As I stand here this morning

Assemblies from the archives of Harris Westminster Sixth Form

Hope and Accuracy in a remarkable place

Welcome back to St Margaret’s – I love seeing you all arrive and pile into the pews, seeing you feel at home in this amazing place: this place where Walter Raleigh is buried under the high altar (well, most of him, his head is elsewhere), this place where Winston Churchill was married (12th September 1908 – 101 years ago last week), this place where the MPs still hold communion services every month, this place where the front row is reserved – at all times – for the Speaker of the House of Commons. It is a huge privilege to feel at home here. It is also a huge privilege to be able to give assemblies here. I like giving assemblies. I like the opportunity to speak to them all and I like them as an art-form, I like the challenge of saying something meaningful and interesting, and I like the interactivity: I like that you have been stopping me all week to tell me that Alexander’s grandson, Joseph, caught five fish; and I like it that one of you told me off for not including any poetry. This week, therefore, I will start with some poetry. Not Larkin, I’m afraid, but Thomas Hardy’s Afterwards.

When the Present has latched its postern behind my tremulous stay,
And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings,
Delicate-filmed as new-spun silk, will the neighbours say,
'He was a man who used to notice such things'?
If it be in the dusk when, like an eyelid's soundless blink,
The dewfall-hawk comes crossing the shades to alight
Upon the wind-warped upland thorn, a gazer may think,
'To him this must have been a familiar sight.'
If I pass during some nocturnal blackness, mothy and warm,
When the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn,
One may say, 'He strove that such innocent creatures should come to no harm,
But he could do little for them; and now he is gone.'
If, when hearing that I have been stilled at last, they stand at the door,
Watching the full-starred heavens that winter sees
Will this thought rise on those who will meet my face no more,
'He was one who had an eye for such mysteries'?
And will any say when my bell of quittance is heard in the gloom
And a crossing breeze cuts a pause in its outrollings,
Till they rise again, as they were a new bell's boom,
'He hears it not now, but used to notice such things'?

I like poetry, I like learning it – there is always a poem on the whiteboard in my office, helping me to remember; I like reciting it, declaiming great screeds – it’s a marvellous way to show off for one thing; but most of all I like quoting it, dropping it allusively into conversation so that my interlocutor (great word interlocutor, I commend it to you), so that my interlocutor either takes me for a verbal genius or, better, asks “That’s a nice line – where’s it from?” I quote more often than I declaim – it’s hard to find a captive audience, and so I often take advantage of quiet moments at the front door to make the receptionist’s life a little more literary and a little weirder by plucking out a suitable poem. From this experience I can tell you that Miss Martin is a very critical audience. Over the summer she said that she’d been keeping score and only once had I actually managed to get a poem correct all the way through. It’s a harsh measure – I’d hoped that she’d be impressed by a few verses completed with only the odd stumble or lost word, but no, I get points if I get it right and not otherwise. She’s correct, of course, getting it all right is the goal to which I aspire and I hope it’s your goal too. It’s a hard goal – one that I miss much more often than I hit, and so those of us who are committed to it have formed a club. It’s called the Full UMS club because of the Uniform Mark Scale used by exam boards and membership is open to all of you who want – please send me an email saying that you’d like to be part of it, to aim for full marks and to support other members of the club in their eternal search for perfection. Membership is open to all but the next stage, Fellowship, is awarded only to those students who excel in the End of Year examinations, those who get full UMS or close enough. Fellowship comes with a stylish and exclusive badge and the theoretical right to graze sheep in the William Blake Reading Room (in practice Miss Taylor will confiscate the sheep and ban you from the reading room if you try it).

It is now my pleasure to announce the names of those Year 13s who have been awarded Fellowship this year. Twenty-eight students demonstrated exceptional scholarship in achieving Full UMS in one subject. To get Full UMS in one subject is impressive – to get it in two is exceptional but this feat was achieved by nine students. Five students went one better – and, finally, with four Full UMS nominations and the right to carry a gerfalcon within the school precincts – I’m not sure what a gerfalcon is, nobody’s ever taken me up on this – we have a single student as the epitome of precision and paragon of scholarship. Well done to all the new fellows of the Full UMS club – year 12s, you know what you are aiming for.

Having celebrated those successes I should return to the core idiom of the Full UMS club. We aim for perfection not expecting to attain it. We refuse to be satisfied with less but are undeterred by our failures and, in fact, celebrate what we have achieved. Getting words wrong doesn’t stop me reciting poetry to Miss Martin, nor does it diminish my joy in spreading the words of poets like cloths of blue, dim, and dark light beneath the feet of my interlocutors. Our ambition is to get it all right, we set out in hope and in the knowledge that there will be setbacks along the way.

To return to Hardy’s lines, I’m not really a man who notices the subtleties of the natural world but one thing I have noticed recently is horse chestnut trees hurling conkers at me, beautiful gems of autumn, tactile reminders of hope, fragile tokens of the summer’s end, of trees expending the last of their energy investing in the future. The conker is the tree’s hope, it is also the tree’s investment in being ready when spring comes and so it’s a suitable symbol for us, something to notice, something to celebrate, something to remind us to invest now so that we’re ready for spring. And so, the notions that I hope have come like dewfall hawks crossing the shades to alight upon your minds: enjoy poetry and each other’s success, aim for perfection but don’t let falling short deter you, and carry a conker with you to remind you to work hard now so that you’re ready when spring comes.