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 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 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 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

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. 

‘Dear Mum and Dad’. On being fully present.

Dear Mum and Dad

Please don’t worry too much about what you might have heard about the fire at school. We’re all fine. And it was quite exciting with all the fire engines and confusion.

I did break my leg jumping out of the second floor window but the school nurse was very nice and the hospital is so close by, it wasn’t too painful walking there. They put a cast on after a few hours waiting and I’m fine now. The doctor said I should be back on games in a year or so.

My new boyfriend Jerry has been a great help. He’s one of the hospital porters and is previously married with two tiny children who are just lovely. So cute. He’s very keen to bring them down to meet the rest of our family before we make any further plans. I know you’ll like him.

I’d better go now – my room-mate Sally has made some friends from outside of school and we’re meeting them in the supermarket car park down the road. They sound really interesting.

I’ll call soon – hope you’re all well and the dog isn’t missing me too much.

Lots of love.

Becky.

PS.

None of the above is true.

What is true is that I think I’ve failed my English exam.

I just wanted you to keep a sense of proportion.

This letter, and versions of it, have been doing the rounds for a few years now. It’s a neat way of raising the question of how we keep things in perspective in our daily lives; how we maintain a healthy sense of proportion.

Parents want certain things for their children; we all have our goals, ambitions, and hopes. Each one of us lives with personal fears and none of us is free from problems. The very fact of being alive – that stuff happens to us as well as because of us – means that with the smooth comes the rough. You cannot have one without the other.

The fact is: everything matters. Details matter. The daily events and challenges, the problems and their solutions, these are the stuff of our daily existence. Under-performing in an exam is not what any of us want; failure matters. And, particularly in the happy absence of greater threats and worries, this is a big deal. The worries of tomorrow do have to be met. We should not respond by drifting off into a comforting netherworld of reassuring psychobabble or bury ourselves in distractions, worthy or otherwise. Nor is it productive to beat ourselves up mercilessly over our failures.

Each of us experiences different doses of rough and smooth through our lifetimes. There are common experiences – exam or interview nerves, pain, bereavement – but there is no sense that these are evenly distributed (far from it), nor that we each feel these human experiences in the same way. We hear news every day of fellow human beings far worse off than ourselves; people who would rightly be staggered at the smallness of our worries compared to relentless and fundamental sufferings that others endure day by day. And yet, for me at least, I’ve never found the point that there are plenty people worse off than me to be of that much comfort; nor that it could have been much worse if things had happened a little differently.

So, how might we get relief (if you’ll pardon the pun) from life’s ups and downs? How can we retain a healthy sense of perspective? Lots of wise things have been said by thinkers and writers over the ages on the question of staying happiness and wellbeing. In these rather gloomy January days, such questions may be even more pressing than in the lighter days of summer.

Some suggest that it is about taking time to step back from, perhaps to hover above, our problems. This elevation then gives the chance to consider the issue in the broader sweep of our lives. What looks like a big bump when viewed up close, diminishes when we widen the lens of perception. It’s still there, and needs to be clambered over, but when we then descend back to the present issue, we may feel it is less imposing.

A second suggestion is to lose ourselves for some time, and regularly, in the concerns of others. We tend to get mired in our own problems, turning inward and growing depressed and frustrated. Finding ways to serve and help others makes us feel better. Extending ourselves to others helps recalibrate our settings and refreshes our perspective.

Alan Watts, a British philosopher whose birthday it was yesterday, argued that the heart of the issue of perspective is to do with our desire for security and certainty. In his 1951 book, ‘The Wisdom of Insecurity’, he suggests that we misguidedly pursue certainty; but this is not an achievable aim. It also keeps us oscillating between an unsatisfying view of past and an insecure view of the future – neither of which provide a sense of wellbeing. As such, he says, we need to accept the fluid and unpredictable nature of things. Watts goes on to say that we are at our happiest when we are fully immersed in the present – rather than dwelling on the past or agonising about what lies ahead. We can take control of certain things (the revision for the English exam); other things happen to us (fires, floods, illness). But the thing which we can always reliably control is our attention to the present moment.

Watts wants us to put our full effort into the here and now. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t think about the future and respect and treasure the past. We each exist on a timeline and we do need to prepare for what lies further up the line. Rather, he suggests that the current moment is where our default setting should be. Being fully present – being concentrated on the task at hand – these are the times when we are most productive. When we are painting, or playing hockey, or solving a maths equation, or playing the oboe – we are not thinking, ‘I am playing the oboe’ or ‘i am solving this quadratic equation.’ We are what we are doing.

So, the third suggestion is that we should endeavour to be fully present in what we are doing. We should maximise the amount of our time we spend in this mode of full absorption. This is the state in which we are happiest; when the issue of proportion does not trouble us. And at the other times, the good and the not so good, when we stand back and take stock of the landscape of our lives, we need to keep a healthy sense of perspective. And, having taken a good look, we need to get back to the task at hand with our fullest and best attention.

Children’s Mental Health and Wellbeing – Prof Tanya Byron inspires and encourages St Peter’s York staff

“Kids should understand their brains; they should understand their whole bodies”.

So said Professor Tanya Byron, consultant clinical psychologist, as she gave an interactive presentation to the teaching and support staff at St Peter’s School, 3-18, the week before the pupils returned for the new academic year.

Professor Byron is a well-known broadcaster and columnist specialising in children’s mental health.   It turns out that she has a soft spot for York, having studied as an undergraduate at York University. So, despite her crammed diary, we were lucky in tempting her up to St Peter’s for an afternoon to talk to our teaching and support staff.

Tanya combines expert knowledge with unstuffy directness and a winning ability to take the stigma out of some very complex mental health issues. Despite the serious nature of her subject, her explanations are gloriously free from clinical pomposity; she connects brilliantly with people and she is not afraid to make jokes – particularly at her own expense. A published author, whose expert opinion is sought on myriad facets of parenting, Professor Byron told her audience that her children have promised her they will write a book on her. The working title? “Great with other people’s kids; sh*t with her own”.

Yes, she’s a straight-talking Professor. Disarmingly honest, likely to call a spade a spade (this goes down well in Yorkshire), Professor Byron encouraged colleagues working across the age range, from Nursery to Sixth Form, to talk openly about mental health concerns. Her talk addressed the psychology behind a wide range of issues and she went on to share various ideas on how to begin to address anxiety, depression, self-harm and eating disorders.

In her talk, Professor Byron described the children of 21st century Britain as “the most emotionally articulate generation of all” who are “better at asking for help” than any before. This is the good news – because the mental health issues they are facing are greater than ever before. “We need to understand the psychology of anxiety”, said Professor Byron, explaining that 75% of individual mental health issues will manifest when a person is between the ages of 14 and 23. She described the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) as being “in absolute crisis” and urged schools – particularly those with strong pastoral care such as independent boarding schools – to lead the way in preventing and managing mental health issues in the young.

In a balanced message, Professor Byron also warned against the “ridiculous over-protectiveness of our children” of which some parents are guilty, citing the effect that a risk-averse society has on children who “don’t know how to fail” and “lack emotional resilience”. She urged schools to encourage risk-taking (within sensible limits). “What child in their right mind is going to want to climb a tree that has been deemed safe?”, she quipped, and went on to celebrate the value of boredom – “It grows your imagination” – and the perils of over-praising children.

In just short of 90 minutes, Professor Byron gave us a “decatastrophised” but urgent message that the mental wellbeing of our children should be high up every school and every parent’s list of things to talk about – and that we need to get busy doing something about it.

Professor Tanya Byron spoke to 200 staff at St Peter's 3-18 on children's mental health

Professor Tanya Byron spoke to 200 staff at St Peter’s 3-18 on children’s mental health

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

Connecting for Happiness

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Do something kind for others

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

  1. Volunteer your time, energy and skills

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

  1. Get to know your neighbours better

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

  1. Understand each other’s needs

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

  1. Look for the good in those around you

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

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

@actionforhappiness @yorkastro

Play Attention: playfulness and absorption in learning and living.

We must remember how to play.  So our Chaplain reminded us recently.  Total absorption in something fun – in play – is not only a good thing in itself, but play is also necessary for our well-being; play is refreshing and regenerative.

You sometimes hear people talking about ‘work-life balance’.  I have always felt this to be a rather negative & unhelpful polarisation: an unnecessary one.  The reason why I refer to school as “serious fun” is because, at best, our learning lives cater for the whole of our being.  We are not always serious, we are not always at play.  Each activity has the potentiality for the full richness of human emotions.

‘Work-life balance’ implies that the two are mutually exclusive.  Similarly, the saying that you should ‘work to live’ rather than ‘live to work’, makes the same category mistake.  Life, fun, work – surely, they should all be the same thing.  In other words, if you view life and work as part of the same whole thing, and you value play as part of work and life, there is now balance.  You are not creating a tension of opposites, but rather a forward-moving dynamic.  You are absorbed in the enjoyment of living and learning.  Forget work-life balance: live life to the full and aim to enjoy something about everything.

As children, we grow up playing and yet, gradually, the time given over to play slips away; bit by bit, the imaginative play gives way to increasingly formalised and regularised modes of play, for example, through individual and team sport.  Interesting that in many independent schools we talk about our sporting programme as ‘Games’.

I certainly don’t see a contradiction in the phrase ‘serious fun’.  At heart, all learning, all activity, should have a sense of play about it.  Certainly, some occasions and situations demand a sombre formality: Remembrance Sunday is not a moment for play.  But, most settings, even the serious, can benefit from the perspective and relief that comes from moments of playfulness.

Is there a difference between good play and bad play?  If so, what is it about good play that makes it good.  I’d like to suggest that good play is refreshing in some way.  Although it takes energy, it should also be generative.  If you play properly, it is enriching for all involved.  Play properly, I remember saying to a cousin who had stopped trying in a tennis match.  In order to give play true meaning and value, we have to take it seriously.

The Chaplain ruled activities such as computer-gaming as lower or lesser forms of play.  My instant response was to nod inwardly.  Hours of mindless semi-comatose button-pressing does not seem energising or enriching.  But when I see my son on Minecraft creative, I can see that it is a valuable mode of play.  Like most things, there is a law of diminishing returns – the longer you play on the same activity, without variation, the less playful it gets.  At the heart of play, then, is invention, imagination, creativity. And that is why play can, and indeed should, be part of learning.  Play isn’t something that can only happen in our free time; it can happen in more structured time, through our co-curricular activities, of course – this is want we might call formalised play; and it needs to happen in our learning.

Now, let’s be clear.  I’m not saying that the classroom or the lab are the same as the playground or our back gardens.  We all need to adopt a formal persona in the classroom.  We are working in a group, and group behaviour, led by an expert – ie a teacher – needs to follow formal patterns.  But, good teaching and learning allows space for the spirit of creativity and intellectual play.  All academic subjects have room for invention, for the absorption of play.

Over the holidays I read a book by Paul Dolan, a professor at LSE and government wellbeing advisor, called “Happiness By Design”.  Dolan’s central idea is that we are happy if and when we have a good mix of two key ingredients in life: pleasure and purpose.  Pleasure linked to purpose is the optimal source of happiness.  And much of our happiness and joy, or misery and anxiety, depends on what we choose to pay attention to.

“The “science of happiness” […]  is full of bizarre and contradictory findings. Parents report that parenting makes life much more meaningful, yet seem to experience no more pleasure than non-parents; more money doesn’t lead [automatically] to more happiness […]. One problem, he [Dolan] argues, is that psychologists simply try to find out which “inputs” – income, work, marital status, age, religiosity and so on – are correlated with the “output” of happiness. But in fact happiness also depends on how we allocate attention to those things. Imagine two biscuit factories, one run well, the other incompetently: they might have identical inputs (sugar, flour, labour, electricity) yet produce very different quantities of biscuits, depending on their production processes. The same goes for manufacturing happiness. Attention, Dolan writes, “acts as a production process that converts stimuli into happiness”. Attention is a scarce resource: give it to one thing, and by definition you can’t give it to something else. If you’re not as happy as you could be, “you must be misallocating your attention“.

“Even if it isn’t easy, Dolan makes a persuasive case that happiness might really be simple. His book is a powerful reminder not to get caught up in overthinking things, but to focus instead on maximising what actually delivers joy. [Dolan’s conclusion is that we should] “Listen more to your real feelings of happiness than to your reflections on how happy you think you are or ought to be.” Oliver Burkemann, Guardian.

This, to me at least, suggests that part of the key to deep happiness is in applying our attention actively and positive.  The Buddhists would call this ‘right mindfulness’, which is part of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path.  Whatever our activity, whether ‘work’ or ‘play’, it is full commitment and absorption that gives the activity real value.  It is the things to which we choose to give our full attention, are the things that will give us the truest rewards of happiness and purpose.  By this reckoning, we should pay attention to the things that give us purpose and pleasure; we should focus our attention on the pleasurable aspects inherent in all the tasks we are obliged to do.  And we must learn playfully and play seriously.  And, whatever we are doing, we should pay attention.