The Spectator Notes
CHARLES MOORE At the same time as it tries to loosen things up, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is told by the Education Secretary, Alan Johnson, that schools must put more emphasis on 'global warming, the British slave trade and the anti-slavery campaign, Britishness, the British Empire, racism and ethnicity, immigration, Commonwealth, cookery'. It would hardly have looked out of place in this semi-random list if Mr Johnson had added, in the manner of Private Eye, 'grapefruit segments'. It may or may not be good to teach children about these things, though one notes that in the days when 'Britishness' was most clearly understood in our culture, the formal curriculum preferred to teach Roman-ness' and 'Greek-ness'. But what good is done by government prescription? What qualifies Mr Johnson, amiable though he is, to work out that what our children need is more cakebaking or study of Olaudah Equiano or reading the Stern Report? One of the greatest mistakes — it was a Conservative one — was to legislate for what must be taught. Schools, independent of central or local government order, should work out the curriculum, and parents, armed with the power of choice, should be able to decide whether they approve. External exams should test what is actually being achieved. And government should shut up.
Mr Johnson also thinks that it would be good to learn Mandarin because it is the language of future economic power. When Harold Wilson was prime minister, he was very excited by the suggestion that the new wave of British universities should all teach Russian, for similar reasons. The truth is that, for most English-speakers, the practical reasons for learning a foreign language are now almost negligible. Our tongue has conquered the world. It is good to learn foreign languages because of what the experience does to your mind, not because of a flawed calculation about what job it might get you. Actually, by far the most important non-European language for understanding the modern world is Arabic. But I suppose Mr Johnson dare not say that.
Acouple of years ago I noticed in a Christie's auction catalogue an oil painting described as being 'Circle of Henry Herbert Le Thangue, RA (1859-1929)'. The subject was 'A baby in swaddling clothes'. Looking harder, I could see that it was more unusual than that. The swaddled babe was lying at the foot of a flight of steps, and out of the black shawl wrapped round it protruded an envelope. The baby was a foundling and the envelope presumably contained a plea to whoever might find him to look after him We bought the picture for £700, and I look at it often, especially during this row about gay adoption. The Sexual Orientation Regulations which have created all the fuss prescribe that there must be no discrimination in the provision of 'goods or services'. Therefore, the promoters of gay adoption argue, the service must not discriminate against homosexual couples seeking to adopt. But surely the 'service' here provided is not for the adopters, but for the children. Even the most fundamentalist gay rights advocate cannot argue that the sexual orientation of the children is something that the agencies should take into account; so where is the discrimination? I look again at my 'baby in swaddling clothes' with his hands outstretched, and think how our age's obsessions are just as madly irrelevant, in their different way, as were some of the religious controversies of the 19th century.
There was another auction last week. The item of interest to me, sold in Gloucestershire, was — I quote from the Dominic Winter catalogue — `the original wooden cash till from the Roberts's family grocery store and local Post Office at North Parade, Grantham, Lincolnshire'. Containing an original dog licence issued there and dated 13 January 1943, the till has the 'original till-opening bell present and in good working order with the wonderful old "k'ching" sound'. Being Mrs Thatcher's biographer, I was tempted to bid, but stuck to the sound journalist's rule that one should never put one's money where one's mouth is.
The till is not beautiful but it is a rather wonderful reminder of the formation of the young Margaret's beliefs. The bidder who got it for £540 did well. What would similarly capture Tony Blair's world-view? What will be his leching'? A cheque made out to the Labour party by a future baron?
The inaugural meeting of the Rectory Club last week in St George's, Hanover Square, was a resounding success. The 200 people gathered reminded one that, as the late Auberon Waugh used to point out, there is an educated, kindly, humorous England which still thrives, but is mysteriously excluded from the airwaves. We listened to Lucy Lambton expound passionately on the culture — social, religious and artistic — that the nation's old rectories and vicarages represent; and then settled down to debate what our new organisation could do to advance this culture. I was struck by how strongly people feel that the buildings which once served a public, local purpose should still do so. Modern church premises are often mean and small, and seldom have gardens. Owners of old vics and recs should try to help. We exchanged thoughts about how best to do this without falling foul of Health and Safety. Our ambitions also extend to arranging visits to the buildings, setting up regional (diocesan?) branches, and making an inventory of all the more than 10,000 such houses in the British Isles. Our meeting showed that the will is there. But the way requires a volunteer who can devote several months to mastering the information and setting up a full, interactive website. If various discrimination acts did not prevent it, I would say that we are looking for a young retired person, or a woman whose children are more or less grown-up. It is no good if you love the subject but are impractical, or if you are practical but have no interest in the subject. Volunteers please contact email@example.com.
Tast week we received a note saying that a letter could not be delivered to us because the sender had not paid the full postage. I went crossly down to the post office and asked to be shown the envelope. I halfrecognised the writing of a friend and so paid £1.05. It turned out to be an invitation to her 50th birthday. She had forgotten that the new rules of postage charge not for weight but for size, and so had sent out a beautiful, large card of her own design to hundreds of people, using only a normal first-class stamp. Ringing to tease about this, I found I was by no means the first. Now that we have each paid a guinea, we shall be demanding guests.