Wednesday, 14 January 2009

An Embarrassment of Riches

As a Brummie, that most disparaged of creatures, I was delighted to receive the Happy Anniversaries 2009 card from Heart of England, the tourist board charged with the challenging task of promoting the West Midlands. It’s not in the nature of the good folk of the area to brag, but let me make an exception. In 2009 the West Midlands celebrates the bicentenary of Charles Darwin, born in Shrewsbury, and arguably the greatest scientist of all time. It is 300 years since the first coke smelting furnace was developed in Ironbridge, an event that marked the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The lexicographer and wit, Samuel Johnson, was born in 1709 in Lichfield. The visionary industrialist Matthew Boulton was born exactly 100 years later, a key figure in Birmingham’s Lunar Society, architects of the modern world, whose remarkable story of empiricism and entrepreneurship is told so well by Jenny Uglow in The Lunar Men: The Friends Who Made the Future (Faber).

This year also marks the bicentenary of the birth, in Much Wenlock, of Dr William Penny-Brookes, who anticipated Pierre de Coubertin’s revival of the Olympic Games. On a more melancholy note, it is 250 years since Josiah Wedgwood founded the eponymous and recently deceased pottery works in Stoke on Trent. Oh for his mix of commercial nous, immaculate craftsmanship and pioneering production techniques, or for those that resulted in the first Mini, which rolled off the Longbridge production line in 1959. And then there’s Shakespeare, always Shakespeare. This year marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of his Sonnets. It’s not a bad legacy. Most countries would be proud of it, many would never shut up about it.

But I will, to comment on an article published in the Guardian last Saturday by the gifted essayist and novelist Andrew O’Hagan, entitled ‘What Went Wrong with the Working Class?’ It begins with a wry account of a visit by English relatives to O’Hagan’s family home 25 miles from Glasgow. He remembers being both appalled and fascinated by their ‘riot of individualism with no real sense of common purpose and collective volition as a tribe’, and this theme of the English inability to ‘embrace a notion of collective responsibility’ is a constant of the essay. But perhaps individual responsibility is more akin to English sensibilities (if we can speak of any people, especially one as diverse as the ‘English’, in such terms). And it is individual responsibility which has been lost, amid a welter of consumerism and sedation, and the loss of a common historical narrative and reference points. Even among those English who do know their history, there is an embarrassment about the past, not just about the ‘bad’ things, but, more strikingly – and possibly uniquely - about the good. All this is compounded by an ignorance fostered by top-down changes in education, which have poured cold water on aspiration. The English working class know their place once again because, in the absence of such motors of social mobility as grammar schools, it is the only place they now have (current debate about social mobility seems to me to be little more than political posturing).

Last year saw the 400th anniversary of the birth of John Milton, the second greatest English poet, whose line ‘Let not England forget her precedence of teaching nations how to live’ O’Hagan found ‘intolerable’. We were treated to a marvellous reading of Paradise Lost by Anton Lesser on Radio 3 over the Christmas period. But not much else. This year sees the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robbie Burns, O’Hagan’s hero, and a worthy one, though where he comes in the canon I couldn’t possibly say. What I can say is that Burns will receive greater coverage in Scotland (and possibly England) this year than Milton received on either side of the Tweed.

I’ll be listening in to the programmes and reading the articles celebrating Burns, but I doubt that they will be as thrilling as reading Jonathan Bate’s new study Soul of the Age: The Life, Mind and World of William Shakespeare (Penguin). One of the most interesting subjects of this fascinating book is Shakespeare’s creation of what Bate calls Deep England, rooted in the Bard’s origins in rural Warwickshire. Like all Shakespeare’s ideas and writings, it expands the parochial to become universal. He taught nations how to live.

1 comment:

Pyatnitsky said...

Your comment about the English working class 'knowing their place' again ignores structural changes in British society. The old 'working class' was a class of manual workers - 75% of the population in 1945. Did that working class get into grammar schools? 65% of children went to secondary moderns in 1950, 4% to technical schools. The 1944 Education act was a bonus for the middle classes, they no longer had to pay to educate their children, they just made sure that they got the right coaching. See Peter Hennessy's 'Having it So Good', pp.74-76 for the argument. The changing occupational structure meabs that the old manual working class is a much smaller proportion of the population - and that perhaps explains current disssatisfaction with standards of education as even quite mundane jobs require higher levels of literacy and numeracy .

Blog Directory