Education is about more than getting a job

It being National Short Story Week, you won’t be surprised to hear that I’ve got… an essay about the purpose of education out today (it’s ok, I’ve got a story coming out at Cabinet of Heed on Wednesday). Regular readers will have experienced my passionate views on education before but I’ve summarised a strand or two in Why bother with education? which is my entry to this year’s NUHA Foundation blogging prize.

The topics this year for the prize were:

  1. “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” – Abraham Lincoln. Do you agree?
  2. “Nobody realises that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal.” – Camus. Discuss.
  3. Should the role of education be to prepare students for working life, or to broaden their mind?
  4. “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.” – C.S. Lewis. Discuss.

Since I suggested topic 3 to them on Twitter earlier in the year I had to pick that one really, though I could have gone to town on topic 2 as well. I haven’t read the higher education bits of The Guardian much since I quit the day job a year ago but by then I was already sick of hundreds of comments (and a few articles) that saw university education in particular as essentially pre-work training. Will it get you a job? Will it increase your salary? Is it applicable in the workplace? Never: Will it give you pleasure? Will it widen your horizons and introduce you to new ideas, lead you to make new connections?

I’m not saying everyone should study every available subject and like it, there were plenty of subjects I couldn’t stand at school and wouldn’t study now. I am saying life can be richer if you’ve studied a variety of things, whether through books, BBC documentaries, or a formal course, and that as an added bonus it probably helps you at work too.

The aim of the blogging prize is to spark debate, so go along and read the essays (particularly mine, obviously: Why bother with education?) then leave your own views.

Working Class Writer? Class, Education, Politics and the Arts

You can’t say the post title didn’t warn you what’s been on my mind lately. Some of it’s pre-election frustration and my disbelief at, among others, the bring back grammar schools brigade, because of course none of their children would ever be relegated to the non-selective school, in the same way presumably that their children will never need to use a library (or the NHS) so it’s ok to wreck them for everyone else. However, the topic of working class writers has been bubbling under again, partly via Dead Ink crowdfunding a book of essays on the working class called Know Your Place and some Twitter discussions that arose from that.

Name some working class writers, came the challenge. The names of various successful novelists were bandied about, but did they count? They were in varying degrees superficially middle class (wealthy, university educated). Did they think of themselves as working class any more? Would society let them get away with it if they did?

Non-British readers will no doubt be puzzled at this point but despite attempts to declare the UK a classless society (aka we’re all middle class now) class still matters here, it still has a major effect on your salary (even given similar levels of education), your educational opportunities in the first place, and even health prospects. So yes, it’s more complicated than it used to be (the BBC identified about seven social classes a couple of years ago) but it’s still there casting a shadow over most people’s lives.

Which brings us back to the working class writers thing. If someone grows up in a working class family, goes from their comprehensive school to university and graduates with a decent degree, does that automatically make them middle class? Well, Nathan Connolly who runs Dead Ink would argue no, as in this piece he wrote last week. That would be to deny the background and the upbringing that shaped them before they arrived at university. On the other hand it’s hard to argue with any conviction that you’re working class when on the face of it you’ve got a salaried graduate job and can afford an avocado whenever you fancy one, however much your attitudes, politics, outlook may align with siblings or cousins that didn’t head down the higher education path. There will undoubtedly be accusations of false claiming of credentials, like the outbreak of Mockney a few years ago. Kit de Waal, celebrated author and outspoken champion of working class writers suggests embracing the dual identity with no excuses and no shame, but you need to be pretty confident to do that (another trait that graduates from working class backgrounds are said to lack).

Where are all the working class writers then (as Kit de Waal asked last summer, in fact)? Are they looking at the quinoa in their cupboard and simply not feeling comfortable with calling themselves working class any more? Some will no doubt have intentionally left the working class behind via education, though the long tradition of self-education in the working class shows that the two don’t have to go together. Some may well be plugging away under the radar, not shouting about their class background and not writing anything that highlights it. The rest, however, are probably struggling to get a foot in the door because of lack of contacts, cultural capital, or money.

In Nathan Connolly’s piece from last week that I linked to earlier, he mentions setting up Dead Ink because he couldn’t afford the unpaid internships in London that were apparently essential. So many fields in the arts seem to rely on unpaid internships (and in London too) it’s no wonder the arts are dominated by people with money behind them (there’s an interesting paper called Are the creative industries meritocratic?, which you can access here). I was told in passing last week that I was at a serious disadvantage trying to get involved in the arts without a car – getting to performance venues (and home at the end of an evening, when any public transport is likely to have thinned out or stopped), school visits, distributing leaflets/brochures or attending meetings with publishers/agents/promoters. It may well be true, but that’s another obstacle if you don’t have money behind you. I know a couple of people who have a driving licence but no car, but without even trying I can think of 10 more in my immediate family/closest friends who’ve never learnt to drive in the first place (with maybe 8 or 9 who drive and have or share a car).

In conclusion then, working class writers might be out there but are probably struggling. When the only people who get a voice are the wealthy, we’re in a bad way so we need to fight for libraries, fight for a level playing field in education, and build a flourishing cultural hub outside of London (Northern Powerhouse, anyone?). By the way, the Labour manifesto mentions banning unpaid internships. I’ll just leave that thought with you.

An essay, a story, a couple of reviews

It looks like I’ve neglected to tell you what I’ve been up to lately. I entered an essay into this year’s NUHA Blogging Prize, on the topic of ‘Do schools and universities have a responsibility to educate their students on social behaviour alongside the academic?’ and you can read it (and comment on it) here. It’s already sparked a bit of discussion, not least in the Monkey household.

I’ve also got a short (just under 500 words) story in issue 8 of Firefly Magazine, which you can read online here.

Before that came out I reviewed a fast-paced sci-fi novel, vN by Madeline Ashby, over at Luna Station Quarterly, and a book on spelling, grammar and punctuation at The Bookbag. Bits of it reminded me of Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson, but it never quite lived up to its promise. And I still don’t know the proper names for all the parts of a sentence, I just use them as they fit best. Reading hundreds of books for fun over the last 35 years has no doubt helped with that.

So there you are, that’s you (loyal reader) all caught up. Enjoy the rest of your Sunday.

Dangerous Northern Women

I’ve been writing a bit of non-fiction lately (I mean apart from this blog, and the usual book reviews). Some of it is now up at the Dangerous Women Project in the form of a piece about the Bradford Female Educational Institute and its worrying policy of actually trying to teach working class women stuff, back in the 1850s when that really wasn’t cool (I know – Bradford, education, working class history and northern women all at once!). You can read it here:

I was planning to tell you all about the project in advance, but I didn’t want to seem like I was crawling while my piece was under consideration and I didn’t realise it would be up so soon after acceptance, so I never did. Suffice to say I recommend having a good look round the site, there’s a lot of different topics which all have something to do with the idea of being a dangerous woman, pushing boundaries in some way.

If the image had been freely available, I would have liked the drawing from this 1856 magazine page to illustrate it, but sadly it wasn’t to be.

Educating girls: have we come as far as we think?

I have a great passion for education, as long-standing readers of this blog will know. I also have ready access to a university library, so I pick up things like A History of Women’s Education in England by June Purvis (Open University Press, 1991) to while away the commute. An interesting overview of the situation between 1800-1914, it touches on some things I didn’t know about and some (like the Bradford Female Institute) that I did but haven’t often seen anyone else write about.

Two passages in chapter 4 (Education and Middle-class Girls) made me wonder how far we’ve really come, however. In 1864 Emily Davies (later co-founder of Girton College, Cambridge) wrote a paper about the poor state of secondary education for girls for the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science, in which she commented that since ladies are left ‘in a state of wholesome rust’ as she put it, they have little to talk about except ‘children, servants, dress and summer tours’ and if you hand them The Times they’ll turn straight to the adverts and the family notices.

Since I neither have children nor go on holidays I often find myself adrift in a female environment as conversation (even among women I know to have engaged in higher education) frequently centres around children, fashion and soft furnishings. There are, I should point out before my female friends revolt, a few honourable exceptions. However, glance at a few magazines aimed at women and you’ll find the content largely revolves around those subjects as well, with some celebrity gossip thrown in. Perhaps the progress we’ve made in that area lies in the fact that some men are eager to talk about their children or their GBBO-inspired attempts at cakes too.

The other passage that struck me was in a section about the fear of educated girls becoming ‘unfeminine’ and ‘unmarriageable’, leading pioneering headmistresses to promote both academic subjects and the old code of ladylike behaviour. In 1994 I was about to move up into sixth form in just such a pioneering school (founded 1878 as the girls’ offshoot of a 16th century school for boys). The headmistress gave a motivating talk in which we were generally exhorted to work hard and become career women – medicine, dentistry and law being the main acceptable professions to aim at. In the same talk, however, she mentioned dress and appearance for the final two years of school: a suit, court shoes, small pearl earrings and we would be permitted a single ring, to allow for that solitaire diamond. The actual reference at the time may have been tongue in cheek – though I remember being aghast at what she was saying I don’t clearly remember the tone – but the fact that even half-jokingly you would suggest to a roomful of teenagers that a desirable outcome to their many years of undoubtedly expensive (if not on an assisted place) education would be to get engaged by the age of eighteen! It still leaves me at something of a loss for words (is that a sigh of relief I hear?). Presumably attitudes like this contribute to the so-called leaky pipeline (women drifting away from science in particular, as you progress further up the academic hierarchy). It’s twenty years since I left school (this week exactly, I think) and I hope things have changed, but sadly in schools like that I fear not.

Fathers Day, a note of thanks


My dad’s leather-patched elbow, with which he has nudged me into all sorts of literary and musical exploration

Sometimes I’m too tired to avoid the cliche up ahead, so here’s a Fathers’ Day post about my dad, without whom… (well, without whom I wouldn’t be here, obviously, but I mean apart from that).

  • When I had measles, aged 9 or 10, he read a good chunk of The Lord of the Rings to me, because he’s not one for taking age into account (thankfully). I struggled with it when he handed it over once I was feeling better, and it took me another few years to go back and finish it, but the spark of interest was there.
  • He likes Douglas Adams, and Terry Pratchett, and he thought I might too (and as we now know, my entire writing career such as it is can be blamed on Douglas Adams)
  • He likes Anthony Trollope, and he thought I might too (can you see a pattern emerging here?)
  • He assiduously collected PKD novels in the years when they were hard to come by, scouring the second hand bookshops of West Yorkshire and Cumbria, and shared them. When I’m finally happy with my SF noir novel, Sunrise Over Centrified City, he’ll get to see where all that ended up.
  • He let me read the Maigret novels he got out of the library, when I was still on a children’s ticket (it’s that not accounting for age thing again. That also got me using big words quite early on – learn fast or have no idea what he’s talking about…)

If you’ve been around here for a while you can see the shape of my reading habits in this list. And if you really have been around for a while you probably know some of the musical ones too (all the bits that aren’t Big Brother’s fault. Both of them deny all responsibility for the hair metal). I am still resistant to Roxy Music, however.

Thanks today to all the dads that read to their kids, take them to libraries, buy them books (whether or not that involves keeping a list tucked in their wallet of which books exist in a series and which ones said child hasn’t read yet) and generally enthuse them about reading. Better than a kickabout in the park any day.

Northern underclass

I know I’ve got a chip on my shoulder, but sometimes there’s nothing for it but to stand up and roar ‘I am northern and I am proud’. What’s got my goat today, I hear you ask (those of you who aren’t already tutting and turning away), well settle in with a mug of something hot and I’ll tell you.

The immediate trigger for incoherent rage (which hopefully has now subsided into coherence) was an article in The Guardian yesterday about trainee teachers from the north being told to tone down their accents in the classroom. Now, the scientifically trained bit of my brain is jumping up and down about small sample size and all the rest of it (really it doesn’t seem much better than anecdotal evidence), but for today’s purposes it doesn’t matter exactly how many people this happened to, or whether it was more prevalent with certain accents than others. The point is that any headteacher saw fit to tell anyone that their accent was not fit for a teaching role.

During a lengthy rant in the pub this week, Mark the artist made the point that (northern) working class culture is being eroded (Paul Mason wrote an article in The Guardian on similar lines not long ago) – imagine, he said, going back in time to somewhere the British colonised long ago and saying don’t worry about it all dying out, it’s called globalisation and progress. Well at the time they probably did say that but among the liberal intelligentsia now that would be unthinkable, traditions and dying languages need preserving at all costs. And yet, this doesn’t seem to extend to regional accents or dialects within Britain.

Those of you who’ve been around here a while will know of my fondness for and interest in accents (though not necessarily the written rendering of them). Since pretty much everyone I know is northern (or Scottish) I mostly talk about the north in relation to this but I’m all for retaining regional accents regardless of where you’re from. I had my first 2 or 3 years of school down south (East Midlands then Cornwall) and not surprisingly I got laughed at for my accent, and particularly for bits of dialect I didn’t even know were dialect. That drove part of my accent and dialect use away, but what was even worse was returning to Yorkshire and being told by teachers that, to paraphrase, well-educated young ladies did not have Yorkshire accents. Thankfully I have a strong rebellious streak, and my determination to hang onto my accent was helped by my Grandma warning me against sounding like sister number 2 (who worked in a mill, when there were still mills to work in).

What does it say to working class kids if all the teachers sound accentless and posh? It says people like you do not become teachers. I’m one of those in-betweeners, working class family with a middle class education and I still find comfort when I go into a meeting at the day job and find some academic or senior manager with a noticeable accent, it means I’m not automatically going to ruin my credibility by opening my mouth.

It might seem like a small thing, but accents are family-bonding, they’re how you show you belong, and they’re part of our heritage and who we are. To demand that someone gives that up to conform to a centralised ideal of the perfect teacher, and in the process set themselves apart from the pupils they’re supposed to be a role model for is cruel and pointless. I haven’t even got onto the spelling and grammar tests that are confusing for certain regions (I think Michael Rosen had a mention of the differing uses of ‘until’ recently) but I think I should get back to enjoying my day off and listening to rock n roll.


A love affair with libraries

Libraries are in the news a lot lately, rarely for the right reasons, though the Liverpool branches reprieve this week was a moment for celebration. Belatedly (though not too late, I hope) the Great British Public are remembering why they love libraries so much, and telling anyone who’ll listen. BBC 6Music (my station of choice, at least in rooms where Planet Rock reception is bad) are in the middle of a fortnight of library celebration, not all to do with borrowing albums. The Guardian are promoting the love letters to libraries campaign from Book Week Scotland. Regular visitors will recall that I’m quite fond of libraries, often have to be dragged away from them (this morning, for instance) or overload myself with books. Thus, while I’m not about to write a love letter as such (far too uptightly English for that) I will share some of my library experiences, in the hope that some of you out there might share back.

In the dim past that was the 1980s I vaguely remember a basement children’s library. I remember wooden cubes full of large-format books you could flick through, and my dad’s legs towering above me in corduroy. I remember Big Brother in the record department at Bradford City Library in his parka, and the LPs he’d borrow and carefully take home in the library-issue carrier bag (which finally broke in about 1996). There were the walks to the local library with my grandad (never without a stack of library books in the house) and the friendly librarian at Cockermouth (a library I spent many a Saturday morning in, from early childhood to leaving home). I first read Anne of Green Gables from Cockermouth library, and Raffles and Maigret. Later on I borrowed Aerosmith and Alice Cooper tapes, Terry Pratchett’s early Discworld novels, and chocolate-themed baking books I never seemed to bake anything from.

Through the 1990s I stopped joining libraries but still made plenty of use of them. My dad borrowed Little Angels and Metallica CDs on my behalf in his lunch-hour (yes, Metallica – this is the beauty of libraries, you can try things without blowing all your pocket money), OneMonkey borrowed my choices from the fabulous Newcastle Central Library (not as fabulous last time I went, most of the books seemed to be missing). When my parents moved to a North Yorkshire village while I was at university, Big Brother and I would take my dad’s library tickets (still the brown card pouches – technology arrived there rather slowly) up the main street to the tiny library in the holidays and load up for our reading and listening pleasure.

Come the new decade I was in Scotland, loving the old-fashioned grandeur of Edinburgh Central Library and marvelling at the Carnegie library in his home town of Dunfermline, with stock a much bigger town would be proud of. OneMonkey and I somehow borrowed an AC/DC boxed set for the cost of borrowing a single CD, and went mad at a library book sale where we filled a couple of cardboard boxes for The Nephew (still in single figures at the time). By the turn of the following decade I wasn’t far from where I’d started out and I’m still using the local library constantly. I even borrowed the books I reviewed for the Ilkley Literature Festival this year from there.

I haven’t mentioned all the university libraries I’ve been in, the school library friend T and I spent our lunchtimes in (much more civilised than having to hang around outdoors in the drizzle), Bradford Local Studies Library or the decorative tiles in Leeds. I could go on for hours (pages) more but I’ll spare you. Instead I’ll make a cup of tea and wallow in warm memories of libraries I have loved; I can only recommend that you do the same, and if you can’t think of any you need to go find yourself a good library, fast.

MOOCs and my continuing education in writing

I’ve mentioned MOOCs (massive open online courses) here before and just to prove I do listen to myself occasionally, I’ve now followed that up with a short essay, MOOCs, a piece of the higher education jigsaw as my entry to this year’s NUHA foundation blogging prize. The NUHA foundation being an education and development NGO, all the essay titles were kind of education-related (one of my favourite topics) so I couldn’t resist entering.

Apparently, part of the voting comes from how much comment and debate the essay sparks off so if you feel like participating in the conversation, you know where to find it…

What are libraries for, anyway?

I find it hard to resist a library, even one I’m not a member of – they might have a particularly inspiring reading room, some fabulous old books to flick through, or even (whisper this when OneMonkey isn’t listening) a couple of shelves they’re selling off for 20p a paperback. Love books, love libraries – that’s the way it goes. Or so I always thought. Lately, though, I seem to have read articles, listened to radio programmes, filled in council surveys and signed petitions that imply a strenuous defence of libraries is underway. How sad that we need to defend libraries. And that reading seems to have become synonymous (in the media at least) with buying books.

Last week OneMonkey drew my attention to this Forbes article: Close the libraries and buy everyone an Amazon Kindle Unlimited subscription. The author points out he’s not being wholly serious, but unfortunately policy-makers might skim over that sentence in the rush to implement his ideas as they try to pacify some of the people they’ve riled by closing down so many libraries (The Librarian, for instance, now in a precarious employment situation as well as having her principles trampled on). The idea being that it would be nearly as cheap to pay for a subscription to one company’s currently available ebook list as it would to fund libraries in their current form. And libraries are only about reading books, aren’t they?

Despite more years at university than any sane person would submit to, I’ve had a couple of fairly long stints of unemployment. As I’m sure is the case for many other people who are time-rich and cash-poor (pensioners, for instance), local libraries were invaluable during those times, even when they were only open a few half-days a week. Particularly when I was 21 and skint, buying more than the occasional second-hand book was out of the question, so obviously the local library supplied my reading material but that wasn’t the whole story. There were newspapers and magazines for information, entertainment and job adverts. There was a heated reading room that saved me having to run up a heating bill at home (or have the lights on through a winter afternoon), computers with printers and free internet access.

Going to the library can give you a routine, a reason to leave the house, someone to speak to (of course the Post Office used to do that as well, but they’ve closed most of them down already). They host story time, reading groups, family history workshops, activities to get older children reading a bit over the long summer holiday. They provide council services, from extra garden waste bags to housing advice. Our local GP sends people along the road to the library to access a Reading Well shelf, full of books on how to stop smoking, conquer panic attacks and the like. Oh but those are books again, you could just get those on the Kindle. Assuming they stocked them, and weren’t having a dispute with the publisher at the time.

Leaving aside the fast pace of technology rendering all this investment obsolete in a few years (and who’s buying the hardware, anyway?) and the lack of provision for the poor and the lonely this new arrangement would bring about, what about the serendipity of libraries? Old or locally-relevant curiosities, yes, but also I defy anyone to be as truly random in picking a book online as they can be in a library. You turned left instead of right at the photocopier and you’re in an aisle you didn’t mean to go down, then a book title catches your eye and grabs your interest. I can’t be the only person that happens to, nor can I be the only person who picks up books because of the font, the colours, or because the author with a name nearby in the alphabet wasn’t available. Everyone needs a bit of randomness in their life, and a book you can take home for free is probably one of the least dangerous ways you can get it.

Libraries are important, as repositories of knowledge and champions of ideas, the stirrers of young imaginations, and I don’t know what else. Love learning, love libraries? Love communities, love libraries? The idea of what libraries are for is just as vague (but just as important to think about, and get right) as the idea of what universities are for. And you don’t want to get me started on that.

MOOCs, autodidacts and organisation

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned I’d signed up for a free online university course. I’ve now done the first week’s work, haven’t touched the second yet despite it being available since Monday (I need to get more organised. Again) and I’m enjoying it so far. It’s what’s known as a MOOC (massive open online course) and is an introduction to forensic science, partly chosen because I thought it might be useful for crime-writing – apparently I’m not the only one, as the MOOC Twitter feed claims well-known crime author Stuart MacBride has also signed up for it (Stuart MacBride is one of those authors whose name seems to crop up everywhere but I’ve never actually read any of his stuff. I’m back on James Ellroy at the moment – White Jazz, not quite as gruesome as The Big Nowhere but neither is it as compellingly written and I keep coming close to putting it aside and moving on to something more pleasant).

Regular readers will perhaps recall that I’m a fan of lifelong learning, autodidacts, and acquiring knowledge with no immediate purpose other than to entertain or broaden the mind. So, while the MOOC was partly about adding flavour to crime-writing it was also largely about doing a MOOC to see what they’re all about. As the name suggests these courses are open i.e. free (and often with no prerequisites), and they’re online so it doesn’t matter if you can’t make a regular commitment on a Tuesday afternoon, or don’t live near a good bus route, you can do the lot in your own home (or the local library if you’re lucky enough to still have one) whenever it’s convenient.

Coincidentally, this week The Guardian has begun a series on MOOCs, trying to get to the bottom of what and who they’re for. Some people seem to think MOOCs herald the end of universities as we know them, or at least will be a game-changer. Personally, I’m not so sure they’re even direct competition, certainly not to undergraduate degrees. It strikes me that at least at the moment, when most of the open courses aren’t credit-bearing, what they’re actually replacing is all that recreational education that FE colleges ran out of funding for, or that’s being squeezed out of university lifelong learning departments in favour of access courses (stepping stones for mature students to go do a degree). With all the recent arguments about tuition fees seeming to revolve around the idea that universities are some kind of employment training centre conveying no benefits other than the increased likelihood of a well-paid job, I think we need MOOCs in a big way. You might want to check them out while they’re still free.

Cheap editions and the end of perpetual copyright in 1774

I am a writer, but I’m also a socialist and as such a great advocate of universal education to as high a level and in whatever form possible. Perpetual copyright, while ensuring that you and your descendants retain control of your work in perpetuity (and of course continue to rake in the royalties), precludes the kind of cheap editions that allow someone on low pay to read freely and, by extension, educate themselves outside of school. In 1774 when perpetual copyright ended in Britain there wasn’t a network of free lending libraries in every town (of course, that’s ceasing to be the case now, but that’s another story) and for a worker to read a book, they or one of their circle had to have bought it.  The cheap editions of older works that were suddenly possible due to the change in copyright law allowed that to happen.

When I was in my teens, the Wordsworth Classics range was launched: a pound for works of Dickens, Tolstoy, and a host of other, mainly 19th century, authors. At the time I’m sure I could have borrowed any of them from the library but for less than the cost of a return bus fare into town I could have my own copy to keep coming back to. Most of them still grace my shelves. The paper may have been thin and the spines plain grey but the words inside were the same as if I’d inherited a copy with a tooled leather binding. Back in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries that revolutionary cheapening of old books would, if any formally educated man was willing to engage, have enabled me to debate those contents with my supposed betters. It would have let me creep into the citadel of learning.

The Uses of Literacy, by Richard Hoggart

In the early 1950s, 30-year-old university lecturer Richard Hoggart (father of Simon, brilliant political sketch-writer from The Guardian) started writing a book rooted in his ‘northern urban working-class’ childhood (in Leeds), that he thought about calling The Abuses of Literacy. He changed it to The Uses of Literacy so as to sound less confrontational, and had to change parts of the contents so as to avoid possible libel charges. However, the result was published in 1957 and 54 years later I read it, appreciated it, and marvelled at how much is still relevant.

I was wary of mentioning it on my blog because part of me doesn’t want anyone to read it – then I figured I don’t have much influence and few people would find it an interesting topic for their leisure hours so I needn’t worry about a stampede. The reason for my mixed feelings is that in the wrong hands (i.e. those of anyone not born into northern working-class families) it could become a kind of anthropological study of peculiar speech, attitudes and customs, a kind of sneering affirmation of superiority on the part of the reader. When I read it, I found myself thinking ‘that’s a bit harsh’ occasionally, then realising I’d said almost the same thing plenty of times myself, usually for OneMonkey to reply ‘that’s a bit harsh’ – but for me, as for Richard Hoggart, there’s a mixture of exasperation that comes from looking closely from the outside, and affection for and/or understanding of the relatives and family friends looking back.

Hoggart set out to write a textbook about mass culture, by which he seemed to mean newspapers (newly-sensationalised), magazines (with pin-ups and short attention-span), cheap paperbacks (badly-written and full of sex and violence) etc and the habit of reading among a class of people who had more education as a basic background than their predecessors, but didn’t appear to be much better off for it. He then wrote the first half of the book (a summing up of recent or current attitudes in the northern urban working classes) to set his ideas in context. He seems to wander off-topic a fair bit and I must admit I didn’t follow all of his arguments, which is due in part to some of the contemporary references. I can say now a Sun-reader, a Guardian-reader, and conjure up in my own and other (British) people’s minds an idea of the sort of background or attitude I mean by that (it will be stereotypical, and in many instances unfair, but it’s a handy shorthand and a useful generalisation in some contexts, including as advertising targets, which Hoggart also covers) – but I have no idea what The Listener was like or who it was aimed at, I know nothing about any of the radio programmes he mentions (TV hadn’t really taken off at the time) and even the distinction between types of paper-shop is lost on me. However, there is enough of endurance there that I get the general gist.

OneMonkey has noted how many conversations in the last couple of weeks I’ve chipped in with ‘it’s funny you should say that because in this Hoggart book…’ and I do find it fascinating (and also quite depressing) that so little has changed in some areas; in the introduction to the 2009 edition Lynsey Hanley (a politically informed writer a couple of years older than me) says ‘no reader two generations younger than Hoggart should gasp in recognition at his descriptions of growing up…Yet, despite the social and economic transformations that have taken place since its publication in 1957, there are thousands who do.’

Talking to OneMonkey about this book reminds me how different our views are on this kind of thing. OneMonkey sees the worth or value of culture as largely subjective (I’m not sure I agree, but I’d be hard pushed to say where worth lies – see my occasional disparaging comments on Dickens and Shakespeare), and if hard-working people with jobs that give them little satisfaction want to come home and read easy to digest escapism about sex and adventure, who am I to say that’s trash? Not everyone wants to read history textbooks for fun, or even multi-layered novels with complex characters. And anyway, some of the sci-fi and fantasy I read would be seen as trash by those with even greater intellectual snobbery than me. OneMonkey also argues, and here I do agree with him, that it’s not a class divide any more (if it ever was) – the middle classes watch X-Factor just as much as anyone else does, it’s just that they’re more likely to have some kind of hypocritical guilt going on. In the same way, they’re more likely to use the argument ‘at least I read’. Why is it intrinsically more worthy to read a cheap paperback romance than to watch with keen interest a BBC4 programme on human rights, for instance? They read, therefore they don’t have to examine their reading-material or opinions because they’re automatically better than you. Dangerous thinking.

Maybe what it comes down to is a misplaced emphasis, or one that’s no longer relevant. It’s thinking that matters (if, like Richard Hoggart and I, you think any of this matters), not reading, surely. If you never read a book or magazine from one year to the next, but listen to the radio, watch TV or discuss things with friends and colleagues and think matters through for yourself (even if you argue yourself round in the end to the position that everyone else you know holds) isn’t that better (by which I mean more indicative of some hope for humanity) than reading the papers every day, accepting what they say, and parrotting back their opinions when asked for your own (and I’m as guilty on occasion of quoting Private Eye or The Guardian as other people are of quoting papers I’m sniffy about)? Of course you may think that it doesn’t much matter either way, most people have no real say in major aspects of their lives, and deep thought and political awareness just lead to depression and a feeling of hopelessness. But if you’ve reached that position by weighing it all up for yourself, then we’re both happy. In a manner of speaking.

Historical education, a restrained rant

Reading Saville last week prompted me to dig out from the To Read cupboard a book I’d found in a charity shop a while ago and never got round to: Education and the Working Class by Brian Jackson and Dennis Marsden. A 1960s book by former working class grammar school boys who’d moved on to academia, it’s a study of 88 working class pupils who passed A-levels at Huddersfield grammar schools a couple of years either side of 1950, assessing their passage through school to their various destinations and trying to make sense of why so many of their contemporaries fell by the wayside. Maybe it’s not everyone’s idea of an enjoyable book for the morning commute but I have Big Brother to thank for that (there’s a surprise) – 16 or so years ago I saw him with a copy of Friedrich Engels’ Condition of the Working Class in England in his hand (which of course I later borrowed), went and read my dad’s copy of The Road to Wigan Pier, and that was that.

On a detached level as someone who’s interested in history, statistics and the West Riding of Yorkshire (so you can imagine what it’s like when they’re all together in one volume) it’s a very interesting book, raising as many questions as it answers (and it never pretends to answer many, I think the idea was to prompt people into further studies). Some of the attitudes and circumstances are recognisable from Saville, set in the educational background of the 40s, and some are still discernible in some of my contemporaries, educated in the late 80s and 90s. It’s depressing and frustrating to think that over those 50 years (and before and since) so much talent has been wasted (or conversely that so much mediocrity has been encouraged into high places by excessive coaching and the supportive wallet of a loving parent) and so many unnecessary obstacles created; one point that was noted was that middle class families in Huddersfield knew how to play the system and overcome bendable rules whereas the working class families often accepted any knockback as final.

Despite all the rhetoric, some things never change and educational opportunities in England are still not equal and universal. An article in Friday’s Guardian reported findings that state school pupils reaching university are slightly more likely to get a good degree than peers taking the same course but coming from a private education. Possible explanations are that the extra coaching and special treatment at school leave the privately-educated teenager less well equipped to deal with the realities of university, or that, to put it simply, if you’ve got to university without all the privileges of a private education you must be pretty clever. It’s all politicised, I know, and nothing is ever that simple, but amid all the current arguing over graduate tax, tuition fees and all the rest of it, it makes me want to either tear my hair out or send copies of books like the Jackson and Marsden one to all the squabbling politicians (not that they’d read it). The next book I dug out of the cupboard was The Rise and Decline of the English Working Classes 1918-1990 by Eric Hopkins; I must be in that sort of mood.

Saville by David Storey

I couldn’t resist this novel: first, the title, and second, it’s a West Riding novel by the author of This Sporting Life, which I still haven’t read. Saville won the Booker Prize in 1976, and if you believe the review from The Times it’s “mesmerically readable”. Which in some sense must be true, because I did get to the end despite not engaging with the main character.

The novel itself looked a treat, a 555-page door-stopper which is one of only about three books I’ve bought new this year, and I was looking forward to reading it. It is the story of Colin Saville as he moves from a working class background in the 1930s, via the scholarship exam and a place at grammar school, into a no man’s land of discomfort in the 50s, caught between two classes. At least I think it takes us as far as the 50s: one of my main complaints (and it may just be that I wasn’t picking up all the clues and hints) is that it was hard to know how much time was passing between events; how old is Colin’s younger brother when his bringing home a girl causes an argument, for instance (12? 16?)?

Despite Colin being the main character, who links all the other characters and whose actions we follow, I never felt I had any insight into him – he seemed more like a prop, a marker to show us where to look. Until about page 200 Colin is essentially monosyllabic and it’s easy to forget that he’s there at all; even afterwards we seem to observe him from a distance with few clues to his thoughts or attitudes, so that several of his later actions seemed (at least to me) to come from nowhere, a surprise that I couldn’t explain, such as a sudden fight with his brother. Events seem to have no purpose or to go nowhere, fairly major characters walking off the page and it only becomes clear that they’ve gone for good when you’ve reached the last page without their getting another mention. Colin’s published poetry is introduced and dealt with in a couple of sentences: at no time is it suggested that he’s attempting to publish poetry, the publication has clearly happened at some time in the past, when it’s mentioned, and nothing further comes of it. I’m not saying I only like novels with neatly interlocking sub-plots, heavy foreshadowing and no loose ends, but it did feel rather aimless at times.

The aimlessness may well have been intentional, a metaphor for Colin’s life. Son of a miner, pushed hard in his schoolwork by his father so that Colin didn’t have to follow in his footsteps, Colin has the dubious privilege of attending the grammar school in the nearby city, mixing with boys from a different (middle- and upper-class) world. He follows the path of least resistance, working hard and playing rugby not because he wants to but because other people want him to and he seems to have no opinions of his own. Later he drifts into relationships and activities and the final section could have come from any gritty northern novel of its time, the aimless young man and his empty extra-marital sex.

The author was born in Wakefield (in and around which Saville appears to be set) and moved to London; this is reflected in the novel and may be part of what I didn’t like – an underlying assumption that the only answer to being sensitive and artistic in Yorkshire is to move to the capital. Saville seems to be a good portrait of a pit village childhood of the 30s and 40s, and the portrayal of the outsider at grammar school (not middle class enough) and the outsider within the family (too middle class) was good, but it’s a long and dreary book, and crucially there’s an underlying resentment. I’m afraid I wouldn’t recommend it.

Erudite women in a less tolerant time

This month I read The Weaker Vessel, Antonia Fraser’s hefty tome describing the role of women in 17th century England. Fascinating throughout, and amusing and horrifying by turns, it’s a readable history and doesn’t seem to be pushing a feminist agenda as books on women in history often seem to do. Much as I hated school, reading this book made me thankful for it, and thankful also for the opportunity to write openly as I do, both creating fiction and airing opinions in my blog.

The thought of being barred from an education because of my gender (or indeed for any other reason) fills me with horror. If the attitudes of 17th century England still prevailed in the late 20th I would have been warned that no-one would marry me if I showed signs of learning (not so much of a threat now, but quite dire back then), I would have been ridiculed and told that reading was bad for my health, and if my father as a well-educated man had decided to encourage me (as some did), his friends would very likely have tried to dissuade him. I can only imagine the frustration of being restricted to the ladylike lessons in needlework, dancing and singing for a (relatively wealthy) 17th century woman as knowledge-hungry and book-loving as I am. Of course some of that will be a product of my time – if I was surrounded by uneducated women, with no expectations of being taught anything which might stretch my mind, who knows if I’d still yearn for history and maths. Nevertheless there were a few brave women who struggled against their imposed role and not only obtained a Classical education themselves but endeavoured (without a great deal of success, unfortunately) to pass it on to the next generation.

Female authors did exist (Aphra Behn for instance was a notable playwright) but often faced ridicule or hostility, or it was assumed that the work was not entirely their own. They could keep their work secret or publish anonymously, but it took some guts to stand up and show their work to the world, and unfortunately courage was seen as a masculine trait and therefore unwelcome in a modest and virtuous (i.e. socially acceptable) woman. Interestingly, female painters were perfectly acceptable, but then painting doesn’t require book-learning so isn’t as threatening.

However much I might complain sometimes about pollution or the fragmentation of society, the proliferation of annoying gadgets and the globalisation and associated homogenisation of culture, I’m still glad I’m here now and not in the past. Anytime I find myself wondering, I should just think of an age in which I wouldn’t even be allowed (or able, since histories would have been in Latin) to read a history book like The Weaker Vessel, let alone write an article about it.