About a month ago, I made a speech at the Salford Grammar School Old Boys’ Dinner.
My two older brothers are stalwarts of the Old Boys’ Committee and have been badgering me for years to get on my hind legs and say something at the annual event. Somehow I’ve managed to avoid attending it for most of the last forty years.
There were several reasons for this. The dinner is always on a Thursday evening, and when I was a full-time teacher in London, it was more or less impossible to get to Salford on a Thursday. More recently, the dinner has often coincided with one of my spring ELT conference visits.
This year, I had no such excuse…
For those of you not familiar with the geography of this sceptred isle, this earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, this other Eden – oh, sorry, got carried away with a speech from Richard II, there…. if you don’t know where the city of Salford is, it’s stuck like a limpet to the west side of Manchester. Salford used to be heavily industrial, now it isn’t. The BBC has recently re-located a sizeable part of its radio operation to a new site there. The long-running TV soap Coronation Street is set in Salford.
If you know the paintings of LS Lowry, then you may also know that Salford is the backdrop for most of his work. Below is a Lowry painting which is actually called Coronation Street.
Old boys of Salford Grammar School include actor Albert Finney, film director Mike Leigh, singer Graham Nash (Crosby, Stills and Nash) and two members of Joy Division, Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner. And if you know anything about gardening, you may be a fan of Dr D G Hessayon, author of the Expert gardening books, which have sold about fifty million copies. Up there with Headway, in fact. 🙂
If you haven’t heard of Dr Hessayon, you can read about him here – http://bit.ly/IERm1q
Salford Grammar School opened in Leaf Square in the centre of the city in 1932. Salford isn’t actually that leafy. Leaf Square is in fact named after Mr J G Leaf, who financed the construction of several public buildings in the area.
In 1956, the school moved to more spacious premises opposite Buile Hill Park, one of Salford’s nicest open spaces. It was in the dining room of the museum in Buile Hill Park that I made my speech at the Old Boys’ Dinner last month. Across the road from the park, where the school I attended used to be, there is now a building site.
On the day of the Old Boys’ Dinner, I drove from London to Yorkshire to pick up my brother Graham, then we drove across the Pennines to Manchester to pick up my other brother Geoff, then into Salford, past the building site that used to be my school and into Buile Hill Park.
We were amongst the first to arrive, and as the two hundred or so Old Boys drifted in, I noticed someone who was in the same year as me. A short man, he had been an aggressive boy at school, not very interested in studying, but a very good football player. He was very confrontational and was also good at looking after himself. I remember not liking him very much and that the feeling was mutual.
I approached him. “I’m really sorry, I’ve forgotten your name,” I said.
“Paul Calder,” he replied. (I’ve changed the name, so don’t google him!)
“I remember you were a very good soccer player,” I added, courting favour madly.
“Right,” he replied. “I just didn’t have a very good attitude.”
Well, at least he seemed to have developed some self-awareness.
I was interested and a bit surprised to hear that he had been good enough to sign for Manchester City. He played for two years in their reserve team and then moved into semi-professional football. I suppose I was surprised because he wasn’t very tall. I think smaller football players have to be very good to get to the top – think of the Barcelona trio of Messi, Xavi and Iniesta.
We sat down and were served a very good meal by the well-trained waitstaff at the dining room. As the time approached for me to make a speech, I rather wanted to go away and find a quiet corner. Unfortunately, that wasn’t an option.
The prospect of talking to a large group of men aged between 55 and 85, most of whom had consumed a fair amount of alcohol, was definitely outside my comfort zone. It didn’t help that various people had told me that both of my brothers had made brilliant speeches at the OB Dinner before. I was very aware of the fact that – for this kind of audience at least – I’m simply not in the same class as they are.
For a start, I don’t tell jokes, at least not ones that will amuse a large group of tanked-up Salfordian men. And I don’t live in the north, whereas the vast majority of the people there that evening still live within a few kilometres of where they grew up. And most of them seemed to have done pretty well for themselves.
But the thing that was worrying me most was that I had decided to talk about the only thing I really know about, which is teaching. I was having terrible second thoughts, but there wasn’t much I could do about it now…
I was the second person to make a speech. The first had been some important local cleric. I was surprised that his speech lacked a central theme, and consisted mainly of a series of rather lame jokes. There had been a certain amount of unrest in the room as he plodded on. Paul Calder was clearly bored and talked quite loudly to the people at his table, and even the ones at a neighbouring table, during the speech.
Now it was my turn. The chair of the association introduced me. “To propose the toast to the school, I’d like to welcome Ken Wilson,” he said. “Ken lives in Fulham and is a season ticket holder at Fulham Football Club, apparently.”
He paused. A mixture of boos and sympathetic laughter filled the room.
“And I’m told he’s written a lot of books. For teachers. And for people in China.”
This rather random description of my working life seemed to puzzle most of the assembled Old Boys into silence.
“Anyway, he’s the youngest of the three Wilson brothers, and he’s the last one of them to make a speech at The Dinner. And, let’s be honest, he’s going to have to be good to compare with Geoff and Graham. Gentlemen, I give you Mister Ken Wilson!”
“You can keep him!” yelled Paul Calder.
So now I was on my feet, and the microphone was in my hand.
I started with a story about taking my brother Graham to meet Albert Finney backstage at Wyndhams Theatre in London after a performance of Yasmina Reza’s play Art. Most people found it quite amusing, but Paul Calder started a noisy conversation with his neighbours.
I decided to intervene.
“Paul,” I said. “I know you were a much better football player than me, but this is my speech, so I’d be grateful if you’d just button it for a minute, OK? I’ll have a word with the committee and maybe you can make a speech next year, but this is my turn, so just pipe down.”
I had never delivered a put-down like that before. It isn’t usually required at ELT conferences, where I give most of my talks. There was a moment’s silence. And then a round of applause. The audience were on my side!
And I began to talk about teaching and different types of teacher. And what I said clearly stirred up a hornets’ nest for a lot of people there that evening…
I’ll tell you why next time….
I’ve been asked by one of my classmates at Salford Grammar School to correct the ‘rubbish’ (his word) history of the school that I wrote above – so here is his bullet-pointed correction:
- Founded 1904 as Salford Secondary School for Boys, sharing the building of the Royal Technical Institute which had opened eight years earlier.
- Moved to purpose-built premises of its own in Leaf Square in 1914.
- Changed name to Salford Grammar School in 1932. It was purely a name change for a 28-year-old school.
- Moved to new premises at Claremont 1956.
- Merged with Salford Technical High School in 1969 to form Salford Grammar/Technical School.
- Abolished 1973.
So now you know 😀