Above left to right: James with other members of the Model United Nations team at the Royal Russell MUN 2012, where he won two Distinguished Delegate Awards; presenting the Senior House Debating Trophy 2012; running in the Tucks, October 2012
Can you say a bit about your background and upbringing?
When I was around eight years old I was beginning to discover that the world was unpredictable and that situations that exist at one minute won’t necessarily be there the next. At around that time I moved from a state school in Telford, Priorslee Primary School, to a prep school near Wolverhampton, named Birchfield, a school which some of you here will have attended. I have fond memories of Birchfield, and am lucky in having maintained ties with them, both last year and this year having been asked to judge their annual creative writing competition.
Something which I am quite pleased about is that my parents didn’t really try to affect which school I went to. I chose Shrewsbury. I’m sure they were quite pleased I did but I remain pleased that it was my own choice to come here. In all honesty, I hadn’t actually been to see a great deal of secondary schools apart from Shrewsbury…Repton and King Edward's in Birmingham being the only others. It worked well for me in that I was struck by the character and promise of the environment and it gave me a chance to board and be myself, whilst also being in proximity to Telford, so I wouldn’t initially feel out of proximity from home.
On my first trip to Shrewsbury, I recall being intrigued by two things which never really came to light. I was given a 40-minute Russian lesson which to me seemed like a Shrewsbury norm…as though I’d casually be learning Russian whilst here just because. Then I also remember being impressed by the School’s rowing facilities, to the point that my imagination saw me becoming a rower myself. But as fate would have it, rowing remained quite firmly in my imagination.
Do you recognise the person you were at 13 and do you think you are now 'you'? Or might you surprise yourself in the future?
If I saw my 13-year-old self today, I’d definitely struggle to identify him if he wanted to go rowing. I’d also struggle with seeing his reaction if I asked him to go for a run. My 13-year-old self running would have been quite a comical sight, and I don’t think he’d be running for a particularly long time before collapsing from exhaustion.
On the other hand, I think I would recognise a bit of me in my 13-year-old self. I remember wanting to have fresh starts…to try new things and have a diverse range of pursuits. I’m sure the 13 year-old me and I are the same person but I think I change in little ways day-by-day and find no end to development, even if some of the basic essence is still there.
You devote a lot of time to running. Can you tell us why that is important to you?
As I’ve suggested, when I first arrived in Third Form I was absolutely horrendous at running. I came 103rd in the New Boys’ Race and 500th in the 2008 Tucks, even though I think I was actually trying.
I tried running with the Hunt shortly after that and came in the top 150 in the 2009 Tucks. As folklore has it in the Hunt, I’ve been able to halve my Benjy time in the last five years from over 16 minutes to 8 minutes and 12 seconds in my last ever official Benjy on 21st March 2013.
The Hunt has been important to me because initially I was utterly hopeless at cross country running - nearly more than anything else and I think I wanted to transform myself. Looking back on it, the year I joined the Hunt was the final year that there was no compulsory sports for those with tact and so it must have been out of choice that I joined.
There are a few moments which stand out amongst the vast array of moments with the Hunt. The first is my first ever training session, which was a four-kilometre run with other Third Formers of the time, the only one of whom still running with the Hunt today being Ed Mallett. I don’t think I’d ever run four kilometres before and the prospect seemed mortifying. In the Tucks I had been able to walk when the body demanded it. This Mr Middleton character I was just getting to know didn’t seem like he’d support the idea of me walking in the session. I developed a massive stitch and felt justified in asking to walk it or possibly even to walk back to school. Mr Middleton simply said the best way to get rid of a stitch was to keep running. It sounded really bizarre, but he was right. I managed to finish.
Another moment was my first race, which was the Sutton Relays in 2010. I think it’s sincerely doubtful that I managed to gain us any places. But I think at the same time, it’s true that I didn’t lose the team any places and I felt like I’d done my bit in maintaining the position.
Since then I’ve had plenty of moments where I’ve been able to enjoy the company of fellow runners such as Ed Mallett, Seb Blake, Rory Fraser and Mark Huang. But there’s been one moment that stands out, which was being made captain of the School’s second VIII squad. In the last couple years I’ve been made a postor, the Governor of the Bastille Society, President of Quizzing and a couple of other things, but this was by far the most meaningful one, realising the difference between my overweight, relatively static Third Form self and myself today.
Running’s been able to make me feel freer generally, whether running with a group having others motivate me, or sometimes training by myself, in which case having embarrassing ipod music motivates me.
James in the centre (RSSH vest) at the top of the Lawley
Do you have a philosophy of life? An attitude that works, that might work for others?
Amongst the embarrassing ipod music I listen to when training is ‘Harder, Better, Faster, Strong’ by Daft Punk, which I think about to stop myself from ever trying to feel complacent or arrogant about anything that I try to do. There are a number of philosophies which are all quite valid, but I’d say that improvement is one of the better ways to avoid being full of yourself, which might be a risk in certain, safe environments like school in which we’re constantly told of our success but sometimes neglect the fields we can pursue.
It’s also important to try and be true to yourself and stick to your beliefs, generic as it sounds. It seems that the biggest regret you can have in life is bottling up and never taking the chances you actually want to take. Not taking chances is potentially one of my main regrets so far and sometimes I can’t help but ask a long string of ‘what if’ questions when thinking about them. Both those philosophies might sound like a bit of an effort, but I’m sure they’re worth going for, if not something else.
What of the future?
I can’t decide. Shrewsbury has set me in quite a good position which I’m grateful for. I might go to York next year to do Politics, Philosophy and Economics, or I may reapply and try again for Oxford and LSE which have rejected me next year.
In the long term I don’t know what I’d like to do. Law maybe. Or politics. Something with no guarantees, challenging lifestyle and the need for risks. Something which might be able to make a difference.
My role in heading the Creative Writing Society for the last couple years has helped me in getting events and meetings actually running and operational and I enjoy meeting diverse selections of people. So I think a career like the ones I’ve mentioned would be something I would enjoy.
If you had one message for those in front of you, what would it be?
I think to draw on some of the things I’ve said so far, an appropriate message might be to do things you might regret, as it’s better than doing nothing at all.