Chronic boredom is like the dull itch of a pair of Seventies school trousers

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.

I have been suffering lately from something very like boredom. “Only boring people are bored,” runs the tiresome mantra, delivered by those tiresome people who consider life to be a glorious cycle of song and a medley of extemporanea. (For those who are unfamiliar with the lines, from Dorothy Parker, they continue: “And love is a thing that can never go wrong;/And I am Marie of Romania.” I do not quote these lines in the main body of my piece because, for once, love for me is not going wrong, touch wood.)

It is the kind of boredom that is actually more like the flu, in that it seems to be caused not by anything visible, but everything you do becomes imbued by suffering. I remember Vyvyan the punk in The Young Ones staggering around, smashing himself in the head with his own cricket bat in an attempt to relieve the tedium.

“Bored, bored, BORED,” Vyvyan would say, in time to the clouts to his own brains. It felt like that – everything was boring. Eating toast was boring. Being on a train was boring. Or perhaps not so much boring as mildly unpleasant, like wearing an itchy suit. (Note to younger readers: it was, until around the late Seventies, the rule for formal wear of whatever kind – whether it was a business, dinner, or school suit – to be made of a material that afforded the wearer the continual sensation of active discomfort, especially about the legs. To feel mildly pleased, or even neutral, about putting on a pair of trousers was considered to be unmanly, disgraceful and effete.)

Things on the horizon weren’t looking any better because the Beloved was going off to see her sister in Durham and I was to be left alone for a few days. Cohabitation has proved to be a delight, with the really rather counterintuitive side effect that the longer we stay together at a stretch, the more affectionate we are with each other, which is hell for other people – but nuts to them. Left to my own devices, though, I rediscover the fundamental meaninglessness of the universe, and plumping up the pillows as I retire to bed on my own becomes a terrifyingly lonely act, like the mysteriously ageing astronaut eating his solitary meals in silence towards the end of 2001.

How strange it is that men are in two horribly conflicted states of mind when it comes to this kind of thing! Those friends of mine who are married and parents would love to come out for a drink but find themselves prisoners in their own home. Do they like it, deep down, or do they chafe, as if wearing vintage trousers? The other day Martin Rowson, the rather wonderful cartoonist, discovered that all his immediate family members had scattered to various corners of the globe, and rather than potter around his house on his own, he came down to the Hovel, bearing gifts.

That was fun and he declared the Beloved THE BEST PERSON EVER (his caps) because she told him how she had been rude to Toby Young without even knowing who he was. (It was a conversation about musical education and he really should have thought twice before engaging with the B on the subject. But then these days poor Toby should think twice before saying anything. I wonder, sometimes, if he has had some kind of accident, which would account in some way for his increasing nuttiness.)

In the end, I found the perfect cure for my boredom: a game of cricket. Playing, not watching. It seems that Vyvyan was on the right lines all along. I have not done this for a couple of years and feared great rustiness, which would lead to some kind of terrible accident with the ball. It’s jolly hard, you know, and some of those people can really whack it. But the whole business of playing, the state of mild alertness you have to maintain on the field, the banter of one’s teammates, the play of the summer sun on the clouds, the trees, and even the picturesque sheep in the next field, put one in a state of something approaching bliss.

It was heaven and even the visiting American, who admittedly spent half the afternoon asleep, declared himself charmed, if baffled. (But not as baffled as the elderly Englishwoman a few feet away. “Why are they moving?” she would ask. “Is he the only one allowed to wear a hat?”) So that was all fine, until I got back and foolishly decided, for reasons that escape me, to check my bank balance. Any emotion I had vanished and was replaced by fear. That was bad. I don’t like the fear. I prefer the boredom.

Dorothy Parker (left) famously wrote that "only boring people are bored". Photo: Getty

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

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"Michael Gove is a nasty bit of work": A Thatcherite's lonely crusade for technical colleges

Kenneth Baker, Margaret Thatcher's education secretary, has been in a war of words with one of his successors. 

When I meet Kenneth Baker, once Margaret Thatcher’s reforming education secretary, conversation quickly turns to an unexpected coincidence. We are old boys of the same school: a sixth-form college in Southport that was, in Baker’s day, the local grammar. Fittingly for a man enraged by the exclusion of technical subjects from the modern curriculum, he can only recall one lesson: carpentry.

Seven decades on, Lord Baker – who counts Sats, the national curriculum, league tables, and student loans among his innovations – is still preoccupied with technical education. His charity, the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, oversees university technical colleges (UTCs), the specialist free schools that work with businesses and higher education institutions to provide a vocational curriculum for students aged 14-19. He is also a working peer, and a doughty evangelist for technical education and apprenticeships in the upper chamber. 

But when we meet at the charity’s glass-panelled Westminster office at 4 Millbank, he is on the defensive – and with good reason. Recent weeks have been particularly unkind to the project that, aged 82, he still works full-time to promote. First, a technical college in Oldham, Greater Manchester, became the seventh to close its doors since 2015. In three years, not one of its pupils passed a single GCSE, and locals complained it had become a “dumping ground” for the most troubled and disruptive children from Oldham’s other schools (Baker agrees, and puts the closure down to “bad governorship and bad headship”). 

Then, with customary chutzpah, came Michael Gove. In the week of the closure, the former education secretary declared in his Times column that the UTCs project had failed. "The commonest error in politics," he wrote, quoting Lord Salisbury, "is sticking to the carcasses of dead policies". Baker is now embroiled in a remarkable – and increasingly bitter – war of words with his successor and one-time colleague.

It wasn't always this way. In 2013, with UTCs still in their infancy, he told the New Statesman the then education secretary was “a friend”, despite their disagreements on the curriculum. The bonhomie has not lasted. In the course of our hour-long conversation, Gove is derided as “a nasty bit of work”, “very vindictive”, “completely out of touch”, and “Brutus Gove and all the rest of it”. (Three days after we speak, Baker renews their animus with a blistering op-ed for The Telegraph, claiming Gove embraced UTCs about as warmly as “an undertaker”.)

In all of this, Gove, who speaks warmly of Baker, has presented himself as having been initially supportive of the project. He was, after all, the education secretary who gave them the green light. Not so, his one-time colleague says. While David Cameron (Baker's former PA) and George Osborne showed pragmatic enthusiasm, Gove “was pretty reluctant from the word go”.

“Gove has his own theory of education,” Baker tells me. He believes Gove is in thrall to the American educationalist E.D. Hirsch, who believes in focusing on offering children a core academic diet of subjects, whatever their background. "He doesn’t think that schools should worry about employability at all," Baker says. "He thinks as long as you get the basic education right, everything will be fine. That isn’t going to happen – it isn’t how life works!" 

Baker is fond of comparing Gove’s heavily academic English baccalaureate to the similarly narrow School Certificate he sat in 1951, as well as the curriculum of 1904 (there is seldom an interview with Baker that doesn’t feature this comparison). He believes his junior's divisive tenure changed the state sector for the worse: “It’s appalling what’s happening in our schools! The squeezing out of not only design and technology, but drama, music, art – they’re all going down at GCSE, year by year. Now children are just studying a basic eight subjects. I think that’s completely wrong.” 

UTCs, with their university sponsors, workplace ethos (teaching hours coincide with the standard 9-5 working day and pupils wear business dress), and specialist curricula, are Baker's solution. The 46 existing institutions teach 11,500 children, and there are several notable success stories. GCHQ has opened a cyber-security suite at the UTC in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, as part of a bid to diversify its workforce. Just 0.5 per cent of UTC graduates are unemployed, compared to 11.5 per cent of all 18-year-olds. 

But they are not without their critics. Teaching unions have complained that their presence fragments education provision and funding, and others point out that hard-up schools in disadvantaged areas have little desire or incentive to give up children – and the funding they bring – at 14. Ofsted rate twice as many UTCs as inadequate as they do outstanding. Gove doubts that the vocational qualifications on offer are as robust as their academic equivalents, or anywhere near as attractive for middle-class parents. He also considers 14 is too young an age for pupils to pursue a specialist course of vocational study.

Baker accepts that many of his colleges are seen as “useless, wastes of money, monuments to Baker’s vanity and all the rest of it”, but maintains the project is only just finding its legs. He is more hopeful about the current education secretary, Justine Greening, who he believes is an admirer. Indeed, UTCs could provide Greening with a trump card in the vexed debate over grammar schools – last year’s green paper suggested pupils would be able to join new selective institutions at 14, and Baker has long believed specialist academic institutions should complement UTCs.

Discussion of Theresa May’s education policy has tended to start and finish at grammar schools. But Baker believes the conversation could soon be dominated by a much more pressing issue: the financial collapse of multi-academy trusts and the prospect of an NHS-style funding crisis blighting the nation’s schools. Although his city technology colleges may have paved the way for the removal of more and more schools from the control of local authorities, he, perhaps surprisingly, defends a connection to the state.

“What is missing now in the whole education system is that broker in the middle, to balance the demands of education with the funds available," he says. "I think by 2020 all these multi-academy trusts will be like the hospitals... If MATs get into trouble, their immediate cry will be: ‘We need more money!’ We need more teachers, we need more resources, and all the rest of it!’."

It is clear that he is more alert to coming challenges, such as automation, than many politicians half his age. Halfway through our conversation, he leaves the room and returns enthusiastically toting a picture of an driverless lorry. It transpires that this Thatcherite is even increasingly receptive to the idea of the ultimate state handout: a universal basic income. “There’s one part of me that says: ‘How awful to give someone a sum for doing nothing! What are they going to do, for heaven’s sake, for Christ’s sake!’" he says. "But on the other hand, I think the drawback to the four-day working week or four-hour working day... I think it’s going to happen in your lifetime. If people are only working for a very short space of time, they will have to have some sort of basic income.” 

Predictably, the upshot of this vignette is that his beloved UTCs and their multi-skilled graduates are part of the solution. Friend and foe alike praise Baker’s indefatigable dedication to the cause. But, with the ranks of doubters growing and the axe likely to fall on at least one of its institutions again, it remains to be seen in what form the programme will survive.

Despite the ignominy of the last few weeks, however, Baker is typically forthright: “I sense a turning of the tide in our way now. But I still fight. I fight for every bloody one.”