Saturday, 12 March 2011

Recollections of an Old Persean 1968-75

I write as an OP who arrived at the Perse as a boarder in the last year of Prep School in 1968 under the Headship of Mrs Spence. The Housemaster was Stanley Mitchell, supported by his wife Martha, who had two children a little older than myself, Alan and Janet. The House Tutor was, the colourful “ flamboyant ”, Rowland Wearing and the Matron was Miss Jowett. The regime was strictly hierarchical, with the house being “run” by three “monitors” (prefects) from the third form whose reward for not going up to the Senior House was a study, and absolute power.

There were about thirty boys, the youngest of whom was eight, who were divided into three dormitories, the junior, middle and senior “dorms”. Each “dorm” had a monitor who slept there. For the junior dormitory (up to age 11), lights out was 7.30 weekdays, 8pm weekends. As the older Monitors did not come to bed until 9.15pm, the dorms could be lawless places before they arrived, with the House Tutor regularly prowling and listening for any talking (even whispering was banned!).Punishments for minor and major transgressions were the norm.

The boys tended to be the sons of Servicemen, overseas diplomats and businessmen, with a smattering of boys from outlying Cambridgeshire Districts. I can recall no fathers who were Old Perseans. As a consequence there was no perceived “tradition “ of boarding. The Prep School was some way from Glebe Road so we had to be gone by 8.15pm to get there on time come rain wind or shine. Arriving drenched was not uncommon. All this combined to create an intense kinship amongst the boarders which tended to alienate the day boys.

The Prep School itself was little short of idyllic. A wonderful ramshackle main building, and outbuildings which were old Nissan Huts yet still used for classes.

The teaching was of a very high standard, yet tremendously caring. The stunning rolling grounds with their lush lawns and verdant trees were the perfect backdrop to a warm spring and summer and countless games of football, cricket and athletics.

Two marvellous sporting memories remain. The games teacher was an old gnarled bull of a man who knew how to challenge ten and eleven year olds. We would have boxing in gym lessons, with Andrew Clayton I suspect still the reigning champion (gloves- no helmets or gum shields!). There was also a game of murder ball. This involved the class being divided into 15 a side at each end of the “Gym”,a Nissan Hut. A large medicine ball was placed in the middle, and each team had to try to take it to the back wall of the opposing teams “end” – no rules! Curiously the interface between the boarding house staff, and the Prep School staff appeared negligible.

As Prep boys we had to go to bed ridiculously early, talking was banned after lights out, as were radios. However most boys “smuggled” in radios to listen to under their pillows. There were two programmes of choice, Radio Luxembourg and Radio Four.

Radio Four was very popular resulting in our being amongst the best informed eleven year olds in current affairs on this planet. We used to have games, not about simply naming the capital cities of the world, but about the Presidents and Prime Ministers of the World, and in Europe, the Ministers as well !

This erudition was not confined to the boarders, as the majority of the day boys were drawn from families of the local Great and Good as well. I well recall one winters day, when the Labour Governments fortunes were at a particularly low ebb, our year were on a coach to the swimming pool. We decided to have a sing, song. Not so unusual you might think? The song was. I will never forget the look of amazement on the drivers face as we sang:

“ Christmas is coming, Wilson’s getting fat, please put a penny in George Brown’s hat, if you haven’t got a penny, a farthing will do, if you haven’t got a farthing then DEVALUE !” Form a bunch of ten and eleven year olds!

On “going up” to the Main School, there were several new arrivals. In the Boarding House this included the MacFarlane brothers, Kevin, Gary and Colin, remarkable on two counts. Firstly they were the only sons of an RAF Airman, rather than an Officer, and secondly they were of Afro- Carribean descent. Not only were they the only Afro-Carribeans in School, I suspect they were the first, and were certainly a distinct rarity in Cambridge those days. Colin has gone on to forge a distinguished acting career.

The boarding house also “took in” the sons of Venezuelan Diplomats, Gabildon, Villanueva and Parra being amongst this troupe. In retrospect they were enormously brave, speaking little English on arrival and with no cultural, pastoral or language support at the Boarding house. I believe that the same was true for Sir David Tang when he arrived later at the Senior House, although his culture and erudition (and chess playing skills) were evident even then. Curiously we had not heard the term “racism” back then, but such was the day to day interdependence of the boarders that everyone’s primary endeavour was simply to “get on”. Unfamiliar cultures and exotic destinations were the norm.

I was very fortunate to have been taught English in the Junior Mummery. I believe it to have been the finest English Teaching Crucible anywhere. The standard was incredibly high. A minature theatre, with stage, costumes, music, lights and bench type seats, we were divided into two Company’s ( I was a “merchant taylor”)with each boy having a designated role according to his aptitude and desires, (Master of the Music/ Master of the Lights/ Player etc). What finer place to learn of Shakespeare, Coleridge and Euripides.

David Roulinson was aware of the history of the institution, and unerringly achieved astonishing results from pretty much all of his pupils, with the lightest of firm touches. Ranjit Bolt, (now OBE for his services in translating literature) was new to the Senior School. He impressed me by declaring that he had read the complete works of Alexander Pope before joining the first form. I have still to meet anyone who has read the complete works of Alexander Pope some forty years later! His uncle Robert had won international acclaim as the screenwriter for Lawrence of Arabia, A Man For all Seasons, Dr Zhivago with Ryan’s Daughter still to come, his aunt was the celebrated Actress Sarah Miles. This counted for nought though,as Mr Roulinson worked on the basis that that sort of standard was what everyone should attain anyway!

I have never underestimated how challenging teaching is, which I suspect left the Housemaster and House Tutor precious little time to “manage” a house of thirty young boys. As a consequence, we only ever saw Mr Mitchell at 7pm for prayers, a supper and any “notices”, and for Sunday Lunch. Mr Wearing attended most meals and would sometimes take “prep” which was 5.30 to 7pm with the Preparatory Boys finishing at 6.30 to bathe and get ready for bed for supper at 7pm after which they went upstairs for lights out at 7.30. Lights out for the older boys was 8.30. There was no television allowed in the week. There was no library. Mr Wearing was an art teacher, Mr Mitchell was largely unavailable for modern languages consultation and talking wasn’t allowed during Prep so the Boarding house was not exactly an academic hot-house.

However Mr Wearing did have a special talent. He was a brilliant storyteller of horror. On condition that overall behaviour had been acceptable he would tell horror stories , often with the lights out in the dorm , without notes for half an hour or so. Matron would join us as he enthralled and terrified us with tales of ghastly gore.

Boarders were not allowed to visit day boys homes apart from parental approved “Exeats” (maximum four a term), and day boys were not allowed to visit the Boarding Houses, which pretty much ensured separate lives and parallel existences. In the year 1968-69 pocket money was 40shillings (two pounds) a term, which did go up to three pounds in the first form. To get at it we had to queue up for a Sunday morning “Bank” to explain our request to Mr Wearing, which if approved, was entered into the ledger.

Two Shillings for a weeks sweets could easily be knocked back as “excessive”.

The “Monitor” system, (I was one) was seriously flawed with punishments including detentions and between 100-500 lines often being meted out as demonstrations of power and control rather than self- regulation.

The power wielded by 14 year old Monitors far exceeded that of 18 year old Prefects at the School. General housekeeping and tidying tasks were all carried out as “duties” by designated boys. The up side though was there was always someone to play with. The playing fields were permanently in use for games of football and cricket with Mr Youdale and Mr Dunkley, House Tutor and House Master respectively, from the Senior House joining in for an all-ages game of football on a Sunday which frequently exceeded two hours. Making and painting plastic Airfix models was a very popular pastime, as was Art. Mr Seymour, a French Teacher, was an enthusiastic visitor along with Mr Wearing to judge the regular competitions.

In the summer the House’s “Strawberry Patch” was regularly plundered after hours with a military precision of which Stanley “The Major” Mitchell would have been proud. A procession of boys to the first floor “night” toilet, an open window onto the flat roof, shimmying down the drainpipe, filling the pockets of our dressing gowns and then back to the Dorm on the stroke of midnight. The fact that you couldn’t wash them and that they were covered with mud was beside the point……………….

All new boys to the Main School were daunted by the prospect of learning Latin, and terrified by the prospect of learning it under the tutelage of the celebrated “DD”, Dennis Dunkley the Classics teacher. A big, imposing man, with an even bigger and imposing voice, he carefully created and cultivated an image of a fearsome Roman Emperor every bit as terrifying and capricious as Domitian or Nero. His classes invariably sat in cowed, obedient servitude. However as House Master of the Senior House he allowed a different side to emerge. Erudite, charming and thoughtful, available, and a shrewd teacher.

Cambridge entering the 1970’s was a curious place, to quote from Bob Dylan ; “there was music in the cafes at night, and revolution in the air”. Very few of the staff had experienced the Sixties as a teenager making them ill-prepared for the tidal wave of the new “Youth Culture” which was crashing around them. The “Oz” trials challenged the censorship of the day and was a cause celebre for the Cambridge intelligensia, the Paris and Grosvenor Square Riots of 1968 demonstrated the power of “left” mass movements to shake the status quo. This was eagerly picked over by the pupils of the day and was acutely felt by the sons of the South American diplomats. Even when the PLO blew up three M.E.A planes at Dawson’s field there was a local dimension as the father of James Stevens, a boarder, was a pilot with that airline.

The Headmaster of the day was Mr Melville, a bluff Australian charged with the tricky task of retaining the School’s core values whilst “trimming” with the wind of social change. In retrospect, he did a pretty good job of it. Music was at the heart of youth culture then and the school acknowledged it with the creation of the Contemporary Music Society. A lunchtime club which involved boys bringing in albums to listen to in the Music Room. At the end of morning assembly Mr Melville would read out the notices of any activities for the day. Very quickly boys started to choose albums not for their musical merit, but for their Quixotic titles. Oh how we tittered as Mr Melville announced that the days offering from the Contemporary Music Society was, “Thick as a Brick” by Jethro Tull!

Mr Sudbury, Head of Music, manfully struggled to retain the pre-eminence of Brahms, Bach and Beethoven, when Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones were in the musical vanguard as far as we were concerned. However even he, after the pan- appeal of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” and Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” had to concede that the musical landscape had changed forever.

Flared trousers, collar length hair and booted footwear were the fashion battlegrounds of the day as Pop Culture washed around the youth of the day. Curiously we had only one “skinhead”, who then metamorphosed into a “Suedehead”, Bert Lambert. With hindsight he was the most “individual” of any pupil at a time when everyone else was swapping the School uniform, for another.

Sport was an absolute joy at the Perse. Rugby was lovingly taught and cultivated with geography teacher Mr Macfarlane assiduously developing our first form rawness from scratch. How many generations of Perseans went in to tackle a rampaging forward twice their size urged on by the cry of “Knees laddie” from a bawling Mr MacFarlane? The emphasis was always on skill with Mark Saggers , now a Radio Five Sports presenter a consistently deft scrum half.

The winter “Hockey Term” was quite frankly bizarre. The grass pitches had been extensively “chewed up” by Rugby, and then froze, resulting in a suface more commonly found on a scree field than a Hockey field. Judging whether the ball was going to run true, rise up at knee height from a muddy divot, or head height from a frozen clod was always a challenge! What a God send artificial pitches have been.

Cricket in the summer was played on wickets of which the Groundsman should have been very proud. The first eleven square in particular was of County Standard. Mr Baker and Mr Billinghurst were the leading lights, and one day they persuaded Terry Jenner, a member of the Australian Test Touring side to join us in the nets. Terry was a “slow” spin bowler who batted number eleven, occasionally, for the Test Side. As a handy, 16 year old sometime second eleven batsman, I was determined to show this flaky Aussie spinner what I was all about , so volunteered to take his first ball in the nets anticipating that I would show him my majestic cover drive. Sadly, the ball left his hand, from a spinners run-up with a speed considerably in excess of what our fastest bowler, Jeremy Lindsay, was capable of and my stumps disintegrated a fraction of a second later…………………… Still, I could exact my revenge on this “tail end Charlie” with my deceptive medium paced swing bowling. Wrong, my first ball had to be recovered from underneath the window of the Headmaster’s study. Pretty useful those Aussies you know!

Classics at the school was brilliantly, and faithfully, taught by some memorable characters. As previously alluded to, the indomitable “DD” ascribed a grandness to Latin and Rome which lives with me to this day. The inscrutable Mr Shannon was less demonstrative than “DD” but no less devoted to his subject. He amazed all of us by revealing that he didn’t have a bank account as he didn’t trust them and dismissed bankers as “usurers”, now that was revolution! Finally there was Mr Youdale , as erudite a man as you could ever meet and an aesthete who inspired all around . His subsequent Headship at Kings School Ely will have come as no surprise to those that knew him. Whilst naturally carrying a refined manner, and an accomplished Campanologist, he was unerringly kind and a regular watching Cambridge United football club, a pastime he shared with several boys.

1 comment:

  1. I too was taught by Mr Roulinson in the Mummery for two years starting in 1983, I will never forget him in his pinstripe suit pacing up and down in the subdued light with a book in his hand, reading to us from Macbeth and Julius Caesar and A Midsummer Night's Dream. I was saddened to learn that the Mummery is no more. Is Mr Roulinson still living, does anyone know?
    J. Boulton.