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Head Master’s Final Assembly

Good morning boys, and welcome to final assembly. Before I start today, just a few words to you all to say well done. What we have been though together this term has been quite inspiring, and will become part of your life that you will never forget. For some of you, some of those memories will be very painful; for others, they will simply be very strange; but for all of us, they will be, I hope, unique and will, in some intangible way, tie us together forever, whatever happens to you later in life. For most of my generation and older, it is endlessly amazing how your past catches up with you – you constantly bump into people later in life that you started out next to. Sometimes, you will not have seen them for years, but end up making friends where they had never originally existed, on the back of shared experiences. Therefore, do try to remember this strange period of life. Remember the unusual rules, the hand gel in tents on Burnaby Road, the temperature testing as you leave the boarding house, the one way systems, the year group zones, the term with no rugby matches, Chapel services over Teams. Remember the new language you have encountered (who said languages were difficult?), words and phrases which are likely to slip back into the mist of time. Words like covidiot, zoombombing, moonshot, furlough, herd immunity, bubbles, pods and super-spreaders. But also remember the shared spirit, the camaraderie and the continual acts of kindness. We have some way to go with this virus, I am afraid, but we have seen the very best of humanity, as well as some of the awful sides. 

So, as I start out on a list of achievements for the term, and there remain many, I also say well done to the whole school for the way you have responded to this period. I am sorry that you have all had to spend at least some time online, but the spirit, good humour, sense of collegiality and collective responsibility has been special – and you have been terrific.

We start with something I have missed almost more than anything: some music… Not live this time, but news…; and then I am going to bookend this assembly with some hope – and the care you have all shown for the world around you.

We have taught 450 individual music lessons a week this term.

Music Exam Distinctions

The following boys got distinctions in the latest ABRSM practical music examinations: well done to them.

They are:

  • Gideon (Yin Chak) Chan (Fifth Form, Talbots) Double Bass Grade 6
  • Jason (Liurongjie) He (Fourth Form, Philpotts) Piano Grade 4
  • Michael Lee (Upper Sixth, Burnaby) Piano Grade 8

Hospice Project

Very well done to the boys who have been involved in the St John’s Moggerhangar Hospice Project.  Lower Sixth boys have been writing poems and making artwork for the staff there who are looking after people with life-limiting conditions. On receipt of these, Hayley Webb, the Community Fundraising Manager for St John’s Hospice, said she was thrilled by the boys’ kindness.

Personally, I have been delighted by the actions so many of you have taken to help improve the lives of others in so many little, and some big, ways. Well done to you. And further to this initiative, we are hoping we can expand this creative project next term and include local care homes too. 

Mrs Millington said, “It has been a real pleasure working with the boys on this project, and I have been blown away by their creativity. I felt immensely proud handing over their work to the hospice and it has been lovely to see the boys contributing to the wider community in such a positive way.”

Sport

Rugby

Heavy restrictions this term did not dampen the enthusiasm and commitment of the boys on the rugby field this year. Quite the opposite, they embraced new challenges and opportunities to improve skill level, game understanding and decision-making. The opportunity to play some competitive matches on Saturdays was well received and incredibly well attended, even though they were internal matches without any contact. Ready4Rugby was the game adopted for the Intra School Saturday League, as designed by the RFU to accommodate the necessary restrictions. The matches were fiercely competitive and, aside from the odd overzealous touch, always played within the spirit of the game. The boys also did well to adapt to the referees’ varying understanding and application of the rules! The year group who deserves particular praise is the Upper Sixth Form, who, with no ‘proper rugby’ in sight, could have quite easily and perhaps understandably sulked their way through their final year of rugby. They did not, they rolled their sleeves up, got stuck in and made the most of every opportunity they had; true Bedford School spirit. Well done all of you!

The coaching staff should also be commended for the way they had to adapt and deliver an atypical looking rugby programme. They did so quite beautifully, providing the boys with opportunities to enjoy their rugby experience, make good progress and compete. There have been many constructive reflections on this season, which will undoubtedly lead to the emergence of a new look rugby programme that harnesses the many positives gained from training and playing with restrictions.  Roll on autumn term 2021! 
 
Major Sports Colours for Rugby are awarded to:

  • Sam Dicks
  • Henry Warren 

Rugby Honours Caps are awarded to:

  • Tom Allen
  • Ben Barnes
  • Will Ramply
  • Alex Christey
  • Harry Constantine
  • Lewis Butterly
  • Gurkaran Johal  

Rowing

The boys involved in the Boat Club were immensely pleased to get back on the water after many hours of land training at home during lockdown. There has been a good group turning up to all the sessions available, including the 7.00am sculling ones, led by this year’s Captains of Boats, Harvey Toms and William Garner. The competition has taken the form of rowing/running biathlons, and one-on-one racing in the singles, both of which have been fiercely contested. Nine of the senior boys’ group this year have started the GB trials process, and we wish them well in the coming months as selection evolves. With a bit of luck, the spring term should see rowing taking a step closer to normality, as competitions resume, and we welcome the other age groups to the Boathouse. 

Hockey

The indoor hockey programme has continued to grow this term and over 70 boys across all year groups have taken part in the training sessions. Their attitude during the sessions has never wavered, especially as competitions were cancelled so early into the term. This term’s preparation will give the teams a competitive edge at the East Regional Championships, 2021. 

Cricket – would you believe!

Due to fantastic weather throughout much of the autumn term, we have been able to deliver a cricket programme for all years prior to half term, which helped to make up for the lack of school cricket in the summer term and also ‘blow away the cobwebs’ for many keen cricketers who do not play county cricket. Mr Brett, with the support of Old Bedfordian James Kettlebrough, has done an excellent job with the 1st XI squad, as they have not only managed to work on their technical skills outdoors, but have also been developing their one-day tactical skills on Thursday evenings.  

Fives

A surreal term for Fives, with no external fixtures. However, with the weather favourable, every session featured full courts this autumn, with regular singles and doubles tournaments within year group bubbles and with merits awarded to the winners. Year groups were safely ensconced in their designated courts playing carefully by the Rugby Fives Association’s rulebook and, as we look to the new term, we will face the official year group cups, new noticeboards, and new safety barriers. 

Minor Sports Colours for Fives are awarded to:

  •  Will Cliffe
  • Hugh Halsey

Golf  

The golf simulator has been a timely and welcome addition; it has meant that the boys in the golf squad have been able to continue their development despite course closures. Golf has also begun to reach the wider school, too, as many boys have enjoyed taking up lessons with our two professionals, Holly and Sam. 

We have only managed to play one competitive fixture, at Luffenham Heath against Uppingham in the HMC Foursomes. We won convincingly; Lawrence Jefferys and Jack Peters won 9 and 7, Alex Robins and Freddie Tucker won 8 and 6, leaving Fin Cummings & Louis Densham’s match a dead rubber and called in after 13 holes with the match all square – though they are adamant that victory would have been theirs!

Shooting

Bubbled year groups and strict cleaning protocols on the range have allowed shooting to continue in the face of COVID, and the school was able to compete in the postal BSSRA Leagues. The Autumn League of five 10-bull targets was shot by Blake Ayling, Will Garner, James Hine, Dan Lumley-Wood, James Lumley-Wood and Jamie Norris.

Our novice shooters also had an opportunity to compete in the new Tyro competition. Our entrants of Jack AldridgeWill Reddy and James Sumner shot five 5-bull targets over the term, and the prize for this competition will be awarded to the most improved shot. This term was also the introduction of shooting as a sports option for the Sixth Form and, amid all this activity, there was just enough time for Mr McCleary and Mr Lumley-Wood to shoot three 10-bull cards for the BSSRA Staff competition. The results for all of these competitions have yet to be published. Thank you to Mr McCleery and Mrs Lumley-Wood for all their help in keeping things going in very trying times. Thanks to the Lumley-Wood family, who have largely resurrected the Shooting club single-handedly, it having had a successful history as a Bedford School sport.

 Athletic Development and Wellbeing

With more than 2,500 individual visits to strength and conditioning sessions over the term, it is fair to say the commitment shown from all has been admirable. The boys have been exposed to a multitude of training stimuli focusing on strength, speed and power whilst learning the underpinning values and concepts of science-based long term athletic development. After a successful term, we are sure all the boys will continue to strive to better themselves as they continue their fitness and wellbeing journey. 

Creative Arts

Drama 

 It has been a busy term for the drama department, despite no major school productions! 

Our academic Drama Society has continued to flourish. Dylan Swain is our president and has helped coordinate the great variety of talks we have had this term. The Society started with a fascinating academic series of lectures by OBs. Logan Jones, Ethan Chappell-Mason and Jonathan Hosking all discussed their theatre journeys that started at Bedford School and gave advice on drama school auditions and university courses. In late September, Professor Paul Allain from the University of Kent lectured on the Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki, once dubbed the ‘Japanese Grotowski’. Paul Allain is Professor of Theatre and Performance and Dean of the Graduate School at the University of Kent. He is predominantly a specialist in Polish theatre but has also worked on actor training as both theorist and practitioner, including most recently making 66 films for Drama Online. Tadashi Suzuki is most recognized for his rigorous actor training approach, the Suzuki method, which has been adopted worldwide. In his illustrated lecture, Professor Allain introduced Suzuki’s life and works and discussed his training methods, as well as presenting Suzuki’s extraordinary achievements in creating specially-designed theatre spaces and performance communities in rural Japan. 

Later throughout the term, we were fortunate to gain an insight into the world of film. Our drama students Sami Hundal and Max Pearson gave an excellent lecture on how they wrote and performed a film during the summer 2020 lockdown. They took the audience through how they rehearsed in different locations, and the difficulty of then finding an editor to stitch the scenes together. Mrs Keylock commended both students on their creative tenacity for undertaking such a challenging project in such unusual circumstances.

At the final drama society meeting of term, OB Jonno Davis spoke about his theatre and film career. The boys were happy to hear his advice on drama schools, the film industry and the audition process, with a particular focus on his recent role on the Amazon Prime show Hunters with Al Pacino.

Our President quoted, “This has been a resounding success as a term for the Drama Society. A subject that is so reliant on physical presence and face-to-face contact has overcome the odds and delivered some outstanding talks, broadening the boys’ further education prospects and giving the boys, myself included, great insight into the more academic side of theatre studies.”

Boycott Theatre Company has been meeting and workshopping a newly commissioned play entitled Choices. This original play tackles issues of teenage mental health and teenage issues, and the boys will continue to rehearse in the spring term before their performance to the rest of the year group one lunchtime.  

The Upper School Technical Club have worked on different shows and continue to support the department, and we wish to thank all these boys for their hard work and commitment. Anybody interested in joining the Technical Club can apply to join in January. 

Our drama scholars all performed some selected stories by OB Saki, commemorating 150 years. All performances were filmed and screened live by The Quarry theatre. 

The Matchmaker, told by Josh Cooke
When Clovis Sangrail’s mother starts interfering in Clovis’s social life, he determines the only way to distract her is be find her a new husband…

The Quest, told by Rowan Bascetta-Pollitt 
Mrs Momeby has lost her baby Erik and enlists the help of her houseguests to find him. 

The Un-Rest Cure, told by Will Roberts 
“You’ve heard of rest-cures for people who’ve broken down under stress of too much worry and strenuous living; well, you’re suffering from overmuch repose and placidity, and you need the opposite kind of treatment.”

Filboid Studge, told by Louis Cooke 
Mark Spayley is in love. But before he can marry his beloved Leonore, he must come up with an advertising campaign for her father’s much unloved breakfast cereal brand. His solution is unusual, to say the least…

Information from The Quarry Theatre

To commemorate the 150th birthday of Old Bedfordian writer Saki (H H Munro), The Quarry Theatre, supported by Bedford School Trust, commissioned a few regular performers at The Quarry Theatre to record some of his best-known and best-loved short stories during the first lockdown. Our professional performers were joined by some of the Bedford School drama scholars as a celebration of this wonderfully savage and witty writer.

 Saki’s influence is evident in the writing of PG Wodehouse, Noel Coward and GK Chesterton among others.

We will be publishing these readings in the run up to the 150th anniversary of his birth on 18 December this year. We hope you enjoy them!

Art

This term the regular Architecture and Art Societies have been continuing remotely on Monday and Friday lunchtimes respectively. The priority with the Architecture Society has been to mix practical drawing sessions with talks; with three boys applying to UCL this year, the drawing component is crucial, with the drawing task they set always a daunting and slightly intimidating hurdle – this usually consists of a set of 30-minute drawings in response to a specific theme. In effect, this has to be passed to get an interview! So, boys have been challenged to do 20- to 30-minute drawings of a variety of buildings, views from where they are sitting followed by a group criticism looking at photos of the work on the Microsoft Teams chat. Hopefully, this has been fun as well as useful. In late September Jacques Bell (OB), who has just completed his architecture degree at Bartlett (UCL), gave an excellent and insightful talk about his application, interview and time on the degree course. For those boys applying to UCL this year, this was a very helpful talk. It has been good to see the Lower Sixth boys so keen to participate in talks this term. Charlie McCutcheon (Lower Sixth) gave a talk about ‘To what extent is architecture a display of art?’ which included Stonehenge, La Sagrada Familia and the Burj Khalifa and how the art world has influenced modern and historic architecture. Chris Sporton (Lower Sixth) talked about ‘The growth of modern tropical architecture in the face of global warming’, explaining the techniques used in modern tropical architecture, and how it can be implemented into western architecture with the challenges of climate change.

For the Art Society meetings, talks have been the main focus. Alex Edun and Henry Cudjoe (Lower Sixth) gave an excellent talk about their exciting project YBK Customs, which involves customising shoes. They talked passionately about their website and Instagram page, and explained how they started up, showing examples of shoes they have painted. Rhian John, International Officer from Norwich University of the Arts, gave a thought-provoking talk about careers in the arts and what options are out there. The objective was to remind boys that art can be more than just painting, printing and sculpture as important as they are. After leaving Bedford School, Charlie Campbell-Gray went on to study Fine Art at both the Royal Drawing School and the Glasgow School of Art. He later decided to pursue a career in the commercial art world after interning for a couple of London based art dealers; he now works at Christies, which, as you may know, is an international auction house that specialises in selling the finest works of art available to the market. Charlie specialises in Modern British Art, and he is responsible for the research and analysis of the works offered in this area. These include artists such as Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Lucien Freud, to name a few.

This term we have hosted the ARTiculation internal heat and, from the initial 13 entries, Harvey Toms, Andy Wong and Sami Shameem, all Upper Sixth, were selected for the final. Mr Finch was our adjudicator, with Sami Shameem’s authoritative and articulate presentation on Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks being selected to go through to represent the school at the regional heat next term.

Our only Gilbert Lloyd lecture for this term was given remotely by William Feaver who talked about the painter Lucian Freud. William was the art critic for the Observer and is a painter, curator and author who knew Freud for 30 years and has just published his second volume about Freud’s life, The Lives of Lucian Freud: FAME 1968-2011, which has received rave reviews. The lecture provided a fascinating insight into Freud’s extraordinary life and provided plenty of material for the essays the Lower Sixth were asked to do afterwards.

Academic

Philosothon

Well done to the boys who all took part in Bedford School’s first philosothon. The philosothon is a competition where students from across the country compete in philosophical inquiries of three stimuli.

The three stimuli picked were: 

  1. If a tree falls in a forest and there is no one there to hear, does it make a sound? 
  2. Is it ever morally permissible to harvest organs from clones? 
  3. Should mandatory vaccination be necessary or does this clash with ideas of liberty and freedom prevalent in the modern world?

The debates were lively and entertaining, with particularly good arguments brought forward by both sides. Special notice goes to Krish Nair who is not actually taking philosophy but still offered a unique perspective and was instrumental in the debate.

Congratulations to:

From the Lower Sixth:

  • Daniel Bello
  • Sami Haroon  
  • Nathanael Hylton
  • Krish Nair 
  • Deimis Sukys

From the Upper Sixth:

  • Felix Lange
  • Jakob Schmitt-Habersack
  • Henry Tyrer   

Duke of Edinburgh

Many boys have continued to participate in the Duke of Edinburgh this term, and it has been impressive to see the range and variety of activities that boys are taking part in and how they have adapted to the restrictions to keep their activities going. A Bronze Assessed Expedition and a Silver Expedition took place before and during half term in the local area, and it was great to see boys out walking using their navigation skills. Hopefully, more expeditions will be able to take place in the coming months.

CCF

COVID-19 has had a major impact on the CCF this term. The normal model of NCO-led cadet training has had to give way in the face of year group bubbles, and the contingent has been effectively halved as it has been impossible to train with the girls from Bedford Girls’ School.

However, what has not changed has been the initiative, resilience and determination of the cadets. Whilst they have been unable to lead others, our NCOs have worked hard on virtual training and planning for next term. All external events and competitions have been cancelled or postponed, but our Wednesday afternoon training has continued and attendance has been excellent. The Fifth Form have pushed on with their NCO training, and many cadets have managed to shoot on the range – a particular bonus for some of the NCOs as they rarely get the chance to show off their marksmanship.

Despite a delay to starting recruit training, interest in the Corps has been at a record high, and we have even managed to issue our new recruits with their uniform in a Covid-secure way.

This term has been a radical departure from the usual, and it has been a pleasure to see how both Cadets and Officers have adapted and innovated to meet the unprecedented challenge.

House Point Net Merits

RankHouseAverage per Boy
6thBromham7.77
5thCrescent11.19
4thPaulo Pontine11.44
3rdSt Cuthbert's11.45
2ndSt Peter's11.80
1stAshburnham12.15

Cups

Group 4 Project (IB)

The winning project was ‘The dangers of scuba diving’ and the contributors were Ethan Ofusu, Marcus Gurney, Deimis Sukys, Nathan Sankersingh and Orlando Williams.

House Rugby Results

 U14 (Fourth Form):

1stSt Cuthbert's
2nd Crescent
3rdBromham
4thPaulo Pontine
5thAshburnham
6thSt Peter's

U15 (Remove Form):

1stPaulo Pontine
2nd Ashburnham
3rdSt Peter's
4thCrescent
5thSt Cuthbert's
6thBromham

U18 (Sixth Form – split year groups, as Upper Sixth did not have enough boys):

1stBromham
2nd Paulo Pontine
3rdSt Peter's
4thSt Cuthbert's
5thAshburnham and Crescent

HM Commendations (for outstanding individual pieces of work)

Well done to the following boys:

Oscar Whitcombe (Lower Sixth) for firstly winning the Arkwright Scholarship, and then subsequently going on to encourage Fifth Form pupils to apply for an Arkwright Scholarship, with an engaging presentation on Loom.

Dylan Swain (Lower Sixth) for his fantastic contribution to the extracurricular Drama and Classics Society this half term:

  • Dylan hosted a discussion for the Classical Society as a follow up for Lockdown Film Club; a fantastic consideration of the movie. Well researched and very well presented!
  • Dylan took a fascinating lecture on theatre and religion. He spoke eloquently on the inter-relationship between theatre and religion, covering Hinduism, Medieval theatre and shadow puppet theatre from the Middle East. Dylan took challenging questions for over 30 minutes and commanded the topic with intellectual curiosity and endeavour. This has been one of the best lectures this year!

David Hamel-Henn (Lower Sixth) for being so pro-active in approach to his volunteering. His ‘can do’ attitude made the most of a difficult situation on the last Wednesday afternoon of term. He productively completed the guided reading with his Y4 pupils over Teams. He came into school to pick up his reading book and went to the trouble to write a detailed report as to the progress of the pupils in his group. Well done, David!

Antonio Reale, Alfie Wilcocks and Sam Dicks (all Upper Sixth) have all given commendation worthy presentations this term, the first two boys for classics: an absolutely brilliant presentation made for the Classical Society debate on Ancient versus Modern Poetry! Well-researched and exceedingly well argued. And Sam for chemistry: Sam gave an outstanding and detail presentation on the chemistry and history of azo dyes. The presentation showed an excellent understanding of the chemistry behind the synthesis and the reasons for the colours of the dyes.

Fundraising

Despite the challenges faced this year, the Upper Sixth Mo Bros managed to make this year’s Movember campaign a real success. In a year when charities are facing difficulties in fundraising, we were delighted to be able to raise our highest ever total – £25,171 – which meant that we were top school and fourth highest team in the UK! As ever, as well as raising money for an excellent cause, Movember is about raising awareness of men’s health and working together to make a positive difference. The Mo Bros adapted to the situation by teaching all the Remove and Fifth form boys on Microsoft Teams, and also did remote assemblies in the Prep School and at Castle Newnham School. Tutor groups in younger years set their own challenges and the Fifth Form played a very successful game of Aussie rules football. The Movember video was shared far and wide, including by Movember UK who prefaced it with “The absolute legends of Bedford School have done it again..”. We have been really proud of the way that the boys have worked so well together and have made a real difference to men’s health this year. 

Other charities supported to the tune of around £3,000 this term include: The Level Trust, providing devices for local schools; St John’s Hospice; the Bobby Moore Foundation; Bedford Foodbank and Friends for Refugees. The Charities Committee, with representatives from each year group, have worked hard this term and Miss Spyropoulos would like to thank all of them, as well as the Movember team. 

Penultimately…

No new monitors or scarves for this term – I am going to give that a little more time at the start of next term.

Finally…

On behalf of you all, I know we would all like to say a massive thank-you to the staff. They are always amazing, of course, but never more so than this term. The teaching staff have had to cope very quickly with learning so many new ways of doing things: teaching online now seems almost old hat, but the individual and collective effort to get there was extraordinary; and the sharing of good practice and determination to get better every day has been equally inspiring. They have also had to adapt, like everybody else, to new places to work, new rules, extra duties and few opportunities to meet in person. The support staff have been equally inspirational, getting the whole school up and running for September in a COVID-safe way; and then keeping us all on track all term. All of these people have worked all hours in among an onsite community of 1,500 against the backdrop of a quickly spreadable virus. Remarkable all. Please do give them a round of applause at home; and don’t forget, as you are not here to say it personally this term, that a quick thank-you email or card goes a long way.

On that note, it simply leaves me to say Happy Christmas and New Year to you all; I do hope that all families find some peace, rest and happiness in the coming weeks.

 

James Hodgson
Head Master

Spitfire Solo

June 2000, and for 80-year-old Peter Walker, ex-Battle of Britain pilot, an unexpected new challenge is about to begin. 

As he re-lives past glories, losses, wartime experiences, family memories and the heady days of blue skies and battles, he searches for the answer to the biggest question so far!

Personal, charming, funny and inventive, Spitfire Solo blends theatre, music and film. Former RSC and West End actor Nicholas Collett plays a multitude of characters and recreates the Battle of Britain – on stage!

The Details

Date Sunday 13 December
Time 2.30pm (doors open 2.00pm)
Venue The Quarry Theatre at St Luke’s 
Admission £12.50 
Tickets quarrytheatre.org.uk
Age suitability 13yrs+

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas will be a fun-filled evening of Christmas Jazz, hosted by a trio led by vocalist James Hudson, fresh from his sell-out 2019 Christmas show at Pizza Express Jazz Club, Soho. It also features trumpeter Tom Syson and pianist Joe Hill. 

The Details

Date Saturday 12 December
Time 19:30hrs (doors open 19:00hrs)
Venue The Quarry Theatre at St Luke’s
Admission £15.00
Tickets quarrytheatre.org.uk
Age suitability 13yrs+

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.