Saturday, 12 March 2011

Boarding School

I joined the Junior House, in 1969 as the son of an Air Force Officer for the last year at the Prep School. I knew nothing of Cambridge, or the Perse , and picked it over Rugby and Oundle for reasons I cannot recall. Arriving was frightening, and intimidating. The Courtyard was a mass of unfamiliar boys, parents, trunks, tuck boxes and personal effects. Glebe Rd itself was a leafy side street, the two Boarding Houses were imposing, but discreet, and were accessed by a long drive.

The building itself was sound, but Spartan. The front was the housemaster’s accommodation, but I cannot ever remember using the front door. Access was strictly forbidden. A new annexe had recently been added at the back within the past ten years providing a ground floor “Prep” room and a first floor “New Dorm”, presumably added to cope with increased demand. The boys always used the Courtyard entrance.

Inside, to the left, was the “Tuck Room” where the Tuck boxes were stored. These were custom-made, lockable, available from Joshua Taylors, and were akin to Pirate Chests. They were intended to provide sweets and treats for half a term, in practise they were empty within half a week. The Tuck Room was normally kept locked, but was opened in the evening after Prep had finished, but before supper, and was then locked again.

Next to the Tuck Room was a modelling room, virtually identical in size to the Tuck Room. Here plastic Airfix and Revell models were meticulously assembled during spare time. Second World War aircraft were the most popular, followed by ships and cars. The larger and more intricate, and therefore the more time consuming to assemble, the better. One of the highlights of the year was the “Modelling Competition” which was traditionally judged by House Tutor, Mr Wearing, and his great friend Mr Seymour in the summer term. At the corridor’s end was the Monitors’ Room, a study which was occupied by the three eldest boys who stayed down in the Junior house, even though their fellow third years had gone “up” to the senior house. It was offered, together with Monitor privileges, as a reward.

Turning right from the entrance was the Changing Room where wire open lockers contained games kit and casual clothes which were always referred to as Mufti. The Changing Room also contained the three toilet cubicles available to the boys during the day. It was not the sweetest smelling room of the House as a consequence. A door led off to the Boiler Room which was normally forbidden territory as it accessed the rest of the house, but was useful for drying wet clothes.

Turning left was a rather grand sweeping staircase leading upstairs with a shoe rack underneath. Matron always inspected Prep boys shoes in the morning before they left. Then opposite the staircase lay the common room, which in reality was quite sparse. Fixed to the surrounding walls were cupboards with shelving offering storage space for books and other personal effects. But the centrepiece was a table tennis table, one of the very few amenities available to boys. This was in constant use, and the annual table tennis competition was always fiercely fought. Unsurprisingly, given all the practise, the standard was very high with Simon Kay always proving the boy to beat. There were only a handful of chairs, so its status as a common room was somewhat doubtful, and a small bookcase offered as basic a “library” facility as could possibly be imagined. Yet incongruously, there was a magnificent bound collection of “Punch” editions which stretched back into the 19th century – I wonder what became of them?

Directly in front of the stairs was Matron’s study which amounted to little more than a sewing room with an easy chair. To the left of that was the House Tutor’s study which was considerably more comfortable leading to the Prep Room, a modern, large airy room with several tables and chairs. By far the nicest room in the House. To the right of Matron’s Room was a corridor which led to the Dining Room on the right, the television room to the left, and the door through to the Housemaster’s quarters straight ahead.

The television room was used at week-ends only, no television could be watched mid-week. At weekends viewing was strictly regulated by a “viewing schedule” which was pinned to the door by the Housemaster. In practise this was very limited. The programmes, Channels and times were laid out. On Saturday, it comprised ITV’s World of Sport in the afternoon, Dr Who ,family game shows and then bed. On Sunday it would be Ski Sunday, an afternoon film- and that was it. Watching “non-prescribed “ programmes was forbidden, and we were not allowed to see “The Battle of Britain”, certificate U, because of the “sex scene” ( you will have to work VERY hard to find it!). This was the only room in the house with easy chairs which were occupied in strict “hierarchical” order. Monitors top, youngest bottom. Any boy who was sitting in a chair which you fancied who was younger than you could be “chucked”. It was harsh, yet the communal atmosphere of watching “Dr Who” was magical. Quite large, it could just “seat” everyone on a combination of chairs and the floor – and was the only carpeted room for boys in the House.

The Dining Room itself was functional, but dingy, with the natural light, such as it was, coming from the inner courtyard. All meals were taken there, including mid week lunch for the Upper School, which added to the sense of detachment from the day boys. Overall, the meals were satisfactory, certainly of a standard which meant that the staff happily and readily shared in them. There were three tables, again organised on strict hierarchical lines. The table closest to the corridor wall took the Prep boys, the table closest to the courtyard the youngest Upper School Boys and the Top table, placed alongside the wall which backed onto the staircase the oldest boys. The three Monitors supervised the tables. Matron and the House Tutor would dine with us week days, but not Saturdays. The Housemaster would dine with us Sunday Lunchtime. Around the walls were group annual House photos, the number of years you had been there recorded in black and white.

The connecting door to the Housemaster’s quarters was a barrier that could only be crossed in the most exceptional of circumstances – which was pretty much never. Up the staircase to the left lay the bathroom which was over the Changing Rooms. It was functional at best, with wash hand basins and mirrors, three baths with a wooden screen, open inside but accessed by personal doors, and it was always cold. Over thirty boys put enormous pressure on these facilities at the best of times meaning that baths, and bath water, were routinely shared.

There was only one “night toilet” on the first floor, and three dormitories, which again were allocated on a hierarchical basis. A Monitor slept in each Dormitory. Needless to say that “Monitoring” the Junior/ New Dorm was the least popular duty. New Dorm was occupied by the Prep, or youngest, boys. Like the Prep Room underneath, it was light and airy.”Old Dorm”, the smallest, was over the Common Room with exposed roof joists, faced over the gardens and opened on one side to a flat roof over the Tuck, Modelling and Monitors’ Rooms. The oldest boys slept there. ” Big Dorm” lay over the Dining Room ,and overlooked the inner courtyard ,but was more airy than downstairs as the Boiler room was only single storey. Prior to an interconnecting door on the first floor to the Housemaster’s Quarters there was a sick bay, and Matron and the House Tutors’ bedrooms.

Settling in was not easy. As one of around ten Prep boys I was the only new boy in the year. Friendships had been forged and newcomers were a threat and disruption to the established order. The pecking order was soon explained to me. In your first year you were a “new bug”, in your second a “new boy”, then an “old bug” and “old boy” in following years. Upon arrival you stashed your Tuck Box, unpacked your trunk and found which bed you had been allocated in which Dorm. The lack of privacy was total, there was no private space. The only sense of personal identity was in the form of a rug which you were allowed to keep at the foot of your bed. Childhood toys’ teddies were an absolute no-no. On your first morning Matron showed you how to make your bed, and that was it, you were on your own. With all clothing taken from an approved list purchasable from either Joshua Taylor (Josh Tosh) or Eaden Lilleys there was a uniformity which had distinctly military/Institutional overtones.

The routine was custom made to dragoon thirty odd boys. At seven 0’clock in the morning Matron rang the bell, at 7.15am you had to be out of bed as Matron did her rounds. 8pm was breakfast, being late for breakfast was never allowed. Prep boys had to be out by 8.15 for the long walk ,or shorter cycle, to Trumpington Rd. Matron then had the task of stepping out into Hills Rd, with no formal crossing of “lollipop stick” to marshall the youngsters safely across the road. Walkers were allowed to cut through the Upper School grounds, cyclists were not. Prep boys had school dinners, Upper Schoolboys came back to the house for lunch.

Although the Prep School was a long way from the House for young children, the setting was idyllic. The house itself was once in the family of the retailer Joshua Sayle, and the grounds were to die for. As Prep boys we had to wear shorts, long
trousers were not allowed, and caps.

In those days the postal service was very efficient. At 7.30, the Housemistress would come through from her Quarters to the Prep room to lay out the papers, “The Daily Telegraph”, “The Daily Mail” and “The Daily Express”, and the morning’s post. In the evening the “Cambridge Evening News” was delivered. However prior to being brought through Martha would censor any inappropriate stories by simply cutting them out with a pair of scissors. What criteria were used to justify the very occasional missing column remains a mystery to this day. All were eagerly awaited, and voraciously devoured by the boys. In the absence of being able to watch mid week television broadcasts, and with little opportunity to listen to the radio during the day, the daily papers were our main source of news and current affairs. As a consequence knowledge of current affairs and sport was excellent. Incoming post was not directly censored, but was instead “screened”. Postmarks from areas other than parent’s addresses were directly queried. And if boys had been unwise enough to express any concerns about their lives to their parents, the content of incoming parents letters was questioned -“what did they say?”


In the Courtyard was a large bike shed. All boys had bikes. The “chopper” with high handle bars and a gear shift on the crossbar was the most coveted bike, but they all offered independence to make journeys to sweet shops and beyond. Integral to the shed was a wooden garage with double doors in which Housemaster Mr Mitchell kept his green Austin Maxi. Somehow he include washing it as part of the boy’s duties on a Sunday!

The period between when School finished and Tea, at 5pm was one of the few periods of free time during the day. Prep was sat at 6pm,taken by the House Tutor, with strictly no talking, the Prep Boys finished at 7pm, dressed in their nightclothes, and then joined everyone for supper at 7.30pm which was taken by the Housemaster. Roll call was taken with the boys stood around the walls in strict age order , notices read, prayers said, and a hot drink and a biscuit enjoyed. Prep boys went to bed immediately. All older boys went to bed for 8.15pm, boys who were up to 14 years old! Talking after lights out was forbidden, transistor radios under the pillow were banned, but widely listened to. Emerging pop stations Radio Luxembourg, Radio Caroline were favourites – as was Radio Four.

The Boarding House was strangely lacking in academic support. The Housemaster and House Tutor were never available to assist with homework, there was no academic library and speaking during Prep was not allowed, so peer assistance was impossible.
Saturday morning school finished at 12.30pm, and lunch was at 1pm, so Saturday afternoons offered a rare taste of freedom. Invariably this involved a trip into “Town”, to Cambridge City Centre on the 106 bus. Getting off at the Catholic Church was cheaper than the fare all the way to “Boots” so most boys claimed the full fare- but pocketed the difference!

Any trip off Boarding premises had to be approved by the Housemaster. Apart from visits to “Stopshop” or “NSS” newsagents in Cherry Hinton for sweets authorised by Matron, no-one was allowed off site mid week. Our school blazers were conspicuous, and the local kids taunted us as the “Persey Parrots”, in turn we dismissed them using the name of their school as the “Morley Mugs”.

Around this time Cambridge United FC gained election to the Football League. As a Saturday afternoon event, this had instant attraction to myself and several boys, but the 4.40pm finish meant that we had to plead for a “late tea” as we would not be back for 5pm. Although this involved the most heinous of crimes, “ a disruption in routine”, the Major surprisingly always agreed. Myself, James Stevens and Sebastian Cooper became regulars making pretty much every match, with quite a strong contingent of day boys joining us including Bernard Hoskins and Mark Saggers, now of BBC and Talk Sport fame.

One week I spotted in the Cambridge Evening News that the football club had invited local schools for a tour of the ground. I noted that we had not been one of them and precociously sent off a letter of complaint. In doing so I was unaware that the Chairman of Cambridge, David Ruston, was an Old Persean. I was shocked, amazed, and delighted when Martha came through one morning holding an official looking letter for me. It was an invite from Mr Ruston to join him, with two friends of my choice, as his personal guests at the home fixture versus Rotherham United ! We met him at the Club Shop on the day, were waved through the gates like royalty it seemed, were given a tour of the facilities, and then devoured all available refreshments in the Directors Lounge before watching the game with Mr Ruston in the Directors Box. Although a goal less daw, we had a memorable day, and that kindness sealed a lifetime taking an interest in the fortunes of the “U’s.

Once a week, at 1.30pm in the Prep room, the House Tutor would hold a “bank”. When I arrived we were entitled to £3 pocket money a term, 30 shillings a half term. Roland carried a float in a petty cash tin and a ledger into which a record of all withdrawals was placed. Any request had to be explained. If you wanted to take out two shillings for sweets you could expect to be grilled on whether or not that was a little excessive. Bus fares and stationary were classed as “extras”. We all became very adept at pleading lost receipts and bus tickets, and forging or borrowing receipts so we could supplement our meagre pocket money allowance. Playing on the excellent playing fields or watching television were the other alternatives. Then it was the usual routine of tea at 5pm, but no Prep, and supper and bed at the normal times. IF there was a particularly good television programme on, sometimes the prep boys were given special dispensation to stay up till 8.15 – but that was rare.

Sunday mornings was “Duty day”. Each boy had their own part of the boarding house for which they were responsible regarding tidiness, and cleanliness, and the Housemaster would conduct a morning inspection in this regard. We would then go to St John’s Church in Hills Rd for a short private service. Canon Stanbury officiated with humour, love, wisdom and faith. He was a hopeless pianist but that never seemed to matter as he rattled through a favourite hymn, a few jokes , said a few prayers and then always offered a light cheerful sermon, well prepared, with a simple message.

Upon our return it was letter writing time. Outgoing letters had to be handed in with an unsealed addressed envelope. The letters were read – and censored, such that any complaint was pointless, so none was written, and we all became experts in the anodyne. We had no access to a telephone at the house. We had no spare money to visit telephone boxes. Apart from the weekends we had little opportunity to get to telephone boxes, and then if we did, an uncertain prospect of getting a reply. Any form of complaint which did get through, resulting in a telephone call or letter from ones parents to the Housemaster had grave consequences. A carpeting in front of the Housemaster dismissing your complaint or unhappiness, together with a warning not to upset your parents again was the result. It worked. We soon learned to buy stamps and post letters ourselves if we wished to beat the system.

Seeing your parents during term time, and visiting home for the weekend, was discouraged. Technically you could ask for two “exeats” a term. In practise, the distance to most boys homes meant that a visit from Saturday afternoon to Sunday tea time was impractical. Staying with Day Boys was actively discouraged to the extent that I can never recall a consent being given.

Lunch was served at 1pm, and then again we had some free time. In those days the shops were closed on a Sunday so there was nowhere to go. But normally a mass football game would be organised on the playing fields involving boys from both houses, and occasionally members of staff. They were joyful, energetic events that lasted forever. Tea at 5pm, supper at 7.30pm – and the week started again.

Discipline was regimented, but not harsh. “The slipper” was in theory a sanction available to both the House Tutor and Housemaster, but it was never administered in my time there. Equally the cane was a sanction at the Upper School, but I never witnessed it’s use, and if it was ever used, it was in the most rare of instances.
Almost all discipline was administered and controlled by three 13-14yr old Monitors appointed by the Housemaster. Their man powers included setting “lines” as punishment, typically 100-200, they could also send an errant boy out of Prep, if they were taking it, or out of the Dormitory, at night time, or “report” the boy to the House Tutor. The Monitors were the apex of the hierarchical structure which was set and encouraged by the School. The consequence was a very functional self-policing structure which gave the House Tutor and Housemaster very little trouble, but one in which there was too little adult input and too great a leeway given to young teenagers operating largely unchecked. Physical bullying was routine, psychological bullying through so called “anti-campaigns” in which the victim was ostracised was acquiesced to, and in some cases encouraged by, staff.

The consequent social structure in the House would have been recognised by William Golding, albeit without the excesses of “Lord of the flies”. Boys were addressed by their friends and staff alike by their surnames. Intense friendships , and alliances, were formed and guarded, to enable boys to get on with their lives. The plus side was that boys to chat to and play sport with on the playing fields were always around. The downside was that there was no adult presence to mediate with personal spats, nor to control internal power-plays. In hindsight the meagre amenities and lack of structured after school academic or leisure pursuits played its part. The devil makes work for idle hands.

House activities were rare. At Christmas time the boys would put on a comedy revue show for the staff, some visitors, and other boys. They were great fun, and I still retain a sketch which I wrote and performed in some forty years ago! Occasionally, if there was anything “suitable” on, we would be taken on a trip to the Cinema or theatre as a treat at Christmas. Visits to see Charlton Heston in “The Omega Man” , “North by North West” and Arthur Millers’ “The Crucible” linger. In the summer there would always be an outing to such places as Windsor Safari Park, Mr Seymour’s steam train at Bressingham and, bizarrely, Drag Car racing at Santa Pod.
The Dormitories offered many shades of light and dark. Asking 10-14 young boys to go to bed, and sleep, at 8.15pm and not talk when the beds were divided by the width of a chair was unrealistic. But punishments were regularly handed out for just that by Monitors and staff alike, either one or two hundred lines, or standing in your pyjamas in a cold corridor for half an hour was no fun. Ironically “illegal” radios, listened to under pillows kept boys quiet, and incredibly well informed on current affairs. Vendetta’s were sometimes prosecuted after lights out – the merciless and cruel side of Boarding School.

Yet there were upsides. “Big Dorm” was very popular for two reasons. Firstly, music from the Senior House would drift through open windows on warm summer evenings at a time when contemporary popular music was bursting with vitality. Secondly, one summer we had two extraordinarily attractive Scandinavian maids who would wave to us from their windows in the servants wing. They were banned from having any contact with us – but we could dream

The most legendary Dormitory activity was the summer strawberry raid. This could be done one of two ways. From the “Old Dorm” it was a matter of opening the sash window, walking across the flat roof, shinnying down the drainpipe, raiding the Housemasters strawberry patch, and then returning to triumphantly devour, and share, the spoils. For some reason this had to be done at midnight. Alternatively, if the raid was being launched from “Big Dorm” a succession of boys had to go to the night toilet, and then crawl through that window onto the flat roof with a greater risk of being captured by a patrolling House Tutor. Forays from the New Dorm were impossible as you had to pass the House tutors bedroom door. The Housemaster’s vegetable and fruit plot was strictly out of bounds at all times, and curiously as boys, we never seemed to benefit from any resulting produce. I have however had occasion to wonder whether The Major ever queried the consistently disappointing yields from his strawberry patch. Furthermore did Matron not wonder why there were strawberry stains in dressing gown pockets?

The Dorm doors had part frosted panels, and the House Tutor or Housemaster would occasionally creep up to the doors to listen for talking or other activity at which point their shadow would be apparent. A “look-out” was always appointed and if he saw anything, or heard approaching footsteps, the traditional warning of “cave” was hissed. Despite the estimable reputation at the School for Classics , pronounced “KV”, it was postulated that this stood for “Kens vibrating”, representing the twitchy behaviour of some imagined past member of staff!

At the end of term it was traditional to have an early morning pillow fight between the dorms combined with a bit of a slipper fight. But Martha Mitchell became determined to stop this by patrolling before 7am to prevent hostilities beginning. A battle of wills ensued with us starting earlier, and Martha getting up earlier to prevent it. The year when she got up at 5.30am we had to accept she had won.
For the duration of my time at the Junior House, the Housemaster remained Stanley Mitchell , the House Tutor ,Roland Wearing , with Lesley Jowett the Matron for most of that time.”The Major” was in the CCF, taught German and French, and was married to Martha, a German National whom he had apparently met during post Occupation military service.

The Major had the bearing of an effective army officer, Martha exuded Teutonic efficiency, this was clearly a winning combination when it came to running a Boarding House. He came from Bradford and spoke with a slight Northern accent. By nature he was no-nonsense and down to earth. They had two children, Alan, who was around 13-17, and Janet around 10-14. We had no contact with them whatsoever, they were forbidden from speaking or playing with us. They were never allowed outside their parents Quarters nor were they ever even seen in the private gardens. Stanley was sufficiently involved to ensure that things ran smoothly, but that was it. Like many of his generation he struggled to get to grips with a fast moving youth culture, of which more shortly. Asking permission for an Exeat was always a trial, and you quickly learned that any request which disrupted routine was doomed. He died unexpectedly the summer after I had left the junior house to go to the Upper House. His funeral was at St Johns, and was presided over by Canon Stanbury. Tony Billinghurst succeeded him as Housemaster.

The House Tutor was Art Teacher Roland Wearing. His home town was Morecambe, Lancashire, and he readily expressed a fondness for that area. He had a flamboyant demeanour, which in retrospect fitted the psychedelic sixties, and was fond of loud kipper ties. Much loved by the boys, he hated sport ( as his rotund figure bore testament to) and could not have assisted with an academic enquiry if he had wanted to. He was the adult with whom we had most contact on a day to day basis and his cheery manner was much appreciated. When he acquired a colour television in his study, an invite to watch Dr Who with him was seldom offered, but much coveted, and the subject of much jealousy from other boys, with only one or two such invites made at any time

However Roland’s “party piece” was as a storyteller and raconteur. In return for good behaviour, he would periodically tell bedtime stories of the ghoulish and macabre at bedtime to a Dormitory. This was done without notes, with each self contained episode lasting anything up to half an hour. He, and the stories, were very good. A mixture of classic Horror tales and his own compositions. This device contributed more to good behaviour in the dormitories than anything else. The sanction of a cancelled story was very effective The opprobrium heaped on any individual whose behaviour jeopardised the “next instalment” was severe.

Lesley Jowett was the Matron for most of my stay at the Junior House. Attractive, petite and with a hair style which mimicked Cilla Black’s of the era, she too was very popular. She had virtually no involvement in discipline . As the only woman with whom we had any regular contact , she was afforded considerable respect. She made sure we were up on time and were properly washed and scrubbed. She checked for shiny shoes and was responsible for all the laundry. But she stopped short of being a mother figure – with that number of boys it would have been an impossible task.
Once a term a Doctor would visit for a “surgery” at which a cursory health check was administered. Any aches and pains could also be discussed, but this was not encouraged. Either matron or Martha were always present at consultations.

All illnesses were dealt with by Matron and an aspirin, vomiting sickness by a day or two in the Sick Bay. I never recall any boy being taken to a Doctors surgery. On a handful of occasions in my four years at Junior House do I recall a Doctor being called to attend a quite obviously sick boy. With boys travelling from around the World dangerous non-uk illnesses could be brought in and one boy lost a term to typhoid. But sickness as a rule was strongly discouraged.

Day boys were not allowed to visit the Boarding House, there was not much to interest them anyway, as part of a policy of detachment. This was breached once when the day boys organised themselves to visit one Sunday to play the Boarders in a football match. The Major was very uneasy about this, and it took him a long time to agree to the fixture.. When the day boys arrived, with their parents, unsurprisingly they were not in their football kit. To the Majors horror we made to show them to our changing rooms. To the bewilderment of the day boys, and the amazement of their parents, he insisted that they change in the bike sheds as the changing rooms were for Boarders only! We wondered whether we were going to be banned from talking to them on the field too..........

In the early 70’s much excitement arose around the activities of a criminal pyromaniac in the Hills Rd area who over a period of a few weeks set fire to several sheds and outhouses in the area. The Bike shed, in an unlit, isolated spot at night was an obvious target and cause for concern. The Major’s military training came into its own as he organised a rota system of boys to stay up and keep watch whilst the threat was it its most pressing. His enthusiasm and determination impressed us all. It was only later that I reflected that the bike Shed also housed his car.

My retrospective perspective on the regime is inevitably more rounded than it was at the time. Stanley had a full time job as a Modern Languages teacher, was an active figure in the CCF involving significant extra-curricular activity, was a parent to two teenage children, and was running a House of up to 36 boys, which together with staff, numbered up to 50. Simply keeping that functioning must have been a daunting task and Martha’s behind the scenes efforts, particularly in the kitchens were Herculean. Thirty plus hungry boys aren’t interested in excuses if the kitchen staff have called in sick. But at least they had the refuge of their substantial Quarters.

For the House Tutor and Matron, term time was unrelenting. The House Tutor never had a day off, nor can I recall him ever staying away. Matron also never stayed away, although she was nominally “off” on Sundays. The hours, responsibility, lack of privacy and lack of opportunity for a personal life for those two, must have been incredibly onerous. When Miss Jowett left to marry, she was never permanently replaced while I was there as several individuals tried, and failed, to cope with working conditions.

The Social background of the boys was diverse, with an age range from 8-14.In truth the house was pitifully unsuitable for young Prep boys. No permanent boarders came from the City itself, although there were a few temporary stays for unexplained short term circumstances. The biggest single group were the sons of military officers, the fathers of Jonathan Squire, the Tooz-Hobson brothers, and the Latchem brothers were in the Air Force, Adrian Halnan’s and David Lawsons’ in the Navy, amongst others. But the geographical diversity of location meant that it was a group in name only. James Steven’s father was a pilot for MEA at the time when hi-jackings in the Middle East were routine and a number of their planes were blown up at Dawsons’ Field. His residency in Beirut was exotic, and I still own a Palestinian Head dress he brought back with him once.

The three MacFarlane brothers, Gary, Colin and Kevin were unusual in three respects. Firstly their father came from the Air Force Ranks, secondly they were the only Afro – Caribbean boys in the School, let alone the House, and probably the first, and thirdly they were the only set of three brothers. The University notwithstanding, it was very unusual to see young black faces around the town, but neither they, nor we, seemed particularly aware of this at the time. The Boarding House was a melting pot of different races and creeds and as such was very tolerant. Gary was always getting into scrapes with the Staff, Kevin probably still has one of the most infectious laughs I have ever heard and Colin has gone on to become a distinguished actor of stage and screen with popular roles in both “Batman – The Dark Knight” and “Coronation St” amongst many.

There was also a smattering of foreign students. Ramasamy came from Ceylon, Baldrey from America and Parra and Villanueva from Venezuela . The latter arrived with no English and must have found the entire experience bewildering, daunting, frightening and isolating. I recall after a term having a brief conversation with Parra in which he told me “Many Hells Angels, Grosvenor Square”, a random observation which I have never forgotten, nor tested.

Given the rich diversity of students there, boys exercised surprisingly little interest in the home lives, circumstances and family lives of other boys. It was all about the here and now. We were the poorer for it. One of my peers, Sebastian Cooper had two brothers who were at two different Boarding Schools, one at the Leys, and one elsewhere. His mother, a pragmatic lady, used to send “round robin” letters to her three dispersed boys in newsletter form, much to Sebastian’s amusement.

Generally speaking once you arrived at the House for the half-term there was little contact with your family. Exeats for the weekend, or a Saturday or Sunday afternoon with your parents were rare due to distance. Incoming telephone calls from family to the Housemasters Quarters were not allowed so communication was by letter only. The Sunday morning letter writing hour was designed to ensure that once a week your parents got something, however perfunctory. The journeys that some of the boys who lived abroad made to get home and back, unaccompanied, from the age of10 were quite extraordinary. Someone like my friend James Stevens would travel to Beirut from Heathrow having previously caught the train with the insouciance and ennui of a seasoned international businessman. There were many like him.

Cambridge in the late 60’s and early 70’s was an ideologically radical hotbed, second only to London. For a traditional school, with staff who had experienced the War years, many of whom had completed National Service, yet were also trained Academic thinkers, this was an uneasy time. Boys had elder brothers and sisters who were at University in Cambridge, and elsewhere, so the mood of counter-culture and anti-establishment swirled around.

The Headmaster at the time was Herman Melville, a tough, acerbic character with a sharp academic mind, but judging what to resist, and what to run with, must have been extraordinarily difficult. The Teddy Boy s of the late 50’s and the Mods and Rockers of the early to mid sixties had been working class movements, easily ignored. Initially the Hippy movement of 1967, epitomised by Scott Mckenzie’s “San Fransisco” ,looked like another ephemeral youth cult. But 1968 saw the anti-Vietnam War Riots in Grosvenor Square, London, and the Anti -establishment Student Riots in Paris, followed by Woodstock in 1969. This was no longer about yobs having a punch-up on Brighton sea front, a seismic shift in Youth Culture was taking place which cut across all social strata. It was the biggest challenge to the School’s sense of the status quo since the Second World war.

In Cambridge the NUS was strong and the NUSS ( the newly created National Union of School Students) recruited amongst Perse pupils ,causing some alarm amongst the staff. In 1971 the “Oz” obscenity trial became a cause celebre amongst the Artistic and Intellectual elite. Such luminaries as John Mortimer, Geoffrey Robinson and Lord Widgery played out the Trial at the Old Bailey, with Germaine Greer offering regular commentary. It was avidly followed by Perseans, and it is difficult to appreciate now how the Cultural and Social Order appeared to be under threat at the time It was only as younger, ”tuned in “ staff ,like Dr John Parry, Peter Rabey and Rex Pogson, all three excellent teachers, arrived ,that adjustments, and accommodation, unfolded.

At the start of each term the barber would visit. His aim was to cut our hair as short as possible. Our aim was to keep it as long as possible, and to offer the appearance that the barber had done nothing. Various tactics were tried in this regard. Bribery, flattering the Barber, insisting that your mother would only allow a certain style and distracting him with random conversation. It was never clear what worked, and what didn’t. But the Major would routinely patrol the stairs as boys came down from the Bathroom where their hair was cut to send back those who had been “too successful” in sweet talking the barber. And woe betide the prospects for the flowing locks of the next boy who climbed the stairs after the Major had “spoken to” the barber about appropriate hairstyles. For as girls schools were fighting to stop girls skirts from shortening, so boys schools were fighting to stop boys hair from lengthening. In both cases the schools lost!

Military style great coats were the vogue, but the preference for German uniform and memorabilia was particularly sensitive for someone with the Major’s military background and a German born wife. Kipper ties, loon pants, and tie die T shirts proliferated – it wasn’t a great time for fashion.

In 1969, when I arrived there was just one communal record player in the Common Room. By the end of the year “Dansette” portable record players and tape players had appeared in most boys lockers meaning that we could fully partake of the popular music explosion. The range in ages meant that I was exposed to a fantastic diversity of bands and singers, and many tastes cultivated then endure.
Tastes in leisure literature were changing too. I arrived to devour books by Hammond Innes, Alistair Mclean and C.S. Forester- traditional boys books. But soon “Hells Angels” by Hunter S Thompson, a surprisingly discerning judgement, and “Skinhead” by Richard Allen and the Sven Hassel war story series were all the rage, the latter having less literary merit. The common denominator was brutal graphic violence of a detail eschewed by the former authors.

Smoking was technically an expellable offence, but was so widely sociably acceptable then that it was difficult to contain. Boys who travelled internationally home at that time were also able to buy at Duty Free prices producing a cheap supply of what was then already a modestly priced product. Soft drugs were commonplace in Cambridge, and some of those boys whose parents enjoyed Diplomatic Status had privileged import opportunities. On the playing fields there was a “smokers” hole, a “secret” recess in the bushes which was not visible from the Houses. That the recess was clearly visible from the playing fields ,and was littered with Peter Stuyvesant and Pall Mall cigarette butts seemed to escape the smokers’ notice. It was somewhat less secret than they imagined.

In Cambridge the NUS was strong and the NUSS recruited amongst Perse pupils causing some alarm amongst the staff. It was only as younger, ”tuned in “ teachers like Dr john Parry, Peter Rabey and Rex Pogson, all three excellent teachers, arrived that adjustments, and accommodation, unfolded.

Restrictions on mid week movement were so great that any opportunity to “escape” was welcomed. The Christian Faith was bolstered by the fact that Confirmation Classes were surprisingly frequent in number, and held off site, resulting in a massive take-up even from those who appeared to be changing faiths. Playing for your years School team ( not difficult in year groups of only 60) also meant away trips, Chigwell and St Edmunds Ware were particular favourites.

I went up to the Senior House in the Fourth Form. At that time the Junior House reverted to it’s former name of Hillel House, and the Senior house became School House.. The regime could not have been more different

The Housemaster was Dennis Dunkley, popularly known as “DD”. A Classics teacher, it was he who introduced boys to Latin, and it was a memorable introduction . Physically, he was a big, powerfully built man. He used this to his considerable advantage. In class he was initially domineering, aggressive, strict and shouted a lot. But once his primacy had been established, his lessons were a pleasure. On occasion he was wont to reflect on various Roman Emperors, the more tyrannical the better, and he would tell stories of Caligula, Nero and Domitian ( his favourite) with obvious relish – and a twinkle in his eye. I cannot recall anyone in class failing heir Latin O level – it wasn’t allowed.

So by the time boys arrived at the Senior House his authority was unquestioned through previous association in lower years at the Upper School. So long as you did not upset him, he was fine, nor did he go looking for trouble. He knew what to turn a blind eye to. His obvious devotion to his wife, and then little daughter, was the chink in his bluff armour which we all noted with respect and admiration.
Teenage boys with no teenage girls is always a tricky situation. Mr Dunkley tolerated “glamour” photographs of women inside studies which would have made a Sgt major blush in barracks, but he just ignored them. Girls at the house was forbidden. The ban was easy to enforce. They would have stood out a mile and rumours of their presence would have spread like wildfire.

All boys had their own, or shared, studies. This provision of, and respect for, personal space had a massively positive effect on behaviour. There were no Monitors either, just a Head of House whom I never saw administer a punishment. It was a curious arrangement, DD had absolute authority whilst rarely needing to exercise it.

His predecessor was Keith Barry whom I knew as an English and French teacher, but not as a Housemaster. Mr Barry now rightly enjoys exulted status as one of the Great Perseans by dint of his length of service, achievements, and contribution to school life. He always cut a dashing figure in his Jaguar Motor Car which we all admired. Yet I suspect that he was amongst those struggling with the social winds of change when he stepped down as Housemaster.

One autumn term, just before Christmas , when I was in the Junior House, three Senior House boys took a photograph of a single sardine which they claimed was all they were offered for tea, on a plate with the Perse Crest clearly visible, and sent it into the Cambridge Evening News. It was a very small sardine, even by small sardine standards. Mr Barry was incandescent with rage and the boys were expelled. It seemed harsh for what amounted to an end of term prank with embarrassment caused, but no harm done. But I suspect that it was a manifestation of the conflict between emboldened youth and the “ancien regime”.

Sadly, both Mr Dunkley and Mr Barry have died in recent years. The School offered fulsome and glowing obituaries to both. Yet upon reading them I felt an additional sadness. I had been unaware of Mr Dunkley’s role as an intelligence officer in the Army in Cyprus arresting a “crooked” Archbishop , nor of his fondness for model railways ( he kept that quiet!).With Mr Barry I had been unaware of his pre-eminence in the Academic world outside of the Perse too. In both cases, I wish that we had all had time to know each other a little better.

By contrast to Mr Wearing, the Senior House Tutor, Mr Jones, a kindly, thoughtful, History teacher, had comparatively little to do, and was rarely seen. As with DD, this was a compliment to how smoothly the House ran .His predecessor was Richard Youdale, a hugely popular and talented Classics Teacher who befriended boys in the Junior House as well as looking out for the Seniors. A charismatic, capable maverick ,he subsequently became the successful, and controversial, Headmaster of Kings School Ely. He in turn had succeeded Mr Gascoigne.

The long serving Matron, whose real name I have forgotten, was fondly, and affectionately, known as “Wombat”. Wisely, in a House of teenage boys, she was a bluff, efficient woman in late middle age whose duties were predominantly those of a Housekeeper rather than conventional matron.

The routine of the Senior house was similar to the Junior House regarding meal times, but that was all. There was no specific prep time, although all boys worked hard ironically because they COULD talk to each other. Boys were not allowed to leave House grounds during the week without permission, but were free to do what they wanted at weekends so long as they were back for meal times. Letters, and television were uncensored.

Boys still had house duties, including a “post run”. But the most popular was the Chinese Run in the evenings. Orders for a Chinese take away in Cherry Hinton were taken, money gathered, the order was rung through from a phone box, and then collected by push bike. The orders were regularly colossal , as you might expect from thirty hungry teenage boys. But the remarkable balancing act required to cycle back and carry the order was softened by the free “extra portions” the take-away always gratefully included.

The Senior House had more foreign students, some who had come specifically for the exam years onwards. The most distinguished of these was the now Sir David Tang, international socialite and millionaire entrepreneur. Even then he had a grace and sense of grandeur which marked him out- and he was unbeatable at Chess. Physical sport opportunities were ever present, and Mark Souster proved to be a stylish sportsman at football and rugby inparticular. That stylishness and appreciation of sport now manifest themselves in his job as Rugby Correspondent for “The Times”.
To the rear of the Senior House Common Room, and in front of the playing fields, was an unusually well maintained grass tennis court. Although weather conditions meant that it was only useable in the summer term, it was a superb, and much loved facility.

Although the Perse was a confirmed rugby playing school, with no football pitches at the extensive Upper School grounds whatsoever, the combined Houses’ playing fields were excellent and offered a full size, marked ,football pitch with goals and nets. It was relentlessly used. The side of the small brick garage block at the end of the courtyard also provided a convenient backstop for many a game of cricket with the stumps in front. Around the pitch were bushes, mature trees and the back garden of the Headmasters House. In six years of Boarding, neither House was ever Independently inspected, the Head visited twice, but never inspected ,which is a fair indication of where boarding sat in the School’s list of priorities.

When I heard that the Boarding Houses had closed and much of the grounds to be sold off I did venture down one last time for a look. It was a glorious day and the grounds still seemed to echo to the sound of boys playing and the courtyard to the strains of Santana, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, Roxy Music, and sometimes all three and more, from various record players through open windows.

I mentioned that the wall in the Dining Room in the Junior house was lined with House Annual photos, they went back to the early twenties. I wonder what became of them? We were told that as Hilell House,it had a strong Jewish tradition, but what that was I never found out. I was not surprised by the demise of Boarding at the Perse. There was never a sense of the tradition or history of Boarding there, nor was there a clear sense of purpose. That is no adverse judgement on those Staff who were personally involved in the Boarding Houses, they undoubtedly did their best. But there was never a perceived “founding father” of Boarding nor a set of precepts which defined it. And when the popularity of Boarding waned, inevitably only the strongest survive.

However there is also a sense that the end of Boarding also gives the experience an exclusivity, it’s a club with a closed membership. I have just one part of that story, and from one perspective.

2 comments:

  1. Gary,

    I came across your blog by chance and have been amazed by your powers of recollection. It's an extraordinarily detailed account of our days as boarders, I had forgotten quite alot of the things that you describe, even the round robin letters that my mother used to write to me and my brothers! Your detailed description of the layout of the junior house has brought back many visual memories and your anecdotes about masters and boys made me smile on many occasions. It's a great record of our time at the Perse and I look forward to showing it to my son so that he can understand what barding was like in the 60s and 70s.

    Sebastian Cooper.

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  2. Hi Gary

    I agree with Sebastian, who I'm pretty sure was in the year ahead of me, that this is a great record of the period. I boarded from 76 to 78 while doing my A Levels.

    I'm the 4th of 5 brothers who, like the McFarlanes, all boarded at various times though never all 5 at once. In the late 60's, David, Dennis and Chris were all boarders. Chris returned later on and Nigel and I came a lot later.

    Wombat's real name was Miss Gray but I can't recall her 1st name. And I have a confession! I visited her at home after she retired - somewhere on the south coast I seem to recall - and she made me a cuppa :)

    Great write-up - thanks.

    Pete

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