The cultural riches online are seemingly infinite - will they be there forever? Photogragh: Erik Söderström on Flickr via Creative Commons
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What’s the rush? Why the internet means we never get round to doing anything

Speed is of the essence in the online world but faced with the Aladdin’s cave of cultural riches, one’s response is invariably one of sluggishness, of planning for a putative future that will never come.

Returning to Dublin last Christmas I caught up with a friend I hadn’t seen in several years and who had moved into my old apartment when I upped sticks and went back to Paris almost a decade ago. I had left a few things “in storage” in the apartment, notably some couple of hundred vinyl records, most of them charting my various lurches and lapses in musical taste throughout the nineties and early noughties. I had intended coming back to collect them within a year or so. Of course, I left it for years and when I asked my friend Ivan if he had brought them with him on his last house move, he grimaced uncomfortably. Vincent, my former French flatmate, who also lived with Ivan, had claimed squatter’s rights on them and carted them off to the new home in the suburbs he had bought with his fiancée. They were gone but not quite.

After initially resolving to get them back – there were, after all, first pressings of The Who’s Magic Bus, By Numbers and Who’s Next, a gatefold White Album, copies of Blue Train, My Favorite Things, Sketches of Spain and Birth of the Cool, compilations of old Italian movie soundtracks, among numerous less exalted items – I desisted. Part of it might have been down to the embarrassment of calling, just to recover my property, an ex-flatmate I had never bothered contacting in the intervening years. Part of it had to do with my carelessness at what ought to have been precious cargo. In the main though it was because I was listening to practically all of those records in either mp3 form or on music streaming sites like Spotify or Grooveshark. So what if the sound quality is markedly inferior; so what if I had finally got hold of a turntable after years without one in Paris? I was able to listen to them and they weren’t taking up space in a small Paris apartment where the placing of every object entailed an ergonomic cost-benefit analysis before going ahead with it. Though I could well have reclaimed my records, I just didn’t see the point. For years I had figured there was no rush. And there still wasn’t.

Another friend, back in the late nineties, had remarked to me that buying a film on VHS or DVD signals the death knell for your interest in it. Freed of the impetus to watch a rental copy before you rack up a load of late fees, you never get around to watching the thing. It will sit on your shelf beside the TV for years, testament merely to your judgement, exquisite or wretched, when you have people round. The amount of films, music and books in circulation has exploded since the advent of Web 2.0 (I remember hauling home from the States NTSC copies of old films that were impossible to find on PAL as well as setting the VCR to record similarly elusive movies broadcast late-night on BBC2 or Channel 4). There is such an abundance of stuff out there, much of it hidden in plain sight of copyright lawyers on YouTube, that you don’t know where to start. I have discovered films by Chris Marker, Buñuel, and Fassbinder free to watch online, queued them up in a playlist for future viewing, forgotten about them and returned six months later to find them, not surprisingly gone, those copyright lawyers having caught up with them.

Speed is of the essence in the online world but faced with the Aladdin’s cave of cultural riches, one’s response is invariably one of sluggishness, of planning for a putative future that will never come. You become as dynamic as the Lotus Eaters blissfully wasted on the beach. Your attention span collapses alarmingly – you groan upon discovering that this interesting-looking online article goes on for five, six, seven, eight, nine pages; you look through your Twitter favourites to find links that you once starred and vowed to get around to reading but are already irrevocably dated; you clip articles you intend to use for work but never do, recipes you want to cook but that you will never taste; you download The Scarlet and the Black and The Brothers Karamazov from the Gutenberg Project, because, you know, they’re free. You have the best intentions but you think “what’s the rush?”

Years of moving between different countries have cured me of an earlier acquisitiveness for physical things, with only my book-buying being a residue of that habit (and, even then, I will gladly offload at least half of them next time I move). I’ve never felt the need to queue overnight for concert tickets (much less pay someone else to do it); it’s a long time since I went out and bought a new album on the day of its release; I was late getting to The Wire and Breaking Bad and have yet to watch any of Mad Men; though I watch many films on their cinema release (there’s no better city in the world than Paris for doing that), I rarely rush to watch advance previews during film festivals (and I really couldn’t be arsed subjecting myself to Cannes). I’m pretty sure this lack of urgency has been entrenched by exposure to the cultural bounties of the world wide web, though it may well be that the overwhelming array of choice has displaced any omnivorous cultural habits I might have into a harmless virtual space.

And then you wonder if it will be there forever? There are warnings that information stored online is subject to erosion, decay and physical obsolescence as much as anything in hard copy. There is already ample material that leads a lonesome existence out there in the online wilds – the web app, Forgotify will summon up at random one of the four million songs never before listened to on Spotify and play it for you. And what happens if the likes of YouTube, Dropbox, Evernote, iTunes or Spotify go tits up overnight? Will an entire generation of web users tell their children that they lost everything in the Great Cloud Computing Crash of 2031? Will we be left to go scuttling back to the handful of old CDs still knocking about in the attic, to the unwatched, undesired DVDs we received long ago as stocking fillers, to the last extant print editions of newspapers or magazines? I’m reminded of Patrick Kavanagh’s words, in his poem, “Advent”:

We have tested and tasted too much, lover
Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder.

I’m not exactly endorsing Kavanagh’s prescribed religious austerity but I do sometimes think that, given the abundance of online riches, I would be happy to settle for less. For a while anyway. It’d certainly make life easier getting round to watching it or reading it.

Oliver Farry is an Irish writer, journalist and translator living in Paris.

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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