Dear 2022 Leaver

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Always pass on good advice.  […] It is never any use to oneself.’   So said Oscar Wilde.  Another legendary wit, PG Wodehouse, similarly observed: ‘I always advise people not to give advice’.  Which gives at least two good reasons to ignore everything else that follows… 

Yet, it’s my solemn duty, as a headmaster, as a parent, as a person of 50 odd years – some of them very odd – to take this opportunity to offer a final volley of advice to you – our leavers – today.   

And the theme, irresistibly, is that of the journey.  ‘Oh, the places you’ll go!’ 

Because today is about departures.  175 of them – each individual, each full of hope and dazzling potential.  Each journey preciously unique.  Some of you know exactly where you’re heading – ‘you’ll head straight out of town’.  Others are going to see where the winds take you.   All of you will go out into the world and make a difference.  Because:

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes
You can steer yourself
Any direction you choose

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Cue another inevitability: a final reference to our most famous Old Salopian…

In August 1831, Charles Darwin rushed home from a geology trip to Wales to find a letter from his Cambridge professor and mentor J. S. Henslow. It contained a chance of a lifetime: an invitation to go on a trip around the world on the HMS Beagle. Darwin was elated—he was longing to travel and explore natural history in tropical lands.

His father, however, threw cold water on the idea. It was time for Charles to settle down, he said, not go dashing off on some “wild scheme.” The plan was reckless, dangerous and unfitting for a future clergyman. Despondent, Charles turned down the invitation. But his father had left one ray of hope: “If you can find any man of common sense who advises you to go, I will give my consent.” No one was more sensible and respected by his father than Charles’s uncle Josiah Wedgwood. Fortunately Josiah sided with Charles, collaborating to craft a point-by-point response that changed his father’s mind – and Charles Darwin’s future.

When Darwin began the five year Beagle voyage, he was green and inexperienced.  He returned a seasoned naturalist.  He grew from a wide-eyed observer into a profound analytical thinker.  Darwin knew himself better – and he had the beginnings of a theory that changed the world.

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Leaving school is a defining moment of self-determination.  Today, your ships set sail.  We parents and staff are standing on the harbour wall.  We will wave you off with final words of advice and high hopes that your journey is full of adventure, full of discovery.

Final Callover

What advice can we give?  Perhaps this simple instruction:  “Be who you are and say what you feel: because those who mind don’t matter; and those who matter don’t mind”.  Not the words of Mahatma Ghandhi; nor Michelle Obama; nor our own Charles Darwin.  Theodore Geisel.  Better known as Dr Seuss whose words are on the inside of our order service today.  Five years of a Shrewsbury education, and the Headmaster quotes Dr Seuss! 

For me, Seuss was a genius.  A professor of serious fun.  Running through all the eccentric nonsense, there is a golden thread of humane and kindly wisdom. 

Dr Seuss’ stories always affirm our individual integrity to be who we are, and confidently so.  He reminds us that whilst we will always care what others think of us – we should not fear judgement. 

You’re off to Great Places!
You’re off and away!

Albert Einstein – another professor of serious fun – said that “Life is like riding a bicycle: to keep your balance, you must keep moving”.  The journey again.  This time on a bike.  Sometimes we will spot the potholes and be resourceful in riding round them; other times we will need the resilience to ride through them.  Keep moving.

This is ‘Good Advice’.                                                  

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Just a few weeks ago, I gave the eulogy at the funeral of my 98 year old step-grandmother, Marie.  Her life’s journey had taken her from the blitz years in London, to mobster life in Brazil, through motherhood into grand and great grandparenthood.  We called her the Old Bat. 

In one of my last conversations with her, Marie passed on her top bits of advice.  “Leo”, she said, “You should always be early; and you should always say thank you.  And whatever you do, you should always give 100% – unless you’re giving blood”.  She cackled merrily.  Her journey almost over, the Old Bat still had joy in her heart.

Listening to people talking about their memories of Marie, it struck me that nobody mentioned her qualifications – or lack of them; how much she did or didn’t earn.  No-one spoke about her CV.  After a long, eventful life, people remembered Marie’s virtues – the kindness she showed to others. 

Much of the time, entirely understandably, we focus on the accumulation of skills; the accrual of aptitudes – qualifications – passports to the next port of call; tickets to ride.  Yet, in the final analysis, whilst our successes may be praiseworthy and our accomplishments noble, it is how we treat other people that is the true measure of a life.  And, as Philip Larkin concludes in his exquisite poem ‘An Arundel Tomb’: “What will survive of us is love.”

As you leave school, I hope your journey is a long one, full of adventure, full of discovery.  In our reading, Constantine Cavafy channels Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey.  After fighting the Trojan Wars, our hero, Odysseus, takes 10 years to get back to his homeland, the island of Ithaka.  On his journey, he endures endless obstacles and distractions; alluring sirens and seducers; intoxication; various terrifying monsters, storms and shipwreck.

The poet suggests that it is the manner in which we pursue our goals – the ‘how’ of our lives – that will truly define us.  As we each pursue our own personal Ithakas, it is the voyage that makes us.  Looking further, we see that Ithaka – our intended destination – is not an external thing; it is self-knowledge.   We remember, the two-word message at the oracle in Delphi: ‘Know Thyself’.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The legendary physicist and another exponent of serious fun, Professor Richard Feynman, shrewdly observed: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and [that] you are the easiest person to fool.”  It seems extraordinary – but it is all too easy to mislead ourselves. 

We’re living in the post-truth era, where thoughtful reflection, tolerance and civility are so often side-lined by knee-jerk ‘boo-hooray’ rhetoric and cancel culture; where truth – shaped by algorithms – reverberates in the echo chamber of our personal timelines.  It has never been more important to think for ourselves; to be honest with ourselves.  “If right within”.  

You are in a wonderful position to go out there, in the wide open air, and make good things happen. 

Not by accident, then, do we place kindness at the heart of the Salopian Way.  Our Six Virtues, which we hope you embody and enact in life, promote the survival of the kindest.  Ways of gentleness.  Paths of peace.

Finally: weather is the accompaniment to life’s journey.  Maya Angelou exhorts us always to put a rainbow in someone else’s cloud.  Because kindness changes other people’s weather. 

Better than advice, I offer a time-weathered wish, a blessing resonant with hope for your journey:

‘May the road rise to meet you;

may the wind be ever at your back;

may the sun shine warm upon your face;

and the rain fall soft upon your fields.’

These are moving words.  Yet, we know, of course, that the road will not always rise to meet us.  Sometimes it will be bumpy, rough or unmarked.  The wind will as likely blow full in the face.  The sun will often disappear behind clouds.  The rain will sometimes fall in wasteful torrents or fail to appear when we need it most.  As with Odysseus, this blessing addresses the truth that we can decide, even in adversity, how we see the journey ahead of us.  Whilst we cannot make the weather, we can choose the clothes we wear. 

So, as you set out for your Ithakas, for the places you’ll go, I hope that you clothe yourselves with eulogy virtues – wisdom, courage, kindness.  Love.  Keep a faithful heart and your thoughts raised high.

I wish you good friends to share your marvellous journey; wisdom to find your purpose; resilience to deal with the wrong turns; love and hope to fuel the journey; and kindness to extend to all those you meet along the way.

And until we meet again, may God hold you ever in the palm of his hand.

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Words shared with our 175 Upper Sixth Leavers – and their parents – as they became Old Salopians on 2 July 2022.

Leo Winkley, Headmaster

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 Jack

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You are seen by many as a key figure in the advancement of gay rights in Britain. An icon for a more tolerant and accepting society.

Before that, you were a Headmaster. At Shrewsbury School.

We have a room at School named after you. Lord John (aka ‘Jack’) Wolfenden.  Imaginatively, we call it the Wolfenden Room.  This honours you as a former Headmaster of Shrewsbury School (1944-1950). 

Jack Wolfenden’s portrait at Shrewsbury School

However, your name is more widely associated with the ground-breaking report published in 1957 that bears your name: The Wolfenden Report.  

After you were Headmaster of Shrewsbury, you went on to be Vice-Chancellor of Reading University, Director of the British Museum, a life peer in the House of Lords, and a very influential figure in public life. (So, there’s hope for me yet!)

Male homosexuality had been illegal in England since an act of parliament in 1533. Female homosexuality was never specified in law. It has never been illegal to be a lesbian; neither was is tolerated, accepted or spoken about until relatively recently. The law became more emphatic in 1885 with the Criminal Law Amendment Act, which made all homosexual acts illegal, even those carried out in private.

After WWII, arrests and prosecutions for homosexuals increased. For example Alan Turing, the cryptographer who helped to break the German Enigma code, was victimised for his homosexuality. Charged with ‘gross indecency’, he was forced to choose between prison or hormone treatment. He also lost his job. His death in June 1954 was treated as suicide.  All caused by the attitudes of his time.

Turing’s case, and those of other high profile individuals such as the actor John Gielgud, led the government to set up a Departmental Committee of 11 men and 4 women to consider both homosexual offences and prostitution.  Jack Wolfenden was appointed Chair of the Committee.

The committee first met on 15 September 1954 and over three years sat 62 times. Much of this time was taken up with interviewing witnesses. Interviewees included judges, religious leaders, policemen, social workers and probation officers.

Jack Wolfenden in Committee

During the time the committee sat, you discovered that your own son was homosexual.

Your influential report put forward the recommendation that ‘homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private be no longer a criminal offence’.

Two members of the committee had resigned during the process and one remaining member of the committee openly disagreed with the recommendation. But, the recommendation was made. And it was a pivotal moment in the advancement of gay rights.

The report recommended decriminalising homosexuality. Although the report condemned homosexuality as ‘immoral and destructive’, it concluded that the law’s place was not to rule on private morality or immorality.  It also said that outlawing homosexuality was a civil liberties issue.

It took a long time for the report to convert into law.  There was plenty of opposition.

The Home Secretary who had commissioned the committee didn’t actually like the findings – he has hoped the committee would recommend tougher legislation against homosexual acts between men. 

This gives us some sense of the heavily dominant assumptions of the time.

Instead, the report proposed that there ‘must remain a realm of private morality and immorality which is, in brief and crude terms, not the law’s business’. The report’s findings were debated in Parliament but a motion in 1960 to implement the report’s findings was lost and efforts to implement the report’s findings were stalled.

The Sexual Offences Act passed in Parliament in 1967, 10 years after the publication of the report. Based on the Sexual Offences Bill, the Act relied heavily on the Wolfenden report and decriminalised homosexual acts between two men who were both consenting and both over the age of 21. 

The Act, when it did arrive, applied only to England and Wales. (Scotland decriminalised homosexuality in 1980 and Northern Ireland in 1982.)

It should be said that there is a big difference between decriminalisation and legalisation.  Peter Tatchell, the well-known contemporary gay rights activist, commented on the 60th anniversary of the Wolfenden Report in 2017:

“The report did not urge the repeal of anti-gay laws, merely a policy of non-prosecution in certain circumstances. The existing, often centuries-old laws were to remain on the statute book under the heading “unnatural offences”.

In other words, by only moving a little bit in the direction of acceptance, the 1957 report was just a bit less prejudiced – it was hardly emancipatory.  It is one thing to decriminalize; quite another to actively accept.

How does history judge you, John ‘Jack’ Wolfenden?  Well, it is only fair to judge the Report in the context of the attitudes of 1950’s Britain.  In this context, it was pivotal.

The Wolfenden report began an important process that ultimately led to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain. And beyond that, paved the way for further breakthroughs in equality legislation.  Much more recently, Parliament passed the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act in 2013 which introduced civil marriage for same-sex couples in England and Wales.

Judged by the standard views of your time, we can justifiably view you as an influential reformer – a champion of greater acceptance of diversity in matters of sexual orientation. You triggered a change moment – one that set off a slow and sometimes stuttering progression towards fair treatment for all sexual orientations – one that is ongoing today.

What else do I learn from you, my predecessor, dear Jack? At least these three things:

  • That deep change takes time – steps, increments, the occasional leap; some things can be done quickly, often the most important things take time.
  • That this is particularly true of cultural attitudes – shifting dominating moralities and enabling pluralism takes time; you don’t often get there in one glorious jump
  • That deep change requires leadership – it takes determination, persistence – it requires courage – one of our 6 Salopian virtues.

I think that all at associated with Shrewsbury should feel quietly proud of the link between us and you, Baron John ‘Jack’ Wolfenden. You provide an inspirational example of the willingness to challenge received ideas; to re-shape thinking (your own and others’); and to push doggedly yet respectfully for a more tolerant, fairer society.

@leowinkley

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 Gareth

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Written on the day of the Euro 2020 Final, 11 July 2021

I remember when we met in 2017. You kindly joined the Boarding Schools’ Association (BSA) Conference in York when I was Chair of the BSA. We did an ‘In Conversation’ session in front of an audience of boarding school headteachers. You took questions from the floor. You gave us 90 minutes of your time. Then you went to visit Martin House – the children’s hospice where my wife worked at the time – and spent the rest of the day with the families and staff there. You did it all for no fee and with the utmost of respect and attention to all those you met.

When we were ‘In Conversation’, you did not know that a journalist had found his way into the audience. You had spoken with candour and honesty about your own experiences of adversity; your insights into leadership; your sense that schools and football clubs have a lot in common. You spoke about mental health and the need to speak out and encourage dialogue, especially amongst boys and men. The reporter focused on your answer to a stray question about whether young footballers were paid too much. I’m still sorry today that we let that happen. You were noble in making light of it. However, I knew it had caused unwelcome noise. You rose above it. And your words had the insulating effect of integrity. And truth.

Thousands upon thousands of people have a Dear Gareth story. You have become an icon of leadership; a national treasure; a hero. The values you showed on that day in York have been on display, with unerring reliability, in recent months. No wonder so much has been written and said about you. Your virtues have been written large in the media. And rightly celebrated. Humility, integrity, honesty, compassion, care, endeavour, courage, spirit. The authenticity of your answers on that day in May 2017 was merely a snapshot. 90 minutes that showed the authenticity by which you live and work.

I’d like to add my letter to the pile, the mountain, of praise and appreciation. Not so much for what you have achieved – though your accomplishments are remarkable, proud and historic. This letter adds to the billions of words of admiration for the way you have gone about your work. The way you have lead; the values you have communicated; the template you have set for others; and the players you have inspired to be athletes on the pitch and activists off it.

This letter is written on the day of the final of the Euro 2020 competition. You have led the national men’s football team to a first major final since 1966. I don’t know who wins. I don’t know if it’s coming home…

What’s come home to me – as I have followed and admired your leadership, your work ethic and your communication – is the mighty power of sincerity. Whatever the result, these qualities (and many other things besides) make you a winner.

Gareth Southgate, In Conversation, at the BSA Heads’ Conference, York (May 2017)

LFS23

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 Three-Dimensional Learner

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As schools in England re-opened for the final weeks of the Easter term, we returned to three-dimensional learning.  After seven weeks of screen time – delivered and shared with as much creativity and energy as we could collectively command – it was a joyful relief to be back in person. 

Three-dimensional learning is, without doubt, the best way to go.  This is particularly the case in boarding schools.  

Certainly, we have shown that a boarding school in remote is possible.  Indeed, necessity has been the mother of some extraordinary invention. We have shown that whole person education can be re-invented for the screen and much can be achieved through flipped learning; break-out rooms; online challenges; virtual collaboration.  Those still not able to be with us here in Shrewsbury have continued to access Online Supported Learning; to take part in house life; to engage in a virtual co-curriculum.  It is vital that we find the best ways to stay together when we are apart.

However, what has been evidenced strongly in our most recent return to in-person learning is that the deepest kinds of learning happen best when we a real community.  That is not to say that great learning cannot happen virtually: it can. But, personal development is a multi-aspect process. Some things can be done by remote control; some things are best down hands-on – albeit at a social distance. 

What we know, though, is that a Shrewsbury Education has one-off elements that achieve full colour and depth when it happens in three dimensions.  Our culture, our educational philosophy, our unique brand of ‘whole person education’ – these are rooted in a sense of belonging to a distinctive community in a real place.

Some of the craft of teaching and learning can be transferred to the screen: we have seen this.  Teachers and learners have undergone a paradigm shift of capability over the past year.  We have seen significant gains in two-dimensional mode.  But a virtual boarding school is, fundamentally, a contradiction in terms. 

We knew it before, and we know it even more deeply now: a boarding school community is three-dimensional.  As we pass the one-year milestone of lockdowns in England, it is clearer than ever that learning in person gives the broadest range of opportunity.  In person, we are constantly connecting, sharing, challenging, transforming, enjoying, celebrating within a real community of real individuals.

It has been profoundly affirming to have you – the three-dimensional learner – back in person.  Back, we hope, for good.    

Dear Optimist

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How are you?  Great, no doubt.  You always say that.

But seriously, it’s been a tough time for you lately, hasn’t it?  I know your policy is always to see life’s glass half-full.  You’re so good at keeping your chin up; turning those lemons into lemonade. You always focus on the other fish in the sea; you never dwell long on the one that got away.  Nothing will shake your belief that the closing of one door leads cheeringly to the opening of another.  You travel with the unshakeable belief that, however difficult the journey, its delays and deviations will all make sense backwards.  You float through your days with lightness of spirit, however many sandbags are tethered to your balloon.  You’re always a cork; never a stone.

You’ll rightly point out that optimism is good for us.  There’s a stack of evidence to support this.  Optimism has many a vocal sponsor, present and past.  You’ll point doubters to numerous nuggets of upbeat wisdom.  Such as this, from one of those great optimists who triumphed, always with humility, over the obstacles she faced:

“Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement…no pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit’.

Helen Keller, author and activist (1880 – 1968)

You and your kind walk together on hope’s mossy ground. Air-cushioned shoes soften your steps.  But…

Even you must have felt the earth tremble and shake beneath your springy feet.  Even you must be struggling to see the upside these days.  Even the most clear-eyed spotter of the silver-lining has had her work cut out of late.  As 2020 turned into 2021, the champagne corks popped in muted domestic isolation.  Fresh hopes gathered, but the new year has brought more difficulty.  The light is at the end of the tunnel, you’ll say.  I believe you.  But even you must admit that the tunnel keeps getting longer.   

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m right with you.  Optimism is the way forward. 

In fact, I learn that there are lots of types of optimism, so I should be more precise.  Most optimism is good for you.  Yet, as with most things in life, used to excess, it can turn bad. 

I don’t want to spoil the mood.  But I need to ask.  Can you see any downsides to our optimism?  Well, naturally, you’ll be too interested in the upsides to pay that notion too much attention.  But, it seems, we optimists need to keep it real.  If you insist (as I do) on being so upbeat all the time, we do need to make sure you stand close to the pessimists from time to time and let them speak.  We optimists need to listen to them carefully. 

Optimism bias can do real harm to your strategic planning.  You always tend to interpret the numbers, the data, into the best-case scenario.  Make sure you have some doomsters around you to paint it black.  That way, you’ll have a more rounded plan. 

In an uncertain or rapidly changing business situation, the optimist’s relative disregard for detail, selective inattention to unpromising data and failure to seek new information combine to produce poorly-informed decisions.  So, we optimists need to keep our eyes open to the detail.  And make sure that we share it with others who will likely interpret things differently.  They may spot that the half-full glass has a crack in it.

Optimism bias is a main cause of the chronic inability accurately to anticipate the costs of big projects.  This has been a major issue for governments and private companies for decades.  The grand, compelling vision was so mesmerising that the numbers lost their power to communicate.

Do you mind my asking, how are your personal finances?  Well, yes, it’s not a very polite enquiry but research has shown that similar factors affect personal finance decisions.  Why do so many people consistently pick credit card options that really don’t help them?  Investigations found that people often choose credit cards with a low annual fee and high APR, despite the fact that they regularly fail to clear their balances and pay much more than if they had a higher fee, lower APR card. These are the optimists.  Or are they the putters-off?  The evaders of reality?  The high fee is an immediate but solvable problem (opt for the smaller fee) and the more distant possible failure to pay off the balance thus accruing interest, is an event they believe will somehow not really happen.

It’s just an example.  As is that fact that the high general optimism of children, especially boys, seems to be a contributory factor to accidental injury in childhood.  Sorry to strike a gloomy note again, but it seems that the risk-taker will often be the optimist; and that optimists get hurt more often.  They find it harder to believe that bad things could happen.  This general disposition is surely a strength, isn’t it?   Perhaps a virtue?  

Aristotle’s theory of the Golden Mean suggests, we should avoid extremes.  Global optimism is not clever.  Too much exposure to the bright side will damage your sight permanently.  Courage, un-tempered, is recklessness.  Optimism needs to be tempered by realism; annealed in the furnace of fact.  Optimism, un-tempered, will take some into cloud cuckoo land, a state of optimistic fantasy.  This may be a lovely state of being for a moment, but life’s problems cannot be solved or endured by escape or delusion.  Optimism is a rosy filter but it cannot change the image itself.  The way we view life will help us to address issues that must – in reality – be met firmly on their own hard ground.

Which leads us back to the moment. These current times have put a dent in the soul of every optimist, surely. Even the corkiest of us must be feeling the gravitational pull of the deep. With good reason: we are living in dark, difficult days. And yet…   

Where does this leave us in our optimism?  As the Swedish proverb goes: “Those who wish to sing will always find a song”.  Yes, we must keep singing our songs. 

We must keep counting our blessings. 

And remember to ask a friendly pessimist to check our arithmetic from time to time.

Dear Donald

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You prefer a DM, but here’s a letter. Maybe I’ll send it to your Washington, DC address.  And hope it catches you before the removal crew arrives.

Yes, you’re leaving: moving out of the White House.  The American people who put you there in 2016 have now served notice.  Of course, you’re challenging the landlord.  But you must know it’s time to leave, if not leave quietly. 

The people who put you there knew that you were going to be unconventional.  They knew that you were going to blast your way through all the normal codes.  They wanted you to do just that. They wanted you to speak unfiltered; to appeal to the gut; to give voice to the millions who felt voiceless.   To those whom you championed, you could do no wrong. 

They did not elect a statesman; someone who would unite in victory.  They chose a divider.  A slash-and-burner.  Someone who would become more and more convinced of his invincibility, insulated by a boo-hooray bubble of loyal support; enabled by a street-smart entourage and a legal team on steroids. 

You have given the world something truly special: self-authenticating, fact-free correctness.

In the end, when it came to bidding for a second term, too many people were put off by your aggressiveness.  Your stoking of tensions.  Your deliberate expansion of the differences between those whom you rated and those you slammed.  The badmouthing of traditional allies finally tired.  Your rapt admiration for the world’s authoritarian strongmen.  You acted as if the handbook for global statesmanship was the plotline of ‘Despicable Me’.

History will show that your tenure was a wild, fantastic aberration, won’t it?  Right from the jaw-dropping moment four years ago when the impossible happened, it’s been a four-year episode of The Simpsons.  Fiction made fact; fake news made real. Right?

Photo by Joshua Miranda on Pexels.com

But I am wrong. 

As wrong now as I was then – in 2016 – when I went to bed knowing that it would be Hillary. 

You were never impossible.  You were inevitable. 

I lacked the insight to see your power.  Insulated by my middle-class, old-world attitudes; cosy in my comfortable liberalism; doped by my total lack of understanding of the United States; blind to the frustrations that now erupt from the volcanic inequality of our times.

The wise saw you coming a mile off.  They knew your power before it was real.  The Real Donald Trump.  Destined to be number 45.  You captured millions of votes.  You were properly elected through a properly democratic process.  Free of any skulduggery or intervention from other powers – so far as I know, anyway.  It was a fair win in 2016 – narrow, but fair. 

People saw something in you.  You timed a wave; your words chimed with people who felt marginalised; untouched and under-represented  by politics; unheard; airbrushed out.  You were real to them.  You promised some kind of inversion, turning the old certainties on their heads.     

I am absolutely no expert.  And you won’t read this, it goes without saying.  It seems to me that the version of politics that you invented was all about you.  Like everything else: the foreign policy. The pistol-fired tweets. The weakness for guns. The furious golf. The manic orange glow of self-belief. The anti-COVID bleach you urged into your people’s veins.

It was all you.  Your peculiar populist genius.  The Donald. 

Now, as 2020 enters its final weeks, you are ending as you arrived.  Calling foul with a puckered pout and blow-torching any still-standing norm of decency that has miraculously evaded your fire so far.

It’s been box office, for sure.  Fascinating to see the dignity of office debased.  Iconoclasm is compelling viewing, it seems.  The world has got used to the bombastic, capitalised salvos; the apparent lack of regard for logic, evidence, fact. These are displaced by the fire of emotion, conviction and sheer bloody will. 

Never mind the politics. What kind of example have you set? Really? What have you done for leadership, dignity, democracy?

I can only hope that your actions have equal and opposite reactions in the years ahead. A change of tone to a gentler, kinder, more factful leadership. It will take a long time to heal the divides and rebuild the trust. I hope the next guy in finds a way to reframe the way democracy talks to itself. It’s time to seek proper greatness. 

LW

A Letter From Shrewsbury. Serious Fun. My views only.

Back to your tower.
Photo by Priya Karkare on Pexels.com

Dear Ben Gone to the Sea

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A Letter From Shrewsbury on the poetry of Ben North, who died 18th October 2020, aged 49.

We never met. And now you are gone.

Twitter introduced us. Your final Tweets: some algorithm brought them to me. It told me that you were dying of a brain tumour. Two in fact.

In this strange, garbled age of unfiltered sharing, your words cut through.

Image
Ben North, poet.

You left behind a trail. It’s clear that you were very well loved. Successful. Creative. And I see that you were noble and angry; brave and gentle in your suffering.

The algorithm led me to discover your book of poetry: ‘Thirty-Three Poems: some of which are about death‘. Dying shared. Poetry shared.

They are beautiful. This one, for example, about a clear, crisp night:

Ben North

Or this one, clever and wise – ‘This Is a Lie‘:

The final poem in your collection is called ‘The Sea‘. As I write this short letter, I am looking at the slate-grey waters of the North Sea. It is five days on from the day you died. I read it again and consider its simplicity, which is its power. It was not, I think, your last poem. But it is an ending:

‘The Sea’ by Ben North

Your poems are not brilliant because you were dying. They are brilliant because they are brilliant.

It’s hard not to wonder what else you might have written. As it is, you are gone; and you leave us 33 poems. A slim volume, you said. Yes, short. But full of wisdom and humanity.

What is the end of a poet? To leave something that endures? To connect? To look at the Sea and put it to words. Before the end of the poet.

Thank you, Ben. We never met – but I feel that I would have liked you very much.

Ben’s volume of poetry is priced £2.99 and available from Amazon.

Dear Minister for Exams

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There is something in the air. In fact, everything seems to be up in the air just at the moment.  I’m not only talking about the logistics of the Summer 2021 exam session – though some good sense and clarity on that would be good. I really hope that you listen to the experts: those who teach and support children.

It’s the whole thing, really. It feels as though it’s time you took a long hard look at yourself.

You’re probably way too busy to read letters. I’ll bet you get a lot. Such as this one; or the one I sent to the paper the other day, suggesting that we have a golden opportunity to re-think how pupils’ learning and wider skills are assessed. 

Daily Telegraph, 7th October 2020

This is a big picture discussion that would need to be held across the width and breadth of education.  When GCSEs were invented, the school leaving age was 16.  Children in England are assessed by written test more than most others on the planet.  As we all know, written tests are not the only measure of a person. Time for a re-think, surely?

Rethinking assessment – a cross-sector alliance

I should perhaps emphasise that Shrewsbury pupils do very well indeed on the current diet.  Our GCSE results are excellent. We prepare our pupils well and they succeed in these examinations. In that narrow sense, nothing’s broken from our point of view.  These assessments are a significant part of the story but our teaching extends beyond the set curriculum; we aim to explore and instil a true love of learning.  Character strengths, skills and aptitudes are developed outside the classroom: through sport, music, drama, expressive arts, leadership, enterprise and adventure, to name a few. 

Learning cross-fertilises and our pupils are recognised and developed not just in the exam hall but across a wide field of activity.  This is what we call ‘whole person education’: the intellective development, which is in part measured by examinations, is allied to active, expressive and reflective learning.  The process is about becoming fully human and developing Salopian virtues that will last a lifetime.

Shrewsbury has a long history of asking difficult questions and being willing to challenge the status quo.  Is our examination system fair?  Can we influence it to be fairer, more holistic, more responsive to the teachers’ knowledge of the children– more fully human. How can we exercise our independence to provide a broad and holistic curriculum?  Recent history shows that we are seizing opportunities here: the introduction of the Institute of Leadership and Management Young Leaders Award and the creation of Shrewsbury U, for example.

I know we’re all struggling day to day. Big thinking takes time and effort – and genuine will to address issues. At a national, system level, there is a debate to be had. This feels like the time.

I have two questions for you, the fictional Minister for Exams:

Question 1: Is there a better, fairer, more human way to assess our children?

Question 2: Read Brian Patten’s great poem, The Minister for Exams? And discuss.

Brian Patten
Brian Patten
‘How shallow is the soul of the Minister for Exams?’

Is there are better, fairer, more human way to assess our children?

Dear Earth-Creeping Mind

The turn of the month was marked by National Poetry Day in the UK.  One of our great alumni, Sir Philip Sidney, stands immortalised in statue form above the war memorial at the Moss Gates entrance to the School.  Sidney was enrolled at Shrewsbury School at the age of 9. 

In his day, lessons were conducted almost exclusively in Latin; and began at 6am.  He was an exceptionally diligent and gifted scholar.  His untimely but dignified death on the battlefield at Zutphen, at the age of 31, sealed his legend as an epitome of the Elizabethan gentleman-scholar-soldier.

Sir Philip Sidney

Centuries on, and Shrewsbury School is of course a very different place.  But Sidney’s zeal for learning and his apparently immaculate manners still provide a helpful, if historic, role model to boys and girls alike. 

Sidney’s famous work, The Defence of Poesy, argues for the power of well-crafted verse.  He disdains the reader who has “so earth-creeping a mind that it cannot lift itself up to look to the sky of poetry”.  That’s us told!

On National Poetry Day, and indeed throughout the year, I take solace and inspiration from poetry.  In fast-moving and challenging times, a moment spent in the reflective mind of another can do us the power of good.  Or as Sidney put it: “Poetry, a speaking picture to teach and delight”.

Dear Dr Johnson

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As one of the most quoted figures in English literary history and the creator of the most famous English dictionary, I wonder what you would make of current times. What words would you have for us?

By current I mean 2020. 236 years have elapsed since you passed away. Your dictionary has been updated and updated. Language doesn’t stand still; it flows. And is a mirror of its time.

2020 is certainly re-shaping the daily dictionary. The word ‘unprecedented’ is enjoying unprecedented use. And terms such as ‘self-isolation’ and ‘social distancing’ are now in the daily narrative. I wonder how you would define a ‘hand sanitiser’? I suspect that you would probably apply a verbal sanitiser to the expression: ‘new normal’.

Was ‘lockdown’ in your first dictionary? (I know that ‘aardvark’ wasn’t. Nor any word beginning with X). Or ‘Zoom’? ‘Quarantine’? ‘Outbreak’. ‘Pandemic’?

Yes, you would take great interest in the words of our current world.

A genuine celebrity of your time, your sayings resonate as strongly as ever. Your witticisms, take-downs and one-liners are legendary. One for almost every situation.

Integrity without knowledge is weak and useless, and knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful“, you warned. And elsewhere quipped that “A fly, sir, may sting a stately horse and make him wince; but one is still an insect, and the other is a horse still“.

Samuel Johnson: Who was he, and why is he so important to the English  language? | The Independent | The Independent
Dr Samuel Johnson

As we travel in unsteady times, I remember your encouragement:

Life affords no higher pleasure than the surmounting of difficulties”. 

These are difficult times, for sure. And, in our corner of the world, we are having to find solutions to new challenges every day. The children in my school continue to display wonderful energy, as well as good-hearted acceptance of the measures we have in place to keep them, and our staff, safe. Equally, there is abundant positivity. My colleagues do wonders daily – and defy words at times.

As you wisely observed, “A man’s [by which you meant person’s] mind grows narrow in a narrow place.”  I see Shrewsbury as a place of breadth in all things. And these times demand wide thinking, not narrow minds. 

The word most used in 2020 is a new one. Coined by the World Health Organisation – something that certainly didn’t exist in your day. Covid. So far this year, this new word has been used in print more than any other in the English language.

You wisely advised: “None but a fool worries about things he cannot influence”.  As we move through difficult times, we will heed your call to focus on the things that are within our control.  In my case, that is giving the pupils in our care the best environment and challenge that we possibly can. And urge them as you did:

“Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous intellect”.

Curiosity and stickability. (Another word for your dictionary, Sir.)

Yours in words.

Leo

Letter written on 18th September 2020 – your 311th birthday.

Dear Jeremiah

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You and your kind seem to be everywhere.

If we spend any time following the news media, we know how much has been said about education.  About the process of awarding grades; about the fairness or otherwise of our education systems; about the process of re-opening schools.  So much of it negative.

More broadly, the reality of COVID-19 in the UK and across the world has utterly dominated.  Understandably. And with good reason. But, this dominance has meant that we have all got used to living with some very negative narratives.    

We have been living with a pervasive language of limitation; a language of blame; and a language of fear.  This must have had an impact on even the most upbeat of people. I think we need to work hard to reclaim a language of possibility; a language of responsibility; and a language of hope.   

The language we use – the way we frame things – will have a direct effect on the children in our care and indeed all with whom we spend our time.  We need to find a way back to more positive language.

To illustrate: let’s consider the example of a child who has climbed a tree.  And got stuck.  She is getting panicked; holding onto a branch.

There is an adult below who calls up to the child. He thinks about what to call out: “Don’t let go!” or “ Hold on tight!”

Which is more likely to encourage child to cling on until she can be reached and brought safely down to earth?

  • Don’t let go!
  • Hold on tight!

Surely it’s the latter: Hold on tight!  Because negative commands and prohibitions can become fixating – paralysing even. In this particular case, ‘Don’t let go!’ reinforces the fear of falling. ‘Hold on tight!’ reinforces the hope of staying safe.

Hold on Tight!
Photo by Valeriia Miller on Pexels.com

The news media will continue to frame its language as it chooses. I suspect that the negativity, the fear and the blame will continue for a while yet. Of course, there’s a lot to think about and we need to be conscious of risk. The world needs its mixture of pessimists and optimists. We need the optimists to build the aeroplanes; and the pessimists to design the parachutes.

This is a simple but necessary point about the negative effect of negativity; and the positive effect of positivity. It’s time to lift the mood, Jeremiah.

In schools, as we welcome the children back from a long time of separation, it is important for us to assume a language that is responsible – but is framed as positively as possible. Things are getting better; we are more in control. It is vitally important for the children in our care that we are affirmative in how we present and interpret daily life. 

This doesn’t mean having our heads in the clouds.  It is a matter of affirmative presentation. In education, we should be holding on tight to the excitement and optimism that flow freely at the start of a new academic year.  Even if we are starting in a time of limitation, we should focus our talk on all the possibilities ahead and let go of the negativity.

Dear Upper Sixth Leaver

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A message to the U6th (Year 13) pupils at Shrewsbury School, June 2020

Dear Upper Sixth Leaver

This is not how we planned it.  None of us imagined that your final term would be spent in bubbles of isolation.  None of us thought you would be saying goodbye to the school through a screen.  None of us thought that when you went home in March, you were leaving for good.  There is no way to dress this up and make it look nice.  This is not how we wanted it to be for you; and it is really very sad.

Some of you have been Salopians since joining the School in Third Form; others joined in Fourth Form; and others still became members of this community in the Sixth Form.  Each one of you is valued; each of you has had experiences here that will shape and stay with you for life.  Each one of you has been part of a house, teaching sets, sports teams, activities, ensembles, friendship groups.  Each one of you has contributed to the richness and vibrancy of this School.  Each one of you is a Salopian.  Each one of you deserved a better ending.

This year, you have shown extraordinary qualities and never more so in this last term.  You have embraced the new normal.  You had to absorb the news that the public exams to which you had been working for 18 months were not going to happen.  You had to decide how to play the summer term in remote.  You could have disengaged.  You could have been half-hearted; cynical; dismissive.  Instead, you chose to be positive.  You chose to turn a disappointment into an opportunity. 

You kept going with your academic learning, running a race knowing that the finish line had been removed.  You showed a proper love of learning.  Then, we launched Shrewsbury U and the ILM course for Young Leaders.  Again, as a year group, you seized this with both hands and the vast majority of you have participated, engaged and kept your minds active. This will stand you in great stead for whatever comes next. Well done indeed and thank you for all your endeavours.

We are now entering the final fortnight of the term.  Normally, for the Upper Sixth, this is a twilight zone of post-exam fun, communal relaxation, soaking up the place before the finale.  This has been denied to you.  Again, there is no way of making this anything other than it is: a huge disappointment.  None of us wanted you to be living out your final two weeks of school from home. 

The Housemasters and Housemistresses, your tutors and your teachers, are thinking of you.  They are in touch and wanting to do all they can to connect with you share memories of your time here and to celebrate with you.  There is no way of replicating the kinds of real experiences they would like to offer, but they are doing their best and I know you appreciate this.  And, as we move towards the end of term, our Virtual Speech Day aims to give you the very best send-off that we can right now.

Beyond that, you know that we have made a commitment to give you all the chance to be together here at Shrewsbury for a social gathering at which you can share memories with fellow pupils and staff.  We don’t yet know when that will be; the Heads of School have taken your views, and the message we have is that you want to wait until we can do something properly.  We will honour this commitment.

I often say that it is the Upper Sixth who set the tone of the School for the pupils.  This is so true this year – you have done it brilliantly.  Even in remote, this positive tone cascades and permeates through the year groups.  You have been real leaders in so many spheres of school life.  

The Heads of School and their Deputies have continued to guide and shape this term with their dedication, positivity and generosity of spirit. 

Each leaving year group hands on the torch to the one that follows it. Your year group will have a unique place in Shrewsbury history. You have lived through unprecedented times: ‘the year they didn’t do exams’; ‘the year they weren’t at school for the summer term’.

But: we will not remember you as the year that ‘did not’. We will remember you as the year that ‘did’.  You did manage the most exceptional of times.  You did stay together.  And you did the School and yourselves proud.

As each of you prepares to leave Shrewsbury, remember that the School is here for you – for life.  We are all proud of you. You are the year group that did.  And you will go on to be people who do. 

Once again, thank you for all you have given to Shrewsbury. 

See you again soon. 

LW

Dear Myrtle and Maud

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You don’t know me – but you met my wife recently.  You probably won’t remember.  She came to see you in the care home you share with about 30 others.  She was wearing greens and a mask.  You made her feel very welcome: you offered her a cup of tea which she couldn’t accept.  She told me a little bit about you when she got home.  Nothing personal or confidential, of course.  She just said that you were wonderful friends.  And told me how you kept each other going.

One of you is 92 and the other is 94.  I can’t remember which way round.  You sit together most of the day, in comfy chairs in a large sitting room with a decent view of the garden.  You tell each other stories and share memories.  You are not the best listeners, if we’re honest.  But you are great story-tellers – and the best of friends.  You cackle at each other’s jokes; you make mischievous comments about your fellow residents; you play little tricks on your carers.  So they say, anyway.  All to pass the time, which you do cheerfully, and always together.

Truth be told, you seem to have a lot of the same conversations.  If one of you goes out of the room, and returns ten minutes later, you greet each other like long-lost relatives.  And loop back into a familiar conversation.  Like an old juke box on free play.

Like an old juke box on free play.

It seems that you both struggle to remember things from the here and now; from this hour to the next.  But longer-held, deeper memories abound.  And you share them with each other freely.  And often.  The past is more present than the present.  Who knows how much of it is real memory; how much is made and re-made in the telling?

There is a danger here.  I am treading a very thin line.  I want to go somewhere that threads its way safely between the ankle-breaking rabbit holes of sentimentalism or pity or projection or just being condescending.  I may get my foot stuck and be guilty of these and more.  I hope not.  But if I am, I sense that you would forgive – and forget.  

You see, I imagine your talk as a kind of charm.  I picture it casting a safety spell around you.  I see your joyful daily endorsement of one another turn solid; a talisman against – whatever.  Are you aware that there is threat outside the enchanted circle of your chat?  Who can tell?  You don’t seem to be fearful.  Not of anything.  Instead, maybe the diurnal rituals of shared remembering insulate you from the harder truths of the present.

Others around you are exposed.  By their knowledge or their ignorance.  You are exposed too.  Yet, you seem to move together in a different place.  One of dignity and innocence; of knowing insouciance.  In this state, I see your vintage minds shining bright with hope and love and laughter. 

Are you sheltering in some woozy, magic kingdom?  Are you hiding there together?  No.  If you are hiding, it is in plain sight of extinction’s alp.  There: I see you rambling on together – equipped with all the careworn kit of the years – cheerfully talking your way across the rocky ground beneath that final incline. 

The phrase ‘Extinction’s Alp’ is taken from from Philip Larkin’s ‘The Old Fools’

This is guesswork, of course.  After all, you were just a 30 second comment.  But you lit up my mind in that short time. 

What I imagine, from this brief window, is two lives wound around each other in a shared present; two friends bound by talk that is potent with memory.  I imagine the two of you together in your chairs side by side.  I picture you laughing.   

And I wish you protected. 

Leo

PS I hope you don’t mind that I changed your names.

Dear Video-Conferencing App beginning with Z

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A few months ago you were quite something – but mostly quite something that Fortune 500 companies, management consultants, international businesswomen and tech dudes did.  Born in 2011, massively profitable in 2019, you certainly moved fast.  Z by name and Z by nature. Now, everyone seems to be talking about you – and through you.

I’ve got used to your sign-on routine; learned the rules of engagement.  Using you for work has become second nature in these days of remote working. For me, work is school. You’ve rapidly become indispensable to us: teachers can teach; pupils can learn.  Pastoral care in remote is so much more meaningful if you can see you tutor group; your year group; your housemistress.  Headteachers can do the mysterious things we do: and we do love a meeting.  I can host and attend meetings to my heart’s content; keep in touch with colleagues across the country who are facing the same questions that I am; I can connect across the world. 

A rather handsome chap doing a Z… meeting

Through your neatly-squared gallery, families and friends are quizzing, celebrating, catching-up, checking in, keeping an eye out for each other.  What greater service can you offer than a means to connect people in these disconnected times? 

Yet, your detractors (rivals?) called you malware.  I’ve been called plenty of things in my time, but never malware.  That must hurt.  Seriously, we did need to check this out and put sensible risk assessments and safeguarding measures in place for use in schools.  This is to protect children and teachers alike.  So, we use your excellent record facility for all our live lessons, for example.  Everything is open to misuse, but we think what you can help us do is well worth the carefully mitigated risk. 

Teaching works well enough if the lesson is well planned and the teacher throws endless energy at it.  We’ve found that short and sweet is better.  And don’t try to collaborate: you seem to work best in a formal, bilateral, conch-holding kind of way. 

The main thing you’ve given us is a way of keeping in contact face to face.  For those of us who live and work in boarding schools, the sense of community, the reality of being together, these are the things that fuel our purpose.  Inevitably, these times in remote have pushed us apart.  You help us to be together apart.

Can I be honest with you, though?  You can have too much of a good thing…  Reading non-verbal signals is exhausting.  Seeing my face talking back at me is unnerving.  Going seamlessly from one session to the next is frazzling.  The ‘celebrity squares’ on the screen make the eyes boggle.  There’s so much to read and interpret in miniature. One day I used your excellent services for 14 different meetings.  All I could manage at the end of that was a sub-verbal grunt. 

Overall, I’m a big fan: a convert.  Like most things in life, you work best in moderation.  Thank you, Z….  You’ve been a revelation. 

And the most cathartic feature of all your many qualities?  The ability to put all your participants – let’s say a collection of headteachers, for example – on mute.  What a blissful silence that is

Thank you, Video-Conferencing App Beginning With Z.  Now, it’s ‘Leave Meeting’ from me.  I need to catch some screen-free Zzzzzzs.

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 Candidate

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Watch out for the Columbo question!

You have to be pretty old to remember the detective show ‘Columbo’. A legendary police procedural that revolved around a shabby and dishevelled looking detective – Lieutenant Columbo – whose sharpness of mind was in direct inverse proportional relationship to the sharpness of his dress. Columbo used a negative first impression to his advantage, fooling the suspect into writing him off as a bumbling idiot. He would then reel his quarry in as they underestimated him; they grew casual, over-confident, sloppy. His interview technique was crafty – and highly effective.

Columbo’s best trick was to appear to have ended the interview, saying something like, “Well, I’ve taken up plenty enough of your time already”, and turn to leave. And then, just as he is shuffling off, Columbo would turn round and say, “Oh – just one more thing”. This was always the killer question – the one that caught the suspect off guard. So, watch out for the Columbo question…

Oh, congratulations on getting short-listed. Now, the interview. Could I offer a few words of advice for you to take or leave?

First up, it’s worth remembering that every moment is part of the interview – how you enter the building, how you interact with Reception and other staff, how you say goodbye and take your leave, how you communicate before and after the interview. It all feeds in.

Lieutenant Columbo: a master of interview technique?

Whilst I wouldn’t hold Lieutenant Columbo up as an example of how to dress for interview, I would certainly look out for and respect his type on an interview panel. In my experience, the ones who come over as tough, searching, probing, penetrating with very specific and clever questions – they are not the ones to fear. The more specific the question, the more obvious the answer they are seeking. You simply have to make a judgement as to what kind of angle they are on, and play it accordingly.

No, the ones to be very careful with are the open-enders, the ‘can you give me an example of a time when you…’; the smiling, friendly question that will give you the scope to say anything you want. This is where preparation and anticipation come in. You need to have thought of examples that show what you stand for, what makes you different, what shows that you care and are serious about your chosen course or career.

I recently spent a day interviewing candidates for a headship. It was absolutely fascinating. It’s always interesting meeting people at interview. Not just because different people take the same questions in such differing directions. You learn a lot about people even in 45 minutes in the admittedly formal and controlled circumstances of an interview. Some people make a fantastic first impression and then gradually fade away; others make a slow start and really grow into the interview; the best will start strong and keep getting better.

The reality that struck me once again is the old cliché that ‘first impressions matter’. As the saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. This doesn’t mean that our first assessments of people we meet are spot-on accurate. In fact, we are often wildly off-beam. But the fact remains that the way we present ourselves to others at the first encounter will either help or hinder us. Whether it is in the context of a university or job interview, or – most excruciating of all – meeting a girl or boyfriend’s parents for the first time, first impressions count.

Given that everyone will, at some point sooner or later, be interviewed, I thought I might share a few thoughts on the subject with you. Let’s start with some things not to do:

• Avoid fancy dress – I don’t mean Disney outfits – rather, avoid anything that is likely to trigger a negative value judgement. The interview is not the place for exciting fashion statements. You want people to sense that you care and are a serious person. That’s about it. Your clothes simply need to reinforce your sincerity. Comedy ties are great – but not for interview. Wacky jewellery, humorous socks, political slogan badges. None of these is a good idea. Dark suits, simple single tone ties (not crazy colours). Shoes matter. Unless you are being interviewed by Vivienne Westwood you should aim to look conventionally smart – not wild, wacky or scruffy.
• Avoid being over-familiar or chatty. Two of the six people I interviewed yesterday said “How are you doing?” or “hiya” when meeting the interview panel. It was not the right register to hit. We all need to be able to adjust our tone to the context we are in. That doesn’t mean putting on an act or being a fake. It’s possible to be yourself whilst also being respectful and formal.
• Avoid cliché or platitudes – “I’m a people person”; “I have a passion for…”; find new ways of saying things.
• Avoid being negative about other people, institutions, systems – anything really. Nobody likes to hear negativity.
• Never lie or over-embellish – you’ll most likely get found out or have to embroider more or sound unconvincing. The best interviewees are determinedly themselves. If you feel you have to lie, you will sound inauthentic.

It’s also important to look closely at what the interviewer is doing; how they are dressed; the tone of question and the way they are responding to what you are saying. Read them as they read you. Fundamentally, it is about making a connection.

This brings me to things you should try to do:

• Hold eye contact – but not in a fixed or challenging way
• Smile – but in a way that is relevant and not loony or fake
• If there’s more than one person interviewing, scan and keep people involved – sweep the room but not like an automated lighthouse
• Sit still – plant yourself but not too rigidily; don’t sniff (bring a hanky), scratch, rummage, jangle, fidget, twiddle or otherwise distract them; convey a sense of calmness and stillness – be a swan rather than meerkat
• Be concise – don’t ramble – but do elaborate when asked; let there be silence – don’t try to fill it
• Answer the questions – don’t be a politician but do steer them to areas of strength and enthusiasm
• Give examples – ideally, think of them in advance – how have you shown initiative, leadership; learned from mistakes; helped change things etc – and make sure they are both true and positive
• Take your time when the curve ball or surprise question comes – and keep your answer to that brief

Right, my dear Candidate. I think I’ve taken enough of your time. Thank you. No, no – please, I’ll show myself out….

Oh – and just one more thing: don’t use The Apprentice as your guide for interviews. That’s entertainment, not real life. True, some interviewers seem more interested in proving their own brilliance than establishing yours, and some can be combative or spiky, but most interviews are open-ended, polite, undramatic and probably wouldn’t make great TV.

A good interview will aim to put you on a stage and allow you to perform. And in order to perform you need to prepare, to practise, to think about what you want to convey to your audience, and to work out how to be true to the best version of yourself. Because, when it comes down to it, it is you who will have to do the course or the job or impress those parents or whatever this interview is all about. You don’t want the interviewer or interview panel to choose some phoney, invented you. Just the best you.

Good luck. Sock it to ’em.

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 Detectorist

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Can I set the scene? It’s a beautiful English summer’s day.  We’re on a sandy beach in North Yorkshire.  It’s one of those rare, ultra-calm, windless days when sound travels with exceptional clarity and everything feels close, and yet distant, at the same time.  

There are several families on the beach, climbing on the rocks, building sandcastles, skimming pebbles into the sea.  The air is perforated with the shrill cries of children on the beach and those of the circling seabirds overhead. 

A group of canoeists paddles into the bay and beach their canoes.  About 10 of them sit down on the beach and produce a lavish and unlikely picnic, cracking open bottles of beer and reclining in wet-suited splendour, looking, from a distance, half-human, half-seal.

On the cliffs we can see nesting gulls.  There are bird-watchers toting binoculars and draped in bits of kit. There to spot anything with feathers.  Crowds of twitchers along the clifftop, angling their necks and pointing their bins to capture the plummet of the gannet; the serene arc of the curlew; the rock-hopping of the oyster-catcher; the busy aeronautics of distant puffins. 

The tide is at its lowest, so you can clamber all the way through some of the caves and reach the open see the other side.  The rock pools are populated with anemones and seaweed.  There are barnacles aplenty on the craggy rocks.  With a firm stab of a booted foot, you can dislodge a stubborn little arthropod, inspect its inner workings, emit a noise of fascinated disgust, and carefully reinstate them on the rock.  You can look for crabs in the rock pools. 

Then, a new couple comes down the steep steps carrying two metal contraptions.  Those of us already established on the beach are giving them the once over. Gently sizing up the new arrivals, as they rattle their way onto the strand. We reckon that they are mother – probably in her 60s – and grown-up son – around about 40.  We surmise that he’s single, quite possibly still living in the maternal home.  Something about his clothing suggests that: the saggy luminous orange kagool zipped up despite the clement weather.  Beige trousers that are just a bit too short in the leg.  And, the footwear: a frightful public union of sandals and socks, so often the preserve of the unattached.

Saying very little to one another, each puts on a pair of chunky red head-phones.  They plug the lead into their devices.  And off they go.  Pacing – slowly, methodically – up the beach.   Sweeping their instruments before them.  Immediately engaged in their work.  Immersed.  Listening intently for a ping – a ping that would signal the confirmation of metal. Occasionally they stop; put the metal detector to one side; and dig with a small trowel in the sand.  And turn up something, nothing.  Something and nothing.

They do this for an hour and a half.  Gradually, the pair becomes the object of most people’s attention.  As we all keep a casual eye on them, questions gently mount in the mind, like sand passing through an hourglass.

Eventually, idle curiosity grows into something more urgent and we have to break the silence.  Someone goes over to address the pair.  “Have you found anything yet?”.  The man, to whom the question was directed, jumps in surprise.  “Sorry!”, we say.  “Didn’t mean to shock you….  Have you found anything?”.  Probably an annoying question to poke into this unwelcome break in his focus.  “Not yet”.   It’s clear that conversation is not high on his agenda for the day.  “What’s the best thing you’ve found?”, we persist. “Found a Roman coin once. Gave that in.  Mostly it’s ring pulls ‘n shot gun cartridges”.

So, let’s get this straight. You spend all that time looking and you only get to keep the things that aren’t worth anything. “Yes, that’s about it”.

All pass-times can seem a bit clubby, a bit geeky to the uninitiated. But it’s fair to say that metal detecting would probably come in quite low on a league table of activities that command instant respect. Adrenalin sports would top that table: base-jumping; parkour; free-climbing. These are high impact activities where adventure, movement and risk are the chief gods.

Your deities are different.  The gods of metal detecting are method, patience and luck.  It is a ritual of hope.

An archaeologist will likely bristle at the sight of you.  Others might disparage you as funny, slightly deluded individuals grubbing about in largely fruitless isolation.  I’ve never done any metal detecting but there’s something rather wonderful about the sight of you.  The undiluted focus, the obsessive fascination, the hermetic zeal of the activity.  Something meditative about the gentle hovering of the detector disc above the ground, its faithful attention fixed on the floor, as you guide its slow, sweeping motion. 

You and your metal detector are bound in a mutual and private search.  You seem so focused on the detecting work, so insulated from other events, that I could easily imagine you walking with steady confidence off a cliff – still listening for the jubilant beep.

Why do you do it?  Is it because you’re looking to find that special find?  Or because you are part of a citizen scientist movement, democratising knowledge and encouraging a love of heritage. Or, do you do it because the process of looking is, in itself, a pleasant, addictive, even life-enhancing state? Metal detecting, like fishing, is about waiting. 

So, I’m putting aside any sniggering assumption that people who use metal detectors should be pitied or even derided for their dodgy clothing and apparent lack of social skills. I’m going to park the idea that your type are acquisitive Golums, addicted to antique shiny things; or rural bounty hunters methodically stripping the land of its precious little secrets. Maybe you detectorists are ok. Oddly cool. Maybe even role models.

As an activity, metal detecting requires patience and method.  It encourages the constant readiness for discovery; the acceptance of simple labour in the pursuit of some ecstatic moment, a chance unearthing of something really interesting, really valuable.  Like all the best hobbies, metal detecting stands on a central foundation of futility.  And the infinite resurgence of hope over experience.

If I’m feeling poetic, I could see your metal detectors as instruments of hope. Ok, they may not be style magnets but, viewed in this way, they are images of the human being’s desire and determination, to search out truth and beauty, and to continue to hope that truth and beauty do indeed lie out there.  Truth and beauty are often to be found buried, obscured by the accumulated silt of other, less remarkable things.

All the great thinkers and spiritual leaders have emphasised the need for hope.  We know that human beings are capable of acts of ugliness, cowardice and falsehood.  These thinkers hold us firm to the belief that, as individuals and as communities, human beings are capable of great beauty, courage and truth.  And that these great universals can be unearthed in all kinds of places; in all kinds of interactions with others. 

Presumably, detectorists are afflicted by finite disappointment on a routine basis.  It’s part of the process.  But you seem to be powered by infinite hope. Maybe you detectorists aren’t that odd after all. 

Maybe I’ll follow you up the beach and see what I might find. Or not find.

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