Nobody knows what they’re doing
I was touched to be asked back to my old school, Huish Episcopi, a state comp (now an academy) in Somerset, to hand out the prizes to more than 200 of the brightest, nicest, hardest-working students. This was what I said in my speech:
It is a huge honour to be back in this sports hall, scene for me of so many nerve-wracking exams, lost badminton matches, strange country dancing lessons, and one particularly unsuccessful attempt to impress girls at a roller disco.
I am genuinely touched to be asked back to the presentation evening, because I know how hard all of you will have worked to get here,
…and how much your teachers wish your classmates who aren’t here were more like you.
I well remember on a night like tonight that unique sense of pride coupled with boredom while some old duffer gave a speech much like this one.
But enjoy your recognition, and leverage it to get whatever you can from your parents.
The last time I was here at a prizegiving was the day the News of the World closed down. It wasn’t a great time to stand in front of a room of people and talk about being a journalist.
I’m not sure if journalists are any more respected, but I now work for The Times, as a columnist and as editor of Red Box, a morning email and podcast all about politics.
Sign up for free at thetimes.co.uk/redbox. The doors have been locked and you won’t be allowed out until you have.
I suppose I’m here to tell you what I learnt during my five years at Huish, so you too can one day be as self-evidently brilliant as me.
But my job involves writing about politicians, and if there is one thing I have learnt lately more than anything, it is this:
Nobody knows what they are doing.
You don’t know what you’re doing, I don’t know what I’m doing,
…and the people who run the country, or want to, don’t know what they’re doing either.
There may be some of you in this room who already know you want to be prime minister. And that’s brilliant. And you should.
In fact I’d vote for you right now confident that the Huish Academy has taught you everything you need to know already to do a better job.
Politics is much too important to leave to politicians.
It is a huge privilege for me to have had a ring-side seat in Westminster for more than a decade, but far more important is me trying to persuade readers, listeners… you… that it matters. Because it really does.
You should vote. Don’t think politics isn’t for you or it’s too complicated. It is about everyone deciding together the sort of country they want to live in, and you should be a part of that.
Now as I was saying life isn’t really about knowing exactly what you are doing all of the time.
It is about learning from mistakes, and knowing slightly more than the next person, or crucially at least convincing them you do.
Now many of you probably don’t know exactly what job you might want to do, but I bet you know what you like.
You might like to fix things, or people. You might like to create things: books, paintings, music, plays, photographs, games or films.
You might like to start something: a business, or a family.
You might want to run things: a charity, or an Olympic race.
You might like to grow or invent or code or develop or cook or build or analyse or write or host or travel or trade or even, yes, teach.
Having that thing that you love, and enjoy, is far more important than a detailed career plan. Especially when the future is so full of uncertainties and possibilities.
When I was in year 8 or 9, I was told by one of those careers advice tests that I should consider being a fishmonger.
I do spend my days trying to gut some slippery characters who sometimes cause a stink, but I don’t think that’s quite what they had in mind.
I did always want to be a journalist though.
I don’t know why. My dad was a plumber and my step-mum worked here at school.
I think it was a combination of being nosey, enjoying gossiping to people, and the long lunches.
But wanting to be a journalist and knowing how to become one are two different things.
At primary school I started a newspaper. Here at Huish Academy I did the same, and Mr Roberts, my old English teacher, gave me a love of language and storytelling which I rely on every day.
Mr Deeley, my history teacher, made me realise how politics and power and people change the country we live in.
Mr McSparron never did make me like physics.
And Mrs Green, my art teacher, was willing to indulge my strange ideas while others were much better at drawing or painting or sculpting.
Talking of which: nothing makes you feel old like coming back to school and discovering that someone from your year isn’t just a teacher but the head of art.
Mr Heap, as I suppose I have to call him, was always much better at art than me, and has gone on to turn it into a proper job.
Meanwhile I am still making jokes about the people in charge, which is basically what I did when I was at school.
Anyway, from here I went to Richard Huish College in Taunton, starting yet another student magazine and gaining some work experience on local papers.
I applied for university, because that’s what everyone did, and was all set to go to Warwick to study politics and philosophy.
But then during a year out I was offered some paid work experience at the Taunton Times, which became the offer of training, a proper job and I never looked back.
I eventually moved to London, and have been working in the Houses of Parliament since 2005, occasionally interviewing prime ministers, more often irritating them…
The first time I met I want to just tell you a quick story about how weird my job is. Cameron he was standing in his front room with his hands in his trousers.
“Oh,” he said, briefly pausing from tucking his shirt in. “I thought you were in Aberdeen.” And walked through into his kitchen.
It turned he was expecting to do an interview over the phone with a reporter from Aberdeen, and not face to face with me, then the London Editor of the Western Morning News. You see David Cameron is another one who doesn’t know what he is doing.
Finally we set off in his car and on the cream leather backseat, I asked Cameron lots of hard questions like “why should people vote for you?”
Ten or 15 minutes later I switched off my tape recorder. “Have you got everything you need?” asked his spin doctor.
“Yes I think so, thanks very much.”
“Great, well do you want to get out here?”
Here? What right here? Halfway between Chez Cameron and a Battersea Helipad? Are you serious?, I thought.
“Yes of course, that’s fine, great, thanks very much”, I actually replied, gathering up coat and bag and dignity and climbing out of the car while it waited at traffic lights.
I waved them off, and then realised I had no idea where the hell I was. In this era before GPS mobile phones, I stumbled around what turned out to be the far end
of the King’s Road before eventually boarding a bus and wondering if interviewing party leaders was always this glamorous. It isn’t.
But if you know how to cycle from Stoke St Gregory to Westonzoyland, you know how to find your way back to the office in London.
From the Western Morning News I joined the Independent on Sunday, then MailOnline and now The Times.
The Times. The actual Times. If someone had told me when I was sitting in your seat that I would one day be writing about politics for The Times I would have assumed the heat had got to them.
If they’d said it would also involve starting work at 5am and writing jokes about Brexit in my jim-jams, I might have signed up as a fishmonger instead. But that’s a different point.
People like us who grow up on the Somerset Levels, who know what proper cider tastes like, know how to milk a sheep and turn it into icecream,
Well I do.
People like us do not get jobs on The Times.
I say this not to brag: but to say that if I can do it, anyone can.
Working in London in general, and politics in particular, I am surrounded by uber-confident people who went to private schools and posh universities,
And were helped into jobs by a combination of rich parents and not what you know, but who.
Things are changing, but not fast enough. You need to make that change happen too.
It can be harder for us than it is for those other people, but the reward when you get where you want to be is all the sweeter.
And I never did go to Warwick. In the end university wasn’t part of my story.
Now this is the bit which might send some teachers into panic and some parents (and their bank accounts) heaving sighs of relief.
You do not need to go to university. Well, of course if you want to be a doctor or a vet or a lawyer you probably do.
…I don’t want you doing my heart transplant just because you’ve watched a video on YouTube.
But some of the best and most successful people I know either didn’t go to university, or dropped out, because they realised it was not for them.
There can be a feeling of being on a conveyor belt: GCSES, A levels, a degree…
For many people it is the right thing. But it is also fine to jump off. Or to go sideways or even backwards to get where you want to be.
It is traditional at an evening like this to say “you can do whatever you want to do”. This is not entirely true.
I, for instance, cannot sing. I would love to be able to sing to you now. …Don’t worry, I’m not about to break into song.
However, my tone-deaf warbling did not stop me once appearing in a Two-Man Panto which included, amongst things, me singing a rendition of Umbrella by Rihanna while dressed as Cinderella –ella –ella –ella.
So of course there are things you can’t do. But finding out you can’t do them is one of the best things in life.
Knowing you’re not good at something, but doing it any way because you enjoy it, is even better. And you never know where it might lead.
Like all a lazy journalist, before coming tonight I asked on Twitter what advice I should pass on.
I have cut out the ones about drugs and sex, because even now I’m a bit scared of being expelled.
So in no particular order:
Your parents aren’t boring; they’re tired. And the only reason they inexplicably seem to like gardening is the same reason long-term prisoners like gardening.
Enjoy Sixth Form. You’ll never be that much of a legend again.
See more bands.
Do something with your summers!
Don’t write poetry.
You don’t have to understand classical music to listen to it and take joy from it.
Exams lie to you. They make you think success finds people who are the best. Sometimes it just finds people who hang around and refuse to leave.
Never follow the path, always decide your own path. Unless you are lost in the woods when following a well trodden path would be a good idea.
And the final pearl of wisdom from Twitter was this: Football is coming home.
There’s one other thing I want to mention, in fact repeat, from when I gave a speech on this stage as head boy almost 20 years ago.
I said I had been a small part of a unique year group, and I would never forget the people who I had met, grown to know, and most importantly laughed with.
I thought it was a good line at the time, but it has become truer ever since.
Of course what you learn here, and the qualifications you gain, are really important. They open up doors and opportunities to fulfilling your ambitions.
But no one ever said: “They are a really terrible person to be around, but at least they got good GCSEs”.
Look around. There are friends in this hall now who will be there through the good and bad, making you laugh, for the rest of your lives, whether you like it or not. I know this from personal experience.
Just remember, this: they don’t know what they are doing either.
Thank you very much.