Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Saturday 23 September 2023

‘All of Them Witches’

It’s probably a good thing I never went into business on a grand scale as, yet again, I appear to have been overestimating the intelligence of the American public.

A K Hart’s recent thought-provoking post on the resurgence of myths in modern society touches on a theme which has made several appearances here in the past few weeks: 

Myths facilitate mass assimilation where technical explanations do not. Myths provide simpler and more widely accessible ways to guard against surprises, just as belief in witchcraft did. Burn the witch and if that doesn’t work there must be another one lurking somewhere.
The parallels between today’s Western society and the witch hunts of the past are increasingly inescapable; a preoccupation with conformity to a set of puritanical standards and a willingness to condemn and punish those who violate the norms imposed by fanatical believers are, sadly, with us again, this time with social media pouring oil on the flames, not least by encouraging the resurgence of the idea that, whatever goes wrong, someone, somewhere must be to blame.

Some weeks ago, I mentioned a competitor on ‘Masterchef’ who produced a witch-themed dish, inspired by an American movie, to ‘take the judges back to seventeenth-century Salem’. At the time, it baffled me since it was surely common knowledge that there were no witches there; just a group of unfortunate townsfolk (including a four-year-old child) who, for a number of reasons, found themselves falsely accused by a group of young girls supported by fervent religious fanatics.

As anyone who has experience in dealing with teenage girls en masse could tell you, it is highly plausible that a mixture of mass hysteria, religious indoctrination and groupthink led to this terrible situation, particularly if some of those concerned had eaten rye bread contaminated with ergot, now known to cause convulsions, itching, parathesia and psychosis. Add in the petty disputes and prejudices of a small town and potential for settling old scores and you have a situation where the false accusations would be readily accepted by the authorities.

It would appear, however, that such a rational approach is beyond many; while researching a previous post, I read that a substantial proportion of the million or so tourists who visit Salem every year apparently come for the ‘spooky’ atmosphere and the association with ‘real’ witches. Thanks mainly to film and television - not to mention Young Adult fiction - people are flocking to ‘Witch City’* and they are unlikely to be disappointed; the town is bursting with witch-themed attractions and entertainments. 

It would be tempting to regard this as merely a celebration of fiction - much like the hordes of Goths who descend on Whitby in tribute to Bram Stoker’s most famous novel -  but these tourists are visiting the scene of real-life events; to embrace the witch narrative is, subconsciously, to endorse the activities of those responsible for the trials and executions, a worrying attitude in a country where, in a recent online poll, 21% of respondents claimed to believe in the existence of witchcraft and black magic.

It is, I suppose, evidence of the growing appeal of superstition described by AK Haart and a frightening indicator of the public willingness to disregard rational explanations - and, in this case, the judicial murder of twenty people and the imprisonment of many more. In a culture where student essays defend Abigail Williams in ‘The Crucible’, it’s hard not to believe that the recent shift towards equating victimhood with credibility and a growing demand that those dissenting from current orthodoxy should ‘correct their thinking’ risk creating perfect conditions for a new generation of witchfinders.

 *It is rather fitting, somehow, that they are celebrating their history-that-never-was in the wrong place; most of the trials and executions took place in Salem Village, a separate settlement, five miles away from Salem Town and now known as Danvers.

Wednesday 20 September 2023

Sweet Counterblast

One of the notable features of the small town where I grew up was the local soft drinks factory. Thanks in part to the Temperance movement, many small towns in Scotland and Wales had independent producers  and ours was a gem. Tucked away in a cobbled side street in an old stone building, it had a small and spartan shop - just a table and a few shelves of bottles - where you brought your wooden crate of empties to replace them with full bottles of lemonade or swapped your finished soda syphon for a fresh one.

Half a century on, the local factory is long gone and, in the supermarket which now stands on the site, the shelves groan under the weight of soda cans and two-litre plastic bottles, but more has been lost than the parochial simplicity and the clink of glass. Thanks to the sugar tax, it is now frustratingly difficult to find lemonade or other fizzy drinks in which the only sweetness comes from natural sugars. For all the outward show of choice - a bewildering variety of flavours where we once swithered between lemonade, orangeade or cream soda - the options are few and far between for the shopper who wants to avoid artificial sweeteners.

The result of this, according to various smug reports, has been a reduction in childhood obesity, although one might argue that it is impossible to ascertain the exact effect in such a complicated area and numerous studies suggest that, in the long term, regular consumption of artificial sweeteners has been linked to health problems including weight gain. The NHS has jumped firmly (and predictably) on the bandwagon, advocating the selection of ‘lower sugar’ and ‘lower fat’ snacks, desserts and drinks where possible*.

It’s a classic ‘nudge’ situation, using price, availability and persuasion to change consumers’ behaviour, with a hefty dose of Nanny-knows-best thrown in, but the vast increase in what we in the Tavern refer to as SOSS (Sod Off Sans Sugar) and FOFF (Fuck Off Fat-Free) products is drastically reducing the choice available for those who prefer their food and drink to be free from lab-manufactured additives (or to avoid the bitter aftertaste of artificial sweeteners).

While larger companies have generally gone down the route of using artificial sweeteners rather than passing on the tax to customers in the form of higher prices, one avenue still remains open for those trying to avoid them; at present, small producers whose annual fizzy drink output is less than a million litres a year are exempt from the sugar tax. Their products tend to be found only in local bars or farm and village shops but they represent a tradition well worth preserving as well as a pleasing way to exercise individual choice and fight back against the nudge and I urge you to seek them out where possible.

*Its ‘healthy living’ web page recommends replacing chocolate (ingredients, at least before the ‘nudgers’ got there with the vegetable fats and emulsifiers: cocoa mass, sugar, cocoa butter, vanilla) with ‘a lower calorie hot instant chocolate drink’ (ingredients: Whey Powder, Fat Reduced Cocoa Powder, Skimmed Cows' Milk Powder, Sugar, Glucose Syrup, Coconut Oil, Polydextrose, Thickener:Guar Gum, Carrageenan:, Salt, Maltodextrin, Milk Protein Concentrate, Flavouring, Sweetener:Sucralose:, Anti-caking Agent:Silicon Dioxide:, Stabiliser:Potassium Phosphate.)

Sunday 17 September 2023

... as Christian does

Much has been made of the recent Times survey of the clergy and its conclusion (built on the somewhat sandy foundation of a 25% response rate) that Britain is no longer a Christian country.

Our distant rural forebears charted the year by the Christian festivals - Lent, Easter, Lady Day, Lammastide and so on - and attended church services as a matter of course but, for the most part, religion as practised by the general population of England was, as Elizabeth I pithily expressed it, not a matter for ‘making windows into men’s souls’ as long as they observed the correct rituals and obeyed the law of the land.

This tolerance, however, will not do for today’s C of E, at least in the experience of one of the elders of Clan Macheath. She isn’t religious but believes strongly in the importance of the village church both as a vital part of the local heritage and a hub at the centre of a small community; for her, it’s always been a clear case of ‘use it or lose it’, supported by a keen appreciation of ecclesiastical architecture, choral music and the language of the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible.

For years, she attended Matins (but not Communion) most Sundays, helped with the various flower festivals, fetes and celebrations and placed her widow’s mite in the collection plate, but that’s all over now thanks to what she calls ‘the P45 sermon’, in which the vicar made it clear that those who do not actively profess sincerely-held Christian beliefs should not be attending services - non-Communicants especially should get confirmed or stay away.

Quite apart from the incongruity of a supposedly Christian church telling people they are not welcome, it seems more than a little short-sighted to alienate members of the already-sparse congregation. The original impetus seems to have come from the Diocese, but this particular vicar seems to be pinning his hopes on recruiting the young; toys litter the side aisles, even though there are only ever a tiny handful of small children in evidence, and the church has expensive new amplifiers for electric guitars.

When the church closed for lockdown - a massive error of judgement; aside from the obvious spiritual considerations, the high ceilings and under-floor heating meant it was probably the safest indoor space in the area - the vicar confined his ministry to Zoom calls and WhatsApp, ignoring the many elderly parishioners, including the bereaved, who weren’t online; my relative and her friends asked around but found no one who had received a phone call from him, let alone a socially-distanced visit in person.*

Faced with this desertion in a time of need, a mutual support network evolved within the churchgoing community and extended its sphere into the wider village; parishioners checked up on each other, ran errands and passed on news of where help was needed or where a phone chat might lift someone’s spirits. Several of the people who kept this going throughout lockdown and beyond are among those now cast out by the vicar for being insufficiently evangelical or for the sin of not having being confirmed in childhood.

In this question of faith or good works, who, I wonder, is actually living according to Christian principles?

*By way of a contrast, a recent newspaper article described a vicar who, for as long as the churches were closed, made himself available to all by sitting outside his church door for three hours every Sunday, rain or shine..

Friday 15 September 2023

Credit Where Credit’s Due

One of the hallmarks of what passes for fame today - as manifested by a host of ‘influencers’ and television personalities - is having a ‘clothing line’, a collaboration where the celebrity earns money by endorsing a range of apparel, generating sales from social media publicity and the inevitable press attention. 

For the most part, the celebrity's role in the process is to select items from the manufacturer’s range of possible garments (I believe the influencers’ preferred term is ‘curate’, as if they were the Elgin Marbles or impressionist paintings); aside from superficialities such as colour or trimmings, all the labour over sketchbook or sewing machine is done by nameless employees of the company.

This week has seen a similar attempt to cash in on celebrity in a novel sphere, so to speak; the 19-year-old star of the TV series ‘Stranger Things’ appears on the cover of a new work of fiction as the author, even though the actual composition of the thing was the work of a ghostwriter. 

Apparently Ms Brown contributed to the process with ‘a couple of Zoom calls’ and some WhatsApp messages about her relative whose wartime experiences inspired the story, but the writing itself - the flesh and bones of the book - is the work of a woman as sidelined on the cover as the staff in the design studios where celebrity-endorsed garments actually take shape.

In the words of Longrider, who, with a number of highly readable works (and some wonderful characters) to his name, is better qualified than I to comment on this story:

Writing a novel takes a bit more than sending messages on WhatsApp. You have to be able to craft your story, build worlds and learn how to write prose and dialogue in a way that is digestible to the reader without jarring. In short, it takes effort.

Celebrity autobiographies have long used ghostwriters - a mercy, given the tortuous grammar and paucity of vocabulary of some sporting or TV personalities - and it’s common practice for accounts of real-life events, where the emphasis is on documentation rather than creation. Fiction, on the other hand, is an art form which relies heavily on the quality of the author’s prose to create a self-contained world and set the tone of the narrative.

I wonder whether Brown feels any moral qualms at passing off another woman’s work as her own or whether, as a true child of her time, like the influencer who talks of ‘designing’ a sportswear collection, she believes that her own limited input is all that matters.

Thursday 14 September 2023

On Fermi’s paradox

 I can’t be the only who thought of this...

Meanwhile, the natural forces on planet Vogsphere brought forth […] elegant gazelle-like creatures with silken coats and dewy eyes which the Vogons would catch and sit on. They were no use as transport because their backs would snap instantly, but the Vogons sat on them anyway.
Douglas Adams: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy 

...when I read this: 

People taking selfies with ponies at a tourist hotspot caused a new-born foal to fall to its death from a cliff.

Never mind splitting the atom; I’m inclined to believe that, Adams’ fictional creation notwithstanding, we are completely alone in the universe because no civilisation could ever survive its equivalent of the smartphone and social media.

Sunday 13 August 2023

The Writing on the Wall



The discovery that one can buy shit-jumbles word clouds as wall art (see previous post) raised an interesting analogy, and, perhaps, a suitable musing for a Sunday post. 

Once upon a time, the walls of many British and American homes were adorned with texts of a religious nature - ‘Thou God seest me’, ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ - often carefully crafted by friends or family members. These days, the writing on the wall is likely to be rather more secular (and effort-free); a plethora of mass-produced variations on ‘Love’, ‘Home’ or ‘Happiness’ can be picked up from the supermarket shelves along with the bananas and yoghurt, while larger framed or self-adhesive versions can be acquired at the click of a mouse. 

All of this got me thinking; for whom is this display intended? The framed religious texts of bygone ages were intended to serve a spiritual purpose for the occupants of the house; a comfort in hard times and a reassurance of divine protection, perhaps, or an exhortation to stay on the straight and narrow. While such texts, whether embroidered, carved or hand-written, were often a demonstration of skill and diligence of the part of their creators, the choice of subject matter reflected a greater purpose founded in belief. 

Today's words on the wall are far more likely to be aimed at impressing an external audience; social media has provided a way to share the contents of a private space with the world in general and show that you are keeping up with fashionable trends. While I can see the appeal of a specimen of elegant calligraphy as something to enjoy in one’s own home, much modern word art, bypassing the levels of interpretation required by more complex images, is designed to send a direct and somewhat peremptory message about what the observer should think or feel, making it the perfect art form for today’s lazy and emotionally incontinent social media culture.

Rather like the lettering on a bowl labelled ‘Dog’ - the dog can’t read and no one else is likely to eat out of it* - the content of today’s secular domestic texts is largely irrelevant to those living with them. However beautiful the lettering, written instructions to ‘cook’ and ‘eat’ in the kitchen or ‘wash’ in the bathroom are surely an exercise in redundancy, while a loving family is hardly likely to need a word cloud to testify to their mutual affection (though it’s grim to think that there are probably deeply unhappy homes out there lavishly decorated with words like ‘BLESSED’, ‘FAMILY’ or ‘HOPE’.)

Where our forebears would surround themselves with texts reminding them of a higher power, the focus of mass-produced word clouds leans heavily towards self-congratulation and outward show. Religious word displays and scripture quotations are still widely available, of course, although, in keeping with the spirit of the age, the painstaking craft of the past can now be replaced by wipe-clean vinyl, but, for the most part, the performative aspect of today’s word art is a striking testimony to the destructive cult of the self and the dual powers of ego and social media.

*update - just when you thought the things couldn’t get any more ridiculous: personalised word clouds for your dog, available in 17 different colour schemes...


Wednesday 2 August 2023

Lost For Words

Some years ago, a work colleague, having been on some kind of development course, was appointed to ‘cascade’ the content down to the rest of us, including the classroom use of what she called a ‘word salad’. (Unfortunately, it being an utterly unmemorable term for a completely pointless exercise, I had difficulty recalling it afterwards and somehow replaced it in my mental lexicon with ‘shit-jumble’, which has been my private name for the things ever since.)

It was thus something of a surprise that, looking for an example to illustrate the previous post, I found no online reference to ‘word salads’ as an educational tool. Instead, the Oxford Dictionary defines a word salad as ‘a confused or unintelligible mixture of seemingly random words’, while Merriam-Webster goes one better:

‘Word salad began as a term used in psychiatry to describe the nonsensical syntax of the mentally ill. [...] In recent years, however, a slightly different use of the term which means something closer to “nonsense” has emerged. This use of word salad usually reflects a judgment on the logic or intelligence of a person’s language, rather than on the person’s mental state.’

Given that the ‘word salad’ was enthusiastically taken up by the management and the more progressive staff, I’d say that hits it pretty squarely on the head. Despite having negligible educational value, subject-related word salads soon adorned everything from classroom walls to exercise books, while pupils were even being set to create them for homework using off-the-peg software (not exactly a demanding task; with the help of an online thesaurus, the one above took about five minutes from cut-and-paste to publication, including time to try out three different colour schemes).

My online searches eventually bore fruit; it turns out that my colleague (or the leader of her course) had the official name wrong, although she was well up with the Zeitgeist. The ‘word cloud’ has broken free of its original purpose - facilitating the analysis of metadata by visually representing keywords weighted by frequency or significance - and taken the corporate world by storm; its combination of eye-catching display with easily-generated content makes the concept irresistible to a certain type of manager - as well as being very tempting to teachers looking for an instant result with minimal effort.

The word cloud - or word salad - used in this way is a perfect manifestation of style over content, shouting keywords in a nonsensical context on corporate documents or the walls of offices and public buildings everywhere (and even, bizarrely, in a domestic setting). If you set out to design something that screams ‘shallow thinking’ or ‘empty PR gesture’, you couldn’t do much better; to borrow a singularly apt description from Shakespeare, it is ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’.

(Although I still prefer ‘shit-jumble’.)

Friday 28 July 2023

Sucker Ponchos

If ever there were a news item one fervently hoped would turn out to be a hoax, it is the description of ‘gratitude ponchos’ enthusiastically shared online by an academic involved with NHS staff training.The accompanying image shows employees wearing the ponchos - made by cutting a hole in pieces of flip-chart paper - standing in a line (wouldn’t a circle be more efficient?) while colleagues supposedly write supportive and positive messages for them on their backs.

Now I’d like to think of myself as a reasonably responsible and well-mannered individual, but I can’t be the only one thinking that, should my employers try this (and should I be unable to think of a plausible excuse to leave), I would be sorely tempted to produce something entirely out of keeping with the wholesome and affirmative intentions of the organiser. I admit it would be a low blow, especially when someone’s back is turned, but it would be hard to resist, at the very least, some sort of backhanded compliment:“You seem to have an amazing ability to identify with Year 10” perhaps, or “Your lessons always sound so lively from next door”.

Disturbingly, such a scenario is not at all out of the question; in recent years, those of us with a sense of humour have struggled valiantly not to laugh during an earnest staff training session on ‘the coat-hanger of innovation’ - complete with gift-wrapped packs of clothes-pegs for each of us “to hang our ideas on the thinking line” - and silently applauded the dignified and erudite Head of History who, when a guest speaker concluded a particularly meaningless stream of pretentious  psychobabble and asked if there were any questions, replied, “Yes; am I alone in having absolutely no idea what you are talking about?”

What worries me is that, at least in the NHS, this adviser seems to believe that the poncho* initiative, rather than eliciting universal derision (and possibly some interesting anatomical artwork), would be be taken seriously by the participants and produce the desired collection of suitable compliments to ponder and appreciate at leisure. Either she is spectacularly deluded - always a possibility in academic circles these days - or she is confident that the workplace is populated by complacent drones who would not dream of subverting such an exercise.

If it is the latter, she may have reason, al least if our recent staff training days are anything to go by; it’s noticeable that the healthy scepticism and sotto voce observations on the more egregious staff training antics are, by and large, confined to the older staffroom demographic, while the most recent recruits - the ones ready to denounce any colleague who fails to adhere to modern orthodoxy - are far more willing to play along, accustomed as they are to mass virtue-signalling and observance of progressive rituals.

A family friend, born in 1930s Germany but now a proud British citizen, says that, in her opinion, the rise of the Nazis could not have happened in Britain because of what she calls ‘the ever-present voice in the back row’: the quick-witted irreverence and mocking of pomposity inherent in our culture. It is, as my mother says, ‘in with the bricks’, a part of us which has survived wars, religious oppression and hard times but is now under threat as never before from the media-backed forces of political correctness and groupthink.

Still, let’s not give way to pessimism; when it comes to staff training days, here’s hoping that the younger generation will eventually grow up and stop doing as they are told!

*Do you think we could persuade the Mexicans to go after her for cultural appropriation?

Sunday 23 July 2023

‘And did those feet...’

Things have been rather quiet here partly because I’ve been doing a lot of walking in various scenic locations, much of it in the company of venerable but intrepid members of Clan Macheath.

Thus it was that I recently tackled a section of the Cornwall Coastal Path in the role of guide, Sherpa and helper-over-stiles to an assortment of female relatives in their eighth and ninth decades. They are a jolly and talkative bunch and, as we progressed merrily along, they were keen to explain how much of their enjoyment of the walk stemmed from their shared appreciation of a television series on the area - and, indirectly, of its presenter, Michael Portillo.

“Just think,” exclaimed one of them in awed tones, “he probably walked along this very stretch of path!”  “Ooh yes!” cooed the others, stopping for a moment’s reverential contemplation of the vista once enjoyed by the politician-turned-broadcaster. The ladies in question are relatively apolitical - although one did go rather pink as she recounted how a canvassing Nigel Farage once shook her by the hand (rather literally, I gather; she’s not very big and he was rather enthusiastic) - but Michael Portillo clearly had the collective seal of approval.

What was particularly interesting, though, was the revelation, in the discussion which followed, that none of these ladies wants to vote Conservative. They concede that they might be obliged to do so in the case of potentially disastrous local candidates for the other parties, but they are unanimous that they have had enough; enough of Party infighting and backbiting, enough of pointless targets and ill-informed virtue-signalling policies, enough of the myriad shortcomings of the NHS and, above all, enough of being, as one of them put it, ‘farmed’ by the state for fees and taxes while their interests are largely ignored.

Quite rightly, they point out that they survived bombing and wartime disruption as children (one was actually born under the kitchen table during an air raid) and then endured years of rationing for the common good. They and their friends have worked hard, many of them in public service, and raised families and have, as they see it, a major stake in the society they helped to create in the post-war decades, but now they feel utterly abandoned by a government which expects them to do everything online and stands idly by while they are vilified for their age, presumed opinions and supposed ‘privilege’.

Since election strategy, like so many other things these days, is in the hands of statistical computer types - not to mention people of an age to dismiss the elderly as irrelevant - I wonder whether the Conservative party may be under the mistaken and patronising impression that these older voters will stick to their previous voting patterns. Truly we live in interesting times!

Saturday 17 June 2023

No Country For Old Men (or Women)

The Guardian reported this week on the record number of teachers baling out.

The latest workforce survey by the Department for Education (DfE) found that 40,000 teachers resigned from state schools last year – almost 9% of the teaching workforce, and the highest number since it began publishing the data in 2011 – while a further 4,000 retired. 
From observation, I’d guess that the 40,000 includes many who have opted for early retirement but are still technically of working age; this represents something of a looming crisis because, while the government points out that nearly 48,000 joined the profession in the same year, this is not like-for-like replacement. The current orthodoxy - that teacher training is all - means that experienced specialists in Physics or Chemistry could well be replaced in the A level classroom by NQTs with, say, a Sports Science degree from a former polytechnic (assuming the school finds a new physics teacher at all).

From friends and family to chance meetings on walking holidays or elsewhere, we are encountering newly-retired teachers in their fifties all over the place, many of them in the shortage subjects like Physics, Chemistry or Modern Languages. Being in the business ourselves we know that, unless they have other sources of income, these teachers will have taken a substantial financial hit to get out before the age of 60.

The Guardian doesn’t have to look far for an explanation:
Teaching unions blamed poor working conditions and the long-term erosion in pay for the exodus, while Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, said: “This is yet more evidence that this incompetent Conservative government has created the perfect storm in recruitment and retention of teachers. 
With rather more of a worm’s-eye view of the situation, I’d beg to differ, at least over the direct culpability of the government. True, older teachers have long been accustomed to seeing their incomes outstripped by friends who went into other jobs or professions, but those who objected would have left years ago, while younger staff went into the profession knowing the pay structures. Government initiatives do make extra work and complicate the job, certainly, but they have far less impact than the day-to-day frustrations generated by the antics of senior management - at least the sort of heads and deputies who manage to impress interview panels and climb the greasy pole In today’s climate. 

And then there’s the fear factor. Barely a week seems to go by at present without news that yet another unfortunate teacher has fallen foul of the management over issues of gender or allegations from pupils and, in cases like the subject of the previous post, it’s increasingly hard to escape a sense of ‘there but for the grace of God’, especially given the way some younger colleagues seem ready - or even compelled - to harangue their elders about gender identity and white privilege at every opportunity. With pupil behaviour plumbing new depths and orthodoxy saying ‘believe the victim’, teachers are more vulnerable than ever before to accusations from all sides.

One school I know publishes a staff list in order of arrival at the school (the list was recently reinstated after a brief hiatus when one of the high-ups apparently decided it was too divisive or hierarchical or something) and it highlights what may be a national trend; twenty years ago, the majority of those named were long-serving teachers who had been at the school for ten years or more, last year, three-fifths - sixty percent of the teaching staff - had been in place for less than five years.

This influx of mainly younger staff, together with the resulting lack of continuity and stability for staff and pupils alike, is changing the nature of the working environment, creating an embattled older minority of teachers wearied by virtue-signalling brash young colleagues, endless awareness courses and pointless schemes and initiatives, all the while living in constant fear of denunciation for saying or doing something which would have been perfectly acceptable a decade ago but which, today, could end a career or worse. Small wonder, then, that many are choosing to retire early, despite the financial penalties.

It’s nothing new for older staff to feel under-valued in a progressive climate and children will survive this as they have survived previous upheavals in education, but it’s hard not to feel frustrated at the wasted opportunities and the vast amount of wisdom and experience being lost from the system. 

Wednesday 14 June 2023

“I saw [insert name here] with the Devil!”

Another day, another witch-hunt.

This one (updated here) concerns an experienced History teacher in his fifties working in supply who, despite initial reservations, agreed to cover a year 7 science lesson for an absent colleague, teaching from National Curriculum resources on puberty. He thought the lesson had gone well but, at the end of the following day, the supply agency contacted him to tell him there had been a complaint.

Apparently the pupils, two of whom had been diagnosed with gender dysphoria, were upset by his attempts to explain and contextualise the information and had accused him of crude gender stereotyping; instead of dealing with it internally and asking him to clarify the matter, the school had reported him directly to the local authority safeguarding body.

The authority immediately cleared him of any wrongdoing (and, he says, ‘criticised the school’) but the head still chose to escalate the matter and referred him to the DBS (Disclosure and Barring Service, the body which clears teachers to work with children - or bans them from doing so). The DBS finally confirmed last week that there was ‘no case to answer’ but the damage has been done; the referral must be reported to all prospective employers for the next five years and, as numerous unjustly wrecked careers will testify, head teachers often prefer to believe there’s no smoke without fire. 

From professional experience, I’d say this whole business smells very odd indeed. Covering a single lesson for an absent colleague in another department almost always means providing supervision while pupils complete set tasks or homework; it is very unusual for a non-specialist cover teacher to be asked to present new material to pupils, let alone deliver a lesson in such a sensitive subject area. 

As for his alleged comments, he is supposed to have crammed a surprisingly large amount of offensive gender-stereotyping into a single lesson and the phraseology sounds interestingly uniform in tone and language register. Mr Higgins describes the allegations as ‘untrue’, taken out of context or the result of a misunderstanding - to that list a cynic might be tempted to add potentially leading questions, unwitting or otherwise, on the part of those investigating the affair.

(On the subject of the reliability of pupil recollection, I was once summoned to explain why a year 7 pupil had written, for homework, a poem about ‘punishment beatings’ and ‘guts hanging on barbed wire’, which he insisted had been the subject of my English lesson. It took the demonstration of twenty-odd rather wobbly but uniformly charming haiku about trees, clouds and flowers to convince the management that, prompted by the mention of Japan, he had spent that part of the lesson daydreaming about his favourite [and completely age-inappropriate] WWII computer game).

All in all, it looks suspiciously like a set-up; a humanities supply teacher instructed to deliver a science lesson - on puberty, of all things! - without being informed that the class contained two pupils with gender dysphoria. For the head teacher then to ignore the findings of the local authority safeguarding committee and go directly to the DBS - a course of action usually reserved for serious concerns about sexual or physical abuse - suggests that someone was determined to ensure Mr Higgins would never teach again. 

It’s always possible that a young or inexperienced head was manipulated by a cabal of aggressively self-righteous pupils (the world of ‘The Crucible’ gets closer every day; it’s worth bearing in mind that the real Abigail Williams was only twelve years old) but, based on the hostility of some younger colleagues towards those of us deemed deficient in virtue-signalling fervour* and their apparent lack of any sense of humour (or proportion), I would not rule out the possibility that Mr Higgins, possibly unwittingly, gave offence to a militant activist among the staff (or senior management) who decided, for the greater good, to remove him from the profession by any means possible, including exploiting his willingness to help a colleague by teaching a lesson completely outside his area of expertise.

*As an illustration, I once had to defend myself against another teacher’s accusation of endorsing misogyny and promoting ‘toxic masculinity’’ while teaching ‘Of Mice and Men’, a GCSE set text; apparently, when quoting from the text, I failed to include sufficient condemnation of Steinbeck’s attitude to women. (I should, perhaps, point out that I am, unequivocally, female).

Friday 2 June 2023

‘Double, double, toil and trouble,..’

‘Masterchef’ isn’t the sort of place where one would expect to find inspiration for social comment but I’m still mulling over an odd moment in one of the recent rounds where a competitor was discussing his plan with the judges.

“I’m taking you back to seventeenth-century Salem” he said, explaining his witch-themed creation of a cauldron-based dish served with a ‘monster’s eyeball’ and brightly-coloured slime and accompanied by a pastiche of the witches’ incantation from Macbeth. It was undoubtedly creative (albeit in a rather lowbrow trick-or-treat way) and apparently very well executed but I was finding it hard to concentrate because I was still struggling with his original comment - after all, wasn’t the whole point that there weren’t any actual witches in Salem?

I’ve mentioned ‘The Crucible’ a couple of times recently - the parallels in the world of social media and public life are, alas, inescapable - and, in the course of research, discovered that the social media generation may be interpreting the plot in a novel and somewhat disturbing way. By turning Abigail Williams into a victim and casting the townsfolk as the villains of the piece, the way is opened for a reading in which “I saw Goody Proctor with the Devil” can be accepted as a believable statement.

The aspiring chef’s conflation of the Salem witch-trials and Macbeth was apparently inspired by a film -  a product of the usual Hollywood dumbing-down and distortion of history - about actual witches in seventeenth century Massachusetts, presumably leading to the same sort of muddled thinking which has people believing that Frankenstein was a monster with a bolt through his neck. Apart from sadly traducing the innocent (200 accused and 20 executed in a relatively small community), this confusion completely undermines Arthur Miller’s allegory and the point he was making about the evil of witch hunts.

In a world where Oprah fans, defending an imposter who promoted a false misery memoir on the show, can condemn ‘the facts squad; these people make me sick!’ and Prince Harry opines ‘There's just as much truth in what I remember and how I remember it as there is in so-called objective facts’, the play’s courtroom scene becomes a veritable quagmire of shifting truths and values - a problem which has chilling implications for the use of a jury to decide legal cases. If Abigail is assigned the moral superiority and credibility now accorded to victimhood, goes the argument, her truth must be valid, ergo Goody Proctor must be guilty of witchcraft.

Even before this shift in values, my faith in trial by jury was irretrievably undermined when, after some years in a different subject area, I took over another teacher’s English GCSE class and read their coursework essays on ‘Macbeth’; I still shudder at the thought of an innocent defendant trusting in the verdict of jurors who, a few years earlier, despite having read the play and watched a film version, struggled to identify the murderer of Duncan (or, in one case, insisted that it couldn’t have been Macbeth ‘because it’s never the person you think it is at first’).

With the concept of truth under attack from all directions and in an increasingly complex world, trial by jury may be reaching the end of its usefulness as an institution; what hope is there for justice in a world where people believe there really were witches in Salem?