Hart of the Matter
There comes a time in life when viewing a documentary is no longer a history lesson but is now just a trip down memory lane. It happened some years ago to me when I realised that I actually remembered the events being recalled. Since then documentaries have often made me think about the nature of change.
Mostly, we don’t think about it at all. I have seen the efforts of film-makers to show us how seismic changes occurred during certain periods, as though people had their existence dominated by what was happening, whereas the truth is that most people are completely unaware because they are so busy with their everyday lives.
Occasionally something breaks through – Kennedy’s assassination, the Munich Olympics attack, the death of Princess Diana, 9/11 – but changes in attitudes, in fashions, in society or in values are more gradual and generally only seen clearly with hindsight.
Thanks to the reappearance of the BBC’s Man Alive documentary about Haverhill made in 1968, I have recently been asked whether Haverhill has changed since then, and if so, how.
Well, there are some very obvious differences such as size, general appearance, profile, culture (hang on a minute, are we talking about the town or the people?).
How often are we aware of such changes? Not very, I would say. The last year, with the arrival of Tesco, the cinema, et al, there has been a very visible development, but that is probably only the external manifestation of long, slow internal changes, many of them nationwide and not specific to Haverhill alone.
The other day, partly out of curiosity, I went along to a very impressive school open evening – it happened to be Sam Ward, but it could just as easily have been Castle Manor, because Haverhill is very fortunate in its two senior educational establishments – with the aim of keeping up with change. The best way of finding out how the world is going to change in the future is to look at how the education of the people who will shape it is changing.
Schools and colleges often get bad publicity and rarely do we see their achievements highlighted or the work that goes into them. I am often infuriated by the latest item to appear about the state of education. Occasionally I have had a pot shot at it down the years and drawn some fire from teachers. But if you go and look at schools in detail they are amazingly impressive places and in many ways, though not all, far superior to what I remember from my schooldays, now lost in the mists of the 50s and 60s.
Here is an example. This week a national statistic emerged, goodness knows how, that 58 per cent of primary school teachers could only name two poets. Regular readers will know this is just the sort of thing that makes me incandescent – falling standards, not like in my day, blah blah blah.
And then I take a look at the work that schools do and the end product, not in academic but in sociological terms, and I mostly see mature, well-rounded young people eager to take on the challenges of the world ahead and, what’s more important, equipped for that task, which many in my day very definitely were not, and I revise my view.
Because most of us are only educated at one stage of our lives, we often lose touch with how that process develops, perhaps only dipping back in for the sake of our children and then again for our grandchildren. We notice change because we have been away.
But in the case of society's attitudes and values, unless we get cast away on a desert island or spend ten years in Antarctica, we do not step away and sometimes get pulled up short when someone points out that these things have supposedly changed.
The BBC comedy ‘guidlines’ are a case in point. According to the BBC, ‘public acceptance’ has changed, and Basil Fawlty’s diatribes or Blackadder’s bullying would not now be admissable. When did this happen? I didn’t notice it. In fact I think some modern alternative comedy is far more cruel and intrusive. But I wouldn't censor it. Each to his own, I say.
In a year when things worldwide really have changed noticeably for the worse - so much so that if I lived to see a future documentary about the current economic downturn, even I would have to acknowledge one didn’t need hindsight for that – it is ironic, amusing and typical of Haverhill that the town itself seems to have taken a great leap forward.
Looking back over the past 40 years you come to realise this is not at all surprising. The nation’s best times have often been Haverhill’s worst and vice versa. Bucking the trend – it’s what we’re good at.