Saturday, 29 March 2008

Workers with hand and brain

I was in Ringtons (Tea) in Kingston, buying (Ringtons) tea. (I cling to the belief that loose tea tastes better.) They had a 1930s advertising film playing, with the sound off. I saw the end and then the beginning: a string of Ringtons vans leaving the depot through an arch and dividing left and right along a road; one driver making a delivery to a suburban front door (title of film: ‘Your Tea, Madam!’). Then at the start crates arriving in Newcastle docks and men in brown coats in the warehouse transferring the crates into a goods lift, repetitively and endlessly, a scene of pure labour.

That latter shot (the last I saw) showed the familiar repetitive movements with which the hard-working, dutiful, uncomplaining labour force of Britain used invariably to be depicted in documentary films: men on trawlers picking up herrings, gutting them with a swift slice and throwing the fish into the hold, time after time after time for a whole working life; lines of land girls working through a field throwing potatoes into a sack; men taking metal parts from a conveyer belt, holding them in a punch, pressing a lever and throwing the parts back on the belt. Endless repetition, in apparent contentment, getting on with the job, never a subversive thought. No hint of back pain, injuries, dissatisfaction with pay or conditions, militancy, lives as persons outside labour. Workers as interchangeable units, with interchangeable flat caps (the supervisors wearing trilbies); the working class was depicted as, and seemed in the films to act as, the masses, always at work in vast numbers, pouring out of the factory gates (and onto the football terraces, where they roared flatcappedly as one).

While that sort of work was not without skill, the skill was such as a machine can, and these days does, embody. The work was repetitive; it did not for the most part involve the application of knowledge or ingenuity to new situations as in truly skilled work where each new job is a fresh challenge.

Far from depicting the dignity of labour, viewed from today the films make the workers appear simply exploited, dupes almost. Aristotle would certainly have said they were performing the work of slaves, not citizens.

Which makes me think of ‘technology’ (as distinct from information technology) in schools. I think there’s a contemporary revulsion at the apparent stultification and toil shown in those images of work on the physical stuff of the world – iron, coal, crops, fish. No student sees himself or herself spending their lives so mindlessly. That’s part of why the curriculum designers have replaced subjects like woodwork, metalwork, cookery and textiles with ‘technology’ or ‘design and technology’ -- in the process, however, banishing any activity that involves manual skill.

So instead of workshops we now have clean rooms, not with benches but with tables, as in classrooms, not with vices and grease guns but with paper, pens and computers. Here the
students work on design concepts without ever shaping and joining wood or getting oil on their uniforms. Materials are reduced to plastic kits that stand for rather than are machines and artefacts. Although ‘food technology’ still, I gather, includes cooking, here too there’s the pretence that it’s all about designing meals. (Whether students still make clothes, tents etc with sewing machines I don’t know.)

It’s as if the whole of manual craft work had been tainted with the bad odour of mind-destroying industrial labour. But activity in the best of the old craft subjects wasn’t like that: jobs were individual, extended, complex and complete in themselves, not parts of larger processes; each had to be tackled afresh and worked through over time, involving a series of difficulties that had to be overcome. My job in the mid-eighties involved seeing a lot of these subjects in schools around the country and I remember fabulous lessons in which the students were designing a footbridge for Portsmouth harbour and managing a garden and smallholding enterprise.

I believe there was value in those subjects; it certainly looked as if something worthwhile was being learned. Richard Sennett’s new book The Craftsman claims, according to the reviews (I haven’t yet read it), that there is ethical value in the acquiring and exercising of craft skill: one learns care, self-discipline and orderliness, deferment of satisfaction, persistence over extended periods of time and habits of working to standards that are inherent in the activity but also self-imposed as ends.

To work at a craft is precisely not, or not primarily, to work for rewards (grades, pay) or to satisfy merely consumerist impulses. It is to make a moral stand against consumerism and the degradation of skills (think of the dispersal and loss, with privatisation, of the hard-earned skill that characterised the old railway workforce); it implies a refusal to be reduced to ‘flexible labour’ that can be directed at will by ‘management’ or ‘the economy’.

There was another perceived problem with crafts in school: since they were classed as vocational subjects and were taken by students not destined for academic and professional routes, they had low status. Their replacement by ‘design and technology’ was a bid to cerebralise that area and so lift it out of the lower-stream reservation. (In the process the engagement of kids who didn’t like the cerebral stuff was often lost.) But the students who can benefit from craft work span the range, and the answer would surely have been to remove the vocational association, making these into subjects that were pursued for their own sake, at least to the same extent that the arts and sciences are.

As it was, the association of manual craft with getting industrial jobs meant those subjects died as soon as industry ceased to need the skills. In a purportedly vocational course it was impossible to justify teaching an activity that had no instrumental value in the world of work. No one wanted to repeat the lesson of bookbinding, a big subject in the secondary moderns of the 40s and 50s but which in retrospect was a near-complete waste of educational time.

However, if craft can be rid of its vocational connection it should be able to justify itself for the value that Sennett finds in it. This, though, would mean finding new contexts and applications for it. Can craft find a place as an element in leisure activity? Not in its old form, in which workshops didn’t have the Black and Decker power tools every handyperson uses at home, or in a world in which good cheap flatpacks were killing DIY and the home-made coffee table. Nor is there any obvious art application for wood and metal work beyond types of sculpture that few people much care for.

The skills that now have a place in education, and which it would be strange to label ‘crafts’, are cerebral and personal: they involve not work with the body on the world’s physical stuff but work with mind and language on symbols and persons: writing, software design, nursing, teaching. And these pursuits may indeed induce similar values (care, disinterestedness etc) beyond the instrumental, market-driven and consumerist. Nevertheless, there was personal value of a different kind in the fundamental experiences of manipulating and fabricating materials and the disappearance of craft seems a loss. I wish there were some fresh thinking about forms in which it could re-enter the curriculum.

I have some ideas, related in part to my ‘Every Kid a Shed’ campaign, about which I should also write some time soon.


Sunday, 23 March 2008

My Victorian education -- in Victorian desks

Looking at books about the early days of universal education (1870-1914) I realise how much of my primary school experience (late 1940s) still belonged to that world. Particularly the infrastructure (buildings, furniture, books), but also the administrative structures.

As an example of the latter: after two years at Wibsey Infants School (Bradford) I moved up to the junior school, which was organised in ‘Standards’ – Standard I to Standard IV. These Standards went back to mid-Victorian times, when they really were standards, in the testable subjects of reading, writing and arithmetic, as assessed by visiting inspectors. There were then, of course, no primary schools; secondary schools meant grammar schools which were for the middle classes and a few scholarship pupils transferring from the elementary school. The elementary school, in which the mass of the population was educated, ran from Infants up to Standard VI, age 13, to which a Standard VII was added later. By my time the Standards were just the name for year groups in the junior school. The terms Standards V and upwards weren’t retained in the new (post-1944) secondary schools, the grammars and secondary moderns, which everyone now attended from age 11.

Most primary schools were in the old elementary school buildings; indeed, most of our school buildings dated (and may still do) from before 1914. Many of my teachers would have been from the elementaries as well, including Ma Healey who taught Scripture with a bun, sharp nose and vicious ruler in Horton Bank Top Junior School. (‘Who were God’s chosen people?’ she would threaten. ‘Miss, the Jews,’ we would plead, hoping to escape the wrath.)

And the desks were the originals: iron-framed two-seaters, with inkwells, and lids and seats that lifted. Whether there were drills for going to desks, sitting, standing and leaving I don’t recall, but there certainly were in School Board days, from 1870, as in Robson’s 1874 School Architecture (see previous blog).

Much thought was given, especially in Germany, to the best dimensions for school desks:

(Click to enlarge images)

We tend to think of Victorian education as harsh and brutal. But Robson and his colleagues in London and other big school boards did their research in Europe and America and made huge efforts to ensure that children were comfortable and had good space, heating, ventilation and lighting. Robson insisted (p.359-60) that ‘The furniture of the school-room should be graceful in form and good in quality and finish.’ He wanted ‘furniture finished like good cabinet work’. By our time this furniture was pretty battered and unfashionably dark; it was easy to mistake its quality.

The desks he designed had slots for slates. I think slots were gone by my day, but our desks still seemed, and were, ancient, the wood blackened, gouged and ink-stained, the lids and seats heavy. There was plenty of potential for chaos in the clatter of lids and seats and we must have had regimes for all the necessary operations in our classes of 40. His desks, like ours, were on the ‘dual system’ – i.e. two-seaters.

Here finally is a picture of the dual desks in use. This is the typical arrangement: the school-room divided by a curtain or movable partition.

However, I don’t understand the classroom on the right. There are four banks of 5 double desks: 40 seats. But are there not 50 girls?

Saturday, 22 March 2008

The first London elementary schools

Click to enlarge

Awesome find on eBay -- though unfortunately it's a facsimile edition (Leicester University Press, 1972). Beautiful printing, with engravings and woodcuts.

Robson was the first architect of the School Board for London. The Board was elected in November 1870 -- direct elections: this wasn't a committee of the council (there wasn't a council). The Board was truly impressive. They lost no time and in 6 months had appointed a Works Committee and Robson as architect. More on the SBL another time.

Notice the date, then: 1874 is really early in the life of the School Board. (It was replaced by the London County Council in 1904). But already some schools had been built, to the high standard that the SBL and LCC kept up until 1914. (Note also that the school building was called the school-house: the term referred to the school, not the teacher's or caretaker's house.)

The school illustrated, West Street School, Hackney, was an early SBL school type. It has the familiar three storeys: from the bottom, infants, girls and boys, the three departments, as they were called. At this stage each floor would consist, apart from cloakrooms etc., of a single school-room (or hall), each housing the pupils (at desks in various configurations), the teacher and some pupil-teachers (aged 14 and over). One experimental school had been built with classrooms, a Prussian idea, but Robson found this model expensive and inefficient. At best the school-room might sometimes be divided with curtains.

Later, though, the SBL and Robson came round to the idea of classrooms, divided from the hall (the former school-room) and the landings by glass partitions, so that the teacher could easily supervise the pupil-teachers and any assistant teachers.

I'll do another entry on Robson and desks!

Thursday, 13 March 2008

Robin Hood Gardens

I've been interested in the buildings of Alison and Peter Smithson for some time -- possibly since I shared a flat with some architecture students in the 60s. So I decided it was time to see their first big project, Robin Hood Gardens in Poplar, next to the Blackwall Tunnel.

Here's the story according to

"In the late 1960s, the Smithsons were given the opportunity to realise their vision of modern housing by designing an estate of 213 homes at Robin Hood Gardens in Poplar, east London. They conceived it as a series of “streets in the sky” mixing single-storey apartments with two-storey maisonettes and including a wide balcony on every third floor which, they hoped, the residents would use for children’s play and chatting to neighbours like a traditional street. Sadly Robin Hood Gardens was plagued by structural flaws and a high crime rate. It was often derided as an example of modernist architectural folly rather than the role model for progressive social housing that Alison and Peter had hoped. Its failure dealt lasting damage to their reputation."

Concrete needs looking after and public housing needs to be well-managed. Neither has happened so the flats now look seedy. Not surprising there are moves to demolish them, and a campaign to save them. For more background see

But it's still easy to see that this was a magnificent project, and to understand how it was modelled on Le Corbusier's Unité d'Habitation. The way it curves is terrific.

The rest of my photos are on Flickr, under my Flickr name Utpictura. But there are much better images there too: search under Robin Hood Gardens and robinhoodgardens.

Monday, 10 March 2008

London schools

Today I went for a walk around part of Southwark -- SE17, a familiar haunt where I had my first teaching job. By the time I reached the school, Walworth, the light was poor and I was getting wet. Nevertheless...

That's the back as I approached from Dawes Street. Advancing a bit further...

This view didn't use to be possible -- a few streets have since been removed.

The school was built not by Southwark, not by the LCC who ran education in London from 1903 but by the School Board for London, a directly elected body resulting from the Forster Education Act of 1870. In no time at all (well, thirty years) they built what must be hundreds of schools like this in dense areas of London for a population most of which had never been to school before. The SBL was an impressive outfit.

These were elementary schools, for children from 5-12, though many left before 12.

That's the original name. Later (1945, I imagine) it became the Nelson Secondary Modern School, then the lower school of Walworth Secondary School (comprehensive) and now it's the lower school of the new Walworth Academy.

It's the best school building I ever worked in. Well-built, spacious, high ceilings, high windows, adaptable for different teaching methods, fine brick architecture based on 17th and 18th English styles. And the staffroom had a fireplace, with a fire lit every morning at 8 by Mrs Arnold, the schoolkeeper's wife, who also put the kettle on. The classrooms had had fireplaces too, but these had been boarded up.

What it didn't have was a playing field -- only grammar schools (often called secondary schools) had them, and a different architecture -- more Gothic or more classical -- to make clear that they were for fee-paying middle class children, and those select working-class children who got scholarships out of the elementary schools and whose parents were prepared to keep them on to 15.

Saturday, 8 March 2008

French bullseye

I've been reading Thomas Carlyle’s French Revolution (1837) – a quite unfamiliar sort of work for me who have read my share of Eng Lit in my time, or the sort of Eng Lit my generation were pointed to, which never included Carlyle. (A friend once overheard the Leavises -- famous literary critics -- as they browsed in a second-hand bookshop in Cambridge. Queenie to Frank: 'I think one has enough Carlyle, don't you?' The Leavises did not rate Carlyle.)

Carlyle constantly drives me to the dictionary – or to the consciousness that I ought to be going to the dictionary if I were less lazy. Or to some other reference work. Here’s a passage with a phrase that induced this unease:

Happy were a young “Louis the Desired” to make France happy; if it did not prove too troublesome, and he only knew the way. But there is endless discrepancy around him; so many claims and clamours; a mere confusion of tongues…. Philosophism claims her new Era…. France at large is now beginning to speak also…. On the other hand, the Oeuil-de-Boeuf.. best claims with shrill vehemence that the Monarchy be as heretofore a Horn of Plenty; wherefrom loyal courtiers may draw…

You see why I find Carlyle challenging. You won't see from this why he's also terrific. (I may write more about The French Revolution.)

Anyway: from such passages I gathered that the Oeuil-de-Boeuf was something to do with the Court.

So, to Google, which sends me in what seems a hopeless direction, taking me to a set of Flickr photographs gathered under the tag oeuildeboeuf (
Here are a couple:

Something to do with a round window, then? what has that to do with the French monarchy?

So to the Oxford English Dictionary (online, which I can access because I have a university library account). Here I find:

1. A small round or oval window.

2. The name of an octagonal vestibule lighted by a small oval window in the palace at Versailles where, before the Revolution of 1789, members of the court, government, etc., waited on the French monarch; (hence, in extended use) such a vestibule or antechamber in another establishment. Also: the people so gathered for an audience, etc.; a royal household or court. Now chiefly hist.

And among the quotes is

1837 T. CARLYLE French Revol. I. III. i. 91 To govern France were such a problem; and now it has grown well-nigh too hard to govern even the {Oe}il-de-B{oe}uf.

The end. Why did I think you might be interested? Just as an example of the fun you can have in following up obscure references in obscure (to me) literary works... And it could come in handy in a pub quiz.

On hating stately homes

Visiting Chatworth (Derbyshire) ten days ago with Jim and Katy I was relieved that the house was closed for the season. For us walking in the estate was the point: the landscaped contours, fine trees, idyllic river and the deer.

I've frequently been bored and hostile inside stately homes. I know too much about where the money came from and what life was like for their tenants, who often had their houses cleared for the sake of a view of nature unencumbered by human clutter (see Raymond Williams, The Country and the City). Chatsworth House from the outside had the air of a corporate headquarters plonked arrogantly down in the prime spot in a stretch of beautiful countryside – a crude and vulgar flaunting of wealth and power. The inside, I was sure, would have conveyed that offensive opulence even more unmistakably, and would have been in the worst sort of 18th century bad taste: gilt chairs, furniture with over-luxuriant carving, endless paintings of stuffed-shirt nonentities and their dogs, fat beds with gold curtains held back by brocade ropes, expensive clutter. And reverential guides relentlessly explaining.

This week Angela took me from York to visit her local stately home, Castle Howard, where Brideshead had been filmed. I didn’t object because landscaping is almost always pleasure.

The weather was dull and chilly and the house wasn’t lit by sun as in this picture (not mine, I'm afraid; as is my habit I forgot my camera). It looked as oppressive and over-ornate as Chatsworth, and much of the stonework was still blackened, whether by industrial pollution or a 1940 fire I don’t know. We put off the decision whether to go inside and started with the grounds. As landscape these were lovely; there were two lakes, on either side of the rise on which the house stood, one with a bridge, as Angela said, from nowhere to nowhere; a broad green walk up a hill, along the edge of and then into a rising wood, with paths also descending to the valleys on either side. Immediately in front of the house was a formal layout of lawn and squared hedges, as for all that amorous strolling in costume dramas. If asked I would usually say I prefer something less artificial, but this was satisfying, as geometry and as green architecture: the hedges were the right height and thickness in relation to the spaces, and the whole array was given sharpness by periodic classical statues and, centrally, a fountain with a huge basin in the middle of which a squatting muscle-bound Atlas almost crushed by a huge world poured water. Again, the scale seemed perfect.

In the wood on the hill was a square, domed and columned Temple of the Wind, with crumbling steps on each side and pairs of statues, cloaked deities, facing east and west from the raised base. It was a good building, for some reason enhanced by the irregular blackness of the sandstone except where recent erosion had exposed its pristine colour.

We descended to the north lake to the back of the house, an expanse of wind-troubled water that extended, from the lakeside, as far as the eye could see. At the near end fish-ponds had been divided off by low banks, and some way out was an island of which nothing could be seen except its covering of dense and ragged winter trees. By the lakeside was a wooden pavilion where refreshments were served in season and through which we got to a spacious deck with tables. Standing here we watched the hundreds of different waterfowl, near and far, until we got cold. It was a constantly changing drama of duck courting and aggression, the solitary cruising of what looked like mergansers and coots, and further out and sometimes hidden behind the island a huge noisy flock of Canada geese that sometimes rose and wheeled over the lake and the woods. On a bare tree on the island were perched twenty tall birds in silhouette; one took off and passed low and dark over the water in a wide circuit, finally returning to the tree and standing as if carved with wings extended. The sun moved in and out of cloud, the wind came and went and the light constantly shifted over the water.

Finally into the house. Entering at the end of the west wing (the family live in the east) we were faced by a fine stone staircase occupying almost the full width of the space.

Where I was expecting a chilly austerity of stone, the inside was lively with light and warmth. The roof was glass and the stairs and landing were flooded with light; the stonework was plain, without excessive decoration. The upper walls displayed full-length portraits of generations of head Howards -- Earls of Carlisle, as it turned out. The landing led into a further space of similar dimensions, over which the glass roof continued, with more portraits and the first of a sequence of poshly dressed but friendly and sometimes humorous Yorkshire ‘explainers’.

Then into an extremely high and spacious central atrium lit by a glass dome. The designers, masons, woodcarvers and painters had been given their head here: we had different marbles, fake marbles, sandstone Corinthian columns, varied woodwork, a huge fireplace and more paintings. This was one part of the building in which one might have expected a chilly and vulgar ostentation; in fact the experience was enjoyably luxurious – the thing had been made for the sheer pleasure of its scale and variety.

Similarly with the bedrooms that followed – opulent, certainly, but not offensively showy and in every case comfortable. There was a long corridor, on the colder northern side, lined on the left by windows, with small Roman statues on pedestals disposed at intervals – not too closely – along its length, each one rewarding a look: the head of a Roman boy-emperor, a hero fighting a snake, the bust of a warrior. Not ostentatious, just devised for pleasure and stimulation. Even the long gallery, grand though it was, was somewhere one could imagine a family being at ease rather than on show; the textures were warm, the room light from its long south-facing windows.

The exploitation and cruelty that must have lain behind the wealth of the Howards was no less a reality for the charm and good taste of their house. The interior radiated life and suggested the pleasures of a cultivated (if selectively forgetful) existence. But I realised again, as I suppose I already knew from fine buildings I'd seen in Europe, that the ugliest and most piratical military, political and mercantile lives can nevertheless produce cultural works that continue to enliven us.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Virus again

I've now removed the comments that I thought were suspicious (see Virus posting).

Monday, 3 March 2008

The best thing last week in Manchester was in the city art gallery: videos by Jun Nyughen Hatsushiba -- Japanese, lives in Ho Chi Minh City. These were on big screens and were proper films, perhaps 20 mins each. Three were underwater, with divers, some with, some without breathing apparatus. Coral and fish, strange white tent-like constructions found in trenches, over precipices, on knolls. Hard to make mundane sense of them but two appeared to be ceremonies for Christmas (strangely) and New Year, conducted underwater, one with a huge dragon manipulated by many divers, one involving what might have been a race on the sea bed, pushing bicycle rickshaws. The whole pervaded by shoals of fish. Strange falling globes that released trails of colour (food colouring, it said at the end). Streams of bubbles; distant figures rising to the surface and dropping down. Above all, beautiful, whatever its meaning. The one with the fewest swimmers was the least interesting, so that I think the appeal of the rest might have been mainly balletic.

No. 4 -- terrific -- was 20 or so long oriental boats, their motors under a bamboo shelter at the back, speeding down a fast wide brown river between jungle banks, endlessly, just before dawn, with huge motor noise. A stunning visual. In the bow of each boat, standing, a painter working on an easel. These were art students, and you saw their faces and their paintings of aspects of the scene. Towards the end, one by one they dived into the river and headed for the bank. A tree, presumably sacred, seemed to be what drew them. The easels fall in. Boats continue. The end.

No. 5 (small screen) was a documentary (no words) of Jun NH running, in several cities. He reckons over ten years to run the diameter of the earth in a number of cities. Something to do with the plight of refugees.

Now, later, looking at the Manchester City Art Galleries website I see there are links to reviews, which I haven't read, and to his website
which is great and includes images -- though the 'More' button (for video?) doesn't work for me.


The comments on my last entry are single words that activate some program or download. They look suspicious -- I suggest don't look at them.