Look, the thing is, there are only twenty-four hours in the day – yet another thing for which we must blame the Ancient Babylonians, I believe, along with brazen promiscuity and hanging baskets – and everything I’ve written lately has ended up on my other blog, Beware of the Trees, because… well, although that blog is ostensibly about life in SE10, I’ve always thought that each piece contains within it a deeper metaphorical truth pertinent to all our lives, not just those of us who live in Deptford or Greenwich, and if that’s the case then… what’s the point in also posting here?
But then I’ve also always thought that dogs who wear coats should, by law, also be made to wear hats, so… what do I know?
And last week’s big political story has made me stop and re-assess my stance: maybe, after all, not everything is best viewed from an SE10 perspective; maybe some things, like Eric Pickles opening a school fete, need a wider platform; maybe, to put it bluntly, and with more than a hint of self-delusion, I need to relaunch this blog.
By “big political story” I don’t, I should maybe explain, mean the terrifying news that Michael Gove doesn’t “have a perfect recall” of all his girlfriends at Oxford, horrific though that thought is – not to mention somewhat ironic, given that all of Michael Gove’s girlfriends at Oxford have a vivid image of the Education Secretary’s face contorted by the first spasms of sexual ecstasy indelibly burned into their retinas (other than a nice girl from Guildford called Fiona Musgrove who chose to gouge her own eyeballs out). No, I refer to the fact that, yet again, the selfish suburbs and the idiots who’d prefer to vote for someone who makes them laugh rather than someone who makes their lives better have lumbered us Londoners with Boris Johnson for another four years.
Although, of course, that’s not true. Londoners have been lumbered with Boris – whose own election material here in Labour-voting SE10 was so vacuous that it didn’t include a single policy statement, just attacks on Livingstone – by the 62% of people who chose not to walk to the polling station on the facile and imbecilic grounds that politicians are all the same.
When plainly they’re not. The Lib-Dems are pathetic, the BNP are racist, and UKIP, according to their own literature, are utterly incensed by public sculpture. That’s three differences straight off – neither Ken or Boris are, when push comes to shoving each other about in a lift, sad, bad or mad. I’ve no idea where Ken and Boris stand on public sculpture – usually, you’re not allowed to – but I do know that Ken wanted to reduce fares on the tube, whereas Boris, unless I’m deliberately misunderstanding, wants to remove the drivers from tube trains and re-employ them as totally unnecessary conductors on equally unnecessary and hugely expensive new buses.
Politics is still the most important thing in the world, and just sitting around doing nothing is inexcusable. And, by “doing nothing”, I don’t just mean the act of not voting. What I mean is that I could have stood for election with a list full of promises, or I could have stood outside Elephant & Castle station with a fistful of leaflets – though possibly Bromley South would’ve made more sense – or I could, at the very least, have written something on this blog.
But I didn’t do any of those things, and now look what’s happened…
Those that care about such things might like to know that that Smoke: A London Peculiar has just been relaunched as a multi-platform web and paper whatnot. To find out more, click on the words ”Smoke: A London Peculiar” in the previous sentence.
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Pinched between narrow streets whose medieval awkwardness makes it difficult to stand back and frame a photo, the Nikolaikirche, Leipzig’s oldest church, is outwardly pleasing but plain. So to step through the small west door from Nikolaistrasse’s crowded pavement is to suffer a sudden dislocation of the senses, for instead of being filled with gothic gloom and a mood of sombre sanctity, the church reverberates with light: all around, surfaces glow cream and gold, apple green and rose pink, while elegant white-painted pews line a classical avenue of fluted columns whose tops dissolve into fronds of palm that sprawl across an intricately coffered ceiling. It’s the result of a late eighteenth-century refurbishment, and is extraordinary.
Also extraordinary is the black and white photograph I now have in front of me: in it, the same pale pews are clearly visible, but here they’re filled, end-to-end, with people; others, unable to find a seat, lean back against the bench ends, or squat or sprawl in the aisle. Young and old sit side-by-side and gaze, warily defiant, at the camera. The date on the photo is Monday, 30th October, 1989, the first day of the last week before the Wall fell.
Mondays were important in Leipzig, and particularly in the Nikolaikirche. Since 1982, Monday had been the day for the church’s weekly Friedensgebete, “peace prayers”; people would come to church not just to pray, but to campaign for demilitarisation and an end to the Cold War arms race. Later, they would talk too of environmentalism, human rights and democracy. Protestors risked the wrath of the Stasi, but the church was the one institution in the DDR that seemed to offer protection. Early in 1988, Pastor Christian Führer held a meeting at the Nikolaikirche supporting those who wished to leave for the West. By late summer, others at the Monday gatherings were espousing a more radical idea: they wanted to stay, not get out, but in a free and democratic Germany.
In January 1989, Pastor Führer pinned a text to the church’s information board demanding justice in the DDR – it was, he wrote, “our challenge, our expectation”. The following month, a 500-strong rally calling for democracy and freedom was broken up by police, and pressure increased on the Nikolaikirche to discipline those it sheltered, but still the Friedensgebete continued. On 25th September, after the previous Monday’s meeting had ended with police ringing the overflowing church, and many brutal arrests, Pastor Christoph Wonneberger preached a sermon criticising state violence and demanding democratic change through peaceful means; at the end of the service, with police lines blocking the way to the city’s traditional rallying point of Marktplatz, crowds headed hand-in-hand to nearby Karl-Marx-Platz, and from there walked around the city’s ring road to the Reformkirche and back, gathering support until they were 8,000 strong. The following Monday, 2nd October, 20,000 marched, this time continuing to the Thomaskirche on the far side of the city, where they were met by riot shields, helmets and truncheons.
On Monday, 9th October, 700 government agents were sent to the Nikolaikirche to “prevent provocations”; it was the first time they’d experienced the prayer meetings first-hand, and many would find themselves won over by what they heard. By mid-afternoon, the church was full, and later arrivals were left to gather outside, or to walk to the city’s other churches, seven of which were now holding their own peace prayers. By 5pm all the churches were full, and crowds clustered outside. In neighbouring streets were police with dogs, and rumours circulated of troops massing in the suburbs. And yet, once the prayers were over, 70,000 marched around the ring road from Karl-Marx-Platz, carrying placards and candles. As Erich Mielke, head of the Stasi, later said: “We were prepared for everything, but not for prayers and candles.”
On Monday, 16th October, 150,000 walked through the city. On the 23rd, there were 300,000. A week later, the photo I’m now looking at was taken.
The Berlin Wall came down on 9th November. I have a piece on the windowsill here, a jagged grey chunk, smooth on one side, crystalline on the other, hacked off by a friend who was on the Wall that night and posted it to me in a jiffy bag. You can buy lumps of “Mauer” all over Berlin these days, but I know this piece is real, because Achim was there, with his hammer: you can even see the orange and pink fizz of graffiti on it.
Obviously Leipzig wasn’t alone – half a million people demonstrated in Berlin five days before the Wall fell. But Leipzig was the first, and inspired what came after, and the Nikolaikirche is where Leipzig’s rebellion began. And it wouldn’t have happened without some very brave people, and some very brave churchmen standing up for what they thought was right.
Travelling through Saxony this summer, we found Leipzig a delightful surprise. The old trams still rattle round the ring road and the suburbs can be forbidding and grim, but the city centre bustles and gleams, and our hotel, almost opposite the Nikolaikirche, had tables out on the pavement for breakfast. The dusty gaps between the shops are being filled and there’s a new railway under Marktplatz. The city, it seems, wants to move on. The DDR Museum is empty, and Karl Marx has been disowned: his Platz in Leipzig has been handed back to Augustus and at Chemnitz, the former Karl-Marx-Stadt a few stops down the line, the first thing I saw as we pulled into the station was a brand new branch of TK Maxx. It must be difficult for those who lived through the DDR to know how to feel: are they pleased for the younger generations who have freedom and no memory of how things were, or just jealous that they themselves were cheated out of breakfast on the pavement? I think I could forgive them if they were.
I’m not sure, though, I can forgive statements like this from Graeme Knowles, Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral:
We have no lawful alternative but to close St Paul’s Cathedral until further notice. We are concerned about public safety in terms of evacuation and fire hazards and the consequent knock-on effects which this has with regards to visitors. With so many stoves and fires and lots of different types of fuel around, there is a clear fire hazard. Then there is the public health aspect which speaks for itself. The dangers relate not just to Cathedral staff and visitors but…
Yadda yadda yadda. I’m writing this in London, England, on Monday, 24th October, 2011.
[Much of the information here is taken from Leipzig 1989: A Chronicle by Doris Mundus, published by Lehmstedt Verlag. The photos of the candlelit march and the occupied pews are also taken from the book where they are credited to Gerhard Weber and Gerhard Gäbler respectively. The two other photos are by Lucy Munro.]
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People often want to ask me why there’s no “comment” box at the bottom of these pieces.
The polite answer is that I assumed you all had much better things to do with your time. It didn’t occur to me that anyone would be reading all the way to the bottom.
And the sensible answer would be to point out that a blog such as this one – one that doesn’t aim to inform, but simply celebrates its own existence by shouting me me me like a spoilt toddler in Waitrose – is, by its very nature, not the sort of blog you’d want to talk to.
But the real answer, of course, is that just five minutes reading a comment thread is enough to make any sane person put down their laptop and head off into the nearest wood to stare bleakly at the snowdrops and wonder why humanity doesn’t just call it a day. And I don’t want to be held responsible for any of you nice people playing Russian roulette with the pretty-coloured mushrooms.
Recently, for instance, I’ve been catching up on some of David Mitchell’s “Soapbox” videos on the Guardian website. And, beneath each one, for no obvious reason, people are encouraged to comment on what they’ve just watched. Or, more often, what they claim they’ve just refused to watch on the grounds that David Mitchell is unfunny/over-exposed/not-as-good-as-he-was, which does make you wonder why they navigated to a dedicated David Mitchell page in the first place; presumably just simple altruism, a desire to stop the rest of us – us dimwits who foolishly hadn’t yet realised that David Mitchell was unfunny/over-exposed/not-as-good-as-he-was – wasting 3’12” of our time and possibly being tempted into buying any of clip-sponsor Bulldog’s male grooming products and winning a David Mitchell goodie bag.
I’m trying not to think what a David Mitchell goodie bag might contain, by the way. Used underwear? A plastic figurine of Robert Webb with its dripping heart torn out? Some pencils?
You could equally wonder, of course, why those people who do find him funny – and they do exist, so either the aforementioned refuseniks are wrong, or humorousness has a hitherto unsuspected subjective element to it – also feel that it’s vitally important that the rest of us are made aware of this, something they achieve by writing the words “Great piece, David, my thoughts exactly” in the comment box and adding a smiley face. Maybe, as before, it’s altruistic – maybe they’re worried that the Guardian might not have actually realised that David Mitchell has the facility to amuse people, and think the paper had, in what admittedly turned out to be a huge slice of luck for Mr Mitchell and fans of his sort of humour, simply alighted randomly on his name in the phone book when casting around for new columnists.
Or maybe – and I suspect this is the sad truth – it’s all just yet more digital buboes symptomatic of a post-millennial epidemic: the pathological need to constantly share, as if we’ve all suddenly become needy teenagers with no social skills, massive self-esteem issues, and a rampaging id that doesn’t know the meaning of the phrase “nobody cares”. And what’s the metaphorical basket of tainted Dutch cotton that precipitated this plague? Well, that’s easy, it’s Facebook and its precursors.
Oh, rubbish, you say – or you would if I’d let you – you can’t blame the messenger: the need to share has always been there in the human psyche, Facebook et al were just the long-awaited means. If there was no demand, then why would anyone have bothered to invent them, huh? To which the simple answer is that they were invented by needy teenagers with no social skills and massive self-esteem issues on whose geeky planet a person’s worth really can be gauged simply by counting how many “friends” they’ve got and how many people “like” them. As far as the Zuckerbergs of the world were concerned, there was a demand; in fact, they were genuinely bemused that the rest of us couldn’t, at first, see it. Didn’t all of us tot up our friends each evening and arrange them in order?
The thing is, rather than just being grateful that these people channelled their energies into computer programming, rather than taking the more old-school route of trenchcoats and high-velocity rifles, we act as if all this is normal, not freaky, by typing the phrase “Great piece, David, my thoughts exactly” into a comment box; the simple point they’re not our thoughts exactly – otherwise we’d be on TV like Mr Mitchell, and not stuck in front of a cheap PC in a curry-stained Glasto ’97 T-shirt – having clearly eluded us. But we’re able to do this – type inanities into a comment box – only because the Guardian employs people to provide and monitor such a service; rather than – and here’s a radical thought, in these days of falling print circulations – employing someone to do journalism.
Many things are possible with the internet, but they’re not all necessary. Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you have to. And I’ve a horrible feeling that the Guardian – and the BBC (“why not text us your thoughts on Chris Lilley’s Angry Boys?…”) and myriad others, I’m only picking on the Guardian because I feel sorry for David Mitchell and because I’ve got a copy of last Friday’s paper in front of me – do all this stuff because… and I’m afraid there really isn’t a better way of putting this… editor Alan Rusbridger thinks it makes them look cool and hip to where it’s at, blud and/or daddio. Rather than just, well, stupid.
In that issue of Friday’s paper I just mentioned, for instance, I find:
- The Readers’ Room. A two-page spread composed of random phrases plucked from various messageboards commenting on random articles. Two pages. TWO WHOLE PAGES. Of random members of the public telling me that a piece I’ve already read was “a must-read”.
- From the Blog. A column collecting out-of-context comments from the Women’s Page blog in much the same way as the above.
- Comment is Free. A random selection of four items that have recently appeared in the Guardian’s on-line version for us to comment on (presumably by scribbling on the paper in biro and posting it back to them… or by going online…).
- The Referendum. In which random members of the public vote yes or no about something sporty.
- Readers’ Reviews. A list of random phrases from random members of the public who’ve agreed/disagreed with other random members of the public excised from a messageboard we don’t have the full text of because we’re reading A NEWSPAPER.
- Private Lives. A page of words about personal crises compiled from the emailed comments of random members of the public in order to avoid having to employ or pay any journalists.
- Click to Download. A list of links to music to download. Which we can only do if we put down the NEWSPAPER WE’RE READING and go to a computer. In which case we needn’t have bothered walking to the newsagent. But we did.
- Clip Joint. I’ve saved this till last because it’s my favourite. Clip Joint, you see, reprints a selection of comments from an online messageboard on which random members of the public pick favourite film clips for no apparent reason. Online, the discussion is stimulated by video clips you can play by clicking on them. In the paper, there are screenshots. Yup, screenshots of video clips we can’t play because, Mr Rusbridger, YOU’VE PRINTED THEM IN A NEWSPAPER.
If I want to read the Guardian online, I’ll read it online. And if I want to read it on large sheets of inky paper, I’ll do that. But I DON’T want to read excerpts from the online version in the paper, any more than I want to cut articles out of the paper and sellotape them to my computer screen before reading them.
That was all. If you’ve enjoyed this article, then please feel free to share it with your friends, even if you don’t know who they are, by clicking the buttons below.
I actually wrote this a while ago, but then the Guardian did the world a favour by exposing all the Murdoch stuff, and it seemed a little ungrateful. But I think enough time’s passed, and nothing’s changed… other than that one of the Readers’ Room pages has temporarily been replaced by a truly pointless page for children, because it’s the summer holidays. (Shades of Radio 4′s atrocious Go4It, an attempt to do an audio Blue Peter which was cancelled after surveys revealed it was listened to only by the over-55s and two terrified 7-year-olds in East Dulwich called Caedmon and Ocarina.) Can’t help noticing that no Times journalists seem to have resigned in shame, by the way, or any HarperCollins authors asked to have their contracts annulled. He’s still in charge, you know.
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or Twenty Top Tips for Tourists
1. I know everyone in Prague speaks English, but why not at least try learning the Czech words for “hello”, “goodbye”, “yes”, “no”, “please” “thank you” and “two Pilsners please, my little Bohemian chum”? Otherwise, I’ll spend all week with no beer, because the Czech word for “yes” is “ano”, which sounds like a hesitant demurral to an overworked waiter who’s expecting English.
2. Please stop video-ing stationary objects.
3. I know the book says to go straight on, and that that’s where everyone else is going, but you really don’t have to. There are side streets.
4. You see, while I’m happy to wait five seconds while you take a snapshot of your partner/child/BFF, I’m less happy to wait sixty-five while, freed of the need to buy film and choose shots with an eye to economics, you encourage your partner/child/BFF to fill your 64GB memory card with thirty-seven subtly different combos of mood and pose. And when it comes to waiting while you video an inanimate object NOT MOVING for five minutes in (I assume) some sort of homage to Andy Warhol, I’m afraid I snap. And yet you seem to think it’s me that’s being rude when I walk in front of you.
5. OK, yes, it’s great that, while I’m writing this – sheltering from the rain in the Nostress Café on Siroká – a Czech waiter is explaining to an African tourist the English pun in his Belgian café’s name, but this is still the Czech Republic, and people should be talking Czech. A French waiter who walked into a bar in Madrid and loudly demanded drinks in French would be considered arrogant and rude and, while obviously he’d take this as a compliment, surely we shouldn’t all aspire to be French waiters?
6. Seriously, I would actually quite like a drink now please. Ano. Prosím.
7. And, more to the point, if you just want to take photos of each other, you can do that at home. It’s not like the beauty and historical significance of the unique and priceless artefact you’re using as a backdrop has been enough to make you pause for five seconds and actually look at it.
8. Please, Americans under thirty: the English language, which we do our level best to share with you, despite you taking up all the space, contains a colossally capacious cornucopia of coruscating concoctions connoting commendation. Do you really not realise how cool, neat and awesome this is?
9. No, seriously, try actually looking at things, rather than just photographing them. And then ask yourself if bleeding saints and medieval body parts are suitable props for holiday snaps of you and your BFF in vest tops? Remind me again why you’ve come to Prague rather than Disneyland?
10. The currency in Prague is the crown/koruna, NOT the dollar or the euro, however loudly you say it. This is because Prague is in a foreign country.
11. Please, men in your thirties and forties: if all you’re going to do with these photos is stick them on Flickr, then you don’t need a digital SLR the size of your head. Flickr’s largest display is 1024 x 766 pixels, or 0.78 megapixels. And sorry about the whole penis-size thing – it must be tough.
12. They won’t let you eat your ice cream in the choir stalls, even though you’ve only just bought it??? Oh, those Catholics do love their interdicts and admonishments, don’t they? But, you know, he’s a da pope, so… whachagonnado?
13. You do realise you can turn the flash off, don’t you? And that your little light going pop isn’t going to illuminate those distant misty ramparts any better than the moon? It’ll just spoil the atmosphere for everyone else and run down your batteries.
14. Also, that silly kershthwunk noise your “shutter” makes – it’s nothing to do with the camera mechanism, it’s just a soundfile, to make it sound like you’ve got a proper camera. Why not turn it down or off? Then it won’t annoy people.
15. Can I apologise, by the way, for not having the full range of Czech accents on this computer? That’s why any words which require a hácek – you know, that little upside-down circumflex which, when placed above an “r”, instructs native Czech speakers to remove their tongue and reinsert it backwards before proceeding with the next syllable – haven’t got one.
16. And that sign you passed on the way in – the camera with a line through it? – that means don’t take photos. But you probably didn’t spot it, as by that stage you were already staring intently at your little screen rather than the place you’d gone to visit.
17. Because, you know, it’s a CHURCH, and people are trying to pray; and all the flashing and kershthwunking makes it difficult to be spiritual.
18. OK, you’re not religious – neither am I. But if you’re not interested in it being a church, then… why are you here?
19. Besides, even if I don’t believe, it’s clear that some people here do and that, for them, it means an awful lot. That woman in the headscarf, for instance, sobbing photogenically in the side chapel.
20. Oh, what do I know – I’m just a bloody tourist. But maybe, after you’ve snapped yourself posing by the graves in the old Jewish ghetto and been on the coach trip to Terezín, once Theresienstadt, transit camp for Auschwitz, you might like to come here, to the Memorial to the Victims of Communism at the foot of Petrín Hill. Because, as the inscription says: 205,486 convicted, 248 executed, 4,500 died in prison, 327 annihilated at the border, 170,938 emigrated, 1 great photo opportunity.
Times were tough, but Eastern Europe’s loss is Flickr’s gain.
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Well, this is bloody annoying. You see, there is actually a decent reason for the long gap between posts this time – of which more anon – and I’d decided to get back into the swing with a nice little bit of gentle mockery of the Guardian, because… well, why not? And I had the piece all written and ready to post, when… lo and behold, Nick Davies and Co. went and exposed this whole story about Rupert Murdoch being a master criminal and Rebekah Brooks fiddling the tombola at the Chipping Norton village fete and… suddenly, it seemed… a little ungrateful. Rupert Murdoch, eh – who’d have thought he’d turn out to be one of the bad ones? So, I think I’ll hold that back for another time.
But while I’m here, which I am – can we just stop NOW all this nonsense about feeling sympathy for the people who’ve lost their jobs at Wapping because they’ve got mortgages to pay and kids to feed? They might not personally have tapped anyone’s phone, or spent Friday nights going through Hugh Grant’s bins, but they had only to open a copy of the paper each Sunday to know the true nature of the organisation they worked for. If no one had agreed to print the News of the World, and no one had agreed to write for it, and no one had agreed to lick envelopes in the mail room and mop up the tears in the toilet cubicles, then the paper would have ceased to exist years ago and the world would have been a much better, nicer, more civilised place. There are degrees of culpability, but everyone who worked there is culpable, because THEY KNEW THEY WORKED FOR RUPERT MURDOCH. And they knew where the money he paid them each month came from. And that includes all the journalists who write for the Sun, Times, or Sunday Times… and all the authors who are published by Harper Collins – it’s an interesting list. One of the things that used to annoy me, in my previous guises as sanctimonious record label and priggish fanzine writer, was self-styled political bands who never brought their supposed politics to bear on the way their own records were sold; because you can sing about socialism and anarchy all you like, but if you’re treating your own fans with capitalist contempt in the way your records are sold and marketed, then your words ring pretty hollow. The only exceptions that spring to mind are Billy Bragg and the Crass roster – Billy Bragg’s first albums came out with a “Pay No More Than” sticker, and I’m pretty sure I only handed over 79p for my copy of Flux of Pink Indian’s classic Tube Disasters, because the price was printed on the sleeve. Why am I bringing this up? Oh, just that it’s at times like these that I think of all the (ahem) right-on young journalists with their raging red rhetoric in the pages of the NME and Melody Maker, now happily grown up and making a living on the right-wing press, occasionally trying to defend themselves by muttering sheepishly about it being “just to get a foothold” (yeah, after 10 years…) or trying to “subvert from within”.
But that’s enough from me. Oh, right, yes, the gap between posts. Well, without boring you with details, I was getting to know the staff of Lewisham Hospital slightly more intimately than is generally desirable (lovely though they are). Also, though, I’ve been working on a few other web projects – it’s good for convalescence – so, just in case anyone’s interested… there’s now a completely revamped Smoke website (including photos of our board game, Soho!), a new blog – I’m Just A Girl Who Can’t Say Pwllheli – by regular Smoke contributor Tricity Bendix, and another new blog – Beware Of The Trees – by me me me, which those of you who find Smoke a little London-centric will think is niche-beyond-words, as it’s entirely concerned with the SE10 postcode.
And now I have a train to catch. And so should you.
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Individually, and out of their natural habitat, anarchists are mostly benign. Obviously I wouldn’t let one hand out the scissors or watch over a milk saucepan, and they tend to get confused and sulky when asked to explain how allowing people in Edgware and people in Morden to individually construct their own ethical systems free of centralised authority can be squared with needing a regular service on the Northern Line, given the complexity of the track layout at Camden Town – or how they can be opposed to cuts in the tax-funded education budget when they don’t believe in a tax-funded education budget - but largely I just think: whatever. After all, toddlers aren’t capable of sustained logical argument, constantly spout non-sequiturial nonsense, and seldom grasp why they can’t just go round hitting things, but we don’t ban them (though see also my forthcoming blog entry, Why Toddlers Should Be Banned) – we just avoid pubs that allow them in the main bar and wait for them to grow up.
And, as with toddlers, so with anarchists; there’s certainly no point trying to argue: I once had a lengthy discussion with an awesomely crusty one that was trying to slip through the barriers with me at Brixton station, in which I explained that, if no one paid, there wouldn’t be any trains, especially if the people of Walthamstow had constructed an ethical system that wasn’t compatible with the one constructed by the people of Stockwell, but he just lowered his head and pushed harder – even though, at this point, I still hadn’t actually put my travelcard in the slot. Unfortunately, keeping anarchists at arm’s length doesn’t really work if, like an excitable golden retriever at a picnic – or possibly a black labrador – they decide they want to come up and say hello anyway, ruining your quiche and dips and possibly your whole day out.
The moment we boarded the 10:22 at Greenwich station last Saturday morning and realised that almost everyone coming in from Charlton, Woolwich and Slade Green was clutching a sign, home-made or official, I knew this was going to be a good day. Discovering, on changing trains at London Bridge, that in Lewisham, Sidcup and Dartford the people were equally uppity, just compounded this. And, as we snaked above the rooftops and into Waterloo East, I couldn’t help thinking back to the anti-war marches and how, as we’d walked up Kennington Road on that bright February morning eight years ago towards a sunlit, traffic-free Waterloo Bridge, and seen people streaming in down every side street, all united in common cause, we’d felt something quite rare and beautiful: we’d felt POWERFUL.
The people in Iraq still died, of course, and the people in Whitehall who treated us with contempt and told us we were wrong still haven’t apologised or been arrested, so – was that power illusory, did we fail? I’m not so sure. Imaginations were fired that day. There were a million people out there, and not all ended up disillusioned and fatalistic; for many, that fleeting, unaccustomed feeling of what could be possible was just a beginning.
Down on the Embankment last Saturday, and not having found anyone willing to hold the other end of my Self-employed Magazine Editors Against The Cuts banner, I adopted the colours of Lancaster and Morecambe NUT, on the grounds that the nearby Westminster Teachers Association flag was lacking an apostrophe. The mood was joyful, optimistic, partyish. But then, of course, amid the drummers and the bagpipers and the pushchairs and the Robin Hood hats, the first red and black flags were spotted. From what I hear, most of them lost their way – probably put their balaclavas on back to front – and ended up in Oxford Street where, cross at having missed Ed Miliband’s rabble-rousing peroration, they got Capitalism muddled with litter bins and threw some paint at policemen. Well, it had been a long day – they were probably just tired and over-excited.
Now, obviously anarchist theory emphasises the self - that’s sort of the point: individual liberty and personal responsibility. But - is the arrogant self-centred yobbery of the black bloc mob really what those old philosophers had in mind? Surely only an arch-Capitalist would champion selfishness as a modus vivendi: and yet hijacking others’ hard work for your own little headline-grabbing tantrum requires a level of cynical self-interest any corporate banker would be proud of.
Then again, political theory doesn’t have much to do with it: like a toddler refusing to shut up and stop throwing Lego when the adults want to talk, the silly little boys in the balaclavas’ general attitude seems to be that the rest of us, with our good humour and witty banners and practical solutions, are simply a dull nuisance, and that protest would be a lot more fun if it was just them and the police lobbing Molotov cocktails and tear gas at each other. And the police, in these times of cutbacks, aren’t going to quibble; images of breaking glass on News at Ten and of mindless thugs in the Daily Mail – rather than of half a million people marching thoughtfully but less photogenically down Piccadilly – not only sell newspapers and advertising, but might also get the Met the powers and resources it’d like.
Meanwhile, those who weren’t there will think twice about standing up for what they believe in, because they’ll be scared of what might happen. Kettling is already having this effect – not everyone can take whole days off to go on protests, and if they can spare only a couple of hours, or have health problems, or need to pick the kids up, they’re not going to risk getting stuck inside a police cordon without access to food or drink or toilet and medical facilities till midnight - and soon protest really is going to end up being just a game for the aggro-hungry boys in black, while the rest of us fume impotently at home.
Which is, of course, what they government would like: because all governments prefer a cowed and compliant populace that doesn’t answer back, be they in Beijing, Bahrain, Tripoli or London. We’re already not allowed to protest in Parliament Square because it upsets the MPs. We haven’t been allowed to walk down Downing Street in years, not since Maggie T. got scared. Now, after last Saturday, Theresa May has announced an increase in police powers - more reasons for the timid majority to keep their heads down.
Half a million. HALF A MILLION. One in every hundred people in this country walked up Whitehall last Saturday. We might have all had different areas of interests, and different solutions, but we all walked together, and didn’t feel the need to go off in a self-indulgent strop to attack the Olympic clock. Vince Cable has said it won’t change anything, and he’s probably right - just like that march eight years ago didn’t stop a war. But there’s always next time. Imaginations have been fired. The worry is that there won’t be a next time if headlines about anarchist yobs are the only ones in circulation, or if we shrug our shoulders and hand our protests over to those who think that chucking paint and kicking a cash machine are how you win an argument.
There were only 201 arrests on Saturday. And 147 of those occurred, shamefully and shockingly - but that’s another story – at UK Uncut’s peaceful protest at Fortnum & Mason. Half a million people managed not to be arrested – if we stick together and don’t let ourselves be bullied, that’s a pretty unvanquishable number: we are many, they are few…
DON’T BE SCARED. These things are too important. And if you meet any anarchists, don’t give them any orange squash or other sugary drinks.
[Photos by Lucy]
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So, after thirteen years at the mercy of Lambeth Council, I suddenly find myself dropping down the postcodes, from SE11 to SE10. Or, as Emma the Estate Agent always liked to say, “Greenwich”.
“Greenwich?” friends exclaim when they come round to have a nose, “Greenwich?!?? How can someone like you, with your failed record label and your failed magazine and your hugely misconceived board game, afford Greenwich?”
And then they’ll ask me to repeat my answer, having not quite heard me the first time on account of the 1739 to Dartford having begun grinding and squealing past the kitchen window at the very moment I started speaking. And I – this time resorting to mime because, like all rush-hour services, the 1739 has ten coaches, so the grinding and squealing will not be ceasing any time soon – will explain that, to paraphrase Emma, it was priced to take account of the circumstances; the circumstances being that, every 10 minutes, a train will appear from the east carrying the good people of Charlton, Woolwich and Slade Green onwards to Deptford; and, also every 10 minutes, a train will appear from the west carrying them back again, presumably because – well, have you ever been to Deptford?
And my friends will concede that I have a point; before asking if I also have a mop and bucket, as the more liquidy contents of the upturned pedal bin I recklessly employed in miming the word “Deptford” are starting to make them feel queasy.
Having South Eastern Trains going furtively about their murky business directly behind your kitchen wall at ten-minute off-peak intervals wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea, I know, but – I’m not everyone. Indeed, as I said to Emma, repeated exposure to The Railway Children at an impressionable age left me with an unquenched hankering to live beside a railway – not to mention an unquenched hankering to live with Jenny Agutter – and, even if my fantasies had always placed the glistening tracks in a cutting at the bottom of a long sunlit garden – and Jenny Agutter in a hammock at the top – that was hardly a dealbreaker so, yes, until our father returned from prison after being cleared of selling state secrets to the Russians and we could all move back to the large house in -
At this point, I realised that Emma had begun explaining loudly and rapidly about the surprising amount of storage space, so I gave up trying to apprise her of my intention to pop along to Cutty Sark DLR and instigate a friendship with Mr Perks the stationmaster, and simply told her we’d take it.
Because, after all, what’s a few trains? If one is roused from sleep by the 0532 to Cannon Street and forced to begin the day two hours earlier than intended, then it’s hardly the end of the world. Besides, there’s actually something rather magical about being able to peer directly into a string of brightly lit carriages from the wet side of a shower screen, to see the slumped commuters peering blearily back up at you as you soap yourself down, and – ah, but now you’re looking at me just like Emma used to. I’ll shut up.
Seriously, though, I don’t know why people think that nudity and public transport are such a bad mix. They’re two of my favourite things.
I still miss the compartment stock on the Shoeburyness line, you know.
Though, by golly, that moquette was itchy
Sorry, where were we? Ah, yes, Greenwich. The Place Where Time Begins. Which is useful, really, as personally it felt like Time pretty much ground to a halt at the start of December. I wasn’t going to bore you with the details, but – heck, this is a blog, so it would almost be abuse of the format if I didn’t.
December. That was when we launched our board game, Soho! – it was a festive gesture. Or, rather, that was when we tried to launch it. Sadly, though, the board and cards got held up at the printer’s because of all the snow and ice. And then, once I’d sat up for nights on end collating cards and sticking dice in plastic bags, all the Christmas mail-order got held up in the next batch of snow and ice. The rest of the month I spent trying to reassure people that their present really had been posted, and offering refunds to those who remained unconvinced. None of which was easy without a computer.
And why didn’t I have a computer? Well, that was because Hubert, the impatient and inflexible Frenchman who was moving into our old place, was not prepared to wait until we were able to move in here. Which meant we had to (a) ship all our possessions to Big Yellow Storage, (b) put everything that wouldn’t fit into Big Yellow Storage into my parents’ garage, and (c) go to live in Stoke-on-Trent for four weeks. And Stoke-on-Trent – The Place Where Time Runs Backwards – really isn’t a good place to be when you’re trying to publicise and market a board game about London – or even when you’re not, unless you have a fondness for Staffordshire oatcakes, Port Vale FC, or life in the 1950s.
Now: the thing about having lived somewhere for thirteen years is that you’ll almost certainly have spent at least twelve of those years lumping stuff into the loft: defunct Hoovers, broken chairs, a picture of a sad-eyed labrador done in cross-stitch, you know the kind of thing… a few hundred unsold magazines, a few thousand unsold CDs… several large polythene sacks of 20-sided dice… just the usual stuff, but it all adds up. In fact, it turned out that – as far as Big Yellow Storage were concerned – we’d been hiding a 3-bedroom flat (and garage) in our glorified Lambeth bed-sit.
Finding a 3-bedroom flat (and garage) in your loft is one thing. Having an impatient and inflexible Frenchman demand that you get rid of it by the end of the week because he has builders coming in to expose your floorboards and add a little Gallic flair to your stairwell is altogether less fun; and lugging that amount of lumber down two flights and a loft ladder means you’re quite likely to do yourself a mischief, as they used to say in Seventies sitcoms. Which is why I’m now on an 18-week waiting list at Lewisham Hospital and banned from lifting heavy objects or indulging in strenuous bouts of hollow laughter for the next six months.
All of which is, as Emma used to say, way too much information. But I’ve concluded from the lack of emails and orders since Christmas that either (a) you’ve died or (b) you think I have or (c) the country’s economy and social support networks are being serially dismantled by a smug clump of clueless and incompetent bubble-headed chumps at such a pace that no one has the money to buy board games or the inclination to be sociable. And (c) is clearly absurd, given we live in a progressive modern democracy in which that sort of thing couldn’t possibly happen without people taking to the streets to protest in vast numbers, or at least without Her Majesty’s Opposition kicking up an almighty fuss, so – well, I thought I ought to write.
[The photos, if you're interested, are the view from the back window in Greenwich and the hall of the old flat in Fitzalan Street (with bags of Soho!s on the stairs ready to be collected by Royal Mail).]
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We will laugh the day that Thatcher dies
Even though we know it’s not right
We will dance and sing all night
I went to see comedian Chris Addison a few weeks ago – at the Bloomsbury Theatre, I didn’t just pop round his house for a bit of advice about damp-proofing – and, although it was an excellent evening, one thing left me slightly worried: a passing uncomplimentary reference to Margaret Thatcher had elicited from around half the audience not approving cheers and murmurs of endorsement, but an intake of breath and a wriggling awkwardness. Now, obviously it’s ages since Mrs T. has been a regular feature of most comedians’ sets – they’ve had other demons to bait – but… for those of us who remember Hackney town hall in the early eighties, draped with a banner bearing weekly updates of how far past three million Tebbit, Joseph and the rest of the gang had managed to push the unemployment figures… and giving spare tins from the weekly shop to pallid huddles of miners’ wives outside Gloucester Road Gateways on Saturday mornings… and picking our way from door-to-door through John Major’s post-Thatcher wasteland, promising the occupants of the Horfield prefabs that things really could only get better under Labour… I was living in Bristol at the time… it was a bit of a jolt. Yes, she was now a frail and powerless old woman, but – had people really forgotten?
I was blind in 1979, by ’82 I had clues
By 1986 I was mad as hell
During the interval, I tried to remind myself that no one under thirty has ever had the chance to vote out a Tory government, so maybe they were the ones gasping – the teenagers and twenty-somethings for whom History stopped with Hitler, and to whom the last thirty years are just a hotchpotch of hearsay and rumour. That would make sense: they were probably not only confused that the thin man with the radio mic was insulting an elderly woman, but also put out that he should be so rude. Perhaps I just have to accept that Margaret Thatcher will soon be just another vague historical figure, a Chamberlain, Lloyd George or Gladstone: the name will ring bells, and you’ll know they were something important once, but you can’t say precisely when, or why. Was she something to do with the Corn Laws? Yes, these gaspers would be the young people who for years now we’ve been told are politically apathetic and increasingly inclined to conservativism with a small c.
The teachers at school, they took us for fools
They never taught us what to do
But Christ we were strong, we knew all along
We taught ourselves the right from wrong
Meanwhile, more and more celebrities seem happy to admit to being Tory with a Big C, and nobody pulls them up… which, for anyone whose political consciousness was raised by the NME – in whose inky text-heavy pages the careers of popstars foolish or naïve enough not to toe the Red Wedge line would be wrecked on a weekly basis – is unfathomable. Obviously in many cases their stance is born of woollyheadedness and ignorance rather than actual callous selfishness – when, for instance, Tracey Emin complains about cuts in the arts budget whilst simultaneously moaning about the amount of tax she has to pay, you have to bear in mind that she’s not very bright and probably shouldn’t be allowed to use the craft knife unsupervised – but just because someone’s ignorant doesn’t mean you shouldn’t shout at them. It’s actually quite a good reason, as ignorance can be cured. But people don’t seem bothered. Maybe the second-worst crime of the recent Labour governments (we all know what’s number one) has been to instil the apathy of disillusionment?
It was love, but Tories don’t know what that means
She was Michelle Cox from the lower stream
She wore high-heeled shoes while the rest wore flat soles
Throughout our dark recent past, though, there have been occasional flashes of hope thanks to the existence of one wonderful thing: Tory Tourette’s, an incurable medical condition thought to be caused by a genetically inherited hardening of the heart (and possibly by being born without a soul, though medical opinion is divided on this). These days, symptoms can be easily kept in check by a long-term course of medication prescribed by a clinically trained PR. Occasionally, though – perhaps because of drink, self-importance, or some atavistic bumptiousness – a Tory will forget his meds, and start to blurt out what he really thinks. And, in doing so – and here’s the positive, the little flash of hope I mentioned – remind us what he’s truly like. And, by extension, what everybody else isn’t like. Thus, even as Tony Blair was throwing everything away for the sake of a stupid war, or Gordon Brown was muttering darkly in the gloom about goblins (or whatever it was he was doing), word would suddenly reach us that a Tory councillor or MP had (deep breath)…
… called gay people “sexual deviants”… or said that “negroes tend to be less bright than whites”… and that racism “is as perfectly natural as a man having sex with a woman”… or claimed that gypsies would “stick a knife in you as soon as look at you”… or gone to a fancy-dress party dressed as Madeleine McCann… or called the NHS a “60-year-old mistake” and hailed Enoch Powell as a political hero… or wondered “why it is so offensive to black up your face”… or claimed that people don’t visit Colne because there are “too many takeaways. And too many Pakis”… or said that women should only become MPs “if they were attractive”… or defended bankers’ bonuses by saying that taxpayers should “tolerate the inequality”… or said that British women should walk nude in the street to make Islamic men commit suicide because their religion forbids them from seeing any naked woman other than their wife… or complained that Asian prospective parliamentary candidates don’t have “normal-sounding” English names…
… and then we’d smile, reassured that, no, things hadn’t changed, it was still Us and Them, and that if enough of Us got to hear about this, then – well, maybe all wasn’t lost, and maybe we wouldn’t end up with the economy in the puffy-fingered hands of someone who looks like he should be talking us enthusiastically through the hi-fi separates in Dixons before telling us we definitely need some new speaker cables too, yah?
It’s a slightly perverse argument, I know, but… now we finally have the Tories clinging to the rudders of state again, I’m actually feeling quite hopeful that, after years of political inaction and “oh what’s the point, they’re all the same?”, things are about to get exciting again. Because, with Cameron and the other fellow in power, those defiant shrieks of the Tory id will no longer reach us as muted ghostly echoes from the shires, they’ll ring loudly off the riot shields in Parliament Square, as Lord Young tells us we’ve never had it so good, and Howard Flight sagely advises the world that social welfare just encourages the working class to breed.
And the playground taught her how to be cruel
I talked politics and she called me a fool
She wrapped her ankle chain round my left-wing heart
And – glory be! – now the supposedly apathetic young are out on the streets, rampaging and protesting and building up tankloads of resentment that will hopefully see them through the tough lean years to come. And that’s really reassuring, because… well, I hate to say it, but I’m really not convinced it was the teenagers and twenty-somethings at that Chris Addison gig who were sucking their teeth: I reckon it was people my age, who’ve lived through it once and, for reasons I really don’t understand, seem quite prepared for others to do it all again.
[The lyrics are from Hefner’s The Day That Thatcher Dies, by the way, from the wonderful We Love The City album - probably the best set of songs ever recorded about London (Ray Davies and Madness don’t come close). They were written by Darren Hayman and quoted entirely without permission, but hopefully Darren won’t mind. And the Tory quotes were all genuine - I thought it would take hours of research to remind myself of the choicest examples, but if you type “Tory Councillor” into Google, most of these come up straight away... you don’t actually have to add any derogatory search terms...]
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Those of you with a decent grasp of chronology and a basic working knowledge of the Western calendrical system might be tempted to point out that since this blog was last updated the moon has orbited the Earth more times than can be counted on the fingers of five mittens. Hmm. Well, yes. And I could try to explain to you why this is, perhaps invoking some rudimentary Newtonian physics and the inverse square law of gravitation, but you’d quite rightly tell me I was deliberately misunderstanding a clearly whimsical figure of speech. So let’s just say I’ve been otherwise engaged, and leave it to you and your imagination to decide what vital and fascinating things I might have been doing. Maybe, for instance, I’ve been painting all London’s bike lanes with shiny blue paint to make them extra slippery in wet weather. Or maybe I’ve been replacing some particularly tenacious Victorian water mains. Or maybe – just maybe – I reinvented myself as a modern-day Sherlock Holmes sometime around Easter, and have been busy ever since trying to find a suitably knowing hat and a good lawyer.
Who can possibly say? Other than me? The good news, though, is that whatever it was that was distracting me – and, no, it wasn’t the dragons again – is no longer doing so, and I was actually about to write something new this very weekend just gone when, as luck would have it, something quite extraordinary happened the like of which you wouldn’t believe (no, really – absolutely NO dragons).
So you’re going to have to give me a few more days. Just a few though. Honest.
And, that being the case… you’re probably now wondering why I’m wasting time writing this little placeholder, and why you’re wasting time reading it.
Well… the thing is, later today I have to go up to BBC London to do quite a big interview about Smoke, and it’s just occurred to me that this may well result in people looking at the Smoke website to find out what all the fuss is about, and then clicking on this blog to find out even more, and then thinking that they’ve gone back in time like in Life on Mars and getting scared. Or – and this is probably more likely – thinking that I’m completely rubbish, and that Smoke must also therefore be rubbish, and then deciding not to order the complete set of thirteen back issues after all, despite them being a complete bargain. Sorry, I was just trying to put a brave face on it with the Life on Mars thing.
So, these words are basically aimed at anyone reading this blog for the very first time. And to these people I’d like to say simply this: hello. And would you mind coming back later in the week, as I’m not quite ready?
Thank you. Oh, and it’s twenty-five quid for the set. As I say, a bargain.
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Barnaby Lenon, headmaster of Harrow, a popular school in north-west London, said last week that state school pupils are being conned into believing that going to “any old university” will help them get on in life. Meanwhile, Chris Higgins, vice-chancellor of Durham, thinks we should just accept that some universities are better than others – actually, he says “different”, not “better”, but I think we can safely assume that he regards Durham as somewhat less different to Oxford than it is to, say, my local university, London South Bank – and thus more deserving of government money because… well, because someone has to pay for the new electrified gates to keep the chavs out of the cloisters, don’t they? Again, those weren’t his precise words, but I think that was the gist. All of this, of course, comes on top of David Cameron’s proposal that prospective teachers should have their student debts cancelled provided their degree is from a “good” university – a list of which will, I’m guessing, be drawn up after asking around the backbenches to see whose maters were especially alma.
Well, that puts the poor kid at South Bank in his place, doesn’t it?
Mr Cameron might not know it, but universities in this country actually subscribe to a system of external marking; they watch over each other to ensure that a 2:1 from Durham is equal to a 2:1 from South Bank. People like Barnaby Lenon and Chris Higgins think that’s just PC idiocy, of course: anyone can see that Durham and Oxford are better, they harrumph, just look at the quadrangles, the gowns, the number of students whose parents genuinely had no qualms about naming their offspring Barnaby – we’re clearly producing an elite.
Well, yes, you are, but it’s not an intellectual one. Durham’s intake, as befits an Oxbridge-wannabee, is disproportionately composed of kids who’ve been tutored and coached and crammed to one end only. They’ve had it instilled in them that a place at one of these “good” institutions is their right, and it doesn’t cross their minds that they should fetch up anywhere else. Although, in fairness, not much crosses their minds at all – it doesn’t need to. Staff at the redbricks and campus universities often complain that the kids coming out of the public schools are helpless: they’re not used to having to think for themselves, it seems, they’re used to having their hands held and to being gently rotated into position. Even worse, they resent their new tutors for not doing these things, for not telling them precisely which pages of which books to read, and then blame them when they fail. If you’ve been through the public school system, then you really do need to lurk somewhere in that small gap on the evolutionary line between glutinous sponge and minor royal to fail to get into a “good” university – heck, even Prince Harry could probably have made it, if only someone could have asked his father to put in a good word.
The thing is, though, Barnaby and Chris are right: universities aren’t all equal. Some of them have more money. And hence well-endowed libraries, state-of-the-art labs, and one-on-one teaching. Which is why a kid coming out of South Bank with a 2:1 is actually likely to be far more intelligent than a kid coming out of Durham with the same qualification – he’s actually had to fight and cultivate some innate wit and intuition to get it. He’s even had to find a route through the subways at Elephant and Castle each morning that doesn’t involve making two unintended circuits of the Faraday memorial and bursting into tears on the steps of the Metropolitan Tabernacle, something I suspect no boatered boy from Harrow could manage without paying a native guide and borrowing Uncle Henry’s pith helmet. And surely that should count for more with a prospective employer or research council? It might even make him a good teacher.
At Leyton High School, we were allowed to take only three A Levels. When I got to university – Bristol, in case you’re wondering – I suddenly met people with four or five, but it didn’t take me long to suss that they weren’t more intelligent; they’d just been to public schools, and fed through well-oiled cogs. They were not, except in their own minds, the crème de la crème. One, I remember fondly, needed to have it explained to her that you didn’t heat up a tin of baked beans by tipping the contents into boiling water – job well done, City of London School for Girls! Most of these people quickly crumbled in the face of having to think for themselves and demonstrate active intelligence and imagination – or retreated into socially exclusive cliques, knowing that bloodline and money would see them all right in the end. Those of us from the state schools, who’d actually got there on merit rather than, to put it bluntly, buying our way in, thrived.
Sadly, we don’t always thrive so well afterwards. Too many employers still look more favourably on those from cloistered halls, either because that’s their own background and some atavistic sub-masonic urge to look after one’s own kicks in, or, if it’s not, because of some odd academic equivalent of the cultural cringe. Add to this the success-breeding-success sense of confidence that a public school/Oxbridge background instills in its alumni – a confidence visible only to those of us looking in from the outside, sadly, while those who benefit just assume it’s normal, and can’t understand what the rest of us are resentful of – and our poor kid graduating from South Bank, who’s basically just been told by David Cameron not to bother applying for jobs where he might be up against someone from a “good” university, might as well just go back to dealing crack from some bookless shuttered flat on the Aylesbury Estate. So, pending the implementation of a genuinely comprehensive education system, from primary school to PhD, here’s a suggestion: anyone who’s been to Oxbridge, or to public school, should automatically have 10% added to their income tax bill, for life. If they’ve been to both, it’s compounded. Just to level the playing field a bit. And then, what the hell, another 10% for anyone who’s had a gap year which involved wearing shorts.
No, Barnaby, old son, I’m afraid the real problem is that too many places on good university courses are being taken by kids who really just aren’t bright enough, and have got those places only because schools like yours – schools with rather larger geographical catchment areas than social ones – aren’t, when faced with a famous father, or one who’s prepared to fund a new cricket pavilion, prepared to tell him that his offspring is just, well, a bit dim. After all, the clever kids don’t actually need to be “stretched” and bullied into learning – they’re quite capable of expanding their own horizons, on account of being, well, clever. Not that the hard-faced mums in the 4x4s blocking the prep school gates in Dulwich will ever accept such a thing.
But, then again, perhaps they’re right. After all, with coaching and money, little enough shame and enough friends in high places, their resoundingly average progeny could still end up vice-chancellor of Durham, headmaster of Harrow, or leader of the Tory Party.
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