Merry Christmas. What does that mean to you? Well, right now it means being in Westminster Abbey for one last time in 2023 and listening to me ruminating on what Christmas means for us – which is quite self-referential, or meta as Douglas Hofstadter would say. If you want to explore that idea further then I recommend his rather marvellous book Godel Escher Bach and, more generally, I recommend that you go to the library before you leave today and pick something up to read over the break. I’ll be making a lot of recommendations today – and I won’t be saying “I recommend” next to each one: if I reference something you don’t already know then please make a note in a little book and follow it up later. Oh yes, I recommend that you bring a little book to assembly to make notes of recommendations (going meta again – as Douglas Hofstadter probably didn’t say but should have “I’m so meta, even this acronym”). That’s something else to write down if it doesn’t make sense right now and if you don’t have a book today then a scrap of file paper or, at a pinch, the inside of your forearm will do.
We’re in Northern Europe – you live quite a lot further north than most Canadians – and so Christmas means cold days and long dark evenings and Christmas is a time of stories. In this climate, it would be easy to be miserable as every day is a bit gloomier than the last and so we tell each other stories of old men filling stockings and babies born in stables, of good kings returning home from slaying demons and of lamps that miraculously never ran out of oil. We sing songs of winters past and remind each other that we got through those and that spring always comes. We put lights in our windows and look forward to feasts and making our loved ones smile. And so I hope Christmas means all these things to you and I thought I’d tell you a story of Christmas past for no other reason than to get you in the mood.
My parents live in the countryside and one Christmas a few years ago we had all piled up to visit them on Christmas Day – when I say all, I mean me, my wife, two daughters, three sisters, three brothers in law, four nephews and two nieces – quite a gollop of them if I might adopt the 1930s slang of John Masefield’s Box of Delights (well done to everyone who scribbled that down). By lunchtime on Boxing Day they had mostly slipped away to other engagements and so it was just six of us who went for a walk round a neighbouring village. It was one of those cold and damp Decembers, with a miserable biting wind and we were glad to get back to the warmth of the cottage just as it got dark. A little later, my father called for my daughters to look outside where, unexpected, uncalled for, unbelievably it was snowing. Great white flakes tumbling from the clouds, swiftly covering the garden. Snowballs were thrown, a snowman quickly assembled and much joy was had. The next morning, the snow was still there, but we had to leave – we had a lunch date a hundred miles away and so after breakfast we bundled everything off and set out gingerly along the narrow and winding road from the village. It snakes down off the Staffordshire moorlands and crosses the county boundary to climb into the Derbyshire dales (and my mother, who is a geographer will tell you that’s because the border is in the wrong place, follows the wrong river). As we got to the bottom we saw a couple of cars paused by the roadside. We continued up this hill which, despite being steep and icy was not gritted because it was in Derbyshire (and thus not Staffordshire’s problem) but led only to Staffordshire (and thus of no interest to the Derbyshire bureaucrats who decide where to send the gritting truck). Long story short, the wheels continued to go round but the car stopped going forwards and started to slide backwards to where we joined to queue of stuck vehicles – it’s remarkable we didn’t crash. There was no phone signal to call for help and not much for it but to try again, so the passengers got out and I took a careful look at the road ahead. Sadly with no luck, as I took the bend on the steepest part of the road the wheels span and I started to slide – once sliding there was nothing for it but to steer my way clear of the cars at the bottom. So I too got out and, lacking any better tools for the job, started kicking at the ice, breaking it up and pushing it off the road. Time passed, toes froze, my daughters were turning a fetching shade of blue – it was time to risk a third attempt. Up I sped, picking up as much speed as I dared, taking advantage of the clear part of the road, round the bend, still going up but not so steeply, speed dropping, and then the road flattened out, my tyres got traction and I was able to cruise to the end of the lane and look out at the tarmac of the main road. My weary family trudged up the lane to climb in the car and we set off – two hours late for our lunch date (which was fortunately with some very old and understanding friends who welcomed us with mugs of tea and sausage rolls) but with a story to tell.
Having regaled you with mine, I’d love to hear your stories, and since we don’t have space in assembly for them all I’d like you two write them down and send them to me in this vacation’s essay competition – the deadline is 8.50 the day we come back, submission by email to me, and the best will win book prizes and the adulation of your peers.
In case that sounds like a big challenge, I’ll break it down – you have to think of a tale to tell, and you might have had an interesting adventure in real life (which would be great) or have a fertile enough imagination to come up with your own (which would be marvellous), but if not then I recommend taking someone else’s story – a fairy tale, folk story, or piece of history, and rewriting it in your own words. My favourite examples here are “The Journey of the Magi”, a spectacular poem by T.S. Eliot, that examines the travels of the wise men from the bible with delightful cadences to admire and copy – enjoy the camels, galled, sorefooted, refractory, and the camel men, cursing and grumbling and running away – and the other is West Side Story which is a musical retelling of Romeo and Juliet with comic songs and ballet. Great artists take the ideas of others and are inspired to make something new – you should definitely do this too.
Having got your idea, you need to start somewhere and it’s difficult to know where – too much preamble and your story goes on forever, too little and your audience doesn’t have the setting in their mind when the action starts. You can take Lil Baby’s advice, from The Bigger Picture, that you’ve got to start somewhere, or you can hope to be inspired by my very favourite beginning which is from Romeo and Juliet and goes like this:
“Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona, where we lay our scene, from ancient grudge break to new mutiny, where civil blood makes civil hands unclean,”
Don’t stare at the blank page waiting for inspiration though - the key is starting somewhere – might as well gon start here as Mr Baby tells us. Having started the storytelling is the easy part, but you then need to know how to stop – traditionally comedies finish with everyone getting married whilst tragedies finish with everyone dead. The Queen in Tom Stoppard’s Shakespeare in Love says that some stories end with tears and a journey and the Beatles album Abbey Road concludes by saying that in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make – on which note I want to encourage you to spend time this vacation with those you love, doing your bit to make them happy, making memories to carry into the new year. And do a bit more than your share of the chores too – you probably get looked after during assessment weeks and essay crises – it’s time to earn some brownie points.
About endings though, I think they’re all wrong, because I’ve watched Bake Off – and I know that the best part of the show is the epilogue. The story is all about some kind of cake competition – I didn’t really follow that bit, with characters left by the wayside as we went along, and the conclusion is when the winner is announced and everyone cheers, but the interesting bit is the closing credits where it tells you what each contestant has done in the gap between filming and the show airing on TV. The Lord of the Rings, similarly, has an amazing chapter “The Scouring of the Shire” after the ring has been destroyed and the king restored – those who don’t understand this kind of thing wonder what it’s there for, but I know, and you do too now, that the question of what happens when the heroes return home is a key element because although the story ends, life doesn’t – except in a Shakespearean tragedy – the end is never getting married, or through the snow, or to the mountain of fire – even Abbey Road has a bonus track after The End, a remarkable 23 seconds called Her Majesty.
You’ll also have noticed my storytelling device of a set of three attempts to climb the hill (had I time I’d also have made more of my three sisters and the three passengers, but there are lessons to get to and I had to abbreviate. The tricolon is an old staple – three little pigs in the fairy tale, those Magi became three wise men, even JK Rowling has three deathly hallows and so I lead into my ending by reminding you of our vacation tricolon, to go alongside spending time with your family and writing a story for me, I expect you to read – and I’ve already suggested you take something from the library, I expect you to review – and you’ll have responses to your assessments that will guide your work, and I expect you to rest, to do the things that bring you joy and bring light to others and get you through the coldest darkest days. Read, rest, review in equal measure.
And that would be all if it were not for the fact that an assembly, like a story, like a musical, needs an epilogue. The musical I’m thinking of is Hamilton, whose epilogue is entitled “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story” and my thought is from George Eliot who probably never said “It’s never too late to be who you might have been" but should have and what I want you to carry away is that as well as telling stories we are also making them, carving out our own stories one second at a time. And your story is of a scholar with three crucial weeks where their wise guru (that’s me) is left behind and they must fend for themselves. Will they squander their chances? Will they sit by the wayside and do nothing? Or will they choose wisely, make progress towards their goal, do what they know Yoda would hope from them (that’s Star Wars – my final recommendation). It’s these times that shape the hero’s character – and their fortune. It’s vacations that shape your future, more than time in classrooms, because this is when you have to decide, when you have to tell your own story.
2. West Side Story also features in Musical Inspirations.
3. The Hamilton epilogue is an assembly innovation but the opening number features heavily in Running Out of Time.
4. Douglas Hofstadter and Godel Escher Bach appear in It's Unfair.
5. Lil Baby's advice to Start Here is so useful that it has an entire assembly to itself.