Nuns and divination
Friday, November 20, 2015 by Richard Biggs
One of the most exciting aspects of my job is that we get to look after some very interesting visitors. Several years ago we had the Vice-President of Deutsche Bank, Ciao Koch-Weser, staying with us in our guest suite on the top floor of the Headmaster’s House. He came down in the morning with a wistful look on his face. “Ah…cold showers. It reminds me of my school days”. General mortification and a swift phone call to the school plumber.
I suppose last week’s visitors might not even have noticed if the water was cold. Two Anglican Franciscan nuns, Sisters Beverly and Chris, spent a few days in our community. They drive a “mobile monastery” – but eschewed its spartan interior in favour of Headmagisterial luxury overnight. Rightly so. Home is an estate in Leicester. The school took to them and we enjoyed their visit very much indeed. I don’t think I could be a nun though.
Half term was enormous fun and gratifyingly relaxing. The much-anticipated visit to absinthe factories was postponed (back injury in my host’s family), but the resultant week of unplanned leisure was much appreciated. I flew out to see my father after his operation at the end of the holiday and am pleased to report that all is well. It was quite fun staying on my own in the old family home in Cape Town, just yards from the sea. Given the current exchange rate (20 SA rand to the pound) you will not be surprised to learn that I made precisely zero meals for myself. Why cook when you can enjoy fabulous seafood for a few pounds? I was once again struck by the warm-heartedness of Capetonians and the sheer beauty of the city. Dad has an old, very noisy Vespa which I adopted for my stay. If you haven’t negotiated Chapman’s Peak Drive on an ancient scooter you haven’t lived.
The school, who had managed splendidly without me for a week, then did equally splendidly without me for a few more days as I went to a dinner and meetings in London. The dinner was for Heads and Chairmen in the Mercer’s Hall in London. Glorious place and very interesting company. I sat next to the Hon Timothy Palmer who, as well as being the Chairman of St Paul’s Girls’ School, is an expert on dung beetles. He had pursued avidly them in South Africa and Kenya. We got to talking about water divining, then divining generally. I asked him what he made of it, as a scientist (because it’s always troubled me). He told an extraordinary story of an incident involving George Adamson (of lion fame) and his brother Terence, which the Hon Timothy had seen first-hand. A lioness had gone missing on the game reserve and no amount of searching, or indeed the temptation of a dead and rotting camel carcase, could find the animal. Terence, having grown weary of the stench of the dead camel, asked for a map, a brass pointer and a small pendulum. He traced over the map with the pointer, swung the pendulum to and fro and eventually said – here is your lioness. They went straight to the spot indicated on the map – about 25 miles away – and there was the animal. All the boreholes on my family’s farm in the Karoo were located by water diviners, my own grandfather among them. Perhaps that is a question one of our own pupils might be able to answer one day – it works, there must be a scientific explanation, but what is it?
In the weekly chapel service yesterday we remembered those who died in Paris last Friday. Maria Duckham, who has close family living in Paris, spoke movingly of how we should respond, in particular by taking care to look after and love each other. My own feeling is that our best response is to change our lives as little as possible. We should all buy tickets to Paris and support the cafes and bistros this weekend. If we go around fearing for our safety we’ll never go anywhere. London is as likely to be hit next as Paris is.
Last night the Chaplain and I went to a meeting of local churches and community organisations to offer support for any Syrian refugees who might be taken into the Taunton community. So far the council has committed to taking in a shamefully small number. We said that King’s would help as appropriate – not least by offering friendship, a venue for language lessons if needed, a place to relax, advice and so on. I hope the Taunton local authority shows a little more ambition and compassion once it knows that there is plenty of support ready and waiting in the community.
Last Saturday I spoke to the scholars at Sherborne Prep. I’ve been there before to speak about apartheid and to give a maths masterclass. This time I thought I’d branch out: nuclear physics. Well, all I had to do was to know more than the children. So I put together a powerpoint presentation, basically blagging my way through and remembering vague details from a very distant science degree, only to be told by the deputy when I got there (himself a scientist) that one of the Sherborne parents was an engineer in the nuclear industry and might be coming along. To my enormous relief said parent failed to arrive and I more or less held it together under the barrage of questions from a group of highly intelligent boys and girls. I think I got away with it.