Alan Bennett on Private Education

Posted July 1, 2014 by Steven Lang
Categories: current affairs, Film reviews

The London Review of Books has published what Alan Bennett describes as a ‘sermon before the University, Kings College, Cambridge’. It’s available here both in text form and as a podcast. His point is quite plain, even if he takes a somewhat rambling and entertaining journey to get to it. ‘My objection to private education,’ he says, ‘is simply put. It is not fair.’


He’s writing about Britain, of course, and so he’s also talking about deeply ingrained traditions of class and privilege, but what he says of that country could equally be said of education in Australia. He continues: ‘… to say that nothing is fair is not an answer. Governments, even this one, exist to make the nation’s circumstances more fair, but no government, whatever its complexion, has dared to tackle private education … I am not altogether sure why … [one] reason why there is a lack of will and a reluctance to meddle – a reluctance, one has to say, that does not protect the state sector, where scarcely a week passes without some new initiative being announced – is that private education is seemingly not to be touched. This I think is because the division between state and private education is now taken for granted. Which doesn’t mean that it is thought to be fair, only that there is nothing that can or should be done about it.

But if, unlike the Daily Mail, one believes that the nation is still generous, magnanimous and above all fair it is hard not to think that we all know that to educate not according to ability but according to the social situation of the parents is both wrong and a waste. Private education is not fair. Those who provide it know it. Those who pay for it know it. Those who have to sacrifice in order to purchase it know it. And those who receive it know it, or should. And if their education ends without it dawning on them then that education has been wasted.’

Exactly. But this is the point. For unexplained reasons we keep harping on the idea that a private school education has advantages over a public one. Be it smaller class sizes, better teachers, more resources, or possibly the social network which is, literally, bought into, which pays off throughout life. But an education is something much more complicated than any of these things. When I was at a British boarding school in the 1960s, one of the elite schools of Scotland, they kept telling us that the subject matter we were studying, be it Latin, History, English, Maths, Biology, Physics, while important, was not the essential thing; that what they were trying to instil in us was a way of thinking, of looking at the world and being able to question it in an intelligent way.

That’s as maybe, except that this ability to question also came with its own severe restrictions. Not only did our teaching, as Mr Bennett says above, fail to awaken in us the idea that a privileged education ‘based not according to ability but according to the social situation of the parents is both wrong and a waste,’ it almost demanded we believe the opposite of that, while at the same time imposing structures of thought which led those of us unfortunate enough to be subject to their ministrations to conclude through the very way that they made us live and taught us that it was more than okay to live a life without love; that, amongst other travesties, women belonged firmly to the second sex and that to express support for any of their concerns was to show weakness.

If the western world has found itself in trouble over the last few decades it is, primarily, because it has insisted on taking its leaders from this stock, believing them suited to the task of ruling despite having been ruthlessly cut off from their feelings as small children. An education which does not include an understanding of what it means to be human is not an education.

richard griffiths








Alan Bennett is, of course, primarily a playwright. Just last week, however, I had the opportunity to rewatch a copy of his wonderful film, ‘The History Boys,’ starring the extraordinary and now late-lamented Richard Griffiths. A film so rich in both anecdote and in its own delight in language and learning (and their eventual incapacity to ever really help us to understand what we’re doing here), that I wanted to start watching it again as soon as it finished. Treat yourself to the article or the podcast; here is someone with the capacity to say what needs to be said in words that are hard to argue with.


Climate Change, New Hope

Posted June 21, 2014 by Steven Lang
Categories: Book reviews, current affairs, Landscape

In the most recent issue of Rolling Stone Magazine there is a long and profoundly fascinating article by Al Gore on the climate situation entitled The Turning Point, New Hope for the Climate. It is a polemic which is full of both hope and despair, with the former, well it would be wrong to say triumphing, but at least winning out over the latter.

He starts by describing the incredible advances in renewable technology, in particular solar, and what that means, how it is manifesting in different parts of the world, going on to list some of the forces ranged against its deployment. For the centre part of the piece he inevitably outlines the damage that is being done and will be done by changing weather patterns, but towards the end he takes time to point out the failure of ‘democratic capitalism’ to address the problem, before finally coming back to a call to action, bolstered by hope. As he says in the last paragraph, quoting Martin Luther King, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long but it tilts towards justice.’

This piece ties in well with another by the inimitable Bill McKibben in the New York Review of Books on the book Walden Warming: Climate Change Comes to Thoreau’s Woods by Richard B Primack. Site_throeau_cabin_locIt seems that Henry David Thoreau was not only the author of one ‘of the greatest books any American has ever produced’, he was also a formidable naturalist, spending a minimum of four hours a day walking in and around Concord, taking notes. Those painstaking observations of the timing of such natural events as the budding of flowers in spring are being used to measure the behaviour of the same plants 160 years later. The results are, generally, not good. As McKibben points out, the Sierra Club has recently ended its 120 year prohibition against engaging in illegal protest, explaining that the ongoing climate emergency required more intense engagement than they’d had so far.

What these articles seem to me to suggest, and it might be that I’m just an optimist, is that, at least in other countries, some sort of tipping point has been reached in the so-called debate about Climate Change; that the effects we have already seen are dramatic enough to at last begin to exercise the minds of politicians. That Australia, with a government which is no more than the political wing of the Murdoch Press and the fossil-fuel industry, is going the other way, is a matter of deep shame and concern.

Language as the Medium of Being

Posted June 13, 2014 by Steven Lang
Categories: art, Book reviews

In the most recent London Review of Books there’s an article by TJ Clark on the exhibition at the Tate Modern in London of Matisse’s cut-outs entitled The Urge to Strangle, the title being a reference to the making of art, Matisse having said in later life something like ‘that in order to begin painting at all he needed to feel the urge to strangle someone, or to lance an abscess in his psyche.’

In the article Clark writes,

‘Crowds gather at the heart of [the exhibition] drawn to an artless home movie showing the master at work. He looks, and was, unwell. Not even a rakish straw hat, part cowboy part Maurice Chevalier, can divest the scene of its pathos. There is a spot of time in the movie, after Matisse has finished his fierce fast cutting of the usual vegetable-flower-seaweed-jellyfish shapes … when the speed suddenly slackens and the old man holds the limp paper in his hands as if reluctant to let go. He fusses with it a little, prodding and twisting the fronds in space, maybe trying to thread the shapes together, buckling them, letting them be carried for a second as they might be by a breeze or coronet. He seems to be waiting for the cut-outs to occupy space – to make space … I thought, looking at the film sequence that I could hear the paper shapes rustle. And the word – the imagined sound – sent me back to a wonderful essay by Roland Barthes called The Rustle of Language, and especially to its last two sentences:

“I imagine myself today something like the ancient Greek as Hegel describes him: he interrogated, Hegel says, passionately, uninterruptedly, the rustle of branches, of springs, of winds, in short, the shudder of Nature, in order to perceive in it the design of an intelligence. And I – it is the shudder of meaning I interrogate, listening to the rustle of language, that language which for me, modern man, is my Nature.”’













I was struck by this because it gives me a glimpse of an understanding of what people talk about when they talk about us being immersed in language, being made up of it. I know such an understanding should seem axiomatic to someone like myself, who writes, but it never really has.

Interestingly enough I recently read something else which pertains to exactly this. There’s been a whole hullaballoo surrounding Karl Ove Knausgaard, the Norwegian writer of the six volume, My Struggle, which I’ve avoided dipping into for reasons that I’ve not analysed too closely – not wanting to be part of a fad as much as anything else I guess – but in the end I came across a copy of the first volume while wandering around the wonderful Foyle’s bookshop in London (on the same day as we saw the exhibition of Matisse as it happened, and, gosh, I wish I’d read the essay by TJ Clark before I saw it) and picked it up out of curiosity and found myself reading six pages right there in the store. I couldn’t help but buy it. Unfortunately it became, in the end, my struggle, and I haven’t finished even this first volume. There are, however, amongst the tens of thousands of words of, quite possibly, unnecessary and irksome detail, some remarkable pieces of writing. I’m going to post one of them below. It’s five or six pages, so be warned, but I think it’s worth it. And having read it maybe you can be excused reading the other 389 pages; or maybe it’ll make you want to. I’m not sure it’s possible to say whatever it is he’s saying in less words than this, although TJ Clark hints at it. Anyway, here it is, pages 195-202 from A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett.

“Twenty minutes later I was in my office. I hung my coat and scarf on the hook, put my shoes on the mat, made a cup of coffee, connected my computer and sat drinking coffee and looking at the title page until the screen saver kicked in and filled the screen with a myriad of bright dots.

The America of the Soul. That was the title.

Read the rest of this post »


Posted June 24, 2013 by Steven Lang
Categories: Film reviews, Landscape

Over the last year this blog has slipped into somnolence, pushed aside by family (two grandchildren, a daughter’s wedding), other sorts of writing (a new novel in first draft), politics and conservation (two big tree plants and much lobbying), outspoken (Bill Gammage in July) and now … building.

In an attempt to rationalise this house we’re adding an extension and replacing the deck. If I’m not too tired at night I will try to make this build, its design, its philosophical and physical implications, the subject of the blog. As well as the occasional photo.

Before we begin

Before we begin

coming apart

coming apart







The author at work

The author at work








rammed earth

rammed earth

rain on the new deck

rain on the new deck


Posted July 3, 2012 by Steven Lang
Categories: Family, photos

I’ve been very busy these last few weeks, but one piece of news shouldn’t pass without notice. Here’s a few photographs of our grandson, Luca, taken at two days old and nine days old…

Lucien Freud in London

Posted June 13, 2012 by Steven Lang
Categories: art, travel

In early March of this year I went to Europe to see my father who, at 94, had decided he could no longer live alone and was moving into a home with full-time care. I flew into Paris and spent two days walking in that bitterly cold city before catching trains to London and on to Glasgow. I wrote this piece while looking out of the window as the train hurtled up the middle of England.

London was uninspiring, raining and cold, puddles on the broken pavements. It didn’t seem very easy to find anything. I hadn’t minded getting lost in Paris, that had seemed fair enough, part of the pleasure of the thing, but in London just trying to find my way out of the Tube seemed to present untold difficulties, never mind that it cost seven pounds for a return fare of only four stops. It was Sunday and the entire Victoria line was closed for repairs. Every few minutes a polite woman’s voice would warn us of delays here or there in tones with the ring of death to them. This is what I imagine the announcements would sound like in a concentration camp. No yelling, spitting, cursing, just implacable, immutable, interminable; drilling down mercilessly. Nothing on the other end.

I was on my way to see the Lucien Freud retrospective at the National Gallery, it was a large part of the reason why I’d come this way. I had arranged a four hour stopover and by some stroke of fortune, despite my ineptness in failing to book, there were still tickets to the twelve midday entry. To kill time I went over to the always reliable Pret a Manger for a sandwich and a coffee, then took a damp stroll down to look at Nelson’s Monument in Trafalgar Square, that wonderful spire with its four enormous brass lions at the base, promising a national strength which seems, in this age, both misguided and quaint. In one portion of the square someone had built a sharp-sided aluminium structure, like a cast-off from a transformers movie which was, in fact, a three-dimensional realisation of the weirdly complex and incomprehensible Olympic logo, with digital countdowns all over it. This piece of tat was beside the fourth plinth which for several years now has been home to all sorts of expressions of art. Today it was carrying a golden boy riding a cut-out rocking horse that seemed obscure at best, aligned in some way to the clumsiness of the logo.

I was there to see the Freud, though, and once in front of the paintings all the despair that grips me when I return to Britain in winter fell away. Here were works from the 1940s right through to last year when he died. The grasp of the man everywhere evident, the early promise that is almost precocious giving way to these strange paintings in their earth tones that dominate the work for the rest of his life. In the 1950s he did a couple of nudes of the same model, ‘Naked woman’ and ‘Naked woman sleeping’ which had been hung side by side. The skin tones, as always with Freud, are curious, unattractive even, but they work to express the emotions beneath the surface, so that in the first – the young woman awake and exposed to the artist’s eye – there is revealed without any apparent device her fear of how she looks, I mean she is splayed out there on the bed, but there is a taughtness around the belly or the chest which gives it away, whereas in the next one, when she is asleep, her body is delivered up to the artist without restraint.

naked girl 1966

naked girl asleep 2 1968

In a picture a little further along the wall the woman’s breasts are palpable in the most honest sense of the word, they are physically there, the nipple promiscuous, almost pornographic, though the pose is so much more demure than for many of the others. In these early paintings the paint is laid flat on the canvas, which is to say Freud is happy for us to see the brushstrokes but the pictures remain defiantly two-dimensional – which, I suppose, heightens their paradoxical fleshiness. In the later paintings he began to use more and more physical paint, including a kind of stippling which, when viewed close up, appears like a kind of eczema on the subjects’ skin (Freud is never interested, it seems, in painting beauty, it is something else about the human condition he wants to capture). In these later pictures the paint sits out from the canvas, built up and up on layers that seem to have been applied like plaster. if you go close to the massive ‘Benefits Supervisor Resting’ (from the famous series of the fat lady Sue Tilly; the painting is enormous, as is its subject) you can see the way the paint has been built up around her hands and her thighs. It seems doubtful, from this close, that it could look like anything, but back away across the room and there she is in all her glory.

man with feather (self-portrait) 1943

Strangely, there is, also, in the earlier paintings, a juxtaposition between the subject and the background. On the sitters’ faces this remarkable level of expressiveness is granted with apparently simple broad brush strokes, what might almost be lines carved with a palette knife, whereas their clothes or a chair are painted with exquisite detail, every curlicue of the Paisley pattern rendered. In the picture of ‘Two Irishmen, W11,’ there are the men, one standing, one sitting, both in suits, in an empty room, but the whole left hand top side of the painting gives us the view out of the window of, clearly, London W11, painted with photographic detail. Later, reading about this painting I discover that Freud insisted his models remain standing the whole time he painted the background, otherwise, he said, there would be no balance.

Many of the pictures are self-portraits. He is no kinder to himself than any of his other subjects and it’s curious to watch how his depiction of himself changes as he grows older, and to compare that to the photographs which show a man of frightening aspect, glowering eyebrows, working in a paint-and-rag-strewn room – I mean literally, the brush-cleanings of decades pasted on the walls. This is the problem with catalogue books, the final self-portrait is one of the smaller paintings in the exhibition and yet it is displayed in the book the same size as Sue Tilly. This last self-portrait an extreme example of the stippling I mentioned before, the bridge of his nose a coruscation of tiny stabs of paint, an attack on his own image.

self-portrait, reflection 2002

I should probably mention that the exhibition was more than simply crowded, fifty to one hundred people allowed in every half hour, it was difficult to get a clear view of anything. I kept wondering what the women  looking at these paintings thought about the way the subjects were rendered, their painful vulnerability, the uncomfortable colours so remote from the normal depiction of women in our culture, but then, in the later pictures, there are lots of men also, equally naked and revealed, with their penises as carefully portrayed as any parts of the women, and it doesn’t disturb me… what did happen, though, was that, on the tube back to Euston, no longer complaining about Britain, I started to notice how honest the paintings are, what had seemed often grotesque in Freud was actually just representative.


A couple of links

Posted June 6, 2012 by Steven Lang
Categories: art, Landscape

Simon Schubert folds paper

you can see more of his work here

Simon Beck walks in the snow

you can see more of his work here

Bring Up The Bodies

Posted May 30, 2012 by Steven Lang
Categories: Book reviews

I’ve just finished reading Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies, her sequel to Wolf Hall and continuation of a life of Thomas Cromwell.

In the first book she took us from the fall of Cromwell’s mentor, Cardinal Wolsey – which, in theory, should also have taken Cromwell in its wake – through his ascension to the role of Master Secretary to the King. The novel was nothing short of a bravura performance, a realisation of the man from a very intimate point, as if Mantel was sitting, not in the normal close personal voice on the shoulder of the man, but actually behind his eyes, seeing what he saw at the same time as miraculously maintaining enough distance to describe him. So close, however, that she does not have room to judge him, so close that we, being in there with her, all of us readers, the world over, crowded in there in Cromwell’s head, looking out, we see the world through his lens. It is not such a bad place to be. Cromwell is an entertaining host, learned in language and art, interested in everything from brick making to the psychology of Dukes. He has a modern view of the world, the State, as well as an extraordinary history, having risen to this great height from being the son of a blacksmith.

In the second book Mantel is in exactly the same place. Cromwell, however, is in an even more complex situation than when he was separating England from the Church of Rome so that Henry could escape his marriage to Katherine of Aragon. Now Henry is bored with Anne Boleyn, who he took in Katherine’s place as Queen. He has his eye on young Jane Seymour. The marriage, Henry believes, must have been false (Anne had used witchery on him) and he needs Cromwell to find him a way out of it, and Cromwell, acutely aware of how Wolsey was brought down for not achieving the King’s wishes, has to be the agent of his release.

There are a thousand other concerns also in Cromwell’s mind. He has his several houses to keep and to alter, the young men he is, in turn, monitoring, the dissolution of the monasteries and the dispersal of the funds to oversee, the ill and possibly dying Katherine to keep an eye on, the relations between England and both the French and the Emperor, spies against him and for him, the jealousy and hatred of those born to privilege to deal with. Amid all this, and much more (the loss of his wife and two daughters that occurred at the end of volume one, the gathering to himself of immense wealth), he sets out to do the King’s will. He does it with coldness and clarity and not a little viciousness and what is extraordinary is that we do it with him, sitting there in his mind. Mantel, our guide, our gracious host in this place, inviting us to watch. See this: see how when the King falls from his horse while riding in the lists and everyone thinks he is dead, Cromwell, in those brief terrifying moments, lines up all the consequences of this sudden change of fortune – the different families and factions queueing up to take power, the gossamer thread upon which his own head, all his wealth and prestige, rests. See how when the King sucks back breath into his lungs and sits up the world is no longer the same. See how when, shortly after, Anne miscarries, becomes, no longer, the vessel of a possible heir, she really has to go and the way to do that is to dream up a charge of treason enacted through adultery. See how simple it is to set up, how expertly Cromwell strips away the esteem, the wealth, the illusions of those powerful men he would destroy along with her. Suddenly Cromwell’s mind, pace all that brilliance, is no longer such a pleasant place to sit within. And yet that is where we are. His mind is ours.

This novel is a definition of all that literature can be, that it desires to reach, but so rarely can. It offers the possibility of knowing another man as oneself and liking it just as ill when the curtains are down and all is revealed. Here is writing that, while it might describe what seems to be another time, in truth speaks of what it is to be human. It is long, ruminative, reflective. It’s slow at the start, but it needs to be while we become accustomed to those long lists of names of the individuals involved (complicated because they have both titles and names; so that Henry Fitzroy, for example, the King’s bastard son, can be at times, Richmond, Henry or Fitzroy) but it intensifies as it progresses reaching a remarkable and sustained pitch. I did not want it to end. I wanted to begin again at the beginning as soon as I was finished. I wanted to understand how it might be possible to be King Henry VIII and to murder one’s wives and yet live on, choose another wife while blaming the last for her own fate; at the same moment as I was experiencing what it means to be Cromwell, and liking that even less.

Queensland Premier’s Now Defunct Literary Awards

Posted April 6, 2012 by Steven Lang
Categories: current affairs

In 2004 the manuscript of my novel An Accidental Terrorist won the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for an emerging author. I was then, by definition, completely unknown (as opposed to being, now, simply unknown) I certainly had never had a novel accepted for publication.

The novel – about a young man who gets caught up in a plan to sabotage woodchipping machinery in the forests of south coast of NSW – had already taken three years to write, but after receiving the award it required most of another one to complete. This was because the award was not simply monetary, it came with funding to work with a professional editor (Julia Stiles). The published novel (UQP) went on to win the award for best first novel in the NSW Premier’s Awards, the following year.

Professionally, then, receiving the award was an extraordinary opportunity, not simply to get a contract, but also to develop my writing skills with an editor. Financially it was delightful, $20 000 from the first award, $5000 from the second one, then royalties from sales of another $10 000 (winning awards boosts sales of literary fiction), making a total of $35 000. Not bad really, until you reckon it up over four years. Then the hourly rate comes in at $4.21 before tax.

The real value, though, was not monetary (but then no-one, or very few people, write novels for money, most people write them because they are driven to it, because, poor sods, some character flaw makes them believe they have something to say that other people want to hear) the real value, to me, was the recognition that my writing had some worth. It gave me enormous encouragement, enough to go on and write another couple of novels.

There was, however, I believe, a larger value to the State itself. Queensland is so young. It is only just beginning to emerge as a sophisticated place which can afford not simply to pull millions of tonnes of coal and ore from the ground, but to invest some of the wealth gained from these actions in the education of its populace. Historically this state, and I’m not just talking about the Joe Bjelke-Petersen days here, has not demonstrated itself a repository of culture – back in the mid-nineteenth century, just for example, when the rest of the world had abolished slavery, Queenslanders made up new laws so as to continue the practice. In those days they called it black-birding.

Queensland, until twenty, twenty-five years ago was viewed, Australia wide, as the nation’s slightly dumb cousin. In the last couple of decades, through practical policy but also through symbolic gestures like the building of the new GOMA and State Library buildings, and these literary awards, we’ve managed to stand up as equally civilised, proud of the beauty of our landscapes, proud of what we can do as a people. Mr Newman’s action is just as symbolic, in the other direction. It tells the world that Queenslanders have no time for the finer things in life.

Writers tell stories about the culture they live in. They describe who we are to ourselves, they offer us, literally, self-reflection, an opportunity to see who we are and thus the ability to decide if we like the way we are behaving.

A decision like this tells writers that the government doesn’t care what they do. That the government is only interested in the money. That they are happy to take the GST on books but not to invest any of that back in those who are the cornerstone of the industry.

And make no mistake; it’s only the beginning.



Five Easy Pieces

Posted January 7, 2012 by Steven Lang
Categories: Book reviews, current affairs

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Several articles and posts have piqued my curiosity over the last few months and what I thought to do, as part of an end of year review, is to give a brief rundown of what excited me about them and then see if there is a connecting theme or narrative. Right at the end I’ll give the links.

The first was a review in the NYRB by the wonderfully named Freeman Dyson of a book by someone called David Deutsch. The book is called The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World, and Dyson, in his essay about it and its ideas, gave a quote from the seventeenth century British ‘prophet of modern science’ Francis Bacon to illustrate a point: ‘If we begin with certainties, we will end in doubt, but if we begin with doubts and bear them patiently, we may end in certainty.’ Bacon was talking about the use of the scientific method as a means to understand the world around us, as opposed to that which had been used for the previous few hundred centuries, which was to start from a religious perspective. It was an extremely radical viewpoint at the time but is now taken as the norm. It is, though, I believe, still a confronting and fascinating prospect, to begin in doubt and to bear it patiently.

The essay, following the book, focuses on the problems we face as human beings, that we have faced and always will. Here is Dyson on Deutsch:

‘Deutsch sums up human destiny in two statements that he displays as inscriptions carved in stone, “problems are inevitable” and “problems are soluble.” … These statements apply to all aspects of human activity, to ethics and law and religion as well as to art and science. In every area, from pure mathematics and logic to war and peace, there are no final solutions and no final impossibilities. He identifies the spark of insight which gave us a clear view of our infinite future, with the beginning of the British Enlightenment in the seventeenth century. He makes a sharp distinction between the British Enlightenment and the Continental Enlightenment, which arose at the same time in France.

Both enlightenments began with the insight that problems are soluble. Both of them engaged the most brilliant minds of that age in the solution of practical problems. They diverged because many thinkers of the Continental Enlightenment believed that problems could be finally solved by utopian revolutions, while the British believed that problems were inevitable. According to Deutsch, Francis Bacon transformed the world when he took the long view foreseeing an infinite process of problem-solving guided by unpredictable successes and failures.’

Dyson goes on to reject the notion of the British as the better agents in Deutsch’s version of history as rubbish, that the Chinese and the Ancient Greeks thought similar things. I, however, was very taken by this moment of divergence between those who thought things could be solved once and for all by getting government right, and those who recognised the constant nature of the challenge… I don’t care which country or group of individuals it was, I’m simply interested to note the schism and the costs which have been associated with taking each path.

The second piece comes from the evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel, with a transcript of him talking to The Edge, about Infinite Stupidity.

Pagel is interested in culture. In this piece he gives a quick run down of the history of evolution from the formation of the planet until now, noting that it wasn’t until humans made the genetic change from Neanderthals to the present homo sapiens that we developed the skill of social learning: Read the rest of this post »

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