The first was with a colleague. We’ve been considering de-gendering some staff loos to reduce travel time. This colleague had expressed concern and we had an unsurprisingly frank exchange on Lavatory Habits I Have Known.
The second was with my old friend the political correspondent who is now, can you believe it, in year 13. We stood together to discuss the US presidency when she was a mere stripling in year 9 and were happy to pick it up again. We speculated on the Electoral Colleges – as if either of us knew what we were talking about – and the international coarsening of public discourse. We were foxed by the simultaneous demands of agitated groups to count votes and stop counting votes and agreed that a hallmark of democracy was probably counting all the votes.
I then pottered over to the year 7 zone where some smaller youth were egregiously not learning from previous mistakes. While Head of Year was dealing with it perfectly accurately, it attracted the attention of me and a Deputy Head. Outrage and the summoning of parents were mooted.
Proceeding in an easterly direction to block 5, my ear was assaulted by a shrill and regular dinging sound. I raised an eyebrow at the culprit who’d found a nice magnet and was trying it on the sturdy metal pillars of the canteen verandah. All of them. We agreed that the magnet should be returning to its siblings in block 2 while he, it transpired, was needed elsewhere.
Then I smiled at two colleagues on toilet duty (student loos, you understand, we don’t monitor the staff ones) as I headed through the door. We noted that masks require more eyebrow effort when greeting with a smile. They managed it elegantly and with some subtlety, I look like a goggling lunatic.
Then I found myself alone on a deserted staircase with metal handrails and a confiscated magnet that itched in the palm. I may have done some dinging of my own and I may have experimented with picking up my keys with it when I should have been concentrating on a budgetary matter. It may still be on my desk in a paperclip sculpture of my own devising.
Later still I taught my year 13s and made them chuckle more than once and saw a child pelting across the grass, arms wide as if practising for flight in the same was as my tiny granddaughter does. (Though she may be being a duck, toddlers keep their own counsel on these matters.) It was a good day.
Earlier I’d recorded a Remembrance assembly piece. I looked at images and words, what we see and hear when we look at or listen to Remembrance. Setting the record straight on who fought in the wars of history is easier now: the archive is unfolding its treasures and all of our young people can recognise themselves in the house of remembrance. The words are more difficult: I talked a bit about Binyon’s 1914 For the Fallen, the Kohima Epitaph of 1944 – and Kipling’s 1897 Recessional because all of them are used, all over the place.
You go too far! you cry. Invictus was bad enough but Recessional? Ghastly Empire Stuff. Yes. It is, but as long as the Remembrance people produce flags, car stickers, mugs, hats and so on with ‘Lest We Forget’ on then I’ll carry on trying to explain precisely what it means.
Kipling wrote Recessional in 1887 for Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. It’s a eight-line five-verser with the refrain ‘Lest we forget – lest we forget’. That echoes a bit of Deuteronomy which, in the old version reads, ‘then beware lest thou forget the Lord, which brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.’ So the forgetting which we should be lesting not is not the dead, but the hand of God. Here endeth.
You’d be forgiven for assuming that this may not be exactly where the thoughts of youth may tend on Wednesday. Maybe so, but the sentiment of lest we forget is about the fragile foothold each generation has in history. That empire, those wars were huge, terrible, brutal and costly – but they passed away. No one is alive who read Kipling’s poem in the Spectator in 1897, no-one who fought in the Great War, barely anyone who survived Kohima. Did any of it matter?
We are rightly obsessed with our own terrible times – the virus, furloughs, lockdowns and the US election. Our grasp on the present feels so weak that we might cling to alleged certainties of the past. But as Kipling said - "Lo, all our pomp of yesterday is one with Nineveh and Tyre." What will remain of us? Looking into the future, what have we got?
No previous generation has ever tried educating so many young people for so long. We’d better hope that it will help them to understand the world and change it for the better. It will be through them that our best hopes survive. Love, I hope, and goodness. Fairness, honesty, respect, optimism and kindness. Inquisitiveness, discipline, collaboration, persistence, and imagination. No matter what else we lose in the current battles, surely these must never pass away? Lest we forget.