Tillotson Lecture Goes Virtual to Look to the Future
Tuesday, 24 November 2020
For the first time in its long history, the annual Tillotson Lecture went virtual to allow a panel of Old Boys to discuss the potential lasting impacts of Covid-19 on our society despite the restrictions of England’s second lockdown. Rather than bringing together the wider Boys’ Division community in the Great Hall, over 200 pupils and their families congregated on Zoom to hear the thoughts and insights of four diverse alumni.
Panellists Prateek Buch, Dr Ashish Chaudhry, Nick Johnson and Hetain Patel represented a broad range of perspectives, including the civil service, the medical profession, the hospitality sector and the arts. After a few brief words from Headmaster Philip Britton, who was the chair for the evening, and a welcome from Charlie Griffiths, the School Captain, each member of the panel was given a window to speak about how Covid and its effects are likely to shape society.
Hetain Patel (Class of 1999) is a London-based visual artist and performance maker. His live performances, films, sculptures and photographs have been shown worldwide and his video and performance work online, including his 2013 TED talk ‘Who Am I? Think Again’, have been watched over 50 million times. He focused his reflections around arts and culture, which he described both as a beacon for social change and as a way to provoke, inspire and entertain through expressing and exercising humanity. ‘What did we do in lockdown number one?’ he asked. ‘Turned to Netflix!’ Yet he pointed out that this sector, often thought of as very liberal, is built upon the same structures and foundations of patriarchy and supremacy that make it unfair to many and privilege a few. He highlighted the rise of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, which he said has made it easier to have necessary conversations and for marginalised voices to be listened to, not just in terms of race but also gender, sexuality, disability and so on. He said, ‘Artwork is political. Culture has great influence. My hope is that the arts will make for a fairer, more just and more equitable arts world, but more importantly and beyond that, it will push towards a fairer, more just and more equitable world full stop.’
Nick Johnson (Class of 1984) began by addressing Hetain’s comments, agreeing that he too wanted to talk about ‘profound change’. He briefly mentioned the liberating effect of punk during his lifetime before moving on to discuss another profound cultural impact: the 2007/08 financial crisis. He said that he thought at the time, ‘This cataclysmic change has given us the opportunity to redefine capitalism.’ However, he described that idea with hindsight as naïve because very little changed: people wanted to return to the comfort zone of what they had always done before. Despite this, Nick himself made a change: following a decade of being assimilated into ‘the establishment’, and despite having an impressive CV as a result, he turned his life around and began trying to affect transformation and profound change in local communities by curating people and what they do. His efforts in Altrincham have now become the benchmark for how to transform and revitalise towns. He warned that the chances of doing things differently post-Covid are remote, as people will want to revert back to how things were once again, but still championed the possibility of redefining our relationships around regions, regional identity, trade, travel, and enjoying more of what is on our doorstep rather than pursuing a global economy. He highlighted the importance of debating the real implications of how we can re-engineer society now there is an opportunity to do so once again.
Dr Ashish Chaudhry (Class of 1999) is a GP who, during the pandemic, has implemented innovative ways of working to meet the demands of health care delivery to his patients. He began his speech with his own, individual experience of catching Covid, which developed into Long Covid, and concluded by saying that although he is almost recovered physically, the trauma of the experience lingers on. He said: ‘Although Covid entered our psyche as a medical illness, this is not about health any more. The virus has mutated and evolved, not in a genetic sense, into a social disease. It has re-engineered how we think, feel and behave in our environments.’ He talked about how this illness has forced humanity to confront our vulnerabilities and said that, while a vaccine is pivotal, alone it will not be enough to get our lives back on track. He humanised the statistics: the 60,000 people in the UK who have died from Covid would fill a football stadium, and 500 deaths a day is the same as a jumbo jet falling out of the sky every single day. He also spoke about how Covid has attacked the weakest links in our society and magnified the suffering of those already vulnerable, and raised concerns of a mental health crisis on the horizon. However, he was also able to discuss ways to rehabilitate through ‘courage, compassion and connection’ and by reconnecting with other people to regain meaning in our lives. His final message was: ‘Practice kindness and gratitude. Be humble. It’s not over.’
The final speaker was Prateek Buch (Class of 1999), Senior Data Advisor at the National Leadership Centre (NLC) in the Cabinet Office. He picked up on the theme of privilege that had run through his fellow Old Boys’ comments, calling it a ‘double-edged concept’ which brings with it a moral and ethical obligation to use that privilege to innovate. The unequal impact of Covid, along the lines of geography, socio-economic status and ethnicity, has emphasised privileges and ‘revealed in stark and uncomfortable terms the need to understand the people we serve’. However, the challenges of the pandemic have already affected policy. Initiatives to promote diversity, inclusivity and accessibility within the civil service have been accelerated. The rigidity of barriers within bureaucracy have been reduced and increased porosity between agencies, departments, the government and other sectors has improved communication and systemic thinking. However, he agreed with Nick that the challenge is in not pressing the reset button but instead capturing what has been learned, embedding that as the new modus operandi and taking the opportunity to create profound change. He said, ‘We are obliged to take it on, once we have taken the steps needed to ensure we are safe.’
The Headmaster thanked all four speakers for their reflections before beginning the question and answer session. Zoom’s features allowed the audience to send in their questions throughout the talk and Mr Britton pulled out several of these alongside prepared questions to continue the conversation.
The panellists discussed what society is and the juxtaposition and interplay between local and global society, speaking about the need for balance between the two, the importance of seeing global issues as our problems, and the way the pandemic has turned our lens closer to home by necessity. They also talked about whether improvements in technology promote connection or distance between people, with all four Old Boys agreeing that there is still a need to have the realness and authenticity of in-person experiences, and the need for quality communication both online and offline. Questions about whether technology can or should open up access to the arts and whether the healthcare system should shift its focus to a more proactive and preventative model were answered by Hetain and Ashish respectively, and all four weighed in again on whether there will be any long-lasting change post-Covid. Mr Britton ended the Q&A with a Year 13 student’s question, which he challenged each Old Boy to answer in just one minute: ‘How can we rebuild a post-Covid economy?’ They each provided concise and thoughtful answers, which focused on accepting the symbiotic relationship between health and economy, the need for equality, the provision of economic support and resilience within the economy.
Finally, the Headmaster asked all four Old Boys to provide a message to current pupils. Their comments were as follows:
Hetain: ‘If something doesn’t feel right to you personally, speak about it.’
Nick: ‘Don’t consider that you need to know everything before you do something. Naivety is often a put-down but it’s been one of the greatest qualities that I’ve possessed.’
Ashish: ‘Be courageous and believe in yourselves.’
Pratik: ‘Whatever future you envisage, you are the future. It is your change that you must be, to coin a phrase. It is your world to seize, even more so today than before.’
The evening was brought to a close by Vice-Captain Thomas Britton. He thanked the panellists for their insightful comments, which showed a fascinating diversity of thinking with common themes throughout.
The 2020 Tillotson Lecture was the third panel discussion in the event’s 48 year history, following on from the 2011 panel about the projected aftermath of London hosting the Olympic Games and the 2015 panel which focused on the future of Bolton as part of Bolton School’s 100/500 Anniversary celebrations.
The Tillotson Lecture can be viewed in full here: How Will Covid Shape Society?
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