The habits and characteristics we teach at Tallis are, at face value, obviously good. Imagination changes the world and honesty is proverbially the best policy. But what when they go wandering? What when imagination leads to suspicion or paranoia, or honesty leads to hurt and lingering distrust? It is possible to model nuance, and fine distinction, or just to be glib?Some colleagues and I had a sit-down last week to clear the air. We’d found ourselves singing a bit disharmoniously from a range of hymn sheets and this had led me to an outburst of asperity. We decided honestly to air it all in the hope of moving on united by our commitment to the Tallis cause. The meeting was long but productive and we all felt better afterwards. As the next crisis was already waiting impatiently in the wings stamping its hooves and hissing a bit, it was just as well. We’d mended the roof during a lull in the storm and commended ourselves nicely on our construction and constructiveness.
This little summit came between a formal procedures including an interview for Deputy Head. Unlike the sit-down, both of these come with fancy structures to support, validate and protect correct and complicated decision-making. In both processes, some people are made happier by the outcome and others are made unhappy. It is difficult to get this quite right, so the formalities and conventions help, giving a language wherein honesty may nest.
And at the same time, I’ve been listening to the most extraordinary podcast. It’s about the Trojan Horse affair. For readers in far posterity, this was a letter alleging wrongdoing in Birmingham schools that led to the imposition of the bizarre fabrication known as ‘Fundamental British Values’ upon us all. Who wrote the letter, why, what it meant or whether it was true are still largely unknown. There were inquiries, reports, disbarrings and sackings, but no real statement was ever given – and if the podcasters are right, justice is yet to be served. Yet the application of the controversy to schooling has changed the tone for a generation of schools and school leaders. It would be good to know the truth, that the knock-on wasn’t purely political exploitation. Without it, imagination is left to its own devices to the detriment of our national life, wrecking what we used to call community coherence.
And in the papers and on the ground a thousand and a half miles away, the war rages in Ukraine. Does Putin lack the imagination to see the world as it is now? Or does he imagine it would be better with a Greater Russia, soviet-style but without the soviets? Our children at Tallis have walked for Ukraine so that that they may express despair for the children there.
Closer to home, the story of Child Q and her appalling treatment at the hands of those whom the state pay to protect her. We simultaneously sentimentalise and demonise children in this thoughtless country. Was no one, in school or police station, able to say ‘Honestly, that’s not right. This is a child.’? Are our agents unable to imagine themselves or their own children in that position? Our children at Tallis have stood in solidarity for Child Q so they may express despair for her, and for themselves.
Thomas Tallis survived a dreadful time in English history, of religious wars, summary executions and blood feuds. We know so little about him that imagination must lead to speculation. How did he survive? He probably stayed true to the Roman church and he probably hid it, daily. Does that count as dishonesty? What did he imagine he was doing? Or was survival his only priority? Tallis’s polyphony - different voices making glorious harmony and so on - is a gift to any cheesy assembly-giver. Tallis’s Canon is a lovely exercise in continuity and trust in those who follow after you, also useful for assemblies and other occasions for uplift. His most famous piece, however, takes more unpicking.
When I use a bit of the great man’s 32-part Spem in Alium at the start of the year, I fudge it a bit. The text is from the Apocrypha, the Book of Judith. It is a bloodthirsty tale itself of a heroic widow who charms and then kills the leader of an oppressive army, to save her people. She’s irritated with everyone else’s weakness and reluctance to act and, once the nation is saved, also refuses to marry anyone else. Her words at the root of the timeless music are pretty uncompromising: I will not trust in any other, but only in thee, the God of Israel. This is not a community-building sentiment so I just tell the children it is about trust, sticking to the polyphony and the music of the man as my theme.
I can imagine why this might have been important to Tallis. He probably couldn’t trust many people in the entire course of his life. His faith must have been at once endangering and sustaining. My fear for our young people is that they feel the same, though fewer have his metaphysical support. They see dishonesty in national life and they imagine the worst (which comes true for too many of them). It undermines everything we say about the value of a good life in community if we constantly put them in danger. Who can they trust?
Let’s hope that our Tallis values and Habits are not easily shaken off. Let’s hope that the clarity and free-ing-ness of honesty and its siblings, transparency and trust become habitual. Let’s hope that the energy and renewal of imaginativeness and its siblings, creativity and progress will help us, but especially our children, to become better people.
I’m sorry this is a bit gloomy. The other tales on the website are so happy and interesting that it seems churlish to allow the parlous state of the world to intrude. I do it because I think that the record should show the good ship Tallis sailing through some choppy waters as we search for an understanding of the world and a change for the better. Glad to have you all on board, shipmates old and new.