The Thing Itself (July 2017)

Some assemblies come together nicely, the ideas linking from one to the next, circling and revisiting a theme and concluding with a punchy take-home message or at least a lingering thought for you to ponder. Try as I might, I can’t get today’s to fit together so serendipitously. The problem, you see, is that I have three introductions and I don’t know which one to use or how to shoehorn the other two into the piece: they’re all non-sequiturs, you see, coming as I step up to the microphone, apropos of nothing they work beautifully but following on from the previous passage they are just a bit bizarre. I will therefore try all three out, and then we’ll decide on the one we’re going to go for and when I give this assembly for real I’ll know what I’m doing.

I’ve told you before that I used to play rugby and you will, no doubt, have a mental image of me leaping like a salmon in the lineout to capture the ball or running with blistering pace to describe a beautiful arc round the opposition tacklers before scoring with a flamboyant swallow-dive in the corner. Well, I won’t disabuse you, but let me just say it was not always so. Let me tell you of the first training session I went to. It was early in the summer, right at the end of the season and we were doing some tackle practice. I was 30; I’d not played full contact rugby since we’d spent six weeks on it at school fifteen years earlier and I don’t recall doing any tackling even then; I’d played a little touch footie in Australia and I’d been fascinated by watching it on television but that was all. I’d played several other sports all with a no-nonsense, gung ho approach that meant, for example, that I was the only person to routinely emerge bleeding from a badminton match – if you’re not diving for the shuttlecock you’re not taking the game seriously enough in my book. Anyway, rugby, and a guy called John who had been given the ball and was bearing down on me. John was ten years older than me and didn’t so much have a run as a rumble – what he did have was three or four stones of body-mass on me and thirty years more experience. Anyway, not deterred I remembered what I’d been taught and hurled myself at him, throwing my arms round his chest to drag him to the ground. At least, that was the idea. In fact, my arms never got round his chest because as I approached he dipped his shoulder slightly and I bounced off – I’ve never seen anything quite like it and I’m not sure what kind of arc I described but the next thing I remember is lying flat on my back, winded and looking up at the evening sky. There are some things that touch rugby league doesn’t prepare you for.

I’ll start again. There’s a poem you should know – some of you may have come across it in your studies. It’s by a poet called Glen Slater and it’s the voice of a young woman: 7 AM, the usual morning lineup: Start on the chores and sweep 'til the floor's all clean, Polish and wax, do laundry, and mop and shine up Sweep again, And by then It's like 7:15. And so I'll read a book or maybe two or three I'll add a few new paintings to my gallery I'll play guitar and knit, and cook and basically Just wonder when will my life begin? Those of you whose knowledge of the Disney Corporation’s 21st Century output is less encyclopaedic than your familiarity with the works of the brothers Grimm might feel you understand more if I tell you that the girl’s name is Rapunzel and the heart of the song is that even though she has things to fill her time, useful, creative, learning opportunities, her life is on hold: trapped within her tower nothing she does is real – it’s all just a rehearsal.

Good morning once more. Mathematicians don’t take years out – if you’re a Mathematician and you’re thinking about it, don’t: a year away from the subject and you’ll find yourself rusty and struggling – unable even to integrate something like one over cos cubed x. I, therefore, went straight from school to university (via a long summer in Switzerland which I’ll tell you about some other time), from my first degree in Oxford to my second in Harvard with barely long enough to get myself a visa and from Harvard into teacher training and thence to my first job teaching in the wilds of the Welsh valleys: a part of my journey that was almost entirely uphill. By this point, as you can imagine, I was in need of a break and so I seized the opportunity to work in Australia – this was my version of a year out only I had money and an effective way to earn more and so I had a rather wonderful time which included a trip to see Uluru. If I’m honest, I hadn’t been very excited about this part of the trip – big detour to see a rock in the desert (the Aussies, with typical lyrical lucidity, call it The Rock). There is very little accommodation and so you spend a lot of money on a tiny chalet on a campsite – I wasn’t sure it was going to be worth it but then we got there and we went to sit on a boulder a few miles from the rock as the sun set – I’d brought a book with me in case I got bored but I just couldn’t take my eyes off Uluru; I looked around at the rest of the panorama but as though pulled by gravity my eyes kept returning to the rock. I couldn’t believe how huge it was. I couldn’t believe how real it was. Everything else seemed like a dream or an imagination compared with Uluru. No pictures or description had prepared me for this, no facsimile could match up to the thing itself.

And so we get to the assembly itself in which it seems inevitable that I shall point out that you have a great deal of summer ahead of you and that you have received instruction on a tripartite division of this time. Having done that – and it’s sage advice – I want to tell you how but before I do I’d like to underline why this is important.

A couple of times recently some of you have come up to me and started a sentence with “since I’ve finished all my exams” at which point I’ve raised my eyebrows in a truly theatrical manner and marvelled in a shocked voice that you should have got through your A2s already: a feat truly worth celebrating and one that, when you achieve it, will render you free from all Harris Westminster restrictions except to return your library books and to leave the prom in a reasonably orderly manner. But no, it seems that the exams that were over were only the Year 12 exams, half-way through, and the point I was making was that we are in the very midst of working for the final exams. Year 12 exams are important markers but they are not the thing itself. Half way through is no time to give up – it’s no time to take two months off, whether or not you’re a Mathematician. The two months of summer are, as I said at Celebration, one of the most important challenges you will face as Harris Westminster students. Either you will embrace them as Harris Westminster time and read, revise and rest, cherishing each moment, or you will think of them as time that doesn’t count, hours to cross off whilst you wait for year 13 to begin. If you choose the latter then you will spend the whole of Year 13 playing catch-up and, like Kipling’s camel, you will never be able to do so (which is a literary allusion you will have to look up yourself).

So, let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that you’ve decided to take my advice and to spend your time wisely, what does that look like? Well, as far as reading is concerned the summer break is a wonderful time to read something properly difficult. I started reading War and Peace in the summer at the end of my Year 12 and I got an enormous sense of achievement from having completed that task – a little over two years later. It’s an achievement I’ve got good value out of over the years, it’s one of the more impressive parts of my hinterland, having read the thing itself rather than some facsimile, watching the TV dramatization or reading the Wikipedia page or the Spark Notes. I think that during term time the pressures of time and business can tempt us to approximations and simulations – we grab a textbook and look for the digested facts rather than reading the writings of the scholars, we dip into the novels we need rather than reading the authors words as they were written and we miss some wonderful things, some beautiful sentences, some clever ideas that don’t make it through to the slimmed down versions. If you do decide, for example, to follow up the camel you should look for him in the Just So Stories rather than in Wikipedia and read the thing itself – not, in this case, such a great task as it’s only a short story.

There’s another song I think you’ll like – a tongue in cheek offering from Flanders and Swann and those of you pay attention to the Mechanics of poetry as well as getting caught up in the sentiment will notice that it subtly reflects and subverts the norms of the era in which it was written – the early 1960s. It goes like this: “It’s a satellite moon, it’s a plagiarised tune, the duck on the lake’s a decoy. There’s a sodium glare, in the purified air and the girl in my arms is Mavis Figworthy and if she says “Oh really” once more I’ll wring her neck”. It’s not really the same as sitting in the desert looking at Uluru, is it. You should take time, when you can, to embrace the thing itself – particularly when reading, particularly this summer. Pick up a fat classic and read it. Dive into some abstruse history and find out about Caradoc and Caractacus like the Major General. Don’t expect it to be easy though – you have to keep bringing yourself back to read a few more pages.

In your resting I also think you should aim for real experience and the enemy here, I think, is the screen. I don’t say don’t treat yourself to the star-wars marathon you’ve been saving up, or the great sprawling civilisation 5 game that you’ve resisted throughout the long weeks of school – they too can be part of your hinterland - but I do say don’t fritter your resting time away when you could be out in the sunshine with friends. Enjoy their company, go for long walks, visit the art galleries and trade learned quips as you stand in front of the paintings: see if you can gather a crowd before one of you bursts out laughing. It’s better than trading insults with anonymous157 on Facebook.

And revising. The point of this is so that you have in your head in September the things you are meant to have learned this year. You’ve just done exams, so you know what you know and what you don’t. We’ve spent a year teaching you Response, so you know what you need to do with the things you don’t know. Use those skills. Use some of the time you have and come back fighting fit and ready for Year 13 or you will find yourself slamming into the new year like 18 stone of prop-forward and lying on your back, seeing stars as the rest of the team runs over you is no way to start September. You need, if I may be permitted to point out my own error, to do your rehearsal before you perform. As the Chilli Peppers might say – Year 13 is more than just a read through (and that’s a misquote that’s also worth tracking down).

Read, Rest, Revise in equal measure. Choose the thing itself rather than a facsimile whenever you can and don’t let the time slip by whilst you wait for your life to begin – this is life, this is real, this is amazing, this is a Harris Westminster summer.