The most important question in art

A brief post this time. The important question is of course: “Do you like it?”

I used to tell students that this was the most important question  in any art form and that the next most important question is “Why?” or  “Why not?” This usually started some good and sometimes heated discussion, getting them talking and thinking about what they were experiencing.Vinci,_Leonardo_da_(attributed)_-_La_Bella_Principessa_-_16th_c

I was reminded of this at the weekend, when I was reading about the alleged fake of a Da Vinci. The drawing ‘La Bella Principessa’ is said to be not by Leonardo but by Shaun Greenhalgh. Apparently if it is genuine, it could be worth £100m million. If not…..

It will probably come as no surprise that my reaction is: “Who cares?” Well, obviously the monetary value is of huge importance to owners. Apart from that, let’s apply the Important Questions. Well, yes, I do like it. Why? It’s light, delicate and rather prettily coloured. OK, this is not exactly top notch art criticism. But it’s a legitimate view, as is any view you might have.

I was very glad to read that Shaun Greenhalgh apparently feels ‘you should buy things because you like them, not because of the signature in the corner.” My thoughts exactly. I’m rather ashamed to say that I’ve tried too hard to like one or two Monets, just because he’s my favourite painter. Not that I’m buying any. And I must admit that- shock horror- I don’t like every record the Beatles made. Just because something is famous, or popular, doesn’t mean it’s good. That’s a subjective term in any art form. You, of course, may disagree. I’ll try to stick to my Important Questions.

Picture:Attributed to Leonardo da Vinci [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


But I don’t dance

And so to Talking Heads, in Southampton, to see the excellent Mr Hillage and Ms Giraudy, better known as System 7/ Mirror System.

N Port

First, Talking Heads. We’d never been here before, but wish we had. A lovely little pub at the front and a small venue at the back. Good beer, pretty good sound and great staff. The punters…. well, people like us. A kind gentleman even offered Mrs Oblique some of his coffee. Seriously. What more can you ask?

Next, the band. They did two sets: Mirror System, the ‘ambient’ face, and System 7, more full-on. For those who have never heard of them, they could be labelled as electronica or trance or techno, but labels are always very dodgy in music. I love them: they have lush sounds, banging beats, chest-rattling bass and even guitar. Steve Hillage played with Gong and was later a ‘guitar hero’, but always stays in the present. They seem to enjoy the (very positive) audience. They must do, to play such a tiny venue.

Finally, the quibble, and hence the title of this post. We managed to find a couple of stools, but so often we have to stand. I don’t dance, apart from some apologetic dad dancing. I want to listen to the music and immerse myself in it and the lights. Standing uncomfortably doesn’t help my enjoyment. This so often happens at small venues now (and I’ve been to a few.) I guess it has come out of the 80s/90s rave scene. Most people don’t seem to mind, and I remember the 70s equivalent of the mosh pit, where young men charged down to the front of the stage. Even then I wanted to sit and enjoy the band in my own way. No, it’s not that I can’t let myself go.

But this is a very minor quibble and I am aware that System 7 could be labelled as electronic dance music. We had a great evening, and I even got to meet Jonny Greene… a man who has done a huge amount for alternative music. More on that and Gong later, you lucky people. And to top it all…. Soft Machine Legacy are playing at Talking Heads in March. That must mean something to somebody apart from me.

Photograph from System 7 Facebook page; please alert me to any copyright issues.

I Have Drunk Beer

img032I have drunk beer…

With my father in the Six Bells at Billingshurst

In golden summer sunlight, cycling home from Guildford, at the Dolphin at Shalford- and it tasted like nectar

Raving with The Man and Alex in storm-swept Dorset pubs

From huge glasses at Christmas in Bruges

All over the place with Tess- pints, of course

On the pavement on a summer’s evening in Bristol- and we were told to go in, because it threatened their licence

By blazing fires in country pubs on winter evenings

In early morning May Day rain in Oxford

In London station bars on crowded Friday evenings

In the Philharmonic in Liverpool, where the toilets are like a palace

On an empty stomach

With a hangover

In beer gardens with my children playing on the grass

In the Tavern at Lords, watching Thompson bowl against the Australians

With barbecue burgers and chips at school fairs

That nobody will ever drink again, because the breweries have closed

In France: cold, fizzy, pression, but still beer

Before walking into Christmas holiday snow with Chriss, never to see him again

At parties, wishing I wasn’t there

Outside a pub in London after rugby, watching Concorde fly over

In the Theatre Royal pub

In places and with people I’ve forgotten

In a tiny bar in Spain, with tapas and bull fighting on the T.V.

In a little holiday home in Belgium, with my blond son finishing the bottle

In pubs that no longer exist.

To be continued

This was inspired by the poem ‘Tea: Where Have You supped and Who With?’ by Annamaria Murphy, published in ‘Poems from Eden’.

Need a change? a previous post I ranted about change in education. Now I don’t want to give the impression that I’m against change. It’s part of life; without it there can be no progress. If we didn’t have it in education, we would still be teaching classes of 100, with slates and pupil teachers. (I suspect there are some who’d like to see this.) As a wise man once said, “If things don’t change for better or worse, then man we must be dead.”

However, I do think that in education change has been too frequent, too great, poorly planned, poorly thought out and counter productive. (Whatever productivity is in education.) I want to consider how this came about, partly to clarify my own thinking on it.

One of the principle underlying factors is to do with power. As I see it, power is the ability to make change; to be seen as being in power, one has to make change happen. Nowhere is this more obvious than in politics. To be elected, to be in a position of power, a politician has to promise they will change an area; otherwise, the unwritten argument runs, what is the point of electing them? Our political system exists in a continual state of disappointment, of wanting change, often for change’s sake- because, once in office, a politician has to make change to show they are powerful. The five year cycle of government means change has to be rapid.

At a more local level, this happens in the education system itself. Anybody coming into a post of power- heads, deputies, subject leaders and all the rest- has to make change to demonstrate their power. Of course, the wisest only make changes that are sensible, well planned, well thought out and for the benefit of children. Sadly, their hand is often- or perhaps always- forced by pressure from above. And, if politicians have five years, new postholders have much less time.

Perhaps pressure for change in education is greater than in other areas of public life. After all, everybody has been to school. Everybody has an opinion on it. The mainstream media feed the discontent with a succession of negative stories. Additionally, there is such total disagreement about the purpose of education that schools are blown to and fro in the gusty winds of argument and action. (Wow! A metaphor!)

So, change in education is then imposed. The speed, poor planning and poor thinking behind it means that it usually fails. Thus the cycle of discontent continues.

So how can this be fixed? Sorry, I have no quick solutions. For years, I and others have been harrumphing on about stopping the treatment of education as a political football- about taking it out of the hands of the politicians. However, I have no clear idea of how to replace political control.  Unless… No, I don’t think teachers alone can or should run education. I do think parents and children should have a part. But- horrifyingly- as I settle into retirement, it has dawned on me that we have got education completely wrong, and perhaps I’ve largely wasted my time. A more positive approach to follow.

Photo: David Wright [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons


The only constant in education is change

img030My aim is for this to be, by and large, a positive blog. However, this second post is a rant- so inevitably will come across as negative. And yes, I know I’m a dinosaur, out of touch etc. I wrote this a few months ago, before I retired. I lost it and have rewrittten it.

When I was at school, I learnt methods of computation which worked. I didn’t necessarily understand them.

I remember very little of what I did at teacher training college, but at least now I did understand how the computation methods worked.

In my first teaching job (with what now would be year 5), 38 years ago, we ‘did’ Fletcher maths. You tried Mike’s method, Jill’s method and Jamal’s method. Then you picked the method that suited you best.

In my second job, the maths coordinator had been on a training course and was an enthusiastic convert to multibase (and logic). Every sum was done in base 3, 4, 5 and 6 (I think) using very noisy plastic or wooden apparatus and often recording on sugar paper. With mixed ability junior classes of 40. In groups. On my own. The noise, in the cavernous, echoing 1920s classrooms, was amazing.

A new coordinator came in. We chucked out the multibase (there must be some still around), wrote some agreed methods of computation and taught them.

In my next job we did the same. Then the National Curriculum changed and we rewrote them. Then a new orthodoxy came in: flexible methods based on mental arithmetic. After that- or maybe along with that, I’m getting confused- came ‘chunking’ and ‘the grid method’. Then, most recently in my career, a return to more formal methods, much like those I used at school. Of course, the National Curriculum then changed for the umpteenth time, increasing the level of difficulty.

This is just an example of the bewildering changes in education that have happened in my career. I have focused on mathematical compuation because that is an area of (limited) expertise. There have been many others. English, particularly, has had its own multiple changes. Literacy hour. 15/15/20/10. DARTS. Guided reading. Shared writing. Modelling. Searchlights. Look and Say. Real books. Synthetic phonics. (Oh yes…. outside my experience, there was “ita” in the dim and distant past. Look it up.) But, as I implied, and is obvious, I have even less experience here.

Some approaches worked. Some didn’t. Most were quietly dropped as the next new orthodoxy came in.

Just about all curricular change is communicated to the classroom teacher by that excellent bunch of women and men, the subject coordinators. Or subject leaders. Or subject managers. (I’m told there’s a difference between these titles. An important difference.) Anyway, they have to learn the new approaches, intepret them for their school and then inspire their colleagues to use them. Poor souls. Especially when old Mark is sitting at the back of the meeting, thinking he’s seen it all before and trying to remain enthusiastic so as not to put barriers in the way of the important bit- children learning.

Please note that the change I am so vaguely writing about here is imposed external change, not change developed by teachers. I may have more to say about why this external change happens at a later date. I have no solutions to any of the problems I have raised here; this is just a rant.

The new curriculum (or method, or pedagogy, or whatever) is ALWAYS an improvement on the old one. It’s ALWAYS better. You’d think that we’d have so many curricula (or methods, or whatever) that it would all be perfect by now.

Inevitably, new research underpins the new curriculum (or method…) This enables us to ensure the children understand and retain what we teach. Like it did last time. And the time before. And…. And it always, ALWAYS, ALWAYS makes the job of the teacher easier.

Finally: “Don’t work harder- work smarter.” If I hear that one more time…. Oh I don’t have to. I’ve retired.

Vincent Black Lightning 1952 by Richard Thompson


What is it about this song that so moves me?
Let’s dispose of the musical context first. I suppose you would call it a folk song, although that label covers many possibilities. All the versions I have heard just have Richard Thompson singing and accompanying himself on guitar. I’m not very qualified to judge, but it seems to me to be remarkable playing. In fact, I first heard Mr Thompson playing with the great Danny Thompson, on double bass. RT played the above song solo. “I was wondering where the other guitarist was,” Dannny said on his return to the stage.
Simply, it’s a narrative. The setting seems to be the motorcycle scene of South London in the 50s/ 60s. James, a  young motorcyclist/ criminal, meets Molly, a redhead who admires his bike. He promises that he will leave it to her if he dies. He is fatally wounded in an armed robbery. His last act is to give her the keys.
I’m unsure how James is wounded by a shotgun blast to his chest; how did he get this if he was the robber?  But this is a minor quibble.
I love this song because of its Englishness. The bike, the characters and the setting are English. It makes a legend of an English outlaw. It could be compared to many traditional, or American songs; but it is modern and English. It’s a simple story, but not a moral story. The Vincent has been funded through crime.
To return to my original question, I’m not really any clearer why it moves me. The lines: “Down to Box Hill/ They did ride”, often brings tears to my eyes. It must be to do with the way it is rooted in my country, my part of the country, and the immediate past. Too often in the past 50 years or more popular music in England has been in thrall to the American dream, or American modern legend. This song, in my opinion, reclaims it. There are others, and I will return to this theme. I hope I have encouraged others to check it out.


Picture by Kevin Smith (rt 2012) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons