No Longer at Ease in the Old Dispensation (December 2021)

This is my twelfth assembly of this term. I started with a poem called “Again it is September” by Jessie Redmon Fauset and reflected on the Harlem renaissance and what it had to say to us about the start to Year 13. I followed that up with the Timurid renaissance and wondered what that had to tell us about scholarship. With Year 12 I started with the musical Wicked and the promise that your time at Harris Westminster would change you for good. I followed that one up too – just last week I managed to fill an assembly with musicals. Just before half term I spoke about the curious eating habits of pandas, compared Taylor Swift to a triceratops, and introduced the Year 12s to the vacational tricolon: Read, Rest and Review in equal measure. I should take this opportunity to follow that one up – we are faced with another vacation and I would like you to spend your time wisely. There are sirens that will tempt you from the equal measure: voices singing in your ears saying that equal measure is all folly, slavedrivers that demand that you do more revision (they don’t even bother with proper review, strategic and careful, they just want you sitting looking at your books – do not let them into your head), and, for some of you, sluglike squelches that tell you that you don’t like reading and whilst some might say that for those who like that sort of thing, that is what they like, you wouldn’t since that is a quote from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and you obviously haven’t read it. Equal measure please. And, whilst you’re at it, I’d like to set you your essay prize challenge – I recommend the 2nd of January as a day to settle down and complete it. What I’d like you to do is to pick a poem by William Butler Yeats and write about it. What you write is up to you, but you get a thousand words including your title, but not including the poem, which you may include at the beginning of your piece free gratis and for nothing. Submissions are due by 9am on the first day of school either by email to me or handed in hard copy to reception. Winners will receive a book token, an extremely exclusive badge, and the admiration of their peers.

Yeats is my favourite poet, and was quoted extensively in an assembly I gave just after half term in which I shared my delight in all things collaborative and intertextual, and it’s fitting that his poetry should be picked to inspire your creativity this Christmas. Intertextuality and poetry are ideas that will be coming together again in this assembly, but before we get there I would like to complete my review of assemblies past. Before I spoke about Yeats I told you about my visit to Coventry Cathedral and the story of Sadako and the thousand cranes which was, for me the most emotionally affecting of all this term’s assemblies: I wasn’t entirely sure I was going to get through it without breaking down – which was a bit of a problem since I delivered it twice, once to each year group. Rather more brightly I interpreted the news stories of late November for Year 13 through the music of Guns n Roses and the poetry of John Agard; and finally, I wondered with Year 12 why you can’t send soap to Liberia – a question to which I still have no answer, despite knowing a lot more Liberian history than I used to.

What, then, will I tell you today, in our last assembly of term? What story will I tell? I’ve already managed one key message – that you should Read, Rest and Review in equal measure; and I’ve highlighted the Christmas essay challenge – do have a go, even if poetry isn’t usually your thing. So now to make the assembly Christmassy, and to make good on my promises of poetry and intertextuality, and also to follow up on that emotionally affecting story from Coventry, because one of my key points today is about stories: their joy and humanity and their relevance to Christmas. It is, you see, no longer September, with apologies to Jessie Redmon Fauset, nor even November, with its nod to Axl Rose, but December. We’re 51 degrees north and the days are short, the air is cold, and it would be easy to get miserable. The sensible response to this is the response that mankind has made since our ancestors first migrated northwards: it is to light fires, and look forward to a feast, and to tell stories. I don’t know how you mark the passing of midwinter in your houses, but I hope that it includes some of these features – I hope, particularly, that it includes the telling of stories, that you listen to your grandparents telling legends and old family tales and that you pass them on to younger brothers, sisters, cousins, or rehearse them with parents and friends.

Here’s a Christmas story for you – told in a poem written by T.S. Eliot and read by Laure-Emilie

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for Birth or Death?
There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

The first few lines of this poem are taken from a Sermon given by Lancelot Andrews in Westminster Abbey for King James I – and if that’s not enough intertextuality for you then Andrews himself was building on the story of the Wise Men from the Bible. That story as originally told is simple and sparse – wise men came from the east bearing gifts to worship the baby Jesus. What I love about the poem is it takes that fragment and explores two aspects: the journey from the east, what was that like, and the return once the worshipping had been done. The journey gets the most words (and the title of the piece) – I hope you enjoyed the camels, galled, sorefooted, refractory, lying down in the melted snow, and the camel-men, cursing and grumbling and running away and wanting their liquor and women. If you’re a lover of sly reference then you’ll have noticed there’s a lot to pick up on once they get down to that temperate valley: the three trees on the low sky, the vine leaves over the tavern door, six hands dicing for pieces of silver and feet kicking the empty wineskins. I don’t have time to savour this with you right now, but catch me at the right moment and I’ll declaim the piece for you and try to pull out the pieces of interest. I hope you also enjoyed the image of the old man telling the story to younger relations. Set down this, set down this. Tell this story to your children and your grandchildren for I once went on a journey.

What I want to leave you with is that ending, because it is traditional to finish a story with Happy Ever After and yet life never works like that. The Magi saw a birth, they left their presents, and then went home empty handed with their understanding of the world challenged. No longer at ease in their summer palaces, forced to think differently, but given more questions than answers. This is, I think, the natural disposition for a scholar – our goal is not some Happy Ever After where we know everything there is to be known and settle down to sherbet; rather it’s a never-ending quest to learn more, to understand more deeply. I started by saying that I hoped Harris Westminster would change you for good – this is one of the key ways in which it will: that you will always feel there is more to learn, more to do; that the old dispensation of ignorance is lost; that the ending of a story will forever be a provocation to explore it further, to write, to create, to riff on what someone else started.

So, here it is, Merry Christmas – enjoy the break, use it wisely to read and review as well as rest; enjoy the time with your families, tell stories, make your parents cups of tea (or dress in silk and bring them sherbet), do more than your share of the washing up; and enjoy the unsettling thought that we’ll be back in January to grow more scholarly.