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From my Archives: Eating Humble Pie and other delicacies (18.9.1994).


Twenty Years Back…

This has been one of those mythical summers, when bees get drunk on obscenely gorgeous roses and honeysuckle, when Panama hats and straw boaters are essential wardrobe items, when proper thirst assumes reality, when grass shrivels and sun burns blisters on the skin.

In June Wimbledon recorded 112F (surely not- must be some mistake!) and daily exchanges about the state of the nation sank below the average level of banality: “Can’t do a thing.” “It’s gone on too long,” and simply, “Phew, what a scorcher!”

Last week in Vienna, no one was wearing a hat and I felt a freak cycling to work in a floppy number. But, like everyone in Britain, I’m taking health warnings seriously. One blonde Frau at my favourite heurigen was burnt the colour of toast and I consoled myself that she looked more freakish than I did in my floppy hat. There are many Viennese peculiarities that I love, among them are Heurigens- family-owned vineyards where one can drink new white wine diluted with fizzy water and eat good, simple food under a bower of vines; another is swimming in an arm of the Danube under a blue sky with wooded hills and a castle or two on their slopes- my idea of heaven. One friend dangled brackets of plum-sized cherries picked on the roadside, while another expostulated against the recent referendum in which almost three quarters of the population voted to join the E.U. “How is it that everyone I know,” she addressed the water, the fish, the cherries and her friends, “voted against it and yet the result was the opposite?”

“Rigged” said someone.

My number one bakery was a half hour away on the bike, the shops about to close and I was leaving to return to Oxford next day. I pedalled furiously to my number two bakery to stock up on my favourite pumpkin seed bread. No bread  in the rest of Europe can match the Austrian kind-  dark, grainy, chewy and good for you. The best ice-cream in the world also has to be in Vienna. Italian immigrants have established ice-cream parlours  where sharply suited Austrian businessmen, mobile phone in one hand, lick a triple scoop of hazelut-pistachio-chocolate with the other; the quality of attention  given  can only be described as furtive passion. After all, this is the city where Freud had his first practice. But after a careful research of several ice-cream places I am confident that the best one is Giordino, in the Wiednerhauptstrasse. The proud owner Leo is from Bergamo and has grown rounder and rounder on prosperity and good living;  now he also  sports an operatic moustache.

Giordino specialises in exotic combinations such as chestnut, almond praline and coffee topped with plum liquer and a mountain of whipped cream. As soon as greetings are over and done with Leo murmurs, “The usual?”

Back in Oxford, the day had arrived when the then Secretary of State, John Patten, was coming specially from Westminster to listen to the grievances of Asian youngsters. And what a hornet’s nest that stirred up! But first the visit: a room full of 16-20 year olds, each with his own horror story of schooldays. (Typical career advice from a teacher- “why don’t you start up a corner shop laddie?” Or, “How about a nice job as a check-out assistant in a supermarket?”) Then the scapegoating, stereotyping and all the rest of it. Mr Patten’s jaw dropped. He was gobsmacked. He left promising to do “something.”

I had hardly returned home when the phone rang. It was the Inspectorate of Education. The Minister wanted  immediate action. Could I give them the names of offending schools? Certainly not, I replied. The complaints  were never supposed to be  a vendetta against particular institutions but I would  meet the Inspectors to elucidate the situation more fully. Within a couple of  days,  along with two colleagues from the Ethnic Minorities Team  I was ensconced in an office,  along with a pair of Inspectors of Schools who looked grave and took detailed notes. They promised speedy action. So far all that has happened is that my  hapless colleagues have been brought to task by the Oxford local authority and are facing disciplinary action. Meanwhile Mr Patten has been sacked by John Major.  His visit to Oxford and the teenagers backfired as being another political stunt. I hope that giving voice to their feelings has empowered the young people in some way.

Re-evaluating a system that creates so much disenchantment and alienation will need a tremendous shake-up in educational philosophy and practice. Lord Quirk, President of the British Academy, has stated that standard English must be taught to every child; that aberration into dialect or idiosyncratic usage will result in inevitable  marginalization. Great sins have been committed by paying  exaggerated respect in schools to childrens’ mother tongue and has disadvantaged children from Asian and African backgrounds. For  educational authorities  to admit that they have  failed these children for the past twenty years would mean eating humble pie of some size.

OXFORD  DIARY. From “The Pioneer” ,  Sept 18,1994

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