An Enthusiasm for Tradition (May 2022)

“You read your Emily Dickinson, and I my Robert Frost, and we note our place with book markers and measure what we’ve lost”

That’s a line from the Simon and Garfunkel song, The Dangling Conversation, about two people not quite communicating. I’m starting here because this morning’s assembly is full of ideas that I want to share with you but I won’t have time to tie up all the loose ends and so a lot of us will be left dangling, and since this is the last assembly for Year 13 – we say goodbye to them today – that conversation will be left dangling until they come back to visit as alumni and we can pick up where we left off.

Our traditions are designed to provide a send-off, and to mark the transition from Harris Westminster student to Harris Westminster alumna – it’s a step the Year 13s have been looking forward to, but it’s also daunting, and there’s a sense of loss in not being here any more. I have another idea to dangle before you, in another transition at the other end of education, from when a child leaves his teddy bear behind to start school. These words are by A.A. Milne – the bear is Winnie the Pooh, the boy is Christopher Robin:

“Yes, Christopher Robin,”
“I’m not going to do Nothing any more”
“Never again?”
“Well, not so much. They don’t let you... Pooh?”
“Yes, Christopher Robin.”
“Promise you won’t forget about me ever. Not even when I’m a hundred.”
“How old shall I be then?”
“Ninety Nine” Pooh nodded. “I promise,” he said.
“Pooh, whatever happens, you will understand, won’t you?”
“Understand what?”
“Oh, nothing. Come on!”
“Anywhere!” So they went off together. But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.

I’ve not quoted Winnie the Pooh to you before, despite Milne being a Westminster school alumnus and the legacy of his books (which they sold to Disney) providing them with pots of money. I do, however, find the chapter that quote comes from rather wonderful – it is one of my enthusiasms and in our querulous age we have to cherish and share our enthusiasms.

But that’s too good a quote to leave dangling – querulous means “complaining in a rather petulant or whining manner” and I think it’s rather a good word to describe the idiom of our time. “We live in a querulous age” is, though, the first line of a book written in 1983, so perhaps the world hasn’t changed so much. The book is Enthusiasms by Bernard Levin and is a brilliantly written tour of things that the author is enthusiastic about – it is one of the things that has shaped my life, not so much his passion for Shakespeare, the Rhine valley, and cities, but the idea that enthusiasms are not things to be ashamed of or hidden away, but cherished and shared.

I hope, Year 13s, that’s one idea that hasn’t been left dangling in your time at Harris Westminster, that this enthusiasm for enthusiasms is something that has had its ends tied up and will be an idea that shapes your life too. Unfortunately, I feel that to a certain extent your time here has been an endless dangling conversation with masks and bubbles and lockdowns, that the time we have had together has been broken up, stilted, cut short. Cut, however, it is – the time has come and you must move onto the next thing even if you feel like there’s unfinished business, dangling conversations. This is the nature of life, as Emily Dickinson explains “That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet. Believing what we don’t believe does not exhilarate.” We can’t stay here forever, we can’t live through endless reruns, our life inevitably moves on.

But, one of the reasons we have traditions is to remind ourselves that we are not alone, that we are part of something bigger, that although we move on and change, something stays behind and remains the same, that wherever you go and whatever happens you on the way, in this enchanted place in Westminster Abbey, the teenage you and their principal will always be playing with ideas, spinning stories, quoting Emily Dickinson and maybe even Robert Frost.

One of our traditions is that in the leaver’s assembly we have to think about a sparrow that flies into a great hall such as the nave of the Abbey through window high above us. For a brief span it passes through the Abbey, part of the life and light and joy of our event and then, too soon, it reaches the far end and passes out into the darkness. The sparrow isn’t my invention – it was a metaphor used by the Venerable Bede to describe the brevity of human life – it isn’t my idea to use it in a leaver’s assembly: I stole it from a head I worked for many years ago – it isn’t even a very good metaphor for moving on from school: you are not solitary sparrows and you fly out not into darkness but onto a new hall, a new life of light and joy – and complication and sadness and stress, let’s not be too rose-tinted about life beyond school: it’s amazing, but it’s not an experience of unending delight. You can, however, years from now, when you’re a hundred and I’m ninety-nine, think not just back to the enchanted place we’re in but forward to the new cohorts of sparrows making their way through Bede’s feasting hall and thinking about giants.

The giants in question, the giants that those future flocks of students will be thinking of, belong to Isaac Newton whose memorial is this rather wonderful thing behind me and whose skeleton lies beneath a black stone just here on which is written “Here is deposited all that was mortal of Isaac Newton” – recognition that his ideas, discoveries, inventions are immortal, they carry on even though his body does not. His giants are wonderful characters, providing him and us with hand-holds, support, and an old fashioned boost as we ascend the mountain of learning. “If I have seen further,” he said, “it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.”

Isaac Newton and his giants represent the scholars of the past that we can learn from and it is right that we acknowledge that debt. I am therefore asking the victorious captain of House Garrett, to place flowers on his memorial on behalf of us all.

And so our time here draws to a close and it’s time to say goodbye to the Year 13s. Not finally, “They have promises to keep and miles to go before they sleep”, if I might take this opportunity for a sneaky, last minute Robert Frost quote. Not finally, but there never is a final moment to say goodbye, all conversations inevitably dangle. They’ll be back to take exams, back for revision, back to visit, back as alumni, back often, I hope, but today is the last day that they’ll be here all together and so I ask us all to rise in admiration of a year group that began its time here under the most unpromising and unorthodox of circumstances but which has battled through the storms and is flying out, a flock of glorious sparrows, into a bright future. Please rise and applaud.