Monthly Archives: November 2016

“He did very little harm”

The front piece of the Guardian supplement today has an earnest-looking Jamie Oliver looking at you with the by-line “A call to action from the celebrity chef: can the right food save your life?”. It’s a special feature on diabetes and, clearly, Jamie is taking his responsibilities in shaping the nation’s favoured recipes accordingly. Great stuff. Good on him, and I hope it gets traction.

And yet, I remember watching his programmes a few years ago as I hit my mid-50s and saw a sea-change in my response. I’d yell at the screen ‘too much salt Jamie!!’ as he liberally discharged handfuls of sea-salt as an essential supplementary over his creation. Having just been diagnosed with high-blood pressure, it was a response of knee-jerk frustration that my diet was, henceforth, constrained – combined with annoyance that he was young enough not to have to show any awareness of the condition. Why should he know? Why would he be aware? There was a schadenfreude whisper of ‘You’ll learn – you’ll get to my age and find out…’ – but also a sense of envy for his youth and forgiven ignorance. And not a little anger over the condition he may be unwittingly fueling.

We talked about it over dinner tonight. Those of a certain age may remember one of the first male celebrity chefs – The Galloping Gourmet – aka, Graham Kerr – a British TV cook who tornadoe-d away the stuffiness of Fanny Craddock and transformed the tele-kitchen into a place of celebrity kitsch. As we discussed him, the legacy memory we both had of his programmes, airing between 1969 and the early seventies, was his ubiquitous use of ‘clarified butter’. Hardly referred to now, it was a glamorous liquid thread that saturated his recipes and suffused the arteries of those who obediently copied. Following a move to Canada, Kerr’s wife suffered a stroke and then a heart attack in 1986, leading to a change in his approach to food thereafter: shunning cholesterol and fat and emphasising taste, texture, aroma and colour. There was, with hindsight, a volte-face in the light of experience and being confronted with the consequences of the earlier message.

And I do wonder, how we in education, project our convictions and certainties out to the rest of the profession, only to sometimes turn around and countermand what we previously professed. How frequently do we float the boats of others, only to realise we were sending off fleets on the wrong wind, and vainly attempt to shout them back when they are well out of ear-shot.

I was struck by a tweet, today, by Stuart Lock, who has been attending a training session at Dixon’s Academy in Bradford. He tweeted: “The brilliance of @DixonsTA is all the better because of the humility exemplified by their leaders.”

I’d been away this weekend, but catching up on twitter last night couldn’t fail to pick up on the overt declaration made by some about the ‘right way’ to conduct this business of schooling. In a way, I’m impressed by the conviction and certainty of some who discharge their volleys of determined declarations with such assurance. But then, that annoying arm-grasp of doubt pulls back a shoulder and questions ‘but what if they’re not absolutely right. What if there are shoals of the  Donald Rumsfeld ‘unknown unknowns’?’.

The actor, Paul Eddington, was a familiar face of my growing-up years on TV as, first, the time-worn neighbour in ‘The Good Life’, and then in the key role in ‘Yes Minister’ and Yes Prime Minister’. He died too young, at 68 – of a cancer he had lived with since he was 28. A birthright Quaker, he was interviewed on TV a few days before his death and repeated his response to an earlier query about his eventual demise: “A journalist once asked me what I would like my epitaph to be and I said I think I would like it to be ‘He did very little harm’. And that’s not easy. Most people seem to me to do a great deal of harm. If I could be remembered as having done very little, that would suit me.”

Perhaps, in this week of all weeks, we need to consider the legacy of voicing our of-the-moment convictions, directing others onto our current preferred route, fueling our output with sea-salt or clarified butter – and consider, with a dollop of reflective doubt, the most effective way to live our convictions with a causing of ‘very little harm’. Time and evidence may prove we did not get it entirely right, but will be more forgiving if in seeking a shift in practice we maintained a vigilance for unintended consequences of the harmful kind.


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