Howard Jacobson: We've got the culture we deserve, yet we continue to celebrate it in all its philistinism

He knows nothing of education who calls the Spice Girls inspiring role models for young girls
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The Independent Online

It always helps to have the right name. If you're going to run away from Hartlepool to Panama via canoe, you're already halfway there, emotionally at least, if you happen to be called Darwin. Evolution, natural selection, genetic impatience, man's ineluctable progress from tadpole to canoeist, and all that. Plus the fact that Charles Darwin himself, though given to seasickness and apt to be feverish, left home and braved the seven seas, spending five years as geologist on board HMS Beagle.

It was after him that the city of Darwin in Australia's Northern Territory was named, when HMS Beagle pulled into the harbour for the first time the first time for the British, that is. All these fresh starts. In token of which, Darwin is now where you flee to if you're an Australian with something to hide, bad debts or a bad marriage to run away from, or simply a dreary suburban life to put behind you.

On the streets of Darwin, people eye one another from under their akubras, in tacit acknowledgement of the great escape. I won't tell if you won't tell, they say. It makes for wonderful camaraderie, knowing you're all fugitives together. A pity for John and Anne Darwin that some of their friends had no such sense of loyalty. John and Anne, note the plainness of their Christian names belying the great Darwinian plan they are accused of hatching. Unless it was the plainness of their Christian names that gave them itchy feet. Wouldn't you want to make a run for it if you lived in Hartlepool and were called John and Anne? John and Anne with a Darwinian afterglow.

It can work the other way for you, of course, your name. It can land you in it. Take Ed Balls, variously referred to as Schools or Children's Secretary. Another mistake of Mr Brown's Mr Bean administration to give a man called Mr Balls a job. But to let this Balls near education is the biggest balls of all. For he knows nothing of education who calls the Spice Girls inspiring role models for young girls. Indeed, if you had to summarise in a single phrase what schools are for, it's that they're for showing girls why they shouldn't want to be the Spice Girls.

Cynically conceived, aesthetically and musically challenged, fatuous in musculature and movement, graceless if not downright ill-favoured in appearance (which wouldn't matter if they didn't think they had looks and sex appeal), embarrassing when they speak, charmless when they don't, utterly self-deluded in their pre-packaged showbiz feminism, they are exemplary only in the sense that they teach the young how not to behave, how not to sing, how not to talk, how not to think, how not to let ambition decline into avarice, how not to conduct their personal lives, in short how not to be.

But that, we must presume, is not what Balls meant when, comparing their glittering comeback to the glittering comeback he predicts for Mr Brown (though Mr Brown has not been anywhere), he held them up as shining symbols of what the new girl in the new Brown masterplan for children should aspire to. The only thing I can imagine, therefore, that he could have meant was that the Spice Girls became famous and made a lot of money with zero talent and will encourage other girls with zero talent to go out and do likewise. When all reports from our schools describe this as the besetting educational problem of our times kids knowing and valuing nothing beyond celebrity and the wealth it brings it ill behoves a Schools Secretary to aggravate it. Not only is Balls a philistine, he is a vandal. As an example to our children we should make him another inverse role model and sack him.

Readers of this column, well used to yoking apparently heterogeneous ideas by violence together, will at once see that the connection between Balls and the Darwins does not stop at the influence their names can be shown to have had on their careers. Whatever the ins and outs of the Darwins' misadventures, whatever they are innocent or guilty of, they are victims of a culture Balls doesn't have the honour, the responsibility, the brains, or the things he's named after to deplore. "If there's no God," Ivan Karamazov reasoned, "everything is permitted." "If there's no value," I take the Darwins to have reasoned likewise, "if there is nothing against which we measure our behaviour but the material success we make of our lives, the number of houses we own, the hours of sunshine we enjoy, the amount of money we are able to deposit in our bank account, why shouldn't we reach out and take like everybody else?"

The reasoning, of course, is false. God is not the only sanction. He can vanish and still not everything is permitted. Similarly, though the world according to Balls is evacuated of all judgement spiritual and aesthetic we try our best not to capitulate to its logic. The egregious remuneration and undeserved success we see around us from Spice Girls who can't sing to managers who can't manage, and the handouts proportionate more to the size of their failure than their success make it hard to value anything, but we cling to the wreckage, knowing that in some ideal if not any longer in some actual place, the material is not the only judge.

It would appear that the Darwins said bugger that for a game of soldiers. And since neither was a philosopher nor a doctor nor an artist with some altruistic or intellectual enterprise for idealism to find a home in; since their material lives were all they had to look forward to, and the best days of those were running out fast, we sympathise with them.

Go get it, we say. You are no less deserving, in the sense of not being deserving at all for when did deserts determine anything? than the thousands upon thousands of greedy boy-bankers and ball-players and presenters of what there is no point in there being presented and entrepreneurs of what for the most part the world would be better without having entrepreneured and know-nothing ministers of education who minister to uneducatedness, all of whom line their pockets without a qualm, without even the discretion to do so quietly, but smile for Hello! as though it's to their credit to be rich, and pop up on the Sunday Times List of the Hundred People Most Likely to Inspire National Envy and Discontent.

Go sail away, we say. Go enjoy yourselves Darwinianly. And leave this scurrilous, primeval-soup, Balls-up of an island behind.

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