Tuesday, 31 May 2016

I've had the Time of my Life

This is an edited version of my address to the Class of 2016 at Kirkham Grammar School Sixth Form, delivered at their Leavers' Assembly on May 25th 2016. Some students asked if they could see it, so I am happy to oblige. If you're not from KGS, it's probably not very interesting, but if you want to read on, it's basically some reflections on leaving school at 18. And because I try to give all my blog posts a song title for their name, it has to be I've had the time of my Life because that's what I hope people feel as they leave school. I have removed names of pupils on this version for public reading.

So here we go..

If today has a hashtag, then surely it has to be #endofanera. I find hashtags strangely attractive, especially when small words stuck together look as if they might be another real word, looking like something from another another language: #endofanera.  If you’re a Twitter user, do a search and you’ll find that particular hashtag is very popular: I looked it up this week and saw tweets about schools’ leavers’ days, university graduations, retirements, old buildings closing down and much more besides. We are all over-fond of that cliché, probably because we like to impose patterns on time and events, retrospectively more often than not, to make more sense of our lives as they unfold. Nobody ever talks of the start of an era, because we don’t know it’s an era until it has ended, normally after a long time. I certainly didn’t know, when I walked into Kirkham Grammar School in May 1981 that it was the start of an era. I am managing to blur the end of my era by stepping down gradually, but as this is my 25th and final Leavers’ Assembly, this is for me an era coming to an end.

But the real end of an era today is yours: you don’t realise what the era known as schooldays means to you until you are about to leave, and then suddenly you’re standing there facing the rest of your life, finding that seven years or more (or perhaps fewer if you have moved school along the way) have flown by without your ever realising that what you are watching is your youth flying by. Today really is all about the end of an era for you.

You are the 35th generation of 6th Formers to whom I have said farewell and the 25th as Head of Sixth Form. Every year I stand up and talk about another era in the life of the school, or rather in the lives of a group of students within it, coming to an end. But this year is a bit special, and a bit different. You are leaving school at the end of two, four, five, six, seven, maybe up to fourteen years at KGS, but among the teachers gathered here today are some long-serving teachers all of whom leave with you. More will be said and written about them in due course, but please take a moment to join with me in wishing those stalwarts of KGS all the best in their future lives -  and for most of them, that is a life of retirement after long and dedicated service to KGS.

But the real end of an era is, indeed, yours. Some of you are the last child of a family whose association with the school goes a long way back: a quick glance down the list reminds me that nine of you are the younger or youngest of families who have associations with KGS dating back many years, and so for these and their families, the sense of end of an era is even more tangible. And of course there are four in your number whose parents I, and other teachers, taught here at KGS.

It all starts to make me feel old. But when you leave school, when your era ends, you are immediately condemned to reminisce in future years about “good old days” at school. You’ll get misty eyed about the smelly changing rooms from your 1st year, cross country runs, CCF overnights hockey tours and lessons. Sadly, when people reminisce, they tend to remember the awful lessons and the awful teachers – there’s more potential for laughs there. Maybe you’ll even talk about the good old days of AS modules. Maybe you’ll all meet in forty years’ time and try to remember the name of that Headmaster who disappeared halfway through your Sixth Form. But whatever it’s about, you’ll be reminiscing like old age pensioners before you know it. You’ll probably be doing it this afternoon.

But reminiscing is rightly what today is all about, and it’s why we as a school like to make a bit of a fuss of our Sixth Form Leavers as we send them on their way into the world. As I stand up every year to speak to the Leavers, there is always something different, unique, and worthy of celebration about those sitting in front of me. I have never made any secret of the fact that you as a year group mean a lot to me. I have already shared this with some of you, but I can honestly say that when you were in the Second Year, and I was teaching a good many of you for either French or German, I did a quick mental calculation and worked out that I would be reaching my planned retirement age at around the time that you reached the Upper Sixth. I wanted to step down as the first and so far only Head of Sixth Form after a nice round number of years – 25 –  with the Sixth Form as good and as big as it’s ever been, and that is what I am doing this year. And it’s not just me who rates you as a very special year group.

I was chatting to Mrs Parkinson recently, and she told me that she had to do her trial lesson when applying for the Deputy Head job back in 2010 with a group of you, as First Years. She much enjoyed the lesson, got the job, and has always had a soft spot for you since then. And I have always rated you highly as a year group: not just because you were a more than decent set of students when I taught you for French or German, but because you collectively have always seemed to me to “get” what is good about a school like this. Basically, you look as if you enjoy it. Probably my favourite memory of your year will be when Ben hid in a cupboard, inspired by a funny story I had told about my own schooldays, and unfortunately I was delayed on the way to the lesson and in came a rather angry Mr Watson. You can imagine what happened next. Ben, I’ve felt guilty ever since and I’d like to make a public apology….

I bet right now you are all thinking about funny things that have happened, and how much has changed in your lives, and in this school, in your few years here. But more important than what has changed is what has stayed the same. And that, as we are so fond of saying, is far less tangible. It’s about values, an atmosphere, which can be greatly enhanced by buildings and facilities, but in the end rely on the accumulated wisdom of 460 odd years.

And you embody those values as well as any group has done. What defines the quality of you as a year group, like so many before you at KGS, is the way in which, probably without even knowing it, you have absorbed and exemplified the values of the school, whether you have been here for one year, two years, four years, seven years or, in the case of quite a few of you, fourteen years.

For a start you have welcomed and integrated newcomers into your friendship groups, at every stage of your seven years here. That’s the so-called one family ethos in action. It is easy to forget when I pass through the Common Room that people who joined just for Sixth Form have only been here two years – they always seem so much at the heart of things. And then I remember that about 25 individuals who have not been here since the First Year – that’s not far off a quarter of the Year group!

So whether you’ve been here for fourteen years, seven two, or even just one, you are to KGS the Class of 2016, and it is always a pleasure today to see this group of people sitting here for one last time as a group, on the verge of success at A-Level and beyond. To use a somewhat psychobabble term, there’s a real sense that you have been on a “journey” through school, and it is often the most difficult journeys that give greatest satisfaction on their completion.

But if you were in the First Year back in ’09 -’10, do stop for a minute and think about how much the school has changed in that time. You are one of the last groups to still remember the old gym and the smelly changing rooms. It is so appropriate that your year group has seen the opening of the new music facilities during your time in school, given that among your number are so many talented and dedicated musicians. And in saying that, I cannot avoid lapsing into what sounds like a string of clichés from a school press release when I refer to the incredible diversity of talent in this year group. There is something very right about a leaving cohort which contains not only all that star quality musicianship, but also NODA winning actors, award-winning CCF NCO’s, DoE medallists, a hockey team who were a match for anyone including Millfield and of course an unbeaten First Fifteen. That owes much, of course, to the talent of those of you involved in those activities, but a good deal also to the school which fosters, promotes and encourages that talent. I would contend that if you are involved in any one of those successful activities it will, over a lifetime, benefit you as much and arguably more than the A-Level results that you will achieve over the coming few weeks. That, dare I say, is what your families pay for.

So today - or the day when you finally complete your A2 exams - really is the end of an era. School, especially a traditional 11-18 school like this one, stretches quite literally from childhood to adulthood, and it is the pleasure and privilege of those of us who work in schools like this to accompany you on all or part of that journey. When you leave, many of you will leave behind a real hole in a subject, an activity or a team: the Music Department will greatly miss about a dozen of you of you, as will the Drama. As always, there will be some very difficult boots to fill on the sports field. You are certainly a year group who have done the school motto proud in its truest and fullest interpretation: you have entered, you have profited - but so have we. Remember this as you go through university and life beyond: If you set out to put in more than you get out, you will end up taking out far more than you put in. Through my work with the Old Kirkhamians, I often meet with people of all ages who have been educated here, and it is humbling how often they attribute their success to values, knowledge and skills learned in their teens at KGS. Most recently, I talking to Ranvir Singh, arguably our most recognisable former pupil, who willingly and publically assigns much of what she has achieved in TV journalism to her time at KGS. Ranvir was sitting in those same seats as you are in this very Hall 21 years ago with an ambition to be a TV newsreader. She, like many, is a “true Kirkhamian”, and this Hall is full of such people. You are a Kirkhamian for life, and as a reminder of this, on your way out today you will all receive an OKA pin badge. Please wear it with pride – why not start by wearing it for your A-Levels as a good luck charm?


You have been lucky enough, thanks mainly to the generosity of your families and others, to attend a very special school. I do hope that you have enjoyed it as much as we have, and that you will look back fondly on this day and all your school days, and realise that they really are some of the best days of your life.

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Hi-Ho Silver Lining

Like an essay handed in at the last minute, here is my offering for #DBlogWeek.

It's been a busy week for me at work and at home, so not much time for blogging, but having been invited to a conference in Stockholm for diabetic bloggers, I would feel bad if I let the week designated for DBloggers pass by unmarked by me.

So here are a few, not very original, thoughts arising from my unexpected invitation from Abbott to a be part of a gathering of bloggers from across Europe in Sweden's Summer Night City at the start of June.

I put out a tweet this past week saying that the #GBDOC was "the silver lining of the cloud of diabetes". Unsurprisingly it got some likes and approving comments, which is hardly remarkable - flattery will get you anywhere!

But I do mean it. For about 16 of my 18 years with diabetes, my attitude to the condition was one of "just get on with it". I couldn't be bothered with it, to be honest, and so just did what was necessary to stay well and enable me to live my life much as I always had done. I was pretty successful in so doing, and therefore had no want or need for much support from others. I certainly wasn't very interested in talking about it and had no particular interest in meeting others with the condition.

Nobody, therefore, is more surprised than me to find myself now so involved in the wonderful online-based but very real world of the #GBDOC. Like most of its users, I am unclear how or even when I started to get involved, but I know that I am now a fairly prominent presence in a community of people united by their affliction with an ever-present, incurable, but ultimately manageable condition.

Through this community, I know that at almost any time of day or night, I can say something on Twitter and someone, somewhere will respond in a friendly and positive manner. And if I, or anybody else, tweets anything that remotely suggests unhappiness, discomfort or difficulty, it is certain that others will be quick to offer help, support, advice and good humour - and in saying that, I hope that I am as much a provider of that support as a recipient of it.

This, then, is indeed the silver lining to the cloud that threatens to block out the sun from our lives. I cannot now imagine life without such easy access to friendship and support, and I regard the #GBDOC as a great vindication of the often-maligned online world, in that those I have got to know through the filter of social media have invariably turned out to be just the same in real life as they are online. Many of us have met up in real life, notably at two successful national meet-ups of the #GBDOC, and of course in a couple of weeks' time I will be joining some whom I already know and others whom I don't at a European bloggers' event.

It is truly remarkable where diabetes and Twitter have taken me, and I cannot help but smile when I think that just because I chose to associate with a few fellow sufferers from diabetes, and to sing the praises of a new glucose monitoring device - the FreeStyleLibre - I am about to be flown to a country I have never visited before to meet with people I don't know, or I haven't known for long, to spend a couple of days talking about a condition that I spent sixteen years trying to ignore. 

Such are the serendipitous, and sometimes welcome, twists and turns of life, even at the age of nearly 60. Thanks to diabetes and the #GBDOC, my horizons have broadened, and I have new friends of all ages at a time in life when often the number of friends and contacts tends if anything to decrease. And all because I suffer from an annoying, very dangerous, ever-present and incurable medical condition. For me at least, the cloud of diabetes does indeed have a silver lining for which I am humbly grateful. Hi-ho, Silver Lining !

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Thank You for the Music - and the lyrics

With a surprise visit to Sweden coming up at the start of June, thanks to my well-documented affinity with the FreestyleLibre and those good people at Abbott, I have suddenly found myself wanting to be immersed once again in the wonderful music of Agnetha, Benny, Bjorn and Anna-Frid, collectively known to the world as Abba. I know that there's much more to Sweden than Abba, but let's face it, for most of us, Sweden is about Abba, Volvo, Ikea and, erm....

So as soon as I heard I was going to Stockholm, their Summer Night City, those songs flooded my brain as they do every so often and out came my Abba Gold and More Abba Gold CDs.


I have watched with amusement over the past twenty years or so as the rest of the world has decided that Abba are indeed very talented and cool. I always thought they were, unlike the Johnny-come-Latelies who have reassessed their work and its enduring appeal and influence. I was an Abba fan right from the start, and especially all the way through university in the late 70's, while my friends were more into punk, new wave, and disco. I loved all that stuff too, but I always said that Abba would survive and prosper long after their extravagant clothing had faded into the realms of  ridicule or ironic nostalgia. I well remember telling a group of friends at university that Thank You for the Music was what our generation would be singing along to in an old folks' home when we had all gone ga-ga. How right I was. And how pleasing it is for people of my generation to see my own children and the young people I teach discover Abba's wonderful musical legacy. It's very hard nowadays to find anyone who doesn't like Abba.

Now of course it's about the music in most respects. Benny and Bjorn are peerless tunesmiths, be it in the exuberance of Dancing Queen, Gimme Gimme Gimme, and Mamma Mia or the melancholy of The Winner Takes it all, Knowing Me Knowing You and One of Us. Moreover the arrangements, instrumentation and production are also touched by genius. Just imagine Dancing Queen without those descending piano chords, or Chiquitita without the guitar introduction. Imagine Voulez-Vous without the chords that lead into the verse, or Super Trouper without that piano-backed middle eight. Imagine The Day Before you came without those synthesised little twirls or Mamma Mia without the crash crash of cymbals that accompanies the "Just one look" line. I could go on. Those guys certainly know how to write, harmonise and arrange a good melody, and their ability to create a whole song from one simple melody is at times awesome. The Winner Takes it All is not only a lyrically devastating song, but musically it is so very simple: it's actually just two melodic phrases, repeated.

However, I think we can all too easily overlook the words. Considering they were penned by two men for whom English is not even their mother tongue, the lyrics of Benny and Bjorn demonstrate a mastery of our language which puts the rest of us to shame. The searingly honest account of a broken relationship as told in Knowing Me, Knowing You, or The Winner Takes it All is genuinely heartbreaking, while if anyone ever lays bare the pains of parenthood better than is done in Slipping Through My Fingers, I wouldn't want to hear it. I defy any parent of older children to listen to that and not shed a tear.

So how come a couple of Swedish folk singers (for that is what they were long before the platform heels and outrageous flares took over) became such masters of our subtle and nuanced language? Well they don't always get it quite right: there's a clear error, for example, in Fernando, where "since many years I haven't seen a rifle in your hand" should surely be "for many years..." not "since many years..". And in I have a Dream, their Germanic languistic roots are showing in "And my destination makes it worth THE while/pushing through the darkness STILL another mile". But almost everywhere else, they nail it as well as, if not better than, most English-speaking lyricists, and I have only recently started fully to appreciate why this is.

Basically, it's because they are uninhibited by the clichés and conventions of English, and therefore dare to do things that a native speaker would find too embarrassing or too banal. Wherever you look in the lyrics of Abba, you'll find turns of phrase which a native speaker just wouldn't dream of using as a lyric. And because we are not used to that kind of language in a song, the banal suddenly becomes unusual and therefore powerful. Try this for an example, from Waterloo:

"...and I have met my destiny in quite a similar way.."

I very much doubt that the phrase "in quite a similar way" has ever been used in lyric poetry before or since. Abba's songs are full of phrases which, when detached from the context in which they have become so familiar, sound like they have no right being in a song. Try this from the wonderful narrative that is The Day before you Came:

" and having gotten through the editorial no doubt I must have frowned"

or this from that same song:

"And stopped along the way to buy some Chinese food to go
I'm sure I had my dinner watching something on TV
There's not, I think, a single episode of Dallas that I didn't see
I must have gone to bed around a quarter after ten
I need a lot of sleep, and so I like to be in bed by then
I must have read a while
The latest one by Marilyn French or something in that style"

That song is actually full of the most outrageously prosaic lyrics - but isn't that the whole point of that sadly under-rated song? And while you're at it watch the video - how dark and Scandinavian is that?

Or how about this for an opening line of Super Trouper:

"I was sick and tired of everything
When I called you last night from Glasgow"

What a line, but who else would have dared write it? Very few English songwriters produce stuff like that, preferring to express emotions with clichés and words from the stock lexicon of love. Of course a few do: The Beatles did on occasions, with the sometimes derided Paul McCartney in particular responsible for touching sublime heights with the most banal of language. Think "Father McKenzie, writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear" in Eleanor Rigby, or the whole of She's Leaving Home. Some of McCartney's solo stuff has also hit the same spot, but he's often been ridiculed for it. Another Day is a good example. Another band who had the knack of making silk purse lyrics out of sow's ear words was that popular 70s art-rock band 10cc: think anything on The Original Soundtrack or How Dare you?

However, in the case of Abba, it's not just about daring to use banal language; sometimes it's quite the opposite. Interestingly, I've heard it suggested that Abba's unfamiliarity with English led them to come up with turns of phrase that an anglophone writer would be scared to use. What English writer would dare, even in the 1970s, to come up with the lines:

"See that girl, watch that scene, digging the Dancing Queen"

"Digging"???  An expression that was perhaps cool and trendy for a few weeks in 1967, but does anyone use that word without irony? It obviously stuck in the minds of two young Swedes...and where would Dancing Queen be without those lines? It's all part of its enduringly camp, "so bad its good" appeal.

Elsewhere, just by using "Eurotrash" words and names they developed a pan-European appeal with titles like Mamma Mia, Voulez-Vous, Chiquitita, Hasta Manana and Fernando. All instantly memorable hooks which are foreign intruders in English lyrics. The Euro-connection leads me to another thought. I'm pretty sure that in other languages, notably French, some of the features I have identified in Abba lyrics are also there. I would quote as evidence the incomparable Armenian-French nonegenarian Charles Aznavour, writer and performer of some memorable chansons in which the banal and the sublime pop up to devastating effect. His work must wait for another blog post, but if you're curious, try this wonderful tale of an old flame rekindled. Sorry if you don't know French:-

"Non, je n'ai rien oublié"


Or try this tale of a romantic evening gone wrong..

"Bon Anniversaire"

But back to Abba. We must also not overlook the many times when there are no linguistic oddities, no banalities, but just astonishingly powerful lyrical expressiveness. Take this from The Winner Takes it All:

"The Gods may throw a dice
Their minds as cold as ice
And someone way down here
Loses someone dear"

Those lines are conceptually straight out of classical tragedy, but then in the next verse the same idea comes crashing into the modern world of the divorce court:

"The judges will decide
The likes of me abide"

And don't forget that those extraordinarily personal and poignant lyrics were written by two men to be sung by the two women from whom they were going through a messy divorce. The most public group therapy ever?

So there you have it. Musical and lyrical genius in my humble opinion. A band who could have drifted into a category marked 70's nostalgia, but have become an enduring global brand. I'm pretty sure people will still be listening to Abba years from now, long after they, and I, have gone. What intrigues me about Abba is that the more times I listen to their songs, the more I like and appreciate them. There are not many artists of whom I can say that: possibly just David Bowie and the Beatles. I rest my case.

PS Take time to watch some of the Abba videos. They, too are iconically wonderful. Click the link on any of the songs mentioned.