Headmaster's Blog Archive

Interesting times

Tuesday, July 19, 2016 by Richard Biggs

The day before I left for Kenya, in the penultimate week of term, and also the day before the referendum, I gave a sermon in Chapel. I said to the school:

“There is an old Jewish curse which goes something like this: may you live in interesting times. In which case, we are certainly cursed, because we certainly live in interesting times.

Or perhaps blessed. It depends on your point of view.”

Kate Rippin, our registrar, and I flew off to Kenya very early on Thursday morning. We stayed in the Fairview Hotel in Nairobi that night and woke to a scene worthy of a Graham Greene novel. Little huddles of English boarding school delegates twittering as the news of the Brexit vote came through – “we can’t believe it”. And then of course the Prime Minister resigned and the huddles re-formed and the twittering continued, all the way to Gilgil.

The weekend at Pembroke House School in the Rift Valley was as splendid as ever. Better, even, because it didn’t pour with rain this time. We met up with our lovely Kenyan families and were introduced to others who hope to send their children to King’s. The warmth of the welcome from the school and the people was overwhelming. We then headed back to the Fairview (if you’re in Nairobi stay at the Fairview…one of my two favourite hotels in the world) and a visit to Nairobi prep schools, a last bit of shopping and then a late night flight back home. And when we landed at Heathrow a quick scramble for 3G and the extraordinary news … England had been beaten by Iceland. Honestly… you take a four-day trip to Africa and the world falls apart.

This is not a political column (or not very…) so I’ll not dwell on recent events. During the excitement of the last few weeks I have constantly been reminded of one of my favourite poems – one that was posted on the loo door at our family’s farm in the Karoo, so I know it well – Desiderata:

Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence….

And then

And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should…

One benefit of the fall in the pound following the referendum was that I was able to say to Kenyan parents “We’re suddenly much less expensive!” Every cloud and all that.

A point I made to the school in my sermon (and remember this was before the vote) was that they should recognise and appreciate the importance of these times, that, far from history being dead (as claimed by the historian Francis Fukuyama in 1992) it was very much alive and they were a part of it. Relish the moment, mark it well, you will tell your grandchildren about these days in decades to come.

The trip to Kenya might have been more conveniently timed, and not just for political reasons. Our return early on Tuesday made for an interesting final week of term. I was thrown back into the usual melee of concerts and drama (both intended and not), leaving events, speeches, services, reports, parties and meetings that characterise this exciting and climactic time of year. It all passed in a whirl, all successfully, all huge fun and memorable. The junior play, Alice, was brilliant – the sort of whacky, surreal production we are coming to expect from Miss Agg-Manning’s dramatic stable. The various concerts were of the usual high standard. The sports extravaganza on the Thursday afternoon in aid of the new Sports Hub was as colourful and as well-supported as we had hoped it would be. Special mention must go to Ben Atal, who became only the fifth pupil ever to complete the King’s 5km Swimming Challenge: 50 lengths each of the four strokes, non-stop. He received a congratulatory Mars Bar in assembly the next day. Mention should also be made of OA Garth Pedler, a great supporter of King’s, who swam a prodigious distance and then fainted when he got out of the pool. Undeterred, he went on to scale our climbing wall, adding his bit to the total needed to ascend Ben Nevis. In a tight-fitting lycra outfit. Memorable.

Parents’ Day was as poignant and dramatic as ever, made doubly so for us because we had a son leaving. David Boddy spoke very well at Prize Giving, talking about lessons learnt in his own career in journalism, politics and as a Headmaster. The Leavers' Service had us all in tears, especially when the U6th leavers walked down the aisle at the end and out through the West Door and into their new lives as OAs. As I shook each one by the hand, what made me proudest was that they felt the moment – they recognised the magnitude of the occasion. They are a great bunch and they will make a success of whatever life throws at them.

The weather was kind to us that day and we held a lovely lunch in a marquee in our garden, which was looking spectacular. One of those lazy, chatty lunches with friends – all 50 or so of them – which could easily have gone on into the evening. Parents picnicked around the school site, the leavers and pretenders played each other in a hard-fought cricket match. Then we dragged ourselves back in the evening for the Leavers’ Ball, this year punctuated very successfully by a fabulous fireworks display.

The late return from Kenya meant that my report-writing had not followed its usual efficient schedule and much remained to be done once the music stopped. But by Wednesday morning of the “holidays” I had written the last one and we packed the car, loaded the dogs and scuttled off to North Cornwall for a very welcome three-day break in our cottage. The drawback of owning a successful holiday-let cottage is that you have to take your pleasures when you can…and we had a brief window. Highlight was a barbecue on Marsland Mouth Beach, only reached by foot (about half an hour of foot) and utterly magical when you get there. And afternoon tea in the Rectory Farm Tearooms, right next to Morwenstow Church, which is definitely the best teashop in the world (and close to the Bush Inn, definitely one of the best two pubs in the world…).

One wonderful bit of news which filtered through to the wilds of Cornwall that week was that our U15 cricket XI had beaten Solihull School in the finals of the national cricket knockout competition. Well done to them! It’s not bad, really: we have won two national competitions in the past term – the girls’ U18 independent schools football cup and the U15 cricket. And Matthew Thorne won a national history essay competition – the Vellacott Prize, run by Peterhouse College, Cambridge. Smug and satisfied, mois? Never.

Also while in Cornwall I paid my annual visit to the Chindits Camp on Exmoor. The take-up for this week-long event has sadly declined over the past few years. Times were when every Third Former saw it as the highlight of the year, we are now down to a few dozen pupils. I’m not sure why that is, and we’ll be doing some research at the start of next term, but what I do know is that the pupils who go come back elated…tired, but elated. It’s a tough-ish week, but it is clearly life-changing for some of them. My son Oliver came back positively glowing with health and cheerfulness; he looked fitter than ever and there was a distinct spring in his step. I’ll push the camp even harder next year; it seems a pity that more of our Third Form aren’t taking up this very special opportunity.

Since then, we’ve pottered happily. Henry is off to find himself in Europe: momentary panics over lost passport, final fatherly advice, motherly requests that he promises to keep in touch. The rump of the Biggs family is heading off to…of all places at this time…Nice, hopefully the safest place in France right now. We’ll stay with my old school friend, David, who sells rare wines for a living (and absinthe and very rare books; he’s an interesting bloke) in Grasse, overlooking the coast and Cap d’Antibes. It should be fun.

So I’m off to pack my swimming trunks and sun cream.

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