In Celebration of Books and Strong, Free-Thinking Women ….

I enjoy blogging, but I love books.  That’s the only excuse I can offer on this occasion for the recent lull on the post front, sorry.  Also, I often now have to share the space between my eyes and the keyboard with a very large tabby and white cat called Atticus.  Atticus loves me a lot, and he is lovely, but there are other places it’s easier for him to be.  If he’s not blocking my vision when working at the computer or standing on the keypad, then he’s stretched out across the mouse mat – as he is now.  The problem here is obvious!  Atticus is undoubtedly a dangerous creature where blogging is concerned.

I didn’t post last Sunday as I was resting up before going down to GDST Trust Office on Monday and the weekend before that I was at The Radio 3 Free Thinking Festival at The Sage, Gateshead (Friday night, Saturday and Sunday) with old friends from the RGS English Department.  Which is where the books come into this.  It was an appropriately named Festival of ideas this year: The Speed of Life.

One of the stand-out speakers was Terry Waite, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s envoy taken captive by terrorists in Lebanon in 1987, who took part in a discussion on ‘Doing Time/Confinement’.  It was a sobering experience to shake hands with a man who had spent five years in confinement chained to a radiator, four of them in enforced silence.  What is most remarkable is what came ‘Out of the Silence’ (the title of his most recent book).  Creative output.  I hope this doesn’t sound like a crass comparison, but I can identify with that.  My time on Eskdale felt that way and this blog is the result.

Terry Waite signing ‘Out of the Silence’ .

My creative process isn’t a silent one tonight.  I have Radio 3 on very low in my left ear and Atticus snoring in my right one.  I usually blog in silence.  Perhaps that is why this is a different kind of post.  At Free Thinking time, The Sage often plays Radio 3 live on the Concourse and the café area is always enveloped in a fug of hub-bub.

Tom Service’s ‘The Listening Service’ on air live at The Sage.

You meet some very interesting people there too.  Like-minded, thinking people.  One person who certainly fitted that bill was Scott Handy, a jazz musician I met who, while studying at The Sage, had set himself the task to meet every single one of this year’s ‘Free-Thinkers’ in person.  I told him that this photograph would be online by a week gone Monday at the latest.  Many apologies there, Scott.

Scott Handy, jazz musician, after meeting Terry Waite too.

With ‘Giving Every Girl a Voice’ and ‘Truth Conquers All’ being synonymous with Church High, it won’t surprise you to hear, I’m sure, that I bumped into a few of our extended school family there.  Carol Greenwood was on her way to a different talk when I met her, but she looked in great form.  As were Trish Hutson and Hilary Temperley, both fondly remembered colleagues from the staff who saw out the final days together, forging bonds now as firm as family.

‘Free Thinking Women’ at the bar: so lovely to meet up with Trish Hutson and Hilary Temperley again (with RGS’s Simon Barker and Hazel Jones-Lee pictured in the background).

What I wasn’t expecting, however, was to show my ticket to – then do a double-take on – ‘Old Girl’ Alex Mackellar at Sage Two’s door.

Alex Mackellar, now a Junior School teacher, was doing a bit of moonlighting as well as free-thinking at The Sage.  It was good to see her.

I don’t know how many of you are aware of this, but a Church High ‘Old Girl’ who really was a free-thinker and whose voice was heard – and had a lasting impact – at both a national and international level – was Irene Ward.  Dame Irene, as she was later to become,  was for many years the longest-serving woman MP (Mother of the House) until that record was broken by Gwyneth Dunwoody in 2007.  Irene served almost 38 years in the House of Commons – no mean feat for a woman at that time or even now for that matter.  We should all be very proud that such a trail-blazing woman was one of our Alumnae.

Dame Irene Ward (far right) with the women MPs of 1959.

Whilst doing my research for the book I intend to write, I was delighted to see Dame Irene features in Josephine Kamm’s interestingly-titled book ‘Rapiers and Battleaxes: The Women’s Movement and its Aftermath’ – presumably Irene is in the latter category.   Referring to her as an accomplished member of the Conservative Party, Kamm records that Dame Irene laid a wreath on February 6th, 1962, at feminist, suffragist and union leader Dame Millicent Fawcett‘s  memorial in Westminster Abbey to commemorate the 44th anniversary of the grant of the vote to women over thirty.

Millicent Fawcett speaking at a Hyde Park Rally in 1913.
Irene Ward fighting for equal pay in 1954 (Getty Images).

Kamm writes of Dame Irene: ‘During her political career she has been respected always as a fearless fighter in many causes, among them equal pay, compensation to British victims of Nazi concentration camps, the provision of opera for the provinces, higher wages for fireman, and pocket-money for old people in institutions.  In 1961, she promoted the Nurses (Amendment) Act and in 1962 the Penalty for Drunkenness Act.’

Dame Irene speaking at the afternoon session of the Women’s Conservative Conference, Royal Festival Hall, London, May 28th 1968.

A couple of weeks earlier, on May 5th, at the age of 72 years, Dame Irene hit the headlines after being banned from the Houses of Parliament by the Speaker having staged a one-woman protest against what she called ‘dictatorship’.  Even after the Speaker announced her suspension, she continued to protest and only left when the Sergeant-at-Arms escorted her out.  The result of her action was a suspension for 5 sitting days of Parliament.  Truly a free-thinking lady!  The image below is the actual press photograph taken outside Dame Irene’s flat in Belgravia the night after she was suspended.

Dame Irene (72) after her suspension (Alamy).

I’m sure another redoubtable lady, Emily Davies (feminist, suffragist and pioneering campaigner for women’s rights), who interestingly spent her childhood and early adult life living in Gateshead, would have approved of Irene’s stand about the way the House was run.  Educated, north-bred women then, as now, are made of stern stuff.

The Emily Davies’ Blue Plaque on Bensham Road, Gateshead.
1908: Emily Davies (second from right) marches with Miss Gurney’s former Head Mistress, Sophie Bryant (far right). This image was published in ‘The Bystander’ on June 17th, 1908.

Church High acknowledged Irene Ward’s remarkable achievements alongside the names of other outstanding Old Girls on the Honours Board behind the stage at the north end of the Hall.  You will have looked at it often, as it was set into the boards just above the door.

The oldest Newcastle High/Church High Honours Boards were kept in the Sports Hall all through the refurbishment process; at present, they are stored in Tankerville House.

Personally, I first heard of Dame Irene Ward in the context of the School Library.  I recall Jill Mortiboys telling me that, on her death, Irene had bequeathed all of her books to her beloved Church High.  I remembered this at the very last minute when the library, by then in the LRC, was being disbanded pre-merger.  Although heartening to see hordes of girls in green climbing the stairs with beaming faces and arms piled high with books, it was still a sad sight to behold and   I cringe to think what Dame Irene would have thought and/or said.  I think this wandering, wistful thought was what brought her to mind.  I’m glad it did though, because I turned on my heals immediately and went in search of at least one of Dame Irene’s books as a memento.  I knew what I was looking for.  They all contained not only the old Church High Library plate but Irene’s wonderfully-quirky, highly-distinctive personal book-plate: Northumberland, Tynemouth, Cullercoats and a most marvellous hat!  Irene certainly had style.

Church High Library bookplate (above): Dame Irene Ward’s personal bookplate (below).

If you’re curious which book I chose to take to remember Dame Irene by, it was a hard-back First Edition of Kenneth Clark’s ‘Civilisation: A Personal View’ given to Irene as a Christmas present by ‘Thelma’ in 1969.  To me, that seemed very, very appropriate for a woman who, exemplifying the Church High ethos, gave unstinting, passionate public service in order to make our country a better place for all.  I thought long and hard about the best way to end this post.  (Atticus is long gone now, but has been replaced by a similarly snoring Ziggy).  Finally, I decided to share a photograph taken of myself and the only six NHSG Year 8 girls who signed up for the Suffragette educational activity on our end of year trip to Beamish in 2015: all six were ex-Church High girls, which says a lot.  Providing she didn’t notice that I had unwittingly put my dress on back-to-front, I am sure that Dame Irene Ward would have been extremely proud of us.

Dangerous, well-read creatures following in famous footsteps.


Empirical Empathy: It’s Groundworks Day (Part 1), 9th-15th June 2016

I’m sure you’ve worked out by now that if the gaps between posts get wider (no pun intended, although we have now reached the external landscaping stage of the project), it just means there’s more stuff going on in ‘real time’ for me than usual.  As well as taking a (more than is probably healthy) interest in dragging the history of our very special school along with me into the new era of Newcastle High (including the names of the important people who have helped shape it over the years), I’m also doing all I can to move the merged school forward.  The best analogy I can offer here (you’ll know by now I view the world through a prism of analogy and metaphor) is that this felt at first like ‘jump starting’ a car when the battery has gone flat from over-use.  The last four years have asked an awful lot of everyone, but I sense in my bones the ‘Narnia Spring’ I’ve alluded to in past posts is almost upon us now.  The ‘Excellent’ grade for Pupil Personal Development the new school has just gained in NHSG’s first ISI inspection – following the great write up recently received in ‘The Good Schools Guide’ – suggests, finally, ‘Aslan is on the move’.

Signs of Spring are now evident by the new all-weather pitch.

I’m keeping quite a few plates spinning at once at the moment, it has to be said.  As well as this blog and the website, some of you already know I’m also doing background research and reading for a book (or two).  In addition to this, within school I’m heavily involved in getting a digital archive section of the new NHSG website up-and-running, preparing for our spectacular School statue unveiling on April 28th and I’m also involved at practitioner level with the Positive Group, who are working with GDST to improve wellbeing (for staff and  pupils) across the organisation.  NHSG was one of nine pilot schools working with Positive towards The Positive Schools Programme and we rolled this out to our staff last week at Tuesday’s staff meeting.

The Postive Schools Programme & the 9 GDST pilot schools.

Someone who would be very pleased to hear this is Miss Dorothea Beale (a lady you will hear much more about in the future).  Miss Beale was the founding Head of The Cheltenham Ladies’ College, an institution our own Miss Gurney was aiming to use as a template for Newcastle High School in the early 1900s – and not just in its capacity as a boarding school, for Newcastle High did take boarders in those days.  She put this proposal to the Governors in 1918 and when they turned it down (presumably money was tight at the end of The Great War period), positive focus was created via adopting the House System we all knew and loved instead.  I’ve always felt Miss Beale was used as a role model by Miss Gurney, but only yesterday I learned the link between Dorothea Beale and Newcastle High School was even more fundamental than that.  Via my most recent eBay purchase, ‘Liberators of the Female Mind’ by Edward W. Ellsworth, I learned that Dorothea Beale and Helen Gladstone, Prime Minster Gladstone’s daughter, served on the guiding council of the Church Schools Company.  How neat!  A full circle.

Miss Dorothea Beale, NPG P1004, by G.H. Martyn & Sons, cabinet print.

In 1898, Dorothea Beale and two other Head Mistresses wrote the book ‘Work and Play in Girls Schools’ (which can be read online if you care to use the hyperlink).  Miss Beale was asked to write the academic sections, but Part 3 (at p.396) focuses on The Cultivation of the Body.  By this time, the link between an able mind and a healthy body was already well understood – even for girls.  These learned ladies recognised that in schools ‘the principles of corporate life are being imbibed every hour and minute of the day, though nowhere more completely than in the playground’ (p.402).  As you know, the playground was held as sacrosanct in our school.  Indeed, the first extension to the back of the building in 1927 was designed on top of pillars to encroach upon the girls’ playing area as little as possible.

The play area at the back of Newcastle High School in 1900.

As the curriculum broadened, of course, this area subsequently had to be encroached upon to create, firstly, a modern Science block and then a state-of-the art Food Technology and Art block, in 1999.  All that remained of the playground was a small quadrangle with an intention to landscape it later.  Via fundraising activities, the Head Girl Team eventually raised the money to have artificial turf laid, a few shrubs planted in one corner and garden furniture installed.  On summer days, this was a very pleasant sun-trap for the girls.  With the addition of a marquee, the last function it served for Church High was as the venue for the staff’s Farewell Meal: a big hog roast.

Staff queuing for the hog roast on the courtyard artificial turf.
The Church High Heritage celebrations marquee in the back courtyard, July 2014, from the Art block (above) and within (below).

The renovation of the back courtyard, its surface sadly very worse-for-wear after supporting the scaffolding and suffering months of site traffic, was the groundworks underway at this time.  With me still banned from the building, we must rely on Giuseppe once again.

The back courtyard as it was during the building process.

As his photo diary of the works carried out between June 9th – 15th shows, this sadly necessitated the loss of all the recent greenery.  Even in 1898, Miss Beale knew the importance of psychology in the educational process.  In colour psychology, green stimulates growth.

The little green tree didn’t survive the process.

The building materials lying around indicate the area is to be paved.

Still, at least it isn’t all just going to be grayscale.  The red earth underneath won’t be seen, but the pink stones will add warmth.  And as Giuseppe can go anywhere on site, I can at least share with you here some fantastic shots from above of the patterns being created.

Looking down on the work from the Hall.

Opposite view of the work from the Art Block.

Every Sunday I receive a mailing from Brainpickings, a marvellous weekly newsletter written by Maria Popova.  This week’s contained a review of the book ‘The Invention of Empathy: Rilke, Rodin and the Art of “Inseeing”‘ and referenced the work of philosopher, Theodor Lipps.  When people project their emotions, ideas or memories onto objects they enact a process that Robert Vischer called einfühlung, literally ‘feeling into’, which the British psychologist Edward Titchener translated into English as ’empathy’ in 1909.  In Lipps’ seminal paper, he identified the four types of empathy as he saw them.   Empirical empathy describes the situation when one sees human qualities in the nonhuman.  Tell me, is it just me or does it seem to you, in the photo below, the ‘Old Girl’ may be starting to smile once again?