Rohan has kindly permitted the circulation of the piece. If you quote from it, please give Rohan Candappa the credit – he deserves it.
Thank you Mavis.
Recent events have proved to me that the two most important things in this world are ‘words’ and ‘geography’. I’ve always known this as I’m a writer, and I studied ‘geography’ at university.
Now, I know you’re probably thinking ‘what on earth is this fool on about?’ I mean, you’ll probably give me words, but ‘geography’?
Okay, let me prove my point, consider this sentence ‘2016 will always be remembered as the year in which a popular black president stood down, and was replaced by an idiot’.
Oh. Maybe I should have said ‘2016 will always be remembered as the year in which, IN AMERICA, a popular black president stood down and was replaced by an idiot.’
Words and geography. Make all the difference.
Anyway, I’m a writer, and what I’m going to do is read some stuff out to you. And the way I’m rationalising the kind of performance that I’m developing – is that I’m having a thought, and then taking it for a walk.
And I’d like to invite you all on that walk. To see where we end up.
But before I do ….David, you didn’t tell the joke. I thought you were going to tell the joke….
That’s a shame. It was a good joke.
Okay, a slight aside. When we first got together to discuss this evening David told a particular joke, and we all laughed, and then Chris said we can’t use it.
Probably because it was in poor taste. Or politically incorrect. Or both.
Now, obviously I can’t tell the joke because I am too sensitive and well mannered – but it was good joke…
So here’s what I suggest you do, over the course of the evening, go up to David when he’s on his own and say ‘What do we want?’, he’ll say something, then you come back with ‘When do we want it?’ and he’ll deliver the punch line.
That’s alright isn’t it David?
Anyway moving, on.
I’ve got a piece to read, take about 15…hours. No, minutes, minutes. I know you’re hungry.
So let’s have a thought, and take it for a walk, and see where we end up.
It’s funny what we remember. It’s not always what other people remember.
Take this evening.
When Chris first started talking about it he brought up the following incident.
When we were at school the football team made it to a final. The final was held at the ground of Dulwich Hamlet. And during the match, there was a point, or there were several points where we, as supporters of that well known Sarf Lunnun football firm of ‘Alleyns’ started chanting ‘South London, Nah, Nah, Nah!’
Then, apparently, when we got back to school, our behaviour in chanting this chant was berated by Mr Fenner, the Head Master, in no uncertain terms.
And, in part, this incident is what Chris has based his theme for his year as President.
Now the thing is, I was at that match. I was in that crowd. And I have no recollection of the ‘South London, Nah, Nah, Nah’ chant happening.
So it’s funny what we remember, because what we remember, isn’t always what other people remember.
But that’s the glory of being alive. We are individuals. We see the world and interpret the world individually. But we live collectively. And part of our challenge as individuals is to find a way to live collectively.
That’s one of the thing school does for us. In part, in this place, within this school, I learned how to be an individual, but also to function as part of a society. And that played a big part in forging my identity. And I guess I’m not alone in that, or why else would we all be here?
So if a school is a key factor in defining personal identity, which it is, – then what defines the identity of a school.
And does the fact that this school, my school, our school, is in South London have any bearing on that identity?
But before we get to a decision on that, let’s consider the whole concept of ‘South’.
For a start what does it even mean?
Well, that’s fairly obvious – it’s a direction. It’s one part of that set of directions that helps us navigate the world, helps us locate ourselves in the places we live. North, South, East, West. The John, Paul, George and Ringo of directions.
Or, and who else remembers this – Naughty, Elephants, Squirted ….. Water.
South was ‘Squirted’.
Look at a map of the world. Look at a globe, and ‘south’ is, the bit at the bottom. Everyone can agree upon that.
Everyone that is, except me.
Thanks to the power of independent thought that this school encouraged in me, I have stumbled upon this, quite literally world changing, revelation:
The world is a sphere. It floats in space.
There is no right way up for it to be. Given that, then what’s to stop ‘South’ being located at the top?
The only thing to stop it is convention.
Or picture a map of Britain. Well, why don’t we ever draw it, or imagine it, upside down? After all, it exists on the surface of a globe, and a globe is a sphere, and a sphere doesn’t have a top or a bottom.
So ‘south’ is a convention that we have invented, that we all agree upon, because if we didn’t agree on it how would we ever know where we truly are.
But let’s go further in this dissection of the concept of south. Let’s go further because one of the glories of the English language is that words don’t only have ‘meanings’ they also have associations.
So ‘south’ isn’t just a direction.
Things ‘go south’. Meaning they go off the boil, they fall apart.
Or there’s the concept of ‘The South’ in America – the Southern states, all confederate flags, slave owners mansions, and fried chicken.
Or that divide between Europe’s northern states, and its southern ones. That’s a concept wrapped up in all kinds of sub-concepts of power, economic development, even life-style.
Or what about Cockney rhyming slang. North and South. Mouth.
Or, let’s get even more granular – how do you even pronounce the word. Is it ‘South’? Is it ‘Souf’ as in S O U F? Or is it ‘Sarf’ as in S A R F?
I guess the answer to that depends on where you’ve come from.
Or, where you’ve ended up.
For me, as a kid, growing up just off Peckham Rye Park. I lived in S A R F, Sarf Lunnun. Lunnun, as in L U N N U N.
Now I’m older, and wiser, and much stupider, I will say that I grew up, and went to school, this school, in South London.
Clearly the school is still in the same place that it was. So equally clearly it must be me that has moved. In some way.
Anyway, delving deeper into the whole concept of South London, I discovered something really quite surprising. For most of the time South London did not exist.
London, was London, and that was north of the river. The bit to the south was an afterthought, an overspill, a poor relation.
I mean, just look at the buildings in north London. The Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, The Tower Of London, The Natural History Museum, St Paul’s, even the City Of London itself. It’s all north of the river.
What do we get? The short lived County Hall. Southwark Cathedral – which is just a very big church. And Dave Wellbrook’s house in Beckenham.
This isn’t the stuff of a major Metropolis.
South London wasn’t London.
So the pre-Uber, cab drivers legend of ‘ Sarf of the river, this time of night, you ‘avin’ a larf mate…’ isn’t an aberration. It’s how the world was. How the world was perceived.
South London was the wrong side of the river, south London was the Badlands, south London was ‘Here be Monsters’.
And you know what, South London Doesn’t Care. If it is the outsider, the underdog, the unacknowledged that’s just fine. Because that gives South London character. Strength. Maybe even ambition.
And it meant things could happen here.
Take Vauxhall, for instance. From about 1650 for 200 years it was one of the leading venues for public entertainment in the capital. 1785 the Vauxhall Gardens opened with attractions like tightrope walkers, concerts, fireworks, hot air balloon ascents and wooded walkways noted for… ‘romantic assignations’. Apparently, for 150 years, references to Vauxhall were as ubiquitous as, and have the same context as, references to ‘Broadway’ would later be. That was it’s cultural significance.
Or what about something with closer link to this school – The Globe. Shakespeare’s theatre, built in 1599 – closed by the Puritans in 1642. The Globe was at Bankside. The south side of the river.
The south, the outsider, the renegade, the challenger to the old order.
Or what about the founder of this school – Edward Alleyn. Yes, he was established, yes he was successful, yes he was wealthy. But he was an actor.
And acting, I would argue, is the South London of all the professions.
The outsider, the renegade, the risk-taker.
And isn’t that a perfect description of arguably the most creative person this country has produced in the last 100 years.
David Bowie was born in Brixton. He moved to Bromley. He is an individual born, and bred, and buttered, in South London.
So how does all this relate to this school? This institution?
I mean, look at it. It is a place of privilege. How on earth could it be the outsider, the other, the renegade?
Well, in my opinion, it can. Or at least in a sense it can.
Because we did come late to the party. God’s Gift had been given to many, many people before the first brick of this school had been laid.
We always were the outsider, the other, the renegade because we were not Dulwich College. So guess that what I’m arguing is that in this particular small universe, with its own particular laws of physics, and gravitational fields, I’m arguing that Dulwich College is North London, and we, we being Alleyn’s – is South London.
We are the outsider, the upstart, the challenger.
And that might sound like an irrelevant, contrived, spurious notion, but I think that it’s an important one. And one that isn’t just about looking backwards, but also about looking forwards. And here’s why.
I’ve said that this is a place of privilege – and it is. I’ve seen how much the school has developed since I was an inmate. I look at the academic results and have an absurd, totally unjustified sense of pride. I mean what’s it got to do with me?
I know that anyone would be lucky to come here. In so many ways it bestows advantages on its pupils. Or confirms the advantages those pupils already have. And I don’t mean that as a political judgement, I mean it as an observation.
But I think, embrace the concept of Alleyn’s as a South London school – with south being a construct that contains within in it ideas of being the outsider, the other, the renegade – then there is something else that comes into the mix for the school’s pupils.
Yes, advantage is an advantage for young people trying to find their way in an increasingly, and insanely, competitive world. But I believe that if you want to get on, if you want to really push the boundaries of what you have it in you to become, then what you need is not advantage, but edge.
North London doesn’t give you edge. South London gives you edge.
And that’s why I would argue that the fundamentally South London nature of this school is worth recognising, understanding, and celebrating. It’s a part of its heritage as much as the phrase ‘God’s Gift’, or the cornflower, or that time Mr Jenkins got pushed in the swimming pool on the last day of term.
Now, I mentioned at the start that I would be having a thought, and taking it for a walk, and what I’ve discovered is that when you do that you sometimes spot something off the path you’re on that’s worth checking out.
And what I spotted, on this occasion, was the phrase ‘God’s Gift’.
Now ‘God’s Gift’ is the motto of the school, the foundation. The first time I was really aware of it as a pupil, and thought about it, it felt slightly uncomfortable. That’s because it sounded, to me, arrogant. It sounded like we, the pupils, were saying we were ‘God’s Gift’.
There was also the fact that, at the time, the only other awareness I had of those words was in the disparaging phrase ‘He thinks he’s God’s Gift, to women’.
It was a put down.
But, I also knew that the phrase in the motto was actually referring to ‘education’ – education was God’s Gift.
Anyway, writing this piece I was thinking about the phrase and I have come to the conclusion that it needs redefining. Re-imagining. So I want to give it a context that makes sense to me. And maybe it’ll make sense to you.
I’m here tonight because Chris asked me to speak. This is not an event I have ever been to before. It never really appealed. But Chris asked me to come. And Chris is my friend.
And I thought about that.
And I realised that gift I received from this school wasn’t education. I would have got an education somewhere else. We all would.
The gift I received from this school was the friends I made while I was here. So John, Steve, Nigel, Ian, Olly, Chris, David. I’ve known all of you for the best part of forty years – you’re the gift. Thank you.
And I would imagine for others of you in this audience, who had the good fortune to go to this school, and also for those who have the good fortune to work here, the same holds true. This school has been, this school is, a crucible of friendships. And we forge bonds here that are hard to break.
I know that for a fact, because I’ve known these people for 40 years – and I’ve been trying to shake them off for at least 35. But they’re persistent…
We forge bonds here that are hard to break. And I would say to the headmaster, nurture that, cherish that, celebrate that. There is no exam results table that it features on, but to my way of thinking it paints a picture on a far bigger canvas. And it’s a beautiful picture.
Now I’ve wandered off the path for too long and need to find a way to get back to my central thesis and wind things up.
The central thesis being that Alleyn’s is a South London school, and that gives it, and its pupils, an edge.
Well if the concept of ‘South’ is all about being the outsider, the other, the renegade – if it’s all about not only about having an edge, but also, occasionally, going to the edge and jumping off. Doing the thing you’re not supposed to do, just to see what happens next, then there is only one logical place for me to finish this talk.
So here’s the joke Chris didn’t want us to tell…