Returning pupils need a gold star, not ‘behaviour hubs’. Poor work, Mr Williamson | Tim Adams

Generosity of spirit can play a pivotal role in the classroom – perhaps someone should tell the education secretary

I went to a grammar school in which praise was, in that repressed British tradition, very strictly rationed. You were far more likely to be singled out for doing something wrong than getting something right. Some classmates came and went from the school still hoping for a pat on the back.

That changed for me, aged about 14, in the inspired English lessons of Mr Langley, the kind of teacher not only capable at sharing brilliant ideas about books and art, but consistently alive to the vaguest hint of them in the work of his students. Homework would routinely come back with detailed exclamatory notes and paragraphs of thoughtful commentary. The effect of that adult generosity of spirit on my own enthusiasm for learning was transformative and lasting.

In this regard alone, it is hard to imagine any more dispiriting announcement than that of our education secretary last week who, without evidence, suggested that teenagers returning to school would “lack discipline and order”.

Having been separated from their mates and banished to their bedrooms to study for most of a grim 12 months, they would now be expected to move between lessons in “silent corridors”. Young people have sacrificed a huge amount on behalf of their more vulnerable elders in the last year. Rather than advertising “behaviour hubs”, how about first offering a heartfelt gold star?

Disentangling Marilyn

Magnum photo agency founder Eve Arnold, pictured in 1997.
Magnum photo agency founder Eve Arnold, pictured in 1997. Photograph: Jane Bown/The Observer

The Magnum photo agency is currently selling a selection of poster prints by its celebrated founding member Eve Arnold, among them some of her candid early portraits of Marilyn Monroe. I was lucky enough to interview Arnold in her attic flat in Mayfair a few years before she died, aged 99, in 2012. Our talk turned to how times had changed for journalists since she first started out, when access to Hollywood stars was not so tightly policed by PR agents.

She recalled a story about Monroe. “One time,” she said, “I went to see her and, naked under her transparent robe, she asked if I minded if she brushed her hair first? She then proceeded to brush her pubic hair.” Arnold paused. “You probably wouldn’t get that nowadays, would you?” she wondered. Probably not, I agreed.

Heads I win

The cliche has it that sport is played mostly in the mind. It was intriguing to read that the British golfer Justin Rose prepared for the US Masters not, as his 87 competitors had done, by getting match sharp in the tournaments prior to the “major”, but by spending solitary hours, day after day, sitting at home “playing” the Augusta National course in his mind. On the first afternoon, those mental images helped Rose to a score of 65, four shots ahead of his nearest rival. I’d like to imagine that, during lockdown, I’ve put in a similar level of visualisation with my dodgy tennis forehand. When I eventually manage to book a slot at my local courts, no doubt those hard yards will pay off.

Governing by the book

Observing Boris Johnson, it can seem that he thinks he’s acting a part in a drama for the amusement of his father, Stanley. If you read the clunky political thrillers Johnson senior has written, the impression is reinforced. The first of Stanley’s novels, The Virus, imagined governments panicking to produce a vaccine against a deadly pandemic. The second, Tunnel, in 1984, conjured an unlikely climax in which the French president, François Mitterrand, and Margaret Thatcher hurtled towards each other on Eurostar trains, primed for collision. Does the prime minister keep copies at his bedside?

• Tim Adams is an Observer columnist


Tim Adams

The GuardianTramp

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