The Lasting Institutions of our Society

Last Saturday, Shoshana and I spent the day at the Cumberland show. It has passed its 175th anniversary and you could see why it has lasted so long. It wasn’t only the ice-cream. We must have met two hundred people who had come from across two thousand square miles of Cumbria. Shoshana stood, transfixed by the sheep-dogs (herding geese), and the gun-dogs (finding sausages in piles of branches). She seemed to admire every muscle of the Charolais, and to photograph many hairy feet of many Clydesdales. I don’t seem to be able to keep her away from shows: last year she came with me, I think, to Dufton, Lowther, Penrith, Skelton and Hesket Newmarket. Now she is bringing her mother all the way from the United States to see the Skelton show again on 5th July.

But it’s also great to see how much she, who was a teacher in inner city schools in the United States, seems to be impressed by British schools. The day before the Cumberland show, we were both at William Howard in Brampton. Last time, I was there, I was shown a mobile science lab, with state of the art optical equipment. The time before, I was in the dance and theatre class. This time we attended a class in financial management; heard a twelve year old, debating interest rates; saw a video on financial education, shot and edited by another member of the class; and ate cakes which the children had baked for elderly people from Brampton. (They had invited them all to the school for a mass tea party).

Schools are, apart from the church, the most long-lasting institutions in our society: older than the agricultural shows, and emblems of continual change. At Greystoke I was lucky enough to be at the 175th anniversary celebration with members of the local family that had first supported the school. The old walls of the class-rooms were covered with a hectic exuberance of modern pictures, photographs, models, and maps. On the way in to watch the Appleby school musical, I passed a copy of its 22 March 1574 charter on its wall (its origins go back to the thirteenth century). At Nelson Thomlinson, I saw copperplate records from 1914 recording teachers, stuck in snow, and students sent to the First World War. In the next door classroom, I met student entrepreneurs, who had just built a software training program, which they ran from a computer the size of a playing card.

At Rosley, the choir seemed to have drawn in almost every child in the building to dance and sing. At Fellview primary in Caldbeck, ten year olds asked me about dignity and trust in politics. At Penruddock, I was cross-questioned on the constitution. In Armathwaite, I spent 40 minutes with a class of children, and their parents, discussing philosophy, peace-keeping and the causes of war. Shoshana points out how lovely the settings were: from Yanwath, for example, whose new playground lies in the gently rolling land where the Lowther approaches the Eamont; to Milburn, which sits in a perfect stone building in the very centre of the village green surrounded by a square of village houses. Armathwaite’s broad, wood-fringed playing field, is my favourite – on a hill with the fells behind.

I went down from Armathwaite to chair the Defence Committee in Westminster. This week, we welcomed 7th Brigade back from Afghanistan, hosted Gurkha cadets (these eighteen year olds from remote rural areas of mountainous Nepal asked me at length in fluent English about the European economic crisis, and policy towards Syria); saw the Defence Attaches from France, Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, Israel, Canada, and Denmark; cross-questioned the two outgoing chiefs of the Defence Staff; and held a debate on the floor of the house, touching on Defence spending, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Syria; and the ISIS take-over of Western Iraq. But my experience at Armathwaite primary school class made me wonder whether their generation – thirty years younger than me – would see Defence and Security in the same way. The pupils seemed, on a sunny morning, in that beautiful setting, above the loveliest stretch of the Eden, very far from any kind of war. Child after child, questioned whether violence could ever be the answer. I found it difficult to explain what I – as a product of the twentieth century – took for granted: that sometimes we needed to fight to protect others, and ourselves.

But perhaps the most striking thing last week was the fiftieth anniversary of the Lazonby pool. It too was the product of a primary school: the project was driven by the local head John Hume in 1964. It had been built by the community, for about a quarter of the price quoted by a local contractor, because the community provided the labour. It too had changed with the modern world: the green river water had been replaced with new water, fences had gone up, a playground had been built, health and safety now required a full-time life-guard. The new generation of volunteers who were triumphantly keeping the pool open were now facing regulations and restrictions which didn’t exist before. But Mr. Hume who had built the pool, fifty years ago, was still there. All that effort, and imagination, were still preserved in that pool, filled with people. Mr.Hume at 92 swam a lap with the children. I very much hope Shoshana and I are still able to swim a lap on its hundredth anniversary.

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