There’s an envelope, with government franking. You are obviously wary about what it might contain, so when you open it and the news is that you’ve been offered a knighthood, you really are flabbergasted. There’s a form to fill in indicating whether you would be willing to accept, together with a firm instruction on confidentiality.
It came, of course, as a complete surprise. In accepting it, I’m keenly aware of the extent to which I’ve worked with, depended on and learnt from fabulous students and colleagues over, now, something more than thirty years in education. Education is above all a collaborative endeavour: where we achieve things, it’s through working effectively together. I’ve written before that I’ve had a career beyond the wildest imaginings of my parents and grandparents, and that has been solely because of the opportunities I’ve had and the support I’ve received. I’ve always been convinced of the power of education to make a difference – because it did for me. The role this university plays in turning that into reality through our teaching and our research is one of the things which, day-in, day-out, makes working here such a pleasure. I’m absolutely delighted that the Queen’s Birthday Honours also recognised the contributions of Professors Sam Twiselton and Laura Serrant, each awarded OBEs for their achievements in education and health respectively: a reminder of the University’s enormous contributions in fields which matter to improving life chances.
The letter arrived about five weeks before the publication of the list. We’d decided to tell our daughters, who work scattered over the country and the globe, when we were all together over the late May Bank Holiday. And so we did, in an Indian restaurant on the Saturday evening, but here the story takes a sadder turn. The plan had been for me to pick my 90-year-old father up so he could join us and his adored grand-daughters for the weekend. But just a few days before, he fell over at home and was admitted to hospital, where he suffered a severe stroke. Large parts of the weekend were spent visiting him in hospital, and then, just after the Bank Holiday weekend, he died. I was able to tell him my news in his hospital bed and I like to think that he heard me. It would, I know, have meant a huge amount to him, and I already miss him terribly. But it’s a reminder that in life and work, the good news and the bad, the celebrations and the sadness come in all the wrong order, and horribly jumbled up.
I won’t end there. It has been very rewarding to receive messages from friends and colleagues on Saturday, some from old friends and former colleagues and ex-students I thought I’d lost touch with. But one can always be forced to stay firmly on the ground. I went to have a haircut a couple of weeks ago. I think there may be a gender difference in attitudes to hairdressers. Mrs Thatcher is famously said to have relied on her hairdresser for policy advice. I use the same place whenever I need a haircut, but I rarely get the same barber twice. The shop I use recruits Turkish, Iranian and Iraqi guys who are always interesting and engaging to talk to, but we rarely get anywhere near what should be done about national policy challenges. But it can still go badly wrong. This time, the barber stopped and asked me ‘so how old are you?’; I made a basic mistake here. He had skilfully cut off most of the white hairs, which is more or less what I pay for, and I didn’t have my glasses on, so the face looking back at me from the mirror was a bit blurry. The combination of the low lighting and my myopia made it look as though I was fairly wrinkle-free. So I said to him, ‘how old do you think I am?’. What could possibly go wrong? He stood back, looked hard and then gave me a figure that was, in fact, older than I am. It was a sobering moment. We never quite see ourselves as others see us, and, ahead of the weekend’s news, it was nice to have been put securely in my place.