Walking recently through one of those many British towns in which the administration of unemployment and its attendant social problems and squalor is by far the most important economic activity, and where employees of the town hall are a kind of nomenklatura elite, I passed a school in whose playground children were playing under the supervision of a teacher.
The school building was one of those late Victorian or Edwardian edifices that are so redolent of the proud municipal belief in education as uplift and social progress. The unity of design of such buildings, which manage successfully to hint at grandeur while retaining a humanity of scale, has almost always been ruined by the depredations of the second half of the 20th century: in this case a container and a Portakabin tacked on to the side of the school to make up for the loss of an original classroom whose windows had been boarded up.
The children in the playground, I noticed, were wearing knee-pads, presumably to prevent them from scuffing their knees as they played. At the same time, the playground was strewn with the kind of litter now to be seen down any country lane in Britain, no matter how remote: discarded plastic orange bottles of sweetened fizzy drinks, cans of a supposed restorative after a hard night’s debauchery, and the polystyrene containers of repellent fast food.
The children took no notice of this litter, playing among it as if it were a natural feature. As for the teacher, she took no notice of it either but allowed the children to wade through it. For her, it seemed, the litter was just as much beyond her control as the weather.
Here was missed a golden opportunity to teach the children, by the method of that great educational theorist, Wackford Squeers, something really useful: not to drop litter. They should have been directed to clear it up before they were allowed to play; the less they felt inclined to do so, the more valuable the lesson to them.
Of course, considerations of Health and Safety would probably preclude such a lesson: the Health and Safety of the teacher, I mean. Once the vengeful parents learnt that their children had been taught in such a way and turned into mere refuse collectors, she would no doubt have been in serious danger of assault.
So what the children learnt (whether they realised it or not) was that the safety of their knees, and the prevention of even very minor accidents to them, was of incomparably more importance than the appearance, tidiness and cleanliness of a public space, even one that they used every day — a nasty but effective little lesson in narcissistic egotism. By the appendage of the container-cum-Portakabin to the building, they would have learnt that function in architecture trumps all other considerations. And this in turn teaches that the present moment, its exigencies and its concerns are what count, to the exclusion of the past or the future: and thus even the present moment is ruined.