Tallis kept his head down so that he could keep it on. At a time of monarchical savagery he survived in the courts of four Tudors. It's probably fair to say that he didn’t draw attention to himself in any way other than through his music, startling enough, by any standard. We’ve no idea what kind of a person he was except that his epitaph describes a ‘patient quiet type, O happy man’.
I’ve moved amongst church musicians in my time and know a bit about what gets their metronomes going. I have to say that patient and quiet is not always their modus operandi. They may be quiet in the house and even patient with small children and dogs but I’ve known ‘em take bits out of slackers, clergy and anyone else getting in the way of the muse. I worked alongside one of the great cathedral organists and, while charming personally, he had a great line in asperity. Picture me in a beautiful chapter house, togged up in a ridiculously long cope, waiting as one of eight to escort the Bishop down the aisle (imagine a middle-aged mediaeval security detachment). All manner of processional mechanics having already set off, we wait behind the choir, professional musicians themselves, aged 8 to 60. Himself sets off suddenly at a moderate gallop, literally wrong-footing the smaller choristers in the front rank to whom he menacingly stage whispers over a dissatisfied shoulder. ‘Oh do come on. And don’t start that ridiculous coughing’. Was Tallis like that?
Conductors, like stage directors, have a particular relationship with their people. They are necessarily direct, even brusque and can get away with stuff that might end in flouncing or a punch-up in ordinary conversation – yet the outcome is usually wonderfully united. How does it work? Honesty and collaboration.
Which, fancy that, are the Tallis 50 themes for this half term. ‘Honest’ is one of our characteristics so we expect everyone in our community to tell the truth, reliably and habitually, so we don’t waste time on falsehoods or chasing wild geese (attractive as that sounds on a gloomy London afternoon). We let our no be no and our yes be yes. We shouldn’t need nudging, nagging or reminding, it is an habitual virtue.
Likewise ‘collaborative’, one of our habits. We cooperate appropriately (obviously not under exam conditions), give and receive feedback and share the product that we make, whatever it is. We share, discuss, debate, critique, consult, publish and explain. We work together: get it, got it, give it.
Honest and collaborative are buzzwords of the zeitgeist, but so hard to do, so hard to keep in tandem. The big issues confronting humanity – injustice and climate emergency – are maddening and terrifying in equal parts. It’s no wonder that so many discussions and debates are carries out in isolation and anger. People demanding honesty have had enough of lies. People yearning for collaboration have had enough of exclusion. Debate carried on in the ether seems to prioritise falsity and division as individuals shout their way to notoriety – yet the www is designed for collaboration, designed for sharing.
We’re dealing with some big issues in schools today. We know enough to know that we get and have got so much wrong. Wickedly, dehumanisingly wrong, planet-endangeringly wrong. But the worst of us, who need to sort it out, behave like dictators rather than directors, commandants rather than conductors. Grandstanding leadership disguises dishonesty and political sound-biting prevents shared endeavour. That affects the way young people learn to argue, when exclusivity and purity can close gateways to genuine just progress and where adult expectations discard the desperate adolescent need to explore and experiment before they decide, before they take on the mantle of adult citizenship.
Even if we don’t know anything else, we know that Tallis endured, and because he did, his music did. The new world our young people need is a shared endeavour. We need to be honest – like the conductor – and collaborative - like the conductor. We need high expectations, but we need to trouble ourselves to collaborate to build a better world.
You couldn’t sing the 32 parts of Spem in alium on your own and you couldn’t get it sung right without honesty about what needs to be done. Musicians do it all the time, and we can learn from that.
I’ve written this blog alone on yet another train but honestly, couldn’t it have been better if I’d done it collaboratively?
It's ten years now since you died. What a long time a decade seemed when we heard Paul Simon's song Ten Years at your funeral! I'm sharing this letter now because I still think of you often.
You died on 9 July 2009, between your sixtieth birthday and your sixtieth birthday party. You weren't an easy friend. I think I was one of the few that you didn't have a major falling-out with at some point or another. But there were lots of people who loved you. There were going to be lots of people at your party, and there was standing room only at your funeral later that month.
Jane Clossick and I stood there together and listened to this song. An old friend of yours told the story. You were his guest at Christmas one year, and being characteristically convivial at the dinner table. When this came on the stereo your focus changed, you dropped out of the conversation, listened intently; you asked for it to be played again, and again; you listened again, and again, concentrating. It's a scene vividly familiar to anyone who knew you. What was it about the song that caught your attention?
I have so much to thank you for. You introduced me to three of the great loves of my life: music, Scotland, and whisky.
I'm sorry that I never got on with the oboe, the instrument you chose for me. But the steel pans were magnificent. What a joy to be part of making that glorious happy music! It's nearly 25 years since we took our band Panache to Spain, and you charmed the mayor of Cadiz into letting us headline at the Carnival. I remember your magnificent vain delight at being given the remote control for the culminating firework display; at sending the signal so that the rockets burst just as we played the last chord in our favourite song.
Thank you for introducing me to Scotland. I had already visited that corner of Argyll on holiday with my family when we first took a trip to Inverliever in May 1995, but it was on our school music trips to the Lodge between then and 2001 that the Highlands really captured my heart. Now I live in Scotland, teaching and writing here, and spending my spare time exploring the Highlands (by bus and train - you'd approve!). So much of my life has been shaped by that connection. Thank you for sharing that love with me.
In truth it probably wasn't very professional for you to sit drinking Laphroaig with me until the small hours in Inverliever while we waited for the younger students to go to sleep. But we set the world to rights several times over, and I've enjoyed the stuff ever since. For a few years I kept a stock of Port Ellen, your favourite. I think we both liked it because the distillery closed in 1983, so we knew that each glass was part of a dwindling, dying stock. I wonder what you would make of the news that the distillery will be reopening? Excited, but also maybe - like me - just a little bit grumpy about being deprived of that pleasurable melancholy? In any case, I'll test it for you, in about fifteen years' time, when I can get my hands on a bottle.
Here's one of my favourite memories. In the lonely years before I found my feet at school I used to arrive early and sit with you in the Music Suite. We'd drink lapsang souchong tea (another gift to me - I still drink it all the time) and talk about maths, music, politics, and philosophy. The morning I'm thinking of we didn't talk much. When I arrived you were listening to Ralph Vaughan Williams on the stereo. I sat down silently and we listened together for about twenty minutes, watching the early summer sunshine on the trees, hearing the Lark Ascending, enjoying the music and each other's company, and saying nothing.
Anyway. I miss you. I know you were lonely, and ill, and afraid of going blind. I nod along when other people say that it's probably a blessing that you died so suddenly when you did. But I miss you all the same. I wish we could talk over a glass of whisky every now and again.
My first day at Tallis was in September 2009. As a big-eyed 11-year old nerdy girl with ASD, I was transfixed by what my time at Tallis would bring me. Tallis, unlike other schools at the time, has a relaxed uniform code and we could even wear hoodies.
My time stood right in the middle of the development of the new school facilities. Ever the finicky girl, I was dismayed by the original buildings. They were dark, cold, and dingy. Now I look back feeling comforted by the memory of the old school, now demolished.
My first love was Italian. Though my first choice for language was Spanish, I was satisfied to be put in Italian class with Ms Crook. She could be formidable sometimes; I vividly recall being reprimanded in Italian for remarking "This is very similar to Spanish". That it is, for they are both romance languages. For five years I persevered with Italian and was rewarded with an A* in the language for my GCSEs. Bravissima.
By the end of my first year, I discovered a new interest: playing piano. It was with Mr McCarrick in a freezing hut (anyone else remember those?) that I began my journey as a musician and would become one of the building blocks to later academic interests. I now have a BA in Music from Leeds as of 2019. Though I no longer have lessons with Mr McCarrick, I am still under the tutelage of Alison who I have had the great pleasure of working with for nearly 10 years.
To say that my time at Tallis ran smoothly would be dishonest on my part; I unfortunately suffered from bullying that devastated my self-confidence, and experienced personal tragedies such as the death of my father in 2012. I have mostly healed from those troubles and have done well to work on my self-esteem. For so long I did not know my own strength.
I stayed on at sixth form and made friends for life. We have similar interests (music, niche hobbies like mudlarking, art) and we go to the pub every now and then. I'm eternally grateful for them all: Xavier, Laurel, and Ella, I thank you dearly. I love you.
To the following teachers, Mr Bradshaw, Mr Talbot, Ms McGowan, Ms Crook, Mr McCarrick and many others: thank you all for your support, your enthusiasm, and your faith in my abilities. And to Jay Abrahams and Jane Mack, my learning support assistants who got me through the best and worst of times.
-- Emily James