Dear Ever-Changing Thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sir Michael Palin – with Charles Darwin behind him


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

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

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

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

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

Dear 2022

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Your family has been hard to love of late. 

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Dear Ben Gone to the Sea

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

We never met. And now you are gone.

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

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

Image
Ben North, poet.

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

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

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

Ben North

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

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

‘The Sea’ by Ben North

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

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

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

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

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

Dear 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 ‘So’

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So.

For a little word, you’ve been enjoying a very high profile lately.  Wow – you’re positively everywhere!  Indeed, it has come to my attention that you are at the start of so many sentences, you’ve become ubiquitous. You’ve never had it so good!  

All kinds of utterances seem to feature you right at the start.  In everyday speech, you seem to be the opener of choice.  Everywhere, it’s ‘so’, ‘so’, ‘so’.  How did you get to be so prominent?  You really know how to get noticed.

A few years ago, it used to be ‘Look’ that opened the batting.  Along with her partner ‘Right’.  Or, ‘Well’.  Or ‘Now, then’ – remember them?  Or even that rather clumsy fellow, ‘Er’.  Not so anymore.  They’ve become also-rans.  It’s all ‘so’ now. 

Yes, you’re everywhere, ‘so’.  In Tweets, on news interviews, in texts.  Always up there at the front of things.  So obvious you can’t be missed.  Sometimes short and punchy; other times drawn out and deliberate. Always there.

So, you see – it’s great to see your confidence, but there was a time when you used to be in the middle of things.  Holding things together rather than striding out in front on your own. 

That said, it’s important to be in the middle of things from time to time, so it is.  True, you were less prominent back then, when ‘Look’ and ‘Right’ were top of the pile.  Your celebrity status was so-so.  (Although I remember you on a Peter Gabriel album when I was at school – that was pretty big). Now, you are at the front of so much. 

Maybe… just a little too much?

Don’t get me wrong – it’s great to lead from the front.  Sometimes.  Maybe not all of the time?  Sometimes it’s good to let others lead every so often.  (Note to self, so help me!). 

Could I be so bold as to offer some advice?  A word of warning?  I wonder whether you might be getting just a little overexposed?  I just worry that, in the not-so-distant future, people will tire of you.    

Insomuch as I’m one to give advice, will you take this in the spirit it’s meant?  Certainly not a matter of urgency: just something to be aware of when you get a moment on your own.

So. Will you give it some thought?  I hope so.  You have so much to offer.  In smaller amounts.

Till we meet again, it’s so long.  (Or, more likely, not so long….)

Leo

PS I realise I’ve used you over 30 times even in this short letter.  So sorry!

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….