Matthew Arnold – poet, essayist and Her Majesty’s Inspector of Schools – famously wrote that culture is concerned with knowing “the best that has been said and thought in the world”. This has become the leitmotif of Michael Gove’s educational revolution: if children are not exposed to the classics of literature, music, theatre, dance, film, painting, sculpture – what we terms the “fine arts” – then society is impoverished, civilisation declines and future generations are inculcated with nothing but the banal, mediocre and vulgar.
Out go TS Eliot, Wordsworth, Elgar, Monet and Mozart; in come Carol Ann Duffy, Damien Hirst, Russell Brand and Madonna. Critical thought is abandoned for formulaic answers – who needs epistemology when you’ve got a WH Smith’s revision guide? And academic rigour is replaced with emotional intelligence – what’s the point of straight-A*s if the child has low self-esteem? Continue reading →
On April 23rd 2016 – and probably throughout the entire year – we will celebrate the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. By ‘we’ I mean not only England and the English, or the United Kingdom and the British, but all nations and cultures of the world where Shakespeare is a passion, pastime or of any scholarly interest. And that necessarily embraces the whole of civilisation. As the holder of the Guinness World Record for performing the Complete Works single-handedly non-stop (five days without sleep – never again), I’ll certainly be raising a glass or two to the world’s greatest poet-playwright.
My record still stands after 25 years, and has just been re-published in the 2013 edition of the Guinness Book of Records. I will forever be grateful to those fine English teachers I had at school – Roger Calvert, Daphne Cooper and Jean Tidy – who between the years that spanned my O-levels and A-levels introduced me to Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night, Antony & Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Measure for Measure and King Lear. From the academic confines of the classroom to the emotional exuberance of the school play, I found my soul simultaneously steeped in dramatic greatness, lyrical beauty and profound wisdom: ineffable, noetic, passive – it was like a religious experience. Every visit I made to Stratford-upon-Avon became a pilgrimage: sometimes wrestling with darkness and devils, and then rejoicing with angels and ministers of grace. Continue reading →