Spinning Stories out of Pebbles (February 2022)

My grandfather was a wise and witty man and even when we didn’t see eye-to-eye he’d have something to say that would make me think. Modern music, he didn’t like, it didn’t say anything meaningful about life, it was all “Oh, I get up in the morning, and have a cup of tea, and then do something bland and meaningless about me”. Of course I argued with him, said that it was more than this, that the songwriters were poets, bards, weaving beautiful words that captured our sense of being human, but he wasn’t having any of it and I went away determined to prove him wrong. Inevitably a little research left me wondering if he wasn’t right. He may have been thinking of Jump by Van Halen, Parklife by Blur, Spending My Time by Roxette, A Day in the Life by The Beatles, or possibly this number – a theme for a Friday morning.

"Tumble outta bed and stumble to the kitchen,
pour myself a cup of ambition,
yawnin’ and stretchin’ and try to come to life.
Jump in the shower and the blood starts pumpin’
out on the streets the traffic starts jumpin’
with folks like me on the job from 9 to 5.
Working 9 to 5 what a way to make a living,
barely gettin’ by, it’s all taking and no giving."

The words of the magnificent Dolly Parton there, and this morning I propose to continue the argument I had with my grandfather thirty years ago by taking this quotidian poetry and pulling from it some lessons to live by. It is said of Isabelle Allende that she can spin a story from a pebble, compared with which this challenge should be simplicity itself. Before I go on, I should say that Dolly Parton is an actress, author, businesswoman, humanitarian, multi-instrumentalist songwriter and singer, mostly in the genre of country music. She was born in a one-room cabin in East Tennessee, the fourth of twelve children, and to pick a single highlight from her career, the Dollywood Foundation, which runs off the profits of the Dollywood theme park, provides books and scholarships to young people from the disadvantaged communities of her home state. Isabelle Allende was born four years earlier in Peru to a diplomatic family and moved as a child to Chile where she grew up. She is best known as a novelist, in the magical realism genre, and is probably the most widely-read Spanish-language writer in the world. Quotidian means daily, everyday, or mundane and comes from the Latin via old French. I’m going to have to stop providing footnotes to this assembly now or we’ll never get to the end, but if there are references or words that don’t click then I suggest you write them down in a little book and look them up, or ask me, later.

My quotidian life starts with tumbling out of bed and stumbling to the kitchen. I prefer tea to ambition as my morning brew, but otherwise Dolly has got me pretty bang on until she talks about working 9 to 5. That isn’t how my life feels, most of the time, I hope it isn’t how yours feels, most of the time, and I’d like to encourage you today to build a future in which it isn’t your experience, most of the time. I say most of the time because there are always going to be days when your mojo is broken down, when you’re not feeling the tippest of tops, and when you question your life choices. Get through these days, don’t let them get you down, but expect a world in which they aren’t the norm. Expect a career that means more to you than simply working for a boss, expect a life that grows as you get older. Isabel Allende says “You are the storyteller of your own life, and you can create your own legend, or not.” You might be wondering if fate has given you a bit of a pebble rather than the cloths of golden and silver light that others seem to have been born to, but you can spin a story out of a pebble – you just have to know how.

The secret is quite simple, at least it’s simple to say – it’s harder to do, and harder still, for some people, to accept. The secret is to reject the transactional view of education. The transactional view of education is the idea that you learn in order to pass exams, that you pass exams in order to get qualifications, and you get qualifications because they enable you to get a job. It’s quite common. I expect you’ve all come across parents, careers advisers, politicians, teachers even who tell you what you need to learn in order to have a bright future. You might even believe what they have to say – I mean they’re probably not entirely wrong in the mechanics, the detail. It’s not that I object to – it’s the entire philosophy that I hate, that I call you to turn your backs on today. You don’t learn in order to pass exams, you shouldn’t pick what to learn because of the job it will get you – you should learn because it’s amazing, and you should try to learn as much as you can, rejecting the artificial limits of nine-to-five or the A-level syllabus. Our word for that is scholarship, a desire for knowledge that is extensive and exact, that just keeps on growing and making your world more beautiful as you do.

The fact is that if you only try to learn the things you know you need then you won’t learn all the things you could. One example of this, a transactional justification for a non-transactional approach to learning, if you’ll humour me, is that people like working with interesting people – that interesting promotions go to those who know more than the minimum requirements for the current role. I’m not suggesting, of course, that you spend your time looking over your shoulder trying to work out what unnecessary content you should learn to make yourself interesting enough to get promoted in ten years’ time– that would be madness – I’m saying you should be learning because it’s amazing, doing things because they are good and fun, and when the careers advisor in your head asks you to justify the time and energy you’re putting into learning the states of America in the order they joined the union, or the countries of Africa in order of land area, or the poem Sailing to Byzantium in the order Yeats wrote it, or the rudiments of ring theory in any order at all, then you can tell that voice that not only do you reject the transactional approach to learning, but also you are investing in being interesting.

Where to start, though? Well, you could start with any of the things I mentioned – they’re all amazing things to learn – or you could start with books, there are eleven thousand books in the Wigoder Library and you can borrow up to ten at once and quite frankly my only question is why haven’t you? Isabel Allende says that the library is inhabited by spirits that come out of the pages at night and when I lock up the school and stand in silence there, surrounded by the shelves I can imagine she’s right, stories creeping out to fill the darkness, words and sentences ready to leap into your minds and inspire or provoke with their subtle poetry. Unnecessary knowledge there to make you more interesting.

Or you could start with one of the extra-curricular societies. Some of you, I know, already go to one or more – if you haven’t found one yet then what have you been doing all this time? You’re surrounded by the most amazing people in the whole of London and you can’t find anything fun and constructive to do with them for an hour a week? Join Intelligent Believing and fix the problems of religion, come to Diplomacy and refight World War One, write for the Rose, drink tea and talk philosophy – do something, be interesting.

There are two groups of students in this church, two ways of life: that warned against by Dolly and that encouraged by Isabel. If your quotidian life is studying just what is forced on you in class, reading your textbooks, but nothing more, arriving just on time and leaving once lessons are over then you’re working 9 to 5, barely getting by, always taking and no giving, and you’re missing out. I urge you to reject the transactional approach to learning, to grab instead every opportunity that comes your way, to spin stories out of pebbles, to be the storyteller of your own life, to write your own legend.

What a way to make a living that would be.