Essays: Cultural divisions |
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Cultural divisions

ADMIRERS of the Pink Floyd’s No. 1 single have written in to say that I have missed the point, and that the seemingly defiant assurance ‘We don’t need no education’ is actually meant to be a thinly disguised plea for more education. You could of fooled me.

Perhaps there is something to it, and anyway the point does not bear labouring in a week when the admirably dedicated headmistress of the school which the children on the record came from has been finding out the hard way that the music business is not something to get mixed up with on a casual basis. I should also mention at this juncture that the gremlins, who always wait until one is laying down the law about accuracy before they start distributing the misprints, last week landed me with ‘miniatory’ for ‘minatory,’ ‘Illyich’ for ‘Illich’ and a resounding ‘less awkward’ for ‘no less awkward.’ The thousands of people who wrote in to invite my co-operation in cursing my own ignorance can rest assured. On these particular matters I don’t need no education, though I don’t need no reminding that there are others on which I do.

Swelling a mailbag already bursting with bad news, other letters informed your helpless correspondent that he was all wet about the French educational system, which, far from producing the single culture that he so foolishly praised, actually gives rise to wide discrepancies. Giscard, it was pointed out, not only earns a larger salary than a Breton fisherman, but spends far more time at the opera.

There is some truth in this argument. In fact British society is superior to French in all manner of ways, just as British television is superior to French in every respect except the one I tried to describe. But there is definitely some advantage to an educational system in which, at the same time in the year, every child in the country is obliged to master the same part of the same curriculum.

The social divisions in France are formidable, but they occur within a united culture. In Britain there are cultural divisions to reinforce the social ones. To any independent onlooker, there can be no possible doubt that the main reason is the educational system, which this particular Government has already succeeded in making even worse than it was before. Providing assisted places to ‘public’ schools is tantamount to saying that the State schools are traps which bright children need to be rescued from. It is sad to see so much pressure being brought to bear on Islington Comprehensive when the school to worry about is Radley, glamorously featured in the first episode of Public School (BBC2).

After all, the worst thing that has happened at Islington is that a bunch of children are running around starry-eyed after having helped the Pink Floyd create a dubious masterpiece. Most of the time an imaginative headmistress is fighting hard for their interests. At Radley the boys are not only handed a whopping share of the best teaching, they are encouraged to be smug about it. In the latter process they have the radiant example of their headmaster, erstwhile opening bat for Cambridge and Somerset. He is known as the Warden.

‘Lord God our heavenly father.’ intones the Warden confidently, ‘look in love upon us.’ Now why should He do that? wonders the bemused viewer. Swearing in the new prefects, the Warden addresses them in Latin. This is no doubt good for their Latin, but almost certainly reinforces what must already be a dangerous propensity to clubbable mumbo-jumbo.

Despite the amount of complacent humbug in the air, the boys seemed very nice. Good manners are not relative: there are no two ways about them. The private school pupils almost certainly get an unfair share of the easy self-possession, along with their unfair share of everything else.

Mrs Thatcher’s ideal — rapidly becoming an actuality — of choice in education really means that a few people are given all the choices and the rest no choice at all. What compounds the whole disaster is her failure to realise that the direct result must be a country even less productive than it was before, since the social division between management and labour is the primary cause of industrial breakdown.

But enough of the sermon. David Attenborough’s new series Spirit of Asia (BBC2) looks promising. Hopping from island to island, Attenborough called in on megalithic cultures which seemed to be in a permanent state of propitiating the gods. ‘A chicken must be sacrificed to ensure that all will go well next day.’ What goes well next day is another ceremony. ‘As the men fight, the women dance. The strongest of the men will take the loveliest of the women.’ Before we could see this last part the moon sank behind a hill, but next day there was another ceremony to watch.

It was wall-jumping. Men ran at a high wall and jumped over. In the old days there were spears waiting on the other side, but in modern times their place has been taken by a BBC camera crew. The great thing about Asian ceremonies is that they work. You propitiate the Goddess of Fertility and the earth becomes fertile. Compare this with our own Ceremony of Ritual Fury at British Rail. In a freezing, filthy train you arrive two hours late at Liverpool Street to find the air insultingly throbbing with strident Muzak. It is meant to soothe you, but it does not work. You complain at the information desk, but that does not work either.

Damping one’s enjoyment of Attenborough’s Asia was the reminder from other sources that parts of Asia are still tearing themselves to pieces. Both Panorama (BBC1) and World in Action (Granada) had reports on Cambodia. Mainly because Pol Pot killed everybody with even the slightest medical qualification, most of the medical aid is not reaching the sick. But most of the food isn’t getting through either, with results that are pitiful to see.

Until recently David Hare has been the leading, because most talented, exponent of the kind of didactic drama which scolds Western society for not being purposeful like ... well, like, er, China. Of late this notion has become more difficult for even the infinitely tolerant theatre-going audience to swallow. Even better, Mr Hare shows signs of having become impatient with it himself. He has been turning his attention to something harder to generalise about: human emotion.

In what I can’t refrain from calling the latest Hare piece, a young hero with a strong physical resemblance to the author had Dreams of Leaving (BBC2). Called William, he was a gutter-press journalist in love with Caroline, a cock-teasing coke-fiend who was always almost going to bed with him. None of it was easy to believe, but all of it was classily filmed, and Kate Nelligan once again succeeded in her self-imposed task of looking even more impossibly beautiful than she did last time.

The Observer, 20th January 1980