Strutting your mutt

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By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Saturday afternoon and there is only one place to be – the Badley Behaved Dog Show and Fête on the Dunhurst pitches.  Zazu (usually benign, although sometimes dramatically not so, but always unthinking, black labrador) and I arrive a little late to find it all well under way.  There’s so much to do – much sniffing and greeting: gloating bulldogs, spry labradoodles, dopey Afghans (or it that a coat?) and even some mutts who look as if they have been specially coiffured up for the occasion.  Aha!  And there is little Toby, the most popular male mammal in the Petersfield area and one of the main reasons for visiting Bedales reception, where he presides. Another youngster wags in the distance – it’s Diggerty Cross.   And there is so much for dogs and their owners to do: Waggiest Tail, Cutest Puppy, Best Veteran, Best Pedigree Gundog, Dog Most like its Owner (steer clear of that one…) and Best Fancy Dress.  As for we two legged ones, the cream teas are beguiling, the Dalmatian Bouncy Castle inviting and as for the Waterfight Zone, well it’s soaking them up.

Zazu and I are having a nice, tranquil time: I am meeting people whom I generally know – or have met – she is meeting all sorts of new friends and is yet to have one of her cross / snarly moments.  I am not taking too many chances, having her on a (literally) very short leash.  Then, our quietish afternoon is suddenly changed by the request from the now hoarse chair of governors, Matthew Rice, that I take over the commentary from him. Whoops!  From being in gentle post-prandial, smallish talk mode to needing to sound canine-savvy amongst the doggy cognoscenti.  I haven’t even checked over breeds or warmed up the dog anecdotes. I’ve never listened to those legendary cricket commentators who can talk about nothing endlessly.  Never mind, just crack on.  It reminds me of when I was asked to  give a pep talk to a school pipes (ie bagpipers) and drums band one summer evening with about ten seconds’ notice.  I summoned up the “up and at ’em” and tried to avoid St Crispin Day echoes.

Off we go: and there is a soppy looking collie-ish creature, but what do I call it? And how can I say something not entirely fatuous about that fancy dress without it upsetting someone, probably the bearer? Things settle down after a bit. Funny how you discover – for better of worse – a kind of style.  Some of the old yarns come back.  There’s a seasonal factor here: in the summer term I need to think about dogs in advance of my annual dog assembly, so I am reminiscing about previous ones – the march of the labradors, and five things you can learn from a dog, being talks that spring to mind.  So, we have a bit of labrador breed history thrown in – and I have to break off to advertise those delicious cream teas before we get to the bit about that buoyantly woolly breed the Newfoundland.  Did you know…  Best thing is to give the microphone to the winners and to hear their stories – the rescue dogs’ owners’ being the best.

The sun continues to shine and our visitors depart, leaving the wonderful volunteers – parents and colleagues – to clear up.  More people now know about the John Badley Foundation: it enables children to come to our schools from families whose circumstances mean that a Bedales education would otherwise be completely out of reach. Perhaps they will associate it with panting geniality and cuddly hounds. There’s also something about this cranky and colourful afternoon that chimes with that fragile but precious thing, our ethos.  A medley of human and canine colour, it is a celebration of what we hold dear and of those wonderfully eccentric and precious bonds that tie us to our four legged companions: cheerful, a little quirky, certainly genial, inclusive, celebratory, colourful and proud to carve its own path.

Technicolor worlds, bravely lit

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Wednesday was one of the highly flavoured days when I have a series of technicolor moments that animate life, even in November’s neutral tones, and make me feel very lucky to be doing the job I am.

Bedales Notices first thing not only includes adverts for the forthcoming Hunger Banquet, production of Medea and visit to Florence (please wear a coat too), but a Movember message from moustachioed men: the message from Boys’ Flat housemaster duo Chris Bott and Peter Thackrey is about men’s health – let’s talk about it, blokes – but it’s done with humour and humanity.

Over to Dunhurst now for my weekly lesson with Block 1 English and another short poem for us to explore. After reading short gems like Larkin’s Cut Grass and local lad Thomas’s Adlestrop, this week we are talking about Yeats’ Wild Swans at Coole. 

The Block 1’s initial insights are impressive and I think of an adage a recent interviewee slipped in (“Children can smell qualilty..”) as I move along the corridor to the packed hall where Dunannie’s production of The Tempest is about to begin.

The children have been engaged in the story both through their teachers and through a visiting story teller. It’s clear from the first moment that the Dunannie children have truly inhabited the story. The adaptation, wonderfully constructed by teachers Camilla Bell and Catherine Claasen, with music by Ben Harlan and Mea Wade, comprises twelve scenes that light the imagination.

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Anchored especially in my mind’s album are moments such as the Boatswains’ song with its great rhymes, the evil Duke’s wicked single black glove, Caliban’s green gloves and the meeting between Miranda (with her classy umbrella) and the marooned Prince Ferdinand.

There’s something magical about The Tempest, which is a dramatisation of a kind of fairy tale, being brought to life by such a young audience, with parents and grandparents looking on as this tale of greed and envy being redeemed by forgiveness and the hope of youth is played out.

Bravo, Dunannie!

Random remembrance

Curious business being ill, especially in a place so full of activity as a boarding school where the sense of your own immobile hopelessness is so marked by comparison with the activity that surrounds you – and that you are missing out on.  The flu lurgy confines me to bed during the day and to doing little but sleeping, half listening to Radio 4 and trying to be patient. In the evenings, I give way to the Christmas present box set of the Wire and start that journey – dangerously compelling, I have been advised.  I soon see why – and it has an intriguing educational sub-plot.

Whether it is because my dopey mind is especially alert to past remembrance or the simple happenstance of what’s on the radio, but I find myself being drawn back into childhood memories.

Here is Joan Bakewell, talking about the Arts and her role in bringing discussion of them onto television. In taking the time to listen to her story, my mother’s admiration for her in the early 1970s as representative of a new kind of woman makes yet more sense.  Then there are more Wogan tributes and I find myself back in my first study at school – which seemed to my 15 year old mind like a pasha’s chamber but was no doubt a horrid little box – listening to Radio 2 and loving the dry, suave Terry wit.  And (here we go again), most poignant of all, now it’s the radio adaptation of The Forsyte Saga and I am back watching my parents watching the ITV series on Sunday evenings in 1967.  I see some of it – very much over their shoulders.  They are clearly transfixed and have mixed feelings about my interest: my 10 year old self can’t quite understand why on either score, but I am aware of their discomfort over something horrible that Soames does.  The word “affair” seems to be around a lot, accompanied by many adults looking at their shoes.  Hasn’t Eric Porter/Soames got an unnaturally lined cheek?  And don’t those lovely women (Susan Hampshire and Nyree Dawn Porter) look far too nice for those opinionated men?

I think I read somewhere that you can only start to see your parents’ lives fully as history when both are dead –  have ‘turned to past’, as that master of unrosy remembrance, Philip Larkin puts it.  Having therefore been in that category since mid October, I can see the truth of that.  I also suspect that we prepare our young people too little for the shut of loss that comes with losing loved ones – and here is a pledge to do more on that front at Bedales.

Which brings me to a little furry fellow I didn’t love but was fond of and has been a bit player in this blog – the small whitish West Highland terrier, Ailsa, who joined us shortly after we moved here in September 2001 and who met a peaceful end yesterday having just managed her morning constitutional and climbed the hill in Cobb’s Field for the last time.  She has featured in my annual dog assembly every June for the past few years, most notably when I began the assembly holding her (freshly barbered and unnaturally white) up to the troops with the words “I do not love this dog!”  My statement was met by sighs whose verbal equivalent was: “Keith you hard-hearted fellow.”    I think the assembly was about the stretch in the word ‘love’ and a dogs’ role in helping us understand what and who really do matter.

Literature: adapting for today

Tempting though it might be to lob into the current debate on co-ed vs single sex education, I won’t. There are schools of all complexions and degrees of quality: the fit for your child and the quality of the school are far more important criteria for parental choice than gender mix.

More pressing in my mind is the business of reading and how the great literature of the past is adapted for a modern audience.

But first, to the topical.  A question I tend to ask of Bedales students on their return from holiday is: “Have you read or seen anything interesting?” Quite often they will choose to talk about what they have read – often their reading is different from mine, although,as an avid book review scanner, I tend to be aware of their books’ existence; often my reading is informed by what students are reading; occasionally the conversation dips into my talking about what I have been reading over the holidays.  I am always interested in what was the spur to their reading – a friend or a teacher, usually.  It is worth noting that by reading, I neither (of course) mean fiction nor sitting down with a printed volume – but I do think that students are increasingly aware that there is a qualitative difference between the browsing and article-scanning that internet-based research tends to involve and the in-depth, sustained concentration that reading a conventional book, whether on a kindle or on paper, requires.

I will return in a later blog to some of the choices that students are making in their own reading and to mine, but now to the link  between this and its adaptation for a modern audience.  Dickens, Shakespeare and Tolstoy – there you go, three big names we can scare ourselves with; but they are all pertinent to this debate and its central question: what license has the modern adapter to communicate these authors’ works to today’s audience?

Dickens is dear to my heart for reasons similar to why Orwell is – as an author whose writing had a significant effect in shaping our national consciousness and in reflecting back to us what was fair, decent and humane in the way in which we treat our fellow human beings.  Dickens should be read – or if not read, should be known about, so, although I return to Dickens every Christmas (Our Mutual Friend this one), I am as much interested in how he is brought alive for TV as anything; so it was good finally to see one of the current Dickens soap-opera Dickensian last night. Having been snooty about the idea (that you create a story out of a miscellany of Dickens characters), I thought it was cracking telly and engaged the audience with the delight and quirkiness of his characters.  It must also motivate people to read more of him.

The jury is out on how the views of the immensely talented Emma Rice, the new director of the Globe Theatre, will translate to that wonderful outdoor space, with its central role in advancing our Shakespearean heritage in this the year when we celebrate his  400th birthday.  I am all in favour of re-apportioning roles between the genders – to redress the fact that only 16% of lines in Shakespeare are allocated to women, but less confident that her approach to ironing out some of the difficulties in the language will do much else other than drain the richness out of his words.  Tom Sutcliffe’s piece in The Guardian is strong on this.

Finally, to Tolstoy and the good-looking new adaptation.  As a number of commentators have pointed out, it is trying to play the Downton trick: presenting us with a bewitchingly attractive world from the past that never existed and weaving a story out of it – good, escapist fun, but little to do with England or Russia respectively.  I doubt many people will pick up the mighty tome of War and Peace as a result of it – neither will they be alerted to the radical side of Tolstoy which made him such a controversial figure, as well, incidentally, as a big admirer of Bedales (yes, true..). I suspect that social historians in 30 years’ time will be discussing these shows for what they say about how we see ourselves now.

If that sounds curmudgeonly, let me end on a more upbeat note: the fact that the triple peaks of these three great authors are so much in the public eye is a feature of our national cultural life that most countries sadly lack and that we should be (of course, quietly) proud of.  Schools and teachers have no excuse not to be the beneficiaries.

 

 

Fun constructing: the wright stuff

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Construction is in the air – literally in the case of the steel skeleton of the new Art & Design building, which is being assembled like a piece of outsized meccano in the previously undisturbed sky outside Steephurst. It is also proceeding apace outside Design, where Sammy M’s gracefully engineered skateboard ramp is nearing completion. No doubt the final layers of varnish are being applied to pieces we will admire on Parents’ Day.

But it is the shaping of word and song that I want to celebrate for a moment. Here are three topical instances from across the age range.

Sunday, 4 pm Bedales Olivier theatre – the cast and crew of Everyone else is a superhero are working hard in the Olivier theatre as their all-in weekend nears its conclusion. It is the first time that I have seen these Block 3s and 4s in action and they seem somehow (given that they have been working on this play for 24 hours already) to still have boundless energy. I sit and watch. Are they rehearsing or are they constructing the play? In my (of course) old-fashioned way I still think that you find a play on a page and then you, well, do it; but life in the theatre has become much more interesting than that – so, no, you old fuddy duddy, you devise a play, creating something out of an idea and, lo, the play is constructed from the process. However much I know that this can happen in theory and indeed I have seen recent evidence of its success with Phil King’s productions, here I am, watching a rehearsal and I am seeing this play evolve. It is being made. Stuff happens in the rehearsal – yes, some funny and unexpected stuff (secret for the time being); and, yes, the funny, accidental stuff has gone into the play, with the decision being made instantaneously – bold and clever, I say, especially as at some point (I hope by now) Richard Weinman who is our director in residence, needs to say, “STOP, THAT’S IT, NO MORE CHANGES!” And the play will stop evolving and start being honed towards performance. Anyway I am looking forward to seeing how it turns out and I think it will be funny and thought-provoking – in the Theatre from Saturday onwards. It will have been great fun to be in – and a brilliant bit of education.

Monday, 7.30, Drama studio – three short plays performed by 6.1s. All have been written by sixth formers for the National Theatre’s New Views competition. Each is about 15 minutes long. The actors have had the unusual experience of working closely with the authors (their peers). The subject matter – lives on the edge, literally in one case – demands a high level of skill in the writing – especially that tricky business of creating dialogue that works. All three of the plays have something to say to the packed audience. Impressively all three scripts have been learnt and are performed with feeling. It’s a gutsy and powerful occasion.

Wednesday, 9.15, Dunhurst Well – the world premiere of The Gruffalo, the opera – musical settings and songs composed by the children of Dunannie. Here is the spirit of devising and improvising at large in Dunannie. Under the inspiring guidance of Mea Wade and Ben Harlan, the children have improvised tunes for the words of The Gruffalo. The tunes have been then quickly written down as they are being sung and chords have been created to support them. So what we hear in the Well was lots of different tunes stuck together with chords to make one coherent melody. First, the Forest Overture is performed by the Dunnanie Orchestra. Each creature has its signature tune, so for example the owl’s call is created on a battery of xylophones and recorders. Then comes that story itself, with the full choir in support. It is rapturously received: bravo!

Numbers, Keiths and Keith numbers

Those of you who are Mike Leigh fans will know that the unglamorous reputation of the name, Keith, received a further kick when the unbelievably annoying protagonist of his early film,  Nuts in May, married to Candice Marie (almost as tedious) was given the Keith moniker. “K-e-e-ith” she would say in her dreary voice, as he indulged his officious enthusiasm for knowing the codes of individual trunk roads during their ill-fated camping holiday in Devon. I suspect that being a Keith was moderately unfashionable when I became one. Mike Leigh helped consolidate the process. When a Keith (say, this one) meets another, he will often share a moment or two of Keith kinship – along the lines of “How is it for you, being a Keith?” Sympathetic looks are exchanged amongst the fraternity.

Well, imagine my delight when, during the presentation being given by the Mathematics department to the Bedales  Schools’ Governors on Friday afternoon, I discover that there are things called Keith numbers. I have been so dazzled by the Italianate splendours of the Fibonacci sequence, not to mention the homely Grecian charm of Pythagoras and the wallowing of Archimedes in his bath that I have overlooked the genius of Keith numbers.  OK, I need to let slip now that the Keith whose eponymous numbers caused me such excitement has a surname which is Keith but author (Mike) Keith- can still count an achievement for the clan of Keiths.

Most of you will no doubt be familiar with Keith numbers but for those who aren’t, here goes – and thanks to Darran Kettle (Head of Blocks’ Maths) and Su Robinson (Head of Groups’ Maths) at Bedales Prep, Dunhurst, for the worksheet we were all given on Friday afternoon so that we could keep doing some Maths over the weekend.

Keith numbers have a property which is like this. To see if an n-digit number is a Keith number, write out the sequence that starts with the n-digits of the number; then, to get each new term, add the previous n terms.

Here is an example: 197 is a 3 digit (Keith) number, so we form the sequence:

1, 9, 7,     1+9+7= 17,   9+7+17=33,   7+17+33 = 57, 107, 197.

You will notice that we had to work out the last two, but this will help you appreciate the magic that leads to this unusual property whereby you start with 1, 9, 7 and end up with 197. So, now have a go at proving that 47 is a Keith number…

Right, smarty pants, you have done that, so now find all the other Keith numbers less than 100.  (Clue: there are five.)

Discovering things like this can be called recreational maths. How widely that term is used, I don’t know, but this chance encounter has got me thinking about Maths and Maths teaching: it seems to me the great feat of good Maths teaching is to show people that all Maths can be recreational – i.e. fun and useful. Since I started teaching, I have always tried to see as much good Maths teaching as possible. In my year’s teaching exchange amongst the lotus-eaters of California in Pebble Beach, I quickly learnt that there was a legendary Maths teacher by the name of Senuta. I went to see him in action. It was a brilliant revelation – students were laughing, learning, questioning and discovering. Senuta walked round the class helping people – with a smile on his face. The fear and paralysing solitariness of too many Maths classrooms was nowhere to be seen.

My father was a history graduate and started off teaching that subject, but early on in his teaching career started teaching Maths to some of the less quick Maths sets at a senior school. I remember him explaining to me that because Maths hadn’t come naturally to him at school but he had worked away at it and become quite competent, he felt in a good position to help those who didn’t find it easy to master it. My first bursar here, Bruce Moore, was taught by him and produced one of my father’s splendidly brief and spidery reports for me to see.

So, were reincarnation to be a possibility and were I able to express a preference, then learning how to make Maths as approachable as I now often see it taught would be up there on my preferences.