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The Sweetness of Life

Today, in our final assembly of 2020, I urged our pupils and my colleagues to take pleasure in the ordinary.

My assembly was inspired by a little book given to me by our wonderfully kind and erudite Librarian, Dr Brainard. He seems to have a sixth sense for the sorts of things my magpie brain will enjoy – an article from The New Yorker, a podcast or a short book. This week was no exception. He had picked out a book which was a bestseller in France and I felt embarrassed that I had not heard of it before. It was by a French professor of anthropology called Francoise Heritier and it’s called The Sweetness of Life. I read it on the tube to and from work yesterday and it’s the most eloquent and extraordinary celebration in the most acute observational detail of life’s many and varied pleasures. The ones that hit us with a capital P and the ones most of us would barely notice or certainly not remember. I quote a small section: “Rediscovering a taste for recipes of the past, calculating how many steps you take between stones on the pavement, listening to the little tune that tells you when a train is coming in or leaving, imagining what you could make of a house or an object or a place, choosing bread with a good crisp crust, picking grass to feed the rabbits, watering the flowers, knitting a soft scarf, seeing the curtain rise at the theatre when the lights go out and the noise of the audience dies down, going in search of the sources of rivers.”

As I read it, I thought about what a gift it must be to be quite so observant. In comparison, most people’s lives seem two dimensional. Francoise Heritier, in contrast, seemed to be living life in glorious technicolour and yet the pleasures she was describing were accessible to us all.

It was the most brilliant ode to the ordinary little spikes of pleasure to which our constant quest for extraordinary experiences and achievements has made us almost immune.

This term, we have celebrated the ordinary routines and the extraordinary events. The sorts of events we normally highlight are the things that are different from the normal school routines – the concerts, the competitions, the speakers, the plays, the exhibitions… I am so grateful to colleagues who ensured that these sorts of events have continued to happen, despite all the restrictions on our operating processes. Parents can tune in to watch our spectacular Winter Music Festival and the Carol Service on Firefly. But perhaps, this term of all terms, it is appropriate to pay tribute to the ordinary. The routine of a school timetable has never before been so comforting: we have been tracking our attendance data closely and, if you strip out absence for self-isolation, our attendance has been higher than ever – with Lower Sixth winning the overall prize.

I would like to thank all of you for your support and kindness throughout 2020. To those celebrating Christmas, I wish you happy festivities; to all of you, my very best wishes for the year ahead.

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