A tale of town cows and country cows;Another Voice;Opinion

24th December 1999 at 00:00
MAYBE it was a mid-life crisis, maybe it was some need to demonstrate to others - or to ourselves - that we had the capacity to do something new, but this year we changed our lives completely.

Last Christmas we were in central London, as we always had been, and very happy there. This year we're on the edge of a small Suffolk village, shivering as we wait for the heating engineer.

From my London study, I looked out on a line of gardens (sometimes I saw a fox) and beyond them was a huge brutalist council estate, of which the most prominent feature was the cavernous, echoey, concrete car park.

On our very first evening in the house we witnessed a police chase across the gardens, complete with barking dogs. It was the closest we ever came to trouble. Maybe we were lucky. Maybe the best form of guard dog is an aimless freelance writer wandering into the kitchen every 45 minutes to make himself a cup of tea.

From my window now I can see a large lawn, a squirrel on a pile of firewood and the silhouettes of rooks nests in bare trees against the grey sky. On my desk are two photographs: one from the school in central London where my children went last year, the other from the Suffolk village school where they go now.

If you are likely to be irritated by a description of the bleeding obvious, then look away for the next few sentences. Of the 28 children in the first photograph, half are white caucasians, the rest are British Asians and African-Caribbeans as well as a number of more recent immigrants from all over the world, including war zones, such as Somalia.

In the other photograph, a class of 16 children (made up of two years joined together) is sitting on grass with trees and an open field behind them. There is one Afro-Caribbean girl. Of the other children, most of them come from families who have lived in the area for generations.

Both schools, of course, are deeply English. The first was vital, complicated, bustling, colourful, stimulating, cosmopolitan, poor, surrounded by traffic. The second is very small (60 children), quiet, friendly, intimate, also quite poor, but without the deprivation and trauma that some of the London children suffered - or had suffered.

Our children walk to it across a field at the end of our garden. The school is one of a handful across a curve of villages, which feed the comprehensive in the medium-sized market town a few miles away.

This year the top year of the primary school went en masse to the secondary. The top year of the London primary went to more than a dozen schools between them.

Needless to say, what the children are taught, how they are taught it, and how they are inspected is more similar than it has ever been in British history. But the experience of the pupils is startlingly different.

This is true of everything from playgrounds to nativity plays. How different can a nativity play be? In London, the nativity play was a gloriously inclusive, rich, multi-faceted experience, many songs, lots of animals and costumes, not much sign of the Incarnation. In a curious way, the performance pushed the story back to its geographical roots in the Middle East and to its anthropological source as a tale of the world's rebirth and the defeat of winter.

These stories are infinitely malleable and it had a particular resonance when performed by children who had found themselves in a strange land in which not every inn was open to them.

I'm comfortable with that. Much more startling and novel for me is the more orthodox Christian faith of an English village, a faith which seems to be widely shared. The results of this can be moving and impressive.

The relationship of an inner-city school to its community can be an elusive concept. But our children's primary school doesn't just talk about responsibility to local people. For instance, the Year 6 children serve lunch to the old people of the village once a month.

The nativity play performed by the younger classes - a more straightforward, traditional version - is as fun for them as it is for any children, with the putting on of costumes and singing of songs, but it is also a coherent part of a year of worship. I wonder if it's less exotic as well. These aren't children who've just seen cows and sheep on TV or wrapped up in bits of cellophane at Tescos. They have parents who work with animals.

And what do our children make of the contrast? Not as much as we do. For them, whether in London or Suffolk, it's not so much a multicultural parable or a religious experience so much as a chance to dress up as a cow.

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