Tails of the Unexpected

There is a strong sense of vocation in some professions, notably the law, medicine, teaching and the church. Others amount to a similar fundamental desire through a particular talent or propensity such as writers, chefs, musicians, sportsmen, designers or dancers. The decision to enter some professions does not usually demand a definitive aptitude or even, a calling. My own profession of librarianship, although not one normally associated with natural gifts or devotional origins, is yet filled with people who would never wish to do anything else.

There are many reasons for this as the library profession is a complex one. It is constructed of highly skilled experts in some fields, for instance bibliographics or rare books whilst also including very senior managerial staff with strategic or financial acumen on the very large scale. It is not a profession with many comparators but the one I always like to employ is that of the police. Librarians are similar to police officers principally in that everyone starts their career at the same point. During their professional lives each member of either profession will find a level at which they operate best. Interestingly this makes for obvious hierarchy at the same time as respect for talent at every level.

I used to think, until today that my strong vocational drive to enter the library profession originated at the age of 13, when I first became a school library assistant (and yes, it was just as cool as it sounds – we even had badges saying ‘Librarian’). Until that is, I talked with my mother this morning.

I had sent her a copy of the latest Senate House Libraries Strategy last week for a file she keeps on my two brothers and I – all three of us do this. I am particularly pleased with the document, as it is a compression of enormous complexity in terms of stakeholders, collections and future priorities. The detail is not important here but it did trigger a fascinating reminiscence from her on the nature of my life-long passion for libraries.

For the record, my continued belief in the power of collections available to share is primarily fueled by my equal conviction that education can alter the direction of people’s lives.

My mother told me that between the ages of one and two and a half she used to take me every fortnight to our local library, which at that time was Stowmarket Library in Suffolk. I can just remember this, especially after my brother was born because he always used to go in a great black pram and I would speed ahead by then on my red tractor with yellow wheels. Incidentally, I have a similar passion for sports cars so you can see where this is going – I rode the tractor so fast and so far that I actually wore the wheels right down to the spokes and it had to be thrown away.

In the local library I was set free, well comparatively anyway. To me at that age this was only a moderately scaled down version of the vast collections I am now Director of in London. There was a seemingly inexhaustive quantity of books. We did always take a good selection apparently but there was one that obsessed me. It was called ‘The Tiger Who Came To Tea,’ a simple story of an innocent and vulnerable child and her mother sitting down for tea and cake and, as was clearly common in the south of England in the seventies, being disturbed by a hungry tiger. Fear not though, this couldn’t be further from the perhaps predictable scene of horror one might have expected given the situation. The tiger ate all the cake and then everything else in the kitchen. He then drank all the water in the taps and left, never to be seen again.

My mother estimates, as no request was ever put in at Stowmarket Library (not even a desperate one by her, meaning I could renew it every two weeks), that she must have read this book to me approximately one million times. Additionally, and not a record I am particularly proud of, when my Nana came to visit she was also forced to plough through the tiger’s greedy tale. The agreed estimate for Nana is about ten thousand readings. I apologise to both but I loved that tiger.

My ability to bore parents and grandparents to near madness is however, not the purpose of this story. The tiger stands for the unexpected. In those days, when we had very little money which prohibited visiting bookshops, it was in the library where the unexpected was to be discovered. That the tiger always came to tea in our house is neither here not there; he would not have visited at all had it not been for Stowmarket Library.

People who have grown up with enough money to buy books have no idea how important local libraries are. Many of these people, as is the way of the world choose professions that result in authority. Some of them become MP’s or local councillors. The reason that public libraries are now under attack by this government and its local councils is that they are used by unprofitable members of society; the elderly, the young and the poor. They are easy targets.

Public libraries are of course seen as irrelevant to wage earners, those of working age and, perhaps the childless. Those who can afford to buy books, computers and access to the web cannot understand the position of those that can do none of these things. Anyone proposing the closure of a public library is not only advocating cultural vandalism but is publicly displaying ignorance of how many people in Britain are forced to live.

Finally, the root cause of the current national debt and its related financial crisis needs to be reiterated. Public spending under Labour was high, but it was serviceable. Irresponsible public spending is not the driver for the cuts programme, but rather the use of vast public funds to bail out private sector banks. The people who use public libraries are not to blame for the UK economic downturn, but they are the ones paying for it: literally in terms of the banks and intellectually through library closures.

I needed a public library to find my tiger, to discover and to grow. I chose the library profession because I believe libraries in all their forms make a difference to people’s lives. I also do not believe that amateurs can run them, however well meaning. Cameron wants a ‘big society’ and at the same time orchestrates library closures, or services without professional librarians.

David Cameron and George Osborne come from the kind of families that have their own libraries. How can we expect them to give a tinker’s toss about those for whom without public libraries, the tiger would never come to tea?

BBC Trust

The BBC seems to be almost constantly under attack. When Labour was in power they were vicious in their comments surrounding the BBC’s coverage of the UK’s involvement in Iraq. The famous ‘sexed-up’ dossier story, which the Beeb covered in a very balanced way, especially considering it was true, brought Labour from behind its mask of self-described honesty. Now, we discover that Blair was writing Gaddafi’s speeches. Nothing more needs to be said.

I am terribly frustrated by politicians. The Tories under Cameron are now attacking the BBC for its policies on cuts. This, from a government that is joyfully implementing Thatcherism under the cover of the financial crisis. Etonians are finally able to reengineer society without redress – it’s the only option we are told. Labour complained that the BBC unfairly targeted government policy when it was the government and now claims it is not targeting government enough now it is in opposition. The Tories have said the same thing. If the BBC is irritating both parties regardless of which one of them is in No. 10 then I believe it is doing its job.

What might be described as our ‘media bill,’ the amount spent each month on the web, television and mobile phones is astonishing when compared with the BBC licence fee. Most people in the UK pay £40 for cable television, £20 for the Internet and £30 for a mobile phone. The BBC delivers great television, world-class radio, the most trusted news website in the world, education and learning initiatives and much more all for £14 per month. Value and quality are rarely available together.

Additional to this, and British politicians should pay more attention to it, is the fact that even in America, the most trusted news feed is the BBC. In countries all around the world the BBC is held in the highest regard. This means that the BBC is partly responsible for the positive view of Britain taken by people in other countries. It’s the politicians who are responsible for the negative views.

My frustration with politicians derives from the fact that I love politics. I believe it can be a force for good. Infrequently, a politician will appear who actually delivers on this rather idealistic view. The most important in recent times for me was Mo Mowlam, who skillfully achieved consensus in Northern Ireland. For the most part though, there is just hypocrisy, lies, short-termism, self-interest and dirt. This is so disappointing it is hard to contemplate.

Despite what is said publicly, ‘ambition’ is a word used by politicians about themselves rather than being for the country.

So, why do all politicians of whatever political bent continue to attack the BBC? I suggest it is because it tells the truth, which makes them uncomfortable. It also stands for quality, which throws into relief their knee-jerk policy-making and finally it is loved and trusted by the British public (and many others), which is what all politicians want but know they can never have.

Here’s a great video from David Mitchell on politicians and the BBC.

Brand Awareness – England’s Riots

England is on fire, ‘motivated,’ to use a phrase employed by a police commander in Nottingham, by events in London. The street violence begun in Tottenham has spread to Birmingham, Liverpool, Bristol and indeed, Nottingham. There is one factor and one factor only behind this motivation – poverty and its coexistent coveting.

The areas worst affected by riots and looting are all, in each city either those with the deepest poverty or those to whom the looters run for cover after a city-centre spree with bricks. By example, the nest for looters in Nottingham is the area of St Ann’s, a notoriously stricken estate of the unemployed and the bored. The police are not hated for their actions on the most part; they are hated because they are the face of authority. They effectively implement government policy on the ground in these areas, and that policy has seen massive job losses followed swiftly by loss of dignity.

It is no surprise that the most popular stores for looting are filled with sports clothing. This is the uniform of choice for a youth whose only defence against a life deemed purposeless is to gather together. All people under threat form groups. When the intense stress of living every day without money is combined with endless advertising and celebrity, or when wealthy areas are beside the deprived the strain has to be released somehow.

There is a small amount of justified criticism of the police, although this usually comes from people who have not had bricks thrown directly at their person. There is far more nonsense printed about the them. This morning’s news is already wasting time on the analysis of community and police relations. Much has improved, for instance in Tottenham on this issue since the 1985 Broadwater Farm riots. That year the Met only had 30 ethnic minority officers, now it has over 3000. There is more to do, but this will not stop bored young people rioting in the face of a ceaseless culture of money and fame,

There are other kinds of riots. There are those for whom politics is a genuine motivation. Whether one agrees with the current brand of anarchism or not, this is street violence driven by principle. It is an uncomfortable opinion because in every example of revolution to remove one elite another forms in its place. All animals are equal but some are more equal than others. It may be pointless and flawed but it is not simple, such as is smashing windows to get a new pair of trainers.

In the riots this summer across England the only response can be creative action in those communities and a fundamental discussion concerning poverty in this country. If the government chooses to brand looters purely by their actions it will happen again – it is brands they are looting for.

In Northern Ireland, where street violence this summer did not gain the same coverage as that in London there was a lot of piffle written about root causes too. There were many theories postulated about the actions of police, about the traditional marching season and about discontent. These may have been contributory factors but the base of all Northern Ireland’s problems is division.

In London it is between rich and poor. In Belfast it is between Protestant and Catholic. Northern Ireland still has an education system analogous to those of pre-War Yugoslavia and pre-Luther King USA. I didn’t meet a Catholic during my own education until I was 19. That this continues, and is supported by the majority of both communities still shocks me and should do the same for everyone.

London wakes this morning to burnt cars and smoldering buildings. It should wake up too and face the inconvenient truth that these rioters are not just thugs. They are thugs, but not only that. Deep-rooted violence is fed by discontent. It does not appear from nowhere. If the shooting of one man genuinely appalled these people they would march on Parliament. They believe there is no point to that and in any case, this is their opportunity for short-term gain. Nothing can be viewed in the long-term when you are without money.

National Admissions Policy

The current state of universities is intriguing. For the first time in around fifteen years a purely intellectual education for everyone is being aggressively questioned. Or at least it is in the UK. France and Germany are increasing state funding for young people to learn at the highest level and although there are difficulties, the US system is still healthily based on personal financial outlay.

In the UK for much of the 19th and 20th centuries, and in some cases long before that, it was accepted that knowledge of classics, philosophy, music, history, art, theology and literature was only required at the summit of society. We have lived for brief periods during widening access initiatives. These are now again narrowing.

Despite many top universities offering bursaries, far more are not doing so. Education in the humanities is returning to the ‘halcyon days of Oxford,’ to appropriate Monty’s recollections in ‘Withnail and I.’ In other words, unless you are relatively rich, in the near future you will be unlikely to attend a good university with top-flight lecturers to learn about something other than science.

In an unexpected twist the UK government has also recently announced that it will be rewarding universities financially for admitting students with AAB or above at A Level. This will make the lives of those students, I understand from any background much easier. They will be gold dust for gold diggers. The reward should be passed to students and will be an enormous incentive to work hard during sixth form or college.

The national admissions policy, (and yes, that is what all these strategies amount to) is being rewritten almost by the week. It is as if, shall we say, the government does not know what it is doing. Surely this cannot be the case? To drop the sarcasm for a second, I do not think it is the case. Government does not purely consist of elected officials but also of unelected ones. If the distracting political wing of government ducks and dives in the firing line of student and professorial snipers, then the administrative advance of the Civil Service is cleverly covered.

What is being created is a university system based on access by achievement. There is considerable support for teaching and research in science, technology, engineering and medicine anyway, and almost all of it goes to the Russell Group of top universities. Over 60% of research funding in these disciplines goes to only those 20 universities from a pool of over 200 institutions. The Russells also account for over 70% of doctoral students, and of those, over 80% are researching in the sciences. It is easy to forget just how much design has already been implemented in UK higher education.

For about ten years a phrase has been used to describe good departments in poor universities: ‘pockets of excellence.’ For the humanities, these pockets are to be expanded in the great institutions through elite admissions policies and closed everywhere else. This for instance, will protect at least in principle, the Department of Music at Queen’s University Belfast and render unsustainable the infamous ‘Meja’ departments in the new universities. The Civil Service has always wanted to do this. It was never comfortable with Blair’s ambition to send 50% of the population to something called a University, regardless of quality or its ability to deliver real prospects for its students. In the coalition it has found a natural partner in the Conservative Party. As a lifelong supporter of the Liberal Democrats I will leave further comment for another post on them. It is ironic though, that the Conservative cloak over Civil Service strategy is to be ‘explained’ (defended) by Simon Hughes MP, a member of the Lib Dems who is forced to act as if he really believes in what the coalition are doing.

The national admissions policy will, as has already been the case be introduced very slowly. It is a drizzle not a thunderstorm. The issue this year concerning the removal of the cap on student fees was a mistake not only because of the policy but because so many people noticed it. And so, many for some time will perform the delicate pirouettes that are also U-turns, such as the AAB initiative.

There have been strong political figures that have managed to steer, or temporarily change the view of the Civil Service. Blair managed it. Thatcher agreed with it but took all the criticism. This is precisely what Cameron is doing, except unlike Thatcher he is chary of attacks. He is the perfect Prime Minister as the Service gets what it wants but avoids the shots.

So what does it want? I think the national admissions policy, which is now free of social inclusion targets, is designed to return the UK to its two-tier education system. There will be a small number of elite universities teaching and researching across all disciplines (ideally for most in the Service this only means two institutions which enjoy rowing – but there are some modern thinkers who accept there might be at least twenty). Beneath these, in every conceivable sense from dining rights to student prospects there will be many more vocational institutions without research but with high student numbers.

The national admissions policy is intended to allow the UK to deliver very high quality research in science and in the humanities in a focused, well-funded environment. Students from poorer backgrounds with strong academic ability will have a place in university, and they are likely to be better supported even than now. Other young people will study trades or increasingly, creative subjects such as design, writing, journalism and art in environments that mark their progress more intuitively than is usually performed in universities by exams.

The policy has been in development since the 1970’s with only the occasional lurch in direction. It has its merits. Only those of strong academic ability will achieve a place at University. Those with equal but different abilities will begin their careers in tailored environments, but without being handed a worthless degree at the end of it.

The question for the political side of government is can they ensure that this is properly funded. France and Germany already have these structures and are increasing investment. The days of social tokenism are over. The national admissions policy will adapt as it always has done. The class issue associated with access to university must be dismissed as irrelevant by support for bright, disadvantaged students. This is an opportunity?

The Armed and The Unarmed

‘The notion that you can somehow defeat violence by submitting to it is simply a flight from fact…Underneath this lies the hard fact, so difficult for many people to face, that individual salvation is not possible, that the choice before human beings is not, as a rule, between good and evil but between two evils. You can let the Nazis rule the world; that is evil; or you can overthrow them by war, which is also evil. There is no other choice before you, and whichever you choose you will not come out with clean hands.’

George Orwell wrote this in his anti-pacifist essay (although there were many others), ‘No, Not One.’ This seems to me a clear and realistic position to take on the matter of aggression and a viable response to it. I have struggled with an innate pacifism for many years, formed on the streets of late 20th Century Belfast. When you live amongst violence you quickly grow to hate it. Yet, I was aware that others, older and braver than myself stood between the bombers and me. Now these people are younger and braver, but they still stand between my life and those who, despite how distant this might seem to many in Britain, want to kill us.

Orwell authored hundreds of essays. These are often published alongside reviews of other people’s books, as it was often his habit to use a book review to deftly discuss his own views of the novelist’s concerns. ‘No, Not One,’ is a famous dismissal of pacifism but it is in fact a book review, this time of Alex Comfort’s ‘No Such Liberty,’ which was published in 1941. Orwell thought most reviewers were idiots, forced by the need to be paid to say that all books were good, as the publishers were advertising in the Sunday papers.

Much has changed since Orwell was in journalism, and much hasn’t. He used reviews to pay the rent, but also as regular platforms from which to proclaim. That these miniature tracts are beautifully written, and also true means that his appropriation of a form that is meant to converse about someone else’s work can be forgiven. Orwell used book reviews as other novelists have used poetry, short compressions of the grander thinking behind the major books. The politics of Orwell’s essays led directly to Animal Farm and Nineteen eighty-four.

The thrust behind ‘No, Not One,’ is that society is imperfect. It is faced with brutal decisions as a permanent state of being, and that any attempt to say otherwise is precious, unrealistic and dangerous. When Orwell writes as Nazism becomes dominant in Europe, it is too easy to reduce the authority of his voice to a particular time. He writes of his own desperate present, but also of ours and of the future. There will always be war. There will always be violence. There will always be conflict. There will forever be a need for some to stand between the armed and the unarmed.

Orwell believed that society depended ultimately on coercion. He adds a subtlety that the police officer does not hold this society together, but the common goodwill, which does sustain it, is powerless without the police to support it.

As one of the most important observers of English culture, (although it is hardly different from any other), Orwell makes two fairly blunt statements in this ‘book review.’ Firstly, that the working classes are never pacifists because they live so close to violence, or as Orwell puts it, ‘their life teaches them something different.’ Second, that those who are pacifist hold a fake moral superiority based only on the real sacrifices made by others. They conveniently forget about those who stand, between what Orwell calls ‘their research-lives,’ and the gun. The police are ignored or criticised by people who at that moment have no need of them.

Pacifism is a sign of luxury and a perceived safety. This is not to say that war is good. It isn’t. The question is how do we respond to violence? I am not claiming that all war is justified; indeed very recently in this country we have undertaken military conflict on very flimsy grounds. Iraq is still chaos and Afghanistan remains an utterly pointless exercise. Libya is interesting, as the entire Arab region needed attention years ago. Now we look like we are firing blanks, too little too late.

Orwell at least had the defence of western civilisation to call for, and he knew his enemy. The United Kingdom in 2011 is now at war in three countries and counting, and is also engaged in covert warfare in many others and online. The security services within the UK are working to halt an ever-present threat in our cities. The police are forced to waste time controlling radical elements in otherwise valid marches.

If people look at the world and think there are bigger issues to shout about than war and street violence, they are misled by either a gentle form of ignorance or by a life of comparative luxury. A public galvanised by an immediate threat read Orwell. The achievement of Al-Qaeda is that most people are not frightened, immediately making them vulnerable. That thugs can infiltrate legal protests is the opportunity presented by naivety. We should not spend our lives in fear, but equally we should not forget or criticise those who protect us, whether we realise it or not. Our guard is currently down.

I did not think anything of seeing, on the walk to school in Belfast, a Landover with its rear doors open and soldiers with machine-guns hanging out of the back. I thought nothing of going to bed with the constant sound of helicopters, and the frequent, mostly distant sound of bombs or gunfire. I only experienced a bomb physically once, which was enough to shake me out of any real passion for pacifism that I may have otherwise tended towards.

This is not to say that violence is ever justified as an end to itself. Defence is one thing but peace is a greater aim. The problem is that many people do not want peace.

The choice between submitting to Nazism and fighting it was no choice at all, and Orwell knew it. He knew that it mattered who won, even as he was honest in criticising Britain’s own imperial aggression. The choice between simply praying for peace and supporting the police in Northern Ireland was also no choice at all. There were people trying to kill us when we were shopping. There was evil on both sides because both sides were violent, but a choice had to be made between which was lesser and which greater.

Orwell makes us face this choice just as he did his own readers during the Blitz. Pacifism is not possible for anyone who is in contact with the real world. Orwell balances this overt support for the state of course with vicious attacks on it. In his major essay, ‘Why I Write,’ he says, ‘Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.’ This is not contradictory. It is reality. To stand against violence means to stand in the line of fire.

Orwell’s Clocks

George Orwell was inspired to use the library at Senate House, where I am Director, as the Ministry of Truth in his novel Nineteen eighty-four. His wife at the time was working in Senate House during WWII, as it had been commissioned by the government to provide accommodation for the Ministry of Information. On the roof of the library, there are still the disconnected phone lines direct to the Cabinet War Rooms. Senate House was the tallest building in London during the War, (apart from the crucifix atop St. Paul’s Cathedral), and the library acted as a viewing tower to watch for the Luftwaffe coming up the line of the Thames to bomb central London. The library played an important part in the defence of London. Orwell still plays an essential role in the defence of freedom.

One of the most formative periods in Orwell’s life was triggered because his parents could not afford to send him to university. Instead, he became a police officer in the Indian Imperial force in Burma. As a young man, when most of his contemporaries were dining in Cambridge, Orwell was discovering, observing and perhaps most importantly, writing.

There can be few authors whose career and publication chronology so clearly move towards a final masterpiece, as was the case with Orwell and Nineteen eighty-four. This is a writer who constantly flexed his technical and intellectual muscles by writing vast quantities of journalistic pieces and essays. I believe him to be the greatest essayist in the English language. These small pieces are never far from the creation of longer, more sustained works of art. Earlier novels, such as Burmese Days, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Coming Up for Air and A Clergyman’s Daughter are almost Forsterian in their camera-like capture of the English. They are strong novels, but not those for which he will forever be remembered. Orwell was proud of some aspects of these four books, but viscerally dismissive of other parts, describing A Clergyman’s Daughter as ‘tripe.’ However, on the whole, each book was critically well received. In reviews of the time, it is possible to find phrases such as ‘efficient indignation’ and ‘irony tempered with vitriol,’ being used to describe the books. Both characteristics were well practiced by the time Orwell used them in his later masterpieces.

In his one of his collections of essays and journalism, Decline of the English Murder, Orwell’s brilliantly controlled anger is unleashed on many topics. The keen political sense, which is at the heart of his genius, is shot through every essay. Orwell was a literary sniper who never missed his target. I do not believe there is a single weak sentence in the entire output of essays. He was and is, lethal.

The longer essays, which today might even be considered as travel-writing, (albeit of an extraordinarily intense kind), such as The Road to Wigan Pier and Down and Out in Paris and London are both uncomfortable, awkward, impassioned works about people who would be unlikely to ever read them. The poor and disposed of Wigan, London and Paris stood and fell for Orwell as examples of failed societies. His desperate care for those he saw at the hopeless underside of our culture has huge resonance in today’s world. Everyone who has enough money to buy books and enough time to read them should own and read these two astonishingly cruel and wise pieces.

Orwell, however great a journalist and essayist, of course achieved his notoriety and fame through fiction. Alongside Jonathan Swift, the great Dublin-born writer, Orwell is literature’s other great satirist. Animal Farm has as its subtitle, A Fairy Story. Orwell deliberately uses perhaps the most innocent literary form to warn of mankind’s most devious and destructive capabilities. Told in a way that can still be read to children it chronicles the corruption which Orwell believed almost inevitably follows the attainment of power. The pigs throw the humans off the farm, and then become more and more like their erstwhile oppressors until, at the end, it is impossible to tell the difference between man and pig. Animal Farm is a very short piece of writing, but all the techniques of a journalist are brought together with great storytelling into perhaps a story of the most beguiling brutality in English literature.

Animal Farm remains as one of the greatest depictions of totalitarianism in any art form. Only one person could create something even more powerful, and that person was Orwell himself in Nineteen eighty-four. The famous first line, ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen,’ immediately sets the scene of a world following catastrophe. This world is made up of three superstates, Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia, each in perpetual battles and alliances with one another in the wake of a global atomic conflict. Britain is named in the novel as ‘Airstrip One,’ and the principal character, Winston Smith lives in the ruins of London.

Nineteen eighty-four is a novel, like many others, about love, war, resistance and the human spirit. It is a novel, like no other, that succeeds in creating a world so terrifyingly close, in cruelty and corruption to any period in human history, that it will never date. The greatest irony of the book is that its title is a date. That the clocks strike thirteen ensures that the story is an analogy, and so, forever 1984 will be associated with this book, and with its warnings.

Winston is caught. He betrays Julia, his lover to Big Brother. He is tortured in the Ministry of Love (the others are Peace, Plenty and Truth). Eventually, after being handed a death sentence he accepts the teachings of the Party and learns to love Big Brother – the system which every day holds required periods for the entire population called ‘Two Minutes of Hate,’ where images of enemies are streamed on the telescreens to allow the population to release all the hatred against something other than the Party that controls them.

When Orwell was fighting for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, he was shot through the throat. His adventures in Spain produced Homage to Catalonia, a remarkable account of his time fighting Communists. Orwell observed many horrors at war, but one aspect that struck him like a clock striking thirteen, was how in war, propaganda is portrayed as Truth.

This is not merely a writer of fictions and fairy stories. Orwell was a man who lived what he believed. His experiences in Wigan, Paris and London were not viewed from hotel bedrooms. In London he became a tramp on the streets. In Paris he took a number of menial jobs and lived in the poorest arrondissements.

I have been in many libraries and held countless treasures. Those in Senate House are amongst some of the most memorable. As Orwell’s wife worked alongside the books that chronicle England’s history, could she have conceived that her husband would add to their number so many important works of art, and that one of them, his greatest, would derive at least part of its inspiration from the building in which she worked? Orwell routinely destroyed his manuscripts. The only remaining one is Nineteen eighty-four. This is held in the archive of University College London and I once held it. The power of seeing the famed first sentence form almost before you is almost impossible to relate.

Nineteen eighty-four – manuscript

Orwell’s neologisms have already altered the English language, indeed many languages. Big Brother, Room 101, Thought Police, even the term ‘Orwellian’ to describe totalitarian states. But it is the life and personality behind these words, the writer that Orwell became through living passionately and dangerously, which are his continuing gift. No dictator can exist without the mirror of Orwell’s writing showing him for what he is. The innocence of revolution will also echo what Orwell saw and what he wrote. Many writers attain a place in the canon of literature, few grow in importance eternally.

Orwell wrote of Dickens (but surely this is also autobiography):

‘He is laughing, with a touch of anger in his laughter, but no triumph, no malignity. It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry — in other words, of a nineteenth-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.


It is difficult to see the truth when it hides behind well-groomed intelligence. David Willetts, the UK’s minister for universities is the considerate, clever face of a government which either does know what it is doing, and if so should be honest about it, or doesn’t know what it is doing, and if so should be stopped.

The sixth form student, Padge, above is part of a BBC interview concerning young people who wish to go to university but are put under pressure by their families to get a job instead. Padge did better at his GCSEs than even he expected. He wants to study biology at university, but his builder father is discouraging. Not least, because he himself always avoided debt.

There are few things that make me angry (any more), but the current government policies on education certainly account for many of them. Without going into detail, I would not have been able to go to university, in my case Queen’s University Belfast, unless the government had helped me. It did, and although I supplemented the grant with performance fees (I studied music), I did live on just over £1000 per year. I managed this of course with family help, but the grant was essential. I also left Queen’s without student debt.

The problem that the coalition government is trying to fix does exist. There are too many universities, which are devaluing degrees and forcing employers to make distinctions that once were made between people with or without a degree. The truth is that degrees from some universities in the UK are viewed by employers as no better than being without one. Not only have students wasted time they have also begun life in debt for something almost worthless.

At the same time, the government is allowing the cost of degrees to the individual student to soar. Even the basic economics is not logical. The product is becoming devalued, so rather than improve the product, it is retailed at a higher price. Who in government is responsible for this thinking?

There are 20-30 universities in the UK which will always be at the top of the national league tables. There are two or three, possibly four which will also be ranked at the top of the international tables. There are another 30-40 universities which, whilst not possessing the vast research depth of the top 20, remain very strong institutions. They should be supported to become more focused on quality in fewer areas and discouraged from competing with the larger research-intensives. Additionally, the UK has some of the world’s finest art schools and music conservatoires. These should be protected and promoted.

The government misunderstands the sector fundamentally, perhaps even willfully. If you take these policies to their logical conclusion the UK would have an entire university sector made up of institutions like Imperial College London, and very few of them. We would be excellent at producing a low number of science graduates. These would go on to superb jobs in the US or Asia and never come back.

For everything else, mediocre would be acceptable. Second-rate humanities departments would produce debt-ridden, unemployable graduates without ambition or learning. And this would be fine because in the eyes of the government the humanities ‘don’t really matter’ anyway. Who would care that currently one of the world’s most creative and historically rich nations had lost its ability to reflect on its place in the world?

Well, many people care.

The solution proposed by the government to a problem defined as financial, is to pass that problem to young people. It does not solve anything. It just spreads the difficulty further. One of the most destructive drivers for student fees rises is that those in power tell us the nation cannot afford to run higher education anymore. That is half true.

A successful university sector in the UK would consist of around 100 institutions of differing kinds, all offering free places to the best students. Padge would realise his ambition and there would be less waste. Padge is a UK student who even wants to study science for heaven’s sake. Why is he not being given every possible support, every opportunity?

New Guillotine of the Masses

Ai Weiwei

‘A society lacking individual consciousness is truly gloomy and cold, and widespread abandonment will cause the very last green leaf to wither; it is capable of extinguishing the very last candle.’ Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei is the most significant living Chinese artist. He is also one of the world’s most influential designers, architects and bloggers. On the 3rd April 2011 the Chinese government arrested him as he was about to board a flight to Hong Kong. The charges are typically opaque; ‘economic crimes.’ His studio in Shanghai was closed, computers and hard drives removed, his assistant has disappeared and many other staff and relations have been arrested. Only four days ago, on the 16th May his wife was allowed a brief visit for the first time.

Weiwei was contracted as the design consultant for the famous ‘Bird’s Nest’ stadium, the centerpiece of China’s Olympic park. His art works and installations have been exhibited in every major gallery in the world and both international governments and the art world have demanded his release from custody.

I am reading a collection of his blogs at the moment, published by MIT Press in the US. This is an interesting book for two reasons; firstly, his writing is vicious and brave on all aspects of politics and art; secondly it is an important book because it is a book. Weiwei is notorious for crossing standard boundaries, particularly when working as both artist and architect. This time he has printed the Internet.

Weiwei has been especially scathing of the Chinese authorities over their handling of the devastation following the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. His blog was removed when he published an (incomplete) list of nearly 6000 children who had been killed by collapsing buildings at school because of poor flooring and ceilings built without any support. The Chinese government still denies that a lack of building quality in its schools is to blame. Following an interview for state television, where Weiwei repeated his claims, he was badly beaten. At an opening of an exhibition in Germany soon afterwards he was taken into hospital where German doctors discovered a cerebral hemorrhage. He has survived worse.

‘How foolish and obscene must a person be to lie to the families of the deceased, to bully parents who suffer from the loss of their children and their ruined futures? They cover eyes, stuff throats, wiretap phones, track whereabouts, and threaten, they buy people off, detain, beat and persecute the common people.’ Weiwei

It was to be expected that the move towards greater openness in China leading up to the Beijing Olympics would be restrained once the Games had been completed. The current crack-down on dissent is far stronger than anticipated though, apparently because of the ‘Arab Spring’ revolts in the Middle-East and the Chinese government’s fear of a similar uprising in China. Weiwei is by far the most prominent person to be detained. There will certainly be many thousands more now in prison or dead.

As the West deals with the threat from al-Qaeda, the growing tension across North Africa and the complexity of an aggressive Iran it is astonishing that for the most part, except for press comment on Weiwei, China is reported as little more than a business opportunity. I have direct experience of this through Higher Education, but that is small-fry compared to the view taken by global commerce of the vast resource in manufacturing and retail presented to an economically-challenged Western world.

Google’s decision to leave China is its best and bravest decision since its formation. The trigger for this was a response to a series of web hackings dubbed ‘Operation Aurora’ by Western security agencies. It is proven that this extensive illegal activity originated in China, and was therefore almost certainly funded by the Chinese authorities. Google’s accounts were all hacked. So were Weiwei’s, his personal date stolen and bank accounts accessed.

Proof that the Internet is now the most important tool to humanity is that so much of it is banned in so many countries. In China, Twitter, the new guillotine of the masses cannot be accessed. If it were available it would be even more powerful than in the West, as 140 characters in Chinese equates to 140 words, not letters. Deeply profound statements would undoubtedly result from a Chinese version of social networking. Facebook, Google, YouTube and other websites are also banned or censored.

The ‘last candles’ in Weiwei’s China are still alight, but flickering. This country is a business opportunity beyond the dreams of most corporatists, but at what cost?

Trick Matches

Belfast is a city of unparalleled energy for one of its size. It is a capital city, the centre of the arts, higher education, business and industry for Northern Ireland. As a devolved country within the UK it is also the heart of a unique legal system and the economic engine for the region. It now has a structured relationship with the Republic of Ireland, meaning that it is the only UK city where you can easily spend Euros, and all-Ireland economics has reached a key moment where both countries are supporting one another.

Despite billions of pounds of investment in new architecture and the regeneration of Belfast’s striking past, altering the entire skyline, it is perhaps tourism that is the most significant indicator of the city’s contemporary success. The two airports bring over 7 million visitors per year to Belfast, making it one of the most visited cities in Europe. In 2009 the American Guidebook, Frommer’s listed Belfast in its Top 12 Global Destinations. Not readily known, but the city’s remarkable musical heritage (and exports) gave impetus to its twinning with Nashville, USA.

Belfast is a fast-paced, fast-talking, creative and relentless place to visit. For me, it’s also my home city and its transformation is something I am proud of.

Last week the Police in Northern Ireland issued a warning that the rate of terrorist attacks are likely to increase. The Stormont Assembly elections are forthcoming, the Queen will visit Dublin for the first time in June and the summer always brings violence anyway. A young police officer, who also happened to be Catholic was murdered two weeks ago and this weekend a large quantity of arms and bomb-making equipment was found in County Armagh.

Although the level of threat is far, far lower than in the past, and despite so many people previously supportive of violence turning to politics to resolve debate, there remains in Northern Ireland enough terrorists to cause mayhem. One is enough.

We all forget The Troubles too easily. In Britain it is often forgotten because of understandable regret, embarrassment and anger. In Northern Ireland people are genuinely building something new. They have to forget. As violence rears its head again though we should all recognise where this could lead if the few sparks manage to relight the fire. Parts of Northern Ireland are still a tinderbox.

I was born in 1972, generally regarded as the worst year for violence in modern Irish history. The IRA detonated 1300 bombs in that year. 479 people were killed and hundreds more wounded, many critically. On one day, only three weeks before my birth the IRA planted 22 bombs in Belfast city centre. There were many deaths and injuries as the police received warnings that forced them unknowingly to move people from one bombsite to another. The picture at the top of this blog is of a fireman shoveling the remains of a member of the public into a bag after that afternoon’s ‘action.’

One young man, Stephen Parker, aged 14 was on the Cavehill Road in North Belfast, trying to shout to other people to move when a car bomb exploded. His father only identified him because there was a distinctive box of trick matches found on his remains.

Stephen, like me years later was a member of the City of Belfast Youth Orchestra and there is to this day an annual award in his name for a member of the orchestra. The orchestra has always taken players from across the city and in fact, the only Catholics I knew were because of music. The schools are still segregated today. Music does, let me tell you, bring people together.

Belfast today is the achievement of many people. A collective will brought the country through the worst violence seen in any Western city outside of war. It is essential to note that of those 7 million visitors to Northern Ireland every year, on average over 30% say their visit is based on ‘historical interest.’ This is a huge percentage, given the success of business travel at the same time. The message to these very welcome tourists, and to ourselves is – do not forget. There are men and women in Northern Ireland now who want death and chaos. Only the innocent carry trick matches.

An equivalent rate of return

‘Oh that Tony Blair. He’d stick a poem on a bus shelter and call it a University.’

Victoria Wood

I think I’ve heard just about enough of government cuts. The entire topic is misrepresented by both Parliament and Whitehall, and oddly accepted by the press. It is clearly an opportunistic attempt to re-engineer much of UK society, and even where I agree with the changes, I wish people would be more honest when talking about it.

One area that I find particularly sinister is the combination of raising student fees to £9000 and withdrawing almost all teaching grants in the arts and humanities from the academic year 2012-2013 onwards. There has been an outcry that places such as Lincoln University and University College Falmouth are proposing to charge the same as Cambridge.

I believe that there are three tiers of higher education institutions in this country:

1) The top 20 Russell Group and the smaller research intensive 1994 Group, also the Conservatoires and other elite colleges.

2) All the other universities.

3) The small specialist institutions, mainly in the arts (about 30).

There can be no doubt that the government (by which I mean the Civil Service) saw an opportunity when the Tories entered Number 10. Finally, they could move to close the many, second-rate universities that were simply producing arts graduates without the clout of a Russell Group degree or the elite entrance criteria of, for example the Royal College of Music. Although prospectuses across the sector all use the phrase ‘world-class’ this only genuinely applies to Group 1.

The problem; we have too many universities. Labour believed that by allowing 50% of the population to obtain a degree, that employers would suddenly equate a degree from Oxford with one from Coventry. How could they have thought this? The word ‘elite’ has been expunged from discussion of Britain’s universities. I want to bring it back. I obviously do not accept a system that allows entrance to Cambridge simply because of attending Harrow School – surely this is less pervasive than in the past (ha!). I do accept that a university or college can describe itself as elite if it selects its students on ability or talent. That is not a social judgment but an academic one. For instance, it is not possible, it is simply not achievable to be awarded a place at the Royal Academy of Music if you are anything less than a brilliant musician. Not only that, but to win such a place you are performing (in this case literally) against other exceptional players, from all over the world. There are usually more than 30 applicants per place.

In the Russell Group, candidates are on average applying against 15-20 people per place. In almost all of Group 2 above, which amounts to around 120 of the UK’s 185 universities, there is no competition. Some ask for higher ‘A’ level results than others but hardly ever are candidates truly in competition to gain a place. In around 20-30 of these institutions, those at the bottom of every league table, students are accepted regardless of academic ability, often without any ‘A’ levels.

At the same time as the country is dealing with a massive overproduction of graduates in, say media studies or even English Literature, the UK also suffers from a shortage of highly-qualified trades. The universities in Group 2 used to provide quality vocational qualifications. Now they neither produce that or arts degrees that offer their students a real chance in life. I am passionate about education’s ability to provide opportunity, but not all education should be based on an understanding of Macbeth. For many young people, life chances could be transformed through properly funded, ‘world-class’ vocational qualifications. Most plumbers earn more than professors anyway.

On the research side, as opposed to the teaching side there are delusions too. Research in the UK is funded by the four national funding councils and by the subject-based research councils. Peer-review processes split this, across every university in the country. Or that is the theory. In reality, the Russell Group of 20 elite universities receive over 70% of the money and produce (an important benchmark for research culture) over 85% of PhD students. So the money is spread ever more thinly between the great research institutions and the crumbs from the table go to ‘pockets of excellence’ in Group 2 who are not fundamentally driven by research in the first place.

Group 3 is interesting. It includes many small arts institutions without either the legacy or endowments of places such as the Royal College of Art. These are typically of about 1000 students, non-selective (anyone who applies gets a place) and very vulnerable to cuts in arts teaching grants as almost no research is carried out. I worked at one of these, Dartington College of Arts and it gave me a fascinating perspective on education. I have spent almost my entire career in the Russell Group but am eternally grateful to have worked outside it (and for the record to be back inside).

The only real answer for these institutions is not to charge students £9000 (as Falmouth will do), but to merge successful courses with sustainable institutions who would genuinely benefit from targeted arts specialism. Falmouth is a good example. £9000 in Cambridge buys you a valuable degree, but also access to the world’s greatest academics and one of the most important libraries on earth. I do not believe that the same amount of cash can seriously be said to offer Falmouth students the equivalent rate of return.

The answer for Falmouth, which has a justifiably famous heritage as a fine art school, should be to merge all non-academic and constitutional functions with Exeter University, a strong 1994 Group institution which would benefit from a ‘bit of art.’

The Labour government believed that extending access to University for half the population of young people would give more opportunity. Instead it put hundreds of thousands of students into debt, and with no career prospects owing to poor quality degrees.

The Tory government wants to close many of Britain’s universities, particularly those in Group 2. Rather than close, it would be better to accept that the polytechnic \ university difference still exists, it’s just that everything is named ‘University.’ If these were reopened as successful training colleges, students would be able to achieve qualifications suited to their talents and find work.

What is happening now is a slow death by a thousand cuts, where institutions such as Falmouth are forced to raise student’s fees and their expectations. Only the former will be achieved.

The UK would be better placed internationally with around 30-40 elite, well-funded universities. Places in these institutions should also be free. For the exceptionally talented, the conservatoires and quality colleges of art would provide the necessary environments. If the government is intent on suffocating underperforming universities by cutting arts teaching grants, it should at least have the decency to let their students know this before they write cheques they regret.

I believe in the power of education to transform lives. It happened to me in a Russell Group university I had to work hard to get into. I could not have gone to Queen’s without a grant either. This is essential. Elite universities should be in a position to seek and support talent. But not going to university should be seen as an achievement if your talent lies elsewhere. I know a lot about music but was at a loss when the pipes burst last winter.

Variety is not only the spice of life but also the backbone of a strong country. The UK is in danger of being dulled and weakened by dishonest and poorly considered cuts driven by an agenda that thinks elitism is decided by a student’s background. I reject this government’s view of my professional sector even when the outcome might be one to which I adhere.