As I stand here this morning

Assemblies from the archives of Harris Westminster Sixth Form

Kindred Spirits and Scope for the Imagination (November 2021)

This morning I shall be speaking about November, and creativity, and collaboration. I should warn you that there’s quite a bit of poetry to inspire your imaginations, but we start with a piece of prose.

“Oh, Marilla,” she exclaimed one Saturday morning, coming dancing in with her arms full of gorgeous boughs, “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers. It would be terrible if we just skipped from September to November, wouldn’t it?”

The “she” here is Anne Shirley, heroine of Green Gables and proud sporter of the letter ‘e’ and you would be forgiven for wondering whether I’ve brought out one of last month’s assemblies in the hope you wouldn’t notice. I did delight in October, but cannot regret having come to the month of Remembrance – thank you all for making our service last week so magnificent: I was as proud as I’ve ever been of the scholars of Harris Westminster. If you haven’t read Anne of Green Gables then you should, and if you have, then you’ll know that all she requires from life is a kindred spirit and scope for the imagination.

A kindred spirit and scope for the imagination – collaboration and creativity. I thought of Anne last week in my CP when I asked students for their favourite poetry and we enjoyed some intertextuality. I was aiming for Yeats’ poem, The Second Coming which contains the words “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold” – a line which inspired Chinua Achebe’s book about life in 19th century Nigeria. I know some of you are not fond of Yeats, but I’m a huge fan.

I love the innocent naivete of
“Down By the Salley Gardens my love and I did stand,
and on my leaning shoulder she laid her snow white hand.
She bid me take it easy as the grass grows on the weirs,
but I was young and foolish and now am full of tears.”

I love the pastoral romance of the Lake Isle of Inisfree –
“I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.”

I love the tired cynicism of Sailing to Byzantium –
“That is no country for old men, the young
in one anothers arms, birds in the trees,
those dying generations at their song,
the salmon falls, the mackerel crowded seas,
fish flesh or fowl commend all summer long
whatever is begotten, born and dies. 
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
monuments of unaging intellect.”

And I love the sharp prescience of The Second Coming
“Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world
The blood dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned
The best lack all conviction while
The worst are filled with passionate intensity.”

Before we got to Yeats, however, one of the students suggested we look at the rude poem, you know, the one about your mum and dad. They meant “This be the verse” by Philip Larkin and fortunately I don’t need to quote the first line to pick up on his intertextuality because the title is a reference to a poem called Requiem by Robert Louis Stevenson
“This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.”

I love the way that the poets and writers take each other’s words and ideas and build on them – that great art is not merely creation itself but offers scope for the imagination to any kindred spirit who happens to enjoy it. The last diversion we enjoyed was from T.S. Eliot and his poem “The Naming of Cats” which contains the line, referring to the need to give cats peculiar dignified names “Of names of this kind I can give you a quorum such as Munkustrap, Quaxo or Coricopat, such as Bombalurina or else Jellylorum – names that never belong to more than one cat.”

This inspired Andrew Lloyd Webber to write his musical Cats which inspired the 2019 film in which the character Bombalurina was played by Taylor Swift who it would be rude to leave out of this assembly given that she has just provided one extra reason to relish November this year. For the three of you who don’t know, allow me to explain that she has re-recorded her 2012 album Red including the long-lost and legendary 10 minute version of “All Too Well”, the result of the realisation that Jake Gyllenhaal was not quite the kindred spirit she had hoped he was. It’s an accomplished piece of music that, like us this morning, enjoys the “Autumn leaves falling down like pieces into place”, but I’m reminded of my thought on reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire which is that there are times when what a writer needs is a jolly good editor to cut some of their extraneous words. Novels should be a couple of hundred pages, pop songs three or four minutes and films no more than two hours – Peter Jackson I’m looking at you.

“But, Mr Handscombe,” you might entirely reasonably cry, “how can you tell us this when you yourself hold the greatest pop song to be Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water which clocks in at just shy of five minutes and your favourite book is The Lord of The Rings which quite famously runs to three volumes each one of which is longer than your restrictive maximum.” My answer is twofold, firstly that when it comes to art my whims are as free and unpredictable as the dancing leaves of autumn and secondly that geniuses are allowed to break the rules by which the rest of us are bound. I do, however, see your point, and feel I should say some words in the defense of my favourites. One of the most common assertions regarding The Lord of the Rings is that it should have stopped at the end of the last battle and that the extended ending, and particularly the chapter The Scouring of the Shire is self-indulgent nonsense. Of course I disagree, and the reason why I consider this a crucial part of the story lies in the character of Sam Gamgee, who is plucked from life as an under-gardener and thrust into an adventure where he fights battles, explores caves, stabs spiders, and makes his way through a fiery desert, step by step, carrying his wounded comrade. His story is not complete at the final battle, not complete at the destruction of the ring or the crowning of the king in Gondor. His story is not complete until you see him back in the Shire, painstakingly replanting the trees that have been destroyed whilst he was away, not complete until he is once more a gardener. A creation isn’t complete until it’s come back to its beginning and tied up the loose threads.

I therefore need to tie up some of my loose threads so I’m going to tell you about my favourite piece of Simon and Garfunkel intertextuality. In 1965 Paul Simon wrote a song called “Leaves that are Green” for a solo album “The Paul Simon Songbook”. He then re-recorded it with Art Garfunkel in an almost Swiftian manner for the album “Sounds of Silence.” The opening lyric to the song is rather beautiful and Novemberish. “I was twenty-one years when I wrote this song. I’m twenty-two now but I won’t be for long. Time hurries on and the leaves that are green turn to brown and they wither with the wind and they crumble in your hand.” Fifteen years later, Billy Bragg was inspired by Simon and Garfunkel, saw a kindred spirit in another singer-songwriter and took that line for his song “New England”. He used it, played with it, changed it, and wrote a very different song which begins “I was twenty one years when I wrote this song, I’m twenty two now but I won’t be for long. People ask when will you grow up to be a man but all the girls I loved at school are already pushing prams.” He recorded the song in 1983 but it was Kirsty McColl’s 1985 version that became the big hit. McColl singing Bragg channelling Simon – kindred spirits and scope for the imagination.

Time hurries on and I must get back to my beginning and ask what Anne Shirley has to say about Novembers – well, it turns out, not a lot, but here she is showing us what November is for – I hope you enjoy L.M. Montgomery’s prose as much as I do:

"It was nearly dark, for the full November twilight had fallen around Green Gables, and the only light in the kitchen came from the dancing red flames in the stove. Anne was curled up Turk-fashion on the hearthrug, gazing into that joyous glow where the sunshine of a hundred summers was being distilled from the maple cordwood. She had been reading, but her book had slipped to the floor, and now she was dreaming, with a smile on her parted lips. Glittering castles in Spain were shaping themselves out of the mists and rainbows of her lively fancy; adventures wonderful and enthralling were happening to her in cloudland—adventures that always turned out triumphantly and never involved her in scrapes like those of actual life."

If you are finding November bringing you down, that it lacks the romance of October, that the lake water is lapping and the pavements are grey and have no scope for imagination, then I urge you to curl up with a book, to find a kindred spirit among the poets or songwriters and let them transport you into a world of imagination. Read something by Montgomery or Tolkien; enjoy the poetry of Yeats, or Eliot, or Larkin; put on some of Bragg’s music, or Simon’s, or Swift’s. Maybe you’ll be inspired to write something beautiful, or maybe simply to join me in the joyous game of quoting the geniuses to whom the rules do not apply.