Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Education For Living

I came across a passage in a book, years ago, which I transcribed into a notebook, but unfortunately I can't find it just now. In effect, it says, "we sociologists are studying these kids growing up in new-build estates and New Towns, and we see them as dystopic places, where only alienation and inauthenticity can flourish; but, one day, there will be a generation of adults who have grown up in such places, and for them these streets will have become sites of nostalgia and authenticity".

The class analysis, whether strictly Marxist or vaguely sociological, has fallen out of favour in recent times. Feminist, "queer", and various other perspectives have supplanted it. If one wanted to be cynical, one might say this is because it allows middle-class academics to locate themselves "inside looking out" of their analysis, rather than "outside looking in". "Identity politics" has been all the rage. So many perspectives, so little tenure. But I think it's more that the truth of a sort of phenomenological relativism -- one person's ceiling is another person's floor -- has, for whatever reasons, become overwhelmingly self-evident. "Grand narratives" have become embarrassing.

A good friend took me to task, not so long ago, over something I'd written here: you are now middle class, he said, like it or not. Well, yes and no. True, I have acquired a few degrees, some middle-class attitudes, earn a middle-class income in a middle-class job with a final-salary pension scheme, and tend not to watch TV or chat about sport. But I didn't have a middle-class childhood, was state-educated locally, as were my kids, and my neighbours are much the same mix of lower-middle and working-class everyfolk that I grew up with. Despite everything, I seem not to have come very far in the world. But I like to think this mongrel mix of attitudes is what makes me interesting, at least to myself. Forced to wear a label, I think I'd call myself a "petit bourgeois bohemian".

Of course, our nostalgias are mainly false-memory constructs. The past is not somewhere we can visit, and that phenomenological relativism that has become so self-evident tells us that "The Past" was the aggregate of millions of individually-experienced parallel and interacting realities, anyway. I have no real idea how it would have been to have grown up as a girl, for example, born to my family in the same town in the same year, with the same abilities and attributes.

Sometimes those of us at the humbler end of society do get studied intensively, but our actual identities and experiences get processed into aggregated statistics and evidence, that represent everyone and no-one. Nobody is as dull as their statistics. Imagine the surprise, then, last year, of opening a book being discarded from our library shelves (Education For Living, by J.R.C. Yglesias, published by Cory, Adams & Mackay, 1965) and seeing photographs of familiar faces and scenes I hadn't seen for 45 years.

The book is a study of my own primary school, Peartree Spring Junior, illustrated with many photographs by Margaret Murray (and, incidentally, a classic of mid-60s book design) taken during school activities in 1963/4. And, yes, I am in one of them (I think), looking dubiously at some school custard. Most amazingly, this is my school as I remember it. It is a book about a school as a lived experience, as a beacon of good practice, about ordinary children being valued and nurtured as individuals, about good teachers being given the chance to do a good job. It is a book about optimism.

Miss Hendey... Worth a whole post in her own right.

There's a telling autobiographical passage in the book:
I was at school with Trevor Huddlestone and Peter Pears. Neither shone in the eyes of their contemporaries half as much as did the captains of cricket and of football. Today I cannot remember the names of those athletic giants, but I follow with admiration the careers of Trevor Huddlestone and Peter Pears ... At the same school there were others, equally sensitive, who took a long time to recover from an education which allowed boys to value games and 'good form' so highly and to mock at deeper human qualities. To be clever and artistic and sensitive was to be scorned and humiliated.
It's a story you hear so often from those who have been privately-educated in single-sex environments, and that deep sense of resentment against the bullying Masters of the Universe seems often to underpin the commitment to social justice of many activists. We shouldn't knock it -- without middle-class reformers, we'd still be sending our kids up chimneys. But it's not my story. I don't have those middle-class ghosts to lay.

My story has two early parts. First, it's an optimistic story about growing up in a brief window of opportunity when Britain came as close as it ever has to becoming -- in some special places at least -- a socialist utopia, where resources were poured into public schemes -- schools, housing, libraries, swimming pools, community centres, light industry, transport. Part Two is about how it was all taken away in the late 1970s, just as we came into adulthood. No more public investment, no more jobs, no more future. Sorry. Were you expecting more?

This is where my ghosts live, and I doubt I'm the only one. I'm 57 now, and approaching retirement, and I still haven't really come to terms with the fact that "Part One" will probably never, ever happen again. It's hard not to interpolate that national failure of nerve into a personal failure. It's like an expulsion from Eden.

And if anyone ever wanted evidence for why Grand Narratives have become embarrassing, the failure of Britain to secure and build on the social progress made in the 1950s and 1960s is it. We (we?) seem to have decided we simply couldn't afford that Big Story any more. Despite everything, we finally managed to become a nation as dull as our statistics.


Martyn Cornell said...

I sometimes worry myself by turning horribly Tory and wondering if the reason why we're no longer seeing the social mobility that was taking place in the 1960s is because almost everybody who COULD be socially mobile upwards now HAS been socially mobile upwards, gone to college/university, bought their council house and tuned in to Radio 4. After all, says the small-minded Daily Telegraph reader that evidently lurks somewhere within me, once social mobility has been allowed to happen, what you'll actually end up with, in fact, is a far more stratified society, since those who have the ability to climb upwards will, leaving those who can't behind. At this point in the argument I take myself out and shoot myself for being a reactionary Tory bastard.

Martin H. said...

A very interesting post, Mike. This should have taken up real column inches, in fact.

Funny thing about labels (class, social position, etc) they always read more clearly, when I'm wearing one, pinned on by those who have a need to categorise me, in order to measure how far they have travelled.

In short, I would find it hard to pigeon-hole myself, just as I would find it hard to imagine myself in some else's pigeon-hole.

Mike C. said...


Oh, me too, in my darker moments. One big difference between now and, say, 1951 is that now there is no stratum of frustrated, bright people whose main outlet is trade unionism and labour politics. I listen to Bob Crow and despair.

I see the problem as threefold:

First, social mobility is rarely a two-way process. Hardly anyone goes *down* the ladder. I live for the day I see an Old Etonian dustman.

Second, genetics doesn't let society off the hook: every day extremely bright kids are being born in disadvantaged circumstances, but we are letting them down by not protecting them from bullying, gang culture, and by not providing adequate schools and social services. In 1961 we all had a chance; in 2011, forget about it.

Third, too many working-class people have bought into the idea, propagated by Celebrity Culture, that the values of education (aspiration + effort = reward) are not their values. It may be (says my inner Tory) that life is no longer grim enough even at the shitty end for that equation to make sense any more.

I sometimes even find myself wondering "Is this it? Whatever happened to my beautiful reward?"...


Labels are labels, and simply reflect the purposes of the person putting things into categories. It's the purposes that need examining.

I think our generation has a morbid fear of labels that is quasi-oedipal in origin -- I know I have myself deliberately made stupid and disadvantageous "life choices", simply so as to frustrate the expectations of others.


Brendini said...

The progressions of benevolent post-war social engineering were totally reversed by a set of politicians determined to put Britain back to the 1930s when the working man knew his place. Sadly, this attitude was was cemented by a Labour government (of all things) by abolishing the student grant and replacing it with a loan. The generation that benefited from state funding pulled the educational ladder up after them.

Mike C. said...

Gits indeed, Brendini. I think I have mentioned before the colossal disappointment of the failure of the Blair government, elected in 97 on a landslide of optimism, to tear up its cautious pre-election pledges and just go for it... No-one would have minded! It was what everyone expected! Grrr.

One can try to be fair by looking at how the sums wouldn't add up (there is, after all, a big difference in cost to the days when full grants were given to a fraction of the 10% who entered HE in the 70s) but any country which can afford decades of war in Iraq and Afghanistan is making choices.

I was amazed when I heard the cost of the hi-tech missiles being launched into Libya: £500,000 each! It also costs £30,000 in fuel alone to launch a single Tornado jet sortie. What garage are they using??


Tony_C said...

I believe one M.Thatcher said in the early eighties, "The New Towns were a sociological experiment which has now ended."

There is a group at the University of Westminster currently doing research on the building industry in the 50's & 60's in four iconic projects, one of which is Stevenage.

Martyn, is Arthur still around? If so he should contact Charlie McGuire, 07826255555 to make his story history.

Mike C. said...


After all these years, I've stopped blaming Thatcher personally (reluctantly) and now blame the people who voted for her (or the vast numbers who didn't vote at all).

It was personal at the time, though -- I was very active in the old NALGO union at exactly that time, and spent a lot of time agitating and demonstrating, though mainly attending tedious meetings, occasionally lightened by Tony Benn speaking. In retrospect, I'd like my 20s back, please.


Dave Leeke said...

I sometimes think that my childhood and youth took place in a dream - we seem so far away from it all now. It was a great time to be young. However, the great Socialist Utopian experiment of the New Towns was born in corruption by a Labour Government - I read somewhere recently that the Minister in charge had leaked the plans to his brother-in-law who bought up a lot of land around the Town Without A Name just before it was announced. I can't find the reference now.

Interestingly, the original people of that town (the first New Town, after all) were totally against it because it would take away their sense of community.

As for Utopianists, A.C. Grayling points out ". . . centuries - millenniums - of dreams of a fairer and easier world have still to come (or be made) true."

It's interesting that today the very idea of putting a value on Nature has cropped up in the news. I wonder if our contemporaries growing up in Ebenezer Howard's Garden Cities projects felt that their tree-lined streets and parks were "sites of nostalgia and authenticity"? After all, they may have been a species of utopianism that "made a positive difference." (Grayling again).

Mike C. said...


It's at this point I usually row back a little from my rhetoric -- I mean, life is pretty good today, however you look at it, compared to what our grandparents had to put up with (mind, my grandad was born in a Liverpool workhouse & grew up in an orphanage, compared to which anything looks good).

As it happens, my dad grew up in Letchworth, so I'm sort of a 2nd generation guinea pig. The most salient point about Letchworth is it's a "dry" town (and this was before you could buy 6 packs in the corner shop, of course). Apparently his gran was a fanatical home brewer.

Unlike Stevenage, Letchworth seems to have kept its dignity intact. I have no idea why that would be -- better houses?


Dave Leeke said...

Funny enough, my dad came from Letchworth - born and raised there. He moved to the big shiny new town next door but his parents (divorced! That was a rarity in those days)stayed there all their lives. Not sure about the better houses but it was always a nice place to visit. Well, until I was old enough to drink, anyway.

The Black Squirrel - ugh!

A Garden City AND a Temperence town -perhaps if I'd grown up there I'd have been a much more sober person!

Mike C. said...


Apparently, before the war Dad was an apprentice at a steel foundry (I had no idea there were such things in the area), then went to work at Geo. W. King in Stevenage. Both his parents worked at the J.M. Dent printing firm. I've yet to come across anyone who worked at the Spirella corset factory...


Dave Leeke said...


Once again we seem to have had similar experiences. My father worked at Kings, too! I remember going up to Coventry to watch him put a conveyor belt up (I'm not making this up) - he used to go up each day from The Town. It was the only time I'd been to the Cathedral to see the Sutherland tapestry. I was very pleasantly impressed at my tender age. I guess it was a school holiday. Us working class oiks weren't allowed to take days off whenever we wanted to. Unlike today . . . oops!

Mike C. said...

Did your Dad get his Kings pension stolen by Tube Investments when they took over the firm in 1973? If I wasn't an anti-capitalist before that, I certainly was after. Bastards.


Dave Leeke said...

Hmm, not sure - he probably did. He went to work at Borg Warners in Baldock as a Security Guard around that time. This was a job that meant that he was often "on duty" on Christmas Day much to my mother's chagrin.

I didn't understand much about employment stuff when I was younger - to be honest, I still don't. I think the current government is after my pension at the moment, though.

My father died at the age of 63 - all tied up with going into Nagasaki two days after the bomb, I guess. So, pensions weren't really an issue for him. My mother was okay because of an insurance company he worked at before he became ill - this after a spell unemployed in the 80s.

And we wonder why we look back to the 60/70s with some nostalgia (bringing it all back home to the main trust of your post. Oh, and a Dylan reference).

Dave Leeke said...

"thrust" - I must take this bloody laptop back. The keyboard is crap.

Martyn Cornell said...

Tony - "is Arthur still around?" No, he died 20 years ago, and there are very few of those guys, if any, still around: they'd all be in their late 80s or early 90s if they were, and a life of hard work outside in all weathers, breathing cement dust and (if you were particularly unlucky, as one of my mother's relatives was) asbestos fibres as someone cut a hole in a "fireproof" partition, plus hanging about in smoke-filled canteens when it WAS too wet to work isn't conducive to long life.

Tony_C said...


Don't forget there was a time when there was no such thing as "too wet to work", and I've a feeling those times are back again.

I've heard a recording of the interview that Fred Udell did for MG and it's brilliant. Swap u (if permitted)for those pix u never sent?

Tony_C said...


I spoke to Charlie McGuire (see above) the other day, and he's got no problem with non-commercial dissemination of the oral materiel, and I pretty sure Fred won't mind, so if you're interested...

Meanwhile Charlie would be interested in speaking to you, too, about Arthur; so if you think you may have time for an interesting project, why not drop him an email?