Deep in greenest, most verdant Devon, in a marquee in the grounds of a well-known boutique hotel, for one night only, Fascinating Aida!
Or Sweet FA, as they sometimes used to call themselves. One of the funniest, wittiest and most original musical entertainments you could ever see. The local jungle telegraph has been busy and there's a complete sell-out of the show, despite there having been no advertising for it, and despite it taking place on a cold, rainy night in a location that's practically impossible to find if you're not familiar with the terrain. You reach it via several lanes that are basically just wide enough for a handcart.
They're billing this as their Silver Anniversary tour, and it's a real gem. They've performed at this particular venue on a number of occasions, to a venerable audience of the South Hams' upper-crust of wealthy, mainly retired, folk. Average age about 70. The perky old boy sitting next to me was 80.
God knows what he made of the song about dogging. Or the one about Tesco. Or the series of so-called Bulgarian folk-style ditties. They were wonderful and hilarious from start to finish. A magical evening that’s witty and satirical and which totally raises the spirits. What fantastic original talents. New CD on sale now. The Silver Anniversary.
Chatting to Dilly Keane, the leader of the trio, their piano player, during the interval, I heard they're not doing any London gigs because it's impossible to make any money there after the cost of a venue has been paid. So much for our capital of culture.
Here's an excellent and very comprehensive review of the current show:
At the other end of the spectrum my spirits were cast into the deepest, darkest pit by the lead article in this week's Guardian Education. Christ knows why but they decided to feature Chris Woodhead and his new book. "Know your enemy", I suppose.
Ghastly, horrible, appalling man, with his vacant gimlet eyes staring out from the photo on the front of the supplement. Nasty, reactionary, ignorant fascist. He even rants on about the gene pool of the lower orders being responsible for their supposed lack of interest in education and lack of achievement. Whoops! What a give away.
I think I need to quote directly from the article to give a proper flavour of this ludicrous bozo, who taught for about two years and considers that qualifies him for the status of pontificator-in-chief on schools and the state of education. He's even got the fucking gall to be disrespectful to Jim Rose and Robin Alexander, his two colleagues on the Primary 'methods' review back in the mid 90's.
The fact that those two eminent gentlemen and scholars take a diametrically opposite view to his on teaching and learning doesn't phase him one bit. Of course, he's right and they're wrong. He has no actual evidence or experience to back up any of his Neanderthal views, but no matter. He's still right.
He never lets doubt enter his mind for one moment. How could he? He's built his whole life and his career on being the scourge of progressive educational thinking. It's what he does. It's what he is. The right-wing media and the private educational sector adore him and pay him handsomely for it, now that he's no longer taking money from the public purse. I suspect his pension and his investments have crashed, thanks to the exploits of his right-wing chums, and he's back in circulation, as it were, trying the generate income from a shitty and very unwelcome new publication.
Take this little gem, this perfect pearl of wisdom: "There is a huge propaganda machine that's lobotomising the teaching profession." And you're not part of the machine, Mr W? So that's you and me folks, should you happen to be a member or an ex-member of the teaching profession - lobotomised. What a patronising, ludicrous tosspot. He just can't see that the instrument of terror and torture, Ofsted, which he helped to create in his role as HMCI and as a collaborator with two utterly reactionary governments, is what's responsible for so many members of the teaching profession acting as though they have no brains.
I hesitate to mention, for fear of promoting it, that his book's called The Desolation of Learning. The sheer nerve of the man to talk about learning when he knows zilch about it. According to the interview he did with Polly Curtis he tries to be the 'antidote' to the 'educational research establishment', the majority of which, he says, reject his passion for grammar schools and "traditional" fact-based learning. Well too fucking right we do, you ignoramus.
He goes on to say that he's 'sickened' by efforts to make education more "accessible" and "personalised", rather than "rigorous". Well, woe betide us if education becomes more available to those who want it, or if it's at all designed to meet the actual learning needs of pupils and students. He wants to have a system of education that divides kids into grammar schools and into other ‘non-academic’ schools for those who just need to learn such things as manual trades. "Practical education", he calls it.
According to Woody, "It would be unlikely that large numbers of grammar school kids would come from disadvantaged areas". And why is that, O wise one? "The genes are likely to be better if your parents are teachers, academics, lawyers, whatever." Maybe add to that bankers, stockbrokers, politicians, estate agents, etc. So it's all down to genes, you see. Presumably the genes are even better if you happen to be white, since that's the dominant group within those professions.
"And the nurture is likely to be better," he adds. So that's the reason I'm such a fucking underachiever. Crap gene pool and lousy upbringing by idiot, unloving parents. If only I'd been blessed with the advantages of Woody, and his ilk. If only I could have grown up to be such a balanced, thoughtful, wise and open-minded individual, and if only I had such a thorough understanding of genetics, eugenics and child psychology. Better still, if only I could have gone to boarding school and grown up away from my parents, like Tony Blair and the Bullingdon Club bozos.
So, finally, here's what the Wooden One has to say about education.
"There are two fundamentally different views of education. On the one hand, there is the emphasis on the child. The insistence that everything must be relevant to the child's experience and to the perceived needs of society. The argument that the teacher should be a mentor or a coach who facilitates the growth of the child's understanding. The current obsession with personalisation. On the other there is the belief that the school is an institution in which children are initiated by teachers, who are authorities in their subjects, into a body of knowledge which has no immediate connection to their lives or necessary relevance to the problems of society. I believe in the latter."
Big C believes in initiation. He believes in teachers who possess subject knowledge and who know fuck all about pedagogy, or how to "facilitate the growth of the child's understanding". He sees no place for mentoring or coaching. He cares not a jot that the "perceived needs of society" include the need for individuals who possess large measures of emotional, social and spiritual intelligence, and also creativity and imagination. He just wants to stuff "a body of knowledge" into kids' heads. Obviously a body of knowledge that he personally approves of.
Chris Woodhead has motor neurone disease, which he says is unfair. Given his belief in God and the all-determining nature of genetics, it's surprising he doesn't consider God's will, and genetic pre-disposition. Is God unfair? And genes that predispose you to having a loud self-opinionated mouth, a narrow mind and a huge ego aren’t necessarily intelligent genes when it comes to physical intelligence and longevity. Or is MND simply a disease that can affect anyone, no matter how ‘good’ their genes?
No matter. I'm with Chrissy on this one. It's unfair. As someone once said, life's a bitch and then you die. Desolation Row, indeed.
Returning to my conversation with the nun earlier this week, however, I still can’t find it in me to actually wish him happiness - not after all he’s done to ruin the possibility of children actually enjoying school and being happy to go to school every day. Woody would be the last person to care about whether or not children actually discover happiness and enjoyment at school. And forget about the joys of self-discovery. Initiation into subject knowledge, and desolation, is all.
Brother B, who did so much to sort out mum’s place when it got flooded by a leak from her loft whilst I was away in Japan, showed me a recent article in the Sunday Times magazine by AA Gill, on the desolation of old age.
Its strap line reads, “Most people in this country die weepingly lonely, left in no doubt that they have overstayed their welcome. This is the greatest shame and horror of our age.”
“Old is not a number, it’s not a date. It’s simply the absence of youth, the absence of attraction, interest, new friends, society. The absence of conviviality, warmth, choice, or surprise, or life.”
“The old aren’t the problem. It’s the rest of us. It’s you and I that have the problem. It’s our collective refusal to look at the old, to be in a room with them, to ask them into our lives. The great terror of our age is age. We would rather consign the old to a netherworld, a waiting room where they are out of mind and out of sight. The old are the zombies at the end of our own home horror movies.
“[The old] live on every street, in every block of flats, above every parade of shops, in every dripping-laurel cul-de-sac, up communal stairs and down muddy lanes. The old sit in mushroom chairs, never further than two feet from a radiator, a phone and the TV. They don’t go out much because out is frightening, panicky, hostile for the old. Outside is a country they don’t belong to any more. Where they’re no longer included.
“You will see none after dark. The old live like Transylvanians, terrified of the young, the swift and supple, loud and late, irritable young. Even when they do venture out among us we don’t look at them, we don’t see them; they cling to the wall, curl up like dead leaves in bus shelters, press themselves into corners.
“The old are slow and cold, brittle and cancerous, breathless, toothless, sexless, forgetful. They’re victims of bugs, of councillors and chancellors, or welfare and weather. They’re also the victims of grief and pity and comedians. To be old is to be stalked by taxes and frost, flights of stairs, and finally God. To be old is to vanish behind the sum of incurable, piteous conditions.
"For many, the final furlong of life is spent immobile in a chair, in a bright room that’s euphemistically called a “home”.
"All life ends in failure. However much you’ve laid aside for the package tour of an afterlife, it ends in failure: heart failure, failing eyes and limbs, the failure of bladders and balance, the failure of memory and hope.
"But it should also be a long moment of success - the pleasure of a race well run, the pride in a family born, nurtured and fledged, a valedictory break on the bench to remember times transcended and misfortunes overcome or stoically subdued.
"We are one of the very few cultures in all the world, down all the ages, that don’t treat age as an achievement in and of itself.
"Ageing is so frightening in part because we treat the old so badly, and we treat them badly because we’re frightened of them. We ignore them and consign them to horrible solitude because we can’t face the truth that someday someone will banish us. Most people in this country die weepingly lonely . . . ”
“We never listen to them; we’re deaf to the old. We assume they have nothing to tell us, nothing but loopy non-sequiturs and circular complaints. Even when the news is about them, nobody asks an old person what they think.
“You know, you really should spend an hour listening to someone who’s lived twice as long as you, not as social philanthropy or goodness, but for your own sake, for the sake of your self-worth, to calm your speechless fears about ageing, and because you’ll hear something funny and clever, touching and probably astonishing.
“Most old people are more interesting than most young people, simply because they’re older. Experience may not bring wisdom, but it does make for some cracking stories. Every old person you ignore has lived through times and done things, seen stuff that you never will, and its worth hearing about.
“We should, at the very least, ensure that nobody, none of our kin, compatriots, kith or countrymen, ever sits alone wishing for their own death because they know of nobody who wishes them to live. We will abate our own fears of ageing by ensuring that someone else isn’t fearful and lonely. You get back what you give.”
Tell that to Chris Woodhead, who I truly hope isn’t a sad and lonely old bastard, even if he can’t go mountain climbing any more.