True Grit – Blithe Spirit

By | 12 March 2011

By the time you read this, you will know which film got the Oscar for Best Film this year.  I write, thinking, ‘How could it not be ‘The King’s Speech’ – how could it not?!’  But I am aware that stranger things have happened, and there is no doubt it is a very British film, up against – among others – a very American film in ‘True Grit.’
Comparing and contrasting ‘The King’s Speech’ and ‘True Grit’ has been meat and drink for critics and reviewers since the nominations were announced, so I will not add to their deliberations here.
But for me a happy combination of circumstance meant I saw ‘True Grit’ one Friday night, and in a just-out-of-London theatre on the following Monday night, the latest production of Noel Coward’s ‘Blithe Spirit’, en route to the West End.
The two titles caused me to reflect how both – true grit and blithe spirit (note, now without capitals) – are absolutely essential for anyone working in a boarding school.  Perhaps also any school, but the pressures on staff in schools which are open 24/7 for up to six weeks at a time are certainly both marked and virtually unrelenting.  And that’s what makes holding on to the grit and the spirit, if indeed you are fortunate to start out with them, and developing them if they were not originally part of your equipment, just vital.
We’ve always needed the grit.  Perhaps in recent times more than ever.  Schools themselves have never been under such pressure – league tables? Inspection regimes? – and parents and children have never been so demanding.  Pastoral care is now real rather than, as sometimes surely in olden times, cursory. Scrutiny of all that we do is constant – I truly believe that if a boarder does not like the fish on Friday, a text message to Mum is likely to have Dad in the Head’s office by tea time, making a formal complaint and quoting Jamie Oliver, while brandishing a phone on which the Daily Mail number is already displayed.  Inspectors increasingly seek their truths from those who are there all the time, pupils themselves, and Pupil Voice rings loud and clear through most senior management deliberations on ‘What next?’
Moreover, the pressures on young people can make them much harder to manage in boarding.  If Year 11s are off the premises on a Friday or Saturday evening, where are they?  If they are in the company of day pupils, are we really convinced none of them is taking alcohol?
If pupils in single study bedrooms are actually on their lap-tops until the small hours of the morning, do we really know what they are viewing?  And would we approve if we did – never mind the loss of sleep issue?
True grit in such a situation is exactly what a Housemaster of Housemistress needs: there are principles involved, as well as simple school rules. Holding the line, when the temptation to blur it is great, is a matter for true grit, which is a wonderfully evocative expression signifying that there may be many impostors – pseudo-courage, equivocation – but that in the end there is something stubborn and hard in the soul which says, ‘This far, and no farther.’  Something which establishes what really matters to each of us and which is, we hope, aligned with what matters to the schools which employ us and the parents who entrust us with their most precious child.  We don’t wriggle out of things and evade responsibility, and we don’t cheat, and we don’t, in the end, abandon people.
Shaggy Rooster Cogburn in the film is an unlikely hero – drunk, deceitful, close to despicable.  But Maddie believes he has true grit, and in the end he shows it.  And who would not want to be him, at the end of the film riding for the life of the child who has become his friend, shooting the horse which can bear them no more, and carrying that child, strength failing and legs buckling, to safety.
At the end of a tough Autumn term, we may know just how he felt.
Would I have said ten years ago that you also needed ‘blithe spirit’ to be a successful member of staff in a boarding school?  Perhaps not.  In many ways, the notion of being happy in your work, or even just being happy, had not quite reached schools while I was in the classroom, on either side of the desk.  I suspect the people who taught me would have been mystified by the very idea – school was where everyone worked hard.  Happy?  Don’t be ridiculous, boy!
But the positive psychology movement in the last ten years, when psychologists turned their attention away from what made people mentally unstable or ill to what might the common denominators be for those who lead successful lives, are happy in themselves and spread sunshine to those around them, has had a tremendous impact in schools.  More usually these days it is known as ‘Well-being’, and who could argue with the wisdom of seeking and cultivating that, particularly in boarding schools – and we’re back to the importance of that 24/7 business again.  For all they are far more open now than they ever were even ten years ago, boarding schools are still self-sufficient communities which may be akin to hot-houses for weeks at a time.  The psychological well-being of all members of the community should be enhanced if the organisation itself pays heed to some of the messages from the growing body of psychological research.
Noel Coward, writing ‘Blithe Spirit’ in the dark days of 1941 in, of all places, Portmeirion, would not have known how the world would change in the following 70 years.  But he escaped from the London Blitz to write the play in the peace of Wales, and he did think his world would change for ever and for the worse if Britain did not win the war.  In ‘The King’s Speech’ we see Colin Firth as the King both fight his own battle against his speech impediment and play his part in the greater war.  He would not be carrying a gun, but he could inspire and rally those who would.  In much the same spirit, Noel Coward decided to play his part in the war effort.  He had been on various diplomatic missions to little effect.  Then he resolved to use his own unique skills: in one year, he set out to write one play, one screen play and one song.
The screen play was ‘In which we serve’, the song was ‘The Stately Homes of England’, and the play was ‘Blithe Spirit’ – a comedy about death.  It went straight to the West End and played for almost 2000 performances, from 1941 until 1946, through the worst of the war and out the other side to the hard won peace.
Noel Coward was not carrying a gun either, but his play lifted the spirits of all who saw it, and reminded them of better times, and inspired the kind of efforts which helped them win the war, against the odds.  Blithe spirit, you might say, inspiring true grit.
I considered ending this with the question: Which would you rather have, true grit or blithe spirit? But I suspect the answer is obvious: both.

Leave a Reply