The biggest objection to the return of grammar schools is how ruthlessly selective the old 11-plus exams were. By their very nature, exams are ruthless and selective – that’s what they’re there for. And the main reason private schools do so much better than state schools is because they take ruthless selection to sadistic levels.
Between the ages of five and 26 when, please God, I did my last ever exam (to qualify as a barrister), I sat around 200 exams. Each one was a brutal sifting exercise, dividing children into better sets in better schools, and then into getting better degrees at better universities.
I’m all for it – and I’m against the All Must Have Prizes approach that refuses to stretch children. But still, such brutal selection leaves a lot of casualties in the private sector, too.
Commentators concentrate on privately educated successes – the David Camerons, Justin Welbys and Boris Johnsons. I could tell them sad tales of countless alumni of grand schools and universities that didn’t make it: the breakdowns, the suicides, the drug addicts, the hopeless lotus-eaters.
A few years ago, I went to the memorial service of a chaplain at my old school, Westminster. One old boy in my year – the coolest, best-looking boy with the most girlfriends – had got on well with the chaplain but wasn’t there. I asked his wife why.
“He’s angry with the school for not pushing him hard enough,” she said.
When old boys of one of the best, most academic schools in the world accuse that school of not being ruthless enough, you begin to get the picture – selection is a natural human desire.
The Russian cheats, expelled from the Olympics, were only acting in the spirit of ancient Greece. Cheating was endemic in the Peloponnese, home to Olympia. The Peloponnese is even named after a sporting cheat – Pelops.
Keen to marry Hippodamia, the daughter of King Oenomaus, Pelops challenged the king to a chariot race to win her hand. To ensure victory, he bribed the king’s charioteer to fit a wax linchpin to the king’s chariot wheel. The chariot crashed and Oenomaus died. Pelops won and gave his name to his new kingdom, the Peloponnese. A shrine was raised to the cheating winner at Olympia.
I’ve been talking about ancient Greece this week at the Llangwm Literary Festival on the banks of the River Cleddau in Pembrokeshire. A sailor in the audience answered a question about the Odyssey that’s been bothering me.
When I travelled round the Mediterranean over the last four years, recreating Odysseus’s Odyssey, I visited Messina in Sicily – opposite the toe of Italy’s boot, supposedly the site of Homer’s Charybdis, the deadly whirlpool that threatened Odysseus’s ship. The only problem was, the water in Messina harbour was as flat as a pancake when I got there.
The Pembrokeshire sailor had been there, too. “There are whirlpools, where the water is pushed through the narrow gap between Sicily and the mainland,” he said. “They’re just a little further north of Messina.”
This is the fourth time sailors at literary festivals have pointed this out. There’s an old reporter’s rule: one incident is a one-off; two similar incidents are a coincidence; three are a trend. Four mean that Homer was spot on.
Also at the festival was David Horspool, Richard III’s biographer, talking about Richard III and Henry VII, a local boy, born at Pembroke Castle.
I knew Henry VII was a distant contender for the throne but I hadn’t realised quite how distant. His great-great grandfather was John of Gaunt, Edward III’s illegitimate son. John of Gaunt was later legitimised – but still, Henry IV declared his descendants were ineligible for the throne.
Richard III may have waded through blood to the crown but he had a better claim to it. How ordered things are these days, when we expect the natural line of succession to be peacefully followed.
Why is Team GB such an annoying expression? Partly because it’s wrong – Great Britain doesn’t include Northern Ireland, whose athletes, of course, represent our nation too.
It’s also because “team” is such an annoying word, much loved by David Brent; a word redolent of dreary staff awaydays and depressing motivational speakers. And it’s otiose. There are many different names for this country and its constituent parts, and they have served us well for centuries – why tack on such an inane non-word?