In the Critics this week

Jonathan Lethem on Philip Roth and Steven Poole on David Hendy's latest book.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, American novelist Jonathan Lethem pays tribute to Philip Roth, who turns 80 this month. Reading Roth as a young man, Lethem writes, illuminated “something aggravated and torrential in my voice” – something specifically Jewish. “As Roth points out, the books aren’t Jewish because they have Jews in them. The books are Jewish in how they won’t shut up or cease contradicting themselves, they’re Jewish in the way they’re sprung both from harangue and from defence against harangue, they’re Jewishly ruminative and provocative.”

In Books, Steven Poole reviews David Hendy’s Noise: a Human History of Sound and Listening. “Hendy’s emphasis is on championing noise as a vehicle of sociality,” writes Poole. Hendy devotes a chapter to the noise of stadium crowds but, Poole notes, “does not mention the most notorious instrument of sporting mob dictatorship. I mean the vuvuzela, the plastic horn whose aggregated cacophonous buzz-farting ruined the auditory atmosphere of the 2010 World Cup”.

Also in Books: Alwyn W Turner reviews Mod: a Very British Style by Richard Weight (“Born in the affluence of Harold Macmillan’s Britain, mod was a cross-class coalition of youth, bringing together the art school and the assembly line …”); Lucy Wadham reviews Marcela Iacub’s novelised “memoir” of her affair with Dominique Strauss-Kahn (“There are moments when I feel that as long as I live … France will remain forever a mystery to me. Reading Marcela Iacub’s books Belle et bête … was one such moment”); Sarah Churchwell reviews O My America! Second Acts in a New World by Sara Wheeler (“Wheeler wants to claim more significance for these women than perhaps they merit”).

Elsewhere in the Critics: Ryan Gilbey reviews Danny Boyle’s Trance and Ken Loach’s The Spirit of ’45 (“That The Spirit of ’45 survives its simplifications is due to the sincerity and urgency of Loach’s argument. And, regrettably, to its pertinence”); Antonia Quirke listens to the first episode of David Hendy’s 30-part history of noise on Radio 4 (“this sounds like the most sub-avant-garde and brilliant new programme on BBC radio”); Rachel Cooke is disappointed by the BBC’s adaptation of The Lady Vanishes, though she concedes that the performances are “universally lovely”; Ollie Brock visits an exhibition of the archive of the writer Roberto Bolano in Barcelona (“For true Bolanistas … the most interesting items will be glimpses of … the ‘possible books’ to come, the unpublished manuscripts …”); Kate Mossman reviews What About Now, the new album by Bon Jovi (“Hair metal … has had a bit of a reassessment in the past few years …”.)

PLUS: “King Vulture”, a poem by Joe Dunthorne, and Will Self’s Madness of Crowds.

 

Philip Roth photographed by Eric Thayer. (Photo: © Eric Thayer)
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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