Could this be the new normal diaries? 28th June 2022

A normal where although the pandemic is not over it feels less of a threat than before? A normal where we watch aghast night after night at what is happening in Ukraine and feel helpless? A normal where the poorest countries in the world teeter on the edge of famine and food poverty is a term that has entered all our vocabularies?

I can’t say it’s that cheerful. Yet despite the disaster which is the UK government, the lurch to the right by so many countries including my own, there is something about long light evenings, about wild flower meadows, about blue skies and chilled white wine that mitigates the gloom. It’ll be a different story in December.

I have been enraged by Sheffield Hallam University’s announcement that it will suspend its English Literature degree course on the grounds that graduates do not swiftly move Ito high end high status highly paid posts within eighteen months of achieving their degrees. English Literature is apparently a low value degree. Oh yeah? Tell that one to the marines. Since when has education been valued by the salary one earns?

We are fast becoming a country where we know the cost of everything and the value of nothing; a country where only those with money can aspire to certain careers, certain disciplines of study. The rest of us are fodder. We must pursue paths dictated from above. We can wave flags, tug our forelocks, know our place. Culture, including literature, will be the preserve of the few. We have sunk very low, and we still haven’t reached the bottom.

The other day, doing some clearing out, I came across a copy of a Tribute to Ted Wragg. He was giant in the field of education, a champion of teachers. He understood that breadth of study rather than narrow focus is what we should aim for. This latest downgrading of an arts subject is a further step in the divide and rule politics so prevalent in education. And not just in education. When cuts are proposed it’s the arts that bear the brunt because apparently they are not necessary. This is arrant nonsense. At times of hardship the are are more important than ever. They sustain us, they allow our imaginations to roam free even while so much pf our lives is constrained.

Shortly after Auntie Mary died, back in London, with Celia I enjoyed Illuminate, a free event. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of people were on the streets; people of all ages, all backgrounds, awestruck and entranced. Collectively and individually we benefited. When we read good literature, we gain something. A degree in literature is not simply about reading a pile of books, it encourages a world view,  develops higher-order thinking skills. Literature encourages us to be sensitive to the whole spectrum of human experience and to consider this in our day-to-day lives when making decisions . Studying literature helps expand our vocabularies and develop writing skills.

When Mother struggled with dementia, listening to poetry brought her pleasure and peace. The rhythm of the words, the construction of a line held her. As children we start to explore the world through stories, learning to empathise as our imaginations are fed. Throughout history storytellers have played an important role in our societies. I have a friend who is a successful writer. She studied literature at university. She is respected, has won several literary prizes, been shortlisted for others. She is not rich. Like Chaucer, and many others she has found she has to do other things to pay the bills. No doubt Sheffield Hallam would consider this a waste of her years of study. She doesn’t. I don’t.

If more universities follow Sheffield Hallam’s example the loss to all of us will be incalculable.


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