When Billy Elliot met E.D. Hirsch


Could KS3 embrace the 1980s to close the cultural literacy pits?

Last week I went to see a performance of the musical Billy Elliot by the students at the school where I am currently training. It was a fantastic show with acting, singing and dancing talent that made me fiercely envious. The story also did a fantastic job of evoking the spirit of the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike. The anger, the pain, the solidarity. In fact the song ‘Solidarity’ with its face off between two united, aggressive (and occasionally pirouetting) lines of police and miners brought to my mind everything from Pete Seeger to the 2014 film Pride. It was the sort of history that had me fully engaged and invested.

However, the next morning when I was eagerly chatting about the show with members of my form group who starred, none of them seemed to be able to appreciate the importance of this conflict. References to Margaret Thatcher and the concept of solidarity was as alien to them as Sergei Diaghilev (presumably) was to Arthur Scargill.

What was it that allowed me to engage more in a show I had never seen before than those who had lived and breathed it for the last four months of their lives? The fact that most of these students had given up history after KS3 and never studied Britain after 1945 had something to do with it…

Striking miners facing line of police

Back when I did my History A Level five years ago, I was taught a synoptic course entitled ‘The Development of Democracy in Britain: 1868-1997’. At the time I remember feeling its value but not yet having the language with which to express it. I would praise the fact that it was effectively ‘catching you up’, acting as a ‘previously on…’ to current affairs. I knew it was allowing me to understand what was happening in the news with greater ease.

The concepts we discussed in the course (the role of the media, economic inequality, political populism etc.) are central to our current political debates and by encountering them in previous guises, this course gave me the ammunition with which to engage with them now. It also gave me a level of interest and political engagement which I had not had before. I now realise I was being armed with a solid set of reference points with which I could engage in public discourse. What I once described as ‘catching you up’ was actually a building of the cultural literacy described by E.D. Hirsch. The course had provided a scaffold of knowledge upon which I could drape my new encounters with political issues. My teacher’s insistence that everyone in the class would be able to get the satire in Spitting Image no longer seems as pointless as it once did.

This course had given me set of cultural reference points that my form group did not have, indeed I would not have had at their age. It points to a common gap in compulsory history education at Key Stage 3 that I feel needs to be filled: the 1980s.

Too many KS3 history curricula (the limit of compulsory history education in Britain) stop at 1945. They cover the Second World War and the Holocaust and then come to a stop. This is even more common in schools with two-year KS3s. I find this slightly alarming. If a whole set of students leave school with the most recent event they studied in history being the Second World War, their conception of a) the nature of modern Britain and b) current international tensions, will be highly skewed.

Britain in 1945 was quite a different place to what we recognise today. Britain was still one of the most powerful countries in the world. It still had direct control over a vast empire, including India. Homosexuality was a criminal offence. Capital punishment was in practice. The Windrush had not yet arrived. For too many students there is a huge disconnect between the country in which they live and the country they study in history. They are fundamentally different places and most students would struggle to tell you how one became the other.

This common gap in the KS3 curriculum is one of the most prominent examples of ‘event-space’ in students’ historical thinking. By having a set of historical episodes in their minds as independent ‘events’ punctuating long periods of ‘event-space’ students get an incomplete sense of the nature of history. However in this case, where the event-space separates their knowledge of history from the present, it creates a sense of deep disconnect with the past and the belief that history is irrelevant to their own lives.

KS3 should not come screeching to a halt at 1945 purely on the assumption that students will study the Cold War and/or postwar Britain in KS4. For those that don’t continue history at school, this is doing them a disservice.

If more KS3 curricula drove beyond 1945, into the conflict points of the 1980s, students would be presented with a British and international context with far greater relevance to current debates. This knowledge can create for students a basis from which they can engage with the big questions of today. The 1980s is an ideal crux point for so many of the issues facing us today. On the role of the media in political discourse, on the allegations of Kremlin interference in the American election, on the sense of a north-south divide and economic inequality, on the fight for LGBT rights, on the political identity of the Labour party and on Britain’s relationship with the European Union. The 1980s has points of reference which students can use to understand the present.

This by no means solves the problem of ‘event-space’ in students minds. The gap between the 1980s and today remains stark. Nor am I suggesting that somehow studying the 1980s will automatically foster engagement with all Year 8s in current events. That is obviously ridiculous. Furthermore, by adding another enquiry at the end of KS3, it is likely something else would have to give way. In a curriculum pushed for time and space there are not many topics I would easily volunteer for redundancy.

However, maybe, when asked to swear about Maggie bleedn’ Thatcher in their next school play – students will understand the point, and that would make me smile.

My favourite films of 2016

2016 has been a torrid year for the blockbuster juggernaut films. Of the six major superhero films only two were generally well received (Deadpool and Captain America: Civil War). DC’s attempts at rivalling Marvel’s hegemony continued to unimpress and the X-Men franchise failed to live up to the heights of 2014’s Days of Future Past with the painfully mediocre Apocalypse.

Audiences were also ‘treated’ to a series of unwanted pieces of shiny nothingness that attempted to recreate the magic of a decades old favourite with minimal success. GhostbustersIndependence Day: Resurgence, and The Magnificent Seven spring to mind.

Alongside the mediocrity however there were genuine gems offered up in 2016. Many of which I am sure I missed in a busy year of finals, lesson-planning, and political anxiety. Of the films I did catch this year these are my personal highlights:

  1. Room

    Not to be confused with The Room  (the best worst film ever made), Room tells the story of a mother and her child trapped in unimaginably horrific circumstances but becomes a genuinely warming and life-affirming film.
    Cinema at its heart works when it is able to create an emotional response from the audience and no film managed that quite as significantly in 2016 as ‘Room’. From the moment of heart-shredding dread when Jack is in the truck to the tears that flow fairly consistently throughout.

    The eponymous Room is shot so remarkably that it feels so much bigger than the tiny cage it really is. It feels as if there is a whole world down there, and for Jack, that’s all the world he knows.
    Brie Larson’s performance as the mother is astonishing and well-deserving of her Oscar whilst Jacob Tremblay is perhaps the most convincing child actor I’ve seen in an incredibly complex role.

  2. The Nice Guys

    Ryan Gosling is fast becoming one of my favourite actors. Not only does he have two films on this list (The Big Short) but his upcoming musical La La Land is one of my most anticipated films of 2017.
    In The Nice Guys, Gosling stars as Holland March, an incompetent P.I. in the sleazy underworld of 1970s Los Angeles. Alongside him is Russell Crowe as the surprisingly entertaining hard man Jackson Healy.

    Nice Guys is full of surreal and wacky humour performed with real intelligence in sharp contrast to the usual American 2 hour, painfully unfunny, improvisation film (looking at you Will Ferrell).
    Like its spiritual predecessor Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, the plot is largely unimportant. What is delightful is the relationship between the two leads. This is a first class black comedy and the funniest film of the year.

  3. Swiss Army Man

    In the opening five minutes of this film Paul Dano rides the farting corpse of Daniel Radcliffe like a jet-ski across the sea. The film gets steadily weirder from there and somehow ends up being one of the best movie experiences of my year.
    Through endearing montages, fantasy sequences and a phallic compass ‘Daniels’ have created a strange, funny, and knowing look at how we relate whilst fulfilling my annual demand for fart jokes in one afternoon and really that’s all you need to say.

  4. Arrival

    Arrival is the best original sci-fi film I’ve seen in many years. This is an alien invasion story where the alien invasion is secondary to the human characters at its heart. Someone once said that ‘people like movies about people who are good at their jobs’ and this is certainly one of them. Amy Adams plays an academic linguist who is needed to try to communicate with the visitors. The allure of ability without arrogance is what makes Adams’ character so likeable and she is ably supported by Jeremy Renner who surprisingly pulls off a quiet physicist.

    The moment where we first enter the aliens’ craft and encounter the implications of artificial gravity was one of the most jaw-dropping scenes of the year.
    Like all the best sci-fi films, Arrival isn’t about space or aliens but about how we as a people co-operate and communicate.
    Arrival is a beautiful film and cements Denis Villeneuve as one of the most exciting directors around today.

  5. Sing Street

    An Irish feel-good, coming-of-age, musical-comedy set in the 1980s was always likely to make me smile. What I did not expect was it to make me laugh, cry, and care for the young leads with songs that are actually good pieces of music outside the context of the film.

    This is also one of the great films about brotherhood and Jack Reynor’s portrayal of an older brother struggling with his own future whilst guiding his brother to have the kind of life he failed to grasp was deeply affecting.
    I missed Sing Street in the cinemas but saw it on DVD a few months ago and have since watched it again at least four times with different people all of whom share my affection for the film. A future classic that will warm the heart of anyone who has ever fallen in love with music.

  6. Hell or High Water

    One thing that sticks with you after you watch Hell or High Water is the beautiful bleakness of West Texas. In many ways the land remains unchanged from that which John Wayne once prowled in murderous rage. However, despite the 150 years of development since the days of the Old West, this is a land more destitute and untamed. The towns are filled with closed down shops, foreclosed homes and at the centre, the only shiny building in town, a bank.

    It is through these banks that family man Toby (Chris Pine) and ex-con Tanner (Ben Foster) are progressing, attempting to raise enough funds for an initially unknown (but compelling) purpose. Pine and Foster are both excellent here but are somewhat eclipsed by the dry, curmudgeonly old ranger lived in by Jeff Bridges who tracks the brothers across the state.

    The haunting score by Nick Cave adds that extra layer of depth to a world that has been left behind by time. A fact realised in the setting, the characters, and indeed the genre of the film as an old western. The realities of life in this community and the crimes Pine’s character is forced to resort to are heartbreaking and are resemblent of a society one-step from breaking point.

  7. Spotlight

    This may be surprising but Spotlight did come out in UK cinemas in 2016, back in the heady days of pre-Brexit, pre-Trump January. Spotlight is the true story of the journalistic team at the Boston Globe in the early 2000s who uncovered the Catholic Church sex scandal. Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams all excel as reporters devoted to their task but the real star is Liev Schrieber as the sardonic outsider editor who is able to break the truth out of the tight community of Boston.

    In an age of fake news, echo chambers, and information distortion, Spotlight is a film that champions a rigorous approach to the truth whilst not portraying the journalists as faultless heroes. I saw this alone one cold evening in January and I remember leaving the cinema after the film’s devastating note and walking around Cambridge for over an hour just contemplating what I had seen.

  8. The Big Short

    A black comedy about the causes of the 2008 global financial meltdown from the man who brought you Anchorman. Adam McKay did the impossible by not only making the biggest economic disaster of our generation funny, he made it comprehensible and the people at the heart of the financial system that caused the crash, likeable.

    Steve Carrell’s particular brand of charming irritability really drives this film but it is the cut-aways to cameos explaining the artificially complicated financial terms of Wall St that allows the film to succeed. Margot Robbie drinking champagne in a bubble bath whilst explaining sub-prime loans was an inspired choice.

  9. Moana

    I never quite got the hype about Disney’s 2013 Christmas favourite Frozen. A fairly mediocre adaptation of a Hans Christian Anderson story with cliched characters and one very annoying song. For me Moana is the film that Frozen was to everyone else. A fantastic animated classic with a strong central lead and excellent music.

    The Polynesian adventure of Moana is not only charmingly told, and beautifully animated, but actually feels like a story. As if it was a retelling of an ancient myth, such is its power. Dwayne Johnson is reliably excellent as the arrogant but sensitive demigod Maui, but the biggest laughs are reserved for Moana’s silent pet chicken.
    The soundtrack from Lin-Manuel Miranda is a delight and ‘How far I’ll go’ ranks alongside the best and most infectious songs from his triumph Hamilton.

  10. High-Rise

    High-Rise is the long-awaited adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s classic dystopian novel and is up there with director Ben Wheatley’s finest work. The imagery that saturates this film is arresting from the kaleidoscopic murder of the Architect to the flaying of a skull, moments in this film are unforgettable.

    In the film Tom Hiddleston plays Dr. Laing who’s move into a luxury 1970s apartment block quickly descends into a nightmarish world of chaos and destruction. What is so fascinating about the descent is the speed of it. There doesn’t seem to be any causal event just suddenly it is apparent life in the high-rise has changed and no one seems to mind. No one even contemplates leaving the building such as the allure of convenience living.
    The class politics of High-Rise are also well-achieved although are often a little heavy handed, but such was the nature of the source material.

    Ending a dystopian film set in Britain with a child listening to a speech by Thatcher is also a sure-fire way to be one of my favourite films of the year.

Honourable mentionsStar Trek: BeyondRogue One: A Star Wars Story, Finding Dory, Hail Caesar!, The Hateful Eight.

National Identity in Marble and Bronze

Why a city’s choice of statue can reveal so much about national identity.

National identity is a curious, and fundamentally artificial, construct. According to Benedict Anderson the nation is nothing more than an ‘imagined community’ built upon the conceit that no one in a nation can know everyone else within it yet they still irrationally perceive the nation as a unified community. This idea of the nation can be seen in the ways nations choose to portray their own history. By looking at who nations immortalise in marble and bronze in city centres, we can see how national identity has developed in different regions. At odds are the intangible, cultural form of identity and the more physical, often militaristic versions.

Whilst travelling through Eastern Europe in the summer of 2015, I noticed something interesting about how in particular Slavic countries have chosen to represent their national history. In the centre of the main square of Krakow, surrounded by overpriced restaurants, an impressive cathedral, and eager leafleteers stands a huge monument to Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855). This was a figure completely unfamiliar to me but that in itself was not unsurprising. Despite my Polish ancestry, I would struggle with anything but the broadest sweeps of Polish history. However it turned out Mickiewicz was not the general or politician one might expect to find commemorated in a major European city, but a poet.

Mickiewicz is an artist rarely studied in Britain, but of great national significance to Poland as a Romantic Poet of the nineteenth century. Perhaps Mickiewicz’s most famed work is the epic poem ‘Pan Tadeusz’. The poem takes place in 1811, documenting a turning point in Polish history where the region had been partitioned between Russian, Prussian, and Austrian armed forces and thus erased from the political map of Europe. Of such national importance is Mickiewicz’s poem that it is compulsory reading for all schoolchildren.

krakow adam
Statue of Adam Mickiewicz, Krakow
Adam Mickiewicz

Key to Anderson’s understanding of the nation is  the development of ‘print capitalism’, the dominance of a single localised vernacular in print media that, in the early modern period, replaced Latin as the language of choice. The uniformity of a single language spoken by all citizens, not just the intellectual elite, served to foster the idea of the imagined community – the nation.

For Poland, Mickiewicz’s epic poem written in Polish represented this shift and thus built the foundations upon which a fledgling nation-state could be built. This is why his statue is the most prominent in Krakow, and why across Eastern Europe tourists are presented with similar representations of national history.

For example, in the central square of Ljubljana, the most prominent monument is to nineteenth century Slovenian poet France Prešeren who enjoys a similar position in the Slovenian national psyche as Mickiewicz to the Polish.

In a similar vein the largest statue in Split, Croatia is of the tenth century bishop Grgur Ninski. Whilst representing a very different figure to Mickiewicz or Preseren, Ninski pioneered church services in the Croation language over Latin and therefore made similar advances in the development of a singular national print language, if eight centuries prior to the romantic poets.

Poland, Slovenia, Croatia and many other Eastern European nations have not been independent politically for millennia. Instead they have been variously conquered, divided or occupied by neighbouring European powers. As such, these national identities did not manifest in tangible forms such as political or military success. Rather identity was confined to language and thus it is the poets who are venerated for keeping alive the idea of the nation. By continuing to write in the Polish language, Mickiewicz ensured the idea of Poland could survive and outlast the occupying forces.

When you compare these forms of national commemoration to other European nations that have existed uninterrupted for over a thousands years, such as France, Russia, and England, there is a stark contrast. In the most important public squares and spaces in London it is not poets but military commanders that are commemorated. The victor of Trafalgar, Horatio Nelson, rules atop a fifty-metre-high column over Trafalgar Square. The Duke of Wellington parades outside the Stock Exchange. Oliver Cromwell stands resolute defending the Parliament he once led through Civil War.

Britain’s great romantic poets are not commemorated in nearly the same pomp. Even Shakespeare is relegated to a modest memorial in Leicester Square. It is the uninterrupted nature of Britain (and previously England) as a political entity that ensures that national identity has manifested in tangible, political forms, not the cultural realm.
This reality of public history is a reality of our present. Is it not the case that Britain attempts to cling to it’s long-gone global power in increasingly desperate displays? After all why in the twenty-first century does a tiny island in the North Atlantic rub shoulders with America, China and Russia at the Security Council? Britain imagines it’s national identity as one of continuing tangible power. A history built on statesmen and generals. Perhaps it would be of enormous benefit not only to our national psyche but also future generations if greater focus was instead placed upon Shelley, Milton, and Chaucer in both our public spaces, collective consciousness and the history classroom.
Each imagined community is shaped by its citizens and how they chose to represent themselves throughout history. Nations that have survived centuries of invasions through a resilience of language are, to me, all the richer for it and can look upon their heroes in marble and bronze with pride. Literary giants in a medium of blood-stained generals and repressive kings.

Blogker Begins…

An introduction to the blog…

Why on earth am I writing a blog? It’s a fair question. The internet is already over-saturated with ill-informed opinions and hot takes. Really though this is just a place for me to write about what I’m thinking about which is usually something either intensely dull or irrelevant to the zeitgeist (am I selling this ok?)…
Around a year ago a friend of mine joked that I should start a blog called Alex Blogker, a play on my surname. His vision for the blog was to create a safe and secure place where I could tell all my terrible jokes in the knowledge that absolutely no one would find them, thus providing a necessary service to humanity.
Whilst there will in all likelihood still be some terrible puns on here (after all I doubt I’ll be able to resist completely), Alex Blogker will be mainly devoted to the things that interest me. Expect a fair amount of cultural and political history, left-wing politics, pedagogy, and moaning about Tottenham Hotspur and movies to lighten the mood.
I hope that this will be an enjoyable experience for me, a place where I can write about the things I want at longer length than on Twitter and in a less intrusive way to others’ lives than on Facebook. Who knows there might even be something on here that interests you!
I think I’ll end this as the Queen Mother used to end her letters…
Tinkety tonk old fruit, and down with the Nazis.