Property boom and educational bust

By , 26 March 2010 7:03 pm

Anyone hoping to acquire news of scandals for the basis of some novel or play would, I fear, be sadly disappointed by the college that I work at. Unless I am extraordinarily blind and deaf, the worst I can come up with is a little bit of lax timekeeping and rumours of slight indiscretions after excessive alcohol indulgence at Christmas parties. The gossip is astonishingly, even mind-numbingly, bland. (And that is no bad thing.) Yet what does surface during coffee and lunch breaks on a recurrent basis are the loud grumbles and moans about the falling abilities and reluctance to learn of many of our students. Now this is a most difficult and debatable matter but it is undeniable, as I’m sure I have commented before, that reading – that most fundamental of skills – is in an astonishing and almost terrifying decline. Indeed, we may only be a few years away from the end of the book age.

It is interesting to try and tease out what has happened with our once literate culture. It is undeniable that there have been major cultural and technological changes so that among the young those oh so dull and boring books have been replaced by the far more enticing matters of texting, the web and DVDs. And the less you read, the less you want to read. Yet there is more than this and we have had some interesting discussions in our office about how you could reverse the trend. There has been general agreement that one very helpful thing would be for young children to be regularly read to at home. Yet here we come to a significant problem; children do not get read to because many households are either single parent or (more commonly) there is no spare time for the parent to actually read to the child. And why is there no spare time? The answer is that both mummy and daddy have to work in order to pay the mortgage. And here friends, as elsewhere in the mess that is modern Britain, we come to what is surely the most iniquitous thing to have happened for a long time; the ‘boom in housing’.

Somehow, during the 60s (maybe earlier) domestic property in Britain no longer became a roof over your head but a commodity to be bought and traded. House prices rose and those who had bought houses were happy because they made money out of what is surely a human right. And as the prices rose, people bought houses for no other reason than it was a good investment. And with an increasing demand for houses, some of which were never fully occupied, house prices were inevitably pushed up. Of course, in order for anybody to afford houses meant that the wages had to rise so that British goods somehow became more expensive and other nations managed to steal our markets. It became financially almost ruinous for a wife to spend too long looking after the children so, as lamented above, both ended up working with a resultant stress on family and children. I suspect that the phenomenon of booze-fuelled British youth, now, one gathers, as widely feared across the continent, as our armies under Marlborough and Wellington once were, is largely attributable to this cause. Now we find that the average house price in Britain is well over £100,000 and we have a son and daughter-in-law in central London paying nearly one and a half thousand pounds a month just in rent. Our Chancellor has just announced the easing of the tax duty for first-time buyers on properties over £250,000!

The law of unintended consequences has once more worked to terrible effect. Interestingly, no one seems to have any idea of how to put the genie back in the bottle. Yet I cannot believe that they were not those, and no doubt a number of them were Christians, who quietly said when this whole process started that ‘this will lead to no good’. Were we silent because we felt we were naïve? Or were we silent because, at least in the short term, we saw profit for ourselves? And perhaps more worryingly, what other disastrous social trends are we quietly and dully allowing to happen that will give the next generation some more pieces to pick up?

On church music

By , 19 March 2010 7:00 pm

There are many indicators that you are getting old, or at least older. I suspect one of them is that you increasingly find yourself grumbling about church music. So at the risk of alienating some of my few friends let me make some comments. I should say though that they are not entirely directed at my own church but elsewhere.

This reflection was triggered curiously enough by an interview in a paper with a fireworks expert (there’s probably a special term for them) who do these wonderful firework displays that accompany music. His comment – I forget the precise words – was that he preferred working with classical musicians because they didn’t put themselves forward. The point was that with rock groups he found that he had personalities to deal with and they apparently wanted the limelight over his fireworks. Well the application to church music is pretty straightforward.

Mind you I don’t entirely blame our musicians, most of whom are under thirty. I suspect previous generations, by and large, held to classical music as the supreme model of musicianship. And there even the most extrovert of pianists or violinists is still bound by the score and, at least hopefully, the conductor. Of course there has been a trend as cult of personality with the conductor for which we have, I imagine, very little parallel in church music; though some of you may worship in churches where music groups are large enough to require a conductor. But in general classical musicianship centres on humility and reticence and the art of not getting in the way of letting the music speak. The problem now is I think that we have seen the replacement of this classical model by a newer model based around the musician as rock star. Here it is the performer, not the music, that comes to the front. This of course flies in the face of the idea that all the contributors to a worship service (and here I include the preacher) are servants. So I think there is a need to remind musicians that they serve the service and do not rule it.

The second problem I think is the rise of amplification. Now we need amplification; and some musicians need it badly. Here I am particularly thinking of the more light-voiced singers. The problem is that it is all too easy to end up with some sort of ceaseless arms race; the bass guitarist has to be heard over the drums so he or she is miked and amped, then the lead guitarist has to be given a few more watts of power so that he or she can be heard and this means that vocal amplification has to be increased. By this time, the overall balance generally has been thrown out and everybody cranks up the volume one more notch. The resulting problem is not just a volume level that is far too loud. It is that balancing the resulting rapidly changing melange of amplified sounds to create a clear and harmonious whole is beyond the ability of the average church PA kit and the average church PA person.

Let me add one final point which I have never heard anybody propound in church, which is rather a pity because it’s important. While it is commonly assumed that the older people get the deafer they become; it is probably truer to say that what actually happens is the range of frequencies over which they hear becomes narrower. The result is that the more senior members of the congregation can actually find noise levels more irritating than young people because it is swamping some of the few frequencies they have left.

There are other things that I can add. The key is surely that we are to serve each other and put others first. And that is, of course, the key not just to the success of church music.

Book news and on the tick-box syndrome

By , 12 March 2010 6:54 pm

I found out today (courtesy of the remarkable  Google Alerts option which tells you when you have been cited on the web) that there is a brief podcast on the poetry of Shadow and Night by no less than Mark Goodyear, Senior Editor for and  (Gabcast! #11 – The Poetry of Shadow and Night — also available on iTunes)  That, and a couple of nice e-mails and blogs about people rereading my books for the third time, encourages me to persevere with the writing.

And now for something completely different. There have been a number of high profile cases recently in the UK of failures in teaching, policing health and social services. You know the sort of thing: some much harassed pupil commits suicide, the police overlook the fact that a mass murderer has been reported to them, a multitude of doctors fail to notice that someone is a chronic diabetic and scores of social workers overlook the fact that some child is being bullied to death by their parents. Shortage of time prevents me from citing tragic and gory details but there are many of these cases. Now there is something not just tragic, but fascinating (in the most worrying sense) about these. You see in every case we know that the organisation concerned must have been going through some apparently fairly rigid annual scrutiny. Again, you know the sort of thing: multipage forms either filled in by you or a supervisor which detail what you are doing, where you are doing it, how you are doing it. We call it ‘filling in the tick boxes’. Significantly, every time there is some sort of scandal or public outrage new tick boxes are added.  Now much of this is good and necessary; I have just had my annual ‘self assessment’ as a teacher and appear to have passed with flying colours.

And yet. The whole thing troubles me. It troubles me for several reasons, some fairly clear to me and some that I cannot quite put a finger on (but maybe you can). For a start it seems to encourage the wrong attitude to what we do. Real or imagined, the tick box list is ever before you and you measure yourself either by the criteria listed on it.  Yet to do this is to have freedom and creativity stifled; I suppose it might be possible to have a marriage which operated on a basis of Am I doing this? or Am I not doing this? But I’m not convinced that the marriage would last very long.

My second concern is that precisely because it is so selective and specific it hides the fact that appalling errors may take place. For instance I could easily select 30 places in Wales that would convince you it was the most idyllic place on the face of the earth. I would be overlooking potentially as large number of places which would convince you there were some very serious problems indeed. Under the guise of quality control ‘Tickboxing’ breeds security and therefore complacency. I tell my students of the alleged case of the statistician who drowned in a river whose average depth was less than a metre. Management by tick box can equally conceal massive holes within it.

Now you say, what is the relationship to Christianity? Well first of all we need to be sure in our work and our society we look beyond this tick-box mentality. There is more to a job and life generally than having done certain specifics. Secondly, this surely applies to the spiritual world. We can basically look over our life defining key spiritual parameters and then fill in those little boxes. Yet even with every box filled there can be a void beneath. If this sounds vaguely familiar to I suggest you that the whole process of tick-boxing in the spiritual world was exactly what was the problem with the Pharisees.

Have a great week.

On “Up” and high art

By , 5 March 2010 7:11 pm

The other weekend we managed to watch two DVDs at home. On the Friday night we went grand opera – very grand in this case – Puccini’s last work Turandot, which has a lot more going for it than the great football-fest aria Nessun dorma. It was pretty much a star-studded cast with Placido Domingo on fine form and the lavish sets by Zefirelli depicting the brutal China of the emperors.

Saturday night was meant to be the ridiculous rather than the sublime; the Pixar/Disney film Up which we had somehow missed at the cinema. Yet it didn’t turn out to be quite as ridiculous as I had expected. If you haven’t seen the film it’s well worth seeing for the first 10 minutes which seem to inhabit a different world from the humorous, action-packed sequence that follows. Without giving too much of the plot away, this first section is a muted (there is almost no dialogue) yet astonishingly tightly drawn account of a married life where, let’s say, not everything works out.

Yet somehow, despite – or because of – the economy of words it is a remarkably moving portrayal of ordinary life as we all too often experience it. If it doesn’t bring you close to tears you may want to check your pulse. A glance at some of the reviews suggest that my reaction is not untypical: several reviewers suggest that this opening section may be the finest piece of ‘cartoon work’ (one feels the word cartoon does it injustice) ever created and there are several comments of vast snufflings and sobs in cinemas. The rest of the film is fine if you don’t mind talking dogs and the like but it really cannot live up to its awesome beginning.

Now the point is that I found this section of Up a far more moving and emotionally challenging piece of work than Turandot. If we take it that one of the definitions of art is ‘a created work that moves us’ then this scant 10 minutes of Up triumphs over one of the great masterpieces of Italian opera.

From this I draw a few tentative conclusions which may be worth considering.

  • Great art can be achieved in the most improbable of media. Wonders can be worked with the humble cartoon.
  • Great art can be achieved with a minimum of means. You don’t need a full orchestra, fine singers and 2½ hours duration to achieve a great effect.
  • The ordinary can sometimes be more moving than the extraordinary.

All in all I find it pretty encouraging; here as elsewhere, the little can sometimes beat the large.

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