Thursday, 20 July 2017

Thank you, and good night ... for now

Those of you who have had to suffer it in previous years will know that my final blog of each year usually sees me in contemplate mood, often bemoaning my own fate, or the state of the world in general.  Although this July finds me equally contemplative, I want to use this space simply to give out some messages of well-wishing, fare well and thanks.

Once again, we have managed to couple a year of some outstanding results – highest ever key stage 2 writing, EYFS, Y1PSC to name a few – with the real nadir of my time at Badock’s which was our November 2016 OfSTED report.  Please don’t think for a heartbeat that I am about to moan on whine in any way, so you might want to continue reading just a moment or two longer.

It would be all too easy to wallow in the pitfalls of what has befallen us.  However, there are a number of mental snapshots I cherish from this year that mean it will still occupy a fond place in my memory.  Our fireworks bonanza, key stage 2’s production of the snow queen, winning the BCC Chess tournament, singing at the Colston Hall,  playing instruments very loudly in the Early years Christingle, the monumental support offered by our community, the endless procession of work and smiles that make each and every day something special, something different.  It most certainly was not all bad.

To the community, it cannot have been easy or pleasant to hear the messages about your school coming out of the OfSTED report, and the subsequent meetings or letters.  However, the unwavering support we received right from the Friday night of publication, and for many weeks beyond, will always stay in my memory.  Furthermore, the support that was then forthcoming through the events that go with such a judgement – TV cameras at the gates, newspaper reports appearing without our comments – was stoically defensive, and meant that it became much easier to continue doing the job we all love.  I hope to bring you better news in times to come, and to share greater successes with you all. 

To our volunteers, including our amazing Buddies of Badocks, never has it been more important to seek support from outside the staffing body.  Thankfully, due to all of your immense efforts, from organising quite wonderful events such as the Summer Party, to our reading buddies who quietly give our children so much time and attention, there are even more things to celebrate in our school.  I hope I have communicated this with you all in various ways, but you are enormously valued and appreciated – thank you so much.

To the governors, who have this year faced more than in possibly any other year of my tenure, we cannot thank you enough for your calm but purposeful leadership of the school, and the way in which you have supported and challenged us all, me especially, to look at things in a different way when required.  Even during last week’s marathon governors’ meeting, I knew that, behind every searching question and every open challenge, the very best interests of the school were quietly lurking, and therefore, in a strange kind of way, I actually enjoyed it.  Nationally, governance in general gets bad press, but, as we have found for a number of years, that is not our experience.  Thank you all, 

To my colleagues, firstly, the fact that we have made it to the end of this year with both improved results and almost negligible absence is a credit to you all.  Secondly, I have never ever questioned you determination and commitment and I think the professionalism I have seen in recent months has been an example for many others.  Please do not think that any of the decisions I have made in recent weeks are a reflection on this, as they most certainly are not.  I would just say that it is my job to make these difficult decisions, and they are all rooted in bringing about the changes we will undoubtedly need in order to bring about the successful outcomes we all crave.  But you can forget about those for a few weeks, whilst you enjoy a thoroughly deserved holiday and break.  Wherever and however you spend your summer, I cannot wish you are more peaceful and enjoyable time if I tried.  You go on your myriad travels with nothing but my most humble respect, and my most sincere thanks.

To those colleagues who are set to leave us, I hope you will look back on your time at Badock’s with enormous fondness, and that we can take pride in but a little part played in your successful journeys from here onwards.  You have all brought so much to the school, and given of yourselves, and I hope our gratitude remains with you until you embark on your next exciting adventure and beyond.

Finally, and the fact that this remains the centre of our world has never once left me, the children.  I have so much to say.  So much in my mind and in my heart that I, for once, am somewhat lost for words.  I guess I just need to say what I need to say, which is:

I am so sorry we were found wanting in November, and I am sorry you had to read and hear bad things about your school.

I am so humbled that you managed this situation with dignity far beyond your years, and have played a full part in making our school better again.

I am so grateful for the work you put into our school every day.

Above all, I am proud to be your Headteacher, and because of you, have managed to enjoy, in my own weird way, the challenges we have faced together in recent months.

And to our year 6 leavers, the young people you have grown into have impressed us all, and we take great delight in enjoying the amazing individuals you have become.  Thank you for the laughs, the jokes, the hugs, and the steely determination to make it all right again.  I wish you nothing but the very, very best in your academic careers going forwards.

You all know how much I love my music and my reading, my poetry and philosophy.  Recently, I was very struck by this quote from one of my favourite philosophers, someone who has been around the block a few times, and, until recently, was almost as grey as me.  This is what he said:

“Winning? Is that what you think it’s about?  I’m not trying to win.  I’m not doing this because I wanna beat someone or because I hate someone, or because I wanna blame someone.  It’s not because it’s fun, and it certainly isn’t easy.  It’s not even because it works because it hardly ever does.

I do what I do because I think it’s right.”

That’s right.  At times like these, turn to Dr Who. 

In conclusion, for another summer at Badock’s – my tenth in fact – I will conclude by using the words of another one of my great philosophers, Australian singer-songwriter Josh Pyke.  If I could wish anything for each of you after this year, it would be this:

If I could bottle up the sea breeze
I would bring it over to your house
And pour it loose through your garden.

With more gratitude than I ever thought I was capable of, I humbly thank you all from the bottom of my heart.  Have the most wonderful, peaceful, restful, joyful summer.  Everyone, breathe, and relax.

Until September, that is all.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Pools of the stuff, flowing merrily

I have been mulling this blog over for a few weeks now, and its subject matter finally struck me on the way to work on Monday morning.  The subsequent events in Manchester on Monday evening have brought it into even sharper relief, and therefore it seems only fitting and natural that I give it a try.

Just a moment on Manchester: naturally, my heartfelt condolences to all those affected, especially parents.  Know this – on Tuesday morning, the parents of Badock’s Wood stood squarely with you.  Let me put it this way – it isn’t every day a Polish father hugs you in the middle of the main road, and although he is an indecently handsome man, thank goodness for that.  The people of your city have shown the world what it is to react in love and compassion, not in hatred and revenge, and for that, you have my undying respect.

On my way to work on Monday, I was, as is often the case, thinking about the day ahead. I got to thinking about my impending assembly, the final one on the topic of perseverance and commitment, and I was struck by the irony of delivering such a topic to a community and a group of people who are already showing almost inexhaustible pools of the stuff

Furthermore, you all know the story by now: we’re having a bit of a year of it, having gone into an OfSTED category and then being hurled into the uncertainty of the forced academies programme.  As a result, you might well expect that it is exactly at times such as this when communities or groups quietly and painfully implode, and struggle to call upon pools of the resources mentioned above.  But do you know what? Not a bit of it.

So, when thinking about “the old p&c” (as no-one calls them, ever) I was struck by how amazing the school has been in these respects lately.  Wouldn’t it be clever if the remainder of this blog were given over to some good examples thereof…?

The staff, despite the challenges thrown their way by recent events, have responded magnificently.  Yes, there have been a few hiccups, a few frank / terse discussions, and a little too much rumour, but over all the staff have been simply superb.  How do we know?  It’s in some of the larger things – i.e. they all keep turning up, no I mean it, really – that then transform into the smaller, almost unseen things, such as the cool collection with which we have just blasé-d our way through a national test window, the way our curriculum is for ever growing, and the way our children are immaculately cared for.  When it comes to perseverance and commitment, and rugged determination, grit and “give it some”, then our staff have demonstrated it in spades, and then some.

The community have continued their unswerving support of the school during this period, and continue to go from strength to strength.  Our friends association, the Buddies, have not only grown in number, but have also diversified their spectrum of activity, and there is now a friendly scrimmage for ice lollies at the end of each Friday as our buddies sell them with the broadest of smiles.  Already massive events are planned for the summer, such as our Fayre (and a massive party – watch this space).  Once again however, it is the unseen, the invisible, but the oh-so important.  The kind words offered to staff in need.  The support on trips and events.  Believe it or not, uniform and attendance are getting better and better.  

Above all, the buzz around the place is just wonderful.

The pay off in all of this is that the quality of the experience improves for children.  But, hey, they’re doing it for themselves anyway.  The sheer determination and passion shown by our children in recent weeks has been humbling, never so more than in SATs week, when we had some of our best attendance for the year to date.  Not only year 6, but also the way year 2 have applied themselves has been astounding.  In all year groups, children are producing work of which they are rightly proud.  But it neither starts nor ends at the classroom door.

It goes so much further, wider and deeper.  Our choir not only blew the school away in assembly a few weeks ago, but also took their place amongst all the other schools at the first major rehearsal this week, having learned a staggering array of complicated and complex songs with ease.  Whilst they have been learning those, the rest of us are mastering Sgt Pepper, in its entirety (no easy feat, as I’m sure you can imagine).  However, we now have year 6 harmonising to She’s Leaving Home with year 1, and almost every child word perfect on Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.

We have continued enjoying a wide range of trips, and reaping the benefits.  However, I’m not telling you that to be smug or owt, I’m telling you because, after one year 5 trip (but also after much of the school had been), we received an email from the hosts saying how stunning our children are, how wonderfully they behaved and how epic are staff are.  Thanks.  We know.  But we do appreciate being told.  Doesn’t sound like a school languishing in the doldrums does it?

On the subject of emails to school, I arrived a few Fridays ago to a beautiful email from a former reading volunteer who had heard one of our children speak at a school funding rally the evening before, and was in awe, as we often our of our friend in year 5, who made the speech everyone is talking about.  As ever, when people seem to be keen on hearing what’s going wrong, stuff is sort of going right, actually, thanks very much.

Far from needing assemblies about perseverance and commitment, people seem to be full of the stuff, and getting on with things quite merrily.  I’ve said it before and, you’ve guessed it, I’m about to say it again: aren’t we lucky?  Aren’t we lucky to work among so much good will, so much determination, so much energy, so much passion, so much ….. just so much?
How lucky am I?

From a proud head’s office, for term 5, that is all.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Til I'm dizzy, time to breathe ...

Time for a little “oxygen” …

For those who’ve been following this drivel long enough, you will all know my devotion to my music.  In times of joy, sadness, discomfort, need – basically, all the time – we can always rely on our musical loves and highlights to carry us through. 

This has been a very difficult, testing time for everyone at Badock’s for all sorts of reasons, and so a brief pause for reflection may be timely.  Whenever a pause is needed, whenever I have needed space, I have almost always retreated to the loving arms of one of my favourite Willy Mason songs (please reread that sentence if you now have Willy Nelson in mind; this is not a blog about On the Road Again) – “Oxygen”.  First introduced to this song during a late night channel surf, it has remained with me throughout as a dark-clouds-descending, pull up the draw bridge theme tune.

At times such as this, some of the lyrics are highly resonant.

“I know the future looks dark …”

Of course, the journey into special measures, the path on which we now find ourselves and our (still dearly beloved) school, is, first and foremost, a journey of great uncertainty.  With our destiny no longer in our hands and the future direction as yet unknown, people are quite rightly somewhat concerned.

Above that, we also find ourselves in the odd position of being unable to make any real tangible decisions.  Countless times in recent weeks have my senior leaders and I been embarked on a discussion about strategy, when we’ve just stopped and commented “Can we even do that?”

What I found most unpleasant has been placed into the utterly ambiguous position of being unable to answer questions.  Not out of rudeness or secrecy, but there have simply been too many things that are happening around us that we are unaware of.  People have been to me with seemingly innocuous questions to which I have had to reply “I’m really sorry, I don’t know”, and it has been difficult to watch trusted and respected colleagues struggling, both with me taking this hitherto unseen course, and to acknowledge that it is true.

Despite all of this, even when the journey seems to be getting ever more bleak, we still have a school functioning, and functioning well.  As you can imagine, we see more than our fair share of visitors over the weeks, and they each report the same things
-       Everyone’s really happy
-       Everyone’s really busy
-       Everyone’s working so hard
So despite all the negative messages we have been made to hear, the bad press (both real and metaphorical) that has been thrown our way, what you would see if you visited is a school still putting children at its very core, still dedicated to the business of learning, progress and care, and a place that’s is still – miraculously – smiling.

“On and on and on it goes
The world it just keeps spinning”

Because that is the crux of it: what astounds me on an almost hourly basis has been the utter stoicism with which the team and the children – indeed, the entire school community – has continued delivering this school year.  The work the children continue to produce is stunning.  It may be easy for me to say, but two separate visitors last week said exactly that, without being prompted.  Our children can discuss how and what they are learning, and why, and take immense pride in showing it off. 

Just this week, years 5 and 6 have both attacked a trial SATs week with incredible determination, have gone through their marked papers with diligence and care, and have taken everything thrown at them.

Our curriculum is still rich in offering children as many experiences as we can.  A few weeks ago, the enchanted forest theatre inspired all our younger children to write amazing fantasy and fairy stories; today, all of our classes are involved in dance; hundreds of our children volunteer to go into choir each week.  Only last week, a string quintet played for year 6, who sat mesmerized and in awe.  Once the final applause had died down, and that took a while, one of our year 6 boys stood, unprompted, and said to the highly professional musicians “I have to say, that was amazing”. 

What you see most is resilience.  How easy would it be for people to crawl under the nearest stone and wait for the storm to pass?  Yet we see none of it.  Our staff are too professional, our children too determined.  People are continuing to make the world keep 

“We can speak louder than ignorance
Cos we speak in silence every time our eyes meet”

What has also struck me enormously at this time is the continued, unreserved support of the community.  People have been relentless in offering their support to the school, the parents’ association has grown and we have more parents attending our various clubs than ever before. 

Furthermore, when times have been bleak, and we have needed to give out harsh messages, the community has not only accepted them, but also reinforced them for us.  After I had been forced to challenge her over attendance, one parent made her negative and, frankly, slanderous feelings known on facebook, and three others joined in.  Normally, I might have been notified of this verbally, but more often no-one would’ve bothered.  This time?  Several people told me before the following school day had even begun, and some took the time to bring in their own devices to show me.  “It’s not good enough, Mr Willis” I was told.  “Our school works too hard for this”.  Fair comment.

In addition to this, we have tried to open channels of communication ever wider.  At a recent parents’ breakfast, those who turned up gave us some amazing ideas for future events and ways to enhance the school curriculum.  Why didn’t we think of that? We were forced to think to ourselves.  After one of my monthly strategic newsletters, a parent came into my office and made me go through each of the key points, probing and asking for more.  How amazing is that?

I still maintain that I never get more “good mornings” than when I am out there each morning in the rain.  I must be one of the few people who views impending rain on the weather forecast as a potentially good thing!

“If I’m afraid to catch a dream
I’ll weave you baskets and then float them down the river stream”

The thing that strikes me the most, however, and strikes me repeatedly, is the remarkable optimism everyone holds.  In the grip of uncertainty and almost unbearable inertia, what I feel and what I am surrounded by is incredible determination.  At more than one governors meeting recently, we have heard the phrase “It’s going to be incredibly exciting”.  Everyone appears to be welcoming the change, the challenge, and the wealth of opportunities this might bring.  Just this morning, a parent came to my office over a couple of things, but ended with the question “Any news yet?”  When I had to (once again) offer no real answer of any satisfaction, she shrugged, and merely commented “We’ll get there, and it can only be better.”

So, why do I love Willy Mason’s song so much?  I’m afraid that I may have been slightly misleading at the outset.  The full lyric reads thus -

“I know the future looks dark
But it’s there that the kids of today must carry the light”

Whenever things seem strange / odd / sad / difficult (please delete as appropriate) at this moment in time, I remember the one basic thing: what I’m in it for.  Why do I still look forward to pulling into the car park every day, why do I still look forward to the first day of each term, why do I still love what I do? The children, and the amazing things we share every day.

As Willy Mason says, things may look bleak right now, but just imagine the possibilities for everyone, especially the kids of today.   At the very heart of darkness, this incredible team is still prepared to carry the light. What an adventure it promises to be.

Enough said?  I think so, yes.

One more thing: thank you everyone.  Once again, Badock’s defies convention and expectation in every possible way.

So, from a little too close to the stereo, that is all. 

Monday, 30 January 2017

A community at its strongest

I have written before about community, and what this means within and around a school.  I imagine that, for many, one definition is around the larger group who not only share in the successes but also pull together at times of difficulty, learning from our collective mistakes and trying to do our best for the most important group within the community: the children.

Our community has been shaken this month by the news no school wants to hear – following our inspection in November last year, we are now in an OfSTED category.  That in itself is bad enough to deal with, but in the current political climate, that brings enormous uncertainty with it, possibly more so than at any other time.

No community needs to be shown how to celebrate its successes; this is something that comes naturally.  I have had several people remind me in recent weeks – from both within our own school community and in other communities I inhabit, such as the headteacher community – that we all have a great number of these successes to our name, and we shouldn’t forget this. So is it not true to say that the real test comes not in how a group deals with success, but in how a community’s collective strength demonstrates itself in times of adversity?

My staff colleagues were immense.  On the morning I broke the news, there was a great deal of anger, plenty of debate and, truth be told, not a little sadness.  However, in amongst all of this was a steely resilience, a determination: we can put this right.  I was repeatedly amazed and humbled by the collective strength of the general “we can do this” ethos, and by the many personal messages I received, in various formats, lending me their unconditional support, and reinforcing what we all know to be true: we need to do this for the children.

At the same moment, the governors received the news.  They too reacted with ire and consternation, and made a comment that has been repeatedly stated in the following weeks: we just don’t recognise our school in the report.  More precisely, they feel that the report ignores the many wonderful things that happen in our school and our community on a daily basis.

Next came the children: yes, I told the children.  I was extremely up front and honest with them, and ensured they were a full part of what was to happen: after all, if we are to engage in the seismic change our visitors demanded, we would need buy-in from absolutely everyone.  Although most children, quite rightly, allowed it to wash over them, year 6 discussed it openly and sensitively, but were equally cross about some of the comments.  “We’ve been here the longest so we know our school” they said.  “And that’s not it” concluded one.

Finally, the parents and the wider community.  This was the one reaction I could not predict, the one group whose response may have been different.  As per usual, I should not have been so concerned, as once again this community, for that is what it is, demonstrated its strength.  On the night we published the report to the parents, a dark, wet January Friday, we received only encouragement, support, and sympathy. 

The comments contained the whole gambit of human emotion:

“You must be gutted”
“That’s not our school”
“We don’t agree”
“You all work too hard for this”.

The following Monday, having had time to read and reflect, I wondered again how the community might feel.  If it had changed in any way, it was how it had become even more supportive.  The entire staff received messages of support and solidarity.  Throughout that week, including the official parents’ meeting, what we heard repeatedly were members of the community stepping forward to make known their support, and their high esteem of the school. 

Therefore, at a time of difficulty and worry, our community has done what it does best, and I don’t know why I am I the slightest bit surprised.  I recall driving home on that Friday evening when the news was out, smiling.  When I should have been on my knees and maybe even out the door, I was left wanting more, as I often do, of being a part of the Badock’s Wood community.

The adversity did not stop there.  During the following week, we got into the mentality of waiting for that day’s big event; nothing happening in school, other than the hard work our children and our staff pride themselves in.  No, we, awaited what the outside world had to throw at us.  Every day, something fairly major leapt up and tried to knock us off our feet.  But nothing succeeded.  When I got the phone call that the press were at our gates, I rushed down there to see what was happening, and heard only parents talking positively and effusively about the school and the community, and how disappointed they all were for the school and for the children.  When the local paper went to press without consulting us, they were quickly bombarded with messages of support from our local community (and some very odd political one-upmanship from members of the wider Bristol community).  Parents and families have flocked to support the whole host of school trips we have been able to arrange for this time of year, and spoke eloquently, knowledgeably and fairly at the parents’ meeting.  Once again, we didn’t shy from adversity, we almost reveled in it.

And throughout this time, I personally and the school as a whole have continued to receive messages of support, solidarity and positivity.  As recently as last week, I saw a very shy parent who I only see when they aren’t on shift work.  We spoke about a whole range of things, this being our first meeting of the year.  Just as she was heading off, her parting shot was “And I read the report – I don’t believe a word of it”.

Throughout all of this month, as the news has spread and settled, the community has been unfaltering in its support, and it’s something we cannot be sufficiently grateful for.  In among all this, please don’t think that we have lost sight of the report and the messages contained therein, far from it.  We are still planning in detail how to bring about some of the improvements needed.  Essential to this process have been invaluable comments and suggestions from our children and from our parent community, another example of how we have all pulled together.

So, we head into the great unknown of what is to come with a great sense of unity, of togetherness, of – it’s not too cheesy to use it here – community.  You may find it ironic, but I am enjoying my role at this moment more than ever, and I know that, as we have done before, we can achieve great things.  And it is not always made this amazing by big, public demonstrations of support – sometimes, it’s in the almost unseen moments.

This morning, the children came into school in the midst of a miserable, mid-Winter mixture of darkness, rain and mist.  As ever, I was out directing traffic in the playground, welcoming the children in, reassuring those more concerned ones that they were not late, we had simply sent them all in.  As my personal thermometer was just reaching freezing and I was seeing the final parents out of the gate, one of them came over to me and leaned in close.  “Do you know something?  It doesn’t matter what’s happening, you are always out here for our children.  We do notice”.  I couldn’t have thanked him more, but then, as part of this amazing community, I knew that it was not needed.  Someone noticed, that’s what’s important.

From a revised view point and a different stance, with a great deal of energy and enthusiasm for the months ahead, if not a little trepidation, that is all.

Friday, 9 December 2016

I remember I remember – the 6th Christmas Blessay

I have little doubt that we will look back upon this year as the time when we had to say some sad and teary farewells to an alarming number of celebrities. I too have had to hold back some tears on certain days, and will expand on just a few of these in the main body of this year’s diatribe.

Not that I am any huge follower of celebrity fads and fashions, as well you know.  Yes, I love my music, and I do worry for the future of TV once Strictly is over and the Bake-Off has packed up and moved, but I have never had a long list of “faves”.  In both my reading and music tastes, I am flighty, I move from topic to topic, author to author, genre to genre, and I delight in the variety.  However, there have been some passing’s this year which have touched very deeply on my conscious, cutting deeply to my precious memory banks, and it is to these which I shall pay some reference. 

However, before we get onto celebrity death, let’s recall that there have been entirely too many non-celebrity deaths this year, and I have been touched by this also – I had been to more funerals before the end of February in this year that I had in total in any other year previously.  Losing two good friends, well within their 60s, put the year into sharp focus, and reluctantly sharing in the anguish of those left behind is something I always find more than a little humbling. 

So, when turning my thoughts to the subject and nature of this year’s blessay, it was an easy choice really.  Some of my other festive blogs have used current events to outline my somewhat tenuous grip on reality, whereas in others I have tried to crowbar in yuletide cheer in any way possible.  This blog, you will be disappointed to hear no less, shall prove no exception.   I’d like to take you on a trip down my own somewhat twisted memory lane, and put a very different spin on how to reflect on this year of celebrity adieus, especially at this time of the year.

Naturally, as you may well be thinking, how on earth will I limit this to just a few, if that’s what I’m going to attempt.  Well, my plan is to talk you through the importance of 4 such people to me and to my background, and to celebrate some of their work, whilst placing it all in the context of the season we find ourselves descending into.

Four deaths from this year have had me looking down the myriad kaleidoscopic lens of my past with greater focus and clarity than usual.  And my point is this: despite the sadness, how much joy is there in the recalling? So, here goes …

I remember, I remember …

As a secondary school student who was still trying to decide what hairstyle I should go for / what musical gang I should join in the playground / how and where to align myself, there were many minefield like conundrums to negotiate.  Music was first and foremost amongst them.  I couldn’t see myself growing my hair and wearing so much black, so being a goth was out.  Equally, I was one of the few teenagers in my school who liked washing, and I didn’t like Iron Maiden, so being one of the rockers was also a no-no.  House music was something I really got into, but being far too young to even consider attending raves or clubs put something of a dampener on it all. 

As I came to slow and sad realisation that I was about to plough my own furrow, I heard another track from Prince.  I had always listened to and been aware of Prince, and had enjoyed sneaking a watch of the Sign of the Times concert video with the older brothers of friends, but I had a secret confession, an admission too grave to voice to this group: I didn’t get it. I had a horrible feeling that although I thought the music of Prince was okay, it was nothing more than okay, and I worried for many nights that I would soon have to file Prince in the same place I still do Bob Dylan and Fraggle Rock – thanks, but I just don’t get it. 
Then, three things happened over the course of a single year which blew my mind, and changed my opinion for ever.

First, on a cold autumnal Saturday whilst I was staying at my Nan’s house for the weekend, I heard a track the like of which I had never heard before.  It ranged from the classical to the balletic, and then had a drum beat most military parades would kill for.  As for the lyrics, they screeched and soared poetically above the music like an eagle.  Only at the very end did the electric guitar arrive, weeping and wailing like it had been shot.  My first ever listen to “I wish U Heaven” by Prince (which, you can guess, I am listening to as I type these words) made me do something I rarely did as a child: I lied to my Nan, and told her I was going round the corner, whereas I actually got the 113 bus to Sutton Coldfield where they had the good record shops, and bought myself my first ever prince single. 

Secondly, I was on holiday in Devon, and was enjoying the last party night in the club house before the interminable trudge back up the M5 to home the following day.  Towards the end of the evening, the cheesy as you can imagine DJ made some joke about “get ready to party like – “ and the rest of the sound fell away from me, as the opening bars of “1999” announced themselves, and the entire room went into some kind of ecstatic trance.  For 4 minutes, the room swayed and bounced as one, and I knew what had been missing from my earliest Prince experiences, leading to my younger confusion. 

Finally, at some point close to or between these two, which I may have recalled in the wrong order if I’m honest, I got to see the man himself.  Only briefly, but I attended a concert with a friend of mine who was disabled, and who was desperate to see him.  However, disabled seats being what they are, we were way too close to the front for my friend to put up with it for any more than a short space of time. 

Still, after several years as a devotee of the Paisley one, it is the slow tracks which mean so much to me.  “Scandalous”, the achingly slow song at the end of Batman, is still for me the best example of a non-Christmas song to employ bells.  “Insatiable” at the late night end of Diamonds and Pearls is the most beautiful song about being part of a couple. 

For me, however, the most poignant song in the whole Prince collection is one about death.  The death of a friend to be more precise, and a tune that, whenever it is selected by the shuffle function on my itunes, forces me to stop and think.   “Sometimes it snows in April” comes from Under the Cherry Moon, and constantly reinforces the unpredictability of life, and all the questions it may raise.  But isn’t that what is it to be human?

Although I was as sad as the next person when I heard the news of Prince’s death, I cannot help but feel a little smug and yet enormously grateful at the fond, fond memories he provided for me through his life and work.  Which continues on and on in our house, with my son and daughter now massive fans of the album that, ironically, contains “I wish U Heaven”. 

I remember, I remember …

I can recall it even now.  Sat there in our lounge, the three of us as ever, watching something my Dad had chosen.  In fairness, that statement isn’t as negative as it sounds, as it was through my Dad that I got the chance to watch a whole host of amazing early 80s TV, such as The Young Ones and Spitting Image.  It was my Dad who got us into watching WWF wrestling long before it ever became well known in this country, and indeed stopped us watching it long before it hit mainstream.  So he was, despite all outward protestations, a fairly decent judge.

However, I had never heard of this woman whose comedy show he wanted us to watch, and so I sat with not a little trepidation that we sat down to watch an hour long show (rare in its own right) by a woman who was married to the Great Suprendo (whatever that meant).
Within 3 minutes, I was hooked.  I couldn’t believe that this wonderful woman could tell these labyrinthine stories and still deliver a killer gag every 20 seconds.  She could take on characters, she could improvise, she spoke both to the audience and to herself, and she could play the piano. 

Those of you of a certain age may recognise that I am going on about the first ever viewing of “An Audience with Victoria Wood”. It was December 10th 1988 since you asked.   I can recall even now sitting spellbound, unconsciously leaning into the TV to drink in more and more of what this woman was saying.  Those of you who do recall it will of course recall the now-famous song with which she finished the show, and which has gone on to become possibly her finest single individual moment.

However, my relationship with Victoria Wood did not end there.  A good few years later I was a student who was delighted to hear about a new Victoria Wood show about to hit our screens, called “Dinnerladies”.  Once again, I was spellbound by a piece of sheer theatre that was quite unlike anything I had ever seen or experienced before. 

Full of characters you identified with and cared for, with 1000 story lines being played out separately but oh-so-intricately all at once, this was a show that went from strength to strength.  Let us not forget that it also boasted more than a few quite exceptional and heart-breaking / warming Christmas editions, and script writing to die for. 

The news of her death in April brought so many of us immeasurably sadness, but goodness me, weren’t we lucky to have had so much to smile about in our lives, thanks to a woman who defied all odds and almost incurable crippling shyness to become one of the best comedy writers our country has ever produced.

I remember, I remember …

My mum and dad preparing to go to one of my junior football Christmas doos on a Friday night.  You knew it was a dressing up affair because my Mum’s mirror and all her hair stuff came out onto the dining table in our little haven of a flat.  Tea was a chip shop affair (get in!). Taxis were booked and timings made explicit.

Thankfully, I was now beyond the age of a babysitter, so instead of this interminable torture, my mate Neil came around with some videos from his Dad’s shop (which I would go on to work in the following year).  We also had, if memory serves, an industrial bucket of crisps and a couple of cans of shandy.  Surely, that is what is meant by hedonism?

The first video was a trashy horror / sci-fi affair; never completely my style, but it had that geezer from Twin Peaks that everyone was talking about at the time, so all was well. We ploughed through this film and the vast majority of the crisps, with much giggling and hilarity. 

The second video, cracking into the shandy, was a very different affair.  I’d heard of it and seen the posters, but apart from that I had little experience of it.  For twenty minutes or so, we watched Bruce Willis (no relation, no honestly) look all forlorn and hurt as he was spurned at Christmas by his uber-80s missus.  I was getting, truth to tell, just a little bored.

Then the bad guy came on screen, dressed in a Calvin Klein suit and with a beard to die for.  I was suddenly strangely gripped, mesmerised and, if I’m honest, scared as this villain became more and more menacing.  For two hours we were hooked, until, oh-so-inevitably, the bad guy won and the villain perished. 

I was even more amazed when I read the credits to discover that this German bank robber was in fact English. 

Of course, the film was Die Hard, and the actor Alan Rickman.

It was not long after this that I was being unutterably bored by Robin Hood Prince of Thieves when who should pop up as the villain but – yep, you’ve remembered – Alan Rickman, once again acting the Hollywood superstars (including the usually ever dependable Morgan Freeman) off the screen.  Once again I felt humbled at an amazing performance, and not a little pride at the work of this English man.

My wife and I watched the first Harry Potter together when she was heavily pregnant with our oldest son, on the Christmas day prior to his lengthy birth, and will always be a special moment in our family history.

Many years later, as a father whose children still adore the Harry Potter films even now, the sad news of Alan Rickman’s death earlier this year caused sadness to our entire house, and the first three HP films to be watched almost relentlessly for a good month.  I am forced to say, I did not begrudge them a moment. Once again, I was left saddened but openly thankful that we had had something this good in our lives.

I remember, I remember …

Early this year, when the mornings were still opaquely dark, I got into my car to make my journey to work, catching as I did the end of some piece of cheesy musack for which Radio 2 gets a bad reputation.  At the end of the track, the radio plunged into a silence that lasted probably only 5 seconds, but it felt closer to 3 years.  I was imagining something between the death of the Queen and the detonation of something nuclear.  When the silence was broken, the news was different, but no less sad.

“Apologies listeners, but we are hearing breaking news stories that David Bowie has died”.

The rest of the journey was characterised by numbness and disbelief.  Bowie? Dead? Surely the (insert one of his many nicknames here) was immortal, and would outlast us all, bringing out a brand new album once a decade for time eternal?

It would appear not.  The news of David Bowie’s death hit everyone in ways we could not have fathomed.  In our playground, I had some of the deepest and most meaningful conversations I have had with our school community, and the staff split into two broad groups – those who were experiencing him for the first time now, and those who had known and loved him for years.  I fell into the latter category, for a whole host of reasons.

I remember the amazement with which I gawped at the TV the first time I saw the video for “Starman”.  Too young to have seen it on first airing in 1972, I was watching it on one of the various music programmes I would have had available around a decade later.  I recall even now being star struck (pardon the pun) at this incredulous performance, made by a man (I think?) who hugged and teased his group whilst they sang the most wonderful song.  “Let all the children boogie” is still one of my son’s best catchphrases.

Soon after this, I remember seeing the video for “Ashes to Ashes” and cheering and whooping with joy.  As a devotee of Adam and the Ants, I always thought that more men should be dressed as French Mime Artist dolls, especially at the time of a cliff side apocalypse. All joking aside, once again I was simply blown away by a song that was utterly unlike anything else I had ever heard, and I love it still to this day.

I remember, a couple of years later (I think it must have been around the time of Live Aid, so 1985), the spine tingle I felt when my dad played me the song “Life on Mars”.  I didn’t know whether to clap, cry or hide, but I knew I wanted more. Of course, with the advent of the internet, I can now watch the haunting video at the click of a few buttons, but it haunts me still, even at my ripening age. 

I remember getting a bootleg copy of Black Tie White Noise long before anyone else, on something called a cassette.  It did not matter to me that, two months later, Black Tie White Noise came out to very tepid reviews, most people not liking it.  Didn’t bother me, I still love it, probably for that reason, although I‘ve no idea whatever happened to the cassette.

I remember, I remember…that’s the whole point.  I could give you a thousand memories that concern Bowie and his work that put me in a thousand different places at a thousand different times in my life.  When I first heard Hunky Dory all the way through, when I got my first copy of Ziggy Stardust, listening over and over to a latter day cover version of “Ashes to Ashes”, watching him perform with Arcade Fire, being the only kid in my year to have watched Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence all the way to the end, the list goes on.    I could also tell you about the Christmas Eve when Labyrinth premiered, and I was utterly petrified.  (In fairness, this came hot on the heels of the Never Ending Story, so having failed to keep it together when that wolf-thingy leapt out at the end, I was never going to manage a baby snatching pixie king in tights, was I?).

And that is the point of this blog.  Although we may feel sad at the untimely, often altogether too early passing of celebrities and those dear to us, what more joy is there to be had in the remembering?  If it is simply human to be sad, how humanely simple is it to recall, and to take joy in our reminiscing?  Yes, 2016 will probably live in our memories as a time of sadness, but I feel it should be looked upon as a bridge to a wonderful cache of memories for us all to share and delight in. 

After all, isn’t that what makes this time of year special for us all?  If we didn’t have such amazing memories of Christmas and of this period, why would we look forward to it pretty much from the end of summer? Surely, if we didn’t have such a close memory connection to this festival, then the shops would be spending thousands on advertising and decorations for, well, pretty much for nothing.

I know full well that the reverse is also true. There are people for whom this is not a wonderful time of year, and that is because it is generally connected with exactly the kinds of memories people don’t want: bereavement, separation, loss and need.  Please don’t think that anything else I go on to say will belittle the angst some people must sadly feel at this time.  To these individuals, as ever, go my deepest and most heartfelt wishes, and a hope that one day this will change. 

Also, I know there have been other deaths – celebrity and non – that have meant so much to people this year.  The first Children in Need without Wogan was a little poignant for us all.  Again, please don’t feel that I am making one seem more important than the other – how could I?  Whilst I have been writing this torture, the sad news of the death of Greg Lake has been announced – it is solely down to him that I truly, truly do believe in Father Christmas.

However, for anyone like myself who takes great joy in this time of year (and I know my colleagues will find that difficult to believe, but it is true) it is our wealth of memories that connect us and what make us start smiling in anticipation the first time you hear a vaguely festive tune as the backdrop to an advert, generally mid-October.

And where does one start? I remember, I remember …
My first record player
Playing Santa in a school production of Rudolph The RNR
My millennium falcon
Forever waiting for aunt, uncle and two cousins to arrive for dinner
Morecombe and Wise
The start of my book collection
Coins from a pudding
Hating the Pogues when I first heard it
My first Christmas as a husband, as an expectant father, and then as a father
The Two Ronnies
Refusing to wear paper crowns from a cracker

Even now, Christmases still hark back to the echoes of generations and yuletides past.  I still, to this day, receive a huge box of After Eights from my mum which generally doesn’t see Boxing Day evening (and a card from my Aunt with my name spelt incorrectly).  I still giggle when my children return home with their costume requests for their production, which invariably contains the words “party clothes”.  I am still forced to ask: Why one earth do people drink sherry at any other time of year?  And, yes, I still refuse to wear paper crowns from crackers. 

Our memories define us.  They shape and style us.  Like everyone, I have memories that make me sad, and, indeed, some I would sooner forget.  But my festive trove of memories from this time of the year are as precious to me as any trinket or bauble I shall ever possess.

And now, as I get older, and trust me this year I am feeling it more than any other, I find myself trying more and more to be the maker of memories, wishing beyond hope that my children will, in 20 years or so, bore their friends or any other audience with tales of how magnificent are their memories of Christmases past, and how their parents provided them with a host of wonderful times.  If I can achieve that, what a lucky man I am.  I hope to make the graceful and splendid move one day from I remember, I remember to I shall never ever forget ….

Thank you, if you’ve got this far, for making it all the way to the end of what will probably be my last Christmas blessay; they have run their course, and times are, I am always pleased to say, a-changing.  To you all, may I wish you peace, serenity and joy at this time of year, whatever your faith or persuasion.  If this is not your time of year, then I wish you contentment and peace, and a swift resolution to whatever it is that ails you. 

Above all, I hope that you find yourself sometime in 2017 (even saying it makes it sound all spacey!) with a newly replenished and enlarged collection of memories to make you an even more wonderful you.  Merry Christmas to each and every one of you, and the most prosperous of new years to us all.

For this year, and this part of the journey, that is all.