Barry Norman's moving tribute to his late wife

The film critic on Diana, who died two weeks ago.

At this time of year, with the red-and-pink assault of Valentine's Day looming, it's very easy to be cynical about love. As a corrective to that, may I suggest reading Barry Norman's wonderful tribute to his wife, Diana, who died two weeks ago? The couple had been married for more than 50 years.

In the piece, published in today's Daily Mail, Norman writes of finding Diana with "her glasses perched on her nose, a novel by Patrick O'Brian (one of her favourite authors) in her hand . . . She was resting peacefully against the pillows." She had died in her sleep.

As the death was so sudden, the police and paramedics arrived, followed by family members and the undertaker.

Once his representatives arrived, the whole situation began to resemble the stateroom scene in the Marx Brothers movie A Night At The Opera -- more and more people pouring in and the family (me, my daughters and grandsons Bertie, Harry and Charlie) being totally outnumbered by complete strangers.
Thus passed the worst morning of my life. The only word to describe what we, the family, were feeling was desolation. I always thought we'd had a pact, Diana and I, that I would die first, but I should have known she'd have the last word. She usually did, sometimes because I let her, often because she insisted on it.

Norman then pays tribute to Diana, whom he married within months of their meeting. "She was beautiful, witty, highly intelligent, quirky, stubborn and always immense fun to be with. She was a devoted wife, mother and grandmother and she was also -- this is not just my opinion -- one of the most gifted historical novelists around."

But perhaps the most moving part is his description of their marriage -- and all its ups and downs.

People who have been married for more than 50 years, like Diana and I were, are given to making remarks like: "We never had a cross word." To which I can only ask: "What kind of a marriage was that?" The only person I could imagine living with for any length of time without a cross word would be someone for whom I felt total indifference. Diana and I had many a cross word because we disagreed frequently and I loved her to death and beyond.

It's a beautiful piece of writing, from someone who -- from my very limited personal dealings with him -- seems to be a thoroughly decent person.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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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