on lions and donkeys

When I was about twelve there were various myths going round that if you looked into a mirror and chanted certain things a certain number of times you could summon up evil spirits or whatever. I was never into that kind of thing but I had a sense of trepidation that when I looked up an article by Micheal Gove in The Daily Mail that I might tap into some similar vortex of the devil, that Micheal Gove multiplied by Daily Mail equals untold levels of evil squared. It perhaps wasn’t quite as bad as I expected, but it was pretty bad.

Now I know none of you look at the links I include in this blog so I am going to do you the service of preciing Monsieur Gove’s work for you. What he says is, ‘isn’t it awful that lefties propagate views of the first world war that suggest there might have been some kind of historical blip, in which some rich people shafted some poor people, especially at a time like this when we must, more than ever, ignore the ways in which rich people shaft poor people and focus on what is important, like hating foreigners’.

It seems unlikely that Gove reads the new statesman, almost as unlikely as it seems that the new statesman published this bizarre article by Anthony Seldon, but his ideas seem to come directly from it; that we horrid lefties have done a great disservice to a great number of young men by following the line that in the first world war the rank and file of the army were stuffed over by inept leaders. Seldon tells us that public school boys died in much higher proportions than any other men, and that a public who takes their views of war from Blackadder and Oh what a lovely war are forming unjust conclusions. These are ideas echoed almost exactly by Gove, who blames lazy leftie school teachers showing Blackadder to their pupils for the downfall of society, and suddenly Baldrick himself and Tristram Hunt get involved and the whole thing is headline news, and yours truly feels compelled to try and make sense of it all.

The first world war was surely what the whole public school ethos of the preceding century had been gearing up for. A ruling class threatened by growing industrialisation and the infringement of the middles classes seemed eager to flex its freshly cold-showered muscles. Generations of young men had been brought up on aggressive adventure comics and school-boys tales,   learning from Kingsley and Carlisle, that “from the cradle to the grave, fighting, rightly understood, is the real, highest, honestest business, of every son of man.”,  and life is “ a battle and a march under the right general”. Towards the end of the nineteenth century special christian camps at been set of to teach boarding school boys that you could be christian and not a wimp, and every masucline sport could be used as Professor Mangan describes to “at one and the same time …create the confidence to lead and the compulsion to follow”.  When the time came, it would be no surprise that twenty year old boys would be eager and confident in leading hundreds of older and more experienced men into an all manner of military cock ups. Now of course I get these leftie views from spending an awful lot of my time reading books about public school boys. But what made me leftie enough to want to look this up in the first place?

My first thought was that I do remember watching Blackadder at school. But it was not an educational thing,  it was what we did when a teacher was poorly or when it snowed. In such cases there were three tiers of coherence of lessons. In the best (or worst, depending on which way you look at it) case scenario the said ill or snowed-in teacher had left , or phoned in (alas twas the days before t-internet) work to be done by pupils. On a rung below this there was no proper work, but some useless activity vaguely related to the topic, nearly always a wordsearch. “Mr halitosis can’t make it in today so please waste fifty minutes of your life and several hundred of your braincells doing this wordsearch featuring the names of volcanoes”… Bottom of the heap, no-one had even managed to find a wordsearch and we had to watch Blackadder. I don’t remember learning anything from it. And lets bear in mind that I went on to become a history student, and to develop an interest in discourse analysis and the media; so I might suggest that Gove and friends might be slightly over-estimating how much impact Blackadder has.

But then I went on to think, what did I learn about the first world war at school? In fact what did I learn about anything? How not to get punched. How to kiss boys. How to read between the lines. How to ask questions. Our school was a dump and we had some awful teachers but we also had some fantastic, inspirational ones. But I don’t think we did much about the war, perhaps because of my leftie teachers pushing their leftie agendas we had more off the wall topics in history like the American West and the History of Medicine instead. I remember by the time I got to university and the lecturers always said “we won’t do much about the war because you will have done it to death at school “ I thought, oops, I still don’t have a clue about this. But by that time I had given up listening and had decided that the best way to spend my degree was sitting at the back writing bad poetry.

And then I thought, hang on, I have always spent a lot of time not listening and writing bad poetry instead. What was I writing bad poetry about during school history lessons? What insights might be gleaned from my adolescant musings? One should of course approach one’s old poems with the same trepidation one approaches one’s ex-boyfriends: they will at best show a naïve charm from your past but at worst a woeful lack of taste and judgement. Nonetheless I boldly dug an old jotter out of a neglected book shelf and got stuck in to the anxt of yesteryear. And lo and behold, I had the following to say from a history lesson in 1997: …who joined together fought together // then together cruelly died//were maimed and choked //only provoked//by their glorious country’s pride [bear with me here, I’m fifteen ok?] we thought we’d be looked after//Our lives were in your hands//Like clueless children we ran to our death//six-hundred-thousand slaughtered lambs…

Blimey, Mr Gove, it looks like you have a point! I can’t for the life of me remember what we were taught that gave me such a powerful picture of this but someone or something must have. Maybe it was all the Blackadder after all as I couldn’t have gotten all that from a wordsearch…

Incidently, Lions and Donkeys is also the name of a play written by Steve Harper in 2009 in which a british soldier has befriended a german one and they have called a secret truce between their men, much to the horror of the young Officer Hargreaves who discovers them. He is told: “Well, sir, when it comes down to it, it’s either words or people. The German soldiers we know aren’t quite like we was told sir. They don’t rape nuns or eat dead babies.” Hargreaves then says: …”you simply cannot do this. What would happen if every soldier thought like you do?” to be told  “they might settle things with diplomacy sir. And nine million souls might not be rotting in the mud”. Tellingly Hargreaves continues “ don’t you see, I can’t let you get away with this. That would make everything I believe in wrong.” We’ve come across this kind of insecurity before, haven’t we?

Because of course what Gove is really saying is that we must not educate children in such a way that they will question the status quo, that those born wealthier then them must always have the right to decide who learns what, who earns what, who lives and dies, the same as they always have.

2 thoughts on “on lions and donkeys

  1. Sally, you tell it very well.

    I am afraid that on this anniversary of horrendous, avoidable sacrifice, which in retrospect looks more like class war than international conflict, we are going to have to regurgitate many sickening comments rather than actually FEEL the GRIEF, which is what we need to do.

    It is always tricky because mourning the dead requires somehow that they did not die in vain; but we cannot avoid, millions of innocent young men and horses did.

    I shall be using http://woundedleaders.co.uk/blog/ to express my shame and disgust and to protest voices like Seldon defending public school attitudes in that conflict in the New Statesman. The one thing it did do was to kickstart psychiatry – but not for the whole culture, unfortunately, for the poor ones who had to bear it.

  2. Gove and his missus dearly want the years rolled back to a supposed time of unquestioning belief in the nonsense they believe……….. a futile wish but dangerous in its attempted execution given Gove’s power and the The Mail’s readership…

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