Andrew Neil’s Negative Narrative

I wrote the following when away from home for a few days, never able to fully escape…

I watched Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party Conference speech live on TV on Wednesday, and as an incidental but crucial observation I thought it very good, obviously for me wanting to hear socialist principles articulated with conviction, clarity, warmth and genuine belief. This is what I saw and heard, as did most of the conference delegates it would seem, though not according to BBC bloated political commentator Andrew Neil. Almost immediately after Corbyn had finished, Neil as anchor of the BBC programme showing this went to the ‘outside’ reporter in the foyer of the conference centre who conducted a live, impromptu, in-your-face interview/straw pole of delegates exiting the venue. His question to all was quite simple: what was their view of/response to Corbyn’s speech? He managed to get between 6-8 or more people to respond immediately, and almost all were without hesitation positive, some just expressing that simple response, and others expanding on the policies they were pleased to have heard, a number commenting favourably on Corbyn’s delivery and persuasiveness.

Of this admittedly small straw pole – but I repeat, live and immediate and therefore an honest set of responses – there was one dissenting voice. Only one. This was, however, immediately countered by another person who argued quite forcibly against the dissenter. It is worth mentioning also that the crux of the singular negative observation was that the person hadn’t heard how Corbyn intended to deliver his policies/suggestions, so it wasn’t even opposed to the principles of them – not perhaps surprising, I admit, as the person dissenting was still a Labour Party member.

Straightforward then, yes? Not according to Andrew Neil. His immediate summation of that live, impromptu questioning of exiting delegates’ responses – which were all positive, bar one – was that here we TV viewers all were instantly after Corbyn’s speech and witness to the ‘fact’ there was already in-fighting and argument. Apart from being patently untrue (!) this was the most despicable piece of broadcast journalism to generate a negative narrative that simply did not exist on the evidence we had just seen. All of us watching. Saw and heard. Witnessed as a viewing nation. Andrew Neil simply lied.

Two things: (platitude alert for the first) there may well have been more than one dissenting voice from those who watched Corbyn’s speech in the conference hall, but this wasn’t presented in the BBC interviews given live; (prat alert for this second) earlier in the day, Neil had conducted an interview with two guests about Main Stream Media (MSM), obviously including the BBC, and whether this had reported contrarily on Jeremy Corbyn and the conflicts of late within the Labour Party. Fumbling with saying the initials MSM and pathetically even the term Main Stream  Media (how ridiculous), Neil in interviewing the two clearly conveyed his personal view that the BBC did not indulge in such negative reporting.

Pants an inferno.

Reading ‘Rabbit, Run’ by John Updike


Having gone from the often aggressive pulp noir of four Jim Thompson novellas/novels to a measured pathos in the campus fiction of John Williams’ Stoner, I am now reading the elaborate, burgeoning prose of John Updike’s Rabbit, Run.

It is my first encounter with his work, and he has the most fastidious, intense descriptive style. I am still relatively early in the story, and yet again I am enjoying this literary learning curve in coming to this famous author’s writing so late in my reading days.

You notice immediately that his describing is compulsively extravagant – though the originality keeps it from being overwrought – and in the beginning that decorative description is attached to the most commonplace things, like a reminiscence that Rabbit has of climbing telephone poles as a boy. There is sumptuous detail about all kinds of ordinariness, but as the novel progresses this grows into insights about people [characterisation] and their thoughts and feelings. But it is also much more than this: it is philosophy and psychology conveyed through layer upon layer of outer and inner observational detail.

I am at the part of the story where Rabbit is getting to know the minister/preacher Eccles, and the verbal exchanges about faith [Rabbit’s and, of course, Updike’s own] are woven into the fabric of the whole narrative, like a description of the golf course where they are having a first game together,

Down in the pagan grooves and green alleys of the course Eccles is transformed.

It is of course much more than this, but that one use of the word pagan demonstrates the crisscrossing of external and internal details. It is genuinely exciting – sometimes exhausting – to read, and one has to be willing to take on wave after wave of narrative tangents. So I’ll close this brief diary-like account of my reading and explaining about it with a longer extract from the text, this one where Rabbit is now doing some gardening work for an elderly woman Mrs Smith that Eccles has arranged for him. The move from knowing description of flowers into the world of nature and onto ‘types’ of women wearing flowers in their hair or hats is a snippet of a continuous narrative roller-coaster ride:


The Arrogance of Selective Education on the Backside of a Bus

Theresa May’s proposals to allow for the proliferation of grammar schools in state education are based on many things: much just political blindsiding and deflecting from more critical issues, domestic and international, but also the sheer arrogance of attempting to impose her personal feelings as well as the inherent arrogance upon which selective education itself is based.

Her arguments about the promotion of academic achievement through grammar school education are widely reported today as unfounded by the Education Policy Institute [formerly CentreForum] who have stated We find no evidence to suggest that overall educational standards in England would be improved by creating additional grammar schools. The full report can be found and read here.

Having stated this, I have actually been prompted to express my consistent disdain for May and her proposals not because of this further contrary report on these, but by the  advertisement I saw today on the rear of a local bus: The academic choice in Taunton, the claim made by Queen’s College in that town. It sums up the endemic arrogance of selective education and those offering it, here emanating from the backside of a bus rather than its usual source.

Coleridge Banners


I’ve written before here about my membership of the Coleridge Memorial Trust and being able to contribute some small snippets of writing to a public lectern and a series of mobile banners, three of the latter which are pictured above.

Not by a long chalk am I a Coleridge scholar, but I enjoyed reading his poetry as a teenager, and then later teaching what I appreciated and knew about his writing to other teenagers, especially my great liking for his poem The Eolian Harp. The following banner contains a public offering of that liking for and interpretation of this important poem:




The illustrations and images and indeed most of the other detailed texts provided by a friend and fellow CMT member across all ten banners is impressive. I particularly like the image for this poem, which I have edited to a closer view:


Creative Writing Ideas: National Poetry Day, 6th October, 2016


I’m pleased to have my National Poetry Day resource Writing poems about messages published on Teachit here. The work presented is heavily edited from that submitted, and I understand this entirely. It is a good port of call for the resource, especially if as a teacher you are looking for a concise and student-friendly presentation. There is also a wealth of other English teaching resources contributed by practitioners.

For those who want to see the original, complete detail, I am posting this here now. I will present the teachers’ notes in full and then add a link to download this [a pdf that can be copied and printed]. What the Teachit editing doesn’t do is provide the individual students’ sheets with specific and detailed guidance, though there is a PowerPoint for use with a white board. I will also post these here as links to pdf copies so they can be downloaded.

If I have one urge to make that does not get reflected in the Teachit edit, it is to be adventurous, always, and avoid the literal as much as possible. This is National Poetry Day: I don’t think, in reality, we should be expecting students to suddenly on this day write what I call ‘conventional poems’; it is a day to provide ideas and structures that encourage and guide students to writing imaginatively, adventurously, and as weirdly as they want! One of my ideas Message to Myself is presented in the edit just literally [and this is one aspect of the idea I did provide] but it omits my important caveat but prompts to the lighter and the experimental will likely appeal to most, and the even more direct one I make in my student sheet on this idea, available below: Some of these can be serious – your hopes and aspirations – but this is a chance to be as outrageous as you can. 

Here is the original, full teachers’ guide [right click on links within the following so they open in new window]:

Teachers’ Guide: National Poetry Day, 6th October, 2016: Messages

This annual celebration is an opportunity to encourage students to write for pleasure and fun, taking the theme – this year Messages – and writing as creatively as possible using poetic ideas and possibly forms that suit interest and ability.

The following prompts are designed to encourage creative writing [and thinking] rather than the production of ‘conventional’ poems, and most of the stimulus guides students to write List Poems. This is a form that is straightforward in providing structure whilst also encouraging creative ideas in continuous runs of lines.

Each idea is linked to familiar ways in which Messages are thought about today and/or conveyed.

All of the ideas are described in detail here as teacher’s notes, and there are accompanying student resource sheets that can be used to help further prompt the students, especially providing ideas for preparations to be made before their actual writing. All too often students attempt to simply write a ‘poem’ from scratch, and this rarely works! List Poems are in essence straightforward to write, but the student preparation and the leap they need to make to being ‘poetic’ will need the teachers’ explanations and encouragement.

  1. Text Message List Poem

This idea uses text message abbreviations [an exaggeration of these rather than necessarily in common usage] to prompt students in writing creative interpretations instead of literal meanings of the selected abbreviations.

As with most of these suggestions, the purpose is to provide frameworks in which students are thinking metaphorically and/or obtusely rather than factually and expectedly. In many ways, this is a mental work-out on the theme of Messages to move away from the transactional to the poetic.

Working individually or as pairs/small groups, students will simply need a resource sheet with abbreviations, easily found on the internet. These should be scrutinised and edited to suit school use and/or age range. An example can be found here:

Students should begin each line of their poem with a texting abbreviation, using/explaining it with an original or unexpected interpretation.

The following sample/model may help to get students started:

Text Message List Poem

IMHO this is the best poem you will ever read
SWALK is harder on A4 envelopes
U4E as long as it lasts
OTOH I have five fingers too
ATM I am thinking of the next line……

  1. Message in a Bottle Poems

This is the obvious one!

There are a number of possibilities for this, and here are a few suggestions, with examples as starters/prompts for students.

The actual use of a bottle will be an optional part of each [we are generally being metaphoric, after all]. Indeed, the temptation would naturally be to treat this as realistically as we can, especially for those whose schools are near the coast [!], but it might be an important contextual point to refer to the pollution of the world’s oceans and seas, especially with plastic, and the use of plastic bottles would be the immediate and convenient consideration as a receptacle. For those students who want to debate using original glass ones instead…..

For this first idea, however, students can use a bottle and a means to seal this as it is a genuine message to themselves in the future –

Message to Myself Poem

There is a popular writing workshop task of composing letters to oneself, usually as adults reflecting back on and advising themselves when younger. Indeed, a very contemporary example would be Victoria Beckham writing a letter to herself as presented in Vogue magazine [details here]. There are many other examples that can be found on the internet as an extra resource.

Taking this approach, students can write messages to themselves in the future, hoping for and anticipating achievements and experiences. It is difficult to define what the tone should be and many would naturally, and perhaps most productively, want to treat this seriously, focusing on their ambitions. This will be for the teacher to decide – and individual students, obviously – but prompts to the lighter and the experimental will likely appeal to most.

The following example continues the preference for students being creative/imaginary, and the model again is provided and suggested to provide a framework: a structure that can be copied by students. This uses a repeated line I hope you have with four following details, this becoming itself a repeated pattern. There can be many ‘ordinary’ suggestions, but these should be contrasted with the outlandish and therefore poetic!

Message to Myself

I hope you have

been happy
scored a thousand goals
returned from that trip to Mars
passed all your exams, especially English

I hope you have

always washed your hands
invented tasty food without calories
written the book Homework Made a Doddle for your own children
fell deeply in love

I hope you have

made up for that big mistake [you know the one]
run your fastest time
stopped changing your hair colour
continued changing your hair colour

…..and so on

Rescue Me Message List Poem

This takes the most obvious ‘message in a bottle’ idea and presents in as a list poem with the repeated opener to each line rescue me….

And it may be sensible to also stick with the most stereotypical place from which to be rescued: the Desert Island [which is near the ocean for the bottle……]. There could be other places, but these can quite quickly become sinister and oppressive – like a dungeon or even house where someone is kept captive – and it is best to keep with the conventional ruse, though even with this, Loneliness would be a common theme. As ever, teachers need to be sensitive to the mood and tone they want or feel they need to set.

This is also a poem where a model as prompt could close down the options for individual creativity as areas for focus are so obvious and nearly finite: sand, heat, food [absence of], shelter, loneliness, and so on.

Therefore, some opening class discussion might build up a collective map of these very details to consider when writing poems, either individually or in pairs/small groups. For example – in talking about what there would be to eat, the students will probably mention fruit, then perhaps fish and wild animals. Discuss what would be missed if fruit was the only thing you do ever manage to eat, and then how this will be conveyed in a line in the poem.

However, if a model is still considered useful/desirable, here is another starter prompt:

Rescue Me Message List Poem

rescue me from the sand and sand and sand and sand
rescue me from the jungle’s silence
rescue me from the jungle’s night-time voices
rescue me from the fruit without fat and gristle
rescue me from the mirage of McDonalds
rescue me from the sound of my own thoughts

…..and so on

More Messages in a Bottle Poems

Two of the more interesting facts about the history of messages in a bottle are:

  1. The ‘colourful’ one is that Queen Elizabeth I was so concerned any such bottles washed up on English beaches might conceal the secret messages from British spies and/or fleets sailing the world’s oceans, she appointed an Uncorker of Ocean Bottles and only this person was legally permitted to retrieve the messages from any found. It was also a crime, punishable by the death penalty, if anyone else did this.
  2. The ‘functional’ one is that the most common use of messages in a bottle was for Drift Bottle Studies: bottles used for the scientific purposes of measuring the direction and pace of the flow of ocean currents. There are, apparently, many different ways in which bottles were weighted and so on to control the conditions for their drifting. Further study will provide specific examples of interesting results from this activity…

This next idea combines these two facts into a poetic reality. It is another List Poem similar to Message to Myself, but there is an assumption these aren’t all being done with the same students!

This again provides the clear structure of repetition and prompt lines, and the imaginary details that are added to these should be just that: adventurous and metaphoric. It is worth stressing here too that as well as providing a framework for all students to write, but especially those who find it difficult to work in any detail [with significant detail therefore provided already in the repetitions] these are ideal for reading aloud – once more because of those repeated rhythms:

Uncorker of Current Flow Messages in a Bottle Poem

I uncorked the bottle and discovered

this drift current flows from a blue whale’s travels
this drift current flows from plastic palpitations
this drift current flows from the Titanic’s echo

I uncorked the bottle and discovered

this drift current flows from flowing
this drift current flows from sharks chewing
this drift current flows from an unbreakable code

…..and so on

3. Mixed Messages Poem

This is the most complex idea, and would be for older students and/or those who have a particular interest in writing creatively, being keen to experiment. It also requires access to tablets/PCs and will need careful research and preparation from the teacher. Accessing word-generator and randomiser sites will also require testing with school networks and ease/acceptability of access.

It could very sensibly be done as a singular, whole-class activity with the teacher using the white board and generating a randomised text for all individual students [or again as paired/small group work] to produce a Mixed Messages Poem. This will be clear from the following instructions.

This will also necessitate practise from the teacher [though all of the ideas collected should be attempted before taught]. Two word-generator sites can be found and used here:

By feeding in a text – written by a student/or researched – that original is then randomly mixed to from a jumbled ‘new’ text. Students find new organisations of their original and re-present these as a fresh text, shaped poetically: narrow, minimal stanzas do seem to work best here. This is, of course, the very essence of Found Poetry, and these devices acting as electronic cut-up machines.

Students can feed in:

  • any of the poems already written about Messages
  • original writing that purposefully mixes content/detail/attitudes to a subject
  • text about Messages in any context selected from search engine results [cut and paste into generator]
  • research specific content about Messages in a Bottle [Wikipedia Message in a Bottle, Historical examples is excellent for suggesting other texts/details] and cut and paste in as immediate above

The following is a quick and simple example, though encouraging students to take that poetic leap of finding and then shaping a text that transforms itself from the original. As with all experimental writing, a useful maxim/moto would be: it doesn’t need to make literal sense, but it must make grammatical sense. Therefore, grammatical words can be added to make the writing ‘accurate’.

The following example used the Lazarus Corporation Text Mixing Desk and fed in the Uncorker of Current Flow Messages in a Bottle Poem from above. What follows is the newly generated text and a short poem written from this. One imagines that a longer poem/text would be fed in to generate more text and variety, but this still demonstrates the interesting possible outcome:

Mixed Text

This drift current flows from sharks blue whale’s travels this drift current this drift current flows from a chewing this drift current flows from this drift current flows from flowing flows from plastic palpitations this drift I uncorked the bottle and discovered current flows from the Titanic’s echo I uncorked the bottle and discovered. Bottle and discovered.

Crafted Poem from Mixed Text

Bottle and
the Titanic’s

chewing this drift.

This current
flows from
flowing’s flow


Another Example

If useful, here is one more example. The resource for this was taken from information on this site  and this contains interesting pictures of Drift Cards [really!] and other information about Messages in a Bottle.

Original text

This bottle was released at sea as part of a large-scale study of ocean currents. Information on the date and time of release is on file at the Coast and Geodetic Survey in Washington D.C. You can add to the knowledge of ocean currents by returning the addressed card with the requested information on the date and place where you found the bottle. You will receive by return mail information as to where the bottle was released. Your cooperation in giving accurate information will be of great assistance.

Text generated from Lazarus

On file at the Coast and where the bottle was released. Bottle was released. Your Geodetic Survey in Washington D. In Washington D. C. You card with the requested information on of ocean currents. Of ocean currents. Information on the as part of a large-scale study can add to the knowledge of found the bottle. Found the bottle. You will receive cooperation in giving accurate information will ocean currents by returning the addressed the date and place where you date and time of release is by return mail information as to This bottle was released at sea. Released at sea.


Released at sea
you will receive
the cooperation
of ocean currents.

By returning
you will receive
knowledge of the
ocean’s release.

NB There is no student resource sheet for this idea. It will need careful introduction and illustration by the teacher if being used for individual student writing. Otherwise, as a whole-class activity these teacher’s notes will be most usefully shown on a white board [the examples, at least], edited if required.

PDF Downloads:






Reading ‘Stoner’ by John Williams: the Empathy of Ennui and Endurance


Reading John Williams’ Stoner has been an emotional experience. I initially struggled with the pervasive sadness and darkening tone, the latter a relentless characteristic of the narrative whilst the theme of a personal pathos was one that other writers have championed as its paradoxically ‘beautiful’ appeal, expressed as such on the back cover blurb of my Vintage Classics edition:

A terrific novel of echoing sadness – Julien Barnes

democratic in how it breaks the heart… – Colum McCann

A brilliant, beautiful, inexorably sad, wise and elegant novel – Nick Hornby

I have read and enjoyed novels of greater tragedy, thinking immediately of quite different examples like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage – sticking in my mind as being powerfully affecting, though both read in my youth – and there are many more that I have read then and obviously as an adult when I could increasingly relate to the human experience reflected. There are clearly thousands and thousands of other lasting examples.

I say ‘enjoyed’ as one does, but it is an ironic observation about texts like these and Stoner, and I have used the expression automatically but also because of this singular exchange from John Williams which was made in a 1985 interview with Brian Wooley who asked him

And literature is written to be entertaining?

to which Williams replied

 Absolutely. My God, to read without joy is stupid.

Terms like ‘entertaining’ and ‘joy’ do not readily equate with the emotional experience of reading Stoner. There are moments of minor triumph that do prompt the latter, though this is a relative response, and the utterly transient nature of any happiness or ‘joy’ is despairing, certainly at first. It is later in the story simply inevitable.

But this concern with upbeat tags is in many ways peripheral because we understand such paradoxes and ironies are the substance of engaging with great literature. My personal response echoes these uncertain considerations: the first is more noticeably marginal in explaining my overall experience; the second is deeper.

I came to reading Stoner after devouring four Jim Thompson noir novels – and before that a Larry Brown short story collection – so their exaggerated storylines of brutality, deception, gratuitous experiences [sexual and violent, often combined], revenge, and even surreal conclusions are worlds away from John Williams’ book set mainly in the University of Missouri and its immediate environs and spanning the two World Wars. It therefore took a while to incline myself both intuitively and through the power of William’s storytelling to the comparatively mundane if nonetheless profound experiences of William Stoner. Where the pulp noir provided an often vicarious thrill, Stoner transferred an empathy of ennui.

My deeper experience was one of growing identification. I know the immediate connection I am about to make is tenuous, but that is how great literature truly engages – when we see/understand something of ourselves in what we are reading. Accepting the superficiality: William Stoner moves from a farming background to education and teaching, the latter discovered through a growing appreciation of literature he learns when first attending university to study agriculture. I came from working on a farm that I thought would be a lifelong career to also study and become a teacher.

I said it would be tenuous and superficial. But I am not ashamed to say that I felt goose-bumps [a classic literary connection…] when I read the following, very early in the story. Having now changed from studying agriculture to literature, Stoner is having a discussion with Archer Sloan, an instructor at the university at the time, and a mentor as well as friend of sorts – not that Stoner really has many friendships – who tells him an important revelation:

“But don’t you know Mr Stoner?” Sloan asked. “Don’t you understand about yourself yet? You’re going to be a teacher.”

Suddenly Sloan seemed very distant, and the walls of the office receded. Stoner felt himself suspended in the wide air, and he heard his voice ask “Are you sure?”

“I’m sure,” Sloan said softly.

“How can you tell? How can you be sure?”

 “It’s love, Mr Stoner,” Sloan said cheerfully. “You are in love. It’s as simple as that.”

And of course he means in love with literature. Stoner does become and remains an English teacher, later assistant professor, throughout his whole life. He is industrious – a main theme in the story – and at times influential and even animated, but we are never given the impression that he is inspirational. This is not a story upon which Robin Williams as teacher John Keating in Dead Poets’ Society could be based.

There is of course much more with which I identify, especially as the older reader I am now and experiencing a life that has had its own demands for stoicism and acceptances – certainly no more than many have to accommodate in their lives, but enough.

Williams is fated to his enormous share of failures, most not of his making, and many caused by those who should be closest to and supportive of him. Even his marriage is doomed, and the following is an example of that relentless narrative describing inevitable problems and decline:

And so, like many others, their honeymoon was a failure, yet they would not admit this to themselves, and they did not realise the significance of the failure until long afterward.

They arrived in St Louis late Sunday night. On the train, surrounded by strangers who looked curiously and approvingly at them, Edith had been animated and almost gay…

Almost gay! This is the story of Stoner’s life, to only become occasionally and fleetingly happy, though this is not even about him. There is a tenderness in the way Williams does continue here and describe the inability to consummate their marriage that night, a portrait of a stereotypical anxiety and naivety from two virgins, and we as readers empathise as we will do on many more occasions. But Edith’s later evil treatment of William, especially the way she alienates their daughter from him as well as appropriating and altering anything originally belonging to William and having offered him some limited comfort and security, is one of the major and withering battles he has to fight and ultimately lose. He also loses because he simply acquiesces to the mistreatments. It is a manifestation of both his stoicism and his temerity.

The single sustained joy in Stoner’s life is his love for and affair with Katherine Driscoll, but this lasts no more than a year, if that. When we read of their shared passion it is such a genuine delight at that precise point, but we know it is doomed. From the very beginning. And it is ended mutually, but this has been brought about by the interference of another evil character in the story, Hollis Lomax. He, along with a student Charles Walker – and to some but lesser degree his daughter Grace – also conspire to ruin Stoner’s life, and we are naturally, painfully angered by this which is what engages so powerfully despite the inevitabilities of their victories. Maybe more so because we know the outcome and thus have our anger neutered by this.

It will be obvious from all I have written what an emotive experience reading Stoner is. To do so we have to acquire an emotional endurance which is the essence of Stoner himself, and this is our painful empathy. As I have said, and for slight but also deep reasons, it took me some time to make this acquisition. As with any literary tragedy, the qualities that make it bearable and indeed uplifting are in its expression, and whilst not particularly poetic, there is a consistent honesty in the narrative, and the measured way in which this is sustained becomes itself a calm, palpable tone and we are wrapped within it, suffering too but completely controlled by its sense of normalcy.

There is wisdom too. Stoner’s personal suffering is framed within the two World Wars and that universal suffering. Although never occupying much in the storyline, death and destruction become a backdrop, and Stoner loses one of his only two friends Dave Masters to the First World War, and he witnesses the further diminution and ultimate death of Archer Stone after the Second World War.

With Stoner’s epic endurance in life comes a personal wisdom and it is this which presents nobility transcending his stoic suffering. It is this nobility which we as readers take as the reward for our enduring the moments of strain in reading. Williams presents this throughout the novel but also in the following with a calm formality that belies its significance. I can’t quite see the expression or the knowing as ‘beautiful’. But I do accept it as hugely rewarding to have witnessed and lived with during reading:

In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion, toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia. Now in his middle age he began to know that it was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.

Measuring Inward Worth by Outward Standards

Further to my previous posting I have noted another salient quote by Edward Holmes from his book What Is and What Might Be, where he is writing a critique in 1911 of what is fundamentally wrong with our education system in this country:

In my attempt to account for the failure of elementary education in England to foster the growth of the educated child, I have travelled far. But I must travel farther yet. The Western belief in the efficacy of examinations is a symptom of a widespread and deep-seated tendency, – the tendency to judge according to the appearance of things, to attach supreme importance to visible “results”, to measure inward worth by outward standards, to estimate progress in terms of what the “world” reveres as “success”. It is the Western standard of values, the Western way of looking at things, which is in question, and which I must now attempt to determine.

As if to reassure but also add to the anger and annoyance that such criticism has existed without remedy for so many years, I have just read in the Introduction by John McGahern to John Williams’ wonderful novel Stoner the following where he writes about an interview Williams gave to Brian Wooley in 1985. This key reference to what was said in that interview reflects poignantly if fleetingly on these thoughts about education here in the UK both historically and, despairingly, in the present. It is the first and brief part of the extract that does this, and whilst Williams is referring to university education, it is still applicable as a general view of the detrimental ideological impact on all levels of education

Pressed towards the end of the interview he [Williams] complains about the change away from pure study towards a purely utilitarian, problem-solving way of doing things more efficiently, both in the arts and sciences, all of which can be predicted and measured.

The rest of the extract I am quoting here is more to do with the study of literature, but is making a similar point. I am quoting this too in advance of writing a review of the novel Stoner, especially the notion of it being ‘entertaining’ and a ‘joy to read’:

Then, more specifically, Williams complains about the changes in the teaching of literature and the attitude to the text ‘as if a novel or poem is something to be studied and understood rather than experienced.’ Wooley then suggests playfully, ‘It’s to be exegeted, in other words.’ ‘Yes. As if it were a kind of puzzle.’ ‘And literature is written to be entertaining?’ Wooley suggests again. ‘Absolutely. My God, to read without joy is stupid.’

Our Conception of the Meaning and Value of Life – Edmond Holmes

Another ‘Your Memories on Facebook’ prompting, from 2012, the following comment from me then demonstrates a few things: that I am consistent in my political sharing there, but more importantly, and sadly, that in 1990 yet even well before this in 1911 – so spanning over 100 years to now – the serious concern expressed about how education in this country is being destroyed by the obsession with academic measurements [think May’s current grammar-school ideology] has done little to halt the progress of that dangerous dogma:

Paddy Creber, former Senior Lecturer at Exeter University School of Education, writing critically back in 1990 of the then calls for ‘rigour’ in changes to teaching and examining, especially in English, cites in support of his despair at this the writing of Edmond Holmes who himself despaired of similar dangerous educational rhetoric further back in the 1862-98 period: ‘to show that the externalism of the West, the prevalent tendency to pay undue regard to outward and visible ‘results’ and to neglect what is inward and vital, is the source of most of the defects that vitiate Education in this country, and therefore that the only remedy for these defects is the drastic one of changing our standard of reality and our conception of the meaning and value of life’.

Grammar Schools and the Political Posturing of May, Gove and Osborne

I would never apologise for the honesty of my anger and despair when commenting immediately on this blog about Theresa May’s proposals to re-introduce grammar schools widely into the state education system. On reflection, my lengthy angst was probably unnecessary, though its expression was at the very least cathartic for me, and I would hope of interest in contributing to the argument against her proposals to anyone interested.

I say ‘unnecessary’ in as much as I increasingly feel she will not achieve her ambition, but also because the wider public backlash and arguments against, much from within her own Party, will have more impact in making sure she does not achieve that goal.

As the weeks have passed, it does seem that May has made a huge political mistake in laying so bare a highly personal idea [and as I said at the time, an ideological and dogmatic one] before the public, exposing poor judgement as a leader. At an immediate and pragmatic level, this meant she performed poorly against Jeremy Corbyn at the most recent Prime Minister’s Question Time, and in the longer run it has generated a widely publicised debate on education which has ironically for her exposed significant evidence against her claims that grammar schools can provide social mobility and justice, especially for students from ‘poor’ backgrounds.

Perhaps one of the more comically loathsome outcomes has been the backing for her views by Michael Gove, former Secretary of State for Education and now publicly notorious back-stabbing Machiavellian MP. It is the most naked demonstration of his desire to resurrect some political favour from the ignominy of his current Tory banishment, and it will, one hopes, cast an inevitable sickly shadow over May’s poor judgement when she can really only muster support from the likes of this has-been.

The fact that George Osborne has spoken out against May’s grammar school ambitions to establish, for him, a polar position for a future Tory Party leader election, adds more weight to the sense that all of it – her introduction of the proposal, Gove’s slimy support, and Osborne’s public disagreement – always were and will be simple acts of political posturing and ambition with little regard for the actual education of the majority of young people in this country.