DJ Taylor: Pride before a fall

Balls pushes Mandarin while school standards slide; Mark E Smith had it coming as do those Labour apparatchiks, noisy nuisances and winter tenderfoots

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The funniest thing I read all week was an announcement by the Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, that every secondary school pupil should have the right to learn an "up-and-coming" – that is, economically significant – language.

The Government is anxious to encourage primary schools to offer such hitherto exotic subjects as Japanese and Arabic from next year, when language study will become compulsory for all seven-year-olds, but Mr Balls seems particularly keen on Mandarin. "In this new decade our ties with emerging economies like China will become even more important and it's vital that young people are equipped with the skills they need, and British business needs too, in order to succeed in a rapidly changing world." he declared. "A growing number of schools are now teaching Mandarin and in the coming years I think we will see this subject sitting alongside French, Spanish and German as one of the most popular languages for young people to learn."

By chance, this statement coincided with several proofs of quite how poor the quality of local secondary education has now become. According to the East Anglian Daily Times, education chiefs have recently written to every headteacher in Suffolk drawing their attention to below-par exam results. The Eastern Daily Press, meanwhile, revealed that in the Great Yarmouth area only 44 per cent of 11-year-olds taking SATs had achieved level four in reading, writing and maths. All this suggests that Mr Balls and his advisers ought to pay more attention to basic educational standards rather than eye-catching peripherals. But, if Mandarin is set to sweep the curriculum in the next decade, I can think of a few specimen sentences which children should be encouraged to learn. How about: "The Chinese government is extremely corrupt and autocratic"? Or: "It is a disgrace that Chinese citizens are denied basic human rights." Or even: "The execution of Akmal Shaikh would not have happened in a civilised country."

***

The book I most enjoyed reading in the first week of 2009 was The Fallen, Dave Simpson's intriguing study of the large number of musicians who, in the band's 33-year history, have played in The Fall, only to fall out, as it were, with the irascible frontman Mark E Smith. Now, exactly a year later, up rolls the paperback, decorated with an arresting puff – or rather anti-puff – from the man himself. "I fucking hate that twat," Smith remarks, presumably of the author. "I've just fucking burnt it." As for Mr Simpson's offence, well, it consists of allowing more than 40 bass players, guitarists and drummers to disclose just how fraught a business it was to make music with Mark E, here revealed as a control freak to end all control freaks and a man who delighted in turning up the amplifiers when they ought to have been turned down, and vice versa.

While accepting that The Fallen contains quite a bit of score-settling, I have never quite understood why so many writers, artists and musicians are so deeply reluctant to have things printed about them that happen to be true. There is an explosive moment in Anthony Powell's diary from 1991 when Powell, having been sent a copy of Kingsley Amis's newly published memoirs, discovers that Amis has included their brisk exchange from 1973 on the death of W H Auden. "Rather a blow," Amis volunteers. "I'm delighted that shit has gone," Powell is represented as lobbing back. According to Powell, this was a private remark "not to be repeated in a book".

But why, if Powell felt so strongly about Auden, disliked his poetry and deplored his flight to America at the start of the Second World War, should he object to the rest of us knowing about it? And why, if he didn't want his contempt for Auden to become public, did he sound off in the presence of Amis, a man who, experience should have told him, was exactly the kind of person who would report the remark? The same point about reaping and sowing, or indeed about truth, applies to Mark E Smith and his hapless minions. If your career as the leader of the rock band is based on annoying your sidesmen, you shouldn't be surprised if they want a little of their own back.

***

With the Conservatives' lead in the opinion polls hovering at 11 per cent, and another gaggle of Labour malcontents raising heads above the parapet, one could be forgiven for thinking that the result of this year's general election is a foregone conclusion. The people I always feel sorry for at these times are not the party leaders, or harassed MPs, but the subsidiary figures, apparatchiks who have invested so much emotional energy in the party predicted to lose that the election campaign is one long pageant of psychological concealment and resolute denial.

To read the entries in the late Woodrow Wyatt's copious journals for the first few months of 1997, as the Tories slipped rapidly down the conveyor belt to political oblivion, is to encounter a pundit whose optimism, in the face of ever more alarming circumstance, seems very nearly insane. On 17 March he notes that "John [Major] will see tomorrow morning from my article in The Times that I believe he will win." A month later, with Labour's poll lead at stratospheric heights, he writes: "I still believe the pollsters can be wrong and there may be an upset when people come to their senses." Even at an election night party he can be found assuring his friend Paul Johnson, "I don't think it'll be quite as bad as the first projections show."

There is no shame in this kind of self-deception, of course, but you imagine that the members of Mr Brown's Cabinet are even now trying desperately to get out of the worst job in British politics – sitting next to David Dimbleby in the hours after the polls close and explaining why they lost.

***

My first reaction to the news that Islam4UK's leader Anjem Choudary is keen to march through Wootton Bassett in Wiltshire at the head of a procession of empty coffins – symbolising the deaths of Afghan civilians at allied hands – was a profound exasperation. This was tempered – eventually – by the thought that the point about living in a free society is that unpopular opinions have a right to be heard in it. Naturally, there are times when this principle can be hard to uphold.

For example, most readers of Anne Chisholm's recent biography of the Bloomsbury diarist Frances Partridge, inset above, will be constantly gritting their teeth at some of the attitudes on display. Mrs Partridge's pacifism – she spent the Second World War in remote Wiltshire – brooks no denial. America's entry into the war in 1941 fills her with despair. The only crime apparently committed by Lord Haw-Haw, the traitor William Joyce who made inflammatory broadcasts from Berlin, is "to utter his sincere views". Even as the Panzer hordes swept west across Europe she seems to have believed that the whole thing could have been solved by rational discussion. At least Mrs Partridge kept her opinions to her diary. You feel that Mr Choudary is less concerned with war's innocent victims than with trying to make a nuisance of himself, while drawing attention's to liberalism's classic limitation – the fact that we are expected to tolerate the activities of people who, if manoeuvred into positions of power, would very soon cease to tolerate us.

***

With the children still off school and the streets impassable, much of last week has been spent walking the dog through tundra. At the risk of turning up in Private Eye's Pseuds Corner, to embark on one of these Winterreisen is to think of art. D H Lawrence once suggested that snow lying on a hill looks like "muscle" – not one of his better similes. I never wander along a frost-bound path without recalling Jack London's short story To Build A Fire, in which a tenderfoot walking the Yukon trail at minus 75F makes the mistake of lighting a fire beneath a tree that sheds its load of snow on top of him. He freezes to death.

Real-life experience of snow can be just as elemental. Skiing once in Switzerland, my aunt decided to take a country walk. During her stroll she was joined by what looked like a large alsatian dog. This tracked her for several miles through lonely back roads in the gathering dusk. Eventually, they reached the outskirts of the village. My aunt, turning to watch the animal disappear back into the undergrowth, then realised it was a wolf.

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