Archive for the ‘current affairs’ category

Alan Bennett on Private Education

July 1, 2014

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

June 21, 2014

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.

Queensland Premier’s Now Defunct Literary Awards

April 6, 2012

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

January 7, 2012

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: (more…)

Russell Hoban

December 15, 2011

News today that one of my favourite authors, Russell Hoban, has died at the age of 86, in London.

Hoban wrote many novels and children’s books, but the one I like best of all is Pilgermann, which he published in 1983. I have reread it countless times and it refuses to age, partly, I suppose, because it is an allegorical novel that follows the adventure of a Jew who, having got caught up in a pogrom because he was conducting an illicit affair with Sophia, a merchant’s wife, is castrated by the mob and left to die. While lying in the dirt he has a vision of Christ who instructs him to journey to Jerusalem, and it is the story of this voyage, and what happens when he gets to Antioch, that are the subject of the novel, a marvellous, witty and deeply profound meditation on Judaism, Christianity and Islam at the time of the Crusades, which includes, amongst other characters, the wonderful Bembel Rudzuk and Pilgermann’s own Death, a ribald figure who accompanies him for part of the journey.

Hoban was most famous for his chidren’s novel, The Mouse and His Child, and the post-apocalyptic Riddley Walker – the latter an extraordinary achievement written in a language Hoban made up specifically for the novel, a possible future English which has its own rhythm and cadence.

He has never stopped writing but I’m afraid I haven’t kept up with many of his more recent books. It was the ones I’ve mentioned as well as The Lion of Boaz Jaquin and Jaquin Boaz, and Kleinzeit which managed to enter the deepest parts of my psyche with their peculiar mythic style, as if they were no more than descriptions of other worlds that did, or had, or would exist, whose reputation had come down to us by word of mouth. My gratitude to Russell Hoban is immense.

How we got here and how to get out before it gets worse

December 15, 2011

A fascinating article here on the causes of our present economic malaise written by Joseph E Stiglitz, which I found through 3QuarksDaily, a site I visit regularly and also highly recommend for the intelligence of its links. The article suggests that there are striking parallels between where we are and the Great Depression of the ’30s, which might not seem such an original idea except that Stiglitz believes the Depression was not caused by a banking failure but by the changes to employment wrought when the agriculture sector no longer needed 25% of the workforce to produce food. The banking crisis sat on top of that in the same way that this banking crisis sits on top of the increased production attained by mechanisation and globalisation. Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize winning economist, also offers some solutions – borrowing to invest in infrastructure and education.  The piece originally appeared in Vanity Fair.

Why Didn’t the Bush Administration Lie About Finding Weapons of Mass Destruction?

December 7, 2011

This is, surely, one of the more curious questions of our time. The Administration was prepared to lie in the most remarkable fashion before entering Iraq in 2003, so what strange ethical or moral imperative prevented them from pretending that they’d actually found something when they got there?

Iraq did, of course, at one time have WMD, which they were prepared to use on their own citizens and the soldiers and citizens of neighbouring countries. There is ample (highly disturbing) evidence of this. Asking this question is in no way a defence of the Saddam regime, which clearly demonstrated itself as violent, repressive, dictatorial and even genocidal in its treatment of minorities.

What I’m interested in are the lies the Bush Administration told prior to the invasion and their subsequent and curious outbreak of honesty.

The most egregious example of lying was the address to the United Nations Security Council by US Secretary of State Colin Powell in February 2003. In this speech the case for the existence of WMD was made on the basis of information which had already been conclusively proven to be false, not just within the security community but in articles published throughout the western world.

(There is an aside here which never ceases to amaze: A copy of Picasso’s painting Guernica hangs on the wall The UN Security Council room. This is a painting that depicts the horror not just of war but, in particular, the first use of massive aerial bombing of civilian targets – by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy on the town of Guernica, in Spain, in April 1937. This painting was covered over during Mr Powell’s speech. What he was about to propose, the attack by the US on Iraq, could not occur in front of such a painting. I’m not sure what this says about the Bush Administration, the United Nations or, in fact about the power of Art.)

Mr Powell never blinked while outlining his case before the Security Council. It was an extraordinary performance by the man who at that time held one of the most important positions in world politics. (You can read the text of his speech here) It was, as were the statements made by the UK Government, not only based on false or subsequently proved deliberately misinterpreted information, but also unbelievable brazen, a wonderfully Orwellian demonstration of the theory that if you make your lie big enough nobody can argue with it.

So, when they went in to Iraq, and had the whole country under their control, completely locked down (as it was during the first few weeks before their famous bungles and the start of the insurgency) why didn’t they just set up something for the cameras, a bunker somewhere full of anthrax or the makings of a nuclear weapon? Why not go through with the thing and demonstrate themselves to be the heroes they claimed to be?

Was that simply a step too far? Or was it that they were just so arrogant they believed they didn’t need to justify what they’d done? That victory was so assured and wonderful outcomes so inevitable that they didn’t think it necessary?


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