Such Contemporaries (June 2024)

Let me start today with a poem, a song really, though there’s no music.

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high, where knowledge is free. This is the 35th poem from a collection called Gitanjali by Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore was a polymath – a poet, writer, playwright, composer, philosopher, social reformer and painter who reshaped Bengali literature and music at the turn of the 20th century. Bengal is a region of Asia in and around the Ganges-Brahmaputra delta which is split between West Bengal and Bangladesh. It has a population of about 300 million and an area similar to Great Britain, and is one of the most densely populated and lowest lying areas of the world. If sea levels rise, Bengal drowns. It was split in two by the partition of India which happened in 1947 with a decision to create a Hindu state, India, and a Muslim one, Pakistan (Bangladesh was part of Pakistan until the war of independence of 1971).

Tagore wrote at a time when Bengal was part of British India and part of his international recognition came from his work in translating his own poetry into English. When we read Tagore’s poems, as I just did, we’re reading Tagore’s English translation of his own Bengali words – I told you he was a polymath. In 1913 he became the first non-European and first lyricist, song-writer, to win the Nobel prize for Literature, largely based on his translation into English of Gitanjali – the collection that our poem comes from. In 1915 he was awarded a Knighthood by George V, an honour he accepted but then renounced in 1919. He wrote “The time has come when badges of honour make our shame glaring in the incongruous context of humiliation, and I for my part, wish to stand, shorn, of all special distinctions, by the side of those of my countrymen who, for their so-called insignificance, are liable to suffer degradation not fit for human beings”. He generally opposed imperialism and supported Indian nationalism, but here he was reacting to a particular event – the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in which Brigadier General Dyer and a regiment of soldiers surrounded a peaceful group of people enjoying an afternoon in the park. Dyer’s men emptied their guns of bullets and killed hundreds of people, leaving them there overnight, preventing medics or relatives coming to help. There’s always more to a story than the headline – but in this case I don’t think the detail really helps Dyer: the attack was justified as a response to protests (some of which were taking place in the park) protests against the Rowlatt Act. The Rowlatt Act was created to prevent protests against British Imperialism and did so by removing the civil rights of protesters and of Indian civilians. There’s more to this story than I can cover now, none of it makes British India look good – I recommend Anita Anand’s fascinating unpicking of the history in “The Patient Assassin”.

A sidestep now, in search of another remarkable Nobel Prize winner, to Ningbo – one of China’s oldest cities with a history dating back to the Jingtou Mountain Culture of 6300BC – evidence of which was unearthed in 2013 and shows a group of people who harvested shellfish, made wooden implements such as spears and oars, baked pottery and may be responsible for the earliest lacquerware and mortise and tenon joints in human history. The amazing thing is how little we know of life in 6300 BC – how many other villages there are around the world with clever carpentry and varnishing that we’re yet to discover. We’re interested in a more recent event because on 30th December 1930 a girl was born whose name was chosen by her father from a poem written around 900BC and recorded in the Chinese Book of Odes – a classic text in Han literature. The line is “Deer bleat youyou while eating wild wormwood.” Wormwood is a plant that deer clearly find delicious. The girl, Youyou, grew up interested in science and, inspired by a TB infection that interrupted her high school education, went into medical research with studies both in modern and traditional approaches. She is best known for her work on the drug artemisinin, a treatment for malaria – a disease that is endemic to 87, mostly equatorial, countries and causes over 600,000 deaths a year.

In the 1960s the standard treatment for malaria was chloroquine but the Vietnamese government found that its soldiers fighting the Americans were dealing with a strain that was resistant to this drug and asked the Chinese government for help. Tu Youyou (to give her full name) was appointed head of a team looking for an alternative. Their amazing breakthrough came from the plant wormwood (the same as the deer eat in the poem) and the technique of using cold ether rather than boiling water to extract the chemicals. For this discovery she won the Nobel prize for Medicine in 2015 – the first Chinese woman to win a Nobel prize. She is unusual among great scientists for having no postgraduate degree – but she was appointed researcher – the Chinese equivalent of professor in 1980 – which means that I can call her Professor, rather than Miss Tu.

 I wonder what it feels like when a colleague gets a Nobel Prize. Do you feel pleased for them, do you feel uplifted by knowing them, that your work is more important because they’ve been involved with it, are you delighted that some of the things you’ve done have contributed to their success? Or are you envious, do you feel you’ve been left out, underappreciated, does their success make your lesser achievements feel like failure? I suspect a bit of all three – we all know we should support other people but it’s very human to feel that knife twist a bit. Gore Vidal is credited with saying “It’s not enough that I succeed, my friend must also fail” – which suggests that he’s not someone I’d particularly want to be friends with: his success must come with gloating designed to place him above others. Oscar Wilde, a bit more gently, railed against the world “Why was I born with such contemporaries?” – in any other group he’d be the single stand out, and yet he felt he had to fight hard for second place.

If Oscar Wilde, one of the brainiest wits to have walked the earth, felt like this, what hope do we mortals have? Well – I don’t think we can stop these pangs, these thoughts crossing our minds – it’s natural – but I think we can dismiss them as nonsense, we can laugh at Wilde – as he intended us to, he knows he’s being ridiculous. You, like him, have such contemporaries – you’re at Harris Westminster and surrounded by the brightest, best and most wonderful seventeen years olds on the planet – people that will be inventing drugs, developing lacquerware, writing poetry and hopefully solving global warming whilst we still have Bengal. In any other school you’d easily be the best and yet here you are, working your socks off to get second place. I urge you to recognise this feeling, to laugh at it, and to embrace the joy of that peer group. Just before I wrote this assembly I recorded a podcast with a Harris Westminster alumnus from the first year group, 2014 – he talked about coming here from a school where he’d been the best and finding himself mid table and that being hard. He also talked about the friends he made here and how they still go on holiday together ten years on, still support each other. He also talked about the power of that challenge, of realising that success doesn’t come easily and that he’s achieved more in his life by being pushed into competition than he would have done coasting through at the top of an easier class.

I think then that being a good friend to each other means not gloating in a Gore Vidal way when you do well, in supporting each other, in recognising that the competition between ourselves is useful, and sometimes fun (I guess more so if you’re winning), but that really the competition is with the rest of the world and we can all win that. David, the alumnus I spoke to, didn’t end top of his year here (not that we really measure such things) but he has done brilliantly well, a Chemistry degree from Bristol and now working as a commodities trader at Goldman Sachs. It’s not a zero sum game – we can all win if we all stand together. The greatest honour is not to come first, to get a prize, to wear a red dress. It’s to stand, shorn of all special distinctions with colleagues and classmates to face those stairs to the 8th floor together.

So please support each other, think about how you can help each other, make each other feel good about your successes and motivated rather than put down by the successes of others. We’re a community here and, even if you’re one of the people who don’t appreciate the subtle skill with which I divert the thread of assemblies to our common life together, I hope you’ll at least give this one a nod because I’ve been working up to it for the past 1620 words, and, we’re a community that takes inspiration from Nobel Prize winners when we can. So, and I think we have to just lean into this segue, just as Rabindranath Tagore rejected his knighthood and said he didn’t want to be Sir any more, just as Tu Youyou can be properly referred to as Professor Tu, so we don’t use the terms Sir or Miss to address teachers. We use title and surname: Mr Handscombe, Ms Scott, Dr Baveystock. You know this already – I know that – and you are, as a group better at remembering than I am – thank you for all the times you’ve corrected yourselves before I’ve really cottoned on. I mention it because we have a brief window of time between the departure of the Year 13s and the arrival of the new Year 12s to get our routines and habits entirely on ethos and Harris Westminster and this is a tricky one if you’ve come from a school where Sir and Miss are the norm – if we don’t get this right now, it will die out, become forgotten - so please, let’s all renew our efforts, use the term “Teacher” if you forget a name and, if you really want to endear yourselves to me – call me Teach: for reasons that might need further explanation, it makes me think of myself as a blackbearded pirate from the 18th century with slow burning fuses in his hair – and what principal could ask for more than that? That, and, of course, the clear stream of reason leading the mind into ever widening thought and action which is the kind of heaven that Harris Westminster represents.


1. The addressing of teachers by name (and the reasoning behind the nickname "Teach") was developed originally and at greater length in No more Sir, no more Miss.

2. Tagore's poetry is revelled in further in both Sam, Frodo and Tagore and The Orb of Life

3. Bengal and Bengali come up in Amar Sonar Bangla (whose title is originally Tagore's)

4. A fuller description of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre (and another recommendation for Anita Anand's excellent book can be found in History of Asia

5. Oscar Wilde's lament at his contemporaries comes up in Cultural Revival

6. Another Nobel-winning inspiration appears in Liberian Soap