On Lent, love and life

This is the text of the sermon I preached on 14 February 2018 (Ash Wednesday) in the Chapel of King’s College London.

Sermon for Ash Wednesday 2018

Isaiah 58:1-12; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Roses are red, ashes are black… No, it’s never going to catch on. Let me try again: Roses are red, Violets are blue, Lent is beginning, No chocolate for you… What a day on which to give up chocolate! St Valentine will be turning in his martyr’s grave, wherever it is. (His remains are scattered between Rome, Madrid, Dublin and Glasgow, to name just a few of his resting places.) The day defined by chocolate, flowers and passion-filled indulgence is completely at odds, it seems, with the day when many Christians commit to abstaining from at least some of the things they really enjoy. It’s as if we’re coming face to face today with a culture clash: indulgence v. self-denial, love v. sorrow, passion v. penitence, life v. death.

It’s not the first time St Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday have coincided. The last time was in 1945, just over six months before the end of the Second World War. But 14 February 1945 was more about ash than it was about love, at least in Dresden: the night before – the night of Shrove Tuesday – 800 RAF Bomber Command planes dropped almost 1500 tons of high-explosive bombs and nearly 1200 tons of incendiaries on the city. Dresden – or what was left of it – awoke on the morning of St Valentine’s Day/Ash Wednesday to find that more than 25,000 people had been killed, and many of its buildings reduced to dust and ashes.

Today, as on 14 February 1945, we begin Lent in repentance, acknowledging the things we do that hurt ourselves and others, confessing our complicity in continued injustices, taking responsibility for the suffering that comes from our abuse of the gift of our freedom, and accepting our part in the destructiveness that threatens humanity itself and turns life to dust and ashes.

Or rather, returns life to dust and ashes.

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

Saying these words – echoing God’s words to Adam in Genesis (3:19) – the Chaplains will in a little while make the sign of the cross in ash on the foreheads of those who wish to receive it. That sign is a reminder – as unfashionable as it might seem – that we are sinners, that we are mortal, that we are not in control, that one day we will die.

But that sign also affirms a different but complementary truth: that we are God’s beloved children and that, through Christ, God offers us the precious gift of eternal life. Ash Wednesday reminds us that we’re all part of the same, fertile dust of the ground into which God breathed life and which he sealed with his image (Genesis 2:7). The sign of the cross is a sign both of our repentance and of Christ’s boundless love for us, a sign that we have the self-giving God of the cross at the heart of our very being, a sign that God constantly reaches out to us, longing for us to return to him and experience transformation, healing and resurrection. The cross on our foreheads marks us as endlessly loved and forgiven by God in Christ.

Remember that you are dust – divine dust – and that you are a beloved child of God.

By being marked with the sign of the cross and reminded of our mortality, we are set free to live as the beloved children of God. Ash Wednesday isn’t a call to be morbid or piously miserable; it’s a call to accept our own mortality, to let go of all the illusions that we construct in an attempt to forget that we are mortal (and all the self-help courses we go on and face creams we apply); Ash Wednesday is an invitation to freedom, to witness to our faith in the God of life and flourishing by living life to the full and being wholly who we are called to be. Just as St Valentine did.

According to some accounts of his life, Valentine was a Roman priest who lived during the reign of Claudius II, who was Roman emperor from 268 to 270. Early in his reign, Claudius had difficulty getting men to sign up to his army because they didn’t want to leave their wives and families. So he banned engagements and weddings – but the priest Valentine defied this ban and married couples anyway. For this – and for trying to convert Claudius to Christianity – he was arrested and martyred on 14 February 269, beaten by clubs and beheaded in Rome. Valentine chose to live and love powerfully and courageously; he chose to make a difference to people’s lives, seeing in human love a reflection of God’s giving of himself to us. As a priest, his vocation was to help those in need and include those whom the authorities wanted to exclude. He sacrificed himself for the sake of love.

And, I suggest, that’s our vocation too. People often make – or pledge to make – personal sacrifices during Lent: we give up pleasures (such as chocolate) or habits (such as Facebook) for the sake of drawing ourselves closer to God. But such personal sacrifices are only part of the story of Lent. As members of the body of Christ, all born of the same dust of the ground, let’s think about engaging in Lenten disciplines that are both individual and communal, bringing us closer to God and working for the good of the world that God so loves – for we cannot love God without loving our neighbour as ourselves. Lent isn’t a private spiritual detox or an individual struggle for personal holiness, nor is it for show, as today’s Gospel tells us quite bluntly: ‘Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven’ (Matthew 6:1). Rather, Lent is a journey of deepening relationships – with Christ, with one another and with our world. Ash Wednesday challenges us to witness to our faith through how we live and love, to be more alive to Christ, to his people and to the world for which he died. We receive ashes upon our foreheads to remember both the gift of the Holy Cross and the gift we are to be for others.

Remember that you are dust, and that you are called through grace into an ever more loving relationship with Christ and with the world he came to save.

At the beginning of Lent, then, let us think boldly about how we can live out our faith in the world, about how we can better serve God and one another. What might that look like? Might we, like St Valentine, have the courage to choose to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of love? Might we, instead of giving up chocolate or Facebook for Lent, choose to fast from indifference to human need, suffering, injustice and cruelty? Might we choose to embrace justice, to show solidarity with those whom our culture considers to be unwelcome outsiders in our midst, to care for the poor, the helpless, the most vulnerable? Might we be able to ensure that our churches truly are welcoming houses of prayer for all peoples?

Isaiah gives us some pointers for what living out our faith in the world could look like. ‘Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free?’ (Isaiah 58:6). Isaiah shows us that God isn’t particularly interested in whether or not we’re religious in a formal, sackcloth-and-ashes kind of way; what matters to God is whether or not we’re fully alive and committed to taking care of the oppressed and helping to provide food for those who are hungry, roofs for those who are homeless, clothes for those who are naked – for it is by doing these things that ‘[our] light shall break forth like the dawn, and [our] healing shall spring up quickly’ (Isaiah 58:8). This release of people who suffer is key to the very nature of God as seen in the person and mission of Jesus Christ; it should be the hallmark of the body of Christ in the world today.

Remember that you are dust, that you are created in the image of God – and that you are created to share in his work of release and redemption.

So, there is, after all, no jarring clash between Ash Wednesday and St Valentine’s Day. For both, I’d say, are about life and love. On this Ash Wednesday, then, let me wish you a blessed feast of St Valentine and a holy, loving and life-giving Lent. And let’s look forward to 2024 – the next time Ash Wednesday and St Valentine’s Day will coincide – by which time, with God’s help, we as the body of Christ will have become ‘the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in’ (Isaiah 58:12).

On liberation, LGBT+ and libraries

I’ve enjoyed marking LGBT+ History Month at King’s, where we are fortunate to have our Queer@King’s research centre in the Faculty, a thriving LGBT+ Staff Network and an LGBT+ Student Society. The UK has come a long way in a relatively short time: it’s worth remembering that 2017 sees the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in this country. So we need both to celebrate and to protect the freedoms we now have; we also need to remember that there are still many LGBT+ people who live in fear and do not yet enjoy the freedoms that should be available to all. There’s a lingering prejudice, of course, that it’s not okay to be LGBT+, that being LGBT+ is a choice – and a mistaken one at that. I’m glad that we as a Faculty can play our part in liberating people by declaring loudly and clearly that being LGBT+ is not only okay, it’s wonderful, and by providing a space in which we are all empowered to express ourselves openly and to be who we are, without fear of judgment.

I’ve also spent time this month preparing to mark International Women’s Day. On Wednesday 8 March we as a Faculty will be responding to the worldwide challenge to #BeBoldForChange by hosting an Arts & Humanities reception in the Chapel, 3-4.30pm, when we’ll be hearing from women – both academic and Professional Services colleagues – about their experience of taking bold action to help improve or develop an aspect of their life or career, about how they did it, what motivated them, what difference they made and how we can learn from them; we’ll also be making pledges about new ways in which we, individually and collectively, can make a difference in the future.

And another pledge we’re making in the Faculty is to expand and diversify the holdings of the Maughan Library at King’s by encouraging students and staff to champion and celebrate the liberating effect of books and reading. We want to ensure we have more works by authors from groups underrepresented in academia and more works on topics relating to the Students’ Union’s Liberation themes (including, but not limited to, race, queer studies, gender studies, disability studies, international/global studies, class, and economic inequality). The Faculty will buy a copy of any book nominated by a student or member of staff that is not currently stocked in the Maughan Library, and there will be a competition to identify the ten most inspiring ‘Liberating Books’.

Step by step, we’re making a difference.

On politics, pain and playfulness

At the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham last week, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, announced that the UK government will underwrite funding for successful applicants who are in the process of bidding for EU-funded projects: if applicants for EU funding secure multi-year funding before Brexit, the Treasury, he said, “will guarantee those payments after Britain has left the EU”.

The conference also saw the announcement by the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, of plans for major new restrictions on overseas students, including two-tier visa rules affecting supposedly lower-quality universities and courses. And at the same conference the Prime Minister, Theresa May, announced that Article 50 would be triggered before the end of March 2017, signalling that, in all likelihood, the UK will leave the EU in the spring of 2019; and as part of her pledge to transform Britain in the light of the referendum result, the Prime Minister noted: “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.”

The Chancellor of the Exchequer’s statement notwithstanding, much of what we’re currently hearing from government about Britain’s place in the world – and the place of the world in Britain – is, in my opinion, anathema to what those of us who work in universities believe in and represent. I’m proud to be Dean of a Faculty at the core of an international university at the heart of a city that looks outwards, and our determination to attract, retain and support talented students and staff from across Europe and around the world is undiminished.

I’m pleased to note, then, that the Commons Education Select Committee – chaired by the Conservative MP Neil Carmichael, who at the referendum campaigned for the UK to remain in the EU – has launched an inquiry into the potential impact of leaving the EU on UK Higher Education; the inquiry is accepting written submissions here until Friday 11 November 2016.

But we have to be frank, I think, about the emotional, psychological and physiological effects this time of change and uncertainty is having on so many of us. People’s feelings about the current situation will inevitably vary, but I’m increasingly aware of students and colleagues feeling shock, fear, anger and even depression. We have to allow for those feelings – they are, after all, natural – and we also have to support each other in our different stages of the process of coming to terms with what is going on.

Talking is important. My advice to those who, in the light of the referendum result, are considering their position in the UK is not to make a decision too quickly. We make good decisions, using both our mind and our emotions, when we are not alarmed or anxious. So talk to someone to help you think a decision through is vital.

It’s also important, I think, that we remember – indeed, that we celebrate – the things that we do really well. Trying to imagine a myriad of different futures is very difficult and exhausting. Instead, we need to try to minimise the wear and tear on our minds and bodies by working with the here and now as much as we can: we can and do manage what is around us very well indeed. We need to ground ourselves in our expertise, in our life-transforming education, in our inspiring research – and, for those of us at King’s, in our community here in the Faculty.

So it’s peculiarly apposite that today sees the start of our annual Arts & Humanities Festival, which this year is on the theme of play. Let’s celebrate together – playfully and irreverently – what it means to be students and scholars of the Humanities, what it means (in the words of Terence) to be indifferent to nothing that is human, what it means (in the words of Socrates) to be citizens of the world.


On conversation, disappointment and determination

What a week!

I hosted my first Dean’s Tea at King’s on Tuesday, when colleagues gathered for a very constructive conversation about what matters to us most as an intellectual community. Topics covered included the gender pay gap and support for staff returning from parental leave.

And on Wednesday colleagues in Modern Languages hosted a really productive forum for schoolteachers on ‘Transitions in Modern Languages Teaching’, which paves the way for further engagement activities planned as part of the ‘Language Acts and Worldmaking’ project, funded under the AHRC’s Open World Research Initiative (OWRI).

It’s all the more disappointing for me, then, that the week should end with the UK’s decision in yesterday’s referendum to leave the European Union.

My own view is that voluntarily cutting ourselves out of the world’s largest economic bloc may ultimately weaken British universities and reduce opportunities for our students and staff. Here in the Faculty of Arts & Humanities at King’s, more and more of our students come from EU member state countries, and we’ve reached a position where more than 50% of our research grant income is from the EU. So the Faculty looks set, I think, to be a much poorer place – intellectually as well as financially – as the UK distances itself from the EU.

That distancing is still some way off, of course, and it’s worth emphasising that, barring unilateral action from the UK Government, there will be no immediate change to our participation at King’s in EU programmes such as Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+, nor to the immigration status of current and prospective EU students and staff.

And it’s on our students and staff that my thoughts are focused now, because I imagine that many in our community – especially those who have come from the rest of the EU to work and study with us, as well as those who have gone out from King’s to work and study in other European countries – will be feeling very uncertain about their place in the world.

In the midst of such uncertainty, it’s vital that we in the Faculty work together to find the best possible way forward. Our wisdom and expertise will enable us to come up with solutions to what look like intractable problems. We can and will deal well with the challenges that lie ahead. Our reputation as a Faculty is built, not simply on straightforward success, but on the way in which we cope with adversity.

On past, present and future

As term ends and Christmas approaches, I’m delighted to note that the 2015-16 academic year has got off to an exciting and eventful start.

Much has happened, certainly, with highlights for me including the spectacular Arts & Humanities Festival in October; the King’s Awards last month, at which Dr Carool Kersten, Senior Lecturer in Theology & Religious Studies, was named King’s Media Personality of the Year; a dinner earlier this week for this year’s Desmond Tutu Scholars, fourteen of whom are in Arts & Humanities, during which Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne gave a moving and inspiring speech; and the news just in that four of this year’s 33 Leverhulme Major Research Fellowships in the Humanities and Social Sciences have been awarded to colleagues in our Faculty. With such wonderful things going on in education and research, we shouldn’t have been surprised earlier this term to see ourselves rising in this year’s Times Higher Education subject rankings from 23rd in the world to 15th and from 5th to 4th in the UK. We have much to celebrate and to be proud of.

It has also been a difficult term, though, with a significant number of our students and staff having been affected by the atrocities in Paris last month. I’m grateful to all those, including members of the French Society, who rallied around and offered moral and practical support where they could. To break the copycat cycle of conflict and violence that seems inevitably to follow such events – a kind of ‘mimetic desire’, diagnosed in such devastating detail by the philosopher and literary critic René Girard, who died just days before the attacks in Paris and who would have been 92 on Christmas Day – I’m in no doubt that we need the Humanities now more than ever.

A Faculty such as ours has a key part to play in confronting inhumanity with humanity, in confronting the ideology of hatred and ignorance with the love and pursuit of knowledge: if studying Philosophy helps us to think better about ethical questions, if learning another language helps us to appreciate more acutely the similarities and differences between cultures, and if studying History helps us to understand better the past and to approach the future more thoughtfully, then in all these ways – and in many more besides – we as a scholarly community can dare to embody defiant, life-changing hope.

On education, empathy and employability

It appears that right across Japan universities are to close or downsize their Humanities departments in order to focus instead on offering students an education that, by dint of seemingly being more practical and vocational, is deemed to respond better to the needs of society.

The implication is that society does not need graduates with finely honed communication skills, analytical flexibility or rich imaginations. What possible use to big businesses are graduates who have learned to imagine sympathetically the position and predicament of others on a global scale, who have learned – and learned to evaluate – the art of empathy? If the success of a business is in direct proportion to its understanding of its market, what possible need can businesses have for graduates who have learned to be more self-aware – and more aware of others?

The implication is that students should pursue a degree in a subject not simply because they love it and cannot imagine doing anything else, but only if it offers some kind of professional value, the assumption being that the professional value of a practical, vocational education is such that it offers a sure ticket to a job – whereas the honest answer might be that hardly any form of education is a sure ticket to a job these days.

That said, the professional value of the Humanities is widely recognised by employers – and precisely because of the flexibility and deliberately non-vocational nature of what we offer. The usefulness of the Humanities, in other words, derives from the very fact that they are not necessarily linked to any immediate, limited or limiting utility.

The wonderful paradox of the Humanities, then, is that their apparent irrelevance is what makes them most valuable. While Humanities graduates tend to become key players in the cultural and creative industries, for instance, we are not in the business of training people for a specific profession. Rather, we are in the business of enabling people to become who they are. It’s not so much about how to make a living as about how to live – and how to live well. It’s not so much about making sure our graduates earn the most money as about ensuring that they can think about how best to spend that money, how best to be happy and fulfilled.

That seems to me to be responding very effectively to the needs of a healthy society.

On memory, gratitude and new things under the sun

I spent part of the summer vacation in western Crete, indulging my interest in beaches, boureki and Byzantine churches. Travelling around by car, I was struck time and time again, particularly on winding mountain roads and usually where the edge of the road fell away most vertiginously, by the presence of little shrines, known as kandylakia. In varying states of repair, they almost invariably contained icons, candles and incense burners: even if the shrine on the outside was battered, the inside usually suggested that someone, somewhere, remembered it and tended to it from time to time. Many of the shrines are built as acts of remembrance for the victim of a traffic accident; others are built by the survivors of such accidents or publicly to thank a saint for a particular benefit. Be they in memory of loved ones lost or in gratitude for disaster averted and blessings received, these shrines are charged with private and public meaning, poignant signs of the enduring importance of family, faith and history.

This kind of memorialisation and thanksgiving need not be purely religious, of course; indeed, it finds its place in many institutions, not least universities, whatever the principles espoused by their founders or current custodians. The work we as academics are able to do now necessarily owes a debt, in both scholarly and institutional terms, to those who have gone before us, and we find a range of ways to signal this: through the naming of buildings, lecture theatres and seminar rooms on our campuses, for instance, and in the footnotes, acknowledgements and dedications to our published works. This work of memory could be said to be particularly prevalent in Humanities disciplines, where we equip our students with the necessary skills to read, reread and reread again all kinds of texts from the distant and more recent past, where we routinely seek to understand better the lives and works of people seemingly cut off from us in both time and space, all the better to understand ourselves, the world in which we live and the values we hold dear.

This awareness of the liveliness of the past in our present is uppermost in my mind as the new academic year starts and we welcome a new generation of undergraduate and postgraduate students to King’s. There’s an enormous sense of excitement about the place: I always think it’s a great privilege to share in the journey that our new students are embarking upon this week. As the year begins with an ecumenical service in the College Chapel on the Strand on Wednesday and as we and our students take the plunge and do new things, I’m reminded of the persistence of the past, of the extent to which, for instance, our seemingly very contemporary concern with the student experience is an important new expression of the founding principle of universities as scholarly communities, and of the wisdom of the old observation that ‘what has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done’.

On busyness, leisure and learning

July and August are supposed to be quiet months for university academics in the UK. As Dr Lauren Redhead, a Senior Lecturer in Music at Canterbury Christ Church University, has recently observed on her blog, “if there is something that those of us who work in academia do look forward to about work over the summer, it is the chance to get ahead with our research”. July and August are the time for us to read, to think, maybe even to write – and certainly to recharge our mental batteries.

But in another sense, July and August are some of the noisiest, busiest months for academics. July in particular resounds with the applause, the whooping and the cheering of graduation ceremonies. My Faculty’s ceremonies at the Barbican last month were a riot of colour, the green of Dame Vivienne Westwood’s Arts & Humanities BA gowns contrasting gloriously with the multi-coloured doctoral robes from universities across the globe. The donning of gowns and the doffing of hats: all this might seem outdated nonsense. But for me, as I reflected here back in January after the winter ceremonies, all this is a very visible sign of community, the eloquent trappings of a ceremony of formal admission to a richly diverse society of scholars, a moment to recognise the achievements of students who have earned their stripes in the endless pursuit of new knowledge and deeper understanding.

Our newest graduates are also those who create more excitement still for academics in August, when we receive the results of the latest National Student Survey, which were published today. I’m delighted that, once again, finalists in the Faculty of Arts & Humanities at King’s have recognised the quality of the teaching we offer, with most of our departments achieving a satisfaction rating on that aspect of the student learning experience of over 90%. The results also give us pause for thought, though, as they suggest, for instance, that our students want us to do more to support them in their personal development. It’s important for me that we address this head-on, since it’s my firm belief that a Humanities degree from King’s should help our students to become who they are: it’s less about how to make a living and more about how to live – and how to live well.

Living well, of course, involves taking time for leisure – and leisure is vital for academics in particular. Our English word ‘leisure’ comes from the Latin ‘licere’, meaning ‘to be permitted’, the Greek equivalent of which is ‘schole’, from which we in turn derive our word ‘school’. So learning is about leisure, about having time and space for reflection and conversation, for celebration and recuperation. My Faculty at King’s aspires to offer such a space, to be a place of knowledge, wisdom and humanity.

And so – and this is the final reason why the summer months are anything but quiet for academics – I’m excited that we’re about to welcome into this space a whole new generation of undergraduate students, with A-level results being published tomorrow and places to study with us being confirmed for those who have met the offers we made them some months ago. Tomorrow will be a day of celebration for thousands of students across the country and beyond. For others, though, not meeting the conditions of their offers will mean that it is instead a time for reflection on what, where and how to study further. My advice to you if you’re in that position: don’t panic! Focus on what you’re passionate about studying and find a place to study where you can have the confidence to be yourself – a place where you have the leisure to learn.

On thorns, mindfulness and mockery

Writing to Luneau de Boisjermain on 21 October 1769, Voltaire reflects on the difficulties faced by writers in eighteenth-century France, citing the example of the attempts made by his enemies to cause trouble for him with the royal authorities, before observing with admirable calm and poise: ‘Life is full of such thorns, and I know of no better remedy for them than cultivating one’s garden.’ [1] He moves nimbly between green-fingered metaphors, echoing as he does so the conclusion to Candide, his famous short story published a decade earlier. The letter and the short story share a concern with the here and now, with enjoying the present, with worrying less about the things outside one’s control, such as other people and the future.

This is of a piece with Voltaire’s critique of institutionalised religion and metaphysics. Life in the here and now matters more than whatever life there might be in the hereafter, as he suggests to the marquise Du Deffand on 13 October 1759: ‘I urge you to enjoy, as much as you can, life, which is a slight thing, without fearing death, which is nothing at all.’ [2] And in his Chinese Letters (Lettres chinoises, 1776) he presents Emperor Kangxi as the very model of right thinking in questioning the religious orthodoxy of the Jesuit missionaries: ‘The emperor is surprised to see you so obstinately committed to your ideas. Why are you so preoccupied with a world that you are yet to enter? Enjoy the here and now. All your efforts make no difference to your God. Is he not powerful enough to make his own justice without you interfering?’ [3]

Whatever the specifically religious implications, Voltaire’s call to enjoy the here and now is one that is worth attending to again, especially for those of us who find ourselves living and working in cultures of constant competition, ceaseless striving and restless dissatisfaction. The invitation open to us is to single-task, as it were, not to multitask; to think about what really matters to us here and now; and to avoid getting stuck in the past or worrying about the future, focusing instead on the moment-to-moment experience. This approach is now often referred to as mindfulness, which is all about paying attention deliberately, in the present moment and in a non-judgemental way. Wherever, whenever and however people practise such mindfulness, it demonstrably helps them to become more aware of the way they think and feel about their experiences, whether good or bad, and it is proven to help people manage stressful situations and to stay mentally healthy.

This call to pay attention to the present moment is particularly timely as today is the start of the Mental Health Foundation’s sixteenth annual Mental Health Awareness Week, which this year is focusing on mindfulness; and this in turn coincides with the second week of the Take Time Out campaign at King’s College London, the aim of which is to promote student wellbeing during the exam period. Of course, there are many different ways of maintaining one’s mental health – mindfulness is just one of them – so the last word goes to Voltaire, who has another suggestion to make when he writes to Charles Jean François Hénault on 20 June 1760: ‘I make a point of mocking everything, of laughing at everything; this rule of life is very good for your health.’ [4]


[1] ‘La vie est hérissée de ces épines, et je n’y sais d’autre remède que de cultiver son jardin.’

[2] ‘Je vous exhorte à jouir, autant que vous pourrez, de la vie qui est peu de chose, sans craindre la mort qui n’est rien.’

[3] ‘L’empereur est surpris de vous voir si entêtés de vos idées. Pourquoi vous occuper si fort d’un monde où vous n’êtes pas encore? Jouissez du temps présent. Votre Dieu se met bien en peine de vos soins! N’est-il pas assez puissant pour se faire justice sans que vous vous en mêliez?’

[4] ‘Je prends le parti de me moquer de tout, de rire de tout; ce régime est très bon pour la santé.’

On poetry, the inarticulate and business-speak

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the death of T. S. Eliot. Earlier this term we were fortunate to welcome to King’s Christopher Southgate, who gave a reading in Chapel, on a dark Wednesday evening, of his extraordinary verse biography of Eliot, A Love and its Sounding. The next day I was pleased to chair a lunchtime discussion with Christopher, again in Chapel, which took as its starting point these striking lines from ‘The Dry Salvages’, the third poem of Eliot’s Four Quartets:

For most of us, there is only the unattended

Moment, the moment in and out of time,

The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,

The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning

Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply

That it is not heard at all, but you are the music

While the music lasts.

The lines point to Eliot’s abiding concern with the very nature of the poetic voice, the voice who experiences life and dares to articulate something of that experience, however fleetingly, however ephemerally: ‘you are the music / While the music lasts.’

Since then I’ve enjoyed rereading the rest of the Four Quartets and have found myself coming back again and again to ‘East Coker’, where Eliot gives a wonderfully vivid account of the inadequacies of language:

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—

Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres

Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt

Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure

Because one has only learnt to get the better of words

For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which

One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture

Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate

With shabby equipment always deteriorating

In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,

Undisciplined squads of emotion.

The middle-aged poet battles to recover language, to wrest words back from the inanity of the everyday, to redeem those words by giving them new birth, ‘a new beginning’. And here, for me, Eliot puts his finger on the very essence of poetry. For poetry is at once rooted in life and at a jaunty angle to it, it is both common and strange, it works unsettlingly on the everyday, on the common ways of thinking to which we have unthinkingly become accustomed.

I couldn’t help remembering Eliot’s ‘raid on the inarticulate’ a couple of weeks ago when I found myself, on a long train journey, sitting next to two businessmen, whose seemingly unthinking absorption in, and glib articulation of, the very worst of business-speak I found fascinating and infuriating in equal measure. Their spirited talk was of ‘trading on high-end people’ and ‘letting low-performance people go’; the challenge, apparently, was to ‘differentiate our propositions as we build up a sustainable model’, the ultimate aim being to ‘build a business, ramp it, sell it, get out’. I was relieved to get out at the next station: this inarticulate prose seemed a far cry from the poetry of Eliot.

But such business-speak thrives – and universities are by no means immune. English universities in particular, at least under the current funding regime, necessarily operate as businesses: competing for fee-paying students necessarily requires us to develop strategic plans, to have marketing campaigns, to develop metrics, to focus on enhancing the services we offer our students while reducing where possible our burgeoning operating costs. And in a sense none of this is a bad thing if the end goal is ensuring maximum accessibility for talented students, regardless of their backgrounds, to the best possible education, one that helps them lead more meaningful, even happier lives. Talking about how we increase the efficiency and quality of our professional services structures, in other words, has to be framed within an ongoing conversation about the intellectual importance of learning, scholarship, diversity and wellbeing. Business-speak that does not help us to talk about the core values of higher education is akin to Eliot’s ‘shabby equipment always deteriorating’. If launching ‘a raid on the inarticulate’ helps us to articulate better what is distinctive – and distinctively important – about the work that we do in universities, then perhaps we’ll restore some of the poetry that characterises that work – not least the capacity to make a difference to people’s lives – while we still have a chance to do so, ‘while the music lasts’.