This morning while having breakfast I listened to the radio; first part of a church service from South Africa and secondly, ‘A Point of View’ by Adam Gopnik. Now to be honest I am a fan of Adam Gopnik, or should I rephrase that I am an ardent admirer of his work. I read it in the New Yorker online of course. Thanks be to the BBC.
He began by talking about a painting of a white staircase which is a particular favourite of his, it is titled, A Staircase in Sunlight, by John Singer Sargent. I am not sure whether Gopnik is in England or indeed still at a Literary Festival in Capri. He apologised for talking about a painting which his listeners cannot see, to my knowledge I have never seen it. I am aware that we live in a visual age, television and the internet bring us the most beautiful pictures of the world as it is and show us Great Art while explaining its most remarkable properties. I have seen pictures of fields, mountains, forests and rivers of England filmed through amazing lenses much sharper than my own eyes. Another aspect of this amazing technology is the range of vivid colours presented to us, and I haven’t even mentioned the iPhone! Indeed the brilliance of colours is one of glories of the 21st. century, Gopnik dwells on the brilliant whiteness of the staircase and the fact that a staircase is worthy of a picture which indeed focuses on it and nothing else.
Then he describes Capri, a steeply hilly island
This Tuesday morning the sun is shining, I have some time to do something for me. Written language has always fascinated me since I learned to read a very long time ago, the fact it reaches out to people I don’t know and will probably never see, in the way that authors I have never met connect with me. Their words go on living long after the physical body dies, a kind of immortality. The digital world makes the reaching out easier.
Secondly the world is changing with astonishing speed, some changes are good, I live much more comfortably than my parents did, due principally to political changes which have taken place in my life time; the Welfare State, free secondary education, pensions,and that wonderful achievement of Aneurin Bevan the National Health Service. The NHS looms larger in my life than it used to. There was one occasion in my late teens when I had my appendix removed at no cost to my parents and I was able to continue my life freely and happily. Tragically in the twenty-first century the idea has developed that the NHS is too expensive for a wealthy country like Britain to afford this is a question of putting the cart before the horse. The huge expense of not having a health service free at the point of need would create a very divided society and a very unproductive one. Only that very small percentage, the 1% would be able to afford health care when they needed it.
I’ll come clean , I believe in the Welfare State it isn’t a cost to society it is a benefit.
The news is full of sorrowful tidings and painfully stupid decisions, testing children constantly instead of putting into operation the policy that ‘Every child matters’. In countries where this policy is put into operation for example , Finland, this country is always in the top ten of the OECD list of the most educated, happy and economically successful countries. It is no accident that those three attributes go together. Finland is a difficult country in which to make a living, the winter is harsh and long as it is so close to the Arctic circle. So the people look to their greatest natural resource, one of these is timber. But the greatest of all their resources is the adaptability and intelligence of the Finnish people; like all the Scandinavian countries Finland has an excellent welfare system and an education system based on the philosophy, Every Child Matters. Teachers are extremely well educated and looked upon with great respect, in the way we regard doctors and engineers. Teaching is an intellectually demanding job where many different skills are required. It is not a matter of educating the few who learn very quickly and easily, it is a cooperative effort to make sure that every child can read and write and understands mathematics. In most classrooms we are grading the children from the top to the bottom, very pleasant for the few children at the top and constantly dispiriting for the majority who are told that they don’t measure up to the standard expected. If instead cooperative behaviour is encouraged maybe the disengagement of many pupils who are struggling would disappear.
There are a differences in the speed at which individuals learn, of course our strengths vary in a number of ways; what is damaging is the feeling of failure. In recent times the constant grading of children is very disheartening, more especially when very little actual help is offered. A much more cooperative attitude in the classroom would be of enormous benefit to everyone: to the children who are struggling to learn and to those who learn quickly and easily. If one group helps the other they both gain in understanding and bullying will not gain a foothold because the learning has become a shared experience. Bullying is in large part based on jealousy, which often comes from a member of staff who tacitly encourages some children to pick on a very talented child. I have experience of this happening to my son, he loved reading and his use of language was not typical for a boy of 12 years. One teacher in particular tacitly and openly encouraged the children to bully him. Holding the view that bullying is something trivial and they will grow out of it. Unable to see the lasting damage that was being done. We know that some adults indulge in this kind of behaviour, usually those who are very dissatisfied with the lack of success in their own lives, some go on to physical violence, as we hear so often in the news.
Just as young children are reprimanded when they kick , bite or scream until they learn that his behaviour is unacceptable. As early as possible bullies should learn that their behaviour is not acceptable and they will be punished for it.
FEMALE beauty is much written about and zillions of photographs are produced and published. This is fine provided different types of beauty from all over the world are included. But this is not the beauty which most interests me; no, male beauty has a much bigger impact on me, something stirs within. More usually a beautiful man is called handsome, which is alright; there is a degree of physical perfection which is beyond handsome, it is beauty. I’ve just watched a programme about the actor Peter O’Tool, there is no other way of putting it, he was beautiful. Is it the proportion of the features, the vitality and humour in the eyes, the shape of the mouth. Honestly I don’t know. Others like Richard Burton, Jimmy Stewart, Marlon Brando and James Mason and recently David Olusoga are more than handsome, they are beautiful.
Of course the vitality and humour in the face are extremely important, a beautiful statue can be admired, like Michelanglo’s David, but the captivating thing about a living person is the vibrant and transient breathe of life, shown especially in the eyes.
Age has no effect on the appreciation of Beauty.
It was a clear night, I was asleep in my cot, my sister was also asleep in her cot, mum was in the big bed. Dad was away in the army learning to be a soldier, mum was lonely sometimes I heard her crying. The last few months she had been trying to get used to the fact that Dad did not come home at night the way he used to, there was always plenty of washing and cooking to do but she had never felt so lonely before. Her parents lived in the three rooms upstairs with their six younger children, three boys and three girls. Her two eldest sisters worked in a dry cleaning firm called the Sixty Minutes and her eldest brother worked in the ship-yard.
Our house was in a short terrace, at one end was a railway line going down to the docks and at the other a road leading down to Hendon Road, the main shopping road through the district. Coxon street was a well-kept street, houses which had once been for the skilled engineers and ship-yard workers were gradually being subdivided to house more unskilled workers. My father rented two rooms and an outhouse on the ground floor, there was a toilet at the bottom of the back yard: beyond the back-door was a back lane. On the opposite side of the street lived grandmother’s sister and her family. The streets were tidy and up the bank a short walk away was the park with a duck pond, grassy banks and tall trees, space to run about safely.
The time was May 1943, in the early hours of a clear moonlit night, the bombers were heard overhead and searchlights lit up the sky, the peculiar whine of the air raid warning sounded. At that dreadful sound grandparents and Mum got up and roused the children, putting coats and shoes on, we all made our way to the air-raid shelter in the back-yard. There were wooden benches to sit on and grandfather stood by the door. Death and destruction fell out of that moonlit sky, the noise swamped everything. We waited in the shelter until everything went quiet and soon we heard the reassuring sound of the All Clear.
The house two doors down was completely demolished and the family killed. An air-raid warden quickly appeared and looked around carefully, tiles had come off the roof and the chimney looked distinctly wobbly. It would be dangerous for you to stay here, the warden said firmly.
“Please can I pop in for my purse and some clothes?” Mum and grandmother begged him.
“Well you’ll have to be very quick, just a couple of minutes.”
We waited in the yard. Mum came back holding the pushchair and a bag full of clothes. My sister got into the pushchair and everyone went into the back lane. My uncle Joe took hold of the handles and pushed Jean along the pavement. The adults were worried were on earth were we going to stay? Grandfather had a married sister who had a couple of spare rooms, he decided we would try there just for a day or two. By this time it was getting light and all together we set off to walk there, with the youngest in the pram. I didn’t feel anxious, I didn’t understand what the destruction of home meant, the people I trusted were all around me, everything would be alright.
Daily life for me and you is governed by the large events of history; peace or war, employment or unemployment, prosperity or poverty. In my youth I was taught that my future prosperity and happiness were entirely dependent on me, if I worked hard and used such talents as I have I could expect a happy, comfortable life. This is more of a myth or perhaps a fairy story. The really important questions are: where was I born, when and who my parents were. Clearly I had no control over any of this, irrespective of these facts I believed, as I was meant to, that my success or failure would be entirely my responsibility. Factors such as good luck or indeed the political orthodoxy were scarcely mentioned. Studying hard, passing the exams, presenting myself in the approved docile and courteous manner, these were the characteristics which were encouraged.
Sadly docility and even good exam results are not the passport to a furiously changing world. You will not believe the years which had to pass before I developed a more accurate understanding of what is really important in this fractious and always changing world. Youth had long since fled, middle age had gone beyond recall, two words rushed towards me with the speed of light O– A–. I can scarcely believe it, except my body reminds me that this is indeed the case. Time becomes a very precious thing, speeding away like a jet engine, and the other precious thing is energy, so quickly spent, so hard to renew. I am very lucky in the 1940s my family survived the bombing and just when I needed it the Welfare State arrived and gave me a free secondary education followed by full employment. Did I work hard?Well sometimes yes and sometimes no . Fortune favours the brave they say or possibly I was in the right place at the right time.
So much to learn and so little time.