Books in Brief: Andrew Davies, Robert Graves and Linda Porter

Three new books you may have missed.

City of Gangs: Glasgow and the Rise of the British Gangster
Andrew Davies
 
In the 1920s and 1930s, Glasgow was so riddled with gangs that it was known as “the Scottish Chicago”. Shipbuilding and heavy industry had made the city overcrowded; their decline left it underemployed. Add in sectarian divisions and the conditions were perfect for gangs such as the (Catholic) Savoy Arcadians and the (Protestant) Billy Boys to thrive. Andrew Davies’s book is an account not just of the fear they brought to the streets of Glasgow, but the role of the press in fostering underworld myths and the efforts of the police to control the spread of violence and protection rackets.
Hodder & Stoughton, 464pp, £20
 
Selected Poems
Robert Graves
 
In “Mid-Winter Waking”, Robert Graves writes: “Stirring suddenly from long hibernation,/I knew myself once more a poet/Guarded by timeless principalities . . .” For many modern readers, Graves’s poetry has hibernated beneath his Claudius novels and his memoir, Goodbye to All That. Michael Longley’s selection of his verse – a primer to the Complete Poems – is a reminder that he was not only a friend of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen but a war poet of power and anger, too. After 1918, his many poems about love were also couched in uncompromising terms, and the mythology he expounded in The White Goddess (1948) gives them an extra flavour.
Faber & Faber, 160pp, £15.99
 
Crown of Thistles: the Fatal Inheritance of Mary Queen of Scots
Linda Porter
 
Mary Stuart’s “fatal inheritance” was the long-standing power struggle between the English and Scottish royal families. Her fatal tussle with her cousin Elizabeth I was just one stage in a battle for supremacy that had started with their grandfathers and would not be resolved until Mary’s son, James VI of Scotland, became James I of England. Mary’s life was rich in incident and Linda Porter recounts it with judiciousness and verve.
Macmillan, 424pp, £20 
A woman browses titles at the Leipzig book fair. Photograph: Getty Images.

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

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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