Endings (May 2024)

A wise man once said that Harris Westminster assemblies should include a quotation from James Baldwin and given how often I urge you to take wise advice I am starting by following his: In a newspaper interview he said “When I write a play or a novel, I write the ending and am responsible for it. Tolstoy has every right to throw Anna Karenina under the train. She begins in his imagination and he has to take responsibility for her. But the life of a living human being, no one writes it. You cannot deal with another human being as though he were a fictional creation.” We are responsible for our own endings, we have no author to craft them for us, which is a heavy responsibility, but even writing fictional endings is hard.

One of my favourite authors growing up was Terry Pratchett, whose first books were published as I made my way through secondary school. I loved them, the ideas, the energy, the humour – but all those first books had one thing in common: the endings were insane. I firmly believe that Pratchett found them hard, that he was great at divergent thinking, of adding ideas to a story, but making it converge to an ending was something else entirely and so there would always be a scene where magic spells were added one upon each other until the whole thing exploded, and then, if you’re lucky, a page about the lone hero walking scorched and smoking from the rubble. Over time he became a more accomplished writer, his endings became more readable, practicing something, getting feedback, working on the bits you find hard make you better at things – I think we’ve mentioned that before.

But endings are hard. Jane Austen is an author of even higher acclaim than Pratchett, you can probably bring to mind the opening lines of two or maybe three of her six novels, but her endings are underwhelming: the romance resolves with a wedding and that’s it. Poems can be difficult to end too – I’m massively fond of Kipling’s poem If, but the final line is a stinker. If you can do all these amazing things then yours is the earth and everything in it – fair enough Rudyard, you can stop there, but no, he continues – “and – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!” Oops – there we go into the manbox. Even Shakespeare’s poetry ends disappointingly: his sonnets end with a rhyming couplet, the shave and a haircut of poetic devices. Sonnet 18, which I once memorised, begins “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou are more lovely and more temperate,” and is a beautiful exploration of romantic love, but it finishes “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, so long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” It’s one of his better efforts, to be fair, but it still feels like we should have a drummer to go boom-tish.

Shakespeare’s best ending (in my opinion – I look forward to having my views corrected) is in Romeo and Juliet where the prince says “A glooming peace this morning with it brings. The sun for sorrow will not show his head. Go hence to have more talk of these sad things. Some shall be pardoned, and some punished. For never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”  I like this one, despite its boom-tish couplet, because it’s not an ending but a beginning: the mad teenage love affair is over, and life in the town starts again, on a new footing, with new challenges. Frank Herbert, the author of Dune, said that there’s no such thing as an ending, just the point at which you decide to stop writing – and I think this is Austen’s problem: in reality a wedding is a beginning of a life together, a new footing, new challenges; you can choose to stop writing at that point, it’s certainly a convenient one, but in real life, and in the best fiction, the lives continue beyond that final page.

My favourite ending in film is not The Princess Bride, although this doesn’t disappoint: it has two endings – one with the finest kiss in the history of kisses and then, because the conceit is that the whole thing is a story read by a grandfather to a child, the grandfather offering to come back the next day to read the book again. Life goes on, you see. But even better than that is the ending to Casablanca. Casablanca is thought by some, who presumably have not watched The Princess Bride, to be the greatest film of all time – it is a wartime romance filmed and set in 1941/42 and starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. I’m a little worried about spoilers, but given we’re eighty years later and I’ve already blundered Anna Karenina I’m just going to plough on. In the ending Bogart fools the nazis and evades the collaborating French authorities to enable Bergman to escape with her resistance hero husband. As they fly off, the chief of police, who has been a thorn in Bogart’s side all film arrives, sees what has happened and arranges a cover-up. The two of them walk off together to the line “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Life in wartime Casablanca goes on, new friendships, new challenges.

And my favourite ending to a novel is, true to form, I’m afraid, The Lord of the Rings. This story doesn’t end with a big battle, it doesn’t end with the ring being thrown into the fire, or the crowning of the king, or even with the return of our hobbit heroes to a troubled shire and their task of fixing it, nor with the departure of Gandalf, Bilbo and Frodo across the sea. And those of you who know the film but not the book, or know the book but not as well as you should, will be scratching your head and wondering what ending I mean. The ending of the Lord of the Rings is after Sam has said goodbye to Frodo and gets back home, kisses his wife, Rosie, sits in his chair, has his baby daughter dumped in his lap and says “Well, I’m back.” Life goes on, new life, new challenges.

I started by doing my part to prolong a recent Harris Westminster tradition and now get to a longer standing one, because there is a story I have told in every leaver’s assembly, that I got from an old boss who used to tell it in each of his leaver’s assemblies, that he got from an eighth century Northumbrian monk called Bede (I think via his writings rather than directly, but he was a lot older than me and I’m a lot older than you, so anything’s possible). The story is of an Anglo-Saxon lord in a feasting hall filled with light and music and laughter, and of a sparrow that flies into the hall through a door at one end and is, for a time, surrounded by the jollity of that place before, too soon, reaching the far end and flying out through the opposite door into the darkness outside. The analogy is of you students flying into the life of Harris Westminster, spending time with us before, too soon, disappearing from sight into the world beyond. I, of course, am the fur-clad lord, sitting on a great throne and waving a mug of foaming lemonade cheerfully at the passing sparrows. I love this image – apart from its ending. A better ending has the sparrow flying out into a big city filled with sunshine and opportunities alongside a host of other sparrows. A new phase of life, new challenges.

Coincidentally, that’s exactly what’s happening with our Year 13s, with you (I know, spooky) – today marks the ending of one time and the beginning of another – the end of thirteen years of schooling and the beginning of adult life with university and work to look forward to. The end of lessons, the end of homework, but learning goes on, in new ways, with new challenges. But, as Baldwin said, the life of a living human being, no one writes it – and it would be wrong of me to try to craft your ending: only you will do that – all I can do is encourage you to think of this as a beginning as well, and to remind you that today’s goodbyes are not permanent. To start with I expect many of you will turn straight round after you leave Steel House later this morning in order to return to the library or to get ready for the afternoon’s exam – and I know that you’ll all be back over the next few months: many of the wisest of you every day to take advantage of our community of scholars, lots of you for Celebration Evening and/or prom, but all of you for your exams and for your results in August. Even that won’t be the end of our association – you move from being a student to being an alumnus, and just as you’ve seen alumni coming back to support current students, to catch up with teachers, to get advice themselves, I hope and expect to see you dropping by over the years. It’s an ending, but every good ending is also a beginning.

And how do you write a good ending for an assembly – well, I write it and I am responsible for it – but I have no Anna Karenina to throw under a bus, no Ingrid Bergman to put on a plane, no magical lime custard to coat everything in just before it explodes. Instead, I have a pause to take stock – for us as a whole community to remember how far we’ve come – how much we’ve learned in our time at Harris Westminster – how much we have got from this collective scholarship. I mean me, as well as you, and I think it’s important that we all recognise our debt to the scholars who have preceded us – to Venerable Bede, to Gerry Murray, who passed the sparrows on to me, to the previous generations of sparrows whose time at Harris Westminster has made it what it is – and even more to the mathematicians and philosophers and writers and historians and scientists who worked out and discovered and crafted all that we have learned in lessons. We are going to recognise that debt of gratitude via a couple of representatives. Standing for all of those past scholars we have Isaac Newton and, with him, we say that if we have seen further, or, indeed, at all, then it is because we have stood on the shoulders of those giants – and standing for us we have the victorious Somerville House Captain and Vice Captains of 2024 who will come forward to receive flowers and then take those to Newton’s grave on behalf of us all.

And that is almost, but not quite, today’s ending – because as well as recognising the scholars of the past we should take this opportunity to recognise the host of sparrows who are in our feasting hall right now and who will be flying out through the door into the city of opportunity beyond. Congratulations on all you’ve done, good luck with all that you will do – and thank you for the blessings that you have brought to our school over the last two years. In a moment we will dismiss the year 12s back to school whilst we stay on for a little private counsel – but first I’d like to invite you all to stand and to applaud the Year 13s.


1. Al Grant's assembly on misogyny a week before this one introduced the idea of James Baldwin being fundamental to an assembly.

2. Baldwin has been quoted by me in Briefly Gorgeous

3. Bede and his sparrows are, as mentioned, recurrent visitors to the feast hall of assemblies. Venomous Bede and Windows on the World fill in most of the gaps.

4. In Christmas Stories I claim that Romeo and Juliet also contains my favourite opening. I might need to get some new plays.

5. Kipling's "If" is rather more warmly recommended in Running out of Time.