Magazine article The Spectator

Meeting the Monster

Magazine article The Spectator

Meeting the Monster

Article excerpt

A few weeks ago, I was a guest at a huge tea party for children's authors, publishers and commentators at the South Bank, but the atmosphere, over the cupcakes and finger sandwiches, was decidedly frosty. There were three keynote speakers and their speeches all targeted a man so vile and destructive that the audience visibly recoiled every time his name was mentioned.

He was, of course, Michael Gove - and I wasn't sure I should tell anyone that I had always rather admired him and, moreover, was about to interview him for this magazine.

It might be better to keep quiet in much the same way that Vidkun Quisling would have been well advised not to mention his wartime visits to Berlin.

You think I'm exaggerating? One of the speakers, Patrick Ness, a brilliant, prize-winning novelist, described Gove as 'appalling, ignorant and damaging'. He compared him to Thatcher, doing to children what she did to the miners. A well-known illustrator said to me: 'He's a massive, arrogant egotist who can't see anyone else's opinion.' And my suggestion that Gove was a well-meaning man trying to do the best he could was met with the riposte (from a bestselling Jewish writer):

'That was what Hitler thought when he tried to wipe us out.' Seriously?

To his friends, he's simply 'Govey'. Chris Huhne once called him 'the politest man in the House of Commons' and it's not as if he's been tarred with the Bullingdon brush.

Indeed, you'd have thought someone would give him credit for his humble origins, the son of a single mother adopted by an Aberdeen businessman and his wife. But no, not a bit of it. 'He's the original major of Hamelin, ' Ness snarled. 'But we [children's authors] are the pied piper.'

It was with that image in mind that I whistled my way to Gove's oddly bland and utilitarian office in the Department for Education. What, I wonder, is it like, being a hate figure? Is he even aware of it and if so, how does he cope? I hoped, if nothing else, to get under the carapace of a man who, more than any other Tory politician, seems to attract these mountains of bile.

He was, from the very start, monumentally polite, chuckly and benign. We had met before on Question Time and he remembered it. He had read my book The House of Silk.

We chatted about middle-age foibles as I searched for my glasses. Finally, I launched into a fairly general question just to get things going. 'What is the point of education?' This got a smile and a frown and then he began:

'There is a phrase that I've used...'

Dread words! That's exactly what I don't want...the phrases that he's used, the formulation that I've heard and read a hundred times. But here it comes. 'I want people to be the authors of their own life story. I think the principal purpose of education is to allow each of us, when we become adults, to shape our own future...We have the opportunity not just to choose our job or profession but also to choose the sort of life we want to live and the imprint we will leave on others.' Then he goes on to quote Matthew Arnold. Has someone told him I went to Rugby School?

'To introduce people to the best that's been thought and written. Our children may never enjoy the prodigious wealth of Roman Abromavich's children, but they're just as capable of enjoying Dostoyevsky or Wagner or appreciating the Gherkin or the Shard - but only if the education they've had has given them an understanding of everything from metaphor to scientific principles.'

I cannot find a single thing to argue with in any of this except that, in my work as a children's author, I have visited many, many schools and have yet to enter one where the students have been debating Raskolnikov's moral torpor or humming the Ring.

A great many children leave school without reading any book from cover to cover.

According to the National Literary Trust, for whom I have done some work, almost one in five children leave school barely able to read more than a red-top newspaper. …

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