…to Bexhill-on-Sea at the weekend to see the Ladybird Books exhibition at the De La Warr Pavilion. In infant school I learned to read using the Ladybird Early Reading series – and I owned countless others of the books. As the introduction to the exhibition stated, in their 1960s and 70s heyday, they presented children with an optimistic, clear-cut and wide-ranging view of the world, albeit one that was Anglo-centric and rather stuck with role stereotypes. Whatever; I loved many of those books and am pretty certain they played a part in fostering a general interest in the world at large that has stayed with me ever since.
The De La Warr Paviliion was also built on optimism – one of the few first-rate examples of early modernism to be built in Britain. It is a superb building, overlooking the Channel, built in the 1930’s to offer people life-improving exposure to light, clean air and culture that was part of the modernists’ creed. It remains a true ‘palace of the people’ and I find it hugely uplifting every time I visit.
But Bexhill is still clearly on its uppers; despite the recent renovation of the Pavilion, relatively little benefit seems to be spreading into the town at large. Last time I was there, I encountered Grayson Perry and entourage departing an exhibition (s)he was curating; clearly the Art Set just glide in and out, without ever going near the town. Or maybe it’s that nobody in the town has the imagination to see what an asset they have on their doorsteps, and come up with a plan to breathe new life on the back of it…
The following day, we went to Guildford. This is the county town of the richest county in England, and it shows in the shops. It has one of only three branches of Heals outside London and a High-Street full of up-market stores, where bored-looking young mothers stood around while their primary-age daughters underwent full makeovers on the designer cosmetics stands. But once you get off the admittedly attractive main drag, the roads are pot-holed, the pavements uneven, and the fabric of the town largely a mix of run-down looking Victoriana, inter-war estates and 1980’s developer-corporate – pretty much like every other London dormitory town. For all the evident wealth, it feels soulless, as though there is little to do there on a Sunday afternoon except blow large amounts of cash… Maybe I’m being unfair to both places – I’m aware that impressions gained from flying visits have their limitations, even though I have actually visited both towns several times.
As we wound our way back through the drab, endless south-London suburbia to our friends’ home, I found myself wondering about the lives lived in such impersonal, featureless places, where people seem to have little to do except conspicuously consume – or else remind you that they are unable to. How have we allowed such huge disparities of wealth and opportunity to arise, or come to the point that so many of our people, rich and poor alike, appear to live in places that just crush the soul?
This is what the economisation of Britain has really achieved: the common factor is the loss of idealism – the failure to know that life is, or can be, about more than how much cash you have. Money does not breed imagination, or vision, or an interest in the less tangible aspects of a good life. And people at the other end of the scale may simply not be in a position to consider such things – except that one wonders whether even the meanest of lives might be alleviated by a life of the mind, as the architects of the Pavilion believed.
In fact the good folk of Guildford are little different from those whose children I teach. Conversations with them in the run-up to the General Election have only emphasised how few of them have any aspirations for their later lives other than the earning and spending of huge amounts of cash. Education to them is merely a passport to that world.
They seem to have almost no awareness of the society in which we all live, let alone any sense of shared purpose or responsibility towards it. They widely consider it “unfair” that tax might need to be increased on the wealthy in order to rebalance lives in what has now become the most unequal nation in the developed world. They widely have little time for ethical or environmental issues, or seemingly anything that might get between them and their next shopping trip.
And they aren’t even very sympathetic to the argument that taxation provides communal goods from which they too might benefit, in the form of more reliable infrastructure or more liveable towns. Maybe their answer will be to live in the gated ‘communities’ on the outskirts of towns such as Guildford.
They have little time for the worlds of culture, learning or voluntary activity; their only aim seems to be to grab as large a slice of the cake for themselves as they can, so that in their turn they can blow it on their kids’ designer makeovers.
The newspaper this weekend reported the ongoing exodus of teachers from the profession, and today it is full of the usual responses from those within it. When I entered teaching, I did so with an idealism that in some small way, I would be helping to build a better future for our country and our people. I firmly believed that the way to do so was by liberating people’s ability to think for themselves, to escape from the constraints of received thinking and to envision of what a better society might be like.
I retain that idealism – it’s what, above all, gets me to work on a Monday morning; I can’t just do it for the purpose of fattening the wallets of the already-rich. Yet even some of my colleagues tell me I’m naive, that education is indeed only about maximising economic output, that building things like the arts, clean environments and healthy, caring communities are unrealistic objectives. Some of them even seem to believe that much of the population is effectively uneducable.
On the evidence of the weekend, such ideals do indeed seem to have deserted even the better-off end of our island. And if those who have gained the most from increasing affluence can’t see any more purpose in it than a tub of expensive make-up, then I fear our Society, in any meaningful sense of the word, is sunk.
I do not expend the effort I do each week for this – and dare I say it, I do know that not all countries nearby suffer from this malaise…
Maybe I’m just getting old.