16 August, 2012

"A good teacher is like a candle - it consumes itself to light the way for others." (anon)

The Wilford Hill Crematorium Chapel here in Nottingham was filled to overflowing – standing room only.The Order of Service had it just right – “a service of celebration & thanksgiving” it said. And so it was.  Everyone there to remember, celebrate and give thanks for the life of David Towne who died a week or so ago. Family, old friends, colleagues, past pupils and parents, golfing associates and many others came to reflect upon David’s life and work. The occasion was, of course, sad but at the same time quietly uplifting – everyone squashed into the chapel knew that they had been very lucky to have been part of David’s life because as a result of that involvement their own life had been hugely enriched by that association.

David Towne was my mentor, colleague and friend for over forty years, a tall; imposing man with huge dignity, humanity, gentleness and humour I first met him when, I was a newly qualified teacher and he walked into my classroom a few weeks after the school term had begun. It was the end of the day – the children gone and he had come to the school to pick up his wife, Mary, who was also a teacher at the school where I worked. David was at that time a successful deputy head teacher and looking for his first headship. He introduced himself and we shook hands – me, a little in awe of a “deputy head”. We soon discovered that we had some small connections – although we were now in Nottingham we had both been born in quite humble circumstances within a few miles of each other in Lancashire – me in Preston and he in Fleetwood. We knew many of the same places from our youth – we reminisced, I remember, of Knott End (near Fleetwood) fish and chip shop – surely, we agreed, the best fish and chip shop in the world. We also discovered, as we talked in my classroom, that we had a mutual acquaintance Les Levett – a chap I had been at Blackpool Technical College with and who David had taught at Fleetwood Grammar School some years prior to that. And, now, in recent months, almost half a century after that first conversation, as I have sat chatting with David he would occasionally say "How's that young Levett boy these days? (forgetting that "young Levett" is now a retired man and granddad!) - David might have had a failing memory but he didn't forget important things like the children he had taught!

Over the next few months after that first meeting we would occasionally meet again – Pat and I sometimes babysitting for David and Mary’s two sons Stephen and Greg. This was a big treat for Pat and I – we had just got our first mortgage and had little money. Whenever we went to baby sit it was a pleasure to sit in a comfortable chair, to watch a TV and to walk on carpets! – all things that we were still struggling to afford. Mary also always left us a hearty supper – and then David would take us home in his car, again another treat! It was a real night out for us in our straitened circumstances!

And over the months I met David professionally, usually at the side of a football pitch or swimming pool. We would each be taking children from our respective schools to play football or swim and we would chat as we watched. At one of these matches, one Saturday morning  David casually mentioned that he had a job going at the school which he was by then Head Teacher of – Lady Bay Junior in West Bridgford. He was looking for a young teacher who would do, amongst other things, PE and games throughout the school. During the morning he mentioned it two or three times and when I got home that lunchtime I said to Pat I wonder if I could apply? It was a promotion and although I was still very inexperienced would have meant a much needed pay increase for me, but the prospect of getting on the promotion ladder was also important. In the end, I walked to the phone box down the road (no mobile and we didn't have a phone in our house then!) and rang David.........”Would there be any point in me applying for the job?” I hesitantly asked. There was silence on the other end of the phone and then “That was why I was dropping you the hint you silly ****** . I want you on my staff!”

And so a  month or two later I was working for him at Lady Bay. I stayed for almost three years and then with his help gained further promotion. Those three years were the major formative influences of my career.  Later I worked for him as his deputy when he was Head Teacher at Abbey Road School – at that time one of the premier primary schools in Nottinghamshire. In those years I learned not only to become a better teacher but also about the professionalism of the role, how to deal and work  with parents, how to encourage and ensure work of the highest quality from the children, how to become a senior member of staff and lead others, how to talk to children and not at them, how to inspire children, how to deal with difficult situations, how to manage difficult children and retain their respect, how to be friends with children and yet retain the important teacher/pupil relationship..... and so it went on. David Towne gave me a professional compass and for the next forty years of my work in schools I can say with absolute honesty that not a week went by throughout my career when I did not, at some point, think to myself when a problem or opportunity arose in my class or school “What would David Towne do in this situation? 

I was not alone in this – the chapel was filled with old colleagues. Before the service I spotted a face from the past - Mark Morgan. Mark had been the Area Education Officer throughout these years and responsible for all the schools in the area. Now an old man, having great difficulty seeing, he came to pay his respects. We chatted for a few minutes. “You were lucky” he said to me “to work for David Towne. The finest head the Rushcliffe area  ever had. Totally honest and professional. He made my job easy”.  

Over the years our paths have crossed and re-crossed.  When our daughter Kate was born – David was one of the god parents and we always knew that a few days before her birthday each year David would arrive with a card and gift – never forgetting. That was the man he was – reliable, committed, always anxious to “do it right”. For a good number of years we together organised and ran the Rushcliffe  area swimming galas for primary school children and after each gala would enjoy a beer in a local pub. When David retired I attended his retirement “do” at Abbey Road together with many other friends and colleagues from Nottinghamshire. A few years ago Pat and I and Kate attended David & Mary’s Golden Wedding celebration and last year we were honoured and delighted to attend his 80th birthday celebration.

David was a Lancastrian. Like me, he still had a little Lancastrian “twang” in his voice even though he left Lancashire for Nottingham half a century ago. He was proud of his humble origins and of his family background. Like me, he still retained an affection for the place where he was born - he quietly followed the results of the local football team Fleetwood Town and was proud of a framed page from a newspaper report that hung in his kitchen and which described a recent good run in the FA Cup by "the Cod Army" as Fleetwood Town are jokingly referred to. I have a  similar sort of thing about my team, Preston North End, in my office. As we talked over a cup of tea in recent months we would often remember together places we had known as youngsters - when life it seemed was a little simpler and, maybe, better! Like me (and we often, in recent months, talked of this) he was quietly amazed and humbled at his own life story – that he had gone from humble beginnings in a small fishing town to become a Head Teacher of a large, successful and highly respected school. That he achieved all the things that he had – a wonderful family, talented children and later talented grandchildren, respect in the world of education, appointed a Justice of the Peace, a nice house, the opportunity to visit the occasional far flung place – always delighted and pleased him. 

When he told me that he had been asked to become a Magistrate, a Justice of the Peace, I immediately thought how lucky those who appeared in front of him would be - to have such a wise, kind, caring man sitting in judgement on them. He saw good in everyone, never acted rashly, and loved all his fellow men - that was why he was a great teacher and would be a great Magistrate. Despite being a Magistrate and a successful headteacher, well respected by his peers and neighbours David Towne remained a humble man at heart - and I know that when, in his capacity as  a Magistrate, he sat in judgement on someone he would be reflecting "there but for the grace of God go I".  And his common humanity and awareness of his good fortune showed in other ways too. Like me, he loved Venice and had visited it on numerous occasions. His wife Mary told me recently that when they visited the USA he stood on the edge of the Grand Canyon and quietly shed a tear – so overawed was he. I can relate to that. I felt the same urge with places that I have visited  - Ayres Rock, the Taj Mahal, the World Trade Centre and the like - and marvelled that I, a poor kid from a Lancashire back street, should be so lucky to have been there. I know that those were the thoughts that ran through David's mind as he stood on the edge of the Canyon - how can it be that I, a poor kid from a tiny house in Fleetwood, should enjoy this wonder? How small I am but haven't I been lucky? And these were the principles that guided his work with the children for whom he was responsible - understanding their problems but always wanting them to have the good fortune to be granted what he had got. And he saw it as an absolute privilege to guide them and support them to that end........"there but for the grace of God go I".  
David as god-father to Kate - 40 years ago.
And as I will always remember him

David had an acute sense of what was “right” and an innate desire to act correctly but he wasn’t in any way pedantic, picky or snobbish – in fact just the opposite. He could spot falsehood and pomposity a mile away. What you saw was what you got – but at the same time he never took the easy option and always maintained the highest standards both for himself and for his school. In the years I worked for him he always used a fountain pen to write with – no ball point for him. He always dressed smartly. Pat and I used to dread our daughter Kate’s birthday coming because we knew that David would always arrive a few days before with a present and card for her. Our dread was not that David was coming but that he always seemed to come when we (or rather I) was at my grubbiest having been under the car or painting the house or whatever. He would arrive suited and immaculate and Pat and I would stand, grubby and soiled, the house looking like a demolition site! And he carried this into school – he expected children to be smart and polite. He would openly say to all his staff "I expect you always to act correctly and do the best for your class - if you do I will support you and defend you to the end" - and we all knew he meant it. And when our daughter Kate’s 21st birthday came along the gift he bought her was typical David Towne – not some bauble or trinket perhaps soon used and forgotten, not an envelope with a few pounds stuffed in it. A lovely copy of the “Complete Works of Shakespeare” – which still today, almost 20 years later stands proudly on her bookshelf. It was not missed by Pat and I as we sat in the Chapel two days ago that David’s funeral was on our daughter’s birthday.

David took up golf – on more than one occasion he tried to interest me but to no avail. It’s perhaps no surprise, however,  that his son Greg did take up the sport seriously, successfully and professionally. When my son John, as a teenager, began to express an interest in the game David was quick to provide a set of his old clubs to get John going. Whenever John tells me he has been for a round of golf it flits through my mind that David gave him the start he needed. A year or two ago John played at Turnbury in Scotland – a golf course which is, I am told,  one of the premier courses. I mentioned this to David as we sat one morning having a chat a few months ago. I explained that John had a photo, of which he was very proud, of him playing a shot on a green with a lighthouse in the background. To me this was just a photo of someone playing golf but David soon assured me that to play at Turnbury is quite special, and as he spoke, I think I detected a certain wistfulness in his face and his voice that he could no longer take part in his great love.  I know that in latter years when David could no longer get around the golf course he missed this dreadfully.  

And, in recent months I have sat with David every so often while Mary went shopping. David, increasingly struggling with the onset of dementia. Two old men together – reminiscing, putting the world to rights, re-telling, laughing and grumbling at the same old stories. David occasionally saying (and laughing) “Come on Tony, what was I just saying – I’ve forgotten!” as his short term memory weakened. David too, I know, worried about the effect that his illness had upon his wife and the rest of his family – he knew he couldn't alter things and he knew what the future held – but throughout he tried, I know, to make things as easy as possible for those close to him.   We would laugh when we made a cup of tea (Mary insistent that in her absence we should have a cup of tea and a biscuit).  David would say “You’ll have to do it, Tony, I can’t remember what to do” . But then I would ask “How many sugars do you want”  (I always knew the answer!) and David would reply, quick as a flash “Three, but don’t tell Mary!” - and we would laugh  conspiratorially - like two naughty school boys sharing a secret - both of us pleased that he still had (he thought) his little secrets, his life, his "self"  and wasn't totally dependent upon others! I know that David occasionally became frustrated with his failing capacities but equally he made light of them. When Pat and I opened our Order of Service in the chapel our eyes lit upon one of the items – Charlotte Church singing Panis Angelicus – we both grinned at each other! A few months ago as I sat with David one morning we were talking about music and he commented that he enjoyed the singing of Charlotte Church. “Come and listen to this” he said and lead me into the dining room where the stereo system was. I stood for the next few minutes while David became more exasperated with himself because he couldn't remember how to make the stereo work. In the end in frustration, having feverishly pressed every button and switch to no avail, he exclaimed – “You’ll have to do it”.  So I began pressing buttons! Eventually to my relief the music came and we both stood laughing and grumbling about modern technology and David making light of his problems whilst the voice of Charlotte Church warbled through the house!  

And then, in very recent weeks, when David was finally admitted to hospital and thence into a  nursing home I regularly took Mary to visit him. We sat by his bedside as he drifted in and out of sleep. Occasionally we grabbed his attention when we produced a bar of white chocolate which he would demolish with relish and with a mischievous  grin. A few days before he died, when I entered his room he was asleep. He was wearing a bright green T shirt and I exclaimed “Bloody hell David.....you look like Robin Hood". Was I wrong, but it seemed to me that his face registered a little momentary smile. I’d like to think so. I sat with him, holding his hand as he slept a day or so before he finally passed away. And, as we sat there, in the corner of the room the little TV silently brought the pictures from the Olympics in London and I thought to myself how only a few years before David would have loved it. A talented sportsman himself, he had, I knew from first-hand experience, inspired and coached generations of youngsters. And I reflected this was where my friendship with David Towne almost began, standing watching school swimming or football and now a half a lifetime later we were doing it again in very different circumstances.
David as a young games teacher
at Fleetwood Grammar School
David’s son Stephen gave the eulogy. I sat and listened to the story of David’s life – humble beginnings in a tiny house in a fishing port in the early 1930s. A place at grammar school, national service, an abiding love of sports of all kinds but especially cricket at which he excelled and could no doubt have played professionally had he decided to. Training to be a teacher, a year at Carnegie College – then the premier PE college in the land. Meeting his future wife and beginning work as teacher. We heard about him regularly, as a young man, running week after week from Fleetwood to Blackpool (no mean achievement) to watch the great Stanley Matthews play football for Blackpool. We heard how he climbed over the wall to watch a test match and as I heard this I thought back to my time Lady Bay. We had no playing field just a concrete playground but this didn't stop David. Week after week through the summer months he would be coaching youngsters (and giving me lots of tips that I never forgot!) to play cricket. Wickets drawn on the school wall, a PE hoop placed a couple of yards in front of each wicket and boys being taught how to bowl and make sure that the ball bounced in the hoop just in front of the wicket.  Then he taught them to bowl an occasional short ball or a yorker to catch the batsman out. When we went to play other schools with their posh playing fields and top class kit we invariably won – David Towne knew how to coach. At the same time I can remember whenever a test match was taking place at Trent Bridge – only a few minutes’ walk from the school - David would pop his head round my classroom door and say “How are you fixed after school – shall we pop into Trent Bridge and watch a few overs.’  He often said to me at the time he couldn’t believe how lucky he was to be working and living within a couple of miles of one of the great cricket grounds of the world. Quite recently as I sat with him one morning he confessed that one of his regrets was that he had always promised himself that when he retired he would maybe get himself a little job as a steward or similar at Trent Bridge so that he could pass his retirement watching cricket. Sadly, as so often happens with all of us, it just never seemed to happen.

And as Stephen continued with his eulogy he mentioned other things relating to David’s work as a teacher: as a young teacher lighting the school boiler every morning to heat up the school, catching a large rat in the classroom waste paper basket (a story David never tired of re-telling!), barricading himself and a child in his office to protect the child when the child was threatened, willingly using his own money to ensure that children in his school could eat a school dinner or had school uniform. I know all these things were true – most of them I witnessed. I could add others – equally telling of the man.

I remember one summer morning the children were having playtime. A number of the older girls were playing handstands against the school wall – tucking their skirts into their knickers to protect their modesty! (Why is it that girls no longer seem to do handstands?). Some older boys were standing making comments about the girls and being generally objectionable. David and I walked by, cups of tea in hand, as we patrolled the playground. “Come on lads” said David “rather than teasing the girls have a go yourself”.  “That’s girls’ stuff” grumbled the boys. David’s answer? “Bet you can’t do it”.  Unwillingly one or two of the boys tried and fell into a laughing heap. “Bet you can’t do it, Sir” they challenged. Quick as a flash David lead them through the door into the school. A long empty corridor faced us – maybe 40 or 50 metres long. He took off his suit jacket  and immediately did a hand stand – his long legs, it seemed, almost touching the ceiling. He then walked on his hands down the corridor, his tie trailing on the floor, his cuff links flashing in the beams of sunlight that filtered through the windows. When he got to the end he turned round and walked all the way back on his hands. Boy, were those kids impressed. Was I impressed! I silently prayed that they didn’t ask me to do it! For weeks after we had hundreds of kids doing handstands against the playground wall, the boys became experts and Mr Towne was a star!

And I still remember one Easter. It was assembly. We didn’t have a school hall and assemblies were held in that same long corridor, the children sat in long lines in the corridor with the person leading the assembly in the middle. Taking assembly, David often commented, was like commentating at Wimbledon – the teacher stood in the middle with children on each side so you had to constantly turn your head back and forth to speak to both sides of the audience – like watching the ball go over the net from end to end at Wimbledon. David stood in the middle, the kids stretching away from him down the corridor. ‘Children, last night Mrs Towne and I went to a concert in Bridgford. We went to see ‘The Messiah” he said. He briefly explained what the Messiah was and then played the ‘Amen’ on the school's little record player. He explained that the whole chorus is made beautiful even though only one word is used throughout. Within  a few minutes he had the whole school joining in with sections of the ‘Amen’. It was wonderful. As the assembly drew to a close he said to all the children. ‘Go back to your classes and spend the day composing a song based on one word – for example, ‘Thankyou’ or ‘Happiness’ or ‘Smile’ – practice  it with the class and come back tomorrow to perform it to the school.’ The staff were initially less than enthusiastic! Lessons were put on hold, maths went down the pan, English was forgotten. But the following morning seven classes stood up and performed one word songs, accompanied with simple instruments. People often talk of "awe and wonder" in relation to teaching and learning. This indeed was "awe and wonder" - but  OFSTED and the National Curriculum would not understand it in those terms because it didn't conform to the checklists, tick boxes and planning models that they love so well and which they use to evaluate a good teacher - and are the things, they say, that drive a "good lesson". No, - this was pure, spontaneous, charismatic and exciting teaching - not something pre-planned, modelled and packaged. It was inspired and inspiring as he lead two hundred children - rather like the Pied Piper - by someone who knew about children and how they learn and what they love. It was what great teachers can do!
Photo from a 1959 magazine article about
Fleetwood Grammar School showing David
doing his stuff!

And David was a great teacher - gifted and charismatic so that few could emulate him but boy, could he inspire children and indeed teachers. He expected his staff to look and act professionally at all times but was, at the same time, hugely supportive. He always spoke kindly to people and was one of the world’s great listeners – picking up on the hidden messages of what people were saying and making sure that he took this into consideration when he responded. He had the capacity to be both down to earth and at the same time a natural leader – and importantly, he made people feel good about themselves and the work they were doing. With absolute certainty I can say he was not only respected as a head teacher but loved too – as I sat in the chapel and looked at all the faces from the past, people with whom I had worked and with whom David had worked, it was clear why everyone was there.

He visited every classroom daily and would take over lessons at the drop of a hat. Teachers knew he could teach – he wasn’t just talk – and they respected him for it. In a sense he was a primary school “renaissance man” – equally at home coaching cricket or swimming as he was teaching maths or English. He loved to teach woodwork and pottery or setting up a science experiment. Only a few weeks before he died he said to me that he often couldn’t contain himself when he went into school in the morning having left the kiln on overnight to fire the pots that the children had made and glazed.  It gave him a real buzz to open the kiln door and see how they had turned out. And this is why he was a great teacher and head teacher – his enthusiasm, his sense of enquiry, the high standards he demanded from children all coalesced to encourage a sense of awe and wonder in the kids that he taught. He didn’t teach children – he learned with them.

Children in his school knew that Mr Towne valued them. He prided himself in knowing every child and could talk knowledgably about what each was doing. He would always have time. I know it used to drive his school secretary to distraction; they would be in middle of some important bit of administration and a knock on the door would bring a child with a problem or piece of work to show him. The admin was forgotten, David would disappear – this was much more important than administration! When children appeared it wasn’t just a quick fix and banal “well done" sticker  so common in schools today or a mention in the awful and patronising “Golden Book Assembly”.  No, it was a long chat, an in depth discussion about how the work was done, ideas about how it might be improved or why it was so good (or bad!). “How’s your mum?” he would ask? “Is that baby brother of yours growing up?”  The children knew that Mr Towne always had time for them and that he cared. He didn’t simply whip a quick sticker out of his desk and say “well done” – instantly given and instantly forgotten.

 One of my abiding memories is of S******** -  a West Indian boy from a terrible home background who was in my class. S********* had no mother at home and father lead a violent and unpleasant life which included, amongst other things,  running a brothel. S******** would walk out of lessons, regularly upset teachers and  intimidate both teachers and the other children. At home he fended for himself for much of the time. But he came to school regular as clockwork – it gave him sanctuary from the violent home life he inhabited. He would be at the school door early in the morning when the caretaker opened up and when lunchtime came would devour his school dinner - maybe the only meal he got each day. David and I had many difficult moments with S********. But David defended the lad to the last - he would often say, "Look at the chances that my own kids have compared with poor old S********". One Christmas Day when the school was closed S********** sat on the school doorstep because there was nowhere else for him to go. It was clear that despite our best efforts he would end up in trouble and so it proved. A year or two after he left Lady Bay he ended up in trouble with the police and in a remand school in the north of Nottinghamshire. I had a phone call from David (I was working by then at another school) one day. S********* had asked if Mr Towne and Mr Beale would visit him – he had no other visitors or people to help him – and somewhere in the lad’s memory was David Towne who had always been kind and supportive, had had time and who understood no matter what he did. We went to see him at the remand centre – he was sullen, angry, uncommunicative but also a young lad in trouble. Sadly, there was little in reality we could do that would make any real difference to S******** life chances. Over the years I have often wondered what happened to him.

This blog is a celebration and a thanksgiving for a great teacher but I cannot resist commenting that schools and generations of children have missed out in recent years with the introduction of the National Curriculum, Head teachers and senior staff who are now termed “school managers” or the equally offensive "school leader". Literacy and numeracy strategies, learning outcomes, academies, political interference and the rest of the educational mumbo jumbo  have replaced sound educational thinking, professionalism and an understanding of children as the faceless ones have taken charge - the OFSTED inspectors who couldn't teach so they became inspectors, the politicians who once spent a few years in a school as a pupil and think that this gave them the great wisdom to make pronouncements about how teachers should teach and how children should be educated. Generations of teachers, too, have been de-skilled – paid to simply  “deliver the curriculum” or "improve" SATs scores or tick OFSTED boxes rather than inspire and foster a love of learning. David Towne knew more about children, educational standards, aspirations, the awe and wonder of the classroom,  teaching methodology and good classroom practice than OFSTED inspectors will ever know. He could not, I believe have brought himself to utter the phrase "deliver the curriculum" or "learning outcome" or some other trite and meaningless bit of educational jargon. He would have been hugely mistrustful of those who did use such phrases and would have looked the user squarely in the eye and said "What does that mean. Is it something to do with teaching children?"  Another phrase much used in the brave world of education today is "name and shame" when schools and teachers who are less than successful are castigated. Sadly it is now a flagship government policy. David Towne would have died rather than "name and shame" - it would have horrified him to think that you would treat someone - pupil or teacher, school or hospital, man or woman, friend or foe in such a way. David would help, advise, support, win confidence, inspire - and in the end you wanted to do better for him! In military terms, you would have followed him into battle because you knew he had your interests at heart. Mary told me recently  that one of the most touching experiences that she and David had was at the end of his first term as Head of Lady Bay. It was Christmas (I joined David's staff in the January). Carol singers came to their front door one evening - Mary went to the front door ready to give a few pence to what she assumed were a bunch of kids -  only to discover it was the entire staff of the school who had come out specially to sing as a thank you to their new head master - you don't get that with "naming and shaming!"    Above all this, however, he cared passionately about what he was doing – a thing which is more and more sidelined in the brave new educational world that has been created. He once said to me many years ago when I was a young teacher "When parents send their children to school they give us their most precious possession for six hours each day - think about it".  Ofsted inspections or people like Michael Gove do not have  a tick box for that sort of comment. The excitement of opening the kiln door surrounded by a crowd of excited children, or standing on your hands in the corridor to inspire children to go and try it, or having 200 children joining in with the "Amen" from the Messiah, or leading children like a mathematical Pied Piper as they discovered to their amazement some mathematical pattern in a maths investigation things  would count for nothing in the world of OFSTED and Michael Gove for they cannot be measured. In modern British education, only what can be measured and assessed is deemed good and worthwhile - Wackford Squeers and the gradgrind accountant rule our classrooms.  But David saw more, he knew what real education was and he knew what this meant for him,  his job and his responsibilities. It was hard and demanding but he also knew it as an honour, magical and a privilege.

David, I know, increasingly felt, as he approached retirement, that his personal  values of integrity, compassion, honour, doing it right, reliability - things which also governed his professional life were increasingly less in vogue;  the accountant, the politician and the gradgrind inspector were in the ascendancy and becoming the driving force in school. I think that this, combined with his own exhaustion, after years in schools told him "it is time to go". The schools that he believed in were becoming a thing of the past – budget driven, form filling, computers and the like were not what David was about. He had given a life time to schools and to children. A modern day Mr Chips.  I remember saying to him at his retirement party “What are you going to do now David?”  His answer, with droll Lancashire humour: “I’m going to sell deck chairs on Skegness beach and when someone tells me that the pier is on fire I shall say “Oh dear” and carry on selling deck chairs”!
At his Golden Wedding - five years ago

Towards the end of his eulogy to his dad Stephen read a few lines from Rudyard Kipling’s great poem “If”. They were exactly right. Kipling must have had David Towne in mind when he wrote them. And in the Order of Service was a short poem written by his other son, Greg. As I read its words I reflected that I knew many hundreds (perhaps thousands) of children, ex-pupils, in the Nottingham area who might have written similar sentiments about  David their teacher or Head Teacher:
“The one I loved, the one I looked up to, Who showed me how to be.....
The one who taught me golf, cricket and how to ride a bike.......
The one with time........
The one who kept me safe, the one who made things right......
The one I loved......”

I was lucky. I had the good fortune to work with some wonderful teachers. The teachers of David Towne’s generation were a special breed. David (and his son Stephen referred to this) and others like him wanted to make the world a better place. They had been born in the grim times of the 1930s, had grown up through the war years and wanted a better world for the next generations. They wanted to make a difference. He was one amongst many such men who I worked with and for. But he was the best by far - as a teacher and, more importantly, as a man. Inspirational, charismatic, sincere – a realist with dreams, ideals and aspirations to make things better. Qualities that don’t appear on a CV but are the essential ingredients of a great teacher. We didn’t see a huge amount of each other – when our respective families were growing up we were both too busy. A Christmas card here, an occasional phone call there, a meet up at some school event or wedding. But I always knew he was there – and as I said above, a week never went by without me at some point thinking “What would David Towne do?”  As a young teacher I can remember watching him working with children – often the whole school – and thinking “How does he do that, keep all those kids engaged and riveted on what he is saying or doing....” . Just before I retired I had been working with 80 or 90 children for an hour or so one afternoon and the class teachers sat at the back as I taught. At the end of the session, as all the children got on with the work that I had set them, one of the young members of staff came to me and said “How do you do it Tony......you had them eating out of your hand. And look at them now all busy”. At that point I thought of David. I couldn’t answer her except to say it comes with experience – but deep down, I had a lump in my throat I knew any skills I had  were learnt from watching and working with a master – David Towne.

My daughter, Kate reminded me of the words that David wrote in the front of her 21st birthday gift:

"To my Goddaughter, Katie, on the occasion of her 21st Birthday, 14th August.
'Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.'
I wish you a bright, happy and rewarding future.
God bless, David."

The words perfectly encapsulate the essence of David Towne - not a quickly scribbled "Happy Birthday" or "Best Wishes" but carefully selected and words to make the occasion and the person feel special. Exactly how he treated the children in school. He didn’t set out to be anything  special. But he was. The rules by which he lived and acted by were simply what came naturally to him. A humble man with the  greatest of dreams and ideals – and a keen sense of right and wrong, of correct and incorrect action, of  responsibility, honour and duty.  A man who found good in everyone and everything and who had time for everyone.  A wise and compassionate man. A gentleman and a gentle man. Throughout his life and work he made many people happy and ensured that thousands of children had a "bright, happy and rewarding future" - and, importantly, wonderful memories of their school days. He will be sorely missed - he had the unique capacity to touch people and to make their lives better. That is what good teachers do; by their words and actions they not only teach subjects but make people better people. And that is what David Towne did for us all: pupils, colleagues, friends and family.......like a candle he consumed himself to light the way for the rest of us. And that is why the chapel was full to overflowing.

03 August, 2012

"The Essential Thing in Life is Not Conquering But Fighting Well"

Well, the great event has arrived. Many years in the dreaming and the planning the London 2012 Olympics is well underway! So far so good as we near the half way point – lots of celebration, huffing and puffing, tears, disputes, disappointments, joy, cynicism, empty seats and cheering. In fact – pretty much like every other Olympics!

For the past seven plus years I have to say that I have had a healthy (maybe unhealthy!) cynicism of the event – mainly based on the obvious (and arguably necessary) corporate involvement, the role of politicians who blatantly use the event and jingoistic patriotism of the event to beat their own drum, the gradual (it seems to me) demeaning and year on year diminishing of the Olympic ideal and, in latter years, the question of whether , in these straitened economic times, we should actually be spending money on this sort of thing.
But, having said all that, now that it is here it is difficult not to be at different times impressed, interested, involved and yes, occasionally inspired.

I settled down (a little unwillingly!) to watch the opening ceremony and was ready to be negative and, in grumpy old man mode, stump off to bed early! In fact I was soon enchanted by the novelty, the organisation, the inspiration and the underlying messages being sent out. This was no jingoistic flag waving ceremony. It didn’t beat great military drums or make unnecessary pulls on patriotic heart strings. It was a simple reflection of main themes and social history of a people – not the great and good, not the great events, not battles won and advances made – just a simple montage of the British people and how we had developed not what we had won in battle or on the sports field. Of course, everyone (including me) had ideas about what had been missed out and what should have been included. For me I thought the Magna Charta should have had a place – but on reflection that was a specific historical event and if the Magna Charta why not something else. No, I thought Danny Boyle, the man behind the “production”, got it just right.
The Queen looks glum!

The main criticism in the media of the opening ceremony seems to be that it was some kind of left wing “plot”. Maybe it was – and that was why I felt a little inspired by it! For me, I really only had one real criticism – and that was not of the ceremony but rather about the grumpy expression on the Queen’s face each time she was shown. Both she and the Duke of Edinburgh really looked as if they didn’t want to be there. I know that much has been made of the Queen’s escapade with 007, James Bond, and that was great  fun – but as Pat (who is much more a royalist than myself) commented, as the cameras panned onto Her Majesty, “she was all smiles at her own jubilee a few weeks ago – why can’t she smile now when someone else is celebrating”.  Maybe Her Majesty wanted more drum banging, military bands, jingoistic flag waving, pomp and circumstance, British stiff upper and grand pageantry such as parades of past monarchs and great statesmen, maybe a reincarnation of the British Raj complete with suitably subservient members of her far flung colonies swearing their never ending allegiance to her!  – in other words, the sort of things she is used to!
But, be that as it may, it leads me to what I thought was the best comment about the opening ceremony. In her column in the Guardian Shami Chakrabarti, director of the Civil Rights organisation “Liberty”  and one of the Olympic flag bearers in the ceremony, commented on the “poignant contrast” between the Beijing and London approach.“In China, human rights campaigners get locked up; in Britain, even the most irritating gets to carry the Olympic flag” commented Chakrabarti.  The flag bearers selected in London broke with Olympic tradition – usually the bearers are always athletes but this time they  were individuals  all noted for their commitment to civil liberties  or other humanitarian causes. One could regard most of them as “rattlers of the establishment cage”  and as such, maybe Her Majesty felt a bit vulnerable! It’s rather comforting  to feel  that even in these days of cctv cameras and security services prying into our lives that England is one of the few countries where one could get away with that. Indeed, I’m not sure that even in the USA,  a nation that prides itself above all others on its values of free speech it could have occurred in the same way. I read this week of the death of the American writer Gore Vidal -  a man who has spent his life pricking the conscience of his country such as with his famous 1970s offering:  "There is only one party in the United States, the Property party … and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat. Republicans are a bit stupider, more rigid, more doctrinaire in their laissez-faire capitalism than the Democrats, who are cuter, prettier, a bit more corrupt – until recently … and more willing than the Republicans to make small adjustments when the poor, the black, the anti-imperialists get out of hand. But, essentially, there is no difference between the two parties." Wonderful – and sad to say just as applicable in 2012 Britain!  As I read his obituary I wondered if he would have been selected to carry the Olympic flag in the USA – I couldn’t see it myself.  Maybe I’m wrong – I’m sure any readers from across the pond will soon disabuse me!  The chosen London flag bearers gently reminded me of a week or so ago  standing on Aldeburgh beach and looking at the great stainless steel sculpture there – “The Scallop” with its thought provoking legend – “I hear those voices that will not be drowned”   (blog: http://www.arbeale.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/the-right-stuff.html). Just as on Aldeburgh beach, it was a good feeling!
Flag bearers in London

And in the days that have followed I have found myself, whilst not exactly swept away by the Games, certainly pulled along by them. Of course there is plenty to be cynical about – empty seats, corporate greed, drug testing, the questioning of the integrity of the Chinese swimmer who has smashed all the records in the most unbelievable manner, the expulsion of the Badminton teams from Asia, the “failure” of many of the British hopefuls .......and so it goes on. But in the final analysis I find myself sitting on the edge of my seat cheering on various competitors and marvelling at their skills. As I write this I’ve just watched the two British rowers Helen Glover & Heather Stanning  win Britain’s first gold medal – soon followed by Bradley Wiggins taking the cycling gold. And although I hate myself for it I occasionally sneak a look at the medals table to see how the Brits are doing! I read in the paper yesterday that the Australian media were a bit unimpressed by their team’s performance so far and one Australian commentator had bemoaned the fact that in one event an Australian had been beaten “by a Pom” – the ultimate disgrace for an Ozzie – to be beaten by a Brit! And I feel exactly the same – it gives me a warm glow if we “stuff”  the Yanks or the Ozzies or the Frogs! And of course they feel exactly the same about us!

But, of course, it’s more than that.

I recently saw a clip of the 1948 Olympics held in London – they were known as “the austerity Olympics” because they were held in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War when Britain and other nations were suffering great economic hardship.  I reflected that there is a nice symmetry that now in 2012, as Britain hosts the Olympics again, we are all still suffering a period of austerity, albeit rooted in factors other than world war! But in 1948, proudly displayed in lights over Wembley Stadium was the message: “The important thing in the Olympics is not winning but taking part. The essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well”.  I’m not sure that Bradley Wiggins or Michael Phelps or any other of the athletes of any nation would, at the moment, see it that way but in the end that is what it has to be all about and it is not only the Olympic ideal but also the implicit underpinning of any sport. George Orwell, no lover of sport of any kind, once famously said “Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence. In other words, it is war minus the shooting”.  I can see where Orwell was coming from and in many ways agree with him - when the desire for victory and trophies becomes more important  than common decency or respect then it ceases to be a sport and becomes a battle.
1948 - "the essential thing in life is not conquering
but fighting well"

Orwell was right, sport at its best is about more than just winning. Yesterday we watched the women’s diving and although disappointed that the Brits didn’t do better it was awe inspiring to see the skills of all of the divers – especially the winning Chinese girls. The same is true with other events. One sees athletes fall exhausted at the end of their event and know that they have missed out on the medal that they have trained so hard for – their dream gone. We see athletes moved to tears as they listen to their national anthem being played and the crowd cheer their victory and gold medal. These are the sorts of images that are far more important than the actual number of gold medals won.  They are about the years of training and commitment that has been put in, the hard work and dedication and most importantly, the recognition and respect for the other competitors and their efforts and skills; you go all out to win, to achieve your dream but you also accept defeat graciously.
But sadly, this is the problem that I have with the Olympics – as with all other great sports events today – increasingly victory and trophies are seen as the only criteria of success. Success is the only game in town. Failure cannot be countenanced.  In football we so often see and hear that defeat is disaster, only victory and success will be tolerated.  Managers are sacked after a handful of defeats. Victory is all. All too often we hear comments similar to that of Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger (a man I have a huge amount of time for) – following a defeat he complained “it is a disaster”.......err, no it isn’t it’s simply a game of football lost – no more no less.

And the quest for victory and success influences decisions and often policy. Today, Lord Moynihan, head of the British Olympics team commented that it was unfortunate that so many of our (GB) medal winners were educated at private schools rather than state schools. Moynihan’s point was that there appears to be a vast pool of untapped talent when at the Beijing Olympics  over 50% of the medals that GB won were won by athletes who had attended private schools where presumably coaching/sporting facilities  were better. Moynihan said: “It is wholly unacceptable that over 50 per cent of our medallists in Beijing came from the private sector. It tells you that 50 per cent of the medals came from 7 per cent of the population.......There is so much talent out there in the 93 per cent that should be identified and developed. That has got to be a priority for future sports policy” .  

His comments could be the subject of a future blog/“rant” since it is people of Moynihan’s political persuasion that are responsible for the situation, but for the moment I will accept that he has a point.  The drive for medals and victory and glory and, ultimately, hero worship seem to be increasingly the rationale and raison d’être for action and approval. But in relation to Moynihan’s comments, no matter how hard I try I cannot accept that the desire for sporting excellence and the winning of medals should be a factor in determining the sporting and educational policy of a nation. As those who have read my blogs before will know I am bitterly against the private school system in this country, I am anti the elitist doctrine that underpins so much of British life and private schooling and would dearly love it to be changed. But not, even in a small part, should it be changed simply to develop sporting excellence and win more medals – as the Olympic ideal states it’s the taking part that is important. The winning is a happy by-product. Moynihan’s comments, although understandable, seem to me to be making sport far more important than it is – and in the end sport is a pretty unimportant part of the human condition.  As my daughter says of football: “it’s just 22 blokes running around a field kicking a bag of air” . She is absolutely right. Bradley Wiggins’ recent cycling  successes are wonderful and to be praised – but in the end he’s just a bloke riding a bike a bit faster than a few other blokes. Whatever the sport, whatever the level, in the end that is what it is. And once one accepts that premise, as I do, it cannot be considered a factor in determining a nation’s educational, social or sporting policy. 
The only news in town is Olympic news - this morning's
papers. War, famine, unemployment, austerity and
the rest have been reduced to non-news.
Were they really important if they can be dropped
so easily in favour of one bloke or woman running
one hundredth of a  second faster than another! 

I know that I am out of step. I know that I am wrong but I do get increasingly depressed at all the associated hype and inflated relevance that permeates all sport at the highest level. Whether it be a Premiership footballer, Michael Phelps in the swimming pool, wonderful diving from the Chinese, Chis Hoy on his bicycle or any other top echelon of sport it seems to me that the coaching, the perfection, the necessary kit (be it bicycle, swimming costume or running shoe), the attention paid to diet and training schedules and all the other paraphernalia required to be at the top have become more important than the individual, the sport and the taking part as a simple pastime. To a large extent gone are the opportunities for people with a simple talent and desire to take part.  To balance the books slightly, it was heartening to read in yesterday’s Guardian and other papers that our two Olympic Gold rowers Helen Glover and Heather Stanning, to a degree, bucked this trend; fairly ordinary people – a PE teacher and soldier – they have only been rowing for a relatively a short period of time and only been together as a team for two years. On the other hand they proved Lord Moynihan’s point completely – both ladies were educated at two of our top private schools Millfield and Gordonstoun. But this apart, compared with many who have been whisked away to elite academies and the like, they are almost “amateurs”!

But for the most part, the Olympics, like the Premiership, have become the home of supermen and women who we rightly cheer but who for me have lost a little of their ordinary humanity.  All of the commentators reminded us after Glover and Stanning won their gold medal “their lives will never be the same again”  - well in one sense that is wonderful if their talent and hard work is rewarded but in another, I think, rather sad. Like Premiership footballers Olympians will live in their gated mansions away from the supporters who support, celebrate and look up to them.  They will, like other top athletes, become removed from common humanity and become sporting gods – and increasingly with the commercialism and wealth that comes with success be treated more and more as such and driven by its pressures and opportunities. This pressure and emphasis on success and victory is presumably one of the prime factors in driving a sportsman to break the rules – take drugs, or bend the rules as the various Asian Badminton teams have done this week. As  Orwell reminded us – “war minus the shooting”!
Nat Lofthouse

Pundits constantly remind us about the huge pressures the athletes are under – I’m sure they are when victory is the only criteria of success. How could it not be otherwise – only one person can win the race and sponsorship, commercial backing and glory awaits the victor. But in the end, talented sportsmen and women are living the dream – they are fortunate in having the skills and these combined with their hard work and dedication can result in glory and adulation. Whether it is pulling on a shirt for Manchester United; whether it is Michael Phelps or Bradley Wiggins top sportsmen and women are able to enjoy, on a day to day, basis doing something that most of the rest of the population would envy as they get on with their hum drum jobs to earn a living. They are living the dream, doing what they love and getting paid and lauded for it. If there be pressure it must go with the territory.  Whenever I hear the word pressure mentioned in relation to sportsmen and women I think of two wonderful quotes from two top sportsmen of a different generation.  Firstly from  Nat Lofthouse the England footballer. I saw him play on many occasions. Lofthouse was a man of his time. The son of a coal-bagger  he was given £10 as his signing-on fee for Bolton just before the War.  He later said "I know £10 doesn't seem much these days but it was four times more than my Dad was getting per week as a coal bagger.......I got easy money,"  he said. "I know - I've worked down the pit, and I've played football."

I have just listened to ex-US Olympic athlete Michael Johnson discussing some of the athletes on show. I have a huge amount of respect for Johnson - for me he is unquestionably the best of the pundits - he is matter of fact and rather laid back about it all. But even he, the master of the understatement, used the phrase "huge pressure" on four occasions in a commentary lasting only a few seconds! It all reminds me of Keith Miller, the great Australian cricket all rounder.  A player who was known as the “golden boy” of Australian cricket – so much so that he was nicknamed “nugget”. Miller had been a fighter pilot in the Second World War and was known to be fiercely competitive on the field of play. But he kept it in perspective. When asked about the pressure he was under when playing for Australia in a critical Ashes Test Match his answer? “Pressure? I’ll tell you what pressure is. It’s having a Messerschmitt  up your arse in a dog fight. Cricket and sport is not pressure – it’s enjoying yourself”.  A sense of perspective I think.

Having said all that it has been inspiring to watch the response of Olympic athletes when compared with their footballing counterparts. Of course we have seen great joy and despair when dreams have been realised or dashed. We have seen athletes collapsing with exhaustion at the end of the race. And it was inspiring last night when Jessica Ennis won her gold medal in the Heptathlon and was interviewed immediately after the race to hear her say the words that Keith Miller might have said.... "Yes, I was under great pressure to win and was so nervous.........." but she added "it was a nice kind of pressure". What a wonderful contrast to the Premiership and many other sports where the excuse of "the pressure of the game" is given for weekly foul mouthed outbursts of the type made by Chelsea and England player John Terry recently. How come I have not been aware, in any of the Olympic events that I have seen to date, of competitors muttering or screaming expletives or aggressively venting their spleen in words or deeds  in their exasperation, failure or  pressured environment?
Keith Miller

Another aspect of this glorification of success and the inflation of the importance of sport is the role of the media and politicians. A letter in today’s Guardian commented that at the Olympics in 1912 (also held in London) the event warranted only a single column on page six of the paper. In today’s Guardian and on the digital Guardian we have page after page after page - totally disproportionate to its importance, value or worth. We are all reading about and avidly watching sports of which we know nothing – often not even the rules. All the things that were making the headlines before – war, famine, terror, economic crises, unemployment, disease – have been relegated to the back pages. Well, maybe that is not such a bad thing, just maybe it puts everything in perspective and maybe we are entitled occasionally to a bit of light relief from the doom laden prophesies of the political pundits. But for two weeks the news has been turned on its head.  Will I, or anyone else, ever be able to take austerity seriously again? Will I be concerned about famine in Africa? Will I be horrified by the next terrorist attack – after all, their newsworthiness and importance has been conveniently subjugated in the name of a few sportsmen and women running or swimming or cycling or rowing fractions of a second faster or slower than a few other athletes. Is sport really that important? I find it very difficult to accept this premise.

Yes, the Olympic circus in town – roll up, roll up, and pay your money! Jump on the band wagon. Our politicians tell us that there will be an Olympic legacy that the young will be enthused to take up these sports. And yes, I would accept that in the short term little boys and girls will ask for a Bradley Wiggins’ bike for Christmas or a Rebecca Adlington swimming costume – and there’s nothing wrong with that. But in the longer term the cynic in me whispers “it won’t last”. Indeed, the hype even spreads further from the actual sportsman or woman – in this morning’s Guardian (August 3rd) the question (a whole article on it!) is asked “is Claire Balding the BBC Sports Commentator a national treasure”  because of her commentary and media skills. The Guardian should be ashamed.  In the end it is another example of modern society's tendency to over value the ordinary. "National  Treasure"  implies something of greatness and lasting value; something that rightly should be respected and remembered long after its time has passed. Competent though Ms Balding (and her fellow commentators) may be they are no more than that - people doing the job for which they are well paid. Will we still, in twenty years time, be looking back at old footage of Ms Balding and expressing our continuing admiration - I think not. We see the same tendency week in week out in Premiership football when a simple, very ordinary goal is described as a "great goal"  when the reality is that within hours few could remember it. In the end, footballers, like Ms Balding, are only doing their job - for which they are paid huge amounts of money to score goals and present TV shows - and not be labelled "national treasurers"!     Everyone, however  unwillingly is jumping on the Olympic bandwagon and basking in the warm glow.  But in the end, what we are experiencing at the moment is just temporary, popular hype – when the circus rolls out it will just be a happy memory. Again, nothing wrong with that – a pleasant couple of weeks where hopefully we (and other nations) felt good about ourselves – but in the end that is all it is -  a pleasant pastime. No more, no less.

Politicians, too, want a bit of the Olympic limelight. David Cameron, Boris Johnson and the rest can’t resist a bit of glory by association. These games are so important they tell us, to stimulate youth interest in sport, to help the struggling economy, to revive an otherwise ruin down part of London......and so the list goes on. But these highly laudable aspirations are it seems not sufficient for the government to simply put the investment in to solve the problems without the Olympics. We need a bit of fairy dust too to sweeten the pill. Yes, I am a bit cynical!

So, yes, I’m enjoying the Olympics. I’m glad that the opening ceremony was, so far as it could be, a simple (but hugely clever) celebration of the people and not some nationalistic jamboree. And yes, I’ve loved watching the talent and sportsmanship on show. And yes, I’ve sat on the edge of my seat and cheered on the Brits, getting a warm glow when we have beaten the Ozzies or the Yanks or the Frogs . I've loved what I see as the sportsmanship of it all - the drive to win but the acceptance of defeat and joy in someone else's victory. This week we have often seen athletes who expected to win failing to do so. British swimmer Rebecca Adlington was a case in point - she had to accept bronze rather than the expected gold - but in defeat her response was magnanimous and her congratulations of the winners obvious. So very different from what we see in football.  But, at the same time, I do wish we could all keep it in a bit of perspective about how important it is in the great scheme of things. And, of one thing I am quite sure, the sporting health of a nation is not measured by the number of cups, medals or trophies a country wins. It is measured by the amount of everyday participation, involvement and enjoyment by ordinary people on village greens, park football pitches, local bowling greens, leisure centre swimming pools and gymnasiums. It is measured by the amount of money that those who hold the purse strings are prepared to put into local sport and not the billions put in at the top end. It is measured by the sportsmanship and respect shown week in week out on the field of play - not just at some two week long four yearly sportsfest.

Of course,  the pinnacle of sport – the Olympics, the Premiership – is the icing on the cake. But that is all it is – the skin on the custard. It is not the real substance of sport! In the end, should we really get so worked up about a bloke from, say, England swimming one hundredth   of a second faster or slower than a bloke from, say, Kazakhstan or France or  Bolivia? Is this what sport is about?

For me the answer is no – but I’m sure many would disagree!