On the death of one of the great history teachers, in a time of plague

There was something about Mr Granath that created the impression of permanence. It’s a trick that all great people manage, because, in spite of physical frailties, they have created something bigger than their bodies. Like thousands at Easter 2020, Andrew’s body died from Covid 19.

His name did not.

In the days after his death, I turned it over. Granath. Granath. Like some elvish currency, a rare rock, formed under colossal pressure in the deep. …

Natural Born Learners: Our Incredible Capacity to Learn and How We Can Harness It, by Alex Beard, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £16.99, 352 pages

By the end of this wide-ranging exploration of how we learn, there is a gratifying sense that the author is living out some of his most important conclusions. To create Natural Born Learners, a mixture of quest narrative, memoir and heavy research, Alex Beard (a fine quest name) has decided to keep his mind as open as possible.

This is both his modus operandi, and a clue about the nature of learning itself. In the field of…

A 2018 piece for Wisden

Perhaps the greatest challenge faced by writers of the 1990s was finding new ways to describe the ineptitude of the England cricket team. No-one dedicated themselves to this grim task with more masochistic fervour than The Independent’s Martin Johnson.

During the Ashes series of 1993, Johnson suggested the little urn of burned bails was no longer sufficient as a signifier of English feebleness. Why not burn down the entire Long Room at Lord’s, put the remnants in a silage container and present it to Michael Atherton’s grandchildren?

On playing cricket for El Salvador — a 2013 essay for The Junket


Boy: ‘Mum. When I grow up, I want to play for England.’

Mother: ‘You’ll have to choose, darling. You can’t do both.’

As a child, I had three answers to the perennial question of what I wanted to do when I grew up. The fact that at the age of 32 I am yet to entirely dismiss two of these ideas probably means the growing up hasn’t quite happened yet — a realisation I make with mutually cancelling measures of relief and concern.

Strangely, without having really tried, without having to take it seriously, the third one is already…

A 2006 essay for The Erotic Review about a mini-sexual revolution on the Home Front

“There is a generation of grey-haired grandmothers out there who know something we don’t: that sexual liberation began in the 1940s and has been flourishing ever since.” Christopher Hudson

Earlier this year [2006], Hudson wrote an article for The Sunday Times suggesting that before the first pill, before Kinsey’s first report, before the baby boom first twinkled in Western eyes, the 1.5m American GIs posted to Britain, the so-called ‘friendly invasion’, were the catalyst of perhaps the most significant moral development of modern times: the sexual revolution.

It is certainly true that these American ‘invaders’ had a friendlier effect than…

In 2004, when I applied for a traineeship at The Guardian, they asked me to do a short interview with someone interesting. I didn’t get it. But he did turn out to be fairly interesting I suppose.

A previously unpublished interview with Dominic Cummings

Shortly before the end of Iain Duncan Smith’s reign as party leader, Lord Tebbit decried the ‘spotty teenagers’ running the Conservatives.

The chief upstart – IDS’s 31-year-old head of strategy, Dominic Cummings. Cummings quit last autumn after only eight months, exasperated at the party’s reluctance to modernise.

“They refused structural changes to create a forum for policy, market research and medium-term planning,” says Cummings. “Its absence meant no agenda, no progress and IDS’s demise — ‘Strategy is simple, but not easy’.”

His nonchalant quoting of Napoleon is revealing. Cummings has spent his brief, meteoric career in frontline politics fending off…

A 2017 blog for The Spectator

‘Drug use among children has for many an education and with obvious alarm for both parents on the increase almost yearly.’

Try reading that again. Maybe in the style of Huw Edwards. By all means, try it a third time but it’ll only give you a headache. It has the appearance of sense. It makes the same noises as normal sentence. But it’s not normal. It’s a Brass Eye sentence.

Last night, at the Curzon cinema in Soho, 20 years after Chris Morris’s comedy masterpiece was first broadcast, there was a sell-out crowd who…

A 2017 essay for The Spectator about a Devon town twinned with Narnia

There is a tendency towards geographical abstraction in England lately. First, there was Theresa’s ‘citizen of nowhere’. Now we have the ‘somewheres’ and the ‘anywheres’. David Goodhart is on Newsnight saying you’re one or the other, and that’s probably what influenced your referendum vote. Evan Davies looks tired.

It’s disorientating. This airy nothing must have a local habitation and a name, I think. A sentiment our geographer prime minister would surely approve of. I’m tempted to head up the A10 to speak to the citizens of Ware…

What can we learn from an ultra-strict free school? A essay for Prospect Magazine by Patrick Alexander / March 30, 2017

A 2016 review for Prospect

Cleverlands by Lucy Crehan (Unbound, £16.99)

The academic progress of the world’s 15-year-olds is tested regularly by PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment). Pupils from Finland, Japan and Shanghai consistently excel. In 2012, the UK finished near the bottom of the top third, despite relative economic strength. In footballing terms, we’re Everton. Good, but room for improvement.

Rankings matter. For David Cameron’s government, our PISA level became a rhetorical tool, and an enabler of Michael Gove’s reform agenda — why can’t the UK be more like Shanghai? More pertinently: how are high PISA scores achieved…

Patrick Alexander

Writing and teaching. Tweets at @i_padawan

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