Melissa Benn

Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

Five man today appear in court, charged with the rape and murder of a still unnamed medical student on a bus in Delhi at the end of last year. I know I am not alone in continuing to feel haunted by the deep sadism, and even deeper sadnesses, of the Delhi case.. It feels like an act from another moral or temporal world which in many ways it is.

At the same time, there is an uneasy sense of fear and familiarity, particularly as the mother of two independently minded teenage girls, used to monitoring their safety out and about in the streets of one of the world’s largest capitals.

Is mine the luxury of pointless, pampered worry? Not if we trust UK government estimates that an astonishing 80,000 women are raped and 400,000 sexually assaulted in this country every year. And as any parent anywhere knows – particularly at that heart stopping moment in the early hours when a mobile phone signal is temporarily unavailable – the consequences for girls of serious sexual assault is inevitably life changing.

But there is a fine line between what we might call maternal care and patriarchal control, as the Delhi atrocity has only highlighted. There, the political elite initially responded with alarms about ‘dented’ and ‘painted’ women and the risks of an ‘adventurous spirit’ or even, the possession of mobile phones by young women; that is, until a groundswell of anger has forced culture and country to re-examine the true burden of guilt in this and countless other similar cases.

Here, while we pride ourselves on our greater freedom, particularly for women, we talk less of our fears, restrictions or compromises. But our attitudes are often surprisingly similar to that we reject from distant patriarchs or mealy mouthed conformists.

Certainly, our ambiguous response to the dangers that exist for young women has led to a kind of informal policing – in more than one sense. The wealthy can grant their children the much prized freedom of movement through unlimited access to secure taxi services. Meanwhile, the slightly less affluent, offer themselves – frazzled middle aged people, with winter coats pulled over their crumpled pyjamas – as late night drivers of last resort.

But for those who lack material or psychological resources, or who actually believe that girls should not have the same freedom of boys, there is a vast amount of forbidding or covert guilt tripping going on. I have lost count of the stories of parents – particularly mothers – who give their teenage girls earlier curfews than their younger brothers or who simply beg their daughters not to go out or not too late, to stop the responsible adult ‘worrying themselves sick.’

And it is not just parents who take this view. Last summer, around the time of one of the Slut Walks in central London, I had a furious argument with with a very old friend, who is both child-free and feminist. While I celebrated the courageous refusal of younger women to alter their clothing when out in public, my friend, her face stiff with disapproval, countered that it was crass stupidity for today’s adolescent girls to believe that they could walk the streets in buttock-grazing shorts, unaware of what they might provoke.

Once the shouting had subsided, we came to an edgy understanding of the tricky terrain we were spatting over. Younger women are right to claim their freedom of movement but am I, as a parent, being irresponsible if I don’t point out the potential dangers? Should the frequent ( and often amused, it has to be said) mutterings of adults about revealed cleavage and cut-off shorts and all the rest of it be fashioned into some kind of parental guidance, if not command?

Well, of course, in real households, that happens ( ‘ Put on a coat’, ‘ Never walk home alone’, are two of the sane, if tame, favourites.) But it is surprising, and depressing, how often such ‘guidance’ feels as if one is simply teaching girls to conform.

Re-reading ‘The Female Eunuch’ recently, surely now best taken as a bit of social history, I was struck by the echoes between some of the comments I have heard from the mothers of teenagers and Greer’s typically stern analysis of the varying means of old fashioned gender control. Greer rages powerfully against parents who instil fear of the dangerous, dark stranger in their teenage girls, with often stark psychological consequences. In today’s parlance, parents are more likely to talk about ‘ all those bloody psychopaths out on the streets.’ Same difference huh?

I’d like to think we could do all this better in the early 21st century. While it is impossible to ensure our daughters’ absolute freedom and safety perhaps we think more about the trade off, the balancing point, than parents of old? Talking about our own experience is always helpful, including making the simple point that our daughters may be in the greatest danger from men that they know. Or that they think they know.

Equally important is public debate, and rebellion, of the kind we are now seeing in India. It is why I will be joining the protest against sexual violence to be held outside the Indian High Commission in London today, , and will urge my teenagers to come along too. Here is one way to honour the life and death of that unnamed 23 year old woman, but also to ensure that her unimaginable suffering might, in some small way, effect change.

At the same time, such collective action links us to the long and honourable heritage of feminism when it comes to combatting violence against women. It reminds us, too, that there is always greater safety in numbers, now more than ever with the increasing globalisation of dissent. Our collective daughters will , of course, come up with new ideas; they will find fresh ways to fight old battles. Anger, protest – and mobile phones – will be essential to that task.

Protest Against Sexual Violence in India – 7th January 2013, 4-6pm outside the Indian High Commission, London, WC2B 4NA

Below – a post I have written on the Local Schools Network today on the implications of Gove’s new O-level style proposals:

What with the GCSE regrading fiasco and the row over the selling off of state school sports fields, Michael Gove clearly needed a quick political fix – and some positive publicity – this autumn. And he has got it – if from all the wrong people.

Meanwhile, the nation’s hard-working pupils – many of them now embarking on GCSE courses that the government has more or less officially rubbished – deserve far more than these ill-thought-through changes, and yet more upheaval, in the form of the new O-level proposals, which will officially be known as “the English Baccalaureate Certificate”.

As the incisive head teacher and blogger Geoff Barton asked last night, ” Why would we want to call an English qualification a baccalaureate, especially when it shares so few features with the principles and ideals of the international baccalaureate?’

It is hard not to see this reform as Gove and the hapless Lib Dems playing politics with our schools system. Tabloid headlines have predictably enough hailed an end to “dumbing down” and a “return to rigour”. But what has been pushed as a bold new reform is neither new nor particularly bold. An exam at 16 that all can take, distinguishing the so-called academic and not-so academic in its gradation of difficulty, and its marking scheme? In many ways, that sounds pretty similar to our current GCSEs – although details emerging about the practical implications of the new qualification suggest that a significant number of children will never take it, or take it later than their peers. How can anyone consider a reform that could lead to the potential failure of up to 40% of children ( according to some estimates) progress, let alone progressive?

Very few commentators have yet raised the important question of the revised secondary curriculum that will inevitably underpin the new exams. Gove has always made clear his preference for a more traditionalist, linear curriculum but judging from the disastrous progress of the revised primary curriculum, still incomplete, he may face an even bigger problem with prescriptive new ideas for secondary schools ( none of which will apply to the mushrooming number of academies and free schools.)

Don’t forget: two of the members of the expert panel, on the primary curriculum, resigned from their posts last autumn, and one senior academic Andrew Pollard, spoke out publicly against the “prescriptive” nature of the proposals, which risked generating a sense of “widespread failure” among the nation’s primary schoolchildren. The appointment of Elizabeth Truss as minister in charge of curriculum and qualifications – rather than the more broad-minded David Laws – suggests that a rigid traditionalism will continue to dominate the department’s thinking.

But the real story of yesterday’s announcement is that, once again, a major opportunity for genuine, progressive reform and necessary modernisation has been lost. With the school leaving age soon to be raised to 18, our system must now successfully educate pupils with a wide range of interests and abilities. The case for a massively expensive exam at 16 – once the school-leaving certificate – is no longer proven.

Meanwhile, the international evidence on what makes a modern, stimulating curriculum – from the development of speaking skills to the encouragement of teamwork, in addition to specified subject knowledge – is being rejected in favour of an old-fashioned series of tests, in a narrow range of ‘academic’ subjects, that will surely turn off the majority of students long before they come to sit the 50s-style do-or-die exam.

There has been discussion on this site today of the importance of poorer children having access to a more academic suite of qualifications. A good comprehensive school/ system would ensure this; what it wouldn’t do, in the way that Gove’s qualifications almost certainly will, is ban any child from access to learning in these key areas if they are unable to approach the subjects in question in an old fashioned academic style. A modern curriculum should be broad and balanced, but it should also allow for teachers to approach subject teaching – and assessment of student progress – in a more nuanced, individualised way.

The Tomlinson proposals of 2004 still represent a good starting point for thinking about an alternative approach to our education system, not least in the report’s emphasis on “evolution not revolution” regarding any major reform, including widespread consultation and trialling before implementation; whereas it looks like consultation on this reform will be fairly meaningless. ( Geoff Barton again: “Isn’t the lack of consultation with the teaching profession a critical weakness? Can’t you see that without teacher goodwill it will be difficult to impose an examination that will work?”)

And with its emphasis on a mix of academic and vocational learning, more project-based assessment, and greater opportunities for “stretch” for abler students, the Tomlinson report was far more in step with successful systems around the world than Gove’s backward-looking vision. Much of the derision of project-based school work misses the point. The problem with the current GCSE model is not that it involves coursework per se, or that pushy parents can get in on the act, but that, as part of a high stakes accountability system for both school and child, these projects too easily become part of the deadly exam factory mentality.

Next month at the London Festival of Education, Pasi Sahlberg, the director of the ministry for education in Finland, one of the most successful systems in the world, will challenge UK educators to ditch our reliance “on external standardised assessment instead of … school-based, teacher-led continuous assessment.”

This is not just common sense. It is vital for the future equity of our system. As the OECD reminded us only this week, the UK continues to have one of the most segregated school systems in the world. As our education system further fragments – the untrumpeted part of the coalition reforms – this new set of exams will merely increase success for some, at the expense of the many.

Let’s end with Geoff Barton for a third and final time. “Any chance someone – anyone – could do a bit more work on all of this, so that we can see beyond the flummery and have some proposals fit for the twenty-first century?”


This is an expanded version of an article that first appeared on the Guardian Comment is Free website on Monday September 17th.

Here is an edited version of a speech I recently gave on educational equality at the Goldsmiths conference on Teaching and Learning, Future Tense. Graphics are courtesy of my creative and often hilarious colleague, Francis Gilbert.

How depressing that the debate on smacking children, like that of a woman’s right to choose and sex education ( which never seems to go away ) has reared its head once more. I was astonished, and somewhat appalled, to hear a discussion on the Today programme recently about whether poor children were becoming too ‘dependent’ on breakfast clubs. Jill Kirby, a commentator on Conservative Home, argued that schools should find out why families were not providing breakfast for their children and if so, what were they spending their money on/they should be called in to school to account for themselves and so on. But these are the Tory times we live in.

It makes for some odd alliances, as Zoe Williams cannily identified in today’s G2. Liberals – who take a clear position against smacking children, on the grounds that it is ..er wrong, and violent, and a poor role model for human behaviour etc – find themselves caught in a pincer movement between some black and working class parents who advocate stern discipline and an upper class tendency to advocate corporal punishment. So the liberal looks stupid and ineffectual and soft and not understanding of poverty and its implications and a threat to authority…all of that, rolled into one, while the working class/upper class alliance seem to stand united in defence of stern authority and high standards.

This strange, and often disingenuous, class collaboration has resonance for the schools debate as well. Here, too, we see the odd conflation of different positions/perspective. So, the current government – here, representing upper middle class support of the striking inequality in our school system – encouraging families with absolutely no access to the expensive schools to which they send their own offspring, to abandon the idea of high quality universal education, in favour of quasi private schools that will either benefit largely the affluent – Bristol Free School is probably the clearest current example – or will provide such a diluted version of ‘an education’ that no upper middle class family would ever dream of setting foot in them, let alone using them for their own child.

In the middle, the ‘liberal’ or social democratic position, which argues for a coherent tax payer funded system for quality, universal education – ensuring equal access for the poorest as well as the children from the richest homes – is relentlessly mis represented and traduced as a soft option, deliberately designed to foster low educational standards and poor discipline/boundaries despite the contrary evidence of those countries that have consistently and intelligently invested in universal state education. No matter. This is Tory England. So Michael Gove and co continously stoke dissatisfaction with our state education system, apparently in the name of the poorest families, while, much more quietly, ensuring superior educational options for the better off and new profit making possibilities for their better off mates.
As Steve Richards suggest, in his excellent three part Radio 4 series on The Big Society, there’s still no better word for this than Thatcherism.

I have just come across this thoughtful essay from the New Statesman, published in the late summer, by Margaret Heffernan. It makes many important points – but I particularly love its last paragraph. It touches on so many aspects of human life and behaviour I find most interesting – in particular the things we deliberately don’t see about ourselves and others.

I was sad to hear of the premature death of Rozsika Parker, the writer and psychotherapist, author of the important feminist book, ‘Torn in two: the experience of maternal ambivalence’ published by Virago. I first spied Rosie when I was a rather serious young student revising for my finals and swimming very early every morning in the local swimming pool. There was Rosie, across the lanes from me, gliding back and forth, as graceful as a swan, in a pristine white swimming hat. I knew nothing about her except that she worked for Spare Rib ( to me, then, the most honourable, interesting and exciting of jobs) and that she was film star beautiful. My boyfriend of the time, who came swimming with me most days, knew of my admiration – and no doubt shared it himself! – so he rather bravely struck up a conversation with Rosie in the shallow end one morning. She was friendly and approachable and very kind to me about my ambitions and wish – maybe one far off day! – to contribute to Spare Rib, become a writer etc

I got to know Rosie a little better later on, although never well, but I knew she had trained as an analytic psychotherapist ( by this time, I was living with one myself ) and I knew of her book on motherhood which I devoured once my own children were born.

I was pleased to be able to interview her for Guardian Family in 2006 – was it really that long ago? – about her work on maternal ambivalence. The interview and the things she said still strike a chord and move me, even more so now. It was clear that her children meant so much to her ( she had been resigned to childlessness, and then had two children at 40 and 41) but also that she had the bravery and intelligence to talk about the many difficult emotions that children arouse in even the most loving mother and to use the word ‘ hate’ about some of those most difficult feelings, rather than pussyfooting around with labels like ‘irritation’ or ‘negativity’ etc.

Anyway, here is the interview with Rosie for anyone who wants to read it. I remain very sad that she is no longer here.

Below, a piece I wrote about eighteen months ago, for an ongoing series on normblog and which I never put up on my own site.

So here it is:

It is not always easy to write about a favourite book or even to understand why some works are so much more meaningful to us than others. But with Jennie Gerhardt, Theodore Dreiser’s second and intensely tragic novel, I am acutely aware of how much of the book’s power is, for me, tied to memories of the last days in the life of my mother, Caroline Benn, proud American, socialist, scholar, lover of 19th-century novels and a great admirer of Dreiser.

In the autumn of 2000, when she was dying of cancer, slowly and painfully but with tremendous humour and bravery too, my mother and I talked with the intensity of those who know time is fast running out. It may even have been her who urged me to read Jennie Gerhardt. I had seen her taking notes on the novel, part of her research for her sadly unfinished final project, to write a history of socialists and the socialist movement in America. Jennie Gerhardt is largely set in Ohio, her dearly loved home state to which she returned for a long visit every year.

Analytical to the last, my mother saw Dreiser’s novel largely as a forensic dissection of a particular moment in American capitalism while I admitted to bouts of uncontained weeping at the cruelty of the story’s conclusion, the human tragedy of Jennie herself.

It’s obvious to me now, and as it was to her then, that my profound sadness was intimately connected to her terminal illness and – a slightly different thing, this – our shared knowledge of her imminent death. Dreiser writes powerfully of the simple tragedy of mortality itself – rich or poor, his characters expire acutely aware of their existential isolation – but he also touches directly on the poignant truth that, however vulnerable a mother may be, she is always, if a good mother, in some way more protective of her child than of herself.

In one of the saddest parts of the book Jennie Gerhardt is forced to hide the fact of her illegitimate daughter Vesta’s existence from her rich lover, a decision she comes bitterly to regret and so revoke, only later on to lose Vesta to a childhood illness just at the moment she needs her most. As the mother of two very young girls, facing the impending death of my own mother, this was just all too painful to contemplate, even in fiction.

But sorry, let me do my job, and tell you the story, should you be interested in picking up this book.

Set in Ohio in 1880, Jennie Gerhardt tells the story of a lovely innocent young woman, the eldest daughter of a narrow-minded but proud, disabled and therefore unemployed German immigrant, who is forced to seek work to keep the family in food and warmth.

In the course of the novel she finds love not once, but twice, both times with powerful older men; first, a lonely but tender-hearted Senator, whom she meets when she works as a cleaner in a large hotel, but who dies suddenly leaving Jennie pregnant and a social outlaw.

Later on, she becomes the lover of the impatient but magnetic Lester Kane, scion of a railway-owning family, who sets up house with her, but is eventually forced, through financial and moral pressure, to abandon Jennie and marry a much more suitable and cultured woman, even though he loves Jennie to his dying moments.

The rise and fall of a beautiful but ultimately powerless woman is a common narrative arc in much great American fiction from Henry James’s Daisy Miller to Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. Jennie is a personality of rare goodness and innocence, who stoically accepts her unjust fate. She feels no bitterness, even when, by the end, she is abandoned, through death or desertion, by everyone she truly loves.

Dreiser’s genius lies not just in his raw narrative urgency, but in his ability to show how love and money are always entwined, how our fate is determined less by character than by the deepest-rooted structures and often unspoken rules of society.

Jennie may possibly be a little too good to be true but even those characters who are found wanting are so fully drawn, so wonderfully alive, in both good and bad aspects, that we completely understand why they do what they do.

As Dreiser shows us, without irony, rich men have to keep making money to keep being rich; they must surely have suitably charming and attractive wives. And even clever, independently wealthy women, like Letty Pace, the woman Lester Kane eventually marries, have to lure a suitable mate, with all due sympathy, intellect and charm, in order to sustain their worldly position – even if, as in this case, it leads directly to the effective ‘elimination’ of another woman with less social power.

Dreiser, who went from rags to riches himself, not once, but twice in his lifetime, has the rare gift of writing convincingly about both wealth and poverty. He can convey the urgency of the poor man’s search for work, the child scrabbling for coal, a care-worn mother’s helpless anxiety.

But he writes equally evocatively about the exciting sparkle and deep velvety comfort of wealth, its allure and power, and ultimately its emptiness. Jennie’s ambitious elder brother, Bass, longs to move with a smart crowd.

Clothes were the main touchstone. If men wore nice clothes and had rings and pins, whatever they did seemed appropriate. He wanted to be like them and to act like them, and so his experience of the more pointless forms of life rapidly broadened.

Re-reading Jennie Gerhardt this last week, I got as much pleasure from phrases such as these, with their searchlight power to reveal hidden recesses of human motivation – surely one of the great moral pleasures of fiction – as I did from the powerful story line and its tragic ending.

Yes, I was still touched and deeply upset by the fate of this kind, unlucky, always loving and almost unbelievably stoical young woman from Ohio. But this time I found myself doing something else: feverishly marking, on a bus journey or curled up in a chair at two in the morning, particularly prescient observations. ‘Clothes were the main touchstone…’ ‘The more pointless forms of life’. I was saying to myself, constantly: Ah yes! And so in Dreiser’s company I continue to feel just that little bit less alone in the world: one mark of a great writer.


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