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

Friday 26 June 2020

The madding crowd

In the last couple of days, this quote has once again* sprung irresistibly to mind:
'Now that all the seals and their wives were on the land, you could hear their clamour miles out to sea above the loudest gales. At the lowest counting there were over a million seals on the beach – old seals, mother seals, tiny babies and holluschickie, fighting, scuffling, bleating, crawling, and playing together – going down to the sea and coming up from it in gangs and regiments, lying over every foot of ground as far as the eye could reach...'
Rudyard Kipling: 'The White Seal' from 'The Jungle Book' (if you thought it was all singing bears and dancing monkeys, do take a look!)
The media are, of course, doing their best to swell the numbers with a nifty bit of reverse psychology that seems to have stirred trippers from impossibly far afield (did that woman in Bournemouth really say she had come down from Macclesfield?) - 'if all those people are there, it must be worth the trip!'  (Since such reasoning tends to be the province of the least discerning citizens, it's small wonder that residents of seaside towns are despairing in the face of inconsiderate parking and used nappies (or worse) being dumped in their gardens.)

The more people on the beaches (and the larger the amount of residual litter), the greater the news value; what better incentive for a paper to pay cursory lip-service to the government warnings while publishing happy vox pops and abundant images showing hordes of jam-packed sunbathers stretching into the distance, families scoffing ice-cream or bikini-clad young women blithely frolicking in the waves? 'Wish you were here!'

It's one of the more worrying aspects of instant mass media - show the event and, within minutes, people are setting out to be part of it. To that we can now add social media - a whole new platform for attracting people to a gathering, whatever its purpose; the resident who described young men arriving in Brixton en masse in a series of taxis as the police came under pressure may have chronicled a phenomenon which will, in future, be all too familiar.

It's over ten years since I wrote this...
In 1973, Larry Niven's novella 'Flash Crowd' featured rioting and looting as the unforeseen consequence of mass teleportation; in the near future, we may see it happening as a direct result of 24 hour rolling news.
... and nine years since we saw it happen here, aided and abetted by Twitter and Blackberry messenger. In Niven's version - where, among other events, a crowd gathering on a Californian beach causes a 'major incident' - the authorities are finally advised to stop all travel into a 'flash crowd' area, which is probably not an option open to our thin blue line, even if their high-ups were prepared to give the order.

Since, according to the late, great Terry Pratchett,
“The intelligence of that creature known as a crowd is the square root of the number of people in it.” (Jingo)
and we can't put the social media genie back in the bottle (more's the pity!), I suspect we are likely to see a lot more of this kind of thing in the future.

*Originally used in this post

Friday 12 June 2020

"We got a meeting with some guys from outta town..."

My inbox has been relatively free, recently, of missives from 'Kevin and Mary' of the NEU, although Kevin has been indulging in a certain amount of triumphalism elsewhere, hailing the decision to postpone opening schools as a "win for science and for every member" (which is odd, given that this member, at least, considers the continued disruption of education to be an unmitigated disaster).

Now, however, I have been invited to join a Zoom call - sorry, a 'very important Zoom call'; I forgot the customary NEU hyperbole. The Union has arranged an 'exclusive BLM solidarity webinar' to discuss, among other things, 'systemic racism and COVID-19' - an impressively prescient (or suspiciously well-informed) anticipation of the findings of the PHE study which have just appeared in the press.

Having filled in the registration form and answered the vital question 'How do you self-identify in terms of ethnic origin?'*, one may sit at the virtual feet of some notable speakers: Kevin and Mary must surely be beside themselves with oleaginous smugness at having secured the Reverend Jesse Jackson Sr (accompanied by - of all people - Diane Abbott MP.)

What intrigues me, however, is the appearance part-way down the list of an unnamed 'Chicago Teaching Union representative' - is it me, or does this phrase have a slightly sinister ring, given the history of US labour unions? And why Chicago, of all places? After all, it's hardly as if things are going particularly well there at the moment...

It seems an odd use of Union funds - I understand that Ms Abbott, for one, does not come cheap, even in digital form. Our glorious leaders clearly see a window of opportunity (or possibly a handy political bandwagon) but I find it difficult to understand how the Reverend Jackson or the mysterious 'Chicago Representative', however inspiring as orators, will be able to speak with any authority on education in the United Kingdom.

*Surely a triumph of ideology over DNA: do you think I could get away with 'Vulcan' - or possibly 'None of your business'?

Tuesday 9 June 2020

Sowing the seeds

From a previous post:

Many years ago, I was working in a school in an ethnically diverse area with significant discipline problems and poor exam results (some of the reasons for that are discussed here). Homework frequently presented a problem - I had one pupil who did his at a table in the corner of a takeaway restaurant - and a certain flexibility was often required.

Sometimes, though, it was necessary to complete an assignment in order to understand the next lesson. In one such case, I told a boy to come back to the classroom at lunchtime, when I would be at my desk marking and could give him any help he needed. He looked doubtful:

Pupil: Is this a detention, like?
Me: No; it's so you can finish that work before this afternoon's lesson, otherwise you won't understand what we're doing.
Pupil: So I don't need to report it then?
Me: Report it?
Pupil: To Mr H.
Me: (baffled) Who's Mr H?
Pupil: He runs my Saturday school.

This was the first I'd heard of it, so I asked him to explain. The boy told me he had started attending a Saturday school intended to improve the academic achievement of afro-caribbean boys. So far so good - I told him how pleased I was that he was taking his education seriously - but there was more:

'Mr H says that we have to tell him if a white teacher gives us a detention. If there are no white kids in the detention, that's racist. If you tell me off and don't tell any white kids off, that's racist too; Mr H said so.'

I asked for more details; it turned out the boys had been instructed to give Mr H the names of any 'racist' teachers who told them off - a worrying prospect for staff living in the catchment area. The same applied to white teachers who criticised black pupils' behaviour or even asked them to tidy their appearance

It was only after I left the school that the full irony of the situation became clear to me; I found out that the Saturday school in question had been started with contributions from a national televised charity appeal. Well-meaning people from all over the country had put their hands in their pockets to enable Mr H to undermine the teacher-pupil relationship.


That boy must now be in his mid-forties; I wonder what he thinks of the current situation - and, more pertinently, what Mr H is doing now.