Assemblies from the archives of Harris Westminster Sixth Form
People are Strange (September 2022)
A proposition for you to contemplate: “People are strange when you’re a stranger. Faces look ugly when you’re alone” – actually there’s more to this than I want to go into today – something to circle back to in a future assembly – let’s focus on the proposition that “People are Strange”. That is the title of the song I was quoting, written by the Doors who have not been active on the Hit Parade recently and so I should probably give you some background. The Doors were an American rock band formed in Los Angeles in 1965 led by vocalist Jim Morrison. They were both controversial and influential and contributed to the counter-culture of the late 1960s. They took their name from a book by Aldous Huxley called “The Doors of Perception” which was published in 1954 and elaborates on his psychedelic experiences under the influence of mescaline. Aldous Huxley, meanwhile, got his title from a book by William Blake, written in 1793, and titled The Marriage of Heaven and Hell in which he says “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is.”
I’ve gone intertextual – following a chain of links from the Doors who were inspired by Aldous Huxley who was inspired by William Blake who was inspired by both John Milton and the Bible. Intertextuality is one of my favourite things – seeing how great writers and artists have appreciated, read and been influenced by each other’s work – it’s one of the reasons that I suggest just reading rather than reading just what you’re told to: you never know when you’ll come across a link. You might think me strange – but then people are strange and I, possibly, am stranger than most.
I am, for example, delighted by abstract mathematics and spent an afternoon during the summer proving to twitter, with the metaphorical aid of an apple tree and a herd of swine, that if you have two numbers A and B such that A is greater than or equal to B and B is greater than or equal to A then A and B are the same size. This is obvious for small numbers but for large ones, and by large I mean infinite, very infinite, for large ones it’s much less obvious. Large numbers are strange.
People in large numbers are also strange – large groups of people don’t behave like individuals – they are less considerate, more selfish, more scary, more dangerous. Let me tell you a story of my schooldays – cast your mind back, if you will, to 15th April 1989. It was a Saturday, and I was at school because it was the annual Silverdale (that was the name of my school) jumble sale. It was a big thing – we’d spent the last few weeks collecting jumble – I joined with a group of friends and piled into the back of one of their dads’ vans (in a way that would be even more illegal now than it was then) in order to collect large jumble – furniture, pianos, and the like from houses all over Sheffield (which is where I lived), but there were others collecting bags of clothes, books, bric-a-brac, games. On that Saturday people from all over piled into school to find a bargain and the event, run by the parents’ association, made a lot of money. In 1989 we had our best day yet – more people than ever – so many that the queue to get in almost became a bit of a crush – the poor deputy head in charge had quite a job managing the people who, sensible themselves, had become strange in large numbers.
I hope you’ve been paying attention – some of you, if you know a bit of modern history, may have an idea where I’m going next, but if not then listen up because this is where the mood switches from light hearted intertextuality and reminiscence to tragedy. I said that the jumble sale queue became a bit of a crush and you might think I’m overstating the danger of crowds, but on that afternoon five and a half miles away fifty thousand people were headed for a football stadium that had last had a valid safety certificate a decade before. The stadium was called Hillsborough – it is the home of Sheffield Wednesday and that afternoon was meant to be the location of the FA Cup semi final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. Instead it was the location of the biggest disaster in British sporting history. 94 people died that day, crushed in a crowd that stopped behaving like so many decent individual people and became a monster. 3 more were fatally injured. It was an abject failure of policing and the subsequent attempt to cover up the blame or pass it onto Liverpool fans appals me. The scars from that day cut deep still – clearly in the mind of someone at a Jumble sale in Sheffield that day, but more significantly through the families of Liverpool supporters who didn’t come back from their big day out.
And, so to you. Last week I stood on the door as a crowd of you wanted to leave – not the tens of thousands of Hillsborough, or even the thousands at Silverdale that day, but enough to stop being individuals, to stop being reasonable. Maybe it was a failure of policing – maybe I should put more energy into controlling your behaviour, making you behave reasonably, but is that what you really want? To be controlled, policed? I spoke two weeks ago about taking responsibility for your own actions – I want to be able to trust you to behave rather than have to police you – I want you to behave like grown-ups, not nine year olds. And perhaps I can, individually – perhaps – but as a crowd? You can never trust crowds, even in large numbers. Crowds are strange.
You can do better, though. Here are 3 things you can do to avoid being in a strange crowd, to save me from having to police you: - Wait your turn: crowds are inconsiderate and selfish – you don’t have to be – if you’re pushing other people out of the way then you are the problem - Wait at the back: it takes a little time to tap out, but it goes a lot quicker if people are sensible rather than making me get involved - Encourage those around you to join with the waiting rather than the pushing – crowds are strange, but they can be positive as well as negative. Peer pressure can work both ways
Actually, though, if you’re in that crowd to leave on the dot of 2pm then you’re getting it wrong, misunderstanding the purpose of school, being insufficiently courageous. School goes on to 3.40 each day and even that’s a bit early to my mind: 8am to 4.30pm makes a reasonable day’s work. Instead of rushing off, go to the library, or to a classroom and do two hours work – you’ll definitely find the queue has cleared by then plus you’ll have used your time wisely, learned some things, developed some character. If you’ve finished your work then get a book, read more, read widely, look for some intertextuality; or write – write stories, essays, songs, poems – write about the myriad of ways in which the counter-culture of the 1960s can be traced back to the cultural influences of Paradise Lost. (That's an essay I'd love to read)
People are strange, and that can be a terrible thing, but it can also be a wonderful thing, a creative thing, an interesting thing – the strangeness of people in large numbers is scary, but the strangeness of individuals is glorious. I have a poem about that idea to finish with – by Gerard Manley Hopkins, an innovative 19th Century poet and Jesuit priest who wrote about his God using vivid imagery and sprung rhythm. I don’t have time to dissect it, but here is his Pied Beauty:
Glory be to God for dappled things - For skies of couple-colour as a brindled cow; For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim; Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings; Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow and plough; And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim. All things counter, original, spare, strange; Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?) With swift, slow; sweet, sour, adazzle, dim; He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: Praise Him.
All things counter, original, spare strange… that is, or should be, you: your individuality, your passions, your enthusiasms and interests. Enjoy them, celebrate them, share them. Be individuals rather than just one of the crowd.