In my Lower Sixth year, my school bade goodbye to the last of the succession of distinguished Headmistresses who had run it with flair and formidable personalities since its foundation, and said hello to its first Headmaster. Mr. Samuels was highly qualified, and he stayed at the school for the next quarter of a century, steering it capably through some very difficult times, but my father took against him within the first term, after accompanying me to that year’s Prizegiving evening, at which I was officially ‘presented’ with my O-Level certificates. Clutching my traditional empty diploma tube (the actual certificates having, equally traditionally, arrived at home in the post some three months earlier), I went and sat next to Dad while Mr. S. droned a cringe-making speech, in which he bestowed fulsomely overblown praise on everyone he could think of, turning regularly to face each side of the hall so that all benefited from an equal share of the sight of his countenance. At last, we got to the point where we would normally have sung the school song, a beautiful three-part arrangement, for equal voices, of a canon by William Byrd; but instead, we had to plod through Mr. Samuels’ favourite hymn, ‘Oh God, Our Help In Ages Past’ – unison – before we were dismissed and could make a run for it. As, following the initial dash for freedom, we walked rather more sedately back down the hill, my father said, in the quiet measured tone that I knew meant he had something explosive on the brew, “Does Mr. Samuels always talk like that?”
“At such length. And to so little purpose. With such liberal applications of flannel and soft-soap. And revolving on his heels as though propelled by clockwork?”
“‘Fraid so. “
“Hmmn. Well, whenever you have a school function in future, I have a premonition that I will have a prior engagement. A thousand ages in my sight would be like this evening gone.”
Years later, my father, a wicked twinkle in his eye, would refer to my erstwhile Headmaster as ‘Soapy Sam, the Mechanical Man’. Normally the most tolerantly forgiving of men, Dad could never quite forget that Mr. Samuels was responsible for filling one entire evening of his life – an evening he could never retrieve or relive – with so much verbal dross.
I felt the shade of Soapy Sam hovering behind me as I delved further into Sir Stephen Bubb’s blog. Sammish pomposity, obsequiousness, insensitivity… they are all there, but exaggerated and extended to the nth degree, and apparently unSammishly unrelieved by any actual achievement. Dollops of constipated self-congratulation are topped with swirls of banality (Bubb’s Blog won’t settle for a cliché, no sirree, not where two or three can be stuffed into the same sentence) and a liberal dusting of patronisation. Providing enough material for a Glasto-sized fisk-fest, the blog is so bad as to be almost beyond parody. Indeed, Sir Robin Bogg (‘chief executive of BUBB – the British Umbrella Backing Body’) insists in Bogg’s Blub (‘part of the National Blag Archive’) that boggsblub.blogspot.co.uk is the real deal, and it’s our Stephen’s Bubb-blog that is the spoof. Being charitable (the Bubbster is very keen on charity), perhaps it’s not his fault; perhaps it’s his misfortune and disability. After all, His Sir-S.-ness is an Oxford graduate, so he has a right – nay, a duty – as an Oxford Man, to bear in mind at all times his own supreme importance and his overwhelming superiority to the common herd, does he not? Maybe he just can’t help it.
Here, after all, is a man trained at our most venerated University to ‘gather, organise and deploy evidence, data and information from a wide variety of secondary and some primary sources; to interpret such material with sensitivity to context; to identify precisely the underlying issues in a wide variety of (…) debates, and to distinguish relevant and irrelevant considerations; to recognise the logical structure of an argument and assess its validity; to assess critically the arguments presented by others, and by oneself, and to identify methodological errors, rhetorical devices, unexamined conventional wisdom, unnoticed assumptions, vagueness and superficiality; to engage in debate with others; to formulate and consider the best arguments for different views, and to identify the weakest elements of the most persuasive views.’
Not only that, this most intellectually rigorous of environments trained him in practical skills, so that he can ‘listen attentively to complex presentations and identify the structure of the arguments presented; read with care a wide variety of written (…) literature, and reflect clearly and critically on what is read; marshal a complex body of information in <written> form; write well for a variety of audiences and in a variety of contexts; and engage in oral discussion and argument with others, in a way that advances understanding of the problems at issue, and the appropriate approaches and solutions to them.’
But that’s what you get, allegedly, when, like Sir Stephen, you graduate in Modern Greats – Politics, Philosophy and Economics. Oh my, yes.
I’d already kind of guessed that he didn’t read Greats; and not only because PPE is the favoured discipline for creating a short-cut into the upper echelons of the political world that Sir Stephen revels in.
A Classics scholar would, I hope, be unlikely, in the wake of a Winterbourne post that drew a great deal of criticism from (amongst many others) families whose members have died in ATUs, to have headed the following one – detailing a change of incumbent in the Minister for Civil Society’s office and letting us know just how deservedly cosy he is with both outgoing and incoming Ministers – with ‘Ave et Vale’.
Even a Prelims student of Literae Humaniores would surely recognise this as being far too close to ‘Ave atque Vale’ – the final, heart- and gut-wrenching words of Catullus’ terrible, splendid elegy for his brother; and a phrase and feeling far better suited to Justice for LB and Justice for Nico than to some pre-election political reshuffle.
Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus
advenio has miseras frater ad inferias
ut te postremo donarem munere mortis
et mutam nequiquam alloquerer cinerem.
Quandoquidem fortuna mihi tete abstulit ipsum.
Heu miser indigne frater adempte mihi
nunc tamen interea haec prisco quae more parentum
tradita sunt tristi munere ad inferias.
Accipe fraterno multum manantia fletu,
atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale.
Through many countries and over many seas
I have come, brother, to these melancholy rites,
to show this final honour to the dead,
and speak (to what purpose?) to your silent ashes,
since fate now takes you yourself from me.
Oh brother, snatched away from me so cruelly,
at least take now these last offerings, blessed
by the tradition of our parents, gifts to the dead.
Accept, by custom, what a brother’s tears drown,
and for eternity, my brother, Hail and Farewell.