As I round the corner into the cathedral grounds at ten to 12 it’s obvious that something significant is scheduled. Outside, men in dark suits stand talking in groups, shepherded by officials. From College Street a stream of people flows towards the cathedral, many dressed in green and gold blazers, drawn as iron filings to a magnet. The magnet is Larry Montagu.
I’d travelled for close-on 3 hours by now, making a conscious decision to take the walk from my house to the railway station slowly, noticing the bright blue sky and wispy clouds – a breathe of Spring and new life. The service was due to start at 1.00 and I judged that I had time for a coffee in the Comfy Pew before joining the mourners. There were many of them, but Gloucester Cathedral is huge and they would undoubtedly have prepared for a crowd.
I take a seat at the window, thinking I might see someone I know as they pass. The magnetic force is strengthening as more and more and more people pass: youngsters in green and gold; young men in suits; girls in short skirts, their long hair flowing, chatting animatedly: our hope for the future; Larry’s hope for the future. Older women, couples, colleagues in dark suits and ties, families. A mother pauses to adjust her daughter’s uniform. The Comfy Pew is filling up. I’m drawn to engage in conversation with others who are obviously going to the funeral. When I do, everyone has a tale to tell of how Larry touched their lives and the lives of others they knew.
12.20pm now, and I’m wondering whether I was hasty in thinking that seating in the cathedral won’t be a problem, as I join a queue waiting to enter. There are already 1000 inside, we’re told. I meet a priest who has travelled from the Suffolk coast, who knew Larry when he was a deputy in Norfolk, 30 years before. A former science teacher who trained at Larry’s school shares her story, her broad smile stiffening occasionally as she struggles to control her emotion.
When I finally reach the cathedral there are already people standing in almost every available space. The only free seats have ‘reserved’ on the block. Someone points out to me that a seat is available. Like a driver finding the last parking space, I make a dash for it without checking whether anyone else has also identified it as theirs. then feel slightly embarrassed by my haste; only after I am seated do I look round and justify my privilege by my age in comparison to that of others sitting round me.
Thirty minutes now until the service is due to start and I discover that my neighbour is someone I have often spoken to on the telephone. She has worked closely with Larry for over twenty years. ‘He would have been amazed by this’ she tells me ‘He was always so humble. He didn’t know the impact he had on others’. I know this to be true. Ten minutes before the service, and the murmur of voices is hushed by the school choir’s rendition of the Taize chorus ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ The rise and fall of the harmony seems to lift our friend gently to the Lord as the solo flute accompaniment announces his arrival at the gate of heaven.
The mood changes as the service starts. Somehow, it seems, those waiting outside the cathedral have managed to squeeze in, despite literally thousands arriving before them. The funeral procession arrives to the joyous sounds of ‘Shine Jesus, shine!’, accompanied by the band: saxophone and drums give their all. Though there must be many who, like me, struggle to keep emotion from their voices, I can also hear the commitment described later in the service by the chair of governors, who refers to a recent occasion when Year 7s encouraged each other at a rugby tournament: ‘Come on; let’s do it for Larry’.
‘Doing it for Larry’ was a result of the loyalty and commitment he inspired. I had the great privilege of working with him on his first and several subsequent programmes when facilitating the national Leadership Programme for Serving Headteachers. His passionate commitment to young people inspired me and those we worked with. He managed to combine joy, fun and laughter with a relentless drive for the best possible outcomes for students. We kept in touch, and it was typical of him that he agreed to be an interviewee for some research I was conducting recently. When I emailed to double check he was still up for it, I had the response ‘I am looking forward to it as I hope to discover more of my deficiencies’. False modesty? I don’t think so. He had a great capacity for sending himself up, even when the effects of his cancer treatment turned him into ‘a gargoyle’ as he put it to me once, commenting that it was an appropriate challenge to his vanity.
When we met he talked about the school focusing on ‘the dignity and respect of all people’ and the need for integrity in the organisation. He is the only headteacher I’ve ever heard speak of students being ‘prepared to work with us to achieve their potential’. A much more common notion is that the school works with the students. Larry knew that the school needed to gain students’ respect and never took that for granted. If a relentless drive for higher achievement did not first embrace the principle of ‘dignity and respect of all people’ he wasn’t interested.
At his funeral, his son’s moving tribute included the comment that the school ‘was never about him’. He had a high profile locally and nationally, and no doubt some people thought this was driven by a need to be noticed. He didn’t mind if people disliked him because of that; he knew it wasn’t true. His only concern was to gain the best education for all; he was so clear about his purpose, that it over-rode any concern to be popular. The only concern he expressed to me was that his making himself unpopular might have a negative impact on the school.
Possibly the last time we met, which was before his successor at St Peter’s was announced, we talked about how the school community would cope when he retired. He had already indicated that what he would miss most was being with the ‘young people’ as he always referred to them (with the accent on ‘young’) and seeing talent flourish. I suggested that the whole community would need to go through a time of mourning his departure – aware, even as I spoke – of the prophetic parallel which I was stirring. He had never made a secret of his illness. ‘Oh’, he said ’they’ll miss me for a few weeks, but they’ll soon forget me’. I persisted. ‘It’ll be hard enough for a new head coming in’ I said ‘without people feeling they’re not allowed to be real about how they’re feeling’.
As I write this, I wonder whether the unprecedented display of support, emotion and thanksgiving that was evident at Gloucester cathedral last Friday could have happened in the same way if the school had already had a new head. Perhaps, just perhaps, his decision to remain head of St Peter’s to the end allowed his death to be a gift to the school, just as his life has been.