Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Balls and the Sats fiasco.

July 23, 2009

Nothing in this report comes as a surprise to those who believe that this government has long had a penchant for micromanaging things it knows little about. What may surprise just a little is lengths to which it is prepared to go to ensure that what it believes to be right is done – in other words,  how far it will go to impose its will on those who probably know better .

 Ed Balls‘s interference increased the likelihood of the collapse of the Sats system, according to MPs in the first report to officially accuse the schools secretary of playing a significant role in the fiasco.

His department micromanaged the system and prevented the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) from reforming the tests, the report says. But ministers later claimed that they had not been involved and could not be blamed when the tests failed.

The parliamentary committee responsible for schools said Balls and his ministers knew of the problems earlier than has been acknowledged and established a testing system on a scale that made it vulnerable to failure every year. The marking of Sats – taken by 1.2 million children in England – collapsed last year under the auspices of the American firm ETS, which had its contract terminated.

An independent inquiry commissioned by the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the exams watchdog Ofqual, led by Lord Sutherland, said ETS was ultimately responsible, but heaped blame on the QCA for failing to prevent the escalation of the problems. Balls subsequently scrapped all tests for 14-year-olds and science papers for 11-year-olds.

Ken Boston, the then chief executive of the QCA, had his offer of resignation refused and was eventually fired after Sutherland reported last December. Boston accused Balls of being more involved than had been acknowledged and “sexing up” evidence against him when he appeared before the select committee in April. The report largely backs his version of events.

Barry Sheerman, the chairman of the children, schools and families select committee, said: “The whole process got muddled because there wasn’t a clear line of responsibility. This led to a situation where this [the QCA] was clearly not an independent organisation.

“It’s too easy for Ed Balls and Jim Knight [the then schools minister] to say ‘It wasn’t me, guv, it’s an independent body’. QCA wasn’t independent. If someone is looking over the QCA’s shoulder all the time watching and observing them, even if it’s informally, quietly, beneath the radar, you can’t claim it’s independent.

“Ed Balls and Jim Knight were ultimately responsible for the quality of these bodies. In a system of ministerial responsibility, Ed and his ministerial team can’t escape totally.”

I don’t suppose for one moment that this will make any difference to what either Mr. Balls or his cronies  think or do in future.


Clive James for Oxford Professor of Poetry? 3

July 19, 2009

In the latest issue of Standpoint, in an article he wrote while the suggestion that he might be willing to put himself forward for the post of Oxford Professor of Poetry, Clive James seems to be insisting he was not interested in the post.

 The suggestion that he was interested

… started happening a few days before the election, when I was being interviewed, nominally about my latest collection of essays, The Revolt of the Pendulum, a book I mention here because it wasn’t mentioned in the interview even once. My interviewer, Decca Aitkenhead of the Guardian, was charming, so when she asked me a question I did the thing I always do when asked a question by a charming woman. I opened my mouth to its full extent and put my foot in it up to the knee. The question was about the Oxford Poetry Professorship election debacle. “Would I like the job?” (Those might not have been her exact words, but that was the main thrust.) My answer (and these are far fewer than my exact words, but this is the thread) was: “I would love it, but not if I had to run in an election.” She used only the first bit — that I would love to have the job — and the Guardian editors flagged it as “Clive James throws his hat in the ring”. 

In reality, Clive James had already made it clear that he would rather throw himself off a cliff. But the thing had been said, the Australian papers had the story next day, a Spanish paper, bizarrely, had the story the day after that, and within a week my supposed candidature in the postponed election was being discussed, with at least two pundits in the British broadsheet weekend press allowing that I might not be a bad choice, in the absence of William McGonagall, E. J. Thribb or Baldur von von Schirach, the Nazi youth leader who wrote a terza rima encomium to Adolf Hitler.

But a Robert McCrum – a declared supporter of James for the post – shrewdly observes in today’s edition of The Observer, James has not gone so far as to rule himself out categorically.

And I do indeed find the Oxford Poetry Professorship just about the most attractive cup of its kind in existence. I would imagine that any poet who has spent his or her lifetime at the craft can only feel the same. The botched election might have made it a poisoned chalice, but what a chalice it is. You have only to think of the string of poets since the Second World War — Day Lewis, Auden, Graves, Blunden, Roy Fuller, John Wain, Heaney, Fenton, Muldoon — and think of how much you would have liked to hear them speak, summing up their knowledge, opening up whole fields of interest with the merest aside.

Having set out a very persuasive set of reasons for saying why the present system for choosing people for the post no longer works, and never really worked, James suggests that occupant should “agreed on by a panel of people whose chief concern is poetry, and who rank poets by their achievement and vocational wisdom”

How this board of experts should be constituted is beyond me. But before he was ever Oxford Professor, Seamus Heaney was a visiting professor at Harvard, an office to which he was not elected, but appointed, to the vast benefit of both Harvard and himself. So Harvard must know how to make a board system work. For the Oxford post, drafting all the surviving holders might not be a bad start, and then you could add in some critics and literary editors who know what they are talking about. Who those might be would itself be a matter of expert choice, so I can already see that there could be a welter of in-fighting and no clear course to a workable result. But we can be sure that the current system no longer works at all. Another election along the lines of the one we have just had will be a kamikaze convention, and we might as well have Ant and Dec presiding over the phone-in.

I myself have a a gut feeling that James himself would like to think he had a chance of being chosen by the kind of board he proposes, if not for his “achievement”, which he’s always had the good gracke to be modest about, the certainly for his “vocational wisdom” which I suspect he sees no good reason to be modest about.

Labour and damning statistics.

July 16, 2009

There was a terrific article by Jenni Russell in the 14h of July edition of The Guardian in which she examined why measuring-by-statistic-mad new Labour are still failing to understand why the electorate are ungrateful, even when all the statistics show that it’s spending on schools and the hearth service is higher than it ever was, its commitment to economic regeneration demonstrably serious, its commitment to reducing crime figures unquestionable.  

The conversations I have had recently with senior civil servants, advisers and Labour ministers have often had a plaintive tone. Why, these people want to know, aren’t the electorate more grateful for what’s been done for them? Where’s the political reward for all the money spent on schools and hospitals and economic regeneration? Why doesn’t the country appreciate the fall in crime figures? How could voters be flirting with the cost-cutting Conservatives, when Labour’s statistics show that spending money produces measurable and improved results?

These sound like the right questions, but they aren’t. What the questioners really mean is not “Where did we go wrong?” but “What’s wrong with all of you?” And what’s wrong with us is that we’re not the automatons New Labour thought we were. We’re not remote and dispassionate observers of our society, making cool calculations about its success or failure on the basis of government-generated numbers. We’re complicated, vulnerable, emotional creatures, and we live with the consequences of official decision-making every day of our lives. What matters to us aren’t the figures we’re fed, or the targets that get hit, but what the experience feels like to us. Yet that part of the process has been almost completely neglected in official eyes….

As one reads this article, one realises that big lesson that Labour did not was the lesson Simon Caulkin was, but is no longer,  preaching Sunday after Sunday in his column for The Guardian‘s sister paper, The Observer, and that is that Labour has, since it came to power, insisted on using the wrong measures.

 It thought it was being modern and innovative by treating the country as if it were a business, where all outcomes could be measured by putting money in and getting targets out. It made the false assumption that building a school or a sports complex was automatically an investment, just as it would be if the government were in the business of mechanising chicken factories or building car plants. It thought it could close police stations or post offices in the name of cost-cutting, with as little effect as if it were Coffee Republic shutting down some unprofitable shops. It didn’t stop to remember that the business of all public services is dealing with the needs of people, and that those are never just mechanical, but social and emotional too.

Governments cannot afford to take a business’s narrow and mechanistic view of people’s requirements, because it’s not just a collection of service providers. A government’s wider duty is to frame and structure the society in which we live. Rebuilding society was one of Labour’s explicit aims, in contrast to Mrs Thatcher’s infamous reference to there being no such thing. Yet our encounters with the state are profoundly important in shaping our culture, and every time we run up against the wooden indifference, public lies or robotic responses of officialdom we shrink into ourselves, and the bonds between all of us are weakened a little more.

Labour thought that what we prized above all else was economic efficiency. Clumsily, it tried to give it to us and, even when the evidence showed it wasn’t delivering, it went on attempting to give us statistics instead. But the priorities were wrong. What we all prize in our encounters with others is a sense of our value. We are social animals, alarmed by the uncertain world in which we live, with a profound need to be recognised, respected and responded to. We want public services to respond to us as people, and to give us the sense that we matter. It is the deepest human need, and yet this government has been oblivious to it.

When it wonders why we’re not grateful to it, the answer’s really simple. It’s the experience, stupid.

Yes indeed we do “want public services to respond to us as people, and to give us the sense that we matter”, and as an adjunct to that we want our newspapers and periodicals to employ and retain people who will articulate those wants in forceful ways. What we do not want is influential newspapers to rid themselves of our most eloquent spokespersons at the very moment we need them most in the way that The Observer rid itself of Simon Caulkin

Clive James’s big ego.

July 4, 2009

An anonymous writer for the Irish Independent, concluding his or her review, Clive James’ The Revolt of the Pendulum: Essays 2005-2008 (Picador, Stg£15.99) says that “we’ll forgive the ego and celebrate instead the insights and the elegance of one of the great prose writers of the age”.

It’s more or less what many of us have been doing for the last three or four decades.

Cooley & Romani translate Neri.

June 24, 2009

My good friend Martha Cooley and her husband, Antonio Romani, are currently working together on translating the collected poems of Giampiero Neri into English.  Here, in a short piece for the this year’s  Manhattanville College Writer’s Program Blog, she reflects on some the lessons she, as primarily a fiction writer, has learned along the way.



“Is that how you’d say ‘for sure’ in Italian?”

“What does ‘cheer’ mean in English—not in the ‘hurrah’ sense but the sense having to do with a pleasant feeling?”

“What does ‘Liberty’ mean, in this line here?  What—a decorative style?  Well, why don’t Italians use ‘Art Deco’ instead of something so silly-sounding?”

 The foregoing are snippets of conversations between myself and my Italian co-translator.  We’re translating the collected poems of a wonderful Italian poet, Giampiero Neri, who has just published a new volume of poetry, Paesaggi Inospiti (Inhospitable Landscapes) at the age of 81.  Lauded in his homeland but little-known in the United States, Neri writes about what he calls the “natural theater”: nature’s quiet stage, incessantly dramatic and mysterious.  In his quietly moving poems, natural and human actors coexist, often uneasily, in settings of beauty, folly, and cruelty.  

 The work of translation is sometimes maddening and always stimulating.  I speak good but not fluent Italian; my co-translator speaks good but not fluent English.  We’ve spent countless hours talking about the imperfect tense, prepositions, slang, and context (some of Neri’s poems allude to the Second World War).  And we talk all the time about sound: the poems’ music in Italian, and how to convey it in English.

 My co-translator also happens to be my husband.  Added to the experience of translation is thus that of deepening our linguistic, cultural, and emotional bonds.  We marvel at how much we’ve learned about our separate languages, about ourselves, and about poetry—and how entertaining the education’s been for us both. 

 I’m a fiction writer who’s written poetry since I was a teenager but have published very little of it.  I consider myself a constant (in the joint senses of continuous and loyal) apprentice-poet.  As a novelist and story-maker, I cannot imagine producing my own work without reading poetry regularly: it’s always in my head and ears.  And as a teacher, I’m forever urging my fiction students to read more poetry—to read it aloud, read it daily, read it to other people (or to domestic animals, if humans can’t be drummed up).  Everything a fiction writer needs to know about selection of details, about compression, and about diction can be found in poetry.  Plus so, so much else…

 Because Neri often writes prose-poems, my task as a translator sometimes seems simpler than it might otherwise.  This makes me realize that fiction writers as well as poets ought to practice the art of translating poetry.  A fiction writer who speaks, say, a reasonable amount of French might want to have a go at the prose-poems of Baudelaire; a Spanish speaker might want to try translating Gabriela Mistral.  Working with a fellow-translator (spouse, friend, or amiable stranger—amiability’s important, as arguments are likely!) is exhilarating.  And for the writer of fiction, what’s learned is sure to be multifaceted and long-lasting, as poet-translators have known all along.

 A translation by Martha Cooley and Antonio Romani of  Neri’s poem Pseudocavallo [Pseudohorse] can be found in AGNI 69, Spring 2009.

 I have not yet got my hands on the Spring issue AGNI 69, but  here’s  the original poem and a rough translation by Federico Federici that I’ve found on the internet.

Julie Kavanagh’s & Martin’s Friends.

June 4, 2009

The most tedious read of this week, or of any other week, is Julie Kavanagh’s “consensual kiss-and-tell” account, in an article for quarterly magazine Intelligent Life, of the years she spent with the novelist Martin Amis during the 1970s.

 Kavanagh may be a fine biographer – Simon Callow, that multi-fcated man of the theatre, thought her 2007 biography of  Rudolph Nureyev magnificent – and she may be an equally fine magazine editor –she has in her time been London Editor of Women’s Wear Daily and W., Arts Editor of Harpers & Queen, and London Editor for Vanity Fair – but a autobiographer she is not. If one can judge from this shownin, she’s just about up there with those many poor souls who bear their souls  to the Agony columns newspapers on a daily basis.

Kavanagh visited Amis this April in Primrose Hill,  just a week before he finished his new novel, The Pregnant Widow, to discuss her article. Her description runs thus:

It could have been so awkward, the experience of revisiting our past for what I suppose is basically a consensual kiss-and-tell. It certainly felt strange to be applying biographical techniques to my own life, questioning my ex-lover about events and chronology, and it was disorientating—yet also reassuring—to see glimpses of the young man I’d loved in the manners and expressions of a near-sexagenarian. But we swiftly fell into an easy, jokey rapport; there seemed no limit to what I could ask him or what he could reveal to me. We could even laugh now about the histrionic full-stop in the note I wrote after we’d broken up: “I’ll never forgive you. Ever.” It was indelible to him, completely forgotten by me. This proved an extraordinary couple of hours in which I learnt things I’d never known, or simply not retained.  He even remembered the book I was reading that first summer in Spain. It was his father’s novel “Girl 20”, which has one of the most heart-rending last lines in fiction: “We’re all free now.” “You were about ten pages from the end, and I looked up and saw that your face was a mask of tears.”

 A this stage, if not before, the reader has begun to ask himself  why he reading this stuff reading this stuff?  The answer has to be that her affair with Amis brought into contact with a group of man who were making a big splash on the London literary scene of the time. The reader expects that Kavanagh , as one of the few women who had an insiders view of how this group worked, might offer the reader some new insights into the group dynamic, if there was such a thing.  The reader might expect that, but the reader does not get it. What the reader gets is a lot less illuminaging.

 What regularly gathered the so-called literary mafia together were the lunches which took place most Fridays at a Turkish-Cypriot joint on Theobalds Road. These were almost exclusively male occasions, but I was tolerated from time to time either because I was Martin’s moll, or because of my flattering sponging-up of every word.


“The glue of those Friday lunches was everyone’s adoration of Martin,” says James Fenton, the poet, theatre critic and foreign correspondent, who was another participant. Hitch agrees. “He was the conversation, he was the charisma.” But Clive James was always a stellar performer, and so was Kingsley, an occasional guest of honour. Julian Barnes, later to be my brother-in-law, was noticeably more reticent, though he added a note of gravitas, as did the other, less extrovert regulars Dai [Russell] Davies, the critic and jazz musician, and Terry Kilmartin, the Observer’s literary editor. “We needed them there,” says Hitch. “We couldn’t just have shown off to each other.”

 What we have in the end is  a cut and paste job put together by a profile writer who has little more to offer than a few thousand words that will be forgotten almost as soon as they are read.  Clive James the “stellar performer”, Julian Barnes adding the “note of gravitas”. James Fenton’s “adoration of Martin”  may qualify with readers of Harpers & Queen as insights, but they do nothing for the reader who is seriously trying to study these men and their work. In the end, what we have is namedropping, that is in atself rather sloppy. Can the general reader be really expected to know that Dai [Russell] Davies is now a respected broadcaster for Radio 2. Kavanagh, presumably in her anxiety to get as many names in as possible, presumes that he can.  Should the reader be bothered that he does not know? The answere has to be a resounding no. Kavanagh tell him so little that is new about the people he knows – or thinks he knows – that it’s unlikely she would tell him anything worth knowing about the ones he does not know.

GM, what next?

June 3, 2009

It was never less than predictable the once the US government took majority ownership of General Motors,  all sorts of people would be asking whether or not it was going to be forced to participate in the day-to-day management of the company.

U.S. President Barack Obama may find it tough keeping a pledge not to meddle in the management of General Motors Corp once the government takes majority ownership of the giant automaker.

The White House has put a priority on encouraging environmentally friendly technology. It could be tempted to weigh in on issues such as the mix of vehicles.

And lawmakers — some of whom already have spoken out against a GM proposal to shift some production overseas — may insist on a voice on everything from the location of plant closures to the pay scales of top executives.

“We’re already seeing them force out the CEO, restructure the board and talking about the right kind of cars for them to build,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who was a top policy aide to former Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain.

He was referring to the decision to pressure Rick Wagoner to step down as GM’s chairman and chief executive.

“I don’t know where that ends and I don’t know how you easily end it,” said Holtz-Eakin, now a private consultant.

This, and what follows, is asking the wrong question. I believe that the question should not be  about whether a government which has taken over any business  is capable of managing any business – it’s not –  but whether the government can get a business which it has taken a stake in can shape itself so that it can serve the purposes for which the stake the stake was taken in the first place. But then, that wholly depends on the government in question fully understanding its purposes and their implications.

Has the online “newspaper” got a future? 2.

June 2, 2009

Reviewing Michael Kinsley’s New Republic article about Newsweek‘s recent attempt to reinvent itself, John Naughton makes an observation about his own reading habits that might be made about the reading habits of an increasing number of readers.

Actually, the ‘new’ Newsweek is so feeble that one almost feels sorry for its staff. What it illustrates, I think, is how difficult it is for journalists trained in the print tradition to make the transition from the old, privileged, we-know-best, ecosystem to one in which you’re only as good as the value you add to what we already know. The only print magazines I read that are still succeeding to add value are: the Economist, the New Yorker, the London Review of Books and the New York Review of Books.

Has the online “newspaper” got a future?

June 1, 2009

Jeff Jarvis (, always a canny commentator on media matters,  writing in today’s Media section of The Guardian, is none too convinced the current proposals by  News Corp, Hearst and other publishers to get us pay for the online content of newspapers, once it can be delivered to us in forms that are close to the print versions of those papers, will work.  

They hope that when electronic news reminds us of print news – that is, when editors can once more package the world for us – we’ll again be loyal to and perhaps pay for their work and brands.

Jarvis does not think that is possible to return to the good old days “when editors can once more package the world for us – we’ll again be loyal to and perhaps pay for their work and brands”.

Portable reading devices were described as offering “a glimmer of hope for the embattled industry” in these pages last week. Having spent the past two months reading two newspapers – the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal – primarily on my Amazon Kindle, I’d say that glimmer is dim.


I will still read news on gadgets, of course. The New York Times has a brilliant iPhone app that is constantly updated and ad-subsidised and free (as I wish the Kindle were). The Times also has a new version of its PC reader that more closely mimics the experience of reading the paper; it’s appealing.

But in news, neither the device nor the form matters nearly as much as the information and its timing. This requires that publishers unleash their news on every device possible. But no single gadget will be their saviour. None will bring back the good old days – if they were that – of news and the world delivered in neat little packages we paid for.

What Jarvis does not say is that many in thein their mid thirties and under have never had the news in the “neat little packages” he describes.

Clive James for Oxford professor of poetry?

May 31, 2009

Commenting, in today’s edition of The Observer,  on Ruth Padel’s decision to resign from the Oxford professorship of poetry, Robert McCrum, the paper’s literary editor, says who it’s supporting to replace her in the post.

Who will now step up to challenge for these slightly tarnished laurels? One thing is certain: the quiet campaign to persuade Clive James to step forward will have the support of the Observer, where he first made his name as a critic.

While James would not have been among my choices  of candidate the first time around, I can see that this time around he’s a very good one.

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