MEMORIES OF HCS
I was asked by Jeff for my recollections of Harrow County from the other side of the Common Room door. My memory, though, is worse than I thought. I seem to recall a very different school from the one I read about in the Guest Book, which seems closer to Dotheboys Hall than to reality. Perhaps I was blinkered. I was certainly unaware that all around me sadism and child abuse were regular practices, never mind the skiving in the huts and frequent drug smuggling at all levels.
The school I remember was a thriving, positive institution, proud of its successes in everything it touched. The excitement at Christmas time when the Oxbridge scholarships was announced was intense. But we were equally proud of our achievements in sport, with Gaytonians playing for county and national teams. We admired the Rutters, Tappers, Kingsburys and Mettlers. We were (perhaps secretly) proud of the pipe band.
We were proud too of the manifold achievements on the stage. Nothing for me will beat the heart-rending pathos of St. Joan's last cry of ,"How long, O Lord, how long?" as the strokes of Big Ben tolled out midnight. Ian Henley was magnificent in that role in 1959 as he had been as Cleopatra. In The Critic Harry and his gang sank the Armada with fire ships in as spectacular a display of stagecraft as you could see on any professional stage. (And ask him about the Queen Mary in Friar Bacon.)
When we celebrated the Golden Jubilee in 1961 with a double bill, as a curtain raiser to The Critic, we did Milton's Samson Agonistes. After auditions I chose two girls from the Girls' School for Dalilah and her handmaiden. The younger of the two came to the audition dressed to kill and got the leading role. Her more senior colleague was livid, and stole the show by reclining on the steps on stage revealing a greater length of leg than had ever been seen on it before. Aged staff members in the front row of the stalls were pop-eyed. Similar heat was generated later in Black Comedy when a young lady sidled down a flight of stairs wearing only a shirt.
The Scottish Play was a triumph for Martin Walker. (Nothing if not liberated, we allowed a boy to produce the school play, pretty daring for those days. I shall not forget the excitement it engendered, so much so that we produced a special edition of Gaytonian to commemorate it.) From somewhere, he had found three glamorous witches and an equally beautiful Lady M.. School plays would never be the same, until Madeleine Pratt arrived, at least.
The school magazine was a triumph: Richard Buckley helped me transform the old green A5 covers into purist white ones. Then we went for a larger size and experimented with layout. Chris O'Donoghue took some marvellously evocative photos that illuminated the pages. Boys drew striking illustrations. Haiku sprouted everywhere. Stephen Games designed later editions and we won the prize for the best school mag two or three years running. Costs spiralled and we decided to print our own on a Rotaprint machine in A2. A future Shadow Chancellor (no, not Michael Howard) typed the script. Later editions were printed on coloured paper but never achieved the status of the prize-winning ones. The Reprographic Society, though, was a professional concern, printing programmes for Old Gayts' plays, athletics meetings and many outside customers. Gary Levy worked wonders here, as we bravely grappled with modern technology to make our own plates for the offset litho machine.
All this was done out of hours, while running a Department of up to nine teachers We had a great team of sometimes eccentric but always enthusiastic and innovative colleagues. Each specialised in one section, drama, novels or poetry. My right-hand man at first was Stan Turnbull, a diminutive Irish leprechaun. Gerry Lafferty followed him as a stalwart number two, a sprayer it is said of Guinness in his throat spray and a genial supporter of all we did. His plays were memorable, particularly his Hamlet with Nigel Sheinwald assisting and Francis Matthews, Clive Anderson, MDXP and Co. shining. George Robertson was the despair of visiting inspecting officers of parade as his luxurious coiffure spilled over his collar. Gerry Halls was great on modern poetry and went on to becaome a successful Headmaster. Fred Bilson was larger than life and came trailing clouds of Beatles' glory, having taught one of them. David Burt was another stalwart. Thanks to staff like these, I could retire from producing plays and let them do wonderful ones like Romeo, Othello, The Tempest and Malfi.
It is less enjoyable to recall one member of the Department who
complained after a week or so of IIIC that he had a "migraine of the
stomach". He left after one term, run ragged by the young gentlemen who had seen through him. He went off to become a lecturer in a training college for teachers. There's a moral there somewhere.
We tried to teach boys to think for themselves, (though if they were too individualistic of course we paradoxically stamped on them for stepping out of line). Boys cried out for dictated notes to help pass the exams but we made people respond to poems or plays and say what they thought about them. There was no right answer, but so many generations thought there ought to have been one in the back of the book. I remember an experimental exam paper we tried one year, but no-one else does.
I wonder how many recall my favourite works, like The Sandcastle, One, by David Karp; Here by R S Thomas ("I am a man now") , The Ancient Mariner or Lepanto, ("Dim drums throbbing in the hills half heard" springs to mind) The poems allowed us to talk about esoteric ideas like alliteration or onomatopoeia. Spelling tests were regular and in the earlier days we even did clause analysis. Many boys liked this because you could get full marks for an exercise, an unlikely event when handing in an essay.
Looking back, I regret some things. We were even then constrained by the exam syllabus and could not always choose the books we wanted to study. We had to do Shakespeare even with boys whose intellectual gifts were best employed in other directions. To this day I cannot write unless I am motivated to do so, yet for years we expected boys to turn out an automatic essay every week, possibly on a subject of little appeal. That was why we started Log Books, so that boys could write what they wanted rather than being forced into a straitjacket.
When I came for interview in 1954, ARS sat me in a very low chair and shone a table lamp on my face as if in a Gestapo interrogation. He asked me to name a dialectic poet and I tried desperately to think of which logical, argumentative poet I had read, and suggested Milton. It turned out that what he meant was "dialectal" and that he had hoped I would of course say Rabbie Burns. He was very kind, though, and when George Yelland left, ARS offered me the job of head of department straight away.
I remember now that I got very agitated once about his introduction of House Sections, but just as I no longer recall why mini-skirts aroused interesting thoughts, I no longer know what it was that upset me about them. He was far-sighted, determined, decisive. If you went to him with a suggestion you got an answer at once. Usually "No." Other Headmasters whom I have served under would prevaricate, sleep on it, ask their wives and give me an answer a week later. We recall his unusual turns of phrase, and his condemnation of The Seeker (a boys' magazine that attacked all that he stood for) and his lining the touchline with the entire school to watch the first XV play Harrow A XV; but we should also remember that he drove the school relentlessly forward, insisted on high standards and achieved the best results of any grammar school of its time in the country. His standards were high. I remember one of my successes, a boy with undeservedly good O Levels, whom we had browbeaten all through A Level. He had scraped into Oxford against all the odds. I sent him to break the good news to the Head himself. He came out of his room in tears: ARS had suggested to him that he was a second-rate failure as he had not won a scholarship, only a place. Winston Churchill's father was rather like that.
I recall some of the boys who excelled, whom it was a pleasure to teach as their alert imaginative minds were always posing challenges: teaching them was exciting and a reward for all the effort. They were creative, alive to the possibilities of the ambiguities of language. I remember one class who were asked to think of a new way to stage King Lear and came up with some striking portrayals of the gods as puppeteers, expressing visually the metaphors in the play.
But I also recall with pleasure some of the C and D streamers who were usually not as hard working, not as reliable, not as intellectual, but who were ingenious, original, challenging in their own way. What happened to Terry Ponting, in IIIC, who wrote the most wonderful short stories?
Someone in the Guest Book suggested that the A stream were so clever and
self-motivated that they would have succeeded even if taught by monkeys. No,
sir. They needed challenges, stimulation, provocative ideas, to get their minds
to work. Clever intellectuals can quickly become bored if not stretched. Harrow
County provided an environment that exuded success. The challenge was from each
other: it was accepted that if you reached the Sixth form it was expected of you
that you would go to University. Now we are hearing of the psychological cost to
the weaker ones of living in such an environment. But even they will have
benefited by being stretched. and I note a number who say that they developed
late and took degrees years after
leaving school. The seed was sown at Gayton Road. Many schools today suffer because pupils are not expected to shine, so they don't.
Along with many colleagues, I was heartbroken at the change to a comprehensive school: we had created an ethos that meant we had boys for seven years. Juniors could be inspired and guided by older boys. and to lose them at 16 would seem a dreadful waste with only half the work done. We fought long and heard against the new scheme but politics intervened.
Councillors wanting votes went with the majority who wanted their sons into HCS even though they would not have been suited to the intensive studying expected. They did not realise that it takes time to create that kind of atmosphere that made HCS great; tradition, team spirit, expectations, the influence of older pupils: all played their part.
It was destroyed overnight. I could see no professional future for me in a school from where no-one went to University. I was lucky to be offered a job at Harrow, where the English results had not been as good. (I think I was one of the first English graduates to be appointed there to teach English, which had previously been taught by classicists and historians.) But that is another story.