Tom Stacey’s 88th birthday on January 11, 2018 was the date selected for the celebration at Eton College of the 70th anniversary of his foundation of Wotton’s Society (in the field of philosophy), with a dinner hosted by the Provost of Eton, the The Rt Hon Lord Waldegrave, at which Tom Stacey was guest-of-honour and gave the following speech without recourse to notes:
‘Old men ought to be explorers …’
Yet I began early … in the physical rather than spiritual sense of exploring. Within 20 months of leaving Eton in 1948 I was living with the Temiar hunter-gatherers in the rain-forest (as we now like to say) of peninsula Malaysia and a few years later found myself in another rain-forest, in up-country Gabon in equatorial Africa crossing a stretch of territory 100 miles or more west to east actually annotated on the very latest map produced by the French colonial administration Territoire Inexplorée. Gorilles et Eléphants. Gorillas indeed there were, of the lowland species. I think I may be the only person here this evening who can imitate from life the conversational cough-bark of Gabon’s gorillas.
My hankering for philosophical and metaphysical exploration was active in me in 1947 when I made the first moves to bring into being Wotton’s Society. We Etonians weren’t then specifically provided for in that department of intellectual exploration. There was Divinity of course to render us spiritually alert [which I have learned from my grandson here is now admirably bracketed in the Division room with Philosophy]. Those classicists well advanced in Greek might be getting acquainted with Plato and Aristotle. We all knew the poem by the Eton master William Cory which begins:
They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead,
They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed.
I wept as I remembered how often you and I
Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky.
We knew Heraclitus as that very early philosophic proponent of flux. No one could step into the same river twice.
Eton I reckoned needed to be better equipped to explore the speculative vision and probe the mysteries. We were a serious school at a serious time. My Eton generation had arrived there in the middle of a massive and convulsive war that was taking the lives of young Old Etonians every week by the dozen or by the score.
Every Friday evening in Chapel there took place a voluntarily attended service at which the latest list of those killed was read out – so many names familiar. Quite a few of us would be there. We would sometimes sing that John Ellerton hymn The day thou gavest Lord is ended [ ] which in the context of our worship could wrench the heart. Those services were deeply moving, deeply compelling for us young teenagers.
War was our reality. We were comprehensively rationed. When my Mama visited me she would be in her MTC waterproof uniform on her 350cc motorbike. Within a few months of my arrival at Eton we were down in the air-raid shelters to escape the German doodlebug flying bombs.
Many of us had fathers or older brothers out there in the thick of it. We followed the war inch by inch, in every theatre. I used to wonder what on earth there was to fill the newspapers in peacetime. We all witnessed on newsreel the unspeakable horror exposed by the liberation by British forces of two of the German concentration camps – at Buchenwald and Belsen. After the global war ended with Japan’s surrender at the dropping of the 2 atom bombs, 3 days apart, in August 1945, my house tutor Tom Brocklebank put his hand into his pocket and bought for every boy in his house a copy of the book by the American war correspondent John Hersey entitled Hiroshima, published in 1946.
Demobilized beaks were coming back to teach. A new history beak was to join us, of scholarly distinction, Alan Barker, who had lost a leg in the fighting. Alan was to become my modern tutor.
Still in 1947 we were living vividly in the aftermath of a convulsive period of our own history. My immediate predecessor as Captain of my house, Paul Graham-Watson, had joined the Scots Guards for his National Service and within 3 weeks of arriving in Malaya (where I was soon to be posted, in the same regiment) he was shot dead in an ambush by the Chinese Communists. We boys of that post-war period had a gravitas brought upon us by the catharsis of war. We were metaphysically hungry.
I shared my thoughts with two of my closest friends, Wilfrid Grenville-Grey, who would become Captain of the Oppidans, and Steve Haskell KS, who were to be my first and 2nd successors as Secretaries of this Society. They were both to remain my life-long friends and intellectual companions.
It was I who picked the Wykehamist and late-life Provost of Eton Henry Wotton to lend the Society his name. [ ] Wotton was a formidable all-rounder in the reign of our first Elizabeth and of James I: a diplomat, politician, man of letters, sage and wit, and fisherman too as was testified by his great friend Isaac Walton. I guess our host this evening, will be quoting Walton on Wotton when he comes to talk on Eton’s Provosts later this year.
For the presiding beak we settled upon Dippy Simpson, with the then Conduct’s number 2, Ralph Sadleir, in active support. Now D P Simpson was a philosophically minded classicist who was yet to compile his famous Latin dictionary. He was notorious for his shyness, and at that time was in the throes of courting his fiancée. Dippy and his bride-to-be would circuit Weston’s Yard hand in hand evening after evening, under the gaze of my friends in College intrigued by the progress of this romantic ritual. We early Wottonians mischievously contrasted them with Héloise and Abelard, he of the finest philosophic mind of the 12th century, whose physical passion cost him his reproductive facility. Mr and Mrs Simpson were to prove a demure and unmutilated couple.
Dippy gave Wotton’s Society its first paper in the Michaelmas Half of 1947. It was on the Limitations of Science – how science is ultimately in the business of measurement, in one guise or another, and hence of the dimensional, whereas what Wotton’s might be more about was the non-dimensional, what transcended space and time. Particle physics and quantum mechanics weren’t yet centre-stage.
Well, we sowed the seed. And in due course it took root. Wilfrid and I returned to Eton a few years later to lead a discussion at a Wotton’s gathering. Race was our theme and we keyed our thought on the Confucian adage that despite appearances all men are the same under the skin. I was already married to an English rose and Wilfrid soon to wed a Swazi royal whose sister would become the First Lady of post-apartheid South Africa when Thabo Mbeki took over from Nelson Mandela.
I was a fourth generation Stacey at Eton and was glad to bequeath something that has come to play a part at this great school and to add to its font of wisdom. And to have earned for us here tonight this delicious and comradely dinner.
When I feel inclined to play the philosopher or the spiritual explorer, I turn to fiction. That’s to say, I write a novel. I have done that again just recently – A Dark and Stormy Night – on the nature of love. The book will be out in June. I have dedicated it to my Eton contemporary and man of letters, Henry Maas KS. I hope it will grip you… and hope that Henry Wotton would commend what all of us have since done in his name to explore the astonishing gift of human life.
Old men ought to be explorers (is how TS Eliot ended East Coker, one of his sublimely spiritual Four Quartets))
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, deeper communion …
…In my end is my beginning.
East Coker actually ends
Old men ought to be explorers
Here and there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.
The cut was for the sake of the concision of the speech.