to bring the banks fully under control. They are simply too big, too powerful and too tricky to get at. The most regulation can do is make people obey the letter of the law, observe a bare minimum, a low base-level maintained with a bad grace.

So what should we do? Give up, and accept that we can’t run a legal and moral economy – let alone a functioning one?

No. As it happens, I’m not entirely pessimistic. In fact, there are signs that moral pressure may start to have a effect.

I’m old enough to remember how, in the seventies and eighties, an outcry grew against Barclays, then still heavily investing in apartheid South Africa. People didn’t just protest: they took their custom away. Barclays was forced to change. Moreover, the evil apartheid regime finally collapsed.

Currently there are campaigns in America – they haven’t really reached the UK yet – encouraging ordinary customers to take their custom away from banks they disapprove of.

Shareholders have been flexing their muscles recently, and may yet get some backing from government. Whether they are small individual investors or the guardians of massive pension funds, equally vital to our economic health, they’re fed up with seeing executives awarded obscene bonuses for doing no more than their job – and sometimes not even that.

The serious manipulators and fiddlers are faceless executives hidden in massive headquarters. We’re not going to affect the behaviour of major banks by making a fuss outside the high street branch (where the staff are invariably charming and courteous and as outraged by their superiors’ behaviour as we are).

But no one, not even highly-paid bank bosses, likes to be shamed or hated.

So maybe we should indeed use the power we all have, particularly when we act together: make collective opprobrium our weapon against those who’ve robbed and cheated us. Write letters. Take our custom away. If a bank doesn’t deserve our loyalty, it shouldn’t receive it: and we should let it know why.

What we require from people in responsible positions is more than obeying rules: we need evidence of positive goodness, of institutions (including banks) caring about customers, about big and small businesses, individual clients – and the nation. That’s what they’re there for.

In the end, we ordinary people can make a difference. We just have to stop wringing our hands, stand up and be counted. We might yet surprise ourselves.

 

 

When things really matter, people roll their sleeves up

Thursday 5th July 2012

Everyone has their 15 minutes of fame, as Andy Warhol said. So do institutions. I normally avoid mentioning my place of work in these columns, but this time I can’t.

Last Thursday some 40 schools in the region were hit by floods: for some reason it was the Royal Grammar School that the BBC seized on for covering flood damage. Our story was all over the local news plus the BBC’s website by Friday evening: by Saturday a brief interview with me had gone national, and friends and relatives around the county had the nasty shock of waking up to hear me pontificating beside a pile of wrecked flooring. We even featured again on Monday’s news, as the BBC did a floods round-up.

The story of our flood is probably little different from any other household or building struck by that horrendous event. At 6pm I came across some youngsters paddling around in water up to their ankles (children seem unable to resist the temptation). Very rapidly they and I realised they couldn’t stay there as the water was rising.

A torrent hurtled off the Town Moor, above knee-height, through Brandling and the school’s rear gate and across the site. It lasted for about two hours, after which the water started slowly to recede. Three wooden floors were buckled beyond redemption. Acres of carpets were wrecked.

But none of that is news: lots of people suffered the same. It was afterwards that extraordinary things started to happen, things that are worth writing about.

On the Thursday night three of the school’s cleaners and two teachers refused to leave the premises until they had removed six inches of water from the school’s main hall. It was nearly 10pm when they finished: there’s no doubt they saved the 1906 parquet floor.

We announced that school would be closed on Friday: the kitchens were flooded, and we couldn’t feed our pupils. But the staff came in, and there was a fascinating reversal of roles. Support staff, cleaners - caretakers, technicians and kitchen staff - took the lead, handing out the rubber gloves and brooms to teachers. Even the most senior spent the morning tearing up sodden flooring in two of the school’s three major buildings. Parents and students phoned and e-mailed offering help: some turned up unannounced with their Marigolds and just pitched in.

What did I do? Not much, in truth! While they were working hard I spent an entire morning dealing with the media. I was phoned and visited by local radio, national radio, BBC online, local TV and national TV.

It was curious, because by then there was little to see. The water had gone. All we have as a record of the disaster is a set of shaky videos taken on people’s phones, with soundtracks of observers saying, “Look at that!” - plus comments too strongly expressed to print here! So in the aftermath I was interviewed against a backdrop of piled-up wooden flooring and soggy piles of carpet tiles.

The human story is much more important than a catalogue of damage. The flood hit on Thursday evening. We closed school on Friday. But on Saturday the whole place had to be open for our annual prize-giving and various other events all over the school. It simply had to be open.

It was.

When the going gets tough, they say, the tough get going. My colleagues’ resilience and determination were humbling. But I’m not saying there’s anything special about my school: it’s what we human beings do. We often sit around, grumbling about little things, frequently negative or sour without need. But when things really matter, people roll their sleeves up, work together and get stuck in.

It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good. We’ve been through a difficult few days: but, the episode is a reminder of just how strong, loyal and generous people can be.

 

 

Will this curmudgeon be asked if he used to be that David Starkey?

Thursday 28th June 2012

"Didn't you used to be Bernard Trafford?" I've known others, people with a high-profile past, be asked the equivalent question. The one I faced wasn't quite so bad:  not quite. An education journalist asked me, apparently innocently, "Are you anyone nowadays, Bernard?"

I had to confess that, no, I'm not anyone nowadays. What she meant was, of course, am I still any kind of leading figure in a national educational organisation? Well, I'm not. I enjoyed doing some of that stuff a few years ago, but now I tend to enjoy life in the fastness of the North-East and take pleasure in fulminating about how little successive south-centric governments understand us.

It was good for my sense of humility, though. The worthy journalist dutifully took a quote from me, but I could see she was disappointed that it came from someone who isn't anybody anymore.

Actually, at the time I was being somebody - up to a point. This episode occurred last weekend at the Sunday Times Wellington Education Festival. I was booked as a very minor speaker towards the end of the second day, taking part in a panel debate about "The sort of schools we need": there's nothing about my session that's worth recounting here.

There were some high-spots, however. First was that the two top speakers pulled out: Education Secretary Michael Gove and Ofsted Chief Inspector both failed to appear on the first day. Were they too busy, or did they fear a hostile audience? Gove might have been quizzed about bringing back O levels, and Wilshaw on satisfactory schools not being satisfactory anymore. We’ll never know.

The laugh of the event came from a session on "Slow schools, deep learning". I wrote the other week about how good it is when the hot weather (remember that?) forces us to slow down. Some time I’ll write another column about the international Slow movement which aims to persuade us all to get off the treadmill occasionally and, well, to ease up.

A thought-provoking introduction explained how children in schools could slow down and do some extended, thoughtful research-based work. Then they showed the video-clip. An earnest teacher was explaining very, very slowly, how it all worked. It was, well, embarrassing. "Does she have to speak slowly, too?" I whispered to my neighbour. A flustered presenter stopped the film: "Sorry, it's running at half-speed."

The session never recovered. Gales of laughter greeted the announcement, and we cheered and clapped when the video restarted.  The teacher remained earnest, but by then we couldn't take the message seriously.

Sadly, I missed the big story, reported stop-press in.... The Sunday Times, of course! TV historian and personality David Starkey, increasingly a real-life Victor Meldrew these days, had a stand-up row with another speaker who called him racist. Radical blogger and journalist Laurie Penny accused Starkey of "playing xenophobia and racial prejudice for laughs."

Why? The Great Historian had described those Asian men in Rochdale convicted of grooming white girls for sex as having values "entrenched in the foothills of the Punjab or wherever it is." He said they needed to be "inculcated in the British way of doing things."

Blimey! It seems Ms Penny had a point! (Mind you, witnesses told me Starkey was angered more by her suggestion - she was in top gear by this stage - that he's a tax-dodger. This led to recrimination and finger-jabbing until they were pulled apart.

So did it wreck the conference? Far from it. Movie Mogul Sam Goldwyn used to say, "The only bad publicity is no publicity."  What with the star turns crying off, the main sponsors, News International, must have been rubbing their hands with glee: in terms of column inches, poor old Starkey's spat saved the day.

Still, I’ve a feeling that people might soon be asking the BBC’s history and constitutional pundit, “Didn’t you used to be David Starkey?”

 

How quickly parents switch from anxiety to relief then anger

Thursday 21st June 2012

Another Cameron gaffe! Last week’s papers were full of the story of Dave and Sam leaving their 8-year-old daughter in the pub. Quite how that constitutes news is hard to fathom, but it certainly hit the headlines.

For once, though, it didn’t become a stick with which to beat the PM. On the contrary, the public were sympathetic, relieved to discover that even top people occasionally mislay a member of the family. It seems the Camerons are human, after all.

They were travelling in convoy from Chequers. They had visitors staying, plus all the security men to feed: I guess it was a fair old cavalcade. All too easy for every car-full to assume the missing child was in another – though I suspect in future the security squad will scan a checklist before leaving.

I recall doing something similar. Visiting my brother’s family, we set off in two cars to a pub – also for Sunday lunch. Only when we reached our destination, some 20 miles away, did we discover we’d left my ten year-old nephew at home. His mother phoned home: no answer. Then we had to rationalise things. Pragmatism replaced panic: he was at home and we could assume he was safe.

In the event, he proved he was already an enterprising young man. Finding himself abandoned, he paused to weep briefly at the cruelty of life: then he pulled himself together, went round to a friend’s and told his sorry tale. The friend’s mother included him in a sumptuous Sunday lunch – allegedly far better than we’d had at the pub.

My grandpa always used to claim there must be a Providence which protects drunks and small children. His theory generally seems to work out. Some friends managed to leave a baby out in the street. Gathered with friends and family for the infant’s christening, they piled into several cars to go to the church leaving the tot fast asleep in the pram - where they found him on their frantic return.

So big did the Cameron story become for a while that it even inspired Radio 4’s worthy Thought for the Day in its Today programme. The speaker quoted the Gospel story of how the boy Jesus slipped away from his parents and was found, much later, teaching in the temple. When his parents remonstrated with him, he was fairly dismissive, reminding them somewhat airily that, in the temple, he was doing his Father’s business.

I always felt that Mary and Joseph must have been tempted to give him a clip round the ear for his cheek - though knowing their son was divine may have caused them to stay their hand. But hearing the story reminded me how quickly we parents change from anxiety to relief: after that relief immediately comes anger and an irresistible instinct to tell the errant child off– whoever was to blame.

Some twenty years ago a 15-year-old pupil of mine narrowly escaped death when illicitly exploring a derelict city church with a friend. They were high up in the roof when, suddenly, the floor gave way beneath him. As if in a movie, he was left clinging by his fingertips to a rotting floorboard (bravely telling his friend not to come near so that he wouldn’t fall through too). Then even that flimsy support gave way, and he plunged some 40 feet to the floor below.

No one knows how he survived. As it happens he only broke both wrists and suffered some minor internal injuries. He was a very lucky boy.

When he returned to school there was one question I just had to ask: “When your parents knew you weren’t seriously injured, how long was it before your mum started telling you off?”

The lad thought for a moment. Then, with a sheepish smile, he replied, “It was about the time I regained consciousness”.

Parents: you’ve got to love us!

 

Look, I’m a man and I will eat whatever kind of salad I want

Thursday 14th June 2012

Here’s yet another magnificent piece of research explaining the “bleeding obvious”. Researchers at the University of Michigan investigating healthy eating in families discovered that married men are prepared to eat healthily at home – but generally do so only to keep the peace. As soon as they are away from home, they love to gorge on red meat and junk food.

Couples don’t talk about healthy eating enough, the report declared.  Even when they do, it said, they generally do it in front of their children in an attempt to teach them about eating well, not to sort out their own adult dietary habits. They should discuss it more, however: when they do so, researchers found men less likely to eat unhealthily when his partner wasn’t there to keep an eye on him.

Hold on! I don’t like the way this research is going. It implies we men are weak-willed, indolent and greedy. We go along with all the healthy food at home because we prefer a quiet life and don’t go looking for rows with the other half. But, it suggests, as soon as we get a chance, all the good intentions are straight out the window and we slide back into a slew of self-indulgence.

The picture is painted blacker by a second piece of research, this time from the University of Pennsylvania (why are they all American universities?). This one suggests that men don’t want a healthy diet because at heart they feel that meat is masculine, macho indeed, and that salad and vegetables are for wimps. Take those two pieces of research together, then, and it’s clear that the only thing keeping men on the straight and narrow, heading for long life, is the fact that women are in charge: they and only they keep us in line and healthy.

As if. We men aren’t like children, to be monitored and admonished to make us behave sensibly. I couldn’t see any reason why, the other week, one of my daughters should have found it amusing to send me a birthday card with a 1985 Henry Martin Punch cartoon on it. It’s very simple, picturing a man walking down the road with a somewhat forbidding woman: he’s wearing a t-shirt with the simple slogan, “Yes, dear”.

This kind of myth is regularly peddled and far too frequently amplified. I’ve mentioned in this column, probably too many times, the musical I‘ve been writing. I felt it was somewhat unnecessary for the colleague who’s directing the show to ask the other day if there was anything autobiographical in the plot.

When I asked what he meant, he explained: “Well, Bernard. The main character is a man in a leadership position who is blinded by his own ambition and vanity and doesn’t see the wrong going on around him. Two other major characters are assertive young women who see straight through him, manage to manipulate him into the position where they want him and then ensure that everything comes right after all.”

What nonsense. That’s the trouble with fiction: people just read into it what they want to see.

I’d just like to assert here the fact that I am a thinking male without macho tendencies, in touch with my feminine side and blessed with an ability to make mature and intelligent choices about what I eat. I’m prepared to accept a single finding from the Michigan research – the recommendation that couples should talk about healthy eating more. I’m going to make sure we do just that. I want to get this right so, before I go home for my smoked mackerel and lentil salad, I’m going to plan out the serious conversation that needs to be had. It will centre on free-will, strength of mind and iron self-discipline.

But first I’ll just pop out for a steak and a couple of beers – just to get my strength up, you understand.

 

Finding the jubilation among the hilarity of the Queen's jubilee

Thursday 7th June 2012

I thought I should check the derivation of the word “jubilee”. According to Chambers English Dictionary, jubilee was, in ancient Jewish tradition, a year-long release of slaves, cancelling of debts and return of property to its former owners. It happened every fifty years, announced by the sounding of a trumpet: thus the word comes from the Hebrew “yobel”, a ram’s horn.

Careful, though. It’s not to be confused with the word “jubilation” which comes from the Latin and means shouting for joy. When you come to think of it, there’s a nice connection: there surely was plenty of jubilation for the Jubilee these past days, though shouting for joy was rather more in evidence than any cancelling of debts, for example.

The Governor of the Bank of England feared an extra Bank Holiday would harm productivity and damage our GDP: I’d have thought tourism and extra takings in shops, pubs and restaurants over the four days of celebration would more than compensate. Besides, a nurse friend worked on Tuesday and didn’t get Bank Holiday pay: her bit of the NHS didn’t recognise it. Nor I guess did the employer of a man in a white van who delivered an Amazon parcel to me.

So we could leave Sir Mervyn to do the worrying (that’s his job) and get on with the party.

It was a quintessentially British party, “the sort of thing we do so well, dear boy”. The fanfares, processions, salutes: queues for everything (the one thing foreigners just don’t get); even the organised chaos of the river pageant incorporating such National Treasures as rowers Pinsent and Redgrave; the boat they buried Churchill from; Nelson’s hat; and, of course, the rain.

Ah, the rain! It should have dampened spirits, but we Brits are made of sterner stuff. The sight of the bedraggled Royal College of Music Chamber Choir on top of the last barge had me weeping with laughter. The London Philharmonic Orchestra was sensibly inside in the dry, leaving the voices outside.  As the rain ran off their faces and down the backs of their necks, those professional singers kept smiling relentlessly, maniacally even, a rictus born of determination and rigorous training – It’s a Knock-Out meets The Proms.

Then there were inexplicable elements. Who were those eight guys dressed in Royal Standard livery? Appearing by the river and outside St Paul’s, they were straight out of Alice in Wonderland, characters animated from a pack of cards who should have been made to lie down afterwards, shuffled and put back in the box.

Everyone from HM down has extolled the way the nation has come together for the Jubilee, “coming together” being exemplified by a concert that saw Will.I.Am, Wor Cheryl, Stevie Wonder, Rolf, Cliff, Madness and Tom Jones on the same bill. I reckoned the music was poor stuff (call me an old git), but the spectacle – well, it was truly spectacular. I’ve never seen better.

We were part of a street party bringing together all the inhabitants of our remote Northumbrian hamlet, plus some relatives. We sat in the sun (lucky us!), eating and drinking more and for longer than was strictly necessary: it was a great coming together of a small community.

The nation has come together in the aftermath, too: mainly to bitch about the hats worn by the female Royals, the banal BBC coverage of the pageant and, in some quarters, about the Archbishop of Canterbury being overtly political in his sermon.

I don’t think he was: he merely used that City setting to contrast the rampant corporate greed and irresponsibility that got the world into this financial mess with the dedication demonstrated by the Queen, “faithfully, calmly, generously”. And fervent royalists and ardent republicans alike can learn from what Dr Williams described as “six decades of living proof that public service is possible and that it is a place where happiness can be found”.

That's worth a bit of celebration - jubilation, indeed.

 

A sudden burst of summer sunshine stops us in our tracks

Thursday 31st May 2012

What a powerful effect a change in the weather has. Until last week we’d been enduring truly dreadful weather and were getting fed up waiting for summer to come. Late last week it arrived: flaming June came early.

Life was transformed. Parks, the Quayside, all kinds of open spaces and, indeed, pub gardens were full of people in the evenings enjoying the long-awaited warmth and sunshine.

In Jesmond a soft cloud of barbecue smoke settled on student-land. To be sure, many students are working like fury as they come up to their finals: it’s pretty busy around university libraries right now (with a clouds of tobacco smoke outside them, too). But students are young, free spirits, and they can’t quite resist the allure of good weather notwithstanding exams. So in the gardens, back-yards and even on the flat roofs of NE2 they were out in force, making the most of it.

As a teacher I feel desperately sorry for the hundreds of thousands of school pupils sitting the whole array of public exams. The glorious weather always arrives as they are in the thick of them: too hot in the exam hall; too lovely to be stuck indoors revising – but they have to do both. Wouldn’t it be easier and pleasanter if the academic year ran January to December? Hat’s something we’ll never succeed in changing, alas.

Still, last weekend I was forcibly struck by one positive effect of the good weather - beyond the sheer lifting of everyone’s mood, that is. A heat-wave doesn’t just cheer us up: it slows us down.

We’re all so busy these days. Ask any colleague or friend how things are going for them. They never reply, “Oh, just ticking over.” Ticking over? Most of us are constantly chasing our tails, run off our feet.

But a hot spell, tantalisingly brief in the British climate, forces us to take things a bit more easily. Sure, we’re hot and sometimes bothered: given that we don’t air-condition most workplaces (why would we, when it’s sweltering for such a brief time?), we’re fairly wrung out by the end of a working day. But even so the sun brings with it a sense of well-being, and demands that we take time out to enjoy it.

I spent Saturday and Sunday with my nonagenarian parents in Somerset. They’re still in their own home and, when we’re down there taking a turn in caring, it takes us the first day to adjust to their pace. But that doesn’t do us any harm: on the contrary, by the end of the weekend when we fly back up to Newcastle we’re starting to appreciate some of the advantages of moving more sedately – even if it’s Mum and Dad’s sheer age that makes us do so. I even sat and watched almost a whole day’s test cricket on TV with my dad, an indulgence I haven’t enjoyed in years!

I may have slowed down, but I wasn’t ready for the bizarre interruption that occurred after England’s ninth wicket fell on Sunday. The West Indies were on the attack, ready to wrap up the innings – and suddenly it all came to a halt. The bowlers had worn a “dangerous” groove in the pitch, so the patch was dug out, a matching divot replaced it, and turf and soil were pounded in to recreate the surface. TV commentators spluttered with indignation about the delay.

My dad, a serious cricketer in his day, was fit to burst. And, as he gave vent to his feelings, in my head I heard a voice - that of his father, my Grandpa, a stickler for standards in the Great Summer Game. When he umpired he didn’t like people treating the game flippantly. “Come, come,” he’d mutter testily. “This is a game of cricket!”

Ah, the old days. But, back then, the summers were always longer and warmer, weren’t they?

 

 

Individual children slip through the net as politicians strut and posture

Thursday 24th May 2012

I’m in danger of becoming a prophet in my own lifetime. Sorry: that’s a bit pretentious: perhaps I should say a prophet in my own lunchtime.

Only recently I wrote in this column how truth is stranger than fiction. I described how, in the musical I’ve been writing (now in rehearsal), an ambitious politician, blinded by vanity (and, to be fair, his desire to do good), doesn’t see that his over-cosy relationship with the shadier elements of business and the Press bring about the very wrongs he claims he’s trying to prevent. Not so incredible a storyline in 2012 Britain.

My story’s set in a UK that’s recognisably the one we know, but transformed by a catalogue of unspecified disasters: climate change; floods; tsunami, perhaps; fuel crisis. Elements of these combine to create poverty, dislocation and the breakdown of normal society. My ambitious politician is standing on a “New Morality” ticket, promising to restore law and order, while on the streets feral children scrape an existence, surviving by scavenging, stealing and begging in spite of his clean-up-the-city policies.

The show proposes that such chaos could hit our country, though my research for it (in the late 1990s) was based on the plight of street children in Rio de Janeiro. There children were sleeping down drains at night to evade the snatch-squads suspected of rounding up and killing them: in the prosperous tourist-trap that was Nineties Rio, people making big money didn’t want the streets littered or tourists bothered by ragged kids.

Any “what might happen if…?” storyline risks falling down because it’s not quite plausible. It just couldn’t happen here, we think: it’s more comfortable to believe that.

Last Friday I caught Channel 4’s “Unreported World” programme. Reporter Marcel Theroux was in Kiev, following children and young people who live on the streets and stay alive (in the intense cold of the Ukrainian capital) by breaking into basements, leeching water and electricity from the buildings above, or huddling on or around enormous heating pipes that connect public buildings. As in Rio and in the imaginings of my musical storyline, they’re discovered by police, rounded up, moved on. They survive – but only just.

Ukraine’s economy, still emerging from decades of communism, has yet to thrive. But smart modern Kiev is hosting this summer’s Euro 2012 Final. $600,000 has been spent on rebuilding the city’s 70,000-seater football stadium. That massive space wouldn’t accommodate all of Ukraine’s street children: they are too many.

Okay, Ukraine is closer to us geographically than Rio: even so, surely it couldn’t happen here?

Except that it does happen here. In the UK an estimated 100,000 children under sixteen run away from home each year. Most return home. Many don’t – but there are no reliable statistics for the number sleeping on the streets. April 12th was declared International Day for Street Children: despite my interest in the topic, I didn’t realise until a week later. I didn’t see it in a single newspaper. It’s off our radar.

Politicians spout and posture about the growing gap between rich and poor. And while our leaders seek macro-solutions to global problems, now as always individuals slip through the net, dropping off the grid. Poverty heaps pressure on households and accelerates disintegration, but families fall apart for countless reasons.There’s a problem “out there”, largely overlooked by policy-makers: it’s only going to get worse.

In my show the street children steal and beg to survive. In reality – in Britain as in the Ukraine – dispossessed kids also drink, sniff glue and sell themselves for sex. I can’t put that hard truth in a family show. A musical must entertain: it might provoke thought, but it’s not a docmentary.

I’m not a prophet, in truth - nor even a serious commentator. But once again I’m left worrying that the fiction I’ve written only scratches the surface. The reality is too shocking to put on stage.

 

The role models are obscured by fluff and pizzazz

Thursday 17th May 2012

Where are all the role models for girls? A Girlguiding UK report, commissioned from independent market research agency Childwise, warns that girls look only to celebrities and starlets for their role models. Few could identify any successful businesswomen and most failed to name a single sportswoman.

Researchers found it “worrying” that girls simply assumed sportswomen were less successful than men. Perhaps more worrying, television shows such as Jersey Shore and Skins were “found to be hugely influential in shaping girls’ views of relationships with boys and their own behaviour.”

If that were all there was to say, we might indeed be worried: but the remit of the research was narrow. Though it’s disappointing so few girls apparently look with effort or wisdom to identify role models, it doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

On the contrary, as a middle-aged male employer I often say (only half in jest) that women are taking over the world. I’m seeing fantastically well-prepared, talented, go-getting young women applying for jobs – not just teaching jobs (my field), but administrative and management posts too.

In teaching they’re not only applying for “traditional” primary/junior school teaching jobs: I’m interviewing highly-qualified women with first-class degrees and even doctorates looking to teach to the highest academic levels – and in stereotypically male preserves such as physics or maths.

My two daughters attended a mixed school, where they came across wonderful female role models: one, a truly outstanding young teacher (whom I gave her first job, I’m proud to say), is now head of a major co-educational independent school. My little girls regarded with awe that amazing teacher of English, hockey and (it seemed) all of life. Now grown up, in the last year both have become teachers, and in turn are passing on their enthusiasm for hockey to their pupils, as well as teaching their specialist subjects: coincidentally (or not), one of them is even an English teacher – like the woman who inspired her.

Boys and girls alike need role models of both genders.  From their father, for example,  my girls learnt early that men eat and drink too much, are full of vanity and self-delusion, and need women to organise their lives for them!

Notwithstanding that research, let’s stick with the array of truly fantastic female role models. There are great athletes - and businesswomen too. The late Anita Roddick’s  Bodyshop changed the face of women’s cosmetics (and thus women’s faces): IMF boss Christine Lagarde is in charge of the world’s money; and, post-credit crunch, Iceland’s government is entirely female.

The role models are there. But the media conceal them behind a smokescreen of fluff and pizzazz. Television makes instant stars of pretty little things who scrub up well and can sing a bit: I’m with Sting who famously opined that shows like X Factor are just karaoke. Talking of X Factor, who are the dominant figures among the judges? Men: above all, nasty, tough Simon Cowell, the show’s creator.

“Wor Cheryl” is there, of course: but her part in it is to be beautiful - and sweet. In dramas and soap, too, the women are pretty and shallow, while the blokes do the serious stuff.

Tabloid newspapers are convinced they can’t sell a paper without topless chicks all over them. Other, would-be serious, papers nonetheless think a former model who, after yet another boob job, finds yet another husband, constitutes real news.

While TV and the press push the message to young girls that success equals achieving celebrity status by looking pretty, wearing very little and striking lucky, many girls will inevitably find it hard to identify real and worthwhile role models.  That’s damaging - and unnecessary.

 I emailed the Girlguiding UK Report to my daughters. The younger one replied: “It’s not so much a lack of suitable role models for girls, more an issue of exposure to the right ones!”

Well said, Miss Trafford, teacher and role model.

 

 

Carrying on with the current rotten set up weakens democracy

Thursday 10th May 2012

Sorry. I’m about to become political. I don’t normally do politics. Frankly, I find that few Westminster politicians do anything for me. They strut and posture. They promise much and deliver little. They constantly meddle with my area of work, education. But no party, it seems to me, represents the ordinary citizen: not the top or the bottom of the heap, but those of us in the middle. They say they do: Ed Miliband is busy reclaiming (or claiming to reclaim) the votes and the voice of ordinary people. But he doesn’t understand or speak for us.

A week ago I still agreed with those who regarded reform of the House of Lords as a sideshow; as, given the current economic imperatives, an irrelevant waste of money. One reason why I disliked the idea of a fully-elected House of Lords lay in the party squabbling we already see in both general and local elections. It always seemed a dismal prospect to extend the same unedifying practices into the election of a Westminster Upper Chamber (let alone a “Tyneside Boris”); more tribal point-scoring from all three sides, drearily reiterated party-line messages and little personality or original thought.

Then I read that Tony Blair fancies a return to politics. He’s too important and too busy, however, to seek a Commons seat. No, it appears he wants a fast-track, a ticket straight back into power.

Under the present system he can have it. Given a life peerage, unelected, unaccountable, he’d be right back in at the top. He’d be in good company. John Prescott, his former Deputy and always (I thought) pretty hostile to the Lords, now sits there. The benches of the Lords are stuffed with ageing has-beens from previous cabinets, both Tory and Labour.

Sometimes, to be sure, gifted people have been brought in either to do specific jobs or to add wisdom. The last government brought in Lord Adonis to education, Lord Sainsbury to Science and Innovation – two able people whether you agree with them or not - and Lord Winston, presumably just for being awfully clever. So it can be a means of bringing in talent. But in a democracy we choose our leaders: it’s not democratic if those leaders simply pull their friends and supporters into government, however bright they may be.

Since I’m not politically active my thought-process about all this is probably way behind everyone else’s - including anyone who’s still reading this column by this point. But here’s my newly-clarified thinking.

We do need reform to the House of Lords, and soon. I’m not mounting a one-man campaign to stop Tony Blair getting back into politics by the back door: but that high-profile example illustrates precisely what is wrong with the Upper House. It can’t be performing a democratic function when outgoing and incoming governments pack it with their own nominees - a mixture, as I’ve said, of left-overs from previous administrations with a leavening of celebrity thinkers.

Yes, electing that Second Chamber will mean more tiresome political wrangling, and even more elections that people can’t be bothered to turn out for. But what’s the alternative? Patronage, cronyism: jobs for the boys. I haven’t forgotten that in this column I recently sang the praises of our local North-Eastern peers who have worked hard on the ground in political or other spheres and now genuinely add wisdom to the Lords. But they are hugely outnumbered by those time-servers for whom I feel only contempt.

If we’re not going to have a truly democratically elected Upper Chamber, there is no point in having the Lords. Quite the opposite: it actually weakens our democracy.  Think about it. For parliament to perpetuate the current rotten set-up would be as crazy as creating a hereditary system in which peers’ sons or daughters could take their seat in the Lords when they die.

That would never be allowed. Would it?

 

More greedy and cosy with business, that's our politicians today

Thursday 3rd May 2012

Truth is stranger than fiction. So wrote the master of aphorism, Mark Twain, who went on to explain. Fiction has to remain within the bounds of possibilities if it is to be credible: the truth has no such limitations.

We’ve seen some strange truth recently. At the Leveson Inquiry, News Corp boss Rupert Murdoch swore he’d been misled. That mega-corporation’s all-powerful driving force had been kept in the dark about its illegal hacking operations.

Murdoch denied seeking to influence political life in the UK, though he admitted he was more hands-on in directing the political stance of The Sun than of his other papers.

Really? Did he honestly have nothing to do with The Sun’s 1992 headline, “If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights”? The Sun certainly thought its personal attacks on Kinnock had destroyed him: famously its headline on 11th April 1992 read, “It’s the Sun wot won it”- a political catchphrase ever since.

Fast-forward to 1997, The Guardian mocking Murdoch: “It’s The Sun wot’s switched sides to back Blair”. Tony Blair had convinced Murdoch’s empire that his New Labour was the side to back in that election: The Sun told its readers to vote for him. (He and Gordon Brown also  persuaded the business community that New Labour was electable, not least by offering the fantastic inducement of the PFI scheme which delivered new school and hospital buildings immediately, but left the country with a dubious legacy whose negative effects will be felt 10 years from now.)

You couldn’t make it up, as they say. Coincidentally, I’ve been making up some fiction recently. Back in February I wrote about the hell of finishing off a musical wot I wrote (to misquote comedian Ernie Wise): we’re now rehearsing for performances in my school on 30th June and 2nd July.

The story’s set in the near future: the Day After Tomorrow, you might say, but without Hollywood ice-effects. Imagine a Britain hit by fuel crisis, rising sea levels, tsunami or other catastrophic weather events, resulting food riots and society in meltdown. Under those circumstances feral children live on the streets, surviving by scavenging or stealing.

My central character’s a politician with an ambitious but ruthless vision for rebuilding society. I started writing the show in the late 1990s, stuck it in a drawer for ten years, and came back to it twelve months ago. By then it was ready for a great deal of updating and rewriting: that’s inevitable.

But the politician at the centre has changed little in a decade. In 1998 I positioned him as running on a “New Morality” ticket. Back then, Blair famously “didn’t do God”: my character does so shamelessly, and likes to be seen going to church with his family. But otherwise he’s (with hindsight) painfully Blair-like, constantly stressing the need both to “Give a hard edge to goodness” and, adopting tabloid language, to get tough on scroungers and welfare-spongers.

In my recent revisions further political sound-bites have crept in. “We’re all in this together,” he preaches: “We must roll our sleeves up and get on with it”. My character gets too close to the Press – and, at the end (without giving too much away), discovers that all the wrongdoing, including persecution and abduction of street-children, is done in his name.

At times I’ve feared I’m over-exaggerating that politician, the ambition and vanity that blind him as he claws his way to power. Over-exaggerating? Now I fear I’ve drawn him too mild. It’s clear a present-day politician would have been significantly blinder, greedier - and certainly cosier with business and the media than I’ve painted mine.

I haven’t dared push that character too far. He simply wouldn’t be believable.

Only in real life, apparently, are politicians’ behaviour, vanity and myopia are so mind-bogglingly beyond belief. Mark Twain was right: fiction just can’t compare with truth.