An Open Letter to Ed Balls: everyone has a theory about something.

Dear Ed,

(I hope you don’t mind me calling you Ed: we’ve never met, but I have a theory that you wouldn’t mind, you being the affable kind of bloke that you are. I’m sure we’d have a few pints in my local, The Fly and the Loaf in Liverpool, and I’m sure we’d leave on good terms, having disagreed to disagree on many countless matters including what the best German lager in town is. My argument would be that it would be Veltins, but my theory is that you would probably disagree. No matter: that’s not why I’m writing to you right now.)

In your call today for there to be “more to education than theoretical learning”, you’ve joined a long line of distinguished politicians and educators who have deep philosophical reservations about the concept of theory and its relation to practice. My theory about you and your colleagues is that ‘theory’ is an alien concept which has no place in your so called ‘real world’ of pragmatic learning which promotes and drills skills, skills and yet more skills into learners. In this ‘real world’ learning is ‘delivered’; ‘academic’ is an insult and the person who suggested that teaching and learning is not a simple causal relationship should have been shot at birth, or whenever it was some lefty trendy academic theoretician invented him or her.

The trouble is, Ed, is that we all love a good theory. This includes you with your theory that there is more to education than theoretical learning. Of course there’s more to education than any one form of intellectual engagement (there’s another dirty word for you, Ed – intellectual): there’s practical engagement, there’s emotional engagement, there’s social engagement, there’s sensual engagement: there’s lots of forms of engagement but my theory is that your forensic like focus on the word ‘theoretical’ is to try and assuage the leading educational commentators of the Daily Mail (who they?) and its acolytes (who they ditto?) that you are following their theory free zones like all good pragmatic, cautious and entirely uninspiring commentators before them.

Perhaps Ed, if you had offered the theory that learning is more than any one fashionable fixation and will always perplex us in its difficulty and complexity, you might have persuaded a lot more of us that you were the politician to lead us out a neo-Govian future. But my theory (cough – spot the Monty Python reference) is that you didn’t because you can’t and so we won’t.

More’s the pity.

Best wishes and mine’s a pint,

Nick

An Open Letter to David Bowie: Scotland needs You!

Dear David,

We have thought for some time that your absence on the contemporary UK political scene has had a deleterious effect on the output of the once impressive BBC 1 programme, The Brit Awards.

Since your demise, the programme has struggled with ratings and the quality of the up and coming acts is not what it was. I remember the day when your first appearance was marked with shock and surprise in lower suburbia. Then there followed years of neglect by you of the political life of our shores save for one misinterpreted Nazi salute at Victoria Station in London in 1976.

But no longer: your intervention last night on the impending referendum on Scottish Independence was an act of genius, produced and performed in your own inimitable style.

Dressing up as Kate Moss was the first clue.  We all knew the moment that ‘she’ walked on stage that it was really you tottering along in those high heels, trying to avoid the cables and rubber mats which threatened to reveal your carefully dressed secret.  The second sign was when some lackey pretended to mime Kate Moss’s voice in a gruff Bromley accent.  You mimicking kate Moss who in turn mimicked a middle age Bromley-ite mimicking Kate Moss?  Only you, David, only you.

But you saved the tour de force to the last minute:  ‘Scotland, stay with us’ mewed ‘Kate’. Simple. Direct. Powerful.  Momentous, in the only way you knew how.  Some might say that your opinion was trite; that it was vacuous; that it showed staggering hypocrisy given your place of residence and given your tax affairs; that it was the signs of a worn out rocker who couldn’t summon up anything like a half decent album and who should have hung up his heels at the turn of the century.

But not us.  Your rejuvenated and disruptive intervention at the BRITS last night gave all us long standing David Bowie fans cause for hope and a belief that there is life in the old dog yet.  There is one more album to come, isn’t there David? Something which will summon up all that was brilliant about Man Who Sold The World, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane: there is, isn’t there David? There is more to come, isn’t there?

Mr Bowie, perhaps you could be so kind as to tell us when you will be gracing the public stage with your wit and repartee? Your suits dazzled us, your shoes were a mystery to my younger brother and sister and your hair do left my school friends and I in fits of giggles. Pray, please be so kind as to tell us by return of post when we can expect to hear something that will match the emotional depths of the haunting refrain that was ‘The Laughing Gnome’.

Your favourable response is eagerly awaited.

An Open Letter to Russell Brand: Voting. So what?

So, yes, Russell, democracy ain’t perfect. Voting is a corrupted and corruptible process. History will show us what we want to look for and voting will either be the peak of human endeavour or a sleazy, compromised dance of settlement with partners you’d not want to get too close to in case you catch something nasty like realpolitik.

But Mr. Brand, marvellous entertaining and uplifting man that you are, voting is the best it’s gonna get for the time being. And I don’t mean the macro choices of Cameron Heavy, Cameron Light or Cameron Rosé. I mean the voting in the little places of the classroom, the workplace or the pub on a Friday night when we might rashly vote to go for a kebab or stay for another Subrowka shot.

We need constantly to practice our voting skills in all sorts of places and at all sorts of times – and often in the knowledge that whilst the ‘majority’ voice should be heard, the ‘minority’ voices also need listening to – otherwise we face a future of loud mouth boorish fat bastards in blazers calling all the shots about which pub to drink in, which school lunchtime option to gobble down and which Labour Party leader gets elected by what kind of vote.

The issue about the act of voting is not about whether you ignore it – but it’s about how you can do it more often, more sophisticatedly and with more joy in the complexities it offers us when it comes to understanding the social lives we are woven into.

An Open Letter to Jose Mourinho: listen for once to the words of Heraclitus.

Dear Jose,

Much has been made of your return to Chelsea, much of it by yourself but you could do well to take notice of the words of the Greek left back, Heraclitus, and patron saint of football who said “δὶς ἐς τὸν αὐτὸν ποταμὸν οὐκ ἂν ἐμβαίης”.

This roughly translates as “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

Jose, he was the first to coin the phrase the beautiful game in Fragments (2001) translated by Brooks Haxton: “Time is a game played beautifully by children” and of course it’s been a huge shame over the last 13 years that you and the rest of your premiership, FIFA and oligarch buddies have distorted that sentiment into the bloated gargantuan that the game now has become.

But as Heraclitus also pointed out, ‘Nothing endures but change‘ so perhaps us fans and commentators are as guilty of trying to step into the same river as you are.

The beautiful game might have been a beautiful oasis back in the 70s when Stuart Hall (of all people) coined the phrase about Manchester City – but since then it’s turned into a river bed, bled dry by the commercial monsters  who’ve polluted the springs from which it flowed.

Not that I wish you ill, Jose, but mid table mediocrity for your team this season would be a fitting destiny for someone who’s trying to step twice into the same river.

I blame the parents! Why not hitting your grades has nothing to do with you.

Along with childhood obesity, teenage ennui and the English riots of 2011, the failure of all young people this summer not to achieve 100% in all their exam results can all be levelled at the doors of their wayward parents who clearly have not suffered long enough or hard enough in order to get their offspring to meet the highest GCSE grades that our pristine education system prides itself on.

If you haven’t made the grade and have ended up in a university you never wanted to attend in a city you’ve never heard of – don’t worry, it’s clearly your parents fault, the fault of the parents of those poor misguided examiners who set the exams in the first place and ultimately the fault of Michael Gove’s parents for producing a human being whose educational mission is driven by important 21st century values of tradition, servitude and deference to the great and the good of the past – and their parents too of course.

Your parents are also no doubt are also suffering from their parents’ wilful mistakes in bringing them up, so it’s no wonder we’re all going to hell in a handcart with no more than 2 grade U’s and a cycling proficiency test between us all.

It’s tough being a parent these days. Not only are you responsible for your offsprings choice of teenage rebellion, you have to bear the brunt of their inability to dress properly, listen to the right music, buy the right newspaper, vote for the right party and do as the media instructs.

This summer though, instead of beating yourself about your parental breast about why your nearest and dearest have failed yet again to find the holy grail of true perfection, why not just set a torch to those newspapers, throw those parent manuals on the funeral pyre of parental disappointments and wave your offspring a cheery farewell as they sail into their freshers week, their gap year or their close encounters of the wierdest kind down at the job centre?

They won’t thank you for it – indeed, they’ll take great delight in blaming you for it when the going gets tough – but you can sleep peacefully knowing you never did your best because of your own parents inabilities to bring you up as an upstanding model citizen.

As Philip Larkin put it:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

An Open Letter to Chris Evans: Score yourself out of 10: 1 billion? Well done you!

The British DJ, Chris Evans, has a slot on his primetime radio show in the morming where he invites children to tell the audience what they are going to do for the first time ever that day. The next day he phones them back and asks them how the experience was, and for them to “score yourself out of 10” as a way of self-evaluating the experience.

A few children self deprecatingly give themselves a modest 6 or 7 out of 10 but many more jump into the self evaluation task with glee and award themselves anything from 11 to 3000 to a billion out of 10.

And well done them! If only every self evaluation process was so generous in its spirit, so forthcoming with the marks and the ticked-up boxes. Wouldn’t it be great if, on completing our driving test and being asked by the instructor how well we thought we had done after running over that cyclist, we could return with the answer ‘masterly’?

Wouldn’t it just take the biscuit if when being asked how much tax we had paid last year we could say, like all the big grown up companies out there, that we had paid a zillion pounds in corporation tax rather than the sixpence ha’penny our accountants had racked up on our behalf?

No more will OfSTED be able to rank a school as satisfactory when the children will say it is supercalfragilisticexpialidocious and award everyone working in it pay rises of over a squillion per cent.

Chris Evans is doing wonders for our future generations of children by encouraging them to inflate their self-worth beyond measure from a very early age. We’ll appreciate it in our dotage when when we visit those children who’ve turned into bank managers themselves. They’ll reassure us that our pensions have increased in value by the very fantastic sum of 33 gazillion per cent interest and they’re loving evey minute of it. Well done Chris!

An Open Letter to Roy Hodgson: please prove the English FA wrong and fail gloriously

Dear Roy Hodgson,

I’ve got nothing against you and happen to think you were on a losing to nothing when you came to Liverpool last year.  We all know the results of that story and there’s not much to add to it now.

The new story you’re now part of though is alarming in the way its already being constructed: you’ve ‘steered West Brom to mid-table safety’; you’re a blazer man who ticks all the boxes; an FA man for the FA.  Well, lets hope your appointment doesn’t’ lead to sweet FA, or that if it does, you fail spectacularly and come crashing out of the football heavens burning on all cylinders.

Because Roy, your appointment has all the hall marks of what is tired and miserable about English sporting culture and indeed our public life in general.

Steering your team to mid-table respectability has an air of desperation about it, its risk averseness wearing its heart on its sleeve or on another respectable part of your anatomy.  Respectability?  So that we can look forward to saying things like “unfortunately we just missed out on scraping into the quarter finals but second place in the qualifying qualifying group stage is no mean achievement?’ Is that the extent of the endorsement we can expect from your boys at the FA after the summer?

Because those boys at the FA, Roy, are trying to anoint you as one in the image of themselves: Blazer Men, the stalwarts of the English sporting club tradition. We all know a Blazer Man. He’s the bloke on Saturday afternoon who kicks you off the tennis court cos you’ve not got your membership card with you. The bloke in the bar holding forth on all things, unctuously and loudly. The bloke in the car park who has driven his Jag up the back side of your Ford Orion and driven away, oblivious to the trail of damage behind him cos he’s as pissed as a Friday afternoon lunch time fart. The bloke who will lead us to mid table security making sure his blazer elbow patches don’t rip and tear at the strain of it all.  The Blazer Man. As exemplified by Trevor Brooking and his collection of gold plated carriage clocks. Cuck-bloody-oo.

Beware all those carriage clocks Roy! It’s no wonder you’re in danger of ticking all the boxes. All of them. Hoo bloody ray. A box ticker! We’re all living with box tickers every day Roy, they make up almost every department of every large organisation everywhere in England at the moment; they sit there in the neat and tidy offices, underlining things in red, covering their audit trail arses and ticking their boxes with a rapidity which puts the fastest PC to shame.

We don’t need box tickers Roy in our public life Roy,  we need our sports heroes to tear up the boxes and start again. We need our public figures to show us there’s life after the box, the target, the service level agreement.

We don’t need you to tick the FA’s boxes for them., Roy. We need you to win convincingly, after much struggle, heart break and living on the edge of our collective nerves; but failing that, please fail gloriously and utterly.  Please prove once and for all that the FA Blazer Men and their ticking clocks and ticking boxes should be thrown into a container and carted off to the South China Seas for them to live the rest of their lives in Rousserian decadence.  For Gods sake, for all our English public lives’ sake Roy, go and fail properly: disasterously,  noisily, embarrassingly.

However you do it, just do it with conviction.  We may not like the results but it will be infinitely better than being steered to mid-table respectability. No one wants that in their lives, never mind in their football team.

An Open Letter to Jeremy Paxman: how do you like your artists? Poached, fried or skewered?

Dear Jeremy Paxman,

The recent and utterly predictable furore about Damien Hirst’s retrospective at Tate Modern has so far unsuccessfully (on the BBC at least) tried floating the same old questions when you’re talking about Hirst and his ilk: is it art? Is it any good? And hidden behind those questions – often poorly masquerading as intelligent criticism Jeremy – is the punter’s stealth bombing attitude that is appalled at the economy that surrounds Hirst. He makes money. Tut. He makes tons of money. Tut tut. He bypasses the traditional dealers and sells dead flies to rich foreigners. Tut tut bloody tut.

The question of whether or not Hirst’s oeuvre is ‘art’ is as dead a question as that shark in the formaldehyde. It just stares at you, demanding you look directly into its mouth and be scared, be very scared that you get the wrong answer. Worse, be prepared for your flimsy swimming costume of a rationale for what constitutes art will be torn from your human flesh, exposing you in all your idiotic posturing. No, the question of whether something is art or not just generates un-ending trails of snail mucus which never answer the question (because its always the wrong question) and just serve to reinforce the critic’s own habits predilections and prejudices. The slime trail wends its way slowly, inexorably over the ‘I know what I like and I like what I know’ tautology.

The more significant question about Hirst is what our concern about his earning capacity tells us about what we expect from our artists; how they behave, how they should look and what place in society they should feel content to inhabit. Our concern and sometime hostility to his relationship with the arts markets suggests not so much that we’re are appalled that his spot paintings generate a million times their value every time he adds another row of pastel spots, but that he has the nerve to make any money at all. Artists surely do what they do because they love it? They’re driven by a vocational call that has nothing to do with filthy lucre? Surely they should be living in hovels, surrounded by the dead cows they carve up with their chain saws: not living off their profits?

Clearly, artists shouldn’t be linked to the word profit at all. Their place in the world should be at the altar – or better still, in the kitchen gallery ready to be poached, fried or plain old skewered on our prejudices that artists should be poor, anonymous and plain old dead before they’re entitled to benefit from the madness that is the arts marketplace and the market in general.

Hirst will only really have ‘made it’ once he dies and leaves instructions in his will for his own body to be drenched in formaldehyde and then strung up on a plinth in Trafalgar Square. When that happens Jeremy, you and your colleagues will no doubt be leading the campaign for the sanctification of Hirst because as you know, the only good artist is a dead one.

Number 1 in the series Write an Open Letter to a Famous Person!

I blame the parents! Perhaps the Daily Mail has been right all along

Dear Daily Mail,

There has been more in you today about how parents need to be castigated for their wayward offsprings behaviours, morals and ongoing general bad taste in music. Now, that’s not a very nice way to talk about the Royal Family or Ed Miliband but we’ll let that pass.

What would be a more interesting angle on this would be blaming parents for the behaviour of bankers – Fred Goodwin – just where was your dad when you were growing up?  Perhaps he was in the betting shop, placing a fiver on a nag that was going to end up in a Belgium meat market as you were going through your formative years- that would account for the devastation you and your company wreaked in 2008 wouldn’t it?

Politicians too need to be reminded of just how irritating they have become due to the parents foibles: Chris Huhne, did your mum smoke when she was pregnant with you? Perhaps that’s the reason for your terrible driving skills… oh, and your lieing skills… And your sheer bloody nerve skills…

And let’s not forget the parents of the press barons – what did Rupert Murdoch’s parents do to him which have led to oversee the immoral and corrupted media machines we see feeding filth to the public on a daily basis? And what of those who chose to hang around the back of the bike sheds with him? Their parents must shoulder some of the blame too.

But you, The Daily Mail, on second thoughts, perhaps you have got it right: although some parents need more blaming than others.