It came as a real shock at Christmas 2011 when I realised that I now run the country. News reached me in November that year when I discovered that the John Lewis Christmas advertisement was to feature 'Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want' by The Smiths. The Smiths? The soundtrack of my youth? One of the first bands I liked that the adults totally didn't get? That swaggering mixture of shimmering guitars, gutsy rhythms, and Morrissey's profoundly subversive lyrics and profoundly subversive presence? Now attached to the middle-aged, middle-class solidly respectable ordinariness of John Lewis? But of course it was. Because I now run the country.
When I was young, pre-teen, one of the most familiar figures on TV was Max Bygraves. He was a guest on a lot of chat shows. He would come on, tell jokes and sing songs on various TV programmes. Comedians would tell jokes that assumed we knew who he was. He was a standard part of any impressionist's repertoire alongside Frank Spencer and Eddie Waring. But I knew who Frank Spencer was. I also knew who Eddie Waring was - well, no I didn't; I assumed the beginning and end of Eddie Waring was keeping the score on It's a Knockout (younger readers may need to Google It's a Knockout because for complicated moral and legal reasons, you will never get to watch that again). Max Bygraves was a singer and, somewhat, a comedian. His schtick was his cockney accent, his working class childhood and a series of songs, alternately childish ('You're a Pink Toothbrush', 'Gilly Gilly Ossenfeffer Katzenellenbogen By the Sea') and syrupy ('You Need Hands'). He had some big hits in the 1950s but they dried up in the sixties because, well, The Beatles and, well, The Sixties and he just clearly wasn't a figure of the times any more.
So why was he on TV two decades later in the late 1970s/early 1980s? Because the people who were making the creative decisions at the major television companies at that time were probably in their mid-forties and when they were teenagers in the late 40s, they loved Max Bygraves. They remember his humour, his alternatively childish and sentimental songs, his stories about growing up in the East End, the sketches he did between the numbers, and they probably thought he might speak to a new generation, and at least he'd speak to the generation that grew up with him and anyway, fuck it, let's get our childhood hero on the TV. Max had spent some of the seventies trading precisely on this nostalgia with his series of Singalongamax (etc.) albums throughout the decade, so he wasn't going to complain. Which is why, in 1979, a ten-year old kid in Lambeth, South London, could do a Max Bygraves impression to his friends and they all knew who I was impersonating. Because the people who grew up with Max Bygraves were now running the country.
I don't run the country, obviously. I've never been asked and anyway I'm busy. But my generation runs the country. David Cameron and Nick Clegg are between a year and eighteen months older than me. George Osborne and Ed Miliband are both a couple of years younger than me. As in government, so in theatre: Rufus Norris and Vicky Featherstone are only a wee bit older than I am. My generation's childhood is everywhere. The adverts are full of the music and imagery I grew up with, the way that adverts in the 1970s parodied wartime scenes, Angel Delight was sold with a Cole Porter song, and Ovalteen revived The Ovalteenies and everyone probably thought it was brilliant. My childhood is part of official nostalgia now. On X Factor, they have a Queen night, everyone likes Wham! and hipster bands studiedly revisit the New Romantics and David Cameron apparently likes The Smiths. Last year, they decided to remake Robocop too, because now I run the country.
But I don't like it and I'll tell you why. Not because I think The Smiths have sold out - that would be an quite ridiculous thing to say for someone who goes to John Lewis as much as I do. Not because they shouldn't be on an advert. I love the song; why not stick it in an advert? Not because it was a bad version. Hell, it was pleasant. A bit dull, a bit respectful but it was okay.
The reason I don't like it is that I can't bear the habit of cherishing the way things were when we were young. It's one of the dullest, dullest clichés of the middle aged that we so often believe that music was much better when we were teenagers. Music meant different things when I was 18, when I was frantically forming new synaptic connections along to the minimal amounts of music I could afford to buy; when I was newly adult and independent and I was making my own choices for the first time so every song shaped you like a mortar shell slamming into a field. The fact is that we will always find music that we love when we are 18 because that's what being 18 is. The mistake is to assume that it's the music that's special. It's not the music that's special; it's you, aged 18, that are special.
Which brings me to Michael Gove.
Michael Gove must be the most interventionist Secretary of State for Education this country has ever had. And by interventionist, I mean he paddles his interfering fingers in things about which he knows nothing. Now, given the tendency of Education Secretaries of all political stripes to meddle in the the structures of education at every level, this is saying something. But Gove has ignorantly interfered with education all the way from the macro - introducing Free Schools that compete for resources and children with the state sector - to the micro - he's just had Of Mice and Men removed from the syllabus on the unimpeachably pedagogical grounds that he doesn't care much for the book.
What is intriguing about Gove, though, is that, unlike most of his fellow Cabinet members, I don't believe his attacks on education are purely ideological. I don't think Gove is all that political. I think he just acts from a peculiarly intense sense of nostalgia for the way things were for him.
Take GCSE and A-Level. When Gove and I were teenagers, we did O Levels (almost entirely timed, formal, sit-down exams, almost entirely unseen, almost entirely writing essays, or great lists of questions) and we did A Levels (almost entirely the same). Doing a resit was virtually unheard of. You spent two years on an A Level and it all hung on maybe six hours in an exam hall over a couple of days. Having a bad day? Tough luck. A considerable amount of the preparation for History or for English was preparing a series of instantly modifiable skeleton essays that you could like lightning adapt to fit virtually any question asked, together with a handful of laboriously learned facts or quotes, adaptable to all exam situations.
I was good at exams so I hope what I say now will have the force of experience. I was good at A Level exams, because I had worked out how to do exams and nothing else. I hadn't worked out how properly to evaluate the Enlightened Despots, or read Sense and Sensibility, or talk engagingly to a French person. Formal, timed, sit-down exams prepare you (a) to blag your way through intellectual challenges and (b) for literally nothing that will ever happen in your life outside the exam hall. In how many jobs does your boss say, you're going to be trained for two years and then you'll have to demonstrate your ability once and never again and you'll be judged on that for literally ever? Not many. More important, all the research over thirty years has shown that exams don't test people well, that they are particularly biased against girls, that they model a very narrow range of intellectual skills.
When they introduced GCSEs - a year or two after I did my O Levels - they introduced an element of course work. The A Levels became a bit more modular: not everything happened at the end. The exams changed, requiring less cramming and learning of quotes, and more an ability to respond to new experiences. They tested a much greater range of people's abilities than essays. They meant that teachers were preparing their students for genuine intellectual skills: the ability to think intelligently on your feet, identify a problem, search for solutions, frame an answer. Unsurprisingly, exam results started to go up. At which point all those people who then ran the country started to complain because clearly education was magically perfect when they did their exams and now it's too easy.
Then Michael Gove showed up. Gove also thinks exams are too easy. Gove's reforms of A Level and GCSE are to turn the clock back. He wants to scrap most of the course work. He wants to make the qualifications, in the unfortunate terminology, terminal. He wants them to be linear. He wants them to be the exams he took when he was a teenager. And the thing is, there's no real ideology in this. I mean, sure, he thinks it's all very odd when lots and lots of people do well because in any competition there should be losers as well as winners, and I'm sure he has his party's fundamentalist conviction that introducing competition to a system always works, but I think he mainly just prefers things the way they were. Now, I'm not terribly fussed about Of Mice and Men being taken off the syllabus - sure! give another book a chance! - though I do think it bizarre that this decision should be made purely because Michael Gove doesn't care for it. But then he's trying to remake the whole education system to be like the one he happened to do, so should we be surprised?
I think this is an ethical matter. Exams do not prepare you for openness. They prepare you to be tensed against the curve ball; they prepare you to be resilient and bloody-minded enough to face a new question and say what you already knew. Is this how we should live our lives? Should we not aim to be engaged, curious, alert, open people, as fully alive as we can be to the new experiences that world can offer? Isn't that a better, richer way to experience the world? To insist that I can change, I constantly change, because I take seriously the possibility that any experience, any book, a new friend, a piece of music, that loops the loop through my imagination might change who I am?
We all know people who have the opposite attitude, who affect a pose of boredom at everything, who are never happier when finding fault with the play or the song or the novel. People who Know What They Like and Know What They Think and Have Seen It All Before. People who can't wait to be the first person to say how much they disliked the show you've just seen (these people can often be heard on Radio 4's Saturday Review). These are the people who literally and metaphorically put The Smiths on the John Lewis advert, because they formed their tastes when they were 18 and have just been putting intellectual fat around it ever since. It's a deeply conservative view of the world; it's embodied in Gove's education reforms, and I hate it.
Michael Gove is only six months older than me and so I feel I have to apologise. Because these terrible things are happening now that I run the country.