A Tricolon of Goodbyes (May 2018)

“I have called you all together for a purpose – indeed for three purposes. First of all to tell you that I am immensely fond of you all – particularly those of you in the first few rows, my dear Bagginses and Boffins, and my dear Tooks and Brandybucks, and Grubbs and Chubbs, and Burrowses, and Hornblowers, and Sommervillians, Garreteers, Turingers, Wilberforcians and Proudfoots. Twenty-two months is too short a time to study among such excellent and admirable people.” Secondly, to quote extensively and inaccurately from the Lord of The Rings – during this assembly last year I made the mistake of not doing so and was quite rightly upbraided as a result and thirdly to say goodbye – not, I must emphasise, because the siren call of the veranda has at last come, but because this is the Leavers’ assembly for Year 13 and, although they are not really leaving for a little while yet, this is the time of goodbyes.

Most of the words I started this assembly with come from Bilbo’s speech at the Long-expected party and his third purpose was, indeed, to say goodbye but his was a very different kind of goodbye: he had gathered all his friends and neighbours together to say that he was going away. It was a kind of retirement – not to a veranda, but to Rivendell which, if I’m honest would be even better were it not fictional. Our goodbye is not to a single person but to many and it is not stepping out of the world but into it. Fortunately the Lord of the Rings has goodbyes for all occasions and perhaps the words of Gandalf would be more appropriate when he blessed Bill the donkey at the gates of Moria “You are a wise beast, and have learned much in Rivendell. Make your ways to places where you can find grass.”

You may not see yourself as a terrified donkey but there are three parallels I wish to draw. Firstly that you are wise. Each of you has an incredible set of skills and talents: you are amazing people and your wits will carry you far: do not forget that – do not doubt yourselves, but believe. Secondly that you have learned much at Harris Westminster. You have learned much about your subjects, about that there is no doubt even if there is still some last-minute polishing to be done but more importantly you have learned much about scholarship, about learning, and about the kind of society you wish to live in. Use what you’ve learned – both the Purpose and the Mechanics – as you go out into the world. And thirdly that you should make your ways to places you can find joy and satisfaction and yes, maybe, grass. You have amazing opportunities and the skills to make the most of them – don’t be afraid, if you find yourself bored or oppressed then you haven’t found your destination yet, keep travelling, keep searching until you do.

One of the things you will have learned at Harris Westminster and that I hope you’ll take away with you is the tricolon and if they be the food of knowledge then today we are going to have an excess because we have a tricolon of goodbyes, a tricolon of writers and, because I enjoy autology almost as much as I enjoy Tolkien, a tricolon of tricolons. Tolkien was the first of our writers: he was a Professor of Anglo-Saxon born in South Africa – for our second writer we have an actual Anglo-Saxon born on Tyneside: the Venerable Bede who wrote The Ecclesiastical History of the English People in which he recorded one of the advisors of King Edwin explaining that life is like a feasting hall, filled with thanes and nobles with the king sitting in the place of honour. The fire burns brightly, the room is lit with burning torches, flagons of mead and plates of meat sate the hunger of the revellers and songs and stories fill the room. Then, through a small window high up at one end of the hall a single sparrow flies – for a short while it feels the warmth of the fire, it hears the joy of the songs, it is part of the great revelry but then, too soon, it reaches the far end of the hall and flies out through a second window into the utter blackness beyond.

In a way, your time here is like that of the sparrow in the feasting hall: you fly into the school, grace us with your presence for too short a time and then fly on, leaving us and our scholarship behind. I think, though, that the analogy is most useful for its differences than for its similarities. To start with, although the time at Harris Westminster has been filled with joy and revelry, or scholarship and resilience, what you are flying out into is not the darkness of endless night but bright sunshine on open fields: the world is out there waiting for you – scary, exciting, filled with possibility, waiting for you to make your mark. Then, you are not leaving the revelry behind: I hope you will carry the spirit of Harris Westminster with you wherever you go – I hope that the marks you make on that world will reflect what you have learned here. I hope that you will keep your ambitions, that you will want to make the biggest, brightest, most beautiful mark you can; I hope that you will hold onto your persevering spirits – that you will be undeterred by difficulties, obstacles or opposition; and I hope that your marks will make the world better: that when you go out into the world you will be mindful of the mark you leave upon it, mindful of your legacy.

Finally, unlike the sparrow, you are not travelling alone – there are a whole host of you – a host is, according to one unsubstantiated source, the collective noun for sparrows, although you can also say a quarrel, a knot, a flutter or a crew. I have mixed feelings about this collective noun malarkey – on the one hand I love the imagery, the poetry of a flutter of sparrows, a murmuration of starlings, a squadron of pelicans, a huddle of penguins or a parliament of owls. On the other hand this feels like an enormous Victorian trolling exercise designed to trip up the unwary or, simply, those who haven’t read the same book.

Since we’re working from the same book, however, I’d like to offer you one more collective noun and to change the species of bird you’re being compared to (you were a donkey not long ago so this won’t be so bad). I think the best image for you is a skein of geese – a gaggle is the word for geese walking, a skein for them in flight and the reason I find this so powerful is that geese fly in a V with each goose taking advantage of the one in front’s slipstream – it’s like a peleton of cyclists and works in the same way with them all benefiting from working together and taking turns to be the one at the front. As you fly out into the world, work with other people, help them and let them help you, learn from those who know more, stand on the shoulders of giants. Standing on the shoulders of giants is, of course, Isaac Newton’s image and, rather beautifully, it is Isaac Newton’s image that we can see carved in stone above my right shoulder. We are all inheritors of Newton’s legacy, we all stand on the shoulders of giants and peer upwards at the human pyramid above us and so it is fitting that in this assembly, as we send the Year 13s out into the world to clamber further upwards and to send us word of their discoveries, that we should pay our respects to Newton and to all the other giants whose scholarship has informed our own. So, please can Ibukun come forwards and place the flowers on Newton’s memorial.

Newton is the third of my writers and so it is now almost time for me to stop talking and for us to rise to our feet and to applaud the Year 13s as they process out of the Abbey. Before I do I must complete my tricolon of goodbyes taken from the Lord of the Rings. This time the words are of Bilbo and Elrond as they sends the company of the Ring out from Rivendell and as such they may be the most appropriate – words to a group setting out into the world to have adventures whilst the speaker remains behind. Bilbo, saying goodbye to them, says “Good luck! I don’t suppose you will be able to keep a diary but I shall expect a full account when you get back. And don’t be too long.” We who remain in the feasting hall echo his words: please do come back and tell us of your adventures – tell us of the giants and warn us against the trolls. And then Elrond says “Go now with good hearts! Farewell, and may the blessing of Elves and Men and all Free Folk go with you. May the stars shine on your faces,” so, stand up and follow your house captains out through the Quire, out of the window of the feasting hall, out into the sunlit world and thence to St Margarets where we shall talk some more. Go now with good hearts!