Friday, 25th November 2016
Yesterday I witnessed a truly extraordinary occasion. I attended the Churchill Songs at Harrow. The singing of songs at Harrow goes back quite a while but the ceremony achieved a particular importance and poignancy in the dark years of the Second World War, when the then Prime Minister and Old Harrovian, Sir Winston Churchill, went back to his old school to gain a sense of hope and encouragement from the singing of the songs that he had grown to love. From that time onwards, the occasion has been known, in his honour, as the Churchill Songs. The songs, if looked at dispassionately (not a way in which I tend to look at very much), are a collection of slightly jingoistic Edwardian verses praising an impressive school and reflecting upon some of its characteristics, some of which do not necessarily now apply to the place. The sentiments expressed err on the side of being straightforward and are, perhaps, dated. For instance, a verse from one song, “Stet Fortuna Domus” reads as follows:
“Nor less we praise in sterner days
The leader of our nation,
And CHURCHILL’S name shall win acclaim
From each new generation.
While in this fight to guard the right
Our country you defend, Sir.
Here grim and gay we mean to stay,
And stick it to the end, Sir.”
Last night the songs were sung with a commitment which was impressive, supported by school orchestra and thunderous organ. Though the volume was considerable, the most touching element of the experience was the lack of any sense of self-consciousness on the parts of the adolescents singing. There was no cynicism or clever sneering and it seemed to me that the occasion was a splendid celebration of a school and of the service that it has given to its nation. Furthermore, the experience of singing together as a school, with great commitment and energy, is something which cannot be sniffed at.
The reason why I was invited to attend was made plain during the course of the third song, entitled “Five Hundred Faces”, which focusses upon the experience of a young boy arriving in his first term at Harrow. It goes:
“Five hundred faces, and all so strange!
Life in front of me - home behind.
I felt like a waif before the wind
Tossed on an ocean of shock and change.”
As the term progresses the young boy manages to cope with the difficulties and by the end of term he finds that childhood has passed and he has entered fully the world beyond, somewhere he is now pleased to be. At the beginning of the song a spotlight picked out the treble who was to perform the only solo of this great occasion - a momentous event for the first year selected to perform. This year it was the turn of a former chorister of ours, Nicky, who won a music scholarship to Harrow. He sang beautifully, without a hiccup of any kind, and drew tumultuous applause from the audience of pupils, teachers, Headmaster, governors, guests and members of the Churchill family. Afterwards so many people commented upon the quality and confidence of his performance. I feel very pleased indeed that we have played our part in the maintenance of a great tradition so closely associated with a time when the country was in such peril. It is, of course, one of the primary purposes of a preparatory school to prepare our boys for the great schools to which they will go when they leave us and it is a source of great pride to me that such a small school can make a great impact.
Today is Black Friday. From my point of view, working in a school where we have had a Eucharist in the Cathedral, a Christingle Service, and a Form Three and Four play, the day seems anything other than dark! In fact, I have just returned from the Christingle celebrations and was completely captivated by its reminder that Advent is, in its anticipation of Christ’s coming, a season of light. Mind you, I suspect to many of those people beating each other up in order to secure a bargain food mixer, deep in the bowels of some vast department store, this notion is very far from their minds. But you never know - above all things, Christmas is a season of surprises. Who would have looked for the arrival of the Messiah in a stable? Perhaps from the midst of the longest queue in the deepest recesses of Debenhams on the busiest shopping day of the year, someone will gain enlightenment!