Sunday, 12 July 2015

"I love you just the way you are"

This is getting to be a silly habit, but I'm going to stick to it for now - using song titles for my blog posts.

"I love you just the way you are" -  a Billy Joel love-song, but I refer here not to a person, but to Wimbledon, which reaches its 2015 climax this weekend. 

It's been another great tournament (is it ever not?) and mouth-watering finals still await us as I write. The top players have entertained us richly, the sun has shone, the venue has looked picture-perfect and players have, in the main "met with triumph and disaster and treated those two impostors just the same", as Kipling's poem reminds them to do in the Centre Court locker room.  The BBC's coverage has been comprehensive and authoritative, once they realised that viewers don't want the third-rate zoo-format of "Wimbledon 2day" that looked as if it had been devised by Siobhan Sharpe's fictional Perfect Curve. The Royal Box has featured a succession of celebrities behaving with impeccable discretion. It's so refreshing to see celebrities conforming to dress and behaviour codes rather than feeling the need to show off: David Beckham's look of gracious embarrassment when he so coolly caught that stray ball was a perfect example.

But then there was Australian Nick Krygios, this year's pantomime villain, who decided not only to revive the outdated tradition of bad behaviour on court, but also saw fit to question Wimbledon's "all white" dress code. Similarly, Canadian Eugenie Bouchard appeared to have a black bra strap (Quelle horreur!) on show during her first-round defeat against China's Ying-Ying Duan. There has also been controversy this year about players' use of prominent headphones, presumably with appropriate payment from the manufacturer, when walking onto court.

So is Wimbledon too stuffy? Current Wimbledon rules even state that any medical supports or equipment also have to be completely white unless it is absolutely unavoidable, and that no trimming on white shirts, shorts or tracksuits can be wider than one centimetre. Even Roger Federer, in many ways the epitome of the good grace and impeccable manners which are so cherished at the All-England Club, has suggested that the all-white rule has become even stricter during his time on the circuit, evoking images of Borg, McEnroe and Edberg with prominent trim in other colours to support his case.

Perhaps he has a point, but I cannot help but think that Wimbledon's enduring appeal to tennis players and fans, as well as to the many who pay no attention to sport of any kind for the other 50 weeks of the year is due in no small part to its insistence on apparently trivial matters of dress and protocol. In so doing, Wimbledon has remained immune to all but the most subtle of changes in appearance over a period in which all other major sports have become unrecognisable compared to  a few decades ago, largely because of the influence of advertising and sponsorship.

Look at this picture of Wimbledon winner Arthur Ashe from 1975:

and this of Roger Federer from 2015:

It looks as if Federer has a point about the use of colour trim having diminished, but most striking is how the scene has barely changed. No sponsors logos, no courtside advertising, then or now. Still the same Wimbledon green, same grass court, even the spectators look similar (OK, the scoreboard has changed)

Now let's try a similar comparison involving some other sports: 

Football 1970 - plain, baggy long-sleeved shirts, plain black boots, plain white ball, no pitchside advertising, muddy, sandy pitch (and that's Wembley!) The referee looks like a public schoolmaster.

Football 2015 - tight short-sleeved shirts with sponsor logo, electronic pitchside advertising, yellow patterned ball, coloured boots, snooker-table green pitch.

Rugby Union 1970's - baggy shirts (now only worn as part of a Fran Cotton leisurewear collection!), old-school button-up rugby shorts, rolled down socks, brown ball, long grass.

Rugby Union 2015 - tight shirts with sponsor logo , leg strapping, protective headgear, snooker-table green grass.

Cricket 1970's - whites, caps - that's about it! The village green and the test arenas were no different..

Cricket 2015 - is this actually the same game?

Athletics 1976 - These women (800m Final at Montreal) look like the mums' race at a school sports day!

Athletics 2012 - unrecognisable as the same sport - several tenths of a second gained no doubt due to lost wind resistance!

Rugby League 1970's - you can almost hear Eddie Wareing saying "up and under"

Rugby League 2015 - Eddie is probably spinning in his grave!

OK, so I have chosen carefully to make my point, especially with the cricket ones, but I think these images show how the look, and therefore more importantly the "feel", of these sports has changed beyond recognition in around 40 years.

So what about tennis? Hasn't that changed too? Of course it has - like all big-time spectator sports, it has suffered, but also hugely benefited from commercial influence and the demands of TV companies. Wimbledon itself is a dream ticket for corporate hospitality, and if you look carefully, the players are in their own way walking advertising boards, albeit within the strict guidelines of the All-England Club. Look at Federer himself in his own brand of RF kit for very real, if subtle proof!

However, Wimbledon alone seems to have succeeded in not selling its soul to the corporate dollar. Only the most subtle of advertising is visible, making all the other grand slam tournaments look trashy. IBM, Rolex, Robinson's and Slazenger are all there, but only in their logical places associated with what they do. No Mercedes badges on the nets here!

But then there's the "all white" dress code. Does it matter? Yes, I think it does. It provides that air of timeless class that is so much a part of the global appeal of Wimbledon. Let it slip, and much else would be lost. For proof, look no further than the French Open. Here is a picture of Bjorn Borg playing winning there in the 1970's:

Basically, the same all-white kit that he wore at Wimbledon in those days. (and by the way, the courtside advertising was already dominant and intrusive!)

And now here's the 2015 French Open winner Stan Wawrinka, looking like a middle-aged holidaymaker just back from the beach for a quick game of tennis at the hotel:

I rest my case. Heaven forbid that Wimbledon ever lets him, or anyone else, dress like that. "Don't go changing...we love you just the way you are"

Friday, 3 July 2015

"My future in the system was talked about and planned" - musings on university open days

I enjoy finding suitable titles for my blog posts from song lyrics. This one comes from a 1973 song "Free Electric Band" by Albert Hammond, an under-rated English singer-songwriter best known as the writer of "When I need you", a UK No1 for Leo Sayer in 1977, and "The Air that I breathe", a UK No2 for The Hollies in 1974.
Albert Hammond, although English, moved to America, and some of his songs reflect that. "Free Electric Band" is a (rather late) manifesto of hippy-trippy dropout values in conflict with what used to be called "the system". It describes the writer's rebellious rejection of his parents' American middle-class values, and of their plans for a prosperous, conventional future.
This song came into my head yesterday when I spent a day in Oxford, as I always do at this time of the year, with  a small group of Sixth Form students from my school. At a university Open Day, especially at places like Oxford, young peoples' "future in the system" is indeed being "talked about and planned" Sometimes, I suspect, without their full cooperation.

I am very proud of the fact that, as a Higher Education Advisor, I have always made a point of taking a group of high-achieving students to the Open Day at my former university. I enjoy taking them to see my own college, showing them where I was lucky enough to live and study for three years, and hopefully inspiring and encouraging them to try applying if they are good enough.
When I first started doing this, over twenty years ago, Open Days were very different. On the way down to Oxford, one would see many school minibuses on the motorway, each carrying a dozen or so Sixth Formers, driven by relaxed-looking teachers enjoying a day away from the classroom at the end of term. Once in Oxford, groups were shepherded around by those teachers in much the way that I still do. They took their groups to a college Open Day, left them to meet tutors and current undergraduates, and went off to wander round Oxford for a couple of hours in the sunshine. That is precisely what I did yesterday, and do every year.
Sadly, the nature of the Open Day, and of those who attend it, has changed out of all recognition in recent years. Instead of groups of Sixth Formers enjoying the chance to chat informally with a teacher as they walk amidst the dreaming spires, the city is now crammed with embarrassed and mildly resentful-looking teenagers each with one, and often two, over-bearing parents looking for all the world like those who accompany their primary aged children to the now ubiquitous school open days. 
It's like what you see at any touristy cultural hotspot in summer: middle-class parents attempting to interest a slightly bored teenager in a cathedral/museum/stately home/visitor centre, with the said teenager actually wishing that s/he was lying on a beach listening to music on their headphones whilst catching up with Facebook, or riding a roller coaster at a theme park.
But at a university open day, it's worse than that. The childrens' future in the system is indeed being talked about and planned, and I have a terrible feeling that in many cases, the parents' desire to secure Oxbridge entry for their child is rather stronger than the child's desire to be there. I feel so sorry for the university tutors who are desperate to engage with these undoubtedly fine and capable young people and encourage them to ask the questions that they want to ask. Instead, they find themselves having to fend off questions from over-enthusiastic, vicarious parents. Fortunately, colleges and Departments have the sense to exclude parents from the subject sessions with tutors, and in some cases they put on a separate talk for parents.
Of course it's not quite as bad as I am painting it. It is perfectly reasonable for parents to take a teenager to an Open Day, and see for themselves what university life and work is all about, especially when there is a £30000 - £50000 price tag attached. However, I really do mourn the decline  of the school-led visit. Back in the 1970's, I applied to Oxford for a lot of reasons, but strongest among them was that I had a really good and inspirational French teacher at my (free, state) grammar school who was an Oxford graduate. He was clearly very clever, but also very funny, and he used to regale us with stories of his university days. I wanted to be like him, and was lucky enough to be able to fulfil that ambition. I know several of my friends from those days who applied to university for the same sort of reason.
Sadly, Oxbridge graduates don't seem to go into teaching as much as they used to. Small wonder, when they can command massive salaries in the world of business or commerce. With fewer Oxbridge educated teachers to inspire them, it is increasingly left to parents to push bright teenagers towards the glittering prize of a place at the top universities. Add to that the fact that school trips are now so hard to organise in terms of bureaucracy (did I remember to do a risk assessment before taking four seventeen year olds out on a punt yesterday?) that teachers understandably pass the task of open day visits over to only-too-keen parents. But what happened to the idea of sending a seventeen-year old off on the train, alone or with some friends, to a university visit. Surely that small step towards independence is a good thing?
I know, we can't rewind the clock. Times have changed. Universities, even Oxford, have to sell themselves, and that includes to anxious parents. They do a damn good job too - the Oxford Open Day is a masterpiece of logistical organisation and teamwork across a very devolved institution. But maybe, just maybe, parents should learn to take a step back. Take your kids to the Open Day by all means, but why not drive your son/daughter and a couple of mates, drop them off somewhere, go and do a bit of shopping, sightseeing or chilling, and arrange to meet up with the kids a few hours later for a good meal and a de-brief. That's exactly what I did yesterday, but as a teacher.

I bet, indeed I know, that university tutors would prefer it that way too.

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