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Head Master’s Assembly: Letters

Over half-term, I read a book called Written in History, by one of my wife’s 1,001 cousins, a writer called Simon Sebag-Montefiore. The book contains 100 letters from history which seem both particularly fascinating to him and also to have had particular impact on world affairs. And they are indeed fascinating. In it, you can read the letter that Hitler sent to Mussolini to reveal his motives the night before he invaded Soviet Russia; the letter from Richard the Lionheart to Saladin to negotiate the partitioning of the Holy Land during the Crusades; the letter from Pliny to Tacitus, describing the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD; a love letter from Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn; or more recently, the letter from President Trump to Kim Jong Un cancelling their planned Singapore Summit in characteristically forceful terms. The letters range from the deeply private and highly personal, to the grand, public and diplomatic. There are, however, and perhaps understandably, very few from the post telephone or certainly post email era – i.e. your own generation – and it got me wondering if there were any future left for letters. What would be the point in writing a letter these days, popping it in the post and seeing it arrive a couple of days after any email could have done? We have come a long way, it seems, since the time when some letter writers wrote for literary, philosophical and historical purposes. Seneca, the great Roman Stoic statesman, politician, philosopher and writer, wrote a series of letters to his friend Lucilius which he clearly aimed for publication, rather than just a private communication between him and his friend; and thank goodness he did – they give us a marvellous insight into his world and the world around him at the time. Take this excerpt from one of his letters, in which he tells of his visit to the home of the great Roman commander of the past, Scipio Africanus:

“Here I am, staying at the country house which once belonged to Scipio of Africa himself. I am writing after paying my respects to his departed spirit as well as to an altar which I rather think may be the actual tomb of that great soldier… I have seen the house, which is built of squared stone blocks; the walls surrounding the park; and the towers built out on both sides of the house for purposes of defence; the well, concealed among the greenery and outbuildings, with sufficient water to provide for the needs of a whole army; and the tiny little bath, situated after the old fashioned custom in an unlit corner, our ancestors believing that the only place where one could properly have a hot bath was in the dark. It was this which started in my mind reflections that occasioned me a good deal of enjoyment as I compared Scipio’s way of life to our own. In this corner the famous “Terror of Carthage”, to whom Rome owes it that she has only once in her history been captured, used to wash his body weary from work on the farm! For he kept himself fit through toil cultivating his fields by his own labour, as was the regular way in the old days. And this was the ceiling, dingy in the extreme, under which he stood; and this the equally undistinguished paving that carried his weight. Who is there who could bear to have a bath in such surroundings nowadays? We think ourselves poorly off, living like paupers, if the walls are not ablaze with large and costly circular mirrors, if our Alexandrian marbles are not decorated with panels of Numidian marble, if the whole of their surface has not been given a decorative overlay of elaborate patterns having all the variety of fresco murals, unless the ceiling cannot be seen for glass, unless the pools into which we lower our bodies with all the strength drained out of them by lengthy periods in the sweating room are edged with Thasian marble, unless the water pours from silver taps.” Even the bath houses of former slaves, he goes on to explain, are more ornate than Scipio’s.

He writes this to his friend, and there is a moral purpose to his letter – we should live frugally, no matter how esteemed a public figure we are, no matter what riches we could draw upon. We should not be distracted by grandeur in our quest to lead a life of excellence. By publishing this letter more widely, he also tells us a story about what it was like to live in those times – and to some it may feel rather fraudulent to publish a supposedly private letter to a friend. But despite its wider publication, the choice of letter writing as a medium ensures that the reader feels drawn into an intimate relationship between Seneca and Lucilius – it is one of teacher and pupil, mutual respect, an opportunity to learn from one another, and of long-term, mature friendship. It is, in all honesty, a privilege to be allowed into their private world. To be ‘allowed in’ to an email merely involves a click in the cc box. It is far too easy. And even if you choose for that email to be for the eyes of one person only, then there is no guarantee of that either – anything you write on email can be subsequently retrieved; nothing you write on a computer is private. Twitter, of course, takes it a step further and makes that lack of privacy explicit – put something out there and be prepared for judgment. However, letter writing is different, and this is where I hope it still has a place in the world of today. It is explicitly between me and you. Private. Something that is uniquely ours. And it is, and remains, far more powerful for it. You will know this yourself, if you have ever received a handwritten letter or enveloped postcard, dropping on the doormat, addressed solely to you. There is an excitement to it, and an intimacy which simply cannot be replaced by a computer. If you want to share it, you can, but you don’t have to.

There is also a craft to letter writing – a personal note is great (it says ‘I am thinking of you’) but a well-crafted letter is simply a joy. It takes much longer to write than an email, because every word counts; what you write betrays your feelings in a way that no email can – and for that, the power to the recipient is magnified. We will never, of course, go back to letter writing as the main or sole means of written communication – we have quicker ways to communicate – but I hope you will consider it when you want to convey that personal touch just a little more intimately. Today I have three letters to write: one to a young OB who has lost his way; another to an old OB who is lonely; and a third to a parent who has lost their child, an old friend of mine, to cancer. I hope that the muse of letter writing gives me the strength and the wisdom to make a positive difference to them, by touching their lives in some small but personal way.

Head Master’s Assembly: Remembrance

Epidauros, as you probably know, is the site of one of the best preserved Ancient Greek theatres in the world.  Three years ago, when I was in Greece with my family, we had the great fortune to be close to Epidauros at the time of a performance of Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes. Along we went. The play tells the amazing story of the sons of Oedipus. When Oedipus left Thebes, he left the kingship of Thebes to his two children jointly. Polyneices was to rule for one year, then Eteocles, and then Polyneices and so on alternately until one of them died. It was fine for the first year – Polyneices ruled and happily handed over the kingship to his brother at the end of his year in charge; but at the end of the second year, Eteocles, having clearly enjoyed the power, refused to hand it back and sent Polyneices into exile. Polyneices was understandably furious, raised an army and attacked their city of Thebes. Now Thebes had seven gates, and the brothers put their best commanders in charge of attacking and defending each gate for the first six; at the seventh they placed each other, and, with the battle at its height, they came face to face, thrust their swords out and killed each other simultaneously. That was the plot of the play we saw that lovely evening in Greece. However, it is what happened next which I want to talk about briefly. There was a huge row in Thebes as to what to do with the bodies of the brothers. Ultimately, it was decreed that Eteocles, the defender, would be buried with full funeral rites, but that Polyneices, because he had attacked his own home city, would have his body thrown out into the dust outside the city walls for the birds and the beasts to devour. He would have no grave – and the new King Creon declared that he would execute anybody who dared to give Polyneices a proper burial. Antigone, their sister, and engaged to the new King Creon’s son, was so upset that her brother, Polyneices, would not have a proper burial, that she went against the king’s decree and went out to the city walls to bury him herself. She was caught; true to his word, though very reluctantly, King Creon buried alive Antigone, the fiancée of his own son.

Why do I tell you all this gruesome story today? Well, here we are two and a half thousand years later, and a proper burial means as much to us now as it did to the Ancient Greeks then. Leaving aside for now any religious aspects, there is no obvious logical reason for this – the dead are dead – but it is nevertheless a deep-seated reaction for people to want to give their loved ones a proper send-off, a final memory, to have a chance to say goodbye. We see it everywhere, very sadly, today. Amongst the most difficult Government Covid decisions must have been the one to reduce the numbers at funerals, and before that even, to disallow visits to elderly or dying relatives in care homes. It is without doubt heart-breaking for all involved; yet it is only really through the heartbreak of what is going on around us now that we can even begin to understand what the families of the 756 Old Bedfordians who were lost in the two world wars might have gone through – and indeed hundreds of other OB families who similarly lost loved ones in other conflicts around the world. The vast majority of men who died in combat never came home for their families to say goodbye to. Many of them do not have graves at all. The search for bodies after World War 1 went on deep into the 1920s – great search parties called Exhumation Companies scoured battlefields again and again to find them. It seems incredible, but some are still being found – only two years ago, 125 bodies were found entombed in a perfectly preserved German trench system from the First World War – and indeed every single year more are uncovered. More often than not, they cannot be identified.

Today, we remember every single one of them. In a moment, I will continue to read out, alphabetically, names of some of the OBs who died in World War 1, a tradition that goes back about a dozen years; we have still not got through them all. I want you to listen today not just to the names and the ages, old and young, of these fallen men, but to dwell particularly on where they died. None of them were anywhere near home and their loved ones; some of them only have approximate details; some are clustered – the sheer number who died at Ypres, for instance, is genuinely terrifying; and some are in places of which you and indeed their own families may never have heard. All the families got back was a brief telegram of condolence for a lost son, husband, father; we now have the duty, and indeed the privilege, to remember them.

Head Master’s Assembly: World Peace Day

A couple of years ago, I visited Jerusalem for the first time. It is a genuinely extraordinary place, as you might imagine, and I strongly recommend that you put it on your lifetime bucket list of places to spend some time. At its heart is the old walled city, steeped in history which you cannot help but become wound up in. For Christians, it is the place where Jesus spent his final few days – you can walk in the garden where he was betrayed, visit the site of the last supper and his trial, walk the stations of the cross and pray at the very site where Jesus was crucified, now embraced by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Within this small walled city, too, lies the mighty Temple Mount, a site whose religious significance runs so deep that its preservation is almost akin to preserving world stability itself.

Abraham, who is revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews, bound his son Isaac for sacrifice on Temple Mount. King Solomon built the first Jewish Temple on Temple Mount, which is supposed to have contained the Ark of the Covenant, the Ten Commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai. It was destroyed by the Babylonians in the sixth century BC and then rebuilt, only to be destroyed by the Romans in the first century AD. And for Muslims, Mohammed came to Jerusalem and made his ascent to heaven from Temple Mount. These days, it is home two great mosques, the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque, and the rock itself has been run by the Muslim community since the time of the crusades near the start of the second millennium AD. The Islamic community, therefore, worship on the Mount itself; and the Jewish community worship at the Western Wall on the side of the Mount, which is supposed to be the wall of the Second Temple and is otherwise known as the Wailing Wall.

When we went to Jerusalem two years ago, we went through the security checks and past the guards up onto Temple Mount with a guide. It is the most awesome of feelings to be standing on the most extraordinary religious site in the world, a site contested through the ages between the world’s great Abrahamic religions.  As we stood admiring the al-Aqsa mosque and wondering whether we could get closer, a group of security guards ran, with guns raised, towards the entrance to the site.  “Watch this”, said our guide, as a group of about 20 orthodox Jews made their way up onto Temple Mount in bare feet, chatting amongst each other cheerfully, and surrounded by a heavily armed guard. “This happens every day at 11am”, our guide told us, “these men are asserting their rights to the Mount, as a holy Jewish site.  They are allowed to do it, but I can tell you, if they were ever to start praying, there would be World War Three.” He was completely serious – and as we stood on that ground at the heart of several millennia of dispute, rivalry, distrust and destruction, one could believe his words were true. “Such is the thread”, he said, “upon which world peace stands”.

Today is World Peace Day. It is perhaps hard to understand how lucky we are to live in a country of relative safety. During my own lifetime, war has never come to these shores; and I hope sincerely that it never will in your lifetime. Yet, a quick look online will show you that there have been fatalities in 42 different conflicts around the world already this year, and over 100,000 fatalities occurred in conflicts in Afghanistan, Mexico (drug wars), Syria and Yemen alone. These are places which, these days, are not very far away from us – only a few hours on a plane would take you to most. You can also appreciate that the world is far from safe elsewhere, with smaller conflicts in much of Africa, particularly in the Sahel, and larger potential conflicts as the super-powers square up to each other and find opportunities for points scoring.

So this year’s World Peace Day feels particularly important. Its theme is ‘Shaping Peace Together’, and you can see why from the words of Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the UN, who said this exactly 100 days ago:

 “Each year, on 21 September, the United Nations calls on everyone, everywhere, to observe 24 hours of non-violence and ceasefire. Today, it is essential to remember that our common enemy is a virus that causes widespread suffering and risks reversing decades of human progress.

That is why, as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, I called on all warring parties to lay down their weapons. These are not normal times, and our responses cannot be routine. The pandemic is not just a health issue. It is having direct and troubling effects on development, peace and security.
Our global ceasefire appeal is resonating in many places and with many different groups. While distrust can make implementation difficult, I have been heartened by the strong support the appeal has received from civil society, which can influence and mobilize people at the grassroots.”

So what can we do about it?  Well, three things, I would suggest:

  • Do not think that your own actions don’t matter – they do; many small actions will shape the world – the grass roots that Mr Guterres speaks about.
  • Remind ourselves of the luck we have and don’t take it for granted.
  • Finally, spend some time thinking about World Peace Day; remember the innocent in war-torn nations, and seek to help where we can.

Head Master’s Assembly: Battle for the Attention Economy

“At Netflix, we are competing for our customers’ time, so our competitors include Snapchat, YouTube, sleep etc.”

What an extraordinary thought, don’t you think? Sleep is one of their competitors.  Netflix is just like any other business – it desires to grow, to improve market share; part of its mission statement is even to promise its employees huge impact – presumably, it wishes to influence the world and become a global giant. And one of its competitors, which must presumably be beaten, is sleep.

In Friday’s assembly, I held up a little yellow book written by a man called James Williams, called Stand out of our light; freedom and resistance in the attention economy. Williams had been working for another global giant, Google, whose mission statement is “to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. The world’s information – that is a pretty high ambition, and Williams admired it. Yet after a few years, he realised that, despite the fact that he had more technology and access to knowledge in his life than ever before, he was, in fact, finding it harder than ever to do the things he really wanted to do.

Think of your goals in life. For many adults, it might be ‘spend more time with the family’, ‘be a better father’, ‘sail across the Atlantic’; for you, it may be ‘get to grade 8 in the violin’, ‘play for the 1st XV’, ‘become a monitor’, ‘go to Cambridge’.  Technology, if it really is aiming to be useful, should be supporting us achieve these life goals. But what is our actual experience of technology? What we actually find is an endless list of products which are designed purely to catch our attention, measured by number of views, time on their site, number of clicks, total conversions. Their purpose is to hold you in, to pray on your needs and to feed addiction. Their purpose is to grow; to sell advertising; to make money. Why else would Microsoft and Oracle compete to pay huge money for TikTok? And they are winning: how much time do you spend on your phone? Why? Are you checking social media? Are you binge-watching TV series? Are you playing computer games? Are you viewing endless websites that offer ‘top 10 most grotesque animals’ or news articles like ‘Exclusive: James Norton kisses girlfriend Imogen Poots as they enjoy a romantic gondola ride’ or ‘Sue Barker AXED as BBC plan shake up of Question of Sport’ – those last two from the Mail Online yesterday! Well, yes, we are. The Mail has more online readers than any other newspaper. And you can count the clicks on your phone; in fact, it will do it for you and then horrify you with the hours you have been on it that day.

The question Williams asks in his book is: if technology is everywhere, and takes up so much of our lives, then presumably something which we had before is also losing out – something has to make way for technology to be so successful; and that something is our attention. And we need our attention to be in the right place, otherwise we cannot achieve the human goals that we wish to achieve. The most provocative paragraph in an already provocative books reads like this:

“What do you pay when you pay attention? You pay with all the things you could have attended to, but didn’t; all the goals you could have pursued; all the actions you didn’t take; and all the possible ‘you’s you could have been had you attended to those other things. Attention is paid in possible futures foregone. You pay for that extra Game of Thrones episode with the heart to heart talk you could have had with a friend. You pay for that extra hour on social media with the sleep you didn’t get and the fresh feeling you didn’t have the next morning. You pay for giving in to that outrage inducing clickbait about that politician you hate, with the patience and empathy it took from you, and the anger you have at yourself for allowing yourself to take the bait in the first place. 

We pay attention with the lives we might have lived. When we consider the costs in this wider view, the question of attention […] becomes the question of having the freedom to navigate your life in the way you want, across all scales of the human experience.”

So, when you are next online, ask yourself a few questions. Are my goals the same as this company’s goals? (almost certainly not) How is this going to help me achieve the life I wish to lead? Am I, in fact, being led by something which is out of control? Do I want that? Can I regain control? Because the question of where we place your limited attention is critical to the person we end up being; so try to use your attention wisely.

Head Master’s Assembly: The Friendship of Books

So, welcome back to the regular assembly slots. I am sorry we are not together in the Great Hall, but the same message applies – if you would like to take an assembly at any stage this term, please do get in touch and I will give you the floor, so to speak.

Today I am going to talk about reading, one of life’s great pleasures. I always say that if you like reading, you will always have a friend. It keeps you company. However hard it is to find space to do it in today’s world, you must find space, just as you must for friendships. The summer holidays are always a particularly brilliant time and space in which to read. So here are three book recommendations from my own summer holidays, completely different in style and content, which you might like to pick up at some stage. 

Book 1 

Anthony Seldon’s The Fourth Education Revolution. Some books are read because you are particularly interested in a topic – for the Upper Sixth currently, this might involve some reading around their university courses so that you have something to say in your personal statements and any potential interviews. The same choices appear when you are older, and for me that interest is education. For this particular book, I also happen to know the author, which makes it even more personal. However, a good read, too – at once inspiring as challenging and even frightening at stages. Seldon starts by defining the first three educational revolutions – the first as ‘necessary education’, the basic need for survival of homo sapiens thousands, and hundreds of thousands, of years ago; the second as the coming of institutionalised education after the emergence of writing in China, India, Mesopotamia and Egypt and the first places of learning in Mesopotamia and Ancient Greece on either side of the Aegean Sea; the third as the period after the invention of the printing in the 15th Century press brought education to the masses. Seldon sees the development of Artificial Intelligence heralding a revolution on the scale of those previous revolutions, as dramatic in its effect (over time) as that of the printing press. Most of his book describes the potential of Artificial Intelligence as a complete transformer of the way we teach and learn over the next few decades. As I say, at once inspiring, challenging and frightening.

Book 2

Completely different. A novel by an Australian author called Richard Flanagan: The Narrow Road to the Deep North. I had never read any of his books before, but was recommended this by a friend who knew my favourite ever book was A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. She was right. This is written superbly, and in a similar vein – a story, ostensibly, about one man, which ends up encompassing human life in all its glorious spirit and complexity. Flanagan tells the story of Dorrigo Evans, a young Australian doctor in his mid-twenties, who finds himself in charge of 1,000 Australian captives working on the Burma Death Railway during the Second World War. His job is to liaise with the Japanese and to keep as many of his men as he can alive to tell the tale. Like Rohinton Mistry’s book, or for that matter the Iliad, it makes you wonder how the human spirit and yearning for purpose can be so strong. It also tells you of his whole life, both before and after this pivotal episode, which provides perspective and wonder. Like Rohinton Mistry’s book, it will lead me to read every book this author has written.

Book 3 

Again completely different. This time an autobiography entitled Educated, or perhaps memoir given her young age, written by Tara Westover, who grew up in the US, in rural Idaho, as a Mormon, received no formal education at all until the age of 16, and then decided she must get herself away from a traumatic home experience to be educated. On pure willpower, by her mid-twenties, she had a master’s degree and a doctorate from Cambridge and has been a visiting fellow at Harvard. By her late twenties, she wrote this book about her journey. It is a truly amazing one. Because of her book, Westover was chosen by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people of 2019. It opens your eyes to the vastly different experiences we all have; it also opens your eyes up to the power of passion, of education and of perseverance.

So, three books, all very different, all stimulating, all exciting to read, all a great friend over the summer. Do, by all means, have a look at one or more of them. Do also consider taking an assembly, maybe with a friend or two, to recommend some of your own.

Head Master’s Assembly: Perseverance

Good morning boys and welcome back. I hope you have all had a good summer, strange though it undoubtedly has been. It also seems strange to be starting online, no singing (a real shame) and with a whole new set of rules in place for the term ahead. I will talk more about those in a few minutes, but first may I extend a warm welcome to all newcomers to Bedford – I wish you all a very happy time with us – and I start with a message to you all of sorts. You will forgive me for picking on cricket again, I am sure, but it has been great to be able to watch some sport again and the last fortnight has seen one of the great sporting achievements of all time.  Fred Trueman, one of England’s all-time greatest fast bowlers, was asked in 1964 when he reached 300 Test match wickets whether anybody would ever do it again; he replied that he didn’t know, but that if anybody did, they would be extremely tired. Well, Jimmy Anderson now has double that, the first fast bowler ever to reach 600 wickets in Test cricket, at the ripe old age of 38. Very few fast bowlers last that long because it is extremely hard work on the body to bowl at that speed consistently – and Anderson played his first test match in 2003, before most of you were even born. If you like cricket, savour him while you can. But it is not the cricket I am addressing today: it is the human being. What does it take to be that good?

Imagine the resilience. He was dropped from the team endlessly early in his career, and he was all over the press every time it happened; not only are you dropped as an international sportsman, but it is very public; yet still he kept going. He was pilloried in the newspapers over an odd bowling action and an unusual hairstyle; yet still he kept going; he had a stress fracture of the back early in his Test Match career, which is the worst possible injury for fast bowling; yet still he kept going. Indeed, he took six years to cement a place in the England team – and even now, he has to fight for his spot. 

Imagine the perseverance. Fitness levels have to be amongst the best in the world, not just briefly but for 20 years; you can’t just do a few jogs round the park and lie in on rainy days if you don’t feel like it. There are endless runs and early mornings even when it is snowing in winter and a game of cricket is months away, endless gym sessions, even when you are feeling lethargic; endless pushing oneself to the limit, even when you are not sure anything will come of it. The personal sacrifices are amazing, too. A friend of mine who played for Zimbabwe in the 1990s told me that one year he spent 326 nights away from home on international duty – he had a wife and a small child and spent every one of those nights in a hotel with his teammates. 

Imagine the drive and attention to detail: Anderson not only trains harder than anybody else, but seeks advice from others, sifts through endless information, makes his own judgments for his career. Apparently, he watches every wicket to fall in county games around the whole country every evening to pick up tips on how to get batsmen out; he works endlessly with analysts and coaches to improve; he is the cricketing equivalent of a Cambridge professor.

Then there is the importance of his relationship with others and his trust in them. He needs other people’s help – analysts, coaches, fitness trainers, catchers in the slips, teammates on bad days. Much you have to do on your own; but you absolutely can’t do it all on your own; you have to seek out people whom you can trust and stick with them; showing loyalty to the right people over time can make a huge difference. 

Finally, there is also human frailty. Even at the height of his bowling powers, Jimmy Anderson was, and is, a hopeless batsman. He did once score 81 in a Test match against India – but amazingly, this remains his highest score ever in any form of cricket, including school and club games! Some of you, therefore, will have a better batting top score than he does. So there is an awareness of one’s own strength and weaknesses and a humility which goes with it. Jimmy Anderson seems a genuinely humble man, who has done the most amazing things,

You, too, can do that. It is extremely difficult: the year I played first class cricket for Cambridge, I made a New Year’s resolution to go for a run every day until the start of the season. It lasted until 9 January. But even if most of us mortals cannot do what Jimmy did, then we can at least learn from it. Nothing great comes easy. This is not just about cricket; you can see this in other sports (Andy Murray was in the papers again yesterday for another amazing comeback) but also with the best musicians, artists and academics – just look up George Godber OB, the name of our new temporary boarding house, when you get a moment, and you will find a whole career of intellectual curiosity and perseverance. Perseverance, self-sacrifice, attention to detail and the ability to relate to others are cornerstones of this top-end success. It doesn’t sound much fun, in fact – but not only is there definitely some fun along the way, there is also something about a sense of achievement in the long term which is far more satisfying than fun in the short term, so it is worth trying to harness some of those traits. This year, in particular, we may be needing them.

Head Master’s Assembly: Football is Back

Five years ago, I retold a story related by one of my favourite authors a Polish News Reporter called Ryszard Kapuscinski. It was about a series of football matches between Honduras and El Salvador, play-offs for the 1970 World Cup Finals, which led to a war between the two countries. It was a three-match play-off. For the first leg in Honduras, the El Salvadorian players’ hotel was surrounded all night by Honduran fans, throwing stones at windows, setting off firecrackers, hooting horns, all in an attempt to allow the players no sleep at all before the game. Honduras, aided no doubt by their fans’ antics, won 1-0. Back in El Salvador, an 18-year-old girl, witnessing the last-minute winner on TV, found her father’s pistol in a desk drawer and shot herself. Nationalistic fervour went through the roof, and a foreboding scene was set for the second leg. There were similar scenes outside the Honduran hotel this time, and on the day of the game the players were taken to the match in armoured cars. In a heavily armed stadium, and under a burning Honduran flag, El Salvador won their home leg 3-0. Within days, and before the third and final leg could even take place on neutral territory, the El Salvadorian army had invaded Honduras. The War only lasted four days, but in that time over 3,000 soldiers and civilians were killed and 300,000 El Salvadorians who had been living in Honduras found themselves displaced when they were forced to provide for themselves as refugees in their own home country. The economies of both countries collapsed. And, to cap it all, El Salvador, having finally qualified for the World Cup Finals, were knocked out in the first round.

So much for the destructive power of football. The Economist ran with a great counter-story this month about a missed penalty bringing peace to the Ivory Coast in 2005. Having won its last qualifying game, it needed Cameroon to lose or draw against Egypt in order to go through to the 2006 World Cup Finals. Cameroon was awarded a late penalty to win the game, but Pierre Wome hit the post, and Ivory Coast went through. The Economist reports that ‘listening on the radio, the Ivorian players erupted. Then they pleaded for peace in their war-torn country: “We proved today that all Ivorians can co-exist and play together”, said captain Didier Drogba. “We beg you… please lay down your weapons and hold elections”.  The clip was played again and again on Ivorian television and, in the months that followed, the warring parties began talking, and, having agreed to a ceasefire, eventually agreed also to peace.’ This outcome was not surprising, according to a recent study in Chile, which found that people surveyed after their national squad had won were 37% less likely to identify primarily within their ethnic group and 30% more likely to trust other ethnicities. This was not the case after a national defeat. In other words, the national team doing well can bring a country’s diverse people together – something which makes sense: we can see it with our own eyes whenever England does well.

Two individual stories also show the extraordinarily contrasting powers of football. In 1994, Andrew Escobar scored an own goal for Columbia against the USA, which put them out of the World Cup. Five days later, back in his native country, he was shot six times in a car park, the same number of times that the commentator had exclaimed ‘Goal!’ on the television, and died shortly afterwards in hospital of his wounds. And only this week, we were all reminded of the good which football and footballers can do when Marcus Rashford used his high national profile to great effect in persuading the Government to go back on their decision not to provide free school meals over the summer for those desperately in need. To any reasonable person, this had been the wrong decision, and well done to Mr Rashford for taking the stance he did.

Well, whatever we think of it, football is back on our televisions, for better or worse. For all the greed, hypocrisy and unsportsmanlike behaviour, there is also togetherness, charity and uplifted spirits. It matters to people more than any other sport on the planet. I hope that it does itself proud.

Head Master’s E-Bulletin | May 2020

Dear all,

I hope that this correspondence finds you well. 

There is plenty on the academic side of life in this bulletin, so I will just write a few words, if I may, about the non-academic. To say it has been an interesting week at school would be rather an understatement – every week in this last month and a half seems to have thrown up its new and unusual challenges, which seem to become more bizarre by the day! Thank you so much to all those people (about 150 in total) who have spent (so far) over 1,750 hours opening Captain Tom’s birthday cards. We could have filled three or four Great Halls with them all, but what you saw on the front page of the Times on Tuesday was a nice display of as many as we could set out. As you can see from the attached, we sent Tom (via Benjie) a large photo of the Hall – the point of the display had been to show him as many of the cards in one place as we could, and he was happy to receive it (though I think his England cricket cap may have run close in his affections?). The main challenge at school has been social distancing, so we have had separate up and down staircases, and in and out doors; people have opened cards in the Great Hall, in classrooms, in the Dining Hall and the Langham Cricket Pavilion. This is, no doubt, a useful test run for when schools do eventually come back, whenever that might be (a little more below on this). The most memorable cards were sent home to Tom himself; and we uncovered an extra £60,000 in the cards themselves.  The stamps have all been clipped in their thousands from the envelopes by a remote team of Biddenham workers led by Chris Jones and his wife, and latterly by boys and their families in Bedford as well. Mrs Spyropoulos has liaised with charities and both the RNIB and St John’s Hospice in Moggerhanger will benefit from these stamps to raise much needed funds.

Many tributes, physical and visual, have been paid to Captain (now Colonel, of course) Tom. We sent him our own birthday message in the form of a musical tribute, as boys from the school, staff and OBs played the wonderful ‘Wellesley’, the regimental quick march of the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment in which Tom served during the Second World War, moving into Happy Birthday. If you’ve not heard it already, it’s truly special and you can view the film here. Well done to the inimitable Andrew Groom and his team of musicians for putting it together.

Finally, on this front, it has been a truly global story. It was odd to receive a text from one of my brothers in Sydney to say he had just seen us on the television (!); but we have in fact had messages from OBs and current boys all over the world saying exactly the same thing, from New Zealand, through China, into Germany and out to the US. I mention this because I hope that you may also be following our school Thought for the Day. This weekend we have had the first in a short series of ‘postcards’ from around the world. I found it fascinating, and humbling, to listen to our boys overseas in a wide range of locations telling us all what it is like back home, reacting in differing ways to the same issues that we all face together as a planet. It is such an advantage (for all of us) to be part of a boarding school in this day and age, and to benefit from friendships and connections (both amongst the current pupil body and the Old Bedfordian Club) all over the world. If you are reading this from outside the UK, then we are all so excited to hear from you and your boys.

Some of the novelty of remote learning will be wearing off now and I do hope that your boys (and by extension, I suspect, households) are falling into a manageable routine. We realise that this is a challenge for everybody. Do please keep feeding back to us, not just the positive (though your response has been hugely uplifting – thank you!) but also any suggestions you may have for our improvement. We will be asking the boys for feedback again shortly and we will send a more formal ‘survey’ to all parents next week. We will try to respond dynamically to what we learn from you and them (and our own staff, who are also being surveyed again). Thank you to Sam Baldock and his team for the extraordinary hours they are putting in to make the online learning as useful and as effective as they can.

We have had our first meetings about the logistics of re-opening. I ought to stress that nobody knows when this will be, or indeed how it will be managed by the government (though evidence from other countries suggests a phased re-opening is likely, with younger age groups prioritised). I don’t think that anybody is expecting anything before half term – and it may be much later, of course. I have as much/little information as you do. However, it is important to be prepared, and I must say that the logistical complexities are very significant, hence daily planning meetings currently.  It seems that some preliminary statements will be made by the PM next week.

Lastly, the BBC is putting out a documentary on Friday night at 9.00pm on VE Day. There is apparently a likelihood that we will be in it in some form. I have said this sort of thing to people at other times this week and it has never materialised, so please do feel free to take this ‘head up’ with a pinch of salt!

I wish you all well for the week ahead.

With kind regards,




James Hodgson

Little Darling: Magical Memories of Peter Pan

“All children, except one, grow up”, and Michael Darling, now 40, has grown up. He’s always wondered about his early memories of flying through the night sky to a far-away island with pirates, a mischievous fairy and lost boys… Was it all a dream? Could it really have happened?


Date Saturday 4 April
Time 2.30pm
Venue The Quarry Theatre at St Luke’s
Admission £9.00 (£7.00 concessions, £28.00 family ticket)
Age suitability      4+