OB Day Sermon (by Andrew Berrow, 2010)

(A PDF version of the sermon is also available for download.)

This sermon was delivered shortly after England’s defeat in the World Cup of 2010.
Having sat for years in the back of the OB service, I’ve always been struck by the same thought as I look at the current Blundellians. Some will be wondering what the connection is between them and the OBs in the chapel. The truth is that the present Blundellians will become the Old Blundellians. Hardly rocket science, I know, but stick with me. They are your future. You will get older. For the OBs, you are their past. I know that this seems impossible to imagine from the perspective of say, Doug in Year 10 who was daydreaming up until about three seconds ago, worrying about how the cricket is going to go this afternoon and what his chances might be with whichever girl he currently fancies. Or David & Andrew who’ve  just this second stopped laughing at Doug’s discomfort and woken up from wondering how they did in the English exam this morning having told me last night that it was impossible to revise for English papers, and could they watch the England match instead? And what a lamentable performance that was. England, not David and Andrew.

That’s one of the points our reading this morning was making – enjoy your youth – it’s all too quickly gone. The irony is, of course,  as the OBs will tell you, that you age from the outside in. But how does the Blundell’s experience chime with Ecclesiastes? The book comes from OT tradition of Wisdom writing, in which the authors, while valuing youth as we heard this morning, value experience more highly, for this is the foundation of wisdom.

The thing is that they, the OBs were exactly the same as you, the current Blundellians. I spent a happy afternoon in the archive looking back through Petergate history and the thing that struck me was how little things have changed in the last century. The punishment book was especially revealing. Boys were caned in those days and looking through the offences it is clear that although the punishments may have changed, the boys are no different. In the Spring Term of 1950 Samuel Dines and David Jacobs were given 3 strokes of the cane each for being in Tiverton without permission on a Sunday. The really worrying thing is – and you’ll be as shocked by this as I was -  that they’d gone to a Milk Bar.

I’m very sorry to have to tell you that, last Saturday night, 60 years later, the offence was repeated. Four Petergate boys went down to Tiverton without permission to watch England attempt to play football. I hope that the masterclass in goalkeeping was worth the gating that ensued.  Well, Samuel went on to become a self-made millionaire and philanthropist while David became the Headmaster of two top schools and indeed used to be our chairman of governors.  He’s perhaps best known for his collective noun for headmasters – it’s a swelling of heads, apparently. Maybe  there’s hope for  the Petergate four yet.

What other offences were there? C Morse, 6 strokes for having a lethal weapon in his possession, probably a rifle and Byrne for having too many live rounds in his possession – last week I confiscated this (a water pistol). Not quite the same league as Byrne and Morse, I grant you, but they were in 1942 and there was a war on. Ted Crowe 1944 – smoking at the Halberton Tea shop – 4 strokes. We still have the odd smoker...  Another boy was disciplined for “Making a noxious smell in the East wing of the house” – no change there – as a half-opened nostril in the vicinity of the Year 10 dorms will tell you. Williamson L was caned for “Impertinent and smutty remarks about the chaplain written in his Divinity book” I’m sure that would never happen today under the present management of the department although Miss Jardine Young’s purge on Planners may seem like history repeating itself.

Boys still frustrated their seniors – G Bennett had to endure 6 strokes for - and you can hear the monitor’s frustration here - “disobedience mounting into a climax of infuriatory superciliousness” Year 10, take note.

There was a house magazine – very popular – Boys sometimes used it to be unkind about each other, in 1936, the editor wrote “Armistead is learning to play the cello.....aren’t animals getting intelligent?” A sort of 1930s facebook wall.
Boys used to have problems with their girlfriends; they still do. Usefully the house magazine had a problem page too. In 1936, “Helpless” of Petergate wrote in,

Dear Dorothy,

Every time my girlfriend kisses me, large quantities of lipstick are deposited on my cheek. What am I to do?

Dorothy replies,

“Don’t lose heart, Helpless, you will find a mixture of toothpaste, vinegar, vim and milk will enable you to overcome your difficulties” -  good advice indeed if slightly painful.

Ecclesiastes warns against the loss of desire in old age – the boys of Petergate agreed. In the questionnaire of 1940 82% agreed with the statement that the Public School System takes too little notice of the question of sex. Quite what the question of sex is, was never stated. Something to do with headaches perhaps.

Pupils still have their eclectic interests; one of the most surreal moments of my housemastership was when I was collared in the Common Room by one of my colleagues. Long experience has taught me that any sentence beginning with the words, “I thought I should let you know, I’ve just seen one of your boys....” -  always end badly. On this occasion however, it ran  “thought I should let you know, I’ve just seen two of your boys....carrying a dead badger across the road. I think that they were headed for Biology to dissect it” The thing was flea ridden, stiff as a board, two days dead and the maggots were just setting up residence. I think it was fair to say that Mr Rhodes was less than impressed. One of my predecessors however, was far more enlightened;  Mr French allowed the boys to keep snakes in a specially constructed snake pit at the bottom of the Petergate patch. This included, and I quote, “ the monster that SH produced in a paper bag.” All was well until the housemaster’s dog fell in. History does not record what happened next.

It is therefore very clear indeed that the house is following the enjoyment of youth we heard encouraged in our reading earlier.

Integral to the enjoyment of youth championed by Ecclesiastes, is a love of sport. Enjoy it while you can. As the writer points out, as you age, “your arms will tremble and your legs grow weak” -  he seems to have a pretty bleak view of getting old. Petergate boys agree, in the 1940 house magazine, one suggested soccer as a game for the least talented athletes who couldn’t do anything else, I’d love to hear a couple of current pupils thrash that one out.... The Petergate questionnaire of the same year, in which, incidentally, 72% voted against compulsory morning baths had 60% voting that the Russell should not be voluntary. And, in 1916, Petergate delivered the most comprehensive thrashing in a house match ever recorded, beating the Day Boys 156 – 0. England watch and learn.....

All of the above would suggest that Petergate boys have made the most of their youth regardless of consequences. This is as true of Blundellians today as it has been in the past.

The second thing that the Philosopher in Ecclesiastes suggests is to gather wisdom. It’s important – it is divine in origin and a valuable guide for life. To be honest, we haven’t always been too hot on that one. The house magazine of 1939 records an incident between Mr Thoseby and a boy called Brown. Mr Thoseby was a long-standing and much respected English master, a sort of Mr Dyke of his day. I quote from the account of the event – “On this occasion, Thoseby had told the class to write a poem on “Autumn”. Brown had copied out Keats’ famous “Ode to Autumn” with one or two minor alterations and passed it off as his own work. The poor idiot thought that the poem was a fairly obscure one which Thoseby wouldn’t know.

Thoseby dealt with him as follows:

“Brown,” he said, addressing him with great deference, “yours is a very good poem indeed. It is a remarkable poem.” Brown started to glow all over. “In fact, I would even go so far as to say, Brown, that it is one of the most brilliant poems I have ever read in the English language.” Brown, blind to what was coming, visibly swelled with pride. “Tell me , Brown, have you ever heard of a poet named Keats?”

Brown, who didn’t happen to know that Keats was the author of the poem he had plagiarised, said he thought he had. “Because this man Keats,” went on Thoseby, “wrote a poem which very much resembles this epic of yours, Brown.” Brown took a somewhat jaundiced view of poetry for some time afterwards, and it was never wise to mention anything about seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness while he was in earshot.

Well, to be fair, Ecclesiastes does warn against overdoing study.

So, what has Petergate produced after all of this conflict between the old and the young? The list is impressive:

  • Two Olympic Gold medallists
  • Two County cricketers, one the Captain of Surrey
  • A founder member of the World famous Amadeus string quartet
  • Two headmasters
  • A famous philanthropist, adventurer and author
  • A Master of Sidney Sussex college, Cambridge
  • The Editor of the FT
  • A Clerk of the House of Commons
  • And my personal favourite, Geoffrey Willans, creator of the immortal Nigel Molesworth.

One wonders what talents are sitting before us today.

This list suggests the boys of Petergate have combined the  wisdom, physical fitness and joie de vivre that the philosopher in Ecclesiastes recommends.

Finally, our writer tells us to have reverence for God for we are not immortal and we will face judgement. One of the philosophers that my Sixth formers study is Peter Vardy. He keeps his own coffin in his study ready for the day that he will need it. It was made for him by his son as a GCSE DT project and, I believe, marked by Mr Pilbeam.  He currently uses it as a coffee table – it reminds him that he is mortal and that he will die. It gives him his sense of perspective.

As he says, what you think will happen after that inevitability has much to do with how you will live your life. Are you with the philosopher, Bertrand Russell on this one? When he was asked what happens after we die, he simply replied “You rot”. Or are you with our writer of Ecclesiastes? Whichever way you go, it will make a profound difference to your life. It is the greatest decision you will make.

So, our lesson from Ecclesiastes exhorts us to do three things,

  • Enjoy your youth
  • Gather wisdom, for it will guide you well
  • Have reverence for God and obey his commands.

Not a bad guide for life in my view.