The 129th Henry Johnson Commemoration Dinner ~ Saturday 25 February 2017
The Banqueting Suite, Birmingham Council House
Under the steer of Chairman Pip Penney the Henry Johnson Dinner was full of vim and vigour. There was a buzz to the evening which was respectful of history and tradition yet asked ringers to think about the modern day place of ringing. Excellence and achievements were celebrated whilst focusing on effective frameworks for the raising of new ringers. The food was good too!
The fifth item of the evening’s programme, simply billed as ‘Handbell Ringing’ epitomised the why and wherefore of the evening. The performance of Little Surprise Royal, echoed points of some key toasts in that it was traditional, had cultural memory, saw communing of like-minded people and demonstrated excellence. We could hear a purity in the rhythmic, graduation of small changes and performed as it was, it had an almost celestial quality.
In his toast to ‘The Church’ Simon Linford reflected on tradition and habit and the push and pull of the ringers relationship with church, architecture and the pub and asked the question; Does our ringing still call people to worship?
In ‘The Response’ Father Barrie Scott noted that times are changing, not only in the demise of evensong but in such things as the closure of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, however he also demonstrated that we have collective cultural memory and a shared history. The sound of church bells, whilst not a memorable theme tune, do seem to remain part of our communities and are still noticed.
The speeches of the evening provided an effective dialogue. Alistair Cherry proposed the toast to ‘Guests and Visitors’ which deftly highlighted the long reach of the Guild. The relationships of members with ringers throughout the country and further, continues to provide an extraordinary network.
In his response and in moving the toast to the ‘Continued Prosperity of the St Martin’s Guild’, Dickon Love provided a mock tirade of all that London ringing has to offer, as a foil to celebrate Birmingham’s sociability, standards, recruitment of ringers and the provision of the best opportunities and teaching.
And it is the opportunities, teaching, support and development which was the nucleus of Stephanie Warboys’ toast to the ‘Health of the Chairman’. In reviewing the work and contribution to ringing of the 2017 Chair Pip Penney, the list was astounding, and the drive was clear, an effective way of learning to ring. Pip’s prodigious output and ‘storm Doris’ levels of energy, not only inspired but enabled others through the teaching and learning frameworks: breaking it all down, writing it all up, training the trainers, connecting those that can do and are willing to do, recruiting and then retaining learners who go on to achieve recognised levels of proficiency.
Stephanie emphasised a step change under the heading ‘That was then and this is now’, commending the increasingly positive environment nurtured by the current Guild Standing Committee, while recognising both the diamond work of John Anderson over 60 years and the work of Tony Daw as previous ringing master. Reclaiming the 12 bell title at the Aston competition final was a coup de grâce, but this was balanced with success and pride in the Birmingham School of Bell Ringing and student ringers achieving Level 5 under Learning the Ropes. There was a renewed view of what Birmingham ringing is about, as epitomised by the Excellence in Innovation, Retention and Achievement ART award won by Clare McArdle.
In ending the speeches Pip Penney drew a colourful and oddly memorable picture of sheep sliding on ice, amusingly illustrating the precarious nature of deploying information, data and trends in relation to ringing. So to the present, looking out across the banquet tables and the rarity of seeing ringers in their banquet finery, the ‘now’ included the statesmen that is Don Finnemore, a table of young bloods, honoured guests who are stalwarts of ringing development, ministers of the church, old friends, the movers and shakers, the backbone of the Guild and quite a few learners. Not a bad ‘now’ to be stepping on with.