The week that was

An interesting week. Manouche Etcetera played an immensely fun gig at Cafe Tarifa on the Cowley Road, with some very welcome old faces turning up in the crowd. Tom and I also graced the Turl Street Arts Festival with a spot of busking. It was an intimate affair, despite claiming (somewhat ambitiously!) to be Oxford’s biggest arts festival… but good fun, nonetheless, and we earned enough coins for a few beers, plus a potential wedding gig from a passer-by. Tom and I are hatching plans to walk another chunk of the Via Francigena at some point, violin and guitar in hand. More anon.

‘Ivor and I’, my first musical (now substantially re-worked) has excitingly been offered a slot in the 2018 season at London’s Jermyn Street Theatre; not one I know well, but it seems to have an excellent reputation, disproportionate to its (small) size. We’ll need a decent amount of funding, but Tom Attenborough and I are going to put our heads together and see if we can make it work!

‘Journey’s End’ meanwhile gathers pace; with two weeks to go most of the cast are reasonably on top of lines and I’ve spent a lot of time hauling around sandbags and tin helmets. It really is an extraordinarily powerful play. I’ve just read ‘Birdsong’ to get in the mood, too; I’m not convinced it’s the masterpiece everyone says it is – the structure sits oddly and some characters remain frustratingly undeveloped – but an excellent read nonetheless.

Here’s the text of a talk I delivered at school last week on ‘Individualism and Institutions’ (not my idea, but actually very interesting to think about):

We’d all like to think we’re individuals. On a daily basis we express our individuality in various obvious ways; the music we listen to, the way we decorate our bedrooms, our clothes, our haircuts… On a political level we express it in the way we vote in elections, or the newspaper we choose to read, the people we follow on twitter. It’s very hard for us to imagine a world without these basic freedoms, and the right to express our individuality is a fundamental part of living in a liberal, democratic country. On Sunday evening I watched the first episode of SS-GB; it’s a historical drama set in a fictional Nazi-occupied Britain, during WWII, and it presents a terrifying alternative reality, with armed SS guards on every street corner, and the houses of parliament draped in swastikas. There’s no room for individuals in a dictatorship, unless you’re the dictator.

On the other hand, complete freedom is almost as terrifying a prospect. Imagine a world with no rules; no speed limits, no drug laws, no age of consent, no guidelines on what colour trousers to wear to school… That’s an extreme example, but the problem is, individualism isn’t just a matter between you and yourself. Your choices may well have more effect on other people than you realise. In fact, individualism could be perceived as a wholly selfish notion, going against the idea of society as a community which depends upon shared values. Or at least it could be perceived as a great luxury, which is only possible because we have such an absurd amount of choice open to us, not least on the internet. There’s a real danger we end up living in isolated little bubbles of individualism, so obsessed with our own life choices that we forget there are bigger issues at stake.

The problem is, we don’t necessarily always feel qualified to make up our own minds about those bigger issues. It’s one thing choosing which spotify tracks to download or which colour to dye your hair; but it’s rather more difficult to decide what you think about the European Union, or whether euthanasia is acceptable. A key function of the church over the centuries has been to give definite answers to some of these big questions, but in the modern world this moral platform has largely been taken over by a bewildering array of politicians, journalists, bloggers, tweeters and so on. With so many different moral compasses out there, it’s almost impossible to keep your bearings.

So, how then are we meant to find a balance between expressing our individualism and fulfilling our duty as responsible citizens? To some extent, that’s where institutions come in, providing stability and continuity so that we have at least some sort of framework of moral guidance. The Usher spoke in chapel before half-term about how MCS has survived over five centuries of turbulent history. But it didn’t survive by passively accepting its fate: at times members of the MCS community would have had to make very difficult choices. After all, this institution was set up as an all-male, Roman Catholic school with only thirty pupils – it’s clearly made momentous decisions as well as retaining lines of continuity.

For me, that continuity largely comes from a sort of collective individualism. It was very noticeable at house singing how each house has a strong collective identity: there was Maltby, covered in tinsel and lycra; Wilkinson, uniform and efficient, Chavasse, debonair and fun… But even in the eight years I’ve been here those house identities have constantly changed (except Callender’s): the point is, an institution like a school or a House is only ever the sum of its human parts. Which is why we mustn’t take their values for granted: it’s the human relationships at the heart of institutions that make them valuable.

So enjoy the freedom to be yourself, but also enjoy the fact that man is inherently a social animal, and do your bit to keep the rest of the herd happy by exercising your kindness and your conscience. That doesn’t mean spending hours on Twitter ranting about how awful Donald Trump is: it means actually getting away from your computer screen and doing something that makes someone else feel better about life. Remember how fortunate we are to have the luxury of choice: if you lived in a Nazi-occupied Britain, or war-torn Syria, being able to wear flashy chinos probably wouldn’t be your priority. Real choices are the ones faced by the priests and doctors who chose to stay in Damascus to tend to the needy; or the resistance fighters who chose to stand up to the Nazis in occupied territory: that’s the sort of individualism that really makes you stand out.


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