Oxford Town Hall has played host to Nelson Mandela, David Bowie and the Rolling Stones. Built in 1897, it is a grand example of late Victorian civic opulence and, arguably, it provides a sense of assured certainty in a world that is all too often frustratingly uncertain.
On Tuesday morning, I contributed to a session discussing aspects of the boarding sector’s response to the unfolding crisis in Ukraine. Opening that particular session was a young Ukrainian lady by the name of Valentina Butenko. At the age of just nineteen, she has spent much of the past two months in Kyiv helping source medical supplies. Her numerous media appearances have served to highlight the desperate need for a more coordinated humanitarian response from the West.
I would suggest that the speech that she delivered in Oxford Town Hall constitutes one of the great political speeches of modern times. Her rhetorical brilliance was underpinned by an urgency and courage that both inspired and stunned a packed hall of headteachers more than twice her age. She spoke about the importance of freedom and why it is that she and so many other Ukrainians are prepared to put that above the sanctity of their own lives. She suggested that the desire to appease and equivocate in the face of aggression and brutality amounts to a failure of liberal democracy. She opined that many in the West had been lulled into a false sense of security and that this has served to embolden authoritarian regimes with little regard for human lives or the right to self-determine.
It is the case that we often seem to lose ourselves in self-indulgent flights of fancy. I found it difficult not to contrast Valentina’s extraordinary bravery with the news that Cambridge University’s Centre for Teaching and Learning have put a trigger warning on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book ‘Little House on the Prairie’. Of course, it is important to give consideration to the challenging cultural context of the books that we read, but is it really necessary to flag up the fact that a series of novels written between 1870-1894 contain negative stereotypes that might cause distress?
Surely we can work that out for ourselves. Are we so fragile that everything now needs a trigger warning in case it distresses us? It strikes me that whilst we suffer paroxysms over every perceived slight or challenging nuance in works of historical fiction, we blind ourselves to the threats that face us today. What must those suffering real deadly assaults on their freedom make of our endless omphaloskepsis?
Are we imploding into a censorious, apologetic guilt-ridden society that qualifies everything and stands for nothing of consequence? Is our desire to always sympathise with the other point of view at odds with our moral duty to be decent people and stand up for what is intrinsically right? Some situations do call for binary judgements – not everything is relative. Indeed the notion that nothing is absolute might be pleasing from a philosophical perspective but is cruelly fatuous in the real world.
Standing up for the oppressed and working towards creating a society that is truly inclusive takes courage and commitment. It seems unlikely that a better world will emerge from a preoccupation with cancelling people or ideas that we find unsettling. There really are times when we need to bring a halt to our introspection and act.
Tom Rogerson, Head of Cottesmore, recently drove to the Ukrainian border to deliver supplies purchased with funds raised by his school community. He took with him a hundred ukuleles and made music the focus of his trip. At times he questioned the true value of what he was doing but he concluded that he needed to ‘do something’. As Tom put it; there are times when we need to show children the importance of, ‘doing a thing’. Valentina Butenko is a remarkable young lady and her courage should inspire us to do all that we can to help those whose very right to life is being threatened.
Little changed – the village primary school that my great grandfather attended in the 1880s.
By way of contrast, I slipped away from the conference for an hour or so in order to visit the delightful and rather somnolent village of Little Milton. Not to be confused with the American Blues singer ‘Little Milton’, the village is set in gentle countryside to the west of the Chilterns. It is a pastoral idyll, a timeless village set in a bucolic landscape that will seem very familiar to fans of Clarkson’s Farm.
I pottered up to Wells Farm, where a group of elderly men were scything a wild meadow. It struck me that the traditional methods that they were employing on the land would have been familiar to generations of Quartermains who lived in the village and worked on the fields as agricultural labourers.
Indeed, Quartermains have lived in this corner of Oxfordshire since the late 1100s or perhaps even earlier. I wandered to the Churchyard where an elderly man in his nineties engaged me in conversation as he tended to the grave of his recently departed wife. The letters on many of the headstones had been weathered to a point where they were illegible but there is some comfort to be had in contemplating the passage of time. A sense of place is much more comforting than monuments that will themselves eventually pass to dust. .
I was totally at peace in a place which felt strangely familiar. It is good to allow ourselves moments such as this and it suddenly struck me how rarely I get the opportunity to just step off the relentless treadmill of daily life. Soon, I was speeding up the M40 and my sojourn in Little Milton was over. As I listened to the Hanson brothers tell Fearne Cotton their recipe for a happy life, I felt wonderfully buoyant.
Attending Evensong in Christ Church College that evening, I was delighted that the service started five minutes later than expected. The observance of ‘Oxford Time’ which is five minutes behind Greenwich Mean Time might seem anachronistic or even pretentious. However, stepping back into a gentler paced world is the perfect antidote to the stresses and strains of modern life. Perhaps the observance of ‘Oxford’ time is a gentle reminder that we should all slow down and be a little kinder to ourselves.
Headmaster of Rossall School