Notes from a rural pub

My daughter was playing badminton in an under-16 county match. I have spent enough time being the parent-on-the tramline, getting frustrated and trying not to coach her and interfere. After five of six years of badminton tournaments, I tend to make sure she is OK and then go and find a coffee shop and do some writing or reading. A couple of weeks ago I ended up in Costa in an artificial retail park somewhere near Ipswich (it could have been anywhere, a soulless and meaningless place). A few days later I received a bill from Euro Car Parks Limited for £90 for breaking some parking rule on ‘private’ land. Yet another for-fuck-sake moment, another site for exploitation and I hear David Harvey on YouTube telling me about accumulation by dispossession and rents.

But that’s not what I want to go on about, though it would be worthy of a post. No, what I want to talk about is the pub I went to in small-town Suffolk, not so far from Bury St Edmunds – where you can smell the boiling beet at this time of year. Like sweet public mash potato.

I didn’t want to go to a pub actually. My preference was for a safe sterile manufactured faux continental coffee shop. But the nearest one of those was in Bury St Edmunds about 4 miles away. I thought it was unnecessarily a bit far for a coffee and generic soullessness. When just 0.7 miles from the Badminton venue was a pub.

When I say small town, I guess this was a big village really. It has a secondary school, a Londis and within that, Google Maps tells me, is a Post Office. There are few new housing developments and a former council estate. The pub was a country pub, a village kind of pub, a rural pub. I knew these hostelries from my youth.

I have spent many years walking into pubs and bars on my own, but I have not done that much of it in the last 15 years, just occasionally though. But from the age of 15 to 26 I was a public house flaneur, not truly a flaneur. I would usually enter the pub as flaneur, after a few drinks I was voyeur, and then, often or not, I would strike up a conversation. A few drinks, community and conviviality, and I would be in conversation with someone or other. My brand of philosophy is forged amongst the wisdom and observation of ale drinkers on bar stools. True public philosophers, almost in the Socratic tradition.

I was more anxious today. I am out of practice. I am no longer familiar with the country pub, or indeed any pub, as I once was. As I drove into the carpark, I was trying to work out who would be in there. It is difficult to tell, everyone has newish cars these days because of the lease-buy credit racket and legislation that make it difficult to run old cars.

I felt awkward walking into the pub, what was it going to be like? Who would be in there? If it was a rural pub of my youth, it would be a mixture: could be landowning farmers, horsey types, the rural middle class. Young couples out for a quiet drink out of town. Blokes playing darts and dominoes. People at the bar. This is what I imagined.

This pub was more like a community centre with Sunday lunch-dining for families. I went into the community centre side of the pub. A father and his 8-(or so)-year-old son (weekend access arrangement?), playing pool eating chips with cheese melted on top. An older gent who seemingly came regularly for his Sunday lunch. A youngish man who put the England football match on the flat screen TV and then went off for a smoke.

I ordered a coffee and chips ‘n’ cheese. The women at the bar was very charming, very friendly and welcoming without any pretence. She was to have an important role in the pub as I will come to explain. The coffee tasted of cooking fat. A few more people arrived; alone, in couples and in groups, they had fairly strong Suffolk accents. It wasn’t the socially diverse rural pub that I remembered from my youth, but working class, with no pretence and no aspirations. That is, no aspirations to be anything other than who they were. I was a voyeur, with the cover of reading Will Davies’ new book Nervous States, looking at social media (the big psychodrama of the EU Withdrawal Agreement) and looking up at the flat screen as England played Croatia.

I considered my middle-class habitus – it must be so fucking obvious – I spend most of my life now at college dinners and engaged in academic conversation within the academy. I don’t know if I can relate to these people anymore. I spend so much time explaining to the liberal middle class about the limitations of rationality and politeness and what drove things like the Brexit vote was a resurgence of affectivity, the need for people to fulfil and to act upon their emotions and not to be afraid of their feelings. I was feeling really awkward in the situation. These weren’t the mores I was accustomed to. I wondered if I could every be part of this community.

It is poignant that I am reading Will Davies’ Nervous States.

As I say part of the pub has the characteristics of a community centre, where people can come along and have a drink and not feel too inhibited about who they are. I think I presented myself as something of an anomaly and curiosity in this setting. Who sits in a pub and reads a book, they might have thought? One of them was curious enough to ask me while we were urinating just before I left. “Out walking, are you?” Another man caught my eye in the pub and asked about my well-being out of friendliness and curiosity.

The main drama unfolded. The older guy was brought his roast dinner, which he began to eat at a low table by the fireplace. A middle-aged man at the bar was provoking him, clearly not trying to be friendly but not really trying to be unfriendly. It was just an ongoing: “Grandad, grandad, grandad …” baiting him. It was harassment, but also in a kind of covert and invasive way. ‘Grandad’ was getting increasingly agitated by it and protested.

The barwoman was excellent, in the way that women are often expected to be in these kinds of situation. She recognised that David, who was baiting grandad, needed attention. She knew that if she engaged with him, no matter how irritating and unpleasant he was, he would leave grandad alone. Again, this is something that women are often expected to do in order to diffuse domestic tensions. Men are likely to use force, not necessarily physical force, but confrontation. The barwoman used emotional labour, but I can’t imagine that she would get anything more than minimum wage for handling a difficult situation with such skill and intelligence. David, though, continued to harass grandad. Grandad eventually asked for his dinner to be wrapped up, so he could take it home. He was clearly distressed.

This was an everyday drama, there was nothing unusual about this in this pub.

Thirty to forty years ago I was spending a lot of time in pubs, many rural pubs. What struck me today was the class homogeneity, the middle class no longer want to be around a struggling emotionally unrestrained working class? The pub is in poor shape, it is basic. Much infrastructure remains from the past, but it is tired. Things have been replaced by cheap oddments. It’s all done on a budget. No lines of pumps with exotic ales, but a basic offering. The people are not looking toward good jobs and opportunities to enhance their lives. They are hanging on, holding on, creating and carving out a community and some form of relaxation amongst a very limited number of things to look forward to. It is really a stark monument to forty years of economic and social policy which has meant decline for so many (increased consumption and debt is not a healthy and sustainable way out of poverty). The devastation of pubs through Wetherspoonification; corporate welfare, through in-work benefits; the free market which has left behind a clear stratification of haves and have nots; and the all-round destruction of inclusive and diverse public life.

For so many people the last forty years, in terms of work opportunities, standards of living, quality of health and education, it must have felt like they have been going backward. I will give it its due, the New Labour government did try and mitigate for this decline – what was criminal is that it didn’t tackle the underlying causes.

If you really want to understand Brexit, then you should visit a pub like this. There must be thousands across the UK. Go in there, sit there and sense what is going on and wonder why we got to this.

Multiplication – the privilege of mathematical thinking

I love John Mason. It is always a pleasure to listen to him as he takes you with him through his exploration of mathematical thinking and learning: “sit there and close your eyes and imagine a number line…” He takes you on a journey of ideas, connections and new understandings of the relationships between concepts and ideas in mathematics.

This evening we explored multiplication in the Faculty of Education.

But it is not the wonderful session that I want to talk about. It is my theme of not Mathematics Education (nME). A kind of meta- hyper- mathematics education. I mentioned to John that I was interested in nMEHe looked puzzled, but not dismissive, John is always interested in thinking. I talked about how we had been through a period of relative stability in mathematics education research (I was talking about neo-liberalism). It is the liberalism that it is important in mathematics education research, it allows the freedom of thought and builds on the constructivism following Piaget and Vygotsky: constructing worlds of meaning and mathematical imaginaries as part of the process of learning (and doing) mathematics. It is the neo– in neo-liberalism that has contributed to deepening inequality in the last forty years.

Neo-liberalism, while it indulges some in this kind of constructivist thinking, it is for those, primarily, who have the time and luxury to indulge. If you want a sense of the mathematical indulgence that is associated with social class read G H Hardy’s Mathematician’s Apology. It is an apology for the fact that his position, wealth and privilege gave him access to think about pure mathematics. Wonderful things ensue, of course – the contribution of pure mathematics is without any doubt. Hardy explains how the pursuit of mathematics for its own sake and without purpose often leads to useful applications. It is the pursuit for no particular purpose that makes pure mathematics productive. But it is, in the context of liberal economics with its implicit utilitarianism, limited to a selected elite.

“Ah!” You say, “mathematics is meritocratic, it is blind to socio-economic status, class or even background.”

Well, no it isn’t, the fact that some children from disadvantaged backgrounds get to study mathematics at top universities insufficient to support this claim. Disadvantage children who progress to study mathematics in leading universities generally have a combination of talent, some luck and often or not a great deal of support. Sadly, there is often an unspoken appeal to competition or even social Darwinism: surely it is a fitting way to select the best. Probably not: the top universities’ mathematics departments are by-and-large filled with students who are from middle class or privileged backgrounds.

Let me explain why this (and I can go back to John Mason’s talk for this). Clear your minds – imagine a number line. Now imagine that number line is an elastic band. Stretch it out to three times its length, on what number would the original ‘4’ be. This is the basis of mathematics learning – of rich deep and agile mathematical thinking in which we explore concepts and relationships.

Now imagine that you are 13 years-old, you have one parent. They may be in precarious, low paid work, they may be struggling with their mental health because of debts. They may be struggling with alcohol, they might be worrying about paying the rent or getting evicted. You might live on a road where families face all sorts of difficulties in work and in keeping a roof over their heads. A community working and living precariously. You might have been pushed out of the shiny academy because you are distracted and can’t follow the strict and daunting behaviour policy. Your school is facing problems because there are lots of kids like you facing challenges, the teachers are tired and stressed. They haven’t got the patience for the kind of stuff John is doing. They love it, they love what he does. But they are so so tired. Even if they can, there is lots going on in your head, even your loving parent can’t shield you from their own or even the community’s anxiety and deepening sense of hopelessness.

Now tell me how you are going to shut all this out  – this noise – and imagine your number line, even if you have a patient, thoughtful, energetic teacher. How do you stand a real chance? You don’t, it is a lottery for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Just before John began his talk, he mentioned the work he had been doing with Cambridge Maths, an initiative run by Cambridge Assessment to develop curriculum. There is no doubt that they are doing wonderful things. I reminded John of Cambridge Assessment’s primary purpose as an arm of the University of Cambridge, in a political and economic climate where the University can’t rely on public funding. Cambridge Assessment is about making money and it follows that Cambridge Maths will have to contribute at some stage. John agreed but argued that any opportunity to develop mathematics education must be taken. He was about to start his wonderful talk and I couldn’t make the following and my final point.

If we really want to make mathematics universal and allow all to indulge in the rich thinking that the study of mathematics promotes, then we have to – we must – start to think critically about it. That is ‘critically’ in the sense of what is driving the agenda: things that are not Mathematics Education – things like political economy. We cannot (must not) put mathematics education in a bubble insulated from political economy. Neo-liberalism fabricates and manufactures consent for economic scarcity (reducing public sector deficits). The consequence is that mathematics education research and development necessarily has to rely on markets and private finance. It is not any-port-in-a-storm to sustain research and development projects; by not resisting we are complicit in the political economy of neoliberalism. If we want universal access to mathematical thinking and a mathematics education for all, then we need to fight for public investment in research and education. We need to campaign against the meanness of economic policy that has marginalised so many and left them without the basic quality of life that creates barriers to the wonderful mathematical journeys that John Mason takes us on.



Responding to Teach First’s Social Mobility Report

In many ways I was pleased to see the publication of the Teach First report on social mobility. The publication of this analysis is important in drawing attention to the problems of inequality and social mobility in education.

But it also annoyed me greatly. Because I see that the levels of inequality and lack of social mobility are a result of successive governments’ economic choices. We have, since the 1970s, in the UK and the USA particularly, adopted a system of liberal economics, neoliberalism. The aim has been to reduce the size of the state with controls on public spending and the transfer of public-sector services and nationalised industry to the private sector.

The result of the adoption of neoliberalism has led to an increase in inequality as a result of controls on public spending, regressive taxation and the deregulation of the financial sector  . The barriers to social mobility are attributable to economic inequality . The adoption of neoliberalism creates a system whereby value flows from the less well off to the wealthiest.

As part of reducing the role of the state, public-sector provision has been transferred to private ownership, in the case of Academy schools, or new private-sector not-for-profit provision has been created, as in the case of Teach First. Teach First, like other forms of outsourced public provision, is a product of neoliberal thinking. Teach First’s proposition is that through the deployment of high-achieving individuals in schools, the effects of disadvantage can be mitigated.

I believe this to be wrong, since it is only through economic policy that inequality and poor social mobility can be addressed. That is not to say we don’t need good schools for all and in them skilled professionals, but it is important that we address society’s problems with appropriate policy making as a priority.

Neoliberalism can’t solve the problems created by neoliberalism. It is a paradox. It is with this in mind I was reminded of a great literary paradox and, as you will see, the striking similarities this has with outsourcing the solutions to neoliberal inequality.

Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1962) is a dark satirical comedy set in an American airbase in Italy at the end of the Second World War. The story follows the main character Captain John Yossarian and his associates, as they participate in a seemingly endless number of bombing missions over Germany. The ‘Catch-22’, the novel’s leitmotiv, and a term subsequently absorbed into the English language, is a paradox. It is first expressed in the novel thus:

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to, he was sane and had to.

World War II, although often seen as a geopolitical war, was the consequence of the economic conditions in the preceding period. Liberal economics had prevailed, with substantial deregulation of the financial sector. Speculation and credit ran rife. The bubble burst in 1929, this plunged the US into a deep recession and took much of Europe with it. The instability created by a crisis of capitalism led to the Second World War.

These conditions are not unlike those that led up to the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 and also the inequality we have in the UK now.

Milo Minderbinder, a comrade of Yossarian, is an entrepreneur, a war profiteer. Heller presents him as a symbol of the American capitalist Dream. Initially, Minderbinder’s syndicate, M & M Enterprises appears small and benign. It involves selling and buying eggs in a complex series of profitable transactions. While flying a mission, Yossarian asks Milo why he buys eggs from Malta for seven cents and sells them to the mess hall for five cents. Milo explains that he does it to make a profit. Perplexed, Yossarian asks if he then loses two cents on each egg. Milo explains:

But I make a profit of three and a quarter cents an egg by selling them for four and a quarter cents an egg to the people in Malta I buy them from them for seven cents an egg. Of course, I don’t make the profit. The syndicate makes the profit. And everybody has a share (Milo Minderbinder, p. 265).

Yossarian thinks he is beginning to understand, he asks if the people Milo sells to are making a profit of two and three quarter cents when they sell them back to him for seven cents. He asks: “Why don’t you sell the eggs directly to you and eliminate the people you sell them to?” Milo responds: “Because I am the people I buy them from.” Milo further explains that he initially buys the eggs in Sicily for a cent each. He makes profit of six cents on each egg overall, except when he sells to the mess hall where he makes four cents. The convoluted process is simply to expand the reach of his business activity.

Arguably this is not dissimilar to the complex contractual arrangements we have with outsourced service providers and academy chains. None of which, like Milo, make a personal profit. There is a contract in which Milo’s syndicate benefits from the activity of the enterprise. Similarly, with outsourced business, through its not-for-profit activity, society supposedly benefits.

“Really?” You ask.

“Yes, really.” I say. “Well, make your own mind up.”

However, Milo like all capitalists expands his business. M & M Enterprises are contracted by the Germans to carry out bombing raids for them. The enemy outsources their combat to the enemy. The Americans then end up fighting on both sides in the battle at Orvieto, and bombing their own squadron at Pianosa. At one point Minderbinder orders his fleet of aircraft to attack his own base, killing many American officers and enlisted men.

I did not realise, when I first read Catch-22 as a teenager, how Heller captured the deep irony of capitalism and liberal economics. That the suffering and damage it creates also provides opportunity for profit and capital accumulation.

The mechanisms by which we employ outsourced providers, like Teach First, to address inequality is a business scheme that capitalises on economic failure. If we address the economic issues, we would not need an enterprise to provide the service, the resources could be absorbed into the public sector to contribute to quality education for all.

I  do not wish to denigrate the many good people who work for and have trained with Teach First. No doubt, their motives are good. They want to do the best for the students they teach. My criticisms here, are at the level of political economy and policy, where I challenge the assumption that within neoliberalism it is possible to create educational programmes that promote social mobility and mitigate for inequality that is, itself, a consequence of neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism can’t solve neoliberalism. It’s a catch-22, we have to change the economic system.


Stiglitz, J. (2012). The price of inequality. Penguin Books.
Wilkinson, R. G., & Pickett, K. (2010). The spirit level: why equality is better for everyone. Penguin Books.

The barriers to radical politics amongst the progressive middle classes

I began this post prompted by what appeared to be the indifference of the progressive middle class. Oh and I had a scrap on Twitter about economics.

The argument went round in circles.

“Oh yes it is!”

“Oh no it isn’t!”

We went on.

I  consider myself a humble person. I aspire to be humble. But in this argument, I was right. I was frustrated by my progressive co-discussant’s unwillingness to engage with radical economic ideas. It puzzled me.Continue reading “The barriers to radical politics amongst the progressive middle classes”