I had a Knight, but no Herald

9th January 2004 at 00:00
his time last year, I resorted to that old chestnut of "my new year resolutions" as inspiration for an article. Looking back, I note that I did give up sugar, didn't learn any more Urdu, managed to climb Ben Nevis, learned to use a whiteboard, failed to buy a Triumph Herald and sort of got published in a book (King o' the Midden - available at all good bookshops and one or two bad ones).

This year, having never resolved to give up cliches, I thought I'd do a piece on "my best something of the year, 2003".

But what? Film of the year? Nothing stands out, apart from an appalling misjudgment in going to see Legally Blonde 2. Record of the year? Do me a favour. I'm still stuck in the 1970s. Book? Now we're on safer ground.

For me, the best book of the last year (apart from King o' the Midden, available at. . .) was Joseph Knight, by James Robertson. I will admit to being unable to talk about this author's work without bias, as I know him.

I might even go as far as to claim that mutual admiration exists between us. I admire the way he can write a meticulously researched historical novel that manages at the same time to be an unputdownable mystery story, and he admires the way I can write a rhyme in Scots about a dog with a face like a bum.

Joseph Knight may well be the first truly post-devolution novel. It is the story of a slave, brought back to Scotland essentially as a souvenir, who then fights in the courts for his freedom. Rather than write a novel dragging up old union-with-England grievances, Robertson makes us confront the fact that our wealth as a nation was built on many appalling practices.

There is some redemption as we meet the men of the Enlightenment, but they argue for freedom while drinking coffee and rum from the plantations as they do so. Read it. Gregor says.

My quote of the year came at a Learning and Teaching Scotland seminar about formative assessment: "Often in education, we start out with the intention of making the important measurable and end up making the measurable important." That certainly rang more bells with me than your average Hogmanay party. While I am not prepared to propose that we junk all types of summative assessment, I am hopeful that relentless, distorting testing of even the tottiest kids is on the way out.

Yes, we might be spending so much on a parliament building that half as much money again would build an entire new national football stadium south of the border, but some things, post-devolution, are better.

Gregor Steele reckons excessive testing was a right-wing plot to ensure teachers had no time to spend on teaching lefty things.

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