Dancing New Steps (February 2018)

Feedback on my previous assemblies has suggested that sometimes my circuitous and nuanced approach has left you wondering what I was actually trying to say and I’m sorry to report that there is a hint that I have sometimes been deliberately, wilfully and pretentiously sesquipedalian. I must, therefore, take a break before I’ve even got going to introduce you to one of my favourite words – a word I was introduced to several years ago through a book entitled “The Surgeon of Crowthorne” – a book that tells the story of the writing of another book – the Oxford English Dictionary in which not only the meaning of words but their etymology and first appearance is recorded. Sesqui is a Latin prefix meaning one and a half and ped, also from the Latin means foot. So, sesquipedalian is an adjective describing a word that is one and a half feet, eighteen inches, a little bit less than fifty centimetres long. It also describes people who have a tendency to use such words which, it seems, includes me. One of the joys of the word sesquipedalian is that it is itself so gloriously sesquipedalian – it is an autological word, one that describes itself like, for instance pentasyllabic or Hellenic (which derives from the Greek word for Greek).

Having confessed that my sesquipedalianism is both deliberate and wilful and leaving you to decide whether it is pretentious or merely joyful I shall move on to provide you with a map of the assembly ahead so that you know where we’re going on our journey together this morning. The assembly starts with a diverting description of potentially amusing words – we’ve had that bit – and there is then a description of the structure of the assembly which is charmingly self-referential – that’s this bit. After that I will re-introduce some of the myths of Harris Westminster that I’ve tried to lay down over the last four years – and if any part of today’s assembly is pretentious then that bit certainly is: I am hoping to be sufficiently self-deprecatory to get away with it but only time will tell. I shall then expound at length, adding another chapter to one of those myths and, in doing so teaching you some history I hope you’ll find interesting and introducing a little pop-culture that may resonate if you’ve come across it before and otherwise will serve as a recommendation. I shall finish by tying the myth into our life and your studies at Harris Westminster – I suppose that if all you want is the take-home message then you can afford to drift off and muse on the stained glass and carvings until we get to that bit.

Paragraph 3: The myths of Harris Westminster – what on earth am I talking about? Stories are important, myths even more so – Mr Stone will talk to you at length on that subject if you only let him – what I’m talking about is stories I’ve told about myself or about the school that I expect you to be almost but not quite sure are made up. I might start with the undisputed fact that the Vice Principals of Harris Westminster have, since 2014 been assembling a collection of debonair hats – at the moment its extent is rather limited and it fits comfortably into Miss Scott’s filing cabinet but I foresee that time is on its side and that within the thousand-year vision the collection of debonair hats will become quite a feature. The thousand-year vision is also worth explaining – we are a young school with a three-and-a-half-year history and a challenging ambition of matching the results of Westminster School: in order to maintain my sanity and to reassure anyone who thinks I might need a larger hat (because I’m bigheaded, you see) I always explain that they’ve been around for a thousand years and so we should give ourselves that long to catch up.

I shan’t be here, by then, of course – at some point time will catch up with me and I’ll have to hang up my whiteboard markers. When that happens I plan to retire to the country where I will have a house with a veranda on which I will sit on balmy afternoons and shout theorems at passers-by. My hope is that someone will shout back the proof and I will invite them in to join me in a glass of lemonade and reminiscence. It may be that it’s only when I have retired to the veranda that I will have time to complete my magnum opus (from the latin for great work) – you see, I’m working on a book of military disasters that could have been avoided by careful study of 1980s movies. The first chapter explains how an understanding of the Karate Kid would have helped the British at Gallipoli whilst the second links Agincourt with Ghostbusters.

The third chapter of this book – if I ever get round to writing it – will be on how Baz Lurhman’s Strictly Ballroom empowered Nelson at Trafalgar. Pedants amongst you will note that Strictly Ballroom was released in 1991 and also, possibly, that the British tend not to consider Trafalgar a disaster (although it was pretty disastrous for Nelson himself since he was its most notable casualty). Trafalgar was a naval battle fought between the British fleet and the combined Spanish and French fleets. The fleet was a collection of ships – the British had 33, the French and Spanish 41 – and the ships were mostly 74s: 50m long triple masted beasts with 74 cannons. They were monstrous floating artillery platforms and the dominant tactic was the line of battle in which the boats would edge towards each other firing their guns as fast as they could until either they were close enough for one of the crews to leap across to the other ship and capture it or until one of the vessels fell apart. This took a surprisingly long time because although the cannonballs would zip through the air, punching holes in the wooden ships, knocking over masts and turning any humans in the way into red mist they decelerated immediately on hitting the water and were therefore not much use for sinking the opposition. Because the guns were all along the sides and the ships were not very manouverable, it was vitally important to avoid pointing head on towards the enemy’s broadside – if you did so then you would be raked with the cannonballs passing down the whole length of the ship causing huge damage and be unable to reply in kind. Knowing this the French fleet thought it was pretty safe when it nipped out of Cadiz – where it had been trapped for the past month – in order to sail for Naples to get new supplies and take on a force of soldiers and sailors. They felt safe because they would sail in a long line parallel to the coast and the British ships would be unable to edge towards them fast enough to catch them before they escaped into the open Mediterranean.

Nelson, however, had not been wasting his time on the poop-deck of the Victory and was well-aware of the scene in Strictly Ballroom in which Fran, the half-Spanish female lead, challenges her partner, Scott, with the phrase “Vivir con miedo, es como vivir a medias” – “A life lived in fear is a life half-lived”. Buoyed by this piece of Australian wisdom the Admiral turned his ships towards the French fleet and hoisted every sail he could. The Victory led the way and was therefore, with two other leading ships, the target of raking attacks from the French and Spanish for about forty minutes. This went against every piece of advice in the ship’s captain’s rulebook but Nelson was merely following the path of Scott and Fran when they went into the Pan-Pacific dance competition using their own, non-federation approved dance moves. To start with the tactic looked like madness – on the Victory alone, forty-five of the crew were killed and another hundred wounded but then the British ships cut the French line and madness turned into genius because every British ship was able to rake two French ones – one on each side – and their first broadsides were all double-shotted, two cannonballs in each gun creating terrible damage at such short range. Nelson was killed by a sniper’s bullet but the battle was an overwhelming success: of the forty-one ships in the combined fleet, twenty-one were captured, one sunk and of the rest only five were sufficiently intact ever to put to sea again. Every single British ship survived. Nelson’s statue now stands on his column in Trafalgar square – about six minutes walk up Whitehall and if you look carefully you’ll see he’s still looking over his fleet: the lamp-posts by Admiralty Arch are decorated with early 19th century ships of the line.

So what has any of this to do with us? Is it just a story or is it a myth that has meaning beyond its specifics. Those of you who were paying attention at the beginning will feel confident that I intend to make it the latter and those of you who have drifted off in between need to pay attention again because this is the key message. A life lived in fear is a life half-lived: don’t let fear stop you being amazing, more specifically, don’t let the fear of being wrong stop you learning. Have you ever been in class when the teacher asks a question and you think you might know the answer but you’re not sure and so you don’t say anything because you’re afraid of being wrong. Then it turns out you were right, or almost so, and so you pat yourself on the back but are slightly disappointed not to have gone for it. I get it with University Challenge – an idea will come into my head but I won’t shout it out in case it’s a stupid answer and my wife laughs at me but then it was right and I’ve missed out on the glory. Well – we should stop it. If you go for it with your answers there are two possibilities: either you are right and can bask in the adulation and envy of your peers or you are wrong and get to learn something and we all know that learning is amazing. What we want, probably, is for the first one, we want the glory, but actually the second outcome is even better: if you are wrong loudly then you have identified something you thought you knew but didn’t and you can correct it (you also have a strong motivation never to make that mistake again) – if you are only wrong in your head then you will shrug, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t get fixed.

Being wrong loudly – it’s the best way to learn so grab your courage in both hands, mutter Vivir con miedo, es como vivir a medias to yourself and go for it. And if some of you are thinking that you’ve got by fine thus far without following this suggestion and that you’ll carry on getting by fine then I would like to point out that the lesson of both Trafalgar and Strictly Ballroom is that greatness comes to those who those who dance new steps. And that, in short, is what I, in my meandering and sesquipedalian way have been trying to say to you this morning: be bold, be wrong loudly and have the courage to dance new steps.


1. The first installment of the magnum opus is currently the subject of an international search and rescue operation, but the second can be found here: Fifteen