In the Critics this week

Dylan Jones on David Bowie, Ed Smith on Wagner and new fiction from Deborah Levy.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, Dylan Jones, the editor of GQ, visits “David Bowie Is …” at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The exhibition, Jones writes, “is a proper multimedia extravaganza, and for Bowie obsessives like myself is probably the final word on the man (in a good way)”.

Our Critic at large this week is Ed Smith, who examines the enduring power of the music of Richard Wagner, whose bicentenary falls this year. Smith recalls going to a performance of Wagner’s Die Walkure at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. “The experience of Act III of Die Walkure that evening was as far removed from Hollywood shallowness as I am capable of imagining … The experience was qualitatively different from anything I’d known from watching a stage play or reading a novel.”

Deborah Levy, whose novel Swimming Home, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2012, contributes a new short story to this issue, “Migrations to elsewhere and other aches and pains”.

In Books, Aditya Chakrabortty, economics leader writer of the Guardian, reviews Who Owns the Future by Jaron Lanier and To Save Everything, Click Here by Evgeny Morozov. Both writers, Chakrabortty argues, are in thrall to what he calls “the engineering mindset”. “If this age belongs to any profession, it surely belongs to the engineer – not in the term’s historical sense of builders of dams and railways but in its new sense of makers of technology and software.”

Also in Books: Helen Lewis reviews Fifty Shades of Feminism, edited by Lisa Appignanesi, Rachel Holmes and Susie Orbach (“In 2013, feminism is at a crucial moment”); Suzy Klein reviews Dinner with Lenny: the Last Long Interview with Leonard Bernstein by Jonathan Cott (“The genius of Cott’s book is not only to remember but to recall with pinpoint accuracy and sympathy the flame of Leonard Bernstein that burned so brightly and so true”); Andrew Biswell uncovers the story of Anthony Burgess’s lost script for the film of the James Bond novel The Spy Who Loved Me (“[The producers] probably suspected (quite rightly) that Burgess was not taking the assignment entirely seriously”); Robert Hanks reviews the reissue of Louis MacNiece’s 1938 book about London Zoo (“To read Zoo is to share with [MacNiece] a glimmer of understanding of the distance and nearness of civilisation to the state of nature”); Hannah Rosefield reviews Mohsin Hamid’s novel How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (“How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia turns out to be as much moral fable as it is satire”); Jonathan Derbyshire reviews Eric Hobsbawm’s final book, Fractured Times (“Hobsbawm’s indifference the main problems of Marxist historiography … ensured that his work reached a much larger audience than that of many of his contemporaries”).

In the Books Interview, Jonathan Derbyshire talks to Lucy Wadham about her book Heads and Straights, part of the Penguin Lines series celebrating the 150th anniversary of the London Underground (“There were a number of key events in the life of my family … that had happened near Circle Line stops”).

Elsewhere in the Critics: Alexandra Coghlan talks to Sir John Eliot Gardiner about Bach (“Bach fills whatever space you allow him to enter,” Gardiner tells Coghlan); Andrew Billen reviews The Book of Mormon at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London (“It is clear … that someone has lost their nerve”); Rachel Cooke is beguiled by Michael Cockerell’s documentary about Boris Johnson (“Whatever else he is, Boris isn’t dull”); Ryan Gilbey reviews Francois Ozon’s latest film, In the House (“In the House never sacrifices its thriller credentials”); Antonia Quirke celebrates Simon Russell Beale’s radio presenting (“Not just whole programmes but whole stations happily adjust around him”).

PLUS: Will Self’s Real Meals and “Riddle”, a poem by Bernard O’Donoghue.

The 'Starman' costume from David Bowie's appearance on 'Top of the Pops' in 1972. Photo: Getty Images
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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