Today I wish to consider an event, Remembrance Day, and our Junior production – Great Expectations. Both the performative ‘rituals’ of Remembrance Day, and the performance of Great Expectations, ask something of us. They ask us to use our imaginations as we consider the characteristics and qualities we need to survive, indeed even thrive, in uncertain times.
This weekend, and on Monday, we will remember. We will remember them, reading the engraved names of the fallen, but I hope we will also use our imaginations to remember that history is there to be learnt from and not repeated. As we look around the world today, remembrance is even more valuable, even more powerful, and even more timely than usual. We can see the sort of suffering that war inflicts both on civilians and combatants. We hear stories about humanity that are shocking and depressing and dark. But our Chaplain has just reminded us about how our own steps should be towards a greater understanding, towards a more active engagement, as we work to create a world that is kinder, more charitable.
On Remembrance Day, the eleventh day of the eleventh month at the eleventh hour, we think back to the First World War. Both my grandfathers fought in that war, in the Battle of the Somme, and both survived – otherwise I would not be here – but many of their friends did not. My grandmother lost two fiancés in that war. Neither of my grandfathers could talk on what they have seen for years and years and years. Eventually they started talking in the last few years of their lives. I can still remember one of my grandfathers saying to me: ‘the hardest thing was watching horses drown in mud.’ Now, this is an image you see in your imagination – the death of an innocent animal amidst the death and the suffering that war brings. It is an image that doesn’t glorify war: it reminds us of the opposite, of the unglamorous, brutal nature of it all. I want to remind you of your duty as a citizen-in-the-making to engage with these issues. When you use your imagination, when you use your mind, you go beyond the ‘trappings’ of a war. We need to think about how we can find better ways as new generations think about these matters.
Can I congratulate all of you who were involved in Great Expectations. It was a fantastic production of a very important text. The standard was incredibly high, and it was exhilarating, enjoyable and impressive. It was also a reminder of Charles Dickens. I’m glad there is a Dickens resurgence just in time for Christmas – Dickens of course wrote A Christmas Carol. But I know you are already thinking about your Christmas lists and you’re busily inscribing the names of some Dickens novels on that list because you look forward to sitting down with a good hefty novel over Christmas. I’ll be with you in that!
Dickens was an odd figure. Extraordinary, he was forced to leave school at the age of 12 after his father was declared bankrupt – in those days if you were made bankrupt you would be sent to prison. The family relocated to a prison in London named Marschalsea. And this, of course, scarred Dickens. After such an interruption to his schooling, how did he become one of the world’s geniuses? Well, the written language. He had a power to him, an eccentricity and energy. He was full of a restless creativity. He invented new forms of writing; his career came at a time where mass literacy was on the rise. This was pragmatic rather than driven by charity – workers who could read instructions would be more productive – but this growing literacy meant that individuals could also read what Dickens wrote. Dickens wrote episodically, in monthly or even weekly instalments. He had to balance each episode with knowing where the story was going – if the character was unpopular, he might kill the character off; if the novel was going well, he’d extend it. When he wrote, people listened.
For instance, when the life of a character, or even one of his works came to an end, crowds in New York waited dockside for the latest episode of the magazine carrying Dicken’s text. His writing gripped people’s imaginations while he also campaigned for social justice. Great Expectations itself is about the insidious influence of money. As well as being hugely entertaining, as well as capturing our imaginations, it has all sorts of lessons to teach us as well. The real lesson of Dickens’ Great Expectations is that great expectations are not to be based on material wealth. They should be based on character, on one’s qualities. There is a saying, which you possibly know, that money is the root of all evil, but that’s not quite the full saying. The full saying is that the desire for money is the root of all evil. We have the Latin phrase: radix malorum est cupiditas.
In the end, as we consider Remembrance Day or Great Expectations we are reminded of what matters. And in the end what matters is who we are and how we are, how we act with one another: in times of peace, in times of war, in times of struggle, in times of tranquility. We are reminded to use our imaginations to think, and then act, well.