Within the past week an avid reader of this column kindly let it be known that her husband calls me ‘Renaissance Man’. For someone whose internet blog describes himself as ‘an aspirant polymath’, such an accolade was very flattering indeed. For a few hours I basked in the delusion that I had finally joined the ranks of Leonardo da Vinci, Frances Bacon, Galileo and other erstwhile figures, until my wife recognised the danger symptoms and rescued me by the simple reminder that I still hadn’t accomplished the task of getting the flat battery out of her MG, and had yet to remove a radiator from the wall without the need to call an emergency plumber.
With my feet firmly back on the ground and putting my practical failings to one side, I attribute my interest in so many areas of life to my time spent at one of the country’s foremost grammar schools (St Olave’s in Kent). An Ofsted inspector recently described the school as having ‘a focus on scholarship and cultural enrichment with a vibrant approach to intellectual curiosity’; another said ‘it is a school which aims at success and succeeds’.
A major aspect of life at St Olave’s was the sense of competition. Competition ran through every activity of the school as much as ‘Brighton’ runs through Brighton Rock. If you were not competing to ensure that your ‘House’ won the most points in that academic year, you were striving to be in the 1st rugby team, squash team, tennis or fives team. In between the omnipresent sports fixtures, you polished up your musical scales in order to secure your place in the school orchestra, brass band, wind ensemble, jazz band, barbershop quartet, choir or whichever musical group was performing in the near future; and amidst all of that, you aimed to ensure that your academic grades would secure you a place at one or other of the country’s top universities. Quite simply, you aimed to be the best…at everything. What is more, it was always understood that you had either ‘succeeded’ or you ‘hadn’t succeeded yet’. Failure was not recognised. Everything was possible.
The 2012 London Olympics has profoundly demonstrated the sense of endeavour portrayed by an enormous number of people; men and women who, day in and day out, have pushed themselves to the limit to excel at their sport; to be the best. Often, during the long hours of training, the only driving competition has come from the inner strength and desire to beat their personal best; to excel for the shear unadulterated joy of achieving something worthwhile.
If we think we have already witnessed drive and enthusiasm, the London Paralympics is sure to make us think again. I have no doubt that in one week’s time we will witness human endeavour beyond the personal comprehension of many. If the Olympics have been inspiring, let the drive and enthusiasm of the Paralympics teach or remind each one of us that success is all about competing with, and overcoming, our own personal limitations; whatever they may be.
As one commentator reflected, the Olympic Games have shown that there is nothing we (the British) cannot do well if we set our hearts and minds to it. The re-introduction of a sense of competition to school life is an important component of future adult success; whether it is on a national or international level, or simply for personal satisfaction. Ultimately, we can all be 21st century Renaissance people if we wish to. Now, wouldn’t that tell the world a thing or two about the British?
(First published in the Scunthorpe Telegraph, Thursday 23rd August 2012)