Kids knowing more about less

One teenager had not heard of EDF. The company engaged in a project costing £20 billion (or is it £25 billion?), a project in the same county, was no more than three letters that signified nothing to the person who had been asked about it. Another teenager has not heard of Hinkley Point, the place on the Somerset coast where EDF are involved in the massive project to build a third nuclear power station. The huge buildings of the first two of the stations are visible from miles away. Flat moorland runs down to the Bristol Channel and they stand out clearly against the horizon. In a landscape so low-lying, where landmarks to give reference points are not plentiful, it can be hard to judge how far away the site is.

When I was a teenager, all of my contemporaries would have known of Hinkley Point. Perhaps it was about a sense of pride that somewhere significant could be seen as you drove down a hill from our village; perhaps there was an unspoken fear that if anything went wrong at the station, the radioactive fallout would quickly reach our homes. Whatever the reason, Hinkley Point would have been a familiar place name.

We would have known the name of the power station and we would have known the names of significant companies in our area, including Clark’s Shoes at Street and Westland Helicopters at Yeovil. Everyone would have had family members or friends or neighbours who worked for one of them. Three people on our road worked for Clark’s, one worked for Westland’s (even my father worked at the helicopter factory for a short time, until he decided he could not cope with the confines of an office).

Our local employers were small when compared to the more than twenty thousand workers who are, and who will be, employed in the building of Hinkley Point C. If we were aware of the companies that were significant in the 1970s, how are teenagers now, with an infinitely greater degree of access to information, not aware of such a huge development in sight of their own neighbourhoods?

Teenagers with access to websites and social media are undoubtedly more worldly wise than we ever were. Sex and relationships, celebrity stories, sports news, their knowledge of these is unrivalled. What is lacking is a basic knowledge of significant things in their own community. We’re I a Marxist, I might think that the online world had replaced religion as the opiate of the people.

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Non-French cuisine

It was never clear why, but we had drinking glasses made by a French company at dinnertime in the Primary School in our village. School dinner each day was a two course meal served with water to drink (perhaps at Christmas orange squash was allowed). School dinners were predictable, meat potatoes and vegetable, followed by a pudding that usually consisted of sponge or tart covered in custard.

Having school dinners in our primary school meant having a school kitchen and having a school kitchen meant that our school had a telephone. Someone in authority must at some time have decreed that telephones were not a necessary item for the education or pastoral care of children but were necessary to feeding them. There was no such thing as a school office, the telephone was mounted on the wall of the dining room and seemed rarely used. Perhaps the school cook who arrived each day on her Honda 50, telephoned her order for the ingredients of meals to whoever supplied such thing, though a telephone would have been a great expense in times when it would have been simple to have written everything on a postcard and sent it to the supplier. Perhaps the telephone was for safety, perhaps having a kitchen attached to the school brought with it the risk of fire and the telephone was to allow the summoning of the necessary appliances from Somerton, though if the school caught fire it seems unlikely anyone would have lingered in the dining room when there was a phone box on the adjacent village green.

There were times when a fire would have seemed a better prospect than facing the dinner. The principle of school meals, ensuring everyone received a proper diet, was not a bad one, it was just that keeping the price low meant that the cook had to make the best of less than ideal ingredients. Among the less appetising things, there was beef with which one might have resoled one’s shoes, liver which gave me an abiding aversion to even the smell of it, and salad served with a thick, stodgy salad cream that the boys who knew claimed was made from unused custard. We all knew that it wasn’t the cook’s doing, there was an excellent Christmas dinner every year, and mostly the food, if unexciting, wasn’t bad.

The drinking glasses always seemed odd, though, why did we have French drinking glasses? It wasn’t as though Britain in the 1960s didn’t still make stuff. Perhaps the person who had taken the decision about the telephone had also determined the supplier of the school’s glasses. Perhaps there was someone who knew about such things and who decided that those of who ate school dinners should have a daily reminder of a country where cooking was different.

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Three old dears were locked in the lavatory!

“What was that song about three old dears?”

“Which song?”

“The one people used to sing at Ham school.”

“Oh dear, what can the matter be?
Three old dears got locked in the lavatory,
they were there from Monday to Saturday
nobody knew they were there?”

“That’s it. Where did we learn that?”

“I don’t know, everyone knew it. It was just something that was there.”

Our recall of the three unfortunate old ladies stuck in the public conveniences would have been much better than our knowledge of Johnny’s so long at the fair, the English folk song from which the tale of toilets is derived. But how did it come to be part of the repertoire of primary school children? How did stuff get passed around?

Web pages and social media platforms allow for the instantaneous transmission of material. Something will be shared around the world in a matter of a few seconds. In 1960s Somerset, communication was not so instant. Most houses in the village did not have a telephone, some families did not have a car – despite there being no pubic transport in the village, the nearest bus stop being a three mile walk.

Of course, there was radio and there was television. There were three channels on the television, BBC One and Two and ITV, and the four BBC stations on the radio. (When evening came, Radio Luxembourg might be found at 208 Metres on the medium waveband, but it did not become attractive until teenage years when it was possible to listen to records that had been banned by the BBC). None among those television and radio stations would have been likely to have been sharing irreverent rhymes sung by primary school children.

Had we been asked why we sang about the old ladies, we would probably have said that it made us laugh and admitted that we enjoyed the mild disrespect for our elders implied in the song. A particular old lady, who regarded it her vocation in life to tell off small boys, would have been at the forefront of those whom we would have liked to have been locked in the loo. Had we been asked how we knew the words, we would probably have pointed to someone else in the class.

Oral transmission of songs and stories was a strong tradition; songs and stories could be passed from person to person with little variation. It will be interesting to see if web pages and social media create a similar capacity for remembering what has been heard.




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Shaun Keaveny would have liked my Grandad

In times past, it might have been called “dead air,” that silence when a radio station is on air, but there is nothing audible to listeners. BBC Radio 3 used to have such silence at the end of performances of music, but classical music listeners would have expected there to be a moment of reflective quietness at the end of a piece. On BBC Radio 6, Shaun Keaveny does silence, on a breakfast programme where silence is not expected. Talking on the programme this morning, he said that his legacy would not be like a bridge built by some great engineer, nor like a cathedral, built by a great architect, but, “it would be this.” There followed a silent pause.

Perhaps some of the silences in Shaun Keaveny’s programmes have been unintentional. Unintentional moments do occur sometimes when he is on air. Once it was suggested that he had played the theme from Hill Street Blues twice in eleven minutes; not having heard the programme, it was hard to know. Unintentional or intentional, is silence such a bad thing? Wouldn’t silence be a great legacy to leave?

My Grandad knew about silence. After his tea each evening, he would sit on at the kitchen table. Perhaps he was just weary after a day on the farm, which began with the morning milking and which would end with the evening milking that followed. Perhaps he just liked to sit and ponder the world over the top of the china teacup in which my grandmother would always serve tea.  He would just sit there, staring fixedly out through the kitchen window to the garden and the orchard beyond.  Walking past the window would be barely enough to stir him from his thoughts. The silence that surrounded him seemed to lead him to be detached from the world around.

When I was young, such moments seemed odd, why would he want to just sit and stare out of the window?  Why wouldn’t he want to go outside, or even get the Land Rover out and drive somewhere for half an hour?

There have been many moments since when it seemed possible to understand how much he valued his quietness; perhaps it was a retreat from other people, perhaps it was a retreat from all the hurt that surrounds us. Perhaps it was a sense of there being something in silence not found in anything else. I think Shaun Keaveny would have liked my Grandad.



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Effective discipline

One day, when my son Michael was about five years old, I was so angry and frustrated with him that I smacked him. Smacks were few and far between and this was one that not appreciated. He looked at me through tears and said, “Big people shouldn’t hit little people.”

It was a simple and powerful argument, something presumably picked up at the nursery school or the primary school he attended in Downpatrick in Co Down. Resorting to violence wasn’t about trying to change things, it was about an admission of failure to change things. There were no further smacks, our house remained a firm one without the need to resort to physical force. Strict words and sanctions proved to be far more effective than smacks.

Even at the fundamentalist Christian school on Dartmoor that I attended, it was apparent that their “spare the rod and spoil the child” philosophy simply did not work; the same boys were caned again and again, it never changed their behaviour. The fact that they were being punished owed more to the fact that they were stupid enough to be caught, than to the fact that they were the only people guilty of these wrongs. When an attempt was made to burn down one of the school’s classroom blocks in January 1977, the culprit list included the frequent visitors to the principal’s office – the use of the rod had simply hardened them in their attitudes

Violence is about big and strong people dominating smaller and weaker people; whether me slapping Michael or governments using force to suppress groups they don’t like, it is not a solution to anything. Anyone familiar with the sad history of relations between Ireland and Britain will know that violence never brought solutions, neither in the centuries of British repression, nor in the Republican paramilitary philosophy that embraced bullets and bombs. Violence just built up a huge storehouse of resentment.

Caning and physical force are things of the past, but, looking at the detention list in school, it seems that confining students to a room for an hour after school is as much lacking in power to deter bad behaviour as the cane was lacking in power in former times. Each day, familiar names appear on the list; one student even expressed surprise that his name hadn’t appeared. Will those suffering repeated detentions become as resentful as those who faced regular canings?

Is it beyond the wit of a society to devise a code of acceptable behaviour and a culture that sustains that code, both of which rest upon reason and persuasion?


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