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22 May 2024

The Clarksonification of the countryside

Also this week: AI enters the classroom, and the British obsession with gardening vs Brexit red tape.

By Jeanette Winterson

It’s a busy time. I am just back from Stockholm, where I was a guest speaker at the Sana summit on what’s happening in AI right now. While Google and Open AI dominate the reporting, smaller companies, such as Sana, are breaking through on AI assistants that will work for businesses of any size and, more interesting to me, personalised education.

An AI assistant is never impatient, tired, too busy, or on leave. While these systems rapidly increase productivity, life is about more than productivity. Teaching our children must go far beyond utility, finding the joy of discovery, learning and problem-solving. The best teachers do this, but, unless classrooms are small and the school has the resources to treat children as individuals rather than SATs units, precious years are easily lost to boredom – or, what’s worse, to not understanding what is being taught.

Your AI mentor will go over it as many times as each child needs. An AI homework assistant isn’t a crib – it’s just the opposite. A chance to connect with the work, and crucially, to connect the work with life beyond the classroom. Sure, ChatGPT will write average essays that students can copy. The point is to get away from that idea of learning as something tediously necessary to pass exams.

AI in education is a chance to transform how teaching and learning happen. We will need the government to get behind the change, with energy and resources, for the many, not the few. VAT on private-school fees could help with the funds for state schools.

Blooming red tape

May-time is not complete without the Chelsea Flower Show. It has been held in the grounds of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, since 1913. The British obsession with gardening is a wonderful thing. It is common ground for people who might disagree on everything else, especially politics.

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Brexit has been a nightmare for the import and export of plants to and from the UK. Europe is harmonised, while we voted for our very own red tape. Never mind. It’s British red tape, not nasty foreign stuff.

The Clarkson effect in the Cotswolds

I have lived in the Cotswolds for more than 30 years, long before it became fashionable. I don’t know how we start a reasonable conversation about zombie tourism: turn up, park anywhere, take a few selfies, leave loads of litter, drive away. At the weekend, I race round, do my shopping, and rush home by 10am. Then I lock myself in the house and garden till Monday morning. I used to ask people, “Why are you here?” – not with any existential intent, but because there isn’t a shop or a caff or a pub in either of the Slaughters. Turns out it’s all part of the Jeremy Clarkson Diddly Squat road tour. Punters heading to Clarkson’s farm shop make a day of it and come to the Slaughters.

Now there’s an application for a food truck outside the old watermill that’s mentioned in the Domesday Book. Its new owners don’t live there, so it doesn’t matter to them that the people who live nearby don’t want a food truck, or the smells, noise and mess. People here vote Tory, but they hate living next to an Airbnb – or a food truck. The invisible hand of the free market turns out to be extraction capitalism after all.

Rewards beyond the like button

The big calendar event for me in May is the Hay Festival. I am working when I visit, but the pleasure is in seeing thousands of people engaged with books and writers of every kind. It’s the uplifting opposite of zombie tourism. A trip to Hay is purposeful, zesty for the local economy, and a chance to make new friends.

Books, like gardens, are good for mental health. Life has an inside as well as an outside, and the inside of life is more than getting and spending. More than likes or product placement. When you read, or when you make a garden, or tend to your little window boxes and plants, what you are doing is not for gain, but gain is what you get.

Visiting an open garden can cost zero. Borrowing a book is free. Participation in activities that feed the soul doesn’t have to be expensive. Certainly, a lot of money is spent on books and on gardens, but the sum is elastic – you spend what you can afford – and it’s money well spent. Why? The effect is lasting. This isn’t about the next dopamine hit. It is steady pleasure in the moment, and it is something better too: memories that are protective when life is hard.

We remember when we planted that tree. We remember what we read that moved us. And it’s not there in the selfie or the village on Tripadvisor.

There are satisfactions in life that have nothing to do with the latest fad on social media. Sometimes they cost money, but they can’t be bought.  

[See also: Daniel Defoe in the Potteries]

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This article appears in the 22 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Special 2024