Guest Of Honour’s Speech at The President’s Dinner 2014

IMG_9015Richard Baker (1959) was the Guest of Honour at the President’s Dinner, held at the Royal Overseas League, London on Thursday 27th March 2014. His after dinner speech is reported in full below:

Madam President, Fr Abbot, Abbot Emeritus Francis, Ladies and Gentlemen

From the Smallest Beginnings

 In this day and age of great technological advances, if one seeks advice from the internet about what makes a good speech there are many gems of advice to be found: A good speech has three parts: the beginning – “tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em”; the middle – “tell ‘em” and the end – “tell ‘em that you’ve told ‘em”. Or a good speech is like a bride’s gown, short enough to provoke interest and resting on just two good points. Perhaps the best advice may be that given by Gilbert Harding to the Twenty Club at School in 1959 – the notes for a good speech can be written on the back of a postage stamp! – I don’t think my efforts tonight will follow any such advice too closely; I shan’t be divulging any “state secrets”, but I hope I can stir some memories in you all. Remembering that rules and advice are given for the guidance of the wise and the obeyance of fools, I shall try to do my best in my allocated time. I must ignore the requests I have received from many of you here tonight to “remember to mention so-and-so” – I wasn’t aware when I accepted the Association’s invitation to be their Guest of Honour, that Guests of Honour were assailed with so much advice on what to say and so many “requests” for a mention of this, that or the other, especially in my case, events associated with the CCF, but perhaps that is a hazard of being at the end of 2249 and opa@stbenedicts.org.uk! I am perhaps going to disappoint you all!

How many of you can remember what you were doing over 66 years ago? Most of you here don’t have that span of years behind you yet, so it’s an irrelevant question, but I do and I was about 6½ years old then. With my twin brother Anthony (here tonight) we were taken by our parents to a “Big School” in Ealing for interview and entrance test; I can only remember one small point about the occasion – that great Headmaster, Dom Bernard Orchard was interviewer, examiner and final arbiter all rolled into one; he set the “entrance exam himself” and I remember distinctly a simple problem of numbers: something like 3 X 4. I had no idea what the X was (we must have done simple multiplication at nursery school using a different notation!) and I clearly remember looking across to Anthony sitting close by to see what he had made of it! Did I cheat in my entrance exam to St Benedict’s? If I did I hope that I have made amends for it since! Anyway we both passed and so in September 1947 I started my life at St Benedict’s, a life which has continued almost without break, for well over six decades.

Well, what of School days; they were happy and provided I polished my techniques of avoiding most things sporty, they were good; four years in the Junior School passed I suppose insignificantly as did two years in the Middle School and then six years in the Upper School. We coped with a proper black pitch, covered as it was in black cinders, as a playground, School lunches in a “tin” refectory, sited roughly where the Cloisters’ Hall is now, – lunches which in the just post-war (that’s WW2!) period managed to keep us fortified for a long afternoon’s work and probably defy all comparison to the excellent lunches provided by today’s in-house catering department. Those lunches did give me a taste for institutional rice pudding, probably made with water rather than milk and which today seems to have totally disappeared from the School menu. If the Headmaster and those members of the Board of Governors here tonight can bring any influence to bear, then please have “School Rice Pudding with Jam” re-instated! When one was promoted a prefect in 1958, the Refectory was also home to “Prefects’ Tea” daily at 4.30pm with wads of bread, marge and jam and cakes – most welcome after a hard days “learning and prefecting” and before a long journey home on the underground; we were indeed privileged! A large tin hut also served as our gymnasium – held together by flakes of rust, totally functional and probably a lot more fun than the state of the art Gym we have today – mind you “health & safety” hadn’t been invented in those days. In the senior school most of my extra-curricular (another modern term!) activities were devoted to the CCF where I managed to rise to the rank of Staff Sergeant in charge of the Signals Section. For the last three years of my CCF cadet service we were joined in the Contingent by a new young officer 2nd Lt B. Nickerson; known to most of you here. I am delighted to see the way Basil, since he arrived in 1956 has supported and continues to support, now with his wife Clare, everything about St Benedict’s. In the sixth form I had studied the physical sciences at A/L especially developing a joy in Chemistry and all the “stinks and bangs” it had to offer; in those days we had just three laboratories, Chemistry, Physics and Biology; it was in 1958 as I was finishing my last year that the Science block as it is now, was built – a great expansion for the sciences! And so after twelve years as a pupil it was time to move on to spend three years at Bristol University reading for a degree in Chemistry.

It was during my time at University that I became convinced that I wanted to teach. I had no plan to return to St Benedict’s and as I was finishing my degree in 1962, I signed up for the new PGCE which was just coming into place. In May that year the then Headmaster, Fr George Brown, who knew of my wish to teach, wrote to me saying that in September he was making a junior appointment in the Chemistry Department – was I interested?. His advice – “A fortnight in front of real pupils in the lab will teach you more about teaching than any course. And so it happened: I cancelled the PCGE and accepted his offer of a teaching post at St Benedict’s, which was to last the whole of my working career.

And so what can I tell you in the short time that I have tonight about my paid working life at St Benedict’s; the Chemistry, the IT, the sport (oh yes that did feature in a very small way during those 38 years!), and of course the CCF. Chemistry teaching did change dramatically over those years: the exciting became less so and the routine became more proscriptive. We went through phases of “combined sciences” and even for three years tried to get to grips with the “Nuffield Chemistry” that was being pushed in Schools. It was in my Chemistry classes in the early eighties that girls “began to appear” as a regular feature; I did not believe in discrimination so I had no “problem” in always teaching them using their surnames, just as one did the boys – they were of course “Honorary Gentlemen” and seemed to thrive on it. I’m not sure who was most nonplussed on the occasion when one year they presented me with an “m.c.p.” tie as a Christmas present- I still have it; thinking quickly, I took the wind out of their sails and on the spot thanked them for their kind gift of a tie from the Manufacturing Chemists & Physicists Society – pupils will accept an awful lot if it is told them with a straight face! I’m delighted to see some of “my Honorary Gentlemen” here tonight and I’m sure that Daly and Sheehan are none the worse for their experiences. In case you are wondering mcp: Male Chauvinist Pig. By the early 90s chemistry was becoming the poor relation of the sciences and I must admit I was becoming less charmed with its teaching. However “rescue” was at hand.

Up until 1992 there had been no Information Technology teaching in the school; a few staff and perhaps a larger number of pupils “dabbled” with early computers, but there was nothing formal; personally I had dabbled from the early 80s with the Sinclair and Amstrad machines (who remembers the ZX81?). In 1992 the then Headmaster, Dr Tony Dachs, asked me if I would be prepared to move sideways and start up Information Technology teaching in the school; I explained that I was only an “amateur”, but he had confidence that I would cope and the addition of a couple of specialised training courses would see me through! So it was we started with a small IT Centre of 12 teaching machines and a single server all in the same room – my goodness look at the ITC facilities in the School now, both teaching and administrative and one really sees the meaning of a minimis incipe. It gives me a little pride to feel that I helped start it for real at St Benedict’s.

As I mentioned earlier I am particularly “un-sporty” in the physical sense. But none-the-less I did manage to leave my mark on Sport at St Benedict’s in two spheres. One summer (I forget the year!) the Games Staff were so short of colleagues to take cricket at Perivale on a Wednesday afternoon that Basil in desperation and as a last resort, asked me to go down to Perivale and supervise thirty or so pupils who had opted to take cricket and could not be left to their own devices! To cut a long story short, my talents as a cricket umpire only lasted for three weeks, although I must add that they were still short of umpires after my demise! I had arguments with “higher authorities in the cricket sphere” about white coats (I didn’t seem to be allocated one), a small piece of plastic (I wasn’t sure what this was for – it turned out to be a bowler’s marker, but again not allocated) and the “wet weather programme” – a rather more senior umpire had to come down to the bottom of the lower field where I was “in charge” and order 30 drenched individuals back to the pavilion after I had insisted on going on in the pouring rain: a little rain never hurt anybody and I wasn’t going to lose any time in my moments of glory as a cricket umpire at Perivale.

My other contribution to sport at St Benedict’s was as scorer for many years for the Staff Cricket XI; scoring didn’t seem too complicated a mathematical process and there was a sheltered score box out of wind and rain so what better way to socialise with ones colleagues before, during and after these regular summer evening matches. We even went on tour to the West Country were my sporty colleagues tried to improve my skills in ten-pin bowling, but alas! – I don’t think the pub’s indoor bowling alley suffered too much damage.

And what of the CCF. This of course was a great passion for me for 29 years as an officer, finally retiring in 1991 as a Lieutenant Colonel (the highest rank attainable to CCF officers), commanding the School CCF for the last 13 years, when I felt that it was time to hang up my boots and let the next generation of younger officers take over full command.

Let me start at the beginning. At summer camp 1962 in Sennybridge as a raw 2nd Lieutenant who just joined the CCF and knowing very little, I was appointed Camp Orderly Officer for the day: all went well until the evening when, whilst I was sitting in the officers’ mess after dinner the phone rang – the orderly officer was required down at the cadets’ NAAFI where a disturbance had broken out! Heaven help me! So down I went to be greeted at the door by two of our own cadet under officers saying: “Don’t worry sir, we’re with you all the way”. I must say that to this day I remember how that bolstered my self-confidence and I managed to cope with the situation and calm things down in the NAAFI. So once again after 52 years let me say thank you to those two cadets for their support that evening; they are known to many of you and each in his own way has made his mark on St Benedict’s – Under Officer William Twist and Under Officer Christopher Patten; I wonder if the Governor of Hong Kong or the Chairman of the BBC ever realised that he and Bill Twist, played an important role that evening, by offering their support, in my wanting to make a go of the CCF in an officer role – I was sure it would be fun!

The Uniforms changed from Battledress to Lightweights & Pullovers; the weapons changed from the .303 rifle to the GP Rifle, the Bren to the GPMG; the radios (38s and 18s) were updated and then on most occasions actually worked well. Blanco lost out and was never seen again! Arduous Training became Adventurous, probably because of “Political Correctness” – I’m sure in its arduous guise it was certainly adventurous as some of you here tonight can confirm; Ten Man ration packs (which contained the best loose leaf tea you could get anywhere on the civilian or service market) became 24hr ration packs Many changes but all I’m sure for the good and the important thing was that the government of the day felt that the Cadet Force Movement was well worth the expense and made a valuable contribution to the education of young people, not just as potential service recruits, but as future members of the country’s work force who might just remember what a SMEAC was and how it might be applied to a non-service work situation in life.

Well what about girls in the CCF I hear you say – they can join the CCF now. Well, of course! That’s the way things have changed over the years and not for the worse (or maybe not for the better!) – who knows. In my time as Contingent Commander there was a murmur of “why can’t we join”. Even when MOD gave general approval my approach as Contingent Commander was “over my dead body”! It was not an appropriate activity for young ladies or even honorary gentlemen! So there were no girls in the CCF in my time. But the powers that be have played their trump card: not only do girl cadets now thrive in St Benedict’s School CCF, but they have appointed a lady officer to Command the CCF at St Benedict’s. I do wish Captain Nicky Woodroffe every success in her venture and hopes she derives as much enjoyment from the CCF as I did.

And so in 2000 at the age of 60 possible retirement loomed on the horizon and although I could have taught on until I was 65, I felt it was the right time to go; teaching as a career was changing rapidly and I wasn’t sure that five more years would be of great benefit to me or more importantly to others. A teacher’s pension after 38 years wasn’t going to be too bad financially so why not hang up chalk, mouse and all the other paraphernalia of school mastering and live out the rest of one’s life “free of bells”. Except I hadn’t bargained for the OPA!

The Association has been part of my life since leaving school in 1959 when I joined, paying the princely sum of £5 for Life Membership. In the early days I would attend the Dinners, Reunions and not being adverse to “politics”, the Annual General Meetings; I would even spectate at some of the OP rugby and cricket events. In the mid-sixties I was invited and elected to join the Council as an ordinary member, but soon to be “elevated” to the position of Assistant Treasurer with special responsibility for Membership. So I made my contribution as an Old Priorian, but work with the CCF especially as I had become Contingent Commander in 1978, became more demanding and so in the 80s I took a break from OPA work.

In the early 2000s, despite the dedicated hard work of many OPs, the Association was going through the doldrums and it became obvious that something serious needed to be done about its administration; after a lot of hard work by the then President, Joe Kearns, the School stepped in and offered the Association facilities within the School – an office, telephone, computer and perhaps most valuable of all some part-time help from one of the Trust Office staff. So it was that Margaret Moore became Administrator of the OPA, retiring this year after over a decade of devoted service. Of course once the facilities were there, OPs start to make use of them and Margaret’s OPA workload increased considerably beyond the initial specification. At the 2003 AGM a volunteer was called for to help Margaret with her work for the Association. Thinking that a couple of hours work a month might be rather fun and keep me out of mischief and certainly having no fear of running a computerised OPA system, I raised my hand and so the ex-officio position of Assistant Administrator was born! Eleven years later I’m still a fixture in the OPA Office, although now I usually work one day a week even though it is a “late” start at 9.30am and knocking off about 3.30pm; when the workload of events demands it (eg The President’s Dinner – yes! even as your Guest of Honour this year I still did the Administration!) then it’s sometimes two or even three days in a week that will find the office manned. Telephone calls, emails, newsletters both electronic and printed, circulars etc all emanate from the office for the hopeful benefit of members of the Association. And I’ll be back in the office next week to deal with the post Dinner survey that we shall be sending out! So please respond!

I must stop for I can see the President giving me that “shut up Baker and sit down” look. It has given me the greatest pleasure to talk to you tonight and tell you a little about the experiences of one rather antique OP in his association with St Benedict’s at Ealing. We are all Old Priorians here tonight and we each have our memories of School – the good times of which I hope there were many for each of you; and the not so good times – and for each of you, like me too, there were those occasions I’m sure, not many I hope, when we just wished “it would all go away”. Thank goodness St Benedict’s stayed!

We survived and surely that is what life is all about. Remember – Life is lived forwards but understood backwards. In our experiences of life we should not look back in anger, nor forward in fear, but around us in awareness. Please – Do not walk behind me, I may not lead; Do not walk in front of me, I may not follow; Walk beside me and be my Friend – Friendship is surely one of God’s greatest gifts.

My Friends – Please rise and drink a toast with me to: ST  BENEDICT’S  AT  EALING

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