Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Prize-giving speech at Sedbergh School

On Saturday I gave the prize-giving speech at Sedbergh School in Cumbria where I went for the sixth form (and which is the former school of, among others, Lord Bingham and Will Carling). The following is the draft I prepared beforehand. Although I ad libbed the speech itself I included most of this and then some.

I am honoured and delighted to be giving this speech today and it’s such a pleasure to be back in Sedbergh. Although I only came to the school for the sixth form, I’ve known the village since I was small since my mum and dad were both brought up here and all my grandparents still lived around Sedbergh when I was young as did my aunt and uncle at Abbott Holme farm which is the farm just beyond Dee Bridge on the three mile run and whose land is now part of the new or I guess newish Sedbergh golf course.
I’m also impressed that the headmaster saw fit to invite someone who gave up a ten year career at the bar in favour of writing novels, living by the sea and going surfing. All the more so when my career at Sedbergh was only distinguished by the fact that I managed to be one of the very few pupils that didn't even get chosen to be a house prefect, never mind a school prefect or anything so grand as that. I guess it’s still possible that he made a mistake and is now starting to worry what I might be about to say! But actually when I reflected on it a little I realised that much of what I’ve done in the last few years reflects the ethos which is so clearly that of Sedbergh School grounded as it is in the outdoors, in independence and freedom and in giving people the confidence to go off and do their own thing. That, and perhaps also because I’ve now found out that your headmaster has even been known to catch the odd wave himself!
Coming back, the wonderful thing is that it doesn’t actually seem to have changed that much save for the very positive development that the school has now taken girls – and on that the headmaster pointed out when he emailed me that the girl’s record for the ten mile is now not far off my own time which is nothing less than I would have expected. Other than that, Powell Hall still stands proud as does Winder and the fells behind it and along the same lines, I see that Mickey Raw is still here teaching history. I kind of think he’s a bit like the Highlander in the film with Sean Connery who simply never gets old and spans the generations – in his case teaching Charlemagne, Bede and from memory things like what attributes really do make up a great chair - that’s the piece of furniture as opposed to any position on a committee! I also imagine that people are probably still being sent to get a brass rubbing of the trigpoint of the top of Winder as an early morning punishment and equally that there’s probably still some young enterprising and budding entrepreneur with a plastercast of that trigpoint charging people to avoid the climb!
What I’d like to do in this speech is to give a little bit about my own background and then to throw in three keys lessons which I think are all reinforced by the great breadth of education that Sedbergh very clearly continues to give. In doing so I’m consoled by the fact that I have absolutely no recollection of who gave the prize-giving speech when I was at school nor of a single thing that they said. So I don’t know whether those facts left my head immediately after the ceremony or if it took many years of my brain crumbling around me but at least I can comfort myself by the idea that a few years from now this will have been completely wiped from your memories! With all that in mind, I’d like to make three points.

The first point might sound a bit cheesey but it really is a big one and that’s to follow your dreams. Look at what you enjoy, what you’re passionate about and see if you can work in something that encompasses those interests. Now for people who have a fascination with something like medicine or say treating animals, working out what you’d like to do might be quite easy. Which reminds me of a Harry Enfield or Fast Show sketch in which a young boy is seen taking furniture out of a dolls house before looking up at his horrified parents and saying something along the lines of “When I grow up I want to be a bailiff.” But for most of us, I don’t think it’s always so clear cut and it’s then very easy to stray from what really excites you.
For my part I left Sedbergh and then Cambridge and went off to be a London barrister for over ten years. Now don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed the job and in particular the freedom of being part of the self-employed Bar. But the more time went on the more I missed the sea and the hills and I found that every time I took a long weekend down near where I was brought up in the West Country, be it surfing or otherwise, I was really wanting to stay there rather than return to the city. The problem is that when you’re in a position like that you can often seem trapped. For me, it was a somewhat gilded cage to be sure, with a great job, a flat in Soho and a second home near the sea but even so I still wanted to be settled permanently by the sea.
Thankfully around that time, two things happened. The first was that I got a book deal to write a novel with Harry Potter’s publisher Bloomsbury. I’d always dreamt of writing a novel but what I really wanted to write was a best-selling John Grisham type thriller. But when I sat down and started to write what instead popped out was neither best-selling nor a thriller but instead a comedy which was ironic given that in the sense of humour stakes I’m definitely well below average and as I’m sure my wife Louise and my friends down the pub would agree, you can sometimes even painfully almost hear the penny dropping as you see how slowly it sometimes takes for me to get a particular joke. Even more strange was that the voice that popped out was that of a young barrister some fifteen or more years younger than me who was not only funny but also naughty to the point of being corrupt (again, complete fiction – honestly!) But I loved writing it and stuck it online as a blog and within two months The Times had offered to take it on as one of their blogs and Bloomsbury had agreed to publish it as a novel.
The other big thing that happened was that I helped set up a business with two friends training lawyers with online seminars or webinars and that seemed to be doing really well right from the off. So with both these things in place I decided to take a break from the Bar which has in fact turned out to be rather longer than originally anticipated. It’s now over four years since I stopped practising and since that time I’ve had the second novel in the series come out and we also sold the webinar business to the multi-national company Thomson Reuters – again, completely out of the blue. But above all it’s meant that I can settle back into a completely country way of life, surfing, walking my dog on the beach, growing vegetables, making elderflower wine and most importantly of all getting married to Louise who’s with me today.
The point of this isn’t an ‘Aren’t I great, isn’t life easy’ smugness personified kind of thing. It definitely isn’t since what I’ve done in giving up the Bar is something which most people might consider to be an act of complete madness or at the very least folly (even taking account of the sale of our business). But it is to say that if you recognise what it is you want to do and point the rudder in that direction, then there’s a lot more chance of that happening than if you stay with the status quo. Life is short and you never know what’s around the corner. So look into your heart and see what it is you really enjoy. If you love the countryside as I do then find something there. If it’s writing then be a writer. And of course if it’s taking belongings from people’s houses then be a bailiff. But whatever it is, keep on searching until you find what makes you happy and then go for it with all your heart. In her wedding speech recently Louise said something about my being very much someone who marches to the beat of his own drum and whilst I admit that I’m probably independent to the point of being eccentric, I’d also take that as one of the greatest compliments you can be given.

This brings me onto my second point which is to encourage you to take risks. You might say this is a little ironic coming from a lawyer, particularly with the forest of health and safety legislation which seems to have grown up in the last few years and all the more so when I once represented a pupil against a school over a rugby accident. But I say it very clearly and without reservation: take more risks. Now, I know that this isn’t something that Sedbergh School actively or recklesslessly (as lawyers might say) encourages you to do but on the other hand what Sedbergh does do is encourage you to take responsibility and instils a real sense of self-belief and independence. Above all, I think this comes from spending time day in day out exposed to the elements be it struggling across Baugh Fell in the freezing cold or playing rugby in the pouring rain. I guess there might be a bit of chicken and egg as to the type of people who come to Sedbergh, but even discounting for this, I really do think that this place produces people who are far more rounded and well-equipped for the challenges of the modern world than a mere academic hot-house that seems to be many of the public schools, particularly in the South-East.
So let me say it again: take risks. Which I guess makes it kind of appropriate that the cufflinks that I’m wearing today have some stone that was brought down from the top of Mount Everest – or just off the very icy top - by a good friend Rob Casserley who’s just recently summited Everest for the eighth time and is someone who’s climbed very closely with Kenton Cool who was this year summiting Everest for the tenth time and in particular taking with him an Olympic gold medal awarded to Old Sedberghian Arthur Wakefield in 1924 for being part of a pioneering Everest expedition. So, find your own personal Everest and don’t forget to take risks. Most of the great inventions or advances in medicine, exploration or even the arts are achieved by taking risk. And don’t fear failure. You’ll always find that there are plenty of people who will advise you not to change and to stick to the safe status quo but they can never speak for your own heart. Remember that people can be threatened by someone who challenges the status quo, who’s perhaps a bit of a free spirit. Because if you move on from what those people themselves are doing to something else they can potentially take that as a criticism of their own lives – even though that’s the last thing you’d want to do. So choose the advice you take with great care indeed and once you’ve decided on doing something then just go for it. Remember, other than perhaps head of history at Sedbergh School, there are very few jobs for life and if you decide to hang around in something that isn’t making you happy then you could well find that things change around you and before you know it you’re left high and dry.

Which brings me onto my final point which is to have faith. I don’t say that in any way wanting to sound preachy although I do agree with the sentiment of Lord Bingham who apparently wrote some poetry along the lines of it being hard to be in such beautiful countryside as around here and say that there’s not a God. I also quite liked the motto of my old college in Cambridge which was garde ta foy which is apparently OldFrench for ‘Keep your faith’ but which can also be mis-translated as ‘Watch your liver’ which, certainly from my own experience of college, was much more appropriate. But my bigger point here is for you to have faith that when you jump off the cliff, having followed your dream and decided to take a risk, the landing will be a soft one. That everything will be okay. Because most of the time it is, and even sometimes when things go wrong, you often look back later on and can see some good things which might have come out of it.
Also, remember that very few things are set in stone and that life can have many different chapters. It’s a cliché, I know, about doors closing and others opening, but I’ve found it to be true and it’s only when you’ve really committed yourself to something and given up other, perhaps safer, things that you really start to see those new opportunities. It’s definitely true in surfing when you only really start understanding how to catch a wave when you’re prepared to drop down its face and have faith that it’ll turn out okay – and hey, even if it doesn’t you just wipe-out, come back up to the surface, turn around and paddle out the back out once more.
For my part, six years ago I’d have found it hard to believe that in only a few years I’d be living by the sea, writing and surfing rather than chasing around the country’s county courts. In fact, I still have to pinch myself that that’s what I’m doing.
So, follow your dreams, take risks and have faith. And above all remember that in a few years you won’t remember a word of what I’ve just said!

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