In Transit

Commuting days until retirement: 230

Among what would probably nowadays be called the commuting community − if it weren’t so hard to say, that is − things have changed over the years. In my previous incarnation as a commuter, before I spent a period working from home (something like 20 years ago) the range of train-bound activities was different. Most newspaper readers struggled with big broadsheets, trying vainly to avoid irritating their neighbours by obscuring their vision or tickling their ears as they turned the pages. Now they will either skim through a free tabloid (for London commuters like me there’s the Metro in the morning or the Standard on the way home) or skip nimbly through the contents of a morning daily on their tablet. If any were using mobile phones they could only at that time have been either texting or talking on them. The rumbling of the train was punctuated by the raucous piping of that horrible Nokia tune, or some other crude electronic noise. Reading on my journey now, I’m often startled by a sudden explosion of pop music, a brass band, a morning chorus of twittering birds or a concussion of breaking glass. It takes a few moments of perplexity before you come to and realise it’s just another ring tone.

Laptop computers in those earlier times were still sufficiently rare that one man I worked with avoided using one on the train because he was afraid everyone would think he was showing off. In the intervening years they multiplied rapidly for a while, only to have their entertainment functions largely replaced by tablets and smartphones. Of course there are still the laptop diehards, mostly using the train as an extension of the office. A discreet glimpse over one of their shoulders usually shows them to be working on a financial spreadsheet, or bent over some programming code. Such dedication! It may not save me from being a dull boy, but I do take care to keep my commuting time free of work − of that sort of work, anyway.

Many of course just lose themselves in music on their noise-cancelling headphones. There’s one man on my train every day, in both directions, whom I have never actually seen without a large pair of headphones on − and that includes his walk to and from the station. I often wonder whether they have been surgically implanted. And a whole new range of activities has sprung up that were not possible formerly, the most popular of all being just to play with your smartphone. That’s what I’m doing now, in writing this, if it counts as playing, which it probably does. From where I’m sitting now, on the morning train, just at my end of the carriage I can count four Metros, one Kindle, one book, one laptop, two phone-fiddlers (including me) and one handheld game console, right next to me. The iPads seem unusually rare today − although I have just spotted one up the other end of the carriage. That leaves two deep in conversation, one asleep, and two looking out of the window − earnest students of misty early morning fields, grazing cows, builders yards and back gardens ranging from the fanatically neat to the chaotically neglected.

And so the rows of heads comprising this very twenty-first century aggregation of social chit-chat, dreams, electronic jitterbugging and imaginary digital worlds sway in synchrony with the jolting of the train as it rattles towards the capital. In the meantime I am realising that this piece, intended as an introduction to a review of some of my recent fiction reading on the train, has outgrown its purpose and will have to be a post on its own. The reviewing will be coming next.

Jam Tomorrow

Commuting days until retirement: 255

George Osborne

The saintly Mr Osborne

My unlikely hero of the hour – well, of last week, anyway – is the gentleman whose title derives from a medieval tablecloth bearing a chessboard pattern: the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Right Honourable George Gideon Oliver Osborne M.P. I’m as cynical about politicians as most people, but just occasionally one of them does something that seems so aligned with my own selfsh interests that I develop something that looks fearfully like a soft spot for them.

In this case, of course, it was the recent budget. Before the budget, the number of commuting days you see at the top of this post was in danger of being at least doubled. It works like this: as you might not know if you’re very much younger than me, the money you are putting aside as a pension throughout your working life (or not as the case may be) is not taxed by the government; but the downside of this has always been that you were not allowed to do whatever you liked with it when you retired, however sensible your plans might be. Your only option was to use it to buy an annuity, which would supply you with an income in retirement. You could shop around for the best deal, but once you had signed up for one, that was it; you were in it for life.

With all the recent economic shenanigans, and the record low interest rates, annuity rates have been flatlining. I was increasingly aware that if I had retired in May 2015 at the age of 67,as I had planned, the income I’d be stuck with wouldn’t be what I had once expected. My best option was to hang on grimly for another year or two in the reasonable hope that annuity rates would look up a bit.

But since last week Mr. Osborne has unexpectedly changed all the rules. Now when people retire they will be able to grab it all and run – or perhaps set off in a Lamborghini or on a world cruise, as the media have not been slow to point out. I’m fairly hopeless with money, but not that hopeless; and at least there’s no need to wait around for things to look up before retiring. I can choose whatever investment option looks best for my income, and then update it as often as I want.

It still means halving my income – this is the time if life when you wish you had thought more about boring things like pensions when you were younger. But of course they were only relevant to old people, that curious species that had nothing to do with you. I was only guided into saving what I did by various advisers whose wisdom I belatedly recognise; otherwise I would probably have left it until it was much too late.

But for me, it’s worth it to sacrifice a comfortable income for the incalculable improvement in quality of life that consists in having the time and freedom to develop my own thoughts, rather than being harnessed much of the time in the traces of my employer’s narrow aspirations. (Necessarily so, but narrow nonetheless: you see why this blog is anonymous.) And so the figure at the top of this post is safe for now, and I’m starting to salivate at the prospect of jam tomorrow; maybe not today, but definitely sooner than the day after tomorrow. The jam in question may be rather abstract – not the sort of item to appear on an accountant’s balance sheet – but it’ll taste good to me. Mr. Osborne has obliged me by giving the top of the jar its first vigorous opening twist.

Sharp Compassion

Commuting days until retirement: 260

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.
   (from T.S.Eliot – East Coker)

Do No HarmA book review prompted this post: the book in question is Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery, by Henry Marsh. I’ve read some more reviews since, and heard the author on the radio. I think I shall be devoting some commuting time to his book in the near future. It’s a painfully honest account of his life as brain surgeon, a calling from which he’s about to retire. Painful, in that he is searchingly candid aboout failures as well as successess, and about the self-doubt which he has experienced throughout his career. In fact his first chapter begins – rather alarmingly, after a life in the profession: ‘I often have to cut into the brain and it is something I hate doing.’

Some examples: we hear what it is like to explain what has happened to a woman patient in whom one of the mishaps which is always a risk in brain surgery has left her paralysed down one side. He tells her he knows from experience that there is a good chance it will improve.

‘I trusted you before the operation,’ she said. ‘Why should I trust you now?’
I had no immediate reply to this and stared uncomfortably at my feet.

He describes visiting a Catholic nursing home which cares for patients with serious brain damage. He recognises some of the names on the doors, and realises them to be former patients of his own for whom things didn’t go as well as he would have hoped.

Marsh’s title Do No Harm is of course an ironic reference to the central tenet of the Hippocratic Oath; but we know that in modern medicine things aren’t as simple as that, and that every operation should only be undergone after a weighing up of the risks and likely downside against the benefits. These are never so stark as in neurosurgery, and, not surprisingly, its sheer stressfulness ranks above that of intervention in other parts of the body. Marsh rather disarmingly says, against the popular conception, that it mostly isn’t as technically complex as many other kinds of surgery – it’s just that there is so much more at stake when errors occur. He quotes an orthopaedic surgeon who attends Marsh himself for a broken leg, and hearing what he does, clearly feels much happier being in orthopaedics. “Neurosurgery,” he says, “is all doom and gloom.”

I have often imagine what it must be like to be wielding a scalpel, poised over a patient’s skin, and then to be cutting into a stomach or a leg – never mind a brain. Of course a long training, learning from the experts and eventually taking your own first steps would give you the confidence to be able to cope with this; but it’s to Marsh’s credit that he has retained such a degree of self-doubt. Indeed, he speculates on the personalities of some of the great neurosurgeons of the past, who didn’t have the technical facilities of today. Advances could often only be made by taking enormous risks, and Marsh imagines that it would sometimes have been necessary for them to insulate themselves against concern for the patient to a point that marks them as having not just overweening self-confidence, but poitively psychopathic personalities.

I’m lucky not to have been under the knife myself very often, and never, thankfully, for the brain. But what I have experienced of the medicine has shown me that personalities which, with their unusual degree of arrogance, verge on the psychopathic, are all too common in the higher reaches of the profession. One who sticks in my memory wasn’t actually treating me: he had been commissioned to supply case histories for a medical computer program that I was involved in producing. This was not neurosurgery, but another area of medicine, in which I was aware that he was pre-eminent. We went through these case histories, some of them very complex, which he explained. “I diagnosed that,” he would say, visibly preening himself. On the whole he was perfectly good to work with, provided you showed a decent amount of deference. But at one point he moved beyond the subject matter, to lay down how he thought the program should work. This was my area, and I could see some problems with what he was saying, and explained politely. There was an icy pause. Although never less than polite, he proceeded to make it clear that nobody, least of all a cypher like me, was authorised to challenge an opinion of his, on anything. (Later I went ahead and did it my way in any case.) This was back in the eighties, nearly 30 years ago. Thinking about him before writing this, I googled him, and sure enough, he’s still out there, working at a major hospital and with a Harley Street practice. He must indeed have had enormous ability to have been at the top of his area for so long; but as a practitioner of the healing art he was, like, I suspect, many others, definitely not cuddly.

On the radio programme I heard, Henry Marsh remarked that, if you accept praise for your successes, you must accept blame for the failures, and that there are the medical practitioners who don’t follow that precept. I suspect that my friend described above would have been one of them; I have never encountered a level of self-regard that was so tangibly enormous. Perhaps we should be thankful that there are those who harness supreme technical skill to such overweening confidence – but you shudder a little at the thought of their scalpel in your brain. If this was to befall me, I’d much rather the knife was wielded by someone of Marsh’s cast of mind, rather than an equally skilful surgeon with all the humility of a bulldozer.

The Boiling Frog

Commuting days until retirement: 370

In my post a while back about psychogeography, I mentioned a book called Tunnel Visions by Christopher Ross. Ross is the man who took a job as a station assistant on the London Underground, primarily just to observe and reflect on his fellow humans as they travelled, the very readable result being this book. I had mislaid it in the disordered book-drifts that lie about our house, but finding it again recently I re-read it. In the book Ross mentions a previous professional job which he left in order to travel and experience other cultures – he occasionally refers to these by way of contextualising some of our own peculiarities. Returning to England, he took the Underground job to further his own particular philosophical investigations. I was interested to find that, in the book’s Amazon reviews, there’s one by someone who came across him in his original job, and and mentions that he was a very capable tax lawyer. Evidently his need to engage with the world in a fresh way outweighed any material benefits or intellectual satisfaction in the job. Here’s his preferred metaphor for the fate he had escaped:

Boiling frog

Wikimedia Commons / Arthur G Cox

The boiling frog was a favourite object lesson and it was always hopping into my mind. In order to push back the boundaries of scientific discovery, scientists found out that frogs have nervous systems poorly adapted to register slow incremental change. So if you sit one in a saucepan of water and slowly heat it, the poor frog will stay where it is and boil to death.
We become chiropodists and lawn mower salesmen by a series of imperceptible ‘choices’ and by the time we realise what we’ve done, we’re boiled.

Well, I’ve no doubt that the world is replete with happy and fulfilled chiropodists and lawn mower salesmen, but you know what he means. Of course there are those who have a life plan settled in their minds when they are barely out of childhood, and proceed to stick to it – I’ve met one or two. Michael Heseltine, the former Conservative minister, famously wrote his down on the back of an envelope at the start of his career. It involved making a lot of money, entering parliament, and audaciously ended with ‘Prime Minister’. Only that last step eluded him.

And there are those like Ross himself – the free spirits – who are determined to try and make the world yield up its secrets by taking a more fresh and unconventional approach, probably giving up much comfort and prosperity in order to do so.

But most of us are much more like the frog. You start off in the career stakes with one of the jobs that happen to be there when you need one – most likely the one where your personality chances to gel with the people in the interview. And sooner or later you happen to see an ad for another job with a better salary, and which you realise you now have the experience for – and so on. And by this time you may have children who need feeding and housing, and you can’t step off the treadmill even if you want to.

I rather think, looking around the train at my fellow commuters, that some of them have the air of well-cooked amphibians. Maybe I can claim not to be thoroughly boiled, but can’t deny that I am at least lightly braised. I envy Ross his courage and independence, but I wouldn’t have given up the chance to raise children: parents can find at least as much fulfillment, and valuable life experience, as any philosophical nomad.

Maybe that’s something he still aims to fit his life around; I don’t know – he doesn’t say. I have searched the internet to find out what he’s been up to in the 12 years or so since the book was published,  but haven’t found anything. But I doubt whether he’s fallen back into the evil scientist’s flask.

What about you? I’d like to hear whether you consider yourself to be gently simmering, or good, fresh and raw.

Watching the World Go By

Commuting days until retirement: 381

Not another description of me, looking out of the window of my commuter train, but a few thoughts prompted by looking at some early film footage. A recent programme on Channel 4 looked at the rise of Hitler, using contemporary film from the 1920s and 1930s, which had been digitally enhanced and colourised to a startling level of realism. The thoughts I wanted to share concern not the subject of the films, but the medium itself.

Edweard Muybridge

Edweard Muybridge (Wikimedia Commons)

Most people have some awareness of the early history of moving pictures, the notion having been conceived almost as early as photography itself. Probably the first pioneer of the medium was the somewhat eccentric, but evidently brilliant, Edweard Muybridge. (He had changed his name – as he did several times – from the original Edward Muggeridge). Born in England, he lived for most of his life in the USA, where on his first visit he suffered a near-fatal blow on the head in a stagecoach accident. He recovered, but perhaps this accounted for some of the eccentricity. Some years later, in 1875, on he was tried, again in America, for murder, having shot dead his young wife’s lover. The defence entered a plea of insanity, but he rather gave the lie to that with a speech on his own behalf which was both cogent and impassioned enough to sway the jury to acquit him with a verdict of ‘justified homicide’.

Muybridge's horse

Muybridge’s horse (Wikimedia Commons)

Having started his career as a bookseller he later became a professional photographer, and in 1872 he was commissioned to settle a debate over whether all four hooves of a cantering or galloping horse were ever out of contact with the ground simultaneously. Having established by means of still photographs that they indeed were, he developed a fascination with the possibilities of capturing human and animal movement photographically. His earliest efforts, in the late 1870s, involved placing a number of cameras along the side of a track, and and using various mechanical methods to trigger them sequentially as a moving horse passed by them. Showing the result involved laboriously copying the photos as silhouettes on to a disc, from which they were projected using a device which Muybridge invented and called a Zoopraxiscope.  The animation above shows a modern rendering of his original images.

By the turn of the century integrated, hand-cranked film cameras had been developed, and so, like insects from their pupae, we see the people of over a hundred years ago emerge from their frozen monochrome images into a jerky, half-real life. And in retrospect it seems as if the lack of realism was accentuated as the medium began to be put to use for entertainment. There was already the Victorian tradition of high melodrama, and on top of this actors had to find ways of expressing themselves which did not use sound. The results now appear to us impossibly stilted and artificial.

Alongside this, however, entrepreneurs of the time had, luckily for us, spotted another opportunity to exploit the new medium. They realised that if they were to film ordinary people going about their business, those people may well pay a good price to be able to see themselves in an entirely novel way. And indeed they did. So we have a wonderful resource of animated scenes from streets and other public places of the era. Until recently these early examples of ciné verité haven’t been seen very often, and I’m guessing that the most important reason for this is that other limitation on realism – the speed of the original cameras. They were hand-cranked to the highest rate that the early mechanisms would allow, but this couldn’t match the frame rate of later twentieth century equipment. The choice has been either to slow it down and put up with jarringly jerky motion; or the easier way, of simply showing it at the conventional frame rate so that motion appeared much faster.  The latter option has been resorted to so often that it has given rise to a trope: accelerated motion equals the past. Even more contemporary footage showing mocked up scenes of an earlier era has sometimes been artificially speeded up, in order to borrow a little authenticity.

But with today’s digital techniques that is now changing. Not only can individual frames be cleaned up and clarified, but new frames can be interpolated into the instants between the original ones, slowing bodily movements and restoring a natural appearance. This new realism was what struck me about the scenes I saw of 1920s Germany – but we now have an increasing number of such enhanced early films, going back to around 1900, thanks to those original entrepreneurs. There are a number of examples on YouTube, so I have chosen one to insert here. It shows a selection of scenes in England around 1900. I like to pull the image up to full screen and immerse myself in it, imagining that I am walking the streets of late Victorian or early Edwardian England, and I try unsuccessfully to think the thoughts I might have been thinking if I had really been present then. Although these are humans like us, how do they differ?

Well, most obviously in their dress. What always takes my attention is the ubiquity of hats. I searched through this clip for anyone without one. There us one smartly dressed man standing at the back of a very well-heeled looking family group, who has perhaps just stepped out of the door behind him. Otherwise all I could find was one small child (who had probably lost his) and the rowers on the river and (who are stripped down to their sporting gear, with their hats probably safely awaiting them on pegs in the changing room). Evidently if I’d been alive then I would have considered it almost unthinkable to have left the house on even the shortest journey without something on my head – whether I was rich or poor. And even the rowers are followed by another group of men out for an afternoon boat trip, and they are fully hatted and suited as they brandish the oars. I was also taken by the man who appears about 40 seconds into the sequence, approaching the camera while, in an apparently habitual gesture, he strokes back each side of his carefully manicured handlebar moustache. His bearing suggests that he considers himself the epitome of 1900 cool. He unceremoniously sweeps two children out of his way before moving off to the left. That action in itself suggests that a rather less indulgent attitude to children was commonplace then.

But looking at urban streets at that time, and allowing for all the obvious differences, there still seems something unfamiliar about the movement of the crowd. I realised what it was when watching the 1920s German footage. At that time, in the inflation-hit Weimar Republic, the streets were full of half-starved unemployed, with little to do but – yes – watch the world go by. The film clip above shows people in a more prosperous time and place, but in most of the street shots you can nevertheless see a number who are just passively standing. Some of course are staring at the novelty of the film camera, but you can see plenty of others just watching in general.

Consider what entertainment was available: if you were to stay at home, and were not a reader (many of course never got the chance to be) you either had to make your own entertainment, or go out and find it. And so the street provided the most immediate – and cheapest – way to occupy the mind. In a typical street scene today, virtually everyone would be rushing somewhere unless forced into stasis by a wait for a bus, or by a queue of some sort. And even then they will often be busily talking on the phone or texting. While most of our 1900 public are also on the move, they have to make their way around that now-vanished residue of watchers who are happy to stand and stare at the rest of the world getting to where it wants to get to. And a visual medium in its very earliest form has given us a sense of what life was like without the visual media we are now so used to.

Accident of Birth

Commuting days until retirement: 390

My commuter train reading in recent weeks has been provided by Hilary Mantel’s two Mann Booker Prize-winning historical novels, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. If you don’t know, they are the first two of what is promised to be a trilogy covering the life of Thomas Cromwell, who rose to be Henry VIII’s right hand man. He’s a controversial figure in history: you may have seen Robert Bolt’s play (or the film of) A Man for All Seasons, where he is portrayed as King Henry’s evil arch-fixer, who engineers the execution of the man of the title, Sir Thomas More. He is also known to have had a big part in the downfall and death of Anne Boleyn.

The unique approach of Mantel’s account is to narrate exclusively from Cromwell’s own point of view. At the opening of the first book he is being violently assaulted by the drunken, irresponsible blacksmith father whom he subsequently escapes, seeking a fortune abroad as a very young man, and living on his very considerable wits. On his return to England, having gained wide experience and the command of several languages, he progresses quickly within the establishment, becoming a close advisor to Cardinal Wolsey, and later, of course, Henry VIII. I won’t create spoilers for the books by going into further detail – although if you are familiar with the relevant history you will already know some of these. I’ll just mention that in Mantel’s portrayal he emerges as phenomenally quick-witted, but loyal to those he serves. She shows him as an essentially unassuming man, well aware of his own abilities, and stoical whenever he suffers reverses or tragedies. These qualities give him a resilience which aids his rise to some of the highest offices in the England of his time. In the books we are privy to his dreams, and his relationships with his family – although he might appear to some as cold-blooded, he is also a man of natural feelings and passions.

Thomas Cromwell and the Duke of Norfolk

Thomas Cromwell (left) and Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk – both as portrayed by Hans Holbein

But the theme that kicked off my thoughts for this post was that of Cromwell’s humble origin. It’s necessarily central to the books, given that it was rare then for someone without nobility or inherited title to achieve the rank that he did. What Mantel brings out so well is the instinctive assumption that an individual’s value is entirely dependent on his or her inheritance – unquestioned in that time, as throughout most of history until the modern era. As the blacksmith’s son from Putney, Cromwell is belittled by his enemies and teased by his friends. But at the same time we watch him, with his realistic and perceptive awareness of his own position, often running rings around various blundering earls and dukes, and even subtly manipulating the thinking of the King. My illustrations show Cromwell himself and Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, a jealous opponent. By all accounts Norfolk was a rather simple, plain-speaking man, and certainly without Cromwell’s intellectual gifts. So today we would perhaps see Cromwell as better qualified for the high office that both men held. But seen through 16th century eyes, Cromwell would be the anomaly, and Norfolk, with his royal lineage, the more natural holder of a seat in the Privy Council.

Throughout history there have of course been persistent outbreaks of protest from those disempowered by accident of birth. But the fundamental issues have often often obscured by the chaos and competition for privilege which result. We can most obviously point to the 18th century, with the convulsion of the French revolution, which resulted in few immediate benefits; and the foundation of a nation – America – on the ideals of equality and freedom, followed however by its enthusiastic maintenance of slavery for some years. Perhaps it wasn’t until the 19th century, and the steady, inexorable rise of the middle class, that fundamental change began. As this was happening, Darwin came along to ram home the point that any intrinsic superiority on the basis of your inheritance was illusory. Everyone’s origins were ultimately the same; what counted was how well adapted you were to the external conditions you were born into. But was this the same for human beings as for animals? The ability to thrive in the environment in which you found yourself was certainly a measure of utilitarian, or economic value. But is this the scale on which we should value humans? It’s a question that I’ll try to show there’s s still much confusion about today. Meanwhile Karl Marx was analysing human society in terms of class and mass movements, moving the emphasis away from the value of individuals – a perspective which had momentous consequences in the century to come.

But fundamental attitudes weren’t going to change quickly. In England the old class system was fairly steady on its feet until well into the 20th century. My own grandmother told me about the time that her father applied to enrol her brothers at a public school (i.e. a private school, if you’re not used to British terminology). This would have been, I estimate, between about 1905 and 1910. The headmaster of the school arrived at their house in a horse and trap to look the place over and assess their suitability. My great-grandfather had a large family, with a correspondingly large house, and all the servants one would then have had to keep the place running. He was a director of a successful wholesale grocery company – and hearing this, the headmaster politely explained that, being “in trade” he didn’t qualify as a father of sons who could be admitted. Had he been maybe a lawyer, or a clergyman, there would have been no problem.

Let’s move on fifty years or so, to the start of the TV age. It’s s very instructive to watch British television programmes from this era – or indeed films and newsreels. Presenters and commentators all have cut-glass accents that today, just 60 or so years on, appear to us impossibly affected and artificial. The working class don’t get much of a look in at all: in the large numbers of black-and-white B-movies that were turned out at this time the principal actors have the accents of the ruling class, while working class characters appear either as unprincipled gangster types, or as lovable ‘cheekie chappies’ showing proper deference to their masters.

By this time, staying with Britain, we had the 1944 Education Act, which had the laudable motive of making a suitable education available to all, regardless of birth. But how to determine what sort of education would be right for each child? We had the infamous eleven plus exam, where in a day or two of assessment the direction of your future would be set. While looking forward to a future of greater equality of opportunity, the conception seemed simultaneously mired in the class stratification of the past, where each child had a predetermined role and status, which no one, least of all the child himself or herself, could change. Of course this was a great step up for bright working class children who might otherwise have been neglected, and instead received a fitting education at grammar schools. Thomas Cromwell, in a different age, could have been the archetypal grammar school boy.

But given the rigid stratification of the system, it’s not surprising that within 20 years left wing administrations started to change things again. While the reforming Labour government of 1945-51 had many other things to concentrate on, the next one, achieving office in 1964, made education a priority, abolishing the 11 plus and introducing comprehensive schools. This established the framework which is only now starting to be seriously challenged by the policies of the current coalition government. Was the comprehensive project successful, and does it need challenging now? I’d argue that it does.

R A Butler

R A “Rab” Butler

To return to basics, it seems to me that what’s at stake is, again, how you value an individual human being. In Cromwell’s time as we’ve seen, no one doubted that it was all to do with the status of your forbears. But by 1944 the ambitious middle class had long been a reality, showing that you could prove your value and rise to prosperity regardless of your origins. This was now a mass phenomenon, not confined to very unusual and lucky individuals, as it had been with Cromwell. And so education realigned itself around the new social structure. But with the education minister of the time, R.A. Butler, being a patrician (if liberal-minded) Tory, perhaps it was inevitable that something of the rigidity of the old class structure would be carried over into the new education system.

So if an exam at the age of eleven effectively determines your place in society, how are we now valuing human beings? It’s their intellectual ability, and their consequent economic value which is the determining factor. If you succeed you go to a grammar school to be primed for university, while if not, you may be given a condescending pat on the head and steered towards a less intellectually demanding trade. We would all agree that there is a more fundamental yardstick against which we measure individuals – an intrinsic, or moral value. We’d rate the honest low-achiever over the clever crook. But somehow the system, with its rigid and merciless classification, is sweeping the more important criterion aside.

Anthony Crosland

Anthony Crosland

And so the reforming zeal of the 1960s Labour government was to remove those class-defining barriers and provide the same education for all. The education minister of that time was a noted intellectual – private school and Oxford educated – Anthony Crosland. His reported remark, supposedly made to his wife, serves to demonstrate the passion of the project: “If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to destroy every fucking grammar school in England. And Wales and Northern Ireland”. (In Northern Ireland, it should be noted, he was less successful than elsewhere). But the remark also suggests a fixity of purpose which spread to the educational establishment for many years to come. If it was illegitimate to value children unequally, then in no circumstances should this be done.

You may or may not agree with me that the justified indignation of the time was leading to a fatal confusion between the two yardsticks I distinguished – the economic one and the moral one. And so, by the lights of Labour at that time, if we are allocating different resources to children according to their aptitudes – well, we shouldn’t. All must be equal. Yes – in the moral sense. But in the economic one? Even Karl Marx made that distinction – remember his famous slogan, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”?  All that the reformists needed to do, in my opinion, was to take the rigidity out of the system – to let anyone aspire to a new calling that he or she can achieve, at whatever age, and under whatever circumstances that their need arises.

Back to personal experience. I can remember when we were looking over primary schools for our first child – this would be in the early 90s. One particular headmaster bridled when my wife asked about provision for children of different abilities. The A-word was clearly not to be used. Yet as he talked on, there were several times that he visibly recognised that he himself was about to use it, spotted the elephant trap at the last moment, and awkwardly stepped around it. This confused man was in thrall to the educational establishment’s fixed, if unconscious, assumption that differing ability equals unequal value. (We didn’t send our children to that school.)

Over the years, these attitudes have led to a frequent refusal to make any provision for higher ability pupils, with the consequence that talent which might previously have been nurtured, has been ignored. If you can afford it, of course, you can buy your way out of the system and opt for a private education. Private school pupils have consistently had the lion’s share of places at the top universities, and so the architects and supporters of the state system ideology have called for the universities to be forced to admit more applicants from that system, and to restrict those from the private sector. Is this right? I’d argue that the solution to failure in the state schools is not to try and extend the same failed ideology to the universities, but to try to address what is wrong in the schools. A confusion between our economic and moral valuations of individual threatens to lead to consequences which are damaging, it seems to me, both in an economic and a moral sense.

The plans of the present UK education minister, Michael Gove, have come in for a lot of criticism. It would be outside the scope of this piece – and indeed my competence – to go into that in detail, but it does seem to me that he is making a principled and well intentioned attempt to restore the proper distinction between those economic and moral criteria – making good use of individual ability where it can be found, without being condescending to those who are not so academic, or making the distinctions between them too rigid. And of course I haven’t addressed the issue of whether the existence of a separate private education sector is desirable – again outside the scope of this post.

Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King
(Nobel Foundation)

What, at least, all now agree on is that the original criterion of individual value we looked at – birth status – is no longer relevant. Well, almost all. Racist ideologies, of course, persist in the old attitude. A recent anniversary has reminded us of one of the defining speeches of the 20th century, that of Martin Luther King, who laid bare the failure of the USA to uphold the principles of its constitution, and famously looked forward to a time when people would be “judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”. The USA, whose segregationist policies in some states he was addressing, has certainly made progress since then. But beyond the issues I have described, there are many further problems around the distinction between moral and economic values. In most societies there are those whose contribution is valued far more in the moral sense than the economic one: nurses, teachers. What, if if anything, should we do about that? I don’t claim to know any easy answers.

I kicked off from the themes in Hilary Mantel’s books and embarked on a topic which I soon realised was a rather unmanageably vast one for a simple blog post. Along the way I have been deliberately contentious – please feel free to agree or disagree in the comments below. But what got me going was the way in which Mantel’s study of Cromwell takes us into the collective mind of an age when the instinctive ways of evaluating individuals were entirely different. What I don’t think anyone can reasonably disagree with is the importance of history in throwing the prejudices of our own age into a fresh and revealing perspective.

Fate – Grim or Otherwise

Commuting days until retirement: 469

life-after-lifeThe existence of each one of us, and the crucial events of our lives, are entirely dependent upon a chain of often minor and unrecorded preceding circumstances. Yes – a rather pompous-sounding and trivial observation, but when seen from a subjective point of view it can seem to assume a more profound significance. What prompts this is the novel I’ve just finished, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life.

It’s a theme that often surfaces in contemporary fiction: in Making it Up Penelope Lively takes the events of her own life and allows them to develop in plausible directions other than the one in which they actually did; David Mitchell (the novelist, not the TV personality), in his first novel Ghostwritten, traces interlinked chains of causality around the globe in which, giving just one example, a fleeting encounter in a London street has critical consequences for the future of humanity.

Kate Atkinson has been a favourite of mine since her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum. She has a Dickensian ability to create an extensive collection of characters each of whom are entirely convincing, and whose interactions with each other may surprise you, but are never less than believable. In fact I find her characters more realistic, and less caricatured, than those of Dickens.

In Life After Life her realism becomes a little more magical. It concerns Ursula Todd, born in 1910 and witnessing the events of the 20th century in a variety of different ways (or not at all) as repeated versions of her life take different courses. I’m not giving anything much away – as both of these events come at the very beginning of the book – if I tell you that in one life she dies at birth, and in another gets to assassinate Hitler before he becomes Chancellor of Germany. Ursula’s large and believable family (Atkinson is particularly good at families) also individually suffer a variety of fates alongside Ursula’s own. The close juxtaposition of earthy reality and fanciful metaphysics comes off, for me, entirely successfully.

So what about the metaphysics of real life? Just to consider this blog, it owes its existence to a whole host of preceding factors. Among them is Sir Tim Berners-Lee, as is the precise trajectory of a shell in the battle of the Somme in 1916, which, had it been very slightly different, would have resulted in the death of my grandfather. As it was, it landed close enough to him to give him what all WW1 soldiers hoped for – a ‘Blighty wound’, which was a passport back home.

A scene at Pozieres during the Battle of the Somme

A scene at Pozières during the Battle of the Somme

Torquay in the early 20th century

Torquay in the early 20th century

But the first my grandfather knew of it was when he came back to consciousness in a hospital in Torquay. Like most who have been through experiences like his, he never said very much about them. However some measure of what he had been through lies in the fact that he felt moved to return to Torquay for a holiday nearly every year for the rest of his life. His son, who would have been my uncle, was not so lucky, though. He lost his life in the first months of the second world war at the age of 19. I was told how likeable and outgoing he was as a character, and I’m sure he would have gone on to have a family. I sometimes spare a thought for my non-existent cousins.

Photo: Steve Cadman

Photo: Steve Cadman

Most of us are aware of certain fateful moments in our own lives – at any rate in retrospect. The one that often returns to me took place when I was on a work trip to New York. My hotel room had a view over the United Nations, giving me an almost cheesily memorable backdrop for my thoughts as I sat there. And my thoughts were about a woman of my acquaintance, and how a postcard suggesting we should go out together would be received, if I sent it to her.

The indecision finally resolved itself, and I sent the card. It gives me a curious, vertiginous feeling to think that the existence of my very real, and now adult, children hung in the balance at that moment. You may wonder what their reaction would be on reading this. It would be Oh God, not that story again.

Well, my nearly-wasn’t wife and I are shortly off to Venice for a long weekend. The idea is to have a relaxing break, but having just run the gauntlet of the Ryanair online check-in process we are starting to wonder. Anyhow, I don’t expect to encounter any life-changing events there; but if I return with any memories worth mentioning they may find their way on to these pages.