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The Long March

Recently I attended the annual speech day at my old school as I am a donation governor there. That doesn't mean that I am involved in governance of the school but simply that I have been awarded the honorary title as a result of making donations to its funds. The school is hundreds of years old and speech day is a high profile formal occasion with the Lord Mayor of London in attendance. A highlight of the day is the march-past in which all the 860 boarding pupils march past the Lord Mayor with the school band playing. Despite being entirely made up of pupils the band is a full military style marching band with five drum majors, drummers wearing leopard skins and all the other trappings. It has performed at many venues including Lord's cricket ground, Disneyland Paris and the Rose Bowl parade in America, the only British school band to have done so.

The event was a state occasion with the Lord Mayor in his full regalia escorted by his retinue with his mace of office and sword of state and other governors, many from the great and good of the country, wearing their honours and some their uniforms if they were in the military or police force. Then there was me in my old off the peg Marks and Spencers lounge suit because my equally ageing Saville Row hand tailored suit didn't fit my growing waistline any more. Even that M&S suit was showing signs of shine on the elbows from years of wear at my office desk but it had to do for the occasion. After all I was only there to make up the numbers. There are maybe 650 donation governors but many can't make it to the school for speech day and only a selection are invited each year to make up a representative number. Even the Lord Mayor couldn't accept the invitation as he was abroad promoting British business interests and his locum tenens, himself a former Lord Mayor, attended in his place. In fact I remembered him as I attended speech day some four years earlier when he was Lord Mayor in his own right. The scene was all set then with a substitute Lord Mayor and my substitute suit. I won't even go into the details of my prior home cobbling activities to modify my seldom worn black shoes that had made my heels bleed every time that I'd worn them, but I was reasonably confident that they wouldn't come apart during the day as a result of my hacking at them to avoid further bloodshed.

Once the parade had started with the band marching into position on the main school quadrangle the next stage was the procession of the governors with their green staffs of office. These are the ancient "green sticks" mentioned in accounts of the school from the sixteenth century. Nowadays we are given badges to wear normally as they are more convenient than the staffs. One can hardly walk the streets of London carrying a five foot long staff without looking like Gandalf on his day off and it would be a nuisance on the tube, so the staffs only make an appearance on very formal occasions. While one can buy one's own the school provides them for such events, so there's no need. On this day I was one of the first at the mustering point to collect my borrowed staff and as a consequence I found myself at the head of one of the two files of governors in the procession. My colleague and I were hastily given directions on our respective routes to take across the quadrangle and the school marshal, a former military man and head of the school cadet force, joined us carrying the school's mace. The stationary band struck up and we were off on the slow march across the quad, slow enough for the more ancient governors following behind to keep up without mishap. My colleague at my side peeled off with his file to take their shorter route to our destination and then the marshal turned away towards his allotted location leaving me plodding on to the sound of the music, having the longest route to take. Of course with the remaining doubtlessly far worthier governors out of sight strung out behind me it seemed as though I was entirely alone marching across that quadrangle to the music from the band in front of hundreds of spectators with my slightly shiny suit, dubiously reliable shoes and borrowed staff. So much for being there just to make up the numbers but cometh the hour ... Amongst those spectators my wife, always my stalwart supporter, remarked to a parent at her side, "I suppose he knows where he's going."

It's just like writing really. One takes that long slow march across an open space knowing only that there are a few points of reference where the plot will take sudden turns and move in different directions, then a final turn onto a seemingly narrow path towards that destination that one has seen so clearly all along but couldn't approach directly although other writers might have chosen a simpler route. Perhaps even supportive readers wonder whether the writer really knows where he's going with his story. Doubts crowd into the writer's mind as he works. One seems so alone, sitting in one's room putting together the words. Is the pace right? Am I leaving some slower minds behind or are they pushing for me to lengthen my stride? I started out following the example of a mentor, a more experienced man, but now I am on my own tracing out my chosen path. Am I maintaining my line, not deviating into imprecise irrelevance? Will my readers be marching to the same beat of the music that I hear or am I myself out of step with those whom I am meant to be leading? Will I be seen as a rank amateur or a worthy professional? I must appear confident, can hardly look back to gain reassurance that others are following my line of reasoning. Yes, it seems a long slow solitary march, writing a novel, but hopefully it will prove to be just an illusion when one finally gets the chance to look back later.

Eventually I reached our destination in front of the school's war memorial and turned to stand once again next to my colleague who had taken the much shorter path. Now for the first time I could see those who had followed on behind me. They were only a representative few of the hundreds of governors throughout the country but they proved that we were of one accord, that the school is something that should endure. Despite all my flaws I had no qualms about standing alongside those doubtlessly far worthier people when the Lord Mayor Locum Tenens and his retinue came to join us to review the march past. Even the sun came out to make it a beautiful occasion, its heat beating on us relentlessly off the red bricks of the building behind us.

Yes, it really was just like writing. Have confidence and don't look around too often. Some people may well be following you as well and there could be many others of a like mind elsewhere.


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