Smoking Kurt Cobain

Hermetic America? Nobel Prize controversy

Nobel Prize judge Horace Engdahl’s criticism of American literature this week has incensed the literary world. His claims that American novels were ‘too isolated, too insular’ merited no more than a one-word response from author Giles Foden, and Harvard Professor Werner Sollors, specialist in American literature, complained of Engdahl’s ‘historical and literary myopia’.

But perhaps Engdahl has a point – or more of a point, at least, than Foden’s angry ‘Bullshit!’ allows.

Professor Sollors points out that 'European bookstores are filled with works by American authors’. And yet, the same cannot be said for the fate of European novels in America. Of the 185,000 books printed in English in the United States in 2004, only 874 were adult literature in translation – a discrepancy that Salman Rushdie has called ‘shocking’. The lack of foreign literature in the States has been described by Brooklyn-based writer Paul Auster as ‘the great tragedy of American publishing’, and one French publishing magnate speaking in the Telegraph this week agrees: ‘It is true that American publishers rarely buy books in translation from foreign languages. That is to America's shame and also its loss.’

However, Philip Roth, the Nobel’s eternal bridesmaid, need not give up on his chances this year yet. ‘It is of no importance, when we judge American candidates, how any of us views American literature as a whole in comparison with other literatures,’ Engdahl has since added.

The Devil's party

John Milton will turn 400 on December 9th, and the Williamsburg Art and Historical Centre in Brooklyn celebrated last Saturday with the Grand Paradise Lost Costume Ball. Revellers were promised an evening ‘as sinfully delicious as “Man’s first disobedience” and the most fabulous extravaganza since Adam & Eve had to cover their nakedness!’

Music was provided by the JC Hopkins Biggish Swing Band, but surely a better choice would have been Philadelphia rockers Milton and the Devil’s Party. Formed by two English professors with a penchant for the Eagles, the Blake-inspired band are currently touring to promote their new album, How Wicked We’ve Become. They excitedly announce the poet’s birthday on their Myspace page: ‘Milton turns 400 this December! So, the rock band he incorporeally fronts is dedicating all its 2008 shows to everybody's favorite Puritan pariah!’

Kurt Cobain smoked in spliff, released into ether. (Apparently.)

If your funds don’t stretch to the $500-a-ticket Obama benefit concert and the thought of Maroon5’s contribution to the Campaign CD is already giving you nightmares, you might want to head down to Baron’s Court Theatre in London for The Obama Musical instead. Written by campaign member Teddy Hayes, it promises a comic behind-the-scenes look at the presidential race to the sounds of jazz, gospel, pop and soft rock. Listen out for the song ‘Obama and Me’, in which a particularly devoted team member comes out with the couplet: ‘We are a pair / Like chocolate and éclair.’

Elsewhere, artist Natascha Stellmach has announced that she will smoke a spliff allegedly containing the ashes of Kurt Cobain at the close of her current exhibition. ‘This final act,’ Stellmach said, ‘aims to release Cobain from the media circus and into the ether.’ Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love, reported the theft of her husband’s ashes earlier this year, but was quick to retract her statement on hearing about Stellmach’s plans.

Less morbidly, but no less confusingly, performance artist Mark McGowan ‘rowed’ through the streets of London on Thursday in a raft made from recycled plastic bottles and rollerskate wheels, in a bid to convince people to drink tap water rather than bottled water. This is a more conservative effort than usual from McGowan, who has always worked in mysterious ways: he has been known in the past to eat corgis to promote vegetarianism, and catapult the elderly in ‘space capsules’ to promote pensioners’ rights.

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"Michael Gove is a nasty bit of work": A Thatcherite's lonely crusade for technical colleges

Kenneth Baker, Margaret Thatcher's education secretary, has been in a war of words with one of his successors. 

When I meet Kenneth Baker, once Margaret Thatcher’s reforming education secretary, conversation quickly turns to an unexpected coincidence. We are old boys of the same school: a sixth-form college in Southport that was, in Baker’s day, the local grammar. Fittingly for a man enraged by the exclusion of technical subjects from the modern curriculum, he can only recall one lesson: carpentry.

Seven decades on, Lord Baker – who counts Sats, the national curriculum, league tables, and student loans among his innovations – is still preoccupied with technical education. His charity, the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, oversees university technical colleges (UTCs), the specialist free schools that work with businesses and higher education institutions to provide a vocational curriculum for students aged 14-19. He is also a working peer, and a doughty evangelist for technical education and apprenticeships in the upper chamber. 

But when we meet at the charity’s glass-panelled Westminster office at 4 Millbank, he is on the defensive – and with good reason. Recent weeks have been particularly unkind to the project that, aged 82, he still works full-time to promote. First, a technical college in Oldham, Greater Manchester, became the seventh to close its doors since 2015. In three years, not one of its pupils passed a single GCSE, and locals complained it had become a “dumping ground” for the most troubled and disruptive children from Oldham’s other schools (Baker agrees, and puts the closure down to “bad governorship and bad headship”). 

Then, with customary chutzpah, came Michael Gove. In the week of the closure, the former education secretary declared in his Times column that the UTCs project had failed. "The commonest error in politics," he wrote, quoting Lord Salisbury, "is sticking to the carcasses of dead policies". Baker is now embroiled in a remarkable – and increasingly bitter – war of words with his successor and one-time colleague.

It wasn't always this way. In 2013, with UTCs still in their infancy, he told the New Statesman the then education secretary was “a friend”, despite their disagreements on the curriculum. The bonhomie has not lasted. In the course of our hour-long conversation, Gove is derided as “a nasty bit of work”, “very vindictive”, “completely out of touch”, and “Brutus Gove and all the rest of it”. (Three days after we speak, Baker renews their animus with a blistering op-ed for The Telegraph, claiming Gove embraced UTCs about as warmly as “an undertaker”.)

In all of this, Gove, who speaks warmly of Baker, has presented himself as having been initially supportive of the project. He was, after all, the education secretary who gave them the green light. Not so, his one-time colleague says. While David Cameron (Baker's former PA) and George Osborne showed pragmatic enthusiasm, Gove “was pretty reluctant from the word go”.

“Gove has his own theory of education,” Baker tells me. He believes Gove is in thrall to the American educationalist E.D. Hirsch, who believes in focusing on offering children a core academic diet of subjects, whatever their background. "He doesn’t think that schools should worry about employability at all," Baker says. "He thinks as long as you get the basic education right, everything will be fine. That isn’t going to happen – it isn’t how life works!" 

Baker is fond of comparing Gove’s heavily academic English baccalaureate to the similarly narrow School Certificate he sat in 1951, as well as the curriculum of 1904 (there is seldom an interview with Baker that doesn’t feature this comparison). He believes his junior's divisive tenure changed the state sector for the worse: “It’s appalling what’s happening in our schools! The squeezing out of not only design and technology, but drama, music, art – they’re all going down at GCSE, year by year. Now children are just studying a basic eight subjects. I think that’s completely wrong.” 

UTCs, with their university sponsors, workplace ethos (teaching hours coincide with the standard 9-5 working day and pupils wear business dress), and specialist curricula, are Baker's solution. The 46 existing institutions teach 11,500 children, and there are several notable success stories. GCHQ has opened a cyber-security suite at the UTC in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, as part of a bid to diversify its workforce. Just 0.5 per cent of UTC graduates are unemployed, compared to 11.5 per cent of all 18-year-olds. 

But they are not without their critics. Teaching unions have complained that their presence fragments education provision and funding, and others point out that hard-up schools in disadvantaged areas have little desire or incentive to give up children – and the funding they bring – at 14. Ofsted rate twice as many UTCs as inadequate as they do outstanding. Gove doubts that the vocational qualifications on offer are as robust as their academic equivalents, or anywhere near as attractive for middle-class parents. He also considers 14 is too young an age for pupils to pursue a specialist course of vocational study.

Baker accepts that many of his colleges are seen as “useless, wastes of money, monuments to Baker’s vanity and all the rest of it”, but maintains the project is only just finding its legs. He is more hopeful about the current education secretary, Justine Greening, who he believes is an admirer. Indeed, UTCs could provide Greening with a trump card in the vexed debate over grammar schools – last year’s green paper suggested pupils would be able to join new selective institutions at 14, and Baker has long believed specialist academic institutions should complement UTCs.

Discussion of Theresa May’s education policy has tended to start and finish at grammar schools. But Baker believes the conversation could soon be dominated by a much more pressing issue: the financial collapse of multi-academy trusts and the prospect of an NHS-style funding crisis blighting the nation’s schools. Although his city technology colleges may have paved the way for the removal of more and more schools from the control of local authorities, he, perhaps surprisingly, defends a connection to the state.

“What is missing now in the whole education system is that broker in the middle, to balance the demands of education with the funds available," he says. "I think by 2020 all these multi-academy trusts will be like the hospitals... If MATs get into trouble, their immediate cry will be: ‘We need more money!’ We need more teachers, we need more resources, and all the rest of it!’."

It is clear that he is more alert to coming challenges, such as automation, than many politicians half his age. Halfway through our conversation, he leaves the room and returns enthusiastically toting a picture of an driverless lorry. It transpires that this Thatcherite is even increasingly receptive to the idea of the ultimate state handout: a universal basic income. “There’s one part of me that says: ‘How awful to give someone a sum for doing nothing! What are they going to do, for heaven’s sake, for Christ’s sake!’" he says. "But on the other hand, I think the drawback to the four-day working week or four-hour working day... I think it’s going to happen in your lifetime. If people are only working for a very short space of time, they will have to have some sort of basic income.” 

Predictably, the upshot of this vignette is that his beloved UTCs and their multi-skilled graduates are part of the solution. Friend and foe alike praise Baker’s indefatigable dedication to the cause. But, with the ranks of doubters growing and the axe likely to fall on at least one of its institutions again, it remains to be seen in what form the programme will survive.

Despite the ignominy of the last few weeks, however, Baker is typically forthright: “I sense a turning of the tide in our way now. But I still fight. I fight for every bloody one.”