In Sled we trust

Why the sled is as American as pie

At the heart of Orson Welles's Citizen Kane is a sled ("sledge"?) called "Rosebud", which, we are told, represents the key to unlocking the secret life of the film's reclusive newspaperman. According to Gore Vidal's 1984 article in the New York Review of Books, Rosebud was, in fact, the publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst's "pet name" for his paramour Marion Davies's clitoris. Perhaps this explains, in part, why Hearst took so strongly against a film that many believed was a veiled biography about his life.

In February 2006, meanwhile, Disney's dog movie (as opposed to dog-of-a-movie) Eight Below made its debut at the top of the US box office, taking over £14m in its opening weekend. Alongside the likes of the American Pie star Jason Biggs were the canines Max, Maya, Old Jack and Shadow --all of whom took on multiple roles. Among the film's protagonists, an abandoned pack of sled dogs, numbered two mutts named Dewey and Truman, after the 1948 presidential candidates Thomas Dewey and Harry Truman.

Is there something I'm missing about the iconic significance of sleds to Americans? Kane's working title in the RKO lots was, rather bluntly, American. When militant flag-wavers see the burning sled at the end of that film, do they slowly reach for their Smith and Wessons (which they are legally entitled to bear, even at Obama rallies)?

Speaking about gun nuts, the Field and Stream website's "Gun Nut" blog -- yes, Gun Nut -- once ran a piece about the Lead Sled, which is a "metal pan upon which is affixed a rifle mount". The bloggers explain: "To use, you lock your rifle in the mount and throw lead-filled shot bags on the sled. Then you aim the rifle and shoot."

Apparently, the Lead Sled eliminates the risk of self-injury when shooting things. This is a bad, un-American innovation and, as the headline makes clear, to "America's shame". For "good shooting," they say, "begins with the acceptance of pain. Great shooting begins with the love of pain. Do you think John Wayne would have used a Lead Sled? Do you think John Wayne would have appeared in Brokeback Mountain ?"

Finally, in this week's Big Issue, Bob Dylan talks to his regular interviewer-cum-stooge Bill Flanagan about his charity album, Christmas in the Heart. Flanagan describes the record, consisting of festive favourites originally popularised by Dean Martin and co, as a "celebration of family, community, faith and shared memory". Which all makes it as distinctively American as the non-scary bits of David Lynch's Twin Peaks, and almost as enjoyable (though this is a moot point). Having spent a career mining the nation's cultural riches, Dylan has, of late, refashioned himself as a Mark Twain-esque folk figure with his whimsical turns on Theme Time Radio Hour. His appearance in Cadillac's TV commercials, too, seemed designed to confirm his uber-Americanness. At the end of the interview, Flanagan asks him: "What's the best Christmas gift you ever got?" Bob says: "Let me think . . . oh yeah, I think it was a sled."

Yo Zushi is a sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

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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