Today is Friday which means that when I walk Bruno, I listen to the new episode of “The Full Fact Podcast”. The first item was about the cost of furloughing (£69 billion) compared with other government costs which had been exaggerated on a Facebook post. The podcast corrected the Facebook post to state that £137 billion was spent to bail out the banks in 2008, £41 billion was needed over the next 20 years for Trident and £106 billion for HS2 (although “only” £7.6 billion has been spent so far).
This brought to mind the phrase “There are three kinds of lies. Lies, damned lies, and statistics” which I often here by people trying to show off that they prefer to believe their own prejudices than seek true understanding. I often feel that people use this phrase to prove that they don’t understand Mathematics. As someone who has spent his working life teaching Mathematics, I am always insulted when I hear this phrase. The issue is, I believe, that to understand statistics, you need to have mathematical skills to dig deep and interpret them correctly. On “More Or Less” on Wednesday, there was an item about the number of deaths recorded on June 3rd in the UK (359) compared to the number of deaths recorded in the whole of the EU (314). Someone could lazily repeat these figures and that’s easier than digging deeper. When they did this on the podcast, it was clear that there were a number of UK deaths announced on that day which referred to deaths that had happened up to 6 weeks previously. Also Spain, for example, were only announcing deaths that had happened the day before which is why they had said there were zero deaths on that day.
There have been many times when have people boasted to me that they were never any good at Mathematics when they were at school. I wonder how many times my English teacher colleagues have heard people boast that they were never very good at reading? It seems to be acceptable, a badge of honour, to say that they were no good at maths but it would be shameful to say that they couldn’t read.
Incidentally, the phrase “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics” is wrongly attributed to Disraeli. It was first used by Mark Twain. Wikipedia states that this “is a phrase describing the persuasive power of numbers, particularly the use of statistics to bolster weak arguments. It is also sometimes colloquially used to doubt statistics used to prove an opponent’s point.”
Another issue I have is the stereotypes that I see in films and books. Clearly, authors and screenwriters are good at writing. It is very common that this gets extrapolated to portray English teachers as sensitive, thinking and caring people whereas Mathematics teachers are insensitive and prone to blindly following rules (or principles?). One of my favourite films is “Fever Pitch” which is nearly as good as the Nick Hornby book on which it is based. In the film, Colin Firth plays the English teacher who is not really bothered about lesson plans, marking or carving out a career for himself. He gets on brilliantly with his students and their parents and has amazing classroom control. His romantic interest is played by Ruth Gemmell. To provide a cartoonish contrast, she is a Mathematics teacher who spends her evening marking, isn’t very popular with her students, doesn’t achieve good classroom control and is very career oriented. It makes for a great film, a humorous contrast and a general diminishing of the importance of Mathematics.
Don’t get me started on how important Mathematics is or how it is the human mind’s greatest achievement.
So all this got me to thinking about the use of Mathematics in music that I like. There isn’t a great choice but there’s a brilliant bit towards the end of one of my favourite Stranglers’ songs “School Mam”. I’m not sure why I like it so much because it isn’t very polite about teachers. It starts with the sounds of children laughing and playing which is cut short by a school bell. A typical Stranglers riff cuts in with some great keyboard, guitar and bass playing. Hugh Cornwell’s sneering singing kicks in with words such as “Being a school mam – Long holidays in the summer. Being a school mam – Free milk in your coffee breaks. Being a school mam – Government paid monthly salary cheques” The disdain with which he sings that last phrase is brilliant. The next chorus is slightly different: ” Being a school mam – Controlling promiscuity after hours. Being a school mam – Giving out detentions by the dozen. Being a school mam – Give her fifty lines (of speed).” “Of speed” – that’s very funny. I think these phrases are brilliant. “Controlling promiscuity after hours” – I can’t remember that I ever did this or even tried to do this. I did give out detentions by the dozen but they were all deserved (?). My second favourite part of the song is at the end of the next verse when he sneers “Use your twentieth century imagination” and then pauses before spitting out “if you’ve got any”. As snarling putdowns go, it’s on a par with “Positively 4th Street”.
Towards the end of the song we get some Mathematics. And it’s all proudly correct. Without irony. Excellent 10/10. “Being a school mam – One and one make two if you are very lucky.” Yes indeed. “Being a school mam – Two twos make four if I remember correctly”. Sarcastic but still spot on. “Being a school mam – Four fours make sixteen and sixteen’s over age”. Ah, now we are getting into the slightly dodgy territory which is prevalent on other parts of this record. I don’t think this record could be released today. “Sixteen and sixteen make thirty-two, that’s approaching middle age”. This brings to mind the line from “My Generation” – “hope I die before I get old.” “Thirty-two and thirty-two make sixty-four, that’s OAP land”. I remember being 64. “Sixty-four and sixty-four make one-hundred-and-twenty-eight”. Good. Well done. Then the really excellent bit. “One-hundred-and-twenty-eight divided by three. Let me pause for reflection for a second. But teacher! Three does not go into one-hundred-and-twenty eight exactly; but it goes forty-two and a bit; 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 49. 1, 49.2, 49.3, 49.4, 49.5, 49.6, 49.7, 49.8, 49.9, 49.9 ,49.9, 49.9, 49.9, 49.9, 49.9, 49.9, 49.9, 49.9, 49.9, 50”. This is a great celebration of mathematics.
Maybe I got a bit carried away there. But the excitement in the song, the sneering delivery, the intensity and the utter conviction make this compelling. There are several other similar songs on the record. “No More Heroes”, the title track, makes a good point about how celebrities are more important than heroes. I’m not sure about rhyming “heroes” with “Shakespearos” but it’s a good song and it got to Number 8 in the UK Charts.
“Something Better Change” was a single that got to Number 9 in the charts. It’s typically aggressive and a good youth anthem from 1977. “The Times They Are A’Changing” updated for the punk movement. “Something’s happening and it’s happening right now
You’re too blind to see it.”
I’m not sure about the lyrical content of some of the songs on this record. The first song is called ” I feel like a w** “, a term so offensive, I’m not going to repeat it here. There’s nothing defensible about the words of “Bring On The Nubiles” some of which are “I’ve got to lick your little p*** and nail you to the floor. Lemme Lemme F*** Ya F*** Ya” etc etc. The musical excitement is not in doubt and the lyrical content just lets us all know how far things have moved in 43 years since this record was released.
However, I’m prepared to forgive everything simply because of the line “One-hundred-and-twenty-eight divided by three. Let me pause for reflection for a second. But teacher! Three does not go into one-hundred-and-twenty eight exactly; but it goes forty-two and a bit”