Victims of the 1987 King’s Cross fire would be astonished to see the Grenfell inquiry with its private rooms, quiet areas and a prayer room, counselling and NHS support. Morning sessions stop to allow Muslim prayer; even the location was changed after complaints that survivors could not endure the trauma of Tube travel. British law, which ignores the mutilation of immigrant children, corporal punishment in madrassas, gender-based abortion, and until this week forced marriage, is changing to ‘accommodate diversity’.

The pious nature of the Grenfell hearing shows how the fundamentals of our society are being altered. The desire for inclusiveness affects not just the law, but education and even our concept of knowledge. Instead of pursuing ‘value’ we are preoccupied with some notional ‘equality’.


Oxford University is under attack for not accommodating more children from ethnic minorities, even though many of them are stuck in failing schools. Black, mixed-race and Pakistani students are 20 per cent less likely than white children to achieve five or more GCSE A*-C grades including English and maths, according to a Department for Education report in 2013. The performance of pupils from eastern Europe has also declined. Their achievements are now similar to the previous group, while white working-class boys, who Oxford is also supposed to attract, are scraping along the very bottom.

The culture of mass accommodation has led to the downgrading of exams, desperate box-ticking and academic decline hardly disguised by grade inflation. In further education, under-educated and under-skilled students can take ‘cod’ degree courses, particularly in the arts which offer them nothing.

Acceptance of cod education, in fact our perverse relish for trash instead of art, was displayed by the BBC this week in its Radio 4 programme With Great Pleasure. Once a soothing corner of Sunday night listening, it was first broadcast in 1970 with Dr Horace King, the first Labour MP to become Speaker of the House of Commons, presenting his lifetime’s choice of verse, prose and music. He was followed by union leader Jack Dash, Enoch Powell, Siobhan McKenna and Laurens van der Post.

This week’s guest was Sabrina Mahfouz, a young British-Egyptian writer described by the BBC as ‘a Renaissance woman’. Her Renaissance has nothing to do with re-evaluating knowledge, more about getting by without any, which she has done exceptionally well.

Despite knowing nothing about the subject, she decided to become an archaeologist, and entered University College London.

‘It was to do with science,’ she wailed. ‘I’m not sure why nobody told me. I hated digging.’

She dropped out. ‘I really like books,’ she explained. She switched to Eng Lit but didn’t like the women in the novels. Next, she was accepted for a degree in politics and diplomacy at SOAS.

‘I wanted to work for the UN,’ she said, ‘that sort of thing.’

She was immediately fast-tracked into the Ministry of Defence but told us, ‘I just left.’

She went to the theatre for the first time, and at the Royal Court saw Random, a play by black writer debbie tucker green (sic) about a stabbing in south London, delivered in Caribbean patois.

‘It changed my life,’ she said. She decided to try writing and hit the zeitgeist.

Like tucker green, Mahfouz has garnered a slew of awards. Since 2010 she’s won the Westminster Prize for New Playwrights, been invited to New York with the Old Vic T S Eliot exchange programme, won a Sky Arts Scholarship, been published by Bloomsbury and commissioned by the National Theatre, Paines Plough theatre group produced her piece on Garage Music, she’s been playwright in residence at the Bush Theatre and climate poet in residence at Cape Farewell (a ‘cultural response to climate change’ based in Dorset) a ‘Writer at Liberty’ for the human rights group and a ‘Global Shaper’ with the World Economic Forum.

She finished giving us ‘great pleasure’ with a rap poem by her almost equally lucky Cypriot boyfriend, Anthony Anaxagorou, winner of the London Mayor’s Respect Poetry Slam, a competition organised by the Poetry Society ‘before a loud and voluble audience’, as part of Sadiq Khan’s ‘Respect’ festival celebrating multi-culturalism.

I sipped my cocoa listening to his rap, The Master’s Revenge, which attributed most European culture to the influence of black music, even the discovery of the double helix.

‘Jamaica is a major part of the narrative track,’ he stormed, and he could be right. The celebrated couple adore Garage and Grime music the way Renaissance men once revered the laws of perspective. They’ve no need for the old learning. Books themselves are now under threat as traditional cultural capital is junked and aesthetic value sacrificed for the notion of ‘community’.

It’s a mistake to think that libraries are closing everywhere. Forty new ones opened in 2012. Like public inquiries and further education, they keep the name but are a totally new brand, almost nothing to do with readers exploring the canon of European knowledge.

Newcastle library, a steel-and-glass box with a 180-seat ‘performance space’ opened in 2009. In a recent BBC programme called The Library Returns, City Librarian Tony Durcan said: ‘Libraries were once temples to knowledge and you had to be a member of that religion to gain entrance.

‘The old buildings were beautiful but people were afraid to enter them. We want them transparent so as you walk past you can see people just like you inside them.’

In 2013 Dutch architect Francine Houben designed the £188million Library of Birmingham, a pile of concrete boxes wrapped in circles of aluminium. She claims to have turned her boxes into a ‘people’s palace’. Her de-constructed venue represents ‘community’ rather than any exploration of value.

These urban projects are also about encouraging the public to move away from their old culture. BBC reporter Jonathan Glancey urged listeners to ‘forget about quiet study’: libraries are about ‘taking the whole family out for the day to make a noise’.

Any reference section, renamed the ‘mixing chamber’, will occupy only a small part. There will be ‘living space’, places for ‘partnering’ with social services, rooms for ‘gaming’, where children taught with emojis can use video consoles rather than browse through books. Of course, there has to be music, that ‘major part of the narrative track,’ with spaces for streaming your favourites. No anxious spinster in wing glasses with be there to shush you; there will be no staff.

Everyone interviewed spoke about ‘community engagement’ as the chief reason for libraries.

‘As I build it I think of the little boy from India and Pakistan walking on the streets of Birmingham,’ said Houben, ‘saying to his father, I want to go in there.’

He probably can’t read well in English but that doesn’t matter as our culture will change to accommodate him with sparkly buildings where he can game and stream. It’s not his fault that it’s becoming increasingly unrecognisable to those of us who once studied our cherished books in silence.

16 COMMENTS

  1. I was born into a lower middle-class family. Yes, we had a few books – the most ‘highbrow’ being a cherished set of Dickens. From about 12 years old I spent whole days in the public library reading. I checked out stacks of books. It was my voluminous independent reading that gained me A-level A and S grades at my secondary modern-turned-comprehensive (in an age when such grades meant something). I went to university – one of only a handful of pupils at my school to do so.

    So I have great gratitude for the old, silent library full of musty books. Their desecration into playrooms is an abomination.

  2. ‘Twas said, if you went up to university, that, you were ‘reading’ your particular chosen discipline. Whether it be; reading Physics, referred to, similarly you would say, “I am reading English” – as you do.

    Reading gained you entry into ‘cornucopia’ of all sorts of conflicting and not necessarily corresponding views and theories, but that is, sorry should I say, ‘WAS’ the point of rolling up to uni. Going up, to hear the other side, the counter, indeed contrarian opinion and to thus derive and design, though help and guidance from tutors and lecturers your own thesis.

    Furthermore, all the Physicist, Maths and Engineering undergrads I knew, had a very healthy appetite for most other topics including English lang’ and lit’, though, I can’t say that I was ever aware of English undergrad’s so keen on acquiring, having a healthy interest in reading Physics, or Engineering tomes. It was and very definitely is, why pure science grads are better rounded students , men, women in every way.

    But Lordy, if you cannot bear the thought of, champ at the very idea of burying your head in a book, you should not be up at university.

    Or, these days, are universities, actually universities?

    Universities, nay should I say degree factories, are they just an extended time in attempt to securing bog standard superior version of post modern skool quals? It follows therefore to beg, just what is the point of post modern unis?

    I can only conclude, indoctrination and Propaganda and allude to, the construct, as finishing schools for young cultural Marxists aka UK-Ed = ‘Common Purpose’.

    • The government have put a “D” notice on it…..all references on the internet have been scrubbed. We are living in a de facto Police State.

    • Tommy Robinson has been jailed for over a year. His arrest, court appearance and sentence appear to have happened over only a few hours. There are a handful of reports on his arrest, but nothing on the sentence. Since when have the wheels of British ‘justice’ moved so quickly?

  3. “”What I’ve noticed,” says Stuart Hill, a lead designer on the (Aberdeen Library) project,
    “is that the students tend to gravitate towards the more vibrant spaces
    around the atrium closer to the ground floor. Most seem to work with
    headphones on anyway, blissfully unaware of any unwanted noise.”

    And for those who don’t – tough. It’s vibrancy. In a library.

  4. “The old buildings were beautiful but people were afraid to enter them.’ Does this city librarian, Tony Durcan, have any evidence to support that statement? No one was afraid to go into lovely old libraries. You either liked and used them or you didn’t.

    • The atrium of the library in our Labour town is a rough shelter, for street addicts and dealers and also a pissor. Long dead ordinary teachers at the local art college decorated it to a high standard. Overheated and overstaffed yet with declining opening hours and books.

  5. The theme that runs though Jane’s examples is public money.
    Our money being wasted without our permission on things we don’t want. ‘Arts’ in the UK would wither and die in a month if exposed to real public choice.
    As long as we vote for the same old parties, we will get the same old results.

    • That’s a good point about public money. It’s worth remembering that many of the old, beautiful buildings that are being replaced were built by philanthropy and subscription.

  6. Is there any guidance on what comments go into moderation and a timescale for when they come out? Otherwise commenting becomes a bit pointless as longish posts never emerge for reasons unknown.

  7. “culture will change to accommodate him with sparkly buildings where he can game and stream.”

    Sparkly buildings? Not for much longer without a huge sea change in economic policy, towards making money to finance improvements in public services and living standards and away from funding based on borrowing and stealing from those that have saved all their lives or who are successful.

    Will this sort of change happen in a democracy? To be honest, I don’t think it can. For most voters, it is far easier to vote to steal other people’s cash or vote to borrow against out children’s future than the other options available to them.

  8. Knowledge has no value in the land of feelings. Reason has no value in the land of the pragmatic. Value has no meaning in the land of the altruist.

  9. “British-Egyptian”
    So what is she; British or Egyptian or is she currently trans-national?

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