I don’t suppose Gordon Brown has thought about Laura Spence for years. I was reminded of her today by this poll published by the Sutton Trust, which suggests that the majority of state school teachers believe that less than a third of Oxbridge students went to state schools (the real figure is 54%) and that Oxford and Cambridge are more expensive to attend than other universities (their tuition fees are the same as most, they have more generous hardship provisions, and, critically, a lot of colleges house all their students at heavily subsidised rates for their entire degree). Worst of all, only 54% of those surveyed would “always” or “usually” encourage their brightest pupils to apply. A staggering 20% never would. Yes, at the oft-invoked “beginning of the twenty-first century”, 20% of state school teachers would rather peddle snidey crap and limit their pupils’ chances of personal and professional development in order to keep themselves in mean-spirited sub-Marxist pub rants, if the poll is to be believed.

This was not, as I recall, a problem Laura Spence had. Her headmaster was energetically fighting her cause, to the point of involving the national press in the “scandal” that she had been rejected to read medicine at Magdalen College, Oxford because she was a Geordie state school pupil. In the ensuing public furore, Laura was offered a place to read biochemistry by a typically on-the-ball Harvard. Off she happily went, and may yet be played by Reese Witherspoon in a film of her life.

All sorts of interesting gobbets then tumbled out. For a start, Magdalen absolutely rejected accusations of prejudice and threw sheaves of figures into the papers, and it is particularly unfortunate for the line Spence’s camp was peddling that the admissions tutor at the college was himself from Newcastle. But then Oxbridge dons, conditioned to unabashed rationalism and unused to the pitfalls of media re-interpretation, willingly acknowledged when questioned that there were problems with interviewing state school pupils – one had to make allowances for the fact that they were likely to be less polished, less prepared, less confident, than the private school pupils who had had all traces of gaucherie expensively eradicated. They were promptly labelled snobs for recognising this distinction. The professor who chaired the panel that interviewed Laura said, with some surprise, that if Laura had applied for biochemistry she would certainly have got in; medicine was then the most competitive subject in Oxford bar none and Magdalen is one of the most highly sought-after and competitive colleges. The crucial implications of this statement – is there something unfair, not about the Oxbridge admissions system as a whole, but about the colleges system? – were totally swept away in the frothing sea of bigotry.

For what it’s worth, I think they probably do the best they can with the resources and time available; every applicant gets allotted two colleges to interview them as well as their chosen college (or three if they haven’t put a first choice) and then over a few days every December tens of thousands of eighteen-year-olds, whoever they are, wherever they’re from, are shuffled in and out of oak-clad studies in a frantic tarantella of social equality. It’s a tremendous feat of organisation whose intentions are nothing but good, but it’s nowhere near perfect and its particular weakness, anecdotally, is that the most popular colleges are inevitably over-subscribed. This has the knock-on effect of the popular colleges sending more applicants on to their second college, by which time the second college may have filled all its places. And this weakness is particularly damaging to state school applicants like Laura Spence because they are less likely to have had someone put the following word in their shell-like, If you really want to get in, apply to a college with 1970s buildings, and if there is any slight variation offered on your chosen subject that would suit you just as well as the mainstream version, apply for that instead.

Anyway, back to Laura’s Fairytale, and enter stage left, trundling like a vengeful redbrick dalek, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer: “ELITism! ELITism!” The analogy is apt because, while some die-hards claim to find the daleks terrifying, a large section of the population just finds them daft. All his frothing - absolute scandal, old school ties, old establishment interview system, time to open up to women etc etc – sounded like a sub-standard bit of Morse dialogue, shot through with a petulance and an ill-informed silliness which seemed, to the unpoliticised student I then was, oddly out of character for the Iron Chancellor. But of course, there’s nothing in that little tantrum I haven’t learnt afresh over the past few months, watching Gordon play knock-down-ginger with general elections and European treaties, and twitching at PMQs like a wounded gnu. I should have trusted the early evidence. He is a very silly man.

The cranky, shadowy world of medievalism is in uproar at the news that Melbourne University is to drop its Viking Studies Programme. As many as seven people have tutted, quite a number of post-doctoral research fellows have mentioned it in the pub, and at least one boiled egg was very messily decapitated indeed by a Reader in Anglo-Saxon Literature at a northern Russel Group university as a result of being told the news over breakfast.

Ahem, no not really. Rather ashamed of all that actually. Medievalists and Liberal Democrats have much in common. Both are perceived as niche specialists on a hiding to nothing, our very existence seems for some reason to offend the Labour party beyond sanity, while the robustness of our collective intellect and the rigour of our method is grudgingly admired by others in the know. Most of all we share a common frontier of self-deprecating humour that sometimes makes us far too accommodating of ridicule. Mainstreamers have a go at us for being irrelevant and fail to understand that their argument is as circular as time; if a lot of people say something is irrelevant, it proves nothing more than that it is irrelevant to them.

Anyone who has studied history or something similar will have experienced at some point that strange tug towards the esoteric, the unfashionable, the full-on bizarre, some hidden corner of their subject that fascinates them out of all proportion to the amount of space it occupies in the National Curriculum. It seems that at Melbourne University, the Viking Studies programme is being dropped in spite of exceptionally healthy student numbers. Somehow that vague received wisdom that medievalism is irrelevant is enough to outweigh the on-the-ground democracy of quite a lot of people being really jolly interested, thank you very much. People are on the whole efficient with their brainpower and other resources; if a significant minority think that studying medieval history is the most important thing they could be doing with their lives, then it’s fair to say that they get a lot out of it, intellectually and personally.

History is relative. No one period of history has innately more value than any other. Not a single person born during the twelfth century is any less complex, any less deserving of study and understanding than a person alive today. No common experience – be it in the form of a shared pop culture, the self-promotion of an expansionist nation state or the song of a victorious warrior band – is inherently superior to any other. You learn as much about human beings, law, society, constitutions, institutions and ideology from studying medieval history as any other sort. Any historical studies teach you to build your own skeletal way of understanding a society. After you’ve learnt to do that, you can flesh out the skeleton an infinite number of times in any way you wish. I could take the same tools I learnt studying medieval history and use them on the French Wars of Religion without a problem. I won’t because there are far more important things I could be doing with my hair, but I could. (Oh, it’s a joke, it’s a joke. Early modernists, lay down your arquebuses)

It’s because of this total mismatch between the general received wisdom and the actual real-life relevance of medieval studies to many people that I feel the Melbourne Viking Studies course leader is being a little too understanding here. She wasn’t even consulted on her subject being axed. But decency compels her to admit that the world will go on without Viking Studies. Yes, but that isn’t the point. If we really need to slim down spending on humanities in order to boost the sciences and maintain technological progress (in itself arguable) then fine, but why is it medievalism that suffers? Shearing away subjects on the grounds of chronological distance is going to result in monohistory. This will be a real loss to education and western thought and it will happen partly because medievalists, like Liberal Democrats, are just so damn reasonable.

 

Medieval societies essentially faced the same problems as modern ones, as this clip demonstrates

T’other night I traced the usual twenty-two step route home from the pub after a hard evening’s grass roots research (findings: not even very drunk men will listen to me talking about income tax for very long, a number of people plan to vote for Greenpeace, and far more people plan not to vote at all because It’s All A Conspiracy Against the Working Man) and hied me in a slightly deflated mood to the chippy. Therein I proceeded, for reasons best known to myself at the time, to order a battered sausage and chips in French.

My long-established kebab procurers at this hallowed spot are three Turkish Cypriot brothers and they absorbed my latest eccentricity with their usual aplomb. On further – and slightly halting – enquiry, it turned out they spoke English, Turkish, Greek, French and German. Not all of them necessarily well enough to confide their suspicions about the Conspiracy Afoot Against the Working Man, but more than well enough to cope with a request for battered sausage and make light-hearted chitchat the while. We didn’t get into the specifics of how they had acquired their languages (the issue of coleslaw being more pressing) but I imagine we’re talking a mixture of picking things up on the job when you have lived in more than one country, and a schooling system taking its cue from the fact that you might well want to work in or move to western Europe.

Which got me thinking, as I go about my daily business in modern Lundun, that it is getting more and more incongruous that French is still taught in UK schools as a matter of course, and then after that basic priority has been satisfied, the other European languages are addressed in an ever-widening geographic circle. Surely we no longer need to be fashioning fledgeling diplomats to deal with that bounder Napoleon. Yes, it comes in handy on the Calais fag-run and when going to the Loire with your parents because you can’t afford a holiday for yourself, but those things are not so far as I know a priority at the Department for Children, Schools and Families (unless my People’s infiltration of focus groups has been working exceptionally well of late). France is not the sole default holiday destination choice any more. And, as is now acknowledged in select circles, the French abandoned Calais in disgust years ago and English people have unbeknownst to themselves been running it and forming its entire (purely diurnal) population ever since.

The justification always put forward at school was that French was in common use as a business language all over the world, which I accepted without question, envisaging the many shiny corporate situations in which I and my schoolfellows would chicly strike deals in French in glass-sided buildings before laughing coquettishly and going out for a cafe creme and a cognac-flavoured eclair (though, oddly, never once needing to ask how to get to the beach). But it strikes me now as a feeble piece of reasoning in the context of polyglot Britain – why are we preparing people for putative ill-defined business transactions in French-speaking nations when I can’t even say hello to my kebab man in his mother tongue? It is actually bloody odd that we know how to say “thank you” in French, Italian, Spanish and German but not in Somalian. How many times in your life are you going to be called upon to thank an Italian who will literally never have heard the words “thank you” before?

This is, admittedly, more an urban thing at the moment, but the marked absurdity can only spread across the country with time. The language I hear most often hereabouts is Polish – or at least I think it is because it sounds a bit like I reckon Polish should sound based on my extensive internal reference library of terrible old war films, but frankly it might just as easily be Lithuanian, Moldavian, Romanian or Martian. The Polish population of Haringey went up by 3000 in 2005/06 alone – that’s 3000 people who are basically stuck with talking to each other until they’ve watched enough Saturday night tv to pick up workable English (and how frightening is that?) The other major first languages abroad in the magic borough are Turkish, Greek, Arabic and Somalian. In not a single one of those do I know any of the words for “Hello”, “can”, “I”, “have”, “a”, “battered”, “sausage” or “please”. I don’t even know whether you could frame such a sentence. Maybe it is not possible to form questions in Arabic, and requests have to be made as a statement with a very polite expression. Maybe there is no first person pronoun in Somalian, and a battered sausage has to be ordered “for one’s stomach”. I really don’t have the least idea.

The focus on linguistic exchange is, of course, all the other way round. I have no reason to doubt the generally accepted proposition that integration is only successful where a real attempt is made on the part of the immigrant to learn the host language. But I don’t know why some reverse flow shouldn’t be a good thing – it would assist in breaking down prejudices, make people feel welcome, surely increase the speed at which the incomers pick up English. The Bishop of London went so far as to call for (why is it always “call for”? As if people go to the top of a very tall tower, blow a trumpet and begin “I DEMAND…”) a GCSE in Somali a few weeks ago, which I think is maybe pushing it in a curriculum where language teaching hours are shrinking - but why is that anyway, if not because the benefits are no longer as obvious as they used to be? By treating language as a practical tool for daily life rather than a potential corridor to a shadowy future career you don’t remember signing up for, one might even bolster the quality and vitality of linguistic schooling. Which, as anyone else who is young enough to remember Tricolore text books will know, is not in good nick in blighty. The only reason I can speak French well enough to order a battered sausage is because I chattered in a bastardised version of it every day with someone I lived with for a year. I don’t know quite how the decision was made to adopt a sort of whimsical pidgeon French as our private language, but it was certainly a policy which came dramatically unstuck when we went on holiday to Bruges, and a smattering of Somalian wouldn’t have gone amiss at all.

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