Headmaster's Newsletter Thursday 7 May 2020
Tomorrow, Friday 8 May, we will have the Early May Bank Holiday to coincide with Victory in Europe – or VE – Day. This will mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. Lots of public events had been planned to give thanks to all those who contributed to the war effort, especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice, to ensure we all enjoy the freedom we have today. Obviously, in the current situation, those events cannot go ahead; and the use of the word ‘freedom’ might jar when the liberties we usually enjoy in our day-to-day lives have been curtailed. Though of course it is worth noting that the reduction in our freedom is relatively short-lived, it is not absolute, and it is for the health and wellbeing of others – so they, too, have the chance to enjoy their liberty when this is all over.
It is tempting to make parallels between the war effort and our current situation: a national pulling together in the face of adversity. It has rightly been pointed out that these are often false parallels, and there is a great difference between warplanes and viruses. But, as I mentioned at the start of term, one thing they do have in common in our context is that they are both momentous and incredibly trying world events, which NCS boys are witnessing and through which the school has to navigate, just as it has navigated events for six and a half centuries. This wider context was noted by the school’s head of English, E.C. Fry, in 1939. He wrote a wonderful reflection on the war, and the school’s place within it, just before he was called up to serve as a Captain in the Royal Artillery. Called ‘The NCS Front’ it is a remarkably eloquent summary of the situation he and his contemporaries were facing, and it is one I would like to share with you now:
The very earth so patriotically shoveled into sandbags in September, to shield the windows of the air-raid shelter in Mansfield College, was originally piled there to strengthen the Royalist lines round the city during the Civil War. It may once have stood the shock of a cavalry charge by Cromwell’s Ironsides. Now the same soil might have to serve as a protection against a very different kind of raid, but in her time Oxford has endured many sieges, and she is ready to endure many more. New College was founded in the middle of a war with France that lasted for a hundred years: no wonder that it is not disturbed when the Government says that it is prepared for the present conflict to last for three. This School has lived on through six centuries of intermittent fighting. Old Boys of ours have served in battles from Agincourt to Ypres. The Wykehamist Foundations have seen too much of History to get excited about headlines an inch high.
Perhaps this atmosphere of ordered tradition helps to explain why NCS has taken all this unpleasantness on the Continent so very calmly. Other schools may have been hastily transplanted to the Outer Hebrides or Land’s End: NCS is still firmly anchored to its normal moorings in Savile Road. The Choir of St Paul’s has been transplanted 200 miles to the West of Cornwall: syrens or no syrens, the Choir of New College is still at its post singing daily Evensong without fail. Other Seats of Learning may have been commandeered by the Ministry for Co-ordinating the Correlation of Co-operation or the Women’s Auxiliary Earthquake Service, but at this establishment it is still “Business as usual.” Here in Oxford every other educational institution seems to be playing a confused game of General Post, in which College A moves into College B, and College B moves into College C, and College C moves into College A, and everybody congratulates themselves on the efficiency of democratic organization. Everywhere far-sighted officials are busily converting Schools and Colleges into Hospitals and Offices, and Hospitals and Offices into Schools and Colleges. Meanwhile, uncommandeered, unevacuated, uncamouflaged, unbarraged, unsandbagged, unhonoured and unsung, New College School pursues the even tenor of its way.
Of course we have had our troubles. If Germany had not invaded Poland, there would have been no black-out, and then Chapel would still be at 6.15, and then the Choir could still get plenty of football, and then we might win a few matches. Such is the grim chain of Cause and Effect in History. Perhaps if Adolf Hitler were still a harmless house-painter, Mr Hall would still be with us, and so we should all feel very much happier. But on the whole we have, like the rival High Commands on the West Front, nothing whatever to report. It is a case of All Quiet On This Front Too. If we were to issue our own War Communique it would read something like this:-
“Our numbers are still at full strength. Our general routine is exactly the same as usual. We have had one or two air-raid drills, the Day Boys come to School with their gasmasks, and the Boarders have to black the house out every evening, but these are the only signs you would notice that there is any important difference between last term and this one. We shall be carrying on straight with work, games, and Choir duties, and with all other regular activities.”
That is all. Nothing dramatic, nothing sensational, nothing heroic. We in this minute sector of a very safe area of the Home Front cannot do very much towards winning the War. But all we can do is go on functioning smoothly and steadily as a School, which, after all, is what we are designed to be. War or no war, somebody has got to go on teaching, and somebody has got to go on learning. In his first message to the public early in September, the Prime Minister said, “Whatever happens, the work of the nation must go on.” It may not be a pleasing thought in Form IIIb, but that stern command applies not only to factories, mines, farms and dockyards, it even applies to Mental Arithmetic and Latin Grammar.
Of course, in 1939 E.C. Fry could not yet know that the war would go on for double the amount of time that had been predicted; nor could he know just how large the sacrifice would be. There are, of course, some big differences between then and now. Evensong now has to be a webcast because daily services in person cannot go on; a lot of our boys are not on site and are utilising technology to keep learning in a way that Fry almost certainly could not have imagined. But we are still a school and Fry’s reflections are useful to us now. I like his calm reliance on ‘ordered tradition’, about keeping our heads and not getting ‘excited about headlines’, about going on ‘functioning smoothly and steadily’. That is all we can do, while being deeply thankful for those heroes who have fought – and are still fighting – for our lives, our health, our livelihoods, and our freedoms. We can’t commemorate VE Day together in person, but we can all raise a glass at 3pm tomorrow: ‘To those who gave so much, we thank you’.
We would like to put together a video montage of members of the NCS community giving the above VE Day thanks. If your son would like to be involved, please send a video to Jemma.Kilkenny@newcollegeschool.org by 16.00 on Tuesday 12 May, with your son simply saying to camera ‘To those who gave so much, we thank you’. Please also note in your email that you give permission for the video to be used on the NCS website and on NCS social media.