Dystopia revisited

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

A while back and in another school, I taught a sixth form General Studies course that was based on the idea of nightmare worlds; central to it were dystopian novels.  Unusually for such a course, the students seemed to have read most of the books on offer and when the course stopped after its one term’s duration, they seemed keen for more.  1984 (1948) and Brave New World (1932) were there of course, but it was Zamyatin’s We (1924), which arguably laid the imaginative foundation for 1984, that seemed to attract a good deal of the discussion.  Shortly after its publication, I taught Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), which gripped its teenage readers with its nightmarish world and was an intriguing text to be talking with teenagers about in the ’80s.  Over the holidays I returned to Attwood with her very readable The Heart Goes Last, as well as finding Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror as my annual box set.

More’s Utopia (1516), the book that coined the adjectives, is now 500 years old; each Spring, our Block 5s who are taking the much admired Philosophy, Religion and Ethics (PRE) Bedales Assessed Course (BAC) become caught up in creating their ideal worlds; so the idea of Utopia is very much a feature of our shared cultural life.  So, it is salutary – scary actually – to stop and think about how many dystopian echoes there are in the way that the world seems right now. Early Black Mirror, 15 Million Merits (2011) especially, where the game show and unintended consequences of an increasingly digitally based world combine to create a garish living nightmare, now seems spookily prescient.

Specific to the USA, Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004) is thought-provoking.  I’m told we should be reading Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here (1935).

But it is the masterly portrayal of totalitarian thought control in Orwell’s 1984 that seems to be capturing people’s interest.  I suspect that there will also be many more teachers who are encouraging their students to carry their reading of Orwell on into the essays, in particular Politics and the English Language with its memorable concluding thought:

“Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

A packed weekend

Our four tawny and scraggy hens, who arrive somewhat befuddled on Saturday morning, must assume that all weekends in Steep have non-stop musical accompaniment for all creatures – not only the neighbouring stately alpacas but also our quartet of somewhat hen-pecked hens. Even when you are in your muddy compound (hens, that is) at 50 Church Road, you can appreciate the hard work that our Rock Show musicians are putting in over the course of Saturday and Sunday, utilizing all waking hours in preparation for the big performance on Thursday and Friday this week. On Sunday afternoon, Moony and I  enjoy seeing the hard graft and learning going on as the different musicians work at their pieces: Rosheen, George G, Jasper and Luca are developing a soulful piece that George wrote when he was in Block 5. Rosheen, Luca and Jasper are joined by Roly and Will R, who wrote the next song (“Give it all up..” I think..). Then Vincent Z and Louis G join Jasper, Will and Roly for Vincent’s speedy rap piece. Round and about technicians Adam O and Jack P are sorting out smoke machines and lights. I know that the hens must be impressed just catching some of the melodies, but we are that much more impressed seeing it all close up.

Over in the PRE (Philosophy, Religion and Ethics) department Block 5s are wrestling with Utopia – yes, the legendary project which requires them to deploy the knowledge they have built up of belief systems, societies and ethics in order to construct their ideal society.  Nico B is reading the real thing, More’s Utopia, whilst Emily S has impressive looking sheets on the floor and is mapping out a society which she describes as being the best of Bedales meeting the best of Scandinavia – that is Scandi-blanc not Scandi-noir, as we have come to know and love via Borgen, The Killing and for me most recently (glory of glories…) The Bridge.

Some Block 5s find themselves tugged three ways during the course of this rather packed weekend: for Cameron C,Will H and others, should they be blowing their trumpets in the Rock Show rehearsal (yes, there is fruitful commeddling of rock and classical), thinking ideal thoughts with their Utopia project or (in Cameron’s case) cutting slates to shape the elegant clock tower that will now command the heights of the Barnyard?

A wander around outdoor work is always full of surprises and interest: clamber up the ladder (helmet on, of course..) to see that clock tower being shaped; admire the gleaming Land Rover which is being lovingly scrubbed prior to its first proper spray at the hands of Alex H, Chris B and Fergus P; taste the ice cream (delicious!) kindly provided by Harriet K and Winny H whose ice-cream seller’s bike and insulated container will be tempting you all on Parents’ Day if not before; relish the well appointed quiet of Clare D’s and Amy L’s meditation octagon (a far cry from its genesis as a drafty turkey hut and a place where you could certainly think in Utopian fashion); and this was even without seeing in action Xav, Nav, Louis H and Tamara C putting the dome onto the finely wrought brickwork that will make the Kadian Observatory; or Izzy R and Tilly C’s bee work – bees wax candles.

Back to our bemused hens for some clipping of wings and ringing – putting identifying rings on feet that is. Hen Utopia? Not quite. The examined life? Perhaps not, but an extended one at least.

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales School


Bedales School is one of the UK’s top independent private co-education boarding schools. Bedales comprises three schools situated in Steep, near Petersfield, Hampshire: Dunannie (ages 3–8), Dunhurst (ages 8–13) and Bedales itself (ages 13–18). Established in 1893 Bedales School puts emphasis on the Arts, Sciences, voluntary service, pastoral care, and listening to students’ views. Bedales is acclaimed for its drama, theatre, art and music. The Headmaster is Keith Budge.