Clare Balding is the sort of person who makes a powerful impression. And a brief encounter with her on her visit to school in December has, indeed, stayed in my thoughts ever since. Granted, her celebrity status endows her with a certain charisma but, in her case, I suspect that the charisma predates the celebrity and partly accounts for it rather than the other way around. She is a role model for our times. What makes me say that?
Partly, it is about the things she said and the messages she conveys to young people. When she visited us, for example, not only was she able to capture and hold the attention of a hall full of 5-11 year olds for an hour, telling them stories based on her recently-published children’s book The Racehorse Who Wouldn’t Gallop, she was also able to captivate an equally large audience of 11-18 year olds (not to mention the grown-ups in the room) with stories based on her life experiences.
Many of the things she said stuck in the mind not necessarily because they were of ground-breaking originality but because they were so pungently expressed, often with the addition of a memory-hooking anecdote – and because they were true.
- Stop worrying about what you look like and just enjoy being you.
As a tall and large-framed woman, Clare struggled to maintain her weight as a jockey but had the last laugh when she won as a prize her own body weight in champagne.
- Dare to be different because thinking all the time about what other people think of you and worrying about whether they like you makes you self-centred, less happy and less likable.
She recalled how she came close to getting expelled from school for shoplifting, which she had only done because she wanted to fit in with the gang and gain acceptance – a nasty experience but an important learning journey for her.
Part of her power as a role model lies in the deeds that lie behind her words. Truly a Renaissance woman for our times, she has been a champion jockey, sports commentator, TV presenter, radio broadcaster, raconteuse, memoirist, novelist and campaigner. And she is only 45! A pioneer in many ways, her success in breaking into traditional male sporting bastions, such as horse-racing and rugby league, plus her outspoken promotion of the rights and profile of women in sport and public life, have given her an almost unique authority in broadcasting.
Above all, though, the key to her impact is, simply, who she is. She wears her fame lightly and her ability to communicate comes as much from the attention she pays to the individual standing in front of her at a book-signing as to the oratorical skills that come into play in front of a mass audience. Always true to herself, she has been candid about the strains in her relations with her parents when she was young and comfortably open about her private life – happily married to Alice Arnold – when the prurience of the mass media, and the bigotry to be found on its outskirts, must test the resilience of even the most self-confident public figure.
I was interested to hear her say recently on the radio that she approaches her life as though she were still at school because she enjoyed her life at school (shoplifting episode excepting, I imagine) so much. So, her live appearances on TV are like exams and her well-known rambles are like geography field trips. With her customary wit and lightness of touch, she has hit upon a serious philosophical truth, I think – that a life lived as a lifelong learner never fails to be rewarding.
Dr Helen Stringer, Headmistress