If you ask me, Mr Gove would like to end childhood

Thursday 25th April 2013

I’m sorry. I try to avoid writing too much about education in this column: it’s a danger, given my day job. But headlines last week announced “Gove calls for longer working day in schools.” The Education Secretary wants longer terms and fewer half-term breaks, too. If you ask me (as he certainly won’t), he wants to abolish childhood.

This old chestnut comes round every few years. When I was a very young Head the National Curriculum was also a fledgling. Ministers and civil servants were wrestling with the age-old problem, how to cram the curriculum quart into the pint pot of the school day.

I remember a government Mandarin complaining: “I don’t know why everyone makes such a fuss. If children and teachers did a proper working week and had only four weeks holiday a year there wouldn’t be any difficulty.”

That prejudice, reiterated every few years by ministers or civil servants, betrays their deep lack of understanding of schools, children and education.

Mr Gove’s latest expression of that dismal, utilitarian view of education overlooks the fact that children are, for a start, children. They’re not adults. They’re not nine-to-five PAYE slaves. They have a right to a childhood.

Besides, keeping youngsters in classrooms for longer and longer won’t necessarily produce the results. Gove compares UK schools with the Far East, where many children spend up to 12 hours a day being lectured at and slaving over their books: he chooses to overlook the various consequences, which include pupil stress, anxiety and burnout.

It’s just too easy always to think (as policy-makers are apt to do) that other countries have all the answers: but they’re different cultures and very different systems – and their own people worry about them. People running those high-performing Asian systems are concerned that, notwithstanding their high levels of attainment in such subjects as maths, there’s a lack of creativity and invention: for those they look to Europe, and the UK.

The most high-profile headteacher in the UK at present, Dr Anthony Seldon, often backs Michael Gove’s reforms. But this idea leaves him cold. He agreed, writing in the Daily Mail, that school days should be longer – but not for more lessons, as Gove would have it.

On the contrary, Anthony Seldon (a long-standing colleague and friend of mine) and I both believe passionately in an all-round education where there’s time for intensive activity outside the classroom to provide the really deep learning and character-building that are essential to growing up. Extra-curricular activities, sport, music, drama, debating, voluntary service, outdoor education, all add to children’s experience as powerfully as do the academic lessons that Gove wants to increase. That tough sports match; the great stage show; getting lost in the Cheviots on an expedition: those give life-long memories and define a complete education, as opposed to mere schooling.

The increase in classroom time that Gove seeks would squeeze all that. Already it’s a brave school (fortunately there are still quite a lot) that can resolutely put as much energy and resource into extra-curricular activity as it would like. Too many have Ofsted breathing down their necks, pushing them to hit arbitrary Government targets. That constant pressure deflects a school from the vital job of developing character, teamwork, patience and resilience in the young.

Politicians have no sense of irony. Gove claims schools’ current early finishes and long holidays are “essentially set in the Nineteenth Century”. Many would caricature his new National Curriculum, particularly his view of what history and English should comprise in schools, as nineteenth or, at the best, twentieth-century in style: certainly not twenty-first-century!

We’re back to the future yet again. Gove’s latest plan – more and more cramming facts and information into young heads like Dickens’s Mr Gradgrind – will impoverish rather than enrich the education of most of the country’s children.

They deserve something better. And the country will suffer if they don’t get it.


Maggie’s vision of responsibility is a challenge to us all

Thursday 18th April 2013

In that raunchy stage show and movie Chicago there’s a touching little song that contrasts with the rest. Called Mr Cellophane, it’s sung by a character so shy and self-effacing that people simply look through him: he ends by apologising for taking up everyone’s time.

There are lots of invisible people in our society, people without a voice, overlooked and unsupported. Social engineers used to talk of “the hard to reach”. I once heard a sharp response to that label: “It’s not us who are hard to reach. It’s the people at the top.”

The death of Margaret Thatcher last week reminded me of her infamous interview with Women’s Own Magazine in 1987 in which she opined that “there is no such thing as society”.

I’m no apologist for the Iron Lady. Indeed, I’m fascinated to watch how, in death as in life, she continues to divide opinion so strongly. People either revere her or hate her. How many former leaders attract hostile protests even at their funeral?  I suspect history will conclude that she did both great things and dreadful things: but we’ll have to wait some years for sufficient perspective to judge that balance.

To those who loathed her and her agenda, her comment about society was grist to the mill. Seized on as an indication of her disdain for ordinary people, for those who need support and welfare, it remains a stick with which to beat her.

Like the best quotes, however, it’s invariably, wilfully, taken out of context. Her message was actually more subtle:

"I think we've been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it's the government's job to cope with it… you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations."

As often happens with the utterances of public figures, one phrase became a sound-bite while the rest was ignored. She’d have done better to keep it simple, as US President John F Kennedy did in his 1961 inauguration speech: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”.

Nonetheless, in that interview Maggie defined society, its meaning and the duties it places on everyone both clearly and succinctly. Her vision is challenging: society is meaningless as a concept unless we individuals all get involved.

It’s a major reform she failed to achieve, just like all her successors. Perhaps politicians cannot actually change the way we think, react to one another and care for one another. They’re not good at working “through people”.

The challenge she issued remains potent. Only by recognising our individual responsibilities and obligations might we indeed become a Big Society (David Cameron’s painfully limited vision), One Nation (Ed Miliband’s inept borrowing of a Tory concept) – above all, a caring and decent community.

There would be no Mr Cellophanes, because no one would be invisible: one citizen would look out for another, the strong protecting the weak, the rich acting on their obligation to the poor – and true poverty being gradually banished.

Sadly, politicians are generally too busy uttering grand phrases to stop and listen to themselves, let alone to others. Mrs Thatcher was no exception. Her vision of society, if brought to fruition, would have been a powerful outcome on which to judge her: alas, she divided the nation more than she united it.

Perhaps we ordinary people are also too busy and noisy to “look to ourselves first”. Until we are willing to do so, our society will continue to be unfinished business. And views of what’s already termed the Thatcher legacy will remain as divided as ever.


Economy in chaos, but it’s really the people who matter

Thursday 11th April 2013

“It’s the economy, stupid.” It was US President Bill Clinton who famously identified that crucial element, the single issue that trumps all and gets governments elected (or rejected) at the polls. Never has that been more heavily underlined than in the UK at present.

The coalition continues to wrestle with austerity: in spite of all their efforts, the green shoots of recovery (remember that expression from the 1992 recession?) are as stubbornly absent as daffodils were in the hedgerows over Easter. As the cold snap continues, our economic winter also goes on and on.

The opposition doesn’t cover itself in glory. The Miliband-Balls double-act jumps on every available bandwagon it can use to lambast Chancellor George Osborne. It’s very hyped, and deeply unconvincing. I’m left more sceptical than ever of the wisdom or even competence of our politicians.

The BBC’s sharp-eyed Robert Peston gave voice to the frustration we ordinary taxpayers feel. The banks that caused all this are too big to fail, and too big to jail. Government proved powerless to prevent the crisis. Taxpayers pick up the financial pieces, and now have to endure the pantomime of arguments about whether the three directors who led HBOS into meltdown should be barred from similar jobs.

But is it really all about the economy? I begin to doubt it. Most of us don’t worry about the big stuff, the economy, so much as what the late Margaret Thatcher called “the pound in your pocket”. It’s the money, stupid. Too many people haven’t enough: another daft current discussion centres on whether Welfare Czar Ian Duncan-Smith could live on £53 a week.

Those doing just that are having tough times. They may or may not be impressed by the Chancellor’s triumphalist statements that he’s taking millions of the lowest earners out of paying tax altogether: but they have no spare dosh for celebrating.

Still, some people are doing well: take the Rolling Stones. Were you quick enough to book standing-room to see Mick Jagger and Co. in Hyde Park this summer, you’d have paid £299. If you missed out and still want tickets, you’ll have to pay £1000 on EBay. At a grand per non-seat, they’d better be good! And start early so everyone gets their money’s-worth before that 11.00 pm Park curfew.

Let’s be fair to the Stones. They’re one of the greatest bands of all time. And, although £299 sounds a hell of a lot, major groups mount stunning (and mind-bogglingly expensive) sound and light shows. If they can sell tickets at that price, you might reasonably say good luck to them.

But what a shame there’s that downside to the gig. How many people bought tickets not out of love for classic rock but simply to make a fast buck by re-selling them? Quite a lot, I fear. Times are hard, and business is business: but it seems a scummy way to make money. Maybe it’s indeed a sign of the times. Or maybe some people, perhaps not very nice people, have always behaved like that.

We shouldn’t just shrug and accept it. There are better ways of earning a living, or even making a bit extra, than dog-eat-dog or screw-you-Jack tactics.

It would be nice to hear the Rolling Stones condemn those profiteering from their tickets: or see their agents try harder to prevent selling-on (the RFU’s pretty successful with regard to Rugby internationals). It would be good to see politicians bicker less and get together more to save the country from ruin. Above all it would be wonderful as a nation to talk about the value and importance of such things as health, wellbeing, the arts, education and care of the sick and the unfortunate rather than the cost, and how to cut it.

It’s not the economy, stupid. It’s not even the money. Other things, qualities, values and sheer humanity are bigger, deeper and much more pressing for us as human beings.

It’s about people, stupid.


Bernards bear the brunt of society's slings and arrows

Thursday 4th April 2013

I’ve suffered slings and arrows in my time, but last weekend’s Sunday Times presented me with, frankly, the final straw.  Columnist Camilla Long started her piece by describing delegates at the National Union of Teachers’ annual conference as “sad puddles of grumbly fleeces and crumbly rucksacks and bedraggled, clammy Bernards”.

Clearly she’s not an NUT fan. Nor am I. Much as I love teachers, I don’t think that union’s declaration of near-enough-all-out war against Education Secretary Michael Gove will resonate with parents (or children) when they commute words of opposition into strike action. 

Ms Long was there to interview the union’s boss Christine Blower, whom she dubbed (compounding her crime) “the clammiest Bernard of them all”.

Why Bernard?

I like my name. It’s slightly uncommon, which I think gives it an air of distinction. My wife likes the way she can really spit out the consonants when telling me off. Its etymology is impressive, stemming from Old German and meaning hard (or strong) as a bear. Tough name, tough guy?  Hmm.

Given that linguistic provenance, why is there nowadays an association of the name in film comedies with a kind of hapless wimp? In Love Actually, Prime Minister Hugh Grant’s sister (Emma Thompson) talks about her “horrid son Bernard”. In Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bernard (David Haig) is the saddest of the four bridegrooms. The common element is those movies’ script-writer Richard Curtis who once lost a girlfriend to someone called Bernard and has been wreaking his vengeance on the name ever since.

In Bridget Jones’s Diary our heroine is misled into thinking she’s attending a Tarts and Vicars fancy-dress party and dresses as a bunny-girl. Her sad relative Bernard is the only other person taken in, appearing as the Archbishop of Canterbury.

It’s not just movies. When little, my daughters liked to play that classic “flip and find game of memory and deduction” (as catalogues describe it), Guess Who? They shrieked with laughter at the character Bernard with his bushy eyebrows, big nose and daft hat: “He looks like such a dork!” they would chortle.

It’s not all bad. Bernard made it to the front cover of David McKee’s popular children’s book, Not now, Bernard. In this sad cautionary tale (cautionary for parents, not children) a little boy called Bernard keeps telling his parents that there’s a monster in the house, breaking his toys and eating his tea. Constantly preoccupied, they never look up or take an interest in what their son is saying, only responding, “Not now, Bernard” – and failing to notice even when the monster devours the unfortunate child.

When Not Now, Bernard first appeared I hoped a balance might be re-established, and new sympathy created for us Bernards. Alas, it merely furnished the assertive women in my family with their favourite put-down line.

Bernards can’t even shake off the negative association of haplessness by shortening the name. In my teens I was generally known as Bernie (as I suspect I still am by my pupils), quoting a catchphrase from the then popular TV game show, The Golden Shot: it was hosted for most of its run by Bob Monkhouse who would call, “Bernie: the bolt, please!” 

Notting Hill (Curtis the author again) introduced the socially inept Bernie. He’d announce, “Bollocksed up at work again. Millions down the drain”: then he’d completely fail to recognise the famous actress played by Julia Roberts. Stereotypes reinforced once more, then, and no escape through abbreviation!

Consider the catastrophic effect of all this on the self-esteem of countless Bernards. I’ve learned to live it: nonetheless I believe the worlds of literature and film should be more positive about us.

So, next time you are approached by a Bernard, may I humbly suggest that, whatever else you do or say, you resist the temptation to say, “Not now, Bernard”.

I’m sorry if I’ve wasted your time moaning. It’s a Bernard thing.


When governments set targets, perverse incentives are created

Thursday 28th March 2013

To read, listen to or watch the news recently you might think it’s the silly season; that period, usually in August where, lacking real news, journalists invent daft stories. There’s a difference currently: the stories are indeed genuine, but daft nonetheless. I’ve been longing to come across an example of plain commonsense.

Instead we’ve been witnessing the on-going travails of the National Health Service. Two revolutionary new ideas are being floated. First, nurse-training will henceforth emphasise basic patient care: washing and doing bedpans; feeding those too poorly or dispirited to eat; just being there, listening, talking and, yes, caring.

The next idea is to introduce regulation to require medical staff to demonstrate “candour”: they’ll be required to be honest and open with patients and relatives about their condition and prognosis.

You’d have thought it obvious that patients need to know the truth: most of us have friends or relatives who have become desperate (and significantly more ill) while worrying about not knowing what was wrong with them or what was being done.

On Radio 4’s Today programme on Tuesday a doctor explained why a regulatory requirement to demonstrate candour would be counterproductive. He was right. Whenever governments set targets and measurable outcomes to which a service will be ruthlessly held, they create perverse incentives. It happens when schools are required to get a particular proportion of children over a set threshold. Instead of creating the best chances for all children, focus falls too easily on pushing a borderline group over that required minimum, ignoring the rest and damping aspiration.

It’s the same wherever government introduces targets: we don’t get better practice, we just get a slightly improved minimum at the set borderline. Teachers, doctors, social workers – we all tell government. And ministers on a mission never listen. Indeed, professionals’ candour with ministers is rarely welcomed. They seem to prefer to stick to their own daft ideas.

Finally, though, I was cheered to find some plain commonsense that was both necessary and timely, something we all ought to take on board. Radio 4 (again) interviewed a Cumbrian farmer named Alistair McIntosh. He was talking about the effect of this recent heavy snow on the lambing season. Ewes and lambs alike have perished in the cold.

“Do you get compensation?” asked the interviewer. This calm, level-headed farmer didn’t start bleating (no pun intended). He didn’t moan, or demand that government pay him off in some way. On the contrary he replied: “No. It’s our business, and we take the financial hit. The best thing the public can do for us is to buy our wonderful English lamb.”

The horsemeat scandal has done a lot of good for the English meat industry. Butchers are doing well: people are beating a path to their door to buy “real” meat.

Post-Horsegate, supermarkets moved quickly to repair the damage. Tesco emailed a pledge to online customers to source affordable, high-quality local products, just as Waitrose and others promised to protect milk-prices paid to farmers when their frustration boiled over into protest. The big buyers are realising that driving down prices is unsustainable long-term.

They must provide farmers with a livelihood: and if we want to buy quality meat we need to pay a fair price for it. We may not want to splash out on that expensive beef sirloin, or feast on a grand rack of lamb: that could be costly. But we have a choice: that same butcher’s homemade sausages or burgers are both tasty and cheap – and horse-free.

I’m not convinced people-power can do much to sort out the on-going political wrangling between the NHS and its masters, though I wish it could. But as consumers we can assure food quality: by requiring it, supporting it, and passing the word.

Just think. Only a couple of months and we might have warm weather - and plenty of delicious spring lamb in the shops …


I was once a young man in a hurry. Now I refuse to be rushed

Thursday 21st March 2013

Is it true, then? Has old become the new young? It’s getting confusing.

Just a few weeks ago Pope Benedict stepped down at the age of 86. He’d become too aged and infirm to bear the enormous burden of running the Catholic Church, acting as spiritual leader of two billion followers worldwide.

His courage was almost universally applauded. He faced up honestly to the fact that his body wouldn’t let him carry on. So everyone expected the new Pope to be much younger as well as meeting all the other conflicting expectations: someone clean of allegations of corruption or cover-ups; someone from outside Italy, or from outside Europe; a traditionalist; a moderniser; as usual, the whole gamut from alpha to omega.

So what did all those cardinals do when they were locked in the Sistine Chapel to make their decision? In almost record time they elected a 76-year-old.

Okay, he’s less ancient than his predecessor, but he’s scarcely young! Yet his very lack of youth is perhaps what makes him clearly a man in a hurry. His choice of name and his early actions certainly suggest that there will be a different direction from the Vatican. But how long will Pope Francis be able to maintain the pace needed to achieve lasting change? At 76 he will certainly know what he wants to do: he’s accumulated a fair store of wisdom. But will he have the strength to push through the change he seeks?

Closer to home we seem to have the opposite problem. We have a UK parliament in a tearing hurry: but among those with powerful positions, huge influence but so little experience, do we have any politicians prepared to stop and think?

Look at this week’s unseemly scramble to cobble together some kind of press control. In response to the Leveson enquiry, Labour and the Lib Dems wanted legal controls. Perhaps I’m at a difficult age myself, but I always fear governments demanding control of anything. At best they are inept: at worst there’s potential for a form of dictatorship that can muzzle any dissent.

So I was relieved when the Prime Minister held out against a legislative solution: alas, it seems his alternative of a Royal Charter is no more than a fudge. On Monday night a majority of 500 MPs voted for the latest amendment: a frenzy of wheeling and dealing and, I predict, an unholy mess at the end.

There are precedents. Remember the knee-jerk reaction by Parliament to what appeared just too many tragic incidents where pet fighting dogs, pit bulls and Rottweilers, savaged young children? The Dangerous Dogs Act was truly a dog’s dinner, driven through at breakneck speed and hopeless in implementation.

Politicians never learn from history, so I fear we’re about to see another unrealistic and unworkable piece of regulation, neither fish nor fowl, neither control nor freedom. Still, it’s all work for lawyers while we taxpayers foot the bill.

I risk being accused of special pleading. I too was once a young man in a hurry. Now in my mid-fifties, I’ve reached an age I once thought impossibly old. My early bosses were of a similar age: to me they seemed hopelessly out of touch. But now I potter about, the educational equivalent of an ageing cardinal, urging colleagues to slow down and think for a moment. I won’t (normally) be rushed into precipitate decisions. On the contrary, I quote my favourite Zen commandment: “Don’t just do something. Sit there!”

Youth versus wisdom: the energy to enact change versus the long-gathered understanding of what needs to change. Henry Ford said: “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.”

To Pope Francis I wish plenty of learning. And I’ll keep doing the cryptic crossword: they say it keeps the mind active.


Secrets of the Trafford diet… eat less and absolutely no chips

Thursday 14th March 2013

Be afraid. Very afraid. Just when you thought it was safe to eat again, fresh horrors unfold.

There’s hazard wherever we turn for our culinary delights. A while back it was red meat: those of us who like a good steak were warned we were risking heart disease and cancer.

If that weren’t enough, just recently we’ve had the horsemeat scandal. It’s bad enough being uncertain about the merits of red meat: but when you’re not even sure what your red meat is, you’re struggling.

Surely the good old English breakfast is safe, though? OK, we need to be careful on the fat content with all that fried food, but there can’t be too much wrong with eggs, bacon, sausage, mushroom, tomato – even if the black pudding’s a bit fierce on the arteries. Can there?

Aargh! The latest news is that processed meats aren’t good for us either. At first I thought that meant the slimy stuff in cans - like Spam, that old Monty Python standby. Apparently not. Some sausages count as processed meat. And those that do are horrendously, dangerously bad for us. Bacon’s processed too: we should only have 20 grams (that’s one rasher of bacon to you, mate).

There’s nothing for it, then, but to go for one of those celebrity diets. When actors or TV stars see their careers on the wane, they discover and then share with us their unique take on weight loss. But they too are now under attack. Most are faddy, stupid and useless – as are the diets they promote. Some cause, at the very least, stomach upsets and headaches.

I seldom write about food, and then only when the latest health pronouncements have got up my nose. I have to admit, I’m a greedy man. I love my food.

But I’ve been virtuous since the summer and have lost in excess of a stone. For those metrically minded, it’s about eight kilos gone, with another four or five to go if I can manage it. Sadly, few people seem to spot my newly svelte figure – perhaps because I normally swathe it in suits anyway, such being the uniform for my job. In Newcastle, only my doctor and my neighbour have noticed: thank you, sharp-eyed friends!

So now it’s time for the blinding revelation: the moment to unveil the secret of the Trafford diet, the new celebrity regime. Sadly, there’s no magic solution. It’s not particularly life-changing, and it lacks excitement or glitz: but it has got the weight off fairly swiftly. The rules are simple:

1. Eat less

2. No carbs after lunchtime

3. No chips at all (no, never!)

4. Don’t persuade yourself that you can just take more exercise to get the weight off: at my age, at any rate, fitness is fitness, and fatness is over-eating.

Happily, the protein-rich all-day breakfast (without hash browns) is a healthy constituent of that diet. Or was. Sadly, now the latest bunch of experts have decided the sausage and bacon will have to go, I reckon I’ll soon be living entirely on tomatoes.

Oh, and I forgot point 5. Don’t kid yourself that one bit more of this or that won’t count. It always does. Worst luck.


I finally have a term for pointless verbiage I read on Sundays

Thursday 7th March 2013

I often scan the Sunday papers for ideas to stimulate this column: they’re generally full of bizarre stories. Many of them, dressed up as news, are merely a mixture of curious speculation and sheer invention. Some really aren’t news, just the bleedin’ obvious masquerading as investigative journalism.

For example, women’s brains are more efficient than men’s. The rationale for this startling discovery is the fact that their brains are smaller: yet there’s no measurable difference in intelligence between the genders. Therefore that smaller brain must be more efficient: QED. Astonishing! That ground-breaking report filled half a page of last week’s Sunday Times. As my wife commented wryly, the real difference is that men’s brains are slowed down by lazy, low-efficiency areas able to focus on only one thing at a time, chiefly football, beer, chips and sex (but not necessarily in that order).

Next I learned that the Irish Tourist Board has discovered the Duchess of Cambridge, née Kate Middleton, is related to Chris de Burgh. That fact will form the basis of a major new tourism drive. That’s marvellous, but obvious. If you go back far enough, everyone is related to everyone, because we’ve all got the same chimpanzee and Neanderthal Man DNA in us (okay, I may have made that last bit up.)

You can’t blame only the Sunday papers. Even real, serious news seemed to get pretty out of proportion over the last few days. It was reported that Lloyds Bank has lost £570 million. But we shareholders (all the long-suffering taxpayers of Great Britain who own the damn thing), should be pleased, we’re assured: the loss was smaller than in previous years and therefore counts as “substantial progress”.

Hurrah! For the privilege of owning the bank, we’ve all paid another £10 each to keep it afloat. Apparently that doesn’t matter: HM Government just props up the bank with our taxes - and sticks tax-rates up afterwards. I don’t claim to be an economist, so it doesn’t make sense to me. But then, when the economy went belly-up it didn’t make sense to the experts either.

I was sorry to hear the Queen had gastroenteritis over the weekend. That’s unpleasant for anyone, particularly the over-eighties.  But what a fuss in the media! Radio and television interviewed successions of top gastric surgeons, professors or other eggheads giving in-depth analysis of what gastroenteritis means. It means a stomach bug, for goodness’ sake! It’s horrid: then it goes away. Her Maj naturally spent a couple of days in hospital: she is the monarch. But do we really need all those boffins to tell us what constitutes a tummy upset?

All this combines to furnish a neat definition of a new term I’ve learned: yak-shaving.  (I confess I heard it amid that relaxed, somewhat alcoholic chat that you get at a wedding breakfast).  All these stories are mere yak-shaving. The idea of that expression is that we often get involved in seemingly pointless tasks, which go on one after another. Sometimes, indeed, we start yak-shaving to avoid getting around to the real job: but eventually those disparate elements lead to the real thing.

They have to fill up those Sunday papers that we need a wheelbarrow to take home for reading with the coffee and croissants. All this useless pseudo-journalism (let alone the spinning out of stories with background and case-studies) is actually yak-shaving, pointless and eventually fruitless.

Still, now I have a word for it.  It’s satisfying as both a concept and an expression to trip off the tongue. So next time I read more facile verbiage in the papers, I won’t just give vent to my usual reaction: yes, I’ll snort, fling the paper across the room and lean back in my chair.

But when my wife asks, “Anything in the paper?” I can now reply: “The usual rubbish. Mere yak-shaving.”

Which, when you think about it, is what I’ve done for the length of this column. Well spotted.


Petulant politician must not interfere with judiciary

Thursday 28th February 2013

Home Secretary Theresa May’s furious. Judges aren’t doing what she tells them! Last week she reckoned they ought to deport more foreign criminals and accused them of making the UK a more dangerous place by allowing human rights arguments to permit them to stay in this country.

This week, newspapers report that the Crown Prosecution Service is not giving difficult cases (those not guaranteed to proceed smoothly to a conviction) to top counsel because they cost too much. Instead, they’re being kept in-house.

Engaging the best barristers to ensure successful prosecution is expensive: but difficult cases need the best to see them through.

Surely we can’t start planning justice on a cost basis? There’s an outcry when health authorities deem a life-saving drug too expensive to be prescribed to, say, a cancer patient. We’re unwilling to put a price on life.

So why should we put a price on justice? Difficult cases where the CPS declines to spend serious money would probably include rape. Rape cases are notoriously hard to prosecute: traumatised victims can be too damaged or intimidated to give reliable evidence. They need expert lawyers to support them and help them through - and to pursue the case to the end, because a collapsed trial risks yet another rapist walking free. Can we risk that, just to save the CPS some cash?

As for Mrs May’s frustration with the judiciary, Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights deals with the right to a family life: and some judges have declined to deport foreign criminals because their families are here in the UK with them.

It’s all too easy, when it comes to matters of law, to adopt the man-down-the -pub view: “These foreign villains, they should just kick ‘em out. And their kids with ‘em.”

Fortunately the Law works rather more carefully and subtly. Judges uphold the law, and the law must uphold human rights: a law lacking that fundamental basis is not a law worth having.

Theresa May isn’t happy. She reckons: “Some judges seem to believe they can ignore Parliament’s wishes”. She plans to change the law to keep judges in order.

We go that way at our peril. One of the crowning glories of the British justice system is the independence of the judiciary. Even in that democratic giant, the USA, judges are politically appointed. We go one better: our judges’ independence protects our liberty rather more than parliament ever can or will.

I may not always agree with judges’ pronouncements, but I hope I’d fight to the death to protect their right to dispense justice fairly and independently of government strictures. After all, if they get it wrong, they’ll be overturned on appeal or in the Supreme Court: appeals are expensive too, by the way, but guarantee the dispensation of justice.

I’m overstating this, of course: after all, this is merely a petulant outburst from a politician who hates not getting her way, her nose put out of joint by a couple of court sentences she didn’t like.

But we ought to feel strongly on both these issues, and we can only protect our rights and liberties by speaking out when we see something threatening them.

We mustn’t take it all for granted, let politicians lean on judges or cut corners on due process: if we do, ultimately we might end up learning the lesson, the hard way, of Pastor Martin Niemöller’s famous poem about the rise of Nazism in Germany:

First they came for the communists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Catholic.

Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.



Dramas throw the spotlight on the human condition

Thursday 21st February 2013

One reason why we need theatre is that good drama gives us an insight into the human condition, our complex relationships and our very human capacity for wrecking them through our blindness or thoughtlessness.

Don’t worry! This isn’t another plea for subsidy of the arts, although all Newcastle must welcome the Council’s U-turn on its proposed 100% cut. No, it’s about intimations of mortality the theatrical world gave me in the past week. At the Theatre Royal last week I saw Agatha Christie’s famous play, The Mousetrap, finally touring after 60 years in the West End without a break.

Christie, that master of murder and suspense in fiction, so often adapted for television, was also a skilful playwright. Though the play has been around all my life, I‘d never seen it. And, even after all these years, audiences generously conspire to keep the secret – as the cast asked us to at the end.

Well, it’s time this column had a scoop: at the end of this one, I plan to reveal the identity of the murderer.

But first, two more theatrical events. On Monday I found myself in London, watching North-East-born Rowan Atkinson in the title role of Quartermaine’s Terms. Written by Simon Gray in 1981, the play follows a couple of years in the life of an English language school in Cambridge in the 1960s: St John Quartermaine is a hopeless middle-aged teacher, as blind to the bleakness of his lonely bachelor life as to his total failure to engage with, or even care about, his students.

Later that night we heard of the death of Richard Briers. Patron of Newcastle’s Theatre Royal and its recent renovation, he’s been described in tributes as a great comic actor – but also shown in a range of serious Shakespearean roles.

Briers recently talked to the Journal about his impending death. He gave up cigarettes ten years ago, he said, but was already too late: as always with smoking-related illnesses, the wind is sown decades earlier and he was disarmingly frank about reaping the whirlwind so many years later.

When we lose a talent of that size, we feel the world’s the poorer: a light has gone out that we’ll miss, though at least in our modern world we can watch as many recordings of The Good Life and his other successes as we could wish for.

Both The Mousetrap and Quartermaine’s Terms are period pieces, and both (to my mind) uncomfortably stuck in that period of post-WW2 middle-class English smugness and snobbery. The accents are uniformly RP (Received Pronunciation), reminiscent of all those old films from the 50s and 60s. The Mousetrap is a country-house murder: no working classes here, please! Quartermaine’s Terms is populated by highly-educated failed academics scratching their living by providing a less-than-wonderful service to Japanese, Italian, Bolivian and Greek students desperate to learn English.

To my ears both plays now seem dated: the snobbery and casual racism, while mirroring their time, grate nonetheless. In the North-East, fortunately, we enjoy a powerful modern tradition of writers from Alan Plater through to Lee Hall: by contrast their dramas deal with people from all backgrounds and classes.

In their defence, both plays are set in a particular time, and the tragic figure of Quartermaine - brilliantly portrayed by Atkinson, a comic actor and writer who really knows his trade and can do tragedy as powerfully as he can do comedy - could only exist, decay and ultimately fall apart in that genteel and artificial setting.

Moreover, the play did what good drama should do, and what great actors (such as Richard Briers) can challenge us to do: in the fiction of someone’s downfall, we observe a reflection of our own lives and leave the theatre thoughtful, reflective and possibly a little wiser.

As for The Mousetrap, here it comes. I can now reveal that the one who dunnit was ….. aaargh!


It's that time of year again when we all turn pink and fluffy

Thursday 14th February 2013

Happy Valentine’s Day! A day of overpriced flowers and chocolate, repulsive quantities of pink decoration in shops and eating places and, if you go out for a bite or a drink, couples holding each other’s hands across the table and gazing into each other’s eyes. Such overt displays of affection are enough to put a traditional, uptight, ageing Brit like me right off my (pink) crème brulée.

Why do we have to undergo this ghastly ritual every year? I generally remember the Valentine’s card, though Mrs Trafford frequently suspects that arrangements have been a little last-minute. When I say brightly, “I’ll just pop out and get some milk for the morning tea, dear,” she immediately has an inkling that I’ve forgotten. Again.

This year I did well. Some weeks ago I found the perfect card picturing a woman pushing a supermarket trolley. The caption reads: “Who says romance is dead? He even scribbled on the bottom of the shopping list, ‘And get yourself a Valentine’s card’.”

Brownie-points for me this year, then: but, given the outrages I’ve described above, all perpetrated in the name of romance, we won’t be doing anything special. We’ll be eschewing the pink décor and Special Lovers’ Menus, and won’t be sharing a heart-shaped box of chocs: the diet (mine, that is) wouldn’t permit it.

My parents won’t be buying cards this year: at 92 and 91 respectively, they might be forgiven the omission. But I believe they’ll be featuring in their local Somerset paper, The Wells Journal, as a couple who became engaged on Valentine’s Day 1944. (To be scrupulously honest, Dad’s not at all sure that really did pop the question on that day: but he’s prepared to go along with the story to keep the paper happy). In fact, whenever they did plight their troths, they decided to keep schtumm for a coupe, of weeks. A young RAMC doctor, he met the love of his life working as a nurse in Woking War Hospital, so it amused them to put the announcement of their engagement in the newspaper on 29th without telling anyone. It certainly created the workplace stir they hoped for.

But why all this fuss about Valentine’s Day? It seems that question’s being asked more this year. Perhaps it’s austerity and the economic gloom, but people appear readier than usual to grumble about inflated prices and excessive pinkness.

After all, no one’s even certain St Valentine actually existed. Allegedly he was martyred in Rome, in the Via Flaminia, on 14th February 273 AD. Pope Gelasius I (until I checked Wikipedia I didn’t realise there had been any pope named Gelasius, let alone several) gave him a feast day, 14th February, in 496 AD – but he was unceremoniously dumped from the Roman Catholic calendar in its 1969 revision.

Nowadays he may indeed be the patron saint of lovers, but he also takes care of bees and beekeepers, plague, epilepsy and fainting (presumably he’s meant to prevent or cure the latter few). According to legend he was arrested and tortured to death because he’d been marrying covert Christians, but it seems that it was Geoffrey Chaucer and his circle who arbitrarily put Valentine in charge of courtly and romantic love.

Still, maybe he and his special day have some value after all. When you read a depressing report that the shine goes off love after only 3½ years of a relationship, perhaps it doesn’t hurt us to have one day in a year when we are reminded to be lovey-dovey, to bill and to coo, even to sip a glass of something pink together – and, yes, look deep into one another’s eyes. Then we blokes might even remember the colour of our partner’s eyes, one of those things all too frequently (and tactlessly) forgotten.

It’s only one day, after all.

So maybe I’ll look out that bottle of pink fizz after all.



I'm not a die-hard fan, but Richard III got a very bad write-up

Thursday 7th February 2013

I thought interest in religious relics had gone out of fashion. The monks of Lindisfarne, exiled from their great monastery on Holy Island, famously carried the remains St Cuthbert around the North East for a couple of centuries before settling on a convenient lump of rock in Durham. Cathedrals all over Europe used to be stuffed full of various saintly body-parts imbued with miraculous powers.

In England that ended with the 16th-Century Reformation. But it seems that, nonetheless, people still need mortal remains to revere. Otherwise, why all the excitement about finding the body of King Richard III under a car park in Leicester?

Richard III is the only English king to have died in battle since Harold II lost the Battle of Hastings. In the discovery of his body, and the formal announcement of its identification this week, historical research and sharp-edged science came together in a fascinating blend.

There was documentary evidence that Richard’s body was taken to Leicester and buried in the Greyfriars Monastery: though that’s long gone, the street adjoining its former location still bears that name. Archaeologists quickly unearthed the church and the logical location of a royal, if hidden, tomb.

Next came science. Painstaking reassembly of the skeleton, found intact and bearing tell-tale wounds of death in battle, and cutting-edge DNA matches with a direct descendent of Richard’s sister Anne of York, proved the lineage. The identification wasn’t so much a miracle, then, as the inevitable outcome of logic, research and science.

There was something moving about seeing that bent spine. The curvature is distinctive: yet this was a young and healthy man, killed in battle at the age of 32, so the deformity, while it may have been noticeable, was not sufficient to stop him wearing armour or fighting with courage and distinction. Indeed, he’d been a successful warrior since he was 18.

Just as the facial reconstruction from the skull was recognisably related to the remaining royal portrait, the deformity of the spine fits in with some crucial descriptions of Richard in both historical chronicles and literature.

Now starts the intriguing task of revisiting Richard and his history, and disentangling myth from truth. Having deposed Richard, the new king Henry VII needed to present himself as the country’s saviour, someone who had overthrown a wicked illegitimate regime (no lessons for the modern-day world there, then?).

Thus Tudor historians ascribed all manner of villainies to Richard - including, of course, the murder of his young nephews in the Tower. Present-day, more dispassionate historians (not only those with a particular desire to exonerate Richard) observe that Henry had more to gain from their death than Richard.

What a gift for Henry’s side was Richard’s mild deformity, albeit one that had little effect on his physical abilities. He became “crookback,” a twisted hunchback with a  shrivelled arm reflecting a profoundly evil character (following 16th-Century superstition): What Henry’s spin-doctors started, Shakespeare finished for them, describing him as deform’d, unfinish’d…., bitter and twisted (in every sense) , a murderous usurper.

All but forgotten are the wise laws that Richard introduced, enshrining the rights of ordinary people in law. He was a warrior king, a powerful leader: that was conveniently brushed over.

I’m no “Ricardian”, as those who’d reinstate his character are called. But I take a mischievous delight when old plots and accepted wisdoms are revealed as bogus and when truth, hidden for centuries, comes to light, as in a Dan Brown novel. I look forward to more revelations about the real Richard III.

What next? Typical newspaper speculation says that Alfred the Great is the next king to find, so there soon won’t be a garden left undug, or ruin unexplored, in Winchester: as I said, it seems we are still hooked on relics.

I won’t get excited about Alfred – unless, there too, we uncover another story, long misrepresented, waiting to see the light of day.


Humbling tale of an old rocker facing the end

Thursday 31st January 2013

A touching news item last week: Wilko Johnson, the lead guitarist who gave the distinctive choppy rhythmic feel to that longstanding R&B band Dr Feelgood, has been diagnosed with terminal cancer of the pancreas. He’s 65 and was offered chemotherapy which might have stretched his survival to a year, but he declined. He hopes to remain well enough for a farewell tour.

Now, here’s some history. In 1977 I appeared on the same bill as Dr Feelgood. My mates and I, aged 21, were a little student jazz band (we still get together occasionally): the members of Dr Feelgood were older, had been around since 1971 and had just achieved their first major hit, the live album Stupidity.

We were the warm-up act. College Balls used to (and probably still do) book big-name bands at the height of the evening, after a rather splendid dinner in a marquee in one of the quadrangles. Early and later on came mainly student bands which generally played in return for free tickets.

We thought it was fantastic to get a free double ticket to the ball just for playing an hour’s jazz. You could even take a girl: (mind you, that wasn’t as easy as you might imagine in those days of single-sex colleges in the older universities).

It’s fair to say that we were callow youths from pretty sheltered backgrounds. Sharing a dressing room (a cupboard, really) with a high-profile rock band could be a searing experience. While the giants of rock wound themselves up we tiptoed around, muttered “sorry” every time we bumped into anyone in the confined space, and tried not to upset their roadies.

Dr Feelgood gave a high-pressure performance. The lead singer, Lee Brilleaux, famously sweated so much during performance that he took a towel on stage: people whispered of the salt tablets he took to get him through the gig (in the Seventies, I guess those were pretty harmless as tablets went). Surely, though, it was adrenalin that carried the whole band along: how could that naturally-produced chemical not kick in with an audience going wild, yelling for more, worshipping those pop idols? They were powerful, awesome, overwhelming.

Dr Feelgood still exists as a band: but all the founding players have gone. Now one of those originals, Wilko, is under sentence of death. He says the reality of it makes him feel “vividly alive”: it’s lifted the bouts of depression that have plagued him.

He says he’s never really got over losing his wife of 40 years: he still bursts into tears because he misses her so much. At 65 he’s planning to live life to the full for a few months, make that last tour, and then join her.

The cold hand of mortality has touched him: he accepts the call. The music legend has become an ordinary guy, facing the end, enjoying every last moment. He talks about loving the touch of the wind on his face, the scent of the breeze. He feels powerfully alive, perhaps because he knows his time to revel in it is limited.

It’s not as if I’ve worshipped Dr Feelgood since 1971. If I boast to youngsters that I once played on the same bill as the band, they ask, “Who?” I’d even forgotten the name of Wilko Johnson because I’m not a rock fan: I prefer Louis Armstrong and Mozart.

Nonetheless, hearing Wilko speak took me back to those extraordinary days when we were young and had the whole world before us, as he did. The fact that he has no regrets, feels he’s had a good life and is ready for the end, although it’s cruel and too soon, is somehow humbling.

I won’t get to one of his farewell gigs but, when I hear he’s lost his battle, I’ll shed a tear: for him, for mortality, and for lost youth.

Then, learning from him, I’ll get on with my life and make the most of it.


Like football the first time, we may need introduction to the arts

Thursday 24th January 2013

Finally, my last word on the arts. Honest! I’m accused of pontificating, of getting on my high horse. I’ve annoyed several people who have written in the Journal’s letters page. That’s fine: it’s their right to reply.

Besides, some might argue, if the arts are so important, those who want them should pay what they cost and stop moaning. After all, food and housing are important: but that doesn’t mean they have to be subsidised, except (in a civilised country) for the poor. Shouldn’t the arts be the same?

Not quite. The purpose of the arts is to take us into areas that are new, that are “other”. If such areas were all familiar, and everyone knew what was involved, perhaps they wouldn’t need any subsidy: people would indeed pay for them.

We don’t subsidise football. Everyone knows what it’s about: we don’t need to be introduced to it as something strange.

Curiously, though, that rather obvious parallel doesn’t quite work. If you’ve never witnessed a live professional football match, you haven’t felt the sheer excitement of actually being there. Sure, television gives a better view. But nothing beats experiencing the real thing: and most adults’ first taste of that enormous thrill probably came through, say, a dad or an uncle taking them along to a game when they were young. It was an introduction.

Similarly the arts experienced first-hand take us into something bigger and deeper than we’re used to. But we may need persuading. It requires an effort of will to get through the door for the first time: to book theatre seats; to enter that daunting art gallery; to sample a classical music concert when we don’t know what happens in such strange, formal events.

But, once inside, we can be transported: thrilled to the core by that new experience, we may be delighted that we faced the challenge and gave it a try.

The arts are essentially democratic. Although opera and ballet were first developed for the super-rich, in the palaces and private houses of a tiny ruling élite, nowadays any member of the public can enjoy them. But there is a barrier: tickets can be hugely expensive for such shows because it costs a bomb to get all those dancers or singers and a full orchestra on stage at once.

I haven’t space here to describe the magic of Tchaikovsky’s ballet, The Nutcracker, though you can go and see it at the Theatre Royal next month (6th – 9th February). Thanks (I presume) to public subsidy, the cheapest adult tickets available are £10.50, less than even the most heavily-discounted child ticket for Newcastle’s home game against Chelsea the preceding Saturday.

Subsidies lower barriers and open doors to people’s first experiences of artistic creativity. UK governments have been enlightened in funding the arts, reducing charges for theatre and keeping entry free to many art galleries (for now). Then there’s the other function of subsidy, to allow artists to experiment and develop new work that isn’t (yet) commercial, and may never be, effectively facilitating creativity and innovation.

Newcastle’s about to lose funding for both purposes. If the arts subsidy goes, and libraries close, those who already have knowledge of, and access to, literature and the arts will probably continue to find and enjoy them. It’s those who haven’t yet crossed the threshold who’ll find the door slammed shut.

Life will go on. People will live, bring up families, be cared for if they’re ill. The cycle will continue.

But the quality of the lives of those who aren’t introduced to the arts will be diminished. The arts may survive, but will revert to the preserve of a narrow, privileged class instead of the shared, democratic delight of all: meanwhile ground-breaking, risky work will be a thing of the past.

If we cut support for the arts our city, its people and its culture will be immeasurably the poorer.


Dutch are masters at showing the true value of the arts

Thursday 17th January 2013

After Christmas the Traffords squeezed in a short New Year break in Amsterdam. We loved it. Home to the artists Vermeer, Rembrandt and (sort of) Van Gogh, it’s stuffed with art treasures – even while the two major museums are currently being refurbished.

Perhaps that was an indicator: millions are being spent on upgrading important museums that were starting to show their age. While undergoing transformation the Rijksmuseum is showing just its 400(!) greatest paintings. And while the Van Gogh is closed, the pick of the collection is on show in the Hermitage, a new gallery opened in 2009 in collaboration with its famous namesake in St Petersburg.

On our last night we went to the Concertgebouw, one of the world’s great concert halls. Neither the building nor the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra disappointed: I was reminded that back home we also have a world-class concert hall in the Sage.

Other aspects of Amsterdam reminded us of Newcastle. We too have history and a fine river, though not the accompanying canals. Amsterdam has trams: we have a Metro. But both cities are so compact that you can walk across both central zones in half an hour.

But there’s a striking difference right now. Amsterdam is investing heavily in the arts, and tourists travel in their millions to enjoy them. Newcastle, though lacking the same painterly provenance, is known regionally and nationally as a stronghold of the arts: but it’s about to lose all subsidy for them from the local council – thanks, we’re assured, to national government’s demand for swingeing cuts.

In Amsterdam people queue around the block to see Van Gogh’s masterpieces, or tour Rembrandt’s house: you can see how a city’s investment in the arts brings massive returns in tourist income. It’s less obvious in the North-East, perhaps: yet, according to the Huffington Post, every £1 invested by Newcastle and Gateshead Councils in their acclaimed arts venues last year returned £4.06 into the regional economy.

Newcastle’s subsidy for the arts represents only 0.7% of its annual budget. Nonetheless our arts venues worked with over 613,000 children and young people last year, a massive investment in education and imagination, enrichment and aspiration. All that’s now at risk.

If the arts are slashed back in Newcastle, life will go on. People won’t starve, or be denied medical treatment: the elderly and infirm won’t be left uncared for.

So what will life in Newcastle be like? The city will retain its not-always-welcome image as the party capital of the North-East. And the river and the bridges will still look lovely on a summer evening. So, although it’s tempting to predict a new age of barbarism, that probably won’t happen.

But an incalculable measure of spiritual enrichment will have been lost. Imagine television still showing sport, Big Brother, X Factor and the Shopping Channel: but losing all the drama, Shakespeare, Dickens, Downton, live concerts, the Proms, jazz and other minority music. You’d probably even lose, in such a (limited) parallel, mass-appeal dramas like Homeland, Dr Who and Merlin.

The arts are more than mere entertainment; they’re part not just of education but of life itself, of a lifelong journey that takes us beyond the familiar and the humdrum into new realms where imagination and inspiration take hold. Only when we explore the new and move beyond the purely functional do we become truly human.

That’s not a wishy-washy, pretentious claim: it’s the truth of what the arts stand for, and of why humankind has always striven to build, paint, carve, play, sing, create – to explore beyond the realm of everyday survival.

When central government requires unreasonable cuts, our local politicians, caught between a rock and a hard place, respond that “there’s no alternative” to slashing the arts.  However it’s rationalised, though, it remains unacceptable to jeopardise people’s true humanity, and the future development of their expressive, creative and spiritual selves.

For that’s what the arts do for society: we can’t afford to lose them.


Why there has to be an alternative to taking away the Arts

Thursday 10th January 2013

I’m as fanatical a Geordie as the next incomer with no right to the title: so I was saddened to discover that the expression “To do a Newcastle” is now a media shorthand for slashing Arts funding.

Plenty of other people have said their two-pennyworth on the topic, and many of them know more about it than I do. I’m not an economist. Nor am I in any sense a politician, so I’m not equipped to say how we should go about saving the millions central government demands – though I do know we cannot live beyond our means as a nation.

Moreover, when a local government of one political hue is at loggerheads with a contrasting national government, I worry whether excessive action is taken by the one so as to prove the other wrong.

Council Leader Nick Forbes claims he has no choice but to slash the council’s spending on the Arts (and that’s leaving libraries and swimming-pools aside). Some commentators suspect him of brinkmanship, of taking so unacceptable a course in order to blackmail Whitehall into making some kind of one-off gesture to Tyneside.

If that’s his intention the same observers reckon he’ll fail. Newcastle’s Live Theatre, Northern Stage and Theatre Royal, jewels in the region’s artistic crown, are all set to lose all council support. Theatres that have brought new, exciting and successful work to national and international stages risk losing any opportunity for future development work.

The Sage, under the NewcastleGateshead banner, seems doomed to lose all of Newcastle’s contribution, whereas Gateshead will trim its support in line with all the other cuts it is forced to make. The latter council, then, appears to be able to find a different solution to the same problem.

Libby Purves, writing in The Times, was outraged by Forbes’s stance, criticising “Disingenuous populist pretences that it’s a straight choice between sick orphans and bobbies on the beat or pampered leftie powers spouting Pinter and toffs in opera hats. It’s not.”

Wow! To be fair, Forbes never laid out that kind of choice for us. On the other hand, he’s sticking doggedly to a “there is no alternative” line when there’s always an alternative: even hard choices are still choices.

Two major figures in the Arts, deeply rooted in the North-East, recently joined the argument. Lee Hall (creator of Billy Elliott and the Pitman Painters) and rock giant Sting protested against the cuts. Councillor Forbes scored an own goal when he dismissed their argument, suggesting that, if they feel so strongly, they should give to the Arts instead of criticising him. Whoops! As it happens, they’d recently clubbed together to provide a specialist music room for a local primary school.

Good for them: it’s great when the rich and successful put something back. And if government, local or national, really believes the Arts should rely for their existence on such beneficence, it should increase, not reduce, financial incentives for the rich to indulge in large-scale philanthropy. But nowadays politicians of all hues are too quick to line up with the tabloids in suggesting there’s something dirty about those who make big money, at least unless they give loads away. No one could deny that either Sting or Hall failed to “graft and strive” (David Cameron’s words) to achieve their success: I expect they pay loads of tax, too: Forbes still rebuked them.

North-East councils are caught between a rock and a hard place: all are required to make swingeing spending cuts. Sadly, just as we never enjoy complete candour from the prime minister and his cabinet, I fear we’re not being given the full picture – and certainly not a right decision – by our City Council.

Newcastle cannot afford to slash the Arts: its thriving Arts scene is integral to the City’s strength and confidence, and its national appeal.

Just why the Arts are every bit as vital as all the other services the council supports, I’ll try to explain next week.


Kindly go out there and make yourselves feel so much better

Thursday 3rd January 2013

It wasn’t a great end to 2012. On 14th December 20 children and six teachers were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Connecticut. Two days later a young female medical student was raped and murdered in Delhi. A quiet church organist in Sheffield was fatally beaten on his way to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. As the old year neared its end the Middle East appeared readier than ever to break out into wholesale bloody conflict (you might argue it already has done). The world was looking sick, its horrors and miseries, as ever, almost entirely man-made.

In the PM’s New Year message David Cameron urged us Brits to have faith, to be optimistic. Whether we have faith perhaps depends on our opinion of his government’s vision of the solution to our economic ills - but optimism?

I am by nature an optimist (I’m forced to live, sadly, with being so often disappointed!) but I reckon this troubled world needs more than mere optimism to put it right. More, too, than the hard work and graft Cameron exhorts us to.

How can we insignificant individuals ensure our feeble New Year resolutions contribute to a better world?  A piece of research in the press just before the year-end might provide a clue: it was to do with the cumulative beneficial effect of unconnected, positive acts of kindness.

You might say an act of kindness has a beneficial effect by definition: if it didn’t do good to the recipient, it wouldn’t be a kindness. But that misses the point.

Researchers at the University of California, Riverside, discovered it’s the person committing the generous act who experiences a life-transforming effect. Working with 400 nine to eleven year-olds, the team required them to perform (and note down) three acts of kindness each week for four weeks: a control group was asked by contrast to note three locations visited each week.

You guessed it (why is this kind of research so predictable?): everyone was happier at the end. But it went much further.  Friendship groups had grown bigger: more children were more popular with more of their peers, and listed greater numbers with whom they’d like to join in activities.

We might still accuse researchers of demonstrating the “bleedin’ obvious”: of course children will get on better with one another if forced to be nice! But that wasn’t how it worked. Their acts of kindness weren’t necessarily to one another: many, indeed, talked about “giving my mom a hug when she was stressed by her job”, or even of “vacuuming the floor”.

Nonetheless, the feeling of confidence or wellbeing they developed through these positive actions affected their social relationships with their fellow students. School was a happier place, and life was better all round - for everyone.

The researchers weren’t surprised by the finding so much as by the scale and speed of change. The lesson to be drawn is clear, and important. Why are lonely people frequently advised to get a dog? Because their sense of wellbeing is increased not by the devotion they receive from their pet, but by the love they give it.

Out of the mouths of babes: we grown-ups have something to learn from this. The benefit of giving isn’t a vague sociological construct, nor a religious dictum to ensure we don’t fall out. Simple human experience demonstrates that we feel better about ourselves when we’re generous: that research underlines the fact that our sense of wellbeing shines out of us and is felt by others. In short, to use HR-speak, it tends to make us radiators rather than sponges.

And in a world where everyone’s trying to do some good, the terrible wrongs I began with would be less likely to occur.

Three acts of kindness a week. Surely it’s worth us giving it a try?

A Happy (and kinder) New Year to all.