My musical inspiration today is, in fact, music hall inspiration – a song for a bygone era when two chaps in dinner jackets, one at a piano and the other in a wheelchair, singing silly songs passed for entertainment. Actually our heroes, Michael Flanders and Donald Swann, were rather unusual even in the ‘50s and, I suspect, would actually find a market today. Today’s inspiration is “The Youth of the Heart” which is, unusually for the act, not a comic song with lyrics by Flanders and musical accompaniment by Swann, but a rather touching lament performed solo by Swann with the lyrics written by Sydney Carter. It opens with the line “When I was a young man, I hadn’t a penny, ‘when shall we marry?’ my Molly would say. But I was a wise man and said to my darling, ‘Love that is true love will not fade away’” The verses take you through the young man’s voyage to America where he makes his fortune and returns to Ireland to propose but finds that in the mean time Molly has married another. The refrain is “The youth of the heart, and the dew in the mornin’. You wake and they’ve left you without any warnin’” and the final lines are “remember my story and mind what I say, for I was a wise man and now I am sorry. The wisdom of winter is madness in May.”
I tell you this, not to encourage you into precipitous marriages, but to highlight the point that opportunities don’t keep: if you don’t take them now they might not be there when you come back to them. Before I get onto that key idea, however, I wish to tell you about two people who have something in common with Michael Flanders, the wheelchair-bound wordsmith.
The first is my father in law – Paul Murdin. He’s an astronomer and has had a wide-ranging career using telescopes around the world, planning and developing the UK’s space policy and writing so many books that I confess that I’ve not read them all. Three Paul Murdin highlights for you coming up. First, the thing for which he is best known (outside my family): the discovery of the first black hole – Cygnus X-1 – which he did with a colleague Louise Webster whilst working on the Anglo-Australian telescope in the outback of New South Wales. Second: his best line is that astronomy is the finest science because it’s the study of absolutely everything that’s more than 10 miles above the earth’s surface, and third: his most useful advice is that you shouldn’t worry too much about which subject you study at university because your tastes are bound to alter and your mind to change as you grow up – the game, he says, is to pick something hard and useful that you like and pursue it with all your energy and vigour until something better appears on the scene. If you’re dithering over your UCAS or apprenticeship applications he would tell you to get it done and submitted so that you can focus your energies on important things like learning your subjects, doing your homework, thinking about space.
This encouragement to academic study leads me on to Cardi B, who has long been a hero of mine because, you see, I struggle with modern music to know who I’m listening to except with the marvellous Ms B who can be relied upon to shout out her name in the middle of a song and save me from embarrassment, for example in Bodak Yellow, she sings “Now she says she gon’ do what to who? Let’s find out and see, Cardi B. You know where I’m at, you know where I be.” She also uses a whole bunch of words that are inappropriate to a principal – or indeed to any of you whilst you’re in school – and so I’d not realised quite what a fan of learning she was until I saw a little interview she made in which she was asked, by a man who seems to really like spicy chicken, about the celebrities she gets to hang out with. She was not so interested in that question and instead raved for 2 solid minutes on her fascination for learning about the conflicts of the 20th century and the magnificence of Franklin D Roosevelt – who is the second person on my list (Cardi B just being there as a link, as an example of scholarship, and because there is no assembly not improved by additional Cardi).
FDR was president of the USA between 1933 and his death in 1945. He guided the country out of the Great Depression and through World War II by the use of a raft of interventionalist policies called the New Deal and by building an increasingly close alliance with the UK. He oversaw the repeal of prohibition, and he won four presidential elections – a feat that is extremely unlikely ever to be matched since the twenty second constitutional amendment which prevents presidents serving more than two complete terms (amendments can be repealed by a subsequent amendment so this could be undone, but the only time this has happened was, coincidentally, prohibition, brought in and repealed by the eighteenth and twenty first amendments). I like his line: "The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little." The key question for us all is “what is the test of our progress” – “what does winning look like” – “how do we measure success?” You don’t need to take FDR’s answer, but you do need to have one.
FDR might have struggled to get elected in today’s media-driven appearance-focused political environment because he used a wheelchair – he was disabled by what is believed to have been polio, an unpleasant disease spread by faecal matter in water supplies that attacks the nervous system and causes paralysis, particularly of the lower limbs. There were several major outbreaks across the developed world in the first half of the twentieth century due to a drop in natural immunity and the innovation of public swimming pools which, without proper hygiene, were effective devices for spreading the disease. It is polio that links FDR to Michael Flanders, who was in his wheelchair as a result of polio caught during his service in the navy during the second world war, and also to Paul Murdin who caught polio as a small child and has walked with two sticks ever since. Polio and determination that link them, in fact, the determination to get on with their lives, not to allow paralysis to stand in their way, to keep them from opportunity.
The reason that polio was common enough in the early 20th century to form a link between my three heroes but is sufficiently rare now that you might never have come across someone with it is due to the vaccine that you will have been given at some point in your past. The polio vaccination programme is one of the great achievements of humanity (along with the Paralympics and Wikipedia), or it will be once polio is completely eradicated. Most of the world is now polio-free, but it still hangs on in Pakistan and Afghanistan. I’ve been talking about it in assembly for the best part of a decade now, and every time I do I wonder if this might be the year, and every time so far my hopes have not been fulfilled – the logistics and politics are as difficult now as the science of creating it was back in the 1950s. During the past decade, however, there has been progress – Nigeria was on my list, but was declared polio-free in 2020 and as we enter Black History Month, I would encourage you to dig deeper, to find out more about the eradication of polio from Africa. And, who knows, maybe 2023 will be the year we finally get the job done worldwide.
And so, what about you? How do you measure success and how will you get there? What opportunities will you seize now rather than putting off for later? What challenges will you willingly take on and test yourself against? You are privileged to be vaccinated against polio, to live in a country where there is free education and at a time where you have access to an online encyclopaedia of vast breadth. You are blessed with youth – you can make choices now and make different choices later – but simultaneously faced with the thought that choices you make now will echo through your life. That makes the choices seem big, and hard to take, and desirable to avoid. But that’s not wisdom in May any more than it is in winter: think hard, for sure, but make the best choice you can and then throw yourself heart and soul into the challenges that follow – don’t let choice paralyse you into inactivity and paralysis keep you from opportunity.
The youth of the heart and the dew in the mornin' - you wake and they've left you without any warnin'.
1. More on polio (and more footnotes) in The Song Remains
2. A little more from Flanders and Swann in The Thing Itself
3. More thoughts on time and wisdom and the two together: Time.