Time (July 2017)

“This thing all things devours: birds, beasts, trees, flowers; Gnaws iron, bites steel: Grinds hard stones to meal; Slays king; ruins town, And beats high mountain down. Poor Bilbo sat in the dark thinking of all the horrible names of all the giants and ogres he had ever heard told of in tales but not one of them had done all these things. He had a feeling that the answer was quite different and that he ought to know it but he could not think of it. He began to get frightened and that is bad for thinking. Gollum began to get out of his boat, He flapped into the water and paddled to the bank; Bilbo could not see his eyes coming towards him. His tongue seemed to stick in his mouth; he wanted to shout out ‘Give me more time! Give me time! But all that came out with a sudden squeal was ‘Time! Time!’ Bilbo was saved by pure luck. For that, of course was the answer.”

I talk a lot about time in my assemblies but usually as part of saying something else so today I intend to deliver my entire piece on the subject without hesitation, deviation or repetition. Some of you, many of you, I hope, will recognise that tricolon as coming from Just a Minute – a game in which the contestant’s experience of time is quite the opposite of poor Bilbo’s: the time allocation seems to drag out forever whereas when grasping for the answer to riddles in the dark, or, more relevantly to you, I imagine, towards the end of an exam, the seconds go so fast that they blur. This dissonance in our experience of time - logic tells us that the ticks of a clock are evenly spaced, that time passes at a constant rate but we feel it moving fast or slow as dictated by circumstance – this apparent contradiction is used by C.S. Lewis as an argument that humans were created not for time but eternity. If we had evolved in time, he argues, we would feel more at home in it. I will leave the eschatological argument to the Philosophers and Theologians as a kind of birthday present to be treated with appropriate circumspection. I shall put a pin in the dissonance of time so that it remains in the front of your mind and I will take CS Lewis and use him to segue to my next paragraph.

In his autobiography he tells of a period in his life that he considers the archetype of a working routine. He was taken out of school and sent to a tutor to prepare for entrance to University and his routine was to get up, breakfast and then study through the morning until lunch after which he would go for a long walk before returning for tea and an evening of work. There is something satisfying about having a rhythm to your time, to knowing what you should be doing by looking at the clock. I remember studying for my Oxford entrance exam in the autumn of Year 13 and I would get up early for my paper round, go to school, come home, have a nap, do my homework, go out with my friends in the evening and return home at about 10pm to complete a maths paper before turning in for the night. Not quite as scholarly as Lewis but still a routine.

The tick of the clock which is terrifying when you are trying to think under pressure or torture when trying to fill a minute with wit and wisdom can be a friend and a comfort if you know how to use your time constructively. “But,” to quote the muppets (who were singing a song by Jim Croce), “there never seems to be enough time to do the things you want to do once you find them” and that is also, I think, an experience of time that you might be having right now – actually that’s the experience of time I want you to be having and given how accurately the muppets have put their finger on it I’m seriously considering handing my next assembly over to Kermit.

At the moment you should have your C.S.Lewis-like rhythm, you should be busy and feeling there’s not enough time to do the things you want to do and when you go into exams I hope you won’t feel time quite as viscerally as Bilbo but I imagine you’ll be beset by a sense of urgency.

I’m afraid that I know little of the music of Jim Croce – I only know he wrote that song because I looked it up whilst writing this assembly. I do, however, know rather more of those heroes of 90s Scandinavian pop, Roxette, and this is why my daughters will never turn to me and say “What’s the time”, preferring, instead such constructions as “I don’t suppose you could tell me the hour” or “Would it be possible, father dear, to relay to me the current reading from your watch” because “What’s the time” is the opening lyric to a favourite song and when provided with the first line I am unable to resist continuing “seems it’s already morning, I see the sky so beautiful and new, tv’s on but the only thing showing’s a picture of you. Spending my time, watching the days go by, feeling so small, I stare at the wall.” The heroine of this piece has too much time and is watching the hours slip by, a sensation echoed by Elton John in his song “I guess that’s why they call it the blues” in which he bemoans “time on my hands”. Mr John has a romantic entanglement and so we will draw a polite veil over the things he wishes to do with his time and move onto a third song, from Belle and Sebastian’s third album “The Boy with the Arab Strap”. The song is called “A Summer Wasted” and the lyric goes like this:

“I spent the summer wasting, the time was passed so easily.
But if the summer’s wasted
How come that I could feel so free.
I spent the summer wasting, the sky was blue beyond compare.
A photograph of myself is all I have to show for seven weeks of river walkways, seven weeks of staying up all night.”

Seven weeks of summer is looming on the horizon for you all and I don’t want you to look back on it and think it wasted. I don’t want you to spend your time staring at the wall, regretting all the time that you have on your hands. Time is a curious thing but the muppets have it right – when you find the things you want to do there never seems to be enough time to do them. I talk often about the 168 hours that you get each week and I say that’s a hard limit, there’s no way of getting any more. I don’t know if you have also heard me speak about two other quantities of time that impose themselves on your Harris Westminster life. The first is nineteen hundred hours which is the time you will spend in lessons, assemblies, lab and sport during your time with us and the second, which dwarfs it, is the seventeen thousand hours that you have in total from the beginning of September Year 12 to the end of August year 13. It’s possible to extend those nineteen hundred hours: you can get more contact time by going to see teachers during your lunchtimes and after school, you can get more time to work by coming in early and staying late but the seventeen thousand hours is a hard limit – there’s no way of getting more. Once it’s over you have to be ready for the next phase of your life: university, apprenticeships, work, something out of our cocoon, something more grown up.

The seven weeks of this summer are a time apart from the nineteen hundred hours but are an important chunk of the seventeen thousand. They count. They are part of your Harris Westminster life. Seven weeks is a wonderfully long time but it’s time that you don’t have a rhythm for just yet, it’s time that could lie heavily on your hands, it’s time when the clock ticks without urgency and so I’d like you to be thinking now when you don’t have time what you will want to do when you find yourself with time. There’s time for river walking, there’s time for admiring the blue of the sky, there’s time for staying up all night, there’s time for adventures, for doing something new, for volunteering, for enjoying your friends and families and there’s time for learning, for reading and revising – you know what advice I’ll be giving you when we get to the end of term. This summer is your time – it’s part of your seventeen thousand hours, it’s close to 10% of your Harris Westminster career – in many ways it’s the time that defines your Harris Westminster career so don’t waste it or when Remembrance term closes in you’ll find yourself quoting Paul Simon who sang “Time, time, time, see what’s become of me while I looked around for my possibilities. I was so hard to please. Look around, trees are brown, and the sky is a hazy shade of winter.”

To sum up I will return to Elton John and I guess that’s why they call it the blues which starts “Don’t wish it away, don’t look at it like it’s forever” so don’t wish it away, enjoy this time of rhythms and routines – there’s less than a month of it left and then the Summer. Summertime is wonderful – and there are songs about that too: I commend to you both Ella Fitzgerald and Mungo Jerry but my time has run out, the hooter has sounded and I must send you back to the urgent ticking of the school clock. Thank you.