Wednesday, 5 October 2011

PM Praises 'Things of No Use'

Speaking at Morley College, an adult education centre near Westminster Bridge, London, the Prime Minister alluded to a remark made by the chairman that nobody came there to learn anything useful.

'I thank God there is such a place left,' the PM said. 'It is the things that are of no use that really make up one's life. You may remember that at Cambridge there was a toast that used to be given, "God bless the higher mathematics, and may they never be of any use to anybody." There was in that toast the quintessence of a profound common sense, which distinguished my old University, and I have always taken it to heart. And on the lowest ground how good it it is for us to have some outlet - indeed, something that opens a window in one's soul completely remote and alien from one's daily work.'

'Such knowledge and such beauty as you teach in this college is the knowledge and beauty that open "the magic casements" for us, and every life wants its magic casements. I may be old-fashioned and prejudiced, but I always feel that there are no real magic casements except to those who at some time in their lives have grounded themselves on the humanities. In those people, admirable though they be, bursting with statistics and training in the syllogisms, in whom that groundwork on the humanities is absent, there is always to me - I come from a fruit country, so I use this simile - there is always a certain unripeness, a certain tartness and certain acidity, and the only mellow fruit is that which has been ripened in the wisdom of the ages, in the beauty and romance of art, poetry and music.'

Edward Bawden & Eric Ravilious at Morley College, 1929/30
As you might have guessed, these words were spoken not by David Cameron but by Stanley Baldwin, who in February 1930 unveiled a set of murals at Morley College for Working Men and Women. These murals had been painted by Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious in the refectory, where students came to relax, and were designed to offer things 'interesting to look at and intriguing to unravel for people sitting scattered about the room'.

The college, which had been founded in the previous century, had close links with the the Old Vic Theatre, so the murals had for the most part a theatrical theme. Bawden painted scenes from 'King Lear', 'The Tempest', 'As You Like It' and 'Romeo and Juliet', while Ravilious contributed scenes from Marlowe's 'Tragedy of Dr Faustus', with the Seven Sins floating down from the beams. There were pictures from Miracle Plays and obscure Elizabethan drama, interspersed with figures and symbols: a quartet of winds, a group of Harlequin figures and so on.

Stanley Baldwin was evidently impressed, observing that 'the one thing he felt was that the works were conceived in happiness and in joy, and the execution gave real pleasure to the artists. It was only in that spirit that any creative work could be done that was going to give pleasure to other people.'

Morley College is still going strong more than 80 years later, but the murals were destroyed when the refectory was hit by a bomb during the Blitz. Whether or not such work will ever be commissioned again, it seems unlikely that a Prime Minister, speaking in public during a period of grave economic hardship, would praise an educational institution that taught literature, music and art with no thought of skills or outcomes, simply because life with a knowledge of these subjects is richer than life without.

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