Friday, 8th December 2017
Last Saturday we launched 'The History of Christ Church Cathedral School, Oxford' in the splendid surroundings of the Upper Library at Christ Church. This in itself was an historic occasion as it is the first time in the School's almost 500 year existence that there has been an attempt to record officially the history of the place. It is a pleasingly elegant volume full of photographs and illustrations recording the major events which have occurred and many fascinating stories about some of the colourful characters who have taught here. In his foreword the Dean describes the narrative as "pacey" and it is indeed a real pleasure to read. What struck me most upon perusal of the book was the way in which history is something so fragile, which can so easily be lost if we are not careful. Of course some institutions are of such significance that it is impossible to imagine that their histories will be lost, for instance Parliament where every debate is carefully recorded. But for most institutions, there is little recording and records are much more easily lost than we might imagine. I am reminded of Shelley's sonnet "Ozymandias" where the statue of a great tyrant, Ozymandias, is found centuries later in the desert, the sand and wind having worn away its features. He writes:
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."
Of course this is primarily a poem about the vanity of human self–importance but it does remind us that it is so easy to lose one's history. In terms of our School, there is indeed much that has disappeared over the years, particularly when the School was primarily a choir being taught in a chamber under the Great Hall and the boys were being lodged in houses around the city, but there is much knowledge about the school since the mid 19th century. It is exciting that the knowledge that we do have, much gleaned by the authors from conversations, will, because of the existence of this book, survive.
It was particularly pleasing to see in one of the display cases in the Upper Library - most unusually as they are virtually never shown - the original statutes of the College drawn up by Wolsey, with his grand seal attached. These statutes specified, as part of the setting up of Cardinal College, Christ Church's predecessor, the provision of a choir and choirmaster - the origin of our School. I would encourage you to visit this exhibition, More than a House for Books, which runs until 23rd February, as much as anything, because the Upper Library is a truly wonderful building in itself. Most importantly, do please buy a copy of the History, obtainable in the front office or through the website. It would make a splendid Christmas gift for anyone associated with the School. Copies will be on sale at the Punch Party. Do also please take a look at the Oxford Mail today in which there is a full page article on the History.
On Tuesday I attended a lovely gathering in the candlelit parish church at Great Milton where the Cathedral choir sang to an appreciative audience of diners enjoying a special dinner put on at Raymond Blanc's Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons, which is next door. As part of their evening the diners break to hear some musical engagement and the choir's regular slot in the church is the most popular of the series. Alongside the selection of Christmas music the well–known wine writer Oz Clarke provided some most entertaining readings. The event was a truly magical occasion which reminded me of what a wonderful season Christmas is in this country. There is something primitive about one's reaction to the warm glow of candlelight, particularly in an old building which houses much of the history of the village in which it stands. We can be very proud as a school that our choir can perform so perfectly and give such pleasure to so many. Hard work has its reward! I hope that many of you will attend some of the services and concerts in the run up to Christmas at which the choir will be performing. For very many people they are a real highlight of the season.
This morning the Prep School had the termly Eucharist service, beautifully put together by our new Chaplain, Mr McCleery. Snow was falling as the boys walked over to the Cathedral and the sharp winter light illuminated the stark walls of the Quad through which they were walking. Inside the building, the colour of the stained glass contrasted magnificently with the pure white of the Sub-Dean's garment as he took the service with his characteristic care and attention to detail. Senior Choir sang a setting of the Sanctus and Benedictus composed for the School by Miss Biddell and it was as memorable a service as I have attended at the School. Our boys are so fortunate in being able to spend Advent and the drawing near of Christmas in such an unrivalled environment. These experiences are ones that will undoubtedly make a lasting impression.