My gap year wasn't a success: I learnt little from preparing the high priests for orgies in the temple

Is there anything that you can't buy a guide to? This week I discovered that there is now a library of guidebooks on the subject of that thing called the gap year. It's become another industry.

As a sad, middle-aged man, I ought to say at this point that in my day we managed without such guides. But I didn't manage. In fact I was in need of far more guides than are even available today or will ever be available.

Last week I was reading one of those post-A-level newspaper articles on how to cope with your first term at university and I made a mental list of the things I didn't know about or how to do when I began university. I won't reproduce it here - suffice to say that I was like the main character in one of those unfunny comic films in which a member of a primitive tribe arrives in New York City and has a succession of "amusing" misunderstandings in which he mistakes a traffic light for an angry deity and shoots muggers with his bow and arrow. Except that in the film the primitive tribesman generally triumphs.

One newspaper article on gap years was illustrated by a photograph of a group of young people trekking across a hitherto unexplored peak in the Himalayas. There are now brochures offering guided tours across deserts, work experience with shamans . . . anything you can think of. As long as you don't actually get murdered, you should arrive for your first year at university with an expanded mind and the material for your first novel or - if you're clever about it - your first few novels.

My own gap year sounded glamorous in prospect. I was passionate about theatre, and a friend of mine called Barney got me a job working with him as a stagehand for the long-running production of Jesus Christ Superstar at the Palace Theatre in the West End. Andrew Lloyd-Webber made so much money from it that he bought the theatre. But I was paid £17 a week.

Even in retrospect it sounds as if it ought to have been glamorous. After Mary Magdalene had finished offering to anoint Jesus, I was the one she gave the ointment container to. For the (all-too-tame) orgy in the temple, I was the one who put the incense into the lanterns carried by the high priests. And if you had the misfortune to see Jesus Christ Superstar in 1978, you actually saw me, or at least my silhouette. At the end, my friend and I had to run out on stage to remove a plank, so that Jesus could rise up out of the stage on some sort of pop-art crucifix. This was the only thing we had to do on which the show actually depended, and Barney and I concocted our own version of the chicken race, in which we would see how far away from the stage we could be when our cue came.

Maybe there was some sort of numbed, Warholesque fascination in seeing 150 performances of a show that had already been running for six years. It was certainly numb. I spent my time between cues in a corner, reading plays. I could read one a night, so I suppose I received a theatrical education of a kind. I also had a plan to swap jobs with somebody round the corner who worked as a stagehand at Raymond's Revuebar. I had a theory (false, as I would later discover) that if I found it so difficult to talk to women, perhaps I would find it easier if they had no clothes on. Anyway, nothing came of it, and I never discovered what props I would have to have dealt with - Robert Frost's "road not taken", with a vengeance.

The actors didn't fare any better than I did. Evita opened that year, and virtually the whole cast auditioned for it. The majority who were rejected were even more sour and cynical than before. The production finally closed in the early eighties, and occasionally I see some of the cast on TV. One of them was a regular for a while in a terrible BBC sitcom; another became a presenter of Play School.

I heard that other cast members immediately got involved in a touring production of Superstar. It's probably still going somewhere in some remote part of the world where I ought to have gone for my gap year.

This article first appeared in the 30 August 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Gordon Brown, the great feminist

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.