Thursday, 31 January 2013

Paul Doherty talks about books, education and Michael Gove

Dr Paul Doherty was recently awarded the OBE for his services to education.

Headmaster of Trinity Catholic High School in Woodford Green, Essex for the past 31 years, Dr Doherty’s honour is certainly well deserved. Trinity Catholic High School is highly sought after by parents in the east London and Essex areas. It has been judged “outstanding” in its last three Ofsted inspections and that has nothing to do with the fact that the present chief inspector of schools and head of Ofsted Mike Wilshaw is a former deputy of Dr Doherty’s at Trinity.

Education, education, education is a phrase that could have come from the lips of Dr Doherty, had not a certain former Prime Minister coined the phrase first.

For education has been central to Dr Doherty’s own development from his humble beginnings in 1940s Middlesbrough. His mother came from a mining family in the North-east; his father came from Northern Ireland. “My father couldn’t read or write, though he was a clever mathematician. He could calculate the odds at Kempton Park in a flash,” said Dr Doherty.

From Middlesbrough, Dr Doherty progressed to study history at Liverpool University, then onto Oxford to complete a thesis on Queen Isabella and the life of Edward II for his doctorate.

It was during this period of his life that the burning passion for history developed. “What I like about history is when the evidence is thin and there is another possible explanation,” said Dr Doherty, who quotes the case of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. “No one has ever really sat back and explained why Henry in a matter of days turned so violent towards Anne and later made her daughter illegitimate. Did he learn something about Ann that we don’t even know now?”

It was while doing his thesis on Edward II that Dr Doherty discovered that the King didn’t die and wasn’t murdered as is popularly believed. Dr Doherty’s thesis included details of a letter from a priest at the time, detailing how the Dominicans freed Edward from Barclay Castle, from where he went on to see out his days in a hermitage in Italy.

It was these studies that inspired Dr Doherty to become a novel writer. This second career started as an interest born of his research and fascination in history. Though, it was subsequently to result in his becoming a best-selling novelist, famed throughout the world, though still all the time doing the day job of leading a successful Catholic comprehensive school.

His first book drew on his historic research, bringing the story about Edward II together in “the Death of a King.” The book was published in 1986.

It was from here that the headmaster dual career began to blossom. More books followed, producing a year for a long time. Now, over the 100 mark, he has slowed to two a year.

He has now sold millions of books across the world, including Europe, the United States and Japan. “I am told I’m big in Bulgaria,” said Dr Doherty.

In financial terms, his earnings from books vastly dwarves the salary he receives as a headmaster. Yet at the age of 66, he retains the same infectious enthusiasm for writing as he has for education.

“I was raised on Colon Doyle and above all GK Chesterton. The Father Brown novels were seminal works. I love the two things, history and mystery,” said Dr Doherty, who recalls the death of the two princes in the Tower during the reign of Richard III. “There are indications that they died of natural causes in Royal lodgings. Elizabeth I took the French ambassador to those lodgings, where there was a secret room with the two skeletons,” said Dr Doherty. The lodgings were later pulled down during the years of Oliver Cromwell’s rule, with the remains of the princes buried under the White Tower. They were not discovered until the reign of Charles II.

Other populist accounts suggest the princes could have been killed by Richard III, Henry VII or that they did not die in the tower at all but escaped.

Dr Doherty’s favourite periods for writing history mystery novels about have been the medieval and ancient Egyptian times, though his most recent book, the Last of Days, focused on the final three months of the life of Henry VIII and whether he was actually murdered.

“I like telling stories. Facts, evidence and information. I know where to go to get it,” said Dr Doherty, who has no problems with web developments and devices like the kindle. His one reservation being the lack of control for the author. “People still love a good story,” said Dr Doherty. “The problem with writing, and what you see in the media, is the limited number of plots,” said Dr Doherty, who highlights the detective story centring on the single, divorced, reformed alcoholic male as all too typical of the genre. “People are constantly looking for new plots, which are what taxes the author.”

The author believes that there is an insatiable interest in murder mysteries and a desire of people down the ages to see justice done. “The attraction of the detective novel is that it is about justice, about someone being brought to book,” said Dr Doherty, who is a big admirer of Agatha Christie, who goes back in time and looks at any number of ways a person may be killed and the killer get away with it.

Returning though to the day job, Dr Doherty has been 34 years in Catholic education and 31 years at Trinity Catholic High School. He has no plans to retire. “It is not a job but a way of life,” said Dr Doherty, who is a strong adherent of comprehensive education. “I truly believe that an excellent comprehensive education system would transform this country. It is not right to stream or categorise, everyone is equal,” said Dr Doherty. “The Catholic Church has a vital role to play. We are not Johnny come latelies on this. Catholic education was here before the Roman legions left. Oxford and Cambridge were our Church foundations.”

Dr Doherty recalls how 1500 years ago, people came, they built a church. “Then the first thing the church was used for after mass was a school. I’m proud to be part of that legacy,” said Dr Doherty.

At Trinity Catholic High School, the Catholic ethos is strong. There are two chapels, with the Eucharist present. “We begin every school day with a mass,” said Dr Doherty, who has seen all seven of his own children come through the school. Three now teach there. He adds that they were all independently appointed, lest there be any suspicions of nepotism at play. “Anyone can come and see this is a very happy school. People like learning and coming to the school,” said Dr Doherty. “I don’t believe in education being punitive, that is why I am against the 11 plus. Children change, a child at 16 is different to one at 12.”

Maybe surprisingly for such a strong advocate of comprehensive education, Dr Doherty believes that the present Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove is doing a good job. He is critical of the view that has developed over the years that change is good for education. “Mr Gove puts an emphasis on teaching and learning. This is what schools are there to do. Past administrations have seen schools as responsible for everything and we cannot do everything. Schools were to replace the parish and local community, we can’t do that, we are schools and part of the local community,” said Dr Doherty.

Whilst generally approving of what Mr Gove is doing, the Trinity head does wish he would listen more to the faith schools on the question of the baccalaureate. “He’d win a lot of friends and allies if he did. I don’t understand why he won’t relent on RE. It is a discipline and a tough one,” said Dr Doherty.

Dr Doherty draws much of his own Catholic inspiration from the life of Thomas More. “I am fascinated by Thomas More, he is one of our greatest English saints, a great humanist,” said Dr Doherty, who admires More and fellow English saints like John Fisher for not getting drawn into the whole messy business of Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and marriage to Ann Boleyn. “He didn’t attack the King, Queen or Parliament but reiterated a simple message: the Pope is head of the universal Church, the mass is the mass and the Eucharist the Eucharist and left it at that,” said Dr Doherty. “It was a brilliant stance, not lecturing other people but saying this is the truth as I see it and leaving it at that.” His assertion was that if the settlement being put forward by Henry VIII was right, then the past 1,000 years were wrong.

This strong Catholic advocate of comprehensive education, who came from mining stock, was surprised and shocked to be awarded the OBE. “I had mixed emotions. It was ironic, given my own origins but a marvellous occasion to celebrate with other people,” said Dr Doherty. “It was fascinating to meet the Queen and go to Buckingham Palace.”

No doubt the award was well warranted for someone who has done so much to advance education in this country. This has come in the formal setting of the school and via his literary exploits – a number of which have thrown up some interesting insights on the Queen’s own antecedents.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Back to the future roads policy culminates in new Battle of Hastings

One of the least heralded elements of the Coalition Government’s economic policy has been the return to road building.

The move to build more than 40 new roads was justified in terms of infrastructure development but also fits well with Chancellor George Osborne’s avowed climate skeptic beliefs.

In setting out on a new road building programme this Conservative led Government has followed a path well-trod by its predecessors in the 1990s. Then such controversial projects as Twyford Down, the Newbury bypass and the M11 Link Road in east London brought forth a whole new generation of activists in opposition.

The Swampie generation, as it became known, drew in campaigners from across the classes and generations. The roads were built but the cost and mounting opposition led to the abandonment of large road building projects for the past two decades. Growing concerns over global warming and the need to cut car use also played a significant part in the demise of the road.

Hostilities though have now resumed, with Osborne’s latest back to the future policy.

Recently visiting the protest against the 5.6 kilometer Bexhill/Hastings link road, there was a certain sense of deja vue.

The last road protest I had seen at close quarters was the M11Link Road. It did afterall run past the top of my road. On that occasion there was a brave opposition movement of activists, linking onto anything that lay in the way of the road. Trees, houses: all were occupied requiring massive police backed security operations to clear the way.

The protest was a mixture of angry locals and idealists coming in from outside to help. The road ran millions over budget and was delayed for years. It was built but the writing was on the wall for road builders.

Now a similar band of protesters have gathered in what is known as 1066 country to oppose the building of the Bexhill/Hastings Link Road.

The road is being driven through the Combe Valley, a stretch of picturesque countryside. The village where the protest is centered, Crowhurst, has a pub, a railway station and school. A few houses are dotted amongst undulating fields in the Sussex countryside.

The Combe Haven protesters have established three camps situated on the route of the proposed road. Protesters took to the trees, locking themselves on, thereby requiring the road builders to carefully remove them.

On the ground, some protesters built tunnels, where they then holed up to block the progress of the bulldozers. One notable tunneller was a man calling himself Sitting Bull. He declared that if there were more tunnels the road could be stopped.

Two of the camps have been cleared, with a third, known as Decoy camp still occupied.

The multi-faceted campaign though is not all about direct action on the ground.

Local resident and member of Bexhill Link Road Resistance (BLINKRR) Mike Bernard has sought a court injunction to stop the progress of the road on the basis of a claim from a local historian that the area is actually where the battle of Hastings took place in 1066.

Historian Nick Austen claims that the valley is part of the site of the battle and should as such be registered as a battle site by English Heritage. “The significance of the new evidence cannot be under-estimated and the consequences of the development will be profound and irrevocable,” said Bernard.  “The proposed link road will cut right across one of the key Battle of Hastings sites; the Norman encampment at Upper Wilting, and any value in the significant historic or heritage site will be permanently lost or destroyed.”

It is in order that EH can do its review that Bernard has sought a court injunction on further work being done on the road. The court initially turned down the request, though the matter will be reviewed on 1 February.

Local resident and secretary of Christian Ecology Link Barbara Echlin praised the action of the Combe Haven Defenders. “The obstinate and flawed decision by our local authorities to go ahead with this unnecessary road shows a sad lack of vision for the future. The long painstaking efforts of the Hastings Alliance proved conclusively that this is a very expensive poor value for money project. The alternatives of improved public transport were ignored,” said Echlin. “The brave last ditch protests of the Combe Haven Defenders climbing the trees, and the efforts of the Hastings Alliance and BLINKRR to protect this tranquil valley, show that some in our community care for the future of our earth.”

East Sussex County Council (ESCC) claim the £94 million road will bring jobs, business and reduce congestion. “We believe the link road will support regeneration and benefit residents and businesses by opening up access to land for new housing and business developments and bringing more employment opportunities,” said  ESCC.

Local Conservative MP for Hastings and Rye Amber Rudd is a keen backer of the road project. She is also incidentally Parliamentary Private Secretary to Chancellor Osborne.

This determined band of protesters at Combe Haven are no doubt the start of a larger anti-road protest movement that is stirring across the country in opposition to the latest road building programmes.

The last time a number of battles to stop local projects were lost but the overall struggle to stop roads was won. In the process protesters from across the board were united in opposition. On the previous occasion the Conservative Government of John Major sort to outlaw much of the protesters activity by passing a new Criminal Justice Act. This had the effect of broadening the movement as more outlawed groups were brought together. The same thing could happen again.

As with much that the Coalition Government has done, this latest move to return to road building has been ill thought out. They have truly opened a can of worms and may yet see their own battle of Hastings develop in the process.

*For more information see:

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Jimmy Savile case exposes unhealthy relationship between media and celebrity

The scandal over the sex abuse committed by Jimmy Savile over four decades raises a number of questions about the relationship between the world of celebrity and the media. Once individuals achieve celebrity status, they become worshipped like idols. Whether that celebrity comes in the world of show business or sport, these people become like Gods. Then they can, as Savile proved, become virtually untouchable.

Many really are not very nice people in the first place. When the adulation of becoming a celebrity in the public eye comes about it really does go to their heads.

Footballers provide a good example. Many come from very humble backgrounds, then suddenly they are elevated to being paid tens of thousands of pounds a week. The fans adore them and they become mini-Gods. There are a lot of girls on the look out to “bag a footballer” while many lads like to be seen in their company. The cocaine and drink-fuelled parties have been well known behind the scene for years but only recently have some of the more unsavoury incidents come to the fore.

Pop stars also become built up to a level of adulation from the general public. Whilst not excusing the activities since revealed, there have always been fans hanging around pop singers like Gary Glitter and the whole business of the industry, including the disc jockeys, that surround them. As with the footballers, there is not a lot that some fans will not do to “get in” with them. The possibility to indulge in any sort of sordid sexual activity is thereby open to these characters once they have reached that position of power.

The media plays a crucial role in all of this, building up the celebrities and later tearing them down. Indeed, the demolition element has come more to the fore over recent years. This has not always been the case. Going back to the 1960s, certain things were off limits for the media. The colourful sex life of President John F Kennedy was well known about but was kept hidden from the public. As a result, the first film star style president was able to continue to portray his wholesome family man image in public whilst being anything but behind the scenes.

The media’s role in the making of celebrities has now moved onto new levels with the advent of shows like Big Brother, where individuals with absolutely no talent whatever can become celebrities simply because of that desire to be famous. So an individual like the late Jade Goody could become a celebrity due to her very ordinariness.

The media of course play a major role in both the making and breaking of celebrities. The main motivating force being that celebrities have become big business. Huge numbers of people buy papers and magazines simply to find out what the celebrity class are up to. There is big money in it.

On the way up the wannabe celeb will do anything necessary to court the right type of publicity. Once established, the power is with the celeb who can grant or deny access dependent on what a publication is prepared to do for them. Exclusives and preferential treatment become the bargaining chips that buy many a celeb journalist's silence to more unsavoury goings on behind the scenes.

The problem, of course, comes when having created a monster in the form of a celebrity, how then do they get brought down? As the Savile case proves, they can become practically untouchable. The money that comes with celebrity buys expensive lawyers and PRs. Many of the high profile footballers employ whole teams of advisers that cover up or buy off the victims of their clients excesses. The super injunction has been another useful device deployed to keep hidden indiscretions. Only the relatively unregulated world of Twitter has brought about the demise of this device in some cases.

Where media could be less gullible when it comes to the celebrity class is in the area of charity. Celebrities use charity in a deliberate way to build up a positive PR image. This was seen with Savile, who famously worked at Stoke Mandeville and did many marathons for charity. It raised a vista of good in the public sphere. This so-called "good" can also act as a cover for nefarious behaviour.

Why do all those, for the most part, selfish celebs really give up their time for the likes of Children in Need, Sport Aid and Comic Relief? Are they really doing it for the cause or to help present that wholesome PR profile to the world? Money in the bank, so to speak, when the more unsavoury elements come out later.

An unhealthy type of Faustian pact has developed between the media and the celebrity class over recent years. The media, for the most part, happy to turn a blind eye to excess in return for exclusives and favourable treatment. The celebrities happy to court the media for positive coverage, then using the courts and other coercive means when exposure of bad behaviour threatens. The line of truth has certainly become blurred in this murky world. The time has certainly come for the media to reassess its relationship with the cult of celebrity. The Savile case provides a timely warning of what can happen when a celebrity becomes untouchable.

* New Statesman -

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Food waste report blows hole in GM myths

The news that half of all food in the world is thrown away blows rather a large hole in the GM companies latest campaign to convince people that their technology is required to feed the world.
Two billion tonnes of food does not make it to the plate, while 30% of vegetable crops grown in this country are not harvested due to failure to meet retailers "exacting standard."
What these figures from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers report illustrate is that it is the market system of distribution that is at fault for food shortages not a failure of production.
The GM companies are after is control of the food chain pure and simple. Once they have achieved this, prices can be set even more according to companies bottom lines on profits. It is time to dismiss the GM companies arguments once and for all and set about redistributing all the food now being produced to the people that live on this planet.

Independent - 12/1/2013

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Focus on real welfare cheats who don't pay their taxes

There seems to be a growing government driven narrative toward means testing of benefits.  

On the face of it the idea that the better off should not be getting certain benefits could have appeal. Why should they afterall? The problem is that the initial move to remove benefits from the better off hits at the very essence of the welfare state, namely its universality.

The argument also amounts to a Trojan horse being driven into the heart of the welfare state. Once benefits are taken away from one group, the government will feel free to continue the process until they are taken away the benefits from everyone.

The attack on benefits is simply the latest attempt by government to dump the cost of the deficit on the poorest people in society. There has been a cynical effort by government to scapegoat those on benefits as somehow being scroungers. The strivers versus skivers, as millionaire Chancellor George Osborne likes to put it.

The reality is that many of those receiving benefits are in low paid work. The benefits like tax credits have operated as effectively a subsidy to bad employers to allow them to pay low wages. This is the welfare cheating that many of us would like to see the government addressing.

A further example of such scrounging is the failure of the large multinational companies to pay a fair share of tax in this country. So these companies use all the facilities in the UK to make huge profits, without contributing adequately in return.
It is these benefit scroungers that the government should be targeting. The introduction of a living wage and change in the tax laws to ensure that the big companies do pay their fair share would go some way to rectify the situation. Then the universality of the welfare state can be retained.