Lockdown reading: the first month

I’ve done a lot of reading between 20th March till 20th April 2020, and thought it would be nice to keep a diary and look later at the patterns.

Non-fiction

Maya Jasanoff, The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World

Mike Dennis, The Stasi: Myth and Reality

Fiction

Krischan Koch, Dreimal tote Tante

Sophie Hannah and three others, The Understudy

Colm Toibin, The Story of the Night

Thomas Enger, Scarred

Volker Kutscher, Der stumme Tod (part of the series that loosely inspired Babylon Berlin)

Sebastian Barry, A Thousand Moons

Online stuff

The Conversation has really come into its own during the crisis https://theconversation.com/uk

Nature is a superb source for the science https://www.nature.com/

Full Fact always does a great job debunking fake news https://fullfact.org/

Adult education, democracy, and murder in Nordic Noir

In her novel Red Wolf, the Swedish crime writer Liza Marklund bumps off a character who lives in the far northern region of Norrbotten. Margit Axelsson, a one-time Maoist revolutionary in the 60s, now makes a living by teaching ceramics to adults in the remote town of Piteå.

Norbotten, photographed by Simo Rasanen (Creative Commons)

Marklund portrays Swedish adult education, at least as carried out by the Arbetarnas bildningsförbund (AFB, or WEA), as an extension of Margit’s beliefs:

The Workers’ Educational Association had always believed that those who had received the fewest of society’s resources should be compensated through education, cultural activities, and opportunities. he regarded it as jjstice applied in the educational and cultural sphere.

Study groups were a lesson in democracy. They took as their starting point the belief that every inividual has the capacity and desire to develop themselves, to exert influence and take responsibility, that every ndividual is a resource.

And she saw how the members grew, youing and old alike. Whwen they learned to handle the clay and the glazes their self-confidence grew, their understanding of the opinions of others, and, with that, their ability to actively influence what went on in the society around them.

It all ends badly for Margit, but isn’t it interesting to see an author set out such a clear analysis of the wider effects of adult learning? I have no way of knowing whether the study circles of the Arbetarnas bildningsförbund really do have these effects, but I hope so.

Tackling loneliness : a public health perspective

I’ve long been interested in social capital – a concept that draws attention to the complex ways in which our social connections serve as a resource. For the third edition of my short book on the subject I added a section on loneliness, which I saw as a neglected aspect of social capital, as it demonstrates the negative effects of having too few – or too weak – connections with others.

Since then, debate over loneliness has attracted widespread attention. This week’s edition of the Lancet carries a strongly worded editorial on the subject, triggered by a new and authoritative report on the risks and costs – social as well as financial – of loneliness. As we move towards policies of ‘social distancing’ in response to Covid-19, I thought it well worth sharing.

Why a fearless Welsh journalist praised German work camps in 1933

Gareth Jones was a fearless investigative journalist, famous for his reports on the horrific famine that followed enforced collectivization in the Ukraine. He is the subject of a biography published by the Welsh Academic Press, but is now becoming familiar to a wider audience thanks to the newly-released Mr Jones, a major film directed by the wonderful Agnieszka Holland, starring James Norton as Jones (and featuring part of Fife as his home town of Barry).

James Norton

jones

I first came across Jones in a rather different context, while researching for my study of British work camps. In a series of articles in spring 1933 for the Western Mail and South Wales News, Jones reported on his visits to German labour camps in February 1933, an experience that ‘impressed me deeply’.

Jones’ impressions of the German camps he visited were overwhelmingly positive. He compared the large scale of the German Arbeitsdienst camps with the handful of voluntary and government camps in Wales, concluding that the latter had lessons to learn.

If Wales had done as much as Germany for the unemployed there would now be 300 camps here, and about 10,000 young Welshmen between 18 and 25 years of age would be engaged at useful work, repairing boots, singing, doing physical exercise, playing football or cricket and discussing everything under the sun. . . .Germany is years ahead of Wales in tackling unemployment. Thus Wales has a chance of catching up its brother nation and perhaps of beating Germany in the quality of work done. The opportunity is a magnificent one, especially for the Churches (Western Mail & South Wales News, 27 April 1933).

This cheery picture might seem odd, given how we now view the German labour camps. But when Jones visited Germany, the Nazi Party was just consolidating its hold on power, participation in labour service was still voluntary, and the camps were still organised by a wide variety of voluntary organisations.

Jones visited at least one camp run by the Stahlhelm, a nationalist and conservative paramilitary grouping founded in 1918 as a veterans’ movement; after the Nazi seizure of power, it was integrated into the Nazi structures in 1934. Jones noted that the unemployed trainees wore uniforms and helmets, concluding that the Stahlhelm camp ‘had done excellent work in making orchards and building roads, but their outlook was nationalistic and military’.

Jones also visited other types of camp, including one organised by a Christian group. But he worried that ‘Now, however, the whole system is in the melting-pot, for Hitler is in power, and it is feared that he may destroy its voluntary basis and make it compulsory and narrowly nationalistic’. As indeed was the case when the Nazis replaced the voluntary system with their universal male Reichsarbeitsdienst.

Jones was far from alone in admiring the voluntary labour service of pre-Nazi Germany. In my book I quoted Jones alongside the example of a Workers’ Educational Association study tour which was particularly taken with the ‘democratic way of living’ in a German camp. The fact is that many if not most of these camps were very different animals from the universal labour service enforced by the Nazis.

Entirely consistently, Jones also admired Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps, another large scale work camp initiative which trained young unemployed men on public works, in what Jones described as ‘a labour army’. Jones valued such camps because they ‘rescue’ unemployed men from ‘the apathy of worklessness’; what he despised was indifference to their plight.

Did this make him a Nazi sympathiser? Not at all, but Jones certainly has good contacts with the Nazi leaders, and he was denounced by some Western anti-fascists for ‘smearing’ the Soviet Union, of which the Ukraine was a part.

Jones died young, murdered in China in 1935 shortly before his 30th birthday. I very much welcome the film’s celebration of a journalist who uncovered uncomfortable truths about things most readers preferred to ignore. Meanwhile, if you want to read more on 1930s work camps in Britain (and to a lesser extent Ireland), hunt down a copy of my book.

Commercial adult learning: mountain skills

I spotted this poster in the men’s room at my favourite outdoor shop. Tiso’s in Glasgow has a cafe, making it a good place for a break on the drive over to visit family in Dunoon. It has offered outdoor skills training since 2000.

Tiso’s developed the courses as a by-product of its main retail trade. They are held across climbing and skiing sites across Scotland. A one-day course will set you back £85-£95. The main instructor is an experienced mountaineer who holds a Mountaineering Instruction Certificate, an award of Mountain Training UK.

If you want to know more, check out the details on https://www.tiso.com/courses

Adult learning in spy fiction: John Le Carré

Le Carré at the Zeit Forum Kultur, 2008, Hamburg

There’s a brief but telling mention of adult education in John Le Carré’s latest novel. Describing a character who has a left-wing father from a mining background, Le Carré adds that

His mother spent whatever free time she had from work at adult education classes until they were cut.

Le Carré is describing here a politically engaged self-improving working class milieu which he believes no longer exists, due in part to the erosion of public civic spaces of learning.

Agent Running in the Field is entertaining enough, but it’s unlikely to be judged one of Le Carré’s better novels, though its plot may resonate with the beliefs and fears of some Remainers. For the purposes of this blog, though, I will confine my comments to his very brief mention of adult education.

First, the author presents the weakness of UK adult education as a given; and while I think he is wrong about it, I understand that a lot of his readers will share this view.

Second, I’m encouraged that an author of his stature has actually noticed that UK adult education is not in great shape, and can assume that this observation will resonate with his readers. Maybe someone should be signing Le Carré up as patron of a campaign for adult learning (while gently pointing out to him that it isn’t quite dead yet).

Education and the Brexit saga

One thing seems to be consistently clear in the debate over the UK’s relationship with the EU: our participation in the EU’s education and training programmes is set to continue. That shouldn’t surprise anyone, as all the main UK parties have said repeatedly that they would like our participation to continue. And now the political declaration attached to the latest withdrawal agreement confirms it.

What exactly this will mean in practice is another matter. Given its track record, the question of whether the U.K. Border Agency is capable of distinguishing between students and illegal immigrants at point of entry is a good one. And I have no idea whether we are reaching the end of the beginning in the never-ending story of Brexit.

Still, it seems clear to me that those who value international exchanges now have work to do if they are going to shape the scope and scale of future U.K. participation – especially if they are involved in areas other than the well-represented and lobby-rich sectors like schools and higher education.