Harrow County School for Boys

Thirty Years On

1963-1970 reminiscences by Alan Kershaw

bulletFirst day: ritual attempt by older boys to get us to turn the wrong way at the entrance, into their clutches and a fate worse than death: spotting this just in time: sitting cross legged on the floor in the old hall for an age, waiting for not very much to happen and trying to work out which of the masters at the front were likely to be the real sadists
bulletFarmer Giles, our first form master, a viscious fast bowler with an unerring aim for lobbing a piece of chalk into your mouth into your mouth if he caught you yawning: teachers attempting that now have their careers ended abruptly
bulletDr Simpson rising to high pitched outrage in assembly as he weighed in against a boy he had seen arriving that morning "mounted upon a bi-cycle, wearing brown socks!"
bulletHis way of referring to all schools apart from HCBS as the ‘Others’ – the only man I ever met who could pronounce a capital O
bulletAn American maths teacher called Stoddard who filled in when Farmer Giles was ill, whose response if you said you had hiccups was "put your head in a bag": we discovered this early on, provoking endless try-ons. We had been solemnly warned by the Head of Maths that the American teaching style was to stand at the front and carry on regardless, the pupils being left to decide whether they wanted to learn or not: our response was inevitable and we learned nothing for a term except how to take up the parquet flooring at the back of the room
bulletMaths being my lowest O level grade (see previous note)
bulletEndless rounds of a mindless card game we called Clagg, played illicitly in the Band (?banned) Room whenever we could slope off and leave the impression we were doing private study somewhere: four of you started off with one card each and worked up through the rounds to 13 then back again: can anyone remember the rest of the rules?
bulletThe sense of liberation when about three quarters of us in 3A, put in detention after school by John Bunting for horsing around more than usual during the morning register, stormed out and went home as soon as he was out of sight, leaving half a dozen or so to sit there trying to look like four people each and face him when he returned: having to write him a letter of apology the following day: having to write a letter of apology for that when my original letter was deemed cynical ("I don’t like the tone of this letter, Kershaw", said in an insulting way in front of a queue of sniggering first formers by the classroom door): dining out on this for years
bulletThe notorious spoons incident when Roy Avery was inveighing in assembly against the fashionable practice of stealing spoons from the canteen, taking them to the metalwork room, flattening them out in vices and reintroducing them, useless, into the canteen: his carefully rehearsed dramatic silence was broken by the sound of several (flattened) spoons being dropped to the floor somewhere near the back of the hall, followed by chaos
bulletHopeless pursuit of various HCGS girls, totally unrewarded: I was a reasonably late developer and didn’t really know what to do: learning to make up for this later
bulletGerry Lafferty telling us he’d be happy if we remembered just two of the things he taught us: ‘Don’t mix the grape and the grain’ and his granny’s saying ‘Little bairnies must agree, like twa birdies in a tree’: well, I did remember them, and a few other things too, though probably not much: he wrote on the bottom of my essay on Antony and Cleopatra: ‘I think you have completely misinterpreted the play: see me’
bulletNot seeing him and getting an A in English A level, but accepting later that I probably had completely misinterpreted the play
bulletPirates in the gym (now the canteen) on Friday afternoons, occasionally, at the end of term: a much prized event, especially for one whose best PE report ever read ‘Average but very keen’ – this from Vivian Edwards
bulletElasticated bootees, very real, Hot Pig, handshakes and Sir Peter Medawar: why ever did they abandon school assemblies?
bulletSchool journeys to Ireland in 1964 and 1965 led by Arthur Haley (it cost 14.12.6d: see the 1965 programme on the website): the taste of cheese and onion crisps brings it back unmistakeably, that being the only flavour they seemed to sell in Ireland: winning limited street cred for being one of the few who actually finished the free half pint we got issued with after the tour of the Guinness factory: of course I hated it but was determined to show off and only learned to love it years later
bulletSeeing Manchester United (yes, with Best, Law and Charlton) in a friendly against Shamrock Rovers on one of those trips – one of the few times in my life I’ve been able to see my beloved team (which isn’t Shamrock Rovers)
bulletInventing Mike Robinson’s nickname of ‘Boris’ – just trying to be clever I think but it stuck and he’s been condemned to it ever since
bulletA chemistry master called Bodiam, who used to show us proudly the dent in the front bench he’d once made with his cane, and who insisted on calling me, not the biggest in the class, ‘Muscles’
bulletThe look on Bernie Marchant’s face when he discovered I was hoping to give up Greek after the second year and pay more attention to science, and the look on mine when he’d finished with me
bulletWondering what George Cowan meant when, teaching us Juvenal, he said "I don’t want to stifle individualism, but we must have a common approach"
bulletOr what Hugh Skillen meant when he explained "ritorner does not mean to return, it means to go back to where you came from"
bulletArthur Haley fishing around inside his crumbling upright piano for a piece of wood to beat some unfortunate with – and neither boy nor piano seeming much the worse for the experience
bulletKen Waller turning up unannounced in our form room within our first couple of days in the school, before anything had really got going, and taking us for a couple of Latin lessons which captured the imagination and some of us and started a ball rolling which finally came to rest with a Classics degree
bulletNever singing the school song: it had been quietly mothballed just before we arrived
bulletAnd never singing in the balcony during assembly: it just wasn’t done
bulletNigel Rogers’ ingenious method of keeping us up to date with progress in the 1966 World Cup from the stage during successive performances of Iolanthe
bulletThat fantastic performance of Carmina Burana just before I left – speaking noisily to adolescent hormones and dirty little teenage minds: I sang it again last year and could still remember every note and the gorgeous soprano soloist after whom I lusted hopelessly
bulletTaking over the school library (amicably) from the cigar-wielding languages teacher Mr Attridge – giving a few of us the privilege of getting inside the building at lunchtime in all weathers and finally gaining me my ‘merit tie’ and a handshake in assembly
bulletThe humiliation of being handed a book prize on Speech Day by the music critic Anthony Hopkins and being unable to tell him, when asked, what on earth I’d been given it for: I’m still not sure and I don’t suppose he knows either
bulletHaving a promised half holiday cancelled by Roy Avery because of our appalling behaviour during some other Speech Day
bulletThe ritual cap burning ceremony on the school field at the end of the fourth year – and ritual snowballing of prefects in the same place if it ever snowed
bulletThe Naval Cadets – my attempted escape route from the army section which went wrong when the uniform turned out to be impossible to maintain, exposed you to serious ridicule on the bus and led to pointless trips to Raven’s Ait near Kingston-on-Thames
bulletBut having a hilarious day with Richard Salter and Alan Bennington repainting an ancient whaler for the cadets at the Welsh Harp – we never worked out why we had to do this
bulletThe orchestral concerts conducted by Muir Matheson at the cinema down the road: none of us liked them much but they got you out of a couple of lessons of a Friday morning
bulletSelling cash and carry sweets and refreshments at school plays, usually making a profit and having a laugh in the background
bulletThe Mediterranean ‘educational cruise’ towards the end of 1967, Greece still reeling from the colonels’ takeover and the whole place crawling with police on motor bikes armed with machine guns: the 80 degree heat in Athens followed by sub-zero temperatures in Venice

And so on. I remember leaving the building on my last day just over thirty years ago, turning round and thinking to myself that I ought to feel something on such a solemn occasion, but feeling nothing – and discovering at the recent reunion that that feeling had changed.

Between us we should be able to put together an oral history of exactly what a classic English grammar school was like: the memories will die with our generation otherwise. I don’t suppose I’m the only one who resents having to spend sums of money to get for my children the style of education that we had for free.

I went from the school to a Classics degree at Jesus College, Cambridge, then into the civil service after changing my original plan to go into the law. After a chequered career in the Department of the Environment (planning, endangered species, local government policy, housing association grants) I saw an opportunity with the General Medical Council and went to work for them in 1983.

Starting with sick doctors (yes, I could tell you a few stories) I became involved in developing policy on standards and ethics for doctors and did some pioneering work on the ethics of handling HIV and AIDS and on removing outdated restrictions on advertising by doctors. Slowly I became responsible for all aspects of standards and education, constitutional policy and public affairs.

The way to the very top being blocked by the appointment of a Chief Executive a little older than me, I saw the need to move out. By now, professional regulation was about all I was good for. By a roundabout route I came to my present position as Chief Executive of a new Council to prepare a definitive register of competent forensic practitioners – scientists, scene examiners, fingerprint examiners, pathologists, police surgeons and others. We’re based at present in Burlington House, Piccadilly, London – an address that sounds grander than it is but is well placed for most of the things I like and want in London. And the job is great, probably the best I’ve ever had.

I live in Godalming, Surrey, with my wife Corinna whom I married in 1980, and our three children Jonah (16), Naomi (16) and Nick (13), two spaniels, a black cat and a pair of ageing gerbils. We are both on the Town Council and Corinna was Mayor last year, which taught me to walk three paces behind and speak when spoken to. At elections we wear yellow badges but the council’s not a specially political place. I still do some choral singing and enjoy the music many of us discovered together at school. Which is where this note and this superb website began.


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