It is sometimes difficult for us to feel entirely optimistic about the future. The last year has been especially tumultuous; we have emerged from a global pandemic that has killed over six millions to face the worst humanitarian crisis to have occurred in Europe since the end of the Second World War. Global warming and the cost of living crisis do nothing to lighten our mood.
Those seeking reassurance should probably steer clear of the Doomsday Clock. Founded in 1945, by Albert Einstein and the University of Chicago, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists created the Doomsday Clock which uses the imagery of the apocalypse (midnight) to convey threats to humanity and the planet. The Clock is universally recognized as an indicator of the world’s vulnerability to nuclear armageddon or climate change. Right now the clock is set at 100 seconds to midnight. That suggests a level of urgency that is at best unsettling.
I am always wary of those who claim that sports can teach us a good deal about life though my enjoyment of watching snooker or darts is partly due to the imagination of those commentators who discern something magisterial in what others are liable to dismiss as pub games. The ability to think about such matters in grandiloquent and,at times, existential terms was part of Sid Waddell’s genius. A simple dart became a sword being wielded by a Teutonic knight or a spear of destiny in the hands of the righteous. Discerning the epic in the mundane is a valuable gift indeed.
I was reminded of this last Saturday afternoon. After the drama of Fleetwood Town Football Club’s brush with the spectre of relegation the previous week, I was taking a keen interest in the top end of League Two. At half time, Bristol Rovers were 2-0 up against Scunthorpe. By Contrast, Northampton Town was 2-1 up against Barrow. Bristol Rovers and Northampton Town were vying for automatic promotion; both were hoping to avoid having to slog it out in the playoffs. The problem for Bristol Rovers was that although they were level on points, the advantage in terms of goal difference lay with Northampton Town.
As things stood at half time, Bristol Rovers needed to score at least another four goals to stand any chance of achieving automatic promotion. If Northampton scored again, then Bristol Rovers would have to score five goals. I glanced at the scores and concluded that it was all over for Bristol Rovers. Later in the afternoon, I was astonished to learn that Bristol Rovers had pounded Barrow 7-0. Northampton Town did indeed score again against Barrow but, unbelievably, it was not enough to stop Bristol Rovers overtaking them on goal difference and seizing that third spot in the table, thus guaranteeing automatic promotion to League One.
Every so often, miracles do happen within sports. Seemingly unassailable advantages are overturned by underdogs. Occasionally, an unseeded player will storm to victory in a Grand Slam Final and, only last week, club runner Ellis Cross achieved fame by outpacing Mo Farah at the Vitality 10k. To be honest, I had written off Bristol Rovers’ hopes of automatic promotion at half time. A further five goals seemed extremely unlikely. Of course, my assessment of their chances proved to be completely wrong. It set me thinking about the many occasions in my life when hindsight has demonstrated that I have been unduly cautious or pessimistic. There are numerous times when I have not had the courage to hope for an outcome that defies logical analysis. Instead, I have tended to prepare myself for the worst whilst being blind to the fact that miracles do happen and little in life is written in stone.
I admire those who are endlessly optimistic and fortune does appear to shine on those who believe that everything really will work out for the best. Voltaire’s Candide highlights the inadequacy of optimistic thinking with irresistible humour. Clearly, all is not for the best in the best of all possible worlds, but there are times when we right off the possibility of success because emotionally we want to preempt the prospect of failure. Sometimes we rely upon regressive analysis of similar situations to reach the conclusion that the prospect of success is so limited as to not be seriously entertained. Sports does teach us that we are not infrequently wrong to do so.
This evening, I am looking forward to performing alongside my brother in a concert for the first time in twenty five years. One of the biggest differences between us (and we are very different) is piano scales. Andrew was phenomenally dedicated and practised for hours every day. He was also extremely talented and had the ability to play from ear anything he heard on the radio or television. By contrast, I practised for about ten minutes a day and last had a formal lesson twenty nine years ago. I practised very few scales and I do not have the long lean fingers that a pianist of any standing would desire.
Consequently, my muscle memory, physical attributes and natural aptitude do not promise much. At the piano nothing seems to come ‘naturally’ and hard work and repetition are my most important tools. The probability is that I will make a good few mistakes this evening; not least because I will be outside my comfort zone. However, I think there is a real value in feeling vulnerable and daring to put yourself in a position where the outcome is uncertain. Always playing safe and allowing oneself to be governed by fear or the likelihood that something might not turn out as we would hope is incredibly dull. The uncertainty and fragility that comes with every live performance creates a space within which everything and anything is possible. It might all go wrong, or there might be a few moments of real magic or there might be elements of both.
The Backstreet Boys
On 10th February, 1992, New Kids on the Block filed a defamation lawsuit against someone who accused them of lip-syncing. By contrast the Backstreet Boys’ prided themselves on singing live. No Auto-Tune app was necessary for the boys from Kentucky. When we perform one of their classics on Saturday night within the context of Rossall’s Got Talent, it is fair to say that we will be stepping outside our comfort zone. Like Bristol Rovers last Saturday afternoon, we will be hoping for a miracle – namely that we can get to the end of the song without a dreadful mishap. At the moment that seems as likely as Lord Lucan riding Shergar to victory in the next Grand National!
When all else fails, it is perhaps worth remembering not to take life too seriously!
Headmaster of Rossall School