I know ‘cos I was there: what grammar school lobbyists are really on about

I was wondering the other day why I associate bull-headed opposition to the serious study of popular culture in two different social groups and for two different reasons – specifically the twin reactionary beliefs which need each other for either to survive, both “we’re beneath it” and “it’s above us” – more with south-east England than anywhere else, and specifically with the county in which I grew up.

And then I remembered that that county has retained a 1950s education system.

It should go without saying that I abhor with all the fibre of my being the de facto privatisation of state education which the current government is continuing to accelerate.  I regard it as one of the very worst acts of vandalism among many so far committed under Cameron’s watch.  But even after the de facto privatisation of Portland’s schools, I still regard the education system here as infinitely preferable to the one I left behind (Hitchens Minor, in particular, really should wonder – which means he won’t, of course – how his portrayal of New Labour as some kind of Trotskyist fringe movement in power fits with the fact that they left the grammar schools which had effectively survived by mistake very much in place).  It is possible, of course, that a right-wing movement might take over effectively privatised state schools in places like this and use them to demonise, and de-Anglicise, urban England; I never felt, as some other elements on the Left did, that this invalidated concerns about what appears to have happened in Birmingham (although Hitchens Minor also defended that, for different reasons), but I do still feel it is an issue of concern.  But I think young people in places like this would all, pretty much universally, instantly and unequivocally reject it; even if some of their parents (I think more so, if anything, those who have moved from places like Birmingham than those with older roots here) want to take them in such a direction, virtually none of them want to go there, and I also don’t think the academy process blots out quite the same tradition of progressivism in state schools here as it does in some other places – there might, if anything, have been more teachers with those reactionary ambitions in the past than there are today.  You can’t effectively take young people with the aspirations that young Portlanders mostly have and mould them into the Wurzels, even if you want to.

The other problems are obvious enough if you think like me; I think of that letter to The Times in 1995 – 1995! – about one of the Buckinghamshire girls’ grammar schools insisting on knitting as the first module in its science GCSE, which inevitably reminds us of the fact that the anti-science culture in grammar schools, and the failure to develop technical schools properly, did more damage to Britain in the thirty years after the war probably than anything else.  It is all very well to talk about France and Germany; they don’t have the inherent social impairments built into their societies that we do.  In a society such as this, we simply cannot afford such a system as they no doubt can, because it cannot but indulge negative social tendencies here, and cannot be the relatively fair judge of aptitude that I believe it pretty much is there.  I have people in my own family who never fulfilled their considerable potential, and are still living out lives which are far narrower than they should be or need to be, precisely because they weren’t put forward for grammar school because they weren’t considered The Right Sort.  I’d love us to be the sort of society where there is no risk of that.  But there still is, even now, and you can’t wave a magic wand and turn us into France or Germany overnight.  That’s why the comparison doesn’t hold.

But if – as I believe is still broadly the case in Kent, although I do also recognise (c.f. one comment here) that even they have evolved in this respect, at least to some extent, though I would still say more because they had to than because they really wanted to – the schools which are perceived as most socially prestigious perceive the serious study of popular culture as beneath them, and the majority are educated in schools which are dominated by an overriding sense of social inferiority and isolation, and are recognised by reliable sources as considerably worse than many in inner London (East Anglian primary schools also scored very low on a recent poll, again possibly the victim of a “learning’s not for people like us” culture – there is a reason why that kind of working class has always been the Tories’ favourite kind; it’s why I have to fight it so hard – which brings on an even greater sense of relief that East Anglia abandoned its grammar schools decades ago, and that Cambridgeshire’s secondary system has long had so much to say for it), the two equally odious twin forms of reactionary sentiment specifically with regard to popular culture, the Sun version and the Telegraph version, are both strengthened in a way they don’t need to be, even (indeed, especially) as they make less and less sense in the wider world.

The chosen few will still be more likely to erect strict high-low divisions, in terms of how they handle and approach the multiple experiences of their developing lives, which they would be less likely to do in other places under other systems; the rest will be much more likely, precisely because of the educational separation, to think taking this stuff seriously “isn’t for people like us”, a betrayal of its authenticity.  Neither will be given an education which addresses what has happened in the wider culture since most of the country moved on in terms of its education system; both will set up equally unnecessary divisions, and both will trivialise mass culture, the one simply as an escape when it can be so much more than that, the other as the totality of their lives when it can be so much more than that, too.  Their tastes within mass culture might well be narrower in both cases, and different cultures within pop will cross over with each other far less, with all the racist and classist implications (worse than ever as a direct result of Blair’s legacy) that carries.  Neither social group will be given the basic grounding they would both get under fairer and newer systems, and both will be weaker and narrower for it.

On his own terms, Hitchens Minor’s vision makes perfect internal sense, and is a lot more honest than the typical pussyfooting of other right-wing hacks.  (And no, I don’t really dispute Hitchens Minor’s points on selection by postcode within the comprehensive system; where I do dispute with him, and the Mail titles as a whole, is in the argument that it would be “communist social engineering” even to attempt to challenge that.)  I think the 2012 series recently repeated on BBC Four was entirely correct that the grammar school model made much more sense in the pre-Beatles world than in the world that replaced it.  But schools have an exceedingly limited power to change and direct the world around them; almost by definition, they cannot create or set trends in themselves.  If you believe – as Hitchens Minor does – that schools should ignore the world around them and pretend that all the important things which have happened in it haven’t happened and won’t go on happening, then of course you will prefer grammar schools.  If you believe they have other responsibilities, you won’t.  It’s really remarkably simple.

And I suffered for it directly, and my education never fully recovered, even when we came here.  Quite apart from my barely-diagnosed condition doing what it did, I grew up in a house where both Bullseye and Radio 4 were on as a matter of course.  How could I possibly have fitted in such an arrangement?  Unlike a lot of people of my age and below, I know, ‘cos I was there.

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Our kingdom in horses

When Greg Wood wrote in The Guardian that Kauto Star was “the first, and greatest, star of National Hunt (racing)’s modern era” I thought to myself at first: wasn’t that Best Mate?  Then I realised that Wood was absolutely right; Best Mate belongs to a different and separate era, a time when – astonishing as this would go on to seem in the context of the huge jump racing boom of the Kauto era – jump racing was perceived by some to be in an inexorable and irreversible spiral of decline, a supposed victim of the alleged Tuscany Tony’s similarly alleged War on the Countryside (apropos an earlier comment on here – that third album didn’t stick around long now, did it? – Marcus Mumford was, indeed, the same age in 2002 as Mick Jagger in 1958).  Best Mate isn’t quite part of jump racing as big business; he’s part of the era when I could, briefly and fleetingly, sense such a paranoia and fear in Dorchester that I could almost imagine the 1974 Lena isn’t currently writing about directly (although she is, I think, writing about it indirectly; TPL – fifteen years later – is currently in a period of two Scottish and two Liverpudlian number one albums in quick succession, but Toryism had already become Whig to such an extent that such a dominance within pop was arguably already on borrowed time).  And he was trained by a former girls’ boarding school teacher married to a totally unreconstructed man of the old Shires (both of whose accents have disappeared every bit as completely as the traditional accents of areas with large BAME populations, if not in fact more so), neither of them genuine business people in the way Paul Nicholls is (if a certain other Somerset institution represents the roots of the new capitalism in old hippiedom, he represents its other roots in a now largely excised feudalism).

Kauto Star was about other currents within British life of his time as well – to some extent he represented mainland European sophistication set alongside the rugged traditionalism of his Irish-bred (though trained in the same English stable) rival Denman, although we mustn’t forget how important the first real wave in history of Irish capitalists making money out of the British market was in the transition of British jump racing into big business – but above all else he was about the realisation that, in fact, jump racing had had little to fear from New Labour because it had already, without anyone really noticing, become out-and-out capitalism and therefore eliminated any elements to it which might have been a threat to them even if you believed the wilder claims.  More than that, he was about The Shires losing that paranoia about modern culture and embracing and becoming part of that culture, and about that culture meeting bona fide capitalism halfway, and about the politics of capitalism dropping whatever notional hostility they had had to The Shires … about the creation of a version of capitalism which was both accepting of what capitalism actually does and broadly supported in The Shires such as there had never been before, and about the creation of a shire culture which, also for the first time, accepted the logical outcome of capitalism as much as the notional idea of capitalism itself.  In short, Kauto Star was about the entire politics of his era, his moment, from the month Cameron became leader to his second Christmas in office (his span of Grade 1 wins).  No wonder he was so symbolic, so significant.

Other National Hunt horses who have made an impact on the wider public feel like similar cyphers and metaphors (to some extent, the most recent Flat horse to have done the same – something harder for the highest-class horses even before jumping had embraced bona fide capitalism, because they always stuck around for much less time – also feels like this; the Frankel Moment was also the moment when it seemed as though Murdoch might fall and gentlemanly capitalism might actually be restored, a moment which was dead even before Henry Cecil himself was).  The fact that Mill House was Irish-bred means that it would be simplistic to identify him purely with the English ruling class, and Arkle was in fact owned by someone whose name ended with the words “Duchess of Westminster”, but there can be no doubt that Arkle’s rise felt like a moment of Irish self-assertion, stepping out of long and overpowering shadows, which might well have seemed symbolically linked with what was happening in Britain (some of it, at least in terms of pop music, driven in part by people of Irish descent).  That he transcended his ownership to become a genuine people’s hero in the Republic of Ireland was, if anything, easier at that moment, before old wounds were reopened in the North in the harshest way possible, and it would have been hard, I think, not to equate the fall of Mill House with the fall of Alec Douglas-Home, the fall which in the end was not permanent, once capitalism had, in the 2000s, lost whatever qualities it had which made it slightly unpalatable to such people.

Simply because he was trained on Merseyside and achieved his greatest successes there, Red Rum‘s career is, of course, also inexorably linked with the Irish – Catholic and Ulster Protestant alike – presence in Britain, and with the planting of the seeds for the revival of the Grand National as a great people’s festival, but he also seems to symbolise the strength and power of the working class, the small man, in the Britain of the 1970s; that he could do what he did to a horse who seemed to exude semi-aristocratic self-confidence and measured cool (although even here there are ironies; that horse was in fact New Zealand-bred, one who might once have been seen as a “jumped-up colonial”, in the year that country felt itself abandoned by Britain’s membership of the EEC and would respond initially with the last top-down, state-based Tory movement the Anglosphere is ever likely to see, before a subsequent Labour government was, in a sense, Roy Jenkins, Thatcher and Blair all in one go).  But Red Rum did what he did in a setting profoundly run down and on its last legs; it felt as though public will and affection might not be enough to keep this rotting edifice alive.  The national sense of decay which many felt in the 1970s – however driven by an essentially Tory worldview and however much some people outside that culture did not feel it, and still do not feel it in retrospect – fitted very closely with the state of Aintree and the Grand National.

Red Rum also exemplifies some of the problems and faults within the Old Labour or broader Old Northern culture; Ginger McCain was a famously reactionary and unenlightened character (and, as he came from Southport, is a good deal less likely to have been a socialist – even a reactionary one – than if he had come from Liverpool itself; “used car store owner” – and, yes, that’s a 1974 link too – also often codes as “working-class Tory” even in some of Labour’s strongest areas).  After his last hurrah at Aintree during the Blair / Countryside Alliance / Best Mate era, his son Donald McCain has been, overall, a far more successful trainer in far less time precisely through embracing jump racing’s new sense of itself as big business; even if Ginger McCain himself might not have been a socialist, plenty of Northerners of his generation with similarly questionable views on social and cultural matters were, so even though it might require a stretch, you can still make the argument that the generational shift, even if not necessarily this precise family line, represents how Northern English culture, and especially North-West English culture, has simultaneously become more driven by pure commerce and the profit motive, with its capitalism on a much greater scale rather than simply as a hobby, a pastime, while at the same time becoming more socially liberal and pluralist (a profoundly problematic dual dichotomy which I still cannot work my head round).

Certainly, a great many horse racing fans are horrible reactionaries – often, in fact especially, reactionary socialists.  It seems to attract all the most reactionary and unpleasant social tendencies on all sides and in all classes; it has historically drawn massive support from both the aristocracy and the lumpenproletariat (the reactionary tendencies of both of which have always needed those of the other to keep going, feel a sense of justification) and been largely ignored by the more liberal social tendencies in between.  A fantasy project of mine some years ago was to build on the work already done by such as Rebecca Cassidy, Kate Fox (in her blither way – she might be, in this field, a sort of Dominic Sandbrook to Cassidy’s Andy Beckett) and Wray Vamplew & Joyce Kay, and put together a definitive social history of the sport in Britain on a par with Derek Birley or even C.L.R. James’ work on cricket.  I genuinely still think there is life within such a vision, because like the origins of British pop, it certainly deserves to be rescued from some of the reactionaries (on more than one side, in both cases) who have attempted to control the territory for themselves; I just don’t think I’m really capable of writing it.  But it still needs to be written.

The bit at the top of this blog about “the horsiest Leftie in the Anglosphere, but there are many horsier ones beyond” is written advisedly; in mainland Europe (and the greater similarity here is, I think, an underrated factor in Scotland, Wales and Ireland being, on the whole, more Europhile), there is simply not the culture of separation and distinction between Left-wing politics and horse-related (and other rural) activities and enthusiasms such as there tends to be in England.  It is easy to underestimate and forget just how different English political and cultural divisions might be if this split didn’t exist; for a start, you wouldn’t have the phenomenon of Leftists saying that they don’t like other professional regional stereotypes in England but have no problem with the Wurzels, because they don’t imagine that the latter could possibly conceal anything more progressive in the way that they recognise that, say, Brian & Michael damagingly did.  This is pretty much exactly what someone says in the Popular comments to the entry for “Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs”, and is a depressingly predictable view on the English Left, and in itself part of the reason why Tory majorities can just about happen.  These things predict themselves and institutionalise themselves; each side needs the narrowness of the other.  Breaking them down has been an important part of my identity, of what I am.

Those who know me in the flesh will know that I have pulled away from this recently; I haven’t been riding for a while now, prefer to keep my distance, step back a bit.  Naturally this is down to the way I am wired and what I can cope with and cannot, not any antipathy towards the social act in and of itself.  I have no problem whatsoever with the thought of riding; the more people who think like me who can do it the better.  Finding something impossible personally is in no way a criticism of what it actually is; sometimes it can, in fact, be the precise opposite.

Kauto Star saw out Blair and saw in Cameron with rare perfection and accuracy.  But there are other cultures, even out here, which have equal validity and status within the fabric of this country.  The Left and Right alike forget them for alarmingly similar reasons.  They shouldn’t.