Five years of study (including a one-year break) and last Friday night I was awarded a First Class Honours degree in Fine Art and the Faculty and University Medals for outstanding achievement.

A hectic but rewarding journey.

Graduation handshake

It was an honour to be asked to deliver the graduation address on behalf of the graduating students, a group of around 280 graduates in Arts, Fine Art, Natural History Illustration, Music, Communication, and Visual Communication and Design. It was not difficult to find the common thread amongst us – we are all communicators. A talent that is critically important at a time when the standard of conversation between individuals, and between social groups, and from our leaders is rapidly deteriorating and falls well short of what is required to bring us together to address all the local and global issues we face. These graduates can help to raise the standard of conversation.

The text of the (nervously delivered) address follows:

hashtag terrified!

Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, Members of the Council, Staff of the University, Family and Friends of Graduates, and most importantly, Graduates: it is an honour to be delivering this address on behalf of the graduating students.

This moment marks the completion of our degrees and we have ourselves to thank. We plucked up the courage to begin this journey, and the energy to see it through. We have met the heavy expectations of ourselves and others, coped with the uncertainty of our choices, and juggled financial pressures and academic deadlines. Whatever the details of our individual journeys, We should all be very proud of what we have achieved.

But we weren’t alone.

We also sincerely thank our family and friends who have supported us and made sacrifices for us. We all have someone we need to thank personally and for me, it is my very patient wife Alice, to whom I will endeavour to make up for the days and weeks I spent lost in books and art projects … starting with cleaning up the study.   

We could not have graduated today without the support of the university staff. Our success is their success, and we thank them for their commitment and passion; especially given the uncertainties many of them have faced in the past 12 months. We wish them well for the future, whatever it may bring.

We show our gratitude to the university. It has been a constant in Newcastle for more than 50 years and has managed to tread the difficult line between the economic returns increasingly demanded of it and the social value expected of it from its graduates and the society it serves. All of us here are the better for its efforts.

The new School of Creative Industries reflects this and many of the disciplines of the graduates here today form the foundation for that school. While the transition presents many challenges I believe it is a positive change and I wish it every success.

Finally, as a mature age student, I want to thank the…umm…immature age students — thank you for your idealism, your creativity, and your determination. It has been infectious and an inspiration and I have loved every minute of it.

And in return, I offer some words of inspiration to you.

I last stood on this stage 35 years ago. Apart from the video screens little has changed within these walls, but the outside world has changed dramatically.

Fake news, post-truth, 24-hour news cycles, social media echo chambers and filter bubbles. A decade ago these phenomena did not exist and today they serve to reinforce division at the expense of understanding.

The refugee crisis, climate change, terrorism, and inequality in all its forms. We face serious and complex challenges that require the global community to work together to resolve them. We need to look forwards and outwards and yet Brexit, Trump and One Nation mark a rising trend for many to turn inwards and backwards.

At every level from individuals to our national leaders, there is a sad decline in the open-minded and inclusive conversations that lead to shared understanding, a unity of purpose and vision.

Not too inspiring so far, but this is where we come in.

There is something that unites all the graduates here today. While one group amongst us may have claimed the title Bachelor of Communications, we are in fact all communicators. We connect people with ideas and emotions and other cultures and other social groups. We start conversations.

Some of us use illustration to interpret the intricate beauty of the world; some evoke emotion and provoke thought through performance, music, or visual art; some convey information about events, ideas, innovations or products through writing, film or digital media. And others reveal what can be learned through an understanding of our own culture and the culture of others.

We have a creative mastery of the language of the word, the gesture, the sound and the image. The undeniable common thread amongst us is our ability to communicate, our ability to promote conversation. It is a talent that can extend beyond our chosen careers and a talent that is more important now than at any time in history.

Tim Minchin, a fellow communicator, summed it up to a class of drama school graduates in words that apply equally to us:

I observe among my friends,
No correlation
Between wealth and happiness,
Or fame and happiness

The happy ones work hard, generally
And they are generous, generally.
And they generate, generally, valuable ideas.

Which is your job, (just by the way):
To put into the world valuable ideas.

So look for stories that are worth telling
And lessons that need teaching,
And tell them and teach them,
And stay passionate,

For me, it took 35 years and a second degree to figure out what were the valuable ideas that I wanted to put into the world. My hope for you is that you find it much sooner and just get out there and do it. And be creative and happy while you are at it.

But first…  hashtag celebrate!

Thanks to Tim Minchin for his wonderful prose and to my editorial team, Katie and Lucy, for their creative speech editing.