Damien Hirst's memento mori

The enfant terrible picks up his brushes

On a dark road, a man meets a sinister figure who warns him to turn back, because "things get very serious if you carry on down this road". This is Damien Hirst explaining to the late Gordon Burn the meaning behind Turn Away from Me, which is included in his new exhibition "Nothing Matters" at White Cube. A feebly painted ghost raises its hand, which appears to float out from the grim darkness of the background. Hirst portrays his close friend Angus Fairhurst, like Hirst a "Young British Artist", who took his own life in the Scottish Highlands last year. It is a moving image, thick with the fear of death and haunting in its warning from the next world.

This show marks a big shift in Hirst's career. The enfant terrible of the YBAs has left behind animals preserved in formaldehyde in favour of good old-fashioned paint. He is taking a risk, but knows he can trade on his celebrity. In an explicit homage to Francis Bacon, Hirst has produced a series of gloomy, large-scale triptychs in which a number of recurring motifs -- flies, ashtrays, skulls -- function as memento mori, or intimations of mortality. He takes much of his symbolism from Old Masters: crows, empty chairs, skulls, knives and so on.

But, for all Hirst's debts to tradition, these paintings lack poetry and finesse of execution. Compare them, for example, with some of the most poignant renderings of birds ever done, by the French etcher Félix Bracquemond, and you'll know what I mean. There is something gross and raw about the roughness of the paint slashes with which Hirst creates his bloody effects.

There is also something unsatisfying about the so-called blue paintings on show concurrently at the Wallace Collection. In one or two canvasses, phantasmagorical shapes give the viewer the shivers, but for the most part I agree with Tom Lubbock, who, writing in the Independent, concluded that "they're extremely boring".

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times