Assemblies from the archives of Harris Westminster Sixth Form
Coventry (November 2021)
I’m going to start today with one of my favourite life-affirming quotes – this is your morning dose of positivity. “I look into the window of my mind. Reflections of the fears I know I’ve left behind. I step out of the ordinary, I can feel my soul ascending, I’m on my way, can’t stop me now and you can do the same.” Then the poet stops, takes a breath, fixes you with a steely gaze and asks “What have you done today to make you feel proud?” The poet is Heather Small and I’d like to examine what should make us feel proud – and I’d particularly like to put the case that it isn’t “winning”.
Let’s start local – out there on Parliament Square among the statues that have been put up. What is it that those people have done that has made the nation feel so proud? With some of the statues that’s not so easy a question to answer, but let’s take an easy case – the big hulking figure of Winston Churchill looming on the corner by Parliament Street. What did he do to make us feel proud? It’s an easy question right, with an easy answer – “He won World War II”. It’s an easy answer except for two things – 1) I have concerns about taking pride in winning, and 2) technically Winston Churchill didn’t. He was voted out of office before the end of the war, and it was Clement Atlee who was in charge when the guns fell silent.
It’s not for the victory parades that we remember Churchill, but for the speeches he made when the war was going badly - when the fears weren’t left behind - when they were not reflections but very real and very on Britain’s doorstep. “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat” came on 13th May 1940 when Finland had been beaten by Russia, Germany had just conquered Denmark and was marching through Norway, Submarine warfare was destroying Atlantic shipping and both Belgium and the Netherlands were under attack. A month later he said “We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender” – this was just after the British Army had been evacuated from Dunkirk, the defence of France was practically over, within days the British aircraft carrier would be sunk, leaving the fleet defenseless from the air and the Channel Islands would be invaded. Then, in a third great speech he said “Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few” – this was in August 1940 and Germany was planning its invasion of Britain. The RAF and the English Channel just about managed to stop the plan, but elsewhere the Italian army was advancing through Greece – the only country other than the UK still actively fighting the Axis in Europe. In September the Battle of Britain switched into the Blitz – instead of bombing airfields, the Luftwaffe started to bomb the cities and kill civilians rather than airmen.
I was reminded of this over half-term when I went to visit Coventry and stood in the centre of the medieval cathedral. It’s an immensely moving space, rather larger than the church here and in many ways similar, walls punctuated with memorials and artworks, light streaming in through the windows but above you instead of a vaulted ceiling only sky. At the east end, instead of a lavishly decorated altar there are two burned roofbeams still nailed together to make a crude cross. Coventry cathedral was bombed in November 1940 and the whole of the old town was destroyed by incendiary explosives and a firestorm. 568 people were killed and when the survivors came out the next morning they found that two thirds of the buildings in the city had been damaged, but the cathedral – a symbol of the industrial city’s pride – was one of the greatest material losses. The building stands now much as it did then – a memorial to the blitz and a symbol of peace because the Provost, looking at the ruined cathedral swore rebuilding and reconciliation – not revenge. The artworks that I told you about are dedicated to peace and to fellowship between nations that were enemies in 1940. One of them is dedicated to the victims of Hiroshima – another firestorm that destroyed a city. This is what it means to step out of the ordinary and as I stood in the centre of that ruined space I did feel my soul ascending – maybe – I was certainly overcome with admiration and love for those who had been hurt and sought healing rather than to hurt back.
Built onto the side of this glorious ruin is a new cathedral – modernist and spiky – and entirely focused on reconciliation. It is filled with memories of the Blitz, but more than anywhere I’ve ever been, also filled with peace. I’ve visited holocaust memorials where the feeling is anger, or horror; I’ve stood in front of village crosses with lists of names too long for the number of houses and felt overwhelming sadness; I’ve walked past the grave of the unknown warrior in Westminster Abbey and felt gratitude for the sacrifices that were made on my account; but I’ve never felt like I did in Coventry.
The peace of Coventry isn’t a passive, empty-minded calm: it’s a passionate engagement. They don’t wait for peace – they go out and make it. They have a service for the German Lutheran congregation and a twinned church in Germany; they have an art exhibition dedicated to Austin Callaway who in September 1940 as the blitz began was taken from jail in the American state of Georgia and murdered by a group of locals who suspected him of having assaulted a white woman (Austin, of course, was black); they have a sign as you enter that welcomes all comers – it starts “We extend a very special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, widowed, straight, gay, questioning, well-heeled or down at heel. We especially welcome wailing babies and excited toddlers”; and in the corner of a side-chapel they have a plaque that tells the story of Sadako and the thousand cranes. This is a true story that has undergone a degree of fictionalisation – I’ll tell you it as it is told in Coventry Cathedral.
Sadako Sasaki was two years old when the atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima – although apparently miraculously unharmed by the blast despite having been blown clean out of the window of her house she was caught in the radiation and developed leukaemia. During a lengthy stay in hospital, in which she was given little hope of survival she decided to entrust her life to the legend that if you fold a thousand origami cranes then your wish will come true. Every day her medicine came in a square of paper and she would carefully fold it into a crane and get one step closer to her wish for healing. As she folded, she became convinced that her original wish to survive was not the right one – it wasn’t just her that needed healing - instead she wished for peace across all countries and among all the other survivors of the war. Sadako died in 1955, the leukaemia finally winning.
Winning, though, isn’t the point. It’s how you get there and what you do next, and if you go the right way and do the right thing then it doesn't matter if you lose. Winning the election is nothing if you don’t hold the country together through the dark times; winning the war is nothing if you don’t rebuild and reconcile in the peace; winning the match is nothing if you cheated or can’t shake hands with the opposition; winning the argument is nothing if you’ve knocked someone down to do it.
I look into the window of my mind and I see a mess of reflections – some of the things in there are good, some aren’t. I expect that you, in your moments of self-examination are the same. Let us leave our fears behind, step out of the ordinary, be brave enough to fight for peace, not victory, and when it feels like we’re losing, draw breath and say determinedly “We shall go on to the end – can’t stop me now, I’m on my way” and build others up – “You can do the same”. When we ask ourselves “What have you done today to make you feel proud?” let’s not answer “I won,” but “I built”, “I made peace”, “I reconciled”, “I forgave”, “I made a thousand cranes and gave my wish to strangers and enemies.”