The youth of today. They’re a worry and no mistake – running away to university and sitting in libraries when they could be out robbing and rioting. Sir James Dyson, millionaire inventor, is worried. The future of our country, he declared, is under threat from terrors like “little Angelina wanting to study French lesbian poetry” over more practical subjects like the “aircraft industry, developing nuclear energy and high-speed trains”. And, possibly, bagless vacuum cleaners that don't cost four times as much as an ordinary one.
While we all batten down the hatches and wait for the apocalypse to be wrought by hordes of Sapphic wastrels clutching their BAs and well-thumbed Flammarion editions of Marguerite Yourcenar, how about applying a little lit crit to Dyson's statement? I studied French at university, and while I don't remember much about lesbian poetry (See! A wasted four years…), I do remember how to unpick a sentence. Dyson's, it turns out, is a juicy palimpsest of prejudices.
Leaving aside the fact that the study of languages is in decline, and therefore the numbers frittering away their time on French lesbian poetry are fairly low, does he believe that it's only posh people and girls who study poetry? Or is he just propagating an unhelpful stereotype with his fictional "Angelina"? Is all French poetry by lesbians? Or is all poetry by French lesbians? I'm confused. Is being French and/or a lesbian a bad thing? Most crucially, is the study of poetry less valuable than the study of pistons?
Of course it isn't. Dyson has been sucked into the old them vs us trap of arts vs sciences when any fool knows that a civilised society needs its poets just as much as its physicists. The arts enrich all of our lives, bringing spiritual growth, as well as socio-economic advantages. Young people should have the opportunity to explore all spheres, to experience education for education's sake, not simply as utilitarian training for a job for life. If some wrangle with George Sand then find they prefer structural engineering, so be it. But they must be allowed the chance to discover it for themselves.
Michael Gove has now rubbished Dyson's dismissal of poetry as a useless luxury, citing it as "another example of the bias against knowledge". I agree with Gove (not a sentence you write every day – perhaps the apocalypse really is upon us) and his rounded, liberal view of education as encompassing everything, from art to biology and "all the habits and thought and bodies of knowledge which are the highest expressions of human thought and creativity". And I trust the Education Secretary will now follow words with deeds and rethink his EBacc, the new GCSE qualification which somehow omits to include any arts subjects at its core.
* A list of the entourage accompanying Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall on their tour of New Zealand made fascinating reading. There's the usual retinue of butlers, valets, equerries, and orderlies, naturally, who look after things like "drawing" the Prince's bath, sealing his letters and polishing his cufflinks. There's the odd archaically titled fellow like the "travelling yeoman", whose job it is to carry the royal suitcase. And, in this post-Middleton world, there's a hairdresser too who, like all hairdressers of famous people, doubles up as a "trusted confidant". So there's a staff saving, at least.
None of this is particularly surprising, given what we know about members of the Royal family and their inherited inability to squeeze toothpaste on to a toothbrush. But I was astonished to read that Charles also travels with his very own "tour artist". The Prince always asks for an artist to accompany his tour, paint a record of it and then give him a selection of work at the end as a souvenir. I suppose these new-fangled camera thingummies can be rather tricky to get to grips with.