Tuesday, November 28, 2006


I was too ill
and depressed on Friday to follow up David ‘Dung Cam’ Cameron’s Scarman Lecture speech. I’m breaking with the tradition of referring to him as ‘Web Cam’ partly because inventing horrid names for people is one of my great pleasures and partly because his ‘vision’ appears to be located in the general vicinity of his trouser rear bumper bar, as was pointed out by an astute young person recently who I think may be the son of a friend of mine. Where was I?

Oh yes, the weekend seemed to pass in a haze of despair as I fretted over whether I would ever be able to move to the tropics. So much seems to stand in the way at present. The last thing I want to be thinking about is how close the country is to complete collapse. If you were faced with the possibility of an asteroid hitting the earth, the last person you’d want anywhere near your Plan B is Dung Cam.

So, finally I braced myself this morning, placed a bucket by the bed and plunged in (to the lecture rather than the bucket – that would be silly). Nothing prepares you really. Here’s Dung Cam grappling with the problem that just won’t go away – that of child poverty,

‘In the past we used to think of poverty in absolute terms - meaning straightforward material deprivation. That's not enough. We need to think of poverty in relative terms - the fact that some people lack those things which others in society take for granted. So I want this message to go out loud and clear - the Conservative Party recognises, will measure and will act on relative poverty.’

He seems very close to inventing the welfare state. Another decade or two and he may have it cracked. After nearly twenty-five years in this country I can say categorically, from my own experience that there is no incentive whatever for the people who have all the power and money to waste one second on diverting some of their attention to giving a kiddy a chance in life. Nothing could be further from their priority list.

The real pull of money and power is that, once you are on the acquisition trajectory, there is no limit to how much you can grab. Our oligarchs have no compunction whatever that their greed alone may be enough to stifle the life chances of an entire class. As if proof were ever needed, last week’s scrap between Richard Branson and Rupert Murdoch over the controlling interest in a television company should have laid all doubts to rest. Here’s where your ASBOs might really have a practical use.

Oh, they’ll give to charity all right, but this is because there are tax incentives and opportunities for self-congratulation, not to mention free publicity and knighthoods. So why pretend? Why not just come out and say – we are a dog eat dog society and have always been that way. I’ve read Jack London and Dickens and I’ve had enough doors slammed in my face to know that there is no leg up out there unless someone can see a very obvious and immediate financial reward for themselves. You step on people to get what you want. A society in which everyone gets to realise their potential is not on the agenda of anyone in a position of influence. Who needs that kind of competition?

When politicians give these speeches you can’t help thinking they’re doing it with sniggering irony. How else do you explain Dung Cam’s assertion that voluntary groups and social enterprises should be taking a greater role in delivering services to the disadvantaged,

‘They are sometimes the ones that do best in tackling homelessness, drug addiction, debt.’

NO! Voluntary organisations have been contracted by central government and local authorities to provide public services for a generation and have nearly always proved rubbish at it. In fact they are largely responsible for the vast variation in quality that now exists because it is so difficult to monitor what they are doing and they have proved masters at deception, if nothing else. They have also been blessed with successive governments too stupid and lazy to apply a firm managerial hand. People do not want charity, just what they've paid for.

Why should the people who end up paying the most for everything to start with, have to deal with an incompetent middleman in order to receive what the well off get automatically? When you live in a deprived area, you quite often end up doing yourself what someone else is paid to do, like pick up the rubbish. Why, when we have universal free health care, do people in Kensington live to be 82 and Glaswegians only make it to 70? Because poor people live in cold, damp houses, work in industries that put their health at risk, wait too long for medical care only to be misdiagnosed and then go out and get bladdered to compensate for how crap life is.

Now I’m just winding myself up. There was one heartening news story in Friday’s Guardian that almost restored my mental health but I had to bat off a torrent of frustration to get there. Shanty town children in Caracas have been lifted out of poverty by a massive programme to teach them classical music! The success of this programme is due to its longevity (30 years), its universality (over 250,000 children participating), the quality of the training and opportunities it leads to (25 year-old Gustavo Dudamel has just become the chief conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra). Now that is what I call ‘sustainability’.

You would never get any of these things in a British initiative for any number of reasons. Firstly, our pattern is to fanfare in a ‘new way of doing things’ and then withdraw it just as the children are beginning to derive some benefit after committing themselves to learning it. After a year or two of hiatus, it is eventually replaced by another system which kids then have to apply themselves to mastering and the cycle starts again. Is it any wonder they are distrustful, disillusioned and bored? Just as they start to like something, it will be whipped away quicker than Charlie Brown’s football.

Secondly, we have cultural cringe in reverse. Anything that is deemed ‘elitist’ like pre rock’n’roll music is felt inappropriate to teach to children in the public sector. As Howard Goodall explains in his excellent series about how modern music evolved (20th Century Greats), classical music offers the most complete palette for a beginner to practically explore what it is possible to achieve musically. Modern music, both pop and orchestral can be either too limited in range or unorthodox in construction to use for basic learning purposes. I know from my own experience that learning to play pop songs is largely a rote routine.

Thirdly, and crucially, adults have decided that childhood is very short and therefore should be packed with tiny taster modules of lots of different activities. Wrong! Admittedly my memory is not what it was but I do recall this - childhood is interminable. It goes on forever, for the same reason that the working day does – you have very little control over what happens in it. And like work, your only hope of getting the day to go faster is to find something that you can totally focus on. For me, that was music. I couldn’t wait to get home and practise. As the children in Caracas have shown, there is more than enough time in childhood to master an entire classical repertoire.

More than ever we seem to be filtering children’s experience through our own revision of what it was like to be a child. I love the Caracas story because it seems evidence of something that I’ve always believed – that it doesn’t matter what learning system you use, what matters is that it's consistent. What’s important is no matter how high you climb, there is someone above who is willing and able to mentor you. When you get to the top, that person is you. This method is even called The System. Sadly, it does have a weakness. It is the brainchild of one determined and inspiring person, Maestro José Antonio Abreu, which means it probably succeeded in forcing its way into the mainstream through sheer momentum of personality – something which can’t be replicated.

In Britain, we seem determined to throw out the baby and keep the bath water, and we just keep chucking new babies into the same dirty water. I’d love it if we could have something like The System but also wish that these perfectly sensible ideas could come about through reasoned discussion and a sincere drive to give children a decent and equal start in life. That’s about as likely as Dung Cam having an original thought, or even one that comes from this millennium…

Max playing the violin from www.mysite.verizon.net


Fringepoet said...

You always make so much sense. Sorry to hear you're not very well.

Ms Baroque said...

I love that Action Man. And you ARE right, you know, and you KNOW I think you're right.

You might like to hear about another story I read recently - there was an initiative in Mexico where they brought crime down by running book groups with the cops. That's right - they had these provincial cops who'd never read a book before in their life reading and discussing things like Cervantes, and crime went down.

The way they got the cops to take part was by not making them do it - they just made it part of how you get a promotion.

Groucho said...

Me: Doctor, after my operation will I be able to play the violin?

Doctor : Why yes, of course.

Me: Marvellous, I never could before.