The Venomous Bead, the C of E, and that sparrow (May 2017)

When I was younger so much younger than today, I never needed anybody’s help in any way. I got it mind you – need it or not – and one of the most welcome sources of help was something, anything, to distract me through some interminable and execrable History lessons. I did GCSE History with Mrs V. who hated teaching, hated children, hated History and most of all hated me. It wasn’t a fun experience but I was determined not to let her crush my spirit and aiding me in this was a book. This book. 1066 and all that by Sellars and Yeatman. It was like an early version of Horrible Histories except that instead of promising to be 100% Accurat it was universally, imaginatively and doggedly inaccurate. I quote for your edification:

“The Scots (originally Irish, but by now Scotch) were at this time inhabiting Ireland, having driven the Irish (Picts) out of Scotland; while the Picts (originally Scots) were now Irish (living in brackets) and vice versa. It is essential to keep these distinctions clearly in mind (and verce visa). Meanwhile the conversion of England was effected by the landing of St Augustine in Thanet and other places, which resulted in the country being overrun by a wave of Saints. Among these were St Ive, St Pancra, the great St Bernard, St Bee, St Ebb, St Neot, St Kit and St Kin and the Venomous Bead. England was now divided into seven kingdoms and so ready were the English to become C of E that on one memorable occasion a whole Kingdom was easily converted by a sparrow."

This assembly is brought to you by the Venomous Bead, the C of E and that sparrow. The Venomous Bead (BEAD) is the Sellars and Yeatman version of the Venerable Bede (BEDE), a Northumbrian monk living in the years around 700 AD who wrote a Chronicle of Anglo-Saxon Britain. In this Chronicle, he told a story in which he described human life as a huge feasting hall, filled with light and warmth and music into which, through a window high in one end flew a single sparrow. Along the length of the hall the sparrow flew, warmed by the fires, cheered by the laughter but never deviating from its course until it reached a corresponding window at the far end and flew out into the unknown darkness. The validity of this as a metaphor for life I leave as a question for the Philosophers and Theologians but as a metaphor for passage through Harris Westminster it is somewhat lacking – for a start the sparrows fly through the feasting hall in flocks but more crucially, and at the heart of our assembly today is the fact that they don’t just fly out into unknown blackness – the flock of Year 13s leaving us are being sent out with the blessing of Harris Westminster. You have left your mark on the school and I’m sure that you feel that the school has left its mark on you but far larger will be the mark you leave on the world beyond – not unknown darkness but glorious sunlit opportunity.

1066 and all that is a truly wonderful book – and I will quote for you a little from the history of William the second who was “hunting one day in the New Forest, when William Tell (inventor of the crossbow puzzle) took unerring aim at a red apple which had fallen onto the King’s head and shot him through the heart. Sir Isaac Walton, who happened to be present at the time thereupon invented the Law of Gravity”. This is a wonderful book because it expects the reader to be clever and to notice the references made in a throw-away stream of nonsense.

It’s a wonderful book but it’s not, of course, the Lord of the Rings – well established as my favourite. In the Lord of the Rings, there is a splendid sending out scene in which the company of the ring is chosen: nine walkers representing the free peoples of Middle Earth pitted against the Nine Riders of Sauron and we can re-imagine ourselves as the elves of Rivendell sending out the Year 13s into the world. We’d need a suitably imposing name for the ceremony and the traditional approach in these circumstances is to translate into Latin. The word for sending out in Latin is emission – I feel the Romans have let us down here with a word which sounds either coldly mechanical or off-puttingly biological. Let us reach for Greek instead where the word is Apostello – a word adopted by Christianity to describe the disciples sent out to evangelise the world and it is here that the Church of England gets its chance to influence our assembly because at the end of one of the C of E liturgies there is a wonderful phrase. The minister says “Send us out in the power of your spirit to live and work to your praise and glory” which is an enormously powerful commission to the faithful but if we cut the religion away we’re left with the idea of being sent out with the power to live and work and that is exactly the sense I’d like the Year 13s to go out: empowered by what they have learned and determined to live and work for a better tomorrow.

At the start of this year I spoke to you in assembly asking if you noticed things: I was referencing a poem (as I think some of you noticed): Afterwards by Thomas Hardy, the first stanza of which is:

"When the present has latched its postern behind my tremulous stay
And the May-month flaps its glad green leaves like wings
Delicate filmed as new-spun silk, will the neighbours say
He was a man that used to notice such things?"

The images in that stanza are quite wonderful. A postern is a back or side entrance and we see Hardy slipping quietly out of life whilst outside spring goes on. I noticed the glad green leaves of May on Saturday – I nearly missed them because I was hurrying to the station but there was a parrot squawking from the top of a great sycamore and I paused for a moment to take in the delicate freshness of the foliage. The poem represents an old man musing on how he will be remembered but what I asked you in September was whether you noticed opportunities, references, links, chances to be clever and it is to this question that I return now. Did you notice the giants that loomed offstage earlier? Maybe some of you did in which case you can now feel smug as I correct 1066 and all that, studiously inaccurate in at least three respects: it was Isaac Newton – not Isaac Walton who discovered – rather than invented – the Law of Gravity and, of course, he did not do so at the time of William II’s death having inconveniently not been born at the time. Isaac Newton is something of a rolemodel to us – although, as with all heroes we must be careful to extract the good and useful from the distracting and, at times, loony. He was a marvellous Mathematician and Physicist who is buried just here and he said “If I have seen further” – and he did see further than any had thus far – “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. We stand on Newton’s shoulders and it is therefore our custom for one of the departing House Captains to place flowers on his grave. I’d therefore like to invite Claudia of Turing House to fulfil this responsibility, recognising the debt we all owe to those who have gone before.

Newton’s grave is marked, in Latin, with the words “Hic depositum est, quod mortale fuit Isaaci Newtoni” - “Here lies all of Isaac Newton that was mortal” – a reminder that whilst the present may latch its postern behind us our words, ideas and legacy remain – although we are to send out the Year 13s today the marks they have left on the school, the clubs, the scholarship, the friendships will remain and we are richer because of it. Before that happens I have one last quote from 1066 and all that – fittingly enough, the final paragraph – it contains a visual joke so you’ll have to listen carefully. “Though there were several battles in the first world war, none were so terrible or costly as the peace which was signed afterwards in the ever-memorable Chamber of Horrors at Versailles and which was caused by the only memorable American statesmen, President Wilson and Colonel White House. America was thus clearly top nation and History came to a .”

History never comes to a full stop and neither do we, as we send the Year 13s out through the postern gate, latch it behind them and return to school we are sending them out empowered by their time at Harris Westminster to live and work, to have adventures, to notice things, to be clever, to help and be helped, to create legacies.