HE WAS branded a militant, an Islamist plotter, “the kingpin” of a fundamentalist conspiracy to turn schools into jihadi recruitment centres. Tahir Alam made a good villain in the eyes of the press when, in 2014, the Birmingham school of which he was a governor was taken into special measures, after reports of a refashioning of the school’s curriculum and structure so as to reflect strict Muslim values (News, 11 April 2014). The Sunday Times led the charge.
The Corrections (Radio 4, Friday) likes a good narrative. It even has a “narrative consultant” who is there to deconstruct the archetypes and tropes by which a good narrative is assembled. Over three episodes, the presenter, Jo Fidgen, has been looking at the Park View school case; and — you’ve guessed it — not everything is quite what it seems.
If you look at his back story, Alam seems like a pretty decent kind of a guy, who got into the management of schools out of a genuine desire to raise educational attainment in a seriously deprived community. Surely he has been misunderstood; and the predictable “narrative” would then be that he has been wilfully maligned by a right-wing press with an anti-pluralist agenda.
But The Corrections is better than this. There are facts about this case that are undisputed, including the enforcement, albeit unofficial, by some schools in the Park View network of pious customs, such as the wearing of the hijab. We heard from one investigative reporter, writing from a feminist perspective, of the gender discrimination exercised when it came to access to certain activities and classes.
This was one of those stories that turn the liberal conscience inside out, and over which, alliances are formed between the Right and the old-style feminism — something that has become more familiar since the advent of gender identity politics.
There is a good deal more to this story than can be summarised here. For instance, it all started with an anonymous letter suggesting a nationwide conspiracy. Was it a fake? Who sent it? There is a field full of rabbit holes to dive into; and Fidgen seems often tempted to declare “What is truth?” and then wash her hands of the responsibility to find it. That she manages to avoid being tangled in a meta-net is to her credit.
In the recounting of history, one way to sidestep the meta-net is to restrict yourself to quoting historical sources. There are, no doubt, many interpretations of the history of Remembrance; but the sceptical mind is at least temporarily calmed when encountering source material as rich as was presented in An Unknown Warrior (Radio 4 FM, weekdays of last week).
This beautifully produced collage of letters and newspaper accounts told of the way in which the notion of a tomb for an anonymous soldier was conceived; the public clamour that drove its realisation; and the immense solemnity with which the funeral in November 1920 was delivered.
Wednesday’s episode quoted in full The Times’s account. They don’t write prose like this any more: “[The coffin] looked pitiably, pathetically small; a little casket to hold so much, all the sorrow and pride of the Empire.”