I hope you may agree that there are issues about West Downs – and indeed about all Prep Schools – which are the shadow-side. If they are not ruminated upon, then the good – even the great – will not shine in its true perspective. The first part of my contribution is an attempt to ask the right questions. It is intended more for your benefit than to provide ‘copy’ for your narrative.
Let me start with some thoughts and questions about the shadow side of my experiences. Let me emphasise that there is no hint of sour grapes in my reflections. Why should there be? I left West Downs in summer 1943, having been Patrol Leader of the Buffaloes, having won the General Progress Prize and a Piano Prize, and having passed into Eton with the top mark in the Greek Common Entrance. I had much to be pleased and thankful about, and I will end up with my happiest memories.
Let me start with the subject of gang warfare! Yes, in summer 1939 I recall vividly that the school was rent by two factions – the PROS and the ANTIS. It was all, I think, engineered by a boy called R., who was eventually sacked. If you were on the wrong side, you would be ‘squished’ – a very WD word. We played mock warfare in the huge bank in the playing field, and I believe battle-lines were drawn up in terms of this warfare. I don’t recall being in a fight, but I do remember there was an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty.
Was this kind of thing regularly breaking out in the school? I would like to know. Was it part of tribal rituals – almost inevitable in an all-male group. Certainly there were rites of initiation in the school – I am not thinking of Scout Oaths. I recall that in my first term I was one night ‘rumbled’ in my bed by a boy (or boys) crawling under it and suddenly thrusting the mattress upwards. Later I remember a ‘gang’ in which there was a circle. You were in the middle with a friend under a blanket. You were blindfolded and you had to guess who in the circle had hit you across the legs with a stick. It turned out the striker was in fact your ‘friend’ under the blanket.
Another facet of school life that arouses a question was the Patrol Leaders’ Meeting – P.L.M. This was when senior boys summoned young ones and gave them a damn good ticking off. I believed P.L.M.s languished during my middle years, but certainly in my last term we had one, and I was as keen as anyone to do it. It all seems a very long way from my son’s prep school, where they also had Leaders. I asked one of his Patrol “Was my son very strict?” Back came the reply – “No, his main idea was to make us happy!”
Then again, was there too much competition at the school? Certainly the Patrol system was competitive – “why do those bloody Hounds always come top, under Darley, under Morse, under Staveley, under Martin?” It went on and on! And the system of publicly reading out marks every Sunday by K.B.T. was a public ordeal. Of course it was fascinating to see K.B.T.’s pencil poised over his record, deciding whether to give you a PLUS or a LAZINESS point, or, more likely, simply to move on to the next name. But did it undermine confidence? Was it pandering to what the present Bishop of Coventry once described as “the demon of competition?”
Lastly, still in a questioning vein, were we not a fairly close society? When in Scotland we had no contact whatsoever with the people of Blair Atholl. My only recollection of Scotsmen, as opposed to of Scotland, was the funeral of the Duke of Atholl when the pipers band in full dress marched up the long avenue on an autumn afternoon, playing a mournful march behind the coffin. But what did we know about how our neighbours earned their daily bread?
So much for the questions. They are an attempt to prevent nostalgia ruling over all.
But I do have cause for nostalgia – plenty of it. I remember Harry Ricardo teaching us about poetry from Roxburgh’s Introduction (H.M. of Stowe). I still recall the thrill of hearing for the first time Gerard Manly Hopkins. Harry had the most beautiful handwriting. He taught us how to keep neat, well-organised History notes. In 30 years of administrative work I have so often thought of doing it Harry’s way. In drawing, where he was also a power in the land, he disappointed me. He always made us draw from the imagination, when, I believe, we should have, in addition, been drawing tables and legs and learning about perspective.
I am not, I have found out, really a musical person, but certainly at W.D. I did give a lot of time to learning the piano, and I loved practising in the holidays. In my last years I graduated to playing some hymns in the services, and how could I ever forget the scowl on K.B.T.’s face when I lost the tune in the middle of a verse!
At Glenapp and Blair we were lucky to be far from the War. But occasionally, unexpectedly, its horror crept up on us. One occasion was when we heard of the tragic electrocution of Mark Tindall, while still a recruit. Another was when Admiral Spooner, and his wife Megan Foster – parents of James, sometime youngest boy in the School (now Sir James Spooner) – played and sang at Glenapp. A few months later Admiral Spooner died at Singapore, when the Japanese sunk The Prince of Wales or The Repulse. It was amazing how the Tindalls kept going, and shielded us all from so much worry and anxiety for so long.
For me, another enormously fulfilling part of the School was Scouting. Having struggled desperately to pass ‘knots’ to get my second class, the fascinating world of badge collecting (some would call it badge grubbing, instead of concentrating on the First Class) opened up. I got through a vast list of books (I had to put aside Biggles and Geo. E. Rochester) to get Reader’s Badge. Then I wrote, acted in and directed a play so I could get Playwright’s Badge. In the holidays I bicycled and mapped all over a corner of South West Ayrshire, and got Pathfinder’s Badge. Finally, in my last Summer, the Buffaloes came top in the weekend camp. I believe my Second, Michael Cripps did most of the work, but I, at least, discovered I had some talent for organisation.
Scouting in Scotland involved wide games. These games gave us the chance to roam freely up the tree lines, see deer in the driving snow on the moors; clamber by rivers in the forests, always hoping to come upon a capercaillie; and to experience wilderness; West Downs boys whose experience of the wild places was limited to Melbury missed a glimpse of heaven on earth.
I must add a short but important note on the place of religion in the school. I remember in the garden at Winchester there was a small statue of a boy with the text “Here Am I, Send Me.” Did that awaken, at a young age, thoughts about vocation?
Then Mr. Tindall’s felicitous rendering of the New Testament in Chapel created a fascination with Jesus. Through all the vicissitudes of reading Theology at Oxford, deciding not to be ordained, working 17 years in Africa, lobbying for human rights at the U.N. in New York, I find that those readings by K.B.T. left a deposit of commitment which remains with me to this day.