From Holbeinís portrait of Thomas Cromwell
October already seems to have been with us or us within it for more than a month. Yet this year, punctuated by bad weather, great sport and extraordinary pageantry, seems to have flown by as years will do once one reaches middle age and politicians as well as policemen look too young for the responsibility they carry. With the weight of my increasing years, readers of The Telegraph may have noticed equally increasing levels of tutting and harrumphing in this column. I am all too aware that I am permanently moaning but there seems so often to be so much to moan about.
Perhaps we all know too much too quickly of day-to-day news, the bad usually outweighing the good in the competition for attention-grabbing headlines: our opinions, instantly formed and reformed, reactive not reflective, and our appetite for real truth and understanding never satisfied as we swirl with our politicians and pundits like snowflakes on the current of todayís big story with no time for the historical context and understanding that might once have informed both their decisions and our opinions. We are all in a hurry and there is little depth to our discussion whether in parliament or in our own houses, so mostly we just react to what we donít like and we complain. So what am I not going to complain about this month?
For a start, the young people of this country, the really young, not those baby-faced politicians. En masse, they struggle against huge problems. Our education system, in constant flux owing again to the snap reaction of one parliament after another to the most headlined issue of the moment; the wrong exams for the purpose; too many or too few expensive university places; dire shortage of vocational training; the wrong way of teaching everything from maths to languages; bad teachers; bad schools; bad children, for which read the most disadvantaged. Poverty ó oh yes, and it is growing. Finally, with or without qualifications, there are no jobs and decreasing opportunity to find them at the same time as benefits are cut to the bone. Well we donít want them to rely on handouts do we? Indeed not, but we have to arm them with the wherewithal in terms of relevant education to find work and then, somehow, provide jobs that are worth doing.
A long tradition of liberal arts as opposed to scientific education is standing us in extremely poor stead. Our young will not compete successfully unless we up our standards of teaching in the sciences and engineering skills that are the only more or less assured passports to good careers here today and for which at tertiary level we still have institutions that attract great numbers of students with the right skills from other parts of the world, Asia in particular. Meanwhile, our young people, both the best and sometimes the least well educated, are often bright, articulate and enthusiastic and hit a brick wall at every junction in their lives.
I am delighted that at least in the Scottish Independence debate, the nationalist leader, Alex Salmond, has achieved a referendum vote for 16-year- olds, those who will be longest affected by whatever decision is made. Salmond may believe that the youth vote will support his cause, but it is not necessarily so. We may be getting the education policy wrong but the young have magic at their fingertips and in a world of instant knowledge and shallow opinion, they are better connected and at least as well informed on the dayís news as older, theoretically wiser, heads. As it is, David Cameron and Salmondís meeting launches a two-year campaign on the question of Scottish independence.
The government has won the battle for a single question referendum, basically, should Scotland become independent, yes or no? It is unlikely the answer will be yes ó Salmond lost out in his efforts to have a further question on so-called devo max, almost certainly the preferred option for most Scots and so far not wholly defined. As someone pointed out, it is a bit like pepsi max, the look and the taste without the calories. In other words, independence more or less but without the responsibility ó the powers of a separate nation without the need for military leaders or an expensive overseas presence. In other words, a fudge, fat-free or otherwise, that is meant to appease all sides. Anyway, it isnít happening, so the choice is stark and a yes vote would appear incredible. I feel that is good news.
And there is more. Sir John Gurdon, who has just won the Nobel prize for physiology or medicine was educated at Eton where he must have been a contemporary of my fatherís. In the bottom set of his year in biology, he received a school report ridiculing his ambition to be a scientist and taking issue particularly with his determination always to do things his own way ó his low point was two out of 50 marks in a test. Quite where that fits into issues over our current science teaching methods I donít know ó the answer perhaps is that true genius is born not made.
This must also apply to Hilary Mantel, the first Briton and first woman to win the Man Booker Prize twice, this year with her sequel to her first winner, Wolf Hall. Bring up the Bodies, the second in a trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIIIís chief minister, is an extraordinary book, more refined, sharper perhaps, than its predecessor, and with it Mantel has taken on the mantle of the greatest living historical novelist and is one of our greatest writers. She herself, partly due to treatment for illness, looks somewhat like a Tudor portrait; with reddish, wispy hair, prominent eyes under plucked brows, she seems easily to inhabit the times of which she writes so evocatively.
In the interests always of fitting in as much reading time as possible by some means or other, I listened first to Bring up the Bodies on a CD in my car where I spend altogether too much time and feel the need at least to enrich it by any means available. Read with unusual skill and sympathy by the actor, Julian Rhind Tutt, who captures the voice of a spoilt king as well as the quiet and overwhelming power of Cromwell, I am transported from the motorway and the gloomy BBC news programmes on the radio to the claustrophobic and dangerous atmosphere of the Tudor court.
So this is all good escapist and somewhat more uplifting stuff among the education reversals, lower pensions, higher fuel bills, petty party political bickering and general depression as we head into dark nights and freezing winter mornings. Later this month, we have a new James Bond film to add to our stock of small pleasures, the television talent shows are in full flow, the Rolling Stones are going on a 50th anniversary tour and with Obama winning the American election, all will be slightly more right with the world. Beyond that, we need above all things here to value the next generation and try to do better for them than we have done recently ó perhaps giving some of them the vote in 2014 may mean that their voices will be better heard and their needs more carefully and thoughtfully considered whether or not they may be the fledgling geniuses who currently provide the few bright gleams in the gloom.