Over the past few days, I have come across a book and a pamphlet which everyone should read. Alexander McCall Smith is best known for his No 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. Once, at a book launch, an American lady asked him to sign a book for Lynne Cheney. "Is that who I think it is?" Sandy, as he is commonly known, asked. "Yes, and do you know who put her on to you? Laura Bush".
An old-fashioned, high-minded liberal, Sandy McCall Smith was mildly taken aback. Even on the distaff wing, he had not expected to find admirers in the Bush White House. Such are the perils of world-wide fame. He also runs the Really Terrible Orchestra. Though it never quite lives down to its name, its performances are a riot of chaos and comedy. This might have given Sandy an idea for a book title: La's Orchestra Saves the World. That sounds like a children's book, an impression reinforced by the cover, all of which is wholly misleading. La's Orchestra is an extraordinary book, which might seem like a blend of Dad's Army, Captain Corelli's Mandolin and Rex Warner's The Aerodrome. But it is far more than a blend. Our author has produced a very good novel, perhaps even a great one.
It has great themes. Adversity, hard-won pleasures, duty, morality, war, religion, love: all are silkily interwoven through its subtle pages. The book is also a Scotsman's tribute to England. "[La] belonged to England and her sense of that belonging was all the stronger now that England was under such threat. I love this country, she thought; I love everything about it; its lived-in shabbiness; its peculiar, old-fashioned gentleness. I love it".
In Suffolk during the Second World War, as well as helping on the land, La starts an orchestra. This helps to compensate the locals for the privations of war as well as offering the airmen from a nearby base some distraction from their constant perils. The orchestra takes on a symbolic significance. It reminds everyone why they were fighting, why they dare not lose: why they would not lose. At one stage, La quotes from The Merchant of Venice: "How far that little candle throws his beams / So shines a good deed in a naughty world". All that may sound perilously close to sentimentality and might be so, if Mr McCall Smith were not a master craftsman. La's Orchestra is to sentimentality what Château d'Yquem is to sickly sweetness.
Moreover, our author does not believe in happy endings. If this were a symphonic poem, it would include a tragic leitmotif. None of the principal characters has more than a few years of joy. Often, they have to live with lovelessness and loneliness. La finds consolation in the thought that she is a handmaiden, which helps to reconcile her to the human condition. Poor Gerald Manley Hopkins – who was ever lonelier or more loveless? – immortalised his sufferings in the "terrible sonnets". La might have taken consolation from one of that great poet's attempts to fend off despair: "There lives the dearest freshness deep down things".
La's Orchestra is ultimately a hopeful book, because the characters whom we admire find the moral strength to cope. They go into the darkness with grace. There is reconciliation and redemption reminiscent of late Shakespeare. The world which Harriet Sergeant describes in her recent pamphlet could not be more different. The darkness which she describes is unrelieved by grace and she is not writing fiction. Wasted, published by the Centre for Policy Studies, is an angry chronicle of failure; of the way in which a hugely expensive educational and welfare system is failing large numbers of black and white working-class youngsters: an angry chronicle of wasted lives.
I cannot remember when I last read something which inspired such exasperation, hopelessness and rage. Miss Sergeant too has produced a blend – of statistics, research into the educational system and street-level enquiries. The latter must have required a lot of courage. You would not want to meet some of the kids whom she describes in the broadest of daylight. She is a contemporary version of the Lady with the Lamp. If only public opinion were as responsive to her as our forebears were to Florence Nightingale.
One problem may be that we have worn out the strong words. Anguish, outrage, horror: all have lost their force through over-use. By God, they are needed now. Miss Sergeant does not rush into superlatives or indignation. But her conclusion is inexorable. Over many years, acting from the best of motives, highly intelligent administrators have spent tens of billions of pounds on destroying the life chances of large numbers of poor youngsters.
This has had another consequence: crime. Yet, without wishing to sound like a more than usually sheep-witted Anglican cleric, Miss Sergeant's pages almost make one feel that the crime has a positive aspect. It forces the respectable classes to pay attention. If the young members of the underclass had been content to vegetate quietly in drug dens on sink estates, the rest of us would have ignored their plight. After all, the problem of West Indian crime was brushed aside for years, partly because of fears of sounding racist, until it became too serious to overlook. Fear of crime could be the beginning of wisdom.
It is easy to understand the origins of the crisis. Over the past 50 years, a number of social and economic developments have undermined the social order. The first and most important is the decline of the family. This has meant large numbers of working-class young males have been brought up without fathers: without men to show them how to be men. While they are growing up, boys need to work out who they are and how they should live. If there is no father but only a hapless, harassed mum, the glamour of the street gang may seem irresistible; its protection, indispensable.
Families crumbled. Work followed. Mechanisation and third-world competition have eliminated many forms of manual work. There is a much-diminished market for unskilled male labour. That need not have mattered. The UK spends a great deal on education: more than enough to equip pupils with skills. But there has been a hideous failure. As a result of the spread of progressive, child-centred teaching methods, many classrooms ceased to be orderly, disciplined learning environments. Illiteracy and innumeracy flourished. Sixty-three per cent of 14-year-old white working class boys have a reading age of seven. So do 54 per cent of all West Indian boys.
These kids are leaving school tragically ill-equipped to earn a living, tragically vulnerable to the lure of crime and drugs. Of course they must be held responsible for their behaviour. But the rest of us ought to feel ashamed. We have acquiesced in the erosion of common sense. We have acquiesced as the ideals of the Welfare State were undermined so that it often became an ill-fare state. We have acquiesced as little children with hope and potential, which all children have, a capacity for happiness and a need for love, to which all children are entitled, were neglected and abandoned, to become a feral underclass. We ought to be ashamed of ourselves and we ought to demand action.
Anyone who still wonders why David Cameron bangs on about the broken society should read Wasted. We have all met older people so gloomy about modern Britain as to wonder whether the sacrifices of wartime were worth it. In the gentlest way, La would have insisted that they were wrong. But La is only a fictional character. To prove her right, we will have to tackle the evils that Harriet Sergeant has depicted. We will have to stop the waste.
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