Word of Mouth

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The Independent Online
Britain's lost voices

As my colleague Judith Judd reported yesterday, one question occupied the minds of most of the 40 choir school heads as they gathered at St Paul's Cathedral School this week for their association's annual conference - the first in London for many a year: Where have all the choristers gone? Richard Shephard, head of the beautiful Minster School in York recalled how scores of hopeful parents and their youngsters used to form long queues along Deangate for the chorister trials before the Second World War. "Where are you all today?" he cried. Mr Shephard, treasurer of the Choir Schools' Association, followed this with more disturbing questions: "Are we becoming a land without singers? Have computer games taken over?"

I wonder whether parents realise just what opportunities they may be missing. A choir school place for a gifted singer is often free. St Paul's choristers have introduced some direct action. After they had recently performed at both the Royal Festival Hall and the Barbican and were signing autographs, they handed out flyers announcing their school's open day. It resulted in a respectable attendance, with some families entering a choir school for the very first time. These talented pupils not only sing like angels but also receive an excellent education, and many become recording stars.

You should have heard them at Tuesday's Evensong. On 5 July they'll raise their voices once again - this time for the memorial service for King Hussein of Jordan.

Now that's cricket

What else is left for Cambridge University to excel at these days? It tops just about every league table that has been concocted. So now it's cricket as well. It has been approved as a Centre of Cricketing Excellence and handed a cheque for pounds 50,000 a year to invest in cricket starting in 2000 - and in collaboration with, dammit, one of the new chaps - Anglia Polytechnic University. Twenty institutions applied to the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) for the seal of approval and a share in a pounds 300,000 scheme to develop young student cricketers - only six won.

Not only chaps with the potential will be recruited; chapesses who have played to Senior County level will be eligible. The former England batsman Graeme Fowler has already busied himself with a pilot scheme at Durham University and developed a number of decent cricketers, including Robin Martin-Jenkins (Sussex), Andrew Strauss (Middlesex), Mark Chilton (Lancashire) and Elliott Wilson (Worcestershire).

Mind you, Cambridge has managed to train a dozen England captains and its alumni include such stalwarts as Mike Atherton, Mike Brearley, and Ted Dexter.

Memories of Nkrumah

My late wife, Maureen, was working at the British Embassy in Paris when a young Ghanaian called Richard Quarshie was given a temporary office there while searching for suitable premises for Ghana's very first embassy. And when he found them he persuaded Maureen, Anglo-Irish and white, to become Ghana's first press attache in Europe. A few years later, Kwame Nkrumah decided that only black people should be employed at Ghanaian legations, so she had to go.

This memory was evoked when, last week and this, a series of lectures at the University of East London commemorated the 27th anniversary of Nkrumah's death with the theme: "A visionary in the struggle for the advancement of Africa and Africans." For the many who missed this treat, I can only hope the organisers will prove equally far-sighted and publish the lectures and discussions that were presented by a distinguished team of speakers, including Dr Gamal Gorkeh Nkrumah, son of the former Ghanaian leader and international editor of Egypt's Al-Ahram paper.

When woof+woof=meow

I can disclose that Sprite, a wee Jack Russell bitch who resides at Queens' College, Cambridge, has given birth to a beautiful litter of kittens. Cheryl Fison, the college bursar's secretary and Sprite's owner, is delighted. Let me explain. A statute of 1595 banned dogs from the university. So it was decided to make Sprite an exception by awarding her "honorary feline status". So Sprite's puppies must be, er, kittens. Cambridge abounds in curiosities of this nature. Shortly after the 1939-45 war (and before women were awarded degrees by the university), Trinity Hall decreed that babies were cats. No, honest! Why? So that mums who happened to be undergraduates, or the wives of undergraduates, could bring their little "kittens" into college.

Cooking the bookworms

Vice-chancellors are being forced to hide their books from the public gaze, says my fellow columnist Peter Scott, vice-chancellor of Kingston University. In his latest contribution to Bridge, the university's monthly journal, he explains that one V-C was even caught reading a book. Nothing smutty. It was a book about history or literature. What it was not, was a book about higher education policy or academic leadership.

The poor man didn't have the time to slip it into a drawer and replace it with a Funding Council circular. Scott's unnamed colleague was embarrassed because he had been caught not doing his "job", which should entail drafting mission statements and writing boring reports.

It's not only vice-chancellors, says Scott. Deans and heads of school also "run the same risk of having the roles reduced to the merely managerial; their academic passions have to take second place". A university, he says, is not just a strategic plan with a logo. Ah, if only more vice-chancellors would utter such refreshing thoughts.

And finally...

There's a photo competition in the current issue of Conference & Common Room, journal of the Headmasters' & Headmistresses' Conference Schools. One picture shows a man sitting in a most comfortable armchair, deeply engrossed in a copy of Beano, the children's comic. Another picture has caught the same man enjoying a rival comic, Dandy. The mystery man is Roger Griffiths, former head of that well- known independent school, Hurstpierpoint, and until recently, membership secretary of HMC - umbrella body of the country's top public schools.