Why the COVID-19 crisis requires the recall of Parliament

Important caveat: without wanting to sound remotely self-important, I need to point out that I write this simply as John Tomsett, British citizen.

The only way death is not meaningless is to see yourself as part of something greater: a family, a community, a society. If you don’t, mortality is only a horror.
Atul Gawande

Today at least forty people an hour will die with COVID-19 in England. Each one will die alone. The same number died yesterday in similarly dreadful circumstances. And the day before that, and the day before that.

Any of us who have lived any length of time will know what it is to lose someone we love. My dad died when I was twenty. My sister died three years ago. I have lost friends and colleagues over the years.

If you have lived, you have lost.

The process of moving from bereavement to acceptance is an uneven one, but in most circumstances it begins by saying a final goodbye, either at the bedside or at the funeral.

But those who die in hospital today will die alone. And they will be buried or cremated whilst their relatives watch on a Zoom call.

It is hard to imagine the agony of all those involved.

And then there’s that hand-holding nurse.

That nurse will call the mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters to break the deadly news. Over and over again, today, tomorrow, and the next day. Deep into next week she will still be making calls to distraught relatives.

That nurse will work a 14 hour day, go home, sleep and return the next to go through the same terrible process of managing people’s last moments on this earth.

That nurse is unlikely to have sufficient personal protective equipment for tending patients in the COVID-19 ward. She will live every minute of her working day wondering whether she will contract the virus, and, like 19 of her fellow NHS workers, suffer the kind of death she witnesses daily.

Here we are, then, with the country’s death figures yet to abate, and little clear sense of what is actually being decided on our behalf by our country’s leaders to counter the pandemic.

At the afternoon Downing Street briefings, I am not even sure the daily death count is announced. You have to calculate how much the total has increased from the day before.

The fact is, our daily death count has eclipsed all others in Europe. Indeed, as I write, on the Andrew Marr Show the Wellcome Trust director Sir Jeremy Farrar, talking about COVID-19 related fatalities, says that it’s “likely” Britain will be “one of the worst, if not the worst, country affected in Europe”.

Yet a couple of weeks ago we raised our eyebrows at Spain, as footage showed A&E facilities with patients sprawled across the floor in the corridors. The people of Lombardy were held up as the victims of Italian ineptness. We saw convoys of Italian army vehicles ferrying the dead to mortuaries under cover of darkness.

The thing is, for me, life goes on over this Easter weekend. So far as Saturdays go, I had a lovely day. I sorted out some old photos, went for a walk by the river, fell asleep on our bench in the sunshine, had a drink with mates – via laptop – and finished the day watching the final two episodes of the first series of The Sopranos. I spent my day in a virus-free bubble.

Meanwhile, 40 people died every hour.

I am truly glad that Boris Johnson has taken COVID-19 on the chin and is up in bed reading Tintin cartoons. But I would rather find out, for instance, why flights from New York – aka Covid-19 central – continue to touch down in Heathrow hourly and their passengers are allowed through immigration and out, unchecked, into the UK quicker than you can say the word “quarantine”.

This is a national emergency. People are dying in their thousands. Who is asking the hard questions? What “science” are we following? Whose “science” are we following?

The media has found it near impossible to hold our politicians to account for their decision-making. Too few are reporting the awfulness of what is happening, in our country, today, right now, this minute.

This is absolutely the wrong time for party political points scoring, but it is the right time, surely, to recall Parliament. The relatives of today’s dead, at least, have a right to know what’s really going on.

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This much I know about…the challenge of keeping our students socially distant in school

I have been a teacher for 31 years, a head teacher for 16 years and, at the age of 55, this much I know about the challenge of keeping our students socially distant in school.

I was born two months after Boris Johnson. I have a heart condition. This week I was due to have a replacement pacemaker fitted, the same week the Prime Minister was admitted to St Thomas’ Intensive Care Unit. My operation was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Four years ago I contracted pneumonia. My GP told me that if, after taking a second lot of antibiotics, I did not feel better within 24 hours, I should go straight to A&E. You can die of this, he said.

I know what it is to feel overwhelmingly weary, to be unable to catch my breath, to feel afraid. Contracting pneumonia was, quite frankly, terrifying.

And all this went through my mind last night as I geared myself up to open school today with the help of five colleagues. On the way to work, there was chatter on Radio 4’s Today programme about reopening schools, from experts who have, perhaps, forgotten the experience of their own school days.

We had nine students to look after – the other 1,522 were at home.

I spent most of today yelling, “TWO METRES!” at our small group of wonderful youngsters. I have a responsibility to keep them and my colleagues safe from each other.

And I want to remain safe too. I really do not fancy contracting COVID-19. Consequently, I am relentless in my exhortations to maintain social distancing.

“TWOOOOO METRES!”

Keeping each other safe is an exhausting enterprise. For the past four weeks I have felt like something is sitting heavily on my chest. It is a level of permanent tension. It rises on a Tuesday night and peaks during my rota-day Wednesday. For the rest of the week it is a constant presence. I know I am not running a COVID-19 ward, but my fears are very real.

As I grumbled around our corridors and out on the school field, the words of the so-called experts came back to me. “Schools could open. Students should maintain social distancing procedures and remain in the same room all day, through breaks and lunchtimes.”

Our students are young teenagers. Remaining two metres apart from each other is an unnatural thing for them to do, as is sneezing into the crook of their elbow, or using a tissue, or washing their hands thoroughly, or keeping their fingers out of their mouths, noses and eyes.

It was a long day, but the young people were just great. They even let me win the penalty shoot-out. But it was all we could do to keep these nine socially distant, with a student-teacher ratio of 2:3. Imagine what it would be like with 1,531 students in school and a third of our staff self-isolating?

We reckon you could keep just 13 secondary-aged students socially distant in an average classroom. If we returned to school after Easter, to ensure over 1,700 people remained safely socially distant we would need twice the number of classrooms and twice as many teachers. We would require many more buses to get them there. And how we would feed everyone, when we would be stuck in the same room all day, I cannot quite imagine.

At 3.20 pm today, as we bid farewell to our students, I felt drained.

On the way home I popped into the local Tesco mini-mart. It was all but empty, until a nurse suddenly appeared at the other end of the aisle. I caught her eye and simply said, “Thank you”. She looked bemused at first, but then realised what I meant.

She was reciprocally thankful to all the other key workers: the super market shelf-fillers; the bus drivers; the refuse collectors; the police; the teachers. She was upbeat because the personal protective equipment had arrived today. She was a district nurse. She had been sneezed over for the past month, but the newly acquired surgical masks were a godsend.

Fortunately for me, we were interrupted by another shopper and our conversation was curtailed. I paid for my dishwasher tablets and held it together until I made it to my car. And it was then that I gave in and wept.

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This much I know about…moving from Research to Outcomes (Durrington researchED)

I have been a teacher for 31 years, a head teacher for 16 years and, at the age of 55, this much I know about…moving from Research to Outcomes (Durrington researchED).

Slides:

 

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This much I know about…how we must keep on saying, “Hello”

I have been a teacher for 31 years, a head teacher for 16 years and, at the age of 55, this much I know about…how we must keep on saying, “Hello”.

“And those that used to say hello simply pass you by.”
from Think for a Minute by The Housemartins

I hail from Sussex. One of the unexpected pleasures that struck me when we began living in the North was being greeted in the street by complete strangers. People I had never met said, “Hello” as I walked along York’s pavements. For a southerner, it was initially unnerving, but soon became a reassurance. Whilst I will never be an assimilated Yorkshireman, I felt welcome in God’s own county.

A five-mile early morning walk around York is a staple feature of my lockdown day. I follow a route along the River Ouse. I see dozens of people. It feels odd, but understandable, that we skirt around each other, maintaining a healthy two metres of separation. But what has upset me is the bowed heads, averted eyes and the awful silence. I mouth, “Good morning” but rarely is my salutation reciprocated.

Whilst we keep our distance, there’s no need for us to be so distant.

In a post-Coronavirus world there will be a new normal; I just hope the hearty Yorkshire “Hello” survives.

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This much I know about…when the last day of the school year falls in March

I have been a teacher for 31 years, a head teacher for 16 years and, at the age of 55, this much I know about when the last day of the school year falls in March.

Here is an account of the last few days at Huntington before the country’s schools all but closed for the foreseeable future on Friday 20 March 2020:

Today, I began our final Year 11 assembly with the Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times”. It seemed apposite.

Oh for a boring Friday in mid-March, where nothing interesting happens, a Friday consigned to the “instantly forgettable” pile, beyond recall.

Instead, it has been a day which will interest historians for centuries to come.

It began for me at 5.00 am, like every day this week.

We have taken things hour by hour. What else can anyone do? We created a planning room where, at 7.30 am meetings, our SLT sat on separate tables and figured out what on earth to do. We worked closely together but kept our distance.

Since Monday we have focused relentlessly on communicating with our students, parents and colleagues. A daily morning PowerPoint from me, read aloud by form tutors to their tutees. A daily parental bulletin. A daily Coronavirus Contingency Planning Update for colleagues before registration.

Communicate. Communicate. Communicate.

A vacuum is soon filled with fear. We had to manage the growing levels of anxiety.

Once out of that room, we put our game face on. As students and staff began to buckle, there was no reason to add to their doubts. It’s great to show you’re human for sure, but people also need to feel they are in safe hands, especially when uncertainty and fear abound.

Then again, I did weep privately in my office on Thursday after I had told the Year 11s and 13s their examinations were cancelled.

Over the past two days we have focused our minds on gathering all the evidence we could find to support our predicted grade judgements. We knew we had to give everyone a sense of purpose. We kept them busy before they started thinking too much.

Beyond that, I’ve been repeating to anyone and everyone the Shelley line which I had written on my office whiteboard last October and is still there: “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?”

At break time today, the sunshine warmed the backs of my legs through the glass as I stood in reception, a reminder that this too shall pass, that the earth will keep on turning.

And we laughed a lot. My last two Year 11 classes were uproarious. We sat and told stories, finding comfort in our narratives.

My Business Studies boys told me things about our school that no one else needs to know!

The prize for the first student to solve their last ever GCSE mathematics question was either all the cash in my trouser pockets or a roll of toilet paper. The winner chose the latter.

When I stood on the stage for the final assembly, I told the Year 11s I was sorry they will never have that last day of school rite of passage. I told them that they will be awarded their qualifications.

I told them their futures will be secure, that the sun will shine again.

Our school values of Respect, Honesty and Kindness, emblazoned above me across the hall wall as I spoke, have never been more resonant.

I told them to go home and be kind to people.

My final slide before we bid them farewell for now featured a wall of Love Hearts sweets. I explained that at the core of our response to this crisis has to be love. And how, when this is over, we just might be a kinder, gentler species, one that realises that we need each other more than we ever knew.

Shakespeare was right when he wrote, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”.

As our young people hugged each other and wept, the comforting strains of “It Must be Love” floated across the school hall.

Nothing more, nothing less…

 

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This much I know about…Putting Staff First

I have been a teacher for 31 years, a head teacher for 16 years and, at the age of 55, this much I know about Putting Staff First.

I have just finished co-authoring with Jonny Uttley, CEO of the Education Alliance Trust a new book called Putting Staff First. It will be published in April.

The thinking behind this new book is best exemplified by an oft-used metaphor…

When cabin pressure falls inside an aeroplane and the oxygen masks drop down, parents are directed to fit their masks before they fit their children’s. It is obvious why. Once hypoxia – a deficiency in the amount of oxygen reaching the brain – sets in, even the simplest tasks become impossible.

Symptoms of hypoxia vary from person to person but include blurred or tunnel vision, hot and cold flashes, euphoria, numbness, tingling, apprehension, nausea, dizziness, headaches, fatigue and belligerence.

Without an oxygen mask, within a few minutes parents suffering from hypoxia will be incapable of fitting their children’s masks, let alone their own. If parents fit their oxygen masks first, it turns out to be better for their children, who have a competent, healthy adult to support them through what can be a challenging experience.

The parallel with being a teacher is striking. If we do not ensure, first and foremost, that our teachers are happy, healthy, well qualified, highly motivated, hard-working, well-trained experts, they cannot be their best for their students. Consequently, a school which does not prioritise professional learning and managing staff workload – which, as a consequence, will help improve staff wellbeing – is disadvantaging its own students.

Whilst it is easy to say that schools would not exist if it were not for the students, the glib converse is that without truly great school staff, the students would not be taught well enough. What we need – as recruiting subject specialist teachers, school leaders and specialist support staff becomes increasingly difficult – is a revolution in how we treat the adults in schools.

“What is the most important school-related factor in pupil learning? The answer is teachers”, say Schwartz et al, and if they are correct, then we have to put our staff before our students because it is the only hope we have of securing what our students need most: top quality teachers (Schwartz et al, 2007).

The longer our schools are populated with hypoxic adults, we imperil all our futures.

And whilst we are determined to put staff first, that does not mean working in a blueprint school is an easy ride; far from it. We expect teachers to work hard and to be the best version of themselves they can possibly be.

If high quality teaching is the only thing that really matters when it comes to improving students’ outcomes, it follows, then, that we expect teachers in blueprint schools to accept the professional obligation to improve their practice; indeed, we consider that to be one of the most important aspects of being a teacher in a blueprint school.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines a blueprint as an ‘early plan or design that explains how something might be achieved’. Ten years after the Academies Act disrupted the structures of the English school system irrevocably, we want to look forward ten years hence, to a revitalised school system where our nation’s teachers are thriving and, consequently, so are our students.

Our new book is a 2030 blueprint to revitalise our schools that unashamedly puts staff first.

 

References
Schwartz, Robert B., Wurtzel, Judy & Olson, Lynn (2007) “Attracting and retaining teachers”, in the “OECD Observer” N°261, May 2007

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This much I know about…our family’s Lost Lowry

I have been a teacher for 31 years, a head teacher for 16 years and, at the age of 55, this much I know about our family’s Lost Lowry.

What follows is based upon a family tale which has floated around my wife’s family’s consciousness for decades. At the end of last year, I asked my mother-in-law Pauline to tell us the story again, when we were all sitting round the dinner table. She was essentially speaking directly to Louise, my wife. I captured Pauline’s words on my dictaphone and shaped this short story. The quotation from The Antiques Roadshow was the serendipitous spur which finally prompted me to pin down this family tale for good.

 

The Lost Lowry

“It’s now become a kind of status symbol to own a Lowry. That means everybody wants one.”
Rupert Mass, Antiques Roadshow, 29 September 2019

When your grandad came out of the navy he started a taxi business. He couldn’t work as he had a complaint. He was torpedoed in the war. He set up this taxi service. There was one taxi in every village. He made a lot of money out of that. He had one car and then two. He was a good entrepreneur, your grandad. He had lots of people who he taxied around. The Blackwell’s. There was Mr Shami, an Iraqi. I think he were a mill owner.

Anyway, he used to run these people around. Including Lowry, you know, the painter. Matchstick men and matchstick cats and dogs. I love his paintings, me. I think they’re lovely. They’re busy. The house was very dismal. He had a trilby and a long raincoat. He were tall. He died just up the road in Wood’s Hospital, at the top of the park, near where you were born.

So, Mr Lowry had your grandad as a chauffeur and he used to take him places. I never took that much interest. I used to see him shopping as a young girl. We knew he were an artist. He used to carry a shopping bag around with him. It was in the early fifties, maybe late forties. We lived at Broadbottom then. Your grandad used to pick him up. He used to do long trips with him. Up to Sunderland, I think, you know, the north east. Long trips. In those days there weren’t many cars. He drove for him for years.

He lived in a house called…what was it? “The Elms” I think it was, up in Mottram. Oh, your grandad got on well with Mr Lowry. He took him around regular. He must have been on one trip with him once and after he dropped him off – he used to have a cup of tea with him, especially if it were a long trip – he says, as your grandad were going out of the door, “Harry, do you want this?” He had one of his paintings in his hand.

And your grandad said, “You can keep it, as far as I’m concerned Mr Lowry. I’ve never liked your stuff. Not being rude or owt.”

And that were it. He never offered him one again.

 

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This much I know about…how Larkin was right, “days are where we live”

I have been a teacher for 31 years, a head teacher for 16 years and, at the age of 55, this much I know about how Larkin was right, “days are where we live”.

It’s Margate, 22 April 1957. My dad sat on the seafront, beaming at the camera. On his right is his sister-in-law, my Auntie Beat, and on his left, his wife, my mother. Dad, trim and smart, would have been 29 years old; mother, with her Picture Post polka dot skirt, just twenty-one.

Behind them is everything they need on an Easter Bank Holiday Monday: a couple of lunchtime ales followed by a spot of shopping at British Home Stores and, after a walk on the beach, to J. Lyons & Co. Ltd., with its famous roof terrace café, for a cup of tea and a slice of cake.

They look the epitome of happiness. And why not? It’s a day off work. The sun is shining. The summer is ready to unfurl before them. And what’s more, mother is six months pregnant with their first child, my sister Beverley.

Dad’s brother Tom would have been behind the camera, making them laugh. “Say CHEESE!” No need to extricate from the long day the grain of pleasure for these four; they’re having genuine fun. The image’s sepia tones are imbued with a sense of indefatigable optimism. All of life is ahead of them.

Dad died nearly 35 years ago. I’m not sure when, exactly, Uncle Tom and Auntie Beat passed away. My sister Bev was taken by cancer back in 2017. BHS and Lyons are long gone. And today I visited mother in her Sussex nursing home. Despite her Alzheimer’s, she recognised me. She knows my other sister and my two brothers, but no one else.

I showed her a photograph of my wife Louise and our two sons. There was not a glint of recognition in her eyes. She asked about dad. I told her that he had died of cancer a long time ago. She looked rueful and declared, “I loved him”. Ten minutes later, after I had explained dad’s fate for the second time, she said, in a rare moment of lucidity, “Well, they all die John”.

On the way down south we dropped our eldest, Joe, back home in North London. Instead of carrying on straight away, we made the effort to take the tube to the Barbican and visit the Museum of London. I wanted to see The Clash’s London Calling 40th anniversary exhibition. It was, predictably, a thrilling experience.

Afterwards, as we walked through the streets towards the Old Spitalfields Market, Louise remarked that “Days”, by Phillip Larkin, had become her favourite poem. “It’s it, isn’t it? Like this, this is it, days, like this one”, she said. “This is our life. Not yesterday, not in the future, but now. This is where our life happens. On day’s like this.”

And, of course, she is right. Days are where we live. Days like the Easter Bank Holiday Monday that Ann & Harry and Tom & Beat spent laughing in Margate, all those years ago.

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This much I know about…why Tom Bennett is right – teaching IS a wonderful job!

I have been a teacher for 31 years, a head teacher for 16 years and, at the age of 55, this much I know about why Tom Bennett is right – teaching IS a wonderful job!

I am teaching a Year 11 Business Studies GCSE class comprising 11 boys. I began teaching them in Year 10, when their behaviour was ruinous. I took them out of the original class so that the teacher and the 12 remaining students could get on with teaching and learning. I marched them to my office, sat them round my table and explained that, for the next 14 months, I would be teaching them, right though to their final examinations.

Two things happened in that class last week that gladdened my heart. On Monday we were practising MCQs, including this one:

Now, I had not taught them anything like this. I have no idea what a “Pure play retailer” might possibly be. When we went through the answers, Luke had chosen the correct answer, B. I asked him why and this was his reply:

‘Well, Mr Partmiter in RE was talking the other day about God being omnipotent, and he had explained to us that “omni” is a prefix meaning “all”, so I thought that must be the answer because customers can buy stuff in all different ways. Good old Mr Parmiter!’

Inspired by Alex Quigley, we have focused for the last three years on equipping students with the tools to deconstruct words to investigate their meaning when they don’t know what they mean. Always good when a plan comes together…

And on Thursday afternoon, before we finished the year with a Betty’s tea shop Cheeky Little Rascal each, I told the boys we had got some work to do and I had to get their brains thinking. Oliver replied, quick as a flash, “It wouldn’t be a Business lesson, Sir, if we weren’t thinking.” I have been working of late to ensure every single student has learnt what I have taught, inspired by Tom Sherrington’s seminal post on the #1 problem in teaching. Just changing the wording of my questioning has helped hugely. I have these boys thinking hard; instead of asking “Have you learnt that?” I ask “What have you learnt from that?” I get them thinking all the time. Oliver’s comment is the result of relentless interrogation, until I feel sure that all 11 boys have what I have taught securely in their brains!

I taught an all-boy group like this several years ago for English GCSE. One lad stood out, called Tom. A few weeks ago, Ros McMullen texted me. She lives just up the road. I was reminded of our ensuing exchange of texts this morning when I read Tom Bennett’s inspiring post, “It’s still a wonderful job – because teaching saved me”. I don’t usually post this kind of stuff, but Ros’ texts meant a lot to me, because my student Tom meant a lot to me. And Tom Bennett is spot on – it is a wonderful job, for sure!

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This much I know about…London Calling’s 40th birthday!

I have been a teacher for 31 years, a head teacher for 16 years and, at the age of 55, this much I know about London Calling’s 40th birthday!

Forty years ago today The Clash released London Calling. It was a seminal moment in rock and roll history and a life-changing experience for my 15-year old self.

Less than a month after the release date I was queuing outside the Brighton Top Rank to see the band play on their 16 Tons Tour. They were promoting the new album. As my mates and I shuffled from foot to foot to keep the January chill at bay, critical opinion was divided about London Calling’s eclectic musical mix. No one understood Jimmy Jazz. Train in Vain was pure disco. There was so much reggae! The title track was great, for sure, but Lover’s Rock? Really? Before the gig, the proverbial jury was still out.

Once in the venue, it was a matter of downing as much Pernod & black as you could afford and then getting to the front of the stage. There were no safety gaps filled with bouncers. If you were brave you’d get a front row spot early and then just hold on. The crush was dangerous and exhilarating. The night The Clash played I ended up swaying around in the mosh-pit, just a few feet from the front.

There was nothing quite like being in the mosh-pit as The Clash began their set. The support had been finished for some time as chants of Clash…Clash…Clash…Clash bounced around the Top Rank’s sweaty walls. And just when you thought they would never appear, the lights fell. In the blackness torches scattered. The lyrics of Tennesse Ernie Ford’s 16 Tons floated out of the PA system and as they faded a voice announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to welcome back to Brighton…THE CLASH!” And a nanosecond later, pandemonium.

They began with Clash City Rockers. Mick Jones’ opening chords growled out across the Top Rank and the surge of energy was raw, elemental and purifying. A lad next to me grabbed my shirt and hauled himself up to crowd surf into the swirling mosh. I gasped for breath. Before I knew it we were straight into Brand New Cadillac followed by Safe European Home. One track, then another, then another. London Calling, Bang! Stay Free, Bang! White Man in Hammersmith Palais, Bang!

It was absolute chaos. I found myself laughing at the perilous thrill of it all. I loved it. And the thing was with The Clash, they loved it too. It was a night of heady celebration. They knew their new album was bloody great. As Andy Kershaw said, who heard them a couple of weeks later in Leeds, “they were at the absolute peak of their powers, the fully finished article…the last word in rock and roll bands”.

In those days the last bus home left at 11.05 pm from Churchill Square. Miss the 729 to Tunbridge Wells and you were stuck in Brighton all night, 20 miles from home. We never saw a full set. We left as Simonon thumped out the Police & Thieves base line, Strummer snarled Junior Murvin’s lyrics, Jones struck the jarring reggae chords and Topper orchestrated the whole thing with drum-machine precision.

It was 11.00 pm on 8 January 1980. Margaret Thatcher was in power and unemployment was on the rise. Unbeknownst to us, The Falkland’s War and the Miners’ Strike lay ahead, soon to ambush our remaining teenage years. But that night, walking up West Street, sweat-ridden and frozen, we didn’t care. We had seen The Clash. And London Calling would become the sound track of our lives. We were changed forever.

This 16 Tons Tour recording is from March 1980 in New Jersey, USA. The band’s supreme confidence is epitomised by Stay Free at 41:10. They own the whole auditorium.

P.S. My son shares his birthday with London Calling. He is 23 today. He is called Joe. Obviously.

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