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Old Eds inspire Chief's Founder's Day address

16 November 2009

The following address was given by the Chief Master, John Claughton (1975) at Founders day last month:

"Last Saturday, for the first time ever, there was a dinner held at school for those who left King Edward's School in the 1960s. At that dinner I sat opposite two men, one called Paul Griffiths, the other Frank Booth.

Paul Griffiths was an academic star in this school. He was obviously a very clever boy who, in the end, won an Open Scholarship to Lincoln College, Oxford to read Biochemistry. You can see his name on the boards as you go out. Well, in fact, you can now, but for years his name has been hidden behind the dark seats in the Crush Hall. He said that, during the school holidays, he was allowed to do experiments in the labs at school here, on his own and unsupervised. There's a thought for the Health and Safety Committee. So, by the time he went to Oxford, he had done much of the work for his degree already. So, he spent his time at Oxford reading books on music and music history. After he finished his degree, he continued with some scientific research, but soon he became a music writer and music critic. Indeed, he became the chief music critic of the Times at the age of 34 and then spent ten years in New York writing for the New York Times and the New Yorker. He has written twenty books translated into 10 languages, some on music, some novels. He has written the standard history of western music. Indeed, one copy of that book will be handed out here this evening. That book, the Concise History of western Music is 300 pages long and took him only 7 weeks to write. He suddenly realised in November one year r that he had to finish it by the end of December. A man after my own heart. His most recent book is called ‘Let me tell you' and is a novel about Ophelia in Hamlet. The only difficulty in writing that novel is that he chose to use only the words that Ophelia uses in the play. That's fewer than 500 words. That book took him fourteen years, not 7 weeks, to write. He has lectured on music and music history at Harvard and Cornell and Princeton and Oxford. He has done remarkable things and, I'd suggest, earned not a great deal.

Frank Booth was a rather different story. He wasn't a star at this school, except as a runner. In his time about 75 out of 100 boys sat the Oxbridge examinations each year. The exams were held in Big School just like A Levels and GCSEs are now. He said that, as he sat in Big School for that exam, he did the following calculation. He reckoned that of the 75 candidates, about 50 would get in to Oxford or Cambridge. That was the norm: ah, glory days. So, he reckoned that he needed to be better than 25 boys sitting in Big School. He looked round and could only see 1. Somehow, despite such low expectations, he was accepted by Oxford. The Chief Master, Canon RG Lunt, wrote to congratulate him with the words ‘The good news is all the more pleasing for being totally unexpected.' Ah, if only my UCAS references were so honest. Frank read Medicine in Oxford and undertook an elective in America. And, as a result of the contacts he made there, he soon returned and stayed for the next 40 years, enjoying a highly successful career in Medicine and, after retirement from Medicine, in pharmaceuticals. And, I'd guess, he has made quite a lot of money. He certainly seemed to have had a very rich and fulfilling life.

So what? Well, talking to these two men during the evening brought two thoughts to me. The first was the opportunities that education in a school like this offered them and will offer to all of you. Many of you sitting here, waiting for your multiple Distinction prizes, are amongst the great of your generation. You will be able to do great things. I just hope that each one of you uses that opportunity to pursue what you really love, what really matters. Some of you sitting here, may not feel that you are amongst the greats of this school. You might even feel a bit ordinary in such exalted company. But you aren't ordinary, you're no more ordinary than Frank Booth. Indeed, you're not ordinary at all. The statistical data that we have about boys on entry tells us that the average boy, the average boy in this school, is in the top 2.5% of the population in terms of ability. And that average boy here is most likely to get 5 A*s or more at GCSE and straight A grades at A level, or a lot of IB points and go to one of the top ten universities of this country. And those supposedly average boys, who rarely find themselves at Founder's Day or Speech Day, are just as likely as ‘the great' to be musicians and games players, NCOs in the CCF, winners of Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award. Perhaps we sometimes forget that. Perhaps we should try hard not to forget the goodness of the average here. Frank Booth showed me that.

The second thought prompted by my conversations was the importance of teachers. All of the 1960s survivors on Saturday talked with vivid memories of teachers and moments that were burned into their souls or changed their lives. So, now, I would also like to say thank you to some teachers who are leaving us a Christmas in indecent haste. Claire Mousset and Alison Harvey have played their part in the rotational system that is the Modern Languages Department and will both be missed for their deep professionalism. Neil Burch, having done a wonderful job as a teacher, Form Tutor and hockey coach, is going, after only four terms, to be Head of Chemistry at Bradfield College. To be honest, the general body of the Common Room is quite relieved. Since he runs half marathons and cycles from Land's End to John O'Groats most weekends, we just cannot afford to meet his sponsorship demands. And then there is the double dip of the departure of Clare Reeve from the Art Department and Jonathan Pitt from the Geography Department to teach in Chile. I find it hard to conceive that field trips in the Andes or by the Pacific Ocean can match a nice day in Morecambe or on Wenlock Edge.

Perhaps I could dwell for a moment on that other Old Edwardian, Jon Pitt, and consider the relation between goodness and greatness. As a coach of water polo here, Jon has not always been good - even though I have the deepest respect a man who gets sent from the pool side on a regular basis for caring too much - but he has achieved great things here with water polo. In the last two years, he has not only won the national championships at both Under 18 and Under 16. Not only have boys from the school gone on to play for and even captain national sides. He has created so great a dynasty that the swimming pool is barely big enough to get in it all the boys who want to play the sport. Walsall Baths have truly seen some glory days.

However, there is one departure that is not premature, nor in indecent haste. I mean George Andronov. And when it comes to greatness, there is no doubt that George is great. it may be flawed greatness, mad greatness, grumpy greatness, scruffy greatness, mad greatness but greatness it is. George Andronov is not retiring until Christmas, but I thought that, if I said farewell to him now, it would mean that he would have to go.

I'd like to start by telling George's story, a remarkable story, a more remarkable story than that of Paul Griffiths or Frank Booth. George's father came from Bukhara, a great city of the Silk Road, deep in what is now Uzbhekistan. George's father was in the Russian Horse Artillery and early in the war he was captured by the Germans and forced to work for them, migrating across Europe. George's mother travelled with him, although they were yet married. George's father was finally liberated by the Americans in Brest in Brittany and the couple came to England. These liberated Russians were a deep problem for the British. The Russians wanted them back in Russia, but the British knew that, on their return, they would be punished for collaborating with the Germans. Even so, under the Yalta Agreement, many Russians were sent back to Russia and death. But the Andronovs weren't sent back. Why? Because during the time of waiting, George Andronov was born, in Britain, a British national. So, the authorities decided that the family shouldn't go back. I suppose that George saved their lives.

Well, George has saved my life a few times in the last four years, but that isn't the only thing that makes George great.

Perhaps George wasn't always great. At the age of 11 he did really well in the Maths exam for Dulwich but the English of this Russian boy wasn't good enough for him to get in. So he went to a local grammar school, not such a bad fate. Even so he had an outstanding academic career as a physicist at Imperial College, London and Cambridge. Then he came into teaching and came here in September 1975. Not all Chief Masters have always appreciated George's greatness. He was not always this smartly turned out chap that you see this evening. His early nickname was Caveman and he worked hard to live up that low opinion, wondrously untidy, with lab coat and little else appropriate, perpetually at war with the Chief Master about his appearance, his failure to turn up to Big School Assembly, his defence of the Common Room television set. George has a wonderful collection of increasingly aggravated notes from the Chief Master.

If you want to see this greatness you need only pay a visit to the lair of the Great Russian Bear. There you will find many wondrous things. You will find George teaching an individual boy, on his white board, just above the biggest slide rule in the world. Whatever else is, George is a teacher and a lover of teaching, a lover of Physics and teaching Physics. You will find boys working on George's Train, invented by the Great Train Driver two years ago to support the weak of will. You will find ridiculous photos of Russian peasantry and ridiculous postcards and ridiculous drawings by young children and passages from books , the rich and ever-changing patch-work of George's life. You will find someone who will engage with any topic or idea and make connections: this truly is a Russian intellectual. You will find ridiculous mottos or a simple sign that says ‘No.': And you will find every piece of information about the school, past and present, you could ever want. And you will find Edward Andronov's games kit and you will find grown-ups, many of them in tears. It's not always easy to work out whether they have arrived in tears and are being consoled or have arrived in good heart and have been reduced to tears by George. For, he does have it in him on occasions, as if he were some character from Tolstoy, to say exactly what he thinks or feels about you.

If George ever had a job description, I have lost it and it doesn't matter anyway. George has been involved in all aspects of school life in his career and, as Deputy Chief Master, just run the school. And he has run it by dealing with infinite minute particulars, by infinite acts of kindness, by means of intelligence and a visceral love of the school and its staff and, above all, ifs pupils and with massive commitment of time and thought to everyone and every thing. He will fall of his bike for the school, survive serious illness for the school, even go drinking with people, and for long periods of time, for the school if that's what it takes to make the school work.

Behind George, or actually waiting in the car for George, is Maeve. I find it hard to conceive that she hasn't won the Nobel Peace prize for her efforts, but she, too deserves the thanks of this school. I cannot conceive that Maeve can be relishing the prospect of having him round the house all the time. But we'll have him back any time. And I know he won't come back. George has had a remarkable life, remarkable in its history and also remarkable in its achievement and richness. He forms a big piece in the jigsaw that is the history of this school that goes back to Edward VI 457 years ago. For George, as for Paul Griffiths and Frank Booth, education was the liberator. It set him free and gave him the chance to enact his intellect and his character, and his greatness. I hope that the same will be true for the boys who are sitting here, and for those who aren't sitting here this evening."