“Did you sleep well?”
“Yes, thanks. I feel much better.”
It’s a common enough conversation. Trouble is, I keep conducting it during the day, at meetings, conferences and events.
I’m writing this on my way back to Newcastle from Sunderland where I’ve been at the annual Journal/Gazette Top 200 Business Awards breakfast. It was a storming meal: how often do you get a lamb chop with your fry-up? Then there were the awards, which we duly applauded.
Who can complain at Nissan, a major employer helping this region to regenerate its industry and employment prospects, winning the Top Business award? Other significant employers and economy-builders were honoured too.
Next, the Q&A session. I am frequently (too often?) asked to sit on such panels, but mercifully not this one. Just as well: I fell asleep. Come on. I’d got up early, and partly because I’m green at heart and partly because my ageing sports car (I call it a classic) is currently in dock, took the Metro all the way to the Stadium of Light. After that large breakfast it was warm in there and … you know the rest. At least I didn’t snore.
At a recent conference, a big gathering of the major independent schools in the UK and overseas, I woke myself up by snoring during a major address – the opening speech from the conference’s national chairman himself. I blame the colleague next to me: he could have spared me embarrassment, particularly as – a former chairman myself – I was in the front row. Fortunately, I’m not sure anyone else noticed.
I’ve done worse. At a previous conference of the same organisation, I fell asleep in the front row of a session addressed by MP Frank Field. It was a bold move to invite that veteran left-winger (though very sound on social mobility) to address a gathering of independent school heads. The trouble was, it was teatime, a moment when I find it hard to keep awake at the best of times. And it had been a late night: you know how conferences are.
Frank Field spoke well, if slightly monotonously, and I was away. Naturally I was awakened by the concluding applause, only to be accosted by a television reporter who asked me about the impact of Field’s speech. In one of my better impromptu replies, I commented how important it was that we as independent schools avoided complacency, and were ready to engage with an opposing thinker. It was, I said, a relevant, challenging and timely address which we greatly valued.
As a piece of bluffing, it was one of my finest. But I did feel a little guilty: I do possess a conscience, honestly.
Clearly this problem is not about to go away. There are particularly difficult times, such as the 2pm slot on a teacher-training day. We greeted an excellent speaker at my school recently, from a top school, talking about strategies for teaching the most academically able. He was excellent – they tell me. The trouble is, with 24 adults packed into a classroom, it got a little humid and… I know: my colleagues missed much of that important training session because most were watching me, nudging each other, whispering, “Is the boss really asleep?” and wondering if anyone should wake me up.
The tragedy of all this is that no one ever does wake you up, if you find yourself in my position. I don’t mean my exalted job: I mean if you’re a middle-aged man who can no longer keep awake in sessions like that. People may snigger. They may even lay bets on how long I’ll stay asleep. But they never, never do the decent thing and gently wake me up.
Every cloud has a silver lining. This morning, as on most occasions when I can’t resist a little kip during a meeting, I awoke feeling refreshed. I felt much better, thanks.