Paul McNamee: Star-spangled thinking

If kids full of wonder are unable to foster their learning, then shame on us all

Maybe Churchill had it right.

The old Bulldog liked to look to space. It emerged last week that amongst the things that kept him busy
(cigars, whisky, winning the war) were thoughts of where we might find extraterrestrial life. He believed it was out there. His quote is worth repeating.

“I, for one, am not so immensely impressed by the success we are making of our civilisation here that I am prepared to think we are the only spot in this immense universe,” he wrote in 1939, “which contains living, thinking creatures. Or that we are the highest type of mental and physical development which has ever appeared in the vast compass of space and time.”

He shows a level of humanity, humility and intelligence that some of our leaders – who profess to love him, leaders on both sides of the Atlantic – would do well to pause upon.

Of course not everybody is going to be like Churchill. To expect all important leaders to have greatness in them is foolish. Not all football managers are going to be Sir Alex Ferguson.

The number of people struggling to get by in Britain has risen by four million in the last six years

But at least there could be an aspiration to reach up and hit the heights, a desire to be better. It’s not just intellectual pygmyism that is seeping down, threatening to infect us all, it’s the closure to others. Churchill was so open he was going BEYOND the planet! Now, increasingly, there is a desire to close off, to compartmentalise and to blame damn outsiders, everybody except those we believe to be of our tiny patch and closed tribe.

It squeezes light and hope, and we need to stand up to it. It’s a mindset that normalises ideas and thoughts that should not be normalised. And it stops focus on work that needs to happen.

In Britain, when Theresa May took over as PM, she promised to focus on social injustice, to speak for those just about managing and provide opportunities for children from struggling families to allow their talents to take them as far as they can.

There is little sign of this happening. With all energy on Brexit plans, and our focus frequently taken with the dark carnival of change rumbling through the White House, it’s easy to stop thinking about the tough realities all around us. Unless, of course, you’re in those realities. Last week the Joseph Rowntree Foundation revealed that the number of people struggling to get by in Britain has risen by four million in the last six years. This is illuminating if not particularly instructive.

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It doesn’t tell us how to fix this shameful situation. Stagnating wages and cuts to income support may be somewhat to blame but what are the wider societal steps that can be taken to fix the worsening situation? We’re still waiting to hear from the PM on that.

We believe literacy is key. Better literacy, early access to books and keeping libraries open won’t solve everything, of course. But we will continue to bang the drum to make changes to help literacy improve the life chances of those born without a silver spoon.

If there are kids on tough estates looking up at the sky and having the same thoughts as Churchill but unable to take the step into learning more and opening up the incredible vistas of their imagination – and their future – then shame on us all.

Chronic narcissists and soundbite specialists in charge will only do so much, if anything at all.

The real change has to come from us.

If you have any comments please email me at, tweet @pauldmcnamee, or send a letter to The Big Issue, 43 Bath Street, Glasgow, G2 1HW