From David Maughan Brown in York: Of horses and men

Cyprina

March 3rd

I surprised myself with the visceral repugnance with which I responded to the news that the prominent Irish trainer, Gordon Elliott, had posed for a photograph sitting with an imbecilic grin astride the very dead body of one of the racehorses he had been hired to train.   The photograph has been severely and sensitively cropped to cut the body of the horse out of the version published by the mainstream media, but the narrative is shocking enough without need for the full visuals.

I have always felt a particular affinity with horses.  The closest I get to an acceptance of the esoteric insights of astrology is via its tendency to suggest that an affinity with horses is often a characteristic of people born under Sagittarius.  Centaurs don’t have much option when it comes to that affinity.  The highlight of my years in, or in this case out of, junior school were the two months we spent every three years at an uncle’s trading station on the Berea Plateau, in what was then Basutoland, when my father was required as a colonial servant to remove us from boarding school and take us out of what was then Tanganyika to go on ‘long leave’.   Those idyllic months were mainly spent with and on Basuto ponies.   

At the other end of the career spectrum, when I was Principal of the Pietermaritzburg campus of the University of Natal in the very turbulent and stressful ‘transformation’ years after the unbanning of the ANC in the 1990s, being able to spend two hours on Sunday mornings riding the Cyprina of the illustration above was the best possible therapy I could have wished for.   My friend Julia Braine lives with her partner, Ros, half a dozen dogs, innumerable cats, a flock of chickens and half a dozen horses on a smallholding in Winterskloof on the hills above Pietermarizburg.  Cyprina was a superb Lipizzaner mare whose liveliness belied her 25 years.  Her owner had, wholly unaccountably, more or less abandoned her to be stabled by Julia, she needed regular exercise and I could tell myself that I was performing a public service by assisting in that regard.  The smallholding gave immediate access to hundreds of hectares of pine and blue-gum plantations above Cedara where we could roam at will.  Cyprina was always uncannily sensitive and responsive to my mood and, while Julia who was then Head of the University Student Counselling Centre is a brilliant clinical psychologist, it was Cyprina who was the therapist-in-chief.  The painting is a treasured parting present from Julia and Ros when we left South Africa. 

The Gordon Elliott photograph and story have been greeted with public outrage and fury, mainly, it seems, by those connected in one way or another with the racing industry who are clearly, and with considerable justification, concerned that it brings the industry into disrepute.  The situation wasn’t helped by another report and photograph emerging immediately afterwards about and of an equally insensitive jockey having done exactly the same thing. Gordon Elliott has been banned pending a formal inquiry; I expect the same to happen to the jockey.

With hindsight, I now find myself wondering quite why I responded to the story with such visceral distress.   It was no more rational than is the idea that my affinity with horses has to do my having been born under the sign of Sagittarius.   The horse was dead; it didn’t mind somebody sitting on it.   Any anger would have been better directed at the fact that it could have been ‘trained’ to the point of dropping dead, which suggests that its state of health was not being properly monitored.  I have no vested interest whatever in the racing industry, and the question probably needs to be asked as to what proportion of the outrage and anger has been manufactured for fear of negative repercussions for the industry rather than out of genuine compassion and respect for the nameless horse.

Perhaps I should be more worried about my immediate response to yesterday’s BBC news coverage of babies starving to death in Yemen in the context of our contemptible government’s decision to cut our aid budget to Yemen by more than fifty percent.  The UK is still selling arms to Saudi Arabia whose proxy war in the Yemen has resulted in famine conditions for tens of thousands of impoverished people.  In direct contravention of a Tory manifesto commitment, £4 billion has been cut from our Foreign Aid budget, to the anger even of many Tories on the back-benches, as a contribution towards the hole in our finances caused by, among other things, the many more billions of pounds corruptly handed out to Tory chums during the pandemic without need for a formal tendering process or parliamentary approval.  I responded with anger and indignation to the coverage of the starving babies, but not with the same visceral distress. It is too easy to become inured to coverage of children starving to death in our grossly unequal world, and to feel a distanced anger rather than an emotional shock.   A stupid man sitting on a dead horse shouldn’t shock one’s sensibility more immediately than the many atrocities with far wider ramifications going on in the world around us.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Fiction

September 17th

Distraction from the catastrophic train-crash of our world-beatingly incompetent government’s Covid-testing programme being sorely needed, I stoically continue with the painstaking process of reading and correcting the proofs of Game of Stones, a novel I completed two years ago but delayed publishing.   I find I am pleased with some parts, less pleased with others, but only mildly frustrated that it is now too late to alter more than a couple of words here and there.   Because of the time lag since completing the final draft, I can look at it with relatively fresh eyes, remind myself what I was trying to do and make an at least half-detached assessment of whether I succeeded.

Before I was lured onto “the dark side” and joined the senior management of the University of Natal after the unbanning of the ANC in 1990, I spent the first twenty years of my academic career in the English Department, initially teaching English but gradually managing to introduce more African Literature onto the curriculum.  I was particularly interested in, and most of my research focussed on, the generally covert ways in which fiction invites its readers to agree with the political and moral perspectives of its authors.  This is most obviously true of ‘popular fiction.’ In the 1970s and 1980s rather more white South Africans were reading, and having their race attitudes shaped by, Wilbur Smith than Dickens or Conrad.  My doctoral research focussed on the very different ways a variety of colonial and indigenous authors treated the 1950s “Mau Mau” emergency in their novels, partly because the race mythology around the revolt was heavily referenced in white race attitudes under apartheid.   There were four distinct groups of authors: metropolitan writers who used it to add exotic local colour to their stories; authors like Robert Ruark and Elspeth Huxley who used it to propagandise the generally profoundly racist Kenyan colonial settler view of the movement; and two distinct groups of post-Independence black Kenyan novelists who tried with varying success to counter the colonial mythology.   Many of my later publications in the last decade of apartheid were aimed at unpacking the extent of the racism and sexism being promoted by the hugely popular novels of writers like Wilbur Smith under cover of their skill as narrators of fast-moving and gripping story lines.    

Throughout the managerial half of my academic career I felt a lingering regret about the abandonment of academic research and teaching necessitated by the commitment to helping to manage the transformation of a large research-intensive university in the decade after the formal ending of apartheid.  So when I retired I thought it would be interesting to explore fiction from the writing, rather than the reading, end – very conscious of the medium’s power both to promote and to question political and other perspectives.  What I didn’t appreciate at the time was that the interest would need to be extended to the intricate ins and outs of the publishing industry, such as the copyright issue I elaborated on in my September 11th entry, in comparison with which the mere business of writing is comparative child’s play.   

Both my first novel, Despite the Darkness, and the sequel, Game of Stones, explore the interface between fact and fiction.  The action of the former takes place in the months immediately after the declaration of the state of emergency in South Africa in 1985, with the fictional action being set very precisely in its apartheid historical context and geographical location in Pietermaritzburg and incorporating some non-fictional personal experience of secret police harassment.  Game of Stones is set in Sheffield twenty-three years later and ties up the loose ends deliberately left with a sequel in mind.   Perhaps ‘exploring’ the interface between fact and fiction is too seriously academic-sounding a description of what I was doing in writing the sequel – ‘playing around at the edges’ of the interface might capture what I was doing rather better.   So, although some of the subject matter the novel touches on is, again, very precisely located historically, and very dark – historical events don’t get a whole lot darker than the Rwandan genocide or the Hillsborough disaster, the novel plays with authorial identity.   The plot of this novel has none of the relatively limited  autobiographical elements informing the first one, but one of the key moments in the plot hinges on the police having hacked the main character, Cameron’s, computer and read a chapter he has written giving an account of the notorious Forest Gate police raid in 2006.  The chapter, carefully researched and footnoted, which appears as an appendix to the novel, has been written as a chapter for a book Cameron is preparing titled The Age of Overreaction.  As it happens, the first project I embarked on after my retirement was the writing of a book titled The Age of Overreaction, whose putative contents page was destined to feature a chapter on Forest Gate.  I decided that writing fiction would be more interesting and could be fun, and gave up on that project, but decided that, if most fiction is in one way or another a recycling of fact, that particular chapter could be usefully recycled as an addendum to fiction.  Writing fiction, however serious, is a kind of play, and I enjoy playing with words – so, as I grind through the proof reading, I recall and recapture some of the enjoyment I derived from playing around as I wrote it, and don’t bother that it isn’t destined for fame and fortune.

From David Maughan Brown in York: A-levels.

August 12th

The omnishambles our impressively incompetent government manages to engineer in every area it is responsible for may be deeply damaging for all those affected, but from time to time the mess it makes opens the possibility that some long-term benefit might nevertheless inadvertently come from it.   The entirely unfunny farce those responsible have made of what they are choosing to call this year’s ‘A-level results’ is a case in point.   How schools, parents and A-level students are supposed to have any confidence whatever that the ‘results’ are any kind of reflection of the students’ ability is anybody’s guess.   Prospective employers can have equally little confidence in the capabilities of students who haven’t been able to go to school for the past five months and are now being made the victims of the pandemic twice-over.  Universities are being told that the ‘results’ they based their selections on may change at the last minute and are being requested to ‘keep places open’ for students, seemingly indefinitely.  Which last makes it clear that those making the request have no idea about how a university runs.   So how could any possible benefit come from this deplorable chaos?  

Whatever uncertainty and stress the shambles is wreaking on those directly affected in 2020, the one thing it is unquestionably doing is focusing a spotlight on the predictive omniscience of A-level results, which, with the notable exception of the Open University, are normally lazily fetishized as the almost exclusive means of determining whether or not students are fit to breathe the rarefied atmosphere of higher education.   This is particularly the case with those universities that like to see themselves, and make sure the media depict them, as the ‘top’ universities, and collude in the development of league-table indices to that end.  This year, for once, all universities are being forced to face the possibility that the highly fluid 2020 A-level results may not be a reliable indicator of a student’s potential to succeed at university.

In 1985 in South Africa, when I became the Dean responsible for admissions to the Faculty of Arts on the Pietermaritzburg campus of the University of Natal, the apartheid system had, very deliberately, made sure that the school-leaving results of black students were almost completely useless as an indicator of university potential.  Apart from anything else, one had to contend with the results from 17 different Departments of Education and national Examination Boards, which all set different school-leaving exams.   To cite just one of countless examples, I arrived back at my office one evening, after a day spent on the university’s campus in Durban, to find a flustered PA and a Zulu-speaking student who had arrived early in the morning, refused to go away without seeing me, and sat himself down on the floor of the corridor outside my office all day to wait for me.  His school leaving results had earned him a total of 13 points from his six subjects in a system which prescribed a minimum requirement of 28 points for admission, barring ‘Dean’s discretion’.   He was highly articulate, obviously highly intelligent, and nothing if not persistent and committed, so I took a chance, and the Dean accordingly exercised his discretion.   The student in question took 13 subjects instead of the required ten, completed the degree in the minimum three years, and never had a result lower than an upper second.   He had obviously been given the wrong candidate’s school-leaving results.   Another Dean, I hoped at a different university, was probably left wondering what on earth could have happened to make the student who received my student’s results fail first year so badly.

So if you couldn’t rely on school-leaving results what could your do to find students who had the potential to do well at university in spite of their schooling? One answer was to set up what we called the Test-Teach-Test programme, TTT for short, which was based on the research of Reuven Feuerstein, an Israeli psychologist who developed a theory of Structural Cognitive Modifiability.   To grossly oversimplify, the implementation of this theory involved an iterative process of asking a candidate to take a test, ‘teaching’ the right answers and the reasoning behind them, getting the aspirant student to take the same test again, then assessing the difference between the two sets of answers,  and potentially repeating the exercise.  We took in significant numbers of black students on this basis who wouldn’t have had a hope of being admitted otherwise, and many of them justified our faith in them.   The prior question, of course, was who to test.   School results were a good place to start:  if a student had come first out of a class of 160, that fact might be a better indicator than a final mark of, say, 55%.   We wanted rural students as well as urban ones, so we sent people out to villages in the hills and valleys to identify likely candidates for the tests via, among other methods, asking the village elders who they thought were the really bright school-leavers.  And so on.

The situation in UK is obviously vastly different and A-level results are a much better predictor than the results we had to try to deal with.   But rich parents do have their sometimes not very bright students intensively tutored in ways poor parents can’t; the children of highly educated parents generally have resource availability and other advantages over those of less well-educated ones; some children come from broken homes, others have home lives wholly unconducive to study; some schools have better teachers and resources than others; some pupils choose A-level subjects they aren’t suited to, and others choose subjects some universities treat with contempt.  All this is blindingly obvious, but ‘contextual’ factors still seem to play far too insignificant a role in student selection, compared to A-level results, at most universities.  If universities really want to take in the students best suited to university study they need to take such factors much more seriously than they do.   Whatever the outcome of the 2020 A-level omnishambles, it is going to force the university sector as a whole to focus its collective mind on A-level results in a way it hasn’t had to before.   So in this one aspect, at least, this government’s incompetence might have done higher education and future students a favour.   It is also just possible that in the long term the UK university sector might find that in such matters there are one or two things the ‘developed’ world might usefully learn from the ‘developing’ world.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Happy Birthday

June 10th

I woke up this morning to the sound of a military band playing the national anthem and gathered that this was in honour of the Duke of Edinburgh’s 99th birthday.  How bizarre is that?  It happens every year and the same happens on the birthdays of other members of the Royal family.  The oddity of the ritual never ceases to astonish me.   I commented in an earlier blog on the eccentricity, to put it politely, of a supposedly ‘national’ anthem whose exclusive focus lies on a single individual.  Its plea to the deity to enable her ‘long to reign over us’ has clearly been met by the Queen’s 68 year reign, but carrying on earnestly praying for her to live long into the future now she is 94 seems to be pushing it where both optimism and the powers of the deity are concerned.  But leaving the anthem itself aside, heralding the Duke’s birthday by playing his wife’s tune, and thereby further erasing his individual identity, is going too far.

The Duke of Edinburgh seems to me to deserve a lot better.  He is not responsible for the supreme social inequity of inherited wealth and privilege that inclines some of us to republicanism.  He may have been prone to the odd faux pas over the years, but he has performed an exceptionally unenviable subordinate role to the Queen with great diligence for almost all of what must have seemed 68 very long years.  Whether precisely accurate as to the detail or not, the television series The Crown has, I suspect, conveyed a fairly accurate idea of some of the difficulties of his position.

The 1995 Royal Visit to Natal in 1995 coincided with a fund-raising visit Brenda had to make to the United States, so it fell on me to spend a couple of hours showing him round the Howard College campus of the University of Natal, and then to attend an evening reception on the royal yacht Britannia, where I spent some further time chatting to him.   I found him very engaging and easy to talk to, and he was clearly genuinely interested in, and asked penetrating questions about, the exhibitions we had mounted for him, for what must have been his umpteen hundredth visit to a university campus over the course of the more than forty years during which he had by then been performing the role.  He even managed to refrain from commenting on the fact that the Union Jack that had been brought out of mothballs for his visit was inadvertently being flown upside down on the University’s flag-pole in his honour. Not being practised in such matters, I hadn’t noticed; I am sure he would have.   

The last two or three years have succeeding in shredding the credibility of our version of ‘democracy’ as a political system.   It has landed us with a government that has mishandled the Covid-19 pandemic so hopelessly badly that an OECD analysis shows that our economy is on track to be the worst affected of all the world’s major economies, with a probable slump in 2020 of over 11%.  That is without taking any account of the rapidly approaching economic insanity of a probable ‘no deal’ with the EU at the end of the transition period.  Our Brexiteer cabinet couldn’t be trusted to run a Sunday school picnic without losing half the children and leaving the rest with food poisoning.  A marginally different version of democracy has landed the United States with the execrable Donald Trump.  I wouldn’t advocate it, but in a crisis like this a return to monarchy right now could only be an improvement.  Any one of our monarch’s combination of experience, wisdom and intelligence would be extremely welcome.   But if the Duke of Edinburgh makes it to his hundredth birthday, as I’m sure we all hope he will, could someone please make sure that the BBC has the decency and tact to get the military band to play a simple ‘Happy Birthday to you’ for him instead of playing his wife’s tune as she passes the congratulatory telegram to him over the cornflakes.  The Duke of Edinburgh’s very special day will surely deserve to be recognised as his day rather than hers.