Word of Mouth: Raving over bad reviews
Thursday 28 January 1999
Have you ever heard of anyone who has actually been happy to receive a poor book review? Well Brian Cox is such a man. The most recent opus he has edited, Literacy Is Not Enough: Essays on the importance of reading (Manchester University Press, pounds 9.99), is going into a second print, partly thanks to the slating it received from Chris Woodhead, our much-loved Chief Inspector of Schools - the only negative review it attracted.
"I was delighted with this poor review," Professor Cox told me. "Its only effect was to make teachers rush to buy it."
In a strange way, this repeats history. Brian Cox, who until his retirement in 1993, was the Professor of English Literature at the University of Manchester, will long be remembered as the co-editor of the series of Black Papers on Education, first published almost exactly 30 years ago, in March 1969.
That day was described in the House of Commons by Edward Short, then Secretary of State for Education, as "one of the blackest days for education in the past hundred years". The book was part of a reaction to progressive education and the kind of zany teaching methods then adopted by chaps like Woodhead.
But for that Short attack, it might well have gone unnoticed. Instead, it became a best seller. What is stranger still: many of the criticisms contained in the Black Papers (described by many on the left as "reactionary", even "fascist") have now been embraced by New Labour. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.
Oh what a lovely chancellor
This morning, Lord Attenborough and a retinue of colourfully gowned notables will solemnly climb the stage of the Gardner Centre at Sussex University to the Prelude de Carousel by Lully, played by the Trinity College of Music Brass Ensemble.
They might have been better advised to strike up "Oh, What a Lovely War", title song of the film Richard Attenborough directed in 1967. You will recall that it was set in Brighton and Dickie, as he was then known, hired a goodly number of undergraduates to take part. He has been closely connected with the university ever since and became its pro-chancellor in 1970. Today he will be installed as chancellor in succession to the Duke of Richmond and Gordon, who retired last year. He has chosen three friends to receive honorary doctorates. They are the actor Sir Ian Holm, another Oh, What a Lovely War star; actor-director-writer Bryan Forbes (The Angry Silence; The L-Shaped Room; The Railway Children); and Michael Stern, headteacher of the Waterford Kamhlaba United World College, South Africa, where Lord A is a governor.
Top mark for UCAS
A few champagne corks will pop at Cheltenham next month in celebration of this week's Charter Mark award to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. This distinction has been earned as a result of client satisfaction - reports from just some of the 2.5 million students who, year in, year out, apply through UCAS for places.
Now that's a pretty good record for the 300 people employed by this organisation. Top charter marks to them all, and to Tony Higgins, its effervescent chief executive. The clearing period is likely to be busier than ever following the next lot of A-level results in mid-August. The Independent, in collaboration with UCAS, will provide the only official guide to university and college vacancies on a day-by-day basis.
I decided to have a "dry run" for the millennium. So I escaped to a village in France. Fine. But, as a result, I missed our dear Queen's New Year's Honours list. I have only just caught up with it and was delighted to see that Gerard O'Donnell had received a gong. His OBE is well deserved and reflects his long and unstinting contribution to further education. Principal of West Thames College for the past 12 years - a college awarded the Government's Charter Mark - he also chairs the 160-member Further Education National Consortium. He is believed to hold the distinction of being Britain's longest-serving FE college principal, becoming head of Wellington and SW Somerset FE Centres as early as 1969 and, seven years later, of Rockingham College of FE (now Dearne Valley College, Rotherham). He is also in the Guinness Book of Records - for the longest continuous speech, delivered in June 1959, when he was sweet 21 and reading sociology and government at the University of Hull, where he chaired the Conservative Association. It was a Rag stunt and lasted 29 hours and five minutes. Its title: Progressive Conservatism Anti-Unionism. He clearly talked himself out of Toryism, for he ended up some years later standing as Liberal candidate against Edward Du Cann in Taunton.
Staff at the University of Leeds are having to pay pounds 2.50 for parking their cars. That, says Richard Howells of the Institute of Communication Studies, is a rise of 250 per cent since he started work at the university four years ago. Writing in Reporter, the campus newsletter, Dr Howells poses the following reasonable question: "May I request that either my salary is increased in line with the cost of parking, or that the cost of parking is reduced in line with my salary?"
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