Swinging the Lead
Headmaster’s Routh Assembly Address
Monday 23rd November 2020
One of the many things that unites us all in this School is our common use of the English language. Many of you speak other languages as well of course, and I envy you those abilities. I am monolingual and feel the poorer for it. As I am sure you already appreciate, being able to speak and understand multiple languages makes your lives so much richer and your appreciation of the world far greater.
However, we all share English in common at Bromsgrove, whether it is your first language or a learned one. Yet English itself is ever-changing. New words and phrases are constantly being added or re-interpreted. Just think of the expressions this year has brought to our vocabulary: “lockdown, travel quarantine, self-isolation, track & trace, Zooming”. Apparently, the phrase of the year for 2020 is “You are still on mute.” Sayings of the moment which will hopefully will fall out of use as the pandemic passes.
However, whilst most topical phrases disappear, some seem to stick. For hundreds of years, Britain’s dominance in the world came from its control of the oceans. Large sailing ships allowed it to trade around the globe, and a powerful navy protected its interests. As a result of that long nautical history, many words in the English language originate from the days when “England ruled the waves.” Phrases used by ancient sailors we still say today, even if their true meaning has been long forgotten.
You would recognise and understand the origins of the more obvious ones, I am sure. Phrases coined when things were going badly on the ship; to be “all at sea” or left “high and dry.” Or even to “keel over”. Today, if we want to give someone a warning, we might “fire a shot across their bows.”
Pretty obvious where those phrases come from. But what about when we say something was “touch and go”? That term actually came from the frantic moment when the wooden hull of a sailing ship scraped against the submerged rocks of a hidden reef and the helmsman had to spin the wheel and try to quickly change course. Touch, and go – it was a close run thing.
Likewise, when we “cut and run”. If a ship was at anchor when a favourable wind suddenly sprang up, sometimes the captain couldn’t afford the time it would take to haul up the anchors. Instead, he would order to crew to cut the anchor ropes and run before the breeze. Still today, when we cut and run, we flee, even if it means leaving things behind.
Then again, we might stay until the “bitter end”. Another phrase from our nautical past. A “bit” was the large iron post which ships were secured when they were in port. The “bitter” was the name of the rope that was tied around the bit. If the wind or the tide started to pull the ship away from the dock, that rope could be eased until there was no more left to play out – hence, staying “right to the bitter end”.
And how about “slush fund”? Today, we use that phrase to mean money that someone has hidden away, unaccounted for, to be used for corrupt purposes. To bribe people, perhaps. The original use, back in the days of sailing ships, spoke of a similar situation, but its actual meaning was much more gross.
Life onboard a sailing ship was tough enough for the average sailor, but their food was especially grim. Usually, they were served meals below deck, consisting mainly of boiled salt beef. When the meat was stewed up, all of the fat fell away and congealed in a stinking, slushy mess in the bottom of the pot. Although that sounds disgusting, the sailors craved its fatty flavour and so the ship’s cook would often secretly scrape it out and sell to the highest bidder. The illicit money he made was then known as, you guessed it, his “slush fund”.
There is one more nautical phrase in the English language that is more relevant to you this morning though. Perhaps not as common nowadays as some of those I have just mentioned, although I did hear it used last week by a teacher who felt that a pupil was slacking off (which is also an old sailing term, meaning not pulling their weight. Which is also another naval phrase). Anyway, the teacher suggested that their student was “swinging the lead”.
In the days before GPS and sonar, even before compasses and reliable naval charts, a ship’s captain had to be extremely careful when they sailed into shallow waters. Go too far up a river or too close to the shore, and the vessel may run aground and become beached.
To prevent this happening, one of the crew was sent to stand at the very tip of the bow and constantly measure the depth of the water. They did this by throwing a long line, with a weight attached to it, into the water that lay ahead. Once the weight hit the bottom, they would pull in the rope and measure the depth by how much line was wet. Then they threw it in again and took another reading. And another. And another.
It was a tiring and often very boring job, because the weight was heavy, being made of lead. Sometimes, a sailor would get a bit lazy and, instead of dropping the line back into the water straight away after they hauled it in, they would just let it dangle below the bow, where the captain couldn’t see it. It that case, they weren’t working. They were just “swinging the lead”.
As these COVID weeks continue to pass, with winter approaching and many of the usual highlights of the Michaelmas term muted because of the pandemic restrictions, it may be tempting to ease off in your studies as well now. Everything else seems to be put on hold, why not park your learning for a while as well? You know why not.
Life can seem tough, tiring and repetitive at present, but slacking off now will endanger the course of your studies. Don’t forget for a minute that the reason behind many of the harsher restrictions in the country at present is so that schools could stay open. Lots of the sacrifices are so you can still be here. With not much else to distract you, you should be making your learning your number one priority right now.
The good news is that most of you are, and that is admirable, because it reflects your strength of character and your determination to make the most of what is offered here. I encourage you keep it up; to stay focussed, commit yourself to your work and to keep taking soundings of how you are going.
I my report to the School Governors at our formal meeting over the weekend, I likened the School to a ship. One that was faring well, despite the stormy waters we are sailing through at the moment. And the key point I made to them was that every single person onboard is a crew member, and a hardworking one at that. There are no passengers on this ship at the moment and nobody is swing the lead.
L6th House Drama
Last Wednesday saw the start of the Senior House Drama Festival with seven plays from the Lower Sixth Form. It was a great achievement by all 37 performers to have rehearsed and produced such a high standard of performance under current limitations. There were some enforced last-minute substitutions, and it was impressive how efficiently these changes were absorbed. Even though the whole was a competition, it was also a great example of teamwork, and the support shown between Houses was laudable.
It fell to me to adjudicate and the following awards were presented:
Runner-Up Best Actor Prize went to Polly Dakin for her magnificently controlled performance as Claire in Jean Genet’s malevolent drama, “The Maids”.
The Best Actor Prize went to Maria Macadrai for her role as Maria in “The Suicide”.
Special Award for Best Supporting Actor for Stephan Tarasov - his first time on the Cobham Stage - playing the timid School’s Superintendent in “The Government Inspector”.
A second Special Award was given to Mary Windsor House for their committed ensemble playing and beautifully realised sense of the historical period in Helen Edmundson’s play “Queen Anne”.
The Runner Up Best Play award was received by Housman Hall for their spirited and hilarious production of “The Suicide”.
And the Best Play for the Lower 6th Form was named as “The Government Inspector” performed by Wendron-Gordon House.
A huge thank you to all who watch online and especially to our socially distanced, live audience for providing such vocal support.
Another good afternoon of Saturday sport. L4th, U4th and 5th Form continued playing in the House competitions – it was good to see so many of you participating. A change to the normal plan saw our 6th Formers play football, rugby, hockey and netball in performance selected teams.
Academic Enrichment Event last Monday
It was wonderful to see so many of the Sixth Form engaged in the Academic Enrichment Lecture series last Monday. A broad and rich range of academic lectures in a style befitting of the best Universities undergraduate courses. Discussions about murderous African dictators, Zombies, psychoanalytical criticism, and the notion that the death of American democracy may not just be about President Trump. On your behalf, I thank all of the teachers who committed so generously to preparing and presenting the lectures.
Well done to all of you who have auditioned for the solo House Music competition. We had over 77 video entries, a new record, up from the 50 received last year. I commend all who have entered, we are very lucky to have such a wide variety of talent amongst all Houses.
The Music department staff will be hearing and watching all your entries over the next couple of weeks, so to those who auditioned, please bear with us while they make a decision on who the finalists will be. Keep your eyes on your emails and Miss McCanlis will be in touch soon.
Have a good week everyone and remember, resist the temptation to swing the lead.