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I was talking with a colleague the other day about the Beaker People, OK I grant you a tad out of the ordinary but not so much as you might think reader for this correspondent. We were discussing the migration of people and how the intermingling of culture and tradition have evolved the world to where we are today. In the course of this conversation he shared the story of an archaeological discovery of the first trace of “civilisation”. Now you might reasonably let your mind wander in the direction of ruins of buildings, the remains of pots or habitation in some form but no. It was a human thigh bone.

In a primitive world to damage one’s thigh bone meant certain death. The incapacitation attendant on the injury meant that it was impossible to hunt or gather and you were a sitting duck for whatever predator was mooching around looking for lunch. What was significant about the bone was that it exhibited signs of having healed. Someone looked after the injured, fed and watered them until the bone had recovered and they could fend for themselves. The foundation of civilisation exhibited in this story was not of vast buildings, jewels or the detritus of conflict, but the compassion one human being had for another; the better to allow them time to recover from a life-threatening injury.

The 75th celebration of VE Day comes with mixed blessings and emotions. The joy exhibited by the news that the war was over was the collective external manifestation of a spirit that had supported a community and a world sewn together as a patchwork of communities. In the coming days we have much to think about and to be fair even in this time of disquiet we have the opportunity to celebrate and to find joy.

The incapacitation of not being free to move around as once we did offers the opportunity to take one day at a time without the frenetic pace of former routines. There are, as I have mentioned here before, countless acts of selflessness that we experience. The news is full of stories but the quieter ones of hope and shared humanity supporting each other perhaps a little harder to hear sometimes.

Over the course of this past week I have visited Form Time across the school. I have loved the opportunity to speak with and see the children. Collectively we shared a common message. They miss Embley, Embley misses them. Our conversations often reflected the way in which they really felt the value of friendship, the more so because of the distance.

There was no sense of the losing of a friendship, rather the deepening of it because it is now entertained and appreciated remotely. Their appreciation of their teachers was also deeply felt. You never miss the water ‘till the well runs dry. I am not sure it is fair to say that it has taken an event like this to have us value each other, that’s not true. It is the case however that this event has caused us to question how we go forward, what will change and what remain the same?

Following a political upheaval in the early 20th century, WB Yeats wrote Easter 1916. He traces a development from those he:

“….met at the close of day
Coming with vivid faces……..among grey
Eighteenth century houses…”

To a realisation that:

“All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.”

In the coming weeks we are likely to see change. In school we have been planning for the re-opening and how we will look after the children on their return in whatever shape or timeframe that will be. But when it comes, it will come with the sense of a renaissance not felt before.

Globally we have travelled less, the environment has flourished, the waters of Venetian canals run clear and pollutant levels have dropped away. We have been circumspect about what we use and what we throw away. We have been together as families in uncharacteristic dispositions and understood more about how we get along, what preoccupies us and how we learn.

Yeats’ “terrible beauty”, can be read in a variety of ways. In our context, I have to challenge the great man. I prefer the notion that the possibilities opening up for us to craft a future with the same promise as post VE Day Britain felt is terrifically beautiful.

The companionship, solidarity and common purpose we share have brought us together. The impact for good and the recognition of what really matters in the world; the appreciation of those less obvious; the consequence for the environment; the contribution of migrants; the understanding of the plight of the poor and our deepened sense of social responsibility are significant pillars with terrifying responsibility for us all on which to build.

A less terrible and more terrific beauty is born indeed.

Cliff Canning, Headmaster, Embley (@EmbleyHead)  

Source of photograph: Imperial War Museum


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