Is this advanced?

Far from being ‘advanced’, the further education system in the United Kingdom has a malign tumour at its core, and that tumour is itself.

Where once a pass at A Level was taken as a mark of distinction in a particular subject, with the tantalising A-grade a guarantor of prowess, it’s now a commonplace ornament on a list of eminent achievements expected of every student. A-Levels are symptomatic of society’s obsession with increasingly meaningless grades, a desire to project a plastic façade of competence rather than granite proof thereof.

The situation has deteriorated such that students are now routinely taught how to navigate mark schemes rather than the content they supposedly represent; swallowing prescribed formulas from the first week of most courses, creativity is strangled in favour of marks and, of course, league table positions.

As battery chickens in a dingy coop, students are stuffed with swathes of information to match the mark scheme by the educational machine, creative wings clipped not just by the examination boards but also by the fervent desire of the teachers to obey their whims. In sciences, students complete thousands of past questions to learn the mark scheme rather than the scientific theories or processes to pass the examinations and procrastinate over their actual education, as by laying an egg every day the hen delays slaughter. In arts subjects, the poultry inmates of the education system are systematically taught certain words and phrases which get marks, extending to the extremes in languages by teachers often writing speaking scripts for students to rote-learn.

With 270-word limits imposed on language essays (including, in at least one board, to discuss an entire film therein), where is the room to experiment linguistically, to developed detailed trains of thought or to analyse cinematic elements or societal tenets? When the widely-pronounced acknowledgement that German, for example, takes 33.3% more words as a direct equivalent of the English version, is taken into consideration, what can comprise these essays but sweeping generalisations, superficial narration and an end product linguistically equivalent to an asphyxiated deer, once regal but now swollen and rotting?

Although they are at last being phased out, the insidious ways in which schools manipulate controlled assessments and EMPAs by massaging the dates of papers and playing fast and loose with board regulations to secure their students the best grades at the expense of fair play and a good education, often suggesting content and answering ‘hypothetical’ questions, are endemic.

No wonder students struggle with the gaps between GCSE and AS, between AS and A2 and between A2 and university. Without a solid skill base having been established, what is there to build on but the ethereal departure of hope such a disappointment engenders? The marginalising of actual ability threatens not only the individual student, but more broadly the economy, with one dentist recently telling us how his employees with an A in English Language GCSE are unable to write a document with any sense of spelling, grammar or structure. What foundation is this for any form of advancement?

The pythonic embrace which has descended on further education belies the epithet ‘advanced’ which presides proudly over the heads of many teenagers, smothering any inclination to develop thought processes with absurd time constraints, word limits and concrete mark schemes.

Advanced Levels do not work for the most academically able. They do not work for the least academically able. For a minority caught exactly in the middle, willing to rote-learn mark schemes and manufacture a few paltry paragraphs, what is there to change? All too often various politicians wax lyrical about ‘the few’ of their opponents, yet with this crucial flaw in our society, never was so much slowed for so many by so few.

7 words for 7 hills

“QUO usque tandem abutere, Catilina, patienta nostra?”

With these 7 words, a man was made a legend, another was made a villain and Rome was saved. When Marcus Tullius Cicero denounced Lucius Sergius Catilina in the senate on the cusp of a coup d’êtat, when he stood there as presiding consul wielding only his formidable oratory, when he threw his hands out as a cook to a brace of poultry, he preserved his republic from the perils of revolution, mass murder and destruction. With each word he uttered in his first sentence, a hill of Rome stood proudly defiant against the Catilinian host gathering in the Etruscan hills to the north.

Or not. There’s a slight source issue with the years leading up to the First Triumvirate (the rise of a certain J. Caesar), so guess whose word we have to take for it. Sallust’s bellum Catilinae was almost entirely based on Cicero’s souped-up versions of his senate speeches, as he was a fraud and political outcast with a mission to worm himself back into society – and how better than to emulate the pater patriae, the father of the homeland. Cicero meanwhile was somewhat keen to paint himself in the best light and would hardly seem impressive, were Catilina only to be a bit of a bad-tempered playboy.

In any case, these 7 words represent the way one subject has dominated education for 6 eons. Throughout the ancient, Dark and Middle Ages, the Renaissance, pre-modern and modern periods, classics has shaped our statesmen, our emissaries and our churchmen, our doctors and our lawyers, our teachers, soldiers and writers. And our society.

For the 7th eon, the future, there are those who wish to see classics struck off the educational register. There are those who decry it as the privilege of the privileged, the leisure of those at leisure, the toy of the toymasters.

Read Cicero’s Against Catiline (in Catilinam) – it’s easy to see the origins of the best political speeches of the modern era. Churchill indeed, according to (classics graduate) Boris Johnson, was top of his class in classics. Read Tacitus, and you’ll see how the best modern script-writers and television historians merely continue a craft forged years ago on the streets of Rome. Listen to Virgil, and, as long as you haven’t stumbled across the epically dull Georgics (about agricultural technique etc), the ancient techniques of propaganda, spin and manipulated history will shine forth.

Classics isn’t a lesson in how a bunch of tribesmen subjugated half the known world. It isn’t a lesson in verb conjugations, noun cases or precisely where Caecilius chooses to spend his private life at home. It is a universal lesson in everything we, as global citizens require. It is a lesson in politics, but simultaneously in word puppetry, dramatics, literature and comedy.

When we study Latin or Greek, we understand. We understand whence around 50% of the words you just read came. We understand how to captivate an audience. We understand our own history, our own politics, our own language and our own society.

Learning classics isn’t just about giving us all a basic grounding in language, which makes learning every language thereafter infinitely easier. It’s not just preserving literary bequests or finding out how our ancestors once lived. It is a global education which every pupil should have the chance to access, and it is the key subject to open a door into any and every pathway.

Caesar may have come, seen and conquered, but we should stop, look and listen.

Arachnophobia

A few weeks ago, during the days when summer transitioned into a wintery autumn, our household was struck by an immigration issue. They came in all shapes and sizes, some small, some large, some black, some brown, but all with the same intent: feeding off us, using our benefits, impinging off our heating and lighting and making zipwires from my light-shade to my curtain-rail.

I was working one day (surprisingly) and I saw something out of the corner of my eye, something which scuttled with malice and a vengeance across the floor. This eight-legged horror froze as I turned my gaze upon its features, eyeing me back with contempt. I didn’t move either, and, summoning up my courage, I called my sister to remove it to a more suitable location. Then I knew. I had arachnophobia.

It lasted less than a week. I still don’t pick them up and let them run across my hands, and they’re not coming anywhere near my food, but I’m not afraid of them any more.

The word phobos is often translated as fear, but that’s not its true meaning. It’s the intertwined mix of hate and fear which supersedes reason and common sense. Paraphrasing Ovid, what is more influential than mankind, what less than an insect? Yet mankind screams and runs away from the insect.

The spiders have truly come out of the woodwork in the last few parliamentary years. In the midst of the populist web of disruption lies Nigel Farage, spinning out attractive propositions to win over the British electorate. The established parties, in reality, have nothing to fear from Ukip, electorally speaking. First-past-the-post, whatever disadvantages may be found with it, ensures that, even if Ukip come a close second in every constituency, they still won’t gain any seats. The spiders won’t eat the human.

Just as with the Anti-Waste League in the early 1920s, the Conservatives will inevitably shift more towards the right to eliminate the usefulness of Ukip, since they are more effective in government than the untested and globally unpopular Ukip.

Of course, the European elections show that Ukip has a mandate to voice Euroscepticism in the United Kingdom, but these cannot be taken as a prediction for the general election, given that the turnout was much lower (so those who did bother were probably more motivated to make it count anyway) and works on proportional representation.

The spider may not be able to do anything disasterous, but I still engineered a pretty comprehensive series of traps to stop one crawling onto my face during the night. Ukip may not win a majority in government, but they can still force Cameron’s hand in the EU, push for a reconsideration of the immigration laws and of the judicial infrastructure.

It isn’t logical to fear/hate spiders. In actual fact, they do some good, such as controlling the fly numbers…and probably other good things too. And Ukip have one good point – they’ve forced a reconsideration of the status quo and have ridded the established parties of the complacency in policy and in action they have enjoyed for a long time in Westminster politics.

We can prohibit spider from impinging on our territory by covering the vicinity in peppermint essence, or we can suck up each one with a hoover. We could discredit Ukip on the grounds of racism, sexism or whatever else the media can find, or we could seriously consider how they have enjoyed such a surge in popularity despite their ostensibly massive flaws.

I don’t have arachnophobia any more. I got over it. Maybe it’s time Westminster did too.

Heather on the Mountainside

When the heather is still to be seen all around, and the mountains are littered with forests of deer and capercaillie, a whisper flies over all the mountaintops and treetops. A magnificent stag, resplendent with antlers of shining bone, raises himself from his rest. The whisper flutters between pine and fern and, brushing the tufted fur of the stag’s ear, imparts its news. The stag, it says, could leave the pine forest and wander over bracken and thorn to another forest on the eastern slopes of the mountain, where the clearings are said to be grander, the herd smaller and the rivalry lesser. The stag could determine the lineage of the herd for himself, upon which plants his herd ought best to graze and in which location. Otherwise, the stag could remain in the larger forest, not the primary stag amongst his large herd but nevertheless possessed of the prestige thereof, staying with grasses he knows to be fertile and ground he knows to yield goodness.

Whilst composing this rather crude tale in German (during a lesson which wasn’t in fact German – sorry), all the romanticism of the Scottish landscape seemed to fill up my thoughts, as perhaps the state of the post-1918 Liberal party ought to have been doing. The emotion Scott evoked in his readers, imbuing Victorian England with a new-found alacrity for all things Scottish, has almost been aped by Salmond in his drive to secure Scottish independence.

It’s all been analysed in much finer detail in the media, especially R4’s excellent Today, but I think where Salmond has truly excelled with his campaign strategy has been the targeting of the emotional vote. Because, in the end, an important section of the electorate will be swayed not by the fiscal difficulties ensuing from the pound sterling issue, nor by the perilous diplomatic & treaty consequences of independence, but whether Scotland is good enough to stand alone. Whether they feel proud as Scots. Whether they want to honour their heritage, the efforts of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce.

In taking IndependentScotland’s online survey, I apparently am 75% No Thanks & 25% Yes. Going on to read their reasons for both sides, I was immediately reminded of an episode of Yes, Prime Minister in which Sir Humphrey tells Bernard how to fix the outcome of a poll.

Since I’m of dual heritage from both countries, I have a vested interest in keeping our kingdom united, as I previously bleated about. I can also see the clear advantages in an independent Scotland, so I thought I’d make my own reasons for swimming with Salmond (**bad joke**) or against him. If I was allowed a vote, these 3 reasons would be why I’d vote for either side.

1. YES – Scotland was once independent, and did pretty nicely, thanks very much.

Well, that’s almost true, barring the awkwardness of the Darien failure, the mess during the Protestant Reformation (partially alleviated during Mary’s short active queenship) and the feudalism of the English ‘overlordship’. With a single head of state, and massive loans required to keep one partner afloat, the Act of Union made sense. Now that the monarch wields little real political power, that’s out of the 1707 equation, whilst Yes say North Sea oil will keep the country afloat in addition to cutbacks on defence expenditure. Holyrood is 17 years old so the political infrastructure is almost there.

2. NO – Scotland enriches the other kingdoms and is equally enriched.

Everyone uses Andy Murray so I’ll use his mother – captain of the Davies Cup team and one of the most interesting prospects for Strictly Come Dancing this year. In seriousness though (actually I was being serious, because I’ve drawn Judy in a sweep-stake), culturally speaking, the unity of intra-UK interest really does benefit us all. It’s more accessible than it is with other states, and is therefore more beneficial.

3. YES – Scotland has a different political agenda to the rest of the UK

There are more pandas in Scotland than Conservative MPs – an oft-quoted but nevertheless funny fact. With an effective Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition ruling from (ahem) Westminster, how can Scotland’s needs and priorities be given full importance when most of the Scots MPs are just hurling insults (and empty promises) from the opposition benches? Scotland can govern its economy, citizenry and everything else in better accordance with its wishes and needs from Edinburgh. Scotland wants subsidised university fees – they can have them. No nuclear weaponry? Fine. More pandas? Fine.

4. NO – **Diplomatic warning lights**

By sticking in the UK, Scotland has a voice at the highest diplomatic summits and conferences and carries much more weight than it would as a separate state. Barroso and several other European persons of importance have said that Scotland would not be welcome in the EU – most Scottish politicians claim they don’t want to be either. But without a place in the EU, how can Scotland expect to improve it, to work in close harmony with its European partners? Various treaties would need to be constructed which would take several years – it can of course be achieved, but at the cost of important roles in global discussions.

5. YES – We can make it!

Norway used to be under Danish rule until the 19th century, and they’ve done jolly well as an independent state. Their topography, economy & demographics are comparable to Scotland. There have been years of English gain at Scottish expense – the Wars for Independence, the Highland Clearances, the industry – it’s time to reclaim the land as Scottish and construct our own corridor to our future.

6. NO – Carving

Many British families are a patchwork of all the constituent nations, and so to ‘be Scottish’ has various interpretations. Many people are simply and indistinguishably British, so why should we be forced to choose between our genetic allegiances?

The emotional emphasis of Salmond’s work has had a positive impact on his polling – when the referendum was announced I assumed No would win, but will they? In less than 9 days we shall see if sense and sensibility prevails over pride and persuasion.

http://www.independentscotland.org/content/voting-yes-for-scottish-independence.htm
http://www.independentscotland.org/content/voting-NO-for-scottish-independence.htm

Is it social?

Sunlight streams through the panes of glass, heating up the room to a temperature roughly equal to that of the Gobi Desert, and, reflecting off the slightly off-white of Physics Unit 1 June 2011, it taunts the student with its vitamin D-filled mockery.

Yes, it’s examination time again, that time when hours of sunlight and hours of time spent indoors with one’s nose either in past papers or textbooks are seemingly proportional.

For one student, of apparently unknown identity, that somewhat irksome proportionality became less so last week. Partaking in the social media craze of the selfie, one GCSE student snapped themselves in front of a hall full of fellow students and a rather powerless invigilator. The audacious student underwent the cancellation of all their papers and prohibition from public examinations for 5 years – or so they say.

Some of my contemporaries protest that, since no sensitive information was leaked, this is a rather unfair treatment. Mutterings are made about the growing distance between adults and youths as regards social media.

In one respect they’re right. There is a lack of understanding about social media youth culture. But that nescience is not solely confined to adults – youths themselves are unaware of the implications of what they post and where.

This particular selfie was a ridiculous statement of over-confidence which undermines the seriousness of public examinations – punishment has been meted out and hopefully will deter others from behaving in a similar way, despite it being “worth the retweets” according to the instigator.

The concept of the selfie is, in essence, based on a desire for recognition and praise. Most people who post them do not intend viewers to note the nice landscape, cute pet or whatever else the excuse in the tagline may be; they crave ‘likes’. This is prevalent not only with teenage girls and boys, but even, actually, with the older generation.

This is all part of the sub-culture which has sprung up surrounding social media. Numerous users of Facebook are so desperate for attention that they post statuses informing those who are too bored or desperate to scroll past them on their newsfeed that they may receive a like on a profile picture or a compliment on their timeline in return for liking that status. And what, pray, is the point of that exercise? Presumably so that the poster can feel self-satisfied after collecting a certain number of likes for that status, plus the kudos of appearing a popular individual who readily hands out compliments.

Full disclosure: I have a Facebook account. Some of you may have ended up here from Tea With Shortbread’s Facebook page. Before I set up my Facebook account, when I was 15, I used to affirm that I would never get it. This was due to my perception of the culture surrounding it, of which I was already well aware, with my father, as a lawyer whose expertise involves social media, having warned me of it and of whispers of the issues related to it which I heard at school, namely cyber-bullying and relentless showing off (of which one aspect is covered in this post).

I also wanted to keep up with the latest news from celebrities or organisations I liked, principally F1 drivers, and to know what was going on in my year – posts which don’t always emanate self-congratulation or attention-seeking desperation.

Yes, Facebook can be useful. I can now follow the latest tennis tournaments much more easily than on BBC live text or equivalent mass media services, see memorable pictures of my Duke of Edinburgh group battling incessant gradient changes and even see what the PM’s getting up to whilst campaigning.

A limited selfies are actually entertaining, like the one of Michael Gove with some schoolchildren or that selfie which made Mrs Obama so incensed. Selfies can also be useful. A few months ago, someone kickstarted a trend of women/girls posting selfies without make-up on and nominating their friends to do likewise, thus not only raising around £8m in less than a week but superseding the annoying trends of selfies and ‘neknominations’ (the latter led to a few deaths). Even people who never engage in selfies engaged in this, like me, although since I don’t wear make-up I wore a wolf mask instead.

Social media also managed to make a tangible benefit to society in the last year or so as well, with the efforts of terminal cancer patient Stephen Sutton being broadcast on several social media platforms, enabling him to raise almost £4m for the Teenage Cancer Trust by engaging well via social media as well as his indomitable courage.

Social media is not inherently bad. The most basic aims of it is to create better connections with other people online, whether with friends (Facebook), business contacts (LinkedIn) or the wider world (Twitter). That’s basically what parties are for, in the non-online world, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

What is wrong is the way society uses social media for selfish purposes. Cyber-bullying is a selfish attempt for people, often with inferiority complexes or issues of control, to assert some form of domination over a chosen target, and bullying amongst youth is probably at its height amongst the Facebook accounts of Year 8. Many profile pictures are selfish attempts to garner admiration – not all, but many, predominantly youth over-concerned with their image (a major issue for which media in general must take a lot of the blame). Some statuses are also designed to win support, particularly the mysterious ones which don’t specify any particular issue.

There is very little chance this will change, because the human species has the desire, particularly pronounced amongst youth, to win praise and feel appreciated. Social media gives a better platform than ever before for this. It’s time for society to take much more seriously the impact of social media and start trying to rectify some of the more adverse changes before they become indelible.

Picture is of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, whose social media accounts not only spread the best pictures of the collection but also give information about viewing times – an excellent example (picture taken by me at the RAF Waddington International Air Show 2013).

Jigsaw City

I look out to my left, and I see Prussia. Straight ahead of me lies Weimar Germany. Somewhere behind me lies the Third Reich. Below me is Cold War Germany. To my right, modern-day Germany buzzes along.

No city experienced turbulence in the 20th century more than Berlin. With 5 different forms of government (imperialistic monarchy, democracy, fascist dictatorship, occupation & communist dictatorship) in less than 50 years, every time I visit a distinct feeling of this jigsaw history being forced together is impressed upon me.

The Brandenburg Gate, to the left of my position at the top of Lord Norman Foster’s Reichstag dome, is the symbol of old Prussia. Built by Prussian monarch Friedrich Wilhelm II, its victorious quadriga swiftly became established as a symbol of Prussian power and might after it was regained from Paris at the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars. Bombed during the Second World War and used to host demonstrations during the Cold War, these 6 columns represent the inherent imperialistic foundations of the capital.

Interwoven amongst subtle memories of the kaisers (more prominent in the cathedral, where the mighty organ & lavish masonry of Friedrich I Barbarossa’s tomb seem to be superseded by memorials not to the hegemony of Prussia but to the oppression of its peoples by national socialists and communists) lie the hints of embryonic modern Germany. Between the downfall of Kaiser Wilhelm II following his 1918 abdication and the nefarious advent of the Nazis in 1933, Germany was a democracy, with proportional representation* and a functional parliament. The cries for this seem to be eternally etched onto the front of the Reichstag now – “DEM DEUTSCHEN VOLKE” (“TO THE GERMAN PEOPLE”), carved in 1916 as support for the monarchical autocracy dwindled, which, to the modern onlooker, evoke feelings of a wider significance. Throughout the 20th century, Germany rarely fully belonged to the German people, blocked by a warmongering kaiser, coldly efficient purist national socialists and administrations comprising of Soviet puppets.

Rightfully afraid of an upsurge of Neo-Nazis, the site of Hitler’s bunker during the Battle for Berlin is unmarked. It’s a car park now, not far from the Brandenburg Gate. Like the Residenzstrasse in Munich, simply standing on the street where some of the most pivotal events of Nazi history – the final days of the regime and its first steps towards the seizure of power respectively – is eerily poignant. Just imagining the realisation of the lost war, enactment of scorched earth policy, suicides & cremations which happened all around that point is strangely silencing. It’s the same with Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse-8. The headquarters of the SS. Beck, Canaris, Bonhoeffer, Oster…the names of the lions of the anti-Nazi resistance swim around in my mind as I stand above the excavations of their holding cells.**

The memorials to the victims of Hitler are dotted all around the city; the Holocaust Mahnmal a few seconds away from the Brandenburg Gate, the Jewish Museum (which actually also documents wider Jewish history), the Topography of Terror museum & various plaques. But what I find the most thought-provoking is not the extensive displays of little collections, but rather the places; the spots where Bormann’s skeleton was found, where the grand march of SS troops was held in 1933, where the various ministries ordered the subjugation of what was to become the Third Reich.

Other ‘memory spots’ are to be found in the centre of the city, where the Berlin Wall sliced the world in half overnight in 1961. A line of cobbles traces it outside the Reichstag, in other places a double white line or isolated blocks of it decorated with art and graffiti (East Side Gallery & Potsdamer Platz). The spot where Allied & Soviet tanks faced each other, either one with the capability to incinerate much of our planet through starting a nuclear war, is now a McDonald’s – says a lot about modern society. Checkpoint Charlie is a monument to souvenir hunting and photo opportunities, itself being a replica – the spot itself is far more vivid and evocative.

And although it was torn down in 1989, amidst worldwide festivity, the Wall continues to embody a discrepancy in Germany today. It is widely documented that the wage, employment and quality of life gaps between the former East & West Germany prevail, but I do not refer to this. This discrepancy is much wider, obscure and threatening. It is not the failure of Khruschev & Kennedy to become amicable diplomatically in the 1960s: it is the failure of society today to recognise that those differences are, at present, irreconcilable. The Wall may be down, but its footprint is still there. Although on the face of it East/West relations seem to be effective, in reality, as we are now beginning to witness in Crimea & the Eastern Ukraine, they are probably as dire as in 1961. The routing of capitalist/communist sympathisers may have ended with the death of the latter form of government in Russia, but the propaganda prevails. It is crucial to repair relations with Putin immediately if we are to avoid another century of European turmoil.

In the meantime, Berlin, within whose boundaries the German government even now is vying for non-belligerent solutions to the Ukraine issue, sits atop its marshy ground, the jigsaw city, with all the answers to the future locked within its streets.

 

 

*(which elicited great instability of government)

**This year marks the 70th anniversary of the 20th July plot to assassinate Hitler. I’m currently researching the extent of the opposition  to the Nazis cocooned within their own regime, primarily within the secret service (Abwehr) which I hope to publish later this year.

Am I?

“That’s such a right-wing thing to say…”

This rather interesting observation often pertains to any conversation I hold regarding politics, education or history, fastening itself almost indelibly to my opinions on grammar schools (yes please), Margaret Thatcher (excellent wartime leadership & strong economic stance), feminism (no) and so on.

At the moment, I reside in the north of England, although I myself hail primarily from midlands and Scottish stock. Yes, I’m middle-class, Christian and Conservative, but does that really make me so shockingly right-wing? Of course, everything is relative, and relative to most of the people I have daily contact with I must indeed seem fairly right-wing, considering that they are very left-wing but snuggle within the quilting of a very left-wing district, rendering ‘Ed-ite’ politics seem the norm. A fellow student recently held out a 30cm* ruler, representing the political spectrum, and claimed that I am positively off the scale.

Let’s consider this objectively. I believe in private enterprise, governmental funding cuts, an in-out referendum about EU membership, the United Kingdom, constitutional monarchy, the House of Lords, tuition fees and a strong militia. I also believe in controlled immigration, freedom of the press unaffiliated financially and secretively to any particular political party and the NHS (which however desperately needs reform). I admire the special relationship with the US, but agree that it musn’t coerce the UK to become too subservient, have doubts about the sensibility of the EU and am wary of its and Russia’s dealings (although not for the same reasons).

Depending on your background, this will either sound very right-wing, or actually, which is the truth, simply Conservative. I have written before about left-wing indoctrinated of history, which is in peril of becoming revisionist, and my experiences thereof are typical of everyday life in an area so deeply ensconced in itself that it refuses to acknowledge outside views. Sometimes I am even regarded with disdain upon speaking for not having a trace of the local accent (which is worsened when unfortunately I cannot decipher that of the person with whom I speak – this has never been a skill of mine), which I think is bordering on – if not racism – anti-origin attitude.

To the English, I am ‘Scottish’ (my blood is 25% Scottish although I have Scottish origins); to the Scottish I am ‘English’. In arts lessons I am regarded as scientific, and in science lessons I am regarded as linguistic/arts-y. When I play badminton, I am told my style is too much akin to that of tennis; when I play tennis, I am remonstrated with for flicking my wrists as if I was hitting a shuttlecock. Like the dilemma faced by Tonio Kroeger in Thomas Mann’s eponymous novel, both sides seem to regard me as being too much with the other.

When it comes to politics, I may be Conservative, but that does not make me Nigella Farage.

*or, to fit in with my super-right-wing image, 12-inch

Permafrost

Here we are, one week on from the conclusion of the latest installment of medal-fuelled tears and tension, with a diplomatic crisis brewing 400 miles from the Fisht Stadium.

The post-1946 decline in Western-Soviet relations was named the Cold War; perhaps this new one could be termed the Permafrost War. For although grass may grow atop, a façade developed in the uppermost layer of warmer soil, there reposes a hard layer quasi-malevolence beneath it.

I think it’s safe to say that the UK has one of the worst diplomatic relationships with Russia. Since a sizeable proportion of the population with memory or knowledge of the 1950s-60s still hasn’t quite sat up from the knock-out shock of the Philby deception (by far the most disturbing of those of the Cambridge 5), it may seem logical that the defection of another spy caused the newest period of frosty diplomacy between the two states. Alexander Litvinenko did, however, transfer his loyalty from the FSB (Russian secret service) to MI6, an act which, along with publications deemed caustic to the reputation of his former employers, secured his death sentence by the radioactive drug polonium in November 2006. FSB agents were blamed but subsequent inquests have proved inconclusive – handily for the Foreign Office. Finding the death of Litvinenko (under the protection of the British government) to have been, beyond all reasonable doubt, effectively caused by the Russian government on British soil would be more than a little harmful for diplomatic relations.

Yet in 2010, Gordon Brown (PM) and David Miliband (Foreign Secretary) expelled 4 Russian diplomats (apparently intelligence officers) from the UK in response to Moscow’s refusal to allow the prime suspect in Litvinenko’s murder, Andrei Lugovoi, to be extradited. Also in 2010, Moscow expelled a British diplomat on charges of alleged spying. An associate of Litvinenko, Boris Berezovsky, was found hanged in Berkshire in 2013 in circumstances which will probably never be entirely clear. He was a long-term and defiant critic of Putin.

Ever since the Bolsheviks arranged the murders of the British king’s cousins, Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra and their 6 young children in Yekaterinburg in 1918, relations between our two nations haven’t been the most cordial. The UK supported the Whites in the 1917-22 Civil War and the swathes of refugees, along with her ally France. Although Churchill and Stalin aligned themselves strategically in 1941 to end the Nazi evil, Churchill remained aware of the dangers posed by Stalin, politically prescient as ever, and it was he who, in 1946, coined the term ‘Iron Curtain’. Very much the ‘enemy within’ the Allies, the Soviets initially made a pretence of willing friendship after the conclusion of the Second World War, in order to rebuild trade and industry ravaged by the Nazi infiltration of the USSR, but the West, ever wary of that communist ‘man of steel’ (in the least super-heroic sense), declined and widened the breach. Then the Cold War truly began in earnest; the Berlin Wall; Cuban Missile Crisis; Cambridge 5 revelations.

Royalist Britain simply could not stomach the overthrow of the monarchy in 1917 by fairly poorly supported workers and recently returned ex-patriots – the 36 million or so killings in Stalin’s purges is even less of a cause to be friendly with the old regime. Having led the world in industrialisation, and arguably the most advanced country in the world by that point economically speaking, with a well-functioning political system, it was hard to see what was so bad about the tsar that he needed to be replaced with revenge-hungry killers.

In my own opinion, I believe the fact that 36m or so murders are far less well-known and documented than Hitler’s 11m speaks for itself. The communist USSR and the capitalist west are so ideologically different in so many areas that it would be near-impossible to have maintained diplomatic relations. That’s pretty obvious.

But now? Has the history between Russia and the west laid down insurmountable barriers to happy and productive relations? Of course not. Look at Germany – Hitler ruled for 12 years, murdering 11m of his own citizens and several hundred thousand of ours during that tenancy, and Angela Merkel is received warmly into the Houses of Parliament and the homes of the British PM and head of state. Of course. It would be churlish to insinuate that she is in any way responsible for the Nazis’ atrocities, or that our relations are in some way impaired by it (something closer to the mark would be the word ‘penalties’ – 90 minutes rather than 12 years).

Is Russia so different? I’m afraid so. On top of all the negative history since 1917 go the recent espionage fiascos and the ostensible determination of Putin to supersede the west (his spokesman declaring the UK to be a “small island” that “nobody listens to” in anger over British proactivity over Syria and anti-corruption). The tenet that Russia has been ruled since the Mongol Conquest by silnaya ruka, the iron hand, seems to hold true, and this is not palatable to the modern west. As 19th century Slavophiles in Russia maintained, Russia is clearly different to the west, and therefore must develop differently. Whilst I’m not entirely adherent to that philosophy, the distinction between Russia and the west seems fairly apparent; but for the benefit of not only our children (cue spiel) but also for the global economy, peace and worldwide diplomatic fraternity.

In Alaska, they break away the permafrost with pick-axes of metal. We can break away this permafrost war with pick-axes of diplomacy, if only our politicians would.

Sporting matters

It’s a gloriously sunny day in the English countryside. Sheep bleat with content, birds sing and trill with burning goodwill, and butterflies flit between exquisitely colourful efflorescence. Magnificently natural, the secluded ‘peacefulness’ of the meadows, fields and riverbanks are throbbing. Throbbing with the sound of 18 break horsepower. This is the British Lawn Mower Racing Championship.

Initiated in 1973, this humble form of motorsport surely epitomises the track on which the engine of British sport should be headed. Devoid of monetary impetus, its rustic and simple allure has drawn famous and successful racers, like Stirling Moss, to compete ferociously for the kudos of ‘best in field’. Its motto, translated as “Through the grass to the stars”, is not only humourous and illustrative of the modest layout of the sport, but is inspirational, like the RAF motto it parodies. It shows an aim; a desire; a goal. Through 400m of liquidated lawn, competitive spirit, sportsmanship and co-operation cut through the apparent triviality of the sport.

Lawn-mower racing is hardly a major world sport. One doesn’t win a prize. It’s not televised. Outsiders hardly consider it Olympic material – it doesn’t matter. But that’s the point. Because, looming and zooming above those blades of grass, is the essence of true sport.

The detritus feeder of commercialism has decayed the purity of sport, before it’s dead. With such astronomical amounts of money being thrown liberally at football players (the average annual pay for a Barcelona player is £5.2m excluding endorsements), Formula One drivers (the average yearly wage of a Ferrari driver is £16m) and Olympic athletes (Usain Bolt earns almost £13m), it seems like the founding and purest aspects of sport are being thrown to the lions of avarice, materialism and rapacity.

The real impetus for the pursuit of sporting excellence should not be global acclaim, a bank balance that could afford 3m mosquito nets for impoverished Africans or scores of endorsement deals. It should be for the pursuit of health, social mobility and leisure. It should be adorned not with the logos of countless companies, but with the banners of health, fun and fair play.

Sportsmanship, the ideal of sport undistorted by greed or selfish ambition, was begun by the Victorians when they revolutionised football, rugby, cricket and other such popular sports. What started as commonly played games increasingly spread throughout the British Empire and their allies, covering the world in a matter of decades. Sportsmanship rode on that great Britannic wave. The idea of sport as something totally opposite to intellectual study, healthy for the body and mind, started with the Ancient Greeks; but the evils of commercialisation are a relatively new strain of plague.

The first sponsorship deal in Formula One was in 1968, when a company responsible for thousands of worldwide cancers, respiratory diseases and circulation problems, Gold Leaf Cigarettes, lit up the commercial racing scene. There’s no smoke without a fire; by 1972, every single car was covered with commercial symbolism.

Through the ashes of monetary addiction is a lesson for all forms of sport. 44 years on, corporate hands are stained yellow with the shame of eradicating the originally exemplary ethics of racing, the boundaries between fairness and balancing the books at the end of the financial year being smudged incomprehensibly, leading to fixed race results by team hierarchies, inter-team spying and drivers often being chosen over the amount of sponsors they bring, rather than their proven skill. This is all down to fiscal short-sightedness, megalomania and moronity.

While smoking is a detriment to the healthy image sport likes to emanate, the cancers of commercialism and materialism are far more terminal and treacherous to the cells making up pure and unalloyed sport, than any caused by cigarette smoke.

It’s not the money injected into sport that is its moral downfall – deprivation of all funding will let cricket grounds turn brown, pools become contaminated and ski pistes to become abandoned and unsafe. But the accentuated and markedly unsporting state of monetary affairs has destroyed all that our ancestors worked up to.

Although the intentions may have started off well, the dragons of financial gluttony have mauled world sport and have devastated its purity.

Whilst football pitches are surrounded by hoardings, leagues swamped by title sponsors and kits steeped in advertisements, the grassy knolls of the Sussex countryside are airy. A season in lawn-mower racing would cost £796.35 on average, including a new race-prepared mower, slightly less costly than Manchester City’s £392m wages bill alone. All the kit you need is a helmet, outdoor jacket and a pair of trustworthy boots, and there’s not much commercial interest in inscribing an old walking jacket.

And so, in a world chastened by oxymorons, contradictions and unfairness, it is to the lowly garden sheds and garages that we must turn to find modern sport in its prime. Flick the switch and raise the blades – the grass is greener on the lawn-mower racing side.

14th February

Yesterday was Friday. There were high winds, fierce periods of rainfall and brief interludes of sunshine, accompanied in the evening by Great Britain’s first Sochi gold medal (congratulations, Lizzie Yarnold) and another excellent re-run of New Tricks.

It also happened to be 14th February; the last movement in the concierto of flurried special offers at restaurants, over-dramatic window displays in shops and rushed film releases. St Valentine’s Day: otherwise infamous of the day when one who happens to be unattached cannot go to the cinema for the purposes of actually watching a film, check social media in the face of a deluge of drenched outpourings of ‘love’ or go out for a meal without coming under intense suspicion.

Against this storm surge of romantic seawater stand the Thames Barriers of anti-Valentine sentiment, decrying the celebration as ‘commercialised’ and ‘false’. But, I opine, the defence is required not only against one day, but rather, as with rainfall, against an almost incessant series of ‘romantic’ declarations throughout the year.

There are certain aspects of the romantic aura which can be preserved. The excellent captioned picture in the title picture would not be possible without that infamous short poem, descended from a collection of nursery rhymes. Moreover, familial events of love, such as christenings, birthday celebrations, marriages and funerals are pillars of our society which should not be erroneously eroded by the derision of anti-romantics. It is not against the actual fundamental principles of courtship or love which I regard with animosity; rather, the way modern society goes about proclaiming it.

Those of us with social media accounts will almost certainly be acquainted with those Facebook timeline posts or direct tweets by X declaring how Y are the best thing that ever happened, that X misses their darling Y with all of their heart, that Y could not sleep for thinking of X or enjoyed their romantic meal with X. And, for everyone except the persons involved, it provokes one of two reactions; either the wet, romanticised exhalation of longing that something similar would befall us (Z), or an expression of disgust and longing that they deactivate their accounts. In neither case does Z, in fact, actually want to view such things, no more than one wants to awkwardly stand beside a couple saying their goodbyes over-fondly whilst waiting for a train, or be forced to avert their gaze as couples declare their mutual undying love in a public place. Those of the first reaction, Za), would not be filled with such feelings of inadequacy or forlorn hope, whilst those of the second, Zb), would be spared the anguish and torment of such things.

Maybe I’m Victorian, archaic in perception, thought and reaction. I certainly belong to Zb). Having had experience of such things sent to me for all the world to read, and feeling sick in the stomach yet being compelled to be thankful, I have first-hand experience of the strain such public exhortations of ‘love’ can place on a relationship. Perhaps befitting a Brit two centuries afore my time, I struggle to cope with any public display of emotion, be it grief, love or pride when concerning personal matters. However, in my opinion – and it is only that – the reason certain people take such pains to tell people they love them is because they in fact do not. Rather than X sending a private message to Y, X posts it as a Facebook status, thereby ensuring friends and family of both all see it, because they are afraid the relationship will struggle, is short-term or is one-sided. Why else would X feel the need to announce it for all the world to see?

Those shaking their heads at this moment will argue that X might be completely in love with Y, assured of the continuance in their relationship and is hence so happy that they want everyone under the sun to know it. I refute this. Every single couple of my acquaintance who could possibly be termed ‘perfect’, ‘long-term’ or such adjectives refrain from such public declarations of their mutual adoration. It is a personal matter. And all of those who take openly to social media to incessantly declare it often break-up within a few months. In fact these public exhortations have the reverse of the desired effect because they highlight that X (the poster) is insecure in the relationship with Y and feels the necessity to declare his love openly in an effort to preserve it.

As I said, perhaps it’s a view framed by a monocle. But think about it. And the next time you feel compelled to openly and ostentatiously announce your love, please do so in private.

 

Featured image courtesy of “Talk Like Shakespeare Day”.