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 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 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 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 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

Plain Gobbledygoop

Plain Gobbledygook

Not so long ago, I was sitting on a train back from Manchester in a half full (or, if you’re that kind of person, half empty) train carriage. Coach B of the Arriva Trains Wales Express: a two-carriage number that grinds its way from Manchester all the way down to Carmarthen.

As is the way in this country, there was an instant (and literally unspoken) agreement amongst all the travellers in Coach B of the Arriva Trains Wales express – that there would be no talking. Accordingly, after the train guard has done his announcements, the carriage fell into silence and we were together alone in our moving metal carapace.

‘Travel silence’ is something that we do very well in this country. If you sit on a train in Spain, Italy, India or the US, for example, it’s a-buzz with chat and noise. In England, there is a strict and unspoken traveller’s code: only mad people, drunks and foreigners speak on English trains.

So it was that a culturally-binding silence settled over Carriage B. At each stop this hush was briefly perforated by the incomprehensible, tinny announcements from our train guard; white noise that barely roused us from our private inner worlds.

Then: a phone rang. A few of us scrabbled about to check if it was our phone. (Everyone over the age of 40 seems to have the same ring tone these days). Anyway, the silence was then broken for several minutes as the recipient of the call conducted a lengthy business conversation.

Well, you all listen in, don’t you? It’s impossible not to. Unless you’re plugged in, you can’t help but overhear. We all tend to speak-shout into our phones when we’re on a train and it’s a small carriage.

It was, in all honesty, not a very interesting conversation. A business call. In fact, it was such a dull conversation that it somehow travelled through the spectrum of dull and came out the other side, transformed into something genuinely engrossing.  It seemed that things were at a critical point in the negotiations to land a big contract.

The phone call was punctuated by a mesmerising range of professional jargon, management and business speak. A multitude of technical expressions and organisational clichés reverberated around the carriage, soaking the captive travelling audience in a sound-world of industry chat.

The high – or was it low – point phone call was the closing sentence.

“Going forward, I think what we need to think outside the box. Let’s touch base later”.

And with that the call was over.

Now, I find that sentence had quite hard to live with.  A recent survey by the Institute of Leadership & Management, revealed that management speak is used in almost two thirds (64%) of offices, with nearly a quarter of people surveyed considering it to be a pointless irritation. The top three most annoying and over-used bits of business jargon were: “touch base” (39%); “going forward” (55%); and top of the pops was: “thinking outside the box” (57%). My carriage-mate had managed to squeeze all three into the same sentence!

Now, let’s remind ourselves that I’m being a Nosey-Parker, eavesdropping on one side of a private conversation. You might also say that if you make a call in a train carriage, you deserve what’s coming to you.

All this enforced overhearing prompted me to think about two things. Firstly, about the value of plain speaking – that is, speaking clearly and free of unnecessary jargon. Secondly, about the value of speaking as a person, an individual; rather than sounding like a manual.

You can tell when someone is saying things in her or his own individual voice. The person comes through the language. The danger of management-speak, jargon, slogans, cliché is that they diminish and muffle our original voice; these over-used expressions standardise us.

Words can be beautiful, powerful things: a means of conveying such a range of sense and feeling; such diverse ideas and observations. We can use them to create fresh possibilities; we can use them to numb; we can use them to agitate; we can use them to soothe.

Most human activities – such as sports, the arts, careers – have their special languages. Think of sport, for example. These are sometimes called ‘language games’. In these games, esoteric terms and expressions resonate with the initiated; by those who understand and are part of the club.

And so it is with education. We bat around all kinds of special language; educational acronyms and shorthand abound. Schools are wonderful generators of idiosyncratic terms. The idea that we should meet in Grot and then do our Top Schools after having tea in KH only makes sense in our small part of the world.

I’m not objecting to specialised language. I’m objecting to dull and lazy language.

What became the Campaign For Plain English was started by the redoubtable Chrissie Maher OBE in 1979. She fixed her aim on various uses of language which she felt were deliberately obscure. It was a campaign against gobbledygook, jargon and misleading public information.

On the hit list were longwinded official writing; management-speak; professional jargon; tired and overused expressions; silly job titles that see ticket inspectors become “Revenue Protection Officers”, supermarket shelf-stackers go by the title of “Ambient replenishment controllers”, and teachers are “Knowledge Facilitators”. I mean, seriously?

The Campaign for Plain English (or Plain English Campaign as it now seems to be known – you can see what they did there) aims to remove these word-soups from institutional life. They want to get professionals, in particular, to speak more simply. For example, a recent educational document (not ours I hasten to add) deployed the following sentence: “High quality learning environments are a necessary precondition for facilitation and enhancement of the ongoing learning process”. What this actually means is: “Children need good schools if they are to learn properly”.

The issue here is that bureaucratic language excludes meaning – often, it would seem, deliberately. It’s important we don’t get infected by this linguistic virus. We need to find our own, distinctive voices – and delight in them.

Personal statements, for example, should be personal. Essays should be in (pretty much) our own words. We should avoid cliché and jargon but rather make the effort to use interesting and original language. This does need to be carefully done. All of us, not least Headmasters, succumb to over-embellishment and can sound pretentious, and our text (including this one) over-written. Everyone needs a good editor.

Scaling up from our day-to-day context, it is so important that all of us, especially the young, use the power of their words, opinions and voice. Salopians are polite and gentle souls but sometimes you have speak truth to power – even if your voice shakes.

It is mission-critical (is that a cliché?) that Salopians think and speak for themselves. This is a theme that we will repeat and repeat as a school. The world is full of versions of the truth; we all need to be mindful enough to de-code and challenge these versions in the post-truth era. We need Salopians young and old to challenge and to initiate change.

I have said a lot about speaking. As somebody very wise once said: “God gave us one mouth and two ears: we should use them proportionately”. It is critically important that, in the noise of populism, YouTubing and democratic broadcasting, we retain the ability to listen actively.

Active listening is not just waiting for the other person to stop speaking so we can make our much more interesting point. Only by deep and active listening do we fully acknowledge the rights and the values of the person we are speaking with. Even if we despise the views of another, we need to listen deeply to understand them.

Of course, the trick in all this, is that human beings learn by imitation. We observe, we copy. That’s how babies start talking. It’s only natural that we mimic the language of others. This is language with stabilisers. The journey our children are on (in fact we are all on), is to find their own authentic voice; to get rid of those linguistic stabilisers.

For pupils, my simple message is to speak in their own voice. I want them to be confident enough to stand outside the verbal uniform of teenage jargon. I want them to dress their language differently.

Meanwhile, back in Carriage B of the Arriva Trains Wales Express from Manchester to Carmarthen, we’re nearing Shrewsbury station. In silence. After my (albeit unspoken) righteous indignation at my carriage-mate’s choice of language, I’m feeling an uncomfortable guilt at my linguistic snobbery.

What it reminded me, though, is that language can be used to numb and neutralise. And, equally, that it can be used to ignite and enliven the mind. Each mode has its generative powers; each has its dangers.

Words have a power to reveal or to conceal. Political discourse is replete with spin and double-talk, linguistic sleights of hand and verbal finessing. The delight in language is a wonderful thing. Selective and careful deployment of what the teachers at primary school might call ‘juicy words’. It’s good to make interesting sentences and fill our self-expression with colour.

Language can be used to mislead, to obscure, to obfuscate, to redirect, to exclude. So, as in all things, there is a time for floral language, a time for using technical vocabulary and a time for plain speaking. A time to rage against cliché. A time to speak up, in our individual voices, here in Salopia and in the wider world.

Something tells me that the world needs its teenagers and young adults to speak up – and keep speaking up.

And let’s try not to use clichés. After all, it’s not rocket science….

Against cynicism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roosevelt concludes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Hope as a call to action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They include the following:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Older People: thoughts on living longer

One day a year, it’s international ‘older people’s day’.  An interesting – and presumably deliberate – choice of words to talk of ‘older people’, rather than ‘old people’ or ‘the elderly’. This turn of language prompts some questions about what we mean by ‘older’. What is ‘older’? Who are these ‘older people’?

Of course, we’re all ‘older’ – you and I are all older than we were yesterday. And we will keep being older all our lives – presumably until the point where we are simply ‘old’: the point when the relative becomes absolute.

Older People’s Day is about raising awareness of the issues related to ageing. It aims to be a day to ‘respond to the opportunities and challenges of population ageing in the 21st century and to promote the development of a society for all ages’. (OPD Website)

The World Health Organisation (WHO) declares that: “Most developed world countries have accepted the chronological age of 65 years as a definition of ‘elderly’ or older person, but like many westernized concepts, this does not adapt well to the situation in Africa. While this definition is somewhat arbitrary, it is many times associated with the age at which one can begin to receive pension benefits. At the moment, there is no United Nations standard numerical criterion, but the UN agreed cutoff is 60+ years to refer to the older population.

Although there are commonly used definitions of old age, there is no general agreement on the age at which a person becomes old. The common use of a calendar age to mark the threshold of old age assumes equivalence with biological age, yet at the same time, it is generally accepted that these two are not necessarily synonymous.”

In other words, the term ‘older’ is relative to where in the world we are born and where we live and the kind of life opportunities open to us.  These are the conditions of birth that drive our life expectancy.  WHO use 50 to mean ‘older’ in global terms.

Respect for one’s elders used to be a given in pretty much every culture. This may have brought with it some rather brutal or disparaging attitudes to the young. The Victorian approach to children being visible but inaudible (‘seen and not heard’), for example, indicated a clear age-based hierarchy. But, it also brought a healthy regard for those of mature years.  This is less so now. Arguably, the young and vigorous attract respect; the ‘older’ and less vital are often viewed as a burden; a problem; or just out of touch.

We have an increasingly top-heavy population. The ‘younger’ have a growing duty to carry the ‘older’. And this duty is increasing. How much carrying will our children and grandchildren have to do? How much tax and NI will we have to pay to support the NHS and state pensions? How long will you have to work before you can retire? Will the notion of retirement disappear altogether?

Living beyond 100 will become the norm in your children’s generation, according to projections from the ONS. Within two decades, the average (that’s the average) life expectancy of a new born girl in UK will be 97 years and 4 months. Baby boys born in 2037 should expect to live, on average, to the age of 94. By 2057, the average life expectancy for a female will be 100. Average. You could consider yourself unlucky not to reach 100. For boys, that mark will be reach in 2080, according to the ONS.

The key, though, is not just life expectancy but healthy life expectancy. That is, being ‘older’ and yet being independent, healthy, mobile etc. Not just being alive but being able to live. This is increasing at a lesser rate. In other words, the old will become more and more dependent on the young. For longer.

We might feel that, being ‘younger’, these issues are not relevant. Older People Day might prompt us to reach out more to the ‘older’ population. Or it might, out of pure self-interest, spark a realization that the decisions, policies and attitudes that we promote and allow in our youth, will come back to affect us in our old age. When it comes to getting older, we will reap what we sow. And the reaping season will be longer than the sowing season.

So, thinking about older people, and issues to do with ageing, is in all of our interest.