Are our children literate? We’d better hope so.

PicklesJudge James Pickles 1925-2010

Justice James Pickles. Does the name mean anything to you? No? Well, way back in time while acting as a circuit judge, Pickles famously asked ‘who are The Beatles’ during a court case. It was universally proclaimed as proof positive that the senior judiciary – old, male, privately educated – was hopelessly out of touch with ordinary life and, frankly, such comments make that difficult to contradict. Pickles, who died in 2010, went on to achieve some notoriety for a series of idiosyncratic judgements which were a mixture of the wildly liberal and the insanely harsh. He also contributed to tabloid newspaper columns and appeared on the Ali G Show.

I can’t believe I have much in common with Justice Pickles, but I did think of him this week. When the news was announced of the death of Caroline Flack it initially meant nothing to me because I didn’t know who she was. I have no way of knowing how much that shocks you and please feel free to tell me by leaving a comment. All the same, a few words in my defence.

The Saturday night light entertainment shows of which she was a star are unknown territory for me. That’s not because I’m listening to baroque madrigals when they are broadcast but because I’ll be on my way home from football and there’s a very good chance I will have loitered in licensed premises on the way. When it comes to Love Island, I don’t believe that I am the target audience and everything that I obliquely know about it from afar seems to be both distasteful and slightly alarming.

None of which is to say that I feel anything but sympathy for a young woman who, far from being made happy by being a glittering star shining in the public firmament, had become a fractured, tortured and unhappy soul. History is littered with denizens of screen, stage and recording studio whose glamorous public personae have been at horrible odds with a gnawing wretchedness away from the spotlight. And in the modern era, the need to be permanently accessible and visible, along with an apparent need to share one’s passing thoughts instantaneously with the rest of the world, has made matters much worse.

One thing is for certain: the genie of social media is not going back into the bottle any time soon. It has now soaked itself into the habits and conduct of a generation of digital natives, permeating every aspect of  our lives. Given its ubiquity, we need to ask ourselves a tricky question: how do we educate ourselves, and, in particular, our young people, to understand this new literacy of social media and instant communication?

If we’re going to address this, there must be a recognition that we’re hobbling ourselves from the start. As an initial example, try searching through the national curriculum for the term ‘social media’. It makes a couple of brief appearances in peripheral areas, but you have to work hard to find it. This, in itself, is part of a deep-seated and historical mistrust of any kind of media studies by the political and journalistic right. It was the particular bete noire of Michael Gove and his then aide-de-camp at the Department of Education, Dominic Cummings, both of whom dedicated themselves to ridding the system of what they dubbed ‘easy subjects’. It’s worth thinking about why they found this one quite so irksome.

Regular readers will know that I like to go to Shakespeare to do the work for me from time to time. In The Tempest, a bunch of refined Europeans wash up on the shore of a remote island and there they find the savage, bestial native – Caliban. Caliban grows to despise the newcomers who gradually oppress and patronise him. But in doing so, they inadvertently teach him their language. In time, Caliban revels in this and is able to taunt his captors by telling them that they ‘taught him language, and my profit on it is, I know how to curse’. The message is clear – for goodness sake, don’t let the natives understand what we’re up to, otherwise we’ll all be in the mire. If they know how this media stuff works, they’ll see through us in an instant.

This government, along with its predecessors, likes to appoint ‘tsars’ and talk about ‘wars’ on things – drugs, homelessness, poverty – and right at the top of that list of priorities we find, entirely properly, illiteracy. It is imperative to send children into the world able to read and write. But now we face a new literacy, one that starts from the moment an infant learns to swipe at a black screen or sees its parent more preoccupied with a cat doing a gambol than cooing at its own, real-life offspring. Teaching this new literacy needs to start early – very early.

Think it can’t be done? In Finland, ever ahead in the educational stakes, primary schools already have lessons on how to detect fake news. Thinks it’s an unnecessary diversion? The UK’s children are deemed among the unhappiest in the developed world by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. The Mental Health Foundation reports an ‘unprecedented’ rise in the instance of problems in 15-year-old girls. The Children’s Society reports on the damage done to young people’s self-esteem by the need to constantly measure up to images on social media. Conducting even the most rudimentary search about sexting among children reveals a chilling acceptance of its prevalence. The question is not whether it can be done, but how on earth could we ignore it.

Caroline Flack appeared to live in the maelstrom of Twitter, Instagram and the voraciousness of the gutter press for vile suppositions about people’s private thoughts and personal lives. It is a world that must have contributed to her sad, tragic death. The world of reality TV, its stars and the social media whirlwind they generate, should be a harmless diversion that flickers for a moment and then evaporates into the ether. It’s not. It lingers, it stinks and grows and feeds on itself and, unless we inure them against it, seeps into the thinking of our children and normalizes the extraordinary.

Fake news, fake images, fake ambitions. It might be in the interests of the unscrupulous – the newspaper owners, the social media barons, fretful government advisers – to allow people to confuse this rubbish with reality. They remain happy to encourage this new illiteracy. It’s up to all of us to let them know we’ll call it out and name them as the grubby villains, preying on people’s insecurities and worries, that they are.

Democracy. It may be dull but it’s all we’ve got.

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It’s a Thursday evening and the heater in the church hall rattles and clunks as it combats the chilly evening. Eventually we have to give up the ghost and turn it off; it’s impossible to hear the person speaking from the front.

We’re here, seventy of us – not a bad turn out – to discuss which of the four candidates our local branch wishes to support in the Labour leadership contest. People speak from the floor, making contributions brief and long-winded, eloquent and stumbling, concise and rambling. At the end of the process, a handful of worthies tot up the votes we have placed in the taped-up cardboard box, compute the vagaries of the single transferable vote and announce a winner.

Kier Starmer if you’re interested. Not my choice; I’m an advocate of Rebecca Long-Bailey but I’d had my say, literally, and been part of the process. The old cliché from Oscar Wilde is that the trouble with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings. To be fair, he could have been talking about any wing of the democratic process, the nuts and bolts of which are unglamorous, often quite tedious and usually quite drafty. In the age of instantaneous opinion-forming, guided by hasty and intemperate spurtings on social media, it’s easy to dismiss a few dozen people exchanging ideas face-to-face on a winter’s evening as outdated and irrelevant. We’d do so at our peril. Stop paying attention and the barbarians will be through the gate.

Because other ways of decision-making are available – and this week we’ve seen them up close. Why on earth should we bother with heeding the views of elected representatives when we can surround ourselves with our chums and, more particularly, our special advisers? The Prime Minister, as we know, is fond of displaying his (rather dubious) academic credentials, so it’s possible that he’s familiar with the centuries’ old notion of a Ministry of all the Talents. If he is, he’s blithely ignoring it in favour of a Coterie of all the Tractable.

So out goes the son of a bus driver and in comes another public schoolboy who went to Oxford and, just for good measure, cut his teeth in the ‘real world’ of Goldman Sachs – that worthy organisation for whose utter incompetence we are all still paying. If we’re to believe the accepted wisdom about this, Sajid Javid’s resignation was engineered via the demands of free-spirit, unelected Dominic Cummings – another of the public schoolboy, Oxford brigade (like Johnson himself, of course) – and who, just for good measure, and in a twist that seems to have been swept under the carpet of news management, remains in contempt of parliament for refusing to appear before a committee of MPs investigating fake news. Yes, you did read that right. The PM’s number one guru is in contempt of parliament. I’ll leave that there.

But integrity doesn’t seem to be a prerequisite for being at Johnson’s elbow. Another of his special advisers is homely old Sir Edward – Eddie – Lister. Eddie does housing. He’s a non-executive director of Top Hat, a housing start-up in Derbyshire which was given a hefty £75 million of investment from….you’ll be ahead of me here…. Goldman Sachs, so now he and Rishi can spend a quiet moment or two over tea and buns in Downing Street mulling over how that’s all working out. He’s 70 now, is Eddie, and so as a man of fairly similar age, I fully understand that he forgot to disclose that he was also on the board of a Jersey-based holding company for another housing start-up. And, c’mon, it’s not like he’s an elected representative or anything, is it?

I’ll be clear. I am not suggesting that those in public office should operate without the help and advice of people who actually know and understand stuff – although Michael Gove (he who led the cuckoo Cummings into the nest) infamously declared that the country had had ‘had enough’ of experts. But what we are seeing as Johnson riffles through the Trump playbook is a centralising of power and its acquisition by the ultra-loyal, the ambitious and the unelected. This latter category remains, ultimately, unaccountable, free to peel away from the business of framing the policies affecting the lives of people about whom they know nothing, whenever they wish. The world of the rattling heater and the stumbling debate is a million miles from their experience – but it’s what democracy looks like and they’re ready to trample over it without a moment’s concern.

And they’ll do it if we’re quiet and we let them.

For my former pupil and friend, Mark O’Donnell. RIP.

Liar, liar….

pants on fire

‘In England,’ wrote George Orwell, ‘such concepts as justice, liberty and objective truth are still believed in. They may be illusions, but they are very powerful illusions.’ You have to wonder what the old boy would have made of the current state of affairs, not just in his homeland, but across the globe.

I don’t pretend to possess any profound psychological insights into the human condition, but a lifetime of working with young people does furnish you with a pretty sharp sense of what makes people tick. Although most people, young and old, with whom I’ve worked have been honest, reliable and good-natured, among their number has been a handful of committed, pathological liars. Quite often the outcomes of the convoluted webs they weave for themselves have been downright comical. And that’s OK if it’s nothing more than a sticky-fingered Year 10 painting her/himself into a corner; when it comes to those we put in charge, it’s a touch more serious.

Bill Clinton, the last leader of the free world before the odious Trump to have his honesty so publicly scrutinized, showed himself to be a complete stranger to the truth, convincing himself that his actions with Monica Lewinsky did not amount to sexual relations. If you like, Bill – even though it’d never convince any bar-room jury – but it was, y’know, a lie. All the same, in the light of the actions of some of his successors, his conduct seems almost noble. At least he showed some contrition, howsoever it needed to be squeezed out of him – if you’ll pardon the metaphor. And, no, by throwing him this concession, I’m not making light of how he abused his power and the grossness of his misdemeanours.

The new breed of global demagogues, from Trump to Johnson to Putin to Bolsonaro and dozens of similar villains around the world, now feel free to say whatever they choose, true or not, as the normalisation of lying has taken hold. And if those lies happen to be exposed? No problem there: bluff it out, it’s all part of the great game – a game that is played with the lives of ordinary people.

I recently enjoyed the BBC’s dramatization of the events surrounding the trail of Christine Keeler in 1963. It was a story that spoke very ill of the vain and vainglorious men who manipulated and exploited her. Even allowing for some dramatic licence, one scene stood out for me. Keeler had found herself in the public eye for having slept with both the Minister for War, John Profumo, and Soviet naval attaché, Yevgeny Ivanov. As the scandal unfolded, we are treated, as viewers, to the uncomfortably crumbling relationship between Profumo and his wife, Valerie Hobson.

Now is not the time to undertake deep analysis of just how and why these traduced politicians’ wives stand on the steps of their Edwardian mansions, hand-in-hand with their adulterous boy-husbands pledging their loyalty, but that is what Hobson did for a while until, entirely understandably, she lost patience and told him to come clean and resign. Which he did and, in an almost biblical twist, dedicated most of his life to the service of those worse off than himself.

Don’t get me wrong. He had abused his position as a powerful man to sleep with a pretty girl and in doing so could easily have compromised national security – although, candidly, the notion that Keeler, or anyone in their right mind, would have grabbed those post-coital moments to glean more info on the comparative size of missiles – see what I did there? – seems most unlikely. His actions were thoughtless, selfish and foolhardy. Yet, if he had one saving grace, he did, even if was in the tightest of corners, hold his hands up and acknowledge his misdeeds.

Compare and contrast. The idea that the blowhard Trump might just, for one moment, reflect that his actions may have been deemed by others to be unwise and that he would temper his outpourings in the future is utterly laughable. In fact, and it’s probably happening as I write, we can be certain that it will prompt yet more triumphant, vacuous bile.

And closer to home, there is a willingness to forget that the man who claimed that it was government policy to allow Turkey into the EU, then blatantly denied what was visible for all to see and hear. Who was sacked as a journalist for making up quotes and who laughed it off as ‘sandpapering’ the facts. Who denied an affair with a woman who was carrying his child. Who ‘forgot’ to declare the loose-change of £52,000 worth of annual income. Who overlooked the fact that he once hired someone to give a journalist a good hiding.

And even as I list this selection from what is a much wider catalogue, I can almost feel a shrug of indifference. It’s nit-picking, isn’t it? ‘Great men’ have always had their foibles: it’s what makes them great – cut from a different cloth from the rest of us. The odd misdemeanour is the inevitable price of talent and ability. Isn’t it?

We can only hope not. If our outrage at being lied to is anaesthetised, then we’ll only have ourselves to blame when the last of our civil liberties disappears into the dusk. To go back to Orwell: ‘the further a society drifts away from the truth, the more it will hate those who speak it.’

So let’s not be dull and allow ourselves to get used to the fibbers, however grand and invulnerable they fancy themselves to be.

Free at last. That’s OK, then.

farage

Tomorrow will, indeed, be another day. But for today, we awake to two dominant themes. First, I note that the social media profiles of many people who I like and admire are bedecked with European Union stars, expressing their dismay at what will happen when the clock strikes 11 tonight. Conversely, the airwaves and cyberspace are full of those who are gleefully preparing buffets and playlists to celebrate our impending freedom. I’m sure there are millions of people who are thankful that it’s just Friday, but that’s not the narrative at present.

For the partygoers, whether in Parliament Square or a community centre in Ipswich (that’s not random – I heard the organiser on the radio) the prevailing notion is that we’ve gained our freedom. Before I go about investigating this idea – and for the avoidance of confusion – I’ll make my own position clear. I am not an ardent Remainer. Like many people I know, I eventually voted to do so, but not after a good deal of prevarication. I’ve written about it elsewhere, but in short, the smothering neoliberalism of the EU, along with its viciousness toward those who don’t play along (Greece, Spain, Italy), balanced against the racism of Farage and Rees-Mogg plonked me, and millions of others, firmly between Satan and the ocean.

So what, exactly, will this freedom look like? What will ‘we’ – because we’re all in this together, of course – be free to do on Saturday that we couldn’t do on Friday? Or, and it’s important that we’re fair about this, on January 1st 2021 – because everyone acknowledges that the next eleven months need to be dedicated to the sort of purposeful, energetic negotiations to which we have become so accustomed.

The early signs don’t look good, even allowing for the fact that we’ve not quite reached the witching hour. One of the perceived benefits of Brexit and its endorsement by December’s general election is for so many in the Tory party and – let’s not be shy here – so many who deserted Labour, the holy grail of immigration control. We are to have an Australian points-based system. Now, quite why we want to emulate the approach of a country whose approach to desperate migrants is almost medieval and whose leader lounged on a foreign beach while his country burned, is something of a mystery. But, we’re to have a good look at everyone who wants to come here to apply for benefits and get their nan’s hip done on the NHS and make sure who we really want.

The trouble for Johnson and his chums is that people who run businesses – that’d be people who get up in the morning and do proper work for the money they need – don’t think it’s a good idea and have been saying so for a long time. Neither can they, nor those who run our public services, support the notion that only those who earn £30,000 or more can be taken in. And this week, very quietly, so’s no one could see, while we all fretted about getting some Brits back from apocalyptically germ-ridden China, Downing Street announced that the £30,000 cap would go and be replaced by a more ‘nuanced’ approach.

And if that doesn’t exactly smack of taking back control, our new independent and fearless nation took the peculiar decision to allow Huawei a huge slice of the contract to supply high-speed network equipment that post-Brexit Britain will need to compete on the world stage. I’m sure Michael Gove would be pleased to hear me say the first part of this; I’m no expert, but I don’t think I’m alone in feeling a tad nervous about this – but, then again, who to trust in this most important of fields? Waiting in the wings to pick up the slack are South Korea and Japan, so apart from offending the odious Trump – normally a very good thing – we’re sure to upset someone else along the way. But, hey – we don’t need anyone else to work with on keeping us secure here. Just look at the crack teams of skilled negotiators who have bought us here.

 
I love a good party and never begrudge anyone having a good time, but it’s hard not to be concerned about what tomorrow looks like for the revellers. For those who genuinely believe – and hope – that this moment in history will be the point at which their lives will improve, how will the world look when a party built on exploitation, austerity, the driving down of wages and the diminution of workers’ rights, shows its true colours and fail to work for them? And when that happens – and it’s definitely a ‘when’ not an ‘if’, just have a squint at your history books – what do those of us who didn’t join them on the dance floor tonight say?

What we don’t do is wave a European flag in their faces: the EU is no workers’ champion. And neither is smugly revelling in ‘we told you so’ acceptable: that’s the sort of nasty, entitled superiority that helped to entrench the view of so many leavers weary of being lectured to by their ‘betters’.

We take stock and we campaign and we get active. Are workers in France winning on pension demands waiting for a change of government? Do we really think we’ll reduce carbon emissions by entrusting this to a bunch of profiteering politicians? Do we stand idly by while day-centres and community services are slashed? We find any one of a thousand ways of contributing and taking other people with us, because if we’ve learnt one thing in the past few years, unless we act in this collective way, there’s another Trump, Bolsonaro, Erdogan or Putin waiting to supply all the easy answers we need.

Enjoy the night, party people. Let’s hope the hangover isn’t a long one.

Is this seat free? For you, sir? Certainly, sir.

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Being permanently connected to world events is both a blessing and a curse. Time was – and younger readers will just have to bear with me on this – that finding about the news when abroad was a case of sneakily looking at day-old British newspaper headlines before being chased off by an irate shop owner who knew you had no intention of purchasing anything. Not so now: sins, misdemeanours and boorishness gallop across the globe as quickly as those responsible can spew out their bile.

So it came to pass that I read about the behaviour of Laurence Fox, a name that I have to confess had so far failed to imprint itself on my consciousness in any way. I did so in a place that knows a thing or two about racism. South Africa.

I am lucky enough to have visited the country twice and I make no claim to have seen much beyond the normal tourist bubble. There seems to be a determination from most white people I encounter to address the wrongs of the past, but a short drive through any area – urban or rural – soon reveals the bleak poverty and deprivation that characterises the lives of many black people. It remains a society where opportunity and prosperity are firmly influenced by race.

Laurence Fox objects to the idea that he is privileged and advantaged purely by dint of what he is: male, white, educated and financially comfortable. He is unable to see how, in our very own version of a lovely rainbow nation, this actually puts him at something of a disadvantage when speaking with conviction of what it means to be the victim of racism. Like all the pale, satisfied men about whom I write so often in this blog, he just can’t see what all the fuss is about.

Pale, satisfied white boys, I hear you say? Surely that’s me, isn’t it? Yes – up to a point. And so now I’ll give you a little bit of ‘what I done on my holidays’. Bear with me; there is a purpose.

I’ve spent the last few days in Port Elizabeth. It’s a fairly dreary port town but has some wonderful beaches. Skirting these beaches are plush hotels along with pleasant cafes and restaurants. Hoteliers warn their (almost exclusively white) guests to be cautious but not paranoid when venturing out, even in this relaxed holiday area. There is, indeed, plenty of low-level begging and hassling going on and there was a knifepoint robbery of two tourists during the daytime last week. All the same, it’s not the Wild West.

This morning, my last in South Africa, I walked along the windswept promenade as a storm swept in. There was no obvious shelter, but across the road was one of the swanky hotels. And here, Laurence Fox, is what that innate privilege – the privilege of the white male – means. In I stroll, slightly damp and bedraggled, to be greeted warmly by the doorman (‘You really can’t tell them apart,’ he must tell his mates) and settle happily into an armchair by the bay window and watch the storm pass. I think I can say with confidence that this was not an option open to many other, black, people caught in the rain. Nobody asked me if I was a resident or implied that I ought to buy a drink. I obviously belonged there. Yes – obviously.

For some reason, Fox and his like fail to employ even the scrag-end of imagination required to contemplate what life might be like for people who aren’t like themselves. On a professional level, that seems to me to be something of a disadvantage for someone who calls himself an actor. But then a quick squint at his track record may help to reveal how he reached such eminence – well, in his own head at least.

The step up the ladder of Harrow School saw him progress to RADA – the most eminent of drama schools – despite expulsion from school for poor behaviour. Laurence, I’m not sure if this comes as news to you, but for most kids, expulsion from school puts whacking great obstacles in their way. Maybe being part of an established theatre family – who could afford to send you to one of the most expensive schools in the land – helped you along a bit? Or am I just being churlish? Prejudiced, even? Or maybe you got there entirely under your own steam and with your own inborn talent and drive? You think so, eh?

Unsurprisingly, Laurence has now turned his bilious ire toward those over-precious woke people who see offence everywhere. There will, no doubt, be the usual army of professional, self-advancing controversialists who will line up behind him to defend common-sense and condemn the whining snowflakery that his comments have prompted. One might just wonder what sort of world view brings such people together.

Maybe that would be the view from the armchair in the bay window of a posh hotel where you can sit unchallenged and wonder what on earth there could be to complain about in this best of all possible worlds.

Want a fight? You must be very brave….mustn’t you?

steve earleSteve Earle: Singer/songwriter  – Rich Man’s War

The living rooms of the older generation of my family  were adorned with wedding photographs. These photographs are notable for an immediately interesting detail: in many cases, at least one person is in military uniform. They were taken in the early 1940s.

The people – my aunts, uncles and other assorted relatives, friends and acquaintances – weren’t doing harmless, tedious national service. They were armed-forces personnel serving during a time of war. Even those of their family who were not engaged in war work of some sort were acutely aware of what war meant. My family lived in a city that was systematically bombed by the Luftwaffe and the damage inflicted killed people and destroyed property and livelihoods.

Almost all the people in the photographs are second generation immigrants, largely from Eastern Europe. By the time war broke, most of them were still working in tailoring and associated drapery trades, but a few had made their first, tentative steps toward running their own businesses. Amazingly, all of them survived and went on to build their lives in the country that had taken in their parents. The same could not be said of the innumerable relatives who had failed to find places of safety.

I offer this unremarkable insight into lives mirrored by hundreds of thousands of families because for most of us, living our comfortable existences in one of the richest countries in the world, war is unknown. I’m not ignoring those still serving in the armed forces and their families and I’m certainly not blind to the fact that are many people living here who have been witness to, and victim of, acts and episodes of true horror and suffering. But for most of us, war is a notional experience.

What’s more, for many of us it is an experience that is disappearing from our collective consciousness. There are now no known survivors from the first world war and combatants in the second become rarer with each passing year: even if you were a young person of 18 serving in 1945, you’d be in your 90s by now. Your nan’s boring stories of rationing and drawing a pencil line up her leg for want of stockings now truly do belong to a lost age.

From time to time, an atrocity on our streets gives us an unwanted taste of how much damage can be wreaked with modern weaponry and technology and we are, quite rightly, outraged. Try as we might, we feel greater grief for the victims of a gig in Manchester than we do for a family wedding in Baghdad or shoppers in some unheard-of marketplace in Pakistan. These are rumours of war that unnerve us but have only passing impact.

This lack of first-hand experience of combat, and the fear and terror that goes with it, is now shared by a generation of politicians for whom active service is either unknown or has been dodged. There are one or two exceptions, but, by and large, those who sanction the bombs, drones and missile attacks are soft-palmed office dwellers for whom blood, shattered bone and carnage are filtered through high-definition computer screens. Their only memory of dragging your bleeding buddy out of the line of fire is prompted by sentimental film makers or, perhaps more alarmingly, the craftsmen of the games’ industry.

On yesterday evening’s news we saw images of US troops from the state of Georgia being sent to either quell or aggravate – it’s always difficult to tell these days – the latest uproar started by Trump. At such times I can only think of the admirable Steve Earle (pictured) and his song Rich Man’s War. We hear the truth in its refrain in all its obvious vileness: just another poor boy off to fight a rich man’s war. Earle’s song, although infused like many of his works, with contempt for blowhard politicians, makes it clear that the West has no monopoly of this notion.

None of what Trump is doing is new and neither is he alone in going forth with his desktop bravery: the UK has sins of its own from the Falklands to Iraq when it comes to starting diversionary wars. But I don’t think there’s any marriage photos on his sideboard that might just make him – or so many of these fat white boys ruling the roost round the world – a little less brave than he feels himself to be. That’s a shame for all of us.

There should only be one, implacable test to be put to any politician, anywhere, who wants to go to war. Is the cause so important that your own child must sign up and go to fight? No, you say?

Then there’s your answer, brave boy.

That internet, eh? How about showing kids how it works?

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It’s difficult to know what to make of Michael Gove. In particular, his odd relationship with Boris Johnson brings a whole new meaning to the notion of what it means to be someone’s friend. Similarly, his willingness to veer between polarized positions, sometimes in a matter of weeks, casts doubt on the ability of the man once charged with the education of the nation’s children to recognize a matter of principle if it bit him on his backside.

Just to recap. On the day after the EU referendum, Gove and Johnson faced the TV cameras with ashen faces, looking like a cross between victims of a hostage video and two naughty boys who had only meant to play knock and run, but whose antics had prompted an old lady’s fatal heart attack. Within days they had pledged their loyalty to each other before brazenly proclaiming that neither was fit for the highest office. Then, once Johnson had claimed the birth right he always knew was his, he installed his bestest buddy as his Bexit front man.

Gove gurned and preened his way through his chum’s infantile, but effective, campaign employing that jarring tone of false reasonableness that grates the nerves of every teacher who learnt to dread his radio and TV appearances. He held the office of Secretary of State for Education between 2010 and 2014, the longest tenure for over 60 years, before government advisers deemed him a ‘toxic liability’. He was succeeded by Nicola ‘50,000 nurses’ Morgan whose utter facelessness and dreary somnolence provided a welcome relief from her predecessor’s wide-eyed grasping at whatever snake-oil he’d been conned by that week.

One of the buzziest bees in Gove’s bonnet was a commitment to a ‘traditional’ school curriculum. Along with this, he played to the Tory back-benchers – a political strategy that has worked out so well for the people of the UK – and their mouthpiece in the Daily Mail by singling out so-called worthless, easy subjects that enabled stupid children, who couldn’t recite the kings and queens of England since 1066, to get exam passes. Top of the list of these idiotic pastimes was Media Studies.

I never detect any evidence of senior politicians being well-read, but it might just be that in this instance, Gove knew just a little of the Shakespeare on which he professed to be so keen. In The Tempest a group of noble people find themselves stranded on a mystical island where they find the indigenous savage, Caliban. Naturally, they insist on foisting on him their language, manners and, probably, a loin-cloth – Shakespeare is not specific on this point. After watching their preening conduct for a while, Caliban, in a moment of anger, proclaims to them that ‘you taught me language, and my profit on’t is I know how to curse’.

And there’s the rub. Why on earth would any government, especially one veering rightward with alarming velocity, want people to think about how the media works? In whose interests would it be for people to discover who owns the means of mass communication and how this affects what they see and hear? To borrow from Caliban, what profit can there be in getting young people to analyse and question what they see on the screens that play such a central part in their lives? Much better to befuddle them with frontal adverbials (no, me neither) and Roman road-building techniques than try to make sense of the deluge of information – and non-information – that comes their way in bucketloads every minute of every day.

Just in case you’re wondering, this is not going to veer off into a specious, useless argument about the election being won through media manipulation. It wasn’t and, besides, that ship has sailed. What brought Gove and his antipathy to media studies to mind was a recent, horrible episode of anti-Semitic graffiti in North London. There were two alarming elements in the handiwork of the racists; one that was chilling in its obvious and deliberate usage and one that, were the situation not so serious, could otherwise be seen as deludedly comic.

The first was the daubing of the Star of David on shopfronts, carrying with it all the echoes of the systematic attacks on Jewish businesses at the start of the Nazi era, when such vandalism was also accompanied by the label of ‘Jude’ to ensure the boycotting of the enterprise and its owner. The second was the clear association of Jews with the 9/11 atrocity – the Jewish conspiracy theory.

To sneak into the internet world of 9/11 conspiracy theory on the internet, as I did in the writing of this piece, is to go to a very unsettling world indeed. I have no intention of using exemplar material, as hilariously disturbed as some of it is, as to replicate any of it might just give someone, somewhere – from his mum’s spare room to some lonely bedsit – just a smidgeon of recognition. All the same, in an era when news and information is gleaned on the hoof, with an eye for a ‘story’ and a lack of concern for detail, we write off such nonsense at our peril.

All of which brings us back to Gove and the curriculum with which he – and his like – have lumbered us. Writing in 2013 as Gove tinkered again with the history curriculum, one of his principal supporters, right-wing historian Niall Feguson, suggested that teachers ‘can’t sincerely think it’s acceptable for children to leave school (as mine have all done) knowing nothing whatever about the Norman conquest, the English civil war or the Glorious Revolution, but plenty (well, a bit) about the Third Reich, the New Deal and the civil rights movement?’

Well, Niall, in the current climate, I think it’s hard to argue against knowing about any of the three things you identify as being surplus to requirements (and it doesn’t have to be either/or, by the way). If we’ve still got one person who thinks it’s OK to go to football and make monkey chants, then the job’s not been done. And if, at the same time, we’re not educating children to know the provenance of some of the garbage that infects their screen-companion, then we’re letting them down in a very big way.

So we go into this new year with a whole range of battles on or hands. This wretched Tory rabble, which has shown its colours already with the knighthood for Ian Duncan Smith,  the architect of even greater misery and deprivation for the poor, will set daily challenges for those of us prepared to act against them. The ongoing battle for a sensible 21st century curriculum is right up there with the big fights. Let’s show we’re up for it.