A century of change


About a hundred years ago, my great grandfather, who was a warrener, got into a bit of trouble. With a family to feed, and a low wage, he misappropriated some of his employer’s rabbits. Some went to feed his children, and some, I am sorry to say, may have found their way to the local butcher. Anyway, he was found out. He was lucky not to lose his job, but his punishment was to lose his livery. We cannot understand the indignity of this today, although I understand that at the time this was a mark of shame. It also meant that in future he had to buy his own clothes, and not wear his master’s uniform, which added to his financial woes.

The years passed, his family grew up, and eventually he began to suffer from dementia; perhaps it was Alzheimers. He ended his days penniless, in the Bethel hospital in Norwich. His father before him had been a warrener near Thetford, and for all I know all his forefathers had been similarly employed, stretching back to the middle ages when the rabbits were first introduced there. In any other century his offspring too would have been farm labourers, or indoor and outdoor servants. But this was the twentieth century.

 Mrs Ruth Elsie Hardy in the Mayoral Robes.

Mrs Ruth Elsie Hardy in the Mayoral Robes.

Among his descendants to date, seven have been to Oxford or Cambridge, one is a university professor, one an architect, one was Lord Mayor of Norwich, and one the deputy headmaster of a public school. Among the rest there are or were many professionals in health and education. (True there is the odd postman among them, but the way of social mobility is not a one way street.) None of them has become rich, for they have mostly had the idea, now regarded as naïve if not criminally old- fashioned, that knowledge could be pursued for its own sake, but at least they were able to move beyond the harvesting of rabbits.

Although I am quite proud of my family’s achievements, I am not trying to boast. I am sure many other people could tell a similar story. The last century was a time of unprecedented opportunity. I am not saying that this is all down to grammar schools. The sacrifices of parents, free university education, maintenance grants and the Protestant work ethic all helped. The point is that these supports have all been knocked away one by one. The generations that benefited from these opportunities have allowed them to slip away, and the result is not only grim for individuals who find the pathways of advancement closed, but serious for society too. We no longer need warreners, but we do need teachers and nurses, and all sorts of professionals, they should come from wherever they can best be found. This no longer happens as it used to.

In this context the Tory policy on education is a disgrace. Or rather, it is not a policy at all, but a rag-bag of leftovers. Grammar Schools where they exist, City Academies where they exist, but for those huge tracts of England where there are neither Grammar Schools or City Academies – what about them? The real problem is a culture that no longer values education. Knowledge is equated with being able to answer the questions in a quiz show, not with originality or understanding.  The popular attitude to school is well expressed in the Pink Floyd anthem . Another Brick in the Wall. But who is going to criticise popular culture? Not the former guitarist of the Ugly Rumours, I think, nor grinning Dave Cameron.



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