Childhood

No matter how far we are from it, most of us like to be reminded of our formative years once in a while. Whether it’s comparing the children’s television of today with that which we used to adore under the guise of entertaining young family members, adding musical memoirs of those times to our Spotify playlists or choosing what to cook on the basis of what we ate with our grandmother, our childhoods reach down indelibly into all of our lives.

This is obvious. It isn’t particularly insightful analysis to draw the link between nostalgic comfort and my desire to listen to the theme tune to “Thomas the Tank Engine”. But when it comes to the study of history, I believe the effects of childhood and the influences thereof are myopically overlooked.

Take  Adolf Hitler. His father, an illegitimate child with confused paternity, was an alcoholic who regularly beat up Adolf’s mother; Adolf, standing up for said mater, was once pushed through a window (albeit ground floor) by his drunk father. Alois exerted a forceful influence on his son, and tried to dictate his life, so undermining Adolf’s faith in a peaceful home and a successful career path that it set the foundations for the disturbed mind which would wreak such havoc upon the world.

Coupled with nationalist grief at the annexation of his local area (Branau-am-Inn) by Austria rather than Germany ingrained from childhood, the influence of famously proto-fascist politicians (e.g. the mayor) and businessmen in his late teenage and young adult years in Vienna, his impoverished situation sweeping drives for a pittance in the rich (and actually predominantly Jewish – who, due to racial career restrictions, often ended up in the lucrative financial sector) sector of the city and of course the defeat of the German empire (to whom Hitler always wished to demonstrate allegiance) in the First World War and ensuing Treaty of Versailles, the disruptive and strained home atmosphere had a deep effect on Hitler the man.

In fact, his extremist tendencies can be demonstrated from a relatively young age (teenage years) from the remembrances of friends and acquaintances. I would argue that Hitler became the evil persona by the time he was 20 – contingency, in the form of the First World War, created the opportunity for that to be released into popular politics, and, except for certain geopolitical tendencies as shaped by Munich professor Karl Haushofer, most of his ideas on politics were already complete prior to the outbreak of war.

In the English history curriculum, this crucial childhood is not explored enough for understanding of the man. If we are to prevent such a phenomenon of psychology occurring again, as advocates of the study of history love to claim its purpose is to do, surely we need to identify the causes therefor and rectify them in our society?

Hitler was not special. There are many alcoholics in the world. There are many nationalist politicians. There are many stubborn little boys. And, although circumstance in the geopolitical division of the border between southern Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire heightened Hitler’s development into the man he became, there are other instances in the modern world. North and South Korea. Sudan and South Sudan. Israel and the Gaza Strip. Just look at Chechnya; disagreements, to put it lightly, in the 1990s about whether or not it was part of Russia or an independent state following the dissolution of the Soviet Union have elicited devastating acts of terrorism and violence – the murder of Alexander Litvinenko and countless other investigators, bombings in Moscow and attacks in Grozny and the devastating Boston Marathon bombings.

If the circumstances exist, so too, somewhere, must such a person. They occasionally pop up, such manifestations of evil; Stalin; Bin Laden; the queer convention that was the Nazi party. In Britain, the Conservatives are most eager to help to diminish the frequency of broken families by encouraging the maintenance of marriage and so on; the break-ups thereof and familial discontent can brew future disaster.

Childhood is important. Childhood is very important. Memories, relationships and  some skills are formed during that time. But we would be foolish to regard it as pure nostalgia and to disregard it in adult life. Whilst Hitlers are – thankfully – extremely rare in positions of such potency, societal issues caused by dysfunctional (if I may venture to use that word) or disrupted childhoods, such as substance addiction, suicides and mental health issues, affect many millions of people. Whether caused by familial, geopolitical or associative (i.e. persons not pertaining to one’s family) issues, the formative years are crucial in developing such.

Please excuse me whilst I YouTube Fireman Sam and eat a jam roly-poly.

I’m a student, trust me

11 years of school has given me plenty of experience with all sorts of teacher in all sorts of subjects. Being predominantly academically minded, a decent and inspiring teacher is really quite crucial to me. I’ve had some pretty outstanding teachers in my time, and I’ve included aspects of their styles in the points below. As a Lower Sixth student, I offer some simple advice for teachers from a student’s point of view as to how to improve.

Although I’m not a teacher as such, I’ve lately had the pleasure of running a few revision sessions for years below me for Classical Greek, and I have limited experience in making the subject matter (literature and grammatical forms in my case) appealing for the students, with literature being covered only in my sessions rather than the lessons due to time constraints.

These steps are in no particular order, and are purely the opinion of a student who understands a little of the demands upon someone so integral to the development of a child.

1. Acknowledge your pupils outside the classroom

Smiling or wishing students a good morning maintains another side of the teaching job – the mentor and go-to person. Teachers who acknowledge students in the corridors are more likely revered by pupils.

2. Have as short a turnover time for marking work as possible

Teachers who are slow to take in and mark books on a regular basis (i.e. when they have nothing more important to mark, or no reports to write) don’t inspire confidence in students. Teacher-marked work is much more reliably accurate than student-marked work; for important homework tasks, or mini-tests, try to mark it yourself (unless you specifically want the pupils to understand the mark scheme). Which links to my next point…

3. Don’t be too generous in marking

Over-generous marks help nobody. They incite false confidence which may later be dashed. It is better to be as harsh as possible; in public examinations, the discrepancies between examiners is in reality so great that the difference between a ‘harsh’ marker and a ‘generous’ marker could be a grade. In the classroom, it’s much more useful and beneficial to be on the low end of the spectrum. Whilst younger students will prefer you to give them as many marks as possible, older students will realise that it really doesn’t help.

4. Don’t leave the classroom as soon as you end the lesson

There will usually be someone in the class who wants to ask you a question perhaps beyond the curriculum of that lesson, to query something you’ve said or to request extra assistance. If you leave as soon as you’ve released the class, you are discouraging them (however unintentionally) from doing so, especially if…

5. Be easily available!

…you’re hard to find otherwise. Check and reply to emails from pupils regularly (including in the holidays if possible!), and try to ensure you can be reached during break or lunchtimes.

6. Inspire your pupils

This is easy to say, and relatively difficult to do. Genuine enthusiasm for your subject is the first step. Encouraging extra questions from students related to the topic studied is another; don’t refuse to answer if it isn’t completely and directly related to the content of that lesson (if there are constraints of time, ask the pupil/s in question to wait at the end of the lesson so you can discuss it). Include interesting details about the topic which cannot be found in the textbook; effectively proving you have properly studied the area makes it much more likely that your pupils will be interested in what you say, especially if it contains humour.

7. NEVER read straight from presentations or from sheets

By a certain age, it’s fair to assume everyone can read. If you waste time reading chunks of text from the board or from hand-outs, even the most eager students are hugely unlikely to bother listening. If at all possible, avoid chunks of text where you can. Physically writing out notes on a whiteboard is better than ordering pupils to copy it off a presentation – and leave gaps, to engage their brains.

8. Spend the first half of the lesson wisely

Trawling through the latest homework or the latest test is really dull for everyone, even you. Outline common salient issues straight away, and make them clear. Don’t dwell on it. Speak to individuals if necessary, rather than trudging through their problems at the expense of everyone who doesn’t require that clarification. An excellent history teacher of mine used to spend the first 20-25 minutes of the lesson in a broad discussion of the topic for that lesson – teaching us, including facts he collated from personal research, and interacting by asking lots of different people.

9. Try not to spend an entire lesson reflecting on a mock/test

Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, so different people will have messed up different questions or parts of the test. Go over questions which caused a lot of people strife if necessary. Never ever go through the test question by question, especially in a science test where there are lots of different questions. Giving the students the mark scheme, so they can identify exactly the points which gain marks, is a much more efficient use of time. Encourage them to ask you about any questions they personally got wrong. Students who lost few marks, or who made only silly mistakes (as opposed to having clear deficiencies in their knowledge) will have wasted almost an entire lesson. Only in the event of a mass catastrophe of a test should you force the entire class to trawl through the paper for an hour.

10. Don’t be too lax, nor excessively strict

Punishing somebody for their first late homework, especially when there is a good reason or the simple fact they’ve forgotten it, is perceived by the student community as unforgiving and cruel, especially for stressed students. Of course deadlines have to be made, and students who inform you of late work in the lesson or don’t bother should be reprimanded, as should serial offending. You probably think that you’re not bothered what the pupils think of you, as long as you produce good results, but in fact I’d argue that the popularity of a teacher is linked to their efficacy and potential. For older students, allowing students to do whatever they want is actually negative (in contrast with younger years who love any excuse not to work), and is a cause for popularity decreases. You need to ensure that students work hard in the lesson in most lessons.

11. Watch your manner

Rudeness is a significant cause for complaints to senior management teams, even if directed at other members of staff or ideals rather than a pupil. It is not acceptable to humiliate pupils in front of the whole class unless it is clearly humourous or they are behaving in a churlish manner; simple disagreements of perspective and analysis, for example, is no cause for public embarrassment for pupils. Swearing and blasphemy will also lose you respect. Inevitably, you will prefer certain students to others, but if you indulge this favouritism, the others will perceive you as unfair and biased – you must especially not let this influence your marking. Being good-humoured rather than moody and/or angry etc. will also have an impact on the effectiveness of your lesson.

12. Incorporate different things into the lesson

One of my German teachers is also very musical, and so, for example, the declensions of some irregular verbs are matched to melodies and then sung. In one of my previous maths classes, there was a high proportion of athletes, and so we practised transformations of graph parabolas by a sort of ballet-style co-ordination of arm movement and height change. Younger years appreciate the inclusion of drama, whilst older students engage their cognitive processes with the content of the lesson during debates. If all lessons contain exercises from the textbook, dry and uninspiring note-taking and limited class discussion, the students are less likely to recall the subject matter at a later date; by being original in certain lessons (easy enough in science through fun experiments/demonstrations) it helps them to retain the memory.

13. Prep.!

As afore-mentioned, this history teacher I once had used to read extensively around the topics he taught (he’d then offer to lend members of his classes the books, which I personally found very beneficial), and include details of the books or studies in our lessons. One of my Latin teachers continually reads papers and references ancient sources to elicit interesting details for his lessons. My most recent mathematics teacher used to compile examination questions and give them us as a pack, which was of the utmost use for honing particular skills and practising as we progressed through the course. If you can deliver a wider range of more interesting content than the textbook, you will inspire your pupils. End of. Teachers who rely too heavily on the course textbook give the impression of insecurity in the subject area and a lack of interest which disappoints eager pupils and makes weaker pupils uncertain. Those who don’t research questions posed by pupils or, especially with subjects containing literature, possess gaps in their knowledge regarding the background or references in a given text will be regarded suspiciously by certain pupils, whilst others will begin to wonder how much you care about teaching or the subject. If you appear not to know crucial aspects of something on the specification, there will be cause (albeit perhaps kept secret from you) for serious concern amongst pupils who come to rely heavily on teacher input.

Inversion of prediction

“If it’s a girl they’re calling her Sigourney after an actress. And if it’s a boy they’re naming him Rodney, after Dave.”

Trigger, as portrayed by the late Roger Lloyd-Pack, used this simple line referring to the imminent birth of Del Boy’s child in “Only Fools & Horses” to intertwine typical social intricacies and his character’s idiosyncracies, playing on audience expectations to render the essence of the pun much more comedic than the situation might otherwise have been. Simple inversion of prediction is probably the most effective form of comedy. Tommy Cooper, whose jokes and magic antics made for popular and memorable viewing, exploited audience expectation expertly when relating a joke; “My neighbour came round the house at 4 o’clock this morning, banging on the door. Good thing I was up playing the bagpipes.” Les Dawson, in his pianoforte sketches, and Eric Morecambe, in the famed “Andrew Preview” sketch, also played on these false predictions with, shall we say, unique interpretations of famous works (or, paraphrasing Morecambe, playing all the right notes but not necessarily in the right order).

Yesterday, David Cameron, delivering a speech to the Westminster Correspondents’ Dinner, also inverted expectations whilst outlining his priorities for the coming year and his remaining in this parliamentary term.  Ostensibly serious, he declared his first priority to be “keeping the bald spot under control”, whilst lauding his hairdresser for making cuts and inhibiting a recession simultaneously.

Other inversions of prediction tend to be somewhat less humourous; the 5-0 whitewash in  the most recent Ashes series comes to mind for English cricket fans. Others are simply interesting; a score of ‘8’ for Gordon Brown on the tea-time quiz “Pointless” when 100 people were asked to name chancellors of the exchequer, or the shock of watching David Suchet sans moustache and Belgian accent.

What forms these expectations? As members of society, we have individual childhood foundations, familial influences and life experiences, yet there is sufficient communal interest and knowledge to merit a wealth of popular comedies – “Only Fools & Horses”, “Miranda” and “Morecambe and Wise”, for example, which pull large audiences. The 1978 Christmas special of “Morecambe and Wise” drew 28 million viewers, a huge proportion of the population with television sets. Does nationality – shared heritage and language – relate strongly to what we find funny? British comedy and German comedy are very different, with exchange of broadcasts being rare. British and American comedy are more similar, yet different in terms of development and intricacies.  The British sense of humour is unique; self-deprecating, often finely engineered and sometimes subtle, it is distinct from the more simplified, ostensible and ‘easy’ US comedy, designed for different audiences.

Expectations are also played out ostentatiously for comedic effect. Henning Wehn, self-described German comedy ambassador to the UK, preys upon the stereotypes of Germans as obsessed by punctuality, efficient and direct. Yet in fact this succeeds as comedy because our expectations as governed by the stereotypes we know to be untrue: hence subconsciously we, as the audience, are not in reality expecting it  and therefore the ploy works.

Is this a question of nationality, then, since so too are stereotypes? Is all comedy different across the world due to the discrepancy in expectation?

As Tommy Cooper would say, I was indecisive: now I’m not quite sure.

Indoctrination

Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler’s Fuehrerbefehl of attenuating the influence of the Jews in Germany reached down into the educational system, the poisonous anti-Semitism dripping through and contaminating even elementary education. In primary school, one learnt the ‘distinguishing features’ of a Jew (big noses, protruding foreheads and close-set eyes, according to the contemporary racial stereotype), was incited to deride those marked with the yellow Star of David and to despise them upon sight. Upon progression into secondary school, in addition to this virulent racism, pupils completed mathematics equations calculating the bombing of Warsaw or relocation of undesirables, were taught eugenics and how the Aryan race had to be preserved.

Soviet bloc. Communism was (or is) glorified as the mechanism for the conservation of mankind, whereas democracy and constitutional monarchy were dismissed as unfair, unstable and unviable. Whilst embryonic or fledged Communists and archaic Russian heroes such as Alexander Nevsky, Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin were lauded as heroes and societal exemplars, Peter the Great (who modernised and westernised Russia, developed the navy, furthered trade links and established St Petersburg), Catherine the Great (whose cultural interests brought the enlightenment to Russia) and Leo Tolstoy (author of “War and Peace” and political liberal) were forgotten. Figures such as Oleg Gordievsky, former KGB agent who defected to the west in the 1980s, and Alexander Litvinenko, who also defected from the FSB (successor to the KGB) and was later poisoned for his revelations concerning his former employer, are actively despised.

Modern Britain. Although extremist parties do not hold power, the education of our younger generations is being compromised through the influence of indoctrination. Although ostensibly open and tolerant (the latter is, quite rightly, mocked by German ‘ambassador of comedy’ Henning Wehn for being in fact exclusive since the attitude does not extend to welcoming or encouraging), at times holes in society emerge which expose the issues, such as egging of politicians, school bullying of those with financially poor backgrounds and death threats sent on social media websites to public figures.

There is, however, a more easily rectifiable hole in education. It concerns one subject, but perhaps the most important subject for the understanding of human life and machinations. History. Looking back at past examples, such as Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and Communist China, the initial stage of indoctrination of children via the education system has always been conducted through the adaptation of history. In Nazi Germany, for example, Hitler’s background was altered for teaching to erase his alcoholic father, failure to get into art school on grounds of proficiency and other details inconsistent with the account given in “Mein Kampf”*. In Soviet Russia, the late tsar and his family were criminalised and the western powers (Britain, USA and France mainly) labelled as warmongers, declining powers and sources of social evil. In Communist China too, children – especially during the Cultural Revolution – were instructed in the failings of American society and the ‘shocking’ liberalism thereof.

Today, all over the nation, there are children being indoctrinated by the left. As Michael Gove’s statement, and subsequent piece in “The Telegraph” by Jago Pearson, have shown, just because the UK is not in the hands of extremist lunatics we must not think that indoctrination is not prevalent. Today, all over the nation, there are children being taught that the First World War should not be revered because military leadership led the military, that it is in the interests of democracy not to illegalise the criminal Ku Klux Klan, that all monarchist systems are unfair and should be eradicated. Today, all over the nation, children who do not possess left-wing views are being admonished, ridiculed and marked down.

History must be neutral. Judgement is not a thing to be pre-inserted and taught, so that all lessons are delivered with a spin, and balanced arguments are usually superficial (for example arguments opposed to the left-wing view are minimised and overriden in the end). I am not saying that a Conservative spin should be placed on these lessons; I am saying this, that we should all be extremely careful so as to imbue our children with the importance of the skills true history imparts: analysis, balance and the eradication of bias.

Next year, for the first time in 11 years, I won’t have another history lesson. Despite being the history prefect, I have become so exhausted of arguing for what is right – against the left-wing bias – and for being dismissed on no grounds except that I do not comply with the left-wing interpretation (and not solely in a school environment: my school possesses an excellent history department), I am giving up history. My study shall continue on a personal basis, unaffected by the spin placed upon it by successive governments.

It is ridiculously easy for a government to place their spin on the curriculum of history. And it can be easy to neutralise that spin. The views of hitherto governments have usually affected the impartiality and reliability of the study of a subject which must needs have such, but in modern times I truly believe the situation has never been more dire than now. In all my 11 years of history, never have I encountered such indoctrination as that of the AS level.

This can be changed. And it must be.

***DISCLAIMER***

I have been misinterpreted as being critical of my particular teachers. This is not my opinion; I have had some excellent teachers. My problem is with the curriculum itself and hence hitherto governments.

*In case anybody is interested, I highly recommend reading “Mein Kampf” in parallel with the first volume Sir Ian Kershaw’s biography of Hitler.

Pink-shirted potency

With the F1 circus still becoming accustomed to the life-threatening coma of Michael Schumacher and the imprisonment of Eddie Irvine, it seems unusual that the most telling of news items concerning the sport this winter is the sad passing away yesterday of John Button.

International news, trending hashtag, dedicated pages. The father of the 2009 champion and McLaren No.1 Jenson Button has, in passing, brought to light an aspect of public life rarely discussed.

There’s an old Newsround video featuring a young Jenson karting. His father John, encouraging from the sidelines, was neither arrogant nor overly ambitious when interviewed – “They all say they want to go to Formula One, but…as long as he’s enjoying himself, that’s the main thing”.

Throughout Jenson’s career, John has been instrumental. It was John we have to thank for Jenson’s proficiency in changing conditions, having restricted his son’s tyre usage as typical British weather prevailed over the karting circuit. From his first win at the 2006 Hungarian Grand Prix for Honda to his 2009 world championship to Brawn to his glorious 2011 masterpiece at the Canadian Grand Prix, Jenson has had his father spurring him on, manifesting his delight.

Denis Thatcher was an equally crucial influence upon his wife. Since inciting her to indulge her political ambitions, he never floundered in his unwavering public support for his wife, being an incalculably dependable rock for Margaret during times of strife. “All I could produce, small as it may be, was love and loyalty”, insisted Denis, when interviewed about his role.

Martin Luther King, too, was moulded by his father’s personality. Taking his fear of God, courage, defiance, belief in equality and embryonic societal awareness from his pater, King coupled this key childhood shaping with university experiences to forge the most memorable US social leader of all time.  Anthony Hamilton was his son Lewis’ long-term coach and familial engine for ambition. William III valued the mutual support and respect of his wife and co-sovereign Mary II so greatly that her untimely 1694 death broke him and inflicted chronic wounds on his viability as a strong and popularly visible monarch. And from primary school, from the one area of the curriculum not so easily indoctrinated by the left-wing, we all know the meaning of Albert’s constant consortship to Victoria.

People are not sole moulds. Circumstances leave lasting impressions on us all. My late grandfather’s diligency, benevolence, sincerity and logic will never ever leave my consciousness. We all have major human influences on our lives, and they, together with major events, make us who we are. And for those ‘im Brennpunkt’, as the Germans say, these people are even more important yet oft’ neglected.

Rest in peace, John Button.

Union

Despite being a girl who loves motor racing, someone who didn’t vote for Andy Murray to be the 2013 Sports Personality and someone who thinks watching “Downton Abbey” is more painful than doing the 1500m in a hailstorm, undoubtedly one sentence always seems to shock people the most, whether they’re strangers, mere acquaintances or good friends – “I’m not English”.

For most people, this seems very confusing, in addition to the fact that far too many people don’t differentiate between hailing from England and being from the British Isles. My accent is (so I’m told) ‘BBC’, my birthplace Derbyshire and my favourite meal a roast dinner. Why, then, am I so determined to refute suggestions of Englishness?

Writing this in the wind-battered, snow-covered Cairngorms, my explanation never has felt stronger or more real to me. I’m not English. I’m British. With a haphhazard conglomerate of Scottish, English, Northern Irish and French antecedents, I seem to be some sort of walking version of the Union Jack or the Auld Alliance (sorry Wales). My Scottish blood in particular is very important to me; being a quarter Scottish and living up here for a period every year, I always feel that this glacially sculpted Caledonian landscape is at my core. And, having inherited Pictish resilience to harsh weather, I always yearn for the mountainous vistas and heather valleys of the Highlands.

But I belong in England too (especially when it comes to cricket). Walks along the sandy cliffs of Cornwall or trips to the magnificent capital rekindle the importance of my English fraction, whilst being much further from Glasgow is always reassuring (I’m joking…).

Haggis or roast beef? Jim Clark and Sir Jackie Stewart or Stirling Moss and Damon Hill? Irn Bru or English Breakfast? Deciphering Glaswegian accents or Yorkshire accents? Sometimes such quandaries are exasperating if one wishes truly to emanate cultural stereotypes (witty though they may be). Yet they make everyday life so much more varied and interesting.

Preferences such as pipe bands over ska bands, kilts and sporrans over waistcoats and pocket watches and Elgin tablet over fudge demonstrate my descent from the northern side of the border – yet those such as Mars Bars in normal form instead of deep-fried, Tim Henman over Andy Murray and the Wesley brothers over John Knox convey my Englishness. Even the title of this blog transports the indelibility of this dual heritage – classic English love of the brewed beverage and the classic Scottish love of the homemade shortbread.

Although I’m nescient of any Welsh connections, I still love to sing “Guide Me, O, Thou Great Redeemer” and pick daffodils like any other Briton; the bravery of the Northern Irish in almost perennial adversity I find astounding and, in the proper use of the word, amazing. I am British and proud.

As our prime minister scarcely neglects to proclaim, we’re all in this together – 1707 until total annihilation do us part.

Forever Autumn

It’s December, cold and windy, and fallen leaves adorn the frosty streets amidst the traffic of pedestrians, tightly cocooned in their furs and thick clothing. What was formerly luscious and vivid shrubbery is now a mass of weakly twigs and brittle remnants of foliage. Instead of a cocktail of flowers in bloom, freshly mown grass and barbecues, the nose is greeted by gusts of wind, a smoky sense of nothingness and a waft of bratwurst and weisswurst.

Being neither in the depths of winter, nor the late reaches of summer, this barren nothingness is not a season, merely a progression from the feted golden season to the long-awaited festive season. Between the summer and its more frigid counterpart is this drab and depressing period of anticipation for that which is to come; the time of worrying how great an impact the weather will have during the midwinter, the time for long days and little reward, and the time for wishing the ensuing months closer, and the foregone months nearer once they have ended.

This barren nothingness is not a season. It is a period. A period for re-evaluation, planning and hard graft for relatively little pleasure or joy. All students are aware of the notoriety of the ‘autumn term’, a conglomerate of work aplenty and little energy or motivation to execute it.

Winston Churchill’s ‘autumn’ was not perennially occurring, in political terms. His time of despondancy came in the early 1930s, cast out of the inner political fold and warning of the National Socialist menace using the precedent of history in the form of Louis XIV. Politicians, diplomats and journalists, eager for peace and co-operation with Germany, were more disinclined to exclude Churchill for these ardent warnings. Although his literary sidelines never left him devoid of funds, he was frustrated with the barren political years ahead of him prior to his eventual re-instatement. Unlike us, he did not know the ‘winter’ was coming until very soon before; the months preceding the war, although serious and frightening, represented a magnificent comeback from which Churchill never again declined.

Unlike the title from the musical version of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, there is no such thing as “Forever Autumn”. Although this bleak period succeeds summer, the time of optimism and metaphorical sunshine, there remains the festivities and jollities of winter in the near future, although this must needs encompass a little environmental hardship therewith. It is not permanent; it will end. And whilst autumn yields to winter, with challenges aplenty in its own way, the arrival of soft pure snow and colourful illuminations fill the time with activity, excitement and festive rewards for the months of strife in the barren nothingness.

Remembrance: more than sorrow and gratitude

This 11th November was unusual. Not only did it mark the 70th anniversary of the most remarkable bombing raid in history, but it was the last before commemorations for the centenary of the First World War begin.

Troops. Aerial bombing. Submarines. Industry. Alliances. All of these were hotly debated topics in European circles as the political climate ascended to uncomfortable temperatures, as imperial Britain, France, Russia and Germany raced to out-industrialise each other, made webs of treatises solidifying diplomatic inclinations between each other and hastily mentally compiled tactics, technical plans and time restraints.

War.

Today, too, although hidden in the shadows, there are such problems. The British Armed Forces are making a myriad of professionals redundant and filling the personnel gaps with volunteers of the Territorial Army, whilst in Germany, compulsory conscription for all male youths was ended a few years ago. The seemingly incessant moral, technical and political debate regarding first drone warfare and now un-piloted programmed ‘planes is never long out of political military consciousness. The future of nuclear warfare is also under scrutiny, especially with frenzied efforts to determine the efficacy and longevity of possible Iranian and North Korean nuclear missiles. Observers in the US and Europe anxiously but almost secretively compare the growth figures of their own countries with those of China, India, Russia, Brazil and South Korea. And, through the highly diplomatic infrastructure of the United Nations, countries align themselves with potent partners.

War? No. Not yet. The present construction of world diplomacy is such that war of a scale of the Great War will be lethargic in construction, and easy to predict. The UN Security Council and summits should, theoretically, highlight international disputes and prove as a medium for serious debate before any serious military action is undertaken.

Nevertheless, we have to be watchful. A US-led coalition invasion of Syria to intervene in the ongoing civil war may provoke Assad’s supporters (or, at any rate, those who do not speak out against him) into action – China and Russia.  And any potential conflict with the US, Europe, Australasia, Canada and possibly India against the might of China, Russia and North Korea would end in utter devastation. Not only conventional methods, such as land and sea battles and conventional strategic and area bombing, but nuclear attacks, cyber-attacks and possibly even pathogenic warfare. In any case, an invasion would worsen the situation between the nations.

The British government frequents Beijing, attempting to accentuate relations between the PRC and the UK. But in all seriousness, this is precisely how such future conflicts can be prevented. Not consorting with evil such as Assad’s regime (due to their use of chemical weapons), but peaceful and economic relations with other potent and prosperous nations.

We cannot allow our militia to become so depleted that, should such a terrifying conflict come, we are unprepared. Professionals must be recruited from the highest walks of life to protect our country against the scores of cyber- and physical terrorists presently devising means to attack us, and also to prevent against international conflict. Whilst conscription would train our populace in readiness, should such an awful occurrence happen, it also is of detriment to quality, continuity and professionalism which marks out the UK Armed Forces as perhaps the best in the world. That can be left for a time of real need.

Remembrance Day for the next 4 years will not just serve to remind the younger generations of the terrible cost of all the troops, sailors and airmen in the First World War, but as a stark reminder of what could occur and how far society has perhaps progressed since.

 

Image credit: BBC 2012.

Making a mark

So there we have it. 4 years, 4 championships. Red Bull Racing and Sebastian Vettel, congratulations.

Amidst the joyous mêlée after the Indian Grand Prix, someone has slipped under the usual media radar. At this point in the season, with two races left, the careers of the retiring drivers will be the focus of many articles, videos and discussions.

With 9 wins, 34 podiums and 197 races (like Sir Jackie Stewart, he too will end tantalisingly on (1)99 races), Mark Webber’s is a career not to forget. But for an injury gained in a cycling incident in the latter quartile of 2010, we could now be hailing him as a world champion.

But there’s more to this. We could say, “Yes, a skilled driver”, and mourn the lost chances. Yet, had Webber have been a more skillful politician, we could be reviewing the career of a multiple world champion.

When David Coulthard retired in 2008, the gap left by him at Red Bull Racing could so easily have been manipulated by Webber to his advantage. Young team-mate Sebastian Vettel was not then fully capable in English, new to the team and to Formula One. Had Webber taken a more dominant position, utilising these short-term weaknesses of Vettel, he could have assumed the number one driver position which would be so crucial in the seasons to come.

As it was, he did not, leaving Vettel to sweep everything over into his garage. Doubtless, a healthy friendship with F1 commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone did nothing to harm Vettel; an alliance Webber, if more politically astute, perhaps should have made, along with closer inter-team friendships.

By 2010, Vettel had secured himself the number one position; after winning the race at Silverstone that year, Webber famously radioed back to his team principal, “Not bad for a number 2 driver.” Vettel had been given Webber’s spare front wing after his had broken, which would have caused an issue to say the least, had Webber been involved in an incident in the race. Despite Webber taking several victories that season, and not just due to his team-mate’s various misfortunes, it was Vettel who crossed the line first in Abu Dhabi to take his inaugural championship.

Vettel and Webber have never got on well, nor are they likely to. Webber’s annoyance at the ostensible confidence and momentarily dubious tactics of his German team-mate are clear; in Turkey 2010, Vettel smashed into Webber for apparently little reason. Once team orders were legalised in 2011, Webber was frequently given lesser set-up options and tyre strategies, the guinea pig for the meister. This year in Malaysia, both drivers were ordered to conserve fuel, Webber being ahead, but Vettel squandered his low fuel in order to put one over on his team-mate.

“You might not think that’s cricket, and it’s not, it’s motor racing”, quipped legendary commentator Murray Walker. He’s right. It isn’t. Motor racing, ever since the days of the FISA/FOCA war of the 1980s, has been highly politicised. It takes a skilled politician to come out on top of the inter-team rivalries and injustices, supplier crises and race incidents.

Political aptitude. What Vettel has in swathes. What Webber lacks considerably. And the one with the quadruple consecutive championships, 37 wins and 60 podiums?

Chronic relevance

“To be, or not to be, that is the question”, pondered Hamlet, in the eponymous play. Quoted often by students, politicians and literary figures through the years, its simplistic negativity embodies both Hamlet’s indecision and confusion as regards the indecency of his present situation, manipulated and conspired against by his murderous, usurper uncle Claudius.

This simple yet crucial quandary, to be or not to be, to continue to struggle (“against a sea of troubles”) or to give up and end them, faces all people at times in their careers. Not just whilst deciding between suicide and life, like Hamlet, but whether to resign, take on new challenges or back out of a difficult commitment.

Most ostensibly of all, this comes to politicians, especially political leaders. Whether it’s Neville Chamberlain, deciding to “take arms…and, by opposing, end [troubles]” as regards declaring war on Nazi Germany, or to “sleep: perchance to dream” and continue to appease Hitler, or Nick Clegg, choosing whether to stand firm with regard to his manifesto pledges on tuition fees and antagonise his coalition partners or back down and opt for an easier path in Westminster, all leaders have faced this tortuous mental debate.

The internal impact of this situation seemingly devoid of solution is devastating. Hamlet, although slain by the poisoned lance of Laertes, was mentally exhausted and resolute in the end at a much earlier point in the play, and wished only to expose his uncle. Chamberlain, having ceded his office in May 1940 to Churchill after at least 2 years of enthralling, critical and punitive indecision, died in November 1940, weakened greatly*. Clegg’s career is overshadowed by the scandal, and, despite issuing an apology, has undoubtedly lost a great deal of face.

This simple interrogative plagues leaders all over the world, albeit clothed in other wording. From his kingly histories, Shakespeare warns all leaders of the perils of their role. In Henry IV, he conveys, “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown”; Henry, having usurped Richard II in a coup originally intended to regain his inheritance from John of Gaunt, is frequently unstable as king and relies on the constant support of his nobility to stabilise his rule. In Richard II, as the eponymous character bemoans his downfall and the mortality of his predecessors, Shakespeare warns that “within the hollow crown…keeps Death his court”, and, through Death, shows that misfortune and disaster are proximal to and indelible with the laurels of leadership.

The governmental instability in Shakespeare’s own life – the Elizabeth I succession question, Mary, Queen of Scots scandal, the Spanish Armada, 1601 rebellion, 1605 Jesuit plot against James I and various episodes of regal favourites** controlling the policies of the monarch – influenced him to write extensively about such, warning his audiences of the dangers therein. Not only his histories, but great tragedies like Hamlet, Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet all contain skeins of political unrest, shaky alliances and the instability of leadership resting solely on noble support.

Read or watch these plays yourself, and the ingenious messages therein will be ostensible. As such, Shakespeare should be compulsory reading for any who dare to assume a leadership role.

*Please note that this is not a criticism of Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler. Whilst indeed the evil had to be faced head on and conquered fully so as to subdue it conclusively, the years of war which Chamberlain delayed were crucial in terms of readying Britain and the British Empire for war, when it finally came.

**the Earl of Leicester is perhaps the most notorious example.