Livin' on a Prayer (September 2022)

This summer found me sitting on a beach on which I had last sat thirty years ago when I was, if not absolutely exactly your age, then at least extremely adjacent to it. This retracing of my steps has caused some reminiscing on my part which has caused a degree of reflection on the word reminisce – which I rather like. To reminisce is to indulge in enjoyable recollection of past events, to remember fondly, to look back on, and it comes from the Latin word reminisci which simply means to remember, based on the word mens meaning mind – to bring back to mind might be a direct translation (although I’m sure there are some of you whose Latin is better than mine and I invite you to improve on my work here).

Thirty years ago, if you’ll indulge my indulgence, I was camping at a large site not far from the beach in question and one evening I lay awake. I was lying in my bed because it was too dark to read, I was too full to eat any more, and I had a hard day of swimming and sunbathing to get ready for. I was awake because somewhere on the campsite was a disco, playing loud, modern music, of the type that young people enjoy dancing to. I was ruing the excesses of the generation when one song came to an end and a new one started with an iconic bass riff and a familiar opening line: woah woah wu wu woah woah woah wu wu. Three things immediately struck me: 1) I was young people 2) this was one of my favourite songs 3) I could very easily get out of bed and go to the disco and as the narrator’s voice said “Once upon a time, not so long ago” I leaped up, slung on some appropriate clothes and set out along the sandy tracks of the campsite as Jon Bon Jovi informed us all that Tommy used to work on the docks but that the union had been on strike, he was down on his luck and it was tough. Unfortunately Livin’ on a Prayer had come to an end before I reached the dancefloor but the next song was also a belter and I joined the crowd to dance to the line “me and some guys from school had a band and we tried real hard. Jimmy quit, Jody got married, I should’ve known we’d never get far.”

I don’t really like dancing – I’m not coordinated, can’t lose myself in the beat, don’t enjoy being close to other people. My idea of a great party is one where there’s a quiet corner and a friend who enjoys doing cryptic crosswords, but I had a wonderful time that evening: I learned I can dance (well enough for disco) and can enjoy it if I get over myself and engage enthusiastically. Those lessons have served me well over the intervening years and the remembrance of that disco has encouraged me to take part in whatever fun has been going on, even when it hasn’t been my number one choice, and has reminded me that I don’t have to be great at something for it to be worth doing – taking part is fine.

As an aside here, I hope that you will take part in the fun things of Harris Westminster this year – that you’ll join clubs and societies, that you’ll try things that are new rather than sticking just to the things you’re good at. In this sphere, I recommend the Diplomacy Society – 4.30 to 5.30 every Friday in the Map Room on the first floor, an hour of crazy enthusiastic joy as we work our way through a game based, and this might sound odd, but don’t knock it until you’ve tried it, based on the politics and warfare of early 20th century Europe. I hope you’ll also enjoy the privilege of being here, in Westminster Abbey, home of national events and memorials dedicated to poets, scientists, politicians and monarchs. I walked over one of those memorials this morning – a diamond of stone dedicated to Nelson Mandela who visited the Abbey and placed a wreath on the grave of the unknown warrior. I’ll need to circle back another day because I don’t have time to do justice to Mandela this morning: how he worked hard in a society stacked against him to become a lawyer; how throughout his life he worked for understanding; how he wrote incessantly from prison, letters that went round the world; how he finally emerged from gaol, not filled with bitterness and vengeance, but a desire to build something better, something beautiful; how South Africa under his presidency set out its commitment to be a Rainbow nation where everyone was welcome, everyone treated equally. Things haven’t been straightforward since, but at the heart of every discussion of modern South Africa is the remembrance of that moment – that commitment to peace.

Back, though, to those songs – songs that feel curiously relevant to September 2022. First Livin’ on a Prayer. It’s a song of hard times – Tommy’s got his six-string in hock (he’s pawned his guitar), Gina (his partner) dreams of running away. I think we’re heading for some hard times as a country, as an economy – I don’t think there’s any escaping that, no running away, and I don’t have a magic wand to change that or a piece of poetry that will explain why it doesn’t matter. I have just two thoughts to offer you. The first is this: in hard times making yourself employable is even more important than usual, and employability comes from two key skills and an attribute. Key Skill 1: you need to be good at communication – at writing, listening, speaking, reading for nearly every job there is; Key Skill 2: you need to be able to work hard for actually every job there is. And the attribute: you also need to stand out from the crowd, to have something about you that is different from the other 100 candidates. So I encourage you to work hard, to do the sixteen hours a week of homework and prep with enthusiasm and verve, to get involved in other opportunities, to do hard work that pushes your lazy brain into new and employable habits; I encourage you to read, to write, to listen, to talk – take every opportunity to improve your communication skills; and I encourage you to learn interesting things, to do interesting activities, to be interesting. My second thought, more briefly, is that Livin’ on a Prayer says that if we have each other that’s a lot – we’re a team here, a community – in these hard times we need to pay more attention to each other, look out for each other, lean on each other a bit more than usual. Do what you can to support the community and I’ll do my best to make sure it supports you.

The Summer of ’69, meanwhile, talks of friendship and the opportunities of sixth form. You’ll notice that I’m ignoring the hetero-normative romantic overtones of both songs: this is deliberate – if you must have love-lives then be kind, be safe, and if you can be sufficiently discrete that I’m not aware of it then we’ll both be less uncomfortable. More Sex-Ed will be coming your way, but not from the pulpit of Westminster Abbey. Friendship and opportunities – I hope you’ll enjoy both. Bryan Adams sang “Man, we were killing time, we were young and restless, we needed to unwind – I guess nothing can last forever” – honestly, if he'd been at Harris Westminster he wouldn’t have time to kill, but being young and restless, feeling that the world is out there waiting for you whilst you are trapped in here is natural. But nothing can last forever – your time here will be over too soon, make the most of what you’ve got when you have it – and if you do need to unwind, well, the same advice applies, I guess – do it kindly, safely, and in a way that doesn’t disturb my equilibrium.

Onwards, and back to that reminiscence, that remembrance, that beach disco that has helped shape my life and form my character. This is remembrance term, and later on you’ll come to a service in the nave of the Abbey in which we’ll remember the sacrifices that others have made and commit to making the most of our opportunities, in which our President will stand where Nelson Mandela stood and place our wreath where he placed South Africa’s (please put the Remembrance Service in your diaries, by the way – attendance is compulsory so you might need to rearrange your commitments to be there). Today, however, I want each of you to make a remembrance yourselves, to remember this golden morning in September 2022 in which ambition burned bright in your heart. Think hard about where you are now and where you want to be, what you’re going to do to get there, how hard you’re going to work, how carefully you’ll practice your communication, what interests you’ll develop, what kind of friendships you’ll make. And now look up into the Abbey, this building that holds memories, memorials, remembrances, and pick a corner, a sculpture, a piece of stained glass, a flagstone and make a private commitment to that future. Make this the moment you remember to shape your life and form your character, at least for the next year or two; make your ambition into a commitment, your commitment into a remembrance to reminisce on, to direct your path even when things get tough. Remember that piece of the Abbey, look up at it every time you come back – that’s your corner, your promise, your remembrance.