Wednesday, 20 June 2007

The end of schooling

The school floodlit on VE night
My schooling ended as the war ended, in the summer of 1945. The school community celebrated the end of war in Europe in May with a two-day holiday. On the first day there were picnic parties, then later a gigantic bonfire, home-made fireworks, dancing round the blaze with linked arms, and a sing-song, while we waited for midnight and the official moment when peace would begin. The following day no one had to get up for breakfast, and buffet meals were served on the school field. Most of us passed the day in outdoor activities, or simply idled the time away. In the evening there was dancing again, ending with Auld Lang Syne and three cheers for the head teachers. Throughout the celebrations the Senior School House, Arundale, was the object of an unforgettable piece of floodlighting devised by senior boy electricians. [I am indebted for the details of this account to Reginald Snell, whose book “St Christopher School 1915-1975” has done much to remind me of why I was so happy during my senior school years.]

After this delightful break I must have had to turn immediately to revision for my final exams. I recall the sweltering agony of writing them in a suffocating hall during a heatwave summer. I remember too how, if we had two exams in a morning, we would be given handfuls of nuts and raisins during the break to keep up our energy levels. We didn’t have a tuck shops or machines in the school, and there would not have been time to sneak out to the local corner shop for forbidden refreshments .

On the whole I had found learning easy at St Christopher, except for Science, which I did not understand, and History which bored me. I was lucky to have first class teachers in all my favourite subjects: English, French, Spanish, and Biology. Even in Maths I ended up with a teacher who somehow managed to make sense of it for me, so that I was able, to my own astonishment (and probably to his), to get a credit in my School Certificate Exam (GCSE equivalent in the UK). After that I was able, thankfully, to drop the subject.
I was obliged however to have special tuition in Latin, another bugbear, as I needed the subject for the Arts Degree I was contemplating. In this too I just managed to reach the required level. I went on to take the Higher School Certificate (A levels), in English, French and Spanish, gaining a distinction in French. My French and Spanish teacher, Molly Twemlow, was particularly brilliant at French pronunciation, and in her dictations was able to make a clearly audible distinction between an ‘é’ and an ‘ée’ ending. The early training I received in that language has given me one of the greatest sources of pleasure of my life.
But I recall most especially my English Teacher, Miss Maxwell. I remember her as a rather severe lady, of the kind one expects to find in all-girl schools, but who stood out somewhat from the majority of more relaxed-looking teachers at St Chris. She was nicknamed ‘Hetty’, and I am sure she knew that, although she was the one teacher we did not call by her nickname to her face. She could be stern and sharply disciplinary. I remember her calling me to account for whistling in the school corridors – (I whistled a great deal in those days, having no singing voice and no concept of being ladylike!) But how she could teach! She loved her subject and I believe she loved us too, because we wanted to learn. And as there were only three of us taking this particular group of subjects, our lessons were more like personal tutorials. After our final exams, Hetty took the trouble to send us each a postcard with our results, as soon as she knew them, in advance of our receiving the official notification.
Of course there had been discussions about what I should do next in my life. I was good at languages and should have gone with that. But I did not want to teach or do language research, which seemed to be all that would be open to me. Nobody seemed to think of the role of interpreter – at that time during the war, I don’t suppose such training was available. Had it been, I believe that is the direction I should have taken. But at 16 I had the idea that I wanted to serve the community, and it was agreed between my teachers, my parents and myself that I should aim for a Sociology Degree at The London School of Economics, or possibly a Degree in Social Sciences. So this was my plan as I left St Christopher for the last time as a student, though I would return there from time to time as an Old Scholar.

The Lower Sixth [I'm 2nd from L at the back]

The Upper and Lower Sixth forms 1944

Boarding school - the effects of war

On the whole the war years made little impact on me. None of my relatives was of an age to join the armed services, and there were no casualities of any sort. As for me, I was cocooned in the country, both at home where we lived in a small country village, and at my boarding school right on the edge of a garden city. There were air raid warnings, however, and bombs fall occasionally in the area. Some trenches were dug at the far end of the school field, and equipped with electric light and lavatories. These were used by the seniors for a short while but were soon abandoned in favour of the indoor shelters the other boarding houses were using. These consisted of a series of tubular steel half circles like toast-racks, put up in downstairs rooms. I presume these would have held off falling masonry.

During some of the worst bombing attacks on London, instead of travelling from Worcester to school at Letchworth, via Paddington and Kings Cross, my brother and I were dispatched via Oxford and Reading, a long and dreary route without the benefit of our school mates as company on the train. Instead of being met and transported across London by my father’s sister, my parents arranged for an organisation called Universal Aunts to get us from train to train at the intermediary stops. They are still in existence, and still performing the role of proxy parents (among many others) all these years later. They have been going since 1921, and I have taken the liberty of reproducing one of their archive pictures of ‘Meeting the train’.

I have written before of the vegetarian diet at our boarding school. At the start of the war meat dinners were on offer twice a week for those children whose parents wanted them to have meat. But these were soon abandoned, due to the difficulties of buying both meat and vegetarian food with ration books. Although I thrived on the vegetarian diet, and thought I might remain vegetarian after leaving school (I did not in fact), I still had an occasional yearning for meat. It was one of our regular naughty escapades to go down into the town where a mobile café served spam and chips for an affordable sum. Another of our favourite food supplements was a threepenny Lyons Individual Fruit Pie from the local corner shop.

None of this can really be called hardship, but we were called upon to make some contribution to ‘the war effort’. There were days when we were sent off to help local farmers with lifting their potato crops, armed with a packed lunch and a large bottle (glass of course) filled with weak sweet tea. There were also harvest camps in the summer holidays, when we went off to stay on farms in Lincolnshire for a week or two during the harvest season. It was extremely hard work, but fun as well, as this sort of communal effort usually is. The picture shows washing up duty on a day when I was not sent out into the field. [Double click on it to see a larger version.]

Oh yes, and I was elected to the Economy Committee in my senior years, which entitled me to go around annoying the hell out of people by switching off unnecessary lights and turning down central heating. I wasn’t all that popular anyway, but I couldn’t resist the bossy role!

Some of our male staff left to go to war, of course, and one of them became a well-known war correspondent for the Daily Telegraph (Christopher Buckley). Sadly he lost his life later in Korea, having almost taken the decision to retire after World War II. Another was the housemaster of whom I wrote in my other blog in “Escape artist”. He left behind a disconsolate wife and small son, and I do remember that her temper became extremely short during his absence, which I hope we had the understanding to forgive.

That lovely couple, who ran their school boarding house with a firm but enlightened hand, has remained in my heart, (along with the principal and his wife), as the role models of my choice. Some thirty years later I had the good fortune to find myself on a channel ferry with them crossing from Belgium to England, and they carried me off to have breakfast with them in Cambridge, where I had a date with my dentist. They had eventually left the school to run an international school of their own in Switzerland.

Sunday, 10 June 2007

Boarding school - affairs of the heart

There is one leisure pursuit – and here the word ‘pursuit’ achieves its full significance – which I have not mentioned so far, sensing that I should wish to devote a whole post to the subject. I am of course referring to boys.
The first boy with whom I developed a mutual tendresse was a little younger than me, and I cannot recall what drew us together initially. He was 13 and I must have been around 14. He was a very gentle young man, and was destined to die tragically at a very young age, from some blood disease as far as I can remember. Thinking back my memory of him is of a pale child, with an ethereal look already about him. We did no more than spend time alone together on the school field, and sometimes we held hands – such an innocent and yet meaningful touch, and one which has continued to hold great significance for me throughout my life. A. gave me my first love token – a small bone ring which he had made for me in his craft lessons. He had made it with a flat surface for part of the circumference, so that it might be engraved, and I have always been sad that he never actually did this. I still have the ring, and over the years I have often worn it, either on my finger, or as a scarf toggle. It won't fit over my nobbly knuckles any longer.

A's ring

My next admirer was B., a year older than me. He and I would take walks through the Hertfordshire countryside during the summer term, and the smell of May blossom, or of Queen Anne’s lace, or the stubble fields of harvest time under a sweltering sun, have always tended to raise the sap in my veins again, in recollection of those early stirrings. B. too made an offering for me in the craftshop, a beautifully turned wooden candlestick. This too I have kept, and it is brought out at Christmas with a red candle in it. My mother inadvertently caused me great distress, when I was still living at home, by washing the candlestick in an attempt to remove the wax spatterings. Unfortunately this destroyed the beautiful polish which it had been given, and it never looked quite the same again. I found it difficult to forgive her!

G. was the first boy I set my sights on and pursued unilaterally. Shamelessly, I would take every opportunity to talk to him, and would often plonk myself down beside him at one of the work tables in the library, and sit studying next to him. That must have been very annoying for him. I don’t think he was ever really interested in me, but showed remarkable patience for some time, even when I escaped from my dormitory one night to visit him in his sleeping hut in the school grounds. He put a good face on it, got out of bed and suggested we take a walk. We went across the school field and into the apple orchard. I think it must have been September, as the fruit was ripe on the trees and starting to fall. The scene was wreathed in mist, and lit by a gentle luminosity from the moon. Out of nothing more than this my romantic heart created an occasion of real magic, which glimmers imperishably in my memory. But soon after that he got me off his hands, apparently by asking another boy to take me on, though I didn’t find that out until much later.

And so I turned my attention to E., who had actually invited me to go for a walk with him. Another occasion of the utmost magic: an October night with a wild wind blowing, and copper coloured clouds scudding across a lurid moon. We took our romantic walk, believe it or not, along the Great North Road, which must have been a deal more rural around Letchworth in the 1940s than it is today. We cuddled a bit, and talked, and as far as I was concerned I was well and truly hooked. But alas, I didn’t hold his attention for very long either, although I yearned over him for the rest of my school days. Which reminds me that in my spare time I also wrote a great deal of soppy poetry, in both English and French! I will spare my readers that however.

B's candlestick

Footnote - Strange customs develop in a closed community: acknowledged pairs would exchange friendship pins, and the girl would wear her boy’s jacket over her shoulders. When she no longer wore it you knew the girl had been ‘dropped’! (Roll on Women's Lib!)

Thursday, 7 June 2007

Boarding school - escape artist

Or: Romance rears its head
I was a pretty good at escaping while at school in Letchworth – preferably at night, out of windows and down fire escapes. I don’t mean that I wanted to escape from the school – far from it – but that I wanted to escape from my dormitory for the purpose of unauthorised meetings with boys.

I made a trial run at the age of about 13, before I had any real interest in the male of the species. This was just sheer naughtiness, giving in to the temptation of being where we shouldn’t, and I was not alone on this occasion. We went into a teacher's bedroom and climbed out of the window and onto the roof. Of course we were discovered, and received a severe talking to by the house father. (Boarding houses were run by married couples.) But I think what made the biggest impression on me was not the fierceness of the wigging he gave us, but the long, long time he sat at the piano afterwards, playing sombre music, with stern disappointment on his face. He was a man I liked and respected, and it pained me to have upset him so much.

But that didn’t stop me a year or two later, when I wanted to leave my bedroom and make my way to where my particular 'crush' of the moment was sleeping. It was a school designed to give us the maximum advantage of fresh air, in addition to the vegetarian diet and Quaker principles, and in the senior school the boys slept in wooden huts or brick ‘cells’, built outside the main building. Hence the need for escape routes. When I returned for an old scholars’ reunion in 1997,
I took great delight in photographing the two routes which I remembered, one from a first-floor dormitory and over a balcony, and one from a second-floor bathroom and down a fire-escape. I have marked the exit points on the pictures here.

On the first occasion the unfortunate youth did not know I was coming – I have always been inclined to pick my own quarry and start the chase myself – but he put a good face on it, got out of bed and suggested we take a walk. There was a school field, of course, and lawns, kitchen gardens and an orchard. I think it must have been September, as the apples were ripe on the trees and starting to fall. The scene was wreathed in mist, and lit by a gentle luminosity from the moon. My romantic heart created an occasion of real magic, which glimmers imperishably in my memory.

Regrettably, the young man never really took a fancy to me – (saw him at that reunion, bald as a coot. Oh! where are all the golden boys and girls?) – and he asked another boy to take me off his hands, though I didn’t find that out till much later. This other fella also suggested a walk, so off I went again.
Another occasion of the utmost magic: an October night with a wild wind blowing, and copper coloured clouds scudding across a lurid moon. We took our romantic walk, believe it or not, along the Great North Road, which must have been a deal more rural in the 1940s than it is today. We cuddled a bit, and talked, and as far as I was concerned I was hooked for the rest of my school days, though once again I failed to hold his attention. (Clearly, I was going to be a late developer!) The other day I found a sonnet I wrote after that walk along the Great North Road. Urrghh! It was sickening - I won’t inflict it on you.

Footnote - Strange customs develop in a closed community: acknowledged pairs would exchange friendship pins, and the girl would wear her boy’s jacket over her shoulders. When she no longer wore it you knew the girl had been ‘dropped’! (Roll on Women's Lib!)

Monday, 4 June 2007

Boarding school - leisure pursuits

At boarding school there is a lot of time to be filled outside the classroom. There was homework of course. There was, I think, an obligatory hour of work time each evening (it might have been more in the senior school), but with the assignment system, we planned for ourselves what work we did in that quiet time, and when we would fit the rest of it into our free time. I did not learn any extras, such as a musical instrument, as I had no talents in that direction. I was not sporty either so did not get involved in matches with other schools.

I was still keeping pets, and we had a "pets’ corner" in the school gardens. To begin with I was still caring for pet mice, but later graduated to rabbits and guinea pigs. Before then, however I remember one drama with the mice. At the beginning of each term, our father drove us the 7 miles to the town of Worcester, where we caught a train for London. On one occasion we were more than half way to the station when I suddenly realised that the travelling box with the mice in it was not on my knee – I had left it on the sideboard at home! So my father turned round, drove us home where I picked up the mice, turned round again, and still managed to get us to the station in time to catch the train. It was a good thing we always allowed plenty of leeway on these occasions.

In the chorus of greek slaves, in 'Hellas'

The school was very keen on drama productions, and I took part in a number of these, which I thoroughly enjoyed. There was also a Literary and Debating Society which was a natural outlet for me, and for a time I was the most active member of the Economy Committee, whose role it was to support ‘the war effort’ by keeping an eye on the unnecessary use of lights and heating. I relished the officiousness of the role.

I remember taking bicycle rides out into the country, though not very often, as I was a bit of a loner and did not have a group of friends to keep me company. I also paid visits to the home of a daygirl friend. I think, too, that as seniors we were sometimes allowed to visit the cinema in the town. On Wednesday nights, in the senior boarding house, we used to have ballroom dancing to gramophone records. How we whirled and twirled to the sounds of Glen Miller. I remember a big boy with a strong arm and a sure foot who was much in demand for Viennese waltzes. I too would sometimes acquire a sudden popularity on these evenings, being the proud possessor of an almost circular skirt, which was considered to be the absolute thing to wear for dancing. But I did not lend it often – I was always dancing myself.

I think we spent a lot of time just loitering or ‘hanging out’, gossiping or putting the world to rights. There was one member of staff who often gathered a group of children about him. He would perch on the deep windowsill in the corridor just outside his room, and we would gather round, and be talking with him for hours. I remember, incidentally, that his room at the top of the main staircase was ideally placed for being aware of any unofficial wanderings and exits from the house at night. He always made a point of letting me know it when I was the miscreant, but he never actually gave me away as far as I know, which was decent of him.

Iseult the Whitehanded, in 'The Tragedy of the Queen of Cornwall'

Sunday, 3 June 2007

Boarding school - fresh air

I have a lasting impression that I was exposed to extravagant amounts of fresh air while at St Christopher’s. I suppose it is not uncommon for schools to expand by means of tagging on rooms and buildings wherever there is room in the grounds; however, at St Chris the senior school seemed to have been constructed specifically to oblige everyone to leave the warmth of the building and expose themselves to the elements between classes.

A lot of the rooms were built around open cloisters, with roofed but open-sided walkways to get from one to the other. It is only fair to say, however, that these same rooms, on their other sides, opened up fully to the garden, so that in a good summer classes could be taken in the fresh air, which more than made up for the rigours of a Hertfordshire winter.

Summer classes out of doors *

Then most of the senior boys’ bedroom/studies (or ‘cells’) were also built as cloisters outside the main building, and some were even wooden huts out on the school field. I am thankful to say that girls slept indoors, but I nevertheless suffered from chilblains throughout the winter.

Even indoors it was a mighty chilly place, with winds whistling down the corridors. There was a minor transgression known as ‘passage dwelling’, when children congregated around the radiators in the warmer corners of the building, vying for the opportunity to warm their backsides against the hot metal, instead of being where they were supposed to be – somewhere else.

As if that was not enough, we all had to get up and go for a walk every morning before breakfast, rain or shine. And after meals we had to wash up our own pudding dishes in a row of wooden sinks which stood outside in the courtyard, roofed, but open on one side.

Spartan, I would call it, as was the regime when we fell victim to colds. If we really felt poorly, we were isolated in a sick room, given no food other than fruit and juice, and obliged to do frequent inhalations of friar’s balsam. We got better pretty quickly! There was an upside to health care however: I can remember attending Matron’s surgery on a daily basis in the winter, to be given a large, gluey, sickly spoonful of extract of malt with cod liver oil. And I have to say that I remained largely healthy for the six years I was under this regime, and that I grew out of my chilblains eventually – (probably when I began to live in centrally heated houses after the war).

The senior boys' "cells" *


* Photographs from "St Christopher School 1915-1975" by Reginald Snell