Anthony Horowitz's notebook: Have our schools lost all faith in culture?

Plus: British television has turned into a poor cousin of America's

14 December 2013

9:00 AM

14 December 2013

9:00 AM

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, the Master of the Queen’s Music, recently wrote about the almost total ignorance of young people when it comes to classical music, but I think he was wrong when he worried that Mozart and Beethoven were becoming ‘the preserve of the better off’. The truth is that if there’s a lack of interest in the classics, it crosses all classes and income brackets. Not so long ago, I had dinner with the sixth form of one of our leading public schools. I asked them if they could name one opera by Verdi. This was met by total silence. All right, I said, who can name any opera at all? Another long silence — until, at last, the head boy put up his hand. ‘How about Phantom of the Opera?’

The problem is not one of elitism, I think, but of too much pragmatism. The catastrophe of university fees was that they made a direct correlation between education and employment — graduates shouldn’t mind paying for their education because it will make them ‘worth more’ in the market. Somewhere along the line we seem to have forgotten that education is not simply about passing exams. Even so, I do wonder if Sir Peter isn’t being a touch too gloomy. This summer I played a small part in the Britten centenary celebrations, writing two songs to be performed by a choir at Snape. Entries came from all over the country, the two winners were from Derby and Southampton. One of them, a 13-year-old girl, had never composed before. On the anniversary itself, 22 November, 100,000 children worldwide joined in the singing of the ‘Friday Afternoon’ songs. We always think the worst of the young and they always surprise us.

The loss of common cultural references does make my work in young adult fiction harder. One of my books is called The Falcon’s Malteser, but this is unlikely to raise even the slightest smile these days. Favourite jokes — the Greek chef who prepares a St Valentine’s Day moussaka, for example — are now met with complete incomprehension. I was also worried about the cover of my new book, Russian Roulette, which shows a hammer and sickle. How many children actually know what they mean? I would have preferred a gun and a single bullet but my publishers assure me this doesn’t go down well in the shops.

The difference between the so-called Y generation and our own is the subject of my next television series for ITV. It has been said that this generation is the first that will be economically worse off than the one that went before. They can’t get a job and can’t afford a home. I’m not sure this theory is entirely accurate but there’s certainly enough truth in it to strike a chord and so that’s effectively the premise of New Blood. The first episode looks at greed and corruption in the pharmaceutical industry. Newspapers go to town on bankers and their bonuses but actually they’re small fry compared with the pharmaceutical companies. This year, the chairman of one multinational was offered a payoff in the region of $80 million. And, no, he wasn’t young.

There’s still a strong temptation to head off for Hollywood. Who wouldn’t want to work on shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men or — my own new favourite — the insanely violent The Walking Dead? The sad truth is that British television is increasingly looking like a poor cousin — we just don’t have the scope, the ambition or the money to compete. I’d still like to adapt the brilliant second world war novel, The Caine Mutiny, and was intending to visit the 98-year-old author, Herman Wouk, earlier this year. Sadly, age, tiredness and health issues made this impossible. Mr Wouk, on the other hand, is fine.

Can I urge you not to see a film called Mr Peabody and Sherman in 2014? It’s a DreamWorks production about a brilliant dog who adopts a boy and it may be a triumph of wit and humanity in itself. But it’s also responsible for the tawdry, dispiriting advertisements in Regent Street that now pass as Christmas lights. Sponsoring the lights is all very well, but becoming them surely defeats the point.

If I were prime minister, I would make it the law that nobody was allowed to mention Christmas before 1 December. The Regent Street lights were turned on as long ago as 9 November. I was getting Christmas-themed emails, in the blazing Cretan sun, in August, and reindeer chocolates and wrapping paper were in the shops only weeks later, all the more ludicrous given our Indian summer. I love Christmas but would love it more if there were less of it. That said, I hope you have a happy one.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Anthony Horowitz recently published his 17th Alex Rider novel, Russian Roulette. His other creations include the television series Foyle’s War.

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Show comments
  • ohforheavensake

    Erm… In answer to the question posed in the headline: no. No, they’re not. What I think you mean is that the culture they’re part of isn’t a culture you like: which is your problem, not theirs.

    • grammarschoolman

      What a philistine response – but typical of the Left.

    • Eddie

      Relativism is a terrible thing.
      No doubt you think banging a bongo and rapping infantile rhymes over it constitutes culture which is of as much worth as the great cultural milestones of the last 500 years. A very fashionable pc mutliculti diversity-worshipping opinion. Wrong. But it ticks all the boxes of our dumbed down cultural desert of a school system.
      Methinks people like you are the problem who caused the mess in the first place. A teacher, are we? An academic?

    • IainRMuir

      It’s not a question of who likes it and who doesn’t. The fact remains that the culture we’re talking about has stood the test of time in Europe and its DNA has permeated a great deal of the music which is now part of everyday life. Go to the cinema, watch TV, or even listen to the music backing certain computer games, and there it is, easily recognisable. Same applies to some output of the pop and rock industry. To ignore this and pretend that everything was invented yesterday is short changing our children.

      And what did “Erm” contribute to your comment exactly?

    • Tom Tom

      No, it is THEIR problem. They are aliens in our midst and if they don’t fit in they will ultimately be expelled or eradicated. Such is human history

  • Eddie

    Yes, of course! All schools care about is meeting targets, ticking boxes and promoting an asinine version of social engineering via a diversity obsession that borders on a fetish or some totalitarian re-education camp worthy of North Korea.
    My view is always that children should not be given what they want; they should be given what they don’t know that they want. So we shouldn’t dumb down, but wise up. This maybe happens at grammar schools, de facto grammar schools (the comps where MPs and leftie academics send their kids, without a hint of irony…) and some private schools (though many of them are just exam factories too).
    Sad to say it, but culture is now wholly dependent on parents and home life. If a child is poor and has uneducated parents, he is likely to stay that way in our egalitarian mess of a society.

  • Jambo25

    Sorry, but Mr. Horowitz’s premise is just plain wrong at least as far as the schools I taught in were concerned. They were all “bog standard comprehensives” but still gave children access to and instruction in ‘high’ culture. They didn’t provide the same rigorous education which I received but then the school I attended, as a pupil, was a ferociously academic and competitive public school.

    However the schools I taught in weren’t there to ‘dumb down’ either. The last school I worked in had it’s own school orchestra, windband and talented soloists who frequently performed in school concerts, theatrical productions etc. Various pupils would use the grand in the school hall to play at lunchtime. If pupils left school not knowing the name of a single opera then that would be the fault of the pupil, not the school music department which certainly taught material about operas.

    There was a programme of talks to the pupils by well known Scottish writers plus constant encouragement to enter various schools’ essay and other literary competitions. There was an annual art exhibition of pupils’ work and a steady stream of our senior pupils left to go into Edinburgh College of Art and Glasgow School of Art. One of the art teachers and myself organised frequent field trips to the various art galleries and museums in the Central Scotland area. They were well attended. At the highest school level colleagues and myself introduced pupils to some areas of modern art by looking at the Nazi concept of Entartete Kunst. We used the same history course to introduce pupils to certain concepts of political philosophy.

  • Graeme S

    it all depends upon whos culture we are referencing. So many cultures exist in schools today that teachers and the left refuse to teach British culture.

    • Tom Tom

      There has to be a culture that binds or else it is simply warring tribes

      • Graeme S

        Could not agree More …. Britain is becoming a tapestry a hotch potch of nationalities . God help our Grand Kids

        • Eddie

          Yep, the French are right – they promote integration and the French way – all French kids must learn French language, culture, history (and not in that anti-patriotic sneering way that British teachers refer to anything Britain has ever done in history).
          Some schools in London are 90% ethnic though – and white kids are more vulnerable to racist bullying than ethnic ones in London these days.
          However, the ‘multiculti’ segregationist ethos and huge ethnic populations are really only in our cities, which most natives have abandoned if they cannot live in posh areas.

          • Tom Tom

            Germans are forbidden from promoting German Kultur

          • Eddie

            Do you mean SS sausages?

  • saffrin

    Has our culture lost all faith in our schools?

  • Tom Tom

    Read Alan Sillitoe “The General”

  • D Whiggery

    In that they’ve lost interest in educating our children, yes.