Thank goodness for the honest language of children!

Spemser Turner, and eloquent and thoughtful young man, whose honest use of language has much to teach adults.

Spenser Turner, an eloquent and thoughtful young man, whose honest use of language has much to teach adults.

Driving into the university this morning I was listening to the radio, a regular routine that keeps me abreast of the news, when a report came on featuring a ten year old schoolboy from Newcastle in the north east of England. Spencer Turner who attends Farne Primary School was being interviewed at the National Arboretum located in Staffordshire in the centre of the country.

The National Arboretum is a focus of memorial for people who have given their lives in service of the country. Fifty thousand trees and a number of commissioned memorials represent not only military personnel, but also those working for the police and emergency services or involved in rescue or support services overseas, who have lost their lives doing their duty. This memorial landscape attracts visitors from around the world, and provides a centre for contemplation and an opportunity for people who wish to pay their respects to those who have died, both known and unknown.

Across Europe this year there have been many events organised to commemorate 1914 and the outbreak of the First World War. Today at the National Arboretum, Prince William will unveil the latest memorial which will recall a significant event during that terrible time. At Christmas 1914, English and German soldiers who had been facing each other from their trenches across a battlefield, put down their arms, declared a truce and crossed into “no-man’s land” to exchange gifts. In the midst of this temporary cessation of hostilities, a number of the soldiers from opposing armies produced a football and proceeded to enjoy a spontaneous game. This event has been variously reported in newspapers and history books and through theatrical and media productions over the intervening years, but particularly this year at the centenary of the event.

As a permanent means to commemorate this makeshift football match, the Football Association and the British Council organised a competition for school children to design an appropriate memorial to be located at the National Arboretum. Children up to the age of sixteen were invited to submit their designs and there was a huge response. Ten year old Spencer Turner, who featured on the radio this morning, won this competition and along with others from his school will be present at its unveiling today.

This in itself is a touching story of enabling children to participate in a practical way in commemorating the tragedy of a dreadful war. But rather than the event, it was the interview with young Spencer that I found most moving this morning. To their great credit, the Today Programme, a daily news magazine on BBC Radio 4 gave Spenser time to explain his inspiration for the design and to express his feelings about the finished bronze sculpture and his involvement in the day.

Spenser through his articulate and straightforward account of his experiences and emotions painted a vivid picture of what this day means to him. He described how he started with a design featuring a footballer with a ball, but then realised that most of the children entering this competition would be making similar images. Eventually he opted to produce a drawing that shows English and German hands, clasped in friendship within the cage of a ball. This he stated represented these two groups of men coming together through an image of peace that shows that you “can actually stop war.” Having won the competition he says he was shocked and proud, but it was evident from his interview on this morning’s programme that he was also moved by what the memorial that he has designed represents. He talked about knowing little about the First World War until a pack of information arrived in school. From this he had clearly learned much and this shaped his work for the competition.

There are always dangers that commemorations of war can become jingoistic or simply a token gesture which has impact for a short time, and is then forgotten. I am quite sure that in this instance Spencer Turner and many other school children who entered this competition will have learned much about the horror and futility of war. I also hope that the many thousands of people who listened to Spenser on the radio this morning will have noted the eloquence with which he expressed his ideas and the reasoning behind his process of design.

Coming at the end of a week in which the news has been dominated by the extent of the brutality that has become a feature of modern warfare, and in particular the inhumane means of interrogation used to extract information from prisoners, it is opportune to reflect upon different perspectives of war that were reported on this morning’s news. In particular I feel we should stop for a while to consider the contrasting straightforward and honest expressions used by a ten year old school boy who was obviously moved and thoughtful about what he had learned, with those mischievous terms such as “enhanced interrogation techniques” and “coercive methods,” used by adults in positions of power as a denial of torture, which were heard in an earlier news item.

It is only fitting that we should remember the suffering endured by servicemen and civilians during times of war. But it is to be hoped that we can learn lessons from children like Spenser that may govern the ways in which we behave in the future.



I think an interruption to my reading put me in a bad frame of mind!

It's enough to make a Pope scream! (with many apologies to Francis Bacon)

It’s enough to make a Pope scream! (with many apologies to Francis Bacon)


There was I this Sunday morning, quietly seated and indulging myself reading a book, purely for pleasure, when in to the room came Sara with news straight from the radio. “Do you know” she asked “that this is the first time in history that the football world cup final will be played between two countries each of whom has given us a Pope who is still alive?” Well, what could I say? I must confess that being neither a football fan or a catholic, this gem of information had completely escaped my notice. At first I was utterly speechless. How, I wondered, had I managed to miss this priceless piece of knowledge? Was this yet another example of the ignorance in which I spend my insignificant little life?

This devastating missal from the BBC had unsettled me and I could no longer concentrate on my reading. Putting my book aside I wrestled with an image of Pope Francis, seated before his plasma screen television in the Vatican in Rome, a bottle of Quilmes beer firmly grasped in one hand and his Argentinian flag waving from the other, joining in the chants of the South American fans on the terraces of Brazil. Meanwhile across the Eternal City, Pope Benedict swigging from a stein of foaming Krombacher slaps his Lederhosen in anticipation of yet another German victory. Remember chaps, it’s only a game and I hope that at the end of the match you will shake hands and remain friends.

Of course, I have no doubt that there will be many who upon hearing this piece of papal focused wisdom from the BBC will begin their day in better humour. They will go about their business reassured, that the national broadcasting service has fulfilled its duty to inform the peoples of the nation of those significant events that impact all our lives. I am sure that many of the football fans who will, as I write this piece, be settling down to the last rites of this latest international jamboree,   feeling comforted  that at least one Holy Father will be rooting for their team.

There was a time when the BBC could always be relied upon to educate and inform, and all this delivered by presenters whose use of language assured an authoritative presentation of information, instilling trust whilst also being entertaining. Whether it was Alistair Cooke with his Letter from America, John Arlott with an insightful commentary on the cricket, or Clive James whose witty and often thought provoking delivery of A Point of View was for so long a highlight of the week, it was always possible to find wordsmiths of genuine quality who could inform and entertain. The dexterity of their thoughts manifest in their verbal gymnastics could hold the listener in thrall, and I can recall the disappointment of missing a programme in the days before it was possible to revisit the moment through digital technology.  Of course, one can still switch on the radio and encounter presenters who adopt a thoughtful approach to language, I would include Melvyn Bragg, Joan Bakewell and Fergal Keane in this category, but increasingly I find myself cringing at the banality of expression that emits from the little box on the kitchen shelf.

It is not a matter of the subjects under discussion. These seem as diverse and interesting as ever, but at times I worry that the delivery of information has become so dependent upon cliché and hyperbole that it has lost much of its meaning.

Maybe I am simply being curmudgeonly. If so, I confess it is not the first time that this has been a fair assessment of  my attitude. However, I recall a time at the beginning of the 1990s when teachers were being urged by politicians to discourage children from the lazy use of language and to think about the ways in which they could convey information with real meaning. Whilst I have always been opposed to over prescription in education, I think that maybe the intentions at this time were honourable. The English language is a beautiful medium, and whilst I am not in favour of going so far as our French colleagues with their Académie Française, which jealously protects the use of the national language, there is much to be said for encouraging children to think about the ways in which they express their ideas.

At the same time as teachers were being urged to encourage an expansion of children’s vocabulary, those who worked with the youngest pupils were undergoing a revolution in the teaching of mathematics. Amongst the innovations was the introduction of an early understanding of measurement through what has become known as non-standard measures. For example, children would be taught to measure length according to the span of their hands, or the number of footsteps between points. For children this is a logical step on the way towards measuring in metres and centimetres and using more formal instruments to gain greater accuracy.

The children who have been through this system now have a considerable advantage over the rest of us when it comes to interpreting presentations from the BBC. I am sure that this latest generation will have a far greater appreciation of the height of London buses, the size of Olympic swimming pools and the area of Wales than the rest of us. For BBC presenters who have not had the benefit of the extended vocabulary teaching experienced by recent generations of learners, these three standards of measurement appear to have become the only means through which an understanding of dimension can be conveyed.

Wind turbines being erected all over the English landscape are the height of twelve London buses, a new reservoir to be constructed to supply water for a northern city is the size of fifteen Olympic swimming pools, and a plague of locusts in a Sub-Saharan African state has devastated an area the size of Wales. The lack of precision with which these statements convey meaning, and the laziness of falling back upon them every time a description is required, can only have been constructed by the same committee that identified the newsworthiness of an association between two Popes and a football match.

Reading through this I agree, it is decidedly curmudgeonly – bah humbug!