Magazine article The Spectator

Top Class

Magazine article The Spectator

Top Class

Article excerpt

Not surprisingly much has been written about the causes for England's recent abject performance at Lord's against the New Zealanders. In an article in the Guardian Matthew Engel, the current editor of Wisden, went further than most in blaming the changes in the way we live as being responsible for what - let's face it - has not been just this defeat but a slow decline.

Under the banner `over-protected children will never become great cricketers' Engel describes how Compton, Hutton and Boycott grew up practising single-mindedly for many years in the back yard, in the street, on any patch of grass, just as the children of our opponents still do. Unfortunately in Britain now cars and paedophiles have made such freedom of behaviour more or less impossible. As Engel says the difference between Boycott's childhood and `the structured, supervised, fearful, inward-looking, TV-orientated lives of most British children today is stunning. Anyone now over about 40 was allowed to have adventures that they would never permit their own children. . . The chance of a hero emerging from an average English boyhood is now close to zero.'

Oh dear. Fear, rules, safety, the need to do well at school to guarantee a proper (money-making) career have combined to produce just what one would expect - at worst endless mediocrity, at best a standard which is not world-beating. One aspect of Engel's story stands out: if you want to excel in something it is necessary to do it from one's earliest years and keep doing it with an obsession which effectively excludes every other activity. Leaving safety aside for a moment, it is this last bit which so goes against the grain of modern Western European life. No up-to-date school curriculum would ever dare to go for overspecialisation: all-round competence is the motto: it's safer for our modern kind of survival.

How surprising, then, to find that as I write there are something like 40 specialist music schools in Britain - probably more than in all the rest of Europe put together - encouraging children to do just that. …

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