Sympathy for All

I have huge admiration for Gareth Thomas, the Welsh Rugby legend and ex-Lions captian. Rugby is the most macho of all sports (assuming one chooses to ignore the strong homo-erotic undertones), and he is the only openly gay man involved in the sport in this Country. Isn’t that incredible? I’m not sure quite what percentage of the population is gay, though the 1 in 10 that gets bandied about regularly seems a reasonable place to start; this certainly makes the fact that Thomas is the only homosexual top-flight rugby player a statistical impossibility. He should therefore be lauded for his decision to make known his sexuality, even though it’s fair to say that he did wait until his International career was over before telling the world. He also represents a fantastic slap in the face for all those who maintain the homosexual stereotype that begins with Kenneth Williams and ends not so far away with Charles Hawtrey.

As a sport, rugby perhaps has a more enlightened following than the nation’s other great passion, football, and Thomas has been embraced by the rugby community for his courage and honest approach. This says much about the change in public perception over the last 20 or 30 years. Here’s a story from the 1950s about how such revalations were treated: Alan Turing was one of the greatest minds of the Twentieth Century, and the man whose breaking of the German ‘enigma’ code may well have shortened the war by one or two years. He was homosexual, and was offered the choice between chemical castration and a prison sentence for his ‘crimes’. He took the former, and committed suicide soon afterwards. There’s no direct comparison to be made, and it’s clear that prejudice exists wherever you care to look for it, but we do live in ever more elightened times, and the story of Gareth Thomas is generally one to applaud.

My take on this story altered slighty when I read an interview with Thomas in The Observer last Sunday. The article was essentially a good-news story, and focused jointly on the courage of Thomas and the magnanimous nature of the rugby fraternity. It also extolled Thomas as a positive role-model, a trail-blazer and an inspriational figure, all of which are undoubtedly true. His twitter account is unfailingly positive, and reveals a man with a real lust for life. The story does have a more tawdry edge to it however, and one that the article glossed over with a couple of short sentences. With such an inspirational story, why bother dwelling on the fact that Thomas’ sexuality was apparently the worst kept secret in rugby, the fact that he married (and has children with) his childhood sweetheart despite his feelings for men, and that his hidden homosexuality led to many ‘illicit encounters in Soho bars’?

This last revelation was brushed off with the statement that he was ‘horrified at cheating on his wife, whom he loved deeply’. Really? Not that deeply, surely. I can’t imagine much sympathy for him were he to have been discoved having illicit encounters in bars with women, no matter how much he professed to have been ‘horrified’ by the experiences. I’m sure it’s not an easy conversation to have, but the idea of the ‘I still love you, but actually I’m gay, and therefore I cannot remain married to you’-type conversation would surely be less hurtful that the ‘I still love you, but actually I’m gay, and I made sure of this fact with regular sweaty sex sesssions in Soho, and therefore I cannot remain married to you’-type conversation. I’m all for enlightenment, tolerance and understanding the emotional journey, but one can become too ‘right-on’, and in one’s desperation to appear liberal and forward-thinking, it seems that we can lose sight of the fact that there are other people’s feelings that need to be considered. The Observer article was a pretty shabby piece of journalism, written in a completely one-eyed way. I agree with almost all of the sentiments, but it’s only telling the part of the story it’s interested in, and the part of the story that leaves out the mucky bits.

Sexuality is something that we cannot, and perhaps should not have to, control; but my sympathy on this occasion lies with Mrs Gareth Thomas just as much as with Mister. ‘She now lives in Spain’ was a far as a biography of her got to. Well I’m glad that’s cleared up.

Young is wasted on the Youth

As a mild-mannered individual, there’s really very little that winds me up. There’s a whole raft of little niggles; people who describe sportsmen/sporting acts as ‘world class’ and people who look at the desserts first on a menu are just two, but I can live with that, and apart from the involuntary curl of the top lip, these gripes tend to pass me by.

I watched a little of the ‘Toby Young sets up a Free School’ programme last week, and despite the fact that I was only half watching, the man and his ideals really grated with me. The premise was that Toby (restaurant critic and occasional columnist/minor reality TV channel 5-based celebrity) had suddently become impassioned with the need to challenge the British education system, and felt that the Free Schools programme was the way to do this. In case you weren’t aware, the idea behind Free Schools is that anyone can set up a School, so long as they make their bid to the Government, have a building, a curriculum and some teachers. They are supposed to be ‘all-ability, state-funded Schools set up as a result of parental demand’. This is a classic example of the ‘idea that sounds good when sold to the man on the street’, but is in fact so flawed as to be laughable. It’s a bit like the Labour ideal of 50% of people going to university, which sounds good until you realise that there aren’t any more good jobs out there than before, except now people are required to get into heavy debt gaining meaningless degrees from the university of Luton before they are able to get out into the work place and get the same job/earn the same amount of money as they would have done before their 3 year life hiatus.

Anyway, Toby’s point was that education has lost its way. Fair enough; in many ways it has. We could attack grade inflation, oversized classrooms, untrained teachers, the irrelevance of parts od the National Curriculum. Unfortunately, in the most myopic way possible, he decided that the reason it had lost its way could essentially be summed up by his own experience, which involved being un-motivated by teachers (no word of his own or his parents’ responsibility), and achieving no real grades at all. Now most people would have said at this point that if the teachers were not motivating, we should look to either swap the teachers we have (not realistic) or invest money in making the teachers we have better (realistic, relatively cheap and emintently sensible). Incidentally, Toby, this is where the real problem lies, in the lack of quality in some areas of the teaching profession, and the lack of structure in the homes of many young people.

This may not have made such good TV however, so Toby’s point was that we needed to re-structure the curriculum so that there was more rigour, and this included harking back to what he called a ‘classical education’. Not sure if he knew what he meant by this, but it enabled him to sound knowledgable from behind his spcs. This also sounded suspiciously like the curriculum that a middle-aged man who had ballsed up his School career would like to go back to School to study, but this may be due to the fact that Toby has no experience of Schools, teaching, the education process, motivation of young minds or any research into what actually makes pupils want to learn.

No-one would ever allow the public to set up their own defence academies, or their own hospitals, thinking that having a passion and a misguided sense of what was wrong with the MOD or NHS would be a sensible idea, though with education it seems fair game. It’s the equivalent of that bloke in the pub who spends all his time criticising the England team, claiming to anyone who will listen that all we need are ‘real Englishmen with passion’. His pub team?

I did think that I might have been a bit harsh on Toby, so I went to his Free School website, which has a 7 minute clip of him on the homepage. This was his chance to change my mind, to prove to me that it was the education of the nation that he really cared about, rather than keeping his TV career away from channel 5. ‘Motivation…classical curriculum…soundbite…soundbite…3 minute story about arriving in the wrong Welsh village…end’. Toby, drop me an email, and I’ll speak to you about education. It’s something I know about. You can then tell me all about celebrity come dine with me, which is something you know about. Let’s not move too far outside our respective spheres of expertise.