Windows on the World (May 2023)

This morning’s message is one of exploration, of going out, of great lives and celebration, and it brought to you by a tardis, a sparrow and a succession of windows – it is windows that will hold the whole thing together. Let’s start with the window behind me – made in 1509 to celebrate the betrothal of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon (you can see them on either side of the main image). Interestingly (I didn’t know this) – although the window and the church were made at about the same time, the two didn’t come together until 1758.

The window tells a story – propaganda, rather than truth – putting prince Henry and Jesus in the same picture. It lets light in – and adds to the decoration of the building – and it invites questions of what happened to it in those intervening 250 years, and what did the Georgians think of it when it was installed. If we had a tardis, we might take a trip back to this point in space and that point in time and ask them.

But if we had a tardis and could go to any place on earth and any point in the planet’s history then we might not want to waste that power on finding out what a group of Londoners thought of a new window! We could go anywhere. We could see anything, or anyone. What would you go and see?

If the window behind us hides a grain of truth then maybe Henry VIII would have gone back to the crucifixion of Jesus, and maybe you’d do something similar, looking for a religious insight. I think many would be tempted by that prospect, but I was talking about this to a geography teacher on twitter, and he said that he’d want to go back to the time when a window was cut in the wall separating the Atlantic ocean from what is now the Mediterranean sea and water began to flow – not so much a window as a great river, a thousand times the size of the Amazon, pouring over dry hillsides and filling up the basin below – water levels rising at up to 10m a day for up to two years. It’s called the Zanclean deluge – and nobody knows for sure that it happened – finding out would be part of the joy as well as just seeing the event (so long as you could avoid getting caught up in it).

It’s tempting, but maybe it feels a bit inhuman – over five million years ago, before our ancestors diverged from those of chimps. Maybe we should follow the train of the window behind me, maybe you’d like to go to the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520 and see Henry VIII take his fashion game abroad and attempt to be more fabulous than the King of France. Maybe something more modern, maybe an amazing moment of human brilliance – yesterday someone suggested that being there when Apollo 13 emerged from radio silence in April 1970, when the team at mission control knew they were, against all the odds, bringing their friends home. Maybe we’d just want to go and see a great figure from history – I imagine you’d all have different suggestions and I imagine that none of you would suggest the Venerable Bede, which is a shame because not only is he of interest in himself, but he also has a sparrow that will be crucial to our assembly later on.

Bede was a scholar – one of our kind – he lived in Jarrow monastery in the northeast of England about 1300 years ago and wrote about history, theology, grammar and science, kickstarting the Carolingian renaissance. Careful followers of my published works will know that I’m a sucker for a renaissance, having previously spoken about both the Harlem and Timurid versions and so I don’t feel I can quite skip past this without commenting on the impact of this economic and cultural flowering that took place, mostly in France, mostly under Charlemagne (Carolingian being the adjective deriving from the Charles part of his name). The rather dubious cause of economic growth was a flourishing slave trade: Charlemagne’s armies fought battles in Eastern Europe, and took captives that he then exported to Spain and sold on to the Arab world. This trade brought with it both wealth and a link to Muslim and Byzantine culture. The intellectual flourishing included the rationalisation of Latin which had been degenerating into a variety of local dialects – whose descendants we now know as Italian, French, Spanish and so on. Church Latin was extracted and preserved – enabling scholars across Europe to maintain a language of communication.

Perhaps, rather than going in our tardis to talk to Bede in his library in Jarrow, we might find more interest in the court of Charlemagne – seeing lots of people, hearing lots of conversations, learning about an event, a movement rather than an individual? Or perhaps we want to use our time-travel for good, perhaps we want to tell Charlemagne to stop trading slaves – assuming we could avert that without rendering history unrecognisable.

We don’t have a tardis as a window into the past – but what scholars do best is to learn from scholars, stand on their shoulders, see farther, build higher and we do have the writings of Bede who, in his most famous book, the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, wrote an answer to a King on the nature of life – an answer that charms me and I hope will charm you although I have to admit it gives me a bit of a spooky shiver when I think about it.

“The present life of man upon earth, O King, seems to me in comparison with that time which is unknown to us like the swift flight of a sparrow through the mead-hall where you sit at supper in winter, with your Ealdormen and thanes, while the fire blazes in the midst and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad. The sparrow, flying in at one window and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest, but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter to winter again. So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all“

Before I go on, I should confess that I’ve embellished Bede a little bit by turning a door into a window, a transition I’ve stolen from the Abbess in the Sound of Music, who says “When the Lord closes a door, somewhere he opens a window.” Windows are ways to get in, or out, or round when the obvious route is blocked. Bede’s sparrow is a window on our school’s past – a tradition – because it has appeared in every leaver’s assembly since 2016 as an image of your time at school being but a short period of scholarship and community – and every year I’ve had to rewrite Bede’s wintry tempest because the Year 13s fly not into cold and dark, but into a bright Spring day and out into a bright future of challenge and opportunity, although, like the sparrow, of what is to follow we really know nothing at all. Some of those opportunities will be blazing bright like the window behind me, some will carry you along like a mighty river, some will require the hard work and study of a medieval monk, and sometimes it will seem that the door is shut, the opportunity is lost and you will need to go round, to find a window. And I have confidence that you will – for you are amazing people, blazing bright with intellect and skill, and also with enthusiasm to shape the world, to make it better – and I have confidence you will – and, I suspect, that you’ll do it not by being the flashiest player on a field of princes, not by being the richest trader in ethically dubious goods, but by being part of a team that does something truly wonderful, that rescues others, brings them home. That’s the story I hope you’ll tell, the one I think you’ll tell.

Before you leave us, there is one further tradition to honour and it is the placing of flowers on the memorial to Isaac Newton to acknowledge our debt to the past, to recognise that our scholarship, our opportunities rest on those who came before us – Isaac Newton chosen from all the scholars because of his acknowledgement that if he saw further it was because he stood on the shoulders of giants. I started this assembly dreaming of a tardis, but I no longer want it – I don’t want to see what happened far away or long ago, to rail against wrongs I cannot right, to meet figures whose work is long completed. Of all the locations and times the place to be is here and now – among the phenomenal folk of Harris Westminster, sending them out into the world and being able to find out the difference they’ll make – because I hope they’ll come back and tell us, write in from the far side of the planet, drop round for a quick chat to update us, join us for longer conversations and alumni events, return to give lab talks. Each alumnus or alumna is a window on a wider world, a new story, an indication of what is possible. In 2016 we sent out brave pioneers into the unknown, but today we send the Year 13s out to join a great host of sparrows, filling the world with their joyous twittering, making it that little bit more scholarly. Before they leave us, we celebrate their contribution to our school, our traditions, our lives. Let’s the rest of us rise and applaud and then we’ll dismiss the Year 12s and I hope the Year 13s will stay around for some private counsel.