Climb every mountain

24th June 2005 at 01:00
It's good sometimes to take the long view. Or even the very long view.

Climate change can look different if you consider that when the chalk of the white cliffs of Dover was formed from the skeletons of myriad tiny creatures, the sea level was hundreds of metres above the clifftop of today.

And, not so long ago, all that water had shrunk back into the icecaps so that you could walk to Europe at Dover without the aid of a tunnel. It might well be happening again and it may be our fault, but it has certainly happened before.

I get that same sense of "what goes around comes around" when I look at countries and continents too. Professor Niall Ferguson's epic history of British colonialism, Empire, suggests that India and China probably had the highest income per head of population anywhere on earth in the 16th century.

Europeans plundered that. Later we created a secure environment for investment in the Empire, so that more than twice as much money flowed from the developed world to developing countries a hundred years ago than is the case today.

Bob Geldof is back on centre stage, making the case for Africa. He's right in seeing the necessary changes as political (more security) and economic (more investment). These are soluble issues, not some kind of eternal, unchallengeable damnation.

He's also right in believing changes can be made pretty fast. What proves him right is Gordon Brown's well-founded concern that we are all going to have to work very hard indeed to avoid being economically thrashed in our turn by India and China.

Unless you have terribly bad luck or bad government, the universal law always comes through in the end: big country plus good natural resources plus active people equals prosperity. A mere 500 years from boom to boom, instead of hundreds of millennia in the case of climate.

Even quicker is the pace of success in our own lives. Reading the label of an excellent bottle of wine the other day, I found this: "Cultive Recolte Vinifie Eleve et Mis en Bouteille par I."

Isn't that splendid? Grown, gathered, made into wine, matured and bottled.

How complete. How dedicated to sustained, loving effort. How eloquent of the only way a great wine can be made. Five years. Ten years. Sometimes more for each bottle.

Nobody ever grew a great wine by digging up the vines every now and then to see how they were doing. "Vieux Ceps" is the badge of seriousness the wine lover looks for in a wine grower. Old vines, not promising little sprouts pricked out and chucked on the compost heap.

And so it goes, of course, not only for great wine but for great anything.

Dotcom sensations came and went, but the blue-chip giants of the FTSE 100 endure for decades. Universities count the steps to worldwide reputation by the century. Few religions worth their salt have been around for less than a millennium and the very few which once held broad sway but have long since faded, like Zoroastrianism or Mithraism, can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Next week, we at the Adult Learning Inspectorate are bringing in two experts to talk to all our staff about how you endure long enough to achieve excellence.

They are keynote speakers at our annual conference. One is the mountaineer, Joe Simpson. The other, a former SAS soldier, is Andy McNab. They never give up.

Simpson fell on a mountain in the Andes and broke his leg. His partner lowered him as far as he could but then hit the mother of all crunches.

Simpson was dangling over a precipice, in the dark, in a blizzard, at the very end of the rope.

The guy holding the rope couldn't pull him back up and the weight was dragging them both - slowly, irresistibly - towards the abyss.

He did the only possible, the completely unthinkable, thing. He cut the rope. Simpson fell. Broken leg. Agonised. Into a crevasse; a grave. But he got out, he crawled for miles, for days, over spiked ice and boulder, until he caught up with his mates at the moment they were leaving.

He still climbs, but he writes successfully and beautifully. The film of his ordeal, Touching the Void, was a worldwide hit. Never give up.

McNab was an illiterate and undisciplined street kid until the Army channelled all that inchoate energy into a single-minded determination to win. He was captured behind the lines in the first Iraq war. He was tortured. He knew that his experience was far from heroic. He was just the victim of a cock-up, in the wrong place at the wrong time.

He survived and, of that, he made first a story and then a career as a writer. Never give up.

So, all of you out there trying to build a great course, or a great training organisation, or a great college - or just trying to preserve one against what feels like intolerable pressure to throw everything away to gratify someone's passing whim - remember this: what goes around comes around. Never give up.

The only things that make quality are hard work and time. Time makes perfect.

David Sherlock is chief inspector of the Adult Learning Inspectorate

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