For once, welcome back seems a rather strange way to start this term – but here we all are, together again, at least in a virtual sense, for the start of term and thank you all for tuning in wherever you are.
It seems rather wonderful to know that this term’s classrooms will, in fact, consist of homes in 28 different countries across the world, including the likes of Cambodia, Oman, Ghana and Egypt, and occasionally at rather uncomfortable hours – so if you are listening now, Ellis, in Bermuda, I am particularly sorry that this will reach you at 4am. This has undoubtedly been a month of firsts. As you know, I happen to be a Catholic, married to a Jew, who has taught in predominantly Anglican schools all of his life; I also happen to have been lucky enough to have travelled a fair bit, for a number of reasons, often cricket related, so Easter has meant a range of different religious experiences in a variety of countries. I have attended some extraordinary services, as I have spoken about before, in the Blue Mountains in Australia, or Mumbai in India, or Barbados in the West Indies (the last of which still probably remains my favourite – an incredible three-hour dawn experience, which started in the dark gathered around a bonfire up on a hill overlooking the sea and ended with an amazing communal open-air breakfast). This year, though, was undoubtedly the oddest experience I have had. I started catholic mass in my home town of Woking, but also popped into Portsmouth Cathedral mid-service and then, rather wonderfully, the Vatican, where I met up with my mother who is shutdown at her home in the Isle of Wight. I could have chosen to visit Ilford or Hove, or indeed somewhere in Scotland or Wales, but there is only so much you can fit into a 9am service. From my Jewish wife, who understandably does not get involved much in these things, I faced the rather surreal experience of being ushered out of the sitting room in the middle of the Creed, and then being asked to feed the dog during the benediction. At one stage, with my iPad on my knee for the blessing, I shifted position, and the priest turned upside down. This was no normal Easter Day. Having finally reached the end of the Woking service, I had a quick look round, as my mother always used to do in person when we were growing up, to test the length of the other services – were there any shorter ones locally, or any particularly long ones to avoid. Well, as she found out all those years ago, any services with an Irish priest were sure to be quick, and the 9am services in Dublin and Ballyshannon had long since ended by the time I had been asked to feed the dog in Woking. However, north of the border, there was a different story: in Omagh, the priest had barely finished communion by the time our dog had finished its breakfast. And finally, praise be, I clicked a link in my email and, in a quick change from left foot to right, got our very own Chaplain speaking to us from who knows where, but in my mind and that of all Bedfordians, from the Chapel pulpit and with a warm glow of home and belonging.
So what is the point in mentioning all this now? Well, there are a few. First of all, as Aristotle tells us: “Man is by nature a social animal” and “Society is something that precedes the individual.” Even in a time when we are all in lockdown, we seek places where others are gathered, be that on social media, via live youtube concerts, or in this case, at Easter Day services. Human beings are not inherently built for lockdown – and indeed the great plagues of the past, in Periclean Athens (for instance) or Shakespeare’s London, found their people unable to lockdown, and yet still be connected, in a way that we can now – and people suffered fearsomely as a consequence. Secondly, in times when one is isolated with one’s own thoughts, the mind inevitably turns to one’s own life and mortality – and as you get older, you realise how much your childhood played in forming that life. Your own connectedness in many ways comes from those early days. It may be that 30 years from now, Bedford School as a living institution still plays a large role in your life; but for most of you, despite regular reminders from the OB office no doubt, it will not.
However, the passions you discover here and the friends you make here and the memories you have from here will undoubtedly form part of your connectedness for the rest of your life.
For me, those Catholic services started before I can even remember and are very much part of who I am today.
For you, it might be the camaraderie of a rugby match, on the field or in the stands, or of the rowing fraternity, or a love of walking in the hills inspired by Duke of Edinburgh, or of nature inspired by Ickwell, or of Theatre inspired by the Quarry, that brings you back to your core person throughout your life. These things will remain part of who you are. And lastly, religion is special. No matter what you think of going to Chapel at school, and I know that some of you believe in its compulsion more than others, it is a very good bet that you will not forget the great hymns you sing weekly, nor that special togetherness when you sing your favourite ones, nor that spine-tingling feeling when “I vow to the my country” is sung at the Great Hall Remembrance service. The thing about religion, any religion in fact, and indeed about the words and tunes of those hymns, is that it transcends one life and speaks of eternity. It also transcends national boundaries and social boundaries. It is open to all, not just to those lucky enough to have the means or situational good luck. It is the ultimate way to connect. So it is hardly surprising that, in a time of isolation, people found the most amazing ways to keep Easter special; and I hope that when you do get back to school, you will all find a way to look at the Chapel, and the other places of your own worship and religions, whatever and wherever they may be, in a new and more appreciative light.
Finally, if you get the chance to log on to the school website in the next day or two, this talk will be online with the rest of them under “latest news” and then “Head Master’s assemblies”. At the bottom, there will be a link to some wonderful photos of services all around the world from the latest online edition of the magazine The Atlantic.
You can see mass being said at huge drive-ins in America, Denmark and Germany; by priests from open-top trucks moving down the streets of Italy, Portugal and Madagascar; or on foot walking the streets of Croatia; or in a church in Brazil with printed photos of the individual parishioners in each pew. It is a colourful reaffirmation of the same word reaching all parts of the globe in the most wonderful of ways. In a very real sense, isolation has, in fact, brought us together, rather than pulled us apart, and I hope that you feel that togetherness in the term ahead.
So some notices for week one of term
Well done to Benjie Ingram-Moore and his family – I am sure you have all seen the stories about Captain Tom Moore’s fundraising for the NHS, which are simply extraordinary. Benjie, his Grandson, has played a key role in all this and has conducted himself brilliantly in the public eye. So very well done to him.
Well done also to an OB, whom many of you will remember. We had a note last week from Professor Leigh at St Anne’s, Oxford, to tell us that Ed Lamb had got a First in his Honour Moderations in Classics and then followed this up with a Blue in the victorious Oxford Lightweight Men’s Rowing VIII. Understandably he described these as “stellar achievements”, but also said that “Ed is just the most remarkable young man and we are blessed to have him with us. Notwithstanding all his achievements as an athlete and a scholar, he is also wonderfully gentle and unassuming. That says something about his family and his teachers”. So well done to the staff, too!
Rather oddly, we have a new staff member this term. Miss Lauren Chatley starts as librarian, and I know we will look forward to welcoming her to the school in due course.
We also have, unusually for this term, a new pupil in the Fourth Form, Jack Liu from Nanjing City in China. I do not normally mention individual joiners, but this term especially I trust that boys in his class in the Fourth Form will give Jack a cheerful and happy welcome to the school.
I end by just reminding you all of your duty for the term ahead.
Like any other term, the way that you conduct yourselves matters. Please show, more than ever before perhaps, good discipline and politeness in class, be kind to one another, and observe the school’s core values every day. I wish you all, every one of you, a happy term ahead.