A little hope in hopeless hell (November 2017)

This morning’s assembly is a mess – it’s got too many ideas in it and flits from one to another, it’s too personal with views that I want you to consider rather than adopt and so I’m expecting you to listen critically which is a big ask – these aren’t even my notes: it’s just the words for a poem with a post-it on it. I do at least have some kind of structure, beginning and ending with a poem although, unfortunately and fittingly I’ve committed the wrong one to memory. It’s a mess, it really is.

So, the first poem:
With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children
England mourns for her dead across the sea
Flesh of her flesh, they were, spirit of her spirit
Fallen in the cause of the free
Solemn the drums thrill, death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres
There’s music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears
They went with songs to the battle, they were young
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted
They fell with their faces to the foe

I’m going to stop there – this really is drivel. It was written in 1914 and you can tell – written in an age that had forgotten that war is not honourable or beautiful, that death is not august and royal. It’s filthy, dirty and agonising. 1914 was the beginning of the first world war and it was almost exactly a hundred years since the Napoleonic wars had ravaged Europe. Everyone had forgotten – a lesson that should ring in our ears as we live through the centenaries of WW1 battles.

War has always been hell – because it has always been the result of one group of people trying to impose their will on another group by force. It is always the result of people being jerks. One example for you – in the late 90s I went to South Africa – a few years after the first free elections and I visited the Vortrekker monument in Pretoria. This symbol is many things but first and foremost it is a horribly fascist statement of white settler dominance over black natives. It sits square and looming at the top of a hill and when we went round we overheard two white men talking about how blacks wouldn’t go there – and I quote “they know it’s not their place”. It’s twenty years later and I hope things are better now – actually I don’t think that thing is redeemable – I hope it’s been knocked down.

In the basement there is a memorial to a battle – the battle of Blood River when ten thousand trained warriors set upon about five hundred farmers in order not just to drive them off the land but to slaughter them – to make the river run with blood. The twist, though, is that the warriors were the Zulu who had spent the best part of a decade conquering the land of what is now Kwa-Zulu Natal and the farmers were the white settlers who were looking for a place to live. The farmers were armed with guns and cannon and three thousand Zulus were killed. The Zulus had spears and there were just three minor injuries to the settlers. I hate this story – everyone in it is a jerk and I’m almost sorry for telling you it. It’s a mess.

Almost, but not quite, because jerk is a word we use deliberately at Harris Westminster. I introduced it to show contempt and rejection for those who put their own desires above the wellbeing of others – it’s code for a hissing, spitting stream of curses that are inappropriate for a Principal talking to his students. It also, and I think this is the clever bit, it also reminds us that we can all behave this way – that whilst we might not try to murder farmers or glorify the mass slaughter of lightly-armed opponents we do, all of us, worryingly frequently, make other people’s lives worse through selfishness, laziness or ignorance. Three quick examples – please check your consciences and if you’ve been a jerk make amends. 1) Someone has graffitied the toilets. It’s not some half-wit year 9, it’s a member of our community of scholars making our environment less pleasant. Don’t do it any more. 2) Some people have taken books from the library without checking them out which means nobody else can use them. Return them please. 3) When you stand outside the school waiting for your friends you block the pavement and passers by have to walk in the road. Through thoughtlessness and deliberately disregarding my instructions you, decent, lovely people that you are, you are actually, literally, pushing little old grannies into the gutter. Wait somewhere else!

Back to the horrors of war, though. War is hell, but the hell of was is not primarily the death and destruction but what it does to the minds of the participants – in a world of kill or be killed normal morality is lost and that’s a horror worse than any other and it’s why I’m wearing a red poppy rather than a white. You see I can imagine getting killed – blown up as I hide in a bomb shelter, shot as I run away, gassed as I go about my work as a teacher, orderly, air-raid warden and whilst I’m not keen on the idea, we are reminded by Mel Gibson that every man dies.

What gives me nightmares is the idea I might need to fight, to take orders, to run towards the bullets, and to kill. So – don’t fight? Tolstoy tells us that if the only time a man would fight would be to defend his home, his family then there would be no war. But if the only time you fight is to defend your own home then you inevitably fight alone – Pastor Niemoeller tells us that and, moreover, if good people don’t fight then who defends those who can’t fight from the jerks.

I notice I’m dropping quotes into this assembly without giving you any reference points to chase it up: the Gibson comes from Braveheart, the Tolstoy from War and Peace, the Niemoeller has no canonical source but is ubiquitous and that poem is by Lawrence Binyon, it’s called “For the Fallen” and it’s a little bit amazing because nobody remembers the three stanzas I read but everyone knows the fourth because it is read at remembrance services every year. This is how it goes:

They will not grow old as we who are left grow old
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning
We will remember them.

If asked to guess most people would, I think, put that stanza at 1918 – it’s a long way from the triumphalist 1914 of the rest of the poem and I have read that it was that stanza that came to Binyon first in a flash of genius and the rest of the imperialistic drivel was built round it in order to make it worth publishing.

I will be reading that stanza at our remembrance service tomorrow and there are a few important points I want to make about our service – our amazing celebration of Harris Westminster and our remembrance of the sacrifices made for us and particularly those who have died as a result of war. The first is that it’s a solemn, formal occasion – jackets, lanyards, ties – I’ll be wearing my especially shiny shoes. The second is that we don’t clap. Blessie will be reading a reflection on her time at Harris Westminster, the choir will be singing and there will be other readings and prayers but we don’t clap – tell them how wonderful they were afterwards but we don’t clap. Whooping is right out. The third is that we will be in Westminster Abbey for the service and that is a privilege that deserves respect – we don’t chew gum in there, we don’t play on our phones and we absolutely don’t have a whispered chat during the Dean’s address. You won’t see it but my heart will be swelling with pride at the amazing people you are and the amazing thing we are building but I die inside a little bit each time one of you gets one of those things wrong – so please don’t.

And finally, to sum up, a final poem – given to me by a Maths teacher I know who thinks that for some reason I need an extra conscience and that this is a want she should supply. It was her wedding in the summer and by my plate at the wedding breakfast was this which I think sums up the challenges I’ve spoken of today and is, if we take as an axiom that war is hell, a little bit relevant. If you have a better poem – or are simply better at reading this one please come to the Poetry society tomorrow after school. A good man in hell by Edwin Muir

If a good man were ever housed in Hell
By needful error of the qualities,
Perhaps to prove the rule or shame the devil,
Or speak the truth only a stranger sees,

Would he, surrendering quick to obvious hate,
Fill half eternity with cries and tears,
Or watch beside Hell's little wicket gate
In patience for the first ten thousand years,

Feeling the curse climb slowly to his throat
That, uttered, dooms him to rescindless ill,
Forcing his praying tongue to run by rote,
Eternity entire before him still?

Would he at last, grown faithful in his station,
Kindle a little hope in hopeless Hell,
And sow among the damned doubts of damnation,
Since here someone could live, and live well?

One doubt of evil would bring down such a grace,
Open such a gate, and Eden could enter in,
Hell be a place like any other place,
And love and hate and life and death begin.