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Showing posts from 2011

Keep cheerful!

Found this, in French (original was in Italian, I suppose) :

 " A nous, il n'est pas permis de vivoter ; vivre est notre devoir ! Trêve donc à toute mélancolie ! (…) Un catholique ne saurait manquer de gaîté ; la tristesse doit être bannie des cœurs catholiques".

Bienheureux Pier Giorgio Frassati

Frassati was a Catholic man of action, a fine inspiration for young Catholic men seeking to do interesting, challenging and even impossible things for the sake of Almighty God.

His life and witness are an inspiration to many schools. One of them, in the far East of France has a website at

We played them recently at Rugby (and thrashed them twice, the poor souls).

Knock, knock ... it is the Lord!

Here is a clip which shows in beautiful sequence:

-the Recitative (quoting Apocalypse 3. v. 20), "Behold I stand at the door and knock" underlayed with wonderful pizzicato, where all the violins knock, knock, knock ...
- the joyous and serene soprano aria telling the soul to "open up" ...
- the final Amen, assenting to Jesus' coming in our hearts, seen as the crowning of our lives

all from Bach's "Nun komm der Heiden Heiland" (Now come Saviour of the Gentiles).

Open thyself, my whole heart!

More Advent joy from Bach.
Ephata! Open thee, all my heart ...

Öffne dich, mein ganzes Herze,
Jesus kömmt und ziehet ein.
Bin ich gleich nur Staub und Erde,
Will er mich doch nicht verschmähn,
Seine Lust an mit zu sehn,
Daß ich seine Wohnung werde.
O wie selig werd ich sein!

Open thyself, my whole heart,
May Jesus come and enter into thee!
Though I be but dust and earth,
Yet he will not disdain me.
His joy in me would be
That I be his dwelling.
O, how happy I shall be.

JS Bach, Aria from Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland.

Come, then, saviour of the Gentiles!

Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland
Der Jungfrauen Kind erkannt,
Des sich wundert alle Welt;
Gott solch Geburt ihm bestellt.

Come now Saviour of the Heathen,
true son of the Virgin
that all the world may wonder
at this birth that God has prepared for it.

More Bach for Advent

Komm, Jesu, komm zu deiner Kirche
Und gib ein selig neues Jahr!
Befördre deines Namens Ehre,
Erhalte die gesunde Lehre
Und segne Kanzel und Altar!
Come, Jesus, come into Thy Church
And give us a happy new year!
Foster the honour of Thy Name,
Defend sound doctrine
and bless the pulpit and Altar!

Nothing is impossible: honouring Otto von Guericke

I remember when I was about 12 years old, my old science master Mr Hills introduced our class of 25 boys (at King Edward VI School, Southampton) to von Guericke's hemispheres. That experiment engraved the name of von Guericke forever in my mind.
Von Guericke was an amazing chap, as I have recently learnt from my colleague Dr Conlon, who has just written a book about him. I helped him publish it because I remembered fondly Mr Hills' lesson, all those years ago ... Hills invited us all to try to separate the two cast iron hemispheres, held together by nothing but a vacuum! Everyone else (or a good number, any way) had a go and failed. Then I tried, and managed to put asunder what the vacuum had so cleverly joined. "Everything is apparently possible for McDermott", Mr Hills observed with characteristic dryness.

An interesting chap, Mr WJF Hills. I suppose he may well be dead by now. If so, God rest him.

If you would like to know more about von Guericke, whose critics sa…

First Sunday of Advent

Amen, amen
Komm, du schöne Freudenkrone,
bleib nicht lange!
Deiner wart ich mit Verlangen

Amen, amen
Come, O fair crown of joy
No longer tarry!
I fervently await Thee.

Text Philipp Nicolai
Music: JS Bach

A Difficult Choice for St Nicholas' Day ...

At today's staff meeting we'll be electing the annual boy bishop of Chavagnes ... an ancient medieval tradition which we revived here nearly ten years ago.
To qualify, one must be a boy treble, and well-behaved ... but the lucky student gets to celebrate Pontifical Vespers and then govern the College until bedtime. Just like real bishops, it can be a risky business if one picks the wrong sort ...
It is meant to teach the pupils about the nature of authority, and it teaches the Masters (usually condemned to an evening of cleaning and washing up) something too.

Learning lessons from the monks

The recent disastrous revelations about child abuse in England's Benedictine schools (most recently at St Benedict's Abbey, Ealing) raise an important question about the nature of a religious vocation as well as being a very painful embarassment for Catholics in the UK. The Carlile report, which has recommended that the monks at Ealing should be relieved of the governance of the school altogether, drew attention to what Carlile saw as the monastic community's commitment to forgiveness and trust on the one hand and the welfare of the children on the other.

There are many issues here about governance, about procedures and about priorities. (Children, in a school, always come first). I think however, that in the long term this is going to be good news for the monks because it will probably force a return to old priorities. For the vocation of a monk is to pray, not essentially to run schools. The kind of person who can keep his head in a modern school is not necessarily the s…

This place is holy ... and a great mystery. Chavagnes Consecration.

We just celebrated the 145th anniversary of the consecration of our College Chapel (on 24th October 1866). In our altar there are enclosed the relics of Saints Gaudentius and Columbinus. Gaudentius was Bishop of Brescia, Italy from 387 to around 410 AD. He was a good friend of St John Chrysostom, was consecrated by St Ambrose, and was known as a vigorous opponent of heresy. Columbinus (not Columbanus, though perhaps they are related!) was a little known Irish monk and bishop of the seventh century who was active in this part of France.

Here are our boys singing Locus iste sanctus est by Bruckner. One or two mistakes (some swooping, and yours truly a bit too loud in the basses), but quite hauntingly beautiful, I hope you'll agree.

The Return of the Young Fogey?

I remember when I was a teenager my sister gave me a delightful Christmas present, The Young Fogey Handbook. It came out at the same time as the even more successful Sloane Handbook, about 25 years ago.  The essence of the Young Fogey was that he was satorially and culturally reactionary, seeking a kind of donnish gentility frozen in the period 1930-1950. He sought to relive Brideshead Revisted, Miss Marple, and Jeeves and Wooster all at once. The Handbook made a lot of Betjeman, AN Wilson, Charles Moore etc. It was an entertaining read, but I remember feeling at the time that I would never quite cut the mustard sartorially. I owned a pair of jeans.
But it seems to me that the Fogey that began all fogies was JRR Tolkien. His disapproval of anything modern, his love of tweed and pipes, and his fondness for medieval religion make him an obvious member of the group. When shown a tape-recorder by one of his undergraduates he consented to use it, but first exorcised it by reciting a Pater N…

Ferdi: what's in a name?

Well, in an idle moment (it's half term) I thought I'd check out some other namesakes around the globe.

First off, there's Ferdi Tayfur, a celebrated arabesque singer from Turkey (see above).  Very entertaining.

Then in 2009 Ferdi Berisa (left), a young chef from Montenegro, won 300,000 Euros in the Italian version of Big Brother.
Ferdi Serim is a prominent American educationalist.

And Chez Ferdi (32 rue Mont Thabor, 75001 Paris, near the Louvre) is also the best place to get in a burger in Paris, apparently. Looks tasty, doesn't it?

Hmm; enough silliness.

Dan Brown: Angel or Demon?

Saw the film of Angels and Demons yesterday, in a moment of weakness. Trashy, perhaps, but well-made. The scenes inside the virtual Sistine Chapel and St Peter's were very convincing, even if there were some annoying minor mistakes relating to Catholic practices at various points (there always are in this kind of film).
Whilst in the Da Vinci Code Dan Brown rehashed some awful untruths about St Mary Magadelene (which are still confusing the young, one discovers in catechism classes ...) and had fun misrepresenting Opus Dei, Angels and Demons is really quite kind to the Church, does not misrepresent any Catholic doctrines, and very definitely suggests that God protects it from harm, in the most surprising ways. It also suggests that the Church is, in fact, in step with the modern world and has a key role to play in helping man understand how to proceed ethically in the progress of scientific research.

Tom Hanks plays a university professor: an apologetic agnostic perhaps based on …

French universities at bottom of the heap ...

A French parent told me today about an article she had been reading about universities. The gist was this: American universities are rated at the top, UK ones at number 2 and French universities come in 51st in the international ranking.

Now, I wonder whether that has something to do with the stranglehold of state control on the management of Higher Education in France, even down to the political and ideological control of the content of degree programmes.

It is significant that the university that has come top in the Times annual survey of student satisfaction every year for at least the last six or seven years is the University of Buckingham, the institution with the lowest level of government interference in Britain.

Here come the French ...
We are pushing our older French boys here to apply to the better UK universities and the US Ivy League. Of particular interest for our continental European boys here are the Scottish universities which, because of a quirk of European legislatio…

Hello, my heart!

Here is a something to raise your spirits: a rendition of de Lassus' Bonjour, mon coeur, by staff, friends and alumni of Chavagnes, during a performance of Molière's Les Femmes Savantes, June 2011, at the College. Enjoy.

Bonjour, mon coeur,Bonjour, ma douce vie, Bonjour, mon oeil,Bonjour, ma chère amie! Hé! Bonjour, ma toute belle,Ma mignardise. Bonjour, mes délices, mon amour, Mon doux printemps, ma douce fleurnouvelle. Mon doux plaisir, ma douce colombelle, Mon passereau, ma gentille tourterelle! Bonjour, ma douce rebelle.

Cardinal Vaughan High School and the freedom of the Church

Apparently, according to the press, Archbishop Vincent Nichols has given into parental pressure over the appointment of a new Head for the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial High School. Some are hailing it as a victory for orthodox Catholicism and parent power.

This time the parents were probably right and the Bishop was probably wrong. And the parents won. But what happens when the Bishop is right? It looks like he will have to give in to the parents every time; which rather defeats the object of having bishops as guardians of the faith. It seems to be a case of hard cases not making good law.

Reliance on the state to protect religious faith and values is a big mistake in the long run. Perhaps this time they have got it right, but in general i would say, with the good book: "Put not your trust in princes".

Last year an orthodox Jewish school, funded by the state, was found to be acting illegally by barring a child from a Reform Jewish background from attending the school. The cour…

Former boy bishop makes the deadline

Frayed nerves on Saturday night, trying to make sure we met the deadline for Oxbridge UCAS applications. It creeps up every October before you know it. Only one candidate this year, a Mathematician called Paul. He has applied to Trinity College, Cambridge and some other strong Maths locations: Warwick, Imperial, Bristol and Edinburgh. He is only 15 (just had his bithday), but is applying for deferred entry for 2013, so he will be just a couple of weeks off 17 when he finally goes to university. He already has his Maths A-level with an A* and is cracking on with Further Maths this year. Clever lad ... I am very keen to see what the universities will make of him.

Here he is (above) as our boy bishop (one of our odd medieval traditions) in December 2009. We shall miss him, when he moves on: he's the best private tutor of Maths we have!

Father Rowe's blog

Don't forget to visit Father Rowe's blog. He is our new chaplain, and so far doing a splendid job at Chavagnes, even if his hats take some getting used to. Thank-you, Father. His blog is at :

Old and new

Someone showed me a depressing page of correspondence in the Tablet the other day; all about the new English translation of the Missal. Hardly anything has changed, but the changes will certainly take a few months to get used to.
It is difficult to adapt; this was a challenge for many Catholics in the 1960s and 1970s and those who expressed their pain at that time, when the changes were much greater, were not listened to. One priest suggested that the overhaul of the English text was going to drive him to breaking point. We need to listen to him, and people like him. But with changes so small, I can't see the need for any concession about the change. There is a God and a Church beyond all these texts, and obedience and love gets us through all difficulties including having to change our old habits sometimes.

Those most upset by the Benedict XVI changes are probably those who showed the least love and understanding for those still reeling from the Vatican II changes. Now they unde…


When we elect leaders in government, too often they fear actual leadership, prefering to consult opinion polls and marketing advisors to see what they should do; how best to follow those they ought to be leading.

In schools and in religious communities leaders are sometimes, I would suggest, influenced by this model of leadership too. And it does noone any good.

Finding myself in the the role of leader in an academic, spiritual and business context, I encounter the same temptation, and the same awful dilemma as the politicians. And the odd thing is that when one does actually exercise leadership and tell people what to do, how to run their lives, how to do their job ... the result is that they are - as often as not - reassured, and that one feels oneself thrown back on the great power, authority and comfort of Almighty God.
Don't get me wrong. I am not saying that leaders need to flaunt their power or authority. But when leadership is called for, one needs to answer that call. A c…

London calling ...

Just spent a week in London, enjoying National Gallery (Italian altarpieces - Devotion by Design exhibition) , V&A, walks in Kensington Park and Hyde Park. I went along to Vespers in the Greek Cathedral (with about 5 or 6 other people ... quite a select congregation) and heard their very meditative chanting for the first time. Didn't see Prince Philip though. Found time to read a thriller (TheCollaborator) about the Naples mafia, the Comorra. That was fun, if rather bloody. Not suitable for children ... And a rather odd book by someone whose name I have seen everywhere but had never before read: Paulo Coelho. His book, The Valkyries, tells of his self-obsessed search for weird, ritual experiences and quasi-mystical thrills.

Coelho is a poet and musician who began his adult life in a mental hospital; then sold his soul to Satan and ended up being tortured in a Brazilian prison ... the plot of his book is that, justa  few years ago, someone called J, a mentor in some secret magi…

Londons burning ...

Why the Humanities?

“We call those studies liberal, then, which are worthy of a free man: they are those through which virtue and wisdom are either practised or sought and by which the body and mind is disposed to the best things. “ Pier Paolo Vergerio,
The Character and Studies Befitting a Free-Born Youth (c. 1402.)

At Chavagnes the study of the humanities is in the great tradition of liberal education. This kind of education is not simply a dry theory, nor is it restricted to those subjects now named humanities, although its principles are mostly clearly seen in our teaching of these disciplines.

Liberal education is the transmission of our great western cultural patrimony to our young. But it is more than that: its aim is to make every student his own man: free and capable of using his reason, fit to take part in the “great conversation” begun in fifth-century Athens and continuing to this day.

More at

Dumbing down of Year 12 French in French schools

National programmes for Year 12 French (la Première, as it is called in France) are currently undergoing revision. The government has asked for the course to be “centrée sur des études littéraires en phase avec le monde moderne.” We are troubled by this development, because whilst we believe that modern literature should be represented at this level, it should not form the central thrust of the course. A particular concern is that educationalists have stated that this reform is intended to make the study of French literature more attractive and relevant to modern youth. Our concern, as with other literatures, would be to transmit a love for a cultural canon worthy of study for its own sake.

We will be doing our own thing, of course. But our boys, if they are French, or good enough at French, will still be able to sit the French bac alongside their A-levels if they wish.

Good old Dr Arnold ... and the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ

The person of Jesus and the truth of his resurrection are two giant megaliths that stand in the path of every atheist; megaliths so big that, though he walk around them, our atheist has only to look up from contemplating his own affairs and he will see them shining in the distance, every step of his way. Here is what Dr Arnold, the famous Head Master of Rugby, wrote on the subject:

 “I have been used for many years to study the histories of other times, and to examine and weigh the evidence of those who have written about them, and I know of no one fact in the history of mankind which is proved by better and fuller evidence of every sort, to the understanding of a fair inquirer, than the great sign which God has given us that Christ died and rose again from the dead.”

Dr Anold, shown here on the exterior of the old buildings of the College of Preceptors (of which I'm a Fellow, incidentally).  Dr Arnold was Head Master of Rugby from 1828 to 1842, then Regius Professor of Divinity at…

Buckingham University and Chavagnes

Mr McDermott writes:

I was recently asked a question about the University of Buckingham and the College's relationship with the School of Education of that university. For general information, here is a brief summary of our links with them:

Every year, for the last five years or so, we have been sending staff to Buckingham for teacher training. So far, five Chavagnes Masters have obtained a PGCE from Buckingham, including myself. I am currently in the final stages of a M.Ed. degree (Masters in Educational Leadership) from the same department. The structure of these courses involves periods of residence at Buckingham (with lectures and workshops), visits of university mentors to Chavagnes and finally the production of various pieces of written work which deal with theoretical and practical themes of direct relevance to our work as teachers (essays and theses from 3,000 to 15,000 words).

From the outset, I struck up a personal admiration and friendship for Professor Anthony O'He…

Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian mass-killer

Ja, vi elsker dette landet. "Yes, we love this land!", so goes the Nowegian national anthem. But nationalism can turn sour. Anders Behring Breivik, the young man who has just killed nearly a hundred of his countrymen, was a disturbing example of something we have associated recently with young Asian males from Bradford; but not so much with young white males from Oslo.  They all have the same problem: the feeling of alienation and a desperate need to belong to something, to fight for a cause. Of course, it seems obvious that Breivik must have serious psycholgical problems, but it is still interesting to think about what a man like this says to justify himself.

Today on Facebook a 1500 page manifesto was published giving a day by day account of Breivik's preparations for his killing spree. And on youtube, there was a film (now removed) where Breivik poses as a Knight Templar, in some kind of got-up dress uniform. I have been reading the Oslo evening papers today. It seems…

Getting to know our new chaplain

Father Rowe (pictured left, chatting with Mr Colin) is taking over as chaplain at Chavagnes in September. He has started up a blog which chronicles his news and views:

Ministry meddling?

I received a letter yesterday from the local office of the French education ministry. It announced to me that from now on all new teachers at Chavagnes would need to apply for an authorisation to teach. OK, fair enough. But it went on to specify that they would not get it unless they had a Master's degree. For Sports teachers they had to have a bachelor's degree in Physical Education Science and a Master's degree.

I was worried. We have recruited a few new teachers, with UK qualified teacher status, and bachelor's degrees, but no Master's degrees. And we often have, in the past, recruited teachers straight from university and put them through their PGCE part-time. This new requirement seemed to rule this out; I rang the man from the ministry and he confirmed it.

Subsequent researches have confirmed, however, that the man from the ministry is wrong. The only qualification required of teachers in independent schools is the baccalaureat (A-levels). It appears that the…

God rest one of the last great Europeans, and let's thank God for men like him

I met Archduke Otto von Habsburg when I was 18 and he made a deep impression on me. His death should serve as wake-up call to young Europeans: we must rally to the defence of all Otto held dear.

At Chavagnes we will be asking Blessed Charles, Otto's father, to intercede for us all as we strive to play our part in reclaiming our culture for Christ.

Being philosophical

Have decided to sign up for a degree in Philosophy from the University of London. I suppose my progress from September to December will be slow, because I have to complete my M.Ed. thesis for the University of Buckingham. The theme for that is meant to be "managing change in education" ... interesting, because that is exactly what I am doing at the moment at our school.

So, I am keeping my brain busy.

Father Bede Rowe arriving in September

I am happy to announce that Chavagnes has found a new chaplain for next school year, thanks to the kindness of Bishop Declan Lang. Bishop Lang of Clifton has agreed to release Father Bede Rowe for a year to serve as chaplain at our school.
Our current chaplain, Father Anthony Talbot, has been unwell. Pleasr remember him in your prayers.