The Plymouth Herald reports that students from the Plymouth University Islamic Society are protesting the invitation of a member of the Quilliam Foundation to speak on Islam and democracy. They accused the Quilliam Foundation, with reference to its founder, Maajid Nawaz, tweeting a cartoon in which Muhammad is pictured saying “hi”, of “inflammatory and offensive actions” that “stir anti-Muslim sentiment”. Poor souls.

Who has been training the Plymouth University Isoc in evangelism? Yes, you guessed it, it’s those charmless souls from the Islamic Education and Research Academy. The gumption that it takes to invite this gang of theocratic propagandists onto campus and complain about other “offensive” speakers is extraordinary. This, let us remind ourselves, is a group led by a man who has endorsed wife beating, the execution of adulterers and “sodomites” and civilisational conflict in order to establish Islam and subjugate Christians and Jews. This, I would maintain, is more offensive than a little picture of Muhammad.

But let us restrain our charges of hypocrisy and find whether the Isoc is in a position to judge whether humour is “offensive”. In 2012 it posted this uproarious image on its Facebook page…

hijab chickenBecause a woman with visible hair is like a plucked chicken. Are you laughing yet?

I do not like to be too hard on students of any kind as if they are anything like I was in my campus days they are more naive than nasty. Still, it should be clear that their attention-seeking antics in opposition to the irreverent portrayal of their faith deserve no respect whatsoever. The attempts of theocrats to groom the next generation of believers, meanwhile, continue apace.

Gary CooperMen are the more reticent sex. They might, in general terms, be louder when discussing sport or politics or music but they often clam up when it comes to their emotions. For Siobhan Bligh, this is evidence of a “crisis in masculinity”. Men, she writes, are “constantly told from a young age to “man-up””, and to be “strong, emotionless [and] cruel”. Am I the only man who’s yet to face this curious command? Doubtless, some men have endured it but I have a simpler hypothesis to explain the general trend of apparent stoicism: that men have been the more reticent sex for centuries, be it in England, Russia or Japan, and that young men take after their fathers, uncles, brothers and friends.

For Bligh, young men are faced with an “unachievable masculine identity”. I am not sure what led her to this conclusion, given that the adult males that they are most exposed to beyond their immediate relatives are liable to be moronic or ineffectual losers like Homer Simpson, Peter Griffin, Pete Brockman, Alan Harper and countless idiots blundering their way through adverts. It is true that boys can grow fixated on achieving the spectacular physiques of David Beckham or Brad Pitt, or thinking that rappers are men worthy of emulation, or believing themselves to be the next generation’s Kurt Cobain, but this just shows that male identities and experiences are too diverse to be generalised in such a broad manner. If people want to help boys, in a real, practical sense, they should come up with ways to stop so many of them growing up without fathers. This is a crisis, but it is one that people are wary of acknowledging.

Still, we are left fact of male reserve. This stands accused of a being cause of the higher rates of suicides among men, and of their unwillingness to seek help when facing mental illness or even physical suffering. This seems fair. It is, indeed, in cultures that promote emotional isolation, such as those of South Korea or Lithuania, that suicides are most common. Young men, and women, should be raised to know that we evolved as social beings not merely to aid us in hunting and housebuilding but to offer benefits of collective wisdom and emotional support. All humans are vulnerable enough that they sometimes require a hand to aid them in returning to a position of strength.

Even beyond the desire to help such troubled people, though, there are trends that oppose male, and female, restraint. There is the progressive stance against peculiarities of sex, and there is also confessional culture: a phenomenon that promotes emotional expressiveness as a sort of exercise in cleansing, as displayed in billions of tweets, updates, Ask.fm entries, tumblr. blogs, YouTube videos, advice columns and chat shows. At its worst, this vulgarises human feelings, as people compete for the attention of their peers, and conform to standards they perceive around themselves.

To reserve one’s feelings need not involve their repression, for that would imply that our emotions are designed to be expressed. This need not be true. One might respond to hurt or anger by adjusting the conditions that provoke it. Not all feelings are particularly complicated, and just as hunger may be solved by food and boredom by films, a negative emotion may respond to practical treatment. Other feelings are more troublesome, but may not be fatal for the introspective being. Individual meditation on fears, grievances and dislikes can help one to make sense of them in times when the naive contributions of others may cause further perplexity.

People should be helped to learn that there is no shame in seeking help for one’s problems, or, indeed, in discussing one’s feelings whether they be good or bad, but one should not hold stoicism to be inherently problematic. In an age where transparency is idealised it may appear suspicious if somebody keeps their feelings to themselves, but, then, a feeling that it is expressed can be deceptive. Human beings are strange creatures.

There have never been more people learning to be journalists, but it remains a poor time to learn how to be a good one. The single exception is that of the foreign reporter, for whom a changing, conflicted world may be travelled with the aid of a bounty of resources that turn Walter Cronkite green. Otherwise, though, imaginations are warped by the struggle to distinguish oneself among one’s competitors, and style is corrupted by the habits of skim-reading, deadline-meeting and jejune polemic.

I have few journalistic ambitions, but it struck me to wonder what books – rather than blogs, Tweeters and content-aggregators – might help a young hack to appreciate their craft and to refine their own style. Here are a few suggestions.

OrwellGeorge Orwell Essays – Many journalists have aspired to be George Orwell, and it would do some of them good to actually read him. The great pleasures of the man are not found in his books but in his essays. There he could inflict his opinions on the reader directly, and what a pleasure it is to be the target of them. His spare prose was not a vehicle for one of the greatest minds but one of the more unique consciences: one obsessed with justice and offences against it, whether writing to oppose the exploitation of the poor or the monstering of the innocent naif Wodehouse, yet rooted in his affection for nature and community. For all of the strange deification, and distortion, there remain few more inspiring literary experiences than reading him grapple with the world, his peers and himself.

MenckenH.L. Mencken A Mencken Chrestomathy – Mencken was a callous snob whose Nietzschean leanings and bleak materialism steered him, sometimes, towards misanthropy and nihilism. He was also an incisive sceptic; a noble advocate for unpopular causes and a writer of amusing, elegant prose. I am hesitant to recommend opinionated commentators as they can infect their readers with overmuch confidence in their own worth and disdain for that of others. What inspires a willingness to break this rule is a suspicion that Mencken’s jolly bumptiousness, which rarely subsided into the collegiality of a Hitchens, will provoke readers as much as it will endear him to them. Among his castigations of the foolishness of democrats, moralists, Marxists, traditionalists, Southerners, zookeepers, chiropractors, sportsmen and the poor is bound to lie something to provoke ire as well as thought. It is an essential challenge for any serious person to have clever people to argue with.

Tell Me No LiesJohn Pilger Tell Me No Lies – The Australian muckraker’s collection of the highlights of the noble field of investigative journalism offers a bounty of treasures, among which one finds Martha Gellhorn’s writings from Dachau; Seymour Hersh’s reports on My Lai and Paul Foot’s exposé of the Lockerbie investigations. There is an obvious bias behind the selection, and I am unsure of why Edward Said’s Covering Islam is excerpted; not merely as it is not very good but as it is not investigative journalism. Nonetheless, the courage, gumption and humanity of the best pieces in this book make it inspiring to read; whether you wish to head off into the Syrian warzone or the archives of the CIA.

IrrationalityStuart Sutherland Irrationality – After reading such opinionated people as are found in the first books, it would perhaps be a smart idea for an aspiring journalist to be reminded of the limits of the human consciousness; of the dangers of presuming that one’s little brain has figured out the mysteries of the universe, or, indeed, of one’s own community. Stuart Sutherland’s entertaining volume exposes the follies of man, as provoked by our biases, and offers cause to question one’s ideas and intuitions. This not only illuminates one’s own vulnerabilities but helps one to empathise with the failings of others.

TurkelStuds Terkel Working - A great journalist must be empathetic. They need not be compassionate – though I feel that it would help – but they must understand the people about whom they write: their circumstances, their values and their ambitions. They must try to grasp the consequences of events on people. They must strive to appreciate what leads a politician to declare a war, and what might cause a plumber to rise from his bedsheets in the morning. They must listen. If listening were an art, Studs Terkel would have been its master. This genial old New Yorker tramped across the United States, settling down in front of car salesman, auditors, baseball players, soldiers, executives and librarians, and captured the rhythms and melodies of everyday lives. He is as good a cure for solipsism as a stiff drink is for an Autumnal evening.

VotingExtending the right to vote to sixteen-year-olds would be a good thing for Ed Miliband as youths tend to be inclined towards the left and would be more liable to vote for Labour than the Conservative Party. Otherwise, though, it’s a strange idea. I could be convinced, perhaps, but it seems strange to me.

How many sixteen-year-olds have an informed perspective on the European Union, renewable energy or income taxes? A small minority at best. One might respond, of course, that many adults have a dim understanding of these matters. This is absolutely true. We have often quoted Churchill as saying that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others, but let us be more clear about what this implies: that democracy involves largely ignorant people voting for often irrational reasons, but that it seems preferable to elite systems for they entail largely unreasonable people acting on often selfish and callous motives. Why make an odd system even more peculiar?

One of the better aspects of democracy is that while most people have a limited understanding of the policies that make nations safe, prosperous and stable, they know what it feels like to live under the current system. They might have little idea of how to drive a car, in other words, but may know from the bumps, the swerves and the parched countryside around them that they require a new driver and a different course.

Young teenagers have had fewer of the experiences that would help them to gauge the state of the nation. How many of them have had such exposure to public services and officials, employment, taxation and crime that they have developed a firm idea of their condition, and a thoughtful and coherent set of preferences? Young people have experience of schools, of course, but one only appreciates their quality in retrospect, once the point of education has become more clear. I used to hate my school for inflicting blazers, ties and top buttons on us, but when I look back it was a smart policy. Boys thought they were such rebels for walking around with their shirts untucked that they were less likely to think of obstructing lessons or bullying smaller kids.

One argument for extending the franchise is that young people feel infantilised by their exclusion from the vote, and become less inclined to engage with society. The young can feel infantilised, and this can make them somewhat resentful, but this is more the product of being unable to purchase alcohol and cigarettes or enter nightclubs. This is not simply because they often enjoy booze and dancing but because the right to consume whatever we like and assemble wherever we desire tends to be more significant to us than the right to anonymously state our preference for a bunch of administrators. It seems preposterous that young teenagers may be thought capable of choosing the nature of their government but not of buying a pint of beer or going to see a horror film. Moreover, it would seem sadistic to give someone the vote but to deny them the power to have a drink in victory, or, indeed, to have several to drown their sorrows after losing.

Were a young person to read this – or, indeed, an old person – they might think that I am being quite appallingly snobbish. All that I can say is that not only was I too ignorant and unreasonable to vote at the age of sixteen but that I am still quite uninformed and irrational. They might well be more deserving of a vote than I am. Yet while I do not think it would do good for their age group to acquire the right to vote, this does not mean I think they should be politically inactive. They could channel the enthusiasm of their years into a campaign that is dear to them, or a charity that could give them an insight into unfamiliar social conditions. They could use the luxury of time to read and talk about ideas, and challenge and develop their own opinions. Once you pick a tribe to be aligned with in politics you are liable to spend the rest of your life justifying it rather than exploring your own notions and forming your own sympathies. Enjoy the freedom of youth.

childrenThe Daily Mail features a long article on Alexander – a young boy who misbehaves. All young boys misbehave, naturally, but Alexander is alleged to be a special case. We learn that the boy has urinated in public, hurled himself down flights of stairs and taken to calling everyone “Mr Poo Poo Head”, “including nice old ladies minding their own business”. Shocking that a child his age cannot even distinguish between the sexes.

Is it me or are more and more people being offered platforms from which to tell us about their kids? Shona Sibery, for example,  has made a career of writing about her children. The Mail columnist has informed her readers that she slaps them; puts them to bed early; feeds them drugs to make them sleep on aeroplanes and welcomes their public chastisement by strangers.

The moral and practical worth of these decisions I leave to be judged by the reader but none of them, I think, have the potential to be as damaging as writing about them in the national press. Being hit is a pleasant feature of nobody’s childhood but at least it is a private humiliation. As for Alexander: will he really want a detailed record of his unsanitary exploits floating about?

It is odd. A lot of parents fear, with some justice, that in the age of social media their children might innocently expose their private details to potential bullies, stalkers, educators and employers. Here are these parents, though, cheerfully elaborating on their children’s personal and often embarrassing habits and experiences, to an audience of hundreds of thousands of strangers.

I am not a father – indeed, I found it hard enough to care for a rabbit – but should these kids not have privacy until they are old enough to decide whether to flaunt their lives before the nation’s gaze? I know that contestants on reality TV shows have the mental ages of children but, still, this is going too far.

Moby DickI disagree with Peter Hitchens on the merits of The Great Gatsby but I was amused by a classically bold and terse description of its enduring appeal…

It survives because it is on a lot of school and college reading lists, mainly because it is short.

Hyperbole, yes, but it strikes me that Hitchens is right to say that literature that tends to be promoted to young people is often brief: Gatsby, yes, and also Lord of the Flies, The Catcher in the Rye and Of Mice and Men. Such books all have features that appeal to young minds but I don’t think it is being overly cynical to propose that they have virtues for educators such as easily summarisable plots and limited casts of characters. What is interesting, though, is that from genre novels from those of Tolkien to King to “Young Adult” works such as those of Rowling or Meyer, the books young people tend to choose to read are big, thick, messy banquets for the imagination. This inspired me to ask myself which of the heftiest offerings of literary fiction might appeal to teenagers.

Let us not hurl people into the deep end. I remember grappling with Proust when I was doing GCSEs but I got no further than Michael Palin in the Python sketch. Finnegan’s Wake also found its way into my palms but my interest died like a blown lightbulb. Young people are often ignorant and impatient; which is the inevitable flip side to being keen to learn.

Dickens is worth a mention. He is, of course, no stranger to the syllabi but some of the selections from his ouvre have been questionable. We were set Hard Times in GCSE English, which, for all of its merits, felt like wandering into the middle of an argument between strangers. The vivid sprawl of Great Expectations might have been more inspiring. Moby Dick is a tome I would offer for consideration. Its language is hard to comprehend at first, of course, but this has never stopped kids from reading A Clockwork Orange, and half of the fun of discovering Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was looking up what all of its strange terms meant. Its visionary verve always excites me, and I can’t help thinking that its study of anthropomorphism could be interested to those who have been raised on Pixar.

Catch-22 is a predictable offering. Young people love the “sour jokes” that once turned off critics. As they become older and more knowing, I would be tempted to recommend Earthly Powers. Much of Anthony Burgess’ voyage through the twentieth-century would fly over their heads – no shame in that; it still does over mine – but the comic richness makes it a pleasure to travel with and the in-jokes and name-dropping offers one the chance to follow other paths of exploration into great lives and great books.

I am departing from my mandate of literary fiction, but a final book that I would recommend is The Bible. I was a Christian until the age of 15 yet I rarely looked at the thing. Perhaps I assumed that it was like reading a manual after you have already worked out how to use the computer. As a nonbeliever, I would hope that people approach religious texts in the company of their critical faculties but it remains true that the King James Version is the most ambitious feat in the English language, and that its stories and teachings have inspired more thought than those of any other text. I remember of friend of mine, who was no more a fan of literature than he would have been of the Church, turning pages of Revelation and saying, “This is wild stuff.”

Michael GoveMichael Gove, our chirpy young education secretary, wants to extend school hours and cut holidays. I am only six years beyond compulsory education and, thus, have an irrational aversion to the idea. My thirteen-year-old self is feigning illness at the thought. Experience, though, prejudices me against the former idea on somewhat more reasonable grounds: it seems to me one problem in the education system is not the amount of hours that children spend in school on weekdays but the amount of those hours that are squandered.

At school, for example, we had a baffling period known as “tutor time”. Sometimes we performed team-building exercises, which was futile as few of us spent time with each other outside of the groups. Sometimes we watched comical health and safety videos, which made the old Green Cross Man adverts appear downright sophisticated. Sometimes we just doodled on the fronts of our textbooks. Our tutors, who had no particular knowledge of us, little idea of what to do and no enthusiasm for it, hung around and grumped.

At least some of the average day was doomed to irrelevance, then, and sections of the terms were also misused. As Christmas, Easter or summer holidays approached, teachers, without exams to prepare us for and with an aversion to planning lessons, would play videos and organise games of little or no relevance to our studies. We liked this, of course, because we got to watch Blackadder. Ultimately, though, there was no point in going to an institution that we disliked to do things that we did not profit from. I could have stuck a video on at home.

A third and more depressing means of squandering time was observing the struggles between teachers and unruly kids. A lot of the top and middle sets would have two or three boys who regularly disrupted the progress of the class and made us bemused witness to their and the teachers’ arguments, threats and periods of mutual sulking. It could seem amusing at the time, but in retrospect it wasted hours that we could have spent learning or, hell, enjoying ourselves elsewhere. Some of these playful pupils matured or dealt with the problems their behaviour had reflected, so I am not proposing that they be tossed onto the scrap heap, but it was unfair that they obstructed the education of so many other kids, and their continued presence was a great obstruction. I remember far more euphemisms for the erect penis than French adjectives or quadratic equations.

None of this is to suggest that schooldays should be ordered with regimented efficiency, with teachers reading to the tick of metronomes, or cameras eyeing the kids’ every movements. A little looseness offers minds space in which to function. I regret the hours we spent wasting our brain cells and those of our teachers, though, and I remain sure that efforts could be made to trim the fat off days before enlarging them. The non-partisan Education Endowment Foundation agrees, saying that, “Evidence suggests that it is likely to be cheaper and more efficient to focus on using existing school time more effectively before considering extending school time”. As our youths already spend more time in school than those of most developed countries, including nations with kids that seem to perform better, this makes sense to me.

Sorry, thirteen-year-old self. I know you like Blackadder, and it is entertaining when Sam enrages Miss. Yet if that time had been used effectively you might have learned those foreign languages or grasped those laws of science, and if you had grown more disciplined in using time you might have taken those guitar or martial arts lessons. Hey, why didn’t you do those things? Hello?

Next Page »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 200 other followers