Friday, 28 August 2009

Clever and cleverer

WHAT a blessed, brilliant country this England is. So much more advanced than when we were young, or our parents were.
Year after year our children get cleverer, their teachers more and more effective. It must be so – every statistic tells us.
Two years from now all those youngsters who picked up their GCSE grades yesterday will be getting their A-level results. And I wouldn’t mind betting now that when they do it will be the 29th successive year of record results.
All those teenagers milling round the bus-stop, all those kids performing amazing feats of balance and momentum at the skate-park, must be harbouring the brains of budding Einsteins and Shakespeares under their hoodies.
Their results just keep getting better. And the exams aren’t getting any easier at all, are they? Course not.
Now, I have nothing whatever against the present generation of successful students.
I’m sure they’re just as nice, just as clever, just as motivated and hard-working as we were at their age.
But I can’t help wondering how those newly awarded their four or five straight A’s would have fared with the A-level papers I sat in 1975 – and the same standard of marking.
Or how I’d do myself in the current climate of educational spoon-feeding.
Do I resent it that my paper qualifications have been devalued by 30 years of gradual dumbing down? Yes, I do a bit.
Do I resent the latest batch of students emerging with more and better grades than me? Not in the least.
It’s not their fault. As footballers are so fond of pointing out, you can only beat what’s put in front of you.
In fact, I feel sorry for those whose efforts deserve more credit than simply to be among a record number of candidates with maximum grades.
And if you’re an employer, or a university admissions tutor, how do you select between a dozen students all with perfect marks? Or between them and my imperfect ones?
Caught up in a mania for targets and for constant "improvement", we seem to have lost track of actual standards.
Were you or I better or worse students than those now emerging blinking into the real world?
There is no way of telling.
The benchmarks have changed so much and so often that they are virtually useless.
Unlike our kids and their teachers, who are not well served by having to function in a culture of glamorous fiction.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Last post for the last Tommy

AS we sped through northern France the place names rang as ever with a particular bitter resonance: Arras, Bethune, Cambrai.
As ever, I pondered the shattered bodies and the tonnage of ordnance buried under those blandly rolling wheatfields – and the blandly rolling motorway beneath our wheels.
Of course, life here goes on, has been going on for more than 90 years since the events with which those names still ring to an English ear. The associations with one particular part of their history cannot be so clear to those who live here. And yet.
Not for nothing is this stretch of the A26 known as the Autoroute des Anglais (motorway of the English). And not just because it's the route so many of us take from Calais to the heart or south of France every summer.
To a whole generation of English men and women, this corner of France near the Belgian border – and only a short sea crossing from England – was the only foreign field they knew. And what a grim field it was.
As we sped along the Vimy ridge I recalled, as ever, the horrific events that scarred this whole landscape 40 years before my birth.
And this time I noted that for the first time those battles, those trenches, that terrifying going-over-the-top were no longer within living memory.
For Harry Patch, the last survivor of the Great War battlefield, was no longer with us.
On September 22, 1917, on a relatively quiet day in what came to be known as the Battle of Passchendaele, Lewis-gunner Patch was struck in the stomach by a hot piece of flying shrapnel.
It came within half an inch of ending his life at just 19. Instead it kept him alive by keeping him out of the rest of the war.
He was about to be sent back to France 14 months later when the Armistice intervened. After that escape he lived to be 111.
And for most of his long life – until he reached 100 – he never spoke of his war experiences. Not even to Ada, his wife of nearly 60 years. A reticence he seems to have shared with most veterans of the Great War trenches.
I remember as a young reporter, 30 years ago, interviewing a couple who were celebrating their golden wedding. Only when his wife was out of the room did the old man share with me a few of his haunting memories of fighting in the trenches.
“He never talks about it, dear,” she had assured me.
A couple of decades later I was interviewed for the editorship of Harry Patch's local paper in Somerset. Had I got that job I would surely have got to know him. And I think I'd have liked him a lot.
Nearly all of those who gathered a week ago to see him off would have been strangers to him. And plumber Harry would have been astonished – and if not embarrassed, then wrily amused – to have a cathedral funeral with thousands of mourners.
He was never much impressed by pomp and ceremony. Brass hats held no awe for him, and he “wasn't that interested” in a speech he once heard King George V give.
I know this from reading The Last Fighting Tommy, a biography put together by Richard Van Emden. The bulk of the book is transcribed directly from hours of taped interviews, and Harry's voice comes through strongly.
In many ways the only unusual thing about his life was its extraordinary length. He was an ordinary man, and happy – if not proud – to be one.
In his last years he accepted with humble dignity the role of representative of the common soldier of the Western Front.
But he would not have been happy for his name or medals to be used in any glorification of war, or nation.
“I didn't want to join up,” he said. “It was a case of having to.
“Why should I go out and kill someone I never knew, and for what reason? I wasn't at all patriotic.”
When, in the heat of battle, it came to a case of him-or-me, he deliberately shot an attacking German in the legs in order to spare his life.
Later, discussing the Second World War, in which both his sons fought and he served as an auxiliary fireman, he said: “I felt then, as I feel now, that the politicians who took us to war should have been given guns and told to settle their differences themselves, instead of organising nothing better than legalised mass murder.”
Perhaps if England's king and Germany's kaiser – cousins, as Harry pointed out – had been given guns in 1914 they might have shot each other rather than sending millions of their subjects to do so.
More likely they'd just have shot grouse together.
But in spirit, brave pacifist Harry Patch was absolutely right.