Dear Ever-Changing Thing

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It was Heraclitus who observed that there is nothing permanent except change.

The great thing about institutions, such as well-established schools, is that this change takes place within the stable context of a long-held identity.

No institution should stand still. Equally, we should not be blown about by passing fads.

Culture is like a colloid: it has a shape but it gently morphs over time. There must be change, but usually it is gentle, measured, deliberate. And fuelled by reflection, listening, honest self-criticism. This is willed change.

A wave of communal optimism seemed to flow from the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee Celebrations. So much was rightly said about the constancy, certainty and loyalty that Her Majesty has brought in her 70 years on the throne. For millions, she has been the still and dignified centre of an ever-changing world.

Times have changed. Some change has been rapid; other change more of a creeping thing. The Queen herself has changed, of course – gathered experience, matured, aged. Yet, she has been constant. Because the things she stands for, the virtues she embodies, are timeless. They do not change. That is what we mean by integrity. If right within…

When Sir Michael Palin (OS) stayed with us during his visit [May 2022] to Shrewsbury, he told me how the place felt reassuringly familiar but better in so many ways. It was not just the physical things – the many new buildings and facilities – but the feel and buzz of the place which he said was both true to its past but felt fresher, kinder, contemporary. You’d hope so, really, but it was lovely to hear him speak so warmly of the School he left in 1961. The change he saw was evolution rather than revolution. A forward journey plotted with a familiar and trusty compass.

Sir Michael Palin – with Charles Darwin behind him


Nothing stays the same. Language itself is, of course, an ever-changing thing. For example, I discovered recently that the word ‘fun’ (which I love to couple oxymoronically with the word ‘serious’), originally meant ‘to cheat or hoax’. Hence ‘to make fun of’. However, its meaning gradually shifted to take on the positive connotation of having a good time. The words ‘terrific’ and ‘tremendous’ – undoubtedly good ones to see in your children’s end of term reports – were originally about fear and trembling. To ‘grin’ was to bare teeth in pain; it then became the word for a fake or forced smile, before becoming the real thing.

To be ‘egregious’ was a compliment – ‘eminent’, rather than the modern negative ‘offensive’. ‘Sad’ used to mean ‘satisfied’, then it went to meaning ‘serious’, then ‘grave’ then ‘sorrowful’. ‘Smug’ once meant ‘crisp and tidy’ – a good thing, surely? – but nowadays, it’s undoubtedly something to avoid.

As we enter the closing weeks of an academic year, the pupils are grinning and bearing the seriousness of exam season (public and internal); and our Upper Sixth are approaching the major change of leaving school. The school will change again as new pupils and staff join in September. As times roll on, we must do all we can to avoid being smug or egregious; and to embrace positive change with a tremendous spirit of serious fun…

As our Shrewsbury School motto states: ‘Intus Si Recte, Ne Labora’. If right within, worry not. The right things within us are constant. It is virtues and values of integrity that remain steady and true.

The challenge is to keep hold of them amidst a world of ever-changing things.

Dear 2022

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Your family has been hard to love of late. 

I wrote to your younger sibling, 2020, in her infancy – when she was only a few days old.  I made wishes for her.  And, almost as soon as I had written, I felt ashamed at the presumptive folly of my wish-making.  Yet here I am again.  Full of hope.   

Back in 2020, following a poet’s lead [Philip Larkin: ‘Born Yesterday’), I wished your sister dull.  I wished 2020 the blessing of being ordinary; for her to be about the gradual spreading of ordinary happiness.  I had in mind the steadiness of contentment, rather than the mercurial fireworks of ecstatic highs. 

We all know that 2020 was anything but dull.  And contentment a rare thing. Yet, contentment for all sentient beings must surely be the worthy (if unreachable) endpoint for our biggest hopes.  

My own hopeful thoughts – always infinitesimally tiny in the noisy ocean of possibilities ahead – evaporated as soon as they were voiced.  Hopes are ethereal.  Yet they persist. 

And I can’t help but have high hopes for you, 2022. 


No-one could call a pandemic dull or ordinary.  As well as craving safety, shelter, wellbeing; our species sought certainty, direction, leadership; and we hoped for normality.  2020 gave us little, and her sibling 2021 less.  Lockdowns, limitations and restrictions carried their share of dull.   But these years have been full of extremes.  And they have taken so many on earth to the darkest of places and beyond.  The despair, the suffering, the confusion of 2020 extended into 2021, joined by a stark sense of inequity across and within nations.  Gaps opened further between regions where vaccination programmes surged into life and those where people were left exposed.  The images remain; the suffering continues.

It is really not my place to comment, from the privileged comfort of my protected patch of the world.  Human beings across the globe have felt the awful power of this virus.  In many ways, this reality calls for the absence of words: sombre, shared silence is the only authentic response.  Words are hollow bubbles. 

And yet, like thoughts – like hope – like bubbles, indeed – words float up again out of the silence. 


2020 and 2021 were very, very rough for so many, and in so many ways.  This fact colours everything. 

But, there have been positives.  Shared hardship elicits waves of compassion.  Fellow-feeling flows from the levelling effect of a common threat.  The extraordinary kindness and devotion of so many individuals and organisations, to good causes, to the protection of others.  These are incalculable, potentially paradigm-changing pluses.  We could become more caring, more empathetic, more kind through all this. 

The collective force of human ingenuity has saved millions of lives, enabled continuity, and opened new possibilities. Our thirst for equity has been sharpened: calls for social justice have been voiced more passionately; heard more clearly; actioned more purposefully. Our duties to the natural world have never been more prominent, nor more urgent; lockdowns have caused the small shoots of regeneration; big (though perhaps not big enough) environmental pledges have been made.

Is there a more urgent desire to make the world a better place; to emerge together to a fairer post-pandemic world. Is that to be your thing, 2022?

So, 2022, I wish you kind.  Kinder than your forebears.  And, from time to time, a bit of dull wouldn’t go amiss.

Dear Camel – to the Class of 2021

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Speech to the Leavers of 2021, 3 July 2021

My father once told me the story of the baby camel who kept asking its mother questions.

“Mummy, why do we have these wide, spongey feet?” – Well, dear, it’s so that we can walk over sand dunes without sinking.  “And what about these extra-long eye-lashes?” – Those are to protect your eyes during sand storms.  “Ah. And why do we have these huge fat lumps on our backs?”  – Those are humps, dear.  They store energy for extended journeys across the desert.  

“Oh.  Right….”

“Mummy – what are we doing here in Chester Zoo?”


Mummy, what are we doing in Chester Zoo?


Zoos are places of containment.  Schools are, ultimately, all about escape. 

During their time with us, whether it has been a 2, 4 or 5 year stay, I hope that we have enhanced your children’s natural talents and added new passions and experiences.  And that they are prepared for life; equipped with the skills and aptitudes – the spongey feet and absorbent humps – with which to cross through life’s undulations.  I hope that they will travel the sands of time with inner confidence and a steady set of values.  I hope that they seek out oases. And create them for others.

In recent times, we have all felt the confinement of life during a pandemic.  The defensive bars of separation have caused isolation.  Motivated by a desire to protect, control measures have brought limitations and caused inevitable frustrations.  The national policy on isolating children who are close contacts has become monstrously disproportionate.  This must surely change. 

No community is immune to the insidious impacts of the pandemic.   Parents and educators alike worry about the impact of these times on the health and well-being of the young.  However, despite – and in some cases because of it all, we applaud the adaptability, the resilience, the sheer luminous brilliance of the young in our school – this year group in particular.  This is cause for celebration, hope and expectation.  

A full boarding school community is a magnificently intricate, complex and dynamic ecosystem of which to be a part – whether as a pupil or a member of staff.  Each individual is important.  Each person’s character and behaviour alters and affects the equipoise and flourishing of the whole. 

Shrewsbury strives to be an accepting community that embraces individuals on the basis of who they are.  All communities need to do more on issues of equality, diversity and inclusion.  We have work ahead on this, but I do like to believe that the natural state of Salopia is one of symbiotic co-operation and the celebration of difference.

Although we have been sometimes apart, sometimes at a distance, shared adversity has brought schools, parents and pupils closer together.  Recent times have seen artificial constraints and barriers introduced into the system. The very notion of a remote boarding community is oxymoronic: a contradiction in terms. And yet we made it happen together.  

When we resumed on-site learning, we embraced creatively and inventively the systems of control that put distances between year groups, houses, pupils and staff. The Salopian spirit filled the gaps.  We found a way to connect and make things happen as fully as possible. 

The experience of living with COVID has triggered and accelerated positive adaptations and evolutionary step changes.  Much more inventive use of technology in teaching and learning, for example.  We have also embraced the brave new world of virtual parent consultations.  The challenge of balancing cups of tea and maintaining a polite smile whilst trying to keep a place in a queue have been replaced by privacy and the focusing effect of a countdown timer.  Virtualisation has been an enlivening challenge for us all. 

Despite the significant gains made, concerns over excessive screen-time, and the darker influences of the digital multiverse, have underlined all the more sharply, the deep value and purpose of whole person communal education. 

Education is not a transaction; whole person education cannot be done through a screen.  The education that you parents chose – this distinctive Shrewsbury education – relies on a community of individuals who share a common spirit.  Our kind of education is about co-travelling; shared experience; wide opportunities; inspiration and challenge.  It is about serious fun.

A school is a learning community.  What have our leavers learned, I wonder?  And what have we learned from them?

I hope that we learn, every day, to delight in the uniqueness of each human being.  Whilst we live in times of control and civic responsibility, the human spirit leaps up and refuses to be reduced.  I hope that our leavers embody the virtues of practical wisdom; courage and kindness.  These things are not learned; they are absorbed gradually over time spent on the Salopian Way.

https://www.shrewsbury.org.uk/sites/default/files/Shrewsbury%20School%20Ethos%20and%20Educational%20Philosophy_0.pdf

What do I hope for, when I look out at our Upper Sixth?  In times when people are quick to outrage, I hope for tolerance and understanding.    In times when Government appears to set education policy in an echo chamber, I hope for respectful dialogue across all the professions. 

In times that have never been more complicated for our children to grow up, I hope for kindness and places of safety.  In times when change is needed, I hope for the righteous indignation and moral purpose of the next generation.  In times of isolation and growing nationalism, I hope for a global mindset. Across society, we see evidence of a crisis of identity.  We need people who can connect and join; rather that divide and separate.  We need people who try to find solutions to local, national and international problems.  People with giant ventures in mind.

In times when the waves of a pandemic sweep across the world; I hope that the waves of fellowship follow.

The former Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, suggested that times of crisis identify the hoarders and the sharers.  We need to be amongst the sharers.  And as we come out of the pandemic and learn to live responsibly with COVID, we have a chance to treasure, enhance and deepen the way we use our returning freedoms.

Our leavers are on the cusp of new adventures.  Of course, we will them brilliant futures. When the animals escape from the zoo we want them to be dispersing widely, into new habitats that challenge and inspire them.

Photo by Frans Van Heerden on Pexels.com

So, where are they headed?  The Upper Sixth have firm offers to go to 51 different universities worldwide.  Three quarters of those offers are at Russell Group universities.  All being well, 38 Salopians – that’s a fifth of the year group – will head to one of the World Tops 20 universities in the Autumn.  Just over a quarter will be taking a Gap Year, a significant and understandable increase. International destinations are, expectedly, a little down this year but pupils hold offers from University of California (San Diego), Georgia Institute of Technology, Tilburg University in the Netherlands, City University of HK and Florence, Italy.

Salopians will go on to study courses-  in order of frequency – in Business; medicine and medical-related courses; Politics and International Relations; History, Geography, Sport, English, Economics, Philosophy (all 7).  Four will be studying Architecture; and others hope to study Fashion Journalism and Content Creation; Infection and Immunity; Psychology;  Renewable Energy Engineering and Climate Science.  Our leavers have offers at the Royal College of Music; scholarships to the Guildhall School of Music; places at the Guildford School of Acting.  Four students off to do an Art Foundation Course.  One is off to do an Army Gap Year; one to professional sport.  What a diversity of destinations! 

Incidentally, we were delighted to hear on Thursday that our careers advice and guidance programme – which we call Futures – led superbly Mr Wain and Mr Percival – has been shortlisted for a national Independent school award for best Student Careers.  This follows on from being named Independent School of the Year for 2020 and Best Community Outreach programme 2020. 

We’re proud of this collective recognition and thank all pupils, teaching and support staff, parents and governors for combining to create an award-winning community.

Today, is the point of departure – a kind of escape.  As they depart the friendly confines of Shrewsbury, we celebrate our leavers’ resilience, and brilliance, in times of transilience. (I confess I had to look up the third word in that rhyming trio – transilience means ‘abrupt change or variation‘, apparently.  We’ve certainly had plenty of that of late.

For our Upper Sixth leavers – the camels of 2021 with their magnificent spongey feet, their luxurious eye-lashes and their well-stocked humps – this is the day when the gates of the zoo are flung wide open.


Upper Sixth Leave-Taking 3 July 2021

Dear Pedestrian

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Solvitur ambulando: ‘It is solved by walking.’

As a walker, you know this well.

This pithy saying – all the more pithy in Latin – is attributed to St Augustine.  It captures the sense that walking is more than just a physical activity.  Rather, it suggests that walking can be an act of mindfulness; a means of spiritual refreshment; a way of untangling the knots of the mind.  For many, walking and thinking are the closest of travelling companions.

I went through a phase of reading book after book about walking. It was in the aftermath of my father’s death in 2014.  I think, looking back, it was a way of reflecting on his life and its ending.  Big, long walks in the Yorkshire countryside were a way of processing.  I felt drawn to the paths of the East Yorkshire coast; it felt good to be small, yet strangely at home, in the rugged openness of the Moors; the gentle dales and valleys invited me to explore.  Following ancient ways – paths that had been covered by countless pairs of feet – connected me to the unknown folk who have lived and moved across the same land.   

When I wasn’t walking, I was thinking about walking.  I was reading about walking.  I read books by Robert Macfarlane, Roger Deakin, Henry David Thoreau, Frederic Gros, Rebecca Solnit, Geoff Nicholson, Nan Shephard, Patrick Leigh Fermor.  There are shelves of books on walking, natural history, landscape and language, psychogeography – all kept in our little cottage in the North York Moors.

Holloway

My inner teenager would be both baffled and appalled at this strange obsession with the act of walking.  How on earth can walking be interesting?  The Pavlovian response of most teenagers at the prospect of a long country walk is a derisory scoff or a spontaneous list of other more urgent priorities.  For some, walking looks like a waste of time and energy.  Especially the circular walk beloved of ramblers – why on earth would we walk in a big circle that ends up where we started? 

The word pedestrian (as an adjective) has a telling meaning: ‘prosaic, commonplace, dull’. Doesn’t that tell us something about the status of a walk?

Most prosaically, of course, walking is an act of locomotion; of self-propulsion; it is the simplest practice of getting from A to B.  It is a form of exercise and means of staying physically healthy.  More expansively, walking is a way to discover and explore the external world.  At a deeper level, walking can make us happier.     

Like many of the routine capacities that the fit and healthy take for granted, the able-bodied take the daily process of walking unthinkingly in our stride.  For those who find walking easy, we don’t often register that this unconscious process is supremely complex.  The ability to walk was hard-earned, and hard-learned, over months of early childhood development.  We learn to walk and are free.  Viewed this way, walking is a privilege.  More empoweringly conceived, it is an act of self-determination.  And a route to inner discovery.

You can see why slow self-locomotion seems ordinary next to the rapid movement of car, plane and rocket.  As the industrial revolution brought speed, along with so much else, shanks’ pony became equated with backwardness and poverty.

And yet… slow can be good.

View from Caer Caradoc

During lockdown, the daily walk has become disproportionately important.  For most, the local wander was the default leisure activity.  Ask someone what they did at the weekend during lockdown and they will almost certainly reference a walk.  Being pedestrian has been crucial to our wellbeing.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, pedestrianism was a spectator sport; an heroic activity that drew fans and inspired a degree of celebrity.  Walking was a means to epic feats and the focus of wild wagers.  For example, the legendary pedestrian Captain Robert Barclay Allardice’s most impressive achievement was to walk 1 mile every hour for 1000 consecutive hours between 1st and 12th July 1809.  People travelled to see him walk.  Many other men and women became competitive endurance or speed walkers.  Over time, this craze for pedestrianism gradually passed and became obsolete.  However, history shows that being a pedestrian was not always pedestrian.  

Returning to the current day, walking is a means of exercise and relaxation for many.  You come back from a decent walk feeling physically tired and mentally refreshed.  The quick wander with the dog; the late afternoon perambulation – these all help to dislodge the lumps in the mind’s path. 

I think it is one of the many uniquely special things about Shrewsbury School life that we – by which I mean pupils and staff alike – all do a lot of walking in our daily routines.  Our 100 acre site has walking designed into it. 

Shrewsbury School Site – walking to work

We have to walk from house to lessons; from one building to another; to and from meals.  We walk through a shared  place of calm, natural beauty. I think this is a very healthy thing for all of us.

Walking, woven into our daily routines, is good for the mind and the body.  And it can also help with problem-solving.

Whatever ‘it’ is – it may well be solved, or at least eased, by walking.

Keep walking, dear Pedestrian. 

Dear Cricket

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This is a love letter.

You know the old saying: ‘Out of sight, out of mind”?  Well, that couldn’t be further from the truth for me.  The longer you are away, the more I miss you.  Every saying has its opposite.  With you, it’s definitely a matter of ‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder’.

It’s just not the same without you.  Summer is on its way and the stage is set.  And yes, of course, I completely understand why you can’t be here.  It’s not your fault.  You are a stickler for the rules and are rightly taking your responsibilities seriously.  I know we need to do the right thing and stay apart.

My head tells me this.  Of course, it does.  But my heart?  It longs for you.

I miss the sight of you.  The theatre of green in which you play out your many acts.  The drama of each moment, rich with potential, as something might happen, or not, with the very next ball.  The eager mobilisation of the players, white-clad on the green grass, at the end of the over.

I miss the sound of you.  The thud of ball on ‘deck’; the solid ‘thock’ of willow on leather that sets off a soothing ripple of applause.  The charged, low rev, anticipatory silence between balls.  The slow-moving silence of quiet overs, where sleep seems just around the corner.  The eruption of a wicket.  The sporting greeting of seeing a new adversary to the crease.  The push and pull of players calling to each other.  ‘Come on buddy’.  ‘Next ball’.  ‘Nice areas’.  You can be quite noisy too.  Remember Saturdays at Headingley.  Quite the party animal…

I miss the shape of you. Whether it’s the Friday night friskiness of T20 or the sedate Sunday best of a test.  Or on your days off, casually attired in the back garden.  You look great in anything, really.  I was looking forward to seeing you in your new Hundred get-up. 

I miss the smell of you.  Cut grass.  Linseed oil.  The occasional waft of beer or ice cream on a gentle summer breeze.  Other people’s fancy picnics.

I miss the way you talk.  All stats and facts; and poetry and jokes and random diversions; the idle chat; the shared speculation. 

And, your greatest charm: uncertainty of outcome.

View of the playing fields at Shrewsbury. A perfect setting in which to watch and play cricket.

It’s true, I’m remembering the very best of you.  The perfect days we had together.  You do have your moments: rainy days when the covers stay on and you refuse to come out to play; dull days when you can’t find a way to make life interesting.  Honestly, though, those grey days don’t linger in the memory. 

And until you do, I’m going to read your old love letters.  I shan’t dwell on the difficult days.  I’m going to look at photos and films of what we did last summer.  Lord’s, then Headingley.  Wow.  Or our trips to Australia – say, Melbourne 2010?  Other happy times at home: Edgbaston or Old Trafford in 2005.  Or back again to Headingley, in 1981, when we were just starting out together.  Ah, those early days… 

And so on, I’ll keep playing back the memories until you’re back here by my side.

A summer without you?  It’s just not cricket.  So, please, come back soon. 

Dear 2020 – Day 82 (Mothering Sunday Update)

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Well, 2020. You certainly turned out to have a nature only a mother could love. Fires, floods and now this.

I write now at the close of Mothering Sunday. Reading now what I wrote then, when you were 9 days old, I wince. I wished you dull. I wished you fairer, kinder, more happy than your siblings 2019 and 2018. Look at you now? 82 days old and so hard to love.

Recalling my wide-eyed, new-year wish-making, I find myself curating a curious mix of shame, defiance and hope. Like a parent, I can see that you are not living up to expectations; like a parent, I fear for you; like a parent, I regret the way things are going. And yet, like a parent, I cannot give up on you. Even as you continue to behave so badly. Or so it seems.

You are far from ordinary and the big stories of your life so far have been nothing but horror. You have a lot to answer for and there is so much you could do better. But, there is so much about you that is admirable and good. So much ordinary kindness and extraordinary courage that your acts and errors are requiring from people across the globe.

Yes, you are far from dull. And you have a very dark side. Below is what I said back when you were tiny, just 9 days old:

Welcome to the world, new-born thing. I hope you find your feet quickly. And I have some other hopes for you too. Your older sister, 2019, was a fiery one. Capable of so much good, but full of contradictions and often quite disagreeable. That’s teenagers, I suppose. Mind you, she was nowhere near as confounding and unpredictable as her older brother 2016. You never knew what was coming next with him. I wonder how he looks now, four years on.

Anyway, after 25 years of teaching, and 16 years as a parent, I know not to judge one sibling by another. Each child is wonderfully, bracingly different; unique individuals with promise and potential; needs and demands; fears, expectations and hopes. The poet Philip Larkin wrote a poem to the newly born daughter of his friend, Kingsley Amis. He wishes her something “none of the others would”. Instead of wishing her beauty, talent and love, he says: “May you be ordinary […] In fact, may you be dull.

My hope for you is like that of Larkin. You’ll have your moments, for sure, and as with all your family, there will be sadness, despair, loneliness – horror even, sad to say. But… I hope that the weight and volume of all the unseen good, and the plain day-to-day ordinary that you think and do, all this stuff will be the thing that truly defines you. I hope you are fair: or at least, fairer than your forebears – gradually but meaningfully fairer. And kinder too.

There are lots of other things I hope for you, new-born thing. But Larkin’s odd and surprising incantation says it so much better. He wishes balance and ordinariness. A life more ordinary: “If that is what a skilled, / Vigilant, flexible, / Unemphasised, enthralled / Catching of happiness is called”.

Having re-read these words, despite all the chaos, confusion and despair you’re causing 2020, I still have hope for you. Alongside the awful, there is still the wonderful. There is even some unintended good coming from your most troubled acts.

Life with you is anything but ordinary, 2020. For so many, it must feel like day after day of creeping horror. This is a crushing truth: you are doing so much harm.

And yet; and yet. Despite everything you’ve done so far, I stand by my hopes for you. There is good to you. And, like a parent who can somehow always see the good in its errant teenager; can still sense the virtue amongst all the vice; the kindness in the carnage: I’m sticking by you.

Still hoping, 2020.

Leo

Dear Gerald

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News of your passing has reached me.  You went out smiling, I’m told, and at the very decent age of 81. 

You worked all your life at the same school.  As a caretaker, odd-job-man and general lifter-and-shifter.  You spent over 50 years serving the same school community.  Same in name, but – like a river – always changing and flowing forward into different times with different people.  Yet, you were a constant. 

I remember you from when I was a child, growing up with a teacher for a Dad, in a boarding school where the staff children roamed free in the holidays.  And during term-time, our teacher parents were busy looking after other people’s children.  You were one of the benign constants that held us gently in place.  You were an ever-there. 

With your trademark greeting, unerring in your cheerfulness, you would say to all you met: “Lovely to see you!”.  You’d bellow that greeting in advance from a distance; or boomed it as a valediction – a validation – as you rolled along to your next task, your next greeting.  You were utterly indiscriminate – in the best way.  You showed no judgement.  Yet this greeting did not feel cheap or empty.  It was a simple, joyful affirmation. Your famous wheezy laugh fizzed with gentle mischief.

You wore blue workman’s dungarees, with splashes of paint and oil and grease, over a white string vest (have I made that up?) and always, whatever the weather, a bobble hat.  Yellow, was it?  And lacking the bobble.  

One time, you dropped a large metal radiator on your foot.  It landed like a heavy blade, taking one of your toes off in your shoe.  You wrapped and carried it like a little bug in your huge hands, searching for someone to help you.  The first person you met was my Dad.  He drove you to the hospital and kept you talking.  Something you did willingly, as if you were sharing a routine trip to the shops.  They patched you up somehow.  And you never forgot the kindness. 

From time to time, some of the children at the school would try to find fun in you.  You defused their nuisance with your constant greeting and undefended heart.  Soon, everyone knew that there was no fun to be had in setting traps for you.  Rather, they saw that you were a treasure; an institution; a legend.  Your loyalty; your appetite for hard work; your unearthly strength; your trustworthiness; your sheer reliability: these were qualities that even the most bone-headed of us could see were golden virtues. 

Love came from what you did; and love was the source of it.  And you were loved for being you. 

Rest in peace, Gerald.

Lovely to see you.

Leo Winkley

Dear 2020

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Dear 2020

Welcome to the world, new-born thing. I hope you find your feet quickly. And I have some other hopes for you too.

Your older sister, 2019, was a fiery one. Capable of so much good, but full of contradictions and often quite disagreeable. That’s teenagers, I suppose. Mind you, she was nowhere near as confounding and unpredictable as her older brother 2016. You never knew what was coming next with him. I wonder how he looks now, four years on.

Anyway, after 25 years of teaching, and 16 years as a parent, I know not to judge one sibling by another. Each child is wonderfully, bracingly different; unique individuals with promise and potential; needs and demands; fears, expectations and hopes.

The poet Philip Larkin wrote a poem to the newly born daughter of his friend, Kingsley Amis. He wishes her something “none of the others would”. Instead of wishing her beauty, talent and love, he says: “May you be ordinary […] In fact, may you be dull.

Well, 2020. You are 9 days old as I write this and there is no danger of you being dull. At least, that’s what the news suggests. Of course, there’s lots about you that will be mundane, ordinary. And, indeed, good. Particularly when lived and viewed from this safe corner of the world in Shrewsbury.

My hope for you is like that of Larkin. You’ll have your moments, for sure, and as with all your family, there will be sadness, despair, loneliness – horror even, sad to say. But… I hope that the weight and volume of all the unseen good, and the plain day-to-day ordinary that you think and do, all this stuff will be the thing that truly defines you. I hope you are fair: or at least, fairer than your forebears – gradually but meaningfully fairer. And kinder too.

There are lots of other things I hope for you, new-born thing. But Larkin’s odd and surprising incantation says it so much better. He wishes balance and ordinariness. A life more ordinary: “If that is what a skilled, / Vigilant, flexible, / Unemphasised, enthralled / Catching of happiness is called”.

May you be dull, 2020. May you catch more happiness.

Yours in hope

Leo Winkley

Against cynicism

“There is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic”. Maya Angelou.

When he rose to speak at the Sorbonne in Paris on April 23 of 1910, Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt delivered a powerful call to action against the seeping cultural tragedy of cynicism, which, in his view, was a poison aimed at the heart of a just and democratic society.  Roosevelt, who served as the 26th president of the US, cautions against “that […] cheap temptation” to be cynical.  He said:

The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer. There are many men who feel a kind of twister pride in cynicism; there are many who confine themselves to criticism of the way others do what they themselves dare not even attempt. There is no more unhealthy being, no man less worthy of respect, than he who either really holds, or feigns to hold, an attitude of sneering disbelief toward all that is great and lofty, whether in achievement or in that noble effort which, even if it fails, comes to second achievement. A cynical habit of thought and speech, a readiness to criticise work which the critic himself never tries to perform, an intellectual aloofness which will not accept contact with life’s realities — all these are marks, not […] of superiority but of weakness.”

One of the tendencies we might find most troubling in contemporary culture is that of mistaking cynicism for critical thinking.  This confusion seeds a pernicious strain of unconstructive and lazily destructive condemnation.  Amid this epidemic of self-appointed critics, it becomes harder and harder to remember just how right Bertrand Russell was when he asserted nearly a century ago that “construction and destruction alike satisfy the will to power, but construction is more difficult as a rule, and therefore gives more satisfaction to the person who can achieve it.”

Cynics have a jaundiced view of life. They operate from the assumption that people are motivated purely by self-interest rather than acting for honourable or unselfish reasons.  They tend to assume that anything that appears to be well-meant and for the good of others, is corruption and selfishness dressed up to look pretty.  Cynics are suspicious of decision-makers; they seek to knock things down in the expectation of exposing their corrupt foundations.  They like to negate and destroy.

Now, you might well say that a drop of cynicism is a sensible homeopathic remedy against the abuse of power and the apparent madness of our times. History illustrates that, indeed, institutions and individuals can use their responsibilities and powers to evil ends.  In this way, the part-time cynic might say that she protects herself from the abuse of power.  However, I would like to suggest that cynicism as a default setting is as imprisoning as the abusive use of power and self-interest.  It is also a lazy non-participative attitude.

Roosevelt concludes:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat…”

Powerful stuff indeed.  Yes, as the modern world spins with shape-shifting complexity, the appeal of making a retreat into self-protective cynicism may be increasingly tempting.

In her excellent book, How to Build a Girl, Caitlin Moran, regular columnist in The Times newspaper, writes against succumbing to the temptation to recline into lazy cynicism:

When cynicism becomes the default language, playfulness and invention become impossible. Cynicism scours through a culture like bleach, wiping out millions of small, seedling ideas. Cynicism means your automatic answer becomes “No.” Cynicism means you presume everything will end in disappointment.

And this is, ultimately, why anyone becomes cynical. Because they are scared of disappointment. Because they are scared someone will take advantage of them. Because they are fearful their innocence will be used against them — that when they run around gleefully trying to cram the whole world in their mouth, someone will try to poison them.”

Ok – you do have to be a bit savvy; a bit street-wise. Not every individual is trustworthy; not every organisation is benevolent.  But, the default must surely remain with optimism.

This place, this school, is the least cynical place I’ve ever worked. You are the least cynical children I’ve ever worked with.  Ok, there can be the odd rolling of eyes; the occasional sideways glance – but I forgive you that – you’re teenagers after all! (He said, patronisingly).

And for the very most part, you raise your concerns and express your voices in a constructive spirit. See, for example, the work of the School Council, as I did yesterday, and you can admire a blend of open discussion and reasoned challenge.  You don’t have to be cynical to change things.

The staff here are the least cynical I have ever worked with. Even the longer in the tooth rarely grumble, and if so it’s mostly about sensible things.  On the whole, this is because our School encourages a constructive approach to life.  That it is better to get stuck in, than to stand on the side-lines and comment; that it is better to participate than be a spectator; that you get more out if you put more in.  That it’s easy to sit in the armchair and poke fun at others; but much harder and more rewarding to get up and do something.  That it is the creators, the optimists, the constructors, who make a difference.  That nobody ever put up a monument to a critic; and, when it comes down to it, nobody likes a smart-arse.

We must be on guard against the pernicious laziness of cynicism. Here’s to positive engagement; true critical thinking; making change happen from the inside.

 

 

[Source credit for inspiration and excerpts in italics: http://www.brainpickings.org – Theodore Roosevelt on the Cowardice of Cynicism (Accessed 8.5.2018)]

Hope as a call to action

The turn of the year can precipitate a curious compound of hope and despair.  We look back at the year gone by and review the events of our own lives, as well as those of our family and friends, and the wider world.  We might ask ourselves whether it has been a good year – for us, for our friends and family.  We might ask whether the world got a little bit better during 2017.  We might wonder whether it got a little bit worse.  Are there reasonable grounds for hope that we are always moving to a better, fairer, kinder global human community?  Or, is there more persuasive evidence that human-kind is becoming a more confused, desperate and disparate family.  

How would we measure out a response to such a question?  It might be that it comes down to our own individual temperament and outlook:  how we choose to see the world.  As one thinker remarked:  “There is no such thing as a view from nowhere”.  In other words, we all view the facts and events of our lives, the happenings in the world, though our own individual lenses.  It may be that those who see reasonable grounds for hope are, temperamentally, more hopeful, more optimistic people.  And those who see reasonable grounds for despair are inclined to see the world from a gloomier, pessimistic – they might say realistic – perspective. The old half-full, half-empty binary.

Hope, allegedly, springs eternal.  (As an Arsenal Fan I can testify to this).  This observation may say something about human beings; it may provide an answer to the question of whether it is better to live life in hope and feel oft-let-down; or whether a shrewder tactic is to reconcile oneself to disappointment and then be pleasantly surprised when things turn out well. 

To my mind, it is not just desirable, but actually our duty, to live in hope.  Hope is not a matter of outlook – a kind of wistful, fingers-crossed, ignore-the-bad-bits dreamland.  Hope faces the hard realities of life and tries to address them.  Hope is not wishful-thinking: it is a call to action.

But, how would a hopeful person answer this question: is the world a better place at the end of 2017 than it was at the start?  We might start by citing all the many very real horrors, tragedies, brutalities, disappointments, disasters and apparently chaotic turns of events.  We would soon find that we have stacked up a powerful body of evidence to suggest that 2017 was a bad year, maybe even a mad year.  And all this evidence might justifiably lend weight to the view that human civilisation is going in the wrong direction. 

I can see that.  I would not try for one second to downplay the depth and breadth of suffering – some of it born of random chance, much of it carried out through human agency.  However, perhaps because I am a hopeful soul, I find myself looking back to the many good things that occurred in the last 12 months.  I find myself thinking of the countless kind and noble acts carried out by human beings; acts of compassion, generosity, friendship.  The daily good news stories that don’t often dominate, or even penetrate, the news media.  These acts were born of the same human free will that also proved capable of wickedness and depravity.

But, is my optimistic view justified?  What evidence is there that the world got a bit better last year?  Well, my mum, who is also an optimist, shared with me a list, published by Future Crunch, of 99 global reasons to celebrate progress in 2017.

They include the following:

          In 2017, the hole in the ozone layer shrunk to its smallest size since 1988

          The World Health Organisation unveiled a new vaccine that’s cheap and effective enough to end cholera, one of humanity’s greatest ever killers.

          In 2017, the United KingdomFrance and Finland all agreed to ban the sale of any new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040

          In the United States’, the official poverty rate reached 12.7%, the lowest level since the end of the global financial crisis.

          On International Women’s Day 2017, Iceland became the first country in the world to make equal pay compulsory by law.

          Women now occupy 23% of parliamentary seats around the world, up from 12% in 1997.

There 93 other reasons to be cheerful in this list.  The 99 positive facts suggest progress – or at least the gradual putting right of wrongs.  Many are, of course, the flip side of deep and long-running negatives – they show progress towards – rather than arrival at – a worthy and ideal destination.  A destination at which each living being, and indeed the planet itself, is treated with respect and given the opportunity to thrive.  Behind these facts, and alongside the reality of the very many negative events of the past 12 months, there is the hard truth to face: that the world remains an intensely divided, brutal, imbalanced and unfair place.   

We can face this fact with despair; we can ignore this fact and immerse ourselves in comfortable self-interest; or we can pledge to do our bit, in hope.

There are, I believe, (and hoping not to sound trite), reasons to be cheerful.  Easy to say, perhaps, in our comfy corner of the world.  However, I would still like to believe that the turn of the year is a moment of profound hope and opportunity.  And, a time at which we can remind ourselves of a daily call to action.  That is, a call to action, born of hope, that we can, in our individual lives and in our daily actions, make the world a better place. 

Creating a happier world: The Dalai Lama @actionforhappiness

A long-held dream of mine is to meet the Dalai Lama. I have yet to realise it. Not fully anyway.

But, on Monday 21st September, World Peace Day, I was in the same room as him for two hours – along with 2,000 other people. The ‘Creating A Happier World’ event was held by Action For Happiness and top of a remarkable bill (including almost all of the leading names in the happiness movement) was the Dalai Lama.

The term ‘Dalai Lama’ means ‘ocean of wisdom’. He is the spiritual leader of Tibet – and was once the political leader too. Tibet no longer exists. Most (though not quite all) Tibetan Buddhists believe that the Dalai Lama is the 14th reincarnation of the Bodhisattva avalokiteshvara – god of compassion. A bodhisattva chooses to reborn, rather than escape the cycle of life (samsara), because of a deep compassion for all beings.

How did they identify Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama, as the reincarnation? When the 13th died, he left indications of where he might be reborn, which triggered a search –The search party looked for signs: in dreams; in the direction of smoke emanating from the cremation of the 13th Dalai Lama; in visions seem in the holy lake, Lhamo Lhatso, in central Tibet.

Once they have identified the right area, they search to find boys born in right time frame; they present a number of artefacts which they have brought with them in preparation, to the child. Amongst these artefacts are a number of items that belonged to the deceased Dalai Lama. If the boy chooses the items that belonged to the previous Dalai Lama, this is seen as a sign, in conjunction with all of the other indications, that the boy is a reincarnation.

It took them 4 years to find Tenzin Gyatso. And the 14th Dalai Lama may be the final Dalai Lama. He has expressed doubts as to whether he will be reborn.

It is the effect of his life’s work that is of most profound interest to me. The Dalia Lama was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace for his non-violent position on the invasion of his former country; and for his unique brand of active compassion. His face, his image, is a near-universal icon of compassion and humanity.

It was moving to spend two hours in his presence; to listen to a being whose education, honed in the Tibetan monastic tradition from the age of 6, is rich and complex, and yet whose message is disarmingly simple.

It was hard to do anything other than listen, spellbound – but a few notes made it into my journal:

  • The power of a smile – how he entered the room of 2,000 people and someone managed to smile at each of the people gathered. “I lost my country. So I think, wherever people show me a smile: that is my country.”
  • His views of western education – “not adequate” – too much focus on exams not enough on the inner life
  • The value of moments of stillness – good for your own individual self; good for the happiness of others
  • That “most of our problems are because of old conception of ‘we and they’”– instead, we should emphasise connectedness and interdependence rather than differentness and distinctions
  • “Money [has] no ability to provide inner peace.”
  • “Material value [has] no possibility to provide us inner peace; only [the] compassionate mind is the only way to reduce anxiety and stress.”
  • “A compassionate heart is very important for our health.”
  • That we should be concerned with the happiness of others – and do something about it:
  • “If you want [a] better world, you have to work.”
  • “My responsibility is to talk – blah blah blah; you are implementing.
  • Encourage schools as communities to make a difference to the happiness of others

Two hours of intense listening to the gentle, loving, often playful wisdom of the Dalai Lama; two hours observing the simple power of human warmth from a being who may, or may not, be an enlightened reincarnation; two hours to reflect on the impact of compassion and how, in our own individual ways, we can create a happier world.

The Dalia Lama offered simple, universal, positive truths that transcend religious contexts. He is revered and respected – and loved – the world over not because of any notion of status but because of his extraordinary power to spread a message of compassion and empower others to create a happier world.

“Now – implement, implement, implement”.

Connecting for Happiness. Thoughts on International Happiness Day, the Eclipse and Comic Relief

Connecting for Happiness

Yesterday the sun was obscured by the moon, the temperature dropped noticeably and the daylight turned to twilight at 9.34 in the morning of what was International Day of Happiness.  As a school, we were all out, with the help of York Astronomical Society, safely viewing and enjoying the passage of the moon in front of the sun.  It was a great communal event, and a wonderful thing to happen on a day of happiness that focused this year on connecting with others.

International Happiness Day came exactly a week on from Red Nose Day 2015, which we celebrated heartily at my school, St Peter’s 3-18, with our biennial fancy dress day.  Comic Relief is a wonderful cause: it fuels – as well as exemplifies – the sense of community that exists in a thriving school.  It is also a moment when the sense of internal community is completely in step with the community at large, indeed the national community.

Comic Relief is a great fund raiser and a great connector.  Whilst it is a day of laughter and legitimised silliness, its mission addresses squarely the fact that we live in a world where not everyone enjoys the same life chances; not everyone has the same opportunities to live happy lives.  Red Nose Day is also, founded on the simple and profound truth that laughter is part of our common humanity.  Laughter is a great connector.  And happiness is something that can be grown.  Sure, it doesn’t and can’t solve all the world’s problems.  But growing happiness actively and concertedly can help.

I spoke to the pupils about international Day of Happiness, suggesting that an awareness day doesn’t imply that everyone has to be happy that day; neither does it imply that happiness can be manufactured.  It doesn’t imply that every other day of the year is for unhappiness.  Rather, it’s a day to raise awareness that as individuals, with our good will and proper attention, can make a difference to the happiness of those around us, and therefore to our own.

The more cynically-minded may suspect such positivist occasions as being naïve and feeble – mere candles held out in the stormy night.  I would say simply that happiness is about action.  And action is what brings change.

As the Action For Happiness movement argues: “After years of happiness research, one thing has proved fundamental – the importance of our connections with other people.  Yet modern societies are built as if the opposite was true. We are surrounded by people, yet we feel genuinely connected to almost none of them. The effects are devastating.  Social isolation is as potent a cause of early death as smoking; and the epidemic of loneliness is twice as deadly as obesity. We could change this in a day if we all reached out and made at least one positive connection. The best place to start is with our own daily actions. Here are five simple but proven things that, according to Action For Happiness, we can all do to help create a happier and more connected world:

  1. Do something kind for others

What goes around comes around – and with kindness it really does. Research shows that being kind to others increases our  own levels of happiness as well as theirs. What’s more it has a knock-on effect – kindness is contagious, so it makes our communities nicer places to be.

  1. Volunteer your time, energy and skills

Whether it’s a one-off or something you do on a regular basis, volunteering is good all round. As well as making a positive contribution to the happiness of others, it’s a great way to meet people, get the most out of your local area and to increase your own happiness and wellbeing.

  1. Get to know your neighbours better

Getting to know the people who live nearby helps create a sense of belonging and shared identity in our local area. It also helps to strengthen connections and trust in our wider communities and contributes to a happier neighbourhood for everyone.

  1. Understand each other’s needs

Good communication is at the heart of happy relationships of all kinds. It’s about understanding others’ needs and having our needs heard. And it’s a skill that can be learned that will help deepen our connections with the people around us.

  1. Look for the good in those around you

It’s easy to take our nearest and dearest for granted. Constant criticism can be highly destructive, but we often fall into this trap, especially in established relationships. But if we take time to bring to mind what we value and appreciate about others, we can both get more enjoyment from our time together

Schools are in the lucky position of being close, day-to-day communities where you can see the immediate effect of actions, and where the words we use can change the way we behave.  Every day gives us a chance to grow happiness around us and inside ourselves.

@actionforhappiness @yorkastro