There’s an old school song that still echoes throughout the ivy-clad halls of England’s grammar schools on graduation day as it has since 1872 when Edward Ernest Bowen and John Farmer launched their tribute to treasured memories – and their challenge to conscience.
“Forty years on, when afar and asunder /Parted are those who are singing today, /When you look back and forgetfully wonder, /What you were like in your work and your play, /Then it may be there will often come ‘o’er you, /Glimpses of notes like the catch of a song, /Visions from boyhood shall float them before you /Echoes of dreamland shall bear them along.”
It shouldn’t be necessary to note that in 1872 grammar schools were for males only and to guess that today, when students lift their graduating and blended male-female voices, “boyhood” gently morphs to “childhood.” But, it is incumbent these days for ancient males to note, accept, and approve the change.
The message doesn’t change. We all look back, or should, to remember how we thought in our high school or first year college or university years. So sure of ourselves. So clear in our thinking. So certain of our cause. So amazed that our parents could have survived so long with such limited understanding of real life. And, adults in general? Hah! Best not talked about.
The old song suggests that as we grew older, our remembrances of youth would be replayed as “glimpses of notes … visions … echoes” of triumphs, with victories in sport best recalled. And, in today’s world, often best rewarded. An Irish school teacher – Edward Ernest Bowen – wrote the lyrics for “Forty Years On,” and it was quickly adopted as the school song of Harrow where he taught.
He wrote about victory and losses, “rushes and rallies” of intense struggles of “strife without anger”; of “loving an ally (team-mate) with the heart of a brother” while hating “the foe with playing at hate.” And rugby was obviously his game.
Still today, when the final game whistle blows, the opposing teams shake hands, head for a shower and regroup for a beer, a bite to eat and to replay a few highlights from the intense rivalry of the game just left on the field. And 40 years later if the same players met at a reunion the conversation would continue unbroken by the years.
Lyric writer Bowen, true to his Irish spirit, wrote a final verse to sum up Harrow School thinking of what lay ahead for its graduates:
“Forty years on, growing older and older. /Shorter in wind, as in memory long, /Feeble of foot and rheumatic of shoulder, /What will it help that once you were strong? /God give us bases to guard or beleaguer, /Games to play out whether earnest or fun; /Fights for the fearless, and goals for the eager,/ Twenty and thirty and forty years on.”
It is a verse that gets me wondering how much my beliefs in so many things have changed over the decades. And, I wonder about the many young people I see marching and waving picket signs and protesting and demanding solution to a Wet’suwet’en tribal problem even the Wet’suwet’en elders seem to have difficulty solving.
In the crowd are some bright white faces, and some not so bright, but all apparently convinced that it is okay for them to dictate to a duly elected provincial government what immediate action it should be taking. As I quoted a week ago: “A tyranny of a minority.”
Thinking students shouldn’t need 40 years to figure it out, or 30 or even 10 days – but they will I hope change in thinking and in attitude as time rolls by. Maybe not as brilliantly as one of Harrow school’s most famous but mediocre students, Sir Winston Churchill, who survived his early years much to the consternation of some early teachers.
On November 28, 1964, Harrow marked the 90th birthday of Sir Winston by adding a tribute to the original. Not as glorious in language as the old man when his war time oratory held the free world together – but good enough to bring a smile and straitening of shoulders to those who remembered.
“Blazoned in Honour ! For each generation/You kindled courage to stand and to stay,/You led our fathers to fight for the nation,/ Called ‘Follow up’ and yourself showed the way./We who were born in the calm after thunder/Cherish our freedom to think and to do;/ If in our turn we forgetfully wonder,/Yet we’ll remember we owe it to you.”