In a quite wonderful coincidence I met up last week with an old school class-mate (and his spouse) at a dinner party held in a remote farmhouse deep in the chestnut forests above Coreglia Antelminelli. I hadn’t seen J for many years and it was a delightful reunion. The host had, I also discovered, been at my school, two years below me. To top it all, my old English master (who was quite fresh from University when he taught us) visits the same enchanted place every year.
The following morning I was able to phone my English master (who taught me so much about what constitutes good reading – and bad) who told me that he’d already been informed about our gathering and was so pleased about it. We talked about various things and he reminded me that I’d been part of the school team in a popular TV quiz programme on the lines of “university challenge”. I remembered a particularly difficult question which involved guessing from which overtures certain Rossini extracts came from. The trouble was that they were all crescendi too! B said that such questions would be impossible to ask a school team today since few would understand the words “Rossini”, “crescendo” or “overture”.
This made me think of a book I’d recently read by Gaia Servadio, a brilliant and entertaining Italian writer and journalist who has lived in the UK since even before the Beatles came to fame and has written on some fascinating subjects as varied as Dido of Carthage, the Mafia and, as it happens, Rossini. (See the Amazon page at http://www.amazon.com/Gaia-Servadio/e/B001HCYZAQ/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_pop_1 for more books by her).
The majority of Gaia’s books are available in both English and Italian but this one, “C’è Del Marcio in Inghilterra” and which I mentioned in passing in my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/05/23/from-woolwich-to-wonderland/, still awaits its English translation. Perhaps, like that other book, Theroux’s “The Kingdom by the Sea”, it might have to carry a health warning on its cover as it paints a rather depressing picture of a country where the ability to read and write is progressively at a premium.
With illiteracy rates approaching 40% in several schools and an increasing inability for employers to find basically qualified entrants for the ever-more-limited opportunities they can offer in these straightened times I am beginning to think, like my English master opined on the phone, that ours had been a “golden age”. Certainly, youthful times, in retrospect, become gilded but B was referring to the era and learning environment which produced, among several brilliant writers (including J himself), two Booker prize winners, and musicians ranging from Roxy music to the world’s greatest pianolist. (Now, with all those hints, you can guess which school I went to – and that was on an old LCC grant scheme, now sadly no more.)
It was a school’s golden age that had no computers, no internet, no on-line instant fact-finding and verifying, no emails, no videos and where we actually had to remember things or else have it beaten out of us. No, not quite the minimalist Dotheboys Hall – thanks to the presence of some enlightened teachers, always fondly remembered – but occasionally quite comparable.
It’s also interesting to note that one got more credit at my old school for defeating Christ’s Hospital at a rugger match than playing a solo in the school orchestra concert or even winning that notorious TV quiz competition.
I still can’t quite get my head round today, with all the electronic aids that are at our disposal for getting our facts straight and reinforcing our knowledge – and encouraging brain equally with brawn – that there should be more, rather than less, ignorance in our young. If someone can explain, I’d be most grateful.
Meanwhile in Italy things are slightly better, at least for the time being and at least in the school I teach in Lucca as far as basic knowledge are concerned. OK, desks are still laid out in rows and the teacher is still respected and computers have only recently made an impact and children still learn poems by heart and the baby has yet to be thrown out with the bathwater…