In recent weeks, I have found myself thinking about the shared occasions we usually enjoy within school and I already know that, when we are able to be together again, I am going to appreciate those seemingly simple occasions even more than normal. At St John’s on St George’s Day, under normal circumstances, we gather in Chapel and sing Jerusalem – it is always an emotional and stirring event. What makes it so powerful is that there is an incredible sense of connection to each other, to the School and to the history of the School when we sing in that atmospheric setting. Although we were not able to share that moment on St George’s Day this year, I am certain that the deep-rooted sense of connection we have at St John’s is helping us all to cope better with the strange ‘new normal’ of life in lockdown.
This week, in recognition of the 75th anniversary of VE Day, we were expecting a long weekend of celebrations and remembrance as we collectively marked the significance of 8 May 1945. Looking at photos of that day, I am struck by the vivid sense of celebration conveyed in images of crowds dancing in central London, holding street parties across the country and spontaneously coming together to share the moment. Covid-19 has dramatically changed how we, as a nation, will mark this anniversary but flexibility and resilience were essential in 1945 and are just as important today. Across the country, bunting is going up in front gardens, flags will be flying and we will observe a two-minute silence. The Queen will speak on Friday evening, in an echo of the speech her father, George VI, made at the same time on VE Day, and we are all encouraged to join in a doorstep rendition of Dame Vera Lynn’s We’ll Meet Again. Just a few weeks ago, the idea of a doorstep sing-along would have seemed distinctly odd but as we have joined together (at a safe distance) to clap and cheer for the NHS every Thursday evening, it now seems a fitting way to mark the moment collectively. The singing might not be up to the standard of our usual St John’s musical performances, but those of us who live on the School site will give it our best shot!
Our connections with each other – both our personal connections and our general feeling of connectedness to other humans – are being highlighted by the fact that we are temporarily physically separated from each other. The creativity people are displaying to overcome the physical separation and bring joy, laughter and shared experiences into daily life is fantastic to see. Beyond the fun of virtual quizzes and coffee mornings, neighbourhood groups are forming to care for each other in ways that have not happened on such a scale for decades. Accounts of the home front in WWII describe how communities worked together and, in the groups who are now shopping for the vulnerable, chatting to individuals self-isolating alone and looking out for neighbours, we are seeing a resurgence of that community-minded spirit; our enforced physical separation has actually made us less isolated from one another.
In 1945, when Churchill delivered a speech to thousands of people, he spoke the following words about the commitment of the people who had stood fast through six years of war:
When shall the reputation and faith of this generation of English men and women fail? I say that in the long years to come not only will the people of this island but of the world, wherever the bird of freedom chirps in human hearts, look back to what we’ve done and they will say ‘do not despair, do not yield to violence and tyranny, march straightforward and die if need be – unconquered’.
The fact that we are marking this day in 2020 shows that Churchill’s foresight was correct: many decades on, we still recognise the importance of the freedom preserved by the sacrifices made in WWII. For the vast majority of us in the UK, our freedom is something that we are usually fortunate enough to take for granted and it is only in the past few weeks that we have found ourselves thinking about what freedom really means. While it is true that some of the tangible freedoms of daily life are curtailed temporarily, the fundamental freedom for which the Allies fought remain.
At the local level of our school, it is interesting to note that St John’s remained open throughout WWII. Much as current circumstances have required our community to illustrate adaptability, the same was true during the war years. In the 1940s, St John’s was a boys’ school but, for the duration of the war, the boys were joined by 150 girls from St Martin’s In The Field School who had been forced to leave their London premises. This was described as a ‘discrete invasion’ in our school magazine, The Johnian! I’ve no doubt that VE Day was marked at St John’s in 1945 but the details of those celebrations were not recorded. However, anecdotes have reached us over the years including one that recounts that the School flag was flown in celebration until the flagpole fell on one pupil’s head, resulting in an urgent trip to hospital. Fortunately, he recovered swiftly, went on to be School Captain, subsequently taught at St John’s for many years and still returns to the Old Johnian events we hold on an annual basis. Although there will be very few of us on site this week, we will fly the flag to mark VE Day, hopefully without mishap.
In my Speech Day address last year, I talked about the comfort I take from knowing that our school has endured while witnessing the best and worst of times over many decades; there is something deeply reassuring in the sense of permanence imparted by our long history. As we navigate through these current challenges, we can gain confidence from knowing that, over the generations, members of our school have come through the most testing of times to stand together and celebrate again. I am sure that this time will be no different.