Let them eat celery

...on dodgy claims, dead 'slebs', delightful menus and a notorious school

Why do people keep saying things such as “40 per cent of the world’s wealth has been destroyed”, as Hamish McRae, the Independent’s economics commentator, did the other day? What the financial crisis has destroyed is what used to be called paper wealth, but is now better described as digital wealth. Homes, schools, railways, great works of art, Chartres Cathedral, my wife’s apple-pie recipe and all other tangible things remain intact. Their monetary value (or the value of the land they stand on) is lower than it was, but that does not diminish their usefulness, nor the pleasure they give. Wealth is destroyed when a fine university town such as L’Aquila in Italy is hit by an earthquake, not when some of us turn out to be worth less than we thought. This is one of many respects in which economics does not describe the real world.

And while we are about it, I want to know why the Tories keep getting away with their claim that Gordon Brown should have squirrelled away buoyant tax revenues during the boom years instead of spending them on schools and hospitals. What, somebody should ask, happened to all the company profits over the same period? Why didn’t they keep something by for a rainy day? Regional newspapers, for example, made enormous profits, returning annual shareholder dividends of 20 per cent or more. Now they are sacking journalists and pleading that they need the law changed so they can merge into giant cross-media companies. As well as a reduction in ownership diversity, this would lead to more job losses. These would be called “efficiency savings”, another example of how economics is divorced from reality.


Should I have attended Jade Goody’s funeral? This may seem an odd question for a New Statesman columnist to ask, but I happen to live, quietly and unfashionably, in Loughton, Essex, where Goody opened a shop and through which her funeral cortège slowly passed on its way to the church in neighbouring Buckhurst Hill. I thought little of it at the time, apart from being irritated by a Sky News helicopter hovering overhead.

Now I think I should have mingled with the crowds to get some sense of what this extraordinary phenomenon was about. Did Goody’s popularity show how capitalism can commodify even mediocrity? Or show how the lower orders are refreshingly sceptical about the “standards” their patronising “superiors” try to impose? I suspect the latter. In the recent past, three deaths seemed to move the populace to an extent that surprised the cognoscenti: those of Goody, Diana, Princess of Wales and George Best. What the three had in common was a lack of educational success and a failure to follow conventional standards of behaviour.


As technology develops, international conferences look increasingly to be a waste of time and money. Teleconferencing would surely allow leaders to conduct their business with each other from home, especially as officials do the detailed negotiation. I know intimate contact is meant to enhance warmth, respect and trust. But that, I recall, is why Neville Chamberlain thought it a good idea to visit Hitler.

It’s always the little things, though, that irritate most. For me, it was the inclusion of “very first of the season Jersey Royals” on the menu of the Downing Street dinner during the G20 conference. Why should these puffed-up leaders, who were probably too busy scoring points off each other to notice what they ate, enjoy what won’t be available in supermarkets for weeks? I eagerly await Jersey Royals each year because the only other decent potatoes widely available at this time are Israeli, and we lefties are supposed to boycott those, along with avocados.

Let G20 leaders eat stringy old celery, I say.


How many people know – did even Michelle Obama know? – that the London school she visited during the G20, now Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Language College, was once the most famous (or notorious) comprehensive in England? Then called Risinghill, it served highly deprived areas of Islington before the borough became synonymous with gentrification.

Its head, Michael Duane, abolished corporal punishment, declined to expel unruly children (he favoured what was later called “inclusion”), introduced sex education and nurtured pupil democracy. After hostile inspection reports, and demands that Duane restore the cane,

the school was closed in 1965, five years after opening. He was immortalised – or, rather, sanctified – by the children’s author Leila Berg in her 1968 book Risinghill: Death of a Comprehensive School.

There were elements of myth about Risinghill, both in the press portrayal of out-of-control children and in Berg’s claim that Duane was martyred by child-hating reactionaries. But none of his pupils doubted that he cared about them; more than 40 years on, some are compiling a sequel to Berg’s account as a memorial to him.

Duane once said that “to measure a school by exam results is like estimating the quality of a man’s life by the number of calories he burns”. He died in 1997, too early to see New Labour enslave teachers and children to test scores, league tables and targets. Yet though he was a lifelong Labour supporter, he would not have been at all surprised.

His school was closed by a Labour authority.


I hope we lefties can unite against the Archbishop of York’s proposal to make St George’s Day a national holiday. It would clearly replace May Day, a workers’ festival and also, as an ancient pagan one, a balance to the Christian festivals we are required to observe.

If we must have another bank holiday – and I never see the point in us all descending on the same day on national parks, historic homes, seaside resorts, and so on – the obvious time is the last week of October, midway between the August and Christmas holidays, when schools are on half-term. The date of the Bolshevik Revolution – 25 October – would do nicely.

Yes, I know it turned out badly but so, when you think of the Inquisition, did Christianity.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 13 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Easter 2009