Monday, March 29, 2010

The Dream Is Over

It was only a matter of time before the National government started harassing beneficiaries in earnest. Every indication concerning Paula Bennett’s eventual portfolio since long before the election campaign - it was in 2004 that then-spokeswoman Katherine Rich charted the course that the party would follow - pointed to the resurrection of the zombie idea of a work for the dole-type scheme, the introduction of work tests, tighter controls on disability benefits and a time limit for the DPB, all based on the core belief that the ideal welfare system should be ‘a genuine safety net’ and not ‘a lifestyle choice’ (Key again, from the same speech). So you knew that it was only a matter of time, and that it would most likely come when National needed a distraction, something to take the heat off another policy, or a Minister fumbling with his figures.

Thus last week, right on cue, Paula Bennett called a press-conference in which she announced that she would start mining the nation’s unemployed to bolster the government’s reserves of political consensus. And since Bennett herself is a woman who spent time on the Domestic Purposes Benefit, her primary target were women on the Domestic Purposes Benefit. For she is a reformed single mother and unemployed person, you see? So she knows what it’s like to live a life of welfare dependency, and she reckons she knows just the way to help you out of it. Not through schemes like the Training Initiative Allowance, no. She scrapped that, as a matter of fact. What she has in mind is a lot closer to bullying. In fact the person who came up with the idea, American political scientist Lawrence Mead, didn’t even bother to search for an euphemism. ‘Helping and hassling’, he called it.

Here’s how it will work: approximately forty thousand mothers on the DPB whose youngest child is over the age of six will face part time work tests, which translates into having to engage in the employment-seeking activities mandated by Work and Income and turn up to job interviews scheduled on their behalf by their case managers. Failure to comply will result in the halving of the benefit. Everybody else on the dole will have to reapply once a year and go through a work assessment exercise. From May next year, sickness beneficiaries deemed able to work part time will also have to engage in mandatory employment-seeking activities, or risk facing even harsher penalties than DPB recipients: halving of the benefit following the first non-compliance, then suspension of the benefit, then cancellation of the benefit on the third strike. People on the invalid’s benefit deemed able to work part time will be moved on to the sickness benefit, with the attendant increase in the number and frequency of compulsory reviews.

Those are the contents of the proposed Welfare Reform Bill, but what’s missing is just as significant: work creation schemes, training programmes, childcare provisions - the Minister will have none of that. Bearing in mind that her portfolio covers employment as well as welfare, she intends to increase the roll of active jobseekers by 50,000 units without increasing the pool of available jobs. What this will achieve is ratchet up the competition for what little work is available - and for minimum-wage work in particular - by means of an influx of people who aren’t allowed to say no, and whose marginal salary in many cases, according to Treasury’s own calculations, will be as little as one dollar per hour. As a consequence, the capacity of the workforce to negotiate better wages or conditions for this kind of work - a capacity already weakened by the ongoing crisis - will take a further hit, which is good news for the Reserve Bank in its titanic struggle against inflation and the nightmare of a high-wage society.

Don Brash with Ruth Richardson in 1991.

What the policy will also achieve is to victimise women and their children, and further exacerbate the feminisation of poverty. In her analysis of the beginnings of the assault on single mothers on the DPB under the tenure of Ruth Richardson, Jane Kelsey writes:
The moral responsibility argument was aimed mainly at the domestic purposes beneficiary. The prevailing image was of a young woman who had deliberately got pregnant knowing she could bludge off the state for the next fifteen years. She was never the victim of rape and incest, or the beaten wife who had escaped with her life but had no means to support herself or her children on her own, or a mother who had been deserted and left to fend for herself. She was frequently assumed to be cheating not only the state, but those of her fellow citizens who were prepared to make sacrifices, pay their taxes and obey the rules. (Kelsey, 281)

I wonder sometimes if there’s enough of an appreciation of how this supposedly hard-nosed yet rational approach to welfare policy is tinged with a downright archaic moral conservatism: for isn’t it the case here that we are asking women and the poor to pay for the sins of our society? And the chief of these sins is the imperfect application of economic theory, the vast, measurable gap between neoliberal reforms and their stated goal of making society more prosperous and just, even, if not primarily, for the people at the bottom.

Most of the original proponents of these reforms under Labour have since migrated to ACT, as is well known, but I wasn’t aware until quite recently that the name of the party is an acronym for Association of Consumers and Taxpayers. A beneficiary, and especially a woman on the DPB, is neither of those things, insofar as their modest acts of consumption are made possible by the taxes paid by others, and their economic output is nil, even if they happen to raise children, look after elder members of their whanau or carry out volunteer work in their communities. Not possessing a taxable income - except to the extent that some of the benefits themselves are taxed - the beneficiary is a non-person, a ghost, but a ghost who must be periodically and ritualistically summoned in order to underscore a fundamental message: that government spending in general, and social spending in particular, are an unnecessary evil, the thing that stands between the country and the triumph of its new economic model.

These ideas appeared to have saturated the public conversation when I arrived in New Zealand, in late 1997. Christine Rankin was about to follow Lawrence Mead's script in the restructuring of Income Support, and ads such as this one polluted the airwaves.

Demonising welfare recipients wasn't a wholly new phenomenon - Reagan had blazed that particular trail in 1976 with his description of a ‘welfare queen’ largely of his own invention, and the myth of welfare fraud goes back in America to the early Sixties - but in post-war New Zealand, where successive governments had pursued full employment until as late as 1984, convincing people that the unemployed are a drag on society as opposed to its victims was always going to require a more concerted effort. Hence the need for state-sponsored propaganda through ad campaigns such as the one above. Yet it also seemed to me at the time that the nation’s psyche was singularly vulnerable to crude narratives of that nature, and that even without being able to tap into a history of resentment against the poor, those ideas could be grafted onto the body politic with surprising and dispiriting ease. Some years later, I found resonance in Bruce Jesson's description of New Zealand as 'a hollow society, a society without texture, a society without centres of resistance' (Jesson, 70).

Jesson's history of the decade of neoliberal reform in New Zealand in Only Their Purpose Is Mad includes a chapter entitled The State of Amnesia. Here he shows that abandoning the cornerstone policies of full employment and universal social participation that had been so integral the country’s development and sense of nationhood required both a sudden rupture - the financial crisis that Douglas and his colleagues found themselves in charge of as soon as they took office - and a self-serving reinvention of what the time before that rupture had been like. As an immigrant, I have heard those stories first-hand many times: New Zealand in the Muldoon era was backward and insular, the pubs closed at six o'clock, the food was universally bland; the verdict on politico-economic issues is less unanimous, but I’ve heard many left-wing moderates say that while the old system was admirably equitable, it was no longer affordable, and there was no alternative except radical reform. In fact, as Jesson himself, Easton, Kelsey and others have extensively argued, the New Zealand economy in 1984 wasn’t in a deep state of crisis, nor was extreme market liberalism the only way forward. But it seems to me that the history has quite successfully been rewritten not just for the benefit of the victors who carried the day - the Roger Douglases, Ruth Richardsons and Roger Kerrs of this world - but also of the moderate Left that, having returned from its well-deserved time in the wilderness, found it more expedient not to reverse those traumatic changes, but simply to alleviate them. We still don’t have a capital gains tax, or a levy on financial transactions. We still have GST. Critically, we still allow the Reserve Bank to manufacture unemployment in order to keep a lid on wages and control inflation on behalf of the wealthy.

Don Brash with Michael Cullen in 1999.

What the last few months have shown is that New Zealand society isn’t any less hollow today than it was before the nine years of Clark’s government; it has no more texture. It is a fairer society, and in some areas significantly so, but it lacks in institutional and organised civil society barriers between the rapid implementation of further reforms and its most vulnerable citizens, who are bound to bear their brunt. So when Mr Finlayson found the Welfare Reform Bill to be in breach of Bill of Rights Act, Ms Bennett and Mr Key were able to shrug off the non-binding advice of their own Attorney General. ‘Those changes are hugely popular,’ said Bennett. And that’s all that matters.

As was the case when I first arrived in the country, it was the language in which the policies were presented that I found most extraordinary, most foreign. Key described the measures as a welcome ‘kick in the pants’. Bennett, in describing the consequences of non compliance, said this:
‘If a real, demonstrable effort has been made, their benefit will be reinstated. If not, well, I'm afraid the dream is over.’

‘The dream is over.’ She let it roll of the tongue. Think about that. The dream? Does she have any idea…? Well, of course she does. She was a beneficiary herself, wasn’t she? And that’s when you realise how shrewdly she was chosen for the job, how important it is to have a woman with her background deliver those hits. One of us, one of them. Not a ghoulish technocrat like Douglas, or the heir to a political dynasty, like Richardson, yet a person fully capable of delivering lines of devastating cynicism against her former kind. ‘The dream is over’. And while we sit on the sidelines, fretting and organising around campaigns that are closer to the interests of the middle class - against mining in national parks, whaling, budget cuts at Radio New Zealand; all worthy causes in their own right - thinking that perhaps we are making society less hollow, more textured, the dream, or more precisely the memory, really does evaporate, of a caring society that knew how to look after its own.

Scoop has an excellent roundup of the proposed changes to the benefit entitlements and the reactions from various quarters. Read also In a Strange Land and No Right Turn (1, 2).

A brief bibliography on welfare and Rogernomics, as an antidote to the State of Amnesia:

Brian S. Roper. Prosperity for All? Economic, Social and Political Change in New Zealand since 1935. Southbank: Thomson, 2005.
Bruce Jesson. Only Their Purpose Is Mad. The Money Men Take Over NZ. Palmerston North: Dunmore Press, 1999.
Jane Kelsey. The New Zealand Experiment. A World Model for Structural Readjustment? Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1995.
Brian Easton (ed.). The Making of Rogernomics. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1989.

In a Land of Plenty, dir. Alister Barry, New Zealand 2002.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Shadow Children

Gravemente insufficiente. Critically inadequate. That was my mark in English as well as other topics at the end of the first and second year of intermediate school.

When you have a number of fail marks the teachers have a meeting to decide whether you should be granted an overall pass mark or be forced to repeat the year. Pupils who are subjected to this drastic measure are said to have been bocciati (bowled) or respinti (repelled), and oh how I’d like to know the history of those two words, which might originally have been intended as euphemisms but are anything but: bowled, like a pin standing alongside other pins, with no capacity to get out of the way, hoping that the giant ball will spare you and hit somebody else; or repelled, like medieval soldiers laying siege to the citadel of knowledge - and being driven back with heavy casualties.

I was spared this gruesome fate, and in the second year this came to my family I suspect as a genuine surprise. Yet I can’t honestly remember how I felt about it. I know I hated school intensely, but I couldn’t say if the prospect of catastrophic failure was any more terrifying than progress, for either way there was no meaningful end in sight. The alternative to school was never not-school, at least for a stretch of five or six more years, and I doubt I could see much further ahead than a week or a month in those days.

Looking back, I’m pretty sure I suffered from depression. It’s not just what I remember of that time - the desperate sadness, and those spiralling thought processes that I call to mind with apprehension even now - but also that I don’t remember so much of it: most of my classmates, most of my teachers, what the inside of the school even looked like. Seeing as I recall my time at primary school and high school quite well, I can only associate that blank interlude in my autobiographical memory with some sort of psychological trauma. But you know what kids that age are like, right? They are such difficult years. And I suspect it was left at that by everyone involved, seeing as there was no concrete, visible trauma that one could point to, and that they all hoped that I eventually would snap out of it, in the same mysterious way that I had snapped into it.

Meanwhile, school was prepared to let me progress to the third year and as far as the final state exams in spite of my critical inadequacies, but not to investigate their underlying reasons or pause even for a second to consider whether it, the school, might have a less than positive influence on young people who exhibited my particular symptoms. To wit: the truancy, the apathy, the lack of aptitude in most disciplines and - equally as unexplained, equally as suspect - how I still seemed to do very well in Italian and in written composition. It was that one talent that counselled against an outright bocciatura - my teacher of Italian and History, it was whispered to me, had fought like a tiger on my behalf - but I’d still have to come right eventually in order to pass the final exams.

And come right I did. I don’t have any memory of how this happened either, I just know that the fog lifts midway through that final year and I remember studying for the exams, doing well once again like I used to. Maths and English became things I could make sense of, whereas in other topics it was simply a matter of putting in the work, and spending some time in class. As quickly as I lost it, that compliance that I had interiorised so well at primary school came back. Outrageously, I passed the exams with distinction and that is the only permanent record left of my wretched time at intermediate school, so that you could be excused to think that I had been a model student throughout. Thus the institution colludes with my amnesia.

One of the things that bothers me to this day is that I was likely held by somebody at the time as evidence that the system works, a troubled and poorly performing student who thanks to the patient nurturing of his teachers finally turned things around. Accordingly, my giudizio (mark or grade, yes, but literally judgment, sentence) included the recommendation to send me to a liceo so that I could eventually pursue a university degree. Some of my classmates weren’t so lucky. Their recommendation was to ‘enrol in a brief professional training course’. Brief. There’s another heavily loaded word. Please don’t leave your child at school for too long, it’s painfully clear that he or she doesn’t belong. And how many families mistook that advice for an instruction that simply had to be followed?


English has its own linguistic tangles too. When your teacher fails you in a subject, is it your failure or theirs? Can school itself ever ultimately fail a student? The way in which those final evaluations of ours were worded placed the burden of success or failure entirely on the student, but now in New Zealand the talk around National Standards is all about finding the schools and the educators that fail their students. A truly democratic public school system ought to produce consistent results regardless of socio-economic disparity, or so the theory goes. It’s not true of course, growing up in a family that has a history of being rewarded by the school system is a very strong predictor of educational achievement. But who are these kids who do well? And what does it mean to do well? How much of it is the result of having interiorised a discipline, and trusting - because you know it to be true, because Mum is an architect and Dad is a doctor - that educational achievement translates into wealth and a successful career?

The path chosen by our Republican institutions was not to reform the school system so that it conformed to its democratic aims and produce a broadly egalitarian system like the one we have in New Zealand. It chose rather to give the working class access to the old schools of the elites, the licei. I’m a beneficiary of this policy. At a liceo you would study Latin for five years because ‘it broadens the mind’ and not at all because the prospect of studying Latin would intimidate and thus turn away a very large number of working class 13-14 year olds whose families happened to be unfamiliar with the code, according to which ‘broadens the mind’ correctly translates as ‘it’s what you have to put yourself through in order to graduate from a liceo’. By the same token, at a liceo you would not develop any manual skill, because manual skills are what you need in menial jobs.

They were training us to be intellectuals, but the kind of intellectuals who never ask any questions. And I complied - oh, how did I comply! And I learned to fear failure again, which is just as integral to success as craving the validation of a good grade.

My original plan for this week was to write about the fourth kid from the left in this picture. His name is Michael Gove. Nowadays he’s Shadow Children’s Secretary of the British conservative party, but at the time when the picture was taken - in February 1979 - he was taking part in an ‘inter-primary school quiz at Hazlehead Primary’. I could make a snide remark about his brimming eagerness to please the questionmaster, but not two weeks ago I showed you what I myself looked like back then, and aren’t we the same boy, the same aspiring model pupil?

Earlier this month, whilst discussing his party’s plans to rewrite the national curriculum and ‘restore past methods of teaching history, English, maths and science’, Mr. Gove had this to say:
Most parents would rather their children had a traditional education, with children sitting in rows, learning the kings and queens of England, the great works of literature, proper mental arithmetic, algebra by the age of 11, modern foreign languages. That’s the best training of the mind and that’s how children will be able to compete.
Jake has already commented on what it means to go back to teaching a subject like history in that particular way. What interests me here is Mr. Gove’s desire to restore the school of his youth, a school that demanded much of its students and rewarded them with the ability to compete. Not with each other, you understand, for that would be unseemly, but with the rest of the world: Finland, Singapore, South Korea, the countries that he routinely touts as models of achievement in education. Yet he does not intend to emulate them or copy their systems; he just wants to go back in time. The old school worked for him, you see. Adopted at two years of age by a fish merchant and a laboratory assistant, Gove is in fact a compelling success story. And perhaps, who knows, if it hadn’t been for that blip, that black hole, those dismal two years of spectacular under-achievement, I would think that way too, hold myself up as a model: I did it, and so can you, so can everybody. You just need to put your head down and study hard and trust that you will be saved.

But I wasn’t that student, at least not the whole time. And so now I know what’s wrong with National Standards and the nostalgia for the desks lined up in rows: that they are founded on an insecurity, and that it’s an insecurity that will cripple our children. What is the ‘plain English’ requirement of the campaign for National Standards but the projection of that fear of failure? ‘Please tell me if my kid is critically inadequate, I need to know. Don’t worry about my feelings, their feelings - just give it to us straight’. And then what? How will the Māori boy of five who feels that school isn’t for him be helped by being told that that he is a failure, in plain English and from day one? How will the intellectually disabled girl react to the news? And what about the child who excels academically, for that matter? Isn’t there a danger that little Michael Gove will grow up thinking that that is what school is about: pleasing the questionmaster, doing well in tests, performing well above the standards?

None of this will improve our schools, or change our attitudes towards education. Critically, none of this will persuade the children that they need to be the ones asking the questions, instead of always supplying the answers. Then the issue of just who it is who is critically inadequate - the pupil or the school - might suddenly become a whole lot more interesting.

On the very vexed and much written about subject of National Standards, I must insist that you read this post by Jolisa Gracewood on her American experience and this one by Hilary Stace on the possible implications for autistic children.

Reading Domenico Starnone's
Solo se interrogato (Milano: Feltrinelli, 1995) has helped me think far more critically than I used to about my own education. It also features on page 43 a much better discussion than mine of those horrific metaphors for when they make you repeat the year.

On the subject of Michael Gove you also need to read this piece by Philip Challinor from 2008.

My old intermediate school, Scuola Media Eugenio Colorni, is located at the corner of Via Francesco Albani and Via Paolo Uccello, Milan.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Phoenicians

Phoenician funerary mask, 4th-5th century BC

Here’s a interesting statistic about my education. Between primary school, intermediate school and high school I studied the Phoenicians three times and the Second World War zero times. That’s because in Italy we believe in studying history in a strict chronological order, and furthermore we restart the clock of civilisation at each level. Thus in order to get to the great conflicts of the last century you need to have covered Mesopotamia and Phoenicia and the rest of the ancient world, then the Roman Empire and Visigoths and Charlemagne and the age of discoveries and Napoleon and the Risorgimento, so that by the time you get to the final year of each course of study you’re lucky to even make it to the twentieth century, let alone cover Fascism or the Holocaust. What little I happened to be told at school concerning these not insignificant topics was not part of the study of history proper, but of literature, and only at intermediate school, when we looked at authors like Primo Levi or books such as Anne Frank’s Diary or L’Agnese va a morire. I’m pretty sure we also saw a film about Mussolini starring Rod Steiger.

To this day, even though I read independently into these large chunks of neglected history, and saw other films not starring Rod Steiger, I find that when my oldest asks me about the causes of World War I mumble quite a bit, whereas I am far clearer on what caused Sparta and Athens to have regular goes at each other, or indeed the Carthaginians and the Romans.

Not that the Carthaginians, strictly speaking, are the same thing as the Phoenicians. There’s a vexed historiographical question if you’ve ever seen one instead of concentrating on your country’s recent racist past. Phoenicia, also known as Canaan, is a region where the ancient civilisation known to us as the Phoenicians established itself since the Iron Age, that is to say around 1200 BC, whereas the Carthaginians are a related but in important ways distinct civilisation that flourished much later around the city of Carthage after the Persians conquered Phoenicia proper. The confusion arises from the fact that the first city known as Carthage was founded by the Phoenicians, but it’s actually situated in modern Tunisia, and that’s where the Phoenician elites repaired after the Persian conquest (Cyrus, was it?). Then they started to wage wars on the Romans, who referred to them as Punic people, by which they meant no offence: Punic means purple and purple dyes were one of the Pheonicians’ trades. This enmity led to at least three Punic wars, one of which - was it the second? - featured the routing of the Romans at Cannae. Come to think of it, it has to have been the second war because the first one was fought in Sicily, and Cannae is in Apulia. Then I’m pretty sure the third war is the one where Cato the Elder was all 'you’ll never guess where I got these figs from' and 'delenda Carthago est' and the Romans took the war to the enemy shores and that spelt the end for the Carthaginians.

Another thing I remember without having to reach for Wikipedia is that the most notable ancient source for the claim that the Phoenicians gave the alphabet to the Greeks was Herodotus.

Fragmentary inscription on a cup found in Kition, 9th century BC

And there is nothing wrong with that. I don't begrudge my memory the space furnished with these ancient relics, nor am I completely insensitive to the argument that in order to understand modernity it is useful to know something about the pre-modern world. Certainly I like to think for instance that a selective allegiance to classical Greece can be helpful to counter the enforced Christian monoculturalism of the thing we call Europe. But so long as this is true, let us make those connections visible and concrete: let us look at the history of democracy, of revolutions, of migrations, of the city. Plodding along history as if on a train that stops at every station seems designed to do just the opposite, and to quite deliberately ensure that the ultimate destination - the present that, according to cliché, history should help us make sense of - won't be reached, or will be reached too late to be included in the final exams, which amounts to the same thing.

The irony is especially galling since every one of the schools I attended displayed a shield like the one above (from my primary), bearing the name of the school and the symbol of the Republic. That was one of the chief promises of the institutions of 1948: that education would (finally) be a right and a public good, the key to equality of opportunity regardless of socio-economic status. A free education provided by the state to all children under the age of fourteen on the basis of a national curriculum was the paramount instrument for achieving the objective under article 3 of our newly minted constitution, namely
to remove all economic and social obstacles that, by limiting the freedom and equality of citizens, prevent full individual development and the participation of all workers in the political, economic, and social organization of the country.

And yet so few of us ever even got to be told at school about that constitution or the circumstances in which it was forged. That same Republic that was the guarantor of our right to an education was wholly absent from our teachings, as was in most cases the Fascism that it repudiated. And so was the post-war world in which our parents grew up, the economic boom, terrorism, our lasting involvement in the former African colonies. The contemporary world outside our schools seldom made an appearance in our daily schedule, and outside of the study of geography - the primary products of the Sicilian economy are as follows… - it didn’t feature anywhere in our curriculum, except as a sort of afterthought: time allowing, students enrolled in the final year should study Fascism, an important national political movement starring Rod Steiger. But time seldom allowed.

So, as in matters of religion, you grew up with an idea of the country shaped by your family’s beliefs, which were also beliefs about history. This was especially true for my parents’ generation, that lived through Fascism and the transition to the Republic. In the overall context of the nation’s unbecoming, some families and social groups were far keener to forget than others, or had more pressing reasons to cling to their own mythologies: what was our involvement, how did our present (mis)fortunes come about? It is on the basis of those histories that we construct our sense of citizenship.

If it were up to me to reform the Italian education system, my founding principle would be this: that it is the foremost right of each child to be told about the present and to be given the instruments to understand it. Our national pastime of short term memory loss must finally be abandoned, the mirrors uncovered: this is what we look like, this is where we come from. For it is precisely the emptiness of these spaces that allows false histories to grow and fester: the grotesquely distorted picture of the Roman empire evoked by Mussolini, which he revived by annexing with brutal ferocity the bits of Africa that had fallen off the table at which the other colonial powers insisted to dine; or more recently, the heroic warlike lineage that the Northern secessionists trace back to Alberto da Giussano and his Lombard League, garnished by pagan rituals staged along the Po river - as if that plain had ever been one place, one country, one people. It is in that fractured history of symbols emptied of meaning that the Italian far Right constructs its myths of origin. Yet it works also because it plays on something familiar, on stories and names learned more or less by rote in the distant past of childhood and left conveniently unconnected, like my sparse knowledge of all things Phoenician; while the more concrete histories and lineages - of industrialisation, of struggle, of work - that would serve the progressive causes are never or too seldom encountered.

The education of children under Mussolini sought to inculcate absolute faith in the Party and teach its knowledge, which was the only knowledge available. The directive had been written by the Duce himself:
Italian school, in all its levels and in all its teachings, must be inspired by the ideology of Fascism, educate the Italian youth to understanding Fascism, to take pride in it and to live in the historical climate created by the Fascist revolution.

Image via the ANPI Lissone blog, from a post I heartily commend to speakers of the lingo

Primary school-aged children were taught that 'book and musket make the perfect Fascist' (libro e moschetto, fascista perfetto), and the book in question was the one and only primer allowed in the classroom. In it you would read for instance the story of two boys who came back from their holidays, and one of them told the other that he had seen the house where Mussolini was born; or you’d learn about the efforts that the regime made to help the families of Italians abroad so that they could send their children to visit the motherland and draw from its strength and beauty the determination to remain good Italians. They were lies, but told in the present tense. In the new Republic, where the promise of education was that it would set you free, you learnt convenient, harmless truths about the distant past instead.

So here’s one last thing that I remember about the Phoenicians: that they may not even have existed. We give that name to the people who lived in that region, but whether they thought of themselves as a unified people living in a unified nation, or it was in fact the Greeks who succeeded in painting them that way, we just don’t know. And there’s perhaps one last bit of irony, and a lesson: that if you don’t write and understand your own history, somebody else will do it for you.

Monday, March 8, 2010


I started school one late September morning of 1977, certain that it would be the sudden and irrevocable end of childhood, of play, of friendships. In hindsight, I think I know why: my sister, being nine years older, would have just completed the first year of the liceo classico, a brutally demanding high school with a staggering drop out rate. They made her life hell, and hers was the only experience of being a student that I had access to. The fact that this is what my primary school looked like can’t have helped much either:

Each floor in that building has to be at least five metres high, and must have looked even more towering to little me. And let’s take a closer look at one of those welcoming front doors:

You don’t need to be a strict Foucauldian or to venture into metaphor to see the contiguity between this kind of space and a prison or an army barracks. And indeed in my first year I encountered a teacher with a true passion for discipline who had plans to cure me of my left-handedness and who sent me home in tears one day because I made a mistake, and she did not tolerate mistakes in her classroom.

But as far as the horrors of school went, that was it: in my second year she retired and was replaced by a group of four young, passionate teachers working together in a pilot programme of full-day instruction. The days were long - we finished at half past four in the afternoon - but there was plenty of time for play and recreation, and other than the occasional after-lunch recess spent hunched over our desks in silence because somebody had broken some cardinal rule or other, I don’t recall the discipline being very strict either. Overall, I remember those years as being formative, both socially and educationally. And what more can you ask of your school?

Except I say it was formative, but it's not as if I remember very well what the teaching and the learning were like. I mostly remember the extra-curricular moments, and that intimidating space and the use we made of it.

Here's the compound again, seen from above.

We lived each year in a different classroom, sitting at rows of desks facing the blackboard and the teacher. We ate bland food in the canteen off a fixed menu, and everything had to be consumed, even the zucchine that had been boiled to within an inch of their molecular integrity. When it wasn't raining, we spent the morning break in the outside yard on the top left of the picture, while the longer break after lunch took place in the inner yard, where for some reason we weren't allowed to play soccer. Therefore the morning break was the fulcrum of the lives of us boys. We played on a concrete basketball court, with jackets or backpacks for goal posts. One of my most enduring memories of primary school is in fact the image of my best mate holding a football under his arms and crying his eyes out because on that particular day we were told we couldn't play. The caretaker was burning a pile of rags in the middle of the court. It was really quite a raging fire, but my friend reckoned we could play around it.

I would love to recapture the time in my life when that kind of explanation - 'the playing surface is on fire' - wasn't enough. That's the raw material that we were, a bunch of small humans liable to choose self-immolation over spending half an hour inside on a sunny day. School cured us of that, to say nothing of the things that it taught us: letters, numbers and words, to read and to summarise and to analyse and to explain, to problems-solve and to stay on topic and to draw neat circles and many other things besides. Not only the foundational skills that we needed to acquire all sorts of useful knowledge down the track, but also the mindset of being a student: to be punctual and to pay attention and to perform to expectation, as well as the expectation to be graded, which of course is the key to the whole thing. A desire to be measured against the standards and do well is just as necessary as the actual ability to do well. It's the fundamental act of compliance on which formal education is predicated, and you must learn to act the part at the earliest possible age.

And so it was that in that first Christmas at school they made us pose for individual portraits. Sitting behind a desk, the primer open before him at what I'm sure must have been a random page, a smile to indicate that he was happy to learn and not at all creeped out by Santa and his trusty bowtie-wearing giraffe sidekick, student 17 of class 1G is the very image of that compliance, of acting the part.

A penny or two for your thoughts, little man. Were you worried even then about writing with the Devil's hand and making too many mistakes? Or had you already caught glimpses of your path, which was that of the good student, always spoken about in glowing terms, taking pride in his achievements?

That lesson became so ingrained that later, at intermediate school, when things came crashing down, I never so much as questioned the fundamental assumption on which it rested: that if you can't hack it at school it is your fault for failing to learn, and never the school's for failing to teach you. Those specimens after all were all around me already. Primary school was designed to tolerate them and carry them along rather than holding them back (or "bowl them", in the extraordinary terminology that is still in use today), but it made no bones about labelling them as failures, and publicly so. I recall one classmate in particular who didn't seem to even fit into that space. He was always out of the line, out of his chair or out of class altogether. The rest of us by and large were successfully regimented: we marched in single or double file between the classroom, the canteen, the playground and the gym, knew how to sit at our desks, knew how to respond when questioned. He knew none of those things, and nobody seemed to feel any solidarity or empathy for him. He was an outcast but not in a romantic, appealing way: he just didn't belong, and seemed to go out of his way to make himself unpleasant to be around. He hated school, and school tolerated him at best, confident that the axe would fall on him at the appointed time, a year or two at the most into his secondary education. I'm sure it never crossed my mind even for a second that my path at that point would overlap with his, and that I'd forget so suddenly and comprehensively how to act the part - but that's a story for another post.

Andrea Gastaldi, Pietro Micca (1858), oil on canvas.
Italian schools that aren't named after Dante Alighieri, Garibaldi or Mazzini are named after a local literary figure or, when all else fails, a "patriot". This is a rather mixed lot, and includes a number of characters who either chose to make the extreme sacrifice so that the country could be freed from the yoke of foreign oppression, or miscalculated the length and speed of the fuse when it was time to blow up the tunnel. Historians are still unsure which of those particular options applies to Pietro Micca, a Piedmontese soldier who saved Turin from capitulating to the hated French during the siege of 1706, ensuring that it would go instead to the House of Savoy, the eventual monarchs of unified Italy and enablers of Fascism.

Just for that we ought to take turns spitting on his grave, but instead he gets schools named after him - go figure. Our perplexing association with this klutz did have however a light-hearted moment each year on the occasion of the school's run, the Sgambamelata, whose mascot was a happy-looking barrel of TNT with a lit fuse running on tiny legs.

If you visit the school's website you'll see that the little fella is still going strong, in spite of suicide bombing having acquired something of a bad name in the intervening years. But looking back on those far from unhappy times, and suspecting that they were integral to a model of education that was far less benign than it appeared and that is now experiencing an unsettling revival, I wonder if we can read something else in that image, perhaps catch a glimpse of the student condition: a sort of exhilarated terror as you ran from test to test, from the spectre of failure to the hope of remedy, always short on time, whilst your childhood was consumed by the urgency of becoming a successful worker and citizen.

Or not.

Join me next week as I tell you everything I learnt at school about the Phoenicians. You may want to bring your sleeping bag and a toothbrush.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Pain Relief

(In which I take my desire to emulate the blogfather way, way too far.)

Morphine is a powerful analgesic drug that acts directly on the central nervous system to suppress pain. It is synthesised primarily from Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy, and derives its name from Morpheus - by which I mean the Greek god of dreams, not this bloke.

He's the patron saint of soporific acting at best. But thinking of Morpheus in its Italian inflection it comes naturally to me to recall also the recently un-retired Domenico Morfeo.

He was quite some player, it's too bad he could never crack a top team for long or the national side. I guess he was never fast or strong enough. Perhaps back in the Seventies, when the game required much less athleticism, things would have turned out differently for him. Still, he did score a number of highlight reel goals, as the Yanks would say. I hear he plays for Cremonese now, just down the road from my home town. They have a motto there: turron, turras, tettas, which is to say torrone, the local nougat sweet of likely Arab origins, torrazzo, the bell-tower of the cathedral, and big tits. But then of course Bologna also claims to be the city of the three tees, it's really not that original or funny.

Wait a minute, where was I? Ah, yes, morphine. It does make your mind wander, if not quite in dreamlike fashion, perhaps in the way of the loose associations that sometimes precede proper sleep or full awakening. So as I was lying there on my emergency room bed I did actually think of Domenico Morfeo and how he never seemed able to physically fend off a challenge, but I also took snippets of the always lively conversations on the other side of the curtain and turned them into as many autogenerated fragments of stories. In the process I also transformed those sounds that reached me in barely coherent form into Italian names and phrases - isn't it funny how the mind works?

If you read the typically excellent Wikipedia entry for morphine and direct your attention to the Indications section you'll find me under one of the most benign conditions for which the drug is prescribed, 'pain from kidney stones'. Understand that this affliction is defined almost entirely for the pain that it causes: it is not life-threatening, nor does it inflict permanent damage, nor it generally requires intervention other than the relief of pain. So let me speak for a minute, as a lucky chap who didn't have anything of lasting seriousness, about this pain, and let me see if I can describe it. Actually, it will have to be a gendered description.

For the men. You wake up one morning to discover that a Finnish trucker and three times Ball-Squeezing World Champion by the name of Urs has got hold between thumb and forefinger of one of your testicles - let's say the left one, for the sake of biographical accuracy - and has begun to apply pressure to it. What you should know about Urs is that the man has got nothing but time: he won the Finnish national lottery or has received a lifetime grant or something, so now he can just travel the world and be like the Kidney Stone Gnome. So he takes it slowly, beginning with little more than a pinch, and just as slowly he increases the pressure until what do you know? It's a vice-like grip. At this point you are covered in sweat and practically paralysed and hoping that something or someone will make Urs stop. This state of affairs can last anywhere from one hour to - wait for it - four weeks. I'm not kidding, I just looked it up. At some point during the proceedings Urs will be joined by his brother Bort (I hope none of this causes offence to passing Finns), whose job is to bash your lower back with a meat tenderiser. This ordinarily would make you scream but actually, and here's a kicker, you won't necessarily mind, because it's more of a dull than a sharp pain, and at least it takes your mind off what Urs is up to.

For the women. This whole thing is proof that men can't handle pain and really if it had been up to them to give birth the human race would have become extinct some time during the Bronze Age.

So anyway last week, after a series of one hour-sessions with Urs over the course of several days, I struck one that lasted the whole night so after packing our eldest for school Justine took what was left of me to the emergency room (thank you darling!). Here I was immediately attended to by nurse Donna and Dr. Andy (thanks nurse Donna! thanks Dr. Andy!) who began very earnestly the administration of some of those wonderful, wonderful drugs. Actually, the morphine didn't take at first - it brought my pulse below the safety threshold in the common side effect known as bradycardia - so Urs couldn't quite be vanquished for another couple of hours, but eventually he was, and I came out of that singular state that is the exclusive experience of pain. Relief, indeed.

It is the definition of severe pain that it demands your whole attention like that. Perhaps, more so than pleasure or enjoyment, it's pain that is the exact opposite of boredom, the thing that prevents your mind from drifting or changing the subject in any way, until that absolute pinpoint concentration too sublimates into something further, a state of feeling only, without the possibility of articulating thought. I felt during that period generally unsure of my whereabouts, or in fact of the passage of time. When questioned by the nurse, the doctor and a couple of medical students following admission, I struggled to understand them, and to form and then utter replies as simple as Yes and No, let alone anything more complicated than that, required a sort of mental run-up. So I wasn't surprised to discover afterwards that the pain chart scale used by most hospitals, including Wellington's, was originally developed by a paediatric nurse to help young burn victims who might have difficulty expressing their condition in words.

The faces of pain used on the charts at Wellington Hospital. In the chart proper they sit on a numerical scale from one to ten with descriptors ranging from "no pain" to "the worst possible pain".

Besides their benign nature, kidney stones are unique also in that they provide you with exquisitely concrete evidence of the source of the pain. Eventually you'll end up with something like this, a little rock made in about 80% of the cases of calcium oxalate (the image opens in a new page due to the ewww! factor - fair warning). This inorganic compound forms by precipitation in the kidneys in needle-shaped crystals (gee, thanks), is highly poisonous and is produced in nature amongst other things by the dieffenbachia. That's weird, right? Even weirder than the human body manufacturing morphine on its own. I mean, I had never really given much thought to animals and plants producing minerals before, but of course it happens all the time, and it reminds me again of the art of Brendon Wilkinson and of the recent sketchy reflections on this blog about human geography and geology.

Take dolomite, the rock whose origins are a mystery to science but likely involve the sedimentation of different kinds of organic matter, and that was found once to have formed inside the kidneys of a Dalmatian dog. Yet there are whole mountain ranges of the stuff. Here's a photo of my dad climbing the Dolomites, ca. 1958. For some reason it boggles my mind that he was fifteen years younger than my current age at the time.

Wait, don't tell me, I'm letting my mind wander again, aren't I? Oh well, just one last look at those beautiful poppies then,

and I'm off to look after myself for a few days.