James Hillier Blount, Capt (Retd) BSc (Hons)
Doctor of Music
Wednesday 17 February 2016 at 2.30 pm - Orator: Max Austin
For every graduand that comes into this Great Hall and leaves a graduate, there is an inevitable period of reflection. That reflection will recall from a much wider pool of memories than work submitted, grades achieved and all that has contributed towards their actual degree. It will also include the new interests discovered, new friends made, hobbies and talents nurtured.
Although coming to receive a degree that rewards academic merit, for the graduate, a degree can represent a much wider interpretation of their time at University.
James Blunt, our honorary graduand today, needs little introduction to those not sitting on this platform: a 21st century music superstar, with over 20 million albums sold worldwide. But this is the second time that James has graduated from Bristol.
He came to Bristol in 1992 to study Civil Engineering, before graduating in 1996 with a degree in Sociology. In other words - he came to Bristol to design a bridge and left asking what bridges said about society. It is fitting though that, today, James’s honorary degree is not in his academic specialism but rather in music, a passion he has pursued since learning to play the violin and piano as a child. This passion was further developed at University where James, as a young undergraduate, lived with three friends in a one-bedroom flat in Clifton after having to spend his first month at university sleeping on a bean bag on the kitchen floor of some poor unfortunate. On speaking to some incumbents of the said flat it is clear that much fun was had and that James thoroughly enjoyed himself. James spent much time writing music or practising in the Hiatt Baker halls. Some of the pieces written at Bristol, such as his song ‘Wise Men’, appeared in his first album.
It would, however, be a mistake to just speak about James’s music. James’s undergraduate career at Bristol was sponsored by the Army. James was heavily involved in the university officer training corps, Bristol OTC, where a fellow recruit has commented that he would have put “Dad’s army to shame with parade tardiness and various states of undress”. After leaving Bristol in 1996, he was commissioned into the Life Guards, a cavalry regiment in the British Army. James’s love for music and for performing stayed with him throughout his time on active service as part of the United Nations peacekeeping force in Kosovo. It was while in Kosovo, where he had risen to the rank of Captain and commanded 30,000 troops into Pristina, that James wrote his song ‘No Bravery’.
While the Life Guards are known as a cavalry regiment they have long since dispensed with any requirement for their equine recruits to see action – it is now a tank regiment. James took to decorating his tank by placing his guitar on the outside. And he often played to friendly locals who had eaten with soldiers.
After six years of service and having played a prominent role in the funeral of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, James left the Life Guards and pursued the career for which he would receive not only fame and fortune but also recognition as a leading cultural figure. Yet, a special relationship with the Armed Forces persists to this day, as James plays an active role as a patron for Help for Heroes, raising money for injured soldiers.
It would be easy to define James’s musical career with primarily two songs - ‘You’re Beautiful’ and ‘Goodbye My Lover’ - both appearing on the first of his four albums - ‘Back to Bedlam’, released in 2003. The album has to date sold over 11 million copies worldwide. But his subsequent musical success with his last two albums, as well as hugely successful international tours, indicate that James is still very much an active figure in the music industry. However, as James would say, each has required perseverance and dedication. From writing his undergraduate thesis somewhat prophetically on ‘The Commodification of Image - Production of a Pop Idol’, to dedicating all his leave while in the Army to working on and producing demo tapes for potential producers.
Much of James’s success would not have been possible without the support and dedication of his family. James has commented that musical success has brought him closer to his family. His father, Charles, who I am delighted to see here today, has been responsible for the financial management of James’s musical career.
What more then, of James, the man? James has received public recognition recently for his sense of humour. Any interview with James now includes a mandatory reflection on his social media presence where James’s amusing one line ‘come-backs’ have attracted significant public attention. It may not be entirely appropriate in this setting to recall in detail the content of James’s comedic statements. But this does tell you that our honorary graduand is not a man who dwells on the inevitable negatives that fame brings but is also perfectly prepared to very publicly be the source of his own jokes. There is, though, a serious point to be made. You, our graduates, may go out and seek your places in the world, you may well come up against criticism and your own critics. But the ability not to take criticism personally or with spite is a lesson much spoken about but all too easily forgotten.
It will be twenty years this June that James graduated from Bristol and he has much to reflect on and much to be proud of. His continuing dedication to the Armed Forces and the medical charity, Medecins Sans Frontieres, as well as Help for Heroes, all stem from his own experiences. It may be fair to say that such commitments occupy just as large a part of James’s own identity as his music. The link between active service and the arts that James embodies is a relationship hard to qualify and equally hard to describe. It might be easiest to quote another member of the Bristol family, who spoke throughout the Second World War from this very platform, Sir Winston Churchill. He famously said at the height of wartime ‘what are we fighting for, if not the arts’.
In concluding this oration, I return to where I started and pose the question: what are we actually celebrating here today? Yes, academic merit and all the commitment and dedication that each person has doubtless put into to achieving their degree. But we must remember that we are also celebrating the individuals that you have become throughout your time here at Bristol. And James, who throughout his life has always sought to develop his passion and talent for music, but not necessarily through academic study, is a perfect example of how the range of experiences and opportunities you get at university may in fact become the defining aspect of your life. I can think of no better way to finish than by paraphrasing a lyric of James’s: “Shine on, just, shine on”.
Mr Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Mr James Blunt, music icon, entertainer, war veteran and a fellow Bristolian as most eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Music honoris causa.